Assassins fate, p.43
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       Assassin's Fate, p.43

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

  suddenly all I knew were long, sharp tearing teeth and a mouth that breathed hot breath. A father shouted, ‘Beware! He is more dangerous than you can know!’ and I was suddenly in a cage where I could not retreat and a stinking human hammered my ribs with fierce jabs of a stick I could not avoid. I had never known such pain! It did not stop. Over and over the man shouted curses at me and poked me savagely with the stick, as if he strove to thrust it right through me. I howled and shrieked and snarled, I leapt and fought the bars of the cage, but still the stick struck me, always looking for the softest parts of me, my belly, my throat, my anus and sex. I fell at last, yelping and whining and still the beating went on.

  Abruptly, Vindeliar was gone. My mind was my own again. I slammed up wall after wall while my whole body shook with sobs. The remembered pain wracked me and my tears flowed. But through them I could see Vindeliar sprawled on his side, his mouth open, his eyes glassy as if he had lost awareness. Like the wolf in the cage, I suddenly realized. Like Wolf Father.

  I give you that pain to use against him. But do not think of me again. He must not find me. He must not know that you can write or anything you have dreamed. And you must stop waiting for someone to save you. You must save yourself. Escape. Get home. But do not think of home right now. Think only of escape.

  And Wolf Father was gone as if he had never existed. As if he was something I made up to give me courage. Just as gone as my real father. And I suddenly knew I must not think of him either.

  Vindeliar sat up but even sitting he was wobbly. He set his hands flat to the deck to either side of him and looked at me woefully. ‘What was that? You are not a wolf. You can’t remember that.’ His lower lip was trembling, as if I’d cheated him at a game.

  I felt a surge of hatred. ‘I can remember this!’ I told him, and I flung at him every moment of the beating Dwalia had given me on the night when my shoulder had been jerked out of its socket. He recoiled from me, and I added, ‘And this!’ And I found myself grinding my teeth together as I recalled for him exactly how it had felt to bite Dwalia’s cheek, how her blood had tasted and felt as it ran over my chin, and how I had ignored the blows she struck me as she tried to shake me loose.

  He put hands up to his cheeks and shook his head. ‘No-o-o—’ His voice dwindled away. He popped his eyes open wide and stared at me. ‘Don’t show me that! Don’t make me feel chewing her face!’

  I met his gaze with a flat stare. ‘Then stay out of my thoughts! Or I will show you worse than that.’ I had no idea what I could dredge up that would be worse for him, but for now he was out of my mind and I’d make any threats I could to keep him out. I thought about how he had betrayed me, how he’d helped them find and kill Trader Akriel. I thought of how he had pounced on my chain when I’d tried to flee on the docks. I summoned all the hate I could muster and pointed the thought at him in a way I never had before. I despise you! His eyes jolted wide and he leaned away from me. I realized that, at this moment, I was stronger than he was. He had barged into my mind when my guard was down, but it had been my strength that forced him out. He had used his full power against me, but I had won.

  Just then the stateroom door opened and our handsome captain emerged. His clothing was as immaculate as ever, his cheeks slightly flushed. He glanced down at me, and then at Vindeliar. I saw puzzlement cloud his gaze, as if we were not what he had expected to see. Then I felt the wash of Vindeliar’s thoughts against his mind. His brow unfurrowed and the small scowl on his lips became a puckering of distaste. ‘Lady Aubretia, this maid of yours … well, I vow that when we reach Clerres, we shall replace her with someone clean and pleasant to look upon. Away, wretch!’ He nudged me with the side of his foot and I edged away from him and then stood up.

  ‘As you please, sir,’ I said courteously. I was half a dozen steps away when I heard Dwalia’s voice.

  ‘No, my dear, thank you all the same. Come here, Bee! Tidy this chamber, immediately.’

  I halted on the verge of dashing away.

  ‘You heard your mistress! Be prompt.’

  ‘Yes, sir.’ I lowered my eyes meekly. Nonetheless, as I walked back past him, he cuffed the back of my head hard, nearly sending me sprawling. I struck the side of the door and then scurried inside, Vindeliar on my heels.

  ‘And that one scarcely looks fit enough to be your bodyguard. He should be replaced with a strong man who knows his business.’ The captain shook his head and then, with a sigh, added, ‘I will see you again this evening, my dear.’

  ‘Time will move slow as honey until then,’ Dwalia said, her voice thick and lazy. Then in an entirely different voice she barked, ‘Tidy this room!’ as she shut the door.

  The captain’s chamber was very grand, as wide as the stern of the ship, with windows that looked out on three sides. The walls were panelled with a fine-grained red wood, and the rest of the room was cream or gilt. There was a large bed fat with cream feather pillows, and a table made of wood the colour of rust and moss, big enough for six tall chairs to surround it. There was a deep-cushioned seat by one of the windows, a separate chart-table that folded down from the wall, and a tiny chamber where one’s waste went down a chute and out into the sea. Nightly Dwalia locked me in that cramped and noisome space lest I attack her while she slept.

  Clothing littered the polished planks of the floor, all of it the excessively flouncy, lacy garments the captain had purchased for Lady Aubretia in the two days before we had left our last port. I gathered the clothing in a slow armful, including a petticoat of stiff lace that crinkled in my arms. It smelled of a lovely perfume, another gift from the captain. I carried the garments to a chest with roses carved into the lid and began to layer them carefully back into it. The chest smelled fragrant, like a forest where spices grew.

  ‘Hurry up!’ Dwalia commanded me. To Vindeliar, she said, ‘Gather those cups and plates and take them back to the galley. The captain does not like to see his quarters untidy.’ She went to the cushioned seat and sat down, staring out over the water. Her long, bony feet and muscular calves were bare beneath her short robe of thin red silk. Her draggled hair was sweaty at the roots, and my bite mark on her cheek was becoming a shiny pink crater. She was scowling to herself. ‘We go so slowly! The captain tells me that this is not the right time of year to make the passage to Clerres, that the currents are good for travelling north and west, not south and east. I think he tarries on purpose, to have more time with Lady Aubretia.’

  I wondered if she were complaining or bragging, but I said nothing. Lovely clothes, sweet perfumes, carved roses. I kept my thoughts fixed on what I could see and held my walls as tight as I could.

  ‘She has stolen magic from you!’ Vindeliar had not even begun to gather the plates and cups from their shared meal. Instead he pointed at me with a shaking hand as he made his accusation.

  Dwalia turned away from the window and gave him an angry glare. ‘What?’

  ‘She used our magic against me, just now, outside the door. She made me think about biting you and how she hates me!’

  Dwalia transferred her angry gaze to me. ‘That’s not possible.’

  ‘She did it! She stole magic and that’s why I can’t make her do what you want.’ He drew in a deep breath, a tattling child on the verge of tears. I stared hate at him and he recoiled. ‘She’s doing it now!’ he wailed and threw up his hands before his face as if they could stem the flow of what I felt for him.

  ‘No!’ Dwalia shouted and fairly leapt from her seat. I both cowered and lifted my fists to defend myself but she ignored me and charged across the room to the carved chest. With a fine disregard for the work I’d just completed, she flung open the lid and began to fling the clothing from the chest onto the floor behind her until she reached her washed but well-worn travelling clothes. She dredged up a leather pouch and peered into it. She drew out the glass tube. The remainder of the serpent spit was clotted in the bottom. ‘No. It’s here! She hasn’t stolen it. Stop making excuses.’

  For a l
ong moment, we both stared at her. Vindeliar spoke slowly, his voice full of helpless longing. ‘I need the rest of it now. Don’t you want me to be able to do everything you ask of me?’ A pleading desire was in that last question.

  ‘It’s not for you right now. You’ve had all I can spare.’ She looked at him, and then looped the string of the pouch around her neck so that it hung between her breasts. ‘There’s only a bit left. We must save it for an emergency.’

  ‘She doesn’t trust you, Vindeliar. She taught you to want that serpent spit and now she doesn’t trust you to not steal it from her.’ I flung my foolish words at both of them.

  ‘Serpent … who told you that? Vindeliar! Are you telling my secrets to her? Have you betrayed me to her?’

  ‘No! No, I told her nothing! Nothing!’

  He hadn’t told me. I had found that information in him when his mind was unguarded before me. I wished I had kept that knowledge to myself. Except that it now seemed to be a breach in their alliance.

  ‘Liar!’ she barked at him. She advanced on him, her meaty hand held high, and he quailed, crouching down before her, his head ducked and hidden behind his hands. She slapped him, and when her blow fell on his knuckles, she grunted in annoyed pain and seized a handful of hair on top of his head. She shook him savagely by it as Vindeliar shrieked and protested his innocence. I moved closer to the door whilst looking for anything I might use as a weapon. Any moment I feared that both might turn on me and come after me. Instead she flung his head aside with a force that sent him staggering. He fell to the floor and curled there, sobbing. She scowled at him and then looked at me.

  ‘What did he tell you of the serpent potion?’

  ‘Nothing,’ I answered truthfully, and then, to deflect her, I shook my head pityingly and lied, ‘It’s well known, where I come from. But few are stupid enough to use it.’

  That made her stare. Then, ‘No. No, it is my discovery! My new magic, a new ability that some who carry White blood can master. But only some.’ She stared at me, hatred burning in her. ‘You think you are so clever, don’t you? You seek to turn him against me. He told me all, you stupid little chit! How you manipulated him into helping you. How you made him betray me. It won’t happen again. I promise you that. And more: I promise you a long and painful life in Clerres. Do you think you have suffered travelling with me? Oh, no. You will know all your father knew, and more.’

  I stared back at her. She was edging closer to me. Closer. No weapons. On this ship, everything was firmly fastened down lest wild weather toss things about. She intended to seize me and beat out of me whatever I knew. I wasn’t even sure what I knew. Or what I could do with my newfound ability. Was it the Skill, such as my father had? It had to be! Not some filthy magic she’d inflicted on Vindeliar by making him drink serpent spit. My magic, the magic of my family. But I wasn’t trained. All I’d read in my father’s papers said one needed lots of training to use the magic.

  But I’d used it? Hadn’t I?

  I knew that I’d made Vindeliar feel old pain of mine. And be aware of my hate. Perhaps that had only worked because he was already trying to reach into my thoughts. Or maybe I had stolen magic from him. Was there anything I could do to Dwalia? I stared at her and gathered up my hatred for her at the same time as I pressed down my fear. I looked at her face and gathered up the scar from my bite and how badly she had smelled and how disgusting I found her. They seemed small weapons. What could I do to her, what could I make her feel? Would I be able to make her feel anything or had it only worked with Vindeliar because he had reached into my mind first?

  I was panting with fear. Control. My father’s scroll said I must have control. I took one long slow breath and then another. She was watching me. How could I focus my thoughts when at any moment she might spring?

  Become the hunter, not the prey.

  Wolf Father! Faint as a distant bird call.

  I found a rolling growl in the back of my throat. Her eyes widened but I marked that Vindeliar had uncoiled and was sitting up. Watch them both. Where was she most vulnerable? She’d grown leaner and harder during our most recent travels. I tried to imagine hitting her. I could, but I couldn’t imagine her hurting her enough to make it stop. Once she got hold of me, she would hurt me. Badly. I needed to focus an attack on her, but where?

  Her mind.

  Be wary. A way out is always a way in.

  I had no time to worry about what he meant by that. I pushed at her with all my hatred and disgust for her, hoping she would be hurt by it. Instead, it was like pouring oil on a kitchen fire; I felt her own hatred for me surge and leap like devouring flames. She sprang at me like a cat upon a mouse. And like a mouse, I dodged away, barely avoiding her snatching claws. She could not move as fast as I could, and although she did not crash into the wall, she staggered sideways. When I ducked under the table and emerged at the other end, she pounded on the table so that the dishes jumped and shouted at Vindeliar to ‘grab her, hold her!’ He got to his feet but he was uncertain and awkward. I shot him a fierce reminder of how I had bitten Dwalia’s face and was gratified when he reached with both hands to cover his cheeks.

  But Dwalia was still ardent in her pursuit. I kept the table between us but she showed no signs of tiring as she chased me round and round. I slipped under it to catch my breath but she kicked at me and pulled the chairs away from the table and tossed them aside. When I emerged, the tumbled chairs became obstacles for both of us as I strove to keep the cluttered table between us. She was breathing harder than I was but she continued to pant and shout, ‘This time I will kill you, you little wretch! I will kill you!’

  She halted abruptly, palms braced flat on the table, breathed heavily. In between gasps, she managed, ‘Vindeliar, you worthless failure! Catch her, hold her for me!’

  ‘She will bite me in the face! Her magic has promised this! She will bite me!’ He stood, rocking back and forth with his hands still clasped over his face.

  ‘You idiot!’ she shouted, and with a strength I had scarcely imagined she possessed she lifted one of the heavy wooden chairs and heaved it at him. He shrieked and danced back as it fell short. ‘You catch her and hold her for me! Be useful or I’ll have the captain throw you over the side!’

  I glanced at the door but knew that by the time I reached it and struggled with the heavy latch, she’d be on me. Even if I escaped into the companionway, eventually I’d be found and returned to her. I should not have fed her anger. I should have let her beat me before she became murderous. What to do, what to do? She was breathing more slowly. In a moment, she’d be after me again. She wouldn’t stop, not until she’d won.

  Give her what she wants.

  Let her kill me?

  Let her win. Make her think she won.

  How?

  There was no answer. And a strange trembling went through me as I felt Vindeliar poking at my thoughts, at my being, as if he had just noticed an odd growth on my face. It was tentative, almost fearful, and I slapped it away with another burst of my memory of chewing on Dwalia’s cheek. He fell back but it cost me. Heedless of the dishes, Dwalia flung herself flat on the table and reached across to seize the front of my shirt. A vivid memory of the last beating I’d received from her flashed through my mind and crossed to hers. The glittering light of satisfaction in her eyes was almost more than I could bear.

  I understood.

  I gave her the taste of blood in my mouth, the torn skin inside my cheek, the rocking pain of a loosened tooth. Abruptly, I was seeing myself as she’d seen me, pale, my short hair matted with sweat, a smear of blood down my chin. It took every bit of control I had but I let my weight fall as I went limp in her grip. She did not release her hold on my shirt but as I sank to the floor, she had to slide her body over the table to keep her hold on me. Several dishes struck the floor. I lolled my head as if stunned and let my mouth hang open. She managed an open-handed slap but she was in an awkward position and it had little momentum behind it. I still cried out as if
in agony. I gave her, not my hatred, but my fear and pain and despair. And she sucked it in like a thirsty horse at a water trough.

  She manoeuvred herself off the table. She kicked me, and again I cried out and let the force of her kick push me under the table. She kicked me again, in the belly, but she was up against the table’s edge and it was not as bad as if I’d been in the open. Again I shrieked and offered her an awareness of the pain I felt. Panting, she licked her lips. I lay where I was, moaning. Oh, she had hurt me, she had beaten me to where I was barely conscious, I would hurt for weeks from this beating. I gave it all to her, everything I could imagine she could want.

  She turned away from me, breathing harshly through her nose. She had what she’d wanted from me and that anger was satiated. She was done with me, but Vindeliar had foolishly ventured too close to her. She turned on him, and closed her fist before slamming it into his face. He fell away from her, gasping and sobbing, hands clutching his nose. ‘You are useless! You couldn’t even catch a little girl! I had to do it myself! Look what you made me do! If she dies of that beating, it will be your fault. She is full of lies, and you are too! Stole my magic! What is that tale, something you tell me to explain why you won’t control her?’

  ‘She dreams!’ Vindeliar had lifted his face from his hands. His wobbling cheeks were scarlet, his little eyes running tears. Blood trickled from his nose. ‘She is the liar! She dreams but does not write them down or even tell you!’

  ‘You stupid wretch. Everyone dreams, not just Whites. Her dreams mean nothing.’

  ‘She dreamed the candle dream! She wrote it down, the whole poem! I saw it in her mind! She can read and write, and she dreamed the candle dream.’

  I felt a sudden terror. The candle dream! I almost let myself recall it. No! Heedless of any risk, I pushed a desperate thought at her. He lies. I’m a stupid girl, with no letters. He’s just making excuses and trying to avoid punishment. You know he lies, you are correct that he is a liar, you are too clever to be fooled by his lies.

  It was a panicky thrust of thoughts. I think it reached her only because she was already angry at him and was only too happy to have reasons for her anger confirmed.

  She beat him. She picked up a heavy metal water pitcher from the washstand and turned it into a weapon. He did not defend himself and I did not intervene. Instead, I huddled under the table. There was blood on my chin from my split lip. I smeared it on my face. I felt the impact of each of her blows on Vindeliar, and I stored those sensations as I winced at each one. I pushed into his mind that she had beaten me more severely, and in his distracted and beleaguered state, I felt him accept that information as truth. He knew the sort of pain she could administer. He knew it better than anyone, and in a gush of information as sudden as a spurt of blood, I did, too. The memory that burst from him sickened me and my walls fell before it.

  A way out is a way in.

  Then, as the wisdom of Wolf Father’s words sank into my mind, I closed my thoughts from him and worked to fortify my walls. Thicker and tighter I built them, until I was aware of the beating he was taking but no longer flinching at each blow. When he had the elixir, he was strong, far stronger than I was in this magic. But I understood now; a way in is also a way out. When I reached out to touch his mind or Dwalia’s, it was like opening the gates to them.
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