Assassins fate, p.12
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       Assassin's Fate, p.12
 

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

  serpents to form and enter their cocoons. And the following summer, the dragons would emerge from those cocoons, strong and fully-formed, ready to take flight for their first hunts.’

  He shook his head sadly. ‘It was not so for our dragons. They … got lost. They remained as serpents far too long, for some great disaster changed the coast and the river so greatly that they could no longer find their way to their cocooning beaches. Heeby and I believe that several generations of serpents were caught in that disaster. Trapped in the sea for far longer than they should have been.’

  I nodded. Speculations of my own had begun to boil within my mind, yet I knew it was essential to hear all he had to say. No need to tell him that I knew more of those two elder dragons than he did.

  ‘Heeby suspects that not all dragon kind died when the Elderling cities fell. Certainly IceFyre did not.’ His voice went very dark. ‘I have given this some thought as well. It might seem that all the Elderlings who lived here in Kelsingra died. But they did not. I have walked in the memory of one Elderling who lived through whatever event split and shattered this city. Through his eyes, I watched the ground tremble and Elderlings flee. But where? I think to other places marked on the map in the tower.’ He paused and looked at me. It taxed all my discipline to keep my face bemused as he said, ‘I do not know how the magic was done, but they fled through the standing stones. The same stones where I first encountered you.’

  ‘They fled through stones?’ I asked as if uncertain of what I had heard.

  ‘Through the stones,’ he said. He watched me carefully. I kept my breathing slow and steady while regarding him with great interest. The quiet stretched long before he spoke. ‘I grew up an ignorant boy, Prince FitzChivalry. But not a stupid one. This city has a story to tell. While the others have feared to be lost in the memories stored in the stones, I have explored them. I have learned much. But some of what I have learned has only led to more questions. Does it not seem odd to you that in one disaster every Elderling and every dragon in the world seems to have perished?’

  He was now speaking as much to himself as he was to me. I was content to let him talk.

  ‘Some Elderling settlements were destroyed. We know that. Trehaug has long mined the remains of one buried Elderling city. Perhaps others fell as well. But humanity did not die out, nor parrots nor monkeys. So how is it that every Elderling vanished from the world, and every dragon? Their population would surely have been greatly reduced. But to die out entirely? That is too strange. I saw many flee when the city died. So what became of them? What became of the dragons who were not here when the city fell?’ He scratched his scaled chin. His nails were iridescent and made a metal-on-metal sound against his face. He lifted his eyes to mine. ‘Heeby recalls treachery and darkness. An earthquake is a disaster, but not a betrayal. I doubt that Elderlings would be traitors to their dragons. So whose treachery does she recall?’

  I ventured a question. ‘What does IceFyre say to your questions?’

  He gave a snort of disdain. ‘IceFyre? Nothing. He is a useless bully, to dragons and Elderlings alike. He never speaks to us. When Tintaglia had no other choice she took him as her mate. But he proved himself unworthy of her. We seldom see him here in Kelsingra. But I have heard a minstrel song of IceFyre’s freeing from a glacier. An evil woman, pale of skin, attempted to kill him. A White Prophet, some call her. And this is what I wonder. If someone had killed the dragons and Elderlings, would they not wish to put an end to IceFyre as well?’

  The tale of IceFyre and the Pale Woman had reached as far as Kelsingra. I had been known as Tom Badgerlock then, and few minstrels knew of my role in the downfall of the Pale Woman. But Rapskal was right. IceFyre would certainly have a reason to hate the Pale Woman and perhaps the Servants as well. Was there any way to waken that hatred and persuade him to aid me in my vengeance? I rather doubted it. If he would not seek vengeance for his own wrongs, he would care little for wrongs done to a mere human.

  I led his thoughts away from IceFyre. ‘I do not understand all you have told me. The dragons of Kelsingra are different ages? But I thought all the Kelsingra dragons had hatched from their cases at the same time?’

  He smiled indulgently. ‘There is so much the outside world does not understand about our dragons. From a mating to the laying of an egg to the serpent entering its case, a generation or more of humanity may pass. And if sea serpents encounter years of poor feeding or are swept away by storms or lost, then even more years may pass before they return to spin their cases. The serpents that finally were guided by Tintaglia to the cocooning grounds were all survivors of a terrible calamity, but some had been in the sea for scores of years longer than others. They had been serpents since dragons ended, and no one knows how long dragons had been gone from this world. Heeby and I believe that she was the youngest of the serpents to reach the banks of the Rain Wild River. Her ancestral memories, poor as they are, retain the most recent history of the dragons before their near-extinction.’

  It was time to ask my most important question. ‘Does Heeby remember anything of Clerres or the Servants that might aid me in my quest to destroy them?’

  He shook his head sadly. ‘She hates them, but she also fears them – and I can think of nothing else that she fears. She wavers from demanding that I should rally all our dragons to your cause to warning me that we must never go near that place. If her dreams bring her a clear recollection, she may resolve to take her own vengeance.’ He shrugged. ‘Or, if those memories are sufficiently terrifying, she may decide to avoid Clerres forever.’

  He stood abruptly, prompting me to slide my own chair back and tighten all my muscles. He smiled ruefully at my wariness. I am not a short man, but even if I had been standing, he would have towered over me. Yet he spoke courteously. ‘Even if my dragon cannot muster, at present, the will to avenge her kind on these “Servants”, I would wish to kill them all myself. For her.’ He met my gaze squarely. ‘I will not apologize for how I first behaved when you came to my city. My caution was warranted, and I am still dubious about much of your tale. No one saw you descend from the hills into Kelsingra. Your party arrived with more baggage than I believe you could comfortably carry. None of you had the weathered look common to folk who have made a long journey through the wilderness. I could not help but regard you with great caution. I had believed that only the Elderlings of old could use the standing stones as portals.’

  He stopped speaking. I met his gaze and said nothing. A spark of anger glittered in his metallic eyes. ‘Very well. Keep your secrets. I sought you out not for myself but for Heeby. It is at her bidding that I aid you. Therefore, despite my own reservations, at her urging, I offer you this. I am forced to trust that you will reveal this gift to no one – human, Elderling or dragon—until you are well away from Kelsingra. What use you might have for it, I cannot imagine. By touching dragon-Silver, Lady Amber has dipped her fingers into her own death, and printed death onto you with her touch. I do not envy either of you. But I do wish you success in achieving your mission before death takes you.’

  As he spoke, he had reached into his waistcoat. My fingers found the haft of Riddle’s knife, but what he drew forth was not a conventional weapon. I thought the fat tube was made of metal until I saw the slow shifting of Silver within it. ‘Few of the containers the Silver-workers used survived. The glass is very heavy, and the glass stopper is threaded to ensure a tight fit. Nevertheless, I counsel you to handle it carefully.’

  ‘You’re showing me a glass tube of Skill?’ I would assume nothing.

  He set it on the table and it rolled until he stopped it with a touch. The tube was as fat around as an oar handle, and would fit solidly in a man’s hand. He reached into his waistcoat again and set a second tube beside the first. The glass chinked lightly as they touched and the silver substance inside it whirled and coiled like melted fat on top of stirred soup.

  ‘Showing you? No. I’m giving it to you. After what Heeby has shared with me I assume
that your Lady Amber requested it to use against the Servants. So here it is. Your weapon. Or your source of magic. Or however you need to use it. It is from Heeby, given freely by a dragon, as only a dragon could grant you dragon-Silver.’

  There was a tap at the door. He picked up the Silver and shoved it at me. ‘Conceal it,’ he told me harshly. Startled, I fumbled my hold on the tubes and then gripped them. They were warm, and much heavier than I’d expected them to be. With no other hiding-place close by, I shoved them inside my shirt and folded my hands at the table’s edge to conceal the bulge as he went to the door.

  ‘Ah. Your food,’ he announced and admitted a serving man, who gave him a wide-eyed look before carrying a tray to the table and beginning to set out food before me. His brow was scaled as were the tops of his cheeks. His lips were flat and taut, fishlike, and when he shifted his mouth, I glimpsed a flat grey tongue. His eyes, too, moved strangely when he turned his gaze to me. I looked away from his unvoiced plea. I wanted to apologize that I could not help him but dared not open that discussion. I shamed myself by quietly thanking him. He nodded dumbly and backed out of the door, his eyes skimming over Rapskal. News of my visitor would swiftly reach the kitchens and spread as only gossip can.

  ‘Will you join me?’ I asked the general.

  He shook his head. ‘No. I expect that within minutes you will have one or two more of the household dashing through that door to be sure I have not harmed you. A pity. I should like to learn how you travel by those pillars. And why Heeby says you smell like you have a dragon companion, but not one she knows. I suspect there are things I know that would benefit you.’ He released a sigh. ‘So much is lost when there is no trust. Farewell, Prince FitzChivalry Farseer. I hope the trade and magic alliance you have proposed for our peoples prospers. I hope it does not end in war.’

  Those chilling words were his farewell. The moment he closed the door behind him, I rose and took the glass tubes of Skill to my pack. I hefted the vessels thoughtfully and watched the slow swirl when I tipped them. I studied each stopper; they appeared to be tight and felt slightly tacky, as if resin had been added to the seal. I tucked each into a heavy sock, doubling the ends over and then put them into a thick wool hat before snugging it into the bottom of my pack. The glass of the tubes appeared heavy and strong, but I would take no chances. Indeed, I agreed with Rapskal. I would tell no one that I had this, least of all the Fool. I had no idea why Amber had asked for dragon-Silver. Until she saw fit to divulge what she had planned, I had no intention of putting it at her disposal. It had alarmed me that she had silvered her fingertips, and I could still not sort out how I felt about the fingerprints that once more graced my wrist. I sighed. I knew my decision was sensible and wondered why I felt guilty about it. Worse than guilty. Deceptive and sly.

  The others breezed in later that afternoon, full of tales of the city. In an ancient arboretum, the trees had long perished, but there remained statues that slowly changed their poses, and a fountain that chortled with the voices of happy children. Both Lant and Spark had seen the faint shapes of Elderlings moving among the ghosts of green trees and climbing vines. Amber nodded to that account but Perseverance looked forlorn. ‘Why do I hear and see nothing?’ he demanded. ‘Even Amber hears their whispers! When the dragons fly over, the others say they hear them calling to each other. Mostly insults and warnings about hunting territory. But all I hear is the bugling, not that different to the calls of elk in rut.’ The indignation in his voice bordered on anger.

  ‘I wish you could hear and see what we do,’ Spark offered quietly.

  ‘Why can’t I?’ This he demanded of me.

  ‘I can’t say with certainty. But I suspect it’s something you were born with, or without. Some folk have an affinity for a magic. The Skill. Or the Wit. If they have the affinity, they can develop it. Rather like herd-dogs are born with the concept of bunching sheep, and hound pups that follow a scent, even before they are taught the fine points of it.’

  ‘But dogs can be taught to herd or hunt, even if they are not those breeds. Can’t you teach me to see and hear what the others do?’

  ‘I’m afraid not.’

  Per glanced sideways at Spark, and I sensed perhaps a rivalry, or simply a wish to share. Lant spoke quietly. ‘I don’t see or hear as much as the others do.’

  ‘But I hear and see nothing at all!’ The words burst from the boy.

  ‘That might be a gift rather than a lack. Perhaps you should think of it as an armour against magic. Your imperviousness was why you could resist the impulse to join the others in the carriage drive on the night Withywoods was raided. It was why you could help Bee to stay hidden as long as she did, and to help her try to escape. Your deafness to the Skill and to the magic of Kelsingra may be as much of a shield as a weakness.’

  If I had thought to comfort him, it failed. ‘A lot of good that did her,’ he said miserably. ‘They still took Bee from me. And they still destroyed her.’

  His words damped all our spirits. A morose silence fell. Whatever pleasure they had taken in the magic of the city was engulfed in the miasma of recalling why we had come here. ‘General Rapskal came to see me today,’ I said, dropping the words like stones into a still pool.

  ‘What did he want?’ Amber asked. ‘Did he threaten you?’

  ‘Not at all. He said that he came to wish us success in our quest for vengeance. And that Heeby, his dragon, had a dream about the Servants. And Clerres.’ I summarized for them my visit from Rapskal.

  A profound silence followed my words. Per was the first to speak. ‘What does all that mean?’

  ‘Rapskal suspects that some great disaster befell the dragons. He believes that Heeby hates the Servants of Clerres because they somehow murdered the remaining dragons. Or as many as they could kill.’

  Lady Amber’s face had slackened into the Fool’s features. In the Fool’s voice, he whispered, ‘That would explain so much! If the Servants foresaw a disaster to the dragons and the Elderlings, then they could plan to make it worse. If their goal was to eliminate all dragons from the world, and they succeeded, then they might foresee that we would try to restore them. And so they would create the Pale Woman, and hold me captive at the school and send her out in my place. To be sure that the dragons had no chance of being restored.’ His gaze went distant as he recalled all we had done. ‘The pieces fit, Fitz.’ Then a strange smile lit his face. ‘But they failed. And we brought dragons back into the world.’

  A shiver ran up my back and stood my hair on end. How far ahead had the Servants planned their strategy? The Fool had once hinted that they had used him to draw me away from Withywoods so that they might steal Bee. Did their dreams and omens warn them that we were coming? What other obstacles or distractions might they devise for us? I smothered those fears. ‘We still don’t know why they wanted to destroy the dragons.’

  He shot me the Fool’s mocking glance. ‘I said it explained much, not all. The Servants play a very long game with the world and the lives of all those in it. And they play it only for their own good. I would speak with this Heeby and see what else she can recall.’

  ‘I don’t think that’s wise. I think all of us should avoid General Rapskal as much as we can. He does not seem … stable. Today he was courteous, even kind. Nonetheless, I do not trust him. He told me plainly that he does not believe our story of how we came here, nor how you silvered your fingers. He strongly suspects that we came by the pillars. He glimpsed you near the dragons’ well on the night you dipped your fingers, Fool. For all our sakes, stay clear of him.’

  For a long time, he was silent. Then his features assumed the poise of Lady Amber. ‘I suppose that is the wiser course. And you say that Heeby speaks only to him? Would any of the other dragons recall anything of the Servants, do you think?’

  ‘I don’t think so. But how could we possibly know?’ I pondered a bit. ‘IceFyre knows. He survived whatever befell the dragons and of his own will entombed himself in ice. He should recall
those times. He would know if the Servants had anything to do with the extinction of the dragons. I suppose it’s possible he shared that tale with Tintaglia.’

  ‘But he is not here. Many of the dragons went to the warm lands for the winter. Some went two or even three years ago. I gather that IceFyre left and has not returned.’

  A cold dread uncoiled in my belly. I tried to keep it from showing on my face. ‘Fool. Lady Amber. What is the climate like on the White Island? And in the nearby lands?’

  She fixed her blind eyes on me. ‘Warm. Mild. I never knew winter until I travelled north to the Six Duchies.’ She smiled, her face falling into the Fool’s lines. ‘It’s beautiful, Fitz. Not just the White Island, not just Clerres. I meant the other islands and the mainland. It’s a gentle land, a much kinder place than you have ever known. Oh, Buck is beautiful, in its savage way. It’s stark, a stern land, and it makes folk as stony as its bones. But my land? It has gentle rolling hills, wide river valleys and herds of cattle and flocks of sheep. Not the rangy creatures you call cattle in Buck and the Duchies. Big brown cows with sweeping horns and black muzzles, their backs head-high to a man. It’s a rich and easy land, Fitz. Farther inland, there are golden-shored lakes that teem with fish and there are steaming springs in the wooded hills.’ He sighed and seemed lost for a time, perhaps recalling the days of his childhood. Abruptly, Amber cocked her head at me. ‘Do you think that is where dragons go when the winter freezes the land here? Or went, at some time?’

  I imagined gentle rolling pasturelands, fat cattle stampeding in terror and swooping dragons. ‘That would explain why the Servants would wish to eliminate them. Dragons have not proven favourable for the Six Duchies. Perhaps the Servants found them more than an inconvenience.’ Did the Servants know how to kill dragons? Were there dragons that would never return to Kelsingra?

  ‘Let me ponder this, and recall what little I know of the dream-prophecies that mention dragons.’ Amber scowled suddenly and it was the Fool who said, ‘And why has it never occurred to me to wonder why there are so few dream-prophecies that mentioned dragons? Are there no dream-prophecies of the rise and fall of the dragons? Or were they suppressed?’

  Suppressed, I thought to myself. As the Fool suppressed his memories of Clerres. I needed to unlock both those mysteries. A slow plan to do so began to unfold in my mind.

  SIX

  * * *

  Revelations

  I first dreamed the Destroyer when I was still on Aslevjal Island. Beloved’s Catalyst had returned for a second time. I believe his presence triggered both my dreaming and the vision of the Destroyer. In that dream, the Destroyer was a fist gripping a flame. The hand opened and the flames flared tall but instead of giving off light, they brought darkness. And everything I had ever known was destroyed.

  It had been so long since I had dreamed a Dream that I told myself I had imagined that it was significant. Had not I just achieved all my goals? Why would a dream so dark come to me amid my triumph? Nonetheless, I was moved to say to the White Prophet and his Catalyst that the time had come for them to part. One of them, at least, accepted the truth of my words, but I saw that they both
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