Assassins fate, p.15
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       Assassin's Fate, p.15

         Part #3 of The Fitz and The Fool Trilogy series by Robin Hobb
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  A dream so brief but so brilliantly coloured that I cannot forget it. Is it significant? My father is talking to a person with two heads. They are so deep in conversation that no matter how loudly I interrupt them, they will not speak to me. In the dream, I say, ‘Find her. Find her. It’s not too late!’ In the dream, I am a wolf made of fog. I howl and howl, but they do not turn to me.

  Bee Farseer’s dream journal

  I had never been so alone. So hungry. Even Wolf Father was at a loss for what I should do. Let us find a forest. There, I can teach you to be a wolf like your father taught me.

  The ruins were a great tumble of blackened and melted stone. The squared edges of some blocks were slumped and sunken like ice melted by the sun. I had to climb up and over collapsed walls, and I feared to fall into the cracks between the fallen stones. I found a place where two immense blocks were tented together and crawled into the shadowy recess beneath them. Huddled in their shade, I tried to gather my thoughts and strength. I needed to stay hidden from Dwalia and the others. I had no food and no water. I had the clothes on my back and a candle in my jerkin. My mildewed shawl had been lost in my most recent beating, along with my wool hat. How could I win my way back to Buck, or even to the border of the Six Duchies? I reviewed what I knew of the geography of Chalced. Could I walk home? Chalced’s terrain was harsh. It was a land where heat welled up from the earth. There was a desert, I seemed to recall … and a low range of mountains. I shook my head. It was useless. My mind could not work while my belly clamoured for food and my mouth told me how dry it was.

  All that afternoon I remained hidden. I listened intently but heard nothing of Dwalia and the others. Perhaps she had managed to exit the tumble of stone, and perhaps Vindeliar had once more bent the Chalcedean’s will to her purposes. What would they do? Perhaps go into the city or to Kerf’s home. Would they search for me? So many questions and no answers.

  As night approached, I picked my way through a dragon-blasted section of the city. Once-fine houses gawked rooflessly, with empty holes for windows and doors. The streets had largely been cleared of rubble. Scavengers and salvagers had been at work among the ruins. Walls were missing blocks of stones; tall weeds and scrawny bushes grew from the cracks. Beyond a gap in a tumbled garden wall I found water collected in the mossy basin of a derelict fountain. I drank from my cupped hands, and splashed my face. My raw wrists stung as I washed my hands. I pushed sprawling bushes aside as I sought a shelter for the night. The scent of crushed mint rose to me as I trod through herbs. I ate some of it, simply to have something in my belly. My brushing fingertips recognized the umbrella shapes of nasturtium leaves. I ripped up handfuls and stuffed them in my mouth. Beyond a curtain of trailing vines on a leaning trellis I found an abandoned dwelling.

  I clambered through a low window and looked up at a roofless view of the sky. Tonight would be clear and cold. I found a corner relatively free of rubble and partially sheltered by the collapsed roof, crept into the darkness and curled up like a stray dog there. I closed my eyes. Sleep came and went with intermittent dreams. I had toast and tea at Withywoods. My father carried me on his shoulders. I woke up weeping. I huddled tighter in the dark and tried to imagine a plan that would get me home. The floor was hard beneath me. My shoulder still ached. My belly hurt, not just from hunger but from the kicks I’d received. I touched my ear; blood crusted my hair around it. I probably looked frightful, as awful as the beggar I’d tried to help back in Oaksbywater. So, tomorrow, I’d be a beggar girl. Anything to get food. I pushed my back against the wall and huddled smaller. I slept fitfully through a night that was not that cold unless one was sleeping outside with no more cover than tattered clothing.

  When the sun rose I discovered a blue sky full of scudding white clouds. I was stiff, hungry, thirsty and alone. Free. A strange smell hung in the air, tingeing the city smells of cooking-fires and open drains and horse droppings. Low tide, Wolf Father whispered to me. The smell of the sea when the waves retreat.

  I clambered up what remained of the stone wall of the house to survey my surroundings.

  I was on a low hill in a great trough of a valley. I had glimpses of a river beyond the city below. Behind me, houses and buildings and roads coated the land like a crusty sore. Smoke rose from countless chimneys. Closer to the city, tendrils of brownish water surrounded the many ships at anchor. A harbour. I knew the word but finally I saw all it meant. It was sheltered water, as if a finger and thumb of the land reached out to enclose it. Beyond it was more water, all the way to the edge of the sky. I had so often heard of the deep blue sea that it was hard to grasp that the many shaded water of greens and blues, silver and greys and black were what minstrels sang about. The minstrels had sung, too, of the lure of the sea, but I felt nothing of that. It looked vast and empty and dangerous. I turned away from it. In the far distance beyond the city, there were low mounds of yellowish hills. ‘They have no forest,’ I whispered.

  Ah. This explains much about the Chalcedeans, Wolf Father replied. Through my eyes, he surveyed a land scarred with buildings and cobbled streets. This is a different and dangerous sort of wilderness. I fear I will be of small use to you here. Go carefully, cub. Go very carefully.

  Chalced was waking. There were damaged swathes of city below me, but the dragons had concentrated their fury on the area around the ruined palace. The duke’s palace, Kerf had said. Memory stirred. I had heard of this destruction in a conversation between my mother and father. The dragons of Kelsingra had come to Chalced and attacked the city. The old duke had been destroyed and his daughter had stepped up to become Duchess of Chalced. No one could recall a time when a woman had reigned over Chalced. My father had said, ‘I doubt there will be peace with Chalced, but at least they’ll be so busy fighting civil wars that they can’t bother us as much.’

  But I saw no civil war. Brightly garbed folk moved in the peaceful lanes. Carts pulled by donkeys or peculiarly large goats began to fill the streets, and people in loose, billowing shirts and black trousers moved amongst them. I watched fish spilling silver from a boat pulled up on the shore, and saw a ship towed out to deep water where its sails spread like the sudden wings of a bird before it moved silently away. I saw two markets, one near the docks and another along a broad avenue. The latter had bright awnings over the stalls while the one near the docks seemed drabber and poorer. The smells of fresh-baked bread and smoked meats reached me, and faint though they were, my mouth watered.

  I assessed my plan to be a mute beggar girl and beg for coins and food. But my ragged tunic and leggings and fur boots would betray that I was a foreigner in this land of bright and flowing garb.

  I had no choice. I could stay hidden in the ruins and starve, or take my chances in the streets.

  I tidied myself. I would be a beggar but not a disgusting one. I hoped that my pale hair and blue eyes would make me appear Chalcedean, and I could mime that I had no voice. I touched my face, wincing as I explored bruises and scarcely healed cuts. Perhaps pity would aid my cause. But I could not rely on pity alone.

  I took off the fur boots. The spring day was already too warm for them. I dusted and smoothed them as best as I could. I peeled the rags of my stockings and stared at my pale and shrivelled feet. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d gone barefoot. I’d have to get used to it. I hugged my boots to my chest and began to walk toward the market.

  Where people sell things, there are people buying things. My feet were bruised by stones and dirty by the time I reached the market, but my hunger outshone those pains. It hurt to walk past the stalls selling early fruit and baked breads and meats. I ignored the odd looks people gave me and tried to appear calm and relaxed, rather than a stranger in this city.

  I found the stalls that sold fabric and garments, and then the carts that sold used clothing and rags. I offered the boots mutely to several booths before anyone showed any interest in them. The woman who took them from me turned them over and over. She frowned at them, scowled at me, looked at
them again, and then held out six copper coins. I had no way to bargain. Good or bad, it was the only offer I’d get, and so I took the coins, bobbed a bow to her, and stepped back from her stall. I tried to fade into the passing folk but I could feel her eyes following me.

  I silently offered two coins at a baker’s stall. The vendor asked me a question and I gestured at my closed mouth. The young man looked at the coins, looked at me, pursed his lips and turned to a covered basket. He offered me a stiff roll of bread, probably several days old. I took it, my hands trembling with eagerness and bobbed my head in thanks. A peculiar look crossed his face. He caught me by the wrist and it was all I could do not to shriek. But then he chose from the fresh wares on the board in front of him the smallest of the sweet rolls and gave it to me. I think my look of utter gratitude embarrassed him, for he shooed me away as if I were a stray kitten. I stuffed my food into the front of my tunic with my battered candle and fled to find a safe place to eat it.

  At the end of the market row I saw a public well. I’d never seen the like. Warm water bubbled up into a stone-lined pool. The overflow was guided away in a trough. I saw women filling buckets, and then saw a child stoop and drink from cupped hands. I copied her, kneeling by the water and scooping up a drink. The water smelled odd and had a strong flavour but it was wet and not poisonous and that was all I cared about. I drank my fill, then splashed a bit onto my face and scrubbed my hands together. Evidently that was rude, for a man made a noise of disgust and scowled at me. I scrambled to my feet and hurried away.

  Beyond the market was a street of merchants. These were not market stalls, but grand establishments built of stone and timbers. Their doors were open to the warming day. As I walked past, I smelled meat curing in smoke, and then heard the rasp of a carpenter smoothing wood. There were stacks of rough timbers in an open space beside and behind the carpenter’s shop. I looked both ways and then slipped into their shade. The cross-layered planks hid me from the street. I sat on the ground and set my back to a stack of sweet-smelling wood. I took out my bread and made myself eat the older roll first. It was coarse stuff and stale—and incredibly delicious. I trembled as I ate it. When it was gone, I sat still, breathing hard and feeling the last of the bread descend from my throat to my stomach. I could have eaten ten more just like it.

  I held the small sweet roll in my hand and smelled it. I told myself I would be wise to save it for tomorrow. Then I told myself that as I carried it, I might drop it, or break bits off it and lose them. I was easily persuaded. I ate it. There was a thin thread of honey swirled on top of it that had baked into the bread, and there were bits of fruit and spices inside it. I ate it in torturously slow nibbles, savouring every tingle of sweetness on my tongue. Too soon it was gone. My hunger was sated, but the memory of it plagued me.

  Another memory sifted into my brain. Another beggar, scarred and broken and cold. Probably hungrier than I was now. I had tried to be kind to him. And my father had stabbed him, over and over. And then abandoned me to carry him off to Buckkeep for healing. I tried to put those bits together with the pieces I had overheard, but they only joined together in impossible ways. Instead, I wondered why no one looked at me, small, hungry and alone, and offered me an apple.

  My mouth watered at the thought of the apple I’d given that beggar. Oh, the chestnuts that day, hot to peel and sweet in my mouth. My stomach knotted and I bent over it.

  I had four small coins left. If the bread man was as kind tomorrow as he had been today, I could eat for two days. Then I’d either go hungry or steal.

  How was I going to get home?

  The sun was getting warmer and the day brighter. I looked down at myself. My bare feet were scuffed with dirt and my toenails were long. My padded trousers were grubby. My once-long Withywoods green jerkin was spotted and stained, and ended raggedly at my hips. My underblouse was grimy at the cuffs. A very convincing beggar.

  I should go down to the docks and see if any ships were bound to Buck or indeed anywhere in the Six Duchies. I wondered how I could ask, and what I could do to earn passage on one. The sun was bright and my clothing too warm for the mild day. I moved deeper into the shade and curled up with my back to a stack of wood. I did not mean to fall asleep, but I did.

  I woke in late afternoon. The shade had travelled away from me, but I had slept until the moving light of the sun on my closed eyes had wakened me. I sat up, feeling miserably sick, dizzy and thirsty. I staggered to my feet and began to walk. My small store of courage was gone. I could not make myself go down to the docks or even explore more of the city. I retreated to the ruins where I had sheltered the night before.

  In a city full of strangeness, I took comfort from what little I knew. By daylight, the water in the old fountain in the ruined house’s garden was greenish and little black water creatures darted in its depths. But it was water, and I was thirsty. I drank and then bared my body to wash as best I could. I washed out my clothes and was surprised at how hard a task that was. Once again I realized how easy a life I’d led at Withywoods. I thought of the servants who had supplied my every need. I had always been polite to them, but had I ever truly thanked them for all they did? Caution came to mind and how she had loaned me her lace cuffs. Was she still alive? Did Caution think of me sometimes? I wanted to weep, but did not.

  Sternly I made my plans as I dipped and scrubbed and wrung out my garments. Dwalia had thought me a boy. It was safer to present myself as a boy. Would a ship going towards the Six Duchies need a boy? I’d heard tales of ship’s boys having wild and wonderful adventures. Some became pirates in the minstrels’ songs, or found treasures or became captains. Tomorrow I would take two of my coins and buy more bread and eat it. I very much liked that part of my plan. Then I must go down to the waterfront and see if any ships were going to the Six Duchies and if they would give me passage for work. I pushed away the thought that I was small and looked childish and was not very strong and spoke no Chalcedean. Somehow, I would manage.

  I had to.

  I hung my clothing on a broken stone wall to dry and stretched out naked on the sun-warmed stones of a deserted courtyard. My mother’s candle was battered, the wax imprinted with lint, and broken in one place with only the wick holding it together. But it still smelled like her. Like home and safety and gentle hands. I fell asleep there in the dappling shade of a half-fallen tree. When I awoke a second time, my clothing was mostly dry and the sun was going down. I was hungry again and dreaded the chill night. I had slept so much but I still felt weary and I wondered if my journey through the stone pillars had taken more from me than I knew. I crawled deeper under the leaning tree to where the leaves of several falls made a cushion against the stone. I refused to think of spiders and biting things. I curled up small and slept again.

  Sometime in the night, I lost my courage. My own crying woke me, and once awake, I could not stop the sobs. I stuffed my hand in my mouth to muffle the sounds and wept. I wept for my lost home, for the horses killed in the fire, for Revel dead in his blood on the floor before me. Everything that had happened to me, all that I had seen and had not had time to react to suddenly flooded my mind. My father had left me for the sake of a blind beggarman, and Perseverance was probably dead. I’d left Shun behind and hoped the best for her. Had she survived and reached Withywoods, to tell them what had befallen us? Would anyone ever come after me? I remembered FitzVigilant, his blood red on the white snow.

  Suddenly going home seemed impossible. Going home to what? Who would be there? Would they all hate me because the pale folk had come for me? And if I went home, would not Dwalia or others of her kind know where I would flee? Would they come after me again, to burn and kill? I hunched low under my sheltering tree, rocking myself, knowing that there was no one who could protect me.

  I’ll protect you. Wolf Father’s words were less than a whisper.

  He was only in my mind, only an idea. How could he protect me? What was he, really? Something I imagined from the fragments of my father’s

  I am real and I am with you. Trust me. I can help you protect yourself.

  I felt a sudden rush of anger. ‘You didn’t protect me before, when they took me. You didn’t protect me when Dwalia beat me and dragged me through the pillar. You’re a dream. Something I imagined because I was so childish and scared. But you can’t help me now. No one can help me now.’

  No one except yourself.

  ‘Be silent!’ I shouted the words, and then covered my mouth in horror. I needed to hide, not shout at imaginary beings in the night. I scuttled deeper under the tree until I felt a tumble of fallen wall and could go no farther. I made myself small and shut my eyes tight and walled my thoughts in and slept.

  I awoke the next day with my face crusty from my weeping. My head pounded with pain and I felt nauseous with hunger. It was a long time before I could convince myself to crawl out from the tree’s shade. I did not feel well enough to walk down to the markets, so I wandered the ruined area of the city. I caught sight of lizards and snakes basking on the tumbled stones. I thought of eating one but at my approach they whisked under the stones. Twice I saw other people who seemed to be living in the broken houses. I smelled their cookfires and saw ragged clothing hung to dry. I kept out of their sight.

  Hunger drove me at last back to the market. I could not find the bread stall I’d patronized the day before. I staggered and limped through the stalls, looking for it, but finally my raging hunger forced me to approach another. A sour-faced woman was cooking pastries stuffed with some savoury filling on a griddle. A small metal pot held her cookfire. The pastries sizzled in a wide pan over the flames and she deftly flipped them with a pronged tool to brown each side.

  I offered her one coin and she shook her head. I wandered off behind a stall where I could extract another coin from my knotted shirt. For two coins, she put a pastry on a wide green leaf, folded the leaf around it, secured it with a sliver of wood and handed it to me. I bowed my thanks but she ignored that, already looking over my head for her next potential customer.

  I did not know if the leaf was meant to be eaten or was a napkin. I took a cautious nibble of the edge; it was not unpleasant. I reasoned that a vendor would not wrap food in something poisonous. I found a quiet place behind an unoccupied market stall and sat down to eat. The pastry was not large, just filling my hand, and I wanted to eat it slowly. The filling was crumbly and tasted a bit like wet sheep smelled. I didn’t care. But after my second bite, I became aware of a boy watching me from the gap between the walls of two stalls. I looked away from him, taking another bite, and when I glanced back, a smaller boy in a dirty striped shirt had joined him. Their hair and their feet and bare legs were dusty, their clothing unkempt. They had the eyes of small, hungry predators. I felt a moment of dizziness as I stared at them. It reminded me of when the beggar at Oaksbywater had held my hand. I saw events swirling, possibilities. I could not sort them, could not tell good from bad. All I knew for certain was that I must avoid them.

  As a donkey cart passed between us, I scooted around the corner of the stall and stuffed the rest of my pastry in my mouth, overfilling it but freeing my hands. I rose and tried to blend in with the passing folk.

  My clothing made me stand out so that I drew curious glances. I kept my eyes down and tried not to engage anyone’s attention. I glanced back several times but did not see the boys, yet I was convinced they were following me. If they robbed me of my two remaining coins, I would have nothing. I fought down the panic that thought brought. Don’t think like prey. A warning from Wolf Father or simply a thought of my own? I slowed my steps, found a place to crouch beside a refuse cart and watched the ebb and flow of people.

  There were others like me in the market, and those young beggars were more skilled at this trade. Three youngsters, two girls and a boy, lingered at a fruit vendor’s stall despite his efforts to shoo them away. Suddenly all three darted in, each seizing a prize and then scattered while the seller shouted and cursed and sent his son chasing after one of them.

  I saw, too, some sort of city guards. Their orange robes were cut short, to their knees, and they wore canvas trousers, light
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