Fools assassin, p.61
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       Fools Assassin, p.61

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

  Winterfest! I woke slightly to that thought. I had scarcely thought of that holiday, but she was right, it was almost upon us. In my memories it was a warm and yet festive time at Withywoods. There were minstrels and puppeteers, and immense logs burning in the hearth, and sea salt to fling at the burning wood to make the flames leap up in different colors. Always on Winterfest eve, my mother came down to dinner wearing a holly crown. Once she left a winter staff leaning by my father’s chair. It was as tall as he was, and decorated with ribbons, and for some reason it made all the servants roar with laughter and my father blush a deep scarlet. I had never understood the joke, but knew only that it was a reminder of something special that both of them shared. That night of all nights, they always shone with love, and it seemed to me that they were but boy and girl again.

  And so I did my best to rally my spirits, for I knew that this year must be a sad reminder for my father. I tried to banish my peculiar dreams and be cheery at our breakfast of porridge and sausages and dried berries and hot tea. When Riddle came in and my father invited him to join us, I anticipated a good day. But then Riddle reminded us both that this was the day he was to set out on his return journey to Buckkeep.

  “You can ride with us to Oaksbywater,” my father urged him. “It’s on your way, and we shall have a meal together in the tavern there before you begin the rest of your journey. I am told that the merchants will have begun to display their wares for Winterfest. Perhaps Bee and I can find a few small things to send to her sister. ”

  It was the perfect bait for Riddle. I could almost see him thinking that he might choose a small gift or two for her as well. At Winterfest sweethearts often exchanged tokens for the coming year. It pleased me that he would want to get a gift for my sister. It meant that Shun had no real hold on him. He was thinking of something green for her, a green scarf or green gloves for her pretty little hands. He could almost imagine slipping them onto her hands. I blinked. I had not known my sister’s favorite color was green. Riddle nodded to my father and then said, “I can certainly delay a bit for that, as long as I leave in time to reach Woodsedge before nightfall. I’ve no wish to sleep outside with snow coming down. ”

  “It’s snowing now?” I asked stupidly. My voice sounded thick, even to me. I tried to make my wandering mind return to the spoken conversation at the table.

  Riddle was looking at me kindly, as if he thought I feared we would cancel our trip. “A light fall of snow. Nothing that need dissuade any of us from our errands. ”

  I reached for the conversation. “I like the snow,” I said quietly. “It makes all new. We walk where no one has ever trodden before when we walk in fresh snow. ”

  They both stared at me. I tried to smile, but my lips went too wide. The steam was rising from the teapot. It curled as it rose, twisting in on itself, becoming itself again in a new form. Coiling like a serpent in the sea, or a dragon in flight. I tried to follow it as it dispersed.

  “She has such engaging fancies,” Riddle said in the distance. He poured tea into my cup for me. I watched how honey spun from the spoon into my cup, and then I stirred it and the tea and the honey swirled into one. I let my mind swirl with it. The men talked and I simply was for a time.

  “Dress warmly, Bee,” my father said. I blinked. Their plates were emptied. I recalled that we were going to ride through the snow to Oaksbywater. The market. Winterfest. Today my father and Riddle would see me ride Priss. I suddenly wished Perseverance could come with us. Dared I ask for such a strange favor?

  I was on the point of standing when Shun and FitzVigilant breezed in to join us. The scribe seemed startled to see our empty plates. “Are we late?” he asked in surprise, and I realized my father had called me early to breakfast. He smiled at them both and said heartily, “No, we were early. Enjoy your meal and a restful day. We are off to the market today, and will see you again near nightfall. ”

  “The market! What good fortune! I was dreading a tedious day. I shall eat quickly and join you. ” Shun was absolutely radiant at the thought.

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  As if her thoughts were contagious, the scribe echoed here, “And I, if I may! I confess, in my hasty packing, I neglected to bring as many warm things as I would be happy to have here. And I wonder if the market would have any wax tablets? As my students progress, I would like each to have his own for his work. ”

  My heart sank. This was our day, the day promised to me. Surely my father would defend it. He looked toward me but I lowered my eyes. After a moment he spoke. “Of course. If you wish, I suppose we can delay for a little. ”

  We delayed the whole morning. Shun behaved as if she had only by chance heard of our expedition, but I was certain she had known of it by servant gossip and only chose to invite herself in such an untimely way. For one thing, she had arrived at breakfast dressed as if she were a dish for a feast table. That did not mean she was quickly ready to leave. No. She must flounce and twist her hair and try on a dozen pair of earrings, and scold her maid for not having a certain jacket mended and ready for her to wear. These things I knew because she left the door of her chambers open and the sound of her strident displeasure carried well down the corridor to my chambers. I lay back down on my bed to await the announcement that she was ready, and dozed off. I fell right back into my discordant dreams, and when my father came to find me I felt disconnected and strange as I found my wraps and then followed him out to the ponderous wagon that would now transport us to town, for Lady Shun had chosen skirts that were certain to be ruined by riding horseback.

  My father waved away a driver and climbed up to take the reins himself before gesturing that I should join him on the seat. Riddle’s horse and his laden pack animal were tethered to the rear of the wagon and would follow. He climbed up next to us. So at least I had the novelty of riding beside my father and watching him manage the team, and not having to listen to Shun’s vapid chatter. I glanced back at the stable in time to see Perseverance leading Prissy out on an exercise lead. He nodded to me, and I ducked my head in response. We had managed to find time for exactly one riding lesson since our other schooling had started. I had looked forward to making my father proud of me today with my riding skills. Trust Shun to spoil that!

  But for all that, I enjoyed the ride to town. FitzVigilant and Shun were tucked into the back of the wagon with a mound of cushions, lap robes, and blankets. I heard her telling him some tale of a grand carriage her grandmother had owned, all leather and velvet curtains. I was warm as I sat between my father and Riddle. They spoke over my head of boring manly things. I watched the snow falling, and the tossing of the horses’ manes, and listened to the music of the creaking wagon and thudding hooves. I went off into a sort of waking dream of gentle light that shone on us from the falling snow and drew us on and on. I roused from it only as we got closer to the trading town. First the woods gave way to open fields with little farmhouses in clusters. Then we began to see more houses on smaller holdings, and finally we were in the town itself, with all the merchants and fine houses and inns clustered around an open square. And over it all, a gleaming pearly haze made me want to rub my eyes. The falling snow diffused the winter light so that it seemed to me it came as much from the snowy ground as the sky overhead. I felt myself drifting. It was such a wonderful sensation. My nose and cheeks were chilled, as were my hands, but the rest of me was warm trapped between the two men and their deep cheerful voices. Garlands and lanterns on poles were set out for Winterfest to come, and the bright attire of the merchants and the folk wandering the shops added to the festive air. Evergreen garlands draped doors and windows, enlivened with branches bare but for clinging red berries, brown cones, or white berries. The wealthier establishments had tiny bells woven into the cedar fronds, and they chimed softly in the wind.

  My father pulled in near a stable and tossed a boy a coin to see to our team. He lifted me down after him as Shun and FitzVigilant were scrambling down from the tai
l of the wagon. My father took my hand, exclaiming over how cold it was. His hand was warm, and his walls were up enough that I could endure the skin-to-skin touch. I smiled up at him. The snow was falling and light surrounded us.

  We came to the town commons. Oaksbywater had three great oaks in the center of their commons, and young holly trees, freshly trimmed of their prickly leaves and berries. In the open spaces of the commons, a new town seemed to have sprung up. Peddlers and tinkers had pulled up their carts and sold pans from racks and whistles and bracelets from trays and late apples and nuts from bushel baskets. There was so much to choose from, we could not look at it all. We passed people dressed in furs and bright cloaks. So many people and I knew none of them! So different from Withywoods. Some of the girls wore holly crowns. It would not be Winterfest for two more days, but there were garlands and music and a man cooking and selling hot chestnuts. “Chestnuts, chestnuts, piping hot! Chestnuts, chestnuts, hopping in the pot!”

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  My father filled his glove with some for me. I hugged it in one arm and peeled the gleaming brown shells from the creamy nuts. “My favorites!” Riddle told me as he stole one. He walked beside me, talking of Winterfests he recalled from his boyhood in a small town. I think he ate as many chestnuts as I did. Two giggling young women passed wearing holly crowns. They smiled at him, and he smiled back but shook his head. They laughed aloud, joined hands, and ran off into the crowd.

  We stopped first at a saddlery, where my father seemed discouraged to hear that his new saddle was not quite finished. It was only when the man came to measure the length of my legs and then to shake his head and say he’d have to adjust his work that I realized the saddle would be for Prissy and me. He showed me the flaps, with a bee carved into each. I stared in surprise and I think that made my father as happy as if the saddle had been ready. He promised we would come back next week, with the horse, and I scarce could take it in. I could not say a word until we were outside. Then Riddle asked me what I thought of the bees, and I said honestly that they were very nice, but I would rather have had a charging buck. My father looked astonished and Riddle laughed so loudly that folk turned to stare at us.

  We stopped in several shops. My father brought me a belt of leather stained red and carved with flowers, and a bracelet with flower charms carved from antler, and a little cake full of raisins and nuts. At one shop we bought three balls of white soap scented with wisteria and one with peppermint. Very softly, I told my father I wished to bring back something for Careful and something for Revel. He seemed pleased by that. He found buttons carved like acorns and asked if Careful might like them. I was not sure, but he bought them. Revel was much harder, but when I saw a woman selling embroidered pocket kerchiefs dyed saffron and pale green and sky blue, I asked if might buy him one of each. My father was surprised that I was so certain he would be pleased with such a gift, but I had no doubt at all. I wished I had the courage to ask to buy a small gift for Perseverance but felt shy of even telling my father his name.

  A boy had a tray full of tiny seashells. Some had been bored to string as beads. I lingered long, staring at them. Some were twisted cones, others tiny scoops with scalloped edges. “Bee,” my father said at last. “They’re only common seashells such as litter any beach. ”

  “I’ve never seen the ocean or walked on a beach,” I reminded him. And while he was musing on that, Riddle scooped a heaping handful of the shells and funneled them into my two cupped hands.

  “To have until you can walk on a beach with your sister and pick up as many as you want,” he told me. Then they both laughed at my delight and we wandered on. At a hastily constructed stall, my father bought me a market bag such as my mother used to carry. It was woven of bright-yellow straw, with a sturdy strap that went over my shoulder. I set it down and into it we carefully put all we had bought. My father wished to carry it for me, but I was happy to feel the weight of my treasures.

  When we came to a little market square full of tinker and trader booths, my father gave me six coppers and said I might spend them as I wished. I bought Careful a string of gleaming black beads and a long piece of blue lace: I was certain she would delight in those gifts. For myself, I bought enough green lace for a collar and cuffs, mostly because I knew it would please Careful that I had done as she suggested. And finally, I purchased a little money pouch to add to my belt. I put the last two coppers and the half-copper the tinker had given back to me in my pouch and felt very grown-up. In the street, some men stood and sang, blending their voices, right there in the falling snow. There was a fat man who sat in the little space between the buildings, surrounded by a light so bright that most people could scarcely abide it and turned their gazes away from him as they passed. I saw a man juggling potatoes, and a girl with three tame crows who did tricks with rings.

  The streets were busy for such a chilly day. In an alley between buildings, an ambitious puppeteer and his apprentices were setting up a show tent. We passed three musicians with red cheeks and redder noses playing pipes together in the shelter of one of the square’s evergreens. The snow began to fall in earnest, in large fluffy clumps of flakes. It spangled my father’s shoulders. Three beggars limped past us, looking as miserable as anyone could. Riddle gave each of them a copper and they wished him well in cold-cracked voices. I stared after them, and then I felt my gaze drawn to a pathetic lone beggar camped on the doorstep of a tea-and-spice shop. I hugged myself and shivered at his blind gaze.

  “Are you cold?” my father asked me. It came to me that we had stopped walking and I had heard his query twice. Was I cold? I reached for words.

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  “Cold comes from the heart, on waves of red blood,” I heard myself say. And I was cold. I looked at my fingers. They were white. As white as the beggar’s eyes. Had he looked at them and made them white? No. He could not see me if I didn’t look at him. I looked at my father. He seemed to move away from me without moving. Everything had stepped back at me. Why? Was I a danger to them? I reached for my father’s hand. He reached for mine, but I did not think we touched. I felt Riddle’s eyes on me but could not meet his gaze. He was looking at me but I was not where he was looking. A time passed, short or long, and then suddenly with a lurch the world started up around me again. I heard the sounds of the market, smelled the horse and cart that plodded past us in the street. I gripped my father’s fingers tightly.

  My father spoke hastily as if to distract us from each other. “She’s just cold. That’s all. We should get to the cobbler’s shop and get her some boots! And then, Bee, let’s buy you a warm scarf to wear. Riddle, do you need to be on your way soon?”

  “I think I’ll stay a bit longer,” he said quietly. “Perhaps I’ll even stay the night in the inn. The snow is coming thickly; not the best weather for starting a journey. ”

  “I wonder where Shun and FitzVigilant have gone. ” My father glanced about as if worried. It came to me that he hoped Riddle would offer to find them. He was worried about me, and wished for us to be alone.

  Riddle did not take the bait. “Those two seemed pleased enough with their own company. Perhaps we should take Bee somewhere and get her something warm to drink. ”

  “After the cobbler,” my father replied stubbornly. He stooped suddenly and picked me up.

  “Papa?” I objected and tried to wriggle free.

  “My legs are longer. And your boots are letting the snow in. Let me carry you until we reach the cobbler’s shop. ” He held me tight to his chest and his thoughts even tighter. We passed a man leaning up against the corner of a building. He looked at me with his eyes all wrong. The fat man in the alley near him pointed at me and smiled. Gleaming fog billowed around him. People walking past the mouth of the alley slowed and looked puzzled. Then they hurried on. I huddled closer to my father, closing my eyes to keep out the light and fog, and Wolf-Father growled at them. Three steps later I opened my eyes and loo
ked back. I could not see them.

  And there was the cobbler’s shop, on the next corner. My father swung me down. We stamped snow from our boots and brushed it from our clothes before we crowded in. The shop smelled pleasantly of leather and oil, and the cobbler had a roaring fire on his hearth. The cobbler was a spry little man named Pacer. He had known me since I was a baby, and he had never made much of my differences, but had made my shoes to fit my peculiarly small feet. Now he exclaimed in dismay to see how his handiwork had been outgrown. He sat me down before his fire and had my boots off before I could reach for them. He measured my feet with a bit of string and his warm hands, and promised me new boots and a set of shoes within two days, and his apprentice to deliver them to Withywoods.

  He would not let me put my old boots back on, but gifted me with a pair that he’d had on his shelves. They were too big for me, but he stuffed both toes with wool and promised that they’d serve me better than the old ones that were splitting at the seams. “I would feel shame to send you out into the falling snow in those old boots. I’m sure those must feel better,” he said to me.

  I looked down at them and tried to find words. “I feel taller to see my feet looking longer,” I said. My father and Riddle laughed as if I had said the cleverest thing in the world.

  Then we were out into the snow again, and at the next door we ducked into a woolmonger’s, where I saw skeins of yarns dyed in every color imaginable. As I wandered past the shelves, gently touching each color and smiling to myself, I saw Riddle find a pair of green gloves and a hood that matched them. While he paid for them and had them wrapped, my father chose a thick wool shawl in bright red and soft gray. I was startled when he put it around me. It was large for me, blanketing my shoulders even when I pulled it up to cover my head. But it was so warm, not just with the wool but with his thinking of me before I had ever asked for such a thing.

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