Ship of destiny, p.10
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       Ship of Destiny, p.10

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  The wharf seemed to keep rocking for a long time. He became aware of his mother kneeling beside him. She cradled his head in her lap. “Did she hurt you?” she demanded. “Reyn. Reyn, can you speak? Are you hurt?”

  He drew a deep breath. “Ready the Kendry to sail immediately. We must make all speed down the river. Malta, and the Satrap and his Companion… in a tiny boat. ” He halted, suddenly too exhausted even to summon words.

  “The Satrap!” a man exclaimed close by. “Sa be praised! If he yet lives and we can recover him, then not all is lost. Haste to the Kendry. Make him ready to sail!”

  “Send me a healer!” Jani Khuprus’ voice rang out above the sudden murmur. “I wish Reyn carried up to my apartments. ”

  “No. No. ” He clutched feebly at his mother’s arm. “I must go with the Kendry. I must see Malta safe before I can rest. ”

  Liveship Traders 3 - Ship of Destiny

  CHAPTER FIVE - Paragon and Piracy

  “I DON’T MIN’ A BEATIN’ WHEN I’M DUE ONE. BUT THIS’UN WASN’T THA. I DIN’T do ennerthin’ wrong. ”

  “Most beatings I’ve had in my life came from just that. Not doing anything wrong, but not doing anything right either,” Althea observed impartially. She put two fingers under Clef’s chin and turned his face up toward the fading daylight. “It’s not much, boy. A split lip and a bruised cheek. It will be gone in less than a week. It’s not like he broke your nose. ”

  Clef pulled sullenly away from her touch. “He woulda if I hadenna seen it comin’. ”

  Althea clapped the ship’s boy on the shoulder. “But you did. Because you’re quick and tough. And that’s what makes a good sailor. ”

  “S’you think it was right, what he done t’me?” Clef demanded angrily.

  Althea took a breath. She hardened her heart and her voice to reply coolly. “I think Lavoy’s the mate, and you’re the ship’s boy and I’m the second. Right and wrong don’t come into it, Clef. Next time, be a bit livelier. And be smart enough to stay out of the mate’s path if he’s in a temper. ”

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  “He’s allus en a temper,” Clef observed sullenly. Althea let the remark pass. Every sailor had the right to moan about the mate but she could not allow Clef to think that she would take sides on this. She hadn’t witnessed the incident; but she had heard Amber’s outraged account of it. Amber had been up in the rigging. By the time she had regained the deck, Lavoy had stalked away. Althea was glad there had not been an encounter between the first mate and the ship’s carpenter. Nevertheless, it had intensified the enmity Amber and Lavoy felt for one another. The clout Lavoy had given Clef had sent the lad flying, and all because the line he had been coiling hadn’t lain as flat as the mate thought it should. Privately, Althea thought Lavoy was a brute and a fool. Clef was a good-natured lad whose best efforts were bought with praise, not brutality.

  They stood on the stern, looking out over the ship’s wake. In the distance, small islands were green hummocks. The water was calm but there was a light evening breeze and Paragon was making the most of it. Of late, the ship had seemed not only willing but almost eager to speed them on their way to the Pirate Isles. He had dropped all his talk of serpents and even his metaphysical musings on whether a person was what other people thought of him or what he thought of himself. Althea shook her head to herself as she watched some gulls diving on a shallow school of fish. She was glad he had stopped waxing philosophical. Amber had seemed to enjoy those long conversations, but Althea was unsettled by them. Now Amber complained that Paragon seemed withdrawn and abrupt, but to Althea he seemed healthier and more focused on the task at hand. It could not be good for a man or a liveship to ponder endlessly on the nature of himself. She glanced back at Clef. The ship’s boy was cautiously tonguing the split in his lip. His blue eyes were far away. She nudged him gently.

  “Best go get some sleep, boy. Your watch will roll around again soon enough. ”

  “I s’pose,” he agreed lackadaisically. He gazed at her absently for a moment, then seemed to focus on her. “I know I gotter take it from hem. I learnt that when I was a slave. Sometimes yer just gotter take it from someone and kip yer head down. ”

  Althea smiled mirthlessly. “Sometimes it seems to me there’s not much difference between being a sailor and being a slave. ”

  “Mebbe,” the boy agreed truculently. “Night, ma’am,” he added before he turned and made his way forward.

  For a short time longer, she watched their wake widening behind them. They had left Bingtown far behind. She thought of her mother and sister snugly at home, and envied them. Then she reminded herself of how boring she had found shoreside life, and how the endless waiting had chafed on her. They were probably sitting in her father’s study right now, sipping tea and wondering how to bring Malta into Bingtown society on such a reduced budget. They’d have to scrimp and make do through the rest of the summer. To be fair, she decided they probably felt a great deal of anxiety for her, and for the fate of the family ship and Keffria’s husband and son. They would have to endure it. She doubted she would return, for good or ill, before spring.

  For herself, she’d rather worry about the bigger problem; how was she to find her family liveship and return Vivacia safely to Bingtown? When Brashen had last seen the liveship, Vivacia had been in the hands of the pirate Kennit, anchored in a pirate stronghold. It was not much to go on. The Pirate Isles were not only uncharted and infested with pirates, they were also an uncertain place to visit, for storms and inland floods often changed the contours of the islands, river mouths and waterways. So she had heard. In her trading trips south with her father, he had always avoided the Pirate Isles, precisely because of the dangers that she now directly dared. What would her father think of that? She decided that he would approve of her trying to recover the family ship, but not on her choice of rescue vessel. He had always said that Paragon was not only mad, but also a bad-luck ship. When she was a girl, he had forbidden her to have anything to do with him.

  She turned aside suddenly and walked forward as if she could walk away from her uneasiness. It was a pleasant evening, she told herself, and the ship had been unusually stable and sailing well for the past two days. Lavoy, the first mate, had recently embarked on a storm of discipline and cleanliness, but that was not unusual. Brashen as captain had told him to break down the restraint between the sailors they had hired and those who had been smuggled aboard to escape from slavery. Any mate knew that the way to unite a crew was to keep them all on the ragged edge for a few days.

  The crew as a whole could do with a bit more discipline and a lot more cleanliness. In addition to sharpening up their sailing skills, the crew had to learn to fight. And, she added morosely, not just to defend their ship, but to master the skills of attacking another vessel. Suddenly it all seemed too much. How could they hope to locate the Vivacia, let alone win her back, with such a patchwork crew and an unpredictable vessel?

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  “Good evening, Althea,” Paragon greeted her. Without even thinking about it, she had come to the foredeck near the figurehead. Paragon turned his maimed face toward her as if he could see her.

  “Good evening to you, Paragon,” she returned. She tried to put a pleasant note in her voice, but the ship knew her too well.

  “So. Which of our troubles torments you most this evening?”

  Althea surrendered. “They all nip at my heels like a pack of yapping feists, ship. In truth, I don’t know which to worry about first. ”

  The figurehead gave a snort of disdain. “Then kick them away as if they were truly a pack of curs and fix your gaze instead on our destiny. ” He swiveled his bearded face away from her, to stare sightlessly toward the horizon. “Kennit,” he said in a low and fateful voice. “We go to face down the pirate, and take back from him all that is rightfully ours. Let nothing stand between us and that end. ”

  Althea was stunned
into silence. She had never heard the ship speak so. Initially, he had been reluctant even to venture out on the water again. He had spent so many years as a beached and blinded derelict that he had balked at the idea of sailing, let alone setting out on a rescue mission. Now he spoke as if he not only accepted the idea, but relished the chance for vengeance against the man who had seized Vivacia. He crossed his muscular arms on his broad chest. His hands were knotted into fists. Had he truly made her cause his own?

  “Don’t think of the obstacles that lie between now and the moment when we confront him. ” The ship spoke in a low, soft voice. “Long or short, if you worry about every step of a journey, you will divide it endlessly into pieces, any one of which may defeat you. Look only to the end. ”

  “I think that we will succeed only if we prepare ourselves,” Althea objected.

  Paragon shook his head. “Teach yourself to believe you will succeed. If you say, when we find Kennit we must be good fighters, then you have put it off until then. Be good fighters now. Be now what you must be to succeed at the end of your journey, and when the end comes, you will find it is just another beginning. ”

  Althea sighed. “Now you sound like Amber,” she complained.

  “No. ” He contradicted her flatly. “Now I sound like myself. The self I put aside and hid, the self I intended to be again someday, when I was ready. I have stopped intending. I am, now. ”

  Wordlessly, Althea shook her head to herself. It had been easier to deal with Paragon when he was sulky. She loved him, but it was not like her bond with Vivacia. Being with Paragon was often like caring for a beloved but ill-mannered and difficult child. Sometimes it was simply too much trouble to deal with him. Even now, when he seemed to have allied himself with her, his intensity could be frightening. An uncomfortable silence fell.

  She pushed such thoughts aside and tried to relax into the gentle movement of the ship and the soothing night sounds. The peace didn’t last long.

  “You can say you told me so if you wish. ” Amber’s voice behind her was weary and bitter.

  Althea waited for the ship’s carpenter to join her at the railing before she hazarded her guess. “You spoke to the captain about Lavoy and Clef?”

  “I did. ” Amber drew a kerchief from her pocket and wiped her brow. “It did me no good. Brashen said only that Lavoy is the mate, Clef is the ship’s boy, and that he would not interfere. I don’t understand it. ”

  A slight smile curved Althea’s mouth. “Stop thinking of him as Brashen. If Brashen were on the street and saw Lavoy knock a young boy down, he’d jump right in. But we’re not on the street. We’re on a ship and he’s the captain. He can’t stand between the first mate and the crew. If he did it even once, the whole crew would lose respect for Lavoy. They’d have an endless string of complaints about him, and every one of them would wind up at the captain’s feet. He’d be so busy nursemaiding, he’d have no time to be captain. I’ll wager that Brashen does not admire Lavoy’s action any more than you do. But the captain knows that ship’s discipline must come before a few bruises to a boy’s pride. ”

  “How far will he let Lavoy go?” Amber growled.

  “That’s the captain’s concern, not mine,” Althea replied. With a wry smile she added, “I’m just the second mate, you know. ” As Amber wiped her brow again and then the back of her neck, Althea asked, “Are you well?”

  “No,” Amber replied succinctly. She did not look at Althea, but Althea stared frankly at the carpenter’s profile. Even in the fading light, her skin looked papery and taut, making her features sharper. Amber’s coloring was always so odd that Althea could tell little from it, but tonight it reminded her of aging parchment. She had bound her light brown hair back and covered it with a kerchief.

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  Althea let the silence stretch out between them, until Amber added reluctantly, “But neither am I sick. I suffer a malady from time to time. Fever and weariness are all it brings. I shall be fine. ” At Althea’s horrified look, Amber hastily added, “It is not a spreading disease. It will affect only me. ”

  “Nevertheless, you should tell the captain of your problem. And probably confine yourself to our quarters until it passes. ”

  They both startled when Paragon added quietly, “Even the rumor of fever and plague aboard a ship can cause a crew to become jittery. ”

  “I can keep it to myself,” Amber assured her. “I doubt that any beside you and Jek will notice my illness. Jek has seen it before; it will not bother her. ” She turned suddenly to face Althea and demanded, “How about you? Do you fear to sleep near me?”

  Althea met her gaze through the gathering darkness. “I think I will take your word that there is nothing to fear. But you should still tell the captain. He may be able to arrange your duties so that you have more time to rest. ” She did not add that he probably would find ways to isolate Amber to keep her illness secret.

  “The captain?” A small smile bent Amber’s lips. “You truly think of him that way all the time?”

  “It is who he is,” Althea replied stiffly. At night, in her narrow bunk, she certainly didn’t think of Brashen as the captain. By day, she had to. She wouldn’t tell Amber just how hard it was for her to keep that distinction clear. Talking about it wouldn’t make it any easier. It was better kept to herself. She suspected uncomfortably that Paragon knew her true feelings for Brashen. She waited for him to say something horrible and revealing, but the figurehead kept silent.

  “It is part of who he is,” Amber agreed easily. “In some ways, it is his best part. I think he has lived many years, planning and dreaming about how he would be if he were the captain. I think he has suffered under poor captains, and learned well under good ones, and he brings all that to what he does now. He is more fortunate than he knows, to be able to live his dream. So few men do. ”

  “So few men do what?” Jek demanded as she strolled up and joined them. She grinned at Althea and gave Amber an affectionate nudge. She leaned on the railing, picking her teeth. Althea stared up at her enviously. Jek radiated vitality and health. The deckhand was long-boned, well-muscled and completely unself-conscious about her body. She did not bind her breasts at all, nor worry that her sailor’s trousers reached no farther than her knee. Her long blonde braid was tattering to straw from the wind and salt water, but she cared not at all. She is, Althea thought uneasily, what I pretend to be: a woman who does not let her sex deter her from living as she pleases. It wasn’t fair. Jek had grown up in the Six Duchies, and claimed this equality as her birthright. Consequently, men usually ceded it to her. Althea still sometimes felt she needed someone’s permission simply to be herself. Men seemed to sense that in her. Nothing came easily. She felt the struggle was as constant as her breathing.

  Jek leaned over the railing. “Good evening to you, Paragon!” Over her shoulder, she asked Amber, “Can I borrow a fine needle from you? I’ve some mending to do, and I can’t find mine anywhere. ”

  “I suppose so. I’ll come in a bit and get it out for you. ”

  Jek shifted restlessly. “Just tell me where it is and I’ll get it,” she offered.

  “Use mine,” Althea interjected. “They’re in my small duffel, pushed through a piece of canvas. There’s thread in there, too. ” Althea knew that Amber’s exaggerated need for privacy extended to her personal belongings.

  “Thanks. Now, what was this talk of what few men do?” Jek allowed her lip to curl and a speculative look came into her eyes.

  “Not what you’re thinking,” Amber told her tolerantly. “We were speaking of people living their dreams, and I said that few do, and even fewer enjoy the experience. For too many, when they get their dream, they discover it is not what they wanted. Or the dream is bigger than their abilities, and all ends in bitterness. But, for Brashen, it seems to be turning out well. He is doing what he always wished to do, and doing it well. He is a fine captain. ”

is that,” Jek observed speculatively. She leaned back along the railing with catlike grace and stared up at the early stars speculatively. “And I’ll bet he does a fine job elsewhere also. ”

  Jek was a woman of appetites; it was not the first time Althea had heard her express interest in a man. Shipboard life and rules had pushed her into a period of abstinence that was at odds with her nature. Although she could not indulge her body, she let her mind run wild, and often insisted on sharing her ruminations with Althea and Amber. It was her most common topic of conversation on the rare nights when they were all in their bunks. Jek had a wry humor about her observations, and her tales of past liaisons gone awry often left the other two women helpless with laughter. Usually Althea found her ribald speculations about the male sailors amusing, but not, she discovered, when the man in question was Brashen. She felt as if she couldn’t take a full breath.

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  Jek didn’t appear to notice her stiff silence. “Ever notice the captain’s hands?” Jek asked them rhetorically. “He’s got the hands of a man that can work… and we’ve all seen him work, back there on the beach. But now that he’s the captain and not in the tar and slush, he keeps his hands as clean as a gentleman’s. When a man touches me, I hate to have to wonder where his hands last were, and if he’s washed them since. I like a man with clean hands. ” She let the thought trail away as she smiled softly to herself.

  “He’s the captain,” Althea objected. “We shouldn’t talk about him like that. ”

  She saw Amber wince for her at her prim little words. She expected Jek to turn her sharp wits and sharper tongue against her, and feared even more that v Paragon would ask a question, but the woman only stretched and observed, “He won’t always be the captain. Or maybe I won’t always be a deckhand on his ship. Either way, I expect a time will come when I won’t have to call him ’sir’. And when it does…” She sat up abruptly, grinning with a flash of white teeth. “Well. ” She lifted an eyebrow. “I think it would go well between us. I’ve seen him watching me. Several times he has praised me for working smartly. ” More to herself than the others, she added, “We’re just of a height. I like that. It makes so many things more… comfortable. ”

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