Ship of destiny, p.17
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       Ship of Destiny, p.17

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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  “Wintrow?”

  Etta had come back for him. She stood on the ladder, staring across the foredeck at him hunched on his hands and knees. “I’m coming,” he replied, and lurched to his feet.

  “MORE WINE?” ETTA ASKED WINTROW.

  The boy shook his head mutely. For boy he looked, draped in a fresh sheet from Kennit’s own bed. Etta had snatched it up and offered it to him when she had staggered him into the cabin. His peeling flesh would not yet bear the touch of proper clothing. Now the lad perched uncomfortably in a chair across the table from Kennit. It was obvious to Etta that he could find no position that eased his scalds. He had eaten some of the food she had put before him, but he seemed little better for it. Where the venom had eaten at him, his skin was splotched red and shiny. Bald red patches on his shorn head reminded her of a mangy dog. But worst was the dull look in his eyes. They mirrored the loss and abandonment in Kennit’s.

  The pirate sat across from Wintrow, his dark hair in disarray, his shirt half-buttoned. Kennit, always so careful of his own appearance, seemed to have forgotten it entirely. She could barely stand to look at the man she had loved. In the years she had known him, he had first been simply her customer, then the man she longed for. When he had carried her off, she had thought nothing could bring her more joy. The night he had told her he cared for her, her life had been transformed. She had watched him grow, from captain of one vessel to the commander of a fleet of pirate ships. More, folk now hailed him as King of the Pirate Isles. She had thought she had lost him in the storm when he commanded both sea and sea serpent to his will, for she could not be worthy of a man chosen by Sa for great destiny. She had mourned his greatness, she thought with shame. He had soared, and she had been jealous of it, for fear it might steal him from her.

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  But this, this was a thousand times worse.

  No battle, no injury, no storm had ever unmanned him. Never, until tonight, had she seen him uncertain or at a loss. Even now, he sat straight at the table, drinking his brandy neat, his shoulders square, and his hand steady. Nevertheless, something had gone out of him. She had seen it leave him, seen it flow away with the life of the ship. He was now as wooden as Vivacia had become. She feared to touch him lest she discover his flesh was as hard and unyielding as the deck.

  He cleared his throat. Wintrow’s eyes snapped to him almost fearfully.

  “So. ” The small word was sharp as a blade. “You think she is dead. How? What killed her?”

  It was Wintrow’s turn to clear his throat, a small and tremulous sound. “I did. That is, what I knew killed her. Or drove her so deep inside herself that she cannot find a way back to us. ” He swallowed, fighting tears, perhaps. “Maybe she simply realized she had always been dead. Perhaps it was only my belief otherwise that kept her alive. ”

  Kennit’s shot glass clacked against the table as he set it down sharply. “Talk sense,” he snarled at his prophet.

  “Sorry, sir. I’m trying to. ” The boy lifted a shaking hand to rub his eyes. “It’s long and it’s confusing. My memories have mixed with my dreams. I think a lot of it I always suspected. Once I was in contact with the serpent, all my suspicions suddenly came together with what she knew. And I knew. ” Wintrow lifted his eyes to meet Kennit’s and blanched at the blind fury in the man’s face. He spoke more quickly. “When I found the imprisoned serpent on the Others’ Island, I thought it was just a trapped animal. No more than that. It was miserable, and I resolved to set it free, as I would any creature. No creation of Sa’s should be kept in such cruel confinement. As I worked, it seemed to me that she was more intelligent than a bear or a cat would have been. She knew what I was doing. When I had removed enough bars that she could escape, she did. But on her way past me, her skin brushed mine. It burned me. But in that instant, I knew her. It was as if a bridge had been created between us, like the bond I share with the ship. I knew her thoughts and she knew mine. ” He took a deep breath and leaned forward across the table. His eyes were desperate to make the pirate believe him.

  “Kennit, the serpents are dragon spawn. Somehow, they have been trapped in their sea form, unable to return to their changing grounds to become full dragons. I could not grasp it all. I saw images, I thought her thoughts, but it is hard to translate that into human terms. When I came back on board the Vivacia, I knew that the liveship was meant to be a dragon. I do not know how exactly. There is some stage between serpent and dragon, a time when the serpent is encased in a kind of hard skin. I think that is what wizardwood is: the husk of a dragon before it becomes a dragon. Somehow, the Rain Wild Traders changed her into a ship instead. They killed the dragon and cut her husk into planks to build a liveship. ”

  Kennit reached for the brandy bottle. He seized the neck of it as if he would throttle it. “You make no sense! What you say cannot be true!” He lifted the bottle and for one frightening instant, Etta thought he would dash out the boy’s brains with it. She saw in Wintrow’s face that he feared it, too. But the lad did not flinch. He sat silently awaiting the blow, almost as if he would welcome his own death. Instead, Kennit poured brandy into his glass. A tiny wave of it slopped over the edge of his glass onto the white tablecloth. The pirate ignored it. He lifted the glass and downed it at a gulp.

  His anger is too great, Etta suddenly thought to herself. There is something else here, something even deeper and more painful than Vivacia’s loss.

  Wintrow took a ragged breath. “I can only tell you what I believe, sir. If it were not true, I do not think Vivacia would have believed it so deeply that she died. Some part of her always knew. A dragon has always slept within her. Our brush with the serpent awakened it. The dragon was furious to discover what it had become. When I was unconscious, it demanded of me that I help it share the ship’s life. I…” The boy hesitated. He left something unsaid when he went on. “The dragon woke me today. She woke me and she forced me into full contact with Vivacia. I had held myself back from her, for I did not want her to realize what I knew, that she had never truly been alive. She was the dead shell of a forgotten dragon that my family had somehow bent to their own purposes. ”

  Kennit took in a sharp breath through his nose. He leaned back in his chair and held up a commanding hand that halted the boy’s words. “And that is the secret of the liveships?” he scoffed. “It can’t be. Anyone who has ever known a liveship would refuse such mad words. A dragon inside her! A ship made of dragon skin. You’re addled, boy. Your illness has cooked your brain. ”

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  But Etta believed it. The ship’s presence had jangled against her nerves ever since she had first come aboard. Now it made sense. Like the strings of a musical instrument brought into true, the theory was in harmony with her feelings. It was true. There had always been a dragon inside Vivacia.

  Moreover, Kennit knew it. Etta had seen the man lie before; she had heard him lie to her. Never before had she seen him lie to himself. He was not very good at it. It showed in the minute shaking of his hand as he poured himself yet another jot of brandy.

  As he returned his glass to the table, he announced abruptly, “For what I must do, I need a liveship. I have to bring her back to life. ”

  “I don’t think you can,” Wintrow said softly.

  Kennit snorted at him. “So swiftly you lose your faith in me. Was it only a few days ago that you believed I was Chosen of Sa? Only a few weeks ago that you spoke out for me to all the people, saying I was destined to be king for them, if they could be worthy of me? Ha! Such a tiny, brittle faith, to snap at the first test. Listen to me, Wintrow Vestrit. I have walked the shores of the Others’ Island, and their soothsaying has confirmed my destiny. I have calmed a storm with a word. I have commanded a sea serpent and it bent its will to mine. Only a day ago, I called you back from the very door of death, you ungrateful wretch! Now you sit there and scoff at me. You say that I cannot restore my own ship to life! How
dare you? Do you seek to undermine my reign? Would the one I have treated as a son lift a scorpion’s sting to me now?”

  Etta remained where she stood, outside the circle of the lantern above the table and watched the two men. A cavalcade of emotions trailed across Wintrow’s face. It awed her that she could read them so clearly. When had she let her guard down so far as to know another so well? Worse, she suddenly hurt for him. He, like her, was caught between love for the man they had followed so long and fear for the powerful being he was becoming. She held her breath, hoping Wintrow could find the right words. Do not anger him, she pleaded silently. Once you anger him, he will not hear you.

  Wintrow drew a deep breath. Tears stood in his eyes. “In truth, you have treated me better than my own father ever did. When you came aboard Vivacia, I expected death at your hands. Instead you have challenged me, every day, to find my life and live it. Kennit: you are more than captain to me. I do believe, without question, that you are a tool of Sa, for the working of his will. We all are, of course, but I think he has reserved for you a destiny larger than most. Nevertheless, when you speak of calling Vivacia back to life… I do not doubt you, my captain. Rather I doubt that she was ever truly alive, in the sense that you and I are. Vivacia was a fabrication, a creature composed of the memories of my forebears. The dragon was once real. But if Vivacia was never real, and the dragon died in her creation, who remains for you to call back to life?”

  Briefer than the flick of a serpent’s tongue, uncertainty flashed over Kennit’s face. Had Wintrow seen it?

  The young man remained still. His question still hung in the air between them. In disbelief, Etta watched his hand lift slightly from the table. Very slowly, he began to reach across the table, as if he would touch Kennit’s own hand, in-what? Sympathy? Oh, Wintrow, do not err so badly as that!

  If Kennit noticed that hovering hand, he gave no sign of it. Wintrow’s words seemed not to have moved him at all. He eyed the boy and Etta clearly saw him reach some decision. Slowly he lifted the brandy bottle and poured yet another shot into his own glass. Then he reached across the table and seized Wintrow’s empty glass. He sloshed a generous measure of brandy into it and set it back down before him. “Drink that,” he commanded him brusquely. “Perhaps it will put a bit of fire in your blood. Then do not tell me that I cannot do this thing. Instead, tell me how you will help me. ” He raised his own glass and tossed it down. “For she was alive, Wintrow. We all know that. So whatever it was that animated her, that is what we will call back. ”

  Wintrow’s hand went slowly to the glass. He lifted it, then set it down again. “What if that life no longer exists to call back, sir? What if she is simply gone?”

  Kennit laughed, and it chilled Etta. So might a man laugh under torture, when screams were no longer sufficient for his pain. “You doubt me, Wintrow. That is because you do not know what I know. This is not the first liveship I have ever known. They do not die so easily. That, I promise you. Now drink up that brandy, there’s a good lad. Etta! Where are you? What ails you that you’ve set out a near-empty bottle on the table? Fetch another, and quickly. ”

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  THE BOY HAD NO HEAD FOR LIQUOR. KENNIT HAD PUT HIM EASILY UNDER THE table, and tending him would occupy the whore. “Take him to his room,” he told Etta, and watched tolerantly as she pulled him to his feet. He staggered blindly alongside her, groping a hand ahead of him down the passage. Kennit watched them go. Confident that he now had some time to himself, Kennit tucked his crutch firmly under his arm and lurched to his feet. With a ponderously careful tread, he made his way out onto the deck. He was, perhaps, just the slightest bit drunk himself.

  It was a fine night still. The stars were distant, a haze of cloud veiling their brilliance. The sea had risen a bit, to run against them, but Vivacia’s trim hull cut each wave with rhythmic grace. The wind was steady and stronger than it had been. There was even a faint edge of a whistle in it as it cut past their sails. Kennit cocked his ear to it with a frown, but even as he listened, the sound faded.

  Kennit made a slow circuit of the deck. The mate was on the wheel; he acknowledged his captain with a nod, but uttered no word. That was as well.

  There would be a man up in the rigging, keeping watch, but he was invisible in the darkness beyond the reach of the ship’s muted lanterns. Kennit moved slowly, his tapping crutch a counterpoint to the softness of his step. His ship. The Vivacia was his ship, and he would call her back to life. And when he did, she would know he was her master, and she would be his in a way she had never been Wintrow’s. His own liveship, just as he had always deserved. Damn right, he had always deserved his own liveship. Nothing was going to take her from him now. Nothing.

  He had come to hate the short ladder that led from the main deck to the elevated foredeck. He managed it now, and not too clumsily, then sat for a moment, catching his breath but pretending simply to study the night. At last he drew his crutch to him, regained his footing and approached the bow rail. He looked over the sea before them. Distant islands were low black hummocks on the horizon. He glanced once at the gray-fleshed figurehead. Then he looked out past her, over the sea.

  “Good evening, sweet sea lady,” he greeted her. “A fine night tonight and a good wind at our backs. What more could we ask?”

  He listened to her stillness just as if she had replied. “Yes. It is good. I’m as relieved as you are to see Wintrow up and about again. He took a good meal, some wine and more brandy. I thought the lad could do with a good sleep to heal him. And, of course, I set Etta to watch over him. It gives us a minute or two to ourselves, my princess. Now. What would please you this evening? I’ve recalled a lovely old tale from the Southlands. Would you like to hear it?”

  Only the wind and the water replied to him. Despair and anger warred in him, but he gave no voice to them. Instead, he smiled cordially. “Very well, then. This is an old tale, from a time before Jamaillia. Some say it is really a tale from the Cursed Shores that was told in the Southlands, and eventually claimed as their own. ” He cleared his throat. He half-closed his eyes. When he spoke, he spoke in his mother’s words, in the cadence of the storyteller. As she had spoken so long ago, before Igrot cut out her tongue, slicing her words away forever.

  “Once, in that distant time so long ago, there was a young woman, of good wit but small fortune. Her parents were elderly, and when they died, what little they had would be hers. She might, perhaps, have been content with that, but in their dotage, they decided to arrange a marriage for their daughter. The man they chose was a farmer, of good fortune but no wit at all. The daughter knew at once she could never find happiness with him, nor even tolerate him. So Edrilla, for that was her name, left both parents and home and-“

  “Erlida was her name, dolt. ” Vivacia twisted slowly to look back at him. The movement sent a jolt of ice up Kennit’s spine. She turned sinuously, her body unbound by human limitations. Her hair was suddenly jet-black, shot with silver gleams. The golden eyes that met his caught the faint gleams of the ship’s lantern and threw the light back to him. When she smiled at him, her lips parted too widely, and the teeth she showed him seemed both whiter and smaller than before. Her lips were too red. The life that moved in her now glittered with a serpent’s sheen. Her voice was throaty and lazy. “If you must bore me with a tale a thousand years old, at least tell it well. ”

  His breath caught hard in his throat. He started to speak, then caught himself. Be silent. Make her talk. Let her betray herself to him first. The creature’s gaze on him was like a blade at his throat, but he refused to show fear. He did his best to meet her gaze and not flinch from it.

  “Erlida,” she insisted. “And it was not a farmer, but a riverside pot-maker that she was given to; a man who spent all his day patting wet clay. He made heavy, graceless pots, fit only for slops and chamber pots. ” She turned away from him, to stare ahead over the black sea. “That is how the tale goes. And I should know. I knew Erlida.


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  Kennit let the silence stretch until it was thinner and more taut than the silk of a spider’s web. “How?” he demanded hoarsely at last. “How could you have known Erlida?”

  The figurehead snorted contemptuously. “Because we are not as stupid as humans, who forget everything that befell them before their individual births. The memory of my mother, and of my mother’s mother, and her mother’s mother’s mother are all mine. They were spun into strands from memory sand and the saliva of those who helped encase me in my cocoon. They were set aside for me, my heritage, for me to reclaim when I awoke as a dragon. The memories of a hundred lifetimes are mine. Yet here I am, encased in death, no more than wistful thinking. ”

  “I don’t understand,” Kennit ventured stiffly when it was obvious she had finished speaking.

  “That is because you are stupid,” she snapped bitterly.

  No one, he had once vowed to himself, would ever speak to him like that again. Then he had cleansed their blood from his hands, and he had kept that promise to himself. Always. Even now. Kennit drew himself up straight. “Stupid. You may think me stupid, and you may call me stupid. At least I am real. And you are not. ” He tucked his crutch under his arm and prepared to lurch away.

  She turned back to him, the corner of her mouth lifting in a sneering smile. “Ah. So the insect has a bit of sting to him. Stay, then. Speak to me, pirate. You think I am not real? I am real enough. Real enough to open my seams to the sea at any moment I choose. You might wish to think on that. ”

  Kennit spat over the side. “Boasts and brags. Am I to find that admirable, or frightening? Vivacia was braver and stronger than you, ship, whatever you are. You take refuge in the bully’s first strength: what you can destroy. Destroy us all then, and have done with it. I cannot stop you, as well you know. When you are a sunken wreck on the bottom, I wish you much joy of the experience. ” He turned resolutely away from her. He had to walk away now, he knew that. Just turn and keep walking, or she would not respect him at all. He had nearly reached the edge of the foredeck when the entire ship gave a sudden lurch. There was a wild whoop from the lookout high in the rigging, and a cumulative mutter of surprise from the crew below in their hammocks. The mate back on the wheel shouted an angry question. Kennit’s crutch tip skittered on the smooth deck and then flew out from under him. He fell, sprawling, his elbows striking heavily. The fall knocked the wind from his lungs.

 
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