Assassins fate, p.21
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       Assassin's Fate, p.21

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

  ‘Will you still want tea?’ Spark asked them, for the kettle had begun to steam.

  ‘Most likely. I think it’s pretty cold out there, with the wind and all.’

  And again the wind slammed the door as they left. ‘What an odd little family we’ve become,’ Amber observed as Spark took down a lovely sea-green pot for the tea. She smiled and added, ‘No tea for me. I’m content with the coffee. It’s been years since I’ve had good coffee.’

  ‘If this is “good” coffee, I dread what bad coffee might be,’ I told her. I did as I’d seen Alise do, dumping my unwanted cupful back into the big black pot on the stove. I waited for the tea to brew.

  We settled easily into life aboard ship and found a new rhythm to our days. The crew was happy to take Perseverance in and give him small tasks. When our lad was not learning his knots from Bellin, a large and near-silent woman who could manage a deck-pole as well as any man, he was put to polishing, sanding, oiling and cleaning. He took to it as a duck to water, and told me one afternoon that if he were not sworn to me, he could be happy as a ship’s boy. I felt a twinge of jealousy, but also relief to see him busy and happy.

  Motley had joined us as soon as Tarman cast off from Kelsingra. The crow got over her wariness quickly and shocked all of us by preferring a perch on the bow rail. The first time she squawked ‘Tarman! Tarman!’ she won the heart of the crew and made Perseverance beam with pride.

  She became a cheery presence on the boat if the weather was blustery. She happily rode on Per as he went about his tasks, but whenever Lady Amber emerged onto the deck, Motley transferred to her. The crow had learned to chuckle, and had an uncanny ability to laugh at just the right moment. Her gift for mimicry had become suspiciously good, but whenever I reached toward her with the Wit I found only the bland fog of a creature that was proudly uninterested in forming a bond. ‘How much do you understand?’ I demanded of her one afternoon. She cocked her head at me, met my gaze and demanded, ‘How much do YOU understand?’ With a chuckle, she took flight down river ahead of Tarman.

  Travel aboard a vessel is either boring or terrifying. On Tarman, I was glad to be bored. The farther away from the city, the less the Skill-current pressed on my walls. Each night the tillerman steered us into moorage along the riverbank. Sometimes there was a beach and we could disembark, but often we were nudged up against a bank of trees with serpentine roots. On the third day, the river narrowed and deepened, and the current became much stronger. The forest closed in and there was no true horizon. The banks of the river were solid walls of trees with stilt roots and we moored to them at night. It began to rain, and didn’t stop. Motley moved into the galley. I moved between our cramped cabin and the ship’s steamy galley. My clothing and bedding was always slightly damp.

  I tried to pass my time constructively. Amber suggested I learn Mersen, the old language of Clerres. ‘Most people will speak Common to you, but it’s useful to know what they say to one another when they think you can’t understand them.’ To my surprise, my companions joined in. In the long wet days, all of us would hunch on the cramped bunks, while Amber would drill us in vocabulary and grammar. I had always been adept at learning languages but Perseverance outshone me. Lant and Spark struggled, but we pressed on. I put Lant to helping Perseverance with his letters and numbers. Neither of them relished those tasks, but they made progress.

  In the evenings after we were moored, Lant, Spark and Perseverance would join the crew in games that involved dice, cards, and some little carved rods. Imaginary fortunes changed hands often across the table.

  While they gamed, Amber and I convened in her cabin. I valiantly ignored the small smiles that both Leftrin and Alise would exchange when I rejoined the company. I wished I could find humour in them, but in truth I felt as if I tormented the Fool during our private sessions. He wanted to help but the viciousness he had endured at Clerres made it hard for him to speak his memories in a coherent order. The scalding anecdotes I pried from him only made me reluctant to dig deeper. And yet I knew I must. I learned of the Four in bits and references. It was the best he could offer me.

  The only one of the Four I learned about in detail was Capra. Capra seemed to take pride in being the eldest of the Four. She had long silver hair and wore blue robes weighted with pearls. She appeared gentle, kind, and wise. She had been his mentor when he had first arrived at Clerres. In his early days there, he was invited daily to her tower room after he had completed his lessons. There they would sit together on the floor before her fire while he scribed his dreams onto thick soft paper that was as yellow as a daisy’s heart. They shared delicious little cakes, exotic fruits and cheeses. She taught him about wines with tiny sips from little gold-rimmed goblets and educated him on teas. Sometimes she invited tumblers and jugglers there, simply to entertain him, and when he wished to join in, she had them teach him their skills. She praised him and he blossomed in her care. When she spoke his name, Beloved, he believed she meant it. He spoke of an adolescence I envied. Pampered, praised, educated—any child’s dream. But we all awake from dreams.

  Most often I sat on the floor of our cabin and he claimed a lower bunk and stared sightlessly up as he spoke. Rain spattered on the small windows of the cabin. A single candle he could not see gave me a dim light appropriate to his dark tales. He was the Fool in those sessions, in a loose blouse with a spill of lace down his chest and plain black leggings, Amber’s gown a wilted flower on the cabin’s floor. His posture and garments were similar to when we had been youngsters, knees drawn up to his chin, one bared hand and one gloved hand clasped around his knees. His unseeing eyes stared at a distant time.

  ‘I studied hard to please her. She gave me dreams to read and listened to my earnest interpretation. I was sitting before her fire when I first read of the Unexpected Son in an old and crumbling scroll. It spoke to me as no other had. I literally began to tremble. My voice shook as I told her of a childhood dream. My dream and the old one fitted together like interlaced fingers. I spoke true to her, saying I’d be sorry to leave her but I was the White Prophet for this time. I knew that I needed to be out in the world, preparing for the changes I must make. A fool I was indeed, fearing I would hurt her by leaving.’

  The Fool made a small sound. ‘She listened to me. Then she shook her head sadly and gently said, “You are mistaken. The White Prophet for this time has already manifested. We have trained her, and soon she will begin her tasks. Beloved, every young White wishes to be the White Prophet. Every student at Clerres has made that claim. Do not be sad. There are other tasks for you, to do humbly and well to aid the true White Prophet.”

  ‘I could not believe what I was hearing. My ears rang and my vision swam to hear her deny me. But she was so wise and kind and old, I knew she must be right. I tried to accept that I was wrong, but my dreams would not let me. From the time she denied me, my dreams came on like a storm, two and three a night. I knew as I wrote them down that she would be displeased, but I could not hold them back. She took each one and showed me how it did not apply to me, but to another.’

  He shook his head slowly. ‘Fitz, I cannot explain my distress. It was … like looking through badly-made glass. Eating rotten meat. There was a foulness to her words that made me feel physically ill. They rang wrong in my ears. But she was my mentor. She treated me so lovingly. How could she not be right?’

  He asked that question so earnestly. His hands, gloved and bared, kneaded each other. He looked away from me, as if I could read anything in his shuttered eyes. ‘One day, she took me up the steps to the top tower room. Fitz, it was huge, bigger than the Queen’s Garden at Buckkeep Castle. And it was littered with treasures. Amazing things, objects that were lovely beyond imagining scattered like discarded toys. There was a staff that gleamed with light all along its length, and a marvellous throne made from tiny interlocking flowers of jade. Some, I know now, were of Elderling make. Wind chimes that sang, a statue of a pot with a plant that grew from it, flowered, faded back into the s
oil and then grew again. I gazed in wonder, but she told me crisply that they came from a faraway beach where such treasures washed up, and that the stewards of that place had bargained with her that all the sea gave them would be hers if she granted them a boon.

  ‘I wanted to know more of that story, but she took my hand and drew me to the window and bade me look down. I saw a young woman below in a walled garden full of flowers and vines and fruit trees. She was White as I was White. I had met others at Clerres who were almost as colourless as I was. Almost. They had all been born there, and they all seemed to be related, sister to brother, cousin and uncle. But none of them were White as I was White. Not until I saw her.

  ‘Another woman was there, with red hair and a great sword. She was teaching the pale woman how to wield it as a serving maid watched and cried encouragement. The White woman danced with that sword, and her hair floated as she moved so beautifully. Then Capra said, “There she is. The true White Prophet. Her training is almost complete. You have seen her. Let us have no more of foolishness.”’ He shuddered. ‘That was the first time I saw the Pale Woman.’ He fell silent.

  ‘You have told me enough for tonight.’

  He shook his head, his mouth pursed tight shut. He lifted his hands and rubbed his face hard, and for a moment the faded scars stood out against his skin. ‘So I didn’t speak of my destiny again,’ he said harshly. ‘I wrote down my dreams but I no longer tried to interpret them. She took them from me and set them aside. Unread, I believed.’ He shook his head. ‘I have no idea how much knowledge I handed over to her. By day, I studied and I tried to be content. I had a lovely life, Fitz. All that I could ask for. Good food, attentive servants, music and amusements in the evening. I was useful, I thought, for Capra put me to sorting old scrolls. It was a clerk’s work but I was good at it.’ He kneaded his scarred hands together. ‘In the way of my kind, I was still a child. I wanted to please. I missed being loved. So I tried.

  ‘But of course, I failed. In my clerk’s work, I encountered writings about the Unexpected Son. I had a dream, of a jester singing a silly song about “fat suffices”. He sang it to a wolf cub, Fitz. The cub had sprouting antlers.’ He gave a muffled laugh, but the hair stood up on my arms. Had he truly seen me in a dream, so many years before we had even met? But it had not been me. It had only been a puzzle, to which I was, perhaps, the answer.

  ‘Oh, I do not like this tale I vomit out to you. I wish I had not begun telling it. So many things we have never spoken about. So many things that shame me less if I am the only one who knows them. But I will finish.’ He looked toward me, his sightless eyes swimming with tears. I slid across the floor and took his gloved hand in mine. His smile was a wavering thing. ‘I could not forever deny what I was. My anger and resentment grew. I wrote my dreams down, and I began to reference other dreams, some ancient, some recent. I built a fortress of evidence that Capra could not deny. I did not insist I was the White Prophet, but I began to ask her questions, and they were not innocent ones.’ He smiled slightly. ‘I know you could never guess it, Fitz, but I can be stubborn. I was determined to force her to admit who and what I was.’

  Again, he paused. I did not speak. This was like digging splinters out of an infected wound. He pulled his hand from mine and wrapped his arms around himself as if freezing.

  ‘I’d never been so much as slapped by my parents, Fitz. Not that I was a tractable and easy child. No. I am sure I was not. Yet they had corrected me patiently and I had come to expect that from adults. Never had they denied me information as to why a thing was so. Always they had listened to me, and when I taught them something new, they were always so proud of me! I thought I was so clever to ask Capra questions about my dreams and other dreams I had read. My questions would lead her to the inevitable answer that I was indeed, the White Prophet.

  ‘And so I began. A few questions on one day, a few more the next. But the day I asked Capra six questions in a row, all leading up to what she must admit about me, she held up her hand and said, “Not another question! I will tell you what your life is to be.” Not even thinking, being young as one is only once, I said, “But why?” And that was it. Without a word, she rose and pulled a bell-pull. A servant came, and she sent him for someone else, a name I did not know then. Kestor. A very large and muscular man. And he came and held me down with a foot on the back of my neck and let his leather strap fall wherever it would on my body. I screamed and begged but neither of them spoke a word. As abruptly as it began, my punishment was over. She dismissed Kestor, seated herself at her table and poured some tea. When I could, I crawled from her room. I remember my long trip down the stone stairs of her tower. The lash had fallen on the big muscles behind my knees, and curled around one of my ankles. The tip of it had etched into my belly more than once. It was agony to try to stand. I edged down on my hands and knees, trying not to pull on the welts, crept to my cottage and stayed there for two days. No one came. No one asked after me, or brought me water or food. I waited, thinking someone would come. No.’ He shook his head, old bafflement on his face. ‘Capra never summoned me again. She never spoke directly to me again.’ He sighed out a small breath.

  In the silence that followed, I asked, ‘What were you expected to learn from that?’

  His tears scattered as he shook his head. ‘I never knew. No one ever spoke of what she had done to me. When two days had passed I limped to the healer’s room and waited for the full day. Others came and went but he never summoned me. No one, not even the other students, asked what had happened to me. It was as if it had never occurred in their world, only mine. Eventually, I began to limp to my lessons and to meals. But my instructors had a new disdain for me, rebuked me for my missed lessons and punished me by withholding food. I was made to sit at a table and work on lessons while the others ate. It was on one of those days that I saw the Pale Woman again. She walked through the hall where we gathered for meals. All the other students looked at her with admiring eyes. She was garbed all in green and brown, like a hunter, and her white hair was braided back with golden thread. So beautiful. Her servant followed her. I think … looking back, I think her servant was Dwalia, the one who took Bee. One of the people who prepared our food hurried out and gave a hamper to Dwalia. Then the Pale Woman walked out of the hall, with her servant carrying the basket. As she passed me, she halted. She smiled at me, Fitz. Smiled as if we were friends. Then she said, “I am. And you are not.” Then she walked on. And everyone laughed. The twist to my mind and thoughts were worse than the welts all over my body.’

  He needed his silence for a time and I let him keep it. ‘So clever they are,’ he said at last. ‘The pain they gave my body was only a gateway to what they could do to my mind. Capra must die, Fitz. The Four must die to end the corruption of the Whites.’

  I felt ill. ‘Her servant was Dwalia? The same Dwalia that stole Bee?’

  ‘So I think. I could be wrong.’

  A question I didn’t want to ask, an unwise question, found its way to my voice. ‘But after all that … all that, and all else you have told me … you went back with Prilkop?’

  He laughed bitterly. ‘Fitz, I was not myself. You had brought me back from the dead. Prilkop was strong and calm. He was so certain that he could restore Clerres to its proper service. He came from a time when the word of a White Prophet was a command to the Servants. He was so certain of what we should do. And I had no idea what to do with this unexpected life.’

  ‘I recall a similar time in my life. Burrich made all our decisions.’

  ‘Then you understand. I couldn’t think about anything. I just followed what he said we were going to do.’ He clenched his teeth and then said, ‘And now I go back for a third time. And more than anything, I fear that I will fall into their power again.’ He took a sudden gulping breath. But even so, he could not seem to catch his breath. He began gasping like a spent runner. He could barely get his words out. ‘Nothing could be worse than that. Nothing.’ Hugging himself, he rocked back and
forth on the bunk. ‘But … I … must … go back … I must …’ He snapped his head back and forth wildly. ‘Need to see!’ he cried out suddenly. ‘Fitz! Where are you!’ His gasping was ever faster. ‘Can’t … feel. My hands!’

  I knelt beside the bed and put an arm around him. He yelped and struggled wildly, striking out at me

  ‘It’s me, you’re safe. You’re here. Breathe, Fool. Breathe.’ I refused to let go. I was not rough but I held him firmly. ‘Breathe.’

  ‘I … can’t!’

  ‘Breathe. Or you’ll faint. But you can do that. I’m here. You are safe.’

  Suddenly he went limp and stopped fighting me and, very gradually, his breathing slowed. When he pushed me away, I let him. He folded himself tight and hugged his knees. When he finally spoke, he was ashamed. ‘I never wanted you to know how much I feared to do this. Fitz, I’m a coward. I’d rather die than let them take me.’

  ‘You don’t have to go back. I can do this.’

  ‘I do have to go back!’ He was instantly furious with me. ‘I must!’

  I spoke quietly. ‘Then you will.’ With great reluctance, I added, ‘I could give you something to carry with you. A quick end if you thought you would … prefer that.’

  His gaze wandered over my face as if he could see me. He said quietly, ‘You’d do it, but you’d not approve. Nor have such a resource for yourself.’

  I nodded then spoke. ‘That’s true.’


  ‘Something I overheard a long time ago. It didn’t make sense when I was younger, but the older I get, the wiser it seems. Prince Regal was speaking to Verity.’

  ‘And you put weight on something Regal said? Regal wanted you dead. From the moment he knew of your existence, he wanted you dead.’

  ‘True. But he was quoting what King Shrewd said to him, probably the king’s response when Regal suggested that killing me was the easiest solution. My grandfather told him, “Never do a thing until you’ve considered what you can’t do once you’ve done it.”’

  A slow, fond smile claimed his face. ‘Ah. That does sound like something my king would have said.’ His smile widened, and I sensed a secret he would not share.

  ‘Killing myself would put an end to all other possibilities. And more than once in my life, when I thought death was my only escape, or that it was inevitable and I should surrender to it, I’ve been proven wrong. And each time, despite whatever fire I had to pass through, I found good in my life afterwards.’

  ‘Even now? With Molly and Bee dead?’

  It felt disloyal but I said it. ‘Even now. Even when I feel like most of me is dead, life breaks through sometimes. Food tastes good. Or something Per says makes me laugh. A hot cup of tea when I’m cold and wet. I’ve thought of ending my life, Fool. I admit it. But always, no matter the damage to it, the body tries to go on. And if it manages to, then the mind follows it. Eventually, no matter how I try to deny it, there are bits of my life that are still sweet. A conversation with an old friend. Things I am still glad to have.’

  He groped for me with his gloved hand and I offered mine. He shifted his grip to a warrior’s clasp, wrist to wrist. I returned the pressure. ‘It’s true for me as well. And you are right. I would never have thought to admit it, even to myself.’ He released my wrist and leaned back, then added, ‘But still, I would take your escape, if you will prepare it for me. Because if they do manage to take me, then I cannot …’ His voice had begun to shake.

  ‘I can prepare something for you. Something you could carry tucked in the cuff of your shirt.’

  ‘That would be good. Thank you.’

  Of such cheerful discourse were my evenings made.

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