Ship of destiny, p.16
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       Ship of Destiny, p.16
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         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  Companion Serilla left, not with Trader Drur, but on Roed Caern’s arm. The tall, handsome Trader’s son glowered as he escorted her from the gathering hall. Several heads besides Ronica’s turned to watch them go. Almost, they looked like a couple on the edge of a marital spat. It did not please Ronica to see the anxiety that haunted the Companion’s face. Was Caern somehow coercing her?

  Ronica had not the gall to hasten after them and beg a ride home, though she would have dearly loved to hear what passed between them in the carriage. Instead, as she wrapped Dorill’s shawl well about her, she thought with dread of the long walk back to Davad’s house. Outside was a chill fall night. The road would be rough and dark, and the dangers more vicious than those of the Bingtown she had known. Well, there was no help for it. The sooner she started, the sooner she was there.

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  Outside the hall, a nasty little breeze cut at her. Other families were clambering into carriages and wagons or walking home in groups, carrying lanterns and armed with walking sticks. She had not thought to bring either. Chiding herself for thoughtlessness, she started down the steps. At the bottom, a figure stepped from the shadows and touched her on the arm. She gasped in startlement.

  “Beg pardon,” Grag Tenira spoke immediately. “I didn’t mean to frighten you. I merely wanted to be certain you had a safe way home. ”

  Ronica laughed shakily. “I thank you for your concern, Grag. I no longer even have a safe home to go to. Nor a way there, other than my own two feet. I have been staying at Davad’s house, since my own was vandalized. While I am there, I have been attempting to trace Davad’s transactions with the New Traders. I am convinced that if the Companion would but pay heed to me, she would see that Davad was no traitor. Nor am I. ”

  The words spilled from her. Belatedly she got her tongue under control. However, Grag stood gravely listening and nodding to her words. When she fell silent, he offered, “If the Companion will not heed what you find, I and several others would find it of interest. Although I doubted Davad Restart’s loyalty, I never questioned the Vestrit family’s allegiance to Bingtown, even if you have dabbled in the slave trade. ”

  Ronica had to bow her head and bite her tongue to that, for it was true. It might not be any of her own doing, but her family ship had gone as a slaver. And been lost because of it. She took a breath. “I would be happy to show you and any others who would be interested. I have heard that Mingsley of the New Traders has been making truce offers. In terms of his long dealings with Davad, I wonder if he was not seeking to buy Old Traders to his way of thinking. ”

  “I should be pleased to see the records. But, for tonight, I would be more pleased to see you safely to wherever you are staying. I have no carriage, but my horse can carry two, if you would not object to riding pillion. ”

  “I would be grateful. But why?”

  “Why?” Grag looked startled at the question.

  “Why?” Ronica took up all the bravery of an old woman who no longer cares for the niceties of courtesy. “Why do you extend yourself on my behalf? My daughter Althea has refused your suit. My reputation right now in Bingtown is unsavory. Why chance your own, associating with me? Why press for the matter of Davad’s death to be investigated? What motivates you, Grag Tenira?”

  He bowed his head for an instant. Then, when he lifted his face, a nearby torch caught his dark eyes and limned his profile. As he smiled ruefully, Ronica wondered how Althea could ever have held her heart back from this young man. “You ask a blunt question and I will give you truth in return. I myself feel some responsibility for Davad’s death and your disaster that night. Not for what I did, but for what I failed to do. And as for Althea-” He grinned suddenly. “Perhaps I don’t give up that easily. And perhaps the way to her heart is through courtesy to her mother. ” He gave a sudden laugh. “Sa knows I have tried everything else. Perhaps a good word from you would turn the key for me. Come. My horse is this way. ”

  Liveship Traders 3 - Ship of Destiny

  CHAPTER SEVEN - Dragon Ship

  ONE MOMENT HE WAS CURLED IN OBLIVION, RESTING IN WOMBLIKE ISOLATION. Wintrow was aware of nothing save his physical body. He worked on it as he had once worked stained glass. The difference was that it was a restoration rather than a creation. He found placid pleasure in his work; dimly it echoed memories of stacking blocks when he was a very small child. The tasks that faced him were simple and obvious, the work repetitive; he was only directing his body to do more swiftly what it would have eventually done on its own. The willing focus of his mind speeded the labor of his body. The rest of his life had dimmed to an absolute stillness. He considered nothing except repairing the animal he inhabited. It was rather like being in a small cozy room while a great storm raged outside.

  Enough, growled the dragon.

  Wintrow curled himself smaller before her irritation. “I am not finished,” he begged.

  No. The rest will take care of itself, if you nourish your body and encourage it from time to time. I have delayed for you too long. You are strong enough now for all of us to confront what we are. And confront it we shall.

  It was like being seized and flung into the air. Like a panicky cat, he flailed and clawed in all directions, seeking something, anything to attach himself to. He found Vivacia.

  Wintrow!

  Her exclamation was not a verbal cry of joy, but a sudden pulse of connection as she discovered him again. They were reunited, and in that joining they were once more whole. She could sense him; she could feel his emotions, smell with his nose, taste with his mouth, and feel with his skin. She knew his pain, and agonized for him. She knew his thoughts and-

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  When one falls in dreams, one always awakens before the impact. Not this time. Wintrow’s awakening was the impact. Vivacia’s love and devotion to him collided with his anguished knowledge of what she was. His thoughts were a mirror held to her corpse face. Once she had looked into it, she could not look aside. He was trapped in that contemplation with her, and felt himself pulled down deeper and deeper into her despair. He plunged into the abyss with her.

  She was not Vivacia, not really. She had never been anything except the stolen life of a dragon. Her pseudolife was fastened on to the remnants of the dragon’s death. She had no real right to exist. Rain Wild workers had split open the cocoon of the metamorphosing dragon. The germ of its life had been flung out, to perish squirming on a cold stone floor, while the threads of memory and knowledge that had enclosed it were dragged off and cut up into planks to build liveships.

  Life struggles to continue, at any cost. A windstorm flings a tree down to the forest floor; saplings rise from its trunk. A tiny seed amongst pebbles and sand will still seize a droplet of moisture and send up a defiant shoot of green. Immersed in salt water, bombarded with the memories and emotions of the humans that bestrode her, the fibers of memory in her planks had sought to align themselves into some kind of order. They had accepted the name given to her; they had striven to make sense of what they experienced now. Eventually, Vivacia had awakened. But the proud ship and her glorious figurehead were not truly part of the Vestrit family. No. Hers was a life stolen. She was half a being, less than half, a makeshift creature cobbled together out of human wills and buried dragon memories, sexless, deathless and, in the long run, meaningless. A slave. They had used the stolen memories of a dragon to create a great wooden slave for themselves.

  The scream that tore out of Vivacia ripped Wintrow into full consciousness. He rolled over and fell to the floor, landing heavily on his knees beside his bunk. In the small room, Etta jerked awake with a start from where she’d kept watch over him. “Wintrow!” she cried in horror as he heaved himself to his feet. “Wait! No, you are not well. Lie down, come back!” Her words followed him as he staggered out the door and toward the foredeck. He heard noises from the captain’s stateroom, Kennit shouting for his crutch and a light, “E
tta, damn you, where are you when I need you?” but Wintrow did not pause for that either. He limped naked save for a sheet, the night air burning against his healing flesh. Startled crewmen on the night watch called out to one another. One seized a lantern and followed him. Wintrow paid him no mind. He took the steps to the foredeck in two strides that tore his healing skin and flung himself forward until he half-hung over the railing.

  “Vivacia!” he cried. “Please. It was not your fault; it was never your fault. Vivacia!”

  The figurehead tore at herself. Her great wooden fingers tangled in her lush black curls and strove to snatch them out of her head. Her fingernails raked her cheeks and dug at her eyes. “Not me!” she cried to the night sky. “Never me at all! Oh, Great Sa, what an obscene jest I am, what an abomination in your sight! Let me go, then! Let me be dead!”

  Gankis had followed Wintrow. “What troubles you, boy? What ails the ship?” the old pirate demanded, but Wintrow saw only the ship. The yellow lantern light revealed a horror. As swiftly as Vivacia’s nails cut furrows in her perfect cheeks, the fibrous flesh closed up behind them. The hair she tore from her scalp flowed into her hands, was absorbed, and her mane remained thick and glossy as before. Wintrow stared in horror at this cycle of destruction and rebirth. “Vivacia!” he cried again, and flung his being into hers, seeking to comfort, to calm.

  The dragon was waiting there. She rebuffed him as effortlessly as she wrapped and held Vivacia in her embrace. Hers was the spirit that defied the ship’s desire to die. No. Not after all the years of repression, not all the ages of silence and stillness. I will not be dead. If this be the only life we can have, then we shall have it. Be still, little slave. Share this life with me, or know none at all!

  Wintrow was transfixed. In a place he could only reach with his mind, a terrible confrontation was taking place. The dragon struggled for life as the ship tried to deny it to both of them. He felt his own small self as a rag seized by two terriers. He was pulled between them, torn in their grip as each tried to claim his loyalty and carry his mind with hers. Vivacia caught him up in her love and despair. She knew him so well; he knew her so well, how could his heart differ from hers? She dragged him with her; they teetered on the edge of a willing leap into death. Oblivion beckoned alluringly. It was, she convinced him, the only solution. What else was there for them? This endless sense of wrong, this horrible burden of stolen life; would he choose that?

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  “Wintrow!” Kennit gasped out the name as he dragged himself up the ladder to the foredeck. Wintrow turned sluggishly to watch him come. The pirate’s nightshirt, half-tucked into his trousers, billowed about him in the night breeze. His one foot was bare. A tiny part of Wintrow’s mind noted that he had never seen Kennit in such a state of dishevelment. There was panic in the captain’s ever-cool and sardonic glance. He feels us, Wintrow thought to himself. He is starting to bond with us; he senses something of what is going on, and it frightens him.

  Etta passed the captain’s crutch up to him. He seized it and came swinging across the deck to Wintrow’s side. Kennit’s sudden grasp on his shoulder was the grip of life, holding him back from death. “What do you do, boy?” Kennit demanded angrily. Then his voice changed and he stared past Wintrow in horror. “God of Fishes, what have you done to my ship!”

  Wintrow turned to the figurehead. Vivacia had twisted to stare back at the growing mob of disturbed sailors on the foredeck. One man shrieked aloud as her eyes went suddenly lambent green. The color of her eyes swirled like a whirlpool, while at the center was blackness darker than any night. Humanity left her face. Her black tresses blowing in the night breeze were more like a writhing nest of serpents. The teeth she bared at them in a parody of a smile were too white. “If I cannot win,” the lips gave voice to the dragon’s thought, “then no one shall. ”

  Slowly she turned away from them. Her arms lifted wide as if to embrace the night sea. Then slowly she brought them back, to clasp the hull of the ship behind her.

  Wintrow; Wintrow, aid me! Vivacia pleaded only in his mind; the figurehead’s mouth and her voice were no longer at Vivacia’s command. Die with me, she begged him. Almost, he did. Almost, he followed her into that abyss. But at the last instant, he could not.

  “I want to live!” he heard himself cry out into the night. “Please, please, let us live!” He thought, for an instant, that his words weakened her resolve to die.

  A strange silence followed his words. Even the night breeze seemed to hold its breath. Wintrow became aware that somewhere a sailor gabbled out a child’s prayer but another, smaller sound caught his ears. It was a running, brittle sound, like the noise of cracking ice on the surface of a lake when one ventures out too far.

  “She’s gone,” breathed Etta. “Vivacia’s gone. ”

  It was so. Even in the poor light of the lantern, the change was obvious. All color and semblance of life had drained from the figurehead. Gray as a tombstone was the wood of her back and hair. No breath of life stirred her. Her carved locks were frozen and immune to the breeze’s fingering touch. Her skin looked as weathered as an aging fence. Wintrow groped after her with his mind. He caught a fading trail of her despair, like a vanishing scent in the air. Then even that was gone, as if some tight door had closed between them.

  “The dragon?” he muttered to himself, but if she was still within him, she had hidden herself too well for his poor senses.

  Wintrow drew a deep breath and let it out again. Alone in his mind again; how long had it been since his thoughts had been the only ones in his head? An instant later he became aware of his body. The cool air stung his healing scalds. His knees jellied, and he would have sunk to the deck but for Etta’s cautious arm around him. He sagged against her. His new skin screamed at her touch, but he was too weak even to flinch away.

  Etta looked past him. Her gaze mourned Kennit. Wintrow’s eyes followed hers. He had never seen a man look so grief-stricken. The pirate leaned far out on the bow railing to stare at Vivacia’s profile, his features frozen in anguish. Lines Wintrow had never noticed before seemed graven into Kennit’s face. His glossy black hair and moustache looked shocking against his sallow skin. Vivacia’s passing diminished Kennit in a way that the loss of his leg had not. Before Wintrow’s eyes, the man aged.

  Kennit turned his head to meet Wintrow’s gaze. “Is she dead?” he asked woodenly. “Can a liveship die?” His eyes pleaded that it not be so.

  “I don’t know,” Wintrow admitted reluctantly. “I can’t feel her. Not at all. ” The gap within himself was too terrible to probe. Worse than a lost tooth, more crippling than his missing finger. To be without her was a terrible, gaping flaw in him. He had once wished for this? He had been mad.

  Kennit turned back abruptly to the figurehead. “Vivacia?” he called questioningly. Then, “Vivacia!” he bellowed, the angry, forsaken call of a spurned lover. “You cannot leave me now! You cannot be gone!”

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  Even the light night breeze faded to stillness. On the deck of the ship, the silence was absolute. The crew seemed as stricken by their captain’s grief as by the passing of the liveship. Etta was the one who broke the silence.

  “Come,” she said to Kennit. “There is nothing to be done here. You and Wintrow should come below, and talk about this. He needs food and drink. He should not be out of bed yet. Together, you two can puzzle out what is to be done next. ”

  Wintrow saw clearly what she was doing. The captain’s attitude was rattling the crew. It was best he was out of their sight until he recovered. “Please,” Wintrow croaked, adding his plea to hers. He had to be away from that terrible, still figure. Looking at the gray figurehead was worse than gazing at a decaying corpse.

  Kennit glanced at them as if they were strangers. A sudden flatness came to his eyes as he mastered himself. “Very well. Take him below and see to him. ” His voice was devoid of every emotion. He r
an his eyes over his crew. “Get back to your posts,” he muttered at them. For an instant, they did not respond. A few faces showed sympathy for their captain, but most stared confusedly, as if they did not know the man. Then, “Now!” he snapped. He did not raise his voice, but the command in it sent his men scrabbling to obey. In an instant, the foredeck was empty save for Wintrow, Etta and Kennit.

  Etta waited for Kennit. The captain moved awkwardly, shifting his crutch about until he got it under his arm. He hopped free of the railing and lurched across the foredeck to the ladder.

  “Go help him,” Wintrow whispered. “I can manage. ”

  Etta gave a single nod of agreement. She left him for Kennit. The one-legged man accepted her help without any objections. That was as unlike the pirate as his earlier show of emotion. Wintrow, watching how tenderly the woman aided him down the short ladder, felt more keenly his own isolation. “Vivacia?” he asked quietly of the night. The wind sighed past him, making him aware of his scalded skin and of his own nakedness. But Vivacia had been peeled away from him as painfully as his own skin had, leaving a different kind of pain. The nakedness of his body was a small discomfort compared to his solitude in the night. In a dizzying instant, he was aware of how immense the sea and the world around him were. He was no more than a mite of life on this wooden deck rocking on the water. Always before, he had sensed Vivacia’s size and strength around him, sheltering him from the world at large. Not since he had first left home as a child had he felt so tiny and unattended.

  “Sa,” he whispered, knowing that he should be able to reach out for his god as solace. Sa had always been there for him, long before he had boarded the ship and bonded with her. Once, he had been certain he was destined to be a priest. Now, as he reached out with a word to touch the awe of the divine, he realized that the name on his lips was truly a prayer that Vivacia be restored to him. He felt shamed. Had his ship then replaced his god? Did he truly believe he could not go on without her? He knelt suddenly on the darkened deck, but not to pray. His hands groped over the wood. Here. The stains should be here, where his blood had joined her timbers and united him with her in a bond he shared with no other. But when his maimed hand found his own bloody handprint it was by sight, not touch. For he felt nothing under his palm save the fine texture of the wizardwood deck. He felt nothing at all.

 
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