Fools assassin, p.20
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       Fools Assassin, p.20

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

  I knew her anger was not vanquished but restrained. And I knew that I deserved it. “Thank you,” I said quietly, and that lit the sparks again in her eyes. Then, almost sadly, she shook her head and smiled at me. “They took that piece of you away from me, long before I even claimed you as my own. Not your fault, Fitz. Not your fault. Though sometimes I think that you could take it back, if you tried hard enough. ” She settled our baby against her shoulder and then looked at me as if she had banished anger to the Out Islands.

  The rest of that day, Nettle had the staff in an uproar. Only Revel seemed to delight in the challenge of entertaining royalty at a moment’s notice. No less than eight times he came to consult with me on menus and bedchambers. When he appeared at my door again, to ask if he might hire some musicians from Withy for evening entertainment, I heartlessly referred him to Nettle.

  But the end result was that we had had one quiet evening as a family, a time for all three adults to share a meal and stay up late talking. Between Nettle and Revel, everything that could be arranged or planned had been done. When evening deepened, we gathered in the nursery and had our food brought to us there. We ate and talked, and ate and talked. Nettle held the baby and studied Bee’s face as she stared past her shoulder.

  Nettle gave us news from Buckkeep, but Molly was most hungry to hear of her boys. Nettle gave us fresh news of her brothers. Steady had been not at Buckkeep but visiting Hearth. She had sent him word. Swift was traveling with Web; she’d sent a message but had no idea when it would find them. Chivalry was prospering. He’d built on the fine foundation of horseflesh that Burrich had left to him. Recently he had acquired the holding next to his, increasing his pasture and giving himself room to build a larger stable. And so on, naming each brother, all scattered across the Six Duchies now. Molly listened and rocked Bee as she held her close. I watched her and thought I guessed her heart: This was her last child, the one who would be at her side as she grew old. I watched Nettle’s gaze travel from me to her mother and then to Bee. Pity, I read in her face. Pity for all of us, for in her estimation, Bee would either die soon or live the life of a stunted thing, limited in both mind and body. She did not speak the thought aloud but Burrich had raised her well, to look at a young thing and judge its chances. Still, I thought to myself, I had the advantage of experience. Bee might well and truly be a runt but she had the spark to survive. She would live. What sort of a life, none could yet tell, but Bee would live.

  In the morning a herald arrived to announce that Kettricken would soon be there. By the time the old Queen arrived that afternoon, the guest rooms were ready, a simple meal of good food was simmering and baking, and Bee was freshly attired in garments hastily taken in to fit her. Nettle came herself to tell Molly and me of the arrival of Kettricken and her guard. She found us in the nursery. Molly had dressed Bee twice, and changed her own garments three times. Each time, I had assured her that she looked lovely to me, but she had decided that the first dress was too youthful, and the second “made me look like a doddering granny. ” The third try was something I had never seen her wear before. She wore long loose trousers, so full that they appeared at first to be a skirt. A garment like a knee-length vest was worn over a loose-sleeved white blouse; a wide belt sashed her waist. The vest, trousers, and sash were all in different shades of blue, and Molly netted her hair back into a sack made of blue ribbons. “How do I look?” she asked me when she returned to the nursery, and I was not sure what to reply.

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  “I like the slippers,” I said cautiously. They were red, with black bead embroidery and very pointed toes.

  Molly laughed. “Nettle brought these clothes for me. It’s a Jamaillian style, now favored at Buckkeep. ” She turned slowly, inviting me to admire the garments. “It’s very comfortable. Nettle begged me to wear it, so I would not look too provincial. And you know, Fitz, I think I shall. ”

  I myself wore a simple jerkin of brown over a shirt of Buckkeep blue, brown trousers, and black knee-boots. The fox pin that Kettricken had given me still sparkled at my collar. For a moment I wondered if I looked provincial, then decided I did not care.

  Nettle came into the room, smiled, and lifted her brows at her mother, well pleased with her appearance. She was similarly garbed in rich browns and amber yellow. Then she glanced down into Bee’s cradle and visibly startled. Blunt as she ever was, she said, “Even though the other clothes were too big, they made her look larger. Mother, she is so tiny, she’s almost … grotesque. ” Despite her words, she picked up her sister and held Bee in her arms, looking into her face. The baby gazed past her shoulder. Yet as Nettle studied her, Bee suddenly began to toss her little hands. Then her mouth opened wide, she drew a deep breath, and she began a shrill wail of protest.

  At her first wail, Molly went to take her. “What’s wrong, my little Bee? What’s wrong?” The moment Molly took her from Nettle, the child went limp in her hands and her wailing became a snuffling sobbing. Molly held her and patted her and she quickly quieted. She looked at Nettle apologetically. “Don’t be hurt. She does the same thing to her father. I think she’s just old enough to realize I’m her mother and to think that I should always be holding her. ”

  I gave Nettle a small, rueful smile. “I’m almost relieved. I was beginning to think it was just me she disliked. ”

  Molly and Nettle shot me twin looks of outrage. “Bee does not dislike Nettle!” Molly insisted. “She just …” Her words dwindled away and her eyes widened slightly. Then, as direct as Nettle herself, she looked at her elder daughter and asked, “Did you do something to her? With your mind?”

  “I … no! Well, not intentionally. Sometimes …” She let her words trail off. “It’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t have it. I touch people when I’m close to them. Not always on purpose. It’s like …” She groped for a comparison. “Like smelling someone. Even if it might seem rude, I can’t really help it. I’ve become aware of people in that way. ”

  Molly weighed her words as she began the slow shifting of her weight from foot to foot that she always affected when she held the child. “Then your sister is Skilled? As you are?”

  Nettle laughed and shook her head. “I couldn’t tell something like that just from holding her. Besides, she’s a baby. ” Her words trailed off slightly as she reflected on her own talent for Skill and how early it had wakened in her. She glanced over at me, and I felt her send a seeking tendril of Skill toward the baby. I caught my breath. Should I stop her? I watched as Bee curled more tightly against her mother and buried her face in Molly’s neck. Did she sense her sister reaching for her? I watched Nettle’s face. Puzzlement and then resignation. She didn’t sense any Skill in the baby.

  My curiosity piqued, I sent a thread of Skill toward Bee, moving with utmost caution, but all I found was Molly. She had no Skill at all, but reaching toward her filled my senses with her. I found myself smiling fondly at her.

  Then Nettle cleared her throat and I became aware of the room and my daughters and wife again. Molly drew a deeper breath and squared her shoulders. “Well. I will go to meet Kettricken and welcome her. Do you think I should bring Bee with me?”

  Nettle shook her head hastily. “No. No, I think it is best that you choose the moment for the Mountain Queen to meet her, and that it be private at first. Can her wet nurse stay with her while we—” And then her voice ran down. She laughed. “I’ve been too long at court, haven’t I? A whole day here and of course I’ve seen no one tend her except you. Does she have a wet nurse? Or a nurse or a caretaker of any kind?”

  Molly made an amused sound in her throat and shook her head. “No more than you had,” she replied.

  “Could you ask one of the kitchen girls? Or one of the maids?” Nettle was well aware that her mother kept no personal servant. “I’d never have enough tasks to keep her busy,” she had always told her daughter.

  Molly shook her head. “They are busy with their
proper tasks. No. She will be fine here in her nursery. She’s a placid child. ” She returned Bee to her cradle and covered her warmly.

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  “It feels odd to leave her here alone,” Nettle objected uncomfortably as Molly drew a lacy covering over the cradle.

  “Not really,” Molly replied calmly. She moved about the room, letting down layer after layer of curtains. It became twilight, the warm firelight the only illumination. And as she turned to look at her elder daughter, she sighed and said, “You have been too long at court. You should find a way to have time to yourself. Come here, or go visit one of your brothers. Get away from the suspicions and that careful dance you always seem to be treading. Look. She’s already dozing off. She’ll be fine here. ”

  “I’m certain she’ll be fine here alone, Nettle,” I lied agreeably. I ventured closer and looked down into the cradle. Bee’s eyes were almost completely closed.

  “Come,” Molly said, taking my hand. “We’d best go meet the Queen. ” I let her lead me from the room.

  Steward Revel did a far better job of being the lord of the manor than I could ever attempt. We did not go to the entrance hall, where I was sure he was sorting our guests into levels of importance. The guards and lesser servants would be bustled off to simple but clean rooms and offered an immediate opportunity either to visit the Withywoods steams or to warm their faces and hands with hot water before descending to a casual and hearty meal of soups, bread, butter, cheese, ale, and wine. Revel had nothing but sympathy for frequently hard-used servants. While they visited Withywoods, they would be treated as the guests of our own servants. I was sure they would welcome his hospitality after the morning’s chilly ride through the freshly fallen snow.

  With the expertise of a general marshaling his troops, he had recruited temporary help from the village. Any lesser nobility would be entrusted to these willing but less experienced hands as luggage was carried to rooms, washwater fetched, fires built up, and any other small chores accomplished. To our experienced staff would go the honor of waiting on the highest echelon of guests, with Revel putting himself and his right hand, Dixon, at the full service of Lady Kettricken. All of these arrangements had been tediously explained to me the day before. I had nodded endlessly and authorized everything he suggested.

  Molly, Nettle, and I hurried to the Great Hall where Revel had decreed we would welcome our guests. I entered to find that the room had been transformed overnight. The paneled walls gleamed with a fresh wiping of some fragrant oil, a large and welcoming fire burned in the hearth, and a long table had been brought in and decorated with vases of flowers. My ladies peremptorily stationed me there to await our refreshed guests, as they made a final dash to the kitchens to be sure all was in readiness. I waited until I could no longer hear their slippers pattering hastily down the hallway. Then I stepped out into the hall and heartlessly detained one of our temporary serving boys.

  “Lad, I’ve forgotten something in my rooms. Just stay here for me, and if anyone arrives, assure them that Lady Molly and Nettle will both return very shortly, and that I shall be down soon. ”

  His eyes widened. “Sir, mayn’t I fetch whatever it is you’ve forgotten? I don’t know how to talk to a Queen, sir, even if she isn’t the Queen anymore. ”

  I smiled ruthlessly at him. “And that, my lad, is exactly why you are the perfect person for this task. If you greet her with the same warmth and respect you’d accord your own grandmother, that will be more than sufficient. ”

  “But, sir!” I didn’t realize he had freckles until he went so pale they stood out on his face.

  I laughed genially and pitied him in my heart. “Only a moment, only a moment. ” And I left him, striding off down the hall with a fine clacking of boots.

  The moment I turned the corner of the corridor, I stooped, removed my boots, and then ran as light-footedly as if I were the serving boy himself. This would be the time I would choose, were it my mission. Was I being foolish? Had I, like Nettle, lived too long at Buckkeep among the multiple layers of intrigue there? There was only one way to find out. I swung the door of the nursery open just wide enough for me to enter. I slid into the room and froze beside the door. I eased it shut behind me. My Wit told me I was alone in here except for my daughter. Nonetheless, no board shifted under my tread, and my shadow never crossed the firelight as I carried my boots to the corner and concealed them there. A quick glance into the cradle as I passed it. She was there, but I did not think she was asleep. Quiet, I begged her. Stay quiet. I ghosted into the most shadowy corner behind the two pansy screens and composed myself, setting my feet and finding my balance. Not a sigh of breath, not a shift of weight on the old floor timbers. I raised all my walls, blocking my Skill and my Wit into my own mind. I became an empty place in the darkness.

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  The fire spat sap. A log settled with a soft thud. Outside, wind-driven snowflakes kissed the glass panes of the window. I could not hear my own breathing. I waited. I waited. I was a suspicious fool. A slave to old fears. I waited. The guests would be there. I’d be missed. Nettle and Molly would be furious with me. I waited.

  The door eased open; someone weaseled inside and then pushed the door silently closed again. I couldn’t see him. I smelled perfumed oil and heard the rustle of rich fabrics. Then a slight figure detached itself from the shadows and flowed toward my child’s cradle. He did not touch it nor lift the veil, but leaned closer to peer at my baby.

  The youngster was well dressed in a silk shirt with an embroidered vest. He wore a silver necklace and two silver rings in each ear. The perfume was his hair pomade: His black curls glistened in the firelight. He stared down at Bee. I imagined her looking up at him, wondering if he meant her harm. He was completely absorbed in his scrutiny of her. I moved. When he lifted his hand to move the lace that veiled her, my shining blade swooped in on his throat. I pressed the flat of it hard against his flesh.

  “Step back,” I advised him softly, “and I’ll let you live. At least for a little while. ”

  The boy’s intake of breath sounded like a sob. He held his hands open and pleading before him as the pressure of my slender knife moved him away from the cradle. I guided him backward. One step, two, three. His voice shook as he said, “Lord Chade said you would catch me. But Lady Rosemary insisted on sending me. ”

  I cocked my head like a listening wolf, trying to decide if I heard truth. “An interesting gambit. Those names could be seen as chinks in my armor. Another man might laugh and release you, send you back to your masters with a warning that you need more training. ”

  “I’ve only been with them three months. ” There was relief in his voice.

  “I said, ‘another man,’” I reminded him in a deadly voice. “Not me. ” I put myself between the assassin and my baby’s cradle. “Strip,” I ordered him. “Down to skin. Now. ”

  “I—” The boy choked. His eyes flew wide open and he all but crossed his arms over himself. His voice went a notch higher. “Sir! This is unbecoming of you. No. I will not. ”

  “You will,” I informed him. “For I won’t be satisfied until you do. And I have no reason not to raise an alarm and then take affront at your being here. The Farseer throne sends an assassin-spy not only into my house, but into my child’s room? Tell me, boy, what do I have to lose? And what will Lady Kettricken have to do to erase this embarrassment? Will Lord Chade and Lady Rosemary admit you are theirs? Or did they warn you that they would distance themselves if you were caught?”

  The youngster was breathing raggedly. His hands were shaking, I was certain, and he struggled with an endless row of tiny pearl buttons. Pearls! On their newest assassin! What was Chade thinking these days? If he had not been in my child’s room, I might have found such foolishness amusing. But nothing was humorous in this attempt. My blood moved cold in my veins.

  I heard the rustle of silk and then a soft thud as he dropp
ed his shirt to the floor. “An interesting sound for a shirt to make as it falls,” I observed. “The rest, please. Without delay. I’m sure we would both like to have this over with as soon as possible. ” He had to bend down to peel his trousers and stockings off. A trick of the firelight caught the gleam of tears on his cheeks. Better his tears than Molly’s or mine, I thought. “To the skin,” I reminded him, and his smallclothes joined the heap on the floor. A short time later, I added, “You look chilly. Go stand by the fire. And don’t move. ”

  The lad moved with alacrity. He turned his back to me, and then twisted back to watch me. He was hugging himself despite the fire behind him while I systematically went through his garments. Tiny pocket seams gave way with small ripping sounds. My blade made a shush as it slid though fine silk. I was proud of that. It takes a sharp blade to part silk. Then I was finished.

  “Only seven?” I asked him. I lifted my eyes to watch him as I let my hands check each garment and boot again. I set my plunder out in a short row on the floor before me. “Let’s see. Two poisons to mix with liquid, one toxic dust, a sleeping powder, and an emetic. So much for the hidden pockets. A tiny shoe-knife, scarcely worthy of the name, a set of lock picks, and a block of soft wax … for what? Ah, impressions of keys. Of course. Now, what’s this?”

  “That is what I was to leave in her crib. ” His voice was stiff, thickened with tears. “For you to find. As a proof that I’d been here. ”

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  Ice encased my heart. I gestured at the assassin with my knife, moving him farther away from the cradle. I moved with him, keeping the same distance. Whatever was in the packet, I would not chance opening it near Bee. I brought it to a small table touched by firelight.

  It was a little packet of good paper. I sliced the side carefully with my blade, then tipped it. A very fine chain slid out of it first. I tapped it and the rest emerged. “A very pretty necklace. And expensive, I’d hazard. ” I held up the chain. Firelight glinted red from it. “It’s the Farseer buck, in silver. But he has his head lowered to charge. Interesting. ” I watched the boy’s face as it dangled from his hand. Did he know what it was? The sigil of FitzChivalry Farseer, the long-dead bastard of the royal family.

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