Fools assassin, p.47
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       Fools Assassin, p.47

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

  All I have are questions, and each one is a torment to me at a time when I am overwhelmed by other concerns. You have set me a mysterious task with few clues. I fear it is an essential one. But just as essential are those already in my hands. The raising of my daughter … shall I again abandon my own child, this time to go in search of yours? Too little information, old friend, and too large a sacrifice.

  Unfinished letter from the desk of FitzChivalry Farseer

  I stood alone in my room and listened to Shun shrieking out in the hallway. Bitterness rose in me. After all I had gone through tonight with him, all I had done to help him, one cry from her, and my father ran off and left me standing in the semi-dark in soggy clothing. I pushed the lid of the chest up higher and strained to reach the bottom and, by touch, discover something dry and comfortable I would wear to bed. I pushed past winter socks and itchy wool shirts. My fingertips touched something, and then I got hold of it and pulled it up from the bottom of the chest.

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  It was a warm felted nightrobe. Red. My favorite color. I carried it closer to the fire to look at it. It was new and unworn. I turned the collar inside-out and knew the stitches. My mother had made this. For me. Made it and set it aside, as she had so often done, to be pulled out the moment I outgrew my old one.

  I shed my wet garments where I stood and pulled the new nightrobe on over my head. It fit well, save that it was a bit long. I lifted it to walk. It made me feel elegant to have to catch up my skirt when I walked, even if it was only the train of my nightrobe.

  The ghost cried out, a long, distant wail that lifted the hair on the back of my head. I stood frozen for an instant. Then it came again, closer and louder. Two things happened in that moment. I knew I should never have left a cat in the spy-maze, and I abruptly deduced that yes, my chamber did have an entrance to the secret corridors. It just wasn’t where I had thought it would be.

  I pushed open the door to the maidservant’s room. The firelight barely reached into the room. I went back for a candle. The pale stranger’s bedding was as she had left it, crumpled on the bed. I knew better than to touch it. I edged around it and as I did, my feet tangled in something and I nearly fell. I cried out, in fear of the infected bedding, and the ghost cried in response.

  “Just a minute!” I hissed low. “I’m coming. Be quiet and I’ll give you a big piece of fish. ”

  Water. The cat wanted water. I should have known that. He’d already found and claimed his salt fish reward, and now he was thirsty. “Water, then. And sausage from the pantry. But be quiet until I can get to you. Please. ”

  A rumbly meow of agreement and warning. If his reward was slow in coming, he was going to sing the stones down around me.

  Heart thundering, I looked down at my feet, fearing to see a flood of biting insects climbing my legs. Instead I saw only the hem of my nightrobe and, when I lifted it, my bare feet against the plank floor. Holding my robe high and bringing my candle close, I stooped. I stared. I could feel that my foot was on top of something that was not the floor, but I couldn’t see anything there.

  I hiked my robe higher so I could grip the hem in my teeth and curled my toes. They clasped fabric. Light and soft. I reached down and pinched it between my forefinger and thumb and as I did, a flap of it fell over, revealing once more the butterfly-wing pattern on the underside. I dropped it, startled. And again, my foot was apparently bare against the floor, but half of my toes were gone. One corner of the cloak was upturned to show the delicate panes of color. As I stared in astonishment, my toes slowly formed on the fabric. I could feel that the cloth covered them but I could see them.

  I pinched the butterfly-color part of the cloak up between my thumb and forefinger and stood. Now I could see it. It hung from my uplifted hand, a garment of riotous color and very little weight. This, then, was how we had not seen her in the bed. The strange words of the messenger came back to me. “It takes on the colors and shadows. ” No wonder she had cautioned us not to discard it. It was a treasure from an old tale! Abruptly my fear of contagion vanished, to be replaced with the certainty that if my father saw this, he would take it from me and probably destroy it to protect me.

  I set my candle on the floor and, standing carefully free of the bedding’s touch, shook out the cloak and folded it, butterfly-side-out. It made a surprisingly small packet. I thought to myself that such thin fabric would be delicate and of small use against wind or rain. I resolved to take great care with it.

  Stripy Cat meowed again. “Hush!” I cautioned him. Then I suggested, “Dig or scratch where you see my light. I’m trying to find the door. ”

  The faint scrabbling came from under the bed. I didn’t want to touch the bed frame but I did. I seized it in both hands and with an effort pulled the heavy bed away from the wall. It seemed to me it was much heavier than it needed to be, and I suspect it had been made so just to discourage a servant from moving it.

  I lifted my candle and edged past the bed frame to the wall, to peer and poke at the wooden panels. The cat clawed diligently, even frantically. I could not see an opening or trigger, but when I put my hand where he was scratching I felt a draft. And the sound, it seemed to me, was much louder than it should have been. “Be patient,” I warned him again, and suddenly thought of the door in the study. I shut the door to the room and studied the hinges. No false hinges, but there was one plank of wood behind the door that was narrower than its fellows. I caught my nails in the edge of it and tugged at it till it swung out. Behind it was a lever covered in cobwebs and spotted with rust. I pulled it and it groaned. It did not travel far, but a section of wall behind the bed suddenly moved out of alignment. The cat’s excited meow was louder now.

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  “Shush!” I warned him. I suspected I had very little time until my father returned. I needed to hide my cloak, reward and banish the cat, and be back in my room before I was missed. I returned the narrow panel to its place, gritted my teeth, and edged around the contaminated bed. When I leaned on the displaced wall panel, it swung in. I stepped inside, pushing the cat back with my foot. “Don’t go out here! There’s no water here,” I warned him. He growled but backed away. I tucked the cloak under my arm, set down my candle, and used every bit of my strength to pull the bed back into place. That done, I stepped into the secret corridor and pushed the concealed door closed behind me.

  Cat first, I decided, and he was pleased that I did so. “Take us back to the pantry,” I suggested in a whisper. “To the fish!” Stripy led and I followed. Twice he stopped so abruptly that I nearly trod on him. But he knew the way and we reached the concealed door in the pantry and together emerged there. I had to pile up boxes to reach a fine string of sausages hung out of our reach. Again, I wished for a belt-knife. I had to bite two of the sausages free of their fellows. The cat called piteously, reminding me it was water he craved most.

  Together we ventured into the kitchen where I found water for him. He drank and drank while I examined my butterfly cloak. The fabric seemed to be much sturdier than its light weight would indicate. When Stripy had finished drinking, I rewarded him with the sausage and let him carry it out into the kitchen yard. He was padding away into the night when I called after him, “What about the rats? Did you kill any?”

  He had killed several, and discovered and made an end of two nests of babies.

  “Will you come back tomorrow?”

  It wasn’t likely. He hadn’t liked being confined with no water. He was accustomed to coming and going as he pleased. He trotted away, tail high, into the cold night. I could scarcely blame him. I’d left him trapped and waterless for hours. But his discovery of two nests of baby rats was something I could not ignore. I would have to find a feline ally, and soon.

  I heard a whisper of sound from the house and suddenly recalled that I needed to hurry. I darted back into the pantry just as I heard someone come into the kitchen. I pinch
ed my candle out and by touch found my way back into the secret corridor. I drew the door shut behind me. The dark became absolute. I promised myself that I now knew my way well enough that I needed no light. I tried not to think of any rats Stripy had not killed.

  It took me a time but I groped my way back to the small cubby that looked down into my father’s study. A tiny beam of light was coming in the peephole. I peered out and I saw my father move to close the study doors. In a moment, he’d open the door.

  In the dark I shook out my butterfly cloak and then refolded it so that the invisible side was out. I could not see what I was doing. I hoped I had left no betraying edge of color showing. As I heard him open the panel door, I hid my cloak on the shelf behind the candle supply.

  The dance of his candlelight preceded him. Light and liquid shadows flowed and spread. They came around the corner like a wave of water and engulfed me. I sat quietly, my extinguished candle in hand, until he reached me. As the light touched me and he saw me, I heard the sigh of relief he expelled.

  “I thought I might find you here,” he said gently. Then, as he looked at me, “Oh, my dear, did your candle go out, too? Such a night it has been for you. My poor little cub. ”

  He had to crouch to be in my hidey-hole. When I stood, he bent deeper to kiss me where my hair parted. He was still for a moment as if he were smelling me. “Are you all right?”

  I nodded.

  “Is this where you want to come when you are frightened?”

  That I could answer truthfully. “Yes. This place is mine, more than anywhere else in Withywoods. ”

  He straightened and nodded back at me. “Very well. ” He tried to roll his shoulders but could not in the cramped space. “Come with me now. We both need to get some sleep before dawn. ”

  He led the way and I followed him out of the secret corridors and back into his den. I watched him close the panel and open the tall doors. I followed his candle as we went back to the main part of Withywoods. At the foot of the grand staircase, he halted. He turned and looked down at me. “Your room will need to be thoroughly cleaned before you can sleep there again. And my room is too untidy. I suggest we sleep in your mother’s sitting room, where you were born. ”

  He did not wait for me to agree. I followed him as we went to the pleasant chamber that had once served as a nursery for me. It was cold and dark. My father lit a branch of candles and left me there while he went to get a scoop of coals from another hearth to start a fire. While he was gone, I brushed cobwebs from my new red nightdress. I stared about my mother’s dimly lit room. We had not spent much time here since she had died. Her presence was everywhere, from the candles ready in their holders to the emptied flower vases. No. Not her presence. It was her absence that I felt here. Last winter the three of us had gathered here almost every night. My mother’s workbasket was still by her chair. I sat down in her chair and set it on my lap. I pulled my feet up under my nightgown and hugged the basket to me.

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  Chapter Nineteen

  The Beaten Man

  And in a time that no one expects, when hope is dead and White Prophets fled, in a place where he cannot be found, there will be discovered the Unexpected Son. He will not be known to his father, and motherless he will grow. He will be the pebble in the track that shifts the wheel from its course. Death will thirst for him, but time and again, that thirst will go unslaked. Buried and lifted, forgotten, unnamed, in isolation and disgrace, he will yet prevail in the hand of the White Prophet who wields him without compassion or mercy for the tool that must be dulled and chipped to shape a better world.

  I set the scroll aside, wondering why I had bothered to take it out. I had brought it from my private den to Molly’s room where Bee lay sleeping. It was the only bit of writing I’d ever read that mentioned the prophecy of the Unexpected Son. And it was only a fragment. There were no new answers there to the question I wanted to ask him. Why, after all these years? Why such a message, and such a messenger?

  I turned it over, studying it for the thousandth time. It was an old piece of something … not vellum, not paper. Neither Chade nor I knew what it was. The ink was very black, the edges of each letter sharp. The substance it was written on was pliable and the color of honey. If I held it up to the fire, I could see light through it. Neither Chade nor I could read it, but it came with a translation that Chade assured me was accurate. At the time, he had muttered something about, “At that price, it had better be accurate. ”

  The first time I had seen it, I was still a lad, and it was one of a number of scrolls and vellums that Chade was collecting on the topic of White Prophets and their predictions. I paid no more mind to this than I did to his fascination with elderberry propagation and creating a poison from rhubarb leaves. Chade had many obsessions during those years; I think his fixations were all that had kept him sane during his decades of isolated spying. I certainly didn’t connect his fascination with White Prophets to King Shrewd’s peculiar jester. In those days the Fool was merely the fool to me, a pasty-faced, skinny child with colorless eyes and a double-edged tongue. I avoided him, mostly. I had seen him frolic through the tumbler’s tricks that could make the court gasp. I hadn’t yet heard him slice a man’s pride to ribbons with his razor-sharp sarcasm and clever wordplay.

  Even after fate introduced us, first as acquaintances and then as friends, I did not make the connection. Years would pass before the Fool confided to me that he thought the prophecies about the Unexpected Son were foretelling my birth. It was one of half a hundred bits of predictions that he had quilted together. And then he had come to find me, his Catalyst, the bastard son of an abdicated king in a distant northern land. And together, he had assured me, we would change the future of the world.

  He believed I was the Unexpected Son. There had been times when he was so insistent on it that I almost believed it myself. Certainly death had thirsted for me, and often enough he had intervened to snatch me away from that fate at the last possible moment. Ultimately I had done the same for him. We had achieved his goal, the restoration of dragons to the world, and in doing so had ended his days as a White Prophet.

  And he had left me, severing decades of friendship and departing to return whence he had come. Clerres. A town somewhere far to the south, or perhaps it was just the name of the school where he had been raised. For all the time that we’d spent together, he’d told me precious little of his life before I’d known him. And when he thought it was time for us to part, he’d left. He’d given me no choice in that matter, and steadfastly refused my offer to go with him. He had feared, he told me, that I would continue to act as a Catalyst, and that together we might unknowingly undo all we had wrought. And so he had gone, and I had never truly said farewell to him. The knowledge that he had left me with no intent ever to return had come to me in tiny droplets of realization spread over the years. And each droplet of comprehension brought its own small measure of hurt.

  In the months that had followed my return to Buckkeep, I had discovered that finally, suddenly, I had my own life. That was a giddying experience. He had wished me well in finding my own fate to follow, and I never doubted his sincerity. But it had taken me years to accept that his absence in my life was a deliberate finality, an act he had chosen, a thing completed even as some part of my soul still dangled, waiting for his return. That, I think, is the shock of any relationship ending. It is realizing that what is still an ongoing relationship to someone is, for the other person, something finished and done with. For some years I waited, like a faithful dog told to sit and stay. I had had no reason to believe that the Fool had lost affection or regard for me. Yet the ringing silence and constant absence began, over time, to feel like dislike or, worse, indifference.

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  There had been times, over the years, when I had dwelled on it. I tried to excuse it. I had been missing when he passed through Buckkeep Town. Many had feared
me dead. Had he? Over the years my answer to that had danced back and forth. He had left me a gift, the carved statue of him, Nighteyes, and me. Would he leave a gift that he never expected to be claimed? Well, what else would he have done with it? There were words hidden in the carved memory stone, a single sentence. “I have never been wise. ” Did that mean he would be foolish enough to renew our friendship, even if it meant chancing the undoing of our work? Or did it mean that in his foolishness, he would set out on a dangerous quest without me?

  Did it mean he had been a fool ever to care about me beyond my role as his Catalyst? Was it an apology that he had seemed to care for me and let me come to rely so deeply on our friendship? Had he ever truly cared about our friendship?

  There are always those dark thoughts, I must believe, when a deep friendship ends so abruptly. But every wound becomes a scar, eventually. That one never entirely ceased being tender, but I had learned to live with it. It did not intrude on me every moment. I had a home, a family, a loving wife, and then a child to raise with her. And though Molly’s death had reawakened those echoes of loss and abandonment, I did not think I had been dwelling on it.

  Then the messenger arrived. And a message so poorly conveyed or badly constructed that it made little sense. She had hinted that there had been other messengers who had not reached me. A memory stirred. All those years ago. A girl messenger, and three strangers. Blood on the floor, and bloody fingerprints on the Fool’s face. That scream …

  I felt dizzied and sick. My heart hurt as if someone had squeezed it. What message had I missed, all those years ago? What death had that messenger endured that night?

  The Fool had not forsaken or ignored me. Years ago, he had reached out for me. To warn me, or to beg for help? I’d missed his message, and let it go unanswered. Suddenly that hurt me more than all the years of thinking he had abandoned our friendship. The thought that he had vainly waited for years for some sort of response from me was a razor-edged pain.

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