Assassins fate, p.11
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       Assassin's Fate, p.11

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

  ours? Chade would have seen a rivalry, Kettricken a natural alliance. Dutiful and Nettle? I did not know what they would see. I wondered if my use of the Skill here had been the pebble that would trigger an avalanche of war, or become the first tiny block in building a shared legacy of magic. It was agonizing to say so little, and to know that it might be days before I could even attempt to reach out with the Skill.

  The exact day of the Tarman’s arrival was uncertain, for the river ran higher and swifter with the melting of distant snows.

  We each dealt with that waiting in our own way. The need to keep my Skill-walls tight and be ever-vigilant against the current of Skill and memories in the city wearied me. I took my meals within our chambers and graciously declined as many visitors as I could. The Skill-induced weariness that assailed me meant that I seldom ventured out into the city. I remembered Kelsingra as the deserted city I had first encountered on my quest to find Verity. It had been my first experience of travelling through a Skill-pillar and had happened by accident. The city had been dangerous to me then. Ironically, despite having studied Skill-magic, the Skill-infused walls and streets of the city were more dangerous to me now.

  But the Skill-flow of the city was not the only danger to me. Thrice General Rapskal came rapping at the door of my chambers, and always he seemed to arrive when the others were away. The first time, I feigned an even greater weakness than I felt. He insisted that he needed to talk to me, but I wavered where I stood, apologized and then slowly but relentlessly closed the door. After that, I did not open the door when someone knocked. Lady Amber retained a healthy wariness for General Rapskal. She spent her days within the walls of the Greeting Hall. She visited Malta and passed on to me their gossip of old friends and recent news of both Bingtown and Trehaug. Lant, Spark and Perseverance were as entranced with Kelsingra as a babe with a new bauble, and the keepers seemed both willing and pleased to share the wonders of their city. I warned them to be cautious and let them explore. Per, with Motley the crow on his shoulder, had quickly become a favourite with the servants and unwittingly gave me a great deal of information on the inner workings of Kelsingra when he shared gossip of an evening. In the evening in our chambers, Amber and Spark did repairs on their bear-tossed wardrobe while Amber told the tales of old Buckkeep, including the adventures of the notorious Lady Thyme.

  Per asked her once about her childhood. She spoke of a farming family, of an older sister thrilled to have a sibling at last. She told of gentle rolling hills that turned gold in summer, of tending docile brown cows. Then she stopped speaking, and I knew that the next part of her tale must be about Clerres. She told no more stories that night and I dreaded that I must soon dredge those memories for every pertinent fact as to the layout of Clerres. She had locked those recollections away, and yet I must find a way to open them if our plans for vengeance were to succeed.

  The Fool was the one who had first demanded that I go to Clerres and ‘kill them all’. He had desired his own vengeance even before they had kidnapped Bee. Even before Dwalia had taken her into the Skill-pillars and lost her there, he had been intent on their slaughter. With great care, I had tidied away my life at Buckkeep and attempted to depart alone, to seek that far city and take my own vengeance. I’d had no concern for my own survival afterwards.

  But not only the Fool, but Spark, Per and Lant had followed me. Three of them I could send back to Buck, but for the Fool to survive I must wring from him every detail he recalled of Clerres and the Servants of the Whites.

  But how? How to pry that essential information from someone so adept at concealment and diversion?

  On a day that was more lingering winter than spring, most of us had opted to stay inside the warmth of our chambers but Per had been restless. He had paced and stretched and sighed until I had surrendered and given him permission to explore on his own.

  Late in the afternoon, he burst into the chambers, red-cheeked and tousle-haired to exclaim, ‘Motley has made a new friend!’

  We all turned toward him in surprise.

  ‘Motley met another crow? Remind me to blacken her white feathers, or that friendship will be short-lived,’ I replied.

  ‘No! Not another crow!’ He fairly shouted the words, then caught his breath, and assumed a storytelling tone. ‘I was behaving very carefully, as you bid me, speaking only if spoken to and saying little then. But few people were out in the cold today. Motley had found me and was riding on my shoulder. We were walking toward a plaza with a statue of a horse when a big gust of wind hit me, very cold, and Motley lifted off my shoulder. Then she cried out, as if she were a minstrel, “Oh beauteous one, red as scarlet berries on a frost-kissed vine!” As if she were reciting a poem! The gust of wind was a red dragon landing right in front of me! Her claws clattered on the cobblestones and her tail lashed; she barely stopped short of trampling me. I scrambled backwards and fell. Skinned my palms catching myself!’ he added, and held up his reddened hands for our inspection.

  ‘Was the dragon threatening you?’ Lant demanded breathlessly.

  ‘No, not at all. She was just landing there. Still, I was scared and decided to leave. I called Motley back to me, but she flew over to land right in front of the dragon. This time she said. “Oh beauteous one, scarlet queen, feeder of crows!” And the dragon stretched her head down and I thought she would eat Motley. But instead, Motley did a little dance.’

  Per opened his arms, bobbed his head and wove his body about like a courting bird.

  ‘Then what?’ Spark demanded breathlessly.

  ‘The dragon’s eyes were spinning like Spring Fair tops. She put her head flat to the ground and Motley hopped over and began grooming her, twiddling her beak along the scales of the dragon’s face, going around her eyes and nostrils. The dragon made this very strange sound, like a kettle boiling!’

  ‘And then?’ Sparks sounded envious at missing the spectacle.

  ‘I stood and waited for her. When my feet were numb with cold, I called to Motley to come with me, but she didn’t even turn her head. The dragon’s eyes were half-closed, like a big sleepy cat. So I left her and came back.’ His brow furrowed as he asked me, ‘Do you think she’ll be safe?’

  ‘I think she will be safe. Motley is a very clever bird.’ I wondered if dragons and crows shared an ancient connection. Crows are notorious bone-pickers of true predators. An alliance between crows and dragons seemed only natural. ‘A very clever bird,’ I repeated. And I knew she was a mystery that would only be solved when she chose to reveal herself to me.

  ‘She is!’ Per exclaimed proudly. ‘That she is.’

  On a day of gentle sunshine, I awakened from an afternoon nap to find myself alone. I felt befogged and listless and hoped a short walk around the city would enliven me. Wearing my fine Prince-of-the-Six-Duchies cloak, I ventured out. The distant trees on the hills behind Kelsingra had a blush of moving sap in their white branches. Some, willows perhaps, were dotted with the green of swelling leaves as if someone had threaded beads onto their slender branches. The mountains had shed their snow. How many years had it been since Nighteyes and I had subsisted on their forested flanks, hunting like wolves and sleeping sound? A lifetime ago, perhaps two.

  The voices of Elderling memories muttered to me from the Skill-threaded stones of the building. At first, it was distant, like the buzzing of mosquitoes, but it soon became urgent, like bees swarming. The press rasped at my walls, shaving away my defences. I turned back when I began to hear clear snatches of conversation and to see the shadowy forms of Elderlings. The Skill-current swelled around me, like an ocean wave that would slide my feet out from under me and carry me far from shore. I’d been an idiot to venture out alone. I had turned back toward the Greeting Hall when I became aware that Rapskal was following me. My efforts to block the ancient Elderling whispering had deadened my awareness of those around me. I slowed my pace and walked unsteadily. Let him think me weaker than I was. In truth, I judged myself too enervated to withstand the attack of
a determined child, let alone this Elderling soldier.

  He quickly fell in beside me. ‘Prince FitzChivalry. I am glad to see you are somewhat recovered from your magic.’

  ‘You are kind to say so, General Rapskal. But even this brief stroll has wearied me. I shall seek my bed as soon as I return.’

  ‘Ah, well. I am disappointed. I’d hoped to have words with you. Important words.’ The last he added in a lower voice, as if someone might overhear us. Did he wish to deliver a private threat? But when I glanced at him, he met my gaze with a pleading look that was almost apologetic. ‘I’ve misjudged you. Heeby has told me I must change my mind.’ His gravity increased. ‘She had a dream. Or perhaps she remembered something. She has conveyed to me that your quest is a just one. One she supports.’ He lowered his voice to a whisper. ‘She wishes me to aid you in any way I can to destroy the Servants and their city. In any way.’ He leaned close and put his hand on my arm, conspiratorial. His eyes glittered as human eyes should not. My wariness became alarm when he confided, ‘Your crow and Heeby have become very close friends.’

  ‘Heeby?’ I queried, trying to smile in return. My crow?

  ‘My dragon. You know of Heeby, I trust? She is my scarlet darling.’ For a moment, his smile became a grin, making him a lad. ‘She likes your crow. Motley, I think she is called. Motley praises her and tells her of her beauty. Before the crow came, I was the only one who had admired her as she deserved. Heeby has become quite fond of Motley. But, that is not what I wished to discuss. Your mission to kill the Servants of the Whites. Heeby approves of it.’

  I tried an interpretation of his words. ‘Your dragon had a dream, or remembered that she would like us to kill the Servants of the Whites?’

  He grinned wider, white human teeth in a dragon-changed face. ‘Yes. Exactly.’ He was so pleased that I understood.

  I stopped walking. I put my hand on the stone façade of a building, thinking to lean there and rest. A mistake. The street suddenly thronged with Elderlings, blue and silver and green – tall, angular folk with fancifully-scaled faces and artfully-draped garments. There was to be a contest of musicians today, in the Plaza of the Queen, and the queen herself would give the award.

  ‘Hello? Wake up, prince. I’m taking you back to the Greeting Hall. The voices are not so loud there.’

  I was walking, and General Rapskal had my arm firmly hooked into his. The contest of musicians faded like a dream. Rapskal was guiding me. Perhaps he had been talking to me.

  ‘I’m not well,’ I heard myself say.

  ‘You are fine,’ he said comfortingly. ‘You simply weren’t prepared. If you choose which voice you will hear and ready yourself to share the life of that Elderling, you can learn a great deal. I certainly did! Before I welcomed the Elderling memories of an ancient warrior into my mind, I was a bumbling, stupid boy, earnest and tolerated by my fellow keepers but never respected. Never respected.’

  He closed his mouth suddenly on his quavering voice. I revised my estimate of his age downward.

  He cleared his throat. ‘My dragon Heeby has suffered similarly. She has never spoken much to the other dragons or their keepers. When she first came to me, she was small and clumsy. The other dragons disdained her. She could not even recall her proper name; I had to give her one. Yet of all of them, she was the first to fly and the first to make her own kills.’ His chest swelled with pride, as if she were his little child. He saw I was paying attention and gave an abrupt nod. We had stopped walking.

  ‘My chamber,’ I said quietly. ‘I need to rest,’ and my words were true.

  ‘Of course,’ he said. ‘I am happy to take you there.’ He patted my hand on his arm and I sensed far more of him in that brief touch than I liked. We began to walk – more swiftly than I wished, but I gritted my teeth and kept pace. I hoped Lant would be in the rooms when we reached them. Then I wondered when I had begun to count on him to protect me.

  Suddenly, I missed Riddle.

  ‘So,’ he concluded, and I wondered what I had missed while my thoughts were wandering. ‘That is why anything that Heeby remembers or dreams is so important.’

  We had reached the Greeting Hall. It seemed dim inside after the brightness of the day. Two Elderlings turned and stared as he escorted me to the stairs. ‘Up we go,’ he said cheerily. He was stronger than he looked.

  ‘Thank you for your assistance,’ I said when we reached my chamber. I’d hoped he’d leave me at the door, but he followed me in.

  ‘Here. Sit at the table. I’ll request food.’

  I had little choice but to sit. The struggle to keep the Elderling voices out of my mind had sapped my physical energy. Under the guise of settling myself, I made sure of the little blade Riddle had given me, hidden along the waist of my trousers. If I needed to I could draw it and possibly manage to cut soft butter with it. I tried to summon anger that might waken some strength in my wearied body, but I found only fear that made my knees even more uncertain of their function. Rapskal’s outward friendliness did not calm my wariness of him. His temperament, I judged, was uneven. And yet he was astute. He alone had seemed to realize we were not being completely honest with the good people of Kelsingra. But was I dealing with a ruthless military leader who would do whatever was necessary to defend Kelsingra, or a melancholy youth concerned with his dragon’s dreams?

  He joined me at the table, having pressed the flower ornament by the door. ‘How does that work?’ I asked him, hoping to take his measure a bit more. ‘Pressing that flower?’

  ‘I’ve no idea. It just does. Down in the kitchens a similar emblem glows and hums. One for each room.’ He dismissed my question with a shrug. ‘There is so much we don’t know. It was only six months ago that we discovered those chambers were meant to be a kitchen. There is a basin there that fills with hot or cold water. But no ovens or hearth. So it’s a peculiar kitchen. Not that my mother ever had an oven, or even a kitchen that I remember.’

  For a moment, he fell morosely silent. Away from the Skill-tumult of the streets, I wanted to hear more of his dragon’s dream. But I also had to warn the others before they walked into the chamber. I did not trust this Rapskal, not at all. Was his dragon dream a far-fetched ploy to get into our rooms? I waited three breaths and then said, ‘Your dragon had a dream about Clerres?’

  He jolted back to awareness of me. ‘Clerres, yes! That was a name she recalled. So it was a true dream then, one based in her ancestral dragon memories!’ He sounded delighted.

  ‘I’m confused. Ancestral dragon memories?’

  He smiled and propped his chin on his fist. ‘It’s not a secret any longer. When a serpent transforms into a dragon, it awakens with the memories of its dragon ancestors. It knows where to hunt, where to nest, it recalls names and events from its ancestral line. Or so it should.

  ‘Our dragons were sea serpents too long, and spent too short a time in their cocoons. They emerged with fragmented memories. My Heeby recalls almost nothing of her ancestry. But sometimes when she sleeps memories come to her. I hope this means that as she grows she may recall more of her ancestors’ lives.’ His eyes went wide and for a moment they gleamed. Tears? From this ruthless man? He spoke softly in a wounded voice. ‘I love her as she is. I always have and I always will. But to recall her ancestry would mean so much to her.’ His gaze met mine and I saw a stricken parent. ‘Am I heartless that I long for this, too? That I think she would be better … No! She is too wondrous as she is for anything to make her better! Why do I want this so? Am I faithless?’

  The worst that can happen to an assassin is to find common ground with his target. But I knew that question too well. How often had I lain awake beside Molly, wondering if I were a monster because I wished my daughter were as able as other children? For an instant, it was as if our hearts pumped the same blood. Then Chade’s training whispered to me, ‘There it is. The chink in his armour.’

  I had my own mission to think of. And the Fool. I needed information and perhaps this boy-general
had it. I spoke gently, and leaned toward him as if entranced with his tale. I warmed my voice with false kindness. ‘How wondrous then that she dreamed of the Servants and Clerres! I take it neither you nor she have visited that far place?’ Feed him some bits of my information to see what he might betray. Above all, maintain a calm demeanour. Pretend this was a social visit rather than a mutual assessment of strengths.

  My ploy worked. His face lit with joy. ‘Never! Those are real places then, real names? It must be a true memory she recalled, not a yearning dream!’ His chest rose and fell with excitement. His eyes that had been so guarded were suddenly wide and open. I felt something go out from him. It was neither the Skill nor the Wit. A peculiar blending of the two? Was that what bonded keeper and dragon? I knew then that he had kept his walls up while we spoke, but now he opened to Heeby and shared with her that her dreams were true recollections. Somewhere in Kelsingra, a dragon trumpeted in joy. The distant caw of a crow echoed it, or had I imagined that?

  I nudged him with words. ‘Clerres is real, as are the Servants. I have little other information to share with you, I fear. Our journey carries us toward the unknown.’

  ‘For vengeance,’ he queried me quietly.

  ‘For vengeance,’ I confirmed.

  His brow creased, and for a moment he looked almost human. ‘Then perhaps we should join you. For what Heeby recalled of that place was dark and distressing. She hates and fears it in equal measures.’

  ‘What does she recall?’ I asked gently.

  He scowled. ‘Little detail. There was treachery and betrayal. A trust violated. Dragons died. Or were, perhaps, slaughtered.’ He stared at the wall as if seeing something at a great distance and then snapped his eyes back to me. ‘It isn’t clear to her. And so it is all the more disturbing.’

  ‘Would the other dragons recall what she does not?’

  He shook his head. ‘It is as I have told you. All the dragons of Kelsingra emerged from their cocoons with incomplete memories.’

  Tintaglia. And IceFyre. I held my features still. Neither of those dragons had been members of the Kelsingra brood. Tintaglia had hatched years before the Kelsingra dragons and had believed herself the sole surviving dragon in the world. My personal experiences with her had been exceedingly unpleasant. She had tormented Nettle, invading her dreams and threatening her. And me. All in her pursuit to have us unearth IceFyre for her. That truly ancient dragon had chosen to immerse himself in a glacier when he believed himself the last dragon in the world. The Fool and I had broken him free of that ice and restored him to the world. His recall of what befell the other dragons should be intact. And from what I knew of him, my chances of learning from him were very small.

  General Rapskal was still musing on his dragon. ‘My Heeby is different to the other dragons. Always smaller, stunted some would say, and I do fear that she may never grow as large as the others. She seldom speaks, and when she does, it’s almost exclusively to me. She shows no interest in making a mating flight.’ He paused and then said, ‘She is younger than the others, both as a serpent and now as a dragon. We believe she was of the last surviving dragon generation before the final cataclysm took them all. Once, when dragons were many, dragon eggs hatched yearly into serpents. The serpents within then quickly made their way into the sea. There they would remain, swimming and eating, following the migrations of the fish until they were large enough to return to the Rain Wild River and travel up it to the cocooning beach near Trehaug. So it was, once. Many of the dragons have ancestral memories of helping
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