Assassins fate, p.74
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       Assassin's Fate, p.74

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


  We were moving, but not swiftly. The scattered bodies of the fallen guards partially blocked the hall. Our bare feet left bloody footprints on the formerly pristine floor as we left the battle behind us. Per was ranging ahead of us, staying close to the wall and trying to peer around the curve of the corridor. He held a short-sword in one hand and his knife in the other. He reminded me of a small hunting creature. I wondered if I were as changed as he was. When he went out of sight, I caught my breath. I wanted him back, right now.

  Beloved was limping, his other hand on the girl’s shoulder. She held a looted sword and a knife. ‘You’re bleeding,’ I said to her.

  She didn’t even look at the slice on her forearm. ‘It will stop,’ she said quietly. She smiled at me. ‘Hello, Bee. I’m Spark. I came a long way to meet you.’

  Prilkop was talking. ‘The tunnel is old, built when an emperor first constructed Clerres and severed the peninsula to make it an island. When I was a boy here, it was not a secret. In those days, the Servants lived simply and had no thought of needing guards or a secret escape route and it wasn’t used. I know that Beloved was taken out through that tunnel, as much to avoid Capra knowing as to maintain the pretence he had escaped.’ He looked at Beloved as he added, ‘They took great delight in telling me what they had done. How they had crippled and maimed you, to make every step an agony. Even so, they knew you would go to him. They trailed you like slow hounds. Not to help, only to keep you from failing. You know that now, don’t you?’

  ‘I guessed it then,’ he said in a low voice. ‘But I had no other path.’

  He was the one who had led them to me. And now he held my hand. I saved that bit of information.

  ‘The tunnel under the causeway?’ Spark prompted Prilkop impatiently.

  ‘It’s very old. It dates back to the creation of Clerres as an island. The emperor who constructed it wished to have a secret egress in case the castle was besieged and falling. When they cut away the land, and pared down the peninsula to make Clerres an island, they cut a trench in the stony earth and roofed it over, and then built the causeway over it. It was failing when they used it to take Beloved out of the dungeons. When the tide covers the causeway, it may leak. Or fill. I don’t know. It’s considered a “secret” now and not spoken about.’ He smiled grimly.

  Spark scowled. ‘But is it at a higher level than the waste chute? Or lower?’

  ‘Higher,’ Prilkop shook his head. ‘It was years ago that they released Beloved. It may be collapsed now. After Beloved’s “escape” Capra was so furious that she had it bricked up.’

  There was a smile in the girl’s voice as she said, ‘Bricks will not stop us, if you know where it was.’

  We heard a distant crash, behind and above us. We all flinched. My father limped faster.

  Beloved’s voice was soft and flat with a sort of dread. ‘Prilkop, how is it you know so much of what has been going on it Clerres?’

  The black man gave a bitter laugh. ‘I did not betray you, Beloved. Once you were gone, they believed they had all they needed from me and were finished with me—hence the better lodgings and cessation of torture. They took my dreams as I wrote them down. Several times they tried to induce me to contribute to their breeding programme. My dreams and my seed were all they valued of me. One of the night guards was assigned to seduce me. Instead, we became friends. She gave me news, but only what she knew of Clerres. The Four do not encourage news of the outside world here. For the Whites born here, Clerres is all they know.’

  Per came sprinting back to us, panic on his face. ‘We cannot escape this way,’ he whispered hoarsely. ‘Ahead is a grand staircase. People are running down it, and crowding at the bottom and milling like corralled cattle in the room before the outer doors. There is no escaping that way; the main doors are locked! I could not get to the front of the mob, for folk are trampling and pushing and hurling themselves against the doors.’ He gasped in a breath. ‘I ran past them down the next corridor, but there I saw a troop of guards. They were opening each locked chamber and searching it. I think they are looking for us. They saw me but I raced away from them. They didn’t follow. I think they thought me just another slave. But I think they will come this way soon.’

  I spoke as he drew breath. ‘They are seeking me. Vindeliar said he had burned it into their minds. They will not stop until they find me. And kill me.’

  For a long moment, none of them spoke. The sounds of the fleeing people came faintly to us. Per sheathed his knife and took my hand.

  My father spoke, but he sounded like a different man. One who thought only of what must happen next, without emotion. ‘Fool, lead us back to the dungeons.’

  It was Prilkop who spoke. ‘It is two doors ahead of us. On the left. And I must go there too. We left the other prisoners still locked in their cells when Vindeliar sent his magic to draw us to him.’ His voice dwindled away.

  My father sounded impatient. ‘And down there is the bricked up entrance to the causeway tunnel?’

  ‘Yes, it is also there. On the lower level.’

  ‘We need to get there and secure the doors before the guards come. Run!’ my father ordered. And we did, but only as fast as he could limp.

  The moment we reached the second door and Lant opened it, Prilkop darted in and disappeared from sight.

  My father seized Lant’s shoulder. ‘Lant. Secure this door and the one to the lower level. Barricade the steps with whatever you can find. Per and Fool, guard Bee with your lives.’ He unslung a harness from across his shoulders. It had pockets with little pots in them. He removed three. ‘Spark, take these. Have Prilkop show you the bricked-up entry. If nothing else works, blast it open. Get Bee back to the ship.’ He put the little pots into her arms. She cradled them like a baby while looking up at him wide-eyed. ‘Bee. Listen to Lant and the Fool. Obey them. They will get you to safety.’

  ‘But Fitz—’ Beloved said in a broken voice.

  ‘There’s no time to argue. Keep your promise to me!’ My father’s voice was the harshest I’d ever heard it.

  Beloved’s gasp sounded like a sob.

  ‘Papa,’ I said. I held to the cuff of his sleeve. ‘You promised me! You said you’d never leave me again!’

  ‘I’m sorry, Bee.’ He looked at all of us. ‘I’m sorry. Get inside. Hurry.’ But at the last moment, he reached over and set his hand on my head. I do not think he knew what would happen. The touch broke our walls. I felt him. I felt his disappointment in himself. He did not feel he deserved anything from me. Not to touch me or even to say that he loved me, for he had failed so badly at being my father. It stunned me. It was like a second wall beyond his Skill walls, something that prevented him from believing that anyone could love him.

  Wolf Father spoke to both of us. You would not feel so terrible if you had not loved her so recklessly. Without limits. Be proud of our cub. She fought. She killed. She stayed alive. I felt Wolf Father leap from me to my father. I heard his parting words. Run, Cub. We stand and fight like cornered wolves. Follow the Scentless One. He is part of us. Protect each other. Kill for him, if need be.

  As the wolf went to him, I felt the surge of joy that linked those two. They would stand and fight, not just for me, but because it was what they loved to do. What they had always loved to do. My father stood a bit straighter. They both looked at me from his eyes. Puzzlement and pride. And love of me. It poured out of my father, as uncontrollable as the blood seeping from his wound. It drenched me and filled me. He lifted his hand from my head. Did he know how he had revealed himself? Did he understand that Wolf Father had been with me, all those days, and now returned to him?

  Almost gently, he peeled my grip from his cuff. He spoke. ‘Please, Lant. Take Bee. Take the Fool, take all of them. Get them safely home. It’s the best thing you can do for me. Hurry!’ He gave me the softest of pushes. Away from him. He turned away from us, as if confident that we would obey.

  He turned and began to limp away.

/>   ‘Why?’ I shouted at him. I was too angry to cry, I thought, but tears came anyway.

  ‘Bee, I’m leaving a blood trail that a child could follow. Per saw guards coming, searching rooms as they come. I will be sure that they find me before they find you. Now, follow Lant.’ He sounded terribly tired and sad.

  I looked back the way we had come. His bloody footprints were plain on the once clean floor. He was right and that only made me angrier.

  Lant stood by the open door. ‘Per, Spark, take them in. I’m staying with Fitz.’

  ‘No, Lant, you won’t! I need you with them, to be a sword to protect them and to use your strength to barricade that door.’

  Beloved didn’t move. ‘I can’t do this,’ he said in a very soft voice.

  My father rounded on him. ‘You promised!’ he roared. He seized the front of Beloved’s shirt and pulled him close. ‘You promised me. You said you would choose her life over mine.’

  ‘Not like this,’ Beloved wailed. ‘Not like this!’

  Abruptly my father seized him in a hug. He held him tight as he spoke. ‘We don’t get to choose how it happens. Only that you save her, not me. Now go. Go!’ He pushed him away. ‘All of you, go!’

  He turned and limped away from us. His hand left bloody prints on the wall, and his footprints were red on the white floor. He didn’t look back. When he came to a door, he halted. We stood in frozen silence. I saw him take something out of his pocket, watched him fuss with the door handle. After a moment, he opened it. Just before he slipped inside, he glanced back at us. He made an angry motion and mouthed, ‘Go!’ at us.

  Then he was gone. I heard him lock the door behind him. Of course. If we were hiding in that room, it was what we would do. There was blood on the floor outside that door. His bloody handprints on the wall and the door. The guards would think they had us cornered.

  ‘Get in here,’ Lant said in a dark and savage voice. He took my shoulder and pushed me toward Beloved. I tottered numbly along with him. Per came beside me. I heard him sob once. I understood. I was crying, too. As the door began to close behind us, Per spoke in a hoarse voice. ‘Bee, I am sorry, but I am the only one Lant won’t need. Spark must set the firepot. Prilkop knows where the tunnel is. Lant is strong and good with a blade. And the Fool promised. And you … Saving you is why we came all this way. But me? I’m just a stableboy with a knife. I can stay with Fitz and help him.’ He sniffed. ‘Spark, quickly. Come back to that door and unlock it for me.’

  ‘Lant?’ she asked uncertainly.

  ‘Do it,’ he said harshly. ‘After all, he’s just a stableboy.’ He cleared his throat. ‘A stableboy who killed Duke Ellik to save Fitz’s life. One who stood beside him when Fitz faced down a queen dragon. Go, Per. Be sure he knows it’s you And when you’ve killed the guards, bring him back to us. Two knocks, then one, and I’ll open this door without trying to kill you.’

  ‘Yes, sir,’ Per said. He looked at me. ‘Goodbye, Bee.’

  I hugged Per. It had been a long time since I’d hugged anyone. It was even stranger to have someone hug me back, so gently. ‘Thank you for killing Ellik,’ I told him. ‘He was a terrible man.’

  ‘You’re welcome, Lady Bee,’ he said, and his voice shook only a little.

  Prilkop was waiting for us. ‘The lad is terrified,’ he objected.

  Lant spoke. ‘That’s because he’s as intelligent as he is brave. Go, Per.’

  ‘All this talking,’ I heard Spark mutter angrily. ‘Per, hurry!’ But as she turned, she reached up and touched Lant’s cheek. Then they left us

  I stood beside Beloved in the dim room. Overhead, something fell with such a crash that the ceiling shook, and bits of paint flaked down. He looked at me and spoke so softly. ‘The Destroyer.’

  I could not tell if it was a compliment or a rebuke. ‘Go down the steps,’ Lant said in a low voice. He closed the door behind us.


  * * *


  No, I cannot agree with you that this work should be left to others. You and I, we are the only two with the necessary depth of knowledge to understand and correctly classify the Skill-cubes. In an excess of caution, Skillmistress Nettle has removed from my safekeeping the sack of memory-cubes I myself brought back from Aslevjal. She has given them over to a young journeyman and a team of apprentices. The task she has assigned is that the apprentices should briefly sample each cube, both to teach them how to use a memory-cube and also to teach them the restraint needed to enter the Skill-flow and then to exit from it after a limited time. Each cube is then to be classified as to what it holds, be it music, history, poetry, geography or other branch of knowledge. Each cube will receive a designation so that they can be kept in order.

  I consider a ‘brief time’ in each cube to be inadequate. You and I both well know that a poem can be a history and a ‘history’ can be a flattering fabrication to tickle a ruler’s vanity. You and I are the ones who should be experiencing the cubes, creating clear pages that summarize what they hold and then storing them in order. This is not a task to be left to inexperienced apprentices, and ‘sampling’ the cubes before storage and classification is inadequate. I understand that the information they hold is vast. Even more reason that each cube should be explored completely by people with a broad base of knowledge.

  Chade Fallstar in a letter to Tom Badgerlock of Withywoods

  I latched the door behind me. Then I leaned against it. Why had they made it so hard for me? Did they think I wanted to do this? To leave Bee yet again? I did not mean to slide down to sit on the floor, but I did. It hurt, but it probably hurt less than falling.

  I was lightheaded. My body was demanding that I rest, that I sleep. After so many years, I was familiar with its aggressive healing. All my body’s attention and resources were going to the slash on my leg, just when I needed to be alert.

  How bad was it?

  It’s bleeding less. Don’t poke it.

  ‘Where have you been?’ I heard myself whisper the words.

  With the cub, doing my best to help her. Mostly failing.

  She is alive. That means you succeeded. She would be safer if you went back to her.

  She is safer if we draw off the hunters. And kill as many as we can.

  I had held back three of Chade’s firepots for myself. I reached over my shoulder and took out the cracked firepot that I’d mended, put it back and chose the other two. One had a blue fuse. Long and slow, Spark had said. I wasn’t sure I wanted it to burn slowly. I wasn’t clear on what I was going to do with it. How slow was slow?

  I knew the guards would come. Make all ready.

  I looked around the darkened room. It was small, perhaps for private meetings. There were two small windows set high in the wall and no other door. A watery grey light told me that outside, dawn was breaking. As my eyes adjusted, I saw a table with two comfortable, high-backed chairs around it. In the middle of the table there was a little pot-lamp made of glass and painted with flowers. A lovely, welcoming room. An assassin’s dream.

  I got to my feet, not quickly and not without curses, but I did it. I set my pack on the table and opened it. The folded paper of carris seed was on top. Very little left. I dumped it in my hand, tossed it into my mouth and ground it between my teeth as I set out the fire-brick. The heady rush of the carris seed flooded me. Good. I drew the wick most of the way out of the lamp and set it on the fire-brick. It warmed immediately and soon the wick began to smoulder.

  Someone tried the doorhandle. Out of time. I’d planned to have the lamp lit ready to light the fuse. Instead, I uncoiled the fuse from the firepot and set it on the brick. Almost immediately a tiny spark danced on it. A flame leapt and then died back to a steady red glow. The lock rattled once, then turned. I slid the brick along the fuse and lit it closer to the pot. Then I stood. Almost. I leaned heavily on the table. The sword wasn’t long enough to be a walking stick. I put more weight on my bad leg. It folded under me and I caught at the table. One
can ignore pain. But when the body invokes weakness, determination is useless. I hopped and lurched toward the door. I wanted to be behind it, out of sight when they entered. They’d come in I’d close the door and keep them there until Chade’s little pot gave up its lightning.

  I made it to the door just as it opened a crack. I leaned against the wall and held my breath.

  ‘Fitz? It’s me, it’s Per. Don’t kill me!’

  He stepped in, with Spark peering over his shoulder. I had no time to curse at them. I lunged for the firepot at the same moment that Spark saw it. As I toppled like a cut tree, she stepped past me, slid the fire-brick from under the fuse and flipped the brick over. She evaluated the fuse on the pot. ‘We have enough time,’ she said. ‘Pick him up, Per. We’ll backtrack in his blood and be away from here before it goes off.’ She nodded to me. ‘It’s not a bad plan.’ She seized one of the chairs and dragged it so that the back blocked the view of the table from the door. ‘Nothing for them to see to warn them. Let’s go.’

  I tried to think of a reason to argue with her. Per already had my arm across his shoulder. He stood, dragging me up with him. The lad had grown stronger. Spark poked the fire-brick, and then picked it up. ‘It’s cooling already,’ she said. ‘Elderling magic. Amazing stuff.’ With swift efficiency, she resettled it in the pack. I started to object, but she held up the unlit firepot. ‘I’m not stupid,’ she said and set it upright on the cooled brick. She slung it over my shoulder. ‘Go. Now.’

  We went, though not as swiftly as I would have wished. I leaned on Per and hobbled. Spark inserted herself under my sword arm. She was barely tall enough to take the weight off my bad leg. She drew the door closed behind us. ‘Wish I had time to lock it,’ she muttered. My heart sank as I saw the next door open and Lant put his head out. Spark made an impatient motion of her hand and he closed it softly. I tried to move faster.

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