Assassins fate, p.22
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       Assassin's Fate, p.22

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

  I had not realized that we were on a tributary until we left it and joined the furious rush of the Rain Wild River. The turbulent waters that carried us now were grey with acid and silt. We no longer drew water from the river but relied only on our casks. Bellin warned Perseverance that if he fell overboard ‘all we might pull back would be your bones!’ It did not dampen his enthusiasm at all. He scampered about the deck despite the rain and wind, and the crew tolerated him with good humour. Spark had less endurance for the foul weather, but she and Lant would sometimes stand on top of the deckhouse, sheltering under a square of tarpaulin and watch the passing view as the current swept us along.

  I wondered what fascinated them, for the scenery had become unvarying. Trees. More trees, some of a size I had never imagined, with trunks as big around as towers. Trees made of a hundred spindly trunks, trees that leaned and dropped extra trunks down from the branches into the river’s marshy edge. Trees with vines climbing up them, trees with curtains of vines dangling down. I had never seen forest so thick and impenetrable, or foliage that could survive such wet conditions. The far shore of the river retreated to a foggy distance. We heard more birds during the day, and once saw a shrieking troop of monkeys, very strange to me.

  It was all so different to the familiar landscapes of Buck. Even as it fascinated me and I longed to explore it, my deeper longing was for home. My thoughts went often to my Nettle, gravid with her first child. I’d abandoned her when she was still growing within Molly, to obey the urgent summons of my king. And now I left her to bear my first grandchild alone, at the behest of the Fool. How did Chade fare? Had he succumbed to age and a wandering mind? There were times when taking vengeance for the dead seemed too high a price for abandoning the living.

  I kept such musings to myself. My fears of Skilling lingered. The press of it I had felt in Kelsingra had diminished, but the living ship beneath my feet was a constant hum of sentience against my walls. Soon, I promised myself. Even a brief Skill-contact could convey so much more than the tiny lettering on a messenger bird’s scroll. Soon.

  Once when we were moored for the night, Skelly rose from the table, retrieved a bow and quiver from the crew quarters and then stepped soundlessly onto the deck. No one moved until we heard her shout. ‘I got a river pig! Fresh pork!’ There was a scramble to the deck, and the messy exuberant work of retrieving the dead animal. We butchered him on the narrow mud beach.

  We feasted that evening. The crew built a fire, threw on green branches, and toasted strips of pig in the flames and smoke. The fresh meat put the crew in a merry mood, and Perseverance was pleased to be teased as one of their own. After we had eaten the cookfire became a bonfire that drove back the darkness and the biting night insects. Lant went for firewood and returned with an armful of an early-blooming vine with fragrant flowers. Spark filled Amber’s hands with some and then crowned herself with a garland. Hennesey began a bawdy song and the crew joined in. I smiled and tried to pretend I was neither an assassin nor a father mourning the loss of his child. But to join their simple, rowdy pleasure seemed a betrayal of Bee and how her little life had ended.

  When Amber said she was wearied, I assured Spark that she should stay with Lant and Per and enjoy the evening. I guided Amber as we moved over the mucky shoreline to a rough rope ladder tossed over Tarman’s side. It was a struggle for her to climb the sagging rungs in the long skirts she wore.

  ‘Would not it all be easier if you dropped the pretence of Amber?’

  She gained the deck and tousled her skirts back to order. ‘And which pretence would I then assume?’ she asked me.

  As always, such words gave me a twinge of pain. Was the Fool indeed only another pretence, an imaginary companion invented for me? As if he had heard my thoughts, he said, ‘You know more of me than anyone, Fitz. I’ve given you as much of my true self as I dare.’

  ‘Come,’ I said and took his arm for balance while we both shed our muddy footwear. Captain Leftrin was rightfully fussy about keeping the deck clean. I shook the mud from our shoes over the side and carried them as I guided him back to the cabin. From the shore came a sudden whoop of laughter. A whirl of sparks rose into the night as someone threw a heavy piece of wood onto the bonfire.

  ‘It is good for them to have some enjoyment.’

  ‘It is,’ I replied. Childhood had been stolen from both Spark and Perseverance. Even Lant could use a window of merriness in his permanent wall of melancholy.

  I went to the galley to kindle a little lantern. When I returned to the cabin, the Fool was already out of Amber’s fussy dress and into his simpler garb. He had wiped the paint that composed her face onto a cloth and turned to me with his old Fool’s smile. But in the light of my small lantern, the tracks of his torment still showed on his face and hands as silver threads against his light skin. His fingernails had regrown thick and stubby. My efforts at healing and the dragon’s blood he had taken had aided his body’s recovery more than I had dared hope, but he would never be who he had been.

  But that was true of all of us.

  ‘What are you sighing about?’

  ‘I’m thinking of how this has changed all our lives. I was … I was on the way to being a good father, Fool. I think.’ Yes, burning bodies of murdered messengers at night. Excellent experience for a growing child.

  ‘Yes. Well.’ He sat down on the lower bunk. The upper bunk was neatly spread up. The other two bunks seemed to be serving as storage for the excessive wardrobe that he and Sparks had dragged with them. He sighed and then admitted, ‘I had more dreams.’

  ‘Oh?’

  ‘Significant dreams. Dreams that demand to be told aloud or written down.’

  I waited. ‘And?’

  ‘It is hard to describe the pressure one feels to share significant dreams.’

  I tried to be perceptive. ‘Do you want to tell them to me? Perhaps Leftrin or Alise would have pen and ink and paper. I could write them down for you.’

  ‘No!’ He covered his mouth for a moment, as if the explosive denial had revealed something. ‘I told them to Spark. She was here when I awoke in a terrible state, and I told her.’

  ‘About the Destroyer.’

  He was silent for a moment. Then, ‘Yes, about the Destroyer.’

  ‘You feel guilty about that?’

  He nodded. ‘It’s a terrible burden to put on one so young. She already does so much for me.’

  ‘Fool, I don’t think you need be concerned. She knows that I am the Destroyer. That we are on our way to bring down all Clerres. Your dream just repeats what we all know.’

  He wiped the palms of his hands down his thighs and then clasped them together. ‘What we all know,’ he repeated dully. ‘Yes.’ Abruptly he added, ‘Goodnight, Fitz. I think I need to sleep.’

  ‘Goodnight then. I hope your dreams are peaceful.’

  ‘I hope I don’t dream at all,’ he replied.

  It felt strange to rise and leave him there, taking the lantern with me. Leaving the Fool in the dark. As he was always in darkness now.

  TEN

  * * *

  Bee’s Book

  The preparation of the darts must be done with a steady hand. One cannot wear gloves but one must be extremely cautious, for the smallest nick of the fingers will become infected immediately and the parasites will quickly spread. There is no cure.

  I have found that using the eggs of the boring worms combined with the eggs of the ones that cling inside a man’s guts and become long worms is the most effective in causing a prolonged and painful death. Eggs from one or the other will plague the victim but not lead to death. It is the double attacks of these creatures that inflict the death most befitting the cowards and traitors who dare betray Clerres.

  Various Devices of my own Design, Coultrie of the Four

  After a few days aboard Tarman, I had grown more accustomed to the light press of the ship’s awareness against mine. I was still uncomfortable that a liveship would be privy to any message I might Skill
out, but after much debate with myself, I had decided to risk the contact with home.

  Lady Amber sat down on the ship’s bunk opposite mine. A cup of tea steamed on the little shelf by the bunk. In the small space, our knees nearly touched. She gave a sigh, untwined a scarf from her damp hair and shook it out. Then the Fool reached up to tousle his hair into wild disorder that it might dry more quickly. It was no longer the dandelion fluff of his boyhood, or as golden as Lord Golden’s hair had been. To my surprise, white mixed with the pale blonde of it, like an old man’s hair. White hair, growing from the scars on his scalp. He wiped his fingers on Amber’s skirts and gave me a weary smile.

  ‘Are you ready?’ I asked him.

  ‘Ready and well supplied,’ he assured me.

  ‘How will you know if I need your help? What will you do if I am swept away?’

  ‘If I speak to you and you don’t respond, I’ll shake you. If you still don’t respond, I’ll dash my tea in your face.’

  ‘I hadn’t realized that was why you’d asked Spark for tea.’

  ‘It wasn’t.’ He took a sip from his cup. ‘Not entirely.’

  ‘And if that doesn’t bring me back?’

  He groped on the bunk beside him and held up a small pouch. ‘Elfbark. Courtesy of Lant. It’s well powdered, to mix with my tea and pour down your throat or simply stuff into your mouth.’ He canted his head. ‘If the elfbark fails I will link my fingers to your wrist. But I assure you, that will be my final resort.’

  ‘What if you do, and instead of you pulling me back, I drag you under?’

  ‘What if Tarman hits a rock and we all drown in the acid waters of the Rain Wild River?’

  I stared at him in silence.

  ‘Fitz, get to it. Or don’t. But stop procrastinating. We are far from Kelsingra. Try to Skill.’

  I centred myself and let my vision unfocus, evened my breathing and slowly lowered my walls. I felt the sweep of the Skill-current, as cold and powerful as the river beneath our hull. Just as dangerous. It was not the riptide it had been in Kelsingra, but I knew that it concealed hidden currents. I hesitated upon the brink and then waded in, groping for Nettle. I did not find her. I reached for Thick. A distant wailing of music might have been him, but it faded as if wind had blown it away. Dutiful? Not there. I tried for Nettle again. I felt as if my fingers brushed my daughter’s face and slid away. Chade? No. I had no desire to tatter away in the Skill-current alongside my old mentor. When last I had seen the old man, his moments of acuity had been brief islands in a sea of vagueness. His Skill-magic, once so feeble, now sometimes roared, and he used it without caution. The last time we had connected in the Skill, he had nearly dragged me away with him. I must not try to reach for Chade—

  Chade seized me. It was like being grappled from behind by a boisterous playmate and I was flung headlong into a wild rush of Skill. Oh, my boy, there you are! I’ve missed you so! His thoughts embraced me in a tightening net of fondness. I felt myself becoming the person that Chade imagined me to be. Like clay pressed into a brick mould, the parts of me he’d never known were being sheared away.

  Stop! Let me go! I have word for Dutiful and Nettle, news of Kelsingra and the Dragon Traders!

  He chuckled warmly yet I felt chilled at the soft press of his thoughts. Leave that. Leave all that and join us here. There is no loneliness, no separation at all. No aching bones, no worn-out body. It’s not what they told us, Fitz! All those warnings and dire predictions—faugh! The world will go on without us just as well as it did with us. Just let go.

  Was it true? His words were soaked in conviction. I relaxed in his grip as the Skill-current roared past us. We aren’t tattering.

  I’m holding you tight. Keeping you part of me. It’s like learning to swim. You can’t find out how until you’re all the way into the water. Stop clinging to the bank, boy. You only tear apart when you try to hold onto the shore.

  He had always been wiser than me. Chade had always advised me, educated me and commanded me. He seemed calm and content. Happy, even. Had I ever before seen Chade content and happy? I moved toward him and he embraced me more warmly. Or did the Skill seize me? Where did Chade stop and the Skill begin? Had he already drowned in the Skill? Was he dragging me down to join him?

  Chade! Chade Fallstar! Come back to us! Dutiful, help me. He’s fighting me.

  Nettle gripped him and attempted to peel him away from me. I held to him fiercely, struggling to make her aware of me, but she was focused on separating us. Nettle! I roared my thought, trying to make it stand out from the rip and rush of thoughts around us. Thoughts? No. Not thoughts. Being. Beings.

  I pushed all wondering aside. Instead of clinging to Chade, I thrust him toward her. I’ve got him! She told a Dutiful I barely sensed. And then, in sudden awe, Da? Are you here? Are you alive?

  Yes. We are all fine. Will send you a bird from Bingtown. Then, divorced from Chade, the surge of the Skill began to tear at me. I tried to draw back, but the Skill gripped me like a bog. As I struggled, it sucked at me, pulling me deeper. Beings. The current was a flow of beings, all plucking at me. I gathered my strength and flung myself against its current as I resolutely put up my walls. I opened my eyes to the blessedly cramped and smelly little cabin. I folded forward over my knees, gasping and shaking.

  ‘What?’ the Fool demanded.

  ‘I nearly lost myself. Chade was there. He tried to pull me in with him.’

  ‘What?’

  ‘He told me that everything I learned about the Skill was wrong. That I should give myself over to the Skill. “Just let go,” he said. And I nearly did. I nearly let go.’

  His gloved hand closed on my shoulder and shook me lightly. ‘Fitz, I did not think you had even begun to try. I told you to stop agonizing about it and you fell silent. I thought you were sulking.’ He cocked his head. ‘Only moments have passed since we last spoke.’

  ‘Only moments?’ I rested my forehead on my knees. I felt sick with fear and dazed with longing. It had been so easy. I could drop my walls and be gone. Just … gone. I’d merge with those other rushing entities and wash away with them. My hopeless quest would be abandoned along with the loss I felt whenever I thought of Bee. Gone would be the deep shame. Gone the humiliation that everyone knew how badly I had failed as a father. I could stop feeling and thinking.

  ‘Don’t go,’ the Fool said softly.

  ‘What?’ I sat up slowly.

  His grip tightened slowly on my shoulder. ‘Don’t go where I can’t follow you. Don’t leave me behind. I’d still have to go on. I’d still have to return to Clerres and try to kill them all. Even though I would fail. Even though they would have me in their power again.’ He let go of me and crossed his arms as if to contain himself. I wasn’t aware of the connection I’d felt from his touch until he removed it. ‘Some day we must part. It’s inevitable. One of us will have to go on without the other. We both know that. But Fitz, please. Not yet. Not until after this hard thing is done.’

  ‘I won’t leave you.’ I wondered if I lied. I’d tried to leave him. This insane mission would be easier if I were working alone. Probably still impossible but my failure would be less horrific. Less shameful to me.

  He was silent for a time, looking into the distance. His voice was hard and desperate as he demanded, ‘Promise me.’

  ‘What?’

  ‘Promise me that you won’t give in to Chade’s lure. That I won’t find you somewhere sitting like an empty sack with your mind gone. Promise me you won’t try to abandon me like useless baggage. That you won’t leave me behind so I’m “safe”. Out of your way.’

  I reached for the right words, but it took me too long to find them. He did not hide his hurt and bitterness as he said, ‘You can’t, can you? Very well. At least I know my standing. Well, my old friend, here is something I can promise you. No matter what you do, Fitz—no matter if you stand or fall, run or die—I must go back to Clerres and do my best to pull it all down around their ears. As I told you befor
e. With you or without you.’

  I made a final effort. ‘Fool. You know I am the best man for this task. I know that I work best alone. You should let me do this my way.’

  He was motionless. Then he asked, ‘If I said that to you, and if it were true, would you allow me to go alone into that place? Would you sit idly by and wait for me to rescue Bee?’

  An easy lie. ‘I would,’ I said heartily.

  He said nothing. Did he know I lied? Probably. But we had to recognize what was real. He could not do this. His shaking terror had created serious doubt in me. If he succumbed to it in Clerres … I simply could not take him with me. I knew his threat was real. He would find his way there, with or without me. But if I could get there before him and do my task, if the deed was done, he’d have no quest.

  But would he ever forgive me?

  While I’d been silent, he’d stored the pouch of elfbark in his pack. He sipped from his cup. ‘My tea’s gone cold,’ he announced. He stood, cup and saucer in hand. He smoothed his hair and flounced his skirts into order, and the Fool was gone. Amber trailed her fingers along the wall until she found the door and then left me sitting alone on the narrow bunk.

  The Fool and I had one serious quarrel on that journey. I came to Amber’s cabin one evening at our agreed-upon time as Spark was leaving. Her face was pale and strained, and she gave me a tragic look as she left. I wondered if Amber had rebuked her. I dreaded
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