Assassins fate, p.25
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       Assassin's Fate, p.25

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

  ‘Because you are the one. The Unexpected Son. The one in so many dreams.’

  ‘Are you sure? Alaria and Reppin doubted it.’

  ‘You have to be! You must be.’ He sounded more desperate than certain.

  He had called me the Unexpected Son when he first found me. I pried a bit more at that. ‘So, in your dream, you were the one to find the Unexpected Son. And it was me.’

  ‘I dreamed …’ His words trailed away. ‘I dreamed I found you. Dwalia needed to find the Unexpected Son.’ He sounded both frightened and angry as he said, ‘I wouldn’t have found you if she hadn’t been looking for him. She told me to look for him, and I found you and I knew you from my dream! So, you are the Unexpected Son.’ He gave a sharp huff of annoyance that I had doubted him.

  He knew that his logic was flawed. I could not see him in the darkness to read his face. I spoke gently to avoid angering him. ‘But how? How do you know that when I do not know it?’

  ‘I know I dreamed you. I know I found you. There is not much White in me. Some mock me and say none at all. But if I were meant to do one thing, as a White, I was meant to find you. And I did.’ Satisfaction warmed those words. He yawned suddenly and his voice went soft at the edges. ‘When I am on the Path, I can feel it. It’s a nice feeling. Safe. You are not a true dreamer, so you would not know these things.’ He sighed. ‘It makes no sense to me. In all the dreams they quote at me, the Unexpected Son is the balancing point. Beyond him, all is orderly or all is chaos. At some point, you set us all on a false course. But the divergence created by the Unexpected Son may be full of terrible destruction. Or wondrous good. The course you create might lead toward a thousand possible futures that no one else could open …’ His voice dwindled away. He sighed. ‘I need to sleep now, brother. I cannot rest during the day. When Kerf is asleep is my only chance.’

  ‘Rest then, brother.’

  I lay still and for the rest of the night I slept little and plotted much. I stacked up my precious bits of knowledge. Vindeliar had begun to deploy his powers against Dwalia. Controlling Kerf was wearying to him. He believed I was very important, and so perhaps, did Dwalia. But did she still think that I was the Unexpected Son? With a few kind words I had cheered Vindeliar. Might more conversation recruit him to my side? I built a fragile hope. If Vindeliar would aid me we could flee Dwalia in the next port. Surely he could use his magic to smooth my journey home. I smiled, imagining riding up the carriageway to Withywoods. Perseverance would come to meet me. Perhaps my father, too, and Revel would open the door and come down the …

  But Revel was dead. The stables were burned. Scribe Lant was dead, and maybe Per too. I wondered again if Shun had survived and reached home? She had proven herself far tougher than I had imagined her to be. If she had, would she have told them how they took me through a stone? And if she did, would they try to follow and find me? My heart knew a lurch of hope. My father knew how to travel through the stones. Surely he would come after me!

  I curled into a smaller huddle on the floor. A worry tugged at me. Could he guess that we had entered the stone again? The scent of my mother’s candle tucked in the front of my shirt reached me. For a moment, it was comfort. Then it was alarm followed by certainty. I’d found the candle because my father had brought it there. Shun had reached home, she’d told him where they had taken me, and he had followed. Followed and somehow passed me in the stone. He had dropped this candle. Dropped it, and never picked it up again? I thought of the scatter of possessions I’d found, the tattered remnants of a tent. The bear scat! Had he been attacked there? Had he died? Were his scattered bones sunken in the deep moss under the trees?

  I reached for Wolf Father. If my father was dead, would you know?

  I felt no response. I huddled tight behind my walls. If my father was dead, then no one was coming to rescue me. Not ever. And my dreadful dreams of what I would become would come true.

  Unless I saved myself.


  * * *

  The Liveship Paragon

  For generations the secret of how liveships were created was known only to certain Trader families. By the end of the war with Chalced and with the emergence of the dragon Tintaglia, parts of the secret could no longer be concealed. Over the last decade, the paradox of the living ship, loyal to the family that created it by destroying the creature it would have become, has become ever clearer.

  The creation of the liveship begins with a dragon’s cocoon. When Rain Wilders first discovered immense logs of an unusual wood, they had no idea that they were dragon pods. The ‘logs’ had been stored in a glass-roofed chamber in ruins that lay buried beneath the city of Trehaug. The finders assumed they were especially treasured timbers of exotic wood. At the time, the Rain Wilders desperately needed a material that would resist the acid floods of the Rain Wild River. No matter how well-oiled and seasoned their hulls, traditional ships suffered gradual damage from the river water, and during times of white floods, when the river flowed particularly acidic, some boats simply dissolved, spilling cargo and passengers into the toxic water. The ‘timber’ discovered in the buried Elderling cities proved to be exactly what they needed. Wizardwood, as they named it, was a fine-grained, dense timber, and proved to be ideal for shipbuilding and resistant to the river’s acid.

  Ships built from this substance were the only ones that could endure repeated journeys on the acid water of the Rain Wild River. These highly desirable vessels became an essential link in the trade in Elderling artefacts which could be ferried out of the ancient ruined cities to the Rain Wild settlements, where they could be sold at exorbitant prices to the world at large.

  It was several generations before the first figurehead on a liveship ‘awoke’. Builders and owners were astonished. The Golden Dawn was the first figurehead to take on life. Conversation with the figurehead soon revealed that the ship had absorbed the memories of those who had lived aboard him, especially those of his captains, and an attachment to the family who owned him. The ship’s knowledge extended to navigation, to the handling of weather and awareness of necessary maintenance. The value of such a ship became inestimable.

  Those who cut the ‘timbers’ into lumber must have had early knowledge that these logs were not wood. In the heart of each log, they must have discovered a partially-formed dragon. Even if they could not discern what it was, they undoubtedly knew it had contained a living creature at some time. That was the deepest secret of all, one the families kept concealed from all but blood kin. It is believed that prior to the emergence of the dragon Tintaglia from a wizardwood ‘log’, the liveships themselves were not cognizant of their relationship to dragons.

  Of the Bingtown Liveships, Trader Cauldra Redwined

  I stood on Tarman’s deck and stared up at Paragon’s figurehead. My face. And an axe sheathed in the harness across his chest. Lant and Perseverance were transfixed. Spark whispered. ‘He’s looking at us.’

  He was indeed. The figurehead of the docked vessel looked as affronted as I felt. Paragon resembled me in almost every way. ‘You can’t possibly explain this.’

  ‘I can,’ Amber assured me. ‘But not now. Later. In private. I promise.’

  I made no answer. As the distance between the ships closed, Tarman’s crew was busy with their poles, slowing and adroitly guiding him closer to the riverbank. Trehaug was a busy trade centre and there was little open dock space. Ships followed the custom of mooring to one of the docked vessels and crossing a neighbouring deck to reach the shore. I assumed we would do likewise. There was an open space near Paragon but I judged it too tight a fit for Tarman. As we drew closer to Paragon, he returned my gaze, scowling.

  ‘Why does he have blue eyes?’ I wondered aloud. My own were dark.

  Amber had a strangely sentimental smile on her face. She held her clasped hands to her breast like a grandmother looking on a beloved child, and spoke fondly. ‘Paragon chose them. Many of the Ludlucks, including Kennit, had blue eyes. The Ludlucks were originally
his family. I carved his face, Fitz. Or rather, I re-carved it. He had been blinded, his eyes chopped away with a hatchet. He’d been branded with the mark of his tormentor … Oh, it’s a long and terrible story. When I carved his face, I carved him with his eyes closed, as he wished. For some time, he refused to open them. When he did, they were blue.’

  ‘Why my face?’ I demanded. We were nearing the dock.

  ‘Later,’ she quietly requested.

  Her word was almost lost in the shouted orders as Tarman neared Paragon. Tarman’s crew had sprung into action. My four companions and I stood on top of the deckhouse, out of the way, and watched. Our tillerman worked the oar to hold us against the current as the others used poles to keep Tarman from meeting the dock too firmly. On two of the moored vessels, worried deckhands stood ready to stave us off. But Tarman nudged into place as precisely as a sword returning to a sheath. Scully leapt from Tarman’s deck to the dock, and in the next moment caught a flung line. She took a quick wrap around a cleat, and then dashed down the dock to catch the next mooring line.

  Our squat river barge was a sharp contrast to the tall sailing ship. Tarman’s shallow draught enabled him to travel up the river where deep-keeled ships like Paragon could not go. Paragon was meant for deep water and tall waves. He dwarfed us. The figurehead that stared down at us was several times life-size. His gaze shifted suddenly from me to the woman beside me and his judgmental frown blossomed into a smile of incredulity. ‘Amber? Is that you? Where have you been for the last twenty-odd years?’ He reached huge hands toward her, and if we had been any closer, I think he would have plucked her off Tarman’s deck.

  She lifted her outstretched arms as if to offer an embrace. ‘Far and away, my friend. Far and away! It is so good to hear your voice again.’

  ‘But not to see me. Your eyes are blind. Who has done this to you?’ Concern vied with anger.

  ‘Blind as you once were. It’s a long tale, old friend, one I promise to tell you.’

  ‘That you will! Who is this with you?’ Was there an edge of accusation in his voice?

  ‘Friends of mine, from Buck Duchy, of the Six Duchies. But let me save that telling for when I am on board. Shouting across a dock is no way to converse.’

  ‘I agree!’ This shouted comment came from a small, dark-haired woman leaning over Paragon’s railing. Her teeth were white in a wind-weathered face. ‘Come aboard and welcome. Leftrin and Alise will send your things over, and then I hope they’ll join us for a glass or two. Amber, well met! I could scarcely believe the news the bird brought. Come aboard!’ She shifted her gaze to me, and her grin widened. ‘I look forward to meeting the man who shares a face with our ship.’ With that, she ducked back out of sight.

  At her words, Paragon’s smile dimmed and he crossed his arms on his chest. He turned his head and watched Amber from the corner of his eyes. She gave me half a smile. ‘That was Althea Vestrit, aunt to Queen Malta. She is either the captain or the mate on Paragon, depending on who you ask.’ She turned her face toward me. ‘You will like her, and Brashen Trell.’

  Docking and disembarking was a precise and slow process. Captain Leftrin had to be completely satisfied with the docking before he would allow a gangplank to be lowered. He ordered that our possessions be transferred to Paragon. Then he and Alise escorted my small party down the gangplank, across the dock, and then up a rope ladder flung down to us from Paragon’s railing. Leftrin led the way, and Lant and then Perseverance followed easily enough. Spark’s skirts gave her a bit of trouble as she ascended. I stood holding the ladder taut and waiting for Amber to ascend. ‘No need,’ the figurehead announced. He twisted lithely from his waist, leaned down low and offered Amber his outstretched hands.

  ‘The figurehead is reaching for you. Be cautious!’ I warned her in a low voice.

  She did not lower her voice. ‘I have no need of caution among old friends. Guide me, Fitz.’

  I did so reluctantly, and held my breath as the figurehead closed his hands around her ribs as if she were a child. I stood staring as Paragon lifted her in his huge hands. They were the colour of a man’s hands, swarthy with many days outside, but I could still see the grain of the wizardwood he’d been carved from. Of all the Elderling magic, the living figurehead most astonished me, but also created the most unease in me. A dragon, I could understand. It was a creature of flesh and blood, with the same needs and appetites of any animal. But a ship of living wood, something that moved and spoke and apparently thought, but had no need of food or drink, no drive to mate, no hope of progeny? How could one predict the actions or the desires of such a being?

  From my position as the last person standing on the docks beside Paragon’s ladder I could hear Amber’s voice, but she pitched her words to the figurehead and I could not make them out. He held her like a doll and looked intently into her face. Having been blinded himself, would he feel sympathy for her? Could a ship carved out of a dragon cocoon feel sympathy? Not for the first time, I confronted how little of his life the Fool had shared with me. Here, he was known as Amber, a clever, tough woman who had lent her fortune to rebuild Bingtown and help former slaves build new lives in the Rain Wilds. For this portion of our journey, that was who she must be. Amber. A woman who was still a stranger to me.

  ‘Fitz?’ Lant leaned over the Paragon’s railing. ‘Are you coming?’

  ‘Yes.’ I climbed up the rope ladder—never as easy a task as it seemed—and stepped onto Paragon’s deck. He felt different to Tarman. Much closer to human. Wit and Skill, I sensed him as a living creature. For now, his attention was focused on Amber. I had a few moments to look around.

  It had been a long time since I’d been on a ship of this size. I thought back to my journey to the OutIslands and Thick’s protracted seasickness. There was an experience I hoped never to repeat! Paragon was smaller than that ship, sleeker and, I suspected, more sea-worthy. Paragon was very well kept. The decks were clear, the lines neatly stowed and even while the ship was tied to the dock, the crew was well occupied.

  ‘Where are Spark and Perseverance?’ I asked Lant.

  ‘Exploring, with the permission of Captain Brashen. You and I are invited to join the captain and Lady Althea in their stateroom for refreshments and conversation.’

  I looked toward the bow, where Paragon still held Amber. I was reluctant to leave her literally in the ship’s grasp, and equally reluctant to offend the folk offering us free passage to Bingtown. There was a lengthy journey ahead of us, down the Rain Wild River and then along the uncertain and boggy coast of the Cursed Shores until we reached Trader Bay. I wished to be on good terms with all. I doubted the Fool would have any caution around the figurehead. Obviously Amber had long ago made her decision to trust him.

  ‘Fitz?’ Lant nudged me.

  ‘I’m coming.’ I glanced back at Amber. I could see her face but not his. The wind off the river was rustling her skirts and stirring the bits of hair that showed around her scarf. She was smiling at something he’d said. Her arms rested easily on top of his hands as if they were the arms of a comfortable chair. I decided to trust her instincts, and followed Lant.

  The door into the captain’s stateroom was open to the spring day and I heard lively voices. Spark laughed at something. We entered, to see Leftrin gripping the back of Per’s collar and holding him almost off the floor. ‘He’s a rascal and a lackwit, so see you work him hard!’ he announced. Just as my muscles tightened, Leftrin laughed and gave the grinning boy a half-shove, half-toss toward a well-muscled man of middle years. The man caught my boy by the shoulder and grinned in return, showing very white teeth in a neatly trimmed beard. He slapped Per on the back. ‘Running the rigging is what we call it, and yes, you can learn it. But only if Clef, Althea, or I authorize it. We’ll tell you when we want you up there and exactly what we want you to do.’ The man glanced up at Leftrin. ‘Does he know any of his knots?’

  ‘A few,’ I interjected into the conversation. I found I was smiling at Captain Trell.
br />   ‘Oh, more than a few,’ Leftrin objected. ‘Bellin had him working on them in the evenings, when you were closeted with your lady. We’ve given him a good start on being a deckhand. But Trell is right, lad. If you venture into the rigging, go the first times with someone who knows what she’s about, and listen! Listen exactly and do exactly and only what you are told. Do you hear me?’

  ‘I do, sir,’ Per was grinning from one captain to the other. If he’d been a puppy, he’d have been wriggling all over. I felt proud and a bit jealous.

  Trell advanced toward me, hand out, and we exchanged a Trader’s handshake. His dark eyes met mine, a frank and open gaze. ‘I’ve never had a prince on board but Leftrin tells me you’re an easy one to deal with. We do our best, but Paragon is a ship, and we live as that dictates.’

  ‘I assure you, I’m not a grand noble. I spent a fair amount of time pulling an oar on the Rurisk during the Red-Ship Wars. My gear was under my bench, and half the time, that was my bed as well.’

  ‘Ah, you’ll do well then. I’d like to introduce Althea Vestrit. I’ve tried to make her a Trell, but she persists in being a Vestrit, stubbornness being the hallmark of her family’s women. But if you’ve met Malta, you’ll know that already.’

  Althea was seated at a table laden with a fat steaming pot, cups, and little cakes on a platter. The pot was Elderling made; it had a gleaming, metallic finish and was embellished with snakes. No. They were sea serpents, for tiny fish were also there. The little cakes were studded with seeds and bits of bright pink fruit. Althea half-stood and leaned over the table to extend her handshake to me. ‘Don’t mind him. Though my niece did get more than her fair share of Vestrit “character”, as we call it.’ The calluses on her hand rasped against mine. Her smile made lines at the corners of her eyes. Her dark hair was threaded with grey and was bound back from her face and braided into a tight queue down her back. Her grip was the equal of any man’s, and I felt she took my measure as much as I did hers. She sat down again and said, ‘Well. It’s a strange pleasure to see the man who wears my ship’s face—though doubtless you think of it the other way. Please, come to our table, and have a cup of coffee and tell me how it felt to see the figurehead Amber carved to match the man who held her heart.’

  The silence that follows a very awkward statement has a peculiar noise of its own. I swear that I could hear Lant holding his breath and literally feel the wide-eyed stares from Spark and Perseverance. I found a hasty lie. ‘Coffee would be welcome! It may be spring, but the wind off the river cuts right down to my bones.’

  She grinned. ‘You never knew she’d carved your face for the ship, did you?’

  Was honesty becoming a dangerous habit? What would Chade have thought? I allowed myself an embarrassed laugh and conceded, ‘Until a very short time ago, I did not.’

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