Assassins fate, p.67
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       Assassin's Fate, p.67
 

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

  from it. Some of the folk working in the stalls were pale-skinned and blonde, but nowhere did I see any sign of a real White.

  ‘They just closed the stall. A guard came and told them to stop selling passes.’

  ‘They had better let me cross today! I can’t stay more than a day here!’

  ‘I paid good coin for this pass!’

  Across the teeming market circle, two wooden-faced guards stood before a formidable gate across the causeway to the castle. The water was almost at full ebb. Hopeful people had already formed a thick queue and waited in the bright afternoon sun. They shifted and muttered, reminding me of cattle herded into a slaughter pen. I pitied most the gate guards in their leather armour and plumed helms. They were well-muscled youngsters, and the jagged scar down the woman’s cheek said she had seen fighting. Perspiration made shiny trickles down the sides of their impassive faces. They were not responding to any of the folk pelting them with questions.

  A shout of relief went up when a skinny old woman pushed open the shutters of her booth. The queue surged forward but she held up both her hands and shouted over the mob’s noise, ‘I don’t know any more than what I already told you!’ Her voice was screechy, between anger and fear. ‘They sent me a message bird. Told me to stop selling passes. No more folk allowed in today. Maybe tomorrow, but I don’t know! Now you know all I do, and it’s not my fault, none of it!’

  She started to close her shutter. A man grabbed the edge of it, shouting that he must be allowed to pass. Other people surged forward, some shaking carved wooden passage chits at her. Motley lifted her wings, cawing a warning. I feared a riot, and then I heard the rhythmic tread of soldiers coming at a steady trot. ‘Move back to the edge of the crowd,’ I urged my charges. Lant spearheaded our exit. We came behind him and shoved our way to the edge of the packed people. We found a small alcove between a booth that sold fruit and beer and one that sold meat on skewers. We crammed into it.

  ‘At least three dozen,’ Lant observed as the guards arrived. They carried short staffs and moved with the edgy precision of people trained to be ruthless. They formed into a double row, inserting themselves between the mob and the guards at the gate. Once in position, they lifted their short staffs and began to force people back from the causeway. People gave way, some grudgingly, others turning and trying desperately not to be facing the soldiery. The muttering of complaints and pleas reminded me of a disturbed beehive.

  ‘The gates! The gates are opening!’ Someone shouted. Across the causeway, the immense white gates of the castle opened slowly. Even before they had swung fully apart, a mob of folk poured forth from the opening and moved in a thick line across the causeway toward us. They moved like herded cattle, with some running along the edges of the road to pass others. Everyone seemed to be hurrying, and as they approached the gate on our end, the guards swung it open. The soldiers pushed back those who had hoped to enter, crying out that they must make room for those departing from the castle. The two crowds met like clashing waves, and there were angry shouts from both sides.

  ‘What does it all mean?’ Spark asked.

  ‘It means the Fool is over there, and has done something,’ I suggested. I thought of the missing Silver and felt ill.

  As if in response to my words, I heard a chorus of wordless cries from the gathered folk. A forest of pointing hands gestured at one of the tall, slender towers. Long black banners had been unfurled from the tower windows. Weighted, they hung straight and still despite the breeze off the water. ‘It’s for Symphe!’ someone cried out. ‘That’s her tower of residence. She’s dead! Skies above, Symphe is dead! One of the Four has died!’

  That one shout freed all the tongues in the crowd, provoking a cacophony of shouting, wails and cries. I strove to pick information from the uproar.

  ‘… not since my father was a boy!’ one man exclaimed, and a woman cried out, ‘It cannot be so! She was so young and beautiful!’

  ‘Beautiful, yes, but not young. She has reigned in the north tower for over eighty years!’

  ‘How did she die?’

  ‘When will we be allowed to cross?’

  Some people were weeping. One man declared that he had come yearly to have his fortune foretold, and that three times he had actually spoken with Symphe herself. He described her as being as kind as she was lovely, and I watched him gain that aura of fame that comes to one who has touched greatness. Or claims to have done so.

  On the far shore, past the causeway gates, a single figure emerged from the castle gates. He was tall and pale and dressed in a long, loose robe of pale blue. He did not hurry as he crossed the bared causeway that had begun to steam and dry in the summer sun. He walked gracefully, and his bearing reminded me of the Fool as he had been in his days as Lord Golden. The crowd’s noisy complaints became a chorus of folk calling attention to him, and then became a murmur. I heard someone say, ‘Is that not Lingstra Wemeg, who serves Coultrie of the Four?’

  The man reached the far gate and the guards, troops and pikemen stepped aside to give the crowd a clear view of him. He lifted his voice and shouted something that no one could make out. The crowd went silent. He lifted his voice again. ‘Disperse now, or face the consequences. No one will be admitted today. We are in mourning. Tomorrow, on the afternoon’s low tide, those who hold passes will be admitted.’ He turned his back and walked away.

  ‘Is Symphe truly dead? What happened to her?’ a woman cried after him. He did not even twitch as he walked on. The troops and pikemen resumed their barricade.

  The crowd milled, consulting among itself. We waited where we were, hoping a riot would not break out. But the mood of the crowd became more one of mourning and disappointment than frustration. As chaff is blown away by the breeze, so the people slowly dispersed. The conversations I overheard were disgruntled or sad but none seemed to doubt they would be admitted on the morrow.

  I fought down the panic that tried to rise in me. ‘Oh, Fool, what have you done?’ I muttered to myself as I stared across the empty causeway.

  ‘What will we do now?’ Per asked as we slowly fell in with the departing pilgrims.

  I said nothing. My thoughts were with the Fool, probably inside the castle. Had he killed Symphe? Did that mean he hadn’t found Bee and had taken his revenge? Or that he had been discovered and forced to kill? Was he captured? Hiding?

  ‘We won’t be getting into the castle today,’ Lant observed. ‘Should we return to Paragon and wait there until they allow folk in again?’

  ‘Stop!’ Per exclaimed suddenly. ‘Here. Come over here.’ He led us away from the crowded roadway, onto the verge that overlooked the water. He motioned us to draw close to him and then said in an excited whisper, ‘We can’t get in!’ Per explained. ‘But Motley can!’ We looked at him in surprise. The crow was sitting on his shoulder. Per offered Motley his wrist and the bird stepped onto it. Holding her level with his face, he spoke to her earnestly. ‘Amber told us that the walls of the cells on the top level have holes in them, shaped like flowers and things. Can you fly up there and look through the holes? Could you see if Bee is up there? Or Amber?’ His voice began to shake; he pinched his mouth shut. Motley turned one bright eye to stare at him. Then, without a word, she lifted off his arm and flew away.

  ‘She’s going straight there,’ Spark exclaimed.

  But as we watched, the crow flew past the castle and out of sight behind it.

  Per sniffed and said, ‘Maybe she wants to fly all around it before she tries to land there.’

  ‘Maybe,’ I agreed.

  We stood, waiting. I stared out to sea until my eyes watered from the glare.

  THIRTY-ONE

  * * *

  The Butterfly Man

  Your eagerness to be efficient and thrifty is praiseworthy. You are managing Withywoods well in my father’s absence. For it is an absence; I am confident he will return.

  But as to the changes you suggest, no. Please do not empty my sister Bee’s room. Her possessi
ons are to be tidied, and cleaned if necessary, and then restored to their proper locations. Do not put them into storage. I wish them to be left as they should be. I believe that her tiring maid Caution will know exactly how things were kept. Nothing is to be discarded. Let the doors then be closed and locked. That is my wish.

  As for my father’s chamber, I desire that it be left exactly as it was when he departed. Likewise, close and lock the door. No one need bother with anything in there until he returns. I am confident that he will not rebuke anyone for leaving his possessions untouched. There is a room in the lower halls that he used for a study sometimes. I do not mean the estate study; I refer to the chamber that looks out over the lilac bushes. That, too, I wish closed and left undisturbed.

  I believe we have already discussed the room that was my mother’s retreat for sewing and reading. It too should be left as it was. That is where her things belong. I do not wish them tidied away.

  Before winter closes in on us, both Lord Riddle and I hope to visit Withywoods, if our schedule permits.

  Missive from Princess Nettle to Steward Dixon of Withywoods

  They made no ceremony of returning me to my cell. Capra inserted and turned her key and then Symphe’s to open the door and repeated the task after the door clashed shut behind me.

  ‘What of me?’ I dared to ask.

  ‘What of you?’ she laughed. ‘I may have a use for you. Later. Or sooner.’ She smiled and it frightened me. ‘For now, just sit there and wait. Everything happens in its own time.’ She smiled as if well satisfied, turned and strode off.

  Her words did not calm me. She’d sent Fellowdy to see Vindeliar. Was Vindeliar strong enough now to control a White’s mind? If he was, he would want me dead and they would kill me. Little I could do about that. I went back to my bed and sat down. The hilt of the knife poked me. I moved over. I wondered how long it had been since one of the Four had died. What did Symphe’s death mean to them, and why were there four? Or would they go on as three, now? I clasped my hands between my knees and rocked, trying to find calm.

  ‘So, Bee. What will you do now?’ Prilkop’s whisper reached me.

  I kept my own voice low. ‘Sit here, I suppose. I don’t have a lot of other choices.’

  ‘Don’t you?’

  It didn’t feel that way. I felt I was water rushing down a stream bed. Water cannot stop itself nor choose to go uphill. ‘Water goes where the channel leads,’ I said.

  I heard him sigh. ‘I remember that dream. It was one of mine. Did someone read it to you?’

  ‘No. It was just a thing I thought of.’ I moved to the corner of my cell and tried to peer around the wall to see him. It was hopeless.

  ‘Little Bee. Do you see different futures, different paths?’

  ‘Sometimes,’ I admitted slowly.

  ‘You can choose any of them. Pick carefully.’

  ‘They all seem to lead to the same end.’

  ‘Not all,’ he disagreed. ‘I have seen something of what may come. If you remain in your cell and do nothing, they will kill you.’

  I swallowed. I had not seen that. Or had I? The dreams faded so quickly when I could not write them down.

  He was silent for a long time. Then he reached his hand out, palm open and up, the back of his hand on the floor. He waited. After a time, I put my hand in his. ‘You are untaught,’ he said quietly. ‘I wish you had been born to folk who recognized what you were. I wonder if it is too late now to teach you anything.’

  ‘I was taught,’ I said indignantly. I nearly said that I could read and write. I stopped short. It still did not feel safe to admit that to anyone.

  ‘You were not taught the things you needed to be taught, or you would have understood more, sooner. You are a White, descended from a very old race, one that no longer walks in this world. You may grow slowly and live a very long time. Perhaps as long as I have.’

  ‘Will I turn into a Black like you?’

  ‘If you make the changes that fate calls on you to make. I would guess that you’ve changed at least a few times by now. It comes with a fever and weakness. Your skin peels away. It’s how you know you’ve made a step on your Path.’

  I thought about it. ‘Perhaps twice I have.’

  He made a noise as if he confirmed something to himself. ‘Do you know that every White Prophet has a Catalyst? Do you know what a Catalyst does?’

  I knew the word from my father’s writings. ‘A catalyst changes something.’

  ‘That’s right.’ He sounded approving. ‘And a White’s Catalyst helps to make the changes that the White needs to change the world. To put this old world on a new and better path.’

  I waited for him to say more, but he was quiet. I finally asked, ‘Are you my Catalyst?’

  He laughed, but it was a sad sound. ‘No. I am sure I am not.’ After a long pause, he said, ‘Unless I am very mistaken, you killed your Catalyst last night.’

  I hated him saying out loud that I had killed someone. It made it too real. I made no reply.

  ‘Think about it,’ he said softly. ‘Who brought you here? Who hammered and pounded you into what you are now? Who set your feet on this journey to this present that was once your future?’

  His words were frightening. I found I was breathing hard. No. I did not want Dwalia to be my Catalyst. A question burned in my gut, forced itself out of my mouth. ‘Was I supposed to kill her?’

  ‘I don’t know. Only you can know what you are supposed to do.’ Then he added, ‘What you believe you are supposed to do. The Pale Woman opposed my view of the future. She believed it was her destiny to ensure that dragons never returned to our world. She saw a righteous Path in keeping the OutIslands at war with the Six Duchies. She wished to crack the Six Duchies into squabbling minor states, and ensure that the ancient magic of the Elderlings did not resurface in the Farseer lines.’

  ‘You chose the other path?’

  He laughed softly. ‘Little one, I am older than old. I accomplished my tasks as a White Prophet long before Ilistore came to Aslevjal. When my Catalyst died, I did not want to leave the place where we had done our work. I stayed on, as the snows grew deeper and ice claimed the ruins. Then, when IceFyre came, I chose to remain and watch over him in his icy sleep. I suppose it was well that I did …’ His voice trailed off as if he now wondered at his choice.

  ‘When Ilistore came to that place and began to make her choices and changes, they rang against my senses like a cracked bell clanging. I began to oppose her. I thwarted her efforts to kill the trapped dragon.’

  I heard the strength of his muffled sigh. I knew he skated past painful memories as he added, ‘And many events then happened that were not my direct intent. Things that triggered me into a role I thought long finished. My dreams came back to me. That was her doing. Her fault that I awoke to those tasks.’ Again, a short silence. ‘That is what I want to tell you now. I have glimpsed in some dreams what you might do, so I caution you. Choose carefully, little Bee. Clerres Castle has stood for time beyond memory. Since the Servants have claimed domain over it, it has become a repository of history. The scrolls stored here track not just what may be, if events tumble a certain way. A great deal of history has been recorded here. Wisdom has been gained and preserved in the scrolls and books. The Servants have documented the changes they engineered, and before that, the works of the original White Prophets.

  ‘And then there are the folk who live here, in the castle, and the city beyond that depend on the trade the castle and the Servants generate. Beyond them, there are the rolling hills where flocks graze and farmers till the fields. The fisherfolk, and beyond the inlets and waters where they work, the islands of the archipelago. It is like a child’s tower of blocks. If you pull out the bottom block, all tumbles down. Thousands of lives changed.’

  I thought for a long time. ‘Always in a bad way?’

  He paused before answering. ‘No. Some benefit.’

  ‘Did you change thousands of lives? Did you know that dra
gons now raid the flocks and herds of Chalced and the Six Duchies? Did you know that dragons brought down the cruel Duke of Chalced? And that there is peace now between the Six Duchies and the OutIslands?’

  His silence was longer this time. ‘Some of that I knew. I knew your prince would wed a narcheska of the OutIslands. The rest … they give me no news here. I know little beyond what I dream. Capra says that keeps my dreams pure, uninfluenced by the outside world. And I do dream, and I record those dreams. I am like the bird that sings in its cage, with no knowledge of season or mates or offspring. The dreams I write, they take them from me. For good or evil, I cannot say. To dream and record the dreams is my Path. It is what I must do.’

  ‘And you dreamed about me?’ I felt a little shiver of importance.

  ‘For many years. At first, you were unlikely. Then … I would guess it was nearly ten years ago. It is hard for me to know. Time passes so differently when one is confined.’

  ‘About the time I was born,’ I guessed.

  ‘Truly? You are so young to be working such great changes. So small.’

  ‘I wish I could just have stayed at home. I did not want this.’ My throat closed and I felt a stirring of anger. ‘You caution me about all the people whose lives I will affect. But Dwalia and the
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