Fools assassin, p.62
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       Fools Assassin, p.62

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

  I thought then that I should take out Revel’s list of things he thought I needed, but my father seemed so pleased to be finding and buying things that I did not want to stop him. Out we went into the busy streets, and in and out of all sorts of little shops and stalls. Then I saw the man with the cart of puppies. A worn-out donkey was pulling the little two-wheeled cart through the crowded street, and an old brindled mother dog was trotting anxiously after it, for her pups were standing up in the cart, their front paws on the edge, yelping and whining to her. A skinny man with ginger whiskers was driving the little cart, and he made the donkey trot right up to one of the oaks in the central square of the market. He stood up on the cart’s seat, and to my surprise he tossed a rope up over one of the oak’s low bare branches.

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  “What is he doing, Papa?” I demanded, and my father and Riddle both stopped and turned to watch.

  “These pups,” the man shouted as he caught the descending end of the rope, “are the best bulldogs a man could own. All know a pup gets its heart from its mother, and this old bitch of mine is the doughtiest bitch a man ever owned. She’s old now, and not much to look at, but she’s got heart. I reckon this is the last litter she’ll ever whelp for me! So if you want a dog that will face down a bull, a dog that will set its teeth in a thief’s leg or a bull’s nose and never let go till you say so, now is the time to get one of these pups!”

  I stared at the brown-and-white puppies in the cart. Their ears were edged with red. Chopped off, I realized. Someone had cut their ears off short. One of the puppies turned suddenly as if bitten by a flea, but I knew what he was doing. Licking the shorn stump that had once been a tail. The old dog had only ragged stubs of ears and a nub of a tail. The man hauled on the rope as he spoke, and to my shock a blanket in the cart shuddered and then out from under it came a bloody bull’s head. The man had tied the rope round the bull’s horns, and it hung, nose-down, severed neck trailing the pale tubes of its throat. He hoisted it up until the bull’s head hung as high as the man was tall. Then he tied off the rope and gave the head a push to set it swinging. It must have been something he had done before, for the old bitch fixed her eyes on it.

  She was a battered old thing, with white around her muzzle and hanging dugs and torn ears. She fixed her red-rimmed eyes on the swinging bull’s head and a quiver ran over her. All around the square, people were drawing nearer. Someone shouted something by the door to the tavern, and a moment later a full score of men poured out. “Set, bitch!” the man shouted, and the old dog surged forward. With a tremendous leap, she seized the bull’s nose in her teeth and hung there, suspended by her grip. The men closest to the cart roared their approval. Someone ran forward and gave the dangling head a strong push. Severed head and dog swung together. The man in the cart shouted, “Nothing will break her grip! She’s been gored and trampled and never let go! Get a pup from her last litter now!” The crowd about the cart was growing, to my great annoyance. “I can’t see,” I complained to my father. “Can we go closer?”

  “No,” Riddle said shortly. I looked up to see his face dark with anger. I glanced at my father, and suddenly it was Wolf-Father who stood beside me. I do not mean that he had a muzzle and hair upon his face, but that his eyes were wild with ferocity. Riddle picked me up, to carry me away, but instead it gave me a view. The cart man had pulled a great knife from under his coat. He stepped forward, seized his old dog by her scruff. She growled loudly but kept her grip. He grinned round at the crowd, and then, with a sudden swipe, he sliced one of her ears off. Her snarling took on a frenzied note, but she did not break her hold. The blood ran scarlet down her sides and melted the snow in a rain of red drops.

  Then Riddle was turning and taking long strides away. “Come away, Fitz!” he called in a low rough voice, as firmly as if he ordered a dog. But no command could control Wolf-Father. A moment longer he stood still and I saw his shoulders bunch under his winter cloak as the man’s knife rose, fell and rose bloodied again. No more than that could I see, but the crowd of onlookers roared and screamed and so I knew that still the bitch gripped the bull’s nose in her teeth. “Only the three pups for sale!” the man shouted. “Only the three, whelps of a bitch who will let me gut her and die hanging from her teeth! Last chance to bid on these pups!”

  But he was not waiting for anyone to offer money. He knew he would have his pick of the offers once he had delivered the bloodbath they craved. Riddle held me, and I knew he longed to carry me far away and feared to leave my father alone. “Damn, where is Shun or FitzVigilant when they might be more useful than annoying!” he demanded of no one. He looked at me, his dark eyes wild. “If I set you down, Bee, will you stay … no. A fair chance you’d be trampled. Oh, child, what will your sister say to me?” And then my father suddenly lunged forward, as if a chain that had held him back had snapped, and Riddle surged after him trying to catch hold of his cloak. The man’s bloodied knife rose; I saw it over the heads of the onlookers as Riddle pushed and cursed his way through the crowd that had gathered to watch the dog’s end.

  Ahead of us, someone shouted angrily as my father bowled him over to get past. The man’s knife fell and the crowd chorused a deep-throated shout. “Is this the blood I dreamed?” I asked Riddle, but he did not hear me. Something swirled wild around me. The feeling of the blood-mad crowd was like a smell I could not clear from my nostrils. I felt it would tear me loose from my body. Riddle held me to his left shoulder and with his right hand set hard he forced his way in my father’s wake.

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  I knew when my father reached the dog butcher. I heard a loud crack, as if bone had hit bone, and then the crowd roared a different note. Riddle shouldered his way to the edge of an open space where my father held a man up. One of my father’s hands clutched the man’s throat. His other hand was drawn back and I saw it shoot forward like an arrow leaving a bow. His fist hit the man’s face and ruined it with a single blow. Then he flung the man aside, threw him into the crowd with a snap like a wolf breaking a rabbit’s neck. I had never guessed my father’s strength.

  Riddle tried to hold my face against his shoulder but I twisted free to stare. The bitch still hung from the bull’s nose, but her entrails dangled in streamers of gray and white and red that steamed in the winter air. My father had his knife in his hand. He put an arm around her and tenderly sliced her throat. As her heart pumped the last of her life and her jaws let go, he eased her body to the ground. He didn’t speak, but I heard him as he promised her that her pups would know a kinder life than she had. Not my pups, she told him. Then, I never knew there were masters like you, she told him, amazed beyond wonder that such a man could exist.

  Then she was gone. There was only the dead bull’s head hanging from the oak, a monstrous ornament to Winterfest, and the dog butcher rolling on the bloodied ground, clutching at his face and snorting blood and cursing. The bloodied thing in my father’s arms wasn’t a dog anymore. My father let the body fall and stood up slowly. When he did, the circle of men widened. Men stepped back from my father and the black look in his eyes. He walked up to the man on the ground, lifted his foot, and set it on the man’s chest, pinning him to the ground. The dog butcher ceased his mewling and grew still. He looked up at my father as if he looked at Death himself.

  My father said nothing. When the silence had lasted long, the man on the ground lifted his hands from his smashed nose. “You had no right,” he began.

  My father thrust his hands into his purse. He dropped a single coin on the man’s chest. It was a large one, an uncut silver. His voice was like the sound of a sword being drawn. “For the pups. ” He looked at them, and then at the poor bony creature hitched to the cart. “And the cart and donkey. ” The circle of watchers had grown still. He looked slowly around at them, and then he pointed at a youngster almost a man tall. “You. Jeruby. You drive the cart with those pups out to Withywoods. Take them to the stable
s and give them to a man named Hunter. Then go to my house steward, Revel, and tell him he’s to give you two silver pieces. ”

  There was a small intake of breath at that. Two silver pieces for an afternoon’s work?

  He turned and pointed next at an oldster. “Rube? A silver if you get that bloody bull’s head out of here, and shovel clean snow over this mess. It’s not a fit part of Winterfest. Are we Chalcedeans here? Do we long to have a King’s circle brought back to Oaksbywater?”

  Perhaps some of them did, but in the face of my father’s condemnation they would not admit it. The hooting, cheering crowd had been reminded they were men and capable of better. The spectators were already starting to disperse when the man on the ground complained hoarsely, “You’re cheating me! Those pups are worth a lot more than what you flung down here!” He clutched the single coin my father had dumped on him and held it up in both hands.

  My father rounded on him. “She didn’t whelp those pups! She was too old. She couldn’t last out a fight anymore. All she had left was the strength in her jaws. And her heart. You just thought to get money out of her death. ”

  The man on the ground gaped at him. Then, “You can’t prove that!” he cried out in a voice that proclaimed him a liar.

  My father had already forgotten him. He had suddenly realized that Riddle was standing there and that I was staring at him. The old bitch’s blood had drenched his cloak. He saw me staring at it, and without a word he undid the clasp and let it fall to the ground, the heavy gray wool given up without a thought save that he did not want to bloody me as he came to take me into his arms. But Riddle did not give me up. I looked at my father wordlessly. He lifted his gaze to meet Riddle’s.

  “I thought you would take her away from here. ”

  “And I thought you might have a mob turn on you, and might need someone at your back. ”

  “And bring my daughter into the middle of it?”

  “From the time you decided to interfere, all my choices were bad ones. Sorry if you don’t like the one I chose. ”

  I had never heard Riddle’s voice so cold, nor seen him and my father staring at each other like angry strangers. I had to do something, say something. “I’m cold,” I said to the air. “And I’m hungry. ”

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  Riddle looked over at me. A tight, hard moment passed. The world breathed again. “I’m starving,” he said quietly.

  My father looked at his feet. “So am I,” he muttered. He stooped suddenly, scooped up clean snow, and used it to wipe blood from his hands. Riddle watched him.

  “On your left cheek, too,” he said, and there was no anger left in his voice. Only a strange weariness. My father nodded, still not looking at anyone. He walked a few paces to where clean snow still clung to the top of a bush. He gathered two handfuls and washed his face with snow. When he was finished, I wriggled out of Riddle’s arms. I took my father’s cold wet hand. I didn’t say anything. I just looked up at him. I wanted to tell him that what I had seen hadn’t hurt me. Well, it had, but not the things he had done.

  “Let’s get some hot food,” he said to me.

  We walked to a tavern, past the man in the alley who still gleamed with a light that made it hard to see. Farther down the street, sitting on a corner, there was a gray beggar. I turned to look at him as we passed. He stared at me, not seeing me, for his eyes were as blank and gray as the ragged cloak he wore. He had no begging bowl, just his hand held up on top of his knee. It was empty. He wasn’t begging me for money. I knew that. I could see him and he couldn’t see me. That was not how it was supposed to be. I turned sharply, hugging my face to my father’s arm as he pushed open the door.

  Inside the tavern, all was noise and warmth and smells. When my father walked in, the talk died suddenly. He stood, looking around the room as if he were Wolf-Father thinking about a trap. Slowly the voices took up their talk again, and we followed Riddle to a table. We were scarcely seated before a boy appeared with a tray and three heavy mugs of warmed spiced cider. He set them down, thud, thud, thud, and then smiled at my father. “On the house,” he told him, and sketched him a bow.

  My father leaned back on the bench and the landlord, who was standing by the fire with several other men, lifted his own mug to him. My father nodded back gravely. He looked at the serving boy. “What is that savory smell?”

  “It’s a beef shoulder, simmered until the meat fell off the bones with three yellow onions and half a bushel of carrots, and two full measures of this year’s barley. If you order the soup here, sir, you will not get a bowl of brown water with a potato bit at the bottom! And the bread has just come from the oven, and we have summer butter, kept in the cold cellar and yellow as a daisy’s heart. But if you prefer mutton, there are mutton pies likewise stuffed with barley and carrot and onion, in brown crusts so flaky that we must put a plate under them, for they are so tender that otherwise you may end up wearing one! We have sliced pumpkin baked with apples and butter and cream, and …”

  “Stop, stop,” my father begged him, “or my belly will burst just listening to you. What shall we have?” He turned to Riddle and me with the question. Somehow my father was smiling and I thanked the jolly serving boy with all my heart.

  I chose the beef soup and bread and butter, as did Riddle and my father. No one spoke while we waited but it was not an awkward quiet. Rather it was a careful one. It was better to leave the space empty of words than to choose the wrong ones. When the food came, it was every bit as good as the boy had said it would be. We ate, and somehow, not talking made things better between Riddle and my father. The fire on the big hearth sparked and spit when someone added a big log. The door opened and closed as people came and went, and the conversations reminded me of bees buzzing in a hive. I had not known that a chill day and buying things and watching my father save a dog’s death could make me so hungry. When I could almost see the bottom of my bowl, I found the words I needed.

  “Thank you, Papa. For doing what you did. It was right. ”

  He looked at me and spoke carefully. “It is what fathers are supposed to do. We are supposed to get our children what they need. Boots and scarves, yes, but bracelets and chestnuts, too, when we can. ”

  He didn’t want to recall what he had done in the town square. But I had to make him understand that I understood. “Yes. Fathers do that. And some go right into the middle of a mob and save a poor dog from a slow death. And send puppies and a donkey to a safe place. ” I turned to look at Riddle. It was hard. I’d never looked directly into his face. I put my eyes on his and kept them there. “Remind my sister that our father is a very brave man, when you see her. Tell her I am learning to be brave, too. ”

  Riddle was meeting my gaze. I tried, but I could not do it for long. I looked down at my bowl and took up my spoon as if I were still very hungry. I knew that my father and Riddle looked at each other over my bowed head, but I kept my eyes on my food.

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  Chapter Twenty-Eight

  Things Bought

  If a few students come reluctantly to their studies, then let them go. If all students come reluctantly to their studies, then let your scribe be dismissed and find another. For once students have been taught that learning is tedious, difficult, and useless, they will never learn another lesson.

  On the Necessity of Education, Scribe Fedwren

  How often does a man know, without question, that he has done well? I do not think it happens often in anyone’s life, and it become even rarer once one has a child. Ever since I had become a parent, I had questioned every decision I’d ever made for any child I was responsible for, from Nettle to Hap and even Dutiful. Certainly with Bee, I seemed to stumble from one disastrous action to another. I had never wished her to see the facet of myself that she had seen killing the dog. I’d washed the blood from my face and hands with the icy snow, but could not cleanse the deep shame I’d felt as we walk
ed toward the tavern. Then my child had looked up at me and thanked me. She’d not only claimed to understand but had tried to smooth my rift with Riddle. Her words did not free me of my guilt; Riddle had been right. I’d completely disregarded that I might be putting her into danger when the waves of the dog’s agony had struck me. The old bitch’s utter faith that by doing exactly as her master commanded she would finally please him had been too great a cruelty for me to endure. Should I have endured it for the sake of protecting her?

  Bee evidently thought not. Another time, I promised myself, I would be wiser. I tried to think of what I could have done differently and found no answers. But at least this time my daughter seemed to have taken no harm from my rashness.

  The food was good, my brief clash with Riddle seemed settled, and my daughter wanted to be exactly where she was. Behind us, the inn door was opening and closing almost as regularly as if it were a bellows pumping hungry folk into the tavern. Suddenly two of them were Shun and FitzVigilant. His arms were laden with packages. He stooped and set them carefully on the floor beside us before they abruptly joined us, sitting down on either end of our bench. “I’ve found some green stockings I truly must have for Winterfest. We will celebrate it at Withywoods, won’t we? Of course we must, and there will be dancing! There are many minstrels in town and I am sure you can hire some to come to Withywoods. But first, before we seek them out, I must go purchase the stockings. I am sure that if you loan me the coin, Lord Chade will be good for it!” Shun announced breathlessly.

  Before I could even turn my head in her direction, from the other end FitzVigilant added, “And I have found wax tablets at a merchant who specializes in the newest items! He has them in hinged pairs, so that a student can close them and protect his work. Such a clever idea! He does not have many of them, but any we can purchase will help my students. ”

  I looked at my earnest scribe in consternation. His spirits and confidence had quickly revived. I was pleased he was no longer so cowed by my presence, but a bit appalled that he seemed as avaricious for unnecessary trinkets as Shun was. I recalled my earliest writing efforts. Paper had been considered far too valuable for younger students. With a wet finger, I had formed letters on the flagstones of the great hall. Sometimes we used burned sticks. I recalled ink made from soot. I did not mention this. I knew that many marveled at how backward Buckkeep and, indeed, all the Six Duchies had been in those years. The isolation of war and several kings who had been determined to insulate us from foreign customs had kept us bound in older traditions. Kettricken had been the Queen who had first introduced us to her Mountain ways of doing things, and then encouraged us to import not only goods from distant lands but their ideas and techniques as well. I was still not sure it had been an improvement. Did Lant’s students truly need hinged wax tablets in order to learn their letters? I felt my resistance rising. Then I recalled that I had heard Revel muttering in dismay that I clothed Bee as children had dressed two score years ago. Perhaps I was the one who was clinging unreasonably to the old ways now. Was it time to give way to change? Time to put my little daughter into long skirts before she was a woman?

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