Assassins fate, p.72
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       Assassin's Fate, p.72

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

  was drawn. I touched Spark’s wrist, and wagged a finger toward the Fool. ‘Protect him,’ I mouthed, and was relieved when she ghosted down the stone steps to stand beside him. He looked up at us, his pale features indistinct in the dimness.

  I eased the door open and motioned the others to wait as I ventured out alone. Several pot-lamps burned, giving light to the central area of a chamber much larger than the one below. The Fool’s horrific tales were made real. There were the tables with their dangling manacles and blade-scarred surfaces. Elevated benches surrounded them on three sides. Comfortable seating for the voyeurs of the torturers’ work. A pit for a fire. Beside it, a meticulously tidy rack. Pokers and pincers, knives and saws and other tools I had no names for. I had never understood the hearts of such people. Who could find amusement and arousal in the pain of another? Evidently here it was popular enough to draw an audience.

  It was a large room. Along one wall there were barred cell fronts. Along another more steps ascended. I had a terrifying hope; if Bee was here we could break her free and get her out before the tide’s turn filled the waste chute with water. It would be difficult to wade out against the incoming tide, but not impossible.

  I moved swiftly and silently. There were no guards and while my Wit warned me of flickering life in the cells I sensed no one else within the chamber. I wished for the wolf’s ears and nose. I could not stand the suspense. I moved closer to the unlit cells. The dim light from the central area showed me a total of five prisoners, all adults. They slept or huddled on straw. I ventured closer to a cell and saw Prilkop. Asleep or unconscious?

  I went back to the door. The Fool and Spark had come up the steps; they all huddled on the landing. I breathed my words. ‘There’s no sign of Bee. Prilkop is in one of the cells. It seems clear, but be quiet. We need to—’

  There was the unmistakable sound of a lock turning and a door opening. I pushed back in among my followers and drew the door almost closed behind me. ‘What—’ the Fool began and I quickly placed two fingers on his lips. We all froze.

  I could hear but not see. The scuff of booted feet. More than three people. The muttered complaints and curses of guardsmen roused to unwelcome duty. I heard a clatter, a curse, and ‘I hate this place! It stinks. Why would anyone come down here to hide? There’s no one here; the door was still locked. I told you no one got past us. Now can we go back to our station? I was eating.’

  ‘No.’ The leader’s reply was terse. ‘You’re joining us. We’re to search every chamber on this level for the escaped prisoner. Rewtor and his troops are searching the cottages and gardens. Kilp’s have taken the grounds between the stronghouse and the castle walls. And Coultrie’s rousting out his special lads.’

  ‘Whole damn place is on edge since Symphe was killed. Wish they’d done a better job on Vindeliar.’ The guardswoman brayed out a laugh. ‘Ferb and I had the honour to toss Dwalia into the cesspit. Ferb took a piss on her. Nasty old bitch looked better dead.’

  The leader was not amused. ‘Let’s go. Every room on this level is to be checked, and every door locked behind us. If no luck, we move up to the next level. No one gets past us.’

  ‘I bet it was one of the Whites did Dwalia. Those little snakes have no reason to like her. And Symphe? I think she was an accident. I heard they did some work on Vindeliar to try to get the truth out of him. He was chained there, he had to have seen what happened. They should just make him talk! I wouldn’t mind watching that.’

  ‘Let’s go!’ Their leader was plainly annoyed with the chatter and dawdling. The footsteps moved off. I waited until I heard a door close.

  The Fool spoke three words into the silence. ‘Dwalia is dead.’ I could not read his sentiment. Was he glad, or less fearful, or regretful that he had not had the chance to be present at her death? Maybe all those things, or none of them.

  ‘Prilkop is in a cell in there. And three others.’

  ‘He may know what they did with Bee. He was caged beside her.’

  Those were, perhaps, the only words that could have made me delay for him. ‘Lant, take Per. Guard the next door. I know they locked it; it doesn’t mean they won’t be back. Spark, Fool, with me.’ I eased the door open and like shadows we moved to our targets. I gestured to Prilkop’s cell and Spark and the Fool hurried to it while I seized one of the pot-lamps and brought it over. I did not want the other prisoners to awake, nor to free them. They were factors beyond my control and I already had too many of those.

  As Spark went to work on the lock on his cell, the Fool softly called, ‘Prilkop, wake up.’

  The big man had been curled in a ball, his arms and hand coiled protectively over his head. At the Fool’s second call, he dropped his hands and lifted his head. One eye was swollen shut and his lower lip was as fat as a sausage. He stared. Painfully, he uncurled and set his feet to the cell floor. As he shuffled toward us, I heard chains clank.

  ‘Where is Bee?’ I demanded of him.

  His good eye found me and wandered over my face. He gave a small nod to himself. ‘The Unexpected Son. But I expected you.’ He coughed out a small laugh. ‘The upper cells were where I saw her last. Is this another rescue?’

  ‘It is.’ I turned.

  Behind me, I heard him say, ‘I hope this one is better than the last one.’ As I moved away he called, more loudly than I liked, ‘There are others up there in those rooftop cells. Free them.’

  ‘Fitz?’ Spark whisper-shouted after me.

  ‘Free him. Then search for the hidden tunnel. I’ll be back with Bee.’

  I didn’t wait for their objections. I crossed the room at a run. ‘Give me some space,’ I whispered to Lant and Per as I drew out my own lock picks. It was dark, but Chade had made me practise endlessly by touch. I wordlessly thanked the old man as I probed, pushed, and levered until I heard the satisfaction of a latch giving way. ‘Stay back,’ I warned the others.

  Again, I eased a door open and peered out. It was the guards’ chamber. A table, four chairs. Dice abandoned beside a half-eaten peach and three cups. I slipped into the room. There was fading warmth on the chair, and the fruit looked freshly bitten. I went back to the others.

  ‘Come, but quietly. The guards from this chamber were called away. I fear the whole castle is alerted. They’re searching for an escaped prisoner.’

  Another door, another lock, but I picked it quickly. Again, I cautioned them to wait and eased a tall, heavy door open. I peered in both directions down a long curving corridor with many doors. There was no one in sight. On shelves at intervals fat lamps burned some fragrant oil. All was calm.

  It was jolting to step from a place of bars and torture and bored guards into a gently-lit corridor, panelled in a white wood I’d never seen before, the floor meticulously clean, with framed portraits on the wall. It was like stepping from a nightmare into a dream.

  I weighed my plans. I was not cheered to know that all doors on this level would be locked after the guards had searched each room. If we had to retreat to hiding, there would be nowhere to go. One by one, we slipped out. I led the way. Per was behind me with his short sword out. Lant came last, sword in hand. I carried my knife in my left and the ship’s hatchet in my right. My pathetic invasion force, challenging a fortified stronghold. But there was no other choice. The corridor curved gently away from me in both directions. At wide intervals, there were tall double doors covered with decorative carving. All was quiet. I recalled what the Fool had told me as we created our map. This ground floor would be audience chambers and waiting rooms and private greeting rooms for very important guests. There were several stairs to the next level. I chose to go to the right.

  I tested the first two doors we passed. Locked. I hoped that meant we were following the patrol. But if they turned back this way, we had nowhere to hide.

  ‘What’s that sound?’ Per demanded.

  ‘I don’t know.’ It was a muttering, an uneven roar. Lant was looking up, Per behind us. I had no time to worry about it. ‘We
have to find Bee.’ I led them on.

  We were like rats as we ran, hugging the walls.

  Rounding the curve in the corridor, I saw the staircase. A pale grey fog was drifting down it. I slowed, stared, and then smelled it clearly. Smoke. Now I understood. Above us was the roaring laughter of the fire on the upper storeys. I heard distant shouts and cries of fear. ‘She’s up there,’ I said, and ran. I took the stairs two at a time. On the first landing, Per passed me. I lost sight of him in the turning of the stairs. I sheathed my knife, hooked my hatchet in my belt and followed.

  I heard the slapping of footsteps, coughing and a woman wailing. Four people fled past me, racing down the stairs. ‘Fire!’ one shouted at me as he passed. Behind me I heard Lant shout and assumed they’d collided with him.

  What had been haze became grey, stinking smoke. A dozen more steps, and the smoke was strangling me. My eyes streamed. I stumbled, went down to my knees on the steps and found slightly cooler and cleaner air. I pressed my sleeve to my nose and mouth and crawled three steps higher. It was only smoke. How could it stop me? I’d reached the top of the stairs. There was a landing. Past it, more steps. I couldn’t see Per. Bee had been on the rooftop. I continued my upward crawl. Where was Per?

  I halted, chest pressed to the last step before the landing. To my left was a corridor thick with smoke, cloaking the dark orange glow of a fire. I put my arm across my mouth and breathed through my shirt. Squinting, I made out flames licking a panelled wall. I heard a pop followed by the sound of falling crockery. Fire skated toward me, gliding on oil as if it were ice.

  I recoiled, and felt a body under my hand. ‘Per?’ I gasped.

  I heard shouts above me, panicked cries for help. Someone trod on me as he staggered down the stairs and two others followed, coughing and blindly stumbling over me. Choking on smoke and desperate to escape, they cared nothing for me or the boy sprawled on the steps.

  My eyes streamed so that I could not see and the air was becoming too hot to breathe. I shook Per. ‘Help me,’ he gasped hoarsely.

  ‘Bee,’ I groaned. If she was up above us, she was likely dead. I wanted to surge to my feet and try to run up those stairs to her. Was she trapped in a cell as smoke choked and flames roared? Dead already? I wanted to die trying to reach her.

  If I left him, Per would die.

  I seized his arm and crawled backwards down the steps, bumping him along behind me. It took more strength than it should have. As the smoke lessened, I saw that Per had a tight grip on someone else. A child, a young White by his garb, that Per dragged with us. I gasped in a breath. The smoke in my lungs choked me and fought to be released. A shape reared up out of the haze and seized Per’s other arm. Lant. ‘Down!’ he gasped.

  Together we thudded Per and the unconscious child down the remaining steps. When we reached the ground floor, I tumbled onto the floor beside them, barking out smoke. I rolled over onto my back and wiped my sleeve across my eyes. The smoke was not gone; it crawled along the high ceiling of this corridor as a thin grey mist. Lant knelt beside me. He would wheeze in a breath and then choke it out. Two other people clattered and staggered down the stairs. A woman exclaimed at sight of us. The man leaning on her said, ‘We must get out!’ They left us, hacking and gasping as they ran.

  Per and the child were tangled on the floor between Lant and me. ‘You idiot!’ I wheezed at Per, and then choked. ‘Move! Crawl! We have to get back to the others, and then get out of here.’

  Per coughed, opened his eyes, and then closed them again. When he didn’t respond, Lant and I staggered to our feet. We dragged them laboriously away from the stairs.

  When the sound and stink of the fire on the upper storeys faded behind us, we halted. Lant and I both sat down, panting cleaner air into our lungs. The top floors would all be ablaze now. Would the stronghouse collapse on top of us? ‘We have to get back to the others,’ I said dully. Our quest to save Bee was over. We had to get out. I staggered upright again and stooped to seize the front of Per’s shirt. ‘Get up!’ I ordered him.

  Per coughed and tried to stand up. ‘Bee,’ he gasped.

  ‘Gone.’ I spoke the horrid truth. ‘We can’t get up there. I doubt she’s still alive.’ My eyes were already stinging and running from the smoke. True tears mingled. It seemed an impossible cruelty that I’d come so close to her and then failed.

  ‘Bee!’ Per cried out and rolled free of my grip. It unbalanced me and I fell. I had never known that smoke could so disable a man. I crouched on my hands and knees, wheezing. Per tugged at the unconscious child he’d dragged down with us. ‘Bee, I’ve come to save you,’ he said faintly. Then his words shattered into coughing.

  The child’s clothes were scorched and smudged with soot and his face disfigured by scars. The flesh around his closed eyes was thickened like that of a veteran brawler. There was a scar on his left brow and a split from a more recent beating at the corner of his mouth. The marks spoke of a short life best left behind.

  Then the boy opened his eyes and Bee looked at me. We stared at one another. Her mouth formed a word that her breath could not push. ‘Da?’

  So small. So scarred. She lifted her hands toward me and life surged through me again. ‘Oh, Bee,’ I said, and had no more words. I reached for her and pulled her to me. Her arms went tight around my neck and I held her close. ‘I will never leave you again!’ I promised her, and her grip on me tightened.

  I rose onto my knees, Bee still clasped to me. Per staggered upright. He was weeping. ‘We found her. We saved her,’ he said.

  ‘You did,’ I told him. With my free hand, I seized Per’s upper arm. ‘Lant! Come on!’ I stood and made a staggering run, dragging poor stumbling Per and jouncing Bee’s face against my collarbone. Lant caught up and took Per’s other arm. Joggling along, bumping into one another, we fled the smoke down the long gently curving corridor until suddenly my head spun and I crashed to my knees. I managed not to drop Bee but Per fell beside me and Lant went to one knee.

  ‘Oh, Bee,’ I managed to say. I lowered her to the floor. She was gasping spasmodically, as if she had nearly drowned. Her eyes had closed again. But she lived. She lived. I touched her face as Per scrabbled over to us.

  ‘Bee, please,’ he said. He looked up at me and as if he were a very young child, he pleaded, ‘Make her be alive. Heal her.’

  ‘She’s alive,’ Lant assured him. He leaned on the wall to stand. Then he stood over us, his sword in his hand again. He’d protect us.

  She stared up at me wordlessly. I shook my head, too heart-stricken to find even a word for her. My finger traced the line of Molly’s jaw, touched her mother’s mouth. She coughed and I drew my hand back. No, this was not the little girl I had come to rescue. This scarred and beaten creature was no longer my Bee. I did not know who she was. Still small for her years, as young as I had been when I had begun to act on all Chade had taught me. Bee Farseer. Who was she now?

  She rolled her head to look at Per, her breath wheezing in and out. ‘You came. The crow said …’ Her words trailed away.

  ‘We came to find you,’ Per assured her, and went off into another coughing fit. He reached over and took her hand in his. ‘Bee. You’re safe now. We have you!’

  ‘None of us is safe, Per. We have to get her out of here.’ No time for reunions and apologies, no time for tender words. I lifted my eyes. I looked up at the panelled ceiling above us and the massive beams that supported it. Wood would burn, but stone did not. Fires always climbed. We might be safe on this level, at least until the heavy timbers that supported the stone scorched and flamed.

  Where were we? Had we passed the door and the stairs to the lower levels? We had to find them. Perhaps they’d found the tunnel. If not, we had to fight our way out before the whole stronghouse came down on us.

  I coughed again, and rubbed my cuff over my streaming eyes. Time to move. ‘We have to go,’ I told Per. ‘Can you walk?’

  ‘Of course I can.’ He staggered to his feet, then bent over, hand
s on his knees, to cough for a long time. I watched him and slowly it came to me that I knew where to go. I knew where to get help. I had that moment of utter relief one has when the obvious solution to a problem becomes clear. It seemed ridiculous that I had not thought of it before. I came to one knee and lifted Bee carefully. She did not weigh much. Through the loose garments she wore, I could feel her ribs and the knobs of her spine. I stood. I began to walk and Per straightened and staggered along at my side. Lant sheathed his sword. I glanced at him and saw that he, too, felt the same relief. I smiled to see that Per held his knife out and ready. I knew we would not need it.

  My brother. Where are we going?

  More welcome than cool air or fresh water was the touch of Nighteyes on my mind. I felt my spirits lift and suddenly I knew now that everything would be fine. Where have you been? I cried out to him. Why did you abandon me?

  I was with the cub. She needed me far more than you did. But once she learned to raise her walls, I could not escape them. My brother, where are we going now? Why are you not running? Where is the Scentless One?

  I know a place of safety. I know people who will help us.

  I saw them, revealed by the gentle curve of the corridor. A troop of twelve guards, weapons drawn, was coming toward us. Spark and Prilkop were with them, guarded by them on all sides. The Fool hung limp between two guards. Leading the way was a small, stout man with a toadish face and bloodshot eyes. A tall old woman hobbled along behind him, clasping her side and two men, one garbed in green and one in yellow, walked beside her. I smiled to see them, and the small man’s face broke into a grin. He motioned the guards to halt and they did. They awaited us.

  ‘Vindeliar, I am astonished,’ the old woman said. ‘You are truly a wonder.’

  ‘You should never have doubted me,’ he replied.

  My brother, this is wrong. This joy you feel is false.

  ‘I am so sorry,’ the woman apologized to their leader. ‘From henceforth, you will be honoured as you deserve.’

  The men nodded agreement to that, their faces wreathed in doting smiles.

  ‘Fitz? What are we doing? They will kill us!’ Per shouted.

  Bee lifted her head from my shoulder. ‘Papa!’ she cried out in alarm.

  ‘Hush. It’s going to be all right,’ I told her.

  ‘All fine,’ Lant echoed me.

  ‘No!’ Per shouted the word. ‘No, nothing is all right! What is wrong with you? What is wrong with everyone?’

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