Fools assassin, p.23
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       Fools Assassin, p.23

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

  I watched him startle at the sight of the freshly lit tapers. I was very still, and it took a moment for his eyes to pick me out. Then he gaped at the sight of a humble guardsman in such a special and secret place before he recognized me. “You!” he gasped and took a step back.

  “Me,” I affirmed. “Well, I see they kept you on. But you’ve still much to learn of caution, I think. ” He stared at me wordlessly. “I suspect that Lady Rosemary or Lord Chade will soon be arriving, for a late-night lesson with you. Am I correct?”

  He opened his mouth to speak, then clapped it shut. So. Perhaps he had learned a bit of caution since last we had met. He assayed a sideways shift toward the weapons rack. I smiled and cautioned him with a wag of my finger. Then, a flip of my wrist and a knife sprang into my hand. Some tricks one never forgets. He gaped at it and lifted wide eyes to stare at me.

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  It was very gratifying. I suddenly wondered if I had ever looked at Chade with such puppyish awe. I made a decision. “Neither one of us needs to be armed,” I told him pleasantly. I bent my hand and the knife was gone. It was enough that he knew how quickly it could reappear. I leaned back in my chair and appeared to relax, and saw his shoulders lower in response. I sighed to myself. The lad had so much to learn.

  For now, however, his naïveté served my purpose well. I looked at him for a moment, reading as much as I could of him without making my gaze into a stare. He’d have his guard up against direct questions. But he was already beginning to be uncomfortable with my silence. I sighed, letting my body appear to relax even more as I reached for the wine again. I poured another glass. He shifted his feet uncomfortably. “That’s Lady Rosemary’s favorite wine,” he objected mildly.

  “Is it? Well. She has good taste, then. And I know she wouldn’t mind sharing some with me. We’ve known each other a long time … she was just a child when I first met her. ”

  That piqued his interest. I wondered how much he had been told of me when they’d sent him on his mission to Bee’s cradle. Not too much, I judged. Chade valued caution as a virtue surpassing almost all others. I smiled at him. He took my bait.

  “Is that who showed you how to get here? Lady Rosemary?” Furrows showed in his brow as he tried to piece it together and see where I belonged.

  “Who are you talking to, Lant?” Lady Rosemary’s voice reached us before she had entered the room. The lad spun toward her. I remained where I was, wineglass in hand.

  “Oh. ” She halted, holding the curtain aside, and looked at me. I had told the apprentice the truth. I had known her when she was a child, though we’d had little to do with each other since then. Prince Regal had recruited her when she was a chubby little maid, even younger than FitzVigilant. Regal had arranged a position for her, serving the Mountain-born Princess who had wedded King-in-Waiting Verity. She had been Regal’s little spy on his brother’s wife, and quite likely had been the one who greased the tower steps and caused the pregnant Kettricken to take a bad fall. That had never been proven. When Regal had tumbled from power, all of his minions had descended into disgrace as well, the child Rosemary among them.

  Only Kettricken’s forgiving nature had saved her. When all else shunned her, Kettricken had seen her as a confused child, torn between loyalties, and quite possibly guilty only of trying to please the man who had been so kind to her mother. Queen Kettricken had taken her back into her court and seen to her education. And Chade, never one to waste anything, had seen her as a partially trained tool for spying and assassination, and quickly made her his own.

  Now she stood before me, a woman in the middle of her life, a lady of the court, and a trained assassin. We regarded each other. She knew me. I wondered if she clearly recalled how she had pretended to drowse on the steps of the Queen-in-Waiting’s throne while I reported to Kettricken. Even after all those years, I felt both horror and resentment that a mere child had so easily deceived me. She stepped into the room, lowered her eyes before my gaze and then dropped into a deep curtsy.

  “Lord FitzChivalry Farseer. You honor us. Welcome. ”

  And as neatly as that, she had foxed me again. I did not know if she tried to convey respect to me, or if she was conveying information to her apprentice as quickly as she could. The boy’s swift intake of breath told me that he’d had no idea of my true identity, but that he now guessed the full import of my visit. And perhaps he understood more of his original errand at Withywoods. I looked at her coolly. “Has no one ever warned you what you may conjure up when you give welcome and name a ghost?”

  “Welcome? And honor? I’d call it an extreme annoyance, dropping in at this hour, unannounced. ” Chade pushed into the room from behind the same tapestry that had admitted Rosemary. Lady Rosemary was attired in a simple morning dress, and I suspected that after whatever lesson she’d planned with FitzVigilant, she had intended to begin her day. In contrast, Chade was nattily attired in a snug-fitting green shirt with voluminous white sleeves. The shirt was belted with black and silver, and the skirts of it fell almost to his knees. His leggings were black, his slippers likewise but worked with silver beads. His silver-gray hair was bound back in a severe warrior’s tail. Obviously he was at the end of a very long night’s entertainment rather than the beginning of a day’s work.

  He was blunt. “What brings you here?”

  I met his gaze. “That’s the same question I asked young FitzVigilant, about four months ago. His answer did not satisfy me, so I thought I might come here and get a better one. From you. ”

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  Chade gave a huff of disdain. “Well. There was a time when you were not so severe when a prank had been played upon you. ” He crossed the room, his carriage a bit stiff. I suspected a binding beneath that shirt, helping him look fit and easing his old back. He reached the hearth and looked about distractedly. “Where has my chair gotten to?”

  Rosemary gave a small sigh of exasperation. “It has been months since you’ve been up here, and you told me I might arrange things to suit myself. ”

  He scowled. “That doesn’t mean that you can arrange things to discomfort me. ”

  She pursed her lips and shook her head, but motioned at FitzVigilant. “The old chair is in the corner, with the other rubbish that hasn’t gone out yet. Fetch it, please. ”

  “Rubbish?” Chade repeated indignantly. “What rubbish? I had no rubbish up here!”

  She crossed her arms on her chest. “Cracked bowls and chipped cups. A small cauldron with a broken bail. Flasks of old oil, gone nearly to shellac. And all the rest of the litter you had pushed to the end of the table. ”

  Chade’s scowl deepened but he only grunted in response. FitzVigilant brought his old chair back to its place by the hearth. Without rising, I slid Rosemary’s chair over to make room for it. For the first time in decades, I looked at Chade’s seat. The scrolled woodwork was scarred. The joints were loose, and the cushion still showed where I had mended it after Slink the ferret had had a tremendous battle with it one night. I looked around the room. “No ferret?” I asked.

  “And no ferret droppings,” Rosemary replied acerbically.

  Chade rolled his eyes at me. With a sigh, he lowered himself into the chair. It creaked under him. He looked at me. “Well, Fitz. How have you been?”

  I would not allow him to dismiss my mission so lightly. “Annoyed. Offended. And wary, ever since I found an assassin creeping about my baby’s cradle. ”

  Chade gave a dismissive snort of laughter. “An assassin? Scarcely. He’s barely even a spy yet. ”

  “Well, that’s so comforting,” I responded.

  “Ah, Fitz, where else should I send him to cut his teeth? It’s not like when you were a boy and we had a simmering war and a treacherous little pretender to the throne simpering and plotting here at Buckkeep. I had a dozen ways to measure your progress right here within the castle walls. But FitzVigilant isn’t so fortunate. I h
ave to send him farther afield to test him. I try to choose his tasks carefully. I knew you wouldn’t hurt him. And I thought it might be a good way to test his mettle. ”

  “Not to test me, then?”

  He lifted his hand from the chair’s arm and waved it vaguely. “Perhaps a bit. It never hurts to be sure a man hasn’t lost his edge. ” He looked around. “Is that wine?”

  “Yes. ” I refilled my glass and offered it to him. He received it, took a sip, and set it down. When he did, I asked, “So. Why do I need an edge still?”

  He stared at me, his green eyes piercing. “You bring another Farseer into the world, and ask me that?”

  I kept my temper. “No Farseer. Bee Badgerlock is her name. ” I bit back that my little girl would never be a danger to anyone.

  Elbow on the arm of his chair, he rested his chin in his hand. “You have lost your edge if you think a shield that thin can protect her. ”

  “Protect her from what?” I glanced past him to where Rosemary and FitzVigilant were standing. “The only danger I’ve seen has come from people I should be able to trust. People I thought would protect her. ”

  “It wasn’t danger. It was a reminder that you need to be watchful. From the beginning. By the time you discover there’s a danger it’s too late to put your wards in place. ” He bristled his eyebrows at me. “Tell me, Fitz, what have you planned for this child? What education, what training? What will you dower her with, and where do you hope she will wed?”

  I stared at him. “She’s a baby, Chade!” And probably ever would be. Even if she began to grow and show a clever mind, there was plenty of time for me to think of such things. Still, it smote me that I had given no thought to any of that. What would become of her when Molly and I were gone? Especially if she was an idiot?

  Chade turned in his chair, and the outline of his binding showed briefly beneath his shirt. He glared at our audience. “Haven’t you two some lessons to complete?”

  “Yes, but …”

  “Somewhere else,” he added authoritatively.

  Rosemary folded her lips for a moment. “Tomorrow,” she said to FitzVigilant, and the boy’s eyes grew round to be so hastily dismissed. He sketched a bow to her, then turned to us and halted, plainly confused as to how to bid us farewell.

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  I nodded to him pleasantly. “I hope not to see you again soon, FitzVigilant. ”

  “Likewise, sir,” he responded and then froze, wondering if he had been rude. Chade chuckled. The boy whisked himself from the room, and with a final exasperated sigh Lady Rosemary followed him at a more dignified pace. Chade did not speak, giving them time to be well down the hidden staircase before he turned to me.

  “Admit it. You’ve given no thought at all to her future. ”

  “I haven’t. Because I didn’t even realize Molly was truly pregnant. But now that Bee is here …”

  “Bee. Such a name! Is she going to live? Does she thrive?” He cut in relentlessly.

  That gave me pause. “She is tiny, Chade. And Molly says that she is not doing the things she should be doing by now. But she eats well, and sleeps and sometimes cries. Other than how small she is and that she does not lift her head or roll over yet, I see nothing wrong …”

  My words ran out. Chade was looking at me with sympathy. He spoke kindly. “Fitz. You have to imagine every possible future for her. What will you do if she is simple, or if she can never care for herself? Or what if she grows to be beautiful and intelligent and people recognize her as a Farseer? Or if she is ordinary and plain and not very bright? At the very least, all will know she is the sister of the King’s Skillmistress. That is enough power to be courted right there. Or to make her a valuable hostage. ”

  He gave me no time to gather my thoughts as he added, “Nettle was educated well enough for a country girl whose prospects were little better than to marry a landed farmer. Talk to her, sometime, about where she feels that lack. Burrich taught her to read and write and tally. Molly taught her beekeeping and gardening, and she’s a good hand around a horse. But history? The shape of the world? Languages? She got little of that, and has spent years trying to mend those gaps. I’ve met Molly’s other children, and they are good enough men. But you are not raising a farmer’s daughter, Fitz. If the bones had rolled differently, she might expect to wear the coronet of a Farseer Princess. She won’t. But you should educate her as if she would. ”

  If she could be educated. I pushed the thought away. Follow Chade’s reasoning. “Why?”

  “Because one never knows what fate will bring. ” He gestured expansively with one hand as he lifted the wineglass in the other. “If she tests for the Skill and has it, would you have her come to Buckkeep Castle with no knowledge of her heritage? Would you have her struggle, as Nettle did, to learn to navigate the waters of society? Tell me, Fitz. If you raise her as Bee Badgerlock, will you be content to marry her off to a farmer and let her toil all her days?”

  “If she loves him and he loves her, that is not a terrible fate. ”

  “Well, if a wealthy nobleman fell in love with her, and she had been raised to be an eligible match for him, and she loved him, that might be a better one, would not you say?”

  I was still trying to think of a response when Chade added, “FitzVigilant had no prospects. Lord Vigilant’s young wife has less than no use for the bastard, and resents that he is older than the legitimate heirs she has borne her lord. She is raising his two younger brothers to hate him. Word came to me that she was looking for a quiet death for the boy. Instead of that, I brought him here. To make him yet another useful bastard. ”

  “He seems bright enough,” I said carefully.

  “Bright, yes. But he has no edge. I’ll do what I can with him. But in seven or eight years, I’ll need to put him somewhere else. Lord Vigilant’s wife regards him as a usurper. She already mutters against him being at court. She is the worst sort of jealous woman, one who puts her ill will into action. Better for all if he is gone from Buckkeep when she presents her two sons here. ”

  “Seven or eight years from now?”

  “Unlike you, I plan ahead for those I take under my wing. ”

  “And you will ask me to take him. ” I frowned and tried to see his plan. “As a possible match for Bee when she’s older?”

  “Gods, no! Let’s not mingle those bloodlines! We’ll find her a lordling from Buck, I think. But yes, I’d like you to be ready to take him in. When he’s ready. ”

  “Ready to be a killer and a spy? Why?”

  Chade shook his head. He seemed oddly disappointed. “No. There’s no assassin in him. I’m certain of that, though Rosemary remains to be convinced. And so I will take his training in a different direction. One useful to both of us. The boy has a bright mind. He learns almost as quickly as you did. And he has a loyal heart. Give him a good master, and he would be true as a hound. And very protective. ”

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  “Of Bee. ”

  Chade was watching the dying fire. He nodded slowly. “He’s quick with languages, and has almost the memory of a minstrel. In the guise of a tutor, he could be placed in your household, to the benefit of both of them. ”

  The pieces were beginning to fit together. Oh, Chade. Why was it so hard for you to ask a direct favor? I put it into words for him. “You like the boy. But if you keep him here, sooner or later, when his legitimate younger brothers come to Buckkeep, it will cause problems. Especially if he has made friends among the nobility here. ”

  Chade nodded. “He’s very charismatic. He likes people. He likes to be around them, and they like him. He quickly becomes too visible to be a good spy. And he doesn’t have … whatever it is that we have that makes us able to kill. ” He drew a breath as if he would say more and then sighed it out. We were both silent, thinking. I wondered if that ability was something we both had, or if we both lacked something, and thereby could do the sor
ts of things we had done. The silence was not a comfortable one. Yet it wasn’t guilt we shared. I’m not sure a word exists for whatever it was.

  “I’d have to talk to Molly about it. ”

  He sent me a quick sideways glance. “You’d tell her … what?”

  I bit my lip. “The truth. That he’s a bastard like me, that he will eventually have difficulties because of it, possibly life-threatening difficulties. That he’s well educated, and would be a good tutor for a little girl. ”

  “The truth with holes in it,” Chade amended for me.

  “What holes?” I demanded.

  “Indeed. What holes?” Chade agreed dryly. “And you need not talk to her yet. We have years, I suspect, before I must send him off to you. I’ll educate him in all he must know to be a tutor. And a bodyguard. Until he is ready, I know a nursemaid I could send you for the child. Face like a hare and the arm of a smith. Not the brightest of servants, but formidable as a guard. ”

  “No. Thank you. I think that, for now, I can protect my daughter. ”

  “Oh, Fitz. I don’t agree but I know when it’s useless to argue with you. Riddle and I have agreed that you need door soldiers, but you won’t listen. How many times have I suggested that you should host one of our Skill-journeymen at Withywoods so that even in your absence messages could be swiftly passed? You should have a man of your own, to watch your back and mingle with the servants and bring you the news that you otherwise would not hear about your holdings. ” He shifted in his chair, the old wood creaking under him. His gaze met my stubborn look. I prevailed. “Well. It’s late. Or it’s early, depending on what part of the day you work in. Either way, I’m off to bed. ” Furtively he tugged at the top edge of the girdle. I suspected it was cutting into him. He pulled himself to his feet. With one hand he made a vague gesture at the bed. “You can sleep here, if you wish. I don’t think Rosemary ever uses that bed. She just likes to make things pretty, when she can. ”

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