Assassins fate, p.16
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       Assassin's Fate, p.16

         Part #3 of The Fitz and The Fool Trilogy series by Robin Hobb
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  leather tunics and low boots. They carried short, knobbed staffs and wore sheathed swords as they strode past in groups of four. Merchants offered them skewers of meat and rolls of bread and chunks of fish on flatbread as they passed. I wondered if gratitude or fear prompted such generosity, and slipped away from their view as quickly as I could.

  I made my way eventually to the docks. It was a noisy, busy place. Men were pushing handcarts, teams of horses pulled laden wagons, with some going to the ships and others coming from them. The smells were overwhelming; tar and rotting seaweed predominated. I hung back, watching and wondering how to tell where a ship was going. I had no desire to be carried even farther from the Six Duchies. I watched wide-eyed as an apparatus I could not name lifted a net that held several large wooden crates and swung them from the dock to a ship’s deck. I saw a young man receive three sharp cracks from a stick across his bared back even as he was guiding such a swinging cargo down to a deck. I could not tell what he had done wrong or why he had been struck and shrank back, imagining such blows falling on me.

  I saw no one as small as me working on the docks, though I guessed that several of the boys I saw were my age. They worked shirtless, darting barefoot on the splintery docks, on apparently urgent missions that demanded they run. One boy had an oozing welt down his back. A cart-driver shouted at me to get out of his way and another man did not bother, shoving me aside, shoulders laden with two heavy coils of rope.

  Daunted, I fled through the market and then up the hill toward the ruins.

  As I left the market, a young man in a lovely robe decorated with rosettes of yellow called to me with a smile. He beckoned me closer, and when I halted at a safe distance, wondering what he wanted of me, he crouched down to my height. He cocked his head and said something softly, persuasive words that I did not understand. He looked kind. His hair was more yellow than mine and cut so that it barely reached his jaw. His earrings were green jade. A man of a good family and wealth, I guessed. ‘I don’t understand,’ I replied hesitantly in Common.

  His blue eyes narrowed in surprise, and then his smile widened. In a heavy accent, he said, ‘Pretty new robe. Come. Give you food.’ He eased a step closer to me and I could smell his perfumed hair. He held out his hand, palm upturned and waited for me to take it.

  Run! Run now!

  Wolf Father’s urgency brooked no hesitation. I gave the smiling man a final glance, a shake of my head and I darted away. I heard him call after me and I wondered why I ran, but run I did. He called after me again but I did not look back. Do not go straight to your den. Hide and look back, Wolf Father cautioned me, and so I did, but saw no one. Later that night, curled under my sheltering tree, I wondered why I had fled.

  Eyes of a predator, Wolf Father told me.

  What should I do tomorrow? I asked him.

  I don’t know, was his woeful response.

  I dreamed of home that night, of toasted bread and hot tea in the kitchen. In my dream, I was too small to reach the top of the table and I could not right the overturned bench. I called to Caution to help me, but when I turned to look for her she was lying on the floor with blood all over her. I ran from the kitchen screaming but everywhere folk were dead on the floor. I opened doors to try to hide, but behind each door were the two beggar boys, and beyond them Dwalia stood, laughing. I awoke sobbing in the middle of the night. To my terror, I heard voices, one calling questioningly. I muffled my sobs and tried to breathe silently. I saw a dim light and a lantern passed by in the street outside my broken garden. Two people spoke to one another in Chalcedean. I stayed hidden and wakeful until morning.

  The morning was half gone before I found the courage to return to the market. I found the bread stall I’d visited the first day, but the young man had been replaced by a woman and when I showed her my two coins, she gestured me away in disgust. I held them both up again, thinking she had seen only the one, but she hissed a rebuke at me and slapped her hands together threateningly. I retreated, resolved to find food elsewhere, but in that instant I was knocked down by one of the two boys I’d seen the day before. In a flash, the other boy snatched my coins and they both darted away into the market throng. I sat up in the dust, the wind knocked out of me. Then, to my shame, sobs shook me and I sat in the dirt and covered my eyes and wept.

  No one cared. The flow of the market went around me as if I were a stone in the current. For a time after my sobbing left me, I sat forlorn. I was so terribly hungry. My shoulder ached, the relentless sun shone on my aching head and I had no plans left. How could I imagine getting home when I could not think how to get through the day?

  A man guiding a donkey-cart through the market tapped me with his quirt. It was a warning, not a strike, and I quickly scrabbled out of his way. I watched him pass, and smeared dust and tears from my face onto my sleeve and looked around the market. The hunger that assailed me now seemed the product of weeks rather than just a day. While I’d had the prospect each day of something to eat, however small, I’d been able to master it. But now it commanded me. I squared my shoulders, wiped my eyes once more and then walked deliberately away from the bread stall.

  I moved slowly through the market, studying each stall and vendor. My moral dilemma lasted as long as it took for me to swallow the saliva the smells of the foods triggered. Yesterday, I’d seen how it was done. I had no one to create a diversion for me, and if anyone decided to pursue me, I would be the only rabbit to be run down. My hunger seemed to speed my thought processes. I’d have to choose a stall and a target and an escape route. Then I’d have to wait and hope that something would distract the merchant. I was small and I was fast. I could do this. I had to do this. Hunger such as I felt now could not be borne.

  I prowled the market, intent on my theft. Nothing small. I did not want to take this chance for a bit of fruit. I needed meat or a loaf of bread, or a side of smoked fish. I tried to look without appearing to look, but a small boy lifted a switch threateningly at me when I stared too long at his mother’s slabs of red salted fish.

  I finally found what I sought: a baker’s stall, bigger and grander than any other I’d seen. Loaves of rich brown and golden yellow were mounded in baskets on the ground in front of his stall. On the plank before him were the more expensive wares, bread twisted with spices and honey, rich cakes studded with nuts. I’d settle for one of the golden yellow pillows. The stall next to him sold scarves that billowed in the breeze off the sea. Several women were clustered there, their bargaining focused and intense. Across the milling market street, a tinker sold knives. His partner sharpened blades of all sorts on a spinning whetstone powered by a sweating apprentice. The grinding made a shrill sound and sometimes it spat sparks. I found a backwater of the customer stream and pretended a great fascination with the spinning stone. I let my mouth hang a trifle ajar as if I did not have all my mind. I was sure that with such an expression and my ragged clothes, folk would pay little attention to me. But all the while, I waited for anything in the market that might make the bread vendor look away from his wares and give me a chance to steal my target.

  As if in answer to my thoughts, I heard distant horns. All glanced in that direction and then went back to their business. The next blast of the horn was closer. People turned again, nudging one another, and finally we saw four white horses, decked out in fine harness of black and orange. The guards who rode the horses were just as richly attired, their helms as plumed as their horses’ headstalls. They rode toward us, and the clusters of buyers pushed against the stands to get out of their way. As the riders again lifted their horns to their mouths, I saw my chance. All were watching them as I darted in, seized a round golden loaf and then darted back the way the horsemen had come.

  So intent had I been on my theft that I had not perceived that behind the horsemen, the market street had remained empty, and that the folk who lined the street had dropped to their knees. I ran, skittering out into the empty street as the bread-merchant shouted. When I tried to dart back int
o the kneeling crowd to lose myself among them, people grabbed at me, shouting. Another set of guards was coming on foot, marching in a row of six, with two more rows behind them, and behind them came a woman on a black horse with harness of gold.

  The kneeling folk were packed as solidly as a wall. I tried to push into them. A man grabbed me with hard hands and pushed me down in the dirt. He growled at me, a command I did not understand. I struggled to rise and he slapped me sharply on the back of my head. I saw stars and went slack. An instant later, I realized that everyone around me was frozen into stillness. Had he bid me be still? I lay as he had pushed me. The loaf I had stolen was clutched to my chest and chin. The smell of it was dizzying. I did not think. I tucked my head and opened my mouth and bit into it. I lay on my belly in the dusty street and gnawed at the loaf like a mouse as first the ranks of guards and then the woman on her black horse and then another four ranks of guards passed. No one moved until a second rank of horsemen came. At intervals, they halted and rang brass chimes. Only after they had passed did the nearby merchants and buyers rise to their feet and resume their lives.

  I waited, chewing busily into my bread, and the moment the chimes rang, I bucked to my feet and tried to run. But the man who had held me down snatched the back of my jerkin and gripped my hair. He shook me and shouted something. The bread-merchant came dashing over, snatched the bread out of my hand and cried out to find it dirty and chewed. I cringed, thinking he would hit me, but instead he began to shout, one word, over and over. He threw the bread down in anger and how I longed to snatch it up again, but my captor held me fast.

  The city guard. That was who he was shouting for, and two came on the run. One smirked and looked at me almost kindly, as if he could not believe he had been summoned for such a small thief. But the other was a business-like fellow who seized me by the back of my tunic and all but lifted me off my feet. He began to ask me questions and the breadman began to shout his side of the story. I shook my head and then gestured at my mouth, trying to convey that I could not speak. I think it was going well until the kind guardsman leaned close to his fellow and then suddenly gave me such a pinch that I squeaked.

  Then it was all over. I was shaken and when the guardsman who held me lifted his hand to slap me, I burst out in Common, ‘I was hungry so I stole. What else was I to do? I am so hungry!’ Then, shaming myself, I burst into tears, and pointed at the bread and strained toward it. The man who had caught me first stooped and picked it up and put it into my hands. The breadman attempted to slap it away from me, but the guardsman who still held me swung me out of his reach. Then, to complete my humiliation, he picked me up and perched me on his hip as if I were a much younger child and strode off through the market.

  I gripped the bread in both hands. I could not control my tears or my sobs, but that did not stop me from eating the bread as fast as I could get it down. I had no idea what might happen to me next but decided that one thing I would be sure of; I would fill my belly with the bread that had got me into so much trouble.

  I was still clutching the last of the crust when my carrier strode up three steps to the door of an unremarkable stone building. He pushed open the door, carried me inside and then swung me to the floor as his partner followed.

  An older man in a fancier livery looked up from a table as we came in. His noon meal was spread out before him and he looked rather annoyed to be interrupted. They spoke about me over my head as I looked around the room. There was a bench down one plain wall. A woman sat on it. Her feet were chained together. At the other end of the bench, a man sat hunched with his face in his hands. He glanced up at me, and his mouth was all blood and one eye was swollen shut. He put his face back in his hands.

  The guard who had carried me seized me by the shoulder and shook me. I looked up at him. He spoke to me. I shook my head. The man behind the desk spoke to me. I shook my head again. Then, in Common, he asked me, ‘Who are you? Are you lost, child?’

  At the simple question, I burst into tears again. He looked mildly alarmed. He made shooing motions at the two guards and they left. As the one went out the door, he looked back at me, almost as if he were concerned for me. But the man at the table was talking again.

  ‘Tell me your name. Your parents could pay for what you took and take you home.’

  Was that even possible? I drew a breath. ‘My name is Bee Farseer. I’m from the Six Duchies. I was stolen from there and I need to go home.’ I took a breath and made a wild promise, ‘My father will pay money to get me back.’

  ‘I’ve no doubt that he will.’ The man leaned one elbow on his desk, right next to a little round cheese. I stared at it. He cleared his throat. ‘How did you come to be running about on the streets of Chalced, Beefarseer?’

  He made my name one word. I didn’t correct him. It didn’t matter. If he would listen to me and send word to my father, I knew he would pay money to get me back. Or Nettle would. Surely she would. And so I told him my story, doing my best to leave out the unbelievable parts. I told him of Chalcedeans raiding my home, and how I’d been carried off. I didn’t explain how I’d come to Chalced, only that I’d slipped away from Kerf and his companions because they had been cruel to me. And now I was here and I only wanted to go home, and if he would send word to my father, I was sure someone would come and bring money and take me home.

  He looked a bit puzzled by my stew of a story, but nodded gravely at the end. ‘Well. I understand now, perhaps better than you do.’ He rang a bell on the corner of his desk. A door opened and a sleepy looking guardsman came in. He was very young and looked bored. ‘Runaway slave. Property of someone named Kerf. Take her to the end cell. If no one claims her in three days, take her to the auction. Price of a loaf of pollen bread is owed to Serchin the Baker. Make a note that this Kerf must either pay for it, or the price come out of whatever she fetches at auction.’

  ‘I’m not a slave!’ I protested. ‘Kerf does not own me! He helped steal me from my home!’

  The deskman looked at me tolerantly. ‘Spoil of war. Prize of battle. You are his, whatever he chooses to call you. He can keep you as slave or ransom you back. That will be up to this Kerf, if he comes to claim you.’ He settled himself back in his chair with a sigh and took a deep drink from his cup.

  My tears started again, despite how useless they were. The bored guard looked down on me. ‘Follow me,’ he said in clear Common, and when I turned and bolted for the door, he stepped forward, tripped me, and laughed. He picked me up by the back of my jerkin as if I were a sack and carried me through the same door he’d entered from, not caring at all how he thudded me against the frame. He kicked it shut behind us, tossed me to the floor and said, ‘You can follow me or I can kick you all the way down this hallway. It’s all one to me.’

  It was not all one to me. I stood, gave him a stiff nod, and then followed him. We went around a corner and down some stone steps. It was cooler down there, and dimmer. The only light came from some small windows at intervals in the wall. I followed him past several doors. He opened the last one and said, ‘Get in there.’ I hesitated and he gave me a shove and shut the door behind me.

  I heard it latch.

  The room was small but not terrible. Light came from a very small window. It was so small that even if I could reach it, I couldn’t have wriggled out. There was a woven straw mat in one corner. In the opposite corner, there was a hole in the floor. Stains and the smell told me what it was for. Next to the mat was an ewer. It had water in it. I sniffed it to be sure it was water. I dipped the hem of my shirt into it and wiped the stupid tears from my face. Then I went and sat down on the straw mat.

  I sat for a long time. Then I lay down. I might have slept a bit. I heard the latch work and stood up. A man opened the door carefully, looking all around and then down at me. He seemed surprised at how small I was. ‘Food,’ he said, and handed me a crockery bowl. I was so surprised I just stood there clutching it as he left, closing the door behind him. When he was gone, I looked down
in the bowl. It was grainy mush with a few pieces of an orange vegetable on top of it. I carried it back to my mat and ate it carefully with my fingers. Someone had put enough food for an adult in the bowl. It was the most food I’d had in a very long time. I tried to eat it very slowly, and to think what I should do next. When the food was gone, I drank some water and then wiped my fingers clean on my shirt hem. The light coming into my little room was getting dimmer. I wondered if anything else would happen, but it didn’t. When my cell was dark, I lay down on my mat and closed my eyes. I thought of my father. I imagined what he would have done to the guards. Or Dwalia. I imagined him throttling her and clenched my own fists and panted at how satisfying that would be. He would teach them. He would kill them all for me. But my father was not here. He could not know where I was. No one was coming to save me. I cried for a time, and then slept, clutching my mother’s candle.

  When I woke, there was a small square of light on the floor of my little room. I used the hole in the floor, and drank some more water. I waited. Nothing happened. After what seemed like a long time, I shouted and pounded on the door. Nothing happened. When I couldn’t shout or pound any more, I sat on my mat. I reached for Wolf Father and could not find him. It was a very bad moment. I decided he had always been something I pretended. And now I was too old and the world was too real for me to pretend anything any more. When I need you, you are gone. Just like everyone else.

  When you block me out, I cannot make you hear me.

  I blocked you out?

  When you close your thoughts. So, here we are, in a cage again. At least your captors are kind. For now.

  For now?

  You will be sold.

  I know. What should I do?

  For now? Eat. Sleep. Let your body heal. When they take you out of here to sell, be very aware of me. We may yet escape.

  His words gave me very little hope, but before I’d had no hope at all. I cried until I slept that night.

  When I woke the next morning, I felt better than I had in many days. I inspected the bruises on my legs and arms. They were yellow and pale green, fading from black and deep blue. My belly hurt less and I could move my arm in a full circle. I combed my growing hair with my fingers, and then chewed my fingernails shorter. Another guard brought me a bowl of food and filled my water ewer. He took the empty bowl away. He didn’t speak to me. It was another big bowl of food. This time the mush had some stringy strands of greens cooked into it, and there was a lump of yellow vegetable on top of it. I ate it all then watched the square of light move across my floor and up the wall until it was gone. Night again. I cried again and slept again. I dreamed that my father was angry because I had not put my inks away. I woke up while it was still dark, knowing that something like that had never happened but wishing it could. I fell back to sleep and dreamed an important Dream about a swimming dragon who captured my father. I woke to the square of light and wished I could write the dream down but there was nothing I could write on and no ink or pen. I spent the afternoon devising a way to tie my folded candle into the hem of my underblouse so it would not be lost.

  That day passed. Another bowl of food. Would they auction me soon? How did they count the three days? Did they start the day they caught me, or the day after? I wondered who would buy me and what sort of work I’d have to do. Would I be able to convince them to send word to my father? Perhaps I’d be sold as a house slave and could convince the buyers to ransom me? I’d heard of slaves but had no idea how they were treated. Would they beat me? Keep me in a kennel? I was still wondering those things when I heard the latch to my door rattle. A guard opened it, and then stepped back.

  ‘This one?’ he asked someone, and Kerf stuck his head around the door. He stared at me dully.

  I almost felt glad to see him. Then I heard Dwalia’s voice. ‘That’s the little wretch! What a trouble she has been.’

  ‘She?’ The guard was surprised. ‘We thought it was a boy.’

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