Assassins fate, p.54
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       Assassin's Fate, p.54

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

  I heard a sound behind us and looked back. The tide was out, and the causeway stood above the water. A snake of people, six or eight wide, now packed the narrow belt of road that ran between the waters. Some were almost across. But even after they reached the island and the waters of the bay no longer hedged them in, they did not spread out but kept to the narrow causeway.

  ‘Hurry!’ Dwalia urged me again. No wonder she kept us to such a rapid pace. If we did not keep up our speed, they would overtake us, maybe even trample us.

  Ahead, where there had been only smooth wall, cracks appeared, startling black against the white. The cracks became the edges of the doors and then they opened wide. A phalanx of guards, clad in gleaming silver armour and pale-yellow cloaks marched out and formed up in two rows alongside our path. I thought they would halt us, but Dwalia glared at them and made a sign with her hand and we strode past without a word.

  It was not until we had passed under the arch of the entry and emerged into a courtyard that a man stepped in front of us. He was tall and thin and wore a sword, but even in his armour he looked skinny and weak. His face was pasty and blemished with splotches of pink, peeling skin. Tufts of greying hair stuck out the sides of his helmet. He narrowed his eyes. ‘Lingstra Dwalia.’ He made her name an accusation. ‘You left here with a mounted guard of luriks. Where are they and their fine steeds? Why do you return alone?’

  ‘Step aside, Bosphodi. There is no time to waste. I must have audience with Symphe and Fellowdy immediately.’

  He held his place a moment longer, his gaze wandering over her damaged face, inspecting Vindeliar’s ragged garments and then settling on me. His frown became a grimace of disapproval. Then he stepped aside and made a grand gesture for us to pass him. ‘Go as you will, Dwalia. Were I coming back from a doubtful quest, scarred and stripped of all that had been entrusted to me, I doubt I’d be in such a hurry to report my failure to the Four.’

  ‘I didn’t fail,’ she replied tersely.

  As we hurried past him he muttered, ‘Of all the ones to come back alive, it had to be Vindeliar.’ I heard him spit.

  The wide courtyard was paved in patterns of white-and-black stone and was as clean as if it had been recently swept. Lining the inner walls of the outer keep were food-and-drink stalls alongside bright carts with multiple drawers that would, I now knew, hold fortune papers inside nutshells. Pennants and garlands hung nearly motionless in the heat. Open-sided pavilions shaded tables and benches that awaited hungry and thirsty patrons. It looked like a celebration, far larger than Winterfest at Oaksbywater. For one instant, childish curiosity made me forget who I was now, and I longed to wander among the booths and buy sweets and bright gewgaws.

  ‘Hurry up, stupid!’ Dwalia barked.

  These joys were not for Vindeliar or me. I walked away from the child I had been.

  She hurried us toward the finest structure within the fortress walls. It was built, apparently, of white ivory. The doors and windows were a filigree wrought in bone or stone. This stronghouse was the base for the four slender onion-bud towers I had glimpsed from the ship. It looked impossible for such towers to be so tall and support such pinnacles. But there they were.

  ‘Come!’ Dwalia snapped at me, and for the first time in some days, she snapped a slap to my face. I felt the old split at the corner of my mouth bleed again. I lifted a hand to press it closed and followed her.

  Double doors stood open beyond a columned portico. We ascended wide steps to reach them. The cessation of sunlight beating down on my head and shoulders was a shock. My shoes were still damp. I tracked grit from the wet causeway onto the immaculate floor. As my eyes adjusted to the light I became aware of the magnificence that surrounded me.

  Here the doorways were edged with gilt or perhaps real gold. Brilliant paintings in opulent frames, the subjects many times larger than life, graced every wall. Tasselled tapestries hung on the upper walls. I had never seen white wood, but every wall in here was panelled in it. I lifted my eyes to see that even the high ceilings were painted with incomprehensible landscapes. I felt very small and out of place in such grandeur. But Dwalia was uncowed by any of it.

  The woman who blocked our way was robed in fabric of rich yellow, yellower than dandelions. Her sleeves hung slightly past her wrists and her full skirts brushed the floor. The collar stood up to her chin, and her flowered headdress left only the circle of her pale face showing. The red of her painted mouth was shocking. ‘Dwalia,’ she said, and waited, scowling. In the distance, I heard a door open and then shut. Two people walked past us and out of the door. As they exited to the pavilion outside, a roar of voices reached my ears. The crowd had reached the outer courtyard. Then the closing door cut off their sounds.

  Dwalia spoke. ‘I must have an audience with Symphe. And Fellowdy. Immediately.’

  The woman smiled nastily. ‘This is not a day for private audiences. The Four are in the Judgment Chamber, prepared to hear grievance and assign blame and penalties. You must know those appointments are made months in advance. But,’ and she smiled like a snarling cat, ‘perhaps I can manage to get you an appointment there?’

  At those words, Vindeliar’s hands flew to his cheeks and then covered his mouth.

  ‘No. I wish to see Symphe. Alone or with Fellowdy. Only those two. At once, Deneis.’ Dwalia gave Vindeliar a glare. He dropped his hands and then hunched his shoulders as if expecting a blow.

  The woman in yellow folded her lips, leaving her face all but featureless for her eyes were grey and as I stared at her I realized that she had no eyebrows.

  ‘It can’t be done today. Perhaps the day after tomorrow, I can—’

  ‘If you make my news wait two days, I think the Four will slowly remove your skin. Or perhaps allow me to perform that task myself.’

  I had thought Deneis was as pale as she could get, but her face turned as white as my father’s good paper. ‘I will convey your request to their attendants—’

  ‘See that you do,’ Dwalia interrupted her. ‘We will await their summons in the Joy Chamber. See that refreshments are brought to us promptly. We have come a long way.’

  ‘You do not command me,’ the woman said, but Dwalia only snorted.

  ‘Follow,’ she ordered Vindeliar and me and led us from the circular entry hall down one of the corridors branching off it like the spokes of a wheel. We walked on spotless white stone past disapproving portraits. Behind us, I heard the outer doors open and looked back to see Deneis greeting a procession of finely dressed folk.

  Dwalia moved down the hall with great familiarity and when we came to a door adorned with brass insets of multiple suns, she pushed it open and we followed her in. I trailed curious fingers on the door as I passed it. It looked as if it had been made of large panels of bone or ivory, but what creature would have bones or tusks that large?

  ‘Shut the door!’ Dwalia snapped and I snatched my hand back from the panel. Vindeliar was behind me and he pushed it closed. How long had it been since I’d stood still inside a room that didn’t shift with the waves? I took a deep breath and looked around me. It was a room designed for waiting and discomfort. Two milky-white windows admitted filtered light but no view. Chairs of hardwood with straight backs lined the walls. A bare table of white wood sat in the centre of the room. There was no cloth on it, no vessel of flowers such as my mother would have placed. The floor was hard white stone, and the walls were featureless white wood panels. Massive white beams crossed the ceiling overhead. With the door closed, no sound came from outside. Dwalia saw me looking around. ‘Go and sit down!’ she instructed me.

  I was extremely thirsty and I needed to pee but I knew there would be no opportunity to appease either need. I went to one of the chairs and sat. It was too tall and my feet dangled. Uncomfortable. I tucked my small pack of bundled clothes behind me. It didn’t help.

  Dwalia did not sit. She walked slowly around the room like a rat travelling the walls. Vindeliar shuffled along behind her until she abruptly s
pun about and slapped him. ‘Stop that!’ He caught his breath on a sob, glared at me, and then took the chair farthest away. He sat on the edge of it, his toes on the floor and his heels jiggling soundlessly. She pointed her finger at him. ‘Nothing left? You have no power left at all?’

  His lower lip trembled. ‘You well know it has seldom worked against those with a strong measure of White blood. I could not sway Deneis. Besides, I had used so much for you on the captain and crew. It was a lot of work—’

  ‘Be quiet.’ She opened the top buttons of her blouse and fished in her bosom. She pulled out the leather pouch and Vindeliar’s eyes lit as she took the glass tube from it. ‘It is fortunate I saved some. You must convince the Four to listen to me and believe me.’

  His face crumpled. ‘All Four? It will be hard. It would be hard even if I had a full dose! Coultrie. I might be able to sway Coultrie, but …’

  ‘Be quiet!’ She had unstoppered the tube, but when she tipped it, the coagulated mess in the bottom didn’t shift. She pushed the stopper back in and shook the tube. The clog in the bottom didn’t move. ‘We are damned!’ she said. She opened the tube and thrust her finger in. It was too short to reach the clot in the bottom. She could not touch the residue. She shoved it at Vindeliar. ‘Spit in it! Then mix it and drink it.’

  I watched as he drooled saliva down the tube and then tipped the tube to try to mix it. I felt my gorge rise and looked away. ‘It’s not working!’ he wailed.

  ‘Break the tube!’ she ordered him.

  He tried. He tapped it on the floor. Nothing happened. He tried again, harder and harder until suddenly it shattered. The serpent slime was a dried-up wad. Vindeliar picked it up and heedless of the glass splinters that clung to it, put it in his mouth. Dwalia waited, staring at him.

  He breathed out hard through his nose. When he spoke, blood flecked his lips. ‘Nothing,’ he wailed. ‘Nothing at all.’

  The blow Dwalia dealt him snapped his head on his neck and he fell to the floor. He sprawled there, his breath faltering in and out. She walked away from him and sat down in one of the chairs. She did not utter a word.

  Eventually, Vindeliar got to his knees and crawled to a chair not far from mine. He pulled himself up and sat in it like a pile of soiled laundry. No one spoke.

  We waited. No one brought the refreshments Dwalia had demanded.

  We waited. And waited.

  The late afternoon sun struck our obscured windows, making a rectangle of soupy light on the featureless floor. The door opened. Deneis, the same woman who had admitted us, appeared. ‘You will be seen in the Judgment Chamber. Now.’

  ‘The Judgment Chamber? That is not what I told you I wanted!’

  Deneis turned and walked away without waiting for us to follow. Dwalia motioned me sharply to her side and seized my shoulder in a hard grip. ‘Say nothing,’ she reminded me. She pushed me along in front of her. The pace she set did not allow me to glance back. We followed Deneis back to the entry chamber and then down a different corridor. This one was broader and more elegant and we walked a much longer distance, my bladder aching at every step.

  At the very end of the corridor stood two doors with four shining symbols embedded in them. Even in the muted light of the hall, the symbols gleamed. Perhaps they meant something, but to me they were just shapes in blue, green, yellow and red. Deneis pushed a brass handle and the doors swung wide.

  The room was brightly lit, white sunlight streaming in from four openings in the ceiling, and I blinked at the sudden brilliance. Dwalia pushed me past and through spectators who stood motionless and silent. I stumbled forward over the polished white floor. When she halted me, I lifted my eyes to behold an elevated dais with four thrones of carved ivory upon it. One throne sparkled with rubies, another with emeralds. I did not know what jewels were so yellow and blue on the other two. Could there be that many jewels in the world? For a moment that question distracted me from the occupants of the chairs.

  Two men. Two women. One woman was young and beautiful with pale skin and hair of white-gold. Her lips had been painted red and her brows and lashes were lined in black. It was a startling beauty rather than a comfortable one. Her pale arms were bare, and her torso encased in red silk so tautly tailored to her that she might have been naked and merely painted red. Her full skirt was black and reached to her knees. Scarlet sandals framed her feet, the laces crossing and re-crossing her calves. I thought her clothing looked painful to wear.

  The woman who sat next to her was very grand. Her cascading hair was white and unbound and straight. Her eyes were a very faded blue and her lips were the pink of an old rose. She was dressed in a pale-blue robe that was as simple as the other woman’s scarlet garments were complicated. The pearls that roped her throat and dangled in strings from her ears and wrapped her wrists were all of a size and gleamed warmly.

  The men flanked the women, one at each end of the arc. One was painted like a puppet, his skin white and his hair moulded to his scalp with white powder. His eyes were dark; those he could not disguise. His jerkin and leggings were dark green, and the rich cloak he wore was the green of spring ferns. His dark gaze was distant and thoughtful. At the other end of the arc was a portly man. He was pale, his hair more white than yellow, but his clothes were all gloriously yellow. Buttercups and dandelions and daffodils could not rival all the shades of yellow in his garments. His hands rested on the top of his belly and each finger was graced with a ring of gold or silver, even his thumbs. Thick hoops of yellow gold hung from his ears, and a flat golden throat piece began under his chin and spread in plates over his collarbones.

  I stared at them in puzzlement. The gaudy thrones and their elaborate separation of colours made them seem almost comical. To either side of the dais, two very large guards held spears. They stared impassively at the gathered people. I realized the green man was glaring at me. At the same instant, the pressure of Dwalia’s hand on my shoulder drove me crookedly down. I fell to one knee and then got my other leg under me. I glanced to one side and saw that Vindeliar was already kneeling. Past him, I saw a row of pale folk lining the wall. Their garments were loose tunics and trousers in light hues. Hair that was barely blonde, eyes nearly colourless. Like the butterfly messenger my father and I had burned.

  Dwalia remained in a deep bow until one of the women on the dais spoke. I heard her years in her voice. She sounded disgusted. ‘Straighten up, Lingstra Dwalia. Your bow is more insult than respect. You have returned, after sending us no word for many months. Fitting that you come to us in the Judgment Chamber! Where are those we sent out with you? Luriks and steeds, gone? Stand straight and explain yourself.’

  My hair hung over my brow and down into my eyes. I peered through it as Dwalia spoke. ‘Honoured ones, may I tell you my tale from the beginning? For it is a long and complicated path I have trodden. There have been losses, grievous losses, but those lives were not wasted but surrendered to buy us exactly what you sent me to find. I bring to you the Unexpected Son.’

  She seized the back of my collar and I was jerked upright, as when someone lifts a pup by the scruff of his neck. I stared at the Four in surprise. Their expressions were startling. The red woman looked intrigued, the old woman angry. The white-painted man appeared startled. The man in yellow leaned forward and looked at me, his eyes gleaming as if I were something delicious presented to him. He frightened me.

  ‘Oh … must you?’ The old woman said the words as if Dwalia had picked at her nose and presented the results to her. Her scepticism and disdain were manifest. She shook her head slowly and, turning her head toward the painted man, said, ‘I told you it was dangerous to let her take those luriks out into the world. She has lost them all, and dragged this ragamuffin back to us as if it were some sort of treasure. A sorry excuse for her failure!’

  ‘Let her speak, Capra,’ the lovely woman said. Her voice was taut with anger, but I could not tell if it was directed at Dwalia or for the woman seated beside her.

  The older wom
an let her gaze travel over the people who lined the room. Their eyes were avid to witness Dwalia’s downfall. Capra lifted her skinny arm. The bracelets of pearls dangled as she swept the room with a pointing finger. ‘All of you are dismissed. Begone.’

  I continued to strangle in Dwalia’s grip as the spectators slowly filed from the room. I heard the doors thud closed. Capra scowled at someone. ‘Doorkeeper. Include yourself in my dismissal. We have no need of you here.’ There was a second, softer, thud as the door closed again. I twisted my head to look. All gone. We were alone in the room with the Four and their burly guards.

  The old woman’s gaze came back to Dwalia. ‘Continue.’

  Dwalia released my collar and I was glad to sink back down. I heard her draw breath. ‘Very well, my ladies and lords. Three years ago, you provided me with companions and horses and funds to allow me to set forth to find the Unexpected Son. Some had claimed that the time of that prediction was past, that we had already endured his meddling with the streams of time, and that the best we could do now was to work with the threads we had. But in light of a flurry of dreams about a new White born in the wilds and peculiar dreams that related to the Unexpected Son, some of you believed I might discover him and—’

  The powder-faced man interrupted. ‘Why do you begin by telling us what we already know? Were not we there? Do you think us simpletons or senile?’

  The woman called Capra scowled. ‘She must believe us simple if she thinks that I will not recall that I most ardently wished her to find and return to us the traitor Beloved. That was why I agreed to your quest. To bring back to us the prisoner whose escape you aided!’

  ‘No, I do not think you foolish! No. I but wanted … Let me tell you then the full tale of my journey, for I think that if you hear of it, you will begin to share my conviction.’ I could feel Dwalia struggling to collect her thoughts and speak them well. ‘You will recall that my studies had led me to believe that a man who had once served the Duke of Chalced was the necessary tipping point for the events I wished to trigger. Thus, while some of my luriks both delayed and aided Beloved to lead us to our prey, the first task of my quest was to go to Chalced. Having long studied the dream prophecies, I was certain of my interpretation. I needed to enlist the aid of this man, Ellik. Only with his aid and the service of the men loyal to him could I hope to follow Beloved to what we sought. I found Ellik. I showed him the power of my acolyte Vindeliar and—’

  ‘Be done with your time-wasting!’ Capra barked the words. ‘Tell us what became of the luriks we entrusted to you? The finest of our creation, the ones with the most promise! Where are they? And the fine white steeds from Coultrie’s stables that went forth with you?’

  Was the silence long or did it just seem so in the dread I felt?

  ‘Dead. All dead.’ Dwalia spoke the words flatly. I opened my mouth at her lie. Alaria was sold into slavery, not dead. And how could she be sure the others had all died? What of the one who had been left behind with Shun?

  ‘Dead?’ The woman in red was horrified. Her perfectly-painted mouth hung open in horror.

  ‘Are you certain of their deaths?’ Yellow leaned forward over his belly, setting his palms on his round pink knees.

 
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