Assassins fate, p.70
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       Assassin's Fate, p.70

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

  A wooden table and a bench outside the cells. A guard slept, face pillowed on his arms and turned aside from me. Only one guard? So it seemed. Quieter than a cat, I crept forward. With one hand I gripped hair and lifted the head. With the other I cut her throat. I clapped a hand over her mouth as her body jerked and pumped blood onto the table. Done. I turned and went back to Lant. I climbed up the steps to speak by his ear. ‘I think there was only one and I’ve done for her.’

  He motioned to the others and they came quietly out of the tunnel and into the tank. Spark climbed up quickly. Behind her, Per gave a muffled huff and pointed to a body lying on its back in the sloppy filth at the far side of the tank. It was not quite floating. I walked the tank’s edge and looked down on it. ‘It’s not the Fool, or Bee,’ I assured them. It was coated evenly with filth. The tides had not been strong enough to carry it away. A terrible scar marred one side of the bloated face. ‘It’s just a body,’ I said softly, for the boy’s face was lit with horror. ‘Much too dead to do us harm. Discarded in the waste pit. Maybe Symphe?’ I dismissed the body from my thoughts; it could not harm us. Failing to be aware of our surroundings could.

  ‘Where are we?’ Per demanded in awe.

  ‘In the lowest level of the stronghouse. The bottom dungeon. Just above the high tide level outside.’

  Even in the dim light, we were a sorry sight, wet with seawater, our legs and boots coated with filth. Spark was pale with disgust and as Lant shook filth from his boots, I saw his shoulders heave as he fought to contain his stomach. Per’s boots squelched when he walked. He pulled them off, emptied them and grimaced as he pulled them back on. I paused to empty mine, as did Lant, and shook as much filth from my legs as I could. Spark had only shoes, as befit her maidenly disguise. She kicked them off and shook them clear of filth and discarded them. Together, we ventured on.

  I led them past the dripping table and the slumped guard, moving quietly into the dimness. I could make out the bars, and then the cells. I peered into the first, and saw only an overturned pot, and a bare mattress. The second was the same. In the third, a terrible sight dizzied me. I saw my worst fear: the Fool, beaten and bloody, lay face down and motionless on a bare pallet on the floor. One hand reached toward us, palm up and empty. I studied him, waiting for the slight rise of breath in his body.

  There was none.

  THIRTY-THREE

  * * *

  Candles

  Then comes a crowned blue buck. He awakens stone. If he awakens stone, then a wolf emerges. A gold man holds the wolf on a chain that goes to his heart. If the gold man brings the wolf, then the woman who reigns in the ice falls. If she falls, a true prophet dies with her, but a black dragon rises from the ice. This I have dreamed, but only twice.

  I have dreamed seven times that a blue buck falls, red blood spouting. No stone awakens and the woman becomes queen of the ice. The true prophet turns into a puppet fallen on dead leaves in a deep forest. Moss covers him over and he is forgotten.

  Sycorn, White of the Porgendine line, Record 472

  After the bird left, I sat on my mattress feeling dizzy and sick. For a time, I had to lie down. I closed my eyes. I don’t think I slept. How could I have slept? But when next I came back to myself, the other prisoners were softly calling questions to one another.

  ‘Was that Beloved? I thought he was dead.’

  ‘How badly was Capra hurt?’

  ‘What did Prilkop do? Will they punish him?’

  And later, ‘Is no one bringing us food tonight?’

  ‘Will no one come to light the lamp?’

  ‘Guard? Guard? What of our food?’

  All their questions went unanswered.

  The evening light that came through the blocks at the back of my cell faded and died. I peered out through the holes. Above the castle walls, I could see a small slice of night sky. The cooler air of night flowed in with the darkness. I sat on my mattress and waited. I tried to find the feather I had caught, but it was gone. And crows were black. Why had I dreamed a red feather and a silver beak? And a red dragon. It made no sense.

  For a time, I puzzled about the crow. It seemed so random. She came, she spoke of Per, she said he couldn’t come. Then she flew away.

  A red dragon was coming.

  Had I dreamed it?

  Wolf Father? Why did you make me say ‘a way out is a way in’?

  To tell them there is a way to reach us. He seemed smaller in my thoughts.

  Tell who? Per?

  No. Your father. If the Fool is near, your father cannot be far away. I reach for him, but your walls are strong.

  My father? Are you sure? I can lower my walls.

  No! Do not!

  I had begun to tremble. Was it possible? After all these months, after he had pushed me away? He has come to find me? Are you certain? Are you sure my father is near?

  His reply was faint. No.

  His presence faded like my hopes.

  I carefully pondered what I knew.

  I knew Beloved had come. That had been real. If he had come to rescue me, he’d made a poor task of it. He had only made things worse. They would whip him to death, and Prilkop, too. And we’d had no food because he had killed the guard who tended us, and Fellowdy had not thought to assign a new one. I wondered if Capra had died. I wondered if Coultrie and Vindeliar would convince Fellowdy that I had to be killed. I thought that Capra might have stood against them to keep me alive. But if she was gone, or badly hurt, they might come and get me. And kill me.

  Was Prilkop already dead? They would kill him slowly, he’d said. Would they kill me slowly? I considered that very likely and the thought frightened me. I stood up, my heart pounding, my hand clasped over my mouth. Then I forced myself to sit back down. Not yet. It didn’t feel right yet.

  I tried to put my thoughts in order. The crow had been real, because Wolf Father made me talk to him.

  If Wolf Father was real.

  I pushed all of that away. What did I know with absolute certainty? Coultrie and Vindeliar wanted to kill me. If they could convince Fellowdy, they’d do it.

  That left only my path. The path that Prilkop had told me might not be a good one.

  It was the only one I had. My only certainty. I could not depend on a talking crow or the dangled hope that my father might be near by. Me. I was what I could depend on. I was my only resource, and the path I had glimpsed was suddenly my true Path.

  I felt regret for how my life had gone. I knew it was all over now. I would never sit at the kitchen table in Withywoods and watch flour and water become bread. Never steal scrolls from my father again, never argue with him. I would never sit in my little hidey-hole with a cat that didn’t belong to me. That part of my life had been very short. If I’d known how good it truly was, I would have enjoyed it more. But Prilkop was wrong. There had been no choice for me. Dwalia had taken all choices from me when she stole me and brought me here. There was still no choice.

  It was silly, but I longed to tell him why he was wrong. To talk with him again. But I suspected he was already dead. I still whispered the words aloud. ‘You were wrong, Prilkop. The problem is not that we forget the past. It is that we recall it too well. Children recall wrongs that enemies did to their grandfathers, and blame the granddaughters of the old enemies. Children are not born with memories of who insulted their mother or slew their grandfather or stole their land. Those hates are bequeathed to them, taught them, breathed into them. If adults didn’t tell children of their hereditary hates, perhaps we would do better. Perhaps the Six Duchies would not hate Chalced. Would the Red Ships have come to the Six Duchies if the OutIslanders did not recall what we had done to their grandparents?’

  I listened to the silence that followed my question.

  Now it was past the turn of the night and venturing toward morning. Now it was time for my plan to be real. Time for me to set the world on my better Path.

  I found the little tear in my mattress seam and winkled out my knife and th
e tethered four keys. I separated the keys. It was awkward to reach through the bars to insert each one in the proper hole and then turn it in the correct order. I was glad I only had to use two of them. It was still a slow process to find which two. Very carefully and quietly, I worked each key in the lock and then slid the metal latch. I opened the barred door just enough to put out my head. I saw no one in the open corridor.

  Carefully, I closed the door behind me. I took the time to lock it with all four keys. Done.

  For so long on the ship with Vindeliar, I had practised not thinking. And now as I moved silently down the walkway between the cells, I kept my mind as empty as I possibly could. I looked only at ordinary things. The tiles of the floor. The door. The handle. Not locked. Quietly, quietly. I stepped in something. Oh. The guard’s blood. Keep going. The stairs. The future I walked toward loomed ever larger, clearer and brighter. With every step I took, my certainty grew. But I pushed my certainty down, folded my Path small and private. Instead, I recalled the fragrance of my mother’s candle. I thought of my father, writing in his study every night, and almost every night burning what he had written.

  Softly I paced down the steps. One set of steps, and then onto the wider stairway, down to the level of the scrolls and libraries. I edged my way along the wall and peered around the corner. The wide hallways were lit by fat burning pots of oil. No! Not that memory. I thought instead of the forest fragrance of the oil, how sweetly it smelled as it burned. No one moved in the corridors. I moved softly along the panelled walls. I did not look up at the framed portraits and landscapes. I reached the door of the first scroll-room. I entered cautiously lest any luriks or lingstras or collators still be at work, but all was silent and dark. The lamps in here had been extinguished for the night. I waited for my eyes to adjust. The high windows along the back wall let in starlight and moonlight. It would have to be enough to guide me.

  I had a careful sequence of tasks to follow. I walked among the shelves and racks, weaving in and out of them, my arms outstretched. I tumbled scrolls and papers and books to the floor. I carpeted the floor with them, weaving among the garden of stored dreams as if I were a bee moving in a meadow of nectar-laden flowers. Old cracked scrolls and fresh sheets of paper, calfskin vellum and leatherbound books. To the floor with them, until I had created a path of fallen dreams through the maze of racks and shelves.

  I had to stand on a chair to reach the fat pot of oil on the shelf. The lamp was very heavy and I spilled some of it as I got it down. Fragrance of forest. I thought of rich earth and called to mind memories of my mother. ‘If you weed, you must do it well. Take it all out, down to the deepest root. Otherwise, it will just come back. It will be stronger than ever, and you will have that work to do over again. Or someone else must take on your unfinished task.’

  The pot was heavy. I set it on the floor, tipped it like a teapot, and poured the oil in a long, meandering thread as I dragged it up and down the rows of shelves of books and scrolls and vellums. I watered my trail of fallen dreams. When the oil was gone, I walked it again, pulling more scrolls and papers from the shelves and letting them fall and soak in the oil. I saw another shelf with an oil-lamp. Again, I used a chair and again I poured the oil and then tumbled more predictions into it. The shelves were fine wooden ones and I was pleased to see the oils seep under them. A third pot of oil soaked all these possible futures, and I judged my task in this chamber was done.

  I thought of my mother’s garden as I half-carried and half-dragged a chair into the main hall. Oh, honeysuckle, how well I recalled your fragrance. I took a battered half of my mother’s candle. I remembered it as pristine, the rich, sleek amber of bees’ wax. It was chipped and dented now, the wax embedded with dirt and clothing fibres. But it would burn.

  The lamp shelves in the hallway were higher. I could barely reach the flame with my candle. I lit it, and cupped my hand to protect the flame as I carried it back to the scroll-room. I felt I said farewell to a friend as I let wax from it drip onto the floor. I secured it so that it would burn as it lay there and not roll away. When a thumb’s width of candle had burned, the flame would reach the oil. I would have to hurry.

  What are you doing?

  Vindeliar was confused. Clumsy to let his wondering brush my thoughts. I reached out to him as if I didn’t fear him. I let my thoughts soften at the edges as if I were sleepy. My mother’s garden. Honeysuckle, so fragrant in the hot summer sun. The pine forest nearby, breathing sweetly. I sighed out a long, slow breath and imagined rolling over on the thin straw mattress in my cell. I let my thoughts overflow with sleepiness as I slipped my awareness into his senses.

  He was no longer in a cell but a comfortable room. Fellowdy’s room. His tongue had tasted fine brandy but did not enjoy it. His injuries had been salved and bandaged. His mouth held the remembrance of sweet, rich foods. His belly was tight with them. But there was something more to come. He simmered with anticipation.

  Fear seeped into my belly like cold water. I knew that eagerness. I knew what he awaited. But I had believed it was all gone.

  I’d been careless.

  It isn’t! Capra had concealed four vials of it! But she can no longer hold it back from us. And when I have it, I will blast your little mind with my magic. You will do whatever you are told to do! I will be so strong that no one can disobey me! I will tell you to die as you told Dwalia! No, no I won’t. I know something better I can do! The traitor’s death for you! The worms will eat you until your eyes bleed and you plead with me to kill you!

  He trumpeted it out, not caring if he awoke me. I slammed my walls shut and his bragging and threats clawed and racketed against them. Oh, how he hated me now. How he hated everyone! Everyone had hurt him, everyone had betrayed him, but he would have his revenge soon. Soon!

  Honeysuckle and bees. Bees humming so loud in the fairy rose bush that I could hear nothing else. Only bees. In a deep corner of myself, I was glad I was no longer locked in that cell. I had made the right choice.

  Coultrie! Coultrie, heed me! The little bitch is out of her cell! Search the gardens and cottages for her. She thinks she is clever, but she smells flowers and I know it! Quickly! Prepare the traitor’s death for her! Hunt her down and deliver it to her!

  Vindeliar, I am with the healer and Capra in her tower. She has given me the serpent’s potion. I will bring it to you.

  Yes, excellent, good! But send out the guards to search for her. Tell them she has escaped and I know it! Begin with the gardens, but find her, find Bee. She is more dangerous than you can imagine!

  I stood still. I built my walls, and made them stouter and stronger. If Vindeliar received the potion, could I withstand him? I did not know.

  My time was going swiftly. There was still so much I had to do.

  I ran light-footed down the hall to the next door that I knew contained a scroll library. I entered the second chamber as cautiously as the first, but it was also deserted and dark. I repeated my serpentine trail of fallen scrolls. I was better at it this time, not struggling to push heavy books to the floor. Let them burn when the reaching flames climbed to them. I made a heap of scrolls and papers under a heavy wooden table that rested on a thick rug. Again, I moved a chair to reach a slumbering lamp. I let the fragrance of the oil fill my mind as I left a trickling trail, in and out and around each towering shelf of scrolls. This was the larger room. I should have come here first. The second lamp was heavy. I watered the tables and chairs as best I could, trying not to spill oil on my clothing. But the pot was heavy and sometimes oil spattered on my feet.

  Vindeliar was aware of me now. I thought of my flat little mattress in my cell. I thought of the straw that filled it, and how it crushed under me. It smelled of straw and dust. I filled my mind with the scent of straw and dust. How the broken straws in the coarse fabric poked me. I leaked a tiny bit of that to him. That thought pleased him and I let him savour it. In a distant shout to Coultrie, he demanded more guards sent to the rooftop cells. I slipped away from
his thoughts.

  The third heavy pot was hard to manage. I staggered as I took it down, and it leapt in my arms. Oil soaked the front of my clothing and made my hands slippery. It was hard to grip it, and hard to think of honeysuckle or pine logs on a fire as I dragged it through the scroll-room. As before, I retraced my steps, tumbling and jumbling scrolls and books and papers from the shelves. They were eager to soak up the oil. I saw ink darken and then spread as the oil took it.

  Vindeliar cackled wildly outside my walls. I did not like the note of triumph in his howling, but I dared not give him a thought. A way out is a way in. I would not let my mind focus on his clamour. I thought only of honeysuckle, and pulling weeds out to the last bit of root. How one had to destroy it all or it would all spring up again. I was weeding in my mother’s garden. I gathered the leaves into my hands, pulled slowly and steadily to draw the long yellow root from the ground.

  My hands slipped on the door latch, and it was hard to keep a tight grip on the heavy wooden chair I dragged into the hall. The dragging legs made a sound. I could not help that. I clambered up. This half of a candle was shorter. I had to stand on tiptoe for its tattered wick to reach the flame. I stood, my hand stretched high over my head, waiting, waiting, until finally the flame moved from the lamp to my candle.

  They will find you. They are coming for you now! You will die the traitor’s death! I have burned it into their minds, as I burned Coultrie! They will not stop until they find you!

  You are too late.

  I should not have let that thought escape me, but oh the sweet satisfaction. I showed him the flame, let him smell the fragrance of honeysuckle that my mother and I had gathered and stored in it. Then I pushed him, as hard as I could, with the terrible smell of
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