Fools assassin, p.25
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       Fools Assassin, p.25

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

  She turned slowly, ever mindful of her buzzing charges.

  “The baby,” I said with quiet urgency. “The bees have her. ”

  Molly looked down and behind her. A slow smile appeared on her face. “Bee! Are you tending the hives with me?”

  Our little daughter looked up and babbled something to her. Molly laughed. “She’s fine, dear. Not scared at all. ”

  But I was. “Bee. Come away. Come to Papa,” I coaxed her. She turned and looked past me. She never willingly met my eyes. She babbled at her mother again.

  “She’s fine, dear. She says you are worried because you don’t know the bees like she and I do. Go along. We’ll be along presently. ”

  And so I’d left them, and spent an anxious hour in my study. I wondered if my child were Witted, and if were possible for a Witted child to bond to a hive of bees. Don’t be ridiculous, the wolf in me snorted. And insisted that if it were so, he would have sensed it. I could only hope so.

  Another year passed and Bee slowly grew. Our lives changed, for Molly centered her days on our daughter and I circled the two of them, marveling at what they shared. By the time Bee was seven, she was a genuine help to her mother, in her simple way. I could see Molly was slowing and feeling the burden of her years. Bee could pick up what Molly had dropped, could harvest the herbs that Molly pointed out or bring her items from the lowest shelves in the sewing room.

  She looked like a little pecksie as she followed her mother and assisted in her small ways. Molly had the softest wool dyed in the brightest colors she could create, as much to make Bee happy as to make her easy to see in the deep grass of the meadows. She was no taller than waist-high on Molly when she was seven. Her pale-blue eyes and blond brows lent her a perpetually startled expression, and her wildly curly hair added to it. Her hair flew into stubborn knots at the slightest breeze and grew so slowly that Molly despaired of her ever looking like a girl. Then, when it did reach her shoulders in a wild cloud of fine ringlets, it was so fine that Molly resorted to wetting it, combing it, and braiding it in a long tail down her back. They came to show me, with my little girl dressed in a simple yellow tunic and green leggings of the sort that Molly and I had worn as children. I smiled to see her and told Molly, “That’s the smallest warrior I’ve ever seen!”—for so the soldiers of Buck had always worn their hair tailed back. Bee surprised me by crowing with delight at my comment.

  And so our days passed, and Molly took great pleasure in our peculiar child and I took satisfaction in her pleasure. Despite her years, Molly would romp like a child with our Bee, seizing her and tossing her high, or chasing her recklessly around and sometimes through the manicured flower and herb beds of Patience’s garden. Round and round they would go until Molly was wheezing and coughing for breath. Bee would halt as soon as Molly did and go to stand close to her mother and look up at her with fond concern. There were times when I longed to join in, to spring out and pounce on my cub and roll her on the grass to hear her laugh. But I knew that would not be the response I would get from her.

  For despite Molly’s assurance that our child did not dislike me, Bee remained distant from me. She rarely came closer than arm’s length, and if I sat down near her to see her little bit of needlework, she would always hunch her shoulders and turn slightly away from me. She seldom met my eyes. On a few occasions, when she fell asleep beside Molly in her chair, I would pick her up and try to carry her off to her bed. But at my touch, awake or asleep, she would stiffen and then arch like a fighting fish, flinging herself away from me. It would be a struggle for me to set her safely down, and after a number of efforts I gave up trying to touch her. I think Molly was relieved when I surrendered to Bee’s will in this.

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  So Molly tended to all Bee’s personal needs. She taught our child to keep herself clean, and to tidy her room as much as such a small person was able. Molly had a small bed built for her, and bedding of a matching size. She was required to keep her playthings in order and to do all things for herself as if she were a peasant child. Of this, I approved.

  Molly taught her to gather from the woods mushrooms, berries, and herbs that we could not easily grow in our gardens. In the gardens and hothouses, I would find them together, picking caterpillars from leaves or gathering herbs to dry. I would pass Molly’s wax room and see small Bee standing on the table, holding a wick straight as Molly carefully poured hot wax. There they strained the golden honey from the combs and packed it into fat little pots for our winter sweetness.

  They made a perfect unit, Molly and Bee. It came to me that though Bee was not the child I had dreamed we would have, she was perfect for Molly. She was utterly devoted to her mother, intent on every shift of the expression on her face. If, in their closeness, they closed me out, I tried not to resent it. Molly deserved the joy she took in this child.

  So I was content to hover at the edges of their world, a moth at a window, looking in at warmth and light. Slowly I began to forsake my private study, and instead to take my translation work to the room where Bee had been born. By the time Bee was seven, I spent almost every evening in that warmly lit room. Molly’s softly flickering candles scented it with heather and lavender, or sage or rose, depending on her mood. She and Bee would do simple stitching together, while Molly softly sang the old learning songs about herbs and bees and mushrooms and flowers.

  I was at my work one evening, the fire crackling softly and Molly humming over some embroidery she was working onto the neck of a little red nightgown for Bee, when I became aware that my daughter had left off sorting skeins of thread for her mother and had approached my table. I was careful not to look at her. It was as if a hummingbird hovered near me. I could not recall that she had ever voluntarily come so close to me. I feared that if I turned, she would flee. And so I continued painstakingly to copy the old illustration on a scroll about the properties of nightshade and its relatives. It asserted that one branch of the family that grew in desert regions bore red fruit that could be eaten. I was skeptical of such a claim for a toxic plant, but nonetheless I copied the text and did my best to reproduce the illustrations of leaves, starry flowers, and hanging fruit. I had begun to ink the flowers in with yellow. This, I surmised, was what had brought Bee to my shoulder. I listened to her open-mouthed breathing and became aware that Molly was no longer humming. I did not need to turn my head to know she was watching our child with as much curiosity as I felt.

  A small hand touched the edge of my table and spidered slowly to the edge of the page I was working on. I pretended not to notice. I dipped my brush again and added another yellow petal. As softly as a pot bubbling on the hearth, Bee murmured something. “Yellow,” I said, as if I were Molly pretending to know her thoughts. “I’m painting the little flower yellow. ”

  Again, the bubbling mutter, this time a bit louder with more of a plea in it.

  “Green,” I told her. I lifted the vial of ink and showed it to her. “The leaves will be this green at the edges. And I will mix green and yellow for the center, and green and black for the veins of the leaves. ”

  The little hand fumbled at the corner of my page. Her fingers lifted it and tugged. “Careful!” I cautioned her and received a cascade of bubbling muttering in a pleading tone.

  “Fitz,” Molly gently rebuked me. “She’s asking you for paper. And a quill and ink. ”

  I transferred my gaze to Molly. She met my eyes steadily, her brows raised that I could be either so stupid or so unreasonable. The happily affirmative note in Bee’s babbling seemed to confirm that she was right. I looked down at Bee. She lifted her face and looked past me, but did not retreat. “Paper,” I said, and did not hesitate as I took a sheet of the best-quality paper that Chade had sent to me. “A quill. ” It was one I had just cut. “And ink. ” I slid a small well of black ink across the table. I set the paper and the quill on the edge of my desk. Bee stood silent for a moment. Her mouth worked and then she pointed
a small finger and trilled at me.

  “Colored ink,” Molly specified and Bee gave a wriggle of delight. I surrendered.

  “We’ll have to share, then,” I told her. I moved a chair to the other side of my table, set a cushion on it, and then arranged Bee’s supplies where she could reach them. She surprised me with the alacrity with which she mounted to this throne.

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  “You dip just the pointed end of the quill into the inkpot …” I began. I stopped. I had ceased to exist in Bee’s world. Her entire focus was on the pen that she carefully inked and then set to her page. I froze and watched the child. Obviously she had been observing me for some time. I had expected her to dunk the quill and smear ink across the page. Instead her little hand moved with precision.

  Her effort was not without blotches and drips. No one uses a pen correctly the very first time. But the image that emerged onto the page was intricately and intimately drawn. In silence, she filched my pen wipe, cleaned the quill. She blew on the black ink to dry it and claimed the yellow and then the orange ink. I watched in rapt silence, scarce aware when Molly drew near. A bee, exactly the scale of a live one, emerged from the pen onto the paper. There came a moment when our Bee heaved a huge sigh of satisfaction, as if she had consumed the perfect meal, and stood back from her work. I examined it without moving closer to her, the delicate antennae, the panes of the wings, and the bright bands of yellow shaded to orange.

  “It’s her name, isn’t it?” I said quietly to Molly.

  Bee shot me a rare look that met my eyes and then skated away. Her annoyance with me was plain. She drew the paper closer as if to protect it from me and hunched over it. The pen once more visited the black well and then scratched carefully over the paper. I glanced at Molly, who wore a proud and secretive smile. I watched in growing suspense until Bee leaned back from the page. There, in careful characters that mirrored Molly’s hand, was lettered “Bee. ”

  I was not aware my mouth was hanging open until Molly put her fingers under my chin and pushed it shut. Tears welled in my eyes. “She can write?”

  “Yes. ”

  I took a breath and carefully capped my excitement. “But only her name. Does she understand they are letters? That they mean something?”

  Molly made a small sound of exasperation. “Of course she does. Fitz, did you think I would neglect her education as mine was? She reads along with me. So she recognizes the letters. But this is the first time she has taken pen in hand and written. ” Her smile trembled a little. “In truth, I am almost as surprised as you to see her do so. To know the shape of a letter on the page is so different from reproducing it on paper. Truly, I did not do as well as she has the first time I tried to write. ”

  Bee was now ignoring both of us as a twining vine of honeysuckle began to emerge from her pen.

  I wrote no more that night. I ceded all my inks and my best quills to my little daughter, and allowed her to fill page after page of my best paper with illustrations of flowers, herbs, butterflies, and insects. I would have needed to study the live plant to capture it well; she drew it forth from her memory and captured it on the page.

  I went to bed that night a grateful man. I was not at all convinced that Bee understood the concepts of letters or writing or reading. What I had seen was someone who could duplicate on paper what she had seen, even if she did not have the model before her. It was a rare enough talent that it gave me hope for her. It put me in mind of Thick, a man prodigiously strong in the Skill even if he could not fully grasp the concept of what he was doing when he used it.

  That night, in bed with Molly warm beside me, I had the rare pleasure of reaching out with the Skill and rousing Chade from a sound sleep. What? he demanded of me in a tone of reproach.

  Do you remember the herbal scrolls from that Spice Island trader that we set aside as beyond my skill to copy? The tattered ones that might be of Elderling origin?

  Of course. What of them?

  Send them to me. With a good supply of paper. Oh, and a set of rabbit-hair brushes. And have you any of that purple ink from the Spice Islands?

  Do you know how much that costs, boy?

  Yes. And I know that you can afford it, if it’s used well. Send me two bottles of that, as well.

  I smiled as I closed my mind to his hailstorm of questions. They were still rattling against my walls as I sank into sleep.

  Chapter Ten

  My Own Voice

  This is the dream I love the best. I had it once. I’ve tried to make it come back, but it does not.

  Two wolves are running.

  That is all. They run by moonlight across an open hillside and then into an oak forest. There is little underbrush and they do not slow. They are not even hunting. They are just running, taking joy in the stretch of their muscles and the cool air flowing into their open jaws. They owe nothing to no one. They have no decisions, no duties, and no king. They have the night and the running, and it is enough for them.

  I long to be that complete.

  Dream journal of Bee Farseer

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  I freed my tongue when I was eight years old. I remember the day very clearly.

  My fostered brother Hap, more like an uncle to me, had paid us a brief visit the day before. His gift to me was not a little pipe or a string of beads or such simple things as he had brought me on previous visits. This time he had a soft packet wrapped in a rough brown fabric. He put it on my lap and when I sat looking at it, unsure of what to do next, my mother took out her small belt-knife, cut the string that bound it, and unfolded the wrappings.

  Within were a pink blouse, a vest of lace, and a set of layered pink skirts! I had never seen such garments. They were from Bingtown, he told my mother as she gently touched the intricate lace. The sleeves were long and full, and the skirts rested on a pillow of petticoats and were overlaid with pink lace. My mother held them up to me and for a wonder, they seemed to be the right size.

  The next morning she helped me put them on and caught her breath to see me when the final sash was tied. Then she made me stand still for a weary time while she worried my hair into reluctant order. When we went down to breakfast, she opened the door and ushered me in as if I were the Queen. My father lifted his brows in astonishment, and Hap gave a whoop of pleasure to see me. I ate breakfast so carefully, enduring the chafing of the lace and keeping the sleeves from dragging through my plate. I bore the weight of the garments bravely as we stood in front of the manor and wished Hap a pleasant journey. And mindful of my glory, I walked carefully through the kitchen gardens and seated myself on a bench there. I felt very grand. I arranged my pink skirts and tried to smooth my hair, and when Elm and Lea came out of the kitchens with buckets of vegetable parings to take down to the chicken house, I smiled at them both.

  Lea looked away uneasily and Elm stuck her tongue out. My heart sank. I had supposed, foolishly, that such extravagant garments might win me their regard. Several times I had heard, as Elm intended I should, that I was “dressed like a butcher’s boy” when I wore my usual tunic and leggings. After they had passed me by I sat a time longer, trying to think it through. Then the sun went behind a bank of low clouds and I suddenly could not stand any more chafing from the high lace collar.

  I sought out my mother and found her straining wax. I stood before her, lifting my pink skirts and petticoats. “Too heavy. ” She understood my garbled words as she always did. She took me to my room and helped me change into leggings of dark green, a tunic of lighter green, and my soft boots. I had reached a decision. I had come to understand what I must do.

  I had always been aware there were other children at Withywoods. For the first five years of my life, I was so bonded to my mother, and so small, that I had very little to do with them. I saw them, in passing, as my mother carried me through the kitchens or as I trotted at her heels through the corridors. They were the sons and
daughters of the servants, born to be part of Withywoods and growing up alongside me, even if they sprouted up taller much more swiftly than I did. Some were old enough to have tasks of their own, such as the scullery girls Elm and Lea and the kitchen lad Taffy. I knew there were children who helped with the poultry and sheep and the stables, but those I seldom saw. There were also little ones, infants and small children who were both too small to be given work and too young to be separated from their mothers. Some of them were of a size with me, but far too babyish to hold my interest. Elm was a year older than I was, and Lea a year younger, but both of them were taller than I was by a head. Both had grown up in the pantries and kitchens of Withywoods, and shared their mothers’ opinions of me. When I was five, they had shown a pitying tolerance for me.

  But both pity and tolerance were gone by the time I was seven. Smaller in stature than they were, I was still more competent at the tasks my mother entrusted to me. Yet because I did not speak, they considered me stupid. I had learned to keep my silence with everyone except my mother. Not only the children, but even the grown servants would mock my gabbling and pointing when they thought I was not near. I was certain it was from their parents that the children learned their dislike of me. As young as I was then, I still understood instinctively that they feared that if their children were near me, somehow they would become tainted with my oddness.

  Unlike their elders, the children avoided me without bothering to pretend it was anything but dislike for me. I would watch their play from a distance, longing to join in, but the moment I approached they would gather their simple dolls, scatter the acorn-and-flower picnic they’d been sharing, and race off. Even if I gave chase, they easily outran me. They could climb trees whose lower branches I could not reach. If I dogged their steps too much, they simply retreated to the kitchen. I was often shooed out of that room with a kindly voiced, “Now, Mistress Bee, run along and play where it’s safe. Here you’ll be trodden upon, or scalded. Off you go. ” And all the while Elm and Lea would make simpering faces and shooing motions from behind their mothers’ skirts.

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