Fools assassin, p.29
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       Fools Assassin, p.29

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

  I opened my mouth to speak and could think of nothing to say. I’d never even considered the idea that I might return to Buckkeep Castle one day. Part of my heart leapt up at the thought. No need to face this gulf of loneliness. I could run from it. At Buckkeep, I’d see old friends again, the halls of the keep, the kitchens, the steams, the stables, the steep streets of Buckkeep Town …

  As abruptly, my enthusiasm died. Empty. No Molly, no Burrich, no Verity, no Shrewd. No Nighteyes. The yawning cavern of emptiness gaped wider as each remembered death slashed at me.

  No Fool.

  “No,” I said. “I can’t. There’s nothing for me there. Only politics and intrigue. ”

  The sympathy I had seen in her face faded. “Nothing. ” She said the word stiffly. “Only me. ” She cleared her throat. “And Chade and Dutiful and Kettricken and Thick. ”

  “That’s not what I meant. ” Suddenly I was too tired to explain. I tried anyway. “The Buckkeep Castle I knew is long gone. And life there has gone on without me for too long. I don’t know how I’d fit in there now. Not as FitzChivalry Farseer, certainly. Not as the assassin and spy for the royal family. Nor as Tom Badgerlock, the serving man. One day I’ll come to visit for a week or even a month, and see everyone then. But not to stay, my dear. Never again to stay there. And not now. The thought of going somewhere now, of meeting old friends, eating and drinking, laughing and talking … no. I have no heart for it. ”

  She rose and came to me. She stood behind my chair and set her hands to my shoulders. “I understand,” she said. There was forgiveness in her voice for my thoughtless remark. She had that in her, that ability to forgive easily. I had no idea where she had learned it. It humbled me: I knew I didn’t deserve it. She spoke on. “I had hoped it might be otherwise, but I understand. And maybe in the spring you will feel differently. Maybe by then you’ll be ready to come and spend some time with us. ”

  She sighed, squeezed my shoulders a final time, and then yawned like a cat. “Oh. It’s gotten late somehow. I should have put Bee to bed hours ago. We’ve an early start to make, and I still need to find a way to make her comfortable in a pannier. I should go to bed now. ”

  I made no reply. Let her go to bed and get some sleep. In the morning, when she tried to take Bee, I’d simply say no. But for tonight, I could let it go. A coward’s way out.

  Bee was still sitting cross-legged, still staring into the flames. “Come, Bee, bedtime,” Nettle said, and stooped to pick up her sister. Bee rolled her little shoulders in a way I knew well, moving herself just outside Nettle’s grip. Nettle tried again, and again the child shrugged her away. “Bee!” Nettle objected.

  Bee turned her face up and looked somewhere between Nettle and me. “No. I’m staying with Papa. ”

  Never had I heard her speak so clearly. It shocked me, and I fought to keep that from my face and from my Skill.

  Nettle froze. Then slowly she crouched down next to her sister to peer into her face. “Staying with Papa?” She spoke each word slowly and carefully.

  Bee turned her head sharply aside and said nothing. She looked away from both of us, into the shadowy corners of the room. Nettle shot me an incredulous look. I realized that it might be the first time she had ever heard her sister speak a full sentence. Nettle put her attention back on the child.

  “Bee, it’s time to go to bed. In the morning we must get up very early. You’re going for a ride with me, a long ride to a place called Buckkeep Castle. It will be so much fun to see a new place! So come to me so I can take you to your bed and tuck you in. ”

  I saw Bee’s shoulders tighten. She bent her head down, tucking her chin to her chest.

  “Bee,” Nettle warned her and then tried again to pick her up. Again Bee squirmed out of her grip.

  She had moved closer to me, but I knew better than to try to pick her up. Instead I addressed her directly.

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  “Bee. Do you want to stay here with me?”

  No words came from her, only a single sharp nod of her head.

  “Let her stay,” I told Nettle, and with a sigh my elder daughter rose.

  She rolled her shoulders, stretched, and added with a sigh, “Perhaps it’s better this way. Let her wear herself out and fall asleep. Once she’s bundled up tomorrow, she can catch up on her rest for part of the journey. ”

  Nettle had not accepted her sister’s response. I had to make it clear for her. I leaned down toward my younger daughter.

  “Bee? Do you want to go on a journey with Nettle tomorrow, to Buckkeep Castle? Or do you want to stay here at Withywoods with me?”

  Bee turned her head, and her pale glance slipped past both of us. She looked up into the dark recesses of the ceiling. Her eyes darted to me once and then away. She took a long slow breath. She spoke each word distinctly. “I do not wish to go to Buckkeep Castle. Thank you, Nettle, for your kind offer. But I will be staying home here, at Withywoods. ”

  I looked at Nettle and turned a hand up. “She says she wants to stay here. ”

  “I heard her,” she replied sharply. She looked jolted at hearing her sister speak, but I maintained a calm façade. I would not betray that this was more talking than she usually did in a week, let alone that her enunciation was unusually clear. Bee and I were in this together, I sensed. Allies. So I looked at Nettle calmly as if I were not startled at all.

  For a moment Nettle resembled her mother right before she would fly into a temper. I looked at her and my heart smote me. Why had I so often provoked that look from Molly when she had been alive? Couldn’t I have been kinder, gentler? Couldn’t I have let her have her way more often? Black and utter loneliness rose in me. I felt sick with it, as if the emptiness were something I needed to vomit out of my body.

  Nettle spoke in a low voice. “It’s not a decision that she is competent to make for herself. Think of the days ahead. How are you going to take care of her, when you’ve barely taken care of yourself these last two weeks? Do you think she can go without eating, as you have? Do you think she can stay up until dawn, sleep a few hours, and then drag herself through the day as you do? She’s a child, Tom. She needs regular meals, and a routine and discipline. And, yes, you are right, she does need lessons. And her first lessons need to be in how not to be strange! If she can speak, as she just so clearly did, then she needs to be taught to speak more often, so that people know she has a mind. She needs to be taught all that is needful for her to know. And she needs to be encouraged to speak, not let everyone think she is a mute or an idiot! She needs to be cared for, not just day-to-day food and clothing, but month to month and year to year, learning and growing. She can’t run about Withywoods like a stray kitten while you soak yourself in old books and brandy. ”

  “I can teach her,” I asserted, and wondered if I could. I remembered the hours I had spent with Fedwren and the other children of Buckkeep. I wondered if I could find the patience and tenacity he had possessed in teaching us. Well, as I must, I would, I decided silently. I had taught Hap, hadn’t I? My mind leapt sideways to Chade’s offer. He had said he would send me FitzVigilant. He had not told me yet that it was time, but certainly it must be soon.

  Nettle was shaking her head. Her eyes were pink from both tears and weariness. “There is another thing you are ignoring. She looks like a six-year-old, but she is nine. When she is fifteen, will she still look like a much younger child? How will that affect her life? And how will you tell her about what it is to be a woman?”

  How, indeed? “That is years away,” I asserted with a calmness I did not feel. I realized that my Skill-walls were up and tight, keeping Nettle from feeling any doubts that I had. Yet by the very impenetrability of my walls, she would know I was keeping something from her. That could not be changed. She and I shared the Skill-magic and had been able to reach each other since she was a little girl. That unforgiving access to each other’s dreams and experiences was one reason I had refra
ined from using the Skill to know Bee’s mind. I glanced at her now, and to my shock she was staring directly at me. For a moment our gazes met and held, as they had not for years.

  My instinctive response surprised me. I dropped my eyes. From somewhere in my heart, an old wolf warned me, “Staring into someone’s eyes is rude. Don’t provoke a challenge. ”

  An instant later I looked back at Bee, but she, too, had cast her gaze aside. I watched her and thought I saw her sneak a glance at me from the corner of her eye. She reminded me so much of a wild creature that I knew a lurch of fear. Had she inherited the Wit from me? I had left her mind untouched by mine, but in many ways that meant I had left it unguarded as well. In her innocence, had she already bonded with an animal? One of the kitchen cats, perhaps? Yet her mannerisms did not mirror a cat’s. No. If anything, she mimicked the behavior of a wolf cub, and it was impossible that she would have bonded to one of those. Yet another mystery from my peculiar child.

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  “Are you listening?” Nettle demanded, and I startled. Her dark eyes could flash fire just as her mother’s had.

  “No. I’m sorry, I wasn’t. I was thinking of all the things I’d need to teach her, and it distracted me. ” And gave me more reason than ever to keep her safely at Withywoods with me. I recalled an incident with a horse and felt cold. If Bee was Witted, then home was the safest place for her. Feeling against the Witted was not as publicly hostile as it had been, but old habits of thinking died hard. There would still be plenty of folk at Buckkeep who would think even a Witted child was best served by hanging, burning, and being cut into pieces.

  “And are you listening now?” Nettle persisted. With an effort I pulled my gaze from Bee and met her eyes.

  “I am. ”

  She folded her lower lip into her mouth and chewed on it, thinking hard. She was going to offer me a bargain, one she didn’t much like. “I’m coming back here in three months. If she looks neglected in any way, I’m taking her with me. And that’s the end of it. ” Her tone softened as she added, “But if anytime before then you realize you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, let me know and I’ll send for her immediately. Or you can bring her to Buckkeep Castle yourself. And I promise I will not say, I warned you. I’ll just take her over. ”

  I wanted to tell her, That is never going to happen. But over the years I’ve learned not to tempt fate, for it has always seemed to me that the very things I swore I would never do are the ones that I ended up doing. So I nodded to my formidable daughter and replied mildly, “That seems fair. And you should get to bed and get some sleep if you’re making an early start. ”

  “I should,” she agreed. She held out a hand to the child. “Come, Bee. Now it’s bedtime for us both, and no argument. ”

  Bee hung her head, her reluctance obvious. I intervened.

  “I’ll put her to bed. I’ve said I can take care of her in all ways. It’s fitting that I begin now. ”

  Nettle rocked, hesitant. “I know what you’ll do. You intend to let her stay there until she falls asleep on the hearth, and then just trundle her into her bed as she is. ”

  I looked at her, knowing what we were both remembering. More than once I had fallen asleep on Burrich’s hearth in the stables, some bit of harness or simple toy in my hands. Always, I woke under a woolen blanket on my pallet near his bed. I suspected he had done the same for Nettle when she was small. “Neither of us took any harm from that,” I told her. She gave a quick nod, her eyes filling with tears, and turned and left.

  I watched her go through misted eyes. Her shoulders were rounded and slumped. She was defeated. And orphaned. She was a woman grown, but her mother had died just as abruptly as the man who had raised her had. And though her father stood before her, she felt alone in the world.

  Her loneliness amplified my own. Burrich. My heart yearned for him suddenly. He was the man I would have gone to, the one whose advice I would have trusted in dealing with my grief. Kettricken was too contained, Chade too pragmatic, Dutiful too young. The Fool was too gone.

  I reined my heart away from exploring those losses. It was one of my faults, one that Molly had sometimes rebuked me for indulging. If one bad thing befell me, I immediately linked it to every bad thing that had happened in the last week or might happen in the coming week. And when I became sad, I was prone to wallow in grief, piling up my woes and sprawling on them like a dragon on a hoard. I needed to focus on what I had, not what I had lost. I needed to remember there was a tomorrow, and I had just committed myself to someone else’s tomorrow as well.

  I looked at Bee, and she immediately looked away. Despite my aching heart, I smiled. “We two, we need to talk,” I told her.

  She stared into the fire, still as stone. Then she nodded slowly. Her voice was small and high, but clear. Her diction was not a child’s. “You and I do need to talk. ” She flickered a glance in my direction. “But I never needed to talk to Mama. She just understood. ”

  I truly had not expected any response from her. With her nod and earlier brief words, she had already exceeded most of her previous communication directed at me. She had spoken to me before, simple requests when she wanted more paper or needed me to cut a pen for her. But this, this was different. This time, looking at my small daughter, a cold realization filled me. She was profoundly different from what I had always assumed her to be. It was a very strange sensation as the familiar tipped away and I spilled into the unknown. This was my child, I reminded myself. The daughter Molly and I had dreamed of for so long. Since Molly’s strange pregnancy and Bee’s birth, I had been trying to reconcile myself to what I thought she was. In one night nine years ago, I had gone from fearing my beloved wife was delusional to being the father of a tiny but perfect infant. For the first few months of her life, I had allowed myself the wild dreams that any parent has for a child. She would be clever and kind and pretty. She would want to learn all Molly and I had to teach her. She would have a sense of humor and be curious and lively. She would be company for us as she grew, and, yes, that trite concept, a comfort to us in our old age.

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  Then, as week after month and then years passed, and she did not catch up her growth, nor speak, I had been forced to confront her differences. Like a worm slowly eating into an apple, the knowledge burrowed in and hollowed my heart. She did not grow, or laugh or smile. Bee would never be the child I had imagined.

  The worst part was that I had already given my heart to that imaginary child, and it was so terribly hard to forgive Bee for not being her. Her existence turned my life into a gamut of emotions. It was hard to kill my hope. As she slowly developed skills that other children would have had years ago, my hope that somehow, now, she was getting better would flare up in me. Each crash of that vain hope was harder than the previous one. Deep sorrow and disappointment sometimes gave way to cold anger at fate. Through it all, I flattered myself that Molly was unaware of my ambivalence toward our child. To cover how hard it was to accept her as she was, I became fiercely protective of her. I would tolerate no one else speaking of her differences as shortcomings. Anything she desired, I got for her. I never expected her to attempt anything she was reluctant to try. Molly had been serenely unaware that Bee suffered in comparison with the imaginary child I had created. She had seemed content with our daughter, doting, even. I had never had the heart to ask her if she ever looked at Bee and wished for another child. I had refused to consider if I ever looked and her and wished that she had never been.

  I had wondered what would become of her as she grew and we aged. I had thought that her sparse words meant she was simple in some way, and I had treated her as such, until the evening when she had astonished me at the memory game. Only in the last year had I found the wisdom to enjoy what she was. I had finally relaxed and taken pleasure in the joy she brought to her mother. The terrible storms of disappointment had given way to calm resignation. Bee was
what she was.

  But now Bee spoke clearly to me, and it woke shame in me. Before she had given me simple sentences, as sparing of her mumbled words as if they were gold coins. Tonight I had felt such a leap of relief when she spoke that first simple request to stay with me. Small she might be, but she could talk. Why shame? It shamed me that it was suddenly so much easier to love her than it had been when she was mute.

  I thought of the old fable and decided I had no choice. I would grasp the nettle. Nonetheless, I approached it cautiously. “Do you dislike speaking?”

  She gave a short shake of her head.

  “So you held silent with me because …?”

  Again a flash of her pale-blue glance. “No need to talk to you. I had Mama. We were together so much. She listened. Even when I could not speak plainly, she could make out what I meant. She understood without all the words you need. ”

  “And now?”

  Her little shoulders twisted away from me, a squirming discomfort in this conversation. “When I have to. To stay safe. But before, it was safer to be quiet. To be what the servants are accustomed to me being. Mostly they treat me well. But if I suddenly spoke to them as I am speaking to you, if they overheard me speaking to you like this, they would fear me. And then they would consider me a threat. I would be in danger from the grown-ups, too. ”

  Too? I thought. I made the leap. “As you are from the children. ”

  A nod. No more than that, and of course that must be so. Of course.

  She was so precocious. So adult. That tiny voice speaking such grown-up words. And so chilling to hear her assess the situation as if she were Chade rather than my little girl. I had hoped to hear her speak to me in simple sentences; I would have welcomed the uncomplicated logic of a child. Instead the pendulum swung the other way: From resignation that my daughter was mute and simple I suddenly felt dread that she was unnaturally complex and perhaps deceitful.

  She looked at my feet. “You’re a little bit afraid of me now. ” She bowed her head and folded her little hands on her crossed legs and waited for me to lie.

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