Assassins fate, p.26
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       Assassin's Fate, p.26

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

  ‘Oh, sweet Sa,’ Althea muttered, and Brashen brayed out the suppressed laugh that he could hold back no longer. I heard a soft exclamation behind me and turned to find that Alise had joined us.

  ‘Oh, the things our women do to us!’ Brashen exclaimed and came to clap me on the shoulder. ‘Sit down, sit down, and Althea will pour. There’s brandy, too, and that might take the chill away a bit better! Alise! Lord Lant, will you join us? And, well, if I invite your serving folk to join us, am I breaching manners? You’ll have to bluntly advise me on these things.’

  ‘Travelling rough soon breaks down the walls of protocol. Perseverance and Spark, would you care to join us for coffee?’

  Perseverance made a face before he could control his features. ‘No, sir, thank you very much all the same. I’d like to go and look around the ship, if I may?’

  ‘You may,’ Althea and Brashen spoke in unison, and then Brashen thought to look toward me and add, ‘That is, if your master approves.’

  ‘Of course. Per, if someone tells you to get out of the way, jump lively.’

  ‘I will.’ He was halfway to the cabin door when Spark spoke.

  ‘I want—’ she began, and then halted. Her cheeks turned red.

  Every adult was looking at her. Alise smiled. ‘Just say it, dear.’

  She opened her mouth and then said in a subdued voice. ‘I should see to unpacking Lady Amber’s things.’

  ‘Or,’ Alise suggested, ‘you could go and look about the deck with Per. And no harm done for being interested in the ship. From the Rain Wilds to Bingtown, women have stood on an equal footing with men for quite some time. Even if some forget it from time to time.’ She smiled at me. ‘When you were otherwise occupied, Spark had many questions for Bellin and me about Tarman. She learns quickly, and I assure you, there’s no harm in a girl knowing more than ribbons and sewing.’

  I defended the Six Duchies. ‘I assure you, in the Six Duchies we do not confine our women at all. They are minstrels and guards, scribes and huntswomen, or whatever other occupation appeals to them.’

  Spark found her tongue. ‘I wasn’t asking permission. That is, I was, but I also wanted to ask if it would offend if I donned trousers for my time on the ship? For I, too, would like to climb the rigging, and skirts made it a task even to climb the ship’s ladder.’

  A peculiar look passed over Perseverance’s face. He stood, his hand on the door and looked at Spark as if she had turned into a cat.

  Althea stood up and dusted her hands on the legs of her well-worn trousers. ‘I think we could find you some boy’s clothing on board the ship.’

  Spark grinned and suddenly I saw Ash’s countenance. ‘I’ve some from home, if no one minds me wearing them.’

  ‘It won’t be noticed at all. I truly don’t know how Alise masters being ever the lady in lovely skirts.’ Althea smiled at her friend before nodding to Spark. ‘Run off and find your other clothes. All your gear should be on board in your cabins. We’re a larger vessel than the Tarman, but we’re built for cargo, not passengers. I’ve put Prince FitzChivalry and “Lady” Amber in the same room she once shared with Jek and me. Lord Lant, Clef has offered to share his cabin with you. He’s given you the bunk and we’ll hang a hammock for him. Per we put belowdeck with the crew.’ She gave me an apologetic look. ‘For now, we put your serving girl in with you and Amber, but—’

  ‘Actually I don’t mind a hammock belowdecks alongside Perseverance. It’s better than sleeping on an open deck.’

  ‘Oh, we can do better than that. No need to separate you from your lady.’ This from Brashen.

  We were back to an awkward silence as I sought words. It was broken by a loud shout that vibrated the planks of the deck. ‘Ahl-theee-a!’

  ‘Paragon,’ she explained unnecessarily. ‘I’d best see what he needs. Don’t wait for me, but help yourself to coffee and cakes. Brashen, would you show them where their cabins are?’

  ‘Of course.’

  ‘We must take our leave, I fear.’ This from Alise with her hand on Leftrin’s arm. ‘There’s cargo to load. It must be tallied as it comes aboard and stowed to Leftrin’s liking. This cargo cannot brook delay. Young fruit trees in tubs of earth from Bingtown, and ducklings and goslings. I suspect we’ll be sorry to have those aboard, but they cannot be worse than the sheep were. Farewell! We enjoyed your company.’

  Hasty good wishes were exchanged and they took their leave.

  After Althea had left, Trell said quietly, ‘Our ship is out of temper lately. My son is serving aboard a different liveship right now—Vivacia, the Vestrit family ship. Paragon misses him keenly. Sometimes, he can be like a spoiled child. If he says anything peculiar to you, let me know.’ He looked troubled and I strove to keep the alarm from my face as I wondered what sort of tantrum a living ship might throw. He avoided meeting my eyes as he added, ‘Let me show you around a bit. The pot will keep the coffee hot.’ As we left the cabin, Lant raised his brows at me and I gave a shrug.

  Brashen handed Per off to a deckhand named Clef. He had an old slave tattoo beside his nose and a long tarred braid down his back. ‘Gotcher gear below,’ he said to Per with an echo of a foreign accent, faded beyond recognition. They went off together and I smiled to see Per unconsciously mimic the sailor’s walk. Lant followed them. Brashen led Spark and me to a cabin that was largely occupied by Amber’s and Spark’s baggage. My own packs seemed small in comparison to their bulging bags. I wondered if they had acquired more garments in Kelsingra and how we would manage when it came time to carry our possessions on our backs. My smaller pack that held Bee’s books and Molly’s candles had safely crossed to Paragon. The Elderling firebrick resided there as well. I hefted it and knew that below Chade’s carefully packed firepots, my shirt still bundled the heavy glass containers of Skill. Amber had taken charge of the lovely bracelet.

  Spark immediately burrowed into her bag like a hound in search of a remembered bone. We left her there.

  As we walked toward the bow, Trell introduced me to crew-members. They gave a nod or smile but never paused in their tasks. Kitl, Cord, Twan, Haff, Ant, Jock, Cypros … I stacked the names in my memory and tried to attach them to faces. Ant was halfway up the mast and my heart jumped when she waved at me with both hands. Trell was not amused. ‘One hand for yourself and one for the ship!’ he roared. ‘You don’t take unnecessary risks on my deck! I’ll put you right back in the tree you came from!’

  ‘Sir!’ she responded, and went scampering up the mast like a squirrel avoiding a barking dog. Trell rolled his eyes. ‘If she lives to grow up, she’ll be a great deckhand. But she doesn’t have a scrap of fear, and that may get her killed.’ He gestured at Trehaug. ‘When a child grows up there, the mast of a ship seems short.’

  I followed his waving hand. The towering trees that held Trehaug dwarfed the naked masts of the Paragon. The swooping branches of the dense forest were as busy with foot-traffic as the streets and byways of any city. Everywhere throughout the trees were signs of human habitation. Signboards advertised a tavern while another in the shape of a basket advertised all manner of wickerwork. I saw some people veiled as I had always heard the Rain Wilders went, and others with exposed faces and bared arms that revealed scales and growths. A wicker lift was hoisted into the upper branches while pedestrians travelled up and down a stairway that spiralled around the trunk. I had stopped to gawk and realized that Brashen was waiting for me.

  ‘Did you grow up here?’ I asked Brashen.

  ‘Here? Oh, no. I’m Bingtown born and bred, from an illustrious Trader family. But I’m the black sheep and not the heir, so here I am, captaining a liveship instead of minding the family fortune.’ He was clearly well satisfied with his lot.

  ‘Not too different to my tale,’ I told him. ‘Amber may call me a prince, but my name tells the truth. “Fitz” means I was born on the wrong side of the blankets. So, I’m a Farseer, but a bastard one.’

  ‘That so? Well, that explains why you might end up on th
e end of an oar on a war galley.’

  I grinned. ‘Yes. Bastards are a bit more expendable than princes.’ And that simply, we were at ease with each other. We strolled toward the bow. I could hear voices, Amber’s and Althea’s and the ship’s but the wind off the river and the noise of the tree city meant I could not make out their words.

  ‘… vengeance, then?’ Althea asked as we drew closer.

  ‘More than vengeance,’ Amber replied. ‘We go to break a cage of cruelty. To destroy a court that has grown only greedier and more corrupt with every passing year.’ She lowered her voice and spoke the words I had so often heard from her. ‘We go to be the rock in the cart track that bounces the wagon onto a new path.’

  They could not have presented a stranger scene. Althea leaned on the ship’s railing. The ship’s face was turned toward the river, with my more youthful profile. Amber sat in the figurehead’s finger-laced hands. Her hands rested lightly on his thumbs and she swung her daintily booted feet, ankles crossed, over the empty fall to the cold, acid rush of the river. Her knitted cap allowed a feathering of short hair to frame her face. Powder and paint had smoothed her scarring and the scaling that the dragon’s blood had triggered. In Amber’s guise, the Fool became a very fetching woman.

  Althea’s voice was subdued. ‘I’ve never heard you speak with such passion, not even when we were facing our deaths together.’

  Amber’s face contorted with hatred. ‘They took our child and destroyed her.’

  It hurt to hear Amber claim Bee that way, and I knew what Althea and Brashen must assume. The Fool might believe it was so, but to hear him speak of her that way to strangers wounded something in me. Molly, I thought fiercely. She had been Bee’s mother and no other. I did not wish these people to think I had fathered Bee upon Amber. No, Molly had been the one to endure that pregnancy, in some ways so alone, and Molly had been the one to cherish and protect a child that others would have let dwindle away. It wasn’t right for Amber to erase her. The hurt seared me, and I realized it had another source.

  ‘My boy is gone, too!’ Paragon burst out and I felt the surge of emotion that washed through the ship. His sense of outrage and loss were fuelling the fire of hurt within me. Trell spoke calmingly. ‘Boy-O is fine, Paragon. Vivacia would never let harm befall him. He is only gone from you for a time. He will return. You know that.’

  ‘Will he?’ Paragon demanded harshly. ‘He has been gone two years! Will he ever come back? Or will Vivacia claim him? He was born here, on my decks! He is mine! Or am I the only liveship without a family? The only liveship with no heir to my captaincy? For even as Althea’s brother demands my boy for his deck, he keeps from me what should be mine! Kennit’s son!’

  ‘Queen Etta keeps Paragon Kennitsson from you, not Wintrow.’ Althea’s voice was taut. I could hear it was not the first time she had uttered those words to the ship. I saw Brashen square his shoulders and step forward, prepared to take up the peacemaker’s role.

  ‘Paragon,’ Amber said softly. ‘My friend, I feel your anguish. It is almost too much to be borne. Please.’ And then, breathlessly, ‘You are holding me too tightly. Please set me safely on your decks.’

  I stared helplessly. I had two small, concealed knives, useless weapons against such a huge opponent. If I attacked him, would he drop Amber into the river? I looked to Brashen, but his face had gone pale. Althea leaned farther over the railing. She spoke in a low, rational voice. ‘Crushing your friend will not win you Kennit’s son. Calm yourself, ship.’

  What need of breath did a wooden ship have, even one carved from a dragon’s cocoon? Yet Paragon’s chest rose and fell as if he were a boy in the grip of strong emotion. His eyes were squeezed shut and the big hands that clutched Amber trembled. Amber’s milky eyes were fixed, not on me, but on a nameless distance. Her face was flushed with breathlessness. Paragon drew his hands closer to his chest. He bent his head over her and I feared he would bite her head off. But instead he twisted his shoulders and released her onto the deck so abruptly that she staggered and fell. Althea dropped to one knee beside her, seized her shoulders and dragged her backwards.

  ‘You needn’t put her out of my reach!’ Paragon complained hoarsely. ‘I would not hurt her.’

  ‘I know you wouldn’t,’ Amber gasped.

  Althea was small but she hoisted Amber’s arm across her shoulders and stood up with her. ‘I’m taking Amber to our stateroom,’ she announced calmly. Before I could step in, Brashen seized Amber’s other arm and helped her to walk aft. I began to follow but the ship suddenly spoke.

  ‘You, with my face. Don’t go.’

  I halted. Brashen stopped and looked back at me, his eyes wide. A small shake of his head was full of warning. Lant’s gaze went from me to Amber. I tipped my head toward her, letting him know he should follow her and he quickly took Brashen’s place. The captain folded his arms and stood watching the figurehead.

  ‘Buckman. I want to talk to you. Come here.’

  The ship wasn’t looking at me. He was staring off across the wide Rain Wild River. The distant shore was a haze of green on the horizon. ‘I’m here,’ I said, striving to keep any challenge out of my voice.

  The ship gave no sign he had heard me. I stood and waited. I heard the river and the ship’s motion against the dock. The distant calls and shouts of the riverside city were like birdsong in the distance.


  I stepped closer and raised my voice. ‘I’m here, ship.’


  Brashen’s warning was too late. With a twist of his body that set the ship rocking against the dock, the figurehead turned, reached and grabbed me. I leapt back, but he caught my left shoulder and arm. I seized one of his fingers in my right hand and tried to lift and twist it. Useless. He dragged me off my feet and pinned me against the railing.

  ‘Let him go, Paragon!’ Brashen bellowed.

  The lurch of the ship had alerted the crew. Clef came running, then jolted to a halt, staring at me, with a white-faced Per at his elbow. Two others, Cord and Haff, hurried toward us, then stopped. Althea halted, her arm still around Amber. I could not hear what she said but Amber swivelled to gaze blindly back at us.

  Paragon spoke calmly and his words vibrated through me. ‘This does not concern any of you. Busy yourself with your duties.’

  ‘Paragon,’ Althea pleaded.

  Paragon tightened his grip, lifting me up onto my toes. His thumb and fingers pinched the left side of my chest. I didn’t struggle. When one cannot win, avoid angering the opponent. Give him no reason to employ more force.

  ‘We’re fine,’ I gasped. I held onto his fingers, trying to ease the pressure.

  ‘About your duties,’ Paragon suggested pleasantly, and I nodded my head in vehement agreement.

  Althea began moving Amber away. She went reluctantly, looking back at me, but I could not read her expression. Clef gripped Per’s shoulder and dragged him along. Lant came to help him. Brashen, his mouth flat in a bitter line, retreated from us. Paragon eased me onto my feet but kept me wedged against the railing. ‘Now,’ he said in a very soft voice. ‘We will talk, you and I, to be sure that things are clear between us. Are you listening, Buckman? For that is your role in this conversation. You listen.’

  I wheezed a response. ‘I’m listening.’

  ‘Excellent. Amber seems to be fond of you. Perhaps she has been fond of you for years.’ He paused.

  I nodded. ‘Friends since childhood.’

  The pressure eased. ‘Friends?’

  ‘Since we— since I was a boy.’

  He made a deep sound that I felt all through my body. Then he said, ‘Understand this. We share a face, though mine is more youthful and handsomer. I asked her to carve me a face she could love. She gave me yours. But it was “could” love, not “did” love. Remember that. She loves me far more than you. She always will.’

  On the last three words, his grip on me tightened. I nodded breathlessly.

  Overhead, I hea
rd a worried caw. I could not look up but I knew that Motley was circling. I prayed she would not try to attack the ship. Please don’t! I flung the thought at her.

  Paragon snapped his fingers open. I clutched the railing so I did not fall. For an instant, I thought he had responded to my Wit. Then he gave me a threatening smile. ‘So. We understand one another?’

  ‘Yes.’ I fought the impulse to flee. I did not want to turn my back to him, even if he had turned his back to me. He put his gaze on the water and crossed his arms on his chest and rolled his shoulders. Substantial musculature there. I was not sure I’d ever truly looked like that.

  He held his silence. A step at a time, I retreated, keeping my eyes fixed on him until someone seized my collar and dragged me backwards. I kicked my heels against the deck to speed the process, and we both went down in a heap. Brashen huffed out his air as we hit the deck with me on top. ‘You’re welcome,’ he wheezed as I rolled off him and staggered upright.

  ‘Thank you,’ I responded.

  ‘Are you all right?’ Amber was immediately beside me as Althea offered Brashen a hand up. Per darted to my side and seized my hand.

  ‘I’m bruised, but not badly injured, other than my pride.’ I turned to Althea and Brashen. ‘You warned me. I didn’t imagine he could move that quickly. Or be that—’ I flailed for a word.

  ‘Deceptive,’ Brashen supplied for me. He sighed. ‘He’s been difficult lately.’

  ‘More difficult than usual,’ Althea amended. She took Amber’s hand and hauled her to her feet. ‘It’s a strange welcome back for you, Amber. But I’m sure you recall Paragon’s nature. He’ll be steady and stable for a month or a year, then something will set him off.’

  ‘Jealousy,’ I said very quietly. ‘Amber, he does not wish to share you.’

  ‘I will do my best to calm him. But it is not just that. Paragon’s hull and figurehead were created out of two “logs” of wizardwood. He has the nature and partial memories of two dragons. His decks were the scene of much violence and cruelty. He was captured by the notorious pirate Igrot and used as his personal vessel. And Kennit Ludluck, the son of his family, was tormented on board him. Tormented and twisted.’ She added in a whisper, ‘Cruelty
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