Assassins fate, p.79
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       Assassin's Fate, p.79

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

  you to the harbour, and few will mark our passage.’

  Lant nodded curtly and we fell in behind him. We pushed our way clear of the brambles into a sheep pasture on a hill above the town. From our vantage I looked down at a town that seemed unaware of any disaster. Wagons creaked through the streets. I saw a ship coming into port. The wind off the water brought me the smell of roasting meat from someone’s kitchen. The wet grasses slapped against me, soaking me and slicing my bare legs as we strode on. Were the fishermen setting out for the day’s work? Did they not know what I had done in the night? How could their lives be so ordinary when my father was dead? How could the whole world not be as broken as I was? I lifted my eyes to Clerres Castle. And there saw thin tendrils of smoke still rising from my handiwork. I smiled. They, at least, would share some of my pain.

  Lant spoke. ‘This is odd. Don’t they see that smoke and wonder what happened there?’ He was silent, brows gathered in thought.

  I moved closer to Beloved and asked him, ‘Where do you think Prilkop went?’

  ‘I truly don’t know,’ he said, and I heard sadness and a fear of betrayal. ‘And we don’t have time to worry about him.’

  I defended him. ‘He’s a good man. He was kind to me. I want to believe he was really my friend.’

  ‘I know that. So do I. But good men can disagree. Severely. Now don’t talk. We need to move quickly and quietly.’

  He led us by a roundabout path, past empty sheep-pens and through a part of the town where vine-covered walls hid gardens and fancy houses. We entered a narrow lane, and trotted past smaller houses and humble cottages. We came to a muddy, rutted road that snaked down to the warehouses. The streets were bereft of people. ‘They’ll be at the entry to the causeway, asking one another what is happening,’ Beloved predicted softly.

  I trotted at Per’s side as the adults stretched their strides. I was barefoot and my wet trousers slapped against my legs. A man pushing a barrow stopped and scowled to watch us pass. But he did not cry out, or point at us or chase us. ‘Run now,’ Beloved commanded us quietly, and we did. We dashed past two old women carrying baskets of vegetables and exclaiming loudly about the rising smoke. An apprentice in a leather apron ran across our path, in too much of a hurry to notice us. We came to the harbour road. I had a terrible stitch in my side, but still we ran. We passed other people, but they were all going in the opposite direction. All bound for the end of the road and the causeway to Clerres Castle as Beloved had predicted.

  Smoke was rising from behind the castle walls, dark against a blue sky. A fleet of small fishing vessels, some with sails and some oared, were visible on the water. They came around the curve of the castle’s promontory, sailing into view as calmly as seabirds.

  The docks rang hollow under our pounding steps. We reached the end. I bent over, gasping, my hands on my knees. ‘Thank Eda and El,’ Lant said in a shaky voice. I took two steps and looked down. Four sailors in a boat, three drowsing in cramped curls in the bottom. But as we clambered down, they woke rapidly and moved to take their places at the oars.

  ‘Where’s Fitz?’ one asked.

  ‘Not coming,’ Lant said tersely.

  The tattooed warrior who had asked nodded sagely and tossed her head in the direction of the island. ‘I figured that for his handiwork when I first saw the flames last night.’ She stared at Beloved’s face then shook her head wordlessly. Her eyes came to rest on me. ‘So you’re the little baggage all this is about?’

  ‘She is,’ Lant said, saving me the trouble of replying. He sounded almost proud of me as he added, ‘And she’s the one who set the fires!’

  The sailor woman tossed me a damp woollen blanket, ‘Well done, sprite! Well done.’ To the other sailors, she said, ‘Pull. I think we want to be well away from here as fast as we can.’

  The increasing light showed two thin trickles of smoke and one fat black one still rising. The outer walls of the keep prevented us from seeing how much damage I’d done. But I smiled to myself, trusting it was enough. There was little for them to rescue. I was certain of that.

  I took a seat next to Per. Spark crouched in the bottom of the boat next to Lant. The warriors bent to their oars. The woman spoke as she pulled. ‘Very late last night, I saw flames. Only for a short time. Some of the folk in town came out of their houses and shouted a bit, but then the city guard turned out and chased them all back in. They shut down the taverns, too. We heard all the shouting. “Go home and stay there.” And like sheep, they all went! We pushed in under the docks and stayed quiet. We thought you’d all come running then, but no. Before dawn, I saw the lights of three boats come around the far side of the island and go to the shore. I thought they would sound an alarm, turn out the guard. But, nothing.’ She shrugged.

  Beloved sat up. ‘Nothing they’d let you see. But there will be something, I fear.’ His face was grim.

  The woman nodded. ‘Lean into it,’ she told her sailors and they rowed faster.

  All four were powerful rowers. They bent to their oars and their muscles bunched and slacked in unison as if they were the muscles of a single powerful creature rather than four separate warriors. There were several large vessels anchored in the harbour. We passed one, and then two, and finally I could see the ship we were bound for. The sails were furled and all seemed quiet aboard it. But I saw a small figure in the crow’s nest stand up, and then silently scamper down the mast. The lookout raised no cry and I suspected that was intentional. As we approached I saw several sailors looking over the railing.

  We came around the side and I saw the figurehead. I could not help it. My father looked down on us, a very slight smile on his face. I burst into tears.

  Per grabbed me and held me tight. His chest rose and fell against my back but he made not a sound. No one spoke to us. I lifted my head to see Spark curled as small as a child. Lant held her, his head bent over her as tears dripped from his chin. The rowers said nothing. Their faces were stern. I looked at Beloved. His face was carved of ice. His scars were gone, but he looked older. Tired beyond tired. Too sad to weep.

  Our crew brought us alongside and caught hold of an unfurling rope ladder. ‘Get aboard now!’ a sailor directed us quietly and then left us to our own devices. Spark clambered up the ladder and then stood at the side, offering a hand to Per and then me. Beloved came behind me, as if to guard me from falling. Lant came last of us, and before he was all the way over the railing, two of our oarsmen were clinging to the ladder. A davit swung over the side and lines were lowered to bring up the boat.

  A sailor glanced over the side and called out softly to someone else, ‘We have them! They’re all aboard!’

  A woman with her hair tied back in a tail hastened up to Lant. ‘All went well then?’ she asked him. Then she scowled. ‘Wait! Fitz isn’t here yet.’

  Lant slowly shook his head and her face grew grave. I couldn’t bear to listen to his telling that my father was dead. And I had another concern.

  I had touched the railing climbing aboard the ship and had felt a deep thrumming of anxiety and awareness. I turned to Per. ‘This ship is not made of wood,’ I told him, unable to explain what I’d felt.

  ‘It’s a liveship,’ he told me hoarsely. ‘Made of a dragon’s cocoon, with the spirit of a dragon trapped in it. The Fool carved his face, a long time ago, to look just like your father.’ He looked around. The Fool was in grave conversation with the woman who had greeted us. Lant and Spark stood by them. It felt as if they had forgotten me.

  ‘Come on,’ Per said quietly, and took my hand.

  ‘He can’t talk to you right now,’ he explained as we threaded our way past and through sailors working a suddenly lively deck. ‘He has to pretend he’s only wood. But you should see him.’

  A woman passed us, talking to a man beside her. ‘We’ll swing him on the anchor and go quietly from the harbour. Not much wind, but enough to get us clear.’

  The closer we drew to the figurehead, the more uneasy I felt. My awareness
of the ship was intense. I raised my walls, and then set them again, and yet again. Per seemed unaware of the ship’s roiling emotions. I tugged him to a stop. ‘This ship is angry,’ I said.

  He regarded me with worry. ‘How do you know?’

  ‘I feel it. Per, he scares me.’

  My anger is not for you. I felt as if my body vibrated to that immense thought. I gripped Per’s hand so tightly he exclaimed in surprise. I heard what they said. They enslaved a serpent and kept it in misery to make a foul potion.

  They did. Vindeliar drank it. Then he could make people do as he said. I was shaking all over. I wanted not to feel his immense anger. My sadness already filled me. There was no room for his fury. I tried to placate him. Per killed him. Per killed Vindeliar, and I killed the woman who gave it to him.

  But my thoughts didn’t quench his anger. Like oil on flames, I’d fed his fury. Death is not enough punishment! He took it, but others made it. Yet avengers come. I do not wish to leave until I see Clerres toppled to rubble. I will not flee like a coward!

  I heard Per gasp. I heard shouts from crewmen but what I felt drove all other sensations away. I fell to the deck as a great emotion rippled through the ship. The deck did not rock and heave; still I clung to the planks fearing that what I felt would be enough to throw me into the sky.

  ‘He’s changing!’ someone shouted, and Per gave a wild, wordless cry. Under my hands, the planks of the deck lost their grain and became scaly. A terrible dizziness whirled through me and heaved my empty stomach. I lifted my head, sick with terror. Where my father’s form had been, two dragon’s heads now wove on long, sinuous necks. The larger one was blue, a smaller one green. The blue one swivelled to look back toward us. His eyes spun, orange and golds and yellows mingling in pools like molten metal. He spoke, his reptilian lips writhing back from white pointed teeth. ‘Per! Avenger of serpents and dragons!’

  I was still on my hands and knees. Per was looking up at the figurehead, his teeth bared in a smile, or a grimace of terror. I heard running footsteps on the deck behind me and Lant abruptly pulled me to my feet.

  ‘There you are! I was so … Bee, come with me. We need to get you out of the way!’

  I bristled, but Per said, ‘I’ll take her to the cabin.’ He pulled me away from Lant, who was gaping at the figureheads, and led me across the deck, dodging running sailors. I let him lead, paying no attention to where we went or how. Disaster was in the air. I wondered if I would ever be safe again. If I would live through the day.

  Per tried to deny it as he opened the door to a small, tidy chamber. ‘We’re going to get away, Bee. Once we are out of the harbour and the sails fill, we’ll be clear. Paragon flies through the waves. No one will be able to catch us.’

  I nodded, but did not feel any relief. The ship’s passions sliced through me like broken pieces of bone in my flesh.

  ‘Just sit here. I wish I could stay, but I have to go help,’ he told me. He backed toward the door, patting the air with both hands as if that would calm me. ‘Just stay here,’ he begged me, and shut the door as he left me there. Alone. I swayed where I sat. I could feel the ship resisting his crew. They wished to flee; he did not.

  It was a small cabin. Untidy, but not dirty. A small window. Two stacked bunks and a single bunk. A woman’s clothing scattered on the floor. An array of items set out on both lower bunks.

  I sat down on the bed, pushing aside a shirt to make room. Buck-blue, my father called this colour. When I moved it, a faint fragrance awoke as three candles tumbled from inside it. Battered candles, impregnated with lint and dust, and cracked. But I knew my mother’s work. Honeysuckle. Lilac. The little violets from our stream that fed the Withy River. I gathered them into my father’s shirt as if I bundled a baby. I held them and rocked. Were they all I had left of my parents? A strange piece of knowledge grew in me. I was an orphan now. They were both gone. Gone forever.

  I had not seen him dead, but I felt him dead in a way I could not define. ‘Wolf Father?’ I said aloud. Nothing. The loss struck me with numbing force. My father was dead. He had journeyed for months to find me, and we’d had less than half a day together. All that was left to me were the things he had carried so far with him, things he had judged necessary. Such as my mother’s candles.

  I looked at what he had brought. I wiped my face on his shirt. He would not have minded that. I moved a pair of weather-stained trousers and saw a familiar belt beneath it. And beside it, my books.

  My books?

  That startled me. My journal of my days and the dream journal of my nights. He’d found them, in my hiding-place behind his study wall, and he’d carried them all those days. Had he read them? The dream journal fell open to the dream of the candles. I looked at the picture I’d painted so long ago, then let my eyes wander to the candles beside me. I understood. I closed that book and picked up my journal. I read a page, then two, and closed it. It wasn’t mine any more. It had been written by someone I had once been, but would never be again. I suddenly understood my father’s compulsion to burn his work. Those daily musings belonged to someone else, someone who was just as gone as my mother and now my father were. I wanted to burn both books, give them the funeral pyre I’d never given my parents. I would cut a lock or two of my hair for that vanished child and the man who had tried to be a good father to her.

  I looked at the other items scattered on the bed beside me. These were his things, I suddenly knew. Little knives and vials; his killing things. Several small pouches. I smiled. I’d killed with less. And he had been proud of me.

  I was terribly tired but the feelings of the ship kept washing against me in unpredictable waves. I knew I needed to sleep, and knew also that I could not. Wolf Father would have told me to rest as best I could.

  I took the bundled candles and clambered onto the upper bunk. I lay down but my head hit the pillow with a thud. I sat up and pushed it aside. Under a nightshirt was a glass container of something. I picked that up; it took both my hands to do so. It was heavy and when I tipped the container the contents shifted, moving lazily, swirling shades of grey and silver, twisting and twining. My heart sped up. I couldn’t look away from it. Something in me knew this stuff, and something in it knew me. Even through the walls of the container, it reached for me and I could not help but reach back.

  As I unwillingly clutched the heavy glass tube, I felt flashes of the same hot madness as when I’d cut my feet in the serpent spit. That power lurked and called, just beyond the glass in my hand. I could seize this power. Open the glass, and drown myself in it, and I could be and do anything. I could be like Vindeliar and force people to believe whatever I wished. With a convulsive shudder, I dropped it back onto the bed. I stared at it, tears forgotten. My father had carried that, had possessed that horrific thing. Why? Had he used it? Had he wanted that sort of power? I wiped my wet face on my father’s shirt. He was gone and I’d never know the answer to that question. I took the candles and threw his shirt over the glass container so I wouldn’t have to look at it.

  I climbed down and sat on the lower bunk. I looked at my dirty feet and legs. I considered my hands, rough with work and dirty with soot. Buckkeep Castle. Would I have a place there? I could hear people running and shouting out on the deck. The motion of the ship had changed. Perhaps our time for stealth was over.

  Then the ship roared—a wordless cry, of fear and outrage.

  ‘FIRE!’ That was a human cry and I sat up, my heart leaping into my throat. I peered out of the little window. Fishing boats surrounded us, but they were not fishing. They were lobbing things at our ship. I heard something break right below the window, the missile shattering as it hit. I peered out, trying to comprehend, and then I saw an archer stand up in one of the other boats. He drew back his bowstring, and another man lifted a flame to his arrow. In a heartbeat, it flew toward us. I could not tell if it struck our ship or not. Then flames leapt up across the little window, obscuring my view. I caromed across the room and flung open the door to
the dim corridor. I heard the crew shouting.

  ‘They’ve chopped our anchor line!’

  ‘Fire destroys liveships! Put it out!’

  ‘Where is Bee?’ Beloved’s voice No one responded.

  ‘Here!’ I cried out.

  ‘Bee! Bee!’ That was Per and he came thundering down the companionway toward me. ‘Ship’s on fire! We need to get you into a boat!’

  ‘And go where?’ I shouted back at him. ‘To shore? Those people will catch me and kill me!’ My premonition had been right. There was no safety on this ship. We had nowhere to flee. Per and I stared at one another. My heart was thundering in my ears.

  A terrible scream, hoarse and deep, rang through the ship. Within the ship. Every plank in the ship screamed and it vibrated up through my bones. Worse was the surge of pain that the ship transmitted to me. Paragon was being burned alive. The pain was not a physical one, but the anguish of a lost chance. An end to his being a ship before he ever had a chance to be a dragon.

  Per reached me, seized my wrist. ‘We’ll decide where to go after you don’t burn to death!’

  I tugged free and turned back toward the cabin. ‘I’m not running. I have a different idea!’

  I clambered onto the top bunk and took up the heavy container. Per stared at me. ‘I know how to use this,’ I told him as it began to whisper its promises to me. I wouldn’t let the Servants take me. I could command them to leap from their boats and drown, and they would do it.

  ‘What are you going to do?’ Per whispered in horror, then barked, ‘Don’t do it! Don’t do anything with that stuff. It will kill you! The Fool put some on his fingers and the Rain Wild folk said it would kill him …’

  I pushed past him, the heavy glass cradled in my arms, and hurried toward the deck. His warnings didn’t apply to me, I was sure. I’d seen what Vindeliar did with the serpent spit. This was different. Stronger and purer. I wasn’t sure how to use it. Did I have to drink it? The Fool had put some on his fingers, Per had said. Did that mean I should put my hands into it? Dump it over my head?

  I reached the short ladder that led to the deck. Before I could go up it, a man dropped from the deck, bending his knees deep to catch himself. He straightened and looked at me, pale-blue eyes in a soot-blackened and flame-seared face. He was a nightmare come to life, with the hair scorched back from his brow. He looked wide-eyed at what I carried and shouted up the hatch, ‘It’s here! She has it!’

  Another man dropped down to crouch beside him. The side of his face was blistered and he carried one arm close to his chest. The flesh of that arm was a ruin of fat blisters and burned shirtsleeve. ‘Girl, I need that. Amber told me about it the night I rowed her into Clerres. It’s for the ship. He needs the Silver.’

  ‘Boy-O!’ Per exclaimed in horror as he dashed up beside me. I clutched the container close to my chest. It was singing to me. Power and strength. It was mine.

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