Fools assassin, p.34
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       Fools Assassin, p.34

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

  The candle was down to a stub in the holder when I reached the intersection. I thought angrily of how I had left my other candle at my little desk in the first spyhole. Well, it was not so far to go, and soon I would be back in my father’s study. I thought longingly of the fireplace and hoped that the log I had put on the hearth was still burning. I hurried along, following my own tracks. The dark-planked walls seemed to lean in closer as my candle faltered. I tipped it a little to allow some of the wax to run off in the holder. Now the wick stood taller and the flame longer, but I could also see the bottom of the melted wax. A wandering draft from the masonry wall nearly blew it out. I set my hand to shelter the flame and then stood stock-still, wondering. Had I turned the wrong way? Wasn’t the masonry wall on the way to the pantry entrance? Or had it been along the passageway that led to the peephole in my bedroom? I blinked my weary eyes and suddenly could not remember. My tracks in the corridor were no help. The mouse skeleton! Where had I seen the mouse skeleton?

  I stood staring at my dying flame. “Next time,” I said to the gathering darkness. “Next time I shall bring chalk and mark where each passage goes. ” The draft from the masonry wall was fingering its way through my robe. I turned back the way I had come. I could not hurry now, for the flame was a dancing mite on the last bit of wick. Once I reached that first intersection, I promised myself, I would be fine. Even if my candle went out, I could find my way back to the secret cubby by touch. Couldn’t I? I banished from my thoughts any fear of rats. My light had chased them away, and surely they never ventured this far from the kitchens. Rats stayed where there was food.

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  Unless they were hungry and looking for more food.

  Something touched my foot.

  I leapt, ran two steps, and then fell, splattering hot wax as my candle snuffed out. Darkness rushed up to drown me. It filled up the space where my candlelight had held it back. For a moment I could not breathe, for there was darkness instead of air. I pulled my feet up into my robe, terrified that rats might leap onto them and bite my toes off. My heart was beating so hard, it shook my whole body. In the dark I sat up, shaking my burned hand and clawing the gobbets of wax from it. I looked all round but the blackness was absolute. The darkness pressed on me, a substance that I could not breathe or push away. Terror rose in me.

  “Mama!” I shrieked and then suddenly the reality of her death was all around me as thick and choking as the darkness. She was gone and there was no one, no one who could rescue me. Darkness and death became the same thing to me.

  “Mama! Mama, Mama, Mama!” Over and over I screamed her name because if I were in the darkness and it was death, then she must be able to come to me.

  I screamed myself hoarse, and beyond hoarse into abject shaking silent terror. No one came. If anyone woke and exclaimed at my muffled cries, I did not hear it. After the initial fit passed, I huddled in a ball in the darkness, panting. At least I had warmed myself: My hair was plastered to my scalp with sweat. Only my feet and hands were still cold. I hugged my knees and then pulled my hands into my sleeves. The thudding of my own heart filled my ears. I longed to be able to better hear, for though I dreaded that I might hear the scuffling of rats I feared even more to have one come on me suddenly. Little sounds of helpless fear bubbled in my throat. With my forehead resting on the gritty floor and my chest still heaving, I shut my eyes to keep out the pressing dark.

  Chapter Thirteen


  There are many legends and customs associated with the standing stones found throughout the Six Duchies and beyond their borders. Even when the true purposes of those monoliths were forgotten, the significance remained, and thus people told tales about them and revered them. Most common were tales of careless folk, often young lovers in the tales, who wandered into those circles, leaned against the stones, and vanished. In some of the stories they return a hundred years later, to find every familiar thing vanished while they themselves are aged not a day. As part of my studies of the Skill, I have often wondered if hapless folk with a wild talent for the magic and no knowledge of how to master it had not accidentally triggered a portal and been lost forever within them. I know that I shudder when I recall my misadventure involving Skill-pillar travel between Aslevjal and Buck. I know you have read my account of it. Did no one pay heed to this warning?

  And again, King Dutiful himself has had some experience of the dangers of such travel. In one instance, we emerged from a pillar that was submerged by the tide. What if it had fallen facedown on the earth? We have no idea if we would have been permanently trapped within the pillars or pushed out to suffocate underground.

  Even with the recovery of many scrolls relating to the Skill, our knowledge of the pillars is incomplete. Under Chade’s leadership, maps have been drawn of standing stones within the Six Duchies, the ancient markings on those stones noted, and the condition of the stones documented. More than a few have fallen, and the markings on some of them have either weathered away or been deliberately obliterated by vandals.

  So, with all respect, I advise caution on this project. I think only experienced members of a coterie should attempt these explorations. We do not know where some of those portals lead, for we do not know what location the marking corresponds to. For the ones where we do know what location each glyph indicates, I think that an exploratory party should first travel by conventional methods to each location to confirm that the receiving pillars are still standing and in good condition.

  As for experiments regarding the pillars on which the markings have faded or been defaced, I question why we would attempt to use any of them. Is it worth risking a Skilled one’s life to send someone we know not where?

  Letter from FitzChivalry Farseer to Skillmistress Nettle

  From my earliest recollections of Chade, he had enjoyed any opportunity to inject drama into his life. From Lady Thyme to the Pocked Man, he had savored the roles he had played. Age had not decreased his love of subterfuge and disguise; instead he relished them more than ever now that he had time and resources to indulge in them fully.

  Thus I never knew who I would be encountering when he sent me one of his messages to meet him. Once he had been an old peddler with a sack of gourds to sell. Another time I had entered the inn to find a singularly unattractive female minstrel mangling a tragic and romantic song, to the uproarious mockery of the inn patrons. The passage of years had, if anything, only increased his pleasure in such mummery. I knew that he would travel from Buckkeep Castle by the stone, reducing a journey of several days to a snap of the fingers. He would enter the Witness Stones not far from Buckkeep Castle and step out on top of Gallows Hill. From Gallows Hill to the taproom of the Oaken Staff was a pleasant stroll on a warm summer’s evening. Unfortunately for Chade, that night he would step out from the pillar into a sleety rain that threatened to be snow by morning.

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  I sat near the big hearth, my drenched cloak saving a place for him on the bench nearest the flames. The Oaken Staff was a crossroads inn used mostly by merchants and travelers. I did not frequent it, and expected to encounter no one who knew me. Nonetheless, for this rendezvous, I had grayed my beard with chalk and donned a plowman’s coarse tunic. My worn boots were muddy, and I sat with my woolen cap pulled down over my brow and ears. The only time I came to the Oaken Staff was when Chade demanded a meeting. Yet it would not do for any neighbor of Tom Badgerlock’s to see me in the common room and wonder why I was there. So I drank mulled wine with hunched shoulders and a sullen air that I hoped would put off anyone trying to strike up conversation.

  The door of the inn swung open, admitting wind, rain, and a drenched stable boy followed by two sodden merchants. Beyond him, the evening sky was darkening to night. I growled to myself. I had hoped that Chade would arrive early and conclude his business swiftly. I had not been happy to leave Bee alone at Withywoods. She had assured me that she would be fine,
that she would paint pictures in her room by the fire and go to bed as soon as she was sleepy. I had tried in vain to convince her that she might enjoy an evening spent with Lin and his wife. She had looked both horrified and terrified at the idea. And so I had left her, promising her that I would look in on her as soon as I returned. I sipped my mulled wine and tried to decide between worrying about Bee alone at home or worrying about Chade somewhere out in the storm.

  The second time the woman bumped me from behind, I swiveled on my bench and stared up at her. My first thought was that it was Chade in one of his more outlandish incorporations. But she was too short to be the rangy old man I knew. Seated on my bench as I was, my turning had put my eyes exactly on a level with her breasts. Unmistakably real. When my gaze traveled up, she was grinning at me. She had a slight gap between her front teeth and long-lashed green eyes. Her hair was a very dark auburn. “Hello,” she said.

  So, not Chade. His messenger, an overly friendly tavern girl, or a whore? So many possible ways for this evening to go very wrong. I lifted my mug, drained it, and held it out to her. “Another, please. ” I put no friendliness in my voice.

  She raised one brow at me. “I don’t fetch beer. ” The disdain in her voice was not feigned. My hackles lifted slightly. Be wary.

  I leaned closer, pretending to struggle to bring her face into focus. I knew this girl. I’d seen her somewhere, and it was frustrating and alarming that I could not recall when I had met her or under what circumstances. Someone in the market? A daughter of one of our shepherds, grown and out on her own? Well, she hadn’t called me by name; nor had her pupils reacted as if she recognized me. Play drunk. I reached up and scratched my nose, and tested her. “Not beer,” I told her. “Mulled wine. It’s cold out there. ”

  “I don’t fetch wine, either,” she told me. A trace of an accent in her voice. She hadn’t spent her childhood in Buck.

  “That’s a pity. ” I turned back to the fire.

  She pushed my wet cloak to one side and boldly sat down next to me. That narrowed her roles to whore or messenger. She leaned close to me. “You look cold. ”

  “No. Got myself a good spot by the fire. Had some mulled wine. Just waiting for an old friend. ”

  She smiled. “I could be your friend. ”

  I shook my head in drunken confusion. “No. No, you couldn’t. My friend is much taller and older and he’s a man. You can’t be my friend. ”

  “Well, maybe I’m your friend’s friend. That would make you my friend, wouldn’t it?”

  I let my head wobble slightly on my neck. “Maybe,” I said. I fingered my pouch at my hip and frowned. Then I smiled. “Hey. If you’re my friend’s friend, and you’re my friend, then maybe you could buy the next round?” I held up my mug hopefully with a vacuous grin and watched her face. Any whore worth her salt wouldn’t bother with a man who didn’t have enough coin to buy himself another drink.

  Uncertainty rippled over her face. I hadn’t said what she expected. I suddenly felt very old. At one time I would have enjoyed this sort of intrigue. I’d always taken great pleasure in mastering the little tests that Chade had constantly set for me. I’d participated in more than one of his dramas for the benefit of befuddling others. But tonight I suddenly just wanted to meet with my old master, find out what he wanted, and then go home. Was any of this subterfuge truly necessary any longer? We were at peace and politically stable. Why did he need to employ spies and set tests for people? It was time for me to cut through the fog and move the play along. But not so brazenly that Chade would be offended. So I peered at her again and asked, “Which do you think is best? Mulled wine by a warm hearth on a cold day, or having a tankard while sitting in the shade?”

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  She cocked her head at me, and she was much younger than I’d thought. I was suddenly sure she hadn’t seen twenty summers. Where did I know her from? “Beer in the shade,” she said without hesitation. “Though shade can be hard to find when the sun hasn’t been out for days. ”

  I nodded and gathered up my wet cloak. “Why don’t we look for Chade?” I suggested, and she smiled.

  I stood and she took my arm. She led the way as we threaded our way through the inn’s customers toward the base of the wooden stairs that led to the rooms above. The storm outside had grown stronger. A gust of wind buffeted the inn; the interior shutters lunged with it. An instant later the door blew wide open and stood thus, wind and rain gusting in. Amid cries from all tables for someone to shut the door, two men staggered in, leaning on each other. One of the men reached an empty table, put both hands flat on it, and stood there, just breathing. Riddle turned back to the door and slammed it shut against the storm. In the next moment I recognized Chade leaning on the table. “And there he is,” I said to my companion in a quiet voice.

  “Who?” she asked me, and I knew a moment of chagrin.

  “My friend. The one I was waiting for. ” I slurred the words slightly, tugged free of her grip on my arm, and went to meet Chade and Riddle. I turned my head just enough that, from the corner of my eye, I was aware of her backward glance at me as she ascended the stairs. A man descending the stairs met her eyes and gave her a barely perceptible nod. A whore, then?

  Well, that had been peculiar. It was not the first time that Chade and his machinations had left me in an awkward position.

  “Are you all right?” I asked quietly when I reached his side. He was breathing as if he’d just run a race. I offered him my arm and he took it, a distressing sign of how battered he felt. Without a word, Riddle took his other arm. We exchanged concerned looks.

  “Terrible storm. Let’s get a place by the fire,” Chade suggested. His lips were dark, and he breathed noisily through his nose. His “disguise” was limited to soberly colored garb of an excellent weave and a plain cut. His steel-gray hair hinted at his age, but his face and bearing did not betray it. He had outlived his brother and all three of his nephews and I suspected he would outlast me, his grandnephew. But tonight the journey had taken a toll on him and he needed rest. The Skill could maintain his body but it could not make him a young man again.

  I surveyed the crowded room. The place I had saved near the hearth had closed up as soon as I vacated it. “Unlikely,” I told him. “But two of the upstairs rooms have hearths in them. I’ll ask if either is empty. ”

  “Arrangements were made. Riddle, please make sure my requests were granted,” Chade told me. Riddle nodded, dismissed for now. He and I exchanged a look. Riddle and I had a long history, longer than his friendship with Nettle. Long before he had met and courted my daughter, he had been my brother-in-arms. In our little war with the Pale Woman on Aslevjal Island, I had left him as worse than dead. He’d forgiven me for that. I’d forgiven him for being Chade’s spy upon me. We understood each other, perhaps better than Chade realized. And so the nod we shared was that of old fellowship. He was a typical Buckman, dark-haired and dark-eyed, and garbed tonight to blend in with the tavern’s crowd. He moved off, effortlessly eeling through the crowd without anyone scowling at being displaced. It was a talent I envied him.

  “Let’s sit down until Riddle comes back,” I suggested and set an example. The table was an undesirable one, placed near the draft of the door, and away from both the hearth and the kitchen. It was as private a place to chat as we could wish for in such a busy place. Chade sank ungracefully into a chair across the table from mine. His eyes wandered the room; he glanced up the stairs and nodded slightly to himself. I wondered if he was looking for someone, or if it was merely an old assassin’s habit to be aware of anyone who might be a danger. I waited for him to broach his business.

  “Why so busy in here?” he asked me.

  “A caravan of horse and cattle traders passing through, is what the talk at the fire was about. Three merchants, six hands. They’d expected to make the next town before they stopped for the night, but the weather forced them in here. I hear they’re n
ot too pleased with leaving their stock in open corrals for the night, but it was the best this place could offer them. The working hands will be sleeping in the barn lofts tonight. The merchants claim to have some top-quality stock and say they’re worried about thieves, but I heard two stable boys referring to their horses as used-up hacks. One merchant doesn’t say much, but the tack on his riding horse is Chalcedean style. And his personal horse is a pretty good one. ”

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  He nodded and despite his weariness, his mouth twisted with wry amusement. “I taught you that,” he said with satisfaction. His eyes met mine, and the fondness in them startled me. Was he becoming sentimental in his old age?

  “Reporting to you, correctly and completely, was one of the first things you taught me,” I agreed. We were both silent for a moment, thinking of all else he had taught me.

  I had rebelled and escaped the fate of being the king’s assassin. Chade had never wished to. He might no longer live like a hidden spider in the secret passageways of Buckkeep Castle, he might be hailed as Lord Chade now and openly advise King Dutiful, but I had no doubt that if King Dutiful thought a man needed killing, Chade could still rise to the occasion.

  He was breathing more easily now. A tavern boy appeared, thunked down two heavy mugs of hot buttered rum, and waited. Chade smiled at me. I tipped my head at him, shook my head, and then with a faked show of reluctance found coins inside my belt and paid for our drinks. As the lad moved away, I asked Chade, “Was it harder than you expected to bring Riddle through the pillar with you?”

  He didn’t deny it. “He took it better than I did,” Chade admitted. “Even if I did borrow strength from him to do it. ” He lifted his steaming mug, drank, and sighed. His eyes above the rim roved the room again.

  I nodded, and then had to ask, “How did you do it? He’s not Skilled. ”

  “No. But Nettle has taught him to lend strength to her when she needs it, and that creates a sort of opening … well, that’s not the right word. A handle? I’m not sure what to call it. Rather like a horse with a halter always on, there’s a place to clip a lead when he’s needed. He serves her in that capacity, as a source of strength. And in a few others as well. ”

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