Assassins fate, p.35
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       Assassin's Fate, p.35

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

  seen in man or woman. Facing the end of all she had known as her life—the end of all she had expected her life to be—she would nonetheless think not only of her crew but of those who crewed the other Bingtown liveships. And of the ship she still loved, even as he prepared to abandon her.

  Verity. Carving his dragon. That was who she reminded me of.

  Amber spoke my question aloud. ‘So. You have forgiven me?’

  Althea gave her head a short shake. ‘Not any more than I’ve forgiven Kennit for raping me. Or Kyle for taking Vivacia from my care. For some things, there is no forgiving or unforgiving. They are simply a crossroads, and a direction taken, whether I would or no. Someone else set my feet on that path. All I can control is every step I take after that.’

  ‘I’m sorry,’ Amber said softly.

  ‘You’re sorry?’ Brashen asked incredulously. ‘Now you say you’re sorry?’

  Amber lifted one shoulder. ‘I know I don’t deserve forgiveness for what I’ve done. I don’t want to seem as if I expect it, based on old friendship. Yet I say it now to let you know it’s the truth. I’m sorry that it was what I had to do. Althea is right. Events set my feet on a path. All I can do is take the next step.’

  ‘She’s flying Pirate Island colours!’ Ant called down to us. ‘And she’s tacking to cut our path. Moving fast, too.’

  ‘Most likely a tariff ship,’ Brashen suggested. He scowled toward the horizon. ‘If it is, it will be sure to intercept us, to demand to inspect our cargo, and charge us for passage through these waters.’

  ‘And as we are carrying Elderling artefacts from Trehaug and Kelsingra—items that were originally destined for Bingtown—the value they will assign and hence the tariffs on that value will be far beyond our ability to pay. We will be detained in the Pirate Isles and given a choice between sending for the funds or surrendering part of our cargo to pay the tariff—cargo that is not ours to use to pay our debts. Cargo we were contracted to transport to Bingtown.’ Althea spoke as if the words were made of thorns.

  Brashen laughed without humour. ‘And if we refuse to be boarded by the Pirate Isle tariff agents, or if we refuse to follow them to port until the tariff is paid, then they will endeavour to force their way onto Paragon and take control of him. And we have no idea how he will react to that.’

  ‘Actually, I fear that I have a very clear idea of how he will react,’ Althea said. ‘I think he will do his best to sink the other ship, with little mercy for the crew.’ She shook her head bitterly before turning back to Amber. ‘And so I am going to ask you to use every bit of influence you have to persuade him to be reasonable. To let them come alongside and talk with us. There will be trouble over the tariffs, but at least putting into port will give us the chance to take on food and water. Or to release our crew.’

  ‘Release the crew?’ There was alarm in Amber’s voice.

  Althea was resolute. ‘As many as will go. Whatever is to become of Paragon, and of us, I see no point in taking them all with us. The sooner they are off Paragon’s decks, the sooner they can find other employment. Other lives.’

  ‘How can Paragon get to Clerres with no crew?’ Amber demanded.

  ‘Skeleton crew.’ She looked Amber up and down. ‘You’ll have to lose those skirts and remember how to work the deck again.’ She tipped her head toward me. ‘Him, too. And Lant and the youngsters.’

  I opened my mouth to respond but Amber spoke quickly. ‘I’m blind. But what I can do, I will. We all will. And I will do all I can to encourage Paragon to be reasonable. I’ve no wish for this to be any worse than it must be.’

  ‘Any worse,’ Brashen said softly, a terrible wondering in his voice. ‘How could it be any worse?’

  As if in answer to his question, a wave of something swept past me that spun me like a weathervane. It seemed as palpable as the wind, but it was not air that slid past me, but Skill and Wit, twined together and moving through the wizardwood of the ship in a way I knew but did not understand. I knew it, for I had done it—done it without thinking or understanding it in the days when I had first begun to try to master my magics. I had done it because I had not known how to separate them. I had been told my Skill was tainted with the Wit, and I had known that my Wit had undertones of Skill to it. I had struggled to separate the two, to use the Skill properly. And I had succeeded. Almost.

  But now I felt it rippling and surging through the ship, and it felt, not wrong, but pure. As if two halves of something had been restored to a whole. It was powerful, and for a time I could focus on nothing but the wonder I felt at it.

  ‘Oh, no!’ Althea said in a low voice, and that was when I knew the others were aware of it too. All of them stood still, faces frozen, as if they were listening to the distant howling of hungry wolves. Everyone save Perseverance, who looked from face to face and then demanded, ‘What is it?’

  ‘Something’s changing,’ Spark whispered. Transfixed as I was by the flow of magic, I still noted in a small corner of my mind how her hand crept out to grasp Lant’s forearm, and how he set his hand over hers to reassure her. Something was changing indeed, and it wasn’t just the ship. I felt Amber catch hold of my sleeve.

  Althea and Brashen moved as if one will controlled them, striding toward the foredeck. Overhead, Motley still circled, cawing ‘Ship, Ship!’ We followed, and Clef came dashing past us. As abruptly as the surging magic had begun, it passed. Althea and Brashen had gained the foredeck.

  Paragon twisted slowly to look back at them. ‘What?’ he asked mildly, raising a questioning brow.

  I had a single instant of disconnection before the obvious stunned me. He looked back at us with my face, save for his pale blue eyes. ‘That’s exactly how Prince FitzChivalry looks when he’s puzzled,’ Per observed, answering a question I hadn’t even formed in my mind. Slowly, Paragon turned away from us. He lifted his arm, offering the back of his wrist to the sky. Motley swooped in to land there, completing my utter confusion.

  ‘Ship!’ she told him.

  ‘I see it. It’s a tariff ship. We’d best heave to, and then let them know we’ll be following them to Divvytown to pay our taxes.’ He glanced back to give his captains a boyish grin. ‘Vivacia is out of Divvytown, isn’t she? I have a feeling she’ll be there. It will be so good to see Boy-O again, won’t it? And Queen Etta has her court there. Perhaps, at last, Paragon Kennitsson will see fit to walk my decks. Let’s put on some more sail and pick up some speed.’

  ‘Paragon, what are you playing at?’ Brashen demanded in a low voice.

  The figurehead did not turn back towards him. ‘Playing at? Whatever do you mean?’

  ‘Why have you resumed your old face?’ Brashen asked.

  ‘Because I did. Isn’t this the one you prefer? The one that makes me seem more human?’

  ‘You are human,’ Amber spoke her words with soft clarity. ‘Human and dragon. Possessed of the memories of both. Soaked in the blood and the memories of those who have crewed your decks, bled and died on them. You began as the shells of two dragons, that is true. But you have become something that is not only dragon, but imbued with humanity as well.’

  Paragon was silent.

  ‘Yet you changed your face,’ Amber continued, ‘so that Boy-O would see you in your familiar guise and not be alarmed.’ I wondered if she were guessing or if she knew.

  ‘I changed my face because it suited me to do so.’ Paragon spoke the words defiantly.

  Amber’s response was mild. ‘And it suited you to do so because you care for Boy-O. Paragon, there is no shame in being who and what you are. In partaking of two worlds instead of one.’

  He turned to look at her and the blue of his eyes was dragon-blue. ‘I shall be dragons again. I shall.’

  Amber nodded slowly. ‘Yes, I believe that you will. As will Vivacia and the other liveships. But you will be dragons as dragons have not existed before. Dragons touched with humanity. Understanding us. Perhaps even caring about us.’

  ‘You do not know w
hat you are saying! Dragons shaped by human touch? Do you know what those are? Abominations! That is what they are, those who hatch and grow on Others’ Island. Those who are as much human as serpent, and hence neither! And never will they be dragons. I shall be dragons!’

  I made little sense of this outburst, but Amber seemed to understand it. ‘Yes. Yes, of course, you will be dragons. And the part of you that will remember humanity is not in your wing or your tooth or your eye. It will be in your memory. As the serpents of the sea recall the memories they need of those who were serpents before them, and as a dragon recalls his ancestral knowledge. You will have an additional pool of memories. Your human memories. And it will give you wisdom beyond what other dragons have. You and the dragons who have been liveships will be dragons apart from the ordinary. A new kind of dragon.’

  He turned away from all of us. ‘You have no idea what you are suggesting. Look. Soon they will be hailing us. Should not you be about your duties?’

  The tariff ship’s captain was a young man. The red beard that edged his chin was patchy and though he wore a fine hat with several immense plumes in it, I think he was relieved when Brashen shouted to him that we were Divvytown bound to submit for taxing. ‘I’ll follow you then,’ he declared, as if he had been about to demand that we submit.

  ‘Go ahead and try,’ Paragon invited him affably. And indeed, once we were under way again, he demonstrated the difference between a liveship and one made of wood. Given the same wind and current, we pulled steadily away from the tariff vessel. Truly, if Paragon had wanted to run from him, the tariff ship’s chase would have been futile.

  No one asked us to leave the deck and so I stood by the rail with my small retinue, enjoying the wind on my face. ‘How does he do it?’ I asked Amber, and felt Per step closer for the answer.

  ‘I don’t truly know. He smooths his hull, I think. And unlike many other ships, a liveship will never develop a beard of weed and mussels. His hull never needs to be scraped and painted, and no tubeworm will ever hole his planking.’

  For the rest of the afternoon, we watched the islands grow closer. Soon even Paragon had to slow in order to thread his way through islets to what had once been a hidden town, a place where pirates went to divvy out their spoils and drink and gamble and take every pleasure they could. Once it had been a place where escaped slaves could go to begin a new life as free folk. I’d heard tales of it as a noisome place of stagnant water and patchwork hovels and sagging wharves.

  But Paragon followed a well-marked channel into a tidy little harbour where large sailing vessels, obviously merchanters, were anchored in the bay while smaller ships and fishing boats were tied to an orderly array of docks. A prosperous little city spread back from the harbour in a grid of streets and alleys. Trees I did not recognize lined the streets, heavy with yellow blossoms. The main street led to a large structure about the same size as the manor house at Withywoods, but there the resemblance ended. Queen Etta’s palace was of plank, painted white, with long open porches on the front. A green surrounded it, so that even from the harbour it was visible past the rows of warehouses and storefronts. As I looked, I realized that the height of the buildings had been reduced to have exactly that effect; the royal residence towered over the town and, from the upper balconies and tower, had an unimpeded view of the harbour.

  ‘Is that the Vivacia?’ Lant asked and I turned my gaze.

  ‘I don’t know but she’s definitely a liveship.’ She was a queenly creation, a youthful woman with her head held high and her shapely arms and wrists crossed at her waist. Her hair was a black tumble of curls that fell to her bared shoulders and over her breasts. I saw in her proud features an echo of Althea, as if they were related. As Spark described the vessel to Amber in a low voice, Amber nodded. ‘Vivacia,’ she confirmed. ‘The Vestrit family liveship. Command of her was snatched away from Althea by cruelty and strange turns of fate. Her nephew Wintrow commands her now. Brashen served aboard her for years, as first mate under Althea’s father. This will be bittersweet for both of them.’

  Vivacia rocked gently at anchor in the harbour. Paragon’s sails were slowly gathered in, and when a small flotilla of dories came out to meet us lines were tossed and Paragon surrendered his motion to their command. I paid small attention to any of that. Instead I stared at Vivacia as we drew nearer. She turned her face toward us, and at first it was the look of a woman interrupted in her private musings. Then, as she recognized the ship, a smile dawned on her features. Vivacia held out her arms in welcome, and despite all that had befallen Althea and was yet to come, I heard our captain call a joyous greeting.

  The dories pulled Paragon into position facing Vivacia and his anchor was dropped. A longboat moved out from the docks and came alongside us, and a woman in an extravagant hat and a well-tailored jacket over black breeches called out that she would be pleased to transport the captain and a manifest of our cargo to the Tariff House. Althea called back that she would be pleased to accompany them in a short time; would the tariff officer wish to come aboard and view the cargo, as there were unusual circumstances to be explained?

  The officer was so inclined. But I was distracted from that process by what was taking place on Paragon’s deck. With various shades of reluctance and anger, the crew folk were assembling. Most had brought their ditty bags from belowdecks. The canvas sacks were not large but contained most if not all of each sailor’s possessions. Ant was weeping silently, the tears streaming down her face as she bade farewells. Cord threw her bag near the girl and hunkered down beside her. The look she gave us was hostile.

  I made a decision that surprised me, for I had not even realized I was considering it. ‘Lant, a word with you,’ I said, and led him apart from the others. I leaned on the railing, looking up at Divvytown. He took his place beside me, a slight scowl on his face. I suspected he knew what my topic was, but doubted he knew the direction of the discussion. I waved at the city. ‘It’s not a bad place. It looks clean, with legitimate businesses. And there’s a lot of trade and traffic through here.’

  He nodded, a frown building between his brows.

  ‘You and Spark could do well here. And I’d be grateful if you took Per as well. Take the gifts we were given in Kelsingra. Be careful how you sell them; get full value. There should be enough money to keep you all for some time, and enough to send Per back to Buckkeep.’

  He was silent for a while. When he turned to stare at me, his eyes were flinty. ‘You’ve made some assumptions about me that I don’t care for.’

  ‘Have I?’ I asked him coldly. ‘I see how she follows you about; I see her hand on your arm.’ Then what should have been righteous anger suddenly melted into weariness. ‘Lant, I hope you truly care for her. She isn’t a serving girl to be romped and set aside. Chade chose her. She came with us, and I never expected any of this to happen. I wish she had stayed with him. But she’s here, and I expect you to—’

  ‘You’re insulting me. And her!’

  I stopped talking. Time to listen. The silence ate at him until he filled it.

  ‘We do share an … attraction. I don’t know how you think it could have become more than that on a ship as crowded as this one. And no matter what she feels for me, her loyalty to Amber is greater. She won’t forsake her.’

  I bowed my head to that.

  ‘I doubt you will as easily believe what next I tell you. My father asked a task of me and I said I would do it to my utmost ability. If you cannot accept that I might feel some loyalty to you, then know that I am my father’s son. I may not perform to the level you expect, but I will stay at your side until this thing is done. One way or another.’ His voice suddenly grew thicker. ‘I did not do well with Bee. Not when I tried to teach her, not when you left her in my safekeeping. She was a strange and difficult child. Don’t bristle at me! You must know it’s true. But I should have done better by her, even if protecting her with a blade was never something I expected to do. She was my cousin and a child in my care, and I f
ailed her. Do you not think that I have agonized about that? Going to avenge her is something I have an interest in, beyond any duty to you or my father.’

  ‘The Fool thinks Bee might still be alive.’

  That brought his eyes back to meet mine. I saw pity in them. ‘I know he does. But why?’

  I took a breath. ‘Bee kept a journal of things she dreamed. I’ve read the entries to him and he thinks they have meanings beyond what I understand. He believes Bee had foresight, and that some of her dreams predicted she would survive.’

  His face was still for a moment. Then he shook his head. ‘That’s a cruel hope to dangle in front of you, Fitz. Though were we to find her alive and bring her home, it would lift a great weight of guilt from my shoulders.’ He paused. I could think of nothing to reply to that. Then he went on, ‘I say this as a friend, if you ever consider me so. Fix your course on vengeance, not rescue. There’s no guarantee of the latter. We may not have success with the former either, but I am determined they will know we tried.’

  A friend. My mind snagged on that word and I wondered if I did feel he was a friend. I knew I’d come to rely on him. And now I had to admit that some of the anger I’d felt about his possible involvement with Spark was that I knew I had to release both of them. I asked the worst possible question, thoughtlessly. ‘Then you and Spark are not …?’

  He stared at me. ‘I don’t think you have the right to ask either of us that question. You may not have noticed, but I am a man grown and of noble birth. Not your equal, perhaps, but not your serving man. Nor is Spark a servant to you, or anyone else. She is as free to choose her course as I am.’

  ‘She is under my protection and very young.’

  He shook his head. ‘She is older than she looks, and more experienced in the ways of this world than many a woman twice her age. Certainly she has seen more of the hard side of life than Shun ever did. She’ll make her own decisions, Fitz. And if she wants your protection, she’ll ask for it. But I doubt she’ll ask to be protected from me.’

  I did not think our discussion was over, but he turned and walked away. And when I reluctantly followed him, I found only Per waiting with him. ‘Where are Amber and Spark?’

  ‘Lady Amber went to change her clothing. Althea asked that she accompany them on shore. Spark went to help her. Evidently Althea and Brashen think Amber should be with them when they sit down with Admiral Wintrow Vestrit, to discuss our future. The crew has been offered “shore leave” which is, I think, an invitation for them to jump ship here. Two thirds of them have accepted it.’

  Small boats had already ventured out from the town. Vendors in the little boats below were hawking everything from fresh vegetables to free rides to Auntie Rose’s Ladyhouse. I watched our crew departing, ditty bags on their shoulders as they climbed over the railing and down to the waiting dories. A few were clustered near the foredeck, bidding Paragon farewell. The ship was kind to them but unswerving in his determination. Across the stretch of water that separated us from Vivacia, she watched us expectantly, eyeing every small boat that departed from ours. Ant stood beside Clef, watching her fellows leave. Kitl stayed; Cord left. Twan went
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