Assassins fate, p.9
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       Assassin's Fate, p.9

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

  Worked stone, yes, but tumbled in a heap around us rather than something built.

  ‘I can’t see it,’ Dwalia said, as if I were lying.

  ‘Nor I,’ Kerf confirmed. ‘My woman is in my way.’

  ‘I am not your woman!’ Alaria was outraged.

  ‘You have slept on top of me. You’ve pissed on me. I claim you.’

  My lifted foot could barely reach the slot of light. I pointed my toe and pushed. I heard gravel fall outside our prison and the crack widened slightly. I rolled onto my side as much as I could and pushed against Kerf to slide myself closer to the light. I could press my whole foot against the stone below the light, and I did. More and larger rock shards fell, some rattling against my boot. The light grew stronger. I kicked at it savagely. The shaft of light enlarged to the size of my hand. I battered my feet against it as if I were dancing in a hill of biting ants. No more gravel fell. I kicked at the stone that roofed that wall, to no avail. I stopped when I had no strength left and became aware that the others had been shouting questions and encouragement. I didn’t care. I refused to let Wolf Father’s calmness reach me. I stared up at the dimly lit ceiling of my tomb and sobbed.

  The Chalcedean moved, shoving me aside to lift his arms past his head to brace them against the stone. He groaned and suddenly shifted hard against me. His hip pushed into my ribs, wedging me against the walls so I could scarcely breathe. Alaria was squeaking and squealing as he pressed her against the ceiling. He drew up his knee, crushing me harder and then with an audible grunt, he kicked out suddenly and hard.

  Grit fell and rock dust sifted into my eyes and up my nose and settled on my lips. Kerf was still pinning me and I could not get my hand to my face to rub it away. It stuck to the tears on my cheeks and settled between my collar and neck. Then, as the dust was settling and I could almost draw a clean breath, he did it again. A vertical line of light was suddenly added to the first one.

  ‘It’s a block of stone. Try again, little one. This time, push, not kick. I’ll help you. Put your feet down low, at the bottom of it.’

  ‘What if it all falls on us?’

  ‘A faster death,’ Kerf said.

  I wriggled and slid my body closer to the line of light. I bent my knees, set my feet low on the block. The Chalcedean shifted his big boot between and slightly above my feet. ‘Push,’ he said, and I did. Stone grated grudgingly but it moved. A rest, and then we pushed again. The crack was a hand’s-breadth wide. Another push, and the stone fetched up against something. We pushed three more times before the stone moved, and then it slewed to the left. Another push and it was easier. I shifted my body to get more purchase.

  The afternoon sunlight that had found us was fading toward evening by the time the opening was large enough for me to wriggle out. I went feet first, squirming blindly out of a gap barely large enough for me to pass, scraping skin off my hip and tearing my tunic. I sat up, brushing dust and grit from my face. I heard the others shouting, demanding that I move more stone, that I tell them where we were. I ignored them. I didn’t care where we were. I could breathe and no one else was touching me. I drew deep breaths of cool air, and wiped my sleeve across my gritty face, and rolled my good shoulder. I was out.

  ‘What can you see?’ Dwalia was furious with desperation. ‘Where are we?’

  I looked around me. Ruins, I supposed. I could now see what our tomb had been and it was not at all what I had thought it was. Great blocks of stones had fallen, first one pillar to the floor and then a great slab of stone had collapsed partway across the fallen pillar, and then other pieces of stones had tumbled around them. Only good fortune had kept them from smashing completely flat against the Skill-pillar embedded in the floor. I looked up the evening sky past the jagged remains of walls, and down at more etched runes. There was another Skill-pillar here, set into the floor. I stepped gingerly away from it.

  The others were shouting contradictory orders at me: to fetch help, to say what I saw. I didn’t respond. I heard the temple bell ring again in the distance. I took three steps out of sight, squatted and relieved myself. As I stood, I heard stone grating and saw the Chalcedean’s legs emerging from the enlarged opening. I hastily pulled up my leggings and watched as he braced his feet and levered the stone away. Shrieks from inside of ‘Be careful!’ and ‘You’ll bring it down on us!’ went unheeded.

  ‘I should run,’ I whispered to myself.

  Not yet, Wolf Father whispered in my mind. Remain with the danger you know. The Chalcedean has mainly been kind to you. If we are in Chalced, you do not speak the language or know their ways. Maybe luck will favour us and the stones fall on all the others. Hide and watch.

  I moved back amongst the tumbled stones and crouched where I could see but not be seen. Kerf wriggled out on his back, kicking and scraping and grunting as he heaved himself along. He emerged powdered with grey dust and grit, looking like a statue called to life. His hips freed, he shifted onto his side, twisting like a snake to manoeuvre first one shoulder and then the other out, and sat up, blinking in the late afternoon light. His pale eyes were startling in his grey stone face. He licked dust from his lips, his red tongue another oddity, and looked about himself, then stepped up onto a block of stone and surveyed the scene. I crouched lower.

  ‘Is it safe?’ Alaria called, but she had already thrust her feet out of the opening. Smaller and lither than the Chalcedean but just as dirty, she squirmed out without waiting for any answer then sat up, groaning, and wiped rock dust from her face. ‘Where are we?’ she demanded.

  Kerf grinned. ‘Chalced. I am almost home. I know this place, although it has changed greatly. Here we once mourned my grandfather. The duke’s throne was at the end of a great hall. Over there, I think. This is what remains of the old duke’s palace after the dragons brought it tumbling down around his ears.’ He sneezed several times, wiped his face on his arm and then nodded to himself. ‘Yes. The duchess proclaimed it an evil place and swore it would never be rebuilt.’ He frowned slightly, as if summoning the memory was difficult or painful. He spoke slowly, almost dreamily. ‘Duke Ellik vowed it would be the first structure he raised again, and that he would rule from it.’

  Alaria struggled to her feet. ‘Chalced?’ she whispered to herself.

  He spun to her and grinned. ‘Our home! My mother will be pleased to meet you. She has longed for me to bring home a woman to share the tasks of the household with her and my sisters and to bear my children.’

  ‘I am not your wife!’

  ‘Not yet. But if you prove yourself a hard worker and a maker of strong children, then perhaps I shall wed you. Many prizes of war become wives. Eventually.’

  ‘I am not a prize of war!’ she declared.

  Kerf shook his head and rolled his eyes, bemused by her ignorance. Alaria looked as if she wanted to shriek, scratch him or run away. She did none of those things, but turned her attention to the next pair of feet emerging from the stone tomb.

  Vindeliar’s feet were kicking and scuffing as he tried to emerge. ‘I’m stuck!’ he cried in a panic-stricken voice.

  ‘Get out of my way!’ Dwalia’s voice was muted. ‘I told you to let me go first!’

  ‘There wasn’t room!’ He was already tearful. ‘I had to go first, to get off you. You said, “get off me”, and this was the only way I could get off you.’

  She cursed him, her obscenities muffled by stone. Vindeliar did not seem to be making much progress. I took advantage of the noise to retreat farther from all of them, behind the round of a fallen column. From there I could peer back to see what was happening, but not be seen.

  Vindeliar was wedged. He drummed his heels helplessly on the ground as if he were a child having a tantrum. Stuck. Good, I thought savagely. Let him be the plug that bottles up Dwalia forever. Despite any kindly feelings he had toward me, I knew he was the real danger to me. If I fled, Dwalia could never catch me. But if Vindeliar set the Chalcedean on me, I was doomed.

  ‘Brother! My brother! Please
move the stone and free me!’

  I didn’t make a sound as I crouched there, watching with one eye. Kerf stepped over to the stone. ‘Ware the dust!’ he called to Vindeliar and stooped to set his shoulder to the blocking stone. I heard it grate against the ancient floor and saw smaller stones and grit vanish in a crack that opened in the top of the rockpile as he did so. Dwalia screamed but the rocks that fell would do no more than bruise her. Kerf seized Vindeliar’s thick legs and dragged him out. Vindeliar jammed for a moment and howled as Kerf grunted and pulled him out anyway. I saw him sit up, grey with dust and with a bleeding scrape on the side of his face.

  ‘I’m free!’ he announced as if no one else would know it.

  ‘Get out of my way!’ Dwalia shouted. I did not wait to see her emerge. Ducking low, I crept away. I threaded my way through the maze of fallen stone, silent as a mouse. The slanting sunlight of a spring evening created shapes from the shadows. I came to a place where a fallen wall leaned against a collapsed column like a stone tent and crept into it.

  Stay hidden. It is easier for them to see motion and hear your footsteps than to search this rubble.

  I was alone, and hungry and thirsty, in a city far from home where I did not speak the language.

  But I was free. I’d escaped them.

  FIVE

  * * *

  The Bargain

  A snake is in a stone bowl. There is soup around it. It smells bad and then I know it is not soup. It is very dirty water, full of snake-piss and waste. A creature comes to the bowl and suddenly I see how big the snake is and the bowl. The snake is many times longer than the creature is tall. The creature reaches through bars around the bowl to scoop up some of the dirty water. He slurps some of the filthy water and smiles with an ugly wide mouth. I do not like to look at him, he is so wrong. The serpent coils in on itself and tries to bite him. He laughs and shuffles away.

  From Bee Farseer’s dream journal

  As comfortable as the Elderling robes might be, I did not feel decently clad for my meeting with the keepers until I was in my own clothes again. As I snugged my leather belt tight and buckled it I noticed I had gained two notches of travel since I’d left Buckkeep. My leather waistcoat would function as light armour. Not that I expected anyone to knife me, but one never knew. The small items in my concealed pockets would expedite any deadly task of my own. I smiled to realize that someone had unloaded my secret pockets before my garments were laundered and then restored all to their proper location. I said nothing to Spark as I tugged my waistcoat straight and then patted the pocket that concealed a very fine garrotte. She quirked her brows at me. It was enough.

  I vacated the room to allow Spark to attend to Lady Amber’s dressing and coiffing. I found Lant ready and Perseverance keeping him company and chased a foggy memory of a conversation between the two and then let it go. Done was done. Lant no longer seemed to fear me, and as Chade’s instructions to him to watch over me, well, that would demand a private conversation.

  ‘So, are we ready?’ Lant asked as he slid a small, flat-handled knife into a sheath concealed at his hip. It startled me. Who was this man? The answer came to me. This was the Lant that Riddle and Nettle had both admired and enjoyed. I understood suddenly why Chade had asked him to watch over me. It was not flattering but it was oddly reassuring.

  Perseverance had a worried frown. ‘Am I to be seated with you at the dinner? It seems very strange.’

  In the space of a few months, he had gone from being a stableboy on my estate to being my serving man. And companion, if I were truthful. ‘I don’t know. If they send you and Spark to another table be sure to stay close to her.’

  He nodded grimly. ‘Sir? May I ask you something?’

  ‘What is it?’ I asked guardedly. I was on edge for our meeting with the keepers.

  He shot Lant a sideways look as if shy about asking his question. ‘About Mage Gary. Sometimes you call him Fool, but he’s being Lady Amber now.’

  ‘He is,’ I conceded and waited.

  Lant was silent, as intrigued by the Fool’s many guises as the lad was.

  ‘And Ash is Spark now.’

  I nodded. ‘True, also.’

  ‘And Spark is a girl.’

  I nodded again.

  He folded his lips in as if to imprison his question. Then he blurted, ‘Do you feel at all … odd about it? Uncomfortable?’

  I laughed. ‘I’ve known him for many years, in many guises. He was King Shrewd’s jester when I was a boy. The Fool. Then Lord Golden. Mage Gary. And now Lady Amber. All different. Yet always my friend.’ I reached for honesty. ‘But when I was your age, it would have bothered me a great deal. It doesn’t now because I know who he is. And who I am, and who we are to each other. That doesn’t change, no matter what name he wears or what garb he dons. Whether I am Holder Tom Badgerlock or Prince FitzChivalry Farseer, I know he’s my friend.’

  He gave a sigh of relief. ‘Then it’s all right that it doesn’t matter to me about Spark? I saw it didn’t bother you and I decided it need not bother me.’ He shook his head, perplexed, and added, ‘When she’s being Spark, she’s pretty.’

  ‘She is,’ Lant said quietly. I fought to keep from smiling.

  ‘So that’s who she really is? A girl named Spark?’

  That was a harder question. ‘Spark is whoever she is. Sometimes that’s Ash. It’s like being a father and a son and perhaps a husband. All different facets of the same person.’

  He nodded. ‘But it was easier to talk to Ash. We had better jokes.’

  A tap at the door announced Lady Amber and Spark. Lady Amber had gone to every possible effort to be dazzling and had succeeded. The long skirt and lacy beribboned blouse with the embroidered waistcoat were dated by Buckkeep standards. Amber, or more likely Spark, had given special attention to the rouge that shaped her lip and the powder that concealed her scars. Her blind eyes were outlined in black, emphasizing their opacity.

  Spark was a pretty girl but no more than that today. She had chosen to present herself in a way that would not invite too much attention. Her hair, released from Ash’s warrior tail, hung in black waves to her shoulders. Her high-collared blouse was the colour of butterscotch and the simple smock over it denied she had breasts or a waist. Amber wore an amused smile. Could she sense how Per and Lant were gazing at them, dumbfounded?

  ‘The clothes look much better on you than they did on Lady Thyme,’ I complimented her.

  ‘I hope they also smell better,’ was the Fool’s response.

  ‘Who is Lady Thyme?’ Lant asked.

  For a moment, the silence held. Then both the Fool and I burst into laughter. I had almost recovered when the Fool gasped, ‘Your father.’ And we were both lost again to merriment. Lant was torn between confusion and offence.

  ‘I don’t understand what is funny?’ Spark queried. ‘We raided an old woman’s wardrobe for these clothes …’

  ‘It’s a very long tale,’ was Amber’s ladylike response. ‘A hint: Lady Thyme’s chamber had a secret entry to Chade’s workroom. When he chose to occasionally emerge from hiding in the old days, he moved as Lady Thyme.’

  Lant’s mouth hung slightly ajar.

  ‘Lady Thyme was one of your father’s most inspired ploys. But it must be a tale for another time, for now we must descend.’

  ‘Do not we wait until we are summoned?’ I asked.

  ‘No, for Rain Wild courtesies are founded on Bingtown ways rather than on Jamaillian aristocracy. They are more egalitarian, and pragmatic and direct. Here you are Prince FitzChivalry and they will expect you to have the last word. But I know more of their ways than you do. Please let me negotiate.’

  ‘Negotiate what?’

  ‘Our passage through their territory. And possibly beyond.’

  ‘We have nothing to offer them in exchange for our passage,’ I pointed out. Much of my coin and several other precious items had been lost in the bear attack.

  ‘I will think of something,’ she offered.


  ‘And it won’t be offering healing to anyone. I can’t.’

  She raised her delicately-outlined brows at me. ‘Who would know that better than me?’ she replied, and held out a gloved hand. I stepped forward and hooked it onto my arm.

  I saw Lant grinning as Perseverance stepped forward and offered his crooked arm to Spark. She looked startled, but accepted it. I took a deep breath. ‘And off we go,’ I warned them.

  A serving girl waited at the foot of the stairs to guide us into a sumptuous and elegant chamber. There were no tapestries, no figured rugs, but the walls themselves and the floor underfoot did not need them. We seemed to be dining in an open field, surrounded by a vista of autumn hills in green and gold. We trod on a grassy sward with tiny wildflowers speckled among the verdant green. Only the sensation of stone underfoot and the still air spoiled the illusion. I heard Spark whisper a description to Amber, who smiled wistfully.

  Four tables were arranged in an open square, with the guests’ chairs directed inward. There was no head of the table, no seat of authority. Some of the keepers were already here, standing or seated in small groups. They were a striking reminder of the tapestry of Elderlings that had graced my boyhood bedchamber. Tall and slender they were, with eyes of gold or copper or sparkling blue. All were scaled, some more heavily than others, and each was marked fantastically, in patterns that were as precise as the
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