Assassins fate, p.18
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       Assassin's Fate, p.18

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

  bricks of Elliania’s hearth fire. IceFyre’s entry into the narcheska’s mothershouse had caused some damage to the door lintel, but the promise had been fulfilled and Dutiful had won his bride.

  And a dragon remembered my daughter! For one exhilarating moment, my heart teetered on exultation. As close to immortality as any human could come!

  Tintaglia advanced on me. Colours swept over her like flames consuming wood. ‘You interfered with my Elderlings. That offends me. And I owe you nothing. Dragons have no debts.’

  I said the words before I considered them. ‘Dragons have debts. They simply don’t pay them.’

  Tintaglia settled back on her hind haunches and lifted her head high and tucked in her chin. Her eyes spun fast, the colours flickering and I more felt than saw how both humans and dragons retreated from her.

  ‘Fitz,’ Lant whispered harshly, a plea.

  ‘Get back. Stay back!’ I whispered. I was going to die. Die, or live horribly maimed. I’d seen what the acid spew of a dragon did to men and to stone. I steeled myself. If I ran, if I took shelter behind the others, they would die with me.

  A gust of wind struck me and then, as lightly as a crow hopping to a halt, a much smaller scarlet dragon alighted between me and death. An instant later, I felt a sudden weight on my shoulder, and ‘Fitz!’ Motley greeted me. ‘Hello, stupid!’ she added.

  The scarlet dragon folded her wings, as if it were an important task that must be done in a very particular way. I thought Tintaglia would spray the creature with acid in vengeance for her interrupted fury. Instead it appeared that she regarded the red dragon in perplexity.

  ‘Heeby,’ the crow said to me. ‘Heeby, Heeby.’ Motley turned and suddenly gave my ear a vicious peck. ‘Heeby!’ the bird insisted.

  ‘Heeby,’ I repeated to calm her. ‘General Rapskal’s dragon.’

  My acknowledgement placated her. ‘Heeby. Good hunter. Lots of meat.’ The crow chuckled happily.

  Lant seized my arm. ‘Come away, you fool!’ he hissed at me. ‘While she is distracted by the red dragon, get out of her sight. She means to kill you.’

  But I moved only to shrug off his grip. The much smaller scarlet dragon was facing off with the immense blue one. Heeby’s head wove on her serpentine neck. Every imaginable shade of red flushed over her. There was no mistaking the challenge in her stance. I felt the tension of the communication between them though I could not mine any sense of human words from the low rumbling of the red. It was like a pressure in the air, a flow of thoughts I could feel but not share.

  Tintaglia’s crest and the row of erect scaling on her neck eased down rather like a dog’s hackles smoothing themselves as its aggression subsides. The arch of her neck softened and then she lifted her eyes and I felt her piercing gaze. Tintaglia spoke, and her words were clear to all, her question an accusation. ‘What do you know of the pale folk and their Servants?’

  I drew breath and spoke clearly, willing that all the dragons and gathered folk would hear. ‘I know the Servants stole my child. I know that they destroyed her. I know that I will seek them out and kill as many of them as I can before they destroy me.’ My heart had begun to race. I clenched my teeth and then added, ‘What more need I know?’

  Both Heeby and Tintaglia became very still. Again, I sensed a flow of communication between them. I wondered if the other dragons or any of the Elderlings were privy to what they said. General Rapskal pushed his way through the crowd. He was dressed very simply, in leggings and a leather shirt, and his hands were dirty, as if he’d abruptly broken away from some task.

  ‘Heeby!’ he cried at sight of her, and then stood still. He looked around at the gathered Elderlings and dragons, saw me, and hastened to my side. As he came, he drew his sheath knife. I reached for my own and was startled when Lant shoved me aside and back and stepped between Rapskal and me. Unmindful of Lant’s bristling, Rapskal called to me, ‘Heeby summoned me to protect you! I come to your aid!’

  Lant gaped at him. I knew a moment of shock and then anger as Per inserted himself into the situation. ‘Behind me!’ I snapped at the boy and he replied, ‘Your back, sir, yes, I will guard your back!’

  It wasn’t what I had meant, but it moved him away from Rapskal’s blade.

  ‘I don’t understand,’ I growled at Rapskal and he shook his head in shared bewilderment. ‘Nor do I! I was mining for memories when Heeby summoned me urgently to protect you here. And then she vanished from my awareness as if she were slain! It terrified me, but here I am, to do her will. I will protect you or die.’

  ‘Enough of your chittering!’ Tintaglia did not roar at us but the force of the thought attached to her words near stunned me. Heeby kept her watchful stance between the immense blue dragon and me, but it was little shelter. Tintaglia towered over her and she could easily have spat acid at me if she had chosen to. Instead she cocked her head and focused her gaze on me. I felt the full impact of her presence as her huge spinning eyes fixed on me. My walls could not deflect completely the wash of dragon-glamor that surged over me.

  ‘I choose to allow the changes you have made. I will not kill you.’

  As I basked in that bit of good news and my guardians hastily sheathed their blades, she tilted her great head, leaned close, and breathed deep of me. ‘I do not know the dragon who has marked you. Later, perhaps, he will answer to me for your wilfulness. For now, you need not fear me.’

  I was dizzied with gratitude and awe at her magnificence. It took every scrap of will I could muster to lift my voice. ‘I strove only to help those who needed my help. Those neglected by their dragons, or changed but not guided in their changes.’

  She opened her jaws wide and for a heart-stopping moment, I saw teeth longer than swords and the gleaming yellow and red of the poison sacs in her throat. She spoke to me again. ‘Do not press me, little man. Be content that I have not killed you.’

  Heeby lifted then, her front paws leaving the ground so that she was slightly taller than she had been before. Again, I felt the force of an unheard communication.

  Tintaglia sneered at her, a lifting of lips that bared her teeth. But she said to me, ‘You and those like you may interfere with the ones claimed by no dragons. This I grant to you, for they are nothing to me. Change them all you like. But leave to me what is mine. This is a boon I grant you because you and yours were of service to me in the past. But do not presume to think I pay a debt to you.’

  I had almost forgotten Motley on my shoulder. I do not think a crow can whisper, but in a low hoarse voice I heard, ‘Be wise.’

  ‘Of course not!’ I hastily agreed. Time to move away from my ill-considered remark. I took a breath, realized that I was about to say a worse thing and said it anyway. ‘I would ask a second boon from you.’

  Again, she made a display of teeth and poison sacs. ‘Not dying today,’ Motley said and lifted from my shoulder. My protectors cowered against me but did not flee. I counted that as courage. ‘Is not your life enough of a boon, flea?’ the dragon demanded. ‘What more could you possibly ask of me?’

  ‘I ask for knowledge! The Servants of the Whites sought to end not just IceFyre but all dragons forever when they sought his death. I wish to know if they have acted against dragons before, and if they did, I wish to know why. More than anything else, I wish to know anything that dragons know that can help me bring an end to the Servants!’

  Tintaglia drew back her immense head on her long neck. Stillness held. Then Heeby said in a child’s timorous voice. ‘She doesn’t remember. None of us remember. Except … me. Sometimes.’

  ‘Oh Heeby! You spoke!’ Rapskal whispered proudly.

  Then Tintaglia gave forth a wordless roar and it horrified me to see Heeby crouch and cower. Rapskal drew his sheath knife again and stepped in front of his dragon, waving the blade at Tintaglia. I had never seen a stupider or more courageous act.

  ‘Rapskal, no!’ an Elderling cried but he did not halt. Yet if Tintaglia noticed this act of insane defiance she
gave it no heed. She put her attention back on me. Her trumpeting was a low rumble that shook my lungs. Her anger and frustration rode with her words. ‘This is knowledge I should have, but I do not. I go to seek it. Not as a boon to you, human, but to wring from IceFyre what he should have shared with us long ago, rather than mocking us for a history we cannot know, for no dragon can recall what happened when one is in the egg or swimming as a serpent.’ She turned away from us, not caring that humans and Elderlings alike had to scatter to avoid the long slash of her tail as she did so. ‘I go to drink. I need Silver. When I have drunk, I shall be groomed. All should be in readiness for that.’

  ‘It shall be!’ Phron called after her as she stalked majestically away. He turned back to his parents, and his Elderling cheeks were as pink as their scaling would permit. ‘She’s magnificent!’ he shouted aloud, and a roar of both laughter and agreement echoed his sentiment.

  I did not share the crowd’s exultation. I felt as if my guts were trembling now that I had leisure to consider how close I’d come to dying. And for what? I knew no more of the Servants than I had before. I could hope I’d won Tintaglia’s acceptance for any Skill-healers that Nettle and Dutiful might eventually send. I could hope that Dutiful might win an alliance with folk who occasionally could modify a dragon’s behaviour.

  But I knew IceFyre lived. My small hope was that Tintaglia would share whatever she discovered with me. I suspected a long vendetta between dragons and the Servants. Could Elderlings have been unaware of such enmity? I doubted it, and yet we had not discovered any evidence of it.

  Or did we? I thought back to the Pale Woman’s occupation of Aslevjal. Ilistore, the Fool had named her. The ice-encased Elderling city had proven a formidable fortress for her, an excellent site from which to oversee the OutIslander war against the Six Duchies. And where she would torment the ice-trapped dragon and attempt to destroy him and his kind. She had done all she could to degrade the city. Art had been defaced or destroyed, libraries of Skill-blocks tumbled into hopeless disorder … did not that speak of a deep-rooted hatred? Had she sought to destroy all traces of a people and culture?

  I did not expect the support of the dragons against the Servants. IceFyre had had years to retaliate against the Servants if the dragon had harboured any desire to do so. I suspected he had vented all his fury when he had collapsed the icy hall of Aslevjal and put an end to the forces of the Pale Woman. He had left it up to me to make sure of her death, and that of the stone dragon she and Kebal Rawbread had forged. Perhaps the black drake was not as fierce a creature as Tintaglia seemed to be. ‘It’s not uncommon for the female creatures to be far more savage than the males.’

  ‘Truly?’ Per asked, and I realized I’d said the words aloud.

  ‘Truly,’ Lant replied for me and I wondered if he were recalling his stepmother’s attempt on his life. In the open square before us, Rapskal was fussing over Heeby as if she were a beloved lapdog, while Malta, Reyn and Phron were caught in a lively discussion that almost looked like a quarrel. I was ambushed by a wave of vertigo.

  ‘I’d like to go back to our chambers,’ I said quietly, and found no strength to resist Lant taking my arm. The weakness I’d felt after the Skill-healings I’d done assailed me again, for no reason I could deduce. Amber and Spark joined us as I manoeuvred my way up the stairs. Amber stopped the rest of them at the door. ‘I will talk to you later,’ she announced and ushered them out.

  Lant dumped me in a chair at the table. I heard him close the door gently behind himself. I’d already lowered my head onto my crossed arms when the Fool spoke to me. ‘Are you ill?’

  I shook my head without lifting it. ‘Weak. As if exhausted by Skilling. I don’t know why.’ I gave an unwilling laugh. ‘Perhaps last night’s brandy hasn’t worn off.’

  He set his hands gently to my shoulders and kneaded the muscles there. ‘Tintaglia gave off a powerful aura of glamor. I was transfixed by it, and terrified at the fury she generated toward you. So strange to feel but be unable to see. I knew she was going to kill you, and I was helpless. Yet I heard you. You stood firm before it.’

  ‘I had my walls up. I thought I was going to die. We gained a small bit of knowledge though; IceFyre is alive.’ His hands on my shoulders felt good but reminded me too sharply of Molly. I shrugged free of his touch and he wordlessly moved to take a chair at the table beside me.

  ‘You could have died today,’ he explained. He shook his head. ‘I don’t know what I’d do. You all but dared her to kill you. Do you want to die?’

  ‘Yes.’ I admitted it. ‘But not yet,’ I added. ‘Not until I’ve put a lot of other people in the ground. I need weapons, Fool. An assassin’s best weapons are information, and more information.’ I sighed. ‘I don’t know if IceFyre knows anything useful. Nor do I know if he would share it with Tintaglia or how we would receive the information if he did. Fool, I have never felt so unprepared for a task.’

  ‘The same for me. But I have never felt so determined to see it through.’

  I sat up a bit straighter and leaned one elbow on the table. I touched his gloved hand. ‘Are you still angry at me?’

  ‘No.’ Then, ‘Yes. You made me think about things I don’t want to remember.’

  ‘I need you to remember those things for me.’

  He turned his face away from me, but did not pull his hand back. I waited. ‘Ask me,’ he commanded me harshly.

  So. Time to torture my friend. What did I most need to know? ‘Is there anyone within Clerres who might help us? Anyone who would conspire with us? Is there a way to send them a message that we are coming?’

  Silence. Was he going to balk now? I knew the brandy ploy would not work again. ‘No,’ he grated out at last. ‘There is no way to send a message. Prilkop might still be alive. They separated us when they began their torture. I assume he endured much the same treatment I did. If he lives, he is most likely a prisoner still. I think they found him too valuable to kill, but I could be wrong.’

  ‘I know you doubt the ones who helped you escape. But you and Prilkop sent out messengers. Were they loyal to you? Do any of those folks remain in Clerres?’

  He shook his head. His face was still turned away from me. ‘We were able to do that in the first few years we were at Clerres. After we had become uneasy with the Four, but before they realized we didn’t trust them. We sent them first to warn you, that the Four might seek to do you harm. While we were doing that, the Four kept trying to win us to their way of thinking. Perhaps they truly thought that their collators and manipulors would make us believe we had erred.’ He smiled wryly. ‘Instead, it went the other way. I think they found our tales exciting, for they knew little of life outside the walls. As we told them more of life outside their sequestered world, some began to question what the Servants had taught them. I do not think that, at first, the Four realized how much influence we had begun to wield.’

  ‘Collators? Manipulors?’

  He snorted in disgust. ‘Fancy titles. Collators classify the dreams and find connections and threads. Manipulors try to find people or upcoming events that are most vulnerable to making the future change in ways that benefit the Four and their Servants. They were the ones who worked so hard to convince Prilkop and me that we were wrong. About everything, but especially in claiming that one of my Catalysts had fulfilled the dream-prophecies of the Unexpected Son. They were the ones who told us of the dreams of a new White Prophet, born “in the wild” as they said. The dreams of that child correlated with the dreams of the Unexpected Son in ways that could not be denied, even by me. They spoke of a dream of a child who bore the heart of a wolf.

  ‘You asked, if you are not the Unexpected Son, then how can I be sure that all we did, all we changed, was the right course for the world? That was the very question they battered me with. And I saw it crack Prilkop’s confidence. In the days that followed, we discussed it privately. I always insisted that you were the one. But then he would ask and rightfully, “but what of these new
dreams?” And I had no answer to that.’ He swallowed. ‘No answer at all.

  ‘And one night, in wine and fellowship, our little friends whispered to us that the wild-born child must be found and controlled before he could cause any harm to the course of the world. They knew that the Four were intent on finding this child. Not all the Four believed the new prophet was the Unexpected Son, but one did. Symphe. Whenever we dined with the Four, she would challenge me. And her challenges were so strong they shook even my belief. Day after day, the Four commanded that the library of dreams be combed so that the child could be found. And “controlled”. I began to fear that they would find the same clues I had found and followed, all those years ago, to find you. So I sent the other messengers, the ones that asked you to find the Unexpected Son. For they had convinced me that there was a “wild born” White Prophet. And there, they were correct. They knew Bee existed long before I did. And Dwalia convinced them that the child they sensed was the Unexpected Son.’

  His words chilled me. They had ‘sensed’ that Bee existed? I pulled his words to pieces in my mind, needed to understand fully everything he was telling me. ‘What did they mean by “wild born”?’

  His shoulders heaved. I waited. ‘The Clerres that Prilkop remembered,’ he began and then choked to a stop.

  ‘Do you want a cup of tea?’ I offered.

  ‘No.’ He gripped my hand suddenly, tightly. Then he asked, ‘Is any brandy left?’

  ‘I’ll see.’

  I found the corked bottle half under a pillow. There was some left. Not much, but some. I found his teacup, filled it, and set it down on the table. His bared hand crept toward it. He lifted it and drank. When I resumed my seat, I noticed that his gloved hand was where I had left it. I took it in mine. ‘Prilkop’s Clerres?’

  ‘It was a library. All the history of the Whites, all the dreams that had ever been recorded, carefully organized and analysed in the writings of others. It was a place for historians and linguists. All White Prophets were “wild born” in his time. People would recognize that their child was … peculiar. And they would take the child to Clerres. Or the child would grow and know that he or she must make that journey. There, the White Prophet for that time would have access to all the older dreams and histories of other White Prophets. They were educated and sheltered, fed and clothed and prepared. And when the White Prophet felt he was ready to begin his work in the world, he was given supplies: money, a mount, travel clothes, weapons, pens and papers, and sent on his way, as Prilkop was. And the Servants who stayed on at Clerres would record all they knew of the prophet, and they and their descendants would patiently await the next one.’ He drank again. ‘There was no “Four”. Only Servants. People waiting to serve.’

  A long silence. I ventured, ‘But Clerres was not like that for you.’

  He shook his head, slowly at first and then wildly. ‘No. Not at all like that! After my parents had left me there, I was astonished to find that I was not unique to that place at all! They took me
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