Fools assassin, p.67
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       Fools Assassin, p.67

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

  “He has been tortured, and has journeyed far in great privation. Please, bring me warm water and some cloths. Let me clean him up a bit while you find him a good beef broth. ”

  I saw her swallow. “As an apprentice, the first cleaning of an injured man is one of my tasks. ”

  “As his friend, it’s my task. Please. ”

  She struggled to conceal her relief. “May I remove these rags?” she asked, and I nodded. She folded her lips, stooped to pick them up, and then hastened away with them.

  As she went out the door at the end of the room, Chade came in. He was dressed very finely, in several shades of green, and I knew he had made some excuse to leave the gathering. Thick was with him in Buckkeep livery, and a woman I didn’t recognize. Perhaps she was a Skill-apprentice. A moment later a guardsman opened the door and King Dutiful appeared with Kettricken but a step behind him. All motion in the room ceased. The erstwhile Queen waved an impatient hand and strode past Chade. She halted at Riddle’s bedside. “Riddle was injured as well? I was not told of this!”

  Nettle stood. Her jaw was set. Her voice was respectful when she managed to speak. “My lady, I suggest that a private Skill-healing would be the best choice for both of these men. May I dismiss the healers?”

  The apprentice had just reappeared with a bucket of steaming water and several clean cloths over her shoulder. She looked about doubtfully, but I took the liberty of waving her in. She managed an awkward curtsy as she passed King Dutiful without spilling her bucket and then hurried to my side. She set the bucket down and put the folded cloths tidily across the foot of the bed. Then she looked from me to the gathering of royalty in the infirmary. It was clearly an event she had never experienced before, and she was torn between curtsying and getting on with her work.

  “My King, if it please you, this is my place of both experience and expertise. ” The man speaking must have been the healing master. I could not tell if he objected to being dismissed because he believed he was most competent to do the required work or if he merely disliked someone usurping his place. I found I did not care, and found also that court niceties meant nothing to me. Let the healer argue with Nettle’s request all he wished; I thought I knew how it would be settled. I gestured the apprentice away, and she stepped back gratefully. I ignored their genteel dispute as I set to work.

  I moistened the cloth in warm water and set it gently to the Fool’s face. It came away brown and gray. I rinsed it and wiped at his face again. The thick yellow tears welled in his eyes again. I stopped. “Am I hurting you?” I asked him quietly.

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  “It has been so long since anyone touched me with kindness. ”

  “Close your eyes,” I bade him hoarsely, for I could not bear his blind stare. I wiped his face a third time. Dirt clung in every line of his face. Dried mucus caked his eyelids. I wanted to weep with pity for him. Instead I wrung out the cloth again. Behind me, folk were wrangling in the most courteous possible way. Their very politeness seemed infuriating. I wanted to turn and bellow at them all to leave or be quiet. The hopelessness of my task was becoming clear to me. He was stronger than I had first judged him, but his body was too broken. He had no reserves to burn. I’d brought him here in the hope of a Skill-healing, but as I slowly washed first one crumpled hand and then the other, the magnitude of his ills engulfed me. Unless we could rebuild his strength before we began, he would not survive a healing. And if we did not heal him soon, he would not live long enough to rebuild his strength. My thoughts chased themselves in a circle. I’d risked all of us to bring him to a healing he could not survive.

  Kettricken was suddenly at my elbow. Ever gracious, she thanked the gawking apprentice healer before sending her on her way. Behind me the room had quieted, and I sensed that Nettle had won her way. The healers had left and her Skill-coterie was gathering around Riddle’s bed. Chade was talking about having seen such things before and assuring her that Riddle would be fine, he just needed a rich meal and a few days of sleep to put him right. Chade was arguing against Skill-intervention, favoring food and rest instead. Riddle had loaned more strength than he could afford, but he was a strong man, a doughty man, and she need not fear for him.

  A small part of my mind wondered just how Chade knew this. How ruthlessly had he used Thick? Or was it Steady he had drained, and in what pursuit? Later. I would get to the bottom of that later. I knew from my experience with King-in-Waiting Verity that he was probably right. In my panic over the Fool, I had not given a thought to the possibility that I might so drain Riddle as to leave him witless and drooling. My friend and my daughter’s mate. I owed them both apologies. Later.

  Because now Nettle had moved to the Fool’s bedside. She ran her eyes over him as if he were a horse she were considering buying. She glanced once at me and then away, in a manner curiously similar to the way Bee avoided my eyes. She spoke to a young woman who had come to stand at her side. “What do you think?” she asked her, in the manner of a teacher to a student.

  The woman took a breath, extended her hands, and moved them slowly over the Fool’s body without touching him. The Fool became very still, as if he sensed and resented her untouching of him. The woman’s hands made a second pass over him. Then she shook her head. “I see old damage that we may or may not be able to better heal. He does not appear to have any fresh injuries that put him in immediate danger of death. There is much that is both odd and wrong about his body. But I do not judge him in need of immediate Skill-intervention. In fact, thin as he is, I suspect it would do more harm than good. ” She wrinkled her nose then, and sniffed, the first sign that she felt any distaste for her patient. She stood awaiting Nettle’s judgment of her words.

  “I agree,” the Skillmistress said softly. “You and the others may go now. I thank you for convening so swiftly. ”

  “Skillmistress,” the woman acknowledged her with a bow. Nettle moved with her, returning to Riddle’s bedside as the rest of the healing coterie quietly left the infirmary.

  Kettricken was regarding the ruined man on the bed with close attention. The tips of her fingers covered her mouth as she bent over him. Then she straightened and fixed me with anxious blue eyes. “It isn’t him, is it?” she begged. “It’s not the Fool. ”

  He stirred slightly, and when he opened his sightless eyes, she flinched. He spoke in pieces. “Would that Nighteyes. … were here to … vouch for me. My Queen. ”

  “Queen no longer. Oh, Fool. ”

  There was a hint of the old mockery in his voice as he said, “My Queen, still. And I am still … a fool. ”

  She seated herself gracefully on a low stool on the other side of the Fool’s bedside. She did not look at me as she began to carefully fold back the elaborate sleeves of her gown. “What happened to them?” she demanded of me. She took a clean cloth from the foot of the bed, dipped it in the water, and with no sign of distaste lifted his hand and began to wash it. A memory long buried rose to the top of my mind. Queen Kettricken, washing the bodies of the slain Forged Ones, making them our own people again and restoring them before burial. She had never hesitated.

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  I spoke quietly. “I know little of what befell the Fool. Obviously he has been tortured, and he has come a long way to find us. What happened to Riddle was me. I was in haste and alarmed, and I used his strength to bring the Fool through the Skill-pillars. I have not drawn on someone for strength in such a situation before. I probably used more than he could easily spare, and I can only hope I have done no permanent harm to him. ”

  “My fault,” the Fool said quietly.

  “No, mine. How could it possibly be your fault?” I spoke almost roughly.

  “The strength. From him. Through you. To me. ” He took a breath. “I should be dead. I’m not. I feel stronger than I have in months, despite … what happened today. You gave me some of his life. ”

  It made sense. Riddle had
not only given me strength to bring Fool through the pillar, he had let me take life from him to give raw strength to the Fool. Gratitude warred with shame. I glanced at Riddle. He was not looking at me. Nettle sat by his bed on a low stool, holding both his hands in hers. Was there any possible way for me to repay that debt? I thought not.

  I turned back to the Fool. He was blind. He could not see that as Kettricken worked carefully to clean the crooked fingers of his hands, tears were running down her cheeks. Those clever hands with those long fingers, juggling wooden balls or wisps of silk, making a coin appear, waggling insultingly or waving expressively to illustrate some tale he was telling. Reduced now to swollen knuckles and broken stick-fingers. “Not your fault,” Kettricken said quietly. “I suspect Riddle knew what he gave. He’s a giving man. ” A long pause. “He deserves what he has earned,” she said, but gave no more indication of what she meant by that. Instead she sighed. “You need more than this. You need a hot bath, Fool. Is privacy still your obsession?”

  He made a small sound that might have been a laugh. “Torture strips one of all dignity. Pain can make you shriek, or beg, or soil yourself. There is no privacy when your enemies own you and have no compunction, no human compunction at all about what they will do to you. So, among my friends, yes. Privacy is still an obsession. And a gift from them. A restoration in small part of what dignity I once had. ” It was a long speech and it wheezed to an end.

  Kettricken did not argue, or ask him if he could bathe himself. She simply asked, “Where would you be? Lord Golden’s old chambers? Fitz’s childhood bedroom? Chade’s old lair?”

  “Are all those rooms empty?” I asked, surprised.

  She looked at me levelly. “For him, other people can be moved. ” She rested a gentle hand on his shoulder. “He got me to the Mountains. Alive. I will never forget that. ”

  He lifted a crooked hand to cover hers. “I will choose discretion. As I seldom have before. I would have quiet to recover, if I may. In Chade’s den. And be known neither as Lord Golden, nor as Fool. ” He turned his hazed eyes and asked, “Do I smell food?”

  He did. The apprentice healer was back, a rag wrapped around the bale of a lidded pot. The lid jiggled as she walked, letting brief wafts of beefy aroma fill the room. A serving boy came behind with bowls, spoons, and a basket of bread rolls. She stopped at Riddle’s bed to serve him, and I was relieved to see him recovered enough to be propped up in bed and offered hot food. He looked past Nettle, met my gaze, and gave me a crooked smile. Undeserved forgiveness. Friendship defined. I slowly nodded to him, trusting him to understand.

  I knew it would be harder to win Nettle’s pardon.

  The apprentice girl came to fill a bowl for the Fool. “Can you sit up to eat?” I asked him.

  “Probably the only thing that could make me try,” he wheezed. As Kettricken and I lifted him and moved pillows to cushion him upright, he added, “I’m tougher than you think, Fitz. Dying, yes. But I’ll fight it off as long as I can. ”

  I did not reply to that until the apprentice and her assistant had finished serving the food. As they moved away, I leaned closer and suggested, “Eat as much as you can. The more strength you gain and the quicker you do it, the sooner we can attempt a Skill-healing for you. If you wish it. ”

  Kettricken held the spoon to his lips. He tasted it, sucked the broth in noisily, near-moaned with pleasure, and then begged, “Too slow. Let me drink from the bowl. I am so hungry. ”

  “It’s hot,” she warned him, but held the bowl to his mouth. His claw-like hands guided hers and he slurped the scalding soup from the edge of the bowl, trembling with his need to get nourishment inside him.

  “It’s him,” Chade said. I looked up to see him standing at the foot of the Fool’s bed.

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  “It is,” I confirmed.

  He nodded, brows drawn. “Riddle managed a partial report before Nettle chased me off. He’ll be all right, Fitz, small thanks to you. This is an example of where your ignorance can hurt us. If you had returned to Buckkeep to study with the rest of the King’s Own Coterie, you would have had better control of your Skill-use of him. ”

  It was the last thing I wished to discuss just then. “You’re right,” I said, and in his shocked silence that followed my capitulation, I added, “The Fool would like to be lodged in our old study room. Can that be arranged? A fire built, clean linens, a fresh robe, a warm bath, and simple, hot food?”

  He did not flinch at my list. “And salves. And herbs for restorative teas. Give me a bit of time. I’ve an evening of diplomacy and negotiation to dance through yet. And I must ask Kettricken to return with me to that. When I send a page, carry him up to Lady Thyme’s old room, via the servants’ stair. You’ll find the wardrobe there has a false back now. Enter there. I’m afraid I must return to the welcoming festivities right away. But I’ll see you either very late tonight or very early tomorrow. ”

  “Thank you,” I said. He nodded gravely.

  Even in my gratitude, I knew that there would eventually be a price for Chade’s favors. There always was.

  Kettricken rose with a rustling of skirts. “I, too, must return to the feasting hall. ” I turned my head and for the first time that night, I really looked at her. She was dressed in shades of blue silk, with white lace drapery over her kirtle and skirts. Her earrings were blue and silver, and the silver coronet she wore include a network of pale topazes over her brow. My astonishment must have shown, for she smiled deprecatingly. “They are our trading partners; they are gratified to see me wearing the products of that trade, and the compliment to them makes my King’s negotiations with them easier. ” She smiled as she added, “And I assure you, Fitz, my adornments are simple compared with what our young Queen wears tonight!”

  I smiled at her. “I know you favor simpler garb, but in truth, its beauty does you great justice. ”

  The Fool spoke softly. “Would that I could see you. ” He clutched the empty soup bowl. Without a word, Kettricken wiped broth from the corner of his mouth.

  I wanted to tell him that we would heal him and he would see again. In truth, I was wishing that I had taken Chade up on his repeated offers of learning more about the Skill. I looked at the Fool and wondered if we could straighten bones healed crooked, return light to his eyes, and lift the gray pallor from his skin. How much of his health could we restore?

  “I do wish it,” he said suddenly. “The Skill-healing. I do not desire it. I dread it. But I wish for it to be done. As quickly as possible. ”

  I spoke the truth reluctantly. “Right now, we would be as likely to kill you as heal you. There is so much … damage. And you are weakened by all that has been done to you. Despite the strength I stole for you. ” Kettricken was looking at me, the question in her eyes. It was time to tell them both I didn’t know the answer. “I do not know how much the Skill can restore you. It is a magic that ultimately obeys your body. It can prompt your body to repair what is wrong, much faster than your body would do if left alone. But things that your body has already repaired, a broken bone for example—well, I do not know if it will straighten an old break. ”

  Kettricken spoke quietly. “When the coterie healed you, I understood that many old hurts were healed as well. Scars vanished. ”

  I didn’t want to remind her that such an unrestrained healing had nearly killed me. “I think we will have to take this in stages. And I don’t want the Fool to lift his hopes too high. ”

  “I need to see,” he said suddenly. “Above all else, I need to see, Fitz. ”

  “I can’t promise you that,” I said.

  Kettricken stepped back from the bed. Her eyes were bright with tears but her voice was steady as she said, “I fear I must return to the trade negotiations. ” She glanced at the entrance to the infirmary. Chade awaited her there.

  “I thought it was a feast, with minstrels singing, and then dancing?”

So it might appear, but it is all a negotiation. And tonight, I am still the Queen of the Mountain Kingdom and hence a player in all the Six Duchies wishes to win. Fool, I cannot tell you how I feel. Full of joy to see you again, and full of sorrow to see all that has befallen you. ”

  He smiled, stretching his cracked lips. “I am much the same, my Queen. ” He pursed his smile ruefully and added, “Except for the seeing part. ”

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  It wrung a laugh from the Queen that was half-sob. “I will return as soon as I may. ”

  “But not tonight,” he told her gently. “Already I am so weary I can scarce keep my eyes open. But soon, my Queen. Soon, if you please. ”

  She dropped him a curtsy, then fled in a rustling of long skirts and tapping heels. I watched her go.

  “She has changed much, and not at all,” he observed.

  “You sound much better. ”

  “Food. A warm bed. A clean face and hands. The company of friends. These things heal much. ” He yawned suddenly, and then added with trepidation, “And Riddle’s strength. It is a peculiar thing, this borrowing of strength, Fitz. Not that different from how I felt when you put your own life back into me. It is a buzzing, restless energy inside me, a life borrowed rather than earned. My heart does not like it, but my body yearns for more of it. If it were a cup before me, I do not think I could resist the desire to drain it dry. ” He took a slow breath and was quiet. But I could almost sense how he savored the sensation of extra life flowing through him. I recalled the battle madness that used to come on me, and how I would find myself fighting on, savagely and joyously, spending effort long after I knew my body was exhausted. It had been exhilarating. And the collapse that followed had been complete. That false strength, once burned, demanded repayment. I knew dread.

  The Fool spoke again. “Still, I was not lying. Much as I long for a warm bath, I do not think I can remain awake much longer. I cannot recall the last time I was so warm, or my belly so full. ”

  “Perhaps I should take you up to Lady Thyme’s chamber, then. ”

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