Fools assassin, p.36
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       Fools Assassin, p.36

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

  “Very well. ” He leaned back in his chair and looked from me to Shun, and then at Riddle.

  Riddle returned his gaze. “Am I supposed to leave now?” he asked. There was a chill edge to his voice.

  Chade considered it so quickly that it seemed as if he answered without a pause. “Little point to that. I’ve seen that you’ve put it together. ”

  Riddle flicked a glance at me and hazarded an interpretation. “You’d like to put this girl with Tom, so he can protect her for you. ”

  The muscles at the corner of Chade’s mouth twitched. “That’s a fairly accurate summation. ”

  I looked at Shun. She was dismayed. Evidently she hadn’t seen things from that vantage, and had been preening herself that she was being sent out on her first real assignment, only to discover that actually she was being banished from Buckkeep, possibly because she had grown into a phase where it would be next to impossible for anyone to miss that she was a Farseer. No. Not Buckkeep. If she’d been anywhere in the castle, Riddle would have known of her. Then where? I watched her straighten in her chair. Little sparks of anger lit in her gaze. She opened her mouth to speak but I was quicker.

  “I’d like to know who she is before I take her on,” I said bluntly.

  “You’ve seen her lineage. I saw you recognize it. ”

  “How did it happen?” I demanded, baffled.

  “The usual way,” Chade muttered; he looked uncomfortable. That triggered the girl.

  She shook her head, making her auburn curls dance. A chill note, almost accusatory, came into her voice. “My mother was nineteen when she visited Buckkeep Castle with her parents for a Springfest. She went home, where it was discovered she was with child. She had me. A couple of years after I was born, her parents managed to find her a husband. My grandparents kept me to raise. Which they did, until my grandfather died two years ago, and my grandmother died six months later. At which time I went to live with my mother for the first time in my life. Except that her husband did not feel in a fatherly fashion toward me. And instead of being furious with him for his wandering eyes and grasping hands on her child, my mother became angry and jealous. And she packed me off with a sealed note to the old Queen at Buckkeep. ”

  “And she gave you over into Lord Chade’s keeping?” That didn’t sound like Kettricken to me.

  “No. ” She cast a glance at Chade. He had steepled his hands. His firmly pinched lips indicated he did not enjoy her accounting, but realized that any attempt to interrupt it would be futile.

  Shun leaned one elbow on the table, feigning a casualness she did not feel. I saw her tension in the muscles of her throat and in how one hand gripped the table’s edge. “I and my note were intercepted very shortly after I left my mother’s home. Both were delivered to Lord Chade. He took charge of me and placed me in a supposedly safe haven. And he has been my protector ever since. ” There was resentment, but for what? I made note of her use of “supposedly. ” Were we getting closer to the bone of why she was here? Yet I was no closer to knowing her parentage. Did her Farseer looks come from her mother’s side? Or her father’s? How many generations back was the connection?

  Riddle shifted slightly in his seat. He was not the one who had intercepted the girl. Did he know who had? But I sensed that he was gathering and sorting facts as much as I was. And this was his first encounter with Shun? Where had Lord Chade been keeping her? The sour twist of Chade’s mouth showed that he was not especially pleased that Shun was sharing these details.

  “How old are you?” I demanded.

  “Does it matter?” she retorted.

  “She’s nineteen now,” Chade said quietly, and scowled as Riddle and I exchanged a glance. “And as you have guessed, her resemblance to her forebears means that bringing her to court is a bad idea. For now!” he added hastily as her countenance darkened. Caution flared in me. She seemed a snippy thing to me, arrogant for her years. I wondered whose she was, and who she thought she was. She was giving herself an air of importance that I didn’t comprehend.

  I wondered. Shun. I pointed the thought at her, Skilling strongly. She didn’t even twitch. That answered at least one of my questions. Even untrained, she should have felt something. So she had no predilection for the Skill. I wondered if that disappointed Chade or if he was glad she could not be used that way. He was watching me, well aware of what I’d just done. I shifted my focus.

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  I have dozens of questions. Who is her mother, and who is she married to now? Does Shun know who her father is? She doesn’t name him, or her mother. Why have you kept her concealed from everyone? Or have you? Has Kettricken added her to her genealogy of unacknowledged Farseers?

  Not now! He didn’t even glance at me as he responded. Nor did he look at Riddle. Concealed from Nettle as well? I boiled with questions and wondered if I’d ever get a chance to ask them privately. Some I would not speak in front of the girl and some were better not aired in front of Riddle. There was one I could ask.

  “And you have trained her?”

  He glanced at her and then met my eyes. “In some things. Not personally, but she had a suitable instructor. Not as you were trained, but as I saw fit. ” He cleared his throat. “Mostly so she could protect herself. Though I did wonder if she might not be brought along in my footsteps. ” He coughed and added, “There is much you could teach her, if you would. ”

  I sighed. I suspected he had given me as much information as he intended to give me in this company. “Well. You still haven’t told me all I need to know. And you must know that I need to prepare my household. I can’t simply ride down to the inn for ale on a stormy night and come back with a girl on the back of my horse. ”

  “That’s why I brought Riddle. I sent Shun here several days ago, and now that Riddle is here, he will act as her protector until he can deliver her to your door. ”

  Riddle’s mouth quirked once. This was news to him as well.

  I tried to find my feet in the rushing current of Chade’s planning. “So, in a few days she will arrive at Withywoods. Where I will greet her as my distant cousin, come to help care for my child in my bereavement. ”

  “Exactly. ” Chade smiled.

  I wasn’t amused. It was too soon for me to find strength to help anyone except myself. I’d have to tell him no. I just couldn’t do this. I’d lost Molly and found our child and was fumbling my way toward knowing her. I felt a sudden sharp pang of anxiety. Was Bee safe? Was she frightened? I’d left her alone tonight and come here to this meeting, expecting it to be some brief consultation on a political situation into which he wanted my insights. Now he was asking me to take a young woman into my household, a woman I knew nothing about, and both protect her and educate her in how she must protect herself. My first impression of her was that I would not like her, nor would she enjoy my company. With terrible regret, I wished he had been able to speak to me privately. I would have told him all the reasons I had to say no. Now he had me trapped at a table with both Shun and Riddle watching, and possibly Nettle. How could I say no in these circumstances?

  I drew a breath. “I’m just not sure this is the best solution, Chade. Bee is very young, and I am still in mourning. ” I turned to Shun. “Have you any experience with small children?”

  She stared at me. Her mouth opened and closed twice. Her glance fixed on Chade. I saw both alarm and resentment build on her face as she demanded, “How small? How young? I was stuck caring for my mother’s spoiled nieces when I stayed with her, despite their having a nanny and a tutor. I didn’t care for it. If you think you can exile me from court and hide me at some provincial manor to play governess under the pretense that I’m protecting her, well, you can’t. Nor do I accept the idea that this Tom will watch over me. I proved for myself and you that however sharp he used to be, he’s grown careless and soft. He did not guard himself; how can he protect me?”

  “No one said ‘governess. ’
We are simply discussing what it might be said you are doing while Fitz continues your training. It would be excellent practice for you to protect his daughter, as her bodyguard. ”

  I flinched. It was the second time he had called me Fitz in front of her. She did not seem mature enough to be entrusted completely with that secret. Yet it was almost insulting that she had not seemed to realize she had been handed such a secret. I felt a sudden needle to my vanity. Nineteen. Hadn’t she even heard of FitzChivalry Farseer?

  She crossed her arms on her chest and lifted her head high, defying Chade. “What if I say no? This is not why I thought I was coming here. I thought you had found a task for me, something significant to do with my life. I’m tired of hiding in the darkness like a rat. I’ve done nothing wrong. You told me that my life would be better with you. I thought I’d live in Buckkeep Castle, at court!”

  Chade steepled his fingers and spoke carefully to them. “You can, of course, say no. You do have a choice, Shun. ” He sighed suddenly and lifted his eyes to meet hers. “No choices were given to me, so I do know that such things matter. In this regard, I will do all I can for you. I wish I could say you had many choices, but I am as constrained by fate as you are. ”

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  I watched her face as she slowly realized that he was telling her that she was limited to the choices he would offer her. I wasn’t surprised. That was the life of a Farseer bastard. He and I had both known the constraints of being an unrecognized sprout of that family tree. One could be a danger to the family and be eliminated, or one could be useful to the family in a defined role. One could not choose not to be part of the family. Chade was loyal to his family. He would keep her safe and guide her, and in the process he would protect the throne. And I found I agreed with him. He was right. But to Shun it must have felt like a net being drawn tight around her. He read her face as he spoke. “I can well understand your bitterness toward me. I have done all I could to ameliorate it. You still have a right to be bitter toward all the people who created the situation in which you must now live. Later, perhaps, you will understand that I am doing the best I can by you. You can, if you choose, make a home at Withywoods, at least for a time. It’s a lovely place in a gentle valley. It may not be Buckkeep, but neither is it a crude backwater town. You will have opportunities there for entertainment and refined socializing. You’ll be treated well and given an allowance of your own. ” He flickered a glance at me and saw my doubts. The plea in his expression deepened, and I looked away. Sparks were kindling in Shun’s eyes.

  Relentlessly, he continued. “Indeed, initially, Withywoods is where you must go. But if you find yourself unhappy there, I will make other arrangements for you. You may choose an appropriate location beyond Buck Duchy, and I will arrange for your lodging there. You will receive an allowance sufficient for a comfortable life, with up to two servants. That allowance will continue as long as you live quietly. That is for your safety. ”

  She lifted her head. “And if I don’t? If I get up and walk out that door right now?”

  Chade gave a small, defeated sigh. He shook his head. “You’d be putting yourself beyond the pale. I’d do what I could to protect you, but it wouldn’t be enough. You would be penniless. Your family would regard you as a renegade and a social liability. You would be discovered. ” He spoke the words I knew he would. “You’re like a double-edged blade with no handle, my dear. Dangerous to hold, and dangerous to set down. Someone would find you and either kill you or use you against the Farseers. ”

  “How? What could they possibly use me to do to the King? What danger am I to him?”

  I spoke before Chade could. “They could threaten Lord Chade if they had you as a hostage. Send him an ear or a lip to prove they were serious. ”

  She lifted a hand to her face, covering her mouth. She spoke through her spread fingers, suddenly a frightened child. “Can’t I just go back? You could demand they do more to protect me. I could stay where I was at—”

  “No. ” He cut her off sharply before she could betray where he’d been keeping her. An interesting puzzle for me. Somewhere close enough to Buckkeep Castle for him to visit often, yet far enough away that Riddle had never glimpsed her. His words stopped my musing. “Use your mind, Shun. ” Eyes wide, she shook her head at him.

  My heart sank. I knew. “Someone has already forced Chade’s hand. That’s why this is all happening so suddenly. ”

  She gave me a hateful look and turned back at her mentor. Chade was watching me. “For which I’m sorry. But you can see the situation I’m in. Fitz. It was not her father’s family who sought to kill her. She has enemies of her own. I need to place her somewhere safe. And the only place I have is with you. ” He looked at me with pleading sincerity. It was a look he had once made me practice in front of a looking glass for several hours. I did not laugh. We did not bare our tricks before others. I met it with a look of my own.

  “You have not told me who she is, nor who her enemies are. How can I guard her when I do not know whence the danger comes? Who are these enemies she has?”

  The mask fell from his face. The desperation in his eyes was real, now. “Please. Trust me and do this for me. Those who stand against her are ones I am not ready yet to discuss. You should know that before I ask this of you. That this favor will involve you taking a risk for me. My boy, I have no one else I can ask. Will you take her and keep her safe? For me?”

  And there it was. Any thoughts of refusing melted away. This was not a mere favor he was asking of me. It was a confirmation of who we were to each other. There was no one else he could ask this favor. No one who would understand her danger as I would, no one who would know how to protect her and still keep her from harming us. No one else could sheath this double-edged sword. This was not a request I could refuse. He knew that and he hated to ask it of me. Just as Chade drew a breath, I took control of the situation.

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  “I will. And I will do my best by her. ”

  Chade froze. Then he nodded weakly, relief slackening his face. I saw now how deeply he had feared I would refuse him. That shamed me.

  Shun drew a breath to speak but I stopped her with an uplifted hand. “Unfortunately, I have to leave now. I will need to prepare a place for you at Withywoods,” I announced.

  She looked startled. Good. Keep her unbalanced until it was all determined. I spoke calmly, taking it all out of Chade’s hands. “You will be given enough money to stay at this inn for three days. Riddle will remain here with you, as your protector. You need have no fear of him. He is a man of honor. You don’t seem to have brought much with you from your old home. So if there is something you need, just let him know. In three days he will escort you to Withywoods, where I will greet you as my cousin, come to help me manage my household. ” I took a breath. It was only logical, the best way to explain her arrival, and yet it still pained me to say the words aloud. “Since my wife’s recent death. ” I cleared my throat. “I have a little girl at home. And a large holding to manage for Lady Nettle. ” I lifted my eyes to meet hers. “You will be welcomed there. And you may stay as long as you find it to your liking. You do need to know that I do not live grandly as a nobleman, but as a Holder, the trusted caretaker of a large estate. I am not sure what you are accustomed to, but you may find us rustic. Simple. As my ‘cousin,’ you will have tasks to do, but I assure you that you will not be treated as a servant by anyone, but as a family member who has come to help in troubled times. ”

  “Tasks?” She said the word as if she could not fit her mouth around it. “But … I come of a noble family! On my mother’s side, I am …”

  “You aren’t,” Chade cut in decisively. “That name is a danger to you. You must leave it behind. I’ll give you a new name. My own. You are a Fallstar now. I give you my surname. The one that my mother gave to me. Shun Fallstar. ”

  She stared at him, shocked. Then, to my horror, tears fo
rmed in her eyes. Mouth ajar, she looked at Lord Chade as the drops began their slow passage down her cheeks. Chade went pale, the old pock-scars standing out against his face. Many thought them the sign of his survival of some plague. I knew them for what they were: the traces of an experiment with a mixture that had proved far more explosive than he had thought. Like him, I bore some scars from the things we had exploded together. Just as we had this girl’s life.

  I thought of the other life this would impact. My child, who was still just coming to know me. Bee was still adapting after her mother’s death. I wondered how she would react to this sudden inclusion of a new family member and knew the answer. She would not welcome it, any more than I did. Well, with a great deal of luck, it would not be for long, just until Chade found a better solution for all of us. Still. I looked at Shun. “Have you any experience with children?”

  She made a quick swipe at her tears and shook her head. “I grew up with my grandparents. My mother was their only surviving child, so there were no other youngsters in their household. Only me. The servants had children but I had little to do with them. And my mother’s nieces were the children of her husband’s brother, and perfect little beasts. ” She took a breath and exclaimed, “I told you, I can’t pretend to be her governess. I won’t do that!”

  “No. I only wondered if you were accustomed to children. You aren’t. And I have no problems with that. I suspect you thought you might guard my child for me. I don’t think that will be needed at all. I can find other tasks for you, ones that have to do with running the household staff. ” Yet another thing I must invent. Busywork to keep her occupied.

  Given the sort of child that Bee was, perhaps it was best that Shun had no experience of other children. Bee might seem less odd to her. But the vehemence of her instant response to the thought that she might have to care for the child was a small warning to me. I would keep Bee at a safe distance from her until I had gauged her character. I stood to leave. Chade looked alarmed.

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