Fools assassin, p.41
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       Fools Assassin, p.41

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

  He made a small gasping sound as I lowered him to the table, and I caught his meaning. As gently as I could, I turned him, putting him on his belly. He still gave a whimper of pain, but I knew the injuries to his back would be the worst ones.

  Bee had watched in silence. Now she picked up two small buckets meant for honey. “Hot water or cold?” she asked me gravely.

  “Some of each,” I told her.

  She paused at the door. “Honey is good for infections,” she told me gravely. “The butterfly man will feel more at home here, for bees are not, perhaps, so different from butterflies. ”

  She left and I heard her small feet pattering down the hall. I wondered what Riddle thought of my sudden abandonment of him, and what he would say to Nettle and Chade. It was so rude of me. I unfastened the glorious cloak and set it aside. Strange garment; it weighed scarcely more than spider silk. It reminded me of the amazing tent that the Fool had brought with him to the Out Islands. I thrust the memory down. I hoped Shun was not feeling neglected. Would her temporary chambers please her? I thought about that carefully, and what excuses I could make for any delay, as my hands cut away his bloody tunic. I peeled his garment away from his back as if I were skinning a deer. The blood-soaked fabric was stiff as a frozen hide and clung to the wounds. I gritted my teeth and tried to be gentle as I tugged it free. Two of the injuries broke open afresh, leaking watery blood. He lay very still, and only when I had stripped his clothes away did I pause to think how very gaunt he was. I could count the knobs of his spine below the nape of his neck, and his ribs pushed tight against the skin of his back.

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  The wounds had come from some sort of missiles, I guessed. Not arrows, but something smaller that had penetrated deeply. Darts? He’d managed to pull them out, I judged. At least, nothing projected from any of the crusted, swollen wounds.

  “Water. ” She spoke in a strange accent, her voice so different from my Fool’s voice that I knew instantaneously that I had been completely mistaken. The breath caught in my throat. Disappointment drenched me, even as buoyant joy that this dying person was not my old friend welled. What a dizzying trick my mind had played on me, taking me back to my adolescence and convincing me this was indeed the Fool! Yet she appeared almost identical to my recollection of him as he had been in those days. Relief nearly unmanned me more than my previous panic. I held to the edge of the table as my knees bent. Oh, how the years had changed me. Where was my iron resolve, my forged nerves? Would I faint? I would not. Yet I let my knees touch the floor and lowered my head, pretending I stooped to look into her face.

  She was not the Fool. Only her coloring was the same. She had no scent, just as the Fool had lacked, and to my Wit she was not there at all. But her nose was more pointed, her chin more rounded than the Fool’s had ever been. However had I looked at her and thought she was him?

  “The water is coming,” I said hoarsely. “I’ll let you drink first. Then we need to clean up these wounds. ”

  “Are you a healer?”

  “No. I’m not. But years ago I had a friend like you. ” I halted. The Fool had always refused to go to healers. He’d resisted anyone touching his body for such a purpose. I realized that might not be true for every White. “I’ll send for a healer, right away. ”

  “No. ” She spoke quickly. Her voice was breathy with weakness and pain. “They don’t understand. We’re not like your people. ” She moved her head in a feeble denial.

  “I’ll do what I can for you, then. Clean and bind your wounds, at least. ”

  She moved her head. I couldn’t tell if she was acceding or denying me permission. She tried to clear her throat but her voice went huskier. “What did you call your friend?”

  I stood quietly. My heart went to a very still place inside me. “He was a jester at King Shrewd Farseer’s court. Everyone just called him the Fool. ”

  “Not everyone. ” She gathered her strength. “What you called him?” She spoke in a learned tongue, without accent, only the dropped words betraying her.

  I swallowed fear and regret. This was not a time to lie. “Beloved. I called him Beloved. ”

  Her lips pulled back in what was intended as a smile. Her breath was foul with sickness. “Then, I have not failed. Not yet. Late as I am, I have done as he bid. I bring a message for you. And a warning. ”

  I heard a voice in the corridor. “Let me carry them. You’re spilling them trying to hurry. ”

  “I don’t think you should be following me. ” Bee’s retort to Riddle was both tart and indignant. He’d followed her to track me. He was still Chade’s man. Probably Nettle’s as well, when it came to spying. Useless to try to avoid what was coming. But I could spare my guest a bit of humiliation. I took off my shirt and spread it lightly over her. She still gasped at the touch and then, “Oh, warm. From your body. ” She sounded pathetically grateful.

  A moment later Bee opened the door and Riddle came in bearing the little buckets. He looked at me in my woolen undershirt and then at the table. “An injured traveler,” I said. “Would you run down to the village and bring back the healer?” That would get him out of my way until I had time to wash and bind her wounds.

  Riddle stepped in for a closer look. “She’s so pale!” he exclaimed. He studied her face. She stayed perfectly still, eyes closed, but I didn’t think she was unconscious, only feigning it. “She reminds me of someone …”

  I didn’t let myself smile. I recalled now that he’d never met the Fool when he was so obviously a White. By the time Riddle knew him, he was the aptly named Lord Golden, a tawny man indeed. But this girl was as the Fool had been in his childhood: pale with colorless eyes and fine white hair.

  Riddle’s gaze shifted to Bee. “And? You’re talking now?”

  Her gaze flashed to me and then shifted back to Riddle. She smiled artlessly up at him. “Papa said I should try not to be so shy around you. ”

  “How long have you been able to speak so clearly?” he pressed her. She glanced at me again, seeking rescue.

  “She’s lost a lot of blood,” I said, to hurry him away. It worked. He set the little buckets on the table and turned for the door.

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  “Bring Granny Wirk,” I said to his back. “She lives at the crossroads just on the other side of the Withy. ” And she was older than most of the trees in the area and slow to move. A good healer, but it would take him time to return with her. And I hoped to be finished with my own ministrations by then.

  Then the door was closing behind him, and I looked at Bee conspiratorially. “I know you couldn’t have kept him from following you,” I told her. “But do you think you can keep Shun occupied? Take her on a tour of the house that doesn’t bring her anywhere near here?”

  She stared up at me. Her blue eyes, so unlike my own or Molly’s, seemed to look past my flesh and bones to the heart of me. “Why is she a secret?”

  On the table, our guest stirred slightly. She almost lifted her head. Her voice was a whisper. “I’m in danger. Hunted. Please. Let no one know I’m here. The water? Please. ”

  I had no cup but there was a honey ladle among Molly’s tools. I supported her head as she drank three ladles of the cool water. As I eased her head back onto the table, I reflected that it was too late for me to call Riddle back. He knew she was here, and when he reached the crossroads, Granny Wirk would know we had an injured traveler, too. I pondered a moment.

  Bee interrupted my thoughts. “We’ll wait a short time. Then let’s send Shaky Amos to follow Riddle and tell him that our guest felt better and left on her own. And not to bring the healer after all. ”

  I stared at her in surprise.

  “It’s the best we can do,” she said almost sullenly. “If Riddle has already spoken to the healer, it will put any hunters off her trail. For a short time, at least. ”

  I nodded. “Very well. Off you go, then. After you
tell Amos, then you must keep Shun busy for a while. Show her the house, then the gardens, and then take her back to the parlor and leave her there, while you go tell the kitchen to send up a nice tray for her. Then slip away here to let me know how it all went. Can you do all that?” I hoped it would keep her busy as well as keeping Shun occupied.

  She gave a sharp nod. “I know where Amos takes his naps,” she said. She stood suddenly taller, inflated with importance. Shaky Amos had a decade or so on me, and had come as part of the Withywoods staff. He was, as his name suggested, afflicted with trembling, the result of a blow to the head many years before. He had been at the estate since Patience’s time there and had earned his quiet days. Once he had been a sheep shearer. That task was beyond him now, but he could lean on a crook and watch the flock on fine days. He liked to be given specific tasks from time to time. He might be slow but he still had his pride. He’d do the job admirably.

  At the door, she halted. “So my butterfly man is a girl?”

  “So it seems,” I said.

  Our invalid had opened her eyes. She stared vacantly and then her gaze fastened on Bee. A slow smile curved her lips. “Where did he come from?”

  “Riddle? He followed Bee here. He’s an old friend, and no danger to you. ”

  Her eyes sagged shut again.

  “It’s so strange. I was so sure the butterfly man was a man. Not a girl. ” Bee looked annoyed as she shook her head and informed me, “Dreams are not to be trusted. Not completely. ”

  She stood still, appearing to consider that as if it were a new idea.

  “Bee?” Her eyes were far. “Bee? Are you feeling well? You were so strange when you came to tell me about the butterfly man …”

  Her eyes finally came to me and then slid away. “I’m fine now. I felt very tired. Then I fell asleep. And the dream came and told me it was time. And it brought me to you and then—” She looked puzzled. “Then the dream was over and here we were. ” She slipped quietly from the room.

  For a time, I stared after her. Then the girl on the table gave a brief moan of pain. My mind snapped into the now and I went to work. In the cupboards there were pots of honey, sealed with wax, and slabs of cleaned wax waiting to be transformed into candles. They’d probably still be here, a decade hence. I found the cloths Molly had used for straining the honey and the wax. They were stained but very clean. I remembered how she would wash them outside in a big kettle of boiling water and then put them on the line to bleach and dry. I chose the oldest, softest rags and knew she would forgive me as I tore some into strips for bandaging.

  I softened the scabs on the young White’s back with the warm water and gently cleaned away the blood and ooze from her wounds. There were four of them. I did not want to probe them, but knew personally the danger of leaving anything inside them. I pressed one and she grunted in pain. “You don’t have to search them,” she said breathlessly. “My companion cleaned them as well as he could. What went into me, there is no taking out. They closed over, for a time, and we fled. It almost seemed they were starting to heal. Before the hunters caught up with us. They killed my friend. And I opened the wounds again when I fled. And in the days since, I haven’t been able to clean them. Now it’s too late. ” She blinked her eyes. Drops of blood like ruby tears stood at the corners of them. “It was always too late,” she admitted sadly. “I just couldn’t let myself believe it. ”

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  She held a long tale, I sensed. I did not think she was up to telling me all of it, but felt the urgency of knowing the Fool’s message right away. “I’m going to dress these with some honey and oil. I just need to fetch the oil. When I come back, do you think you could give me my message?”

  She looked at me with pale eyes so like the Fool’s had been. “Useless,” she said. “I’m a useless messenger. I was sent to warn you of the hunters. So you could find the sun and run before them. ” She sighed out, long, and I thought she had lapsed into sleep. With her eyes closed, she admitted faintly, “I fear I may have led them right to your doorstep. ”

  Her words made small sense to me, but her anxiety was agitating her and taking all her strength. “Don’t worry about that just now,” I told her, but she had sagged back into unconsciousness. I took advantage of that lapse to fetch oil and dress her injuries. When I had finished, I gathered her cut clothing around her as well as I could. “I’m going to move you now,” I warned her. She made no response, and I tried to be gentle as I gathered her into my arms.

  I took a little-used servants’ corridor and stair and went by a roundabout path to my own room. I shouldered the door open and then halted, shocked. I stared at the rucked linens and bunched blankets on my bed. The room smelled closed and sweaty, a boar’s den. Discarded clothing sprawled across the top of the storage chest and dangled to the floor. Melted candle stubs littered the mantelpiece. The heavy curtains were closed, shutting out the winter’s light. Not even in Chade’s messiest days had his den ever looked this dismal.

  After Molly’s death, I had sequestered myself here and ordered the servants to let all things be in the room. I had not wanted anything to change from the last time Molly had touched them. But change they had, on their own. The wrinkles in the linens on the unmade bed had become set like ripples in the bottom of a slow river. The light perfume that had always seemed to follow Molly had been replaced with the stink of my own sweat. When had the room become so oppressive? When Molly had shared it with me there had not been wax drippings down the candelabra, nor a coating of dust on the mantelpiece. It was not that she had tidied after me, no: I had not lived so brutishly under her roof. The wolf in me curled his lip and wrinkled his nose in distaste at denning in such a fouled place.

  I thought of myself as a tidy person; this room suddenly looked like the cell of a madman or a recluse. It stank of despair and loss. I could not bear to be in it and I backed out so hastily that I tapped my charge’s head on the door frame. She made a small sound of distress and then was still.

  Bee’s room was just down the corridor. In it, a connecting door led to a small chamber designed for a nurse or nanny. I pushed that door open and went inside. It had never been used for its intended purpose, but had become a storage place for odd bits of furniture. It was not much larger than a cell, but there was a narrow bed beside a dusty stand with a ewer on top of it. An airing rack for linens leaned drunkenly in the corner next to a broken footstool. I dragged the faded coverlet off the bed and deposited my pale victim there, pillowing her head on her butterfly cloak. I built up the fire in Bee’s hearth and left the door open for the heat to wander in. I made a trip back to my room and found a clean blanket in the linen chest. It smelled of cedar when I took it out and a touch of something else. Molly.

  I hugged it tight to me for a moment. Then I sighed past my tight throat and hurried back to the girl. I covered her warmly and considered my options. Time was trickling swiftly past me. As I wondered if Riddle was on his way back and if I should maintain the lie once he returned to Withywoods, I heard the door behind me sigh open. I spun, going into a fighter’s crouch.

  My daughter was not impressed. She halted, frowned at me in puzzlement, and then nodded as I straightened. “I see why you put her here. There’s water in my washstand ewer still. ” As she spoke, she fetched it from her room and carried it back with her cup. As I filled the cup, she spoke. “You should go down and tell Tavia I don’t feel well and I need a tray of food in my room. I’ll stay here and watch over her while you go find something to keep Shun busy. I confess, that’s a task that is beyond me. Are you sure she has come to help us? She seems the most useless person I have ever met. Full of sniffs and sighs, as if nothing meets her approval. I wouldn’t be surprised if she wanted to leave with Riddle when he goes. ”

  “Glad to see that you’re getting along so well,” I said.

  She looked at me and replied, “I didn’t bring her here to help me, you know. ”
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  I heard her mother in her voice and didn’t know whether to cry or laugh. “That’s true,” I surrendered. “You left her where?”

  “I took her back to the Mockingbird Room. But there’s no assurance she’s still there. She does have legs, you know. And she’s a nosy sort of person. She opened the door to nearly every bedchamber to see if there was one she liked better than the one Revel had prepared. She’s not a bit shy. ”

  “Indeed,” I agreed. I propped the girl’s head up and held the cup to her lips. She opened her eyes to white slits, but she sucked at the water and took some down. I put the cup on the stand beside her. “I think she will be all right for now. I’ll tell Tavia that you need a nice warm broth. Try to get her to drink some while it’s still warm. Is there anything you really want to eat?”

  Bee shook her head. “Not hungry just yet. ”

  “Very well. ” I hesitated. “Do you think you can give her some broth if she wakes?”

  She looked offended that I would ask.

  I cast a glance at the unconscious girl. She had a message for me, one from the Fool. She had warned me of danger already, hunters on her trail. And who did I trust to watch over her? A nine-year-old girl the size of a six-year-old. I’d have to do better, but for now … “Keep watch, and I’ll be back as soon as I can. ”

  I visited the kitchen, delivered Bee’s suggested message to Tavia, asked them to send food for me to the Mockingbird Room, and then joined Shun there. As soon as I entered the room, Mild bustled in to set a fresh pot of tea. When she left the room, I apologized to Shun for neglecting her. “Riddle was called off on an errand, and I’m afraid Bee does not feel well right now. She has taken to her bed for a few hours. So. ” I forced a hearty smile onto my face. “What do you think of Withywoods? Do you think you can be happy here with us for a time?”

  Shun looked at me incredulously. “Happy here? Who of you is happy here? I have seen only chaos since I arrived. Riddle has left me to my own devices, without a ‘by your leave’ or even a farewell. Your daughter … Well. You yourself must know what a strange little work she is! She looks like a boy! If Riddle had not informed me that was your daughter, I would have thought her part of the stable staff here. I do not know what Lord Chade was thinking to send me here!”

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