Assassins fate, p.33
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       Assassin's Fate, p.33

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

  instead followed the trader up a stair of the same white stone and down a hallway. She halted at a door, unlocked it with the big brass key and we entered a very fine chamber indeed. There was a massive bed, fat with pillows scattered over a plump white coverlet. A bowl of fruit and flowers and a glass carafe of pale yellow liquid rested on a table in the centre of the room. Two doors stood open to a little balcony that overlooked the street and the harbour beyond.

  ‘Close those!’ the trader commanded me, and I obeyed immediately, shutting out the street sounds and the smells that came in with them. I turned back to the room to find she had poured herself a glass of the golden wine. She sat down in a cushioned chair and sighed. She took a slow and careful sip.

  ‘My trunk will be delivered shortly. Open it. Set out the white sandals, my long red skirt, and the loose white blouse that is hemmed in red and has red cuffs on the sleeves. Put out my brushes and jewellery on that shelf beside my mirror and my perfumes. After you have done that, you may eat any of the fruit on this table. I believe there is a servant’s chamber beyond that door; I have never travelled with a servant before, but you may make yourself comfortable there until I return.’ She gave a sigh. ‘I fear I must go out immediately, to be sure my goods have all been delivered to the warehouse, and to let three of my buyers know that I have returned with the wares they requested.’ She picked up the wine glass and drained the last of it. ‘Do not leave this room,’ she cautioned me, and walked briskly to the door. She closed it behind her, and silence filled the room. I breathed out, a shuddering sigh. I was safe.

  I wandered the room, looking at the fine furnishings. I peered into my servant’s chamber. Simple but clean, with a low pallet and a blanket, a washstand with a ewer and basin, a chamber pot and two hooks for clothing. After sleeping so many nights on the floor or the ground, the simple bed seemed a luxury.

  A loud knock at the door announced the arrival of the trader’s trunk. I admitted the two large men carrying it. They set it down by the wall and bowed their way out. I shut the door behind them and performed my duties exactly as Trader Akriel had given them to me. A few items had been jostled about in the trunk’s passage. Those I straightened. I arranged her brushes and cosmetics and jewellery as she had requested.

  Only when I had finished did I go back to the fruit on the table. Some of it was unfamiliar to me. I sniffed a pale green one and wondered if I should bite into it or peel it or cut it. A little knife and a plate had been left beside it. I settled on eating the obvious berries from the bowl; they were tangy and juicy and after so many days of bread and porridge and occasional meat the flavour was such a surprise that it made my eyes water. There was a larger fruit like a plum, but orange. This I took onto the balcony. I sat cross-legged, looking through the railing and eating it slowly. The sun was very warm. The seaport seethed with activity and the mild wind carried all the strange scents of a foreign place. I grew sleepy, and after a time, I went inside and lay down on my little pallet. I fell deeply asleep.

  I awoke to a dimmer light. I realized I’d heard the door opening and rolled quickly from my bed. I was still sleepy but I put a smile on my face and stepped out of my room saying, ‘I hope your day went well, Trader Akriel.’

  She gave me a puzzled look. Her eyes were vague.

  ‘We have you!’ Dwalia exclaimed.

  ‘No!’ I shrieked. Nightmare figures pushed into the room past the trader. Kerf was dishevelled and unkempt, his beard grown out and his hair matted to his skull. He stood, his shoulders rounded and his mouth ajar. His glance was dull. Vindeliar was not much better. It was obvious to me that their voyage had been a much greater hardship for them than it had for me. The magic-man’s cheeks drooped and his eyes were sunken with weariness. He had never taken care with his grooming and now his hair hung in lank and greasy locks. But Dwalia was the worst, a monster from a nightmare. Her cheek was purple and red and black. The wound had closed but it had not grown skin over it. I saw the ropy muscles of her face stretch and writhe as she laughed. She carried a length of black chain in her hands and I knew it was for me.

  I screamed. I screamed and screamed, wordlessly, a trapped animal’s shriek.

  ‘Shut the door, you fool!’ Dwalia screeched at Vindeliar. As he turned to do so, a spark came back into the trader’s face.

  ‘Run!’ I shrieked at her. ‘Killers and thieves! Flee!’

  And she did. Her shoulder hit the door just as Vindeliar was closing it. He held it, feet braced, but her head and one shoulder was outside the chamber and she had found her own voice. Trader Akriel shouted for help and I screamed while Dwalia vainly commanded Kerf to ‘Kill the woman! Seize the girl! Shut that door! Vindeliar, you useless idiot, take control of them!’

  Out in the corridor, I heard someone shout, ‘Oh, sweet Sa!’ and then running feet. But he was running away, not toward us. I heard shouts in the distance, as if he had alerted the inn folk, but Dwalia’s shouted commands drowned all sense from their words.

  ‘Vindeliar! Make Kerf kill her!’ she shrieked.

  ‘No!’ I cried. Dwalia seemed afraid to lay hands on me herself. I sprang to the door, past Kerf who appeared to be lumbering aimlessly about the room, and tried to pry the door open. I could not match Vindeliar’s strength so I resorted to kicking him in the shins as hard as I could with my soft shoes and pounding him with my clenched fists. The door opened slightly wider and Trader Akriel fell out of it. Then Vindeliar slammed it closed on her ankle and the crack of the joint breaking and her scream made my ears ring.

  ‘Forget her! Control Kerf! Kerf! Seize Bee and get us out of here!’

  Vindeliar shook his blunt head, a dog in a wasps’ nest, and then abruptly Kerf moved with purpose. Vindeliar had abandoned his grip on the door and the trader was dragging herself down the hall, screaming for help. Kerf seized me in his left hand and drew his sword with his right. ‘Lead us out of here!’ Dwalia commanded him.

  And he did, dragging me along by my upper arm as I shrieked wordlessly. ‘Kill her!’ Dwalia barked, and I screeched in fear for my life, but it was the trader who received his blade. He stood over her, legs spread, and stabbed her over and over, even as Dwalia roared, ‘Enough! Get us out of here! Stop!’ Vindeliar’s face was white as ice and he flapped his hands helplessly. I could not tell if the horror of that bloody slaughter shattered Vindeliar’s focus or if Kerf’s buried fury at being mastered suddenly manifested itself. People came to the end of the corridor, cried out in horror, and fled. Someone shouted for the city guard but no one, no one came to aid me or Akriel. I twisted and clawed and kicked but I do not think Kerf was even aware of me as he gripped my upper arm in an iron fist. With his free hand he stabbed and stabbed and stabbed and I do not think I knew how much I had come to care for Trader Akriel until I saw her reduced to red meat and rags.

  ‘We need to flee!’ Dwalia shouted and she slapped Vindeliar.

  Kerf started striding down the hall, dripping sword in one hand and dragging me with the other while Dwalia and Vindeliar came cringing behind him. If a snarling mountain cat had come down the staircase, the reaction would have been the same. Those who had clustered at the bottom of the stairs, clutching at one another and shouting what they had seen suddenly parted for us. We went through the lovely room, Kerf leaving bloody footprints on the white stone floor, and out into early evening.

  Shouting and the sounds of running feet reached our ears. ‘The guard!’ Dwalia exclaimed in dismay. ‘Vindeliar, do something. Hide us!’

  ‘I can’t!’ He was panting and sobbing and trying to keep pace with Kerf’s murderous stride. ‘I can’t!’

  ‘You must!’ Dwalia raged. Her hand rose and fell over and over as she lashed Vindeliar with the chain she carried. I heard him cry out and looked back to see blood bubbling from his mouth. ‘Do it!’ she commanded him.

  He gave a wordless shriek of pain and fear frustration. And all around us, the gawking crowd dropped to the ground. Some writhed as if having fits and others were
still. Kerf fell to his knees and then over onto his side on top of me and even Dwalia stumbled sideways. I scooted out from under Kerf, staggered to my feet. As I leapt to run, Dwalia grabbed me by my ankle. I went down hard on to the cobblestones, the pain of crashed knees wringing another shriek from my sore throat.

  ‘Chain her!’ Dwalia shouted at someone. And Vindeliar stepped forward, to kneel on me and wrap a chain around my throat and fasten it tight with a clip. I seized the chain in both hands but Dwalia had the other end of the chain and jerked it hard. ‘Up!’ she shouted. ‘Up and run! Now.’

  She did not look back but hurried down the street in a lumbering trot. I went stumbling after her, clutching at the chain around my throat, trying to tear it from her grip. She passed over and among sprawled figures and I was forced to jump over the fallen people or step on them. They seemed stunned, some twitching and others sprawled lax on the paving stones. Dwalia turned abruptly and we went down an alley between two tall buildings. Halfway to the next street, she halted in the darkness, and a sobbing Vindeliar came blundering into us. ‘Silence!’ she hissed at him, and when I opened my mouth to scream she jerked savagely on the chain, slapping my head against the wall beside us. I saw a bright flash of light and my knees gave out.

  Some time had passed. I knew that. Dwalia was yanking on the chain around my neck. Vindeliar was plucking at me, trying to pull me to my feet. Using the wall, I staggered upright and looked around dazedly. At the other end of the alley, lanterns bobbed and voices were raised in horror, confusion and commands. ‘This way,’ Dwalia said quietly, and then gave a fierce jerk on my leash that brought me to my knees again. Vindeliar was still sobbing softly. She turned, slapped him as if she were hitting a mosquito and walked away. I got to my feet in time to save myself from another fall. I tottered after her, feeling sick and weak.

  Vindeliar moved one of the hands he’d had clapped over his mouth to muffle his sobs. ‘Kerf?’ he dared to ask.

  ‘Useless,’ Dwalia snapped. Vindictively, she added, ‘Let them have him. He will keep them busy while we find a better place to be.’ She looked back at Vindeliar. ‘You were almost as useless as he was. Next time, I will leave you behind for the mob.’

  She increased her pace, annoyed that I was walking fast enough to keep slack in the chain. I groped for whatever clip Vindeliar had used to fasten it. My fingers found it but I could find no way to open it. She gave the chain another jerk and I stumbled after her again.

  Dwalia led us out into a street and uphill and away from the tall buildings near the harbour. Always she chose to go where there were fewer people and lanterns in the streets and those we passed seemed to find nothing unusual about her hauling me along. Vindeliar followed us, hurrying to catch up, then falling behind, sniffling or sobbing or panting. I didn’t look at him. He was not my friend. He had never been my friend and he would do anything to me that Dwalia told him to do.

  We turned down a dark road lit only by the lights coming from the houses. They were not prosperous homes; light shone through cracks in the walls and the street was rutted and muddy. Dwalia appeared to choose one at random. She halted and pointed at it. ‘Knock on the door,’ she ordered Vindeliar. ‘Make them want to welcome us.’

  He gulped back a sob. ‘I don’t think I can. My head hurts. I think I’m sick. I’m shaking all over. I need—’

  She clouted him with the free end of the chain, jerking me to my knees as she did so. ‘You need nothing! You’ll do it! Right now.’

  I spoke in a low clear voice. ‘Run away, Vindeliar. Just run away. She can’t catch you. She can’t really make you do anything.’

  He looked at me and for an instant his little eyes grew big and round. Then Dwalia struck me twice with the loose end of my chain, hard, and Vindeliar fled up to the doorstep of the run-down house and hammered on the door as if to warn of fire or flood. A man snatched the door open and demanded, ‘What is it?’ Then his face suddenly softened and he said, ‘Come in, friend! Come in out of the night!’

  At those words, Dwalia hurried toward the door and I was forced to follow. The man stood back to let us in. As I followed Dwalia across the threshold, I saw her mistake. The young man holding the door and nodding was not alone. Two older men sat at a table, glaring at him and us. An old woman stirring a kettle of something over a low fire in the hearth demanded of him, ‘What are you thinking, bringing strangers into the house in the dead of night?’ A boy about my age looked at us in alarm and immediately picked up a stick of firewood, holding it like a truncheon. The woman’s gaze had snagged on Dwalia’s face. ‘A demon? Is that a demon?’

  Vindeliar turned back to Dwalia with a face full of woe. ‘I can’t do this many people any more. I just can’t!’ He gave a broken sob.

  ‘All of them!’ Dwalia demanded shrilly. ‘Right now!’

  I had been at the point of stepping over the threshold. I took a firm hold on my chain below my throat and stepped back as far as I could. ‘I’m not a part of this!’ I shouted hopelessly. Everyone in the little house was staring at us in consternation and fear. My shout broke them.

  ‘Murder! Demons! Thieves!’ the woman shrieked suddenly and the lad sprang forward at Vindeliar with his chunk of firewood. Vindeliar threw his arms up over his head and the lad delivered several sound thwacks to him. Dwalia was backing hastily out of the door but not in time to avoid the heavy mug one of the men flung at her. It struck her in the face, sloshing beer over her and making her yell angrily. Then she was away, dragging me after her. Vindeliar came behind us, yelping as the lad landed blow after blow on his shoulders and back while his father and uncles cheered him on.

  We ran on, even after the family had given up their pursuit, for the shouts and clatter had roused other folk in the row of simple houses. We fled them, though Dwalia soon dropped her run to a shuffling trot and then to a hasty walk as she looked back over her shoulder repeatedly. Vindeliar caught up with us, holding his head with both hands and sobbing brokenly. ‘I can’t, I can’t, I can’t,’ he kept saying until even I wanted to strike him.

  Dwalia was leading us back toward the town. I waited until we were in streets where the houses were sturdily built, with glass in the windows and wooden porches. Then I set both hands to the chain, set my heels and jerked it as hard as I could. Dwalia did not let go but she halted and glared back at me. Vindeliar stood beside me, his mouth loose and trembling, hands still on his battered head.

  ‘Let me go,’ I said firmly. ‘Or I shall scream and scream and scream until this street fills with people. I will tell them you are kidnappers and murderers!’

  For a moment, Dwalia’s eyes went wide and I thought I had won. Then she leaned in close to me. ‘Do it!’ she dared me. ‘Do it. There will be witnesses that recognize us, I don’t doubt. And there will be folk who will believe that you were our partner, the servant girl that let us in to rob and kill that woman. For that is the tale that we shall tell, and Vindeliar will make Kerf agree with it. We shall all hang together. Scream, girlie! Scream!’

  I stared at her. Would that happen? I had no one to vouch for my tale. Trader Akriel was dead, cut to pieces. Abruptly that loss hit me like a blow to the belly. She was dead because of me, as Vindeliar had warned me would happen. I’d left that Path he spoke of, and again someone was dead. My wonderful idea of escaping Dwalia hung in tatters around me. I did not want to believe Vindeliar’s superstitions about the Path. It was stupid and ridiculous to think there was only one right way for me to live my life. But here I was again, alive when those who had helped me were dead. I wanted to weep for Akriel but my grief went too deep for tears.

  ‘I thought not,’ she mocked me, and turning away from me, gave a vicious jerk on the chain. It ripped from my bruised hands and I found myself following her again as she led us into the dark.

  SIXTEEN

  * * *

  The Pirate Isles

  I have dreamed the theft of a child. No, not dreamed. For six nights, this nightmare has howled through my sle
ep, a dire warning. The child is snatched, sometimes from a cradle, sometimes from a feast, sometimes from a morning of play in fresh snow. However it happens, the child is lifted high and then falls. When the Stolen Child lands, the child has become a scaled monster with glittering eyes and a heart full of hatred. ‘I am come to destroy the future.’

  Those words are the only part of my dream that is always the same. I know I am but a collator, with no more than a drop of White in my veins. Over and over, I have sought to tell this dream, and always I am pushed away, told it is just an ordinary nightmare. Beautiful Symphe, you are my last hope that I will be heard. This dream is worthy of being recorded in the archives. I tell it to you, not to gain glory for myself or be recognized as a White who can dream, but only because … (text charred away)

  Discovered among Symphe’s papers

  The long slow days aboard Paragon lodged in my life like a bone in the throat. Each had been so much like the last that it seemed like one endless day, and each choked me with its dragging passage.

  Most of the crew’s enmity was focused on me and Amber. Their simmering anger made our brief and meagre meals daily trials for me. Amber had destroyed not just Althea and Brashen’s livelihood, but theirs as well. Securing a berth on a liveship was seen as a lifetime position, for the crew was well paid, safer than on an ordinary ship, and became almost as family. Now that would end for all of them. From the youngest who had earned his position only six months ago to the oldest—a man employed on Paragon for decades—their livelihoods were gone. Or would be, when Amber supplied the ship with enough Silver to transform himself. For now, they were hostages to Paragon’s ambition. As we were.

  Spark and Per were pitied more than reviled. Clef still seemed intent on completing Per’s education as a deckhand and I took comfort that the lad had time that was not focused on our differences with the crew. Lant continued to share Clef’s room, and Clef moved Per in with them. I wanted to thank him for keeping the lad close and safe from any resentment, but feared that any conversation would taint Clef with the dislike I had to bear. To avoid exacerbating the discord, I kept mostly to the cabin I now shared with Amber and Spark. Spark had become subdued and thoughtful. She spent more time strolling on the deck with Lant than she did trying to learn knots or run the rigging. Spring had warmed to summer, and the tiny chamber was often muggy. When Lant and Per crowded in with us to practise our language lessons of an evening, sweat rolled down my back and plastered my hair to my head. Even so, it was a welcome diversion from the enforced idleness I endured.

  When we were alone during those long days, the Fool and I pored endlessly over Bee’s books. He sought further clues from her dreams. I desperately wanted to believe that she might still be alive somewhere, even as the thought of my little daughter held captive in such ruthless hands tormented me to sleeplessness. He asked me to read to him from her journal as well, and this I did. Somewhat. I could not tell if he knew I skipped passages and entries that were too painful to share. If he was aware of it, he said nothing. I think he realized I had been pushed to my limit.

  Yet the Fool was far less restricted in his movements than I was. As Amber, he moved freely on the deck, immune to the displeasure of the crew and the captains, for he was favoured of
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