Fools assassin, p.18
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       Fools Assassin, p.18

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

  I managed to open the door of the room without dropping the tray. I set it down carefully on a low table and then managed to move the small table with the tray on it next to Molly’s seat without oversetting anything. She had the baby on her shoulder and was humming as she patted her back. The soft gown hung far past our daughter’s feet, and her arms and hands were lost in the sleeves.

  Molly had a honeysuckle candle lit; it lent a sharp sweet scent to the room. There was an applewood fire burning in the small hearth, and no other light; it made the room as cozy as a cottage. She enjoyed the luxury of not worrying constantly about money, but she had never become completely comfortable with the life of a noble lady. “I like to do for myself,” she had told me more than once when I had suggested that a personal maid was entirely appropriate to her new station. The larger work of the manor, the scrubbing and dusting, cooking and laundering—that, the servants might do. But Molly was the one who dusted and swept our bedchamber, who spread fresh sun-dried linens on our bed or warmed the featherbed before the hearth on a cold night. In that chamber, at least, we remained Molly and Fitz.

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  The pansy screens had been moved to catch and hold the warmth of the fire. The burning logs crackled softly, and shadows danced in the room. The baby was close to sleep in her mother’s arms when I set down the table and the tray.

  “What’s this?” Molly asked with a startled smile.

  “I just thought we might have some quiet time, and perhaps a bite of something sweet. ”

  Her smile widened. “I can’t think of anything I’d like better!”

  “And true for me as well. ” I sat down beside them, careful not to jostle her. I leaned around her to look into my daughter’s tiny face. She was red, her pale brows drawn together in concentration. Her hair was only wisps, her fingernails smaller than a fish’s scale and as delicate. For a time, I just looked at her.

  Molly had taken a biscuit and dipped it in the raspberry preserves and then scooped a small amount of cream onto it. “It smells and tastes like summer,” she said after a moment. I poured tea for both of us, and the fragrance of it mingled with the scent from the raspberries. I took a biscuit for myself, and was more generous with both jam and cream than she had been.

  “It does,” I agreed. For a short time, we simply shared food and tea and the warmth of the fire. Outside a light snow was falling. We were here, inside, safe and warm as a den. Perhaps tomorrow would be a better time to tell her.

  “What is it?”

  I turned startled eyes to her. She shook her head at me. “You’ve sighed twice and shifted about as if you have fleas but aren’t allowed to scratch. Out with it. ”

  It was like ripping a bandage off a wound. Do it quickly. “I didn’t tell Nettle the baby was born. Or send your letters to the boys. ”

  She stiffened slightly, and the baby opened her eyes. I felt the effort Molly made to relax and be calm for the infant’s sake. “Fitz. Whyever not?”

  I hesitated. I didn’t want to anger her, but I desperately wanted my own way about this. I finally spoke, my words awkward. “I thought we might keep her a secret for a time. Until she was bigger. ”

  Molly shifted her hand on the baby. I saw how she measured the tiny chest, less than the span of her fingers. “You’ve realized how different she is,” she said quietly. “How small. ” Her voice was husky.

  I nodded at her. “I heard the maids talking. I wish they hadn’t seen her. Molly, they were frightened of her. ‘Like a doll come to life, so tiny and with those pale-blue eyes always staring. Like she ought to be blind but instead she’s looking right through you. ’ That’s what Tavia said to Mild. And Mild said she ‘wasn’t natural. ’ That no child that tiny and young should seem as alert as she is. ”

  It was as if I had hissed at a cat. Molly’s eyes narrowed and her shoulders tightened. “They came in here to tidy yesterday. I’d told them I didn’t need their help, but that’s why they came in, I’m sure. To see her. Because yesterday I took her to the kitchen with me, and Cook Nutmeg saw her. She said, ‘The little mite hasn’t grown a bit yet, has she?’ She has, of course. But not enough for Cook to notice. ” She clenched her teeth. “Let them go. All of them. The maids and Cook. Send them all away. ” There was as much pain as anger in her voice.

  “Molly. ” I kept my voice calm as I called her back to reason. “They’ve been here for years. Mild’s cradle was in that kitchen, and only last year she took employment with us as a scullery girl. She’s scarcely more than a child, and this has always been her home. Patience hired Cook Nutmeg, all those years ago. Tavia has been with us sixteen years, and her mother, Salin, before her. Her husband works in the vineyards. It will cause hard feelings among the whole staff if we let them go! And it would cause talk. And rumors that there was something about our babe that we needed to hide. And we’d know nothing of those we hired to replace them. ” I rubbed my face, then added more quietly, “They need to stay. And perhaps we need to pay them well to be sure of their loyalty. ”

  “We already pay them well,” Molly snapped. “We’ve always been generous with them. We’ve always hired their children as they came of age to be useful. When Tavia’s husband broke his leg and had to sit out the harvest that year, we kept him on. And Cook Nutmeg spends more time sitting than cooking these days, but we’ve never spoken of letting her go. We simply hired more help. Fitz, are you seriously saying that I need to bribe them not to think ill of my baby? Do you think they’re a danger to her? Because if they are, I’ll kill them both. ”

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  “If I thought they were a danger, I’d already have killed them,” I retorted. The words horrified me as they came out of my mouth, because I recognized they were absolutely true.

  Any other woman might have been alarmed by what I had said. But I saw Molly relax, comforted. “Then you love her?” she asked quietly. “You aren’t ashamed of her? Appalled that I’ve given you such a peculiar child?”

  “Of course I love her!” The question jolted me. How could she doubt me? “She’s my daughter, the child we hoped for all those years! How could you think I wouldn’t love her?”

  “Because some men wouldn’t,” she said simply. She turned the child and held her on her knees for my inspection. It woke her, but she didn’t cry. She looked up at both of us with her wide blue eyes. She was nearly lost in the soft gown. Even the neck opening was too large for her, baring a small shoulder. Molly tugged it closed. “Fitz. Let’s say aloud what we both know. She’s a strange little thing. I was pregnant so long; I know, you doubt that, but trust me in this. I carried her inside me for over two years. Perhaps even longer than that. And yet she was born so tiny. Look at her now. She seldom cries, but she watches, just as Tavia said. Still too young to even hold her head up, but she looks so knowing. She watches, and her eyes go from you to me as we speak, as if she listens and already knows every word we say. ”

  “Maybe she does,” I said with a smile, but I didn’t give any credence to her words. Molly folded her close in her arms again and forced out words. She didn’t look at me as she spoke them. “Any other man would look at her and call me a whore. Hair pale as a spring lamb and such blue eyes. Any other man would doubt that this was your child. ”

  I laughed out loud. “Well, I don’t! She is mine. Mine and yours. Given to us as miraculously as any child bestowed by the pecksies in an old tale. Molly, you know I have the Wit. And I tell you plainly, from the first time I scented her, I knew her as mine. And yours. Ours. I have never doubted that. ” I drew one of Molly’s hands free from the baby, unfolded her clenched fingers, and kissed her palm. “And I have never doubted you. ”

  Gently I pulled her closer to lean on me. I found a curl of her hair and twined it about my finger. It took a bit of waiting, but I felt her clenched muscles ease. She relaxed. For a short time there was peace. The fire muttered softly to itself, and outside the
wind wound through the ancient willows that gave the place its name. We were a simple family for a few heartbeats. Then I girded up my courage and spoke again.

  “But I’d like to keep her a secret awhile longer. Not because I doubt she is mine or fear her strangeness. ”

  Molly shook her head, a tiny movement. Her opinion of my utter stupidity radiated from her. I felt it but I did not release her from my embrace; nor did she pull away from me. She spoke with her brow resting on my chest, asking in a cheery voice, “How long, my dear? A year? Two? Perhaps we will reveal her to the world on her sixteenth birthday, like a princess in an old tale?”

  “I know it sounds foolish but—”

  “It is foolish. That’s why it sounds foolish. It’s too late to keep her a secret. The servants know we have a child, so the village knows, and doubtless all their cousins up and down the river know. Fitz, dear, you should have sent those letters. Now Nettle and the boys will wonder why they were delayed. Keeping this a secret will have old Lord Chade sniffing about like a hound with a fox in a tree. To say nothing of what the old Queen will wonder. And the longer we wait to announce her, the more questions folks will ask themselves about her. Is she truly ours? Is she the child of some poor girl who had to give her up? Did we find her in a hollow tree in the forest or is she some changeling child that the pecksies left on our doorstep?”

  “That’s ridiculous! No one would believe such a thing!”

  “They might find it easier to believe than the idea that a parent concealed a lawfully born child from even her brothers and sister. That’s already difficult for me to believe. ”

  “Very well. ” I was beaten. “I’ll send the letters tomorrow. ”

  She didn’t let me get away with it. She leaned slightly away to look at me. “You should let Nettle know right away. Now. She is closer to her brothers and can send messengers more swiftly. Oh, Fitz. ” She closed her eyes and shook her head at me.

  Total defeat. “Very well. ” I stood and retreated a little from her.

  Once it had been a secret that Nettle shared the Skill-magic with me. But now she was the leader of the King’s Own Coterie, the Skill-users who were the Six Duchies’ magical line of defense against all dangers. All had to guess she was a bastard Farseer though most had the political sense not to utter those words aloud. Molly was not always comfortable with the magical bond that she shared with me, but had come to accept it. Just as she had accepted that Swift possessed the Wit. It had been even stranger when we discovered that Steady possessed an aptitude for Skill-magic as well. I did not speak what we both wondered now. Would the child she held inherit either of those magics from me?

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  “Look. She almost looks like she’s smiling,” her mother whispered.

  I opened my eyes. I had reached Nettle and conveyed the news. I had a half-wall in place now, almost blocking her outraged response that she had not been informed sooner and her flood of questions about how her mother could have possibly borne a child and her frantic reorganizing of her schedule to come to see us as soon as she practically could. Nettle’s flood of information threatened to overwhelm my own thoughts. I closed my eyes, conveyed to her that we would be delighted to see her whenever she could come, and the same for any of her brothers who chose to visit, and would she please send those messages on for us. Then I hastily retreated from her mind, walling myself into my own thoughts again.

  I knew that I would pay for it when my elder daughter and I were in the same room and I could not so easily retreat from her tongue-lashing. I was content to wait for that experience. I settled my shoulders. “Nettle knows now, and will pass on the word to the boys. She will soon be coming to visit,” I told Molly. I wandered back to her, but sat down on the floor at her feet. I leaned lightly on her legs and picked up my cup of tea.

  “Will she travel by the stones?” Her dread was in her question.

  “No. I have prevailed there, and the pillars will only be used in matters of great urgency, and in secrecy. She will come as soon as she can arrange it, by horseback, and with an escort. ”

  Molly had been busy with thoughts of her own. “Is it the Queen you fear?” she asked in a low voice.

  I raised my brows at her. “Scarcely. She pays no attention to my existence at all. She and Dutiful have taken both the Princes and gone to visit Bearns Duchy for ten days. He is finally listening to Chade, I believe. The plan is that the royal family will visit all Six Duchies and the Mountain Kingdom, staying at least ten days with each duke. I confess, I wonder if the dukes are already showing their daughters to the Princes in the hope of early arrangements for—”

  “Don’t try to distract me. You know very well which Queen I am talking about. ”

  I had and did. I lowered my eyes at her scowl. “Kettricken is on her way home from the Mountains right now. Dutiful Skilled the news to me some days ago. She has reached an agreement with both the Mountain people and the Six Duchies dukes. She will be spending much more time there now, maybe even half of each year. She will not be called Queen there, but will consult with Dutiful frequently. When she reaches Buckkeep, they intend to choose one of the Skill-apprentices to be a companion to her whenever she travels there, to make communication between the Mountains and the Six Duchies far more swift. I think both she and Dutiful will find it a relief. There, she is still a Queen, even if they do not name her so. And Queen Elliania will have much more room to adjust the court and the castle to her liking. I think it was a wise compromise they reached. ”

  Molly shook her head. “It will be, if Dutiful lives up to his share of it and stands up to the Narcheska. The boys were supposed to be sent to the Mountains for two months of every year, to better learn the language and ways of that duchy. If he does not undertake that, when Queen Kettricken dies, he may find that his beloved seventh duchy rises against the idea of becoming a full part of the Six Duchies. ”

  I nodded, taking relief in the change of topic. “You have put your finger exactly on what worries me. The two Queens have always chafed against each other and—”

  Molly was relentless. “But that does not answer my question. Regarding our little one and your ridiculous idea to raise her in secrecy, who were you hoping to conceal her from? I wonder this, and the only answer I can think of is Queen Kettricken. And perhaps Lord Chade?”

  I shifted uncomfortably and then leaned my head against her knee. She moved her hand and stirred her fingers through my hair. She spoke softly. “I’ve never been stupid, you know. ”

  “Far from it. I know that you’ve pieced it all together over the years, even if we seldom speak of it aloud. But when we talk of it, the memory of how I lied to you and deceived you for so many years is like a sword in my chest. Molly, I am so—”

  “Evasive,” she filled in for me in a deliberately light voice. “Fitz, you have apologized a thousand times for those days, and I have forgiven you. So, please, do not make me angry by trying to distract me now. Who and what do you fear?”

  Silence hovered. Then, “I fear everyone,” I admitted in a low voice. I admitted it to myself as much as her. “You and I see a baby we have longed for, and a child who is so different that others may despise her for that reason alone. But others may see her as a secret Princess or a potential Skill-user or a political pawn, a future woman to be wedded where she is most useful to the throne. I know they must see her that way. Just as they saw me as a royal bastard and a very useful tool. An assassin or a disposable diplomat. Just as they saw Nettle as a potential broodmare for a royal heir should Dutiful’s seed somehow fail to thrive. When Chade and Kettricken blocked Nettle’s engagement to Riddle—”

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  “Please, Fitz. Not again! Done is done, and there is no need to stir up old pains. ”

  “How can I consider it ‘done’ while Nettle still moves through life alone?” The old outrage I had felt on my daughter’s behalf roared through me. I wo
uld never, never understand how she had accepted that secret edict from the throne, and still continued to serve them. I had very nearly come to sundering my ties with Buckkeep over it. Only Nettle’s request that I remain calm and allow her to “handle my own life decisions” had prevented me from doing so. Every time I thought of it—

  “Oh, Fitz. ” Molly sighed. She sensed my mood and her hand moved soothingly on the back of my neck. She kneaded at the tight muscles with her still-strong hands and spoke quietly. “Nettle has always been a private person. She appears to be alone, and to have resigned herself to the throne forbidding her marriage to Riddle. But appearances can be deceiving. ”

  I sat up straight and twisted to look up at her. “Nettle would defy the Farseer throne?”

  She shook her head. “Defy? Probably not. Ignore? Yes. Just as we ignored what Lady Patience and King Shrewd decreed for us. Your daughter is very like you, Fitz. She keeps her own counsel and follows her own will. I am sure that if she still wants to be with Riddle, then she is. ”

  “Sweet Eda, what if she gets pregnant?” Anxiety twisted my voice tight.

  Molly gave a brittle caw of laughter. “Fitz! Must you always leap from one imagined disaster to another? Listen to what I’m actually saying, which is that I don’t know what path Nettle chose for herself. But if she is alone now, it is because she chose to be alone, not because someone decreed it for her. Her life is hers to live, not yours to repair. ”

  “Then you do not think that she and Riddle are together?”

  She sighed again. “I think nothing about that. Deliberately. But I will point out to you that Riddle left our employ to take work in Buckkeep Town, and that Nettle shows no sign of encouraging anyone to court her. In any case, she is a woman grown for many years now. It isn’t up to me to worry her worries for her, any more than it is your place to decide her decisions. My love, we have all we can deal with within these four walls. The other children have grown up and gone on with their lives. Even Hearth has a sweetheart now and an apprenticeship of his own to serve in Rivertown. Let Nettle and Riddle live their own lives, so that we can have a bit of peace. If you are so anxious to have a child to worry about, well, there is one right here. Here. Hold her for a bit. ”

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