Assassins fate, p.4
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       Assassin's Fate, p.4
 

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

  ‘What?’

  ‘He did … the Skill did something to my wound. It’s bleeding again. My shoulder,’ Perseverance said in a tight voice.

  I knew it would. It had to. But only briefly. It was hard to find the strength to speak. I lay on my back, staring up at the high ceiling. It mimicked a sky. Artfully crafted fluffy clouds moved across a pale blue expanse. I lifted my head and summoned my voice. ‘It’s not blood, Per. It’s just wet. There was still a piece of fabric caught deep in the wound and slowly festering there. It had to come out and the fluids of infection with it. So it did, and your wound closed behind it. It’s healed now.’

  Then I lay back on the floor and watched the elegant room swing around me. If I closed my eyes, it went faster. If I opened them, the forested walls wavered. I heard Lant roll over on his belly and then stagger upright. He crouched over Per and said gently, ‘Let’s look at it.’

  ‘Look at your injuries as well,’ I said dully. I shifted my eyes, saw Spark standing over me and cried out, ‘No! Don’t touch me. I can’t control it.’

  ‘Let me help him,’ Lady Amber said quietly. Two hesitant steps brought her to where I lay on the floor.

  I pulled my arms in tight, hiding my bare hands under my vest. ‘No. You of all people must not touch me!’

  She had crouched gracefully beside me, but as he hunkered back on his heels, he was my Fool and not Amber at all. There was immense sorrow in his voice as he said, ‘Did you think I would take from you the healing that you did not wish to give me, Fitz?’

  The room was spinning and I was too exhausted to hold anything back from him. ‘If you touch me, I fear the Skill will rip through me like a sword through flesh. If it can, it will give you back your sight. Regardless of the cost to me. And I believe the cost of restoring your sight will be that I will lose mine.’

  The change in his face was startling. Pale as he was, he went whiter until he might have been carved from ice. Emotion tautened the skin of his face, revealing the bones that framed his visage. Scars that had faded stood out like cracks in fine pottery. I tried to focus my gaze on him, but he seemed to move with the room. I felt so nauseous and so weak, and I hated the secret I had to share with him. But there was no hiding it any longer. ‘Fool, we are too close. For every hurt I removed from your flesh, my body assumed the wound. Not as virulently as the injuries you carried but when I healed my knife-stabs in your belly, I felt them in mine the next day. When I closed the sores in your back, they opened in mine.’

  ‘I saw those wounds!’ Perseverance gasped. ‘I thought you’d been attacked. Stabbed in the back.’

  I did not pause for his words. ‘When I healed the bones around your eye sockets, mine swelled and blackened the next day. If you touch me, Fool—’

  ‘I won’t!’ he exclaimed. He shot to his feet and staggered blindly away from me. ‘Get out of here. All three of you! Leave now. Fitz and I must speak privately. No, Spark, I will be fine. I can tend myself. Please go. Now.’

  They retreated, but not swiftly. They went in a bunch, with many backward glances. Spark had taken Per’s hand and when they looked back it was with the faces of woeful children. Lant went last and his expression was set in a Farseer stare so like his father’s that no one could have mistaken his bloodlines. ‘My chamber,’ he said to them as he shut the door behind them, and I knew he would try to keep them safe. I hoped there was no real danger. But I also feared that General Rapskal was not finished with us.

  ‘Explain,’ the Fool said flatly.

  I gathered myself up from the floor. It was far harder than it should have been. I rolled to my belly, drew my knees up under me until I was on all fours and then staggered upright. I caught myself on the table’s edge and moved around it until I could reach a chair. My inadvertent healing of first Lant and then Per had extracted the last of my strength. Seated, I dragged in a breath. It was so difficult to keep my head upright. ‘I can’t explain what I don’t understand. It’s never happened with any other Skill-healing I’ve witnessed. Only between you and me. Whatever injury I take from you appears on me.’

  He stood, his arms crossed on his chest. He wore his own face, and Amber’s painted lips and rouged cheeks looked peculiar now. His eyes seemed to bore into me. ‘No. Explain why you hid this from me! Why you couldn’t trust me with the simple truth. What did you imagine? That I would demand you blind yourself that I might see?’

  ‘I … no!’ I braced my elbows on the table and rested my head in my hands. I could not recall when I had felt more drained. A steady pulse of pounding pain in my temples kept pace with my heartbeat. I felt a desperate need to recover my strength but even sitting still was demanding more than I had to give. I wanted to topple over onto the floor and surrender to sleep. I tried to order my thoughts. ‘You were so desperate to regain your sight. I didn’t want to take that hope from you. My plan was that once you were strong enough the coterie could try to heal you, if you would let them. My fear was that if I told you I couldn’t heal you without losing my sight, you’d lose all hope.’ The last piece of the truth was angular and sharp-edged in my mouth. ‘And I feared you would think me selfish that I did not heal you.’ I let my head lower onto my folded arms.

  The Fool said something.

  ‘I didn’t hear that.’

  ‘You weren’t meant to,’ he replied in a low voice. Then he admitted, ‘I called you a clodpoll.’

  ‘Oh.’ I could barely keep my eyes open.

  He asked a cautious question. ‘After you’d taken on my hurts, did they heal?’

  ‘Yes. Mostly. But very slowly.’ My back still bore the pinkish dimples in echo of the ulcers that had been on his back. ‘Or so it seemed to me. You know how my body has been since that runaway healing the coterie did on me years ago. I scarcely age and injuries heal overnight, leaving me exhausted. But they healed, Fool. Once I knew what was happening, I was more careful. When I worked on the bones around your eyes, I kept strict control.’ I halted. It was a terrifying offer to make. But in our sort of friendship, it had to be made. ‘I could try to heal your eyes. Give you sight, lose mine, and see if my body could restore mine. It would take time. And I am not sure this is the best place for us to make such an attempt. Perhaps in Bingtown, after we’ve sent the others home, we could take rooms somewhere and make the attempt.’

  ‘No. Don’t be stupid.’ His tone forbade any response.

  In his long silence, sleep crept up on me, seeping into every part of my body. It was that engulfing demand the body makes, one that knows no refusal.

  ‘Fitz. Fitz? Look at me. What do you see?’

  I prised my eyelids open and looked at him. I thought I knew what he needed to hear. ‘I see my friend. My oldest, dearest friend. No matter what guise you wear.’

  ‘And you see me clearly?’

  Something in his voice made me lift my head. I blinked blearily and stared at him. After a time, he swam into focus. ‘Yes.’

  He let out his pent breath. ‘Good. Because when I touched you, I felt something happen, something more than I expected. I reached for you, to call you back, for I feared you were vanishing into the Skill-current. But when I touched you, it wasn’t as if I touched someone else. It was like folding my hands together. As if your blood suddenly ran through my veins. Fitz, I can see the shape of you, there in your chair. I fear I may have taken something from you.’

  ‘Oh. Good. I’m glad.’ I closed my eyes, too weary for surprise. Too exhausted for fear. I thought of that other day, long ago, when I had drawn him back from death and pushed him into his own body again. In that moment, as I had left the body I had repaired for him, as we had passed one another before resuming our own flesh again, I’d felt the same. A sense of oneness. Of completion. I recalled it but was too weary to put it into words.

  I put my head down on the table and slept.

  I floated. I had been part of something immense, but now I was torn loose. Broken away from the great purpose that had used me as a conduit. Useless.
Again. Voices blowing in the distance.

  ‘I used to have nightmares about him. Once I wet my bed.’

  A boy gave a half-laugh. ‘Him? Why?’

  ‘Because of the first time I met him. I was just a child, really. A child given what seemed like a harmless task. To leave a gift for a baby.’ He cleared his throat. ‘He caught me in Bee’s room. Cornered me like a rat. He must have known I was coming, though I can’t guess how. He was suddenly there with a knife at my throat.’

  Breathless silence. ‘Then what?’

  ‘He forced me to strip down to my skin. I know now that he was intent on completely disarming me. He took everything I’d carried. Little knives, poisons, wax to copy keys. All the things I’d been so proud to have, all the little tools for what my father wanted me to become. He took them and I stood naked and shivering while he stared at me. Deciding what to do with me.’

  ‘You thought he’d kill you? Tom Badgerlock?’

  ‘I knew who he was. Rosemary had told me. And she’d told me that he was far more dangerous than I could imagine, in more ways. Witted. And that there had always been rumours that he had … appetites.’

  ‘I don’t understand.’

  A pause. ‘That he might desire boys as much as he liked women.’

  A dead silence. Then a lad laughed. ‘Him? Not him. There was only one for him. Lady Molly. It was always a joke among the servants at Withywoods.’ He laughed again and then gasped, ‘“Knock twice,” the kitchen maids would giggle. “And then wait and knock again. Never go in until one of them invites you. You never know where they will be going at one another.” The men of the estate were proud of him. “That old stud hasn’t lost his fire,” they’d say. “In his study. In the gardens. Out in the orchards.”’

  The orchard. A summer day, her sons gone off to seek their fortunes. We’d walked among the trees, looking at the swelling apples, speaking of the harvest to come. Molly, her hands sweet with the wild blossoms she’d gathered. I’d paused to tuck a sprig of baby’s breath into her hair. She had turned her face up to me, smiling. The long kiss had turned into something more.

  ‘When Lady Shun first came to Withywoods, one of the new housemaids said he’d gone off to find himself a willing woman. Cook Nutmeg told me of it. She told that housemaid, “Not him. It was only Lady Molly and never anyone else for him. He can’t even see another woman.” Then she told Revel what the housemaid had said. Revel called her into his study. “He’s not Lord Grabandpinch, he’s Holder Badgerlock. And we won’t have gossip here.” And then he told her to pack her things. So Cook Nutmeg told us.’

  Molly had smelled like summer. Her flowers had scattered on the ground as I pulled her down to me. The deep orchard grass was a flimsy wall around us. Clothing pushed aside, a stubborn buckle on my belt, and then she was astride me, clutching my shoulders, leaning hard on her hands as she pinned me down. Leaning down, her breasts free of her blouse, putting her mouth on mine. The sun warmed her bared skin to my touch. Molly. Molly.

  ‘And now? Do you still fear him?’ the boy asked.

  The man was slow to reply. ‘He is to be feared. Make no mistake in that, Per. Fitz is a dangerous man. But I’m not here because I have a rightful caution of him. I’m here to do my father’s bidding. He tasked me to watch over him. To keep him safe from himself. To bring him home, when all is done, if I can.’

  ‘That won’t be easy,’ the boy said reluctantly. ‘I heard Foxglove talking to Riddle after that battle in the forest. She said he has a mind to hurt himself. To end himself, since his wife is dead and his child gone.’

  ‘It won’t be easy,’ the man conceded with a sigh. ‘It won’t be easy.’

  I dreamed. It was not a pleasant dream. I was not a fly, but I was caught in a web. It was a web of a peculiar sort, not of sticky threads but of defined channels that I had to follow, as if they were deep footpaths cut through an impenetrable forest of fog-enshrouded trees. And so I moved, not willingly but unable to do otherwise. I could not see where my trail led, but there was no other. Once, I looked behind me, but the track I had followed had vanished. I could only go on.

  She spoke to me. You interfered with what is mine. I am surprised, human. Are you too stupid to fear provoking dragons?

  Dragons don’t bother with introductions.

  The fog blew slowly away and I was in a place where rounded grey stones scabbed with lichen humped out of a grassy sward. The wind was blowing as if it had never begun and would never stop. I was alone. I tried to be small and kept silent. Her thoughts still found me.

  The child was mine to shape. You had no right.

  Huddling small had not worked. I tried to keep my thoughts calm but I fervently wished that Nettle were here with me in this dreamscape. She had withstood the full onslaught of the dragon Tintaglia when she was still new to the Skill. I reached for my daughter, but the dragon boxed me as if I were a frog captured in a boy’s callused hands. I was in her control and alone. I hid my fear of her deep inside my chest.

  I did not know which dragon this was and I knew better than to ask. A dragon guards its name lest others acquire power over it. ‘It’s only a dream’ scarcely applies to what a dragon can do to one’s sleeping mind. I needed to wake up, but she pinned me as a hawk’s talons would pin a struggling hare. I felt the cold and stony land beneath me, felt the icy wind ripping warmth from my body. And still I saw nothing of her. Perhaps logic might reach her. ‘My intent was never to interfere, but only to make the small changes that would let the children live.’

  The child was mine.

  ‘Do you prefer a dead child to a live one?’

  Mine is mine. Not yours.

  The logic of a three-year-old. The pressure on my chest increased, and a translucent shape coalesced above me. She shimmered blue and silver. I recognized which child she claimed by the markings she shared with the child’s mother. The mother had been the woman who claimed to work with Silver. Thymara, the winged-and-clawed Elderling. This dragon claimed the girl-child who had been fearless in choosing the changes she would have. A child that was only marginally human. She had not hesitated to choose dragon’s feet over human ones so that she might leap higher and grip limbs better when she climbed. A brave and intelligent child.

  That she is.

  I sensed a grudging pride. I had not meant to share the thought but perhaps flattering the child or the dragon might win me a reprieve. The pressure of the dragon’s foot on my chest had gone past painful to the sensation of ribs flexed as far as they could bend. If she cracked my ribs into stabbing pieces that punctured my lungs, would I die or wake up? Being aware that I was dreaming did not lessen the pain or the sense of imminent disaster.

  Die in your dreams, wake up insane. Or so the old Elderling saying went. Your connections to this world are strong, little human. There is something about you … yet you are not dragon touched by any dragon I know. How is that possible?

  ‘I don’t know.’

  What is this thread I perceive in you, dragon and not-dragon? Why have you come to Kelsingra? What brought you to the dragons’ city?

  ‘Revenge,’ I gasped. I could feel my ribs beginning to give way. The pain was astonishing. Surely if I were asleep, this pain would awaken me. So this was real. Somehow this was real. And if it were real, I would have a knife at my belt, and if it were real, I wouldn’t die like a pinned hare. My right arm was caught under the dragon’s talon but my left was free. I reached, groped, and found it. Drew it and stabbed with all my remaining strength only to have it clash against the heavy scaling of the dragon’s foot. My blade skated and turned aside as if I had tried to stab a stone. She did not even flinch.

  You seek revenge on dragons? For what?

  My arm fell lifelessly away. I did not even feel my fingers lose their grip on the knife. Pain and lack of air were emptying me of will. I did not utter the words, for I had no air left. I thought them at her. Not revenge on dragons. On the Servants. I’m going to Clerres to kill all the Servants.
They hurt my friend and destroyed my child.

  Clerres?

  Dread. A dragon could feel dread? Amazing. Even more surprising, it seemed to be dread of the unknown.

  A city of bones and white stones far south of here. On an island. A city of pale folk who believe they know all the futures and which one is best to choose.

  The Servants! She began to fade from my dream. I remember … something. Something very bad. Suddenly I was unimportant to her. As her attention left me, I could breathe again and I floated in a dark-grey world, either dead or alone in my sleep. No. I didn’t want to sleep and be vulnerable to her. I struggled toward wakefulness, trying to recall where my body truly was.

  I opened my eyes to deep night and blinked sticky eyes. A mild wind was blowing across the hills. I could see the trees swaying in it. In the distance, I saw snow-topped mountains. The moon was big and round and the ivory of old bones. Game would be moving. Why had I been sleeping so soundly? My head felt as if it were stuffed full of wool. I lifted my face and snuffed the air.

  I felt no breeze and smelled no forest, only myself. Sweat. The smell of an occupied room. The bed was too soft. I tried to sit up. Nearby, clothing rustled and someone set strong hands on my shoulders. ‘Go slow. Let’s start with water.’

  The night sky was a cheat and I’d never hunt like that again. ‘Don’t touch me skin to skin,’ I reminded Lant. His hands went away and I struggled into a sitting position. I swung my legs over the edge of the bed. The room spun three times and settled. All was dim and twilight around me. ‘Take this,’ he said and a cool container was pushed gently into my hands. I smelled it. Water. I drank until it was gone. He took it away and came back with more. I drained it again.

  ‘That’s enough for now, I think.’

  ‘What happened?’

  He sat down beside me on the edge of the bed. I looked at him carefully and was grateful I could see him. ‘What do you recall?’ he asked me after a long silence.

  ‘I was healing Elderling children …’

  ‘You touched children, one after another. Not that many. Six, I think. They all grew better and, with every healed child, the wonder of the Kelsingra Elderlings grew and you became stranger. I have no Skill, Fitz. Yet even I felt as if you were the eye of a storm of magic that flowed toward you and then blew all around us. And when there were no more children, other people began to push forward. Not just the Elderlings, but Rain Wild folk. I’d never
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