Fools assassin, p.8
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       Fools Assassin, p.8

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

  Again his mouth opened for just that betraying moment, then snapped shut again. He shook his head mutely and set his jaw. He was Burrich’s son. He couldn’t lie. I drew breath to press him but his half-sister was swifter. Nettle crossed the room in two strides, reached up to grab her younger brother’s shoulders, and tried to shake him. It was like watching a kitten attack a bull. Steady didn’t move under her onslaught; he only sank his head down between his broad shoulders. “Tell the secret!” she demanded. “I know that look. You tell, right now, Steady!” He bowed his head and closed his eyes.

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  He was caught on a bridge with both ends torn free of shore. He could not lie and he could not break his promise. I calmed my voice and spoke slowly, more to Nettle than to him. “Steady won’t break his promise. Don’t ask him to. But let me make a guess. Steady’s talent is to lend strength to someone who can Skill. To serve as a King’s man if the King should need extra strength in a time of great need for Skill-magic. ”

  Steady bowed his head, a clear assent to what we already knew about him. Once, I had served in that capacity to King Verity. In his need and my inexperience, I had let him drain me, and he had been angry at how close he had come to doing me permanent harm. But Steady was not like me; he had been trained specifically for this task.

  Laboriously I built my castle of logic from what I knew of Chade. “So Chade summoned you. And he borrowed your strength to … do what? Do something that burned his Skill out of him?”

  Steady was very still. That wasn’t it. I suddenly knew. “Chade drew on your strength to put a block on himself?”

  Steady was unaware of the tiny dip of his head that was assent. Dutiful broke in, outraged at my suggestion. “That makes no sense. Chade always wanted more of the Skill, not to be blocked from the use of it. ”

  I heaved a great sigh. “Chade loves his secrets. He lives his life in a castle of secrets. The Skill is a way into a man’s mind. If a strong Skill-user catches a man unaware, he can suggest anything to him and the man will believe it. Tell him his ship faces a great storm and he will turn back to safe harbor. Persuade a war leader that his army is outnumbered and he will change his tactics. Your father, King Verity, spent many of his days using the Skill exactly that way to turn back the Red Ships from our shores. Think of all the ways we have used the Skill over the years. We all know how to raise walls against other Skill-users, for privacy in our own lives. But if you know that others are stronger in the Skill than you are …” I let my words dwindle away.

  Dutiful groaned. “Then you would seek help to raise a more powerful wall. One that could not be breached without your consent, one only you could lower at will. ”

  “If you were awake or aware enough to do so. ” I spoke the last words softly. Tears were rolling down Steady’s cheeks. He looked so much like his father that my breath caught in my throat. Nettle had ceased trying to worry at her younger brother. Instead she rested her forehead on his chest. Thick’s Skill-magic music surged into a storm of despair. I battered my way through it, organized my thoughts, and asked Steady a question.

  “We know what happened. You haven’t broken your promise not to tell. But this is a different question. If you helped a Skill-user block himself, do you know how to break through it?”

  He folded his lips tightly and shook his head.

  “The man who is strong enough to build a wall should be strong enough to break it,” Dutiful suggested sternly.

  Steady shook his head. When he spoke, his voice was deep with pain. Now that we knew the secret, he felt he could speak the details. “Lord Chade read about it in one of the old scrolls. It was a defense suggested for the coterie closest to the King or Queen, so that the coterie could never be corrupted. It makes a wall that only the Skill-user himself can open. Or the King or Queen, or whoever knows the keyword. ”

  My gaze shot to Dutiful. He spoke immediately. “I don’t know it! Chade never spoke to me of such a thing!” He set his elbow to his knee and his forehead to his hand, looking suddenly very much like an anxious boy again. It wasn’t reassuring.

  Nettle spoke. “If he didn’t tell Dutiful, then you have to know it, Fitz. You were always closest to him. It has to be one of you two. Who else would he entrust it to?”

  “Not me,” I said brusquely. I didn’t add that we hadn’t spoken to each other in several months, not even via the Skill. It was a rift not of anger, but only of time. We’d slowly grown apart over the last few years. Oh, in times of extreme turmoil he would not hesitate to reach into my mind and demand my opinion or even my aid. But over the years he’d had to accept that I would not be drawn back into the intricate dance that was life at Buckkeep Castle. Now I regretted our distance.

  I rubbed my brow and turned to Thick. “Did Lord Chade tell you a special word, Thick? One to remember?” I focused on him, trying to smile reassuringly. Behind me I heard the door to the room open, but I kept my attention on Thick.

  He scratched one of his tiny ears. His tongue stuck out of his mouth as he pondered. I forced myself to be patient. Then he smiled and straightened up. He leaned forward and smiled at me. “Please. He told me to remember ‘please. ’ And ‘thank you. ’ Words to get what you want from people. You don’t just grab. Say ‘please’ before you take something. ”

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  “Could it be that simple?” Nettle asked in wonder.

  Kettricken spoke from behind me. “Does it involve Chade? Then simple? Absolutely not. That man never makes anything simple. ” I turned to regard my erstwhile Queen and despite the gravity of our situation, I could not help but smile at her. She stood straight and regal as ever. As always, the King’s mother was dressed with a simplicity that would have looked more appropriate on a serving girl, save that she wore it with such dignity. And power. Her fair hair, gone to early silver, flowed unbound down her back, past the shoulders of her Buckkeep-blue robe. Another anomaly. She had encouraged the Six Duchies to reach out in trade, and in my lifetime I had seen our kingdom embrace all that the wider world had to offer. Exotic foods and seasoning from the Spice Islands, peculiar styles of dress from Jamaillia and the lands beyond, and foreign techniques for working with glass, iron, and pottery had altered every aspect of life in Buckkeep Castle. The Six Duchies shipped out wheat and oats, iron ore and ingots, Sandsedge brandy and the fine wines from the inland duchies. Timber from the Mountain Kingdom became lumber that in turn we shipped to Jamaillia. We prospered and embraced change. Yet here was my former queen, immune to the changes she had encouraged, dressed as simply and old-fashioned as a servant from my childhood, without even a diadem in her hair to mark her rank as the King’s mother.

  She crossed to me, and I rose to accept her firm embrace. “Fitz,” she said by my ear. “Thank you. Thank you for coming, and for taking great risk by coming so swiftly. When I heard that Dutiful had conveyed to Nettle that you must come at once, I was horrified. And full of hope. How selfish we are, to tear you from your well-earned peace and demand that you once more come to our aid. ”

  “You are always welcome to any help I can bring you. ” Any lingering irritation I had felt for how I had been pressed to use the stone pillar vanished at her words. It was her gift. Queen Kettricken had always acknowledged the sacrifices people made in service to the Farseer throne. In exchange she had always been willing to surrender her own comfort and safety for those loyal to her. In that moment her gratitude seemed a fair exchange for the danger I had faced.

  She released me and stepped back. “So. Do you think you can help him?”

  I shook my head regretfully. “Chade has put a block on himself, similar to the way that Chivalry sealed Burrich off from the Skill. He drew on Steady’s Skill-strength to do it. If we could break through it, we might be able to use our joined Skill-magic to aid his body in healing itself. But he has locked us out, and lacks the awareness to either permit us in or to heal himself. ”
  “I see. And how is he?”

  “Losing strength. I feel an ebbing in his vitality even in the short time I’ve been here. ”

  She flinched at my words, but I knew she prized honesty. She opened her hands and gestured to all of us. “What can we do?”

  King Dutiful spoke. “Little to nothing. We can call the healers back, but they only seem to squabble with one another. One says to cool him with wet cloths, another to light the hearth and cover him with blankets. One wanted to bleed him. I do not think any of them truly has a remedy for this type of injury. If we do nothing, I suspect he will die before two more nights go by. ” He lifted off his crown, ran his hands through his hair, and set it back on his head slightly ajar. “Oh, Chade,” he said, a combination of rebuke and plea in his voice. He turned to me. “Fitz, are you sure you’ve had no message from him, either on paper or by the Skill, that would hint at what key will open him to us?”

  “Nothing. Not for months. ”

  Kettricken looked around the room. “One of us knows. ” She spoke slowly and precisely. She considered each of us with another slow, sweeping gaze, and then said, “I think it is most likely you, Fitz. ”

  She was probably right. I looked at Steady. “How does one use this keyword, if one knows it?”

  The young man looked uncertain. “He didn’t instruct me in that, but I suspect it is something you Skill to him, and it is what permits you in. ”

  My heart sank. Had Burrich had a keyword, something that would have allowed me to reach him? A key that Chivalry had taken to his grave after his riding “accident”? I suddenly felt ill to know that I might have saved Burrich from death if I’d known his key. Well, it wasn’t going to happen again. Kettricken was correct. Chade was far too clever a man to have closed a lock without entrusting one of us with a key.

  I took Chade’s hand in both of mine. I looked at his sunken face, at his lips puffing slightly with every expelled breath. I focused on him and reached again with the Skill. My mental grip on him slid and slipped, as if I tried to grasp a glass orb with soapy hands. I set my teeth and did a thing he had always decried. I found him with my Wit, focused on the animal life that I felt ebbing through his body, and then I needled my Skill at him. I began with a list of names. Chivalry. Verity. Shrewd. Fallstar. Farseer. Burrich. Kettricken. I went through everyone dear to us, hoping for a twitch of response. There was nothing. I finished with Lady Thyme. Lord Golden. Slink.

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  I gave up on that list and opened my eyes. The room was quiet around me. King Dutiful still sat on the other side of the bed. In the window behind him, the sun was foundering on the horizon. “I sent the others away,” he said quietly.

  “I had no luck. ”

  “I know. I was listening. ”

  I studied my King in that unguarded moment. He and Nettle were nearly of an age and resembled each other in small ways, if one knew to look for them. They had the dark curly hair typical of the Farseer line. She had a straight nose and a determined mouth, as did he. But Dutiful had grown taller than I while Nettle was not much taller than her mother. Dutiful sat now, his hands steepled with the fingertips touching his mouth and his eyes grave. My King. The third Farseer King I had served.

  Dutiful rose, groaning as he stretched his back. His hound imitated him, rising and then bowing low to the floor. He walked to the door, opened it, and said, “Food, please. And a dish of water for Courser. And some of the good brandy. Two cups. Let my lady mother know that as of yet we’ve had no success. ” He shut the door and turned back to me. “What? Why are you smiling?”

  “Such a king you became, Dutiful! Verity would be proud of you. He was the same way, able to say ‘please’ to the lowliest servant with no trace of irony. So. We have not spoken in months. How sits the crown?”

  In response, he took it off and gave his head a shake, and then ran his fingers through his hair. He set it on Chade’s bedside table and said, “Heavy, sometimes. Even this one, and the formal one I must wear when I sit in judgment is worse. But it has to be borne. ”

  I knew he was not speaking of the actual weight of it. “And your Queen, and the Princes?”

  “They are well. ” He sighed. “She misses her home, and the freedom of being the Narcheska rather than the Queen of the Six Duchies. She has taken the boys to visit her mothershouse yet again. I know it is the way of her folk, that the maternal lineage is the one that counts. But both my mother and Chade believe I am foolish to risk both sons on the sea so often. ” He smiled ruefully. “Yet it is still hard for me to deny her anything she wants. And, as she points out, they are as much her sons as mine. After Prosper took a bad fall in a hunt last winter, she compared me doing that with them to her taking them across the water. And she frets that as yet she has not borne a daughter for her mothershouse. While for me, it has almost been a relief that we have only sons. If I never have to confront the issue of where my daughter would be raised, I would count it a blessing. But she frets that she has gone four years now with no pregnancy. Well. ” He sighed.

  “She’s young yet,” I said boldly. “You are what, barely thirty? And she is younger still. You have time. ”

  “But there have been two miscarriages …” His words trickled away, and he stared at a shadow in the corner. The dog at his feet whined and looked at me accusingly. Dutiful stopped to set a hand to him. For a moment, we all were quiet. Then, plainly changing the direction of our conversation, he tipped his head toward Chade. “He’s sinking, Fitz. What do we do now?”

  A knock at the door interrupted us. This time I rose and went to open it. A page came in bearing a tray with food. Three others followed, one with a carafe of warmed water, a basin, and cloths, and the other with the brandy and cups. The girl came in last, carrying a small table and puffing a bit with the effort. Dutiful and I were silent as our repast and washwater were set out for us. The pages lined up, bowed in unison, and waited to receive Dutiful’s thanks before retiring. When the door was shut, I gestured at the table. Courser was already at his bowl of water, lapping noisily.

  “We eat. We drink. And we try again,” I told him.

  And we did.

  In the deeps of night, by candlelight, I damped a cloth and moistened Chade’s lips. I felt I was keeping a death watch now. I had given up on specific words long ago, and simply begun a long conversation with him about all the things I recalled doing with him during my apprenticeship to be an assassin. I had wandered from a time of him teaching me the mixing of poisons to our wild ride to Forge. I had recited a number of learning poems about the healing properties of herbs. I had recalled our quarrels as well as the moments when we had been closest, all in the hope that a random word might be the key. Nothing had worked. Dutiful had kept the vigil with me. The others had come and gone during the night, entering and leaving the room like shadows moving with the sun’s passage. Thick had sat with us for a time, unhelpfully offering words we’d already tried. Nettle had visited Chade’s old study and rummaged through the scrolls and other items left on his table. She had brought them down to us to inspect. None of them had given us a clue. Hope had been peeled away from us like a sodden bandage covering a festering wound. I had moved from feeble optimism to wishing it were all over.

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  “Did we try names of herbs?”

  “Yes. Remember?”

  “No,” Dutiful admitted. “I’m too tired. I can’t think of what we have tried and what we haven’t. ”

  I set Chade’s hand down on his slowly rising and falling chest and moved to the table that now held the litter of items from his workbench. The half-spent candles showed me the Skill-scroll about imbuing stone with a message, a scroll about cheesemaking, and an old vellum about scrying the future in a bowl of water. In addition there was a block of memory stone with nothing stored in it, a broken knife blade, and a wineglass with some withered flowers in it. Dutiful drifted over to j
oin me. “The broken blade?” he asked.

  I shook my head. “Not significant. He was always getting in a hurry and trying to pry things open with a knife blade. ” I nudged the block of memory stone. “Where did this come from? Aslevjal?”

  Dutiful nodded. “He has made a few trips there over the last five years. He was intensely curious about all you had told him about Kebal Rawbread’s stronghold, and the Elderlings who created it and occupied it ages ago. None of us approved of his adventuring, but you know Chade. He needs no one’s approval except his own. Then, abruptly, he stopped going. I suspect something happened to frighten him into good sense, but he’s never spoken about it. Too proud, I suspect, and he didn’t want any of us to have the satisfaction of saying, We warned you. On one journey to the island he found a room with scattered blocks of memory stone and brought back a small bag of cubes of the stuff. Some held memories, mostly poetry and songs. Others were empty. “

  “And he put something on one of them, and sent it to you recently. ”

  “Yes. ”

  I stared at Dutiful. He straightened slowly, dismay vying with relief.

  “Oh. It’s the key, isn’t it?”

  “Do you remember what it said?”

  “Absolutely. ” He walked to Chade’s side, sat down, and took his hand to make the Skill-contact easier. He spoke aloud. “Where violets bloom in a lady’s lap, the wise old spider spun his trap. ”

  We were both smiling. But as the smile faded from Dutiful’s face, I asked him, “What’s wrong?”

  “No response. He’s as invisible to my Skill as he has been all day. ”

  I crossed the room quickly, sat, and took Chade’s hand. I focused myself at him, and used both voice and Skill. “Where violets bloom in a lady’s lap, the wise old spider spun his trap. ”

  There was nothing. Only Chade’s hand lax in mine.

  “Maybe he’s too weak to respond,” Dutiful suggested.

  “Hush. ” I leaned back, not speaking. Violets in a lady’s lap. Violets in a lady’s lap. There was something, something from long ago. Then I had it. A statue in the Women’s Garden. It was in the back corner of the garden, overhung by a plum thicket. There, where the shadows were deep and cool even in the height of summer, was a statue of Eda. She was seated with her hands loose in her lap. She had been there a long time. I recalled tiny ferns growing in the mossy folds of her gown. And yes, violets in her lap.

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