Assassins fate, p.44
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       Assassin's Fate, p.44

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

  Did he know that, too? Did he know that when he tried to invade my thoughts, he offered me a highway into him? I doubted it. And after what I’d glimpsed, I never wanted to see inside his mind again.

  I lay curled on the floor under the table and tears flowed from my eyes and broken sobs from my lungs. I fought for control. I told myself I must ponder what I’d learned. I had a weapon, but it was not hardened and I did not know how to wield it. He had a vulnerability and did not know it. Information about him and his dismal childhood had poured into me when he’d manifested the power of the serpent potion. I cut away any sympathy I might have felt for him and focused on the edges of those memories.

  I’d seen a fortified citadel standing tall on an island. Towers topped with heads like the skulls of monsters looked out over a harbour and the mainland. I’d glimpsed a lovely garden where pale children played, but never Vindeliar. Those children were tended by patient Servants, and taught to read and write as soon as they could walk. Their dreams were harvested and preserved as carefully as soft fruit.

  I saw a market with many booths shaded by bright awnings. The smells of smoked fish and honey-cakes and something spicy mingled in the air. Smiling people moved among the booths, making purchases and putting them into net bags. Tiny dogs with barely any fur scampered and barked shrilly. A girl with flowers woven into her hair sold bright yellow sweets from a tray. All the people I saw seemed clean and well clothed and happy.

  That was Clerres. That was where they were taking me. But I doubted that the lovely walled garden and doting Servants awaited me, or the bright market under the warm sunshine.

  Instead I recalled with horror the searing glimpse of torch-lit stone walls lined with elevated benches, and a bloody creature chained to a table who screamed piteously as Dwalia offered a delicate knife to an impassive man. Pen, ink and paper waited on a tall stand near her. When the person screamed out a recognizable word, she stepped aside to jot it down, and to add notes, perhaps on what pain had torn words from him. She seemed cheery and efficient, her hair neatly braided in a crown around her head. A canvas smock protected her pastel blue garments.

  Vindeliar stood at the edge of the theatre, a despised outcast who averted his eyes and trembled at each screech wrung from the victim. He’d understood little of the reasons for tormenting the writhing creature. Some of the seated onlookers were watching with mouths ajar and eyes wide, and others laughed into their hands, with strange shame blushing their cheeks. Some were pale of skin, hair and eyes, and others were as dark-haired and warm-skinned as my parents. There were old people, and people of working age, and four children who looked younger than me. And they all watched the torture as if it were an entertainment.

  And then, to my horror, the poor creature on the table stiffened. His blood-tipped fingers strained wide against his restraints and his head thrashed wildly for a moment. Then he was still. The panting sounds he had made ceased and I thought he had died. Then, in a terrible exhalation of breath, he screamed a name. ‘FitzChivalry! Fitz! Help me, oh help me! Fitz! Please, Fitz!’

  Dwalia was transfigured. She lifted her head as if she had heard the voice of a god calling her and a terrible smile came over her face! Whatever she wrote in the book, she did with a flourish. And then she paused, pen lifted, and made a request. ‘Again,’ she said to the tormentor. ‘Again, please. I wish to be certain!’

  ‘Certainly,’ the man replied. He was pale with colourless hair, but the gaudiness of his fine garments made up for his lack of colour. Even the olive apron he wore to protect his jade robe was a thing of beauty, embroidered with words in a language I did not know. His ears were studded with emeralds. He flourished the nasty little tool he held at the four young Whites. Their eyes were very large as he said, ‘You are too young to recall when Beloved was a lurik, just your age. But I do. Even then, he was a defiant and obtuse youngster, breaking all rules, just as you break the rules and think yourselves too clever for us to know about it. Look where it has led him. Know that it can lead you here just as easily if you do not learn to master your own wills for the good of the Servants.’

  The lips of the smallest one quivered until she clapped a hand over her mouth. One of the others hugged himself, but the two tallest drew themselves straighter and held their mouths tight.

  A beautiful young woman with pale gold hair and a complexion like milk stood up. ‘Fellowdy.’ Impatience ruled her voice. ‘Lecture your little darlings later. Force Beloved to utter the name again.’ She turned to the spectators and looked directly at one old woman seated next to a man whose yellow robes contrasted with the pale paste on his face. ‘Hear it! The name he has concealed so long, the one that proves what Fellowdy and I have been saying. His Catalyst continues to live and they conspire to work against us still. The Unexpected Son has been concealed from us. Has Beloved not done enough damage to us already? You must allow us to send Dwalia forth, to avenge her mistress and win us possession of the Son who will otherwise be our downfall! Over and over, the dreams have warned us of him!’

  In response, the older woman stood and fixed the young woman with a glare. ‘Symphe, you speak before all these people of things that concern only the Four. Mind your own tongue.’ She stood, lifted her pale-blue skirts to avoid the blood and strode majestically from the slaughter floor.

  The yellow-coated man next to her watched her go, stood as if undecided, and then sat down again. He nodded to Symphe and the butcher that they should proceed. And they did.

  My father’s name. That was what they made the tattered creature scream, not just once, but over and over and over. And when the repeated screaming of my father’s name was finished and they had tumbled the unconscious body off the table and the guards had dragged the poor wretch away, Vindeliar recalled dashing buckets of water on the spattered floor and table, and then scrubbing them clean.

  He cared little for the tortured man. He focused on his work and his fear. A small chunk of flesh had clung to the floor. He scraped it up with his thumbnail and tossed it into his scrubbing bucket. He knew that if he contravened Dwalia’s will he might be the next one shackled for a hard lesson on the table. Even now, he knew it still might await him. She would not hesitate. And still he lacked the will to flee or defy her. And I knew in my deepest core that my ‘brother’ would not risk himself to save me from such a fate.

  That memory made me tremble. The poor creature on the table had screamed for my father and begged him to come and save him. I was missing too many links to make a chain of reasons, but my instincts made a blind leap. That was the day Dwalia had won permission to come to Withywoods. That was the day my fate had been sealed. I watched her now as if from a great distance.

  And the wretch on the table? It did not seem possible he could have survived. Surely he could not have become the beggar at Oaksbywater. Could not have been my father’s Fool. Jagged bits of information stabbed at my thoughts. Dwalia had spoken of a father I did not know. The pieces could not possibly fit together. But her earlier threat to me insisted that they did. That table was what she had promised me.

  Dwalia was still kicking Vindeliar but she was panting with the effort. With each kick she grunted and her buttocks wobbled. When she had reduced Vindeliar to a huddled and sobbing mass in the corner, she came back to me. She aimed a kick at me, but I had chosen my shelter carefully and she could not deliver a forceful blow. She flung the now-bloody pitcher at me. It only grazed me. I yelped convincingly anyway and scuttled away, staring up at her dolefully, blood smeared on my face. I made my chin quiver and blubbered at her, ‘Please, Dwalia, no more. No more. I will obey you. See? I will work hard. Please don’t hurt me.’

  I scooted out from under the table, dragging one leg. Hunched over, I hopped about the room, gathering up the clothing she had scattered. With each lurch, I begged her to forgive me and promised obedience and atonement. She watched me, suspicion and satisfaction warring in her expression. I stood weeping by the clothing chest, seeping pain and fear at her an
d Vindeliar. Inspired, I added a touch of despair and discouragement. I held up each garment, ‘See how nicely I’m folding it?’ I gulped back a sob. ‘I can be useful. I can be helpful. I’ve learned my lesson. Please, don’t hurt me any more. Please, please.’

  It was not easy and I could not be sure how well it was working. But she gave me a satisfied sneer and returned to the tousled bed, plopping down onto it with a satisfied sigh. Then Vindeliar caught her eye. He was curled on the floor like a fat larva under a log, sobbing into his hands. ‘Tidy up those dishes, I said!’ she barked at him.

  He rolled and then sat up, snuffling. When he lifted his battered face from his hands, I winced. His eyes were starting to swell and blood had sheeted over his chin. Blood and saliva dripped from his sagging mouth. He looked at me in misery and I wondered if he had felt my inadvertent sympathy. I thickened my walls. I think he felt that, for he gathered his brows and looked at me darkly. ‘She’s doing it now,’ he said in a low, sullen voice, his words muffled by swollen lips.

  Dwalia cocked her head at him. ‘Think about this, unman. She has learned her lesson. See how she cowers and obeys me? That is all I require of her, for now. And if she can do the magic, if I can teach her what I require of her, what need have I of you? You had best be at least as useful as she is.’ Then she looked at me and chilled my soul with her simpering smile.

  I heard Vindeliar take a snotty breath. I glanced at him and saw something more frightening than Dwalia’s smile. He glowered at me, his face full of jealousy.


  * * *


  I truly wish I knew more to tell you. I feel as if I should know more, but he has always been private when speaking of his early days. What I do know with certainty can be quickly written. An accident of birth cheated Lord Chade of the power and respect that went to his elder brother and younger sister. Shrewd became king. His younger sister was, some say, the cause of her mother’s death, for the birth was difficult and Queen Constance was never healthy after that. Raised as a princess, she was nevertheless doomed to die in her turn, giving birth to a son, August. His sad end you already know. In an effort to Skill through him to his future queen, Verity unintentionally burned out his cousin’s mind. August was never sound after that, physically or mentally, and died at a relatively young age in the merciful obscurity of a ‘retirement’ to Withywoods. Patience, my father’s wife and once a queen-in-waiting, had the care of him until he died in his sleep one winter’s day. The death of my father in an ‘accident’ and then August’s sliding away were what led her, I believe, to return to Buckkeep Castle to attempt to take on my upbringing.

  But it is Chade you wished to know about. He has never been forthcoming about his early days. His mother was a soldier. How she came to bear the king’s bastard, we will never know. And I know little of his mother’s passing or how he was sent on to Buckkeep Castle. Once he mentioned to me that his mother had left a letter, and that shortly after she died, her husband gave that scroll and a packet of travel rations to the young Chade, set him on a mule and sent him to Buckkeep. The letter was addressed to the king and by some extraordinary circumstances actually reached him. And so his royal family discovered him, perhaps for the first time, but who can truly know about that? In either case, he was taken in.

  For all the years in which he taught me, I know little of how he was educated, save that his instructor was harsh. While he was never acknowledged even as a bastard, I do believe that his elder brother treated him well. From what I personally observed, he and Shrewd were fond of one another, and Shrewd counted on Chade as a counsellor as well as an assassin and spymaster.

  I have gathered that Chade had a few lively and enjoyable years as a handsome young man before the accident that scarred him and sent him into hiding in the castle walls. I think it likely there is much more to that tale as to why he made himself vanish but we are unlikely to unearth it.

  I do know that he desperately wished to be tested for the Skill and educated in the family magic. That was denied to him. I suspect he had other magical talents, namely scrying in water, for more than once it seemed very unlikely to me that his ‘spies’ could have possibly informed him in a timely way of events that took place at a distance from Buckkeep. But to be denied the Skill both rankled and grieved him. I think it was perhaps one of the most foolish choices our royal ancestors ever committed.

  So it is, my dear, that now that he has proven at least an erratic ability to Skill and has access to what remains of the Skill-library, he recklessly indulges himself in trying to master it. He has always been one to experiment and danger does not dissuade him from risking himself or indeed his apprentices.

  I do not know if this information can help you persuade him to be more temperate and accord you the respect you deserve as the Queen’s Skillmistress. Please, if you can avoid letting him know that I am the source of this information, I would greatly appreciate it. He may have trained me to be a spy but would be the first to object if his old apprentice spied upon him.

  Unsigned missive to Skillmistress Nettle

  ‘What does Tintaglia want with you?’ Brashen asked me.

  I wiped sweat from my face. ‘I had some questions for her when we were in Kelsingra. I was hoping to discover if dragons bore a grudge against the Servants.’

  ‘To recruit them to your cause?’

  ‘Perhaps. Or to gain any bit of knowledge to use against them.’

  He wiped his hands down his trousers and took a fresh grip on the barrel. ‘It might not be the wisest thing to do, sending a dragon in to rescue a child.’

  ‘I wasn’t thinking of that at the time. I just wanted Clerres destroyed.’

  ‘But if your child is there …’

  There it was. The very thought I most wanted to avoid. Bee in the midst of a dragon-attack? I refused the idea.

  Brashen cocked his head at me as he stared at my face. ‘You don’t think she’s alive, do you?’ His voice dropped low.

  I shrugged. It was the last question I wanted to ponder. ‘Let’s get this done,’ I suggested. He nodded grimly.

  We had both stopped to breathe. We were taking on a cask of water. It should have been a simple task, but Paragon was determined to make it almost impossible. He had listed away from the small boat that had come alongside with the cask, and then, amid our hoisting it up to the deck, he had listed in the other direction.

  It was our second day of struggling against the ship. Paragon had blocked our efforts to offload his cargo. Today’s effort to bring on water and fresh food for the crew was twice the work it should have been. In the midst of those difficulties Althea and Brashen had received my news about Tintaglia with a marked lack of interest. As Brashen had said at the time, ‘Could a dragon’s arrival make our situation any worse?’

  Althea had replied, ‘I will pass the news to Wintrow and he will let Etta know. They can prepare for her as best they can.’ She had added sourly, ‘A dragon visit probably presents all sorts of problems. At this moment, all I can say is, I’m glad they’re not mine.’

  Brashen had nodded grimly. ‘We have enough of our own,’ he confirmed. And that had closed that conversation.

  Paragon delayed our departure in ways I had never imagined. He rocked, he listed, he jammed his hatches shut. Althea and Brashen gritted their teeth and joined in to work the deck alongside their diminished crew. That first day Clef had mustered Per and Spark and then regarded Lant and me with his hands on his hips. ‘It may not be the work you were born to, but I need you. Beginning today, while we’re still in port, you will each join a watch.’ And we had.

  Brashen’s and Althea’s efforts to hire more crew or persuade former crewmembers to return were dismal failures. I welcomed the heavy physical labour, for it sometimes distracted me from dwelling on the possibility of my daughter held captive by fanatical strangers. The idea roused me to heart-pounding fury; I vented it by defying the ship, dragging crates aboard his slanting deck and wrestling them i
nto his hold. Every moment of delay was another moment of agonizing suspense. I no longer cared for whatever news Tintaglia might bring. I wanted only to be on our way again.

  Both Amber and the Fool constantly agonized over what Bee might be enduring. Every word Amber spoke about it was a twisting knife in my gut. My anxiety was more than I could bear; his only made mine more searing. I entered her cabin that day to find the Fool hanging upside-down by his knees from the upper bunk. I halted at the sight.

  ‘I knew it was you,’ he observed. ‘Everyone else knocks first.’

  ‘What are you doing? Do you need help to get down?’

  ‘Hardly. I’m limbering up. They hammered and burned my mind to a mush; what they did to my body was just as shattering. I seek to regain what they sought to destroy.’

  He curled up around his belly, seized the edge of the bunk in both hands and with a grunt unhooked his knees and shot his feet toward the floor. He landed, not lightly or gracefully, but still amazingly well for a man who had been half-crippled just months ago.

  ‘Would not practising your tumbler’s skills be better done on the open deck?’

  ‘If Amber were sighted, she’d be delighted to run the rigging and dangle aloft and regain all my lost tricks in the fresh air. But she isn’t, and so I can’t. In this cramped space, I do what I can.’ He bent over, seized his own ankles and let out a long slow breath. ‘Any news of when we can depart?’

  ‘None that you haven’t heard.’ I braced myself against his familiar complaint.

  ‘Every day that passes is another day that Bee is their captive.’

  As if that were a new thought for me! ‘Paragon isn’t the only ship in the harbour. We could get a fine price for our Elderling goods here, and book passage directly to Clerres.’

  He was shaking his head before I’d finished speaking. ‘In my visions of the future, Paragon is the only vessel that carries us to Clerres.’

  ‘Your visions,’ I said and closed my mouth. Through gritted teeth, I said, ‘Then we must wait.’

  ‘You doubt me,’ he said bitterly. ‘You refuse to accept that Bee is alive.’

  ‘Sometimes I believe you.’ I looked down at the deck. ‘Mostly I don’t.’ Hope was too painful.

  ‘I see,’ he said harshly. ‘So you are content to wait. Because if Bee is dead, she can’t become any deader by our delay. She can’t be enduring torture such as they visited upon me.’

  I replied with equally harsh words. ‘I do not choose to wait. You choose to wait—for Paragon to decide to sail.’

  He gripped two handfuls of his own hair, his face contorted. ‘Cannot you understand my torment? We must sail on Paragon. We must! Even though I know she is alive and in their power.’

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