Assassins fate, p.48
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       Assassin's Fate, p.48
 

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

  around my head.’

  ‘And that makes you think that the dream is about my Bee?’

  He nodded slowly. ‘But not just because of a bee in the dream. It was the feeling of the dream. But it wasn’t the only dream I had.’

  ‘What do the dreams mean?’ I asked the question despite suspecting that his recent dreams meant no more than the dreams I had. When I had brought him back from the dead, he had told me he was blind to the new future we had made. Did his mind now play tricks on him, sending him dreams of what he desperately hoped to be true?

  ‘I could say, “you don’t want to know” but I would be lying. The truth is, I don’t want to tell you. But I know I must!’ he added hastily before I could speak. He cleared his throat and looked down at his hands. He rubbed them together as if remembering pain. He had a few fingernails now on his bared hand and the others seemed to be growing. I looked away from the reminder of what he had endured. The body might heal, but the wounds that dedicated torture leave on the mind always seep toxic pus. I reached across and took his gloved hand in mine.

  ‘Tell me.’

  ‘She isn’t treated well.’

  I had expected that. If she was still alive, her captors were unlikely to be gentle with her. But to hear that spoken aloud was like the fist to the belly that drives all breath away.

  ‘How?’ I managed. Dreams, I reminded myself. Probably not real.

  ‘I don’t know.’ His voice was a hoarse whisper. ‘I dreamed a wolf cub licking her wounds and curling tight against the cold. I dreamed a slender white tree stripped of its blossoms and its tender branches bent awry.’

  I could not breathe. He made a small sound of pain and I realized I was crushing his fingers. I loosened my grip and found air.

  ‘But I also dreamed a hand holding a dead torch. It was a confusing dream. The torch fell to the ground and a foot ground it out. I heard a voice. “Better to grope in darkness than to follow false light”.’ He paused and added, ‘The confusing part was that it was already dark. An immense blaze of light came up as the torch was ground out.’

  ‘How do you know that the dream was about Bee?’

  He looked abashed. ‘I am not certain, but it might be. And it felt … uplifting. Like something that might be good. I wanted to share it with you.’

  There was a hasty knock and an instant later Spark flung open the door. ‘Oh!’ she exclaimed upon seeing our clasped hands. I released the Fool. She recovered herself to announce, ‘Captain Trell wants every able-bodied person on the deck. Time to weigh anchor and depart. Clef sent me to find you. He nabbed Per and Lant as soon as we came back on board.’

  I was relieved to leave off our discussion of dark dreams, but the Fool’s words haunted me all that day. I was grateful for the times when the distraction of learning the ropes and how the ship moved blocked my anxiety for my daughter. No matter how I moved my thoughts, I was cut. Bee was dead, tattered away in the Skill-stream. Bee was alive and living in torment.

  I worked my body as hard as I could, seeking exhaustion, then took a hammock belowdecks with the crew where their talk and cursing and laughter kept dreams away.

  We were a day out from Divvytown when a downcast Per came to me. ‘Have you seen Motley?’

  I had not noticed the crow’s absence until he spoke of it. ‘I haven’t,’ I admitted. Unwillingly I added, ‘Crows are shore birds, Per. There was plenty of feed for her in Divvytown. That’s not true out on the open water. I know that you shared your rations with her when we were running short. But perhaps she prefers to fend for herself now.’

  ‘I’d just re-blacked her feathers. What will become of her when the black wears off?’

  ‘I don’t know,’ I admitted reluctantly. She was a wild thing at heart and always would be. She’d made it clear she did not want a Wit-bond. I tried to let go of her.

  Nonetheless, relief flooded me on the second day when we heard a distant cawing. Per and I were up the rigging that day, leaning on the spar, our feet braced on the foot-lines. At first she was a tiny silhouette in the distance. But as we watched, her steadily beating wings brought her closer and closer. She cawed a greeting and then landed solidly on Per’s arm. ‘Tired,’ she said. ‘So tired.’ She walked up his shoulder to nestle under his chin.

  ‘I swear, sometimes I am certain she knows every word we say,’ I observed.

  ‘Every word,’ she repeated, and regarded me with one bright eye.

  I stared at her. The tip of her beak was silver. ‘Per,’ I warned him, trying to keep my voice calm. ‘Keep her away from your face. She has Silver on her beak.’

  I saw the boy freeze. Then he said in a shaky voice, ‘I can’t sense magic at all. Maybe I’m immune to Silver, too.’

  ‘And maybe you’re not. Please, move her away from your throat.’

  He lifted his wrist and the bird transferred herself to his hand. ‘What did you do?’ he asked her. ‘How did you get Silver on your beak, pretty thing? Are you all right? Do you feel ill?’

  In response, she turned and groomed her flight feathers. They did not go silver but they sheened blacker than I’d ever seen them. ‘Heeby,’ she croaked. ‘Heeby share. Heeby teach how.’

  Ah. Rapskal’s tonic back at Divvytown. I should have guessed. And was her time with the dragons improving her speech? ‘Be careful with your beak,’ I chided her.

  She turned her shining eyes on me. ‘I am careful, stupid Fitz. But so tired. Take me to Paragon.’ She clambered up his sleeve to his shoulder again and gave me a baleful look before closing her eyes.

  I heard Trell roaring at us to get a move on and stop perching like seagulls. Per looked to me, ignoring his captain. ‘Do I take her to Paragon?’

  ‘I doubt you can keep her away. And no matter how careful she is, I want you to be even more careful. Warn any others that she might fly to.’

  Brashen roared again, and Per began his hasty descent, shouting that Motley had returned. As Per spidered and slid with the bird on his shoulder, Spark crossed the deck at a run. I began my more cautious descent.

  ‘Are you truly a prince?’ Kennitsson asked as I paused beside him.

  I hesitated for a moment. Bastard or prince? Dutiful had made me a prince. ‘I am,’ I said quietly. ‘But due to illegitimacy, not in line for the throne.’

  He shrugged that aside. ‘That lad, that Per. He was your stableboy?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘You work alongside him, and he never defers to you at all.’

  ‘He does, but not in a noticeable way, I suppose. He respects me, even if others don’t see it.’

  ‘Huh.’

  The sound was thoughtful rather than disdainful. Even a few days on board as a common sailor had changed him. He was clever enough to know that if he were quartered with common deckhands such as Ant and Per, he’d best step down from his elevated ways. He had shed his fine clothes and adopted the same loose canvas trousers and cotton shirts that the rest of us wore. He’d braided his hair and tied it after Ant had warned him about how loose locks of hair could get tangled around a moving line and be ripped right off the scalp. He’d also bound the palms of his hands with leather; I suspected bloody blisters on them. Hemp lines are not gentle to handle.

  He said no more to me, so I hastened down to await my next order.

  It had been decades since I’d worked the deck of a ship, and never had I toiled on a ship like Paragon. The living nature of the ship meant that he could be an active participant in the journey. He could not set his own canvas nor take it in, but he could cry a better heading to the steersman, sense where currents ran swiftest and warn us of a line that needed tightening. He had a fine sense of depths and channels—something that he had proudly demonstrated as he guided his crew out of the harbour at Divvytown, and that he did again now as we sailed cautiously through the waterways of the Pirate Islands and finally into the open sea. As he sliced through the taller waves our diminished crew strove to keep pace with his needs.

  I wa
s not alone in marvelling at the ways of a liveship. The crewmembers we had taken on in Divvytown were openly delighted with how Paragon participated in his sailing. Before long the navigator was humbly asking permission to share her charts with the figurehead, and correcting them according to his knowledge. Given his way, Paragon himself became almost affable, and especially so with Boy-O and Kennitsson.

  Even so, my transition from passenger to deckhand was not easy. I had always harboured a secret pride in how able I had remained into my sixth decade. Much of my physical strength I owed to the old Skill-healing that still coursed through my body and made unceasing repairs to it. But healthy is not necessarily hardened. Those first days were long ones for me. The calluses earned by wielding a sword or an axe are different to the rough palms that prickling hemp lines award to a sailor. In the rigorous days that followed, I ached in my legs and my back and my arms. Muscle in my limbs and a flattened belly came back to me slowly. My body healed itself, but healing can be as painful as being injured.

  Despite the men we had gained in Divvytown, we still had a smaller crew, and fewer who were used to sailing a liveship. The end of my watch was no guarantee of uninterrupted rest. A cry for ‘All hands!’ might come at any moment. As Brashen had foretold, there was no friendly current to aid us in our south-western journey. Land became a smear of low cloud on the horizon behind us. When I awoke the next day, it was gone.

  Spark and Per both thrived. They scampered happily about in the rigging with Ant. Clef was a good teacher, and now they had Boy-O as well, an experienced hand. Lant laboured alongside me, trying to teach his man’s body the skills it would have been happier to acquire as a boy. I pitied him, but he did not complain. All of us ate as heavily as we were allowed, and took sleep whenever we could.

  There was a hearty rhythm to the days. If I had been younger and had no other goal in life than to earn my bread it would have been satisfying. The animosity of the liveship’s crew over how we would destroy the life they had always known was ground away in the day-by-day necessity of working alongside us. I avoided any topic that might remind them that, at the end of this journey, Paragon intended to become dragons.

  I marvelled at Brashen’s patience with Kennitsson. More than once, the captain had paired me with him. Prince FitzChivalry, Brashen always called me, and I finally grasped that he was making the boy see that even a royal prince did not hesitate to apply himself to the humblest task. But ultimately I think Kennitsson strove for the skills of a sailor not from Trell’s orders but his own desire to be seen as equal or better at his duties than any of the deckhands. It was painful to watch. He would race a more experienced hand to a task and loudly exclaim, ‘I can do it!’ He sometimes scorned offers of help and corrections to his methods. He was not a stupid man, but he was overly proud and desperate to be right. Even more painful was seeing Boy-O caught between his parents and the man he wished to be friends with. Kennitsson treated Boy-O as if he were an affable puppy, sometimes showing scorn of the younger man’s maritime skills. I sometimes saw Boy-O surreptitiously recoil a line in Kennitsson’s wake or loose a line and reknot it. I said nothing but I was certain that if I was aware of it, his father certainly was. And if Brashen was letting it go by, it was not up to me to say anything. Still, it was darkly fascinating to watch Kennitsson seesaw between a man eager to learn the skills and a prince who could not admit that he did not know something. I hoped for no disasters.

  Clef, the first mate, had seen Boy-O raised from infancy, and it was natural the two would be close so I was surprised when he befriended Kennitsson. Clef had been a youngster on Paragon in the days when Kennit had raped Althea and tried to send Paragon to the bottom, yet he seemed to take Kennitsson on his own merits. And when I observed Clef correct Kennitsson, the prince seemed better able to accept criticism than when Brashen intervened. I also feared that Per might be jealous over losing Clef’s attention, but instead he attached himself to the group and soon they began to sit together at meals. When Per joined the three of them at dice one evening, I knew he had been accepted into that circle, and I let go of him. Boys seek out what they need.

  Over the course of a few evenings, I saw Kennitsson move from ignoring Per to the mockery and teasing that preludes true friendship. I watched Kennitsson and Per conspire to merrily cheat Boy-O at cards until he had lost every dry bean they were using in lieu of coins. Boy-O’s mock outrage when he discovered the ploy completed Per’s initiation into that group. Clef began to pair Kennitsson with Per for some of his duties. More than once, I saw Per showing the prince the proper way to perform a task. They became friends, and I judged it good for both of them.

  But it was not without missteps. I stood aside when Boy-O and Kennitsson undertook to get Per well and truly drunk. Every young man must pass that trial, and I judged that while he would suffer the next day, he would take no real harm from it. Boy-O especially had a heart for mischief rather than petty cruelty. What I had not counted on was that Per would, in his inebriation, invite them to our cabin to see the wonderful Elderling gifts the Rain Wilders had given us. When I chanced to step in, all three were well soused, and my lad was holding up one of Chade’s firepots and trying to explain what he thought it was. The Elderling brick was upside-down on my bunk and the blanket had begun to smoulder. That did not upset me as much as seeing Bee’s books in proximity to the scorched blanket.

  I drove all three out of the cabin with some colourful curses and a solid kick to the rump for Per. He apologized profusely the next day, between bouts of vomiting over the railing, and Boy-O and Kennitsson both offered their contrition more sedately later. It cemented a bond of friendship between the three, and I felt that Per was now as safe aboard the Paragon as anyone could be.

  Spark came to wake me from much-needed sleep to summon me to Amber’s cabin one evening. I went bleary-eyed. The hard physical labour of being a sailor took a toll on me every day. ‘It’s important!’ she hissed at me before wending her way like a cat between the hammocks of the other sailors.

  I arrived at the cabin to find Per already there, looking as befuddled as I felt. I was relieved to see that I was meeting with the Fool and not Amber. ‘We need to discuss our plans for rescuing Bee,’ he announced.

  ‘You are certain that she’s alive?’ Per asked. His hunger for confirmation made me cringe.

  ‘I am,’ the Fool asserted softly. ‘I know it is hard for you to believe, after setting out solely with vengeance in mind. But I am certain she lives. And that changes all our plans.’

  Per gave me a sidelong doubtful glance that I was glad the Fool could not see. I kept my features grave and still.

  ‘You have all studied the map the Fitz made? It is essential that you have at least that much knowledge of the layout of Clerres Castle.’

  They nodded, and Spark confirmed aloud, ‘We have.’

  ‘I’ve told you that the only way to get into the castle is at low tide, when we will join a crowd of folk who will have paid dearly for the privilege of crossing. I will be well disguised lest any recall me. We will think of roles for you.’

  I caught my breath before I sighed. I still felt a solo venture in to set some poison or cut a few throats was my best route.

  ‘Once we are inside, we must break away from the main flow of petitioners and conceal ourselves. We may have to separate to do so. Keep in mind that Bee does not know me or Spark. So, after nightfall, when we convene in the deserted washing courts, we must form two parties. Fitz and Per will be one. Lant, Spark and I are the other. Thus each party has a competent warrior. And someone who can open a locked door.’ He smiled in Spark’s general direction.

  Worse and worse. I said nothing. Lant was looking at his hands. Per was listening intently. Spark seemed to have already been a party to this plan for she looked unsurprised.

  ‘There are at most four places that Bee may be. On the roof of the stronghouse, the old harem quarters have been converted to cells for valuable prisoners who must be punished but no
t permanently harmed. She may be there, or in the cottages where the Whites are stabled.’ I knew what his next words would be and dreaded hearing them. ‘But there are also two lower levels below the castle. In the first one there are cells with stone floors and iron bars. Little light, and harsh conditions. I dread she may be there.’ He drew a breath. ‘On the lowest level are the worst cells and the place where torment is deliberate and prolonged. There the waste of the castle flows into an open basin, and then out to the sea. There is no light and the air stinks of excrement and death. That is the worst possible place she might be. And therefore it is the first place I must search for her. My party will begin at the lowest level. Fitz and Per will go to the rooftop cells. If you find her there, go to the washing courts. If not, check the cottages.’

  Per opened his mouth to speak. A motion of my hand silenced him.

  ‘Whether you find her or not in the cottages, go to the washing courts.’ He drew a breath. ‘After we have searched the cells, we will also search for the entry to the tunnel that my rescuers used to extricate me. If we are successful, and we have found Bee, two of us will immediately take Bee out that way. One of us will meet you in the washing courts to let you know where we have gone, and guide you to the tunnel.’

  ‘What if we don’t find the entrance to the tunnel?’ Lant asked.

  ‘We will bring extra garments for Bee, or perhaps the butterfly cloak. We will again conceal ourselves, and the next day, we will emerge to mingle with the petitioners, and leave with them as they flow out in a crowd.’ His hands, one gloved and one bare, clutched one another. He knew how bad his plan was. I didn’t need to tell him. It was the desperate plotting of a man who longed for something to be so.

  ‘What if we don’t find her?’ Per asked in a faltering voice.

  ‘Again, we hide, and leave with the tide of petitioners the next day. That may happen, for my dreams do not tell me if she has already arrived in Clerres or is simply bound there. We may have to wait.’

  ‘And the dragons?’ Lant asked. ‘Tintaglia and Heeby both seemed intent on their vengeance. What if they arrive at Clerres before we do?’

  The Fool’s clutching hands rose to his collar and clung there. He licked his lips. ‘I must trust that my dreams would show me such a disastrous event. As of yet, they have not. And so I have hope.’ He gave a quick shake of his head as if to dash Lant’s question from his mind. ‘Does everyone understand the part they are to play? Are we agreed?’

  I did not nod, but no one seemed to notice that. Spark spoke for the others. ‘We all do. And now, perhaps, you can sleep.’

  He rubbed his face with both hands and I saw what had escaped me before. He was boiling with anxiety. It took every bit of
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