Fools assassin, p.28
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       Fools Assassin, p.28

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

  Burying her was hard for me. It would have been easier for me to watch her burn on a pyre, to know she was gone, gone completely and untouchable, than to think of her wrapped only in a shroud and put under the weight of damp soil. Day after day I went back to her grave, wishing that I had touched her cheek one more time before they put her into the dark earth. Nettle set the plants that would define her mother’s resting place. Daily, when I visited, I saw the prints of Bee’s small feet. Not a weed dared show itself.

  I saw little more of Bee than her footprints. We avoided each other. At first I felt guilt that in the depths of my grief, I had deserted my child. I went seeking her. But as I entered a room, she would leave it. Or place herself as far from me as possible. Even when she sought me in my private den late at night, it was not me she sought, but the isolation that room granted us both. She entered that sanctuary like a tiny ghost in a scarlet nightgown. We did not speak. I did not bid her go back to her sleepless bed, nor offer her empty promises that all would eventually be well. In my den, we huddled as separately as scalded cubs. I knew I could no longer bear to be in Molly’s study. I suspect she felt the same. Her mother’s absence was stronger in that room than anywhere else in the house. Why did we avoid each other? The best explanation I can offer is a comparison. When you hold your burned hand near the fire, the pain flares anew. The closer I came to Bee, the more acute my pain became. I believe that in the crumpling of her little face and the trembling of her lower lip, I read that she felt the same.

  Five days after we buried Molly most of the mourners packed up and left Withywoods. Hap had not come. He had a minstrel’s summer post far away in Farrow. I don’t know how he received word so quickly, but he sent me back a note by bird. It came to the Buckkeep cotes, and from there a runner brought it to me. It was good to hear from him, but I was just as glad that he had not come. There were other notes that came in various ways. One was from Kettricken in the Mountain Kingdom, a simple note on plain paper, written in her own hand. Dutiful had touched minds with me and knew there was nothing to say. From Lady Fisher, once Starling, came a letter elegantly written on fine paper, with heartfelt words. I had a rougher missive from Web. They said what such notes always say. Perhaps words are helpful to others when they mourn; to me they were only words.

  Molly’s boys had farms and work and families and animals to tend. Summer does not allow anyone who makes a living from the land any time to stand still. There had been much weeping, but also fond recollections and the gentle laughter they brought with them. Nettle had quietly asked me to sort some keepsakes that each of her brothers could take. I asked her to do it, saying I was not up to such a task and that without the woman, her possessions meant little to me. Only later would I realize how selfish a decision that was, to put that weight on my elder daughter’s shoulders.

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  But at the time I was numb and stunned, thoughtless of anyone except myself. Molly had been my safety, my home, my center. With her gone I felt flung to pieces, as if my core had exploded and chunks of me were strewn to the wind. For almost all of my life, there had been Molly. Even when I could not be with her, even the agony of watching her from afar as she gave her life and love to another man, even that pain was infinitely preferable to her total absence from my world. In our years apart, I had always been able to dream “one day. ” Now all dreams were over.

  Some days after her death, when the house had emptied of guests and the extra staff Revel had called in had also departed, Nettle came into my private study. Her duties at Buckkeep were calling her. She had to return, and I did not blame her, for I knew there was nothing she could do here that would improve anything. When Nettle entered, I lifted my eyes from my paper and set my pen carefully aside. Writing down my thoughts has always been my retreat. That night, I had written page after page, burning each one almost as soon as it was finished. Rituals do not have to make sense. On the hearth, on a folded blanket, Bee was curled into a kitten ball. She was dressed in her little red robe and fur slippers. Her curved back was to me, her face turned toward the fire. Night was deep, and we had not spoken a single word to each other.

  Nettle looked as if she should have gone to her rest hours ago. Weeping had left her eyes red-rimmed, and her glorious mane of black waves had been reduced to a curly cap. It made the circles under her eyes darker and the thinness of her face bony. The simple blue robe she wore hung on her, and I realized how much flesh she had lost.

  Her voice was hoarse. “I have to return to Buckkeep tomorrow. Riddle will escort me. ”

  “I know,” I said at last. I did not tell her it would be a relief to be alone where I could mourn as savagely as I needed and no one would witness it. I did not tell her that I felt suspended, restrained by civility in a place where I could not express the anguish I felt. Instead I said, “I know you must wonder. You know I brought the Fool back from the other side of death. You must wonder why I let your mother go. ”

  I had thought my words would trigger her hidden anger. Instead she looked horrified. “That would have been the last thing I wished for! Or that she would have wanted! To every creature is given both a place and a time, and when that time is over, we have to let them go. Mother and I spoke plainly of that, once. I had come to her about Thick. You know how he is, how his joints hurt him. I asked her for a liniment that Burrich used to make for the boys when they had strained muscles, and she mixed some up for me. Sweet Eda, that is another thing gone! Why did I never write that down? So much she knew, so much he knew, and they took it to their graves with them. ”

  I did not tell her, then, that I knew that recipe as well as anyone could. Doubtless Burrich had passed his lore on to his sons as well. It was not a time to speak of those things. I noticed there was ink on the little finger of my right hand. I always managed to get ink on myself when I wrote. I took up my pen wipe and smeared it away. “What did Molly say about Thick?” I dared to ask.

  Nettle came back to herself as if she had walked a far and darkening path. “Only that there was mercy in making pain bearable, but not in forcing someone to remain in this life when their body’s work was done. She was cautioning me about using the Skill on him. I told her that Thick was far stronger in that area than I was, and that he was more than capable of turning that talent on himself as he desired it. He hasn’t. So I’ll respect his choice. But I know that Chade has availed himself of that magic. He keeps himself as spry as he was when I first met him. ”

  Her voice trailed away, but I thought I heard her unasked question. “I don’t,” I told her bluntly. “I never desired to stay young and watch your mother age away from me. No. If I could have aged with her, Nettle, I would have. I am still bearing the consequences of that mad Skill-healing that our coterie did on me. Could I stop it, I would. It renews me when I wish it would not. I strain a shoulder doing some task, and that night I lose flesh as my body burns me up repairing itself. I wake ravenous and am tired for a week. But my shoulder will have healed. ” I tossed my latest sheet of writing onto the fire, and shoved it deeper into the flames with the poker. “There. Now you know. ”

  “I knew already,” she told me tartly. “Do you think my mother didn’t know? Fitz, stop it. No one blames you for her death; nor should you feel guilty for not following her. She would not have wanted that. I love you for the life you gave her. After my father … after Burrich died, I thought she would never smile again. And when she discovered you were still alive, after she had so long mourned you as dead, I thought she would never stop being furious. But you came back to her and were patient enough to win her back. You were good for her, and she has lived her last years exactly as I wished all her life could have been. ”

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  I wheezed in a breath past my constricted throat. I wanted to thank her but could not find words. I didn’t need to. She sighed and reached out to pat my arm. “So. We’ll be gone in the morning, then. I was a bit surpri
sed to find that Bee does not have a pony, and seemed completely unfamiliar with the concept of riding. Nine years old and she can’t ride! Burrich put me on a horse when I was … well, I simply can’t remember a time when I couldn’t ride. When I tried to put Bee up on a horse, she struggled against me and clambered down the other side of the beast as swiftly as she could. So I think our journey to Buckkeep will be an interesting one for me. She is small enough that I think I can fit her into a pannier on a pack animal and balance her with her clothes and toys. Or some of them. I was totally astonished that one small child could possess so many toys and so much clothing!”

  I felt as if I were running along behind her. “Bee?” I asked. “Why would you take Bee to Buckkeep?”

  She gave me an exasperated look. “Where else can I take her? Both Chivalry and Nimble offered to have her, even though Nimble does not even have a wife to help him with her. I said no to both of them. They’ve no idea of what they would be taking on. At least I’ve my experience of Thick. I think in time, I will be able to reach through her fog and get some understanding of her. ”

  “Her fog,” I said stupidly.

  My elder daughter just stared at me. “She’s nine. She should be speaking by now. And she can’t. She used to babble at Mother, but I haven’t even heard her do that lately. With Mother gone, who will be able to understand the poor little thing? I wonder if she even knows that Mother has died. I’ve tried to speak to her about it, but she just turns away from me. ” Nettle sighed heavily. “I wish I knew how much of anything she grasps. ” She cocked her head at me and spoke hesitantly. “I know Mother would not have approved, but I have to ask. Have you ever used the Skill to try to touch her mind?”

  I shook my head slowly. I wasn’t following her trail of thought. I tried to make a connection. “Molly did not wish me to do that, and so I did not. I discovered the dangers of letting Skill touch children years ago. Don’t you recall?”

  That wrung a bit of a smile from her. “Both Dutiful and I recall that well. But I thought that after years of silence from your daughter, you’d at least have tried to see if she had a mind. ”

  “Of course she does! She’s a clever little creature. Sometimes alarmingly so! And she talks when she pleases. It’s just not very clear. Or as often as one might expect. ” I had not stopped to think that Nettle had never seen her little sister sewing a sampler at their mother’s knee, or standing on a table to take candles from their molds. All she had ever seen of Bee in her comings and goings was a shy and elfin child, quiet and watchful. And now she was a mute child, curled in a tight ball. I rose, paced around the room, and then stooped by my younger daughter. “Come here, Bee,” I said impulsively, but the moment I set my hand on the child’s back, she stiffened straight as a sun-dried fish, then scooted away from my touch and curled again, her face away from me.

  “Leave her be,” Nettle said firmly. “Fitz, let us speak plainly to each other. You are a man in deep grief and you cannot think outside yourself right now. Even before this happened, you were not … well, focused on your daughter. You cannot care for her. Did I not know you better, I would say she fears you. I do know it is not in you to be cruel to a child. So I will plainly say only that she does not want to be touched by you. How could you possibly take care of her? She will have to go with me tomorrow. There are many nurses at Buckkeep, and as I have seen in the last few days she actually takes little tending. Once dressed, she feeds herself, she knows not to soil herself, and left alone she seems content to sit and stare into a fire. One of the women who used to tend Thick would be a good choice, I think, especially one who is older now and looking for a simple position. ” Nettle drew a chair closer to the fire and sat down. She leaned down to touch her sister. The child wriggled away from her, and Nettle let her go. Bee found her favorite spot on the hearth and folded her legs up inside her robe. I watched her little body relax as she folded her hands and lost herself in the dancing flames. Safe there. Safe as she would not be in Buckkeep. I thought of letting her go with her sister. I didn’t like the idea. Was it selfish to keep her with me? I wasn’t sure.

  “They’ll be cruel to her there. ” The words bled slowly from me.

  “I would not hire a woman who would be cruel! Do you think so little of my judgment?” Nettle was outraged.

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  “Not her nurse. The children of the keep. When she goes for her lessons, they will peck her for being small and pale. Pinch her at meals. Take her sweets away, chase her down the corridors. Mock her. For being different. ”

  “The other children? Her lessons?” Nettle was incredulous. “Open your eyes, Fitz. Lessons in what? I love her as dearly as anyone can, but a comfortable and safe life is the best we can do for her. I would not send her to lessons, nor put her at a table where she might be mocked or pinched. I’ll keep her safe in her own chamber, near my own. Fed, dressed, and clean, with her simple little toys. It is the best we can offer her and all she knows to want from life. ”

  I stared at her, baffled by her words. How could she see Bee that way? “You think her a simpleton?”

  She looked jolted that I would deny it. Then she reached into herself and found steel. “It happens. It’s not her fault. It’s not your fault. It’s something we cannot hide from. She was born to my mother late in her life, and she was born tiny. Such children seldom have a … a growing mind. They stay children. And for the rest of her life, be it short or long, someone must look after her. So it would be best if—”

  “No. She’ll stay here. ” I was adamant, shocked that Nettle could suggest otherwise. “Regardless of what you may think, despite her strange ways, she has a bright little mind. And even if she were simple, my answer would be the same. Withywoods is all she has ever known. She knows her way about the house and grounds, and the servants accept her. She isn’t stupid, Nettle, nor slow. She’s small, and yes, she’s different. She may not speak often, but she does talk. And she does things. Sewing, tending the hives, weeding the gardens, writing in her little book. She loves to be outdoors. She loves being free to do as she will. She followed Molly everywhere. ”

  My elder daughter just stared at me. She tipped her head toward Bee and asked skeptically, “This tiny child sews? And can tend a hive?”

  “Surely your mother wrote to you …” My words dwindled away. Writing was a task for Molly. And it was only in the last year that I myself had seen the bright spark of intellect in my child. Why should I think Nettle had known of it? I had not shared the knowledge of it with her, or Chade or anyone at Buckkeep. At first I had feared to rejoice too soon. And after our remembering game, I had been wary of sharing knowledge of the child’s talents with Chade. I was still certain he would quickly find ways to exploit her.

  Nettle was shaking her head. “My mother was overly fond of her youngest. She bragged to me of things that seemed … well. It was plain that she longed desperately for Bee to be …” Her voice sank as she could not bring herself to say the words.

  “She’s a capable little girl. Ask the servants,” I advised her, and then wondered how much of Bee’s abilities they had seen. I walked back to my desk and dropped into my chair. None of it mattered. “In any case, she’s not going with you, Nettle. She’s my daughter. It’s only right that she stay with me. ”

  Such words for me to say to her. She stared at me, her mouth slowly flattening. She could have said something cruel then. I saw her choose not to do so. I would have called my words back if I could, would have found another way to state that thought. Instead I added frankly, “I failed at that duty once, with you. This will be my last chance to do it right. She stays. ”

  Nettle was silent for a short time and then said gently, “I know you mean well. You intend to do right by her. But Fitz, I just doubt that you can. It’s as you say; you’ve never had the care of such a small child as she is—”

  “Hap was younger than she when I took him in!”

  “Hap w
as normal. ” I do not think she meant for the word to come out so harshly.

  I stood. I spoke firmly to my elder daughter. “Bee is normal, too. Normal for who and what she is. She’s going to stay here, Nettle, and keep her little life as it is. Here, where her memories of her mother are. ”

  Nettle had begun to weep. Not for sorrow but because she was so weary and still knew she was going to defy me and that it would hurt me. Tears slid down her face. She did not sob. I saw her set jaw and knew she would not back down from her decision. Just as I knew I would not allow her to take Bee from me. Someone was going to break; we could not both win this.

  “I have to do right by my baby sister. My mother would expect that of me. And I can’t allow her to stay here,” she said. She looked at me, and in her eyes I read a hard sympathy for what she knew I was feeling. Sympathy but no mercy. “Perhaps if I find a good nurse for her at Buckkeep, she could sometimes accompany Bee to come back here and visit,” she offered doubtfully.

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  I could feel my anger start to build. Who was she to question my competence in this? The answer that came to me was a dash of cold water in my face. She was the daughter I had abandoned so that I might serve my king. The daughter raised by another man. More than anyone else in the world, she had the right to believe me an incompetent parent. I looked away from both my daughters.

  “If you take her, I’ll be alone here. ” The words sounded so self-pitying that I instantly regretted them.

  Nettle spoke softly and more gently than such a selfish statement deserved. “Then the answer is clear. Close up Withywoods. Leave the staff to run it. Pack up your things. Come back with me to Buckkeep Castle. ”

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