Assassins fate, p.52
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       Assassin's Fate, p.52
 

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

  of my little girl in my mind. Little Bee. I saw her in her old-fashioned clothing, I saw her doubting gaze as she looked up at me. I smelled the fading scent of honeysuckle on a warm summer night. Then I saw all the ways I had failed her. No. This was not helping. I’d never find her that way.

  I pushed aside reluctance and tried to reconstruct that moment of contact we’d had. With Chade rushing down on us like a summer squall on a small boat, pushing and scattering and threatening.

  Fitz, my boy!

  An echo in the vast current of Skill. A brief recollection of Chade, like a perfume on a spring breeze. Dead. Gone.

  The flood of loss was too much. I tried again to reach for Bee but I was groping in dark water. My child was as gone as Chade was.

  I drew back from the Skill-current, and opened my eyes to the darkness of the Fool’s chamber. He was sleeping deeply. There was no one else in the room. Sitting on the floor, I pulled my knees up tight to my chest and bowed my head over them. Chade’s boy wept.

  TWENTY-THREE

  * * *

  Clerres

  The Unexpected Son arrives cloaked in a power that none can see but all can feel. It shimmers and floats and confuses both eye and mind. In my dream, he is one, then two, then three creatures. He opens his cloak and fury burns inside him, flames that make me fall back before their heat. He closes his cloak and he is gone.

  An Unexpected Son has appeared in various guises and has been dreamed one hundred and twenty-four times. In the last thirty years, it has been dreamed seventy times. In every case, the dreamer reported a sense of foreboding. One described it as the cringing servant who expects punishment. Another reported a sense of shame before justice.

  I have dreamed my own form of the dream of the Unexpected Son. I believe it is a dream of justice and punishment to come, brought to those who least expect it. And I have dreamed it more than a dozen times. I believe this dream is an inevitable future. I have studied other dreams of the Son, attempting to find from whence he comes, and to whom he brings judgment. In none of the dreams can I find this information.

  Dream 729, of Della of the Corathin lineage

  Clerres was the strangest place I had ever seen. I stood on the deck, forgetful of my errand for Dwalia, and stared. Ahead of me was a kindly harbour with water that was impossibly blue. All around the harbour there were square buildings of pink and white and pale green, with flat roofs and numerous windows. Some of the buildings had small pointed tents pitched on their roofs. Greenery cascaded down the sides of some, framing the windows.

  Behind the buildings that fronted the harbour, the gentle rolling hills beckoned in shades of gold and brown. There were random, solitary trees with fat trunks and wide-spread branches, although on one hillside an even rank of trees might have been an orchard. The distant hills were speckled with herds of grazing animals. The white-and-grey ones were probably sheep. The other herd creatures were cattle, of a sort I had never seen, with branching horns and hummocks on their shoulders. The small boats of our ship had been deployed and our sails furled. Bare-chested sailors bent their backs to the oars as they towed us toward the docks. Slowly, so slowly we drew closer to shore.

  The terraced city followed a curve of land that embraced the harbour. One arm of the embrace was a long narrow peninsula, but the peninsula was broken. Beyond that gap, as if it had broken off from the land, was a big island with a dazzling ivory fortress upon it. The island itself was also white, almost dazzlingly so. Its lumpy shores of tumbled blocks of stone sparkled. Quartz. I’d once found a rock that sparkled like that, and Revel had told me it had quartz in it. All the land outside the fortress walls was barren. Not a tree, no trace of green. It looked to me as if it were an island that had suddenly popped up out of the sea with a magical castle atop it.

  The outer walls of the castle were tall and crenellated. At each corner a staunch guard tower rose, each topped with a structure like the skull of some immense and fearsome creature. Each of the empty eyed skulls stared off in a different direction. Within the stone walls and taller than the walls, a sturdy stronghouse stood. And four slender towers rose from each corner of that, the spires even taller than the castle towers, with bulbous rooms at the top, like the top of an onion left to go to seed. Never had I seen towers so tall and slender, gleaming pale against the blue sky.

  I stared at it, my destination. My future.

  Despair tried to rise in me. I pushed it down with frozen stones. I didn’t care. I was alone. I would be enough for me. I’d had two dreams since my father had cast me aside. Two dreams that I dared not think about for fear that Vindeliar might glimpse them. They had frightened me. Badly. I had awakened in the dark of night and stuffed the front of my shirt into my mouth so no one could hear me sobbing. But when I calmed, I understood. I could not see my path clearly, but I knew I had to walk it alone. To Clerres.

  I had been sent out of Dwalia’s stateroom to return a tray of dirty dishes to the galley. Usually she did not choose me for such tasks. I think she intended it as yet another demonstration to Vindeliar that I was not only trusted but quickly becoming her favourite. I had perfected my grovelling servitude and taken it to levels he dared not approach. I radiated repentant loyalty at her in a small, steady stream. It was dangerous, for it meant I must constantly be on my guard against Vindeliar lest he gain entry to my mind. He had grown terribly strong since he had drunk the serpent spit. But he was strong as a bullock was strong, good at large motions and breaking walls. But I was not a wall. I was a tiny rolling pebble, hard as a nut, with no edges for him to grasp. I’d felt him try, more than once. I had to keep myself very small and let out only the thoughts that had no real ties to me. Like my slavish admiration of Dwalia.

  I’d carried my pretence well, even to standing by her bath and holding a towel for her, and then stooping to dry her callused feet and lumpy toes. I’d rub her feet to hear her groan with pleasure, and I’d set out her clothing as if I were garbing royalty rather than draping a hateful old woman. My ability to deceive her almost frightened me, for it involved thinking the thoughts of a defeated slave. Sometimes I feared that those thoughts were becoming my true thoughts. I did not want to be her slave, but living without the threats and the beatings was such a relief that it was almost an acceptance that this was the best life I could hope for.

  I felt a familiar squeezing in what I thought must be my heart. I had heard of being ‘heartbroken’ or ‘heavy-hearted’ but I had never known it was an actual sensation one felt when the whole world abandons you. I looked out at what I knew must be Clerres, and tried to believe I could make a life for myself there. For I knew now I would never go home. I had felt my father’s touch upon my mind. I had felt him spurn me, cast me aside so violently that I had awakened shaking and sick. I had reached for Wolf Father. He had not understood it any better than I had. So. It was done. I was alone. No one was ever going to come and rescue me. No one cared what had become of me.

  I had known that for days now, but even more, I had known it for every long night that came between those days. During the days when both Dwalia and Vindeliar were awake, I had no time to dwell on it. I was too busy defending my thoughts from Vindeliar while grovelling to Dwalia and impressing on her how cowed and subservient I was now. During those hours, my father’s abandonment of me was a constant humming pain, as permanent as the restless water that surrounded us. During the days, my survival floated on that sea of hurt.

  At night, I sank beneath it and drowned in it. My loneliness had become absolute when I had touched minds with my father and he had pushed me away. I had tried to make it less of a rejection in any way I could, but it was like trying to put the pieces of a cup together so it made a teapot. There had been those other voices. One had been my sister’s perhaps, but I was not certain. There had been a chorus of others, including one who shouted and roared. I didn’t know how I had reached them, but I knew my father had been aware of me. ‘Flee,’ he had bidden me, as if there were danger, but he
did not flee with me. He had not caught me up and kept me safe. He had stayed in the middle of that storm of voices. He had paid attention to them, pushing me to one side. When I had dared to call out to him again, he had shoved me roughly away. He had pushed me so hard that I had not been able to hold onto him. I’d fallen away from him, away from my hope of rescue and a return to a life that had some kindness in it. I’d tumbled back into myself, into my lonely small self, and found Vindeliar already sniffing around my boundaries. I had not even dared to weep aloud.

  I’d slammed my walls tight, tight, tight. Wolf Father had warned me. To hold my walls that tight meant that no one could reach me. At that moment, I hoped no one would ever touch my thoughts again. I never wanted anyone to like me again, let alone love me. And I was never, ever going to like anyone else.

  The pain in my heart had suddenly become a pain in my belly. It combined with the hurt of holding the dreams unspoken and unwritten. But the dreams that came to me now, I dared not speak. They were frightening and tantalizing, tempting and terrifying. They called to me to make them real. And with every day of our journey, they became more real to me, as if I came ever closer to an inevitable future I would make.

  I closed my eyes for a moment and then opened them to the pastel city before me. I made myself see how pretty it was, and I imagined myself as a happy person there. I would trot along those streets, greeting the people I knew, running some useful errand for Dwalia. And some day I would escape.

  No. I could not have that thought, nor that plan. Not yet. It was a lovely place, a wonderful place to call home. How happy I was to be here! I trickled out a bit of that thought. I had discovered that I could feed such things to Dwalia even when I couldn’t see her. Her mind was a shape I knew now. As was Vindeliar’s. Experimentally, I dribbled a bit of my imaginary happiness onto him. For a moment, I felt him warm, and then he slapped my thought away. He did not know how to make his thoughts reach me clearly. Sometimes they did, but I think that was something that happened rather than something he knew how to do. I did not hear his direct thoughts but I felt his distrust of me. And behind his distrust, his hurt. Somehow, he had truly believed that I would become his brother and love him as no one else ever had. He had seen a path for us that I never had.

  For a moment, the stinging thought that perhaps he felt as abandoned as I did shamed me. Then I crushed it down and shut it out of my mind. No. He had helped to kidnap me, had aided in destroying my home, and had tricked and helped kill the only person who had befriended me on my horrible journey. He had no right to think anyone would love him for doing those things.

  But that fury was a strong emotion, and I was learning that strong emotions made cracks in my wall. I denied my hatred. It made my stomach hurt worse than ever, but I did it. I turned my eyes to the pretty city, with the little rectangular houses like little cakes displayed on a shelf. I would have a delicious life here. I put a cheery smile on my face and carried my tray to the galley and left it there. As I made my way back to the captain’s stateroom, I had to dodge hurrying sailors. As we neared our destination, the number and pace of their tasks were increasing. One of them cursed at me as I skipped out of his way. Small boats were hastening toward us as our sailors secured the gathered sails. Coiled lines awaited. The little boat would tow us in to the docks. Our arrival was imminent.

  I tapped on the stateroom door lest the captain was making a last-minute visit, and heard Dwalia’s charming request that I should enter. ‘Pack it all up!’ she commanded me as soon as she saw me. She gestured at the scattered garments that she had tried on and then discarded. Every time we had stopped in a port, the captain had purchased more garments for her. I wondered what she would do with them all once we disembarked and she was no longer Lady Aubretia. She herself was occupied with carefully setting the jewellery she had acquired onto a finely woven scarf, also gifts from her captain. Once she had them arranged, she rolled the scarf up, folding the ends in as she went, and then tying it into a small bundle. By then I was nearly finished layering her gauzy and lacy finery into a trunk.

  ‘Will you be sad to leave him?’ The question had popped into my head and out of my mouth. At her sudden scowl, I hastily added, ‘He treats you so well. It must be gratifying to have someone recognize your true value.’

  She narrowed her eyes at me. It had been a bit too complimentary, but I made my querying face as bland as possible and then turned away to finish fastening the buckles of the trunk. I managed a sideways glance at Vindeliar. He was very slowly gathering his meagre possessions and stuffing them into a worn bag. Since I had become Dwalia’s favourite, she had asked less and less of him. I had imagined he might be grateful to have fewer tasks, but her ignoring of him only fuelled his dislike of me. I had the uneasy feeling that he was planning something, but if he was, he had kept it well concealed. I, too, had a plan, one that was slowly taking shape in my mind. I dared not dwell on it, lest he catch some flavour of it in my thoughts. It was the first plan that I should have made, back in winter when they had first captured me.

  No. Don’t think about it in front of them when they are awake. I reminded myself again of the little pastel houses and what an agreeable life awaited me in this pretty city.

  Dwalia responded at last. ‘I shall be sad to leave him.’ Then she took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. ‘But this is not my life. I do not depend on a man’s position and affection to claim what should be mine.’ She sounded almost angry that she had been well treated by him. She turned to Vindeliar. ‘You remember what you are to do, as we disembark?’

  ‘Yes.’ His agreement was sullen.

  She cocked her head slightly at him. ‘And you are certain you can do it?’

  ‘Yes.’ His eyes flickered to me and I knew a moment of unease.

  ‘Fine.’ She stood, straightened her fine dress and patted at her hair. I had braided it for her that morning and coiled it carefully at the back of her head. Now she smoothed it as if she were the lovely woman the captain imagined her to be. Sparkling earrings dangled, and a network of silver rings dotted with tiny sparkling jewels caged her throat. But above it was her plain round face, ruined forever by the scar my teeth had left. From what I had read in my father’s scrolls, I suspected that Farseer Skill-magic could repair her face, but I did not tell her that. It might be a negotiating chip I would need later, an offer that might keep me alive. Or at least make her curious enough to let me live a bit longer. I tried to recall how kindly she had seemed the first time I met her, how motherly and solicitous. Vindeliar’s magic.

  Vindeliar dared a question. ‘Do they know we are returning? Symphe and Fellowdy?’

  She was silent and I thought she would not reply. Then she said, ‘Sending short bird messages would just have confused them. I will explain myself when I stand before them.’

  He took in a little breath as if that frightened him. ‘They will be surprised to see we are alone.’

  ‘Alone?’ she snapped. ‘We bring with us the prize I said we would gain. The Unexpected Son.’

  Vindeliar slid his eyes sideways to look at me. We both knew she no longer believed that of me. I thought he would have the sense to be quiet but instead he said, ‘But you know Bee’s a girl.’

  She balled a fist at him. ‘That doesn’t matter! Stop talking about things you are too stupid to understand! I will handle this. I will deal with all of it. You will tell no one she is a girl. You will not speak at all. Do you understand me? That should not be too difficult for your feeble mind. Just don’t talk.’

  He parted his lips, then nodded dumbly and emphatically. Dwalia went to the window and stared out at the endless blue sea. Did she wish she were not going home?

  In the few extra minutes in which Dwalia did not busy me, I did my best to smooth my hair. I managed to dabble my hands in her used washwater and use the cloth to wipe my face before I bore it away. Wear had not improved my garments, but they were reasonably clean. I made a sack out of my worst shirt and put my few spa
re garments inside it. I tied the sleeves together to make a handle and slung it over my shoulder. I had chosen my disguise. I would be an honest child, standing straight before all, harmless and intent on pleasing Dwalia. Let no one fear or suspect what I truly was.

  We heard the shouts of the sailors and the noises of the town had grown louder. The little boats would tow us right up to the docks that fingered out from the busy streets. Between us, Vindeliar and I managed to carry the trunk full of Dwalia’s fine garments up to the deck. Dwalia tucked the packet of jewellery into a lovely embroidered bag that she carried. And there on the deck we stood, mostly out of the sailors’ way, and waited for the ship to reach the dock and be safely moored to it, and then for the gangplank to be put into place.

  Only then did the captain come to us. He took both Dwalia’s hands in his, kissed her chastely on her cheek and told her that he had already sent a runner ahead to secure lodgings for her in a clean and honest inn. Regretfully, he said he could not accompany us, but he had two strong men who would carry her trunk and escort her to the place. He promised that he would come with her to Clerres Castle to consult on her future, for he hoped he would figure large in such a reading.

  Lady Aubretia simpered and thanked him. The elegant arched plumes on her hat bobbed in the sea breeze. She reminded him that she had business of her own to conduct in Clerres, but she would see him that evening. And her two servants could manage to take her trunk to the lodgings, so no escort was needed. For a moment, his brow was wrinkled in concern for his darling. Then the lines smoothed as I felt Vindeliar manipulate his mind. Of course she would be fine. He would not worry for her. She was as competent as she was lovely, and he cherished her independent spirit.

  Even so, he accompanied us down the gangplank. He again took Dwalia’s hands in his and looked down at her as she tilted her head back to meet his fond gaze. ‘Be careful, my lovely,’ he cautioned her, and stooped to take a final kiss.

  I felt Vindeliar do it. He dropped the illusion as the captain’s face neared hers and let him see her as she was. His intended kiss did not reach her mouth as he recoiled from her. In less than a breath, Vindeliar had restored her glamour. But by then the captain had stumbled back a step. He blinked, rubbed his eyes with the palms of both his hands and then smiled at Dwalia sheepishly. ‘I’ve been awake too long. I stand on land and feel giddy from the stillness. Lady Aubretia, I will see you later this evening. We shall dine together.’

  ‘We shall,’ she promised him faintly. He turned his head, rubbed his brow and made his way back up to his ship. He looked back at us from the deck, and she lifted a lace-gloved hand to wave at him. He grinned like a boy, waved back and turned to his duties. For a moment longer, she stood staring after him. Hurt made her homely face even plainer. Vindeliar stood innocently by, feigning that he did not know what had just happened but, ‘He saw me,’ Dwalia said in a low, accusing voice. ‘You allowed him to see me.’

  Vindeliar looked off into the distance. ‘Perhaps, for an instant, my control faltered.’ He flickered his gaze back to her and then away. I saw his vicious satisfaction but perhaps it was too fleeting for her to catch. ‘It takes a great deal of strength to maintain such an illusion,’ he pointed out to her. ‘The captain is not a gullible man. To make his crew see you as Lady Aubretia every moment was hard. To make the captain see you in such a different form, in every moment he was with you has near drained all my magic. Perhaps now is the time when you should give me—’

 
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