Fools assassin, p.57
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       Fools Assassin, p.57

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

  This dream ends in blood and I am afraid to recall it. Does the boy become the puppet, with strings attached to his hands and feet, his knees and elbows and bobbing head? Or does the beggar seize the boy with hard and bony hands? Perhaps both things happen. It all ends in blood and screaming. It is the dream I hate most of all the dreams I have ever had. It is the end dream for me. Or perhaps the beginning dream. I know that after this event, the world as I know it is never the same.

  Dream journal of Bee Farseer

  My first dinner with my new tutor was the worst meal of my life. I was dressed in one of my new tunics. It itched. It had not yet been taken in to fit me, so I felt as if I were walking about in a small woolen tent. My new leggings were not yet finished, so my old ones were both too short and baggy about the knees. I felt like some peculiar wading bird, with my legs sticking out the bottom of my ample clothes. I told myself that once I was seated at the table, no one could tell, but my plan to be first there failed.

  Shun had preceded me, sweeping into the dining room like a Queen entering her throne room. Her hair had been dressed on top of her head; her new maid had a gift for hair, and every auburn curl shone. Silver pins twinkled against that sleek mahogany like stars in a night sky. She was beyond beautiful; she was striking. Even I had to admit that. Her gown was green and some trick of the cut lifted her breasts away from her chest as if she were offering them to us, demanding we look at them. She had painted her lips and dusted her face with a pale powder so that her dark lashes and green eyes looked at us as if from a mask. A kiss of rouge at the top of each cheek made her appear animated and lively. I was doomed to hate her all the more for her beauty. I followed her into the room. Before I could reach my seat, she turned to regard me and smiled a cat’s smile.

  Worse was to come. My tutor was behind me.

  FitzVigilant could not take his eyes off Shun. His beautiful face had healed, the swelling gone and the greens and purples of his bruises faded. His skin was not weathered as were my father’s and Riddle’s. He had the complexion of a court gentleman. He had shaved his high-boned cheeks and strong chin as smooth as could be, but the shadow of what would doubtless be a grand mustache was showing on his upper lip. I had worried that he would scoff at my ill-fitting clothes—a useless fear. He halted in the door, his eyes widening as he saw Shun. Both she and I saw him catch his breath. Then he came slowly to take his place at the table. He apologized to my father for being late, but as he spoke, he looked at Shun.

  He took his place at the table last, and he apologized to my father for coming late.

  In that moment of his carefully worded courtesy with his court accent, I fell in love.

  People make mock of a girl or boy’s first love, calling it puppyish infatuation. But why should not a young person love just as wildly or deeply as any other? I looked at my tutor and knew that he must see me as just a child, small for my age and provincial, scarcely worthy of his attention. But I will not lie about what I felt. I burned to distinguish myself in his company. I longed to say something charming, or to make him laugh. I wished that something would happen that would make him see me as important.

  But there was nothing about me. I was a little girl, dressed in very ordinary garb, with no exciting tale to tell. I could not even enter the conversation that Shun began and then guided so carefully to herself and her sophisticated upbringing. She spoke of her childhood in the grandparents’ home, telling stories of the various well-known minstrels who had performed there, and nobles who had come to visit. Often enough, FitzVigilant would exclaim that he, too, had heard that minstrel perform, or that he knew Lady This-and-So from a visit to Buckkeep Castle. When he mentioned a minstrel named Hap, she set down her fork and exclaimed that she had heard he was the most amusing of minstrels, knowing every humorous song that one could sing. I longed to open my mouth and say he was like an elder brother to me and once had given me a doll. But they were talking to each other, not me, and if I had spoken it would have seemed I eavesdropped. In that moment, though, how I longed that Hap would suddenly drop in on one of his random visits and greet me as kin.

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  As if that would have increased my standing in Scribe FitzVigilant’s eyes. No. For him, the only person at the table was Shun. She cocked her head and smiled at him as she took a sip of wine and he lifted his glass to her and smiled back. My father spoke with Riddle about his return to Buckkeep, when he would depart, messages he would carry to Lord Chade and Lady Nettle and even to King Dutiful. The grapes at Withywoods had done well, and there were preserves he wished to send to Lady Kettricken as well as a sampling of wine now aged five years from the Withywoods cellars that he felt showed great promise.

  And I sat silent among them, cutting and eating my meat, buttering my bread, and looking away whenever Elm came into the room to put out a fresh dish or to clear plates. She was old enough now to serve at table, and her apron of Withywoods green and yellow suited her very well. Her hair was smoothed flat to her head and the length of it was pinned in a neat coiled braid on the back of her head. I wanted to lift a hand to my own head to see if my pale thatch of hair was still combed neatly or wandering on my head like torn corn silk. I put my hands under the table and clasped them tightly together.

  When it was time to leave the table, my tutor moved quickly to slide Shun’s chair back and offer his arm to her. She took it readily and thanked “Lant” very prettily. So. He was Lant to her, and Scribe FitzVigilant to me. My father offered his arm to me, and as I looked up at him in surprise, his dark eyes danced with amusement as he flicked a glance at the young couple. I looked at Riddle, who rolled his eyes but also looked charmed by their behavior. I found nothing amusing about it.

  “I think I shall seek my own chamber now,” I said quietly.

  “Are you well?” my father asked me quickly, concern in his eyes.

  “Quite. I’ve simply had a long day. ”

  “Very well. I’ll tap on your door later to say good night. ”

  I nodded. Was he warning me to be where I said I’d be? Well, I would be. By then. I took a candle in a holder to light my way.

  Lady Shun and Scribe FitzVigilant had not even noticed that we had paused. They had moved out of the dining room and were headed toward one of the cozier sitting rooms. I didn’t want to see them sitting and chatting together. I turned away from all of them and strode away, my hand cupped to shelter my candle’s flame.

  It had been a long day, truly, but not because of anything I’d done. Rather, it was the not-doing that had stretched the hours for me. I hadn’t gone down to the stables. For a time, I’d been trapped in my hidey-hole while my father and Riddle talked, until I had crept away down the passage to appear stealthily in the kitchens. But I had not dared to linger there to watch Mild knead the bread or turn the spit. Lea was there always now, sweeping up spilled flour or stirring a slowly bubbling kettle of cornmeal. Her dark eyes were like knives, her flat mouth an anvil to pound me against with her brief words. So I had spent the most of my day in one of Patience’s garden rooms, with a copy of Badgerlock’s Old Blood Tales. Every time my father had seen me with it, he had offered me a different book, which had made me believe there was something in it he did not wish me to read. Yet he had not taken it away from me. And so I was intent on reading every page of it, even the boring parts. I had finished it today and still had no idea what part of it he had dreaded me reading. Then I had wandered about the plant room, pinching dead bits off the plants. As most were dormant for the winter, this was not as interesting as it might have been.

  My steps slowed as I traversed the corridor to my bedchamber. And when I reached the door of my old room, I slowed and looked carefully behind me. No one was watching. I opened the door and slipped inside.

  It was dark. There was no fire on the hearth. The draperies over the window were drawn. I stepped inside and let the door close behind me. I stood still, breathing quietly, wai
ting for my eyes to adjust. My candle could barely push the darkness back. I moved forward slowly, groping my way. I found the corner post of my bed. By touch, I moved to the emptied chest at the foot of it. Only a few steps, and my hands met the cold stonework of the hearth.

  The door to the adjacent servant’s chamber was closed, and suddenly that was frightening. A prickling ran up my back. The messenger had died in there. No, actually she had died right on my bed. Right behind me. For a moment I could not make myself turn to look at it, and then I simply had to. Knowing I was being silly didn’t help. Or was I being silly? I had told Shun that everyone knew ghosts only lingered where the person had died. And she had died there. I turned slowly. My hands were shaking and my candle trembled, sending shadows leaping about the room.

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  The stripped bed was empty. I had been foolish. I would not stare at it. I would not. I turned back to the closed door. I dared myself and walked to it. I put my hand on the door handle. It was cold. Colder than was natural? Would her ghost linger where we had unwittingly abandoned her? I pushed down on the latch and then dragged the door open. The draft from the little room nearly sucked the flame from my candle. I stood still until it steadied and peered in.

  It was emptier than when I had last seen it. The old stand and ewer remained there. And the heavy bed frame was still pushed tight against my secret entrance. Somehow tonight the idle furniture crouched and the empty ewer rebuked me. I spoke to her ghost. “If I had known you were still here, I would have taken better care of you. I thought you were gone. ” I felt no change in the hovering darkness, but felt a bit braver that I had dared to speak to her directly.

  It was harder to pull the bed frame away from the concealed entrance while holding my candle, but I managed. I clambered over it to trigger the lever, and then climbed back to go inside. I dribbled wax on the passage floor and stuck my candle in it before dragging the bed frame back into place and pushing the door shut. In my hidden labyrinth, I felt better immediately. I held my candle steady and followed the marks I scarcely needed anymore until I came to my little lair. Just outside it I stopped suddenly, puzzled. Something was different. A scent? A slight warmth in the air? I studied the little room carefully, but saw nothing amiss. Cautiously I stepped forward, tripped, and measured my length on the floor. My candle jumped from my hand, rolled in a half-circle, and only by the greatest good fortune remained lit. By bad fortune, it fetched up against a coiled scroll I had left on the floor. The edge had just begun to smolder with a stink of burning leather when I scrabbled to my knees and seized the candle. I set it upright in the holder and turned to see what had tripped me. It had felt like a mound of fabric. Warm fabric.

  I felt a moment of dizziness as the floor wavered before my gaze. Then a small, scowling cat face emerged from nothing. He rose slowly out of the floor, stretched, and gave me a rebuking Wowr. Only the barest edge of rolled butterfly wing betrayed the cloak in a heap on the floor. I pounced on it and snatched it up, holding it to my chest. It was warm and smelled of black cat. “What were you doing?” I demanded of him.

  Sleeping. Was warm.

  “This is mine. You’re not to take things off my shelf. ” I saw now that the plate I’d put on top of my bowl of hard bread had been pushed aside. With the bundled cloak under my arm, I made a quick inspection of my supplies. The bread had been chewed at the edge and rejected. I’d had half a sausage up there. Only a few scraps of casing remained. “You ate my food! And slept on my cloak. ”

  Not yours. Hers.

  I paused in mid-breath. “Well, it’s mine now. She’s dead. ”

  She is. So it’s mine. It was promised to me.

  I stared at him. My memories of that day had an overlay of haze, not for the evening events but those from the morning. I could not remember why I had gone walking to that part of the estate grounds. They were shady and chill, uninviting during the gray and wet days. I could scarcely remember seeing the butterfly wing on the ground; I could not tell if it was a memory from that day, or a memory of my dream. But I did recall that as my father had approached, he had given a shout of surprise. And something had raced away into the brush. Something black and furry.

  Yes. I was there.

  “That doesn’t mean the cloak belongs to you. ”

  He sat up very straight and wrapped his black tail neatly around his white feet. He had yellow eyes, I noticed, and the candlelight danced in them as he declared. She gave it to me. It was a fair trade.

  “For what? What does a cat have to trade?”

  A gold glitter came into those yellow eyes, and I knew I had insulted him. I’d insulted a cat. Just a cat. So why did a little shiver of dread go down my back? I remembered that my mother had told me to never be afraid to apologize when I was wrong. She had said it would have saved her and my father a great deal of trouble if they had only followed that rule. Then she had sighed, and added that I must never think that an apology could completely erase what I had done or said. Still, it was worth trying.

  “I beg your pardon,” I said sincerely. “I do not know much of cats, having never had one of my own. I think I have misspoken to you. ”

  Yes. You have. Twice. The idea that a human could “have a cat of her own” is equally insulting. Abruptly, he lifted one of his hind legs, pointed his foot toward the ceiling and began to groom his bottom. I knew I was being insulted. I chose to bear it in silence. He carried on for a ridiculously long time. I began to be chilly. I surreptitiously picked up an edge of the cloak and draped it around my shoulders.

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  When he had finally finished, he focused his round, unblinking eyes on me again. I gave her dreams. I lay down beside her and purred through the long cold night. She was badly hurt. Dying. She knew it. Her dreams were dark with sharp edges, full of faces of those she had failed. She dreamed of the creatures that were inside her, chewing their way through her guts. I came into her dreams and in them I was the Cat of Cats, powerful beyond imagining. I chased and slew those who had hurt her. I embraced them with my claws and tore their entrails from their bodies. Toward dawn, when the frost was coldest, I promised I would bring you to her, and she would be discovered and her message delivered. She thanked me, and I told her I had enjoyed the warmth of the cloak. That was when she said I might have it when she was gone.

  His story rang with truth. Right up until his last statement. I knew he was lying. He knew that I knew he was lying. He smiled lazily without moving his mouth at all. It was something in the set of his ears, perhaps. He was daring me to dispute his story. Deep in my heart Wolf-Father growled, a low rumbling. He did not like this cat, but his growl was to warn me as much as the feline.

  “Very well. I will leave the cloak here at night for you to use. ”

  Trade, he suggested.

  Aha. I tipped my head at him. “What do I have that a cat could possibly want?”

  His eyes narrowed. The cat who is allowed to sleep by the kitchen hearth has a basket with a soft blanket in it. And herbs …

  “Catmint. And fleabane. ” I knew about that. My mother had begun that tradition.

  I want the same. And if you see them chase me with a broom, you must shriek and fuss and slap them so that they never dare do so again.

  “I can do that. ”

  And you must bring me delicious things. In a clean dish. Every day.

  Somehow he had come closer to me. Slowly he stepped up into my lap and arranged himself. “I can do that,” I agreed.

  And when I wish to be stroked, you must stroke me. But only if I wish it. He had become a black circle of cat in my lap. He lifted one front paw, extended long and very sharp white claws, and began to tug and groom them.

  “Very well. ” Very carefully, I put my hands on him. My fingers sank into lush black fur. He was so warm! I moved one hand carefully down his side. I found two tiny burs and a nest of thorns. I combed them out
with my fingers. The end of his tail became alive and lifted to wrap around my wrist. It was utterly charming. I put my fingers under his chin and gently scratched there. He lifted his face and a strange transparent eyelid lifted to cover his half-closed eyes. I moved my hand to rub his ears. His purr deepened. His eyes became slits. For a time, we sat together. Then slowly, he began to melt onto his side. I smoothed burs from his belly fur.

  Abruptly as a snake striking, he wrapped his front paws around my forearm. He delivered three vicious, clawed kicks to my arm and then streaked off down the passage into darkness. Not even the ghost of a thought hung to explain why he had done it. I clutched my bleeding wrist to my chest and rocked forward, enduring the stinging pain silently. Tears stung my eyes. In my heart, Wolf-Father rumbled his assent. Cats are cursed creatures, never to be trusted, talking to everyone and anyone. I hope you have learned something.

  I had, but I was not sure what. I stood slowly, suddenly anxious about how much time had passed. I gathered my cloak and folded it hastily. I restored it to its place on my shelf, and put the lid back on my bread bowl. Little sneaking thief.

  I could learn from him.

  In the morning, unbidden, Careful came to help me rise, wash, groom my wayward hair, and then dress. It was all very trying for me. No one save my mother had ever done such things, and she had done them with merry chatter and shared plans for the day. Careful, I decided, would have been better named Hasty. Or perhaps Tart, for her mouth today was pursed as if every item in my wardrobe put a sour taste in her mouth. She tugged my smock over my head and almost before it had settled on my shoulders, she was layering my tunic over it. She pulled my sleeves even and then, without asking, reached up under my tunic and pulled my smock down smooth. She asked me for things I had never possessed, such as pins for my hair or at least a pomade to hold it down. She asked where my earrings were and was shocked that I had not even holes in my ears for such adornments. She exclaimed in loud dismay over the state of my stockings and found a heavier pair and said that my shoes were a disgrace to the household.

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