Assassins fate, p.55
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       Assassin's Fate, p.55

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

  ‘Did you burn their bodies? Tell me you did not leave their bodies to fall into curious hands!’ Green was horrified.

  Capra clapped her hands together, and the sound was startlingly sharp. ‘Account for them. Account for every one of them. How did each fall, and what became of each body? Tell us this now.’

  Another pocket of silence. Dwalia spoke more quietly. A strange calm had come into her voice. ‘We had penetrated the Six Duchies, completely unremarked. With Vindeliar’s aid and prescience, we crossed that land unseen until we found the youngster. I was, as part of my mission, tracking Beloved as well. He it was who led us to him: the Unexpected Son. We were able to take … him. We … that is, Vindeliar, blinded their minds to us. We left that place, knowing they would not even remember that such a child had ever lived among them. All was going well. We were so close to boarding the ship to return here. But there was … an attack upon us. We were scattered. Some I saw fall. Others fled. Some few I gathered to me. I dared a magic that I did not trust nor understand. We—’

  ‘They fell? They fled? How can you be sure that they died? How can you be sure that our secrets were not betrayed when they were captured? This is unconscionable!’ Capra turned her wrath on her fellows. ‘Do you see what you have done? Do you understand now? You sent the pick of our luriks, those with the best White blood, the best potential for breeding and for dreaming! Ordinary soldiers were not good enough, no, you had to send our finest. And now they are gone. Dead, scattered, who knows where? Taken as slaves? Living as beggars, selling dreams for food? And who knows who might use them against us?’ She turned her fury back on Dwalia. ‘You were tracking Beloved? Tracking? Blinded, lamed, and the best you could do was track him? What became of him? Where is he?’

  ‘If you would let me tell my tale,’ Dwalia began. Her voice was thickening. Tears? Fear? Fury?

  The pasty-faced man in green had been shaking his head slowly through their exchange. Now he spoke. ‘Capra asks the most important question last. Where is Beloved? You promised that you would bring him back to us. That was our condition for allowing you to free him and use him. You say it was part of your mission! I say it was the heart of it. You promised to bring him back alive to us, or proof that he was dead. Do you have that with you, at least?’

  I heard the small sound it made when Dwalia wet her lips. Again, she measured her words carefully. ‘No, I do not have proof. But I am certain he is dead by now.’ She suddenly stood a little straighter and met his gaze. ‘It came about exactly as I had deduced it could, and I made it happen.’ Her voice rose and her words made my belly fill with ice. ‘You doubted me! You mocked me and said my ambitions were far beyond my means! But I alone studied his dreams and I alone put those pieces together. I knew that I could use Beloved to lead me to the Unexpected Son. And he did! I alone manipulated events to make that happen!’

  I felt dizzy as I tried to reconcile her words with all the snatches of information I had gleaned in our travels. The words Dwalia had spoken collided with the words I had read when I had pilfered my father’s writings and delved into his secrets. Beloved.

  I closed my eyes, for the man in yellow was licking his mouth as if he could barely restrain his enjoyment. The beautiful woman’s eyes flamed with a cruel delight. Even the pale painted man’s mouth had fallen open in astonishment. I closed my eyes so I would not have to witness their pleasure at my father’s pain.

  And behind my closed eyes, my own pain ignited.

  My marketplace beggar. The man who had touched me and shown me all the futures, the man my father had stabbed, the man he chose to help even though it meant abandoning me, was Beloved. He had been the Fool. The White Prophet. The oldest and truest friend my father had ever had. All my suspicions confirmed. I had so longed to be wrong. I was sick. Sick with knowledge of how I had been part of that betrayal, at how I had prompted my father to stab his oldest friend.

  And I was dizzy and weak with the realization that it was all real. They could do it, Dwalia and these Whites. They could sift dreams and make the future become what they wanted it to be. They could lever my father into killing his friend and then leaving me. Because they could give my father what he had wanted so much more than he wanted me. Was his Fool, his Beloved, dead? Or were they together? Was that why he had pushed me away? To make room in his life for his old friend? Bile rose in the back of my throat. If I’d had any food in my belly, I would have vomited it up onto their perfect white floor.

  ‘Proof.’ Capra’s voice was quiet. Then it rose to a shout. ‘PROOF! You promised us proof! You promised you would see him dead or bring him back. I warned you, all of you, how dangerous a creature he was. And is, for all we know!’ She had turned to look at her fellows. ‘And you conspired against me, all of you, in this foolish experiment.’

  ‘Compose yourself,’ the beautiful woman said in a low voice.

  ‘Oh, compose your own self, Symphe!’ the old woman snapped. For a moment, they glared at each other like squabbling kitchen maids. ‘This disaster is your making! You and Fellowdy cooked it up and served it to Coultrie, and he was gullible enough to believe you and side with you. I’d measured Beloved when first he was brought here. I knew what he was capable of, from the beginning, and I warned you, all of you! I kept him at my side, I watched him, I tried to change him. And when I knew he would not be changed, I warned all of you. We should have done away with him then, when he would not silence his own questions.

  ‘But no, you wanted his bloodlines. And Fellowdy wanted more than that of him, mooning after him like a lovesick ploughboy! So you overruled me! Me, who had actually spent time with him and knew how determined he was to be the White Prophet, to change the world. Was not it bad enough that he escaped our keeping the first time? That he smashed all we had so carefully built and planned for a half a century? Gone. Our Pale Woman, our beautiful Ilistore, and Kebal Rawbread, and the damned dragons set loose again. How could you have forgotten all that? But you did! You ignored all that Beloved had wrought and all he had destroyed the first time he escaped our keeping!’

  I turned my head slightly and could see that Vindeliar knelt, his head bowed tight to his chest as if he could make himself smaller and less noticeable. Beside me, Dwalia looked like a cat pelted with rocks. Her eyes were slits and her mouth was dragged down as if she had a fishhook in her lip. On the dais, the three bore the old woman’s wrath with varying degrees of displeasure. I could tell they had heard this rant before, but none dared interrupt it.

  ‘We had him here!’ Her voice rose to a screech. ‘Beloved! Such a name for such a traitor. We could have simply held him here. He’d come back of his own volition. We could have kept him isolated, even kept him comfortable. We could have made Beloved believe we forgave him and that his tasks were accepted by us. Even after you discovered how he was corrupting our luriks and sending them away from Clerres, you still refused to see how dangerous he was. I said kill him. But no. Dwalia, jealous as ever, insisted that he had a secret. And when no pain tore any secret from him, when all you won from him was the name of his lover, you still refused to listen to me! You three thought you were so clever. Allow him to think he’s escaped, you said. You said he was too weak to go far, that you could reel him back in at any time. I said no. I forbade it. But you overrode me. You called me foolish and old. You put him back out in the world and concealed that deed from me for months! And when I discovered it? More lies from all of you!’

  She seemed drunk on her own fury and righteousness. Instead of calming, she was a storm still building. ‘You, Dwalia, you promised you would follow Beloved and he would lead you to his secret. But at the last, he eluded you? Or did you choose to let him escape you?’ She pointed a trembling, skinny finger at Dwalia. ‘So, set aside, for now, those luriks you led into slaughter. Set aside the priceless white horses, and even the elixirs you squandered on your experiments! Where is Beloved?’

  Dwalia lifted her head. She spoke with contained but unconcealed anger. ‘Dead. I am
certain he is dead. Just as dead as you wished him to be. And he died the way I wished him to die, at his lover’s hands! Over and over FitzChivalry Farseer sank his knife into Beloved’s belly, for he did not even know him after all I had done to change him! No healthy man could have survived such wounds. And Beloved was poisoned and blinded and broken even before he took them: I had made sure of that.’ Dwalia stood taller. ‘So I am certain he is dead. And by allowing his Catalyst to take Beloved’s dying body, I drew them both away from my prey. From what they both had guarded and thought they had well concealed.’ Once again she jerked my collar and hauled me to my feet. ‘I tell you, this is the one all those prophecies foretold. And!’ she shouted the word as Capra opened her faded lips to speak. ‘And I believe this child is not only the Unexpected Son but that she carries Beloved’s bloodline! The bloodline that Symphe and Fellowdy and Coultrie so wanted to develop! I bring this to you. I, Dwalia!’ Her eyes roved over them and in a low voice she added, ‘Do you recall when you would not let me go with Ilistore? When you sent her out without me, with no one to guard her back? Just as I have succeeded with this, I tell you plainly. Had I gone with her, she would never have fallen!’

  She held me displayed for them, a rabbit she had snared. The lavishly dressed man in yellow looked at me and said in a low, awed voice, ‘She does have the look of Beloved about her chin and the set of her ears. She could be his get.’

  ‘SHE!’ Capra bellowed at him. ‘Do you know the word, Fellowdy? Do you hear it? Do you understand what it means? Often I have wondered if you know the difference between male and female, or if you care! This is not the Unexpected Son. The best she might be is a bastard daughter of a traitorous wretch. Even if she is Beloved’s get, who knows what other blood is mingled in her? She’s a mongrel. A mongrel from a tainted bloodline that has brought us nothing but disaster.’ She shook her head, and her long silvery hair moved softly. ‘Dwalia, you have been gone from us for three years. And in those years, the dreams of the luriks have stacked and multiplied. You speak of how you have shifted events to find this child, yet I know you have shifted them more than you can grasp. We are inundated with nightmares about the wrath of the Unexpected Son. Terrifying visions of the vengeance of the Twice-lived Prophet make the young ones wake crying out in fear. Dreams of a Destroyer! Oh, yes, you have manipulated events, but your petty vengeance has cascaded us into a very dangerous place. “Blind he sees the way, and the wolf comes at his heels!” The prophecy of the Unexpected Son had been fulfilled, to our detriment. It was done, and we looked to the newer dreams to find our way. But you, you have “wakened the sleeping wolf, and stirred the dragons in him to fury.” You have set us on a dark path indeed with your vanity and your anger, and your selfish need for vengeance!’

  Dwalia was stronger than she looked. I already knew that from the times we had fought. But now she lifted me from my feet and carried me forward, kicking and struggling.

  Then she threw me at Capra.

  I hit the edge of the dais in front of the blue-clad woman and fell to the hard floor, clutching my bruised ribs. There was no air left in my body. I could not squeak, let alone scream.

  ‘You stupid old woman!’ Dwalia did not roar the words but spoke them in a dark, cold voice. Two men with spears seized her by the arms and dragged her away but even as they did so, she spoke on as coolly as if they hadn’t touched her. ‘You refused to read what my examination of the dreams told me. You wouldn’t listen to me the first time that I warned you about that creature you had taken in. I told you he would free the dragons. You said he could not. I begged you to let me go with Ilistore, that I might protect her. You all refused. You said Kebal Rawbread would be enough. But he wasn’t, and so she died. She died horribly, alone and broken and cold, and the dragons you so fear were loosed upon the world.’

  Dwalia was not struggling. The guards held her arms but looked as if they felt foolish. Vindeliar was rocking back and forth where he knelt, breathing in noisy nose gasps. I lay where I had fallen, trying for air, watching her.

  ‘Beloved is dead,’ she went on. ‘I know it, I feel it. I’ve killed him in the worst way he could possibly imagine, and I’ve stolen the weapon he and his Catalyst were shaping to use against us. I’ve brought you the Unexpected Son from the prophecies, and all you can do is sit up there and refuse to let me enlighten you! I expect Capra to ignore my revelations; she has always hated me. And all Fellowdy can think of is his lechery, while Coultrie fears that if he speaks any truth, you will all turn on him and rebuke him for the imposter he has always been. But Symphe? I thought better of you. I thought you were wiser. I always believed that one day you would throw the other three down and rule Clerres as it should be ruled. But no. You hold the threads of all time in your hands and yet you will let them unravel in our lifetime! I’ve brought you what you need to make up for how stupid you were about Beloved, but you sit there like toads on stones and do nothing.’

  ‘How dare you attack me? How dare you speak to any of us in such a tone? Guardsman! Ten lashes.’ Capra ordered one of the guards who held Dwalia, her voice as cold as ice.

  The man released Dwalia to his companion’s safe-keeping and caught her by both wrists. Still she did not struggle. The first guardsman bowed precisely to the Four and swiftly left the room.

  ‘Twenty,’ Coultrie countered. ‘Those were exquisite horses. All lost to me now.’ There was no regret or sympathy in his voice. He might have been asking for a drink of water.

  ‘Twenty!’ Capra was outraged. ‘How can you pretend your injury is greater than mine! How dare you!’

  ‘Ten, then. Ten! But those were fine horses.’ Coultrie subsided into a sulk, fussing with a green silk handkerchief he pulled from his sleeve. ‘Irreplaceable,’ he muttered, drawing another glare from Capra.

  ‘So messy. So … physical. Ten. Now. Let us be done with this.’ Fellowdy closed his eyes wearily as if it were all too inconvenient for him even to consider.

  The beautiful woman, Symphe, spoke last. ‘Dwalia, you have gone too far. Too often I have allowed you to speak in blunt terms, but your insults are beyond honesty. I cannot protect you from this. Five lashes,’ she suggested. There was regret in her voice, but not a great deal of it.

  Capra turned a furious gaze on her. ‘Five? FIVE? You insult me, too! You insult Coultrie, who lost a generation of steeds. She does not say she killed Beloved, only that she believes he is dead! She has disobeyed and defied us and—’

  ‘Ten then,’ Symphe amended. ‘Let it be ten, and let it be over. It has been too long a day already.’

  Capra was shaking her head. ‘We will have this be over, and leave this chamber. But this evening, I wish to see all of you in my tower chamber.’

  I heard the guard’s boots, his heels striking the floor very precisely, the jingling of the chain a music to the beat of his footsteps. I sat up slowly, my back to the dais, feeling dizzy and sick. I watched dully as the guard lifted a small panel of the smooth white floor and attached the chains to a ring there.

  Dwalia still sounded very calm and rational. ‘No. It’s not fair. It’s not right. No.’ The guard who dragged her forward paid no attention to her words or her attempts to sink her nails into his forearm and free herself. She braced her feet on the smooth floor yet he dragged her effortlessly. When he reached his partner, the other man seized her hair and clacked two pieces of metal around her throat. She struggled while he put the clips through the collar. Both guards stepped back abruptly and there she was, Dwalia who had terrorized me for so long, chained like a dog, the heavy loops of metal from the collar around her neck secured to the ring in the floor.

  It was a short chain. She could not stand upright. For a moment, she stood bent over, glaring at the Four. Then she hunched down, crossing her arms on her chest and tucking her face in as tightly as she could.

  I could hear Vindeliar breathing loudly, a shrill note to each breath he expelled, but he did not move from where he knelt. This was not new to either of th
em, I realized as the two guards stepped back. One gave the other a stick to match the one he held. No. Not a stick. Each unfurled short lashes attached to heavy braided leather handles. Whips. They shook them loose in an expert fashion and each took a position to either side of Dwalia.

  ‘You are fools!’ she shouted in one last attempt at outrage, but her voice shook with fear as one of the guards made his lash whistle in a practice swipe.

  Then it began.

  It was not ten lashes. It was forty. Ten decreed by each of the Four. The guards alternated their blows, the lashes rising and falling as rhythmically as a smith’s hammer. Dwalia could not escape. Terribly, between blows, she almost had time to decide where the lash would next fall. But the guardsmen were experienced or perhaps just cruel. Always the lash seemed to fall on fresh flesh, or cleverly bisect the welt his partner had just created.

  Her garments leapt at each blow. At first, she stayed hunched where she was. The lovely cloth of the back of the dress the captain had bought for his lover frayed and finally fell away. She began to give short shrieks and to scuttle like a beetle all around the ring in the floor. The guards did not care. She could not evade them. Her flesh welted and oozed, and droplets of blood began to speckle the floor and the strong bared arms of the guardsmen. Before they finished, the lashes were slapping raw meat and flinging arcs of blood. Forty had never seemed so large a number before.

  I covered my ears. I closed my eyes. Somehow I still heard the sounds that she made. They were not screams nor curses nor even pleas. They were terrible sounds. My eyes kept opening, no matter how tightly I closed them. There she was, the person who had ruined my life, the person I hated most in the whole world, being torn and slashed and ripped and tattered by whips of leather. They did to her what I had so longed to do to her, and it was disgusting and horrifying and unbearable. I was a little trapped animal. I panted and whined and wept but no one took any notice of me. I peed myself, soaking my trousers and making a puddle at my feet. I learned in that afternoon that I would have saved her, if I could. That while I might hate her enough to kill her, I did not think I could ever hate anyone enough to torture them.

  Dwalia managed to protect her eyes, but it cost her damage to her hands. The tips of the lashes curled cleverly to slice her shoulder and then lick a scarlet tip across her cheek. She could hide her face in her hands, but then the backs of her hands were vulnerable. She had begun with her arms crossed on her chest and her hands tucked protectively close, but eventually she ended collapsed on her side, her legs drawn up to her belly and her face hidden in the crook of one bloodied arm.

  Her punishment was done with swift efficiency but in those long and paralysed moments, I felt the rushing, dragging, shifting currents of time. Every stripe fell in a predetermined place on her body. Every twitch of her shuddering flesh changed that place. But it changed it in a logical and defined way. While my stomach churned at what they did to her, a calm part of my mind made orderly sense of every violent action and her reaction to it. I saw that if she moved this way, the guard would shift his arm, and the lash would strike there, and the blood would fly just so. It was all predetermined. None of it was random.

  In that horrifying recognition I suddenly saw how each action we had taken had moved us forward to this place and time and to this event. As late as this morning, there had been a thousand opportunities to choose a different path that would not have led us to this bloody resolution. Dwalia could have chosen to remain Lady Aubretia and gone to the inn to wait for her captain. She could have sent a messenger bird ahead to Symphe and arranged a secret meeting. She could have leapt overboard and drowned herself. Or stayed on the ship. There had been so many ways to divert her path to avoid this disaster. Why had not she seen and known or guessed this would happen?

  Why had I not foreseen that she would drag me into this with her?

  I did not know enough of these people to predict what would happen to me.

  ‘Thirty-eight.’

  ‘Thirty-nine.’

  The guards had been counting, each calling the strike of his own lash. Now they chorused, ‘Forty!’ and both whips fell. Slowly, slowly they drew the leather straps back and coiled the wet leather
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