Assassins fate, p.37
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       Assassin's Fate, p.37

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

  captain.

  ‘This was no trick of the tide or a bad anchor set,’ Althea said. ‘Paragon did this. For a reason.’ Her tone said she doubted the reason had any good purpose.

  Brashen and Althea stood well clear of the figurehead’s reach, watching the stillness. It was Amber who moved past them, slipping free of Spark and Lant as if she too were a ship dragging anchor.

  ‘Amber. No, please,’ Althea pleaded but Amber did not pause. She stood well within Paragon’s reach and waited.

  Vivacia lifted her head from Paragon’s shoulder and breathed a great sigh. ‘What we were. What we might have become. It’s lost to us, now. The young dragons, the serpents who hatched in Trehaug and live now in Kelsingra, they may become that again, a century hence. But not us. Never us.’

  ‘You are wrong.’ Paragon’s voice was an inhuman rumble. ‘Amber can help us get Silver. And with it, I believe we can gather enough of what we were to make ourselves what we ought to have been.’

  The ships moved slightly apart, breaking their embrace to look at Amber. ‘It is not certain,’ she said. ‘And I will not make promises I may not be able to keep. The Silver, yes, I promise I will do all I can to obtain it for you. But will it be enough to transform you into dragons? I don’t know.’

  ‘And?’ Vivacia asked abruptly.

  ‘And what?’ Amber asked, startled.

  Vivacia’s face resumed a more human cast. ‘And what do you ask of me in return? Traders made me what I am. Their blood and their thoughts have soaked into my deck and permeated every fibre of what I am. Nothing is free when you deal with humans. What do you want of me?’

  ‘Nothi—’ But Amber’s response vanished in Paragon’s heartfelt cry.

  ‘Boy-O! I want Boy-O on my decks for my last voyage.’ He wore my face again. Heart-struck, I wondered if I looked like that when I thought of regaining my child. Now, when he spoke, it was with a human heart. ‘Give me back what is truly mine. And Paragon Kennitsson! I want him as well. He was promised to me so often when Kennit was a lad on my decks. He said he would have a son and name him for me! So much I endured for his family, so much pain! Without me, he would never have existed! I want him. I want him to see me and know me as the ship of his family. Before I become dragons and leave him forever.’

  ‘Forever …’ I heard that forlorn whisper from Althea and knew that until now she had dared to hope that Paragon might change his mind, or at least keep some link to her and Brashen after he transformed.

  ‘Paragon!’ A shout from Vivacia’s deck, a welcoming cry in a man’s deep voice.

  I saw a young man in his mid-twenties with a dense mop of curly dark hair and a ready grin. He was tanned to mahogany and his shirt strained at his wide shoulders. Anyone who had seen Brashen and Althea would know he was their son. He held a lantern aloft, and clearly he had not an inkling of what was going on. He regarded his home ship with joy.

  ‘Trellvestrit!’ someone shouted behind him, but Boy-O had already set down the lantern and scrambled up to Vivacia’s bowsprit. He ran lightly along it and then without hesitation threw himself toward Paragon. Paragon released Vivacia immediately. He caught and lofted the young man as I had once lifted Dutiful’s small sons; and, as I had then, feigned tossing him into the air before catching him securely once more. Agile as a tumbler, the man accepted this treatment and laughed aloud at being caught. Freeing himself of the ship’s grip, he climbed onto Paragon’s hands and then launched himself backwards, flipping in the air and landing again nimbly on the ship’s outstretched hands. Plainly it was a game from his childhood, one they both recalled with pleasure. Seldom had I seen that level of trust between any two creatures. Paragon could have torn Boy-O in half with his big wooden hands, but instead he held him at arm’s length and the two studied one another, the man grinning as he looked up at the ship’s face.

  Unnoticed by me and perhaps also by Paragon, lines had been thrown to men in small rowing boats, and they were hauling Paragon in one direction and Vivacia in the other, swinging both on their anchor chains as they separated the two ships to a safe distance. I wondered if Boy-O had been aware of the plan, and then I wondered if Paragon cared. He had made his plea to Vivacia and had half of what he had requested, and the look on Boy-O’s face was one of fearless love for his ship. No wonder Paragon had missed him.

  ‘Prince Fitz—’

  ‘Hush,’ I bade Per. I was watching Althea and Brashen. Their conflict showed plainly on their faces. Love for their son, worry for him in the ship’s hands, but also that fondness of watching the two together. Boy-O said something to Paragon as the ship caught him, and the figurehead threw back his head and roared with laughter. Looking at them, I could scarcely believe this was the same being that had been so supremely unconcerned for his crew’s welfare. I half-expected Brashen or Althea to call to their son with a warning, but they were both silent and waiting. Confident in the young man or in their ship, I wondered.

  As Paragon twisted to put him on the deck, I heard Boy-O say to the ship, ‘I have missed you so! Vivacia is a very fine ship, but she is always serious. And Cousin Wintrow is an excellent captain, but he sets a very simple table. Mother! Papa! There you are! What brings you to Divvytown without a bird to warn us of your coming? I was at the sailmaker’s when they came running to fetch me! If we’d known to expect you, you would have had a much better welcome!’

  ‘Any sight of you is welcome enough for us!’ his father exclaimed heartily as Boy-O stepped down from Paragon’s hands. The figurehead was smiling so broadly over his shoulder at all three of them that I could scarcely reconcile what I was seeing.

  Amber, forgotten by all, had retreated. I reached out and touched her sleeve, saying quietly, ‘It’s Fitz,’ and she came to me with a shuddering sigh of relief, hugging my arm as if I were flotsam on a stormy sea. She was breathless. ‘Are they all safe? Was anyone hurt?’

  ‘All safe. Boy-O is with his parents. And Clef. And some of the crew.’

  ‘I was terrified.’

  I watched her try to calm herself and spoke soothingly. ‘Yet Paragon seems calm now. Affable.’

  ‘He is two, Fitz. Two dragons. I think it was what drove him mad, and sometimes I feel like he has two natures. One is boyish, a prankster who desperately craves affection and companionship. The other is capable of almost anything.’

  ‘I think I have seen both tonight.’

  ‘Then we are all fortunate that Boy-O brought out his kindlier nature. Angered, there is no telling what one liveship could do to another.’

  ‘Do they fight? Can a liveship be killed?’

  ‘A liveship can be destroyed with fire. Or disfigured as Paragon was.’ She tilted her head and considered. ‘I’ve never heard of a physical altercation between liveships. Jealousies and rivalries. Quarrels. But not taken to a physical level.’

  I became aware that Per was standing nearby, listening. In the shadows behind him, Spark waited beside Lant.

  ‘Shall we return to our cabin?’ I suggested. ‘I’m anxious to hear what transpired on shore.’

  ‘Please,’ Amber replied, and as we began to walk that way, she leaned more heavily on my arm. Yet before we could reach our cabin, Clef sought us out.

  ‘Captains want to see all of you in their stateroom. Please.’ He added the courtesy but it wasn’t a request.

  ‘Thank you. We will go directly there.’

  Clef gave a nod and disappeared silently into the darkness. Night had fallen over the harbour. Lanterns burned on the masts of nearby ships and lamplight shone in the more distant windows of Divvytown, but they were only brighter sparks beneath the far-flung strewing of stars above us in the night sky. I looked up and suddenly longed fiercely for good forest and soil under my feet and prey that I could kill and eat. For the simple things that made life good.

  SEVENTEEN

  * * *

  Serpent Spit

  My king and queen, and esteemed Lady Kettricken,

  I have reached my des
tination and have had several meetings with King Reyn and Queen Malta of the Dragon Traders. Trader Khuprus, mother to King Reyn, was also in attendance, representing the Rain Wild Traders. This was an unexpected inclusion for me to deal with.

  The two Skill-healers who accompanied me could effect some small healing tasks for the people here. I cautioned them against greater works, for both said that the influence of the Skill runs strongly here and might sweep their minds away. And there is also the consideration that large works should merit large favours in return, and I fear I do not foresee that happening.

  Both the king and queen assert that they have small influence with the dragons, and cannot order them to stop their raids on our herds and flocks. In truth, their rulers appear to have little authority over their people as well, with all large decisions being made by a consensus. I am not certain how to deal with such a situation. Nor can Trader Khuprus speak for any beyond her own family, saying that any contracts we wish to make, that is, healing for trade goods, must be voted on by the Traders’ Council.

  I recall that you advised me to be as generous as we can be during this first meeting. But in my opinion, if we give too freely of what these people so greatly desire, we will lose much of our bargaining ability.

  The Skill-users you sent with me suggest that perhaps it were better to establish a healing centre in the Six Duchies and advise the Rain Wild folk to seek our services there, where the Skill-current is more manageable for them. Here the Skill-influence waxes so strong that I must send this message to you by bird.

  We shall take ship to return home in three days.

  In your service,

  Lady Rosemary

  We did not dare stay long in Sewelsby. Dwalia could not be sure how many people might recognize us from that bloody night. Over and over, she asked Vindeliar how much Kerf would recall and how much he would tell. ‘He won’t forget,’ Vindeliar had whined. ‘I did not have time to tell him to forget. You made us run away. He will be confused but he won’t forget what he did. He will tell. If they hurt him enough.’ He had shaken his blunt head sadly. ‘They always talk when you hurt them that much. You showed me that.’

  ‘And you whimpered and pissed yourself, like a kicked cur,’ she had replied vindictively. And so instead of having Vindeliar magic us into an inn and a room, we slept that night under a bridge to stay away from spying eyes. As soon as the sun lightened the sky, she made us wade out into the chilly river and try to rinse some of the blood from our clothes. We weren’t alone for long. Men and women from the town came bearing baskets of linens and clothing. The washerfolk each had their own areas along the rocky shore, and they set up their drying racks and glared us away from the riverbank.

  Dwalia led us back toward the town. I think towns and busy streets were all she knew. I would have sought the forest for a time, to let folk forget us. Instead, she had hissed at Vindeliar, ‘Make us unremarkable. Restore my face. Leave no injury for them to notice. Do it.’

  I know he tried. I felt the lapping of his magic against my senses. I do not think he did it very well. But in a port city poor folk are not uncommon and we did not look so strange that we drew many glances. We stayed well away from the lovely inn and the well-travelled street where Trader Akriel had died. Dwalia took us to the seedy section of the harbour, where the signboards of the inns were weathered grey and splintery, and the gutters ran greenish and stinking beside the streets.

  Dwalia and I hunkered out of sight in an alley or sat at the edge of the street, hands out to beg, in vain. Vindeliar moved slowly up and down the street, seeking easy prey. Some folk were easier to influence than others. He took a little from each, a few coins here, a few coins there. They gave willingly, or so they would recall it, even if they could not remember why. Towards evening, he had collected enough that we could have a hot meal and sleep inside one of the cheap inns.

  It was nothing like the inn Trader Akriel had taken me to. The sleeping area was simply a loft over the room below. We found unoccupied space and lay down in our clothes. I could not help but contrast that night to the future I had nearly gained. When I was sure the others slept, I allowed myself to weep. I tried to think of Withywoods, my home and my father, but those things seemed distant and more unlikely than my dreams.

  For dreams came to me that night, pelting me like hailstones. After each, I jolted awake, seized with the need to tell someone, to write them down, to sing of them. It was a compulsion as strong as when one must vomit, but I choked them back. Dwalia would rejoice in them, and I would not give her that. And so my dream of the slow team of oxen that trampled a child into a muddy street, my dream of a wise queen who planted silver and reaped golden wheat, my dream of a man who rode a huge red horse across ice to a new land, all those I choked back and swallowed. If they spoke of futures, she would not know of them. It made me feel ill and wretched to keep those dreams inside me, but the satisfaction I took in any small way I could thwart Dwalia outweighed the sickness.

  The next day I was so shaky I could scarcely walk. Vindeliar looked concerned for me, while Dwalia wore a calculating look. ‘We need to leave this city and move on,’ she told him. ‘Look into their minds. See if anyone is going to Clerres. Or has been there.’ He had persuaded a breadmonger to part with a loaf. Dwalia had portioned it out, half for herself, and the rest for Vindeliar. He had looked at it hungrily and then reluctantly given me half of his half. It was no bigger than my fist, but it was all I could do to nibble it down.

  I heard Vindeliar speak quietly to Dwalia. ‘I think she’s sick.’

  Dwalia looked at me and smiled. ‘She is. And I’m glad. It means I’m at least partially right.’

  Her words made no sense to me. As the day passed, my misery increased. I huddled as far away from her as my chain would let me and tried to sleep. Vindeliar took his small tolls from passing folk. Dwalia sat like a toad and watched the town go by. I decided to test her idea that no one would help me. I cried out for help. A few folk turned heads but she jerked on my chain. ‘New to slavery,’ Dwalia explained blithely, and my babble of hasty words that she was lying, I was no slave but kidnapped, went unheeded. I was just another foreign slave.

  One man stopped and spoke to her in Common, asking if I were for sale. His eyes were not kind. Dwalia replied that he could pay her for a few hours with me, but that he could not buy me. He looked at me speculatively. Terror inspired me and I began to retch, forcing a thin bile to spill from my mouth and down onto my clothing. The man shook his head, plainly not wanting to share whatever disease I had, and hurried on.

  Whatever ailed me took a firm grip on me the next day. In the pleasant warmth of the summer day, I curled up and shivered with cold. The bright sunlight could not warm me; it only battered me in pink darkness through my closed eyelids as the fever wracked me.

  On the splintery floor of the inn loft, I shivered and Vindeliar rolled over and put his arm over me. He smelled offensive to me. It was not the grime or sweat of him; it was his own scent that repelled me. Wolf-sense told me to beware of him. I tried to shake off his arm but I was too weak. ‘Brother, let me keep you warm,’ he whispered. ‘It wasn’t your fault.’

  ‘My fault?’ I heard myself mutter. Of course it wasn’t. None of this was my fault.

  ‘I did it. I created the rift that allowed you to run away. Dwalia told me. When I did not do as I knew she would have wished me to do, it opened another path for you. And you followed it, taking us farther and farther from the Path. So now we must endure hardship and pain as we make our thorny way back to the Path. Once we are on the way to Clerres again, our difficulties will ease.’

  I tried to shrug his arm away from me, but he drew me closer. His stink was all around me, gagging me with every breath I took. ‘You should learn this lesson, brother. Once you accept the Path, all in life is easier. Dwalia guides us. I know she seems cruel. But she is only angry and harsh because you have taken us so far from the true Path. Help us go back to it, and it will be so much easier f
or all of us.’

  The words did not sound like him, or Dwalia. Perhaps he parroted some long-ago lesson. I summoned every shred of will I had. I forced out my words. ‘My true path goes home!’

  He patted my shoulder. ‘There. You are right, your true path will take you to your true home. Now that you admit that, things will become easier.’

  I hated him. I curled on the floor, sick and angry and powerless.

  Dwalia moved us to a different part of the waterfront and hailed passers-by to ask if any had news of a ship bound for Clerres. Most shrugged and the rest ignored her. I huddled miserably while Vindeliar kept a distance from us as he moved up and down the streets and ‘begged’. He chose those he accosted and I knew they had little choice as he pushed his thoughts against theirs. I saw their reluctance as they reached into purses or pockets, and witnessed their confusion as they wandered away from him. The area was not rife with wealthy folk. I suspected that Vindeliar showed mercy in the small amounts he charmed from each victim, yet Dwalia always berated him for not coercing more money out of his victims.

  One day he did not get enough money for us to sleep inside. I had thought I could not feel worse, but as the chill of evening came on, I shook until my teeth chattered.

  Dwalia commonly took small notice of my misery, but I think that evening she worried that I might die. She did nothing to give me comfort, but only turned her anger on Vindeliar. ‘What’s wrong with you?’ she demanded of him when the streets had emptied and there was no one in earshot to hear her scold him. ‘You used to be strong. Now you are useless. You used to control a cavalcade of mercenaries, hiding them from sight. Now you can barely charm a penny or two from a farmer’s purse.’

  For the first time in many a day, I heard a note of spirit in his voice. ‘I am hungry and tired and far from home and unhappy with all I have seen. I try very hard. I need—’

  ‘No!’ she interrupted him furiously. ‘You do not need! You want. And I know what you want. Do you think I don’t know how much pleasure you take from it? I’ve seen your eyes roll back with it and how you drool. No. There is only one left and we must save it against most dire need. Then there will be no more for you,
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