Assassins fate, p.14
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       Assassin's Fate, p.14

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

  know what we should and should not do?’

  ‘I didn’t, exactly.’ He sighed heavily. ‘I saw you in the futures I wanted. But not often. At first, your survival was very unlikely. So my first task was to find you, and keep you alive as long as possible. To create a greater likelihood that you would exist in more possible futures. Do you see what I mean?’ I didn’t, but I made an agreeable noise. ‘So. To keep a bastard alive, find a powerful man. Win him to my side. I put into King Shrewd’s head the thought that you might be useful in the future; that he should not let Regal destroy you, or he would not have you as a tool to possibly use later.’

  I recalled Regal’s words the first time he saw me. ‘Don’t do what you can’t undo, until you’ve considered well what you can’t do once you’ve done it.’

  ‘Almost exactly right,’ he said, and hiccupped, and then chuckled. ‘Oh, King Shrewd. I never foresaw that I would come to care for him so much, Fitz, nor that he would be fond of me. Or you!’ He yawned and added, ‘But he did.’

  ‘So, what can we do, to make it less likely they expect us?’

  ‘We could not go.’

  ‘Yes, there’s that.’

  ‘We could delay going for twenty years or so.’

  ‘I’d likely be dead. Or very old.’

  ‘True.’

  ‘I don’t want to take the others into this. Lant and the youngsters. I never meant for you to come along, let alone them. I hope that in Bingtown we can put them on a ship home.’

  He shook his head, disapproving that plan. Then he asked, ‘Do you think that somehow you will manage to leave me behind as well?’

  ‘I wish I could, but I fear that I must have you with me, to help me find my way. So be useful, Fool. Tell me of this tunnel. Is it guarded as well?’

  ‘I think not, Fitz. I can tell you so little. I was blinded and broken. I did not even know the names of those took me out of there. When I realized they were moving me, I thought they were taking me to the dung-tank on the level of the lowest dungeons. It is a vile place, always stinking of filth and death. All the waste of the castle flows into a vat set into the floor. If you have displeased the Four that is where they will dump your dismembered body. Twice a day the tank floods with the incoming tide. A chute slants down and under the castle wall, into the bay. And when the tide goes out, it carries with it the filth, the excrement, the little strangled babies they did not find worthy of life …’

  His voice cracked as he said, ‘I thought that was why they had come. To cut me in pieces and throw me in with all the other waste. But they hushed me when I cried out and said they had come to save me, and they rolled me onto a blanket and carried me out. During the times when I was conscious I heard the drip of water and smelled the sea. We went down some steps. They carried me a long way. I smelled their lantern. Then up some steps and out onto a hillside. I smelled sheep and wet grass. The jolting hurt me terribly. They carried me over rough ground for a painfully long time and then out onto a dock where they gave me over to sailors on a ship.’

  I stored in my mind the little he had given me. A tunnel under the causeway that ended in a sheep pasture. Not much of use. ‘Who were they? Would they be willing to help us?’

  ‘I don’t know. Even now, I can’t recall it clearly.’

  ‘You must,’ I told him. I felt him flinch and feared I had pushed him too hard. I spoke more gently. ‘Fool, you are all I have. And there is so much I need to know about this “Four”. I must know their weaknesses, their pleasures, their friends. I must know their habits, their vices, their routines and desires.’

  I waited. He remained silent. I tried another question. ‘If we can choose but one to kill, which one do you most wish dead?’ He was silent. After a time, I asked him quietly, ‘Are you awake?’

  ‘Awake. Yes.’ He sounded more sober than he had. ‘Fitz. Was this how it was with Chade? Did you two take counsel with one another and plan each death?’

  Don’t talk about this. Too private even to tell the Fool. I’d never spoken of it to Molly. The only one who had ever witnessed me engaged in my trade was Bee. I cleared my throat. ‘Let it go for tonight, Fool. Tomorrow I will beg paper from the keepers and we can begin to draw the stronghold. As much as you remember. For tonight, we need to sleep.’

  ‘I won’t be able to.’

  He sounded desperately unhappy. I was exhuming all he had buried. I handed him the bottle. He drank from the neck. I took it back and did the same. It was unlikely that I would sleep either. I hadn’t intended to get drunk. It was supposed to be a ploy. A scheme, to trick my friend. I drank more and took a breath. ‘Have you any allies there, within the walls?’

  ‘Perhaps. Prilkop was alive, the last time I saw him. But if he lives, he is likely a prisoner.’ A pause. ‘I will try to order it all in my mind and tell it to you. But, it is hard, Fitz. There are things I can’t bear to recall. They only come back to me in nightmares …’

  He fell silent. Digging information out of him felt as cruel as digging bits of bone from a wound.

  ‘When we left Aslevjal to return to Clerres?’ he said suddenly. ‘That was Prilkop’s idea. I was still recovering from all that had happened. I did not feel competent to chart my own course. He had always wanted to return to Clerres. Longed for it, for so many years. His memories of that place were so different to mine. He had come from a time before the Servants were corrupt. From a time when they truly served the White Prophet. When I told him of my time there, of how I had been treated, he was aghast. And more determined than ever that we must return, to set things right.’ He shifted suddenly, wrapping his arms around himself and hunching his shoulders forward. I rolled toward him. In the faint light of the ceiling’s stars, he looked very old and small. ‘I let him persuade me. He was … I hope he is … very large-hearted, Fitz. Unable, even after he had seen all Ilistore did, to believe that the Servants now served only greed and hatred.’

  ‘Ilistore?’

  ‘You knew her as the Pale Woman.’

  ‘I did not know she had another name.’

  At that, a thin smile curved his mouth. ‘You thought that when she was a babe, she was called the Pale Woman?’

  ‘I … well, no. I’d never really thought about it. You called her the Pale Woman!’

  ‘I did. It’s an old tradition or perhaps a superstition. Never call something by its true name if you wish to avoid calling its attention to you. Perhaps it goes back to the days when dragons and humans commonly coexisted in the world. Tintaglia disliked that humans knew her true name.’

  ‘Ilistore,’ I said softly.

  ‘She’s gone. Even so I avoid her name.’

  ‘She is gone.’ I thought of her as I had last seen her, her arms ending in blackened sticks of bone, her hair lank about her face, all pretence of beauty gone. I did not want to think of that. I was grateful when he began to speak again, his words soft at the edges.

  ‘When I first returned to Clerres with Prilkop, the Servants were … astonished. I have told you how weak I was. Had I been myself, I would have been much more cautious. But Prilkop anticipated only peace and comfort and a wonderful homecoming. We crossed the causeway together, and all who saw his gleaming black skin knew what he must be: a prophet who had achieved his life’s work. We entered and he refused to wait. We walked straight into the audience chamber of the Four.’

  I watched his face in the dim light. A smile tried to form, faded. ‘They were speechless. Frightened, perhaps. He announced plainly that their false prophet had failed, and that we had released IceFyre into the world. He was fearless.’ He turned toward me. ‘A woman screamed and ran from the room. I cannot be sure, but I think that was Dwalia. That was how she heard that the Pale Woman’s hands had been eaten, and how she had died in the cold, starved and freezing. Ilistore had always despised me, and that day I secured Dwalia’s hatred as well.

  ‘Yet almost immediately, the Four gave us a veritable festival of welcome. Elaborate dinners, with us seated at
the high table with them. Entertainments were staged, and intoxicants and courtesans offered to us, anything they imagined we might desire. We were hailed as returning heroes rather than the two who had destroyed the future they had sought.’

  Another silence. Then he took a breath. ‘They were clever. They requested a full accounting of all I had accomplished, as one might expect they would. They put scribes at my disposal, offered me the finest paper, beautiful inks and brushes so that I might record all I had experienced out in the greater world. Prilkop was honoured as the eldest of all Whites.’

  He stopped speaking and I thought he had drowsed off. I had not had near as much brandy as he had. My ploy had worked too well. I took the teacup from his lax hand and set it gently on the floor.

  ‘They gave us sumptuous chambers,’ he went on at last. ‘Healers tended me. I regained my strength. They were so humble, so apologetic for how they had doubted me. So willing to learn. They asked me so many questions … I realized one day that, despite all their questions and flattery, I had managed to … minimize you. To tell my history as if you were several people rather than one. A stableboy, a bastard prince, an assassin. To keep you hidden from them, save as a nameless Catalyst who served me. I allowed myself to admit that I did not trust them. That I had never forgotten or forgiven how they had mistreated and restrained me.

  ‘And Prilkop, too, had misgivings. He had watched the Pale Woman for years as she claimed Aslevjal. He had seen how she courted her Catalyst, Kebal Rawbread, with gifts—a silver throat-piece, earrings of gold set with rubies, gifts that meant that she had substantial wealth at her disposal. The wealth of Clerres had been made available to her that she might set the world on their so-called true Path. She was no rogue prophet, but their emissary sent out to do their will. She was to destroy IceFyre and put an end to the last hope to restore dragons to the world. Why, he asked me, would they welcome the two who had dashed their plans?

  ‘So, we conspired. We agreed that we must not give them any clues that led back to you. Prilkop theorized that they were looking for what he called junctions—places and people that had helped us shift the world into a better future. He speculated that they could use the same places and people to push the world back into the “true Path” they had desired. Prilkop felt you were a very powerful junction, one to be protected. At that point, the Four were still treating us as honoured guests. We had the best of everything, and freedom to roam the castle and the town. That was when we smuggled out our first two messengers. They were to seek you out and warn you.’

  I rallied my bleary brain. ‘No. The messenger said you wanted me to find the Unexpected Son.’

  ‘That came later,’ he said softly. ‘Much later.’

  ‘You always said I was the Unexpected Son.’

  ‘So I thought then. And Prilkop, too. You will recall how earnestly he advised us to part, lest we accidentally continue to work unpredictable change in the world, changes we could neither predict nor control.’ He laughed uneasily. ‘And so we have done.’

  ‘Fool, I care nothing for anyone’s vision of a better future for this world. The Servants destroyed my child.’ I spoke into the darkness. ‘I care only that they have no future at all.’ I shifted in the bed. ‘When did you stop believing that I was the Unexpected Son? And if those prophecies do not pertain to me, what of all we did together? If we were guided by your dreams, and yet I was not the one your dreams foretold …’

  ‘I’ve wrestled with that.’ He sighed so heavily I felt his breath against my face. ‘Prophetic dreams are riddling things, Fitz. Puzzles to be solved. Often enough you have accused me of interpreting them after the fact, bending them to fit what truly happened. But the prophecies of the Unexpected Son? There are many. I have never told you all of them. In some, you wore a buck’s antlers. In others, you howled like a wolf. The dreams said you would come from the north, from a pale mother and dark father. All those prophecies fitted. I cited all those dreams to prove that the bastard prince that I had aided was the Unexpected Son.’

  ‘You aided me? I thought I was your Catalyst.’

  ‘You were. Don’t interrupt. This is difficult enough without interruptions.’ He paused again to lift the bottle. As he lowered it, I caught it before it fell. ‘I know you are the Unexpected Son. In my bones, I knew it then, and I know it now. But they insisted you were not. They hurt me so badly that I could not believe what I knew. They twisted my thoughts, Fitz, just as much as they torqued my bones. They said that some of their Clerres-bred Whites were still having dreams of the Unexpected Son. They dreamed him as a figure of dark vengeance. They said that if I had fulfilled those prophecies, the dreams would not be continuing. But they were.’

  ‘Maybe they still mean me.’ I stoppered the bottle and lowered it carefully to the floor. I set my glass beside it. I rolled to face him.

  I had meant it as a jest. His sharp intake of breath told me it was anything but humorous to him. ‘But—’ he objected and then stopped speaking. He bowed his head forward suddenly, almost butting it into my chest. He whispered as if he feared to speak the words loud. ‘Then they would know. They would certainly know. Oh, Fitz. They did come and find you. They took Bee, but they had found the Unexpected Son, as they had claimed the dreams predicted they would.’ He choked on those last words.

  I set my hand on his shoulder. He was shaking. I spoke quietly. ‘So they found me. And we will make them very sorry they found me. Did not you tell me that you had dreamed me as Destroyer? That is my prediction: I will destroy the people who destroyed my child.’

  ‘Where is the bottle?’ He sounded utterly discouraged and I decided to take mercy on him.

  ‘We drank it. We’ve talked enough. Go to sleep.’

  ‘I cannot. I fear to dream.’

  I was drunk. The words tumbled from my mouth. ‘Then dream of me, killing the Four.’ I laughed stupidly. ‘How I would have loved to kill Dwalia.’ I took a deep breath. ‘Now I understand why you were angry at me for walking away from the Pale Woman. I knew she would die. But I understand why you wished me to kill her.’

  ‘You were carrying me. I was dead.’

  ‘Yes.’

  We were both quiet for a time, thinking of that. I had not been this drunk in a long time. I started to let my awareness slide away.

  ‘Fitz. After my parents left me at Clerres, I was still a child. Just when I needed someone to care for me, to protect me, I had no one.’ His voice, always controlled so carefully, was thickening with tears. ‘My journey to Buckkeep, when I first fled Clerres to discover you. It was horrible. The things I had to do, the things that were done to me – all so that I could get to Buck. And find you.’ He sobbed in a breath. ‘Then, King Shrewd. I came there hoping only to manipulate him to get what I needed. You, alive. I had become what the Servants had taught me to be, ruthless and selfish. Set only on levering people and events to my will. I came to his court, ragged and half-starved, and gave him a letter with most of the ink washed away, saying that I had been sent as a gift to him.’

  He sniffed and then dragged his arm across his eyes. My eyes filled with tears for him. ‘I tumbled and pranced and walked on my hands. I expected him to mock me. I was prepared to be used however he desired if I could but win your life from him.’ He sobbed aloud. ‘He … he ordered me to stop. Regal was beside his throne, full of horror that a creature such as I was admitted to the throne room. But Shrewd? He told a guardsman, “Take that child to the kitchens, and see him fed. Have the seamstresses find some clothes to fit him. And shoes. Put shoes on his feet”.

  ‘And all that he commanded was done for me. It made me so wary! Oh, I didn’t trust him. Capra had taught me to fear initial kindness. I kept waiting for the blow, for the demand. When he told me I could sleep on the hearth in his bedchamber, I was certain he would … But that was all he meant. While Queen Desire was gone, I would be his companion in the evening, to amuse him with tricks and tales and songs, and then sleep on his hearth and rise in the mor
ning when he did. Fitz, he had no reason to be so kind to me. None at all.’

  He was weeping noisily now, his walls completely broken. ‘He protected me, Fitz. It took months for him to gain my trust. But after a time, whenever Queen Desire was travelling and I slept on the hearth, I felt safe. It was safe to sleep.’ He rubbed his eyes again. ‘I miss that. I miss that so badly.’

  I did, I think, what anyone would have done for a friend, especially as drunk as we both were. I remembered Burrich, too, and how his strength had sheltered me when I was small. I put my arm around the Fool and pulled him close. For an instant, I felt that unbearable connection. I lifted my hand away and shifted so that his face rested on my shirt.

  ‘I felt that,’ he said wearily.

  ‘So did I.’

  ‘You should be more careful.’

  ‘I should.’ I secured my walls against him. I wished I didn’t have to. ‘Go to sleep,’ I told him. I made a promise I doubted I could keep. ‘I will protect you.’

  He sniffed a final time, wiped his wrist across his eyes and gave a deep sigh. He groped with his gloved hand, and clasped my hand, wrist to wrist, the warriors’ greeting. After a time, I felt his body go slack against mine. His grip on my wrist loosened. I kept mine firm.

  Protect him. Could I even protect myself any more? What right did I have to offer him such a vain promise. I hadn’t protected Bee, had I? I took a deep breath and thought of her. Not in the shallow, wistful way one recalls a sweet time, long past. I thought of her little hand clasping my fingers. I recalled how thickly she spread butter on bread, and how she held her teacup in both hands. I let the pain wash fresh against me, salt in fresh slashes. I recalled her weight on my shoulder and how she gripped my head to steady herself. Bee. So small. Mine for so short a time. And gone now. Just gone, into the Skill-stream and lost forever. Bee.

  The Fool made a small sound of pain. For an instant, his hand tightened on my wrist, and then fell slack again.

  And for a time, as I stared up at the false night sky, I kept a drunken watch over him.

  SEVEN

  * * *

  Beggar

 
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