Assassins fate, p.50
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       Assassin's Fate, p.50

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

  Somewhere upon those waters, another ship moved, toward Clerres, with my daughter aboard. Before us? Behind us? I had no way of knowing.


  * * *

  The Butterfly Cloak

  Wasps sting when their nest is threatened. I went to fetch a clay flowerpot for my mother. I took one from the top of the stack, not knowing that wasps had built a nest between it and the one below. They rushed out in a horde and chased me as I fled. They stung me over and over and the pain was like fire eating into my flesh. They are not like bees, who must weigh an attack against their own lives. Wasps are more like men, able to kill again and again, and still go on living. My cheek and neck were swollen, and my hand was a shapeless lump with sausage fingers. My mother put the sap of ferns and cool mud on the stings. And then took oil and a flame and killed them all, burning their nest and their unhatched children in vengeance for what they had done to her daughter. This was before I could speak clearly. I was astonished at her hatred of them; truly I had not known my mother capable of such cold anger. When I stared at her, as the nest burned, she nodded to me. ‘While I live, no one shall hurt you and go unpunished for it.’ I knew then I must be careful of what I told her about the other children. My father may once have been an assassin. My mother remained one.

  Bee Farseer’s journal

  There are so many songs about sailing off the edge of the world. Some say one goes over an immense waterfall and reaches a land of gentle and wise people and strange animals. In other tales, the sailors reach a land of intelligent talking animals who find humans disgusting and rather stupid. The one I liked best was the tale of sailing off all known charts and finding a place where you are still a child, and you can speak with the child and warn him to make better choices. But on this voyage, I had begun to feel that when one sailed off the edge of the world, one entered a realm of endless work and boredom and the same watery horizon every day.

  The reality of sailing off the edge of all known charts was that one man’s unknown territory was another man’s pond. Paragon asserted that he had been to Clerres and the adjacent islands when he was Igrot’s ship, and that even Kennit had been there as a boy. Igrot had been obsessed with fortune-tellers and omens, a trait that some stories said had been passed on to Kennit. The crew we had taken on in Divvytown included a competent navigator. She had never sailed to Clerres, but had a chart from her grandfather. She was a seasoned deckhand, and as the trade routes familiar to Althea and Brashen were lost in the distance, she spent most of her time with them. Nightly they consulted the stars and she called a course to Paragon and most nights he confirmed it.

  The slow days melted one into another. There were minor diversions. One day when there was no wind to speak of Clef brought out a pipe and whistled us up a wind. If it was magic it was a kind that I could not feel and had never seen before. I pretended it was coincidence. Per got a splinter in his foot and it became infected. Althea helped me draw it out and treated it with two herbs I didn’t know. He was given a day to rest. Motley had become an accepted member of the crew. Any moment when she was not with Amber, she spent with Paragon. She rode on the figurehead’s shoulder or even on top of his head. When the winds were good and he cut through the waves, she flew before him.

  The sad thing about boredom is that one only learns to value it when it is exploded by a disaster, or the threat of one. I witnessed the changing relationships among our crewmembers from a distance, watching the tensions that any long voyage or campaign brings. I hoped to see those interior storms break apart and pass us by, yet one afternoon, as I worked alongside Lant mending a sail, he said to me the words I had dreaded. ‘Kennitsson likes Spark. And he likes her too much.’

  ‘I’ve noticed that he likes her.’ In truth, I’d noticed that almost all the crew liked her. Ant had regarded her as a rival at first, and Brashen had shouted at the girl more than once for being reckless in her efforts to show herself the better sailor. But that competition had dissolved into a solid friendship. Spark was lively, friendly, capable and hard-working. She wore her dark curly hair in a thick unruly braid now and her bare feet were callused from racing down the deck and up the rigging. The sun had baked her as dark as polished wood, and the work had muscled her arms. She glowed with health and good fellowship. And Kennitsson’s eyes followed her as she worked, and he almost always managed to sit across from her at the galley table.

  ‘Everyone’s noticed it,’ Lant replied darkly.

  ‘And that’s a problem?’

  ‘It isn’t. Yet.’

  ‘But you think it will be?’

  He gave me an incredulous look. ‘Don’t you? He’s a prince, accustomed to getting anything he wants. And he’s the son of a rapist.’

  ‘He isn’t his father,’ I said quietly, but could not deny the lurch of anxiety his words woke in me. I asked the next question carefully. ‘Is Spark worried by it? Did she ask you for protection?’

  He paused before he answered. ‘No, not yet. I don’t think she sees the danger. But I don’t want to wait for something bad to happen.’

  ‘So are you asking me to intervene?’

  He jabbed his needle through the heavy, folded canvas. ‘No. I just want you to know before something happens. So maybe you would back me, if it comes to that.’

  ‘It won’t come to that,’ I said quietly.

  He turned to look at me, wide-eyed.

  ‘If you are wise, you will do nothing until Spark asks for your protection. She isn’t the sort of girl who runs and hides behind a man. If there’s a difficulty, she should be able to handle it. And I think the quickest way for you to make her angry would be to interfere before she’s asked for any help. If you want, I’ll speak to the captains about it. This is their ship to keep order on. I know you have feelings for Spark, but—’

  ‘Enough. I’ll do as you suggest.’ He bit the words off and then began sewing with some ferocity.

  For the rest of that day I watched Spark and Kennitsson. There was no denying he was aware of her, and that she possibly enjoyed it. I did not see her flirting with him, but she laughed at his jokes. And I could see how Lant, constrained by both honour and duty, might chafe to see it. It made me both weary and envious of their youth. How many years had it been since I had felt the stabs of jealousy and the painful doubts of loving someone I could not claim? It was both a relief to be free of such turmoil, and a reminder of the years that I carried on my shoulders.

  I teetered on the edge of interfering. I tried to decide if I should have a private conversation with Spark, but feared that would seem more like a rebuke to her. And if I spoke to Prince Kennitsson, I wondered how he would react. If his attention was but a friendly flirtation, I’d feel like a meddling fool. And if he had genuine feelings for Spark, I imagined he would react as I had when Lady Patience had tried to warn me away from Molly. The situation was complicated even more by my growing friendship with the young man. His pride still made him prickly, but it was evident that he was doing his best to become a solid sailor. He had become more adept at scrubbing out his own garments and generally tending to the tasks that servants had performed for him since his birth, though he was still uncertain of whether the crew was mocking him or joking with him when someone included him in a jest. His pride was a high wall for him to batter through, but he was trying.

  More than once now I had slipped the butterfly cloak from its storage and ghosted the deck beneath it. On a ship where there was precious little privacy, it gave me a tiny hidden space when I could sit where no one would tread on me and be ignored by all. My lengthy time as Chade’s spy had eroded forever all guilt I might feel at being a party to other people’s conversations, but I did not deliberately seek them out on the ship. Ant’s close friendship with our Divvytown navigator was certainly not my business, nor did I attempt to hear the morose conversations between Althea and Brashen on the aft deck.

  On the evening when I found my usual quiet place occupied by two of the Divvytown sailor
s having a smoke, I drifted forward soundlessly toward the foredeck. I halted what I hoped was a safe distance away and felt mild alarm to see Kennitsson stretched full length on the deck. I took two more cautious steps and could see that his eyes were closed, but his chest was rising and falling in the slow and steady rhythm of someone in a deep sleep.

  Paragon spoke as softly as a parent by a sleeping child’s bed. ‘I know you’re there.’

  ‘I supposed you might,’ I said as softly.

  ‘Come closer. I’d like to talk to you.’

  ‘Thank you, but I think I’d best talk to you from here.’

  ‘As you wish.’

  I nodded silently. I hunkered down on the deck, my back to his railing, leaned my head back and looked up at the stars.

  ‘What?’ the ship demanded. He had crossed his arms and was looking over his shoulder at me.

  His face was so like mine as it had been in those years that I wasn’t sure if I were talking to him or myself. ‘Once, a long time ago, I tried to walk away from everything. From my family, from my duty. For a time, it seemed to make me happy. But it didn’t, really.’

  ‘You are referring to me restoring myself. To becoming the two dragons who have been trapped in this wood for six of your generations.’


  ‘You think I will be unhappy?’

  ‘I don’t know. I just think that you might want to reconsider. You have a family. You are loved. You are—’

  ‘I am trapped.’

  ‘I was, too. But—’

  ‘I do not intend to remain a ship. Save your breath, human.’ After a moment, he added, ‘You may resemble me, but I am not you. My circumstances are completely different. And I did not ask to awaken to this servitude.’

  I thought of saying that I’d never desired the role my family had demanded of me. Then I wondered if I had. I watched Kennitsson’s chest rise and fall slowly. Very slowly. I started to go down on one knee beside him but the ship spoke. ‘He’s fine. Don’t wake him.’

  The small charm engraved with his father’s profile lay in the hollow of his neck, the fine silver chain pressed firmly against his flesh. I thought of how much I’d dislike having anything that snug around my throat.

  ‘It doesn’t bother him,’ Paragon told me.

  ‘Can it speak to him?’

  ‘Why do you care? It’s nothing to do with you.’

  ‘It might be.’ Tread carefully, Fitz. I tried to wonder if discussing it with the ship were less volatile than bringing it up to Althea. I drew a careful breath. ‘There is a young woman on your deck named Spark. She is under my protection.’

  The ship gave a snort of disdain. ‘I know her. She pleases me. And she scarcely needs your protection.’

  ‘She’s very capable, but I don’t wish to see her forced into circumstances where she has to defend herself. If it came to that, I don’t think it would go well for Kennitsson.’

  ‘What are you implying?’ the ship demanded and I felt the sudden press of his mind against my defences. I thickened my walls, too late. The ship’s upper lip lifted in what was almost a wolfish snarl. ‘You think so little of him?’

  ‘I’ve never heard anyone deny what his father did to Althea. And the wizardwood charm he wears is filled with his father’s thoughts. Why should I not be concerned?’

  ‘Because he is not his father! He does not carry his father’s memories.’ The ship paused and added ominously, ‘I carry them. I took them so that no one else would have to bear them.’

  And then I was thrown face down on the rough wood of the deck. The skin was torn from my palms and knees by the impact. I tried to rise but a man’s weight was suddenly on my back, his thick forearm like a bar of iron against my throat. I struggled to rise but he was bigger than me, and heavier. His beard rasped against the side of my face and his voice was a growl as he said, ‘Such a tender little bit of manflesh you are. Buck as you will; I’ll tame you. I relish a lively ride.’ A hand gripped the hair on top of my head and pressed my face down against the wood. I tried to seize his arm and take it away from my throat, but the thick embroidered sleeves of his shirt slipped and slid in my grasp.

  I tried to scream but I could not get any air. I braced my palms on the deck and tried to throw his body off mine. I heard another man laugh as the man on top of me pressed himself against me. As the forearm across my windpipe cut off all air and sparks floated in darkness before my eyes, I felt with horror what he intended for me.

  I snapped back to awareness of myself as Fitz. I dropped my hands from gripping at a forearm that didn’t exist. I was panting with a boy’s fear and outrage. I staggered to my feet. I was furious and affronted and full of a black fear I could not vanquish. Never again! I vowed and then became completely myself. Not my pain. Not my fury and shame.

  ‘Kennitsson knows nothing of that,’ the ship went on softly, as if the storm of memories had never been. ‘Don’t leave, Buckman. Stay where you are, and I’ll share a bit more of Kennit’s youth with you. I’ve plenty of that. Plenty of hours of him crawling, torn and bleeding, to where Igrot could not reach him. Nights of fever wracking his body, days when his eyes were swollen to slits from the beatings. Let me share with you some of my wonderful family memories.’

  I felt sickened but it only increased my outrage. ‘If he … if that was done to him, how could he bear to pass it on? How could he stand to become the same sort of monster?’

  ‘Interesting that another human does not understand it any more than I do. Perhaps it was his only way to be rid of it. To not be the victim by becoming the … victor? You cannot imagine the ways he fought the monsters that assailed his dreams. How he struggled to become everything that Igrot was not. Igrot pretended the finesse of a gentleman, sometimes. It was a façade and I’ve no idea where it came from.

  ‘The things he forced that boy to do and be, Kennit never understood. To dress as a fine little man in a lace shirt and serve Igrot at table, just so the pirate could later batter him and rip the garments from his body. Kennit was the one who took a hatchet to my face. Did you know that? I held him in my hands as he did it. Igrot laughed as he chopped my eyes away. It was our bargain. Kennit would blind me and Igrot would not rape him again. But Igrot never kept his word to anyone about anything. But we did. Oh, how we kept the promises we made in the dark and bloody nights!’

  I heard the ship grind his teeth together. The wave of emotions that assailed me made my heart thunder and my breath come short. I wondered that Althea and Brashen did not come running. The ship spoke to my thought.

  ‘Oh, they guess and suspect, but they do not know all that happened on my decks. Neither are they privy to our conversation now. All those years, with my body trapped as a ship and my mind trapped as a battered boy! Until the day we killed them. He poisoned them all, with chips of my face ground and mixed into their soup. And when they were all sickened, all grovelling and clasping their bellies and too weak to stand, Kennit finished them. With the same hatchet he’d used to take my eyes, he took their lives, one by one and their blood and memories soaked into my decks. Every man who had watched him shamed and humiliated felt that hatchet. And Igrot, last of all. So lovingly he dismembered him.

  ‘So I have all those memories, too, Buckman.’ He stopped speaking for a time. He turned his back to me and stared out over the water. ‘Can you imagine, human? To have a young creature you love endure such things as you stand helplessly by? Unable to kill his tormentor without killing him? Over and over, I took his memories. Twice, I took his death, and held him safe until he could bear to return to his body again. I could dim those memories for him but I could not erase them.’

  His voice became oddly distant as if he spoke of events that had happened a hundred years ago. ‘Kennit could not bear to keep those memories. He would have had to kill himself. So he killed me instead. We agreed to it. I no more wanted to live with those memories than he did. We killed them all, one by one, and Igrot last of all. Then Kennit gathered a f
ine share of the loot that was then on board, scuttled me and watched from the ship’s boat as I listed and took on water and finally capsized and sank.

  ‘I tried to die. I thought I would die. But I do not need air and I do not need food. I hung there, upside-down under the water. The waves pushed me about, and then a current caught me. And when I realized it was bearing me home, back to Bingtown, I let it. And so eventually they found me, hull up, in the mouth of Bingtown Harbour, a hazard to navigation. They dragged me in to a beach and pulled me up out of reach of the tides and chained me there. The mad ship. The pariah. And there Brashen Trell and Amber and Althea found me.’

  There were stars in the clear night sky above us, and he cut smoothly through the waves, propelled by a light but constant wind. We could have been the only two living things in the world. The young man stretched on the deck had not moved and I wondered if Paragon held him under, immersed in sleep. I wondered how much of this tale he would share with Kennitsson, and why he had shared it with me.

  ‘I will give him none of it,’ the ship told me. ‘When I go as dragons, it will all go with me.’

  ‘Do you think the human memories will vanish when you become your dragons?’

  ‘No.’ He spoke with certainty. ‘The memories of dragons and the recall of the serpents that go between the egg and the dragon are what makes us whole. We forget nothing, not if we are properly cased and hatched. I will shake off this ship’s body and the shape of your flesh, but always I will carry with me the horror of what humans can do to one another for amusement.’

  I found I had little to say to that. I looked down on the sleeping young man. ‘So he will never know what his father went through?’

  ‘He knows enough of it. What little Etta and Wintrow and Sorcor knew, he knows. He need not bear the actual memories. Why should he know more of it than that?’

  ‘To understand what his father did?’

  ‘Oh. Does knowing what the child Kennit endured make you understand what the man Kennit did?’

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