Assassins fate, p.17
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       Assassin's Fate, p.17
 

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

  ‘So did we!’ Vindeliar. ‘He is my brother!’ He poked his head past the doorframe and smiled at me. His cheeks were not as plump as they had been and his sparse hair was dull but the light of friendship was still in his eyes. I hated him. They never would have found me if he had not mastered Kerf for Dwalia. He’d betrayed me.

  The guard stared at him. ‘Your brother. I see the resemblance,’ he said but no one laughed.

  I felt sick. ‘I don’t know those people,’ I said. ‘They’re lying to you.’

  The guard shrugged. ‘I don’t really care, as long as someone settles your fine.’ He swung his gaze back to Kerf. ‘She got caught stealing a loaf of pollen bread. You’ll have to pay for it.’

  Kerf nodded dully. I knew that Vindeliar was controlling him, but not too well. Kerf seemed very dim, as if he had to think carefully before he could speak. Ellik had always seemed very sure of himself. Was Vindeliar losing his magic or was something going wrong with Kerf? Perhaps the two trips through the stone had done it. ‘I will pay,’ he said at last.

  ‘Pay first, then you can take her. You owe for four days of her keep here, too.’

  They shut my door and walked away. I felt a twinge of gladness that they would cheat him for extra days, and then worried that perhaps I had been here four days and had lost track of time. I waited for them to come back, dreading that I’d be with them again but almost relieved that someone else would be in charge of me. It seemed to take a long time, but eventually I heard the latch lift.

  ‘Come along,’ Dwalia snapped at me. ‘You are far more trouble than you are worth.’

  Her eyes promised me a beating later, but Vindeliar was smiling fatuously at me. I wished I knew why he liked me. He was my worst enemy, but also my only ally. Kerf had seemed to like me, but if Vindeliar held his reins, I had no hope of help from him. Perhaps I should try to build my friendship with Vindeliar. Perhaps if I had been wiser, I would have done that from the very start.

  Dwalia had a long coil of light cord. Before I could protest, she looped it around my neck. ‘No!’ I cried but she jerked it tight. When I reached for it, Kerf took one of my hands and she seized my right hand and turned it up behind my back. I felt a loop of the cord coil around my wrist. She was very quick at doing it; doubtless she had done this before. My hand was uncomfortably high and I could not lower it without tightening the loop around my neck. She held the end of the line in her hand. She gave it an experimental tug and I had to jerk my head back.

  ‘There we are,’ she said with great satisfaction. ‘No more little tricks from you. Off we go.’

  After the cool dimness of my cell, the bright day was painful, and soon too warm for me. Kerf and Dwalia walked in front of me, my leash barely slack. I had to hurry to keep up with them. Vindeliar trotted beside me. It struck me how oddly he was made, with his bean-shaped body and short legs. I recalled how Dwalia had called him ‘sexless’. I wondered if she had castrated him like the men did our goats when they wanted to raise them for meat. Or had he been born that way?

  ‘Where is Alaria?’ I asked him quietly.

  He gave me a miserable look. ‘Sold to a slaver. For money for food and passage on a boat.’

  Kerf gave a twitch. ‘She was mine. I wanted to take her to my mother. She would have been a good serving wench. Why did I do that?’

  ‘Vindeliar!’ Dwalia snapped.

  This time I opened my senses and I felt what he did to Kerf. I tried to understand it. I knew how to put up my walls to keep out my father’s thoughts. I’d had to do that since I was small, just to have peace in my own mind. But it felt as if Vindeliar pushed a wall into Kerf’s mind, one that kept out Kerf’s thoughts and made him share what Vindeliar thought. I pushed against Vindeliar’s wall. It was not that strong but I was not sure how to breach it. Still, I heard a whisper of what he told Kerf. Don’t worry. Go with Dwalia. Do what she wants. Don’t wonder about anything. It will all be fine.

  Don’t touch his mind. Don’t break his wall. The warning came from Wolf Father. Listen but don’t let him feel you there.

  Why?

  If you make a way into his thoughts, it’s also a way for him to come into yours. Be very careful of touching his mind.

  ‘Where are we going?’ I asked aloud.

  ‘Shut up!’ Dwalia said just as Vindeliar said, ‘To the boat for our journey.’

  I went quiet but not because of Dwalia’s order. For just a moment I had sensed that it was hard for Vindeliar to talk, trot at Dwalia’s heels and control Kerf. He was hungry, his back hurt and he needed to relieve himself, but he knew better than to ask Dwalia to pause. As I kept my silence, I felt his focus on Kerf grow tighter and stronger. So. A distraction might weaken his control. That was a small but useful thing to know. Wolf Father’s voice was a bare whisper in my mind. Sharp claws and teeth. You learn, cub. We will live.

  Are you real?

  He did not answer but Vindeliar cocked his head and stared at me strangely. Walls up. Keep him out of my mind. I would always have to be on guard now. I tightened my guard on myself and knew that when I shut out Vindeliar, I shut out Wolf Father as well.

  EIGHT

  * * *

  Tintaglia

  This dream was like a painting that moved. The light was dim, as if pale grey or blue paint had been washed over all. Beautiful streamers in brilliant colours moved in a slow breeze that came and went, came and went, so that the streamers rose and fell. They were shimmering pennants of gold and silver, scarlet, azure and viridian. Bright patterns like diamonds or eyes and twining spirals ran the length of each pennant.

  In my dream, I moved closer, flowing effortlessly toward them. There was no sound and no feel of wind on my face. Then my perspective shifted. I saw huge snake-heads, blunt-nosed, with eyes as large as melons. I came closer and closer, although I did not wish to, and finally I could see the faint gleam of a net that held all those creatures as fish are caught in a gill net. The lines of the net were nearly transparent and somehow I knew that they had all rushed into the net at the same moment, to be trapped and drowned there.

  This dream had the certainty of a thing that had happened, and not just once. It would happen again and again. I could not stop it for it was already done. Yet I also knew it would happen again.

  Bee Farseer’s dream journal

  Early the next morning there was a knock on our chamber door. I rolled from the bed and then stood. The Fool did not even twitch. Barefoot, I padded to the door. I paused to push my hair back from my face and then opened it. Outside, King Reyn had flung back the hood of his cloak and it dripped water on the floor around him. Rain gleamed on his brow and was caught in droplets in his sparse beard. He grinned at me, white teeth incongruous in his finely-scaled face. ‘FitzChivalry! Good tidings, and I wanted to share them right away. A bird just came in from across the river. Tarman has arrived there.’

  ‘Across the river?’ A brandy headache had begun a sudden clangour in my head.

  ‘At the Village. It’s far easier for the barge to nose in there than it is for it to dock here, and it’s much better for Captain Leftrin to offload cargo there than having us ferry it across the river a bit at a time. Tarman had a full load: workers for the farm, a dozen goats, sacks of grain. Three dozen chickens. We hope the goats will fare better than the sheep did. The sheep were a disaster. I think only three survived the winter. This time we will keep the chickens penned.’ He cocked his head and apologized. ‘Sorry for awakening you so early, but I thought you’d want to know. The ship will need cleaning before it’s fit for passengers. A day, perhaps two, three at worst. But soon you’ll be able to depart.’

  ‘Welcome news indeed,’ I told him. I reached past my headache to dredge up courtesy. ‘Although your hospitality has been wonderful, we look forward to continuing our journey.’

  He nodded, scattering droplets. ‘There are others that I must notify. Forgive me that I must go in haste.’

  And off he went, dripping down the corridor.
I tried to imagine Dutiful delivering such a message to a guest. I watched him go and felt a twinge of envy for how spontaneously the Dragon Traders seemed to interact. Perhaps I had had it backwards all along. Perhaps being a bastard had given me far more freedom than living within the rules that bound a prince.

  I shut the door as the Fool crawled to the edge of the bed. ‘What was that?’ he asked unhappily.

  ‘King Reyn with news. The Tarman is docked across the river. We will depart in a day or two.’

  He swung his legs over the edge of the bed, sat up, and then leaned forward, his head in his hands. ‘You got me drunk,’ he complained.

  I was so tired of lying. ‘There are things I have to know. One way or another, Fool, you need to talk to me.’

  He moved slowly, lifting his head from his hands cautiously. ‘I’m very angry with you,’ he said quietly. ‘But I should have expected this from you.’ He lowered his face back into his hands. His next words were muffled. ‘Thank you.’

  He clambered from the bed, moving as if his brains might spill out of his skull, and spoke in Amber’s voice. ‘Thymara has requested my time for a visit. I think she is exceedingly curious about the Silver on my hands and how it affects me. I think today I will call on her. Would you summon Spark to help me dress?’

  ‘Of course.’ I noticed she did not ask me to accompany her. I supposed I deserved that.

  That afternoon, when the rain eased, I ventured out with Lant. I wished to see the map-tower. I had first seen it many years ago when I had accidentally stumbled through a Skill-stone and into Kelsingra. The fine maps that Chade and Kettricken had given me had not survived the bear attack. I hoped to refresh what I recalled with a look at that Elderling map. But we had not walked far when I heard the wild trumpeting of dragons, and then the shouts of excited people.

  ‘What is it?’ Lant asked me, and in the next breath, ‘We should return to the others.’

  ‘No. Those are welcoming shouts. A dragon returns, one that has been long absent.’ A trick of the wind had brought a name to my ears. ‘Tintaglia returns,’ I told him. ‘And I would see her again.’

  ‘Tintaglia,’ he said in hushed awe. His eyes were wide. ‘Riddle spoke of her. The queen dragon who came to help free IceFyre, and then rose as his mate. She who forced IceFyre to lay his head upon the hearthstones in Queen Elliania’s mothershouse, to fulfil the challenge that Elliania had set for Dutiful.’

  ‘You know all that?’

  ‘Fitz. It’s known to every child in the Six Duchies. Hap Gladheart sings that song about the dragons, the one that has the line, “Bluer than sapphires, gleaming like gold.” I have to see her for myself!’

  ‘I think we shall,’ I shouted at him, for a wild chorus of dragons trumpeting now drowned our voices. They had risen from the city, in greeting or challenge. It was an astonishing sight, beauty and terror mingling equally. They cavorted like swallows before a storm, but these were creatures larger than houses. They gleamed and glittered against the cloudy sky, in colours more like jewels than creatures of flesh.

  Then, flying over the tops of the trees in the distance, I saw Tintaglia. For a moment, I could not resolve how close she was to us; then, as she flew nearer, I realized my error. She truly was that large—she dwarfed any of the dragons we had seen in Kelsingra—far larger than the last time I had seen her.

  This queen dragon was aware of the stir she was causing in the city. She swept far wide of us, in a great circle. As she spiralled round and round, I could scarcely take my eyes off her. My heart lifted in admiration and I found that a grin commanded my face. I managed a glance at Lant and saw that he had clasped both his hands on his breast and was smiling up at her. ‘Dragon-glamor,’ I croaked out, but I still could not stop smiling. ‘Careful, Lant, or you will burst into song!’

  ‘Oh, brighter than sapphires and gleaming like gold!’ and there was music in his voice and longing. ‘No minstrel’s song could do justice to her. Gold and then silver she glitters, bluer by far than jewels! Oh, Fitz, would that I never had to look away from her!’

  I said nothing. Tales of dragon-glamor were well known now throughout the Six Duchies. Some never fell prey to it, but others were ensorcelled by the mere glimpse of a dragon in the distance. Lant would hear no warning from me now, but I suspected the spell would be broken as soon as she was no longer in sight. Had I not already had my Skill-walls raised against the clamour of Kelsingra, it was likely I would have felt as giddy as he did.

  It quickly became apparent that she would land in the plaza before the Greeting Hall. Lant hurried and I kept pace with him. Even so, she was on the ground before we arrived, and Elderlings and lesser dragons had begun to gather. Lant tried to surge forward but I caught his arm and held him back. ‘Queen Malta and King Reyn,’ I cautioned him. ‘And their son. They will be the first to greet her.’

  And they were. Even the dragons of Kelsingra kept a respectful distance—something I had not expected. Tintaglia folded her wings leisurely, shaking them out twice as if to be sure that every scale was in place before gradually closing them to a chorus of admiring sighs from those who had gathered. When Reyn and Malta appeared with Phron on their heels it was obvious to me that Malta had performed a hasty grooming and Reyn had donned a clean tunic and smoothed his hair. Phron was grinning in awestruck wonder but Malta’s expression was more reserved, almost stony, as she descended the steps to stand small before Tintaglia. Queen to queen, I found myself thinking, despite the size difference.

  Reyn walked at her side but half a step behind as the queens advanced to greet one another. Tintaglia surveyed Malta, her neck arched and her eyes slowly whirling as if she inspected her. Malta’s expression did not change as she said coolly, ‘So you have returned to Kelsingra, Tintaglia. Your absence has been long this time.’

  ‘Has it? To you, perhaps.’ The dragon’s trumpeting was musical, and her thoughts rode on the sound. ‘You must recall that dragons do not reckon time in the tiny droplets of days that seem so significant to humans. But yes, I have returned. I come to drink. And to be well groomed.’ As if to snub Malta for her rebuke, the dragon ignored Reyn and swung her head to look down at Phron, who gazed up at her adoringly. The dragon’s eyes spun fondly. She leaned down and breathed on him, and I saw his garments ripple in her hot breath. Abruptly, she flung her head up and then glared all about in indignation. ‘This one is mine! Who has interfered with him? What foolish dragon has dared to alter what is mine?’

  ‘Who has dared to save his life, do you mean? Who has dared to set his body right, so that he need not choose between breathing and eating? Is that what you ask?’ Malta demanded.

  Tintaglia’s gaze jerked back to Malta. Colours rippled in her throat and cheeks and the scales of her neck abruptly hackled into a series of crests. I thought Queen Malta would at least step back. Instead, she stepped forward and this time Reyn moved with her and beside her. I was astonished to see a similar flush of colouring in the crest of flesh above her brow. Malta stood, hands on her hips and her head tilted back. The patterns in the scales on her face echoed Tintaglia’s in miniature.

  The dragon’s great eyes narrowed. ‘Who?’ she demanded again.

  Ice crept up my spine and I held my breath. No one spoke. Wind wandered amongst us, adding to the chill, ruffling hair and reddening noses.

  ‘I thought you might be pleased to see I was still alive. For without the changes wrought in me, I doubt I would be.’ Phron stepped forward to stand between his parents and the dragon. Malta’s hand reached out to snatch him back to safety, but Reyn put his hand on top of her wrist. Slowly, he pushed her arm down and then caught her hand in his. He said something and I saw a flicker of agony cross Malta’s face. Then she stood silent as her son faced down the dragon that had shaped all of them.

  Tintaglia was silent. Would she admit that she cared if he lived or died? But she was a dragon. ‘Who?’ she demanded, and the colours on her throat flared brighter. No one replied and she set the end of h
er muzzle against Phron’s chest and pushed him. He staggered back but did not fall. It was enough.

  ‘Stand well clear of me,’ I told Lant. I took three steps into the open space that surrounded the dragon. My walls were up tight. I lifted my voice into a shout. ‘Tintaglia. Here I stand!’

  Faster than a serpent strikes, her head whipped around and her gaze fixed on me. I could almost feel the pressure of that scrutiny as she said, ‘And who are you, who dares use my name?’

  ‘You know me.’ I controlled my voice but pitched it to carry. Phron had glanced at his parents but he had not retreated to shelter behind them.

  Tintaglia snorted. She shifted so she faced me. The wind of her breath was meaty and rich. ‘Few are the humans I know, little gnat. I do not know you.’

  ‘But you do. It was years ago. You wished to know where the black dragon was. You hunted me through my dreams. You wanted IceFyre freed from his prison. I am the one who did what you could not. I broke the glacier and released him from both ice and the Pale Woman’s torment. So you know me, dragon. As you know my daughter, Nettle. And as you know me, so also you owe me!’

  There was a collective gasp at my words. From the corner of my eye, I saw Lady Amber emerge onto the steps, with Spark and Per flanking her. I prayed she would not interfere, that she would keep the youngsters safely out of the dragon’s knowing. Tintaglia stared her me, her eyes whirling gold and silver, and I felt the pressure of her mind against mine. For one instant, I yielded my walls to her. I showed her Nettle in her dreamed gown of butterfly wings. Then I slammed the gates of my mind, shutting her out and desperately hoping my walls could hold.

  ‘Her.’ Tintaglia made the simple word a curse. ‘Not a gnat, that one. A gadfly, a biting, buzzing blood-sucking …’

  I’d never seen such a large creature strangling on words. I felt a sudden rush of pride in Nettle. She had used her Skill and her dream-manipulation to strike back at the dragon, turning the creature’s own weapons against her. With no formal training in the Farseer magic, Nettle had not only bent Tintaglia to her purpose, but persuaded that strong-willed queen to make IceFyre honour Prince Dutiful’s promise to lay the black dragon’s head on the
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