Fools assassin, p.3
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       Fools Assassin, p.3

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

  All were rapt by the tale, and so it was that my eye caught the motion as two men and a woman entered the hall. They looked around as if dazzled, and perhaps they were after their long hike through an evening of falling snow. It was obvious they had come on foot, for their rough leather trousers were soaked to the knee. Their garb was odd, as minstrels were wont to wear, but unlike any that I had ever seen. Their knee-boots were yellow mottled brown from the wet, their leather trousers short, barely hanging past the tops of their boots. Their jackets were of the same leather, tanned to the same pale brown, with shirts of heavy-knit wool beneath them. They looked uncomfortable, as if the wool were too snug a fit under the leathers. “There they are now,” I told her.

  Patience stared at them from across the room. “I did not hire them,” she declared with an offended sniff. “Look at that woman, pale as a ghost. There’s no heat to her at all. And the men are just as wintry, with hair the color of an ice bear’s hide. Brr. They chill me just looking at them. ” Then the lines smoothed from her brow. “So. I shall not allow them to sing tonight. But let’s invite them back for high summer, when a chilly tale or a cool wind would be welcome on a muggy evening. ”

  But before I could move to her bidding, I heard a roar of “Tom! There you are! So good to see you, old friend!”

  I turned with that mixture of elation and dismay that surprise visits from unconventional and loving friends stir in one. Web was crossing the room in long strides, with Swift but a step or two behind. I lifted my arms wide and went to greet them. The burly Witmaster had grown in girth these last few years. As always, his cheeks were as red as if he had just stepped in from the wind. Molly’s son Swift was a couple of steps behind him, but as I watched, Nettle emerged from the crowd of guests and ambushed her brother in a hug. He stopped to lift her and whirl her in a joyous circle. Then Web engulfed me in a spine-cracking hug, followed by several solid thumps to my back. “You’re looking well!” he told me as I tried to catch my breath. “Almost whole again, aren’t you? Ah, and Lady Patience!” Having released me from his exuberant greeting, he bowed gracefully over the hand that Patience extended to him. “Such a rich blue gown! You put me in mind of a jay’s bright feathers! But please tell me the feathers in your hair did not come from a live bird!”

  “Of course not!” Patience looked properly horrified at the thought. “I found him dead on the garden path last summer. And I thought, now here is a time for me to see just what is beneath those lovely blue feathers. But I saved his feathers, of course, plucking them carefully before I boiled him down to bones. And then, once I had discarded the jay broth, my task was before me: to assemble his little bones into a skeleton. Did you know that a bird’s wing is as close to a man’s hand as is a frog’s flipper? All those tiny bones! Well, doubtless you know the task is somewhere on my workbench, half-done as are so many of my projects. But yesterday, when I was thinking of feathers to take flight from our troubles, I remembered that I had a whole box full! And luckily for me, the beetles had not found and eaten them down to the quill, as they did when I tried to save the gull feathers. Oh! Gull! Have I been thoughtless? I beg pardon!”

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  She had obviously suddenly recalled that he was bonded with a gull. But Web smiled at her kindly and said, “We of the Wit know that when life is done, what remains is empty. None, I think, know better than we do. We sense the presence of all life, with some burning brighter than others. A plant is not as vital in our senses as is a tree. And of course a deer outshines both, and a bird most of all. ”

  I opened my mouth to object to that. With my Wit I could sense birds, but had never found them particularly brimming with life. I recalled something that Burrich—the man who had all but raised me—had said to me, many years ago, when he had declared that I would not work with the hawks at Buckkeep Castle. “They don’t like you; you are too warm. ” And I had thought he meant my flesh, but now I wondered if he had sensed something about my Wit that he could not then have explained to me. For the Wit had then been a despised magic, and if either of us had admitted to possessing it, we would have been hanged, quartered, and burned over water.

  “Why do you sigh?” Patience abruptly demanded of me.

  “Your pardon. I was not aware I had done so. ”

  “Well, you did! Witmaster Web was just telling me the most fascinating things about a bat’s wing and suddenly you sigh as if you find us the most boring old things in the world!” She punctuated her words with a tap of her fan on my shoulder.

  Web laughed. “Lady Patience, doubtless his thoughts were elsewhere. I know Tom of old, and recall his melancholy streak well! Ah, but I have been keeping you to myself, and here are others of your guests, come to claim you!”

  Was Patience deceived? I think not, but it pleased her to allow herself to be drawn away from us by the charming young man that doubtless Nettle had dispatched to allow Web to speak to me privately. Almost I wished she had not done so; Web had sent me several letters and I was sure I knew the current of the conversation he wished to draw me into. It had been long since I had been bonded with an animal through my Wit. But what Web seemed to equate with a sulking child I felt was more like the solitude of a long-married man who is suddenly widowed. No one could replace Nighteyes in my heart; nor could I imagine such a connection with any other creature. Gone was gone, as he had just said. The echoes of my wolf within me were enough to sustain me now. Those vivid memories, so strong that sometimes I felt I still heard his thoughts in my mind, would always be preferable to any other joining.

  So now, as Web ventured past banalities about how I had been, and if Molly had been keeping well, and had the harvest been good this year, I deliberately diverted a conversation that would lead us, inevitably, to the importance he placed on my learning more of the Wit and on discussing my solitary status. My considered opinion was that as I was unpartnered and intended to remain so for the rest of my life, I needed no more knowledge of the Wit-magic than what I had now.

  So I tipped my head toward the “musicians” still standing by the door and told him, “I fear they’ve come a long way for nothing. Patience has told me that redheaded singers are for Winterfest, and she will save the blondes for summer. ” I expected Web to share my amusement at Lady Patience’s eccentricities. The strangers had not ventured into the hall to join the merriment, but remained by the door, speaking only to one another. They stood as longtime companions do, closer together than one stands near an acquaintance. The tallest man had a weathered, craggy face. The woman at his side, with her face tilted toward him, had broad cheekbones and a high, lined forehead. “Blondes?” Web asked me, staring round.

  I smiled. “The strangely dressed trio by the door. See them? In yellow boots and coats?”

  He swept his eyes past them twice and then, with a start, stared at them. His eyes grew wider.

  “Do you know them?” I asked at his look of dread.

  “Are they Forged?” he asked in a hoarse whisper.

  “Forged? How could they be?” I stared at them, wondering what had alarmed Web. Forging stripped a man’s humanity from him, tore him from the network of life and caring that enabled all of us to care and be cared about. Forged ones loved only themselves. Once, there had been many of them in the Six Duchies, preying on their families and neighbors, tearing the kingdom apart from within as the Red-Ship Raiders released our own people as a foe among us. Forging had been the dark magic of the Pale Woman and her captain Kebal Rawbread. But we had prevailed and driven the raiders from our shores. Years after the Red-Ship Wars had ended, we had taken ships to her last stronghold on Aslevjal Island, where we made an end of them forever. The Forged ones they had created were long gone to their graves. No one had practiced that evil magic for years.

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  “They feel Forged to me. My Wit cannot find them. I can barely sense them except with my eyes. Where did they come from?”

/>   As a Witmaster, Web relied on that beast-magic far more keenly than I did. Perhaps it had become his dominant sense, for the Wit gives one a tingle of awareness for any living creature. Now, alerted by Web, I deliberately extended my own Wit toward the newcomers. I did not have his level of awareness, and the crowded room muddled my senses even more. I could feel almost nothing from them. I dismissed that with a shrug.

  “Not Forged,” I decided. “They huddle together too companionably. If they were Forged, each would be immediately seeking what they most needed, food, drink, or warmth. They hesitate, not wishing to be seen as intruders here, but uncomfortable not knowing our ways. So not Forged. Forged ones never care for such niceties. ”

  I suddenly realized I sounded far too much like Chade’s apprentice assassin in how I analyzed them. They were guests, not targets. I cleared my throat. “I do not know where they came from. Revel told me they came to the door as musicians for the feast. Or perhaps tumblers. ”

  Web was still staring at them. “They are neither,” he said decisively. Curiosity blossomed in his voice as he announced, “So. Let us speak to them and find out who and what they are. ”

  I watched as the three conferred with one another. The woman and the younger man nodded abruptly at what the taller man was saying. Then, as if they were herd dogs set to bringing in sheep, they abruptly left his side and began to move purposefully through the crowd. The woman kept her hand at her hip, as if her fingers sought a sword that was not there. Their heads turned and their eyes roved as they went. Seeking something? No. Someone. The woman stood on tiptoe, trying to peer over the heads of the gathered folk who were watching the change of musicians. Their leader faded back toward the door. Did he guard it lest their prey escape? Or was I imagining things? “Who do they hunt?” I heard myself ask softly.

  Web didn’t respond. He’d already started moving toward where they had been. But as he turned from me, a lively drumbeat was suddenly joined by uplifted voices and a trilling pipe, and dancers surged back onto the floor. Couples spun and hopped like spinning tops to the lively tune, and blocked our path and my view. I put my hand on Web’s broad shoulder and tugged him back from the hazards of the dance floor. “We’ll go around,” I told him, and led the way. But even that path was fraught with delays, for there were guests to greet, and one could not hurry through those conversations without seeming rude. Web, ever engaging and garrulous, seemed to lose his interest in the odd strangers. He focused his attention strongly on each person he was introduced to, and convinced them of his charm simply by his intense interest in who they were and what they did for a living and if they were having an enjoyable time tonight. I watched the room but could no longer locate the strangers.

  They were not warming themselves at the big hearth as we passed it. Nor did I see them enjoying food or drink, or dancing, or watching the fest from the benches. When the music ended and the tide of dancers retreated, I firmly excused myself from Web and Lady Essence’s conversation and strode across the room to where I had last seen them. I was convinced now that they were not musicians and this was not a random stopping place for them. I tried not to let my suspicions escalate; my early training did not always serve me well in social situations.

  I didn’t find any of them. I slipped out of the Great Hall into the relative quiet of the corridor outside it and looked for them in vain. Gone. I took a breath and resolutely let my curiosity go. Doubtless they were somewhere in Withywoods, changing into dry clothing or having a glass of wine or perhaps lost in the crowd of dancers. I would see them again. For now, I was the host of the gathering, and my Molly had been left alone too long. I had guests to attend to and a pretty wife to dance with and a lovely feast. If they were musicians or tumblers, they would soon make themselves known, for doubtless they would hope to win the favor and the largesse of the gathered guests. It was even possible that I was the person they were looking for, as I controlled the purse that paid the entertainers. If I waited long enough, they would approach me. And if they were beggars or travelers, then still they were welcome here. Why must I always imagine danger to my loved ones?

  I plunged myself back into the maelstrom of merriment, danced again with Molly, invited Nettle to join me in a jig but lost her to Riddle, interrupted Hearth seeing how many honey-cakes he could stack into a tower on a single plate for the amusement of a pretty Withy maiden, overindulged myself in ginger cookies, and was ultimately trapped by Web near the ale keg. He filled his mug after me, and then nudged us toward a bench not far from the hearth. I looked for Molly, but she and Nettle had their heads together, and as I watched they moved as one to stir Patience from where she was dozing in a chair. She was protesting feebly as they gathered her up to take her to her chambers.

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  Web spoke without beating about the bush. “It’s not natural, Tom,” he chided me, heedless of who might overhear us. “You are so alone, you echo to my Wit. You should open yourself to the possibility of bonding again. For one of Old Blood to go so long unpartnered is not healthy. ”

  “I don’t feel the need,” I told him honestly. “I’ve a good life here, with Molly and Patience and the boys. There’s honest work to keep me busy, and my idle time is enjoyed with those I love. Web, I don’t doubt your wisdom and experience, but I also don’t doubt my own heart. I don’t need anything more than what I have right now. ”

  He looked into my eyes. I met his gaze. My last utterance was almost true. If I could have had my wolf back again, then, yes, life would have been much sweeter. If I could have opened my door, and found the Fool grinning on my doorstep, then my life would have been full indeed. But there was no point in sighing after what I could not have. It only distracted me from what I did have, and that was more than I’d ever had in my life. A home, my lady, youngsters growing to manhood under my roof, and the comforts of my own bed at night. Just enough consultations from Buckkeep Castle that I could feel I was still needed in the greater world, yet few enough that I knew, truly, they could get by without me and let me have a measure of peace. I had anniversaries I could be proud of. It was nearly eight years that Molly had been my wife. It was almost ten years since I’d killed anyone.

  Almost ten years since I’d last seen the Fool.

  And there it was, that stone-dropping-into-a-well plunge of my heart. I kept it from showing on my face or in my eyes. That gulf, after all, had nothing to do with how long I’d gone with no animal companion. That was a different sort of loneliness entirely. Wasn’t it?

  Perhaps not. The loneliness that can never be filled by anyone except the one whose loss created the absence; well, then, perhaps it was the same.

  Web was still watching me. I realized that I’d been staring past his shoulder at the dancers, but now the floor was empty. I shifted my gaze back to meet his. “I’m fine as I am, old friend. Content. Why should I tamper with that? Would you prefer I long for more when I have so much already?”

  It was the perfect question to stop Web’s well-meaning pestering. I saw him think over my words, and then a deep smile rose onto his face, one that came from his heart. “No, Tom, I wouldn’t wish that on you, truly. I’m a man who can admit when he’s wrong, and perhaps I’ve been measuring your wheat with my bushel. ”

  The discussion suddenly tipped upside-down for me. The words burst from me. “Your gull, Risk, she is well, still?”

  He smiled crookedly. “As well as might be expected. She’s old, Fitz. Twenty-three years with me, and she was probably two or three when we met. ”

  I was silent; I’d never stopped to wonder how long a gull might live, and I didn’t ask him now. All the questions that were too cruel to ask left me silent. He shook his head and looked away from me. “Eventually I’ll lose her, unless accident or disease takes me first. And I’ll mourn her. Or she will mourn me. But I also know that if I am left alone, eventually I’ll look about for another partner. Not because Risk and I do not have something wonder
ful together, but because I am Old Blood. And we are not meant to be solitary souls. ”

  “I’ll think well on what you have said to me,” I promised. Web deserved that courtesy from me. Time to leave this topic. “Did you ever manage to have words with our odd guests?”

  He nodded slowly. “I did. But not many, and with the woman only. Tom, she made me uneasy. She rang oddly against my senses, as muted as muffled bells. She claimed that they were traveling jugglers and hoped to entertain us later. She was stingy in speaking of herself, but full of questions for me. She was looking for a friend of hers, who might also have come this way recently. Had I heard of any other travelers or visitors to the area? And when I told them that while I was a friend of the household, I had but arrived this night as well, then she asked me if I had met any other strangers on the road. ”

  “I wonder if a member of their party became separated from them. ”

  Web shook his head. “I think not. ” He frowned slightly. “It was passing strange, Tom. When I asked who …”

  And then Just touched my elbow. “Mother would like your help,” he said quietly. A simple request, yet something in the way he said it alarmed me.

  “Where is she?”

  “She and Nettle are in Lady Patience’s chambers. ”

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  “At once,” I said, and Web nodded as I set off.

  Chapter Two

  Spilled Blood

  Of all the magics known to be possessed by men, the highest and noblest is that collection of talents known as the Skill. Surely it is no coincidence that through generations of Farseer rule, it often manifests in those destined to become our Kings and Queens. Strength of character and generosity of spirit, the blessings of both El and Eda, often accompany this hereditary magic of the Farseer line. It conveys to the user the ability to send his thoughts afar, to influence gently the thinking of his dukes and duchesses, or to strike fear in the heart of his enemies. Tradition tells us that many a Farseer ruler, his strength supplemented by the courage and talent of his Skill-coterie, could work wondrous cures on both body and mind as well as commanding both his ships at sea and our defenders upon the land. Queen Efficacious established six coteries for herself, placing one Skill-talented group in each duchy, and thus making the magic of the Skill available to each of her trusted dukes and duchesses during her enlightened reign, to the great benefit of all her people.

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