Assassins fate, p.81
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       Assassin's Fate, p.81
 

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

  spoke the name with disdain.

  ‘Why?’ Spark was aghast.

  ‘I simply am.’ I didn’t want to explain. He was alive while my father was dead. He was the one who had brought it all down on us. Beloved. The one who led the Servants to the doors of Withywoods. The one who started it by making my father his Catalyst.

  I looked at her. I asked a terrible question. ‘Do you know about Shun?’

  ‘Lant’s sister? Shine? She escaped. Your father found her. That’s how he knew you’d gone through the stone.’

  ‘His sister?’ I asked in confusion.

  Her smile wavered. ‘He was as surprised as you are now.’ She hugged me closer. ‘And he told me that at first, you two did not get along at all. He told me a lot about you.’ Her voice trailed away. She shook her head suddenly. ‘I’m hungry. Thirsty. And angry at Lant. And ashamed of feeling those things at all.’ She gave me a sad smile. ‘When things are so immensely wrong, it seems cruel that I long for a cup of tea. And some bread.’

  ‘Ginger-cakes. My mother used to make them for my father.’ I covered my mouth. ‘My mother would be so furious with him right now.’ And the hated tears welled again.

  A short time later I saw one of our boats coming back to the docks. Per was pulling one of the oars. We both stood up. There was a body in the bottom of the boat, wrapped in a piece of sail. ‘Oh, no,’ Spark moaned. Beloved was sitting beside the wrapped corpse.

  They came alongside the dock and Spark’s first cry was, ‘Is it Lant? Is Lant dead?’

  ‘It’s Kennitsson,’ Per said in a dead voice as he looked up at us. ‘The flames took him.’

  ‘Oh!’ Spark covered her mouth. I wondered if she hid her face, so no one would know how relieved she was that Kennitsson was dead instead of Lant.

  Per climbed up onto the dock. He came to me and opened his arms. We hugged one another tightly. He looked over my head and cried out, ‘Not Boy-O, too!’

  ‘He’s alive,’ Ant said from where she sat beside him. ‘But not doing well.’ Boy-O lifted his head and then let it drop again. ‘Kennitsson,’ he said dully. ‘He saved the ship.’

  It was hard work to get the wrapped corpse up the ladder and onto the dock, taking the efforts of three of them. Beloved did his share, but it seemed to me that several of his crewmates regarded him oddly. He opened the canvas and stooped over the shrouded body to compose it.

  Beloved shook his head wearily and looked over at me. A smile slowly curved his mouth, but his eyes were sad. ‘There you are. Once I saw Per, I knew you were safe.’ He took two steps toward me and opened his arms. I stood still. He let his arms fall to his sides, his embrace unclaimed. He stood looking down at me. ‘Oh, Bee. I will wait. I am a stranger to you. But I feel I know you very well.’ I do not think he could have said a more irritating thing. My thoughts flickered to my journal and book of dreams, now at the bottom of the harbour. No. No one could be so low as to read another’s journal … though of course, I had read my father’s papers. I looked past him and said nothing.

  I was aware of Spark looking at me and then regarding him with sympathy. ‘How are you?’ she said, and it was a sincere question.

  ‘I am hollow inside,’ he said gravely. ‘So many masks I have worn, and now they are all empty. I cannot summon even anger to sustain me. The loss is so … I want to go back there, I want to look at his body, to make it real to myself …’ His words ran down.

  ‘You can’t.’ Spark spoke the words sharply. ‘We are too few to divide ourselves. Too poorly armed. And it serves no purpose other than to prolong your pain.’ She looked away from him.

  ‘He’s dead,’ I said softly. I looked up at both of them. ‘For a short time, I could feel him. Connected to me. I felt him and I felt Wolf Father. They are gone now.’

  He glanced at his gloved fingers, and then cradled that hand to his chest. ‘I know,’ he admitted. ‘But it was a terrible place to leave him. Alone, with the water rising—’

  ‘Do we have a plan?’ Spark cut in sharply. ‘Or do we just sit on this dock until they come to kill us all?’ Her voice was hoarse but level. Her throat was probably as dry as mine, and her stomach as empty. I was coming to like her. She had the same steadiness that Per did. That same in-this-moment practicality. Her words snapped Beloved into a straighter posture. He looked over the huddled survivors and our thin line of protectors.

  ‘Yes. One that is subject to much change, I fear.’ He pushed his damp hair back from his face. ‘For now, yes, we remain on this dock. We are not a large enough force to protect ourselves if we venture into the town. Here and now, we have a somewhat defensible position.’

  And no food. No water. No shelter from the sun. Injured folk. I did not think much of the plan of the man who had replaced my father.

  He folded his legs and sat down beside me. Spark copied him and Per came to join us. Boy-O remained by the body. A muscled, scarred man was looking at Boy-O’s arm and the blistered burns on his face and elsewhere. Suddenly Boy-O sagged to one side; the man caught him and eased him down; he had fainted. Ant had a knife and was staring off toward the town. I did not know the names of the others. There were eleven of them. One kept watch out over the harbour. The afternoon sun beat down on all of us. The tide had turned and the waves were retreating, carrying the debris of our ship with them. The other large vessels that had been in the harbour were gone, save for one that was aground and listing.

  Per spoke. ‘If they come with archers as they did before, we have no cover. If they muster their courage and come by boat as well as on the shore, we will be quickly surrounded. If all they do is keep us here, we have no food and no water. No shelter from the sun. We will end here, I fear.’

  ‘Those things are true. But for now, they are far too busy dealing with dragons to bother with us. And it’s only to get worse for the castle. And then the town.’ Beloved turned his oddly pale eyes toward Clerres Castle. The blue and the green dragon had finished with the small boats, leaving only floating wreckage on the water. The green one was now high above Clerres Castle, wings spread, rocking in the air as an eagle does when it catches the wind and effortlessly rides it. The blue was actively harrying the castle, swooping and darting in a display of flight that mocked the archers’ efforts to hurt him. Arrows still flew but there were fewer in each volley.

  As I watched, the blue suddenly changed tactics. Graceful as an alighting swallow, the dragon swept in and up, to perch atop one of the Four’s towers. It was not one of the outer watchtowers that he chose, but one of the taller structures within the stronghold. The blue trumpeted loudly as if calling to someone. Then he flung his head back and snapped it forward on his sinuous neck, mouth wide. Something sparkling flew from his open mouth. I heard distant cries.

  ‘He spits acid, in a fine spray. Nothing stands before it. Not flesh nor armour nor bone nor stone,’ Beloved told me.

  I looked over at him. ‘Hap sang to me of dragons. I know what they do.’

  I thought of the placid, cheerful Whites in their little cottages. Their spotless flowing garments and picnic meals under the blossoming trees. They would be punished alongside Capra and the Servants and their warrior guards. Did they deserve it? Did they know the harm their cached dreams had done to the rest of the world? I felt a twinge of pity for them, but no guilt. What was happening to them was as far beyond my control as a thunderstorm or an earthquake. Or my own kidnapping and the sacking of Withywoods.

  The high-flying green gave a long shrill cry. ‘Vengeance!’ That was the word that rode on that sound. It echoed, ‘Vengeance, vengeance, vengeance!’

  Not an echo.

  ‘Oh, my,’ Beloved said softly.

  The vision my father had given him was becoming keener. He had seen them before anyone else. Two little jewels, sparkling and twinkling in the distance. One glinted scarlet and the other flashed bluer than the sky.

  Beloved lifted an arm and pointed. ‘Dragons!’ he called to our companions. ‘Heeby and Tintaglia, unle
ss I am mistaken. Rapskal said they would come!

  With a rattle of plumes, a crow suddenly settled on Per’s shoulder. I jumped back in alarm but he laughed joyously. She was a strange crow, with a silver beak, and instead of being black she had a glittering blue to her feathers, and several scarlet plumes in each wing. And not the red of a rooster’s feathers but shining, as if polished metal could be red. Per cried out, ‘Motley! I feared you drowned or arrow-shot! I am so glad you’re alive! Where were you?’

  The bird bobbed her head as if in agreement. Then she spoke, her voice and inflection oddly human. She opened her wings. ‘I fly with the dragons!’ Full of satisfaction. Then she turned her bright eyes on me. ‘A way out is a way in!’

  A shiver went up my back. ‘You came to my cell!’ I exclaimed. But she paid me no mind. She had turned her head to stare up at the sky.

  ‘IceFyre. IceFyre!’

  I saw confusion cloud Per’s face but before I could wonder what the word meant I heard him. The black dragon came—not over the sea as the others did, but from inland. He announced himself with one roar. ‘IceFyre! I return, and I bring your death!’ Every driving beat of his powerful wings brought him closer; he grew ever larger until he seemed impossibly big. How could such a creature exist, let alone fly? But fly he did. And as he approached the castle, we heard only his wings. Then a cry burst from him, a sound so powerful that all of us covered our ears. But while we might hold out the sound of his roar, the sense of it imprinted itself in our minds.

  ‘Remember me, Clerres? Recall how you poisoned us with a feast of toxic cattle? Recall how you gathered to dance and sing, to welcome us to your treachery? Recall how you butchered my fellows as they lay dying? How when I fought you, you filled my mind with a curse? “Bury yourself in the ice!” Back then, I fled. You shamed me! You made me the last dragon in the world! But I shall not leave even one of you to recall how you all died this day!’

  The blue took panicked flight from the tower, a jay rousted by a raven. The black dragon did not perch. He dived on the turret of one inner tower, hitting it with his talons and the full force of his weight and impetus. It fell, tumbling like a child’s blocks. I thought he would ride it down, but his great wings beat and he lifted again. High he rose and higher. The blue and the green dragons circled wide around him, no longer actively harrying the castle. They kept their distance, and I wondered if they feared they might become his meal.

  Then he fell like a stone, straight down, and only in the final moment did he change his course with a shifting of his wings, driving himself against one of the skull towers. It was a sturdier thing than the graceful inner towers. Even so, it could not withstand the blow. The fearsome head tipped as if it had taken a monstrous slap. A shocking crack ran down the structure, and as the dragon clung to the skull, pushing and flapping, the crack opened wider. The skull overbalanced and IceFyre lifted away from it as it leaned ever so slowly and then fell. Even at our distance, the sound it made as it struck the earth was impressive.

  From her perch on Per’s shoulder, the crow opened wide her wings. A string of enthusiastic caws burst from her throat. She bobbed her head and declared, ‘Dragons! My dragons!’

  Per put his hands on her to prevent her from taking flight. ‘It’s too dangerous,’ he warned her.

  ‘My dragons!’ she insisted.

  ‘She has finally found a flock to join,’ he observed to me. ‘Her own kind always pecked her. But the dragons have taken her in.’

  His eyes on the dragons and their destruction, Beloved asked, ‘If a flock of crows is a murder, what should we call a group of dragons?’

  ‘A catastrophe of dragons,’ someone said, with no humour in his deep voice.

  ‘Stay where you are!’ The outcry from one of our guardians jerked my attention back to the land end of the dock. A familiar figure stood there. My heart lifted for a moment and then I wondered. Friend or foe?

  ‘I have no weapon,’ Prilkop pointed out. I wasn’t sure of that. Two of the Whites we had freed from their cells stood behind him. They had recovered enough to be carrying a large bucket between them.

  ‘I’ve brought you water. And I offer you shelter in a friend’s home.’ He turned and gestured at the two Whites to bring the bucket forward. They exchanged a look and one shook his head vigorously. They set the bucket down and retreated farther down the dock. Prilkop stared after them. Then he walked ponderously back to the bucket, took it up and walked slowly toward us, the water sloshing over the brim at each step. We watched him come and all I could think of was the water. He clutched the bail of the bucket in both hands and it was splashing on his legs and feet. I suddenly saw that he was an old man, and not very strong any more.

  Behind him in the town, people were leaving their homes, some scampering like frightened squirrels and others moving purposefully, pushing barrows and carrying large packs as they fled. Some of them had clearly understood what IceFyre was saying. I wondered if those who lived here knew tales of how the Servants had killed and driven off the dragons. Had they ever imagined such a vengeance?

  Beloved walked past our glowering guardians, went over to Prilkop and took the pail. ‘Thank you, old friend,’ he said, and left Prilkop standing there as he brought the water back to us.

  ‘Are you sure it’s clean? Not poisoned? I heard that dragon say they were poisoners.’ This from the tattooed woman.

  ‘It’s not poisoned,’ Beloved assured them. He stooped and found a ladle in the bucket. He dippered up water and drank it. ‘It tastes fine. It’s even cool. Come and drink. Water for Boy-O first.’

  We gave Boy-O three dippers of water and no one objected. I took one, even though they said I could have more. The guards had not given up their vigilance. I slipped closer to stand near them and hear what Prilkop was saying to Beloved.

  ‘They’re destroying it all,’ Prilkop called to Beloved. ‘What Bee began with her fire, they are finishing with acid and blows of their wings and tails. If they do not stop, Clerres Castle will be nothing but rubble. I come to beg you to call them back. Let us change this path, Beloved. Negotiate a peace for us. Help me return Clerres to what it should have been, what it once was.’

  Beloved shook his head, and I do not think he was sad to refuse. ‘Easy enough to negotiate a peace with us. Allow us to leave on the first ship that will take us. That is all we ask. We have what we came for.’

  Prilkop nodded. ‘The Stolen Child.’

  In a flat voice, Beloved added, ‘We can do nothing about the dragons. Their vengeance is even older than mine. They will be thorough. And nothing will stop them.’

  Prilkop said nothing, but his mouth sagged and his face grew older.

  The blue dragon had claimed the walkway on top of the west wall. He paraded up and down it. His lashing tail razed blocks of stone, destroying the crenellation. From time to time he threw back his head and then snapped it forward, showering the interior of the fortress with acid. I could not see the green, and then, with a wild roar, a much larger blue dragon flashed past the two remaining skull-topped towers. A smaller red one flew low over the town and then landed at the town end of the causeway. On that dragon’s back was something I could not make out at that distance. A rider?

  ‘Heeby! Beautiful Heeby!’ the crow cried. She tried to lift from Per’s shoulder, but he caught her, his hands moving so fast I barely saw them.

  ‘Motley, she goes to battle. It is no place for you. Stay here with me, where you’re safe.’

  ‘Safe? Safe?’ And the crow laughed, a terrible cackle. Per had pinned her wings to her side and she did not struggle, but the moment he set her back on his shoulder, she leapt from him. With two flaps of her wings, she was up and then arrowing toward the red dragon. ‘I come, I come, I come!’

  ‘As you will,’ Per said sadly. ‘Likely she is right. There is no safety here for her. Or us.’

  The great blue dragon circled back. As IceFyre had, she announced her name with a roar. ‘Tintaglia!’ she trumpeted. ‘
Vengeance! For my eggs stolen and destroyed, for our serpents imprisoned and abused!’ She struck the tower a lashing blow with her tail as she passed. We stared. Nothing happened. And then slowly, slowly the skull tipped back, beheaded from its stone support. It fell, dragging half the damaged tower with it. We heard the distant crash of cascading stones.

  ‘You spent so many years at Clerres. As a child, you laboured long in the scroll-rooms. Your own dreams were stored there. You feel nothing?’ Prilkop asked quietly.

  ‘I feel many things right now. Relief is one of them.’ Beloved stared coldly at the falling walls of Clerres Castle. ‘Satisfaction that what was done to me will never happen to another child.’

  ‘And the children that were in there?’ Prilkop was outraged.

  Beloved shook his head. ‘This is the vengeance of dragons. No one can stop it.’ He turned to look at his friend and his voice was terrible. The voice of a prophet. ‘I spent him, Prilkop! I plunged FitzChivalry into death, a dozen times! No one can know what that cost me. No one! This is my future, my path, chosen by me, as the White Prophet of this time! Are you so blind? He and I, we did it all! We brought the dragons back into the world.’ He turned away from all of us. Arms crossed on his chest he shouted, ‘SERVANTS! You made this path! Long before I came into the world, you set us on this rutted route to this future. When you killed and destroyed for your own comfort, when your own wealth and power were all you cared for, this is the path you created! You delayed this reckoning.’ His voice dropped lower and suddenly he was coldly calm. ‘But my Catalyst and I have won. The future is here, and the vengeance is greater than even a prophet could predict.’ His voice, so grand a moment before, cracked and broke as he said, ‘Bought with his death.’

  The sea wind blew past him and his pale hair stirred slightly in its passage. I did not have to touch him to see that he had been a nexus. For one instant, all the possible paths that had been shone around him. Then they moved, converging into one bright way before it, too, exploded into a thousand, thousand paths. They dazzled my eyes and I could not look away. But abruptly, he dropped his hands and he was just a slender pale man as he asked on a sob, ‘Do you think I would undo one moment of my Catalyst’s work?’

  He knew, as I did, that it all had to end. Beloved was as much the Destroyer as I had ever been. Pull out the deepest root of the weeds. I did not know I was going to do it, but I stepped forward. I took his gloved hand in mine and we stood, staring at Prilkop.

  ‘Will they destroy the town as well?’ Prilkop whispered in horror.

  ‘They will,’ Beloved affirmed. Our small party had gathered around and behind him. ‘Prilkop, I see one narrow path for you. Take those you have and flee to the hills. It is all you can do and all I can give you. This is a balancing of the scales that was long in coming.’ He shook his head. ‘It did not begin with me but with
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