Assassins fate, p.68
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       Assassin's Fate, p.68
 

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

  Servants cared nothing for that. They killed so many of my people. So many children will go on alone, so many children will never be born. None of that stayed her hand!’

  His strong black fingers closed around my scarred white ones. His grip was warm but I felt how thin and fine the bones in my hands were. He could have crushed my hand. Instead he held it warmly and said, ‘But you are not her. You are the true White Prophet for this time. You must look for what leads to the greatest good for all. You cannot be heartless or selfish, as your Catalyst was.’

  I did not think of what I would do. I was adept at that now. Vindeliar’s magic might be weakened but he still had some. And if the Servants had more serpent spit and gave it to him … I felt a sudden surge of urgency. I must not be stopped. I think Prilkop felt my resolve in how I drew my hand away from his clasp.

  ‘When people do not know the past, they make the same mistakes their forebears made,’ he warned me.

  I drew a great breath and wondered if that were true. Then I lay back on my bed and stared at the stone lacework of the wall. I thought of all he had said. ‘If I just stay here in my cell, they will kill me, I think.’

  ‘So I have dreamed. A harsh breath, a candle goes out.’

  I let the tiny edge of my plan creep into my mind. How much had his dreams told him of me? Did he know my intentions? ‘You think I should stay in my cell?’

  He heaved a great sigh. ‘I only say to you that it is a possibility you may not have considered. Perhaps you should try to see where that decision might lead.’ In a very quiet voice he added, ‘For us, it is not always about our own survival. It is about the path we believe is best for the world.’

  ‘Vindeliar told me he could feel when he was on the true Path. Well, I feel mine now. It feels right, Prilkop.’

  ‘So many things do when they are the things we want to do.’

  ‘What did you dream me doing?’

  There was a smile in his voice. ‘I dreamed many different paths for you. Some more likely than others.’ He whispered the words to me again, that peculiarly familiar rhyme:

  ‘A piebald bird, a silver ship, oh what are you awaking?

  ‘One shall be two and two be one before the future’s breaking.’

  It still made no sense to me. ‘I told you before, I have no piebald bird, nor a ship. Prilkop, just tell me. Do I break the future?’

  ‘Oh, child. We all do. That is both the danger and the hope of life. That each of us changes the world, every day.’ His smile was sad. ‘Some of us more than others.’

  ‘What’s that?’ There had been a sound, or rather a flurry of sounds. A thud, a muffled yelp, a louder thud. I held my breath, listening. Prilkop drew back his hand, and I imagined that he fled back to his desk and paper.

  Down the corridor, a door opened. I slipped back to sit on the edge of my mattress. The footsteps that came now were soft. I waited. Then, a whisper softer than the wind. ‘Prilkop? You live? You live!’

  ‘Who is there?’ Prilkop asked, his voice deep with suspicion.

  ‘A friend!’ A laugh soft as the first patter of rain. ‘One who goes cloaked in a gift from you. I have the guard’s keys. I will have you out of there!’ A soft scraping of metal on metal.

  ‘Beloved? You are here?’ Prilkop’s voice lilted with incredulous joy.

  ‘Yes. And finding you fills me with delight, but there is another I seek. A child, a little girl named Bee.’

  Beloved? My father’s friend, the beggar from the market? The Fool? I darted to the bars of my cell, seized them and looked out. No one was there. I could see nothing, but I heard the soft jingle of keys. Inside me, Wolf Father hackled to alertness. We stared.

  Prilkop spoke in a whisper, his voice shaking with excitement. ‘Wrong keys, old friend. They’ll open the other cells, but not this one, or Bee’s. But she is here, and she has—’

  Both doors suddenly clashed open at each end of the corridor. I heard Capra’s voice raised in a shout. ‘Advance shoulder to shoulder! Swing your batons solidly. Go! Do not stop until you stand chest to chest with your fellows. The intruder is here!’

  ‘But—’ someone objected, and ‘Go!’ she shrieked. ‘Go now, at a run! Strike high, strike low! I know he is there! Trust your batons, not your eyes. Go!’

  Someone I could not see made a sound of panic. I heard a scuff. Then, from nowhere, I saw the flash of a disembodied leg. Someone I could not see clearly strove to climb the smooth bars of the cell opposite Prilkop’s. He was a rippling shape of nothing, as when one looks through the rising heat of a fire. He went up swiftly, and I had a glimpse of his bare feet curling as if to grip the bars. An edge of a butterfly cloak flared and rolled for an instant.

  ‘There!’ a man’s voice shouted harshly, and the guards came at a run down the corridors. I stepped back for I heard the harsh clang of short staffs hitting the bars of the cells as they came. I heard exclamations from the other prisoners and then, as the guards reached my cell, the terrible thud of a stick on flesh and a sharp grunt of pain. Wolf Father snarled frenziedly. My leaping heart felt as if the wolf inside me were trying to batter his way out.

  ‘He’s here, he’s down!’ a guard shouted. For a moment, I saw a man on the floor outside my cell. Then he coiled his body and flipped up onto his feet. With the heel of his hand, he hit one guard on the jaw, clanging the man’s head against cell bars. Beloved spun, cloak swirling, and I saw only parts of him. An armless hand seized the other guard’s staff, and jammed it sharply up under the man’s jaw and he fell back with a gurgling cry.

  If he’d had only two opponents, I think he would have escaped. But the guard behind him swung his short staff savagely. It connected, and Beloved fell. He rolled to his belly, to his knees, the cloak camouflaging him again. But they knew where he was. Swift blows rained down on someone I could not see as Capra shouted, ‘Enough! Enough! Do not kill him. I have questions for him! Many questions.’

  I had retreated to the back wall of my cage. I could not get my breath. Capra came pushing through the guards who now stood like confused and excited hounds whipped back from a kill. She looked at the floor, nudged something with her foot. Then she raised her gaze to sweep from me to Prilkop’s cell. ‘Oh,’ she exclaimed merrily. ‘What is this I see on the floor? A butterfly’s wing? There’s a dream I’ve read and even dreamed myself. Come, Prilkop. See your dreams fulfilled.’

  She called to him but I was the one who flew across my cell to stare down in horror as she stooped and lifted the edge of what looked like a butterfly’s wing. As she peeled it back, it was my dream fulfilled. A pale man lay there. He was barefoot and dressed all in black beneath the cloak. A ring of keys had fallen from his hand. Blood was running from a split on his brow and from his nose. His eyes were half closed. He was motionless. Prilkop groaned deeply in despair. I had no breath to make any sound.

  She stooped beside him and then looked up toward Prilkop’s cell. Her old woman’s voice had a musical lilt as she said, ‘I still dream best and truest of all. Here he is. The butterfly-man, the trapper trapped! Oh, come, do not hide how impressed you are!’ She shook her head coquettishly and added with false sadness, ‘Though I am grieved that you still have not learned who to be friends with. This was a bad decision, Prilkop. And I fear you must be taught, yet again, that it is painful to defy me.’

  A man has two hands. One of the butterfly-man’s hands was outflung on the floor, the keys just fallen at his fingertips. It was the other hand, the one still covered by the cloak that darted into sight. I thought he had struck her with his clenched fist until he pulled back the bloodied knife and drove it again into her belly. Capra didn’t scream. She made a short sound of disbelief and then her guards moved in, kicking and clubbing until Beloved lay still and bloodied on the floor outside my cage.

  I covered my ears, but that did not stop Wolf Father’s long howl from deafening me to all else.

  The guards had dragged Capra back. She sat on the floor, both hands clutching her
belly. Her blue robe was dark with blood, and scarlet trickled out between her fingers. ‘Idiots!’ She tried to shout but had no breath for it. ‘Carry me to the healers! Now! And take Beloved and Prilkop to the lower dungeons and throw them in. Put Beloved in Dwalia’s old cell! I will see to him myself! Ah!’ The last was a cry of pain as two of her guards attempted to obey her.

  ‘We will need the keys for the Lock of Four,’ one of the guards pointed out.

  ‘Use those on the floor.’

  One of the guards stooped and picked them up. ‘Wrong keys,’ he said.

  Capra said nothing. I think she had fainted. One of her guards spoke. ‘Jessim, go ask Fellowdy what we should do. Worum and I will take Capra to the healer. The rest of you, take the intruder to the lowest level. Toss him in and lock him up well. No more mistakes today.’ As they lifted Capra, the man added gloomily, ‘We shall all wear stripes for this!’

  Neither Prilkop nor I spoke as they moved away. They dragged Beloved with them, his head lolling and bumping on the floor as he went. I heard the door slam and then someone said, ‘The gaoler’s dead. This fellow must have killed her for the keys. Bring the body.’

  For a time longer, the quiet held, and then, like startled birds, the other prisoners began to whisper-shriek to one another, speculating, demanding answers, and weeping aloud.

  ‘Prilkop?’ I asked questioningly. ‘Do you know what will happen now? Do you have any dreams of this time?’

  ‘I do not.’

  In my softest whisper, I said only for him, ‘I have keys. We could flee.’

  ‘There is no place to flee to, little one. They will have closed the doors and the gates.’ He laughed bitterly. ‘If I leave here again, it will be when my body flows out of the waste tank with the waste of the castle. The fishes will eat my flesh and my bones will turn into sand.’

  ‘Did you dream that?’ I asked in horror.

  ‘Some knowledge comes not from dreams but from life. There is only one exit from Clerres that is not guarded both day and night, and that is the one the dead take. Dwalia and I will share the same resting place, in an eel’s belly.’ He gulped. ‘I wish my journey there would be a short one, but I know it will not.’

  He was doing a terrible kind of weeping. Afraid weeping. It made me cry, too.

  ‘Bee! Bee, bee, bee!’

  Someone was shouting my name in a hoarse and scary voice.

  ‘What is that?’ Prilkop asked, startled out of his terror.

  ‘I don’t know. Ssh!’ Whoever it was, I did not want them to find me.

  The doors at the end of the corridor slammed open again. The tread of many feet. I was frightened but I had to know. I moved to where I could almost see down the hall. Guards. Fellowdy, with Coultrie staggering along beside him. Coultrie looked terrible, both sick and furious. The keys that Capra had used earlier to lock me in now swung from Fellowdy’s fist. They marched to Prilkop’s cell. They were too close for me to see them as keys went into the locks and were turned. The door was opened. ‘Take him!’ Fellowdy ordered, and the soldiers I could see surged forward. They emerged, four men gripping one. In the corridor, another man knelt and let fall an armful of chains. Prilkop stood, an ox awaiting slaughter, as the shackles were fastened to his ankles. He did not resist as the guard stood and chained his wrists as well.

  I was a coward. Not me, oh not me! I radiated the thought. I desperately hoped the serpent-spit magic had not faded from my system. With what Skill I could muster, I pushed it at them. Either it worked, or they had not been told to take me. Wolf Father distracted me.

  Stop that. A way out is a way in!

  Wolf Father’s growl was intense. I obeyed. Walls up. I moved away from the bars and huddled on my mattress. They would drag Prilkop away, to what end? To pain, Capra had promised him. To death? When I had made my decision last night, had I created this future for him? Was it my fault now?

  Terrified and selfish, I covered my eyes and I prayed with no god in mind, Let them not take me. Let it not be me!

  ‘Hello, Bee!’ Coultrie was outside my cell, leaning on a guard’s arm. I gave a short shriek and I hated that it made him smile. He had renewed his white paste, but it was badly done. Stripes of his flesh showed through. He smiled at me, a loose-lipped, trembling smile. ‘Don’t think I don’t know! I do. You killed them and I will see that you pay. I will.’

  ‘Stop it,’ Fellowdy told him. ‘Vindeliar has magicked you. How often must I tell you that? We’ve caught the killer. When we take Prilkop down, you can see for yourself. It’s Beloved. The fool came back. He’d have good reason to kill Symphe. Dwalia was probably just an afterthought. Come on. We need to see Prilkop secured, and then go to see Capra at the healers’ chambers. Jessim said it was a short knife. Let’s hope it didn’t reach anything vital.’

  They left. Prilkop walked among them, taking short steps as his chains clattered on the stone floor. Doors slammed again. I had begun to hate that noise. Quiet flowed back in. A lone voice from one of the other cells called out, ‘Guard? Guard?’

  No one answered.

  I sat shaking and weeping. It was too much. Someone had come to find me, to rescue me. And failed. And now Prilkop was gone. I had not realized what a comfort he was until he was snatched away. I felt so cold. I could not stop shaking.

  ‘Bee? Bee, bee, bee?’

  The terrible little voice was back. It sounded the way I imagined a pecksie would sound. Not human.

  ‘Bee? Bee, bee, bee?’

  It was coming closer. It made my name a random repetition. I heard a soft noise, like a shaken cloth, and a scratching. ‘Bee? Bee, bee, bee?’

  I could not stand it. ‘Leave me alone!’ I shouted.

  But instead, the voice came closer. ‘Bee? Bee?’ Now I could tell where it was coming from. It was right outside the perforated stone wall that threw shadows of seashells and flowers on my cell floor. Something blocked the light from one hole and made a scrabbling sound, like a rat in a wall. I was thankful the holes were small and the wall so thick. I did not think it could get at me. But as I stared at the wall in stricken horror, a sharp silver beak poked partly out from it. It moved, jabbing the air. ‘Bee?’ it queried. ‘Bee, bee, bee?’

  I was imagining it. It couldn’t be real. I didn’t want to see it, but I couldn’t look away. The beak nudged and poked at air as if struggling to come through and get me. I forced myself to stand and then to move to where I had a better angle to see inside the wall-hole.

  A bird’s head. A bright eye. I crouched down to see it better.

  ‘Bee?’

  It changed. This had not happened often, and every time it did, it terrified me. The bird’s head radiated a corona of pathways. I found a word for it. A nexus. Like the one I had seen in the market with the blind beggar. This could not be good.

  ‘Go away,’ I begged in a shaking voice.

  ‘Per,’ it said in a whisper. ‘Tell Per. Found Bee.’

  ‘Per?’ I asked, hope stabbing me. ‘Perseverance?’ Hope was a different kind of terror. How could Per be near, so far from Withywoods? Was he truly alive? Had the beggar brought him? The bird shimmered, not before my eyes but in my mind. Closing my eyes didn’t help. I still didn’t open them. I asked a question knowing that the answer could destroy all my hope. ‘Is Per coming to help me? To rescue me?’

  ‘No. No. Shut. Gate shut. Closed. Closed, closed, closed!’

  I sat back on my heels. This wasn’t real. Birds didn’t talk like that. Not in a way that made sense. Was I going mad? The shimmering was making me feel sick. ‘Go away,’ I begged it.

  ‘Closed, closed. Amber? Find Amber? Spark asks.’

  It was saying nonsense phrases now. ‘Go away.’

  A way out is a way in! Tell him that! A way out is a way in! Tell Per. Wolf Father was leaping in my mind, scrabbling at the walls I held so tight. Tell the bird that! He flung himself against walls I dared not lower.

  The bird seemed to have wedged itself. It was trying to back out o
f the hole in the wall without much success. ‘A way out is a way in,’ I told it, with no sense of why that was important. It stopped struggling. Had it heard me? Was it trying to speak to me? A cat had spoken to me once, back in Withywoods. But that had been mind to mind, and somehow less surprising. This bird spoke human words with a crow’s beak. It was uncanny. Frightening. ‘Bird? Did you come with Per? Did he come with the beggar? They have taken the beggar to the dungeon. Was he supposed to rescue me? Talk to me, bird!’ My questions rattled out of me.

  ‘Way in not easy way out. In was easy. Out is hard,’ the crow complained. ‘Stuck.’

  I drew a deep breath. Mastered my dizziness. ‘Is Per nearby?’ One question at a time.

  ‘No. Per can’t help. Stuck. No Per here. Stuck!’

  Solve the bird’s problem and perhaps she would answer. ‘Do you want me to push you out?’

  ‘No!’ I heard more scrabbling sounds. Then, resignedly, ‘Yes.’

  I reached into the hole. ‘Careful, careful!’ she warned me.

  I touched her beak. She braced it against my hand, a hard peck. A push. It was like a lightning flash. Dragons. A red dragon would come. I jerked my hand back.

  A way out is a way in. Where the waste goes out from the castle. Tell her!

  She wasn’t stuck any more. She was backing away from me, taking the shimmering nexus of possibilities with her. ‘A way out is a way in! Where the waste goes out from the castle! Tell Per!’

  I heard a wild fluttering of wings. ‘I think she’s gone,’ I said aloud.

  Did she hear you?

  ‘I don’t know,’ I whispered. The wind blew and a single downy feather flew into my cell. I caught it. It was a gleaming red. ‘I don’t know.’

 
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