Fools assassin, p.27
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       Fools Assassin, p.27

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

  Since discovering I could draw, he had begun to spend more time with me. Of an evening he would bring his work to my mother’s sitting room. I had my own little table there, with my own inks and pens and paper now. Several times he had shown me moldering old scrolls with faded illustrations of plants and flowers and letters I did not recognize. He had conveyed to me that I should try to copy what I saw, but this was something I had no desire to do. There was so much already stored in my mind, flowers and mushrooms and plants I had seen that I wished to capture on the paper. I did not share his obsession for writing again what had already been written; I knew that disappointed him, and yet it was so.

  My father had never understood my mumbling tongue, and even now I did not speak to him much. I hesitated to draw his attention to me. Even to be in the room with him challenged me. When he looked at me or focused his attention on me, the sheer power of his drenching thoughts terrified me. I dared not let him touch me, and even to meet his eyes was to feel the pull of that whirlpool. And so I avoided him, as much as I was able, even though I know it hurt him and grieved my mother.

  Despite that, he began to try to play with me. He came one night to the fireside with no scrolls to copy. He sat down on the floor near my little table and patted the hearth next to him. “Come see what I have,” he invited me. Curiosity overcame my dread and I left my inks and ventured to stand near him.

  “Here’s a game,” he told me, and lifted a kerchief that covered a tray. On it were a flower, a white pebble, and a strawberry. I looked at it, mystified. Abruptly, he covered it. “Tell me what you saw,” he challenged me. I looked at my mother for explanation. She was in her chair on the other side of the hearth, her hands busy with some needlework.

  She raised her brows in puzzlement, but prompted me, “What was on the tray, Bee?”

  I stared at her. She lifted a rebuking finger and raised her brows at me. I spoke softly without looking at him. “Flowa. ”

  “What else, Bee?”

  “Ro-ock. ”

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  My mother cleared her throat, bidding me try harder. “Bewwry,” I added softly.

  “What color flower?” My father prompted me patiently.

  “Pink. ”

  “What color rock?”

  “White. ”

  “What kind of berry?”

  “Stwawbewwy. ”

  “Strawberry,” my mother corrected me softly. I looked at her. Did she know I could say it correctly? I was not sure if I wanted to speak that clearly for my father. Not yet.

  My father smiled at me. “Good. Good, Bee. You got them all. Shall we play again?”

  I scooted closer to my mother’s feet. I looked up at her, pleading with her to rescue me.

  “It’s an odd game,” she ventured, sensing my unease.

  My father made an amused sound. “I suppose it is. I used to play it with Chade. He’d add more and more things to the tray, or he’d add something and take something away, and I had to say what was missing. He was training my eyes. ” He gave a small sigh. Elbow on knee, he cupped his jaw in his hand. “I don’t know any real games. I didn’t have much chance to play with other children. ” He looked at me and lifted a helpless hand. “I just wanted to …” He sighed away the rest of his words.

  “It’s a good game,” my mother said decisively. She stood, and then surprised me by sitting down on the floor next to him. She drew me close to her side and put her arm around me. “Let’s play again,” she said, and I knew she sat by me to give me courage, because she wanted me to play with my father. And so I did. We took turns, my mother and I, as my father added more and more items from a leather bag behind him. At nine items, my mother threw up her hands. I played on, forgetting to fear him, my focus only on the tray.

  There came a moment when my father said, not to me but my mother, “That’s all I have. ”

  I lifted my eyes and looked around. My parents seemed hazy, as if I saw them through a fog or at a great distance. “How many was that?” my mother asked.

  “Twenty-seven,” my father said quietly.

  “How many could you do, as a child?” my mother asked softly. There was trepidation in her voice.

  My father took a breath. “Not twenty-seven,” he admitted. “Not on my first try. ”

  They looked at each other. Then they returned their focus to me. I blinked and felt myself sway slightly. “I think we are past her time to bed,” my mother announced in an odd voice. My father nodded mutely. Slowly he began to return his items to his bag. With a groan for her aching joints, my mother clambered to her feet. She led me away to my bed, and that night she sat beside me until I fell asleep.

  On a day of wide blue skies studded with fat white clouds, with a soft wind blowing the scents of lavender and heather, my mother and I puttered in her garden together. The sun was past noon, the flowers breathing gentle fragrance all around us. We were both on our hands and knees. I was working with my little wooden trowel, carved by my father to fit my hand, loosening the earth around the oldest beds of lavender. My mother had her shears and was pruning the runaway sprawl of lavender plants. She would stop now and then to catch her breath and rub her shoulder and the side of her neck. “Oh, I am so tired of getting old,” she said once. But then she smiled at me and said, “Look at the fat bee on this blossom! I’ve cut the stem and he still won’t get off. Well, he can just ride along for a while. ”

  She had a large basket to save the trimmings in and this we dragged behind us as we crawled through the lavender bed. It was pleasant, sweet-smelling work, and I was happy. So was she. I know that. She spoke of the odd bits of ribbon she had in her sewing basket, and told me that she was going to show me how to make lavender bottles that would hold the fragrance and could be stored in my clothing chest and hers. “We need to cut the stems long, because we’ll fold the stems over the blossoms, and then we’ll lace the ribbons through the stems to hold it all together. They’ll be pretty, fragrant, and useful. Just like you. ”

  I laughed and she did, too. Then she halted in her work and took a deeper breath. She rocked back on her heels and smiled at me even as she complained, “I’ve such a stitch in my side,” rubbing her ribs and then moving her hand up to her shoulder. “And my left arm aches so. You would think it would be my right, for that’s the hand that’s doing all the work. ” She took hold of the edge of the basket and pushed on it, intending to stand. But the basket overturned and she lost her balance and sprawled into the lavender, crushing the bushes under her. A sweet fragrance rose around her. She rolled herself over on her back, and frowned, small lines crinkling her brow. She reached with her right hand and lifted her left and looked at it in wonder. When she let go of it, it fell back to her side. “Well, this is so silly. ” Her voice was mumbly and soft. She paused and took a deeper breath. With her right hand, she patted my leg. “I’m just going to catch my breath for a moment,” she murmured to me, the edges of her words gone rounded. She took a ragged breath and closed her eyes.

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  Then she died.

  I crawled into the heather alongside her and touched her face. I leaned down and put my head on her chest. I heard the last beat of her heart. Then her breath sighed out and all went still inside her. Around us, the wind blew softly and her bees busied themselves in the blossoms. Her body was still warm and she still smelled like my mother. I put my arms around her and closed my eyes. I rested my head on her breast and wondered what would become of me now that the woman who had loved me so was gone.

  The day was just cooling when my father came looking for us. He had been to the sheep fields, I knew, for he carried on his arm a big bouquet of the little white roses that grew along the path. He came to the wooden gate in the low stone wall that surrounded the garden, looked in at us, and knew. He knew she was dead before he opened the gate. Still he ran to us, as if he could run back to a time when it wasn’t al
ready too late. He dropped to his knees by her body and set his hands to her. He breathed hard and flung his heart into her, searching her flesh for some sign of life. He dragged me with him, and I knew what he knew. She was irrevocably gone.

  He gathered us both up to him, threw back his head, and howled. His jaws stretched wide, his face turned up to the sky, and the ridges of muscle in his neck stood out.

  He made no sound. Yet the grief that poured through him and up to the sky soaked me and choked me. I drowned in his sorrow. I put my hands against his chest and tried to lever away from him, but could not. From impossibly far away, I felt my sister. She battered at him, demanding to know what was wrong. There were others, ones I had never met, shouting into his mind, offering to send soldiers, to lend strength, to do anything for him that could possibly be done. But he could not even verbalize his pain.

  It’s my mother! my sister suddenly grasped. And, Leave him alone. Leave us alone! she commanded them all, and they receded like a tide.

  But still his grief roared on, a storm that battered me with tempest winds that I could not escape. I squirmed wildly, knowing that I was fighting for my sanity and possibly my life. I do not think he even knew he held me trapped between his thundering heart and my mother’s cooling body. I wriggled out from under his arm and fell back to the earth and lay there, gasping like a fish out of water.

  The slight distance I had gained from him was not enough. I was plunged into a maelstrom of memories. A kiss stolen on a stairway. The first time she had touched his hand and it was no accident. I saw my mother running down a beach of black sand and stone. I recognized the ocean that I had never seen. Her red skirts and blue scarves flapped in the wind and she was laughing over her shoulder as my father chased her. His heart had pounded with joy at the thought that he might catch her, might playfully hold her in his arms, for just a moment. They were children, I suddenly saw, children at play, only a handful of years older than I was now. They had never grown older, neither one of them, not really. All their lives she had remained that girl to him, that wondrous girl just a few years older than he was, but so worldly wise, so female to all that was so male in his life.

  “Molly!” he cried out, the word suddenly breaking from him. But he had no breath to shout it; he gasped it out. He crumpled over her body, weeping. His voice came in a whisper. “I’m all alone. I’m all alone. Molly. You can’t be gone. I can’t be this alone. ”

  I didn’t speak to him. I did not remind him that he still had me, for that was not what he was talking about. He still had Nettle, too, and Chade and Dutiful and Thick. But I knew his heart then; could not help but know it as the feelings gushed out of him like blood from a killing wound. His grief mirrored mine exactly. There would never again be anyone like her. Never anyone who would love us so completely, with so little reason. I gave myself over to his grief. I sprawled on my back on the earth and watched the sky darken and the summer stars begin to appear in the deep-blue sky.

  A kitchenmaid found us there, shrieked in horror, and then ran back to the house to fetch help. The servants came back with lanterns, half-afraid of the master in his wild grief. But they had no need to be cautious. All strength had gone out of him. He could not even rise from his knees, not even when they tugged her body from his arms to carry her back to the house.

  It was only when they reached for me that he roused himself. “No,” he said, and in that moment he claimed me as his. “No. She is mine now. Cub, come here, to me. I will take you in. ”

  I set my teeth to his touch as he picked me up. I kept my body stiff and straight as I always did whenever he held me and looked away from his face. I could not bear him, could not bear his feelings. But the truth was on me and I had to speak it. I caught my breath and whispered by his ear the poem from my dream. “When the bee to the earth does fall, the butterfly comes back to change all. ”

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  Chapter Eleven

  The Last Chance

  You are correct in your surmise. I haven’t told everything I know about that event but in some ways I have shared as much as I believe is safe to share with Chade. Hence, what I will repeat here is for the eyes of the Skillmistress only. Fond as we both are of the old man, we know that he is inclined to risk himself in the pursuit of knowledge.

  The first thing to remember is that I was never truly there, myself. I dreamed, and in that dream I Skill-walked. But as one highly gifted in Skill-dreams, you of all people will know that what I saw there, I saw through the eyes of King Verity.

  In my dream, we were in a broken city. It held its memories still, as we now understand that some Elderling cities do. I saw it as it had been, full of delicate soaring towers and graceful bridges and thronged by exotic people in bright clothing. And I saw it as Verity experienced it, cold and dark, the streets uneven and every fallen wall a hazard he must negotiate. Sand blew in a vicious wind; he bowed his head to it and trudged toward a river.

  As a river I perceived it. But it was not water. It was Skill, as a liquid, as molten gold or even running red iron. To me, it seemed to have a black luminescence then. But in my dream, it was night and winter. Did it have a color at all? I cannot tell you.

  I do recall how my King, wasted to a scarecrow of a man, knelt on that bank and relentlessly plunged his hands and arms into the stuff. I shared his pain, for I swear it ate the flesh and muscles from his bones. But when he pulled back from that current, his hands and arms were silvered with pure Skill, with magic in its strongest and most powerful form.

  I will also tell you that I helped him refrain from throwing himself into that flow. I lent him the strength to step back from it. Had I truly been there, in my own flesh, I do not think I would have had the strength of will to resist the temptation to drown myself in it.

  So, for myself, I am grateful that I do not know the way to that place. I do not know how Verity got there; I do not know how he went from there to the quarry. I suspect he used Skill-pillars, but which ones and what emblem they bore, I do not know and I do not wish to know. A number of years ago, Chade asked me to travel through pillars with him, to go back to the Stone Dragons and from there to the quarry, to discover what pillars King Verity might have used. I refused him then, and I have continued to refuse him.

  For the safety of all, I beg that you keep this knowledge only to yourself. Destroy this scroll, if you will, or conceal it where only you can find it. I truly hope that the site is far, far away, reached only by a series of pillar journeys that none of us ever undertakes. The small amount of Skill-magic that we have learned to manipulate should be enough for us. Let us not seek power that exceeds our wisdom to use it.

  Unsent scroll from FitzChivalry Farseer to Skillmistress Nettle

  There are endings. There are beginnings. Sometimes they coincide, with the ending of one thing marking the beginning of another. But sometimes there is simply a long space after an ending, a time when it seems everything has ended and nothing else can ever begin. When my Molly, the keeper of my heart since I was a boy, died it was like that. She ended, but nothing else began. There was nothing to take my mind from that void, nothing to redeem my pain, nothing that made sense of her death. Instead her death made every other ending I had ever known a fresh wound.

  In the days that followed, I was useless. Nettle came quickly, arriving before the first night had passed, bringing Steady and Riddle with her. I am sure she traveled by the stones, and they as well. Molly and Burrich’s sons and their wives and children were there as swiftly as they might come. Other mourners arrived, people I should have greeted, people I should have thanked for their thoughtfulness. Perhaps I did. I’ve no idea what I did in those long days. Time did not seem to pass, but dragged on and on. The house was full of people, talking and eating together, eating and talking together, weeping and laughing and sharing memories of times when I had not been part of Molly’s life, until my only solitude was to retreat to my bedchamber and b
olt the door. Yet Molly’s absence was greater than anyone’s presence. Each of her grown children mourned her. Chivalry wept unashamed. Swift went about with his eyes blank while Nimble simply sat. Steady and Hearth seemed to drink a great deal, something that would have grieved Molly to see. Just had become a solemn young man, and a dark aura of aloneness, very reminiscent of Burrich, hung about him. Nonetheless, he was the one who busied himself taking care of his brothers and sister. Riddle was there as well, ghosting about in the background. We spoke once, late at night, and with good intention he tried to say that my sorrow would pass eventually and my life begin again. I wanted to strike him and I think it showed on my face. After that, we avoided each other.

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  Dutiful, Elliania, the Princes, and Kettricken were in the Mountain Kingdom, so I was spared their presence. Chade never came to funerals, nor did I expect him to visit. Almost every evening I felt him at the edge of my mind, inviting but not intruding. It reminded me of how he would open the secret door to his tower and wait for me when I was a boy. I did not reach back to him, but he knew I was aware of him and grateful for his discretion.

  But listing who came and who did not makes it seems as if I noticed or cared. I did not. I lived my grief; I slept mourning and ate sorrow and drank tears. I ignored all else. Nettle stepped into her mother’s place, managing it all with seeming effortlessness, as she consulted with Revel to assure that arriving folk had a place to sleep and coordinated meals and supplies with Cook Nutmeg. She undertook that everyone who should be notified of Molly’s death was told. Just became the man of the house, directing the stable hands and servants, giving greetings and making farewells. All that they did not command but needed doing, Revel and Riddle managed. I let them. I could not help them with their mourning. I could do nothing for anyone, not even myself.

  Somehow, all needful things were done. I cut my hair for mourning, and someone must have cut the child’s. Bee looked like a brush for hoof oil when I saw her, a little stick all swathed in black with fuzzy pale stubble standing up on her little head. Her blank blue eyes were dead. Nettle and the boys insisted that their mother had wanted to be buried. Like Patience before her, she wished not to be burned, but to return as quickly as possible to the earth that nurtured all things that she had loved. Buried in the ground. It made me cold. I had not known. I had never spoken to her of such things, had never thought of or imagined a time when she would not be there. Wives always outlive their husbands. Everyone knows that. I had known that and counted on it. And fate had cheated me.

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