Fools assassin, p.52
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       Fools Assassin, p.52

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

  I bit my lip and said nothing. “Can you reach the stirrups?” he asked. There was no malice in his voice. No mockery of my size. I felt with my foot. He took my ankle and guided my foot toward the stirrup. “Too long,” he said. “Let me fix that. Pull your foot up. ”

  I did, staring between the horse’s ears while he did something, first to one stirrup and then to the other. “Try now,” he told me, and when I could feel the stirrup under the arch of my foot, I suddenly felt safer.

  He cleared his throat. “Pick up the reins,” he instructed me.

  I did, suddenly feeling that I was alone and far away from all safe things. She had me now, and if Priss wanted to race off with me, throw me to the earth and trample me, she could. Then Per spoke again. “I’m going to lead her,” he said. “You hold the reins but don’t try to guide her. Just sit in the saddle and feel how it moves. Straighten your back, though. Got to sit straight on a horse. ”

  And that was all we did that first day. I sat on Priss and Per led her. He didn’t say much. “Back straight. ” “Thumbs up on the reins. ” “Let her feel you’re there. ” It wasn’t a short time and it wasn’t a long time. I remember the moment when I finally relaxed and let out the bit of air I’d been holding in the bottom of my lungs. “That’s it,” he said, and that was all.

  He didn’t help me get off her. He just led her back to the mounting block and waited. After I was off, he said, “Tomorrow will go better if you wear boots. ”

  “Yes,” I said. Not thank you. Because it didn’t feel as if it was something he had done for me. It was something all three of us had done together. “Tomorrow,” I added, and I went small and quiet from the stables.

  To think about it, I went to my secret place. I wanted to be alone and think, and to check on my most prized possession. I no longer entered through my father’s study, but came and went by the hidden door in the pantry. I still dreaded rats but at least all the hammering and noise seemed to have driven them out for a time. Visiting my cloak had become routine. Daily, I ate my breakfast and then slipped away as soon as possible to gather my cloak and play with it.

  I had discovered its limitations quickly. I could not put it on and parade invisibly through the halls. It took time for the cloak to mimic the colors and shadows of the place where it lay. I was careful in my experiments, for I feared that if I ever once dropped it with the butterfly side down, I’d never find it again. And so I had tested it privately, covering a tree stump in the woods, draping it over a statue in Patience’s garden room, and even spreading it flat on the floor of my mother’s room. The tree stump had become a flat mossy spot in the woods. I could feel the stump, but I could not persuade my eyes it was there. The statue had likewise vanished, and the cloak had copied perfectly the pattern of the rug I had spread it on. Folded, it made a very small packet indeed, one that I could slip under my waistband and carry with me. Today, with the cloak hidden so, I took it out to the grove of birches that overlooked the carriage drive to the main doors. I climbed one and found myself a perch overlooking the drive.

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  Securely wrapped in the cloak with only one eye peering out, I was confident I would not be discovered. From my vantage, I could watch the comings and goings of all the tradesfolk moving in and out of my home. It was not my first time to do so. The cloak was surprisingly warm for how thin it was. This meant I did not have to bundle myself in layers of wool against the winter chill. Whenever I saw an arrival that I wished to investigate further, I could clamber quickly down from my hiding place, sneak back into the house, hide my cloak, and quickly emerge dressed as if I had never left the manor.

  I was at my observation post that afternoon when I saw a morose young man on a gleaming black horse ride up the carriageway. He had a mule with two panniers of luggage strapped to it on a lead line. The rider was warmly dressed for the cold day. Black boots hugged his legs to his knee. His woolen leggings were dark green. They matched his cloak, a heavy one trimmed with wolf fur. His dark hair was not in a warrior’s tail but fell to his shoulders in natural ringlets. He wore two silver earrings in one ear, and a sparkling red stone dangled from the other. He passed so close under my tree that I could smell him, or rather the fragrance he wore. Violets. I had never thought of a man smelling like violets. I quickly decided by his fine clothing that this must be my tutor. I stared down at him, trying to reconcile a babyish memory of danger from a boy with the man I saw below me. I wondered what had befallen him on his journey, for both his eyes were blacked and his face bruised purple and green all over the left side.

  Despite his battered face, he was the handsomest person I had ever seen. His shoulders were wide, his back straight as he rode. The bruising could not disguise his straight nose and strong jaw.

  I watched him ride up to the door, his posture very stiff. My instincts warred in me. He was a handsome man, smelling of violets and rather battered. I had been prepared to fear and hate him. Now I wasn’t sure what to make of him. He had no servant to dash ahead of him; nor did he shout for anyone to come and take his horse. Instead he dismounted stiffly. He gave a small grunt of pain as his foot touched the ground, and once he had both feet on the ground he leaned his head against his saddle, catching his breath. When he straightened, he stood for a time, stroking his horse’s neck and looking around. Dread, I decided, was what he felt. He did not come as a man hired to tutor a girl, but as someone expelled from one life into another. I wondered if he had come of his own will. I remembered something I had read in my father’s writing. “Chade, you old spider,” I whispered softly, and was shocked when he flinched a look in my direction. I sat very still, my legs tucked tight to my body, peering through a tiny gap in the cloak’s shelter. His gaze went right past me. Still, I held my breath and remained motionless. He turned back to look at the door of the house. And still he hesitated.

  A servant emerged suddenly, to ask courteously, “May I be of service, sir?”

  FitzVigilant had a boy’s voice still. “I’m the new scribe,” he announced uncertainly, as if he could not quite believe it himself. “I’ve come to be Lady Bee’s tutor. ”

  “Of course. We’ve been expecting you. Please, do come in. I’ll call a boy to take your mount and mule, and see that your things are carried up to your room. ” The servant stepped aside and gestured him toward the open door. With the cautious dignity of a man in pain, my tutor carefully ascended the steps.

  The door closed behind him. I sat still, watching the space where he had been. I had the feeling that something momentous had happened in my life. I had a very tiny awareness that I should hurry inside and make myself presentable. I suspected that my father would soon be summoning me to meet my new tutor. Uneasiness roiled in me. Was I afraid? Eager to meet him? Likely he would be a part of my life now for many years.

  Unless he killed me.

  When common sense asserted itself, I clambered down, folded my cloak carefully, stuffed it under my tunic, and dashed for the servant’s entrance. I tiptoed past the kitchen door and then sped down the hall. I reached the pantry and slipped inside.

  Someone was waiting for me there. I stopped dead and stared.

  The mice? He was sitting in the middle of the pantry, his kinked tail curled neatly around his mismatched feet.

  “How did you know to come here?” I whispered.

  He stared at me, mice dancing in his green gaze.

  “This way,” I told him. I dropped to my knees and crawled behind the stacked crates of fish. He followed. When I turned around to shut the hatch to the secret corridor, he darted back out of it. “No. Come in,” I told him. He did. I reached to shut the door. He darted out. “I can’t leave it open wide. ”

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  He sat down outside the entrance and stared at me with stubborn patience. I waited. But he was content to sit there and exist until I was tired of waiting. At last I said, “Just this first time, I
ll leave it open more than a crack. Until you trust me. ” I crawled back inside, he followed, and I left the door ajar. I seldom shut it all the way, as I’d never discovered how to open it from the other side. As I moved slowly away from it, I more felt than saw that he was following.

  Much as I wanted the mice and rats banished from my domain, I wished he had not come today. I had things to do. My black-and-white shadow dogged my steps as I threaded the maze within the walls. I traveled by touch and memory now, and he seemed to have no qualms about ghosting after me in the darkness.

  When we reached my den, I put my cloak in its hiding place. I had wrapped biscuits stored in a bowl on my shelf. I took them out of the bowl, and filled it with water from the stoppered bottle I now kept there. “Here is water,” I told him. “Whatever you do, you must not meow, nor make much noise of any kind. And I’ve left the pantry door ajar, so if you wish to go back out, you’ll be able to do so. But don’t let Cook or any of the kitchen girls catch you in the meat pantry. They’ll take a broom to you!”

  He was so motionless that I wondered if he had followed me this far. Then I felt a head bump against me, and then he wound himself past my legs. I reached down, and his fur sleeked by under my touch. I crouched down, and on his second pass he allowed me to stroke his sides. He was a lean barn cat, half-grown and ribby and long. He turned and suddenly pressed his bared teeth against my hand. “I’ll bring you fish and meat, too,” I promised him. “So you don’t get tired of eating mice. ”

  He head-bumped his agreement to my offer. I suddenly felt he had honored me somehow. I stayed crouched in the darkness, thinking. “You’ll need a name,” I told him.

  Not really.

  I nodded silently, understanding that if he decided he wanted me to give him a name, he’d let me know. Very cautiously, he set a paw on my knee. As if I were a tree that might not be sturdy enough to climb, he ventured onto my lap. I sat perfectly still. He put his front paws on my chest and then sniffed my face, particularly my mouth. I thought it was rude but I sat still for it. After a few annoying moments, he climbed down, curled into a circle, and began to purr himself to sleep.

  Chapter Twenty-Three

  The Tutor

  The first time I met Chade Fallstar I was but a boy. In the middle of the night, I woke to a light shining in my face and a pock-scarred old man in a cobweb-covered gray wool robe standing over my bed. A previously concealed door in the corner of my bedchamber now stood open. It yawned at me, dark and daunting, and cobwebs fluttered at the edges of it. It was so like a nightmare that for a time I simply stared at it. Yet when he commanded me to get out of bed and follow him, I did.

  Sometimes I think of the momentous meetings in my life. My first encounter with Verity. Then Burrich. Discovering that the Fool was not the vapid jester I had believed, but possessed a keen intelligence and a deep desire to influence the politics of Buckkeep Castle. There are moments that change the course of one’s lifetime, and often we don’t realize how significant those initial meetings may be until years pass.

  — Journal entry

  My scribe arrived as expected, save that my overtasked mind did not expect him that day. When one of the newly hired serving men came running to tell me that there was a battered traveler at my door, my first impulse was to direct him to the kitchen for food and wish him well on his way. It was only when Bulen belatedly added that the stranger claimed to be the new scribe that I left off my mediation between a painter and a carpenter and turned my steps toward the front hall.

  FitzVigilant awaited me there. He had grown taller, with a man’s jaw and shoulders, but it was his battered face that took all the rest of my attention.

  Both Chade and Nettle had said he had taken a beating. I had expected some bruises and perhaps a blackened eye. Looking at him, I knew the blows he had taken had probably loosened teeth if not knocked some out. His nose was still swollen broad, and there was a split along the top of one cheekbone. His excessively upright posture spoke of bound ribs, and his careful way of stepping betrayed his pain. Chade and Nettle were right to be concerned for him: Healing of broken bones is not promoted by the joggling of horseback riding. Clearly he had fled Buckkeep, and possibly only just in time. The beating had not been a warning, but an attempt on his life.

  I had been angry at Chade for sending him to me, and had resolved to keep my guard firmly in place against either Chade’s manipulation of my household or the boy’s own intentions. The sight of him, gray-faced and walking like a gaffer, dispersed my resolution and left me fighting the sympathy that welled up in me. And as I gazed at him, I had the eerie sense that he reminded me of someone. I tried to see past the swelling and bruises, and I suppose I stared at him in dismay. It made him wary. He cast a gaze toward the new serving man before he spoke.

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  He chose to pretend we had never met before. I heard his wheeze as he forced himself to grant me a stiff bow before he introduced himself as, “FitzVigilant, sent by Lady Nettle to be tutor to her sister, Lady Bee, and to scribe as is needed for her estate. ”

  I accepted his greeting gravely. “We’ve been expecting you. Our household is in a bit of disarray as long-delayed repairs are being made to Withywoods, but I think you will find your chamber comfortable. I’ll let Bulen show you to your rooms. If you wish a warm bath after your travels let him know and he’ll arrange for water and a tub for you in the steams. You are welcome to join us for the evening meal, but if you are too wearied from your journey, food will be sent up for you. ”

  “I …”

  I waited.

  “I thank you,” he amended, and I sensed something unsaid. I wondered if he felt insulted that I had offered him an excuse to soak his aching body and then rest, but I had learned long ago that a warm bath and deep rest were better healers than all the unguents and restorative drinks ever concocted.

  He gestured vaguely toward the door. “The mule carries my possessions, and scrolls and supplies for teaching Lady Bee. ”

  “I’ll have Bulen bring them to the schoolroom and your chambers, and find a stable boy to see to your animals. ” I glanced at our recently hired man. He was probably of an age with FitzVigilant and was looking at him with open dismay and sympathy. The farmer’s son was wearing a cut-down set of Revel’s old livery. He still looked a country boy despite Revel’s best efforts, but he had an open, honest face and a ready smile. I could do far worse for a servant. I nodded to myself. “Tutor FitzVigilant, consider Bulen your man in our household. Bulen, for the time being, make yourself useful and available to our new tutor. ” It would keep them both busy, and allow me time to quietly inspect everything FitzVigilant had on his mule.

  “Sir,” Bulen agreed, and turned at once to FitzVigilant. “If you would follow me, sir?”

  “One moment,” I interrupted them. “Scribe FitzVigilant, if you would not mind the extra duty, I would ask if you would also be willing to teach the other youngsters of Withywoods estate. There are not many at present, perhaps as few as six …”

  “Six?” he asked faintly. His dismay was plain. Then, if it were possible, he stood even straighter and managed a tight nod. “Of course. It is what I am here to do. Teach children. ”

  “Excellent. Of course, you will need a day or so to settle yourself in. Let me know when you think you are ready to begin. And if you find your schoolroom lacking in anything, inform Bulen and he will bring your requests to me. ”

  “Schoolroom, sir?”

  “It is adjacent to your chambers, and already has a collection of useful scrolls, maps, and perhaps even some charts. It was stocked by Lady Patience near two score years ago, so you may find it a bit dated, but I do not think the geography of the Six Duchies has much changed. ”

  He nodded. “Thank you. I will examine what is already there before I ask for anything more from you. ”

  And so FitzVigilant joined our household. In less than a fortnight, the size
of the staff of Withywoods had tripled and my own household had doubled in size. I found Revel and informed him that I had given Bulen to the tutor. The tall man looked down on me mournfully and I had to add that if he needed to replace Bulen, he could hire another man.

  “Perhaps two,” he requested gravely.

  I didn’t even want to know why. “Two, then,” I said, and added, “He has a mule outside, laden with his belongings and scribe supplies. If those things can be brought to his room immediately I am sure he will greatly appreciate it, as will I. ”

  “Immediately, then,” Revel agreed, and I hurried on my way.

  When I was certain that Bulen had escorted FitzVigilant to the steams, I visited his quarters. His baggage from the mule was there, awaiting Bulen’s attention. There is an art to going through a man’s personal possessions and yet leaving no trace of having done so. It takes time, and a clear memory of exactly how every item had been packed. FitzVigilant’s living quarters were adjacent to his schoolroom. I latched the doors and was very thorough. Most of what he had was what one would expect a young man to possess, but in a far larger quantity than I had ever found necessary at his age. All of his many shirts were of very good quality. He had earrings of both silver and gold, some with small gems, all neatly stored in a roll of soft leather. I made a note that none of his garments showed the sort of wear one would associate with physical labor; indeed, very little of it looked appropriate for an ordinary day at Withywoods teaching children or totting up accounts. I had expected to find at least one sturdy and serviceable pair of trousers, but no, all were of fabrics I would have thought more suitable to a lady’s gown. Had the court at Buckkeep Castle changed that much?

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  Chade seemed to have weaned him from his assassin’s training. I found no extra pockets in his garments, no hidden vials of poisons or sleeping drafts. He did appear to have more small knives than a young nobleman might ordinarily require. For a time, I thought I had uncovered a secret cache of poisons, only to realize that these were Chade’s most common mixtures for pain relief and wound treatments. I recognized Chade’s writing on several of the labels; the others I thought had been prepared by Rosemary. Interesting that FitzVigilant did not even compound his own remedies. What, then, did this young man do with his time?

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