Assassins fate, p.91
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       Assassin's Fate, p.91
 

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

  ‘He’s not decided yet. At present, he’s our lifeline. But if we get the impervious ships crewed, well …’ Captain Leftrin stroked the railing of his barge as if he were ruffling a boy’s hair. ‘He is the one who must decide,’ he finished.

  ‘Leftrin. We’re ready,’ Wintrow said.

  It still took some time. The day was fine and the wind blew the sweet fragrance of flowers across the water as the crew said their farewells to Vivacia. There were tears. Some of the crew had been aboard her for most of their lives. And then there was a shifting of lines and anchor chains, both to bring the figurehead alongside Tarman’s deck and to make it possible to salvage the chain and anchors afterwards. Traders, I saw, wasted very little. If there had been more time I think they would have taken every scrap of canvas and line off her, but there was a limit to what Tarman could hold.

  On Kendry’s decks, his crew waited uncertainly. The figurehead had his arms crossed over his manly chest, muscles bulging with tension. He was scowling as he looked about. Then his gaze met mine. He hunched his shoulders as if embarrassed and tried for a smile. It was more frightening than his scowl had been.

  My friends joined me on top of the deckhouse. Tarman’s decks filled with Vivacia’s crew. Amber was weeping; I didn’t know why. Vivacia’s figurehead picked a cask from our deck. In her hands it was like a very large mug. She studied it and then, with an incredible strength, she broke the top with her thumb, raised it and began to drink. Her colours brightened as if she had been freshly painted. Everywhere that she had been built from wizardwood, varnish and paint flaked away. Planks and railings shone with an unusual sheen.

  A second keg. A third. ‘It did not take that much for Paragon,’ Per said.

  ‘He was desperate,’ Boy-O said. ‘He had to change or die. I think that’s why his dragons were so small. He became as much as he could with that small amount of Silver.’

  Vivacia was reaching for another cask. She caught my eye and winked at me. I glanced away. That was six casks. I could feel Kendry’s tension shimmering across to me. Almost half the casks were gone.

  With every cask she drank, she changed slightly. Her face was not so human as it had been. Her wizardwood planks were scaled now. She chose another keg. As she began to drink it, I heard a popping, crackling noise. She dropped the empty cask into the river and gave a shudder, like a horse with a fly on her withers.

  ‘Ware!’ shouted Captain Leftrin, but there was nowhere to flee as Vivacia’s mast fell like a cut tree. Only good fortune put most of it on the far side of her hull. Spars, lines, rigging came down like a wind-toppled tree. I crouched, my arms over my head, but the bulk of it missed us. The fallen mast and spars dragged the canvas away from us as the river’s current tried to carry it off. For a few moments all was frantic activity as sailors cleared fallen lines from Tarman’s railing. There was shouting, the thud of hatchets cutting lines, and a lurching as the debris of the ship tugged at Tarman. I looked for Vivacia. I saw only wreckage churning in the river’s current.

  Then it was floating away down the river, a sloppy raft of wood and canvas. For a moment, Vivacia’s aft-house was floating among it, and then it began to slowly sink deeper and deeper. ‘Oh, that’s going to be a hazard in the channel,’ someone said, but I wasn’t staring at that. Wallowing among some of the loose wreckage was a large silver dragon. She was twice the size of Paragon’s dragons.

  ‘Will she drown?’ Althea cried out in a low agonized voice. For the dragon was sinking. Her large head with its glittering blue eyes lingered a moment on the surface and then sank out of sight. Althea screamed, her hands reaching uselessly toward the water.

  ‘Wait!’ cried Brashen. I held my breath. I could feel the dragon struggling beneath the water. She fought the current, then let it catch her. It carried her downstream. I turned my head that way and suddenly, in a shallower part of the channel, I saw the water stirring and then there was a wild splashing. ‘There!’ I shouted, and pointed. A head, a long neck, a spiny back and then, with a tremendous surge of effort, the silver dragon leapt into the air. Her wide wings spread, scattering water not in droplets but as bucketloads. She beat her wings and for a moment I feared she would fall back into the river. But with every heavy stroke, she rose a little higher. A long tail followed her out of the water.

  ‘She’s flying!’ Althea cried, and her joy and the wave of joy I felt from the rising dragon were one.

  ‘I’m so proud of you!’ Boy-O shouted at her. Everyone on the deck laughed and the dragon trumpeted uncertainly.

  ‘I cannot reach it!’ Kendry cried out, and his roar of despair was equal to Vivacia’s joyful trumpeting. He was listing as his figurehead strained to reach for the remaining kegs on Tarman’s decks.

  ‘Move those kegs!’ Leftrin ordered and all on deck sprang to his order. ‘Quickly!’ he added, and I felt Tarman’s uneasiness as Kendry leaned on him. It made his deck cant down, and a keg got away from a sailor, rolled across the deck and cracked sharply against the bulwark. Kendry seized it, and it trickled Silver onto Tarman’s deck as he raised it to his mouth.

  ‘Oh, sweet Sa!’ Captain Leftrin exclaimed, but the Silver soaked into Tarman as if his deck were a sponge, leaving not a trace. I felt a little shiver of pleasure run through him, but no more than that. The other kegs were being transported more carefully and as Kendry came upright, our deck didn’t slope. On the shore, people were shouting and pointing at Vivacia’s dragon as she tested her wings above the river.

  Kendry was on his fourth cask when a small vessel from Trehaug came alongside Tarman. ‘Catch a line!’ the man in the bow shouted.

  No one did.

  A small red-faced woman with a thicket of dark curly hair stood up in the middle of the boat. ‘Last night, at the agreed-upon hour, a vote was taken. What you are doing is forbidden by a vote of the Bingtown Council. Their prohibition has been affirmed and duplicated by the Rain Wild Traders’ Council. You must cease immediately!’

  ‘What’s that?’ Leftrin shouted back at them. ‘Can you say that again?’ For as they spoke, a long silver dragon swept over us, trumpeting her joy.

  ‘Stop that immediately!’

  ‘Stop what?’

  Her rowers were working hard to stay in place along the Tarman. It seemed as if each time they were almost close enough to catch hold of one of his anchor lines, our ship would sidle slightly away from them. She who had been Vivacia continued to sweep over us in circles that made us all duck from the wind of her wings and pushed the councilwoman’s small boat about as if it were a toy. By the time she shouted out at us, that we must not aid any ship in turning into a dragon, Kendry finished the last cask and tossed it casually into the air. Chance made it land with a splash beside the small boat, and the woman shouted in alarm and was barely caught by one of her rowers before she went over.

  Captain Leftrin shook his head and made a mocking face. ‘Even a child would know better than to stand up in the middle of a rowing boat.’

  ‘You will be condemned for this!’ the woman shouted as her rowers pulled their oars and bore her away from us. ‘You will be fined for contempt of a lawful council ruling.’

  No one was paying attention. Kendry, it turned out, was a very gaudy dragon, with stripes and spots of orange, pink and red on a black hide. His eyes were jade green. He was smaller than Vivacia, and as he rose into the sky he trilled rather than roared. He joined Vivacia over our heads. They sparred twice, there above us, and then both swiftly flew upriver.

  Captain Leftrin looked around his deck at his surplus of crew. ‘Time to go,’ he announced. ‘Get those anchors up. Tarman wants to head for home.’

  ‘He’s done something to himself,’ Captain Leftrin muttered to Alise. Alise had been showing me that some sailor knots were the same ones my mother had used to crochet. We were sitting around the galley table when he came in out of the rain. He dripped across to the little galley stove, and made it hiss with rain spatter from his oilskins as he poured himself a mug
of coffee.

  ‘Done something?’ Alise asked worriedly.

  He shook his head. ‘We’re making good time,’ he abruptly announced to all of us. ‘Excellent time.’ He looked at her and added, ‘Better time than we’ve ever made since I’ve been captain.’ And then he stumped back out onto the rainy deck.

  I must have looked worried. ‘Oh, don’t fret, dear,’ Alise assured me. ‘The ship is having a bit of a joke. They’ll sort it out, I’m sure.’

  But Tarman’s ‘good time’ as we went up the river seemed slow indeed to me.

  I learned three more tunes on the pipe. Spark and Per insisted I learn more knots. I surprised them with crochet. I could not manage the big lines on the ship; my hands were too small and I lacked the strength. But with very thin cord, Alise and I made tablemats. I spent a great deal of time with her in the galley, helping to make the meals, and in her stateroom listening to her stories of her girlhood in Bingtown. When we walked together on the deck, Captain Leftrin often watched us with a wistful expression.

  At night, when the weather was fine, we slept on top of the deckhouse and looked up at the stars in the black sky. One evening when we had tied up to a sandy bank for the night, I went with Amber to find some tall reeds that were like cattails but different. She cut a dozen, and brought them back aboard and made several whistles from them, and Per joined me in learning to play. Their sound was not as fine as her wooden pipe, but we enjoyed them. Often we were banished to the stern of the barge while we practised.

  I had other lessons with Beloved, in the small cabin Spark and I shared with him. Beloved spoke of dreams, and changes to my skin, of responsibility to the world, and to my own conscience. He told me tales of other White Prophets and how they had changed the world, sometimes with very small deeds. Despite myself, I enjoyed the stories. It was confusing. I was starting to like him, despite how I nursed my anger for him when I missed my father late at night.

  His lessons cautioned me that great events often hinged on small ones. ‘Your father was the Unexpected Son. When I was young and dreamed of him, I saw always that the chances of him surviving boyhood were very small, let alone his chance of living through manhood. And so I came, all the way from Clerres, wending my way to Buckkeep Castle, to put myself in service to King Shrewd and wait and hope that I was right. The first time I saw him, he did not see me. He was just a little boy, trudging along behind the stern stablemaster. I looked down on them from my window in a tower and I knew him in that moment. And later that day, when a cart-driver thought to harass him, the boy stood him off without a word.

  ‘Oh, Bee, I put him through so much. It was not a kindness for me to find him and demand that he live through all sorts of beatings and abuse. Time after time I pulled him back from death’s door. He endured pain and privation, hardship and heartbreak. Much loneliness. But he changed the world. He made dragons real again.’

  That was the day he put his face down in his hands, one gloved and one bared, and wept. After a time, I stood up and left him there. I had no more comfort for him than he did for me.

  When we docked in Kelsingra it was so easy that Captain Leftrin was left cursing with amazement. We arrived in the middle of a sunny morning and the sky was full of dragons. Paragon’s dragons were there, already larger than when we had last seen them, and Vivacia and Kendry, as well as the red dragon from Clerres and the great blue one called Tintaglia. I saw no sign of the immense black dragon that had helped to flatten the castle.

  The city itself had more buildings and larger ones than ever I had seen, even larger than Sewelsby. ‘That’s because the city was built for the dragons as much as for the Elderlings,’ Per told me. ‘Look at the steps, how wide they are, and the height of the doors on that building!’ He had already recounted so many wonders that I would soon see that I could hardly bear to wait for the time it took to secure Tarman to the dock.

  I jumped when Lant suddenly shouted right beside me, ‘Hoy, Clansie! By Eda and El! Marden! Nick! Look at them! They’re here! They’re here, in Kelsingra!’ He was literally hopping up and down with excitement, and it was a few moments before I could wring from him that the folk on the dock were from Buckkeep Castle, the Queen’s Own Coterie, my sister Nettle’s special Skill-users. Spark had never met them, while Per was as ignorant as I was. There were three of the Buck folk and they looked almost like a different kind of human, with their short stature, dark skin and dark curling hair, beside the tall, slender Elderlings with skin and scales in every imaginable colour and pattern.

  ‘They’ve come to take us home,’ Amber said softly. She put an arm around me and a hand on my shoulder. I tolerated it. I thought of that word as the ropes were tied and a walkway put down for us. Home. It would not be home for me. But I was about to meet the people who served my sister Nettle, those she had chosen and trained. I straightened my shoulders and patted my hair flatter, but felt it pop up again. I did not need to brush my Elderling garb. It hung, sparkling and immaculate, on me. As we drew closer to the dock, I made myself smile. I lifted my hand and waved to them. Per took my other hand. ‘He would be proud of you,’ he whispered.

  Kelsingra was as astonishing as Per said it would be, but it exhausted me. Everything was a whirl and a blur. Elderlings both real and shadowy were celebrating in the streets. We were welcomed as if we were royalty, and it was Per who reminded me that I was. The members of Nettle’s special Skill-coterie had their walls up so tight against the city that I could barely sense them. I tried to copy them, but perhaps some residue of serpent spit in my blood made me more vulnerable. All the beauties and wonders of Kelsingra could not charm me enough to make me remain in that cacophony of voices and whirling rainbow of colour and sights. Clansie, the woman who led the coterie, gave me a tea of mint and valerian with a dark, bitter aftertaste. As she had warned me it might, it deadened me to the voices.

  But it also freed my sadness from where I had hidden it. Even during the dinners and entertainments, even when the two Paragon dragons demanded to see me, even as I gave my rehearsed speech thanking them for helping to free me, tears would roll. The dragons told me that my father would be remembered as a friend to dragons and a vengeance-taker. As long as dragons flew and serpents swam, he would be remembered. They regretted that they had not been able to eat his body and preserve all his memories. I laughed aloud at this in horror. Fortunately, they took that as my joy at their wish to have made my father their dinner.

  Then that was over and I slept. But even sleep was not rest, for the distant voices tugged at me. Even when I rode in a tiny boat on a cable across the river to the Village I heard the voices and knew the story of the shattered bridge in the river below us.

  There on the other side the rest of the coterie had been busy with Rain Wilders who were ‘Touched’. They had been there for two months, and had done, I was told, miracles for people. Four pregnancies were attributed to their putting their hands on women’s bellies and opening something for them. A young man who had been dying from his inability to breathe normally had been revived and healed and celebrated his son’s third birthday. All of these joyous things were attributed to my father’s wishes to bring them there.

  But they could no longer stay, because I had come there. I was resting in a lovely chamber where fish swam in the walls and leapt over my head. They made me ill just watching them. King Reyn and Queen Malta had come to visit me on the day that Clansie told them we all had to leave. ‘Only the teas I am giving her are keeping her sane and preventing her from slipping away altogether. You would call it drowning in memories. If we keep her here longer, she will fall into unresponsiveness. We must take her home.’

  ‘Will you travel through the pillars as you did to come here?’ Queen Malta asked, and they nodded.

  Beloved was still being Amber. She was sitting by my bedside in a chair. She held my hand in her gloved one. The tea and the sadness it gave me had renewed my dislike of her. I didn’t like the touch but she helped to anchor me. Per had been best
at that. He was so immune to the magic that I could hide inside him. But when I had told Clansie that, she had frowned and said that what I was doing was drawing off his strength, and that doing so put him in danger. So Clansie had separated us.

  ‘It’s too dangerous for Bee to travel that way,’ Amber objected.

  Clansie was very calm as she said, ‘The Skillmistress has decided that the whole coterie will travel with you, and take all of you back to Buckkeep at once.’

  ‘I don’t agree,’ Amber objected in Fool’s voice, and Clansie replied, ‘It is neither your decision nor mine. Tomorrow we depart.’

  I drew a deep breath of relief and sank into sleep. I did not bother to listen to the rest of their long farewells to the king and queen of the Elderlings. I would see my sister soon. And Riddle.

  FORTY-FIVE

  * * *

  A Princess of the Farseers

  A grey man is singing in the wind. He is as grey as storm clouds, grey as rain on a windowpane. He is smiling as the wind blows past him. His hair and his cloak stream in the wind and tatter away. He tatters with them, until only his song is left.

  I awakened from the dream smiling. It is a promise, and a good one. It will happen.

  Bee Farseer’s dream journal

  I was royal now. I did not much like it. I understood why my father had tried to spare me from it.

  The journey through the Skill-pillar was uneventful. The horrid procession to it, and the endless farewells and the dragons trumpeting overhead that preceded it, were all extended agony. Oh, how stiffly I smiled, and curtsied and thanked everyone. I had begged for Per and they let me have him. I held tight to his hand on one side and to Clansie on the other, and through we went like a string of beads.

  Only to discover that on the other side, there was a welcoming party gathered and there would be another procession, and a feast that night followed by music and dancing. I held tight to Per’s hand as they announced it. It was only when he said, ‘I feel dizzy,’ that I knew what I was doing. I let go of him then. Riddle had been standing beside me on the other side. He suddenly stepped between us and put one hand on my shoulder and one on Per’s. We both felt better for that touch.

  So many things happened that day. I met my niece, formally, in front of everyone, with a curtsey on a dais. She was draped all in lace with pearls on it and had a tiny red face. Hope screamed through the entire introduction. Nettle looked very tired. Afterwards, we had to have tea and some food in a room full of ladies with extravagant dresses and too many perfumes.

  When I said I was rather tired, they showed me a room and said it was mine. The beautiful wardrobe Revel had had made for me was there, with my old things in it. But when Caution came in and
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