Assassins fate, p.19
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       Assassin's Fate, p.19

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

  in, kindly and gently at first, to a row of little cottages in a pretty garden, with a grape arbour and a fountain. And in the little cottage they brought me to, I met three other children, all nearly as pale as I was.

  ‘But they were all half-brothers. And they had been born there in Clerres. Bred and born there. For the Servants were no longer serving the White Prophet, but themselves. They had collected children, for they could trace the lineage of each White Prophet. A cousin, a great-nephew, a grandchild rumoured to be descended from a White Prophet. Gather them up, house them together, and breed them like rabbits. Breed them back again to each other. Sooner or later the rare trait surfaces. You’ve seen Burrich do it. What works with horses and dogs works with people as well. Instead of waiting for a wild-born White to appear they made their own. And harvested their dreams. And the Servants who once believed that White Prophets were born to set the world on a better path forgot that duty and began to care only for enriching themselves and their own comfort. Their “true Path” is a conspiracy to enable whatever brings to them the most wealth and power! Their home-bred Whites did as they were told. In small ways. Put a different man on the throne of a neighbouring kingdom. Warehouse wool, and never warn anyone of the coming plague that will kill all of their sheep. Until finally, perhaps, they decided to rid the world of dragons and Elderlings.’ He drank the rest of the brandy in his cup and set it down with a clack on the table.

  He turned his face to me at last. Tears had eroded Amber’s careful powder and paint. The black that lined her eyes had become dark trails down his cheeks. ‘Enough, Fitz,’ he said with finality.

  ‘Fool, I need to know—’

  ‘Enough for today.’ His groping hand found the brandy bottle. For a blind man, he did a passable job of emptying the dregs of the bottle into his cup. ‘I know I must speak to you of these things,’ he said hoarsely. ‘And I will. At my pace.’ He shook his head. ‘Such a mess I made of it. The White Prophet. And here I am, blind and broken, dragging you into it again. Our last effort to change the world.’

  I whispered the words to myself. ‘I don’t do this for the world. I do it for myself.’ Quietly I rose and left him the table and the brandy.

  In the two days before the Tarman left the village and crossed the river to us, I saw no more of Tintaglia. Lant had heard the blue dragon had drunk deeply of Silver, made a kill and ate it, slept, and had been groomed by her Elderlings in the steaming dragon-baths. Then she had drunk Silver again, and left. Whether she had gone to hunt or departed to find IceFyre, no one knew. I surrendered my hope that I would learn anything from her.

  The Fool lived up to his word. On the table in my room, he built a map of the island and the town and castle of Clerres. I hoarded plates and cutlery and napkins from our meals and the Fool’s groping fingers moved walls of spoons, and arranged plate towers. From this peculiar representation, I sketched Clerres. The outer fortifications were presided over by four stout towers, each topped with an immense skull-shaped dome. Lamps burned in the skull-eyes at night. Skilled archers walked the crenellated walls of the outer keep always.

  Within the high white walls of the keep, a secondary wall surrounded gracious gardens, the cottages that housed the Whites and a stronghouse of white stone and bone. The stronghouse had four towers, each taller and narrower than the watchtowers of the outer walls. We dragged a bedside table into the main room, and on this we created a map of the main floor of the Servants’ stronghold.

  ‘The stronghouse has four levels above the ground, and two below,’ the Fool informed me as he formed up the walls from scarves and arranged towers of teacups. ‘That is not counting the majestic towers where the Four abide. Those towers are taller than the watchtowers on the outer walls. The roof of the stronghouse is flat. On it are the old harem quarters from the days when Clerres was a palace as well as a castle. Those quarters are used to confine the more important prisoners. The towers offer an excellent view of the castle island and the harbour and the hills beyond the town. It is a very old structure, Fitz. I do not think anyone knows how the towers were built so narrow, and yet expand at the top into such grand rooms.’

  ‘Shaped like mushrooms?’ I asked as I tried to visualize.

  ‘Like exquisitely graceful mushrooms, perhaps,’ and he almost smiled.

  ‘How narrow are the stems of those mushrooms?’ I asked him.

  He considered. ‘At the base, as wide as the great hall at Buckkeep Castle. But as one ascends, they narrow to half that size.’

  I nodded to myself, well pleased at that image. ‘And that is where each of the Four sleeps at night? In a tower room?’

  ‘For the most part. Fellowdy, it is well known, has appetites for flesh that he satisfies in several locations. Capra, almost always in her tower room. Symphe and Coultrie, most nights I imagine. Fitz, it has been many years since I was privy to their lives and habits.’

  Castle Clerres stood on an island of white rock, alone. From the castle’s outer walls to the steep edges of the island there was only flat, stony earth that any invader must cross to reach the walls. A watch was kept over the water and the narrow causeway. The causeway opened twice a day, at the low tides, to permit servants to come and go, and to admit the pilgrims who came to discover their futures.

  ‘Once pilgrims cross the causeway and enter the walls, they see the stronghouse with the vine of time in bas-relief on its front. All the grandest rooms are on the ground floor: the audience chambers, the ballroom, the feasting room, all panelled in white wood. A few of the teaching rooms are there, but most of them are on the second floor. The young Whites are taught and their dreams harvested. On that floor are extravagant chambers where wealthy patrons may take their ease and sip wine and listen as collators read selected scrolls to them and lingstras interpret them. For a fat fee.’

  ‘And the lingstras and collators are all Whites?’

  ‘Most have a trace of White heritage. Born on Clerres, they are raised to be servants of the Four. They also “serve” the Whites who can dream, in much the same way a tick drops on a dog. They suck off dreams and ideas, and express them as possible futures to the rich fools who come to consult with them.’

  ‘So. They are charlatans.’

  ‘No,’ he said in a low voice. ‘That is the worst part, Fitz. The rich buy knowledge of the future, to make themselves even richer. The lingstras gather dreams of a drought to come, and counsel a man to hoard grain to sell to his starving neighbours. Pestilence and plague can make a family wealthy, if they expect it. The Four no longer think of putting the world on a better course, but only of profiting from disasters and windfalls.’

  He drew a deep breath. ‘On the third floor is the treasured hoard of the Servants. There are six chambers of scroll-collections. Some of the scrolls are old beyond reckoning, and new dreams are penned and added daily. Only the wealthiest can afford to stroll here. Sometimes, a wealthy priest of Sa may be admitted to study independently, but only if there is wealth and influence to be gained.

  ‘Finally on the fourth floor are the living quarters for the Servants who are high in the Four’s favour. Some guards live there, the most trusted ones, who protect entry to each of the Four’s private towers. And the most prolific White dreamers are housed on that level, where the Four may easily descend from their grand towers to have congress with them. Not always congress of a lofty intellectual sort, where Fellowdy is concerned.’ He stopped speaking. I did not ask if he had ever been victim of that sort of attention.

  He stood up abruptly and walked across the room, speaking over his shoulder. ‘Up one more set of stairs and you emerge onto the roof, and the old harem quarters that are now the cells where recalcitrant Whites are held.’ He drifted away from our work. ‘Perhaps Prilkop is held there now. Or whatever is left of him.’ He drew a sudden deep breath. Then Amber spoke. ‘It’s stuffy in here. Please summon Spark for me. I wish to go out and take the air.’

  I did as she asked.

  My sessions wi
th the Fool were brief and intermittent. I listened far more than I spoke, and if he silently rose and became Amber and left the room, I let him go. In his absence, I sketched and noted down key bits of information. I valued what he had shared but I needed more. He had no recent information on their vices or foibles, no names of lovers or enemies, no idea of daily routines. That I would learn by spying when I reached Clerres. There was no rush. Haste would not bring Bee back. This would be a cold, and carefully calculated, vengeance. When I struck, I would do so with thoroughness. It would be sweet, I thought, if they died knowing for what crime they suffered. But if they did not, they would still be just as dead.

  Perforce, my plans were simplistic, my strategy sparse. I arranged my supplies and pondered possibilities. Five of Chade’s exploding pots had survived the bear’s attack. One was cracked and leaking a coarse black powder. I softened candle wax and repaired it. I had knives, and my old sling, an axe too large to carry in a peaceful city; I doubted those weapons would be useful. I had powdered poisons for mixing with food and some for dusting a surface, oils that could go on a doorknob or the lip of a mug, tasteless liquids and pellets, every form of poison I knew. The bear attack had robbed me of the ones I had carried in quantity; I had no hope of poisoning the castle’s water supply or dosing a large kettle of food. I had enough poison to deploy if I could get the Four to sit down and play dice with me. I doubted such an opportunity would exist. But if I could gain access to their personal lodgings, I could make an end of them.

  On the bedside table, in the little cups that represented the towers, I arranged four black stones. I was holding the fifth in my hand, pondering, when Per and Spark came in with Lady Amber and Lant. ‘Is it a game?’ Per asked, staring in consternation at the cluttered tables, and my murder kit arrayed neatly on the floor.

  ‘If assassination is a game,’ Spark said quietly. She came to stand at my elbow. ‘What do the black stones represent?’

  ‘Chade’s pots.’

  ‘What do they do?’ Per asked.

  ‘They blast things. Like trapped sap popping in a firewood log.’ I gestured at the five little pots.

  ‘Only more powerful,’ the Fool said.

  ‘Much more,’ Spark said quietly. ‘I tested some with Chade. When he was healthy. We blew a great hole in a stone cliff near the beach. Rock chips flew everywhere.’ She touched her cheek as if remembering a stinging splinter.

  ‘Good,’ the Fool said. He took a seat at the table. Amber was long gone as his fingers danced over the carefully-arranged items. ‘A firepot for each tower?’

  ‘It might work. The placement of the pots and the strength of the tower walls are key. The pots must be high enough in the tower to make the tower collapse while the Four are abed. The pots have to explode simultaneously, so I need fuses of different lengths, so I can place and light a pot, and then go on to the next until all four are burning.’

  ‘And still give you time to escape,’ Lant suggested.

  ‘That would be very nice, yes.’ I didn’t consider it likely that the pots would explode simultaneously. ‘I need something to make fuses from.’

  Spark frowned. ‘Are not the fuses still in the top of the pots?’

  I stared at her. ‘What?’

  ‘Give me one. Please.’

  With reluctance, I lifted the repaired pot and handed it to her. She scowled at that. ‘I’m not sure you should even try to use this one.’ She tugged the cap off the pot, and I saw that it had been held on with a thick resin. Inside were two coiled strings. One was blue and the other white. She teased them out. The blue was twice the length of the white. ‘The blue is longer and burns more slowly. The white burns fast.’

  ‘How fast?’

  She shrugged. ‘The white one, set fire to it and run. It is good if you are being chased. The blue one you can conceal, and then finish your wine and bid your host farewell and be safely out the door.’

  Lant leaned over my shoulder. I heard the smile in his voice. ‘Far easier to use those with two of us. One man can never set all four and still be away before they explode.’

  ‘Three of us,’ Spark insisted. I stared at her. Her expression became indignant. ‘I’ve more experience with them than anyone here!’

  ‘Four,’ Per said. I wondered if he understood we were talking about murder. It was my fault they included themselves at all. A younger and more energetic Fitz would have kept his plans concealed. I was older and weary and they already knew too much. Dangerously too much, for them and for me. I wondered if I’d have any secrets left when I died.

  ‘When the time comes, we will see,’ I told them, knowing they would argue if I simply said ‘no’.

  ‘I won’t see,’ the Fool interjected into the silence. For a moment, there was discomfort, and then Per laughed awkwardly. We joined in, more bitter than merry. But still alive and still moving toward our murderous goal.

  NINE

  * * *

  The Tarman

  Even before King Shrewd rather unwisely chose to strictly limit Skill-instruction to the members of the royal family only, the magic was falling into disuse. When I was in my 22nd year, a blood-cough swept through all the coastal duchies. The young and the old were carried off in droves. Many aged Skill-users died in that plague, and with them died their knowledge of the magic.

  When Prince Regal found that scrolls about Skill-magic commanded a high price from foreign traders, he began secretly to deplete the libraries of Buckkeep. Did he know that those precious scrolls would ultimately fall into the hands of the Pale Woman and the Red-Ship Raiders? That is a matter that has long been debated among Buck nobility, and as Regal has been dead and gone for many years, it is likely we shall never know the truth about that.

  On the decline of knowledge of Skill during the reign of King Shrewd,

  Chade Fallstar

  We trooped down together to the dock to watch the Tarman arrive in Kelsingra. I had grown up in Buckkeep Town where the docks were of heavy black timbers redolent of tar. Those docks seemed to have stood since El brought the sea to our shores. This dock was recently built, of pale planks with some pilings of stone and some of raw timber. New construction had been fastened to the ancient remains of an Elderling dock. I pondered that, for I did not judge this the best location for a dock. The half-devoured buildings at the river’s edge told me that the river often shifted in its bed. The new Elderlings of Kelsingra needed to lift their eyes from what had been and consider the river and the city as it was now.

  Above the broken cliffs that backed the city, on the highest hills, the snow had slumped into thin random fingers. In the distance, I could see the birches blushing pink and the willows gone red at the tips of their branches. The wind off the river was wet and cold, but the knife’s edge of winter was gone from it. The year was turning and with it the direction of my life.

  A sprinkling rain fell as the Tarman approached. Motley clung to Perseverance’s shoulder, her head tucked tight against the rain. Lant stood behind him. Spark stood next to Amber. We clustered near enough to watch and far enough back that we were not in the way. Amber’s gloved hand rested on the back of my wrist. I spoke to her in a low voice. ‘The river runs swift and deep and doubtless cold. It is pale grey with silt, and smells sour. Once there was more shore here. Over decades, the river has eaten its way into Kelsingra. There are two other ships docked here. They both appear idle.

  ‘The Tarman is a river barge. Sweeps, oars, long and low to the water. One powerful woman is on the steering oar. The ship has travelled upriver on the far side of the river, and now it’s crossed the current, turned back and is moving with the current. No figurehead.’ I was disappointed. I’d heard that the figureheads on liveships could move and speak. ‘It has eyes painted on his hull. And it’s coming fast with the current, and two deckhands have joined the steerswoman on the rudder. The crew is battling the current to bring the ship in here.’

  As the Tarman neared the docks and its lines were tossed to folk on t
he dock, where they were caught and snubbed off around the cleats, the barge reared like a wilful horse and water piled up against its stern. There was something odd about the way the barge fought the current but I could not place it. Water churned all around it. Lines and dock timbers creaked as they took its weight.

  Some lines were tightened and others loosened until the captain was satisfied that his craft was well snugged to the dock. The longshoremen were waiting with their barrows and one tall Elderling on the dock was grinning in the way that only a man hoping to see his sweetheart grins. Alum. That was his name. I watched the deck and soon spotted her. She was in constant motion, relaying commands and helping to make the Tarman fast to the dock, but twice I caught her eyes roving over the welcoming crowd. When she saw her Elderling sweetheart, her face lit, and she seemed to move even more efficiently as if to flaunt her prowess.

  A gangplank was thrown down and about a dozen passengers disembarked, their possessions in bags or packs. The immigrants came ashore uncertainly, staring up in wonder or perhaps dismay at the half-ruined city. I wondered what they had imagined, and if they would stay. On a separate gangplank, the longshoremen began to come and go like a line of ants as the ship disgorged cargo. ‘That’s the boat we’ll travel on?’ Spark asked doubtfully.

  ‘That’s the one.’

  ‘I’ve never been on a boat.’

  ‘I’ve been out in little boats before. Rowing boats on the Withy. Nothing like that.’ Perseverance’s eyes roved over the Tarman. His mouth was slightly ajar. I could not tell if he were anxious or eager.

  ‘You’ll be fine,’ Lant assured them. ‘Look how stable that ship is. And we’re only going to be on a river, not the sea.’

  I noted to myself that Lant was speaking to the youngsters more as if they were his younger siblings than his servants.

  ‘Do you see the captain?’

  I responded to Amber’s question. ‘I see a man past his middle years approaching Reyn. He has been larger in his life, I think, but looks gaunt now. They greet one another fondly. I suspect that is Leftrin and the woman with him would be Alise. She has a great deal of very curly reddish hair.’ Amber had shared with me the scandalous tale of how Alise had forsaken her legal but unfaithful Bingtown husband to take up with the captain of a liveship. ‘They
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