Fools assassin, p.19
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       Fools Assassin, p.19

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

  She leaned down and set the babe into my hands. As always, I received her with reluctance. It had nothing to do with how I felt about her and a great deal to do with my terror that I would somehow hold her wrong and damage her. Puppies and foals did not fill me with that fear, but she did. She was so tiny and so naked, so weak compared with any other infant creature I’d ever tended. A foal could stand within the day of its birth. Pups could whine and shuffle their way to their mother’s teats. My infant could not even hold her head up. Yet as I settled her into my lap, the spark of life in her burned incredibly bright to my Wit. And to my Skill? I touched her little hand, skin-to-skin, and felt something there.

  Molly rose, groaning a little as she straightened her back. “I’ve been sitting still too long. I’m going to go get more hot tea. I’ll take the pot and just be a moment. ”

  “Shall I ring for a servant?”

  “Oh, no. I could do with a stroll to the kitchen and back. I’ll be but a moment. ” She was at the door as she spoke.

  “Very well,” I responded distractedly. I gazed into my child’s face, but she stared past my shoulder. I heard Molly’s slippers scuff softly away. I was alone with my daughter. No reason to be nervous. How many young things had I cared for in my days in the Buckkeep stables? A baby could not be so different. I’d won over spooky foals and wary pups.

  “Hey. Baby. Look at me. Look at Da. ” I moved my face into her view. She shifted her eyes, and her hand flailed away from my touch. I tried again.

  “So, baby, you’re going to live and stay with us awhile, are you?” I spoke not in the higher-pitched tone that so many would use when speaking to an infant, but in a low deliberate cadence. As one spoke to a puppy or a horse. Soothing. I clicked my tongue at her. “Hey. Over here. Look at me. ”

  She didn’t. I hadn’t really expected her to.

  Patience. Just keep talking. “You are such a tiny thing. I hope you start growing soon. What are we going to call you? It’s time we gave you a name. A good name, one that is strong. Let’s think of a strong name for you. But a pretty one. Lacey? Do you like that name? Lacey?”

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  No response at all. It seemed to me that the spark I had felt went dimmer, as if she shifted her attention away from me. Was that possible?

  My finger traced a figure on her chest. “Maybe a flower name? Your sister is Nettle. What about … Fern?” I could not be mistaken. She had definitely put her attention elsewhere. I considered for a moment, and tried again. “Myrtle? Foxglove? Thyme?”

  She seemed to be listening. Why wouldn’t she look at me? I touched her cheek with my finger, trying to make her look at me. She turned her face toward the touch but avoided my eyes. I suddenly recalled that Nighteyes had seldom met my gaze in a steady look, but the wolf had loved me all the same. Don’t force her to meet your eyes. Let the cub come to you, as you let me come to you. I nodded to the wolf-wisdom and did not try to meet her eyes.

  Unfolding her tiny fingers, I put my pinkie in the palm of her hand. Even my smallest finger was still too large for her to grip. She let go of it and coiled her hand into her chest. I lifted her to hold her closer and inhaled deeply, taking her scent. In that moment I was my wolf, and I recalled my bond with Nighteyes so vividly that I ached with the loss. I looked at my cub and knew how sharply sweet her birth would have been for him. Oh, Nighteyes. Would that you could be beside me for this. Tears stung my eyes. I stared in amazement as I saw the infant blink away newly formed tears. They ventured onto her little cheeks.

  I swallowed against the old pain of losing my wolf. Could she be sharing my feelings? I stared at her and dared myself. I opened myself to her, Skill and Wit.

  The baby suddenly waved her arms helplessly and thrashed her feet, as if she were trying to swim away from me. Then, to my horror, she opened her mouth wide and wailed aloud, a sound that seemed far too loud and shrill to come out of such a small being. “Shh! Shh!” I begged her, dreading that Molly would hear. I placed her on my lap and lifted my hands away. Surely she could not be that open to me. I’d done something wrong in how I held her. Had I pinched her somehow, or held her too tightly? I could only look down at her in utter dismay.

  I heard the hasty whisper of slippers against the flagged floors and then Molly was suddenly in the room, a dripping teapot in her hand. She hastily clacked it onto the tray and leaned over us, her hands reaching to take her baby back. “What happened? Did you drop her? She’s never cried aloud like this before!”

  I leaned back, well clear of the baby, and let Molly take her. Almost immediately her wails ceased. Her face was bright red and as her mother patted her, she panted still with the effort it had taken her to scream so loudly.

  “I don’t know what I did. I was just holding her and looking at her and suddenly she began to scream. Wait! I put my finger in her hand! Did I hurt her fingers? I don’t know what I did to upset her! Did I hurt her hand? Is she all right?”

  “Shush. Let me see. ” Molly took the baby’s hand softly and very gently unfolded her fingers. The infant didn’t flinch or wail. Instead she looked up into her mother’s face, and I can only describe her expression as relief. Molly gathered her to her shoulder and began her gentle rocking walk. “She’s fine, she’s fine,” Molly singsonged as she made a slow circuit of the room. When she came back to me, she said gently, “She seems fine now. Perhaps it was just a little air stuck in her gut. Oh, Fitz, it gave me such a turn to hear her cry like that. But, you know”—here she startled me by smiling—“it was such a relief as well. She has been so silent, so calm that I wondered if she could cry. Or if she was too simple to make such a sound. ” She gave a short laugh. “With the boys, I always wished for them to be quieter, to be easier to put down to sleep. But with her, it has been the opposite. I’ve worried at how placid she is. Would she be simple? But she’s fine. Whatever you did, you’ve proven she has your temper. ”

  “My temper?” I dared to ask.

  She mock-scowled at me. “Of course your temper! Who else’s could she have inherited?” She took her seat again, and I nodded at the puddle around the pot on the tray.

  “Looks like you were interrupted. Shall I take it back to the kitchen for more hot water?”

  “I’m sure there’s enough tea left for us. ”

  She settled in her chair. The room grew quieter as peace flowed back into it. Molly spoke to our baby. “Once, I saw a black-and-white horse with one eye blue, just the same color as yours. The man who owned him said it was his ‘wild eye’ and not to stand on that side of him. ” She fell silent for a time, considering her babe. She rocked her gently, calming all of us.

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  It took me a few moments to realize she was asking to be reassured that our baby was all right. I didn’t know. My words were cautious. “I don’t think Burrich ever brought a blue-eyed horse into the stables. Or a dog with one odd eye. Did he tell you something about it?”

  “Oh, no. Let’s not be silly, Fitz. She’s a girl, not a horse or a puppy. And blue-eyed Queen Kettricken seems to have your trust. ”

  “That’s so,” I agreed. I poured a tiny bit of tea from the pot. Too pale. I put it down to let it brew some more. “I don’t think she likes me,” I ventured softly.

  Molly blew out an annoyed breath. “My love, must you ever and always find something to worry about? She hardly knows you yet. Babies cry. That’s all. She’s fine now. ”

  “She won’t look at me. ”

  “Fitz, I’m not going to indulge you in this! So stop. Besides, we have more important things to think about. She needs a name. ”

  “I was just thinking the same thing myself. ” I edged over to sit more closely to them, and reached for the teapot again.

  Molly stopped me. “Patience! It needs to brew a bit longer. ”

  I halted and raised my brows at her. “Patience?”

  “I’ve considered it. But sh
e’s so tiny …”

  “So … she needs a small name?” I was completely confused.

  “Well, her name has to fit her. I had thought …” She hesitated, but I waited to hear what she would say. She spoke at last. “Bee. Because she’s so small. ”

  “Bee?” I asked her. I had to smile. Bee. Of course. “It’s a lovely name. ”

  “Bee,” she asserted firmly. Her next question surprised me. “Will you seal her name to her?” Molly was referring to the old custom of the royal family. When a Farseer Prince or Princess was named, there was a public ceremony with all the nobility called to witness. The custom was to pass the child through flame, sprinkle him with soil, and then plunge the infant into water to seal the name to the babe by fire, earth, and water. But such babies were given names such as Verity or Chivalry or Regal. Or Dutiful. And when the name was sealed to the child, it was hoped that he would develop an affinity for the virtue.

  “I think not,” I said quietly, reflecting that such a ceremony would draw to her the very sort of Farseer attention I sought to avoid. Even then, I was still hoping to keep her existence quiet.

  Such hopes vanished when Nettle arrived five days later. She had left Buckkeep as quickly as she could make arrangements and ridden horseback to make the trip as swiftly as possible. Two of her guardsmen had ridden with her, the minimum escort expected for the King’s Skillmistress. One was a gray-haired old man, the other a willowy girl, but both looked more exhausted than my daughter did. I had only a glimpse of them from my study window when I pushed aside the drapes and peered out after I heard horses whinnying outside.

  I took a deep breath to steel myself. I let the curtain fall and left my study, striding hastily through the manor to intersect with her. Before I had reached the front entrance, I heard the door open, the sound of her clear voice lifted in a hasty greeting to Revel, and then the clatter of her boots as she ran down the hall. I stepped from the connecting corridor and she nearly caromed into me. I caught her by the shoulders and looked down into her face.

  Nettle’s dark curling hair had pulled free of its tie to fall to her shoulders. Her cheeks and brow were reddened from chill. She still wore her cloak and had been pulling off her gloves as she ran. “Tom!” she greeted me, and then, “Where is my mother?”

  I pointed down the hall to the door of the nursery; she shrugged free of me and was gone. I glanced back. In the entrance Revel was greeting her retinue. Our steward had things well in hand. The guardsmen who had ridden with her looked weary and cold and desirous of nothing so much as rest; Revel could deal with them. I turned and followed Nettle.

  By the time I caught up with her, she stood in the open door of the nursery. She gripped the door frame and seemed frozen there. “You really had a baby? A baby?” she demanded of her mother. Molly laughed. I halted where I was. As Nettle stepped cautiously into the room, I ghosted up and stood where I could watch them but not be seen. Nettle had halted by the empty cradle set near the fire. Abject penitence was in her voice as she cried out, “Mother, I’m so sorry I doubted you. Where is she? Are you well?”

  Molly sat, an image of calm, but I felt her anxiety. Did Nettle see, as I did, how carefully she had arranged herself to meet her elder daughter? Molly’s hair looked recently smoothed, and her shawl was evenly spread on her shoulders. The baby was swaddled in a soft cover of palest pink; a matching cap hid her tiny face. Molly did not waste time or effort in answering Nettle but offered the child to her. I could not see Nettle’s face but I saw the set of her shoulders change. The bundle her mother offered was too small to be a baby, even a newborn. She crossed the room as cautiously as a wolf walking into unknown territory. She still feared madness. When she accepted the baby, I saw her muscles adjust for the lightness of the infant. She looked into Bee’s face, startled to find her really there and even more shocked at her blue gaze, and then she lifted her eyes to look at her mother. “She’s blind, isn’t she? Oh, Ma, I’m so sorry. Will she live long, do you think?” In her words I heard all I had feared—that not only the world but even her sister would perceive our Bee as peculiar.

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  Molly took Bee swiftly back from her, sheltering her in her arms as if Nettle’s words were an evil wish on the child. “She’s not blind,” my mother said. “Fitz thinks it likely his Mountain mother had blue eyes and that is where she gets them. And though she is tiny, she is perfect in every other way. Ten toes, ten fingers, she eats well and sleeps well, and almost never fusses. Her name is Bee. ”

  “Bee?” Nettle was puzzled but then smiled. “She is such a little thing. But I wonder what the old Queen will think of her. ”

  “Queen Kettricken?” My mother’s voice was between alarmed and confused.

  “She comes, not far behind me. She arrived home at Buckkeep just as I was leaving. I gave her the news before I left, and she was full of joy for you both. She won’t be more than a day behind me. I was glad I won Dutiful’s permission to leave right away; she clearly wished me to wait for her. ” She paused, and then her loyalty to her mother prevailed. “And I know that Fitz knew she was coming because I Skilled the knowledge to him myself! And he has said nothing to you! I can tell by the look on your face. Which means that the servants probably haven’t been put to airing the rooms or otherwise preparing for guests. Oh, Mother, that man of yours—”

  “That man is your father,” she reminded Nettle, and as always Nettle looked aside and made no response. For if a child can inherit a trait from a fostering parent, then Nettle had inherited Burrich’s stubbornness. She swiftly changed the subject to a more immediate concern. “I’ll have the servants open the rooms right away, and freshen them and make sure that there is wood for the hearths. And I’ll let the kitchen staff know as well. Don’t worry!”

  “I don’t worry,” my mother replied. “The Mountain Queen has never been a difficult guest for us, in that way. ” But in other ways, she had, Molly’s unspoken words said. “Nettle. ” Her tone stopped her daughter before she could escape. “Why does she come here? What does she want?”

  Nettle met her mother’s gaze directly. “What you know she wants. She wishes to see FitzChivalry Farseer’s younger daughter. To witness her name sealed to her and make a claim to her. A minstrel will ride with her party. She will show him only what she wants him to see, but once he has seen, he will never deny the truth. He is a man that she trusts not to sing until he’s told to, and then to sing only the truth. ”

  It was Molly’s turn to cast her eyes aside and say nothing. My heart chilled to know that Nettle, too, had seen clearly the reason for Kettricken’s visit.

  There remained between Molly and Kettricken a strange bond that was both affection and jealousy. Queen Kettricken had always treated Molly and Burrich and their children with impeccable fairness. But Molly had never forgotten nor forgiven that she had been left to believe that I was dead, first to mourn me and then to accept another man in my place, and all the while the Queen knew that the Farseer Bastard lived. It was as much my doing as Kettricken’s, but I believe Molly found it harder to forgive a woman. Especially a woman who knew what it was to live in the painful belief that her lover was dead.

  And so the rift remained, acknowledged by both women as a gap that could never be closed. Kettricken was the sort of woman who would believe she deserved that bitter twist to her friendship with my wife.

  Nettle gave a curt nod and left the room, already calling for Tavia to give her a hand to get some guest rooms into order for Lady Kettricken of the Mountains, who would be arriving perhaps before the day was out. Nettle set as little stock by formality with the servants as her mother did. She passed me in the hall and gave me a glance full of rebuke before shouting for Revel as well. I slipped past her and into the nursery. “She’ll be opening the windows and shaking out the comforters herself,” Molly said to me, and I knew she was proud of her pragmatic daughter.

  “Sometimes she reminds me of
Verity. ” I smiled as I entered. “She doesn’t ask anyone to do anything that she’d hesitate to do herself. And if she thinks a task needs doing, she doesn’t wait. ”

  “You knew Kettricken was coming and you didn’t tell me,” Molly greeted me.

  I had. I looked at her silently. I had told myself that not telling her something was different from lying to her. She didn’t agree. Her anger was frozen fire in her voice as she said quietly, “It doesn’t make it easier for me when I don’t have time to prepare. ”

  “I thought it through carefully. There is nothing we can do to prepare for this, except meet it head-on today. I saw no use in worrying you ahead of time. The servants are adept at quickly readying the rooms. ”

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  Her voice was low. “I wasn’t speaking of readying the rooms. I was talking of preparing myself. My thoughts. My bearing. ” She shook her head at me and then spoke more clearly. “Fitz, Fitz. All goes well between us, until your Farseer legacy intrudes. Then you return to the close-mouthed, deceitful ways that doomed us once before. Will you ever be free of that? Ever know a time when your first impulse is not to conceal what you know?”

  Her words struck me like arrows, and I shuddered with their impact. “I’m sorry,” I said, and hated the words. Truly I regretted that I had hidden information from her and wondered, as she did, why I always fell prey to the drive to keep knowledge to myself. There echoed through me a warning I had received long ago, from Chade. The old man had cautioned me that I could wear out the words “I’m sorry,” could apologize so often that it meant nothing to anyone, not even myself. I wondered if I had reached that point with Molly. “Molly,” I began.

  “Fitz,” she said firmly. “Just stop. ”

  I fell silent. She gathered our baby closer to her. “Listen to me. I share your worries. This is not a time for us to be at odds. Later, we will speak of it. After Kettricken has left. But not before then, and certainly not in front of Nettle. If the old queen comes to look at our child, then we must be ready to face that together. And insist to her that we will know what is best for Bee as she grows. ”

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