Assassins fate, p.88
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       Assassin's Fate, p.88

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

  of a sling and that rock struck hard on my chest. I lifted an arm to cover my face but a rock struck me in the mouth with a sharp crack! I tasted blood and my ears rang.

  Cowards! Nighteyes snarled inside me. Kill them all!

  When Nighteyes had been alive, our Wit-bond had been so close that I often felt I was as much wolf as human. His body had died but something of him had lived on inside me, all those years. Part of me and not part of me.

  And from my earliest time of trying to master the Skill-magic, my beast-magic—my Wit—had been tangled with it. Galen had sought to beat it out of me, and others who had tried to instruct me in the Wit or the Skill had decried that I could not seem to separate the two. When Nighteyes, infuriated by my pain, struck out with the Wit, my Silver Skill rode with it.

  I had a glimpse of the woman, moving from a broken wall to a thicket of brambles. I fixed my attention on her. ‘Die,’ I said quietly, and she was the first to fall. She dropped suddenly and limply as if stunned, but my Wit told me she was gone. Heart stilled, breath stopped.

  Foolishly or loyally, perhaps both, two of her male companions ran to her. After all, why not break cover? A cowering, cornered man was no threat. I lifted a shaking Silver hand. I pointed at one. ‘Die,’ I told him, and as his fellow stood in consternation, ‘Die,’ I suggested, and he did.

  So easy. Too easy.

  ‘He did it!’ someone shouted. ‘I don’t know how, but he’s dropping them! Saha, Bar, get up! Are you hurt?’ One of them ventured from cover, a scrawny youth with dark, ragged hair. His eyes were on me as he sidled toward the bodies.

  ‘They’re dead,’ I said.

  I hoped he would run. I hoped even more he would fight.

  A woman, cautious as a doe, rose and stepped from the tall grass. She was lovely, her loose dark hair curling to her shoulders. ‘Saha?’ she said, and all laughter had fled from her uncertain voice.

  ‘He killed them!’ her companion cried, his voice rising to a shriek. He charged at me, and she screamed as she copied him. I moved my silvered hand across their path.

  They dropped just as surely as if my axe had lopped off their heads. They fell, and my Wit immediately told me they were gone. Never had I used my magic in such a way; never had it been strong enough. This was like when I had first tried to learn to Skill and my ability had been wildly erratic. In fear and anger I’d thrown death at people I had not even clearly seen.

  I did not know we could do that. Within me, Nighteyes seemed cowed by what had happened.

  Nor did I. Had I felt shamed by bending the minds of the Dancer’s crew? Now I felt numbed with shock—the same calmness I’d seen in a man with a leg lopped off. I spat the blood from my mouth and touched my teeth. Two were loosened. My enemies were dead and I was alive. I pushed remorse away.

  I looted the bodies. One of the youths had sandals that would fit me. The pretty woman had a cloak. I took their coins. A wineskin, a knife. One woman had a little paper pouch full of gummy, mint-flavoured sweets. I gobbled those down and followed them with the cheap wine. I looked aside as Motley took bits of flesh from them. How was it different from my looting? They were dead and she took what was useful to her.

  Night thickened and the moon rose. The memory of mayhem in the now-ruined streets rose in volume. Motley huddled on my shoulder. Were the folk who had slaughtered the Elderlings the ancestors of those who now lived in the pathetic town below? Was this lingering horror and hatred a terrible unplanned punishment that fell on children who had no knowledge of what their forebears had done? Did the dark humours of this place taint the younger generations of those killers?

  I found the Skill-pillars by following the phantom carnage backwards. I waded through ephemeral corpses and shrieking spectres until I came to a place where the ghostly Elderlings milled like sheep surrounded by wolves. They had emerged from the Skill-pillar, seen the slaughter and tried to flee back to dubious safety. At the vortex of that maddened flight, I found the pillar.

  It was as the Fool had said. Someone had put a great deal of effort into trying to pull it down. It leaned low, and the full moon above glinted on its scratched upper side. The outer faces of the pillar had been scored with scratches, and there was a strong stench of urine and faeces. After all the years, there was still a hatred so strong that it was expressed in this puerile way?

  Humans piss when they are scared.

  Tall grass surrounded the fallen monument. Ghostly Elderlings were emerging from it, clutching children or carrying an armful of belongings. I dropped to my knees and pushed my way through coarse grass and tangling bindweed. I wished I’d had the map Chade had given me, of all the known pillars and their destinations. No matter. Gone was gone, and I hope the bear had enjoyed eating it. The Fool had said they had emerged from the downward-facing plane of the Skill-pillar. All I had to do was go back the way he had come. I peered through vegetation into the black space under the leaning stone. Motley clung to my cloak and shirt collar, leaving scratches on my neck.

  Are you ready?

  I am never ready for this. Just do it.

  ‘Home. Home now.’

  Very well. I pushed brambles aside, wincing as the thorns tore my palm. I’d have to crawl to get under the pillar. A moment of the stupidity that weariness brings was all it took. I braced my hand, my Silver hand, on the face of the pillar nearest me, preparatory to crawling under it. It seized me and I had a glimpse of a spoiled rune I did not recognize. Motley gave a terrified caw, and we were pulled into the stone.

  FORTY-THREE

  * * *

  Bingtown

  To Skillmistress Nettle from Apprentice Carryl:

  As you demanded, I confess my fault on this paper, and offer also my explanation. It is not an excuse, but it is a reason why I disobeyed the Journeyman Shers who was supervising me on our visit to Aslevjal. I was aware of our assignment. We were to gather Skill-cubes, note where they had been found, and bring them back to Buckkeep Castle for reading, classification and storage. Shers was most clear in telling me I must stay with the others and touch nothing that did not pertain to our task.

  Yet I had heard tales of the map-room of Aslevjal. My desire to see it outweighed my sense of duty to obey. While unobserved, I left my coterie and sought the map-room and discovered it was as wondrous as the accounts had said. I lingered longer than I intended, and instead of returning to where we had been gathering the cubes, I went directly to the pillar that had transported us there.

  This is the most important part of my tale, even if it does not excuse my disobedience at all. The others were not yet at the pillar. I was weary, for my bag of gathered cubes was heavy. I sat down with my back to the wall. I do not know if I dozed or was simply taken by the memories in the room. I began to see Elderlings coming and going from the pillar. Some were grandly dressed, and some walked through as simply as if strolling through a garden. But after a time, it struck me that Elderlings either emerged from or entered a facet of the pillar. There was no face where Elderlings both entered and exited.

  I believe that we should carefully study the runes on each pillar face, for I believe that some of the issues of time lost or great weakness may be the result of us using the Skill-pillars to travel backwards, counter to their intended use. When it came time to return to the Witness Stones, I felt great trepidation. I attribute our day’s delay to entering a facet of the pillar that I saw Elderling shadows only emerge from.

  For my behaviour in leaving my coterie, I apologize. It was thoughtless and reckless. I submit myself for judgment and punishment as you see fit.

  With great sincerity, Apprentice Carryl

  We sailed on. Slowly, I woke to life.

  Dwalia had left her mark on me. If the weather was cold and wet, my left cheekbone ached and sometimes yellow tears ran from my left eye. My left ear was a shapeless lump; I could not sleep with it touching the pillow. The bruises and abrasions from the neck shackle had left sores that were slow to heal.

  But that
was my body. The rest of me simply didn’t want to do anything. I wanted to stay in my hammock in the dimness. I wanted Beloved and Amber and the Fool to all stop pestering me. Every time I wrote in my dream book or journal, I reminded him of that. Despite the reminders, several times a day he would seek me out. If I were in my hammock, Amber would sit nearby, and busy herself with a bit of needlework. Sometimes she left clever little carvings of animals, and these I guessed were the Fool’s work, for my father had written of such things. I longed to possess them, but I always left them where Amber had placed them. Mostly I avoided looking at her, but whenever our eyes met, his peculiar ones were full of remorse and pleading. He was never less than patient with me.

  I had a little fire of dislike for him, and every chance I got, I fed it. I thought often of how he was here and my father was not. I imagined what my father and I would have done on this journey home. We would have talked with the ship, and watched the seabirds. He would have told me the history and geography of the Six Duchies, and explained Bingtown and the Rain Wilds to me. My father would have been steady and fair with me. But he was not here, and every time I looked at the changeable man who was trying to replace him, I disliked him more.

  Per was more direct with me. He insisted I come to the table for meals, and while I ate he showed me knots. Boy-O was up and tottering around. He joined us at table once, and I was so embarrassed by his gratitude that I could not look at him. His mother always smiled at me. Captain Wintrow gave me a necklace with a gem that glowed in darkness, and a mug that magically warmed whatever was in it.

  ‘You need to know this ship, while you have the chance!’ Per rebuked me one afternoon. ‘When will you ever sail on a liveship again? Never. They will all turn into dragons. Be here while you can!’ I knew he was right, but trying to do anything made me so tired. One day, he insisted on showing me how to climb the rigging. ‘Please, Bee. Only five steps up, just so you feel how the ropes are under your feet. All you have to do is follow me. Put your feet where I put my feet and my hands where I put my hands.’

  He wouldn’t let me refuse. He didn’t ask me if I’d be afraid and, just as it had been with Pris, I could not break my pride enough to tell him it terrified me. And so we climbed. And climbed. Many more than five steps. There was a tiny room at the top of the mast, with short walls of webbing. He helped me inside and I was glad to hunker down and feel safer. ‘This is the crow’s nest,’ he told me. His face became sad for a moment. ‘Not that I have a crow any more.’

  ‘I know you miss him.’

  ‘Her. Motley. She never came back after she went after the red dragon that day. Maybe she lives with the dragons. She was very taken with Heeby.’ He was quiet. ‘I hope she is alive. The other crows used to peck her because she had a few white feathers. Would it be worse with shiny red feathers?’

  ‘I’m sorry she’s gone. I’d have liked to know a crow.’

  He said suddenly, ‘Bee, you healed Boy-O’s burns. Why don’t you fix yourself?’

  I turned my face away from him. It stung that it mattered to him, that he noticed the scars on my face and wrists. I knew he had no magic but he still seemed to hear me. ‘It’s not about how you look, Bee. It’s about pain. I see you limp. I see you putting your hand over your cheek when it’s hurting you. Why don’t you just make them better?’

  ‘It doesn’t feel right,’ I answered him after a time. I could not say that I didn’t want to have to do it myself. My father should have been with me, to smooth my face with his hands, and admit to me how badly I’d been hurt. Why did I have to mend myself? Because Amber was here instead of my father. But I could not say any of that, so I found other words.

  ‘My father wore his scars. Riddle has scars. My mother wore the marks of all the children she had borne. My father even said they marked my victories. To just make these go away …’ I touched my crushed cheek. I could feel how the bone was pushed in. ‘It wouldn’t undo what they did to me, Per.’

  He tilted his head at me. Then he opened his shirt. I stared in astonishment as he unfastened the collar laces and laid bare his hairless chest to me. ‘See where I took an arrow for you?’ he asked me.

  I stared. His skin was smooth over his muscles. ‘No.’

  ‘That’s because your father erased it. He healed me. And Lant, too. And you should have seen what the Fool looked like before your father worked on him! Fitz even took the Fool’s wounds and put them on himself so the Fool could heal faster.’

  I was silent, wondering how he had done that. It did not increase my respect for the Fool that he had given my father his scars to bear. Per touched my cheek. I realized I had been silent a long time. ‘I can see that this hurts you. You should fix it. You can’t make it unhappen, but you don’t have to carry around what they did to you. Don’t give them that power over you.’

  ‘I will think about it,’ I told him. ‘And now I want to go down. I don’t like how we are waving about up here.’

  ‘You would get used to it. And after a time, you might even like coming up here.’

  ‘I will think about it,’ I promised him again.

  And I did. Two days later, at a time when the winds had died and our sails hung limp, we climbed the rigging again. I wasn’t sure that I enjoyed it, but I could convince myself I was not that scared. For several days we were becalmed, and slowly I made the crow’s nest a familiar place. Often it was already occupied by a sailor named Ant. She didn’t talk much but she loved the rigging. I liked her.

  Bit by bit, in the night, in my hammock, I repaired myself. It was not easy. I did it slowly because I didn’t want anyone to notice it. I didn’t want them to say I looked better, or to praise me for doing it. I could not explain the why of that, not even to myself. But my ear, the crumpled ear my father had touched and called a victory? I left that as it was.

  I came to love the ship. I think it was because I could feel how Vivacia felt about me. If I put my hand on the silvery wood of her railings, I could feel her. It was like my mother looking up from her sewing and smiling at me when I came into the room—a small welcome and a good wish for me. I was not bold enough to speak to her very much, but she was full of kindness toward me. That was the only conversation I needed with her.

  I heard her have other conversations with her captain. It had taken me some time, but I had sorted out that Captain Wintrow was Althea Vestrit’s nephew and that Vivacia was the ship of the Vestrit family, and that Althea had grown up aboard her. Liveships, it seemed, were very important to the families that owned them. That Paragon had turned into two dragons and flown away meant that Althea and Brashen and Boy-O no longer had a ship. And Vivacia wanted to do the same. Then there would be no liveships for any of them. Per was right. Before I was a woman grown, all the liveships would be gone.

  That saddened them, but there was a more immediate conflict. I had been sitting in a coil of rope near the foredeck and had dozed off there. I woke to a group of our sailors standing in a respectful row, their hats in hands. I had not heard what they asked of the ship, but her reply made it clear. Vivacia refused to put into the Pirate Isles. Her captain pleaded with her, Boy-O importuned her, but she was adamant. I could see that her black curling hair had the grain of wood, but somehow it still moved when she shook her head.

  ‘Kennitsson will never be less dead, no matter when or how they receive the news. We all know how terrible it will be for Queen Etta and Sorcor and indeed all the Pirate Isles. Do you think I did not care for Kennitsson? He was not blood of my blood, but I cared for him. I knew his father, and perhaps understood him far more than I enjoyed. I respect some of what he did. Nonetheless, I have no wish to be trapped in Divvytown while Etta rages and curses and weeps. And you know she will have a thousand questions followed by a thousand accusations and rebukes. She will delay me for weeks if not months.’

  ‘So what do you intend?’ Navigator asked the question.

  ‘I intend to bypass the Pirate Isles. I know you need supplies. I am not the Mad Shi
p, to care nothing for my crew’s lives. I can compromise. We can stop briefly in Bingtown. Then I will go up the Rain Wild River to Trehaug. For Silver. To become the dragon I was always meant to be.’

  ‘What of me?’ Captain Wintrow asked discouragedly as he came to join the discussion. ‘What will Etta think of me? Do you think I will ever be able to return to Divvytown if I do not bring Queen Etta the news of her son’s death?’ He shook his head. ‘It will be the end of my career there. Perhaps even my life.’

  Althea and Brashen and Boy-O were coming to join them. Did they fear a mutiny on the ship?

  Vivacia was silent for a time. Then she said, with both firmness and regret, ‘I know only that I have been too long a ship. Wintrow, I am trapped. I need to be free. I will free myself. As you should free yourself. It has been years. Etta will never love you as she loved Kennit. She is a woman whose love was won by coldness and neglect. She thought a man who did not beat her loved her. And Kennit? He never admitted to himself that he cared for her as anything more than a convenient whore. He was fonder of you than he ever was of her. Wintrow, go home. Take me home. It is time we both were free.’

  So long a silence followed the ship’s words that I wondered if they had all left. I opened my eyes to slits and saw Althea set her arm across her nephew’s shoulders. The crew stood embarrassed for him, looking aside from his downcast face.

  ‘She’s right.’ Boy-O whispered the words. ‘You know she’s right.’ But at that confirmation, Wintrow shrugged away from Althea’s touch and strode away from both family and figurehead. I judged it better to continue to feign sleep and never speak to anyone of what I had overheard.

  Most of Vivacia’s crew was from the Pirate Isles. The ship’s refusal to put into port there left those sailors bereft and resentful. I felt the tension simmer and was puzzled. The crew knew it was not Wintrow’s decision, but the ship’s, so what did they expect him to do? But when we were within sight of the Pirate Isles, Captain Wintrow offered his compromise. He gave our ship’s boats to those who wished to leave Vivacia’s deck and go to Divvytown. Only one boat he would keep back, despite knowing it would not hold us all should some disaster befall Vivacia.

 
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