Assassins fate, p.58
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       Assassin's Fate, p.58

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

  light and a pale rose in colour. There was no way to carry the candle inside my new shirt. The sandals were a mystery but I finally strapped them to my feet. Beneath the clothing, I found a comb. The water had put my hair into tight curls, but I did my best to make it tidy. I folded the drying cloths and looked for a way to drain the grey bathwater but didn’t find one. It shamed me that someone would see how dirty I’d been. I steeled myself, tucked my worn garments, with the candle inside them, under my arm and left the bath.

  Daylight had grown stronger and the morning was warmer than many a noon in Buck. Capra looked me up and down, with her gaze lingering on my bruised legs. ‘Leave those rags. Just drop them. A servant will dispose of them.’

  I froze. Then, without a word, I reached into the bundle, and drew out the halves of my broken candle. I let my clothing fall. Capra scowled at me. ‘What’s that you’re carrying?’

  ‘A candle that my mother made.’ I didn’t show it to her.

  ‘Leave it.’

  ‘No.’ I lifted my eyes and met her gaze. Her eyes were peculiar. Today they seemed not pale-blue or grey, but a sort of dirtied white. They were hard to look at, but I didn’t break my stare.

  She tilted her head to look at me. ‘How many candles do you have?’

  I didn’t want to tell her, yet I could not say why. ‘It was one. It broke into two.’

  ‘One candle,’ she said quietly. ‘That’s interesting. But only one. Not like the candles in the dream.’ She said this as if hoping to provoke a reaction.

  I did not let my face change. But abruptly, the day shimmered around me. I looked up at Capra and it seemed as if light spiked out from her in myriad directions. So many paths leading from her. From this moment, yes, but more than that. She was like the beggar, who was also the Fool. My father’s Beloved. I had no words for what I sensed about her. Like a crossroads, I thought, where one could go off in a different direction. I looked away from her, wondering how much time had passed while I had been caught in that moment. None, it seemed, when she spoke.

  ‘Very well,’ she said. ‘Carry them with you. It’s your nuisance to deal with.’ Yet from her voice, I did not feel she conceded to me so much as added the candle to my list of wrong-doing. Her guard’s expression suggested that I had been foolishly wilful. He was one of the men who had wielded the whips that ate Dwalia’s flesh. I set my teeth to keep my jaw from quivering at that memory.

  ‘Follow,’ Capra said. ‘You will be staying here with us, so I will show you the grounds. Later we will decide what you are to be here. Perhaps a student? Perhaps a scholar? Maybe just a servant.’ She smiled at me, a thin stretching of her lips. ‘Maybe a breeder. Or a slave to be sold. There are so many ways you might like to be useful.’

  I did not think I would like any of them but I said nothing. I walked behind her, her guard next to me. The sandal straps bit into my feet but I gritted my teeth and walked on. She took me back inside, and I was grateful that the sun no longer beat down on my head. I did not realize how I had squinted against the glare of white light on white stone until we were indoors again.

  She did not hurry but she did not pause. On the main floor, I was shown a room where five pale children were learning to write and being assisted by scribes in green robes. Each child had a scribe sitting by him, assisting him to guide his pen. The pale children looked very young, no older than three years. But if they were like me, I judged they were older than they looked.

  We traversed a long, gently curving corridor and went up grand marble stairs to the second floor. ‘Here we welcome those who come to share our wisdom.’ She told me this as she opened the door to a room panelled all in rich wood and deeply carpeted. There was a grand table surrounded by carved chairs in the centre, and on it a decanter of some liquor and some tiny glasses.

  In the next room six young Whites were at a table. Servants waited behind them. ‘Last night, they dreamed,’ Capra said quietly. ‘They will write down what they dreamed. Then the scribing servants will make copies, and each copy will be sorted into a category and placed with others similar to it. Perhaps they dreamed of candles. Or an acorn bobbing in a stream. Or the dream where one seizes a bee, and is surrounded by a hundred stinging bees.’ Her voice dropped. ‘Or of the Unexpected Son.’ She turned and looked down at me. Her smile stretched her lips flat. ‘Or a Destroyer. Over the last year, the occurrence of dreams about the Destroyer have greatly increased. That tells us that something happened, something we did not expect. Some event has made it more likely that a Destroyer exists and will come to us.’ She stretched her lips again. ‘Have you ever dreamed of the Destroyer?’

  I dared not hold a complete silence. ‘I often have nightmares of how my home was destroyed by Dwalia and her luriks. Is that what you mean?’

  ‘No.’ That word was another mark against me. She led me out of the room. We paced that long hallway and ascended a stair to the next level. Here, the wood that panelled the halls was of a deeper colour. Massive wooden beams supported a ceiling painted with extravagant flowers. ‘This is our heart,’ Capra told me formally as she escorted me to a door and opened it.

  This huge chamber was full of old scrolls and books. Racks lined every wall and reached all the way to the ceiling. I could not see across the room, for orderly ranks of tall shelves, all full of scrolls and large books formed a perimeter around the open centre of the room. In that open space, there were at least a dozen long tables. Scribes who seemed to have little or no characteristics of White heritage sat with pens and inkpots, comparing scrolls and papers and writing busily.

  ‘Here the dreams are studied. We know how many dreams mention candles. We know how long there have been dreams of serpents wielding swords. Dreams of Unexpected Sons, Destroyers and white horses, seashells and teacups, puppets and wolves and blue bucks.’ She smiled widely at me. ‘Some of these scrolls were written long ago. There is a tremendous amount of information here, and scrolls that go back scores of years, for a truly cataclysmic event might generate dreams dozens of years before it happens. We knew of the Blood Plague before it took its first victim. And before that? The mountain that burst into fire and flame, the earthquakes that levelled the Elderling cities and the great waves that destroyed their stranglehold on the world. Oh, yes, we knew those were coming. If they’d been a bit more useful to us, perhaps the Elderlings would have known them as well. But they preferred dragons to humanity. Their loss.’ So much vindictive satisfaction in her voice and words. She told me those things as if I should find them personally hurtful. Then she leaned down and said softly by my ear, ‘But not all dreams are here. Mine are in my tower. Known only to me. Last night, I dreamed I pulled up a little white flower by its roots. But the roots were flames and blades.’ She smiled. ‘I would have been wiser to cut that little flower off at the stem.’ She tilted her head. ‘Don’t you agree?’

  She straightened abruptly. ‘Come,’ she said, and walked briskly out of the room. I hobbled after her, hating the sandals and the straps that bound them to my feet. The next room was identical to the one we had left. The scrolls, the scholars at work, lesser servants coming and going with arms full of paper or large ledgers. And a third room. I could stand it no more. I dropped down and untied the straps from my feet. I stood up, now carrying the sandals and my broken candle.

  ‘As you wish,’ Capra said disdainfully. ‘Perhaps in time you will become accustomed to wearing shoes and other civilized ways.’ She shrugged. ‘Or be sold to a household where shoes are not wasted on slaves.’

  I could feel myself sinking in her estimation. I battled with myself. Did I admit to her I dreamed and claim a place among her students? Pretend I was stupid and only marginally civilized and hope to be a servant with a chance of escape? Escape to where and to what? I was an ocean away from my home. Wouldn’t I be wiser to make a place for myself here?

  A different plan bubbled into my mind, the one I had kept hidden while we were on the ship coming here. I pushed it down, out of sight.
I might not see Vindeliar, but I had no idea where he might be or if there were others like him. Think about being useful. Think of making a place for myself here. Smile. Pretend to want to be here forever, a part of the web they wove.

  As if she could feel my resolve weakening, she led me down a long corridor and down an endless flight of wide, spiralling stairs. Then we turned and went out of a door into an enclosed courtyard. It was immense, and unlike the barren island outside the wall here big trees provided shade, fountains splashed and a little stream wandered through stone-lined channels. Along the walls of this lovely garden were little cottages. Flowers bloomed beside each door, and one tree bore little orange fruits among the shiny leaves on its neatly-pruned branches. Espaliered grapevines bearing purple fruit grew in the loamy soil along the wall, but the twining branches stopped well short of the wall’s top. Even if Riddle had stood on my father’s shoulders he could not have seen over it. As I watched, a guard walked slowly along the top of the wall. His skin was tanned brown and his long hair was gold. He carried a small bow at the ready. He looked down on the garden but never smiled.

  Birds sang—tiny pink birds in cages hung from decorative poles and others perching in the branches of the trees. I followed Capra off the pebbled walkway and onto cool green grass where there were tables and benches under a shady arch festooned with vines. Two women in smocks of bright white arrived from a different door carrying trays of sliced fruit and fresh breads. I could smell the warm bread and my stomach squirmed with desire. They set out the plates on the table and then rang a little silver bell suspended from a branch. The doors of the cottages opened and Whites emerged. ‘Oh, I am so hungry!’ one exclaimed, and her friend laughed and took her arm. As they came to join their friends at the table, my gaze roved over the smooth faces and white or pale gold hair. They were all dressed in a similar fashion, in short loose robes or garb like mine. And suddenly I could not tell boys from girls at all.

  ‘If you were to prove valuable to us, if you began to dream and could be taught to write them down, this is where you would stay. You’d have your own little cottage, and a servant to keep it tidy for you. You’d share meals here, or on rainy days, in the Hall of Crystals. It’s lovely. They dangle from the ceiling and sparkle and shine and make rainbows on the floor. Your tasks would be to think and to dream. Perhaps, some day, to have a child if you desired to, and find a mate among your fellows. See how happy they are?’

  They were eating and talking and laughing. No one was frowning or pensive or sitting apart from the others. There were fifteen of them, and I could not tell their ages any more than I could guess their sexes. I tried not to look at the food. The women in the servant-smocks came back with glass pitchers of something pale-brown. They poured it into waiting glasses while those they served exclaimed in anticipation. I stared in raw envy.

  ‘You could be there. Oh, not tomorrow. But as soon as you learned how to write. If you were a dreamer, I mean. But, as you have said, you are not. Still, I imagine you are hungry. Come.’

  She led me away from the grassy sward and soon I was forced to limp and hop along on the pebbled walkway. She led me through a gate in a wall, through a washing court with pastel garments hanging on lines under the bright, hot sun. And then another wall and another gate. A lovely herb garden with benches and bowers. The sun beat down on my head as we followed a winding course back to the main structure. We passed under a portico and through yet another door. I forced myself to pay attention, to memorize every turn and door. The corridor seemed dark and the air stagnant after the open garden. Capra walked briskly now, the heels of her shoes tapping on the smooth stone floor. I followed. My head had begun to pound. The long days on the ship, the small meals I’d had and the upheavals of the past few days were suddenly almost more than I could bear. I wanted to simply sit down and weep. If I did, the guard escorting me would probably whip me to death.

  Capra turned and opened a door. She stood beside it and beckoned me to enter.

  I went cautiously. Three steps in, I stopped and stared all around. The walls were a jungle. Birds called and sang and winged through the thick foliage. I saw a golden-hided predator as a shape slinking through the trees. I looked up, and branches intertwined overhead. A long heavy snake moved along one, the boughs bending under his weight. Underfoot, the floor was a carpet of lush grasses and brilliant flowers and low-growing vines. A butterfly was sitting on a flower. He lifted from it, and I tracked his progress as he flew to another.

  None of it was real. I heard and saw, but I smelled nothing, and when I walked, I felt smooth stone underfoot, not verdant turf. ‘Is it magic?’ I whispered.

  ‘Of a sort,’ Capra said dismissively. ‘Once, we were trading partners with the Elderlings. One of their greatest artists came here, to line the walls, the floors, even the ceiling with this special stone. Day by day he created this room. It took him almost a year.’

  I gazed around, unable to suppress my amazement. ‘So this is Elderling magic.’

  ‘You’ve never seen anything like this before?’

  The butterfly cloak! ‘No. Never. It takes my breath away.’ She watched me closely as I stared about wide-eyed. I stooped and tried to touch a flower. Cold stone and a tingle of magic up my finger. I drew back from it.

  ‘Ah, well.’ Her tone was dismissive. ‘It’s impressive the first time one sees it, I suppose. They were an interesting people. But pretty trickery of this sort was not worth dealing with their self-importance, or their dragons. They exhausted our tolerance. Come. We will eat now.’

  There was a table with a white cloth on it and two chairs. There were two plates on the table, and cutlery and glasses. Against the wall, two men stood, holding trays. They were dark-haired and dark-eyed, and for one moment it felt as if I had come home. ‘Please, be seated at the table,’ Capra said. ‘You are my guest today. Let us share a meal.’

  I moved cautiously toward the table. My guard closed the door and took a place beside it. Capra gracefully took her seat. I set my sandals below my chair, and then carefully sat with my candle beside me. I folded my hands at the table’s edge and waited.

  ‘Well. Not entirely unmannered, I see.’ She gave a casual flip of her hand toward the waiting servants and they advanced to the table. Food was set before me and my glass was filled. I waited, watching Capra. I suddenly felt that I represented not only Withywoods but all the Six Duchies. I would not behave like an unmannered dolt.

  She took a damp cloth from a covered dish on her right and carefully wiped her hands, paying special attention to her fingers. I imitated her and returned the cloth to the dish as she did. She picked up a utensil that baffled me, and speared a chunk of pale flesh on her plate. I copied her, chewing the bite I took as slowly as she did although it was cold and tasted strongly of fish. ‘Tell me about yourself,’ she invited me after the third bite. ‘You are no servant’s child. Who are you?’

  I had just swallowed a square of something yellow and sticky. It had been sweet and only sweet, with no other flavour to it. I sipped water to clear my mouth and let my eyes wander the extraordinary room. I decided on the truth. Or some of it. ‘I am Bee Badgerlock, of Withywoods. My mother was Lady Molly Chandler, wed to Tom Badgerlock. We are landed gentry. My mother died recently. I lived with my father and our servants. I led a pleasant, peaceful life.’

  She was listening. She took a small bite of something and nodded to me to go on.

  ‘On a day when my father was away, as we prepared for a holiday, Dwalia came with her luriks and a troop of Chalcedean mercenaries. She slaughtered my servants and set fire to my stables and kidnapped me. She brought me here.’ I took another bite of the unpleasant fish, chewed it slowly and swallowed it before I added, ‘If you will send word to my father, it is likely he will ransom me.’

  She set down her utensil and looked at me carefully. ‘Would he?’ She tilted her head. ‘Your father would come himself to get you, do you think?’

  It was no time to share my doubt
. ‘He is my father. He would.’

  ‘Then your father is not FitzChivalry?’

  I replied truthfully, ‘I have always heard him called Tom Badgerlock.’

  ‘And Beloved is not your father either?’

  I gave her a puzzled look. ‘I love my father.’

  ‘And his name was Beloved.’

  I shook my head. ‘I have known no one that answers to such a name. Beloved? In my country, sometimes the princes and princesses are given such names. Loyalty or Benevolent. But not such as I.’ Nor my sister, it suddenly occurred to me. Nettle and Bee. Never to be princesses. That bothered me for an instant but, Do not be distracted by self-pity. You are in danger, in the very jaws of a trap. Watch your enemy!

  To hear Wolf Father so plainly made me braver. I sat up straighter.

  She nodded to herself. ‘Unfortunately, we are unlikely to ask a ransom of your father. To send a messenger so far on such an uncertain errand would be more expensive than any ransom we could wring from him. Late last night, after some earnest counselling, Dwalia admitted that she knew you were female for months. But instead of admitting her mistake then she chose to bring you here, regardless of the loss of luriks and horses! She also conceded that while she once believed she would find the Unexpected Son at Withywoods, she now believes you are no such thing. She concedes to an opinion I have long held, that the Unexpected Son was Beloved’s Catalyst. A man named FitzChivalry.

  ‘From Vindeliar, however, we have wrung a different tale. He still believes you are the Unexpected Son. And he claims that you are capable of magic and full of sly trickery.’

  On the wall, I had another glimpse of the predator. It was a cat. It sprang, missed and a large bird flew up. I spoke carefully. ‘Vindeliar is full of peculiar ideas. When he helped capture me, he called me his “brother”. And even after they knew I was a girl, he called me “brother” still.’ I gave her my best perplexed expression. ‘He is a very strange man.’

  ‘So. He is mistaken about your magic?’

  I looked down at my plate and then back up at her. I was still hungry but the food was so foreign to me that it was hard to eat it.

  Wolf Father whispered to me. Eat it. Fill your belly with anything. In this place, you can’t depend on anyone to feed you. Stuff yourself while you can.

  I ate two more bites, trying not to make a disgusted face as I got it down. I hoped I looked thoughtful. Then I replied, ‘If I had any magical power, would I be here? A prisoner, far from my home?’

  ‘Perhaps you would. If you were a true White Prophet, and you felt you had a task to fulfil here, perhaps you would allow fate to sweep you toward us. If you had dreams that said you must come here …’

  I shook my head. ‘I want to be at home. If I have a home left. I am no Unexpected Son. I’m not even a boy!’ Tears suddenly flooded my eyes and choked my throat. ‘We were preparing for a wonderful festival. Our Winterfest, when we celebrate the longest night and then the returning light. There was to be feasting and music and dancing. Dwalia came and turned it all to blood and screaming. They killed Revel. I loved Revel. I didn’t even know how much I loved him until he came with a blade stuck in him to warn us. His last thought was to warn me to flee! And they killed Perseverance’s father and grandfather. And they burned our beautiful horses and our old stable! They killed FitzVigilant, my new tutor, who came to teach me to read. I didn’t like him but I didn’t wish him dead! If I were a prophet, if I dreamed dreams of the future, wouldn’t I have known? Wouldn’t I have run away or warned everyone? I’m just my father’s daughter, and Dwalia wrecked our lives and killed
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