Assassins fate, p.61
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       Assassin's Fate, p.61

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

  whatever has survived of your good clothing. Per, here are trousers and a loose vest and your old boots. You’ve scarcely worn them since we came aboard! Amber says that will pass as a serving boy’s garb. Lant, as you are courting me, I’ve devised some garments for you. And myself. It has been a challenge to remake Lady Thyme’s old things into presentable wear!’

  She spoke with pardonable pride. She held up for Lant a garment that had been a fussy old woman’s blouse. It was now a passable gentleman’s shirt with a great deal of lace at the throat and cuff. ‘Luckily your father was of a size with you, so Thyme’s garments were generously cut.’ Her words suddenly choked to a halt. She held the shirt out to him blindly. ‘Try it on,’ she managed.

  The Fool had donned the bonnet and was tying it under his chin. Granny suddenly spoke in a querulous old woman’s voice. ‘Fitz, we must play the game as the pieces move.’ She stopped and looked about. ‘What is that smell?’

  I knew immediately. Spark’s digging for clothing had overset my pack and the Elderling fire-brick was smouldering. Next to Bee’s books. Next to Chade’s exploding pots!

  I fell to the floor and dug like a dog, employing Burrich’s finest stable-curses as I did so. I dragged out my pack from beneath a tangle of petticoats. The scorched canvas parted under my frantic fingers. I tumbled the contents onto the deck. The fire-brick was glowing. Lant upended the water ewer over a lavishly embroidered skirt and I flipped the hot brick onto it so that the plain side was up. It hissed as it landed and I stuffed my burnt fingers into my mouth. Not enough to blister, but my fingertips stung. Spark had already stooped and pulled Bee’s books from the jumbled pile of my possessions. The books had shielded the firepots from the heat, but my heart hurt that the back cover of Bee’s journal showed a scorch-mark. Spark set the books into the Fool’s hands and he lifted them against his breast as if they were children in need of comfort.

  ‘Why did you store Chade’s pots near the fire-brick?’ Per asked incredulously and I had no good answer. Except that if I had been alone, my pack would never have been overset.

  Spark had stooped down and was matter-of-factly sorting through my clothes. ‘Have you any good trousers left?’ she asked me as she pulled a shirt free.

  ‘Let me sort that!’ I said. Too late.

  ‘Are those tubes of Silver?’ Lant asked in an awestruck voice, for the heat of the bricks had weakened the frayed fabric of my old shirt and the tubes were exposed. I plucked one from the scorched fabric and examined the container. It seemed unharmed. The Silver inside shifted and twirled.

  ‘Silver?’ the Fool exclaimed in his own voice. ‘Fitz, you have Silver?’ He leaned over the tumbled items on the floor, as if peering hard enough would let him see them.

  There was no lie large enough to cover what the others had seen. The truth fell out of my mouth. ‘Rapskal gave it to me.’

  The silence that fell was like a fall of cold snow from steep eaves.

  I felt obliged to add more. ‘I didn’t ask him for it. Heeby convinced him that it was acceptable to the dragons that I have it. He had heard Amber ask for it, and he gave it to me. That day that he helped me home.’

  ‘So it was for me,’ Amber said softly. So quickly my Fool had vanished.

  ‘No. He gave it to me,’ I replied firmly. ‘To use however I thought best.’

  ‘And you kept it secret from me. From all of us, I presume?’ Slow nods replied to her accusation. She seemed to feel their assent in the silence. ‘Why?’

  ‘I thought I might need it.’

  ‘And you feared I might use it.’

  Was there a reason to lie? Not really. ‘Yes. I did. And with good reason, I might add,’ I spoke more loudly, over her attempt to interrupt me. ‘You silvered the fingers of one hand. How was I to know that you wouldn’t do more to yourself? Or give it to the ship and let him become more dragon than ship before we were ready to release him?’

  ‘And you thought you might need it,’ Amber’s voice broke into the Fool’s. ‘To do far more to yourself than just silver your fingertips. Your hands, I suppose? Like Verity did?’

  ‘Perhaps. How would that be different to what you did? The Silver was a resource, like Chade’s exploding pots and the Elderling fire-brick. I don’t know how I might use those things. Yet. But I reserve them so I have them.’

  ‘You don’t trust me.’

  ‘I trust the Fool. I don’t trust Amber.’

  ‘What?’ This from Per. The other three were uncomfortable witnesses to this quarrel, and his outburst reminded me of their presence. I glared at him, and he quailed. I was more annoyed with myself, for I could not explain my comment, even to myself. The Fool gave me a hurt look before Amber’s mask settled over his features again. There. That was it. He used her to hide from me, and I didn’t like it. Whoever the Fool might be elsewhere, when he wore Amber before me, it was a lie and a disguise. I made no answer to Per. He cleared his throat and nervously filled in, ‘Motley can do things with her silver beak. She showed me.’

  Everyone’s attention snapped to Per. ‘Such as?’ I demanded.

  ‘I’ve been keeping her feathers black for her. It was time to do them again. The ink wears off. But when I asked her to open her wings, I could see no white. Not even a hint of grey, except on one small feather. And when Motley saw it, she groomed it with her beak. And she made it black.’

  ‘It’s a powerful magic,’ I said softly. ‘Be wary of letting her beak touch you.’

  ‘She is very careful with it.’ He made a small sound of regret. ‘With me, she is careful. But not with the ship. She likes Paragon, very much, I think. I have seen her grooming the ship’s hair as if he were a dragon.’

  ‘He is a dragon,’ Spark said quietly.

  I knelt and put the Silver and my scorched shirt back into the rag of my old pack and bundled them safely. I set the fire-brick to one side. What remained of my clothing was a pathetic heap. I pulled the trousers out of it. ‘These will have to do. My Buck cloak is going to be far too warm, but I can wear it thrown back. It may cover that I’m going to be carrying an axe.’

  Amber had discarded her grievance with me. Her voice was flat as she said, ‘Take something smaller. We can’t chance that you’ll be stopped.’

  I didn’t argue. ‘I’ll borrow a ship’s hatchet from Trell.’ I found my other shirt and set it on the pile. I began to set out Chade’s explosive pots in a tidy roll.

  Spark picked up the shirt and held it up. She regarded it critically. ‘This won’t do. Not for a nobleman showing his wealth and demanding an audience. I’ll have to refurbish another of Lady Thyme’s blouses.’

  ‘Please,’ I managed to say. I reached under the bunk and drew out a separate package I’d brought aboard back in Trehaug and handled little since then. I’d lost some of my poisons and assassin’s tools in the bear attack. It held the remains of my supplies. I began to choose. Lock-picks. A garrotte. A little pot of a poison in grease that could go on doorknobs and latches or silverware. Once I’d used it on the back of a book. The owner had died two days later. Here were tasteless powders of death, some fast, some slow. One cluster of packets I set aside.

  ‘You won’t need those?’ Spark asked. She was watching intently what I was choosing, perhaps thinking of adding concealed pockets. But then, perhaps Lady Thyme’s old garments already had plenty of those.

  ‘Soporifics. Sleeping draughts. I doubt I’ll need any of them, but I’ll take two.’ I shifted the packets in question. I added two little knives, sharp, short and narrow as my little finger. ‘In-and-outs’ Chade had called them. Chade. I took a steadying breath. And here, wrapped in a scrap of paper, was the poisonous pellet I’d made for the Fool. I didn’t want to give it to him. I’d said I would.

  ‘Amber, I’m handing you something,’ I warned her and reached for her gloved hand. She didn’t flinch. I turned her hand palm up and put the packet in it. ‘It’s something the Fool asked me for. In the event he was captured.’

 
Amber gave a slow nod as she closed her fingers around it.

  ‘What is it?’ Per asked in a voice full of dread.

  ‘A quick exit,’ I said. I sorted a few more items into the pile I would take. Abruptly, I could stand it no longer. Everything felt wrong about this. Everything. We were approaching it in the worst possible way, the one I felt was most doomed to failure. I looked at the array of firepots, the tumble of poisons and sly weapons. Spark had already begun ripping a seam out of a green blouse. They were all so intent and united. Like idealistic rabbits plotting to take down a lion. I stood up. ‘I need some air,’ I said, and left them all staring after me.

  Out on the deck I stared over the bow-rail. Paragon was alone save for Motley on his shoulder. I’d greeted him perfunctorily and then subsided into my own silent pain. None of the others had followed me and I was grateful for that. Doubtless they would remain in the cabin and make further plans that I would disagree with. I leaned on the railing and looked toward a now visible landmass. Clerres. My destination. My daughter. I’d abandoned her and then lost her. More than anything, I wanted to be the one to find her and restore her to safety. I wanted her to see my face, be lifted in my arms. Me. I wanted it to be me.

  You completely ignore that Amber feels the same way. Paragon’s thought thrummed through me. I lifted my forearms from his railing. As if that would make a difference. I’ve told you, little man, any time I wish, I can share your thoughts. As I feel her dreams. She blames herself that you saved her and left the child behind. She spends her strength trying to think of what she must do lest others divine it. But this I will share with you. She dreams you dying and does not wish you to die in vain. You should know, if she must choose a death, she chooses yours. Because she believes it is what you would wish.

  I knew a time of stillness. As if all my guts had frozen. Choose a death. Then I knew and I knew the Fool was right. If I must die so that he could live and take care of Bee. That was the better outcome. I framed a thought for the ship. How do I die?

  In water and fire, in wind and darkness. Not swiftly.

  Well. That’s nice to know.

  Is it? I will never understand humans. Like someone tearing a bandage from a wound, he peeled his mind from mine and left me alone in the wind.

  All that day we drew closer to land. It did not seem so, for whenever I looked over the bow-rail, Clerres seemed as distant as ever. The winds were kind to us and the ship sailed with a will, requiring little from his crew. There was too little work and too much time to stew in worry.

  I was not the only one pacing and staring. I saw Althea and Brashen, side by side on the roof of the afthouse, staring together toward Clerres. His arm was around her, and as I watched, their son climbed up to join them there. They looked like a family on the brink of a perilous journey. Perhaps they were.

  Those of the crew who did not have tasks joined Paragon on the foredeck. Amber was there with them. Paragon was telling tales of what he recalled from Igrot’s earliest visit to Clerres. That had been before the ship had been blinded. He recalled a lively town that offered entertainment to seafarers. His merry description bothered me, given that I’d had a glimpse of Kennit’s life on the Paragon when Igrot captained him. The Divvytown sailors had a hundred questions about bawdy-houses and gambling dens and what sorts of Smoke would be for sale, and if there was any trade in cindin. Amber sat among them, joining in their questions and jests, telling shore-time adventure tales that prompted the others to recount the disasters and delights of such days. Motley sat on Amber’s shoulder and cawed her approval when the others laughed.

  I drifted away but found nowhere to go. Per was hovering at the edge of the crowd beside Clef, who listened with his arms crossed and a slight smile on his face. When I grudgingly returned to the cabin to see if the shirt was ready for me to try on, I found Lant there with Spark. She flushed a very pretty pink when I entered, and I made my fitting as brief as possible. ‘It looks well enough. Do you wish me to load it, or will you do that yourself?’ she asked me.

  Had I ever imagined that anyone would so bluntly discuss how I prepared for murder? They both watched me silently as I filled the concealed pockets in the shirt, and then slipped it on again. Spark frowned and said, ‘It isn’t my best work, but it’s the best I can do with what I have. You must wear your cloak and walk a bit hunched, as if feeling your years.’ And with that she presented me with a sort of belt with pouches for Chade’s firepots to ride in. They would sit at the small of my back, and when I donned my cloak and slouched as she commanded they were well enough concealed.

  With that preparation done, I left them to themselves. They were not wise in who they had chosen to love. But I had known that burning passion, and suspected that my father had felt that way about Patience, and that old King Shrewd had not been especially thoughtful about the consequences of taking Duchess Desire as his bride. I withdrew and let them have whatever moments they could.

  The day dripped by as slowly as sap dripping from a cut branch. The shoreline grew closer, and as early evening fell, we could make out lanterns being lit in the distant city. Brashen came to find me. ‘It will be full dark when we arrive, and from what Paragon recalls of the harbour, it’s not one we want to enter at night. We’ll anchor outside where the water is deeper, and go in by daylight. The moon is waxing and this time of year we can expect some very low tides. Not a time to take chances in a strange harbour with a ship the size of Paragon.’

  I nodded reluctantly. ‘We should do the wise thing,’ I agreed, even though I longed to set foot on land as soon as it was remotely possible. Just as foolish as my companions, I chided myself, and thanked Brashen for the news.

  He nodded gravely. ‘Tell your friends that none of them need stand watch tonight. I suggest you get what sleep you can. We have not met under the best circumstances, Prince FitzChivalry, but I wish you luck all the same.’ And with that, he left me. And I knew I should accept his counsel, find my friends and advise them to make their final preparations and then sleep. I returned to Amber’s cabin to find that Per and Amber had already joined them there.

  ‘Did you see the city lights? It looks so beautiful!’ Per asked me.

  ‘It does,’ I agreed. ‘And another time I would be glad to explore a new city. Brashen says he will anchor just outside the harbour, very late tonight. I’m going to ask if the crew can take me ashore right away to reconnoitre. I’d like to go to the taverns and listen to the gossip there.’

  Amber shook her head. ‘I share your impatience,’ she said, as she unfastened her skirts and let them fall. To my surprise, she picked them up and used the hem to wipe the cosmetics from her face. ‘Likely you would be turned back at the docks. Clerres patrols its streets and harbour vigorously. It is a lovely city, clean and orderly and very well controlled. It would be a great inconvenience if you were detained.’ She wiped the last of the rouge from her mouth and the Fool added, ‘We should sleep tonight and go together, very early. I judge it crucial that we keep our pretence of being eager pilgrims.’ He ran his fingers through his hair, standing it up on end. ‘Besides, I doubt that Brashen and Althea would allow it. Let a boatload of crew go to town in the middle of the night? Before the ship is anchored in the harbour? Not a good plan.’

  Reluctantly, I accepted that advice. We said nothing of how I had stalked out earlier. It was our way of making peace with one another. The others exchanged glances, and I was surprised to see how relieved they were that the Fool and I were not quarrelling any more.

  I think he finally realized that my dislike for Amber was real. Within the small room, he reverted to being the Fool, discarding Amber’s shawl and slippers on the floor. Once more we spread out our maps and studied them. One was the city and the concourse to Clerres Castle with its towers and courtyards. The other four each represented a level of the interior stronghold. On every map, there were blank stretches where the Fool either did not know or could not recall the exact layout. We discussed routes and possible pla
ces of concealment. He recalled, as best he could, how many guards there would be and where they could be stationed. I pretended that our plans had some small chance of success. When I was utterly weary of hearing the repetition of all we had said earlier, I suggested that all of us should get as much sleep as possible. I sent Lant and Per off to their hammocks. The Fool asked Spark to go to the galley and beg a pot of hot water and some cups, ‘for a cup of tea to clear my mind before I sleep.’ I smiled as she hurried from the room, for I suspected she and Lant would share another goodnight embrace in a more private place.

  A strange silence fell when we were alone. There was a distance between us that Amber had created. Before we went into danger tomorrow, I wanted to close it. ‘We have small chance of success. I only hope that the others do not fall with us.’

  He nodded. His gloved fingers groped along the bunk and found Bee’s books. He drew one onto his lap and opened it at random. A woman with golden hair rode a horse through the forest. ‘Three hunt as one at the trail’s edge. The queen, the foreteller and the stableboy smile to see it so.’

  ‘I think it recalls our time in the Mountains. You, me and Kettricken. Hunting together.’

  He smiled sadly. ‘How can it be that I recall such a harsh and dangerous journey so fondly?’

  ‘I as well,’ I admitted, and the gap between us closed.

  We paged through Bee’s books, I read to him and we spoke of those times. We were as comfortable with one another now as we were going to be. And in those quiet hours, I had finally realized what Amber had been concealing. My friend was terrified of returning to Clerres, as reluctant to set foot on shore as I would be to return to Regal’s dungeons. His torment in Clerres had been as he had described the city. Orderly and well controlled. Carefully and precisely planned in a way that my torture had not been.

  ‘I was too gullible,’ he said woefully. ‘When first I began to suspect that they were deceiving us, I should have fled. Instead, Prilkop and I talked. And debated. I insisted I must warn you, lest they find you. And I convinced Prilkop that we must leave and seek ourselves for this “wild-born” new prophet and protect him as I was not protected. Was he the Unexpected Son? Of that, neither of us could be sure. But we both knew that a young White would no longer be allowed to pursue his own goals. If the Servants brought him to Clerres, they would use him for their own purposes.’

  Bee’s book was forgotten in his lap. His splayed hands covered the pages as he spoke.

  ‘The next day, we began to plan our departure. We quietly sold off some of the gifts that we had been showered with and sought to buy passage on a ship, but it had no room for us. Nor did any other vessel in the harbour that day. We tried to bribe a fisherman to take us to the next island. He told us he did not dare. And when we persisted in our efforts, we were ambushed, beaten and robbed of our coin.

  ‘Then the Four abandoned all subtlety. The guards at the gate told us bluntly we were not allowed to leave the island fortress. We were summoned by them and asked if we were unhappy. They told us we were honoured to be kept there in such rich circumstances and that we had a duty to remain. That we should share our dreams and
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