Assassins fate, p.82
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       Assassin's Fate, p.82

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

  the dragons. And the dragons have come to finish it.’

  Prilkop looked toward the castle, his hands trembling. With no fear, Beloved went to him and embraced him. He spoke quietly. ‘Only for what you must feel, old friend, I am sorry. Take those you can. Guide them toward a better path.’

  ‘There were children there,’ Prilkop said brokenly.

  ‘There were children at Withywoods,’ I reminded him. I did not say I had been one of them.

  ‘They have done nothing to deserve such punishment!’

  ‘And my folk were just as innocent!’ Could he not hear what I was telling him?

  Per was suddenly beside me, his round face contorted by an anger I’d never seen before. ‘Did my father and grandfather deserve to die so that you could kidnap a girl? Your people erased my mother’s memories of me, so that she denied me and sent me away. Neither of us will ever get past that! Do you understand that when the Servants came to Withywoods, they destroyed my life as well as Bee’s? And now her father is dead, because of what they did!’

  I suddenly understood something from a long-ago dream. ‘Did you know that they arranged for nets to be set off Others’ Island, to capture and kill the serpents so that they would die and never become dragons?’

  ‘But …’ Prilkop began.

  Beloved stepped back from him. His voice was harsh. ‘No one deserves to die like that. But very little of what happens to us in life is what we deserve.’

  Still the old man stood staring at us pleadingly.

  ‘Prilkop. Time does not pause. Go.’

  Prilkop stared at him as if shocked beyond words. Then he turned, and stumbled away. In a few steps he recovered himself and began a dogged trot. I watched him go. Our companions looked at us questioningly but there was nothing more to add. ‘Boy-O is awake,’ I said quietly. Ant turned and hastened to his side. He was sitting up, but looked worse than he had. Beyond him, out in the water, something moved.

  ‘What’s that?’ someone demanded, drawing our attention to the other end of the dock.

  ‘There’s someone in the water!’ Spark cried. All her heart was in her shout, and with no hesitation, she leapt from the dock to swim to the man who clung to a bit of plank and doggedly kicked. We watched her go, some shouting encouragement. She reached him and we saw her take her place beside him on the broken board. They both kicked then, and slowly, slowly they reached a point where Boy-O suddenly cried out, ‘It’s my Da! He’s alive! But where is my mother?’ He staggered to his feet, swayed and then Ant seized his good arm to support him.

  ‘Brashen Trell,’ Per said. ‘Paragon’s captain.’ His face shone with hope.

  Agonizing moments crawled by as they slowly drew closer. The waves pushed them toward us. Boy-O stood, his burned arm held close to his chest, his scorched face full of hope and misery. When they were close enough, Per climbed down to help first Brashen and then Spark to climb out of the water. The moment the man was on the dock, he sank down and Ant lowered Boy-O beside him. The father reached for his son, then drew back, not daring to touch his burned flesh. They both wept as the captain brokenly explained that he had seen Althea briefly when the ship fell apart, but not since. He had been swimming from raft to raft of wreckage, looking for some sign of her, but found nothing. When the wreckage began to drift out of the harbour, he knew he had to try to return to shore before he was carried out with it. Too weary to swim any longer, he had clung to a plank and stubbornly worked his way back to us.

  Those who clustered around father and son smiled and wept. Spark, I noticed, isolated herself to sit and weep noisily yet privately. Lant was gone, as gone as Althea and probably others of the crew I had never met and knew nothing about.

  When the captain saw the carefully composed body on the dock, he gave an exclamation of both pity and despair, and Boy-O began to weep afresh. ‘I failed, Da. Twice I tried to get through the flames to the figurehead, but the pain drove me back. In the end, it was Kennitsson who saved Paragon from dying. He claimed the Silver from me and ran right into the flames. I heard him screaming but he didn’t stop. He saved our ship.’

  The man said nothing to try to comfort Boy-O but just let him weep. The two small dragons that had been his ship were like fluttering ribbons in the sky. Though so much smaller than the other dragons, they were just as intent on the destruction of the castle. He watched them. ‘So many losses,’ he said.

  The red dragon rampaged on the ground. The ship’s dragons soon joined her. They were thorough in their destruction, moving methodically from structure to structure. They started at the houses and businesses closest to the causeway. There were no flames. The red dragon spat acid and then, when the structures weakened, turned them to rubble with a blast of her wings or a sweep of her tail. We heard the crashes and the shouts, and the stream of fleeing folk became thicker. Some fled up into the pastures and farmland behind the town; others pushed carts and followed the road that wound up into the hills. I sat on the dock and looked up, past the roofs of the warehouse and fine homes, to the hills beyond. People joined the sheep there and then pushed on, to vanish over the ridgeline.

  Slowly, slowly the summer evening waned away. There were no flames to light the night. When IceFyre and Tintaglia had finished with the castle, they joined the smaller ones in a very organized destruction of the city. There was nothing random in what they did. The ruination was as coldly calculated as anything Dwalia or Capra had visited upon me. Mothers fled with their babes in their arms, fathers with small children in barrows or on their shoulders ran past. I watched. This was not justice at work, but vengeance.

  Vengeance took no account of innocence or right. It was the chain that bound horrific events together, that decreed that one awful act must beget another worse one that would lead to yet a third. It came to me, slowly, that this chain would never end. Those who survived here would hate dragons and the folk of the Six Duchies and perhaps the Pirate Isles. They would tell tales of this day to their descendants and it would not be understood or forgiven. It would, some day, beget more vengeance. I wondered if that was a thread that was wrapped around every path. I wondered if ever a White Prophet would come who could snap it.

  Boy-O suffered from his burns and many of the others from their lesser injuries, but we dared not leave our little spot of safety while dragons walked the streets and flew over the houses. I dozed in the night, when sleep eventually triumphed over fear and discomfort.

  In the dawn, I wakened to a place I had never been. Every structure in the town was roofless, with walls cracked and crumbled. The harbour was studded with the masts of sunken wrecks. Of the piers and docks, only ours was left intact. The scene was eerie, lifeless: the streets were empty of people. I wakened because Spark shook my shoulder. I sat up to see the smaller blue and green dragons advancing down the dock. ‘What do they want?’ one of the guards demanded in a shaking voice. Beloved went to him and pushed aside his blade.

  ‘They come for their own. For one they claimed as kin. Step back. For they will pass whether you clear a way or not.’

  Brashen stood over his huddled son, for Boy-O could no longer stand for the pain of his burns. Some of the other sailors retreated to the end of the dock, but Spark, Per and I remained where we were.

  The planks of the dock complained under their weight as the dragons came toward us, turning their gleaming heads on their serpentine necks and snuffing the air near Beloved. Their eyes spun like twirling silver buttons. The blue opened his mouth, the better to test the air near him.

  ‘Tell me what they say,’ Per breathed beside me.

  ‘They have said nothing yet,’ I replied. He took my hand in his, and I wondered if he sought to give me courage or borrow mine. It did not matter: I welcomed it. Small dragons were still very large creatures, and they were very close to us but even in my fear and sorrow, their beauty made me smile.

  ‘We have come for him,’ the blue one said, and I repeated that softly to Per.

  Beloved turned ba
ck toward us. ‘The dragons that were once Paragon the ship have come to claim the body of Kennitsson.’

  I saw the uneasiness that went through all the others. The tattooed woman who had rowed the boat for us asked, ‘To do what?’

  Beloved looked down at the body and then around at the gathered crew. ‘They will eat his body. To keep his memories among their own.’ At the looks of horror that his words awoke, he said, ‘The dragons consider doing that an honour.’

  ‘Is this a fitting end for the Prince of the Pirate Isles?’ Two men stepped forward to stand beside her. Tears tracked wet on one man’s face but he held a knife in his hand and faced a dragon.

  There would be trouble.

  Beloved spoke. ‘Is it so different to how Paragon took Kennit’s memories, when he died on the ship’s deck? Kennitsson goes where his father’s and great-grandfather’s ship has gone. And that is a fitting end for any pirate.’

  Only Beloved seemed resigned that these dragons would eat the body of one who had been a companion to so many of them. But when he motioned to all of us to step back, everyone moved aside to let the dragons pass. The dock creaked and swayed on its pilings as the dragons halted by the body and looked down at it. I had thought there would be some ceremony, some decorous sharing, but no.

  Eager to be first, both green and blue dragon darted their heads down to the corpse. We’d had only a piece of scorched sail canvas to cover him with, so nothing shielded us from the sight of the blue dragon seizing Kennitsson by the head and tugging the corpse upright as the green’s head snaked in to shear off the bottom half of his body. Before anyone could gasp, the blue had lifted the head half with its now unravelling entrails and gulped it in.

  Bits of Kennitsson’s guts littered the dock. One of his sailors turned and harshly vomited into the harbour. Ant had lifted her hands to cover her eyes. Boy-O clung to his father like a child and Brashen’s face was white. Spark gripped my other hand and swayed slightly.

  ‘It is done,’ Beloved said, as if that somehow made what we had seen better. As if the gory bits littering the planks would disappear.

  ‘His memories will be within me,’ the blue dragon announced.

  ‘And in me,’ the green said, almost argumentatively.

  ‘I will sleep now,’ the blue announced. He turned carefully but his tail still swept dangerously close. A step he took, and then he halted. He lowered his head and his eyes whirled as he snuffed Brashen’s chest. He turned his head sideways, and regarded Boy-O. ‘They burned us,’ he thrummed, as if he recalled something from long ago. He made a low sound, like an immense cauldron coming to a boil. ‘They have paid,’ he said. A longer time he stared. ‘Boy-O. I give you the honour of my name. Karrig.’ He lifted his head. ‘And I take part of yours. Karrigvestrit I shall be. I will remember you.’

  Head up, the small dragon moved ponderously down the dock and toward the shore.

  The green surveyed us silently. She drew breath and then reared up on her hind legs. She opened her mouth wide, and in the scarlet-and-orange striped maw she displayed, I saw death. Everyone crowded back and one man fell from the dock to the water as she hissed without venom. She closed her jaws and looked down on us. ‘I was ever a dragon,’ she said disdainfully. The dock swayed from her impetus and I feared it would collapse and spill all of us into the water as she sprang into the air. We cowered like rabbits as the wind of her wings swept us. A few moments later, the blue took flight and we were left as we had been. Ant was weeping with terror. She shot to Brashen’s side and he put a sheltering arm around the young deckhand.

  Per scanned the skies. ‘I don’t see or hear any of the other dragons.’

  ‘They are likely gone to sleep off their … gorging,’ Beloved spoke reluctantly as if he did not wish to remind us of what they had gorged on. But no one was deceived, and an uneasy silence followed his words.

  Beloved stood watching them fly against the darkening sky and I could not read his expression. His shoulders rose and then fell. ‘I am so tired,’ he said, and I felt he spoke the words to someone who wasn’t there. When he turned back to us, he spoke briskly. ‘The streets are quiet and the dragons gone. Now we must go to salvage food and find a better place to shelter tonight.’

  Brashen and Ant and a sailor named Twan stayed with Boy-O while the rest of us ventured out as a tight party, for the tattooed woman insisted we be defended. Clef went with us, carrying a knife and looking as if he wished to be attacked. We soon saw that not every inhabitant had fled. Some peered at us from the doubtful shelter of half-tumbled walls. Others were out salvaging or looting. They were poorly armed and most fled as soon as they saw us. Once, a flung brick struck Spark a glancing blow on the shoulder, but there was no sign of the assailant. Nonetheless, we took that warning to heart.

  We salvaged canvas from the tumble of a sailmaker’s sheds. Beloved sent sailors back with enough for a sling to carry Boy-O. We made a camp against the standing wall of the sailmaker’s house. The night was mild. Per cut a square of canvas for me to sit on. One of the men fetched water in Prilkop’s bucket.

  Beloved did not wish to let me go with those who went to search for food, but I was too hungry to obey him. It was not a difficult search. This town had lived in plenty, and had not taken much of it when they fled. Some of the gardens had fruit trees. After days of being at sea, we little cared if it was ripe or not. We filled our shirtfronts. Per found loaves and buns and even little cakes scattered among the wreckage of a bakery, and I found a tub of butter. ‘I have heard that grease is good for a burn,’ I mentioned to Per.

  He looked doubtful but we took it along with our other looted food. ‘Boy-O was very good to me, as was Brashen. And Kennitsson,’ he added in a tighter voice. ‘Althea. Cord.’ I had not stopped to think that he might have made fast friends among the crew. I thought of that as we walked, eating as we went. I had Per, but if he had friends here, did I have less of him? Who cared for me in this world? Nettle and Riddle seemed very far away, and now they had a baby to share. Even Wolf Father was gone from me now. As I followed Per and the others through the deepening dark, the world seemed to stretch wider and emptier around me.

  When we returned we found Brashen setting cool wet rags on Boy-O’s burns. The younger man lay very still. His father had cut away much of his clothing and his burns were more extensive than I had thought. There were places where the fabric of his shirt had adhered to the burned flesh, and there it stayed, colourful flags on scorched territory.

  Per knelt on one side of him. ‘Do you think we can wake him enough to eat some bread?’ he asked Brashen, who shook his head. His face was lined and there was some grey in his dark curly hair.

  He looked at me and said, ‘So this is the child we came to rescue. All of this death and destruction, to bring her home,’ he said bitterly, and I suspected he thought me a bad bargain. Could I fault him for that? I had cost him a ship and his wife. Perhaps his son.

  I knelt on the other side of his son with the butter tub. Clef had followed us and stood wordlessly behind me along with the tattooed woman that everyone called Navigator. ‘I brought this to dress his wounds,’ I told him. His dark eyes were empty of hope and he did not object. I dug my fingers into the soft yellow butter and very gently began to smooth it onto Boy-O’s face. The bubbled flesh felt terribly wrong under my fingertips. One of the big blisters broke and oozed fluid that mixed with the butter. Wrong, it was all wrong. What was right? I touched the flesh next to the burn. That was right. That was what his skin should be like. My fingertips dragged on the unburned skin. I wished I could pull it over the scorched flesh like a cool coverlet.

  His father abruptly leaned closer. ‘Butter does that?’ he demanded in a stunned voice.

  ‘No. Farseers do that,’ Per choked, and then he lifted his voice to shout, ‘Amber! Come here!’

  I could not be bothered with any of them. This was fascinating. It was like using a small brush or cut plume to put the colour exactly where I wanted it on a paint
ing. With inks, I could make the bee or the flower precisely as it was supposed to be. With my fingers, I could draw the healthy flesh back over the burned parts. No. That wasn’t exactly it. Starting at the healthy flesh was a good idea, but the clean skin was a spreading thing, like green plants growing over scorched earth. I pushed the debris of dead skin out of the way.

  ‘Bee, stop that! Boy-O needs to rest and to eat. Later, perhaps, you can do more. Bee, can you hear me? Per, I dare not touch her! You must do it. Lift her under her arms and draw her away from Boy-O.’

  The next thing I knew I sat by the fire, blinking. Per was standing over me, a peculiar look on his face. ‘I’m so hungry and tired,’ I told him.

  A smile quirked one corner of his mouth. ‘I imagine you are. Well, we have bread, and butter. And some fish.’ My nose told me of chicken spitted over our fire. The others had been as successful in their scavenging. They had a cask of something and were breaking a hole in the top of it. I suddenly smelled beer.

  I stood up unsteadily and looked over toward Boy-O. His father was smiling at me, but his cheeks were wet with tears. All doubt of me was cleared from his face. Beloved knelt by the lad. I had not healed his entire face, but he could close both his eyes now and his mouth was intact.

  ‘He’s wakeful enough that you should get him to eat. It draws strength from the injured person when a Farseer heals someone.’ Beloved gave me a worried look. ‘It wearies the Farseer as well.’

  A louder voice cut through his words. ‘Ah, I see that you have recovered the lost child! And if my ears do not deceive me, she is indeed her father’s daughter.’

  I startled, for the stranger had come up on us quietly. He was like no one I had ever seen, like a creature from a tale. He was tall and thin, gleaming scarlet, and dressed in bright garb. I stared at him. ‘Rapskal,’ Beloved said under his breath.

  Then Per had handed me a torn slab of bread, the cut end of it dabbled in the butter. I bit off such a large bite that I got butter on both my cheeks. I didn’t care. I chewed as I stared at the red lizard-man. His clothing had lots of leather straps and buckles. Things were clipped to him, a water-skin and other gear I didn’t recognize. He reminded me of a festival puppeteer, but Beloved and Per seemed daunted by him. He looked around at us, and then asked, ‘And where is FitzChivalry? And Kennitsson. I promised he would fly with us, to take our vengeance. Tomorrow, we scour the hills for any who escaped us! He will enjoy that hunt.’

  ‘Neither survived,’ Beloved said in a tight voice.

  ‘Oh, dear, I do hope it was not the dragons! My apologies if it was. They are very focused when angered.’

  Beloved looked stunned at the man’s casual apology. ‘No, both died before the dragons came,’ he said in a subdued voice.

  ‘Oh, well, that’s good then. I would have hated it to have been the dragons. Very sorry to hear it, of course, and that the prince of the Pirate Isles is dead. He seemed quite taken with Heeby and she enjoyed his compliments. I ran into some of your fellows a
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