Fools assassin, p.65
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       Fools Assassin, p.65

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

  “I’m right here. Right here. And I’m sorry. Oh, Fool, don’t die. Not in my arms. I could not live with that. Don’t die, Fool, not at my hands!”

  “He was here. My son. ”

  “No, only me. Just me. Beloved. Don’t die. Please don’t die. ”

  “Did I dream?” Tears spilled slowly from his blind eyes. They were thick and yellow. The breath of his whisper was foul. “Can I die into that dream? Please?”

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  “No. Don’t die. Not by my hand. Not in my arms,” I begged. I was curled forward over him, nearly as blind as he was as I fought the blackness at the edges of my vision. This was too terrible to live through. How could this be? How could this be? My body longed for unconsciousness, and my mind knew I had but a knife’s edge of a chance. I could not survive this if he did not.

  He spoke again, and blood was on his tongue and lips as he formed the words. “Dying in your arms … is still dying. ” He breathed two breaths. “And I cannot. Must not. ” The blood crested his lips and began to trickle over his chin. “Much as I’ve wished to. If you will. If you can. Keep me alive, Fitz. Whatever the cost to us. To you. Please. I need to live. ”

  A Skill-healing, even in the best of circumstances, is a difficult thing. It’s usually accomplished by a circle of Skill-users, a coterie, who are familiar with one another and are capable of loaning one another strength. The knowledge of how a man’s body is put together is essential to it, for in severe instances one must decide what injuries are most deadly and deal with those first. Ideally, before the healing is attempted, all will have been done to accomplish an ordinary healing, wounds cleansed and bound, with a patient who is rested and well fed. Ideally. I knelt in the snow, the Fool in my lap, surrounded by chattering onlookers, while Riddle held my terrified daughter in my arms. I lifted my eyes to Riddle and spoke clearly. “I’ve made a terrible mistake. I’ve hurt an old friend who meant my child no harm. Care for Bee and keep these others back. I wish to say a prayer to Eda. ”

  It was a believable excuse, and there were enough followers of Eda present that they could persuade the others to give me quiet and space. No one had shouted for the city guard: It was entirely possible that few realized I’d actually stabbed the beggar. Riddle’s astonished gaze reproached me, but for a wonder he obeyed, and I suddenly knew just how deep our friendship actually went. He called out loudly for people to give me space, and then, turning, I saw him shout and beckon FitzVigilant to his side. Shun was following the scribe, walking like a cat in wet snow. I saw him speaking earnestly to both of them, taking command, and knew he would handle it all.

  I closed my eyes and bent my head as if in prayer.

  I plunged into the Fool’s body. We no longer had a Skill-link; for an instant his boundaries opposed me. I summoned Skill-strength I scarcely knew I possessed and breached his defenses. He made a low sound, of objection or pain. I ignored it. This was a body I knew intimately, having once worn it. It was like and unlike a man’s, with differences that were both subtle and crucial. To close the wounds I had caused and stem that bleeding was not a complicated feat, and I made it my first task. Undo the damage I had done to him. It took focus, and my willing his body to make that healing a priority worth burning his scanty reserves. So I stopped his bleeding, and felt him dwindle and weaken as his body accelerated that healing. For while the Skill is a powerful magic, it does not do the healing. The body does, under the Skill’s direction, and there is always a cost to the body’s reserves.

  Almost immediately I saw my mistake. I moved through his body with his blood, finding old damage and bad repairs and places where his body had trapped poisons and sealed them off in a vain effort to control their spread. One of my knife plunges had pierced such a toxic pocket, and now it leaked blackness into his blood, and his pumping heart was carrying the poison all through his body. The wrongness was spreading; I felt his body’s weary physical alarm, and then a peculiar resignation began to spread through him. It was not his mind but his body that knew his life was at an end. A strange pleasure began to spread through him, a final comforting that the flesh offered the mind. It was soon to be over; why spend your last moments in alarm? Almost that lure of peace drew me in.

  “Fool. Please!” I quietly begged him to rally. I opened my own eyes to look into his face. For a long moment, the world spun around us. I could not focus; the healing had taken more from me than I had realized at the moment.

  I drew a shuddering breath and widened my eyes. It had never been easy to meet his eyes when they were colorless. Even as they had acquired tint and had moved from a pale yellow to gold, it had been hard to read what was behind that gaze. Now his eyes were occluded, grayed in what I knew had been a deliberate blinding. I could not see into his heart any more than he could see out of them. I had only his voice to go by. It was breathy and full of resignation.

  “Well. A bit longer we shall have together. But at the last, we fail, my Catalyst. None have tried harder than we did. ” His tongue, bloodied still, moved over his chapped and peeling lips. He took breath and smiled with scarlet teeth. “Nor paid a higher price for that failure. Enjoy what good is left in your life, old friend. Evil times will soon be upon you. It was good to be near you. A last time. ”

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  “You can’t die. Not like this. ”

  A thin smile curved his lips. “Can’t die? No, Fitzy, I can’t live. Would that I could, but I can’t. ” His eyelids, as dark as if they had been bruised, closed uselessly over his clouded eyes. I lifted my gaze. Time had passed. How much, I could not tell, but the light had changed. Some of the village folk had fallen back into a wondering circle, but as many had decided there was little to see; the beginnings of Winterfest beckoned, and they had gone on their ways. Riddle still stood there, a dazed Bee in his arms, flanked by Shun and FitzVigilant. Shun huddled shivering in her wraps, her face a mask of righteous anger. FitzVigilant looked completely confused. I looked directly at Riddle and spoke heedless of who might hear or wonder.

  “I must take him to Buckkeep Castle. To the Skill-coterie for healing. Through the pillars. Will you help me?”

  Riddle looked down at Bee in his arms and then back at me. “She’s fine,” he said, and I heard his rebuke that I had not even asked about that. But surely, if she were not, he would have told me that instantly? I felt a twinge of anger at him that faded immediately. I didn’t have the right to be angry at him, nor the time to be anything but desperate. I stared at him. He shook his head, denying me, but said, “I’ll help you however I can. As always I have. ”

  I gathered my feet under me and stood with little effort. The Fool weighed nothing, nothing at all. He had always been slight and limber but now he was skeletal and bound with scars and rags. The gawkers were staring at me intensely. I could not afford to care about that. I advanced toward Riddle. He stood his ground but both Shun and FitzVigilant retreated from what they thought was the body of a smelly old beggar.

  I darted my eyes at FitzVigilant. “Get our team and wagon. Bring it here. “

  Shun began with, “But what about the green—?”

  I just looked at her and she closed her lips. “Go!” I reminded FitzVigilant, and he went. When he was two steps away, Shun decided to go with him. Good.

  “Bee. Bee, look at me. Please. ”

  She had had her face buried in Riddle’s neck. Now she slowly lifted it and stared at me. Blue eyes of ice in a pale face; the red in her shawl was a shocking contrast. “Bee, this man didn’t mean to frighten you. I told you about him once. Remember? He’s an old friend of mine, someone I have not seen in many years. Riddle knew him as Lord Golden. I knew him as the Fool when we were children together. One thing I am certain of: He would never, ever hurt a child. I know you were frightened, but he meant you no harm. ”

  “I wasn’t frightened,” she said softly. “Not until you killed him. ”

s not dead, Bee. ” I hoped I sounded comforting. “But he is hurt, and badly. I need to take him to Buckkeep Castle right away. I think he can be healed there. ”

  I heard the creak and rumble of the wagon, and the remaining gawkers made way for it. There were going to be some strange stories told that night in the tavern. No help for that. I carried the Fool to the tail of the wagon. Shun was already ensconced in the corner of the bed closest to the seat. “Bring some of those robes and make a pallet for him. ”

  She stared at me, unmoving.

  FitzVigilant set the brake, wrapped the reins, turned, and stepped over the back of the seat into the bed of the wagon. He gathered an armful of the unused wraps and tossed them toward me. Riddle had come to stand beside me. He set Bee down in the wagon bed, wrapped her warmly, and then arranged the other blankets. I set the Fool down as carefully as I could. He made a gasping sound. “We’re taking you to get help. Just keep breathing. ” I kept my hand on his chest as I spoke, reaching for him, trying to hold his life in his body. As always I could not sense him with my Wit, and the Skill-bond he had put on me was something he had taken back decades ago. But there was something there still, something that linked us, and I tried desperately to feed strength to him. I clambered awkwardly into the wagon bed, never breaking my touch on him. With my free hand, I reached out and pulled Bee toward me so that she leaned against me. “Riddle, you drive. The stones on Gallows Hill. ”

  “I know them,” he said briefly. He walked away, a thousand conversations in his silence. He clambered up to the seat and FitzVigilant conceded it to him, climbing into the back of the wagon to sit with Shun. They were both regarding me as if I had loaded a rabid dog into the wagon with them. I didn’t care. The wagon started with a lurch, and I didn’t look back at the people who stared after us. I closed my eyes and reached out for Nettle. There was no time for subtlety.

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  I have Lord Golden. He is grievously injured and I will need the help of the coterie to keep him alive. I’m bringing him to Buckkeep Castle through the Judgment Stone. Riddle says he will try to help me.

  A long silence. Had she not sensed me? Then she responded, Are you Skill-linked to Lord Golden, then?

  We were, once. And I have to try this, no matter how foolish.

  Not foolish. Dangerous. How can you bring someone through a pillar if he has no Skill or link to you? You’ll be risking Riddle as well as yourself!

  I have a bond with him, Nettle. I don’t understand it completely. I was able to reach into him and heal him. I think I have a strong enough connection to be able to bring him through a pillar. Riddle has no Skill, but he is able to travel with you or Chade. I would not ask this if his life were not at stake. So please, summon the others and have them ready?

  Today? Tonight? But there is an important dinner this evening, with delegates from Bingtown, Jamaillia, and Kelsingra. It is to celebrate the approach of Winterfest, but also to negotiate new trading terms and …

  Nettle. I don’t want this. I need this. Please.

  There was a pause that lasted an eternity. Then she said, I will gather as many Skilled ones as can help with a healing, then.

  Thank you. Thank you. I am in your debt. We’re coming now. Meet us at the Witness Stones. Send a wagon or sled.

  What about Bee? Who will look after her?

  Who would look after her? A downward lurch in my heart. I would have to depend on the two people I had just proclaimed unsuitable to be near her. Two people who were insulted, offended, and, in Shun’s case, without the morality to realize none of that was Bee’s fault. I knew less of FitzVigilant. Chade seemed to set great store by him, as did Riddle. And Nettle. I’d have to give their judgment more weight than my own and hope he was a big enough man not to take out his grudge against me on my child.

  FitzVigilant will take her back to Withywoods. Don’t worry, it will be all right. Please. Oh, how I hoped it would be all right. Fence that thought well with a tight Skill-wall! Send a cart and team to meet us at the Witness Stones, I repeated. Tell them my life depends on it. An exaggeration, but not much of one. Chade, at least, would understand. And Dutiful. I pulled my mind free of hers and put up my walls. I didn’t want to Skill right now. I wanted no distractions at all from keeping the Fool alive. I looked down at Bee and felt disloyal. This was supposed to have been our day together; well, it had been doomed from the start. She leaned on me, and I moved her shawl, tucking it more closely around her. We hadn’t bought half the things I’d intended to get for her. When I got back, I’d make it up to her. I’d make a raid on the markets at Buckkeep Town and bring her back an armful of pretty things to make up for it. The Fool and I would return together, and it would be a Winterfest to remember for all of us.

  The Fool groaned again and I turned back to him. I leaned down and spoke softly. “We’re going through Skill-pillars, Fool. I’m taking you back to Buckkeep Castle for the coterie to heal. But it will be easier for me to take you through if we are Skill-linked. So …”

  I took his hand in mine. Years ago, in the course of tending King Verity, the Fool had accidentally brushed his fingers against Verity’s Skill-laden hands. The silver Skill had burned and soaked into his fingertips. His touch on my wrist had once left marks, silvery fingerprints, and a link between us. He had taken them back, right before I made my fateful trip through the Skill-pillars and back to Buckkeep. I intended to renew that link now, press his fingers to my wrist once more and gain, I planned, enough of a Skill-link to take him through the standing stones with Riddle and me.

  But when I turned his hand to look at his fingers, horror and sickness rose in me. Where once silver had outlined the delicate whorls of his fingertips, gnarled scar tissue now deadened the ends of his fingers. His nails remained as thick and yellowed nubs, but the soft pads of his fingers were gone, replaced with coarse, dead flesh. “Who did all this to you? And why? Where have you been, Fool, and how could you let this happen to yourself?” And then, the ultimate question that had haunted me for years and now sounded louder than ever in my heart. “Why didn’t you send for me, send me a message, reach out somehow? I would have come. No matter what, I would have come. ”

  I scarcely expected an answer. He might not be losing blood, but the poisons I had released into his body were spreading. I’d stolen strength from him to seal the cuts I’d made. Whatever reserves he had left, he had best marshal against the poisons within. But he stirred slightly and then spoke.

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  “Those who had loved me … tried to destroy me. ” He moved his blind eyes as if he tried to look into mine. “And you succeeded where they had failed. But I understand, Fitz. I understand. I deserved it. ”

  He fell silent. His words made no sense to me. “I did not mean to hurt you. I would never hurt you. I mistook you … I thought you meant her harm! Fool, I am sorry. So sorry! But who tormented you, who broke you?” I pondered what little I knew. “The school that raised you … they did this to you?”

  I watched the slight rise and fall of his chest, and rebuked myself for asking him a question. “You don’t have to answer. Not now. Wait until we’ve healed you. ” If we could. My hand was on his ragged shirt. I felt ribs beneath it, ribs knotted with old breaks badly healed. How could he be alive? How could he have come so far, blind and alone and crippled? Seeking his son? I should have tried much, much harder to find the boy, if the Fool’s need for him was so great. If only I’d known, had some inkling of how desperate a state he was in. I’d failed him. For now. But I’d help him. I would.

  “Shame. ” The single word rode an exhaled breath.

  I bowed my head, thinking he’d read my thoughts and rebuked me. He spoke again, very softly. “Why I didn’t call on you for help. At first. Ashamed. Too shamed to ask for help. After all I did. To you. How often I plunged you into pain?” His gray tongue tried to moisten his peeling lips. I opened my mouth to speak, but he
tightened his grip on my hand. He was gathering strength. I kept silent.

  “How often did I watch the trap close around you? Did it truly have to be so awful for you? Did I try hard enough to find another path through time? Or did I just use you?”

  He ran out of breath. I was silent. He’d used me. He’d admitted it to me, more than once. Could he have changed the path of my life? I knew that often enough a word or two from him had made me reconsider my actions. I remembered well how he had cautioned me about Galen and even suggested that I turn aside from my Skill-training. What if I had? There would never have been that beating that near-blinded me and left me with years of pounding headaches. But when would I have learned the Skill? Did he know such things? Did he know where every untaken path in my life would have led?

  He gave a little gasp. “When my turn for torture came, for pain? How could I call for you to save me from it when I had not rescued you or turned you aside from it?” That speech was shattered by a series of coughs as feeble as if a bird choked. I lifted my hand from his chest. I could not bear to feel how he struggled to get his breath.

  “You … never need to feel that way, Fool. Never. I never saw it that way. ”

  On an indrawn gasp. “I did. In the end. ” Another gasp. “When I learned for myself what I’d asked of you. How a minute of designed pain becomes an eternity. ” He coughed again. I bent my face close to his and spoke very softly.

  “It was long ago. And it’s far too late for you to apologize, for any forgiveness was given years ago. Not that I thought there was something I needed to forgive. Now stop talking. Conserve your strength. You’ll need it for our journey. ”

  Did he have enough stamina to survive a trip through a Skill-pillar? Could I take him through, unlinked to me by the Skill? But I had been able to reach into his body. Surely that meant something, that there was still some tie between us. Useless to wonder. I knew he would not survive unless I got him to Buckkeep that night. And so I would take the chance. We’d go through the pillars together, and if—

  Bee spoke on my other side. Her voice was little more than a whisper. “You’re going away?”

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