Assassins fate, p.92
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       Assassin's Fate, p.92
 

         Part #3 of The Fitz and The Fool Trilogy series by Robin Hobb

  curtseyed to me, I shrieked and then cried and could only ask her if she was unhurt, if it was really her, for I had been convinced the raiders could not have left her alive. She began to sob, too, until the woman who had brought me there threatened to call for a healer to drug away our ‘hysteria’. I lost my temper and ordered her to go away. Caution latched the door behind her, and we wept alone until we managed to stop.

  Caution said she was well recovered, but I knew she wasn’t. She had only arrived the day before I did. She was to be my maid here, she told me, as my sister had not wished life in Buckkeep Castle to be too great a change. But then she told me that Buckkeep Castle was immense and full of people and she was almost afraid to leave the rooms at night, and what was she, a simple country girl, doing in such a place?

  I said I wondered the same thing for myself. She hugged me so hard I thought my ribs would crack.

  She helped me out of my Elderling garb and then we had a tedious time of dressing me in crispy, rustling skirts that she assured me were the latest style from Jamaillia. I did not have lice but she said that was sheer luck for my hair was all tangles and mats despite Spark’s best efforts. I left a great deal of it in her comb. There followed a gathering in a room, and walking into a great hall full of people, and trying to eat dinner on a stage. Shun was seated three chairs away from me. She was Lady Shine now, in clothing even more gorgeous than she had worn at Withywoods. I wondered if she still scattered it on the floor of her room when she undressed. We looked at one another once, and then away.

  I slept in a big bed in my new room and dreamed that I opened my wardrobe and Revel looked out from the mirror and thanked me for the kerchiefs I’d given him. I woke weeping. Caution came into the room. She slept in the bed beside me. We held hands all night.

  Was it the next day we had a ceremony to mourn my father? I burned a lock of my hair, for Nettle said I could not spare more than that. Was it that first day when I was presented to the king and queen? The days were tangled and confused, like a neglected yarn basket. Every day there was someone I must meet, and a meal to share and people telling me formally how sad they were that my father was dead. There was a private meeting with Lady Kettricken, who had taken to her bed as soon as she heard of my father’s death and had not emerged from her room since. She was pale and rather old. She gave me a very sad smile and said, ‘Look at those golden curls. I wonder if Verity could have given me a little girl like you? If we had had more time.’ That seemed very awkward to me.

  I was taken to see Lady Shine. ‘I am sorry for your loss.’ I told her in front of the maids attending her and Lady Simmer, who followed me about. ‘And I for yours,’ she replied. And what else was there to say? I do not think we even wanted to look at one another. Neither of us wanted to speak of what had happened to us and after a time I excused myself, saying I was still very weary. And that obligation was done. At meals we nodded to one another in passing.

  One morning, I asked to see Per and was told I did not have time that day, but was assured that he was being honoured and had been given a matched pair of black horses, from Buckkeep’s best stock, and offered a good position in the stables. When I asked if he had the care of Pris, Lady Simmer did not know, but said she would make certain that Pris was given over to his care, if that was important to me. It was.

  Nettle and Riddle tried to have a quiet dinner with me but the baby and the baby’s nurse and two of Nettle’s ladies, and Lady Simmer and one of Riddle’s men could not be excluded, and so I sat very straight and we talked of how nice the blackberry tart was. Later, when only the nurse was there, Nettle told me that soon I would become one of the queen’s ladies, but I should not fear, for Queen Elliania was actually very kind and Nettle was determined to see that I learned everything that she, unfortunately, had not been taught. To that end there would be a special tutor for me. ‘Lant?’ I asked, and I did not know if I hoped or dreaded that.

  ‘Lord FitzVigilant has other duties, I am afraid. But Scribe Diligent has taught many a noble child, and will school you in deportment and protocol as well as numbers and letters.’

  I nodded to that and glanced at Riddle to see pity and worry in his eyes.

  Beginning the next day, there were hours when I must be with my tutor, and more hours when I must attend the queen. I must learn the names of every duke and duchess, and their children, and the colours of their houses, and to know their heraldry. Every evening meal had to be taken downstairs in the dining hall, sitting to the left of Riddle and Nettle.

  Daily I spent part of the morning attending the queen. I had been warned to sit very straight, and embroider or knit or weave, as she did, and listen to the chatter of her ladies. They put me in a place next to Lady Shine. We both kept too busy to speak to one another. But on the third day, Queen Elliania bade us continue with our work while she took more rest. The moment the door closed behind her, I felt like a flung bread crust in a flock of chickens.

  ‘Such pretty golden curls, Lady Bee. Will you allow your hair to grow now?’

  ‘Is it true you were kept as a slave in Chalced?’ That question came in a scandalized whisper.

  ‘I have not seen before that stitch you used on the pansies. Can you teach it to me?’

  ‘Lord FitzVigilant tells us that you are the bravest little girl he has ever met. Such a charming man! Do you think that you and he would like to join Lady Clement and me for gaming one evening?’

  ‘We have heard so little of your adventures,’ Lady Fecund smiled avariciously. ‘It makes me shudder to think of a little girl like you and poor dear Lady Shine in the clutches of such monsters!’

  Lady Violet, with a sideways glance at Shun, added, ‘Lady Shine has told us almost nothing about the day that Withywoods was attacked. You must have been terrified! Chalcedeans, we are told, have no respect for the women when they raid and loot. And they had her for many days. And nights.’

  I glanced at Shun. Her chin quivered once and then she clenched her teeth. ‘It was a difficult time I do not wish to speak about,’ she said stiffly. I knew then that she was not well liked in this room and that Lady Violet would shame her, if she could. Lady Violet was lovely but not as beautiful as Shun with her green eyes and curling hair, nor was her figure as good. I was beginning to learn about such things at court.

  Lady Violet pecked at me. ‘But surely little Bee could tell us some tales! However did you manage to buy your lives, in the hands of such ruthless men?’ She said it as if there were a nasty secret she could wheedle out of me.

  I fixed her with a gaze. ‘I am Lady Bee,’ I reminded her, and several of the other women tittered. One gave me a sympathetic look and then put her eyes on her sewing. I tried to find the carrying voice Hap used when I added, ‘I lived because Shine protected me. Ill, she nursed me. Cold, she shared her blankets with me. She saw that I had food. At great risk to herself, she helped me try to escape.’ My voice had the knack of it. I paused. ‘She killed for me. And escaped to seek out my father and put him on my trail. She has the heart of a lioness.’ I considered her wide green eyes, then turned my smile on Lady Violet. ‘If you cut her, I bleed. And if I bleed, Princess Nettle will know of it.’

  ‘Well!’ Lady Violet exclaimed haughtily. ‘The kitten has claws.’

  The tittering laughter was the clucking of hens called to thrown grain.

  ‘The bee has a stinger,’ I corrected her. Our eyes met and held. She sneered at me but I smiled. She had no walls at all. ‘Rather than my tale, we would all much more enjoy hearing of your tryst last night. With the gentleman who wears a green doublet and far too much oil in his hair.’

  Shun’s hand flew to her mouth to hold back not a scandalized gasp but a delighted laugh.

  ‘It isn’t true!’ Lady Violet rose, her skirts rustling like bird’s wings, and swept from the room. At the door, she glared at me and said, ‘This is what comes of admitting common-borns to a circle of noble ladies!’ She scuttled out the door.

  I could not allo
w that to hurt me. Or Shun. I forced a giggle. ‘She runs like a startled hen, does she not?’ I said to Shine. A ripple of nervous laughter spread out from my flung stone. Lady Violet was popular, but not liked, I saw. I was certain we’d cross swords again.

  Shun was sitting taller. She carefully set aside her needlework in a basket at her feet, rose far more gracefully than Lady Violet had, and held out a hand to me. ‘Come, little cousin. Shall we walk in the Women’s Garden?’ she asked me.

  I set my own needlework aside. ‘I am told that the violets there are actually fragrant.’ This time, their laughter was bolder.

  We left the room, and none of them followed. Still she glanced back, and ‘Hurry,’ she said. We went, not to the Women’s Garden with its herbs and blossoms, but up to a tower-top garden of potted shrubs and statuary and benches. She used a key to open the door. For an hour, we walked about it, speaking little. When she left, she gave me the key. ‘This was my father’s key. This is a good place to be alone.’

  ‘What of you?’ I asked her, and she smiled at me.

  ‘While my father lived, I had a protector at court. Now I have none.’

  ‘Your brother?’

  ‘He is uncomfortable with me.’ She said it stiffly. Sadly she added, ‘And I with him.’

  ‘I would rather face men with knives than that circle of bitches with their needles,’ I said bluntly.

  She laughed aloud, and when she turned back to me the wind had put colour in her cheeks and I saw something of the old Shun in the set of her mouth. ‘The “green doublet” is sharper than any knife I’ve ever held. And I promise you that I will use it well.’ She held up her hand, fingers curved, and said, ‘Time for the lioness to show her claws.’ And she left me there on the rooftop garden, with the wind blowing the scent of jasmine and the clouds running like ships before a wind.

  My life began to have a pattern, a hectic one. I saw nothing of Spark or Per. Beloved had donned yet another guise. He was now called Lord Chance. He would call on me once a day, at his appointed time, and we would talk. He always asked if I were well, and I always replied I was. There was a complicated story of who he was now and how he had joined my father and Lant to save me. I couldn’t be bothered with it. He brought me little gifts: a carved wooden acorn with a secret compartment under the cap, and a doll dressed all in black and white, and a better pipe than the one we had made on the river. Once he said as he left me, ‘It will get better, Bee. Someone else will have a disaster or a triumph, and people will not watch you so closely. Nettle’s baby will become less fussy and Nettle will not be so tired. When Queen Elliania’s child is born, you can blissfully fade into the background of Buckkeep politics. You will be able to become Bee again.’

  It was not an encouraging thing to hear. But every morning another day started, and every night I put another day behind me.

  The most serious day was one when Clansie escorted me to Nettle’s chamber up in a tower where the Queen’s Own Coterie was accustomed to meet. They were one of six coteries that lived in or very near to Buckkeep. One for each prince, one for the King, Nettle’s coterie … far too many, I thought. I felt a bit offended when Clansie reported to my own sister on my level of Skill-talent and how she had needed to dose me with elfbark in Kelsingra. I learned that some of my dreams, not my White-dreams but my regular ones, had been leaking out of my mind at night and disturbing coterie members. With an apology for being so bold, Clansie suggested that I should be dosed daily with elfbark until I was either able to control my wild Skilling or the Skill was quenched in me. Nettle told her that she would take her thoughts under advisement and consider them.

  When I spoke to Nettle as my sister, asking if I did not have some say in this, she replied, ‘Sometimes an adult must decide what is best for a youngster, Bee. In this, you will have to trust me.’

  But that was hard.

  Yet it was not all unfortunate things. Hap Gladheart came to my room very late one night, escorted by Lant and Lord Chance. Caution was scandalized until I reminded her that Hap was my foster-brother. He played some silly songs for me, and soon had even Caution giggling. Then Lord Chance told me that, when I felt able, I should tell Hap every detail of what had befallen me, for it was Buck history and should be preserved. I remembered my sister’s words, and told him that I would ‘take his thoughts under advisement and consider them’.

  Hap grinned and said, ‘I thought you might!’ and swept into the opening notes of a song.

  Days passed, with dinners and introductions and then entertainments with other young nobles of my age that I should cultivate. Lady Simmer organized my social schedule. My brothers came to visit me, some with wives and children, a few at a time. I found that I scarcely knew any of them any more. I loved them, but it was a distant love, the same they accorded to me. I watched them with Nettle and her child, their jests and their advice and their ‘do you remembers?’, all hearkening back to a family I’d never been a part of. They were kind. They brought me the sort of gifts one would give to a young female relative. Riddle sat beside me for those visits. He spoke to me so that I had someone for a conversation, and taught me how to smile at strangers who loved me and had no idea of my ordeal—especially as I had no desire to share it with them. At such times, I was glad that Per had suggested I erase my scars. When I spoke at all, I told them of seeing ships turn into dragons and moving figureheads and the wonders of Kelsingra. I am sure they discounted half of it as a child’s fanciful nonsense, and that was fine with me.

  I began to understand why my father wrote at night. And why he burned it afterward.

  There came a day when there was an unfilled morning, for the gravid queen had dismissed her ladies. I begged to be allowed to go out riding, and when that was granted, I insisted I would ride only Pris. As I dressed, I was dismayed to be informed that four other nobles, of about my age and two of my sex, would go with me. To my disdain, each would be accompanied by a groom on a mount, and some of their parents would attend us as well. FitzVigilant and Lord Chance would ride alongside me. My heart rose when I saw that Per was there, but he merely held Pris’s head while ‘my’ groom supervised me while I mounted my horse. It was more than I could bear. ‘I know how to get on a horse,’ I insisted, and even to myself I sounded petulant and spoiled.

  I did worse later. We were kept to a sedate pace that allowed the adults to converse and the youngsters to say insipid, dull things to me. Per rode far behind us. I looked back and saw him, and for just an instant our gazes met. I leaned forward and told Pris, ‘Run!’

  Did I use the Skill on her? I do not think so. But she leapt forth with a will and we burst to the front of the group and I urged her on. She flew. For the first time since I’d been taken, I felt as if I was myself, free and in control, even if I were on the back of a wildly galloping horse. There were shouts behind me, and two shrieks, but I didn’t care. We veered from the trail into the trees and up a steep hill. Down a gully she took me, through a muddy stream and up another steep bank. At first I heard hoofbeats behind me and then I didn’t. On I went, clinging to Pris like a burr and we were so glad of one another. We emerged from open forest onto a grassy hillside. Below us meadowland unfurled like a green carpet, sheep scattered across it like spilled buttons. Pris halted and together we breathed.

  When I heard another horse behind me and glanced back, it was all I had hoped for. Per galloped up on a black mount every bit as fine as they had promised he’d be given. He halted beside me and patted his horse’s neck.

  ‘What’s her name?’ I asked him.

  ‘Maybelle,’ he replied. He grinned at me, and then it faded. ‘Bee, we should go back. Everyone will be frightened for you.’

  ‘Truly?’

  ‘Truly.’

  ‘A little longer away from them all. They are all so …’ He waited. There wasn’t a word that expressed how they looked at me, and over my head, and that there was always, always someone standing there. ‘I never get to be alone.’

 
He frowned. ‘Do you want me to leave you alone?’

  ‘No. I can be alone with you here. You never look at me like I’m something odd in your soup.’

  He laughed, and I did, too. ‘How is your life? Are you well treated?’

  His smile faded. ‘I’m a stableboy, one of many. The stablemaster tells me often not to be ‘above myself’. Yesterday he chided me and told me I must not have favourites among the horses. I had lingered too long at Pris’s stall.’ He lifted his hand and rubbed the back of his head. ‘He rapped me with the handle of a broom when I said that Lant’s mare needed more oats. “Lord FitzVigilant to you, boy! And do not tell me my business!”’ He laughed at his own tale. I did not find it funny at all.

  ‘And you?’

  I sighed. ‘Lessons of all sorts. A great deal of changing my clothes, followed by sitting still and proper in itchy garments. Lady Simmer always trailing after me, correcting me, keeping me “usefully occupied”. Always indoors.’

  ‘Do you see much of Spark? Lant and—’ he hesitated. ‘Lord Chance?’

  ‘Nothing of Spark. Lant and Beloved are almost as good as my father was at leaving me alone.’

  Per’s eyes widened and I wished I had not said it. But it was true. For all Beloved’s nattering, I saw little of him except when he was nosing through my dream book or asking me questions.

  ‘I miss them all,’ Per said quietly.

  ‘They do not come to see you?’

  ‘Spark? Not at all. Lord FitzVigilant and Lord Chance? I saddle their horses, and Lant—Lord FitzVigilant always slips me a coin. We look at each other and I know they wish me well. But there are always people watching and appearances to be maintained.’ He patted his pocket and it jingled. ‘I wonder if I will ever be given time to go and actually spend some of the coins.’

  I heard hoofbeats. We both straightened and Per reined his horse a little away from me as first Lant, and then Beloved rode out of the trees. They both looked flustered. Beloved rode close to me and said, very quickly, ‘A fly stung your horse and she ran away with you. Per came and caught her headstall. Per, get off your house and hold her reins. Quickly!’ Sternly, he added to me, ‘Bee, you must never put Per in such danger of rebuke again. You must look shaken when the others get here.’

  Per did as he was told. Perhaps the anger burning inside me could make me look ‘shaken’. Every time I began to like Beloved at all, he did something to fan those flames. To hear they neglected Per made me want to spit at him. I drew breath to tell him that.

  But here came two grooms and someone’s father, all asking if I’d fallen, and the groom sombrely suggesting a more sedate mount ‘until the young lady has better riding skills’.

  We went by a roundabout way back to the level trail and two of the mothers insisted that we must turn back for they were very unsettled and did not want to witness another incident with ‘an unruly horse’. All the youngsters were looking at me with wide eyes. Per dropped back again to the end of our procession.

 
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