Assassins fate, p.53
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       Assassin's Fate, p.53

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

  ‘Not here!’ she snapped. She glared at both of us. ‘Pick up that trunk and follow me.’ Vindeliar took one end and I seized the other handle and we walked behind her. The trunk was not that heavy. Carrying it was only awkward because Vindeliar was such a weakling. He kept shifting his grip from hand to hand, and he walked leaning over as if he could barely lift it. The trunk bumped and skipped on the paving stones and knocked against my hip and calf. Every hundred paces or so, she had to stop and wait for us to catch up with her. Vindeliar strove to maintain her appearance. Men were halting to cast admiring looks at her. Two women exclaimed to one another over her hat and dress. She walked proudly and when she glanced back at us, there was a pleased light in her eyes I had never seen before.

  We walked down streets crowded with folk foreign to my eyes. Sailors and merchants and workers, I guessed them to be, but in all manner of garb and of all different colourings. I saw a boy with hair as red as rust, his hands and arms speckled with freckles like a bird’s egg. There was a woman taller than any person I’d ever glimpsed, and her bare brown arms were sheathed all over in white tattoos from her fingertips to her wide shoulders. A bald little girl in a pink frock skipped beside her equally bald mother whose lips were framed with tiny jewels. I turned my head, wondering how the jewels stayed on and the trunk hit my calf on top of an earlier bruise.

  I felt Vindeliar struggling to carry the trunk and maintain Lady Aubretia’s illusion. The third time Dwalia had to stop and wait for us, she said, ‘I see you are becoming useless again. Very well. You need not try so hard. For now, I wish folk to not notice us. That is all.’

  ‘I will try.’

  Her beauty fell away from her. She became ordinary, and less than ordinary. Not worthy of notice.

  Dwalia trudged through the crowds, and people grudgingly gave way to her, and we lurched along after her. I could feel Vindeliar’s magic failing. I glanced over at him. He was sweating with the effort to carry his end of the trunk and maintaining his illusion. His power sputtered and danced like a dying flame on a damp log. ‘I can’t …’ he gasped, and gave up his efforts.

  Dwalia glared at him. I wondered if she knew he no longer cloaked her. But as we tottered along behind her, folk began to notice her. I saw a woman wince at the scar on her cheek. A little boy took his finger from his mouth and pointed it at her. His mother shushed him and hurried him along. Twice, pale folk stopped and turned toward her as if they might greet her but she didn’t even pause for them. Folk stared at her and she must have known they saw her as she truly was. One grey-bearded sailor gave a caw of dismay at the sight of her. ‘A feather bonnet on a pig,’ he said to his swarthy companion as they passed, and both guffawed.

  Dwalia halted in the street. She did not look back at us as we caught up with her, but spoke over her shoulder. ‘Leave it. There is nothing in that trunk that I’ll ever wear again. Just leave it.’ She reached up and tore free the pins that had secured her hat, threw it to the ground and strode away.

  I was stunned. I’d heard tears in her voice. Vindeliar dropped his end of the trunk with a thud. It took longer for me to realize she was serious. She didn’t look back. She stumped away from us, and we were both panting when we finally caught up with her. I was quickly aware that I had not trotted nor even walked much in our days aboard the ship. Her pace meant that I had little time to look around. I had only glimpses of a well-kept city, with wide uncluttered streets. The people we passed were clean and their clothing was simple but whole. The women’s skirts were wide-belted at the waist and the loose folds came scarcely to their knees. They wore sandals and their blouses either had no sleeves at all or sleeves like bells that fell past their wrists. They were taller than Buck women, and not even the dark-haired ones had curly hair. Some of the men wore only vests over their bared chests and their trousers were as short as the women’s skirts. I supposed it made sense in that warmer climate, but to me they appeared half-naked. They were lighter-skinned than Six Duchies folk and taller, and for once my pale hair drew not a second glance. I saw not a single beggar.

  As we left the wharves and warehouses and inns behind, we passed some of the pink-and-pale-yellow buildings I had seen from the ship’s deck. There were flowerboxes below the windows and benches by the doors. Shutters were opened wide on this fine day, and I saw rows of spinning wheels in one pink building, with the spinners hard at work and I heard the clack of looms from the shadowed room beyond them. We passed a building that breathed out warmth and the smell of baking bread. Everywhere I looked, I saw cleanliness and order. It was not at all what I had imagined Clerres would be. Given how cruel Dwalia had been, I had imagined a whole city of hateful people, not this pastel prosperity.

  There was other foot traffic on the road with us. Like the port part of the city, the folk hurrying along beside us were a mixed lot. Most of them were light-haired and fair-skinned and dressed in the garb of Clerres, but some were plainly foreigners and travellers from afar. Mixed in with them were men and women in guard’s garb, wearing a badge with a twining vine on it. Many of them stared openly at Dwalia’s ruined face, and some appeared to recognize her, but no one offered her a greeting. Those who seemed to recognize her looked shocked or turned away. For her part, she did not offer ‘good day’ to anyone and set a pace that meant we passed most of our fellow walkers.

  Our path toward the white island led us along the shoreline. Water lapped on the beach. Gary-and-white sand sparkled over bones of granite. We walked on a smooth road past houses with vegetable gardens and arbours between them. I saw children, all dressed in the same sort of smock garments, playing in dooryards or sitting on the steps of the houses. I could not tell if they were boys or girls. Dwalia strode on. As she walked, I watched her tug the final pins from her hair and let her braids hang lank about her face. She took off her necklace and lifted the earrings from her ears. I almost thought she would toss them aside, but she tucked them into her bag. With them gone, all traces of Lady Aubretia vanished. Even her fine gown became an oddity rather than lovely.

  To my surprise, I became aware of her feelings. She did not simmer and boil as my father had. My father’s thoughts and emotions had always surged against my senses; they were why I had first learned to make walls within my mind. Dwalia’s were not nearly so strong. I think I sensed them only because for so long I had pushed tendrils of my thoughts into her mind. It was as Wolf Father had warned me. A way in was also a way out. And now her thoughts seeped through to me. I felt from her a resentful anger that she had never been beautiful and had never felt loved, only tolerated because she was useful. I felt her heart wander back to a time when she had known love, once, and loved in return. I saw a tall woman, smiling down on her. The Pale Woman. Then, as if crushed under a fall of icicles, that feeling stopped. The closer we drew to the island, the more I sensed self-justification that was rooted in anger. She would force them to acknowledge that she had not failed. She would not allow them to mock or rebuke her.

  And she would have her vengeance.

  As if she felt the brush of my thoughts against hers, she glared back at both of us. ‘Hurry up!’ she snapped. ‘The tide is going out. I want to be there early, not caught in the crowds of petitioners. Vindeliar, walk with your head up. You look like an ox going to slaughter. And you, little bitch? Keep your tongue still while the Four are listening to me. Understand me? Not a sound from you. Or I swear I’ll kill you.’

  It was her first rebuke to me in several days, and it startled me. Vindeliar did lift his head, but I think he was more encouraged by her spitting venom at me than at her order to him. Clearly I had fallen from her favour, at least back to his level. Vindeliar still waddled when he walked, but he waddled faster. I dreaded the meeting with the Four and longed to ask questions about them but kept my tongue stilled. Several times Vindeliar glanced over at me as if almost hoping I’d ask him. I didn’t. A few times, my secret plan tried to seep into my thoughts. I dammed it back. I was going to be happy here in Clerres. I wo
uld have a good life. I’d be useful here. When I felt Vindeliar looking at me, I turned a vacuous smile on him. I wanted to laugh aloud at his startled face but I restrained myself.

  We left the houses behind and walked past a very large building of white stone. There was nothing of grace about it; it was entirely functional. There was a large stable beside it, with its own smithy, and there were several open areas where sweating guardsmen were performing drills. The shouted commands of their instructor echoed from the building’s side, and dust rose around the guards as they lunged, clashed and retreated in turn.

  Then we entered a section of the town that reminded me more of the Winterfest booths than a true village. Sturdy stone cottages had shade awnings in front of them, and people stood in queues before them. In the shade under the awnings, people paler than me with fluffy white hair sat in embellished chairs that were almost thrones. Some had tiny scrolls to sell. Others had the same sort of cupboard as the man who had told us to find the Sea Rose. Some of the sellers wore exotic scarves and sparkling earrings and vests of lace. Others were clad in plain shifts of pale yellow or rose or azure. One had a large crystal ball on a filigreed stand and she or he was staring into it with eyes the same colour as a trout’s. A woman stood silently before her, clasping a young man’s hand.

  There were other vendors there, selling charms for luck or pregnancy or sheep fertility, charms for good crops or to help the baby sleep at night. These wares were cried loudly by younger versions of the merchants, who moved about the crowd carrying trays, their voices shrill and incessant as the gulls over the harbour.

  There were food stalls, too, selling foods both sweet and savoury. Their tempting aromas reminded me that we had eaten at dawn and walked a fair pace since then, but Dwalia did not pause. I could have spent the whole afternoon exploring that market, but she strode through it without a pause or a glance to left or right.

  Once I heard a hushed whisper, ‘I’m sure it’s her. It’s Dwalia!’

  Someone else said, ‘But where are the others, then? All the luriks on those fine white horses?’

  But not even that turned her head. We hurried past and through folk standing in a thick line, and some cursed at us and others shouted at us for being rude, but Dwalia threaded through the crowd until we came to the head of the line. A short causeway of stone and sand ended in a tall gate made of iron bars. Just beyond the gate, the causeway ended abruptly in water. Beyond that water, on a stony island, was the white stronghold. Before the gate stood four sturdy guards. Two held pikes and stood staring stonily at the queuing people. The other two wore swords. They were formidable warriors, blue-eyed, dark-haired, and well-muscled, and even the women were taller than my father, but Dwalia did not pause or hesitate.

  ‘I am going to cross.’

  ‘No. You are not.’ The man who spoke did not even look at her. ‘You are going to go back to the end of the line and wait your turn. When the tide goes out and the water has receded completely, then we will admit pilgrims in an orderly fashion, two abreast. That is how we do this.’

  Dwalia stepped closer and spoke through clenched teeth. ‘I know how we do it. I am one of the Circle. I am Lingstra Dwalia, and I have returned. The Four will wish to hear my report as soon as they possibly can. You should not dare to detain me.’ She gave Vindeliar a sideways glare. I felt him try. His thin magic lapped against the guards.

  One cocked his head and looked at her carefully. ‘Dwalia.’ The guard spoke it as a name he knew. He lifted an elbow and nudged the woman next to him. ‘Is that her? Dwalia?’

  The other guard grudgingly shifted her gaze from the queue of anxious pilgrims to study Dwalia, the wrinkles in her brow growing deeper as she did so. Then her eyes fell on Vindeliar. ‘She left here a long time ago. Rode at the head of a troop of white horses and riders. Could be her, but she looks different in that dress. But that one? Him I recognize. He is Dwalia’s creature. Vindeliar. He does her bidding. So, if she has him, then, I guess it’s her. We should let her cross.’

  ‘But now? While the water still runs over the causeway?’

  ‘It’s not that deep. I can tell. I wish to cross now.’ Dwalia’s tone brooked no argument. ‘Open the gate for me.’

  They stepped back from her, conferred briefly. One scowled and seemed to indicate her fine dress, but the other shrugged, and he was the one who unlatched the gate and swung it open. We had to step back to allow its motion and that crowded us into the waiting petitioners. And when the gate was clear, and Dwalia stepped forward with Vindeliar and me following, the crowd moved with us, trying to cross with us. The guards with the pikes moved forward, crossing their weapons and pushing them back. We stepped forward alone.

  The causeway was of smooth, cut stone, flat as a table. Dwalia didn’t pause when she reached the water’s edge. She did not lift her skirts or take off her shoes to carry them. She walked forward as if the sea did not still own that space. We followed. The water was shallow at first, not warm but not numbingly cold. As we went forward, it got quickly deeper, soaking my shoes and moving past my ankles to my shins. I began to feel the tug of the ebbing tide. Beside me, Vindeliar was scowling. ‘I don’t like this,’ he said bitterly. Neither Dwalia nor I paid him any mind but I soon began to share his uneasiness. The water got deeper and the pull of the receding waves became stronger. I had waded in creeks and streams, but this was seawater. It had a smell and a stickiness that surprised me. The opposite gate on the far end of the sunken causeway had not looked very far away when we had begun. Now as the water rose past my knees and up my thighs, the safety of the far shore seemed to retreat. Even Dwalia had slowed as she sloshed forward. I fixed my eyes on her back and fought the weight of the water. The tide might be ebbing as they had said, but waves still came and went, and sometimes they wet me to my waist. Vindeliar had begun to make an anxious noise between a hum and a whine. He was falling behind. When I glanced back and realized that, I tried to move faster. The water was colder now and I panted as I pushed my way through it. Leave him behind, I thought fiercely. I think he felt my wish, for his wail grew louder and I heard a splash as he stumbled, and then his hoarse cry as he surged to his feet again. Drown! I arrowed that thought at him, and then shut myself behind my walls.

  The sun beat down on my head, scorching my scalp through my short hair, while the water pressed against me and drew warmth out of my feet and legs. I folded my arms high on my chest and hugged my bundled clothing to myself. I pushed my thirst to one side along with my aching muscles. Shipboard life had not prepared me for today’s hike. The sunlight bounced off the water and into my eyes. I lifted my head and tried to see Dwalia but glittering light dazzled my eyes. I began to feel shaky and ill.

  Was the water shallower? Perhaps. I took heart and surged on, head and shoulders bent as I fought the waves. When next I lifted my head and looked for Dwalia, she stood at the far gate, remonstrating and cursing the guards who would not open it to her. Beyond that gate, a huddle of people awaited its opening to leave the castle. Their weary stances and aprons of leather or fabric proclaimed them to be servants of the Servants, probably on their way to their homes.

  I sloshed up behind Dwalia. She astonished me by swivelling about, seizing me by my collar and near lifting me off my feet to shake me at the guards. ‘The Unexpected Son!’ she snarled at them. ‘Do you want to be the ones who delayed his arrival before the Four?’

  The guards exchanged glances. The taller man looked back at her. ‘That old myth?’

  Vindeliar came shuddering up beside us. One guard nudged the other. ‘That’s Vindeliar. No mistaking that treacherous little gelding. So she is Dwalia. Let them in.’

  Dwalia did not release her grip on my collar as the gate opened and we passed through. I tried not to resist her pulling but it meant walking on my tiptoes. I could not look back to see Vindeliar following but I heard the thud of the barred gate as it shut behind us.

  A road of dun sand stretched before us. The sun woke sparkles in it. It
was straight and featureless. To either side of it, a barren and rocky landscape spread. It was so flat and empty that I knew that the hands of men had shaped it. Nothing could cross this expanse of ground and not be seen. Never had I seen an area so devoid of small life. The only relief to the eye were occasional stones, and none of them was larger than a bushel basket. Dwalia suddenly released me. ‘Don’t dawdle. And don’t speak,’ she ordered me, and then set off at her distance-eating stride again. Her once-fine skirts were wet and slapped against her legs as she walked. I followed, trying to match her pace. When I lifted my eyes to stare at our destination, it dazzled me more than the sunlight on the water. The white walls of the castle glittered. We walked and walked and seemed to come no closer. Gradually I began to realize that I had greatly underestimated how large a fortress it was. Or castle. Or palace. From the ship, I had seen eight towers. This close to it, when I looked up, I saw only two, and the misshapen heads that topped them looked like skulls. I slogged along, head lowered as the sun pounded down on us and eyes half-closed against the brightness. Every time I lifted my head, the aspect of the immense structure at the end of the long road seemed to have changed.

  When we were close enough that I had to crane my neck back to see the tops of the walls, the ornate bas-reliefs on the outside of the walls became evident. They were the only marks I could see on the smooth white walls. From this vantage, I saw no windows, not even arrow slits, and no doors. On this side of the castle, there was no access at all. Yet the road led directly to it. White on white, the etched carvings were many times taller than a man, and glittering even brighter than the walls they graced. I stared for a moment and then had to look away and close my eyes. But when I shut my eyes, there the carvings were again, inside my eyelids, like a climbing white vine.

  I recognized it.

  Impossibly, I knew what it was. I remembered it, from a life I had never lived or perhaps from a future I had yet to see. That vine had crawled through my dreams. I’d drawn it on the front page of my journal to frame my name. I’d given it leaves and trumpet flowers. I’d been wrong. It was an abstract representation. And there was a thought I’d never had before, that an artist could create a picture of an idea, and I would know what it was. I recognized it as the river of all possible times, cascading down from the present and splitting into a thousand, no a million, no an infinite number of possible futures and every one of those splintered into another infinity of possible futures. And among them all, a single gleaming thread, incredibly narrow, that represented the future as it could, should and ought to be. If events were guided correctly. If the White Prophet dreamed and believed and ventured forth to put that world on the path, time would follow it.

  I opened my eyes again, for I had only closed them for a moment. There it was again, before me, and despite all I had come through, all I had endured to come here and how much I hated the people who had brought me here, I suddenly felt a lift of belonging. I was here at last.

  A certainty rose in me, clearer than anything I had ever known about myself. I was supposed to be here. In this place and in this time, this was where I was supposed to be. A dozen dreams I had had suddenly spun and then interlocked with more recent dreams inside me. The vague plan was no longer vague. I’d felt a similar surge of certainty on the day I had freed my tongue. I’d seen the paths with such clarity only once before in my life, on that fateful day in winter when the beggar had touched me and I’d seen how all futures began at my feet. Oh, the great good that I could do, now that I was here. My fate was here and only I could shape it. It stole my breath away. And as I gazed, I felt my heart lift, just as the minstrels described it could happen. I was here and the great work of my life was before me.

  I realized I had stopped only when Vindeliar trudged past me. He looked at me with a gaze full of venom and I found I could not care. A smile pulled at my mouth. Walls up.

  ‘Bee, hurry up!’ Dwalia snapped the command over her shoulder.

  ‘Coming!’ I replied and something in my tone made her halt and look back at me. I cast my eyes down and bowed my head. This was not a thing to share with anyone. I needed to hold it close inside me. The knowledge was like a glittering stone scooped from a filthy puddle. I saw the shine of it, but I knew that the more I handled it, the cleaner and clearer it would become.

  And like a jewel, if I revealed it, thieves would take it from me, in any way they could.

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