Assassins fate, p.63
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       Assassin's Fate, p.63

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

  choose. And you have, for so long. For so many generations, you’ve chosen what you thought was best. Not best for the world, not best for people. Best for you and those who serve you. You chose what would give you the greatest wealth, the most comfort, the most power!’

  His words followed us. Other prisoners were waking staring through the bars of their cells as we passed. ‘It’s nothing, he’s mad, go back to sleep!’ Symphe spoke the words through gritted teeth, keeping her voice low.

  ‘But the world spins on and there is a destined path. You can tip it only so far before it rights itself! It’s all inevitable now. I see, but you refuse to look.’ He sounded mad to me. Perhaps he was. How long could you keep a man caged before he went insane?

  We reached the door at the end of the corridor. ‘Open it!’ she snapped at me and I did. We passed into the dimness of the little room. Descending the stairs meant that she loosened her grip on my shoulder. I thought of darting away. Not yet. I’d wait until there was a choice of direction to flee in. But I took the steps faster and the only grip she could keep was on the loose fabric of my shirt. If I needed to, I could tear free of her.

  Not yet.

  We went down, and down and then down again. ‘Where are we going?’ I asked her.

  ‘To see some friends,’ she replied. ‘They have the candy.’

  The first two landings we passed were open to corridors I recognized. They led to the rooms full of scrolls and books. When we reached the ground floor, she led me down a wide hall. Door after door we passed, but at last she paused before one. She took out a ring of brass keys, selected one and opened a tall door. ‘Hush,’ she warned me. More steps, another locked door, and down again. She unlocked a final door and motioned that I should enter.

  I stood still. The room beyond the locked door smelled bad, a cross between the low tide in Chalced and a dirty butcher’s stall. I didn’t want to enter. I should have run from her when I had the chance. It’s a trap!

  ‘In we go,’ she said brightly, putting a hand in middle of my back and shoving me into the room. She pulled the door shut behind us.

  I moved quickly away from her into a room with walls and floor of stone. The carrion smell and the stink of faeces grew stronger. I wrapped my arms around myself, for the room was chill and dank. There were fat oil-lamps on shelves at intervals on the walls, but their wicks were low and the light illuminated little more than the lamps themselves. I heard something move and the soft clinking of chain. I squinted and saw a barred door and beyond it, a huddled shape. Did she intend to confine me in a cell down here? She’d have to catch me first! I put more distance between us.

  ‘Come back, Bee! Remember? Candy?’

  Yes, she truly thought me that stupid.

  Good. Wolf Father’s response was terse. Find a weapon. Kill her. Escape.

  Kill her? I could barely frame the thought. I can’t.

  You must. That smell is old blood. Lots of it. She brought you to a place of bloodshed. Of killing.

  I glanced over my shoulder, gave Symphe a vacuous smile and said, ‘I want to find the people with the candy!’

  She was faster than I had expected. In the second I glanced away from her, she crossed the distance between us and seized my upper arm in a tight grip.

  Don’t fight her. Not yet. Wait until you know you can kill.

  My eyes were adjusting to the dimness. There were other cells. In one, there was someone on the floor, sprawled and still. She walked me past a stone table with metal rings set into the sides and edges. It smelled of blood and old piss. There was a bank of layered benches. Oh. I had seen this place, in Vindeliar’s mind. Here they had tormented Beloved. The dim light hinted at ugly stains on the table and on the floor around it. I felt ill. I feigned a stumble and her hand clenched tighter. I dropped to my knees, testing her strength. She kept hold of me but now I knew. She was fast but not as strong as Dwalia. If I had to, I could break her grip.

  Not yet.

  ‘Bee! Don’t pull away. Soon we will have the candy. It’s so delicious.’

  She had moved into the dim pool of light of one of the lamps. It was like a big teapot, with the wick poking out of its spout and two handles like ears to pick it up. She reached up to lift it from its shelf. She did not want to let go of me, so she had to lift it by one handle. It was so heavy that her hand shook and the flame on the wick flared up as the oil slopped toward it. She set it on the floor with the scrape of heavy pottery on stone. She poked at the wick. The flame grew taller and it lit a wider circle around us.

  ‘Did you bring her?’ Vindeliar’s voice.

  ‘Did you get the keys?’ That was Dwalia. I shrank back into the darkness.

  ‘Hush. Yes to both.’ Symphe laughed softly. ‘The keys I’ve had for years!’

  My heart thundered in my chest. Had I missed my chance? What hope did I have against three of them? The brighter light reached into the cell and I feared to look. But Dwalia huddled on a bunk, her hands trapped between her knees. I saw her fever-bright eyes and chapped mouth. Infection had set into her lacerated flesh. Vindeliar was in the same cage, hunkered on the floor. He’d taken a beating; his eyes were blackened, his lower lip split. I could see the chain that bound him tightly to a ring set in the cold stone, barely two links between his neck and the floor ring. How his body must ache from that forced crouch. His only alternative would be to lie on the cold, filthy floor.

  Symphe’s slender fingers bit deep into my arm. ‘Pick up the lamp,’ she ordered me.

  I stooped to obey her but she did not let go of my arm. The lamp was as big around as a milk bucket and heavy. I wrapped my arms around it with the flame away from me and lifted. I did not like how the flame leapt and stuttered. ‘This way,’ she said and pulled me toward the cell. I concentrated on breathing calmly and keeping the lamp steady. It was designed to be left on a shelf, not carried. I wondered how long I could hold it.

  Weapon, weapon, there was no weapon. I could break free of her and run, but she had locked the door. Was there another way out? Likely it was locked as well. I needed a plan, but I had no plan. I wanted my father desperately. He would know what to do. The night we had burned the messenger’s body, he had thought it all through, in just a few minutes. What would he do now?

  Stop thinking about doing. Just be ready to do.

  I could not imagine more useless advice. Symphe had chosen a key on the brass ring and was turning it in the lock. Break away now? No. She would unlock the others and they would pursue me throughout this chamber. I did not even know how big the room was but they probably knew every nook and cranny. Symphe pushed the door open, tucked the ring of keys into her belt and then reached into her shirt and took something out. It was a dark cylinder, a container of some sort. She held it up. ‘And I was able to obtain this as well, at great risk to myself! Not to mention my loss of dignity, in seducing a foreign sentry. You know how closely Capra guards her quarters. When he wakes tomorrow from his long hours of sleep, I imagine he will face the headsman. But it was worth it. Do you know what is in here?’ She dangled it before them as she smiled her red-lipped smile. ‘It’s serpent essence.’

  Vindeliar’s head lifted and twisted grotesquely. It was both pathetic and terrifying to see him become such a vessel of need. Dwalia looked outraged. ‘You said you’d given us the last of it. That there was no more. If I had had that before …’

  ‘I had no more,’ Symphe snapped. ‘No one knows all that Capra has hoarded of treasures and magic, greedy old hog that she is. And she tried to keep this girl to herself.’ Her hand became a clamp on my arm as she tugged me into the cell. She kicked the cell door closed behind us. She glared at Vindeliar. ‘She had better be what you say she is! You need to prove it. Prove that the risks I’ve taken were worth it. If you can’t, I leave you chained here and let Capra do as she will with both of you.’ She spoke as if I were a dog on a leash, too stupid to understand what she said. As if Vindeliar were a block of wood. ‘Stand there. Hold the lamp.

  She turned her back on me and spoke to Dwalia. ‘I shall let Vindeliar have it all. Then we shall see if he speaks truth, see whether she is or is not the Unexpected Son from the dreams!’ She gave a dismissive laugh and stared down at the chained man. Vindeliar’s mouth was ajar, his lower lip trembling and wet with saliva. She regarded him as if he were an ugly dog and did not address him as she said, ‘Time to use him, Dwalia. Time to take the reins, or give them up. I gave you my promise: help me rise and you rise with me. That was a promise your Pale Woman never kept to you. But I will, if Vindeliar is truly as useful as you say he is, and if this girl is the prize you said you could win for me.’

  She had let go of my shoulder. Now she turned to the door to lock it. As she took the ring of keys from her belt, I tipped the lamp, splashing her back with the hot oil. I did it with no forethought. Doing, not thinking. The smell of a pinewood forest warmed the room. The fire on the wick burned taller and some of the spilled oil on the outside of the lamp flared into flame. I thrust the lamp at her, wick first, as she exclaimed in anger and began to turn to face me.

  The lamp was a terrible weapon, one that might work or might not do anything. Flames licked up the fat side of the pot. I pushed it against Symphe, against the fabric wet with oil. The fire made a sound like someone blowing out a candle and the loose cloth of her shirt back flared into flames. The fire leapt up, scorching her hair. It writhed and curled with a terrible stink. Screaming, she aimed a wild slap at me. Instead it knocked the lamp from my hands and it shattered into shards on the floor, spilling the rest of the oil. The wick fell and suddenly the puddle of oil became a flaming wall. I leapt back from it, but Symphe stepped in it as she twisted, vainly slapping at the back of her clothes and hair. Vindeliar was wailing and Dwalia cursing me. But they were chained and Symphe was not. I would deal with her first.

  Stooping, I seized the biggest shard of lantern and slashed at her. It cut her arm, a long shallow gash. She grabbed at it, and it cut her hand, but her clothing was well ablaze now, fiery fragments of it spinning off into the air, and she suddenly had no thought for me. She stepped back from the flaming oil on the floor, but the falling bits of burning cloth ignited her wet footprints. She shrieked and began slapping at her clothes with both hands. The brass ring of keys and the long tube of serpent spit went flying. The keys jangled as they struck the floor, but the tube of spit shattered. Vindeliar gave a howl of despair and lunged at it like a dog after a flung bone. The chain around his neck would not let him go far, but he crabbed in a circle around his tether, reaching for the puddle of slime with his hands.

  He could barely reach it with one hand. Vindeliar threw himself against his restraints, lunging to reach the spilled potion, ignoring the flailing, flaming woman and Dwalia’s angry cries. I’d failed. My shard of lamp was too small to do any serious damage. Symphe would be burned but alive. And angry.

  Then I saw the long splinter from the spit cylinder. It glittered, black and gleaming silver, longer than my hand. Long enough to stab deep. I dropped my shard, leapt toward it and snatched it up.

  It was sharp. As were the broken bits in the puddle of serpent spit. I cut my bare feet, I cut my hand. It didn’t hurt. I looked at the blood welling on my hand. I felt queasy, dizzy and yet full of stillness. Blood seeped from the gash on my palm. It dripped, but the drops fell very slowly to the floor. I saw exactly where each drop would fall. Something was happening; I wasn’t sure what it was. A deafening quiet welled up in me and all sound was far away. The moment filled me. I was completely aware of everything that was happening around me.

  Symphe danced her fire-dance. I saw the moving tip of every flame and knew where it would lick her. Vindeliar strained toward the slowly spreading puddle of spit, patting his hand in the fluid, not caring that he mixed it with filth from the stone floor. He drew his hand back to his face and licked his palm and fingers. White showed all around his eyes. Dwalia was shouting commands at him. ‘Try to reach the keys! Forget the serpent potion! Get the keys! Kill that bitch! Symphe, tear off your clothes! Come to where I can reach you!’ Those and a dozen other requests she cried. No one listened to her. I had the splinter in my hand still, its sharp edge in my cut. Abruptly, it hurt. It burned. I had wanted to do something with this. Kill. I was going to kill Symphe and then Vindeliar and then Dwalia. How?

  Then the magic surged into me. I felt it race into my body from the cuts on my feet and from the cut on my hand. It burned me with ecstasy. I quivered with pleasure, shivers running up my spine, gooseflesh pimpling on my arms and legs. I laughed out loud. I loved the sound of my laughter. I roared with laughter and focused myself on Symphe. I could see her so clearly, and see, too, all the things that might happen to her. She might collapse to the ground and her clothes continue to burn. She might flee and crash into the bars or carry her flaming body to Dwalia’s bunk. But most likely of all was what happened next, for I willed it so. I timed my motion to the movement I knew she would make. At the instant she threw back her head to scream, I stepped in with my shard and cut her throat. I stepped back before the flames could catch me. It was so easy. I knew exactly how the flames would move and precisely where it was safe to step. I knew how firmly to press and how quickly to draw the shard across her throat. Vindeliar had been right! Once I was on the true Path, all became easy and so clear.

  I no longer needed the shard. I knew that Symphe would die of burns and blood loss. I saw some futures where I held onto the shard and it cut my hand badly. There were far fewer futures where I needed it to defend my life. In only a few did Dwalia possess it. A few were too many. I tossed it into the far corner of the cell as Symphe fell, her screams now choked with blood. She sprawled and clutched uselessly at her leaking neck. Her feet were in the burning puddle. She kicked them. I turned from watching her. I already knew what happened next. She was finished.

  I knew, too, what I should do next. With every action I took, the best Path grew broader and clearer. This was my true Path. It was nothing like the one the Servants had envisioned.

  I stooped to set my cut hand on the surface of the puddle. I drew breath and felt the magic roar into my blood. I felt it join my other magic, the rightful magic of my Farseer blood. The magics twined and danced in me, red and black and silver. I knew the futures and I knew the past.

  And I knew I could command people to create the future I desired.

  I felt Vindeliar’s power wash over me like a cold wave. A shallow wave. ‘Unchain us,’ he suggested.

  I saw his eyes widen as I slowly shook my head. ‘That does not happen,’ I told him gently.

  ‘Force her!’ Dwalia barked at him, and this time his suggestion was not a wave but a solid slap against all my awareness. It stung, but did not stun. I thought of a little joke. I stooped slowly and picked up the ring of keys. I looked at them. Slack-faced, I held them out toward Dwalia. She lunged. I dropped them, just out of reach. She struggled to get to them, strangling herself against her iron collar.

  ‘Unlock our chains,’ Vindeliar repeated the words as a command. But I had found my shields and I cut through his feeble suggestion as a ship cuts through water. I smiled at him and sidled closer to Symphe’s unmoving body. I found the dagger at her belt. Its decorated sheath was scorched. I pulled the dagger free of it and put it through my sash. A real weapon. One my father had taught me to use. It felt good. In her pocket I found the other keys on their silver leashes. Those were mine, too.

  ‘Vindeliar!’ Dwalia rasped at him, her voice hoarse from her bruised throat.

  He tried. I felt him shape his power and thrust it at me. It was like a buffet of wind. I smiled at him. I recalled how my father had pushed me away when I had felt the touch of his magic. I imitated that as I looked at Vindeliar and said, ‘Stop that.’

  He dropped limply to the floor. Only whites showed in his slitted eyes and his body trembled twice before it was still.

  ‘Is he dead?’ I heard myself ask aloud.

  ‘Guards! Guards! He
lp! Help!’

  I had heard Dwalia roar with fury and shout with anger. This was the first time I’d heard her voice ascend to a crescendo of terror.

  It took a moment for me to realize that I was what she feared. I stood outside the reach of her chains and knew a moment of panic. Guards would come and I’d be captured. Beaten or killed. No. ‘Stop shouting,’ I said to her. ‘Be quiet.’

  And she was, her mouth hanging open. I listened. The dying flames on the oil puddle and on Symphe’s body whispered softly. I heard no guards running, no doors unlocking, nothing. Oh. Of course Symphe would have arranged for them to be away from their posts. I smiled at the work she had done for me.

  In that moment of silence, my body shouted at me. I had cuts on the soles of both feet. The cut on my hand stung. I looked at it. It was like a smiling mouth carved across my palm and it was sending a smooth sheet of blood sliding from my hand. With my other hand, I pushed it closed and held it.

  Oh. I could do better than that. I felt the severed edges of flesh touch and recall each other. They belonged together. ‘Be together,’ I suggested to them and my body listened. I could almost see the fine net my body wove, like a spider’s web to knit my flesh back together. I limped away from the puddle of serpent spit and the dying flames on the oily pool. I sat down on the floor and regarded my bloody feet. I plucked a shard of glass from my heel. Blood followed it. One by one, I closed each cut. When I stood, I could feel that my feet were newly healed. They hurt, but the sharp jab of pain was gone.

  There is no time for this now. Kill her. Flee.


  I hushed Wolf Father. This was no forest, but a dungeon in a stronghold. Would I need Dwalia to escape? I considered her.

  ‘You were never the Unexpected Son!’ she whispered.

  ‘So I told you, over and over. And still you ruined my life. Took me from my home, killed my friends.’

  ‘You are the Destroyer. And we brought you here.’

  I was surprised. Her words seemed to shimmer with light and truth. I was the Destroyer? My mind leapt back to the forest and to overheard whispers from Reppin and Alaria. I was that?

  ‘I am,’ I said. As soon as I acknowledged it, that Path unrolled before me. I knew what I would do. It did not feel like a choice as I took the knife from my sash. It was a thing I did in so many possible futures that not doing it did not seem possible. I took a slow step toward her. ‘I am the Destroyer. You not only brought me here, you created me. I was unlikely, almost impossible. Then you came to my home … oh. No.’ I stared at her and saw the path she had left behind her. It was like a snail’s track on a clean swept floor. ‘No. It began years before then. You began to make me when you tormented Beloved.’

  She stared at me, her eyes wide. I stepped forward, my knife ready. She slapped my hand, hard, and the knife fell. It clattered on the floor, exactly as I had known it must, making precisely the sound I had expected. I didn’t need a knife. I smiled at her. I pushed into her mind as if it were soft butter and I a hot blade. I spoke my word softly. ‘Die.’

  And she did.

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