Fools assassin, p.56
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       Fools Assassin, p.56

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

  “I’ve arranged a meeting with Revel for you,” he lied quickly. “I think he is our best source for an appropriate music instructor for you. And perhaps a dancing master as well. ”

  She bristled, perhaps offended at being touched, and while he had her attention I walked away, leaving him with the problem. Unfair, perhaps, but safer for all of us.

  In the safety of my study, with the door closed, I finally allowed myself to feel everything she had roused in me. Fury was foremost. How dared she, a guest in my home, speak so of my daughter! The slur on Molly’s name was equally unforgivable. But bafflement followed fury. Why? Why had Shun, who depended on my goodwill, said such things? Was she so blind to all levels of courtesy that she regarded such a question as acceptable? Had she been deliberately trying to insult or wound me, and if so, why?

  Did she truly believe Molly had cuckolded me? Did others look at Bee’s pale hair and blue eyes and think me a fool?

  I controlled my glance as I sat down at my desk, sparing only a flicker of a look at the wall above my worktable. Across Bee’s peephole, I had coaxed a thread of spider silk, and trapped a tiny bit of bird down in it. It hung motionless save when Bee was in residence. It had given a tiny jiggle as I crossed the room. She was there now. I wondered if she had preceded me to the study, or if she had used her badly hidden pantry entrance. I hoped she was not weeping over her father’s idiocy in disposing of her treasures. Her anger was hard for me to bear, but weeping would have been worse.

  I looked down at the scroll on my desk. I had no real interest in it at the moment; it was written in an archaic style in faded ink, and was something Chade had sent to me to be recopied. It dealt with a Skill-exercise for new students. I doubted it would interest my daughter. The hair I had left across one corner of it was undisturbed. So. She had not thumbed through my papers today. I remained certain that she had done so previously. I was not sure when she had begun to read papers left in my study, so I could not be certain just what she had seen of my personal writing. I sighed to myself. Every time I thought I had stepped forward to being a better parent, I discovered a new failing. I had not confronted her about her investigation of her father; I had known she could read, and I had been careless. In my own youth I had read more than one missive or scroll that Chade had left carelessly lying about.

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  Or so I had thought. I wondered if he did then as I did now, which was to leave out only those that I thought might intrigue her mind or educate her. My private thoughts I recorded in a ledger that I now wrote in only within my bedchamber. Even if she had known of the sliding compartment in the great chest at the foot of my bed, she would not have been able to reach it.

  I thought of calling her out of her hiding place and decided against it. Let her have her private place in which to sulk or mourn.

  There was a tap at my door. “Riddle,” I said, and he eased the door open. He peered round it, cautious as a fox, and then sidled in, closing the door softly behind him.

  “I’m so sorry,” he said.

  “No harm done,” I replied. I was not sure if he was apologizing for Shun accosting me about music lessons, or if he had overhead her remarks about bastards and was offering sympathy. In either case, “I’ve no desire to discuss it now. ”

  “I’m afraid we must,” he offered. “Revel was delighted with Lady Shun’s request. He thinks it would be absolutely marvelous for you to have music and dancing at Withywoods again. He says there’s an old man in Oaksbywater who can no longer croak out a note, but can teach Lady Shun to coax a tune from a harp. And Revel has offered himself as a dancing master to her, ‘Only, of course, until a more suitable partner can be discovered for such a lady. ’ I will add that Lady Shun was not greatly pleased when he eagerly suggested that Bee might also profit from instruction in dance and music. ”

  I saw the glint in his eye and surmised, “But you accepted on her behalf. ”

  “I’m afraid I could not resist,” he admitted, and I saw the cobweb stir, as if someone had either sighed or drawn in a breath. Little spy. What was bred in the bone, I supposed, would not be beaten out of the flesh.

  “Well. Doubtless it will do her no harm,” I mercilessly replied, and the cobweb stirred again. “Time and past time that my daughter received the education of a lady. ” Better music and dancing, I thought to myself, than the lessons in blood points and poisons. Perhaps if she was put out of my influence in the area of her education, I could refrain from raising her as I had been raised. Burning bodies by moonlight, and fighting with knives. Oh, well done, Fitz. Well done. And yet, in a dim corner of my mind, a sage old wolf opined that the smallest cub was the one that needed the sharpest teeth.

  Riddle was still watching me. “There’s more, isn’t there?” I asked reluctantly.

  He gave a tight nod. “Yes. But from a different source. I’ve a message from Chade. ”

  That piqued my interest. “You have? And how, perchance, did that message reach you?” And did I dare let him relay it with Bee listening?

  He shrugged one shoulder. “Pigeon. ” He proffered a tiny scroll to me. “You can read it yourself, if you wish. ”

  “He sent it to you. Did he intend we both know whatever is in it?”

  “Well, it’s a peculiar note, especially coming from Chade. He offers a cask of Sandsedge brandy, apricot brandy, if I can discover exactly how you deduced FitzVigilant’s maternal line. ”

  A shiver of almost-knowing ran over my skin. “I’m sure I don’t know what we are discussing here. ” For an instant I debated shushing him, wondering if a secret was about to be shared that my little daughter had no right to know.

  Riddle shrugged and uncoiled the tiny scroll. He held it close to his face to read, and then moved it out until his eyes could focus on the minute lettering. He spoke its words aloud. “‘Huntswoman or gardener’s girl, he surmised. And the huntswoman it was. A cask of apricot Sandsedge brandy if you can discover for me how he narrowed it to those two …’”

  I smiled as Riddle’s voice faltered. “And the rest, no doubt, for your eyes alone?”

  Riddle raised his brows. “Well, perhaps he intended it that way, but how I could keep it from you, I don’t know. He ardently desires to know why this is such an important piece of information to you. ”

  I leaned on my elbows and steepled my fingers, tapping them against my lips as I considered. “It probably isn’t,” I told him bluntly. Would the small listener in the wall behind me have put the shards together as quickly as I had? Most likely. It was not a difficult riddle.

  “I was seeking for a child born of either of those women. But not sired by Lord Vigilant. Unless …” It was my turn to let my words trickle away as a peculiar thought came to me. Many a bastard had been blessed with a mother deceptive enough to proclaim him the product of the rightful marriage bed. Was this a case of a mother finding a more acceptable illegitimacy for her son? Would Laurel have conceived by the Fool, and then claimed the child was the offspring of another tryst? No. Not only did I believe that the huntswoman would have cherished any babe Lord Golden fathered on her, but the age was wrong. FitzVigilant might be Laurel’s son, but he could not be the Fool’s. And knowing Laurel as I had, I doubt she would willingly have ceded a lovingly conceived child, no matter his bastardy, to his father’s sole care. There was more of a tale there than I had the heart to know, something dark. A rape? A dishonest seduction? Laurel had left a child to be raised by a man who acknowledged him but was either incapable or unwilling to protect him as he grew. Why? And why did Chade and Nettle seem to value him so?

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  I met Riddle’s inquiring look. “In truth, it’s entirely coincidence. I was looking for someone else, a much older offspring. Chade won’t believe that, so he won’t pay his bribe. A pity. Apricot Sandsedge brandy is hard to come by. It’s been years since I’ve tasted it. ” I drew my thoughts back from following
that memory. Too late. It had coupled with my Fool’s quest. Could FitzVigilant be the unexpected son he had bade me seek? Only if, unbeknownst to me or Chade, Lord Golden had returned to the Six Duchies, had an assignation with Huntswoman Laurel, and then abandoned her. And she had blamed the child on Lord Vigilant? No. There was no sense to be found there.

  Riddle was still regarding me speculatively. Might as well make use of his curiosity. “That visitor we had, the one who left without saying farewell? She brought me a message from an old friend. Lord Golden, to be precise. ”

  One of his eyebrows lifted slightly. If he was surprised that she had been a messenger, he covered it well. “You and Lord Golden were very close, as I recall. ”

  He said it so neutrally, it meant nothing at all. Or perhaps everything. “We were close,” I agreed quietly.

  The silence stretched longer. I was mindful of the small listener behind the wall. I cleared my throat. “There is more. The messenger said she was hunted. That her pursuers were close. ”

  “She would have been safer if she had stayed here. ”

  “Perhaps. Perhaps she didn’t think so. I know she feared that danger would follow her to my household. But she also told me that Lord Golden was trying to return, but that he, too, had to evade pursuers. ” I weighed my risks. In for a copper, in for a gold. “Lord Golden may have fathered a child when he was in the Six Duchies. The messenger came to tell me that this son could be in great danger. That Lord Golden wished me to find him and protect him. ”

  Riddle was silent, organizing all I had told him. He spoke cautiously. “You think that FitzVigilant might be Lord Golden’s son?”

  I shook my head. “He’s the wrong age. Huntswoman Laurel was one of the women I thought might be a possible mother. ”

  “More to the point, he has the wrong father. Laurel the huntswoman was his mother, Chade now says. But Vigilant claimed him as son. Unless the lad had two fathers …”

  “Or was claimed by someone who didn’t father him,” I pointed out. Then I sighed. “He’s still too young. Unless Lord Golden had paid another visit to Buck. ”

  We both fell silent. Would he have returned to Buck and not contacted me? I didn’t think so. Why would he have returned?

  “What do you know of Lord Vigilant?” I asked Riddle.

  “Not a great deal. He’s a bit of a boor, and his estates were in disorder for some years. When I first heard of FitzVigilant, I was surprised that Lord Vigilant had been able to persuade any woman to lie down beside him, let alone that he, a single man, would recognize a bastard. But perhaps that does make sense, if he thought the boy his only chance for an heir. But he did take hold and hired a good man to help him in the running of his estates, and when he began to prosper, he married. I think that was when his troubles began. What lady would want a previous bastard to take precedent over her rightfully born sons? It wasn’t long after that when FitzVigilant was sent to Buckkeep, and wound up in Chade’s care. ” He thought a moment longer. “I cannot see any connection between him and a possible child conceived by the same lady many years earlier. ”

  I shook my head. “No. Just a peculiar coincidence. I opened a poke expecting a piglet and found a cat. But it doesn’t end my search for this ‘son. ’ I think I might be wise to make inquiries of Huntswoman Laurel herself. ”

  Riddle shook his head. “That would be difficult. She is many years gone, Fitz. I remember when she left Buckkeep Castle, much to Queen Kettricken’s disappointment. She had been instrumental, until then, in dealing with the Old Blood faction. She left so suddenly there was rumor that she had quarreled with someone in a high position, but if she did, it was well hushed. And before the year was out, we had word of her death. ”

  I pondered this. Had Laurel fled Buckkeep to keep a pregnancy private and bear a secret child? It was a mystery many years old, and far outside my concern. I was sad to know she was gone. She had been kind to me. I shook my head and let her go. “Riddle. As you are out and about, can you keep an ear open for any gossip about my messenger?”

  “Of course. I’ve heard nothing of her pursuers. You know that. But I may do better at tracking her. You think she fled to … where?”

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  To a pile of ash in the sheep pens. “I don’t know. But I am more curious as to where she came from and who pursued her. I’d be as interested in what you might discover of her and those who hunted her before she came here as after she left. ”

  “I’ll keep an ear open. I suspect she would have come up the Buck River. I’ll make some inquiries on my way back to Buckkeep. ”

  “And I take that to mean that you wish to leave here soon. ”

  “My task is done, and then some. I delivered my package safely to you, as I was ordered. I didn’t mind helping for a time, but I do have things I must get back to. ”

  I nodded slowly, feeling hollow. I hadn’t realized how much I’d slipped into depending on him until he spoke of leaving. Riddle was someone who knew the man I once had been, someone I could speak openly to; that had been a comfort. I’d miss him. My voice did not betray that. “How soon must you leave?”

  “Three days from now. ”

  I nodded again, knowing that he was allowing me time to adapt to his absence. He added, “By then Lant should be up and around, so you’ll have at least one man at your back. ”

  “He did not watch his own back very well. I doubt I shall trust him with mine. ”

  Riddle nodded and admitted, “He does not have the edge you and I do. But that does not make him completely incompetent. He’s young yet. You should get to know him better. ”

  “I will. As soon as he feels better. I thought he might want some privacy to heal. ”

  He cocked his head slightly. “Not everyone is as solitary as you are, Tom. Lant can be very social. Being away from Buckkeep Castle is going to be hard on him. You should know that he actually welcomed Shun’s visit. And that when he is healed, if she needs a dancing partner for practice, he’s excellent. He’s a very witty conversationalist, well educated and affable. He was very popular with the ladies of the court, despite his low birth. ”

  “I should visit him. ”

  “Yes, you should. He is a bit in awe of you. Whatever you did to him the first time he met you, the effect has not worn off. It took a great deal of courage for him to come here, not only to seek permission to teach your daughter, but to hope for your protection. It was a bit … humiliating. But Chade told him it was really his only choice. ”

  I hadn’t seen it in that light before. And it was interesting to know that Riddle knew of my first encounter with FitzVigilant. Still Chade’s man, in some ways. I said nothing of that, but observed, “He thinks I’m still angry with him. ”

  Riddle nodded. “He’s well enough to come to table and move about Withywoods. But he’s been behaving as if you confined him to his rooms. ”

  “I see. I’ll take care of that this afternoon. ”

  “Tom, he’s a youngster, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be a friend to you. Get to know him. I think you’ll like him. ”

  “I’m sure I will,” I lied. Time to end this conversation. Bee had heard enough.

  Riddle’s ability to understand what I didn’t say sometimes made me uncomfortable. He looked at me almost sadly. He spoke more quietly. “Tom. You need a friend. Lant is young, I know, and your first introduction was … poorly considered. Begin again. Give him a chance. ”

  And so that afternoon I tapped on the door of FitzVigilant’s chambers. Bulen opened the door immediately. I saw Revel’s hand in the improved fit of his livery and tamed hair. I surveyed the tutor’s room unobtrusively, and found him to be a man of tidy habits, but not overly so. The medicinal unguents that Chade had prepared for him were neatly arrayed on the mantel. The smell of arnica oil flavored the room. FitzVigilant himself was seated at a worktable, writing a letter. Two pens were at the ready, and a pot of ink and small b
lotter. On the other end of the table, a gaming cloth was laid out with a Stones puzzle on it. I wondered who had taught him the game. Then I reined my thoughts sharply and kept my focus on my target.

  He came to his feet immediately and bowed, then stood silently, regarding me with trepidation. There is a way that a man stands when he does not wish to appear aggressive but is ready to defend himself. FitzVigilant stood like that, but when coupled with the defeated look on his face he was almost cowering. I felt sick. I recalled what it was to have lost all confidence in my body. This was a man already subdued. I wondered how broken he was, if he would ever recover enough to be any sort of a man-at-arms. I tried to keep pity from my face.

  “Scribe FitzVigilant, I am pleased to see you up and about. I came to ask if you were well enough to begin joining us for meals. ”

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  He didn’t meet my eyes as he bobbed his head. “If that would please you, sir, I shall begin doing so. ”

  “We would enjoy your company. It will give not only Bee but the rest of the household staff an opportunity to know you better. ”

  He bowed again. “If it would please you, sir—”

  “It would,” I interrupted. “But only if you are comfortable also. ”

  For a time our eyes met, and he was a boy standing naked by a hearth as a trained assassin ripped through his clothes. Yes. A bit of awkwardness to the beginning of our relationship. One we would have to overcome. The silence held, and something changed in him as determination set on his face.

  “Yes. I shall be there, Holder Badgerlock. ”

  Chapter Twenty-Six


  A dream from a winter night when I was six years old.

  In a market square, a blind beggar sat in his rags. No one was giving him anything, for he was more frightening than pathetic with his cruelly scarred face and crumpled hands. He took a little puppet out of his ragged clothes; it was made of sticks and string with only an acorn for a head, but he made it dance as if it were alive. A small sullen boy watched from the crowd. Slowly he was drawn forward to watch the puppet’s dance. When he was close, the beggar turned his clouded eyes on the boy. They began to clear, like silt settling to the bottom of a puddle. Suddenly the beggar dropped his puppet.

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