Ship of destiny, p.11
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       Ship of Destiny, p.11

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  Althea could not hold the words back. “Just because he praised you doesn’t mean he’s staring at you. The captain is like that. He recognizes a good job when he sees it. When he does, he speaks up, just as he would if he saw a bad bit of work. ”

  “Of course,” Jek conceded easily. “But he had to be watching me to know that I work smart. If you take my drift. ” She leaned over the railing again. “What do you think, ship? You and Captain Trell go back a ways. I imagine you two have shared many a tale. What does he like in his women?”

  In the brief silence that followed this question, Althea died. Her heart stilled, her breath caught in her chest. Just how much had Brashen shared with Paragon, and how much would the ship blurt out now?

  Paragon had shifted his mood again. He spoke in a boyish voice, obviously flattered by the woman’s attention. He sounded almost flirtatious as he replied, “Brashen? Do you truly think he would speak freely of such things to me?”

  Jek rolled her eyes. “Is there any man who does not speak far too freely when he is around other men?”

  “Perhaps he has dropped a story or two with me, from time to time. ” The ship’s voice took on a salacious tone.

  “Ah. I thought that perhaps he had. So. What does our captain prefer, ship? No. Let me speculate. ” She stretched in a leisurely manner. “Perhaps, as he always praises his crew for ‘working smart and lively,’ that is what he prefers in a woman? One who is quick to run up his rigging and lower his canvas-“

  “Jek!” Althea could not keep her offense from her tone, but Paragon broke in.

  “In truth, Jek, what he has told me he prefers is a woman who is quiet more often than she speaks. ”

  Jek laughed easily at his remark. “But while these women are being so quiet, what does he hope they’ll be doing?”

  “Jek. ” All Amber’s rebuke was in the single, quietly spoken word. Jek turned back to them with a laugh while Paragon demanded, “What?”

  “Sorry to interrupt the hen party, but the captain wishes to see the second mate. ” Lavoy had approached quietly. Jek straightened up, her smile gone. Amber glowered silently at him. Althea wondered how much he had heard, and chided herself. She should not be loitering on the foredeck, talking so casually with crew members, especially on such topics. She resolved to imitate Brashen more in how he separated himself from the general crew. A little distance helped maintain respect. Yet the prospect of severing her friendship with Amber daunted her. Then she would truly be alone.

  Just as Brashen was alone.

  “I’ll report right away,” she replied quietly to Lavoy. She ignored the belittlement of the “hen party” remark. He was the first mate. He could rebuke, chide and mock her, and part of her duty was to take it. That he had done so in front of crew members rankled, but to reply to it would only make it worse.

  “And when you’re done there, see to Lop, will you? Seems our lad needs a bit of doctoring, it does. ” Lavoy cracked his knuckles slowly as he let a smile spread across his face.

  That remark was intended to bait Amber, Althea knew. The doctoring that Lop required was a direct result of Lavoy’s fists. Lavoy had discovered Amber’s distaste for violence. He had not yet found any excuse to direct his temper at Jek or the ship’s carpenter, but he seemed to relish her reactions to the beatings he meted out to other crew members. With a sinking heart, Althea wished that Amber were not so proud. If she would just lower her head a bit to the first mate, Lavoy would be content. Althea feared what might come of the simmering situation.

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  Lavoy took Althea’s place on the railing. Amber withdrew slightly. Jek wished Paragon a subdued, “Good night, ship,” before sauntering quietly away. Althea knew she should hasten to Brashen’s summons, but she did not like to leave Amber and Lavoy alone in such proximity. If something happened, it would be Amber’s word against his. And when a mate declared something was so, the word of a common sailor meant nothing at all.

  Althea firmed her voice. “Carpenter. I want the latch on my cabin door repaired tonight. Little jobs should be seen to in calm weather and quiet times, lest they become big jobs during a storm. ”

  Amber shot her a look. In reality, Amber had been the one to point out that the door rattled against the catch instead of shutting tightly. Althea had greeted the news with a shrug. “I’ll see to it, then,” Amber promised her gravely. Althea lingered a second longer, wishing the carpenter would take the excuse to get away from Lavoy. But she didn’t, and there was no way Althea could force her without igniting the smoldering tension. She reluctantly left them together.

  The captain’s quarters were in the stern of the ship. Althea knocked smartly, and waited for his quiet invitation to enter. The Paragon had been built with the assumption that the captain would also be the owner, or at least a family member. Most of the common sailors made do with hammocks strung belowdecks wherever they could find room. Brashen, however, had a chamber with a door, a fixed bed, a table and chart table and windows that looked out over the ship’s wake. Warm yellow lamplight and the rich smells and warm tones of polished wood greeted her.

  Brashen looked up at her from the chart table. Spread before him were his original sketches on canvas scraps as well as Althea’s efforts to formalize his charts on parchment. He looked tired, and much older than his years. His scalded face had peeled after he was burnt by the serpent venom. Now the lines on his forehead and cheeks and beside his nose showed even more clearly. The venom burn had taken some of his eyebrows as well. The gaps in his heavy brows made him look somewhat surprised. She was grateful that the spray of scalding poison had not harmed his dark eyes.

  “Well?” Brashen suddenly demanded, and she realized she had been staring at him.

  “You summoned me,” she pointed out, the words coming out almost sharply in her discomfiture.

  He touched his hair, as if he suspected something amiss there. He seemed rattled by her directness. “Summoned you. Yes, I did. I had a bit of a talk with Lavoy. He shared some ideas with me. Some of them seem valuable, yet I fear he may be luring me to a course of action I may regret later. I ask myself, how well do I know the man? Is he capable of deception, even…” He straightened in his chair, as if he had abruptly decided he was speaking too freely. “I’d like your opinion on how the ship is being run of late. ”

  “Since the serpent attack?” she asked needlessly. There had been a subtle shift in power since she and Brashen had stood together to drive the serpent away. The men had more respect for her abilities now, and it seemed to her that Lavoy did not approve of that. She tried to find a way to phrase it without sounding as if she criticized the mate. She took a breath. “Since the serpent attack, I have found my share of the command easier to manage. The sailors obey me swiftly and well. I feel that I have won their hearts as well as their allegiance. ” She drew another breath and crossed a line. “However, since the attack, the first mate has chosen to tighten discipline. Some of it is understandable. The men did not react well during the attack. Some did not obey; few jumped in to assist us. ”

  Brashen scowled as he spoke. “I myself noted that Lavoy did not assist us. His watch was well begun and he was on the deck, yet he did not aid us at all. ” Althea felt her stomach jump nervously. She should have noticed that. Lavoy had stood it out while she and Brashen fought the serpent. At the time, it had seemed oddly natural that they two would be the ones to stand before the serpent. She wondered if Lavoy’s absence had any significance, beyond his being afraid. Had Lavoy hoped that she, Brashen, or even both of them might be killed? Did he hope to inherit command of the ship? If he did, what would become of their original quest? Brashen was silent again, obviously letting her think.

  She took a breath. “Since the serpent attack, the first mate has tightened discipline, but not evenly. Some of the men appear to be targeted unfairly. Lop, for one. Clef for another. ”

  Brashen watched her carefully
as he observed, “I would not have expected you to have much sympathy for Lop. He did nothing to aid you when Artu attacked you. ”

  Althea shook her head almost angrily. “No one should have expected him to,” she declared. “The man is a half-wit in some ways. Give him direction, tell him what to do, and he performs well enough. He was agitated when Artu… when I was fighting Artu off, Lop was leaping about, hitting himself in the chest and berating himself. He genuinely had no idea what to do. Artu was a shipmate, I was the second mate and he did not know whom to choose. But on the deck, when the serpent attacked, I remember that he was the one with the guts to fling a bucket at the creature and then drag Haff to safety. But for Lop’s action, we’d be short a hand. He’s not smart. Far from it. But he’s a good sailor, if he’s not pushed past his abilities. ”

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  “And you feel Lavoy pushes Lop past his abilities?”

  “The men make Lop the butt of their jokes. That is to be expected, and as long as they don’t take it too far, Lop seems to enjoy the attention. But when Lavoy joins in, the game becomes crueler. And more dangerous. Lavoy told me to go doctor Lop when you were finished speaking to me. That’s the second time in as many days that he has been banged up. They bait him into doing dangerous or foolish things. When something is amiss and Lavoy targets Lop for it, not one of his shipmates owns up to part of the blame. That’s not good for the crew. It divides their unity just when we most need to build it. ”

  Brashen was nodding gravely. “Have you observed Lavoy with the slaves we liberated from Bingtown?” he asked quietly.

  The question jolted her. She stood silent a moment, running over the past few days in her mind. “He treats them well,” she said at last. “I’ve never seen him turn his temper on them. He does not mingle them with the rest of the crew as much as he might. Some seem to have great potential. Harg and Kitl deny it, but I believe they’ve worked a deck before this. Some of the others have the scars and manners of men who are familiar with weapons. Our two best archers have tattooed faces. Yet every one of them swears he is the son of a tradesman or merchant, an innocent inhabitant of the Pirate Isles captured by slave raiders. They are valuable additions to our crew, but they keep to themselves. I think, in the long run, we must get the other sailors to accept them as ordinary shipmates in order to…”

  “And you perceive that he not only allows them to keep to themselves, but seems to encourage it by how he metes out the work?”

  She wondered what Brashen was getting at. “It could be so. ” She took a breath. “Lavoy seems to use Harg and Kitl almost as a captain would use a first and second mate to run his watch. Sometimes it seems that the former slaves are an independent second crew on the ship. ” Uncomfortably, she observed, “The lack of acceptance seems to go both ways. It is not just that our dock-scrapings don’t accept the former slaves. The tattooed ones are just as inclined to keep to themselves. ”

  Brashen leaned back in his chair. “They were slaves in Bingtown. Most came to that fate because they were originally captured in Pirate Isles towns. They were willing to risk all and steal away from Bingtown aboard the Paragon because we represented a chance to return home. I was willing to trade that to them, in exchange for their labor aboard the ship when we were preparing for departure. Now I am not so sure that was a wise bargain. A man captured in the Pirate Isles to be sold as a slave is more likely to be a pirate than not. Or at least to have a good sympathy for the pirates. ”

  “Perhaps,” she conceded unwillingly. “Yet they must feel some loyalty to us for helping them escape a life of slavery. ”

  The captain shrugged. “Perhaps. It is difficult to tell. I suspect the loyalty they feel just now is to Lavoy rather than to you and me. Or to Paragon. ” He shifted in his chair. “This is Lavoy’s suggestion. He says that as we enter the waters of the Pirate Isles, we stand a better chance of getting in close if we pretend to be pirates ourselves. He says his tattooed sailors could lend us credibility, and teach us pirate ways. He hints that some may even have a good knowledge of the islands. So. We could go on as a pirate vessel. ”

  “What?” Althea was incredulous. “How?”

  “Devise a flag. Take a ship or two, for the practice of battle, as Lavoy puts it. Then we put into one of the smaller pirate towns, with some loot and trophies and generous hands, and put out the word that we’d like to follow Kennit. For some time, this Kennit has been touting himself as King of the Pirates. The last I heard, he was gathering a following for himself. If we pretended we wanted to be a part of that following, we might be able to get close to him and determine Vivacia’s situation before we acted. ”

  Althea pushed her outrage aside and forced herself to consider the idea. The greatest benefit it offered was that, if they could get close to Kennit, they could find out how many of Vivacia’s crewmen still lived. If any. “But we could as easily be drawn into a stronghold, where even if we overcame Kennit and his crew, there would be no possibility of escape. There are two other immense barriers to such an idea. The first is that Paragon is a liveship. How does Lavoy think we could hide that? The other is that we would have to kill, simply for battle practice. We’d have to attack some little merchant vessel, kill the crew, steal their cargo… how can he even think of such a thing?”

  “We could attack a slaver. ”

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  That jolted her into silence. She studied his face. He was serious. He met her astonished silence with a weary look. “We have no other strategy. I keep trying to devise ways for us to locate Vivacia surreptitiously, then follow her and attack when Kennit least expects it. I come up with nothing. And I suspect that if Kennit does hold any of the original crew hostage, he would execute them rather than let us rescue them. ”

  “I thought we intended to negotiate first. To offer ransom for survivors and the ship. ”

  Even to herself, the words sounded childish and naive. The cash that her family had managed to raise prior to Paragon’s departure would not be enough to ransom an ordinary ship, let alone a liveship. Althea had pushed that problem to the back of her mind, telling herself they would negotiate with Kennit and promise him a second, larger payment once Vivacia was returned intact to Bingtown. Ransom was what most pirates wanted; it was the underlying reason for piracy.

  Except that Kennit was not like most pirates. All had heard the tales of him. He captured slavers, killed the crews, and freed the cargo. The captured ships became pirate vessels, often crewed by the very men who had been cargo aboard them. Those ships in turn preyed on slavers. In truth, if the Vivacia had not been involved, Althea would have cheered Kennit’s efforts to rid the Cursed Shores of slavery. She would have been pleased to see Chalced’s slave trade choked off in the Pirate Isles. But her sister’s husband had turned their family liveship into a slaver, and Kennit had seized her. Althea wanted Vivacia back so intensely that it was like a constant pain in her heart.

  “You see,” Brashen confirmed quietly. He had been watching her face. She lowered her eyes from his gaze, suddenly embarrassed that he could read her thoughts so easily. “Sooner or later, it must come down to blood. We could take down a small slaver. We don’t have to kill the crew. If they surrendered, we could put them adrift in the ship’s boats. Then we could take the ship into a pirate town and free her cargo, just as Kennit does. It might win us the confidence of the folk in the Pirate Isles. It might buy us the knowledge we need to go after the Vivacia. ” He sounded suddenly uncertain. The dark eyes that regarded her were almost tormented.

  She was puzzled. “Are you asking my permission?”

  He frowned. It was a moment before he spoke. “It’s awkward,” he admitted softly. “I am the captain of the Paragon. But Vivacia is your family ship. Your family financed this expedition. I feel that, in some decisions, you have the right to be heard as more than the second mate. ” He sat back in his chair and gnawed at his knuckle for a moment. Then he
looked up at her again. “So, Althea. What do you think?”

  The way he spoke her first name suddenly changed the whole tenor of the conversation. He gestured to a chair and she sat down in it slowly. He himself rose and crossed the room. When he returned to the table, he carried a bottle of rum and two glasses. He poured a short jot into each glass. He looked across at her and smiled as he took his chair. He set a glass before her. As she watched his clean hands, she tried to keep her mind on the conversation. What did she think? She answered slowly.

  “I don’t know what I think. I suppose I’ve been trusting it all to you. You are the captain, you know, not me. ” She tried to make the remark lightly, but it came out almost an accusation. She took a sip of her rum.

  He crossed his arms on his chest and leaned back slightly in his chair. “Oh, how very well I know that,” he murmured. He lifted his glass.

  She turned the conversation. “And there’s Paragon to consider. We know his aversion to pirates. How would he feel about it?”

  Brashen made a low noise in his throat and abruptly set down his rum. “That’s the strangest twist of all. Lavoy claims the ship would welcome it. ”

  Althea was incredulous. “How could he know that? Has he already spoken to Paragon about this?” Anger flared in her. “How dare he? The last thing we need is him planting such ideas in Paragon’s head. ”

  He leaned across the table toward her. “His claim was that Paragon spoke to him about it. He says he was having a pipe up on the bow one evening, and that the figurehead spoke to him, asking him if he’d ever considered turning pirate. From there, the idea came up that to be a pirate vessel would be the safest way to get into a pirate harbor. And Paragon bragged that he knew many secret ways of the Pirate Isles. Or so Lavoy says. ”

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