Assassins fate, p.57
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       Assassin's Fate, p.57

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

  He spoke on, not asking any questions, and I listened silently as the light slowly, slowly faded from the long summer afternoon. I heard the woman who had opened the door speaking to someone. No one answered. I sat still. I heard her steps and her voice came again, closer. ‘Here you are.’

  This time I heard some muttered thanks. I dared to slip silently from my bed and venture to the door. I heard footsteps and the soft clatter of dishes on a tray. The footsteps paused, and a woman said something and received muttered thanks. I listened intently and heard her stop twice more before she reached the cell next to mine. It was the guard who had unlocked the door to admit me. She set a dish on the floor and slid it wordlessly under the barred door of my neighbour’s cell. When she came to mine, she frowned and shook her head. ‘So small you are. Here’s your food. I’ll return with water for you.’ She took a breath as if to speak more, but then folded her lips and moved on. Only two bowls remained on her tray. I heard her pause twice more toward the end of the corridor. So, seven of us held in what had looked like twenty or more cells.

  I drew my bowl closer to me and considered it. The stringy vegetable lumps were a peculiar orange colour. There were six of them, on a bed of a grain I did not recognize. Shreds of cabbage added their strong odour, and some other green herb had been chopped and sprinkled over it. A little paddle was thrust into the pottage. I ate it all, though the herb stung my tongue. And when she came back to take my dish and leave me a little pot of water with a fat base and a narrow neck, I drank almost all of it. A little I set aside, thinking that if she brought me more water tomorrow, this much I would use to wash my face.

  A long evening deepened into a darker night. The guard came to light the lamp – a fat pot with a little wick sticking out of its spout. The flame burned very white and gave off a smell like pine trees. The night wind whispered through the walls, bringing with it the smell of the sea. As the sun went down, I heard the gulls crying. I sat on the edge of my bed and thought of the Four discussing what I might be and wondered what I could make them believe. They knew too much. Capra knew my father was the Unexpected Son. So I could not claim that. I told them I was only the child of a servant, stolen from my ravaged home, just a simple little girl. If they believed that, would they release me? Sell me? Or kill me as worthless?

  If they knew what my dreams had told me I was, they would certainly kill me.

  I wanted Wolf Father, but dared not lower my walls. What if there were others in Clerres who had the same sort of powers as Vindeliar?

  Night darkened. I heard whispering from the other cells but I could not make out the words. I wondered who else was held here and what they had done. I stood and shook out the blanket that I scarcely needed in so warm a place. I took off my shoes and put them neatly side by side. I dragged the sad floppy mattress off the bedframe, spread it on the floor in the open space near the door and folded it in half to give it some thickness. I put the blanket on top of it, curled up on it and closed my eyes.

  I woke up with tears on my cheeks and my throat tight. I felt my father’s hand on my head and I reached up to seize it. ‘Da! Why did it take so long for you to find me? I want to go home!’

  He didn’t answer but gently pulled his fingers through my tangled curls. Then the deep, rich voice spoke again. ‘So. Little one. What did you do?’

  I caught my breath and sat up. The light from the kettle-lamp barely reached me. I scrabbled back from what the feeble light showed me. A hand had reached around the corner from the next cell and into mine. The skin was the blackest I had ever seen on any living creature. That hand had been touching my head. I tried to quiet my breathing but I was panting with fear.

  The voice came again. ‘How can you be afraid of me? There is a wall between us. I can do you no harm. Talk to me, little one. For I have been here so very long, and no one else speaks to me. I would like to know what goes on in the great outside world. What brought you here?’ The hand turned over, showing me a paler palm. I imagined that the owner of the hand must be lying on the floor of the next cell, shoulder pressed tight against the barred wall to reach through to my cell. He said nothing more and the hand just lay there, open and imploring.

  ‘Who are you?’ I asked. And then, ‘What did you do?’ Was I next door to a murderer? I reminded myself of how kind Dwalia had been in the first moments I met her. I would not be tricked so easily again.

  ‘My name is Prilkop. I was the White Prophet of my time, but that was many, many years ago. I’ve been through many, many skin changes in my life.’

  A dim memory stirred. Had Dwalia said that name? Had I read it in my father’s papers?

  ‘And why am I here?’ he continued. He spoke very softly. I edged closer to the bars to hear his answer. ‘For speaking the truth. For doing my duty to the world. Come, child, I’m nothing to fear, and I think you need a friend. What’s your name, little one?’

  I didn’t want to tell him. Instead I asked, ‘Why does no one speak to you?’

  ‘They’re afraid of me. Or, more exactly, they’re afraid of what they might hear. Afraid they might learn something that will trouble them.’

  ‘I can’t be in any more trouble.’

  I meant my words one way. He took them another. ‘I think that is quite possibly true. Nor can I have any more trouble than I already do. So. Tell me your story, little one.’

  I was quiet, thinking. I could not trust anyone. Anything I told him, he might tell others. Might that be useful?

  ‘They came to my house in the middle of a bright, snowy day. Right before Winterfest. To steal me. Because they thought I was the Unexpected Son. But I’m not.’

  I tried to be so careful of what I told him but once I began to talk to him, words dropped from my mouth, often out of order or choked to a squeak by the tightness of my throat. I never put my hand in his but somehow he ended up holding both my dirty bare feet in his one big black hand.

  I talked in circles, telling him part of the tale and then going back to explain Vindeliar and telling him of hiding Perseverance under my cloak, but he was probably dead anyway, and how they had stolen Shun with me, but she had escaped. I started shaking as I told him, and he gently pressed my feet and said nothing. Over and over, I insisted their taking me was a terrible mistake. And when my confused telling was all spilled in splattered tears and words, he said, ‘Poor little thing. You are not the Unexpected Son. I know, for I have met him—and his prophet.’

  I grew very still. Was it a trick? But what he said next was even more frightening.

  ‘I dreamed you. You become possible the day the Beloved was pulled back from death, undoing so many, many dream prophecies. On that day, I knew something had torn through all the futures and replaced them with new possibilities. It terrified me. I had believed my days as a dream-prophet were well and truly spent. That my time was over, and I could return home. Then the dream of you came. Oh, I did not know it would be you, then. But I was shocked. And afraid of your coming.

  ‘I tried to make it less likely. As soon as Beloved and his Catalyst returned to me, as soon as I could, I persuaded them to part. I thought I had done enough to shift the world into a better path.’ The big hand closed briefly around my foot. ‘But when I began dreaming about you again, I knew it was too late. You existed. And by your existence, you created many possible divergences from the true Path.’

  ‘You dreamed of me?’ I wiped my wet face with my shirtfront.

  ‘I did.’

  ‘What did you dream?’

  His hand went lax under my feet. I didn’t move them. His words came as slow as dripping honey. ‘I dreamed many dreams. Not always about you but futures that became possible when you existed. I dreamed of a wolf that unmasked a puppeteer. I dreamed of a scroll that unwrote itself. I dreamed of a man who shook planks off himself and became two dragons. I dreamed—’

  ‘I dreamed that one, too!’ I spoke before I considered if I should.

  Silence, save for two other prisoners whispering
down the corridor. ‘I’m not surprised. Though I am frightened.’

  ‘But why are those dreams me?’

  He laughed softly. ‘I dreamed a whirlwind of fire, come to change everything. I reached out to take its hand. Do you know what happened?’

  ‘It burned you?’

  ‘No. It offered me its foot, instead. Its little bare foot.’

  I snatched my feet back as if I were the one who had been burned. He laughed softly, very quietly. ‘Done is done, little one. I know you, now. I knew you would come. I did not expect you to be a child. So. Now will you tell me your name?’

  I thought carefully. ‘My name is Bee.’

  He said nothing. His hand was still there, open on the cell floor. I thought it must be very uncomfortable for him to lie on his floor and reach around to my cell like that.

  ‘If you dreamed about me, can you tell me what is going to happen to me?’

  His stillness was like a curtain. The lamp in the corridor outside my cell was running out of oil. I did not have to see it to know how the flame danced on the end of the wick, sucking up the last of it. Finally, the dark rich voice spoke again. ‘Bee. Nothing happens to you. You happen to everything.’

  Slowly he drew his hand back. He did not speak again that night.


  * * *


  Our informants have indicated that a large shipment of excellent quality jade and turquoise, both raw and worked, is being amassed at Kerl Bay on the Reden Peninsula. Another ship there is loading excellent hardwood timbers.

  In the past six months, three luriks have dreamed about a great storm. Two dreamed of ships broken and wrecked on the rock as clouds parted to reveal a quarter moon.

  While we remain uncertain of the exact month of the storm, three luriks felt this event to be close in the future paths.

  It is the opinion of this collator that if a ship were stationed in Skalen Cove near the Harke Rocks, following the storm there might be excellent scavenging. It might be a good idea to have on such a vessel the sort of sailors who could deal with those who might dispute ownership of such a valuable cargo as well. Even if our vessel must remain at the ready for six months, the profit would still be substantial.

  Report to the Four from Collator Jens of the Seventh Rank

  How could I have slept so heavily? I awoke to a woman nudging me. She had pushed the toe of her sandalled foot under the barred door and was poking me with it. ‘Move away, please. I will slide your porridge in.’ Her voice was low and neutral. Sunlight washed lace patterns on the floor. Shells. Flowers.

  I sat up and for a time nothing made sense. Then I remembered. Dwalia beaten bloody, and me in a cell. And in the night, a friend? I stood up and pressed my face against the bars, trying to see into the next cell. All I could see was slightly more of the corridor.

  The woman who had wakened me had brown hair and eyes. She wore a simple garment of pale blue, sleeveless and sashed at the waist. It stopped at her knees, and on her feet she had simple leather sandals. She stooped and set her tray on the floor, took a bowl of porridge from it and slid the bowl under the barred door. Plain beige porridge in a white bowl. No cream, no honey, no berries. No Withywoods, no clatter of cooking and waiting for my father to come. Just plain porridge with a wooden spoon stuck in it. I tried to be grateful as I ate it. It tasted of nothing. When the woman came back to take the bowl, I asked her, ‘May I have water to wash myself?’

  She looked puzzled at my request. ‘I wasn’t told to give you any.’

  ‘Can you ask permission to give me some?’

  Her eyebrows rose almost to her hairline. ‘Of course not!’

  The dark rich voice from the night before spoke. ‘She cannot do anything except what she is told to do.’

  ‘That isn’t true!’ the woman exclaimed, and then clapped both hands over her mouth. She stooped and hastily piled my bowl onto the waiting tray and hurried off so quickly that the dishes jounced noisily on the tray.

  ‘You scared her,’ I said.

  ‘She scares herself. They all do.’

  I was distracted by the sound of the door opening at the end of the walkway. I pressed my cheek hard to the bars and saw the Four enter one at a time. They were not dressed as grandly today, but still they wore their colours. Four soldiers followed them. Symphe was in a loose red gown. It had no sleeves and fell from her shoulders to her feet in folds, interrupted only by a scarlet belt that cinched it at her waist. Fellowdy was in a long yellow tunic and trousers that barely reached his knees. Some of Coultrie’s cosmetics had flaked onto his green vest as if he had just come in from a snowfall. Capra’s attire surprised me. She wore what looked to me like a blue shirt with loose flowing sleeves. If she had trousers on at all, they were shorter than the shirt was long. Her bared legs were sturdy but as pale as a fish’s belly. She wore sandals of brown leather that slapped against her feet as she walked. I had never seen anyone so attired, and I stared at her when she stood outside my cage.

  ‘Unlock,’ Symphe announced, and offered an elaborate fob to the guard. The man took it, then stepped forward and inserted an oddly shaped key into the bar that closed my door and turned it. One after another, each of the other three guards received a key and turned it in the lock. When all four keys had been turned and were standing in the bar, Capra stepped forward and slid the bar aside. ‘You will come with me,’ she told me as I stepped out of the cell. She spoke to the other three as the guards retrieved the keys and restored them to each owner. ‘I will return her here at the beginning of the third watch. You will meet me here then with your key-guards.’ She looked down at me. ‘Will you obey me and stay by my side, or must I leash you?’

  The key-guard who attended her held up for my inspection a chain and collar. I looked from it to Capra. ‘I will obey you,’ I lied.

  ‘Good. Come along, then.’ The others stepped out of our way and I followed on Capra’s heels, her guard behind me. I longed to peer into the cell next to mine but her guard herded me quickly past. I had only the briefest glimpse of a black man sitting on a bunk, his head bowed.

  Behind us, I heard Symphe say to Coultrie and Fellowdy, ‘I do not approve of this. It is true, the girl may be nothing at all. She may not even have White bloodlines. I have heard that folk from the mountains in the far north are sometimes as pale as true Whites. But what if Dwalia spoke true and somehow she is the Unexpected Son from the dreams? Why should Capra have the first opportunity to speak with her?’

  ‘Because you all agreed to it!’ Capra called sharply over her shoulder. To me, she said, ‘Don’t dawdle.’ I did not feel that we fled, but we certainly left their company as swiftly as we could. Few of the cells we passed were occupied. The prisoners sat sedately on their beds, doing nothing. As if she heard my unvoiced question, Capra said, ‘They are not evil. Simply wilful. We put them here to correct them. They will become useful, and then they will be allowed to rejoin their fellows. Or … they won’t.’ She did not say what else would befall them if they did not become useful.

  For a white-haired old woman she moved very quickly as we descended the same steps I had climbed the day before. Down we went, until we reached the ground floor. When we emerged in the main corridor, she swiftly led me off in a different direction. We passed chambers with their doors open, and I glimpsed windows that looked out onto a lovely garden. Soon enough, we entered a room with statuary and cushioned benches. Beyond it was a garden with a large pool in the middle. We crossed swiftly through it, and I felt almost dizzied by the heady fragrance of the trees in bloom. There was a shady portico along the front of a long wall with a series of doors in it. She opened one. I smelled a sharp scent on the cloud of steam that rolled out.

  ‘Go wash yourself. Your hair, your feet, all of you. You will find garments on a bench there. After you have dried yourself, put them on and come out. Do not be slow, but be thorough. You stink.’

  She delivered her command and her judgment in an impersonal to
ne. The prospect of warm water made me swift to obey her. I entered and was glad to close the door behind me. Light came into the room from high windows. My hope that there might be another exit was quickly dashed. In the room was a bench with the promised clean garments and some sandals beneath it, and a drying cloth. There was a pot of something soft like pudding. I dipped my fingers into it and rubbed them together. Soap, I surmised, scented with some sharp herb. A low tub of smoothed and polished stone held steaming water. There was nothing else in the room.

  I stripped hastily with many a backward glance at the door. I rolled my dirty garments around my precious candle and set it carefully on the bench before I stepped down into the tub. It was far deeper than I had expected. The water was almost too hot and came up to my chin when I sat down. For a moment, it was all I could do just to sit there. I leaned back and let myself sink completely under the water. When I came up, I saw that pale brown rivulets of dirty water were coming from my hair. I was not surprised but I was still embarrassed. I helped myself to a handful of the soap and stood up to scrub myself with it. After a bit of hesitation, I rubbed it through my hair as well, and then rinsed myself in the now greyish water.

  I had not been naked since my time with Trader Akriel, and the fading browns and greens of various bruises still showed on my hips and shins. My toenails were cracked and rub as I might some dirt remained caught in them. The skin of my hands had been roughened by the various tasks I’d done for Dwalia, the hands of a servant, not a high-born Buck girl. I knew a moment of shame that I had not known before that the kitchen girls’ chapped hands were evidence of the sort of work that had never been expected of me. So often I had cursed the events that had taken me away from my comfortable life, and now I had a little jolt of realization. How would it have been to be born a slave or a servant, to know that the abuse I’d suffered was to be my daily life?

  I put on the garments and felt oddly naked in them. They were loose and the trousers came barely to my knees, but the sleeves of the blouse fell past my wrists. The fabric of both garments was
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