Assassins fate, p.39
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       Assassin's Fate, p.39

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

  ship, she suddenly set out at a trot, and I was forced to keep pace with her. It was hard to see where the rowing boat was going for our view was often blocked by tethered ships or large stacks of crates and bales. On we went, and on, with my bare feet protesting both the uneven cobbles and the splintery docks. I tore a nail on my foot and it bled. She darted in front of a team and wagon, dragging me behind her so that I felt the hot breath of the horses when they jerked their heads up and protested, and the angry shout as the teamster called me vile names.

  Finally, we stood on a well-built dock. The sky overhead was wide and blue, sprinkled with screaming gulls. The wind blew past me, stirring my clothes and hair. I reached up and touched it, astonished at how it had grown. Had it been so long since my father and I had sheared our heads for grief at my mother’s death? It seemed but days and it seemed like years.

  Vindeliar and I stood side by side while Dwalia paced up and down, every step a small tug at my chain. As soon as the boat drew near she began shouting, ‘Are you from the Sea Rose? Are you her captain?’

  A finely-dressed man who did not pull an oar but rode grandly beside the wooden crate looked up at her in distaste. His lips curled back as if he could already smell us. The captain stood in his boat, ignoring how it rocked as his men climbed up and made the lines fast. A davit was swung out over the water. After supervising the transfer of the wooden crate to the dock, he climbed the ladder up to the docks, ignoring Dwalia’s frantic queries as if she were but another squawking gull. As if we were of no consequence, he brushed his hands on his black trousers and straightened his dark green jacket. It had two rows of silver buttons down the front, and his cuffs were likewise secured with silver. The shirt he wore beneath his fine jacket was a paler green, and the collar sparkled with jewel studs. He was a handsome fellow, handsome as a jaybird. He took something from his pocket, opened a little pot. He rubbed his finger in something and then smeared it over his lips. All the while, he stared over our heads toward the busy shore as if we did not exist.

  His crewmembers were not so reserved. Their shouts of appalled merriment at the sight of us were impossible to misunderstand in any language. One woman moved behind Dwalia and mocked her stance and face, contorting her features and behaving like a halfwit. An older sailor gave her a rebuking shove, and then dug in his pocket to offer Vindeliar a handful of coppers. Vindeliar looked to Dwalia, and when she simply continued to shout her queries at them, he received the coppers into his cupped hands. With that, the crew was finished with us. They strode away with the rolling gait of experienced hands, laughing among themselves, all save one who sat forlornly in the rowing boat below, evidently consigned to that duty.

  Dwalia screeched curses after them and then spun on Vindeliar, slapping him so hard that some of the coppers jumped out of his hand, bounced on the planks and fell through the cracks into the water below. Heedless of my chain, I managed to secure two of them and clutched them tightly. Somehow, I would find a way to turn them into food. Somehow.

  Vindeliar cringed as Dwalia beat him with her fists and kicked him. He hunkered down into a ball, hiding his head in his arms and giving small cries of pain in response to each of her blows. I seized my chain in both hands, jerked it free of her grip, and lashed her with it twice. She staggered sideways but did not go into the water as I’d hoped. I turned and ran, a length of chain clanking and pinging against the dock planks as I fled.

  I expected it to happen but it still hurt when someone stamped hard on the trailing chain, jerking me to a halt. Sobbing and bruised, hands at my throat, I turned back, ready to attack Dwalia. But it was Vindeliar who had landed on my dragging leash. His cheeks were still reddened from Dwalia’s blows; nonetheless, he had done her will. Dwalia was a puffing step behind him. He looked up at her, pathetically loyal, and held my chain out to her. ‘No!’ I shrieked but she stooped down, seized the chain and snapped it wildly back and forth so that my head lashed with it. I saw flashes of light and fell to the dock. She kicked me twice, panting with fury. ‘Get up!’ she commanded. She was going to kill me. Not at once, but with continued abuse. I knew it with the certainty of a dream. I would die at her hands, and with me would die the future that should have been. I was the future they sought to destroy by capturing and holding the Unexpected Son. I felt half-stunned by the knowledge. Had it been in my mind all that time, finally to be shaken free by Dwalia’s abuse of me? I felt sick with the insight. It was no dream that flashed before my eyes as if I had stared at the sun. It was a future. I had to find the path to that future. I would find it, or I would die trying.

  ‘Get up!’ she repeated. I got to my hands and knees, then staggered to my feet and stood, reeling. Snarling, she shoved her hand down the front of her shirt. Her fist came back up gripping something. Vindeliar quivered, his attention completely focused on her hand. Dwalia beamed at him with cruel power. Slowly she uncurled her fingers until I saw that she held a glass tube that held a cloudy liquid. She shook her head at him slowly. ‘You are weak. So weak. But when a broken shovel is the only tool one has to dig a hole, then one mends it and uses it. So, one last time, I will fill you with strength. One last chance I will give you to redeem yourself. But if you fail me again, in the slightest way, I will make an end of you. No, I will not put it into your hands. Sit down. Tilt your head back and open your mouth.’

  I had never seen anyone obey so quickly. Vindeliar sat upon the dock and leaned back, his eyes closed and his mouth opened wider than I had ever imagined it could. And he sat like that, perfectly still and waiting, while she laboriously pried a glass stopper from the tube and slowly, so slowly, tipped the tube over his mouth. A lumpy liquid, yellowish and yet threaded with silver, drooled slowly from the tube. I felt revulsion at the sight of it, and the smell that reached me was that of vomit. I gagged as it trickled into his mouth and he swallowed it. A moment later, like the lapping of water in a pond when a stone is thrown into it, the wave of his fresh power touched me. Had I thought my father was like a boiling pot with a steam of magic coming from him? What I felt from Vindeliar was not steam but a scalding blast of power. Both body and mind, I curled small against it, going as tight and hard as a nut against that surging current.

  Vindeliar’s eyelids fluttered wildly and his whole body quivered in ecstasy. The trickle of lumpy fluid continued to flow, thick and clotted and disgusting. And as he swallowed and then swallowed again, the battering of his magic against me grew only stronger. I curled tighter and smaller, body and mind. Dwalia gauged what she gave him, righting the tube when there was a perhaps a quarter of the fluid left in it, then stoppered it again.

  I shut my eyes and strove to feel nothing, hear nothing, smell and taste nothing, for any sense I left unguarded might bring him blasting into my mind. For a time, I was nothing. Senseless and without being, I barely existed.

  I could not say how much time passed. But eventually I felt his regard lessened or focused elsewhere and dared to open my senses. I smelled tarry wooden deck and seaweed, and heard the distant mewling of seabirds. And Dwalia’s voice, just as mewling and constant. ‘When the captain returns, he will see us as lordly and respectable. We are people he wants to impress. He will long to please me, ache for my regard. All his crew will see us that way. He will take these coppers as if they were golds. He will be anxious to set sail for Clerres as soon as he possibly can, and will provide for us every comfort that can be offered. Can you do that?’

  My vision swam, but I saw Vindeliar’s beatific smile. ‘I can do that,’ he said dreamily. ‘I can do anything right now.’

  And I feared that he could.

  My fear touched him. He turned toward me and his smile was as unbearably bright as looking at the sun. ‘Bro-ther,’ he drawled out, pleased with himself, as if he spoke to a toddler hiding behind a chair. ‘I see you now!’

  I retreated, smaller and smaller, shell tighter and harder, but he followed me effortlessly. ‘I do not think you can hide from me now!’ he teased me gently. And I
could not. Layer after layer after layer of me he knew, secrets peeling away from me like skin from a blister, getting closer and closer to the raw heart of me. He knew now of how Shun and I had fled, he knew of my day with my father in the town, he knew of the bloody dog and he knew of my quarrel with my tutor.

  It had been so long since Wolf Father had spoken to me, but suddenly I knew what he would tell me. Cornered? Fight.

  I threw my shields aside. ‘No!’ I snarled. ‘It is you who cannot hide from me!’

  Physically, I came to my feet, but that was not how I faced him. How to describe it? He had ventured too close to me. He had pushed in and now suddenly, I enveloped him. I did not know what I did or how I did it. Did I remember doing this once? Did I remember my father doing it, my sister? I wrapped my awareness around him and trapped him. He was too surprised to struggle. I do not think he had ever imagined that someone could do this to him. I pressed hard on him, and suddenly it was like crushing a boiled egg in my hand. His shell broke; it had not been a thick one. I doubt he had ever had to guard his mind against another.

  And I knew him. That knowledge did not come to me in any sequence; it simply was mine. I knew that he had been born with an oddly shaped head, and that was enough for him to be set aside from the others. He was barely a White to their eyes, just a flawed and useless baby, given over to Dwalia, one of several squalling infants born that season who were less than perfect.

  And in knowing what had befallen him, I learned of Dwalia, too. For she had raised him from infancy.

  Once she had been respected, the handmaiden who had served a highly regarded White. She had seen her mistress sent out into the world to do great things. But when the woman failed and fell, Dwalia’s fortune had perished with her. Disgraced and delegated to demeaning tasks, Dwalia became a servant to the midwives and healers of the Clerres. The business of Clerres was the breeding of Whites for the harvesting of their precognizant dreams, and Dwalia had hoped to be entrusted with a promising White of the purest bloodlines. But she was no longer trusted there. Given a set of defective twins to dispose of, she had instead suckled them on a pig and kept them alive, hoping that their imperfect bodies might conceal powerful minds.

  Daily, she reminded them that they owed their lives to her. Denied access to the perfect children given to others to groom and raise, she had only her rejected children to cultivate. And cultivate them she did. Vindeliar recalled peculiar diets, soporific herbs, times when he was not allowed to sleep, times when he was given sleep-inducing concoctions for weeks, to force him to dream. But as Vindeliar and his sister Oddessa had grown, they had shown no extraordinary abilities.

  All this and much that was sadder I knew in an instant. Vindeliar had not been able to dream for her, other than the one pathetic dream he had shared with me. Oddessa dreamed but the images she saw were so formless as to be useless. Yet Dwalia had been merciless in the efforts she made to force her protégés to produce dreams for her. He knew that she had begun to serve as Fellowdy’s assistant at his dissections and inquisition, for he had to tidy after them. But he did not know why Symphe had come to her with a rare elixir made from the fluids of a sea serpent’s body. It was said to give intense and prophetic dreams to any who took it, followed by an agonizing death. This Vindeliar had overheard.

  The first time she administered it to Vindeliar she had chained him to a table. It had burned his tongue and mouth so badly that to this day he could not taste food. Yet the pain had been followed by an intense ecstasy, and an expanding of his thought so that he could share his mind with others. When some nearby prisoners fell, writhing, screaming, holding their mouths, Dwalia realized they felt his pain. And from there, in careful testing, she had discovered that he could make others believe the thoughts he pushed toward them. Those of White heritage were seldom vulnerable to his manipulation. For years, as he developed his ability under her secret tutelage, he had believed Dwalia was immune to it, and had never dared to try it against her. He was never allowed to speak of the elixir. Dwalia insisted to others that he was extraordinary, with the ability to find tiny paths where others believed him and obeyed him.

  So much I learned in that shattering of our walls. My invasion of his mind stunned him. I weighed my strength against his as he struggled to discover what had just befallen him. Then I acted, using the hereditary magic of the Farseers almost by instinct. ‘You cannot master me,’ I told him, pushing the thought at him with every ounce of strength I had. ‘You cannot break my walls.’

  And then, I slammed shut the gates to myself.

  When next I knew I was me, Dwalia was nudging me, not gently, with her foot. ‘Get up,’ she was saying in a falsely kind voice. ‘Get up. It’s time for us to go aboard.’

  The world wavered before my eyes. I saw her sumptuous dress, the spill of lace from the low-cut bosom, the extravagant flowers in her hat. She was young, no older than Shun, and her long black ringlets gleamed with perfumed oil. Her eyes were a rare shade of deep blue, framed with long lashes. Her skin was flawless. Her dapper serving man stood beside her.

  Then I blinked and she was Dwalia with the chewed face and well-worn clothes. Vindeliar was Vindeliar. I wondered how the gathered sailors saw me. I stood reluctantly, my head still whirling. My hunger had become nausea. I contained it with a deep breath. The sailors were not looking at me, so I was a serving girl or slave and not an attractive one. Dwalia received their sidelong glances with a simpering smile. The captain of the Sea Rose had returned and he was speaking to her in rapt tones. He ordered a swing prepared that she should not fuss her skirts, and guided it himself as the davit lowered her to the rowing boat. She looked back up at us. ‘Quickly now! We board our ship and soon we depart for Clerres.’

  I reached my hand to my throat. Vindeliar gave my chain a tug. ‘Quickly now!’ he ordered me in a cold voice. He did not smile. He began to descend the ladder to the small boat. The chain went tight and dragged me to the edge of the dock and toward a future I could not avoid.


  * * *

  Silver Ships and Dragons

  I cannot deny his peculiar looks, but he seems a clever fellow, and I am certain that he is not a danger to me. How you can imagine he is sent by an enemy to kill me surprises me. The note that accompanied the lad said that many rulers now enjoy having a jester to amuse their court and perhaps I would welcome this clever tumbler. His antics are most amusing, and I confess that when his sharp little tongue cut Lord Attery to shreds yesterday evening, I rather enjoyed it, since the man is a pompous boor.

  When first he arrived in his tattered clothing, bearing a sodden scroll gifting him to me with the name of the gifter sogged away, my brother cautioned me, and even suggested I do away with him. Chade spoke quite plainly in the boy’s hearing, for the lad had not spoken a word up to that point, and we had both assumed he either was a deaf-mute or simple. But right away, the lad piped up and said, ‘Dear king, please do not do a thing you cannot undo, until you have considered well what you cannot do once you’ve done it!’ It was a clever thing to say and it won me over. Please, my dear, settle whatever it is in Farrow that you have to do and then come home and be as amused with him as I am. Then you will see that Lady Glade has exaggerated his peculiarities in her letter to you. He is such a scrawny spider of a child; I am sure that when he is better fed he will not look so odd and may gain a bit of colour. I think she dislikes him because he so well imitated her well-fed waddle.

  I so miss you, my Desire, and look forward to your return. Why you must so often be absent from Buckkeep is a mystery and a sorrow to me. We are wed, husband to wife. Why must I retire to a lonely bed every night while you linger in Farrow? You are my queen now, and need no longer trouble yourself with the rule of Farrow.

  Letter from King Shrewd to his second queen, Desire of Farrow.

  It looked more like a family gathering than a convening of people seeking to prevent a disaster. I thought of my own family and realized such gatherings were often
both. Queen Etta’s admiral had boarded while we were occupied with the figurehead. Wintrow Vestrit was already seated at the table, and Althea was brewing tea when we joined them in the stateroom.

  Wintrow Vestrit, chief minister to Queen Etta of the Pirate Islands and Grand Admiral of her fleet, looked so much like Althea that they could have been brother and sister rather than nephew and aunt. They were of a height, and I judged there was less than a score of years between them. He was Malta’s elder brother and Amber had told me some of the brutal history of how he had been captured with Vivacia and forced to serve aboard her under the pirate Kennit. Oddly enough, she had told me that the slave tattoo beside his nose and his missing finger were actually the work of his father. Knowing all this, I had not expected the aura of calm about him nor his subdued garb.

  Boy-O moved swiftly and easily about his parents’ stateroom, reacquainting himself with the familiar territory of his childhood ship. I saw him pick up a mug from a shelf, smile at it, and restore it to its place. He had his father’s height, but his brow and eyes were from the Vestrit side, mirroring Althea’s and Wintrow’s. He was graceful as a cat.

  Wintrow had a grave demeanour, and when Althea served him a steaming cup of rum and lemon mixed with hot water, he took it with muted thanks. I guided Amber to a seat at the captain’s table and joined her there. Lant took his place behind us. My youngsters ranged themselves along the wall and held a subdued silence. When all were served, Althea sat down heavily beside Brashen and heaved a sigh. She met Wintrow’s gaze and said, ‘Now you understand. When I said that our stopping here would change not just your life but hundreds of lives, I don’t think you grasped what I was telling you. I trust that now you do. You have seen the changes in Paragon. Prepare for Vivacia to do the same.’

  He lifted his mug and sipped from it slowly, collecting his thoughts as he did so. When he set it down, he said, ‘It’s something we can’t alter. In situations like this, it is best to accept Sa’s will and try to see what comes of it rather than fighting against the inevitable. So, if Paragon is correct, after this last voyage he will return to the Rain Wilds and be given enough Silver to become two dragons.’ He shook his head and a smile flitted briefly over his face. ‘I’d like to witness that.’

  ‘I think it inevitable that you will witness Vivacia’s transformation. If Amber and Paragon are correct that such a metamorphosis is actually possible.’

  ‘I am virtually certain of it,’ Amber said softly. ‘You have seen how, given a small amount of Silver, he can change his appearance at will. Given a large quantity, he can transform the wizardwood of his body into any shape he desires. And he will desire to be a dragon. Or two.’

  Clef spoke up, and no one seemed to think it was out of place as he asked, ‘But will he be a real dragon, of flesh and blood? Or a wooden dragon?’

  A silence fell around the table as we mulled that over. ‘Time will tell,’ Amber observed. ‘He will be transforming from wizardwood to dragon; not entirely different to a dragon’s body absorbing the wizardwood of its cocoon as it hatches.’

  Boy-O had drawn closer to his parents. He looked from one to the other and then asked, ‘This is real? This can actually happen? It’s not one of Paragon’s wild fancies?’

  ‘It’s real,’ Brashen confirmed.

  His son stared into a future only he could see, one he had never imagined. Then he spoke in a whisper. ‘He has always had the heart of a dragon. I felt it when he held me in his hands and flew me over the water when I was a child …’ His words trickled away. Then he asked, ‘Has he enough wizardwood in his body to make two
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