Assassins fate, p.34
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       Assassin's Fate, p.34

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

  the ship. Paragon often required her presence for conversation, or music. It was a freedom that I envied and attempted not to resent. Yet it made for long and lonely evenings.

  One evening after Amber had left the chamber to spend time with the figurehead, I could stand the small, close room no more. With only a slight twinge of conscience, I rummaged through the substantial wardrobe packs that Spark and Amber had brought aboard. I found the wondrous Elderling cloak folded into a very small packet, butterfly side out, and shook it out. Most Elderlings were tall, and the cloak was cut generously. I hesitated. But no, it had been Bee’s treasure and she had given it to Per to save him. In turn, he had surrendered it to the Fool’s use without a murmur. And now it was my turn.

  I donned it, butterfly side in. It fitted, in that uncanny way that Elderling garments had of adapting to the wearer. The front fastened with a series of buttons from my throat to my feet. There were slits for my arms. I found them and lifted the hood to cover my head. It fell forward over my face. I had expected it to blind me, but I could see through it. I watched my disembodied arm reach for the door handle. I opened the door, drew my arm in and stepped out. I stood still, allowing the cloak to adopt the dim colour of the passageway walls.

  I soon discovered what a burden a floor-length garment was. I moved slowly, but still stepped on the front hem more than once. As I explored the ship unseen, any ladder I ascended required that I wait until no one was near, for I had to hike the cloak up to climb. I wondered if the ship were aware of me, but did not wish to test that by venturing too close to the figurehead.

  I ghosted about, moving only when no crew were near and choosing my stopping places carefully. As night deepened, I moved more boldly. I found Per sitting on the deck next to Clef in a circle of yellow lantern-light. I remained outside its reach. ‘It’s called marlinspike work,’ he was explaining to the boy. ‘You use the spike off a marlin’s nose, or some do. I just use a wooden fid. And you take the old line that’s no good for anything else, and you sort of weave the knots and you can make mats or whatever you want. See? Here’s one of the first ones I made. Useful and pretty in its way.’

  I stood soundlessly nearby and watched Clef walk the boy through starting the knot centre. The work reminded me of Lacey, busy with her needles and hooks. She’d made lovely things, cuffs and collars and doilies. And few were the ones who knew that the sharpened tips of her needles were her clever weapons as Patience’s bodyguard. I drifted away from them, wishing that Per could give up his fierce loyalty to Bee and become a ship’s boy. Surely that was better than being involved in assassin’s work.

  I went in search of Lant. Since the crew’s feelings toward us had darkened, I worried for him more than I liked to admit. If any of the crew were to seek a target for their anger, it would most likely be Lant. He was young and able-bodied; it would not be seen as cowardly to provoke him to a fight. I’d warned him often to be wary of hostility. He’d promised to be careful, but with a weary sigh that said he believed he could take care of himself.

  I found him standing on the dim deck, leaning on the railing and looking out over the water. The winds were favourable and Paragon was slicing the water smoothly. The decks were almost deserted. Spark was beside him and they were conversing in low voices. I drifted closer.

  ‘Please don’t,’ I heard him say.

  But she lifted his hand from the railing and stepped inside the circle of his arm. She leaned her head on his shoulder. ‘Is it because I’m low born?’ she asked him.

  ‘No.’ I saw how difficult it was for him to remove his arm from around her and step away. ‘You know that’s not it.’

  ‘My age?’

  He leaned on the railing, hunching his shoulders. ‘You’re not that much younger than I am. Spark, please. I’ve told you. I’ve a duty to my father. I’m not free to—’

  She leaned in and kissed him. He turned his face toward her, letting her mouth find his. He made a low sound, pleading. Then he abruptly gathered her in and moulded her body to his, pushed her against the railing and kissed her deeply. Her pale hands moved to his hips and snugged his body tight to hers. She broke the kiss and said breathlessly, ‘I don’t care. I want what I can have now.’

  I stood in numbed shock.

  He kissed her again. Then, with a discipline I envied, he took her by the shoulders and pushed her gently away from him. He spoke hoarsely. ‘There are enough bastards in my lineage, Spark. I won’t make another one. Nor will I break faith with my father. I promised him, and I fear those words will be the last ones he heard from me. I must see this through to the end. And I will not chance leaving a fatherless child behind.’

  ‘I know ways to prevent …’

  But he was shaking his head. ‘As you were “prevented”? As I was? No. You told me what Amber said to you, that in all likelihood, she and Fitz will both die. And as I am sent to protect him, that means I will die before he does. It will shame me enough to leave you without a protector, though I hope that Per will stand by you. But I’ll not chance leaving you with child.’

  ‘I’m more likely to end up protecting Per!’ She tried to take his hand but he clamped his fingers to the railing. She contented herself with covering his hand with hers. ‘Perhaps I’ll die protecting you before you die protecting Fitz,’ she offered, but her laugh was not a merry one.

  I moved softly away from them, scarcely able to breathe for the tears. I hadn’t realized I’d begun to cry until I’d choked on them. So many lives contorted because my father had given in to lust. Or love? If Chade had not been born, if I had not been born, would other players have stepped up into our roles? How often had the Fool told me that life was an immense wheel, turning in a set track and that his task was to bump the wheel out of that track and set it on a better one? Was that what I’d witnessed tonight? Lant refusing to continue the Farseer tradition of hapless bastards?

  I drifted back to the privacy of the room, closed the door behind me, removed the butterfly cloak and folded it carefully as it had been. I wished I had not worn it. I wished I didn’t know what I knew now. I put the cloak back where I found it, resolving I would not use it again, and knowing that I lied to myself.

  Paragon was selecting our course now, with little regard to what Althea or Brashen might wish. Bingtown had been left far behind, with no pause. We had neither dropped off cargo there nor taken on supplies and water. We had threaded our way along the shifting coast of the swampy shores and entered the waters of the Pirate Islands. Some of them were inhabited, and others were wild and unclaimed places. It made no difference to Paragon. We might look longingly toward tiny port towns alight at night where we may have put in to take on fresh water and food, but he did not pause. On we went, as relentless as the sea itself. And our rations grew ever smaller.

  ‘We are prisoners.’

  The Fool sat up from where he had been lounging on the lower bunk in the sweaty cabin and leaned out to give me a look. ‘Do you speak of Althea and Brashen? You know why they have cautioned you to keep mostly to our cabin.’

  ‘Not them. Under the circumstances, I think they have been very tolerant of us. It is Paragon who has taken us prisoner.’ I lowered my voice, painfully conscious that I could not tell what the liveship was or was not aware of within his wooden body. ‘He cares nothing now for Althea and Brashen’s contracts and deliveries. Nothing for our comfort and safety. He does not care that we are ill supplied for this voyage, having failed to take on supplies in Bingtown. Short rations mean nothing to him. On he goes, through night and storm. When Althea ordered the sails reefed, he rocked so violently that she called her crew back from going aloft.’

  ‘He has caught the current,’ the Fool said. ‘Even without sails, we would be carried through the Pirate Islands and past Jamaillia and on to the Spice Islands beyond them. He knows that, and the crew knows that.’

  ‘And the crew blames us for our situation.’ I sat up slowly in the cramped top bunk, careful of my head on the low ce
iling of the cabin. ‘Coming down,’ I warned the Fool, and left the upper bunk. My body ached from inactivity. ‘I don’t like it when Lant and the youngsters are gone for so long. I’m going out to check on them.’

  ‘Be careful,’ he said, as if I needed a warning.

  ‘When am I not a cautious fellow?’ I asked him and he lifted his brows at me.

  ‘Wait. I’ve decided to go with you,’ he said and reached for Amber’s skirts that were wilted on the floor. The fabric rustled as he drew them up around his hips.

  ‘Must you?’

  He frowned at me. ‘I know Althea and Brashen far better than you do. If there is trouble of any kind, I think I am the better judge of what to do.’

  ‘I mean the skirts. Must you continue to be Amber?’

  His face grew still. He spoke more quietly, the skirts drooping in his hands. ‘I think that adding any other difficult truths to what the crew and the captains must absorb right now would only make our lives more difficult. They knew me as Amber, so Amber I must remain.’

  ‘I don’t like her,’ I said abruptly.

  He gave a caw of laughter. ‘Really?’

  I spoke honestly. ‘Really. I don’t like who you are when you are Amber. She’s, she’s not a person I would choose as a friend. She’s … conniving. Tricky.’

  A half-smile curved his mouth. ‘And as the Fool, I was never tricky?’

  ‘Not this way,’ I said, but wondered if I lied. He had publicly mocked me when he thought it was politically advantageous. Manoeuvred me into what he needed me to do. Still I did not modify my stare.

  He cocked his head at me. ‘I thought we were past all this,’ he said softly.

  I said nothing. He bowed his head as if he could see his hands as he fastened the waistband of his skirts. ‘It is my best judgment that they continue to know me as Amber. And if you are leaving the cabin to look for the others, I think it best I go with you.’

  ‘As you wish,’ I said stiffly. Then, childishly, I added, ‘But I am not waiting for you.’ I left the small space, shutting the door not loudly but firmly behind me. Anger was a hot boil inside my throat and chest. I stood for a time in the passage, telling myself that it was simply close quarters for too long, and not true anger I was feeling for my friend. I took a deep breath and went back out onto the deck.

  A fresh wind was blowing and the sun was shining, scattering silver on the water. I stood for a while, letting my eyes adjust and enjoying the wind on my face. After the crowded cabin, it felt as if I had the whole world around me. The dancing water that surrounded us was dotted with green islands in the distance. They rose abruptly from the water like mushrooms sprouting up from the forest floor. I drew a deep breath, ignored the sullen stare of Cord who had paused in her work to watch me, and went to find my straying wards.

  I found Spark and Per leaning on the railing beside Lant. Spark’s hand was all but touching Lant’s on the railing. I sighed to myself. All three were looking morosely out over the water. As I took a spot behind them, Lant glanced back at me. ‘All well?’ I asked him.

  He raised a brow. ‘I’m hungry. None of the crew will speak to me. I don’t sleep well at night. And how are you?’

  ‘Much the same,’ I said. The captains had reduced the rations for everyone.

  On the day Paragon had by-passed the channel that would have taken us to Trader Bay and Bingtown, the captains and crew had confronted him. ‘I won’t be tied to a dock,’ Paragon had declared. ‘I won’t allow you to trick me into having lines roped to me so you can drag me aground on a beach.’

  ‘It’s not about trying to thwart you,’ Brashen had said. ‘It’s purely about taking on some water and food. Delivering the cargo we were to leave there. And sending some messages back to Bingtown and Trehaug and Kelsingra. Paragon, we have simply disappeared to those people! They will think the worst has befallen us.’

  ‘Oh, the worst?’ His voice had grown sly. ‘So they will think the mad ship has rolled and drowned another crew.’ There had been acid in his voice and his dragon eyes had whirled swiftly. ‘Isn’t that what you mean?’

  Anger had spasmed over Brashen’s face. ‘Maybe. Or maybe our Bingtown merchants and our Rain Wild clients will think we’ve become thieves, taking their goods and running off to sell them elsewhere. Maybe we’ll lose the only things left to Althea and me, our good names.’

  ‘The only thing?’ the ship demanded. ‘Did you spend every penny of Igrot’s treasure, then? That was a fair windfall for you, when I took you to that!’

  ‘There’s enough left perhaps to commission an impervious ship to replace you. One of wood that would let us lead a simple life. If anyone consented to trade with us again after you’ve made us liars and cheats!’

  ‘Replace me? Ha! Impossible! I am the only reason you have ever prospered, you spend-thrift spoiled son of—’

  ‘Stop this.’ Althea had intervened, stepping closer to the figurehead, apparently without fear. ‘Paragon, be reasonable. You know we need fresh water to drink. You know we need food. We didn’t supply for a long voyage. We had enough on board to get us to Bingtown, and a bit extra. That was all. And we’re days past that. If you make us just keep going, we’re going to die of thirst. Or starve. You’ll get to wherever you’re going with a deck full of bodies—including Amber’s. Then how will you get your Silver and become dragons?’

  There was no rationality in those spinning blue eyes. He turned his gaze out over the water. ‘There’s plenty of fish you can eat.’

  So we’d sailed on, and Althea and Brashen had cut the rations. And yes, there were fish in these waters, and moisture in the cooked flesh. The crew had pulled enough aboard each day to eke out the hard tack and salt-meat that was left to us. We’d had two spring storms, and Althea had ordered out clean canvas and channelled rainwater into barrels to replenish our meagre stores. And still we sailed on, through the region known as the Cursed Shores with its shifting sandbars and toxic waters, and on until we began to see the scattered islets and then the islands of the Pirate Isles.

  Motley swooped down and startled me by landing on my shoulder. ‘Well, where have you been?’ I greeted the crow.

  ‘Ship.’ She spoke the word urgently. ‘Ship, ship, ship.’

  ‘We’re on a ship,’ I conceded to her.

  ‘Ship! Ship, ship, ship!’

  ‘Another ship?’ Per asked her, and she bobbed her head wildly up and down and agreed, ‘Ship, ship.’

  ‘Where?’ I pushed the word at her with Wit as well as voice. As always, I felt as if I shouted down a well.

  ‘Ship!’ she insisted, and launched from my shoulder. The wind caught her and flung her skyward. I lifted my eyes to follow her flight. Up she went and up, far higher than the ship’s mast. There she hung, rocking in the wind. ‘SHIP!’ she called, and her word reached us faintly.

  Ant had been halfway up the mast. At the crow’s call, she looked around, scanning the full horizon before climbing even higher. When she reached the crow’s nest at the top of the mast, she scanned the horizon, then, pointing, ‘SAIL!’ she called.

  In an instant, Brashen had joined Althea on the deck. They both looked up, followed Ant’s finger. Brashen’s face was grave.

  ‘What’s wrong?’ I asked Amber softly.

  ‘It’s probably nothing,’ she replied. ‘But at one time, passage through the Pirate Isles might cost your life. Or your freedom, or your cargo. When Kennit was raiding these passages, he built an empire, going from pirate captain to king. He didn’t ransom the ships he captured. Instead, he appointed one of his loyal men to be captain and sent him out to raid, taking a share of whatever loot he captured. He crewed his new ships with escaped slaves, or sometimes with the very men they had defeated. From a single ship, he went to two, then half a dozen and then a fleet. He became a leader, and then a king.’ She paused. ‘A fairly good king, as it turned out.’

  ‘Yet an evil bastard of a man.’ Althea had approached quietly as Amber was speaking.

>   Amber turned, showing no evidence of surprise. ‘That, too, is true. According to some.’

  ‘According to me,’ Althea said brusquely. ‘But now the Pirate Isles are themselves plagued with pirates. And if it is not a pirate ship that overtakes you, it may be one of the tariff ships, come to collect a “passage tax”. Like pirates, but with far more paperwork.’ She turned to Per. ‘That crow of yours. He talks. Is there any chance he could tell us what ship he has sighted?’

  Per shook his head, surprised to be singled out. ‘She says words, but I’m not sure she always knows what she’s saying. Or that she could tell one sort of ship from another.’

  ‘I see.’ Althea fell thoughtfully silent.

  ‘Are you worried what will happen if that is Vivacia or another liveship?’ Amber dropped the question as if she were plopping small stones into a quiet pond.

  Althea’s response was so calm I wondered if she had forgiven Amber. ‘The thought occurred to me. Yes, it’s a worry. We can’t know yet how the Silver will affect him, or if he can ever transform completely into a dragon. I’d sooner not create misery for every liveship and liveship family until we know how Paragon’s experiment will end.’

  I felt Brashen coming to join us before he stepped into my peripheral vision. He had the presence of a predator and my Wit-sense of him was edged with scarlet anger. I managed to keep my hands lax and my shoulders lowered but it was not easy.

  Althea’s mouth moved, as if she considered words and rejected them. ‘Right now, Amber, you have a better connection with Paragon than either Brashen or me. And I have to ask you to use whatever influence you have with him.’

  ‘What do you wish of me?’

  ‘If that sail is a liveship, we judge it best to stay clear. However, if it is an ordinary wooden ship, we’d like to come alongside and see if we can buy provisions from them. Anything would be welcome, but chiefly we need water.’ She shifted her gaze to me. ‘In the Rain Wilds we take on rainwater from wooden cisterns high in the trees. It’s expensive, and we try to take only what we need. The water from the river and its tributaries are usually unsafe to drink.’ She sighed. ‘To ration food is harsh enough. But soon we will have to cut the water allowance again, unless Paragon allows us to put in at one of the Pirate Islands and take on water. Or we encounter a ship that has enough fresh water to wish to sell some.’

  I watched her shoulders rise and fall with her deep sigh. Then she rolled them back, squaring them, and I felt my admiration for her rise. She possessed the sort of grinding courage I had seldom
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