Assassins fate, p.41
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       Assassin's Fate, p.41

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

  Sorcor snorted and looked at Brashen. ‘That big word means she might have a sword out. Look to yourselves and make no fast moves.’ He whipped the hat from his head. I saw how he fell naturally into a fighter’s stance.

  Brashen moved away from Althea, closer to the door, as if he would protect her, but her dark eyes blazed and she came to her feet and stood beside him. Queen Etta’s voice reached us again.

  ‘Out of my way! I’ve told you I don’t need you for this. You are embarrassing me, and my chief minister is going to hear of this. Standing orders should fall before my command! Wait in the boat if you must, but get out of my way.’

  ‘She just dismissed the guard I assigned to her,’ Wintrow observed mildly.

  And in the next instant, the door framed an extraordinary woman. She was tall, and the planes of her face were angular. She was not beautiful, but she was striking. Her glossy black hair fell loose to her shoulders, which were wide beneath a scarlet jacket. Black lace spilled from her shirtfront and cuffed her wrists. Gold hoops dangled boldly from her ears. And close to her throat, almost nestled in the lace, she wore a necklace carved in a man’s image. Kennit? If so, the son strongly resembled the father. She also wore a sword on a wide black belt studded with silver, but it resided still in its sheath. She rested the back of her fingers on its elaborate hilt. The glance that raked the room was sharper than any blade as she demanded, ‘Are you conspiring?’

  Wintrow tilted his head at her. ‘Of course we are. And we would welcome your company. The issue is your strong-willed and rather spoiled heir, who has recently met his father’s strong-willed and rather spoiled ship. They seem intent on taking up with one another, on a voyage to Clerres. I’ve been given to understand that the purpose of this voyage is to exact vengeance on a monastery there for the kidnapping and murder of a child. And that afterward, this vessel will magically change himself into two dragons.’

  Etta’s mouth hung slightly ajar as Wintrow looked to Althea and asked, ‘Do I have that mostly right?’

  Althea shrugged. ‘Close enough.’ And the two women exchanged cold looks.

  Queen Etta said nothing. Wintrow spoke cautiously. ‘The Spice Island delegation?’

  ‘Have plenty of folk to lose their coins to. I’ll join them at the card table or not at all. It little matters to me now.’ She turned a furious look on Althea and Brashen. ‘Why have you brought this ship here? What do you want of us? Of Kennitsson? My son is not going anywhere! He is the heir to this kingdom and is needed here. He is supposed to be enjoying an evening with the merchants from the Spice Islands and his potential bride, not planning a sea voyage.’ Her gaze roved over all of us, her eyes cold. ‘And whatever vengeance you seek, it has nothing to do with us. So why have you come here? What sort of discord do you attempt to sow? Why bring this vessel and its ill reputation and bad luck to our harbour? It was my wish that he never see or set foot on this ship!’

  ‘There we agree,’ Althea replied quietly.

  I felt the pirate queen force herself to look at Althea. ‘But not for the same reasons,’ she said stiffly. ‘My son has had a fascination with this ship ever since he was old enough to know how his father died. Kennit’s last blood soaked into the planks of this deck. His memories, his … life … was taken into it. Absorbed. And from the time my son was old enough to be told of such things, he has possessed a wild curiosity to see this ship, to be aboard it, in the hope of speaking to his father. We have told him, over and over, that Paragon is not his father. His father makes up just a part of the life that the ship embodies. But it is a hard thing to make someone understand.’

  Althea spoke in a flat voice. ‘I doubt that anyone not born to Bingtown Trader stock can fully understand what that means.’

  Queen Etta stared at her coldly. ‘Kennit was born of Bingtown stock. A Ludluck. And his son carries that blood, even if he prefers the name Kennitsson.’ Her hand rose to clutch at her necklace. ‘And perhaps I understand more of this ship than you think. Paragon himself spoke to me of these things. Plus,’ she tipped her head toward Wintrow, ‘I have had your own nephew as my advisor in these matters.’

  ‘Then perhaps you will understand what Paragon has suffered. In his days as Igrot’s ship he absorbed many deaths, probably more than any other liveship. And even before that, when he belonged to the Ludluck family, his fortune seemed to be cursed. He has never been … stable. For a time, he was known in Bingtown as the Pariah. As the mad ship, the liveship that would kill any crew that sought to sail him.’

  ‘I know that.’ Queenly disdain in her tone. Then Etta cocked her head and was suddenly, disarmingly human as she said, ‘Althea, do you think I have not been visited by Malta and Reyn? Do you think I have not heard every detail of the tale of this ship and his history?’ She looked down at the pendant she clutched and added more quietly, ‘Perhaps it is possible that I understand even more than you do of this ship.’

  Both women fell silent. I felt as if fate balanced on a tiny point, waiting to shift and choose a direction. Was this what the Fool had meant when he told me of infinite futures, poised and waiting, but only one that would become real? Were we all witnesses to that?

  Yet it was Brashen who spoke. ‘The past haunts everyone here. Walk away from it, please. There is no sense in arguing who better understands liveships or Paragon. That’s not our problem right now. And before we speak about the future, I would like to settle the present, as it affects Althea and me and my crew.’ He ran his gaze over us all. No one spoke. ‘When Althea and I spoke with Wintrow after we first went ashore, he agreed to help us meet our most basic needs—to send messenger birds back to our trading partners at Bingtown and in the Rain Wilds, assuring them that we intended no larceny when we did not stop in either Bingtown or Jamaillia. Queen Etta, we would ask your help in selecting trustworthy ships and captains bound to those ports who would be willing to deliver our goods to their proper destinations, so that our word as honourable Traders remains untarnished. If you can aid us in that, we could consider it a great favour to both our families.’

  Etta looked at Wintrow and nodded.

  ‘That can be done.’ Wintrow spoke softly. ‘I know several captains that I trust.’

  Brashen’s relief was plain. ‘And I think we all agree that it would be a great mistake to have Kennitsson accompany us on Paragon’s mad errand. We must all ensure that he can’t board before we depart. He must be kept away from the harbour and the ship, for Paragon cannot seek him out on the land.’ He lifted a hand. ‘If we keep them separated, Paragon may remain in the harbour, obsessed with Kennitsson, and give up this quest. But I consider that unlikely. I think his desire to recreate himself as dragons will be stronger than his will to have Kennitsson make a final voyage with him.’

  ‘I agree—’ Wintrow began and then halted. His startled gaze met Brashen’s. Althea rocketed to her feet while Sorcor asked in a harsh whisper, ‘What is that?’

  Sailors all, they were aware before I was of a subtle change in the ship. In a matter of breathless moments, I felt the list and Althea cried out, ‘He’s taking on water!’

  Brashen took two large steps and seized the handle of the door, but the door was wedged tight against a sill that had been eased out of alignment. The ship’s timbers groaned and the panes of the windows made an indescribable sound as the ship flexed. Paragon’s voice boomed over the ship and the harbour’s waters. ‘I could kill you all! Drown you right here in the harbour! How dare you stand on my deck and plot against me?’

  Amber’s fingers dug suddenly into my forearm. ‘I’ll break a window,’ I assured her.

  Spark clutched at Per, in the sisterly way of someone who seizes the youngest preparatory to snatching him out of harm’s way. Lant took each of them by a shoulder and herded them toward me. We clustered close in the slowly tipping room. Sorcor had moved to Etta’s side. He reminded me of a battered watchdog taking up his duties. Etta seemed unaware of him. Her jaw was set, forming some plan of her own. I watched Br
ashen. If he moved, I would. Until then …

  ‘But I shall not.’ The ship’s voice thundered through my chest. ‘Not now! And not just because Boy-O would be trapped in there with you.’

  Boy-O was standing pale-faced, gripping the edge of the table, his eyes showing white all around. I realized he believed the threat. Ice filled my spine and belly.

  ‘Paragon, let me out. Allow us to come forward and discuss this in a way that doesn’t involve all of the Pirate Isles.’ Brashen spoke as a father to his child, his words calm and firm. His hand still rested on the doorhandle.

  ‘But it does!’ Paragon’s booming voice came from outside. I did not doubt that all in the harbour and in the shoreside structures could hear him. ‘It involves them all, if they keep their prince from me! For he is my blood before he became their prince! The prince that Kennit could not have made without me!’

  ‘He’s mad,’ Etta said in a low whisper. ‘I’ll happily die here, drowned inside him, before he shall have my son!’

  ‘You won’t drown here, Queen Etta.’ Sorcor picked up one rum bottle and hefted it thoughtfully, looking at the windows.

  ‘I don’t swim,’ she said faintly.

  ‘Paragon is not going to sink,’ Althea declared firmly, and I wondered if her determination alone could protect us.

  From outside the stateroom door, Ant’s voice reached us. ‘Sir, I’ve an axe! Shall I chop my way in?’

  ‘Not yet!’ Brashen ordered, to my surprise.

  Then, to my even greater shock, came another woman’s voice. It rang with authority and was fully as loud as Paragon’s. ‘Harm my family, and I’ll see you burn, you faithless Pariah!’

  ‘Vivacia!’ Althea gasped.

  ‘Burn me?’ Paragon howled. ‘To save your family? Do you think your family matters more to you than mine does to me? Set fire to me and they’ll cook inside me like meat in an oven!’

  ‘Paragon!’ Boy-O bellowed the name. ‘Would you truly do that to me, who was born on your decks and learned to walk here?’ The breath he drew shuddered into his lungs. ‘You named me! You called me Boy-O, your Boy-O, because you would not call me Trellvestrit! You said I was yours, and that name did not fit me!’

  A sudden deep silence followed these words. It swelled and deafened us. Then a deep, anguished groan vibrated the deck beneath us. I wondered if the others felt, as I did, a welling of unbearable guilt that washed through me with the sound. I recalled every foolish thing, every evil and selfish thing, I had ever done in my life. Shame surged through me so that I longed to die, invisibly and alone.

  Beneath our feet, the deck was slowly shifting back to level. All around us I heard the muttering of shifting planks and beams. Then the door was thrown open to reveal a panicky Ant holding an axe. Several crew surrounded her. ‘The danger has passed,’ Brashen said to her, but I was not sure I agreed. ‘All you crewmen who remain, see to our cargo. Any wet crates, bring them up onto the deck. I know, I know—working in the dark. It can’t be helped. I want to be able to offload tomorrow as swiftly as possible.’ A brief pause and then he added, ‘All hatch covers to be open and remain so.’

  ‘Sir,’ Ant agreed in a shaky voice and darted off.

  Brashen stepped through the door and headed forward, Althea at his heels and Boy-O beside her and we all followed. ‘I hate this,’ I said quietly to Amber.

  ‘Don’t we all,’ she muttered.

  ‘It feels as if my entire future lies outside my control. I want to get off this insane ship and away from these people. I want to leave now!’

  On the deck, I led her to the railing and stared toward the scattered lights of the pirate town. ‘We can demand to go ashore. Use our Rain Wild gifts to buy passage on a different vessel. Regain some control over our journey. And send Lant and the youngsters home and out of danger.’

  ‘Are we back to that?’ Lant shook his head. ‘It will not happen, Fitz. I won’t go home until you go with me. And it would be foolish and dangerous to send these two off alone on a long voyage with people we do not know. Whatever we face, I feel they are safer with us.’

  ‘It’s not a matter of “safer” for me,’ Per muttered darkly.

  I ignored them all and stared at the lights. I wanted to shake all over like a wolf would shake off rain, and run off alone into the darkness to do what I must. I felt caged by responsibilities. What was best for us? ‘Then we should leave this ship tonight, all of us. Find other passage to Clerres.’

  ‘We can’t,’ said the Fool. Not Amber. I turned my head to look at him. How did he do that? How did he shed one mask and don another so easily? Despite the rouge and powder, he turned my friend’s face to me. ‘We have to go there on this ship, Fitz.’

  ‘Why?’

  ‘I told you.’ He sounded both patient and exasperated in a way only the Fool could manage. ‘I’ve begun to dream again. Not many dreams, but the ones that reached me rang with clarity and with … inevitability. If we are going to Clerres, we travel on this ship. It’s a narrow channel I navigate to reach my goal. And only Paragon provides us a passage to the future I must create.’

  ‘But you never thought to share that information with me until this moment?’ I did not try to keep the accusation out of my voice. Was this a true thing or a gambit by the Fool to get what he wanted? My distrust of Amber was starting to bleed into my friendship with the Fool.

  ‘The steps I have trodden to get us to Kelsingra and then Trehaug, to get us onto this ship and thence to Divvytown … if I had told you of them, of the things I did and the things I took care not to do, it would have influenced you. Only by you behaving as you would if you knew nothing of what I did would we come here.’

  ‘What?’ Lant asked, confused.

  I could not blame him. I sorted out the Fool’s words. ‘So of course that means you can’t tell me any of your other dreams and warn me of what we must do. It must all be left in your hands.’

  He set his gloved hands on the ship’s railing. ‘Yes,’ he said quietly.

  ‘Balls,’ said Perseverance, quite distinctly. Spark gave him a shocked look and then rebuked him with a shove. He glared at her. ‘Well, it’s not right. It’s not how friends should do things.’

  ‘Perseverance, enough,’ I said quietly.

  Lant sighed. ‘Shouldn’t we move up to the bow and see what is going on?’ And when he turned and walked that way, we followed. I didn’t especially want to go. The deep sobbing of the figurehead and his misery permeated the ship. I paused to reinforce my walls, and then walked on with Amber.

  The Fool spoke quietly. The others were far enough ahead that I doubt they heard him. ‘I won’t say I’m sorry. I can’t be sorry for something I must do.’

  ‘I’m not sure that’s entirely true,’ I responded. I could recall many things that I’d had to do, and many of them I regretted.

  ‘I’d be sorrier, and so would you, if I began to worry more about your feelings and less about getting to Clerres and rescuing Bee.’

  ‘Rescuing Bee.’ His words felt like meat dangled for a starving dog. I was tired and battered by Paragon’s guilt and grief. ‘I thought your great ambition was to destroy Clerres and kill as many people as you could. Or as I could kill for you.’

  ‘You’re angry.’

  When he said the words aloud, I felt ashamed. And even angrier. I stopped and stood still. ‘I am,’ I admitted. ‘This is … not how I do things, Fool. When I kill, I do it efficiently. I know who I’m stalking, I know how to find them and how to end them. This is … madness. I’m going into unfamiliar territory, I know little of my targets, and I’m hampered with people I’m responsible for protecting. Then I discover that I’m dancing to your tune, to music I can’t even hear … Answer me this, Fool. Do I live through this? Does the boy? Does Lant go back to Chade and is his father still alive when he gets there? Does Spark survive? Do you?’

  ‘Some things are more likely than others,’ he said quietly. ‘And all of them still dance and wobble like a spun coin. D
ust blown on the wind, a day of rain, a tide that is lower than expected—any and all of those things can change everything. You must know that is true! All I can do is peer into a mist and say, “it looks most clear in that direction”. I tell you that our best chance of finding Bee alive is to remain on Paragon until he arrives in Clerres.’

  My pride wanted me to be defiant, but my fatherhood was stronger than my pride. What would I not have done to increase the chance that I might rescue Bee, might hold her and protect her and tell her how devastated I was to have failed her? To promise her that never again would she leave my protection?

  The others had waited for us. Amber’s hand squeezed my arm and I led the way to the bow with them trooping behind me. My guard. My guard that I must protect as I led them into I knew not what.

  Amber queried softly, ‘Is there a bright light off to our left?’

  ‘There’s a lantern on the Vivacia. It’s burning very brightly.’ Some sort of argument was going on over on her deck, though I could not hear the details. I heard ‘anchor’ and then a barking of orders to roust someone out of his bed.

  Amber had turned her face toward the lantern light and opened her light-gold eyes wide. A slight smile bowed her mouth. Her pale face reminded me of the moon as she said, ‘I can perceive it. My vision is improving slowly, Fitz. So slowly. But I believe it is coming back.’

  ‘That would be good,’ I said but privately I wondered if she deceived herself.

  At the bow of the ship, voices had been rising and falling. I recognized Althea’s voice raised in a query but did not catch the words. We were on the outer edges of those who had gathered there, for many of the crew stood between us and the figurehead. It was Paragon who responded. ‘No, you of all people should know that I am not Kennit and that Kennit does not petition you for this. Is Vivacia your father or grandmother? Of course not! It is not Kennit that demands this. It is I, Paragon. A ship made from massacred dragons, both embraced and enslaved by a Bingtown Trader family. I, we, had no say in that! No choice but to care, no choice in who we loved as Ludlucks poured out their blood and souls and memories onto the bones of our deck! I do not ask: I demand! Do I not have the right to him, as much right as his ancestors had to me? Is it not fair?’

  ‘It is fair!’ A female voice, clear and carrying. Vivacia. And suddenly my mind put together the bits of what I had heard. The liveship had dragged her anchor to come closer to Paragon, not just to hear his words but to add her voice to his. ‘Althea, you know it is! Were I setting out on my final voyage would you deny me Boy-O? Listen to them! They have the right to demand Kennitsson, after all they have been through as the Ludluck family ship.’

  ‘What’s happening over there?’ Wintrow demanded in the moment of silence that followed Vivacia’s words.

 
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