Fools assassin, p.63
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       Fools Assassin, p.63

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

  I glanced at her. I loved her in her little brown tunics and leggings, free to run and tumble. Next to me, Bee wriggled with boredom. I stifled a sigh and pulled my mind back to the present. “Tablets for the students first, and then I will come round to see these stockings that have so impressed Shun. ”

  I lifted my bread and Shun broke out in a storm of arguments as to why I must first see what she coveted, ranging from a fear that the merchant would close his doors to someone else purchasing them and winding up with her fear that I might spend all my coin on tablets and have none left to buy her green stockings and whatever else it was that had caught her eye. I felt as if I were being relentlessly pelted with small stones, for FitzVigilant spoke at the same time, saying the tablets were not, truly, that essential and that of course I should see to Lady Shun’s needs first.

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  I spoke firmly. “Then I shall. As soon as I’ve been allowed to finish my food. ”

  “I would not mind something to eat,” Shun agreed, contented now that she had her way. “But have they anything nicer than soup and bread? An apple pastry, perhaps? Chicken?”

  I lifted a hand to summon a serving boy. He came and Shun interrogated him ruthlessly as to what foods were available. She badgered him into asking the cook to heat a cold fowl that was in the pantry, and to bring it with a dried apple tart. FitzVigilant was content with soup and bread. The boy mentioned that there were little gingercakes soon to come out of the oven in the kitchen. I asked for six of them, and the boy left.

  “Six?” Shun exclaimed in amazement. “Six?”

  “Some to eat and some to take. They were my favorites when I was a child, and I think that Bee will like them as much as I did. ”

  I twisted to ask Bee if she would like to try some of my favorite cakes, and found she was not there. I lifted my eyes to Riddle. He tipped his head toward the rear of the tavern; the privy was out that way.

  Shun seized my sleeve. “I forgot to ask for mulling spices in my cider!”

  I lifted my hand to summon the boy back. He had his head hunched down, and I was almost certain he was pretending not to see me. I waved my hand wearily. The boy darted off to another table, where he was greeted with raucous cheers from six waiting men. I watched him strike his pose and begin his recitation. The men were grinning at him. “He’s busy right now,” I excused him to Shun.

  “He’s ignoring me!”

  “I’ll go back to the kitchen and tell them to spice your cider,” FitzVigilant offered.

  “Of course you shouldn’t!” she exclaimed. “That boy should come back over here and do his tasks. Tom Badgerlock! Cannot you make that boy do as he should? Why should he ignore his betters to bring food to a table full of lowborn farmers? Call him back here!”

  I drew a breath. Riddle stood so abruptly he nearly overset the bench. “I’ll go to the kitchen. The inn is busy today. Leave the boy alone to do his work. ”

  He swung his leg over the bench, turned, and strode across the crowded inn room as only Riddle could, sliding between the packed customers but somehow giving offense to none.

  Except Shun. She stared after him, nostrils flared and mouth pinched white. Riddle’s tone had left no doubt as to his opinion of her. FitzVigilant was staring after him, his mouth slightly ajar. He rolled his eyes to look at Shun and said weakly, “That’s not like Riddle. ”

  “He’s had a trying day,” I excused him. I pointed my chill remark at Shun but she seemed immune to my intent to shame her. I frowned after Riddle, feeling as if he rebuked me as much as Shun. Lant was right. It wasn’t like Riddle. I suspected that my behavior had far more to do with Riddle’s short temper than Shun’s pique over her mulling spices. I closed my eyes for a moment, tasting bitterness in the back of my throat. That poor old bitch. For years I had rigorously controlled my Wit, refusing to reach out, refusing to allow anyone to reach into me. Today those barriers had fallen and I no more could have turned away than I could have ignored someone beating Bee. That sadistic butcher had not been Witted; but I had felt what radiated from the old dog toward him. It was not the aches in her damaged and aging body as she’d trotted after his cart. It wasn’t even the sharp agony she’d felt as he cut her. I’d learned, over the years, to brace myself against that sort of bleed-over of pain from creatures. No. What had cracked my walls and flooded me with fury was something else she had felt for him. Loyalty. Trust that he knew what was best. For all the days of her life, she’d been his tool and his weapon, deployed however he wished. Her life had been harsh but it had been what she’d been bred for. For that man, she had baited bulls, fought other dogs, set on boars. Whatever he had commanded, she had done, and taken the joy of the weapon in doing what it was created for. When she’d done well and won for him, sometimes there had been a shout of pride over her, or a cut of the meat. Rare as those moments were, they were the best ones in her life, and always she had been ready to make any sacrifice to earn one more of them.

  When he had set her on the bull’s head, she had sprung to it. And when he’d sliced off her ear, she kept her teeth clenched, accepting in her dogged way that there was a reason for the pain her master dealt her.

  Not so different from how I had been when Chade had first employed me. I’d become what he’d raised me and trained me to be. Just as he had. I did not fault him for what he’d made of me. If he had not taken me as his apprentice, I probably would not have lived past ten years old. He’d taken a bastard—an embarrassment and possibly a liability to the Farseer throne—and made me useful. Even essential.

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  And so I had lived, and like the bitch I’d done as he told me and never questioned it was for the best. I would never forget the first time I had completely realized that Chade was not infallible. For years, when I suffered from headaches after I Skilled or attempted to Skill, he had dosed me with elfbark. I had endured the bleak spirit and wildly nervous energy for the sake of banishing the pain. And he had commiserated with me and urged me to try ever harder in developing my Skill. For years, neither of us had known that the elfbark itself was actually eroding my ability for that magic. But when I discovered that, what I had felt was not devastation that my magic was damaged, but astonishment that Chade had been wrong.

  I was beginning to suspect I’d fallen into the same trap again. Habits of thinking are hard to break.

  A remarkable silence had fallen to either side of me. Shun was seething still, FitzVigilant torn. I suspected he and Riddle had known each other well at Buckkeep Castle, and despite the differences in their positions he had perhaps even regarded him as a friend. And now he must make a choice and declare for the lady, or defend his friend. I wondered if his need to win my approval would weigh into this at all. I waited silently, knowing that how he decided would be how I judged him.

  He leaned on the table to look past me at Lady Shun. “You should not judge the serving boy too harshly,” he suggested. For a moment my heart warmed toward him. Then he ruined it by saying, “We are seated here among the commoners, and he is but a tavern lad in a backwater town. It would be a wonder if he had been schooled to the ability to recognize a highborn lady and grant her the priority that she deserves. ”

  How had Chade let him acquire such a high opinion of himself? While Chade had never debased me for the illegitimacy we shared, he had let me know that my birth to a common mother meant I could never assume that the privilege of the noble class would be accorded to me. I wondered if FitzVigilant knew his mother had been a huntswoman, esteemed by the Queen but of no great standing at court. Did he imagine himself to be lost nobility of a very high order? Better than humble Tom Badgerlock, son of a commoner?

  Better than Bee?

  And in that moment I knew with great clarity that FitzVigilant was completely unsuitable to teach my daughter. How could I have ever believed otherwise? Once more I found myself shaking my head over my own stupidity. FitzVigila
nt had failed as an assassin, so Chade had assumed he would do better as a scribe and teacher. And I had gone along with such a crooked piece of logic. Why? Did either of us believe that teaching children might be easier than killing them?

  What was wrong with me, that after so many years I still found myself willing to accept unquestioningly Chade’s suggestions? I was an adult, surely, by now? But such was the power of my old mentor over me. I had long ago learned he was fallible, yet in unguarded moments I always fell back into the default that Chade knew better than I did. I seldom questioned his commands; even worse, I seldom tried to pry out information he had not shared with me. Well, that would change now. I would know, without doubt, Lant’s true parentage, and I would demand to know exactly why Shun was worth a dedicated effort to kill her. And I’d ask why on earth he had ever thought either of them could possibly function as a bodyguard or a tutor for my child?

  So I would be both to her, teacher and guardian. She could already read, and it seemed to me that most of my education had come from either reading or helping Chade in his odd experiments. There had been my physical training, of course, but I scarcely saw the need to teach Bee how to wield an axe or a sword. It made me smile to think of how earnestly she still pursued our evening lessons with her knife. A quick lesson in handling the blade had replaced a night story or song. She was quick; I had to give her that. After she had cut my knuckles twice, I had replaced her belt-knife with a wooden blade. A few nights ago she had startled me by evading my blade with a tumbling trick worthy of the Fool himself. If I could teach her to dance to a blade, surely I could teach her all else she needed to know. I could manage a sufficient education for her. And what I did not know, I would have her taught by those who knew it best. We had an excellent healer in Withy; she could build on the foundation of herbal knowledge that Molly had given her. And yes, my daughter would learn to play an instrument, and to dance, and the thousand other things that were a woman’s weapons in this world. And languages. The tongue of the Mountain Kingdom, certainly. And it came to me that there was little to anchor Bee and me at Withywoods. We could spend a year in the Mountains, for her to learn their generous ways as well as their language. And the same for the Out Islands. And for each of the Six Duchies. I suddenly resolved that, before she was sixteen, my daughter would have traveled to all of them. It was as if I had been following a narrow trail, and had suddenly realized that at any time I could leave it and strike out cross-country. I could choose what and how she was taught, and in the process shape who she became.

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  For Bee had had the right of it. Girls did not have to hit to hurt. But did I want her to learn that sort of fighting from Shun’s example, with Lant’s confirmation?

  “… your place to correct him, not mine or Lant’s. Does not it bother you that he has insulted me? And Lant? Are you listening? Holder Badgerlock!”

  When she uttered my name, I jolted back into the ongoing conversation. But I did not turn to her to respond but to FitzVigilant. My mind seized on an odd bit of information I needed. “How many wax tablets were you hoping to purchase?”

  Behind me, Shun made an exasperated sound at being ignored. It bothered me not at all. FitzVigilant looked startled at the turn of conversation. He hedged suddenly and I suspected he feared there would be a budget constriction. “The merchant did not have many, of course. The double ones, I am sure, could be shared easily enough by sibling students and …”

  “We will buy what he has. ” I leaned back slightly from the table. I was watching the door of the inn for Bee to return. I worried suddenly about all the chestnuts and sweets she had eaten. Was she all right? “I’ll reserve one for Bee’s use; I’ll be taking over her education. I do not find you fit to teach her. ”

  He stared at me, and it was a very young look. Humiliation and panic, dismay and shock vied to control his face. None of them triumphed and so he simply stared. If it had not been Bee at stake, I might have felt sorry for having to do this to him. It took a few moments for him to find his tongue. He spoke very carefully and precisely. “If I have given offense somehow, or failed in your estimation, sir, I do—”

  “You have,” I cut in. I refused to feel any pity or remorse. Had he pitied Bee when he’d rebuked and humiliated her in front of the other children?

  His lower lip actually quivered. Then his face went very stony. He sat up very straight. “When we return tonight, I will immediately pack my things and leave Withywoods. ”

  His posturing wearied me. “No. Much as you both annoy me, I cannot allow that. No matter how little I wish it, you must remain at Withywoods. I have seen that neither of you is ready to teach nor protect my child. How, then, do you imagine I find you ready to protect yourself? FitzVigilant, you can continue to attempt to teach the other children. And I will be your instructor in both the axe and the sword, and in how to respect any man who can meet your eyes honestly. ” More of my time claimed, but at least it might eventually make him able to fend for himself. And Shun? I looked at her regal outrage. “I will ask Steward Revel to see you instructed in whatever is most likely to win you a husband. I judge that not to be dancing or singing, but the management of a household within a budget. ”

  She stared at me coldly. “Lord Chade will hear of this!”

  “Indeed, he will. And from me before your message reaches him. ”

  She narrowed her eyes to a cat’s squint. “I will not return to Withywoods. I will, this very night, take a room here in Oaksbywater and abide here, alone. And to Lord Chade you will answer for my leaving. ”

  I sighed. “Shun. It’s nearly Winterfest. The inns are full. And you will return this evening to my home, where we will prepare to celebrate it for the sake of my little daughter. I will not hear, from either of you, any more threats of leaving. You will not, for I have given my word to someone I respect that I will watch over you. ” I looked from Lant to Shun.

  Her mouth actually dropped open. She shut it with a snap and then abruptly demanded, “Badgerlock, how dare you assume any authority over me! Lord Chade put you at my disposal, for my convenience and protection. Send your message however and whenever you will. I will see that he corrects any misconceptions you have about our positions. ”

  And there it was, exposed in that single sentence. Despite Chade’s careless dropping of my name, she had not put the pieces together. She was glaring at me as if she expected me to stumble back from her, bowing and apologizing. While she might be illegitimate, she was confident of her superiority to me. Lant, though a bastard, had been acknowledged by a noble father, and was hence her equal.

  But not the serving boy. Nor me, nor Riddle. Because in her eyes, I was as lowborn as my daughter.

  “Shun. That’s enough. ” That was all I said. Her eyes narrowed and grew cold with fury. I almost wanted to laugh as she decided to exercise her authority.

  “You are not permitted to speak to me like that,” she warned me in a low voice.

  I had almost thought of what I would reply when Riddle arrived at the table. He came bearing their dishes of food, cleverly balanced up one arm, and their mugs of cider in the other hand. With two thunks and a flourish, he set it all out before me. There was a glint in his eyes, his determination to put the events of the day behind him and be merry. Then his determined smile was suddenly replaced with a worried look and the question, “Where’s Bee?”

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  Alarm pierced me. I stood in the tight space between the bench and table. “She hasn’t come back. It’s been too long. I’ll go find her. ”

  “My cider’s barely warm!” I heard Shun exclaim as I stepped over the bench and away.

  Chapter Twenty-Nine

  Mist and Light

  Then, from the gleaming mists that surrounded us, there burst a wolf, all black and silver. He was covered in scars and death clung to him like water clings to a dog’s coat after he has plunged through a river.
My father was with him and in him and around him, and never had I realized him as he was. He bled from dozens of unhealable wounds and yet at the core of him, life burned like molten gold in a furnace.

  Dream journal of Bee Farseer

  It had all been ruined when the door of the tavern opened and banged shut again, and suddenly Shun and FitzVigilant were there. The way FitzVigilant looked at my father, I knew he had already heard the tale of what had happened in the town commons. I did not want him to speak of it to my father. We were past it now, and if he brought it up Riddle would have to think about it again. Riddle and my father were behaving as if all were well now, but I knew that my father’s actions would gnaw at Riddle’s heart like a worm. My father was his friend, but he gave his ultimate loyalty to Nettle, and he dreaded telling her this story and revealing to her his part in it.

  But Shun, if she knew of it, made nothing of it, but only began to natter on about she-must-have-this and she-must-have-that, and if my father had coin, perhaps they could go get it right now, or perhaps she would eat first. She sat down beside my father and FitzVigilant sat on the other side of Riddle, and they reminded me of red-mouthed fledglings squawking in a nest as they spoke of needing this and wanting that. My father turned away from me to speak to Shun. I couldn’t stand it. I was suddenly too warm and the press of the myriad conversations felt like hands over my ears. I tugged on Riddle’s sleeve. “I need to go outside. ”

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