Assassins fate, p.66
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       Assassin's Fate, p.66
 

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

  him back, kicking and wailing like a furious child. ‘Oh, have done!’ she shouted at him. ‘You are ridiculous. If I tell you that Vindeliar is controlling your thoughts, can that break through to you? No? Then hold him over there.’ As the guards dragged Coultrie back from me, she dropped into a comfortable chair and pointed at the floor. ‘Bee, sit.’

  I sat down on deep carpet and looked hastily around. Framed paintings of flowers on the walls, a table of dark wood, chairs, a decanter of golden liquid and glasses. Fellowdy took a chair with a martyred sigh.

  Capra pointed a finger at Coultrie. ‘Coultrie, we have done as you begged. You saw that she was locked in her cell. You saw that we each still had our keys. There is no blood on her, no stink of spilled oil. This scrap of a child could kill no one.’

  ‘Then it must have been Vindeliar,’ Fellowdy opined thoughtfully. ‘Given plenty of the serpent potion, perhaps he could control Dwalia enough to force her to kill herself.’

  ‘Would he have had Symphe smash the potion on the floor, out of his reach? And I doubt she would fall to Vindeliar’s influence and set fire to herself. No. This was not the child and this was not Vindeliar.’

  ‘Listen to me!’ Coultrie shrieked. They turned to him, disdain on Capra’s face, distress on Fellowdy’s. He looked from one to another and panted out his words as he hung between the two guards. ‘I tell you what is true. Symphe brought her to Vindeliar’s cell.’ He twisted one arm free and pointed a shaking finger at me. ‘Vindeliar told me all! She threw a lamp at Symphe to set fire to her and broke the serpent-potion bottle on the floor! She told Dwalia to die and she did. She did! Dwalia is dead! My dearest friend is dead!’ He roared the words at me and then broke into shaking sobs.

  ‘His dearest friend?’ Fellowdy said doubtfully.

  ‘He despised her.’ Capra threw herself back in her chair. ‘We will get no sense out of him. It is the serpent potion. Vindeliar is stronger with it than I’ve ever seen. Something good comes of this wreckage: Dwalia leaves us a valuable tool. One we must learn to control. But now is not the time to think of that.’ Did she regret uttering that thought in front of them?

  Her eyes had narrowed to slits. She considered Coultrie for a moment. In a gentler voice she said, ‘Coultrie is not well. His emotions have overcome him. Guards, escort him to his tower room. Fetch for him the Collothian Smoke that was delivered for me yesterday. Poor fellow. He has lost his dearest friends. Keep watch outside his door so he remains there. I would not wish him to harm himself.’ Coultrie’s eyes had widened at her mention of Smoke and I sensed she conferred some immense favour upon him. She smiled at him, falsely kind, but he seemed eager to believe as she said, ‘We will talk to Vindeliar ourselves, just as you have advised us. Put your mind at ease about that. There now. Go take some rest. I can tell that your heart is broken.’

  Fresh tears sprang from Coultrie’s eyes and trickled down his face at her sympathy. He offered no resistance as the guards moved him toward the door. I heard his sobbing until the door closed behind him. I remained where I was and kept silent. Capra leaned forward and poured some of the drink into a glass. She sipped from it.

  ‘So you think Vindeliar lies?’ Fellowdy asked her.

  ‘He told us there were two dragons in the harbour, and that a Destroyer spoke in his mind, threatening to reduce all Clerres to ruins. Have you seen any dragons today? Any signs of an attacking army?’ She sipped from her glass again. ‘He tells us that Bee did all this. Did you see any sign that she had been out of her cell and in that dungeon?’

  ‘Why would he lie? What would he gain?’

  ‘Finally, you are asking the correct questions. Here are some others for you to ponder. Why was Symphe in that dungeon, with serpent potion, when our supply of it is sadly depleted? Where did she obtain it? What treachery did she plan? And who put an end to it? Vindeliar is not the most intelligent fellow. Did he manage to get enough potion to take control of Symphe? Did she kill Dwalia and then accidentally or purposely take her own life? Coultrie has fallen to Vindeliar’s influence. He is useless. But Vindeliar knows exactly what happened. I consider him our most likely killer, and I will have the truth from him.’

  ‘I wish to be there.’

  ‘Of course you do. Because you have no thought for all else that must be managed.’

  Fellowdy worked his mouth and then said, ‘We all know that you have a supply of the serpent potion you have kept to yourself. Is that where Symphe got it? Stolen from you? Or given by you? How closely must I watch my own back?’ She stared at him, her mouth flat, until he dropped his eyes. ‘Do we go to Vindeliar now?’ Fellowdy asked in a subdued voice.

  She rounded on him. ‘Do as you wish, I am sure! Go grovel before Coultrie’s new friend. That disgusting creature should never have been allowed to survive. I suppose I shall have to deal with all that needs to be done alone. Symphe is dead. Have you no thought for that? For what it will mean to the people of Clerres? The first tide has passed. The halls below are full of fortune-seekers, some waiting to see Symphe. And across the water, the crowds for the afternoon crossing are waiting. When the second tide goes out today, we must refuse them. Those who entered this morning must leave. None can enter until we have resolved this. How well do you think that will be received? I need to send birds, to have guards readied to control a mob. And I must consider how we will deal with the loss of several days’ income from the fortune-mongers. Details, to you, I know, but these details are what keep our walls standing and our beds comfortable at night.’ She gave a great sigh. ‘Symphe’s death must be announced with the proper pomp and ceremony. The folk of Clerres must see her honoured. Her body must be made to look … presentable. They cannot be told she has been murdered. It is unfortunate indeed that so many have seen her body. The guard who shrieked and ran tattling to Coultrie must be … dealt with. And Coultrie’s babbling before the prisoners means that they must be dealt with, too. Symphe’s death must be framed as an accident. A terrible accident.’

  ‘And Dwalia?’ Fellowdy asked heavily.

  She gave him a disdainful look. ‘Forty lashes? Who do you know who has survived forty lashes? Did you expect her to live? I did not. She died of her lawful punishment. And good riddance.’

  ‘What will we say of Vindeliar?’

  ‘Why say anything at all? Few would care if he died, too.’ The last she said with measured consideration.

  ‘And who will replace Symphe?’ he asked in a low voice.

  She gave a snort of disdain. ‘Replace her? Why? What did she ever do that was so essential, that I cannot do better myself?’ She was silent for a time, pondering something. Then she looked at Fellowdy. ‘We should share these tasks. I know you wish to speak to Vindeliar. If you take that task, I shall see to sending the bird-messages and giving the orders for the closing of the gates.’

  He mastered his surprise quickly. ‘If you wish, I will take on that task.’

  ‘I do. If you would be so kind.’

  Fellowdy rose, nodded at her several times, and then almost ran from the room. Even I could tell that she had given him the errand he most desired to be rid of him.

  As soon as the door closed behind him, she stood. ‘Guards. Let us return her to her cell. There is work to do.’

  One guard hoarsely asked, ‘Shall I fetch Coultrie and bring back Fellowdy for his key?’

  She lifted a shoulder, dismissing it. She almost smiled. ‘From now on, a lock of two will suffice, I am sure.’

  THIRTY

  * * *

  Barriers and a Black Banner

  A big set of scales, like the money-changer at Oaksbywater has. On one pan a bee alights, and the pan is suddenly weighed all the way down. A very old woman, her face impassive, asks, ‘What is the value of this life? What is a fair measure to buy it?’

  A blue buck comes charging across the market. It leaps and lands in the empty pan. The bee’s pan rises and they balance exactly.

  The very old woman nods and smiles. Her te
eth are red and pointed.

  From Bee Farseer’s dream journal

  I have never liked climbing down a ladder into a ship’s boat. I always imagine I will step wrong at that crucial moment. Climbing up the worn wooden ladder onto the docks was almost as bad. The firepots bounced against my back as I climbed. The beautiful Buck cloak was already too warm. And the exposed barnacles on the dock’s legs told me that the tide was already starting to go out. Anchoring the ship in the deepest section of the harbour had taken a maddeningly long time. ‘Hurry,’ I said needlessly to my companions. ‘The causeway to the castle is open at the lowest tide. We need to get there, trade the fire-brick for coin and buy our passage tickets.’

  One after another, they followed me up on to the dock. Spark was now Sparkle, a very well-turned-out young lady of substance who cursed colourfully when her lace petticoat snagged on some barnacles. Lant looked rather a dandy in his elegant vest, lacy shirt and plumed hat. I did not like my green shirt with the blue cloak, but hoped the contrast would simply mark me as a foreigner and an acceptably wealthy merchant. Per was the only one who looked comfortable in his well-worn clothes. The knife at his hip was long, but not so long as to attract comment.

  Brashen and Althea had ridden in with us. There had been little conversation. Now Althea said only, ‘Good luck.’

  ‘Thank you,’ I replied.

  Brashen nodded slowly and they walked away from us. I watched as they turned and strolled toward the warehouses that fronted onto the docks, doubtless to see what sort of merchandise was being loaded out of them. They paced side by side, together and yet apart. Matching stride like two horses long in harness together. I would have had Molly’s hand on my arm, and she would have looked up at me and talked and laughed as we walked. They turned a corner and were gone. I blew out a breath and hoped I would not be bringing disaster down on them and their ship.

  I turned to my small party. ‘Are you ready?’ Nods. I looked down at the men who had rowed us to the docks. They looked as merry as sailors who had drunk all night, returned to the ship for a fiery dressing down, and then had to row from the harbour to the docks. ‘You’ll be here?’ I asked them. ‘When we come back?’ Reluctantly I added, ‘It may be quite a wait.’

  One of Etta’s sailor soldiers had ascended with us and was checking my knots. She straightened, shrugged, and said, ‘Every sailor knows how to wait. We’ll be here.’ She offered me a grin. ‘Nice togs, Prince FitzChivalry. Luck to yer. I’d hate to see them clothes get bloody.’

  ‘Me, too,’ I said quietly.

  Her grin widened. ‘Do ’em rough, cap. Getcher little girl back.’

  This wish, from a relative stranger, inexplicably cheered me. I nodded and my small party followed me as we moved down the docks. ‘Are we going to look for Amber first?’ Lant asked me.

  I shook my head. ‘That would be a useless waste of time. She has the butterfly cloak. If she has decided to hide, we will not see her. And she certainly won’t see us.’

  Spark frowned as she took my arm, a very proper daughter. ‘Why wouldn’t she?’

  ‘Because she’s blind.’

  ‘No, she’s not. Short-sighted, yes, but no longer blind. I told you that.’

  ‘What? When?’

  ‘Her vision has come back to her. Very slowly, and still imperfect. But when you share a room with someone, such a thing is hard to conceal.’

  I controlled my breathing, and smiled as if we discussed the weather. ‘Why didn’t she tell me that? Why didn’t you tell me that?’

  ‘I did,’ she smiled and spoke through her clenched teeth. ‘I told you that she saw more than you knew, and you said she always had! I thought you knew, too. As for why she didn’t tell you, well, I think that’s obvious now. So she could do this. Elude all of us and try to rescue Bee alone.’

  Bits of conversations fell into a pattern. Yes. The Fool had considered himself the best choice to enter Clerres alone and find Bee. So he had done it. Just as I had told him I would do if the opportunity presented itself. I fell silent as I considered that.

  The day was already warm but a gentle breeze carried the resinous scent of the brushy trees on the hillsides behind the city. The smells of smoked fish, ripe fruit and the fragrance of the tiny white flowers with yellow hearts that seemed to drape every doorway drifted through the air mingling with the expected smells of a seaside town. The streets were extraordinarily clean and well maintained. I saw no beggars and there was a general air of prosperity. The city guards were very much in evidence, stern-faced and well-armed. The Fool had not exaggerated their presence. Many of the buildings were shops, with homes above them. A woman stepped out of a door to shake a small rug as we passed. Two boys in loose cotton shirts and short trousers raced past us. It seemed a quiet day in a prosperous city.

  Spark startled when I uttered a short, foul word. Only yesterday, the Fool had read aloud from Bee’s book to me. A slip on his part, or had he hoped I would notice? Had he found it humorous? I ground my teeth.

  With a whoosh of air and slash of feather against my cheek, Motley landed on my shoulder. I flinched and then told her, ‘Go back to the ship. We can’t attract attention.’

  She pecked my cheek, a sharp jab. ‘No. No, no, no!’

  People were turning to see the talking bird. I tried to pretend that it was nothing out of the ordinary. I flapped a hand at her and she hopped to Per’s shoulder.

  ‘Don’t talk to her,’ I suggested in a low voice. A crow riding on a boy’s shoulder was noteworthy enough. We did not need to be having an argument with her as we strolled along.

  Motley chuckled and settled herself for her ride.

  We followed a well-travelled road that fronted the harbour, past tidy houses and small shops. The road wound along the built-out docks of the harbour and then the rocky shores of the bay. I saw little fishing boats pulled up on the shore, and healthy children sorting fish they pulled from their parents’ nets. The fortune-seekers who walked alongside me were plentiful, and by their garb they had come from many and varied places. Some seemed cheerful, almost merry, as they strolled along. Young couples hoping for augers of good fortune, perhaps. Others were sombre or full of anxiety, snapping and scolding their companions as they hurried past us to try to be the first to the crossing. All of us made a procession of hopes and fears as we promenaded down the well-kept boulevard toward the prediction of our futures.

  ‘Where do you think she is?’ Spark asked me.

  ‘There was a low tide early this morning. I suspect that’s why she came ashore late last night. She would have had time to sell the bracelet and pay for a pass to cross. She may already be inside the castle.’

  ‘Where should we look for her?’ Lant asked quietly. ‘After we cross.’

  ‘We don’t look for Amber,’ I told him. ‘We stay to her plan as she proposed it, for that is what she will expect us to do. So we will enter Clerres, find a way to conceal ourselves, and then search the rooftop cells. If we don’t find Bee there, we will gather in the washing courts, hoping that Amber will meet us there and Bee will be with her.’

  The silence that followed my words was ample evidence of how little any of us liked that plan.

  ‘I don’t understand why Amber went without us,’ Per said.

  ‘She believes she has the best chance of finding Bee.’

  ‘No.’ Spark’s hand on my arm tightened. ‘I think I know why. I think it’s because it is the most unlikely thing. The least practical plan.’

  I knew we needed to hurry but her words slowed my steps. ‘And?’ I prompted her.

  ‘It’s the most foolish. You said they knew we were here. Amber has spoken of how they can steer the world’s course because they know the likely futures. So she has chosen to pursue the most unlikely one in the hope that they won’t have seen it.’

  I stopped. ‘But all the plans. All our talking, your sewing …’

  ‘All to make it more likely we would do it?’ She shook her head and smiled up at
me, a fond daughter to her father. ‘I don’t know. I only guess at these things, from all she has told us about the Servants and her dreams.’

  ‘If you are correct,’ I said as I resumed walking, ‘then they will be watching for us. Our purpose may be to distract them.’ To be captured? Held, possibly tortured? Would the Fool have sent all of us into such danger? No.

  Perhaps.

  How often had he plunged me into mortally dangerous situations for the sake of shifting the fates? He might do it again. To me. But surely not to Spark and Lant and Per. ‘You should all go back to the ship,’ I said.

  ‘Unlikely to happen,’ Lant said quietly.

  ‘Unlikely!’ Motley confirmed.

  ‘We can’t,’ Per reasoned slowly. ‘We have to try this. To make it the most likely thing we would do. To keep them watching for us.’

  We had followed the half-moon curve of the shore along the harbour. Now the road widened out into a cobble-stoned circle of merchant stalls and shops. The stall fronts were decked with drapery in bright colours and I suspected that, on most days, it was a bustling centre of commerce. But some of the stalls were shuttered today and this seemed to both puzzle and vex the local folk. Some buyers were patiently waiting at a closed booth. The restive crowd milled in the market, asking one another questions. We waded through the maelstrom of people. The shops that were open were offering food or drink or trinkets, broad-brimmed hats and perfumes and tiny dolls of Whites. I saw two money-changers where I hoped to sell our fire-brick. A woman had a wheeled cart that held a cabinet with many drawers. She was hawking tiny fortune-scrolls
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