Assassins fate, p.56
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       Assassin's Fate, p.56

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

  thongs around the handle. Their fingers were bloody, their strong arms and stoic faces speckled with blood. Dwalia remained where she was, panting. She had long ceased crying out. What was the sense in crying out when it would avail you nothing? All the nights I had whispered pleas for my father to find me had availed me nothing. The wash of futility I felt left me cold and empty. And free to act.

  Capra cleared her throat. If she was moved at all by the horror she had inflicted on Dwalia, it did not show in her voice as she issued her commands. ‘Take her to the lowest levels. Confine her there. Vindeliar, go to your chamber and resume your old duties tomorrow.’

  Vindeliar was already in motion, scuttling for the door. He looked back once at Dwalia, his mouth turned down in a grimace. Then he was sidling out the door and it closed behind him. It took both guards to get Dwalia to her feet. One unfastened the chain from her neck as the other unhooked it from the floor ring and returned the panel to its place. Then each guard took an arm and stood her up between them. She could not walk but lurched and stumbled and dragged. The sounds of pain she made were pitiful. I stayed where I was. For one awful moment, she lifted her head. Her eyes burned with hatred of me. Her hands had bloody welts on the back where she had sheltered her face from the lashes. She pointed a shaking finger at me and said something.

  ‘What was that she said?’ Coultrie demanded.

  No one spoke; perhaps no one else had made out her words. I had.

  ‘Your turn now.’


  * * *

  Hand and Foot

  A rat’s head on a stick. No one holds the stick but it is shaken at the dreamer. The rat squeaks. ‘The bait is the trap, the trapper the trapped!’ The rat’s mouth is red, its teeth yellow; its eyes are black and shining. It appears to be the sort of large brown rat often seen near the docks of Clerres town. It has a black-and-white ruff about its neck, and the staff it is fixed to is green and yellow.

  Capra’s Dream 903872, recorded by Lingstra Okuw

  ‘Well, that was unpleasant,’ Symphe muttered.

  ‘Blame yourself,’ Capra countered. ‘You created that moment. Releasing Beloved, lying to me. Allowing that sour-faced wretch to think she had the perspicacity of a White Prophet. You encouraged her to create this mess. I suppose I must be the one to set events back on their proper course.’

  ‘I will take charge of the child,’ Symphe announced.

  I heard their voices as one might hear flies buzzing at a window. Dwalia was gone. Only her spattered and smeared blood remained. Vindeliar was gone. I was alone in this place they had brought me to. I stared up at the lovely woman. Pretty did not mean kind. She did not look at me.

  ‘That you shall not,’ Capra announced.

  ‘We should all have access to her, to determine her value,’ Fellowdy suggested.

  Capra laughed low. ‘We know what value you would give her, Fellowdy. No.’

  Coultrie spoke in a low voice. ‘Do away with the creature. Right now. It will only cause division among us, and we’ve had enough of that. Recall how Beloved’s return set us against one another.’ He frowned so severely that the cosmetics on his face flaked a sprinkling of powder.

  ‘“Never do that which you can’t undo, until you’ve perceived what you can’t do once you’ve done it.” That is among our oldest teachings, you idiot! We need to summon collators and search for any possible references to her.’ Symphe spoke smoothly.

  ‘That will take days!’ Coultrie objected.

  ‘As you are not the one who will be doing the work, why should you care?’ Fellowdy replied. In a quieter voice, he added, ‘As if you could understand the dreams, having never had any of your own.’

  ‘Do you think I am deaf?’ Coultrie demanded angrily, to which Fellowdy smiled and replied, ‘Of course not. You are merely blind to the futures.’

  ‘Enough!’ Capra snapped. She glanced at me and I looked away. I feared to have her look into my eyes. Something in her stare seemed to gloat, as if she kept to herself some bit of knowledge. ‘Symphe, I propose that we hold her in the upper cells. In safety. In health. Perhaps she is nothing but a blonde child stolen from scutwork in FitzChivalry’s home. Dwalia offered us no proof that she is otherwise. If she were truly of Beloved’s lineage, she would be dreaming by now, and Dwalia would have offered the records of her dreams to us as proof of her value. I suspect she is nothing but a ruse, an excuse for Dwalia’s losses.’

  ‘Then why not leave her with me?’ Symphe demanded. ‘I could use another maidservant.’

  Capra’s look was deadly. ‘A ruse can be used more than once, dear girl. Dwalia claims Beloved is dead. She said nothing of FitzChivalry, his Catalyst. If this child is his or has value to him we may find that once more we deal with the Unexpected Son. The real one. The one who aided Beloved to thwart us. So, she needs to be confined until we determine if there is any truth at all to Dwalia’s tale. Until we have wrung the full truth from both Dwalia and that monster she has cultivated.’

  ‘I do not think that is necessary. What do you—’

  Capra spoke over her. ‘Or I will have them all killed. As I should have done with Beloved.’

  My heart was beating so hard at their words that I thought my whole body shook with it.

  A silence fell. Coultrie spoke. ‘What right have you to dictate to us? There are four of us.’

  ‘I have the right of my years. My experience. My wisdom. And as you went behind my back with your decision to allow Beloved to “escape”, I think it is my turn to make a decision in which none of you have a say!’ She paused and satisfaction gleamed in her fish-eyes. ‘Oh, look away and pretend you could deceive me! Such a farce. Do you think I do not know how you diverted funds and resources to Dwalia? You think I have no knowledge of the bird messages she used to send back to you?’ She shook her head at their naiveté and her smile was a terrible thing to see. ‘You have forgotten who dreams better and deeper and more than any of you or your Clerres-bred Whites! You thought you had kept your secrets from me: but I have balanced that scale with the dreams I’ve withheld from you!

  ‘While you indulged Dwalia’s profitless quest for revenge, you ignored our larger problem. Not a child who may or may not be of the White bloodline, but the damnable dragons. All we sought to prevent has happened. Dragons are loose in the world again, and the luriks who remain to us are dreaming dark visions of wolves and sons and dragons. We came within a finger snap of ending them forever! Yet dragons do not forgive. And dragons do not forget. But apparently, you three do forget that, above all, dragons do not forget a wrong done them! It is time you stopped playing at petty politics here and looked to the future. Beloved has cracked the foundation of our knowledge, but we are rebuilding it with new dreams and prophecies. We can take back the rudder and steer the world to our advantage. But all that would end if we were to look up and see wings in the skies over Clerres.’

  A silence fell during which I came slowly to my feet. I was ashamed of my wet trousers. They clung to me, cold now. I clutched my little bundle to my chest and allowed the tears to come to my eyes. I’d had time to weave a pitiful shield of lies. I tried to hope they would work. ‘I want to go home. Please. I don’t understand any of this. I just want to go home.’

  Their gazes converged on me, exhibiting various degrees of astonishment and disapproval. I made my lower lip quiver. Symphe, the lovely young woman, spoke sternly. ‘You do not speak to any of us unless we tell you to. Is that clear?’

  I lowered my gaze. Could I use this? ‘Yes, ma’am. Dwalia told me not to talk to any of you. I should have remembered.’

  I kept my head bent but tried to watch them through my lashes. Symphe looked uncomfortable. I dared myself and spoke in the most childish voice I could muster. ‘Dwalia said we would talk to Symphe alone. Or with Fellowdy. She taught me dreams to say. Do you want to hear them now?’

  Symphe must have given a signal, something I didn’t see. The swung foot of the guard swept my fee
t from under me. My elbow struck the floor hard and the pain shot into my hand and my shoulder. I clutched it and curled around it.

  ‘A cell,’ Symphe suggested coldly. ‘On the lower level. Take her now.’

  Again, I was seized by the back of my shirt and handled like a sack. I hugged my little bundle of clothing, hoping it would shield me from the blow I expected. My toes barely touched the floor as the guards dragged me to the tall doors. Behind me, I heard Symphe declare, ‘I propose that later tonight we gather. We will talk and then we will go together to see what she has to say. Until then, no one should visit her. No one.’

  The old woman laughed. ‘Oh, dear little Symphe. Did she start to tell your secrets? Did you really believe that I did not already know—’

  The doors closed on her words. My collar was cutting into my throat. I clutched at it with both hands. ‘Let her breathe,’ said the guard who didn’t have hold of me, and I was abruptly dropped to the floor. I sprawled there, gasping. I could smell Dwalia’s blood on both of them, and garlic. One of them needed a bath. Badly.

  ‘Get up,’ one said, and nudged me with his sandalled foot. I obeyed, but slowly. There were people in the corridor, staring at us. I looked down. Blood smears on the floor. They’d brought Dwalia this way. They were going to put me in a cell near her. With her? Dread froze me.

  ‘Walk or be dragged,’ the same guard said.

  ‘Walk,’ I said breathlessly. Would there be a chance for me to break free and run? Run where?

  Then, from behind us, I heard a call. ‘Guards, wait!’

  It was Fellowdy who called to us. ‘It has been decided we will keep her on the upper level, behind a Lock of Four. Take her there. We will join you shortly.’

  ‘We obey,’ one of the guards said. The one that had caught me by the collar gave me a push. I walked past well-dressed folk who turned to gawk after us as they herded me along. A door opened to one side, and I glimpsed a beautiful ballroom. Two girls my age, dressed all in lace and escorted by pages, stared curiously as they passed us and the guards hurried me along to get me out of their sight.

  The first flight of stairs lifted in a wide spiral. My guards did not pause on the landing and even though I was panting and half-sick by then, I climbed alongside them up the second flight of stairs and then along a brown-panelled corridor. At intervals, shelves jutted from the walls, each holding a fat lamp shaped rather like a teapot. There were no windows to admit light, but there were doors to either side of the carpeted hall. We moved through a perpetual gloom. The burning oil smelled like a pine forest.

  We passed an open door and I had a glimpse of a room that was lined with little boxed shelves with scrolls sticking out of them. From floor to ceiling they went, and it reminded me of a honeycomb, or the chambers in a paper wasps’ nest. At long tables, people sat with scrolls unfurled and weighted to lie open beside stacks of paper and inkpots and pen stands. I wanted to stare but when I slowed, one of the guards slapped me on the back of my head. ‘Walk!’ he reminded me, and I walked.

  We passed another chamber full of tables and with the walls lined with books rather than scrolls. Scribes lifted their eyes from the pages and stared as we passed. I saw no windows, but squares of light shone through the stonework. I’d never seen such a thing. Some of the people in there were not much older than me and others were older than my father. Their robes were all a rich green. They were not Whites and I guessed that these were the Servants of the Whites. No one spoke as we passed though I felt their curious glances.

  At the end of the corridor was a door and yet another set of steps. These were narrower and steeper, and I struggled to keep moving. At the top, I turned to look back. One of the guardsmen looked away from my gaze. The other never met it. He pounded on a door that had a little barred window in it until a woman with dark hair and brown eyes came and looked through the bars. ‘What is it?’ she demanded.

  ‘Lock of Four,’ one of them said.

  She raised her brows. ‘For whom?’

  He gestured down. She stood on her tiptoes to look down at me. ‘Oh,’ she said. ‘Very well.’ I saw her puzzlement, but she unlocked the door and we went into a very small room. She turned away from us and unlocked a second door. Bright sunlight flooded in and she led us out onto a flat, unroofed area. I blinked my eyes and then lifted my hand to shade them. Light bounced back at me from a white floor. I squinted. It was a large area, with tall walls, and I caught a glimpse of a guard walking slowly along on top of the wall. We were on the roof of the stronghold. The tall graceful towers I had glimpsed rose from each corner of the structure.

  ‘This way,’ she said. I followed the woman and the guardsmen came behind me. I held one hand over my sun-dazzled eyes, squinting through my spread fingers. It seemed ridiculous: small me in the midst of such vigilance. We crossed an open space and then entered a narrower way, fronted with iron-barred chambers on both sides. Some were occupied but most were empty. I halted when the woman halted.

  She looked down at me. ‘Now we wait for the Four, for only they have the keys to these last four cells. Give me that sack.’

  I surrendered my small carry-pack reluctantly. She opened it and looked inside. ‘Just clothes,’ I told her. She said nothing as she rummaged through my tattered garments, then handed it back to me.

  I heard a door shut and low contentious voices and squinted back the way we had come. The Four. The moment they became aware we were waiting, their conversation ceased. Each had a guard accompanying them. They walked briskly to where we stood. Symphe took an elaborate key on a jewelled fob from a pocket concealed in her skirts. She handed it to her guard, who inserted it into a long bar and turned it with a sharp ‘snap’. Then she stepped back as Coultrie handed a key with a white bone handle to his guard. Another snap. When all four keys had been inserted and turned, the woman who had guided us slid the long metal bar to one side and opened the door. She motioned me inside.

  As I stepped through the door, I heard a deep soft voice from the next cell. ‘What, Symphe? Not even a hello? Coultrie, you should wash your face. You look ridiculous. Fellowdy, have you no youngster to bugger today? Ah, and here is Capra. I see you have washed the blood off your hands for this visit. How formal of you.’

  Not a one of them flinched or responded. I was within my cage and couldn’t peer into the next one but I wondered who it was who so boldly challenged the Four. Then the first guardswoman shut the barred door with a clang. Each guard stepped forward to turn a key and remove it, and then present it to their master or mistress.

  ‘Child,’ Capra said abruptly. ‘Tell me your name and your father’s name.’

  I had rehearsed it. ‘I am Bee Badgerlock, of Withywoods. My father is Holder Tom Badgerlock. He manages the sheep and the orchards and the grounds for Lord FitzChivalry. Please, just let me go home!’

  Her eyes were flat. I hadn’t lied, not at all. I looked at her earnestly.

  Without a farewell or words of any sort, they all walked away. From the next cell, I heard that soft voice again. ‘Eleven adults to lock up one little child. Are they right to fear you?’

  I dared no response. They might ignore him, but I thought they might come back to beat me. Clutching my bundle, I surveyed my cell. There was a pot for waste in the corner, and a low bedstead with a straw-stuffed mattress with a single blanket of undyed wool at the foot of it. The back wall of my cell was of lacy white stone; the openings that let in air and light were shaped like leaves and flowers and seashells. I tried my hand in one. It could fit and I could reach all the way through to the outer wall. The wall was as thick as my hand and forearm. These cells would be unpleasant in winter, I thought to myself. Then I wondered if winter even came to this region, and whether I would live long enough to see it.

  The cell was not much wider than the bed, with just room for me to walk past it. The door and the wall that faced the walkway were of bars. I had an unimpeded view of the empty cell across from mine. I would have no privacy here, not for usi
ng the waste pot or for changing out of my urine-soaked trousers.

  I could not quite poke my head out between the bars. I looked as far as I could up and down the walkway, but saw no one. I had a small amount of private time. I pulled out the blue trousers that Trader Akriel had given me. I’d been wearing them the night they killed her. Her favourite shade of blue. And some brown spots of her blood. There were gaping holes in the knees now and the cuffs were frayed to fringe. But they were dry. I hastily changed and then spread out my wet trousers on the floor of my cell to dry.

  I sat down on the edge of the bed. The straw mattress was thin. It crushed flat beneath me and I felt the ropes of the bedstead. It would, I decided, be more comfortable to pull the mattress off the bedstead and sleep on the floor. I went again to the door and peered out. The walkway was still empty. Only then did I allow myself to open the collar of my shirt. I tucked my chin and nose inside it and smelled the elusive, fading scent of honeysuckle from my battered, flaking candle.

  ‘Mama,’ I said aloud, as I had not said since I was very small. Tears stung my eyes as if my spoken word had summoned grief from the grave rather than any remembrance of her.

  ‘You are very, very young to be in such a large amount of trouble,’ the soft voice said. I froze and made no sound, my heart hammering. The voice was deep and though the words were in Common they were flavoured with a foreign accent. ‘Tell me, little thing. What wrong have you done? Or what wrong do the Four imagine you have done, to merit being locked away like this?’

  I said nothing. I sat as small as I could, unmoving lest the crackling of straw betray that I was there.

  He did not speak for a long time. Then he said, ‘When I was a boy this was a beautiful place. There were no cells here then. It had been quarters for an emperor’s wives, but by the time I knew this place, it was a lovely roof garden. Latticework pergolas gentled the sun. All manner of flowers and healing herbs grew here in pots. I used to come here in the evenings, when the night-blooming jasmine flavoured the air. And on the hottest nights, when the wind off the sea cooled these chambers, I’d sleep up here.’

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