Assassins fate, p.32
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       Assassin's Fate, p.32

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

  into the galley after the breakfast mob had left. Her unfinished meal was before her. I fought not to stare at it, but I had memorized it. The crusty edge of her bread with traces of butter on it, and a smear of grease on the plate that I longed to catch on the bread or even on the side of my finger. A scraping of porridge in her bowl. I swallowed.

  ‘And from whom would I be buying you?’

  ‘No one. I offer myself to you.’

  She looked at me silently for a moment. ‘You are selling yourself to me. Really? Where are your parents? Or your master?’

  I had prepared my lie as carefully as I could. I’d had three hungry, cold and thirsty days to compose it. Three days of skulking about in the ship, trying to stay out of everyone’s sight while still finding food, water, and a place to relieve myself. It was a large ship but everywhere I had found to hide in had been cold and damp. Curled small and shivering for most hours of the day, I’d had plenty of time to plot my strategy. It was a poor one. Sell myself as a slave to someone who would value the small skills I had. Get off the ship and away from Dwalia. Eventually, find a way to send a message to my father or sister. A good plan, I’d told myself. And then wondered why I didn’t also plan to build a castle or perhaps conquer Chalced. Both of those goals seemed as attainable. I spoke my carefully rehearsed lie.

  ‘My mother brought me to Chalced and the home of her new husband. He and his older children treat me horribly. So, as we walked in the market, one of his boys began to tease and then chase me. I hid on board this ship. And here I am now, being carried far away from my old home and my mother. I have tried to fend for myself and done poorly at it.’

  She took a slow sip of her tea. I could smell it so clearly. It had honey in it, probably fireweed honey. It was hot and steamy and delightful. Why had I never cherished that hot morning cup of tea as it deserved? That thought brought back a rush of memories. Cook Nutmeg in the kitchen, the bustle all around me as I sat on or at the board with simple foods. Bacon. Ah, bacon. Bread toasted with butter melting on it. Tears stung my eyes. That would not do. I swallowed and stood straighter.

  ‘Eat it,’ she said suddenly, and thrust her plate toward me.

  I stared at it, unable to breathe. Was it a trick? But I had learned in Chalced to eat food whenever I had the chance, even face down in the street. I tried to remember my manners. She must think me a valuable asset to acquire, not a mannerless brat. I seated myself and carefully picked up the bread crust. I took a small bite and chewed carefully. She watched me. ‘You have self-control,’ she observed. ‘And your tale was not a bad one, even though I doubt every word of it. I haven’t noticed you about the ship before today. And you do smell as if you’ve been in hiding. So. If I take you as my property, will there be someone raising a storm and calling me a thief? Or a kidnapper?’

  ‘No, my lady.’ That was my hardest lie. I had no idea what Dwalia might do or say. I’d bitten her badly, and I hoped she would be holed up in her cabin, nursing that injury. Kerf would only demand my return if Vindeliar puppeteered him into doing so. I did not think that likely, but my best defence would be to keep myself out of their sight as much as possible. I finished the bread in two more slow bites. I longed to lick the plate and scoop up the porridge with my finger. Instead I carefully folded my hands in my lap and sat quietly.

  She tipped the porridge pot in the centre of the table toward her and with a big wooden serving spoon scraped the hardened bits from the sides and bottom into her dish. They were edged with brown where they had scorched. She pushed her bowl toward me and handed me the spoon she had used.

  ‘Oh, thank you, my lady!’ I could barely breathe but I forced myself to take small bites and sit with my back straight.

  ‘I am not “your lady”. Nor am I Chalcedean by birth, though I’ve found I do my best trading there. I grew up near Bingtown, but not of Trader stock, and hence it was hard for me to establish myself there. And when they eliminated the slave trade, my business there became more difficult. I am not the slave trader you think me. I find valuable and rare goods. I buy them, and I sell them at a profit. I do not always take the fast profit; sometimes my game is to wait for the large profit. Sometimes the valuable item is a slave with undervalued talents. Such as the scribe you saw me placing. Seen as aged and infirm in one market, he is seen as experienced and widely learned in another. Stand up.’

  I obeyed immediately. She ran her eyes over me as if I were a cow for sale. ‘Dirty. A bit battered. But you stand straight, you’ve some manners and a forthright way. In the Chalcedean market, they would beat that out of you. I will take you where that’s a valued trait in a servant. As I doubt you’ve paid passage, you’ll finish this voyage in my chambers. Make any sort of a mess in there, and I’ll turn you over to the captain. I’ll see that you are fed. When we reach Cottersbay, I will sell you as a child’s maid to a family I know there. That means you will have the care of their little boy. You will bathe him, dress him, help him with his meals, publicly defer to him, and privately teach him the same manners that you are showing me now. They are a well-to-do family and will probably treat you well.’

  ‘Yes, my lady. Thank you, my lady. I hope I will bring you a good price.’

  ‘You will, if I clean you up a bit. And you will prove your claims to me, about letters and drawing.’

  ‘Yes, my lady. I am eager to do so.’ Suddenly the prospect of being a small boy’s personal slave sounded as fine a thing as being the lost princess of Buckkeep. They might treat me well. I’d be fed and sleep indoors. I would be so good to their little boy. I’d be safe, even if I were no longer free.

  ‘I’m not your lady. I earned my way to what I am; I was not born into it. I am Trader Akriel. And your name is?’

  ‘Bee … uh!’ Should I tell her my real name?

  ‘Bea. Very well. Finish that porridge while I drink my tea.’

  This I did, not rapidly but with my best manners. I felt I could have eaten three more bowls of it, but resolved to give no sign of that as I carefully set my spoon neatly beside her bowl. I looked around the cluttered, sticky table and tried to think what the servants at Withywoods would have done. ‘Do you wish me to clear the table and wipe it clean, Trader Akriel?’

  She shook her head and gave me a bemused smile. ‘No. The ship’s cook-helpers can do that. Follow me.’

  She rose and I followed her. Her legs were neatly trousered in blue wool and she wore a short jacket a shade lighter than her trousers. All of her was immaculately groomed from her gleaming black boots to her braided and coiled brown hair. Her success was plain in her dangling earrings, rings and the jewelled comb in her hair. She walked with utter confidence and as we descended into the hold and then passed through the swinging hammocks and haze of smoke in the sleeping quarters, she reminded me of a sassy barn cat walking through a pack of dogs. She did not avoid meeting the gaze of the lesser merchants quartered there nor did she appear to hear any of the muttered comments as she passed. Her cabin was further forward in the ship and we went up a short flight of steps to it. She took out a key on a heavy fob and opened the locked door. ‘In,’ she told me, and I was happy to comply.

  I was astonished. This chamber had a tiny round window and the room was as big as the one I’d been sharing with my captors. Her trunk was open on the lower bunk and her garments were arranged as precisely as tools set out for a task. Having seen Shun’s wardrobe, this was astonishing to me. But it was also plain that she had planned for this voyage. There was a blue-and-white quilt with tasselled edges on the upper bunk, and a matching rug on the floor. The little oil lamp that swung from the rafter had a rosy tint to its cover. Several sachets of cedar and pine hung about the room, though they could not entirely banish the tarry smell of the ship. There was a small stand under the porthole, with a fenced top. A tin pitcher and washbasin were corralled there. A damp cloth was folded neatly beside it.

  ‘Touch nothing,’ she warned me as she closed the door. She stood for a moment, considering me
. Then she pointed at the washbasin. ‘Strip. Wash. Can you sew?’

  ‘A bit,’ I admitted. It had never been my favourite task, but my mother had insisted that I at least know how to hem and make basic embroidery stitches.

  ‘After you are clean, set your dirty clothes on the floor by the door.’ She went to her trunk and her fingers travelled down the folded and stacked garments. She pulled out a simple blue shirt. From a compartment, she took out scissors, thread and a needle. ‘Shorten the cuffs so this fits you. Cut a strip off the bottom and hem it. It should still be long enough to cover you decently. Take the bottom strip and make it into a belt. Then sit in that corner there until I return.’

  With that, she turned and went out the door. I heard her lock it behind her. I waited a short time and then tried the latch. Yes. I was locked in. The surge of relief I felt astonished me. I was a slave, locked in my mistress’s cabin, and I felt happy? Yes, for the first time since I’d been taken. Yet as I stripped, carefully setting my broken candle to one side, I found myself weeping. By the time I had turned my mistress’s used washwater into a greyish soup, I was sobbing. I hugged my dirty, torn, smelly jerkin goodbye. It was my last link to Withywoods. No. Not quite. I had my mother’s candle.

  I suddenly wanted nothing more than to curl up and sleep, even naked. But I made myself do as she had told me. The shirt was a good heavy one of wool tight woven and then washed and shrunk. It was a deep blue, and I wondered if that was her favourite colour. I hemmed it well, twice, to be sure it would not unravel, and did the same with the sash I made, turning the cut edges in to make all tidy. I hemmed the sleeves back and was clothed in something warm, soft and clean for the first time in months. From the cut cuff, I stitched a hasty pocket inside the front of the shirt. Regretfully, I folded my broken candle and hid it there. I folded the washcloth. Then, as my owner had bidden me, I sat down in the corner and soon fell fast asleep there.

  I awoke when she returned. The porthole was black. I stood up as soon as she entered. She surveyed me, up and down, and then looked around the room. ‘It’s done well enough. You should have put the sewing tools away. You should have been smart enough to do that without being told.’

  ‘Yes, Trader Akriel.’ I had assumed she would want me to obey her exact orders only and I had hesitated to open any part of her travelling trunk. Now I knew. ‘Do you wish me to dispose of the washwater as well?’

  ‘Set it outside the door with the empty pitcher. It is another’s duty. I will tell you yours.’ She sat down on the edge of the lower bunk and held out a foot toward me. ‘Draw off my boots and rub my feet first.’

  I was too well-born for that sort of work. Wasn’t I? Did I want to live and escape Dwalia? I did. I thought of my father. But for fate, he’d have been heir to the Six Duchies throne. But he’d been a stableboy and then an assassin. I might have been a princess. But now I was a slave. So be it.

  I crouched and drew off her boots, set them side by side and then rubbed her feet. I had never done such a task before but her small groans guided me. After a time, she said, ‘That’s enough. Set out the dirty water, and put my boots away. There are some soft shoes in the trunk. Find them.’

  So began the pattern of our days together. I saw that I never gave her cause to tell me to do a thing twice. She was a very reasonable mistress. She liked quiet. I avoided chatter, but did not fear to ask her simple questions relating to my duties.

  I stayed inside the cabin. When we reached port, she left me there, locked in, but made sure that I had food and water and I always had the use of her chamber pot. My porthole looked away from the town, so I saw nothing of it and no one witnessed me dumping the chamber pot out of it. We were in port for almost ten days, for the storm had done more damage than I had realized. Whenever I grew restless and wished to be out of the small chamber, I would imagine Dwalia’s consternation at how I had vanished. I hoped various things for her, that my bite might grow septic and kill her, that she might disembark from the ship and never return, that she might think I had fallen overboard and drowned and give me up as dead. I had no way of knowing if any of my wishes came true, so I remained in the cabin and made plans for my future.

  I would, I resolved, be kind to my new little master, regardless of how spoiled he might be. I would give my new owners no cause to mistreat me or distrust me. Eventually, I might share with them my true tale, and let them know that my father and my sister would be happy to buy me back from them, or even ransom me. Thus, some day, I would get home to my people. To Withywoods? I wondered if I even wanted to go back there and face all the people who had been injured on my behalf. So many folk dead.

  When such thoughts plagued me, I would often take out my mother’s candle and hold it close to my face and breathe its fragrance, telling myself that somehow my father had been there at the forest plaza. I could not understand how he might have reached there before us, or where he would have gone from there. But I held tight to the idea that this broken candle meant that he had come searching for me. That he missed me and would do what he could to bring me safely home.

  The days seeped past, one into the next. Sometimes Trader Akriel told me things. Some of the fabrics in her trading trunks had been spoiled during the storm when the water rose in the bilges and partially flooded the lower deck. She believed the owner of the ship should share her loss. He did not agree. She thought that was a poor decision on his part as this was the sixth time she had sailed with him, but if he did not reimburse her, it would be the last.

  She had been married once but her husband had been unfaithful so she had simply taken her share of the wealth they had made trading and walked away. She’d bought goods and booked a passage the day she discovered his treachery, and she’d never looked back. She’d been successful; he had not, or so she heard. She cared nothing for what had become of him. She’d always been the clever one in their business. It was hard to be a woman and a trader when she went to the Chalced markets; once she’d had to stab a man to teach him manners. She hadn’t killed him, but he had bled a great deal and when he had apologized, she had sent a runner for a healer. She’d never heard what became of him. Another man she had no interest in.

  When she returned to the ship before we sailed for the next port, she brought me two pairs of loose trousers, some flat shoes, and a softly-woven blue shirt in my size. That night, she gave me a piece of soap and told me to wash my hair, and then gave me her own comb to take out the tangles. I was surprised at how long my hair had grown. ‘The Chalcedean in you shows in all those yellow curls,’ she told me, and meant it as a compliment. I managed a nod and a smile in response.

  ‘Are you weary of confinement and idleness?’ she asked me.

  I phrased my reply carefully. ‘My weariness is far less than my gratitude for meals and shelter,’ I told her.

  She gave me a very small smile. ‘So. We shall test your tale of your skills. While ashore, I have obtained a book for you to read aloud from. And also, paper, pen, and inks. You shall demonstrate for me that you can manipulate numbers and execute illustrations.’

  And those things I did, to her satisfaction, and with my illustrations, even beyond. She had me first draw her shoe, and then copy exactly a flower that was embroidered on a scarf she had bought. She nodded over my work and mused, ‘Perhaps I shall get a better price for you as a scribe than I would as a child’s attendant.’

  And to that I bowed my head.

  So on we sailed, and for a time my world was very small indeed. There were stops at two other ports. I was certain that Dwalia and the others must have given me up and left the ship by now. I fervently hoped that after our second stop, Trader Akriel would begin to give me the freedom of the ship. But she did not and I did not ask for it. Instead, she showed me her book where she kept a tally of her trades. A bolt of fabric bought for this price and sold for that. There was a separate tally of what each journey cost her. She showed me the tally sheet for me. She had me add up the cost of my clothing, and of the paper,
the book, the inks and even the pen used to prove my claim to be useful. That was her investment, she explained. I had to be sold for at least twice that amount for her to be satisfied with her bargain. I looked at the number. There it was. That was what I was worth in this new part of my life. I took a deep breath and resolved to be worth more.

  There came a day when she told me to busy myself packing her trunk with her personal items, for it was expected that we would make port before nightfall, and here we would disembark. The port was called Sewelsby, for it was next to the Sewel River in Shale. I asked her no questions. I knew we were far off any map I had ever seen. She was pleased and humming to herself as I put things into her trunk, each in its designated place. She gave me a shoulder bag for my garments. As she carefully arranged her hair and chose her earrings, she told me that she had saved a tidy amount of money because our ship had evaded the tariff ships of the Pirate Isles. By this I surmised we were past the Pirate Isles, but I knew no more than that.

  We reached the harbour, and lowered sails, and little boats came out to take lines tossed from our ship. Slaves bent to the oars and pulled us into harbour. It was tediously slow but Trader Akriel had left me in the locked cabin so I had nothing to do but stand on tiptoe and watch out the porthole. When finally we reached the dock and were safely tied to it, she returned and bade me follow her. I felt strangely giddy to leave the cabin after such a long confinement.

  My legs were surprised to walk and then climb the ladder to the open deck. There was a fresh wind blowing and bright summer sunlight beating down on my bare head and glinting off the moving waves. Oh, the smells, of the water and the ship and the nearby town! There was chimney smoke and horses sweating in the sun and a stink of stale urine, as if people had lived on this piece of earth for far too long. ‘Follow me,’ Trader Akriel directed me brusquely. ‘I always stay at the same inn. My trunk will be taken there, and my trading goods to my warehouse. I have people I must meet with, and goods to arrange delivery for, so for now, you will stay by my side until I have determined how best to place you.’

  It pleased me that she said she would ‘place me’ rather than sell me. It was a small difference, but I told myself it meant that she wished to do well by me as well as make a solid profit. As she had paid nothing for me and invested little more than some garments and some paper, I hoped she would profit handsomely from her kindness toward me.

  She strode fearlessly through the busy cobbled streets. ‘Keep up!’ she warned me and without warning darted out into a busy street to thread her way among horse-drawn carts and riders going in both directions. I was breathless before we gained the other side of the street but she was undaunted. On she went at a pace that kept me trotting. My hair was soon stuck to my scalp with sweat and a tickling trickle of perspiration was making its way down my spine when she abruptly turned and went up three stone steps and through an arched wooden door. I caught it and it was so heavy it was all I could do to keep it from slamming shut behind us.

  This inn was certainly different to the only other inn I’d ever seen, the one in Oaksbywater. The floor was of a white stone with threads of sparkling gold in it. It was not warm and smelling of food as I had always supposed all inns were. Instead there was a spacious, calm room with comfortable chairs and little tables. It was cool in here after the streets outside, and the thick walls shut off the noise and smells of the street. I felt a gentle breeze perfumed with flowers. I lifted my face in surprise and saw an immense fan gently swaying back and forth and pushing the air to cool us. My gaze followed the line attached to it, down to a woman standing in the corner and rhythmically pulling the cord. I had never seen or imagined such a thing, and I stood gawking until Trader Akriel called to me to follow her.

  We were greeted by a man dressed all in white. He wore his hair in six braids, each tied with a bit of string in a different colour. His skin was the colour of old honey, and his hair a shade darker. ‘All is ready. I expected you as soon as the ship came into port.’ He smiled in the way of a merchant who is almost a friend.

  She counted coins into his hand and said it was good to see him again. He handed her a key. I forced myself not to stare and
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