Assassins fate, p.69
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       Assassin's Fate, p.69

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


  * * *

  A Way In

  There is a walled garden. The sun shines on it, but it is plain to see a blight has stricken it. Only a few plants stand straight and tall. The rest are pale and stunted, straggling across the rich soil. The gardener comes. The gardener wears a wide-brimmed hat covered in butterflies. I cannot see his face. He carries a bucket. There are silver shears at his belt, but he kneels in the garden and begins to rip the diseased plants from the earth. He stuffs them into the bucket. The plants in the bucket writhe and moan but the gardener pays no heed. He does not stop until every sickly plant has been torn up by the roots. He carries the bucket to a bonfire, and throws in the shrieking plants. ‘That’s done,’ he says. ‘The root of the problem is gone.’ He turns to me and smiles. I cannot see his eyes or nose, but his teeth are pointed like a dog’s and they drip flames.

  From Reppin’s dream journal, dream 723

  We stood and waited in the hot sun. I longed to discard my warm, woollen cloak. Instead I felt the sweat turn into a tiny itching stream down my spine. ‘She’s only a bird,’ I warned them all. ‘It was a wonderful idea, Per. But we cannot hope for too much.’

  ‘She’s smart!’ Per insisted stoutly.

  ‘I’m so thirsty,’ Spark said. It was a statement, not a complaint.

  ‘I’m hungry,’ Per agreed.

  ‘You’re always hungry.’

  ‘I am,’ Per agreed again. His gaze never left the sky above the castle.

  ‘We passed an inn.’ I conceded to ordinary needs. ‘Let’s sit down and think.’

  I led them back to the road. Most of the crowd had dispersed. Only a few stragglers still trudged along. The guards had plainly wished to clear the area around the gate to the causeway. It was not in our plans to challenge anyone, and so we followed after the disgruntled folk making their way back to the harbour. I had known a moment of hope when Motley had taken flight. Now my renewed despair and agonizing uncertainty were far heavier than anything else I carried.

  We came to an inn. I turned aside to it. As we came toward the inn door, Per asked, ‘If we go inside, how will Motley find us?’

  Personally, I believed that she had flown back to the ship. ‘We’ll sit outside.’ I gestured at some tables under a shade tree beside the inn.

  I sat down at a table with Per while Spark and Lant went inside. Per looked at me. ‘I feel sick,’ he said. ‘Hollow.’ He lifted his eyes to stare hopefully at the sky.

  ‘We’re doing what we can.’ Useless words.

  At the other tables, folk were drinking and talking loudly. Lant and Spark came back with mugs of ale and a loaf of dark bread. We ate and drank silently as the gossip from the other tables spilled over and washed against us. We heard rumours with no foundation. Symphe had committed suicide. Fellowdy had killed Symphe. Symphe had fallen down the stairs and broken her neck. Someone had poisoned her. For a woman who was spoken of so well it seemed odd that few thought she might have simply died. I listened carefully, but no one spoke of a little girl held captive.

  There was gossip of Dwalia’s return, with her repulsive henchman Vindeliar. She was universally disliked, it seemed, and two people spoke with satisfaction of the lashing she had received for returning alone without the luriks or fine horses that had gone with her. Neither one of them had witnessed it; one had heard a servant tell of Dwalia being dragged bloody down the halls and thence to the ‘deepest dungeon’. They mentioned no child. I had to wonder silently if Bee had been consigned to that dark place with her. Returning ‘alone’ seemed the worst words I had ever heard.

  ‘Do we go back to the ship?’ Spark asked.

  I had no will to answer. I didn’t know. I didn’t know anything. Grief and uncertainty exhausted me as much as if I’d waged a bloody battle. I’d lost. I’d lost everything. I tried to think where it had all gone so wrong, and the answer was that it had begun with every decision I’d ever made, from the time I first said ‘yes’ to Chade.

  And then Per said, ‘Here she comes!’

  I stared. A small pair of black wings, opening and closing, opening and closing. It could be any bird, really. It came closer. I drained my mug and set it down. ‘Let’s go to meet her,’ I proposed.

  We left the inn and crossed the road. There was a short stretch of steep hill with the sort of grasses and brush that can withstand wind, salt and the occasional high tide or storm dousing. We didn’t hesitate, but climbed down it and then found a way down a rocky outcrop and onto a beach that was as much stone as sand. The tide was still coming in, but there was enough beach for us to stand on and wait. Whatever news our bird did or didn’t bring to us, I wanted no eavesdroppers.

  Per stood perfectly still, holding his arm up as if he awaited a majestic hawk. Motley did not come with the slow majestic beats of a raptor, but rocked back and forth as she landed, catching her balance. Per let her settle before asking, ‘Did you find her?’

  ‘Bee. Bee, Bee, Bee!’ she announced, bobbing her head up and down.

  ‘Yes, Bee. Did you find her?’

  ‘Through the hole. Stuck! Bee. Bee, Bee, Bee.’

  I caught my breath. What to believe? Did I dare hope? Was she only repeating Per’s words?

  ‘Is she alive? Is she hurt?’

  ‘Does she know we are here?’

  ‘And Amber?’ Spark demanded.

  The bird was suddenly still. ‘No.’

  I sharply motioned everyone to silence.

  ‘No what?’ I asked the bird.

  ‘No Amber.’

  Silence. ‘She took the butterfly cloak,’ Spark said, a forlorn hope in her voice.

  ‘Did you see Bee? Is she hurt?’ I wanted to ask question after question and forced myself to stop. One at a time.

  ‘She talked.’ The bird spoke after a moment’s consideration. Then, as if working hard to put words together, ‘Hole little. Motley stuck.’

  I felt a rush of impotent fury, the desire to seize the messenger and crush her in my hands. I needed to know. Wit and Skill, I reached out to her. Please!

  ‘Stupid Fitz!’ She spoke the words aloud. Without warning, she leaned away from Per and darted her beak at my face. Lifting my hand defensively was a reflex. She seized my hand in her silver bill and clung to my sleeve in a battering of wings. We did not connect as cleanly as Nighteyes and I had but I spied through a tiny crack in her bird-mind. A glimpse of a little girl’s battered face, blue eyes wide, her cheek bruised. I scarcely recognized her. Bee’s anxious voice. ‘A way out is a way in! Tell Per! Where the waste goes out from the castle!’ And then an incomprehensible view of the castle and the waters surrounding it, as if viewed from the tallest tower or the top of a mast. It moved and my stomach lurched as Motley showed me what she had seen when she flew over the castle. The roof, the guards pacing there, the cottages in the walled garden, more guards, and then a swooping view of the waters around the castle. Little fishing boats bobbed and cast nets, avoiding the shallows created by the outgoing tide. A plume of greyish-brown water in the sea, as if a rain-swollen river had debouched into it. ‘A way out is a way in!’ Bee’s words echoed again, and then the bird released me, dropping to the sand at our feet.

  ‘Motley!’ Per cried and stooped to gather her up.

  I looked at their anxious, puzzled faces. I didn’t smile. It was too slender a hope to support a smile. I spoke the words in a shaking voice. ‘Per. Bee told Motley to tell you, “a way out is a way in.’’ I gathered air into my lungs. ‘We have to get ready.’

  We didn’t go back to Paragon. I sent Motley back to the ship with a simple message. ‘Please wait.’ I hoped she would remember to deliver it.

  The inn room we rented was cheap and bare, and all the noise came up through the floor. We lay on the floor, our grand clothing serving as our beds, and fruitlessly tried to sleep. The inn was finally silent when we rose. ‘Leave anything we won’t need,’ I told them. Spark folded all the clothing and gave the stack a fond pat as if saying fa
rewell. Spark had adapted the firepot belt to ride high on my back. The pack containing the Silver and fire-brick was secured below the belt. I gave Lant my Buckkeep cloak. ‘Bring this.’ He nodded. On our way out, I ghosted through the kitchen to steal a pot of grease. I raked ash away from the banked cookfire and mixed it generously. Then I caught up with the others waiting on the shore.

  We spoke little as we greased our hands and faces with the ashy blend. I had cautioned them that sound carries clear over water. I checked my hidden pockets. I saw Spark making a similar check, and Lant as well. Overhead, there was a full moon, casting more light than I liked over the water. The tide was ebbing. By early morning it would bare the causeway. But that was not our destination.

  The retreating tide had left us pockets of packed wet sand and squidgy strands and bulbs of kelp underfoot over a rocky beach. Per fell once, cutting his palms on barnacles exposed on the wet rocks. He made not a sound, but pressed his bloody palms to his belly and held our hurried pace. I had never done anything to deserve such a lad. I looked out at the sea and thought of El, the harsh god of those waters. I had seldom prayed, but that night I offered El both my prayers that he would spare those who accompanied me, and curses for him if he took them from me.

  We followed the water out as it ebbed. The stink of low tide surrounded us. The land shelved out gently and I quickly understood why Brashen had chosen to anchor in the deepest part of the harbour. The retreating waves bared rocks and sand usually immersed in saltwater. Small crabs scuttled among the wet stones. I caught the flash of a fingerling stranded in a tide pool.

  We caught up with the ebbing waves. ‘Now we get wet,’ I warned the others.

  ‘Been wet before,’ Per replied gamely.

  We waded out, trying not to splash. I heard Lant make a small sound as he took the step that filled his boot with water. And deeper we went, pushing against the water that rose past our knees, our thighs and then our waists. Waves slapped against us, as if to push us away from our goal.

  The pristine white island of Clerres Castle had slimy green roots. I halted us when we were still in darkness, a good distance from the towers and their archers. As the Fool had warned, stone basins of oil functioned as lights along the island’s shore. We huddled and stared.

  ‘We must move slowly. We cannot splash. Whisper as little as possible.’ In the darkness, I could barely see their nods. ‘We need to move as close to the edge of the island as we can, below the level of what the guards can see in the shore-lamps. It will be a long slog. This is a gamble. We may or may not find what we seek. We may fail, but we will try this. If you wish to turn back now, I will not think less of you. I have to go on.’

  ‘Such an encouraging speech,’ Lant muttered.

  Per snickered and Spark said, ‘I’d follow him into battle.’

  Per said, ‘Let’s just go.’

  The castle had been built on a peninsula of land, and those who had cut it free to make it an island had not cut so deep that some waves did not break white against the barely exposed rocks of the old land. We draped ourselves in the blue cloak to be an amorphous shape on the water. Lant and I were in the lead, holding the cloak’s edge clutched tight so that only our eyes were exposed. Behind us, Spark had her hands on Lant’s shoulders and Per held my belt. In step we went, in a bizarre dance, slowly, attempting to make no sound. I doubted that the guards in the towers heard our soft whispers.

  ‘There’s a low bit here. Watch your footing.’

  ‘There’s something in my boot.’

  ‘Ssh,’ Lant hushed them.

  Talk ceased. We caterpillared on. The waters continued to recede. Wet white rock peered out beneath wigs of seaweed and barnacle. The water grew shallower as we approached the castle’s shoreline. Closer and closer we crept as I navigated by the brief glimpse Motley had given me of the waters around the castle. In thigh-deep water we followed the steep rocky shore of the island. Chiselled cliffs loomed high above us, and above them the watchtowers looked out and over both land and sea. The steep angle of the sheer cliffs hid us from the guards slowly pacing the perimeter wall above us. The tide was still ebbing.

  ‘Now what?’ Per breathed.

  ‘Now we follow our noses,’ I warned him.

  We pushed on. The cloak became a dripping bundle in my arms. Every shifting stone underfoot, every harsh breath sounded loud in my ears. The lights of the shoreside town behind us dimmed as we slowly circled their stronghold.

  The smell I followed grew stronger – excrement and decomposing garbage. Per made a small disgusted noise and lifted his hand to cover his nose and mouth. The outflow from the castle flowed in an open trench gouged into the rock. It gaped, foul and slimy, exposed rhythmically by the retreating waves. Standing saltwater sloshed shallowly back and forth in the ditch with every wave.

  ‘How deep is it?’ Per whispered in trepidation.

  ‘One way to find out,’ I said reluctantly. I sat down on the edge of it, the waves lapping to my waist. My groping feet found no bottom in the thick sludge. ‘Give me your hand,’ I said to Lant, and he knelt to offer it to me. I took it and eased one foot down into the trough of sloshing filth. I was already soaked to the waist, but that had been clean saltwater. Beneath a layer of seawater, my boot sank into muck. I held tight to Lant’s hand, stepped down with the other foot, and gasped as I sank. The filth and seawater came halfway up my chest.

  The stink and the pressure of the cold water squeezed my voice to breathless. ‘Tide is still going out. I think we can go in this way.’ I made a final effort. ‘No one has to follow me. This trench will become a tunnel into the side of the island, and slope up to the lowest dungeons. It’s going to be a foul walk through total darkness. The tunnel will end in the castle’s waste tank. The Fool said it was in the lower dungeon.’

  ‘You warned us back at the inn, before we slept,’ Per said sourly. ‘We said we still wanted to come.’

  ‘If Amber has been captured, I suspect they’ll hold her in the lower dungeon,’ Spark added.


  ‘Then let’s go. Dawn is coming,’ Lant pointed out.

  ‘Step down,’ I invited them, and one after another they did. Per gave a shuddering gasp, for the filthy water came nearly to his neck. In a line, we trudged forward. We left the open sky and the sea wind behind us as the trench became a tunnel into the chiselled side of the island. No light beckoned at the end. I led them into darkness. Slowly the incline became steeper. The sludge was slippery and we fought to keep our footing as it sloped slowly upward.

  It was a stinking, hunched walk. I led with Per holding onto my belt, then Spark and finally Lant. I cursed quietly when my groping hand encountered vertical metal bars, but more groping found them badly eaten by the sea. Together Lant and I bent two until they broke. I squeezed past the obstacle, my belt of pots catching briefly, and the others came behind me. We went as silently as we could through the breathless stench and clinging muck. I heard Lant ask, ‘Will we be able to come back this way?’

  ‘No. When the tide comes in, this will fill with water.’

  He did not ask how we would escape the castle. He knew I didn’t know. We walked against a slow shallow flow of filth as the castle’s tank emptied past us to join the retreating tide out into the bay. We slipped in filth, we clung to one another, we cursed quietly. And still they followed me. The darkness was absolute. The slimy wall I touched with my right hand was my only guide.

  We trudged on. Then, in the distance, a faint half-circle of yellow light appeared. ‘We should go faster,’ Per suggested breathlessly. I understood his wish. My back was cramping and the stench made me even more breathless.

  ‘We don’t know who might be waiting for us,’ I reminded him. We kept our steady, quiet pace and the dim light grew. I reached the arched opening into the vat and motioned in the dusky light for the others to stay back. The tank had a sloping floor, with the day’s fresh excrement and offal to wade through. I heard Lant gag. The light that rea
ched us was less than dimness. I found a corroded ladder by touch and pitied those who periodically descended to shovel out the tank. I turned back to Lant and motioned him forward while signalling the others to hold where they were. Lant joined me at the base of the ladder. ‘I climb. You follow. If there is a guard, the two of us handle him.’

  He gave a tight nod I barely saw. When I was six steps up the ladder, I felt him mount it behind me. Rung by slow rung, I climbed, trying not to think of what filth I put my hands on. Up, and up and up. The light became marginally stronger. Finally and slowly, I poked my head up above the side of the vat and looked around. Fat pot-lamps burned on shelves at the far end of the long room. I saw no one.

  The thick walls of the vat were of worked stone. I clambered out on top of the wall and discovered steps descending to floor level. Of course. The vat’s edges had to be above high tide level. I admired the engineering of it. A high tide would flow in to mingle with the waste in the vat; at the low tide, saltwater and waste flowed out again. Lant joined me, and then remained on the top step as I went down the steps, knife drawn.

  I moved swiftly and as silently as I could through the large room. I saw what the Fool had warned me would be there. A table where chains dangled. A large hearth, cold now. The racked tools beside it were not for tending a fire. I hurried past them and heard a rhythmic sound. I halted until I was sure of what it was. Snoring. But was it prisoner or guard? I sought the shadows at the edges of the room and crept forward.

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