Fools assassin, p.17
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       Fools Assassin, p.17

         Part #1 of The Fitz and The Fool Trilogy series by Robin Hobb

  Molly, I think, was aware only that she was proving them wrong: She had been pregnant, and all their snide dismissal of her insistence that a nursery be prepared was now proven wrong. She was regal as a Queen as they advanced to look at the tiny bundle she held so protectively. Cook held her control of herself, smiling at what a “dear little thing” our baby was. Mild was less schooled to decorum. “She’s so tiny!” the girl exclaimed. “Like a doll! And pale as milk! Such blue eyes! Is she blind?”

  “Of course not,” Molly replied, gazing at her child adoringly. Cook swatted her daughter and hissed, “Manners!”

  “My mother was fair. With blue eyes,” I asserted.

  “Well, then, that explains it,” Cook Nutmeg asserted with an unnatural amount of relief. She bobbed a curtsy to Molly. “Well, mistress, shall it be the river fish or the salt cod, then? For all know fish is best for a woman who has just delivered a child. ”

  “River fish, please,” Molly replied, and with that vast decision settled, Cook whisked herself and her child from the room.

  Scarcely had enough time elapsed for Cook to return to her duties before two housemaids presented themselves, asking if the baby or her mother required fresh linens. Each bore an armful and they all but trampled me as they overran my position in the door, insisting, “Well, if not now, then soon, for all know how quickly a baby will soil her crib. ”

  And again I witnessed the unnerving spectacle of women barely controlling their shock and then expressing admiration for my daughter. Molly seemed blind to it, but every instinct I had alarmed me. Well I knew how small creatures that were too different were treated. I’d seen crippled chicks pecked to death, witnessed cows that nudged away a weak calf, the runt piglet pushed away from a nipple. I had no reason to think that people were any better than animals in that regard. I would keep watch.

  Even Revel presented himself, bearing a tray with low vases of flowers on it. “Winter pansies. So hardy that they bloom through most of the winter in Lady Patience’s hothouses. Not that they are truly hot anymore. They are not as well tended as they once were. ” He rolled a look in my direction, one I steadfastly ignored. And then Molly honored him as she had none of the others. Into his gangly arms she gave over the tiny bundle of child. I watched him catch his breath as he took her. His long-fingered hand spanned her chest, and a doting smile made foolish his usually somber face. He looked up at Molly, their eyes met, and I was as close to jealous as a man could feel to see them share their mutual delight in her. He spoke not a word as he held her, and only gave her back when a housemaid tapped at the door and requested his expertise. Before he left, he carefully arranged each vase of little flowers, so that the flowers and the screens echoed one another charmingly. It made Molly smile.

  That first day of her life, I kept up with the bare minimum of the supervision and work of running the estate. Every moment I could spare, I was in the nursery. I watched Molly and our child, and as I did my trepidation changed to wonder. The infant was such a tiny entity. Each glimpse of her seemed a wonder. Her tiny fingers, the whorl of pale hair at the back of her neck, the delicate pink of her ears: To me it seemed amazing that such a collection of wondrous parts could simply have grown so secretly inside my lady wife. Surely she was the dedicated work of some magical artist rather than the chance product of love. When Molly left to bathe, I stayed by her cradle. I watched her breathe.

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  I had no desire to pick her up. She seemed too delicate a creature for me to have in my hands. Like a butterfly, I thought. I feared that with a touch I might damage the shimmer of life that kept her moving. Instead I watched her sleep, the minuscule rise and fall of the blanket that covered her. Her pink lips moved in and out in sleepy mimicry of nursing. When her mother returned, I observed them more intently than if she and Molly were players acting out a tale. Molly was as I had never seen her, so calm and competent and focused as a mother. It healed something in me, a gulf I had never known existed until she filled it. So this was what a mother was! My child was so safe and cared for in her embrace. That she had been a mother seven times before made it seem no less wondrous to me. I wondered, as I must, about the woman who had held and watched me so. A wistful sorrow rose in me as I wondered if that woman still lived, if she knew what had become of me. Did my little daughter’s features mirror hers at all? But when I looked at her sleeping profile, I saw only how unique she was.

  That night Molly climbed the stairs with me to our bedchamber. She lay down with the swaddled child in the center of the bed, and when I joined them there, I felt as if I formed the other half of a shell around a precious seed. Molly dropped off to sleep immediately, one of her hands resting lightly on our slumbering baby. I lay perfectly still on the edge of the bed, preternaturally aware of the tiny life that rested between us. Slowly I moved my hand until I could stretch out one of my fingers and touch Molly’s hand. Then I closed my eyes and skimmed sleep. I woke when the baby stirred and whimpered. Even without light in the room, I felt how Molly shifted her to put her to the breast. I listened to the small sounds the babe made as she suckled and Molly’s deep slow breathing. Again, I dipped down into sleep.

  I dreamed.

  I was a boy again, at Buckkeep Castle, and I walked along the top of a stone wall near the herb gardens. It was a warm and sunny spring day. Bees were busy in the fragrant blossoms of a heavy-laden cherry tree that leaned over the wall. I slowed my balancing act as I stepped through the reaching embrace of the pink-petaled branches. Half-concealed there, I froze at the sound of voices. Children were shouting excitedly, obviously in the grip of some competitive game. A longing to join them filled me.

  But even in the grip of the dream, I knew that was impossible. Within Buckkeep Castle I was neither meat nor fish. I was too common to seek friends among the well-born, and my illegitimate blood was too noble to allow me to play with the children of the servants. So I listened, keenly envious, and in a moment a small, lithe figure came eeling through the gate to the herb garden, pushing it almost closed behind him. He was a scrawny child, clad all in black save for his white sleeves. A close-fitting black cap confined all but the ends of his pale hair. He went skipping lightly across the garden, hurtling over the herb beds without breaking a leaf to land on a stone path with a near-soundless scuff before flinging himself over the next bed. He moved almost in silence, yet his noisy pursuers were not far behind. They flung the gate open with a shout just as he slid behind a climbing rose on a trellis.

  I held my breath for him. His hiding place was not perfect. Spring was young, and he was a black shadow behind the slender branches and unfurling green leaves of the espaliered rose. A smile bent my mouth as I wondered who would win this game. Other children were spilling into the garden, half a dozen of them. Two girls and four boys, all probably within three years of my own age. Their dress revealed them as the children of servants. Two of the older boys were already clad in Buckkeep-blue tunics and hose, and probably were truant from lesser tasks about the keep.

  “Did he come in here?” one of the girls cried in a shrill voice.

  “He had to!” a boy shouted, but there was a note of uncertainty in his voice. The pursuers spread out quickly, each competing to see who should first spot their quarry. I stood very still, heart beating fast, wondering if they might see me and suddenly include me in their game. Even knowing where the boy hid, I could only just make out his silhouette. His pale fingers gripped the trellis. I could see the very slight rise and fall of his chest that betrayed how long he had been running.

  “He went past the gate! Come on!” one of the elder boys decided, and like a pack of dogs whipped off a fox the children surged back, milling about him as he led the way back to the gate. Behind them, their prey had turned and was already seeking handholds in the sun-warmed stone wall behind the trellis. I saw him take a step up it, and then a shout from one of the seekers betrayed that someone had glanced back and caught that

  “He’s there!” a girl shouted, and the pack raced back into the garden. As the black-clad boy spidered up the tall wall, the children hastily stooped. In an instant the air was full of flung earth clods and rocks. They hit the rosebush, the trellis, the wall, and I heard the hollow thuds as they hammered against the slim youth’s back. I heard his hoarse gasp of pain, but he kept his grip on the wall and climbed.

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  The game was suddenly not a game at all, but a cruel hunt. Splayed on the wall he could not seek cover, and as he climbed the hunters stooped for more rocks and clods. I could have cried out to them to stop. But I knew that if I did, it would not save him. I would simply become an extra target for them.

  One of the stones hit the back of his head hard enough to snap his head forward against the wall. I heard the slap of flesh on stone, and saw how he halted, half-stunned, fingers slipping. But he did not cry out again. He shuddered, and then began to move again, more swiftly. His feet slipped, gained purchase, slipped, and then he had a hand on the top of the wall. As if gaining that goal had changed the game, the other children surged forward. He reached the top of the wall, clung there for the bare instant that it took his eyes to meet mine, and then tipped over onto the other side. The blood running down his chin had been shockingly red against his pasty face.

  “Go round, go round!” one of the girls was shrieking, and yelping like hounds the other children turned and poured back out of the garden. I heard the harsh clang of the gate as they flung it closed behind them, and the wild pattering of their feet on the path. They were laughing as they ran. A moment later I heard a shrill and desperate scream.

  I woke. I was breathing as harshly as if I’d just fought a bout. My nightshirt was sweated to my chest and twisted about me. Disoriented, I sat up and fought free of the blanket.

  “Fitz!” Molly rebuked me as she flung a sheltering arm over our child. “What are you thinking?”

  Abruptly I was myself again, a grown man, not a horrified child. I crouched in our bed, next to Molly, next to our tiny baby that I might have crushed in my thrashing. “Did I hurt her?” I cried out in horror, and in response the baby began a thin wailing.

  Molly reached across and seized my wrist. “Fitz. It’s all right. You just woke her, that’s all. Lie down. It was just a dream. ”

  After all our years together she was familiar with my nightmares. She knew, to my chagrin, that it could be hazardous to wake me from one. Now I felt shamed as a whipped dog. Did she think me a danger to our child? “I think I’d best sleep somewhere else,” I offered.

  Molly did not let go of my wrist. She rolled onto her side, snugging the baby closer to her. In response, the infant gave a small hiccup and immediately began to root for a nipple. “You will sleep right here beside us,” Molly declared. Before I could say anything else, she laughed softly and said, “She thinks she’s hungry again. ” She released her grip on me to free her breast for the child. I lay very still as she arranged herself and then listened to the small, contented sounds of a young creature filling her belly. They both smelled so good, the baby with her infant smell and Molly’s femaleness. I suddenly felt large and brutal and male, an intruder in the safety and peace of domesticity.

  I began to ease away from them. “I should—”

  “You should stay right where you are. ” She caught my wrist again, and tugged on it, pulling me nearer to both of them. She was not content until I was close enough that she could reach up and run her fingers through my hair. Her touch was light, lulling, as she lifted the sweaty curls from my brow. I closed my eyes to her touch, and after a few moments my awareness drifted.

  The dream that had faded into obscurity when I woke painted itself into my mind again. I had to force myself to breathe gently and slowly despite how my chest constricted. A dream, I told myself. Not a memory. I had never hidden and watched as the other children of the keep tormented the Fool. Never.

  But I might have, my conscience insisted. If I had been in such a place and time, I might have. Any child would. As one does at such an hour and after such a dream, I sieved my memories for connections, trying to discover why such an unsettling dream had invaded my sleep. There were none.

  None except the memories of how the children of the keep had spoken of King Shrewd’s pale jester. The Fool was there, in my childhood memories, as far back as the day I had arrived at Buckkeep. He had been there before I was, and if he was to be believed he had been waiting for me all that time. Yet it had been years before our encounters in Buckkeep Castle had progressed beyond a rude gesture from him in the hallway or unflattering imitations of me as he followed me down a corridor. I had avoided him as assiduously as the other children had. I had not, I thought as I granted myself an exemption from guilt, treated him with cruelty. I had never mocked him or even expressed abhorrence of him in any way. No. I had merely avoided him. I had believed him a nimble and silly fellow, a tumbler who delighted the King with his antics but was, for all that, rather simple-minded. If anything, I had pitied him, I told myself. Because he was so different.

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  Just as my daughter would be so different from all her playmates.

  Not all children in Buck were dark-eyed and dark-haired and warm-skinned, but the preponderance of playmates she would find would be so. And if she did not grow quickly to match them in size, if she remained tiny and pale, what then? What sort of a childhood would she have?

  Cold began in my belly and radiated up to my heart. I moved even closer to Molly and my child. They both slept now, but I did not. Vigilant as a watching wolf, I put my arm lightly across both of them. I would protect her, I promised myself and Molly. No one would mock her or torment her in any way. Even if I had to keep her secret from the entire outside world, I would keep her safe.

  Chapter Seven

  The Presentation

  Once upon a time there was a good man and his wife. They had both worked hard all their lives, and slowly fortune had favored them with everything that they could desire save one. They had no child.

  One day as the wife was walking in her garden and weeping that she had no child, a pecksie came out of the lavender bush and said to her, “Woman, why do you weep?”

  “I weep that I have no babe of my own,” the woman said.

  “Oh, as to that, how foolish you are,” said the pecksie. “If you but say the word, I can tell you how a babe can be in your arms before the year is out. ”

  “Tell me, then!” the woman implored.

  The pecksie smiled. “As to that, it is easily done. Tonight, just as the sun kisses the horizon, set out on the ground a square of silk, taking care that it rests flat on the ground with never a wrinkle in it. And tomorrow, whatever is under the silk is yours. ”

  The woman hastened to do as she was bid. As the sun touched the horizon, she set the silk flat to the ground, with never a wrinkle. But as the garden darkened and she hurried back to her house, a curious mouse came to the silk, sniffed it, and scampered across it, leaving a tiny wrinkle at the edge.

  In the earliest light of dawn, the woman hastened to the garden. She heard small sounds and saw the silk moving. And when she lifted the square of silk, she found a perfect child with bright black eyes. But the babe was no bigger than the palm of her hand …

  Old Buckkeep tale

  Ten days after our baby’s birth I finally resolved that I must make confession to Molly. I dreaded it, but there was no avoiding it, and delaying it any longer was not going to make it easier.

  Since both Nettle and I had doubted Molly’s pregnancy, we had not shared the news with anyone outside our immediate family. Nettle had informed her brothers, but only in the context that their mother was aging and her mind had begun to wander. The lads all had busy lives of their own, and in Chivalry’s case that meant three youngsters as well as a wife and a holding to tend to. They were far too caught up in
their own lives and wives and children to give more than a passing worry that their mother might be losing her mind. Nettle and Tom, they were sure, would handle any crisis in that area, and in any case what could any of them do about their mother’s increasing senility? It is the way of the young to accept the debilitations of old age very gracefully on behalf of their elderly parents. And now there was a baby to explain to them. And not just to them, but to the whole rest of the world.

  I had confronted this difficulty by ignoring it. No one beyond Withywoods had been told. Not even to Nettle had I passed the news.

  But now I had to admit that to Molly.

  I armed myself for the task. I had requested from the kitchen a tray of the little sweet biscuits Molly loved, along with a dish of thick sweetened cream and raspberry preserves. A large pot of freshly brewed black tea joined it on my tray. I assured Tavia that I was perfectly capable of carrying a tray and set out for Molly’s nursery. On the way, I arrayed my reasons as if I were facing a battle and setting my weapons to hand. First, Molly had been weary and I had not wanted any guests to trouble her. Second, there was the baby herself, so tiny and possibly frail. Molly herself had told me she might not survive, and surely keeping her undisturbed had been for the best. Third, I never wanted anyone to put any obligations on our baby beyond her need to be herself … No. That was not a reason to share with Molly. Not right now, at least.

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