Assassins fate, p.36
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       Assassin's Fate, p.36

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

  to the railing with his ditty bag, then turned, cursed fluently and kicked his bag back across the deck and down the hatch to the crew quarters. Cypros went and took his arm. They went to stand with Ant.

  ‘Go with Amber and Spark,’ I ordered Lant.

  ‘I wasn’t invited.’

  ‘Amber is blind and Spark is, as others besides you may note, a very pretty girl. Divvytown was a pirate town, and I am sure that men with the hearts of pirates still abide here. I know that Althea and Brashen would not deliberately lead them into danger, but if there is danger, I would wish that they had a man with them who was dedicated solely to protecting them.’

  ‘Why don’t you go yourself?’

  ‘Because I am sending you,’ I replied tersely. Sparks of anger leapt into his eyes and I modified my tart reply with, ‘I wish to remain on the ship and watch what transpires here. I also wish to charge you with an additional errand. Find someone who has messenger birds. A wealthy merchant, preferably, someone who would have connections so that a message capsule might be transferred from bird to bird until it reaches Buckkeep. I’d like to send back word that we are alive and well and continuing our journey.’

  He was silent for a moment. Then he asked, ‘Will you tell Chade and Dutiful and Nettle that Lady Amber believes Bee might still be alive?’

  I shook my head. ‘When I truly know that I have good news for them, then I’ll share it. They should not have to live in uncertainty until then.’

  He was nodding slowly. Abruptly he said, ‘I’ll do it. But— would you write an additional message for me? If there is any message-parchment on this ship?’

  ‘I have a bit left from what Reyn gave me. It’s precious stuff. Don’t you want to write it yourself?’

  ‘No. I’d rather you wrote it. A note to Lord Chade. Just to say that … I’m doing what he asked of me. And doing it … well. If you can bring yourself to say that of me. But you can say whatever you like. I won’t read it before I send it. Just tell him I’m still at your side and serving you.’ He looked away from me. ‘If you would.’

  ‘I can easily do that,’ I said slowly.

  I returned to Amber’s cabin and carefully penned a note in tiny letters to Chade. The fine parchment was nearly translucent. Even so, there was little space to say much more than that I was very well pleased with FitzVigilant’s service to me. I may have mentioned that, on several occasions, he had been instrumental in keeping me alive. I blew on it and waved it about to dry and then rolled it small to make it fit in the hollow bone capsule that would protect it on its journey. On the bone itself I lettered Chade’s name and Buckkeep Castle, Buck in the Six Duchies. It had a long, far way to travel. As I entrusted it to an abashed Lant, I wondered if any of our messages home had been received yet. I had not sealed it with wax, and he knew that was my invitation to read what I’d written. But there was no time for any discussion, for all the others were eager to get to Divvytown. I decided I would leave it to Lant to compose a message explaining where we were and the peculiar nature of the liveship we were on.

  I had hurried, but I’d still kept the shore party waiting. Althea gave Vivacia a friendly wave before she turned and descended the ladder to the waiting rowing boat. The liveship watched our party clamber down and find their places. Her smile broadened, only to fade to a puzzled stare as the small boat went directly to Divvytown.

  As the long evening passed, Per and I sat at the galley table, idly rolling a set of dice that belonged to the crew and moving pegs in a gameboard. I could not care if I won or lost, and so I played poorly, to Per’s disgust. To my Wit the ship felt empty, almost cavernous, with most of the crew gone. Clef and several of the older hands gathered at the far end of the table. Kitl had made food in the galley, and it was heartening once more to smell cooking meat. When she called us to eat, there were admiring coos from the crew. Even more enticing than the platter of sizzling meat strips was a large bowl of fresh greens. Scallions and flat pea pods, crisp stalks of a vegetable I didn’t know, and mixed in with them, carrots no bigger than my thumb and piquant purple radishes. We each dished our own food onto tin plates. The strips of meat were tough and a bit gamy, but no one complained. The crew ate theirs with a white paste that was so hot it made my eyes water and my nose run when I tried it. But no one laughed at me or made a joke of it.

  Per and I ate at our end of the table, apart from the crew-folk. The sidelong glances we received were plain reminders that they had not forgotten who was at the root of their problems. Clef, scowled at the obvious separation, and came to join us, filling the empty seat at the galley table between us and the crew.

  After we had eaten and Ant collected the plates, Clef joined us at our game. I rolled dice and moved my pegs but Clef and Per knew they only competed against each other. While they gamed, I eavesdropped with one ear on the subdued talk of the crew. The older hands spoke of ‘the old days’. Some few had been there when the Paragon had been dragged off the beach where he had languished for many a year and towed back into deep water. Others spoke of when the ship had stood up to a fleet of ordinary vessels and helped the Satrap of Jamaillia make his claim to power. They recalled shipmates who had died on the ship’s deck and entrusted their memories to his wizardwood planks. Lop, who had not been the brightest fellow but had always pulled his share of the load. Semoy, mate for a time until there came a year when he had no strength and dwindled to bones and sinew, and died while coiling a line. And they spoke of the pirate, Kennit. Paragon had been his family ship, but that secret had not been known while Kennit was alive and raiding. Even fewer had known that Igrot, the notoriously cruel pirate, had stolen both ship and the boy Kennit from his family and misused both. Even after Paragon was reunited with Kennit and they rediscovered one another, Kennit had tried to use fire to send him to the bottom. But in the end, when Kennit was dying, Paragon had taken him back and received him gently. It was a mystery they still discussed in soft voices. How could such a wilful ship also have been so loving? Did the memories of Kennit move in him now, recalling Divvytown to him?

  My speculation was silent. Whose memories would guide Paragon back to Clerres? Igrot’s, I decided. Did the thoughts and deeds of that nefarious old pirate lurk deep in the ship’s wizardwood bones? How deep did the memories of his human family and crew soak into his dragon’s wood?

  And I wondered how Althea had felt captaining a ship that would always harbour the memories of her rapist. How much of the pirate still lurked in the ship that wanted to be two dragons?

  Useless questions.

  Per won the game and Clef stood up from the table. He looked weary and sad and much older than he had when we first had come aboard. He looked around at the faces and then lifted his mug of fresh water. ‘Shipmates to the end,’ he said, and the others nodded and drank with him. It was a strange toast that fanned my guilt to white-hot coals. ‘I’m taking the anchor watch,’ he announced, and I knew it was not his usual duty. I suspected he would spend it near the figurehead. The spy in me wondered if I could manage to witness whatever words they traded. When Per proposed another game, I shook my head. ‘I need to walk a bit after that meal,’ I told him, and left him to tidy our game away.

  I leaned on the railing and watched the pirate town as the summer night descended. The sky darkened from azure to the blue that precedes black, and still Amber and the others did not return. Per joined me on the deck to watch the lights of Divvytown come out. It was a lively place; music carried to us across the water, and the angry shouts of a street fight came later.

  ‘They’ll probably stay the night in the town,’ I told Per, and he nodded as if he did not care or worry.

  We retired to Amber’s cabin. ‘Do you miss Withywoods?’ he asked me abruptly.

  ‘I don’t think of it much,’ I told him. But I did. Not so much the house as the people and the life that had been there. Such a life, and for too few years.

  ‘I do,’ Per said quietly. ‘Sometimes. I miss being so sure of what my
life would be. I was going to grow taller than my father and be Tallestman, and step up to his job in the stables when he got old.’

  ‘That might still be,’ I said, but he shook his head. For a time, he was quiet. Then he told me a long, wandering tale about the first time he’d had to groom a horse much taller than he could reach. I noted that he could now speak of his father without weeping. When he fell silent, I stared out of the window at the stars over the town. I dozed off for a time. When I woke, the cabin was dark save for a smudge of light from an almost full moon. Per was sound asleep and I was perfectly awake. With no real idea of what had wakened me, I found the boots I had kicked off, donned them and left the cabin.

  On the deck, the moon and the still burning lights of Divvytown made the night a place of deep greys. I heard voices and walked softly toward the bow.

  ‘You’re dragging anchor.’ Clef made his accusation factually.

  ‘The tide is running and the bottom is soft. It’s scarcely my fault that the anchor isn’t holding.’ Paragon sounded as petulant as a boy.

  ‘I’m going to have to roust every crew member I still have aboard to hold you in place, lift anchor and drop it again.’

  ‘Perhaps not. It feels to me as if it’s holding now. Perhaps it was just a bit of slippage.’

  I stood still, breathing softly. I looked at the town and tried to decide if the ship had moved. I couldn’t decide. When I looked at Vivacia, I became certain that he had. The distance between the two liveships had closed.

  ‘Oh, dear. Slipping again.’ The liveship’s words were apologetic but his tone was merry. We edged closer to Vivacia. She seemed unaware of us, her head drooped forward. Was she asleep? Would a ship made of wizardwood need to sleep?

  ‘Paragon!’ Clef warned him.

  ‘Slipping again,’ the ship announced, and our progress toward the other liveship was now unmistakable.

  ‘All hands!’ Clef roared abruptly. His whistle pierced the peaceful night. ‘All hands on deck!’

  I heard shouts and the thudding of feet hitting the floor below decks and then Paragon saying, ‘Vivacia! I’m dragging anchor. Catch hold of me!’ Vivacia jerked to awareness, her head coming up and her eyes flashing wide. Paragon held out his arms to her in a plea and, after a moment, she reached toward him.

  ‘Mind my bowsprit!’ she cried, and narrowly they avoided that disaster. Paragon caught one of her hands and with an impressive display of strength pulled himself close to her. It set both ships rocking wildly and I heard cries of alarm from Vivacia’s crew. In a moment, Paragon embraced her with one arm despite her efforts to fend him off.

  ‘Be still!’ he warned her, ‘or you will tangle us hopelessly. I want to speak to you. And I want to touch you while I do so.’

  ‘Fend him off!’ she shouted to her crew who came running as she pushed futilely against his carved chest. Clef was shouting commands to his crew and someone was angrily cursing at him from Vivacia’s deck, demanding to know what sort of an idiot he was. Clef tried to shout an explanation while barking orders at his crew.

  Paragon’s laugh boomed out over the cacophony, silencing them all. Except Vivacia. ‘Get him away from me!’ Vivacia barked her command. But Paragon only shifted his grip to the curls on the back of her head and bent her head backwards so that her bare breasts thrust up toward him. To my astonishment, he leaned down and kissed one. As she shrieked her outrage and seized his face in her nailed hands, he increased his grip upon her hair. With his free hand, he reached up and seized a handful of the lines that festooned her bowsprit. He paid no attention to her battering.

  ‘Don’t try to fend me off!’ he warned her crew. ‘Get away from the foredeck. All of you! Clef, order everyone back. And you, Vivacia’s crew, go back to your bunks. Unless Boy-O is among you. Send him to me if he’s there. If not, leave us alone!’ He bent his head again and tried to kiss Vivacia’s face, but she seized handfuls of his hair and tried to tear it from his scalp. He let her sink her hands into it, then abruptly made it harden into carved wood under her touch. ‘Do you think this wood feels pain?’ he demanded of her. ‘Not unless I will it to. But what do you feel when I kiss you? Do you recall Althea’s outrage when Kennit forced himself upon her? Did you keep that memory, or is it solely mine, her pain absorbed by me that she might heal? As I took Kennit’s pain at all Igrot did to him. Have you only human memories left to you? What do you feel, wooden ship? Or does a dragon still lurk in you? Once, you named yourself Bolt. Do you recall that? Do you recall the fury of a queen dragon when she rises in flight and defies all drakes to master her? What are you right now, Vivacia? A woman struggling against a man, or a queen dragon challenging her mate to master her?’

  Abruptly she ceased her struggling, her features set into an aristocratic look of frozen disdain. Then, heedless of his grip on her hair, she rocked her head forward and stared at him with eyes that blazed with the true light of hatred. ‘Mad ship!’ she called him. ‘Pariah! What insanity is this? Will you sink yourself right here in Divvytown harbour? You are no fit mate for me, were I woman or dragon.’

  Out of the corner of my eye I saw a boat lowered from the Vivacia and four men rowing furiously toward Divvytown, doubtless to alert someone and demand aid. If Paragon saw it go, he paid no attention to it.

  ‘Are you certain of that?’ As he spoke the words, I felt the change ripple through the ship.

  ‘I am certain,’ Vivacia said disdainfully. She turned her face away from him. ‘What do you want of me?’ she asked in a low voice.

  ‘I want you to recall that you are a dragon. Not a ship, not a servant to the humans who sail you, not a sexless being trapped in a woman’s form. A dragon. As am I.’ As he spoke, he was changing, resuming his semi-dragon form. I found I had crossed my arms tightly across my chest and raised my walls. Skill and Wit, I tried to contain myself, as prey does when a predator threatens. I saw the dark curling hair on his skull become a dragon’s scaled crest, watched as his neck grew longer and sinuous.

  But most astonishing of all, I watched Vivacia’s face. Her expression became stone. The light that shone from her eyes grew bright and harsh as she witnessed his transformation. She did not wince from him at all.

  When his transformation was complete, when I felt the magic grow still, she spoke at last. ‘What makes you think I have ever forgotten that I am a dragon? But what of it? Would you have me cast aside the life I have yearning for what is lost? What life would I gain? That of a mad ship, chained to a beach, isolated and avoided?’ She ran her eyes over the transformed figurehead. ‘Or play at being a dragon? Pathetic.’

  He did not flinch at her scorn. ‘You can be a dragon. As you were meant to be.’

  Silence. Then, in a low voice that might have held hatred or been full of pity, she said, ‘You are mad.’

  ‘No, I am not. Set your human memories aside, set your time of being a ship aside. Reach back, past the long imprisonment in your case, past your time as a serpent. Can you recall being a dragon? At all?’

  I thought I felt the magic moving again. Perhaps it flowed from ship to ship, from Paragon to Vivacia. I caught the edges of floating memories, as if I scented foreign food. I flew with wings over the forest; the wind filled my sails and I cut through the waves. I flew over valleys thick with green foliage but my eyes were keen and I could sense every waft of warmth from living flesh, flesh that I could feed on. I moved through water, cold and deep, but beneath me I could sense shadowy pulses of being, other creatures, scaled as I once had been, free as I once had been. I found I was edging forward, drawn into that world of wings and wonder. Stay out of his reach, I thought faintly and almost wondered if Nighteyes still lurked within me to give me that wolfish warning. But I had moved to where I could see the Vivacia’s face and a partial profile of Paragon. So human and so foreign were those faces.

  ‘No,’ Paragon said. ‘Go back farther. As far as you can reach. Here. This. Remember this!’

  Again, I felt that surge of magic, Wit and
Skill seamed into a tool sharper than any sword.

  Once, during the battle of Antler Island, a man had hit me on the side of my head with the hilt of his sword. It had not stopped me, and my axe had already descended between the point of his shoulder and his head as he struck. The blow did not have a great deal of force, yet it made my ears ring and for a time the world wavered before me in odd colours. I knew it had happened, yet never had I recalled it. But as I was plunged into a dragon-memory it was as if Nettle had pulled me into a Skill-dream. The sensation was so similar that it awoke that old memory. I felt I reeled as from a blow, and I saw a pool of sparkling silver edged with black and silver sand, and beyond its edges, a meadow of black and silver grasses, and white-trunked trees with black leaves beyond that. I blinked my human eyes, trying to resolve it into familiar colours. Instead I saw a dragon, green as only gemstones are green, and as sparkling.

  He came from the horizon, small at first and then looming larger and larger until he was the largest creature I’d ever seen—larger than Tintaglia or even IceFyre. He landed in the silver pond, sending up plumes of silver liquid that lapped and splashed against the black sand and rocks, coating them briefly with a layer of silver. The dragon plunged his head and serpentine neck into the stuff, wallowing and washing himself in it as if he were a swan. His scales seemed to absorb it, and the green grew dazzling. Groomed with it, he then lowered his muzzle to the water and drank and drank.

  As he waded from the pool and composed himself for rest on the grassy bank, I had one long moment of looking into his whirling eyes. I saw age there. And wisdom. And a sort of glory I’d never seen in the eyes of a man. For a humbling instant, I knew that I looked upon a creature that was better than I would or could ever be.

  ‘Sir? Prince FitzChivalry?’

  I started from my dream, feeling resentful. It was Per, tugging at my sleeve, his eyes wide and dark in the dimness. ‘What is it, boy?’ I wanted him to be gone. I wanted to plunge back into that world, to know that dragon and be the better for knowing him.

  ‘I thought you’d want to know. Our boat is coming, as fast as it can move, with Captains Althea and Brashen, and Amber and Spark and Lant. And someone from the other ship is coming, too.’

  ‘Thank you, lad.’ I turned away from him and tried to find an entry back into that magical dream. But either it was over or I had lost my way. I sensed the magic still streaming between the two liveships, but I could not enter to share it. Instead I saw only the two figureheads. Despite their bowsprits, they embraced as closely as they could, as if they were lovers denied intimacy for too long. Vivacia’s head rested on Paragon’s scaled chest, her eyes wide but unseeing. His longer neck had twined around her like a scarf and his dragon’s head rested on her shoulder. Her graceful hands rested on his shoulders. No enmity or uncertainty showed in her face. I could not read Paragon’s dragon visage to glimpse what he was feeling, but as I watched he changed. It was like watching the melting of river-ice when water swiftly erodes it. Slowly his features slipped back into his human configuration. His expression was tender as he embraced Althea. No, it was Vivacia he embraced so warmly. And suddenly I saw myself holding Molly, knowing a rare moment of peace and feeling loved and a terrible loss and longing welled in me.

  I was caught up in this strange tableau until I heard Brashen’s voice. ‘What happened?’ he demanded. ‘How did Paragon get over here?’

  ‘He dragged anchor, sir.’ Clef’s reply was formal, mate to
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