Assassins fate, p.62
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       Assassin's Fate, p.62

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

  impart wisdom to the younger Whites. And so, began the first phase in our captivity.

  ‘That was when Prilkop agreed we must send someone else to warn you. I had my doubts but we agreed that this new prophet, Unexpected Son or not, must be found and protected. And who else did we have out in the wide world who could undertake such a thing? Only you.’ He swallowed but his guilt stuck in his throat. ‘And so we sent out our messengers, two by two. I dared not give them clear directions, but sent them off with riddles to solve and obscure references to you. They were as naïve as children, and as eager to be the heroes of the tale. Oh, Fitz, I am so ashamed now. Prilkop and I, we prepared them as best we could, and they were as determined to go as we were to send them. But they knew nothing of the outside world. They were fired with the desire to help us. To save the world. And they went. And they never returned or sent word back. I believe they all met horrible ends.’

  There is nothing one can say to such words. One can only listen. After a time, he spoke again. ‘One night, after the evening meal, I felt unwell. I took to my bed. And the next time I awoke, I was in a cell. Prilkop sprawled on the floor nearby. Coultrie came to the door of our cell and told us that we were charged with corrupting the young Whites and urging them to run away. And that we could no longer be allowed to move freely about Clerres, but that we might regain our standing if we would help them find the Unexpected Son, the new White born in the wild. Truthfully, we told them we knew nothing of such a child.’ His smile was a grimace. ‘They held us in cells on the highest level of the stronghouse. The back walls were like filigree or lace, and white as bone, but as thick as my forearm is long. We were allowed comfortable beds and good meals, and given pen and parchment to record our dreams. I knew that we still had value to them. We were locked up securely, with four locks, but we were not mistreated at all. At first.

  ‘Despite our fall from grace, there were a few manipulors and collators who remained loyal to us. We found a message baked into one of the little loaves of bread we were given. It was a valiant promise that they would continue to send messengers until they were sure one got through. I hated to think of the risks they would take, but had no way to beg them to stop. So, I dared to hope.’

  He dragged in a breath and closed the book on his lap. His groping hand found my shoulder and clutched it tightly. ‘Fitz. One day they moved us. From the pleasant, airy cells down to ones in the bowels of the stronghold. They were dark and damp, and looked out onto a sort of … stage, with seating around it. There was a table in the centre of the stage, and tools for torture. It smelled of old blood. Each day, I feared we would face irons and pincers and pokers. But we didn’t. Still, that sort of waiting and wondering … I cannot say how many days passed like that.

  ‘Each day they gave us each just a small loaf of bread and a pitcher of water. But one evening when they brought our food—’ He was gasping now. ‘The water pitcher … was full of blood. And when we broke open the bread, it was baked full of tiny bones. Finger bones …’ His voice was rising higher and higher. I put my hand on his gloved hand on my shoulder. It was all I could do.

  ‘Day after day … bloody water and bone-bread. We could not guess how many they killed. The second day they separated Prilkop from me. But the pitcher of blood and the bone-bread continued. They gave me nothing else to eat or drink, but I did not give in. I did not give in, Fitz.’

  He stopped to breathe, and for a time, that was all he could do. As if he had run a terrible race to escape these memories. But they had caught up with him at last.

  ‘Then, it stopped. They gave me a small loaf of coarse bread, but when I broke it, there were no bones in it. The next day, instead of bread, there were vegetables in a dark broth. I ate it. Bone-flour and blood-soup. For three days. Then, in the bread, a single tooth. And bobbing in the soup, a single pale eye. Oh, Fitz.’

  ‘You could not have known.’ My stomach turned.

  ‘I should have known. I should have guessed. I was so hungry. So thirsty. Did I know, did I guess and refuse to acknowledge it? I should have guessed, Fitz.’

  ‘You have not the darkness of heart to imagine such a thing, Fool.’ I could not stand to torment him any longer that night. ‘Go to sleep. You have told me enough. Tomorrow we take back Bee. And before we leave this city, I will kill as many of them as I can.’

  ‘If I sleep, I shall dream of it,’ he replied, his voice shaking. ‘They were brave, Fitz. Brave beyond any courage I have ever had. My allies, they did not stop. They helped me when they could. It was not often and it was not much. A kind word whispered as someone passed my cell. Once, some warm water on a cloth.’ He shook his head. ‘I fear they were harshly punished for those small mercies.’

  ‘Tomorrow, once we have Bee, I intend a different sort of “mercy” for the Four,’ I promised him.

  He could not smile at my extravagant promise. ‘I fear we cannot surprise them. The sheer number of dreams and dreamers they have to consult will betray us to them. And I fear they will be very ready to take me back and resume what they began.’ He put his face into his hands. His voice was muffled by his gloved fingers. ‘They consider me a traitor,’ he confided to me. ‘And for that reason, they hate me more vividly than for any other thing I have done. I do not fear that they will capture and kill me, Fitz. I fear they will capture me and never kill me.’

  I saw, not his fear, but his courage. He was terrified, but for Bee he would dare to tempt once more the powers of Clerres. I reached over, caught his cuffs and pulled his hands away from his face. Time to be honest. ‘Fool. I know what you dreamed. Not just what you told me, but all of it. And I understand your choice.’ He gave me a woeful look. ‘Paragon told me.’

  He gently pulled his hands free. ‘I should have known he’d be aware of what I dreamed. I’m still surprised he told you.’

  ‘I think he was concerned for you. As he demonstrated the first day I met him, he is very fond of you.’

  ‘Did he tell you all of it?’

  ‘He told me enough, Fool. You are correct. If there is a choice to be made, and one of us must die, then I would rather that you went on. I have not been a good parent to Bee. I think you might do better. And you will have Riddle and Nettle to aid you in that. And Dutiful will see that you have an allowance to maintain Withy—’

  He laughed harshly. ‘Oh, Fitz. That is not the choice! I do not choose between you and me living.’ A pause. He asked in a choked voice, ‘Did you truly think I would choose myself over you?’

  ‘It would be the sensible choice. For Bee’s sake.’

  ‘Oh, Fitz. No. The dreams do not even make it my choice. It is simply a divide in the possible ways the future may go.’ His voice grew tight. ‘On one, the Destroyer dies and the Unexpected Son lives. On the other, the Unexpected Son perishes. So, if it comes down to some act of mine, an act I cannot foresee, but desperately hope it will not, I will do what I must to see that Bee lives. Bee is who I will preserve, at all costs.’ His voice squeaked to a halt. Tears glinted in his sightless eyes.

  ‘Of course. Yes. That would be my choice as well.’

  ‘Knowing that still does not make me eager to confront such a decision.’

  A tap at the door stopped his words and he hastily wiped his tears on his sleeve. I opened the door. ‘I’m sorry it took so long. I had to wait for the water to boil,’ Spark said. She angled sideways to carry the tray into the room, pushed aside garments and set the tray on the bunk. ‘We’ve not much left of the Kelsingra teas. What would you like?’

  The Fool smiled. Spark looked at me accusingly. She knew he’d been weeping. The Fool spoke. ‘Actually, I’ve a tea I brought from Buckkeep. I’ve been saving it, but tonight I think I shall indulge myself. It has peppermint and spearmint from the Women’s Garden, and fine grated gingerroot dried to a powder. A bit of elderberry as well.’

  ‘Patience used to brew that for me,’ I recalled, and he smiled as he groped among his possessions and brought out a little leather pouc

  ‘I got the recipe from Burrich,’ he admitted. ‘There is just enough for a pot. Dump it in.’ He handed the pouch to Spark, and she upended it into the waiting teapot. As it brewed, the fragrance of a homely time, of simple teas and simple pleasures, filled the small room. Spark poured for us and we drank tea together as if we were not going to face death the next day. The fragrance stirred old memories, and Fool told her a tale or two of how Buckkeep Castle had been, once upon a time. He spoke of his fondness for King Shrewd and the pranks Hands and I had played in the stables. Of Garetha the garden girl who had loved him from afar, and Cook Nutmeg’s wonderful bread. Of Smithy and ginger-cakes and how the Women’s Garden smelled when the summer sun struck the lavender.

  Spark was reclining on her bunk and the Fool’s eyes were closed. When his voice faded to a murmur, I slipped away, closing the door softly behind me. I went to my hammock between Lant’s and Per’s. I climbed in and to my astonishment sleep came to find me.


  * * *

  Feather to Blade

  To Merchants Clifton, Anrosen and Bellidy,

  With our greatest apologies, we are unable to fulfil the terms of our contract with you. Our liveship, Kendry, has become unmanageable, and a threat to not only his own captain and crew but to other vessels we encounter. He has twice deliberately taken on water to spoil cargo. He fights the rudder and lists at will.

  For the safety and security of our crew, and of your cargoes, we therefore must terminate our agreement. You have the right to bring suit against us for this breach. However, if you are willing, we have made arrangements with the liveship Ophelia, owned and managed by the Tenira family, a fine Bingtown Trader family with a long history of reliable dealings. At no additional cost to you, they will take over our contracts and fulfil them.

  We hope you will agree that this is the most equitable arrangement for all of us.

  With the utmost respect,

  Captain Osfor of the liveship Kendry

  The sun had travelled across the sky. Now it entered my cell through the bars and made stripes on the floor. I was hungry, but had probably missed the food for the evening. I tried to put together what had happened to me today. Perhaps tomorrow Capra would come, and would want to know more. If I spoke freely, would she give me the little cottage and clean clothes and good food to eat? And if she did, what then? I could not imagine spending the rest of my life here. I also couldn’t imagine ever going home. The only possibility that seemed real to me was that one or more of the Four would be displeased with me, and I’d be beaten. Or killed. Perhaps both.

  Or the dreams of what I might do would come true. I felt cold as I thought of them, even though the darkening evening was still warm.

  The woman came to light the lamps. They smelled of pine, of a forest. I longed for the forest. I longed to be anywhere that people were not. I put my mattress on the floor but I did not sleep. The lamplight made different shadows from the bars. Their shadows became fainter. I lifted my head to look at the lamp. The flame was barely dancing on the wick. Then it winked out. Only the light from the lamp down the walkway lit my cell now. The world became shades of black and grey.

  I heard the black man in the next cell shift on his bed. ‘Is it tonight, then? So soon.’

  I wasn’t sure if he spoke to himself or to me. I waited.

  ‘Little one. Bee. Do you have dreams?’

  Who did I trust? No one. Who deserved the truth from me? No. It was too dangerous to be truthful with anyone. ‘Of course I do. Everyone dreams.’

  ‘True. But not everyone dreams as we do.’

  ‘How do you dream?’

  ‘In pictures. In symbols. In hints and clues, in rhymes and riddles. Here’s one:

  ‘A piebald bird, a silver ship, oh what are you awaking?

  ‘One shall be two and two be one before the future’s breaking.’

  A shiver went down my back. That was a poem I’d heard in a dream when I was sick, not long after Dwalia kidnapped me. I’d not spoken of it to anyone. I waited until I could keep my voice level. ‘What does it mean?’

  ‘I thought you might know.’

  ‘I know nothing of silver ships or piebald birds.’

  ‘Not yet. Sometimes we don’t know what a dream means until after it has become real. And some never become real. Usually when I dream, I can feel how likely it is that a dream will become a future. And if I dream something repeatedly, then I know it’s almost inevitable. I dreamed a white wolf, once. With silver teeth. I only dreamed it once, though.’

  ‘Did you dream about the bird over and over?’

  ‘Often enough to know it was going to happen. That it will happen.’

  ‘But you don’t know what will happen.’

  ‘No. That is our curse. To know that something will happen, and only after it is over, to look back and say, “oh, that is what that meant. If only I’d known”. It can break your heart.’ He was quiet for a time. Another lantern flickered and the corridor became dimmer. He whispered, ‘Oh, little one. Two flames die. It’s time. I’m so sorry.’ Almost to himself, he said, ‘But you are so young. So small. Can this truly be for you? Are you the one?’

  I choked on my question. Quiet footsteps were approaching. I had not even heard the door open and shut. ‘Will I die?’

  ‘You will change, I think. Not all change is bad. Change is seldom good or bad; it’s only change. A tadpole becomes a frog. A poker is beaten into a blade. A chicken becomes meat. In a dream, I saw a feather slowly hammered into a blade. I saw the hard nut crack and become a mighty tree. I saw the young doe slain and cut into meat. You will become something different, tonight.’

  The voice was as slow as falling snow. The silence that followed seemed empty and cold.

  Night deepened. The faint light from the sentry towers made soft shapes in the perforated walls. Da. Why did you push me away? Do you know how much I need you now? I sent my thoughts out in a careful thread.

  Stop that. Wolf Father’s warning was severe. You do not know how to prevent Vindeliar from hearing you. The rabbit that screams in the trap is found by the wolf, and dies more quickly. Be quiet and small until you can free yourself.

  Symphe stood outside my cell door. Her fair hair was braided back and pinned to her head. She wore a simple shirt of white cotton, belted at her waist. Her trousers looked like soft linen, and she wore short brown boots. The cuffs of the white shirt were folded back almost to her elbows, as if she had dressed to scrub a floor. She lifted a finger to her lips, then produced a set of keys from a pouch at her belt. Four keys, spaced out on leashes of silver chains. She selected one and turned it in the lock. And another key, and another clicking turn. A third key.

  ‘How do you come to have all the keys?’ I asked her.

  ‘Ssshh.’ The lock clicked. The final key.

  I stood and backed into the corner of my cell. ‘I won’t go with you.’

  You should. She is alone and she thinks you are just a little girl. This may be your best chance for freedom.

  The final click of the key. She swung the barred door open. She smiled at me. ‘You don’t have to be afraid. Look what I have.’ She opened a little pouch and shook something out into her hand. ‘Look,’ she whispered. ‘Candy.’ The pieces looked like gleaming buttons of red and pink and yellow. She took one and put it in her mouth. ‘Mmm. Delicious. Like a cherry but sweet as honey.’ She took a pink one between her thumb and forefinger. ‘Try it.’ She advanced on me, holding it out.

  I stepped sideways to avoid being cornered.

  ‘Take it,’ she said in a breathy voice. I held out my hand and she set the candy into it. ‘Eat it,’ she whispered. ‘You’ll like it.’

  ‘Is it poisoned? Or drugged?’

  Her eyes widened. ‘Didn’t you just see me eat one?’

  Pretend to be stupid, stupid!

  I nearly laughed out loud. Instead, I pretended to put the candy into my mouth.

  ‘Well?’ she demande
d. Her whisper was not as soft. She was exasperated.

  I nodded, pouching one cheek out. ‘Good,’ I said around my tongue.

  Her smile was relieved. ‘See. I am nothing to be afraid of. If you come with me, very quietly, I will give you more candy.’ She crooked her finger at me, beckoning.

  I assumed my most puzzled expression. ‘Where are we going?’

  She barely hesitated. ‘To make things right. Poor little child. I’ve come to tell you it was all a mistake. No one meant to hurt you. It was all a misunderstanding. You should not have been taken from your home. So now we must make it right. Come with me.’

  ‘But where?’

  She backed toward the open door and I followed her. In the corridor, she closed the door to my cell softly. ‘It’s a surprise,’ she added.

  ‘Surprise,’ said the black man and laughed quietly.

  She turned toward his cell, her face contorted with hate. ‘Why aren’t you dead yet?’

  ‘Because I’m alive!’ he announced with no effort to lower his voice. He laughed aloud like rolling thunder. ‘Why aren’t you dead yet?’

  ‘Because I’m smarter than you. I know when to stop. I know when to cease being a problem.’ She steered me away, her hand heavy on my shoulder.

  At that, his laughter boomed. ‘You think you know so much. You’ve seen so many possible futures and you think you can pick and
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