Fools assassin, p.44
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       Fools Assassin, p.44

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

  “Stop that! You’ll make the fire smoke. ”

  I hit it one more time, and then put the poker back. I didn’t look at her.

  “I suppose it’s as well that you are not wearing skirts. You’d dirty them down there. Why are you sitting on the hearth instead of in a chair?”

  The chairs were too tall. My feet dangled. I looked at the newly swept bricks. “It’s not dirty here. ”

  “Why are you dressed like a boy?”

  I looked down at my tunic and leggings. I had a few spiderwebs on my ankle. I picked them free. “I’m dressed comfortably. Do you like wearing all those layers of skirts?”

  Shun flounced them out around herself. They were pretty, like the spread petals of a flower. The outer skirts were a blue one shade lighter than Buckkeep blue. The petticoat beneath was an even lighter blue, and the lacy edge of it showed deliberately. It matched the pale blue of the bodice of her dress, and the lace was the same as the lace at her throat and cuffs. That dress and petticoat had not come from any crossroads market. They’d probably been made especially for her. She smoothed them with satisfaction. “They’re warm. And very pretty. They were expensive, too. ” She lifted her hand and touched her earrings, as if I could have failed to notice them. “So were these. Pearls from Jamaillia. Lord Chade got them for me. ”

  I wore a simple tunic, sewn by my mother and made long enough to be modest, over a long-sleeved wool shirt. My tunic was belted at my waist with a leather belt and came to my knees. Below it, I wore only my woolen leggings and slippers. No one had ever suggested before that I was dressed like a boy, but now I recalled how the stable boys dressed. Not so different from me. Even the kitchen girls wore skirts, all the time. I looked at the cuffs of my sleeves. They were soiled with cobwebs and chalk from my earlier adventure. The knees of my leggings were dirty, too. I suddenly knew that my mother would have made me change my clothes before I came down to dinner with guests, into my red skirts perhaps. She would have put ribbons in my hair. I lifted my hand to my hair and smoothed down what was left of it.

  Shun nodded. “That’s a little better. It was standing up like feathers on a bird’s head. ”

  “It’s too short to braid. I cut it because my mother died. ” I looked at her directly for one instant.

  Shun met my gaze coldly. Then she said, “I can only wish my mother were dead. I think it would make my life easier. ”

  I stared at her knees. Her words cut me and I tried to understand why. After a moment it came to me. She considered her pain more significant than mine. I felt she had said that her cruel mother’s life going on was a greater tragedy than my mother’s death. In that moment I hated her. But I also discovered another important thing. I could do as my father did: that is, lift my eyes and meet her gaze and let nothing of what I was thinking show in my face.

  That thought surprised me. I studied her, saying nothing, and realized that she did not share my ability. Everything she felt at the moment was writ broad and plain on her face. Perhaps she thought I was too young to read her face, or that it was unimportant if I could. But she was not trying to hide anything from me. She had known her callous words would hurt me. She was miserable and resented being in my home and was irritated by being left with me. And in her misery, she was striking out at me because I was there. And because she thought I could not strike back.

  I did not feel pity for her. She was too dangerous for me to pity. I suspected that in her thoughtless wretchedness she could employ cruelty such as I had never experienced from an adult. I suddenly feared that she could destroy all of us, and take whatever little peace my father and I had found. She sat there in her pretty clothes and pearl earrings and looked at me, so small and, she thought, very young, and dirty and common. Of course. She thought me the daughter of commoner Tom Badgerlock. Not the lost Princess of the Farseer family! Just the daughter of Withywoods’s widowed caretaker. Yet I had a home and a father who loved me and memories of a mother who had cherished me. None of that seemed fair to her.

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  “You’ve gone quiet,” she observed intently. She was like a bored cat poking at a mouse to see if it was dead all the way.

  “It’s late, for me. I’m a child, you know. I go to bed quite early on most nights. ” I yawned for her, not covering my mouth. In a softer voice, I added, “And self-pitying tales of woe always bore me, which makes me sleepy. ”

  She stared at me, her eyes going greener. She reached as if to tidy her hair and pulled out one of the long pins that secured it. She drew it between her thumb and forefinger as if to deliberately call my attention to it. Did she think to threaten me with it? She stood abruptly and I jumped to my feet. I bet I could outrun her, but dodging past her to the door might be a challenge. I heard a murmur in the hall and an instant later Riddle opened the door. My father was behind him. “Good night!” I called cheerily to them. I ran past a glowering Shun to hug my father briefly and then step back hastily. “It’s been such a long day, and so full of unexpected events. I’m quite weary. I think I shall take myself to bed now. ”

  “Well …” My father looked astonished. “If you’re tired. Shall I see you to your room?”

  “Yes,” Riddle said strongly before I could reply. Shun was tidying her hair, smiling as she slid the pin back into her bound tresses. “She didn’t feel well earlier. You should see that she is tucked in warmly and that a nice fire is on her hearth. ”

  “Yes. I should,” he agreed. He was smiling and nodding, as if it were perfectly normal that I seek my bed at such an hour. Usually we stayed up late together, and often I fell asleep on the hearth in his study. Now he begged his guests to excuse him briefly, promised to return, and then took my hand as we left. I did not pull it free of his grip until the door was closed behind us. “What are you up to?” he demanded as we made our way toward the stairs and my bedchamber.

  “Nothing. It’s night. I’m going to bed. It’s what children do, I am told. ”

  “Shun’s face was flushed. ”

  “I think she was sitting too close to the fire. ”

  “Bee. ” My name was all he said, but there was rebuke in the word. I was silent. I did not feel I deserved it. Should I tell him of her hairpin? Doubtless he would think me silly.

  We reached my door and I seized the door handle before he could. “I want only to go to bed tonight. Doubtless you need to hurry back to talk to the other adults. ”

  “Bee!” he exclaimed, and now my name meant that I had struck him, hurting him and also provoking a bit of anger. I didn’t care. Let him go fuss over poor pitiful Shun. She needed his sympathy, not me. His face went still. “Stay here while I check your room. ”

  I did as he told me, waiting by the open door. But the moment he came out, I slipped in through the door and shut it behind me. I waited, holding on to the door handle, to see if he would try to come in and talk to me.

  But he didn’t. I knew he wouldn’t. I walked across the room and put another log on the hearth fire. I wasn’t sleepy.

  I peeled off my clothing, bunched it up, and sniffed it. Not just dirty, but definitely a mousy smell to it, probably from the spy-corridors. I thought of Stripy patrolling for rats and mice. I thought of stealthily leaving my room and going to my father’s study to see if the cat wanted to come out yet. But I would have to get dressed again, and if my father caught me wandering the halls tonight he would be angry. I’d get up very early, I decided. Both my winter nightshirts smelled a bit fusty. When my mother was alive clothing always smelled like cedar and herbs if taken right from the chest, or sunlight and lavender if freshly washed. I had suspected that the household staff had become more lax about their chores since my mother’s death, but this was the first time I had realized how directly it would affect me.

  I blamed my father. Then I blamed myself. How could I even begin to imagine that he could know these things? He probably had no idea that it had been weeks since I had b
athed my whole body or washed my hair. True, it was winter, but my mother had always made me wash my whole body in a tub at least once a week, even in winter. I wondered if the extra servants he had hired would mean that things would go back to the way they had been. I rather thought not. I doubted they would until someone took the reins.

  Perhaps Shun? The thought made steel of my spine. No. Me. This was my household, really. I was the female here, standing in my sister’s stead, in my sister’s house. I imagined that the servants my father had always supervised were doing their work as they always had. Revel looked over his shoulder for those ones. But my mother had overseen the household staff. Revel was good at making things fancy, but I didn’t think he supervised the daily washing up and dusting and tidying. I would have to step up to that now.

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  I pulled on my least smelly nightshirt. I looked at my feet, and used what water was left in my ewer to wash my face, hands, and feet. I built up my fire and clambered into my bed. There was so much to think about that I thought I would never be able to fall asleep.

  But I did because I woke to the colorless girl standing over my bed. Ruby tears were on her cheeks. Pink blood was frothing on her lips. She stared at me. “The message,” she said, spitting blood with the words, and then she fell upon me.

  I shrieked and struggled out from under her. She clutched at me but I was off the bed and heading for the door in less than a breath. I was screaming but no sound was coming out. The door latch jiggled in my fumbling panic and then it swung open and I raced out into the dark hall. My bare feet slapped the floor and I was making little shrieks now. What if my father’s bedroom door was latched, what if he wasn’t there but down in his study or somewhere else in the house?

  “Pa-pa-pa-pa,” I heard myself stuttering, but I could not get any volume from my voice. His door opened at my touch and to my shock he was on his feet, a knife in his hand before I could even reach his bed. He was barefoot and his shirt was half-open, as if he’d been getting ready for bed. He snatched me up in his free arm, then twisted his body so that I was almost behind him and his knife menaced the open doorway. He spoke without taking his eyes from it.

  “Are you hurt? What is it, where?”

  “My room. The girl. ” My teeth were chattering with such terror that I do not imagine I spoke clearly. He still seemed to understand. He dropped me almost gently to the floor and began to move.

  “Behind me. Close behind me, Bee. ”

  He didn’t look back to see if I obeyed. He went, running, knife in hand, and I had to race after him, going back to the last place in the world I wished to be. With no knife in my hand. If I lived through tonight, I promised myself that would never happen again. I’d steal a knife for myself from the kitchen and keep it under my pillow. I would.

  We reached my room and he angrily gestured me back from the door. His lips were pulled back from his teeth, and his eyes were dark and wild. Wolf-Father was in them, and his anger was a killing anger that anything would threaten his cub. He halted at the threshold, and stared into the room that was lit only by the dying flames of the hearth. His nostrils were flared and he moved his head from side to side. Then he went very still. He advanced so slowly on the sprawled figure on my bed that it was as if only one small part of him moved at a time. He glanced back at me. “You defended yourself? You killed her?”

  I shook my head. My throat was still dry with terror but I managed to say, “I ran. ”

  A terse nod. “Good. ” He drew closer to my bed and stared down at her.

  He stiffened suddenly, lifting his knife to the ready, and I heard her dry whisper. “The message. You must hear the message. Before I die. ”

  His face changed. “Bee. Bring water. ”

  There was only a bit left in my ewer. I went into the room where we had left her and found the tray with the untouched food. There was water for tea in a pot, gone cold. I brought it to my father. He had arranged her on my bed. “Drink a little,” he urged her, and held the cup to her lips. She opened her mouth but could not seem to swallow what she took. It ran out of her mouth and over her chin, washing the pink even paler. “Where did you go?” my father demanded of her. “We could not find you. ”

  Her eyes were opened to slits. The lids looked dry and crusty. “I was … there. In the bed. Oh. ” She suddenly looked even sadder. “Oh. The cloak. It was the cloak. I was cold and pulled the cloak over me. It vanished me. ”

  I had ventured closer to the bed. I did not think she was aware of me; I thought perhaps she was blind now. My father and I exchanged skeptical looks. She moved her hand in a vague gesture. It reminded me of a slender willow leaf moving in the wind. “It takes on the colors and shadows. Don’t lose it … very old, you know. ” Her chest rose slowly and then fell. She was so still I thought she was dead. Then she cried out as if pained by the words, “The message. ”

  “I’m here. I’m listening. ” My father took her narrow hand in his. “Too warm,” he murmured. “Much too warm. ”

  “So hard to think. To focus. He made it … a pattern. Easier to remember. Not safe to write it down. ”

  “I understand. ”

  She sniffed in a breath. When she breathed out, little pink bubbles formed along her lip. I didn’t want to look at them and couldn’t look away.

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  “By four things, you will know I am a true messenger from him and trust me. Ratsy was on his scepter. Your mother’s name was never said. You served a man behind a wall. He took his fingerprints from your wrist. ” She paused, breathing. We waited. I saw her swallow and she turned her face toward my father. “Satisfied?” she asked him faintly. “That I am a true messenger?” I was right. She could not see his face.

  He jerked as if stuck with a pin. “Yes, yes, of course. I trust you. Are you hungry? Do you think you could drink some warmed milk or eat something?” He closed his eyes for a moment and went very still. “We would never have neglected you so if we had known you were still here. When we could not find you, we thought you had felt well enough to travel and left us. ”

  He did not mention that we had wondered if she was hiding somewhere in the house, hoping to kill us.

  Her breath made a sound on every intake. “No. No food. Too late for food. ” She tried to clear her throat, and the spill of blood on her lips went redder. “Not time to think of me. The message. ”

  “I can still send for a healer. ”

  “The message,” she insisted. “The message and then you can do whatever you wish. ”

  “The message, then,” my father capitulated. “I’m listening. Go on!”

  She strangled for a moment and then pink slid over her lip and down her chin. My father wiped it tenderly away with the corner of my blanket. I decided I would sleep in his bed tonight. When she could, she took in air and said on a breath, “He told you. The old dream prophecies foretold the unexpected son. The one who sent me once interpreted them to mean you. But now he thinks perhaps not. He believes there could be another one. A son, unlooked for and unexpected. A boy left somewhere along the way. He does not know where, or when, or who mothered him. But he hopes you can find him. Before the hunters do. ” She ran out of breath. She coughed, and spluttered out blood and spit. She closed her eyes and for a time, just tried to breathe.

  “The Fool had a son?” My father was incredulous.

  She gave a short, sharp nod. Then she shook her head. “His and yet not his. A half-blood White. But it’s possible he appears as a full White. Like me. ” Her breathing steadied for a time and I thought she had finished. Then she took a deeper breath. “You must search for him. When you find the unexpected son, you must keep him safe. Tell no one you have him. Speak of your quest to no one. It’s the only way to keep him safe. ”

  “I’ll find him,” my father promised. She smiled faintly, her teeth showing pink. “I’ll send for a healer now,” my father said, but she moved her head
in a feeble shake.

  “No. There’s more. Water, please. ”

  He held the cup to her mouth. She didn’t drink, but sloshed the water in her mouth and let it run out over her chin. He wiped her face again.

  “Hunters will come. Acting friendly, maybe. Or in disguise. Making you believe they are friends. ” She spoke in short bursts, breathing in between. “Trust the unexpected son to no one. Even if they say they have come for him, to take him where he belongs. Wait for the one who sent me. He will come for him, if he can. So he said, when he sent me. So long ago … why did he not get here before me? I fear … no. I must believe that he’s still journeying. He escaped but they will hunt him. When he is able to, he will come. But slowly. He has to evade them. It will take him time. But he will get here. Until then, you must find him and keep him safe. ” I was not certain she believed her own words.

  “Where should I look?” my father asked her urgently.

  She shook her head slightly. “I don’t know. If he knew, he gave me no hints. So if they captured me and tortured me, I could not betray him. ” She moved her head on the pillow, her blind eyes seeking for him. “Will you find him?”

  He took her hand and held it carefully. “I’ll find his son and keep him safe until he gets here. ” I wondered if he lied to make her feel better.

  Her eyes closed until only a pale-gray moon showed under the lids. “Yes. So valuable. They will want him badly. Enough to kill. If they take him …” Her brow wrinkled. “Like I was treated. A tool. No choices. ” Her eyelids fluttered open and her queer, colorless stare seemed to meet his gaze. “I’ve borne three children. Never seen or held any. They take them. As they took me. ”

  “I don’t understand,” my father said, but at her desperate look, he amended it to, “I understand enough. I will find him and I will keep him safe. I promise. Now we will make you comfortable and you will rest. ”

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  “Burn my body,” she said insistently.

  “If it comes to that, I will. But for now …”

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