Assassins fate, p.38
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       Assassin's Fate, p.38

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

  Vindeliar. No more ever, for it has become scarce since the nine-fingered slaveboy set the serpent free!’

  How strangely those words rang in me, like a memory of something I’d never experienced. A nine-fingered slaveboy. I could almost see him, dark-haired and slight, strong only in his will. His will to do what was right. ‘The serpent was in a stone pool.’ I breathed the words to myself. It had not been a dream of a snake in a bowl, no.

  ‘What did you say?’ Dwalia demanded sharply.

  ‘I am sick,’ I said, a repetition of words I’d said so often over the last few days. I closed my eyes and turned my face away. But with my eyes closed, I could not control the images that filled my mind. The slaveboy came to the stone pool; he wrestled with the iron bars that ringed it. Eventually, he made a path for the deformed serpent that crawled out of the pool and into water. Yes, into water, an incoming tide. How could I recall something I’d never seen? And yet the waves lapped up and into the pool, replenishing but not cleansing it. Both slave and serpent dissolved into whiteness. I saw no more.

  I opened my eyes to breaking dawn. We had slept on the streets, yet I no longer felt chilled. I ached, as one does after sleeping on hard earth or after a long sickness has kept one still. I sat up slowly, or tried to. Dwalia had rolled over onto the chain. I took it in both hands and jerked it out from under her. She opened her eyes to glare at me. I snarled back at her.

  She made a noise, a snort from her nose, as if to say she did not fear me. I resolved then that the next time she slept, I would give her reason to fear me again. My gaze travelled lovingly over the rancid bite I’d given her. Then I lowered my eyes lest she guess my plan.

  She got to her feet and kicked Vindeliar. ‘Up!’ she said. ‘Time to move on. Before someone wonders why they gave half their coins to a beggar yesterday.’

  I squatted and pissed in a gutter, wondering when I had lost all modesty and indeed all civilized ways. My mother would not have known me with my knotted hair and dust-stained skin and filthy nails. The tidy garments that Trader Akriel had given me could not withstand the sort of use I was giving them now. Tears welled in my eyes when I thought of her. I rubbed them away, doubtless smearing dirt down my face with them. Then I looked at my hands and the peeling of skin that clung to my fingers. I shook them clean and looked up to find Dwalia sneering with satisfaction.

  ‘The Path knows her even if she does not know the Path,’ she said to Vindeliar, who looked awestruck. Then she gave my chain a sharp tug and I was forced to go stumbling after her. My arms itched, and when I scratched them, my skin came away in thin layers that wadded like cobwebs at my touch. It was not a sunburn peeling. The layer that came off me was fine as gossamer, and beneath it my skin was not pink but paler. Chalky.

  At the waterfront, we dodged barrows and donkey carts and folk carrying bales on their shoulders. Dwalia guided us to a stretch of market stalls. At the smell of food my stomach leapt up inside my throat and choked me. I had not felt hunger for days, but now it assailed me mercilessly till I felt dizzy and shaky.

  Dwalia slowed, and I hoped she was as hungry as I was and had some coins for food. But instead she tugged me along to stand in a growing crowd clustered around a tall man with broad shoulders standing on a cart. He wore a high hat striped in many colours. His cloak had a collar that stood up to his ears, and it too was striped. I had never seen such garments. Behind the man in the cart was a wooden cabinet with row after row of little drawers, each drawer of a different colour, and each carved with an emblem. Over the man’s head, scarves and tiny bells hung from a framework of sticks. The wind off the water was a near constant, and so the bells tinkled and the scarves fluttered. Even the big grey horse that waited patiently in his traces had ribbons and bells in his mane. Never had I seen such a spectacle!

  For that moment, my hunger was forgotten. What wondrous things could such a merchant be selling? That seemed to be the question everyone was pondering. He spoke in a language I did not know, and then abruptly he shifted into Common. ‘A fortune for you, to guide your footsteps into a lucky path! Brought to you from a far-off place! Do you wince at a silver for such knowledge? Foolish you! Where else in this market can you part with a silver and receive wisdom and luck? Should you wed? Will your wife grow heavy with child? Should you plant for the roots or the leaves this year? Come, come, you need not wonder! Press a silver to your brow, and then pass it to me with your question. The coin will tell me which box to open! Come, come, who will try? Who will be first?’

  Dwalia made a sound in her throat like a cat’s growl. I glanced back at Vindeliar. His eyes were very wide. He saw my stare and spoke in a whisper. ‘He imitates the small prophets of Clerres, the ones sent out by the Four. It is forbidden to do what he is doing! He is a fraud!’

  Two people turned to stare at him. Vindeliar lowered his eyes and fell silent. The man on the cart was chattering on, in both languages, and suddenly a woman was waving a coin at him. When he nodded to her, she pressed the coin firmly to her forehead and then offered it to him. He smiled, took her silver, and pressed it to his brow. He asked her a question and she replied. Then, to the larger crowd in Common he announced, ‘She wishes to know if her mother and her sister will welcome her if she makes the long journey to visit them.’

  He pressed the coin once more to his brow and then held it out. His hand wavered and circled. It looked indeed as if the coin led his hand to the little door he selected. He opened it and from it he extracted a nut. That startled me. It was gold or painted with gilt. He struck it suddenly against his brow as if he were cracking an egg. Then he offered it to the woman. Hesitantly she took it and opened the nut. It had split as evenly as if sliced by a knife. Delighted, she opened it on her palm and drew out a thin strip of paper. It was white but edged in yellow, blue, red and green along its sides. She stared at it and then offered it back to him, asking him something.

  ‘Read it! Read it!’ the crowd echoed her request.

  He took it back from her. He had elegant hands, and he made quite a show of drawing the narrow coil of paper out and perusing the lines lettered there. His pause as his eyes moved over it prompted the crowd to edge closer. ‘Ah, good news for you, good news indeed! You asked for advice on a journey, and here it is for you! “Walk with the sunshine and enjoy the road. A well laid table and a clean bed awaits you at your destination. Your arrival fills a house with joy.” There! Pack your bag and be on your way! And now, who is next? Who will hear what fortune awaits you? Isn’t it worth a coin to know?’

  A young man waved a coin, the merchant took it, and again he put on a performance worthy of any puppeteer before he presented the fortune from the golden nut to the man. He received good tidings for the marriage offer he wished to present and stepped back from the cart, grinning. More coins were being waved now, some frantically. Dwalia watched, eyes narrowed, like a cat at a mouse hole, as the merchant accepted money and foretold fortunes. Not all were good. A man who asked about crops was instead warned that he should save his money and not make a purchase he had been considering. He looked dumbstruck and then told the crowd, ‘I came to market today to look for a plough-horse! But now I will wait.’

  A couple hoping for a pregnancy, a man thinking of selling his land, a woman who wanted to know if her father would recover from an injury … so many folk seeking to know what tomorrow would bring. Once or twice the merchant would take the coin, hold it to his brow, and then wave it about and frown. ‘It’s not leading me,’ he’d say. ‘I’ll need a larger piece of silver from you to find the answer to your question.’

  And to my astonishment, folk would give him a bigger coin. It was as if once they had started on the path, they could not turn aside. Some read their coiled messages aloud, others curled over the string of paper and read it privately. The fortune-merchant read them aloud for folk who were unlettered. Door after door of his little cabinet he opened. His audience did not grow smaller. Even those who had bought a fortune lingered to find out what
others might hear.

  Dwalia moved us to the edge of the crowd, but there she stopped and whispered to Vindeliar, ‘Control him.’

  ‘Him?’ Vindeliar did not whisper.

  I saw that she longed to cuff him but she restrained herself. Obviously, she did not wish to distract those watching the merchant.

  ‘Yes, him. The one selling fake fortunes.’ She spoke through gritted teeth.

  ‘Oh.’ Vindeliar studied the man. I could sense tendrils of his magic floating and feeling their way toward him. And I knew he couldn’t do it. The man was too strong of self to be captured by such feeble threads. I could sense the shape the fortune-merchant made in the world and to my surprise I could feel that he had a sort of magic shimmer to him. He did not reach out with his magic as Vindeliar did. Instead, his magic coated him just as his bright colours did, and like his colours, it invited folk to study him and draw near. I reached toward his magic and pushed on it gently. For a moment, he looked puzzled. I moved away. All he could do was draw people in; he probably didn’t even know he was using it.

  I looked back at Vindeliar, and found him regarding me strangely. I looked away and scratched my neck under the collar. I hadn’t intended to touch his magic; I’d done it without thinking. And somehow Vindeliar had sensed it and now his suspicions were stirred.

  The fortune-merchant was waving a coin, letting it guide his hand to a little door with a bird on it. I pretended vast interest in his show.

  ‘I can’t do it,’ Vindeliar said to Dwalia. His face crumpled before she even glared at him. ‘There is no way into him.’

  ‘Make a way.’

  ‘I can’t.’ He drew the word out long and slow.

  She seethed silently for a moment, then seized the shoulder of his shirt and pulled him close, so close I thought she intended to bite him. In a venomous whisper she said, ‘I know what you want. I know what you long for. But listen to me, you pathetic unformed thing, neither human nor White! I have but one dose left of the potion. ONE! If we use it now, we will not have it later when perhaps it will be essential that you have strength. So, find a way into him. And do it now, or I will kill you. It is that simple. If you cannot do your work, you are useless. I will leave you behind to rot.’ She pushed him away from her.

  I watched Vindeliar’s face as each word struck him and sank in like a separate arrow. He believed her with absolute certainty. And so did I. If he failed her today, she would kill him. I didn’t wonder how or when because I knew she would do it.

  And then I would be left alone with her. That thought struck me like an axe blow.

  I saw Vindeliar’s shoulders rise and fall, rise and fall as his panicky breathing began to accelerate. Without thinking, I reached out and took his hand. ‘Try,’ I begged him. His wide eyes darted to mine. ‘Try, my brother,’ I said in a softer voice. I would not, could not, bear to look at Dwalia. Did she sneer to see us frightened, did she rejoice at how she had hammered us into an alliance? I did not want to know.

  Vindeliar’s pudgy hand closed on mine. It was warm and moist, as if I’d put my hand into something’s mouth, and I wished I could withdraw it. But now was not the time to instil any doubt in him. He took a shuddering breath and then I felt him settle himself. But more than that. I felt him gather his magic, and suddenly I knew that no matter what Dwalia might believe, this was Farseer magic. I knew a moment of outrage that somehow he had stolen such an ability. Then I felt him bubbling it toward the merchant.

  How often had I felt my father or my sister use this magic? They had employed it as if it were the sharpest knife one could imagine, arrowing toward the person they sought to reach. Vindeliar pushed his lips out and then sucked them in, straining to reach the merchant, as if he were sloshing water toward him. I wondered how he had ever managed to control Duke Ellik and his men with such a sloppy magic. Perhaps then he had been stronger in it, strong enough that he had not needed to refine his skill. Perhaps it was like the difference between smashing an ant with a brick or squishing it with a fingertip.

  The magic moved sluggishly toward the merchant. It reached him and washed against him. But he was so full of himself, so radiant in his enthusiasm for what he was selling, that he felt it not at all. It rolled aside from him. This I felt as Vindeliar’s hand engulfed mine. I felt too, the drop in his confidence. The magic grew softer and less focused as his despair grew.

  ‘You can do this,’ I whispered to him, and willed that he would feel confidence, that he would try again.

  Once, when I fell from a tree and ran to my mother with my elbow bleeding, I was unaware that much more blood was escaping from my nose. The magic that moved out of me and through Vindeliar was like that. I felt no sensation of something vital leaving me until suddenly I was aware of the effect. Vindeliar had marshalled what magic he could and was rolling it toward the merchant like a badly tumbled stone. Then my magic, a magic so like my father’s and sister’s that I knew it was mine, guided his. And it was abruptly not a badly tumbled stone, but a well-flung one.

  I saw it strike the merchant, saw how in the midst of his smiling chatter his eyes widened and his words suddenly failed him. I felt what Vindeliar commanded him. You will want to do what Dwalia wishes you to do. When he conveyed ‘Dwalia’ it was an image of her as well as a feeling of who she was. Important, wise, a woman to be obeyed. A woman to be feared. The merchant’s gaze roved over the crowd and found Dwalia. He regarded her with awe. She nodded to him, and to Vindeliar she said softly, ‘I knew you could do it. If you wanted to badly enough.’

  Vindeliar dropped my hand and clapped both hands over his mouth, astonished at what he had accomplished. As for the merchant, he continued his spiel, selling golden nuts and wonderful fortunes to buyer after buyer, until every little door on his cabinet stood open and plundered. He announced to the crowd that he had no more fortunes to sell that day, and they dispersed, drifting and chatting, some still perusing the long tails of paper with the futures written on them.

  We stood where we were as his audience dispersed. He glanced at Dwalia, not once, but repeatedly as he shut each little door of his wonderful cabinet and slowly stepped down from his cart. His horse turned its head and snorted questioningly but the merchant walked toward us, his expression puzzled. Dwalia did not smile. Vindeliar retreated behind her and I followed him as my chain would allow.

  ‘You have done a wicked thing,’ Dwalia said, her first words to him. The merchant stopped and stared at her. His mouth twisted as if he would be sick. ‘You have smuggled fortune-nuts out of Clerres. You know it is forbidden. Those who buy a fortune there know it must be kept in their homes in a place of honour. They know it must not be given away nor sold. But somehow you have acquired dozens of them. Your charade with tapping the nuts to open them did not fool me. They had been opened, and the revelations inside were given to those who had paid well for them. How did you get them? Did you steal them?’

  ‘No! No, I am an honest merchant!’ He looked horrified at the suggestion of theft. ‘I buy and I sell. I have a sailor friend who brings me extraordinary merchandise. He does not come to this port often, but when he comes, he brings me the nutshells and the fortune papers to put inside them. I am known for my rarities, such as the fortunes spun by the pale folk. I have sold them here for years. If there was a crime, it was not mine! I only buy them and sell them on to folk eager for them. Folk who know that a silver is a fair price for such rare things!’

  Dwalia glanced at Vindeliar. His eyes widened and I felt him push his magic toward the man. It sogged against him like a wet cloth but he gave a tiny nod to Dwalia. She smiled and it made my bite-mark a horrid, crawling thing on her face. ‘You know you have done wrong,’ she accused him. ‘You should give me the silver, for I come from the Pale Ones, the Whites and the Four. Give me the money you have gained from your deceit, and I will beg them to forgive you. And tell me the name of your friend and the ship that brought him here, and for him, too, I will beg pardon.’

  He stared a
t her. He hefted the pouch of silvers he had gained. I had counted the little doors in his cabinet. There were forty-eight of them. Forty-eight pieces of silver, and some were the larger pieces that he had cajoled from his buyers. It was a magnificent sum, if a silver here was worth what a silver was in Buck. He stared at Dwalia and then tilted his head before he shook it at her. ‘You’re a peculiar beggar. You accuse me of theft, and then try to rob me. I don’t even know why I spoke to you at all. But I’m to be wed tomorrow, and the old saying tells us to pay a debt you don’t owe before your wedding day, and you’ll never have a debt you can’t pay. So, here’s a silver for you, a debt I don’t owe.’ As he spoke he fished in his pouch and brought up a single piece of silver. He held it between two fingers, then flipped it suddenly into the air. Dwalia clutched at it, but it slid between her fingers into the dirt. Vindeliar squatted to get it for her but she set her shoe firmly on the coin.

  The fortune-merchant had turned away from us and was walking toward the front of his cart. Without looking back, he added, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself. Feed that child something. And if you’ve a heart at all, take that chain off her throat and find her a home.’

  Dwalia kicked Vindeliar, hard. He fell onto his side, gasping. ‘The name of the ship!’ she demanded of both, and I felt the pained thrust of Vindeliar’s desperate magic.

  The man was mounting to the seat of his cart. He didn’t look back at us. ‘The Sea Rose.’ He took up the reins and shook them. His horse moved placidly forward. I wondered if he even realized that he had spoken to us.

  Dwalia crouched to pick up her coin. She stood and as Vindeliar started to rise, she kicked him down again. ‘Don’t think this pays for all,’ she warned him. She jerked my chain viciously and against my will I cried out. And then, to my shame, tears flowed from my eyes. I shuffled and sobbed after her as Vindeliar lumbered to his feet and followed us like a kicked dog.

  Dwalia did stop to buy food. Cheap dry bread for Vindeliar and me, a savoury flaky roll stuffed with meat and vegetables for her. She watched the vendor count her coins back to her with an eagle’s keen stare, and stuffed them into a fold of her clothing. She ate as she walked, and so did we. I longed for water to wash down the dry bread, but she did not pause near the public well we passed. She took us down to the waterfront. The harbour was a great circle of calm water, with fingers of docks that reached out. The biggest ships were anchored in the placid bay, and little boats skated back and forth over the water like many-legged water insects, bearing people and supplies to them. Closer to us, smaller ships tied to the docks and piers, created a wall of hulls and a forest of masts between us and the open water. We three beggars entered the jostling world of carts and longshoremen and prosperous merchants inviting one another to tea or wine or discussing their latest purchases and sales.

  We limped and shuffled among them, either invisible and unnoticed or cursed and reviled for making the traffic pause or standing where someone wished to walk. Dwalia sounded to me like a breadmonger as she called out, ‘The Sea Rose? Where does she dock? The Sea Rose? I’m looking for the Sea Rose!’

  No one answered her. The best she got was a shake of the head to say they didn’t know the vessel. At last Vindeliar tugged at her sleeve and pointed wordlessly between two ships. We had a narrow view of the bay, and a fine vessel with no figurehead, but a glorious bouquet of flowers at her bow, with a large red rose in the centre of it. It was fat and long, the largest ship in the harbour. ‘Might it be that one?’ he asked her timidly. Dwalia halted despite the push and press of folk around us and stared at the vessel. The ship’s bare masts pointed at the sky and she rode high in the water. Her crew moved briskly on her decks, busy with sailorish chores I didn’t understand. As we watched, a small boat with six men at her oars pulled alongside. A large crate of something was lowered to the waiting boat, and then a man descended to it.

  Someone bumped me hard, and said something vicious in a language I didn’t know. I cringed closer to Vindeliar and he in turn huddled behind Dwalia. She neither moved nor appeared to notice that we were blocking traffic. ‘We need to see where they go,’ she announced in a low voice. As the boat moved away from the
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