Assassins fate, p.5
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       Assassin's Fate, p.5

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

  seen people so malformed. Some had scales and some had dangling growths along their jaws. Some had claws or dragon-nostrils. But not in a lovely way, not like the Elderlings do. They were like … diseased trees. And full of sudden hope. They began to push toward you, asking you to mend them. Your eyes were blank and you didn’t answer. You just began to touch them, and they collapsed, their bodies changed. But almost immediately, you went pale and began to shake, yet still you wouldn’t stop and still they came on, pushing and begging. Lady Amber cried out to you and shook you. And still you stared, and still distorted people pushed toward you. Then Amber pulled off her glove and clutched your wrist and dragged you back from them.’

  My recollection was like a tapestry unfurling. Lant was blessedly silent as I pieced my life back together. ‘And since then? Is all well?’ I recalled the pushing and the shouting crowd. ‘Were any of you hurt? Where are the others?’

  ‘No one was hurt seriously. Scratches and bruises.’ He gave a disbelieving snort. ‘And only Spark still bears those marks. When you touched me and Per all our hurts were healed. I have not felt this healthy since … since before I was beaten that night in Buckkeep Town.’

  ‘I’m sorry.’

  He stared at me. ‘You’re sorry for healing me?’

  ‘For doing it so abruptly. Without warning. The Skill … I could not control it.’

  He stared past me. ‘It felt peculiar. As if I’d been dunked in an ice-cold river, and then fished out right away, as dry and warm as I’d been.’ His voice trailed away as he recalled it.

  ‘Where are they now? Amber and Spark and Per?’ Was there danger? Had I slept while they were threatened?

  ‘Probably sleeping still. I took this watch.’

  ‘Watch? How long have I been here?’

  He gave a small sigh. ‘This is the second night. Well. Perhaps I should say the morning of the third day. It’s nearly dawn.’

  ‘I think I fell asleep at the table.’

  ‘You did. We moved you to the bed. I feared for you, but Amber said to let you sleep and not to call in a healer. I think she worried what might happen if a healer touched your skin. She bade us all be very careful not to touch you.’

  I answered his unspoken question. ‘I think I have control of my Skill again.’ I was still for a moment, investigating the flow of the magic. It was strong here in the old city, but I once more felt it as something outside myself rather than a current flowing through me. I considered my walls and found them stronger than I had expected.

  ‘I gave you powdered elfbark,’ Lant reminded me.

  ‘That I recall.’ I turned to stare at him. ‘I’m surprised you carry such a thing.’

  He looked away from me. ‘You recall my father’s early hopes for me, the training I had. I brought many small things on this journey.’

  For a time, we were both silent. Then I asked him, ‘What of General Rapskal? What is the current feeling toward us here in Kelsingra?’

  Lant licked his lips. ‘Great respect founded on fear, I think. Amber has counselled us to caution. We have been eating in our rooms and mingling little. None of us have seen General Rapskal. But there has been one note from him, and three visits from one of his soldiers, an Elderling name Kase. He was respectful but insistent that General Rapskal needed a private meeting with you. We’ve turned him away because you were still resting, but none of us feel it would be safe for you to meet with him alone. The general seems … peculiar.’

  I nodded silently, but quietly resolved that a private meeting might eventually be needed, if I were to dispel whatever threat the general presented to Amber. After such a meeting, he just might fall deathly ill if he continued to pursue his vendetta.

  ‘The Elderlings have respected our wish for solitude,’ Lant continued. ‘I suspect the king and queen have sheltered us from curiosity and requests. Mostly we’ve encountered the serving folk and they seem to feel kindly toward us.’ He added awkwardly, ‘Some are touched by the Rain Wilds in unpleasant ways. I fear that some may seek healing from you, despite the king’s order that you be left in peace. We did not want to leave you alone because we did not want the Elderlings to find you unguarded. At first. Then we feared you might be dying.’ As if startled by his own words, he suddenly sat up straight and said, ‘I should let the others know you are awake. Do you want food?’

  ‘No. Yes.’ I didn’t want it but I knew I needed it. I had not been dying but I had not been living either. My body felt like soiled clothing, stiff with dirt and smelly with sweat. I rubbed my face. Definitely a beard now. My eyes were gummy, my tongue and teeth coated.

  ‘I’ll see to it, then.’

  He left. The room was lightening around me, mimicking dawn. The nightscape on the wall was fading. I dragged off the Elderling robe I wore as I went to the pool. As soon as I knelt by the water-spout it began to release steaming water.

  I was soaking in hot water when Amber entered. Perseverance was with her, but she walked beside him, not relying on him to guide her as they came directly to the pool’s edge. I answered the basic questions before they could be asked. ‘I’m awake. Nothing hurts. I’m starting to get hungry. I have my Skill under control. I think. Please avoid touching me until I’m sure.’

  ‘How are you? Truly?’ Amber asked me. I liked that her eyes settled on me even as I wondered if my vision were diminished at all. If the Fool had gained a small amount of vision, had I lost some of mine? I had not noticed a difference. Yet.

  ‘I’m awake. Still tired but not sleepy.’

  ‘You slept a long time. We feared for you.’ Amber sounded hurt, as if my being unconscious had bruised her feelings.

  The hot water had loosened my muscles. My body was starting to feel more familiar, as if I might belong in it. I ducked my head one more time and scrubbed my eyes clear. I waded out of the water. Still some aches. Sixty was not thirty, regardless of how I might appear. Perseverance left Amber’s side to bring me a drying cloth and then a robe. I spoke as I wiped water from my legs. ‘What is the mood of the city? Did I harm anyone?’

  Amber spoke. ‘Apparently not – at least not in a permanent way. The children you touched all seem to be faring better now than before you touched them. The Rain Wilders you touched have sent you notes of thanks. And, of course, pleas that you help others. At least three have left notes under the door, begging you to help them with their changes. Exposure to dragons or even areas where dragons were long present seem to trigger their afflictions, and those deliberately changed by dragons fare much better than those who simply are born with changes or acquire them as they grow. Those changes are often deadly to children, and life-shortening for all.’

  ‘Five notes now,’ Perseverance said quietly. ‘Two more were outside the door when we came.’

  I shook my head. ‘I dare not try to help anyone. Even with the elfbark Lant gave me, I can feel the Skill-current sweeping past me like a riptide. I won’t venture into that again.’ I poked my head out of the neck-hole of the green Elderling robe. The skin on my arms was still damp, but I wrestled my hands through the sleeves, shrugged my shoulders and felt the garment settle itself around me. Elderling magic? Was there Silver in the fabric of this robe, reminding it that it was a garment? The Elderlings had mixed Skill into their roads so that they always recalled they were roads. Moss and grass never consumed them. Was there a difference between the Skill and the magic the Elderlings had used to create this marvellous city? How did the magics intersect? There was too much I didn’t know and I was glad that Lant had dosed me and rescued me from any further experiments.

  ‘I want to leave here as soon as we can.’ I hadn’t thought about saying the words: they just came out of my mouth. I walked as I spoke and Per and Amber followed me through the bedroom and into the entry chamber. Lant was there.

  ‘I agree,’ he said instantly. ‘UnSkilled as I am, still the whispering of the city reaches me stronger with every passing day. I need to be away from here. We should be gone before th
e goodwill of the Elderlings fades. General Rapskal may be able to sway people against us. Or folk may begin to resent that you refuse to heal them.’

  ‘Indeed, I think that very wise. Yet we cannot be too hasty. Even if there were a ship heading downriver, we would still have to be sure we bid farewell to Kelsingra in a way that ruffles no feathers.’ Amber’s voice was pensive. ‘We have a long journey through their territories and the Dragon Traders have deep ties with the Rain Wild Traders. They, in turn, have deep family ties with Bingtown and the Bingtown Traders. We must travel by river from here to Trehaug in the Rain Wilds. From there, our safest transport would be on one of the liveships that move on the river. We must journey at least as far as Bingtown, and there find a vessel that will take us through the Pirate Isles and to Jamaillia. So the goodwill of the dragon-keepers may bear us far. At least as far as Bingtown, and perhaps beyond.’ He paused then added, ‘For we must journey beyond Jamaillia, and beyond the Spice Isles.’

  ‘And then off the edge of any proven chart I’ve ever seen.’ I said.

  ‘Strange waters to you will be home ports to others. We will find our way there. I found my way to Buck, many years ago. I can find my way back to my homeland again.’

  His words were little comfort to me. I was already tired just from standing. What had I done to myself? I sat down in one of the chairs and it welcomed me. ‘I had expected to travel alone and light. Working my passage for some of it. I’ve made no plans for this type of journey, no provisions for taking anyone with me.’

  Soft chimes sounded and the door opened. A manservant wheeled a small table into the room. Covered dishes, a stack of plates; clearly a meal for all of us. Spark slipped in through the opened door. She was dressed and groomed but her eyes told me she had only recently left sleep behind.

  Lant thanked the serving man. Our silence held until the door had closed behind him. Spark began to uncover the dishes on the tray while Perseverance put out the plates. ‘There’s a scroll-tube here, a heavy one with a funny crest on it. A chicken wearing a crown.’

  ‘The crowned rooster is the Khuprus family crest,’ Amber told us.

  A shiver went up my back. ‘That’s different to a rooster crown?’

  ‘It is. Though I have wondered if they have some ancient relationship.’

  ‘What’s a rooster crown?’ Spark asked.

  ‘Open the letter and read it, please,’ Amber fended off her question. Perseverance passed it to Spark, who handed it to Lant. ‘It’s addressed to the Six Duchies Emissaries. So I suppose that means all of us.’

  Lant broke the wax seal and tugged out a page of excellent paper. His eyes skimmed down it. ‘Hmm. Rumours of your waking have dashed from the kitchen to the throne room. We are invited to dine tonight with the Kelsingra Dragon Keepers. “If Prince FitzChivalry’s health permits”.’ He lifted his eyes to mine. ‘The keepers, I have learned, are the original Rain Wilders who set out with the dragons to find Kelsingra, or at least a habitable area for dragons. There were not many of them, less than twenty, I believe. Others have come to live here, of course. Rain Wilders seeking a better life, former slaves, and other folk. Some of the keepers have taken wives from among the new folk. Their ambassadors to King Dutiful presented themselves as coming from a populous and prosperous city. But what I’ve seen here and heard from the serving folk tells me a different story,’ he mused. ‘They’ve had only moderate luck at building their population to a level that can sustain the city, even on a village level. The Rain Wild folk find that they change faster when they live here, and seldom in good ways. As you have seen, the children born in Kelsingra are not many and the changes that mark them are not always good ones.’

  ‘An excellent report,’ Spark said in a fair imitation of Chade’s voice. Perseverance snorted into his hands.

  ‘Truly,’ Amber agreed, and the colour rose in Lant’s cheeks.

  ‘He trained you well,’ I said. ‘Why do you think they convene and invite us to dine with them?’

  ‘To thank you?’ Perseverance seemed incredulous I would not have thought of that.

  ‘It will be the preliminary to bargaining with us. It’s the Trader way.’ Amber sighed. ‘We know what we need from them. Fresh supplies and passage as far south as we can get. The question is, what will they ask of us in return?’


  * * *

  In the Mountains

  This was a very short dream. A chalk-faced man dressed in robes of green trimmed with gold walked on a beach. A grotesque creature hunched on a grassy outcrop above the beach and watched him, but the man paid it no mind. He was carrying fine chains, as if to be worn as jewellery, but much stronger. He carried them in loops on his arm. He came to a place where the sand was shaking and bulging. He watched it, smiling. Snakes began to come out of the earth. They were large snakes, as long as my arm. They were wet and their skins were bright shades of blue and red and green and yellow. The man put a looped chain around the head of a blue one, and the chain became a noose. He lifted the snake clear of the ground. It thrashed but it could not get away even though it opened wide its mouth and showed white teeth, very pointed. The pale man caught another snake in his snare, a yellow one. Next, he tried to catch a red one, but it shook free of him and slithered away very fast toward the sea. ‘I will have you!’ the man shouted, and he chased the snake and stepped on the end of its tail, trapping it near the waves’ edge. He held the leashes of his two captive snakes in one hand and in the other he shook out a fresh snare for the red snake.

  He thought she would turn and dart her head at him and he would loop the chain around her neck. But it was a dragon who turned on him, for he was treading on a dragon’s tail. ‘No,’ she said to him very loudly. ‘But I will have you.’

  The picture I have painted for this dream is not very good, for my father’s red ink does not gleam and glisten as the snake did.

  Bee Farseer’s dream journal

  I slept cold and awoke to the toe of Dwalia’s shoe nudging my sore belly. ‘What have you been doing?’ she demanded of me, and then snarled over her shoulder, ‘Alaria! You were supposed to be watching her! Look at this! She’s been chewing at her bonds!’

  Alaria came at a stumbling trot, her fur coat slung around her shoulders, her pale hair a tangle around her bleary-eyed face. ‘I was up almost all night! I asked Reppin to watch her …’

  Dwalia spun away from me. I tried to sit up. My bound hands were cold and nearly numb. My whole body was stiff with various bruises and cuts. I fell over and tried to roll away from her, but I didn’t get far. I heard a slap and then a wordless yelp. ‘No excuses,’ Dwalia snarled. I heard her stalk away.

  I tried to stagger to my feet, but Alaria was swifter. She put a knee in my back to keep me down. I twisted toward her to bite. She put one hand on the back of my head and pushed my face down on the paving stone. ‘Give me a reason to slam your teeth into that,’ she invited me. I didn’t.

  ‘Don’t hurt my brother!’ Vindeliar wailed.

  ‘Don’t hurt my brother,’ Dwalia mocked him in a shrill whine. ‘Be silent!’ The last word she spoke with a grunt, and I heard Vindeliar yelp.

  Alaria pulled at my tunic hem then sawed strips from it with her belt-knife. She cursed in a guttural voice as she worked. I could feel her fury. Now was not a good time to challenge her. She rolled me over roughly and I saw the print of Dwalia’s hand on her face, livid red against her pale skin. ‘Bitch,’ she snapped, and I did not know if she meant me or Dwalia. She seized my stiff hands and jerked them roughly toward her. She brutally sawed at the sodden rags with her dull knife. I pulled my wrists as far apart as I could, hoping she would not cut me. ‘This time, I tie them behind your back,’ she promised through gritted teeth.

  I heard footsteps crunching through leaves and twigs and Reppin came to join Alaria. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said quietly. ‘My hand hurt so much …’

  ‘It’s fine,’ Alaria said in a tone that said it was not.

s so unfair,’ Reppin said. ‘So cruel to us. We are supposed to be her advisors and she treats us like servants! And tells us nothing. Not a word of what she plans now that she has dragged us to this horrid place. This is not what Symphe intended for us.’

  Alaria relented in her sulk. ‘There’s a road over there. I think we should follow it. It makes no sense to stay here.’

  ‘Perhaps it goes to a village,’ Reppin offered hopefully. She added in a softer voice, ‘I need a healer. My whole arm throbs.’

  ‘All of you. Go fetch wood!’ Dwalia shouted from her seat by the dwindling fire. Vindeliar looked up with a woeful face. I saw Reppin and Alaria exchange rebellious glances.

  ‘I said, “All of you”!’ Dwalia shrieked.

  Vindeliar came to his feet and stood uncertainly. Dwalia stood up, a much-folded paper in her hand. She looked at it angrily, gripped it so tightly that I knew it was the source of her ire. ‘That liar,’ she growled. ‘I should have known. I should not have trusted a word that we wrung from Prilkop.’ Abruptly, she slapped Vindeliar with her paper. ‘Go. Get wood. We will be here another night at least! Alaria! Reppin! Take Bee with you. Watch her. We need firewood. Lots of it! You, Chalcedean! Go hunt for some food for us.’

  Kerf did not even turn his head. He was perched on a low stone wall and looking across the square at nothing. Nothing until I eased my walls down and saw tumblers, clad all in black and white, performing for a crowd of tall folk with oddly coloured hair. Sounds of a busy market-day filled my ears. I squeezed my eyes shut, firmed my walls, and opened my eyes to the long-deserted plaza. For that was what it was. Once, this open space in the forest had been a lively market square, a crossroads where traders met to exchange wares and Elderlings gathered for amusement and shopping.

  ‘Come on,’ Alaria snapped at me.

  I got slowly to my feet. If I walked hunched over, my belly did not hurt so badly. Eyes on the ground, I followed them as they crossed the ancient paving stones. I saw bear-scat among the sparse forest debris, and then a glove. I slowed my pace. Another lady’s glove, this one of soft yellow kid. Then some sodden canvas. Something red and knitted peeped out from beneath it.

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