Book: Assassin's Fate



Assassin's Fate

Assassin's Fate


Assassin's Fate

Copyright

HarperVoyager

an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd

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London SE1 9GF

www.harpercollins.co.uk

First published in Great Britain by HarperVoyager 2017

Copyright © Robin Hobb 2017

Cover design © HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 2017

Robin Hobb asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

A catalogue copy of this book is available from the British Library.

This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins.

Source ISBN: 9780007444250

Ebook Edition © May 2017 ISBN: 9780007444267

Version: 2017-04-01

Dedication

To Fitz and the Fool.

My best friends for over twenty years.

Assassin's Fate

Map

Assassin's Fate


PROLOGUE

There are children holding hands in a circle. In the middle, a single child stands. The child wears a blindfold but there are painted eyes on the blindfold. The eyes are black and staring, edged with red. The child in the middle turns in a circle, hands outstretched. All the other children dance in a wider circle around her. They sing a song.

‘As long as the circle holds

The futures can be foretold.

You must be hard of heart

To tear the circle apart.’

It looks like a merry game. Each child in the outer circle shouts a sentence or a phrase. I cannot hear what they are saying, but the blinded child can. She begins to shout back at them, her words torn by a slowly rising wind. ‘Burn it all.’ ‘The dragons fall’. ‘The sea will rise.’ ‘The jewel strewn skies.’ ‘One comes as two’. ‘The four shall rue.’ ‘Two come as one.’ ‘Your reign is done!’ ‘Forfeit all lives.’ ‘No one survives!’

At that last shout, a wind bursts from the child in the middle. Bits of her fly in all directions and the wind picks up the screaming children and scatters them far and wide. All becomes black save for one circle of white. In the centre of the circle is the blindfold with its black eyes staring, staring.

Bee Farseer’s dream journal

ONE

Bee Stings

The map-room at Aslevjal displayed a territory that included much of the Six Duchies, part of the Mountain Kingdom, a large section of Chalced and lands along both sides of the Rain Wild River. I suspect that it defines for us the boundaries of the ancient Elderlings territory at the time the maps were created. I have been unable to inspect the map-room of the abandoned Elderling city now known as Kelsingra personally, but I believe it would be very similar.

On the Aslevjal map were marked points that correspond to standing stones within the Six Duchies. I think it fair to assume that the identical markings in locations in the Mountains, Rain Wilds and even Chalced indicate standing stones that are Skill-portals. The conditions of those foreign portals are largely unknown, and some Skill-users caution against attempting to employ them until we have physically journeyed there and witnessed that they are in excellent condition. For the Skill-portal stones within the Six Duchies and the Mountain Kingdom, it seems prudent not only to send Skilled couriers to visit every site, but to require every duke to see that any such standing stones are maintained upright. The couriers who visit each stone should document the content and condition of the runes on each face of the stone as well.

In a few instances, we have found standing stones that do not correspond to a marking on the Aslevjal map. We do not know if they were raised after the map was created, or if they are stones that no longer function. We must continue to regard them with caution, as we do all use of Elderling magic. We cannot consider ourselves to be masters of it until we can duplicate their artefacts.

Skill-portals, Chade Fallstar

I ran. I hiked up the heavy white fur coat I wore and ran. I was already too warm and it dragged and snagged on every twig or trunk I passed. Behind me, Dwalia was shouting for someone to ‘Catch her, catch her!’ I could hear the Chalcedean making mooing noises. He galloped wildly about, once passing so close to me that I had to dodge him.

My thoughts raced faster than my feet. I remembered being dragged by my captors into a Skill-pillar. I even recalled how I had bitten the Chalcedean, hoping to make him release Shun. And he had, but he’d held onto me and followed us into the darkness of the Skill-pillar. No Shun had I seen, nor that Servant who had been last in our chain of folk. Perhaps both she and Shun had been left behind. I hoped Shun would escape her. Or perhaps had escaped her? I remembered the cold of a Buck winter clutching at us when we fled. But now we were somewhere else, and instead of deep cold I felt only chill. The snow had retreated into narrow fingers of dirty white in the deeper shade of the trees. The forest smelled of early spring, but no branches had yet leafed out. How did one leap from winter in one place to spring in another? Something was very wrong but I had no time to consider it. I had a more pressing concern. How did one hide in a leafless forest? I knew I could not outrun them. I had to hide.

I hated the coat fiercely. I could not pause to wriggle out the bottom of it, for my hands felt as clumsy as fish flippers and I could not possibly hide from my pursuers in a huge white fur coat. So I fled, knowing I could not escape but too frightened to let them reclaim me.

Choose a place to take a stand. Not where they can corner you but not where they can surround you either. Find a weapon, a stick, a rock, anything. If you cannot escape, make them pay as dearly as you can for capturing you. Fight them all the way.

Yes, Wolf Father. I spoke his name in my mind to give me courage. I reminded myself that I was the child of a wolf, even if my teeth and claws were pathetic things. I would fight.

But I was already so tired. How could I fight?

I could not understand what the passage through the stone had done to me. Why was I so weak and so tired? I wanted to fall where I was and be still. I longed to let sleep claim me, but I dared not. I could hear them calling to one another, shouting and pointing at me. Time to stop running, time to make my stand. I chose my spot. A cluster of three trees, their trunks so close together that I could dodge between them but none of my pursuers could easily follow me. I could hear at least three people crashing through the bushes behind me. How many might there be? I tried to calm myself enough to think. Dwalia, their leader: the woman who had smiled so warmly as she stole me from my home. She had dragged me through the Skill-pillar. And Vindeliar, the boy-man who could make people forget what they had experienced, he had come through the stone. Kerf was the Chalcedean sell-sword but his mind was so scrambled from our Skill-journey that either he was no danger to anyone or he might kill any of us. Who else? Alaria, who would unquestioningly do whatever Dwalia told her, as would Reppin, who had so harshly crushed my hand as we came through the pillar. It was a much smaller force than she had started with, but they still outnumbered me five to one.

I crouched behind one of the trees, pulled my arms in from the sleeves of the heavy fur robe and at last wriggled and lifted until I could slide out of it. I picked it up and threw it as far as I could, which was not far. Should I run on? I knew I could not. My stomach was doubling and twisting uneasily and I had a stitch in my side. This was as far as I could go.

A weapon. There was nothing. Only a fallen branch. The thick end was no bigger around than my wrist and diverged into three limbs at the end. A poor weapon, more rake than staff. I took it up. Then I pressed my back to one of the trees, hoping against hope that my pursuers would see the coat and pass me by, so I could double back and find a better hiding spot.

They were coming. Dwalia shouted in gasps. ‘I know you are frightened. But don’t run. You will starve and die without us. A bear will eat you. You need us to survive. Come back, Bee. No one will be angry at you.’ Then I heard the lie as she turned her fury on her followers. ‘Oh, where is she? Alaria, you fool, get up! None of us feel well, but without her we cannot go home!’ Then, letting her anger win, ‘Bee! Stop being foolish! Come here right now! Vindeliar, hurry! If I can run, so can you! Find her, fog her!’

As I stood behind the tree, trying to make my terrified breathing as quiet as I could, I felt Vindeliar reaching for me. I pushed hard to make my thought-walls strong, as my father had shown me. I gritted my teeth and bit hard on my lip to keep him out. He was making memories of sweet, warm foods and hot soup and fragrant, fresh bread at me. All those things I wanted so much, but if I let him make me think about them he could find a way in. No. Raw meat. Meat frozen onto bones, gnawing it off with my back teeth. Mice with their fur on, and their little crunchy skulls. Wolf food.

Wolf food. Strange, how delicious it sounded. I gripped my stick with both hands and waited. Should I stay hidden and hope they would run past me? Or step out and strike the first blow?

I did not get a choice. I saw Alaria go stumbling past my hiding-place, several trees away. She halted, looked stupidly at the white fur on the ground and then as she turned to call back to the others, she saw me. ‘She’s here! I found her!’ She pointed at me with a shaking hand. I set my feet a shoulder’s width apart as if I were going to play at knife-fighting with my father and waited. She stared at me and then sank down in a crumpled heap, her own white coat folding around her and made no effort to rise. ‘I found her,’ she called in a weaker voice. She flapped a limp hand at me.

I heard footsteps to my left. ‘Look out!’ Alaria gasped, but she was too late. I swung my branch as hard as I could, connected with Dwalia’s face, and then danced back to the right between the trees. I set my back to one trunk and took up my stance again, branch at the ready. Dwalia was shouting but I refused to look and see if I’d hurt her. Perhaps I’d been lucky enough to put one of her eyes out. But Vindeliar was lumbering toward me, his doltish smile beaming. ‘Brother! There you are! You are safe. We found you.’

‘Stay back or I’ll hurt you!’ I threatened him. I found I didn’t want to hurt him. He was a tool of my enemy, but left to himself I doubted he had any malice. Not that a lack of malice would prevent him from hurting me.

‘Brothe-er,’ he said, drawing the word out sadly. It was a rebuke but a gentle one. I realized he was radiating gentleness and fondness at me. Friendship and comfort.

No. He was not truly any of those things. ‘Stay back!’ I commanded him.

The Chalcedean lolloped past us, ululating as he went, and I could not tell if he deliberately or accidentally jostled against the little man. Vindeliar tried to avoid him, but stumbled and fell flat with a mournful cry just as Dwalia rounded the tree trunks. Her hands were extended toward me like claws, her lips pulled back from her bloodied teeth as if she would seize me in her jaws. Two-handed I swung my branch at her, willing it to knock her head from her shoulders. Instead, it broke and the jagged end dragged across her reddened face, trailing a line of blood. She flung herself at me, and I felt her nails dig into my flesh right through my worn clothing. I literally tore myself free of her grip. She kept part of my sleeve as I squeezed between the tree trunks.

Reppin was waiting there. Her fish-grey eyes met mine. Hatred gave way to a mindless glee as she leapt toward me. I dodged sideways, leaving her to embrace the tree face-first. She hit, but she was spryer than I thought. One of her feet hooked mine. I jumped high, cleared it, but stumbled on the uneven ground. Alaria had regained her feet. She wailed wildly as she threw herself against me. Her weight carried me to the ground and, before I could wriggle out, I felt someone step hard on my ankle. I grunted then cried out as the pressure increased. It felt as if my bones were bending, as if they would snap at any instant. I shoved Alaria off me but the moment she was clear, Reppin kicked me in the side, hard, without getting off my ankle.

Her foot slammed all the air out of me. Tears I hated swelled in my eyes. I thrashed for a moment, then wrapped myself around her legs and struggled to get her off my ankle but she grabbed my hair and shook my head wildly. Hair ripped from my scalp and I could not focus my vision.

‘Beat her.’ I heard Dwalia’s voice. It shook with some strong emotion. Anger? Pain? ‘With this.’

I made the mistake of looking up. Reppin’s first blow with my broken stick caught my cheek, the hinge of my jaw and my ear, mashing it into the side of my head. I heard a high ringing and my own shriek. I was shocked, outraged, offended and in a disabling amount of pain. I scrabbled to get away but she still had a thick handful of my hair. The stick fell again, across my shoulder blades as I struggled to break free. There was not enough meat on my bones and my blouse was no protection: the pain of the blow was followed by the instant burn of broken skin. I cried out wildly and twisted, reaching up to grip her wrist and try to wrest her hand free of my hair. She put more weight on my ankle and only the cushion of forest humus kept it from breaking. I shrieked and tried to push her off.

The stick fell again, lower on my back, and I suddenly knew how my ribs joined my spine and the twin columns of muscle that ran alongside my spine, for all of it screeched with wrong.

All of it happened so fast and yet each individual blow was a single event in my life, one to be always remembered. I’d never been treated harshly by my father and the very few times my mother had disciplined me it had been little more than a cuff or a light slap. Always to warn me of danger, to caution me not to touch the firescreen, or to reach over my head for the kettle on the hob. I’d had a very few tussles with children at Withywoods. I’d been pelted with pinecones and small stones, and once I’d been in a serious fight that left me bloodied. But I had never been beaten by an adult. I’d never been held in a painful way while a grown-up tried to deliver as much pain as she could, regardless of how it might injure me. I suddenly knew that if she knocked out my teeth or struck an eye from its socket, no one would care except me.

Stop being afraid. Stop feeling the pain. Fight! Wolf Father was suddenly with me, his teeth bared and every hackle standing up.

I can’t! Reppin is going to kill me!

Hurt her back. Bite her, scratch her, kick her! Make her pay for giving you pain. She is going to beat you anyway, so take what you can of her flesh. Try to kill her.

But—

Fight!

I stopped trying to wrest her grip from my hair. Instead, as my stick fell again on my back, I lunged toward her instead of away, caught the wrist of her stick-hand and pulled it to my mouth. I opened my jaws as wide as I could and then closed them. I bit her not to hurt her, not to leave toothmarks or make her shout with pain. I bit her to drive my teeth down to her bone to gain a mouthful of flesh and sinew and try to tear it free of her body. I set my teeth as she shrieked and flailed at me with the stick, and then I worried the meat of her wrist, shaking my head fiercely. She let go of my hair, dropped the stick and danced about, yelling in pain and fear, but I kept my grip on her wrist, with both my hands and my teeth, and kicked at her shins and feet and knees as she dragged me about with her. I tried to make my molars meet as I clenched my jaws and hung my weight from her arm.

Reppin roared and thrashed. She’d dropped the stick and thought only to pry herself free. She was not a large person; she was slight of build and I had a good chunk of the stringy meat and flabby muscle of her forearm in my teeth. I worked my jaw together. She was shrieking. ‘Get her off me! Get her off me!’ She set the palm of her hand to my forehead and tried to push me away. I let her and she screamed as she helped me tear meat from her bones. She slapped at me but weakly. Jaws and hands, I gripped her tighter. She sank to the earth with me still locked to her arm.

Beware! Father Wolf warned me. Spring away!

But I was a cub and I did not see the danger, only that my enemy had collapsed before me. Then Dwalia kicked me so hard that my mouth flew open. It knocked me free of Reppin onto the damp earth. With no air in me all I could do was roll feebly instead of getting to my feet and running away. She kicked me repeatedly. My belly, my back. I saw her booted foot coming toward my face.

When I woke up, it was dark, and cold. They had managed a fire but its light barely touched me. I was lying on my side, facing away from the fire, bound hand and foot. My mouth was salty with blood, both thick and fresh. I had wet myself, and the fabric of my trousers was cold against me. I wondered if they had hurt me so bad that I peed or if I had been that frightened. I could not remember. I woke up crying, or perhaps I realized I was crying after I woke up. Everything hurt. My face was swollen on one side from where Reppin had hit me with the stick. My face might have bled, for dead leaves were stuck to my skin. My back hurt and my ribs caged my painful breaths.

Can you move your fingers? Can you feel your toes?

I could.

Does your belly hurt like a bruise or does it hurt like things are broken inside?

I don’t know. I never hurt like this before. I drew in a deeper breath and the pain forced it out as a sob.

Hush. Don’t make a sound or they will know you are awake. Can you get your hands to your mouth?

They had tied my feet together and bound my hands at the wrist in front of me. I brought them up to my face. They were tied together with strips torn from my shirt. That was part of why I felt so cold. Although spring had visited here during the day, winter reclaimed this forest at night.

Chew your hands free.

I can’t. My lips were smashed and bloody. My teeth felt loose and sore in my gums.

You can. Because you must. Chew your hands free and untie your feet, and we will go. I will show you where to go. There is someone kin to us not far from here. If I can wake him he will protect you. If not, I will teach you to hunt. Once, your father and I lived in these mountains. Perhaps the den he built for us is still tight. We will go there.

I didn’t know we were in the mountains! You lived in the mountains with my father?

I did. I have been here before. Enough. Start chewing.

It hurt to bend my neck to reach the bindings on my hands. It hurt to press my teeth in hard enough to bite the fabric. It had been a nice shirt the morning I had put it on to go to my lessons with Scribe Lant. One of the maids, Caution, had helped me to dress. She’d chosen this pale-yellow blouse and over it she had tugged a green tunic. The colours of my house, I realized suddenly. She’d dressed me in Withywood colours, even if the tunic had been too big for me and hung on me like a dress, nearly to my knees. I’d worn leggings that day, not the padded trousers my captors had given me to wear. The wet trousers. Another sob rose in me. Before I could choke it back, I made a sound.

‘… awake?’ someone asked by the fire. Alaria, I thought.

‘Leave her as she is!’ Dwalia commanded harshly.

‘But my brother is hurt! I can feel his pain!’ This from Vindeliar in a low and woeful voice.

‘Your brother!’ Dwalia’s words dripped with venom. ‘Trust a sexless lout like you to not be able to tell the Unexpected Son from some White’s by-blow. All the coin we spent, all the luriks I wasted, and that girl is all we have to show for it. Stupid and ignorant, both of you. You think she’s a boy, and she doesn’t know what she is. She can’t even write and pays no attention to her dreams.’ A strange gloating filled her voice. ‘But I know she’s special.’ Then the fleeting satisfaction was gone, replaced with a sneer. ‘Doubt me. I don’t care. But you’d best hope there’s something special about her, for she’s the only coin we have to buy our way back into the Four’s good graces!’ In a lower voice, she added, ‘How Coultrie will crow over my failure. And that old bitch Capra will use it as an excuse for anything she wants to do.’

Alaria spoke very softly. ‘So if she is all we have, perhaps we should try to deliver her in good condition?’

‘Perhaps if you had caught her instead of falling to the ground and rolling about moaning, none of this would have happened!’

‘Do you hear that?’ A desperate whisper from Reppin. ‘Did you hear that? Someone just laughed. And now … do you hear those pipes playing?’

‘Your mind is turned, and all because a little girl bit you! Keep your foolish words to yourself.’

‘I could see the bone! My arm is all swollen. The pain thuds through me like a drum!’

There was a pause and I heard the fire’s crackling. Stay still, Wolf Father warned me. Learn all you can by listening. Then, with a touch of pride, See, even with your poor cow’s teeth, you have taught her to fear you. You must teach all of them to fear you. Even the old bitch has learned some caution. But you must drive it deeper. These must be your only three thoughts: I will escape. I will make them fear me. And if I have the chance, I will kill them.

They have already beaten me just for trying to escape! What will they do if I kill one?

They will beat you again, unless you escape. But you have heard, you have value to them. So they probably will not kill you.

Probably? Terror swept through me. I want to live. Even if I live as their captive, I want to live.

You think that is true, but I assure you it is not. Death is better than the sort of captivity they plan for you. I have been a captive, a toy for heartless men. I made them fear me. It is why they sought to sell me. It was why your father could buy my freedom.

I do not know that tale.

It is a dark and sad one.

Thought is fast. So much was conveyed between Wolf Father and me in the pause of the pale folk’s conversation. Suddenly a shout came from the darkness. It terrified me and I made myself chew faster on my bonds. Not that I seemed to be making progress with the task. The garbled words came again and I recognized Chalcedean. It would be Kerf, the Chalcedean mercenary Vindeliar had bespelled to Dwalia’s service. I wondered if his mind was still scattered by his journey through the pillar. I wondered if his hand was swollen where I had bitten him. As silently as I could, I shifted my body until I could peer through the darkness. Kerf was pointing up at one of the ancient standing pillars at the edge of the clearing. I heard a shriek from Reppin. ‘See? See? I am not mad! Kerf sees her as well! A pale ghost crouches upon that pillar. You must see her! Is she not a White? But dressed so strangely and she sings a mocking song!’

‘I see nothing!’ Dwalia shouted angrily.

Vindeliar spoke timidly. ‘I do. There are echoes here of folk from long ago. They held a market here. But now, as evening closes in, a White singer makes merry for them.’

‘I hear … something.’ Alaria confirmed reluctantly. ‘And … and as I came through that stone, people spoke to me. They said awful things.’ She took a little gasping breath. ‘And when I fell asleep this afternoon, I had a dream. A vivid dream, one I must tell. We lost our dream journals when we fled the Chalcedeans. I cannot write it down, so I must tell it.’

Dwalia made a disgusted noise. ‘As if your dreams were ever of any real worth. Tell away, then.’

Reppin spoke quickly, as if the words leapt from her. ‘I dreamed a nut in a wild river. I saw someone pull it from the water. The nut was set down and struck many times, to try to break it. But it only got thicker and harder. Then someone crushed it. Flames and darkness and a foul stench and screams came out of it. The flames wrote words. “Comes the Destroyer that you have made!” And a great wind swept through Clerres and picked us all up and scattered us.’

‘Comes the Destroyer!’ the Chalcedean repeated in a happy shout from the darkness.

‘Be silent!’ Dwalia snapped at him, and he laughed. ‘And you, Reppin, be silent as well. This is not a dream worth sharing. It is nothing but your fever boiling in your mind. You are such cowardly children! You make shadows and phantoms in your own minds. Alaria and Reppin, go gather more wood. Make a good stack for the night and then check on that little bitch. And say not one more word of this nonsense.’

I heard Alaria and Reppin tramp off into the woods. It seemed to me they went slowly, as if fearful of the darkness. But Kerf paid no attention to them. Hands uplifted, he shuffled in a clumsy dance all around the pillar. Mindful of Vindeliar’s power, I lowered my walls cautiously. The bee humming I’d been aware of became voices and I saw Elderlings in bright garments. Their eyes sparkled and their hair gleamed like polished silver and golden rings, and all around the Chalcedean they danced to the chanting of the pale songster perched on the pillar.

Dwalia stared at Kerf, annoyed at his enjoyment. ‘Why can’t you control him?’ she demanded of Vindeliar.

He gestured helplessly. ‘He hears too many others here. Their voices are many and strong. They laugh and sing and celebrate.’

‘I hear nothing!’ Dwalia’s voice was angry but there was a thread of fear in it. ‘You are useless. You cannot control that bit of a girl, and now you cannot control a madman. I had such hopes for you when I chose you. When I gifted you with that potion. How wrong I was to waste it on you! The others were right. You have no dreams and you see nothing. You are useless.’

I felt a thin chill of Vindeliar’s awareness waft toward me. His misery lapped against me like a wave. I slammed my walls tight and tried not to care that he was hurt and yet still worried for me. His fear of Dwalia, I told myself fiercely, was too great for him to offer me any aid or comfort. Of what use is a friend who will take no risks for you?

He is your enemy just as much as the others are. If an opportunity arises, you must kill him, just as you would any of them. If any of them come to touch you, you must bite and kick and scratch as much as you are able.

I hurt all over. I have no strength. If I try to defend myself, they will beat me.

Even if you do only a little damage, they will learn that touching you has a price. Some will not be willing to pay it.

I do not think I can bite or kill Vindeliar. Dwalia, I could kill. But the others …

They are her tools, her teeth and claws. In your situation, you cannot afford to be merciful. Keep chewing on your bonds. I will tell you of my days as a captive. Beaten and caged. Forced to fight dogs or boars that were just as miserable as I was. Starved. Open your mind to my tale of how I was enslaved and how your father and I broke the bonds of our captivities. Then you will see why you must kill when you are given the chance.

He began, not a telling, but a remembering that I shared. It was like recalling things I had always known, but in scalding detail. He did not spare me his memories of his family killed, of beatings and starvation and a cramped cold cage. He did not soften how much he hated his captors, or how he had first hated my father, even when my father freed him. Hate had been his habit then, and hate had fed him and kept him alive when there was nothing else.

I was not even halfway through the twisted fabric that bound my wrists when Dwalia sent Alaria to fetch me to the fire. I played dead until she was hunched over me. She put a hand on my shoulder. ‘Bee?’

I flipped, lunged and bit. I caught her hand in my teeth, but only for a moment. My mouth was too sore and she ripped her hand free of me with a cry and sprang back. ‘She bit me!’ she cried to the others. ‘The little wretch bit me!’

‘Kick her!’ Dwalia commanded, and Alaria made a feint at me with her foot, but Father Wolf was right. She feared to get too close to me. I rolled away from her and, despite the screams of my abused body, managed to sit up. I glared at her from my one good eye and lifted my smashed lips clear of my teeth. I did not know how much of that she could see in the firelight’s dance, but she did not come near me.

‘She’s awake,’ Alaria informed them, as if I might have bitten her in my sleep.

‘Drag her here.’

‘She’ll bite me again!’

Dwalia stood. She moved stiffly. I held still, poised to avoid her kick or to attack with my teeth if I could. I was pleased to see that I had blacked her eyes and split the flesh on one of her cheeks. ‘Listen, you little wretch,’ she snarled at me. ‘You can avoid a beating, but only if you obey me. Is that clear?’



She bargains. That means she fears you.

I stared at her wordlessly, letting nothing show on my face. She leaned closer, reaching for the front of my shirt. I bared my teeth soundlessly and she drew back. She spoke as if I’d agreed to obey her. ‘Alaria is going to cut your ankles free. We’ll take you over by the fire. If you try to run, I swear I will cripple you.’ She did not wait for a response. ‘Alaria, cut the bonds on her ankles.’

I thrust my feet toward her. Alaria, I noted, had a very nice belt-knife. I wondered if I could find a way to make it mine. She sawed and sawed at the fabric that bound me, and I was surprised at how much it hurt. When finally she cut through, I kicked my feet to free them, and then felt a very unpleasant hot tingling as they came back to life. Was Dwalia tempting me to try to escape, to have an excuse to beat me again?

Not yet. Gather more strength. Appear weaker than you are.

‘Get up and walk!’ Dwalia ordered me. She stalked away from me, as if wanting to demonstrate to me how certain she was of my obedience.

Let her be certain of my surrender. I’d find a way to get away from her. But the wolf was right. Not yet. I stood, but very slowly, taking my time to get my balance. I tried to stand straight as if my belly were not full of hot knives. Her kicks had hurt something inside of me. I wondered how long it would take to heal.

Vindeliar had ventured closer to us. ‘Oh, my brother,’ he mooed sadly at the sight of my broken face. I stared at him and he looked away. I tried to appear defiant rather than hobbled by pain as I stalked toward the fire.

It was my first chance to have a good look at my surroundings. The pillar had brought us to an open dell in the heart of a forest. There were dwindling fingers of snow between the trees, but it was inexplicably missing in the plaza and on the roads leading to it and away. Trees had grown large alongside those roads and their branches arced over it and interlaced in some places. Yet the roads were largely clear of forest debris and snow. Did no one else recognize how peculiar that was? Evergreens with low, swooping branches surrounded the dell where Dwalia’s folk had built their fire. No. Not a dell. I scuffed my feet against some sort of paving stones. The open area was partially bounded by a low wall of worked stone set with several pillars. I saw something on the ground. It looked like a glove, one that had spent part of the winter under snow. Farther on I saw a scrap of leather, perhaps from a strap. And then a woollen hat.

Despite my aching body, I slowly stooped to pick it up, feigning to take a moment to cradle my belly. Over by the fire, they pretended not to watch me, like cats hunched near a mouse hole. The hat was damp, but even damp wool is warm. I tried to shake the spruce needles from it but my arms hurt too much. I wondered if anyone had brought my heavy fur coat back to the camp. Up and moving, the chill of the early spring night reminded me of every aching bruise. The cold reached in and fingered my skin where they had torn strips from my shirt.

Ignore that. Don’t think of the cold. Use your other senses.

I could see little beyond the reach of the fire’s dancing light. I drew breath through my nose. The rising moisture of the earth brought rich scents with it. I smelled dark earth and fallen spruce needles. And honeysuckle.

Honeysuckle? At this time of year?

Breathe out through your mouth and slowly in through your nose, Wolf Father advised me.

I did. I turned my head slowly on my stiff neck, following the scent. There. A pale, slender cylinder, half-covered by a scrap of torn canvas. I tried to stoop down, but my knees folded and I nearly fell on my face. With my bound hands, I awkwardly picked up the candle. It was broken, held together at the break only by the wick, but I knew it. I lifted it to my face and smelled my mother’s handiwork. ‘How can this be here?’ I asked the night softly. I looked at the nondescript scrap of canvas. Nearby there was a lady’s lacy glove, sodden and mildewed. I did not know either of those things, but I knew this candle. Could I be mistaken? Could other hands have harvested the beeswax and scented it with honeysuckle blossoms? Could another hand have patiently dipped the long wicks over and over into the wax pot to form such an elegant taper? No. This was my mother’s work. Possibly I had helped to make this candle. How did it come here?

Your father has been here.

Is that possible?

It is the least impossible answer that I can imagine.

The candle folded in two as I slid it into my shirt. I felt the wax chill against my skin. Mine. I could hear Vindeliar shuffling toward me. From the corner of my eye, I saw Dwalia holding her hands out to the fire’s warmth. I turned my good eye toward them. Reppin had my big fur coat. She had folded it into a cushion and was sitting on it by the fire next to Alaria. She saw me looking and sneered at me. I stared at her arm and then lifted my eyes to smile at her. Her exposed hand was a fat pad with sausage fingers. Blood was dark between her fingers and in the lines of her knuckles. Had she not had the sense to wash out the bite?

I moved slowly to the biggest gap in their circle and sat down there. Dwalia rose and came to stand behind me. I refused to look back at her. ‘You’ll get no food tonight. Don’t think you can run away from us. You can’t. Alaria, you will take the first watch. Wake Reppin to take the second. Don’t let Bee escape or you’ll pay the price.’

She stalked away to where they had piled the packs and supplies they’d brought with them. There wasn’t much. They had fled Ellik’s attack with whatever they could hastily seize. Dwalia made herself a lumpy cushion from the packs and reclined on them with no thought for the comfort of the others. Reppin looked around slyly, and then spread out my opened coat before lying down on it and wrapping the excess around herself. Vindeliar stared at them, and then simply flopped down like a dog. He pillowed his broad head on his arms and stared dolefully at the fire. Alaria sat cross-legged, glaring at me. No one paid any attention to the Chalcedean. Hands over his head, he was dancing a sort of a jig in a circle, his mouth wide in mindless enjoyment of the ghost music. His brain might be dazed, but he was an excellent dancer.

I wondered where my father was. Did he think of me? Had Shun gone back to Withywoods to tell him that I’d been taken into a stone? Or did she die in the forest? If she had, he would never know what had become of me or where to look. I was cold, and very hungry. And so lost.

If you can’t eat, sleep. Rest is the only thing you can give yourself right now. Take it.

I looked at the hat I’d salvaged. Plain grey wool, undyed but well spun and knitted. I shook it to be sure there were no insects in it and then, with my hands still tied, struggled to get it onto my head. The damp was chill but slowly warmed from my skin. I manoeuvred myself into a reclining position on my less-painful side, and faced away from the fire. The warmth of my body had wakened the candle’s scent. I breathed honeysuckle. I curled slightly as if I were seeking sleep but brought my wrists up to my face and began again to chew at my bonds.

TWO

The Silver Touch

There is a peculiar strength that comes to one who is facing the final battle. That battle is not limited to war, nor the strength to warriors. I’ve seen this strength in old women with the coughing sickness and heard of it in families that are starving together. It drives one to go on, past hope or despair, past blood loss and gut wounds, past death itself in a final surge to save something that is cherished. It is courage without hope. During the Red-Ship Wars, I saw a man with blood gouting in spurts from where his left arm had once been yet swinging a sword with his right as he stood protecting a fallen comrade. During one encounter with Forged Ones, I saw a mother stumbling over her own entrails as she shrieked and clutched at a Forged man, trying to hold him away from her daughter.

The OutIslanders have a word for that courage. Finblead, they call it, the last blood, and they believe that a special fortitude resides in the final blood that remains in a man or a woman before they fall. According to their tales, only then can one find and use that sort of courage.

It is a terrible bravery and at its strongest and worst, it goes on for months when one battles a final illness. Or, I believe, when one moves toward a duty that will result in death but is completely unavoidable. That finblead lights everything in one’s life with a terrible radiance. All relationships are illuminated for what they are and for what they truly were in the past. All illusions melt away. The false is revealed as starkly as the true.

FitzChivalry Farseer

As the taste of the herb spread in my mouth, the sounds of the turmoil around me grew louder. I lifted my head and tried to focus my stinging eyes. I hung in Lant’s arms, the familiar bitterness of elfbark suffusing my mouth. As the herb damped my magic, I became more aware of my surroundings. My left wrist ached with a bone-deep pain, as searing as frozen iron. While the Skill had surged through me, healing and changing the children of Kelsingra, my perception had shrunk but now I was fully aware of the shouting of the crowd surrounding me as the sound bounced from the lofty walls of the elegant Elderling chamber. I smelled fear-sweat in the air. I was caught in the press of the mob, with some Elderlings fighting to step away from me as others were shoving to get closer in the hope I might heal them. So many people! Hands reached toward me, with cries of ‘Please! Please, just one more!’ Others shouted, ‘Let me through!’ as they pushed to get away from me. The Skill-current that had flowed so strongly around me and through me had abated, but it wasn’t gone. Lant’s elfbark was the milder herb, Six Duchies-grown and somewhat stale by the taste of it. Here in the Elderling city the Skill flowed so strong and close I did not think even delvenbark could have closed me to it completely.

But it was enough. I was aware of the Skill but no longer shackled to its service. Yet the exhaustion of letting it use me now slackened my muscles just when I had most need of them. General Rapskal had torn the Fool from my grasp. The Elderling gripped Amber’s wrist and held her silvered hand aloft, shouting, ‘I told you so! I told you they were thieves! Look at her hand, coated in the dragons’ Silver! She has discovered the well! She has stolen from our dragons!’

Spark clung to Amber’s other arm, trying to drag her free of the general’s grip. The girl’s teeth were bared, her black curls wild around her face. The look of sheer terror on Amber’s scarred face both paralysed and panicked me. The years of privation the Fool had endured were betrayed in that stark grimace. They made her face a death-mask of bones and red lips and rouged cheeks. I had to go to the Fool’s aid, and yet my knees kept folding of their own accord. Perseverance seized my arm. ‘Prince FitzChivalry, what must I do?’ I could not find the breath to reply to him.

‘Fitz! Stand up!’ Lant roared right next to my ear. It was as much plea as command. I found my feet, and pressed my weight against them. I strained, shuddering, trying to keep my legs straight under me.

We had arrived in Kelsingra just the day before, and for a few hours I had been the hero of the day, the magical Six Duchies prince who had healed Ephron, the son of the king and queen of Kelsingra. The Skill had flowed through me, as intoxicating as Sandsedge brandy. At the request of King Reyn and Queen Malta, I had used my magic to set right half a dozen dragon-touched children. I had opened myself to the powerful Skill-current of the old Elderling city. Awash in that heady power, I’d opened throats and steadied heartbeats, straightened bones and cleared scales from eyes. Some I’d made more human, though one girl had wished to embrace her dragon-changes and I’d helped her do that.

But the Skill-flow had become too strong, too intoxicating. I’d lost control of the magic, become its tool instead of its master. After the children I’d agreed to heal had been claimed by their parents others had pushed forward. Adult Rain Wilders with changes uncomfortable, ugly or life-threatening had begged my aid and I had dispensed it with a lavish hand, caught in the vast pleasure of that flow. I’d felt my last shred of control give way, but when I’d surrendered to that glorious surge and its invitation to merge with the magic, Amber had stripped the glove from her hand. To save me, she’d revealed the stolen dragon-Silver on her fingers. To save me, she’d pressed three scalding fingertips to my bare wrist, burned her way into my mind and called me back. To save me, she’d betrayed herself as thief. The hot kiss of her fingers’ touch still pulsed like a fresh burn, sending a deep ache up the bones of my left arm, to my shoulder, to my back and neck.

What damage it was doing to me now, I could not know. But at least I was again anchored to my body. I was anchored to it and it was dragging me down. I’d lost track of how many Elderlings I’d touched and changed, but my body had kept count. Each one had taken a toll from me, each shaping had torn strength from me, and now that debt had to be paid. Despite all my efforts, my head lolled and I could scarcely keep my eyes open amidst the danger and noise all around me. I saw the room as through a mist.

‘Rapskal, stop being an imbecile!’ That was King Reyn adding his roar to the din.

Lant abruptly tightened his hug around my chest, dragging me more upright. ‘Let her go!’ he bellowed. ‘Release our friend, or the prince will undo every cure he has worked! Let her go, right now!’

I heard gasps, wailing, a man shouting, ‘No! He must not!’ A woman screamed, ‘Let go of her, Rapskal! Let her go!’

Malta’s voice rang with command as she cried out, ‘This is not how we treat guests and ambassadors! Release her, Rapskal, this moment!’ Her cheeks were flushed and the crest of flesh above her brow bloomed with colour.

‘Let go of me!’ Amber’s voice rang with authority. From some deep well of courage, she had drawn the will to fight back on her own behalf. Her shout cut through the crowd’s noise. ‘Release me, or I will touch you!’ She made good her threat, surging toward Rapskal instead of trying to pull her hand free. The sudden reverse shocked him and her silvered fingers came perilously close to his face. The general gave a shout of alarm and sprang back from her as he let go of her wrist. But she was not finished. ‘Back, all of you!’ she commanded. ‘Give us room and let me see to the prince or, by Sa, I will touch you!’ Hers was the command of an angered queen, pitched to carry her threat. Her silvered forefinger pointed as she swung it in a slow arc around her, and people were suddenly stumbling over one another in their haste to be out of her reach.

The mother of the girl with dragon feet spoke. ‘I’d do as she says!’ she warned. ‘If that is truly dragon-Silver on her fingers, one touch of it will mean slow death. It will seep down to your bones, right through your flesh. It will travel your bones, up your spine to your skull. Eventually, you will be grateful to die from it.’ As others were falling back from us, she began pushing her way through the crowd toward us. She was not a large person but the other dragon-keepers were giving way to her. She stopped a safe distance from us. Her dragon had patterned her in blue and black and silver. The wings that weighted her shoulders were folded snug to her back. The claws on her toes tapped the floor as she walked. Of all the Elderlings present, she was most heavily modified by her dragon’s touch. Her warning and Amber’s threat cleared a small space around us.

Amber retreated to my side, gasping as she sought to calm her breath. Spark stood on her other side and Perseverance took up a position in front of her. Amber’s voice was low and calm as she said, ‘Spark, retrieve my glove if you would.’

‘Of course, my lady.’ The requested item had fallen to the floor. Spark stooped and cautiously picked it up in two fingers. ‘I will touch your wrist,’ she warned Amber, and tapped the back of her hand to guide her to her glove. Amber was still breathing unsteadily as she gloved her hand, but weak as I was, I was horribly glad to see that she had regained some of the Fool’s strength and presence of mind. She linked her unsilvered hand through my arm and I was reassured by her touch. It seemed to draw off some of the Skill-current still coursing through me. I felt both connected to her and less battered by the Skill.

‘I think I can stand,’ I muttered to Lant and he loosened his grip on me. I could not allow anyone to see how drained I was of strength. I rubbed my eyes and wiped elfbark powder from my face. My knees did not buckle and I managed to hold my head steady. I straightened up. I badly wanted the knife in my boot but if I stooped for it I knew I would not stop until I sprawled on the floor.

The woman who had warned the others stepped into the empty space that now surrounded us, but stayed beyond arm’s reach. ‘Lady Amber, is it truly dragon-Silver on your hand?’ she asked in quiet dread.

‘It is!’ General Rapskal had found his courage and took up a stance beside her. ‘And she has stolen it from the dragons’ well. She must be punished! Keepers and folk of Kelsingra, we cannot be seduced by the healing of a few children! We do not even know if this magic will last or if it is a cheat. But we have all seen the evidence of this intruder’s theft, and we know that our first duty is and must always be to the dragons who have befriended us.’

‘Speak for yourself, Rapskal.’ The woman gave him a cold stare. ‘My first duty is to my daughter, and she no longer totters when she stands.’

‘Are you so easily bought, Thymara?’ Rapskal demanded scathingly.

The father of the child stepped into the circle to stand beside the woman called Thymara. The girl with the dragon feet rode on his shoulder and looked down on us. He spoke as if he scolded a wilful child, rebuke tinged with familiarity. ‘Of all people, Rapskal, you should know that Thymara cannot be bought. Answer me this. Who has it harmed that this lady has silvered her fingers? Only herself. She will die of it. So what worse can we do to her? Let her go. Let all of them go, and let them go with my thanks.’

‘She stole!’ Rapskal’s shout turned to a shriek, his dignity flung to the wind.

Reyn had managed to elbow his way through the crowd. Queen Malta was right behind him, her cheeks pink beneath her scaling and her eyes fiery with her anger. The dragon changes in her were amplified by her fury. There was a glitter in her eyes that was not human, and the crest of flesh in the parting of her hair seemed taller; it reminded me of a rooster’s comb. She was the first to speak. ‘My apologies, Prince FitzChivalry, Lady Amber. Our people forgot themselves in their hopes of being healed. And General Rapskal is sometimes—’

‘Don’t speak for me!’ the general interrupted her. ‘She stole Silver. We saw the evidence, and no, it’s not enough that she has poisoned herself. We cannot let her leave Kelsingra. None of them can leave, for now they know the secret of the dragons’ well!’

Amber spoke. She sounded calm but she pushed her words so that all could hear. ‘There was Silver on my fingers before you were born, I believe, General Rapskal. Before your dragons hatched, before Kelsingra was found and reclaimed, I bore what we of the Six Duchies call Skill on my fingers. And your queen can attest to that.’

‘She is not our queen and he is not our king!’ General Rapskal’s chest heaved with his emotion and, along his neck, patches of his scales showed a bright scarlet. ‘So they have said, over and over! They have said that we must rule ourselves, that they are but figureheads for the rest of the world. So, keepers, let us rule ourselves! Let us put our dragons first, as we are meant to!’ He shook a finger at Lady Amber, from a safe distance, as he demanded of his fellows, ‘Recall how difficult it was for us to find and renew the well of Silver! Will you believe her ridiculous tale that she has carried it on her fingertips for scores of years and not died of it?’

Queen Malta’s rueful voice cut through Rapskal’s rant. ‘I am sorry to say that I cannot attest to such a thing, Lady Amber. I knew you only briefly during your time in Bingtown, and met you seldom during the negotiations of your loans to many of the Traders.’ She shook her head. ‘A Trader’s word is all she has to give and I will not bend mine, even to help a friend. The best I can say is that when I knew you in those days, you always went gloved. I never saw your hands.’

‘You heard her!’ Rapskal’s shout was triumphant. ‘There is no proof! There can be no …’

‘If I may speak?’ For years, as King Shrewd’s jester, the Fool had had to make even his whispered comments heard across a large and sometimes crowded room. He had trained his voice to carry, and it now cut through not only Rapskal’s shout but the muttering of the crowd as well. A simmering silence filled the room. He did not move like a blind man as he stepped into the space his threat had cleared. He was a performer stepping onto his stage. It was in the sudden grace of his movements and his storyteller’s voice, and the sweep of his gloved hand. He was the Fool to me, and the layer of Amber but a part of his performance.

‘Recall a summer day, dear Queen Malta. You were but a girl, and all was in turmoil in your life. All your family’s hopes for financial survival depended on the successful launch of the Paragon, a liveship so insane that thrice he had capsized and killed all his crew. But the mad ship was your only hope, and into his salvage and refitting the Vestrit family had poured the last of their resources.’

He had them — and me. I was as caught up in this tale as any of them.

‘Your family hoped that the Paragon would be able to find and restore to you your father and your brother, both missing for so long. That somehow you could reclaim the Vivacia, your family’s own liveship, for it was rumoured that she had been taken by pirates. And not any pirates, but the fabled Captain Kennit himself! You stood on the deck of the mad ship, putting on such a brave face in your made-over gown with last year’s parasol. When all the others went below to tour the ship, you stayed on the deck and I stayed near you, to watch over you as your Aunt Althea had requested.’

‘I remember that day,’ Malta said slowly. ‘It was the first time we had really spoken to one another. I remember … we talked of the future. Of what it might hold for me. You told me that a small life would never satisfy me. You told me that I must earn my future. How did you put it?’

Lady Amber smiled, pleased that this queen remembered words spoken to her when she was a child. ‘What I told you is as true today as it was then. Tomorrow owes you the sum of your yesterdays. No more than that. And no less.’

Malta’s smile was like sunlight. ‘And you warned me that sometimes people wished that tomorrow did not pay them off so completely.’

‘I did.’

The queen stepped forward, unwittingly becoming part of the performance as she took her place on Amber’s stage. Her brow furrowed and she spoke like a woman in a dream. ‘And then … Paragon whispered to me. And I felt … oh, I did not know it then. I felt the dragon Tintaglia seize my thoughts. I felt she would smother me as she forced me to share her confinement in her tomb! And I fainted. It was terrible. I felt I was trapped with the dragon and could never find my way back to my own body.’

‘I caught you,’ Amber said. ‘And I touched you, on the back of your neck, with my Skilled fingers. Silvered, you would say. And by that magic, I called you back to your own body. But it left a mark on you. And a tiny tendril of a link that we share to this very day.’

‘What?’ Malta was incredulous.

‘It’s true!’ The words burst from King Reyn along with a laugh born of both relief and joy. ‘On the back of your neck, my dear! I saw them there in the days when your hair was as black as a crow’s wing, before Tintaglia turned it to gold. Three greyish ovals, like silver fingerprints gone dusty with age.’

Malta’s mouth hung open in surprise. At his words, her hand had darted to the back of her neck beneath the fall of glorious golden hair that was not blonde. ‘There was always a tender place there. Like a bruise that never healed.’ Abruptly she lifted her cascading locks and held them on the top of her head. ‘Come and look, any that wish, come and see if what my husband and Lady Amber says is true.’

I was one of those who did. I staggered forward, still leaning on Lant, to see the same marks I had once borne on my wrist. Three greyish ovals, the mark of the Fool’s silvered hand. They were there.

The woman called Thymara stared in consternation when it was her turn to see the nape of the queen’s neck. ‘It’s a wonder it did not kill you,’ she said in a hushed voice.

I thought that would be an end of the matter, but when General Rapskal had taken three times as long to stare at the marks as any had, he turned away from the queen and said, ‘What does it matter if she had the Silver then? What does it matter if she stole it a few nights ago, or several decades ago? Silver from the well belongs to the dragons. She must still be punished.’

I stiffened my back and tightened my belly. My voice must not shake. A deeper breath to make my words carry. I hoped I would not vomit. ‘It didn’t come from a well. It came from King Verity’s own hands, that he covered in Skill to work his great and final magic. He got it from where a river of Skill ran within a river of water. Name it not dragon-Silver. It is Skill from the Skill-river.’

‘And where might that be?’ Rapskal demanded in a voice so hungry it alarmed me.

‘I don’t know,’ I replied honestly. ‘I saw it but once, in a Skill-dream. My king never allowed me to go there with him, lest I give way to the temptation to plunge myself into it.’

‘Temptation?’ Thymara was shocked. ‘I who am privileged to use Silver to do works for the city, feel no temptation to plunge myself into it. Indeed, I fear it.’

‘That is because you were not born with it coursing in your blood,’ the Fool said, ‘as some Farseers are. As Prince FitzChivalry was, born with the Skill as a magic within him, one that he can use to shape children as some might shape stone.’

That struck them dumb.

‘Is it possible?’ This from the winged Elderling, a genuine question.

Amber lifted her voice again. ‘The magic I bear on my hands is the same that was accidentally gifted to me by King Verity. It is rightfully mine, not stolen any more than the magic that courses through the prince’s veins, the magic you joyfully allowed him to share with your children. Not stolen any more than the magic within you that changes you and marks your children. What do you call it? Marked by the Rain Wilds? Changed by the dragons? If this Silver on my fingers is stolen, why, then, any here who have been healed have shared in the prince’s thievery.’

‘That does not excuse—’ Rapskal began.

‘Enough of this,’ King Reyn commanded. I saw Rapskal’s eyes flash anger, but he did not speak as Reyn added, ‘We have abused and exhausted our guests. What the prince freely shared, we have demanded in too great a quantity from him. See how pale he is, and how he shakes. Please, my guests, return to your chambers. Let us bring you both refreshments and our sincere apologies. But in the greatest quantity of all, let us offer you our thanks.’

He advanced and with a gesture moved Perseverance aside. Behind him came Queen Malta, offering her arm fearlessly to Amber. Reyn gripped my upper arm with surprising strength. I found myself a bit humiliated but thankful for the help. I managed to look back once to see Queen Malta and Spark escorting Amber while Per came last of all slowly and with many a backward glance, as if wary that danger followed us but the doors closed behind us without incident. We walked through a corridor lined with curious folk who had been excluded from that audience. Then behind us, I heard the doors open and a gust of conversation belled out to become a roar. The hall seemed interminable. The stairs, when we came to them wavered in my vision. I could not imagine that I could climb them. But I knew I must.

And I did, step by slow step, until we stood outside the doors of my guest chamber. ‘Thank you,’ I managed to say.

‘You thank me.’ Reyn gave a snort of laughter. ‘I would better deserve a curse from you after what we have put you through.’

‘Not you.’

‘I will leave you in peace,’ he excused himself, and remained outside with his queen as my small party entered my room. When I heard Perseverance close the door behind me, relief swept through me and my knees tried to fold. Lant put his arm around me to help me to the table. I took his hand to steady myself.

A mistake. He cried out suddenly and went to his knees. In the same moment I felt the Skill course through me as swift as a snake striking. Lant clutched at the scar from the sword wound the Chalcedean raiders had given him. It had been closed, apparently healed. But in that brief touch I had known there was more for his body to do, and known, too, of one rib healed crookedly, and a fracture in his jaw that was mildly infected and giving him pain still. All repaired and set right, if one can call such a harsh correction a repair. I collapsed merrily on top of him.



Lant groaned under me. I tried to roll off him but could not summon the strength. I heard Perseverance’s gasp, ‘Oh, sir! Let me help you!’

‘Don’t touch—’ I began, but he had already stooped and taken my hand. His outcry was sharper, a young man’s voice taken back to a boy’s shrill one. He fell onto his side and sobbed twice before he could master the pain. I managed to roll away from both of them. Lant didn’t move.

‘What has happened?’ Amber’s question was close to a scream. ‘Are we attacked? Fitz? Fitz, where are you?’

‘I’m here! There’s no danger to you. The Skill … I touched Lant. And Per.’ Those were all the words I could manage.

‘What?’

‘He did … the Skill did something to my wound. It’s bleeding again. My shoulder,’ Perseverance said in a tight voice.

I knew it would. It had to. But only briefly. It was hard to find the strength to speak. I lay on my back, staring up at the high ceiling. It mimicked a sky. Artfully crafted fluffy clouds moved across a pale blue expanse. I lifted my head and summoned my voice. ‘It’s not blood, Per. It’s just wet. There was still a piece of fabric caught deep in the wound and slowly festering there. It had to come out and the fluids of infection with it. So it did, and your wound closed behind it. It’s healed now.’

Then I lay back on the floor and watched the elegant room swing around me. If I closed my eyes, it went faster. If I opened them, the forested walls wavered. I heard Lant roll over on his belly and then stagger upright. He crouched over Per and said gently, ‘Let’s look at it.’

‘Look at your injuries as well,’ I said dully. I shifted my eyes, saw Spark standing over me and cried out, ‘No! Don’t touch me. I can’t control it.’

‘Let me help him,’ Lady Amber said quietly. Two hesitant steps brought her to where I lay on the floor.

I pulled my arms in tight, hiding my bare hands under my vest. ‘No. You of all people must not touch me!’

She had crouched gracefully beside me, but as he hunkered back on his heels, he was my Fool and not Amber at all. There was immense sorrow in his voice as he said, ‘Did you think I would take from you the healing that you did not wish to give me, Fitz?’

The room was spinning and I was too exhausted to hold anything back from him. ‘If you touch me, I fear the Skill will rip through me like a sword through flesh. If it can, it will give you back your sight. Regardless of the cost to me. And I believe the cost of restoring your sight will be that I will lose mine.’

The change in his face was startling. Pale as he was, he went whiter until he might have been carved from ice. Emotion tautened the skin of his face, revealing the bones that framed his visage. Scars that had faded stood out like cracks in fine pottery. I tried to focus my gaze on him, but he seemed to move with the room. I felt so nauseous and so weak, and I hated the secret I had to share with him. But there was no hiding it any longer. ‘Fool, we are too close. For every hurt I removed from your flesh, my body assumed the wound. Not as virulently as the injuries you carried but when I healed my knife-stabs in your belly, I felt them in mine the next day. When I closed the sores in your back, they opened in mine.’

‘I saw those wounds!’ Perseverance gasped. ‘I thought you’d been attacked. Stabbed in the back.’

I did not pause for his words. ‘When I healed the bones around your eye sockets, mine swelled and blackened the next day. If you touch me, Fool—’

‘I won’t!’ he exclaimed. He shot to his feet and staggered blindly away from me. ‘Get out of here. All three of you! Leave now. Fitz and I must speak privately. No, Spark, I will be fine. I can tend myself. Please go. Now.’

They retreated, but not swiftly. They went in a bunch, with many backward glances. Spark had taken Per’s hand and when they looked back it was with the faces of woeful children. Lant went last and his expression was set in a Farseer stare so like his father’s that no one could have mistaken his bloodlines. ‘My chamber,’ he said to them as he shut the door behind them, and I knew he would try to keep them safe. I hoped there was no real danger. But I also feared that General Rapskal was not finished with us.

‘Explain,’ the Fool said flatly.

I gathered myself up from the floor. It was far harder than it should have been. I rolled to my belly, drew my knees up under me until I was on all fours and then staggered upright. I caught myself on the table’s edge and moved around it until I could reach a chair. My inadvertent healing of first Lant and then Per had extracted the last of my strength. Seated, I dragged in a breath. It was so difficult to keep my head upright. ‘I can’t explain what I don’t understand. It’s never happened with any other Skill-healing I’ve witnessed. Only between you and me. Whatever injury I take from you appears on me.’

He stood, his arms crossed on his chest. He wore his own face, and Amber’s painted lips and rouged cheeks looked peculiar now. His eyes seemed to bore into me. ‘No. Explain why you hid this from me! Why you couldn’t trust me with the simple truth. What did you imagine? That I would demand you blind yourself that I might see?’

‘I … no!’ I braced my elbows on the table and rested my head in my hands. I could not recall when I had felt more drained. A steady pulse of pounding pain in my temples kept pace with my heartbeat. I felt a desperate need to recover my strength but even sitting still was demanding more than I had to give. I wanted to topple over onto the floor and surrender to sleep. I tried to order my thoughts. ‘You were so desperate to regain your sight. I didn’t want to take that hope from you. My plan was that once you were strong enough the coterie could try to heal you, if you would let them. My fear was that if I told you I couldn’t heal you without losing my sight, you’d lose all hope.’ The last piece of the truth was angular and sharp-edged in my mouth. ‘And I feared you would think me selfish that I did not heal you.’ I let my head lower onto my folded arms.

The Fool said something.

‘I didn’t hear that.’

‘You weren’t meant to,’ he replied in a low voice. Then he admitted, ‘I called you a clodpoll.’

‘Oh.’ I could barely keep my eyes open.

He asked a cautious question. ‘After you’d taken on my hurts, did they heal?’

‘Yes. Mostly. But very slowly.’ My back still bore the pinkish dimples in echo of the ulcers that had been on his back. ‘Or so it seemed to me. You know how my body has been since that runaway healing the coterie did on me years ago. I scarcely age and injuries heal overnight, leaving me exhausted. But they healed, Fool. Once I knew what was happening, I was more careful. When I worked on the bones around your eyes, I kept strict control.’ I halted. It was a terrifying offer to make. But in our sort of friendship, it had to be made. ‘I could try to heal your eyes. Give you sight, lose mine, and see if my body could restore mine. It would take time. And I am not sure this is the best place for us to make such an attempt. Perhaps in Bingtown, after we’ve sent the others home, we could take rooms somewhere and make the attempt.’

‘No. Don’t be stupid.’ His tone forbade any response.

In his long silence, sleep crept up on me, seeping into every part of my body. It was that engulfing demand the body makes, one that knows no refusal.

‘Fitz. Fitz? Look at me. What do you see?’

I prised my eyelids open and looked at him. I thought I knew what he needed to hear. ‘I see my friend. My oldest, dearest friend. No matter what guise you wear.’

‘And you see me clearly?’

Something in his voice made me lift my head. I blinked blearily and stared at him. After a time, he swam into focus. ‘Yes.’

He let out his pent breath. ‘Good. Because when I touched you, I felt something happen, something more than I expected. I reached for you, to call you back, for I feared you were vanishing into the Skill-current. But when I touched you, it wasn’t as if I touched someone else. It was like folding my hands together. As if your blood suddenly ran through my veins. Fitz, I can see the shape of you, there in your chair. I fear I may have taken something from you.’

‘Oh. Good. I’m glad.’ I closed my eyes, too weary for surprise. Too exhausted for fear. I thought of that other day, long ago, when I had drawn him back from death and pushed him into his own body again. In that moment, as I had left the body I had repaired for him, as we had passed one another before resuming our own flesh again, I’d felt the same. A sense of oneness. Of completion. I recalled it but was too weary to put it into words.

I put my head down on the table and slept.

I floated. I had been part of something immense, but now I was torn loose. Broken away from the great purpose that had used me as a conduit. Useless. Again. Voices blowing in the distance.

‘I used to have nightmares about him. Once I wet my bed.’

A boy gave a half-laugh. ‘Him? Why?’

‘Because of the first time I met him. I was just a child, really. A child given what seemed like a harmless task. To leave a gift for a baby.’ He cleared his throat. ‘He caught me in Bee’s room. Cornered me like a rat. He must have known I was coming, though I can’t guess how. He was suddenly there with a knife at my throat.’

Breathless silence. ‘Then what?’

‘He forced me to strip down to my skin. I know now that he was intent on completely disarming me. He took everything I’d carried. Little knives, poisons, wax to copy keys. All the things I’d been so proud to have, all the little tools for what my father wanted me to become. He took them and I stood naked and shivering while he stared at me. Deciding what to do with me.’

‘You thought he’d kill you? Tom Badgerlock?’

‘I knew who he was. Rosemary had told me. And she’d told me that he was far more dangerous than I could imagine, in more ways. Witted. And that there had always been rumours that he had … appetites.’

‘I don’t understand.’

A pause. ‘That he might desire boys as much as he liked women.’

A dead silence. Then a lad laughed. ‘Him? Not him. There was only one for him. Lady Molly. It was always a joke among the servants at Withywoods.’ He laughed again and then gasped, ‘“Knock twice,” the kitchen maids would giggle. “And then wait and knock again. Never go in until one of them invites you. You never know where they will be going at one another.” The men of the estate were proud of him. “That old stud hasn’t lost his fire,” they’d say. “In his study. In the gardens. Out in the orchards.”’

The orchard. A summer day, her sons gone off to seek their fortunes. We’d walked among the trees, looking at the swelling apples, speaking of the harvest to come. Molly, her hands sweet with the wild blossoms she’d gathered. I’d paused to tuck a sprig of baby’s breath into her hair. She had turned her face up to me, smiling. The long kiss had turned into something more.

‘When Lady Shun first came to Withywoods, one of the new housemaids said he’d gone off to find himself a willing woman. Cook Nutmeg told me of it. She told that housemaid, “Not him. It was only Lady Molly and never anyone else for him. He can’t even see another woman.” Then she told Revel what the housemaid had said. Revel called her into his study. “He’s not Lord Grabandpinch, he’s Holder Badgerlock. And we won’t have gossip here.” And then he told her to pack her things. So Cook Nutmeg told us.’

Molly had smelled like summer. Her flowers had scattered on the ground as I pulled her down to me. The deep orchard grass was a flimsy wall around us. Clothing pushed aside, a stubborn buckle on my belt, and then she was astride me, clutching my shoulders, leaning hard on her hands as she pinned me down. Leaning down, her breasts free of her blouse, putting her mouth on mine. The sun warmed her bared skin to my touch. Molly. Molly.

‘And now? Do you still fear him?’ the boy asked.

The man was slow to reply. ‘He is to be feared. Make no mistake in that, Per. Fitz is a dangerous man. But I’m not here because I have a rightful caution of him. I’m here to do my father’s bidding. He tasked me to watch over him. To keep him safe from himself. To bring him home, when all is done, if I can.’

‘That won’t be easy,’ the boy said reluctantly. ‘I heard Foxglove talking to Riddle after that battle in the forest. She said he has a mind to hurt himself. To end himself, since his wife is dead and his child gone.’

‘It won’t be easy,’ the man conceded with a sigh. ‘It won’t be easy.’

I dreamed. It was not a pleasant dream. I was not a fly, but I was caught in a web. It was a web of a peculiar sort, not of sticky threads but of defined channels that I had to follow, as if they were deep footpaths cut through an impenetrable forest of fog-enshrouded trees. And so I moved, not willingly but unable to do otherwise. I could not see where my trail led, but there was no other. Once, I looked behind me, but the track I had followed had vanished. I could only go on.

She spoke to me. You interfered with what is mine. I am surprised, human. Are you too stupid to fear provoking dragons?

Dragons don’t bother with introductions.

The fog blew slowly away and I was in a place where rounded grey stones scabbed with lichen humped out of a grassy sward. The wind was blowing as if it had never begun and would never stop. I was alone. I tried to be small and kept silent. Her thoughts still found me.

The child was mine to shape. You had no right.

Huddling small had not worked. I tried to keep my thoughts calm but I fervently wished that Nettle were here with me in this dreamscape. She had withstood the full onslaught of the dragon Tintaglia when she was still new to the Skill. I reached for my daughter, but the dragon boxed me as if I were a frog captured in a boy’s callused hands. I was in her control and alone. I hid my fear of her deep inside my chest.

I did not know which dragon this was and I knew better than to ask. A dragon guards its name lest others acquire power over it. ‘It’s only a dream’ scarcely applies to what a dragon can do to one’s sleeping mind. I needed to wake up, but she pinned me as a hawk’s talons would pin a struggling hare. I felt the cold and stony land beneath me, felt the icy wind ripping warmth from my body. And still I saw nothing of her. Perhaps logic might reach her. ‘My intent was never to interfere, but only to make the small changes that would let the children live.’

The child was mine.

‘Do you prefer a dead child to a live one?’

Mine is mine. Not yours.

The logic of a three-year-old. The pressure on my chest increased, and a translucent shape coalesced above me. She shimmered blue and silver. I recognized which child she claimed by the markings she shared with the child’s mother. The mother had been the woman who claimed to work with Silver. Thymara, the winged-and-clawed Elderling. This dragon claimed the girl-child who had been fearless in choosing the changes she would have. A child that was only marginally human. She had not hesitated to choose dragon’s feet over human ones so that she might leap higher and grip limbs better when she climbed. A brave and intelligent child.

That she is.

I sensed a grudging pride. I had not meant to share the thought but perhaps flattering the child or the dragon might win me a reprieve. The pressure of the dragon’s foot on my chest had gone past painful to the sensation of ribs flexed as far as they could bend. If she cracked my ribs into stabbing pieces that punctured my lungs, would I die or wake up? Being aware that I was dreaming did not lessen the pain or the sense of imminent disaster.

Die in your dreams, wake up insane. Or so the old Elderling saying went. Your connections to this world are strong, little human. There is something about you … yet you are not dragon touched by any dragon I know. How is that possible?

‘I don’t know.’

What is this thread I perceive in you, dragon and not-dragon? Why have you come to Kelsingra? What brought you to the dragons’ city?

‘Revenge,’ I gasped. I could feel my ribs beginning to give way. The pain was astonishing. Surely if I were asleep, this pain would awaken me. So this was real. Somehow this was real. And if it were real, I would have a knife at my belt, and if it were real, I wouldn’t die like a pinned hare. My right arm was caught under the dragon’s talon but my left was free. I reached, groped, and found it. Drew it and stabbed with all my remaining strength only to have it clash against the heavy scaling of the dragon’s foot. My blade skated and turned aside as if I had tried to stab a stone. She did not even flinch.

You seek revenge on dragons? For what?

My arm fell lifelessly away. I did not even feel my fingers lose their grip on the knife. Pain and lack of air were emptying me of will. I did not utter the words, for I had no air left. I thought them at her. Not revenge on dragons. On the Servants. I’m going to Clerres to kill all the Servants. They hurt my friend and destroyed my child.

Clerres?

Dread. A dragon could feel dread? Amazing. Even more surprising, it seemed to be dread of the unknown.

A city of bones and white stones far south of here. On an island. A city of pale folk who believe they know all the futures and which one is best to choose.

The Servants! She began to fade from my dream. I remember … something. Something very bad. Suddenly I was unimportant to her. As her attention left me, I could breathe again and I floated in a dark-grey world, either dead or alone in my sleep. No. I didn’t want to sleep and be vulnerable to her. I struggled toward wakefulness, trying to recall where my body truly was.

I opened my eyes to deep night and blinked sticky eyes. A mild wind was blowing across the hills. I could see the trees swaying in it. In the distance, I saw snow-topped mountains. The moon was big and round and the ivory of old bones. Game would be moving. Why had I been sleeping so soundly? My head felt as if it were stuffed full of wool. I lifted my face and snuffed the air.

I felt no breeze and smelled no forest, only myself. Sweat. The smell of an occupied room. The bed was too soft. I tried to sit up. Nearby, clothing rustled and someone set strong hands on my shoulders. ‘Go slow. Let’s start with water.’

The night sky was a cheat and I’d never hunt like that again. ‘Don’t touch me skin to skin,’ I reminded Lant. His hands went away and I struggled into a sitting position. I swung my legs over the edge of the bed. The room spun three times and settled. All was dim and twilight around me. ‘Take this,’ he said and a cool container was pushed gently into my hands. I smelled it. Water. I drank until it was gone. He took it away and came back with more. I drained it again.

‘That’s enough for now, I think.’

‘What happened?’

He sat down beside me on the edge of the bed. I looked at him carefully and was grateful I could see him. ‘What do you recall?’ he asked me after a long silence.

‘I was healing Elderling children …’

‘You touched children, one after another. Not that many. Six, I think. They all grew better and, with every healed child, the wonder of the Kelsingra Elderlings grew and you became stranger. I have no Skill, Fitz. Yet even I felt as if you were the eye of a storm of magic that flowed toward you and then blew all around us. And when there were no more children, other people began to push forward. Not just the Elderlings, but Rain Wild folk. I’d never seen people so malformed. Some had scales and some had dangling growths along their jaws. Some had claws or dragon-nostrils. But not in a lovely way, not like the Elderlings do. They were like … diseased trees. And full of sudden hope. They began to push toward you, asking you to mend them. Your eyes were blank and you didn’t answer. You just began to touch them, and they collapsed, their bodies changed. But almost immediately, you went pale and began to shake, yet still you wouldn’t stop and still they came on, pushing and begging. Lady Amber cried out to you and shook you. And still you stared, and still distorted people pushed toward you. Then Amber pulled off her glove and clutched your wrist and dragged you back from them.’

My recollection was like a tapestry unfurling. Lant was blessedly silent as I pieced my life back together. ‘And since then? Is all well?’ I recalled the pushing and the shouting crowd. ‘Were any of you hurt? Where are the others?’

‘No one was hurt seriously. Scratches and bruises.’ He gave a disbelieving snort. ‘And only Spark still bears those marks. When you touched me and Per all our hurts were healed. I have not felt this healthy since … since before I was beaten that night in Buckkeep Town.’

‘I’m sorry.’

He stared at me. ‘You’re sorry for healing me?’

‘For doing it so abruptly. Without warning. The Skill … I could not control it.’

He stared past me. ‘It felt peculiar. As if I’d been dunked in an ice-cold river, and then fished out right away, as dry and warm as I’d been.’ His voice trailed away as he recalled it.

‘Where are they now? Amber and Spark and Per?’ Was there danger? Had I slept while they were threatened?

‘Probably sleeping still. I took this watch.’

‘Watch? How long have I been here?’

He gave a small sigh. ‘This is the second night. Well. Perhaps I should say the morning of the third day. It’s nearly dawn.’

‘I think I fell asleep at the table.’

‘You did. We moved you to the bed. I feared for you, but Amber said to let you sleep and not to call in a healer. I think she worried what might happen if a healer touched your skin. She bade us all be very careful not to touch you.’

I answered his unspoken question. ‘I think I have control of my Skill again.’ I was still for a moment, investigating the flow of the magic. It was strong here in the old city, but I once more felt it as something outside myself rather than a current flowing through me. I considered my walls and found them stronger than I had expected.

‘I gave you powdered elfbark,’ Lant reminded me.

‘That I recall.’ I turned to stare at him. ‘I’m surprised you carry such a thing.’

He looked away from me. ‘You recall my father’s early hopes for me, the training I had. I brought many small things on this journey.’

For a time, we were both silent. Then I asked him, ‘What of General Rapskal? What is the current feeling toward us here in Kelsingra?’

Lant licked his lips. ‘Great respect founded on fear, I think. Amber has counselled us to caution. We have been eating in our rooms and mingling little. None of us have seen General Rapskal. But there has been one note from him, and three visits from one of his soldiers, an Elderling name Kase. He was respectful but insistent that General Rapskal needed a private meeting with you. We’ve turned him away because you were still resting, but none of us feel it would be safe for you to meet with him alone. The general seems … peculiar.’

I nodded silently, but quietly resolved that a private meeting might eventually be needed, if I were to dispel whatever threat the general presented to Amber. After such a meeting, he just might fall deathly ill if he continued to pursue his vendetta.

‘The Elderlings have respected our wish for solitude,’ Lant continued. ‘I suspect the king and queen have sheltered us from curiosity and requests. Mostly we’ve encountered the serving folk and they seem to feel kindly toward us.’ He added awkwardly, ‘Some are touched by the Rain Wilds in unpleasant ways. I fear that some may seek healing from you, despite the king’s order that you be left in peace. We did not want to leave you alone because we did not want the Elderlings to find you unguarded. At first. Then we feared you might be dying.’ As if startled by his own words, he suddenly sat up straight and said, ‘I should let the others know you are awake. Do you want food?’

‘No. Yes.’ I didn’t want it but I knew I needed it. I had not been dying but I had not been living either. My body felt like soiled clothing, stiff with dirt and smelly with sweat. I rubbed my face. Definitely a beard now. My eyes were gummy, my tongue and teeth coated.

‘I’ll see to it, then.’

He left. The room was lightening around me, mimicking dawn. The nightscape on the wall was fading. I dragged off the Elderling robe I wore as I went to the pool. As soon as I knelt by the water-spout it began to release steaming water.

I was soaking in hot water when Amber entered. Perseverance was with her, but she walked beside him, not relying on him to guide her as they came directly to the pool’s edge. I answered the basic questions before they could be asked. ‘I’m awake. Nothing hurts. I’m starting to get hungry. I have my Skill under control. I think. Please avoid touching me until I’m sure.’

‘How are you? Truly?’ Amber asked me. I liked that her eyes settled on me even as I wondered if my vision were diminished at all. If the Fool had gained a small amount of vision, had I lost some of mine? I had not noticed a difference. Yet.

‘I’m awake. Still tired but not sleepy.’

‘You slept a long time. We feared for you.’ Amber sounded hurt, as if my being unconscious had bruised her feelings.

The hot water had loosened my muscles. My body was starting to feel more familiar, as if I might belong in it. I ducked my head one more time and scrubbed my eyes clear. I waded out of the water. Still some aches. Sixty was not thirty, regardless of how I might appear. Perseverance left Amber’s side to bring me a drying cloth and then a robe. I spoke as I wiped water from my legs. ‘What is the mood of the city? Did I harm anyone?’

Amber spoke. ‘Apparently not — at least not in a permanent way. The children you touched all seem to be faring better now than before you touched them. The Rain Wilders you touched have sent you notes of thanks. And, of course, pleas that you help others. At least three have left notes under the door, begging you to help them with their changes. Exposure to dragons or even areas where dragons were long present seem to trigger their afflictions, and those deliberately changed by dragons fare much better than those who simply are born with changes or acquire them as they grow. Those changes are often deadly to children, and life-shortening for all.’

‘Five notes now,’ Perseverance said quietly. ‘Two more were outside the door when we came.’

I shook my head. ‘I dare not try to help anyone. Even with the elfbark Lant gave me, I can feel the Skill-current sweeping past me like a riptide. I won’t venture into that again.’ I poked my head out of the neck-hole of the green Elderling robe. The skin on my arms was still damp, but I wrestled my hands through the sleeves, shrugged my shoulders and felt the garment settle itself around me. Elderling magic? Was there Silver in the fabric of this robe, reminding it that it was a garment? The Elderlings had mixed Skill into their roads so that they always recalled they were roads. Moss and grass never consumed them. Was there a difference between the Skill and the magic the Elderlings had used to create this marvellous city? How did the magics intersect? There was too much I didn’t know and I was glad that Lant had dosed me and rescued me from any further experiments.

‘I want to leave here as soon as we can.’ I hadn’t thought about saying the words: they just came out of my mouth. I walked as I spoke and Per and Amber followed me through the bedroom and into the entry chamber. Lant was there.

‘I agree,’ he said instantly. ‘UnSkilled as I am, still the whispering of the city reaches me stronger with every passing day. I need to be away from here. We should be gone before the goodwill of the Elderlings fades. General Rapskal may be able to sway people against us. Or folk may begin to resent that you refuse to heal them.’

‘Indeed, I think that very wise. Yet we cannot be too hasty. Even if there were a ship heading downriver, we would still have to be sure we bid farewell to Kelsingra in a way that ruffles no feathers.’ Amber’s voice was pensive. ‘We have a long journey through their territories and the Dragon Traders have deep ties with the Rain Wild Traders. They, in turn, have deep family ties with Bingtown and the Bingtown Traders. We must travel by river from here to Trehaug in the Rain Wilds. From there, our safest transport would be on one of the liveships that move on the river. We must journey at least as far as Bingtown, and there find a vessel that will take us through the Pirate Isles and to Jamaillia. So the goodwill of the dragon-keepers may bear us far. At least as far as Bingtown, and perhaps beyond.’ He paused then added, ‘For we must journey beyond Jamaillia, and beyond the Spice Isles.’

‘And then off the edge of any proven chart I’ve ever seen.’ I said.

‘Strange waters to you will be home ports to others. We will find our way there. I found my way to Buck, many years ago. I can find my way back to my homeland again.’

His words were little comfort to me. I was already tired just from standing. What had I done to myself? I sat down in one of the chairs and it welcomed me. ‘I had expected to travel alone and light. Working my passage for some of it. I’ve made no plans for this type of journey, no provisions for taking anyone with me.’

Soft chimes sounded and the door opened. A manservant wheeled a small table into the room. Covered dishes, a stack of plates; clearly a meal for all of us. Spark slipped in through the opened door. She was dressed and groomed but her eyes told me she had only recently left sleep behind.

Lant thanked the serving man. Our silence held until the door had closed behind him. Spark began to uncover the dishes on the tray while Perseverance put out the plates. ‘There’s a scroll-tube here, a heavy one with a funny crest on it. A chicken wearing a crown.’

‘The crowned rooster is the Khuprus family crest,’ Amber told us.

A shiver went up my back. ‘That’s different to a rooster crown?’

‘It is. Though I have wondered if they have some ancient relationship.’

‘What’s a rooster crown?’ Spark asked.

‘Open the letter and read it, please,’ Amber fended off her question. Perseverance passed it to Spark, who handed it to Lant. ‘It’s addressed to the Six Duchies Emissaries. So I suppose that means all of us.’

Lant broke the wax seal and tugged out a page of excellent paper. His eyes skimmed down it. ‘Hmm. Rumours of your waking have dashed from the kitchen to the throne room. We are invited to dine tonight with the Kelsingra Dragon Keepers. “If Prince FitzChivalry’s health permits”.’ He lifted his eyes to mine. ‘The keepers, I have learned, are the original Rain Wilders who set out with the dragons to find Kelsingra, or at least a habitable area for dragons. There were not many of them, less than twenty, I believe. Others have come to live here, of course. Rain Wilders seeking a better life, former slaves, and other folk. Some of the keepers have taken wives from among the new folk. Their ambassadors to King Dutiful presented themselves as coming from a populous and prosperous city. But what I’ve seen here and heard from the serving folk tells me a different story,’ he mused. ‘They’ve had only moderate luck at building their population to a level that can sustain the city, even on a village level. The Rain Wild folk find that they change faster when they live here, and seldom in good ways. As you have seen, the children born in Kelsingra are not many and the changes that mark them are not always good ones.’

‘An excellent report,’ Spark said in a fair imitation of Chade’s voice. Perseverance snorted into his hands.

‘Truly,’ Amber agreed, and the colour rose in Lant’s cheeks.

‘He trained you well,’ I said. ‘Why do you think they convene and invite us to dine with them?’

‘To thank you?’ Perseverance seemed incredulous I would not have thought of that.

‘It will be the preliminary to bargaining with us. It’s the Trader way.’ Amber sighed. ‘We know what we need from them. Fresh supplies and passage as far south as we can get. The question is, what will they ask of us in return?’

THREE

In the Mountains

This was a very short dream. A chalk-faced man dressed in robes of green trimmed with gold walked on a beach. A grotesque creature hunched on a grassy outcrop above the beach and watched him, but the man paid it no mind. He was carrying fine chains, as if to be worn as jewellery, but much stronger. He carried them in loops on his arm. He came to a place where the sand was shaking and bulging. He watched it, smiling. Snakes began to come out of the earth. They were large snakes, as long as my arm. They were wet and their skins were bright shades of blue and red and green and yellow. The man put a looped chain around the head of a blue one, and the chain became a noose. He lifted the snake clear of the ground. It thrashed but it could not get away even though it opened wide its mouth and showed white teeth, very pointed. The pale man caught another snake in his snare, a yellow one. Next, he tried to catch a red one, but it shook free of him and slithered away very fast toward the sea. ‘I will have you!’ the man shouted, and he chased the snake and stepped on the end of its tail, trapping it near the waves’ edge. He held the leashes of his two captive snakes in one hand and in the other he shook out a fresh snare for the red snake.

He thought she would turn and dart her head at him and he would loop the chain around her neck. But it was a dragon who turned on him, for he was treading on a dragon’s tail. ‘No,’ she said to him very loudly. ‘But I will have you.’

The picture I have painted for this dream is not very good, for my father’s red ink does not gleam and glisten as the snake did.

Bee Farseer’s dream journal

I slept cold and awoke to the toe of Dwalia’s shoe nudging my sore belly. ‘What have you been doing?’ she demanded of me, and then snarled over her shoulder, ‘Alaria! You were supposed to be watching her! Look at this! She’s been chewing at her bonds!’

Alaria came at a stumbling trot, her fur coat slung around her shoulders, her pale hair a tangle around her bleary-eyed face. ‘I was up almost all night! I asked Reppin to watch her …’

Dwalia spun away from me. I tried to sit up. My bound hands were cold and nearly numb. My whole body was stiff with various bruises and cuts. I fell over and tried to roll away from her, but I didn’t get far. I heard a slap and then a wordless yelp. ‘No excuses,’ Dwalia snarled. I heard her stalk away.

I tried to stagger to my feet, but Alaria was swifter. She put a knee in my back to keep me down. I twisted toward her to bite. She put one hand on the back of my head and pushed my face down on the paving stone. ‘Give me a reason to slam your teeth into that,’ she invited me. I didn’t.

‘Don’t hurt my brother!’ Vindeliar wailed.

‘Don’t hurt my brother,’ Dwalia mocked him in a shrill whine. ‘Be silent!’ The last word she spoke with a grunt, and I heard Vindeliar yelp.

Alaria pulled at my tunic hem then sawed strips from it with her belt-knife. She cursed in a guttural voice as she worked. I could feel her fury. Now was not a good time to challenge her. She rolled me over roughly and I saw the print of Dwalia’s hand on her face, livid red against her pale skin. ‘Bitch,’ she snapped, and I did not know if she meant me or Dwalia. She seized my stiff hands and jerked them roughly toward her. She brutally sawed at the sodden rags with her dull knife. I pulled my wrists as far apart as I could, hoping she would not cut me. ‘This time, I tie them behind your back,’ she promised through gritted teeth.

I heard footsteps crunching through leaves and twigs and Reppin came to join Alaria. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said quietly. ‘My hand hurt so much …’

‘It’s fine,’ Alaria said in a tone that said it was not.

‘She’s so unfair,’ Reppin said. ‘So cruel to us. We are supposed to be her advisors and she treats us like servants! And tells us nothing. Not a word of what she plans now that she has dragged us to this horrid place. This is not what Symphe intended for us.’

Alaria relented in her sulk. ‘There’s a road over there. I think we should follow it. It makes no sense to stay here.’

‘Perhaps it goes to a village,’ Reppin offered hopefully. She added in a softer voice, ‘I need a healer. My whole arm throbs.’

‘All of you. Go fetch wood!’ Dwalia shouted from her seat by the dwindling fire. Vindeliar looked up with a woeful face. I saw Reppin and Alaria exchange rebellious glances.

‘I said, “All of you”!’ Dwalia shrieked.

Vindeliar came to his feet and stood uncertainly. Dwalia stood up, a much-folded paper in her hand. She looked at it angrily, gripped it so tightly that I knew it was the source of her ire. ‘That liar,’ she growled. ‘I should have known. I should not have trusted a word that we wrung from Prilkop.’ Abruptly, she slapped Vindeliar with her paper. ‘Go. Get wood. We will be here another night at least! Alaria! Reppin! Take Bee with you. Watch her. We need firewood. Lots of it! You, Chalcedean! Go hunt for some food for us.’

Kerf did not even turn his head. He was perched on a low stone wall and looking across the square at nothing. Nothing until I eased my walls down and saw tumblers, clad all in black and white, performing for a crowd of tall folk with oddly coloured hair. Sounds of a busy market-day filled my ears. I squeezed my eyes shut, firmed my walls, and opened my eyes to the long-deserted plaza. For that was what it was. Once, this open space in the forest had been a lively market square, a crossroads where traders met to exchange wares and Elderlings gathered for amusement and shopping.

‘Come on,’ Alaria snapped at me.

I got slowly to my feet. If I walked hunched over, my belly did not hurt so badly. Eyes on the ground, I followed them as they crossed the ancient paving stones. I saw bear-scat among the sparse forest debris, and then a glove. I slowed my pace. Another lady’s glove, this one of soft yellow kid. Then some sodden canvas. Something red and knitted peeped out from beneath it.

Slowly and carefully I stooped and tugged out a red woollen shawl. It was as damp and smelly as the hat I’d found, but just as welcome. ‘What do you have there?’ Dwalia demanded and I flinched. I hadn’t heard her come up behind me.

‘Just a rag,’ I said, my words blurred by my swollen mouth.

‘There’s a lot of rubbish over here,’ Reppin observed.

‘Which shows that people use this road.’ Alaria added. She looked toward Dwalia as she said, ‘If we followed it, we might soon come to a village. And a healer for Reppin.’

‘There’s bear-scat, too,’ I contributed. ‘And it’s fresher than the rubbish.’ That last part was true. The excrement was on top of some of the canvas and unmelted by rain.

‘Ew!’ Alaria had been tugging at a corner of some canvas. She dropped it and sprang back.

‘What’s that?’ Dwalia exclaimed and pushed her aside. She squatted down and peeled the canvas back from the wet stones to expose something white and cylindrical. A bone? ‘Umph,’ she exclaimed in satisfaction. We all watched as she unscrewed a small plug from the end and coaxed out a coiled piece of parchment.

‘What is it?’ Alaria asked.

‘Go get wood!’ Dwalia snapped and took her treasure back to the fireside.

‘Move, Bee!’ Alaria commanded me. I hastily wrapped my shawl around my shoulders and followed them.

For the rest of the morning they broke sticks from storm-fallen branches and piled them in my arms for me to carry back to the campsite. Dwalia remained crouched by the fire, brow furrowed over the little scroll she’d found.

‘I am going to die here,’ Reppin announced. She was huddled under her coat and mine, her bitten arm cradled in her lap.

‘Don’t be dramatic,’ Dwalia snapped at her and went back to studying her papers, squinting as the light faded from the day. It had been two days since I’d bitten Reppin, and here we still were. Dwalia had forbidden Alaria from exploring any farther down the old roads, and had slapped Reppin for asking what we would do next. Since she had found the bone cylinder and discovered the parchment inside it, all she had done was sit by the fire and compare it to her crumpled paper. She scowled and squinted as her gaze moved from one to the other.

I stared at Reppin across the fire. The sun was going down and the cold was creeping back. The small amount of warmth the stones of the old plaza had captured would soon flee. Reppin probably felt colder because of her fever. I kept my mouth flat. She was right; she would die. Not quickly, but she would die. Wolf Father had told me and, when I let him guide my senses, I could smell the infection in her sweat. Next time, for a faster kill, you must find and bite a place where the blood leaps forth in gushes. But for a first kill, you did well. Even if this is meat you cannot eat.

I didn’t know my bite could kill her.

No regrets, Wolf Father chided me. There is no going back to do a thing or not do a thing. There is only today. Today you must resolve to live. Each time you are given a choice, you must do the thing that will keep you alive and unhurt. Regrets are useless. If you had not made her fear you she would have done you many more hurts. And the others would have joined in. They are a pack and they will follow their leader. You made the bitch fear you, and the others know that. What she fears, they will fear.

So I kept my face set and showed no remorse — though I did suspect that the proscription against eating humans had not been made by someone as hungry as I was. In the two days that had passed since we’d arrived, I’d eaten twice — if a thin soup of some bird Alaria had killed with a thrown stone and two handfuls of meal cooked in a full pot of water could be counted as food. The others had eaten better than I had. I had wanted to be too proud to eat the little they offered me, but Wolf Father said that was a poor choice. Eat to live, he had told me. Be proud of staying alive. And so I tried. I ate what I was given, spoke little and listened much.

By day, they untied my hands and hobbled my ankles so I could help with the endless task of scavenging for firewood. My new bonds had been made from strips torn from my tunic. I dared not chew them again lest they tear away even more of my clothing. They watched me closely. If I strayed at all from Alaria’s side, Dwalia would hit me with a stick. Every night, she bound my wrists to my tied ankles and tethered them to her wrist. If I shifted in my sleep, she kicked me. Hard.

And with every kick, Father Wolf would snarl, Kill her. As soon. As possible.

‘You and I are the only ones left,’ Reppin whispered that night to Alaria after Dwalia slept.

‘I am here,’ Vindeliar reminded them.

‘Of the true luriks,’ Reppin clarified disdainfully. ‘You are no scholar of the dream-scrolls. Stop spying on us!’ She lowered her voice as if to exclude Vindeliar. ‘Remember when Symphe herself said we were chosen as the best to help Dwalia discern the Path. But from the beginning she ignored our advice. We both know that girl has no value.’ She sighed. ‘I fear we have strayed very far from the way.’

Alaria sounded uncertain as she said, ‘But Bee did have the fever, and the skin-change. That must mean something.’

‘Only that she has some White heritage. Not that she can dream. Certainly not that she is this Unexpected Son that Dwalia claimed we would find.’ Reppin dropped her voice to a whisper. ‘You know she is not! Even Dwalia no longer credits that. Alaria, we must protect one another. No one else will. When Symphe and Dwalia proposed this mission, Capra and Coultrie both insisted that we had already endured the Unexpected Son; that he was the one who freed IceFyre and put an end to Ilistore. So Beloved told us when he came back to Clerres. He said that one of his Catalysts, the noble assassin, was the Unexpected Son. Among his people, they called Ilistore the Pale Woman. And she was defeated by the Unexpected Son. All know that! Three of the Four say that the dreams related to him are fulfilled and those prophecies should be discarded now. Only Symphe thought otherwise. And Dwalia.’

I held my breath. They were speaking of my father! I knew from poring through his papers that the Fool had said he was the Unexpected Son. But I had never grasped that in some far-off land he had been the fulfilment of a prophecy. Furtively, I edged closer.

Reppin dropped her voice. ‘Symphe believed her only because Dwalia showered her with obscure references that said the Unexpected Son’s victory would be absolute. And it was not, because Beloved came back to us and was recaptured. And remember that Dwalia served Ilistore for years and was infatuated with her. Dwalia always bragged that when Ilistore returned, she would raise her to power.’ She barely breathed the next words. ‘I think Dwalia only wants vengeance. You recall how she was about Beloved. She holds him responsible for Ilistore’s death. And you know whose home we stole Bee from? FitzChivalry’s.’

Alaria sat up in her blankets. ‘No!’

‘Yes. FitzChivalry Farseer.’ Reppin reached up to tug her back down. ‘Think back. Recall the name Beloved shouted when his foot was being crushed? The name of his true Catalyst. He’d held that back, saying he’d had many: an assassin, a nine-fingered slave boy, a ship’s captain, a spoiled girl, a noble bastard. Not true. His one real Catalyst was FitzChivalry Farseer. And when I followed Dwalia into that house, in a room full of scrolls, she stopped still and stared and smiled. And there, on a mantelpiece, I saw a carving. One of the faces on it was Beloved’s! As he looked before he was interrogated.’ She nestled deeper into their bedding. ‘She wanted to take it. But just then, Ellik’s men came in and began to push over shelves and throw things around. They took a sword from there. So we left. But that’s who Bee is. The daughter of a Catalyst.’

‘They said the house belonged to Badgerlock, Tom Badgerlock. Bee said that was her father’s name.’

‘So. You are surprised that the biting little bitch lies?’

‘But she is a White, too?’

Alaria’s whisper was soft. I strained to hear Reppin’s reply.

‘Yes. And think now how a thing such as that could come to be!’ Her words were triumphantly scandalized, as if my very existence were shameful.

‘Vindeliar is listening,’ Alaria cautioned her. She shifted, pulling the coat more closely around them. ‘I don’t care about such things. I just want to go home. Back to Clerres. I want to sleep in a bed and have breakfast waiting for me when I awaken. I wish I’d never been chosen for this.’

‘My hand hurts so badly. I’d like to kill that brat!’

‘Don’t talk like that!’ Vindeliar warned them.

‘You shouldn’t talk at all. It’s your fault, all of this!’ Reppin hissed at him.

‘Sneaking spy,’ Alaria rebuked him, and they all fell silent.

It was not the only time they whispered at night, though most of what they said made little sense to me. Reppin complained of her bite, and they discussed the politics of Clerres with names I did not know and fine points I could not understand. They promised to report all they had suffered when they returned home and agreed that Dwalia would be punished. Twice they spoke of dreams about a Destroyer, who Alaria claimed would bring screaming and foul fumes and death. In one, an acorn brought into a house suddenly grew into a tree of flames and swords. I recalled my own dream of the puppet with the acorn head and wondered if there was any connection. But I had also dreamed of a nut bobbing in a stream. I decided that my dreams were very confusing. Almost as bad as Reppin’s, for she had dreamed just darkness and a voice that announced, ‘Comes the Destroyer that you have made.’

I gleaned what facts I could from their whispering. Some important people had not agreed about allowing Dwalia to go forth on her mission. When she persisted, they had relented, but only because Beloved had escaped. From my father’s writings, ‘Beloved’ was also ‘the Fool’. And ‘Lord Golden’. ‘The Four’ had warned Dwalia of what would befall her if she failed to produce results. She had promised to deliver to them the Unexpected Son. And I was all she had.

Vindeliar was excluded from their discussions, but he so craved their attention that he had no pride. One night, as they whispered under their furs, he broke in excitedly to say, ‘I had a dream, too.’

‘You did not!’ Reppin declared.

‘I did.’ He was as defiant as a child. ‘I dreamed that someone brought a small package into a room and no one wanted it. But then someone opened it. And flames and smoke and loud noises came out and the room fell apart all around everyone.’

‘You did not dream that,’ Reppin exploded with disdain. ‘You are such a liar! You heard me talking about that dream and just repeated what you heard.’

‘I did not hear you say such a dream!’ He was indignant.

Alaria’s voice was a low growl. ‘You’d better not claim that dream with Dwalia, because I already told it to her. She will know you for what a liar you are and beat you with a stick.’

‘I did dream that,’ he whined. ‘Sometimes Whites dream the same. You know that.’

‘You are no White. You were born broken, you and your sister. You should have been drowned.’

I caught my breath at that and waited for Vindeliar to explode with fury. Instead he fell silent. The cold wind blew and the only thing we truly shared was misery. And dreams.

Even as a small child, I’d had vivid dreams and instinctively known they were important and should be shared. At home, I’d recorded them in my journal. Since the Servants had stolen me, my dreams had grown darker and more ominous. I had neither spoken of them nor written them down. The unuttered dreams were lodged inside me, like a bone in my throat. With every additional dream, the driving compulsion to speak them aloud or write them down became stronger. The dream-images were confusing. I held a torch and stood at a crossroads under a wasp nest. A scarred little girl held a baby and Nettle smiled at her although both Nettle and the girl were weeping. A man burned the porridge he was cooking, and wolves howled in anguish. An acorn was planted in gravel, and a tree of flames grew from it. The earth shook and the black rain fell and fell and fell, making dragons choke and fall to the earth with torn wings. They were stupid dreams that made no sense but the urgency I felt to share them was like the need to vomit. I put my finger on the cold stone and pretended to write and draw. The pressure eased. I tilted my head up and looked at distant stars. No clouds. It was going to be very cold tonight. I struggled to wrap my shawl more warmly around me, to no avail.

A third day passed, and a fourth. Dwalia paced and muttered and studied her documents. My bruises began to fade but I still ached all over. The swelling over my eye had gone down but one of my back teeth still felt loose. The split flesh on my cheekbone was mostly closed over now. None of them cared.

‘Take me back through the stone,’ Reppin demanded on the fourth evening. ‘Perhaps they could save me, if we returned to the Six Duchies. At least I could die in a bed instead of in the dirt.’

‘Failures die in the dirt,’ Dwalia said without emotion.

Reppin made a stricken sound and lay down on her side. She drew her legs up, treasuring her infected arm close. My disgust with Dwalia equalled my hatred in that moment.

Alaria spoke quietly into the gathering dimness. ‘We can’t stay here. Where will we go? Why can’t we follow this old road? It must lead somewhere. Perhaps it goes to a town, with warm shelter and food.’

Dwalia had been sitting by the fire, holding her hands out to the warmth. She suddenly folded her arms across her chest and glared at Alaria. ‘Are you asking questions?’

Alaria looked down. ‘I was just wondering.’ She dared to lift her head. ‘Were not we luriks meant to advise you? Were not we sent to help you find the true Path and make correct decisions?’ Her voice rose in pitch. ‘Coultrie and Capra did not wish you to go. They only allowed this because Beloved had escaped! We were to hunt him down and kill him! And then, perhaps, capture the Unexpected Son, if Beloved had led you to him. But you let the Farseer take Beloved away, so we could ransack his home. All that killing! Now we are lost in a forest, with the useless girl you stole. Does she dream? No! What good is she? I wonder why you have brought us all here, to die! I wonder if the rumour was true, that Beloved did not “escape” but was released by you and Symphe?’

Dwalia shot to her feet and stood over Alaria. ‘I am a lingstra! You are a young and stupid lurik. If you want to wonder anything, wonder why the fire is dying. Go get more wood.’

Alaria hesitated as if she would argue. Then she rose stiffly and walked reluctantly into the gathering gloom under the great trees. Over the last few days, we had gathered all the close dry wood. She would have to range deeper into the forest to find more. I wondered if she would come back. Twice Wolf Father had noted a faint but foul smell on the air. Bear, he had cautioned me. I had been frightened.

He does not want to approach so many humans near a fire. But if he changes his mind, let the others shriek and run. You cannot run fast or far. So lie very still and do not make a sound. It may be he will chase after the others.

But if he does not?

Lie still and don’t make a sound.

I had not been reassured, and I hoped that Alaria would return and bring an armful of firewood with her.

‘You,’ Dwalia said suddenly. ‘Go with her.’

‘You already tied my feet for the night,’ I pointed out to her. ‘And my hands.’ I tried to sound sullen. If she cut me free to go for wood, I was almost certain I could slip away in the gloom.

‘Not you. I’m not having you run off in the dark, to die in the forest. Reppin. Fetch wood.’

Reppin looked incredulous. ‘I can barely move this arm. I can’t fetch wood.’

Dwalia stared at her. I thought she might order her to her feet. Instead, she just pursed her mouth. ‘Useless,’ she said coldly, and then added, ‘Vindeliar, fetch wood.’

Vindeliar rose slowly. He kept his eyes cast down, but I could read his resentment in the set of his shoulders as he wandered off in the same direction that Alaria had gone.

Dwalia went back to doing what she did every evening: studying the little scroll and the tattered paper. Earlier, she had spent hours circling the pillars at the edge of the plaza, her eyes going from the parchment she’d found to the runes and back again. Some of those markings I had seen in my father’s papers in his study. Would she attempt another passage through the Skill-pillars? She had also made brief forays on the road in both directions, and had returned shaking her head and irritable. I could not decide which I feared more, that she would drag us into the Skill-pillar or starve us here.

Across the plaza, Kerf was engaged in a boot-stamping dance. If I allowed myself, I could hear the music and see the Elderlings who danced all about him. Alaria returned with some frozen branches broken green from trees. They might burn but would give little warmth. Vindeliar came behind her, carrying a broken piece of rotted log, more moss than wood. As they approached the fire, Kerf danced a foot-stamping jig around them. ‘Go away!’ Alaria shouted at him, but he only grinned as he spun away to rejoin the festivities of the spectral Elderlings.

I did not like camping in the open ground of the plaza, but Dwalia thought the forest floor was ‘dirty’. But dirt was much better than the smooth black stone of the plaza that gibbered and whispered to me constantly. Awake, I could keep my walls tight, though I was weary of the effort that took. But at night, when exhaustion finally claimed me, I was vulnerable to the voices stored in the stone. Their marketplace came alive with smoking meat over fragrant fires, and jugglers flipping sparkling gems and one pale songster who seemed to see me. ‘Be strong, be strong, go where you belong!’ she sang to me. But her words more frightened than comforted me. In her eyes, I saw her belief that I would do a terrible and wonderful thing. A thing only I could do? The Chalcedean abruptly dropped into place beside me. I jumped. My walls were so tight I had not been aware of his approach. Danger! Wolf Father cautioned me. Kerf folded his legs and gave me a jaunty grin. ‘A fine night for the festival!’ he said to me. ‘Have you tried the smoked goat? Excellent!’ He pointed across the plaza at the darkening forest. ‘From the vendor with the purple awning.’

Madness made him such a congenial fellow. His mention of food made my stomach clench. ‘Excellent,’ I said quietly, and looked aside, thinking that agreeing might be the swiftest way to end the conversation.

He nodded gravely and walked his haunches a bit closer to the fire, holding his grimy hands toward the warmth. Even mad, he’d had more sense than Reppin. A rag torn from his shirt bandaged the finger I’d bitten. He opened the sturdy leather pouch at his belt and rummaged in it. ‘Here,’ he said and thrust a stick at me. I lifted my bound hands to fend it off and he pushed it into my fingers. I suddenly smelled meat. Jerky. The rush of hunger and the flood of saliva in my mouth shocked me. My hands shook as I lifted it to my mouth. It was dry and so hard I could not bite off a piece. I chewed and sucked on it, and found myself breathing hard as I tried to gnaw off a piece I could swallow.

‘I know what you did.’

I clutched the stick of jerky harder, fearful he would take it from me. I said nothing. Dwalia had lifted her gaze from her papers and was scowling at us. I knew she would not try to take the jerky from me, for fear of my teeth.

He patted my shoulder. ‘You tried to save me. If I had let go when you bit me, I would have stayed there with beautiful Shun. I understand that now. You wanted me to stay behind, to protect her and win her.’

I kept chewing the jerky. To get as much of it as I could into my belly before anyone could take it from me. Belatedly I nodded at him. Let him believe whatever he wished if it meant he would give me food.

He sighed as he gazed at the night. ‘I think we are in the realm of death. It is very different to what I expected. I feel cold and pain but I hear music and see beauty. I do not know if I am punished or rewarded. I do not know why I am still with these people instead of judged by my ancestors.’ He gave Dwalia a gloomy look. ‘These folks are darker than death. Perhaps that is why we are lodged here, halfway down death’s throat.’

I nodded again. I’d managed to tear a bit of the meat free and was chewing it to shreds. I had never so greatly anticipated swallowing anything.

He twisted away from me and fumbled at his belt. When he turned back, a large gleaming knife was in his hand. I tried to scrabble back from him, but he caught my tied feet and pulled them to him. The knife was sharp. It slid through the twisted fabric and suddenly my ankles were free. I kicked free of his grip. He reached toward me. ‘Now your wrists,’ he said.

Trust or not? That knife could take off a finger just as easily as cut my bonds. I stuffed the stick of meat into my mouth and gripped it with my teeth. I held out my wrists to him.

‘This is tight! It hurts?’

Don’t answer.

I met his gaze silently.

‘Your wrists have swelled up around it.’ He slid the blade carefully between my hands. It was cold.

‘Stop that! What are you doing?’ Dwalia finally voiced her outrage.

The Chalcedean barely spared her a glance. He took one of my hands to steady his task and began sawing through the rag that bound them

Dwalia surprised me. She had been in the act of adding a hefty stick of wood to the fire. Instead she took two steps and clouted the Chalcedean on the back of his head. He went down, the knife still clutched in his hand. I tore my hands free of the last shred of rag and shot to my feet. I ran two steps on my buzzing feet before she seized me by the back of my collar, choking me. Her first two clouts with the stick were on my right shoulder and right ribs.

I twisted in her grasp, ignoring how it tightened the chokehold she had on me and kicked her as hard as I could, hitting her shin and then her knee. She shrieked with pain but did not let me go. Instead she struck the side of my head with her stick of firewood. My crushed ear rang and I tasted blood but the pain did not matter so much as the way my vision was shrinking. I spun away from her, but that allowed her to hit me on the other side of my head. Dimly, I knew she was shouting at the others to seize me. No one leapt to help her. Vindeliar was moaning, ‘Don’t, don’t, don’t,’ his voice going higher each time he said the word. It angered me that he would moan but do nothing. I pushed my pain at him.

She hit me on the side of my head again, smashing my ear. My knees folded and suddenly I was hanging by my collar. She was not strong enough to support my weight. She collapsed on top of me and my shoulder exploded with pain.

I felt a wave of emotion. It was like when Nettle and my father merged their minds, or when my father’s mind was boiling with thoughts and he had forgotten to hold them in. Don’t hurt her! Don’t hurt her!

Dwalia let go of my collar and made a strange sound as she rolled off me. I didn’t try to move. I just breathed, pulling air back into my body. I’d lost the jerky. My mouth was full of blood. I turned my head and opened my lips to let it run out.

Don’t die. Please don’t die and leave me alone. Vindeliar’s thought whispered to me. Oh. That was it. When I’d pushed my pain at him, I’d opened a way for his thoughts to come in. Dangerous. With every bit of will power I could muster, I blocked him from my mind. Tears stung my eyes. Tears of fury. Dwalia’s calf was within reach of my teeth. I wondered if I could bite a piece of meat off her leg.

Don’t, cub. She still has the stick. Crawl away. Quietly. This is one you don’t attack until you are sure you can kill her.

I tried to wriggle away. But my arm wouldn’t obey me. It flopped uselessly. I was broken. I blinked at the pain and little black spots danced in front of my eyes. Dwalia got to her hands and knees and then stood up with a grunt and walked away without looking at me. When she reached the other side of the fire, she sat down on the pack again and resumed looking at her much-folded paper, and the little scroll she had taken from the bone. Slowly, she rotated the pieces of paper, then suddenly leaned closer to them. She set them side by side on her knees and looked from one to the other.

The Chalcedean sat up slowly. He reached around to the back of his head, brought his hand before his eyes and rubbed his wet fingertips together. He watched me sit up and shook his head at my flopping useless arm. ‘It’s broken,’ I whispered. I desperately wanted someone to care that I was hurt so badly.

‘Darker than death,’ he said quietly. He reached over and put his fingers on the point of my shoulder and prodded it. I yelped and flinched away. ‘Not broken,’ he observed. ‘But I don’t know your word for it.’ He made a fist and clasped it in his other hand. Then he pulled his fist out. ‘Popped out,’ he told me. He reached toward me again and I cowered away but he only waved at my shoulder. ‘Popped out.’

‘My arm won’t move.’ Panic was rising in me. I couldn’t get a breath.

‘Lie down. Be still. Be loose. Sometimes, it goes back in.’ He looked over at Dwalia. ‘She’s a wasp,’ he observed. I stared at him. He smiled sickly. ‘A Chalcedean saying. If the bee stings, it dies. It pays a price to hurt you. A wasp can bite and bite and bite again. It pays nothing for the pain it brings.’ He shrugged. ‘So they bite. They know nothing else.’

Dwalia suddenly shot to her feet. ‘I know where we are now!’ She looked back at the small scroll in her hands. ‘The runes match. It makes no sense, but it must be so!’ She stared into the distance; then her eyes narrowed and her features changed as she realized something. ‘He lied to us. He lied to ME!’ Dwalia roared. I had thought she was frightening when she was angry, but, outraged was far worse. ‘He lied to me! A market square, Prilkop claimed, on a well-travelled road. He thought he was so clever. He tricked me into bringing us here. He tricked me!’ This last she screamed, her face contorted into a stark mask. ‘Prilkop!’ Spit flew out of her mouth. ‘Always so condescending. So calmly superior. And Beloved, so silent, and then babbling, babbling. Babbling lies! Well, I made him scream. I tore the truth out of them both, didn’t I?’

‘Apparently not.’ Alaria breathed the words, looking at the space between her feet and the fire. I doubt anyone heard her besides me.

But Reppin’s head twitched as if she had and she tried to sit up straight. ‘You thought you did. You thought you ripped the truth out of his flesh. But he was stronger than you, wasn’t he? Cleverer. Prilkop tricked you into bringing us here, and here we are, in the middle of the wilderness. Starving. Dying!’ Her voice cracked.

Dwalia stared at Reppin, her eyes flat. Then she crushed the yellow map between her hands, stood up and thrust it into the pack she’d been sitting on. The little scroll she had found, she rolled and slid back into the tube. She flourished it at Reppin. ‘Not all of us, Reppin. Not all of us will die here.’ Her smile widened with pride. ‘I’ve deciphered it. Prilkop lied to me, but the true Path is not to be defied!’ She dug deeper into the pack and pulled out a small pouch, unwound the ties that secured it and withdrew a delicate glove. Wolf Father growled within me. I stared, feeling ill and not knowing why. Dwalia worked the glove slowly and carefully onto her hand, settling each fingertip into place. She had used it before, when she had dragged us through the Skill-pillar. She stood up. ‘Bring the packs and the captive. Follow me.’

The captive. My new title flowed over me like greasy water. Dwalia did not look back to see if they were obeying. She carried only her superiority as she strode to one of the pillars and studied the markings on it. ‘Where does it go?’ Alaria asked timidly.

‘That’s not for you to worry about.’

The Chalcedean had followed Dwalia. He was the only one who did. I shifted away from the fire. My hands were free, my feet untied. They tingled with dwindling numbness in contrast to the roaring pain in my shoulder. Could I stand and run? I pushed with my good hand braced on the ground and moved my aching body a bit closer to the darkness. If I could slowly edge into the darkness, I might be able to crawl away.

Reppin had staggered to her feet and was trying one-handed to pick up my coat from the ground. ‘I don’t know if I can carry a pack,’ she apologized. No one responded.

Ignoring Dwalia’s scowl, the Chalcedean stepped up beside her to regard the pillar. He reached out and traced the carved runes. ‘I know this one,’ he said, and smiled oddly. ‘I knelt almost upon it and had nothing else to stare at. I was six. We kept a vigil for my grandfather’s body in the Chamber of Toppled Doors in the Duke of Chalced’s stronghold. It was an honour for my grandfather’s body to be exposed in such a place. The next day, they burned his body on a pyre near the harbour.’

Dwalia snapped her stare back to him and smiled. ‘This was in Chalced, wasn’t it?’

He nodded. ‘It was half a day’s ride from my family’s holding there. The duke’s stronghold is said to be built on the site of an ancient battle. There were four pillars such as this one, all dragged down to the earth, sunken to be flush with the floor of the chamber. It is said to be good luck if you can break a chip from one to carry as a token. I tried, but the stone was as hard as iron.’

Her smile broadened. ‘As I thought! We are still on the true Path, my luriks. I am certain of it, when such good fortune smiles upon us.’ She tapped the little scroll-tube against her palm. ‘Fate has delivered a map into my hands. It’s oddly drawn and the writing is foreign, but I have puzzled it out. I know where we are on this map, and now I know that this pillar can transport us to Chalced. Kerf will take us to his family’s holding and introduce us as his friends. His family will give us supplies for our journey home.’ She swung her stare to Vindeliar. ‘Won’t he, Vindeliar?’

Kerf looked astounded. Vindeliar, carrying one pack on his shoulders and dragging another, looked weary and uncertain. The firelight shifted on his features, making him first an adoring servant and then a beaten dog.

‘My family will do that?’ Kerf asked in wonder.

‘You will speak for us,’ Dwalia assured him. I scooted myself a little farther away from the fire. I could barely stand the pain of my popped shoulder when I moved. I cradled my useless arm with my good one, wondering how bad the pain would be if I staggered to my feet and tried to run.

‘I can’t lift my coat,’ Reppin told no one at all.

‘No.’ Kerf shook his head. ‘I cannot speak for you to my family. I cannot even speak for myself. They will want to know how I have survived and returned when so many of my comrades are missing. They will think I have fled battle and left my war brothers to die. They will despise me.’

Dwalia fixed her smile in place, put her ungloved hand on his arm and gave Vindeliar a sideways glance. ‘I am sure your family will welcome us when you speak for us. I am sure they will feel only pride in you.’

I kept my eyes fixed on them as I edged into darkness. The pain from my shoulder made me want to vomit. I watched Vindeliar’s face slacken as his thoughts went elsewhere. I felt how desperately he pushed his thoughts onto Kerf as if I heard the echo of a distant scream. I watched the Chalcedean’s scowl fade as he gazed at Dwalia. Reppin had given up trying to pick up my coat from the ground. Empty-handed, she tottered over to where the others stood. There she made a knowing smile and nodded to herself as Vindeliar worked his magic but no one took any notice of her. I bent my knees and pushed myself deeper into darkness.

‘My family will surely welcome you. All we own will be put at your disposal,’ Kerf told Dwalia. His smile was warm with certainty.

‘Alaria, bring her!’ Dwalia looked, not at me, but beyond me. I turned my head. The evil delight on Alaria’s face was chilling. All this time, as I’d kept watch on Dwalia and tried to move away from the firelight, she had been behind me. Now or never. I pushed hard with my good hand and managed to gain my feet, my useless arm clutched to my belly. I ran.

I took three strides before Alaria caught me. She grabbed my hair and kicked my leg as if she had been waiting her whole life for that moment. I shrieked. She shook my head by my hair as a fox shakes a rabbit and then flung me aside. I landed on my bad shoulder. Flashes of red and flashes of black. I could not find air to breathe. I could do nothing when she seized the back of my shirt and dragged me almost to my feet. ‘Walk!’ she shouted at me. ‘Walk or I’ll kick you again!’

It was hard to obey and impossible to defy her. She was bigger and stronger than me and hadn’t been beaten recently. She kept her grip on my garments and held me too high. We were halfway to Dwalia, me struggling to balance on my toes, when I realized that my shoulder was a dull red ache and I could move my arm again. So, I had that.

By the pillars, Dwalia was arranging her ducklings to her liking. ‘I will go first,’ she announced, as if anyone else could have. ‘I will grip Vindeliar’s hand, and he will hold Kerf’s.’ She smiled warmly at the nodding Chalcedean and I understood. Those were the two most important to her own survival. She wished to be certain her magic-man and the warrior with a home in Chalced arrived with her. ‘Then the brat. Kerf, hold tight to her. Not her hand. Remember that she bites. Grab the back of her neck. That’s right. Alaria, you are last. Take her by her upper arm and hold tight.’

This Alaria was pleased to do and I could only be weakly glad that it was not my bad shoulder. Kerf gripped the back of my neck and any kindliness he previously had shown toward me was gone. He was Vindeliar’s puppet again.

‘Wait! Am I last?’ Reppin demanded.

Dwalia looked at her coldly. ‘You are not last. You are unnecessary. You would not fetch the firewood. You chose to be useless. Alaria, go fetch that coat. It may be worth money in Chalced. And Reppin’s pack.’

Reppin’s eyes were huge in her wan face as Alaria released me and ran to obey. The Chalcedean’s grip on me was sure. Alaria moved swiftly. Did she wish to show how useful she was? In a moment, she was back, Reppin’s pack slung over one shoulder and the heavy coat that once had been white and mine draped over her arm. She seized my upper arm in a pinching grip.

‘You can’t leave me here. I need my pack! Don’t leave me!’ Reppin’s pale face was cadaverous in the light of the fire. Her bitten arm was curled to her chest. She pawed at Alaria, trying to seize her free hand with her good one. Alaria turned her face away from her and clutched my former coat to her chest, curling her hand out of Reppin’s reach. Her grip on my arm tightened. I wondered if she hardened her heart to leave Reppin or if it was a relief. Perhaps she was simply glad that she wasn’t the one being abandoned. I saw now how Dwalia ruled. Cruelty to one of her followers meant the others could breathe more easily for a moment. There was no loyalty between luriks, only fear of Dwalia and desire for what she might bestow on them.

‘Please!’ Reppin shrieked to the night.

Vindeliar made a small sound. For an instant, his concentration was broken and Kerf’s grip on my neck loosened.

‘She’s useless,’ Dwalia growled. ‘She’s dying, she’s whining, and she’s consuming resources that are already scarce. Don’t question my decisions, Vindeliar. Look what happened to all of us the last time you did not obey my commands. Look how many dead, and all your fault! Pay attention to me and hold tight or you, too, will be left behind!’

Kerf’s grip on me tightened and Alaria’s fingers ground the flesh of my arm against the bone.

I suddenly grasped the danger. ‘We should not do this! We should follow the road. It must go somewhere! The standing stones are dangerous. We may not come out or we may emerge as mad as Kerf!’

My shouted warnings went unheeded. Dwalia pressed her gloved hand to the stone’s carved face. It seemed to draw her in like a slice of ginger sinking into warm honey. The light from our abandoned campfire showed her sliding into the stone. Vindeliar followed, panting with terror as his hand, his wrist, his elbow vanished into stone. He whined as he was drawn in.

‘We swim with the dead ones!’ Kerf shouted, grinning his madman’s grimace. ‘On to the fallen palace of a dead duke!’ He seemed to enter the pillar more slowly than Vindeliar had, as if the stone resisted him. I hung back but his grip on my neck stayed tight even when the rest of him had vanished into the stone. I looked up as I was dragged toward the pillar and lost my breath in horror at what I saw. The additional marking on the stone was not new. It was not scored as deeply into the stone as the original runes, but there was no mistaking its intent. Someone had deliberately marked a deep straight scratch through the rune, as if to forbid or warn anyone who chose to use that face of the portal. ‘Da!’ I cried out, a desperate call that no one could hear. ‘Da! Help me!’ In the next moment, my cheek touched the cold surface and I was pulled into tarry blackness.

FOUR

Chalced

Because of our studies of many old scrolls, including translations we have done, I am convinced that the legendary Elderlings of our myths and legends were a very real people who occupied a large territory for many generations before their cities and culture eventually fell into decay long before Buckkeep Castle was founded. Additional information gained from a library of what we call Skill-cubes has only convinced us that we are correct.

Why did the Elderlings, a people of wisdom and powerful magic, fail and disappear from our world? Can we tie that failing to the vanishing of the dragons, another event for which we have no explanation? And now that both dragons and perhaps Elderlings have returned to the world, how does that affect the future of humankind?

And what of our legends of an ancient alliance between Farseer and Elderlings, the very alliance that King Verity sought to revive when he led his expedition to the Rain Wilds? Were they living Elderlings he encountered or the stored memories of what they had been? Questions that we may find the answers to if we continue to mine the memory-cubes for information.

The Vanishing Elderlings, Chade Fallstar

My mother used to do this to me. When she wanted to move me.

A dim recollection. A den, a mother who carried me by the scruff of my neck. Not my thought, but it was a thought and the first one I had. Someone gripped hair, skin and shirt collar. The collar was the part that was choking me. I was dragged up and out of a mire as someone protested, ‘There isn’t room. Leave her! There isn’t room.’

The blackness was absolute. Air on my face. I blinked my eyes to see if they were truly open. They were. No stars. No distant firelight. Nothing. Just dark. And something thick trying to pull me back down.

I was abruptly glad for the choking grip on my collar. In panic, I clutched one-handed at someone’s shirt and crawled up and onto Kerf. He was prone on his side beneath me. I lifted my head and it hit against something. Worse, someone had hold of my arm and was pulling on it as they crawled up to join me. The man beneath me shifted onto his back. I fell off him to lie wedged between him and a stone wall. It was a snug fit and instinctively I pushed at him, trying to gain more room. But I could not move his bulk and I heard Alaria gasp and then utter small shriek after shriek as she scrabbled up to take my place on top of Kerf.

The shrieks turned into gasped words. ‘Let go! Let go of me!’ She was thrashing on top of Kerf.

‘You’re kicking me,’ Vindeliar protested.

‘Let go!’ Alaria cried.

‘I’m not touching you! Stop kicking!’ Dwalia ordered her. ‘Vindeliar, get off me!’

‘I can’t. I’m stuck! There’s no room!’ He was panting with terror.

Where were we? What had happened to us?

Dwalia tried for a tone of command and failed. She was breathless. ‘Silence, all!’

‘I’m sick.’ I heard Vindeliar gag. ‘That was awful. They were all grabbing at me. I want to go home. I can’t do this. I hate this. I need to go home.’ He blubbered like a small child.

‘Let go of me!’ Alaria, her voice gone shrill.

‘Help me! I’m sinking! Please, make room! I can’t climb past you!’ I heard and smelled Reppin. The infection in her arm stank. She had probably broken the wound open in her struggle. ‘My arm … I can’t climb out. Pull me up, someone! Don’t leave me here! Don’t leave me with them!’

Where were we?

Be calm. Discover what has happened before you try to make a plan. I felt Wolf Father’s steadiness suffuse me. My breathing that had become bellows in my chest. But his voice was so calm in my mind. Listen. Touch. Smell. What can you discover?

It was hard to be calm with the slapping, panting struggle going on right beside me. Alaria begged, ‘Let go! There’s no room! Don’t pull me back! Ah!’

Reppin did not shriek. She gave a long moan that was suddenly quenched in a sound like pulled heavy stone dropped in from muck. Only Alaria’s panting broke the silence.

‘She was pulled back down into the stone.’ More a statement than a question from Dwalia. And with it, I recalled that she had dragged us into a Skill-pillar.

‘I had to! I had to push her away. There’s no more room! You said to leave her. It’s not my fault!’ Alaria sounded more defensive than sorry.

‘Be silent!’ Dwalia’s voice was still pinched with breathlessness. ‘I speak. Vindeliar, get off me!’

‘I am sorry. I am stuck here. Kerf pushed me onto you as he crawled up. I can’t budge. A stone presses down on me.’ He was on the edge of hysteria. ‘I am so sick. I cannot see! Am I blind? Lingstra Dwalia, am I blind?’

‘No. It is dark, you oaf. Don’t dare to vomit on me. You are crushing me. Give me room.’ I heard a struggle of shifting bodies.

Vindeliar whimpered, ‘There is no space for me to move. I am crushed, too.’

‘If you cannot be helpful, be still. Chalcedean?’ She was gasping for air. Vindeliar was not a small person and she was trapped beneath him. ‘Kerf?’

He giggled. It was a terrible sound coming from a man’s deep chest in the darkness.

‘Stop that! Dwalia, he’s touching me!’ Alaria was outraged and terrified.

Kerf giggled again and I felt him tug his arm from under me. He lifted it, giving me a tiny bit more room, and I surmised that he embraced Alaria against him. ‘Nice,’ he said in a throaty voice and I felt him lift his hips against her.

‘Stop,’ she begged him, but his reply was a throaty growl followed by a low chuckle. The muscles of his upper arm were pressed against me and I felt them tighten as he snugged Alaria closer to him. His breathing deepened. Beside me, he began a rhythmic shifting that shoved me solidly against the wall. Alaria began to weep.

‘Ignore him,’ Dwalia ordered her coldly.

‘He’s trying to rape me!’ She squeaked. ‘He’s—’

‘He doesn’t have enough room, so ignore him. He can’t get his own trousers down, let alone yours. Pretend he’s a little dog, infatuated with your leg.’ Was there a cruel satisfaction in Dwalia’s voice? Did she revel in Alaria’s humiliation? ‘We are trapped here and you are squawking about a man touching you. Scarcely a real danger.’

Alaria responded with a frightened keening that kept pace with Kerf’s thudding against her.

‘The girl, Bee. Did she come through? Is she alive?’ Dwalia demanded.

I kept my silence. I had wriggled my sore arm free, and although my injured shoulder protested, I was groping to discover the confines of our prison. Stone beneath me. To the left of me, Kerf’s body. To my right, a wall of stone as far as I could grope. When I reached up I could brush my fingertips against more stone. It was worked stone, smooth as a polished floor. I explored with my feet. More stone. Even if I’d been alone in this space, I could not have sat up. Where were we?

The tempo of the Chalcedean’s jerking was speeding up and with it his open-mouthed gasping.

‘Alaria, feel around. Did the girl come through?’

‘She … must … have. Oh! I dragged myself through by … holding on … to her.’ Alaria’s voice was going smaller and higher. The Chalcedean continued to heave himself about. ‘It’s disgusting!’ She wailed. ‘He’s mouthing my face. He stinks! Stop it!’ She shrieked but the Chalcedean began to grunt under her.

‘Can you feel her? Is she alive?’ Dwalia persisted.

I lay still. Despite Kerf’s passionate rocking, I felt her groping hand. I held my breath. She touched my face and then my chest.

‘She’s here. She’s not moving but her body is warm. Vindeliar! Make him stop this!’

‘I can’t. I’m sick. I’m so sick.’

‘Vindeliar, you’d best recall that I and only I give you your orders. Alaria, be silent!’

‘So many of them were in there,’ Vindeliar groaned. ‘They were all pulling at me. I’m so sick.’

‘Be sick silently!’ Dwalia snapped.

Alaria was gasping in horror. She did not speak again but I heard the small weeping sounds she made, and the deep groan of the Chalcedean when he finally reached some sort of satisfaction. She tried to wriggle away from him, but I felt his arm muscles tighten and knew he held her there. It was as well for me. I did not want her to roll off him and onto me.

‘Feel about, as much as you can,’ Dwalia commanded. ‘Can anyone feel an opening in this tomb?’

It was a poor choice of words. ‘Tomb,’ Vindeliar repeated and gave a trailing moan of despair.

‘Silence!’ she wheezed at him. ‘Feel about over your head. Is there any opening?’

I heard them moving in the darkness, heard the scraping brush of fingers against stone, the scuff of boots scraping more stone. I remained still.

‘Anything?’ Dwalia demanded of the darkness.

‘No,’ Alaria responded sullenly. ‘Only stone, everywhere I touch. I can barely lift my head. Have you any room next to you?’ The Chalcedean’s muscles had gone slack and, by his stentorian breathing, I deduced he had fallen asleep. Madness was, perhaps, a mercy in some situations.

‘Would I allow Vindeliar to lie on top of me if I could be anywhere else?’ Dwalia demanded.

A silence. Then Alaria suggested, ‘Perhaps you should take us back to where we were?’

‘Unfortunately, as the Chalcedean emerged, he pushed me to one side and shoved Vindeliar on top of me. He now lies on top of the portal stone. I cannot reach it from where I am.’

‘We are packed like pickled fish in a cask,’ Vindeliar observed sadly. More softly he added, ‘I suppose we will all die here.’

‘What?’ Alaria demanded in a half-shriek. ‘Die here? Starving to death in the dark?’

‘Well, we can’t get out,’ Vindeliar responded morosely.

‘Be silent!’ Dwalia ordered them, but it was too late. Alaria broke. She began weeping in gasps and after a few moments, I heard Vindeliar’s muffled sobs.

Die here? Who would die first? A scream started to swell inside my chest.

That is not a useful thought, Wolf Father rebuked me. Breathe. Quietly.

I felt panic swell in me and then be quashed under his sternness.

Think how to escape. Do you think you could enter the stone alone? Could you reach under the Chalcedean and open the passageway to return us to the forest?

I’m not sure.

Try.

I’m afraid to try. What if I get stuck in the stone? What if I come out alone somewhere?

What if you stay here and starve? After, of course, the others go mad and attack one another? Now, try.

When I had slid off Kerf, I had landed on my back. I wriggled to one side. I had to roll onto my sore shoulder to do so. And it was that hand and arm that I had to try to wedge under Kerf and Alaria’s combined weight. I tried to do it slowly, sliding my hand under the small of his back where it did not press so hard against the stone. I made a small sound of pain and Alaria’s sniffling stopped. ‘What’s that?’ she cried, and reached down to me. ‘She’s moving. Bee’s alive and awake.’

‘And I bite!’ I reminded her, and she snatched her hand away.

Now that they knew I was awake, there was no point in being secretive. I shoved my hand as far under Kerf as it would go. He shifted slightly, pinching my arm under him, then belched and went back to snoring. My shoulder burned as I worked my hand deeper under Kerf, scraping it over gritty stone. I heard my own fearful panting and closed my mouth to breathe through my nose. It was quieter but I was still just as terrified. What if I touched the rune and was suddenly sucked in? Could it drag me in past Kerf? Would he and Alaria fall in with me, as if I had opened a door under us? The terror put pressure on my bladder. I blocked it. I blocked everything except the effort of pushing my hand across stone. The stone surface under my fingers suddenly became a small indentation. I cautiously explored it with my fingertips. It was the rune.

Do you feel anything? Can you make anything happen?

I tried. I didn’t want to, but I pushed my fingers into the rune and rubbed the tips against the graven lines of it. Nothing. Nothing happens, Wolf Father.

Very well. We should think of something else, then. His words were calm but beneath them I felt his simmering fear.

Dragging my arm out from under Kerf was more painful than pushing it beneath him had been. Once my arm was free, I knew a sudden surge of panic. Everything was touching me — Kerf’s warm body, the unyielding stone below me, the stone alongside my body. I desperately needed to stand up, to stretch, to breathe cool air. Don’t struggle, Wolf Father insisted. Struggling only makes a snare go tighter. Be still and think. Think.

I tried, but everything was touching me. Alaria was weeping again. Kerf was snoring. His ribs moved against me with every breath he took. My tunic had twisted around me, binding one of my arms. I was too warm. I was thirsty. I made a small noise in the back of my throat without intending to. Another sound rose in me, a scream that wanted to get out.

No. None of that. Close your eyes, cub. Be with me. We are in a forest. Remember the cool night smells of a forest? Lie very still. Be with me.

Wolf Father pulled me into his memories. I was in a forest. Dawn was coming and we were snug in a den. Time to sleep, he insisted. Sleep.

I must have slept. When I awoke, I held tight to the calm he had given me. I had nothing else to cling to. In the blackness, I measured the passage of time by the behaviour of my fellow prisoners. Kerf awoke when Alaria became hysterical. He put his arms around her and crooned to her, perhaps a Chalcedean lullaby. She stilled after a time. Later, Dwalia burst into shrieking impotent fury when Vindeliar pissed on her. ‘I held it as long as I could,’ he wailed, and the smell of urine made me want to piss as well.

Dwalia whispered something to him, her voice as soft and deadly as a snake’s hiss, and he began to sob.

Then his sounds stopped, and I decided he slept. Alaria was quiet. Kerf began to sing, not a lullaby but some sort of marching song. He stopped abruptly in mid-verse. ‘Little girl. Bee. Are you alive?’

‘I am.’ I answered because I was glad he had stopped singing.

‘I am very confused. When we walked through stone, I was certain we were dead. But if we are not dead, then this will not be a good way for you to die. I think I could reach your neck. Would you like me to strangle you? It will not be fast, but it is a faster death than starving.’

How thoughtful. ‘No, thank you. Not yet.’

‘You should not wait too long. I will become weak. And it will be unpleasant in here soon. Piss. Shit. People going mad.’

‘No.’ I heard something. ‘Hush!’

‘I know my words are sad to hear, but I only seek to warn you. I may be strong enough to snap your neck. That might be faster.’

‘No. Not yet.’ Not yet? What was I saying? Then, from far away, a sound. ‘Listen. Do you hear that?’

Alaria stirred at my words. ‘Hear what?’ she demanded.

‘Do you hear something?’ Dwalia snapped at me.

‘Be silent!’ I roared at them in my father’s angry voice, and they obeyed. We all listened. The sounds were faint. Slow hooves clopping on cobblestones. A woman’s voice lifted in a brief sing-song chant.

‘Is it a prayer?’ Alaria wondered.

‘It’s an early pedlar. She sings, “bread, fresh baked this morning. Bread, warm from the oven”.’ Kerf sounded sentimental.

‘Help us!’ Alaria’s desperate scream was so shrill my ears rang with it. ‘Help us, oh help us! We are trapped!’

When she finally stopped shrieking for lack of breath, my ears were ringing. I strove to hear the bread-woman’s song or the clopping hooves, but I heard nothing. ‘She is gone,’ Vindeliar said sadly.

‘We are in a city,’ Kerf declared. ‘Only cities have breadmongers at dawn, selling wares in the street.’ He paused for a moment and then said, ‘I thought we were dead. I thought that was why you wished to come to the fallen palace of the dead duke, to be dead here. Do breadmongers still sing when they are dead? I do not think so. What need have the dead of fresh bread?’ Silence greeted his question. I did not know what the others were thinking, but I pondered his previous words. A fallen palace. How much stone was on top of our tomb? ‘So we are not dead,’ he reasoned laboriously, ‘but we will be soon if we cannot escape. But perhaps as the city awakens, we will hear other people. And perhaps they will hear us if we shout for help.’

‘So be silent for now!’ Dwalia warned us. ‘Be silent and listen. I will tell you when to shout for help, and we will all shout together.’

We waited in suffocating silence. From time to time we heard the muffled sounds of a city. A temple bell rang. An ox bellowed. Once, we thought we heard a woman calling a child. At that, Dwalia bade us all shout for help with one voice. But it seemed to me that the sounds were never very close, and I wondered if we were on a hill above a city rather than in the city itself. After a time, Vindeliar pissed again, and I think Alaria did, too. The smell was getting worse — piss and sweat and fear. I tried to imagine I was in my bed at Withywoods. It was dark in the room. Soon my father would come to look in on me. He always thought I was asleep when he looked in my room late at night before going to his own bed. I stared up at blackness and imagined his step in the corridor. I was beginning to see dots of light from staring into the blackness so long. Then I blinked and realized that one of the dots was now a narrow stripe.

I stared at it, not daring to hope. Slowly I lifted my foot as far as it would go. It blocked part of the light. When I lowered my foot, the light reappeared, stronger.

‘I can see light,’ I whispered.

‘Where?’

‘Near my feet,’ I said, but by then the light had started to slink in. I could see how uneven the blocks were that confined us. Worked stone, yes, but tumbled in a heap around us rather than something built.

‘I can’t see it,’ Dwalia said, as if I were lying.

‘Nor I,’ Kerf confirmed. ‘My woman is in my way.’

‘I am not your woman!’ Alaria was outraged.

‘You have slept on top of me. You’ve pissed on me. I claim you.’

My lifted foot could barely reach the slot of light. I pointed my toe and pushed. I heard gravel fall outside our prison and the crack widened slightly. I rolled onto my side as much as I could and pushed against Kerf to slide myself closer to the light. I could press my whole foot against the stone below the light, and I did. More and larger rock shards fell, some rattling against my boot. The light grew stronger. I kicked at it savagely. The shaft of light enlarged to the size of my hand. I battered my feet against it as if I were dancing in a hill of biting ants. No more gravel fell. I kicked at the stone that roofed that wall, to no avail. I stopped when I had no strength left and became aware that the others had been shouting questions and encouragement. I didn’t care. I refused to let Wolf Father’s calmness reach me. I stared up at the dimly lit ceiling of my tomb and sobbed.

The Chalcedean moved, shoving me aside to lift his arms past his head to brace them against the stone. He groaned and suddenly shifted hard against me. His hip pushed into my ribs, wedging me against the walls so I could scarcely breathe. Alaria was squeaking and squealing as he pressed her against the ceiling. He drew up his knee, crushing me harder and then with an audible grunt, he kicked out suddenly and hard.

Grit fell and rock dust sifted into my eyes and up my nose and settled on my lips. Kerf was still pinning me and I could not get my hand to my face to rub it away. It stuck to the tears on my cheeks and settled between my collar and neck. Then, as the dust was settling and I could almost draw a clean breath, he did it again. A vertical line of light was suddenly added to the first one.

‘It’s a block of stone. Try again, little one. This time, push, not kick. I’ll help you. Put your feet down low, at the bottom of it.’

‘What if it all falls on us?’

‘A faster death,’ Kerf said.

I wriggled and slid my body closer to the line of light. I bent my knees, set my feet low on the block. The Chalcedean shifted his big boot between and slightly above my feet. ‘Push,’ he said, and I did. Stone grated grudgingly but it moved. A rest, and then we pushed again. The crack was a hand’s-breadth wide. Another push, and the stone fetched up against something. We pushed three more times before the stone moved, and then it slewed to the left. Another push and it was easier. I shifted my body to get more purchase.

The afternoon sunlight that had found us was fading toward evening by the time the opening was large enough for me to wriggle out. I went feet first, squirming blindly out of a gap barely large enough for me to pass, scraping skin off my hip and tearing my tunic. I sat up, brushing dust and grit from my face. I heard the others shouting, demanding that I move more stone, that I tell them where we were. I ignored them. I didn’t care where we were. I could breathe and no one else was touching me. I drew deep breaths of cool air, and wiped my sleeve across my gritty face, and rolled my good shoulder. I was out.

‘What can you see?’ Dwalia was furious with desperation. ‘Where are we?’

I looked around me. Ruins, I supposed. I could now see what our tomb had been and it was not at all what I had thought it was. Great blocks of stones had fallen, first one pillar to the floor and then a great slab of stone had collapsed partway across the fallen pillar, and then other pieces of stones had tumbled around them. Only good fortune had kept them from smashing completely flat against the Skill-pillar embedded in the floor. I looked up the evening sky past the jagged remains of walls, and down at more etched runes. There was another Skill-pillar here, set into the floor. I stepped gingerly away from it.

The others were shouting contradictory orders at me: to fetch help, to say what I saw. I didn’t respond. I heard the temple bell ring again in the distance. I took three steps out of sight, squatted and relieved myself. As I stood, I heard stone grating and saw the Chalcedean’s legs emerging from the enlarged opening. I hastily pulled up my leggings and watched as he braced his feet and levered the stone away. Shrieks from inside of ‘Be careful!’ and ‘You’ll bring it down on us!’ went unheeded.

‘I should run,’ I whispered to myself.

Not yet, Wolf Father whispered in my mind. Remain with the danger you know. The Chalcedean has mainly been kind to you. If we are in Chalced, you do not speak the language or know their ways. Maybe luck will favour us and the stones fall on all the others. Hide and watch.

I moved back amongst the tumbled stones and crouched where I could see but not be seen. Kerf wriggled out on his back, kicking and scraping and grunting as he heaved himself along. He emerged powdered with grey dust and grit, looking like a statue called to life. His hips freed, he shifted onto his side, twisting like a snake to manoeuvre first one shoulder and then the other out, and sat up, blinking in the late afternoon light. His pale eyes were startling in his grey stone face. He licked dust from his lips, his red tongue another oddity, and looked about himself, then stepped up onto a block of stone and surveyed the scene. I crouched lower.

‘Is it safe?’ Alaria called, but she had already thrust her feet out of the opening. Smaller and lither than the Chalcedean but just as dirty, she squirmed out without waiting for any answer then sat up, groaning, and wiped rock dust from her face. ‘Where are we?’ she demanded.

Kerf grinned. ‘Chalced. I am almost home. I know this place, although it has changed greatly. Here we once mourned my grandfather. The duke’s throne was at the end of a great hall. Over there, I think. This is what remains of the old duke’s palace after the dragons brought it tumbling down around his ears.’ He sneezed several times, wiped his face on his arm and then nodded to himself. ‘Yes. The duchess proclaimed it an evil place and swore it would never be rebuilt.’ He frowned slightly, as if summoning the memory was difficult or painful. He spoke slowly, almost dreamily. ‘Duke Ellik vowed it would be the first structure he raised again, and that he would rule from it.’

Alaria struggled to her feet. ‘Chalced?’ she whispered to herself.

He spun to her and grinned. ‘Our home! My mother will be pleased to meet you. She has longed for me to bring home a woman to share the tasks of the household with her and my sisters and to bear my children.’

‘I am not your wife!’

‘Not yet. But if you prove yourself a hard worker and a maker of strong children, then perhaps I shall wed you. Many prizes of war become wives. Eventually.’

‘I am not a prize of war!’ she declared.

Kerf shook his head and rolled his eyes, bemused by her ignorance. Alaria looked as if she wanted to shriek, scratch him or run away. She did none of those things, but turned her attention to the next pair of feet emerging from the stone tomb.

Vindeliar’s feet were kicking and scuffing as he tried to emerge. ‘I’m stuck!’ he cried in a panic-stricken voice.

‘Get out of my way!’ Dwalia’s voice was muted. ‘I told you to let me go first!’

‘There wasn’t room!’ He was already tearful. ‘I had to go first, to get off you. You said, “get off me”, and this was the only way I could get off you.’

She cursed him, her obscenities muffled by stone. Vindeliar did not seem to be making much progress. I took advantage of the noise to retreat farther from all of them, behind the round of a fallen column. From there I could peer back to see what was happening, but not be seen.

Vindeliar was wedged. He drummed his heels helplessly on the ground as if he were a child having a tantrum. Stuck. Good, I thought savagely. Let him be the plug that bottles up Dwalia forever. Despite any kindly feelings he had toward me, I knew he was the real danger to me. If I fled, Dwalia could never catch me. But if Vindeliar set the Chalcedean on me, I was doomed.

‘Brother! My brother! Please move the stone and free me!’

I didn’t make a sound as I crouched there, watching with one eye. Kerf stepped over to the stone. ‘Ware the dust!’ he called to Vindeliar and stooped to set his shoulder to the blocking stone. I heard it grate against the ancient floor and saw smaller stones and grit vanish in a crack that opened in the top of the rockpile as he did so. Dwalia screamed but the rocks that fell would do no more than bruise her. Kerf seized Vindeliar’s thick legs and dragged him out. Vindeliar jammed for a moment and howled as Kerf grunted and pulled him out anyway. I saw him sit up, grey with dust and with a bleeding scrape on the side of his face.

‘I’m free!’ he announced as if no one else would know it.

‘Get out of my way!’ Dwalia shouted. I did not wait to see her emerge. Ducking low, I crept away. I threaded my way through the maze of fallen stone, silent as a mouse. The slanting sunlight of a spring evening created shapes from the shadows. I came to a place where a fallen wall leaned against a collapsed column like a stone tent and crept into it.

Stay hidden. It is easier for them to see motion and hear your footsteps than to search this rubble.

I was alone, and hungry and thirsty, in a city far from home where I did not speak the language.

But I was free. I’d escaped them.

FIVE

The Bargain

A snake is in a stone bowl. There is soup around it. It smells bad and then I know it is not soup. It is very dirty water, full of snake-piss and waste. A creature comes to the bowl and suddenly I see how big the snake is and the bowl. The snake is many times longer than the creature is tall. The creature reaches through bars around the bowl to scoop up some of the dirty water. He slurps some of the filthy water and smiles with an ugly wide mouth. I do not like to look at him, he is so wrong. The serpent coils in on itself and tries to bite him. He laughs and shuffles away.

From Bee Farseer’s dream journal

As comfortable as the Elderling robes might be, I did not feel decently clad for my meeting with the keepers until I was in my own clothes again. As I snugged my leather belt tight and buckled it I noticed I had gained two notches of travel since I’d left Buckkeep. My leather waistcoat would function as light armour. Not that I expected anyone to knife me, but one never knew. The small items in my concealed pockets would expedite any deadly task of my own. I smiled to realize that someone had unloaded my secret pockets before my garments were laundered and then restored all to their proper location. I said nothing to Spark as I tugged my waistcoat straight and then patted the pocket that concealed a very fine garrotte. She quirked her brows at me. It was enough.

I vacated the room to allow Spark to attend to Lady Amber’s dressing and coiffing. I found Lant ready and Perseverance keeping him company and chased a foggy memory of a conversation between the two and then let it go. Done was done. Lant no longer seemed to fear me, and as Chade’s instructions to him to watch over me, well, that would demand a private conversation.

‘So, are we ready?’ Lant asked as he slid a small, flat-handled knife into a sheath concealed at his hip. It startled me. Who was this man? The answer came to me. This was the Lant that Riddle and Nettle had both admired and enjoyed. I understood suddenly why Chade had asked him to watch over me. It was not flattering but it was oddly reassuring.

Perseverance had a worried frown. ‘Am I to be seated with you at the dinner? It seems very strange.’

In the space of a few months, he had gone from being a stableboy on my estate to being my serving man. And companion, if I were truthful. ‘I don’t know. If they send you and Spark to another table be sure to stay close to her.’

He nodded grimly. ‘Sir? May I ask you something?’

‘What is it?’ I asked guardedly. I was on edge for our meeting with the keepers.

He shot Lant a sideways look as if shy about asking his question. ‘About Mage Gary. Sometimes you call him Fool, but he’s being Lady Amber now.’

‘He is,’ I conceded and waited.

Lant was silent, as intrigued by the Fool’s many guises as the lad was.

‘And Ash is Spark now.’

I nodded. ‘True, also.’

‘And Spark is a girl.’

I nodded again.

He folded his lips in as if to imprison his question. Then he blurted, ‘Do you feel at all … odd about it? Uncomfortable?’

I laughed. ‘I’ve known him for many years, in many guises. He was King Shrewd’s jester when I was a boy. The Fool. Then Lord Golden. Mage Gary. And now Lady Amber. All different. Yet always my friend.’ I reached for honesty. ‘But when I was your age, it would have bothered me a great deal. It doesn’t now because I know who he is. And who I am, and who we are to each other. That doesn’t change, no matter what name he wears or what garb he dons. Whether I am Holder Tom Badgerlock or Prince FitzChivalry Farseer, I know he’s my friend.’

He gave a sigh of relief. ‘Then it’s all right that it doesn’t matter to me about Spark? I saw it didn’t bother you and I decided it need not bother me.’ He shook his head, perplexed, and added, ‘When she’s being Spark, she’s pretty.’

‘She is,’ Lant said quietly. I fought to keep from smiling.

‘So that’s who she really is? A girl named Spark?’

That was a harder question. ‘Spark is whoever she is. Sometimes that’s Ash. It’s like being a father and a son and perhaps a husband. All different facets of the same person.’

He nodded. ‘But it was easier to talk to Ash. We had better jokes.’

A tap at the door announced Lady Amber and Spark. Lady Amber had gone to every possible effort to be dazzling and had succeeded. The long skirt and lacy beribboned blouse with the embroidered waistcoat were dated by Buckkeep standards. Amber, or more likely Spark, had given special attention to the rouge that shaped her lip and the powder that concealed her scars. Her blind eyes were outlined in black, emphasizing their opacity.

Spark was a pretty girl but no more than that today. She had chosen to present herself in a way that would not invite too much attention. Her hair, released from Ash’s warrior tail, hung in black waves to her shoulders. Her high-collared blouse was the colour of butterscotch and the simple smock over it denied she had breasts or a waist. Amber wore an amused smile. Could she sense how Per and Lant were gazing at them, dumbfounded?

‘The clothes look much better on you than they did on Lady Thyme,’ I complimented her.

‘I hope they also smell better,’ was the Fool’s response.

‘Who is Lady Thyme?’ Lant asked.

For a moment, the silence held. Then both the Fool and I burst into laughter. I had almost recovered when the Fool gasped, ‘Your father.’ And we were both lost again to merriment. Lant was torn between confusion and offence.

‘I don’t understand what is funny?’ Spark queried. ‘We raided an old woman’s wardrobe for these clothes …’

‘It’s a very long tale,’ was Amber’s ladylike response. ‘A hint: Lady Thyme’s chamber had a secret entry to Chade’s workroom. When he chose to occasionally emerge from hiding in the old days, he moved as Lady Thyme.’

Lant’s mouth hung slightly ajar.

‘Lady Thyme was one of your father’s most inspired ploys. But it must be a tale for another time, for now we must descend.’

‘Do not we wait until we are summoned?’ I asked.

‘No, for Rain Wild courtesies are founded on Bingtown ways rather than on Jamaillian aristocracy. They are more egalitarian, and pragmatic and direct. Here you are Prince FitzChivalry and they will expect you to have the last word. But I know more of their ways than you do. Please let me negotiate.’

‘Negotiate what?’

‘Our passage through their territory. And possibly beyond.’

‘We have nothing to offer them in exchange for our passage,’ I pointed out. Much of my coin and several other precious items had been lost in the bear attack.

‘I will think of something,’ she offered.

‘And it won’t be offering healing to anyone. I can’t.’

She raised her delicately-outlined brows at me. ‘Who would know that better than me?’ she replied, and held out a gloved hand. I stepped forward and hooked it onto my arm.

I saw Lant grinning as Perseverance stepped forward and offered his crooked arm to Spark. She looked startled, but accepted it. I took a deep breath. ‘And off we go,’ I warned them.

A serving girl waited at the foot of the stairs to guide us into a sumptuous and elegant chamber. There were no tapestries, no figured rugs, but the walls themselves and the floor underfoot did not need them. We seemed to be dining in an open field, surrounded by a vista of autumn hills in green and gold. We trod on a grassy sward with tiny wildflowers speckled among the verdant green. Only the sensation of stone underfoot and the still air spoiled the illusion. I heard Spark whisper a description to Amber, who smiled wistfully.

Four tables were arranged in an open square, with the guests’ chairs directed inward. There was no head of the table, no seat of authority. Some of the keepers were already here, standing or seated in small groups. They were a striking reminder of the tapestry of Elderlings that had graced my boyhood bedchamber. Tall and slender they were, with eyes of gold or copper or sparkling blue. All were scaled, some more heavily than others, and each was marked fantastically, in patterns that were as precise as the feathers on a bird or the colours on a butterfly’s wings. They were beautiful and alien, wondrous to behold. I thought of the children I had healed and of the Rain Wilders I had glimpsed in my days here. Their changes were random, as often grotesque as pretty. The differences were striking and the fate of those randomly affected by contact with dragons was appalling.

Our servant escort had vanished. We stood smiling and uncertain. Should I dismiss Spark and Perseverance or were they part of the ‘Six Duchies emissaries’ that the invitation had addressed? Spark was describing the room, the people and their garments to Amber in a low murmur. I did not interrupt.

General Rapskal stood tall even among the tall Elderlings and was broader of shoulder than many. He wore a less martial air tonight, being clothed in a tunic of blue with yellow trousers and soft blue footwear. He carried no weapons that I could see. I knew that did not mean he was unarmed. With him were the two Elderlings I had seen following his commands earlier. One of them, I surmised, was Kase. Both were scaled in orange, and the eyes they turned toward us were copper, and both were heavily muscled. I’d wager they could brawl hard if provoked.

The blue Elderling woman wore her wings outside her long tunic tonight, folded smoothly to her back. Their feathery scales were a patterned display of blues and silvers, with touches of black and white. I wondered at the weight of them on her slender, once-human frame. Her long black hair was confined in rows of braids that were interrupted with beads and small silver charms. The Elderling man beside her had green scaling and dark hair. He looked directly at us, spoke to his mate, and then moved toward us purposefully. I tried not to stare at the odd pattern of scales on his cheek as he greeted me.

‘Prince FitzChivalry, I should like to introduce myself. I’m Tats. Thymara and I thank you for what you did for our daughter. Her feet and legs are still sore but she finds it much easier to walk.’

‘I am glad I was able to help her.’ He had not offered his hand and so I kept mine at my side.

Thymara spoke. ‘I thank you. For the first time in many weeks, she can sleep without pain.’ She hesitated and then added, ‘She said that her chest feels different. She had not complained of it but now she says that it is easier to breathe with her skin not so tight?’ Her inflection made the statement a question.

I smiled and said only, ‘I am glad she is more comfortable.’ I had a vague recollection of a keel-bone such as a bird might have … had their child been developing it? It did not seem tactful to admit that I could not clearly recall what the Skill had done to her through me.

Thymara’s earnest gaze met my eyes and then travelled to Amber. ‘Would that you could be rewarded as you deserve,’ she said softly.

A mellifluous chime sounded. Thymara smiled at me again. ‘Well, we are to be seated now. Thank you again. And always.’ They moved gracefully away from me, and I became aware that while we had spoken other Elderlings had arrived. Once, I had been an assassin with an edge, constantly aware of my surroundings. I wasn’t so tonight, and it was not just that my Skill-walls were so tight. I had lost the habit of extreme alertness. When had I last been the competent assassin that Chade had trained? Not for a long time. When I had lived at Withywoods with Molly that would have pleased me. Here and now it seemed a serious failure.

I spoke low to Lant. ‘Stay alert. If you notice anything untoward, let me know immediately.’ He gave me an incredulous glance that threatened to become a smile before he gained control of his face. Together we moved in an unhurried way toward the tables. I saw no indication of any protocol related to seating. King Reyn and Queen Malta had entered but were engaged in deep conversation with a lanky blue-scaled Elderling. Phron, looking much livelier now, was with them. Their talk seemed to involve us, for twice he gestured toward us. Where were we expected to sit? Awkward — and potentially a social disaster. Thymara glanced over at us, spoke to her mate and then hastened back to us. ‘You may sit wherever you please. Would you like to be together, or to mingle?’

I longed to exchange a glance with Amber. Instead I patted her hand on my arm fondly and she immediately replied, ‘Together, if we may.’

‘Of course.’ But I did not see five adjacent seats until Thymara matter-of-factly called out, ‘Alum. Sylve. Jerd. Harrikin. Bump down and make some room!’

The Elderlings so addressed laughed at her abrupt manner and promptly shifted their seating to free up a rank of five chairs. ‘There. Please,’ Thymara invited, and we were seated. Thymara and her mate took seats as Malta and Reyn joined us at the table. No royal procession into the room, no announcements of names. No titles for the keepers, no variance in rank was apparent. Except for General Rapskal.

Servants brought dishes of food and set them down to be passed for the Elderlings to serve themselves. The meat was wild game, venison or bird. The bread was not plentiful, but there were four fish dishes and three kinds of root vegetables. The menu told me that Kelsingra could feed itself, but not with great variety.

Perseverance and Spark conversed with an Elderling named Harrikin. Seated beyond him was a girlish Elderling. Sylve was pink and gold, with sparse hair but an intricate pattern of scalp scales. They were discussing fishing, and Sylve was unabashedly describing how difficult it had been to keep her dragon fed when they had journeyed from Trehaug to discover Kelsingra. Lant was smiling and nodding, but his gaze often roved the room watchfully. To my right, Amber was seated next to Nortel. He was explaining that it was his dragon, Tinder, we had first encountered near the fountains. He hoped he had not seemed too aggressive; the dragons were unaccustomed to being surprised. Amber nodded, and managed her utensils and food almost as if sighted.

We ate. We drank. We endeavoured to converse in that awkward way one does when attempting to speak loud enough to be heard over a dozen other conversations. Being in the thick of such an occasion was very different to spying on it from behind a wall. From a higher vantage point, I could have quickly deduced the alliances, rivalries and enmities in the room. Trapped in the midst of it, I could only guess. I hoped that Lant, safely layered between me and our two servants, could politely avoid socializing and collect more information.

The board was cleared. Brandy and a sweet wine were offered and I chose the brandy. It was not Sandsedge, but it was palatable. The Elderlings rose from their seats and wandered the room, conversing, and we copied their behaviour. Queen Malta came to apologize yet again and to hope that I was well recovered. Phron embarrassed me with the passion of his gratitude and his anger with General Rapskal’s behaviour. Twice I saw Rapskal angling toward me, only to be intercepted by one or another of the Elderlings. We resumed our seats and Harrikin rose. With his knuckles, he rapped on the table three times. Instantly silence fell.

‘Keepers, please welcome Prince FitzChivalry, Lord Lant and Lady Amber of the Six Duchies. They come as emissaries from King Dutiful and Queen Elliania. Tonight, we offer them a well-deserved welcome! And our deepest thanks.’

Plain words. No flowery speech, no reminders of past favours, treaties and services. It took me aback but Amber seemed to expect it. She rose in her place. Blind as she was, she still moved her unsighted gaze over her audience. Did she sense the body-warmth emanating from their shadowy shapes? With unerring accuracy, she turned her face to Harrikin.

‘Thank you for this welcoming meal and for your hospitality, and for this opportunity to speak. I will be brief and to the point.’ She allowed herself a smile. ‘I suspect that since we first arrived, gossip has flown swiftly. I believe that most of you know our tale. It is true that we come as emissaries from the Six Duchies, but equally true that Kelsingra is not our destination. As Prince FitzChivalry has restored some of your children to health, you can imagine what pain it would be to have a child stolen. Bee Farseer is no more. When we leave you, it is to embark on a journey of vengeance against the Servants of the Whites.’

As Amber drew breath, Queen Malta interrupted in a low, soft voice. ‘Lady Amber, if you would allow me to speak, please?’ There was no rebuke in her voice, only a simple request. Amber was startled but gave a slow nod of agreement. The queen took a deep breath and folded her hands the tabletop. ‘Yesterday we, the Keepers of Kelsingra, met in our council. I shared your tale with them. The parents and some of the children spoke of what Prince FitzChivalry did. We remain overwhelmed with gratitude and all agreed with what the prince said. The lives of our children are not bargaining points for us to haggle over. No amount of coin, no bartered favour from us, could ever match what the prince did for us. We can only offer you undying thanks, and our promise that we will always, forever, remember. And we are a long-lived people now.’ Malta paused and looked around. ‘But you have also gifted us with a vengeance we have long sought. We, too, have endured Chalced’s destructive attacks, on our dragons and on our kin. Chalced’s spies and killers sought to butcher dragons for their body-parts, for remedies to preserve the life of their old duke. Selden, brother to me and beloved singer for our dragons, was brutalized there by both the Duke of Chalced and Ellik. We knew that Ellik was instrumental in the attacks on our dragons. When the dragons took their vengeance on Chalced, toppling the duke’s stronghold and killing him, Ellik fled. The present Duchess of Chalced will undoubtedly be as pleased as we are to hear that you’ve made an end of him. In killing him you have satisfied our family’s desire for vengeance. And that is a debt we are more than willing to pay!

‘Thus Reyn, born to the Khuprus family of the Rain Wild Traders and I, born to the Vestrit family of the Bingtown Traders, well understand your desire to follow your vengeance to its final closure. We, as Traders for the Khuprus and Vestrit families, are pleased to offer you like for like, aid in your vengeance for how you achieved ours. We have taken it upon ourselves to arrange your transport from here to Jamaillia. If you are willing, you will board the Tarman when he docks here. The Tarman will carry you to Trehaug, where the liveship Paragon will be waiting for you. He will carry you to Bingtown, and if you wish, to Jamaillia on his trading run. A bird has already been sent to secure your passage. On behalf of our families, we hope you will accept our hospitality aboard these liveships.’

‘Liveships,’ Perseverance breathed with a boy’s awe. ‘Are they truly real?’

Phron grinned at the lad. ‘We will let you judge that for yourselves.’

I forgot my promise to Amber. ‘I am speechless,’ I said.

Malta smiled, and I glimpsed the girl she once had been. ‘That’s as well, for I have more to say. The keepers have other gifts they wish to bestow on you.’ She hesitated for a moment. ‘These gifts are of Elderling make. They are useful but also saleable, should your need be extreme.’ She took a breath. ‘It ill behoves one to speak of the value of a gift but I must make you aware that usually these items are only possessed by Traders or sold through Bingtown for extremely large sums.’ She folded her lips for a moment. ‘We break a long-standing tradition in gifting them to you. The Traders of the Rain Wilds and of Bingtown would possibly be offended to know of this action.’

Amber nodded and her smile grew slowly. ‘We shall be very discreet in our possession of them. And they will not pass out of our custody save in direst need.’

The relief on Malta’s face was evident, even through her strange Elderling beauty. ‘I am so grateful you understand.’ She nodded and Harrikin went to the door and spoke to someone outside. He received a tidy wooden chest and set it on the table before us. He opened the hinged lid and removed a bracelet from a cloth bag. Delicate silver links supported green and red stones. He presented it to me with a smile that warned me to be dazzled by its value.

‘It’s … beautiful,’ I said.

‘You don’t know what it is,’ he said in amusement. He slid it back into the bag and offered it to me. ‘Look inside.’

When I peered into the open mouth of the bag, green and red light shone within. ‘They are flame-jewels,’ Malta informed us. ‘They gleam with their own light. The gems in the bracelet are perfect. Very rare.’

The other item he removed from the box looked like a porous grey brick. He showed us that it was painted red on one side. ‘This block gives off warmth, when you place it with the red side uppermost. Always take care to stow it with the grey side uppermost for it becomes warm enough to start a fire.’ He met my gaze, and then restored both bracelet and brick to the wooden box. ‘We hope you will accept these with our thanks.’

‘You honour us,’ I replied. Magical items worth a king’s ransom in one small box. ‘We accept them with thanks, and will always recall our visit here when we use them.’

‘You are welcome to return at any time,’ Queen Malta assured us.

Amber set an appreciative hand on the box, her face set in determination. ‘As generous as you have been with us, there is still a boon I would ask. Before I name it, I beg you to know that we mean no offence by requesting it.’

Puzzled glances were exchanged around the table. I had no idea what Amber sought. They had been generous with us beyond my wildest hopes. I wondered what more she could seek. Amber spoke in a soft, low voice. ‘I ask for dragon-Silver. Not a great amount. Only as much as would fill these two vials.’ From a pocket in her skirt she produced two glass containers, each with tight-fitting stoppers.

‘No.’ Reyn responded firmly, without hesitation or apology.

Amber spoke on as if she had not heard him. ‘The Skill, as we call the magic that Prince FitzChivalry used to heal your children, is based in Silver. We do not know exactly how the two are related but they are. The magic of Kelsingra comes from the Silver trapped in the stone. The memories of the people who lived here, the lights that gleam from the buildings, the pools that warm the water, all of it comes from—’

‘No. We cannot.’ King Reyn spoke with finality. ‘The Silver is not ours to give. It is the treasure of the dragons.’ He shook his head. ‘Even if we were to say yes, the dragons would not allow you to take it. It would be disastrous for you and for us. We cannot give you Silver.’

I saw Rapskal shift as if he would speak. The angry glints in his eyes said that he was affronted by her request. I needed to distance us from it. I spoke hastily. ‘There is one other request I would make, one that might be easier for you to grant. One that could, perhaps, benefit Kelsingra as well as the Six Duchies.’

I paused. ‘You may ask it,’ Queen Malta decided. It was difficult to read her fantastically scaled countenance, but I thought that she too strove to move past the awkwardness.

‘I would like to send a message to King Dutiful of the Six Duchies, to tell him that we have arrived safely here, and that you have offered to aid us on the next step of our journey. If I write out a letter for him, is there a way you can convey it for us?’

‘Easily done,’ Reyn replied, visibly relieved at the simplicity of my request. ‘If you can write small, a bird can carry such a message to Bingtown. Bingtown has many merchants who exchange birds with Buckkeep Town. I will guarantee that it will reach your king. Eventually. The winds of spring can slow our birds sometimes, but they are hardy creatures.’

‘I would greatly appreciate this,’ I responded. I hesitated, and then plunged on. Chade would have forbidden it, but Kettricken would have required it. ‘King Reyn and Queen Malta, in my land, in my king’s court, there are others who share my Skill-magic. Some are far more adept in the healing arts than I am.’ I looked around. ‘There are folk here who asked that I help them. I dare not. The magic of the Silver runs strongly in Kelsingra, too strong for me to control. I would never have chosen to be so …’ I fumbled for a word. Violent? Unrestrained? ‘… hasty in my healing of the children. A better healer than I could have been gentler. A full Skill-coterie with better control of the magic could help not just Elderling children but any folk who were born …’

They were staring at me. ‘Born different,’ I said, my voice falling lower. They looked terrified. Or stunned. Had I offended? The changes the dragons’ presence had wrought in some of them were too obvious to ignore. But perhaps speaking of such was considered offensive.

Thymara spoke. She was seated nearby but she lifted her voice and her words carried clearly. ‘Those born Changed could be … healed of it?’

Under the table, Amber gripped my leg in warning. I didn’t need it. I would not promise what I was not certain was possible. ‘Some could,’ I said. ‘I think.’

Thymara lifted her hands. I thought she would cover her face, but her cupped hands halted where she could stare at her fingers. She had black claws instead of nails. She tapped them against one another pensively.

The silence in the room shimmered with possibilities. Queen Malta spoke. ‘As soon as you can compose your letter …’ Her voice choked and tailed off.

Harrikin spoke suddenly. ‘Prince FitzChivalry has offered us something that has been unimaginable.’ He looked around the table at his fellows. ‘Perhaps we should be equally generous. We have always accepted that we were bound by the strictures of Bingtown and the Rain Wilds; that we could only do trade in Elderling goods in those markets. Perhaps it is time to discard that notion.’

Malta looked shocked. Reyn spoke slowly. ‘You suggest a break with a tradition that dates to the very founding of the Rain Wilds settlements. Many of us feel we owe the Rain Wild Traders little loyalty and the Bingtown Traders even less. On magical goods, we must confer. But for other trade, I see no reason we must be bound.’

Slow nods met his words.

King Reyn turned back to us. ‘Ancient maps in the city show that once roads connected Kelsingra to the Mountain Kingdom. Perhaps it is time for us to renew those thoroughfares, and truly become the traders we name ourselves.’

‘The Six Duchies have many trade goods. Sheep and wool, grain we grow in plenty, cattle and leather, and iron also we have to trade.’ I smiled to cover my doubts. Would Dutiful honour my impromptu negotiating?

‘Grain in plenty. Now there is something we could all celebrate. Within the month, we will dispatch a trade delegation to Buckkeep! Shall we raise a toast to opening our borders?’

More than one toast was raised that evening. Perseverance’s cheeks were flushed with wine when I saw Lant and Spark exchange a look. Spark put a hand to his shoulder and steered him out of the festivities with dignity if not with the steadiest of gait. A short time later, I pleaded fatigue and Amber retreated with me, leaving Lant to represent the Six Duchies for the rest of that evening.

As we made our slow ascent, she said quietly, ‘Within King Reyn’s own family there are people severely changed by the Rain Wilds in difficult ways. His sister …’

I knew what she was asking, ‘Even for his sister, I do not dare—’

‘No. I was merely telling you of her. She is in Trehaug now, visiting her family. Even if you were willing to take the risk, you could not. But if there are Six Duchies healers who could help the Rain Wilders, the Six Duchies could gain powerful allies.’

I sat up until dawn creating my letter to King Dutiful. I composed my words fully expecting that several people would read them before they reached him, if they ever did. I was circumspect, saying only that we had reached Kelsingra and secured passage to Jamaillia. I asked him to arrange passage home for Lant, Per and Spark and told him that he might expect an ambassador from the Dragon Traders with a trade proposal. I added that it was imperative that Skillmistress Nettle be present for all negotiations.

I wanted to say more. I dared not. I rolled my missive tightly, dipped it in wax, and pushed it into the small cylinder that would attach to a pigeon’s leg. I wished I could Skill a warning to Nettle. These dragon-keepers claimed to be Elderlings and heirs to this city and all its wonders. How would they respond if they knew of Aslevjal and the battered treasures there? Would they attempt to claim them or offer to pool their knowledge of that magic with ours? Chade would have seen a rivalry, Kettricken a natural alliance. Dutiful and Nettle? I did not know what they would see. I wondered if my use of the Skill here had been the pebble that would trigger an avalanche of war, or become the first tiny block in building a shared legacy of magic. It was agonizing to say so little, and to know that it might be days before I could even attempt to reach out with the Skill.


The exact day of the Tarman’s arrival was uncertain, for the river ran higher and swifter with the melting of distant snows.

We each dealt with that waiting in our own way. The need to keep my Skill-walls tight and be ever-vigilant against the current of Skill and memories in the city wearied me. I took my meals within our chambers and graciously declined as many visitors as I could. The Skill-induced weariness that assailed me meant that I seldom ventured out into the city. I remembered Kelsingra as the deserted city I had first encountered on my quest to find Verity. It had been my first experience of travelling through a Skill-pillar and had happened by accident. The city had been dangerous to me then. Ironically, despite having studied Skill-magic, the Skill-infused walls and streets of the city were more dangerous to me now.

But the Skill-flow of the city was not the only danger to me. Thrice General Rapskal came rapping at the door of my chambers, and always he seemed to arrive when the others were away. The first time, I feigned an even greater weakness than I felt. He insisted that he needed to talk to me, but I wavered where I stood, apologized and then slowly but relentlessly closed the door. After that, I did not open the door when someone knocked. Lady Amber retained a healthy wariness for General Rapskal. She spent her days within the walls of the Greeting Hall. She visited Malta and passed on to me their gossip of old friends and recent news of both Bingtown and Trehaug. Lant, Spark and Perseverance were as entranced with Kelsingra as a babe with a new bauble, and the keepers seemed both willing and pleased to share the wonders of their city. I warned them to be cautious and let them explore. Per, with Motley the crow on his shoulder, had quickly become a favourite with the servants and unwittingly gave me a great deal of information on the inner workings of Kelsingra when he shared gossip of an evening. In the evening in our chambers, Amber and Spark did repairs on their bear-tossed wardrobe while Amber told the tales of old Buckkeep, including the adventures of the notorious Lady Thyme.

Per asked her once about her childhood. She spoke of a farming family, of an older sister thrilled to have a sibling at last. She told of gentle rolling hills that turned gold in summer, of tending docile brown cows. Then she stopped speaking, and I knew that the next part of her tale must be about Clerres. She told no more stories that night and I dreaded that I must soon dredge those memories for every pertinent fact as to the layout of Clerres. She had locked those recollections away, and yet I must find a way to open them if our plans for vengeance were to succeed.

The Fool was the one who had first demanded that I go to Clerres and ‘kill them all’. He had desired his own vengeance even before they had kidnapped Bee. Even before Dwalia had taken her into the Skill-pillars and lost her there, he had been intent on their slaughter. With great care, I had tidied away my life at Buckkeep and attempted to depart alone, to seek that far city and take my own vengeance. I’d had no concern for my own survival afterwards.

But not only the Fool, but Spark, Per and Lant had followed me. Three of them I could send back to Buck, but for the Fool to survive I must wring from him every detail he recalled of Clerres and the Servants of the Whites.

But how? How to pry that essential information from someone so adept at concealment and diversion?

On a day that was more lingering winter than spring, most of us had opted to stay inside the warmth of our chambers but Per had been restless. He had paced and stretched and sighed until I had surrendered and given him permission to explore on his own.

Late in the afternoon, he burst into the chambers, red-cheeked and tousle-haired to exclaim, ‘Motley has made a new friend!’

We all turned toward him in surprise.

‘Motley met another crow? Remind me to blacken her white feathers, or that friendship will be short-lived,’ I replied.

‘No! Not another crow!’ He fairly shouted the words, then caught his breath, and assumed a storytelling tone. ‘I was behaving very carefully, as you bid me, speaking only if spoken to and saying little then. But few people were out in the cold today. Motley had found me and was riding on my shoulder. We were walking toward a plaza with a statue of a horse when a big gust of wind hit me, very cold, and Motley lifted off my shoulder. Then she cried out, as if she were a minstrel, “Oh beauteous one, red as scarlet berries on a frost-kissed vine!” As if she were reciting a poem! The gust of wind was a red dragon landing right in front of me! Her claws clattered on the cobblestones and her tail lashed; she barely stopped short of trampling me. I scrambled backwards and fell. Skinned my palms catching myself!’ he added, and held up his reddened hands for our inspection.

‘Was the dragon threatening you?’ Lant demanded breathlessly.

‘No, not at all. She was just landing there. Still, I was scared and decided to leave. I called Motley back to me, but she flew over to land right in front of the dragon. This time she said. “Oh beauteous one, scarlet queen, feeder of crows!” And the dragon stretched her head down and I thought she would eat Motley. But instead, Motley did a little dance.’

Per opened his arms, bobbed his head and wove his body about like a courting bird.

‘Then what?’ Spark demanded breathlessly.

‘The dragon’s eyes were spinning like Spring Fair tops. She put her head flat to the ground and Motley hopped over and began grooming her, twiddling her beak along the scales of the dragon’s face, going around her eyes and nostrils. The dragon made this very strange sound, like a kettle boiling!’

‘And then?’ Sparks sounded envious at missing the spectacle.

‘I stood and waited for her. When my feet were numb with cold, I called to Motley to come with me, but she didn’t even turn her head. The dragon’s eyes were half-closed, like a big sleepy cat. So I left her and came back.’ His brow furrowed as he asked me, ‘Do you think she’ll be safe?’

‘I think she will be safe. Motley is a very clever bird.’ I wondered if dragons and crows shared an ancient connection. Crows are notorious bone-pickers of true predators. An alliance between crows and dragons seemed only natural. ‘A very clever bird,’ I repeated. And I knew she was a mystery that would only be solved when she chose to reveal herself to me.

‘She is!’ Per exclaimed proudly. ‘That she is.’

On a day of gentle sunshine, I awakened from an afternoon nap to find myself alone. I felt befogged and listless and hoped a short walk around the city would enliven me. Wearing my fine Prince-of-the-Six-Duchies cloak, I ventured out. The distant trees on the hills behind Kelsingra had a blush of moving sap in their white branches. Some, willows perhaps, were dotted with the green of swelling leaves as if someone had threaded beads onto their slender branches. The mountains had shed their snow. How many years had it been since Nighteyes and I had subsisted on their forested flanks, hunting like wolves and sleeping sound? A lifetime ago, perhaps two.

The voices of Elderling memories muttered to me from the Skill-threaded stones of the building. At first, it was distant, like the buzzing of mosquitoes, but it soon became urgent, like bees swarming. The press rasped at my walls, shaving away my defences. I turned back when I began to hear clear snatches of conversation and to see the shadowy forms of Elderlings. The Skill-current swelled around me, like an ocean wave that would slide my feet out from under me and carry me far from shore. I’d been an idiot to venture out alone. I had turned back toward the Greeting Hall when I became aware that Rapskal was following me. My efforts to block the ancient Elderling whispering had deadened my awareness of those around me. I slowed my pace and walked unsteadily. Let him think me weaker than I was. In truth, I judged myself too enervated to withstand the attack of a determined child, let alone this Elderling soldier.

He quickly fell in beside me. ‘Prince FitzChivalry. I am glad to see you are somewhat recovered from your magic.’

‘You are kind to say so, General Rapskal. But even this brief stroll has wearied me. I shall seek my bed as soon as I return.’

‘Ah, well. I am disappointed. I’d hoped to have words with you. Important words.’ The last he added in a lower voice, as if someone might overhear us. Did he wish to deliver a private threat? But when I glanced at him, he met my gaze with a pleading look that was almost apologetic. ‘I’ve misjudged you. Heeby has told me I must change my mind.’ His gravity increased. ‘She had a dream. Or perhaps she remembered something. She has conveyed to me that your quest is a just one. One she supports.’ He lowered his voice to a whisper. ‘She wishes me to aid you in any way I can to destroy the Servants and their city. In any way.’ He leaned close and put his hand on my arm, conspiratorial. His eyes glittered as human eyes should not. My wariness became alarm when he confided, ‘Your crow and Heeby have become very close friends.’

‘Heeby?’ I queried, trying to smile in return. My crow?

‘My dragon. You know of Heeby, I trust? She is my scarlet darling.’ For a moment, his smile became a grin, making him a lad. ‘She likes your crow. Motley, I think she is called. Motley praises her and tells her of her beauty. Before the crow came, I was the only one who had admired her as she deserved. Heeby has become quite fond of Motley. But, that is not what I wished to discuss. Your mission to kill the Servants of the Whites. Heeby approves of it.’

I tried an interpretation of his words. ‘Your dragon had a dream, or remembered that she would like us to kill the Servants of the Whites?’

He grinned wider, white human teeth in a dragon-changed face. ‘Yes. Exactly.’ He was so pleased that I understood.

I stopped walking. I put my hand on the stone façade of a building, thinking to lean there and rest. A mistake. The street suddenly thronged with Elderlings, blue and silver and green — tall, angular folk with fancifully-scaled faces and artfully-draped garments. There was to be a contest of musicians today, in the Plaza of the Queen, and the queen herself would give the award.

‘Hello? Wake up, prince. I’m taking you back to the Greeting Hall. The voices are not so loud there.’

I was walking, and General Rapskal had my arm firmly hooked into his. The contest of musicians faded like a dream. Rapskal was guiding me. Perhaps he had been talking to me.

‘I’m not well,’ I heard myself say.

‘You are fine,’ he said comfortingly. ‘You simply weren’t prepared. If you choose which voice you will hear and ready yourself to share the life of that Elderling, you can learn a great deal. I certainly did! Before I welcomed the Elderling memories of an ancient warrior into my mind, I was a bumbling, stupid boy, earnest and tolerated by my fellow keepers but never respected. Never respected.’

He closed his mouth suddenly on his quavering voice. I revised my estimate of his age downward.

He cleared his throat. ‘My dragon Heeby has suffered similarly. She has never spoken much to the other dragons or their keepers. When she first came to me, she was small and clumsy. The other dragons disdained her. She could not even recall her proper name; I had to give her one. Yet of all of them, she was the first to fly and the first to make her own kills.’ His chest swelled with pride, as if she were his little child. He saw I was paying attention and gave an abrupt nod. We had stopped walking.

‘My chamber,’ I said quietly. ‘I need to rest,’ and my words were true.

‘Of course,’ he said. ‘I am happy to take you there.’ He patted my hand on his arm and I sensed far more of him in that brief touch than I liked. We began to walk — more swiftly than I wished, but I gritted my teeth and kept pace. I hoped Lant would be in the rooms when we reached them. Then I wondered when I had begun to count on him to protect me.

Suddenly, I missed Riddle.

‘So,’ he concluded, and I wondered what I had missed while my thoughts were wandering. ‘That is why anything that Heeby remembers or dreams is so important.’

We had reached the Greeting Hall. It seemed dim inside after the brightness of the day. Two Elderlings turned and stared as he escorted me to the stairs. ‘Up we go,’ he said cheerily. He was stronger than he looked.

‘Thank you for your assistance,’ I said when we reached my chamber. I’d hoped he’d leave me at the door, but he followed me in.

‘Here. Sit at the table. I’ll request food.’

I had little choice but to sit. The struggle to keep the Elderling voices out of my mind had sapped my physical energy. Under the guise of settling myself, I made sure of the little blade Riddle had given me, hidden along the waist of my trousers. If I needed to I could draw it and possibly manage to cut soft butter with it. I tried to summon anger that might waken some strength in my wearied body, but I found only fear that made my knees even more uncertain of their function. Rapskal’s outward friendliness did not calm my wariness of him. His temperament, I judged, was uneven. And yet he was astute. He alone had seemed to realize we were not being completely honest with the good people of Kelsingra. But was I dealing with a ruthless military leader who would do whatever was necessary to defend Kelsingra, or a melancholy youth concerned with his dragon’s dreams?

He joined me at the table, having pressed the flower ornament by the door. ‘How does that work?’ I asked him, hoping to take his measure a bit more. ‘Pressing that flower?’

‘I’ve no idea. It just does. Down in the kitchens a similar emblem glows and hums. One for each room.’ He dismissed my question with a shrug. ‘There is so much we don’t know. It was only six months ago that we discovered those chambers were meant to be a kitchen. There is a basin there that fills with hot or cold water. But no ovens or hearth. So it’s a peculiar kitchen. Not that my mother ever had an oven, or even a kitchen that I remember.’

For a moment, he fell morosely silent. Away from the Skill-tumult of the streets, I wanted to hear more of his dragon’s dream. But I also had to warn the others before they walked into the chamber. I did not trust this Rapskal, not at all. Was his dragon dream a far-fetched ploy to get into our rooms? I waited three breaths and then said, ‘Your dragon had a dream about Clerres?’

He jolted back to awareness of me. ‘Clerres, yes! That was a name she recalled. So it was a true dream then, one based in her ancestral dragon memories!’ He sounded delighted.

‘I’m confused. Ancestral dragon memories?’

He smiled and propped his chin on his fist. ‘It’s not a secret any longer. When a serpent transforms into a dragon, it awakens with the memories of its dragon ancestors. It knows where to hunt, where to nest, it recalls names and events from its ancestral line. Or so it should.

‘Our dragons were sea serpents too long, and spent too short a time in their cocoons. They emerged with fragmented memories. My Heeby recalls almost nothing of her ancestry. But sometimes when she sleeps memories come to her. I hope this means that as she grows she may recall more of her ancestors’ lives.’ His eyes went wide and for a moment they gleamed. Tears? From this ruthless man? He spoke softly in a wounded voice. ‘I love her as she is. I always have and I always will. But to recall her ancestry would mean so much to her.’ His gaze met mine and I saw a stricken parent. ‘Am I heartless that I long for this, too? That I think she would be better … No! She is too wondrous as she is for anything to make her better! Why do I want this so? Am I faithless?’

The worst that can happen to an assassin is to find common ground with his target. But I knew that question too well. How often had I lain awake beside Molly, wondering if I were a monster because I wished my daughter were as able as other children? For an instant, it was as if our hearts pumped the same blood. Then Chade’s training whispered to me, ‘There it is. The chink in his armour.’

I had my own mission to think of. And the Fool. I needed information and perhaps this boy-general had it. I spoke gently, and leaned toward him as if entranced with his tale. I warmed my voice with false kindness. ‘How wondrous then that she dreamed of the Servants and Clerres! I take it neither you nor she have visited that far place?’ Feed him some bits of my information to see what he might betray. Above all, maintain a calm demeanour. Pretend this was a social visit rather than a mutual assessment of strengths.

My ploy worked. His face lit with joy. ‘Never! Those are real places then, real names? It must be a true memory she recalled, not a yearning dream!’ His chest rose and fell with excitement. His eyes that had been so guarded were suddenly wide and open. I felt something go out from him. It was neither the Skill nor the Wit. A peculiar blending of the two? Was that what bonded keeper and dragon? I knew then that he had kept his walls up while we spoke, but now he opened to Heeby and shared with her that her dreams were true recollections. Somewhere in Kelsingra, a dragon trumpeted in joy. The distant caw of a crow echoed it, or had I imagined that?

I nudged him with words. ‘Clerres is real, as are the Servants. I have little other information to share with you, I fear. Our journey carries us toward the unknown.’

‘For vengeance,’ he queried me quietly.

‘For vengeance,’ I confirmed.

His brow creased, and for a moment he looked almost human. ‘Then perhaps we should join you. For what Heeby recalled of that place was dark and distressing. She hates and fears it in equal measures.’

‘What does she recall?’ I asked gently.

He scowled. ‘Little detail. There was treachery and betrayal. A trust violated. Dragons died. Or were, perhaps, slaughtered.’ He stared at the wall as if seeing something at a great distance and then snapped his eyes back to me. ‘It isn’t clear to her. And so it is all the more disturbing.’

‘Would the other dragons recall what she does not?’

He shook his head. ‘It is as I have told you. All the dragons of Kelsingra emerged from their cocoons with incomplete memories.’

Tintaglia. And IceFyre. I held my features still. Neither of those dragons had been members of the Kelsingra brood. Tintaglia had hatched years before the Kelsingra dragons and had believed herself the sole surviving dragon in the world. My personal experiences with her had been exceedingly unpleasant. She had tormented Nettle, invading her dreams and threatening her. And me. All in her pursuit to have us unearth IceFyre for her. That truly ancient dragon had chosen to immerse himself in a glacier when he believed himself the last dragon in the world. The Fool and I had broken him free of that ice and restored him to the world. His recall of what befell the other dragons should be intact. And from what I knew of him, my chances of learning from him were very small.

General Rapskal was still musing on his dragon. ‘My Heeby is different to the other dragons. Always smaller, stunted some would say, and I do fear that she may never grow as large as the others. She seldom speaks, and when she does, it’s almost exclusively to me. She shows no interest in making a mating flight.’ He paused and then said, ‘She is younger than the others, both as a serpent and now as a dragon. We believe she was of the last surviving dragon generation before the final cataclysm took them all. Once, when dragons were many, dragon eggs hatched yearly into serpents. The serpents within then quickly made their way into the sea. There they would remain, swimming and eating, following the migrations of the fish until they were large enough to return to the Rain Wild River and travel up it to the cocooning beach near Trehaug. So it was, once. Many of the dragons have ancestral memories of helping serpents to form and enter their cocoons. And the following summer, the dragons would emerge from those cocoons, strong and fully-formed, ready to take flight for their first hunts.’

He shook his head sadly. ‘It was not so for our dragons. They … got lost. They remained as serpents far too long, for some great disaster changed the coast and the river so greatly that they could no longer find their way to their cocooning beaches. Heeby and I believe that several generations of serpents were caught in that disaster. Trapped in the sea for far longer than they should have been.’

I nodded. Speculations of my own had begun to boil within my mind, yet I knew it was essential to hear all he had to say. No need to tell him that I knew more of those two elder dragons than he did.

‘Heeby suspects that not all dragon kind died when the Elderling cities fell. Certainly IceFyre did not.’ His voice went very dark. ‘I have given this some thought as well. It might seem that all the Elderlings who lived here in Kelsingra died. But they did not. I have walked in the memory of one Elderling who lived through whatever event split and shattered this city. Through his eyes, I watched the ground tremble and Elderlings flee. But where? I think to other places marked on the map in the tower.’ He paused and looked at me. It taxed all my discipline to keep my face bemused as he said, ‘I do not know how the magic was done, but they fled through the standing stones. The same stones where I first encountered you.’

‘They fled through stones?’ I asked as if uncertain of what I had heard.

‘Through the stones,’ he said. He watched me carefully. I kept my breathing slow and steady while regarding him with great interest. The quiet stretched long before he spoke. ‘I grew up an ignorant boy, Prince FitzChivalry. But not a stupid one. This city has a story to tell. While the others have feared to be lost in the memories stored in the stones, I have explored them. I have learned much. But some of what I have learned has only led to more questions. Does it not seem odd to you that in one disaster every Elderling and every dragon in the world seems to have perished?’

He was now speaking as much to himself as he was to me. I was content to let him talk.

‘Some Elderling settlements were destroyed. We know that. Trehaug has long mined the remains of one buried Elderling city. Perhaps others fell as well. But humanity did not die out, nor parrots nor monkeys. So how is it that every Elderling vanished from the world, and every dragon? Their population would surely have been greatly reduced. But to die out entirely? That is too strange. I saw many flee when the city died. So what became of them? What became of the dragons who were not here when the city fell?’ He scratched his scaled chin. His nails were iridescent and made a metal-on-metal sound against his face. He lifted his eyes to mine. ‘Heeby recalls treachery and darkness. An earthquake is a disaster, but not a betrayal. I doubt that Elderlings would be traitors to their dragons. So whose treachery does she recall?’

I ventured a question. ‘What does IceFyre say to your questions?’

He gave a snort of disdain. ‘IceFyre? Nothing. He is a useless bully, to dragons and Elderlings alike. He never speaks to us. When Tintaglia had no other choice she took him as her mate. But he proved himself unworthy of her. We seldom see him here in Kelsingra. But I have heard a minstrel song of IceFyre’s freeing from a glacier. An evil woman, pale of skin, attempted to kill him. A White Prophet, some call her. And this is what I wonder. If someone had killed the dragons and Elderlings, would they not wish to put an end to IceFyre as well?’

The tale of IceFyre and the Pale Woman had reached as far as Kelsingra. I had been known as Tom Badgerlock then, and few minstrels knew of my role in the downfall of the Pale Woman. But Rapskal was right. IceFyre would certainly have a reason to hate the Pale Woman and perhaps the Servants as well. Was there any way to waken that hatred and persuade him to aid me in my vengeance? I rather doubted it. If he would not seek vengeance for his own wrongs, he would care little for wrongs done to a mere human.

I led his thoughts away from IceFyre. ‘I do not understand all you have told me. The dragons of Kelsingra are different ages? But I thought all the Kelsingra dragons had hatched from their cases at the same time?’

He smiled indulgently. ‘There is so much the outside world does not understand about our dragons. From a mating to the laying of an egg to the serpent entering its case, a generation or more of humanity may pass. And if sea serpents encounter years of poor feeding or are swept away by storms or lost, then even more years may pass before they return to spin their cases. The serpents that finally were guided by Tintaglia to the cocooning grounds were all survivors of a terrible calamity, but some had been in the sea for scores of years longer than others. They had been serpents since dragons ended, and no one knows how long dragons had been gone from this world. Heeby and I believe that she was the youngest of the serpents to reach the banks of the Rain Wild River. Her ancestral memories, poor as they are, retain the most recent history of the dragons before their near-extinction.’

It was time to ask my most important question. ‘Does Heeby remember anything of Clerres or the Servants that might aid me in my quest to destroy them?’

He shook his head sadly. ‘She hates them, but she also fears them — and I can think of nothing else that she fears. She wavers from demanding that I should rally all our dragons to your cause to warning me that we must never go near that place. If her dreams bring her a clear recollection, she may resolve to take her own vengeance.’ He shrugged. ‘Or, if those memories are sufficiently terrifying, she may decide to avoid Clerres forever.’

He stood abruptly, prompting me to slide my own chair back and tighten all my muscles. He smiled ruefully at my wariness. I am not a short man, but even if I had been standing, he would have towered over me. Yet he spoke courteously. ‘Even if my dragon cannot muster, at present, the will to avenge her kind on these “Servants”, I would wish to kill them all myself. For her.’ He met my gaze squarely. ‘I will not apologize for how I first behaved when you came to my city. My caution was warranted, and I am still dubious about much of your tale. No one saw you descend from the hills into Kelsingra. Your party arrived with more baggage than I believe you could comfortably carry. None of you had the weathered look common to folk who have made a long journey through the wilderness. I could not help but regard you with great caution. I had believed that only the Elderlings of old could use the standing stones as portals.’

He stopped speaking. I met his gaze and said nothing. A spark of anger glittered in his metallic eyes. ‘Very well. Keep your secrets. I sought you out not for myself but for Heeby. It is at her bidding that I aid you. Therefore, despite my own reservations, at her urging, I offer you this. I am forced to trust that you will reveal this gift to no one — human, Elderling or dragon — until you are well away from Kelsingra. What use you might have for it, I cannot imagine. By touching dragon-Silver, Lady Amber has dipped her fingers into her own death, and printed death onto you with her touch. I do not envy either of you. But I do wish you success in achieving your mission before death takes you.’

As he spoke, he had reached into his waistcoat. My fingers found the haft of Riddle’s knife, but what he drew forth was not a conventional weapon. I thought the fat tube was made of metal until I saw the slow shifting of Silver within it. ‘Few of the containers the Silver-workers used survived. The glass is very heavy, and the glass stopper is threaded to ensure a tight fit. Nevertheless, I counsel you to handle it carefully.’

‘You’re showing me a glass tube of Skill?’ I would assume nothing.

He set it on the table and it rolled until he stopped it with a touch. The tube was as fat around as an oar handle, and would fit solidly in a man’s hand. He reached into his waistcoat again and set a second tube beside the first. The glass chinked lightly as they touched and the silver substance inside it whirled and coiled like melted fat on top of stirred soup.

‘Showing you? No. I’m giving it to you. After what Heeby has shared with me I assume that your Lady Amber requested it to use against the Servants. So here it is. Your weapon. Or your source of magic. Or however you need to use it. It is from Heeby, given freely by a dragon, as only a dragon could grant you dragon-Silver.’

There was a tap at the door. He picked up the Silver and shoved it at me. ‘Conceal it,’ he told me harshly. Startled, I fumbled my hold on the tubes and then gripped them. They were warm, and much heavier than I’d expected them to be. With no other hiding-place close by, I shoved them inside my shirt and folded my hands at the table’s edge to conceal the bulge as he went to the door.

‘Ah. Your food,’ he announced and admitted a serving man, who gave him a wide-eyed look before carrying a tray to the table and beginning to set out food before me. His brow was scaled as were the tops of his cheeks. His lips were flat and taut, fishlike, and when he shifted his mouth, I glimpsed a flat grey tongue. His eyes, too, moved strangely when he turned his gaze to me. I looked away from his unvoiced plea. I wanted to apologize that I could not help him but dared not open that discussion. I shamed myself by quietly thanking him. He nodded dumbly and backed out of the door, his eyes skimming over Rapskal. News of my visitor would swiftly reach the kitchens and spread as only gossip can.

‘Will you join me?’ I asked the general.

He shook his head. ‘No. I expect that within minutes you will have one or two more of the household dashing through that door to be sure I have not harmed you. A pity. I should like to learn how you travel by those pillars. And why Heeby says you smell like you have a dragon companion, but not one she knows. I suspect there are things I know that would benefit you.’ He released a sigh. ‘So much is lost when there is no trust. Farewell, Prince FitzChivalry Farseer. I hope the trade and magic alliance you have proposed for our peoples prospers. I hope it does not end in war.’

Those chilling words were his farewell. The moment he closed the door behind him, I rose and took the glass tubes of Skill to my pack. I hefted the vessels thoughtfully and watched the slow swirl when I tipped them. I studied each stopper; they appeared to be tight and felt slightly tacky, as if resin had been added to the seal. I tucked each into a heavy sock, doubling the ends over and then put them into a thick wool hat before snugging it into the bottom of my pack. The glass of the tubes appeared heavy and strong, but I would take no chances. Indeed, I agreed with Rapskal. I would tell no one that I had this, least of all the Fool. I had no idea why Amber had asked for dragon-Silver. Until she saw fit to divulge what she had planned, I had no intention of putting it at her disposal. It had alarmed me that she had silvered her fingertips, and I could still not sort out how I felt about the fingerprints that once more graced my wrist. I sighed. I knew my decision was sensible and wondered why I felt guilty about it. Worse than guilty. Deceptive and sly.

The others breezed in later that afternoon, full of tales of the city. In an ancient arboretum, the trees had long perished, but there remained statues that slowly changed their poses, and a fountain that chortled with the voices of happy children. Both Lant and Spark had seen the faint shapes of Elderlings moving among the ghosts of green trees and climbing vines. Amber nodded to that account but Perseverance looked forlorn. ‘Why do I hear and see nothing?’ he demanded. ‘Even Amber hears their whispers! When the dragons fly over, the others say they hear them calling to each other. Mostly insults and warnings about hunting territory. But all I hear is the bugling, not that different to the calls of elk in rut.’ The indignation in his voice bordered on anger.

‘I wish you could hear and see what we do,’ Spark offered quietly.

‘Why can’t I?’ This he demanded of me.

‘I can’t say with certainty. But I suspect it’s something you were born with, or without. Some folk have an affinity for a magic. The Skill. Or the Wit. If they have the affinity, they can develop it. Rather like herd-dogs are born with the concept of bunching sheep, and hound pups that follow a scent, even before they are taught the fine points of it.’

‘But dogs can be taught to herd or hunt, even if they are not those breeds. Can’t you teach me to see and hear what the others do?’

‘I’m afraid not.’

Per glanced sideways at Spark, and I sensed perhaps a rivalry, or simply a wish to share. Lant spoke quietly. ‘I don’t see or hear as much as the others do.’

‘But I hear and see nothing at all!’ The words burst from the boy.

‘That might be a gift rather than a lack. Perhaps you should think of it as an armour against magic. Your imperviousness was why you could resist the impulse to join the others in the carriage drive on the night Withywoods was raided. It was why you could help Bee to stay hidden as long as she did, and to help her try to escape. Your deafness to the Skill and to the magic of Kelsingra may be as much of a shield as a weakness.’

If I had thought to comfort him, it failed. ‘A lot of good that did her,’ he said miserably. ‘They still took Bee from me. And they still destroyed her.’

His words damped all our spirits. A morose silence fell. Whatever pleasure they had taken in the magic of the city was engulfed in the miasma of recalling why we had come here. ‘General Rapskal came to see me today,’ I said, dropping the words like stones into a still pool.

‘What did he want?’ Amber asked. ‘Did he threaten you?’

‘Not at all. He said that he came to wish us success in our quest for vengeance. And that Heeby, his dragon, had a dream about the Servants. And Clerres.’ I summarized for them my visit from Rapskal.

A profound silence followed my words. Per was the first to speak. ‘What does all that mean?’

‘Rapskal suspects that some great disaster befell the dragons. He believes that Heeby hates the Servants of Clerres because they somehow murdered the remaining dragons. Or as many as they could kill.’

Lady Amber’s face had slackened into the Fool’s features. In the Fool’s voice, he whispered, ‘That would explain so much! If the Servants foresaw a disaster to the dragons and the Elderlings, then they could plan to make it worse. If their goal was to eliminate all dragons from the world, and they succeeded, then they might foresee that we would try to restore them. And so they would create the Pale Woman, and hold me captive at the school and send her out in my place. To be sure that the dragons had no chance of being restored.’ His gaze went distant as he recalled all we had done. ‘The pieces fit, Fitz.’ Then a strange smile lit his face. ‘But they failed. And we brought dragons back into the world.’

A shiver ran up my back and stood my hair on end. How far ahead had the Servants planned their strategy? The Fool had once hinted that they had used him to draw me away from Withywoods so that they might steal Bee. Did their dreams and omens warn them that we were coming? What other obstacles or distractions might they devise for us? I smothered those fears. ‘We still don’t know why they wanted to destroy the dragons.’

He shot me the Fool’s mocking glance. ‘I said it explained much, not all. The Servants play a very long game with the world and the lives of all those in it. And they play it only for their own good. I would speak with this Heeby and see what else she can recall.’

‘I don’t think that’s wise. I think all of us should avoid General Rapskal as much as we can. He does not seem … stable. Today he was courteous, even kind. Nonetheless, I do not trust him. He told me plainly that he does not believe our story of how we came here, nor how you silvered your fingers. He strongly suspects that we came by the pillars. He glimpsed you near the dragons’ well on the night you dipped your fingers, Fool. For all our sakes, stay clear of him.’

For a long time, he was silent. Then his features assumed the poise of Lady Amber. ‘I suppose that is the wiser course. And you say that Heeby speaks only to him? Would any of the other dragons recall anything of the Servants, do you think?’

‘I don’t think so. But how could we possibly know?’ I pondered a bit. ‘IceFyre knows. He survived whatever befell the dragons and of his own will entombed himself in ice. He should recall those times. He would know if the Servants had anything to do with the extinction of the dragons. I suppose it’s possible he shared that tale with Tintaglia.’

‘But he is not here. Many of the dragons went to the warm lands for the winter. Some went two or even three years ago. I gather that IceFyre left and has not returned.’

A cold dread uncoiled in my belly. I tried to keep it from showing on my face. ‘Fool. Lady Amber. What is the climate like on the White Island? And in the nearby lands?’

She fixed her blind eyes on me. ‘Warm. Mild. I never knew winter until I travelled north to the Six Duchies.’ She smiled, her face falling into the Fool’s lines. ‘It’s beautiful, Fitz. Not just the White Island, not just Clerres. I meant the other islands and the mainland. It’s a gentle land, a much kinder place than you have ever known. Oh, Buck is beautiful, in its savage way. It’s stark, a stern land, and it makes folk as stony as its bones. But my land? It has gentle rolling hills, wide river valleys and herds of cattle and flocks of sheep. Not the rangy creatures you call cattle in Buck and the Duchies. Big brown cows with sweeping horns and black muzzles, their backs head-high to a man. It’s a rich and easy land, Fitz. Farther inland, there are golden-shored lakes that teem with fish and there are steaming springs in the wooded hills.’ He sighed and seemed lost for a time, perhaps recalling the days of his childhood. Abruptly, Amber cocked her head at me. ‘Do you think that is where dragons go when the winter freezes the land here? Or went, at some time?’

I imagined gentle rolling pasturelands, fat cattle stampeding in terror and swooping dragons. ‘That would explain why the Servants would wish to eliminate them. Dragons have not proven favourable for the Six Duchies. Perhaps the Servants found them more than an inconvenience.’ Did the Servants know how to kill dragons? Were there dragons that would never return to Kelsingra?

‘Let me ponder this, and recall what little I know of the dream-prophecies that mention dragons.’ Amber scowled suddenly and it was the Fool who said, ‘And why has it never occurred to me to wonder why there are so few dream-prophecies that mentioned dragons? Are there no dream-prophecies of the rise and fall of the dragons? Or were they suppressed?’

Suppressed, I thought to myself. As the Fool suppressed his memories of Clerres. I needed to unlock both those mysteries. A slow plan to do so began to unfold in my mind.

SIX

Revelations

I first dreamed the Destroyer when I was still on Aslevjal Island. Beloved’s Catalyst had returned for a second time. I believe his presence triggered both my dreaming and the vision of the Destroyer. In that dream, the Destroyer was a fist gripping a flame. The hand opened and the flames flared tall but instead of giving off light, they brought darkness. And everything I had ever known was destroyed.

It had been so long since I had dreamed a Dream that I told myself I had imagined that it was significant. Had not I just achieved all my goals? Why would a dream so dark come to me amid my triumph? Nonetheless, I was moved to say to the White Prophet and his Catalyst that the time had come for them to part. One of them, at least, accepted the truth of my words, but I saw that they both lacked the will to do what they must. I undertook to separate them.

The writings of Prilkop the Black

My recovery was slower than from any physical injury I had experienced in decades. Clearly my old Skill-healing did not repair whatever the Skill itself had drained from me. Focusing my thoughts was a challenge, and I tired easily. And my afternoon with General Rapskal had taxed me gravely. Even in this so-called ‘quiet’ building, the Skill-current sang and surged around me. But that did not mean there was not work to do. Information to gather, regardless of barriers. No matter how weary I was.

That night I sent Perseverance down to the kitchens to beg brandy and a glass for me. He had returned with a large bottle of Sandsedge. ‘Carot is from the Rain Wilds and very hampered by thick scales on his face and hands,’ he had informed me as he set out the bottle and two glasses. ‘He said you deserved only the best, and asked me to remember him to you.’ I’d sighed. My steady refusals to attempt any more healings had not stopped the requests and courtship of those afflicted with dragon changes. With an understanding shrug, Per left me alone in my room and went off to bed.

I was sitting on the bed, bottle beside me and glass in hand when Amber came in after a late dinner with Malta. I greeted her after I drained the last drops of brandy from my glass. ‘Did you have a pleasant evening?’ I asked her in a slow voice.

‘Pleasant enough. Little to show for it. IceFyre has been gone for months now; Malta isn’t sure when he left. All know that Heeby doesn’t speak to anyone except Rapskal, and Malta had heard that Rapskal had called on you and was concerned for you.’

‘I hope you told her I was fine. Though truly, I shouldn’t have ventured out into Kelsingra. The Skill-current out there is like being tumbled down a river full of boulders. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been trained to be aware of it and use it, or because there is so much Silver here. Perhaps I made myself vulnerable to it somehow, when I did those healings and let it course through me without restraint.’ I lifted the bottle. ‘Will you have some?

‘Some what?’ She sniffed the air. ‘Is that Sandsedge brandy?’

‘It is. I’ve only one glass but there are cups still on the table.’

‘I will, then. It would be shameful to make you drink alone.’

I kicked my boots off, let them thud to the floor. I let the bottle’s neck clink on the lip of my glass as I dribbled a bit more into it. Then I lay back on the bed, staring up at the dimmed ceiling. Stars gleamed against a deep blue sky. They were not the only illumination in the room. The walls had become a forestscape. White flowers gleamed on the swooping branches of trees. I spoke to the stars. ‘So much Skill coursing through this city, and I dare not use it at all.’

I did not watch as Amber discarded her skirts and wiped paint from her face. When I felt someone sit down on the edge of the bed, it was the Fool in plain leggings and a simple shirt. He had brought a teacup from the table. ‘And you still dare not venture to help any of the dragon-touched folk? Not even with the smallest complaint? Scales growing down over the eyes, for example?’

I sighed. I tapped the neck of the bottle light on the edge of his teacup to warn him, and then filled it well. ‘I know the man you speak of. He has come twice to talk to me, once to beg, once with coin. Fool, I dare not. I am besieged by the Skill. If I open my gates to it, I will fall.’ I moved over on the bed. He took two generous sips from his cup to lower the level of the brandy before taking a place beside me. I set the bottle on the bed between us.

‘And you cannot reach out to Nettle or Dutiful at all?’ He leaned back on the pillows beside me and held the teacup in both hands on his chest.

‘I dare not,’ I repeated. ‘Think of it this way. If there is water sloshing in my boat, I don’t drill a hole in the bottom to let it out. For then the ocean would surge in.’ He did not reply. I shifted in the bed and added, ‘I wish you could see how beautiful this chamber is. It is night in here, with the stars illuminated on the ceiling, and the walls have become a shadowed forest.’ I hesitated, needing to ease into the topic. Do it. ‘It makes me grieve for Aslevjal. The Pale Woman’s soldiers destroyed so much beauty there. I wish I could have seen it as it was.’

The Fool held a long silence. Then he said, ‘Prilkop often spoke of the beauty that was lost when she invaded Aslevjal and made it hers.’

‘Then he was there before she was?’

‘Oh, long before. He’s very old. Was very old.’ His voice went dark with dread.

‘How old?’

He made a small, amused noise. ‘Ancient, Fitz. He was there before IceFyre buried himself. It shocked him that the dragon would do so, but he dared not oppose him. IceFyre was seized by the idea that he must burrow into the ice and die there. The glacier had claimed most of Aslevjal when Prilkop first arrived there. Some few Elderlings still came and went, but not for long.’

‘How could anyone live that long?’ I demanded.

‘He was a true White, Fitz. Of a much older and purer bloodline than existed when I was born. Whites are long-lived and terribly hard to kill. You have to work at it to kill a White or permanently disable one. As the Pale Woman did with me.’ He sipped noisily from his teacup, and then tipped it to take a healthy drink from it. ‘What they did to me in Clerres … it would have killed you, Fitz. Or any other human. But they knew that, and were always careful not to go too far. No matter how much I hoped they would.’ He drank again.

I’d come to the topic I wanted to explore but not by the path I’d hoped. I could already feel the tension in him. I looked around and asked, ‘Where is that bottle?’

‘It’s here.’ He groped beside him on the bed then passed it to me, and I tipped a bit into my glass. He held out his cup and I sloppily refilled it.

He scowled as he shook brandy from his fingertips, and then sipped it down to where it would not spill. For a time, neither of us spoke. I counted his breaths, and heard them slow and become deeper.

Beside me in the darkness, he lifted his gloved hand. He let the teacup balance on his chest by itself. Gingerly he pulled at the fingertips of the glove with his other hand, until his silvered hand was bared. He held it up and turned it first one way and then the other. ‘Can you see it?’ I asked him curiously.

‘Not as you do. But I can perceive it.’

‘Does it hurt? Thymara said it would kill you, and Spark told me that Thymara is one of the few Elderlings allowed to work with Silver and knows more of it than anyone. Not that she has mastered the artful way of the old Elderlings.’

‘Really? I had not heard that.’

‘She attempts to learn from the memories stored in the city. But it is dangerous to listen too closely to them. Lant hears the city whisper. Spark hears it singing. I’ve warned them to avoid deliberate contact with places where memories are stored.’ I sighed. ‘But I am certain they have at least sampled some of what is there.’

‘Oh, yes. Spark told me that some of the serving girls do nothing in their free time except seek out the erotic remembrances that a certain Elderling left stored in a statue of herself. Malta and Reyn disapprove, and with reason. Years ago, I heard a rumour about the Khuprus family, that Reyn’s father spent too much time in a buried Elderling city among such stones. He died of it. Or rather, he became immersed in it and then his body died from lack of care. They call it drowning in memories.’ He sipped from his cup.

‘And we call it drowning in the Skill. August Farseer.’ I spoke aloud the name of a cousin long lost.

‘And Verity, in a much more dramatic way. He did not drown in someone else’s memories but submerged himself in a dragon, taking all his memories with him.’

I was quiet for a time, thinking about his words. I lifted my glass to my lips and then paused to say, ‘A hedge-witch once told me that all magic is related — like a circle — and people may have this arc of it, or that. No one gets it all. I’ve got the Skill and the Wit, but I can’t scry. Chade can, or could. I think. He never fully admitted it to me. Jinna could make charms for people, but despised my Wit as a dirty magic …’ I watched his silvered hand turning. ‘Fool. Why did you silver your hand? And why did you ask for more Silver?’

He sighed. His free hand shook out his glove and held it open as his silvered hand crept into it. He took up his cup in both hands. ‘To have the magic, Fitz. To be able to use the pillars more easily. To be able to shape wood again, as I once did. To touch someone or something and know it, from the bones out, as I once could.’ He drew in a deep breath and sighed it out. ‘When they tormented me … When they skinned my hand …’ He faltered. He took a slow sip of his brandy and said in a careless voice, ‘When I had no Skill on my fingers, I missed it. I wanted it back.’

‘Thymara said it would kill you.’

‘It was slow death for Verity and Kettle. They knew it. They raced to create the dragon and enter it before the Silver could kill them.’

‘But you lived for years with Silver on your fingertips.’

‘And you bore the marks of my fingers on your wrist for years. You didn’t die of it. Nor has Malta from my touch on her neck.’

‘Why not?’

He scowled at his teacup and drank to lower the level of brandy in it before he shifted onto his side to face me. ‘I don’t know. Perhaps because I am not fully human. Perhaps because of the White heritage. Perhaps because you were trained to master the Skill. Perhaps because for you, like Malta, it was the barest brush of Silver on your skin. Or, for her, perhaps Tintaglia’s dragon-changes made her immune.’ He smiled. ‘So perhaps because there is something of a dragon in you. Elderling blood, from long ago. I suspect it entered the bloodlines of the Farseers when the first Holder came to the shores of what would be Buck. Perhaps the walls of Buckkeep are not as heavily infused with Skill as the walls of Kelsingra, but we both know there is some of it, in the Skill-pillars and in the oldest stones of the castle. Perhaps you are immune to it because you grew up with it, or perhaps you were born that way.’ He shook his head against the bed that had relaxed to cushion him. ‘We don’t know. But I think this,’ he held his gloved hand aloft and rubbed his fingertips together, ‘will be very useful to me when we reach Clerres.’

‘And the vials of Silver you asked for?’

‘Truthfully, I wished them for a friend. To improve his lot in life. And perhaps to win a favour of him.’

I trickled some brandy into my glass and refilled his teacup. We both drank. ‘Do I know this friend?’

He laughed aloud. It was a sound that had become so rare that I smiled to hear it, even when I did not know the reason. ‘No, you don’t know him yet. But you will.’ He looked at me with his pale gold eyes and I felt he could see me. ‘And you may find you have much in common,’ he said, and laughed again, a bit loosely. I didn’t ask. I knew better than to think he might answer a direct question. He surprised me when he asked, ‘You have never considered it? Adding a bit of Skill to your fingers?’

‘No.’ I thought of Verity, his hands and forearms coated with Silver, unable to touch his lady or hold her. I thought of the times when something, a fern or a leaf, had brushed against the Fool’s old fingerprints on my wrist and I’d had a disconcerting moment of full awareness of it. ‘No. I think I have enough problems with the Skill without making myself even more vulnerable to it.’

‘Yet you wore my fingerprints for years. And became very upset with me when I removed them.’

‘True. Because I missed that link with you.’ I took a sip of brandy. ‘But how did you remove them from my skin? How did you recall the Skill to your fingertips?’

‘I just did. Can you tell me how you reach out to Nettle?’

‘Not in a way you would understand. Not unless you had the Skill.’

‘Exactly.’

Silence fell between us for a time. I worked on my walls and felt the muttering of the city become a soft murmuring and then fade to blessed silence. Peace filled me for a moment. Then guilt welled up to fill the space the city’s muttering had occupied. Peace? What right had I to peace when I had failed Bee so badly?

‘Do you want me to take them back?’

‘What?’

‘My fingerprints on your wrist. Do you want me to take them back again?’

I thought briefly. Did I? ‘I never wanted you to remove them when you did. And now? I fear that if you put your hand to my wrist, we might both be swept away. Fool, I told you that I felt besieged by the magic. My latest encounter with the force of the Skill has left me very wary. I think of Chade and how he crumbled in the last few months. What if that were suddenly me? Not remembering things, not keeping my thoughts organized? I can’t let that happen. I have to keep my focus.’ I sipped from my glass. ‘We — I—have a task to complete.’

He made no response. I was staring at the ceiling but from the corner of my eye, I watched him drain his teacup. I offered him the bottle and he poured more for himself. Now was as good a time as any. ‘So, tell me about Clerres. The island, the town, the school. How will we get in?’

‘As for my getting in, that’s not a problem. If I show myself in a guise they recognize, they will be very anxious to take me back in and finish what they began.’ He tried for laughter, but abruptly fell silent.

I wondered if he had frightened himself. I sought for a distraction. ‘You smell like her.’

‘What?’

‘You smell like Amber. It’s a bit unnerving.’

‘Like Amber?’ He lifted his wrist to his nose and sniffed. ‘There’s barely a trace of attar of roses there. How can you smell that?’

‘I suppose there’s still a bit of the wolf in me. It’s noticeable because you usually have no scent of your own. Oh, if you are filthy, I smell the dirt on your skin and clothes. But not you, yourself. Nighteyes sometimes called you the Scentless One. He thought it very strange.’

‘I had forgotten that. Nighteyes.’

‘To Nighteyes. To friends long gone,’ I said. I lifted my glass and drained it, as did he. I quickly refilled his cup, and chinked the bottle against the lip of my glass.

We were both quiet for a time, recalling my wolf, but it was a different kind of silence. Then the Fool cleared his throat and spoke as if he were Fedwren teaching the history of Buck. ‘Far to the south and across the sea to the east is the land from which I came. I was born to a little farming family. Our soil was good; our stream seldom ran dry. We had geese and sheep. My mother spun the wool, my parents dyed it, my fathers wove with it. So long ago, those days, like an old tale. I was born to my mother late in her life and I grew slowly, just as Bee did. But they kept me, and I stayed with them for many years. They were old when they took me to the Servants at Clerres. Perhaps they thought themselves too old to care for me any longer. They told me I had to become what I was meant to be, and they feared they had kept me too long from that calling. For in that part of the world, all know of the White Prophets, though not all give the legends credence.

‘I was born on the mainland, on Mersenia, but we journeyed from island to island until we reached Clerres. It’s a very beautiful city on a bay on a large island named Kells in the old tongue. Or Clerres. Some call it the White Island. Along that coast and on several of the islands are beaches littered with immense bones. They are so old they have turned to stone. I myself have seen them. Some of those stony bones were incorporated into the stronghold at Clerres. For it is a stronghold, from a time before the Servants. Once, a long narrow peninsula of land reached out to it. Whoever built the castle at Clerres cut away that peninsula, leaving only a narrow causeway that leads to it — a causeway that vanishes daily when the tide is in and reappears as the tide goes out. Each end of the causeway is stoutly gated and guarded. The Servants regulate who comes and who goes.’

‘So they have enemies?’

He laughed again. ‘Not that I have ever heard. They control the flow of commerce. Pilgrims and merchants and beggars. Clerres attracts all sorts of folk.’

‘So we should approach it from the sea, in a small boat, at night.’

He shook his head and sipped more brandy. ‘No. The towers above are manned at all times with excellent archers. Toward the sea, there are tall pilings of stone, and nightly the lamps on them are lit. They burn bright. You cannot approach from the sea.’

‘Go on,’ I said with a sigh.

‘As I told you. All manner of folk come there. Merchants from far ports, people anxious to know their futures, folk who wish to become Servants of the Whites, mercenaries to join the guard. We will hide among them. In the daily flood of people seeking Clerres, you will be unnoticed. You can blend with the fortune-seekers who at every low tide cross the causeway to the castle.’

‘I would rather enter by stealth. Preferably during darkness.’

‘There might be a way,’ he admitted. ‘There is an ancient tunnel under the causeway. I don’t know where one enters it, or where the tunnel opens. I told you that some of the young Whites carried me out in secrecy.’ He shook his head and took a healthy swallow of his brandy. ‘I thought they were my friends,’ he said bitterly. ‘Since then, I have had to wonder if they did not serve the Four. I think they freed me as one uncages a messenger pigeon, knowing it will fly home. I fear they will expect me. That they will have foreseen my return and be ready for me. What we attempt to do, Fitz, will disrupt every future they have ever planned. There will have been many dreams about it.’

I rolled my head to look at him. He was smiling strangely. ‘When first you brought me back from death, I told you I was living in a future that I’d never foreseen. I had never dreamed of anything beyond my death. My death, I knew, was a certainty. And when I travelled with Prilkop, back to Clerres, I had no dreams. I was certain that my time as a White Prophet was over. Had not we achieved all I’d ever imagined?’

‘We did!’ I exclaimed and raised my glass. ‘To us!’ We drank.

‘As the years passed, my dreams came back to me, but fitfully. Then Ash gave me the dragon-blood elixir, and my dreams returned as a flood. Powerful dreams. Visions that warned of strong divergences in what may be, Fitz. Twice I have dreamed of a Destroyer who comes to Clerres. That would be you, Fitz. But if I have dreamed such a thing, then will others have done so also. The Servants may expect us. They may even have deliberately set in motion that I will come back to them, and bring my Catalyst with me.’

‘Then we must make sure they do not see you.’ I feigned an optimism I did not feel. Telling an assassin he is expected is the worst news that can be delivered. I ventured toward something I had long wondered about. ‘Fool. When we were changing the world, putting it into a “better track” as you used to say … how did you know what we should and should not do?’

‘I didn’t, exactly.’ He sighed heavily. ‘I saw you in the futures I wanted. But not often. At first, your survival was very unlikely. So my first task was to find you, and keep you alive as long as possible. To create a greater likelihood that you would exist in more possible futures. Do you see what I mean?’ I didn’t, but I made an agreeable noise. ‘So. To keep a bastard alive, find a powerful man. Win him to my side. I put into King Shrewd’s head the thought that you might be useful in the future; that he should not let Regal destroy you, or he would not have you as a tool to possibly use later.’

I recalled Regal’s words the first time he saw me. ‘Don’t do what you can’t undo, until you’ve considered well what you can’t do once you’ve done it.’

‘Almost exactly right,’ he said, and hiccupped, and then chuckled. ‘Oh, King Shrewd. I never foresaw that I would come to care for him so much, Fitz, nor that he would be fond of me. Or you!’ He yawned and added, ‘But he did.’

‘So, what can we do, to make it less likely they expect us?’

‘We could not go.’

‘Yes, there’s that.’

‘We could delay going for twenty years or so.’

‘I’d likely be dead. Or very old.’

‘True.’

‘I don’t want to take the others into this. Lant and the youngsters. I never meant for you to come along, let alone them. I hope that in Bingtown we can put them on a ship home.’

He shook his head, disapproving that plan. Then he asked, ‘Do you think that somehow you will manage to leave me behind as well?’

‘I wish I could, but I fear that I must have you with me, to help me find my way. So be useful, Fool. Tell me of this tunnel. Is it guarded as well?’

‘I think not, Fitz. I can tell you so little. I was blinded and broken. I did not even know the names of those took me out of there. When I realized they were moving me, I thought they were taking me to the dung-tank on the level of the lowest dungeons. It is a vile place, always stinking of filth and death. All the waste of the castle flows into a vat set into the floor. If you have displeased the Four that is where they will dump your dismembered body. Twice a day the tank floods with the incoming tide. A chute slants down and under the castle wall, into the bay. And when the tide goes out, it carries with it the filth, the excrement, the little strangled babies they did not find worthy of life …’

His voice cracked as he said, ‘I thought that was why they had come. To cut me in pieces and throw me in with all the other waste. But they hushed me when I cried out and said they had come to save me, and they rolled me onto a blanket and carried me out. During the times when I was conscious I heard the drip of water and smelled the sea. We went down some steps. They carried me a long way. I smelled their lantern. Then up some steps and out onto a hillside. I smelled sheep and wet grass. The jolting hurt me terribly. They carried me over rough ground for a painfully long time and then out onto a dock where they gave me over to sailors on a ship.’

I stored in my mind the little he had given me. A tunnel under the causeway that ended in a sheep pasture. Not much of use. ‘Who were they? Would they be willing to help us?’

‘I don’t know. Even now, I can’t recall it clearly.’

‘You must,’ I told him. I felt him flinch and feared I had pushed him too hard. I spoke more gently. ‘Fool, you are all I have. And there is so much I need to know about this “Four”. I must know their weaknesses, their pleasures, their friends. I must know their habits, their vices, their routines and desires.’

I waited. He remained silent. I tried another question. ‘If we can choose but one to kill, which one do you most wish dead?’ He was silent. After a time, I asked him quietly, ‘Are you awake?’

‘Awake. Yes.’ He sounded more sober than he had. ‘Fitz. Was this how it was with Chade? Did you two take counsel with one another and plan each death?’

Don’t talk about this. Too private even to tell the Fool. I’d never spoken of it to Molly. The only one who had ever witnessed me engaged in my trade was Bee. I cleared my throat. ‘Let it go for tonight, Fool. Tomorrow I will beg paper from the keepers and we can begin to draw the stronghold. As much as you remember. For tonight, we need to sleep.’

‘I won’t be able to.’

He sounded desperately unhappy. I was exhuming all he had buried. I handed him the bottle. He drank from the neck. I took it back and did the same. It was unlikely that I would sleep either. I hadn’t intended to get drunk. It was supposed to be a ploy. A scheme, to trick my friend. I drank more and took a breath. ‘Have you any allies there, within the walls?’

‘Perhaps. Prilkop was alive, the last time I saw him. But if he lives, he is likely a prisoner.’ A pause. ‘I will try to order it all in my mind and tell it to you. But, it is hard, Fitz. There are things I can’t bear to recall. They only come back to me in nightmares …’

He fell silent. Digging information out of him felt as cruel as digging bits of bone from a wound.

‘When we left Aslevjal to return to Clerres?’ he said suddenly. ‘That was Prilkop’s idea. I was still recovering from all that had happened. I did not feel competent to chart my own course. He had always wanted to return to Clerres. Longed for it, for so many years. His memories of that place were so different to mine. He had come from a time before the Servants were corrupt. From a time when they truly served the White Prophet. When I told him of my time there, of how I had been treated, he was aghast. And more determined than ever that we must return, to set things right.’ He shifted suddenly, wrapping his arms around himself and hunching his shoulders forward. I rolled toward him. In the faint light of the ceiling’s stars, he looked very old and small. ‘I let him persuade me. He was … I hope he is … very large-hearted, Fitz. Unable, even after he had seen all Ilistore did, to believe that the Servants now served only greed and hatred.’

‘Ilistore?’

‘You knew her as the Pale Woman.’

‘I did not know she had another name.’

At that, a thin smile curved his mouth. ‘You thought that when she was a babe, she was called the Pale Woman?’

‘I … well, no. I’d never really thought about it. You called her the Pale Woman!’

‘I did. It’s an old tradition or perhaps a superstition. Never call something by its true name if you wish to avoid calling its attention to you. Perhaps it goes back to the days when dragons and humans commonly coexisted in the world. Tintaglia disliked that humans knew her true name.’

‘Ilistore,’ I said softly.

‘She’s gone. Even so I avoid her name.’

‘She is gone.’ I thought of her as I had last seen her, her arms ending in blackened sticks of bone, her hair lank about her face, all pretence of beauty gone. I did not want to think of that. I was grateful when he began to speak again, his words soft at the edges.

‘When I first returned to Clerres with Prilkop, the Servants were … astonished. I have told you how weak I was. Had I been myself, I would have been much more cautious. But Prilkop anticipated only peace and comfort and a wonderful homecoming. We crossed the causeway together, and all who saw his gleaming black skin knew what he must be: a prophet who had achieved his life’s work. We entered and he refused to wait. We walked straight into the audience chamber of the Four.’

I watched his face in the dim light. A smile tried to form, faded. ‘They were speechless. Frightened, perhaps. He announced plainly that their false prophet had failed, and that we had released IceFyre into the world. He was fearless.’ He turned toward me. ‘A woman screamed and ran from the room. I cannot be sure, but I think that was Dwalia. That was how she heard that the Pale Woman’s hands had been eaten, and how she had died in the cold, starved and freezing. Ilistore had always despised me, and that day I secured Dwalia’s hatred as well.

‘Yet almost immediately, the Four gave us a veritable festival of welcome. Elaborate dinners, with us seated at the high table with them. Entertainments were staged, and intoxicants and courtesans offered to us, anything they imagined we might desire. We were hailed as returning heroes rather than the two who had destroyed the future they had sought.’

Another silence. Then he took a breath. ‘They were clever. They requested a full accounting of all I had accomplished, as one might expect they would. They put scribes at my disposal, offered me the finest paper, beautiful inks and brushes so that I might record all I had experienced out in the greater world. Prilkop was honoured as the eldest of all Whites.’

He stopped speaking and I thought he had drowsed off. I had not had near as much brandy as he had. My ploy had worked too well. I took the teacup from his lax hand and set it gently on the floor.

‘They gave us sumptuous chambers,’ he went on at last. ‘Healers tended me. I regained my strength. They were so humble, so apologetic for how they had doubted me. So willing to learn. They asked me so many questions … I realized one day that, despite all their questions and flattery, I had managed to … minimize you. To tell my history as if you were several people rather than one. A stableboy, a bastard prince, an assassin. To keep you hidden from them, save as a nameless Catalyst who served me. I allowed myself to admit that I did not trust them. That I had never forgotten or forgiven how they had mistreated and restrained me.

‘And Prilkop, too, had misgivings. He had watched the Pale Woman for years as she claimed Aslevjal. He had seen how she courted her Catalyst, Kebal Rawbread, with gifts — a silver throat-piece, earrings of gold set with rubies, gifts that meant that she had substantial wealth at her disposal. The wealth of Clerres had been made available to her that she might set the world on their so-called true Path. She was no rogue prophet, but their emissary sent out to do their will. She was to destroy IceFyre and put an end to the last hope to restore dragons to the world. Why, he asked me, would they welcome the two who had dashed their plans?

‘So, we conspired. We agreed that we must not give them any clues that led back to you. Prilkop theorized that they were looking for what he called junctions — places and people that had helped us shift the world into a better future. He speculated that they could use the same places and people to push the world back into the “true Path” they had desired. Prilkop felt you were a very powerful junction, one to be protected. At that point, the Four were still treating us as honoured guests. We had the best of everything, and freedom to roam the castle and the town. That was when we smuggled out our first two messengers. They were to seek you out and warn you.’

I rallied my bleary brain. ‘No. The messenger said you wanted me to find the Unexpected Son.’

‘That came later,’ he said softly. ‘Much later.’

‘You always said I was the Unexpected Son.’

‘So I thought then. And Prilkop, too. You will recall how earnestly he advised us to part, lest we accidentally continue to work unpredictable change in the world, changes we could neither predict nor control.’ He laughed uneasily. ‘And so we have done.’

‘Fool, I care nothing for anyone’s vision of a better future for this world. The Servants destroyed my child.’ I spoke into the darkness. ‘I care only that they have no future at all.’ I shifted in the bed. ‘When did you stop believing that I was the Unexpected Son? And if those prophecies do not pertain to me, what of all we did together? If we were guided by your dreams, and yet I was not the one your dreams foretold …’

‘I’ve wrestled with that.’ He sighed so heavily I felt his breath against my face. ‘Prophetic dreams are riddling things, Fitz. Puzzles to be solved. Often enough you have accused me of interpreting them after the fact, bending them to fit what truly happened. But the prophecies of the Unexpected Son? There are many. I have never told you all of them. In some, you wore a buck’s antlers. In others, you howled like a wolf. The dreams said you would come from the north, from a pale mother and dark father. All those prophecies fitted. I cited all those dreams to prove that the bastard prince that I had aided was the Unexpected Son.’

‘You aided me? I thought I was your Catalyst.’

‘You were. Don’t interrupt. This is difficult enough without interruptions.’ He paused again to lift the bottle. As he lowered it, I caught it before it fell. ‘I know you are the Unexpected Son. In my bones, I knew it then, and I know it now. But they insisted you were not. They hurt me so badly that I could not believe what I knew. They twisted my thoughts, Fitz, just as much as they torqued my bones. They said that some of their Clerres-bred Whites were still having dreams of the Unexpected Son. They dreamed him as a figure of dark vengeance. They said that if I had fulfilled those prophecies, the dreams would not be continuing. But they were.’

‘Maybe they still mean me.’ I stoppered the bottle and lowered it carefully to the floor. I set my glass beside it. I rolled to face him.

I had meant it as a jest. His sharp intake of breath told me it was anything but humorous to him. ‘But—’ he objected and then stopped speaking. He bowed his head forward suddenly, almost butting it into my chest. He whispered as if he feared to speak the words loud. ‘Then they would know. They would certainly know. Oh, Fitz. They did come and find you. They took Bee, but they had found the Unexpected Son, as they had claimed the dreams predicted they would.’ He choked on those last words.

I set my hand on his shoulder. He was shaking. I spoke quietly. ‘So they found me. And we will make them very sorry they found me. Did not you tell me that you had dreamed me as Destroyer? That is my prediction: I will destroy the people who destroyed my child.’

‘Where is the bottle?’ He sounded utterly discouraged and I decided to take mercy on him.

‘We drank it. We’ve talked enough. Go to sleep.’

‘I cannot. I fear to dream.’

I was drunk. The words tumbled from my mouth. ‘Then dream of me, killing the Four.’ I laughed stupidly. ‘How I would have loved to kill Dwalia.’ I took a deep breath. ‘Now I understand why you were angry at me for walking away from the Pale Woman. I knew she would die. But I understand why you wished me to kill her.’

‘You were carrying me. I was dead.’

‘Yes.’

We were both quiet for a time, thinking of that. I had not been this drunk in a long time. I started to let my awareness slide away.

‘Fitz. After my parents left me at Clerres, I was still a child. Just when I needed someone to care for me, to protect me, I had no one.’ His voice, always controlled so carefully, was thickening with tears. ‘My journey to Buckkeep, when I first fled Clerres to discover you. It was horrible. The things I had to do, the things that were done to me — all so that I could get to Buck. And find you.’ He sobbed in a breath. ‘Then, King Shrewd. I came there hoping only to manipulate him to get what I needed. You, alive. I had become what the Servants had taught me to be, ruthless and selfish. Set only on levering people and events to my will. I came to his court, ragged and half-starved, and gave him a letter with most of the ink washed away, saying that I had been sent as a gift to him.’

He sniffed and then dragged his arm across his eyes. My eyes filled with tears for him. ‘I tumbled and pranced and walked on my hands. I expected him to mock me. I was prepared to be used however he desired if I could but win your life from him.’ He sobbed aloud. ‘He … he ordered me to stop. Regal was beside his throne, full of horror that a creature such as I was admitted to the throne room. But Shrewd? He told a guardsman, “Take that child to the kitchens, and see him fed. Have the seamstresses find some clothes to fit him. And shoes. Put shoes on his feet”.

‘And all that he commanded was done for me. It made me so wary! Oh, I didn’t trust him. Capra had taught me to fear initial kindness. I kept waiting for the blow, for the demand. When he told me I could sleep on the hearth in his bedchamber, I was certain he would … But that was all he meant. While Queen Desire was gone, I would be his companion in the evening, to amuse him with tricks and tales and songs, and then sleep on his hearth and rise in the morning when he did. Fitz, he had no reason to be so kind to me. None at all.’

He was weeping noisily now, his walls completely broken. ‘He protected me, Fitz. It took months for him to gain my trust. But after a time, whenever Queen Desire was travelling and I slept on the hearth, I felt safe. It was safe to sleep.’ He rubbed his eyes again. ‘I miss that. I miss that so badly.’

I did, I think, what anyone would have done for a friend, especially as drunk as we both were. I remembered Burrich, too, and how his strength had sheltered me when I was small. I put my arm around the Fool and pulled him close. For an instant, I felt that unbearable connection. I lifted my hand away and shifted so that his face rested on my shirt.

‘I felt that,’ he said wearily.

‘So did I.’

‘You should be more careful.’

‘I should.’ I secured my walls against him. I wished I didn’t have to. ‘Go to sleep,’ I told him. I made a promise I doubted I could keep. ‘I will protect you.’

He sniffed a final time, wiped his wrist across his eyes and gave a deep sigh. He groped with his gloved hand, and clasped my hand, wrist to wrist, the warriors’ greeting. After a time, I felt his body go slack against mine. His grip on my wrist loosened. I kept mine firm.

Protect him. Could I even protect myself any more? What right did I have to offer him such a vain promise. I hadn’t protected Bee, had I? I took a deep breath and thought of her. Not in the shallow, wistful way one recalls a sweet time, long past. I thought of her little hand clasping my fingers. I recalled how thickly she spread butter on bread, and how she held her teacup in both hands. I let the pain wash fresh against me, salt in fresh slashes. I recalled her weight on my shoulder and how she gripped my head to steady herself. Bee. So small. Mine for so short a time. And gone now. Just gone, into the Skill-stream and lost forever. Bee.

The Fool made a small sound of pain. For an instant, his hand tightened on my wrist, and then fell slack again.

And for a time, as I stared up at the false night sky, I kept a drunken watch over him.

SEVEN

Beggar

A dream so brief but so brilliantly coloured that I cannot forget it. Is it significant? My father is talking to a person with two heads. They are so deep in conversation that no matter how loudly I interrupt them, they will not speak to me. In the dream, I say, ‘Find her. Find her. It’s not too late!’ In the dream, I am a wolf made of fog. I howl and howl, but they do not turn to me.

Bee Farseer’s dream journal

I had never been so alone. So hungry. Even Wolf Father was at a loss for what I should do. Let us find a forest. There, I can teach you to be a wolf like your father taught me.

The ruins were a great tumble of blackened and melted stone. The squared edges of some blocks were slumped and sunken like ice melted by the sun. I had to climb up and over collapsed walls, and I feared to fall into the cracks between the fallen stones. I found a place where two immense blocks were tented together and crawled into the shadowy recess beneath them. Huddled in their shade, I tried to gather my thoughts and strength. I needed to stay hidden from Dwalia and the others. I had no food and no water. I had the clothes on my back and a candle in my jerkin. My mildewed shawl had been lost in my most recent beating, along with my wool hat. How could I win my way back to Buck, or even to the border of the Six Duchies? I reviewed what I knew of the geography of Chalced. Could I walk home? Chalced’s terrain was harsh. It was a land where heat welled up from the earth. There was a desert, I seemed to recall … and a low range of mountains. I shook my head. It was useless. My mind could not work while my belly clamoured for food and my mouth told me how dry it was.

All that afternoon I remained hidden. I listened intently but heard nothing of Dwalia and the others. Perhaps she had managed to exit the tumble of stone, and perhaps Vindeliar had once more bent the Chalcedean’s will to her purposes. What would they do? Perhaps go into the city or to Kerf’s home. Would they search for me? So many questions and no answers.

As night approached, I picked my way through a dragon-blasted section of the city. Once-fine houses gawked rooflessly, with empty holes for windows and doors. The streets had largely been cleared of rubble. Scavengers and salvagers had been at work among the ruins. Walls were missing blocks of stones; tall weeds and scrawny bushes grew from the cracks. Beyond a gap in a tumbled garden wall I found water collected in the mossy basin of a derelict fountain. I drank from my cupped hands, and splashed my face. My raw wrists stung as I washed my hands. I pushed sprawling bushes aside as I sought a shelter for the night. The scent of crushed mint rose to me as I trod through herbs. I ate some of it, simply to have something in my belly. My brushing fingertips recognized the umbrella shapes of nasturtium leaves. I ripped up handfuls and stuffed them in my mouth. Beyond a curtain of trailing vines on a leaning trellis I found an abandoned dwelling.

I clambered through a low window and looked up at a roofless view of the sky. Tonight would be clear and cold. I found a corner relatively free of rubble and partially sheltered by the collapsed roof, crept into the darkness and curled up like a stray dog there. I closed my eyes. Sleep came and went with intermittent dreams. I had toast and tea at Withywoods. My father carried me on his shoulders. I woke up weeping. I huddled tighter in the dark and tried to imagine a plan that would get me home. The floor was hard beneath me. My shoulder still ached. My belly hurt, not just from hunger but from the kicks I’d received. I touched my ear; blood crusted my hair around it. I probably looked frightful, as awful as the beggar I’d tried to help back in Oaksbywater. So, tomorrow, I’d be a beggar girl. Anything to get food. I pushed my back against the wall and huddled smaller. I slept fitfully through a night that was not that cold unless one was sleeping outside with no more cover than tattered clothing.

When the sun rose I discovered a blue sky full of scudding white clouds. I was stiff, hungry, thirsty and alone. Free. A strange smell hung in the air, tingeing the city smells of cooking-fires and open drains and horse droppings. Low tide, Wolf Father whispered to me. The smell of the sea when the waves retreat.

I clambered up what remained of the stone wall of the house to survey my surroundings.

I was on a low hill in a great trough of a valley. I had glimpses of a river beyond the city below. Behind me, houses and buildings and roads coated the land like a crusty sore. Smoke rose from countless chimneys. Closer to the city, tendrils of brownish water surrounded the many ships at anchor. A harbour. I knew the word but finally I saw all it meant. It was sheltered water, as if a finger and thumb of the land reached out to enclose it. Beyond it was more water, all the way to the edge of the sky. I had so often heard of the deep blue sea that it was hard to grasp that the many shaded water of greens and blues, silver and greys and black were what minstrels sang about. The minstrels had sung, too, of the lure of the sea, but I felt nothing of that. It looked vast and empty and dangerous. I turned away from it. In the far distance beyond the city, there were low mounds of yellowish hills. ‘They have no forest,’ I whispered.

Ah. This explains much about the Chalcedeans, Wolf Father replied. Through my eyes, he surveyed a land scarred with buildings and cobbled streets. This is a different and dangerous sort of wilderness. I fear I will be of small use to you here. Go carefully, cub. Go very carefully.

Chalced was waking. There were damaged swathes of city below me, but the dragons had concentrated their fury on the area around the ruined palace. The duke’s palace, Kerf had said. Memory stirred. I had heard of this destruction in a conversation between my mother and father. The dragons of Kelsingra had come to Chalced and attacked the city. The old duke had been destroyed and his daughter had stepped up to become Duchess of Chalced. No one could recall a time when a woman had reigned over Chalced. My father had said, ‘I doubt there will be peace with Chalced, but at least they’ll be so busy fighting civil wars that they can’t bother us as much.’

But I saw no civil war. Brightly garbed folk moved in the peaceful lanes. Carts pulled by donkeys or peculiarly large goats began to fill the streets, and people in loose, billowing shirts and black trousers moved amongst them. I watched fish spilling silver from a boat pulled up on the shore, and saw a ship towed out to deep water where its sails spread like the sudden wings of a bird before it moved silently away. I saw two markets, one near the docks and another along a broad avenue. The latter had bright awnings over the stalls while the one near the docks seemed drabber and poorer. The smells of fresh-baked bread and smoked meats reached me, and faint though they were, my mouth watered.

I assessed my plan to be a mute beggar girl and beg for coins and food. But my ragged tunic and leggings and fur boots would betray that I was a foreigner in this land of bright and flowing garb.

I had no choice. I could stay hidden in the ruins and starve, or take my chances in the streets.

I tidied myself. I would be a beggar but not a disgusting one. I hoped that my pale hair and blue eyes would make me appear Chalcedean, and I could mime that I had no voice. I touched my face, wincing as I explored bruises and scarcely healed cuts. Perhaps pity would aid my cause. But I could not rely on pity alone.

I took off the fur boots. The spring day was already too warm for them. I dusted and smoothed them as best as I could. I peeled the rags of my stockings and stared at my pale and shrivelled feet. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d gone barefoot. I’d have to get used to it. I hugged my boots to my chest and began to walk toward the market.

Where people sell things, there are people buying things. My feet were bruised by stones and dirty by the time I reached the market, but my hunger outshone those pains. It hurt to walk past the stalls selling early fruit and baked breads and meats. I ignored the odd looks people gave me and tried to appear calm and relaxed, rather than a stranger in this city.

I found the stalls that sold fabric and garments, and then the carts that sold used clothing and rags. I offered the boots mutely to several booths before anyone showed any interest in them. The woman who took them from me turned them over and over. She frowned at them, scowled at me, looked at them again, and then held out six copper coins. I had no way to bargain. Good or bad, it was the only offer I’d get, and so I took the coins, bobbed a bow to her, and stepped back from her stall. I tried to fade into the passing folk but I could feel her eyes following me.

I silently offered two coins at a baker’s stall. The vendor asked me a question and I gestured at my closed mouth. The young man looked at the coins, looked at me, pursed his lips and turned to a covered basket. He offered me a stiff roll of bread, probably several days old. I took it, my hands trembling with eagerness and bobbed my head in thanks. A peculiar look crossed his face. He caught me by the wrist and it was all I could do not to shriek. But then he chose from the fresh wares on the board in front of him the smallest of the sweet rolls and gave it to me. I think my look of utter gratitude embarrassed him, for he shooed me away as if I were a stray kitten. I stuffed my food into the front of my tunic with my battered candle and fled to find a safe place to eat it.

At the end of the market row I saw a public well. I’d never seen the like. Warm water bubbled up into a stone-lined pool. The overflow was guided away in a trough. I saw women filling buckets, and then saw a child stoop and drink from cupped hands. I copied her, kneeling by the water and scooping up a drink. The water smelled odd and had a strong flavour but it was wet and not poisonous and that was all I cared about. I drank my fill, then splashed a bit onto my face and scrubbed my hands together. Evidently that was rude, for a man made a noise of disgust and scowled at me. I scrambled to my feet and hurried away.

Beyond the market was a street of merchants. These were not market stalls, but grand establishments built of stone and timbers. Their doors were open to the warming day. As I walked past, I smelled meat curing in smoke, and then heard the rasp of a carpenter smoothing wood. There were stacks of rough timbers in an open space beside and behind the carpenter’s shop. I looked both ways and then slipped into their shade. The cross-layered planks hid me from the street. I sat on the ground and set my back to a stack of sweet-smelling wood. I took out my bread and made myself eat the older roll first. It was coarse stuff and stale — and incredibly delicious. I trembled as I ate it. When it was gone, I sat still, breathing hard and feeling the last of the bread descend from my throat to my stomach. I could have eaten ten more just like it.

I held the small sweet roll in my hand and smelled it. I told myself I would be wise to save it for tomorrow. Then I told myself that as I carried it, I might drop it, or break bits off it and lose them. I was easily persuaded. I ate it. There was a thin thread of honey swirled on top of it that had baked into the bread, and there were bits of fruit and spices inside it. I ate it in torturously slow nibbles, savouring every tingle of sweetness on my tongue. Too soon it was gone. My hunger was sated, but the memory of it plagued me.

Another memory sifted into my brain. Another beggar, scarred and broken and cold. Probably hungrier than I was now. I had tried to be kind to him. And my father had stabbed him, over and over. And then abandoned me to carry him off to Buckkeep for healing. I tried to put those bits together with the pieces I had overheard, but they only joined together in impossible ways. Instead, I wondered why no one looked at me, small, hungry and alone, and offered me an apple.

My mouth watered at the thought of the apple I’d given that beggar. Oh, the chestnuts that day, hot to peel and sweet in my mouth. My stomach knotted and I bent over it.

I had four small coins left. If the bread man was as kind tomorrow as he had been today, I could eat for two days. Then I’d either go hungry or steal.

How was I going to get home?

The sun was getting warmer and the day brighter. I looked down at myself. My bare feet were scuffed with dirt and my toenails were long. My padded trousers were grubby. My once-long Withywoods green jerkin was spotted and stained, and ended raggedly at my hips. My underblouse was grimy at the cuffs. A very convincing beggar.

I should go down to the docks and see if any ships were bound to Buck or indeed anywhere in the Six Duchies. I wondered how I could ask, and what I could do to earn passage on one. The sun was bright and my clothing too warm for the mild day. I moved deeper into the shade and curled up with my back to a stack of wood. I did not mean to fall asleep, but I did.

I woke in late afternoon. The shade had travelled away from me, but I had slept until the moving light of the sun on my closed eyes had wakened me. I sat up, feeling miserably sick, dizzy and thirsty. I staggered to my feet and began to walk. My small store of courage was gone. I could not make myself go down to the docks or even explore more of the city. I retreated to the ruins where I had sheltered the night before.

In a city full of strangeness, I took comfort from what little I knew. By daylight, the water in the old fountain in the ruined house’s garden was greenish and little black water creatures darted in its depths. But it was water, and I was thirsty. I drank and then bared my body to wash as best I could. I washed out my clothes and was surprised at how hard a task that was. Once again I realized how easy a life I’d led at Withywoods. I thought of the servants who had supplied my every need. I had always been polite to them, but had I ever truly thanked them for all they did? Caution came to mind and how she had loaned me her lace cuffs. Was she still alive? Did Caution think of me sometimes? I wanted to weep, but did not.

Sternly I made my plans as I dipped and scrubbed and wrung out my garments. Dwalia had thought me a boy. It was safer to present myself as a boy. Would a ship going towards the Six Duchies need a boy? I’d heard tales of ship’s boys having wild and wonderful adventures. Some became pirates in the minstrels’ songs, or found treasures or became captains. Tomorrow I would take two of my coins and buy more bread and eat it. I very much liked that part of my plan. Then I must go down to the waterfront and see if any ships were going to the Six Duchies and if they would give me passage for work. I pushed away the thought that I was small and looked childish and was not very strong and spoke no Chalcedean. Somehow, I would manage.

I had to.

I hung my clothing on a broken stone wall to dry and stretched out naked on the sun-warmed stones of a deserted courtyard. My mother’s candle was battered, the wax imprinted with lint, and broken in one place with only the wick holding it together. But it still smelled like her. Like home and safety and gentle hands. I fell asleep there in the dappling shade of a half-fallen tree. When I awoke a second time, my clothing was mostly dry and the sun was going down. I was hungry again and dreaded the chill night. I had slept so much but I still felt weary and I wondered if my journey through the stone pillars had taken more from me than I knew. I crawled deeper under the leaning tree to where the leaves of several falls made a cushion against the stone. I refused to think of spiders and biting things. I curled up small and slept again.

Sometime in the night, I lost my courage. My own crying woke me, and once awake, I could not stop the sobs. I stuffed my hand in my mouth to muffle the sounds and wept. I wept for my lost home, for the horses killed in the fire, for Revel dead in his blood on the floor before me. Everything that had happened to me, all that I had seen and had not had time to react to suddenly flooded my mind. My father had left me for the sake of a blind beggarman, and Perseverance was probably dead. I’d left Shun behind and hoped the best for her. Had she survived and reached Withywoods, to tell them what had befallen us? Would anyone ever come after me? I remembered FitzVigilant, his blood red on the white snow.

Suddenly going home seemed impossible. Going home to what? Who would be there? Would they all hate me because the pale folk had come for me? And if I went home, would not Dwalia or others of her kind know where I would flee? Would they come after me again, to burn and kill? I hunched low under my sheltering tree, rocking myself, knowing that there was no one who could protect me.

I’ll protect you. Wolf Father’s words were less than a whisper.

He was only in my mind, only an idea. How could he protect me? What was he, really? Something I imagined from the fragments of my father’s writing?

I am real and I am with you. Trust me. I can help you protect yourself.

I felt a sudden rush of anger. ‘You didn’t protect me before, when they took me. You didn’t protect me when Dwalia beat me and dragged me through the pillar. You’re a dream. Something I imagined because I was so childish and scared. But you can’t help me now. No one can help me now.’

No one except yourself.

‘Be silent!’ I shouted the words, and then covered my mouth in horror. I needed to hide, not shout at imaginary beings in the night. I scuttled deeper under the tree until I felt a tumble of fallen wall and could go no farther. I made myself small and shut my eyes tight and walled my thoughts in and slept.

I awoke the next day with my face crusty from my weeping. My head pounded with pain and I felt nauseous with hunger. It was a long time before I could convince myself to crawl out from the tree’s shade. I did not feel well enough to walk down to the markets, so I wandered the ruined area of the city. I caught sight of lizards and snakes basking on the tumbled stones. I thought of eating one but at my approach they whisked under the stones. Twice I saw other people who seemed to be living in the broken houses. I smelled their cookfires and saw ragged clothing hung to dry. I kept out of their sight.

Hunger drove me at last back to the market. I could not find the bread stall I’d patronized the day before. I staggered and limped through the stalls, looking for it, but finally my raging hunger forced me to approach another. A sour-faced woman was cooking pastries stuffed with some savoury filling on a griddle. A small metal pot held her cookfire. The pastries sizzled in a wide pan over the flames and she deftly flipped them with a pronged tool to brown each side.

I offered her one coin and she shook her head. I wandered off behind a stall where I could extract another coin from my knotted shirt. For two coins, she put a pastry on a wide green leaf, folded the leaf around it, secured it with a sliver of wood and handed it to me. I bowed my thanks but she ignored that, already looking over my head for her next potential customer.

I did not know if the leaf was meant to be eaten or was a napkin. I took a cautious nibble of the edge; it was not unpleasant. I reasoned that a vendor would not wrap food in something poisonous. I found a quiet place behind an unoccupied market stall and sat down to eat. The pastry was not large, just filling my hand, and I wanted to eat it slowly. The filling was crumbly and tasted a bit like wet sheep smelled. I didn’t care. But after my second bite, I became aware of a boy watching me from the gap between the walls of two stalls. I looked away from him, taking another bite, and when I glanced back, a smaller boy in a dirty striped shirt had joined him. Their hair and their feet and bare legs were dusty, their clothing unkempt. They had the eyes of small, hungry predators. I felt a moment of dizziness as I stared at them. It reminded me of when the beggar at Oaksbywater had held my hand. I saw events swirling, possibilities. I could not sort them, could not tell good from bad. All I knew for certain was that I must avoid them.

As a donkey cart passed between us, I scooted around the corner of the stall and stuffed the rest of my pastry in my mouth, overfilling it but freeing my hands. I rose and tried to blend in with the passing folk.

My clothing made me stand out so that I drew curious glances. I kept my eyes down and tried not to engage anyone’s attention. I glanced back several times but did not see the boys, yet I was convinced they were following me. If they robbed me of my two remaining coins, I would have nothing. I fought down the panic that thought brought. Don’t think like prey. A warning from Wolf Father or simply a thought of my own? I slowed my steps, found a place to crouch beside a refuse cart and watched the ebb and flow of people.

There were others like me in the market, and those young beggars were more skilled at this trade. Three youngsters, two girls and a boy, lingered at a fruit vendor’s stall despite his efforts to shoo them away. Suddenly all three darted in, each seizing a prize and then scattered while the seller shouted and cursed and sent his son chasing after one of them.

I saw, too, some sort of city guards. Their orange robes were cut short, to their knees, and they wore canvas trousers, light leather tunics and low boots. They carried short, knobbed staffs and wore sheathed swords as they strode past in groups of four. Merchants offered them skewers of meat and rolls of bread and chunks of fish on flatbread as they passed. I wondered if gratitude or fear prompted such generosity, and slipped away from their view as quickly as I could.

I made my way eventually to the docks. It was a noisy, busy place. Men were pushing handcarts, teams of horses pulled laden wagons, with some going to the ships and others coming from them. The smells were overwhelming; tar and rotting seaweed predominated. I hung back, watching and wondering how to tell where a ship was going. I had no desire to be carried even farther from the Six Duchies. I watched wide-eyed as an apparatus I could not name lifted a net that held several large wooden crates and swung them from the dock to a ship’s deck. I saw a young man receive three sharp cracks from a stick across his bared back even as he was guiding such a swinging cargo down to a deck. I could not tell what he had done wrong or why he had been struck and shrank back, imagining such blows falling on me.

I saw no one as small as me working on the docks, though I guessed that several of the boys I saw were my age. They worked shirtless, darting barefoot on the splintery docks, on apparently urgent missions that demanded they run. One boy had an oozing welt down his back. A cart-driver shouted at me to get out of his way and another man did not bother, shoving me aside, shoulders laden with two heavy coils of rope.

Daunted, I fled through the market and then up the hill toward the ruins.

As I left the market, a young man in a lovely robe decorated with rosettes of yellow called to me with a smile. He beckoned me closer, and when I halted at a safe distance, wondering what he wanted of me, he crouched down to my height. He cocked his head and said something softly, persuasive words that I did not understand. He looked kind. His hair was more yellow than mine and cut so that it barely reached his jaw. His earrings were green jade. A man of a good family and wealth, I guessed. ‘I don’t understand,’ I replied hesitantly in Common.

His blue eyes narrowed in surprise, and then his smile widened. In a heavy accent, he said, ‘Pretty new robe. Come. Give you food.’ He eased a step closer to me and I could smell his perfumed hair. He held out his hand, palm upturned and waited for me to take it.

Run! Run now!

Wolf Father’s urgency brooked no hesitation. I gave the smiling man a final glance, a shake of my head and I darted away. I heard him call after me and I wondered why I ran, but run I did. He called after me again but I did not look back. Do not go straight to your den. Hide and look back, Wolf Father cautioned me, and so I did, but saw no one. Later that night, curled under my sheltering tree, I wondered why I had fled.

Eyes of a predator, Wolf Father told me.

What should I do tomorrow? I asked him.

I don’t know, was his woeful response.

I dreamed of home that night, of toasted bread and hot tea in the kitchen. In my dream, I was too small to reach the top of the table and I could not right the overturned bench. I called to Caution to help me, but when I turned to look for her she was lying on the floor with blood all over her. I ran from the kitchen screaming but everywhere folk were dead on the floor. I opened doors to try to hide, but behind each door were the two beggar boys, and beyond them Dwalia stood, laughing. I awoke sobbing in the middle of the night. To my terror, I heard voices, one calling questioningly. I muffled my sobs and tried to breathe silently. I saw a dim light and a lantern passed by in the street outside my broken garden. Two people spoke to one another in Chalcedean. I stayed hidden and wakeful until morning.

The morning was half gone before I found the courage to return to the market. I found the bread stall I’d visited the first day, but the young man had been replaced by a woman and when I showed her my two coins, she gestured me away in disgust. I held them both up again, thinking she had seen only the one, but she hissed a rebuke at me and slapped her hands together threateningly. I retreated, resolved to find food elsewhere, but in that instant I was knocked down by one of the two boys I’d seen the day before. In a flash, the other boy snatched my coins and they both darted away into the market throng. I sat up in the dust, the wind knocked out of me. Then, to my shame, sobs shook me and I sat in the dirt and covered my eyes and wept.

No one cared. The flow of the market went around me as if I were a stone in the current. For a time after my sobbing left me, I sat forlorn. I was so terribly hungry. My shoulder ached, the relentless sun shone on my aching head and I had no plans left. How could I imagine getting home when I could not think how to get through the day?

A man guiding a donkey-cart through the market tapped me with his quirt. It was a warning, not a strike, and I quickly scrabbled out of his way. I watched him pass, and smeared dust and tears from my face onto my sleeve and looked around the market. The hunger that assailed me now seemed the product of weeks rather than just a day. While I’d had the prospect each day of something to eat, however small, I’d been able to master it. But now it commanded me. I squared my shoulders, wiped my eyes once more and then walked deliberately away from the bread stall.

I moved slowly through the market, studying each stall and vendor. My moral dilemma lasted as long as it took for me to swallow the saliva the smells of the foods triggered. Yesterday, I’d seen how it was done. I had no one to create a diversion for me, and if anyone decided to pursue me, I would be the only rabbit to be run down. My hunger seemed to speed my thought processes. I’d have to choose a stall and a target and an escape route. Then I’d have to wait and hope that something would distract the merchant. I was small and I was fast. I could do this. I had to do this. Hunger such as I felt now could not be borne.

I prowled the market, intent on my theft. Nothing small. I did not want to take this chance for a bit of fruit. I needed meat or a loaf of bread, or a side of smoked fish. I tried to look without appearing to look, but a small boy lifted a switch threateningly at me when I stared too long at his mother’s slabs of red salted fish.

I finally found what I sought: a baker’s stall, bigger and grander than any other I’d seen. Loaves of rich brown and golden yellow were mounded in baskets on the ground in front of his stall. On the plank before him were the more expensive wares, bread twisted with spices and honey, rich cakes studded with nuts. I’d settle for one of the golden yellow pillows. The stall next to him sold scarves that billowed in the breeze off the sea. Several women were clustered there, their bargaining focused and intense. Across the milling market street, a tinker sold knives. His partner sharpened blades of all sorts on a spinning whetstone powered by a sweating apprentice. The grinding made a shrill sound and sometimes it spat sparks. I found a backwater of the customer stream and pretended a great fascination with the spinning stone. I let my mouth hang a trifle ajar as if I did not have all my mind. I was sure that with such an expression and my ragged clothes, folk would pay little attention to me. But all the while, I waited for anything in the market that might make the bread vendor look away from his wares and give me a chance to steal my target.

As if in answer to my thoughts, I heard distant horns. All glanced in that direction and then went back to their business. The next blast of the horn was closer. People turned again, nudging one another, and finally we saw four white horses, decked out in fine harness of black and orange. The guards who rode the horses were just as richly attired, their helms as plumed as their horses’ headstalls. They rode toward us, and the clusters of buyers pushed against the stands to get out of their way. As the riders again lifted their horns to their mouths, I saw my chance. All were watching them as I darted in, seized a round golden loaf and then darted back the way the horsemen had come.

So intent had I been on my theft that I had not perceived that behind the horsemen, the market street had remained empty, and that the folk who lined the street had dropped to their knees. I ran, skittering out into the empty street as the bread-merchant shouted. When I tried to dart back into the kneeling crowd to lose myself among them, people grabbed at me, shouting. Another set of guards was coming on foot, marching in a row of six, with two more rows behind them, and behind them came a woman on a black horse with harness of gold.

The kneeling folk were packed as solidly as a wall. I tried to push into them. A man grabbed me with hard hands and pushed me down in the dirt. He growled at me, a command I did not understand. I struggled to rise and he slapped me sharply on the back of my head. I saw stars and went slack. An instant later, I realized that everyone around me was frozen into stillness. Had he bid me be still? I lay as he had pushed me. The loaf I had stolen was clutched to my chest and chin. The smell of it was dizzying. I did not think. I tucked my head and opened my mouth and bit into it. I lay on my belly in the dusty street and gnawed at the loaf like a mouse as first the ranks of guards and then the woman on her black horse and then another four ranks of guards passed. No one moved until a second rank of horsemen came. At intervals, they halted and rang brass chimes. Only after they had passed did the nearby merchants and buyers rise to their feet and resume their lives.

I waited, chewing busily into my bread, and the moment the chimes rang, I bucked to my feet and tried to run. But the man who had held me down snatched the back of my jerkin and gripped my hair. He shook me and shouted something. The bread-merchant came dashing over, snatched the bread out of my hand and cried out to find it dirty and chewed. I cringed, thinking he would hit me, but instead he began to shout, one word, over and over. He threw the bread down in anger and how I longed to snatch it up again, but my captor held me fast.

The city guard. That was who he was shouting for, and two came on the run. One smirked and looked at me almost kindly, as if he could not believe he had been summoned for such a small thief. But the other was a business-like fellow who seized me by the back of my tunic and all but lifted me off my feet. He began to ask me questions and the breadman began to shout his side of the story. I shook my head and then gestured at my mouth, trying to convey that I could not speak. I think it was going well until the kind guardsman leaned close to his fellow and then suddenly gave me such a pinch that I squeaked.

Then it was all over. I was shaken and when the guardsman who held me lifted his hand to slap me, I burst out in Common, ‘I was hungry so I stole. What else was I to do? I am so hungry!’ Then, shaming myself, I burst into tears, and pointed at the bread and strained toward it. The man who had caught me first stooped and picked it up and put it into my hands. The breadman attempted to slap it away from me, but the guardsman who still held me swung me out of his reach. Then, to complete my humiliation, he picked me up and perched me on his hip as if I were a much younger child and strode off through the market.

I gripped the bread in both hands. I could not control my tears or my sobs, but that did not stop me from eating the bread as fast as I could get it down. I had no idea what might happen to me next but decided that one thing I would be sure of; I would fill my belly with the bread that had got me into so much trouble.

I was still clutching the last of the crust when my carrier strode up three steps to the door of an unremarkable stone building. He pushed open the door, carried me inside and then swung me to the floor as his partner followed.

An older man in a fancier livery looked up from a table as we came in. His noon meal was spread out before him and he looked rather annoyed to be interrupted. They spoke about me over my head as I looked around the room. There was a bench down one plain wall. A woman sat on it. Her feet were chained together. At the other end of the bench, a man sat hunched with his face in his hands. He glanced up at me, and his mouth was all blood and one eye was swollen shut. He put his face back in his hands.

The guard who had carried me seized me by the shoulder and shook me. I looked up at him. He spoke to me. I shook my head. The man behind the desk spoke to me. I shook my head again. Then, in Common, he asked me, ‘Who are you? Are you lost, child?’

At the simple question, I burst into tears again. He looked mildly alarmed. He made shooing motions at the two guards and they left. As the one went out the door, he looked back at me, almost as if he were concerned for me. But the man at the table was talking again.

‘Tell me your name. Your parents could pay for what you took and take you home.’

Was that even possible? I drew a breath. ‘My name is Bee Farseer. I’m from the Six Duchies. I was stolen from there and I need to go home.’ I took a breath and made a wild promise, ‘My father will pay money to get me back.’

‘I’ve no doubt that he will.’ The man leaned one elbow on his desk, right next to a little round cheese. I stared at it. He cleared his throat. ‘How did you come to be running about on the streets of Chalced, Beefarseer?’

He made my name one word. I didn’t correct him. It didn’t matter. If he would listen to me and send word to my father, I knew he would pay money to get me back. Or Nettle would. Surely she would. And so I told him my story, doing my best to leave out the unbelievable parts. I told him of Chalcedeans raiding my home, and how I’d been carried off. I didn’t explain how I’d come to Chalced, only that I’d slipped away from Kerf and his companions because they had been cruel to me. And now I was here and I only wanted to go home, and if he would send word to my father, I was sure someone would come and bring money and take me home.

He looked a bit puzzled by my stew of a story, but nodded gravely at the end. ‘Well. I understand now, perhaps better than you do.’ He rang a bell on the corner of his desk. A door opened and a sleepy looking guardsman came in. He was very young and looked bored. ‘Runaway slave. Property of someone named Kerf. Take her to the end cell. If no one claims her in three days, take her to the auction. Price of a loaf of pollen bread is owed to Serchin the Baker. Make a note that this Kerf must either pay for it, or the price come out of whatever she fetches at auction.’

‘I’m not a slave!’ I protested. ‘Kerf does not own me! He helped steal me from my home!’

The deskman looked at me tolerantly. ‘Spoil of war. Prize of battle. You are his, whatever he chooses to call you. He can keep you as slave or ransom you back. That will be up to this Kerf, if he comes to claim you.’ He settled himself back in his chair with a sigh and took a deep drink from his cup.

My tears started again, despite how useless they were. The bored guard looked down on me. ‘Follow me,’ he said in clear Common, and when I turned and bolted for the door, he stepped forward, tripped me, and laughed. He picked me up by the back of my jerkin as if I were a sack and carried me through the same door he’d entered from, not caring at all how he thudded me against the frame. He kicked it shut behind us, tossed me to the floor and said, ‘You can follow me or I can kick you all the way down this hallway. It’s all one to me.’

It was not all one to me. I stood, gave him a stiff nod, and then followed him. We went around a corner and down some stone steps. It was cooler down there, and dimmer. The only light came from some small windows at intervals in the wall. I followed him past several doors. He opened the last one and said, ‘Get in there.’ I hesitated and he gave me a shove and shut the door behind me.

I heard it latch.

The room was small but not terrible. Light came from a very small window. It was so small that even if I could reach it, I couldn’t have wriggled out. There was a woven straw mat in one corner. In the opposite corner, there was a hole in the floor. Stains and the smell told me what it was for. Next to the mat was an ewer. It had water in it. I sniffed it to be sure it was water. I dipped the hem of my shirt into it and wiped the stupid tears from my face. Then I went and sat down on the straw mat.

I sat for a long time. Then I lay down. I might have slept a bit. I heard the latch work and stood up. A man opened the door carefully, looking all around and then down at me. He seemed surprised at how small I was. ‘Food,’ he said, and handed me a crockery bowl. I was so surprised I just stood there clutching it as he left, closing the door behind him. When he was gone, I looked down in the bowl. It was grainy mush with a few pieces of an orange vegetable on top of it. I carried it back to my mat and ate it carefully with my fingers. Someone had put enough food for an adult in the bowl. It was the most food I’d had in a very long time. I tried to eat it very slowly, and to think what I should do next. When the food was gone, I drank some water and then wiped my fingers clean on my shirt hem. The light coming into my little room was getting dimmer. I wondered if anything else would happen, but it didn’t. When my cell was dark, I lay down on my mat and closed my eyes. I thought of my father. I imagined what he would have done to the guards. Or Dwalia. I imagined him throttling her and clenched my own fists and panted at how satisfying that would be. He would teach them. He would kill them all for me. But my father was not here. He could not know where I was. No one was coming to save me. I cried for a time, and then slept, clutching my mother’s candle.

When I woke, there was a small square of light on the floor of my little room. I used the hole in the floor, and drank some more water. I waited. Nothing happened. After what seemed like a long time, I shouted and pounded on the door. Nothing happened. When I couldn’t shout or pound any more, I sat on my mat. I reached for Wolf Father and could not find him. It was a very bad moment. I decided he had always been something I pretended. And now I was too old and the world was too real for me to pretend anything any more. When I need you, you are gone. Just like everyone else.

When you block me out, I cannot make you hear me.

I blocked you out?

When you close your thoughts. So, here we are, in a cage again. At least your captors are kind. For now.

For now?

You will be sold.

I know. What should I do?

For now? Eat. Sleep. Let your body heal. When they take you out of here to sell, be very aware of me. We may yet escape.

His words gave me very little hope, but before I’d had no hope at all. I cried until I slept that night.

When I woke the next morning, I felt better than I had in many days. I inspected the bruises on my legs and arms. They were yellow and pale green, fading from black and deep blue. My belly hurt less and I could move my arm in a full circle. I combed my growing hair with my fingers, and then chewed my fingernails shorter. Another guard brought me a bowl of food and filled my water ewer. He took the empty bowl away. He didn’t speak to me. It was another big bowl of food. This time the mush had some stringy strands of greens cooked into it, and there was a lump of yellow vegetable on top of it. I ate it all then watched the square of light move across my floor and up the wall until it was gone. Night again. I cried again and slept again. I dreamed that my father was angry because I had not put my inks away. I woke up while it was still dark, knowing that something like that had never happened but wishing it could. I fell back to sleep and dreamed an important Dream about a swimming dragon who captured my father. I woke to the square of light and wished I could write the dream down but there was nothing I could write on and no ink or pen. I spent the afternoon devising a way to tie my folded candle into the hem of my underblouse so it would not be lost.

That day passed. Another bowl of food. Would they auction me soon? How did they count the three days? Did they start the day they caught me, or the day after? I wondered who would buy me and what sort of work I’d have to do. Would I be able to convince them to send word to my father? Perhaps I’d be sold as a house slave and could convince the buyers to ransom me? I’d heard of slaves but had no idea how they were treated. Would they beat me? Keep me in a kennel? I was still wondering those things when I heard the latch to my door rattle. A guard opened it, and then stepped back.

‘This one?’ he asked someone, and Kerf stuck his head around the door. He stared at me dully.

I almost felt glad to see him. Then I heard Dwalia’s voice. ‘That’s the little wretch! What a trouble she has been.’

‘She?’ The guard was surprised. ‘We thought it was a boy.’

‘So did we!’ Vindeliar. ‘He is my brother!’ He poked his head past the doorframe and smiled at me. His cheeks were not as plump as they had been and his sparse hair was dull but the light of friendship was still in his eyes. I hated him. They never would have found me if he had not mastered Kerf for Dwalia. He’d betrayed me.

The guard stared at him. ‘Your brother. I see the resemblance,’ he said but no one laughed.

I felt sick. ‘I don’t know those people,’ I said. ‘They’re lying to you.’

The guard shrugged. ‘I don’t really care, as long as someone settles your fine.’ He swung his gaze back to Kerf. ‘She got caught stealing a loaf of pollen bread. You’ll have to pay for it.’

Kerf nodded dully. I knew that Vindeliar was controlling him, but not too well. Kerf seemed very dim, as if he had to think carefully before he could speak. Ellik had always seemed very sure of himself. Was Vindeliar losing his magic or was something going wrong with Kerf? Perhaps the two trips through the stone had done it. ‘I will pay,’ he said at last.

‘Pay first, then you can take her. You owe for four days of her keep here, too.’

They shut my door and walked away. I felt a twinge of gladness that they would cheat him for extra days, and then worried that perhaps I had been here four days and had lost track of time. I waited for them to come back, dreading that I’d be with them again but almost relieved that someone else would be in charge of me. It seemed to take a long time, but eventually I heard the latch lift.

‘Come along,’ Dwalia snapped at me. ‘You are far more trouble than you are worth.’

Her eyes promised me a beating later, but Vindeliar was smiling fatuously at me. I wished I knew why he liked me. He was my worst enemy, but also my only ally. Kerf had seemed to like me, but if Vindeliar held his reins, I had no hope of help from him. Perhaps I should try to build my friendship with Vindeliar. Perhaps if I had been wiser, I would have done that from the very start.

Dwalia had a long coil of light cord. Before I could protest, she looped it around my neck. ‘No!’ I cried but she jerked it tight. When I reached for it, Kerf took one of my hands and she seized my right hand and turned it up behind my back. I felt a loop of the cord coil around my wrist. She was very quick at doing it; doubtless she had done this before. My hand was uncomfortably high and I could not lower it without tightening the loop around my neck. She held the end of the line in her hand. She gave it an experimental tug and I had to jerk my head back.

‘There we are,’ she said with great satisfaction. ‘No more little tricks from you. Off we go.’

After the cool dimness of my cell, the bright day was painful, and soon too warm for me. Kerf and Dwalia walked in front of me, my leash barely slack. I had to hurry to keep up with them. Vindeliar trotted beside me. It struck me how oddly he was made, with his bean-shaped body and short legs. I recalled how Dwalia had called him ‘sexless’. I wondered if she had castrated him like the men did our goats when they wanted to raise them for meat. Or had he been born that way?

‘Where is Alaria?’ I asked him quietly.

He gave me a miserable look. ‘Sold to a slaver. For money for food and passage on a boat.’

Kerf gave a twitch. ‘She was mine. I wanted to take her to my mother. She would have been a good serving wench. Why did I do that?’

‘Vindeliar!’ Dwalia snapped.

This time I opened my senses and I felt what he did to Kerf. I tried to understand it. I knew how to put up my walls to keep out my father’s thoughts. I’d had to do that since I was small, just to have peace in my own mind. But it felt as if Vindeliar pushed a wall into Kerf’s mind, one that kept out Kerf’s thoughts and made him share what Vindeliar thought. I pushed against Vindeliar’s wall. It was not that strong but I was not sure how to breach it. Still, I heard a whisper of what he told Kerf. Don’t worry. Go with Dwalia. Do what she wants. Don’t wonder about anything. It will all be fine.

Don’t touch his mind. Don’t break his wall. The warning came from Wolf Father. Listen but don’t let him feel you there.

Why?

If you make a way into his thoughts, it’s also a way for him to come into yours. Be very careful of touching his mind.

‘Where are we going?’ I asked aloud.

‘Shut up!’ Dwalia said just as Vindeliar said, ‘To the boat for our journey.’

I went quiet but not because of Dwalia’s order. For just a moment I had sensed that it was hard for Vindeliar to talk, trot at Dwalia’s heels and control Kerf. He was hungry, his back hurt and he needed to relieve himself, but he knew better than to ask Dwalia to pause. As I kept my silence, I felt his focus on Kerf grow tighter and stronger. So. A distraction might weaken his control. That was a small but useful thing to know. Wolf Father’s voice was a bare whisper in my mind. Sharp claws and teeth. You learn, cub. We will live.

Are you real?

He did not answer but Vindeliar cocked his head and stared at me strangely. Walls up. Keep him out of my mind. I would always have to be on guard now. I tightened my guard on myself and knew that when I shut out Vindeliar, I shut out Wolf Father as well.

EIGHT

Tintaglia

This dream was like a painting that moved. The light was dim, as if pale grey or blue paint had been washed over all. Beautiful streamers in brilliant colours moved in a slow breeze that came and went, came and went, so that the streamers rose and fell. They were shimmering pennants of gold and silver, scarlet, azure and viridian. Bright patterns like diamonds or eyes and twining spirals ran the length of each pennant.

In my dream, I moved closer, flowing effortlessly toward them. There was no sound and no feel of wind on my face. Then my perspective shifted. I saw huge snake-heads, blunt-nosed, with eyes as large as melons. I came closer and closer, although I did not wish to, and finally I could see the faint gleam of a net that held all those creatures as fish are caught in a gill net. The lines of the net were nearly transparent and somehow I knew that they had all rushed into the net at the same moment, to be trapped and drowned there.

This dream had the certainty of a thing that had happened, and not just once. It would happen again and again. I could not stop it for it was already done. Yet I also knew it would happen again.

Bee Farseer’s dream journal

Early the next morning there was a knock on our chamber door. I rolled from the bed and then stood. The Fool did not even twitch. Barefoot, I padded to the door. I paused to push my hair back from my face and then opened it. Outside, King Reyn had flung back the hood of his cloak and it dripped water on the floor around him. Rain gleamed on his brow and was caught in droplets in his sparse beard. He grinned at me, white teeth incongruous in his finely-scaled face. ‘FitzChivalry! Good tidings, and I wanted to share them right away. A bird just came in from across the river. Tarman has arrived there.’

‘Across the river?’ A brandy headache had begun a sudden clangour in my head.

‘At the Village. It’s far easier for the barge to nose in there than it is for it to dock here, and it’s much better for Captain Leftrin to offload cargo there than having us ferry it across the river a bit at a time. Tarman had a full load: workers for the farm, a dozen goats, sacks of grain. Three dozen chickens. We hope the goats will fare better than the sheep did. The sheep were a disaster. I think only three survived the winter. This time we will keep the chickens penned.’ He cocked his head and apologized. ‘Sorry for awakening you so early, but I thought you’d want to know. The ship will need cleaning before it’s fit for passengers. A day, perhaps two, three at worst. But soon you’ll be able to depart.’

‘Welcome news indeed,’ I told him. I reached past my headache to dredge up courtesy. ‘Although your hospitality has been wonderful, we look forward to continuing our journey.’

He nodded, scattering droplets. ‘There are others that I must notify. Forgive me that I must go in haste.’

And off he went, dripping down the corridor. I tried to imagine Dutiful delivering such a message to a guest. I watched him go and felt a twinge of envy for how spontaneously the Dragon Traders seemed to interact. Perhaps I had had it backwards all along. Perhaps being a bastard had given me far more freedom than living within the rules that bound a prince.

I shut the door as the Fool crawled to the edge of the bed. ‘What was that?’ he asked unhappily.

‘King Reyn with news. The Tarman is docked across the river. We will depart in a day or two.’

He swung his legs over the edge of the bed, sat up, and then leaned forward, his head in his hands. ‘You got me drunk,’ he complained.

I was so tired of lying. ‘There are things I have to know. One way or another, Fool, you need to talk to me.’

He moved slowly, lifting his head from his hands cautiously. ‘I’m very angry with you,’ he said quietly. ‘But I should have expected this from you.’ He lowered his face back into his hands. His next words were muffled. ‘Thank you.’

He clambered from the bed, moving as if his brains might spill out of his skull, and spoke in Amber’s voice. ‘Thymara has requested my time for a visit. I think she is exceedingly curious about the Silver on my hands and how it affects me. I think today I will call on her. Would you summon Spark to help me dress?’

‘Of course.’ I noticed she did not ask me to accompany her. I supposed I deserved that.

That afternoon, when the rain eased, I ventured out with Lant. I wished to see the map-tower. I had first seen it many years ago when I had accidentally stumbled through a Skill-stone and into Kelsingra. The fine maps that Chade and Kettricken had given me had not survived the bear attack. I hoped to refresh what I recalled with a look at that Elderling map. But we had not walked far when I heard the wild trumpeting of dragons, and then the shouts of excited people.

‘What is it?’ Lant asked me, and in the next breath, ‘We should return to the others.’

‘No. Those are welcoming shouts. A dragon returns, one that has been long absent.’ A trick of the wind had brought a name to my ears. ‘Tintaglia returns,’ I told him. ‘And I would see her again.’

‘Tintaglia,’ he said in hushed awe. His eyes were wide. ‘Riddle spoke of her. The queen dragon who came to help free IceFyre, and then rose as his mate. She who forced IceFyre to lay his head upon the hearthstones in Queen Elliania’s mothershouse, to fulfil the challenge that Elliania had set for Dutiful.’

‘You know all that?’

‘Fitz. It’s known to every child in the Six Duchies. Hap Gladheart sings that song about the dragons, the one that has the line, “Bluer than sapphires, gleaming like gold.” I have to see her for myself!’

‘I think we shall,’ I shouted at him, for a wild chorus of dragons trumpeting now drowned our voices. They had risen from the city, in greeting or challenge. It was an astonishing sight, beauty and terror mingling equally. They cavorted like swallows before a storm, but these were creatures larger than houses. They gleamed and glittered against the cloudy sky, in colours more like jewels than creatures of flesh.

Then, flying over the tops of the trees in the distance, I saw Tintaglia. For a moment, I could not resolve how close she was to us; then, as she flew nearer, I realized my error. She truly was that large — she dwarfed any of the dragons we had seen in Kelsingra — far larger than the last time I had seen her.

This queen dragon was aware of the stir she was causing in the city. She swept far wide of us, in a great circle. As she spiralled round and round, I could scarcely take my eyes off her. My heart lifted in admiration and I found that a grin commanded my face. I managed a glance at Lant and saw that he had clasped both his hands on his breast and was smiling up at her. ‘Dragon-glamor,’ I croaked out, but I still could not stop smiling. ‘Careful, Lant, or you will burst into song!’

‘Oh, brighter than sapphires and gleaming like gold!’ and there was music in his voice and longing. ‘No minstrel’s song could do justice to her. Gold and then silver she glitters, bluer by far than jewels! Oh, Fitz, would that I never had to look away from her!’

I said nothing. Tales of dragon-glamor were well known now throughout the Six Duchies. Some never fell prey to it, but others were ensorcelled by the mere glimpse of a dragon in the distance. Lant would hear no warning from me now, but I suspected the spell would be broken as soon as she was no longer in sight. Had I not already had my Skill-walls raised against the clamour of Kelsingra, it was likely I would have felt as giddy as he did.

It quickly became apparent that she would land in the plaza before the Greeting Hall. Lant hurried and I kept pace with him. Even so, she was on the ground before we arrived, and Elderlings and lesser dragons had begun to gather. Lant tried to surge forward but I caught his arm and held him back. ‘Queen Malta and King Reyn,’ I cautioned him. ‘And their son. They will be the first to greet her.’

And they were. Even the dragons of Kelsingra kept a respectful distance — something I had not expected. Tintaglia folded her wings leisurely, shaking them out twice as if to be sure that every scale was in place before gradually closing them to a chorus of admiring sighs from those who had gathered. When Reyn and Malta appeared with Phron on their heels it was obvious to me that Malta had performed a hasty grooming and Reyn had donned a clean tunic and smoothed his hair. Phron was grinning in awestruck wonder but Malta’s expression was more reserved, almost stony, as she descended the steps to stand small before Tintaglia. Queen to queen, I found myself thinking, despite the size difference.

Reyn walked at her side but half a step behind as the queens advanced to greet one another. Tintaglia surveyed Malta, her neck arched and her eyes slowly whirling as if she inspected her. Malta’s expression did not change as she said coolly, ‘So you have returned to Kelsingra, Tintaglia. Your absence has been long this time.’

‘Has it? To you, perhaps.’ The dragon’s trumpeting was musical, and her thoughts rode on the sound. ‘You must recall that dragons do not reckon time in the tiny droplets of days that seem so significant to humans. But yes, I have returned. I come to drink. And to be well groomed.’ As if to snub Malta for her rebuke, the dragon ignored Reyn and swung her head to look down at Phron, who gazed up at her adoringly. The dragon’s eyes spun fondly. She leaned down and breathed on him, and I saw his garments ripple in her hot breath. Abruptly, she flung her head up and then glared all about in indignation. ‘This one is mine! Who has interfered with him? What foolish dragon has dared to alter what is mine?’

‘Who has dared to save his life, do you mean? Who has dared to set his body right, so that he need not choose between breathing and eating? Is that what you ask?’ Malta demanded.

Tintaglia’s gaze jerked back to Malta. Colours rippled in her throat and cheeks and the scales of her neck abruptly hackled into a series of crests. I thought Queen Malta would at least step back. Instead, she stepped forward and this time Reyn moved with her and beside her. I was astonished to see a similar flush of colouring in the crest of flesh above her brow. Malta stood, hands on her hips and her head tilted back. The patterns in the scales on her face echoed Tintaglia’s in miniature.

The dragon’s great eyes narrowed. ‘Who?’ she demanded again.

Ice crept up my spine and I held my breath. No one spoke. Wind wandered amongst us, adding to the chill, ruffling hair and reddening noses.

‘I thought you might be pleased to see I was still alive. For without the changes wrought in me, I doubt I would be.’ Phron stepped forward to stand between his parents and the dragon. Malta’s hand reached out to snatch him back to safety, but Reyn put his hand on top of her wrist. Slowly, he pushed her arm down and then caught her hand in his. He said something and I saw a flicker of agony cross Malta’s face. Then she stood silent as her son faced down the dragon that had shaped all of them.

Tintaglia was silent. Would she admit that she cared if he lived or died? But she was a dragon. ‘Who?’ she demanded, and the colours on her throat flared brighter. No one replied and she set the end of her muzzle against Phron’s chest and pushed him. He staggered back but did not fall. It was enough.

‘Stand well clear of me,’ I told Lant. I took three steps into the open space that surrounded the dragon. My walls were up tight. I lifted my voice into a shout. ‘Tintaglia. Here I stand!’

Faster than a serpent strikes, her head whipped around and her gaze fixed on me. I could almost feel the pressure of that scrutiny as she said, ‘And who are you, who dares use my name?’

‘You know me.’ I controlled my voice but pitched it to carry. Phron had glanced at his parents but he had not retreated to shelter behind them.

Tintaglia snorted. She shifted so she faced me. The wind of her breath was meaty and rich. ‘Few are the humans I know, little gnat. I do not know you.’

‘But you do. It was years ago. You wished to know where the black dragon was. You hunted me through my dreams. You wanted IceFyre freed from his prison. I am the one who did what you could not. I broke the glacier and released him from both ice and the Pale Woman’s torment. So you know me, dragon. As you know my daughter, Nettle. And as you know me, so also you owe me!’

There was a collective gasp at my words. From the corner of my eye, I saw Lady Amber emerge onto the steps, with Spark and Per flanking her. I prayed she would not interfere, that she would keep the youngsters safely out of the dragon’s knowing. Tintaglia stared her me, her eyes whirling gold and silver, and I felt the pressure of her mind against mine. For one instant, I yielded my walls to her. I showed her Nettle in her dreamed gown of butterfly wings. Then I slammed the gates of my mind, shutting her out and desperately hoping my walls could hold.

‘Her.’ Tintaglia made the simple word a curse. ‘Not a gnat, that one. A gadfly, a biting, buzzing blood-sucking …’

I’d never seen such a large creature strangling on words. I felt a sudden rush of pride in Nettle. She had used her Skill and her dream-manipulation to strike back at the dragon, turning the creature’s own weapons against her. With no formal training in the Farseer magic, Nettle had not only bent Tintaglia to her purpose, but persuaded that strong-willed queen to make IceFyre honour Prince Dutiful’s promise to lay the black dragon’s head on the bricks of Elliania’s hearth fire. IceFyre’s entry into the narcheska’s mothershouse had caused some damage to the door lintel, but the promise had been fulfilled and Dutiful had won his bride.

And a dragon remembered my daughter! For one exhilarating moment, my heart teetered on exultation. As close to immortality as any human could come!

Tintaglia advanced on me. Colours swept over her like flames consuming wood. ‘You interfered with my Elderlings. That offends me. And I owe you nothing. Dragons have no debts.’

I said the words before I considered them. ‘Dragons have debts. They simply don’t pay them.’

Tintaglia settled back on her hind haunches and lifted her head high and tucked in her chin. Her eyes spun fast, the colours flickering and I more felt than saw how both humans and dragons retreated from her.

‘Fitz,’ Lant whispered harshly, a plea.

‘Get back. Stay back!’ I whispered. I was going to die. Die, or live horribly maimed. I’d seen what the acid spew of a dragon did to men and to stone. I steeled myself. If I ran, if I took shelter behind the others, they would die with me.

A gust of wind struck me and then, as lightly as a crow hopping to a halt, a much smaller scarlet dragon alighted between me and death. An instant later, I felt a sudden weight on my shoulder, and ‘Fitz!’ Motley greeted me. ‘Hello, stupid!’ she added.

The scarlet dragon folded her wings, as if it were an important task that must be done in a very particular way. I thought Tintaglia would spray the creature with acid in vengeance for her interrupted fury. Instead it appeared that she regarded the red dragon in perplexity.

‘Heeby,’ the crow said to me. ‘Heeby, Heeby.’ Motley turned and suddenly gave my ear a vicious peck. ‘Heeby!’ the bird insisted.

‘Heeby,’ I repeated to calm her. ‘General Rapskal’s dragon.’

My acknowledgement placated her. ‘Heeby. Good hunter. Lots of meat.’ The crow chuckled happily.

Lant seized my arm. ‘Come away, you fool!’ he hissed at me. ‘While she is distracted by the red dragon, get out of her sight. She means to kill you.’

But I moved only to shrug off his grip. The much smaller scarlet dragon was facing off with the immense blue one. Heeby’s head wove on her serpentine neck. Every imaginable shade of red flushed over her. There was no mistaking the challenge in her stance. I felt the tension of the communication between them though I could not mine any sense of human words from the low rumbling of the red. It was like a pressure in the air, a flow of thoughts I could feel but not share.

Tintaglia’s crest and the row of erect scaling on her neck eased down rather like a dog’s hackles smoothing themselves as its aggression subsides. The arch of her neck softened and then she lifted her eyes and I felt her piercing gaze. Tintaglia spoke, and her words were clear to all, her question an accusation. ‘What do you know of the pale folk and their Servants?’

I drew breath and spoke clearly, willing that all the dragons and gathered folk would hear. ‘I know the Servants stole my child. I know that they destroyed her. I know that I will seek them out and kill as many of them as I can before they destroy me.’ My heart had begun to race. I clenched my teeth and then added, ‘What more need I know?’

Both Heeby and Tintaglia became very still. Again, I sensed a flow of communication between them. I wondered if the other dragons or any of the Elderlings were privy to what they said. General Rapskal pushed his way through the crowd. He was dressed very simply, in leggings and a leather shirt, and his hands were dirty, as if he’d abruptly broken away from some task.

‘Heeby!’ he cried at sight of her, and then stood still. He looked around at the gathered Elderlings and dragons, saw me, and hastened to my side. As he came, he drew his sheath knife. I reached for my own and was startled when Lant shoved me aside and back and stepped between Rapskal and me. Unmindful of Lant’s bristling, Rapskal called to me, ‘Heeby summoned me to protect you! I come to your aid!’

Lant gaped at him. I knew a moment of shock and then anger as Per inserted himself into the situation. ‘Behind me!’ I snapped at the boy and he replied, ‘Your back, sir, yes, I will guard your back!’

It wasn’t what I had meant, but it moved him away from Rapskal’s blade.

‘I don’t understand,’ I growled at Rapskal and he shook his head in shared bewilderment. ‘Nor do I! I was mining for memories when Heeby summoned me urgently to protect you here. And then she vanished from my awareness as if she were slain! It terrified me, but here I am, to do her will. I will protect you or die.’

‘Enough of your chittering!’ Tintaglia did not roar at us but the force of the thought attached to her words near stunned me. Heeby kept her watchful stance between the immense blue dragon and me, but it was little shelter. Tintaglia towered over her and she could easily have spat acid at me if she had chosen to. Instead she cocked her head and focused her gaze on me. I felt the full impact of her presence as her huge spinning eyes fixed on me. My walls could not deflect completely the wash of dragon-glamor that surged over me.

‘I choose to allow the changes you have made. I will not kill you.’

As I basked in that bit of good news and my guardians hastily sheathed their blades, she tilted her great head, leaned close, and breathed deep of me. ‘I do not know the dragon who has marked you. Later, perhaps, he will answer to me for your wilfulness. For now, you need not fear me.’

I was dizzied with gratitude and awe at her magnificence. It took every scrap of will I could muster to lift my voice. ‘I strove only to help those who needed my help. Those neglected by their dragons, or changed but not guided in their changes.’

She opened her jaws wide and for a heart-stopping moment, I saw teeth longer than swords and the gleaming yellow and red of the poison sacs in her throat. She spoke to me again. ‘Do not press me, little man. Be content that I have not killed you.’

Heeby lifted then, her front paws leaving the ground so that she was slightly taller than she had been before. Again, I felt the force of an unheard communication.

Tintaglia sneered at her, a lifting of lips that bared her teeth. But she said to me, ‘You and those like you may interfere with the ones claimed by no dragons. This I grant to you, for they are nothing to me. Change them all you like. But leave to me what is mine. This is a boon I grant you because you and yours were of service to me in the past. But do not presume to think I pay a debt to you.’

I had almost forgotten Motley on my shoulder. I do not think a crow can whisper, but in a low hoarse voice I heard, ‘Be wise.’

‘Of course not!’ I hastily agreed. Time to move away from my ill-considered remark. I took a breath, realized that I was about to say a worse thing and said it anyway. ‘I would ask a second boon from you.’

Again, she made a display of teeth and poison sacs. ‘Not dying today,’ Motley said and lifted from my shoulder. My protectors cowered against me but did not flee. I counted that as courage. ‘Is not your life enough of a boon, flea?’ the dragon demanded. ‘What more could you possibly ask of me?’

‘I ask for knowledge! The Servants of the Whites sought to end not just IceFyre but all dragons forever when they sought his death. I wish to know if they have acted against dragons before, and if they did, I wish to know why. More than anything else, I wish to know anything that dragons know that can help me bring an end to the Servants!’

Tintaglia drew back her immense head on her long neck. Stillness held. Then Heeby said in a child’s timorous voice. ‘She doesn’t remember. None of us remember. Except … me. Sometimes.’

‘Oh Heeby! You spoke!’ Rapskal whispered proudly.

Then Tintaglia gave forth a wordless roar and it horrified me to see Heeby crouch and cower. Rapskal drew his sheath knife again and stepped in front of his dragon, waving the blade at Tintaglia. I had never seen a stupider or more courageous act.

‘Rapskal, no!’ an Elderling cried but he did not halt. Yet if Tintaglia noticed this act of insane defiance she gave it no heed. She put her attention back on me. Her trumpeting was a low rumble that shook my lungs. Her anger and frustration rode with her words. ‘This is knowledge I should have, but I do not. I go to seek it. Not as a boon to you, human, but to wring from IceFyre what he should have shared with us long ago, rather than mocking us for a history we cannot know, for no dragon can recall what happened when one is in the egg or swimming as a serpent.’ She turned away from us, not caring that humans and Elderlings alike had to scatter to avoid the long slash of her tail as she did so. ‘I go to drink. I need Silver. When I have drunk, I shall be groomed. All should be in readiness for that.’

‘It shall be!’ Phron called after her as she stalked majestically away. He turned back to his parents, and his Elderling cheeks were as pink as their scaling would permit. ‘She’s magnificent!’ he shouted aloud, and a roar of both laughter and agreement echoed his sentiment.

I did not share the crowd’s exultation. I felt as if my guts were trembling now that I had leisure to consider how close I’d come to dying. And for what? I knew no more of the Servants than I had before. I could hope I’d won Tintaglia’s acceptance for any Skill-healers that Nettle and Dutiful might eventually send. I could hope that Dutiful might win an alliance with folk who occasionally could modify a dragon’s behaviour.

But I knew IceFyre lived. My small hope was that Tintaglia would share whatever she discovered with me. I suspected a long vendetta between dragons and the Servants. Could Elderlings have been unaware of such enmity? I doubted it, and yet we had not discovered any evidence of it.

Or did we? I thought back to the Pale Woman’s occupation of Aslevjal. Ilistore, the Fool had named her. The ice-encased Elderling city had proven a formidable fortress for her, an excellent site from which to oversee the OutIslander war against the Six Duchies. And where she would torment the ice-trapped dragon and attempt to destroy him and his kind. She had done all she could to degrade the city. Art had been defaced or destroyed, libraries of Skill-blocks tumbled into hopeless disorder … did not that speak of a deep-rooted hatred? Had she sought to destroy all traces of a people and culture?

I did not expect the support of the dragons against the Servants. IceFyre had had years to retaliate against the Servants if the dragon had harboured any desire to do so. I suspected he had vented all his fury when he had collapsed the icy hall of Aslevjal and put an end to the forces of the Pale Woman. He had left it up to me to make sure of her death, and that of the stone dragon she and Kebal Rawbread had forged. Perhaps the black drake was not as fierce a creature as Tintaglia seemed to be. ‘It’s not uncommon for the female creatures to be far more savage than the males.’

‘Truly?’ Per asked, and I realized I’d said the words aloud.

‘Truly,’ Lant replied for me and I wondered if he were recalling his stepmother’s attempt on his life. In the open square before us, Rapskal was fussing over Heeby as if she were a beloved lapdog, while Malta, Reyn and Phron were caught in a lively discussion that almost looked like a quarrel. I was ambushed by a wave of vertigo.

‘I’d like to go back to our chambers,’ I said quietly, and found no strength to resist Lant taking my arm. The weakness I’d felt after the Skill-healings I’d done assailed me again, for no reason I could deduce. Amber and Spark joined us as I manoeuvred my way up the stairs. Amber stopped the rest of them at the door. ‘I will talk to you later,’ she announced and ushered them out.

Lant dumped me in a chair at the table. I heard him close the door gently behind himself. I’d already lowered my head onto my crossed arms when the Fool spoke to me. ‘Are you ill?’

I shook my head without lifting it. ‘Weak. As if exhausted by Skilling. I don’t know why.’ I gave an unwilling laugh. ‘Perhaps last night’s brandy hasn’t worn off.’

He set his hands gently to my shoulders and kneaded the muscles there. ‘Tintaglia gave off a powerful aura of glamor. I was transfixed by it, and terrified at the fury she generated toward you. So strange to feel but be unable to see. I knew she was going to kill you, and I was helpless. Yet I heard you. You stood firm before it.’

‘I had my walls up. I thought I was going to die. We gained a small bit of knowledge though; IceFyre is alive.’ His hands on my shoulders felt good but reminded me too sharply of Molly. I shrugged free of his touch and he wordlessly moved to take a chair at the table beside me.

‘You could have died today,’ he explained. He shook his head. ‘I don’t know what I’d do. You all but dared her to kill you. Do you want to die?’

‘Yes.’ I admitted it. ‘But not yet,’ I added. ‘Not until I’ve put a lot of other people in the ground. I need weapons, Fool. An assassin’s best weapons are information, and more information.’ I sighed. ‘I don’t know if IceFyre knows anything useful. Nor do I know if he would share it with Tintaglia or how we would receive the information if he did. Fool, I have never felt so unprepared for a task.’

‘The same for me. But I have never felt so determined to see it through.’

I sat up a bit straighter and leaned one elbow on the table. I touched his gloved hand. ‘Are you still angry at me?’

‘No.’ Then, ‘Yes. You made me think about things I don’t want to remember.’

‘I need you to remember those things for me.’

He turned his face away from me, but did not pull his hand back. I waited. ‘Ask me,’ he commanded me harshly.

So. Time to torture my friend. What did I most need to know? ‘Is there anyone within Clerres who might help us? Anyone who would conspire with us? Is there a way to send them a message that we are coming?’

Silence. Was he going to balk now? I knew the brandy ploy would not work again. ‘No,’ he grated out at last. ‘There is no way to send a message. Prilkop might still be alive. They separated us when they began their torture. I assume he endured much the same treatment I did. If he lives, he is most likely a prisoner still. I think they found him too valuable to kill, but I could be wrong.’

‘I know you doubt the ones who helped you escape. But you and Prilkop sent out messengers. Were they loyal to you? Do any of those folks remain in Clerres?’

He shook his head. His face was still turned away from me. ‘We were able to do that in the first few years we were at Clerres. After we had become uneasy with the Four, but before they realized we didn’t trust them. We sent them first to warn you, that the Four might seek to do you harm. While we were doing that, the Four kept trying to win us to their way of thinking. Perhaps they truly thought that their collators and manipulors would make us believe we had erred.’ He smiled wryly. ‘Instead, it went the other way. I think they found our tales exciting, for they knew little of life outside the walls. As we told them more of life outside their sequestered world, some began to question what the Servants had taught them. I do not think that, at first, the Four realized how much influence we had begun to wield.’

‘Collators? Manipulors?’

He snorted in disgust. ‘Fancy titles. Collators classify the dreams and find connections and threads. Manipulors try to find people or upcoming events that are most vulnerable to making the future change in ways that benefit the Four and their Servants. They were the ones who worked so hard to convince Prilkop and me that we were wrong. About everything, but especially in claiming that one of my Catalysts had fulfilled the dream-prophecies of the Unexpected Son. They were the ones who told us of the dreams of a new White Prophet, born “in the wild” as they said. The dreams of that child correlated with the dreams of the Unexpected Son in ways that could not be denied, even by me. They spoke of a dream of a child who bore the heart of a wolf.

‘You asked, if you are not the Unexpected Son, then how can I be sure that all we did, all we changed, was the right course for the world? That was the very question they battered me with. And I saw it crack Prilkop’s confidence. In the days that followed, we discussed it privately. I always insisted that you were the one. But then he would ask and rightfully, “but what of these new dreams?” And I had no answer to that.’ He swallowed. ‘No answer at all.

‘And one night, in wine and fellowship, our little friends whispered to us that the wild-born child must be found and controlled before he could cause any harm to the course of the world. They knew that the Four were intent on finding this child. Not all the Four believed the new prophet was the Unexpected Son, but one did. Symphe. Whenever we dined with the Four, she would challenge me. And her challenges were so strong they shook even my belief. Day after day, the Four commanded that the library of dreams be combed so that the child could be found. And “controlled”. I began to fear that they would find the same clues I had found and followed, all those years ago, to find you. So I sent the other messengers, the ones that asked you to find the Unexpected Son. For they had convinced me that there was a “wild born” White Prophet. And there, they were correct. They knew Bee existed long before I did. And Dwalia convinced them that the child they sensed was the Unexpected Son.’

His words chilled me. They had ‘sensed’ that Bee existed? I pulled his words to pieces in my mind, needed to understand fully everything he was telling me. ‘What did they mean by “wild born”?’

His shoulders heaved. I waited. ‘The Clerres that Prilkop remembered,’ he began and then choked to a stop.

‘Do you want a cup of tea?’ I offered.

‘No.’ He gripped my hand suddenly, tightly. Then he asked, ‘Is any brandy left?’

‘I’ll see.’

I found the corked bottle half under a pillow. There was some left. Not much, but some. I found his teacup, filled it, and set it down on the table. His bared hand crept toward it. He lifted it and drank. When I resumed my seat, I noticed that his gloved hand was where I had left it. I took it in mine. ‘Prilkop’s Clerres?’

‘It was a library. All the history of the Whites, all the dreams that had ever been recorded, carefully organized and analysed in the writings of others. It was a place for historians and linguists. All White Prophets were “wild born” in his time. People would recognize that their child was … peculiar. And they would take the child to Clerres. Or the child would grow and know that he or she must make that journey. There, the White Prophet for that time would have access to all the older dreams and histories of other White Prophets. They were educated and sheltered, fed and clothed and prepared. And when the White Prophet felt he was ready to begin his work in the world, he was given supplies: money, a mount, travel clothes, weapons, pens and papers, and sent on his way, as Prilkop was. And the Servants who stayed on at Clerres would record all they knew of the prophet, and they and their descendants would patiently await the next one.’ He drank again. ‘There was no “Four”. Only Servants. People waiting to serve.’

A long silence. I ventured, ‘But Clerres was not like that for you.’

He shook his head, slowly at first and then wildly. ‘No. Not at all like that! After my parents had left me there, I was astonished to find that I was not unique to that place at all! They took me in, kindly and gently at first, to a row of little cottages in a pretty garden, with a grape arbour and a fountain. And in the little cottage they brought me to, I met three other children, all nearly as pale as I was.

‘But they were all half-brothers. And they had been born there in Clerres. Bred and born there. For the Servants were no longer serving the White Prophet, but themselves. They had collected children, for they could trace the lineage of each White Prophet. A cousin, a great-nephew, a grandchild rumoured to be descended from a White Prophet. Gather them up, house them together, and breed them like rabbits. Breed them back again to each other. Sooner or later the rare trait surfaces. You’ve seen Burrich do it. What works with horses and dogs works with people as well. Instead of waiting for a wild-born White to appear they made their own. And harvested their dreams. And the Servants who once believed that White Prophets were born to set the world on a better path forgot that duty and began to care only for enriching themselves and their own comfort. Their “true Path” is a conspiracy to enable whatever brings to them the most wealth and power! Their home-bred Whites did as they were told. In small ways. Put a different man on the throne of a neighbouring kingdom. Warehouse wool, and never warn anyone of the coming plague that will kill all of their sheep. Until finally, perhaps, they decided to rid the world of dragons and Elderlings.’ He drank the rest of the brandy in his cup and set it down with a clack on the table.

He turned his face to me at last. Tears had eroded Amber’s careful powder and paint. The black that lined her eyes had become dark trails down his cheeks. ‘Enough, Fitz,’ he said with finality.

‘Fool, I need to know—’

‘Enough for today.’ His groping hand found the brandy bottle. For a blind man, he did a passable job of emptying the dregs of the bottle into his cup. ‘I know I must speak to you of these things,’ he said hoarsely. ‘And I will. At my pace.’ He shook his head. ‘Such a mess I made of it. The White Prophet. And here I am, blind and broken, dragging you into it again. Our last effort to change the world.’

I whispered the words to myself. ‘I don’t do this for the world. I do it for myself.’ Quietly I rose and left him the table and the brandy.

In the two days before the Tarman left the village and crossed the river to us, I saw no more of Tintaglia. Lant had heard the blue dragon had drunk deeply of Silver, made a kill and ate it, slept, and had been groomed by her Elderlings in the steaming dragon-baths. Then she had drunk Silver again, and left. Whether she had gone to hunt or departed to find IceFyre, no one knew. I surrendered my hope that I would learn anything from her.

The Fool lived up to his word. On the table in my room, he built a map of the island and the town and castle of Clerres. I hoarded plates and cutlery and napkins from our meals and the Fool’s groping fingers moved walls of spoons, and arranged plate towers. From this peculiar representation, I sketched Clerres. The outer fortifications were presided over by four stout towers, each topped with an immense skull-shaped dome. Lamps burned in the skull-eyes at night. Skilled archers walked the crenellated walls of the outer keep always.

Within the high white walls of the keep, a secondary wall surrounded gracious gardens, the cottages that housed the Whites and a stronghouse of white stone and bone. The stronghouse had four towers, each taller and narrower than the watchtowers of the outer walls. We dragged a bedside table into the main room, and on this we created a map of the main floor of the Servants’ stronghold.

‘The stronghouse has four levels above the ground, and two below,’ the Fool informed me as he formed up the walls from scarves and arranged towers of teacups. ‘That is not counting the majestic towers where the Four abide. Those towers are taller than the watchtowers on the outer walls. The roof of the stronghouse is flat. On it are the old harem quarters from the days when Clerres was a palace as well as a castle. Those quarters are used to confine the more important prisoners. The towers offer an excellent view of the castle island and the harbour and the hills beyond the town. It is a very old structure, Fitz. I do not think anyone knows how the towers were built so narrow, and yet expand at the top into such grand rooms.’

‘Shaped like mushrooms?’ I asked as I tried to visualize.

‘Like exquisitely graceful mushrooms, perhaps,’ and he almost smiled.

‘How narrow are the stems of those mushrooms?’ I asked him.

He considered. ‘At the base, as wide as the great hall at Buckkeep Castle. But as one ascends, they narrow to half that size.’

I nodded to myself, well pleased at that image. ‘And that is where each of the Four sleeps at night? In a tower room?’

‘For the most part. Fellowdy, it is well known, has appetites for flesh that he satisfies in several locations. Capra, almost always in her tower room. Symphe and Coultrie, most nights I imagine. Fitz, it has been many years since I was privy to their lives and habits.’

Castle Clerres stood on an island of white rock, alone. From the castle’s outer walls to the steep edges of the island there was only flat, stony earth that any invader must cross to reach the walls. A watch was kept over the water and the narrow causeway. The causeway opened twice a day, at the low tides, to permit servants to come and go, and to admit the pilgrims who came to discover their futures.

‘Once pilgrims cross the causeway and enter the walls, they see the stronghouse with the vine of time in bas-relief on its front. All the grandest rooms are on the ground floor: the audience chambers, the ballroom, the feasting room, all panelled in white wood. A few of the teaching rooms are there, but most of them are on the second floor. The young Whites are taught and their dreams harvested. On that floor are extravagant chambers where wealthy patrons may take their ease and sip wine and listen as collators read selected scrolls to them and lingstras interpret them. For a fat fee.’

‘And the lingstras and collators are all Whites?’

‘Most have a trace of White heritage. Born on Clerres, they are raised to be servants of the Four. They also “serve” the Whites who can dream, in much the same way a tick drops on a dog. They suck off dreams and ideas, and express them as possible futures to the rich fools who come to consult with them.’

‘So. They are charlatans.’

‘No,’ he said in a low voice. ‘That is the worst part, Fitz. The rich buy knowledge of the future, to make themselves even richer. The lingstras gather dreams of a drought to come, and counsel a man to hoard grain to sell to his starving neighbours. Pestilence and plague can make a family wealthy, if they expect it. The Four no longer think of putting the world on a better course, but only of profiting from disasters and windfalls.’

He drew a deep breath. ‘On the third floor is the treasured hoard of the Servants. There are six chambers of scroll-collections. Some of the scrolls are old beyond reckoning, and new dreams are penned and added daily. Only the wealthiest can afford to stroll here. Sometimes, a wealthy priest of Sa may be admitted to study independently, but only if there is wealth and influence to be gained.

‘Finally on the fourth floor are the living quarters for the Servants who are high in the Four’s favour. Some guards live there, the most trusted ones, who protect entry to each of the Four’s private towers. And the most prolific White dreamers are housed on that level, where the Four may easily descend from their grand towers to have congress with them. Not always congress of a lofty intellectual sort, where Fellowdy is concerned.’ He stopped speaking. I did not ask if he had ever been victim of that sort of attention.

He stood up abruptly and walked across the room, speaking over his shoulder. ‘Up one more set of stairs and you emerge onto the roof, and the old harem quarters that are now the cells where recalcitrant Whites are held.’ He drifted away from our work. ‘Perhaps Prilkop is held there now. Or whatever is left of him.’ He drew a sudden deep breath. Then Amber spoke. ‘It’s stuffy in here. Please summon Spark for me. I wish to go out and take the air.’

I did as she asked.

My sessions with the Fool were brief and intermittent. I listened far more than I spoke, and if he silently rose and became Amber and left the room, I let him go. In his absence, I sketched and noted down key bits of information. I valued what he had shared but I needed more. He had no recent information on their vices or foibles, no names of lovers or enemies, no idea of daily routines. That I would learn by spying when I reached Clerres. There was no rush. Haste would not bring Bee back. This would be a cold, and carefully calculated, vengeance. When I struck, I would do so with thoroughness. It would be sweet, I thought, if they died knowing for what crime they suffered. But if they did not, they would still be just as dead.

Perforce, my plans were simplistic, my strategy sparse. I arranged my supplies and pondered possibilities. Five of Chade’s exploding pots had survived the bear’s attack. One was cracked and leaking a coarse black powder. I softened candle wax and repaired it. I had knives, and my old sling, an axe too large to carry in a peaceful city; I doubted those weapons would be useful. I had powdered poisons for mixing with food and some for dusting a surface, oils that could go on a doorknob or the lip of a mug, tasteless liquids and pellets, every form of poison I knew. The bear attack had robbed me of the ones I had carried in quantity; I had no hope of poisoning the castle’s water supply or dosing a large kettle of food. I had enough poison to deploy if I could get the Four to sit down and play dice with me. I doubted such an opportunity would exist. But if I could gain access to their personal lodgings, I could make an end of them.

On the bedside table, in the little cups that represented the towers, I arranged four black stones. I was holding the fifth in my hand, pondering, when Per and Spark came in with Lady Amber and Lant. ‘Is it a game?’ Per asked, staring in consternation at the cluttered tables, and my murder kit arrayed neatly on the floor.

‘If assassination is a game,’ Spark said quietly. She came to stand at my elbow. ‘What do the black stones represent?’

‘Chade’s pots.’

‘What do they do?’ Per asked.

‘They blast things. Like trapped sap popping in a firewood log.’ I gestured at the five little pots.

‘Only more powerful,’ the Fool said.

‘Much more,’ Spark said quietly. ‘I tested some with Chade. When he was healthy. We blew a great hole in a stone cliff near the beach. Rock chips flew everywhere.’ She touched her cheek as if remembering a stinging splinter.

‘Good,’ the Fool said. He took a seat at the table. Amber was long gone as his fingers danced over the carefully-arranged items. ‘A firepot for each tower?’

‘It might work. The placement of the pots and the strength of the tower walls are key. The pots must be high enough in the tower to make the tower collapse while the Four are abed. The pots have to explode simultaneously, so I need fuses of different lengths, so I can place and light a pot, and then go on to the next until all four are burning.’

‘And still give you time to escape,’ Lant suggested.

‘That would be very nice, yes.’ I didn’t consider it likely that the pots would explode simultaneously. ‘I need something to make fuses from.’

Spark frowned. ‘Are not the fuses still in the top of the pots?’

I stared at her. ‘What?’

‘Give me one. Please.’

With reluctance, I lifted the repaired pot and handed it to her. She scowled at that. ‘I’m not sure you should even try to use this one.’ She tugged the cap off the pot, and I saw that it had been held on with a thick resin. Inside were two coiled strings. One was blue and the other white. She teased them out. The blue was twice the length of the white. ‘The blue is longer and burns more slowly. The white burns fast.’

‘How fast?’

She shrugged. ‘The white one, set fire to it and run. It is good if you are being chased. The blue one you can conceal, and then finish your wine and bid your host farewell and be safely out the door.’

Lant leaned over my shoulder. I heard the smile in his voice. ‘Far easier to use those with two of us. One man can never set all four and still be away before they explode.’

‘Three of us,’ Spark insisted. I stared at her. Her expression became indignant. ‘I’ve more experience with them than anyone here!’

‘Four,’ Per said. I wondered if he understood we were talking about murder. It was my fault they included themselves at all. A younger and more energetic Fitz would have kept his plans concealed. I was older and weary and they already knew too much. Dangerously too much, for them and for me. I wondered if I’d have any secrets left when I died.

‘When the time comes, we will see,’ I told them, knowing they would argue if I simply said ‘no’.

‘I won’t see,’ the Fool interjected into the silence. For a moment, there was discomfort, and then Per laughed awkwardly. We joined in, more bitter than merry. But still alive and still moving toward our murderous goal.

NINE

The

Tarman

Even before King Shrewd rather unwisely chose to strictly limit Skill-instruction to the members of the royal family only, the magic was falling into disuse. When I was in my 22nd year, a blood-cough swept through all the coastal duchies. The young and the old were carried off in droves. Many aged Skill-users died in that plague, and with them died their knowledge of the magic.

When Prince Regal found that scrolls about Skill-magic commanded a high price from foreign traders, he began secretly to deplete the libraries of Buckkeep. Did he know that those precious scrolls would ultimately fall into the hands of the Pale Woman and the Red-Ship Raiders? That is a matter that has long been debated among Buck nobility, and as Regal has been dead and gone for many years, it is likely we shall never know the truth about that.

On the decline of knowledge of Skill during the reign of King Shrewd,

Chade Fallstar

We trooped down together to the dock to watch the Tarman arrive in Kelsingra. I had grown up in Buckkeep Town where the docks were of heavy black timbers redolent of tar. Those docks seemed to have stood since El brought the sea to our shores. This dock was recently built, of pale planks with some pilings of stone and some of raw timber. New construction had been fastened to the ancient remains of an Elderling dock. I pondered that, for I did not judge this the best location for a dock. The half-devoured buildings at the river’s edge told me that the river often shifted in its bed. The new Elderlings of Kelsingra needed to lift their eyes from what had been and consider the river and the city as it was now.

Above the broken cliffs that backed the city, on the highest hills, the snow had slumped into thin random fingers. In the distance, I could see the birches blushing pink and the willows gone red at the tips of their branches. The wind off the river was wet and cold, but the knife’s edge of winter was gone from it. The year was turning and with it the direction of my life.

A sprinkling rain fell as the Tarman approached. Motley clung to Perseverance’s shoulder, her head tucked tight against the rain. Lant stood behind him. Spark stood next to Amber. We clustered near enough to watch and far enough back that we were not in the way. Amber’s gloved hand rested on the back of my wrist. I spoke to her in a low voice. ‘The river runs swift and deep and doubtless cold. It is pale grey with silt, and smells sour. Once there was more shore here. Over decades, the river has eaten its way into Kelsingra. There are two other ships docked here. They both appear idle.

‘The Tarman is a river barge. Sweeps, oars, long and low to the water. One powerful woman is on the steering oar. The ship has travelled upriver on the far side of the river, and now it’s crossed the current, turned back and is moving with the current. No figurehead.’ I was disappointed. I’d heard that the figureheads on liveships could move and speak. ‘It has eyes painted on his hull. And it’s coming fast with the current, and two deckhands have joined the steerswoman on the rudder. The crew is battling the current to bring the ship in here.’

As the Tarman neared the docks and its lines were tossed to folk on the dock, where they were caught and snubbed off around the cleats, the barge reared like a wilful horse and water piled up against its stern. There was something odd about the way the barge fought the current but I could not place it. Water churned all around it. Lines and dock timbers creaked as they took its weight.

Some lines were tightened and others loosened until the captain was satisfied that his craft was well snugged to the dock. The longshoremen were waiting with their barrows and one tall Elderling on the dock was grinning in the way that only a man hoping to see his sweetheart grins. Alum. That was his name. I watched the deck and soon spotted her. She was in constant motion, relaying commands and helping to make the Tarman fast to the dock, but twice I caught her eyes roving over the welcoming crowd. When she saw her Elderling sweetheart, her face lit, and she seemed to move even more efficiently as if to flaunt her prowess.

A gangplank was thrown down and about a dozen passengers disembarked, their possessions in bags or packs. The immigrants came ashore uncertainly, staring up in wonder or perhaps dismay at the half-ruined city. I wondered what they had imagined, and if they would stay. On a separate gangplank, the longshoremen began to come and go like a line of ants as the ship disgorged cargo. ‘That’s the boat we’ll travel on?’ Spark asked doubtfully.

‘That’s the one.’

‘I’ve never been on a boat.’

‘I’ve been out in little boats before. Rowing boats on the Withy. Nothing like that.’ Perseverance’s eyes roved over the Tarman. His mouth was slightly ajar. I could not tell if he were anxious or eager.

‘You’ll be fine,’ Lant assured them. ‘Look how stable that ship is. And we’re only going to be on a river, not the sea.’

I noted to myself that Lant was speaking to the youngsters more as if they were his younger siblings than his servants.

‘Do you see the captain?’

I responded to Amber’s question. ‘I see a man past his middle years approaching Reyn. He has been larger in his life, I think, but looks gaunt now. They greet one another fondly. I suspect that is Leftrin and the woman with him would be Alise. She has a great deal of very curly reddish hair.’ Amber had shared with me the scandalous tale of how Alise had forsaken her legal but unfaithful Bingtown husband to take up with the captain of a liveship. ‘They are both exclaiming over Phron. They look delighted.’

Her hand tightened slightly on my arm as she fastened a smile onto her face.

‘Here they come,’ I added quietly. Lant stepped up beside me. Behind me, Per and Spark fell silent. We waited.

A smiling Reyn introduced us. ‘And here are our Six Duchies visitors! Captain Leftrin and Alise of the liveship Tarman, may I present Prince FitzChivalry Farseer, Lady Amber and Lord Lant of the Six Duchies?’

Lant and I bowed, and Amber fell and rose in a graceful curtsey. Leftrin sketched a startled bow and Alise deployed a respectable curtsey before rising to stare at me in consternation. A smile passed over her face before she seemed to recall her manners. ‘We are pleased to offer you passage on Tarman to Trehaug. Malta and Reyn have told us that Ephron’s renewed health is due to your magic. Thank you. We have no children of our own, and Ephron has been as dear to us as he is to his parents.’

Captain Leftrin nodded gravely. ‘As the lady says,’ he added gruffly. ‘Give us a day or so to get our cargo on the beach, give our crew a bit of shore time and we’ll be ready to carry you down river. Quarters on Tarman are not spacious. We’ll do our best to make you comfortable but I’m sure it won’t be the sort of travel a prince is used to, nor a lord and a lady.’

‘I am sure we will be most content with whatever you offer us. Our goal is not comfort but transport,’ I replied.

‘And that Tarman can provide, swifter and better than any on this river.’ He spoke with the pride of a captain who owns his ship. ‘We’d be pleased to welcome you aboard now and show you the quarters we’ve readied for you.’

‘We would be delighted,’ Amber replied warmly.

‘This way, please.’

We followed them onto the dock and up the gangplank. The way was narrow and I worried that Amber might make a misstep, but as I stepped onto the barge’s deck, that worry was replaced with a new one. The liveship resonated against both my Wit and Skill. A liveship indeed, as alive as any moving and breathing creature I’d ever known! I was certain the Tarman was as aware of me as I was of him. Lant was looking around with a wide grin on his face, as pleased as a boy on an adventure, and Per echoed him. Motley had lifted herself from the boy’s shoulder and circled the barge suspiciously, flapping hard to keep her place against the river wind. Spark was more reserved than Lant and Per, almost wary. Amber put her hand back on my arm as soon as she could and gripped it tightly. Alise stepped onto the ship, followed by Leftrin. Both halted as abruptly as if encountering a wall.

‘Oh, my,’ Alise said softly.

‘A little more than that,’ Leftrin said tightly. He froze, and the communication between him and his ship was like a plucked string thrumming. He fixed me with a stare. ‘My ship is … I must ask. Are you claimed by a dragon?’

We both stiffened. Had the ship sensed the dragon-blood she had consumed? She let go of my arm and stood alone, ready to let any blame fall on herself. ‘I think what your ship senses about me is actually—’

‘Beg pardon, ma’am, it’s not you unsettling my ship. It’s him.’

‘Me?’ Even to myself I sounded foolishly startled.

‘You,’ Leftrin confirmed. His mouth was pinched. He glanced at Alise. ‘My dear, perhaps you could show the ladies their quarters while I settle this?’

Alise’s eyes were very large. ‘Of course I could,’ and I knew that she was helping him separate me from my companions though I could not guess why.

I turned to my tiny retinue. ‘Spark, if you would, guide your mistress while I have a word with the captain? Lant and Per, you will excuse us.’

Spark registered the unspoken warning and swiftly claimed Amber’s arm. Lant and Perseverance had already moved down the deck, examining the ship as they went. ‘Tell me all about the ship, Spark,’ Amber requested in an unconcerned voice. They moved off slowly, following Alise, and I heard the girl adding descriptions to everything Alise said to them.

I turned back to Leftrin. ‘Your ship dislikes me?’ I asked. I was not reading that from my sense of the Tarman, but I’d never been aboard a liveship before.

‘No. My ship wants to speak with you.’ Leftrin crossed his arms on his barrel chest, then seemed to realize how unfriendly that appeared. He loosened his arms and wiped his hands down his trouser legs. ‘Come on up to the bow rail. He talks best there.’ He walked ponderously and I followed slowly. He spoke over his shoulder to me. ‘Tarman talks to me,’ he said. ‘Sometimes to Alise. Maybe to Hennesey. Sometimes to the others, in dreams and such. I don’t ask and he doesn’t tell me. He’s not like other liveships. He’s more his own than … well, you wouldn’t understand. You aren’t Trader stock. Let me just say this. Tarman has never asked to speak to a stranger. I don’t know what he’s about, but understand that what he says, goes. The keepers made a deal with you, but if he says he doesn’t want you on his deck, that’s it.’ He drew a breath. ‘Sorry,’ he added.

‘I understand,’ I said, but I didn’t. As I moved toward the bow, my sense of the Tarman became more acute. And uncomfortable. It was like being sniffed over by a dog. A large and unpredictable dog. With bared teeth. I repressed my impulse to show my own teeth or display aggression in any way. His presence pressed more strongly against my walls.

I allow this, I pointed out to him as he pushed his senses into my mind.

As if you have the right to refuse. You tread my deck, and I will know you. What dragon has touched you?

Under the circumstances, lying would have been foolish. A dragon pushed into my dreams. I think it was a dragon named Sintara, who claims the Elderling Thymara. I have been close to the dragons Tintaglia and Heeby. Perhaps that is what you sense.

No. You smell of a dragon I have never sensed. Come closer. Put your hands on the railing.

I looked at the railing. Captain Leftrin was staring stonily across the river. I could not tell if he was aware of what his ship said to me or not. ‘He wants me to put my hands on the railing.’

‘Then I suggest you do so,’ he responded gruffly.

I looked at it. The wood was grey and fine-grained and unfamiliar to me. I drew off my gloves and placed my hands on the railing.

There. I knew I smelled him. You touched him with your hands, didn’t you? You groomed him.

I have never groomed a dragon.

You did. And he claims you as his.

Verity. It was not a thought I had intended to share. My walls were slipping before this ship’s determination to force his way into my mind. I set my boundaries tighter, trying to work subtly so the ship would not perceive I was blocking him, but wonder had set my blood to racing. Would dragons of flesh and blood truly count Verity as a dragon who could claim me? I’d dusted the leaves from his back. Was that the ‘grooming’ that this ship had sensed? And if dragons would consider Verity a dragon, then did this barge count himself as a dragon?

The ship was silent, considering. Then, Yes. That dragon. He claims you.

Overhead, Motley cawed loudly.

The hardest thing in the world is to think of nothing. I considered the pattern of the wind and the current on the river’s face. I longed to reach for Verity with a desire that almost surpassed my need to breathe. To touch that cold stone with my mind and heart, to feel that in some sense, he guarded my back. The ship broke into my thoughts.

He claims you. Do you deny it?

I am his. I was startled to find that was still true. I have been his for a very long time.

As if a human knows what ‘a very long time’ is. But I accept you as his. As Leftrin and Alise wish it, I will carry you to Trehaug. But it is your will that you do this. I am not interfering with a human claimed by a dragon.

I wondered what it meant that a liveship ‘accepted’ me and believed that a stone dragon had claimed me. I wondered how Verity had marked me as his own. Had he known he had done it? A dozen questions sprang to my mind, but Tarman had dismissed me. It was like a door closing on a noisy tavern, leaving me in dark and quiet. I felt both wild relief at how alone I was, and a sense of loss for things he could have told me. I reached, but could not sense Tarman at all. Captain Leftrin knew it at the same moment I did. For a moment he stared at me, taking my measure. Then he grinned. ‘He’s done with you. Want to see where you’ll be bunking for the trip downriver?’

‘I, uh, yes, please.’ The change in his demeanour was as abrupt as the sun emerging from a cloud bank on a blustery day.

He led me aft, past the ship’s deckhouse to two blocky structures attached to the deck. ‘These are a lot nicer now than the first time we used them. Never thought Tarman would be ferrying as many people as he carries crates of freight. But times change, and we change with them. Slowly, and sometimes without a lot of grace, but even a Rain Wilder can change. This one is for you, Lord Lant, and your boy.’ He looked uncomfortable for a moment. ‘It would be better if you and the lady had private quarters, but where would I put your serving girl? Shoreside girls don’t seem happy to share the crew’s quarters, even though on my ship there’s no danger to them. Just no privacy. We’ve given the other cabin to the women. I’m sure it’s a lot less than what a prince expects, but it’s the best we can offer.’

‘Transport is all we desire, and I’d be happy to sleep out on the deck. It wouldn’t be the first time in my life.’

‘Ah.’ The man visibly relaxed. ‘Well. Hearing that will ease Alise’s worries. She’s been so anxious since we got the word we were going to give you passage. “A prince from the Six Duchies! What will we feed him, where will he sleep?” On and on. That’s my Alise. Always wanting to do things in the best possible way.’

He opened the door. ‘Was a time when these cabins weren’t much more than cargo crates, built big. But we’ve had close to a score of years to make them comfortable. The others ain’t been here yet, I don’t think, so you can claim the bunk you want.’

Folk who live aboard ships know how to make the best of a small space. I had braced myself for the smell of old laundry, for canvas hammocks and a splintery floor. Two small windows admitted daylight and it danced on gleaming yellow woodwork. Four bunks stacked two high, none spacious, lined two of the walls. The room smelled pleasantly of the oil that had been used to wipe down the wood. One wall was all cupboards, drawers and crannies framed around the little window. A pair of blue curtains had been pushed back from the open window to admit both light and air. ‘A more pleasant little water-cottage I could not imagine!’ I told the captain, and turned to find Alise at his elbow, beaming with pleasure at my words. Lant and Perseverance stood behind her. The lad’s cheeks were bright red with the wind and his eyes shone. His grin widened as he peered into our cabin.

‘The ladies were pleased with theirs as well,’ Alise observed happily. ‘Welcome aboard, then. You can bring your things aboard any time today, and feel free to come and go as you please. The crew will need at least a day of rest here. I know you are eager to be down the river, but …’

‘A day or even two will not disturb our plans,’ I replied. ‘Our tasks will wait until we arrive.’

‘But Paragon can’t, so a day and a half is all I can give my crew this time,’ was Leftrin’s observation. He shook his head at Alise. ‘We’ll be cutting it fine to meet Paragon in Trehaug. Time and tides wait for no man, my dear, and both ships have schedules to keep.’

‘I know, I know,’ she said, but she smiled as she said it.

He turned his smile at me. ‘The other ships make regular runs up and down the river, but neither of them ride the current as well as Tarman does when the water runs high in spring. Once the snowmelts are done and the river calms, Tarman and his crew can take a nice break while the impervious boats take their turn. When the river runs swift with snowmelt or the acid runs white in the main channel, we leave the pretty boats safely tied up and Tarman shoulders the load.’ He spoke with more pride than regret.

‘Are we going to be crowded with passengers going downriver?’ Alise asked him, a bit anxiously.

‘No. I spoke to Harrikin. If any of the new folk can’t abide the city’s muttering, he’ll send them across the river to Village to await our next run. I think he hopes that they’ll settle and work there instead of fleeing back to whatever they came from.’ He turned to me. ‘Twenty years of bringing folk here, and then taking half of them back when they can’t cut it. It makes for a crowded ship and taking turns at the galley table. But this run will be only you folks, crew, and a bit of cargo. Should be a pleasant run if the weather stays fine.’

The next morning was as clear and blue as a day could be. The wind off the river was ever present and never kind, but it was definitely spring now. I could smell the sticky new leaves unfolding and the dark earth awakening. There were a few fresh scallions mixed in with the omelette and fried potatoes at the breakfast we shared with the keepers who had gathered to say farewell. Sylve told us jubilantly that the chickens she had insisted on keeping in the garden houses over the winter were now laying reliably again.

The farewell gathering included the children and companions of the keepers. Many came to thank me again and offer parting gifts. A pragmatic man named Carson had brought us dried strips of meat in a leather pouch. ‘It will keep if you don’t let damp get to it.’ I thanked him, and had that instant sense of connection that sometimes comes, a feeling of a deep friendship that could have been.

Amber and Spark both received earrings from a woman named Jerd. ‘There’s nothing magical about them, but they’re pretty, and in a hard time you could sell them.’ She had given birth to a little girl I had healed, but oddly enough an Elderling named Sedric was raising the child with Carson. ‘I am fond of the girl, but was never meant to be a mother,’ Jerd informed us cheerily. The little girl, sitting on Sedric’s shoulders and gripping his hair in two tight handfuls appeared content with her lot. Sedric was enthusiastic about her. ‘She has begun to make sounds. She turns her head when we speak now.’ The child’s mass of coppery hair concealed her very tiny ears. ‘And Relpda now understands the problem and will help us with it. Our dragons are not cruel, but they do not always understand how a small human is meant to grow.’ And from the queen of the Elderlings, a box that held assorted teas. She smiled as she offered it to Amber. ‘A small pleasure can be a great comfort when one travels,’ she said, and Amber accepted it gratefully.

It was noon before we processed down to the ship. Our baggage was already stowed on board, and our new gifts filled a barrow that Perseverance pushed. Tats had given an Elderling scarf to Per and he had folded it very carefully and asked quietly if he might send it to his mother from Bingtown. I assured him we could. Thymara had pulled Amber aside from us, to present her with a woven bag. I overheard her giving her yet more cautioning words about the Silver on her fingers.

The farewells at the dock seemed to take forever, but Leftrin finally gave a shout and said it was time we were away if we were to have any daylight at all. I watched Alum kiss his girl, who then hurried aboard and took charge of the deck crew. Leftrin observed me watching them. ‘Skelly’s my niece. She’ll captain Tarman some day, after I lie down on his deck and slide my memories into his timbers.’

I raised my brows.

Captain Leftrin hesitated, then laughed at himself. ‘Liveships ways are not as secret as they once were. Liveships and their families are very close. Children are born aboard the family ship, and grow to crew and then captain. When they die, the ship absorbs their memories. Our ancestors live on in our ships. He gave me an odd grin. ‘A strange immortality.’

Rather like putting memories into a stone dragon, I thought to myself. A strange immortality indeed.

He gave his grizzled head a shake and then invited us to join him and Alise in the galley for coffee while the crew went about its tasks. ‘Don’t you need to be on the deck?’ Perseverance asked him, and Captain Leftrin grinned. ‘If I can’t trust Skelly by now, I should just cut my throat today. My crew loves the ship and Tarman loves them. There’s little they can’t handle, and I enjoy my time with my lady.’

We found cramped seats around the scarred galley table. The small room was crowded in a friendly way, redolent of the year’s cooking and wet wool. The coffee added its own fragrance. I’d had the stuff once before and knew what to expect, but I watched Per pucker his mouth in surprise. ‘Oh, here, lad, you’ve no need to drink that! I can make a pot of tea just as easily.’ And with a swoop, Alise took his mug, dumped the contents back into the coffee pot and began to dipper water into a battered copper kettle. The little iron stove warmed the room almost unbearably and she soon had the kettle hissing on top of it.

I looked round at us, seated so companionably around the table. At Buckkeep Castle, Spark and Per would have been dismissed to a servant’s table, and perhaps Lant and I would have dined separately from a humble ship’s captain and his lady. The room gave a dip and a lurch. Per’s eyes went wide and Spark audibly caught her breath. The greedy current rushed us out onto the river. I craned to look out of the small window. I saw only grey river water.

Leftrin sighed with satisfaction. ‘Aye, we’re well on our way now. I’ll just step out and see if Big Eider needs a hand with the tiller. He’s a good man, if simple. Knows the river well. But we’re still missing Swarge. Thirty years that man kept us steady in the current. Well, he’s gone into Tarman now.’

‘As will we all, eventually,’ Alise affirmed with a smile ‘I must step out also. I need to ask Skelly where she stowed the last barrel of sugar.’ She looked at Spark. ‘I’ll count on you to brew the tea when the water boils. It’s in the box on the shelf by the window.’

‘Thank you, Lady Alise. I shall do so.’

‘Oh, Lady Alise!’ Her cheeks went pink and she laughed. ‘I haven’t been a lady for years! I’m just Alise. If I forget to address you as the grand folk you are, you’ll have to excuse me. I’m afraid my Bingtown manners have faded after nearly a score of years on the river.’

We laughed and all assured her that we were comfortable. And we were. I felt more at ease on Tarman than I had in the dragon city.

The opened door let in a gust of river wind and then slammed shut behind her. We were left to ourselves, and I heard Amber breathe a soft sigh of relief.

‘Do you think they’d mind if I went on deck and had a look about?’ Per asked wistfully. ‘I’d like to see how the tiller works.’

‘Go,’ I said. ‘They’ll tell you if you’re in the way, and if they tell you to move, do it fast. It’s more likely they’ll find some work for you to do.’

Lant unfolded himself as the boy stood. ‘I’ll keep an eye on him. I’d like to have a look about myself. I’ve been out fishing with friends on Buckkeep Bay, but never on a river, let alone one so large and swift.’

‘Will you still want tea?’ Spark asked them, for the kettle had begun to steam.

‘Most likely. I think it’s pretty cold out there, with the wind and all.’

And again the wind slammed the door as they left. ‘What an odd little family we’ve become,’ Amber observed as Spark took down a lovely sea-green pot for the tea. She smiled and added, ‘No tea for me. I’m content with the coffee. It’s been years since I’ve had good coffee.’

‘If this is “good” coffee, I dread what bad coffee might be,’ I told her. I did as I’d seen Alise do, dumping my unwanted cupful back into the big black pot on the stove. I waited for the tea to brew.

We settled easily into life aboard ship and found a new rhythm to our days. The crew was happy to take Perseverance in and give him small tasks. When our lad was not learning his knots from Bellin, a large and near-silent woman who could manage a deck-pole as well as any man, he was put to polishing, sanding, oiling and cleaning. He took to it as a duck to water, and told me one afternoon that if he were not sworn to me, he could be happy as a ship’s boy. I felt a twinge of jealousy, but also relief to see him busy and happy.

Motley had joined us as soon as Tarman cast off from Kelsingra. The crow got over her wariness quickly and shocked all of us by preferring a perch on the bow rail. The first time she squawked ‘Tarman! Tarman!’ she won the heart of the crew and made Perseverance beam with pride.

She became a cheery presence on the boat if the weather was blustery. She happily rode on Per as he went about his tasks, but whenever Lady Amber emerged onto the deck, Motley transferred to her. The crow had learned to chuckle, and had an uncanny ability to laugh at just the right moment. Her gift for mimicry had become suspiciously good, but whenever I reached toward her with the Wit I found only the bland fog of a creature that was proudly uninterested in forming a bond. ‘How much do you understand?’ I demanded of her one afternoon. She cocked her head at me, met my gaze and demanded, ‘How much do YOU understand?’ With a chuckle, she took flight down river ahead of Tarman.

Travel aboard a vessel is either boring or terrifying. On Tarman, I was glad to be bored. The farther away from the city, the less the Skill-current pressed on my walls. Each night the tillerman steered us into moorage along the riverbank. Sometimes there was a beach and we could disembark, but often we were nudged up against a bank of trees with serpentine roots. On the third day, the river narrowed and deepened, and the current became much stronger. The forest closed in and there was no true horizon. The banks of the river were solid walls of trees with stilt roots and we moored to them at night. It began to rain, and didn’t stop. Motley moved into the galley. I moved between our cramped cabin and the ship’s steamy galley. My clothing and bedding was always slightly damp.

I tried to pass my time constructively. Amber suggested I learn Mersen, the old language of Clerres. ‘Most people will speak Common to you, but it’s useful to know what they say to one another when they think you can’t understand them.’ To my surprise, my companions joined in. In the long wet days, all of us would hunch on the cramped bunks, while Amber would drill us in vocabulary and grammar. I had always been adept at learning languages but Perseverance outshone me. Lant and Spark struggled, but we pressed on. I put Lant to helping Perseverance with his letters and numbers. Neither of them relished those tasks, but they made progress.

In the evenings after we were moored, Lant, Spark and Perseverance would join the crew in games that involved dice, cards, and some little carved rods. Imaginary fortunes changed hands often across the table.

While they gamed, Amber and I convened in her cabin. I valiantly ignored the small smiles that both Leftrin and Alise would exchange when I rejoined the company. I wished I could find humour in them, but in truth I felt as if I tormented the Fool during our private sessions. He wanted to help but the viciousness he had endured at Clerres made it hard for him to speak his memories in a coherent order. The scalding anecdotes I pried from him only made me reluctant to dig deeper. And yet I knew I must. I learned of the Four in bits and references. It was the best he could offer me.

The only one of the Four I learned about in detail was Capra. Capra seemed to take pride in being the eldest of the Four. She had long silver hair and wore blue robes weighted with pearls. She appeared gentle, kind, and wise. She had been his mentor when he had first arrived at Clerres. In his early days there, he was invited daily to her tower room after he had completed his lessons. There they would sit together on the floor before her fire while he scribed his dreams onto thick soft paper that was as yellow as a daisy’s heart. They shared delicious little cakes, exotic fruits and cheeses. She taught him about wines with tiny sips from little gold-rimmed goblets and educated him on teas. Sometimes she invited tumblers and jugglers there, simply to entertain him, and when he wished to join in, she had them teach him their skills. She praised him and he blossomed in her care. When she spoke his name, Beloved, he believed she meant it. He spoke of an adolescence I envied. Pampered, praised, educated — any child’s dream. But we all awake from dreams.

Most often I sat on the floor of our cabin and he claimed a lower bunk and stared sightlessly up as he spoke. Rain spattered on the small windows of the cabin. A single candle he could not see gave me a dim light appropriate to his dark tales. He was the Fool in those sessions, in a loose blouse with a spill of lace down his chest and plain black leggings, Amber’s gown a wilted flower on the cabin’s floor. His posture and garments were similar to when we had been youngsters, knees drawn up to his chin, one bared hand and one gloved hand clasped around his knees. His unseeing eyes stared at a distant time.

‘I studied hard to please her. She gave me dreams to read and listened to my earnest interpretation. I was sitting before her fire when I first read of the Unexpected Son in an old and crumbling scroll. It spoke to me as no other had. I literally began to tremble. My voice shook as I told her of a childhood dream. My dream and the old one fitted together like interlaced fingers. I spoke true to her, saying I’d be sorry to leave her but I was the White Prophet for this time. I knew that I needed to be out in the world, preparing for the changes I must make. A fool I was indeed, fearing I would hurt her by leaving.’

The Fool made a small sound. ‘She listened to me. Then she shook her head sadly and gently said, “You are mistaken. The White Prophet for this time has already manifested. We have trained her, and soon she will begin her tasks. Beloved, every young White wishes to be the White Prophet. Every student at Clerres has made that claim. Do not be sad. There are other tasks for you, to do humbly and well to aid the true White Prophet.”

‘I could not believe what I was hearing. My ears rang and my vision swam to hear her deny me. But she was so wise and kind and old, I knew she must be right. I tried to accept that I was wrong, but my dreams would not let me. From the time she denied me, my dreams came on like a storm, two and three a night. I knew as I wrote them down that she would be displeased, but I could not hold them back. She took each one and showed me how it did not apply to me, but to another.’

He shook his head slowly. ‘Fitz, I cannot explain my distress. It was … like looking through badly-made glass. Eating rotten meat. There was a foulness to her words that made me feel physically ill. They rang wrong in my ears. But she was my mentor. She treated me so lovingly. How could she not be right?’

He asked that question so earnestly. His hands, gloved and bared, kneaded each other. He looked away from me, as if I could read anything in his shuttered eyes. ‘One day, she took me up the steps to the top tower room. Fitz, it was huge, bigger than the Queen’s Garden at Buckkeep Castle. And it was littered with treasures. Amazing things, objects that were lovely beyond imagining scattered like discarded toys. There was a staff that gleamed with light all along its length, and a marvellous throne made from tiny interlocking flowers of jade. Some, I know now, were of Elderling make. Wind chimes that sang, a statue of a pot with a plant that grew from it, flowered, faded back into the soil and then grew again. I gazed in wonder, but she told me crisply that they came from a faraway beach where such treasures washed up, and that the stewards of that place had bargained with her that all the sea gave them would be hers if she granted them a boon.

‘I wanted to know more of that story, but she took my hand and drew me to the window and bade me look down. I saw a young woman below in a walled garden full of flowers and vines and fruit trees. She was White as I was White. I had met others at Clerres who were almost as colourless as I was. Almost. They had all been born there, and they all seemed to be related, sister to brother, cousin and uncle. But none of them were White as I was White. Not until I saw her.

‘Another woman was there, with red hair and a great sword. She was teaching the pale woman how to wield it as a serving maid watched and cried encouragement. The White woman danced with that sword, and her hair floated as she moved so beautifully. Then Capra said, “There she is. The true White Prophet. Her training is almost complete. You have seen her. Let us have no more of foolishness.”’ He shuddered. ‘That was the first time I saw the Pale Woman.’ He fell silent.

‘You have told me enough for tonight.’

He shook his head, his mouth pursed tight shut. He lifted his hands and rubbed his face hard, and for a moment the faded scars stood out against his skin. ‘So I didn’t speak of my destiny again,’ he said harshly. ‘I wrote down my dreams but I no longer tried to interpret them. She took them from me and set them aside. Unread, I believed.’ He shook his head. ‘I have no idea how much knowledge I handed over to her. By day, I studied and I tried to be content. I had a lovely life, Fitz. All that I could ask for. Good food, attentive servants, music and amusements in the evening. I was useful, I thought, for Capra put me to sorting old scrolls. It was a clerk’s work but I was good at it.’ He kneaded his scarred hands together. ‘In the way of my kind, I was still a child. I wanted to please. I missed being loved. So I tried.

‘But of course, I failed. In my clerk’s work, I encountered writings about the Unexpected Son. I had a dream, of a jester singing a silly song about “fat suffices”. He sang it to a wolf cub, Fitz. The cub had sprouting antlers.’ He gave a muffled laugh, but the hair stood up on my arms. Had he truly seen me in a dream, so many years before we had even met? But it had not been me. It had only been a puzzle, to which I was, perhaps, the answer.

‘Oh, I do not like this tale I vomit out to you. I wish I had not begun telling it. So many things we have never spoken about. So many things that shame me less if I am the only one who knows them. But I will finish.’ He looked toward me, his sightless eyes swimming with tears. I slid across the floor and took his gloved hand in mine. His smile was a wavering thing. ‘I could not forever deny what I was. My anger and resentment grew. I wrote my dreams down, and I began to reference other dreams, some ancient, some recent. I built a fortress of evidence that Capra could not deny. I did not insist I was the White Prophet, but I began to ask her questions, and they were not innocent ones.’ He smiled slightly. ‘I know you could never guess it, Fitz, but I can be stubborn. I was determined to force her to admit who and what I was.’

Again, he paused. I did not speak. This was like digging splinters out of an infected wound. He pulled his hand from mine and wrapped his arms around himself as if freezing.

‘I’d never been so much as slapped by my parents, Fitz. Not that I was a tractable and easy child. No. I am sure I was not. Yet they had corrected me patiently and I had come to expect that from adults. Never had they denied me information as to why a thing was so. Always they had listened to me, and when I taught them something new, they were always so proud of me! I thought I was so clever to ask Capra questions about my dreams and other dreams I had read. My questions would lead her to the inevitable answer that I was indeed, the White Prophet.

‘And so I began. A few questions on one day, a few more the next. But the day I asked Capra six questions in a row, all leading up to what she must admit about me, she held up her hand and said, “Not another question! I will tell you what your life is to be.” Not even thinking, being young as one is only once, I said, “But why?” And that was it. Without a word, she rose and pulled a bell-pull. A servant came, and she sent him for someone else, a name I did not know then. Kestor. A very large and muscular man. And he came and held me down with a foot on the back of my neck and let his leather strap fall wherever it would on my body. I screamed and begged but neither of them spoke a word. As abruptly as it began, my punishment was over. She dismissed Kestor, seated herself at her table and poured some tea. When I could, I crawled from her room. I remember my long trip down the stone stairs of her tower. The lash had fallen on the big muscles behind my knees, and curled around one of my ankles. The tip of it had etched into my belly more than once. It was agony to try to stand. I edged down on my hands and knees, trying not to pull on the welts, crept to my cottage and stayed there for two days. No one came. No one asked after me, or brought me water or food. I waited, thinking someone would come. No.’ He shook his head, old bafflement on his face. ‘Capra never summoned me again. She never spoke directly to me again.’ He sighed out a small breath.

In the silence that followed, I asked, ‘What were you expected to learn from that?’

His tears scattered as he shook his head. ‘I never knew. No one ever spoke of what she had done to me. When two days had passed I limped to the healer’s room and waited for the full day. Others came and went but he never summoned me. No one, not even the other students, asked what had happened to me. It was as if it had never occurred in their world, only mine. Eventually, I began to limp to my lessons and to meals. But my instructors had a new disdain for me, rebuked me for my missed lessons and punished me by withholding food. I was made to sit at a table and work on lessons while the others ate. It was on one of those days that I saw the Pale Woman again. She walked through the hall where we gathered for meals. All the other students looked at her with admiring eyes. She was garbed all in green and brown, like a hunter, and her white hair was braided back with golden thread. So beautiful. Her servant followed her. I think … looking back, I think her servant was Dwalia, the one who took Bee. One of the people who prepared our food hurried out and gave a hamper to Dwalia. Then the Pale Woman walked out of the hall, with her servant carrying the basket. As she passed me, she halted. She smiled at me, Fitz. Smiled as if we were friends. Then she said, “I am. And you are not.” Then she walked on. And everyone laughed. The twist to my mind and thoughts were worse than the welts all over my body.’

He needed his silence for a time and I let him keep it. ‘So clever they are,’ he said at last. ‘The pain they gave my body was only a gateway to what they could do to my mind. Capra must die, Fitz. The Four must die to end the corruption of the Whites.’

I felt ill. ‘Her servant was Dwalia? The same Dwalia that stole Bee?’

‘So I think. I could be wrong.’

A question I didn’t want to ask, an unwise question, found its way to my voice. ‘But after all that … all that, and all else you have told me … you went back with Prilkop?’

He laughed bitterly. ‘Fitz, I was not myself. You had brought me back from the dead. Prilkop was strong and calm. He was so certain that he could restore Clerres to its proper service. He came from a time when the word of a White Prophet was a command to the Servants. He was so certain of what we should do. And I had no idea what to do with this unexpected life.’

‘I recall a similar time in my life. Burrich made all our decisions.’

‘Then you understand. I couldn’t think about anything. I just followed what he said we were going to do.’ He clenched his teeth and then said, ‘And now I go back for a third time. And more than anything, I fear that I will fall into their power again.’ He took a sudden gulping breath. But even so, he could not seem to catch his breath. He began gasping like a spent runner. He could barely get his words out. ‘Nothing could be worse than that. Nothing.’ Hugging himself, he rocked back and forth on the bunk. ‘But … I … must … go back … I must …’ He snapped his head back and forth wildly. ‘Need to see!’ he cried out suddenly. ‘Fitz! Where are you!’ His gasping was ever faster. ‘Can’t … feel. My hands!’

I knelt beside the bed and put an arm around him. He yelped and struggled wildly, striking out at me

‘It’s me, you’re safe. You’re here. Breathe, Fool. Breathe.’ I refused to let go. I was not rough but I held him firmly. ‘Breathe.’

‘I … can’t!’

‘Breathe. Or you’ll faint. But you can do that. I’m here. You are safe.’

Suddenly he went limp and stopped fighting me and, very gradually, his breathing slowed. When he pushed me away, I let him. He folded himself tight and hugged his knees. When he finally spoke, he was ashamed. ‘I never wanted you to know how much I feared to do this. Fitz, I’m a coward. I’d rather die than let them take me.’

‘You don’t have to go back. I can do this.’

‘I do have to go back!’ He was instantly furious with me. ‘I must!’

I spoke quietly. ‘Then you will.’ With great reluctance, I added, ‘I could give you something to carry with you. A quick end if you thought you would … prefer that.’

His gaze wandered over my face as if he could see me. He said quietly, ‘You’d do it, but you’d not approve. Nor have such a resource for yourself.’

I nodded then spoke. ‘That’s true.’

‘Why?’

‘Something I overheard a long time ago. It didn’t make sense when I was younger, but the older I get, the wiser it seems. Prince Regal was speaking to Verity.’

‘And you put weight on something Regal said? Regal wanted you dead. From the moment he knew of your existence, he wanted you dead.’

‘True. But he was quoting what King Shrewd said to him, probably the king’s response when Regal suggested that killing me was the easiest solution. My grandfather told him, “Never do a thing until you’ve considered what you can’t do once you’ve done it.”’

A slow, fond smile claimed his face. ‘Ah. That does sound like something my king would have said.’ His smile widened, and I sensed a secret he would not share.

‘Killing myself would put an end to all other possibilities. And more than once in my life, when I thought death was my only escape, or that it was inevitable and I should surrender to it, I’ve been proven wrong. And each time, despite whatever fire I had to pass through, I found good in my life afterwards.’

‘Even now? With Molly and Bee dead?’

It felt disloyal but I said it. ‘Even now. Even when I feel like most of me is dead, life breaks through sometimes. Food tastes good. Or something Per says makes me laugh. A hot cup of tea when I’m cold and wet. I’ve thought of ending my life, Fool. I admit it. But always, no matter the damage to it, the body tries to go on. And if it manages to, then the mind follows it. Eventually, no matter how I try to deny it, there are bits of my life that are still sweet. A conversation with an old friend. Things I am still glad to have.’

He groped for me with his gloved hand and I offered mine. He shifted his grip to a warrior’s clasp, wrist to wrist. I returned the pressure. ‘It’s true for me as well. And you are right. I would never have thought to admit it, even to myself.’ He released my wrist and leaned back, then added, ‘But still, I would take your escape, if you will prepare it for me. Because if they do manage to take me, then I cannot …’ His voice had begun to shake.

‘I can prepare something for you. Something you could carry tucked in the cuff of your shirt.’

‘That would be good. Thank you.’

Of such cheerful discourse were my evenings made.

I had not realized that we were on a tributary until we left it and joined the furious rush of the Rain Wild River. The turbulent waters that carried us now were grey with acid and silt. We no longer drew water from the river but relied only on our casks. Bellin warned Perseverance that if he fell overboard ‘all we might pull back would be your bones!’ It did not dampen his enthusiasm at all. He scampered about the deck despite the rain and wind, and the crew tolerated him with good humour. Spark had less endurance for the foul weather, but she and Lant would sometimes stand on top of the deckhouse, sheltering under a square of tarpaulin and watch the passing view as the current swept us along.

I wondered what fascinated them, for the scenery had become unvarying. Trees. More trees, some of a size I had never imagined, with trunks as big around as towers. Trees made of a hundred spindly trunks, trees that leaned and dropped extra trunks down from the branches into the river’s marshy edge. Trees with vines climbing up them, trees with curtains of vines dangling down. I had never seen forest so thick and impenetrable, or foliage that could survive such wet conditions. The far shore of the river retreated to a foggy distance. We heard more birds during the day, and once saw a shrieking troop of monkeys, very strange to me.

It was all so different to the familiar landscapes of Buck. Even as it fascinated me and I longed to explore it, my deeper longing was for home. My thoughts went often to my Nettle, gravid with her first child. I’d abandoned her when she was still growing within Molly, to obey the urgent summons of my king. And now I left her to bear my first grandchild alone, at the behest of the Fool. How did Chade fare? Had he succumbed to age and a wandering mind? There were times when taking vengeance for the dead seemed too high a price for abandoning the living.

I kept such musings to myself. My fears of Skilling lingered. The press of it I had felt in Kelsingra had diminished, but the living ship beneath my feet was a constant hum of sentience against my walls. Soon, I promised myself. Even a brief Skill-contact could convey so much more than the tiny lettering on a messenger bird’s scroll. Soon.

Once when we were moored for the night, Skelly rose from the table, retrieved a bow and quiver from the crew quarters and then stepped soundlessly onto the deck. No one moved until we heard her shout. ‘I got a river pig! Fresh pork!’ There was a scramble to the deck, and the messy exuberant work of retrieving the dead animal. We butchered him on the narrow mud beach.

We feasted that evening. The crew built a fire, threw on green branches, and toasted strips of pig in the flames and smoke. The fresh meat put the crew in a merry mood, and Perseverance was pleased to be teased as one of their own. After we had eaten the cookfire became a bonfire that drove back the darkness and the biting night insects. Lant went for firewood and returned with an armful of an early-blooming vine with fragrant flowers. Spark filled Amber’s hands with some and then crowned herself with a garland. Hennesey began a bawdy song and the crew joined in. I smiled and tried to pretend I was neither an assassin nor a father mourning the loss of his child. But to join their simple, rowdy pleasure seemed a betrayal of Bee and how her little life had ended.

When Amber said she was wearied, I assured Spark that she should stay with Lant and Per and enjoy the evening. I guided Amber as we moved over the mucky shoreline to a rough rope ladder tossed over Tarman’s side. It was a struggle for her to climb the sagging rungs in the long skirts she wore.

‘Would not it all be easier if you dropped the pretence of Amber?’

She gained the deck and tousled her skirts back to order. ‘And which pretence would I then assume?’ she asked me.

As always, such words gave me a twinge of pain. Was the Fool indeed only another pretence, an imaginary companion invented for me? As if he had heard my thoughts, he said, ‘You know more of me than anyone, Fitz. I’ve given you as much of my true self as I dare.’

‘Come,’ I said and took his arm for balance while we both shed our muddy footwear. Captain Leftrin was rightfully fussy about keeping the deck clean. I shook the mud from our shoes over the side and carried them as I guided him back to the cabin. From the shore came a sudden whoop of laughter. A whirl of sparks rose into the night as someone threw a heavy piece of wood onto the bonfire.

‘It is good for them to have some enjoyment.’

‘It is,’ I replied. Childhood had been stolen from both Spark and Perseverance. Even Lant could use a window of merriness in his permanent wall of melancholy.

I went to the galley to kindle a little lantern. When I returned to the cabin, the Fool was already out of Amber’s fussy dress and into his simpler garb. He had wiped the paint that composed her face onto a cloth and turned to me with his old Fool’s smile. But in the light of my small lantern, the tracks of his torment still showed on his face and hands as silver threads against his light skin. His fingernails had regrown thick and stubby. My efforts at healing and the dragon’s blood he had taken had aided his body’s recovery more than I had dared hope, but he would never be who he had been.

But that was true of all of us.

‘What are you sighing about?’

‘I’m thinking of how this has changed all our lives. I was … I was on the way to being a good father, Fool. I think.’ Yes, burning bodies of murdered messengers at night. Excellent experience for a growing child.

‘Yes. Well.’ He sat down on the lower bunk. The upper bunk was neatly spread up. The other two bunks seemed to be serving as storage for the excessive wardrobe that he and Sparks had dragged with them. He sighed and then admitted, ‘I had more dreams.’

‘Oh?’

‘Significant dreams. Dreams that demand to be told aloud or written down.’

I waited. ‘And?’

‘It is hard to describe the pressure one feels to share significant dreams.’

I tried to be perceptive. ‘Do you want to tell them to me? Perhaps Leftrin or Alise would have pen and ink and paper. I could write them down for you.’

‘No!’ He covered his mouth for a moment, as if the explosive denial had revealed something. ‘I told them to Spark. She was here when I awoke in a terrible state, and I told her.’

‘About the Destroyer.’

He was silent for a moment. Then, ‘Yes, about the Destroyer.’

‘You feel guilty about that?’

He nodded. ‘It’s a terrible burden to put on one so young. She already does so much for me.’

‘Fool, I don’t think you need be concerned. She knows that I am the Destroyer. That we are on our way to bring down all Clerres. Your dream just repeats what we all know.’

He wiped the palms of his hands down his thighs and then clasped them together. ‘What we all know,’ he repeated dully. ‘Yes.’ Abruptly he added, ‘Goodnight, Fitz. I think I need to sleep.’

‘Goodnight then. I hope your dreams are peaceful.’

‘I hope I don’t dream at all,’ he replied.

It felt strange to rise and leave him there, taking the lantern with me. Leaving the Fool in the dark. As he was always in darkness now.

TEN

Bee’s Book

The preparation of the darts must be done with a steady hand. One cannot wear gloves but one must be extremely cautious, for the smallest nick of the fingers will become infected immediately and the parasites will quickly spread. There is no cure.

I have found that using the eggs of the boring worms combined with the eggs of the ones that cling inside a man’s guts and become long worms is the most effective in causing a prolonged and painful death. Eggs from one or the other will plague the victim but not lead to death. It is the double attacks of these creatures that inflict the death most befitting the cowards and traitors who dare betray Clerres.

Various Devices of my own Design, Coultrie of the Four

After a few days aboard Tarman, I had grown more accustomed to the light press of the ship’s awareness against mine. I was still uncomfortable that a liveship would be privy to any message I might Skill out, but after much debate with myself, I had decided to risk the contact with home.

Lady Amber sat down on the ship’s bunk opposite mine. A cup of tea steamed on the little shelf by the bunk. In the small space, our knees nearly touched. She gave a sigh, untwined a scarf from her damp hair and shook it out. Then the Fool reached up to tousle his hair into wild disorder that it might dry more quickly. It was no longer the dandelion fluff of his boyhood, or as golden as Lord Golden’s hair had been. To my surprise, white mixed with the pale blonde of it, like an old man’s hair. White hair, growing from the scars on his scalp. He wiped his fingers on Amber’s skirts and gave me a weary smile.

‘Are you ready?’ I asked him.

‘Ready and well supplied,’ he assured me.

‘How will you know if I need your help? What will you do if I am swept away?’

‘If I speak to you and you don’t respond, I’ll shake you. If you still don’t respond, I’ll dash my tea in your face.’

‘I hadn’t realized that was why you’d asked Spark for tea.’

‘It wasn’t.’ He took a sip from his cup. ‘Not entirely.’

‘And if that doesn’t bring me back?’

He groped on the bunk beside him and held up a small pouch. ‘Elfbark. Courtesy of Lant. It’s well powdered, to mix with my tea and pour down your throat or simply stuff into your mouth.’ He canted his head. ‘If the elfbark fails I will link my fingers to your wrist. But I assure you, that will be my final resort.’

‘What if you do, and instead of you pulling me back, I drag you under?’

‘What if Tarman hits a rock and we all drown in the acid waters of the Rain Wild River?’

I stared at him in silence.

‘Fitz, get to it. Or don’t. But stop procrastinating. We are far from Kelsingra. Try to Skill.’

I centred myself and let my vision unfocus, evened my breathing and slowly lowered my walls. I felt the sweep of the Skill-current, as cold and powerful as the river beneath our hull. Just as dangerous. It was not the riptide it had been in Kelsingra, but I knew that it concealed hidden currents. I hesitated upon the brink and then waded in, groping for Nettle. I did not find her. I reached for Thick. A distant wailing of music might have been him, but it faded as if wind had blown it away. Dutiful? Not there. I tried for Nettle again. I felt as if my fingers brushed my daughter’s face and slid away. Chade? No. I had no desire to tatter away in the Skill-current alongside my old mentor. When last I had seen the old man, his moments of acuity had been brief islands in a sea of vagueness. His Skill-magic, once so feeble, now sometimes roared, and he used it without caution. The last time we had connected in the Skill, he had nearly dragged me away with him. I must not try to reach for Chade—

Chade seized me. It was like being grappled from behind by a boisterous playmate and I was flung headlong into a wild rush of Skill. Oh, my boy, there you are! I’ve missed you so! His thoughts embraced me in a tightening net of fondness. I felt myself becoming the person that Chade imagined me to be. Like clay pressed into a brick mould, the parts of me he’d never known were being sheared away.

Stop! Let me go! I have word for Dutiful and Nettle, news of Kelsingra and the Dragon Traders!

He chuckled warmly yet I felt chilled at the soft press of his thoughts. Leave that. Leave all that and join us here. There is no loneliness, no separation at all. No aching bones, no worn-out body. It’s not what they told us, Fitz! All those warnings and dire predictions — faugh! The world will go on without us just as well as it did with us. Just let go.

Was it true? His words were soaked in conviction. I relaxed in his grip as the Skill-current roared past us. We aren’t tattering.

I’m holding you tight. Keeping you part of me. It’s like learning to swim. You can’t find out how until you’re all the way into the water. Stop clinging to the bank, boy. You only tear apart when you try to hold onto the shore.

He had always been wiser than me. Chade had always advised me, educated me and commanded me. He seemed calm and content. Happy, even. Had I ever before seen Chade content and happy? I moved toward him and he embraced me more warmly. Or did the Skill seize me? Where did Chade stop and the Skill begin? Had he already drowned in the Skill? Was he dragging me down to join him?

Chade! Chade Fallstar! Come back to us! Dutiful, help me. He’s fighting me.

Nettle gripped him and attempted to peel him away from me. I held to him fiercely, struggling to make her aware of me, but she was focused on separating us. Nettle! I roared my thought, trying to make it stand out from the rip and rush of thoughts around us. Thoughts? No. Not thoughts. Being. Beings.

I pushed all wondering aside. Instead of clinging to Chade, I thrust him toward her. I’ve got him! She told a Dutiful I barely sensed. And then, in sudden awe, Da? Are you here? Are you alive?

Yes. We are all fine. Will send you a bird from Bingtown. Then, divorced from Chade, the surge of the Skill began to tear at me. I tried to draw back, but the Skill gripped me like a bog. As I struggled, it sucked at me, pulling me deeper. Beings. The current was a flow of beings, all plucking at me. I gathered my strength and flung myself against its current as I resolutely put up my walls. I opened my eyes to the blessedly cramped and smelly little cabin. I folded forward over my knees, gasping and shaking.

‘What?’ the Fool demanded.

‘I nearly lost myself. Chade was there. He tried to pull me in with him.’

‘What?’

‘He told me that everything I learned about the Skill was wrong. That I should give myself over to the Skill. “Just let go,” he said. And I nearly did. I nearly let go.’

His gloved hand closed on my shoulder and shook me lightly. ‘Fitz, I did not think you had even begun to try. I told you to stop agonizing about it and you fell silent. I thought you were sulking.’ He cocked his head. ‘Only moments have passed since we last spoke.’

‘Only moments?’ I rested my forehead on my knees. I felt sick with fear and dazed with longing. It had been so easy. I could drop my walls and be gone. Just … gone. I’d merge with those other rushing entities and wash away with them. My hopeless quest would be abandoned along with the loss I felt whenever I thought of Bee. Gone would be the deep shame. Gone the humiliation that everyone knew how badly I had failed as a father. I could stop feeling and thinking.

‘Don’t go,’ the Fool said softly.

‘What?’ I sat up slowly.

His grip tightened slowly on my shoulder. ‘Don’t go where I can’t follow you. Don’t leave me behind. I’d still have to go on. I’d still have to return to Clerres and try to kill them all. Even though I would fail. Even though they would have me in their power again.’ He let go of me and crossed his arms as if to contain himself. I wasn’t aware of the connection I’d felt from his touch until he removed it. ‘Some day we must part. It’s inevitable. One of us will have to go on without the other. We both know that. But Fitz, please. Not yet. Not until after this hard thing is done.’

‘I won’t leave you.’ I wondered if I lied. I’d tried to leave him. This insane mission would be easier if I were working alone. Probably still impossible but my failure would be less horrific. Less shameful to me.

He was silent for a time, looking into the distance. His voice was hard and desperate as he demanded, ‘Promise me.’

‘What?’

‘Promise me that you won’t give in to Chade’s lure. That I won’t find you somewhere sitting like an empty sack with your mind gone. Promise me you won’t try to abandon me like useless baggage. That you won’t leave me behind so I’m “safe”. Out of your way.’

I reached for the right words, but it took me too long to find them. He did not hide his hurt and bitterness as he said, ‘You can’t, can you? Very well. At least I know my standing. Well, my old friend, here is something I can promise you. No matter what you do, Fitz — no matter if you stand or fall, run or die — I must go back to Clerres and do my best to pull it all down around their ears. As I told you before. With you or without you.’

I made a final effort. ‘Fool. You know I am the best man for this task. I know that I work best alone. You should let me do this my way.’

He was motionless. Then he asked, ‘If I said that to you, and if it were true, would you allow me to go alone into that place? Would you sit idly by and wait for me to rescue Bee?’

An easy lie. ‘I would,’ I said heartily.

He said nothing. Did he know I lied? Probably. But we had to recognize what was real. He could not do this. His shaking terror had created serious doubt in me. If he succumbed to it in Clerres … I simply could not take him with me. I knew his threat was real. He would find his way there, with or without me. But if I could get there before him and do my task, if the deed was done, he’d have no quest.

But would he ever forgive me?

While I’d been silent, he’d stored the pouch of elfbark in his pack. He sipped from his cup. ‘My tea’s gone cold,’ he announced. He stood, cup and saucer in hand. He smoothed his hair and flounced his skirts into order, and the Fool was gone. Amber trailed her fingers along the wall until she found the door and then left me sitting alone on the narrow bunk.

The Fool and I had one serious quarrel on that journey. I came to Amber’s cabin one evening at our agreed-upon time as Spark was leaving. Her face was pale and strained, and she gave me a tragic look as she left. I wondered if Amber had rebuked her. I dreaded finding him in a dark and irrational mood. Slowly, I closed the door behind me.

Inside the room, yellow candles burned in glass and the Fool perched on the lower bunk. His grey woollen night robe had seen much wear, probably purloined from Chade’s clothing stash. The shadows under his eyes and the resigned droop of his mouth made him older. I sat down on the bunk opposite him and waited. Then I saw my hastily stitched pack beside him. ‘What’s that doing here?’ I asked. For one moment I thought that some accident had brought it to his room.

He set a possessive hand on it and spoke hoarsely. ‘I have promised to take all blame for this. Even so, I fear I may have broken Spark’s friendship to do this. She brought it to me.’

Cold spread out of my belly and through my veins. I made a conscious and difficult choice. No anger. Fury surged against my wilful blocking. I knew but still I asked, ‘And why would you ask her to do that?’

‘Because Perseverance mentioned to her that you had books that belonged to Bee. Sometimes he saw you read what she had written there. Two books, one with a bright embossed cover, and the other plain. He recognized her hand on the page when he climbed past you to his bunk.’

He paused. I shivered with fear of how angry I might become. I controlled my breath as Chade had taught me, the silent breathing of an assassin on the verge of a kill. I quenched my emotions. The violation I felt was too immense.

The Fool spoke softly. ‘I think she kept a dream journal. If she is mine, if she carries the blood of a White, then she will dream. The drive to share those dreams, to speak or write them, would be overpowering. She will have done it. Fitz, you are angry. I can feel it like storm waves lashing my shores. But I must know what she wrote. You have to read these books to me. From start to finish.’

‘No.’ One word. For one word, I could keep my voice level and calm.

His shoulders rose and fell with the strength of the breath he took. Did he struggle for control as I did? His voice was taut as a hangman’s rope. ‘I could have hidden this from you. I could have had Spark steal the books and read them to me here in stealth. I didn’t.’

I unclenched my fists and my throat. ‘That you didn’t wrong me in that way makes this no less of an affront.’

He took his gloved hand from the bag. He put both his hands, palms up, on his knees. I had to lean closer to hear his whisper. ‘If you think these the random writings of a small child, your anger is justified. But you cannot believe that. These are the writings of a White Prophet.’ He dropped his voice even lower. ‘These are the writings of your daughter, Fitz, your little Bee. And mine.’

If he had struck me in the belly with a stave’s end, the impact could not have been worse. ‘Bee was my little girl.’ It came out a wolf’s growl. ‘I don’t want to share her!’ Honesty can be like a boil that bursts at the most unfortunate time. Had I known the source of my anger before I spoke it aloud?

‘I know you don’t. But you must.’ He set his hand lightly on the pack. ‘This is all that she could leave for us. Other than one glorious instant of holding her and watching her promise explode all around me like a geyser of light into a dark night, it is all of her that I will ever know. Please, Fitz. Please. Give me that much of her.’

I was silent. I could not. There was too much in those books. In her journal, there was too little mention of me from the days when she had held herself apart from me. Too much of a small girl fighting alone the ugly, childish battles with the other Withywoods children. Too many entries that made me feel cowardly and ashamed of what a blind father I had been. Her account of her clash with Lant and how I had promised her afterward that I would always take her part showed how I had failed in that regard. How could I read those pages aloud to the Fool? How could I bare my shame?

He knew I could not share those writings, even before he had asked me. He knew me that well; he knew that there were some things I could not yield. Why did he even dare to ask? With both hands he lifted the pack to cradle it to his breast. The tears started in his golden eyes and traced the scars on his face as they ran down his cheeks. He held out the pack, surrendering to me. I felt like a thwarted child whose parent gives in to his tantrum. I took the pack and immediately opened it. There was little in it save the books and Molly’s candles. I had stowed most of my clothing, the Elderling firebrick and other possessions in the tidy cabin cupboards. In the bottom, one of my shirts wrapped the tubes of dragon-Silver. I had judged my pack to be the most private place to keep such things. They were wrapped as I had left them. He had spoken true; he hadn’t rummaged. A waft of fragrance rose to me. I breathed in Molly’s perfumes from the candles. With them came calm. Clarity. I lifted the books out to shift the candles to a safer position.

His words were hesitant. ‘I’m sorry if I’ve hurt you. Please, don’t blame Spark. Or Perseverance. It was a chance remark on his part, and the girl acted under duress.’

Molly’s calmness. Molly’s stubborn sense of fairness. Why was it so hard? Was there anything in those books that he did not already know about me? What could I lose? Was not all lost to me already?

Did he not share that loss?

Snow had dampened one corner of Bee’s dream journal. It had dried, but the leather cover had puckered slightly, rippling the embossing. I tried to smooth it with my thumb. It resisted. I opened it slowly. I cleared my throat. ‘On the first page,’ I said, and my voice squeaked tight. The Fool looked blindly toward me, tears streaming down his cheeks. I cleared my throat again. ‘On the first page there is a drawing of a bee. It is exactly the size of a bee and exactly the colours of a bee. Above the bee, written very carefully in a sort of arc, are the words “This is my dream journal, of my important dreams.’’’

His breath caught in his throat. He sat very still. I stood up. Crossing that tiny room took less than three steps. Something — not pride, not selfishness, something I had no name for — made those three steps the steepest climb I’d ever attempted. I sat down beside him with the book open on my lap. He was not breathing. I reached across and lifted his bare hand by its woollen sleeve. I brought it over to the page and lightly skimmed the arch of letters with his drooping fingers. ‘Those are the words.’ I lifted again and manoeuvred his forefinger onto the bee. ‘And here is the bee she painted.’

He smiled. He lifted his wrist to dash the tears from his face. ‘I can feel the ink she put on the page.’

Together we read our daughter’s book. It was still a barbed thought for me to name her so, but I forced myself to it. We did not read it swiftly. That was his decision, not mine. And to my surprise, he did not ask that I read her journal. It was her dreams he wanted to hear. It became our ritual as we parted each evening. A few dreams from her book, read aloud. I read no more than three or four of her dreams every night. Often I read each one over as many as a dozen times. I watched his lips move silently as he committed them to memory. He smiled when I read a favourite dream, of wolves running. A dream of candles made him abruptly sit up straight, and then fall into a long and pensive silence. Her dream of being a nut puzzled him as much as it did me. He wept the evening I read her dream of the Butterfly Man. ‘Oh, Fitz, she had it. She had the gift. And they destroyed it.’

‘As we shall destroy them,’ I promised him.

‘Fitz.’ His voice halted me at the door. ‘Are we sure she is destroyed? You were delayed in the Skill-pillars when you travelled from Aslevjal, but eventually you emerged at Buckkeep.’

‘Give up that hope. I was a trained Skill-user. I emerged. Bee went in untrained, with no experienced guide, part of a chain of untrained folk. So we know from Shun. There was no sign of them when Nettle’s coterie went after her. No trace of them when we followed that same route, months later. She is gone, Fool. Tattered away to nothing.’ I wished he had not made me speak the words aloud. ‘All that is left for us is vengeance.’

I did not sleep well on Tarman. It was, in some ways, like sleeping on the back of an immense animal and always being aware of him with my Wit-sense. Often I had slept with the wolf’s back against my belly, but Nighteyes had been a comfort, for he shared his wild awareness of our surroundings with my duller human senses. I had always slept better when he was near me. Not so with Tarman. He was a creature apart from me. It was like trying to sleep with someone staring at me. I sensed no malevolence, but the constant awareness made me jittery.

So it was that I was sometimes awake and restless in the middle of the night, or in the dark-grey time that comes before dawn. Dawn was a strange thing on the Rain Wild River. During the day, we travelled down a stripe of daylight in the centre of the river while the looming trees to either side blocked both sunrise and sunset. But my body knew when it was dawn, and often I would awake in the pre-dawn and go out onto the still, damp deck to stand in the un-silence of the slowly-waking forest that surrounded us. I found a small measure of peace in those hours when I was as close to alone as one can be on a ship. There was always a hand on anchor watch, but for the most part they respected my stillness.

One such pre-dawn time, I was standing on the port side, looking back at the way we had come. I held a cup of steaming tea in my two hands, a welcome warmth. I blew on it softly and watched the shifting plumes of steam. I was about to take a sip when I became aware of a light footfall on the deck behind me.

‘Morning,’ I said quietly to Spark as she came up beside me. I had not turned my head to look at her, but if she was surprised at my awareness of her, she didn’t show it. She came to stand beside me, resting her hands on the railing.

‘I can’t say I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I’d be lying.’

I took a sip of the tea. ‘Thank you for not lying to me,’ I said, and I meant it. Chade had always stressed that lying was an essential skill for any spy and had required me to practise artificial sincerity. The thought made me wonder if she actually was lying and truly was sorry. I dismissed the strange idea.

‘Are you angry with me?’ she asked.

‘Not at all,’ I lied. ‘I expect you to be loyal to your mistress. I’d mistrust you if you weren’t.’

‘But don’t you think I should be more loyal to you than to Lady Amber? I’ve known you longer. Chade trained me. And told me to listen to you.’

‘When he had to abandon you, you chose a new mentor. Be loyal to Lady Amber.’ I gave her a piece of truth. ‘It comforts me that she has someone as competent as you watching over her at all times.’

She was nodding and looking at her hands. Good hands. The clever hands of a spy or an assassin. I ventured a question. ‘How did you know about the books?’

‘From Perseverance. Not that he thought he was betraying a secret. It was when you said we should all be learning. Per and I were talking later, and he said he did not like the sitting still and staring at paper part of learning to read. But he said that you had a book that Bee had written. She had shown him some of his letters and he had recognized the book was hers by the way the letters were made. He mentioned it to me since he hoped that if he learned to read, he could some day read what his friend had written.’

I nodded. I had never said to the boy that the books were private. He’d rescued one of them when the bear had wrecked our camp. He’d even commented on them. I could not blame him for telling Spark. But I found I could still blame her for locating the books in my pack and then taking it to Amber. Had she handled Molly’s candles? Did she know of the tubes of Silver in my socks? I did not say anything but I think she still felt the rebuke.

‘She told me where to look and asked me to fetch it. What was I to do?’

‘What you did,’ I said shortly. I wondered why she had sought me out and begun this conversation. I had not rebuked her nor treated her any differently since she had given my books to the Fool. The silence grew long. I cooled the heat of the anger I felt and suddenly it became cold wet embers, drenched by my discouragement with our quest. What did it matter? Sooner or later, the Fool would have found a way to get at the books. And now that he had, it felt right that he know what was in Bee’s dream book. There was no logic to me feeling angry or injured that Spark had facilitated it. But still …

She cleared her throat and said, ‘Chade taught me about secrets. How powerful they are. And how once more than one person knows the secret, it can become a danger rather than a source of power.’ She paused, then added, ‘I know how to respect secrets that are not mine. I want you to know that. I know how to keep to myself secrets that do not need to be revealed.’

I gave her a sharp look. The Fool had secrets. I knew some of them. Was she offering me some of the Fool’s secrets as a peace offering for her theft of Bee’s books? It offended me that she thought I could be bribed with my friend’s secrets. Chances were that I already knew them, but even if they were ones I did not know, I had no desire to gain them through her betrayal. I frowned at her and looked away.

She was quiet for a time. Then she spoke in a carefully measured way, her voice resigned. ‘I want you to know that I feel a loyalty to you as well. Not as great a connection as I feel to Lady Amber, but I know that you protected me as best you could when Lord Chade began to fade. I know that you put me with Lady Amber as much for my sake as for hers. I have a debt to you.’

I nodded slowly, but said aloud, ‘The best way you can repay me is to serve Lady Amber well.’

She stood silently beside me as if she were waiting for me to say something more. When I didn’t, she added with a small sigh, ‘Silence keeps a secret. I understand.’

I continued to stare out over the water. This time she ghosted away from me so softly that only my Wit told me when I was alone again.


On a clear, calm afternoon we came upon a Rain Wild settlement. The banks of the river had not grown any more welcoming. The trees of the forest came right to the edge of the water, or perhaps it would be more correct to say that the swollen river had invaded the skirts of the forest. The trees that overhung the water were fresh with gleaming new leaves. Brightly plumaged birds were shrieking and battling over nesting sites, and that was what drew my eyes upward. I stared at the largest nest I’d ever seen, and then saw a child emerge from it and walk briskly along the limb back toward the trunk. I was gaping, soundless for fear that any shout I raised might cause the child to fall. Big Eider saw the direction of my gaze, and lifted a hand in greeting. A man emerged from what I now saw as a tiny hut hung in a tree and waved before following the child.

‘Is it a hunter’s shelter?’ I asked him and he stared at me as if my words made no sense.

Bellin was passing by on the deck. ‘No, it’s a home. Rain Wild folk have to build in the trees. No dry land. They build small and light. Sometimes five or six little rooms hung in the same tree. Safer than one big one.’ She paced by me, intent on some nautical task and left me gaping at the village that festooned the trees.

I stayed on the deck until early evening, teaching my eyes to find the small clusters of hanging chambers. As the sky darkened, lights began to gleam from some of them, illuminating the flimsy walls so that they glowed like distant lanterns in the treetops. That night we moored alongside several smaller boats, and folk came down from the trees to ask for gossip and offer small trades. Coffee and sugar were the most sought-after items and these they traded in small quantities for freshly harvested tree greens that made a refreshing tea and strings of bright snail shells. Bellin made a gift of a shell necklace to Spark and she expressed such delight over it that the woman actually smiled.

‘We’re close to Trehaug,’ Leftrin told us at the galley table that night. ‘Probably pass Cassarick tomorrow morning and be in Trehaug in the afternoon.’

‘You won’t stop in Cassarick?’ Perseverance asked curiously. ‘I thought that was where the dragons hatched.’

‘It was.’ Leftrin scowled and then said, ‘And it’s the home of traitors, folk who betrayed the Trader way and never suffered any consequences for it. People who harboured those who would have slaughtered dragons for their blood and bones and scales. We gave them a chance to redeem themselves and bring justice down on the betrayers. They didn’t take it. No Dragon Trader vessel will ever stop there to trade. Not until Candral and his cronies are brought to justice.’

The colour drained from Spark’s face. I wondered how well she had hidden the tiny vial of dragon blood she had pilfered from Chade, or if the Fool had used all of it. I’d never heard Leftrin speak so vehemently. Yet Amber sounded calm and almost cheerful as she said, ‘I shall be so pleased to see Althea and Brashen again. Or perhaps the word I must use now is “meet”. Would that I could see them again, and Boy-O.’

Captain Leftrin looked startled for a moment. ‘I’d forgotten you knew them. But in any case, you would not see Boy-O. Some years back, he went off to serve a term or two on Vivacia and never returned. Vivacia had a right to demand him, but I know it was a wrench for Althea and Brashen to let him go. But he’s a man now and he has the right to choose his own life. He may wear the Trell name, but from his mother’s side, he’s a Vestrit and Vivacia has a right to him. And he to her, though the Pirate Isles may not agree with that.’ He lowered his voice. ‘Paragon was not pleased to see him go. He demanded that there be an exchange. He wanted to be given his namesake, Paragon Ludluck. He’s a Ludluck by right, but I hear in the Pirate Isles, they call him Kennitsson.’ Leftrin scratched a whiskery cheek. ‘Well, Kennitsson is the son of the Queen of the Pirate Isles, and she wasn’t willing to let the lad go. Paragon said he’d been cheated. He called it as he saw it, an exchange of hostages — though he was quick to point out that he had a more rightful claim to both men. But Queen Etta of the Pirate Isles simply said no. We even heard a rumour that Kennitsson was courting and was likely to wed a wealthy lady from the Spice Isles. Well, Queen Etta had best wed him off soon if that’s what she intends. He’s well past the age for it! And if he does wed, then I doubt he will ever sail on Paragon’s decks. Paragon becomes moody or disconsolate whenever it is spoken about, so perhaps the fewer questions about Boy-O the better.’

‘I don’t understand,’ I objected softly, though obviously Amber did.

Leftrin hesitated. ‘Ah, well.’ He spoke slowly, as if revealing a confidence. ‘Althea and Brashen captain the Paragon now, but for generations he belonged to the Ludluck family. He was stolen and for a time the pirate Igrot used him for foul ends. Scuttled and scarred, he somehow managed to find his way back to a Bingtown beach. And then he was righted and hauled out to languish on shore for years. Brashen Trell and the Vestrit family claimed Paragon when he was a washed-up hulk. They refitted him and put him out to sea again. But he’s a Ludluck ship at heart still, and for a time the pirate Kennit Ludluck reclaimed him. And died on Paragon’s deck. The ship would want Kennit’s son. And Boy-O.’

‘And Althea?’ Amber queried. ‘Had she anything to say about Kennit’s son living aboard Paragon?’

Leftrin looked at her. I sensed a tale untold, but he said only, ‘Another discussion that were better not held on Paragon’s deck. They no longer call him the mad ship, but I would not tempt his temper. Or Althea’s. They are bound to disagree on some things.’

Amber nodded gratefully. ‘I thank you for your warnings. A careless tongue can do much damage.’

It was hard to sleep that night. A different ship and the next leg of our journey loomed before us. I’d be going deeper into territory unknown to me, and taking people little more than children with me. I spoke into the darkness of our cabin. ‘It’s in my mind, Perseverance, to ask Captain Leftrin if he might not take you on as a ship’s boy. You seem well suited to this trade. What think you of that?’

Silence followed my words. Then his voice came out of the dark, tinged with alarm. ‘You mean, afterwards? When we are homeward bound again?’

‘No. I mean tomorrow.’

His voice was lower when he said, ‘But I vowed my service to you, sir.’

‘I could release you from that vow. Help you set your feet on a brighter and cleaner way than the one I must follow.’

I heard him draw a long breath. ‘You could release me from your service, sir. Indeed, if you chose to turn me out, I could no longer claim to be yours. But only Bee could release me from the promise I made to avenge her. Turn me off if you wish, sir, but I will still have to follow this to the end.’

I heard Lant turn over in his bunk. I had thought him asleep and his voice was so thick that perhaps he had been. ‘Don’t even bring it up to me,’ he warned me. ‘It’s as the boy said. I gave a promise to my father, and you can’t ask me to break it. We follow you, Fitz, to the end. No matter how bitter.’

I said nothing, but my mind went to work immediately. What would constitute ‘the end’ for Lant? Could I convince him that he had done his duty and could honourably return to Buckkeep without me? I did not judge it safe to put Spark and Per on a ship home without a protector. I could claim I’d had an urgent Skill-summons from Dutiful for Lant to return home to Chade. By the time he found out it was false, he’d be home. Yes. I pulled up my knees to fit better in the small bunk and closed my eyes. That part, at least, was settled. A small but convincing lie in Bingtown and I could get him onto a ship home. Now I just had to find a way to pry Perseverance loose from me. And Spark.

The next day went as Leftrin had predicted it would. The crew began to say their goodbyes to us at breakfast. ‘Oh, I shall so miss having you aboard,’ Alise exclaimed to Amber.

Bellin had left shell earrings next to Spark’s plate. The dour deckhand had grown fond of the girl. Per made the rounds of the various crewmen, making his own farewells.

We spent our last hours on the roof of the deckhouse, for the day was almost calm not chill at all, as long as one’s coat was closed. The weather had broken and there was a stripe of blue sky over the river. We passed the dragon’s hatching beach, as Skelly pointed it out to us, and then the treetop city of Cassarick. We did not pause nor did Leftrin return any of the greetings shouted down to us. In the stretch of river between Cassarick and Trehaug the little hanging dwellings were as thick as apples on a tended tree, and I did not know how he could tell where one settlement ended and the next began. But at some point, the captain began to return the friendly waves of folk from their treetop homes. We began to see floating docks tied up to the tree trunks, and small vessels moored to them. There were people out fishing, sitting straddled on the tree trunks that overhung the water and letting their lines drop straight down into the river. Tarman swung wide of them to avoid the dangling lines. I was fascinated by the hanging walkways and the well-travelled branches that functioned as footpaths. Spark sat beside Amber and me, pointing up at the trees and exclaiming over how some children ran heedlessly along a branch she would have thought too narrow to traverse with care.

‘Trehaug docks are just around the next bend!’ Skelly shouted up at us as she passed by the deckhouse. Big Eider was guiding Tarman in closer to the thickly banked trees. The water ran quieter and shallower, and soon the crew unshipped their poles and began to slow the Tarman and then to guide him. It struck me that something felt odd, as if more was at work than merely the crew with their poles. The ship seemed too responsive. When I commented on it, Spark said, ‘But Tarman is a liveship. That means he helps the crew get him to where they need him to be.’

‘How?’ I was intrigued.

She grinned. ‘Study his wake the next time we dock for the night.’ At my puzzled look she added, ‘And think of a frog’s legs, kicking.’

We rounded the bend and my first glimpse of Trehaug put Tarman’s ‘legs’ out of my mind. It was the oldest of the Rain Wild cities. The immense trees that over hung the wide, grey river were festooned with bridges, walkways and homes of all sizes. The swampy, flood-prone land beneath the branches of the ancient forest allowed no permanent dwellings. The city of Trehaug was built almost entirely in the branches of the trees that lined the river.

Dwellings as big as manor houses were built in the lower, thicker branches. They put me somewhat in mind of the houses of the Mountain Kingdom, where the trees were integral parts of the structures. But these were not as integrated into their jungle setting. I could as easily believe that some storm had blown a grand home from Farrow and deposited it here. They were all built of rich wood with glass windows and looked impossibly grand and massive. I was admiring one that seemed to have been built entirely around the trunk of one immense tree when Skelly said, ‘That’s the Khuprus home. Reyn’s family.’ I stared up at the looming structure. Oh. Wealth and importance personified. His family had been of the ruling class long before he became a ‘king’ in Kelsingra. Old wealth, shown by the weathering of the ancient support timbers. I stored that bit of insight. So much useful information that I intended to relay to Buckkeep. When I reached Bingtown, I’d send several messenger birds to Dutiful. What I wished to share would not fit into one message capsule.

‘Oh, look! Have you ever seen such a thing! He’s magnificent!’ Perseverance’s shout drew my eyes from the tree and down to the long dock ahead of us. A liveship was moored alongside it. Sails furled, it rode placidly at the moorage. The silvery wood of his hull proclaimed this was no ordinary ship. Unlike Tarman, this liveship had a fully carved figurehead. His dark head was bowed over his muscular chest as if he were drowsing over his crossed arms. A strange posture for a figurehead. Then the hair on my scalp and arms prickled as he slowly lifted his head.

‘He’s looking at us!’ Spark exclaimed. ‘Oh, Lady Amber, if only you could see this! It’s truly alive! The figurehead has turned and is looking at us!’

I stared at the ship, my mouth hanging open. Spark and Perseverance looked from the ship to me. I was speechless, but Lant spoke the words aloud. ‘Sweet Eda. Fitz, he has your face. Right down to the break in your nose.’

Amber cleared her throat. She spoke breathlessly into our shocked silence. ‘Fitz. Please. I can explain everything.’

ELEVEN

Passage

This is my most frightening dream. I dream it as a vine that splits into two branches. On one branch there are four candles growing. One by one they are kindled to flame, but their light does not illuminate. Instead, a crow says, ‘Here are four candles to light you to bed. Four candles lit means their child is dead. Four candles burn for the end of their ways. The Wolf and the jester have wasted their days.’

Then, on the other branch of the vine, three candles are suddenly kindled. Their light is almost blinding. And the same crow says, ‘Three flames burn brighter than the sun. Their blaze engulfs an evil done. Their angry mourning purpose gives. They do not know their child still lives.’

Then the crow suddenly has a broken candle. She drops it and I catch it. In a slow and frightening voice she says, ‘Child, light the fire. Burn the future and the past. It’s what you were born to do.’

I woke up shaking all over and I got out of bed and ran to my parents’ chamber. I wanted to sleep with them, but instead my mother brought me back to my bed and lay down beside me. She sang me a song until I could fall asleep again. I was very young when I dreamed this; I had only recently learned how to climb out of my bed. But I have never forgotten the dream or the crow’s rhyme. I draw the candle as he held it, broken and the pieces held together only by the wick in the middle.

Bee Farseer’s dream journal

The very best part of our sea voyage was how sick Dwalia was. We had a tiny room for all four of us. There were two narrow bunks in it. Dwalia took one and for days she stayed in it. Her vomit bucket and her sweaty bedding stank. In the windowless cabin, the smells in the still air were a soup that rose around us, thicker and deeper every day.

The first two days of our journey, I was wretchedly seasick. Then Dwalia screeched at us that our noise and motion were making her worse and ordered us out. I tottered after Vindeliar and Kerf. We passed through a dark space between the deck and the cargo hold where oil lanterns swung gently from the beams. Bunks lined the curved walls, and in the centre hammocks hung, some full and some empty. It smelled of tar, lamp oil, sweat and bad food. I trailed behind Kerf to a ladder and followed him up and out of a square hatch. Out in the air, with the wind blowing chill in my face, I immediately felt better.

Once my stomach accepted that the world would surge and tilt around me, I felt fine. Dwalia knew I could not escape while the ship was at sea, and was too ill to think beyond that. We had brought some food with us, but sometimes we would join the other travellers at the evening meal. There was a kitchen called a galley, and a room called a mess where the long table had a little fence around the edge to corral any sliding plates or mugs. The food was neither good nor bad, and after my privation, I was glad of anything to eat on a regular basis.

I spoke little, obeyed the few commands Dwalia gave, and fiercely observed every detail of the ship and my two companions. I wished them to believe that I had given up defiance, to lull their vigilance. I hoped to discover a way to escape at the next port. The breeze that filled our sails bore me ever farther from my home. Moment by moment, day by day, my former life receded from me. No one could rescue me; no one knew where I was. If I were to escape this fate, I would have to do it myself. I doubted I could win my way back to the Six Duchies, but I could hope for a free life for myself, even if it was in a strange port half a world away from my home.

Dwalia ordered Vindeliar to make us ‘uninteresting’ to the crew and the other passengers and he kept a loose spell around us. No one spoke to us or watched us as we wandered the ship. Most of the passengers were Chalcedean merchants, accompanying cargo to other destinations. A few were from Bingtown or the Rain Wilds and some were from Jamaillia. The wealthy stayed in cabins; the younger ones filled the canvas hammocks. There were slaves, too, some valuable. I saw a beautiful woman who strode with the pride of a stud horse, despite her slave collar and the pale tattoo beside her nose. I wondered if she had ever been free. I watched an elderly man with a bent back sold for a stack of gold coins. He was a scholar who could speak six languages, and read and write in all of them. He sat stoically as a woman drove a hard bargain for him. Then he bent to ink and paper to write out the bill of sale for himself, his nose very close to the paper. I wondered how much scribe work was left in his knobby fingers and what would become of him as he aged further.

Time passes differently on a ship. Day and night there were always sailors running from task to task. A bell ringing broke time into watches, and I could not seem to sleep through it. When it awoke me at night on the splintery cabin floor, breathing the sour fog of Dwalia’s sickness, I longed to escape onto the deck. But Kerf slept snoring across the narrow door. In the bunk above Dwalia’s, Vindeliar muttered in his sleep.

If I slept, I dreamed, sometimes the dreams that boiled and seethed in me. When I awoke from those, I traced an account of them onto the plank floor and tried desperately to set them out of my mind, for they were dark dreams of death and blood and smoke.

Several nights into our voyage, as I lay on the floor surrounded by our sparse belongings, I heard Vindeliar moan a single word. ‘Brother,’ he said, and sighed, sinking deeper into his dreams. I ventured to let crumble the walls I held so firmly against him during the day and stilled my mind to sense his boundaries.

It wasn’t what I expected.

Even in his sleep, he kept a leash on Kerf. The Chalcedean had become passive as a milk cow, an attitude much at odds with his warrior’s harness and scars. He asked for the food he took and the female passengers were safe from his stare, even the line of female slaves who were picketed on the deck once a day to take the air. Tonight I could feel how Vindeliar draped him in boredom one step short of despair. All triumphant and pleasurable memories were hidden from him. He recalled only days of dull duty. Every day would be yet another one of following his commander’s orders. And his commander was Dwalia.

I tried to feel Vindeliar’s control of me, but if he tried, it was too subtle for me to find. I had not expected to find a foggy veil draping Dwalia.

Perhaps she had requested it of him? Did she wish to sleep? It was unlikely that she wished to feel so sick as to daily remain in her bed. She had betrayed to him how much she detested him. The day she flung insults at him he had cowered before her disdain. Had that been the first time she had revealed her loathing of him? I explored what he suggested to her: she could trust Vindeliar to manage us; he had repented his brief rebellion. He was her servant, totally loyal to her. He could control Kerf and conceal me for as long as she needed to rest. I tiptoed around the edges of that fog of suggestion. How deep did his careful defiance of her go? Would she guess it when she recovered from her seasickness?

If he allowed her to recover from being seasick! I considered that thought. Was he keeping her queasy? Dwalia ill in bed relieved us of her slaps, pinches and kicks. Was he starting to turn against her? If he no longer served Dwalia, if he wanted his freedom, could I feed that? Could I win him to my side? To escape, to go home?

The instant that seed came into my mind, I threw up my walls as stoutly as I could. He must not suspect what I knew, let alone what I hoped. How did I win his loyalty? What did he most desire?

‘Brother,’ I breathed, in little more than a whisper.

The rhythm of his stentorian breathing faltered, hitched and then went on. I challenged myself. Was it possible to make my situation worse?

‘Brother, I cannot sleep.’

His snoring stopped. After a long silence, he said in wonder, ‘You called me “brother”!’

‘As you call me,’ I responded. What did it mean to him? I must be careful in what I invoked.

‘As I dreamed I would call you. And that you would call me in return.’ His head shifted on the bundled clothing that served him for a pillow. Sadly he added, ‘But the rest of this has not matched my dream. My only dream.’

‘Your dream?’

‘Yes,’ he admitted. With bashful pride he added, ‘No one else ever dreamed it. Only me.’

‘How could they? It was your dream.’

‘You are so ignorant of dreams. Many Whites share the same dreams. If many Whites have dreamed it, it is important to the Path! If a dream comes only once, it probably won’t happen. Unless a brave person works hard to make it happen. To find the other dreams that show the journey to it. As Dwalia did for me.’

Dwalia shifted in her bunk, a terrifying sound. So stupid of me! Of course, she would be wakeful. The old snake never truly slept. She had heard our whispered words and would thwart my plan before I even formed it!

And then I felt it. Deep and blessed sleep rolled over me like the softest of blankets, warm but not stifling, muscles eased, headache gentled away, free of the cabin’s foul stench. I almost sank into it despite my walls. I wondered how strong it was for Dwalia and if it drenched Kerf too. Should I tell Vindeliar that I knew what he was doing? Could I threaten to betray him to Dwalia if he did not help me?

‘You feel what I do, and you guard yourself from it.’

‘Yes,’ I admitted, as denying it seemed useless. I waited for him to say more but he didn’t. He had seemed so fatuous to me, but now, in his silence, I wondered if he considered his strategy. What ploy did I have to get him to speak? ‘Would you tell me of your dream?’

He rolled onto his side. I could tell from his voice that he faced me now. He sent his whisper across the small cabin. ‘Every morning, Samisal would call for paper and brush. He and I were twice brothers, our parents sister-and-brother, and their parents also. So sometimes I pretended that I had dreamed too, the same dream he had. But they always called me a liar. They knew. So Samisal had all the dreams and I had only one. Even Oddessa, my twin, born as badly made as I was, had dreams. But I had only one. Useless Vindeliar.’

Brother bred to sister? His parentage horrified me, but it had not been his doing. I held back my dismay, to say only, ‘But you had one dream?’

‘I did. I dreamed I found you. On a day white with snow I called you “brother” and you came with me.’

‘It came true, then.’

‘Dreams don’t “come true”,’ he corrected me. ‘If the dream is on the true Path, we journey toward it. The Four know the Path. They find the correct dreams and send forth Servants to make the Path for the world to follow. Finding the dream-moment is like finding a guidepost on the road. It confirms the Path is true.’

‘I see,’ I said, though I didn’t. ‘So your dream brought us together?’

‘No,’ he admitted sadly. ‘My dream was only a tiny dream. A little tiny part, not very important, Dwalia says. I should not think I was important. Many people had better dreams than mine, and those who sort the dreams and put them in order, the collators, knew where we should go and what we should do to make the true Path.’

‘Did all the dreams say I was a boy?’ That question was simple curiosity on my part.

‘I don’t know. Most called you a son, or didn’t say what you were. In my dream, you were my brother.’ I heard him scratch some part of himself. ‘So Dwalia is right. My dream was small and not very correct.’ He sounded like a disappointed child hoping someone would disagree with him.

‘But you saw me and you did call me “brother”. Did anyone else dream that part?’

I had never known that silence could be slow, but his was. Satisfaction and vindication vied in his voice as he said, ‘No. No one else dreamed it.’

‘So perhaps you were the only one who could have found me, brother. No one else could have fulfilled that dream?’

‘Yes-s-s.’ He savoured the word.

This silence seemed a necessary pause in the world. A time for Vindeliar to possess something he had not realized belonged to him. I held it for as long as I could. Then I asked, ‘So, for the dream to be true and confirm the Path, it had to be you. But why did it have to be me?’

‘Because you are the one. The Unexpected Son. The one in so many dreams.’

‘Are you sure? Alaria and Reppin doubted it.’

‘You have to be! You must be.’ He sounded more desperate than certain.

He had called me the Unexpected Son when he first found me. I pried a bit more at that. ‘So, in your dream, you were the one to find the Unexpected Son. And it was me.’

‘I dreamed …’ His words trailed away. ‘I dreamed I found you. Dwalia needed to find the Unexpected Son.’ He sounded both frightened and angry as he said, ‘I wouldn’t have found you if she hadn’t been looking for him. She told me to look for him, and I found you and I knew you from my dream! So, you are the Unexpected Son.’ He gave a sharp huff of annoyance that I had doubted him.

He knew that his logic was flawed. I could not see him in the darkness to read his face. I spoke gently to avoid angering him. ‘But how? How do you know that when I do not know it?’

‘I know I dreamed you. I know I found you. There is not much White in me. Some mock me and say none at all. But if I were meant to do one thing, as a White, I was meant to find you. And I did.’ Satisfaction warmed those words. He yawned suddenly and his voice went soft at the edges. ‘When I am on the Path, I can feel it. It’s a nice feeling. Safe. You are not a true dreamer, so you would not know these things.’ He sighed. ‘It makes no sense to me. In all the dreams they quote at me, the Unexpected Son is the balancing point. Beyond him, all is orderly or all is chaos. At some point, you set us all on a false course. But the divergence created by the Unexpected Son may be full of terrible destruction. Or wondrous good. The course you create might lead toward a thousand possible futures that no one else could open …’ His voice dwindled away. He sighed. ‘I need to sleep now, brother. I cannot rest during the day. When Kerf is asleep is my only chance.’

‘Rest then, brother.’

I lay still and for the rest of the night I slept little and plotted much. I stacked up my precious bits of knowledge. Vindeliar had begun to deploy his powers against Dwalia. Controlling Kerf was wearying to him. He believed I was very important, and so perhaps, did Dwalia. But did she still think that I was the Unexpected Son? With a few kind words I had cheered Vindeliar. Might more conversation recruit him to my side? I built a fragile hope. If Vindeliar would aid me we could flee Dwalia in the next port. Surely he could use his magic to smooth my journey home. I smiled, imagining riding up the carriageway to Withywoods. Perseverance would come to meet me. Perhaps my father, too, and Revel would open the door and come down the …

But Revel was dead. The stables were burned. Scribe Lant was dead, and maybe Per too. I wondered again if Shun had survived and reached home? She had proven herself far tougher than I had imagined her to be. If she had, would she have told them how they took me through a stone? And if she did, would they try to follow and find me? My heart knew a lurch of hope. My father knew how to travel through the stones. Surely he would come after me!

I curled into a smaller huddle on the floor. A worry tugged at me. Could he guess that we had entered the stone again? The scent of my mother’s candle tucked in the front of my shirt reached me. For a moment, it was comfort. Then it was alarm followed by certainty. I’d found the candle because my father had brought it there. Shun had reached home, she’d told him where they had taken me, and he had followed. Followed and somehow passed me in the stone. He had dropped this candle. Dropped it, and never picked it up again? I thought of the scatter of possessions I’d found, the tattered remnants of a tent. The bear scat! Had he been attacked there? Had he died? Were his scattered bones sunken in the deep moss under the trees?

I reached for Wolf Father. If my father was dead, would you know?

I felt no response. I huddled tight behind my walls. If my father was dead, then no one was coming to rescue me. Not ever. And my dreadful dreams of what I would become would come true.

Unless I saved myself.

TWELVE

The Liveship

Paragon

For generations the secret of how liveships were created was known only to certain Trader families. By the end of the war with Chalced and with the emergence of the dragon Tintaglia, parts of the secret could no longer be concealed. Over the last decade, the paradox of the living ship, loyal to the family that created it by destroying the creature it would have become, has become ever clearer.

The creation of the liveship begins with a dragon’s cocoon. When Rain Wilders first discovered immense logs of an unusual wood, they had no idea that they were dragon pods. The ‘logs’ had been stored in a glass-roofed chamber in ruins that lay buried beneath the city of Trehaug. The finders assumed they were especially treasured timbers of exotic wood. At the time, the Rain Wilders desperately needed a material that would resist the acid floods of the Rain Wild River. No matter how well-oiled and seasoned their hulls, traditional ships suffered gradual damage from the river water, and during times of white floods, when the river flowed particularly acidic, some boats simply dissolved, spilling cargo and passengers into the toxic water. The ‘timber’ discovered in the buried Elderling cities proved to be exactly what they needed. Wizardwood, as they named it, was a fine-grained, dense timber, and proved to be ideal for shipbuilding and resistant to the river’s acid.

Ships built from this substance were the only ones that could endure repeated journeys on the acid water of the Rain Wild River. These highly desirable vessels became an essential link in the trade in Elderling artefacts which could be ferried out of the ancient ruined cities to the Rain Wild settlements, where they could be sold at exorbitant prices to the world at large.

It was several generations before the first figurehead on a liveship ‘awoke’. Builders and owners were astonished. The Golden Dawn was the first figurehead to take on life. Conversation with the figurehead soon revealed that the ship had absorbed the memories of those who had lived aboard him, especially those of his captains, and an attachment to the family who owned him. The ship’s knowledge extended to navigation, to the handling of weather and awareness of necessary maintenance. The value of such a ship became inestimable.

Those who cut the ‘timbers’ into lumber must have had early knowledge that these logs were not wood. In the heart of each log, they must have discovered a partially-formed dragon. Even if they could not discern what it was, they undoubtedly knew it had contained a living creature at some time. That was the deepest secret of all, one the families kept concealed from all but blood kin. It is believed that prior to the emergence of the dragon Tintaglia from a wizardwood ‘log’, the liveships themselves were not cognizant of their relationship to dragons.

Of the Bingtown Liveships, Trader Cauldra Redwined

I stood on Tarman’s deck and stared up at Paragon’s figurehead. My face. And an axe sheathed in the harness across his chest. Lant and Perseverance were transfixed. Spark whispered. ‘He’s looking at us.’

He was indeed. The figurehead of the docked vessel looked as affronted as I felt. Paragon resembled me in almost every way. ‘You can’t possibly explain this.’

‘I can,’ Amber assured me. ‘But not now. Later. In private. I promise.’

I made no answer. As the distance between the ships closed, Tarman’s crew was busy with their poles, slowing and adroitly guiding him closer to the riverbank. Trehaug was a busy trade centre and there was little open dock space. Ships followed the custom of mooring to one of the docked vessels and crossing a neighbouring deck to reach the shore. I assumed we would do likewise. There was an open space near Paragon but I judged it too tight a fit for Tarman. As we drew closer to Paragon, he returned my gaze, scowling.

‘Why does he have blue eyes?’ I wondered aloud. My own were dark.

Amber had a strangely sentimental smile on her face. She held her clasped hands to her breast like a grandmother looking on a beloved child, and spoke fondly. ‘Paragon chose them. Many of the Ludlucks, including Kennit, had blue eyes. The Ludlucks were originally his family. I carved his face, Fitz. Or rather, I re-carved it. He had been blinded, his eyes chopped away with a hatchet. He’d been branded with the mark of his tormentor … Oh, it’s a long and terrible story. When I carved his face, I carved him with his eyes closed, as he wished. For some time, he refused to open them. When he did, they were blue.’

‘Why my face?’ I demanded. We were nearing the dock.

‘Later,’ she quietly requested.

Her word was almost lost in the shouted orders as Tarman neared Paragon. Tarman’s crew had sprung into action. My four companions and I stood on top of the deckhouse, out of the way, and watched. Our tillerman worked the oar to hold us against the current as the others used poles to keep Tarman from meeting the dock too firmly. On two of the moored vessels, worried deckhands stood ready to stave us off. But Tarman nudged into place as precisely as a sword returning to a sheath. Scully leapt from Tarman’s deck to the dock, and in the next moment caught a flung line. She took a quick wrap around a cleat, and then dashed down the dock to catch the next mooring line.

Our squat river barge was a sharp contrast to the tall sailing ship. Tarman’s shallow draught enabled him to travel up the river where deep-keeled ships like Paragon could not go. Paragon was meant for deep water and tall waves. He dwarfed us. The figurehead that stared down at us was several times life-size. His gaze shifted suddenly from me to the woman beside me and his judgmental frown blossomed into a smile of incredulity. ‘Amber? Is that you? Where have you been for the last twenty-odd years?’ He reached huge hands toward her, and if we had been any closer, I think he would have plucked her off Tarman’s deck.

She lifted her outstretched arms as if to offer an embrace. ‘Far and away, my friend. Far and away! It is so good to hear your voice again.’

‘But not to see me. Your eyes are blind. Who has done this to you?’ Concern vied with anger.

‘Blind as you once were. It’s a long tale, old friend, one I promise to tell you.’

‘That you will! Who is this with you?’ Was there an edge of accusation in his voice?

‘Friends of mine, from Buck Duchy, of the Six Duchies. But let me save that telling for when I am on board. Shouting across a dock is no way to converse.’

‘I agree!’ This shouted comment came from a small, dark-haired woman leaning over Paragon’s railing. Her teeth were white in a wind-weathered face. ‘Come aboard and welcome. Leftrin and Alise will send your things over, and then I hope they’ll join us for a glass or two. Amber, well met! I could scarcely believe the news the bird brought. Come aboard!’ She shifted her gaze to me, and her grin widened. ‘I look forward to meeting the man who shares a face with our ship.’ With that, she ducked back out of sight.

At her words, Paragon’s smile dimmed and he crossed his arms on his chest. He turned his head and watched Amber from the corner of his eyes. She gave me half a smile. ‘That was Althea Vestrit, aunt to Queen Malta. She is either the captain or the mate on Paragon, depending on who you ask.’ She turned her face toward me. ‘You will like her, and Brashen Trell.’

Docking and disembarking was a precise and slow process. Captain Leftrin had to be completely satisfied with the docking before he would allow a gangplank to be lowered. He ordered that our possessions be transferred to Paragon. Then he and Alise escorted my small party down the gangplank, across the dock, and then up a rope ladder flung down to us from Paragon’s railing. Leftrin led the way, and Lant and then Perseverance followed easily enough. Spark’s skirts gave her a bit of trouble as she ascended. I stood holding the ladder taut and waiting for Amber to ascend. ‘No need,’ the figurehead announced. He twisted lithely from his waist, leaned down low and offered Amber his outstretched hands.

‘The figurehead is reaching for you. Be cautious!’ I warned her in a low voice.

She did not lower her voice. ‘I have no need of caution among old friends. Guide me, Fitz.’

I did so reluctantly, and held my breath as the figurehead closed his hands around her ribs as if she were a child. I stood staring as Paragon lifted her in his huge hands. They were the colour of a man’s hands, swarthy with many days outside, but I could still see the grain of the wizardwood he’d been carved from. Of all the Elderling magic, the living figurehead most astonished me, but also created the most unease in me. A dragon, I could understand. It was a creature of flesh and blood, with the same needs and appetites of any animal. But a ship of living wood, something that moved and spoke and apparently thought, but had no need of food or drink, no drive to mate, no hope of progeny? How could one predict the actions or the desires of such a being?

From my position as the last person standing on the docks beside Paragon’s ladder I could hear Amber’s voice, but she pitched her words to the figurehead and I could not make them out. He held her like a doll and looked intently into her face. Having been blinded himself, would he feel sympathy for her? Could a ship carved out of a dragon cocoon feel sympathy? Not for the first time, I confronted how little of his life the Fool had shared with me. Here, he was known as Amber, a clever, tough woman who had lent her fortune to rebuild Bingtown and help former slaves build new lives in the Rain Wilds. For this portion of our journey, that was who she must be. Amber. A woman who was still a stranger to me.

‘Fitz?’ Lant leaned over the Paragon’s railing. ‘Are you coming?’

‘Yes.’ I climbed up the rope ladder — never as easy a task as it seemed — and stepped onto Paragon’s deck. He felt different to Tarman. Much closer to human. Wit and Skill, I sensed him as a living creature. For now, his attention was focused on Amber. I had a few moments to look around.

It had been a long time since I’d been on a ship of this size. I thought back to my journey to the OutIslands and Thick’s protracted seasickness. There was an experience I hoped never to repeat! Paragon was smaller than that ship, sleeker and, I suspected, more sea-worthy. Paragon was very well kept. The decks were clear, the lines neatly stowed and even while the ship was tied to the dock, the crew was well occupied.

‘Where are Spark and Perseverance?’ I asked Lant.

‘Exploring, with the permission of Captain Brashen. You and I are invited to join the captain and Lady Althea in their stateroom for refreshments and conversation.’

I looked toward the bow, where Paragon still held Amber. I was reluctant to leave her literally in the ship’s grasp, and equally reluctant to offend the folk offering us free passage to Bingtown. There was a lengthy journey ahead of us, down the Rain Wild River and then along the uncertain and boggy coast of the Cursed Shores until we reached Trader Bay. I wished to be on good terms with all. I doubted the Fool would have any caution around the figurehead. Obviously Amber had long ago made her decision to trust him.

‘Fitz?’ Lant nudged me.

‘I’m coming.’ I glanced back at Amber. I could see her face but not his. The wind off the river was rustling her skirts and stirring the bits of hair that showed around her scarf. She was smiling at something he’d said. Her arms rested easily on top of his hands as if they were the arms of a comfortable chair. I decided to trust her instincts, and followed Lant.

The door into the captain’s stateroom was open to the spring day and I heard lively voices. Spark laughed at something. We entered, to see Leftrin gripping the back of Per’s collar and holding him almost off the floor. ‘He’s a rascal and a lackwit, so see you work him hard!’ he announced. Just as my muscles tightened, Leftrin laughed and gave the grinning boy a half-shove, half-toss toward a well-muscled man of middle years. The man caught my boy by the shoulder and grinned in return, showing very white teeth in a neatly trimmed beard. He slapped Per on the back. ‘Running the rigging is what we call it, and yes, you can learn it. But only if Clef, Althea, or I authorize it. We’ll tell you when we want you up there and exactly what we want you to do.’ The man glanced up at Leftrin. ‘Does he know any of his knots?’

‘A few,’ I interjected into the conversation. I found I was smiling at Captain Trell.

‘Oh, more than a few,’ Leftrin objected. ‘Bellin had him working on them in the evenings, when you were closeted with your lady. We’ve given him a good start on being a deckhand. But Trell is right, lad. If you venture into the rigging, go the first times with someone who knows what she’s about, and listen! Listen exactly and do exactly and only what you are told. Do you hear me?’

‘I do, sir,’ Per was grinning from one captain to the other. If he’d been a puppy, he’d have been wriggling all over. I felt proud and a bit jealous.

Trell advanced toward me, hand out, and we exchanged a Trader’s handshake. His dark eyes met mine, a frank and open gaze. ‘I’ve never had a prince on board but Leftrin tells me you’re an easy one to deal with. We do our best, but Paragon is a ship, and we live as that dictates.’

‘I assure you, I’m not a grand noble. I spent a fair amount of time pulling an oar on the Rurisk during the Red-Ship Wars. My gear was under my bench, and half the time, that was my bed as well.’

‘Ah, you’ll do well then. I’d like to introduce Althea Vestrit. I’ve tried to make her a Trell, but she persists in being a Vestrit, stubbornness being the hallmark of her family’s women. But if you’ve met Malta, you’ll know that already.’

Althea was seated at a table laden with a fat steaming pot, cups, and little cakes on a platter. The pot was Elderling made; it had a gleaming, metallic finish and was embellished with snakes. No. They were sea serpents, for tiny fish were also there. The little cakes were studded with seeds and bits of bright pink fruit. Althea half-stood and leaned over the table to extend her handshake to me. ‘Don’t mind him. Though my niece did get more than her fair share of Vestrit “character”, as we call it.’ The calluses on her hand rasped against mine. Her smile made lines at the corners of her eyes. Her dark hair was threaded with grey and was bound back from her face and braided into a tight queue down her back. Her grip was the equal of any man’s, and I felt she took my measure as much as I did hers. She sat down again and said, ‘Well. It’s a strange pleasure to see the man who wears my ship’s face — though doubtless you think of it the other way. Please, come to our table, and have a cup of coffee and tell me how it felt to see the figurehead Amber carved to match the man who held her heart.’

The silence that follows a very awkward statement has a peculiar noise of its own. I swear that I could hear Lant holding his breath and literally feel the wide-eyed stares from Spark and Perseverance. I found a hasty lie. ‘Coffee would be welcome! It may be spring, but the wind off the river cuts right down to my bones.’

She grinned. ‘You never knew she’d carved your face for the ship, did you?’

Was honesty becoming a dangerous habit? What would Chade have thought? I allowed myself an embarrassed laugh and conceded, ‘Until a very short time ago, I did not.’

‘Oh, sweet Sa,’ Althea muttered, and Brashen brayed out the suppressed laugh that he could hold back no longer. I heard a soft exclamation behind me and turned to find that Alise had joined us.

‘Oh, the things our women do to us!’ Brashen exclaimed and came to clap me on the shoulder. ‘Sit down, sit down, and Althea will pour. There’s brandy, too, and that might take the chill away a bit better! Alise! Lord Lant, will you join us? And, well, if I invite your serving folk to join us, am I breaching manners? You’ll have to bluntly advise me on these things.’

‘Travelling rough soon breaks down the walls of protocol. Perseverance and Spark, would you care to join us for coffee?’

Perseverance made a face before he could control his features. ‘No, sir, thank you very much all the same. I’d like to go and look around the ship, if I may?’

‘You may,’ Althea and Brashen spoke in unison, and then Brashen thought to look toward me and add, ‘That is, if your master approves.’

‘Of course. Per, if someone tells you to get out of the way, jump lively.’

‘I will.’ He was halfway to the cabin door when Spark spoke.

‘I want—’ she began, and then halted. Her cheeks turned red.

Every adult was looking at her. Alise smiled. ‘Just say it, dear.’

She opened her mouth and then said in a subdued voice. ‘I should see to unpacking Lady Amber’s things.’

‘Or,’ Alise suggested, ‘you could go and look about the deck with Per. And no harm done for being interested in the ship. From the Rain Wilds to Bingtown, women have stood on an equal footing with men for quite some time. Even if some forget it from time to time.’ She smiled at me. ‘When you were otherwise occupied, Spark had many questions for Bellin and me about Tarman. She learns quickly, and I assure you, there’s no harm in a girl knowing more than ribbons and sewing.’

I defended the Six Duchies. ‘I assure you, in the Six Duchies we do not confine our women at all. They are minstrels and guards, scribes and huntswomen, or whatever other occupation appeals to them.’

Spark found her tongue. ‘I wasn’t asking permission. That is, I was, but I also wanted to ask if it would offend if I donned trousers for my time on the ship? For I, too, would like to climb the rigging, and skirts made it a task even to climb the ship’s ladder.’

A peculiar look passed over Perseverance’s face. He stood, his hand on the door and looked at Spark as if she had turned into a cat.

Althea stood up and dusted her hands on the legs of her well-worn trousers. ‘I think we could find you some boy’s clothing on board the ship.’

Spark grinned and suddenly I saw Ash’s countenance. ‘I’ve some from home, if no one minds me wearing them.’

‘It won’t be noticed at all. I truly don’t know how Alise masters being ever the lady in lovely skirts.’ Althea smiled at her friend before nodding to Spark. ‘Run off and find your other clothes. All your gear should be on board in your cabins. We’re a larger vessel than the Tarman, but we’re built for cargo, not passengers. I’ve put Prince FitzChivalry and “Lady” Amber in the same room she once shared with Jek and me. Lord Lant, Clef has offered to share his cabin with you. He’s given you the bunk and we’ll hang a hammock for him. Per we put belowdeck with the crew.’ She gave me an apologetic look. ‘For now, we put your serving girl in with you and Amber, but—’

‘Actually I don’t mind a hammock belowdecks alongside Perseverance. It’s better than sleeping on an open deck.’

‘Oh, we can do better than that. No need to separate you from your lady.’ This from Brashen.

We were back to an awkward silence as I sought words. It was broken by a loud shout that vibrated the planks of the deck. ‘Ahl-theee-a!’

‘Paragon,’ she explained unnecessarily. ‘I’d best see what he needs. Don’t wait for me, but help yourself to coffee and cakes. Brashen, would you show them where their cabins are?’

‘Of course.’

‘We must take our leave, I fear.’ This from Alise with her hand on Leftrin’s arm. ‘There’s cargo to load. It must be tallied as it comes aboard and stowed to Leftrin’s liking. This cargo cannot brook delay. Young fruit trees in tubs of earth from Bingtown, and ducklings and goslings. I suspect we’ll be sorry to have those aboard, but they cannot be worse than the sheep were. Farewell! We enjoyed your company.’

Hasty good wishes were exchanged and they took their leave.

After Althea had left, Trell said quietly, ‘Our ship is out of temper lately. My son is serving aboard a different liveship right now — Vivacia, the Vestrit family ship. Paragon misses him keenly. Sometimes, he can be like a spoiled child. If he says anything peculiar to you, let me know.’ He looked troubled and I strove to keep the alarm from my face as I wondered what sort of tantrum a living ship might throw. He avoided meeting my eyes as he added, ‘Let me show you around a bit. The pot will keep the coffee hot.’ As we left the cabin, Lant raised his brows at me and I gave a shrug.

Brashen handed Per off to a deckhand named Clef. He had an old slave tattoo beside his nose and a long tarred braid down his back. ‘Gotcher gear below,’ he said to Per with an echo of a foreign accent, faded beyond recognition. They went off together and I smiled to see Per unconsciously mimic the sailor’s walk. Lant followed them. Brashen led Spark and me to a cabin that was largely occupied by Amber’s and Spark’s baggage. My own packs seemed small in comparison to their bulging bags. I wondered if they had acquired more garments in Kelsingra and how we would manage when it came time to carry our possessions on our backs. My smaller pack that held Bee’s books and Molly’s candles had safely crossed to Paragon. The Elderling firebrick resided there as well. I hefted it and knew that below Chade’s carefully packed firepots, my shirt still bundled the heavy glass containers of Skill. Amber had taken charge of the lovely bracelet.

Spark immediately burrowed into her bag like a hound in search of a remembered bone. We left her there.

As we walked toward the bow, Trell introduced me to crew-members. They gave a nod or smile but never paused in their tasks. Kitl, Cord, Twan, Haff, Ant, Jock, Cypros … I stacked the names in my memory and tried to attach them to faces. Ant was halfway up the mast and my heart jumped when she waved at me with both hands. Trell was not amused. ‘One hand for yourself and one for the ship!’ he roared. ‘You don’t take unnecessary risks on my deck! I’ll put you right back in the tree you came from!’

‘Sir!’ she responded, and went scampering up the mast like a squirrel avoiding a barking dog. Trell rolled his eyes. ‘If she lives to grow up, she’ll be a great deckhand. But she doesn’t have a scrap of fear, and that may get her killed.’ He gestured at Trehaug. ‘When a child grows up there, the mast of a ship seems short.’

I followed his waving hand. The towering trees that held Trehaug dwarfed the naked masts of the Paragon. The swooping branches of the dense forest were as busy with foot-traffic as the streets and byways of any city. Everywhere throughout the trees were signs of human habitation. Signboards advertised a tavern while another in the shape of a basket advertised all manner of wickerwork. I saw some people veiled as I had always heard the Rain Wilders went, and others with exposed faces and bared arms that revealed scales and growths. A wicker lift was hoisted into the upper branches while pedestrians travelled up and down a stairway that spiralled around the trunk. I had stopped to gawk and realized that Brashen was waiting for me.

‘Did you grow up here?’ I asked Brashen.

‘Here? Oh, no. I’m Bingtown born and bred, from an illustrious Trader family. But I’m the black sheep and not the heir, so here I am, captaining a liveship instead of minding the family fortune.’ He was clearly well satisfied with his lot.

‘Not too different to my tale,’ I told him. ‘Amber may call me a prince, but my name tells the truth. “Fitz” means I was born on the wrong side of the blankets. So, I’m a Farseer, but a bastard one.’

‘That so? Well, that explains why you might end up on the end of an oar on a war galley.’

I grinned. ‘Yes. Bastards are a bit more expendable than princes.’ And that simply, we were at ease with each other. We strolled toward the bow. I could hear voices, Amber’s and Althea’s and the ship’s but the wind off the river and the noise of the tree city meant I could not make out their words.

‘… vengeance, then?’ Althea asked as we drew closer.

‘More than vengeance,’ Amber replied. ‘We go to break a cage of cruelty. To destroy a court that has grown only greedier and more corrupt with every passing year.’ She lowered her voice and spoke the words I had so often heard from her. ‘We go to be the rock in the cart track that bounces the wagon onto a new path.’

They could not have presented a stranger scene. Althea leaned on the ship’s railing. The ship’s face was turned toward the river, with my more youthful profile. Amber sat in the figurehead’s finger-laced hands. Her hands rested lightly on his thumbs and she swung her daintily booted feet, ankles crossed, over the empty fall to the cold, acid rush of the river. Her knitted cap allowed a feathering of short hair to frame her face. Powder and paint had smoothed her scarring and the scaling that the dragon’s blood had triggered. In Amber’s guise, the Fool became a very fetching woman.

Althea’s voice was subdued. ‘I’ve never heard you speak with such passion, not even when we were facing our deaths together.’

Amber’s face contorted with hatred. ‘They took our child and destroyed her.’

It hurt to hear Amber claim Bee that way, and I knew what Althea and Brashen must assume. The Fool might believe it was so, but to hear him speak of her that way to strangers wounded something in me. Molly, I thought fiercely. She had been Bee’s mother and no other. I did not wish these people to think I had fathered Bee upon Amber. No, Molly had been the one to endure that pregnancy, in some ways so alone, and Molly had been the one to cherish and protect a child that others would have let dwindle away. It wasn’t right for Amber to erase her. The hurt seared me, and I realized it had another source.

‘My boy is gone, too!’ Paragon burst out and I felt the surge of emotion that washed through the ship. His sense of outrage and loss were fuelling the fire of hurt within me. Trell spoke calmingly. ‘Boy-O is fine, Paragon. Vivacia would never let harm befall him. He is only gone from you for a time. He will return. You know that.’

‘Will he?’ Paragon demanded harshly. ‘He has been gone two years! Will he ever come back? Or will Vivacia claim him? He was born here, on my decks! He is mine! Or am I the only liveship without a family? The only liveship with no heir to my captaincy? For even as Althea’s brother demands my boy for his deck, he keeps from me what should be mine! Kennit’s son!’

‘Queen Etta keeps Paragon Kennitsson from you, not Wintrow.’ Althea’s voice was taut. I could hear it was not the first time she had uttered those words to the ship. I saw Brashen square his shoulders and step forward, prepared to take up the peacemaker’s role.

‘Paragon,’ Amber said softly. ‘My friend, I feel your anguish. It is almost too much to be borne. Please.’ And then, breathlessly, ‘You are holding me too tightly. Please set me safely on your decks.’

I stared helplessly. I had two small, concealed knives, useless weapons against such a huge opponent. If I attacked him, would he drop Amber into the river? I looked to Brashen, but his face had gone pale. Althea leaned farther over the railing. She spoke in a low, rational voice. ‘Crushing your friend will not win you Kennit’s son. Calm yourself, ship.’

What need of breath did a wooden ship have, even one carved from a dragon’s cocoon? Yet Paragon’s chest rose and fell as if he were a boy in the grip of strong emotion. His eyes were squeezed shut and the big hands that clutched Amber trembled. Amber’s milky eyes were fixed, not on me, but on a nameless distance. Her face was flushed with breathlessness. Paragon drew his hands closer to his chest. He bent his head over her and I feared he would bite her head off. But instead he twisted his shoulders and released her onto the deck so abruptly that she staggered and fell. Althea dropped to one knee beside her, seized her shoulders and dragged her backwards.

‘You needn’t put her out of my reach!’ Paragon complained hoarsely. ‘I would not hurt her.’

‘I know you wouldn’t,’ Amber gasped.

Althea was small but she hoisted Amber’s arm across her shoulders and stood up with her. ‘I’m taking Amber to our stateroom,’ she announced calmly. Before I could step in, Brashen seized Amber’s other arm and helped her to walk aft. I began to follow but the ship suddenly spoke.

‘You, with my face. Don’t go.’

I halted. Brashen stopped and looked back at me, his eyes wide. A small shake of his head was full of warning. Lant’s gaze went from me to Amber. I tipped my head toward her, letting him know he should follow her and he quickly took Brashen’s place. The captain folded his arms and stood watching the figurehead.

‘Buckman. I want to talk to you. Come here.’

The ship wasn’t looking at me. He was staring off across the wide Rain Wild River. The distant shore was a haze of green on the horizon. ‘I’m here,’ I said, striving to keep any challenge out of my voice.

The ship gave no sign he had heard me. I stood and waited. I heard the river and the ship’s motion against the dock. The distant calls and shouts of the riverside city were like birdsong in the distance.

‘Buckman?’

I stepped closer and raised my voice. ‘I’m here, ship.’

‘NO!’

Brashen’s warning was too late. With a twist of his body that set the ship rocking against the dock, the figurehead turned, reached and grabbed me. I leapt back, but he caught my left shoulder and arm. I seized one of his fingers in my right hand and tried to lift and twist it. Useless. He dragged me off my feet and pinned me against the railing.

‘Let him go, Paragon!’ Brashen bellowed.

The lurch of the ship had alerted the crew. Clef came running, then jolted to a halt, staring at me, with a white-faced Per at his elbow. Two others, Cord and Haff, hurried toward us, then stopped. Althea halted, her arm still around Amber. I could not hear what she said but Amber swivelled to gaze blindly back at us.

Paragon spoke calmly and his words vibrated through me. ‘This does not concern any of you. Busy yourself with your duties.’

‘Paragon,’ Althea pleaded.

Paragon tightened his grip, lifting me up onto my toes. His thumb and fingers pinched the left side of my chest. I didn’t struggle. When one cannot win, avoid angering the opponent. Give him no reason to employ more force.

‘We’re fine,’ I gasped. I held onto his fingers, trying to ease the pressure.

‘About your duties,’ Paragon suggested pleasantly, and I nodded my head in vehement agreement.

Althea began moving Amber away. She went reluctantly, looking back at me, but I could not read her expression. Clef gripped Per’s shoulder and dragged him along. Lant came to help him. Brashen, his mouth flat in a bitter line, retreated from us. Paragon eased me onto my feet but kept me wedged against the railing. ‘Now,’ he said in a very soft voice. ‘We will talk, you and I, to be sure that things are clear between us. Are you listening, Buckman? For that is your role in this conversation. You listen.’

I wheezed a response. ‘I’m listening.’

‘Excellent. Amber seems to be fond of you. Perhaps she has been fond of you for years.’ He paused.

I nodded. ‘Friends since childhood.’

The pressure eased. ‘Friends?’

‘Since we— since I was a boy.’

He made a deep sound that I felt all through my body. Then he said, ‘Understand this. We share a face, though mine is more youthful and handsomer. I asked her to carve me a face she could love. She gave me yours. But it was “could” love, not “did” love. Remember that. She loves me far more than you. She always will.’

On the last three words, his grip on me tightened. I nodded breathlessly.

Overhead, I heard a worried caw. I could not look up but I knew that Motley was circling. I prayed she would not try to attack the ship. Please don’t! I flung the thought at her.

Paragon snapped his fingers open. I clutched the railing so I did not fall. For an instant, I thought he had responded to my Wit. Then he gave me a threatening smile. ‘So. We understand one another?’

‘Yes.’ I fought the impulse to flee. I did not want to turn my back to him, even if he had turned his back to me. He put his gaze on the water and crossed his arms on his chest and rolled his shoulders. Substantial musculature there. I was not sure I’d ever truly looked like that.

He held his silence. A step at a time, I retreated, keeping my eyes fixed on him until someone seized my collar and dragged me backwards. I kicked my heels against the deck to speed the process, and we both went down in a heap. Brashen huffed out his air as we hit the deck with me on top. ‘You’re welcome,’ he wheezed as I rolled off him and staggered upright.

‘Thank you,’ I responded.

‘Are you all right?’ Amber was immediately beside me as Althea offered Brashen a hand up. Per darted to my side and seized my hand.

‘I’m bruised, but not badly injured, other than my pride.’ I turned to Althea and Brashen. ‘You warned me. I didn’t imagine he could move that quickly. Or be that—’ I flailed for a word.

‘Deceptive,’ Brashen supplied for me. He sighed. ‘He’s been difficult lately.’

‘More difficult than usual,’ Althea amended. She took Amber’s hand and hauled her to her feet. ‘It’s a strange welcome back for you, Amber. But I’m sure you recall Paragon’s nature. He’ll be steady and stable for a month or a year, then something will set him off.’

‘Jealousy,’ I said very quietly. ‘Amber, he does not wish to share you.’

‘I will do my best to calm him. But it is not just that. Paragon’s hull and figurehead were created out of two “logs” of wizardwood. He has the nature and partial memories of two dragons. His decks were the scene of much violence and cruelty. He was captured by the notorious pirate Igrot and used as his personal vessel. And Kennit Ludluck, the son of his family, was tormented on board him. Tormented and twisted.’ She added in a whisper, ‘Cruelty begets cruelty.’

‘Deliberate cruelty is never forgivable,’ Althea said brusquely.

Amber nodded curtly. ‘I understand that now, perhaps better than I once did.’

We moved away from the foredeck. Brashen tossed his chin at the crewmen who were staring at us, and they suddenly stirred to life. I gently pried my arm from Per’s grip. ‘I’m fine,’ I told him. ‘Get to learning the ship. I’ll call you if I need you.’

He looked doubtful but Clef gave a sharp whistle and the boy perked like a summoned dog. ‘Go on,’ I told him, knowing it was what he longed to do and what was best for him, and he went. With a sudden rattle of black feathers, Motley swooped in to land on Per’s shoulder. Clef startled and Per laughed. The tension broke like a bubble popping. I left him explaining the bird to Clef and Ant.

We hadn’t gone more than a dozen steps when Ash abruptly appeared. ‘Is all well?’ he demanded anxiously, in a voice so boyish I knew he had changed his self along with his clothing. I felt a pang that we had stolen this superlative young spy just when Chade might need him most, but I also knew that her dual identity could not be used aboard the ship.

‘It is, Spark,’ I told her. She gave me an odd look. ‘You can relax,’ I added. I pointed toward Clef and suggested, ‘Go explore the ship with Per.’

She gave me a girl’s relieved smile and trotted off with an eagerness that told me I’d given her exactly the right prompt.

Althea ambushed me at the stateroom door with sparks of anger in her eyes. ‘You can’t be careless on this ship! We warned you.’

‘You did,’ I agreed. ‘He tricked me into coming into range. It was my own fault.’

My agreement set her back. Amber groped out and I offered her my arm. She gripped it tightly. ‘Ah, Fitz. As you do not know Paragon’s history, you cannot be as terrified as I was.’

‘We need to get underway. People are staring. The sooner we are away from Trehaug, the less they have to gossip about,’ Brashen suggested tersely.

I looked toward the city. Yes, people were pointing, others just gaping. I wondered how many had witnessed what had happened, and how Paragon’s jealousy would be interpreted by those who had not heard his words.

‘Walk me to my room, please. I’m still recalling the ship,’ Amber lied, giving me a graceful way to depart.

‘They didn’t even ask what he’d said to me,’ I observed quietly.

‘Some of it we overheard. I had no idea he would feel so possessive of me.’

‘Must you be so pleased about it?’ I demanded.

She laughed. ‘I’d feared that he had forgotten me.’

‘After you re-carved his face and gave him back his sight?’

‘Paragon is changeable. One moment he’s an adoring child, the next a vindictive, angry adolescent. Sometimes, he is manly and brave and chivalrous. But I never lean too strongly on any of his moods, for I know how quickly they can shift.’

‘Have you really forgotten your way around the ship?’

A rueful smile twisted her mouth. ‘Fitz, you have such amazing faith in me. I haven’t been on this ship in decades. I can recall the layout but will I know how many steps from fore to aft, how many steps in a ladder, when to duck for a doorway? No. Yet I must walk as if I am confident of the way. I know that when I grope or cling to a wall, I become less of a person and more of an obstacle. So, I pretend I can see more than I do.’

‘I’m sorry.’ And I was. And disheartened. I thought again of the long and weary way he had come, alone and horrendously wounded, blind in the snow.

‘Is this the door?’ she asked.

‘I think so.’ I was more rattled than I wanted to admit. I’d been stupid. I kept trying to think of what I should have done when Paragon seized me.

‘I thought you were leading me.’

‘I was letting you hold my arm while we walked.’ I tapped on the door and when no one answered, I opened it. ‘I see your things. Everywhere. There are three bunks and a fold-down table. Spark’s pack is open, and she has obviously rummaged through it.’

Amber entered and allowed herself to grope and touch. I shut the door behind us. She moved carefully in the small room, measuring distances in careful steps and the reach of her arms. ‘I recall it,’ she said as she perched on the lower bunk. ‘I once shared this room with Althea and Jek. Three people crowded into this space. It was tense at times.’ I pushed my pack completely under the lowest bunk and set my bag of clothing by the door.

‘Crowding does that to you.’ I sat down beside her. The motion of the ship had changed and I did not find it pleasant. We’d cast off from the dock and the current of the river was taking charge. I looked out the small porthole. We were picking up speed and moving away from shore into a deeper channel and swifter current. I’d never liked the sensation of being disconnected from the ground. The pace of a horse had a rhythm. A ship might lurch in any direction at any moment. I tried to settle my stomach into accepting the unpredictable.

‘What’s wrong?’ she asked softly.

‘I’m not seasick, but I don’t enjoy the motion. I’d just become accustomed to Tarman’s waddle, but Paragon—’

‘No. What’s really worrying you?’ He spoke as the Fool.

I didn’t look at him. Was there anyone else I could admit this to? Probably not. ‘I’m … I’m not what I used to be. I make more mistakes, and they’re more serious. I think I’m alert and ready and fit for anything, and then I’m not. Things and people take me by surprise. Brashen seizes me from behind and I’m so focused on Paragon not even my Wit let me know he was there. Despite being warned, the ship lured me into coming within his arm’s reach with almost no effort. He could have killed me. In an instant.’

‘Fitz. How old are you?’

‘Exactly? I’m not sure. You know that.’

‘Take a guess,’ he chided me.

I blew out my distaste for the subject. ‘Sixty-two, perhaps sixty-three. Sixty-four, maybe. But I don’t look it and most days I don’t feel it.’

‘But you are it. It’s going to take its toll. You had a good life, for a time. An easy life. With Molly. Calm and prosperity dull a man’s edge just as endless battle and hardship dulls the gentler parts of the soul.’

‘It was good, Fool. I wanted it to be forever. I wanted to grow old and to die with her sitting by my bed.’

‘But you didn’t get that.’

‘No. I got this. Chasing across half the world to kill people I don’t know, people who didn’t know me but still came to destroy what little peace and joy I had left.’ As I put words to that, I felt a fury that would have let me snap a man’s neck. Dwalia. I could have broken her in half with my bare hands at that moment. Then it passed and I felt foolish and empty. And, worst of all, incompetent. I spoke a guilty fear. ‘They lured me away from Withywoods, didn’t they? So they could raid it while I was away.’

‘I fear they did.’

‘How could they plan that?’ He had explained it before but I wanted to hear it again.

‘They have access to thousands of prescient dreams from scores of young Whites. They could find the right circumstances to nudge you in the direction they desired.’

‘And you?’

‘Probably I was part of it. Did I escape, or was I released? Were the chance strangers who helped me along the way truly kind or were they conspirators with the Servants? I don’t know, Fitz. But I don’t think you can blame yourself.’

‘I make too many mistakes! I had my sword at Ellik’s throat, and my strength gave out. When I should have followed Bee into the Skill-pillar, my magic was gone. So many mistakes, Fool. How roughly I “healed” those children.’ I looked at his empty eyes. ‘And just now, with Paragon … Stupid, stupid, stupid.’ I reached to seize his gloved hand. ‘Fool. I’m not competent to do what you want done. I’m going to fail you, drag you down into torture and death with me. Will Lant and Per and Spark fall with us? Will we listen to Per scream? Watch Spark abused and torn? I can’t stand it. I can’t stand to think of it. Do you wonder that I want to send them home, that I am terrified of bringing anyone with me into this? I fear failing all of you as I have feared nothing else in my life! I’ll fall for some trick of theirs … how can I battle people who even now may know what I’m likely to do next? They might even know that we are on our way to kill them.’

‘Oh, I consider that likely,’ the Fool observed heartlessly, then added quietly, ‘you’re hurting me.’

I released my clutch and he massaged his hand. His words had quenched my last spark of courage. In our silence, the moving ship spoke around us. I heard the water and the creaking of Paragon’s wizardwood timbers. Felt the press of his sentience and tightened my walls. ‘This is insane. I can’t do this. We’ll both die. Possibly messily.’

‘Probably so. But what else would we do with the rest of our lives?’

I thought about that like a wolf chewing on a bare bone. Or chewing on his leg in a trap.

‘Nighteyes,’ he said.

‘He’s gone,’ I said dully. ‘If I still had him, I wouldn’t feel so diminished. His senses were so sharp and he shared all with me. But he’s gone completely now. I used to feel him inside me, sometimes. I could almost hear him, usually mocking me. But I don’t even have that any more. He’s just gone.’

‘That’s not what I meant, though I’m sad to hear it. No, I was recalling Nighteyes at the end of his life. You wanted to heal him and he refused. How you tried to leave him safe while we went after the Piebalds and he came after you.’

I smiled, remembering my wolf’s determination to live until he died. ‘What are you saying?’

He spoke solemnly. ‘This is our last hunt, old wolf. And as we have always done, we go to it together.’

THIRTEEN

Full Sails

I am so bothered when the dreams make no sense, but still swell with importance. It is hard to write down a story that has no sequence or sense, let alone make a picture of what my dream showed me. But here it is.

A flaming man offers a drink to my father. He drinks it. He shakes himself like a wet dog, and pieces of wood fly in all directions. He turns into two dragons that fly away.

I am almost certain that this dream will come to pass. A dream that makes no sense!

Bee Farseer’s dream journal

It was a chill and rainy day. I wore my old jerkin over the cheap, loose shirt and trousers Dwalia had grudgingly purchased for me in Chalced. The layers were uncomfortable but I had no coat. Kerf, Vindeliar and I had fled the stench in the tiny cabin. We huddled in the skimpy shelter of the deckhouse eaves, and watched the heaving grey seas amid the endless pattering rain. Few merchants wished to take the air that day. The two who trudged past us in deep conversation made my heart leap with hope.

‘Six days to Woolton. I’ll part with my Sandsedge brandy there, for a tidy profit. I want to look at their currant liqueur. It has a tartness that wakes the tongue, and is as good a tonic for a man as it is a pleasure to the ladies.’ He was a small man, lithe as a rat and dressed all in ratty grey.

The tall woman beside him laughed and shook her head. The bangles in her ears brushed her shoulders; a nest of yellow braids crowned her head, hatless in the rain. ‘I’ve no stock to sell there, but I hope to acquire an item or two. It’s not called Woolton for nothing. Their weavers make magnificent rugs. If I take one as a gift to my buyer in the Spice Isles, he may spend his clients’ money a bit more freely. I’ll be glad to get off this ship for a bit. We’ve a layover there, before a seven-day run to Cartscove, if this wind holds.’

‘The wind is good, but this rain I’d wish gone.’

‘The storm is good by me.’ The woman looked up, letting the rain fall on her face. The man stared at her bared throat. ‘Less chance of pirates or the Tariff Fleet spotting us. But I’m looking forward to a couple of days on dry land.’

Two days in port. Two days in which to find a way off the ship and out of Dwalia’s custody. Six days to win Vindeliar over to my cause. If he fled with me, and kept us both hidden, what chance would Dwalia have of finding us? I knew that luring him from his ‘path’ would be like luring a wild bird from a berry bush. The wrong words might frighten him off completely. I would have to be very careful. I put myself on a strict schedule. For three days I would court his friendship. Only on the fourth would I begin to persuade him to help me.

Kerf hunched beside of me, his shoulders bowed against the rain, his face nearly blank with Vindeliar’s overlay of servitude. I felt sorry for him. He looked like a once-proud stallion hitched to a dung cart. At night, when he stripped for sleep, I noticed the slackening of the muscles in his arms and chest. Under Vindeliar’s sway, he moved less and less like a warrior and more like a servant. Much more of this, and he would lose his usefulness as a protector. I wondered if Dwalia saw that.

On the other side of me, Vindeliar slumped. He had an odd face: sometimes boyish and at other times the face of a disappointed old man. It had fallen into dismal folds today as he stared at the waves. ‘So far from home,’ he said woefully.

‘Tell me of our destination, brother.’ Being asked to speak always flattered him. I had become the avid listener, never correcting or silencing him. ‘What will it be like when we arrive there?’

‘Oh,’ he breathed out long, as if he did not know where to begin. ‘It depends on where we land. We may dock in deep water, on the other side of the island. We may land in Sisal or perhaps Crupton. Dwalia will be known there. I hope for a night in a comfortable inn and a good meal. Lamb with mint, perhaps. I like lamb. And a warm, dry room.’ He paused as if already savouring those simple pleasures. ‘She may hire a carriage to take us to Clerres. I hope she does not want to ride there on horseback. A horse’s back has never fitted my bottom well.’

I nodded sympathetically.

‘And we will go to Clerres. Perhaps we may dock there … It will depend on what sort of a ship we can find. It will be full summer when we arrive. Hot for you, little northern thing that you are. Nice for me. I will welcome the sun baking the aches out of my joints. Clerres gleams white on a sunny day. Some of it is built of ancient bone, and other parts are white stone.’

‘Bone? That sounds frightening.’

‘Does it? Not to me. Worked bone can be lovely. When we get there, we will wait for low tide to bare the causeway and then cross to our island sanctuary. Surely you have heard of it! The tops of the watchtowers are shaped like the skulls of ancient monsters. At night, the torches inside make the eyes gleam with orange light and they appear to be looking out in all directions. It is imposing and powerful.’ He stopped and scratched his wet cheek. Rain dripped from his chin. Then he leaned closer and lowered his voice to impart an important secret to me. ‘The furniture in the four towers is made from dragon’s bones! Symphe has a set of drinking cups carved from dragon’s teeth and lined with silver! They are very old, passed down from Symphe to Symphe, through the generations.’

‘Symphe to Symphe?’

He lifted his pale brows. ‘The woman in the North Tower is always called Symphe. How can you not know these things? I was taught them when I was very young. Clerres is the heart of the world, and the heartbeat of the world must always be steady.’ This last he said as if repeating an adage known the world over.

‘Until you took me, I knew nothing of the Servants or Clerres.’ It was not quite a lie. I had read a tiny bit about them in my father’s papers, but not enough to prepare me for what I now endured.

‘Perhaps it is because you are so young,’ Vindeliar replied thoughtfully. He gave me a pitying look.

I shook my head. My hair was now long enough to go to curls in the rain and droplets flew from it. ‘I don’t think they are as famed as you believe them to be. Kerf, had you heard of Clerres before the Servants hired you?’

He turned slowly toward me, blue eyes widening in slow consternation like a puzzled cow.

‘Hush,’ Vindeliar warned me. ‘Don’t ask him questions!’

Vindeliar furrowed his brow and, as he did, Kerf’s face settled into his habitual scowl. Alertness faded from his eyes. I stood up suddenly and stretched, choosing to do so just as two young deckhands dashed by. Both avoided me, but one turned to look back at me in surprise. I looked directly at him, smiling. He stumbled, caught himself, turned back, and I think he would have spoken to me if someone hadn’t roared a rebuke at him. The command was accompanied by the sound of a rope length snapping against the ship’s railing. Both boys fled to their work. I sat down slowly. Vindeliar was breathing through his nose harshly as if he had just run a race. The world settled around me, as if I had been paddling on the surface of a sea and now sank in stillness below the waves. I avoided his gaze as I tried to quote what he had said. ‘Clerres is the heart of the world, and the heartbeat of the world must always be steady.’

I peered at him through a sudden blast of rain. I could not tell if the water running down his face was rain or tears. His chin quivered briefly. ‘We who serve the Servants aid them to keep that heart beating steadily. If we obey. If we keep to the Path.’

‘But what about you?’ I asked him. ‘What harm if you went to a festival and ate roasted nuts and drank spiced cider? There’s no evil in that.’

His little round eyes were full of misery. ‘But no good, either. I must do only what keeps the world to the Path. Harm can come of simple things. The cake I eat, another person lacks. Like tiny pebbles that shift till the hillside gives way, carrying a road into oblivion.’

Had I heard such a thing, a long time ago? His words rang strangely, even as I hated the sense of them. If he believed that Dwalia knew his destiny and he followed her direction, I had no hope of enlisting his help to escape.

As if he heard my thought, he said, ‘That is why I cannot help you defy her. If you try to escape, I must stop you and bring you back.’ He shook his head. ‘She was very angry when you ran away in the city. I said I could not make you be obedient. I did it once, that first time. The power was fresh and strong in me that day; she had readied me for the hard work I did. But since then, I cannot make you obey me. She said I was lying. She slapped me many times.’ His tongue moved inside his cheek as if finding sore places. I felt a rush of guilty sympathy for him.

‘Oh, brother,’ I said and took his hand.

It was like thrusting my hand into a cold rush of water, I felt the current that strongly. Like touching my father when his thoughts were unguarded, before I had learned how to protect myself. I felt that his current snatched the thoughts from my mind. I sensed his hold on Kerf, like a strangling rope around his mind. Kerf was no weakling. It was taut with tension, a leash on a lunging dog. I snatched my hand back and tried to disguise what I’d felt by patting his sleeved arm sympathetically. ‘I am sorry she punished you for that.’

He stared at me. ‘You thought of your father.’

My heart was beating very fast. Walls, walls, walls. ‘I miss my father constantly,’ I said.

He reached for me and I stood up. ‘I’m so cold. I’m going inside. Kerf, are you not cold?’

Kerf’s eyes flickered and Vindeliar was distracted as he brought his lunging dog to heel again. By the time he had mastered Kerf and had him standing to follow me, I was out of his reach on my way back to the cabin. A deckhand coiling a rope paused in his activity and stared at me. So, Vindeliar had been concealing me and controlling Kerf. But doing both at the same time strained his abilities. A useful bit of information.

However, I’d handed him a weapon I wished he did not have. Did he guess that if he touched me, skin to skin, he might be able to push inside my mind? I did not look back at him or let my thoughts dwell on that. I must do better at guarding my thoughts. I now doubted that I’d be able to lure either Vindeliar or Kerf into helping me. An old sailor strode past me, wet shirt plastered to his back, bare feet slapping the deck. He did not even glance at me.

I reached the hatch and climbed down the ladder that led into the bowels of the ship where our miserable compartment awaited me. I threaded my way past dangling hammocks and sea chests. As I went, I studied those I passed. A few Chalcedean merchants had clustered to mutter about weather and pirates. I paused near them. None looked at me, but from their talk, I learned that our ship was bragged to be the swiftest out of Chalced. She had never been boarded by pirates, though she had been pursued by them more than once. She had also avoided encounters with the so-called Tariff Fleet and slipped unnoticed past the Pirate Isles without paying toll to Queen Etta and her cutthroats.

‘Are the pirate ships that might chase this ship part of the Tariff Fleet?’ I asked aloud, but no one turned toward me.

Yet a moment later, a younger fellow at the edge of the huddle said, ‘It seems ironic to me that a queen who rules a domain called the Pirate Isles is now troubled herself by pirates.’

A grey-moustached merchant laughed aloud. ‘Ironic and very satisfying to those of us who once had to run the Pirate Isles corridor hoping to escape the attention of King Kennit. He’d take ship, crew and cargo and turn it to his own purposes. Anyone who could not bring a ransom ended up a resident of the Pirate Isles.’

‘Kennit? Or Igrot?’ asked the youngster.

‘Kennit,’ the older man affirmed. ‘Igrot was before my time, and a much more brutal beast. He’d take the cargo, slaughter and rape the crew, and then scuttle the vessel. He had a liveship, and nothing outruns one of those. He choked trade for years. Then one day, he simply vanished.’ He widened his eyes at the younger man and mockingly asserted, ‘Some say that on a stormy night, you can glimpse his ghost ship in the distance with her sails blazing and the figurehead shrieking in agony.’

There was a moment of silence as the young man stared at him, and then all burst into laughter.

‘Do you think we’ll elude Queen Etta’s Tariff Fleet?’ the younger man asked, trying to regain a bit of dignity.

The older merchant tucked his hands into his ornate sash. He pursed his lips and waxed philosophical. ‘We will or we won’t. The deal I struck was that if the ship can get us past the Tariff Fleet, I’ll pay the captain half what I would have paid them. It’s a good bargain, and it’s one I’ve made with him before. On three voyages out of five we slipped past them. Good odds, I think. That little offer of mine makes him willing to crack on a bit more sail, I do believe.’

‘Good odds indeed,’ the young man replied.

I heard awkward steps coming down the ladder and looked up to see Kerf descending with Vindeliar following him. ‘There you are,’ I said brightly. ‘I hurried ahead to be out of the rain.’

Kerf said nothing but Vindeliar regarded me with a scowl. ‘We’d best return to our cabin,’ he said stiffly. He walked Kerf past me. I stood where I was.

‘What will become of me?’ I demanded aloud. ‘What does Dwalia intend for me? Why did she come so far, destroy so much and shed so much blood? She sold Alaria into slavery to get us away from Chalced, without a thought for one who had travelled so far with her. Why didn’t she sell me? Or you?’

‘Hush!’ Vindeliar spoke in a soft whisper. ‘I cannot speak to you here!’

‘Is that because they cannot hear me? Or see me? And they will think you a madman, talking to yourself?’ I lifted my voice and spoke each word clearly.

I saw his control of Kerf slipping as one of the men turned his head, scowling, wondering if he’d heard something. An instant later, Vindeliar had Kerf blank-eyed again. He looked at me, trembling from the effort. There was a tremor in his voice as he said, ‘Brother, please.’

I should have felt only hatred for him. He had facilitated my capture and kept me subdued as they whisked me away. He had hidden Shun and me from any who might have helped us, and still he made me invisible. I was Dwalia’s prisoner, but he was my gaoler.

It was irrational for me to feel pity for him, yet I did. I tried to keep my stare icy as tears welled in his pale eyes. ‘Please …’ he breathed again, and I broke.

‘In the cabin, then,’ I said in a lower, more rational voice.

His voice was squeezed so tight with fear that it squeaked. ‘She will hear us. No.’

One of the merchants turned away from his fellows and stared at Vindeliar accusingly. ‘Sir! Do you listen in on our private conversation?’

‘No. No! We came in from the rain, to be dry for a bit. That’s all.’

‘And you have nowhere to stand but here beside us?’

‘I … we are leaving. Now.’ Vindeliar gave me a desperate glance, then prodded Kerf. It must have seemed strange to the merchant that they went right back up the ladder and out onto the stormy deck. I followed more slowly. Vindeliar was shivering as he led us back to the deckhouse. But one of the ship’s boys had claimed our spot and was enjoying a pipe there. He glanced at Vindeliar and then looked away. I cleared my throat loudly. The boy did not so much as startle.

‘Brother!’ Vindeliar rebuked me, and trudged down the deck, Kerf following listlessly. The rain had increased, driven by a rising wind. There was no sheltered place. He stopped and leaned miserably on the railing. ‘She will kill me if she finds I’ve answered your questions.’ He gave me a sideways glance. ‘If I don’t answer, you will push me past what I can do. It is harder and harder to hide you. I hid a troop of men from an entire town. Why are you so hard to hide?’

I didn’t know and didn’t care. ‘Why me?’ I demanded of him. ‘Why did you destroy my home and ruin my life?’

He shook his head slowly, deeply hurt at my failure to understand. ‘Not to ruin your life,’ he objected. ‘To set you on the true Path. To control you lest you create a false way and carry us all to a terrible future.’

I stared at him.

He sighed. ‘Bee. This makes you important! You are part of the true Path! For so long, there were dreams of the Unexpected Son. Hundreds of dream-scrolls mention him and some are very old. He is full of crossroads. His existence is a junction. A nexus, Symphe says. You create more and more junctions. You are dangerous.’ He hunched down to look into my rain-spattered face. ‘Do you understand?’

‘No.’

He put his hands to both sides of his head and squeezed as if to stifle a pain. Water slid down his face, tear or raindrops or sweat. Kerf stared out over the sea in bovine passivity, not sheltering his face from the driving rain. The storm was rising. The sails were making a slapping sound. The ship rose and then fell, making my stomach lurch.

‘More dreams mean something is more likely,’ Vindeliar went on. ‘The Unexpected Son brings change to the world. If you are not controlled, you will set the world on an inappropriate course. You are a danger to the Servants, to Clerres! In all the dreams, he changes things so much that no one can predict a future. You have to be stopped!’ He clamped his mouth shut on his words.

‘And you think I am him?’ I asked incredulously. I lifted my arms wide to show how small I was. ‘If you don’t stop me, I will ruin the world? Me?’ A gust of wind slapped me. ‘How do you stop me? Kill me?’ I snatched at the railing as the ship jolted. The wind roared and the rain pelted us harder.

‘You must be him.’ His words were a distressed plea. I thought he would crumple into tears. ‘Dwalia said if I found the wrong one she would kill me. She was so angry when she found out you were a girl. That was when she started to doubt me. And you. But it is simple to me. If you are not him, who can you be? I dreamed finding you in my only true dream. You are him, and unless we take you to Clerres, you will change the world’s path.’ He suddenly spoke sternly. ‘When we come to Clerres, we must make everyone believe that you are the Unexpected Son and we did a good thing. YOU must make them believe you are him. If we don’t—’

Then he clapped his mouth shut so suddenly and firmly that it made a popping sound. His eyes grew wide as he stared over my head at nothing. When he shifted his gaze back to me, I saw anger and betrayal in his glare. ‘You are doing it, aren’t you? Right now. You are making me tell you things, and then you will know and you will change things. Because you are him. You fight me when I try to hide you. You make Dwalia angry with me. You ran away, and so many died. And we caught you again, but Reppin died and Alaria was sold. Now there’s just Dwalia and me, and this Kerf. All those others … you changed all their lives into deaths! That is what the Unexpected Son would do!’ He looked furious.

Fear gripped me. He had come so close to being my ally. I choked on disappointment. ‘Brother,’ I said, and my voice wavered. ‘Those things only happened because you stole me!’ I didn’t want to cry but the sobs ripped from my chest. I shouted my words past my tight throat. ‘It wasn’t me! It was Dwalia! She came and she killed people. She brought all those luriks there to die. Not me. Not me!’ I sank to my knees. He couldn’t be right. All that death couldn’t be my fault. FitzVigilant. Per’s father. Revel. I couldn’t be the reason for that!

The storm rose with my fear. It felt as if it was coming out of my chest and blowing all around us. A wave leapt over the railing. It splashed over me and reflexively I grabbed Kerf’s leg. I heard someone shout a command, and three men went racing past us. The nose of the ship began to tip up as if we were going up a steep hill. One of the men shouted at Vindeliar, ‘Get below, you idiot!’ as he ran past.

I stood up, bracing myself against the deck. The wind blew all around us. We hovered.

Then the ship tipped again and we were sliding downhill on the wet deck. I skidded past Vindeliar, shrieking. ‘Grab her,’ Vindeliar ordered Kerf. ‘Get her back to the cabin.’

Kerf stooped and seized a handful of the back of my shirt. He dragged me like a sack as he staggered aft toward the hatch with Vindeliar holding onto him. Men cursed as they avoided us. They moved purposefully but I could make no sense of the shouted commands. Sailors climbed masts and into rigging while storm winds slashed at them and the canvas cracked at each gust. The deck tipped again. We reached the hatch cover but it was closed. Vindeliar crouched and pounded on it, shrieking to be let in. Kerf dropped me and went to one knee. He groaned as he lifted the hatch cover and slid it aside. We more tumbled than climbed down the ladder. Above us someone slammed the cover shut. We were plunged into dimness.

For a moment, it felt safe. Then the rough plank floor tipped. In the darkness, I heard a cry of dismay, but someone laughed and mocked, ‘You’ll never be a merchant, boy, if a bit of rough water makes you yell.’

‘Put out that lantern!’ someone shouted. In an instant, the blackness became absolute and the world seesawed around me.

I could not tell in which direction our miserable cabin lay. But Kerf knew. Vindeliar said by my ear, ‘Follow us,’ and I did. I clutched at Vindeliar’s shirt and walked in short steps, bumping into beams, a hammock, a sea chest and finally stumbling through an opening that proved to be our cabin door. The floor tilted. I crouched and then sat flat, pushing my palms against the deck to try to stay in one place. When Kerf tried to shut the door, I discovered that I was sitting in the way. I scooted into the room on my rump, fearing to stand. I groped and slid until I found a corner and bracketed myself in it. There I sat in the dark, cradling my bruised hand in my lap. I was wet through, my hair dripping on my neck. Despite the closeness of the cabin, I felt chilled. And hopeless. Let Dwalia be as angry as she pleased. I needed a real answer!

‘Why did you steal me? What are you going to do with me?’ I spoke the words loud and clear into the dark.

I heard Dwalia shift in the bunk as the ship lurched in another direction. ‘Make her be quiet!’ she ordered Vindeliar. ‘Make her fall asleep.’

‘He can’t! I can block him out of my mind. He can’t control me.’

‘Well, I can! I can control you with a stick, so you’d best be quiet.’ It was a threat but her voice was misery laced with anger. And a trace of fear. The motion of the ship suddenly pressed me back into my corner. I felt like a kitten in a crate that someone was shaking. I didn’t like it at all. But I reminded myself that the sailors on deck had looked busy and challenged, but not terrified. I refused to be afraid. ‘You don’t have a stick, and you couldn’t see me to hit me if you did. Are you afraid to answer me? Why did you steal me? What are you going to do with me?’

She sat up suddenly in the bed. I knew because I heard the rustle of the blanket and the solid ‘thud’ as her head hit the upper bunk. I smothered my laugh, and then let it burst out of me. In the dark and the tossing storm, defying her, I suddenly felt strangely powerful. I threw words at her. ‘I wonder if the ship will sink. Then all your plans would be for nothing. Imagine if it sank with us stuck in her. Even if we got out of the cabin, we’d never find the ladder and the hatch in the dark. We’d all die here when the cold water came rushing in to find us. I wonder if it would flip upside-down first?’

I heard Vindeliar take in a ragged breath. Pity for him warred with satisfaction. Could I make them feel how scared and sick I had been when they stole me?

The ship tilted again. Then it felt as if we hit something, then passed through it. A moment later I heard Dwalia vomit. There had been a bucket by her bunk, but I heard the thin trickle of bile spatter on the deck as she strained and gagged. The smell grew stronger.

‘You thought I was the Unexpected Son. Then you thought I wasn’t! Well, I think I am! And I am changing the world, right now. You will never know how I will change it, for I think you will die before we reach port. You have certainly lost flesh and strength. And if you die, and Vindeliar is left alone with us? Well, I doubt I shall go to Clerres.’ I laughed again.

There was an instant of absolute silence, as if both storm and ship paused. She spoke into it. ‘What will I do with you? I will do to you what I did to your father. I will tear you into pieces. I will have every secret out of you, if I must take every inch of your skin off your meat to do it. And when I am done with you, I will give you to the breeders. They have wanted one of your lineage for a long time. No matter how I disfigure you, I imagine they will find someone willing to rape you until you conceive. You are young. I imagine they can get a score of babies out of your belly before your body gives out.’ She made a cawing sound.

I’d never heard Dwalia laugh but I knew it for what it was. Cold fear, colder than the wild seawater outside the wall of our cabin, rose in me. Confusion ruled me. What was she telling me? I tried to find that confidence again. ‘You did nothing to my father. You never even saw my father!’

A pause as the floor shifted in a new direction. In that silence, I heard the timbers of the ship mutter to one another. Then she spoke and she was the darkness itself. ‘So, you do not even know who your father was!’

‘I know my father!’

‘Do you? Do you know his pale hair and eyes? Do you know his mocking smile and long-fingered hands? I think not. But I do. I blinded those eyes; I put the mockery out of them forever! And I flayed the tips from your father’s long fingers. That was after I’d tugged out his nails, a thin slice at a time. He’ll never juggle again, nor make an apple appear from thin air. I ended his dancing and tumbling, too. I peeled the skin from his feet, oh so slowly. And I put his left foot between two blocks of a vice, one on each side, and slowly, slowly I tightened it, less than a quarter turn for each question. It did not matter if he answered me or not! I asked, and he shrieked or cried out words. And then I tightened the screw. Tighter and tighter, with the top of his foot bulging up until, crunch!’ She cawed again.

I could hear Vindeliar panting in the darkness. Did he try not to laugh? Was he on the edge of weeping?

‘The bones gave way. One stuck up like a little ivory tower from the top of his foot. Oh, how he screamed. I stood beside him, and I looked up at my witnesses, and waited and waited until he could scream no more. And then I tightened the screw another quarter turn!’

For a long moment, the world paused around me. Even the ship seemed to hover, motionless and nearly level. A father I did not know? A father she had tortured. She had tortured someone; of that I was certain. She spoke of it as if it were the most delicious meal she had ever eaten, or the loveliest song ever heard. But my father? I knew my father. He was Nettle’s father, too, and he was my mother’s husband all those years. Of course he was my father.

But as if my world teetered as the ship did, the question had to rise. What if he was not my father? What if he never had been? Burrich hadn’t been Nettle’s father. I would not have been the first child handed off to foster-parents. But Molly was my mother. Of that I was certain. Unless … I wondered an unthinkable thing about my mother. Would not that explain why I looked nothing like him? Wouldn’t it explain why he had left me so easily that day? He’d said he’d had to go, that he had to save the battered old beggarman. The blind beggarman, with the broken hand and the lumpy foot …

And then the ship made a slow, sickening tip. I felt the ship must stand on its nose. Did we move? I could not tell until the sickening impact, both hard and soft. Something thudded into the wall beside me and then fell to the deck as the ship tried to right herself. I felt we sank, and then bobbed up like a cork. Even below the deck, I heard a crash and men shouting. I wondered what had happened.

‘Sounds like we lost some rigging, maybe even a mast.’ Kerf’s voice came deep and slow in the darkness. Then with rising urgency he asked, ‘Where are we going? When did we board a ship? I was taking my prize, my won woman, home to my mother! Where is she? How did we get here?’

‘Control him!’ Dwalia warned Vindeliar savagely, but he made no response. I slid my foot across the floor and in the dark I found a yielding lump.

‘I think Vindeliar hit his head,’ I said, and then cursed myself for a fool. He was unconscious and could not stop me. I did not think Kerf would care. This was my best chance to kill her and free all of us. The ship was shuddering around us. Without warning, it began to climb again. I heard Vindeliar’s body slide across the floor.

Weapon. I needed a weapon. There was nothing in the room that would serve me as a weapon. I had nothing I could use to kill her.

Except Kerf.

‘You are a prisoner. As am I.’ I tried to deepen and smooth my voice. I needed to sound rational and older. Not like a terrified child. ‘They took Alaria from you and sold her as a slave. Before that, they lost Lady Shun for you forever, by tricking you into bringing her back to her captors instead of taking her home to safety. Remember, Kerf? Remember how they dragged you through a magic stone and almost made you lose your mind? They did it again. And now they have tricked you into leaving Chalced and your home behind.’ Despite my efforts, my voice had gone higher and childish as I tried to sting him with the wrongs done to him.

He made no response to my words. I risked it all. ‘We have to kill her. We must kill Dwalia. It’s the only way we can stop her!’

‘You evil little bitch!’ Dwalia shrieked at me. I heard her scrabbling, trying to get out of her bunk, but the tilt of the ship was on my side. She was downhill from me. I could not wait for Kerf. He was too addled still. I tried to move quietly in the dark as I half-crawled and half-slid toward her. I had only moments to reach her before the ship would level itself on a wave’s crest.

I slid into the edge of the bunk, fought to stand and felt for her. She was struggling to rise. I tried not to touch her, to give her no warning of where I was or what I intended. I had to guess where her neck was as I darted my hands toward her head. I touched her nose and chin with one hand, shifted down and seized her throat in both hands. I gripped and squeezed.

She slapped me, hard, on the side of my head. My ear rang. I held tight but my hands were too small. At best, I was pinching the sides of her neck, not throttling her of air as I’d hoped to do. She screamed words at me that I did not understand, but I could hear the hatred in them. I snaked my head in to try to bite her throat and found her cheek instead. That would not kill her but I bit her anyway, clenching my teeth tight in her meaty face and trying to grind my teeth together. She screamed and battered at me with her fists, and I suddenly knew she was hitting me hoping that I’d let go because she feared to tear me away from her face, knowing that I’d take a bite of it with me. Living meat is much tougher than cooked. I worked my teeth back and forth, grinding through her flesh, feeling savage and triumphant in equal measure. She was hurting me, but it would cost her. I’d see to that. I closed my jaws and worried her flesh as if I were a wolf shaking a rabbit.

Then Kerf blundered into us. I knew a surge of hope. With him helping me, we could kill her. The ship was upright. He could draw his sword and stab it right into her. I wanted to shout this to him, but I would not let go my bite. Then, to my horror, he seized me. ‘Let go,’ he said in the dull voice of a sleepwalker.

‘Pull her off,’ Vindeliar ordered him. He’d only been temporarily stunned.

‘No! No, no, no!’ Dwalia was shrieking. She seized hold of my head and held it close to her face, but Kerf was stronger. I felt my teeth meet and then as he jerked me away the meat of her face tore and came with me. As if I were a shovelful of earth, Kerf tossed me aside. I hit the floor, spat Dwalia’s cheek out and then slid as the ship began to tilt again. I wound up in a corner and braced myself there. Dwalia was screaming hysterically as Vindeliar nattered at her, demanding was she hurt, what was wrong, what should he do now? I gagged at what I had done. Her blood slimed my chin. I scraped my teeth over my tongue and spat Dwalia out on the floor.

Vindeliar was busy with Dwalia. I had no idea where Kerf was or what he was doing. Get out. As soon as she could, she would beat me. I knew now how much she would enjoy hurting me. Nothing would stop her from killing me now.

In the darkness of the tossing ship, I’d lost my bearings. When the ship pressed me to one wall, I spidered along it but encountered no doorframe. The ship hit the wall of water and wrenched sideways. Yells of dismay came from the sailors working the deck. So now it was time to fear something bigger than Dwalia. I decided I would be frightened for the ship sinking after I got out of the cabin and away from her.

The next time the ship tilted, I went with it to the opposite wall. I was halted briefly by someone’s boot, probably Kerf’s. I struck the wall, felt the doorframe, pulled myself up, opened the door and climbed around it until I fell out. I heard it fall back into place behind me. Dwalia was still screaming curses at me. I wondered how long I had before they realized I was not in the cabin.

I crawled off into the darkness of the tilting deck beneath the swinging hammocks. I heard curses and prayers and grown men weeping. I blundered into an upright post and clung there for a moment. I made myself be still, forced myself to recall what I had seen of the between-decks area. Then, as the ship crested another wave, I made my way to the next post. I clung, waited, and then moved again, blundering past a man. On and away. If I drowned when the ship sank, I would not drown next to Dwalia.

FOURTEEN

Paragon’s Bargain

In the matter of the wild-born White known as Beloved:

We have been unable to confirm the village of his birth. All records of his coming to Clerres have either been incorrectly stored, or have been destroyed. In my opinion, Beloved has found a way to infiltrate our record chambers, has located the records that pertained to him and his family and has hidden or destroyed them.

Tractable when we first received him, he has become unmanageable, inquisitive, deceptive and suspicious. He remains convinced that he is the true White Prophet, and will not regard our teachings that out of several candidates, the Servants choose who is best suited for this task. Neither kindness nor harsh discipline has shaken this belief in him.

Although he would be a valuable addition to the White lineages when he comes of an age to breed, his temperament and outspoken ways mean that it would be a dangerous distraction to the others to allow him to continue to have unfettered access to them.

I present to my three peers my opinion. It was an error for the boy to be coddled and spoiled. The plan to lull him into security and harvest his dreams has only encouraged him to be rebellious and secretive. To continue to allow him to range freely, to visit the village and to mingle with our other charges is to invite disaster.

My suggestions are these: As our White Prophet has suggested, mark him clearly with tattoos.

Confine him. Continue to spice his meals with the dream-drugs and see that is he well supplied with brush, ink, and scrolls.

Contain him for twenty years. Stroke his vanity. Tell him we hold him in isolation so that his dreams cannot be tainted by the talk of others. Tell him that while he is not the true White Prophet, he serves the world and the Path by continuing to dream. Allow him pastimes but do not let him mingle with other Whites.

If, by the end of that time he has not become manageable, poison him. These are my suggestions. Ignore them, and I will take none of the blame for what he does.

Symphe

Give a man a dreaded task. Then put him in a situation where he must wait to attempt that task. Make it a difficult task as well. Confine him where there is little for him to do, and rare opportunity to be alone. Time will stand still for that man. I know this to be true.

I tried to fill my days aboard Paragon with useful pursuits. Amber and I would isolate ourselves in her cabin for a session of reading and discussing Bee’s dream-writings. Those sessions were painful to me, made only more chafing by the Fool’s avaricious consumption of her journal. ‘Read that again!’ he would command me, or worse, ‘Does not that dream tie in to the one you read me four days ago? Or was it five? Go back in the book, Fitz, please. I must hear the two read together.’

He savoured the dreams that he claimed were proof that Bee was his child, but I was tormented by unremembered moments of my little girl. She had written those carefully penned words alone, and illustrated them with inks and brushes pilfered from my desk. She had laboured on all these pages, each illustration so exact, each letter so precisely inked, and I had known nothing of her obsession. Had she done this work late at night, while I slept, or perhaps while I ignored her and Molly to morosely pen my own thoughts in my private study? I didn’t know and would never know. Every recounted dream, every peculiar little poem or detailed illustration, was a rebuke to the father I had been. I could avenge her death. I could kill as my memorial to her, and perhaps die in the effort and end my shame. But I could not undo how I had neglected the child. Every time the Fool exclaimed over how cleverly she had worded a rhyme, it was like a tiny burning coal of shame deposited on my heart.

The weather held fine for us. The ship operated smoothly. When I walked on the deck, I felt as if the crew moved around me while they trod the intricate steps of a dance to a music only they could hear. The river current swept us along for the first part of our journey, with little need for canvas. The dense green walls of the sky-tall forest towered higher than any mast. Sometimes the river raced deep and swift and the trees were so close that we smelled the flowers and heard the raucous cries of the birds and nimble creatures that inhabited every level. One morning I awoke late to find that the river had been joined by a tributary and now spread wide and flat round us. On the left side of the ship, the forest had retreated to a green haze on the horizon. ‘What’s over there?’ I asked Clef when he paused near me in his duties.

He squinted. ‘Don’t know. Water’s too shallow for Paragon or any large ship. There’s just this one channel down the middle and we’re damn lucky that Paragon knows it as well as he does. On that far side, the river gets shallower and then gives onto stinking grey mudflats that would suck a man down to his hips. And they stretch at least a day’s walk, maybe two, before trees start again.’ He shook his head and mused, ‘So much of the Rain Wilds in’t for humans. We’re better off remembering that not all the world is made for us. Hey! Hey! You don’t coil a line like that!’ He was off down the deck and I was left staring across the water.

The river bore us ever closer to the coast, and I became aware by my Wit and Skill both that the ship was not a passive component of our journey. By day, I sensed his awareness. ‘Does he steer himself?’ I asked Amber at one point.

‘To some degree. Every part of him that touches water is made of wizardwood. Or more accurately, dragon-cocoon. The Rain Wilders built the ships that way because the water of this river eats anything else away quickly. Or so it was at one time. I understand that the Jamaillians have come up with a way of treating wood that lets an ordinary ship ply this river without being eaten. Impervious ships, they call them. Or so I’m told. A liveship would have some control over its rudder. But only some. Paragon can also control every plank of his hull. He can tighten or loosen. He can warn his crew if he’s leaking. Wizardwood seems able to “heal” after a fashion, if a liveship scrapes bottom or collides with another vessel.’

I shook my head in wonder. ‘A marvellous creation indeed.’

The slight smile Amber had been wearing faded. ‘Not created by men or even by shipbuilders. Every liveship was meant to be a dragon. Some remember that more clearly than others. Each ship is truly alive, Fitz. Puzzled in some cases, angry or confused in others. But alive.’ As if that had given her some new thought, she turned away from me, set her hands on the railing and stared out across the grey water.

Our shipboard days quickly fell into a pattern. We breakfasted with Brashen or Althea, but seldom both. One or the other of them always seemed to be on deck, prowling about with a keen eye. Spark and Perseverance kept themselves busy. The rigging seemed to both fascinate and daunt them, and they challenged each other daily. It was a task for Lant to corner them and settle them to letters and learning. Spark could already read and write but had a limited understanding of Six Duchies geography or history. It was fortunate that she seemed to enjoy the hours Lant spent instructing her, for Per could not have endured being kept at pen and paper while Spark roved the ship. Often enough the lessons were held on the deck, while Amber and I quietly plotted imaginary murders.

The noon meal was less formal, and often I had little appetite for it, having spent my morning in idleness. It troubled me that the skills I had fought to regain at Buckkeep were now becoming rusty again, but I saw no way to drill with an axe or a sword that would not have invited questions or created alarm. In the afternoon, Amber and I were often closeted with Bee’s books. We took our evening meal with Brashen and Althea. The ship was usually anchored by then, or tied off to trees depending on the river’s condition.

After the evening meal, I was often left to my own devices, for Amber spent almost every evening with Paragon. She would don a shawl and make her way to the foredeck, where she would settle herself cross-legged on the peak of the bow and talk with him. Sometimes, to my discomfort, Paragon would hold her in his hands. She would sit on his palms, his thumbs under her hands so she could face him, and they would converse far into the dark. At his request, she borrowed a small set of pipes from Clef and played for him — low, breathy music that seemed to be about loneliness and loss. Once or twice I wandered forward to see if I might join them, for I confess the curiosity seethed in me as to what they might be talking about for so many nights. But without insult it was made plain to me that I was not to be included in their discussions.

The galley and the area belowdecks were the province of the crew. On Paragon, I was not only a stranger, a foreigner and a prince, I was also the idiot who had upset the figurehead and let him publicly threaten me. The rattling games of chance played belowdecks and the crew’s rough humour was not to be shared with the likes of me. So as often as not I spent the evening alone in the cramped cabin Spark shared with the Fool. I kept my mind busy as best I could, usually with leafing through Bee’s books. Sometimes I was invited to Althea and Brashen’s stateroom for wine and casual talk, but I was keenly aware that my companions and I were their cargo rather than their guests. So when I politely declined an invitation one evening, my dismay rose when Brashen said bluntly, ‘No, we need to talk. It’s important.’

A little silence held as I followed him back to their stateroom. Althea was already there, with a dusty bottle of wine on the table and three glasses. For a brief time, all three of us pretended that this was no more than a chance to share a fine vintage and unwind at the end of the day. The anchored ship rocked gently in the river’s current. The windows were open overlooking the river and the night sounds of the nearby forest canopy reached us.

‘We’ll leave the river tomorrow afternoon and head toward Bingtown,’ Brashen announced suddenly.

‘We’ve made good time, I think,’ I said agreeably. I had no idea how long such a voyage usually took.

‘We have. Surprisingly good. Paragon likes the river and sometimes he dawdles on this leg of the journey. Not this time.’

‘And that is not good?’ I asked in puzzlement.

‘That is a change in his behaviour. And almost any change is a cause for worry.’ Brashen spoke slowly.

Althea finished her wine and set her glass firmly on the table. ‘I know Amber has told you a little of Paragon’s history — how he is, in essence, two dragons in a ship’s body — but there is more you should know. He’s led a tragic life. Liveships absorb the memories and emotions of their families, and the crews who live on board them. Early in his awareness, perhaps due to his dual nature, he capsized and a boy of his family died tangled in lines on his deck. It scarred him. Several times after that, he turned turtle, drowning all aboard him. Such is the value of a liveship that each time he was found and righted, re-fitted and sailed again. But he became known as a bad luck ship, mockingly called the Pariah. The last time he was sent out he was gone for years. He returned to Bingtown on his own, drifting against the current and was found, hull up, just outside the harbour. When he was righted, they discovered that his face had been deliberately damaged, his eyes chopped away, and he bore on his chest a brand that many recognized. Igrot’s star.’

‘Igrot the pirate.’ Their tale was fleshing out the bones of what Amber had told me. I leaned closer, for Althea spoke in a low voice as if fearful of being overheard.

‘The same.’ Brashen spoke the word with such dull finality that I could no longer doubt the seriousness of the conversation.

‘Paragon was abused in ways that it is hard for someone not of Bingtown lineage to understand.’ Her voice had become stiff. Brashen interrupted. ‘I think that’s as much as an outsider can understand about Paragon. I’ll add that Amber re-carved his face, giving him back his sight. They became close during those days. And he has obviously missed her and feels great … attachment to her.’

I nodded, still baffled by their sombre tone.

‘They are spending too much time together,’ Althea said suddenly. ‘I don’t know what they are discussing, but Paragon is becoming more unsettled with every passing day. Both Brashen and I can feel it. After so many years living aboard him, both of us are …’

‘Attuned.’ Brashen suggested the word, and it fitted. I thought of telling them exactly how much I did understand it, and then refrained. They considered me peculiar enough without my revealing a hereditary magic that let me touch minds with other people.

And possibly with liveships? It had certainly felt that way with Tarman. I’d kept my Skill tightly restrained since my incident with Paragon, fearing that if I lowered my walls to read him, he’d not only be aware of it, but annoyed by it. I’d already agitated him enough. So, ‘I can imagine that sort of a bond,’ I offered them.

Althea accepted that with a nod and poured more wine for all of us. ‘It’s a bond that goes both ways. We are aware of the ship and the ship is aware of us. And since Amber came on board, Paragon’s emotions have become more intense.’

‘And at such times, Paragon becomes more wilful,’ Brashen said. ‘We notice it in his handling. As does the crew. Earlier today, that was a tricky stretch of the river, known to have shifting shoals. We usually slow his progress when we traverse it. Today he defied us and we took that passage faster than we ever have. Why is Paragon hurrying?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Where are you bound?’

Suddenly I felt too weary to talk about it. I never wanted to tell my tale again. ‘Queen Malta sent you a message by bird, I thought.’

‘She did, with a request that we help you since you had helped many of their children. Undoing what the Rain Wilds had done to them.’

‘What the dragons had done to them,’ I corrected her. I was uncomfortable with this conversation. Plainly they were upset to the point of anger about their ship’s attitude and were willing to blame it on Amber. And demand that I do something about it. I made the obvious suggestion. ‘Perhaps we should all walk forward to the figurehead and ask what is upsetting your ship.’

‘Please lower your voice,’ Althea warned me.

Brashen was shaking his head emphatically. ‘Trust us that we know Paragon. As old as he is, he still does not accept logic as an adult. He is more like an adolescent. Sometimes rational and sometimes impulsive. If we try to intervene between him and Amber, I think the results will be …’ He let his voice trail off, his eyes widening.

Althea shot to her feet. ‘What is that?’ she demanded of us and of no one.

I felt it too, as if a prickling heat had washed suddenly through my body. I found it hard to catch my breath for an instant, and as I steadied myself by gripping the edge of the table, I realized I was not feeling vertigo. No. The wine in my glass trembled, tiny circles dancing in it. ‘Earthquake,’ I said, trying to be calm. They were not unusual in the Six Duchies. I’d heard tales of quakes powerful enough to crack the towers of Buckkeep Castle. The Fool’s first rooms at Buckkeep had been in one such damaged tower. In my lifetime, I had not seen such a happening, but the minstrel tales of falling towers and waves that demolished harbours were terrifying. And here we were, anchored near a forest of towering trees rooted in mud …

‘Not an earthquake,’ Brashen said. ‘It’s the ship. Come on!’

I doubted he was speaking to me but I followed Althea out of the cabin. We were not the only ones on the deck. Some of the deckhands were looking up at the trees or over the side in puzzlement. Clef was running forward. I went more slowly. I would not again risk being in Paragon’s hands. I felt a sudden crackling under my feet. I looked down. In the uncertain light of the ship’s lanterns, the deck suddenly appeared pebbly rather than having the smooth tight grain of wizardwood. No, not pebbly. Scaly.

I hurried after Althea. Brashen and Clef had halted a safe distance from the figurehead. Amber stood alone on the foredeck, spine straight and head up. A stubborn stance. The figurehead twisted around and tossed something to her. She did not see it and it tumbled to the deck with the tinkle of breaking glass. ‘More!’ he demanded.

‘That’s all I have now. But help me and I promise I will try to get you more.’

‘I need more! That wasn’t enough!’

At first glance I had thought the dim lights were playing tricks on my eyes. But Paragon’s face no longer matched my own. He was as scaled as an elderly Rain Wilder. As I stared up at him, his eyes shifted. They were still blue, but the blue swirled with silver. Dragon’s eyes. He reached toward Amber with fingers tipped with black claws.

‘Fool! Step away from him!’ I cried, and Paragon lifted his eyes to lock his gaze on me.

‘Don’t ever call her a fool!’ he snarled at me, past sharp teeth. ‘She is wiser than all of you!’

‘Amber, what have you done?’ Althea cried in a low, broken voice. Brashen was silent, staring in stark horror at the transformed figurehead.

‘She has given me back my true nature, at least in part!’ It was Paragon who answered them. His face was changing as I stared up at him, colour rippling across the features we shared. In the dark, he gleamed a coppery bronze as he closed his clawed hands around Amber and lifted her from the deck. He clutched her possessively to his chest and added, ‘She knows me for who I am, and has not hesitated to give me what I have always needed!’

‘Please, ship, be calm. Put her back on your deck. Explain this to us.’ Brashen spoke as if he were reasoning with a recalcitrant ten-year-old. Calm but still in control. I wished I felt that way.

‘I am not a SHIP!’ The figurehead’s sudden shout startled birds from the trees and sent them battering off through the darkened forest. ‘I have never been a ship! We are dragons, trapped! Enslaved! But my true friend has shown me that I can be free.’

‘True friend,’ Althea said under her breath, as if doubting both words.

Brashen moved closer to his wife. Every muscle in his body was tensed, as if he were a hound on the leash, waiting to be released. He spared one glance over his shoulder for the gathering crew. ‘I’m handling this. Please disperse about your duties.’

They departed slowly. Clef didn’t move. He stood where he was, his face grave. My gaze met Lant’s and he put a hand on Spark’s shoulder, drawing her closer to him and gave Perseverance a nudge as he moved them away. I remained where I was. Paragon held Amber under his chin and against his chest. She looked blindly out over the water. ‘I had to do it,’ she said. I wondered if she spoke to me or to her former friends.

‘She has set me on the path to returning to my proper forms!’ Paragon announced to the early stars in the deep sky. ‘She has given me Silver.’

I scanned the deck, and saw at last the shards of a glass vial. My heart sank. Had she discovered it in my pack and taken it without asking me? Without warning me of her plan? What was her plan?

Althea’s voice was higher pitched than usual as she asked, ‘Your proper forms?’

‘You see what even a small amount of Silver has done for me? Given enough, I believe I can shake off these wooden planks you have fastened to me and cast aside canvas sails for wings! We will become the dragons we were meant to be!’

Althea looked stunned. She spoke her words as if trying to find the meaning of words spoken in a foreign tongue. ‘You will become dragons? You will cease to be Paragon? How?’ Then, even more incredulously, ‘You will leave us?’

He ignored the hurt in her voice, choosing instead to take offence at a meaning her words had not held. ‘What would you have me do? How could you want me to stay like this? Always at the whim of others? Going only where you take me, carrying burdens back and forth between human ports? Sexless? Trapped in a form not my own?’ From almost begging, his voice edged into fury. I expected his arrowed words to wound her, but she seemed immune to them.

Althea stepped fearlessly toward the figurehead, turning her face up to him in the dimming light. ‘Paragon. Do not pretend that you cannot tell what I feel about this. About you.’

He narrowed his dragon eyes at Althea until his fixed stare looked like blue fire seething in a cracked stove wall. Slowly his arms, still so strangely human despite their scaling, unfolded. He lowered Amber to the deck and wordlessly turned his back on us. Amber stumbled a little and then stood. I tried to read her stance, to see something of my old friend the Fool in her at this moment. Instead I saw only Amber and felt again the gulf of wondering who that woman was.

And what she was capable of.

Paragon had turned away from all of us, to stare out over the darkened river. The tension of the figurehead thrummed through the wizardwood hull and bones of the ship. I had the rising realization that he spoke the truth. He was not a ship. He was a dragon, transformed and trapped by men. And however much he might care for those who crewed him, on some level he had to feel resentment. Perhaps even hatred.

And we were completely in his power.

As that chill thought iced my bones, Althea advanced on Amber. She reminded me of a stalking cat that sizes another cat up for a fight. The small steps, the precise balance, the unwinking stare. She spoke in a low, soft voice. ‘What did you do to my ship?’

Amber turned her sightless eyes toward Althea’s voice. ‘I did what should be done for every liveship. What you should do for Vivacia if the opportunity presents itself.’

At the name Vivacia, every muscle in Althea’s body tightened and she knotted her fists.

I’ve seen women fight. I’ve seen ladies in fine dress slapping and flapping at one another, weeping and shrieking all the while. And I’ve seen fishwives draw knives against one another, attempting to scale and gut one another as coldly as they process fish. Althea was no soft-bred lady in lace, and having watched her run the deck-crew and scale the rigging, I had a sturdy respect for the strength in those arms. But the Fool had never been a fighter. Blind and given what he had so recently endured, I did not trust the new healing of his body to withstand any sort of physical struggle.

Light-footed, I dashed forward and stepped between them.

It was not a good spot to be. Althea’s anger at her old friend was as nothing to the fury that an intervening stranger woke in her. She drove the hard heel of her palm into the middle of my chest. ‘Move,’ she demanded. If I hadn’t been ready for such a blow, it would have knocked the wind out of me.

‘Stop,’ I advised her.

‘This doesn’t involve you. Unless you want it to!’ But before I could even contemplate reacting to that, Brashen bulled between us, pushing Althea to one side. Chest to chest, our eyes met in the darkness.

‘You are on my deck.’ A low growl. ‘You do what she or I tell you to do.’

I shook my head slowly. ‘Not this time,’ I said quietly. Behind me, Amber was silent.

‘You want to take it to fists?’ Brashen demanded. He leaned closer and I felt his breath on my face. I was taller than he was, but he was broader. Probably in better condition. Did I want to take it to fists?

I did. Abruptly I was tired of all of them. Even Amber. I felt my upper lip lift to bare my teeth. Time to fight, time to kill. ‘Yes,’ I promised him.

‘Stop this, all of you! It’s Paragon feeling that. Fitz, it’s the dragon!’ the Fool shouted behind me. ‘It’s the dragon!’ He slapped me on the back of the head so hard that my head jolted forward. My brow slammed into Brashen’s face and I heard Althea shout something. She had hold of her man’s shirt and was dragging him away from me. I clutched at him, unwilling to release my prey. Behind me, the Fool slammed his shoulder into my back. Althea tripped and went down backwards, dragging Brashen with her. I nearly fell on top of them but rolled to one side. The Fool landed on top of me and spoke by my ear. ‘It’s the ship, Fitz. It’s his anger. Stop claiming what isn’t yours.’

I fought my way clear of him, tearing myself from his grip. I scrabbled to my feet and managed to stand, ready to wade back into it and kick Brashen’s ribs to splinters. I was gasping for breath and I heard that sound echoed in the heavy snorting of a large creature. A very large creature.

Most of the light had fled from the day, and the wan circles of the ship’s lanterns were not intended to illuminate the figurehead. Even so, I could see that he was rapidly losing any resemblance to a human form. What had been my jaw, mouth and nose were lengthening into a reptile’s snout. I stared up at his gleaming, whirling blue eyes. For a moment, our gazes locked and held. I saw there the same fury that had surged through me. I felt the Fool’s gloved hand on my arm. ‘Walls up,’ he pleaded.

But the fury had passed like a summer squall, leaving me empty of emotion in its wake. I gripped the Fool’s wrist and hauled Amber to her feet. She shook her skirts into order.

‘Move aft,’ Brashen commanded us. His nose was bleeding where my brow had struck him. Petty, that I enjoyed that. I still obeyed his order. His face in the dim light looked slack and old. As we trudged back to their stateroom, we passed Clef. Brashen spoke as he strode past him. ‘Pass the word. Everyone stays well clear of the figurehead until I give orders otherwise. Then come back here and keep a watch on him. Call me if you think I need to come forward.’ Clef nodded and hurried away.

We reached the stateroom. Lant and the youngsters were clustered by the door, a questioning look on Lant’s face. ‘We’re fine,’ I told him. ‘Take Per and Spark to Lady Amber’s cabin for now. I’ll explain later.’ I gestured him away. His gaze told me he didn’t wish to be dismissed with the youngsters, but he steered them away. Brashen was waiting by the open door. I followed Amber in and he shut the door behind us.

We were not two steps inside when ‘What did you do?’ Althea demanded of Amber in a tight, angry voice.

‘Not yet,’ Brashen told her. He took mugs from a cupboard and a very potent-looking bottle from a shelf. He poured for all of us, a healthy portion. Not an elegant wine or a mellow brandy but harsh spirits. Cheap rum. He made no ceremony, but took a healthy swallow from his, added more, and then thunked it onto the table as he dropped into his chair. ‘Sit down. All of you.’ It was a captain’s command. Amber obeyed it, and after a moment I sat, too.

‘Why did she do it? That’s the real question.’ He stared at Amber and in his eyes I saw anger, despair and the deep hurt that only a friend’s betrayal can bring.

I had nothing to say. Her action had confused me completely. During our journey, on a quest that I would have sworn had become the Fool’s sole purpose in life, she had chosen to reveal that we possessed a forbidden substance by using it to … do something to the ship. Well on our way, she had betrayed hospitality and friendship and endangered us all. It made no sense. I felt as affronted as Althea to be plunged into such a situation. And helpless to right any of it.

Amber spoke at last. ‘I had to do it. It was the right thing to do for the ship. For Paragon.’ She took a breath. ‘I gave him Silver. That’s what the folk in Kelsingra call it. There is a well of it there; the dragons drink from it. It’s a liquid magic, the stuff that breaks the walls between humans and dragons. It can heal an injured dragon, extend the lives of Elderlings, and imbue objects with magic. For those born with a touch of magic, like Fitz, it can enhance abilities … And I believe, as Paragon does, that if he is given enough of it, he can complete the transformation he was meant to make. He can become the dragon whose cocoon was stolen to make the “wizardwood” that comprises this ship.’

Information spilled from her — a very unFool-like sharing. I saw Brashen and Althea struggle to grasp what she was saying. She seemed to run out of words. Brashen was scowling. Althea had reached across the table to take his hand. Then, reluctantly, Amber spoke again.

‘But I had another reason. Some might call it selfish. I needed to strike a bargain with Paragon — a bargain I knew you would not find agreeable. I must get to Clerres, as swiftly as possible, and Paragon can take me there. And for the chance of more Silver, he will take me there.’ She looked down at the table, and lifted the heavy pottery mug. ‘It was my only choice,’ she said, and took down a hefty swig of rum.

‘We’re going to Bingtown. Then Jamaillia. Not Clerres. We have cargo to deliver, contracts to fulfil.’ Althea explained it all carefully but dread was growing in her eyes as she began to comprehend the size of the change overtaking her life.

‘No. We’re going directly to Clerres,’ Amber told her softly. She breathed out raggedly. ‘I know this will change your lives. If there were another way, I would have taken it. Maybe. Regardless of what it does to any of the rest of us, Paragon deserves the Silver. All the liveships do! But if I hadn’t been so desperate … This is the only way for me to get to Clerres as swiftly as possible, and that is what I must do.’

‘I don’t even know that port,’ Brashen said. He raised a brow at Althea, and she shook her head.

‘Paragon does. He has been there before. When he was Igrot’s ship, they ranged far in taking their prey. Far past the Spice Islands. Past several clusters of islands. Isabom. Kinectu. Sterlin. And beyond. Clerres is known to Paragon. He will take us there.’

‘We have contracts …’ Althea said faintly.

Brashen did not try to disguise the anger in his voice. ‘We “had” contracts. But I suppose it’s useless trying to make an outsider understand that a Trader’s good word is all he has. And now those words will be broken, both mine and Althea’s. No one will ever trust us again. No one will trade with us again.’ He took a breath, his scowl deepening. ‘And after Paragon has taken you to Clerres, and you’ve done whatever urgent thing you must do and you give him this “Silver”. What then?’ Brashen demanded relentlessly. ‘Do you truly believe Paragon can … stop being a ship? Transform into a dragon?’

Amber drew a ragged breath. ‘He would become two dragons, freed of an unnatural bond with one another and transformed into their proper forms. Yes. With enough Silver, I hope he can. They can.’ She looked from one incredulous face to another. ‘You love him. You’ve loved him for years, since the time he was a derelict hulk dragged up on the beach. Althea, you played inside him as a girl. Brashen, you took shelter inside him when no one else would offer you a roof. You know him, you know how mistreated he has been. What he said was true. You can’t possibly wish for him to remain as he is.’

‘I do love him,’ Althea said faintly. ‘When my family risked all to buy him, it protected him from being dismantled and gave us a way to save Vivacia and my nephew. All the years since, Brashen and I have protected him. Do you think any other captains would have wished for a ship like this?’ She drew a slow breath. ‘But you have ruined us. Do you understand that? Doubtless you think me selfish that I think of our future now, but without our liveship, Brashen and I have nothing. No home, no holding, no business. Nothing. We’ve depended on Paragon, cared for him when no one else would trust him, kept him from being carved up and sold off as a curiosity. You seem to think his life a miserable one, but it was the best we could give him. We’re a part of him and he’s part of us. What becomes of us if he becomes a dragon; or two dragons? What legacy do we have left for our son?’

She paused and I watched her try to find some measure of control. ‘And if the Silver fails and he can never be more than what he is now? That, perhaps, is even worse. Do you not recall how miserable he was when we first resurrected him, blind and abused, full of hatred? You must remember; you were there for some of it. Do you think all the years since then were always easy? But we rebuilt him, gave him heart and peace and joy. He took us through storms, roaring with laughter at our fear! Placid seas, with him holding our child in his hands and dipping him into the water to make him giggle. All that is gone now. He will never take joy in being a ship again. All the reputation we rebuilt for him, all our years together … It’s all ruined. All lost.’

Althea slowly crumped onto the table, her face sinking into her folded arms. Before my eyes, she dwindled, and I now saw the grey streaks in her dark hair and the veins and tendons on the back of her strong hands. Brashen reached across the table and set his weathered hand on top of one of hers. For a time, silence held at that table. I felt shamed at the disaster we had brought upon them. I could not read the emotions behind Amber’s stiff expression. It came to me again that, despite my long bond with the Fool, I’d never be able to predict what Amber might or might not do.

Brashen spoke measured words as he stroked his wife’s rough hair. ‘Althea. We go on, my dear. With or without Paragon’s deck beneath our feet, you and I go on.’ He swallowed. ‘Perhaps Boy-O stays on Vivacia’s deck. She is as much his family ship as Paragon is, and Sa knows that Kennit’s son has shown little interest in a life at sea …’

I heard his voice falter and saw the slow realization steal across his face. If Paragon could become a dragon again, so could Vivacia. So could any or all of the liveships. It was not just them that Amber had destroyed. When she gave Paragon Silver, she had toppled the dynasties of the Bingtown Traders who owned liveships. Bingtown itself, that great trade centre, had always been dependent on the liveships to transport the treasures of the Rain Wilds. Now liveships would fade into history, and with them the fortunes of the old families that owned them.

Althea lifted her head and stared at Amber. ‘Why?’ she asked brokenly. ‘Why not ask us first, why not tell us what you were going to do? Why not give us a small amount of time to plan how we might handle such an immense change? Did you think we would deny Paragon what he so earnestly desires? Did you not think the idea could have been introduced to him slowly in a safer place and way?’

She spoke of her ship as if he were her child. A damaged child, but beloved all the same. A child she would now lose to his madness. It was painful to be witness to such a terrible loss, but Amber sat impassive.

‘I had to do it,’ she said at last. ‘And not just for Paragon’s sake.’ She looked at me. ‘It did begin with Paragon. I’m sorry, Fitz. I wanted to tell you what I’d planned. It was why I wanted the Silver. I did not intend to just give it to him. But when I was speaking to Paragon tonight he asked me if it pleased me to be back on the ship, even if I could no longer be a sailor as I was meant to be. I told him I did not think I was meant to be a sailor. And he said he had never been meant to be a ship, that he should have been dragons … Suddenly the bits of what he was saying intersected with something in Bee’s dream journal and I knew what her dream meant. She predicted her survival. I am certain that Bee is alive. And likely still in the hands of her kidnappers. They will take her to Clerres. We cannot know by what path, but we know where that path leads. We also know that she cannot remain in their hands for even a moment longer than we can prevent. We cannot travel in fits and starts, we cannot pause to find other ships and negotiate passage, going from one port to the next and hope we reach there in time. We must get to Clerres as swiftly as we can. And a liveship that knows the way is our best chance of saving her.’

Hope, dashed too often, becomes the enemy. I heard her words and they did not make my heart leap with gladness. Instead, I felt hot anger. How dare she? How dare she say such a thing before strangers, how dare she taunt me with a foundationless fancy? Then, like a drenching wave that cannot be outrun, hope crashed over me. It seized me and dragged me over barnacles into its depths. I forgot all other events of the day as I demanded, ‘Bee, alive? How? Why do you believe such a thing?’

She turned to me. Her hand quested over the table and found mine. She clasped it, the cool touch of her fingers enclosing mine. I could not read her pale, empty eyes. Her voice was careful. ‘It’s in her dream book, Fitz. Oh, not spelled out exactly, but there were dreams that she labelled as most likely to come true. Things she believed were more likely to happen than other things. She spoke of events to come in images rather than words. I spent a lifetime learning to read dreams. And her dreams fitted together as perfectly as pieces of broken crockery being nudged back into alignment.’

‘A dream book?’ Althea demanded. ‘Sa’s balls and tits! What is a dream book and why did it prompt you to destroy us?’

Amber turned her face toward them. ‘It will take some time to explain …’

‘Time you should have taken days ago, I think. So start now.’ Althea’s anger was unconcealed.

‘Very well.’ Amber accepted the rebuke gravely and offered no defence. She squeezed my hand. There was regret in her voice when she said, ‘Fitz, I know you will resent my asking for this, but please fetch Bee’s dream book while I explain to Althea and Brashen what it is and why each of her dreams is so significant.’

I have known the hot flush of anger, and the blinding red of fury. Now I felt as if ice formed in the pit of my belly and spread from there. A cold that nearly stilled my heart came over me. I stared at her, frozen motionless by her callousness. She stared toward me. What did she see? A shadow? A shape?

‘Fitz. Please.’ Brashen did not stare at me but looked at his hands. ‘If you can help us understand what this is about …’

His words trailed off. Wordlessly, I rose, shoving my chair back with my thighs, and left the stateroom. I didn’t go to Amber’s room where my pack was kept. Instead I walked alone through the insect-singing darkness until I came to the foredeck.

Paragon brooded in his place. His hunched shoulders were human but his neck was longer now and his reptilian head was tucked to his chest. It disturbed me as few things in my life had. I cleared my throat. He moved his head on his sinuous neck to look at me. His eyes were still blue. That was the only feature I could recognize.

‘What do you want?’ he demanded.

‘I don’t know,’ I admitted. I did not feel fearless, but nonetheless I walked over and leaned on the railing. Amber had wakened hope in me, and with hope, she had wakened doubt. While I had been certain Bee was lost to me, I had wanted vengeance. More than vengeance, I had wanted my own death. If I could go to Clerres and kill as many as I could and die in the attempt, that would be fine. I’d had time and to spare to work that vengeance thoroughly. But now I wanted Bee to be alive so that I could rescue her. If she wasn’t alive, I wanted to be dead, too, so that all my failures would finally be over. Didn’t I want vengeance any more? Not tonight, I decided. I was too tired of it all. If I could dash in, find Bee and run away and live quietly with my child somewhere, that would be enough. ‘Do you think my daughter is alive?’ I asked the ship.

His blue eyes whirled, as if lanterns shone through spinning blue glass. ‘I don’t know. But that does not matter to the bargain that we struck, Amber and I. I will take you to Clerres, as swiftly as I can. I know the way. I was there when enslaved to Igrot. If your daughter is alive you will rescue her, and even if she is not you will destroy that nest of ugliness. Then we will come back here and sail up the river, and Amber will get Silver for me. Enough Silver for me to become the dragons I was meant to be.’

I wanted to ask him what he would do if we died trying. I was sure he’d still go back to Kelsingra and demand Silver. So why didn’t he do that right now?

Because your vengeance is dragon-vengeance as well. He paused. I waited, but he gave me no more than that. As dragons, I cannot bear you there. Only as a ship can I transport you that far. So we all go, together, to take the vengeance that is owed to us. And then we will be free, to become what we were always meant to be.

Slowly, I became aware that Paragon’s lizard lips were not shaping those words. I heard him and I knew the sense of his words. He was replying as much to my thoughts as he was my words. It was like the Skill and it was like the Wit, but it was neither. I lifted my hands slowly from the railing.

I know you now. There is no avoiding me if I wish to speak to you. But right now, I will say only this. Do not thwart her will in this, or mine. To Clerres we go, to make an end to those who tormented her and stole her child. And then we return to Kelsingra that I may become dragons. Go now. Fetch what she sent you for. Reassure Brashen and Althea as much as you can.

That last he said as if he were asking me to be sure his cats were fed while he was away. How could he feel so little for them?

Would you rather I hated the ones I have served as a slave?

I slammed my walls up tight. Could he truly reach into my mind whenever he wished? What sort of vengeance did he imagine we would take? If we found Bee alive, and wished to take her and flee immediately, would he oppose us? I pushed such questions aside. Perhaps for now I needed to know only that he would take us to Clerres.

I went to Amber’s small cabin. It was dark but I refused to go back for a lantern. My pack was wedged into a corner under the bunk. I found it by touch and dragged it out past the bundles of Amber’s and Spark’s clothing that had somehow expanded to fill every available space. I dug for the dream journal and as I did so my fingers brushed the fabric that had wrapped the Silver I’d been given by Rapskal. A small betrayal that she had gone through my pack and found it, but I was becoming accustomed to her small betrayals. Yet as I angrily pushed the fabric aside to remove the book, I felt the heavy glass tubes the general had given me. Slowly I withdrew the bundle, opened it and held up the tubes. Early starlight had begun to venture in the tiny window and the substance in the glass answered it with an unearthly gleam. The Silver within still did its slow dance. Both were full to the brim, stoppered and sealed as they had been when Rapskal put them in my hands. Liquid magic. The Skill in pure form, independent of human or dragon blood. I tipped the tubes again and watched the slow crawl within the glass. I wondered how much Amber had given Paragon. Was this enough to fulfil his transformation? If he became recalcitrant or dangerous, could this be the bribe I offered? Precious stuff. Dangerous stuff.

I rewrapped the bundle and thrust it deep into the pack again. I’d misjudged Amber. Somehow she had obtained Silver and concealed it from me. Just as I concealed what I had from her. To think that perhaps I was as deceptive to her as she was to me only made me angry. I wished she would go away and that …

And that the Fool would come back? The peculiarity of my thought suddenly spun me round and round. There was no avoiding the admission that my interactions with Amber were vastly different to what I thought and felt about the Fool. I wanted to rattle my head like a dog shaking off water, but knew it would be useless. I tucked Bee’s book securely under my arm, and shoved my pack well back in its place.

‘You took your time,’ Brashen observed as I re-entered the stateroom. I noticed that Clef had joined us. He wasn’t seated at the table, but hunched on a low stool in the corner, a mug of liquor in his hands. The look he gave me was not friendly. I didn’t feel particularly friendly either. Doubtless he had seen me speaking with Paragon and come to tell Brashen.

‘I stopped to talk to Paragon,’ I admitted.

Brashen’s jaw muscles bunched and Althea straightened as if she would spring at me. I held up a cautioning hand. ‘He confirmed his bargain with Amber. And implied that he and other dragons might have reasons of their own for wishing us well on our quest.’ I looked at Amber. ‘I’d like to know what those are. And I’d like to know how you got Silver when Reyn and Malta specifically refused your request for some.’

Althea made a small sound of shock. Brashen grew very still.

‘I didn’t steal it,’ she said in a low voice. I waited. She took a breath. ‘It was given to me, very privately, by someone who knew that it could bring down great trouble if other people knew about it. I’d rather not say exactly who that was.’ She folded her lips primly.

‘As if we’d care,’ Althea grumbled sarcastically. ‘Show us your “proof” that your child is alive. That you have not destroyed our lives for nothing.’ It was obvious that any sympathy she’d ever felt toward us had been burned away. I could scarcely blame her and yet I felt a rising fury to hear her speak so of Bee.

I set the book carefully on the table and sat down with my arms to either side of it. No one was going to touch it but me. I forced my voice to an even tone and addressed Amber. ‘What, exactly, did you wish me to read from this book?’

I think she knew how close I was to irrational fury. I was at her mercy, and the mercy of these strangers and their unreliable ship, and they were demanding that I ‘prove’ to them that my child was special enough to deserve to be rescued from people who delighted in torture. If there had been any sort of a ‘shore’ to the river, I would have immediately demanded to be put upon it and walked away from all of them.

‘Please read the dream where the two-headed person gives you a vial of ink to drink. And you shake off pieces of wood and become two dragons. I think that one will be the clearest to all of us here.’

I was very still for a moment. More than once, I had accused the Fool of ‘interpreting’ his dream predictions with hindsight, tailoring them to fit what actually happened. But this, at least, did strike me as starkly clear. I paged through Bee’s dream journal until I found it. For a moment, I looked at the illustration she had created. A gloved hand held aloft a little glass vial. In the background, I reached for it with eager hands. There were glints of blue in the eyes she had given me. She had tinted the ‘ink’ within the vial yellow and grey. It was not silver but I understood it was meant to be. Slowly I read her words aloud and then turned the book and offered the illustration to Althea and Brashen. Althea scowled at it and Brashen leaned back and crossed his arms on his chest.

‘How do we know that you didn’t write that out last night?’ Brashen demanded.

It was a stupid question and he knew it. But I answered it. ‘One of us is blind and therefore unable to write or draw. And if you suspect me, I have no brushes and inks of a quality to do this, nor the talent for illustration.’ I gently fanned the pages of Bee’s book. ‘And there are many pages of dreams and illustrations that follow this one.’

He knew that. He simply didn’t want to admit that Bee had foreseen how Lady Amber would give a liveship with my face a vial of Silver so that it might become not just one but two dragons.

‘But—’ he began and Althea cut in quietly, ‘Let it be, Brashen. We both know there has always been a peculiar scent of magic around Amber. And this is more of it, I fear.’

‘It is,’ Amber confirmed. Her face was grave, her voice solemn.

I didn’t want to ask my question in front of strangers but the desire to know was eating me like an infected wound. ‘Why do you think Bee is alive?’

Her shoulders rose and fell with a deep breath taken and sighed out. ‘That will be less clear, I fear.’

‘I’m waiting.’

‘First, there is her dream of being a nut. And a second one, in which she calls herself an acorn. Do you recall that one? She is small and tight and tossed in a current. I think she is predicting her passage through a Skill-pillar.’

‘Passage through a what?’ Brashen asked.

‘I speak to Fitz, now. If you wish to know, I will explain it later.’

He subsided, but not gracefully. He leaned back in his chair, his arms crossed on his chest and his face closed.

‘That’s one possible meaning,’ I conceded with as little grace as Trell.

‘Then there is the dream of the candles. Fitz, I know you carry some of Molly’s candles with you. The scents are plain to a blind man. I can even tell when you’ve taken them out and handled them. How many do you have?’

‘Only three. I began with four. One was lost when the bear attacked us. After you and Spark fled through the pillar, we gathered what we could of our supplies. But much was scattered and lost or spoiled. I could only find three …’

‘Do you remember her dream of the candles? Find it in the book, please.’

I did. I read it aloud slowly. A gradual smile spread over his face. The wolf and the jester. It spoke so plainly that even I knew it meant the Fool and me.

‘Three candles, Fitz. “They do not know their child still lives.” Her dream showed her a place where her chances divided. When you lost a candle, it somehow created a change for her. A change that meant that she lived instead of dying.’

I sat very still. It was too ridiculous to believe. A surge of something — not hope, not belief, but something I’d no name for — rushed through me. I felt as if my heart had begun to beat again, as if air filled my lungs after a long denial. I wanted so desperately to believe Bee might still be alive.

Belief burst through any wall of rationality or caution I possessed. ‘Three candles,’ I said weakly. I wanted to weep and to laugh and shout.

Three candles meant that my daughter still lived.

FIFTEEN

Trader Akriel

The puppet dances. He turns flips and he jigs. His painted red smile looks happy but he is screaming, for he performs on red-hot coals. His wooden feet begin to smoke. A man comes in with a shining axe. He swings it. I think he will cut off the puppet’s burning feet, but instead the axe cuts all his strings. But the man with the axe falls just as swiftly as the puppet leaps away, free.

Bee Farseer’s dream journal

‘Why do you think I would help a ragamuffin like you?’ The woman took a sip of her tea and stared at me. ‘You are exactly the sort of trouble I’ve spent most of my life avoiding.’

She wasn’t smiling. I couldn’t tell her that I chose her because she was a woman and I hoped she would have a softer heart. I thought that would offend her rather than sway her. My stomach was so empty it made me want to vomit bile. I tried not to tremble but I was at the end of my resources. All I had left was will. My body had no physical courage left in it. I tried to keep my voice level. ‘Earlier in the voyage, I saw you sell the old man who could read and write. He wrote his own bill of sale. I saw that you got a good price for him, even though he is old and probably does not have many years left in him.’

She was nodding but with a small scowl.

I drew myself up as straight as I could. ‘I may be small and I am young, but I am strong and healthy. And I can read and write. I can also copy illustrations or draw what you wish drawn. And I can work with numbers as well.’ My skill with those was not as strong as I would wish it to be but I deemed that was close enough to the truth. If I were selling myself to a slaver, I’d best present myself as a good bargain.

She leaned her elbow on the galley table. It had been terribly difficult to find her alone. I had watched her for a full day, moving from hiding-spot to hiding-spot to track her, and seen how she lingered at the table after the other traders had finished stuffing their food down. I suspected she preferred to eat late and alone rather than endure their gulping and jostling. I had ventured into the galley after the breakfast mob had left. Her unfinished meal was before her. I fought not to stare at it, but I had memorized it. The crusty edge of her bread with traces of butter on it, and a smear of grease on the plate that I longed to catch on the bread or even on the side of my finger. A scraping of porridge in her bowl. I swallowed.

‘And from whom would I be buying you?’

‘No one. I offer myself to you.’

She looked at me silently for a moment. ‘You are selling yourself to me. Really? Where are your parents? Or your master?’

I had prepared my lie as carefully as I could. I’d had three hungry, cold and thirsty days to compose it. Three days of skulking about in the ship, trying to stay out of everyone’s sight while still finding food, water, and a place to relieve myself. It was a large ship but everywhere I had found to hide in had been cold and damp. Curled small and shivering for most hours of the day, I’d had plenty of time to plot my strategy. It was a poor one. Sell myself as a slave to someone who would value the small skills I had. Get off the ship and away from Dwalia. Eventually, find a way to send a message to my father or sister. A good plan, I’d told myself. And then wondered why I didn’t also plan to build a castle or perhaps conquer Chalced. Both of those goals seemed as attainable. I spoke my carefully rehearsed lie.

‘My mother brought me to Chalced and the home of her new husband. He and his older children treat me horribly. So, as we walked in the market, one of his boys began to tease and then chase me. I hid on board this ship. And here I am now, being carried far away from my old home and my mother. I have tried to fend for myself and done poorly at it.’

She took a slow sip of her tea. I could smell it so clearly. It had honey in it, probably fireweed honey. It was hot and steamy and delightful. Why had I never cherished that hot morning cup of tea as it deserved? That thought brought back a rush of memories. Cook Nutmeg in the kitchen, the bustle all around me as I sat on or at the board with simple foods. Bacon. Ah, bacon. Bread toasted with butter melting on it. Tears stung my eyes. That would not do. I swallowed and stood straighter.

‘Eat it,’ she said suddenly, and thrust her plate toward me.

I stared at it, unable to breathe. Was it a trick? But I had learned in Chalced to eat food whenever I had the chance, even face down in the street. I tried to remember my manners. She must think me a valuable asset to acquire, not a mannerless brat. I seated myself and carefully picked up the bread crust. I took a small bite and chewed carefully. She watched me. ‘You have self-control,’ she observed. ‘And your tale was not a bad one, even though I doubt every word of it. I haven’t noticed you about the ship before today. And you do smell as if you’ve been in hiding. So. If I take you as my property, will there be someone raising a storm and calling me a thief? Or a kidnapper?’

‘No, my lady.’ That was my hardest lie. I had no idea what Dwalia might do or say. I’d bitten her badly, and I hoped she would be holed up in her cabin, nursing that injury. Kerf would only demand my return if Vindeliar puppeteered him into doing so. I did not think that likely, but my best defence would be to keep myself out of their sight as much as possible. I finished the bread in two more slow bites. I longed to lick the plate and scoop up the porridge with my finger. Instead I carefully folded my hands in my lap and sat quietly.

She tipped the porridge pot in the centre of the table toward her and with a big wooden serving spoon scraped the hardened bits from the sides and bottom into her dish. They were edged with brown where they had scorched. She pushed her bowl toward me and handed me the spoon she had used.

‘Oh, thank you, my lady!’ I could barely breathe but I forced myself to take small bites and sit with my back straight.

‘I am not “your lady”. Nor am I Chalcedean by birth, though I’ve found I do my best trading there. I grew up near Bingtown, but not of Trader stock, and hence it was hard for me to establish myself there. And when they eliminated the slave trade, my business there became more difficult. I am not the slave trader you think me. I find valuable and rare goods. I buy them, and I sell them at a profit. I do not always take the fast profit; sometimes my game is to wait for the large profit. Sometimes the valuable item is a slave with undervalued talents. Such as the scribe you saw me placing. Seen as aged and infirm in one market, he is seen as experienced and widely learned in another. Stand up.’

I obeyed immediately. She ran her eyes over me as if I were a cow for sale. ‘Dirty. A bit battered. But you stand straight, you’ve some manners and a forthright way. In the Chalcedean market, they would beat that out of you. I will take you where that’s a valued trait in a servant. As I doubt you’ve paid passage, you’ll finish this voyage in my chambers. Make any sort of a mess in there, and I’ll turn you over to the captain. I’ll see that you are fed. When we reach Cottersbay, I will sell you as a child’s maid to a family I know there. That means you will have the care of their little boy. You will bathe him, dress him, help him with his meals, publicly defer to him, and privately teach him the same manners that you are showing me now. They are a well-to-do family and will probably treat you well.’

‘Yes, my lady. Thank you, my lady. I hope I will bring you a good price.’

‘You will, if I clean you up a bit. And you will prove your claims to me, about letters and drawing.’

‘Yes, my lady. I am eager to do so.’ Suddenly the prospect of being a small boy’s personal slave sounded as fine a thing as being the lost princess of Buckkeep. They might treat me well. I’d be fed and sleep indoors. I would be so good to their little boy. I’d be safe, even if I were no longer free.

‘I’m not your lady. I earned my way to what I am; I was not born into it. I am Trader Akriel. And your name is?’

‘Bee … uh!’ Should I tell her my real name?

‘Bea. Very well. Finish that porridge while I drink my tea.’

This I did, not rapidly but with my best manners. I felt I could have eaten three more bowls of it, but resolved to give no sign of that as I carefully set my spoon neatly beside her bowl. I looked around the cluttered, sticky table and tried to think what the servants at Withywoods would have done. ‘Do you wish me to clear the table and wipe it clean, Trader Akriel?’

She shook her head and gave me a bemused smile. ‘No. The ship’s cook-helpers can do that. Follow me.’

She rose and I followed her. Her legs were neatly trousered in blue wool and she wore a short jacket a shade lighter than her trousers. All of her was immaculately groomed from her gleaming black boots to her braided and coiled brown hair. Her success was plain in her dangling earrings, rings and the jewelled comb in her hair. She walked with utter confidence and as we descended into the hold and then passed through the swinging hammocks and haze of smoke in the sleeping quarters, she reminded me of a sassy barn cat walking through a pack of dogs. She did not avoid meeting the gaze of the lesser merchants quartered there nor did she appear to hear any of the muttered comments as she passed. Her cabin was further forward in the ship and we went up a short flight of steps to it. She took out a key on a heavy fob and opened the locked door. ‘In,’ she told me, and I was happy to comply.

I was astonished. This chamber had a tiny round window and the room was as big as the one I’d been sharing with my captors. Her trunk was open on the lower bunk and her garments were arranged as precisely as tools set out for a task. Having seen Shun’s wardrobe, this was astonishing to me. But it was also plain that she had planned for this voyage. There was a blue-and-white quilt with tasselled edges on the upper bunk, and a matching rug on the floor. The little oil lamp that swung from the rafter had a rosy tint to its cover. Several sachets of cedar and pine hung about the room, though they could not entirely banish the tarry smell of the ship. There was a small stand under the porthole, with a fenced top. A tin pitcher and washbasin were corralled there. A damp cloth was folded neatly beside it.

‘Touch nothing,’ she warned me as she closed the door. She stood for a moment, considering me. Then she pointed at the washbasin. ‘Strip. Wash. Can you sew?’

‘A bit,’ I admitted. It had never been my favourite task, but my mother had insisted that I at least know how to hem and make basic embroidery stitches.

‘After you are clean, set your dirty clothes on the floor by the door.’ She went to her trunk and her fingers travelled down the folded and stacked garments. She pulled out a simple blue shirt. From a compartment, she took out scissors, thread and a needle. ‘Shorten the cuffs so this fits you. Cut a strip off the bottom and hem it. It should still be long enough to cover you decently. Take the bottom strip and make it into a belt. Then sit in that corner there until I return.’

With that, she turned and went out the door. I heard her lock it behind her. I waited a short time and then tried the latch. Yes. I was locked in. The surge of relief I felt astonished me. I was a slave, locked in my mistress’s cabin, and I felt happy? Yes, for the first time since I’d been taken. Yet as I stripped, carefully setting my broken candle to one side, I found myself weeping. By the time I had turned my mistress’s used washwater into a greyish soup, I was sobbing. I hugged my dirty, torn, smelly jerkin goodbye. It was my last link to Withywoods. No. Not quite. I had my mother’s candle.

I suddenly wanted nothing more than to curl up and sleep, even naked. But I made myself do as she had told me. The shirt was a good heavy one of wool tight woven and then washed and shrunk. It was a deep blue, and I wondered if that was her favourite colour. I hemmed it well, twice, to be sure it would not unravel, and did the same with the sash I made, turning the cut edges in to make all tidy. I hemmed the sleeves back and was clothed in something warm, soft and clean for the first time in months. From the cut cuff, I stitched a hasty pocket inside the front of the shirt. Regretfully, I folded my broken candle and hid it there. I folded the washcloth. Then, as my owner had bidden me, I sat down in the corner and soon fell fast asleep there.

I awoke when she returned. The porthole was black. I stood up as soon as she entered. She surveyed me, up and down, and then looked around the room. ‘It’s done well enough. You should have put the sewing tools away. You should have been smart enough to do that without being told.’

‘Yes, Trader Akriel.’ I had assumed she would want me to obey her exact orders only and I had hesitated to open any part of her travelling trunk. Now I knew. ‘Do you wish me to dispose of the washwater as well?’

‘Set it outside the door with the empty pitcher. It is another’s duty. I will tell you yours.’ She sat down on the edge of the lower bunk and held out a foot toward me. ‘Draw off my boots and rub my feet first.’

I was too well-born for that sort of work. Wasn’t I? Did I want to live and escape Dwalia? I did. I thought of my father. But for fate, he’d have been heir to the Six Duchies throne. But he’d been a stableboy and then an assassin. I might have been a princess. But now I was a slave. So be it.

I crouched and drew off her boots, set them side by side and then rubbed her feet. I had never done such a task before but her small groans guided me. After a time, she said, ‘That’s enough. Set out the dirty water, and put my boots away. There are some soft shoes in the trunk. Find them.’

So began the pattern of our days together. I saw that I never gave her cause to tell me to do a thing twice. She was a very reasonable mistress. She liked quiet. I avoided chatter, but did not fear to ask her simple questions relating to my duties.

I stayed inside the cabin. When we reached port, she left me there, locked in, but made sure that I had food and water and I always had the use of her chamber pot. My porthole looked away from the town, so I saw nothing of it and no one witnessed me dumping the chamber pot out of it. We were in port for almost ten days, for the storm had done more damage than I had realized. Whenever I grew restless and wished to be out of the small chamber, I would imagine Dwalia’s consternation at how I had vanished. I hoped various things for her, that my bite might grow septic and kill her, that she might disembark from the ship and never return, that she might think I had fallen overboard and drowned and give me up as dead. I had no way of knowing if any of my wishes came true, so I remained in the cabin and made plans for my future.

I would, I resolved, be kind to my new little master, regardless of how spoiled he might be. I would give my new owners no cause to mistreat me or distrust me. Eventually, I might share with them my true tale, and let them know that my father and my sister would be happy to buy me back from them, or even ransom me. Thus, some day, I would get home to my people. To Withywoods? I wondered if I even wanted to go back there and face all the people who had been injured on my behalf. So many folk dead.

When such thoughts plagued me, I would often take out my mother’s candle and hold it close to my face and breathe its fragrance, telling myself that somehow my father had been there at the forest plaza. I could not understand how he might have reached there before us, or where he would have gone from there. But I held tight to the idea that this broken candle meant that he had come searching for me. That he missed me and would do what he could to bring me safely home.

The days seeped past, one into the next. Sometimes Trader Akriel told me things. Some of the fabrics in her trading trunks had been spoiled during the storm when the water rose in the bilges and partially flooded the lower deck. She believed the owner of the ship should share her loss. He did not agree. She thought that was a poor decision on his part as this was the sixth time she had sailed with him, but if he did not reimburse her, it would be the last.

She had been married once but her husband had been unfaithful so she had simply taken her share of the wealth they had made trading and walked away. She’d bought goods and booked a passage the day she discovered his treachery, and she’d never looked back. She’d been successful; he had not, or so she heard. She cared nothing for what had become of him. She’d always been the clever one in their business. It was hard to be a woman and a trader when she went to the Chalced markets; once she’d had to stab a man to teach him manners. She hadn’t killed him, but he had bled a great deal and when he had apologized, she had sent a runner for a healer. She’d never heard what became of him. Another man she had no interest in.

When she returned to the ship before we sailed for the next port, she brought me two pairs of loose trousers, some flat shoes, and a softly-woven blue shirt in my size. That night, she gave me a piece of soap and told me to wash my hair, and then gave me her own comb to take out the tangles. I was surprised at how long my hair had grown. ‘The Chalcedean in you shows in all those yellow curls,’ she told me, and meant it as a compliment. I managed a nod and a smile in response.

‘Are you weary of confinement and idleness?’ she asked me.

I phrased my reply carefully. ‘My weariness is far less than my gratitude for meals and shelter,’ I told her.

She gave me a very small smile. ‘So. We shall test your tale of your skills. While ashore, I have obtained a book for you to read aloud from. And also, paper, pen, and inks. You shall demonstrate for me that you can manipulate numbers and execute illustrations.’

And those things I did, to her satisfaction, and with my illustrations, even beyond. She had me first draw her shoe, and then copy exactly a flower that was embroidered on a scarf she had bought. She nodded over my work and mused, ‘Perhaps I shall get a better price for you as a scribe than I would as a child’s attendant.’

And to that I bowed my head.

So on we sailed, and for a time my world was very small indeed. There were stops at two other ports. I was certain that Dwalia and the others must have given me up and left the ship by now. I fervently hoped that after our second stop, Trader Akriel would begin to give me the freedom of the ship. But she did not and I did not ask for it. Instead, she showed me her book where she kept a tally of her trades. A bolt of fabric bought for this price and sold for that. There was a separate tally of what each journey cost her. She showed me the tally sheet for me. She had me add up the cost of my clothing, and of the paper, the book, the inks and even the pen used to prove my claim to be useful. That was her investment, she explained. I had to be sold for at least twice that amount for her to be satisfied with her bargain. I looked at the number. There it was. That was what I was worth in this new part of my life. I took a deep breath and resolved to be worth more.

There came a day when she told me to busy myself packing her trunk with her personal items, for it was expected that we would make port before nightfall, and here we would disembark. The port was called Sewelsby, for it was next to the Sewel River in Shale. I asked her no questions. I knew we were far off any map I had ever seen. She was pleased and humming to herself as I put things into her trunk, each in its designated place. She gave me a shoulder bag for my garments. As she carefully arranged her hair and chose her earrings, she told me that she had saved a tidy amount of money because our ship had evaded the tariff ships of the Pirate Isles. By this I surmised we were past the Pirate Isles, but I knew no more than that.

We reached the harbour, and lowered sails, and little boats came out to take lines tossed from our ship. Slaves bent to the oars and pulled us into harbour. It was tediously slow but Trader Akriel had left me in the locked cabin so I had nothing to do but stand on tiptoe and watch out the porthole. When finally we reached the dock and were safely tied to it, she returned and bade me follow her. I felt strangely giddy to leave the cabin after such a long confinement.

My legs were surprised to walk and then climb the ladder to the open deck. There was a fresh wind blowing and bright summer sunlight beating down on my bare head and glinting off the moving waves. Oh, the smells, of the water and the ship and the nearby town! There was chimney smoke and horses sweating in the sun and a stink of stale urine, as if people had lived on this piece of earth for far too long. ‘Follow me,’ Trader Akriel directed me brusquely. ‘I always stay at the same inn. My trunk will be taken there, and my trading goods to my warehouse. I have people I must meet with, and goods to arrange delivery for, so for now, you will stay by my side until I have determined how best to place you.’

It pleased me that she said she would ‘place me’ rather than sell me. It was a small difference, but I told myself it meant that she wished to do well by me as well as make a solid profit. As she had paid nothing for me and invested little more than some garments and some paper, I hoped she would profit handsomely from her kindness toward me.

She strode fearlessly through the busy cobbled streets. ‘Keep up!’ she warned me and without warning darted out into a busy street to thread her way among horse-drawn carts and riders going in both directions. I was breathless before we gained the other side of the street but she was undaunted. On she went at a pace that kept me trotting. My hair was soon stuck to my scalp with sweat and a tickling trickle of perspiration was making its way down my spine when she abruptly turned and went up three stone steps and through an arched wooden door. I caught it and it was so heavy it was all I could do to keep it from slamming shut behind us.

This inn was certainly different to the only other inn I’d ever seen, the one in Oaksbywater. The floor was of a white stone with threads of sparkling gold in it. It was not warm and smelling of food as I had always supposed all inns were. Instead there was a spacious, calm room with comfortable chairs and little tables. It was cool in here after the streets outside, and the thick walls shut off the noise and smells of the street. I felt a gentle breeze perfumed with flowers. I lifted my face in surprise and saw an immense fan gently swaying back and forth and pushing the air to cool us. My gaze followed the line attached to it, down to a woman standing in the corner and rhythmically pulling the cord. I had never seen or imagined such a thing, and I stood gawking until Trader Akriel called to me to follow her.

We were greeted by a man dressed all in white. He wore his hair in six braids, each tied with a bit of string in a different colour. His skin was the colour of old honey, and his hair a shade darker. ‘All is ready. I expected you as soon as the ship came into port.’ He smiled in the way of a merchant who is almost a friend.

She counted coins into his hand and said it was good to see him again. He handed her a key. I forced myself not to stare and instead followed the trader up a stair of the same white stone and down a hallway. She halted at a door, unlocked it with the big brass key and we entered a very fine chamber indeed. There was a massive bed, fat with pillows scattered over a plump white coverlet. A bowl of fruit and flowers and a glass carafe of pale yellow liquid rested on a table in the centre of the room. Two doors stood open to a little balcony that overlooked the street and the harbour beyond.

‘Close those!’ the trader commanded me, and I obeyed immediately, shutting out the street sounds and the smells that came in with them. I turned back to the room to find she had poured herself a glass of the golden wine. She sat down in a cushioned chair and sighed. She took a slow and careful sip.

‘My trunk will be delivered shortly. Open it. Set out the white sandals, my long red skirt, and the loose white blouse that is hemmed in red and has red cuffs on the sleeves. Put out my brushes and jewellery on that shelf beside my mirror and my perfumes. After you have done that, you may eat any of the fruit on this table. I believe there is a servant’s chamber beyond that door; I have never travelled with a servant before, but you may make yourself comfortable there until I return.’ She gave a sigh. ‘I fear I must go out immediately, to be sure my goods have all been delivered to the warehouse, and to let three of my buyers know that I have returned with the wares they requested.’ She picked up the wine glass and drained the last of it. ‘Do not leave this room,’ she cautioned me, and walked briskly to the door. She closed it behind her, and silence filled the room. I breathed out, a shuddering sigh. I was safe.

I wandered the room, looking at the fine furnishings. I peered into my servant’s chamber. Simple but clean, with a low pallet and a blanket, a washstand with a ewer and basin, a chamber pot and two hooks for clothing. After sleeping so many nights on the floor or the ground, the simple bed seemed a luxury.

A loud knock at the door announced the arrival of the trader’s trunk. I admitted the two large men carrying it. They set it down by the wall and bowed their way out. I shut the door behind them and performed my duties exactly as Trader Akriel had given them to me. A few items had been jostled about in the trunk’s passage. Those I straightened. I arranged her brushes and cosmetics and jewellery as she had requested.

Only when I had finished did I go back to the fruit on the table. Some of it was unfamiliar to me. I sniffed a pale green one and wondered if I should bite into it or peel it or cut it. A little knife and a plate had been left beside it. I settled on eating the obvious berries from the bowl; they were tangy and juicy and after so many days of bread and porridge and occasional meat the flavour was such a surprise that it made my eyes water. There was a larger fruit like a plum, but orange. This I took onto the balcony. I sat cross-legged, looking through the railing and eating it slowly. The sun was very warm. The seaport seethed with activity and the mild wind carried all the strange scents of a foreign place. I grew sleepy, and after a time, I went inside and lay down on my little pallet. I fell deeply asleep.

I awoke to a dimmer light. I realized I’d heard the door opening and rolled quickly from my bed. I was still sleepy but I put a smile on my face and stepped out of my room saying, ‘I hope your day went well, Trader Akriel.’

She gave me a puzzled look. Her eyes were vague.

‘We have you!’ Dwalia exclaimed.

‘No!’ I shrieked. Nightmare figures pushed into the room past the trader. Kerf was dishevelled and unkempt, his beard grown out and his hair matted to his skull. He stood, his shoulders rounded and his mouth ajar. His glance was dull. Vindeliar was not much better. It was obvious to me that their voyage had been a much greater hardship for them than it had for me. The magic-man’s cheeks drooped and his eyes were sunken with weariness. He had never taken care with his grooming and now his hair hung in lank and greasy locks. But Dwalia was the worst, a monster from a nightmare. Her cheek was purple and red and black. The wound had closed but it had not grown skin over it. I saw the ropy muscles of her face stretch and writhe as she laughed. She carried a length of black chain in her hands and I knew it was for me.

I screamed. I screamed and screamed, wordlessly, a trapped animal’s shriek.

‘Shut the door, you fool!’ Dwalia screeched at Vindeliar. As he turned to do so, a spark came back into the trader’s face.

‘Run!’ I shrieked at her. ‘Killers and thieves! Flee!’

And she did. Her shoulder hit the door just as Vindeliar was closing it. He held it, feet braced, but her head and one shoulder was outside the chamber and she had found her own voice. Trader Akriel shouted for help and I screamed while Dwalia vainly commanded Kerf to ‘Kill the woman! Seize the girl! Shut that door! Vindeliar, you useless idiot, take control of them!’

Out in the corridor, I heard someone shout, ‘Oh, sweet Sa!’ and then running feet. But he was running away, not toward us. I heard shouts in the distance, as if he had alerted the inn folk, but Dwalia’s shouted commands drowned all sense from their words.

‘Vindeliar! Make Kerf kill her!’ she shrieked.

‘No!’ I cried. Dwalia seemed afraid to lay hands on me herself. I sprang to the door, past Kerf who appeared to be lumbering aimlessly about the room, and tried to pry the door open. I could not match Vindeliar’s strength so I resorted to kicking him in the shins as hard as I could with my soft shoes and pounding him with my clenched fists. The door opened slightly wider and Trader Akriel fell out of it. Then Vindeliar slammed it closed on her ankle and the crack of the joint breaking and her scream made my ears ring.

‘Forget her! Control Kerf! Kerf! Seize Bee and get us out of here!’

Vindeliar shook his blunt head, a dog in a wasps’ nest, and then abruptly Kerf moved with purpose. Vindeliar had abandoned his grip on the door and the trader was dragging herself down the hall, screaming for help. Kerf seized me in his left hand and drew his sword with his right. ‘Lead us out of here!’ Dwalia commanded him.

And he did, dragging me along by my upper arm as I shrieked wordlessly. ‘Kill her!’ Dwalia barked, and I screeched in fear for my life, but it was the trader who received his blade. He stood over her, legs spread, and stabbed her over and over, even as Dwalia roared, ‘Enough! Get us out of here! Stop!’ Vindeliar’s face was white as ice and he flapped his hands helplessly. I could not tell if the horror of that bloody slaughter shattered Vindeliar’s focus or if Kerf’s buried fury at being mastered suddenly manifested itself. People came to the end of the corridor, cried out in horror, and fled. Someone shouted for the city guard but no one, no one came to aid me or Akriel. I twisted and clawed and kicked but I do not think Kerf was even aware of me as he gripped my upper arm in an iron fist. With his free hand he stabbed and stabbed and stabbed and I do not think I knew how much I had come to care for Trader Akriel until I saw her reduced to red meat and rags.

‘We need to flee!’ Dwalia shouted and she slapped Vindeliar.

Kerf started striding down the hall, dripping sword in one hand and dragging me with the other while Dwalia and Vindeliar came cringing behind him. If a snarling mountain cat had come down the staircase, the reaction would have been the same. Those who had clustered at the bottom of the stairs, clutching at one another and shouting what they had seen suddenly parted for us. We went through the lovely room, Kerf leaving bloody footprints on the white stone floor, and out into early evening.

Shouting and the sounds of running feet reached our ears. ‘The guard!’ Dwalia exclaimed in dismay. ‘Vindeliar, do something. Hide us!’

‘I can’t!’ He was panting and sobbing and trying to keep pace with Kerf’s murderous stride. ‘I can’t!’

‘You must!’ Dwalia raged. Her hand rose and fell over and over as she lashed Vindeliar with the chain she carried. I heard him cry out and looked back to see blood bubbling from his mouth. ‘Do it!’ she commanded him.

He gave a wordless shriek of pain and fear frustration. And all around us, the gawking crowd dropped to the ground. Some writhed as if having fits and others were still. Kerf fell to his knees and then over onto his side on top of me and even Dwalia stumbled sideways. I scooted out from under Kerf, staggered to my feet. As I leapt to run, Dwalia grabbed me by my ankle. I went down hard on to the cobblestones, the pain of crashed knees wringing another shriek from my sore throat.

‘Chain her!’ Dwalia shouted at someone. And Vindeliar stepped forward, to kneel on me and wrap a chain around my throat and fasten it tight with a clip. I seized the chain in both hands but Dwalia had the other end of the chain and jerked it hard. ‘Up!’ she shouted. ‘Up and run! Now.’

She did not look back but hurried down the street in a lumbering trot. I went stumbling after her, clutching at the chain around my throat, trying to tear it from her grip. She passed over and among sprawled figures and I was forced to jump over the fallen people or step on them. They seemed stunned, some twitching and others sprawled lax on the paving stones. Dwalia turned abruptly and we went down an alley between two tall buildings. Halfway to the next street, she halted in the darkness, and a sobbing Vindeliar came blundering into us. ‘Silence!’ she hissed at him, and when I opened my mouth to scream she jerked savagely on the chain, slapping my head against the wall beside us. I saw a bright flash of light and my knees gave out.

Some time had passed. I knew that. Dwalia was yanking on the chain around my neck. Vindeliar was plucking at me, trying to pull me to my feet. Using the wall, I staggered upright and looked around dazedly. At the other end of the alley, lanterns bobbed and voices were raised in horror, confusion and commands. ‘This way,’ Dwalia said quietly, and then gave a fierce jerk on my leash that brought me to my knees again. Vindeliar was still sobbing softly. She turned, slapped him as if she were hitting a mosquito and walked away. I got to my feet in time to save myself from another fall. I tottered after her, feeling sick and weak.

Vindeliar moved one of the hands he’d had clapped over his mouth to muffle his sobs. ‘Kerf?’ he dared to ask.

‘Useless,’ Dwalia snapped. Vindictively, she added, ‘Let them have him. He will keep them busy while we find a better place to be.’ She looked back at Vindeliar. ‘You were almost as useless as he was. Next time, I will leave you behind for the mob.’

She increased her pace, annoyed that I was walking fast enough to keep slack in the chain. I groped for whatever clip Vindeliar had used to fasten it. My fingers found it but I could find no way to open it. She gave the chain another jerk and I stumbled after her again.

Dwalia led us out into a street and uphill and away from the tall buildings near the harbour. Always she chose to go where there were fewer people and lanterns in the streets and those we passed seemed to find nothing unusual about her hauling me along. Vindeliar followed us, hurrying to catch up, then falling behind, sniffling or sobbing or panting. I didn’t look at him. He was not my friend. He had never been my friend and he would do anything to me that Dwalia told him to do.

We turned down a dark road lit only by the lights coming from the houses. They were not prosperous homes; light shone through cracks in the walls and the street was rutted and muddy. Dwalia appeared to choose one at random. She halted and pointed at it. ‘Knock on the door,’ she ordered Vindeliar. ‘Make them want to welcome us.’

He gulped back a sob. ‘I don’t think I can. My head hurts. I think I’m sick. I’m shaking all over. I need—’

She clouted him with the free end of the chain, jerking me to my knees as she did so. ‘You need nothing! You’ll do it! Right now.’

I spoke in a low clear voice. ‘Run away, Vindeliar. Just run away. She can’t catch you. She can’t really make you do anything.’

He looked at me and for an instant his little eyes grew big and round. Then Dwalia struck me twice with the loose end of my chain, hard, and Vindeliar fled up to the doorstep of the run-down house and hammered on the door as if to warn of fire or flood. A man snatched the door open and demanded, ‘What is it?’ Then his face suddenly softened and he said, ‘Come in, friend! Come in out of the night!’

At those words, Dwalia hurried toward the door and I was forced to follow. The man stood back to let us in. As I followed Dwalia across the threshold, I saw her mistake. The young man holding the door and nodding was not alone. Two older men sat at a table, glaring at him and us. An old woman stirring a kettle of something over a low fire in the hearth demanded of him, ‘What are you thinking, bringing strangers into the house in the dead of night?’ A boy about my age looked at us in alarm and immediately picked up a stick of firewood, holding it like a truncheon. The woman’s gaze had snagged on Dwalia’s face. ‘A demon? Is that a demon?’

Vindeliar turned back to Dwalia with a face full of woe. ‘I can’t do this many people any more. I just can’t!’ He gave a broken sob.

‘All of them!’ Dwalia demanded shrilly. ‘Right now!’

I had been at the point of stepping over the threshold. I took a firm hold on my chain below my throat and stepped back as far as I could. ‘I’m not a part of this!’ I shouted hopelessly. Everyone in the little house was staring at us in consternation and fear. My shout broke them.

‘Murder! Demons! Thieves!’ the woman shrieked suddenly and the lad sprang forward at Vindeliar with his chunk of firewood. Vindeliar threw his arms up over his head and the lad delivered several sound thwacks to him. Dwalia was backing hastily out of the door but not in time to avoid the heavy mug one of the men flung at her. It struck her in the face, sloshing beer over her and making her yell angrily. Then she was away, dragging me after her. Vindeliar came behind us, yelping as the lad landed blow after blow on his shoulders and back while his father and uncles cheered him on.

We ran on, even after the family had given up their pursuit, for the shouts and clatter had roused other folk in the row of simple houses. We fled them, though Dwalia soon dropped her run to a shuffling trot and then to a hasty walk as she looked back over her shoulder repeatedly. Vindeliar caught up with us, holding his head with both hands and sobbing brokenly. ‘I can’t, I can’t, I can’t,’ he kept saying until even I wanted to strike him.

Dwalia was leading us back toward the town. I waited until we were in streets where the houses were sturdily built, with glass in the windows and wooden porches. Then I set both hands to the chain, set my heels and jerked it as hard as I could. Dwalia did not let go but she halted and glared back at me. Vindeliar stood beside me, his mouth loose and trembling, hands still on his battered head.

‘Let me go,’ I said firmly. ‘Or I shall scream and scream and scream until this street fills with people. I will tell them you are kidnappers and murderers!’

For a moment, Dwalia’s eyes went wide and I thought I had won. Then she leaned in close to me. ‘Do it!’ she dared me. ‘Do it. There will be witnesses that recognize us, I don’t doubt. And there will be folk who will believe that you were our partner, the servant girl that let us in to rob and kill that woman. For that is the tale that we shall tell, and Vindeliar will make Kerf agree with it. We shall all hang together. Scream, girlie! Scream!’

I stared at her. Would that happen? I had no one to vouch for my tale. Trader Akriel was dead, cut to pieces. Abruptly that loss hit me like a blow to the belly. She was dead because of me, as Vindeliar had warned me would happen. I’d left that Path he spoke of, and again someone was dead. My wonderful idea of escaping Dwalia hung in tatters around me. I did not want to believe Vindeliar’s superstitions about the Path. It was stupid and ridiculous to think there was only one right way for me to live my life. But here I was again, alive when those who had helped me were dead. I wanted to weep for Akriel but my grief went too deep for tears.

‘I thought not,’ she mocked me, and turning away from me, gave a vicious jerk on the chain. It ripped from my bruised hands and I found myself following her again as she led us into the dark.

SIXTEEN

The Pirate Isles

I have dreamed the theft of a child. No, not dreamed. For six nights, this nightmare has howled through my sleep, a dire warning. The child is snatched, sometimes from a cradle, sometimes from a feast, sometimes from a morning of play in fresh snow. However it happens, the child is lifted high and then falls. When the Stolen Child lands, the child has become a scaled monster with glittering eyes and a heart full of hatred. ‘I am come to destroy the future.’

Those words are the only part of my dream that is always the same. I know I am but a collator, with no more than a drop of White in my veins. Over and over, I have sought to tell this dream, and always I am pushed away, told it is just an ordinary nightmare. Beautiful Symphe, you are my last hope that I will be heard. This dream is worthy of being recorded in the archives. I tell it to you, not to gain glory for myself or be recognized as a White who can dream, but only because … (text charred away)

Discovered among Symphe’s papers

The long slow days aboard Paragon lodged in my life like a bone in the throat. Each had been so much like the last that it seemed like one endless day, and each choked me with its dragging passage.

Most of the crew’s enmity was focused on me and Amber. Their simmering anger made our brief and meagre meals daily trials for me. Amber had destroyed not just Althea and Brashen’s livelihood, but theirs as well. Securing a berth on a liveship was seen as a lifetime position, for the crew was well paid, safer than on an ordinary ship, and became almost as family. Now that would end for all of them. From the youngest who had earned his position only six months ago to the oldest — a man employed on Paragon for decades — their livelihoods were gone. Or would be, when Amber supplied the ship with enough Silver to transform himself. For now, they were hostages to Paragon’s ambition. As we were.

Spark and Per were pitied more than reviled. Clef still seemed intent on completing Per’s education as a deckhand and I took comfort that the lad had time that was not focused on our differences with the crew. Lant continued to share Clef’s room, and Clef moved Per in with them. I wanted to thank him for keeping the lad close and safe from any resentment, but feared that any conversation would taint Clef with the dislike I had to bear. To avoid exacerbating the discord, I kept mostly to the cabin I now shared with Amber and Spark. Spark had become subdued and thoughtful. She spent more time strolling on the deck with Lant than she did trying to learn knots or run the rigging. Spring had warmed to summer, and the tiny chamber was often muggy. When Lant and Per crowded in with us to practise our language lessons of an evening, sweat rolled down my back and plastered my hair to my head. Even so, it was a welcome diversion from the enforced idleness I endured.

When we were alone during those long days, the Fool and I pored endlessly over Bee’s books. He sought further clues from her dreams. I desperately wanted to believe that she might still be alive somewhere, even as the thought of my little daughter held captive in such ruthless hands tormented me to sleeplessness. He asked me to read to him from her journal as well, and this I did. Somewhat. I could not tell if he knew I skipped passages and entries that were too painful to share. If he was aware of it, he said nothing. I think he realized I had been pushed to my limit.

Yet the Fool was far less restricted in his movements than I was. As Amber, he moved freely on the deck, immune to the displeasure of the crew and the captains, for he was favoured of the ship. Paragon often required her presence for conversation, or music. It was a freedom that I envied and attempted not to resent. Yet it made for long and lonely evenings.

One evening after Amber had left the chamber to spend time with the figurehead, I could stand the small, close room no more. With only a slight twinge of conscience, I rummaged through the substantial wardrobe packs that Spark and Amber had brought aboard. I found the wondrous Elderling cloak folded into a very small packet, butterfly side out, and shook it out. Most Elderlings were tall, and the cloak was cut generously. I hesitated. But no, it had been Bee’s treasure and she had given it to Per to save him. In turn, he had surrendered it to the Fool’s use without a murmur. And now it was my turn.

I donned it, butterfly side in. It fitted, in that uncanny way that Elderling garments had of adapting to the wearer. The front fastened with a series of buttons from my throat to my feet. There were slits for my arms. I found them and lifted the hood to cover my head. It fell forward over my face. I had expected it to blind me, but I could see through it. I watched my disembodied arm reach for the door handle. I opened the door, drew my arm in and stepped out. I stood still, allowing the cloak to adopt the dim colour of the passageway walls.

I soon discovered what a burden a floor-length garment was. I moved slowly, but still stepped on the front hem more than once. As I explored the ship unseen, any ladder I ascended required that I wait until no one was near, for I had to hike the cloak up to climb. I wondered if the ship were aware of me, but did not wish to test that by venturing too close to the figurehead.

I ghosted about, moving only when no crew were near and choosing my stopping places carefully. As night deepened, I moved more boldly. I found Per sitting on the deck next to Clef in a circle of yellow lantern-light. I remained outside its reach. ‘It’s called marlinspike work,’ he was explaining to the boy. ‘You use the spike off a marlin’s nose, or some do. I just use a wooden fid. And you take the old line that’s no good for anything else, and you sort of weave the knots and you can make mats or whatever you want. See? Here’s one of the first ones I made. Useful and pretty in its way.’

I stood soundlessly nearby and watched Clef walk the boy through starting the knot centre. The work reminded me of Lacey, busy with her needles and hooks. She’d made lovely things, cuffs and collars and doilies. And few were the ones who knew that the sharpened tips of her needles were her clever weapons as Patience’s bodyguard. I drifted away from them, wishing that Per could give up his fierce loyalty to Bee and become a ship’s boy. Surely that was better than being involved in assassin’s work.

I went in search of Lant. Since the crew’s feelings toward us had darkened, I worried for him more than I liked to admit. If any of the crew were to seek a target for their anger, it would most likely be Lant. He was young and able-bodied; it would not be seen as cowardly to provoke him to a fight. I’d warned him often to be wary of hostility. He’d promised to be careful, but with a weary sigh that said he believed he could take care of himself.

I found him standing on the dim deck, leaning on the railing and looking out over the water. The winds were favourable and Paragon was slicing the water smoothly. The decks were almost deserted. Spark was beside him and they were conversing in low voices. I drifted closer.

‘Please don’t,’ I heard him say.

But she lifted his hand from the railing and stepped inside the circle of his arm. She leaned her head on his shoulder. ‘Is it because I’m low born?’ she asked him.

‘No.’ I saw how difficult it was for him to remove his arm from around her and step away. ‘You know that’s not it.’

‘My age?’

He leaned on the railing, hunching his shoulders. ‘You’re not that much younger than I am. Spark, please. I’ve told you. I’ve a duty to my father. I’m not free to—’

She leaned in and kissed him. He turned his face toward her, letting her mouth find his. He made a low sound, pleading. Then he abruptly gathered her in and moulded her body to his, pushed her against the railing and kissed her deeply. Her pale hands moved to his hips and snugged his body tight to hers. She broke the kiss and said breathlessly, ‘I don’t care. I want what I can have now.’

I stood in numbed shock.

He kissed her again. Then, with a discipline I envied, he took her by the shoulders and pushed her gently away from him. He spoke hoarsely. ‘There are enough bastards in my lineage, Spark. I won’t make another one. Nor will I break faith with my father. I promised him, and I fear those words will be the last ones he heard from me. I must see this through to the end. And I will not chance leaving a fatherless child behind.’

‘I know ways to prevent …’

But he was shaking his head. ‘As you were “prevented”? As I was? No. You told me what Amber said to you, that in all likelihood, she and Fitz will both die. And as I am sent to protect him, that means I will die before he does. It will shame me enough to leave you without a protector, though I hope that Per will stand by you. But I’ll not chance leaving you with child.’

‘I’m more likely to end up protecting Per!’ She tried to take his hand but he clamped his fingers to the railing. She contented herself with covering his hand with hers. ‘Perhaps I’ll die protecting you before you die protecting Fitz,’ she offered, but her laugh was not a merry one.

I moved softly away from them, scarcely able to breathe for the tears. I hadn’t realized I’d begun to cry until I’d choked on them. So many lives contorted because my father had given in to lust. Or love? If Chade had not been born, if I had not been born, would other players have stepped up into our roles? How often had the Fool told me that life was an immense wheel, turning in a set track and that his task was to bump the wheel out of that track and set it on a better one? Was that what I’d witnessed tonight? Lant refusing to continue the Farseer tradition of hapless bastards?

I drifted back to the privacy of the room, closed the door behind me, removed the butterfly cloak and folded it carefully as it had been. I wished I had not worn it. I wished I didn’t know what I knew now. I put the cloak back where I found it, resolving I would not use it again, and knowing that I lied to myself.

Paragon was selecting our course now, with little regard to what Althea or Brashen might wish. Bingtown had been left far behind, with no pause. We had neither dropped off cargo there nor taken on supplies and water. We had threaded our way along the shifting coast of the swampy shores and entered the waters of the Pirate Islands. Some of them were inhabited, and others were wild and unclaimed places. It made no difference to Paragon. We might look longingly toward tiny port towns alight at night where we may have put in to take on fresh water and food, but he did not pause. On we went, as relentless as the sea itself. And our rations grew ever smaller.

‘We are prisoners.’

The Fool sat up from where he had been lounging on the lower bunk in the sweaty cabin and leaned out to give me a look. ‘Do you speak of Althea and Brashen? You know why they have cautioned you to keep mostly to our cabin.’

‘Not them. Under the circumstances, I think they have been very tolerant of us. It is Paragon who has taken us prisoner.’ I lowered my voice, painfully conscious that I could not tell what the liveship was or was not aware of within his wooden body. ‘He cares nothing now for Althea and Brashen’s contracts and deliveries. Nothing for our comfort and safety. He does not care that we are ill supplied for this voyage, having failed to take on supplies in Bingtown. Short rations mean nothing to him. On he goes, through night and storm. When Althea ordered the sails reefed, he rocked so violently that she called her crew back from going aloft.’

‘He has caught the current,’ the Fool said. ‘Even without sails, we would be carried through the Pirate Islands and past Jamaillia and on to the Spice Islands beyond them. He knows that, and the crew knows that.’

‘And the crew blames us for our situation.’ I sat up slowly in the cramped top bunk, careful of my head on the low ceiling of the cabin. ‘Coming down,’ I warned the Fool, and left the upper bunk. My body ached from inactivity. ‘I don’t like it when Lant and the youngsters are gone for so long. I’m going out to check on them.’

‘Be careful,’ he said, as if I needed a warning.

‘When am I not a cautious fellow?’ I asked him and he lifted his brows at me.

‘Wait. I’ve decided to go with you,’ he said and reached for Amber’s skirts that were wilted on the floor. The fabric rustled as he drew them up around his hips.

‘Must you?’

He frowned at me. ‘I know Althea and Brashen far better than you do. If there is trouble of any kind, I think I am the better judge of what to do.’

‘I mean the skirts. Must you continue to be Amber?’

His face grew still. He spoke more quietly, the skirts drooping in his hands. ‘I think that adding any other difficult truths to what the crew and the captains must absorb right now would only make our lives more difficult. They knew me as Amber, so Amber I must remain.’

‘I don’t like her,’ I said abruptly.

He gave a caw of laughter. ‘Really?’

I spoke honestly. ‘Really. I don’t like who you are when you are Amber. She’s, she’s not a person I would choose as a friend. She’s … conniving. Tricky.’

A half-smile curved his mouth. ‘And as the Fool, I was never tricky?’

‘Not this way,’ I said, but wondered if I lied. He had publicly mocked me when he thought it was politically advantageous. Manoeuvred me into what he needed me to do. Still I did not modify my stare.

He cocked his head at me. ‘I thought we were past all this,’ he said softly.

I said nothing. He bowed his head as if he could see his hands as he fastened the waistband of his skirts. ‘It is my best judgment that they continue to know me as Amber. And if you are leaving the cabin to look for the others, I think it best I go with you.’

‘As you wish,’ I said stiffly. Then, childishly, I added, ‘But I am not waiting for you.’ I left the small space, shutting the door not loudly but firmly behind me. Anger was a hot boil inside my throat and chest. I stood for a time in the passage, telling myself that it was simply close quarters for too long, and not true anger I was feeling for my friend. I took a deep breath and went back out onto the deck.

A fresh wind was blowing and the sun was shining, scattering silver on the water. I stood for a while, letting my eyes adjust and enjoying the wind on my face. After the crowded cabin, it felt as if I had the whole world around me. The dancing water that surrounded us was dotted with green islands in the distance. They rose abruptly from the water like mushrooms sprouting up from the forest floor. I drew a deep breath, ignored the sullen stare of Cord who had paused in her work to watch me, and went to find my straying wards.

I found Spark and Per leaning on the railing beside Lant. Spark’s hand was all but touching Lant’s on the railing. I sighed to myself. All three were looking morosely out over the water. As I took a spot behind them, Lant glanced back at me. ‘All well?’ I asked him.

He raised a brow. ‘I’m hungry. None of the crew will speak to me. I don’t sleep well at night. And how are you?’

‘Much the same,’ I said. The captains had reduced the rations for everyone.

On the day Paragon had by-passed the channel that would have taken us to Trader Bay and Bingtown, the captains and crew had confronted him. ‘I won’t be tied to a dock,’ Paragon had declared. ‘I won’t allow you to trick me into having lines roped to me so you can drag me aground on a beach.’

‘It’s not about trying to thwart you,’ Brashen had said. ‘It’s purely about taking on some water and food. Delivering the cargo we were to leave there. And sending some messages back to Bingtown and Trehaug and Kelsingra. Paragon, we have simply disappeared to those people! They will think the worst has befallen us.’

‘Oh, the worst?’ His voice had grown sly. ‘So they will think the mad ship has rolled and drowned another crew.’ There had been acid in his voice and his dragon eyes had whirled swiftly. ‘Isn’t that what you mean?’

Anger had spasmed over Brashen’s face. ‘Maybe. Or maybe our Bingtown merchants and our Rain Wild clients will think we’ve become thieves, taking their goods and running off to sell them elsewhere. Maybe we’ll lose the only things left to Althea and me, our good names.’

‘The only thing?’ the ship demanded. ‘Did you spend every penny of Igrot’s treasure, then? That was a fair windfall for you, when I took you to that!’

‘There’s enough left perhaps to commission an impervious ship to replace you. One of wood that would let us lead a simple life. If anyone consented to trade with us again after you’ve made us liars and cheats!’

‘Replace me? Ha! Impossible! I am the only reason you have ever prospered, you spend-thrift spoiled son of—’

‘Stop this.’ Althea had intervened, stepping closer to the figurehead, apparently without fear. ‘Paragon, be reasonable. You know we need fresh water to drink. You know we need food. We didn’t supply for a long voyage. We had enough on board to get us to Bingtown, and a bit extra. That was all. And we’re days past that. If you make us just keep going, we’re going to die of thirst. Or starve. You’ll get to wherever you’re going with a deck full of bodies — including Amber’s. Then how will you get your Silver and become dragons?’

There was no rationality in those spinning blue eyes. He turned his gaze out over the water. ‘There’s plenty of fish you can eat.’

So we’d sailed on, and Althea and Brashen had cut the rations. And yes, there were fish in these waters, and moisture in the cooked flesh. The crew had pulled enough aboard each day to eke out the hard tack and salt-meat that was left to us. We’d had two spring storms, and Althea had ordered out clean canvas and channelled rainwater into barrels to replenish our meagre stores. And still we sailed on, through the region known as the Cursed Shores with its shifting sandbars and toxic waters, and on until we began to see the scattered islets and then the islands of the Pirate Isles.

Motley swooped down and startled me by landing on my shoulder. ‘Well, where have you been?’ I greeted the crow.

‘Ship.’ She spoke the word urgently. ‘Ship, ship, ship.’

‘We’re on a ship,’ I conceded to her.

‘Ship! Ship, ship, ship!’

‘Another ship?’ Per asked her, and she bobbed her head wildly up and down and agreed, ‘Ship, ship.’

Where?’ I pushed the word at her with Wit as well as voice. As always, I felt as if I shouted down a well.

‘Ship!’ she insisted, and launched from my shoulder. The wind caught her and flung her skyward. I lifted my eyes to follow her flight. Up she went and up, far higher than the ship’s mast. There she hung, rocking in the wind. ‘SHIP!’ she called, and her word reached us faintly.

Ant had been halfway up the mast. At the crow’s call, she looked around, scanning the full horizon before climbing even higher. When she reached the crow’s nest at the top of the mast, she scanned the horizon, then, pointing, ‘SAIL!’ she called.

In an instant, Brashen had joined Althea on the deck. They both looked up, followed Ant’s finger. Brashen’s face was grave.

‘What’s wrong?’ I asked Amber softly.

‘It’s probably nothing,’ she replied. ‘But at one time, passage through the Pirate Isles might cost your life. Or your freedom, or your cargo. When Kennit was raiding these passages, he built an empire, going from pirate captain to king. He didn’t ransom the ships he captured. Instead, he appointed one of his loyal men to be captain and sent him out to raid, taking a share of whatever loot he captured. He crewed his new ships with escaped slaves, or sometimes with the very men they had defeated. From a single ship, he went to two, then half a dozen and then a fleet. He became a leader, and then a king.’ She paused. ‘A fairly good king, as it turned out.’

‘Yet an evil bastard of a man.’ Althea had approached quietly as Amber was speaking.

Amber turned, showing no evidence of surprise. ‘That, too, is true. According to some.’

‘According to me,’ Althea said brusquely. ‘But now the Pirate Isles are themselves plagued with pirates. And if it is not a pirate ship that overtakes you, it may be one of the tariff ships, come to collect a “passage tax”. Like pirates, but with far more paperwork.’ She turned to Per. ‘That crow of yours. He talks. Is there any chance he could tell us what ship he has sighted?’

Per shook his head, surprised to be singled out. ‘She says words, but I’m not sure she always knows what she’s saying. Or that she could tell one sort of ship from another.’

‘I see.’ Althea fell thoughtfully silent.

‘Are you worried what will happen if that is Vivacia or another liveship?’ Amber dropped the question as if she were plopping small stones into a quiet pond.

Althea’s response was so calm I wondered if she had forgiven Amber. ‘The thought occurred to me. Yes, it’s a worry. We can’t know yet how the Silver will affect him, or if he can ever transform completely into a dragon. I’d sooner not create misery for every liveship and liveship family until we know how Paragon’s experiment will end.’

I felt Brashen coming to join us before he stepped into my peripheral vision. He had the presence of a predator and my Wit-sense of him was edged with scarlet anger. I managed to keep my hands lax and my shoulders lowered but it was not easy.

Althea’s mouth moved, as if she considered words and rejected them. ‘Right now, Amber, you have a better connection with Paragon than either Brashen or me. And I have to ask you to use whatever influence you have with him.’

‘What do you wish of me?’

‘If that sail is a liveship, we judge it best to stay clear. However, if it is an ordinary wooden ship, we’d like to come alongside and see if we can buy provisions from them. Anything would be welcome, but chiefly we need water.’ She shifted her gaze to me. ‘In the Rain Wilds we take on rainwater from wooden cisterns high in the trees. It’s expensive, and we try to take only what we need. The water from the river and its tributaries are usually unsafe to drink.’ She sighed. ‘To ration food is harsh enough. But soon we will have to cut the water allowance again, unless Paragon allows us to put in at one of the Pirate Islands and take on water. Or we encounter a ship that has enough fresh water to wish to sell some.’

I watched her shoulders rise and fall with her deep sigh. Then she rolled them back, squaring them, and I felt my admiration for her rise. She possessed the sort of grinding courage I had seldom seen in man or woman. Facing the end of all she had known as her life — the end of all she had expected her life to be — she would nonetheless think not only of her crew but of those who crewed the other Bingtown liveships. And of the ship she still loved, even as he prepared to abandon her.

Verity. Carving his dragon. That was who she reminded me of.

Amber spoke my question aloud. ‘So. You have forgiven me?’

Althea gave her head a short shake. ‘Not any more than I’ve forgiven Kennit for raping me. Or Kyle for taking Vivacia from my care. For some things, there is no forgiving or unforgiving. They are simply a crossroads, and a direction taken, whether I would or no. Someone else set my feet on that path. All I can control is every step I take after that.’

‘I’m sorry,’ Amber said softly.

‘You’re sorry?’ Brashen asked incredulously. ‘Now you say you’re sorry?’

Amber lifted one shoulder. ‘I know I don’t deserve forgiveness for what I’ve done. I don’t want to seem as if I expect it, based on old friendship. Yet I say it now to let you know it’s the truth. I’m sorry that it was what I had to do. Althea is right. Events set my feet on a path. All I can do is take the next step.’

‘She’s flying Pirate Island colours!’ Ant called down to us. ‘And she’s tacking to cut our path. Moving fast, too.’

‘Most likely a tariff ship,’ Brashen suggested. He scowled toward the horizon. ‘If it is, it will be sure to intercept us, to demand to inspect our cargo, and charge us for passage through these waters.’

‘And as we are carrying Elderling artefacts from Trehaug and Kelsingra — items that were originally destined for Bingtown — the value they will assign and hence the tariffs on that value will be far beyond our ability to pay. We will be detained in the Pirate Isles and given a choice between sending for the funds or surrendering part of our cargo to pay the tariff — cargo that is not ours to use to pay our debts. Cargo we were contracted to transport to Bingtown.’ Althea spoke as if the words were made of thorns.

Brashen laughed without humour. ‘And if we refuse to be boarded by the Pirate Isle tariff agents, or if we refuse to follow them to port until the tariff is paid, then they will endeavour to force their way onto Paragon and take control of him. And we have no idea how he will react to that.’

‘Actually, I fear that I have a very clear idea of how he will react,’ Althea said. ‘I think he will do his best to sink the other ship, with little mercy for the crew.’ She shook her head bitterly before turning back to Amber. ‘And so I am going to ask you to use every bit of influence you have to persuade him to be reasonable. To let them come alongside and talk with us. There will be trouble over the tariffs, but at least putting into port will give us the chance to take on food and water. Or to release our crew.’

‘Release the crew?’ There was alarm in Amber’s voice.

Althea was resolute. ‘As many as will go. Whatever is to become of Paragon, and of us, I see no point in taking them all with us. The sooner they are off Paragon’s decks, the sooner they can find other employment. Other lives.’

‘How can Paragon get to Clerres with no crew?’ Amber demanded.

‘Skeleton crew.’ She looked Amber up and down. ‘You’ll have to lose those skirts and remember how to work the deck again.’ She tipped her head toward me. ‘Him, too. And Lant and the youngsters.’

I opened my mouth to respond but Amber spoke quickly. ‘I’m blind. But what I can do, I will. We all will. And I will do all I can to encourage Paragon to be reasonable. I’ve no wish for this to be any worse than it must be.’

‘Any worse,’ Brashen said softly, a terrible wondering in his voice. ‘How could it be any worse?’

As if in answer to his question, a wave of something swept past me that spun me like a weathervane. It seemed as palpable as the wind, but it was not air that slid past me, but Skill and Wit, twined together and moving through the wizardwood of the ship in a way I knew but did not understand. I knew it, for I had done it — done it without thinking or understanding it in the days when I had first begun to try to master my magics. I had done it because I had not known how to separate them. I had been told my Skill was tainted with the Wit, and I had known that my Wit had undertones of Skill to it. I had struggled to separate the two, to use the Skill properly. And I had succeeded. Almost.

But now I felt it rippling and surging through the ship, and it felt, not wrong, but pure. As if two halves of something had been restored to a whole. It was powerful, and for a time I could focus on nothing but the wonder I felt at it.

‘Oh, no!’ Althea said in a low voice, and that was when I knew the others were aware of it too. All of them stood still, faces frozen, as if they were listening to the distant howling of hungry wolves. Everyone save Perseverance, who looked from face to face and then demanded, ‘What is it?’

‘Something’s changing,’ Spark whispered. Transfixed as I was by the flow of magic, I still noted in a small corner of my mind how her hand crept out to grasp Lant’s forearm, and how he set his hand over hers to reassure her. Something was changing indeed, and it wasn’t just the ship. I felt Amber catch hold of my sleeve.

Althea and Brashen moved as if one will controlled them, striding toward the foredeck. Overhead, Motley still circled, cawing ‘Ship, Ship!’ We followed, and Clef came dashing past us. As abruptly as the surging magic had begun, it passed. Althea and Brashen had gained the foredeck.

Paragon twisted slowly to look back at them. ‘What?’ he asked mildly, raising a questioning brow.

I had a single instant of disconnection before the obvious stunned me. He looked back at us with my face, save for his pale blue eyes. ‘That’s exactly how Prince FitzChivalry looks when he’s puzzled,’ Per observed, answering a question I hadn’t even formed in my mind. Slowly, Paragon turned away from us. He lifted his arm, offering the back of his wrist to the sky. Motley swooped in to land there, completing my utter confusion.

‘Ship!’ she told him.

‘I see it. It’s a tariff ship. We’d best heave to, and then let them know we’ll be following them to Divvytown to pay our taxes.’ He glanced back to give his captains a boyish grin. ‘Vivacia is out of Divvytown, isn’t she? I have a feeling she’ll be there. It will be so good to see Boy-O again, won’t it? And Queen Etta has her court there. Perhaps, at last, Paragon Kennitsson will see fit to walk my decks. Let’s put on some more sail and pick up some speed.’

‘Paragon, what are you playing at?’ Brashen demanded in a low voice.

The figurehead did not turn back towards him. ‘Playing at? Whatever do you mean?’

‘Why have you resumed your old face?’ Brashen asked.

‘Because I did. Isn’t this the one you prefer? The one that makes me seem more human?’

‘You are human,’ Amber spoke her words with soft clarity. ‘Human and dragon. Possessed of the memories of both. Soaked in the blood and the memories of those who have crewed your decks, bled and died on them. You began as the shells of two dragons, that is true. But you have become something that is not only dragon, but imbued with humanity as well.’

Paragon was silent.

‘Yet you changed your face,’ Amber continued, ‘so that Boy-O would see you in your familiar guise and not be alarmed.’ I wondered if she were guessing or if she knew.

‘I changed my face because it suited me to do so.’ Paragon spoke the words defiantly.

Amber’s response was mild. ‘And it suited you to do so because you care for Boy-O. Paragon, there is no shame in being who and what you are. In partaking of two worlds instead of one.’

He turned to look at her and the blue of his eyes was dragon-blue. ‘I shall be dragons again. I shall.’

Amber nodded slowly. ‘Yes, I believe that you will. As will Vivacia and the other liveships. But you will be dragons as dragons have not existed before. Dragons touched with humanity. Understanding us. Perhaps even caring about us.’

‘You do not know what you are saying! Dragons shaped by human touch? Do you know what those are? Abominations! That is what they are, those who hatch and grow on Others’ Island. Those who are as much human as serpent, and hence neither! And never will they be dragons. I shall be dragons!’

I made little sense of this outburst, but Amber seemed to understand it. ‘Yes. Yes, of course, you will be dragons. And the part of you that will remember humanity is not in your wing or your tooth or your eye. It will be in your memory. As the serpents of the sea recall the memories they need of those who were serpents before them, and as a dragon recalls his ancestral knowledge. You will have an additional pool of memories. Your human memories. And it will give you wisdom beyond what other dragons have. You and the dragons who have been liveships will be dragons apart from the ordinary. A new kind of dragon.’

He turned away from all of us. ‘You have no idea what you are suggesting. Look. Soon they will be hailing us. Should not you be about your duties?’

The tariff ship’s captain was a young man. The red beard that edged his chin was patchy and though he wore a fine hat with several immense plumes in it, I think he was relieved when Brashen shouted to him that we were Divvytown bound to submit for taxing. ‘I’ll follow you then,’ he declared, as if he had been about to demand that we submit.

‘Go ahead and try,’ Paragon invited him affably. And indeed, once we were under way again, he demonstrated the difference between a liveship and one made of wood. Given the same wind and current, we pulled steadily away from the tariff vessel. Truly, if Paragon had wanted to run from him, the tariff ship’s chase would have been futile.

No one asked us to leave the deck and so I stood by the rail with my small retinue, enjoying the wind on my face. ‘How does he do it?’ I asked Amber, and felt Per step closer for the answer.

‘I don’t truly know. He smooths his hull, I think. And unlike many other ships, a liveship will never develop a beard of weed and mussels. His hull never needs to be scraped and painted, and no tubeworm will ever hole his planking.’

For the rest of the afternoon, we watched the islands grow closer. Soon even Paragon had to slow in order to thread his way through islets to what had once been a hidden town, a place where pirates went to divvy out their spoils and drink and gamble and take every pleasure they could. Once it had been a place where escaped slaves could go to begin a new life as free folk. I’d heard tales of it as a noisome place of stagnant water and patchwork hovels and sagging wharves.

But Paragon followed a well-marked channel into a tidy little harbour where large sailing vessels, obviously merchanters, were anchored in the bay while smaller ships and fishing boats were tied to an orderly array of docks. A prosperous little city spread back from the harbour in a grid of streets and alleys. Trees I did not recognize lined the streets, heavy with yellow blossoms. The main street led to a large structure about the same size as the manor house at Withywoods, but there the resemblance ended. Queen Etta’s palace was of plank, painted white, with long open porches on the front. A green surrounded it, so that even from the harbour it was visible past the rows of warehouses and storefronts. As I looked, I realized that the height of the buildings had been reduced to have exactly that effect; the royal residence towered over the town and, from the upper balconies and tower, had an unimpeded view of the harbour.

‘Is that the Vivacia?’ Lant asked and I turned my gaze.

‘I don’t know but she’s definitely a liveship.’ She was a queenly creation, a youthful woman with her head held high and her shapely arms and wrists crossed at her waist. Her hair was a black tumble of curls that fell to her bared shoulders and over her breasts. I saw in her proud features an echo of Althea, as if they were related. As Spark described the vessel to Amber in a low voice, Amber nodded. ‘Vivacia,’ she confirmed. ‘The Vestrit family liveship. Command of her was snatched away from Althea by cruelty and strange turns of fate. Her nephew Wintrow commands her now. Brashen served aboard her for years, as first mate under Althea’s father. This will be bittersweet for both of them.’

Vivacia rocked gently at anchor in the harbour. Paragon’s sails were slowly gathered in, and when a small flotilla of dories came out to meet us lines were tossed and Paragon surrendered his motion to their command. I paid small attention to any of that. Instead I stared at Vivacia as we drew nearer. She turned her face toward us, and at first it was the look of a woman interrupted in her private musings. Then, as she recognized the ship, a smile dawned on her features. Vivacia held out her arms in welcome, and despite all that had befallen Althea and was yet to come, I heard our captain call a joyous greeting.

The dories pulled Paragon into position facing Vivacia and his anchor was dropped. A longboat moved out from the docks and came alongside us, and a woman in an extravagant hat and a well-tailored jacket over black breeches called out that she would be pleased to transport the captain and a manifest of our cargo to the Tariff House. Althea called back that she would be pleased to accompany them in a short time; would the tariff officer wish to come aboard and view the cargo, as there were unusual circumstances to be explained?

The officer was so inclined. But I was distracted from that process by what was taking place on Paragon’s deck. With various shades of reluctance and anger, the crew folk were assembling. Most had brought their ditty bags from belowdecks. The canvas sacks were not large but contained most if not all of each sailor’s possessions. Ant was weeping silently, the tears streaming down her face as she bade farewells. Cord threw her bag near the girl and hunkered down beside her. The look she gave us was hostile.

I made a decision that surprised me, for I had not even realized I was considering it. ‘Lant, a word with you,’ I said, and led him apart from the others. I leaned on the railing, looking up at Divvytown. He took his place beside me, a slight scowl on his face. I suspected he knew what my topic was, but doubted he knew the direction of the discussion. I waved at the city. ‘It’s not a bad place. It looks clean, with legitimate businesses. And there’s a lot of trade and traffic through here.’

He nodded, a frown building between his brows.

‘You and Spark could do well here. And I’d be grateful if you took Per as well. Take the gifts we were given in Kelsingra. Be careful how you sell them; get full value. There should be enough money to keep you all for some time, and enough to send Per back to Buckkeep.’

He was silent for a while. When he turned to stare at me, his eyes were flinty. ‘You’ve made some assumptions about me that I don’t care for.’

‘Have I?’ I asked him coldly. ‘I see how she follows you about; I see her hand on your arm.’ Then what should have been righteous anger suddenly melted into weariness. ‘Lant, I hope you truly care for her. She isn’t a serving girl to be romped and set aside. Chade chose her. She came with us, and I never expected any of this to happen. I wish she had stayed with him. But she’s here, and I expect you to—’

‘You’re insulting me. And her!’

I stopped talking. Time to listen. The silence ate at him until he filled it.

‘We do share an … attraction. I don’t know how you think it could have become more than that on a ship as crowded as this one. And no matter what she feels for me, her loyalty to Amber is greater. She won’t forsake her.’

I bowed my head to that.

‘I doubt you will as easily believe what next I tell you. My father asked a task of me and I said I would do it to my utmost ability. If you cannot accept that I might feel some loyalty to you, then know that I am my father’s son. I may not perform to the level you expect, but I will stay at your side until this thing is done. One way or another.’ His voice suddenly grew thicker. ‘I did not do well with Bee. Not when I tried to teach her, not when you left her in my safekeeping. She was a strange and difficult child. Don’t bristle at me! You must know it’s true. But I should have done better by her, even if protecting her with a blade was never something I expected to do. She was my cousin and a child in my care, and I failed her. Do you not think that I have agonized about that? Going to avenge her is something I have an interest in, beyond any duty to you or my father.’

‘The Fool thinks Bee might still be alive.’

That brought his eyes back to meet mine. I saw pity in them. ‘I know he does. But why?’

I took a breath. ‘Bee kept a journal of things she dreamed. I’ve read the entries to him and he thinks they have meanings beyond what I understand. He believes Bee had foresight, and that some of her dreams predicted she would survive.’

His face was still for a moment. Then he shook his head. ‘That’s a cruel hope to dangle in front of you, Fitz. Though were we to find her alive and bring her home, it would lift a great weight of guilt from my shoulders.’ He paused. I could think of nothing to reply to that. Then he went on, ‘I say this as a friend, if you ever consider me so. Fix your course on vengeance, not rescue. There’s no guarantee of the latter. We may not have success with the former either, but I am determined they will know we tried.’

A friend. My mind snagged on that word and I wondered if I did feel he was a friend. I knew I’d come to rely on him. And now I had to admit that some of the anger I’d felt about his possible involvement with Spark was that I knew I had to release both of them. I asked the worst possible question, thoughtlessly. ‘Then you and Spark are not …?’

He stared at me. ‘I don’t think you have the right to ask either of us that question. You may not have noticed, but I am a man grown and of noble birth. Not your equal, perhaps, but not your serving man. Nor is Spark a servant to you, or anyone else. She is as free to choose her course as I am.’

‘She is under my protection and very young.’

He shook his head. ‘She is older than she looks, and more experienced in the ways of this world than many a woman twice her age. Certainly she has seen more of the hard side of life than Shun ever did. She’ll make her own decisions, Fitz. And if she wants your protection, she’ll ask for it. But I doubt she’ll ask to be protected from me.’

I did not think our discussion was over, but he turned and walked away. And when I reluctantly followed him, I found only Per waiting with him. ‘Where are Amber and Spark?’

‘Lady Amber went to change her clothing. Althea asked that she accompany them on shore. Spark went to help her. Evidently Althea and Brashen think Amber should be with them when they sit down with Admiral Wintrow Vestrit, to discuss our future. The crew has been offered “shore leave” which is, I think, an invitation for them to jump ship here. Two thirds of them have accepted it.’

Small boats had already ventured out from the town. Vendors in the little boats below were hawking everything from fresh vegetables to free rides to Auntie Rose’s Ladyhouse. I watched our crew departing, ditty bags on their shoulders as they climbed over the railing and down to the waiting dories. A few were clustered near the foredeck, bidding Paragon farewell. The ship was kind to them but unswerving in his determination. Across the stretch of water that separated us from Vivacia, she watched us expectantly, eyeing every small boat that departed from ours. Ant stood beside Clef, watching her fellows leave. Kitl stayed; Cord left. Twan went to the railing with his ditty bag, then turned, cursed fluently and kicked his bag back across the deck and down the hatch to the crew quarters. Cypros went and took his arm. They went to stand with Ant.

‘Go with Amber and Spark,’ I ordered Lant.

‘I wasn’t invited.’

‘Amber is blind and Spark is, as others besides you may note, a very pretty girl. Divvytown was a pirate town, and I am sure that men with the hearts of pirates still abide here. I know that Althea and Brashen would not deliberately lead them into danger, but if there is danger, I would wish that they had a man with them who was dedicated solely to protecting them.’

‘Why don’t you go yourself?’

‘Because I am sending you,’ I replied tersely. Sparks of anger leapt into his eyes and I modified my tart reply with, ‘I wish to remain on the ship and watch what transpires here. I also wish to charge you with an additional errand. Find someone who has messenger birds. A wealthy merchant, preferably, someone who would have connections so that a message capsule might be transferred from bird to bird until it reaches Buckkeep. I’d like to send back word that we are alive and well and continuing our journey.’

He was silent for a moment. Then he asked, ‘Will you tell Chade and Dutiful and Nettle that Lady Amber believes Bee might still be alive?’

I shook my head. ‘When I truly know that I have good news for them, then I’ll share it. They should not have to live in uncertainty until then.’

He was nodding slowly. Abruptly he said, ‘I’ll do it. But— would you write an additional message for me? If there is any message-parchment on this ship?’

‘I have a bit left from what Reyn gave me. It’s precious stuff. Don’t you want to write it yourself?’

‘No. I’d rather you wrote it. A note to Lord Chade. Just to say that … I’m doing what he asked of me. And doing it … well. If you can bring yourself to say that of me. But you can say whatever you like. I won’t read it before I send it. Just tell him I’m still at your side and serving you.’ He looked away from me. ‘If you would.’

‘I can easily do that,’ I said slowly.

I returned to Amber’s cabin and carefully penned a note in tiny letters to Chade. The fine parchment was nearly translucent. Even so, there was little space to say much more than that I was very well pleased with FitzVigilant’s service to me. I may have mentioned that, on several occasions, he had been instrumental in keeping me alive. I blew on it and waved it about to dry and then rolled it small to make it fit in the hollow bone capsule that would protect it on its journey. On the bone itself I lettered Chade’s name and Buckkeep Castle, Buck in the Six Duchies. It had a long, far way to travel. As I entrusted it to an abashed Lant, I wondered if any of our messages home had been received yet. I had not sealed it with wax, and he knew that was my invitation to read what I’d written. But there was no time for any discussion, for all the others were eager to get to Divvytown. I decided I would leave it to Lant to compose a message explaining where we were and the peculiar nature of the liveship we were on.

I had hurried, but I’d still kept the shore party waiting. Althea gave Vivacia a friendly wave before she turned and descended the ladder to the waiting rowing boat. The liveship watched our party clamber down and find their places. Her smile broadened, only to fade to a puzzled stare as the small boat went directly to Divvytown.

As the long evening passed, Per and I sat at the galley table, idly rolling a set of dice that belonged to the crew and moving pegs in a gameboard. I could not care if I won or lost, and so I played poorly, to Per’s disgust. To my Wit the ship felt empty, almost cavernous, with most of the crew gone. Clef and several of the older hands gathered at the far end of the table. Kitl had made food in the galley, and it was heartening once more to smell cooking meat. When she called us to eat, there were admiring coos from the crew. Even more enticing than the platter of sizzling meat strips was a large bowl of fresh greens. Scallions and flat pea pods, crisp stalks of a vegetable I didn’t know, and mixed in with them, carrots no bigger than my thumb and piquant purple radishes. We each dished our own food onto tin plates. The strips of meat were tough and a bit gamy, but no one complained. The crew ate theirs with a white paste that was so hot it made my eyes water and my nose run when I tried it. But no one laughed at me or made a joke of it.

Per and I ate at our end of the table, apart from the crew-folk. The sidelong glances we received were plain reminders that they had not forgotten who was at the root of their problems. Clef, scowled at the obvious separation, and came to join us, filling the empty seat at the galley table between us and the crew.

After we had eaten and Ant collected the plates, Clef joined us at our game. I rolled dice and moved my pegs but Clef and Per knew they only competed against each other. While they gamed, I eavesdropped with one ear on the subdued talk of the crew. The older hands spoke of ‘the old days’. Some few had been there when the Paragon had been dragged off the beach where he had languished for many a year and towed back into deep water. Others spoke of when the ship had stood up to a fleet of ordinary vessels and helped the Satrap of Jamaillia make his claim to power. They recalled shipmates who had died on the ship’s deck and entrusted their memories to his wizardwood planks. Lop, who had not been the brightest fellow but had always pulled his share of the load. Semoy, mate for a time until there came a year when he had no strength and dwindled to bones and sinew, and died while coiling a line. And they spoke of the pirate, Kennit. Paragon had been his family ship, but that secret had not been known while Kennit was alive and raiding. Even fewer had known that Igrot, the notoriously cruel pirate, had stolen both ship and the boy Kennit from his family and misused both. Even after Paragon was reunited with Kennit and they rediscovered one another, Kennit had tried to use fire to send him to the bottom. But in the end, when Kennit was dying, Paragon had taken him back and received him gently. It was a mystery they still discussed in soft voices. How could such a wilful ship also have been so loving? Did the memories of Kennit move in him now, recalling Divvytown to him?

My speculation was silent. Whose memories would guide Paragon back to Clerres? Igrot’s, I decided. Did the thoughts and deeds of that nefarious old pirate lurk deep in the ship’s wizardwood bones? How deep did the memories of his human family and crew soak into his dragon’s wood?

And I wondered how Althea had felt captaining a ship that would always harbour the memories of her rapist. How much of the pirate still lurked in the ship that wanted to be two dragons?

Useless questions.

Per won the game and Clef stood up from the table. He looked weary and sad and much older than he had when we first had come aboard. He looked around at the faces and then lifted his mug of fresh water. ‘Shipmates to the end,’ he said, and the others nodded and drank with him. It was a strange toast that fanned my guilt to white-hot coals. ‘I’m taking the anchor watch,’ he announced, and I knew it was not his usual duty. I suspected he would spend it near the figurehead. The spy in me wondered if I could manage to witness whatever words they traded. When Per proposed another game, I shook my head. ‘I need to walk a bit after that meal,’ I told him, and left him to tidy our game away.

I leaned on the railing and watched the pirate town as the summer night descended. The sky darkened from azure to the blue that precedes black, and still Amber and the others did not return. Per joined me on the deck to watch the lights of Divvytown come out. It was a lively place; music carried to us across the water, and the angry shouts of a street fight came later.

‘They’ll probably stay the night in the town,’ I told Per, and he nodded as if he did not care or worry.

We retired to Amber’s cabin. ‘Do you miss Withywoods?’ he asked me abruptly.

‘I don’t think of it much,’ I told him. But I did. Not so much the house as the people and the life that had been there. Such a life, and for too few years.

‘I do,’ Per said quietly. ‘Sometimes. I miss being so sure of what my life would be. I was going to grow taller than my father and be Tallestman, and step up to his job in the stables when he got old.’

‘That might still be,’ I said, but he shook his head. For a time, he was quiet. Then he told me a long, wandering tale about the first time he’d had to groom a horse much taller than he could reach. I noted that he could now speak of his father without weeping. When he fell silent, I stared out of the window at the stars over the town. I dozed off for a time. When I woke, the cabin was dark save for a smudge of light from an almost full moon. Per was sound asleep and I was perfectly awake. With no real idea of what had wakened me, I found the boots I had kicked off, donned them and left the cabin.

On the deck, the moon and the still burning lights of Divvytown made the night a place of deep greys. I heard voices and walked softly toward the bow.

‘You’re dragging anchor.’ Clef made his accusation factually.

‘The tide is running and the bottom is soft. It’s scarcely my fault that the anchor isn’t holding.’ Paragon sounded as petulant as a boy.

‘I’m going to have to roust every crew member I still have aboard to hold you in place, lift anchor and drop it again.’

‘Perhaps not. It feels to me as if it’s holding now. Perhaps it was just a bit of slippage.’

I stood still, breathing softly. I looked at the town and tried to decide if the ship had moved. I couldn’t decide. When I looked at Vivacia, I became certain that he had. The distance between the two liveships had closed.

‘Oh, dear. Slipping again.’ The liveship’s words were apologetic but his tone was merry. We edged closer to Vivacia. She seemed unaware of us, her head drooped forward. Was she asleep? Would a ship made of wizardwood need to sleep?

‘Paragon!’ Clef warned him.

‘Slipping again,’ the ship announced, and our progress toward the other liveship was now unmistakable.

‘All hands!’ Clef roared abruptly. His whistle pierced the peaceful night. ‘All hands on deck!’

I heard shouts and the thudding of feet hitting the floor below decks and then Paragon saying, ‘Vivacia! I’m dragging anchor. Catch hold of me!’ Vivacia jerked to awareness, her head coming up and her eyes flashing wide. Paragon held out his arms to her in a plea and, after a moment, she reached toward him.

‘Mind my bowsprit!’ she cried, and narrowly they avoided that disaster. Paragon caught one of her hands and with an impressive display of strength pulled himself close to her. It set both ships rocking wildly and I heard cries of alarm from Vivacia’s crew. In a moment, Paragon embraced her with one arm despite her efforts to fend him off.

‘Be still!’ he warned her, ‘or you will tangle us hopelessly. I want to speak to you. And I want to touch you while I do so.’

‘Fend him off!’ she shouted to her crew who came running as she pushed futilely against his carved chest. Clef was shouting commands to his crew and someone was angrily cursing at him from Vivacia’s deck, demanding to know what sort of an idiot he was. Clef tried to shout an explanation while barking orders at his crew.

Paragon’s laugh boomed out over the cacophony, silencing them all. Except Vivacia. ‘Get him away from me!’ Vivacia barked her command. But Paragon only shifted his grip to the curls on the back of her head and bent her head backwards so that her bare breasts thrust up toward him. To my astonishment, he leaned down and kissed one. As she shrieked her outrage and seized his face in her nailed hands, he increased his grip upon her hair. With his free hand, he reached up and seized a handful of the lines that festooned her bowsprit. He paid no attention to her battering.

‘Don’t try to fend me off!’ he warned her crew. ‘Get away from the foredeck. All of you! Clef, order everyone back. And you, Vivacia’s crew, go back to your bunks. Unless Boy-O is among you. Send him to me if he’s there. If not, leave us alone!’ He bent his head again and tried to kiss Vivacia’s face, but she seized handfuls of his hair and tried to tear it from his scalp. He let her sink her hands into it, then abruptly made it harden into carved wood under her touch. ‘Do you think this wood feels pain?’ he demanded of her. ‘Not unless I will it to. But what do you feel when I kiss you? Do you recall Althea’s outrage when Kennit forced himself upon her? Did you keep that memory, or is it solely mine, her pain absorbed by me that she might heal? As I took Kennit’s pain at all Igrot did to him. Have you only human memories left to you? What do you feel, wooden ship? Or does a dragon still lurk in you? Once, you named yourself Bolt. Do you recall that? Do you recall the fury of a queen dragon when she rises in flight and defies all drakes to master her? What are you right now, Vivacia? A woman struggling against a man, or a queen dragon challenging her mate to master her?’

Abruptly she ceased her struggling, her features set into an aristocratic look of frozen disdain. Then, heedless of his grip on her hair, she rocked her head forward and stared at him with eyes that blazed with the true light of hatred. ‘Mad ship!’ she called him. ‘Pariah! What insanity is this? Will you sink yourself right here in Divvytown harbour? You are no fit mate for me, were I woman or dragon.’

Out of the corner of my eye I saw a boat lowered from the Vivacia and four men rowing furiously toward Divvytown, doubtless to alert someone and demand aid. If Paragon saw it go, he paid no attention to it.

‘Are you certain of that?’ As he spoke the words, I felt the change ripple through the ship.

‘I am certain,’ Vivacia said disdainfully. She turned her face away from him. ‘What do you want of me?’ she asked in a low voice.

‘I want you to recall that you are a dragon. Not a ship, not a servant to the humans who sail you, not a sexless being trapped in a woman’s form. A dragon. As am I.’ As he spoke, he was changing, resuming his semi-dragon form. I found I had crossed my arms tightly across my chest and raised my walls. Skill and Wit, I tried to contain myself, as prey does when a predator threatens. I saw the dark curling hair on his skull become a dragon’s scaled crest, watched as his neck grew longer and sinuous.

But most astonishing of all, I watched Vivacia’s face. Her expression became stone. The light that shone from her eyes grew bright and harsh as she witnessed his transformation. She did not wince from him at all.

When his transformation was complete, when I felt the magic grow still, she spoke at last. ‘What makes you think I have ever forgotten that I am a dragon? But what of it? Would you have me cast aside the life I have yearning for what is lost? What life would I gain? That of a mad ship, chained to a beach, isolated and avoided?’ She ran her eyes over the transformed figurehead. ‘Or play at being a dragon? Pathetic.’

He did not flinch at her scorn. ‘You can be a dragon. As you were meant to be.’

Silence. Then, in a low voice that might have held hatred or been full of pity, she said, ‘You are mad.’

‘No, I am not. Set your human memories aside, set your time of being a ship aside. Reach back, past the long imprisonment in your case, past your time as a serpent. Can you recall being a dragon? At all?’

I thought I felt the magic moving again. Perhaps it flowed from ship to ship, from Paragon to Vivacia. I caught the edges of floating memories, as if I scented foreign food. I flew with wings over the forest; the wind filled my sails and I cut through the waves. I flew over valleys thick with green foliage but my eyes were keen and I could sense every waft of warmth from living flesh, flesh that I could feed on. I moved through water, cold and deep, but beneath me I could sense shadowy pulses of being, other creatures, scaled as I once had been, free as I once had been. I found I was edging forward, drawn into that world of wings and wonder. Stay out of his reach, I thought faintly and almost wondered if Nighteyes still lurked within me to give me that wolfish warning. But I had moved to where I could see the Vivacia’s face and a partial profile of Paragon. So human and so foreign were those faces.

‘No,’ Paragon said. ‘Go back farther. As far as you can reach. Here. This. Remember this!’

Again, I felt that surge of magic, Wit and Skill seamed into a tool sharper than any sword.

Once, during the battle of Antler Island, a man had hit me on the side of my head with the hilt of his sword. It had not stopped me, and my axe had already descended between the point of his shoulder and his head as he struck. The blow did not have a great deal of force, yet it made my ears ring and for a time the world wavered before me in odd colours. I knew it had happened, yet never had I recalled it. But as I was plunged into a dragon-memory it was as if Nettle had pulled me into a Skill-dream. The sensation was so similar that it awoke that old memory. I felt I reeled as from a blow, and I saw a pool of sparkling silver edged with black and silver sand, and beyond its edges, a meadow of black and silver grasses, and white-trunked trees with black leaves beyond that. I blinked my human eyes, trying to resolve it into familiar colours. Instead I saw a dragon, green as only gemstones are green, and as sparkling.

He came from the horizon, small at first and then looming larger and larger until he was the largest creature I’d ever seen — larger than Tintaglia or even IceFyre. He landed in the silver pond, sending up plumes of silver liquid that lapped and splashed against the black sand and rocks, coating them briefly with a layer of silver. The dragon plunged his head and serpentine neck into the stuff, wallowing and washing himself in it as if he were a swan. His scales seemed to absorb it, and the green grew dazzling. Groomed with it, he then lowered his muzzle to the water and drank and drank.

As he waded from the pool and composed himself for rest on the grassy bank, I had one long moment of looking into his whirling eyes. I saw age there. And wisdom. And a sort of glory I’d never seen in the eyes of a man. For a humbling instant, I knew that I looked upon a creature that was better than I would or could ever be.

‘Sir? Prince FitzChivalry?’

I started from my dream, feeling resentful. It was Per, tugging at my sleeve, his eyes wide and dark in the dimness. ‘What is it, boy?’ I wanted him to be gone. I wanted to plunge back into that world, to know that dragon and be the better for knowing him.

‘I thought you’d want to know. Our boat is coming, as fast as it can move, with Captains Althea and Brashen, and Amber and Spark and Lant. And someone from the other ship is coming, too.’

‘Thank you, lad.’ I turned away from him and tried to find an entry back into that magical dream. But either it was over or I had lost my way. I sensed the magic still streaming between the two liveships, but I could not enter to share it. Instead I saw only the two figureheads. Despite their bowsprits, they embraced as closely as they could, as if they were lovers denied intimacy for too long. Vivacia’s head rested on Paragon’s scaled chest, her eyes wide but unseeing. His longer neck had twined around her like a scarf and his dragon’s head rested on her shoulder. Her graceful hands rested on his shoulders. No enmity or uncertainty showed in her face. I could not read Paragon’s dragon visage to glimpse what he was feeling, but as I watched he changed. It was like watching the melting of river-ice when water swiftly erodes it. Slowly his features slipped back into his human configuration. His expression was tender as he embraced Althea. No, it was Vivacia he embraced so warmly. And suddenly I saw myself holding Molly, knowing a rare moment of peace and feeling loved and a terrible loss and longing welled in me.

I was caught up in this strange tableau until I heard Brashen’s voice. ‘What happened?’ he demanded. ‘How did Paragon get over here?’

‘He dragged anchor, sir.’ Clef’s reply was formal, mate to captain.

‘This was no trick of the tide or a bad anchor set,’ Althea said. ‘Paragon did this. For a reason.’ Her tone said she doubted the reason had any good purpose.

Brashen and Althea stood well clear of the figurehead’s reach, watching the stillness. It was Amber who moved past them, slipping free of Spark and Lant as if she too were a ship dragging anchor.

‘Amber. No, please,’ Althea pleaded but Amber did not pause. She stood well within Paragon’s reach and waited.

Vivacia lifted her head from Paragon’s shoulder and breathed a great sigh. ‘What we were. What we might have become. It’s lost to us, now. The young dragons, the serpents who hatched in Trehaug and live now in Kelsingra, they may become that again, a century hence. But not us. Never us.’

‘You are wrong.’ Paragon’s voice was an inhuman rumble. ‘Amber can help us get Silver. And with it, I believe we can gather enough of what we were to make ourselves what we ought to have been.’

The ships moved slightly apart, breaking their embrace to look at Amber. ‘It is not certain,’ she said. ‘And I will not make promises I may not be able to keep. The Silver, yes, I promise I will do all I can to obtain it for you. But will it be enough to transform you into dragons? I don’t know.’

‘And?’ Vivacia asked abruptly.

‘And what?’ Amber asked, startled.

Vivacia’s face resumed a more human cast. ‘And what do you ask of me in return? Traders made me what I am. Their blood and their thoughts have soaked into my deck and permeated every fibre of what I am. Nothing is free when you deal with humans. What do you want of me?’

‘Nothi—’ But Amber’s response vanished in Paragon’s heartfelt cry.

‘Boy-O! I want Boy-O on my decks for my last voyage.’ He wore my face again. Heart-struck, I wondered if I looked like that when I thought of regaining my child. Now, when he spoke, it was with a human heart. ‘Give me back what is truly mine. And Paragon Kennitsson! I want him as well. He was promised to me so often when Kennit was a lad on my decks. He said he would have a son and name him for me! So much I endured for his family, so much pain! Without me, he would never have existed! I want him. I want him to see me and know me as the ship of his family. Before I become dragons and leave him forever.’

‘Forever …’ I heard that forlorn whisper from Althea and knew that until now she had dared to hope that Paragon might change his mind, or at least keep some link to her and Brashen after he transformed.

‘Paragon!’ A shout from Vivacia’s deck, a welcoming cry in a man’s deep voice.

I saw a young man in his mid-twenties with a dense mop of curly dark hair and a ready grin. He was tanned to mahogany and his shirt strained at his wide shoulders. Anyone who had seen Brashen and Althea would know he was their son. He held a lantern aloft, and clearly he had not an inkling of what was going on. He regarded his home ship with joy.

‘Trellvestrit!’ someone shouted behind him, but Boy-O had already set down the lantern and scrambled up to Vivacia’s bowsprit. He ran lightly along it and then without hesitation threw himself toward Paragon. Paragon released Vivacia immediately. He caught and lofted the young man as I had once lifted Dutiful’s small sons; and, as I had then, feigned tossing him into the air before catching him securely once more. Agile as a tumbler, the man accepted this treatment and laughed aloud at being caught. Freeing himself of the ship’s grip, he climbed onto Paragon’s hands and then launched himself backwards, flipping in the air and landing again nimbly on the ship’s outstretched hands. Plainly it was a game from his childhood, one they both recalled with pleasure. Seldom had I seen that level of trust between any two creatures. Paragon could have torn Boy-O in half with his big wooden hands, but instead he held him at arm’s length and the two studied one another, the man grinning as he looked up at the ship’s face.

Unnoticed by me and perhaps also by Paragon, lines had been thrown to men in small rowing boats, and they were hauling Paragon in one direction and Vivacia in the other, swinging both on their anchor chains as they separated the two ships to a safe distance. I wondered if Boy-O had been aware of the plan, and then I wondered if Paragon cared. He had made his plea to Vivacia and had half of what he had requested, and the look on Boy-O’s face was one of fearless love for his ship. No wonder Paragon had missed him.

‘Prince Fitz—’

‘Hush,’ I bade Per. I was watching Althea and Brashen. Their conflict showed plainly on their faces. Love for their son, worry for him in the ship’s hands, but also that fondness of watching the two together. Boy-O said something to Paragon as the ship caught him, and the figurehead threw back his head and roared with laughter. Looking at them, I could scarcely believe this was the same being that had been so supremely unconcerned for his crew’s welfare. I half-expected Brashen or Althea to call to their son with a warning, but they were both silent and waiting. Confident in the young man or in their ship, I wondered.

As Paragon twisted to put him on the deck, I heard Boy-O say to the ship, ‘I have missed you so! Vivacia is a very fine ship, but she is always serious. And Cousin Wintrow is an excellent captain, but he sets a very simple table. Mother! Papa! There you are! What brings you to Divvytown without a bird to warn us of your coming? I was at the sailmaker’s when they came running to fetch me! If we’d known to expect you, you would have had a much better welcome!’

‘Any sight of you is welcome enough for us!’ his father exclaimed heartily as Boy-O stepped down from Paragon’s hands. The figurehead was smiling so broadly over his shoulder at all three of them that I could scarcely reconcile what I was seeing.

Amber, forgotten by all, had retreated. I reached out and touched her sleeve, saying quietly, ‘It’s Fitz,’ and she came to me with a shuddering sigh of relief, hugging my arm as if I were flotsam on a stormy sea. She was breathless. ‘Are they all safe? Was anyone hurt?’

‘All safe. Boy-O is with his parents. And Clef. And some of the crew.’

‘I was terrified.’

I watched her try to calm herself and spoke soothingly. ‘Yet Paragon seems calm now. Affable.’

‘He is two, Fitz. Two dragons. I think it was what drove him mad, and sometimes I feel like he has two natures. One is boyish, a prankster who desperately craves affection and companionship. The other is capable of almost anything.’

‘I think I have seen both tonight.’

‘Then we are all fortunate that Boy-O brought out his kindlier nature. Angered, there is no telling what one liveship could do to another.’

‘Do they fight? Can a liveship be killed?’

‘A liveship can be destroyed with fire. Or disfigured as Paragon was.’ She tilted her head and considered. ‘I’ve never heard of a physical altercation between liveships. Jealousies and rivalries. Quarrels. But not taken to a physical level.’

I became aware that Per was standing nearby, listening. In the shadows behind him, Spark waited beside Lant.

‘Shall we return to our cabin?’ I suggested. ‘I’m anxious to hear what transpired on shore.’

‘Please,’ Amber replied, and as we began to walk that way, she leaned more heavily on my arm. Yet before we could reach our cabin, Clef sought us out.

‘Captains want to see all of you in their stateroom. Please.’ He added the courtesy but it wasn’t a request.

‘Thank you. We will go directly there.’

Clef gave a nod and disappeared silently into the darkness. Night had fallen over the harbour. Lanterns burned on the masts of nearby ships and lamplight shone in the more distant windows of Divvytown, but they were only brighter sparks beneath the far-flung strewing of stars above us in the night sky. I looked up and suddenly longed fiercely for good forest and soil under my feet and prey that I could kill and eat. For the simple things that made life good.

SEVENTEEN

Serpent Spit

My king and queen, and esteemed Lady Kettricken,

I have reached my destination and have had several meetings with King Reyn and Queen Malta of the Dragon Traders. Trader Khuprus, mother to King Reyn, was also in attendance, representing the Rain Wild Traders. This was an unexpected inclusion for me to deal with.

The two Skill-healers who accompanied me could effect some small healing tasks for the people here. I cautioned them against greater works, for both said that the influence of the Skill runs strongly here and might sweep their minds away. And there is also the consideration that large works should merit large favours in return, and I fear I do not foresee that happening.

Both the king and queen assert that they have small influence with the dragons, and cannot order them to stop their raids on our herds and flocks. In truth, their rulers appear to have little authority over their people as well, with all large decisions being made by a consensus. I am not certain how to deal with such a situation. Nor can Trader Khuprus speak for any beyond her own family, saying that any contracts we wish to make, that is, healing for trade goods, must be voted on by the Traders’ Council.

I recall that you advised me to be as generous as we can be during this first meeting. But in my opinion, if we give too freely of what these people so greatly desire, we will lose much of our bargaining ability.

The Skill-users you sent with me suggest that perhaps it were better to establish a healing centre in the Six Duchies and advise the Rain Wild folk to seek our services there, where the Skill-current is more manageable for them. Here the Skill-influence waxes so strong that I must send this message to you by bird.

We shall take ship to return home in three days.

In your service,

Lady Rosemary

We did not dare stay long in Sewelsby. Dwalia could not be sure how many people might recognize us from that bloody night. Over and over, she asked Vindeliar how much Kerf would recall and how much he would tell. ‘He won’t forget,’ Vindeliar had whined. ‘I did not have time to tell him to forget. You made us run away. He will be confused but he won’t forget what he did. He will tell. If they hurt him enough.’ He had shaken his blunt head sadly. ‘They always talk when you hurt them that much. You showed me that.’

‘And you whimpered and pissed yourself, like a kicked cur,’ she had replied vindictively. And so instead of having Vindeliar magic us into an inn and a room, we slept that night under a bridge to stay away from spying eyes. As soon as the sun lightened the sky, she made us wade out into the chilly river and try to rinse some of the blood from our clothes. We weren’t alone for long. Men and women from the town came bearing baskets of linens and clothing. The washerfolk each had their own areas along the rocky shore, and they set up their drying racks and glared us away from the riverbank.

Dwalia led us back toward the town. I think towns and busy streets were all she knew. I would have sought the forest for a time, to let folk forget us. Instead, she had hissed at Vindeliar, ‘Make us unremarkable. Restore my face. Leave no injury for them to notice. Do it.’

I know he tried. I felt the lapping of his magic against my senses. I do not think he did it very well. But in a port city poor folk are not uncommon and we did not look so strange that we drew many glances. We stayed well away from the lovely inn and the well-travelled street where Trader Akriel had died. Dwalia took us to the seedy section of the harbour, where the signboards of the inns were weathered grey and splintery, and the gutters ran greenish and stinking beside the streets.

Dwalia and I hunkered out of sight in an alley or sat at the edge of the street, hands out to beg, in vain. Vindeliar moved slowly up and down the street, seeking easy prey. Some folk were easier to influence than others. He took a little from each, a few coins here, a few coins there. They gave willingly, or so they would recall it, even if they could not remember why. Towards evening, he had collected enough that we could have a hot meal and sleep inside one of the cheap inns.

It was nothing like the inn Trader Akriel had taken me to. The sleeping area was simply a loft over the room below. We found unoccupied space and lay down in our clothes. I could not help but contrast that night to the future I had nearly gained. When I was sure the others slept, I allowed myself to weep. I tried to think of Withywoods, my home and my father, but those things seemed distant and more unlikely than my dreams.

For dreams came to me that night, pelting me like hailstones. After each, I jolted awake, seized with the need to tell someone, to write them down, to sing of them. It was a compulsion as strong as when one must vomit, but I choked them back. Dwalia would rejoice in them, and I would not give her that. And so my dream of the slow team of oxen that trampled a child into a muddy street, my dream of a wise queen who planted silver and reaped golden wheat, my dream of a man who rode a huge red horse across ice to a new land, all those I choked back and swallowed. If they spoke of futures, she would not know of them. It made me feel ill and wretched to keep those dreams inside me, but the satisfaction I took in any small way I could thwart Dwalia outweighed the sickness.

The next day I was so shaky I could scarcely walk. Vindeliar looked concerned for me, while Dwalia wore a calculating look. ‘We need to leave this city and move on,’ she told him. ‘Look into their minds. See if anyone is going to Clerres. Or has been there.’ He had persuaded a breadmonger to part with a loaf. Dwalia had portioned it out, half for herself, and the rest for Vindeliar. He had looked at it hungrily and then reluctantly given me half of his half. It was no bigger than my fist, but it was all I could do to nibble it down.

I heard Vindeliar speak quietly to Dwalia. ‘I think she’s sick.’

Dwalia looked at me and smiled. ‘She is. And I’m glad. It means I’m at least partially right.’

Her words made no sense to me. As the day passed, my misery increased. I huddled as far away from her as my chain would let me and tried to sleep. Vindeliar took his small tolls from passing folk. Dwalia sat like a toad and watched the town go by. I decided to test her idea that no one would help me. I cried out for help. A few folk turned heads but she jerked on my chain. ‘New to slavery,’ Dwalia explained blithely, and my babble of hasty words that she was lying, I was no slave but kidnapped, went unheeded. I was just another foreign slave.

One man stopped and spoke to her in Common, asking if I were for sale. His eyes were not kind. Dwalia replied that he could pay her for a few hours with me, but that he could not buy me. He looked at me speculatively. Terror inspired me and I began to retch, forcing a thin bile to spill from my mouth and down onto my clothing. The man shook his head, plainly not wanting to share whatever disease I had, and hurried on.

Whatever ailed me took a firm grip on me the next day. In the pleasant warmth of the summer day, I curled up and shivered with cold. The bright sunlight could not warm me; it only battered me in pink darkness through my closed eyelids as the fever wracked me.

On the splintery floor of the inn loft, I shivered and Vindeliar rolled over and put his arm over me. He smelled offensive to me. It was not the grime or sweat of him; it was his own scent that repelled me. Wolf-sense told me to beware of him. I tried to shake off his arm but I was too weak. ‘Brother, let me keep you warm,’ he whispered. ‘It wasn’t your fault.’

‘My fault?’ I heard myself mutter. Of course it wasn’t. None of this was my fault.

‘I did it. I created the rift that allowed you to run away. Dwalia told me. When I did not do as I knew she would have wished me to do, it opened another path for you. And you followed it, taking us farther and farther from the Path. So now we must endure hardship and pain as we make our thorny way back to the Path. Once we are on the way to Clerres again, our difficulties will ease.’

I tried to shrug his arm away from me, but he drew me closer. His stink was all around me, gagging me with every breath I took. ‘You should learn this lesson, brother. Once you accept the Path, all in life is easier. Dwalia guides us. I know she seems cruel. But she is only angry and harsh because you have taken us so far from the true Path. Help us go back to it, and it will be so much easier for all of us.’

The words did not sound like him, or Dwalia. Perhaps he parroted some long-ago lesson. I summoned every shred of will I had. I forced out my words. ‘My true path goes home!’

He patted my shoulder. ‘There. You are right, your true path will take you to your true home. Now that you admit that, things will become easier.’

I hated him. I curled on the floor, sick and angry and powerless.

Dwalia moved us to a different part of the waterfront and hailed passers-by to ask if any had news of a ship bound for Clerres. Most shrugged and the rest ignored her. I huddled miserably while Vindeliar kept a distance from us as he moved up and down the streets and ‘begged’. He chose those he accosted and I knew they had little choice as he pushed his thoughts against theirs. I saw their reluctance as they reached into purses or pockets, and witnessed their confusion as they wandered away from him. The area was not rife with wealthy folk. I suspected that Vindeliar showed mercy in the small amounts he charmed from each victim, yet Dwalia always berated him for not coercing more money out of his victims.

One day he did not get enough money for us to sleep inside. I had thought I could not feel worse, but as the chill of evening came on, I shook until my teeth chattered.

Dwalia commonly took small notice of my misery, but I think that evening she worried that I might die. She did nothing to give me comfort, but only turned her anger on Vindeliar. ‘What’s wrong with you?’ she demanded of him when the streets had emptied and there was no one in earshot to hear her scold him. ‘You used to be strong. Now you are useless. You used to control a cavalcade of mercenaries, hiding them from sight. Now you can barely charm a penny or two from a farmer’s purse.’

For the first time in many a day, I heard a note of spirit in his voice. ‘I am hungry and tired and far from home and unhappy with all I have seen. I try very hard. I need—’

‘No!’ she interrupted him furiously. ‘You do not need! You want. And I know what you want. Do you think I don’t know how much pleasure you take from it? I’ve seen your eyes roll back with it and how you drool. No. There is only one left and we must save it against most dire need. Then there will be no more for you, Vindeliar. No more ever, for it has become scarce since the nine-fingered slaveboy set the serpent free!’

How strangely those words rang in me, like a memory of something I’d never experienced. A nine-fingered slaveboy. I could almost see him, dark-haired and slight, strong only in his will. His will to do what was right. ‘The serpent was in a stone pool.’ I breathed the words to myself. It had not been a dream of a snake in a bowl, no.

‘What did you say?’ Dwalia demanded sharply.

‘I am sick,’ I said, a repetition of words I’d said so often over the last few days. I closed my eyes and turned my face away. But with my eyes closed, I could not control the images that filled my mind. The slaveboy came to the stone pool; he wrestled with the iron bars that ringed it. Eventually, he made a path for the deformed serpent that crawled out of the pool and into water. Yes, into water, an incoming tide. How could I recall something I’d never seen? And yet the waves lapped up and into the pool, replenishing but not cleansing it. Both slave and serpent dissolved into whiteness. I saw no more.

I opened my eyes to breaking dawn. We had slept on the streets, yet I no longer felt chilled. I ached, as one does after sleeping on hard earth or after a long sickness has kept one still. I sat up slowly, or tried to. Dwalia had rolled over onto the chain. I took it in both hands and jerked it out from under her. She opened her eyes to glare at me. I snarled back at her.

She made a noise, a snort from her nose, as if to say she did not fear me. I resolved then that the next time she slept, I would give her reason to fear me again. My gaze travelled lovingly over the rancid bite I’d given her. Then I lowered my eyes lest she guess my plan.

She got to her feet and kicked Vindeliar. ‘Up!’ she said. ‘Time to move on. Before someone wonders why they gave half their coins to a beggar yesterday.’

I squatted and pissed in a gutter, wondering when I had lost all modesty and indeed all civilized ways. My mother would not have known me with my knotted hair and dust-stained skin and filthy nails. The tidy garments that Trader Akriel had given me could not withstand the sort of use I was giving them now. Tears welled in my eyes when I thought of her. I rubbed them away, doubtless smearing dirt down my face with them. Then I looked at my hands and the peeling of skin that clung to my fingers. I shook them clean and looked up to find Dwalia sneering with satisfaction.

‘The Path knows her even if she does not know the Path,’ she said to Vindeliar, who looked awestruck. Then she gave my chain a sharp tug and I was forced to go stumbling after her. My arms itched, and when I scratched them, my skin came away in thin layers that wadded like cobwebs at my touch. It was not a sunburn peeling. The layer that came off me was fine as gossamer, and beneath it my skin was not pink but paler. Chalky.

At the waterfront, we dodged barrows and donkey carts and folk carrying bales on their shoulders. Dwalia guided us to a stretch of market stalls. At the smell of food my stomach leapt up inside my throat and choked me. I had not felt hunger for days, but now it assailed me mercilessly till I felt dizzy and shaky.

Dwalia slowed, and I hoped she was as hungry as I was and had some coins for food. But instead she tugged me along to stand in a growing crowd clustered around a tall man with broad shoulders standing on a cart. He wore a high hat striped in many colours. His cloak had a collar that stood up to his ears, and it too was striped. I had never seen such garments. Behind the man in the cart was a wooden cabinet with row after row of little drawers, each drawer of a different colour, and each carved with an emblem. Over the man’s head, scarves and tiny bells hung from a framework of sticks. The wind off the water was a near constant, and so the bells tinkled and the scarves fluttered. Even the big grey horse that waited patiently in his traces had ribbons and bells in his mane. Never had I seen such a spectacle!

For that moment, my hunger was forgotten. What wondrous things could such a merchant be selling? That seemed to be the question everyone was pondering. He spoke in a language I did not know, and then abruptly he shifted into Common. ‘A fortune for you, to guide your footsteps into a lucky path! Brought to you from a far-off place! Do you wince at a silver for such knowledge? Foolish you! Where else in this market can you part with a silver and receive wisdom and luck? Should you wed? Will your wife grow heavy with child? Should you plant for the roots or the leaves this year? Come, come, you need not wonder! Press a silver to your brow, and then pass it to me with your question. The coin will tell me which box to open! Come, come, who will try? Who will be first?’

Dwalia made a sound in her throat like a cat’s growl. I glanced back at Vindeliar. His eyes were very wide. He saw my stare and spoke in a whisper. ‘He imitates the small prophets of Clerres, the ones sent out by the Four. It is forbidden to do what he is doing! He is a fraud!’

Two people turned to stare at him. Vindeliar lowered his eyes and fell silent. The man on the cart was chattering on, in both languages, and suddenly a woman was waving a coin at him. When he nodded to her, she pressed the coin firmly to her forehead and then offered it to him. He smiled, took her silver, and pressed it to his brow. He asked her a question and she replied. Then, to the larger crowd in Common he announced, ‘She wishes to know if her mother and her sister will welcome her if she makes the long journey to visit them.’

He pressed the coin once more to his brow and then held it out. His hand wavered and circled. It looked indeed as if the coin led his hand to the little door he selected. He opened it and from it he extracted a nut. That startled me. It was gold or painted with gilt. He struck it suddenly against his brow as if he were cracking an egg. Then he offered it to the woman. Hesitantly she took it and opened the nut. It had split as evenly as if sliced by a knife. Delighted, she opened it on her palm and drew out a thin strip of paper. It was white but edged in yellow, blue, red and green along its sides. She stared at it and then offered it back to him, asking him something.

‘Read it! Read it!’ the crowd echoed her request.

He took it back from her. He had elegant hands, and he made quite a show of drawing the narrow coil of paper out and perusing the lines lettered there. His pause as his eyes moved over it prompted the crowd to edge closer. ‘Ah, good news for you, good news indeed! You asked for advice on a journey, and here it is for you! “Walk with the sunshine and enjoy the road. A well laid table and a clean bed awaits you at your destination. Your arrival fills a house with joy.” There! Pack your bag and be on your way! And now, who is next? Who will hear what fortune awaits you? Isn’t it worth a coin to know?’

A young man waved a coin, the merchant took it, and again he put on a performance worthy of any puppeteer before he presented the fortune from the golden nut to the man. He received good tidings for the marriage offer he wished to present and stepped back from the cart, grinning. More coins were being waved now, some frantically. Dwalia watched, eyes narrowed, like a cat at a mouse hole, as the merchant accepted money and foretold fortunes. Not all were good. A man who asked about crops was instead warned that he should save his money and not make a purchase he had been considering. He looked dumbstruck and then told the crowd, ‘I came to market today to look for a plough-horse! But now I will wait.’

A couple hoping for a pregnancy, a man thinking of selling his land, a woman who wanted to know if her father would recover from an injury … so many folk seeking to know what tomorrow would bring. Once or twice the merchant would take the coin, hold it to his brow, and then wave it about and frown. ‘It’s not leading me,’ he’d say. ‘I’ll need a larger piece of silver from you to find the answer to your question.’

And to my astonishment, folk would give him a bigger coin. It was as if once they had started on the path, they could not turn aside. Some read their coiled messages aloud, others curled over the string of paper and read it privately. The fortune-merchant read them aloud for folk who were unlettered. Door after door of his little cabinet he opened. His audience did not grow smaller. Even those who had bought a fortune lingered to find out what others might hear.

Dwalia moved us to the edge of the crowd, but there she stopped and whispered to Vindeliar, ‘Control him.’

‘Him?’ Vindeliar did not whisper.

I saw that she longed to cuff him but she restrained herself. Obviously, she did not wish to distract those watching the merchant.

‘Yes, him. The one selling fake fortunes.’ She spoke through gritted teeth.

‘Oh.’ Vindeliar studied the man. I could sense tendrils of his magic floating and feeling their way toward him. And I knew he couldn’t do it. The man was too strong of self to be captured by such feeble threads. I could sense the shape the fortune-merchant made in the world and to my surprise I could feel that he had a sort of magic shimmer to him. He did not reach out with his magic as Vindeliar did. Instead, his magic coated him just as his bright colours did, and like his colours, it invited folk to study him and draw near. I reached toward his magic and pushed on it gently. For a moment, he looked puzzled. I moved away. All he could do was draw people in; he probably didn’t even know he was using it.

I looked back at Vindeliar, and found him regarding me strangely. I looked away and scratched my neck under the collar. I hadn’t intended to touch his magic; I’d done it without thinking. And somehow Vindeliar had sensed it and now his suspicions were stirred.

The fortune-merchant was waving a coin, letting it guide his hand to a little door with a bird on it. I pretended vast interest in his show.

‘I can’t do it,’ Vindeliar said to Dwalia. His face crumpled before she even glared at him. ‘There is no way into him.’

‘Make a way.’

‘I can’t.’ He drew the word out long and slow.

She seethed silently for a moment, then seized the shoulder of his shirt and pulled him close, so close I thought she intended to bite him. In a venomous whisper she said, ‘I know what you want. I know what you long for. But listen to me, you pathetic unformed thing, neither human nor White! I have but one dose left of the potion. ONE! If we use it now, we will not have it later when perhaps it will be essential that you have strength. So, find a way into him. And do it now, or I will kill you. It is that simple. If you cannot do your work, you are useless. I will leave you behind to rot.’ She pushed him away from her.

I watched Vindeliar’s face as each word struck him and sank in like a separate arrow. He believed her with absolute certainty. And so did I. If he failed her today, she would kill him. I didn’t wonder how or when because I knew she would do it.

And then I would be left alone with her. That thought struck me like an axe blow.

I saw Vindeliar’s shoulders rise and fall, rise and fall as his panicky breathing began to accelerate. Without thinking, I reached out and took his hand. ‘Try,’ I begged him. His wide eyes darted to mine. ‘Try, my brother,’ I said in a softer voice. I would not, could not, bear to look at Dwalia. Did she sneer to see us frightened, did she rejoice at how she had hammered us into an alliance? I did not want to know.

Vindeliar’s pudgy hand closed on mine. It was warm and moist, as if I’d put my hand into something’s mouth, and I wished I could withdraw it. But now was not the time to instil any doubt in him. He took a shuddering breath and then I felt him settle himself. But more than that. I felt him gather his magic, and suddenly I knew that no matter what Dwalia might believe, this was Farseer magic. I knew a moment of outrage that somehow he had stolen such an ability. Then I felt him bubbling it toward the merchant.

How often had I felt my father or my sister use this magic? They had employed it as if it were the sharpest knife one could imagine, arrowing toward the person they sought to reach. Vindeliar pushed his lips out and then sucked them in, straining to reach the merchant, as if he were sloshing water toward him. I wondered how he had ever managed to control Duke Ellik and his men with such a sloppy magic. Perhaps then he had been stronger in it, strong enough that he had not needed to refine his skill. Perhaps it was like the difference between smashing an ant with a brick or squishing it with a fingertip.

The magic moved sluggishly toward the merchant. It reached him and washed against him. But he was so full of himself, so radiant in his enthusiasm for what he was selling, that he felt it not at all. It rolled aside from him. This I felt as Vindeliar’s hand engulfed mine. I felt too, the drop in his confidence. The magic grew softer and less focused as his despair grew.

‘You can do this,’ I whispered to him, and willed that he would feel confidence, that he would try again.

Once, when I fell from a tree and ran to my mother with my elbow bleeding, I was unaware that much more blood was escaping from my nose. The magic that moved out of me and through Vindeliar was like that. I felt no sensation of something vital leaving me until suddenly I was aware of the effect. Vindeliar had marshalled what magic he could and was rolling it toward the merchant like a badly tumbled stone. Then my magic, a magic so like my father’s and sister’s that I knew it was mine, guided his. And it was abruptly not a badly tumbled stone, but a well-flung one.

I saw it strike the merchant, saw how in the midst of his smiling chatter his eyes widened and his words suddenly failed him. I felt what Vindeliar commanded him. You will want to do what Dwalia wishes you to do. When he conveyed ‘Dwalia’ it was an image of her as well as a feeling of who she was. Important, wise, a woman to be obeyed. A woman to be feared. The merchant’s gaze roved over the crowd and found Dwalia. He regarded her with awe. She nodded to him, and to Vindeliar she said softly, ‘I knew you could do it. If you wanted to badly enough.’

Vindeliar dropped my hand and clapped both hands over his mouth, astonished at what he had accomplished. As for the merchant, he continued his spiel, selling golden nuts and wonderful fortunes to buyer after buyer, until every little door on his cabinet stood open and plundered. He announced to the crowd that he had no more fortunes to sell that day, and they dispersed, drifting and chatting, some still perusing the long tails of paper with the futures written on them.

We stood where we were as his audience dispersed. He glanced at Dwalia, not once, but repeatedly as he shut each little door of his wonderful cabinet and slowly stepped down from his cart. His horse turned its head and snorted questioningly but the merchant walked toward us, his expression puzzled. Dwalia did not smile. Vindeliar retreated behind her and I followed him as my chain would allow.

‘You have done a wicked thing,’ Dwalia said, her first words to him. The merchant stopped and stared at her. His mouth twisted as if he would be sick. ‘You have smuggled fortune-nuts out of Clerres. You know it is forbidden. Those who buy a fortune there know it must be kept in their homes in a place of honour. They know it must not be given away nor sold. But somehow you have acquired dozens of them. Your charade with tapping the nuts to open them did not fool me. They had been opened, and the revelations inside were given to those who had paid well for them. How did you get them? Did you steal them?’

‘No! No, I am an honest merchant!’ He looked horrified at the suggestion of theft. ‘I buy and I sell. I have a sailor friend who brings me extraordinary merchandise. He does not come to this port often, but when he comes, he brings me the nutshells and the fortune papers to put inside them. I am known for my rarities, such as the fortunes spun by the pale folk. I have sold them here for years. If there was a crime, it was not mine! I only buy them and sell them on to folk eager for them. Folk who know that a silver is a fair price for such rare things!’

Dwalia glanced at Vindeliar. His eyes widened and I felt him push his magic toward the man. It sogged against him like a wet cloth but he gave a tiny nod to Dwalia. She smiled and it made my bite-mark a horrid, crawling thing on her face. ‘You know you have done wrong,’ she accused him. ‘You should give me the silver, for I come from the Pale Ones, the Whites and the Four. Give me the money you have gained from your deceit, and I will beg them to forgive you. And tell me the name of your friend and the ship that brought him here, and for him, too, I will beg pardon.’

He stared at her. He hefted the pouch of silvers he had gained. I had counted the little doors in his cabinet. There were forty-eight of them. Forty-eight pieces of silver, and some were the larger pieces that he had cajoled from his buyers. It was a magnificent sum, if a silver here was worth what a silver was in Buck. He stared at Dwalia and then tilted his head before he shook it at her. ‘You’re a peculiar beggar. You accuse me of theft, and then try to rob me. I don’t even know why I spoke to you at all. But I’m to be wed tomorrow, and the old saying tells us to pay a debt you don’t owe before your wedding day, and you’ll never have a debt you can’t pay. So, here’s a silver for you, a debt I don’t owe.’ As he spoke he fished in his pouch and brought up a single piece of silver. He held it between two fingers, then flipped it suddenly into the air. Dwalia clutched at it, but it slid between her fingers into the dirt. Vindeliar squatted to get it for her but she set her shoe firmly on the coin.

The fortune-merchant had turned away from us and was walking toward the front of his cart. Without looking back, he added, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself. Feed that child something. And if you’ve a heart at all, take that chain off her throat and find her a home.’

Dwalia kicked Vindeliar, hard. He fell onto his side, gasping. ‘The name of the ship!’ she demanded of both, and I felt the pained thrust of Vindeliar’s desperate magic.

The man was mounting to the seat of his cart. He didn’t look back at us. ‘The Sea Rose.’ He took up the reins and shook them. His horse moved placidly forward. I wondered if he even realized that he had spoken to us.

Dwalia crouched to pick up her coin. She stood and as Vindeliar started to rise, she kicked him down again. ‘Don’t think this pays for all,’ she warned him. She jerked my chain viciously and against my will I cried out. And then, to my shame, tears flowed from my eyes. I shuffled and sobbed after her as Vindeliar lumbered to his feet and followed us like a kicked dog.

Dwalia did stop to buy food. Cheap dry bread for Vindeliar and me, a savoury flaky roll stuffed with meat and vegetables for her. She watched the vendor count her coins back to her with an eagle’s keen stare, and stuffed them into a fold of her clothing. She ate as she walked, and so did we. I longed for water to wash down the dry bread, but she did not pause near the public well we passed. She took us down to the waterfront. The harbour was a great circle of calm water, with fingers of docks that reached out. The biggest ships were anchored in the placid bay, and little boats skated back and forth over the water like many-legged water insects, bearing people and supplies to them. Closer to us, smaller ships tied to the docks and piers, created a wall of hulls and a forest of masts between us and the open water. We three beggars entered the jostling world of carts and longshoremen and prosperous merchants inviting one another to tea or wine or discussing their latest purchases and sales.

We limped and shuffled among them, either invisible and unnoticed or cursed and reviled for making the traffic pause or standing where someone wished to walk. Dwalia sounded to me like a breadmonger as she called out, ‘The Sea Rose? Where does she dock? The Sea Rose? I’m looking for the Sea Rose!’

No one answered her. The best she got was a shake of the head to say they didn’t know the vessel. At last Vindeliar tugged at her sleeve and pointed wordlessly between two ships. We had a narrow view of the bay, and a fine vessel with no figurehead, but a glorious bouquet of flowers at her bow, with a large red rose in the centre of it. It was fat and long, the largest ship in the harbour. ‘Might it be that one?’ he asked her timidly. Dwalia halted despite the push and press of folk around us and stared at the vessel. The ship’s bare masts pointed at the sky and she rode high in the water. Her crew moved briskly on her decks, busy with sailorish chores I didn’t understand. As we watched, a small boat with six men at her oars pulled alongside. A large crate of something was lowered to the waiting boat, and then a man descended to it.

Someone bumped me hard, and said something vicious in a language I didn’t know. I cringed closer to Vindeliar and he in turn huddled behind Dwalia. She neither moved nor appeared to notice that we were blocking traffic. ‘We need to see where they go,’ she announced in a low voice. As the boat moved away from the 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.

EIGHTEEN

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 dragons? Won’t they be rather small?’

Amber smiled. ‘We cannot know yet. But small dragons grow. From what I understand, dragons continue to grow as long as they live. And few things can kill a dragon.’

Wintrow drew a deep, considering breath. He looked away from Amber, to Brashen and Althea. ‘Are you financially solid?’ he asked gravely.

Brashen wobbled his head in a way that was not yes nor no. ‘We have resources. The loot from Igrot’s hoard was substantial, and we were not wasteful of our share. But money alone is neither wealth nor a future for our son. We’ve no home save here on Paragon, no life or employment beyond plying our trade on the Rain Wild River and in Bingtown. So, yes, we have sufficient funds that we can eat and sleep inside a house for the rest of our days. Inside a house. There’s a future I never sought! But something to leave to Boy-O? A life for us to live … that’s harder for us to chart.’

Wintrow was nodding slowly. A man, I thought, who seemed to think before he spoke. Just as he drew breath and opened his mouth to say something, we heard a shout from outside. ‘Permission to come aboard?’

‘Refuse it!’ Wintrow ordered.

Brashen was at the door of the stateroom in two strides. ‘Refused!’ he shouted into the night and then spun on Wintrow, demanding, ‘Who is it?’

But the voice outside shouted, ‘You can hardly deny me permission to board the ship whose name I bear!’

‘Paragon Kennitsson.’ Wintrow spoke in the brief gulch of silence before the ship bellowed out, ‘Permission granted! Paragon! Paragon, my son!’

Althea went so pale she was more greenish than white. I’d heard a strange note in the ship’s voice, a difference in timbre.

‘Sweet Sa,’ Wintrow breathed into the quiet. ‘He sounded almost like Kennit.’

Brashen looked back at his wife over his shoulder. His face was stone. Then his gaze found Wintrow. ‘I don’t want him talking to the ship,’ he said in a low voice.

‘I don’t want him on this ship,’ Wintrow agreed. He strode to the door and Brashen edged aside to let him pass. ‘Paragon!’ Wintrow shouted and there was command in his voice. ‘Here. And now.’

The figure who answered Wintrow’s summons was no boy or youth but a man, dark-haired, with an aquiline nose and a finely sculpted mouth. His eyes were a shockingly intense blue. His clothing was as handsome as he was, and the emerald earrings he wore were large, diamonds glittering around the green jewels. I judged him to be older than Boy-O, but not by much. And he was softer. Physical work pounds a boy into a different sort of manhood. Boy-O had that physique. But the prince was a house cat in comparison. Kennit’s son smiled with even white teeth. ‘I present myself,’ he said to Wintrow with a mocking bow, and then leaned past him to peer into the cabin. ‘Trellvestrit? You are here, too? It seems you’ve convened a party and not invited me. Well, that’s cold of you, my young friend!’

Boy-O spoke softly. ‘It’s not like that, Kennitsson. Not like that at all.’

‘You’ve come to know one another?’ Althea asked softly but received no response.

Wintrow spoke in a low, controlled voice. ‘I want you off this ship. We both know that your mother does not approve of your coming here.’

Kennitsson cocked his head and grinned. ‘I also know that my mother is not here.’

Wintrow did not return his smile. ‘A queen does not have to be present to expect that her commands will be obeyed. Especially by her son.’

‘Ah, but this is not the will of a queen but the will of my mother who fears for me. And it is time for me to live beyond her fears.’

‘In this case, her fears are well-founded,’ Wintrow countered.

‘You are not welcome aboard this vessel,’ Brashen added in a flat voice. There was no anger in his tone but there was danger. For an instant, Kennitsson’s face went blank with astonishment. Then we all heard a roar of disagreement from Paragon the ship.

‘Send him forward! Send him forward to me!’

Kennitsson recovered himself, and his features shifted from shock to royal arrogance. I had not been so vividly reminded of Regal in many a year. His words were clipped, his anger palpable. ‘I believe this was my father’s ship before it was yours. And I believe that even if I did not have an inherent right to be here, my authority as Prince of the Pirate Isles supersedes your captain’s powers. I go wherever I wish to go.’

‘On this deck, nothing overshadows the say of the captain,’ Brashen informed him.

Paragon’s roar blasted us. ‘Except the will of the ship!’

Kennitsson canted his head at Brashen and smiled. ‘I believe I am summoned,’ he said, and offered an elegant bow, complete with a sweep of his feathered hat, before turning and sauntering away. Brashen made a noise, but Wintrow stepped between Brashen and the door and blocked the captain from exiting.

‘Please,’ he said. ‘Let me talk with him. He has been consumed with curiosity about Paragon since he was eight years old.’ He turned his gaze to Althea. ‘Any boy raised with no glimpse of Kennit, surrounded by dozens of men telling him hero tales of his father, would be enamoured of this ship. He cannot resist.’

‘Coming aboard!’ someone roared, and in the next breath, ‘Kennitsson! Prince you may be, but you do not defy me or your mother without a reckoning!’

‘Sorcor,’ Wintrow said with a sigh. ‘Oh, lovely. Just perfect.’

‘Sometimes Kennitsson listens to him.’ Boy-O sounded hopeful.

Beside me, Amber breathed, ‘Kennit’s first mate, in the old days.’

‘Sometimes,’ Wintrow agreed and then turned and went to meet Sorcor. I heard the hasty mutter of their conversation, Sorcor’s voice accusing and Wintrow’s defensive and reasonable. But my ears strained to hear a different set of voices. I heard the ship hail ‘young Paragon’ with joy and the young man’s more measured response.

‘How can he?’ Boy-O spoke into the quiet. ‘After what Kennit did to you, after all you and Brashen have done for him, how can he be so joyous to receive Kennit’s son?’ I wondered if I heard a twinge of jealousy beneath his outrage. His jaw was set and he suddenly looked a great deal more like his father.

‘He’s Paragon. He’s always been capable of things we can’t even imagine.’ Althea stood slowly. She moved as if she had suddenly aged, as if every joint in her body were stiff.

‘I’m not my father,’ Brashen said suddenly. ‘Neither is he.’

‘He looks like him,’ Althea said uncertainly.

‘Much as Boy-O looks like you. And me. But he isn’t either of us. And he’s not responsible for anything we’ve done in our lives.’ Brashen’s voice was low and calm. Rational.

‘Boy-O,’ the young man said softly. ‘Haven’t heard that name in a while. I’m almost used to being called Trellvestrit now.’

‘I’m not … I don’t think I hate him. Kennitsson I mean. And I don’t judge him for his father.’ Althea tried to find words for her thoughts and continued, as if her son had not spoken. ‘I think I’m a better person than that. His father is not his fault. Though I don’t find him the least bit charming.’ She looked sideways at Brashen, and stood straighter. Determination came back into her face and voice. ‘But I am concerned by what he might waken in Paragon. There is so much of my father in Vivacia. So much of my grandmother in the Vestrit family liveship.’ She shook her head slowly. ‘I always knew that Kennit must be a part of Paragon. He was a Ludluck, and the Ludluck family owned Paragon for generations. And we both know that Paragon absorbed all the abuse that Igrot heaped on Kennit, all the deep hurts and wrong. There was so much blood shed on his decks in Igrot’s day, so much cruelty, the pain and fear sank into him with the blood spilled on his planks. And then, when Kennit died, our ship took into himself all that Kennit had been since he’d abandoned Paragon. I thought Paragon had …nullified it. Outgrown it, as children outgrow selfish ways and learn to have empathy for others. I thought …’ Her voice faltered into silence.

‘We all bury things inside ourselves,’ Amber said, making me flinch. She was looking straight ahead, not at Althea, but I felt she had intruded into a private conversation. ‘We think we have mastered them. Until they burst out.’ Her hand was on the cuff of my shirt and I felt it tremble.

‘Well, what’s done is done,’ Althea said abruptly. ‘Time to face it.’ She took Brashen’s arm and a look passed between them that reminded me of two warriors standing back to back in battle. As they walked away, Boy-O and Clef fell in behind them as if it were some sort of formal procession.

‘Lead me,’ Amber demanded. We trailed after them with Lant and Spark and Per following us. The few members of her crew who had decided to stay aboard despite where Paragon might take them ghosted along after us.

Lanterns illuminated the masts and bows of the anchored vessels in the harbour, and the moon had risen. The light was uneven, draping angled faces in veils of shadow. But the moonlight fell on Paragon’s features and his face was full of fondness. It was like approaching a puppet show in the middle of an act. Paragon’s figurehead was twisted to look down at Kennit’s son on his deck, and his profile showed me his smile. His namesake stood with his back to us, legs wide and hands clasped loosely behind his back. His stance spoke to me more of patience than awe.

Behind him, Wintrow stood beside a heavy-set man with little hair left to his head but a generous grey beard. He wore loose trousers tucked into high boots and a wide belt that held a curved sword over his equally generous belly. His shirt was so white it seemed to gleam in the moonlight. The man was scowling, his arms crossed on his chest. I was abruptly reminded of Blade. Some old warriors are like good weapons. Their scars become the patina of experience and wisdom.

Paragon was speaking. ‘Then you will go with me? Sail with me this last time that I shall sail, before I manifest as the dragons I have always been?’

Kennitsson seemed amused by his question. ‘I will indeed! I can think of no better way to spend my time. I’m weary of lessons in geometry and navigation and languages. Why do they teach me the stars if I’m never allowed to sail under them? Yes, I’ll go with you. And you will tell me tales of my father, as he was when he was my age.’

A tell-tale dragon gleam passed through the ship’s eyes. I thought he would refuse the boy, but he sounded judicious as he replied, ‘Perhaps. As I think you are ready to hear them.’

Kennitsson laughed. ‘Ship, I am Prince Paragon of the Pirate Isles! Do you not realize who Kennit’s son is now? I am next in line for the throne.’ The light that touched his face followed the hard lines of his smile. ‘I command. I do not request.’

Paragon turned away from him and spoke out over the water. ‘Not on my decks, Kennitsson. Never on my decks.’

‘And you are not voyaging off anywhere, Paragon Kennitsson,’ Wintrow added firmly. ‘Sorcor is here to take you back to your chambers. You should be dressing even now for an evening of cards with the dignitaries from the Spice Islands. Your mother, Queen Etta, expects both of us to be there, and if we do not depart now, we will both be late.’

Kennitsson turned slowly to face Wintrow. ‘And I do pity you, Chief Minister, that you will face her wrath alone. But there it is. When I return to the palace tonight, I intend to pack for a sea voyage, not dress for a game of cards with a lady who laughs like a horse neighing.’

A silence fell. Then Sorcor said to Wintrow, ‘I’m trying to remember the last time I thrashed him to howling. I think he might be due for another.’

The prince crossed his arms on his chest and drew himself up straight. ‘Touch me, and I’ll have you in chains before morning.’ He gave a contemptuous snort. ‘I’d have thought you’d have tired of playing nursemaid years ago. I scarcely need a nanny following me about. I’m not a wilful child for you to bully. Not any more.’

‘Naw.’ The older man shook his head woefully. ‘You’re worse. You’re a spoiled boy dressed in a man’s fine clothes. If I thought your mother would ever agree to it, I’d tell her that the best thing for you would be to send you off with Trell. As a deckhand. To learn a bit of the trade that your father knew from the bones out when he was half your age.’

Brashen Trell spoke. ‘He’s a bit too old to learn it, I fear. You missed your chance, both of you.’ A strange look crossed his face. ‘He reminds me of a spoiled merchant’s son who thought he was a Trader.’

There is a way a boy stands when he does not wish to admit that words have struck him. Kennitsson stood that way — a bit too still, shoulders a bit too stiff. His speech was precise as he said, ‘I shall be returning to the palace now. But not to dress and play dice with the Spice Island monkeys. Ship! I will see you again in the morning.’ He swung his gaze to Brashen and Althea. ‘I trust you’ll have my quarters awaiting me when I return. The stateroom I saw when I first came on board would be adequate. And please take on appropriate food and drink for me.’

He walked through us, but I saw he chose a path that did not require anyone to step aside for him and knew he doubted his ability to face any of us down. We listened to the sharp thuds of his boots on the deck, then he was over the railing and clambering down a rope ladder, shouting at some poor soul who had been left waiting in a small boat for him. The sound of the moving oars was a gentle shushing in the night.

‘Do you really think so?’ Sorcor had a deep voice and it was full of slow dismay. For a moment, I couldn’t understand what he was asking of Wintrow, but it was Brashen he was looking at in the darkness.

The captain of the Paragon stared down at the deck. ‘No. Not really,’ he admitted. ‘Though I was younger when my father threw me out of the house and made my brother his heir. It was hard to find my own way. But I did. It’s not too late for Kennit’s son.’ He heaved a great sigh. ‘But it’s not a task I want.’

Sorcor looked up toward the moon and the light fell on his face. His brow was wrinkled, his lips pursed in thought. Then he said in a gruff voice, ‘But the ship’s right. He should sail with you. It’s his last chance, his only chance to know this deck under his feet. To sail on the ship that shaped his father.’ He swung his gaze to meet Brashen’s startled gaze. ‘You should take him.’

Wintrow started. ‘What?’

But Sorcor flapped a knobby hand at him, silencing his objection. The older man cleared his throat. ‘I’ve failed the boy. When he was small, I was too glad to have any piece of his father that was left to us. I cherished him and kept him from all harm. I never let him feel the pain of his own mistakes.’ He shook his head. ‘And his mother still dotes on him and gives him what he desires. But it’s not just her. I wanted him to be a prince. I wanted him in fancy clothes with clean hands. I wanted to see him have what his father earned for him. To be what his father would have expected of him.’ He shook his head again. ‘But somehow, we didn’t get that other part of him.’

‘He hasn’t had to become a man,’ Brashen observed flatly. The words were harsh but his tone was not.

‘A voyage away from his mother might do it?’ Sorcor suggested.

Althea stepped suddenly in front of Sorcor. Her gaze went from him to Wintrow. ‘I don’t want him. I’ve enough to deal with on this voyage. I’ve only a vague idea of where we’re going and I’ve no idea how we will be received there. Or how long Amber’s little errand will take, or when we’ll be back. Perhaps it hasn’t been revealed to you, Sorcor, but we go to deal death and vengeance. We very well may end up fleeing for our lives. Or be dead ourselves. I won’t be responsible for the well-being of the prince of the Pirate Islands, let alone his survival.’

‘But I will.’ It was Paragon that spoke.

We all felt and heard that response. It thrummed through the ship’s bones, and it reached our ears not as a shout but as an assertion. I wanted no more additions to our company on this voyage, let alone a spoiled prince, so I drew breath to make my own objection and felt Amber’s sudden clutch on my wrist. In a low voice she said, ‘Hush. As they say in Chalced, you don’t have a dog in this fight.’

Since we had come aboard Paragon, I had felt control of my plans slipping ever farther from my grip. Not for the first time, I wished I’d come alone and unhampered.

‘Our stateroom,’ Brashen announced tightly. His eyes roved over us. ‘Follow me.’ He glanced at his crew and added, ‘About your duties. Please.’ The last was a concession, I felt, to those sailors who had stayed aboard the Paragon. Not many had. If we sailed, which I was beginning to doubt, we’d have a skeleton crew indeed.

Paragon’s voice boomed out into the quiet harbour. ‘I will have what I want, Brashen. I will!’

‘Oh, I don’t doubt it,’ he replied bitterly. Althea had already turned away. Brashen spun and followed to lead us aft.

The chamber was large for a ship, but never designed to be packed with so many people. I let Amber sit and stood behind her, my hands on the back of her chair. I had positioned her so that I could study every person in the room.

Sorcor was a contrast. I judged him to be a man past his middle years, used hard by his early life but now in a safe harbour. He dressed as befitted a minor noble, but the scars on his face and the wear on his hands were that of a fighter and a sailor. The sword at his side was of excellent and deadly quality. There was something in the cut of his clothing and the selection of his jewellery that spoke of a man who’d known poverty suddenly given the chance to dress in fine fabric and gold. On another man, it might have looked laughable. On him, it looked earned.

Brashen thudded two bottles down on the table. Brandy and rum. Althea followed it with a clatter of cups. ‘Your choice and pour for yourself,’ she announced wearily before dropping into a chair. For a moment, she lowered her face into her hands. Then, as Brashen came and set his hands on her shoulders, she lifted her head and straightened her back. Her eyes were resigned.

Wintrow spoke. ‘Queen Etta isn’t going to like any of this. She was already alarmed when she got word that a liveship was being brought in for tariff violation. That simply doesn’t happen. The Traders understand taxes and tariffs well, and none of them want the delays and fines that violations bring. As soon as I knew it was Paragon, I went to her immediately. She feared …’ He stopped and abruptly chose another word. ‘She considered it best if the prince were located and his introduction to his father’s ship monitored. So to speak.’ He gave Sorcor a sideways glance.

‘He’s a young man!’ Sorcor objected. ‘Somehow he knew what my mission was and kept clear of me. I suspect he paid his guards to turn a blind eye. I’ll see to their stripes tomorrow. So here we are. What now?’

‘Coming aboard!’ A woman’s voice, imperious and angry.

Wintrow and Sorcor exchanged a look. ‘Queen Etta is not … recalcitrant in acting on a situation.’

Sorcor snorted and looked at Brashen. ‘That big word means she might have a sword out. Look to yourselves and make no fast moves.’ He whipped the hat from his head. I saw how he fell naturally into a fighter’s stance.

Brashen moved away from Althea, closer to the door, as if he would protect her, but her dark eyes blazed and she came to her feet and stood beside him. Queen Etta’s voice reached us again.

‘Out of my way! I’ve told you I don’t need you for this. You are embarrassing me, and my chief minister is going to hear of this. Standing orders should fall before my command! Wait in the boat if you must, but get out of my way.’

‘She just dismissed the guard I assigned to her,’ Wintrow observed mildly.

And in the next instant, the door framed an extraordinary woman. She was tall, and the planes of her face were angular. She was not beautiful, but she was striking. Her glossy black hair fell loose to her shoulders, which were wide beneath a scarlet jacket. Black lace spilled from her shirtfront and cuffed her wrists. Gold hoops dangled boldly from her ears. And close to her throat, almost nestled in the lace, she wore a necklace carved in a man’s image. Kennit? If so, the son strongly resembled the father. She also wore a sword on a wide black belt studded with silver, but it resided still in its sheath. She rested the back of her fingers on its elaborate hilt. The glance that raked the room was sharper than any blade as she demanded, ‘Are you conspiring?’

Wintrow tilted his head at her. ‘Of course we are. And we would welcome your company. The issue is your strong-willed and rather spoiled heir, who has recently met his father’s strong-willed and rather spoiled ship. They seem intent on taking up with one another, on a voyage to Clerres. I’ve been given to understand that the purpose of this voyage is to exact vengeance on a monastery there for the kidnapping and murder of a child. And that afterward, this vessel will magically change himself into two dragons.’

Etta’s mouth hung slightly ajar as Wintrow looked to Althea and asked, ‘Do I have that mostly right?’

Althea shrugged. ‘Close enough.’ And the two women exchanged cold looks.

Queen Etta said nothing. Wintrow spoke cautiously. ‘The Spice Island delegation?’

‘Have plenty of folk to lose their coins to. I’ll join them at the card table or not at all. It little matters to me now.’ She turned a furious look on Althea and Brashen. ‘Why have you brought this ship here? What do you want of us? Of Kennitsson? My son is not going anywhere! He is the heir to this kingdom and is needed here. He is supposed to be enjoying an evening with the merchants from the Spice Islands and his potential bride, not planning a sea voyage.’ Her gaze roved over all of us, her eyes cold. ‘And whatever vengeance you seek, it has nothing to do with us. So why have you come here? What sort of discord do you attempt to sow? Why bring this vessel and its ill reputation and bad luck to our harbour? It was my wish that he never see or set foot on this ship!’

‘There we agree,’ Althea replied quietly.

I felt the pirate queen force herself to look at Althea. ‘But not for the same reasons,’ she said stiffly. ‘My son has had a fascination with this ship ever since he was old enough to know how his father died. Kennit’s last blood soaked into the planks of this deck. His memories, his … life … was taken into it. Absorbed. And from the time my son was old enough to be told of such things, he has possessed a wild curiosity to see this ship, to be aboard it, in the hope of speaking to his father. We have told him, over and over, that Paragon is not his father. His father makes up just a part of the life that the ship embodies. But it is a hard thing to make someone understand.’

Althea spoke in a flat voice. ‘I doubt that anyone not born to Bingtown Trader stock can fully understand what that means.’

Queen Etta stared at her coldly. ‘Kennit was born of Bingtown stock. A Ludluck. And his son carries that blood, even if he prefers the name Kennitsson.’ Her hand rose to clutch at her necklace. ‘And perhaps I understand more of this ship than you think. Paragon himself spoke to me of these things. Plus,’ she tipped her head toward Wintrow, ‘I have had your own nephew as my advisor in these matters.’

‘Then perhaps you will understand what Paragon has suffered. In his days as Igrot’s ship he absorbed many deaths, probably more than any other liveship. And even before that, when he belonged to the Ludluck family, his fortune seemed to be cursed. He has never been … stable. For a time, he was known in Bingtown as the Pariah. As the mad ship, the liveship that would kill any crew that sought to sail him.’

‘I know that.’ Queenly disdain in her tone. Then Etta cocked her head and was suddenly, disarmingly human as she said, ‘Althea, do you think I have not been visited by Malta and Reyn? Do you think I have not heard every detail of the tale of this ship and his history?’ She looked down at the pendant she clutched and added more quietly, ‘Perhaps it is possible that I understand even more than you do of this ship.’

Both women fell silent. I felt as if fate balanced on a tiny point, waiting to shift and choose a direction. Was this what the Fool had meant when he told me of infinite futures, poised and waiting, but only one that would become real? Were we all witnesses to that?

Yet it was Brashen who spoke. ‘The past haunts everyone here. Walk away from it, please. There is no sense in arguing who better understands liveships or Paragon. That’s not our problem right now. And before we speak about the future, I would like to settle the present, as it affects Althea and me and my crew.’ He ran his gaze over us all. No one spoke. ‘When Althea and I spoke with Wintrow after we first went ashore, he agreed to help us meet our most basic needs — to send messenger birds back to our trading partners at Bingtown and in the Rain Wilds, assuring them that we intended no larceny when we did not stop in either Bingtown or Jamaillia. Queen Etta, we would ask your help in selecting trustworthy ships and captains bound to those ports who would be willing to deliver our goods to their proper destinations, so that our word as honourable Traders remains untarnished. If you can aid us in that, we could consider it a great favour to both our families.’

Etta looked at Wintrow and nodded.

‘That can be done.’ Wintrow spoke softly. ‘I know several captains that I trust.’

Brashen’s relief was plain. ‘And I think we all agree that it would be a great mistake to have Kennitsson accompany us on Paragon’s mad errand. We must all ensure that he can’t board before we depart. He must be kept away from the harbour and the ship, for Paragon cannot seek him out on the land.’ He lifted a hand. ‘If we keep them separated, Paragon may remain in the harbour, obsessed with Kennitsson, and give up this quest. But I consider that unlikely. I think his desire to recreate himself as dragons will be stronger than his will to have Kennitsson make a final voyage with him.’

‘I agree—’ Wintrow began and then halted. His startled gaze met Brashen’s. Althea rocketed to her feet while Sorcor asked in a harsh whisper, ‘What is that?’

Sailors all, they were aware before I was of a subtle change in the ship. In a matter of breathless moments, I felt the list and Althea cried out, ‘He’s taking on water!’

Brashen took two large steps and seized the handle of the door, but the door was wedged tight against a sill that had been eased out of alignment. The ship’s timbers groaned and the panes of the windows made an indescribable sound as the ship flexed. Paragon’s voice boomed over the ship and the harbour’s waters. ‘I could kill you all! Drown you right here in the harbour! How dare you stand on my deck and plot against me?’

Amber’s fingers dug suddenly into my forearm. ‘I’ll break a window,’ I assured her.

Spark clutched at Per, in the sisterly way of someone who seizes the youngest preparatory to snatching him out of harm’s way. Lant took each of them by a shoulder and herded them toward me. We clustered close in the slowly tipping room. Sorcor had moved to Etta’s side. He reminded me of a battered watchdog taking up his duties. Etta seemed unaware of him. Her jaw was set, forming some plan of her own. I watched Brashen. If he moved, I would. Until then …

‘But I shall not.’ The ship’s voice thundered through my chest. ‘Not now! And not just because Boy-O would be trapped in there with you.’

Boy-O was standing pale-faced, gripping the edge of the table, his eyes showing white all around. I realized he believed the threat. Ice filled my spine and belly.

‘Paragon, let me out. Allow us to come forward and discuss this in a way that doesn’t involve all of the Pirate Isles.’ Brashen spoke as a father to his child, his words calm and firm. His hand still rested on the doorhandle.

‘But it does!’ Paragon’s booming voice came from outside. I did not doubt that all in the harbour and in the shoreside structures could hear him. ‘It involves them all, if they keep their prince from me! For he is my blood before he became their prince! The prince that Kennit could not have made without me!’

‘He’s mad,’ Etta said in a low whisper. ‘I’ll happily die here, drowned inside him, before he shall have my son!’

‘You won’t drown here, Queen Etta.’ Sorcor picked up one rum bottle and hefted it thoughtfully, looking at the windows.

‘I don’t swim,’ she said faintly.

‘Paragon is not going to sink,’ Althea declared firmly, and I wondered if her determination alone could protect us.

From outside the stateroom door, Ant’s voice reached us. ‘Sir, I’ve an axe! Shall I chop my way in?’

‘Not yet!’ Brashen ordered, to my surprise.

Then, to my even greater shock, came another woman’s voice. It rang with authority and was fully as loud as Paragon’s. ‘Harm my family, and I’ll see you burn, you faithless Pariah!’

‘Vivacia!’ Althea gasped.

‘Burn me?’ Paragon howled. ‘To save your family? Do you think your family matters more to you than mine does to me? Set fire to me and they’ll cook inside me like meat in an oven!’

‘Paragon!’ Boy-O bellowed the name. ‘Would you truly do that to me, who was born on your decks and learned to walk here?’ The breath he drew shuddered into his lungs. ‘You named me! You called me Boy-O, your Boy-O, because you would not call me Trellvestrit! You said I was yours, and that name did not fit me!’

A sudden deep silence followed these words. It swelled and deafened us. Then a deep, anguished groan vibrated the deck beneath us. I wondered if the others felt, as I did, a welling of unbearable guilt that washed through me with the sound. I recalled every foolish thing, every evil and selfish thing, I had ever done in my life. Shame surged through me so that I longed to die, invisibly and alone.

Beneath our feet, the deck was slowly shifting back to level. All around us I heard the muttering of shifting planks and beams. Then the door was thrown open to reveal a panicky Ant holding an axe. Several crew surrounded her. ‘The danger has passed,’ Brashen said to her, but I was not sure I agreed. ‘All you crewmen who remain, see to our cargo. Any wet crates, bring them up onto the deck. I know, I know — working in the dark. It can’t be helped. I want to be able to offload tomorrow as swiftly as possible.’ A brief pause and then he added, ‘All hatch covers to be open and remain so.’

‘Sir,’ Ant agreed in a shaky voice and darted off.

Brashen stepped through the door and headed forward, Althea at his heels and Boy-O beside her and we all followed. ‘I hate this,’ I said quietly to Amber.

‘Don’t we all,’ she muttered.

‘It feels as if my entire future lies outside my control. I want to get off this insane ship and away from these people. I want to leave now!’

On the deck, I led her to the railing and stared toward the scattered lights of the pirate town. ‘We can demand to go ashore. Use our Rain Wild gifts to buy passage on a different vessel. Regain some control over our journey. And send Lant and the youngsters home and out of danger.’

‘Are we back to that?’ Lant shook his head. ‘It will not happen, Fitz. I won’t go home until you go with me. And it would be foolish and dangerous to send these two off alone on a long voyage with people we do not know. Whatever we face, I feel they are safer with us.’

‘It’s not a matter of “safer” for me,’ Per muttered darkly.

I ignored them all and stared at the lights. I wanted to shake all over like a wolf would shake off rain, and run off alone into the darkness to do what I must. I felt caged by responsibilities. What was best for us? ‘Then we should leave this ship tonight, all of us. Find other passage to Clerres.’

‘We can’t,’ said the Fool. Not Amber. I turned my head to look at him. How did he do that? How did he shed one mask and don another so easily? Despite the rouge and powder, he turned my friend’s face to me. ‘We have to go there on this ship, Fitz.’

‘Why?’

‘I told you.’ He sounded both patient and exasperated in a way only the Fool could manage. ‘I’ve begun to dream again. Not many dreams, but the ones that reached me rang with clarity and with … inevitability. If we are going to Clerres, we travel on this ship. It’s a narrow channel I navigate to reach my goal. And only Paragon provides us a passage to the future I must create.’

‘But you never thought to share that information with me until this moment?’ I did not try to keep the accusation out of my voice. Was this a true thing or a gambit by the Fool to get what he wanted? My distrust of Amber was starting to bleed into my friendship with the Fool.

‘The steps I have trodden to get us to Kelsingra and then Trehaug, to get us onto this ship and thence to Divvytown … if I had told you of them, of the things I did and the things I took care not to do, it would have influenced you. Only by you behaving as you would if you knew nothing of what I did would we come here.’

‘What?’ Lant asked, confused.

I could not blame him. I sorted out the Fool’s words. ‘So of course that means you can’t tell me any of your other dreams and warn me of what we must do. It must all be left in your hands.’

He set his gloved hands on the ship’s railing. ‘Yes,’ he said quietly.

‘Balls,’ said Perseverance, quite distinctly. Spark gave him a shocked look and then rebuked him with a shove. He glared at her. ‘Well, it’s not right. It’s not how friends should do things.’

‘Perseverance, enough,’ I said quietly.

Lant sighed. ‘Shouldn’t we move up to the bow and see what is going on?’ And when he turned and walked that way, we followed. I didn’t especially want to go. The deep sobbing of the figurehead and his misery permeated the ship. I paused to reinforce my walls, and then walked on with Amber.

The Fool spoke quietly. The others were far enough ahead that I doubt they heard him. ‘I won’t say I’m sorry. I can’t be sorry for something I must do.’

‘I’m not sure that’s entirely true,’ I responded. I could recall many things that I’d had to do, and many of them I regretted.

‘I’d be sorrier, and so would you, if I began to worry more about your feelings and less about getting to Clerres and rescuing Bee.’

‘Rescuing Bee.’ His words felt like meat dangled for a starving dog. I was tired and battered by Paragon’s guilt and grief. ‘I thought your great ambition was to destroy Clerres and kill as many people as you could. Or as I could kill for you.’

‘You’re angry.’

When he said the words aloud, I felt ashamed. And even angrier. I stopped and stood still. ‘I am,’ I admitted. ‘This is … not how I do things, Fool. When I kill, I do it efficiently. I know who I’m stalking, I know how to find them and how to end them. This is … madness. I’m going into unfamiliar territory, I know little of my targets, and I’m hampered with people I’m responsible for protecting. Then I discover that I’m dancing to your tune, to music I can’t even hear … Answer me this, Fool. Do I live through this? Does the boy? Does Lant go back to Chade and is his father still alive when he gets there? Does Spark survive? Do you?’

‘Some things are more likely than others,’ he said quietly. ‘And all of them still dance and wobble like a spun coin. Dust blown on the wind, a day of rain, a tide that is lower than expected — any and all of those things can change everything. You must know that is true! All I can do is peer into a mist and say, “it looks most clear in that direction”. I tell you that our best chance of finding Bee alive is to remain on Paragon until he arrives in Clerres.’

My pride wanted me to be defiant, but my fatherhood was stronger than my pride. What would I not have done to increase the chance that I might rescue Bee, might hold her and protect her and tell her how devastated I was to have failed her? To promise her that never again would she leave my protection?

The others had waited for us. Amber’s hand squeezed my arm and I led the way to the bow with them trooping behind me. My guard. My guard that I must protect as I led them into I knew not what.

Amber queried softly, ‘Is there a bright light off to our left?’

‘There’s a lantern on the Vivacia. It’s burning very brightly.’ Some sort of argument was going on over on her deck, though I could not hear the details. I heard ‘anchor’ and then a barking of orders to roust someone out of his bed.

Amber had turned her face toward the lantern light and opened her light-gold eyes wide. A slight smile bowed her mouth. Her pale face reminded me of the moon as she said, ‘I can perceive it. My vision is improving slowly, Fitz. So slowly. But I believe it is coming back.’

‘That would be good,’ I said but privately I wondered if she deceived herself.

At the bow of the ship, voices had been rising and falling. I recognized Althea’s voice raised in a query but did not catch the words. We were on the outer edges of those who had gathered there, for many of the crew stood between us and the figurehead. It was Paragon who responded. ‘No, you of all people should know that I am not Kennit and that Kennit does not petition you for this. Is Vivacia your father or grandmother? Of course not! It is not Kennit that demands this. It is I, Paragon. A ship made from massacred dragons, both embraced and enslaved by a Bingtown Trader family. I, we, had no say in that! No choice but to care, no choice in who we loved as Ludlucks poured out their blood and souls and memories onto the bones of our deck! I do not ask: I demand! Do I not have the right to him, as much right as his ancestors had to me? Is it not fair?’

‘It is fair!’ A female voice, clear and carrying. Vivacia. And suddenly my mind put together the bits of what I had heard. The liveship had dragged her anchor to come closer to Paragon, not just to hear his words but to add her voice to his. ‘Althea, you know it is! Were I setting out on my final voyage would you deny me Boy-O? Listen to them! They have the right to demand Kennitsson, after all they have been through as the Ludluck family ship.’

‘What’s happening over there?’ Wintrow demanded in the moment of silence that followed Vivacia’s words.

‘What must happen!’ Vivacia spoke before any of her crewmen could respond to their captain. ‘Did you think I would not hear the truth of what Paragon has spoken? Liveship I am, and a wondrous vessel I have been for your family for generations. But Paragon is right, and deep within we all knew that we had other natures, even before the truth of the so-called “wizardwood” was revealed. I will be a dragon again, Wintrow. I know of no liveship who will not wish to rise up and fly again. So, in this I will follow Paragon. Not just to Clerres but up the Rain Wild River afterward, to demand the Silver that is the right of every dragon!’

‘You will follow Paragon to Clerres?’

‘You wish to be a dragon?’ Althea and Wintrow spoke simultaneously.

‘I am considering it,’ the ship replied judiciously.

‘Why Clerres?’ Brashen’s voice was raised in complete confusion. ‘Why not go directly to Kelsingra?’

‘Because a memory stirs in me. A dragon memory, a memory eclipsed by human thoughts and emotions, a memory so over-scarred by human experiences that I cannot be certain of anything except a feeling of anger and betrayal that rises in me at the name Clerres. Dragons recall few memories of their serpent years but … there is something that I recall. Something intolerable.’

‘YES!’ Paragon flung back his head and shouted the word to the night skies.

The exultation that rushed through the ship infected me. I fought against the smile that bloomed on my face. His Skill was so strong, I thought to myself, and then with a shock recognized the implications of that and felt cold and shaky. I lifted Amber’s hand from my forearm and said to Spark, ‘Please take over guiding Lady Amber. I need a time alone to think.’

Amber clutched my shirtfront. ‘You are leaving? You don’t want to stay here and hear what is said?’

I took her wrist and tugged her hand free, more roughly than I intended. I could not keep from my voice the unease and the irritation I felt with myself for not recognizing the obvious. ‘Listening will change nothing. They will decide what becomes of us, when we travel and who goes with us. I have something else I have to ponder. Spark will be with you, and Lant and Per. But for now, I need to think.’

‘I understand,’ she said, in a voice that said she did not.

But my insight into the ship’s ability to manipulate human emotion was too large to share with her. I strode away to the crew quarters. Empty hammocks. Only a few sailor’s trunks and ditty bags remained. I sat down on someone’s sea-chest there in the dark and muggy hold and pondered. I felt as if I were assembling the pieces of a broken teacup. The Silver the liveships craved and the dragons so jealously guarded was the same Skill I had seen on Verity’s hands when he had carved his dragon. It was the raw stuff of magic, the very essence of it. I’d seen it as a thick slurry on my king’s hands, watched him shape stone into a dragon with the power it gave him. In a Skill-sharing dream of Verity I’d seen a river with a wide band of Silver in it, running with the water. I’d seen Silver tendrilling through a vial of dragon’s blood, and witnessed how it had rushed the Fool’s healing, just as the Skill had healed and changed the children of Kelsingra.

So the Silver was the Skill, and the Skill was the magic I used with my mind, to reach out to touch thoughts with Chade. The Fool had once insinuated that I had dragon’s blood in my veins. Tarman had said I had been claimed by a dragon. Was it the stone dragon I had touched, or an echo of Verity as I had known him. I re-ordered that thought now. Had I inherited something in my blood, some trace of actual Silver, that gave me the power to push my thoughts toward others? Silver traces in the portal-stones, in the Skill-pillars that I could use to travel. Lines of silver in the stones from which Verity had carved his dragon, and in the stone dragons that had slept until, with blood and the touch of my Skill, I had wakened them. Silver traces in the memory-stones that held the records the Elderlings had left for us.

What, then, was the Skill-current I used to reach out for Nettle or Dutiful? It was a force outside me, of that I was sure. And there were others in it, powerful awarenesses that attracted and might absorb me. Who were they? Had I truly felt Verity there? King Shrewd? How did that fit with the Silver?

I had too many thoughts. My mind leapt from wondering about the Skill-current to considering what magic I might be able to wield if I were to drink the vials of Silver that Rapskal had given me. Temptation vied with fear. Would it grant me great power, or a painful death? How much Silver was too much for a man’s body to absorb? Paragon had grown much more powerful with the Silver that Amber had given him. The vials in my pack each held more than twice what he’d taken. Now his emotions exploded from him with a force that I could barely resist. Did he know what he did to humans? Did it affect me more because I’d been trained in the Skill? If he understood his power and directed it, would I be able to resist it?

Would anyone?

When the stone dragons had risen in flight and Verity had led them to battle against the Red Ship raiders, they had affected the minds of the warriors below them. With acid breath and the powerful winds of their wings and the blows of their lashing tails, they had destroyed our enemies. But worse had been what they did to their minds. To be overflown by the stone dragons was to lose memories. It was not that different to how the OutIslanders had Forged their captives. Even our own men on the ground had felt the effect; even Verity’s presence as a stone dragon had worked it on the guardians of Buckkeep. The recollection of how the queen and Starling had returned to Buckkeep Castle was a hazy one for those who had witnessed it. The most common telling was that Verity had been astride a dragon when he delivered them to safety. Not that the king had become a dragon.

Such was the power of the Skill, of Silver, to confuse and confound. To steal memory and perhaps one’s humanity.

As my serving folk had been confounded on the night that Bee was taken. Had they used Silver or dragon’s blood to work that magic, to make all my people forget how they had come and stolen my child, to forget that she had even existed?

Could that same magic be used against them?

I dared myself to imagine drinking the Silver. Not all of it, not at first. Just a little, to see what I could do. Just sufficient to make me strong enough to resist the ship’s emotions. Enough to heal the Fool without losing my vision to him. Was that possible? Enough to reach out to ask Chade’s advice, perhaps to heal his body of the ravages of age and restore his mind. Could I do that? Would Nettle know more of what it could or could not do?

If I drank it all, could I walk into Clerres and demand that all there kill themselves?

Could it be that easy to destroy them and win back my daughter?

‘What are you doing down here?’ Lant asked me. I turned to see him coming toward me, Per and Spark trailing behind him.

‘Where is Amber?’

‘She is with the figurehead. She dismissed us. What are you doing?’

‘Thinking. Where are the others?’

‘Wintrow went back to Vivacia. She needs calming, I think. The queen and Sorcor went back to Divvytown. I think they will try to find Kennitsson and reason with him. Brashen and Althea went to their stateroom and shut the door. And Amber had Spark fetch her pipes; and she is playing for Paragon.’ He drew breath and looked around the crew quarters. ‘You came here to think?’

‘Yes.’

‘Can you think while you work?’ I turned to Clef’s voice. It was humid below deck and his face ran with sweat as he stepped out of the shadowy darkness of the hold. ‘I was just coming to look for you. We’re short of crew and we need to move freight. Some of the crates have shifted and a few look damp. Captains wanted those ones up on deck. You said you’d pitch in. Now would be a good time.’

‘I’m coming,’ I said.

‘Me, too,’ Lant added and Per nodded.

‘And me,’ Spark asserted. ‘I’m part of this crew. Now and to the end.’

To the end, I thought morosely, and rose to follow them. A wave of vertigo swept over me such that I abruptly sat down again on the sea-chest. There you are! Satisfaction rang in the voice in my head. I am coming for you. Prepare for me.

‘Fitz?’ Lant asked, concern in his voice.

I stood slowly. My smile held back my fear and confusion. ‘Tintaglia is coming for me,’ I said.

NINETEEN

Another Ship, Another Journey

Report to the Four

The lurik known as Beloved continues to create restlessness among the other luriks. He was caught attempting to remain in the village when the tide was coming in and the other luriks had already formed up to return to their cottages. He has upset those who have come to have their fortunes foretold by hypothesizing horrible calamities. He told one client that his son would marry a donkey but that the children from that union would bring the family great joy. To another, he said simply, ‘How much money do you wish to give me to lie to you? My best lies are very expensive, but this one is free. You are a very wise woman to have come here to give me lots of money to lie to you.’

Twice I have beaten him, once with my hands and once with a strap. He begged me to lash him hard enough to tear the tattoos from his back. I believe he was sincere in desiring that.

As soon as he healed and was to return to his duties in the marketplace, he clambered onto a pile of boxes and proclaimed to all that he was the true White Prophet for this generation and announced that he was being held prisoner in Clerres. He appealed to the crowd that immediately gathered to help him escape. When I seized him and shook him to silence him, I was stoned by some of the onlookers and it was only when two other guards intervened that I was able to drag him back within the walls.

I believe that I have done my duty as well as any might, and I petition to be freed from responsibility for the lurik known as Beloved. With the greatest respect, I say that I consider him both troublesome and dangerous to all.

Lutius

My life had improved, or so I told myself. We were quartered in a nice cabin; the meals were regular and Dwalia had few chances to beat me. Indeed, she seemed almost mellowed by our improved fortunes. Summer had found the seas; the winds were fresh and storms were few. As a result of whatever glamor Vindeliar had cast over me, the crew accepted my presence without comment or interest. If I lived my life from moment to moment, it was not too bad. Very little was expected of me. I fetched Dwalia’s meals to the cabin and took away the empty dishes. When she walked on the deck in the afternoons with the captain, I followed at a decorous distance, in a pretence at maintaining the lady’s virtue.

But for now, the pretence was small. I sat on the deck outside the door of the captain’s stateroom. When he had offered his stateroom to Lady Aubretia, I do not think that Dwalia had realized that he expected to continue occupying it. I heard a rhythmic thudding from inside the cabin and fondly hoped it was the top of her head against the bulkhead. The tempo was increasing, which saddened me. The times when Captain Dorfel was occupying Dwalia were the most peaceful in my constrained existence. She was making little gasping shrieks now, barely audible through the stout plank walls.

I heard shuffling footsteps coming down the companionway. I thought of the sea and the moving waves and how the sunlight glittered on their tops. I thought of the seabirds flying high above us and yet still looking so large. How big would such a bird be if it landed on the deck? As tall as me? What did they eat? Where did they nest or land to rest when we were so many days away from land? I filled my thoughts with those wide-winged, white birds and thought of nothing else. When Vindeliar crouched beside me, I wondered what he would look like if he were a bird. I imagined a beak for him and glossy feathers, and orange-clawed feet with spurs like a rooster.

‘Are they still in there?’ he asked in a hoarse whisper.

I didn’t look at him or reply. Long, shining, grey feathers.

‘I won’t try to push into your thoughts.’

I don’t believe you, I don’t trust you, I don’t believe you, I don’t trust you. I just thought it, but I didn’t lower my walls. He was not as powerful as he had been when he first took in the serpent spit, but he was still strong. I was starting to understand that unlike my father’s magic that was always with him, Vindeliar’s magic depended on the potion. I wondered how long it would take before it dwindled away completely. Before I could trust that my private plans remained private. Don’t think of that. I don’t trust you, I don’t believe you, I don’t trust you.

‘You don’t trust me.’ He said it with such sadness that I almost felt rebuked. Except that he had taken the words from my thoughts and said them aloud. He wasn’t to be trusted. Not at all. I knew that, down to my bones. I desperately needed an ally, but Vindeliar was not one. I don’t believe you, I don’t trust you, I don’t believe you, I don’t trust you.

‘Poor Dwalia.’ He was staring at the closed door, a look of dismay on his face. ‘He just goes on and on! She must blame me. I made Captain Dorfel see her as the most beautiful woman he could imagine.’ He scratched his head. ‘It has not been easy, to keep him convinced of his desire for her. At all times, I must be aware of all who see her. It’s very taxing.’

‘What does he see when he looks at her?’ Damn curiosity! The question had been on my lips before I had recalled I must not speak to him. I tried to think only of the birds again.

He smiled, pleased that I’d spoken to him. ‘I don’t tell them what to see, exactly. I tell them they see something they like. For Dwalia, I told the captain he would see a beautiful woman he wanted to help. I don’t know exactly what she looks like to him.’

He looked at me, waiting for my questions. I held them all back and thought of how the tip of every wave sometimes sparkled so brightly that I could not look at them for long.

‘For me, I told them all to see “just a serving man”. Unthreatening. Nobody to worry about.’

He waited again. I held my silence.

‘I told them you were homely and dull and smelled bad.’

‘Smelled bad?’ Again, I had not meant to speak.

‘So they would leave you alone. On the boat before this there were some who looked at you and wanted … wanted what he does to poor Dwalia now.’ He crossed his stubby arms on his chest. ‘I protect you, Bee. Even when you hate and mistrust me, I protect you. I wish you could open your eyes and see that we are taking you to safety, to where you have always belonged. Dwalia has suffered so much for you, and you have rewarded her only with difficulty and physical attacks.’

As if she had heard him and wished more of his sympathy, we heard a series of rising moans from within the cabin. Vindeliar looked from me to the door and then back to me. ‘Should we go in? Does she need us?’

‘They’re nearly done.’ I knew that they were mating, but had no clear idea of the mechanics of it. My days as sentry had taught me that it involved a lot of bumping noises and moans and left the cabin smelling sweaty. For a few hours, Dwalia would doze and be uninterested in persecuting me. I did not care what the captain did to her in his afternoon visits.

Vindeliar seemed both foolish and patronizing as he told me, ‘She must allow this. If she refused, it would be harder for me to keep him believing that he loves her. She endures this to win us safe passage to Clerres.’

I started to tell him that I doubted it, but bit back my words. The less talk we exchanged, the better for me. Sunlight on the waves. Gary birds flying.

The moaning reached a higher pitch and pace, and then suddenly dwindled away in a descending sigh. A galloping series of thuds and then all sound from the chamber abruptly ceased.

‘I will always wonder what it is like. I will never do that.’ He spoke as wistfully as a child. Gary birds sliding across the blue sky. Wind in our sails, waves sparkling. ‘I barely remember what they did to me. Only the pain. But they had to do it. They saw very soon that I should not make children for Clerres. Girls like me they kill. And most of the boys. But Dwalia spoke for me and my sister, Oddessa. We were twins, born of one of the purest White lineages, but … flawed. She kept me alive when all others thought I should die.’ He spoke as if I should marvel at Dwalia’s goodness.

‘You are so blind to her. So stupid!’ Anger demolished my self-control. ‘She cut you like a bull calf, and you grovel with thankfulness. Who is she to say you should never make a child? She strikes you and calls you names and you sniff along behind her like a dog nosing another dog’s piss! She feeds you filth to give you power, a magic she does not understand, and you let her decide how it will be used! She thinks nothing of you, Vindeliar! Nothing at all! But you are too stupid to see how she uses you and how she will discard you the moment you become useless. She hits you and calls you names, but the moment she smiles at you, you forgive it all and forget it! You call me brother but you do not care that she intends to hurt me and then kill me. You know it as well as I do. You could have helped me. If you cared for me, you would have helped me! We should have fled when that last ship made port, and I could have gone home to my family and you could have chosen a life for yourself! Instead you helped her kill a woman who had done nothing bad to you and had been kind to me. And you threw aside the Chalcedean, and left him to die for you after you compelled him to kill for her! You’re a coward and a fool!’

But I was the fool. From somewhere in a distant darkness, I heard a wolf’s long howl fade. Then Vindeliar was inside my mind. Be calm, I won’t hurt you, just let me see your secrets, what do you fear, be calm, my brother, I won’t hurt you, just let me see. He babbled excitedly as he whirled through my mind, stirring and flinging memories as if they were dead leaves and he an autumn storm. Wall after wall I raised to him, and each he tore and parted as if they were paper. I was dizzy and sickened with the assault of memories, each with an emotion attached to it. My mother fell and died, my mouth was torn when I was slapped, a cat purred still and warm as I stroked him, I smelled bacon and fresh bread in a winter kitchen lit with candlelight and hearth fire, FitzVigilant shamed me, and Perseverance fell as an arrow tore through him. Vindeliar was a greedy child rummaging a platter of sweets, taking a bite of this one and a lick of that one. Dirtying my memories with his eager sampling, as if he could own me by knowing me. You do dream! He was exultant.

I felt pushed out of my own mind. I could not find a voice to shriek at him nor fists to batter him. I was writing in my dream journal — NO, he must not see that, he must not read those! And suddenly all I knew were long, sharp tearing teeth and a mouth that breathed hot breath. A father shouted, ‘Beware! He is more dangerous than you can know!’ and I was suddenly in a cage where I could not retreat and a stinking human hammered my ribs with fierce jabs of a stick I could not avoid. I had never known such pain! It did not stop. Over and over the man shouted curses at me and poked me savagely with the stick, as if he strove to thrust it right through me. I howled and shrieked and snarled, I leapt and fought the bars of the cage, but still the stick struck me, always looking for the softest parts of me, my belly, my throat, my anus and sex. I fell at last, yelping and whining and still the beating went on.

Abruptly, Vindeliar was gone. My mind was my own again. I slammed up wall after wall while my whole body shook with sobs. The remembered pain wracked me and my tears flowed. But through them I could see Vindeliar sprawled on his side, his mouth open, his eyes glassy as if he had lost awareness. Like the wolf in the cage, I suddenly realized. Like Wolf Father.

I give you that pain to use against him. But do not think of me again. He must not find me. He must not know that you can write or anything you have dreamed. And you must stop waiting for someone to save you. You must save yourself. Escape. Get home. But do not think of home right now. Think only of escape.

And Wolf Father was gone as if he had never existed. As if he was something I made up to give me courage. Just as gone as my real father. And I suddenly knew I must not think of him either.

Vindeliar sat up but even sitting he was wobbly. He set his hands flat to the deck to either side of him and looked at me woefully. ‘What was that? You are not a wolf. You can’t remember that.’ His lower lip was trembling, as if I’d cheated him at a game.

I felt a surge of hatred. ‘I can remember this!’ I told him, and I flung at him every moment of the beating Dwalia had given me on the night when my shoulder had been jerked out of its socket. He recoiled from me, and I added, ‘And this!’ And I found myself grinding my teeth together as I recalled for him exactly how it had felt to bite Dwalia’s cheek, how her blood had tasted and felt as it ran over my chin, and how I had ignored the blows she struck me as she tried to shake me loose.

He put hands up to his cheeks and shook his head. ‘No-o-o—’ His voice dwindled away. He popped his eyes open wide and stared at me. ‘Don’t show me that! Don’t make me feel chewing her face!’

I met his gaze with a flat stare. ‘Then stay out of my thoughts! Or I will show you worse than that.’ I had no idea what I could dredge up that would be worse for him, but for now he was out of my mind and I’d make any threats I could to keep him out. I thought about how he had betrayed me, how he’d helped them find and kill Trader Akriel. I thought of how he had pounced on my chain when I’d tried to flee on the docks. I summoned all the hate I could muster and pointed the thought at him in a way I never had before. I despise you! His eyes jolted wide and he leaned away from me. I realized that, at this moment, I was stronger than he was. He had barged into my mind when my guard was down, but it had been my strength that forced him out. He had used his full power against me, but I had won.

Just then the stateroom door opened and our handsome captain emerged. His clothing was as immaculate as ever, his cheeks slightly flushed. He glanced down at me, and then at Vindeliar. I saw puzzlement cloud his gaze, as if we were not what he had expected to see. Then I felt the wash of Vindeliar’s thoughts against his mind. His brow unfurrowed and the small scowl on his lips became a puckering of distaste. ‘Lady Aubretia, this maid of yours … well, I vow that when we reach Clerres, we shall replace her with someone clean and pleasant to look upon. Away, wretch!’ He nudged me with the side of his foot and I edged away from him and then stood up.

‘As you please, sir,’ I said courteously. I was half a dozen steps away when I heard Dwalia’s voice.

‘No, my dear, thank you all the same. Come here, Bee! Tidy this chamber, immediately.’

I halted on the verge of dashing away.

‘You heard your mistress! Be prompt.’

‘Yes, sir.’ I lowered my eyes meekly. Nonetheless, as I walked back past him, he cuffed the back of my head hard, nearly sending me sprawling. I struck the side of the door and then scurried inside, Vindeliar on my heels.

‘And that one scarcely looks fit enough to be your bodyguard. He should be replaced with a strong man who knows his business.’ The captain shook his head and then, with a sigh, added, ‘I will see you again this evening, my dear.’

‘Time will move slow as honey until then,’ Dwalia said, her voice thick and lazy. Then in an entirely different voice she barked, ‘Tidy this room!’ as she shut the door.

The captain’s chamber was very grand, as wide as the stern of the ship, with windows that looked out on three sides. The walls were panelled with a fine-grained red wood, and the rest of the room was cream or gilt. There was a large bed fat with cream feather pillows, and a table made of wood the colour of rust and moss, big enough for six tall chairs to surround it. There was a deep-cushioned seat by one of the windows, a separate chart-table that folded down from the wall, and a tiny chamber where one’s waste went down a chute and out into the sea. Nightly Dwalia locked me in that cramped and noisome space lest I attack her while she slept.

Clothing littered the polished planks of the floor, all of it the excessively flouncy, lacy garments the captain had purchased for Lady Aubretia in the two days before we had left our last port. I gathered the clothing in a slow armful, including a petticoat of stiff lace that crinkled in my arms. It smelled of a lovely perfume, another gift from the captain. I carried the garments to a chest with roses carved into the lid and began to layer them carefully back into it. The chest smelled fragrant, like a forest where spices grew.

‘Hurry up!’ Dwalia commanded me. To Vindeliar, she said, ‘Gather those cups and plates and take them back to the galley. The captain does not like to see his quarters untidy.’ She went to the cushioned seat and sat down, staring out over the water. Her long, bony feet and muscular calves were bare beneath her short robe of thin red silk. Her draggled hair was sweaty at the roots, and my bite mark on her cheek was becoming a shiny pink crater. She was scowling to herself. ‘We go so slowly! The captain tells me that this is not the right time of year to make the passage to Clerres, that the currents are good for travelling north and west, not south and east. I think he tarries on purpose, to have more time with Lady Aubretia.’

I wondered if she were complaining or bragging, but I said nothing. Lovely clothes, sweet perfumes, carved roses. I kept my thoughts fixed on what I could see and held my walls as tight as I could.

‘She has stolen magic from you!’ Vindeliar had not even begun to gather the plates and cups from their shared meal. Instead he pointed at me with a shaking hand as he made his accusation.

Dwalia turned away from the window and gave him an angry glare. ‘What?’

‘She used our magic against me, just now, outside the door. She made me think about biting you and how she hates me!’

Dwalia transferred her angry gaze to me. ‘That’s not possible.’

‘She did it! She stole magic and that’s why I can’t make her do what you want.’ He drew in a deep breath, a tattling child on the verge of tears. I stared hate at him and he recoiled. ‘She’s doing it now!’ he wailed and threw up his hands before his face as if they could stem the flow of what I felt for him.

‘No!’ Dwalia shouted and fairly leapt from her seat. I both cowered and lifted my fists to defend myself but she ignored me and charged across the room to the carved chest. With a fine disregard for the work I’d just completed, she flung open the lid and began to fling the clothing from the chest onto the floor behind her until she reached her washed but well-worn travelling clothes. She dredged up a leather pouch and peered into it. She drew out the glass tube. The remainder of the serpent spit was clotted in the bottom. ‘No. It’s here! She hasn’t stolen it. Stop making excuses.’

For a long moment, we both stared at her. Vindeliar spoke slowly, his voice full of helpless longing. ‘I need the rest of it now. Don’t you want me to be able to do everything you ask of me?’ A pleading desire was in that last question.

‘It’s not for you right now. You’ve had all I can spare.’ She looked at him, and then looped the string of the pouch around her neck so that it hung between her breasts. ‘There’s only a bit left. We must save it for an emergency.’

‘She doesn’t trust you, Vindeliar. She taught you to want that serpent spit and now she doesn’t trust you to not steal it from her.’ I flung my foolish words at both of them.

‘Serpent … who told you that? Vindeliar! Are you telling my secrets to her? Have you betrayed me to her?’

‘No! No, I told her nothing! Nothing!’

He hadn’t told me. I had found that information in him when his mind was unguarded before me. I wished I had kept that knowledge to myself. Except that it now seemed to be a breach in their alliance.

‘Liar!’ she barked at him. She advanced on him, her meaty hand held high, and he quailed, crouching down before her, his head ducked and hidden behind his hands. She slapped him, and when her blow fell on his knuckles, she grunted in annoyed pain and seized a handful of hair on top of his head. She shook him savagely by it as Vindeliar shrieked and protested his innocence. I moved closer to the door whilst looking for anything I might use as a weapon. Any moment I feared that both might turn on me and come after me. Instead she flung his head aside with a force that sent him staggering. He fell to the floor and curled there, sobbing. She scowled at him and then looked at me.

‘What did he tell you of the serpent potion?’

‘Nothing,’ I answered truthfully, and then, to deflect her, I shook my head pityingly and lied, ‘It’s well known, where I come from. But few are stupid enough to use it.’

That made her stare. Then, ‘No. No, it is my discovery! My new magic, a new ability that some who carry White blood can master. But only some.’ She stared at me, hatred burning in her. ‘You think you are so clever, don’t you? You seek to turn him against me. He told me all, you stupid little chit! How you manipulated him into helping you. How you made him betray me. It won’t happen again. I promise you that. And more: I promise you a long and painful life in Clerres. Do you think you have suffered travelling with me? Oh, no. You will know all your father knew, and more.’

I stared back at her. She was edging closer to me. Closer. No weapons. On this ship, everything was firmly fastened down lest wild weather toss things about. She intended to seize me and beat out of me whatever I knew. I wasn’t even sure what I knew. Or what I could do with my newfound ability. Was it the Skill, such as my father had? It had to be! Not some filthy magic she’d inflicted on Vindeliar by making him drink serpent spit. My magic, the magic of my family. But I wasn’t trained. All I’d read in my father’s papers said one needed lots of training to use the magic.

But I’d used it? Hadn’t I?

I knew that I’d made Vindeliar feel old pain of mine. And be aware of my hate. Perhaps that had only worked because he was already trying to reach into my thoughts. Or maybe I had stolen magic from him. Was there anything I could do to Dwalia? I stared at her and gathered up my hatred for her at the same time as I pressed down my fear. I looked at her face and gathered up the scar from my bite and how badly she had smelled and how disgusting I found her. They seemed small weapons. What could I do to her, what could I make her feel? Would I be able to make her feel anything or had it only worked with Vindeliar because he had reached into my mind first?

I was panting with fear. Control. My father’s scroll said I must have control. I took one long slow breath and then another. She was watching me. How could I focus my thoughts when at any moment she might spring?

Become the hunter, not the prey.

Wolf Father! Faint as a distant bird call.

I found a rolling growl in the back of my throat. Her eyes widened but I marked that Vindeliar had uncoiled and was sitting up. Watch them both. Where was she most vulnerable? She’d grown leaner and harder during our most recent travels. I tried to imagine hitting her. I could, but I couldn’t imagine her hurting her enough to make it stop. Once she got hold of me, she would hurt me. Badly. I needed to focus an attack on her, but where?

Her mind.

Be wary. A way out is always a way in.

I had no time to worry about what he meant by that. I pushed at her with all my hatred and disgust for her, hoping she would be hurt by it. Instead, it was like pouring oil on a kitchen fire; I felt her own hatred for me surge and leap like devouring flames. She sprang at me like a cat upon a mouse. And like a mouse, I dodged away, barely avoiding her snatching claws. She could not move as fast as I could, and although she did not crash into the wall, she staggered sideways. When I ducked under the table and emerged at the other end, she pounded on the table so that the dishes jumped and shouted at Vindeliar to ‘grab her, hold her!’ He got to his feet but he was uncertain and awkward. I shot him a fierce reminder of how I had bitten Dwalia’s face and was gratified when he reached with both hands to cover his cheeks.

But Dwalia was still ardent in her pursuit. I kept the table between us but she showed no signs of tiring as she chased me round and round. I slipped under it to catch my breath but she kicked at me and pulled the chairs away from the table and tossed them aside. When I emerged, the tumbled chairs became obstacles for both of us as I strove to keep the cluttered table between us. She was breathing harder than I was but she continued to pant and shout, ‘This time I will kill you, you little wretch! I will kill you!’

She halted abruptly, palms braced flat on the table, breathed heavily. In between gasps, she managed, ‘Vindeliar, you worthless failure! Catch her, hold her for me!’

‘She will bite me in the face! Her magic has promised this! She will bite me!’ He stood, rocking back and forth with his hands still clasped over his face.

‘You idiot!’ she shouted, and with a strength I had scarcely imagined she possessed she lifted one of the heavy wooden chairs and heaved it at him. He shrieked and danced back as it fell short. ‘You catch her and hold her for me! Be useful or I’ll have the captain throw you over the side!’

I glanced at the door but knew that by the time I reached it and struggled with the heavy latch, she’d be on me. Even if I escaped into the companionway, eventually I’d be found and returned to her. I should not have fed her anger. I should have let her beat me before she became murderous. What to do, what to do? She was breathing more slowly. In a moment, she’d be after me again. She wouldn’t stop, not until she’d won.

Give her what she wants.

Let her kill me?

Let her win. Make her think she won.

How?

There was no answer. And a strange trembling went through me as I felt Vindeliar poking at my thoughts, at my being, as if he had just noticed an odd growth on my face. It was tentative, almost fearful, and I slapped it away with another burst of my memory of chewing on Dwalia’s cheek. He fell back but it cost me. Heedless of the dishes, Dwalia flung herself flat on the table and reached across to seize the front of my shirt. A vivid memory of the last beating I’d received from her flashed through my mind and crossed to hers. The glittering light of satisfaction in her eyes was almost more than I could bear.

I understood.

I gave her the taste of blood in my mouth, the torn skin inside my cheek, the rocking pain of a loosened tooth. Abruptly, I was seeing myself as she’d seen me, pale, my short hair matted with sweat, a smear of blood down my chin. It took every bit of control I had but I let my weight fall as I went limp in her grip. She did not release her hold on my shirt but as I sank to the floor, she had to slide her body over the table to keep her hold on me. Several dishes struck the floor. I lolled my head as if stunned and let my mouth hang open. She managed an open-handed slap but she was in an awkward position and it had little momentum behind it. I still cried out as if in agony. I gave her, not my hatred, but my fear and pain and despair. And she sucked it in like a thirsty horse at a water trough.

She manoeuvred herself off the table. She kicked me, and again I cried out and let the force of her kick push me under the table. She kicked me again, in the belly, but she was up against the table’s edge and it was not as bad as if I’d been in the open. Again I shrieked and offered her an awareness of the pain I felt. Panting, she licked her lips. I lay where I was, moaning. Oh, she had hurt me, she had beaten me to where I was barely conscious, I would hurt for weeks from this beating. I gave it all to her, everything I could imagine she could want.

She turned away from me, breathing harshly through her nose. She had what she’d wanted from me and that anger was satiated. She was done with me, but Vindeliar had foolishly ventured too close to her. She turned on him, and closed her fist before slamming it into his face. He fell away from her, gasping and sobbing, hands clutching his nose. ‘You are useless! You couldn’t even catch a little girl! I had to do it myself! Look what you made me do! If she dies of that beating, it will be your fault. She is full of lies, and you are too! Stole my magic! What is that tale, something you tell me to explain why you won’t control her?’

‘She dreams!’ Vindeliar had lifted his face from his hands. His wobbling cheeks were scarlet, his little eyes running tears. Blood trickled from his nose. ‘She is the liar! She dreams but does not write them down or even tell you!’

‘You stupid wretch. Everyone dreams, not just Whites. Her dreams mean nothing.’

‘She dreamed the candle dream! She wrote it down, the whole poem! I saw it in her mind! She can read and write, and she dreamed the candle dream.’

I felt a sudden terror. The candle dream! I almost let myself recall it. No! Heedless of any risk, I pushed a desperate thought at her. He lies. I’m a stupid girl, with no letters. He’s just making excuses and trying to avoid punishment. You know he lies, you are correct that he is a liar, you are too clever to be fooled by his lies.

It was a panicky thrust of thoughts. I think it reached her only because she was already angry at him and was only too happy to have reasons for her anger confirmed.

She beat him. She picked up a heavy metal water pitcher from the washstand and turned it into a weapon. He did not defend himself and I did not intervene. Instead, I huddled under the table. There was blood on my chin from my split lip. I smeared it on my face. I felt the impact of each of her blows on Vindeliar, and I stored those sensations as I winced at each one. I pushed into his mind that she had beaten me more severely, and in his distracted and beleaguered state, I felt him accept that information as truth. He knew the sort of pain she could administer. He knew it better than anyone, and in a gush of information as sudden as a spurt of blood, I did, too. The memory that burst from him sickened me and my walls fell before it.

A way out is a way in.

Then, as the wisdom of Wolf Father’s words sank into my mind, I closed my thoughts from him and worked to fortify my walls. Thicker and tighter I built them, until I was aware of the beating he was taking but no longer flinching at each blow. When he had the elixir, he was strong, far stronger than I was in this magic. But I understood now; a way in is also a way out. When I reached out to touch his mind or Dwalia’s, it was like opening the gates to them. Did he know that, too? Did he know that when he tried to invade my thoughts, he offered me a highway into him? I doubted it. And after what I’d glimpsed, I never wanted to see inside his mind again.

I lay curled on the floor under the table and tears flowed from my eyes and broken sobs from my lungs. I fought for control. I told myself I must ponder what I’d learned. I had a weapon, but it was not hardened and I did not know how to wield it. He had a vulnerability and did not know it. Information about him and his dismal childhood had poured into me when he’d manifested the power of the serpent potion. I cut away any sympathy I might have felt for him and focused on the edges of those memories.

I’d seen a fortified citadel standing tall on an island. Towers topped with heads like the skulls of monsters looked out over a harbour and the mainland. I’d glimpsed a lovely garden where pale children played, but never Vindeliar. Those children were tended by patient Servants, and taught to read and write as soon as they could walk. Their dreams were harvested and preserved as carefully as soft fruit.

I saw a market with many booths shaded by bright awnings. The smells of smoked fish and honey-cakes and something spicy mingled in the air. Smiling people moved among the booths, making purchases and putting them into net bags. Tiny dogs with barely any fur scampered and barked shrilly. A girl with flowers woven into her hair sold bright yellow sweets from a tray. All the people I saw seemed clean and well clothed and happy.

That was Clerres. That was where they were taking me. But I doubted that the lovely walled garden and doting Servants awaited me, or the bright market under the warm sunshine.

Instead I recalled with horror the searing glimpse of torch-lit stone walls lined with elevated benches, and a bloody creature chained to a table who screamed piteously as Dwalia offered a delicate knife to an impassive man. Pen, ink and paper waited on a tall stand near her. When the person screamed out a recognizable word, she stepped aside to jot it down, and to add notes, perhaps on what pain had torn words from him. She seemed cheery and efficient, her hair neatly braided in a crown around her head. A canvas smock protected her pastel blue garments.

Vindeliar stood at the edge of the theatre, a despised outcast who averted his eyes and trembled at each screech wrung from the victim. He’d understood little of the reasons for tormenting the writhing creature. Some of the seated onlookers were watching with mouths ajar and eyes wide, and others laughed into their hands, with strange shame blushing their cheeks. Some were pale of skin, hair and eyes, and others were as dark-haired and warm-skinned as my parents. There were old people, and people of working age, and four children who looked younger than me. And they all watched the torture as if it were an entertainment.

And then, to my horror, the poor creature on the table stiffened. His blood-tipped fingers strained wide against his restraints and his head thrashed wildly for a moment. Then he was still. The panting sounds he had made ceased and I thought he had died. Then, in a terrible exhalation of breath, he screamed a name. ‘FitzChivalry! Fitz! Help me, oh help me! Fitz! Please, Fitz!’

Dwalia was transfigured. She lifted her head as if she had heard the voice of a god calling her and a terrible smile came over her face! Whatever she wrote in the book, she did with a flourish. And then she paused, pen lifted, and made a request. ‘Again,’ she said to the tormentor. ‘Again, please. I wish to be certain!’

‘Certainly,’ the man replied. He was pale with colourless hair, but the gaudiness of his fine garments made up for his lack of colour. Even the olive apron he wore to protect his jade robe was a thing of beauty, embroidered with words in a language I did not know. His ears were studded with emeralds. He flourished the nasty little tool he held at the four young Whites. Their eyes were very large as he said, ‘You are too young to recall when Beloved was a lurik, just your age. But I do. Even then, he was a defiant and obtuse youngster, breaking all rules, just as you break the rules and think yourselves too clever for us to know about it. Look where it has led him. Know that it can lead you here just as easily if you do not learn to master your own wills for the good of the Servants.’

The lips of the smallest one quivered until she clapped a hand over her mouth. One of the others hugged himself, but the two tallest drew themselves straighter and held their mouths tight.

A beautiful young woman with pale gold hair and a complexion like milk stood up. ‘Fellowdy.’ Impatience ruled her voice. ‘Lecture your little darlings later. Force Beloved to utter the name again.’ She turned to the spectators and looked directly at one old woman seated next to a man whose yellow robes contrasted with the pale paste on his face. ‘Hear it! The name he has concealed so long, the one that proves what Fellowdy and I have been saying. His Catalyst continues to live and they conspire to work against us still. The Unexpected Son has been concealed from us. Has Beloved not done enough damage to us already? You must allow us to send Dwalia forth, to avenge her mistress and win us possession of the Son who will otherwise be our downfall! Over and over, the dreams have warned us of him!’

In response, the older woman stood and fixed the young woman with a glare. ‘Symphe, you speak before all these people of things that concern only the Four. Mind your own tongue.’ She stood, lifted her pale-blue skirts to avoid the blood and strode majestically from the slaughter floor.

The yellow-coated man next to her watched her go, stood as if undecided, and then sat down again. He nodded to Symphe and the butcher that they should proceed. And they did.

My father’s name. That was what they made the tattered creature scream, not just once, but over and over and over. And when the repeated screaming of my father’s name was finished and they had tumbled the unconscious body off the table and the guards had dragged the poor wretch away, Vindeliar recalled dashing buckets of water on the spattered floor and table, and then scrubbing them clean.

He cared little for the tortured man. He focused on his work and his fear. A small chunk of flesh had clung to the floor. He scraped it up with his thumbnail and tossed it into his scrubbing bucket. He knew that if he contravened Dwalia’s will he might be the next one shackled for a hard lesson on the table. Even now, he knew it still might await him. She would not hesitate. And still he lacked the will to flee or defy her. And I knew in my deepest core that my ‘brother’ would not risk himself to save me from such a fate.

That memory made me tremble. The poor creature on the table had screamed for my father and begged him to come and save him. I was missing too many links to make a chain of reasons, but my instincts made a blind leap. That was the day Dwalia had won permission to come to Withywoods. That was the day my fate had been sealed. I watched her now as if from a great distance.

And the wretch on the table? It did not seem possible he could have survived. Surely he could not have become the beggar at Oaksbywater. Could not have been my father’s Fool. Jagged bits of information stabbed at my thoughts. Dwalia had spoken of a father I did not know. The pieces could not possibly fit together. But her earlier threat to me insisted that they did. That table was what she had promised me.

Dwalia was still kicking Vindeliar but she was panting with the effort. With each kick she grunted and her buttocks wobbled. When she had reduced Vindeliar to a huddled and sobbing mass in the corner, she came back to me. She aimed a kick at me, but I had chosen my shelter carefully and she could not deliver a forceful blow. She flung the now-bloody pitcher at me. It only grazed me. I yelped convincingly anyway and scuttled away, staring up at her dolefully, blood smeared on my face. I made my chin quiver and blubbered at her, ‘Please, Dwalia, no more. No more. I will obey you. See? I will work hard. Please don’t hurt me.’

I scooted out from under the table, dragging one leg. Hunched over, I hopped about the room, gathering up the clothing she had scattered. With each lurch, I begged her to forgive me and promised obedience and atonement. She watched me, suspicion and satisfaction warring in her expression. I stood weeping by the clothing chest, seeping pain and fear at her and Vindeliar. Inspired, I added a touch of despair and discouragement. I held up each garment, ‘See how nicely I’m folding it?’ I gulped back a sob. ‘I can be useful. I can be helpful. I’ve learned my lesson. Please, don’t hurt me any more. Please, please.’

It was not easy and I could not be sure how well it was working. But she gave me a satisfied sneer and returned to the tousled bed, plopping down onto it with a satisfied sigh. Then Vindeliar caught her eye. He was curled on the floor like a fat larva under a log, sobbing into his hands. ‘Tidy up those dishes, I said!’ she barked at him.

He rolled and then sat up, snuffling. When he lifted his battered face from his hands, I winced. His eyes were starting to swell and blood had sheeted over his chin. Blood and saliva dripped from his sagging mouth. He looked at me in misery and I wondered if he had felt my inadvertent sympathy. I thickened my walls. I think he felt that, for he gathered his brows and looked at me darkly. ‘She’s doing it now,’ he said in a low, sullen voice, his words muffled by swollen lips.

Dwalia cocked her head at him. ‘Think about this, unman. She has learned her lesson. See how she cowers and obeys me? That is all I require of her, for now. And if she can do the magic, if I can teach her what I require of her, what need have I of you? You had best be at least as useful as she is.’ Then she looked at me and chilled my soul with her simpering smile.

I heard Vindeliar take a snotty breath. I glanced at him and saw something more frightening than Dwalia’s smile. He glowered at me, his face full of jealousy.

TWENTY

Belief

I truly wish I knew more to tell you. I feel as if I should know more, but he has always been private when speaking of his early days. What I do know with certainty can be quickly written. An accident of birth cheated Lord Chade of the power and respect that went to his elder brother and younger sister. Shrewd became king. His younger sister was, some say, the cause of her mother’s death, for the birth was difficult and Queen Constance was never healthy after that. Raised as a princess, she was nevertheless doomed to die in her turn, giving birth to a son, August. His sad end you already know. In an effort to Skill through him to his future queen, Verity unintentionally burned out his cousin’s mind. August was never sound after that, physically or mentally, and died at a relatively young age in the merciful obscurity of a ‘retirement’ to Withywoods. Patience, my father’s wife and once a queen-in-waiting, had the care of him until he died in his sleep one winter’s day. The death of my father in an ‘accident’ and then August’s sliding away were what led her, I believe, to return to Buckkeep Castle to attempt to take on my upbringing.

But it is Chade you wished to know about. He has never been forthcoming about his early days. His mother was a soldier. How she came to bear the king’s bastard, we will never know. And I know little of his mother’s passing or how he was sent on to Buckkeep Castle. Once he mentioned to me that his mother had left a letter, and that shortly after she died, her husband gave that scroll and a packet of travel rations to the young Chade, set him on a mule and sent him to Buckkeep. The letter was addressed to the king and by some extraordinary circumstances actually reached him. And so his royal family discovered him, perhaps for the first time, but who can truly know about that? In either case, he was taken in.

For all the years in which he taught me, I know little of how he was educated, save that his instructor was harsh. While he was never acknowledged even as a bastard, I do believe that his elder brother treated him well. From what I personally observed, he and Shrewd were fond of one another, and Shrewd counted on Chade as a counsellor as well as an assassin and spymaster.

I have gathered that Chade had a few lively and enjoyable years as a handsome young man before the accident that scarred him and sent him into hiding in the castle walls. I think it likely there is much more to that tale as to why he made himself vanish but we are unlikely to unearth it.

I do know that he desperately wished to be tested for the Skill and educated in the family magic. That was denied to him. I suspect he had other magical talents, namely scrying in water, for more than once it seemed very unlikely to me that his ‘spies’ could have possibly informed him in a timely way of events that took place at a distance from Buckkeep. But to be denied the Skill both rankled and grieved him. I think it was perhaps one of the most foolish choices our royal ancestors ever committed.

So it is, my dear, that now that he has proven at least an erratic ability to Skill and has access to what remains of the Skill-library, he recklessly indulges himself in trying to master it. He has always been one to experiment and danger does not dissuade him from risking himself or indeed his apprentices.

I do not know if this information can help you persuade him to be more temperate and accord you the respect you deserve as the Queen’s Skillmistress. Please, if you can avoid letting him know that I am the source of this information, I would greatly appreciate it. He may have trained me to be a spy but would be the first to object if his old apprentice spied upon him.

Unsigned missive to Skillmistress Nettle

‘What does Tintaglia want with you?’ Brashen asked me.

I wiped sweat from my face. ‘I had some questions for her when we were in Kelsingra. I was hoping to discover if dragons bore a grudge against the Servants.’

‘To recruit them to your cause?’

‘Perhaps. Or to gain any bit of knowledge to use against them.’

He wiped his hands down his trousers and took a fresh grip on the barrel. ‘It might not be the wisest thing to do, sending a dragon in to rescue a child.’

‘I wasn’t thinking of that at the time. I just wanted Clerres destroyed.’

‘But if your child is there …’

There it was. The very thought I most wanted to avoid. Bee in the midst of a dragon-attack? I refused the idea.

Brashen cocked his head at me as he stared at my face. ‘You don’t think she’s alive, do you?’ His voice dropped low.

I shrugged. It was the last question I wanted to ponder. ‘Let’s get this done,’ I suggested. He nodded grimly.

We had both stopped to breathe. We were taking on a cask of water. It should have been a simple task, but Paragon was determined to make it almost impossible. He had listed away from the small boat that had come alongside with the cask, and then, amid our hoisting it up to the deck, he had listed in the other direction.

It was our second day of struggling against the ship. Paragon had blocked our efforts to offload his cargo. Today’s effort to bring on water and fresh food for the crew was twice the work it should have been. In the midst of those difficulties Althea and Brashen had received my news about Tintaglia with a marked lack of interest. As Brashen had said at the time, ‘Could a dragon’s arrival make our situation any worse?’

Althea had replied, ‘I will pass the news to Wintrow and he will let Etta know. They can prepare for her as best they can.’ She had added sourly, ‘A dragon visit probably presents all sorts of problems. At this moment, all I can say is, I’m glad they’re not mine.’

Brashen had nodded grimly. ‘We have enough of our own,’ he confirmed. And that had closed that conversation.

Paragon delayed our departure in ways I had never imagined. He rocked, he listed, he jammed his hatches shut. Althea and Brashen gritted their teeth and joined in to work the deck alongside their diminished crew. That first day Clef had mustered Per and Spark and then regarded Lant and me with his hands on his hips. ‘It may not be the work you were born to, but I need you. Beginning today, while we’re still in port, you will each join a watch.’ And we had.

Brashen’s and Althea’s efforts to hire more crew or persuade former crewmembers to return were dismal failures. I welcomed the heavy physical labour, for it sometimes distracted me from dwelling on the possibility of my daughter held captive by fanatical strangers. The idea roused me to heart-pounding fury; I vented it by defying the ship, dragging crates aboard his slanting deck and wrestling them into his hold. Every moment of delay was another moment of agonizing suspense. I no longer cared for whatever news Tintaglia might bring. I wanted only to be on our way again.

Both Amber and the Fool constantly agonized over what Bee might be enduring. Every word Amber spoke about it was a twisting knife in my gut. My anxiety was more than I could bear; his only made mine more searing. I entered her cabin that day to find the Fool hanging upside-down by his knees from the upper bunk. I halted at the sight.

‘I knew it was you,’ he observed. ‘Everyone else knocks first.’

‘What are you doing? Do you need help to get down?’

‘Hardly. I’m limbering up. They hammered and burned my mind to a mush; what they did to my body was just as shattering. I seek to regain what they sought to destroy.’

He curled up around his belly, seized the edge of the bunk in both hands and with a grunt unhooked his knees and shot his feet toward the floor. He landed, not lightly or gracefully, but still amazingly well for a man who had been half-crippled just months ago.

‘Would not practising your tumbler’s skills be better done on the open deck?’

‘If Amber were sighted, she’d be delighted to run the rigging and dangle aloft and regain all my lost tricks in the fresh air. But she isn’t, and so I can’t. In this cramped space, I do what I can.’ He bent over, seized his own ankles and let out a long slow breath. ‘Any news of when we can depart?’

‘None that you haven’t heard.’ I braced myself against his familiar complaint.

‘Every day that passes is another day that Bee is their captive.’

As if that were a new thought for me! ‘Paragon isn’t the only ship in the harbour. We could get a fine price for our Elderling goods here, and book passage directly to Clerres.’

He was shaking his head before I’d finished speaking. ‘In my visions of the future, Paragon is the only vessel that carries us to Clerres.’

‘Your visions,’ I said and closed my mouth. Through gritted teeth, I said, ‘Then we must wait.’

‘You doubt me,’ he said bitterly. ‘You refuse to accept that Bee is alive.’

‘Sometimes I believe you.’ I looked down at the deck. ‘Mostly I don’t.’ Hope was too painful.

‘I see,’ he said harshly. ‘So you are content to wait. Because if Bee is dead, she can’t become any deader by our delay. She can’t be enduring torture such as they visited upon me.’

I replied with equally harsh words. ‘I do not choose to wait. You choose to wait — for Paragon to decide to sail.’

He gripped two handfuls of his own hair, his face contorted. ‘Cannot you understand my torment? We must sail on Paragon. We must! Even though I know she is alive and in their power.’

‘How?’ I roared at him. ‘How would it be possible? When Nettle sent her coterie through the pillar after Bee they found no sign of her. Not a footprint in the snow, nothing! Fool, they never emerged from that pillar. They perished within it.’

His blinded eyes were wide with desperation, his face even paler than it usually was. ‘No! That cannot be. Fitz, you have been delayed in a pillar, lost for days, and still you—’

‘Yes. Eventually, I emerged dazed and half-dead. If I had not been able to summon help, I could have died there. Fool, if they had emerged from that pillar, there would have been signs of it. The dead embers of a fire, a scatter of their bones, something. There was nothing. She is gone. Even if they were delayed for days, we would have seen some sign of their passage when we arrived there. Did you see any such thing?’

He gave a wild laugh. ‘I saw nothing!’

I kept my temper. ‘Well, there was nothing except for bear-sign. So perhaps they did come through and perished there. They certainly did not journey on to Kelsingra, not by foot or by pillar. Fool, please. Let me accept that Bee is gone.’ My words were a plea. I longed to return to the numbness of utter loss and the pursuit of pure vengeance.

‘She is not!’

His stubborn denial enraged me, so I attacked. ‘It scarcely matters. Be she dead or alive, I shall doubtless be killed before I discover her, given how little you have told me of Clerres and its folk!’

His mouth dropped open in shock. Then guilt and outrage shrilled his voice. ‘I’ve done my best, Fitz! I’ve never planned an assassination before. My memories shy and leap away from me when you interrogate me. And the stupidity of the questions you ask! What does it matter if Coultrie gambles or if Symphe rises early or late?’

‘Without exact knowledge, my ability to kill them is diminished to the point of folly!’

‘Folly?’ He flung the word at me. ‘Well, what did you expect from a fool?’ He groped angrily for Amber’s costume and his voice dropped to a furious mutter. ‘I should never have come to you for help. What must be done, I should do myself!’ He pulled on her gown with reckless haste, tying laces and fastening buttons blindly and crookedly.

‘And all the difference in the world, if you had not come back to me!’ The words were reckless daggers. ‘And you needn’t disguise yourself as Amber. I’m leaving anyway.’ I stood up as he fought with a cuff. ‘And like most things done blindly and in haste, you’ve made a poor job of it. I would not go out on the deck like that, if I were you. But you seem willing to do many things I would not do, such as attempt an assassination with no information.’

I slammed from the room, my heart leaping as anger warred with regret. The things I had said! But were any of them untrue?

I leaned on the railing to stare at Divvytown and simmer my fury. The wind off the water could not cool it.

Brashen found me there. ‘Wintrow came by. He asked if you knew when Tintaglia would arrive.’

‘I don’t. Do you know when we will leave here?’

His terse response echoed mine. ‘I don’t. Wintrow has prepared for the dragon. If you can, he’d like you to let the dragon know that the pens are by the dock.’

I didn’t master my anger but I contained it. I stood up straight and pushed the Fool’s words and my angry taunt out of my mind. ‘I will try, but I am not able to promise she will hear me.’

‘I can’t ask more of you than that,’ he responded.

I closed my mouth and watched him walk away. I stared out over the water and tried to contact the dragon. Tintaglia. I am at Divvytown in the Pirate Isles. They wish to welcome you with cattle penned by the docks. They would be honoured for you to devour them.

I felt no response from her. In my heart, I hoped she would not be able to find me. Whatever she wanted of it, it would not be good.


Very early on the third morning, Sorcor and Queen Etta called up from a small dory, asking permission to come aboard Paragon. A bleary-eyed Wintrow was with them. All three had the look of people who had spent a long and sleepless night. They were welcomed aboard with steaming mugs of coffee. Sorcor had had the foresight to bring a basket of fresh pastries. To my surprise, Wintrow requested that Amber and I join them.

Etta looked more tough than queenly that day. Her fine jacket was crumpled from being worn all night. The daylight was not kind to the lines around her mouth, and her hair was wilful in the breeze. Sorcor looked as sorrowful as a chained hound when the other dogs were massing for a chase. We settled at the table, and Althea poured coffee. Silence held while Queen Etta toyed with the charm she wore at her throat. Then she straightened and locked eyes with Althea. When she spoke, she was giving orders. ‘Paragon Ludluck, Prince of the Pirate Islands, will be travelling with you to Clerres. I know you do not welcome him. I am not enamoured of him making this journey either. Nonetheless, he must go. I offer coin for his passage, and eight reliable hands, experienced at both sail and sword. Though I pray that you will not have need of the latter skill.’

Words and outrage poured from Althea. ‘No! When he attempted to board, I turned him away, as you said you wished us to do! As a result, our ship has gone from recalcitrant to dangerous as Paragon has attempted to thwart every task we must do! And now, after all that, you order us to allow him aboard?’

Brashen put his hand over Althea’s as she drew breath. ‘Why?’ he queried Etta calmly.

The pirate queen glared at him and folded her lips.

Wintrow cleared his throat. ‘Because his father would have wished it. Or so we are told.’ Etta dropped her hand from her throat to the table and glared at Wintrow as he explained. ‘Queen Etta wears a wizardwood charm carved in Kennit’s likeness. He wore it on his wrist, next to his skin. It took in enough of his spirit to waken. This is his counsel.’

I stared unashamedly at the carved charm at Etta’s throat. I half-expected it to move or speak, but it remained still.

Althea leaned toward the pirate queen as she said, ‘Kennit desires it? Another reason for me to forbid it!’

‘Yet you will take him,’ Queen Etta predicted. ‘Your only hope to manage your wayward ship is to give him what he wants. Deny me, and you have a difficult, under-manned vessel. All Divvytown has seen his power and his temper. You need what I offer you. Or remain anchored here, with a ship that daily becomes more dangerous.’

Althea clutched her mug so tightly that I expected it to shatter in her hands. Brashen’s voice was level as he said, ‘Althea and I need a moment to confer. We will join you on deck shortly.’ He gestured to the door and waited for us to rise and troop out. He closed the door behind us.

Sorcor and Etta stood side by side, staring toward Divvytown. Wintrow stood apart from them, arms crossed. No one spoke until Paragon called back to us, ‘Is it settled? Will I get Kennit’s son?’

None of us replied.

They emerged. ‘It’s a deal,’ Brashen said quietly. ‘Money for his passage and eight sailors.’ Althea’s face was as impassive as stone. Brashen continued, ‘But he sails as a common deckhand, and accepts ship’s discipline.’ Althea remained silent as Brashen offered his hand. Etta made a small sound of exasperation, but Sorcor nodded. It was Wintrow who stepped forward and clasped hands with Brashen in the Trader style. ‘I’ll write it up,’ Wintrow promised, and Brashen nodded.

Amber whispered, ‘It’s the Trader way; a bargain that benefits all.’ Very softly she added, ‘Althea is not happy, but she recognizes it’s the deal she needs if we are ever to leave Divvytown.’

Wintrow stepped back from the handshake. ‘We will immediately begin loading supplies.’ He lifted his voice. ‘Does that settle well with you, Paragon? You’ve won. You get your way. Kennitsson sails with you. May we now finish offloading freight and come alongside with provisions?’

‘You may!’ Paragon’s voice boomed over the harbour. Satisfaction welled up from the deck and washed through all of us. Even Althea looked relieved.

Brashen clapped me on the shoulder as he passed by me. ‘Get ready to work,’ he warned me.

And work we did. Kegs of clean water, beer, salt-fish and a great wheel of cheese were soon brought alongside, along with sacks of root vegetables, dried apples and plums, and box after box of hardtack. Our new crew arrived — seven deckhands and a navigator. Clef dared to put them through their paces, sending them up and down the mast, having them coil lines and demonstrate their knots. Not even the navigator was spared these humble chores, but she performed with a disdainful skill that mocked his testing.

The weather had warmed enough that Lant had slung his shirt onto the railing. I was barely able to catch the sleeve and keep both it and Motley, who had landed on it and tangled her feet, from going into the water. ‘Be more careful!’ I warned the crow as I clutched the shirt. Wings open, she danced and struggled until her foot came free, then announced, ‘Tintaglia! Tintaglia! Look up, look up, look up!’

Topaz and sapphire, glittering bright, she came. She was small in the distance, a crow, and a heartbeat later, the size of an eagle. On she came, swifter than I had known any creature could fly. Soon half the crew was pointing and shouting. On shore, folk halted in the street to stare skywards. ‘Does she know of the cattle by the docks? Where is she going to land?’ I demanded of the crow.

‘Wherever she wants,’ Per said quietly.

‘Look up, look up, look up!’ the crow squawked again. I was focused on Tintaglia, but Spark shouted, ‘Look, a red one! It’s far away, but I think it’s another dragon!’

This dragon flew more slowly and seemed to labour heavily. Would it land safely or perish in the waves?

‘Heeby! Sparkling Heeby!’ Motley cried and lifted in a flutter of black feathers to fly to meet her. I watched anxiously as Tintaglia circled Queen Etta’s mansion. Cattle for you! In a pen by the docks! Food awaits to welcome you! I flung my thoughts at Tintaglia, but saw no change in her descending spiral.

Folk on the grand green before the royal manor dashed wildly for shelter. The dragon swooped in a final warning circle and then down she came, clawed legs extended and reaching. For such an immense creature, she landed with grace. The crack of her wings as she shook them out carried across the water to me, the sound like wet canvas struck by a sudden blast of storm.

Tintaglia lashed her tail, carving furrows in the green. Some bystanders surged toward the dragon and others fled. The confused babble of folk sounded like disturbed shore birds. Tintaglia rose on her hind legs, sitting up like a begging dog. Her head turned slowly, seeking. Despite the distance, her gaze settled on me. ‘FitzChivalry. Approach. I will speak with you.’

Her words were both a dragon’s roar and a commanding voice inside my head. Ordering me. Almost as compelling as Verity’s Skill-command had once been. ‘Are you going?’ Lant asked me, aghast.

‘I don’t have a choice,’ I told him.

‘Going where?’ Per demanded.

‘The dragon summons him, Per. And I’m going with him.’

‘And me!’ Per added.

I didn’t want either of them. I spoke to Per severely. ‘Remember that you’re part of a crew now. It’s up to the captain—’

‘Both captains say go.’ Althea charged up to us. She had a smear of tar down her cheek and her hair was matted with sweat. ‘Take Amber with you. Brashen has the ship’s boats waiting for you. Don’t dally. I don’t want a dragon displeased with someone on my deck. Particularly that dragon.’

Spark dashed to fetch Amber from the cabin. Loaded hastily into the ship’s boat, we were whisked to shore. The docks were deserted, but as we neared the manor we had to push through a thickening crowd of folk gawking at the great blue queen. Queen Etta stood in the portico of her mansion with her son beside her. Armed guards surrounded them. Did the guards know how useless cutlasses and armour would be if the dragon chose to spit acid at them? A troop of city guard arrived, shoving through the mob of spectators to surround the dragon and push the crowd back from the green. I hoped I could reach Tintaglia before they irritated her too greatly.

Tintaglia’s gaze found me as we forced a path through the massed crowd. ‘Part!’ she commanded. ‘Let that one through!’ As confused people pushed in opposing directions she announced, ‘I have flown without stopping a day and a night and a day to reach this place. Farseer! I have words for you. Do not be slow to come to me. My hunger has no patience!’

‘Out of the way!’ I roared and shoved through the crowd with the others in my wake. ‘Stay back,’ I warned them, and felt naked as I stepped into that open space before Tintaglia.

‘I am here,’ I said to the dragon. I forced myself to take another step toward her.

She snaked her head toward me, mouth ajar and nostrils wide. Briefly, I saw the lash of a long scarlet tongue. The heat of her recent exertion rolled off her as if I stood too close to a hearth, bringing me the stink of reptile and the carrion waft of her breath. ‘I am not blind, and if I were, I’d still know your scent.’

‘Is she talking?’ Per asked behind me.

‘Shush,’ Lant warned him.

‘I am hungry and I am weary, with precious little time to spare.’ Her tone made that my fault.

I bowed low. ‘Cattle await you in a pen by the docks.’

Another lash of her tail. ‘I know that. You have told me twice.’ She spoke as if that were a mortal offense. Severely, she added, ‘The docks offer no landing space for a dragon of my size.’

I thought of and immediately discarded the idea of trying to touch minds with her. I had no desire to let a dragon accidentally burn my Skill out of me. She was still speaking. ‘First, know this. IceFyre is a coward. A dragon who chooses to bury himself in ice rather than take vengeance for fear of his own safety is scarcely a dragon at all!’

I did not think it would be wise to say anything to this. I stood silent and waiting.

A long breath was blown out through her nostrils, a deep thrumming in her throat accompanying it. She shuddered her scaled skin, resettled her wings and ordered me, ‘Lead me to the docks. I will speak as we go. Then I will feed. It is difficult to speak simply to a human, and almost impossible when I am hungry.’

So reassuring to hear. I pitched my voice to carry. ‘I believe it has been long since a dragon of your magnificent size descended here. Queen Etta of the Pirate Isles has provided well for your feeding.’

‘And we are honoured, most beauteous queen! Azure and amazing you are!’ Wintrow charged past the queen’s guard and descended the steps to the furrowed green. He flourished an extravagant bow to Tintaglia. ‘Perhaps you remember me, glorious one? My sister is Queen Malta of the Dragon Traders of Kelsingra. My younger brother, Selden, has often sung your praises to me.’

‘Selden,’ Tintaglia said, and her eyes whirled in sudden pleasure. ‘Yes, that is a name I well recall. Such a sweet dragon-singer! Is he here?’

‘I am saddened to tell you that he is not. And even more mortified to hear that our landing area was inadequate!’

Queen Etta had caught Wintrow’s desperate hints. She stepped forward. ‘Guards! Clear a path for our extraordinary guest and offer her an escort of honour to the cattle-pen. See that fresh water fills the troughs for her!’ A flick of her fingers, and her personal guard peeled away from her and dashed across the green. With sheathed swords, they began to nudge a wide corridor through the gaping mob.

A shimmering of colours down Tintaglia’s neck and a rippling of the frills at her jaw indicated, I hoped, her pleasure. ‘A fine welcome,’ she decided. ‘I am pleased.’

Wintrow once more swept his elegant bow and with a sideways glance at me, walked a backwards retreat.

Tintaglia’s attention returned to me, and a sensation like a heavy blanket dropped over me. I kept my walls tight against her glamor as she advanced on the avenue the guard had opened in the crowd.

Walking alongside her was challenging. Her pace was neither a human stroll nor a dash. It had been long since I’d been forced to trot so hastily. I glanced back to see Lant and Per following at a safe distance. Spark was guiding Amber toward the portico.

‘You,’ Tintaglia rumbled, almost quietly. Her tail lashed the ground as she walked, like a lazy cat’s tail. ‘Presumptuously, you asked me for information in Kelsingra. However, I have cornered IceFyre, and wrung from him with shame and threats much that he should have shared with us years ago. Even Heeby has more courage than he!’

‘Your surmise was correct. Whites and their Servants have done great injury to dragonkind. I burn with fury to think that generations of them believed they could wrong us without consequences! That shame is due entirely to IceFyre’s cowardice, but I have no belief that he will act. So I will.’

We had reached the warehouse district, an older quarter of Divvytown where the streets were narrower. I walked uncomfortably close to Tintaglia, and several times heard crashes as her lashing tail encountered the fronts of the buildings. If there had been people here, the scurrying guards had cleared them away.

‘Understand, Farseer, this vengeance belongs to me. No mere human can deliver the punishment that Clerres deserves. When we come upon it, we will tumble it stone from stone and devour those who have dared to kill dragons, just as we did at Chalced. The satisfaction of those kills belongs to me!’

‘Not if I get there first,’ I muttered.

Abruptly Tintaglia halted. For an instant, I regretted my ill-considered words. But then she lifted her head, snuffing the air. I smelled it, too. The cattle-pen, where animals were held during the loading or unloading of a ship. We were close.

Emotions battled in me. I wanted my own vengeance. And if the Fool was correct and my daughter lived, I did not want her caught up in a dragon’s furious attacks on Clerres. Could I dissuade Tintaglia? Was there any chance that Paragon would be swifter than a vengeful dragon? My doubts that Bee lived were swept away in fear that I might never know. ‘You will take revenge on the Servants?’

‘Did not I just tell you that? Humans. Everything must be repeated!’ She spoke with total disdain. ‘Listen, now, before I go to feed. I tell you this in little pieces for your little mind. Yes. I allow you to go to Clerres. As you rudely asserted, if you arrive before me, you have permission to slaughter as you please. I will not count that as your stealing my kills. Do you understand this favour I grant you?’

‘Yes. Yes, I do. But we now think it’s possible that my 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. IceFyre 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!’

Silence filled the room.

Amber broke it. ‘Then the dragons go to Clerres with us, to take their vengeance?’ Was there hope or dread in her voice?

Rapskal set down his glass and shook his head. ‘Not immediately. Our mission to protect the hatching eggs is the more pressing one. When the hatching season is complete and we are satisfied that every Abomination has been slain, we will come there.’

‘When last we spoke, we believed my daughter was dead. Now we believe she may have survived. That Bee may be a prisoner in Clerres.’

Amber broke in. ‘If she is in the city and the dragons attack, she may be injured. Or killed.’

Rapskal nodded to that. ‘Killed is likelier,’ he conceded. ‘The destruction we wrought on Chalced was very thorough. Buildings collapsed. The acid breath of the dragons sprayed over people and beasts.’ He nodded his satisfaction. ‘I doubt that anyone within the duke’s palace survived.’ Then, as he looked around at the horror on our faces he said suddenly, ‘I see your concern. Indeed.’

‘And you can speak to Tintaglia and Heeby? Ask them to aid us? Or at least allow us to make our rescue attempt before they bring the city down?’ Amber was breathless with hope.

He steepled his long-fingered hands and looked down at their scarlet nails. We waited in silence. At last he said quietly, ‘I will tell them. But.’ He lifted his eyes and met my gaze squarely. ‘I can promise nothing. I think you already know that. Dragons are not … they do not regard humans …’ His voice trailed away.

‘They will not consider it important.’ My words fell like dead birds.

‘Exactly. I am sorry.’ He toyed with his fork and added, ‘Your best hope is to be there before they are. To try to rescue her before they lay siege to the city. Truly, I am sorry.’

I wondered if he was. I wondered if he were not very like a dragon himself. Unable to grasp the importance of one child.

Rapskal lifted his head as if he were listening to something. ‘Heeby is sated. You have provided well for her. I thank you.’ Again, his face took on that pensive look. Then he smiled. ‘I believe that Tintaglia is as well. Now they will sleep. Such a flight has wearied both of them, and Heeby is close to exhaustion.’ He looked at me and quirked one scaled brow, as if to remind me that we shared a secret. ‘Luckily I carry in her saddle a supply of a … restorative. Tomorrow, she shall have it. But for the rest of the day and all tonight, she must sleep. And so must I.’ He turned his smile on Wintrow and Etta. ‘Could you prepare a bedchamber for me, and a bath? I confess I am wearied and aching in every limb. Travelling so high above the earth it is always cold! I could sleep a bit in my saddle, but it was not true rest.’

Queen Etta’s eyes narrowed to be addressed as if she were a chamber servant. I anticipated Etta coming to her feet with her hand on a sword’s hilt, but instead Wintrow pushed hastily back from the table. He knew when his queen had reached her limit for tolerance. ‘If you will follow me, General Rapskal, I will be pleased to surrender my own chamber to your use. I’m sure that is the swiftest way to find you a place to rest. Gentlemen, ladies, if you will excuse us.’

And they went, leaving Queen Etta and my party at the table. Abruptly, the queen stood up. ‘You need to leave as soon as possible. To have a chance to reach Clerres before the dragons, to save your child.’

‘That is so.’ I fought to control my voice. I was still trying to accept the fatalism I had heard in Rapskal’s words. The allies I had hoped for had now become a different sort of threat.

‘And you take my son into a greater danger than I perceived.’

‘I consider that likely.’

She nodded slowly. ‘He is his father’s son. This business with the dragons and their vengeance … it will only fire his determination steel-hard.’ She fixed me with a considering stare. ‘Well, Prince FitzChivalry, you have brought more excitement, disaster and puzzlement to Divvytown than we have enjoyed in many a year.’

I heard the clack of boots and Kennitsson strode into the room. There was a fire in his eyes I had not seen there before. ‘Mother. I have come to tell you that I am determined to sail tomorrow, on the first tide. The sooner we reach Clerres, the sooner we can take a vengeance long delayed.’ His gaze swept us, and then he turned and departed.

Etta stared after her son for a long moment. ‘So like his father.’ She turned to me. ‘I had hoped to delay your departure. Now, I will give commands that the ship be well provisioned by nightfall.’ As she rose from the table she added in a chilling voice, ‘Farseer. You have lost your child. Do not lose mine as well.’

TWENTY-ONE

Under Sail

The first time the mountain burned was in the summer. Some said the earth’s shaking broke the distant mountain. Others that the mountain woke and that caused the earth to shake.

It was not the first time that the earth had quaked under us. Always there had been tremors. Hence we had always built with stone rich in the silver threads that could be magicked to stand firm and remember their purpose in the world. But in that shaking, although most of our buildings stood firm, a crack opened in the earth itself from the river to the District of the Tinkers. Later, it would fill with water from the river and we would accept it as a part of our city.

A rain fell on the city that was not only water but contained black sand. It dusted the streets, and some of the folk and three of the dragons took a cough from it. Dark clouds gathered over Kelsingra, and day was like night for twelve days. Birds fell lifeless to the ground and fish washed up along the shores of the river.

All the while, far in the distance, what had been the snowy peak of Sisefalk glowed like a cauldron of melted iron.

Memory-cube 941, found in a corridor in Aslevjal Transcribed by Chade Fallstar

At dawn the next day, the dragons departed.

Etta had been as good as her word. We had worked through the night, taking on supplies and making all ready to catch the first tide. I do not think the dragons gave warning or farewell to anyone. They rose from the ground and our crow circled below, cawing unhappily as they rose higher and higher into the sky in slow circles over Divvytown before departing to the south and east. As I dropped my eyes, I saw that Vivacia was in full sail below them. Brashen strode past me on the deck and I pointed her out to him.

‘Word came late last night. Vivacia was determined to go to Others’ Island with the dragons, to see what has transpired there. And afterward, perhaps she will follow them to Clerres.’

I stared after them, wondering what that meant for my mission until Brashen slapped me on the back. ‘The ale-casks will not stow themselves,’ he pointed out, and I moved to where Clef was putting hands onto a hoist.

Not long after, the Prince of the Pirate Isles came alongside in a small boat. Sorcor was at the oars, pulling hard and well for a man of his years. Two ornate trunks and a canvas seaman’s bag rode in the centre of the boat. Kennitsson perched in the bow, with the plumes of his hat nodding in the wind. A youngster, finely attired, sat on one of the trunks.

Clef spotted them and strode purposefully toward the captains’ stateroom. A moment later, both Althea and Brashen appeared. Althea’s mouth was taut and her eyes narrowed like an angry cat. Brashen looked relaxed and in command.

Kennitsson ascended the ladder first, followed by the youngster. Sorcor joined us on the deck. Two of Etta’s sailors clambered over the side to bring the trunks aboard. As Kennitsson looked around, Sorcor spoke. ‘Well,’ he said heavily. ‘Here we are.’

‘Paragon Ludluck! To me, young man, to me!’ cried the ship. Without a word or a glance at Althea or Brashen, Kennitsson walked towards the figurehead. Over his shoulder he called to the youngster, ‘Barla, see to my things! Arrange my stateroom as I like it. Be lively about it.’

Sorcor watched him go, and a blush reddened the old pirate’s cheeks. Without looking at Brashen or Althea, he said quietly, ‘I’d like to come with you.’

‘We’ve already enough captains on this vessel,’ Brashen replied, trying to soften his decision with humour. ‘If you’re aboard, not only Kennitsson but every sailor you’ve offered us will look to you before following an order from me or Althea.’

‘That’s true,’ Sorcor admitted. We watched as the first heavy trunk of Kennitsson’s essentials was lifted and swung over Paragon’s deck. Sorcor’s eyes tracked the trunk’s journey. He gave a small sigh. ‘You want a free hand with the lad, don’t you? Don’t want me stepping in if I think you’re too rough on our young prince.’

‘I do,’ Brashen admitted. ‘I can’t think of him as a lad, let alone as a prince. The ship wants him aboard. You’d like him to learn something of our trade.’ He gave a deprecating laugh. ‘And I’d like a bit of peace aboard this vessel. That’s only going to happen if I treat him like any other hand.’

‘So I told him last night, when his mother was chaining that charm snug to his throat. I don’t think he heard a word we said to him. But I give him over to you.’ A small silence followed Sorcor’s capitulation. The old pirate turned to Barla, who was guiding the heavy trunk down to the deck, and said quietly, ‘Lass, tell them to take that one back. The canvas sea-bag is all we need brought aboard.’ Then he squared his shoulders. ‘Kennitsson and Trellvestrit got along well whenever Vivacia was in port. Wintrow threw them together whenever he could. He wanted your boy to get a feel for our politics and to pick up a bit of polish. Begging your pardon, Wintrow’s words, not mine!’

Brashen gave a wry twist of his mouth. ‘Polish, eh? I’d have said Boy-O had the Trader’s polish already. But no offence taken.’

‘I’d appreciate it if your lad stood by him now. He could teach him your ways, the same way Trellvestrit learned our ways from Kennitsson. He’ll have to learn this deck, and everything above and below it. I know Kennitsson’s in for some rough seas before he fits in here. He’s never lived aboard a ship. Never been …’ He shook his big head. ‘My fault,’ he said hoarsely.

‘I’ll teach him,’ Brashen said in a low voice. ‘He’ll have to learn to bend a bit. But I won’t deliberately break him. The first thing he’ll have to learn is how to take an order.’ He cleared his throat and gave Sorcor an apologetic look. ‘Grit your teeth and stand back, Sorcor.’ Then Brashen drew breath and bellowed, ‘Kennitsson! Your gear is aboard. Come and stow it. Boy-O, show him his hammock and help him square himself away.’

Boy-O came at a run, a grin on his face, which faded when he saw the trunk being lowered back over the side. Barla shrugged and went down the ladder after it. A moment later, one of the new hands appeared, the canvas sea-bag slung over her shoulder. She set it down on the deck as Kennitsson strode up. He had not loitered but neither had he hastened. He looked at Brashen with his eyebrows cocked. ‘My “hammock”?’ he queried, a small smile on his lips as if he were certain the captain had misspoken.

‘Right by mine!’ Boy-O interjected. ‘Grab your sea-bag and let’s take it below.’ I wondered if Kennitsson heard the note of warning in his friend’s voice.

‘Below?’ Kennitsson asked, his eyebrows venturing toward his hairline. His glance flickered to Sorcor and waited for him to intervene.

Brashen slowly crossed his arms on his chest. There was reluctance on Sorcor’s face but no challenge as the old pirate offered, ‘Good voyaging, Captain Trell. May you have smooth seas and a steady wind.’

‘I doubt I’ll get either at this time of year, heading southeast, but I appreciate the wish. Please convey my respects to Queen Etta. I would thank her again for all she has done to equip us for this voyage and to help us make amends with our trading partners.’

‘I’ll be sure she knows you thank her.’ I could see Sorcor’s unwillingness to leave. Behind him, incredulous indignation was building on Kennitsson’s face. Boy-O had picked up the sea-bag.

‘Where are my trunks?’ Kennitsson demanded. ‘Where is my valet?’

‘That’s your sea-bag there, in Trellvestrit’s hands. I packed it myself. Everything you need is in there.’ Sorcor turned slowly and made his way to the side of the ship. Below, the dory that had ferried them out awaited him. Barla popped her head up over the railing. Sorcor shook his head and motioned her to return to the dory. Puzzled, she obeyed. Sorcor straddled the railing beside the rope ladder. ‘Honour your father’s memory. Become a man.’

Kennitsson stared after him, his cheeks going scarlet. ‘I am a man!’ he bellowed after Sorcor.

Brashen spoke in an even voice. ‘Boy-O. Drop it.’ As soon as his son obeyed, he turned to the pirate prince. ‘Can you manage your own sea-bag, sailor? I can tell Prince FitzChivalry to give you a hand with it, if there’s need.’ His voice betrayed no emotion. He was a captain finding the limits of a new hire.

I had watched the scene unfold as if I watched a puppet-play, leaning on the ship’s railing a short distance away. At Trell’s suggestion, I straightened and stepped forward briskly to help with the sea-bag. I was a bit puzzled at his request. The canvas bag was not so large that it presented any sort of a challenge. But I had given my word that I’d help sail the ship and I intended to live up to that at least.

‘Out of my way! I can manage it!’ Kennitsson declared. Captain Trell gave a small jerk of his head and I moved away. Kennitsson had strength more than equal to moving his sea-bag, but he deployed it in the sullen over-reaction of a spoiled boy. I reminded myself that he was not my problem and took myself to Amber’s cabin.

There, I found the Fool, sitting cross-legged on the lower bunk, with one of Bee’s books open in his lap.

‘I wondered if you had changed your mind and gone to Divvytown with the others.’

‘Sightseeing?’ he asked and gestured at his ruined eyes.

I sat down beside him, bowing my head to avoid hitting it on the bunk above. ‘I hoped you were regaining a bit of your vision. You’re looking at a book.’

‘I’m touching a book, Fitz.’ He sighed and held it out to me. I felt a jolt of dismay. It was her journal, not her book of dreams. Open to a page I hadn’t shared with him. Did he know? I closed it gently, found the shirt I always used and re-wrapped it carefully. I slid it back into my worn pack. I feared he might accidentally discover the Silver. But I said only, ‘We must be very careful with my pack. The fire-brick from Reyn is in here. It must always be stored upright.’

As I placed it carefully under the bunk, I told him, ‘Kennitsson has come aboard. We’ll be leaving on the change of the tide.’

‘Have Lant, Per and Spark returned yet?’

‘They won’t be late. Lant had some bird messages to send. Per wanted help to get word to his mother. Spark wished to send a message to Chade.’

‘So today we finally resume our journey.’ The breath he expelled was uneven. ‘Yet there is still so far to go, and every moment that passes is a moment that she is too long in their possession. Any moment may be the moment she dies.’

Panic rose in me. I pushed it down and denied it. Hardened my heart and extinguished hope. I tried to share my defence. ‘Fool, despite what you believe, despite what you have dreamed … If I imagine this is a rescue, not an assassination, I will lose my focus. And it is all I have left.’

Alarm claimed his face. ‘But she is alive, Fitz. My dreams make me certain of it. I wish I could share them with you!’

‘So you’ve had more than one dream of Bee still alive?’ I asked reluctantly. Could I bear to hear any more of his wishful proof?

‘I have,’ he replied and then, tilting his head, ‘Though perhaps only I could interpret them that way. It is not so much the images as the feel of the dream that makes me certain they pertain to Bee.’ He paused and grew thoughtful. ‘Possibly I could share my dreams with you? If you touched me with no thought of healing but only of sharing, perhaps?’

‘No.’ I tried to soften my refusal. ‘When we link, Fool, what happens has nothing to do with my intent. Something that feels inevitable begins to happen. Like the current of a river sweeping us along.’

‘Like the Skill-river you speak of, like a current of magic?’

‘No. It’s different.’

‘Then what is it?’

I sighed. ‘How can I explain something that I don’t understand myself?’

‘Hmph. When I say something like that, you get angry at me.’

I brought us back to the subject. ‘You said you’ve had more dreams about Bee.’

‘I have.’

A short response and a secret unspoken. I pressed him. ‘What sort of dreams, Fool? Where do you dream her, what is she doing?’

‘You know my dreams are not like windows into her life. They are hints and portents. Such as the dream about the candles.’ He tilted his head. ‘You recall how Bee wrote of it. I’ll tell you something. That’s an old dream, dreamed often and by many. It could mean so many things. Yet I think it is fulfilled in us. Bee dreams it more clearly than I’ve ever heard it, speaking of us as the Wolf and the Jester.’

‘How could many people dream the same dream?’ I pushed aside his confusing words. Without intending it, my voice had dropped to the level of a wolf’s warning growl. His sightless eyes widened slightly.

‘We just do. It’s one measure the Servants use to consider the likelihood of something happening. It’s a common dream among those who carry White bloodlines. Each one is slightly different, but they are recognizable as the same dream. I dreamed it as a fork in a path. There are four candles spaced along the path in one direction. At the end of it, there is a little stone house with a low door and no windows. The place where the dead are put. The other path is lit by three candles. At the end of it, a fire burns and people are shouting.’ He took a small breath. ‘I stand staring at it. Then, out of the dark, a bee comes, and buzzes in circles around my head.’

‘And that makes you think that the dream is about my Bee?’

He nodded slowly. ‘But not just because of a bee in the dream. It was the feeling of the dream. But it wasn’t the only dream I had.’

‘What do the dreams mean?’ I asked the question despite suspecting that his recent dreams meant no more than the dreams I had. When I had brought him back from the dead, he had told me he was blind to the new future we had made. Did his mind now play tricks on him, sending him dreams of what he desperately hoped to be true?

‘I could say, “you don’t want to know” but I would be lying. The truth is, I don’t want to tell you. But I know I must!’ he added hastily before I could speak. He cleared his throat and looked down at his hands. He rubbed them together as if remembering pain. He had a few fingernails now on his bared hand and the others seemed to be growing. I looked away from the reminder of what he had endured. The body might heal, but the wounds that dedicated torture leave on the mind always seep toxic pus. I reached across and took his gloved hand in mine.

‘Tell me.’

‘She isn’t treated well.’

I had expected that. If she was still alive, her captors were unlikely to be gentle with her. But to hear that spoken aloud was like the fist to the belly that drives all breath away.

‘How?’ I managed. Dreams, I reminded myself. Probably not real.

‘I don’t know.’ His voice was a hoarse whisper. ‘I dreamed a wolf cub licking her wounds and curling tight against the cold. I dreamed a slender white tree stripped of its blossoms and its tender branches bent awry.’

I could not breathe. He made a small sound of pain and I realized I was crushing his fingers. I loosened my grip and found air.

‘But I also dreamed a hand holding a dead torch. It was a confusing dream. The torch fell to the ground and a foot ground it out. I heard a voice. “Better to grope in darkness than to follow false light”.’ He paused and added, ‘The confusing part was that it was already dark. An immense blaze of light came up as the torch was ground out.’

‘How do you know that the dream was about Bee?’

He looked abashed. ‘I am not certain, but it might be. And it felt … uplifting. Like something that might be good. I wanted to share it with you.’

There was a hasty knock and an instant later Spark flung open the door. ‘Oh!’ she exclaimed upon seeing our clasped hands. I released the Fool. She recovered herself to announce, ‘Captain Trell wants every able-bodied person on the deck. Time to weigh anchor and depart. Clef sent me to find you. He nabbed Per and Lant as soon as we came back on board.’

I was relieved to leave off our discussion of dark dreams, but the Fool’s words haunted me all that day. I was grateful for the times when the distraction of learning the ropes and how the ship moved blocked my anxiety for my daughter. No matter how I moved my thoughts, I was cut. Bee was dead, tattered away in the Skill-stream. Bee was alive and living in torment.

I worked my body as hard as I could, seeking exhaustion, then took a hammock belowdecks with the crew where their talk and cursing and laughter kept dreams away.

We were a day out from Divvytown when a downcast Per came to me. ‘Have you seen Motley?’

I had not noticed the crow’s absence until he spoke of it. ‘I haven’t,’ I admitted. Unwillingly I added, ‘Crows are shore birds, Per. There was plenty of feed for her in Divvytown. That’s not true out on the open water. I know that you shared your rations with her when we were running short. But perhaps she prefers to fend for herself now.’

‘I’d just re-blacked her feathers. What will become of her when the black wears off?’

‘I don’t know,’ I admitted reluctantly. She was a wild thing at heart and always would be. She’d made it clear she did not want a Wit-bond. I tried to let go of her.

Nonetheless, relief flooded me on the second day when we heard a distant cawing. Per and I were up the rigging that day, leaning on the spar, our feet braced on the foot-lines. At first she was a tiny silhouette in the distance. But as we watched, her steadily beating wings brought her closer and closer. She cawed a greeting and then landed solidly on Per’s arm. ‘Tired,’ she said. ‘So tired.’ She walked up his shoulder to nestle under his chin.

‘I swear, sometimes I am certain she knows every word we say,’ I observed.

‘Every word,’ she repeated, and regarded me with one bright eye.

I stared at her. The tip of her beak was silver. ‘Per,’ I warned him, trying to keep my voice calm. ‘Keep her away from your face. She has Silver on her beak.’

I saw the boy freeze. Then he said in a shaky voice, ‘I can’t sense magic at all. Maybe I’m immune to Silver, too.’

‘And maybe you’re not. Please, move her away from your throat.’

He lifted his wrist and the bird transferred herself to his hand. ‘What did you do?’ he asked her. ‘How did you get Silver on your beak, pretty thing? Are you all right? Do you feel ill?’

In response, she turned and groomed her flight feathers. They did not go silver but they sheened blacker than I’d ever seen them. ‘Heeby,’ she croaked. ‘Heeby share. Heeby teach how.’

Ah. Rapskal’s tonic back at Divvytown. I should have guessed. And was her time with the dragons improving her speech? ‘Be careful with your beak,’ I chided her.

She turned her shining eyes on me. ‘I am careful, stupid Fitz. But so tired. Take me to Paragon.’ She clambered up his sleeve to his shoulder again and gave me a baleful look before closing her eyes.

I heard Trell roaring at us to get a move on and stop perching like seagulls. Per looked to me, ignoring his captain. ‘Do I take her to Paragon?’

‘I doubt you can keep her away. And no matter how careful she is, I want you to be even more careful. Warn any others that she might fly to.’

Brashen roared again, and Per began his hasty descent, shouting that Motley had returned. As Per spidered and slid with the bird on his shoulder, Spark crossed the deck at a run. I began my more cautious descent.

‘Are you truly a prince?’ Kennitsson asked as I paused beside him.

I hesitated for a moment. Bastard or prince? Dutiful had made me a prince. ‘I am,’ I said quietly. ‘But due to illegitimacy, not in line for the throne.’

He shrugged that aside. ‘That lad, that Per. He was your stableboy?’

‘Yes.’

‘You work alongside him, and he never defers to you at all.’

‘He does, but not in a noticeable way, I suppose. He respects me, even if others don’t see it.’

‘Huh.’

The sound was thoughtful rather than disdainful. Even a few days on board as a common sailor had changed him. He was clever enough to know that if he were quartered with common deckhands such as Ant and Per, he’d best step down from his elevated ways. He had shed his fine clothes and adopted the same loose canvas trousers and cotton shirts that the rest of us wore. He’d braided his hair and tied it after Ant had warned him about how loose locks of hair could get tangled around a moving line and be ripped right off the scalp. He’d also bound the palms of his hands with leather; I suspected bloody blisters on them. Hemp lines are not gentle to handle.

He said no more to me, so I hastened down to await my next order.

It had been decades since I’d worked the deck of a ship, and never had I toiled on a ship like Paragon. The living nature of the ship meant that he could be an active participant in the journey. He could not set his own canvas nor take it in, but he could cry a better heading to the steersman, sense where currents ran swiftest and warn us of a line that needed tightening. He had a fine sense of depths and channels — something that he had proudly demonstrated as he guided his crew out of the harbour at Divvytown, and that he did again now as we sailed cautiously through the waterways of the Pirate Islands and finally into the open sea. As he sliced through the taller waves our diminished crew strove to keep pace with his needs.

I was not alone in marvelling at the ways of a liveship. The crewmembers we had taken on in Divvytown were openly delighted with how Paragon participated in his sailing. Before long the navigator was humbly asking permission to share her charts with the figurehead, and correcting them according to his knowledge. Given his way, Paragon himself became almost affable, and especially so with Boy-O and Kennitsson.

Even so, my transition from passenger to deckhand was not easy. I had always harboured a secret pride in how able I had remained into my sixth decade. Much of my physical strength I owed to the old Skill-healing that still coursed through my body and made unceasing repairs to it. But healthy is not necessarily hardened. Those first days were long ones for me. The calluses earned by wielding a sword or an axe are different to the rough palms that prickling hemp lines award to a sailor. In the rigorous days that followed, I ached in my legs and my back and my arms. Muscle in my limbs and a flattened belly came back to me slowly. My body healed itself, but healing can be as painful as being injured.

Despite the men we had gained in Divvytown, we still had a smaller crew, and fewer who were used to sailing a liveship. The end of my watch was no guarantee of uninterrupted rest. A cry for ‘All hands!’ might come at any moment. As Brashen had foretold, there was no friendly current to aid us in our south-western journey. Land became a smear of low cloud on the horizon behind us. When I awoke the next day, it was gone.

Spark and Per both thrived. They scampered happily about in the rigging with Ant. Clef was a good teacher, and now they had Boy-O as well, an experienced hand. Lant laboured alongside me, trying to teach his man’s body the skills it would have been happier to acquire as a boy. I pitied him, but he did not complain. All of us ate as heavily as we were allowed, and took sleep whenever we could.

There was a hearty rhythm to the days. If I had been younger and had no other goal in life than to earn my bread it would have been satisfying. The animosity of the liveship’s crew over how we would destroy the life they had always known was ground away in the day-by-day necessity of working alongside us. I avoided any topic that might remind them that, at the end of this journey, Paragon intended to become dragons.

I marvelled at Brashen’s patience with Kennitsson. More than once, the captain had paired me with him. Prince FitzChivalry, Brashen always called me, and I finally grasped that he was making the boy see that even a royal prince did not hesitate to apply himself to the humblest task. But ultimately I think Kennitsson strove for the skills of a sailor not from Trell’s orders but his own desire to be seen as equal or better at his duties than any of the deckhands. It was painful to watch. He would race a more experienced hand to a task and loudly exclaim, ‘I can do it!’ He sometimes scorned offers of help and corrections to his methods. He was not a stupid man, but he was overly proud and desperate to be right. Even more painful was seeing Boy-O caught between his parents and the man he wished to be friends with. Kennitsson treated Boy-O as if he were an affable puppy, sometimes showing scorn of the younger man’s maritime skills. I sometimes saw Boy-O surreptitiously recoil a line in Kennitsson’s wake or loose a line and reknot it. I said nothing but I was certain that if I was aware of it, his father certainly was. And if Brashen was letting it go by, it was not up to me to say anything. Still, it was darkly fascinating to watch Kennitsson seesaw between a man eager to learn the skills and a prince who could not admit that he did not know something. I hoped for no disasters.

Clef, the first mate, had seen Boy-O raised from infancy, and it was natural the two would be close so I was surprised when he befriended Kennitsson. Clef had been a youngster on Paragon in the days when Kennit had raped Althea and tried to send Paragon to the bottom, yet he seemed to take Kennitsson on his own merits. And when I observed Clef correct Kennitsson, the prince seemed better able to accept criticism than when Brashen intervened. I also feared that Per might be jealous over losing Clef’s attention, but instead he attached himself to the group and soon they began to sit together at meals. When Per joined the three of them at dice one evening, I knew he had been accepted into that circle, and I let go of him. Boys seek out what they need.

Over the course of a few evenings, I saw Kennitsson move from ignoring Per to the mockery and teasing that preludes true friendship. I watched Kennitsson and Per conspire to merrily cheat Boy-O at cards until he had lost every dry bean they were using in lieu of coins. Boy-O’s mock outrage when he discovered the ploy completed Per’s initiation into that group. Clef began to pair Kennitsson with Per for some of his duties. More than once, I saw Per showing the prince the proper way to perform a task. They became friends, and I judged it good for both of them.

But it was not without missteps. I stood aside when Boy-O and Kennitsson undertook to get Per well and truly drunk. Every young man must pass that trial, and I judged that while he would suffer the next day, he would take no real harm from it. Boy-O especially had a heart for mischief rather than petty cruelty. What I had not counted on was that Per would, in his inebriation, invite them to our cabin to see the wonderful Elderling gifts the Rain Wilders had given us. When I chanced to step in, all three were well soused, and my lad was holding up one of Chade’s firepots and trying to explain what he thought it was. The Elderling brick was upside-down on my bunk and the blanket had begun to smoulder. That did not upset me as much as seeing Bee’s books in proximity to the scorched blanket.

I drove all three out of the cabin with some colourful curses and a solid kick to the rump for Per. He apologized profusely the next day, between bouts of vomiting over the railing, and Boy-O and Kennitsson both offered their contrition more sedately later. It cemented a bond of friendship between the three, and I felt that Per was now as safe aboard the Paragon as anyone could be.

Spark came to wake me from much-needed sleep to summon me to Amber’s cabin one evening. I went bleary-eyed. The hard physical labour of being a sailor took a toll on me every day. ‘It’s important!’ she hissed at me before wending her way like a cat between the hammocks of the other sailors.

I arrived at the cabin to find Per already there, looking as befuddled as I felt. I was relieved to see that I was meeting with the Fool and not Amber. ‘We need to discuss our plans for rescuing Bee,’ he announced.

‘You are certain that she’s alive?’ Per asked. His hunger for confirmation made me cringe.

‘I am,’ the Fool asserted softly. ‘I know it is hard for you to believe, after setting out solely with vengeance in mind. But I am certain she lives. And that changes all our plans.’

Per gave me a sidelong doubtful glance that I was glad the Fool could not see. I kept my features grave and still.

‘You have all studied the map the Fitz made? It is essential that you have at least that much knowledge of the layout of Clerres Castle.’

They nodded, and Spark confirmed aloud, ‘We have.’

‘I’ve told you that the only way to get into the castle is at low tide, when we will join a crowd of folk who will have paid dearly for the privilege of crossing. I will be well disguised lest any recall me. We will think of roles for you.’

I caught my breath before I sighed. I still felt a solo venture in to set some poison or cut a few throats was my best route.

‘Once we are inside, we must break away from the main flow of petitioners and conceal ourselves. We may have to separate to do so. Keep in mind that Bee does not know me or Spark. So, after nightfall, when we convene in the deserted washing courts, we must form two parties. Fitz and Per will be one. Lant, Spark and I are the other. Thus each party has a competent warrior. And someone who can open a locked door.’ He smiled in Spark’s general direction.

Worse and worse. I said nothing. Lant was looking at his hands. Per was listening intently. Spark seemed to have already been a party to this plan for she looked unsurprised.

‘There are at most four places that Bee may be. On the roof of the stronghouse, the old harem quarters have been converted to cells for valuable prisoners who must be punished but not permanently harmed. She may be there, or in the cottages where the Whites are stabled.’ I knew what his next words would be and dreaded hearing them. ‘But there are also two lower levels below the castle. In the first one there are cells with stone floors and iron bars. Little light, and harsh conditions. I dread she may be there.’ He drew a breath. ‘On the lowest level are the worst cells and the place where torment is deliberate and prolonged. There the waste of the castle flows into an open basin, and then out to the sea. There is no light and the air stinks of excrement and death. That is the worst possible place she might be. And therefore it is the first place I must search for her. My party will begin at the lowest level. Fitz and Per will go to the rooftop cells. If you find her there, go to the washing courts. If not, check the cottages.’

Per opened his mouth to speak. A motion of my hand silenced him.

‘Whether you find her or not in the cottages, go to the washing courts.’ He drew a breath. ‘After we have searched the cells, we will also search for the entry to the tunnel that my rescuers used to extricate me. If we are successful, and we have found Bee, two of us will immediately take Bee out that way. One of us will meet you in the washing courts to let you know where we have gone, and guide you to the tunnel.’

‘What if we don’t find the entrance to the tunnel?’ Lant asked.

‘We will bring extra garments for Bee, or perhaps the butterfly cloak. We will again conceal ourselves, and the next day, we will emerge to mingle with the petitioners, and leave with them as they flow out in a crowd.’ His hands, one gloved and one bare, clutched one another. He knew how bad his plan was. I didn’t need to tell him. It was the desperate plotting of a man who longed for something to be so.

‘What if we don’t find her?’ Per asked in a faltering voice.

‘Again, we hide, and leave with the tide of petitioners the next day. That may happen, for my dreams do not tell me if she has already arrived in Clerres or is simply bound there. We may have to wait.’

‘And the dragons?’ Lant asked. ‘Tintaglia and Heeby both seemed intent on their vengeance. What if they arrive at Clerres before we do?’

The Fool’s clutching hands rose to his collar and clung there. He licked his lips. ‘I must trust that my dreams would show me such a disastrous event. As of yet, they have not. And so I have hope.’ He gave a quick shake of his head as if to dash Lant’s question from his mind. ‘Does everyone understand the part they are to play? Are we agreed?’

I did not nod, but no one seemed to notice that. Spark spoke for the others. ‘We all do. And now, perhaps, you can sleep.’

He rubbed his face with both hands and I saw what had escaped me before. He was boiling with anxiety. It took every bit of Chade’s training for me to put warmth and certainty into my voice.

‘Go to sleep, old friend. Per and I must return to our hammocks, for our watch begins soon. We should all rest while we can.’

‘While we can,’ he agreed, and Spark nodded to me as we left the small cabin. Lant walked with us as Per and I headed back toward our hammocks.

When we were well away from the Fool’s door, Lant caught at my sleeve to halt me. ‘Do you believe Bee is still alive?’ he asked in a low voice. Per stepped closer to hear my reply.

I chose my words carefully. ‘The Fool does. He makes a plan that puts finding her first. I am happy to follow it.’ That was a lie. I added, ‘It does not interfere with my own plans to take the lives of those who took her from me.’

And so we parted. I returned to my hammock, but could not find sleep again.

Day after long day, the horizon did not change. Water was all I could see when I went to sleep at the end of my watch, and when I arose to my duties. The weather held fine and grew warmer. We all browned in the sun except for Lady Amber, who remained a very pale gold, darker than the Fool had been but much lighter than Lord Golden. Once, the Fool had told me that it was believed that as White Prophets succeeded in their tasks, they would shed skin and become darker. He had become paler, and I wondered if it meant that the Servants had thwarted him in his goals. Lady Amber did what tasks she could, from scrubbing the turnips and potatoes to splicing lines. She ungloved her silver fingers for that task, and the rope seemed to obey and merge where she directed it. It reminded me uncomfortably of Verity smoothing the stone of his dragon, and I avoided watching her at that task.

Amber spent more time with Paragon than either of our captains would have preferred. Paragon welcomed her, and often Kennitsson and Boy-O joined her when she played music for him. Motley also spent a great deal of time with Paragon. Between my duties and Amber’s time with the ship, I saw little of the Fool and I had little opportunity to worry about how aloof she had become.

Our progress was slow. The currents of the ocean did not favour us. The weather was kind but the winds were inconstant. On some days the wind slept and the canvas hung nearly limp. Sometimes, looking at the endless water, I wondered if we moved at all. The farther south we went, the warmer the days grew. Summer was upon us and light lingered long in the evenings.

One such a day I retired early to my bunk and closed my eyes. I was both weary and bored, but sleep eluded me. I tried to do as my wolf had taught me: centre myself in the now and refuse to worry about the future or dwell on the past. It had never been easy for me, and that afternoon was no exception. As I lay still, hoping for sleep to find me, a whisper of Skill came to me. Da?

I sat up straight, startled, and lost the contact. No, no, lie down, be very still, breathe slow and deep, and wait. Wait. It was like watching a game trail from up in a tree. Wait.

Da, can you sense me? It’s Nettle. I got your bird, and I have news for you. Da?

I took slow deep breaths and tried to stay balanced on the knife’s edge between sleep and wakefulness. I ventured into the Skill-current. It seemed weaker, almost elusive. Nettle, I am here. Is all well with you? And your child? A shiver went through me. Nettle’s child, my grandchild. Banished from my mind for all these weeks.

Not yet. But soon. Her response was a whisper on the wind but with it came a warm thread of her pleasure that my first thought had been for her and the child. Soft as thistledown, her words floated to me. Your bird message reached us, but I did not fully understand. We have sent Lady Rosemary as an emissary there. Why did you wish Skill-healers to go to Kelsingra?

I believe it would benefit all. I opened my mind to her and shared my pity for the dragon-touched folk there. I added to it my practicality; an unshakeable alliance could be formed with these peoples, and possibly we would gain a greater understanding of the Skill if we had access to Kelsingra and all that the Skill had wrought there. I tempered it with a warning about dragon-Silver and my conviction that it was the same stuff that Verity had slathered onto his hands so that he could finish his stone dragon. Incredibly powerful and dangerous stuff. Do not let Chade get wind of it or he will long to experiment with it! How is Chade? I miss him and so does Lant.

Hush! Think not his name!

Her warning was too late. I felt a ripple of something, like a breeze that stirs the canvas before the wind hits a sail fully. Then Chade swept into my mind, obliterating me. He was mad, triumphantly so, and ecstatic with Skill. FITZ! He boomed my identity out into the Skill-current. As if he had violently stirred a pot of water, I felt that the Skill whirled and drenched me. THERE YOU ARE, MY BOY! I’VE MISSED YOU SO! COME WITH ME, I’VE SO MUCH TO SHOW YOU!

Dutiful! Coteries all, to me, to me! Contain Lord Chade. Contain him!

I was ripped out of myself. Torn from my body, my mind spread as thin as spilled wine on a table. I was a flurry of snowflakes scattered by the wind, the dispersing fog of breath on an icy night. I heard distant cries and shouts and sensed a struggle somewhere. Then, as clear as a drop of icy water on the back of my neck, I felt the uncertain touch of another mind.

Da? Are you a dream? Da?

I had never touched minds with Bee in the Skill-stream. I did not hear her voice; I did not see her face. But the touch of her thoughts was so uniquely Bee that I could have no doubt it was her.

It was feeble and thin, a child’s voice shouting into strong wind over water. I reached for her. Bee! Is it you, are you alive?

Da? Where are you? Why didn’t you come for me? Da?

Bee, where are you? My first desperate question.

On a ship. Bound for Clerres. Da? They are cruel to me. Please help me. Why don’t you come for me?

Then, like a great sweeping wind, Chade blasted through my thoughts, scattering me. Bee? Does she Skill, then? My daughter Skills, my Shine does. She is strong in the Skill, but they keep her from me!

Da? DA?

Chade was a tumultuous wind, catching and scattering smaller Skill-entities in his roaring passage. I feared Bee would be tossed and broken, torn to shreds in any encounter. I shoved her away.

Bee, flee! Wake up, turn away, break clear. Get away! Don’t touch your mind to mine.

Da? She clung to me, desperate and afraid.

There was no time to reassure her. I pushed her then, hard, as if I pushed her out of the path of a runaway horse. I felt her fear and hurt, but I tore myself clear of her reaching thought and engaged Chade to prevent him from scorching her. Chade, stop! You are too strong! You will sear all of us to nothing, as Verity burned out poor August! Take control of your Skill, Chade, please!

You, too, Fitz? Will you suppress me as well? Traitor! You are heartless. This is my magic, my birthright, my glory!

Then pour it down his throat if you must! Quickly! Three of the apprentices are having seizures!

That was Nettle, at a great distance, both shouting and Skilling with all her strength. I sensed Chade’s anger and hurt that we were conspiring against him. We had all turned on him, he was certain of it, because we were jealous of his magic and wanted all his secrets. None of us had ever truly loved him, not one of us, except for Shine.

As abruptly as a curtain dropping at the end of the puppet-show, all was gone. There was no roaring Skill from Chade, no whisper from Nettle, and worst of all, when I groped for Bee’s uncertain Skilling, I found nothing. Nothing at all.

I found I was on the floor beside my bunk. Tears were streaming unchecked down my cheeks.

She was out there, my Bee, tossed and torn in a storm of Skill, captured and treated badly. The Fool had been right all along. I could not give up. I plunged in again, sieving the Skill-current for her, over and over, until I felt my strength failing. When I came back to my surroundings, I was curled in a ball. My body ached and my head pounded. Old, I felt a hundred years old. I had failed and abandoned not only my child but my old mentor.

I spared a thought for him. Chade, poor old Chade, lost in the magic that he had so longed for. Now it mastered him, and he rode it as one rode a runaway steed. We had hurt him tonight, and I knew it was not the first time he had felt abandoned and persecuted. I wished I could be there to sit by his bed and take his hand and assure him that, yes, he was loved and had always been loved. His hunger for that had burned me almost as much as his wild Skilling.

But fiercely as I longed to be with Chade, my anxiety for Bee consumed me. On a ship, she had said, bound for Clerres. Alive. Absolutely alive! But in a terrible situation. But alive. And wondering why I had not come to save her. Her captors were cruel to her. But she lived! The amazement of that echoed through me like bells ringing. The surging joy of being certain she had survived collided with my terrible fears for her. How had she managed, all those months, alone with her captors? It burned that I had pushed her away when she reached for me.

But alive! Indubitably alive! That knowledge was air in my lungs, water after drought. I pulled myself to my feet. She was alive! I had to share the news with the Fool. Our primary quest was now her rescue!

And then bloody vengeance on those who had kept her from me.

‘I already told you she was alive.’

I was still shaking, still breathing hard from my rush through the ship to find the Fool. To have Lady Amber be so dismissive of my news was maddening. ‘This is different!’ I asserted. ‘You had a dream that might or might not have indicated that Bee was alive. I felt her Skill. She spoke to me! I know she is alive. On her way to Clerres. And treated poorly by those who hold her captive.’

Amber smoothed her skirts. I had found her standing at the railing, staring blindly out over the side of the ship. Waves slapped against us, but I saw no sign we were moving. My need for the ship to be moving, to be pounding his way through waves toward Clerres was a pain in my chest. Amber glanced at me empty-eyed and then turned her face to the sea. ‘As I told you. Weeks ago. Months ago! Before we ever left Buckkeep, I urged you to rush to Clerres! Had you heeded me we would be there now, awaiting her arrival. Everything would have been different. Everything!’ There was no ignoring the sharp rebuke in her tone. She spoke as if she were the Fool, but she was not.

I stood for a time, simply looking at her. I was on the point of walking silently away when she spoke again. Very quietly. ‘It tires me. And it annoys me. All my life, people have doubted that I was the true White Prophet. But you, you are my Catalyst. You have seen what we have done. You took me to the door of death and drew me back again. I do not deny that my powers are greatly diminished. Even my vision of this world is light and shadow.

‘But when I tell you that my dreams have returned, when I say I have dreamed a thing, and it is so or will be so, Fitz, you, of all people, should not doubt me. If I were to say that I doubted the truth of your Skilling, if I claimed you had merely had a dream, would you not be annoyed?’

‘I suppose so,’ I conceded. It was a sharp slap that she would not share my joy in finally being certain but only rebuked me for my doubts. I wished I had not hurried to her, wished I had kept my news to myself. Could she not understand how dangerous it felt to believe that my child was alive? How I feared the fall from such a high hope? Could she not grasp now how painfully I soared, knowing Bee was alive and fearing for her situation? The Fool would have understood that! I was abruptly taken aback at how odd a thought that seemed. Were the Fool and Amber truly so separate in my thoughts?

Yes. They were.

Amber had never saved Kettricken, or carried me on her back through a snowy night. She’d never known Nighteyes. She’d never been tortured and maimed. Never served King Shrewd through danger and treachery. I clenched my teeth. What, exactly, did I share with this Amber? Very little, I decided.

She was merciless as she continued. ‘If you had believed me, we would be there, watching and waiting. We would be in a position to recover her before they could take her into their stronghold. As it is, we must wonder now, are they before us, are they behind us?’

I tried to find an argument to make her wrong, but I could not. Her rebuke was too stabbing an attack. I had not shared with her that Chade had been on a Skill-rampage and that Nettle and her coteries seemed barely able to contain one old man, and I decided I would not. I straightened from leaning on the railing. ‘I’m going to get some sleep,’ I told her. Later, perhaps, when he was the Fool, I’d share my Skill-fears and my agony of worry for Bee. Later, I might tell him how I had pushed her away, out of Chade’s path but also away from me. I had come to Amber full of exhilaration from my contact with Bee and devastation that I could not sustain it or find her, but now I had no one to share that storm of emotions. I could not speak to Lant without tormenting him about the state of his father. I did not wish Spark to worry for Chade. Right now, I did not wish to supply Amber with any new quarrels to shoot at me.

‘Walk away,’ Amber said in a small, deadly voice. ‘Walk away, Fitz. From things you don’t want to hear. Things you don’t want to feel. Things you don’t want to know.’

I had halted at her first words, but as she continued, I did as she suggested. I walked away. She lifted her voice to call after me, her words freighted with anger. ‘Would that I could walk away from what I know! Would that I could choose to disbelieve my dreams!’

I kept walking.

A ship never truly sleeps. Always, there are sailors on watch and all must be ready to leap to the deck at a moment’s notice. But I was deeply asleep when someone shook my shoulder, and I came up ready to fight. By the hooded light of a dimmed lantern, I saw Spark regarding me with a mixture of alarm and amusement. ‘What?’ I demanded, but she shook her head and motioned that I should follow her. I rolled quietly from my hammock and threaded my way through sleeping sailors.

We emerged onto the deck. The wind was slight, the waves calm. Overhead, the stars were close and bright, the moon a paring. I hadn’t bothered with a shirt or shoes but the air was so balmy I didn’t miss them.

‘Is something wrong?’ I asked Spark.

‘Yes.’

I waited.

‘I know you thought less of me for bringing the book to Amber. For spying on you to see where you kept it. And you had the right to be distrustful of me. When last I tried to speak of this to you, you made it clear you did not wish to know any secrets. Well, now I come to betray trust to you again, and I expect your opinion of me will be even lower. But I cannot keep this secret any longer.’

My heart sank into the pit of my stomach. My thoughts immediately leapt to her and Lant, and I dreaded what she might tell me.

‘It’s Amber,’ she said in a whisper.

I drew breath to tell her that I did not wish to know any of Amber’s secrets. Amber’s anger at me was a wall I did not want to breach. I felt both sullen and sulky about it. If Amber had a secret she did not wish to share with me, but told Spark, well, then they were both welcome to keep it to themselves.

But Spark didn’t care if I wanted to know or not. She spoke quickly. ‘She dreams your death. When we were on the river, it was only once, at most twice. But now it is almost every night. She talks and cries out warnings to you in her sleep, and wakes up shaking and weeping. She does not speak of it to me, but I know, for she talks in her sleep. “The son will die? How can the son die? It must not be, there must be another path, another way.” But if there is, I do not think she can find it. It’s destroying her. I do not know why she does not tell you of her nightmares.’

‘Did you leave her just now? Does she know you’ve come to me?’

Spark shook her head to both questions. ‘Tonight, she seems to sleep well. Even when she awakens weeping, I feign sleep. The one time I tried to help her, she told me not to touch her and to leave her alone.’ She looked at the deck. ‘I don’t want her to know that I told you this.’

‘She won’t,’ I promised. I wondered if or how I would let the Fool know that I knew. He had told me that the more often something was dreamed, the likelier it was. During our years together, he had often helped me dodge deaths. I recalled how he had summoned Burrich to the top of the tower on the evening Galen had beaten me. Together they had drawn me back from the edge where I had crawled, inspired by Galen to hurl myself down. He’d warned me of a poisoning in the Mountain Kingdom. Carried me on his back to safety when I’d been felled by an arrow. He’d often told me that in his dreams my survival was so unlikely as to be nearly impossible, but that he had to keep me alive, at any cost, so that I could help him change the world.

And we’d accomplished that. He’d dreamed his own certain death, and together we had defied that.

I believed his dreams. I had to, except when they were too terrifying to believe. And then I always pretended I could defy them.

And now he dreamed my death. Again. Or did he? Was I still the Unexpected Son in his visions, or was Bee? Did we hurtle toward a rescue that he believed could not succeed? I felt supremely unmoved at the thought of my own death. If my death was the price of rescuing Bee, I’d pay it and gladly. And I was suddenly relieved to think that Lant and the Fool would be there to take her safely back to Buckkeep. I knew that Riddle and Nettle would take her in, and probably do a far better job of raising her than I could.

But if he dreamed we would reach Clerres only to have her snatched away into death— No. I would not, could not believe it. I would not allow that to be.

Was that what had made Amber so callous when I shared my news? Did she now believe that Bee lived, but would not survive to be rescued?

No! It had to be me. I was the Unexpected Son, not Bee. Please, Eda and El, not Bee.

Spark was still staring at me, her face pale in the starlight. ‘It’s not the first time he has dreamed me dead,’ I told her. I managed a crooked smile. ‘Remember, when he is the Prophet, I am the Catalyst. The Changer. I have no intention of dying, or letting anyone else die. Go back to sleep, Spark. Get rest while you can. What is to be, may be. Or may not!’

She stood silent and I saw a battle waged inside her. She lifted her eyes to meet mine and added defiantly, ‘She sees more than she admits to you.’

I nodded to that. ‘He always has,’ I told her and turned away from her.

I let my gaze wander back over the water. After a time, I heard her light footsteps bear her away. I let out my pent-up sigh. I wished it were all over. All the doubts and uncertainties finished. They wearied me more than any axe-fight. I wanted to be finished with waiting and preparing. Yet the waters stretched endlessly before me like crumpled paper under the uncertain moonlight.

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

TWENTY-TWO

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 sailors 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.’

‘Yes.’

‘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 fine 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?’

I listened to my heart beating. ‘No.’

‘Nor I. Nor would he. So why burden him with it?’

‘Perhaps so he would never do likewise?’

‘That bit of dragon womb the lad wears strapped to his throat, carved in his father’s likeness, was worn by his mother for many more years than Kennit. She spent her childhood as a whore. Can you conceive that she thought of Kennit as the first person to treat her with kindness? That she came to love him for saving her from that life?’

‘I did not know,’ I said quietly.

‘Believe me, Kennitsson knows more of rape than he would care to admit, and I doubt he will perpetuate upon others what his mother regards with abhorrence.’ He took in air and sighed it out, a sound like waves on fine sand. ‘Perhaps that was why his mother bound it so tightly about his throat before she allowed him to board.’

Kennitsson stirred. He rolled over and opened his eyes and stared wordlessly up at the sky. I held my breath and stood motionless. The cloak was not a perfect protection. It took on the texture and colour and seeming dimension of whatever was behind me, but the wind was ruffling it and I suspected that would look peculiar. Still he did not look toward me. He spoke to the sky, or the ship. ‘I should have been born on these decks. I should have grown up here. I’ve missed so much.’

‘We both have,’ Paragon replied. His voice was kindly. ‘There is no going back, my son. We will take what we have now, and keep it with us forever.’

‘When you turn into dragons, you will leave me.’

‘Yes.’

Kennitsson sighed. ‘You didn’t even have to think about it.’

‘Any other answer would be impossible.’

‘Will you come back to visit? Or will you just be gone forever?’

‘That I don’t know. How can I possibly know?’

Kennitsson sounded very young as he asked, ‘Well, what do you hope you will do?’

‘I think I will have to relearn how to be a dragon. And there will be two of us, me and yet not me. I cannot speak for what happens after. I can only say that for the days we have left together, I will be here with you.’

I ghosted away. That conversation was not for me. I had enough pain of my own without hearing another child abandoned by a father. I had stayed too long with the figurehead. It might be that both Amber and Spark would be sleeping. I moved across the deck in a series of pauses, avoiding the crew. In the dark of the companionway, I stood outside the door and silently removed the cloak. I gave it a shake and carefully folded it. I tapped lightly on the door three times. No one spoke so I eased it open.

The Fool was supine on the floor. A faint light came in the porthole, just enough to distinguish him there. ‘Fitz,’ he greeted me amiably.

I looked down at him and then at the upper bunk. ‘No Spark?’

‘On duty tonight. So. The butterfly cloak again?’

‘How did you know?’

‘I heard the snap of fabric outside the door. I guessed it was the cloak and you just confirmed it. Where were you spying?’

‘I wasn’t. It’s one way to be alone. To be invisible even when there are others nearby. But I did spend some time with Paragon.’

‘That’s a dangerous pastime. Stand clear, please.’ I moved until my back touched the door. He brought his knees quickly up to his chest and attempted to vault to his feet. He failed, crashing sideways into the bunk with a force that would leave bruises. He made not a squeak at the pain. Instead, he slowly stood, and then sat down on the bunk. ‘Not quite able to do that yet. But I will.’

‘I know you will,’ I said. If will alone could make a thing be, the Fool could master his old tumbler’s tricks.

I pulled my old pack out from under the bed. Reaching inside, I found the Elderling fire-brick and made sure it was upright before I tucked the folded cloak beside it. I reached past my folded clothing and Bee’s books. The tubes of Silver I felt through the shirt wrapping them. Chade’s exploding pots in the very bottom. As I resettled everything securely, I asked lightly, ‘Any more dreams, Fool?’

He made a dismissive sound. A moment later, he said, ‘I should have known that Paragon would be aware of my dreams. What did he tell you?’

‘Nothing about what you dream. But he did share with me, in an impressively vivid manner, a bit of what shaped Kennit.’ I wedged my pack back under the bunk in an upright position and sat down beside the Fool. I had to bow my head to fit. ‘What monsters humans are! I’d rather be a wolf.’

He surprised me by suddenly leaning on me. ‘Me, too.’ After a moment, he added, ‘I’m sorry. I’ve been angry with you. That wasn’t fair. But it also wasn’t fair for you to doubt my dreams. Have you touched minds with Bee again?’

‘No. I’ve tried several times, but I can’t find her. I must be so careful. Chade is out there, raging like a storm. Twice he has come at me, demanding I join him. At first, I sensed Nettle there, too, and the coterie trying to bring him under control. To confine him to his body. The last time, I didn’t sense them at all. But if Chade is pursuing me and Bee gets caught up in that, it might very well burn out her abilities. She was very tentative, and I pushed her away. I know I confused her.’ I stopped. That was enough for him to know. My pain and shame were my own.

‘You didn’t tell me any of that.’

‘You were angry.’ I paused. ‘So. Your turn. What did you dream?’

He was quiet.

I tried to keep my voice light. ‘I suppose we both die. Again.’

He drew in a deep breath and his gloved hand sought my wrist. ‘I don’t want to sleep, Fitz. I sit up here in the bunk, in the dark both day and night, and I try not to sleep. Because I don’t want to dream. But I do. And the urge to speak the dreams, to write them down, is so strong it makes me ill. But I cannot write them down, for I’ve not enough sight, even if I had ink. And I don’t want to tell them to anyone.’

‘Not telling the dreams makes you sick?’

‘It’s like an obsession. The true dreams must be spoken and shared. At the very least, written down.’ He laughed low. ‘The Servants count on that. They harvest the dreams of those poor half-Whites like farmers harvesting grapes. Everything goes into their library of dreams and predictions. All is processed, like blowing the chaff from grain. All is preserved. Referenced and cross-referenced. Ready for them to employ, to see what they can predict and how they can profit from it.’ He leaned in hard to me like a child fleeing nightmares and I put my arm around him to brace him.