Fools assassin, p.66
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       Fools Assassin, p.66

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

  “For a little while. To take my friend to a healer. ” What if I didn’t come back? What if neither of us survived, what would happen to her then? I couldn’t think about that, and I couldn’t not think about it. I still knew I must try. I felt no compunction at risking my life for the Fool. But her future? I lifted my voice slightly. “Shun and FitzVigilant will take you back to Withywoods and look after you until I come home. ”

  Her silence was eloquent. I took her little hand in mine and said quietly, “I promise I will come back as soon as ever I can. ” Liar. Liar. Liar. A promise I had no right to make when I did not know if I would survive the trip.

  “It would be very useful for Lady Shun and me to know exactly what is going on. Who is this beggar, why did you attack him, where are we going now, and why are you leaving Bee in our care with absolutely no warning or preparation?” FitzVigilant didn’t try to suppress the edge of anger in his voice.

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  I supposed he had a right to his annoyance. I tried to temper my reply with patience, not to provoke him to any greater anger than he was already feeling. I had to leave my daughter in his care. At his mercy. It took me a moment to sort what I would share.

  “He’s an old friend. I mistook his actions, didn’t recognize him, and attacked him. He needs healing, far more healing than we can do at Withywoods. I’m sure you’ve heard of the magic of the Skill. We intend to use the Skill to travel through a stone pillar to Buckkeep Castle. There my old friend can get the healing he needs. I must go with him. I hope I will not be gone more than a day or two. ”

  Neither one of them said anything. I chewed my pride and swallowed it. I would have to ask this of him, at least. I looked at my Bee. For her, I would do anything. I spoke more softly. “In the tavern I told you that I doubted your abilities, not only to teach but to protect my child. Fate has given you a chance to prove me wrong. Do this, and do it well, and I will reconsider my opinion of you. I expect you to step up and assume the responsibility I’m giving you. Watch over my child. ” I hoped he would find the meaning in my words that I dared not say aloud. Guard her with your life.

  Shun spoke abruptly, with the confidence born of supreme ignorance. “The Skill-magic only belongs to the royal Farseer line. How can you possibly use—”

  “Be silent. ” Riddle spoke the command in a tone I’d never heard him use. I doubt that Shun had ever had anyone speak to her so, but for a miracle she did as she was told. With a wriggle like a nesting hen, she settled back in the robes next to FitzVigilant. I watched them exchange a look of shared outrage at how they were being treated. The team plodded on. The snow on the road was deepening, clinging to the wheels. For a moment I sensed how the horses strained, smelled their sweat in the cold air. I restrained my Wit and cleared my throat. I squeezed her hand softly.

  “Bee is a capable child. I trust that you will recognize that she needs very little supervision in her daily tasks. Her lessons will go on, as I assume they will for all the children of the estate. In my absence, let her set her own routine. If she requires help from either of you, I am sure she will seek you out. If she does not, then you need not be concerned for her. She has her maid Careful and Revel, in addition to you. Will you be comfortable with that, Bee?”

  My little daughter gave me a rare direct look. “Yes. Thank you, Papa, for trusting me to mind myself. I will do my best to be responsible. ” Her mouth was set in a solemn line. She squeezed my hand in response. We were both putting a brave face on the situation.

  “I know you will. ”

  “Nearly there,” Riddle called back to me. “Will they be ready?”

  “Yes. ” I hoped Nettle had taken my message seriously. No. I knew she would. I had not bothered to mask my emotions. She would have sensed my desperation. They would be waiting for us.

  Again I saw Lady Shun and FitzVigilant exchange a look of mutual offense at being excluded from our cryptic exchange. I cared not at all. The track up to Gallows Hill was not well tended. The wagon jounced and slid in the ruts and I gritted my teeth at the pain it must cause the Fool. As soon as the horses halted, I was out of the wagon. I staggered sideways, the world spun, and then I found my balance. I leaned on the wagon and pointed up at FitzVigilant. “Take Bee home. And I am counting on you that she will be safe and content in my absence. Are we clear?” Even as he nodded, I knew this was not the best way to handle the man, let alone Shun. They would both be resentful and confused. It could not be helped. There was no time to do better.

  I took both Bee’s hands in mine. With her sitting on the open tail of the wagon, we were nearly on a level. She looked up at me, her fair skin whiter in contrast with the gray-and-red shawl that now covered most of her golden hair. I spoke softly, only to her. “Listen to me. Mind FitzVigilant, and if you have any needs, make them known to him, or Lady Shun, or Revel. I am sorry, so sorry, that our day was disrupted. When I return, I promise that we will have a whole day, all to ourselves, and that things will come out well. Can you trust me for that?”

  She looked up at me. Her gaze now was tranquil and accepting, almost lethargic. “I think I will go first to Steward Revel. He knows me best. And I know that you will try your best to keep your promise,” she said softly. “I see that. ”

  “I’m glad that you do. ” I kissed her on top of her head. “Be brave,” I whispered.

  Riddle was clambering down from the wagon seat. “Where are you going?” Shun demanded of him.

  “I’m going with Fitz,” he told her. “Through the stone and back to Buckkeep. We are trusting Lady Nettle’s small sister into your care. ” I more felt than saw how he turned his eyes on FitzVigilant. I was staring at my child, wondering how I could risk this and how I could not. “Lant, we’ve known each other a long time. I know the man you are capable of being. Never have I trusted you with more than I am entrusting you with now. Watch over Bee with kindness. Nettle and I will hold you responsible for her well-being. ” He spoke softly but there were teeth in his words. If FitzVigilant replied, I did not hear it.

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  I let go of Bee and turned to the Fool. It was as if I saw him for the first time. If not for our moment of violent intimacy, if he had not spoken as I plunged the knife into him, I never would have known him. Only his voice had identified him to me. The rags he wore were beyond dirty: they stank and dangled in hanks of rotting fabric. From his knees down, they hung in wet brown tatters. His long, narrow feet were bound in rags. All his grace and elegance were gone. The scarred skin of his face was drawn tight over his bones. He was staring sightlessly up at the overcast sky, still and resigned to whatever might befall him now.

  “I’m going to pick you up,” I warned him. He made the slightest nod. I tucked one of the blankets around him as if I were bundling up a child. I slid my arms under him and lifted. The motion released a fresh waft of stench. I held him carefully and looked at Riddle. “How do we do this?”

  He was already moving toward the stone. He glanced at me over his shoulder. “If you don’t know, how do you suppose that I do?” His grin was both resigned and scared. He’d do this. He’d risk his life at my request. He’d lend me his strength to attempt something that might kill all of us. I didn’t deserve such a friend. Carrying the Fool, I followed him up the snowy track toward the standing stone.

  I glanced back once at the wagon. No one had moved. The driver’s seat was empty. All three were watching us climb the last bit of rocky hill to the Judgment Stone. I pitched my voice lower. “How did you and Chade do it, when he brought you through the stones with him?”

  “He took my arm. I thought of Nettle. When he stepped into the stone, I followed. I could feel him drawing on me. It was like, well, like someone chilled cuddling up to you in a bed. Taking your warmth. And then we stepped out. It was a lot less difficult than walking him down this hill in that snowstorm, and finding our way to the inn. That was where he really needed my
strength. Not passing through the stones. ” He tipped his head to indicate the Fool. “That’s really Lord Golden?”

  “Yes. ”

  He looked at him dubiously. “How can you tell?”

  “I know. ”

  He let it be, but then asked, “How will you take him through the stone? Are you linked to him?”

  “I was, long ago. I hope it will still be enough. ” I shook my head. “I have to try. ”

  Riddle’s steps had slowed. “So much of you I don’t know, even after all the years. Even after all Nettle has told me. ” The snow had stopped, and the light was fading from the day. “We could all get lost, couldn’t we? You and I, we’ve never tried this before. And you’re hoping to bring him through with us. All three of us could …”

  “We could all get lost. ” I had to finish the statement for him, admitting what we both knew. The enormity of what I had asked him settled on me. It was too much. I had no right. My friend, but I now knew beyond any wondering that he was far more than a friend to Nettle. Had I the right to gamble his life? No. “Riddle. You don’t have to do this. I can try it on my own. You could take Bee back to Withywoods and watch over her for me. I’ll send a bird as soon as we’re safely at Buckkeep Castle. ”

  Riddle folded his arms over his chest and hugged himself as if he were cold. Or holding his fears in tight. His dark eyes met mine directly. No pretense. No indecision. “No. I’m going with you. I saw your face, back there. I saw how you staggered when you got off the wagon. I think you’ve spent most of your strength in trying to heal him. You need strength, I’ve got it. Nettle said I could easily have been a King’s Man, if I wanted. ”

  “You chose a Queen instead,” I said quietly, and he smiled, agreeing without a word.

  We found ourselves facing the standing stone. I looked up at the glyph that would take us to the Witness Stones, not far from Buckkeep Castle. I felt the terror rise in me. I stood, holding the Fool’s body to my chest, feeling the fear and the dragging weariness. Had I already spent the strength I would need for this? I looked down at his ravaged face. He was still, and slowly that same stillness filled me. I looked back once over my shoulder at Bee. She watched me motionlessly. I nodded to her. She lifted her little hand in a vague wave of farewell.

  As if he knew my thoughts, Riddle took my arm. I took a long moment to be aware of him. My old friend. Better than I deserved, these friends. I moved my thoughts like a weaver’s shuttle, moving from the Fool to Riddle to myself and over again. I recalled our friendships, the terrible places we had been, and how we had survived them. “Are you ready?” I asked him.

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  “I’m with you,” he said. And I could feel that was true. It was as Chade had described it, a sort of harness to which I could cling. Rather like holding to a powerful horse while crossing a deep, cold river.

  I clutched the Fool to my chest and we stepped forward into stony darkness.

  Chapter Thirty-One

  A Time of Healing

  The duties of a King’s Man are simple. He must first maintain himself in excellent health of body. This will assure that when the King calls upon him to lend strength, he will have it. The King’s Man must have a close affinity to the one he serves; it is best if he has a true regard for the one who will draw Skill-strength from him, rather than simple respect and a sense of duty.

  This regard should ideally extend in both directions. The Skill-user who calls upon a King’s Man to lend strength must keep the well-being of his partner in the forefront of his mind. For once the King’s Man has surrendered control of his body’s resources to the Skill-user, it will be beyond him to refuse. An experienced King’s Man can let his partner know when he feels he is approaching the maximum of what he can give. It is absolutely essential to the trust that is required in this relationship that the Skill-user respond to such a reminder.

  On the Training of a King’s Man, Skillmistress Inkswell

  We fell from the face of the pillar onto the snowy hilltop of the Witness Stones. The snow was deep and fresh, untracked and thigh-deep. It caught me as I stumbled, but did not fall, nor did I drop the Fool. Riddle still held to my arm as we emerged into deep dusk. I took a deep breath of cold air. “That was not near as hard as I feared it would be,” I panted. I was winded, as if I’d run up a steep hill and my head pounded with a Skill-headache. But we had arrived intact. It seemed that only moments had passed and that I was wakening from a long sleep. Despite the headache, I felt rested. I had a memory of a starry blackness, in which the stars were below us as well as above, behind and before us. We stepped from that infinity to the snowy hillside near Buckkeep Castle.

  Then Riddle dropped senseless into the snow beside me. He fell with terrible limpness, collapsing as if he had not a bone in his body. I held fast to the Fool as I dropped to one knee beside him. “Riddle? Riddle!” I called stupidly, as if he had only forgotten I was there and decided to fall on his face. I let the Fool’s legs drop to the snowy ground as I caught at the shoulder of Riddle’s shirt and tried to turn him faceup. He did not respond to my voice or my touch. “Riddle!” I shouted again, and with great relief I heard an answering shout from down the hill.

  I turned and looked behind me. A boy carrying a torch waded through the snow. Behind him, a team labored to draw a sledge up the steep hill. By the wavering torchlight, I saw steam rising from their coats. A girl rode a horse behind them, and then the girl was suddenly Nettle, and at my shout she urged her mount to surge through the deep snow and pass the trudging team. She reached us before anyone else and flung herself from her horse and into the snow beside Riddle. As she put her arms around him and lifted him so that his head rested on her breast, she answered any questions I might ever have had about what he meant to her. Even in the fading light of the day, the flash of anger in her eyes was sharp as she demanded, “What did you do to him?”

  I answered honestly. “I used him. And in my inexperience, more ruthlessly than I meant to, I fear. I, I thought he would stop me if I took too much. ” I felt like a stammering boy before her deep cold anger. I bit back my useless apology. “Let us get them both onto the sled and back to the keep and summon healers and the King’s Coterie. Later, you can say or do whatever you wish to me. ”

  “I shall,” she warned me heartily, and then lifted her voice, giving commands. Guards rushed to obey her, several of them exclaiming in dismay as they recognized Riddle. I trusted none of them with the Fool but carried him myself to the sled, loaded him, and clambered up afterward to sit beside him.

  The snow was slightly packed, and the big horses made better time going down the hill than they had coming up. Even so, it seemed an eternity in the dark and cold as we approached the lighted towers of Buckkeep Castle. Nettle had given her horse over to someone else; she rode with Riddle, and if their relationship had been a secret, it was no longer. She spoke softly and urgently to him, and when he finally stirred and managed a feeble response she bent over him to deliver a heartfelt kiss.

  The sled did not even pause at the gates, but took us directly to the infirmary. The healers were waiting for us. I did not object as they took Riddle first, and again I carried the Fool myself. Nettle dismissed the guards and promised them news as soon as there was any. The room was long with a low ceiling and blessedly empty of other occupants. I wondered if it was the same room where I had once recovered from my Skill-pillar mishap. There were rows of cots, not so different from a barracks. Riddle had already been stretched out on a bed, and I was horribly relieved to hear him weakly protesting at being there. I set the Fool down carefully on a bed two cots away, knowing well that Nettle would need space from me for some time. And Riddle, I thought glumly. I did not think I’d done permanent damage to him, but in my ignorance and my anxiety for the Fool, I had completely forgotten to have a care for how much of his strength I took. I’d used him roughly and I would deserve his anger. I was baffled by it. Had I needed that mu
ch from him to bring the Fool through the pillar?

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  At Nettle’s command, the healers had clustered around his bed. I was alone with the Fool as I stripped away his outer garments and let them fall in a smelly heap by his cot. What was revealed horrified me. Someone had given great attention to inflicting pain on him. Great care and a good amount of time had been devoted to it, I judged, for here were bones with the old breaks badly healed and gashes that had been hastily or perhaps deliberately badly bandaged, so that crooked ridges of scar tissue had formed where flesh had been unevenly pushed back together. A pattern of burn scars on his left upper arm might have been a word, but in no alphabet or language that I knew. His left foot was scarcely worthy of that name. It twisted in, a lump of flesh with knobs of bone, and the toes gone dusky.

  The grime was as distressing as the damage. The Fool had always been a clean man, meticulous about his garments, his hair, and his body. Dirt was ground into his skin, patterned where rain had fallen on him. Some of his clothing was so stiff with dirt that I expected it to crack as I peeled it away. He had an apple hidden in his jerkin. I let it fall to the floor with the rest. Rather than move him too much, I drew my sheath knife, cut away the worn fabric, and tugged it gently from beneath him.

  The smell was nauseating. His eyes were open to cracks and I judged him to be awake, but he did not move until I tried to remove his undergarment. Then he lifted both scarred hands to the neck of the dingy linen singlet and gripped the collar. “No,” he said faintly.

  “Fool,” I rebuked him, and tried to push his hands aside, but he gripped his garment more tightly and with greater strength than I had expected to encounter. “Please,” I said softly, but he slowly shook his tattered head against the pillow. Pieces of his matted hair broke off when he did so, and I did not have the heart to challenge him. Let him take his secrets to the grave then, if that was what he wished. I would not disrobe him in front of the healers. I drew a clean woolen blanket over him. He sighed in relief.

  A healer appeared at my elbow. “How was he injured? Is he bleeding?” She was doing her best to control her distaste, but even I could barely abide his smell.

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