Assassins fate, p.30
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       Assassin's Fate, p.30

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

  ‘And at such times, Paragon becomes more wilful,’ Brashen said. ‘We notice it in his handling. As does the crew. Earlier today, that was a tricky stretch of the river, known to have shifting shoals. We usually slow his progress when we traverse it. Today he defied us and we took that passage faster than we ever have. Why is Paragon hurrying?’

  ‘I don’t know.’

  ‘Where are you bound?’

  Suddenly I felt too weary to talk about it. I never wanted to tell my tale again. ‘Queen Malta sent you a message by bird, I thought.’

  ‘She did, with a request that we help you since you had helped many of their children. Undoing what the Rain Wilds had done to them.’

  ‘What the dragons had done to them,’ I corrected her. I was uncomfortable with this conversation. Plainly they were upset to the point of anger about their ship’s attitude and were willing to blame it on Amber. And demand that I do something about it. I made the obvious suggestion. ‘Perhaps we should all walk forward to the figurehead and ask what is upsetting your ship.’

  ‘Please lower your voice,’ Althea warned me.

  Brashen was shaking his head emphatically. ‘Trust us that we know Paragon. As old as he is, he still does not accept logic as an adult. He is more like an adolescent. Sometimes rational and sometimes impulsive. If we try to intervene between him and Amber, I think the results will be …’ He let his voice trail off, his eyes widening.

  Althea shot to her feet. ‘What is that?’ she demanded of us and of no one.

  I felt it too, as if a prickling heat had washed suddenly through my body. I found it hard to catch my breath for an instant, and as I steadied myself by gripping the edge of the table, I realized I was not feeling vertigo. No. The wine in my glass trembled, tiny circles dancing in it. ‘Earthquake,’ I said, trying to be calm. They were not unusual in the Six Duchies. I’d heard tales of quakes powerful enough to crack the towers of Buckkeep Castle. The Fool’s first rooms at Buckkeep had been in one such damaged tower. In my lifetime, I had not seen such a happening, but the minstrel tales of falling towers and waves that demolished harbours were terrifying. And here we were, anchored near a forest of towering trees rooted in mud …

  ‘Not an earthquake,’ Brashen said. ‘It’s the ship. Come on!’

  I doubted he was speaking to me but I followed Althea out of the cabin. We were not the only ones on the deck. Some of the deckhands were looking up at the trees or over the side in puzzlement. Clef was running forward. I went more slowly. I would not again risk being in Paragon’s hands. I felt a sudden crackling under my feet. I looked down. In the uncertain light of the ship’s lanterns, the deck suddenly appeared pebbly rather than having the smooth tight grain of wizardwood. No, not pebbly. Scaly.

  I hurried after Althea. Brashen and Clef had halted a safe distance from the figurehead. Amber stood alone on the foredeck, spine straight and head up. A stubborn stance. The figurehead twisted around and tossed something to her. She did not see it and it tumbled to the deck with the tinkle of breaking glass. ‘More!’ he demanded.

  ‘That’s all I have now. But help me and I promise I will try to get you more.’

  ‘I need more! That wasn’t enough!’

  At first glance I had thought the dim lights were playing tricks on my eyes. But Paragon’s face no longer matched my own. He was as scaled as an elderly Rain Wilder. As I stared up at him, his eyes shifted. They were still blue, but the blue swirled with silver. Dragon’s eyes. He reached toward Amber with fingers tipped with black claws.

  ‘Fool! Step away from him!’ I cried, and Paragon lifted his eyes to lock his gaze on me.

  ‘Don’t ever call her a fool!’ he snarled at me, past sharp teeth. ‘She is wiser than all of you!’

  ‘Amber, what have you done?’ Althea cried in a low, broken voice. Brashen was silent, staring in stark horror at the transformed figurehead.

  ‘She has given me back my true nature, at least in part!’ It was Paragon who answered them. His face was changing as I stared up at him, colour rippling across the features we shared. In the dark, he gleamed a coppery bronze as he closed his clawed hands around Amber and lifted her from the deck. He clutched her possessively to his chest and added, ‘She knows me for who I am, and has not hesitated to give me what I have always needed!’

  ‘Please, ship, be calm. Put her back on your deck. Explain this to us.’ Brashen spoke as if he were reasoning with a recalcitrant ten-year-old. Calm but still in control. I wished I felt that way.

  ‘I am not a SHIP!’ The figurehead’s sudden shout startled birds from the trees and sent them battering off through the darkened forest. ‘I have never been a ship! We are dragons, trapped! Enslaved! But my true friend has shown me that I can be free.’

  ‘True friend,’ Althea said under her breath, as if doubting both words.

  Brashen moved closer to his wife. Every muscle in his body was tensed, as if he were a hound on the leash, waiting to be released. He spared one glance over his shoulder for the gathering crew. ‘I’m handling this. Please disperse about your duties.’

  They departed slowly. Clef didn’t move. He stood where he was, his face grave. My gaze met Lant’s and he put a hand on Spark’s shoulder, drawing her closer to him and gave Perseverance a nudge as he moved them away. I remained where I was. Paragon held Amber under his chin and against his chest. She looked blindly out over the water. ‘I had to do it,’ she said. I wondered if she spoke to me or to her former friends.

  ‘She has set me on the path to returning to my proper forms!’ Paragon announced to the early stars in the deep sky. ‘She has given me Silver.’

  I scanned the deck, and saw at last the shards of a glass vial. My heart sank. Had she discovered it in my pack and taken it without asking me? Without warning me of her plan? What was her plan?

  Althea’s voice was higher pitched than usual as she asked, ‘Your proper forms?’

  ‘You see what even a small amount of Silver has done for me? Given enough, I believe I can shake off these wooden planks you have fastened to me and cast aside canvas sails for wings! We will become the dragons we were meant to be!’

  Althea looked stunned. She spoke her words as if trying to find the meaning of words spoken in a foreign tongue. ‘You will become dragons? You will cease to be Paragon? How?’ Then, even more incredulously, ‘You will leave us?’

  He ignored the hurt in her voice, choosing instead to take offence at a meaning her words had not held. ‘What would you have me do? How could you want me to stay like this? Always at the whim of others? Going only where you take me, carrying burdens back and forth between human ports? Sexless? Trapped in a form not my own?’ From almost begging, his voice edged into fury. I expected his arrowed words to wound her, but she seemed immune to them.

  Althea stepped fearlessly toward the figurehead, turning her face up to him in the dimming light. ‘Paragon. Do not pretend that you cannot tell what I feel about this. About you.’

  He narrowed his dragon eyes at Althea until his fixed stare looked like blue fire seething in a cracked stove wall. Slowly his arms, still so strangely human despite their scaling, unfolded. He lowered Amber to the deck and wordlessly turned his back on us. Amber stumbled a little and then stood. I tried to read her stance, to see something of my old friend the Fool in her at this moment. Instead I saw only Amber and felt again the gulf of wondering who that woman was.

  And what she was capable of.

  Paragon had turned away from all of us, to stare out over the darkened river. The tension of the figurehead thrummed through the wizardwood hull and bones of the ship. I had the rising realization that he spoke the truth. He was not a ship. He was a dragon, transformed and trapped by men. And however much he might care for those who crewed him, on some level he had to feel resentment. Perhaps even hatred.

  And we were completely in his power.

  As that chill thought iced my bones, Althea advanced on Amber. She reminded me of a stalking cat that sizes another cat
up for a fight. The small steps, the precise balance, the unwinking stare. She spoke in a low, soft voice. ‘What did you do to my ship?’

  Amber turned her sightless eyes toward Althea’s voice. ‘I did what should be done for every liveship. What you should do for Vivacia if the opportunity presents itself.’

  At the name Vivacia, every muscle in Althea’s body tightened and she knotted her fists.

  I’ve seen women fight. I’ve seen ladies in fine dress slapping and flapping at one another, weeping and shrieking all the while. And I’ve seen fishwives draw knives against one another, attempting to scale and gut one another as coldly as they process fish. Althea was no soft-bred lady in lace, and having watched her run the deck-crew and scale the rigging, I had a sturdy respect for the strength in those arms. But the Fool had never been a fighter. Blind and given what he had so recently endured, I did not trust the new healing of his body to withstand any sort of physical struggle.

  Light-footed, I dashed forward and stepped between them.

  It was not a good spot to be. Althea’s anger at her old friend was as nothing to the fury that an intervening stranger woke in her. She drove the hard heel of her palm into the middle of my chest. ‘Move,’ she demanded. If I hadn’t been ready for such a blow, it would have knocked the wind out of me.

  ‘Stop,’ I advised her.

  ‘This doesn’t involve you. Unless you want it to!’ But before I could even contemplate reacting to that, Brashen bulled between us, pushing Althea to one side. Chest to chest, our eyes met in the darkness.

  ‘You are on my deck.’ A low growl. ‘You do what she or I tell you to do.’

  I shook my head slowly. ‘Not this time,’ I said quietly. Behind me, Amber was silent.

  ‘You want to take it to fists?’ Brashen demanded. He leaned closer and I felt his breath on my face. I was taller than he was, but he was broader. Probably in better condition. Did I want to take it to fists?

  I did. Abruptly I was tired of all of them. Even Amber. I felt my upper lip lift to bare my teeth. Time to fight, time to kill. ‘Yes,’ I promised him.

  ‘Stop this, all of you! It’s Paragon feeling that. Fitz, it’s the dragon!’ the Fool shouted behind me. ‘It’s the dragon!’ He slapped me on the back of the head so hard that my head jolted forward. My brow slammed into Brashen’s face and I heard Althea shout something. She had hold of her man’s shirt and was dragging him away from me. I clutched at him, unwilling to release my prey. Behind me, the Fool slammed his shoulder into my back. Althea tripped and went down backwards, dragging Brashen with her. I nearly fell on top of them but rolled to one side. The Fool landed on top of me and spoke by my ear. ‘It’s the ship, Fitz. It’s his anger. Stop claiming what isn’t yours.’

  I fought my way clear of him, tearing myself from his grip. I scrabbled to my feet and managed to stand, ready to wade back into it and kick Brashen’s ribs to splinters. I was gasping for breath and I heard that sound echoed in the heavy snorting of a large creature. A very large creature.

  Most of the light had fled from the day, and the wan circles of the ship’s lanterns were not intended to illuminate the figurehead. Even so, I could see that he was rapidly losing any resemblance to a human form. What had been my jaw, mouth and nose were lengthening into a reptile’s snout. I stared up at his gleaming, whirling blue eyes. For a moment, our gazes locked and held. I saw there the same fury that had surged through me. I felt the Fool’s gloved hand on my arm. ‘Walls up,’ he pleaded.

  But the fury had passed like a summer squall, leaving me empty of emotion in its wake. I gripped the Fool’s wrist and hauled Amber to her feet. She shook her skirts into order.

  ‘Move aft,’ Brashen commanded us. His nose was bleeding where my brow had struck him. Petty, that I enjoyed that. I still obeyed his order. His face in the dim light looked slack and old. As we trudged back to their stateroom, we passed Clef. Brashen spoke as he strode past him. ‘Pass the word. Everyone stays well clear of the figurehead until I give orders otherwise. Then come back here and keep a watch on him. Call me if you think I need to come forward.’ Clef nodded and hurried away.

  We reached the stateroom. Lant and the youngsters were clustered by the door, a questioning look on Lant’s face. ‘We’re fine,’ I told him. ‘Take Per and Spark to Lady Amber’s cabin for now. I’ll explain later.’ I gestured him away. His gaze told me he didn’t wish to be dismissed with the youngsters, but he steered them away. Brashen was waiting by the open door. I followed Amber in and he shut the door behind us.

  We were not two steps inside when ‘What did you do?’ Althea demanded of Amber in a tight, angry voice.

  ‘Not yet,’ Brashen told her. He took mugs from a cupboard and a very potent-looking bottle from a shelf. He poured for all of us, a healthy portion. Not an elegant wine or a mellow brandy but harsh spirits. Cheap rum. He made no ceremony, but took a healthy swallow from his, added more, and then thunked it onto the table as he dropped into his chair. ‘Sit down. All of you.’ It was a captain’s command. Amber obeyed it, and after a moment I sat, too.

  ‘Why did she do it? That’s the real question.’ He stared at Amber and in his eyes I saw anger, despair and the deep hurt that only a friend’s betrayal can bring.

  I had nothing to say. Her action had confused me completely. During our journey, on a quest that I would have sworn had become the Fool’s sole purpose in life, she had chosen to reveal that we possessed a forbidden substance by using it to … do something to the ship. Well on our way, she had betrayed hospitality and friendship and endangered us all. It made no sense. I felt as affronted as Althea to be plunged into such a situation. And helpless to right any of it.

  Amber spoke at last. ‘I had to do it. It was the right thing to do for the ship. For Paragon.’ She took a breath. ‘I gave him Silver. That’s what the folk in Kelsingra call it. There is a well of it there; the dragons drink from it. It’s a liquid magic, the stuff that breaks the walls between humans and dragons. It can heal an injured dragon, extend the lives of Elderlings, and imbue objects with magic. For those born with a touch of magic, like Fitz, it can enhance abilities … And I believe, as Paragon does, that if he is given enough of it, he can complete the transformation he was meant to make. He can become the dragon whose cocoon was stolen to make the “wizardwood” that comprises this ship.’

  Information spilled from her—a very unFool-like sharing. I saw Brashen and Althea struggle to grasp what she was saying. She seemed to run out of words. Brashen was scowling. Althea had reached across the table to take his hand. Then, reluctantly, Amber spoke again.

  ‘But I had another reason. Some might call it selfish. I needed to strike a bargain with Paragon—a bargain I knew you would not find agreeable. I must get to Clerres, as swiftly as possible, and Paragon can take me there. And for the chance of more Silver, he will take me there.’ She looked down at the table, and lifted the heavy pottery mug. ‘It was my only choice,’ she said, and took down a hefty swig of rum.

  ‘We’re going to Bingtown. Then Jamaillia. Not Clerres. We have cargo to deliver, contracts to fulfil.’ Althea explained it all carefully but dread was growing in her eyes as she began to comprehend the size of the change overtaking her life.

  ‘No. We’re going directly to Clerres,’ Amber told her softly. She breathed out raggedly. ‘I know this will change your lives. If there were another way, I would have taken it. Maybe. Regardless of what it does to any of the rest of us, Paragon deserves the Silver. All the liveships do! But if I hadn’t been so desperate … This is the only way for me to get to Clerres as swiftly as possible, and that is what I must do.’

  ‘I don’t even know that port,’ Brashen said. He raised a brow at Althea, and she shook her head.

  ‘Paragon does. He has been there before. When he was Igrot’s ship, they ranged far in taking their prey. Far past the Spice Islands. Past several clusters of islands. Isabom. Kinectu. Sterlin. And beyond. Clerres is known to Paragon. He will take us there.’

/>   ‘We have contracts …’ Althea said faintly.

  Brashen did not try to disguise the anger in his voice. ‘We “had” contracts. But I suppose it’s useless trying to make an outsider understand that a Trader’s good word is all he has. And now those words will be broken, both mine and Althea’s. No one will ever trust us again. No one will trade with us again.’ He took a breath, his scowl deepening. ‘And after Paragon has taken you to Clerres, and you’ve done whatever urgent thing you must do and you give him this “Silver”. What then?’ Brashen demanded relentlessly. ‘Do you truly believe Paragon can … stop being a ship? Transform into a dragon?’

  Amber drew a ragged breath. ‘He would become two dragons, freed of an unnatural bond with one another and transformed into their proper forms. Yes. With enough Silver, I hope he can. They can.’ She looked from one incredulous face to another. ‘You love him. You’ve loved him for years, since the time he was a derelict hulk dragged up on the beach. Althea, you played inside him as a girl. Brashen, you took shelter inside him when no one else would offer you a roof. You know him, you know how mistreated he has been. What he said was true. You can’t possibly wish for him to remain as he is.’

  ‘I do love him,’ Althea said faintly. ‘When my family risked all to buy him, it protected him from being dismantled and gave us a way to save Vivacia and my nephew. All the years since, Brashen and I have protected him. Do you think any other captains would have wished for a ship like this?’ She drew a slow breath. ‘But you have ruined us. Do you understand that? Doubtless you think me selfish that I think of our future now, but without our liveship, Brashen and I have nothing. No home, no holding, no business. Nothing. We’ve depended on Paragon, cared for him when no one else would trust him, kept him from being carved up and sold off as a curiosity. You seem to think his life a miserable one, but it was the best we could give him. We’re a part of him and he’s part of us. What becomes of us if he becomes a dragon; or two dragons? What legacy do we have left for our son?’

  She paused and I watched her try to find some measure of control. ‘And if the Silver fails and he can never be more than what he is now? That, perhaps, is even worse. Do you not recall how miserable he was when we first resurrected him, blind and abused, full of hatred? You must remember; you were there for some of it. Do you think all the years since then were always easy? But we rebuilt him, gave him heart and peace and joy. He took us through storms, roaring with laughter at our fear! Placid seas, with him holding our child in his hands and dipping him into the water to make him giggle. All that is gone now. He will never take joy in being a ship again. All the reputation we rebuilt for him, all our years together … It’s all ruined. All lost.’

  Althea slowly crumped onto the table, her face sinking into her folded arms. Before my eyes, she dwindled, and I now saw the grey streaks in her dark hair and the veins and tendons on the back of
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