Assassins fate, p.23
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       Assassin's Fate, p.23

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

  finding him in a dark and irrational mood. Slowly, I closed the door behind me.

  Inside the room, yellow candles burned in glass and the Fool perched on the lower bunk. His grey woollen night robe had seen much wear, probably purloined from Chade’s clothing stash. The shadows under his eyes and the resigned droop of his mouth made him older. I sat down on the bunk opposite him and waited. Then I saw my hastily stitched pack beside him. ‘What’s that doing here?’ I asked. For one moment I thought that some accident had brought it to his room.

  He set a possessive hand on it and spoke hoarsely. ‘I have promised to take all blame for this. Even so, I fear I may have broken Spark’s friendship to do this. She brought it to me.’

  Cold spread out of my belly and through my veins. I made a conscious and difficult choice. No anger. Fury surged against my wilful blocking. I knew but still I asked, ‘And why would you ask her to do that?’

  ‘Because Perseverance mentioned to her that you had books that belonged to Bee. Sometimes he saw you read what she had written there. Two books, one with a bright embossed cover, and the other plain. He recognized her hand on the page when he climbed past you to his bunk.’

  He paused. I shivered with fear of how angry I might become. I controlled my breath as Chade had taught me, the silent breathing of an assassin on the verge of a kill. I quenched my emotions. The violation I felt was too immense.

  The Fool spoke softly. ‘I think she kept a dream journal. If she is mine, if she carries the blood of a White, then she will dream. The drive to share those dreams, to speak or write them, would be overpowering. She will have done it. Fitz, you are angry. I can feel it like storm waves lashing my shores. But I must know what she wrote. You have to read these books to me. From start to finish.’

  ‘No.’ One word. For one word, I could keep my voice level and calm.

  His shoulders rose and fell with the strength of the breath he took. Did he struggle for control as I did? His voice was taut as a hangman’s rope. ‘I could have hidden this from you. I could have had Spark steal the books and read them to me here in stealth. I didn’t.’

  I unclenched my fists and my throat. ‘That you didn’t wrong me in that way makes this no less of an affront.’

  He took his gloved hand from the bag. He put both his hands, palms up, on his knees. I had to lean closer to hear his whisper. ‘If you think these the random writings of a small child, your anger is justified. But you cannot believe that. These are the writings of a White Prophet.’ He dropped his voice even lower. ‘These are the writings of your daughter, Fitz, your little Bee. And mine.’

  If he had struck me in the belly with a stave’s end, the impact could not have been worse. ‘Bee was my little girl.’ It came out a wolf’s growl. ‘I don’t want to share her!’ Honesty can be like a boil that bursts at the most unfortunate time. Had I known the source of my anger before I spoke it aloud?

  ‘I know you don’t. But you must.’ He set his hand lightly on the pack. ‘This is all that she could leave for us. Other than one glorious instant of holding her and watching her promise explode all around me like a geyser of light into a dark night, it is all of her that I will ever know. Please, Fitz. Please. Give me that much of her.’

  I was silent. I could not. There was too much in those books. In her journal, there was too little mention of me from the days when she had held herself apart from me. Too much of a small girl fighting alone the ugly, childish battles with the other Withywoods children. Too many entries that made me feel cowardly and ashamed of what a blind father I had been. Her account of her clash with Lant and how I had promised her afterward that I would always take her part showed how I had failed in that regard. How could I read those pages aloud to the Fool? How could I bare my shame?

  He knew I could not share those writings, even before he had asked me. He knew me that well; he knew that there were some things I could not yield. Why did he even dare to ask? With both hands he lifted the pack to cradle it to his breast. The tears started in his golden eyes and traced the scars on his face as they ran down his cheeks. He held out the pack, surrendering to me. I felt like a thwarted child whose parent gives in to his tantrum. I took the pack and immediately opened it. There was little in it save the books and Molly’s candles. I had stowed most of my clothing, the Elderling firebrick and other possessions in the tidy cabin cupboards. In the bottom, one of my shirts wrapped the tubes of dragon-Silver. I had judged my pack to be the most private place to keep such things. They were wrapped as I had left them. He had spoken true; he hadn’t rummaged. A waft of fragrance rose to me. I breathed in Molly’s perfumes from the candles. With them came calm. Clarity. I lifted the books out to shift the candles to a safer position.

  His words were hesitant. ‘I’m sorry if I’ve hurt you. Please, don’t blame Spark. Or Perseverance. It was a chance remark on his part, and the girl acted under duress.’

  Molly’s calmness. Molly’s stubborn sense of fairness. Why was it so hard? Was there anything in those books that he did not already know about me? What could I lose? Was not all lost to me already?

  Did he not share that loss?

  Snow had dampened one corner of Bee’s dream journal. It had dried, but the leather cover had puckered slightly, rippling the embossing. I tried to smooth it with my thumb. It resisted. I opened it slowly. I cleared my throat. ‘On the first page,’ I said, and my voice squeaked tight. The Fool looked blindly toward me, tears streaming down his cheeks. I cleared my throat again. ‘On the first page there is a drawing of a bee. It is exactly the size of a bee and exactly the colours of a bee. Above the bee, written very carefully in a sort of arc, are the words “This is my dream journal, of my important dreams.’’’

  His breath caught in his throat. He sat very still. I stood up. Crossing that tiny room took less than three steps. Something—not pride, not selfishness, something I had no name for—made those three steps the steepest climb I’d ever attempted. I sat down beside him with the book open on my lap. He was not breathing. I reached across and lifted his bare hand by its woollen sleeve. I brought it over to the page and lightly skimmed the arch of letters with his drooping fingers. ‘Those are the words.’ I lifted again and manoeuvred his forefinger onto the bee. ‘And here is the bee she painted.’

  He smiled. He lifted his wrist to dash the tears from his face. ‘I can feel the ink she put on the page.’

  Together we read our daughter’s book. It was still a barbed thought for me to name her so, but I forced myself to it. We did not read it swiftly. That was his decision, not mine. And to my surprise, he did not ask that I read her journal. It was her dreams he wanted to hear. It became our ritual as we parted each evening. A few dreams from her book, read aloud. I read no more than three or four of her dreams every night. Often I read each one over as many as a dozen times. I watched his lips move silently as he committed them to memory. He smiled when I read a favourite dream, of wolves running. A dream of candles made him abruptly sit up straight, and then fall into a long and pensive silence. Her dream of being a nut puzzled him as much as it did me. He wept the evening I read her dream of the Butterfly Man. ‘Oh, Fitz, she had it. She had the gift. And they destroyed it.’

  ‘As we shall destroy them,’ I promised him.

  ‘Fitz.’ His voice halted me at the door. ‘Are we sure she is destroyed? You were delayed in the Skill-pillars when you travelled from Aslevjal, but eventually you emerged at Buckkeep.’

  ‘Give up that hope. I was a trained Skill-user. I emerged. Bee went in untrained, with no experienced guide, part of a chain of untrained folk. So we know from Shun. There was no sign of them when Nettle’s coterie went after her. No trace of them when we followed that same route, months later. She is gone, Fool. Tattered away to nothing.’ I wished he had not made me speak the words aloud. ‘All that is left for us is vengeance.’

  I did not sleep well on Tarman. It was, in some ways, like sleeping on the back of an immense animal and always being aware of him
with my Wit-sense. Often I had slept with the wolf’s back against my belly, but Nighteyes had been a comfort, for he shared his wild awareness of our surroundings with my duller human senses. I had always slept better when he was near me. Not so with Tarman. He was a creature apart from me. It was like trying to sleep with someone staring at me. I sensed no malevolence, but the constant awareness made me jittery.

  So it was that I was sometimes awake and restless in the middle of the night, or in the dark-grey time that comes before dawn. Dawn was a strange thing on the Rain Wild River. During the day, we travelled down a stripe of daylight in the centre of the river while the looming trees to either side blocked both sunrise and sunset. But my body knew when it was dawn, and often I would awake in the pre-dawn and go out onto the still, damp deck to stand in the un-silence of the slowly-waking forest that surrounded us. I found a small measure of peace in those hours when I was as close to alone as one can be on a ship. There was always a hand on anchor watch, but for the most part they respected my stillness.

  One such pre-dawn time, I was standing on the port side, looking back at the way we had come. I held a cup of steaming tea in my two hands, a welcome warmth. I blew on it softly and watched the shifting plumes of steam. I was about to take a sip when I became aware of a light footfall on the deck behind me.

  ‘Morning,’ I said quietly to Spark as she came up beside me. I had not turned my head to look at her, but if she was surprised at my awareness of her, she didn’t show it. She came to stand beside me, resting her hands on the railing.

  ‘I can’t say I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I’d be lying.’

  I took a sip of the tea. ‘Thank you for not lying to me,’ I said, and I meant it. Chade had always stressed that lying was an essential skill for any spy and had required me to practise artificial sincerity. The thought made me wonder if she actually was lying and truly was sorry. I dismissed the strange idea.

  ‘Are you angry with me?’ she asked.

  ‘Not at all,’ I lied. ‘I expect you to be loyal to your mistress. I’d mistrust you if you weren’t.’

  ‘But don’t you think I should be more loyal to you than to Lady Amber? I’ve known you longer. Chade trained me. And told me to listen to you.’

  ‘When he had to abandon you, you chose a new mentor. Be loyal to Lady Amber.’ I gave her a piece of truth. ‘It comforts me that she has someone as competent as you watching over her at all times.’

  She was nodding and looking at her hands. Good hands. The clever hands of a spy or an assassin. I ventured a question. ‘How did you know about the books?’

  ‘From Perseverance. Not that he thought he was betraying a secret. It was when you said we should all be learning. Per and I were talking later, and he said he did not like the sitting still and staring at paper part of learning to read. But he said that you had a book that Bee had written. She had shown him some of his letters and he had recognized the book was hers by the way the letters were made. He mentioned it to me since he hoped that if he learned to read, he could some day read what his friend had written.’

  I nodded. I had never said to the boy that the books were private. He’d rescued one of them when the bear had wrecked our camp. He’d even commented on them. I could not blame him for telling Spark. But I found I could still blame her for locating the books in my pack and then taking it to Amber. Had she handled Molly’s candles? Did she know of the tubes of Silver in my socks? I did not say anything but I think she still felt the rebuke.

  ‘She told me where to look and asked me to fetch it. What was I to do?’

  ‘What you did,’ I said shortly. I wondered why she had sought me out and begun this conversation. I had not rebuked her nor treated her any differently since she had given my books to the Fool. The silence grew long. I cooled the heat of the anger I felt and suddenly it became cold wet embers, drenched by my discouragement with our quest. What did it matter? Sooner or later, the Fool would have found a way to get at the books. And now that he had, it felt right that he know what was in Bee’s dream book. There was no logic to me feeling angry or injured that Spark had facilitated it. But still …

  She cleared her throat and said, ‘Chade taught me about secrets. How powerful they are. And how once more than one person knows the secret, it can become a danger rather than a source of power.’ She paused, then added, ‘I know how to respect secrets that are not mine. I want you to know that. I know how to keep to myself secrets that do not need to be revealed.’

  I gave her a sharp look. The Fool had secrets. I knew some of them. Was she offering me some of the Fool’s secrets as a peace offering for her theft of Bee’s books? It offended me that she thought I could be bribed with my friend’s secrets. Chances were that I already knew them, but even if they were ones I did not know, I had no desire to gain them through her betrayal. I frowned at her and looked away.

  She was quiet for a time. Then she spoke in a carefully measured way, her voice resigned. ‘I want you to know that I feel a loyalty to you as well. Not as great a connection as I feel to Lady Amber, but I know that you protected me as best you could when Lord Chade began to fade. I know that you put me with Lady Amber as much for my sake as for hers. I have a debt to you.’

  I nodded slowly, but said aloud, ‘The best way you can repay me is to serve Lady Amber well.’

  She stood silently beside me as if she were waiting for me to say something more. When I didn’t, she added with a small sigh, ‘Silence keeps a secret. I understand.’

  I continued to stare out over the water. This time she ghosted away from me so softly that only my Wit told me when I was alone again.

  On a clear, calm afternoon we came upon a Rain Wild settlement. The banks of the river had not grown any more welcoming. The trees of the forest came right to the edge of the water, or perhaps it would be more correct to say that the swollen river had invaded the skirts of the forest. The trees that overhung the water were fresh with gleaming new leaves. Brightly plumaged birds were shrieking and battling over nesting sites, and that was what drew my eyes upward. I stared at the largest nest I’d ever seen, and then saw a child emerge from it and walk briskly along the limb back toward the trunk. I was gaping, soundless for fear that any shout I raised might cause the child to fall. Big Eider saw the direction of my gaze, and lifted a hand in greeting. A man emerged from what I now saw as a tiny hut hung in a tree and waved before following the child.

  ‘Is it a hunter’s shelter?’ I asked him and he stared at me as if my words made no sense.

  Bellin was passing by on the deck. ‘No, it’s a home. Rain Wild folk have to build in the trees. No dry land. They build small and light. Sometimes five or six little rooms hung in the same tree. Safer than one big one.’ She paced by me, intent on some nautical task and left me gaping at the village that festooned the trees.

  I stayed on the deck until early evening, teaching my eyes to find the small clusters of hanging chambers. As the sky darkened, lights began to gleam from some of them, illuminating the flimsy walls so that they glowed like distant lanterns in the treetops. That night we moored alongside several smaller boats, and folk came down from the trees to ask for gossip and offer small trades. Coffee and sugar were the most sought-after items and these they traded in small quantities for freshly harvested tree greens that made a refreshing tea and strings of bright snail shells. Bellin made a gift of a shell necklace to Spark and she expressed such delight over it that the woman actually smiled.

  ‘We’re close to Trehaug,’ Leftrin told us at the galley table that night. ‘Probably pass Cassarick tomorrow morning and be in Trehaug in the afternoon.’

  ‘You won’t stop in Cassarick?’ Perseverance asked curiously. ‘I thought that was where the dragons hatched.’

  ‘It was.’ Leftrin scowled and then said, ‘And it’s the home of traitors, folk who betrayed the Trader way and never suffered any consequences for it. People who harboured those who would have slaughtered dragons for their blood and bones and scales.
We gave them a chance to redeem themselves and bring justice down on the betrayers. They didn’t take it. No Dragon Trader vessel will ever stop there to trade. Not until Candral and his cronies are brought to justice.’

  The colour drained from Spark’s face. I wondered how well she had hidden the tiny vial of dragon blood she had pilfered from Chade, or if the Fool had used all of it. I’d never heard Leftrin speak so vehemently. Yet Amber sounded calm and almost cheerful as she said, ‘I shall be so pleased to see Althea and Brashen again. Or perhaps the word I must use now is “meet”. Would that I could see them again, and Boy-O.’

  Captain Leftrin looked startled for a moment. ‘I’d forgotten you knew them. But in any case, you would not see Boy-O. Some years back, he went off to serve a term or two on Vivacia and never returned. Vivacia had a right to demand him, but I know it was a wrench for Althea and Brashen to let him go. But he’s a man now and he has the right to choose his own life. He may wear the Trell name, but from his mother’s side, he’s a Vestrit and Vivacia has a right to him. And he to her, though the Pirate Isles may not agree with that.’ He lowered his voice. ‘Paragon was not pleased to see him go. He demanded that there be an exchange. He wanted to be given his namesake, Paragon Ludluck. He’s a Ludluck by right, but I hear in the Pirate Isles, they call him Kennitsson.’ Leftrin scratched a whiskery cheek. ‘Well, Kennitsson is the son of the Queen of the Pirate Isles, and she wasn’t willing to let the lad go. Paragon said he’d been cheated. He called it as he saw it, an exchange of hostages—though he was quick to point out that he had a more rightful claim to both men. But Queen Etta of the Pirate Isles simply said no. We even heard a rumour that Kennitsson was courting and was likely to wed a wealthy lady from the Spice Isles. Well, Queen Etta had best wed him off soon if that’s what she intends. He’s well past the age for it! And if he does wed, then I doubt he will ever sail on Paragon’s decks. Paragon becomes moody or disconsolate whenever it is spoken about, so perhaps the fewer questions about Boy-O the better.’

  ‘I don’t understand,’ I objected softly, though obviously Amber did.

  Leftrin hesitated. ‘Ah, well.’ He spoke slowly, as if revealing a confidence. ‘Althea and Brashen captain the Paragon now, but for generations he belonged to the Ludluck family. He was stolen and for a time the pirate Igrot used him for foul ends. Scuttled and scarred, he somehow managed to find his way back to a Bingtown beach. And then he was righted and hauled out to languish on shore for years. Brashen Trell and the Vestrit family claimed Paragon when he was a washed-up hulk. They refitted him and put him out to sea again. But he’s a Ludluck ship at heart still, and for a time the pirate Kennit Ludluck reclaimed him. And died on Paragon’s deck. The ship would want Kennit’s son. And Boy-O.’

  ‘And Althea?’ Amber queried. ‘Had she anything to say about Kennit’s son living aboard Paragon?’

  Leftrin looked at her. I sensed a tale untold, but he said only, ‘Another discussion that were better not held on Paragon’s deck. They no longer call him the mad ship, but I would not tempt his temper. Or Althea’s. They are bound to disagree on some things.’

  Amber nodded gratefully. ‘I thank you for your warnings. A careless tongue can do much damage.’

  It was hard to sleep that night. A different ship and the next leg of our journey loomed before us. I’d be going deeper into territory unknown to me, and taking people little more than children with me. I spoke into the darkness of our cabin. ‘It’s in my mind, Perseverance, to ask Captain Leftrin if he might not take you on as a ship’s boy. You seem well suited to this trade. What think you of that?’

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