Assassins fate, p.45
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       Assassin's Fate, p.45
 

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

  ‘How?’ I roared at him. ‘How would it be possible? When Nettle sent her coterie through the pillar after Bee they found no sign of her. Not a footprint in the snow, nothing! Fool, they never emerged from that pillar. They perished within it.’

  His blinded eyes were wide with desperation, his face even paler than it usually was. ‘No! That cannot be. Fitz, you have been delayed in a pillar, lost for days, and still you—’

  ‘Yes. Eventually, I emerged dazed and half-dead. If I had not been able to summon help, I could have died there. Fool, if they had emerged from that pillar, there would have been signs of it. The dead embers of a fire, a scatter of their bones, something. There was nothing. She is gone. Even if they were delayed for days, we would have seen some sign of their passage when we arrived there. Did you see any such thing?’

  He gave a wild laugh. ‘I saw nothing!’

  I kept my temper. ‘Well, there was nothing except for bear-sign. So perhaps they did come through and perished there. They certainly did not journey on to Kelsingra, not by foot or by pillar. Fool, please. Let me accept that Bee is gone.’ My words were a plea. I longed to return to the numbness of utter loss and the pursuit of pure vengeance.

  ‘She is not!’

  His stubborn denial enraged me, so I attacked. ‘It scarcely matters. Be she dead or alive, I shall doubtless be killed before I discover her, given how little you have told me of Clerres and its folk!’

  His mouth dropped open in shock. Then guilt and outrage shrilled his voice. ‘I’ve done my best, Fitz! I’ve never planned an assassination before. My memories shy and leap away from me when you interrogate me. And the stupidity of the questions you ask! What does it matter if Coultrie gambles or if Symphe rises early or late?’

  ‘Without exact knowledge, my ability to kill them is diminished to the point of folly!’

  ‘Folly?’ He flung the word at me. ‘Well, what did you expect from a fool?’ He groped angrily for Amber’s costume and his voice dropped to a furious mutter. ‘I should never have come to you for help. What must be done, I should do myself!’ He pulled on her gown with reckless haste, tying laces and fastening buttons blindly and crookedly.

  ‘And all the difference in the world, if you had not come back to me!’ The words were reckless daggers. ‘And you needn’t disguise yourself as Amber. I’m leaving anyway.’ I stood up as he fought with a cuff. ‘And like most things done blindly and in haste, you’ve made a poor job of it. I would not go out on the deck like that, if I were you. But you seem willing to do many things I would not do, such as attempt an assassination with no information.’

  I slammed from the room, my heart leaping as anger warred with regret. The things I had said! But were any of them untrue?

  I leaned on the railing to stare at Divvytown and simmer my fury. The wind off the water could not cool it.

  Brashen found me there. ‘Wintrow came by. He asked if you knew when Tintaglia would arrive.’

  ‘I don’t. Do you know when we will leave here?’

  His terse response echoed mine. ‘I don’t. Wintrow has prepared for the dragon. If you can, he’d like you to let the dragon know that the pens are by the dock.’

  I didn’t master my anger but I contained it. I stood up straight and pushed the Fool’s words and my angry taunt out of my mind. ‘I will try, but I am not able to promise she will hear me.’

  ‘I can’t ask more of you than that,’ he responded.

  I closed my mouth and watched him walk away. I stared out over the water and tried to contact the dragon. Tintaglia. I am at Divvytown in the Pirate Isles. They wish to welcome you with cattle penned by the docks. They would be honoured for you to devour them.

  I felt no response from her. In my heart, I hoped she would not be able to find me. Whatever she wanted of it, it would not be good.

  Very early on the third morning, Sorcor and Queen Etta called up from a small dory, asking permission to come aboard Paragon. A bleary-eyed Wintrow was with them. All three had the look of people who had spent a long and sleepless night. They were welcomed aboard with steaming mugs of coffee. Sorcor had had the foresight to bring a basket of fresh pastries. To my surprise, Wintrow requested that Amber and I join them.

  Etta looked more tough than queenly that day. Her fine jacket was crumpled from being worn all night. The daylight was not kind to the lines around her mouth, and her hair was wilful in the breeze. Sorcor looked as sorrowful as a chained hound when the other dogs were massing for a chase. We settled at the table, and Althea poured coffee. Silence held while Queen Etta toyed with the charm she wore at her throat. Then she straightened and locked eyes with Althea. When she spoke, she was giving orders. ‘Paragon Ludluck, Prince of the Pirate Islands, will be travelling with you to Clerres. I know you do not welcome him. I am not enamoured of him making this journey either. Nonetheless, he must go. I offer coin for his passage, and eight reliable hands, experienced at both sail and sword. Though I pray that you will not have need of the latter skill.’

  Words and outrage poured from Althea. ‘No! When he attempted to board, I turned him away, as you said you wished us to do! As a result, our ship has gone from recalcitrant to dangerous as Paragon has attempted to thwart every task we must do! And now, after all that, you order us to allow him aboard?’

  Brashen put his hand over Althea’s as she drew breath. ‘Why?’ he queried Etta calmly.

  The pirate queen glared at him and folded her lips.

  Wintrow cleared his throat. ‘Because his father would have wished it. Or so we are told.’ Etta dropped her hand from her throat to the table and glared at Wintrow as he explained. ‘Queen Etta wears a wizardwood charm carved in Kennit’s likeness. He wore it on his wrist, next to his skin. It took in enough of his spirit to waken. This is his counsel.’

  I stared unashamedly at the carved charm at Etta’s throat. I half-expected it to move or speak, but it remained still.

  Althea leaned toward the pirate queen as she said, ‘Kennit desires it? Another reason for me to forbid it!’

  ‘Yet you will take him,’ Queen Etta predicted. ‘Your only hope to manage your wayward ship is to give him what he wants. Deny me, and you have a difficult, under-manned vessel. All Divvytown has seen his power and his temper. You need what I offer you. Or remain anchored here, with a ship that daily becomes more dangerous.’

  Althea clutched her mug so tightly that I expected it to shatter in her hands. Brashen’s voice was level as he said, ‘Althea and I need a moment to confer. We will join you on deck shortly.’ He gestured to the door and waited for us to rise and troop out. He closed the door behind us.

  Sorcor and Etta stood side by side, staring toward Divvytown. Wintrow stood apart from them, arms crossed. No one spoke until Paragon called back to us, ‘Is it settled? Will I get Kennit’s son?’

  None of us replied.

  They emerged. ‘It’s a deal,’ Brashen said quietly. ‘Money for his passage and eight sailors.’ Althea’s face was as impassive as stone. Brashen continued, ‘But he sails as a common deckhand, and accepts ship’s discipline.’ Althea remained silent as Brashen offered his hand. Etta made a small sound of exasperation, but Sorcor nodded. It was Wintrow who stepped forward and clasped hands with Brashen in the Trader style. ‘I’ll write it up,’ Wintrow promised, and Brashen nodded.

  Amber whispered, ‘It’s the Trader way; a bargain that benefits all.’ Very softly she added, ‘Althea is not happy, but she recognizes it’s the deal she needs if we are ever to leave Divvytown.’

  Wintrow stepped back from the handshake. ‘We will immediately begin loading supplies.’ He lifted his voice. ‘Does that settle well with you, Paragon? You’ve won. You get your way. Kennitsson sails with you. May we now finish offloading freight and come alongside with provisions?’

  ‘You may!’ Paragon’s voice boomed over the harbour. Satisfaction welled up from the deck and washed through all of us. Even Althea looked relieved.

  Brashen clapped me on the shoulder
as he passed by me. ‘Get ready to work,’ he warned me.

  And work we did. Kegs of clean water, beer, salt-fish and a great wheel of cheese were soon brought alongside, along with sacks of root vegetables, dried apples and plums, and box after box of hardtack. Our new crew arrived—seven deckhands and a navigator. Clef dared to put them through their paces, sending them up and down the mast, having them coil lines and demonstrate their knots. Not even the navigator was spared these humble chores, but she performed with a disdainful skill that mocked his testing.

  The weather had warmed enough that Lant had slung his shirt onto the railing. I was barely able to catch the sleeve and keep both it and Motley, who had landed on it and tangled her feet, from going into the water. ‘Be more careful!’ I warned the crow as I clutched the shirt. Wings open, she danced and struggled until her foot came free, then announced, ‘Tintaglia! Tintaglia! Look up, look up, look up!’

  Topaz and sapphire, glittering bright, she came. She was small in the distance, a crow, and a heartbeat later, the size of an eagle. On she came, swifter than I had known any creature could fly. Soon half the crew was pointing and shouting. On shore, folk halted in the street to stare skywards. ‘Does she know of the cattle by the docks? Where is she going to land?’ I demanded of the crow.

  ‘Wherever she wants,’ Per said quietly.

  ‘Look up, look up, look up!’ the crow squawked again. I was focused on Tintaglia, but Spark shouted, ‘Look, a red one! It’s far away, but I think it’s another dragon!’

  This dragon flew more slowly and seemed to labour heavily. Would it land safely or perish in the waves?

  ‘Heeby! Sparkling Heeby!’ Motley cried and lifted in a flutter of black feathers to fly to meet her. I watched anxiously as Tintaglia circled Queen Etta’s mansion. Cattle for you! In a pen by the docks! Food awaits to welcome you! I flung my thoughts at Tintaglia, but saw no change in her descending spiral.

  Folk on the grand green before the royal manor dashed wildly for shelter. The dragon swooped in a final warning circle and then down she came, clawed legs extended and reaching. For such an immense creature, she landed with grace. The crack of her wings as she shook them out carried across the water to me, the sound like wet canvas struck by a sudden blast of storm.

  Tintaglia lashed her tail, carving furrows in the green. Some bystanders surged toward the dragon and others fled. The confused babble of folk sounded like disturbed shore birds. Tintaglia rose on her hind legs, sitting up like a begging dog. Her head turned slowly, seeking. Despite the distance, her gaze settled on me. ‘FitzChivalry. Approach. I will speak with you.’

  Her words were both a dragon’s roar and a commanding voice inside my head. Ordering me. Almost as compelling as Verity’s Skill-command had once been. ‘Are you going?’ Lant asked me, aghast.

  ‘I don’t have a choice,’ I told him.

  ‘Going where?’ Per demanded.

  ‘The dragon summons him, Per. And I’m going with him.’

  ‘And me!’ Per added.

  I didn’t want either of them. I spoke to Per severely. ‘Remember that you’re part of a crew now. It’s up to the captain—’

  ‘Both captains say go.’ Althea charged up to us. She had a smear of tar down her cheek and her hair was matted with sweat. ‘Take Amber with you. Brashen has the ship’s boats waiting for you. Don’t dally. I don’t want a dragon displeased with someone on my deck. Particularly that dragon.’

  Spark dashed to fetch Amber from the cabin. Loaded hastily into the ship’s boat, we were whisked to shore. The docks were deserted, but as we neared the manor we had to push through a thickening crowd of folk gawking at the great blue queen. Queen Etta stood in the portico of her mansion with her son beside her. Armed guards surrounded them. Did the guards know how useless cutlasses and armour would be if the dragon chose to spit acid at them? A troop of city guard arrived, shoving through the mob of spectators to surround the dragon and push the crowd back from the green. I hoped I could reach Tintaglia before they irritated her too greatly.

  Tintaglia’s gaze found me as we forced a path through the massed crowd. ‘Part!’ she commanded. ‘Let that one through!’ As confused people pushed in opposing directions she announced, ‘I have flown without stopping a day and a night and a day to reach this place. Farseer! I have words for you. Do not be slow to come to me. My hunger has no patience!’

  ‘Out of the way!’ I roared and shoved through the crowd with the others in my wake. ‘Stay back,’ I warned them, and felt naked as I stepped into that open space before Tintaglia.

  ‘I am here,’ I said to the dragon. I forced myself to take another step toward her.

  She snaked her head toward me, mouth ajar and nostrils wide. Briefly, I saw the lash of a long scarlet tongue. The heat of her recent exertion rolled off her as if I stood too close to a hearth, bringing me the stink of reptile and the carrion waft of her breath. ‘I am not blind, and if I were, I’d still know your scent.’

  ‘Is she talking?’ Per asked behind me.

  ‘Shush,’ Lant warned him.

  ‘I am hungry and I am weary, with precious little time to spare.’ Her tone made that my fault.

  I bowed low. ‘Cattle await you in a pen by the docks.’

  Another lash of her tail. ‘I know that. You have told me twice.’ She spoke as if that were a mortal offense. Severely, she added, ‘The docks offer no landing space for a dragon of my size.’

  I thought of and immediately discarded the idea of trying to touch minds with her. I had no desire to let a dragon accidentally burn my Skill out of me. She was still speaking. ‘First, know this. IceFyre is a coward. A dragon who chooses to bury himself in ice rather than take vengeance for fear of his own safety is scarcely a dragon at all!’

  I did not think it would be wise to say anything to this. I stood silent and waiting.

  A long breath was blown out through her nostrils, a deep thrumming in her throat accompanying it. She shuddered her scaled skin, resettled her wings and ordered me, ‘Lead me to the docks. I will speak as we go. Then I will feed. It is difficult to speak simply to a human, and almost impossible when I am hungry.’

  So reassuring to hear. I pitched my voice to carry. ‘I believe it has been long since a dragon of your magnificent size descended here. Queen Etta of the Pirate Isles has provided well for your feeding.’

  ‘And we are honoured, most beauteous queen! Azure and amazing you are!’ Wintrow charged past the queen’s guard and descended the steps to the furrowed green. He flourished an extravagant bow to Tintaglia. ‘Perhaps you remember me, glorious one? My sister is Queen Malta of the Dragon Traders of Kelsingra. My younger brother, Selden, has often sung your praises to me.’

  ‘Selden,’ Tintaglia said, and her eyes whirled in sudden pleasure. ‘Yes, that is a name I well recall. Such a sweet dragon-singer! Is he here?’

  ‘I am saddened to tell you that he is not. And even more mortified to hear that our landing area was inadequate!’

  Queen Etta had caught Wintrow’s desperate hints. She stepped forward. ‘Guards! Clear a path for our extraordinary guest and offer her an escort of honour to the cattle-pen. See that fresh water fills the troughs for her!’ A flick of her fingers, and her personal guard peeled away from her and dashed across the green. With sheathed swords, they began to nudge a wide corridor through the gaping mob.

  A shimmering of colours down Tintaglia’s neck and a rippling of the frills at her jaw indicated, I hoped, her pleasure. ‘A fine welcome,’ she decided. ‘I am pleased.’

  Wintrow once more swept his elegant bow and with a sideways glance at me, walked a backwards retreat.

  Tintaglia’s attention returned to me, and a sensation like a heavy blanket dropped over me. I kept my walls tight against her glamor as she advanced on the avenue the guard had opened in the crowd.

  Walking alongside her was challenging. Her pace was neither a human stroll nor a dash. It had been long since I’d been forced to trot so hastily. I glanced back
to see Lant and Per following at a safe distance. Spark was guiding Amber toward the portico.

  ‘You,’ Tintaglia rumbled, almost quietly. Her tail lashed the ground as she walked, like a lazy cat’s tail. ‘Presumptuously, you asked me for information in Kelsingra. However, I have cornered IceFyre, and wrung from him with shame and threats much that he should have shared with us years ago. Even Heeby has more courage than he!’

  ‘Your surmise was correct. Whites and their Servants have done great injury to dragonkind. I burn with fury to think that generations of them believed they could wrong us without consequences! That shame is due entirely to IceFyre’s cowardice, but I have no belief that he will act. So I will.’

  We had reached the warehouse district, an older quarter of Divvytown where the streets were narrower. I walked uncomfortably close to Tintaglia, and several times heard crashes as her lashing tail encountered the fronts of the buildings. If there had been people here, the scurrying guards had cleared them away.

  ‘Understand, Farseer, this vengeance belongs to me. No mere human can deliver the punishment that Clerres deserves. When we come upon it, we will tumble it stone from stone and devour those who have dared to kill dragons, just as we did at Chalced. The satisfaction of those kills belongs to me!’

  ‘Not if I get there first,’ I muttered.

  Abruptly Tintaglia halted. For an instant, I regretted my ill-considered words. But then she lifted her head, snuffing the air. I smelled it, too. The cattle-pen, where animals were held during the loading or unloading of a ship. We were close.

  Emotions battled in me. I wanted my own vengeance. And if the Fool was correct and my daughter lived, I did not want her caught up in a dragon’s furious attacks on Clerres. Could I dissuade Tintaglia? Was there any chance that Paragon would be swifter than a vengeful dragon? My doubts that Bee lived were swept away in fear that I might never know. ‘You will take revenge on the Servants?’

  ‘Did not I just tell you that? Humans. Everything must be repeated!’ She spoke with total disdain. ‘Listen, now, before I go to feed. I tell you this in little pieces for your little mind. Yes. I allow you to go to Clerres. As you rudely asserted, if you arrive before me, you have permission to slaughter as you please. I will not count that as your stealing my kills. Do you understand this favour I grant you?’

  ‘Yes. Yes, I do. But we now think it’s possible that my
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