Fools assassin, p.60
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       Fools Assassin, p.60

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

  The evening meal was not comfortable for me. I was aware that both Shun and Lant were looking at me, but I have never been good at meeting anyone’s stare. So I looked at my plate or glanced just past my father or Riddle. I did not flinch when Lea or Elm passed near my chair, but neither did I accept any food from any dish they brought. I saw them once, rolling their eyes to the corners to exchange a glance at they passed each other behind Riddle. Elm’s cheeks grew very pink and I suddenly realized that Riddle, old as he was, was still a handsome man. Certainly Elm stood very close to his chair as she offered food. And Riddle, I saw as I smiled triumphantly to myself, noticed her no more than a fly on the wall.

  For the first part of the meal, I was silent. Father and Riddle were once more talking about his departure for Buckkeep. Shun and Lant immersed themselves in their own quiet conversation, frequently punctuated by her laughter. I had read a poem about a girl with “silvery laughter” but Shun’s sounded to me as if someone had fallen down a long flight of steps with a basket of cheap tin pans. After Father had spent some little time in conversation with Riddle, he turned to me and said, “So what did you think of Taker Farseer and his invasion of this land?”

  “I had not thought of it that way,” I responded. Truly I had not. And in the next breath, I had to ask, “Then who was here before Taker and his men came and claimed the land around the mouth of the Buck River? The scroll says that the bones of the old stone keep were deserted. Were the folk who were living here the same ones who had once had a fortification there? You said it might have originally been built by Elderlings? So were they Elderlings he fought to take this land?”

  “Well. They were mostly fishermen and farmers and goatherds, I believe. Lord Chade has tried to find more writings by those people, but they don’t seem to have entrusted their lore to letters and scrolls. Some of the bards say that our oldest songs are actually rooted in their songs. But we can’t really say ‘they’ and ‘them’ because we are really the product of Taker and his invaders and the folk that were already here. ”

  Had he known? Did he deliberately give me that opening? “Then, in those days, people learned things from songs? Or poems?”

  “Of course. The best minstrels still recite the longest genealogies from memory. They are, of course, entrusted to paper as well, now that paper is more abundant. But a minstrel learns them from the mouth of his master, not from a paper. ”

  Riddle was listening as raptly as I, and when Father paused, he jumped in. “So that song that Hap favored us with the last time I saw him, a very old song about Eld Silverskin, the dragon’s friend?”

  The next lines came into my mind and were out my mouth before I paused to consider. “‘Of precious things, he has no end. A stone that speaks, a drum that gleams, he’s pecksie-kissed or so it seems. ’”

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  “What is ‘pecksie-kissed’?” Riddle demanded as my father simultaneously said, “Hap will be proud to know you have remembered his song so well!” Then he turned to Riddle. “‘Pecksie-kissed’ means lucky out in far Farrow. But I do not know if Silverskin is Hap’s own song, or a much older one. ”

  Shun interrupted abruptly. “You know Hap Gladheart? You’ve heard him sing?” She sounded scandalized. Or furiously jealous.

  My father smiled. “Of course. I fostered Hap when he was an orphan. And I was never so glad myself as when I heard that he had taken that name for himself. Gladheart. ” He turned back to Riddle. “But we are getting far afield from Bee’s question. Riddle, who do you think first built a fort on that cliff?”

  Soon all three of us were speculating, with Riddle adding comments about things he had noticed in the lower reaches of Buckkeep Castle. He had seen what might have been runes, badly eroded, on the wall of one dungeon. My father spoke about the Witness Stones, and the Buck tradition of holding combats there, as well as weddings. Now that we knew the Witness Stones were actually portals that the highly trained Skill-user might use to cover great distances in a single stride, it was intriguing to speculate how they had come to be called the Witness Stones.

  It was only when the meal was drawing to a close that I realized that my father had staged our conversation as carefully as if it were a counterattack on a fortification. In talking with Riddle and him I had completely forgotten my bruised feelings. I became aware that FitzVigilant’s conversation with Shun had faltered to a halt and that he was listening in on our talk. She was picking a piece of bread to pieces, her mouth pursed in displeasure. I became aware of all this only when my father shifted in his seat and casually said, “Well, Scribe Lant, and what do you think of Riddle’s theory? Have you ever been in the lower reaches of Buckkeep Castle?”

  He jumped a tiny bit, as if discomfited to be discovered eavesdropping. But he recovered and admitted that when he was younger, he had ventured into the bowels of the keep with several of his friends. It had been done as a dare, but when they ventured too close to the cells down there, a guard had turned them back with a stern warning, and he’d never gone there again. “It was a miserable place. Cold and dark and dank. It gave me the greatest fright of my young life when the guard threatened to put us in a cell and hold us until someone came looking for us. We all ran at that. Oh, doubtless there are folk who deserve such confinement but I never even wished to look on it again. ”

  “Doubtless,” my father said in an affable voice, but Wolf-Father looked out of his eyes for a moment, and there were deep sparks of black anger in his gaze. I stared at him. Wolf-Father lived in my other father? This was a revelation to me, and I said little while I pondered it for the rest of the evening.

  When the meal was over, my father offered me his arm. I managed not to seem surprised as I took it, and let him guide me to the sitting room where the men had brandy and Shun had red wine and, to my surprise, there was a mug of mulled cider on the tray for me. My father picked up our conversation about the Elderlings, and Scribe Lant joined in. I was surprised at how affable he was; I had expected him to be sullen or sarcastic, for my father had told me that his earlier rebuke of him had been rather sharp. Yet the scribe seemed to have accepted that correction, and twice he even spoke directly to me in a way that did not seem condescending or mocking. Very, very slowly, I decided that he had accepted that he had been mistaken in his impression and his treatment of me, and that he now wished to make up for it.

  I saw that he looked at my father almost anxiously, as if his approval was extremely important. He fears him, I thought to myself. And then I thought how silly I was not to realize that Scribe Lant was very vulnerable, not just in that he had seen what my father was capable of when he was a boy, but also in that he was relying on my father’s hospitality to remain safely hidden. If my father turned him out, where could he go? How long before he would be found and killed? My feelings became very mixed. Shun’s green-eyed annoyance that he was paying more attention to my father and the conversation than he was to her was very gratifying. At the same time I felt uncomfortable that his rudeness to me had had the end result of making him puppyishly subservient to my father. I fell silent, more watching and listening than speaking, and finally begged to be excused, saying I was tired.

  I went to bed in my pleasant new room that night. My thoughts were complicated and troubling. Sleep was late in coming, and in the morning there was Careful again, tugging at me and fussing over my hair. I thanked her for the use of the lace but declined it that day, saying that I feared ink and chalk would mar it. I think she was relieved to rescue her collar and cuffs from such potential disaster, but suggested that when my father took me to the market, I should buy some lace I liked and have the seamstress fashion me some of my own. I agreed softly but wondered if I would. I did not feel like a lace-and-earrings sort of person, I discovered. My mother had enjoyed such finery and I had loved how it looked on her. I felt more drawn to emulate my father’s plain clothing and simple ways.

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/>   I took my scroll of letters with me when I descended to breakfast. I set it by my plate, greeted everyone at the table very politely, and then paid attention to my food. Despite my father’s support, I felt sick as I thought of the lesson time to come. My father might have convinced FitzVigilant that I was not a deceptive little half-wit and perhaps my tutor now feared to treat me disrespectfully, but that would do me little good with the other children. I excused myself early from the table and went directly to the schoolroom.

  Some of the other children had already arrived. The goose children were there, standing close to the gardener’s boy. Larkspur was pointing to the letters on their scroll and naming each for them. Perseverance was waiting, wearing a stable boy’s livery that fit him much better and looked almost new. I was not sure I liked him in green and yellow as much as I had in his simple leathers. He was also wearing a black eye and a swollen lower lip. It looked hideous when he smiled, the fat lip stretching painfully. But smile he did at the sight of me, as if we had never quarreled. I slowed my steps as I walked toward him, completely bewildered. Could it be that simple? Simply pretend we had never quarreled; just go back to treating each other as we had before? It didn’t seem possible. But I was determined to try it. I smiled back at him, and for an instant his grin grew wider. Then he lifted the back of his hand to his bruised mouth and winced. But the smile stayed in his eyes.

  “Perseverance,” I greeted him when I was two steps away.

  “Lady Bee,” he responded gravely, and actually sketched a bow at me as if I were truly a lady grown. “Exactly who I was hoping to see before lessons began. ”

  “Truly?” I raised my brows at him skeptically, trying to conceal how much my heart had lifted at his words. One ally. One ally was all I needed in that wretched schoolroom and I could endure it.

  “Truly. Because I have completely jumbled what these two letters are, and neither my father nor my mother could help me. ” He spoke in a low voice as he unrolled the scroll, and I did not ask him why he had not asked Larkspur. I was the one he could ask for help without awkwardness. Just as he had been able to teach me to sit a horse. Without speaking a word about it, we drifted away from the others. We stood with our backs to the wall and both unrolled our letter scrolls as if we were comparing them.

  I breathed out the names of the first five letters and just as softly, Perseverance repeated them. Under his breath, he added, “They look like hen’s tracks and have names that are just sounds. Who can remember such useless things?”

  I had never seen letters in such a light. But I had seen them through my mother’s eyes before I was born, and had seen them for myself when I sat on her lap of an evening and she read aloud to me. When I considered Perseverance’s words, I understood his frustration. I tried to make connections for him. “The first one, see, it makes the sound at the beginning of Revel’s name, and it has long legs, just as he does. And this second one that makes the sound at the beginning of water has a curl here, like water running over a rock. ” In this way we named not just the first five letters, but ten of them. So engrossed were we in this new game of looking at letters that neither of us was aware of the looks from the other children until Elm giggled in a very nasty way. We both looked up to see her roll her eyes at Lea. And there, coming down the hall toward us, was our teacher.

  As he passed me, he observed in a jolly voice, “You, Lady Bee, have no need of that!” and he plucked the letter scroll from my startled fingers. Before I could react, he called all of us to assemble in the schoolroom. We entered, each resuming the same place as the day before. He was much more brisk than he had been the day before. He organized us into groups, putting children of similar ages together with a wax tablet. He sent Larkspur and me to a different corner of the room. He gave us a scroll about the geography and crops of each of the Six Duchies, along with a map, and told us to familiarize ourselves with them. He smiled at both of us as he directed us, and it seemed a sincere expression. Now that I knew fear was the source of his kindly regard, I felt shamed for us both. Then he looked round in annoyance and demanded, “Where is Taffy? I will not tolerate tardiness!”

  A silence held among the children. Several exchanged glances, and I became aware that there was a secret I didn’t know. Perseverance was focused on his tablet. I watched him carefully copy a letter.

  “Well?” Scribe FitzVigilant demanded of us. “Does no one know where he is?”

  “He’s home,” Elm said.

  One of the sheep-smelling boys said quietly, “He’s poorly. He won’t come today. ” He glanced at Perseverance. A very slight smile stretched the stable boy’s swollen lip tight. He appeared to be very intent on his letter scroll.

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  FitzVigilant breathed out through his nose. The day had barely begun but he already sounded tired as he said, “Children, I have been charged with teaching you. It is not my first choice of what I would do with the days of my life, but it has been given me as a duty, and I will do it. I commend your families for seeing the wisdom of sending you to me. I am well aware that several of you wish yourselves elsewhere. Taffy made it clear to me yesterday that he regarded our lessons as a waste of his time. Today he pretends illness to avoid me. Well, I will not tolerate such malingering!”

  Several children exchanged puzzled looks at the unfamiliar word, but Perseverance didn’t even look up from his letter as he said softly, “Taffy’s not shamming. ” Could everyone hear the satisfaction in his voice or was it only me? I stared at him, but he did not lift his eyes to meet mine.

  Our scribe spoke. There was condemnation in his voice. “And did your fists have anything to do with his ‘feeling poorly’?”

  Perseverance looked up. He met the scribe’s eyes. I knew he was only a few years older than me, but he sounded like a man as he said, “Sir, my fists took no action until after his mouth had said untrue things about my sister. Then I did what any man would do when his family was insulted. ” He looked at FitzVigilant. Perseverance’s brow was unlined and his gaze open. There was no guilt in him for what he had done, only righteousness.

  A silence held in the schoolroom. My feelings were mixed. I had not even known that Perseverance had a sister. She was not here, so she was either much younger than him, or much older. Or perhaps his parents did not think a girl needed to read and write. Some were like that, even in Buck.

  Neither of them looked away, but the scribe spoke first. “Let us return to our lessons. ”

  Perseverance immediately lowered his eyes to the wax tablet and resumed his careful tracing of the letter he had engraved there. I spoke under my breath, a sentence I had heard in a dream about a young bull. “Horns not grown, he swings his head in warning and still all take heed. ”

  Chapter Twenty-Seven

  Time and Again

  Withywoods is a feast of perfection, in all seasons. In summer, on the rounded hills of the high lands of the estate, the oaks make a pleasant shade, while down near the creek the twisted willows that give the place its name drip a soft rain that is refreshing. Trees to climb and a creek to fish in. What more could a boy wish? In autumn any child would be happy to gather acorns from the oak forest, or pick for himself ripe grapes in our own vineyards. In the winter? Deep banks of fallen leaves give way to slopes of snow, perfect for coasting, and a hearth in a hall that begs for Winterfest to be celebrated not for a night, but for a whole month. Spring brings new lambs frolicking on the hills, and kittens and puppies in the stables.

  I know, I know that the boy would be happy here. I know I could win his heart and make him mine. I was so foolish to be hurt and bitter when first I heard of him. Conceived years before Chivalry made me his, how could I rebuke him for unfaithfulness to a wife he did not have? But I did. For I wanted, so desperately, what an accident had bequeathed to a woman who did not want him, the child, the heir I would have cherished. I have begged him, even on my knees, to send for the boy, but he refuses. “H
e would not be safe here,” he tells me. “Where safer than under his father’s roof, protected by his father’s sword arm?” I ask of him. It is the only serious quarrel we have ever had. He is adamant.

  Lady Patience’s private journal, discovered behind a stack of flowerpots

  The night before we were to visit the market, I went to bed full of anticipation. Sleep evaded me at first, and then it came with a hailstorm of dreams. Some were nightmarish, others so intense that I desperately tried to fight free of them. Yet I could not seem to fully wake. My room seemed full of a thick fog, and each time I thought I had wakened myself, images formed and pulled me back into a dream.

  When morning came, I was still weary. The world seemed hazy and I was not fully convinced I was not still dreaming. Careful was there, insisting that I must arise. She shook my covers to let the cold air in and then sat me on a stool before the fire. I could barely hold my head straight. I made no resistance as she tugged a brush through the growing tangle of my curls. “You don’t want to dawdle today, my little lady! Oh, how I envy you, going to market for pretty new things! Your father said as much to Revel, and he has made me a little list to give you. Here it is! He’s a lettered man, is our steward, as I regret to say I am not, but he has told me what it says. Revel says you need boots and shoes, gloves of both wool and leather, stockings of wool in at least three colors, and he has dared to suggest a seamstress in town, one who knows how to sew the little frocks that girls wear nowadays rather than your jerkins and tunics! As if you were a boy! What your father is thinking I don’t know! Not to criticize him, of course. The poor man, with no wife to tell him these things!”

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  I scarcely heard her words. I felt dull and wooden. Careful tugged and worried at my hair, desperately trying to make it look longer and more girlish. There was enough now that it had a color at least and my scalp no longer showed through. She dressed me with little help from me. I tried, but my fingers were fat, sleepy sausages and my head a heavy weight on my shoulders. She sighed over my tunic, but I was glad of its warmth over my linen shirt. When I was as primped as she could manage with such a bland canvas, she sent me off to breakfast with the admonition that I should have fun and think of her if the trinket tables were out for Winterfest.

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