Assassins fate, p.29
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       Assassin's Fate, p.29

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

  Of that I was certain. Unless … I wondered an unthinkable thing about my mother. Would not that explain why I looked nothing like him? Wouldn’t it explain why he had left me so easily that day? He’d said he’d had to go, that he had to save the battered old beggarman. The blind beggarman, with the broken hand and the lumpy foot …

  And then the ship made a slow, sickening tip. I felt the ship must stand on its nose. Did we move? I could not tell until the sickening impact, both hard and soft. Something thudded into the wall beside me and then fell to the deck as the ship tried to right herself. I felt we sank, and then bobbed up like a cork. Even below the deck, I heard a crash and men shouting. I wondered what had happened.

  ‘Sounds like we lost some rigging, maybe even a mast.’ Kerf’s voice came deep and slow in the darkness. Then with rising urgency he asked, ‘Where are we going? When did we board a ship? I was taking my prize, my won woman, home to my mother! Where is she? How did we get here?’

  ‘Control him!’ Dwalia warned Vindeliar savagely, but he made no response. I slid my foot across the floor and in the dark I found a yielding lump.

  ‘I think Vindeliar hit his head,’ I said, and then cursed myself for a fool. He was unconscious and could not stop me. I did not think Kerf would care. This was my best chance to kill her and free all of us. The ship was shuddering around us. Without warning, it began to climb again. I heard Vindeliar’s body slide across the floor.

  Weapon. I needed a weapon. There was nothing in the room that would serve me as a weapon. I had nothing I could use to kill her.

  Except Kerf.

  ‘You are a prisoner. As am I.’ I tried to deepen and smooth my voice. I needed to sound rational and older. Not like a terrified child. ‘They took Alaria from you and sold her as a slave. Before that, they lost Lady Shun for you forever, by tricking you into bringing her back to her captors instead of taking her home to safety. Remember, Kerf? Remember how they dragged you through a magic stone and almost made you lose your mind? They did it again. And now they have tricked you into leaving Chalced and your home behind.’ Despite my efforts, my voice had gone higher and childish as I tried to sting him with the wrongs done to him.

  He made no response to my words. I risked it all. ‘We have to kill her. We must kill Dwalia. It’s the only way we can stop her!’

  ‘You evil little bitch!’ Dwalia shrieked at me. I heard her scrabbling, trying to get out of her bunk, but the tilt of the ship was on my side. She was downhill from me. I could not wait for Kerf. He was too addled still. I tried to move quietly in the dark as I half-crawled and half-slid toward her. I had only moments to reach her before the ship would level itself on a wave’s crest.

  I slid into the edge of the bunk, fought to stand and felt for her. She was struggling to rise. I tried not to touch her, to give her no warning of where I was or what I intended. I had to guess where her neck was as I darted my hands toward her head. I touched her nose and chin with one hand, shifted down and seized her throat in both hands. I gripped and squeezed.

  She slapped me, hard, on the side of my head. My ear rang. I held tight but my hands were too small. At best, I was pinching the sides of her neck, not throttling her of air as I’d hoped to do. She screamed words at me that I did not understand, but I could hear the hatred in them. I snaked my head in to try to bite her throat and found her cheek instead. That would not kill her but I bit her anyway, clenching my teeth tight in her meaty face and trying to grind my teeth together. She screamed and battered at me with her fists, and I suddenly knew she was hitting me hoping that I’d let go because she feared to tear me away from her face, knowing that I’d take a bite of it with me. Living meat is much tougher than cooked. I worked my teeth back and forth, grinding through her flesh, feeling savage and triumphant in equal measure. She was hurting me, but it would cost her. I’d see to that. I closed my jaws and worried her flesh as if I were a wolf shaking a rabbit.

  Then Kerf blundered into us. I knew a surge of hope. With him helping me, we could kill her. The ship was upright. He could draw his sword and stab it right into her. I wanted to shout this to him, but I would not let go my bite. Then, to my horror, he seized me. ‘Let go,’ he said in the dull voice of a sleepwalker.

  ‘Pull her off,’ Vindeliar ordered him. He’d only been temporarily stunned.

  ‘No! No, no, no!’ Dwalia was shrieking. She seized hold of my head and held it close to her face, but Kerf was stronger. I felt my teeth meet and then as he jerked me away the meat of her face tore and came with me. As if I were a shovelful of earth, Kerf tossed me aside. I hit the floor, spat Dwalia’s cheek out and then slid as the ship began to tilt again. I wound up in a corner and braced myself there. Dwalia was screaming hysterically as Vindeliar nattered at her, demanding was she hurt, what was wrong, what should he do now? I gagged at what I had done. Her blood slimed my chin. I scraped my teeth over my tongue and spat Dwalia out on the floor.

  Vindeliar was busy with Dwalia. I had no idea where Kerf was or what he was doing. Get out. As soon as she could, she would beat me. I knew now how much she would enjoy hurting me. Nothing would stop her from killing me now.

  In the darkness of the tossing ship, I’d lost my bearings. When the ship pressed me to one wall, I spidered along it but encountered no doorframe. The ship hit the wall of water and wrenched sideways. Yells of dismay came from the sailors working the deck. So now it was time to fear something bigger than Dwalia. I decided I would be frightened for the ship sinking after I got out of the cabin and away from her.

  The next time the ship tilted, I went with it to the opposite wall. I was halted briefly by someone’s boot, probably Kerf’s. I struck the wall, felt the doorframe, pulled myself up, opened the door and climbed around it until I fell out. I heard it fall back into place behind me. Dwalia was still screaming curses at me. I wondered how long I had before they realized I was not in the cabin.

  I crawled off into the darkness of the tilting deck beneath the swinging hammocks. I heard curses and prayers and grown men weeping. I blundered into an upright post and clung there for a moment. I made myself be still, forced myself to recall what I had seen of the between-decks area. Then, as the ship crested another wave, I made my way to the next post. I clung, waited, and then moved again, blundering past a man. On and away. If I drowned when the ship sank, I would not drown next to Dwalia.

  FOURTEEN

  * * *

  Paragon’s Bargain

  In the matter of the wild-born White known as Beloved:

  We have been unable to confirm the village of his birth. All records of his coming to Clerres have either been incorrectly stored, or have been destroyed. In my opinion, Beloved has found a way to infiltrate our record chambers, has located the records that pertained to him and his family and has hidden or destroyed them.

  Tractable when we first received him, he has become unmanageable, inquisitive, deceptive and suspicious. He remains convinced that he is the true White Prophet, and will not regard our teachings that out of several candidates, the Servants choose who is best suited for this task. Neither kindness nor harsh discipline has shaken this belief in him.

  Although he would be a valuable addition to the White lineages when he comes of an age to breed, his temperament and outspoken ways mean that it would be a dangerous distraction to the others to allow him to continue to have unfettered access to them.

  I present to my three peers my opinion. It was an error for the boy to be coddled and spoiled. The plan to lull him into security and harvest his dreams has only encouraged him to be rebellious and secretive. To continue to allow him to range freely, to visit the village and to mingle with our other charges is to invite disaster.

  My suggestions are these: As our White Prophet has suggested, mark him clearly with tattoos.

  Confine him. Continue to spice his meals with the dream-drugs and see that is he well supplied with brush, ink, and scrolls.

  Contain him for twenty years. Stroke his vanity. Tell him we h
old him in isolation so that his dreams cannot be tainted by the talk of others. Tell him that while he is not the true White Prophet, he serves the world and the Path by continuing to dream. Allow him pastimes but do not let him mingle with other Whites.

  If, by the end of that time he has not become manageable, poison him. These are my suggestions. Ignore them, and I will take none of the blame for what he does.

  Symphe

  Give a man a dreaded task. Then put him in a situation where he must wait to attempt that task. Make it a difficult task as well. Confine him where there is little for him to do, and rare opportunity to be alone. Time will stand still for that man. I know this to be true.

  I tried to fill my days aboard Paragon with useful pursuits. Amber and I would isolate ourselves in her cabin for a session of reading and discussing Bee’s dream-writings. Those sessions were painful to me, made only more chafing by the Fool’s avaricious consumption of her journal. ‘Read that again!’ he would command me, or worse, ‘Does not that dream tie in to the one you read me four days ago? Or was it five? Go back in the book, Fitz, please. I must hear the two read together.’

  He savoured the dreams that he claimed were proof that Bee was his child, but I was tormented by unremembered moments of my little girl. She had written those carefully penned words alone, and illustrated them with inks and brushes pilfered from my desk. She had laboured on all these pages, each illustration so exact, each letter so precisely inked, and I had known nothing of her obsession. Had she done this work late at night, while I slept, or perhaps while I ignored her and Molly to morosely pen my own thoughts in my private study? I didn’t know and would never know. Every recounted dream, every peculiar little poem or detailed illustration, was a rebuke to the father I had been. I could avenge her death. I could kill as my memorial to her, and perhaps die in the effort and end my shame. But I could not undo how I had neglected the child. Every time the Fool exclaimed over how cleverly she had worded a rhyme, it was like a tiny burning coal of shame deposited on my heart.

  The weather held fine for us. The ship operated smoothly. When I walked on the deck, I felt as if the crew moved around me while they trod the intricate steps of a dance to a music only they could hear. The river current swept us along for the first part of our journey, with little need for canvas. The dense green walls of the sky-tall forest towered higher than any mast. Sometimes the river raced deep and swift and the trees were so close that we smelled the flowers and heard the raucous cries of the birds and nimble creatures that inhabited every level. One morning I awoke late to find that the river had been joined by a tributary and now spread wide and flat round us. On the left side of the ship, the forest had retreated to a green haze on the horizon. ‘What’s over there?’ I asked Clef when he paused near me in his duties.

  He squinted. ‘Don’t know. Water’s too shallow for Paragon or any large ship. There’s just this one channel down the middle and we’re damn lucky that Paragon knows it as well as he does. On that far side, the river gets shallower and then gives onto stinking grey mudflats that would suck a man down to his hips. And they stretch at least a day’s walk, maybe two, before trees start again.’ He shook his head and mused, ‘So much of the Rain Wilds in’t for humans. We’re better off remembering that not all the world is made for us. Hey! Hey! You don’t coil a line like that!’ He was off down the deck and I was left staring across the water.

  The river bore us ever closer to the coast, and I became aware by my Wit and Skill both that the ship was not a passive component of our journey. By day, I sensed his awareness. ‘Does he steer himself?’ I asked Amber at one point.

  ‘To some degree. Every part of him that touches water is made of wizardwood. Or more accurately, dragon-cocoon. The Rain Wilders built the ships that way because the water of this river eats anything else away quickly. Or so it was at one time. I understand that the Jamaillians have come up with a way of treating wood that lets an ordinary ship ply this river without being eaten. Impervious ships, they call them. Or so I’m told. A liveship would have some control over its rudder. But only some. Paragon can also control every plank of his hull. He can tighten or loosen. He can warn his crew if he’s leaking. Wizardwood seems able to “heal” after a fashion, if a liveship scrapes bottom or collides with another vessel.’

  I shook my head in wonder. ‘A marvellous creation indeed.’

  The slight smile Amber had been wearing faded. ‘Not created by men or even by shipbuilders. Every liveship was meant to be a dragon. Some remember that more clearly than others. Each ship is truly alive, Fitz. Puzzled in some cases, angry or confused in others. But alive.’ As if that had given her some new thought, she turned away from me, set her hands on the railing and stared out across the grey water.

  Our shipboard days quickly fell into a pattern. We breakfasted with Brashen or Althea, but seldom both. One or the other of them always seemed to be on deck, prowling about with a keen eye. Spark and Perseverance kept themselves busy. The rigging seemed to both fascinate and daunt them, and they challenged each other daily. It was a task for Lant to corner them and settle them to letters and learning. Spark could already read and write but had a limited understanding of Six Duchies geography or history. It was fortunate that she seemed to enjoy the hours Lant spent instructing her, for Per could not have endured being kept at pen and paper while Spark roved the ship. Often enough the lessons were held on the deck, while Amber and I quietly plotted imaginary murders.

  The noon meal was less formal, and often I had little appetite for it, having spent my morning in idleness. It troubled me that the skills I had fought to regain at Buckkeep were now becoming rusty again, but I saw no way to drill with an axe or a sword that would not have invited questions or created alarm. In the afternoon, Amber and I were often closeted with Bee’s books. We took our evening meal with Brashen and Althea. The ship was usually anchored by then, or tied off to trees depending on the river’s condition.

  After the evening meal, I was often left to my own devices, for Amber spent almost every evening with Paragon. She would don a shawl and make her way to the foredeck, where she would settle herself cross-legged on the peak of the bow and talk with him. Sometimes, to my discomfort, Paragon would hold her in his hands. She would sit on his palms, his thumbs under her hands so she could face him, and they would converse far into the dark. At his request, she borrowed a small set of pipes from Clef and played for him—low, breathy music that seemed to be about loneliness and loss. Once or twice I wandered forward to see if I might join them, for I confess the curiosity seethed in me as to what they might be talking about for so many nights. But without insult it was made plain to me that I was not to be included in their discussions.

  The galley and the area belowdecks were the province of the crew. On Paragon, I was not only a stranger, a foreigner and a prince, I was also the idiot who had upset the figurehead and let him publicly threaten me. The rattling games of chance played belowdecks and the crew’s rough humour was not to be shared with the likes of me. So as often as not I spent the evening alone in the cramped cabin Spark shared with the Fool. I kept my mind busy as best I could, usually with leafing through Bee’s books. Sometimes I was invited to Althea and Brashen’s stateroom for wine and casual talk, but I was keenly aware that my companions and I were their cargo rather than their guests. So when I politely declined an invitation one evening, my dismay rose when Brashen said bluntly, ‘No, we need to talk. It’s important.’

  A little silence held as I followed him back to their stateroom. Althea was already there, with a dusty bottle of wine on the table and three glasses. For a brief time, all three of us pretended that this was no more than a chance to share a fine vintage and unwind at the end of the day. The anchored ship rocked gently in the river’s current. The windows were open overlooking the river and the night sounds of the nearby forest canopy reached us.

  ‘We’ll leave the river tomorrow afternoon and head toward Bingtown,’ Brashen announced suddenly.


  ‘We’ve made good time, I think,’ I said agreeably. I had no idea how long such a voyage usually took.

  ‘We have. Surprisingly good. Paragon likes the river and sometimes he dawdles on this leg of the journey. Not this time.’

  ‘And that is not good?’ I asked in puzzlement.

  ‘That is a change in his behaviour. And almost any change is a cause for worry.’ Brashen spoke slowly.

  Althea finished her wine and set her glass firmly on the table. ‘I know Amber has told you a little of Paragon’s history—how he is, in essence, two dragons in a ship’s body—but there is more you should know. He’s led a tragic life. Liveships absorb the memories and emotions of their families, and the crews who live on board them. Early in his awareness, perhaps due to his dual nature, he capsized and a boy of his family died tangled in lines on his deck. It scarred him. Several times after that, he turned turtle, drowning all aboard him. Such is the value of a liveship that each time he was found and righted, re-fitted and sailed again. But he became known as a bad luck ship, mockingly called the Pariah. The last time he was sent out he was gone for years. He returned to Bingtown on his own, drifting against the current and was found, hull up, just outside the harbour. When he was righted, they discovered that his face had been deliberately damaged, his eyes chopped away, and he bore on his chest a brand that many recognized. Igrot’s star.’

  ‘Igrot the pirate.’ Their tale was fleshing out the bones of what Amber had told me. I leaned closer, for Althea spoke in a low voice as if fearful of being overheard.

  ‘The same.’ Brashen spoke the word with such dull finality that I could no longer doubt the seriousness of the conversation.

  ‘Paragon was abused in ways that it is hard for someone not of Bingtown lineage to understand.’ Her voice had become stiff. Brashen interrupted. ‘I think that’s as much as an outsider can understand about Paragon. I’ll add that Amber re-carved his face, giving him back his sight. They became close during those days. And he has obviously missed her and feels great … attachment to her.’

  I nodded, still baffled by their sombre tone.

  ‘They are spending too much time together,’ Althea said suddenly. ‘I don’t know what they are discussing, but Paragon is becoming more unsettled with every passing day. Both Brashen and I can feel it. After so many years living aboard him, both of us are …’

  ‘Attuned.’ Brashen suggested the word, and it fitted. I thought of telling them exactly how much I did understand it, and then refrained. They considered me peculiar enough without my revealing a hereditary magic that let me touch minds with other people.

  And possibly with liveships? It had certainly felt that way with Tarman. I’d kept my Skill tightly restrained since my incident with Paragon, fearing that if I lowered my walls to read him, he’d not only be aware of it, but annoyed by it. I’d already agitated him enough. So, ‘I can imagine that sort of a bond,’ I offered them.

  Althea accepted that with a nod and poured more wine for all of us. ‘It’s a bond that goes both ways. We are aware of the ship and the ship is aware of us. And since Amber came on board, Paragon’s emotions have become more intense.’

 
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