Assassins fate, p.28
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       Assassin's Fate, p.28

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

  either. I must do only what keeps the world to the Path. Harm can come of simple things. The cake I eat, another person lacks. Like tiny pebbles that shift till the hillside gives way, carrying a road into oblivion.’

  Had I heard such a thing, a long time ago? His words rang strangely, even as I hated the sense of them. If he believed that Dwalia knew his destiny and he followed her direction, I had no hope of enlisting his help to escape.

  As if he heard my thought, he said, ‘That is why I cannot help you defy her. If you try to escape, I must stop you and bring you back.’ He shook his head. ‘She was very angry when you ran away in the city. I said I could not make you be obedient. I did it once, that first time. The power was fresh and strong in me that day; she had readied me for the hard work I did. But since then, I cannot make you obey me. She said I was lying. She slapped me many times.’ His tongue moved inside his cheek as if finding sore places. I felt a rush of guilty sympathy for him.

  ‘Oh, brother,’ I said and took his hand.

  It was like thrusting my hand into a cold rush of water, I felt the current that strongly. Like touching my father when his thoughts were unguarded, before I had learned how to protect myself. I felt that his current snatched the thoughts from my mind. I sensed his hold on Kerf, like a strangling rope around his mind. Kerf was no weakling. It was taut with tension, a leash on a lunging dog. I snatched my hand back and tried to disguise what I’d felt by patting his sleeved arm sympathetically. ‘I am sorry she punished you for that.’

  He stared at me. ‘You thought of your father.’

  My heart was beating very fast. Walls, walls, walls. ‘I miss my father constantly,’ I said.

  He reached for me and I stood up. ‘I’m so cold. I’m going inside. Kerf, are you not cold?’

  Kerf’s eyes flickered and Vindeliar was distracted as he brought his lunging dog to heel again. By the time he had mastered Kerf and had him standing to follow me, I was out of his reach on my way back to the cabin. A deckhand coiling a rope paused in his activity and stared at me. So, Vindeliar had been concealing me and controlling Kerf. But doing both at the same time strained his abilities. A useful bit of information.

  However, I’d handed him a weapon I wished he did not have. Did he guess that if he touched me, skin to skin, he might be able to push inside my mind? I did not look back at him or let my thoughts dwell on that. I must do better at guarding my thoughts. I now doubted that I’d be able to lure either Vindeliar or Kerf into helping me. An old sailor strode past me, wet shirt plastered to his back, bare feet slapping the deck. He did not even glance at me.

  I reached the hatch and climbed down the ladder that led into the bowels of the ship where our miserable compartment awaited me. I threaded my way past dangling hammocks and sea chests. As I went, I studied those I passed. A few Chalcedean merchants had clustered to mutter about weather and pirates. I paused near them. None looked at me, but from their talk, I learned that our ship was bragged to be the swiftest out of Chalced. She had never been boarded by pirates, though she had been pursued by them more than once. She had also avoided encounters with the so-called Tariff Fleet and slipped unnoticed past the Pirate Isles without paying toll to Queen Etta and her cutthroats.

  ‘Are the pirate ships that might chase this ship part of the Tariff Fleet?’ I asked aloud, but no one turned toward me.

  Yet a moment later, a younger fellow at the edge of the huddle said, ‘It seems ironic to me that a queen who rules a domain called the Pirate Isles is now troubled herself by pirates.’

  A grey-moustached merchant laughed aloud. ‘Ironic and very satisfying to those of us who once had to run the Pirate Isles corridor hoping to escape the attention of King Kennit. He’d take ship, crew and cargo and turn it to his own purposes. Anyone who could not bring a ransom ended up a resident of the Pirate Isles.’

  ‘Kennit? Or Igrot?’ asked the youngster.

  ‘Kennit,’ the older man affirmed. ‘Igrot was before my time, and a much more brutal beast. He’d take the cargo, slaughter and rape the crew, and then scuttle the vessel. He had a liveship, and nothing outruns one of those. He choked trade for years. Then one day, he simply vanished.’ He widened his eyes at the younger man and mockingly asserted, ‘Some say that on a stormy night, you can glimpse his ghost ship in the distance with her sails blazing and the figurehead shrieking in agony.’

  There was a moment of silence as the young man stared at him, and then all burst into laughter.

  ‘Do you think we’ll elude Queen Etta’s Tariff Fleet?’ the younger man asked, trying to regain a bit of dignity.

  The older merchant tucked his hands into his ornate sash. He pursed his lips and waxed philosophical. ‘We will or we won’t. The deal I struck was that if the ship can get us past the Tariff Fleet, I’ll pay the captain half what I would have paid them. It’s a good bargain, and it’s one I’ve made with him before. On three voyages out of five we slipped past them. Good odds, I think. That little offer of mine makes him willing to crack on a bit more sail, I do believe.’

  ‘Good odds indeed,’ the young man replied.

  I heard awkward steps coming down the ladder and looked up to see Kerf descending with Vindeliar following him. ‘There you are,’ I said brightly. ‘I hurried ahead to be out of the rain.’

  Kerf said nothing but Vindeliar regarded me with a scowl. ‘We’d best return to our cabin,’ he said stiffly. He walked Kerf past me. I stood where I was.

  ‘What will become of me?’ I demanded aloud. ‘What does Dwalia intend for me? Why did she come so far, destroy so much and shed so much blood? She sold Alaria into slavery to get us away from Chalced, without a thought for one who had travelled so far with her. Why didn’t she sell me? Or you?’

  ‘Hush!’ Vindeliar spoke in a soft whisper. ‘I cannot speak to you here!’

  ‘Is that because they cannot hear me? Or see me? And they will think you a madman, talking to yourself?’ I lifted my voice and spoke each word clearly.

  I saw his control of Kerf slipping as one of the men turned his head, scowling, wondering if he’d heard something. An instant later, Vindeliar had Kerf blank-eyed again. He looked at me, trembling from the effort. There was a tremor in his voice as he said, ‘Brother, please.’

  I should have felt only hatred for him. He had facilitated my capture and kept me subdued as they whisked me away. He had hidden Shun and me from any who might have helped us, and still he made me invisible. I was Dwalia’s prisoner, but he was my gaoler.

  It was irrational for me to feel pity for him, yet I did. I tried to keep my stare icy as tears welled in his pale eyes. ‘Please …’ he breathed again, and I broke.

  ‘In the cabin, then,’ I said in a lower, more rational voice.

  His voice was squeezed so tight with fear that it squeaked. ‘She will hear us. No.’

  One of the merchants turned away from his fellows and stared at Vindeliar accusingly. ‘Sir! Do you listen in on our private conversation?’

  ‘No. No! We came in from the rain, to be dry for a bit. That’s all.’

  ‘And you have nowhere to stand but here beside us?’

  ‘I … we are leaving. Now.’ Vindeliar gave me a desperate glance, then prodded Kerf. It must have seemed strange to the merchant that they went right back up the ladder and out onto the stormy deck. I followed more slowly. Vindeliar was shivering as he led us back to the deckhouse. But one of the ship’s boys had claimed our spot and was enjoying a pipe there. He glanced at Vindeliar and then looked away. I cleared my throat loudly. The boy did not so much as startle.

  ‘Brother!’ Vindeliar rebuked me, and trudged down the deck, Kerf following listlessly. The rain had increased, driven by a rising wind. There was no sheltered place. He stopped and leaned miserably on the railing. ‘She will kill me if she finds I’ve answered your questions.’ He gave me a sideways glance. ‘If I don’t answer, you will push me past what I can do. It is harder and harder to hide you. I hid a troop of men from an entire town.
Why are you so hard to hide?’

  I didn’t know and didn’t care. ‘Why me?’ I demanded of him. ‘Why did you destroy my home and ruin my life?’

  He shook his head slowly, deeply hurt at my failure to understand. ‘Not to ruin your life,’ he objected. ‘To set you on the true Path. To control you lest you create a false way and carry us all to a terrible future.’

  I stared at him.

  He sighed. ‘Bee. This makes you important! You are part of the true Path! For so long, there were dreams of the Unexpected Son. Hundreds of dream-scrolls mention him and some are very old. He is full of crossroads. His existence is a junction. A nexus, Symphe says. You create more and more junctions. You are dangerous.’ He hunched down to look into my rain-spattered face. ‘Do you understand?’

  ‘No.’

  He put his hands to both sides of his head and squeezed as if to stifle a pain. Water slid down his face, tear or raindrops or sweat. Kerf stared out over the sea in bovine passivity, not sheltering his face from the driving rain. The storm was rising. The sails were making a slapping sound. The ship rose and then fell, making my stomach lurch.

  ‘More dreams mean something is more likely,’ Vindeliar went on. ‘The Unexpected Son brings change to the world. If you are not controlled, you will set the world on an inappropriate course. You are a danger to the Servants, to Clerres! In all the dreams, he changes things so much that no one can predict a future. You have to be stopped!’ He clamped his mouth shut on his words.

  ‘And you think I am him?’ I asked incredulously. I lifted my arms wide to show how small I was. ‘If you don’t stop me, I will ruin the world? Me?’ A gust of wind slapped me. ‘How do you stop me? Kill me?’ I snatched at the railing as the ship jolted. The wind roared and the rain pelted us harder.

  ‘You must be him.’ His words were a distressed plea. I thought he would crumple into tears. ‘Dwalia said if I found the wrong one she would kill me. She was so angry when she found out you were a girl. That was when she started to doubt me. And you. But it is simple to me. If you are not him, who can you be? I dreamed finding you in my only true dream. You are him, and unless we take you to Clerres, you will change the world’s path.’ He suddenly spoke sternly. ‘When we come to Clerres, we must make everyone believe that you are the Unexpected Son and we did a good thing. YOU must make them believe you are him. If we don’t—’

  Then he clapped his mouth shut so suddenly and firmly that it made a popping sound. His eyes grew wide as he stared over my head at nothing. When he shifted his gaze back to me, I saw anger and betrayal in his glare. ‘You are doing it, aren’t you? Right now. You are making me tell you things, and then you will know and you will change things. Because you are him. You fight me when I try to hide you. You make Dwalia angry with me. You ran away, and so many died. And we caught you again, but Reppin died and Alaria was sold. Now there’s just Dwalia and me, and this Kerf. All those others … you changed all their lives into deaths! That is what the Unexpected Son would do!’ He looked furious.

  Fear gripped me. He had come so close to being my ally. I choked on disappointment. ‘Brother,’ I said, and my voice wavered. ‘Those things only happened because you stole me!’ I didn’t want to cry but the sobs ripped from my chest. I shouted my words past my tight throat. ‘It wasn’t me! It was Dwalia! She came and she killed people. She brought all those luriks there to die. Not me. Not me!’ I sank to my knees. He couldn’t be right. All that death couldn’t be my fault. FitzVigilant. Per’s father. Revel. I couldn’t be the reason for that!

  The storm rose with my fear. It felt as if it was coming out of my chest and blowing all around us. A wave leapt over the railing. It splashed over me and reflexively I grabbed Kerf’s leg. I heard someone shout a command, and three men went racing past us. The nose of the ship began to tip up as if we were going up a steep hill. One of the men shouted at Vindeliar, ‘Get below, you idiot!’ as he ran past.

  I stood up, bracing myself against the deck. The wind blew all around us. We hovered.

  Then the ship tipped again and we were sliding downhill on the wet deck. I skidded past Vindeliar, shrieking. ‘Grab her,’ Vindeliar ordered Kerf. ‘Get her back to the cabin.’

  Kerf stooped and seized a handful of the back of my shirt. He dragged me like a sack as he staggered aft toward the hatch with Vindeliar holding onto him. Men cursed as they avoided us. They moved purposefully but I could make no sense of the shouted commands. Sailors climbed masts and into rigging while storm winds slashed at them and the canvas cracked at each gust. The deck tipped again. We reached the hatch cover but it was closed. Vindeliar crouched and pounded on it, shrieking to be let in. Kerf dropped me and went to one knee. He groaned as he lifted the hatch cover and slid it aside. We more tumbled than climbed down the ladder. Above us someone slammed the cover shut. We were plunged into dimness.

  For a moment, it felt safe. Then the rough plank floor tipped. In the darkness, I heard a cry of dismay, but someone laughed and mocked, ‘You’ll never be a merchant, boy, if a bit of rough water makes you yell.’

  ‘Put out that lantern!’ someone shouted. In an instant, the blackness became absolute and the world seesawed around me.

  I could not tell in which direction our miserable cabin lay. But Kerf knew. Vindeliar said by my ear, ‘Follow us,’ and I did. I clutched at Vindeliar’s shirt and walked in short steps, bumping into beams, a hammock, a sea chest and finally stumbling through an opening that proved to be our cabin door. The floor tilted. I crouched and then sat flat, pushing my palms against the deck to try to stay in one place. When Kerf tried to shut the door, I discovered that I was sitting in the way. I scooted into the room on my rump, fearing to stand. I groped and slid until I found a corner and bracketed myself in it. There I sat in the dark, cradling my bruised hand in my lap. I was wet through, my hair dripping on my neck. Despite the closeness of the cabin, I felt chilled. And hopeless. Let Dwalia be as angry as she pleased. I needed a real answer!

  ‘Why did you steal me? What are you going to do with me?’ I spoke the words loud and clear into the dark.

  I heard Dwalia shift in the bunk as the ship lurched in another direction. ‘Make her be quiet!’ she ordered Vindeliar. ‘Make her fall asleep.’

  ‘He can’t! I can block him out of my mind. He can’t control me.’

  ‘Well, I can! I can control you with a stick, so you’d best be quiet.’ It was a threat but her voice was misery laced with anger. And a trace of fear. The motion of the ship suddenly pressed me back into my corner. I felt like a kitten in a crate that someone was shaking. I didn’t like it at all. But I reminded myself that the sailors on deck had looked busy and challenged, but not terrified. I refused to be afraid. ‘You don’t have a stick, and you couldn’t see me to hit me if you did. Are you afraid to answer me? Why did you steal me? What are you going to do with me?’

  She sat up suddenly in the bed. I knew because I heard the rustle of the blanket and the solid ‘thud’ as her head hit the upper bunk. I smothered my laugh, and then let it burst out of me. In the dark and the tossing storm, defying her, I suddenly felt strangely powerful. I threw words at her. ‘I wonder if the ship will sink. Then all your plans would be for nothing. Imagine if it sank with us stuck in her. Even if we got out of the cabin, we’d never find the ladder and the hatch in the dark. We’d all die here when the cold water came rushing in to find us. I wonder if it would flip upside-down first?’

  I heard Vindeliar take in a ragged breath. Pity for him warred with satisfaction. Could I make them feel how scared and sick I had been when they stole me?

  The ship tilted again. Then it felt as if we hit something, then passed through it. A moment later I heard Dwalia vomit. There had been a bucket by her bunk, but I heard the thin trickle of bile spatter on the deck as she strained and gagged. The smell grew stronger.

  ‘You thought I was the Unexpected Son. Then you thought I wasn’t! Well, I think I am! And I am changing the world, right now. You will never know h
ow I will change it, for I think you will die before we reach port. You have certainly lost flesh and strength. And if you die, and Vindeliar is left alone with us? Well, I doubt I shall go to Clerres.’ I laughed again.

  There was an instant of absolute silence, as if both storm and ship paused. She spoke into it. ‘What will I do with you? I will do to you what I did to your father. I will tear you into pieces. I will have every secret out of you, if I must take every inch of your skin off your meat to do it. And when I am done with you, I will give you to the breeders. They have wanted one of your lineage for a long time. No matter how I disfigure you, I imagine they will find someone willing to rape you until you conceive. You are young. I imagine they can get a score of babies out of your belly before your body gives out.’ She made a cawing sound.

  I’d never heard Dwalia laugh but I knew it for what it was. Cold fear, colder than the wild seawater outside the wall of our cabin, rose in me. Confusion ruled me. What was she telling me? I tried to find that confidence again. ‘You did nothing to my father. You never even saw my father!’

  A pause as the floor shifted in a new direction. In that silence, I heard the timbers of the ship mutter to one another. Then she spoke and she was the darkness itself. ‘So, you do not even know who your father was!’

  ‘I know my father!’

  ‘Do you? Do you know his pale hair and eyes? Do you know his mocking smile and long-fingered hands? I think not. But I do. I blinded those eyes; I put the mockery out of them forever! And I flayed the tips from your father’s long fingers. That was after I’d tugged out his nails, a thin slice at a time. He’ll never juggle again, nor make an apple appear from thin air. I ended his dancing and tumbling, too. I peeled the skin from his feet, oh so slowly. And I put his left foot between two blocks of a vice, one on each side, and slowly, slowly I tightened it, less than a quarter turn for each question. It did not matter if he answered me or not! I asked, and he shrieked or cried out words. And then I tightened the screw. Tighter and tighter, with the top of his foot bulging up until, crunch!’ She cawed again.

  I could hear Vindeliar panting in the darkness. Did he try not to laugh? Was he on the edge of weeping?

  ‘The bones gave way. One stuck up like a little ivory tower from the top of his foot. Oh, how he screamed. I stood beside him, and I looked up at my witnesses, and waited and waited until he could scream no more. And then I tightened the screw another quarter turn!’

  For a long moment, the world paused around me. Even the ship seemed to hover, motionless and nearly level. A father I did not know? A father she had tortured. She had tortured someone; of that I was certain. She spoke of it as if it were the most delicious meal she had ever eaten, or the loveliest song ever heard. But my father? I knew my father. He was Nettle’s father, too, and he was my mother’s husband all those years. Of course he was my father.

  But as if my world teetered as the ship did, the question had to rise. What if he was not my father? What if he never had been? Burrich hadn’t been Nettle’s father. I would not have been the first child handed off to foster-parents. But Molly was my mother.
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