Assassins fate, p.27
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       Assassin's Fate, p.27

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

  begets cruelty.’

  ‘Deliberate cruelty is never forgivable,’ Althea said brusquely.

  Amber nodded curtly. ‘I understand that now, perhaps better than I once did.’

  We moved away from the foredeck. Brashen tossed his chin at the crewmen who were staring at us, and they suddenly stirred to life. I gently pried my arm from Per’s grip. ‘I’m fine,’ I told him. ‘Get to learning the ship. I’ll call you if I need you.’

  He looked doubtful but Clef gave a sharp whistle and the boy perked like a summoned dog. ‘Go on,’ I told him, knowing it was what he longed to do and what was best for him, and he went. With a sudden rattle of black feathers, Motley swooped in to land on Per’s shoulder. Clef startled and Per laughed. The tension broke like a bubble popping. I left him explaining the bird to Clef and Ant.

  We hadn’t gone more than a dozen steps when Ash abruptly appeared. ‘Is all well?’ he demanded anxiously, in a voice so boyish I knew he had changed his self along with his clothing. I felt a pang that we had stolen this superlative young spy just when Chade might need him most, but I also knew that her dual identity could not be used aboard the ship.

  ‘It is, Spark,’ I told her. She gave me an odd look. ‘You can relax,’ I added. I pointed toward Clef and suggested, ‘Go explore the ship with Per.’

  She gave me a girl’s relieved smile and trotted off with an eagerness that told me I’d given her exactly the right prompt.

  Althea ambushed me at the stateroom door with sparks of anger in her eyes. ‘You can’t be careless on this ship! We warned you.’

  ‘You did,’ I agreed. ‘He tricked me into coming into range. It was my own fault.’

  My agreement set her back. Amber groped out and I offered her my arm. She gripped it tightly. ‘Ah, Fitz. As you do not know Paragon’s history, you cannot be as terrified as I was.’

  ‘We need to get underway. People are staring. The sooner we are away from Trehaug, the less they have to gossip about,’ Brashen suggested tersely.

  I looked toward the city. Yes, people were pointing, others just gaping. I wondered how many had witnessed what had happened, and how Paragon’s jealousy would be interpreted by those who had not heard his words.

  ‘Walk me to my room, please. I’m still recalling the ship,’ Amber lied, giving me a graceful way to depart.

  ‘They didn’t even ask what he’d said to me,’ I observed quietly.

  ‘Some of it we overheard. I had no idea he would feel so possessive of me.’

  ‘Must you be so pleased about it?’ I demanded.

  She laughed. ‘I’d feared that he had forgotten me.’

  ‘After you re-carved his face and gave him back his sight?’

  ‘Paragon is changeable. One moment he’s an adoring child, the next a vindictive, angry adolescent. Sometimes, he is manly and brave and chivalrous. But I never lean too strongly on any of his moods, for I know how quickly they can shift.’

  ‘Have you really forgotten your way around the ship?’

  A rueful smile twisted her mouth. ‘Fitz, you have such amazing faith in me. I haven’t been on this ship in decades. I can recall the layout but will I know how many steps from fore to aft, how many steps in a ladder, when to duck for a doorway? No. Yet I must walk as if I am confident of the way. I know that when I grope or cling to a wall, I become less of a person and more of an obstacle. So, I pretend I can see more than I do.’

  ‘I’m sorry.’ And I was. And disheartened. I thought again of the long and weary way he had come, alone and horrendously wounded, blind in the snow.

  ‘Is this the door?’ she asked.

  ‘I think so.’ I was more rattled than I wanted to admit. I’d been stupid. I kept trying to think of what I should have done when Paragon seized me.

  ‘I thought you were leading me.’

  ‘I was letting you hold my arm while we walked.’ I tapped on the door and when no one answered, I opened it. ‘I see your things. Everywhere. There are three bunks and a fold-down table. Spark’s pack is open, and she has obviously rummaged through it.’

  Amber entered and allowed herself to grope and touch. I shut the door behind us. She moved carefully in the small room, measuring distances in careful steps and the reach of her arms. ‘I recall it,’ she said as she perched on the lower bunk. ‘I once shared this room with Althea and Jek. Three people crowded into this space. It was tense at times.’ I pushed my pack completely under the lowest bunk and set my bag of clothing by the door.

  ‘Crowding does that to you.’ I sat down beside her. The motion of the ship had changed and I did not find it pleasant. We’d cast off from the dock and the current of the river was taking charge. I looked out the small porthole. We were picking up speed and moving away from shore into a deeper channel and swifter current. I’d never liked the sensation of being disconnected from the ground. The pace of a horse had a rhythm. A ship might lurch in any direction at any moment. I tried to settle my stomach into accepting the unpredictable.

  ‘What’s wrong?’ she asked softly.

  ‘I’m not seasick, but I don’t enjoy the motion. I’d just become accustomed to Tarman’s waddle, but Paragon—’

  ‘No. What’s really worrying you?’ He spoke as the Fool.

  I didn’t look at him. Was there anyone else I could admit this to? Probably not. ‘I’m … I’m not what I used to be. I make more mistakes, and they’re more serious. I think I’m alert and ready and fit for anything, and then I’m not. Things and people take me by surprise. Brashen seizes me from behind and I’m so focused on Paragon not even my Wit let me know he was there. Despite being warned, the ship lured me into coming within his arm’s reach with almost no effort. He could have killed me. In an instant.’

  ‘Fitz. How old are you?’

  ‘Exactly? I’m not sure. You know that.’

  ‘Take a guess,’ he chided me.

  I blew out my distaste for the subject. ‘Sixty-two, perhaps sixty-three. Sixty-four, maybe. But I don’t look it and most days I don’t feel it.’

  ‘But you are it. It’s going to take its toll. You had a good life, for a time. An easy life. With Molly. Calm and prosperity dull a man’s edge just as endless battle and hardship dulls the gentler parts of the soul.’

  ‘It was good, Fool. I wanted it to be forever. I wanted to grow old and to die with her sitting by my bed.’

  ‘But you didn’t get that.’

  ‘No. I got this. Chasing across half the world to kill people I don’t know, people who didn’t know me but still came to destroy what little peace and joy I had left.’ As I put words to that, I felt a fury that would have let me snap a man’s neck. Dwalia. I could have broken her in half with my bare hands at that moment. Then it passed and I felt foolish and empty. And, worst of all, incompetent. I spoke a guilty fear. ‘They lured me away from Withywoods, didn’t they? So they could raid it while I was away.’

  ‘I fear they did.’

  ‘How could they plan that?’ He had explained it before but I wanted to hear it again.

  ‘They have access to thousands of prescient dreams from scores of young Whites. They could find the right circumstances to nudge you in the direction they desired.’

  ‘And you?’

  ‘Probably I was part of it. Did I escape, or was I released? Were the chance strangers who helped me along the way truly kind or were they conspirators with the Servants? I don’t know, Fitz. But I don’t think you can blame yourself.’

  ‘I make too many mistakes! I had my sword at Ellik’s throat, and my strength gave out. When I should have followed Bee into the Skill-pillar, my magic was gone. So many mistakes, Fool. How roughly I “healed” those children.’ I looked at his empty eyes. ‘And just now, with Paragon … Stupid, stupid, stupid.’ I reached to seize his gloved hand. ‘Fool. I’m not competent to do what you want done. I’m going to fail you, drag you down into torture and death with me. Will Lant and Per and Spark fall with us? Will we listen to Per scream? Watch Spark abu
sed and torn? I can’t stand it. I can’t stand to think of it. Do you wonder that I want to send them home, that I am terrified of bringing anyone with me into this? I fear failing all of you as I have feared nothing else in my life! I’ll fall for some trick of theirs … how can I battle people who even now may know what I’m likely to do next? They might even know that we are on our way to kill them.’

  ‘Oh, I consider that likely,’ the Fool observed heartlessly, then added quietly, ‘you’re hurting me.’

  I released my clutch and he massaged his hand. His words had quenched my last spark of courage. In our silence, the moving ship spoke around us. I heard the water and the creaking of Paragon’s wizardwood timbers. Felt the press of his sentience and tightened my walls. ‘This is insane. I can’t do this. We’ll both die. Possibly messily.’

  ‘Probably so. But what else would we do with the rest of our lives?’

  I thought about that like a wolf chewing on a bare bone. Or chewing on his leg in a trap.

  ‘Nighteyes,’ he said.

  ‘He’s gone,’ I said dully. ‘If I still had him, I wouldn’t feel so diminished. His senses were so sharp and he shared all with me. But he’s gone completely now. I used to feel him inside me, sometimes. I could almost hear him, usually mocking me. But I don’t even have that any more. He’s just gone.’

  ‘That’s not what I meant, though I’m sad to hear it. No, I was recalling Nighteyes at the end of his life. You wanted to heal him and he refused. How you tried to leave him safe while we went after the Piebalds and he came after you.’

  I smiled, remembering my wolf’s determination to live until he died. ‘What are you saying?’

  He spoke solemnly. ‘This is our last hunt, old wolf. And as we have always done, we go to it together.’

  THIRTEEN

  * * *

  Full Sails

  I am so bothered when the dreams make no sense, but still swell with importance. It is hard to write down a story that has no sequence or sense, let alone make a picture of what my dream showed me. But here it is.

  A flaming man offers a drink to my father. He drinks it. He shakes himself like a wet dog, and pieces of wood fly in all directions. He turns into two dragons that fly away.

  I am almost certain that this dream will come to pass. A dream that makes no sense!

  Bee Farseer’s dream journal

  It was a chill and rainy day. I wore my old jerkin over the cheap, loose shirt and trousers Dwalia had grudgingly purchased for me in Chalced. The layers were uncomfortable but I had no coat. Kerf, Vindeliar and I had fled the stench in the tiny cabin. We huddled in the skimpy shelter of the deckhouse eaves, and watched the heaving grey seas amid the endless pattering rain. Few merchants wished to take the air that day. The two who trudged past us in deep conversation made my heart leap with hope.

  ‘Six days to Woolton. I’ll part with my Sandsedge brandy there, for a tidy profit. I want to look at their currant liqueur. It has a tartness that wakes the tongue, and is as good a tonic for a man as it is a pleasure to the ladies.’ He was a small man, lithe as a rat and dressed all in ratty grey.

  The tall woman beside him laughed and shook her head. The bangles in her ears brushed her shoulders; a nest of yellow braids crowned her head, hatless in the rain. ‘I’ve no stock to sell there, but I hope to acquire an item or two. It’s not called Woolton for nothing. Their weavers make magnificent rugs. If I take one as a gift to my buyer in the Spice Isles, he may spend his clients’ money a bit more freely. I’ll be glad to get off this ship for a bit. We’ve a layover there, before a seven-day run to Cartscove, if this wind holds.’

  ‘The wind is good, but this rain I’d wish gone.’

  ‘The storm is good by me.’ The woman looked up, letting the rain fall on her face. The man stared at her bared throat. ‘Less chance of pirates or the Tariff Fleet spotting us. But I’m looking forward to a couple of days on dry land.’

  Two days in port. Two days in which to find a way off the ship and out of Dwalia’s custody. Six days to win Vindeliar over to my cause. If he fled with me, and kept us both hidden, what chance would Dwalia have of finding us? I knew that luring him from his ‘path’ would be like luring a wild bird from a berry bush. The wrong words might frighten him off completely. I would have to be very careful. I put myself on a strict schedule. For three days I would court his friendship. Only on the fourth would I begin to persuade him to help me.

  Kerf hunched beside of me, his shoulders bowed against the rain, his face nearly blank with Vindeliar’s overlay of servitude. I felt sorry for him. He looked like a once-proud stallion hitched to a dung cart. At night, when he stripped for sleep, I noticed the slackening of the muscles in his arms and chest. Under Vindeliar’s sway, he moved less and less like a warrior and more like a servant. Much more of this, and he would lose his usefulness as a protector. I wondered if Dwalia saw that.

  On the other side of me, Vindeliar slumped. He had an odd face: sometimes boyish and at other times the face of a disappointed old man. It had fallen into dismal folds today as he stared at the waves. ‘So far from home,’ he said woefully.

  ‘Tell me of our destination, brother.’ Being asked to speak always flattered him. I had become the avid listener, never correcting or silencing him. ‘What will it be like when we arrive there?’

  ‘Oh,’ he breathed out long, as if he did not know where to begin. ‘It depends on where we land. We may dock in deep water, on the other side of the island. We may land in Sisal or perhaps Crupton. Dwalia will be known there. I hope for a night in a comfortable inn and a good meal. Lamb with mint, perhaps. I like lamb. And a warm, dry room.’ He paused as if already savouring those simple pleasures. ‘She may hire a carriage to take us to Clerres. I hope she does not want to ride there on horseback. A horse’s back has never fitted my bottom well.’

  I nodded sympathetically.

  ‘And we will go to Clerres. Perhaps we may dock there … It will depend on what sort of a ship we can find. It will be full summer when we arrive. Hot for you, little northern thing that you are. Nice for me. I will welcome the sun baking the aches out of my joints. Clerres gleams white on a sunny day. Some of it is built of ancient bone, and other parts are white stone.’

  ‘Bone? That sounds frightening.’

  ‘Does it? Not to me. Worked bone can be lovely. When we get there, we will wait for low tide to bare the causeway and then cross to our island sanctuary. Surely you have heard of it! The tops of the watchtowers are shaped like the skulls of ancient monsters. At night, the torches inside make the eyes gleam with orange light and they appear to be looking out in all directions. It is imposing and powerful.’ He stopped and scratched his wet cheek. Rain dripped from his chin. Then he leaned closer and lowered his voice to impart an important secret to me. ‘The furniture in the four towers is made from dragon’s bones! Symphe has a set of drinking cups carved from dragon’s teeth and lined with silver! They are very old, passed down from Symphe to Symphe, through the generations.’

  ‘Symphe to Symphe?’

  He lifted his pale brows. ‘The woman in the North Tower is always called Symphe. How can you not know these things? I was taught them when I was very young. Clerres is the heart of the world, and the heartbeat of the world must always be steady.’ This last he said as if repeating an adage known the world over.

  ‘Until you took me, I knew nothing of the Servants or Clerres.’ It was not quite a lie. I had read a tiny bit about them in my father’s papers, but not enough to prepare me for what I now endured.

  ‘Perhaps it is because you are so young,’ Vindeliar replied thoughtfully. He gave me a pitying look.

  I shook my head. My hair was now long enough to go to curls in the rain and droplets flew from it. ‘I don’t think they are as famed as you believe them to be. Kerf, had you heard of Clerres before the Servants hired you?’

  He turned slowly toward me, blue eyes widening in slow consternation like a puzzled cow.

  ‘Hush,’ V
indeliar warned me. ‘Don’t ask him questions!’

  Vindeliar furrowed his brow and, as he did, Kerf’s face settled into his habitual scowl. Alertness faded from his eyes. I stood up suddenly and stretched, choosing to do so just as two young deckhands dashed by. Both avoided me, but one turned to look back at me in surprise. I looked directly at him, smiling. He stumbled, caught himself, turned back, and I think he would have spoken to me if someone hadn’t roared a rebuke at him. The command was accompanied by the sound of a rope length snapping against the ship’s railing. Both boys fled to their work. I sat down slowly. Vindeliar was breathing through his nose harshly as if he had just run a race. The world settled around me, as if I had been paddling on the surface of a sea and now sank in stillness below the waves. I avoided his gaze as I tried to quote what he had said. ‘Clerres is the heart of the world, and the heartbeat of the world must always be steady.’

  I peered at him through a sudden blast of rain. I could not tell if the water running down his face was rain or tears. His chin quivered briefly. ‘We who serve the Servants aid them to keep that heart beating steadily. If we obey. If we keep to the Path.’

  ‘But what about you?’ I asked him. ‘What harm if you went to a festival and ate roasted nuts and drank spiced cider? There’s no evil in that.’

  His little round eyes were full of misery. ‘But no good,
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