Fools assassin, p.24
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       Fools Assassin, p.24

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

  “I may. ” To my surprise, I realized my anger had vanished. I knew Chade. He’d meant no harm to Bee. Perhaps his whole aim had been to provoke this visit from me. Perhaps he missed me more than I’d realized. And perhaps I should have taken under advisement some of his suggestions …

  He nodded. “I’ll have FitzVigilant bring some food up for you. Get to know him, Fitz. He’s a good lad. Tractable and anxious to please. Not like you were. ”

  I cleared my throat and asked, “Are you getting softhearted in your old age?”

  He shook his head. “No. Practical. I need to set him aside so Rosemary and I can find a more fitting apprentice. He knows too much of our inner workings for us to just let him go. I have to put him somewhere that will keep him safe. ”

  “Keep him safe or keep you safe?”

  He cracked a smile. “It’s the same thing, don’t you see? People who are dangerous to me seldom flourish for long. ” The smile he gave me was crooked with sadness. I saw his dilemma more clearly as he handed the half-emptied glass to me.

  I made my suggestion quietly. “Start to move him out of your circle, Chade. Less time with you or Rosemary, more time with the scribes and minstrels. You can’t make him forget what he has seen and what he knows, but you can lessen its importance. Make him grateful. And when you can no longer keep him here, send him to me. I’ll keep him for you. ” I tried not to realize what I had just agreed to do. This was not a promise that would last a year or two. So long as FitzVigilant lived and remembered the secret ways of Buckkeep Castle, I would be responsible for seeing that he remained loyal to the Farseers. Loyal. Or dead. Chade had just handed me a dirty task that he did not want to do. I sipped the wine, covering the bitterness of that knowledge with the too-sweet vintage.

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  “Are you certain when you say, ‘You can’t make him forget’?”

  That jerked my attention back to the old man. “What are you thinking?” I countered.

  “That we are still deciphering the old Skill-scrolls. They hint that you can make a man, well, change his mind about things. ”

  He shocked me into an appalled silence. To be able to make a man forget something: what a horrifying power. I found breath. “And that worked so very well when my father decided to make Skillmaster Galen forget his dislike of him and love him. His hate didn’t vanish; it just found another target. As I recall, it was me. ” He’d nearly managed to kill me.

  “Your father did not have the benefit of complete instruction in the Skill. I doubt that Galen did. So much was lost, Fitz! So much. I work on the scrolls almost every evening, but it’s not the same as being instructed by a knowledgeable Skillmaster. Deducing what they mean is laborious. It doesn’t go as fast as I wish it would. Nettle has no time to help me. The information they contain is not to be shared with just anyone, and the fragility of the scrolls themselves is another consideration. I myself have far less time for late-night studies than I used to. So the scrolls are neglected, and with them, who knows what secrets?”

  Another favor couched as a question. “Select the ones you consider most interesting. I’ll take them back to Withywoods with me. ”

  He scowled. “Couldn’t you come here to work on them? One week out of each month? I’m loath to send them away from Buckkeep Castle. ”

  “Chade, I’ve a wife and a child and a manor to take care of. I can’t spend my time gallivanting back and forth to Buckkeep Castle. ”

  “The Skill-pillars would make your ‘gallivant’ the matter of a few moments. ”

  “I won’t do it, and you know why. ”

  “I know that years ago, against all advice, you used the pillars repeatedly over a very short period. I’m not talking about your coming and going each day. I’m suggesting that once a month you could come to take some scrolls and drop off what you had translated. From what I’ve read, there were Skilled messengers who used the pillars at least that frequently, and possibly more often. ”

  “No. ” I put finality in the word.

  He cocked his head to the other side. “Then why don’t you and Molly come live in Buckkeep, and bring the baby? Easy enough for us to find a competent manager for Withywoods. And Bee would have all the advantages that we earlier spoke about. You could help me with the translations and other tasks, get to know young Lant, and I’m sure Molly would enjoy seeing Nettle more frequently and—”

  “No. ” I said it again, firmly. I had no desire to take up the “other tasks” he might pass back to me. Nor for him to see my simple child. “I’m happy where I am, Chade. I’m at peace, and I intend to remain so. ”

  He sighed noisily. “Very well, then. Very well. ” He suddenly sounded elderly and petulant. It was unnerving when he added, “I will miss you, my boy. There is no one left with whom I can speak as freely as I do with you. I suspect we are a dying breed. ”

  “I suspect you are right,” I agreed, and did not add that perhaps that was a good thing.

  Chade and I left our discussion there. I think he finally accepted that I had stepped away from the inner politics of Buckkeep Court. I would come when there was urgent need, but I would never again live in the castle and be a party to his inner counsels. Rosemary would have to step up to that role, and behind her must come whatever apprentice they chose. It would not be FitzVigilant. I wondered if the lad would be disappointed or relieved.

  In the months that followed, I both dreaded and expected that Chade would try again to draw me back. He did not. Scrolls were delivered for translation and my work was carried away from me five or six times a year. Twice his couriers were journeymen Skill-students who arrived and departed through the pillars. I refused to allow him to provoke me. The second time it happened, I confirmed with Nettle that she knew of it. She said little, but after that his messengers arrived on horseback.

  Although Nettle often touched minds with me, and Dutiful sometimes, Chade seemed to have decided to set me free. And sometimes, at odd wakeful moments, I wondered if I was disappointed or relieved to be finally clear of the darker side of Farseer politics.

  Chapter Nine

  A Childhood

  It is as I feared for young Lant. He is completely unsuitable for quiet work. When I first told him that I would be ending his apprenticeship and finding him a more suitable post, I was unprepared for how dramatically upset he would be. He begged both Rosemary and me to give him a second chance. Against my own better judgment, I agreed. I must be becoming both softer of heart and feebler of mind, for of course it was not a kindness. We continued to train him in the physical skills and the requisite knowledge. He is very nimble of finger and hand, excellent at sleight, but not as quick to remember the recipes that one must master for use in an instant. Still, I confess that I had hope that the lad would follow in my footsteps.

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  Rosemary had less doubt of him and proposed that we give him a challenge. I set him a theft, and he accomplished it. Rosemary proposed a minor poisoning. His target was but a guardsman. We told him the man had taken bribes and was actively spying for a Chalcedean nobleman. Nonetheless, over the course of three days and ample opportunities, Lant was unable to achieve his task. He returned to us shamed and despondent. He simply could not bring himself to end a life. I refrained from telling him that the “poison” was merely a finely ground spice and would have done the man no harm. I am glad we tested him on a subject that was not truly a threat to anyone.

  The result is that Lant now realizes he is unsuited to this profession. He has, to my surprise, said that he does not mind if he cannot be my apprentice so long as he does not lose my friendship! And so, to ease his transition, I think I shall keep him here in Buckkeep for a time longer. I will see that he receives sufficient education to be a tutor, and weapons training that will fit him as a bodyguard as well.

  Only to you will I admit that I am sadly disappointed in him. I was so certain I had found a w
orthy successor. Fortunately, a second candidate has been located and her training begun. She seems to show an aptitude, but then, so did Lant. We shall see. I tell you all this, of course, in the greatest confidence in your discretion. Strange, where once I taught you never to entrust such things to paper, now it is the only way I can be certain that no one else in our coterie shall be privy to my thoughts. How times change.

  Unsigned and unaddressed scroll

  Oh, the things we discover and the things we learn, much too late. Worse are the secrets that are not secrets, the sorrows we live with but do not admit to one another.

  Bee was not the child we had both hoped for. I hid my disappointment from Molly, and I think she did the same for me. The slow months and then the year ticked past, and I saw little change in our daughter’s abilities. It aged Molly, taking a toll on both her body and her spirit as she allowed no one else to care for the child, and silently contained her growing sorrow. I wanted to help her, but the child clearly avoided my touch. For a time I sank into a darkness of spirit, losing appetite and the will to do anything. My days always seemed to end with thunderous headaches and a sour belly. I woke at night and could not find sleep again, only anxiety over the child. Our baby remained a baby, small and passive. Chade’s eagerness to plan for her education and eventual marriage became a sour-sweet memory. Once, there had been a time when we could hope for such things. But the passing year stole all such dreams from us.

  I do not recall how old Bee was the first time Molly broke down and wept in my arms. “I’m sorry, I’m so so sorry,” she said, and it took me some time to understand that she blamed herself for our simple child. “I was too old,” she told me through her tears. “And she will never be right. Never, never, never. ”

  “Let’s not be hasty,” I told her, with a calmness I did not feel. Why had we hidden our fears from each other? Perhaps because sharing them, as we did now, made them more real. I tried to deny them. “She’s healthy,” I told my Molly as she sobbed in my arms. I bent to whisper the words by her ear. “She eats well. She sleeps. Her skin is smooth, her eyes are clear. She’s small and perhaps slow to do things, but she will grow and—”

  “Stop,” she begged me in a dull little voice. “Stop, Fitz. ” She pulled a little away from me and looked up at me. Her hair clung to her wet face like a widow’s veil. She sniffed once. “Pretending won’t change it. She’s simple. And not just simple, but weak in her body. She doesn’t roll over, or hold her head strongly. She doesn’t even try. She just lies in her cradle and stares. She hardly even cries. ”

  And what was there for me to say to that? She was a woman who had birthed seven healthy children. Bee was the first baby I’d ever experienced.

  “Is she truly so different from what she should be?” I asked helplessly.

  Molly nodded slowly. “And ever will be. ”

  “But she’s ours,” I objected softly. “She’s our Bee. Perhaps she is what she’s meant to be. ”

  I don’t recall how I intended her to hear those words. I knew I did not deserve it when she gave a sudden sob and then hugged me tightly, asking my chest, “Then you are not bitterly disappointed and shamed by her? You can still love her? You still love me?”

  “Of course,” I said. “Of course and always. ” And even though I had comforted her by chance rather than by intent, I was glad I had done so.

  Yet we had opened a door that could not be closed. Once we had admitted that our little girl would likely be always as she was now, we had to talk about it. Yet we did not speak of it before the servants, nor in the light of day, but at night, in our bed, with the child that had so wounded us sleeping nearby in a cradle. For though we could admit it, we could not accept it. Molly faulted her milk, and tried to coax the tiny thing to sip cow’s milk and then goat’s milk, with very little success.

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  Our baby’s health baffled me. Many a young creature had I tended in my life, and yet I had never known one that ate with an appetite, slept well, appeared full of good health, and yet did not grow. I tried to encourage her to move her limbs, but I quickly learned that she did not seem to want me to handle her at all. Placid and calm when left to herself, she would not meet my gaze when I bent over her crib. If I picked her up, she would lean away from me and then with her feeble strength try to fling herself from my arms. If I insisted on holding her and flexing her legs and moving her arms, she rapidly went from wails to angry screams. After a time Molly begged me not to try, for she feared that somehow I was causing her pain. And I gave way to her wishes, though my Wit gave me no sense of pain from her, only alarm. Alarm that her father would try to hold her. Is it possible to express how painful that was for me?

  The servants were at first curious about her, and then pitying. Molly all but hissed at them, and kept all care of the child to herself. To them, she would never admit anything was wrong. But late at night her worries and fears for her child grew darker. “What will become of her after I am gone?” she asked me one evening.

  “We will make provision for her,” I said.

  Molly shook her head. “People are cruel,” she said. “Who could we trust that much?”

  “Nettle?” I suggested.

  Molly shook her head again. “Must I sacrifice one daughter’s life to be caretaker for the other?” she asked me, and to that I had no answer.

  When one has been disappointed for so long, hope becomes the enemy. One cannot be dashed to the earth unless one is lifted first, and I learned to avoid hope. When, midway through Bee’s second year of life, Molly began to tell me that she was getting stronger and could hold her head more steadily, I nodded and smiled but did little more than that. But at the end of her second year, she could roll over, and shortly after that she began to sit without support. She grew, but remained tiny for her age. In her third year she began to crawl, and then to pull herself to a stand. In her fourth year she toddled about the room, a peculiar sight to see a child so tiny walking. At five, she trotted behind her mother everywhere. She began to have teeth, and she made garbled noises that only Molly could interpret.

  The oddest things seemed to excite her. The texture of a piece of weaving, or the wind stirring a cobweb, would catch her attention. Then the little thing would shake her hands wildly and gabble out nonsense. Every now and then a word would burst from her lips embedded in a stream of burbled sound. It was both maddening and sweet to hear Molly talk to her child, keeping up her half of an imaginary conversation.

  We kept Bee mostly to ourselves. Her older siblings did not visit as often as they once had, for growing families and the demands of their occupations kept them busy at their homes. They visited when they could, which was not often. They treated Bee kindly, but they realized that pitying her was useless. She would be what she would be. They saw that Molly seemed content with her, and possibly gave no more thought to the child that comforted their mother as she aged.

  Hap, my fostered son, came and went on his minstrel wanderings. He most often arrived in the coldest months, to spend a moon with us. He sang and played pipes, and Bee was the most avid listener that any minstrel could ask for. She would focus her pale-blue eyes on him, and her little mouth would hang ajar as she listened. She would not willingly go to bed while Hap was there unless he followed her to her room and played her a soft, slow tune until she slept. Perhaps that was why he accepted Bee as she was, and when he visited, he always brought her a simple present such as a string of bright beads or a soft scarf figured with roses.

  Of all her brothers and sisters, Nettle came most often in those early years. I could tell she longed to hold her sister, but Bee reacted to her touch much as she did to mine, and so Nettle had to be content with being beside her sister but unable to tend to her needs.

  Very late one night as I left my private study, my route took me past the door of Bee’s nursery. I saw a light burning through the half-open door and paused, thinking perhaps Bee had
taken sick and Molly was sitting up with her. But as I peered in I saw not Molly but Nettle sitting by her sister’s bed, looking down at her with a face of tragic wistfulness. She was speaking softly. “For years, I dreamed of a sister. Someone to share dreams with, to braid each other’s hair and tease about boys and take long walks with me. I thought I would teach you to dance and we would have secrets and cook together late at night when everyone else was asleep. And here you are, at last. But we will have none of that, will we? Yet this I will promise you, little Bee. No matter what happens to our parents, I will always care for you. ” And then my Nettle lowered her face into her hands and wept. I knew then that she mourned for the sister she had imagined, just as I still longed for the perfect little girl I had dreamed we would have. I had no comfort for either of us, and I left that scene silently.

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  Since her birth, Bee had accompanied Molly everywhere, in a sling or riding on Molly’s hip or tottering along behind her. Sometimes I wondered if she feared to leave the child alone. When Molly went about her regular tasks at Withywoods, from supervising the servants to managing her own hives, honey, and candlemaking, tasks she still seemed to enjoy, Bee was with her, watching and listening. Now that the babe had discovered she could make sounds, Molly redoubled her efforts with her. She did not speak in the babyish singsong I’d hear the servants use on the rare occasions when they spoke to Bee. Instead Molly earnestly explained every aspect of her work as if Bee might one day need to know how to smoke a hive or strain hot wax for candles or polish silver or make a bed. And Bee, in her simple way, mirrored Molly’s earnestness, peering at what she was shown and earnestly gabbling back at her. My most unnerving experience was when I went to seek Molly one summer day and found her tending her hives. Over our years I’d become accustomed to Molly’s calm acceptance that her bees might blanket her arms in the course of her beekeeping. What I did not expect was to see small Bee standing beside her mother, holding a bucket and cloaked in bees. The child was smiling beatifically, her eyes almost closed. Every now and then she would giggle and give a tiny wiggle as if the fuzzy creatures had tickled her. “Molly,” I said in a soft warning voice, for my lady was so intent on her tasks that I was not sure she had seen what was happening to our child.

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