Assassins fate, p.46
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       Assassin's Fate, p.46

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

  daughter is still alive. That she might be a prisoner there in Clerres.’

  I might have been one of the flies buzzing on the manure pile for all the heed she gave me. The cattle-pen was before us. The lowing, milling cows had caught her scent. They crowded hard against the walls of the corral. She trumpeted, a fierce, hungry sound that conveyed no words to my mind, and charged forward. Luck, not dexterity, saved me from a blow from her whipping tail.

  Then she was upon the poor trapped beasts, trampling them under her great claws and savaging them with her teeth. She seized one in her jaws and flung the bawling animal aloft. Lant snatched at my sleeve and dragged me back as the cow’s broken body landed in the street close to where I had been. Per’s face was a mask of horror and fascination. The guards who had run ahead to clear her way jeered and roared in the way that some men do when faced with carnage. They were closer than I would have chosen to be, caught up in the barbarity of the moment.

  ‘We should leave her to feed,’ I told Lant and Per.

  We turned and started back the way we had come. More than one building had suffered damage from Tintaglia’s lashing tail. We walked around a splintered loading dock. I moved more slowly than I had, still trying to catch my breath.

  ‘Sir, will you tell me what the dragon has been saying?’ Per demanded.

  My throat was parched dry from my hasty jog to the cattle-pen. I kept it short. ‘She says we have her permission to go to Clerres and kill people there. She also plans her own vengeance on Clerres, when she gets there.’

  Per was nodding in a way that he said he didn’t comprehend it at all. ‘Vengeance for what? Why?’ he asked.

  ‘She didn’t share the details. Evidently the Clerres folk once harmed some dragons. She is insulted that IceFyre never punished them for it. She warned me that all of them are her rightful kills, but that she will permit us our own vengeance. If we get there first.’

  ‘Perhaps the black dragon thought that caving in half of Aslevjal was enough vengeance,’ Lant suggested.

  I shook my head. ‘Tintaglia doesn’t agree.’

  ‘But sir!’ Perseverance caught at my arm. ‘What if the dragon arrives before us? Amber says that Bee is there! She could be hurt or killed by them! They do not seem to make much difference between us. Did you warn her that Bee was there, did you tell her she must be careful?’

  ‘I mentioned that to her.’

  Lant shied to one side as Motley swooped down to land on Per’s shoulder.

  ‘Heeby!’ the bird announced. ‘Sparkling Heeby! Come, come, come! Hurry!’ As quickly as she had perched, she lifted from Per’s shoulder and flew back toward the manor house.

  ‘I’d forgotten Heeby was coming,’ I admitted.

  Per muttered, ‘Only you could forget about a dragon.’ In a louder voice he added, ‘Can we hurry?’

  My pride forced me to do just that. A crowd had reformed around the green before the royal mansion. Per pushed through, boldly shouting, ‘Make a path for Prince FitzChivalry! Make a path!’ I was too breathless to object. The pristine green was now as rumpled as a ploughed field. In the middle of the churned earth, Heeby stood. She wore a glorious harness of gleaming red leather and shining brass, topped with a sort of box: a perch for a rider. Hunger and weariness radiated from her like heat from a stove. She was making a sound in her throat as she breathed, as if an immense kettle were about to come to a boil.

  In the portico of the manor, Queen Etta, Kennitsson and Wintrow stood, with Amber and Spark to one side at a respectful distance. A rank of fresh guards, staves at the ready, stood between the queen and her uninvited guest. On a lower step, but so tall he was not looking up at them, clad all in scarlet leather and armour, was an Elderling. ‘Rapskal is here!’ Per exclaimed in a mixture of surprise and dread. The Elderling was gesticulating grandly and as we circled well away from Heeby and approached the manor, I caught his words.

  ‘… and a night and a day, until we came here. We have travelled far, all the way from Kelsingra in the Rain Wilds. My dragon and I bear important tidings for FitzChivalry Farseer. If live meat could be found for her, I would be grateful. Please.’

  I had never heard General Rapskal so courteous, but it seemed that for Heeby he could humble himself and beg. Wintrow leaned closer to Queen Etta and said something softly. She did not look pleased, but issued her command. ‘Bring her three goats. Let her have them here; the green is ruined anyway.’

  ‘And you are wise, Queen Etta, to let her feed at a safe distance from Tintaglia. I am grateful.’ Rapskal looked over his shoulder at his impatient dragon and his face softened with fondness. ‘She is so hungry, and I have asked so much of her, to carry me so far. And we have farther yet to go, all the way to Others’ Island. And then Clerres.’ He saw me then and turned away from Etta, exclaiming, ‘FitzChivalry, there you are! I bring you important tidings!’

  I advanced hastily. ‘Tintaglia has shared them with me already, General Rapskal. I am surprised to see you here.’

  ‘As are we all,’ Queen Etta announced icily. ‘Especially since you have not yet shared with me the reason for this … visit.’ There was no mistaking her displeasure. But just as unnerving to me was how Kennitsson was staring at Heeby. He suddenly stepped down, past the startled guard and even past Rapskal, and walked directly toward her.

  My breath caught in my throat. The dragon was hungry and he was a stranger. But she only twisted her head at him and regarded him with gently whirling eyes.

  ‘Bring this wondrous dragon a tub of water!’ he commanded suddenly. ‘She is parched with thirst! No creature so glorious should suffer such privation! And where are the goats? Should not they be here by now? Bring her one of the brown bullocks as well! She is famished!’ And the idiot approached the hungry dragon, his hand outstretched.

  A murmur of dismay and consternation rose from the gathered crowd. Etta’s mouth hung slightly ajar in breathless fear.

  ‘No!’ Wintrow cried, starting forward. I expected Rapskal to leap forward to save the prince. But although the Elderling was in motion, he was coming across the green toward me. I noticed Sorcor moving swiftly and too late to shadow Kennitsson’s movement. Heeby would eat the prince.

  But Heeby only extended her head until her scaled snout touched Kennitsson’s hand. My breath eased out of me. I wondered if Kennitsson’s display had been true bravery or if he had fallen prey to the dragon’s glamor.

  He lifted his other hand and set it to her face. ‘Lovely one!’ the prince said, and the dragon lowered her head to allow him to scratch her brow.

  A sigh, a murmur of approval from the gathered throng, told me what I had not guessed before: the people of the Pirate Isles adored their prince. I might have seen him as spoiled man-boy, but his flair of elegance and this show of bravado dazzled the crowd. As the goats came blatting around the corner of the manor house, Heeby lifted her head and looked over her shoulder at them.

  ‘Go!’ the prince bade her. ‘Satisfy your hunger, you beauteous thing!’ He stood fearlessly as she spun and leapt. For the second time that day, I watched a dragon make a kill and listened to a roar of approval from the crowd.

  ‘Ware!’ Lant muttered, stepping up beside me, and Per quickly moved to my other flank as Rapskal approached, his hand extended to clasp wrists with me. A wide smile of white teeth looked peculiar in his scarlet-scaled face. I met his hand, but he did not release it after our clasp. Instead he tugged at me as if I had forgotten my manners. ‘Don’t stand there, FitzChivalry! I must present myself to their queen.’ He lifted his voice to cry, ‘Enjoy your meal, Heeby, my glorious one! Prince, thank you for such a kind greeting! Now that my dragon is well tended, I shall convey to FitzChivalry all that he must know.’

  He took my arm and I let him. We advanced together across the dragon-torn turf, Lant and Per close behind us. A bullock bellowed in alarm and I turned to see the poor panicked creature being dragged and chivvied toward the dragon.

  ‘Release it!’ Kennitsson
bellowed, and they did. The cattle-boys barely evaded the dragon’s charge as bullock and predator savaged another half-acre of garden. This bullock was a fighter and his horns had not been removed. He made several attempts to gore Heeby. She sprang into the air and came down on him with all four feet, a cat pouncing on a mouse. His bellow ended in a terrible wet crunch. Per made a sound of dismay but the mob shouted with piratical amusement. Rapskal could not have planned a better entertainment for them than bull-baiting in the queen’s garden. The prince lifted his arms wide overhead in triumph and shouted, ‘Fear her not, my people! This scarlet beauty has come in friendship!’

  The crowd’s resounding approval was deafening.

  Queen Etta and her party had retreated slightly from the steps, but Wintrow had remained on the portico and was gesturing to us to join them. Rapskal and I reached the wide white steps and ascended them to where Queen Etta stood transfixed by her son’s spectacle. I heard her whisper softly, ‘He has his father’s gift for winning hearts. This is good.’

  We climbed more steps to where a stiffly smiling Wintrow posed. Amber and Spark awaited us there, faces frozen in uncertainty.

  ‘What is this about?’ he demanded in a low voice while greeting me in apparently affable fashion. ‘What chaos have you brought to our doorstep, FitzChivalry? A mad ship, stealing our prince for your mission of vengeance and now dragons on our green?’

  Etta kept her eyes on her son. ‘Stand down, Wintrow. We appear to be establishing diplomatic relations with the Rain Wilds.’ She gave Wintrow a sideways glance. ‘I think the prince who befriends dragons may deserve a bride that comes with a larger dowry.’ She lifted her hand from her sword hilt and turned her smile toward Rapskal. There was a lilt of amusement in her voice. ‘Greetings. I am Queen Etta of the Pirate Isles. This is my chief minister and admiral, Wintrow Vestrit.’

  ‘Names well known to me.’ Rapskal offered them a bow. ‘I am General Rapskal of the Dragon Traders of Kelsingra. No diplomat, I fear, most gracious queen, but a loyal messenger for the dragons.’ He still had a firm hold on my arm and he patted it fondly. ‘When Prince FitzChivalry visited us, he wished to know if the history of the dragons intersected with that of the Servants of the pale folk. We have obtained that information from IceFyre, and it is of great importance that he know that his vengeance may align with ours, but does not supersede it.’ He turned to me and added, ‘I assure you that I can convey the information much more concisely than Tintaglia, and without her impatience.’

  ‘How comforting,’ I replied, and to my surprise, that won a soft chuckle from Queen Etta.

  ‘Doubtless you can then tell me, swiftly and clearly, what an invasion of dragons has to do with this man’s mission to rescue his daughter.’

  ‘A coincidence of fate!’ Rapskal assured her. ‘But I beg you, may I have food and drink before I begin my telling?’

  Wintrow chose a smile. ‘Please, enter. I’ll be with you shortly. I must issue a few orders to the guards. Few of them are familiar with dragons. But I’ve had enough interactions with them to know that careless words or deeds can bring death.’

  ‘Ask my son to attend me,’ Etta directed him.

  ‘Oh, he will not wish to leave Heeby,’ Rapskal informed her familiarly and fondly. ‘I saw the look on his face and sensed her approval of him. He will stay by her while she is feeding, and possibly while she sleeps as well.’

  Wintrow was nodding. ‘Likely it will be as he says. They are enamoured of one another. She had much the same effect on my brother Selden. She will be unlikely to harm him. And the citizens are taking great pleasure in watching their prince befriend a dragon.’ The queen’s expression did not change. ‘Nonetheless, I will invite him.’ Wintrow assured her and left us. Rapskal hooked his arm firmly through mine, a gesture I thoroughly disliked. We followed Queen Etta. I did not like how her guard closed in around us but I held my tongue. As it was with dragons, so it is with queens. A careless word or deed could have severe consequences.

  Inside the royal mansion, it was cooler and dimmer. Everywhere I looked, a history of pirate looting prevailed in tapestries and statuary, exotic draperies and foreign treasures. There was a remarkable lack of formality as the queen herself guided us to a sitting room. ‘Find food and drink,’ she commanded one of her servants.

  ‘Oh, I would be so grateful for that,’ Rapskal responded. He turned his attention back to me. ‘Heeby could not keep pace with Tintaglia, try as she might. We knew Tintaglia would not wait for us. Our errand is urgent, with little time to spare, even to give this message.’

  The queen had taken her seat at the head of a very long table. There were more than enough chairs for all of us. I manoeuvred Rapskal so that he sat at Etta’s left hand and took a chair next to him, leaving a place for Amber beside me. Lant took the next place and after some uncertainty, Spark and Per took chairs. They exchanged a look; seated at a pirate queen’s table!

  Queen Etta let her gaze rove over all of us. ‘Welcome to my home,’ she said.

  The sarcasm in her greeting was wasted on the Elderling.

  ‘You are so gracious,’ Rapskal replied artlessly. ‘And far more beautiful than I expected! Oh, and here is the refreshment you sent for. I am so parched and so hungry.’ As soon as the serving woman had filled his glass, he lifted it and drank deeply.

  For a moment, she stared at him. I waited for her to rebuke him for his ill manners. Instead she suddenly leaned back on one arm of her chair. I saw the pirate who had become a queen as she said, ‘And you are much more forthright and simple than I expected an envoy to be.’

  ‘Yes, I am that,’ he agreed happily as he held out his glass to be refilled. ‘But scarcely an envoy. General I might be, and master of Kelsingra’s forces when I am there, but on this errand I serve my dragon, and indeed all dragonkind! I shall be sure that all dragons of Kelsingra hear of your hospitality!’

  ‘How kind of you! Should I be glad of that? Or terrified?’ She sent her gaze around the table, and then laughed aloud, apparently finding Rapskal more amusing than offensive. Wintrow entered and took a place at the queen’s right hand. ‘And my son?’ she asked of him.

  ‘He is passing the time with the red dragon and has sent for three more cows.’ Wintrow looked at me and added, ‘Your crow has joined them.’

  ‘She enjoys the company of the red dragon,’ I offered. Questions and concerns boiled inside me, but this was the queen’s table.

  ‘So. My son sails with you, to rescue your daughter. And somehow this exposes him to the company of dragons?’ Queen Etta stared at me but it was Rapskal who responded. He had cleared his plate of food and was watching alertly the servant approach with a platter of sliced meat.

  ‘Let me make all clear for everyone. We have come to tell FitzChivalry and Lady Amber that the dragons approve and allow their mission of vengeance. Indeed, once our errand is done, we shall follow them to Clerres to finish whatever destruction they have begun. We intend to level the city and raze the surrounding countryside.’ He took a long draught of his wine, apparently unaware of Queen Etta’s wide-eyed expression.

  He set his glass down with a heavy sigh. ‘FitzChivalry is not the only one who has been wronged by these Servants. Far more grievous is our injury from them! In league with the Abominations, they have ransacked the nesting beach, stealing dragon eggs, and killing or imprisoning the hatchling serpents! Tomorrow we fly swiftly on to Others’ Island to protect the eggs buried there until the summer hatching season. Tintaglia shall stand guard over the nests and shepherd the hatchling serpents as they make their way to the sea while Heeby and I hunt down and kill the Abominations who infest that place.’

  ‘Abominations?’ Amber asked softly. She had kept silent and watchful until that moment.

  ‘So we name them. They occur when a dragon who has been too long among humans lays her eggs, and they do not hatch into serpents, but something neither serpent nor human nor Elderling. Grotesque and evil creatures. We will slaughter them. IceFy
re alone knew how they had wronged us! How they dug the eggs from the nest mounds or preyed upon the young serpents as they tried to make their way to the sea! Some they killed, to devour or to sell their bodies to the Servants of the Whites! Or worse, imprisoned them for decades, harvesting the secretions of their bodies for potions and medicines!’ His scaled lips curled in disgust. ‘The Abominations consume those secretions; they claim it aids them to foretell the future and remember distant pasts!’

  Wintrow set down his glass with a sharp sound on the table. ‘Etta,’ he said in a low voice. ‘We’ve been there. On the Treasure Beach. Those creatures. The serpent I freed …’

  ‘I recall that,’ she said faintly.

  Wintrow spoke to Rapskal. ‘Kennit took me there to see what the Others might predict for me. He had been there before, I believe. With Igrot. There was a tradition, that if you found something washed up on the Treasure Beach and surrendered it to the creatures that lived there, they would foretell your future. But I found no treasure. Only an immense serpent, held captive in a caged pool. The higher tides would replenish the water around it, but the creature was stunted and twisted from living in such a small space. It spoke to me … I managed to free it. Though its passing touch took the skin from my flesh, and I nearly drowned for my efforts.’

  ‘I recall that,’ Etta said. ‘Sorcor, too, spoke of a previous visit Kennit made there.’ A faint smile touched her lips. ‘He destroyed what he found rather than surrender it to the creature there.’

  ‘That was Kennit,’ Wintrow agreed, and I could not tell if there was fondness or dismay in his voice.

  For a moment, a strange silence held.

  ‘Heroic!’ Rapskal exclaimed. His fist thudded the table, making us all jump and his eyes shone with tears. ‘I will share this tale with Heeby, and with all dragons!’ For a moment, he was silent and staring.

  Wintrow and Etta exchanged a look. Was I the only one who sensed a flow of communication between him and his dragon? Then, from the direction of the docks, I heard Tintaglia’s trumpeting.

  Rapskal stood abruptly and suddenly stripped the rings from his fingers. He clacked the cluster of jewellery on the table and pushed them toward Wintrow. There were tears in his eyes. ‘A small gift of Elderling jewellery, insufficient for the man who freed a serpent from the slavery of the Abominations! The gratitude of dragons is a rare commodity! You have the gratitude of all Elderlings as well.’ He turned his gaze to Etta. ‘And Heeby tells me you send your son to accompany FitzChivalry, to aid in taking this vengeance? Heeby is pleased. She wraps him in her highest regard. She promises that when she reaches Clerres, we shall find him!’ He lifted his voice to a shout. ‘He will ride upon her back to smite them!’

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