Assassins fate, p.20
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       Assassin's Fate, p.20

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

  are both exclaiming over Phron. They look delighted.’

  Her hand tightened slightly on my arm as she fastened a smile onto her face.

  ‘Here they come,’ I added quietly. Lant stepped up beside me. Behind me, Per and Spark fell silent. We waited.

  A smiling Reyn introduced us. ‘And here are our Six Duchies visitors! Captain Leftrin and Alise of the liveship Tarman, may I present Prince FitzChivalry Farseer, Lady Amber and Lord Lant of the Six Duchies?’

  Lant and I bowed, and Amber fell and rose in a graceful curtsey. Leftrin sketched a startled bow and Alise deployed a respectable curtsey before rising to stare at me in consternation. A smile passed over her face before she seemed to recall her manners. ‘We are pleased to offer you passage on Tarman to Trehaug. Malta and Reyn have told us that Ephron’s renewed health is due to your magic. Thank you. We have no children of our own, and Ephron has been as dear to us as he is to his parents.’

  Captain Leftrin nodded gravely. ‘As the lady says,’ he added gruffly. ‘Give us a day or so to get our cargo on the beach, give our crew a bit of shore time and we’ll be ready to carry you down river. Quarters on Tarman are not spacious. We’ll do our best to make you comfortable but I’m sure it won’t be the sort of travel a prince is used to, nor a lord and a lady.’

  ‘I am sure we will be most content with whatever you offer us. Our goal is not comfort but transport,’ I replied.

  ‘And that Tarman can provide, swifter and better than any on this river.’ He spoke with the pride of a captain who owns his ship. ‘We’d be pleased to welcome you aboard now and show you the quarters we’ve readied for you.’

  ‘We would be delighted,’ Amber replied warmly.

  ‘This way, please.’

  We followed them onto the dock and up the gangplank. The way was narrow and I worried that Amber might make a misstep, but as I stepped onto the barge’s deck, that worry was replaced with a new one. The liveship resonated against both my Wit and Skill. A liveship indeed, as alive as any moving and breathing creature I’d ever known! I was certain the Tarman was as aware of me as I was of him. Lant was looking around with a wide grin on his face, as pleased as a boy on an adventure, and Per echoed him. Motley had lifted herself from the boy’s shoulder and circled the barge suspiciously, flapping hard to keep her place against the river wind. Spark was more reserved than Lant and Per, almost wary. Amber put her hand back on my arm as soon as she could and gripped it tightly. Alise stepped onto the ship, followed by Leftrin. Both halted as abruptly as if encountering a wall.

  ‘Oh, my,’ Alise said softly.

  ‘A little more than that,’ Leftrin said tightly. He froze, and the communication between him and his ship was like a plucked string thrumming. He fixed me with a stare. ‘My ship is … I must ask. Are you claimed by a dragon?’

  We both stiffened. Had the ship sensed the dragon-blood she had consumed? She let go of my arm and stood alone, ready to let any blame fall on herself. ‘I think what your ship senses about me is actually—’

  ‘Beg pardon, ma’am, it’s not you unsettling my ship. It’s him.’

  ‘Me?’ Even to myself I sounded foolishly startled.

  ‘You,’ Leftrin confirmed. His mouth was pinched. He glanced at Alise. ‘My dear, perhaps you could show the ladies their quarters while I settle this?’

  Alise’s eyes were very large. ‘Of course I could,’ and I knew that she was helping him separate me from my companions though I could not guess why.

  I turned to my tiny retinue. ‘Spark, if you would, guide your mistress while I have a word with the captain? Lant and Per, you will excuse us.’

  Spark registered the unspoken warning and swiftly claimed Amber’s arm. Lant and Perseverance had already moved down the deck, examining the ship as they went. ‘Tell me all about the ship, Spark,’ Amber requested in an unconcerned voice. They moved off slowly, following Alise, and I heard the girl adding descriptions to everything Alise said to them.

  I turned back to Leftrin. ‘Your ship dislikes me?’ I asked. I was not reading that from my sense of the Tarman, but I’d never been aboard a liveship before.

  ‘No. My ship wants to speak with you.’ Leftrin crossed his arms on his barrel chest, then seemed to realize how unfriendly that appeared. He loosened his arms and wiped his hands down his trouser legs. ‘Come on up to the bow rail. He talks best there.’ He walked ponderously and I followed slowly. He spoke over his shoulder to me. ‘Tarman talks to me,’ he said. ‘Sometimes to Alise. Maybe to Hennesey. Sometimes to the others, in dreams and such. I don’t ask and he doesn’t tell me. He’s not like other liveships. He’s more his own than … well, you wouldn’t understand. You aren’t Trader stock. Let me just say this. Tarman has never asked to speak to a stranger. I don’t know what he’s about, but understand that what he says, goes. The keepers made a deal with you, but if he says he doesn’t want you on his deck, that’s it.’ He drew a breath. ‘Sorry,’ he added.

  ‘I understand,’ I said, but I didn’t. As I moved toward the bow, my sense of the Tarman became more acute. And uncomfortable. It was like being sniffed over by a dog. A large and unpredictable dog. With bared teeth. I repressed my impulse to show my own teeth or display aggression in any way. His presence pressed more strongly against my walls.

  I allow this, I pointed out to him as he pushed his senses into my mind.

  As if you have the right to refuse. You tread my deck, and I will know you. What dragon has touched you?

  Under the circumstances, lying would have been foolish. A dragon pushed into my dreams. I think it was a dragon named Sintara, who claims the Elderling Thymara. I have been close to the dragons Tintaglia and Heeby. Perhaps that is what you sense.

  No. You smell of a dragon I have never sensed. Come closer. Put your hands on the railing.

  I looked at the railing. Captain Leftrin was staring stonily across the river. I could not tell if he was aware of what his ship said to me or not. ‘He wants me to put my hands on the railing.’

  ‘Then I suggest you do so,’ he responded gruffly.

  I looked at it. The wood was grey and fine-grained and unfamiliar to me. I drew off my gloves and placed my hands on the railing.

  There. I knew I smelled him. You touched him with your hands, didn’t you? You groomed him.

  I have never groomed a dragon.

  You did. And he claims you as his.

  Verity. It was not a thought I had intended to share. My walls were slipping before this ship’s determination to force his way into my mind. I set my boundaries tighter, trying to work subtly so the ship would not perceive I was blocking him, but wonder had set my blood to racing. Would dragons of flesh and blood truly count Verity as a dragon who could claim me? I’d dusted the leaves from his back. Was that the ‘grooming’ that this ship had sensed? And if dragons would consider Verity a dragon, then did this barge count himself as a dragon?

  The ship was silent, considering. Then, Yes. That dragon. He claims you.

  Overhead, Motley cawed loudly.

  The hardest thing in the world is to think of nothing. I considered the pattern of the wind and the current on the river’s face. I longed to reach for Verity with a desire that almost surpassed my need to breathe. To touch that cold stone with my mind and heart, to feel that in some sense, he guarded my back. The ship broke into my thoughts.

  He claims you. Do you deny it?

  I am his. I was startled to find that was still true. I have been his for a very long time.

  As if a human knows what ‘a very long time’ is. But I accept you as his. As Leftrin and Alise wish it, I will carry you to Trehaug. But it is your will that you do this. I am not interfering with a human claimed by a dragon.

  I wondered what it meant that a liveship ‘accepted’ me and believed that a stone dragon had claimed me. I wondered how Verity had marked me as his own. Had he known he had done it? A dozen questions sprang to my mind, but Tarman had dismissed me. It was like a door closing on a noisy
tavern, leaving me in dark and quiet. I felt both wild relief at how alone I was, and a sense of loss for things he could have told me. I reached, but could not sense Tarman at all. Captain Leftrin knew it at the same moment I did. For a moment he stared at me, taking my measure. Then he grinned. ‘He’s done with you. Want to see where you’ll be bunking for the trip downriver?’

  ‘I, uh, yes, please.’ The change in his demeanour was as abrupt as the sun emerging from a cloud bank on a blustery day.

  He led me aft, past the ship’s deckhouse to two blocky structures attached to the deck. ‘These are a lot nicer now than the first time we used them. Never thought Tarman would be ferrying as many people as he carries crates of freight. But times change, and we change with them. Slowly, and sometimes without a lot of grace, but even a Rain Wilder can change. This one is for you, Lord Lant, and your boy.’ He looked uncomfortable for a moment. ‘It would be better if you and the lady had private quarters, but where would I put your serving girl? Shoreside girls don’t seem happy to share the crew’s quarters, even though on my ship there’s no danger to them. Just no privacy. We’ve given the other cabin to the women. I’m sure it’s a lot less than what a prince expects, but it’s the best we can offer.’

  ‘Transport is all we desire, and I’d be happy to sleep out on the deck. It wouldn’t be the first time in my life.’

  ‘Ah.’ The man visibly relaxed. ‘Well. Hearing that will ease Alise’s worries. She’s been so anxious since we got the word we were going to give you passage. “A prince from the Six Duchies! What will we feed him, where will he sleep?” On and on. That’s my Alise. Always wanting to do things in the best possible way.’

  He opened the door. ‘Was a time when these cabins weren’t much more than cargo crates, built big. But we’ve had close to a score of years to make them comfortable. The others ain’t been here yet, I don’t think, so you can claim the bunk you want.’

  Folk who live aboard ships know how to make the best of a small space. I had braced myself for the smell of old laundry, for canvas hammocks and a splintery floor. Two small windows admitted daylight and it danced on gleaming yellow woodwork. Four bunks stacked two high, none spacious, lined two of the walls. The room smelled pleasantly of the oil that had been used to wipe down the wood. One wall was all cupboards, drawers and crannies framed around the little window. A pair of blue curtains had been pushed back from the open window to admit both light and air. ‘A more pleasant little water-cottage I could not imagine!’ I told the captain, and turned to find Alise at his elbow, beaming with pleasure at my words. Lant and Perseverance stood behind her. The lad’s cheeks were bright red with the wind and his eyes shone. His grin widened as he peered into our cabin.

  ‘The ladies were pleased with theirs as well,’ Alise observed happily. ‘Welcome aboard, then. You can bring your things aboard any time today, and feel free to come and go as you please. The crew will need at least a day of rest here. I know you are eager to be down the river, but …’

  ‘A day or even two will not disturb our plans,’ I replied. ‘Our tasks will wait until we arrive.’

  ‘But Paragon can’t, so a day and a half is all I can give my crew this time,’ was Leftrin’s observation. He shook his head at Alise. ‘We’ll be cutting it fine to meet Paragon in Trehaug. Time and tides wait for no man, my dear, and both ships have schedules to keep.’

  ‘I know, I know,’ she said, but she smiled as she said it.

  He turned his smile at me. ‘The other ships make regular runs up and down the river, but neither of them ride the current as well as Tarman does when the water runs high in spring. Once the snowmelts are done and the river calms, Tarman and his crew can take a nice break while the impervious boats take their turn. When the river runs swift with snowmelt or the acid runs white in the main channel, we leave the pretty boats safely tied up and Tarman shoulders the load.’ He spoke with more pride than regret.

  ‘Are we going to be crowded with passengers going downriver?’ Alise asked him, a bit anxiously.

  ‘No. I spoke to Harrikin. If any of the new folk can’t abide the city’s muttering, he’ll send them across the river to Village to await our next run. I think he hopes that they’ll settle and work there instead of fleeing back to whatever they came from.’ He turned to me. ‘Twenty years of bringing folk here, and then taking half of them back when they can’t cut it. It makes for a crowded ship and taking turns at the galley table. But this run will be only you folks, crew, and a bit of cargo. Should be a pleasant run if the weather stays fine.’

  The next morning was as clear and blue as a day could be. The wind off the river was ever present and never kind, but it was definitely spring now. I could smell the sticky new leaves unfolding and the dark earth awakening. There were a few fresh scallions mixed in with the omelette and fried potatoes at the breakfast we shared with the keepers who had gathered to say farewell. Sylve told us jubilantly that the chickens she had insisted on keeping in the garden houses over the winter were now laying reliably again.

  The farewell gathering included the children and companions of the keepers. Many came to thank me again and offer parting gifts. A pragmatic man named Carson had brought us dried strips of meat in a leather pouch. ‘It will keep if you don’t let damp get to it.’ I thanked him, and had that instant sense of connection that sometimes comes, a feeling of a deep friendship that could have been.

  Amber and Spark both received earrings from a woman named Jerd. ‘There’s nothing magical about them, but they’re pretty, and in a hard time you could sell them.’ She had given birth to a little girl I had healed, but oddly enough an Elderling named Sedric was raising the child with Carson. ‘I am fond of the girl, but was never meant to be a mother,’ Jerd informed us cheerily. The little girl, sitting on Sedric’s shoulders and gripping his hair in two tight handfuls appeared content with her lot. Sedric was enthusiastic about her. ‘She has begun to make sounds. She turns her head when we speak now.’ The child’s mass of coppery hair concealed her very tiny ears. ‘And Relpda now understands the problem and will help us with it. Our dragons are not cruel, but they do not always understand how a small human is meant to grow.’ And from the queen of the Elderlings, a box that held assorted teas. She smiled as she offered it to Amber. ‘A small pleasure can be a great comfort when one travels,’ she said, and Amber accepted it gratefully.

  It was noon before we processed down to the ship. Our baggage was already stowed on board, and our new gifts filled a barrow that Perseverance pushed. Tats had given an Elderling scarf to Per and he had folded it very carefully and asked quietly if he might send it to his mother from Bingtown. I assured him we could. Thymara had pulled Amber aside from us, to present her with a woven bag. I overheard her giving her yet more cautioning words about the Silver on her fingers.

  The farewells at the dock seemed to take forever, but Leftrin finally gave a shout and said it was time we were away if we were to have any daylight at all. I watched Alum kiss his girl, who then hurried aboard and took charge of the deck crew. Leftrin observed me watching them. ‘Skelly’s my niece. She’ll captain Tarman some day, after I lie down on his deck and slide my memories into his timbers.’

  I raised my brows.

  Captain Leftrin hesitated, then laughed at himself. ‘Liveships ways are not as secret as they once were. Liveships and their families are very close. Children are born aboard the family ship, and grow to crew and then captain. When they die, the ship absorbs their memories. Our ancestors live on in our ships. He gave me an odd grin. ‘A strange immortality.’

  Rather like putting memories into a stone dragon, I thought to myself. A strange immortality indeed.

  He gave his grizzled head a shake and then invited us to join him and Alise in the galley for coffee while the crew went about its tasks. ‘Don’t you need to be on the deck?’ Perseverance asked him, and Captain Leftrin grinned. ‘If I can’t trust Skelly by now, I should just cut my throat today. My crew loves the ship and Tarman love
s them. There’s little they can’t handle, and I enjoy my time with my lady.’

  We found cramped seats around the scarred galley table. The small room was crowded in a friendly way, redolent of the year’s cooking and wet wool. The coffee added its own fragrance. I’d had the stuff once before and knew what to expect, but I watched Per pucker his mouth in surprise. ‘Oh, here, lad, you’ve no need to drink that! I can make a pot of tea just as easily.’ And with a swoop, Alise took his mug, dumped the contents back into the coffee pot and began to dipper water into a battered copper kettle. The little iron stove warmed the room almost unbearably and she soon had the kettle hissing on top of it.

  I looked round at us, seated so companionably around the table. At Buckkeep Castle, Spark and Per would have been dismissed to a servant’s table, and perhaps Lant and I would have dined separately from a humble ship’s captain and his lady. The room gave a dip and a lurch. Per’s eyes went wide and Spark audibly caught her breath. The greedy current rushed us out onto the river. I craned to look out of the small window. I saw only grey river water.

  Leftrin sighed with satisfaction. ‘Aye, we’re well on our way now. I’ll just step out and see if Big Eider needs a hand with the tiller. He’s a good man, if simple. Knows the river well. But we’re still missing Swarge. Thirty years that man kept us steady in the current. Well, he’s gone into Tarman now.’

  ‘As will we all, eventually,’ Alise affirmed with a smile ‘I must step out also. I need to ask Skelly where she stowed the last barrel of sugar.’ She looked at Spark. ‘I’ll count on you to brew the tea when the water boils. It’s in the box on the shelf by the window.’

  ‘Thank you, Lady Alise. I shall do so.’

  ‘Oh, Lady Alise!’ Her cheeks went pink and she laughed. ‘I haven’t been a lady for years! I’m just Alise. If I forget to address you as the grand folk you are, you’ll have to excuse me. I’m afraid my Bingtown manners have faded after nearly a score of years on the river.’

  We laughed and all assured her that we were comfortable. And we were. I felt more at ease on Tarman than I had in the dragon city.

  The opened door let in a gust of river wind and then slammed shut behind her. We were left to ourselves, and I heard Amber breathe a soft sigh of relief.

  ‘Do you think they’d mind if I went on deck and had a look about?’ Per asked wistfully. ‘I’d like to see how the tiller works.’

  ‘Go,’ I said. ‘They’ll tell you if you’re in the way, and if they tell you to move, do it fast. It’s more likely they’ll find some work for you to do.’

  Lant unfolded himself as the boy stood. ‘I’ll keep an eye on him. I’d like to have a look about myself. I’ve been out fishing with friends on Buckkeep Bay, but never on a river, let alone one so large and swift.’

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