Assassins fate, p.3
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       Assassin's Fate, p.3

         Part #3 of The Fitz and The Fool Trilogy series by Robin Hobb
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  through!’ as they pushed to get away from me. The Skill-current that had flowed so strongly around me and through me had abated, but it wasn’t gone. Lant’s elfbark was the milder herb, Six Duchies-grown and somewhat stale by the taste of it. Here in the Elderling city the Skill flowed so strong and close I did not think even delvenbark could have closed me to it completely.

  But it was enough. I was aware of the Skill but no longer shackled to its service. Yet the exhaustion of letting it use me now slackened my muscles just when I had most need of them. General Rapskal had torn the Fool from my grasp. The Elderling gripped Amber’s wrist and held her silvered hand aloft, shouting, ‘I told you so! I told you they were thieves! Look at her hand, coated in the dragons’ Silver! She has discovered the well! She has stolen from our dragons!’

  Spark clung to Amber’s other arm, trying to drag her free of the general’s grip. The girl’s teeth were bared, her black curls wild around her face. The look of sheer terror on Amber’s scarred face both paralysed and panicked me. The years of privation the Fool had endured were betrayed in that stark grimace. They made her face a death-mask of bones and red lips and rouged cheeks. I had to go to the Fool’s aid, and yet my knees kept folding of their own accord. Perseverance seized my arm. ‘Prince FitzChivalry, what must I do?’ I could not find the breath to reply to him.

  ‘Fitz! Stand up!’ Lant roared right next to my ear. It was as much plea as command. I found my feet, and pressed my weight against them. I strained, shuddering, trying to keep my legs straight under me.

  We had arrived in Kelsingra just the day before, and for a few hours I had been the hero of the day, the magical Six Duchies prince who had healed Ephron, the son of the king and queen of Kelsingra. The Skill had flowed through me, as intoxicating as Sandsedge brandy. At the request of King Reyn and Queen Malta, I had used my magic to set right half a dozen dragon-touched children. I had opened myself to the powerful Skill-current of the old Elderling city. Awash in that heady power, I’d opened throats and steadied heartbeats, straightened bones and cleared scales from eyes. Some I’d made more human, though one girl had wished to embrace her dragon-changes and I’d helped her do that.

  But the Skill-flow had become too strong, too intoxicating. I’d lost control of the magic, become its tool instead of its master. After the children I’d agreed to heal had been claimed by their parents others had pushed forward. Adult Rain Wilders with changes uncomfortable, ugly or life-threatening had begged my aid and I had dispensed it with a lavish hand, caught in the vast pleasure of that flow. I’d felt my last shred of control give way, but when I’d surrendered to that glorious surge and its invitation to merge with the magic, Amber had stripped the glove from her hand. To save me, she’d revealed the stolen dragon-Silver on her fingers. To save me, she’d pressed three scalding fingertips to my bare wrist, burned her way into my mind and called me back. To save me, she’d betrayed herself as thief. The hot kiss of her fingers’ touch still pulsed like a fresh burn, sending a deep ache up the bones of my left arm, to my shoulder, to my back and neck.

  What damage it was doing to me now, I could not know. But at least I was again anchored to my body. I was anchored to it and it was dragging me down. I’d lost track of how many Elderlings I’d touched and changed, but my body had kept count. Each one had taken a toll from me, each shaping had torn strength from me, and now that debt had to be paid. Despite all my efforts, my head lolled and I could scarcely keep my eyes open amidst the danger and noise all around me. I saw the room as through a mist.

  ‘Rapskal, stop being an imbecile!’ That was King Reyn adding his roar to the din.

  Lant abruptly tightened his hug around my chest, dragging me more upright. ‘Let her go!’ he bellowed. ‘Release our friend, or the prince will undo every cure he has worked! Let her go, right now!’

  I heard gasps, wailing, a man shouting, ‘No! He must not!’ A woman screamed, ‘Let go of her, Rapskal! Let her go!’

  Malta’s voice rang with command as she cried out, ‘This is not how we treat guests and ambassadors! Release her, Rapskal, this moment!’ Her cheeks were flushed and the crest of flesh above her brow bloomed with colour.

  ‘Let go of me!’ Amber’s voice rang with authority. From some deep well of courage, she had drawn the will to fight back on her own behalf. Her shout cut through the crowd’s noise. ‘Release me, or I will touch you!’ She made good her threat, surging toward Rapskal instead of trying to pull her hand free. The sudden reverse shocked him and her silvered fingers came perilously close to his face. The general gave a shout of alarm and sprang back from her as he let go of her wrist. But she was not finished. ‘Back, all of you!’ she commanded. ‘Give us room and let me see to the prince or, by Sa, I will touch you!’ Hers was the command of an angered queen, pitched to carry her threat. Her silvered forefinger pointed as she swung it in a slow arc around her, and people were suddenly stumbling over one another in their haste to be out of her reach.

  The mother of the girl with dragon feet spoke. ‘I’d do as she says!’ she warned. ‘If that is truly dragon-Silver on her fingers, one touch of it will mean slow death. It will seep down to your bones, right through your flesh. It will travel your bones, up your spine to your skull. Eventually, you will be grateful to die from it.’ As others were falling back from us, she began pushing her way through the crowd toward us. She was not a large person but the other dragon-keepers were giving way to her. She stopped a safe distance from us. Her dragon had patterned her in blue and black and silver. The wings that weighted her shoulders were folded snug to her back. The claws on her toes tapped the floor as she walked. Of all the Elderlings present, she was most heavily modified by her dragon’s touch. Her warning and Amber’s threat cleared a small space around us.

  Amber retreated to my side, gasping as she sought to calm her breath. Spark stood on her other side and Perseverance took up a position in front of her. Amber’s voice was low and calm as she said, ‘Spark, retrieve my glove if you would.’

  ‘Of course, my lady.’ The requested item had fallen to the floor. Spark stooped and cautiously picked it up in two fingers. ‘I will touch your wrist,’ she warned Amber, and tapped the back of her hand to guide her to her glove. Amber was still breathing unsteadily as she gloved her hand, but weak as I was, I was horribly glad to see that she had regained some of the Fool’s strength and presence of mind. She linked her unsilvered hand through my arm and I was reassured by her touch. It seemed to draw off some of the Skill-current still coursing through me. I felt both connected to her and less battered by the Skill.

  ‘I think I can stand,’ I muttered to Lant and he loosened his grip on me. I could not allow anyone to see how drained I was of strength. I rubbed my eyes and wiped elfbark powder from my face. My knees did not buckle and I managed to hold my head steady. I straightened up. I badly wanted the knife in my boot but if I stooped for it I knew I would not stop until I sprawled on the floor.

  The woman who had warned the others stepped into the empty space that now surrounded us, but stayed beyond arm’s reach. ‘Lady Amber, is it truly dragon-Silver on your hand?’ she asked in quiet dread.

  ‘It is!’ General Rapskal had found his courage and took up a stance beside her. ‘And she has stolen it from the dragons’ well. She must be punished! Keepers and folk of Kelsingra, we cannot be seduced by the healing of a few children! We do not even know if this magic will last or if it is a cheat. But we have all seen the evidence of this intruder’s theft, and we know that our first duty is and must always be to the dragons who have befriended us.’

  ‘Speak for yourself, Rapskal.’ The woman gave him a cold stare. ‘My first duty is to my daughter, and she no longer totters when she stands.’

  ‘Are you so easily bought, Thymara?’ Rapskal demanded scathingly.

  The father of the child stepped into the circle to stand beside the woman called Thymara. The girl with the dragon feet rode on his shoulder and looked down on us. He spoke as if he scolded a
wilful child, rebuke tinged with familiarity. ‘Of all people, Rapskal, you should know that Thymara cannot be bought. Answer me this. Who has it harmed that this lady has silvered her fingers? Only herself. She will die of it. So what worse can we do to her? Let her go. Let all of them go, and let them go with my thanks.’

  ‘She stole!’ Rapskal’s shout turned to a shriek, his dignity flung to the wind.

  Reyn had managed to elbow his way through the crowd. Queen Malta was right behind him, her cheeks pink beneath her scaling and her eyes fiery with her anger. The dragon changes in her were amplified by her fury. There was a glitter in her eyes that was not human, and the crest of flesh in the parting of her hair seemed taller; it reminded me of a rooster’s comb. She was the first to speak. ‘My apologies, Prince FitzChivalry, Lady Amber. Our people forgot themselves in their hopes of being healed. And General Rapskal is sometimes—’

  ‘Don’t speak for me!’ the general interrupted her. ‘She stole Silver. We saw the evidence, and no, it’s not enough that she has poisoned herself. We cannot let her leave Kelsingra. None of them can leave, for now they know the secret of the dragons’ well!’

  Amber spoke. She sounded calm but she pushed her words so that all could hear. ‘There was Silver on my fingers before you were born, I believe, General Rapskal. Before your dragons hatched, before Kelsingra was found and reclaimed, I bore what we of the Six Duchies call Skill on my fingers. And your queen can attest to that.’

  ‘She is not our queen and he is not our king!’ General Rapskal’s chest heaved with his emotion and, along his neck, patches of his scales showed a bright scarlet. ‘So they have said, over and over! They have said that we must rule ourselves, that they are but figureheads for the rest of the world. So, keepers, let us rule ourselves! Let us put our dragons first, as we are meant to!’ He shook a finger at Lady Amber, from a safe distance, as he demanded of his fellows, ‘Recall how difficult it was for us to find and renew the well of Silver! Will you believe her ridiculous tale that she has carried it on her fingertips for scores of years and not died of it?’

  Queen Malta’s rueful voice cut through Rapskal’s rant. ‘I am sorry to say that I cannot attest to such a thing, Lady Amber. I knew you only briefly during your time in Bingtown, and met you seldom during the negotiations of your loans to many of the Traders.’ She shook her head. ‘A Trader’s word is all she has to give and I will not bend mine, even to help a friend. The best I can say is that when I knew you in those days, you always went gloved. I never saw your hands.’

  ‘You heard her!’ Rapskal’s shout was triumphant. ‘There is no proof! There can be no …’

  ‘If I may speak?’ For years, as King Shrewd’s jester, the Fool had had to make even his whispered comments heard across a large and sometimes crowded room. He had trained his voice to carry, and it now cut through not only Rapskal’s shout but the muttering of the crowd as well. A simmering silence filled the room. He did not move like a blind man as he stepped into the space his threat had cleared. He was a performer stepping onto his stage. It was in the sudden grace of his movements and his storyteller’s voice, and the sweep of his gloved hand. He was the Fool to me, and the layer of Amber but a part of his performance.

  ‘Recall a summer day, dear Queen Malta. You were but a girl, and all was in turmoil in your life. All your family’s hopes for financial survival depended on the successful launch of the Paragon, a liveship so insane that thrice he had capsized and killed all his crew. But the mad ship was your only hope, and into his salvage and refitting the Vestrit family had poured the last of their resources.’

  He had them–and me. I was as caught up in this tale as any of them.

  ‘Your family hoped that the Paragon would be able to find and restore to you your father and your brother, both missing for so long. That somehow you could reclaim the Vivacia, your family’s own liveship, for it was rumoured that she had been taken by pirates. And not any pirates, but the fabled Captain Kennit himself! You stood on the deck of the mad ship, putting on such a brave face in your made-over gown with last year’s parasol. When all the others went below to tour the ship, you stayed on the deck and I stayed near you, to watch over you as your Aunt Althea had requested.’

  ‘I remember that day,’ Malta said slowly. ‘It was the first time we had really spoken to one another. I remember … we talked of the future. Of what it might hold for me. You told me that a small life would never satisfy me. You told me that I must earn my future. How did you put it?’

  Lady Amber smiled, pleased that this queen remembered words spoken to her when she was a child. ‘What I told you is as true today as it was then. Tomorrow owes you the sum of your yesterdays. No more than that. And no less.’

  Malta’s smile was like sunlight. ‘And you warned me that sometimes people wished that tomorrow did not pay them off so completely.’

  ‘I did.’

  The queen stepped forward, unwittingly becoming part of the performance as she took her place on Amber’s stage. Her brow furrowed and she spoke like a woman in a dream. ‘And then … Paragon whispered to me. And I felt … oh, I did not know it then. I felt the dragon Tintaglia seize my thoughts. I felt she would smother me as she forced me to share her confinement in her tomb! And I fainted. It was terrible. I felt I was trapped with the dragon and could never find my way back to my own body.’

  ‘I caught you,’ Amber said. ‘And I touched you, on the back of your neck, with my Skilled fingers. Silvered, you would say. And by that magic, I called you back to your own body. But it left a mark on you. And a tiny tendril of a link that we share to this very day.’

  ‘What?’ Malta was incredulous.

  ‘It’s true!’ The words burst from King Reyn along with a laugh born of both relief and joy. ‘On the back of your neck, my dear! I saw them there in the days when your hair was as black as a crow’s wing, before Tintaglia turned it to gold. Three greyish ovals, like silver fingerprints gone dusty with age.’

  Malta’s mouth hung open in surprise. At his words, her hand had darted to the back of her neck beneath the fall of glorious golden hair that was not blonde. ‘There was always a tender place there. Like a bruise that never healed.’ Abruptly she lifted her cascading locks and held them on the top of her head. ‘Come and look, any that wish, come and see if what my husband and Lady Amber says is true.’

  I was one of those who did. I staggered forward, still leaning on Lant, to see the same marks I had once borne on my wrist. Three greyish ovals, the mark of the Fool’s silvered hand. They were there.

  The woman called Thymara stared in consternation when it was her turn to see the nape of the queen’s neck. ‘It’s a wonder it did not kill you,’ she said in a hushed voice.

  I thought that would be an end of the matter, but when General Rapskal had taken three times as long to stare at the marks as any had, he turned away from the queen and said, ‘What does it matter if she had the Silver then? What does it matter if she stole it a few nights ago, or several decades ago? Silver from the well belongs to the dragons. She must still be punished.’

  I stiffened my back and tightened my belly. My voice must not shake. A deeper breath to make my words carry. I hoped I would not vomit. ‘It didn’t come from a well. It came from King Verity’s own hands, that he covered in Skill to work his great and final magic. He got it from where a river of Skill ran within a river of water. Name it not dragon-Silver. It is Skill from the Skill-river.’

  ‘And where might that be?’ Rapskal demanded in a voice so hungry it alarmed me.

  ‘I don’t know,’ I replied honestly. ‘I saw it but once, in a Skill-dream. My king never allowed me to go there with him, lest I give way to the temptation to plunge myself into it.’

  ‘Temptation?’ Thymara was shocked. ‘I who am privileged to use Silver to do works for the city, feel no temptation to plunge myself into it. Indeed, I fear it.’

  ‘That is because you were not born with it coursing in your blood,’ the Fool said, ‘as s
ome Farseers are. As Prince FitzChivalry was, born with the Skill as a magic within him, one that he can use to shape children as some might shape stone.’

  That struck them dumb.

  ‘Is it possible?’ This from the winged Elderling, a genuine question.

  Amber lifted her voice again. ‘The magic I bear on my hands is the same that was accidentally gifted to me by King Verity. It is rightfully mine, not stolen any more than the magic that courses through the prince’s veins, the magic you joyfully allowed him to share with your children. Not stolen any more than the magic within you that changes you and marks your children. What do you call it? Marked by the Rain Wilds? Changed by the dragons? If this Silver on my fingers is stolen, why, then, any here who have been healed have shared in the prince’s thievery.’

  ‘That does not excuse—’ Rapskal began.

  ‘Enough of this,’ King Reyn commanded. I saw Rapskal’s eyes flash anger, but he did not speak as Reyn added, ‘We have abused and exhausted our guests. What the prince freely shared, we have demanded in too great a quantity from him. See how pale he is, and how he shakes. Please, my guests, return to your chambers. Let us bring you both refreshments and our sincere apologies. But in the greatest quantity of all, let us offer you our thanks.’

  He advanced and with a gesture moved Perseverance aside. Behind him came Queen Malta, offering her arm fearlessly to Amber. Reyn gripped my upper arm with surprising strength. I found myself a bit humiliated but thankful for the help. I managed to look back once to see Queen Malta and Spark escorting Amber while Per came last of all slowly and with many a backward glance, as if wary that danger followed us but the doors closed behind us without incident. We walked through a corridor lined with curious folk who had been excluded from that audience. Then behind us, I heard the doors open and a gust of conversation belled out to become a roar. The hall seemed interminable. The stairs, when we came to them wavered in my vision. I could not imagine that I could climb them. But I knew I must.

  And I did, step by slow step, until we stood outside the doors of my guest chamber. ‘Thank you,’ I managed to say.

  ‘You thank me.’ Reyn gave a snort of laughter. ‘I would better deserve a curse from you after what we have put you through.’

  ‘Not you.’

  ‘I will leave you in peace,’ he excused himself, and remained outside with his queen as my small party entered my room. When I heard Perseverance close the door behind me, relief swept through me and my knees tried to fold. Lant put his arm around me to help me to the table. I took his hand to steady myself.

  A mistake. He cried out suddenly and went to his knees. In the same moment I felt the Skill course through me as swift as a snake striking. Lant clutched at the scar from the sword wound the Chalcedean raiders had given him. It had been closed, apparently healed. But in that brief touch I had known there was more for his body to do, and known, too, of one rib healed crookedly, and a fracture in his jaw that was mildly infected and giving him pain still. All repaired and set right, if one can call such a harsh correction a repair. I collapsed merrily on top of him.

  Lant groaned under me. I tried to roll off him but could not summon the strength. I heard Perseverance’s gasp, ‘Oh, sir! Let me help you!’

  ‘Don’t touch—’ I began, but he had already stooped and taken my hand. His outcry was sharper, a young man’s voice taken back to a boy’s shrill one. He fell onto his side and sobbed twice before he could master the pain. I managed to roll away from both of them. Lant didn’t move.

  ‘What has happened?’ Amber’s question was close to a scream. ‘Are we attacked? Fitz? Fitz, where are you?’

  ‘I’m here! There’s no danger to you. The Skill … I touched Lant. And Per.’ Those were all the words I could manage.

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