Ship of destiny, p.18
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       Ship of Destiny, p.18

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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  As he lay gasping on the deck, the ship righted herself. In an instant, all was as it had been before, save for the querying voices of crewmen raised in sudden alarm. A soft but melodious laugh from the figurehead taunted him. A smaller voice spoke by Kennit’s ear. The tiny wizardwood charm strapped to his wrist spoke abruptly. “Don’t walk away, you fool. Never turn your back on a dragon. If you do, she will think you are so stupid that you deserve destruction. ”

  Kennit gasped in a painful breath. “And I should trust you,” he grunted. He managed to sit up. “You’re a bit of a dragon yourself, if what she says is true. ”

  “There are dragons and dragons. This one would just as soon not spend eternity tied to a heap of bones. Turn back. Defy her. Challenge her. ”

  “Shut up,” he hissed at the useless thing.

  “What did you say to me?” the ship demanded in a poisonously sweet voice.

  With difficulty, he dragged himself up. When his crutch was in place again, he swung across the deck to the bow rail. “I said, ‘Shut up!’ ” he repeated for her. He gripped the railing and leaned over it. He let every bit of his fear blossom as anger. “Be wood, if you have not the wit to be Vivacia. ”

  “Vivacia? That spineless slave thing, that quivering, acquiescent, groveling creation of humans? I would be silent forever rather than be her. ”

  Kennit seized his advantage. “Then you are not her? Not one whit of you was expressed in her?”

  The figurehead reared her head back. If she had been a serpent, Kennit would have believed her ready to strike. He did not step back. He would not show fear. Besides, he did not think she could quite reach him. Her mouth opened, but no words came out. Her eyes spun with anger.

  “If she is not you, then she has as much a right to be the life of this ship as you do. And if she is you… well, then. You mock and criticize yourself. Either way, it matters not to me. My offer to this liveship stands. I little care which of you takes it up. ”

  There. He had put all his coins on the table. He either would win or be ruined. There was nothing else between those extremes. But then, there never had been.

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  She expelled a sudden breath with a sound between a hiss and a sigh. “What offer?” she demanded.

  Kennit smiled with one corner of his mouth. “What offer? You mean, you don’t know? Dear, dear. I thought you had always been lurking beneath Vivacia’s skin. It appears that instead you are rather newly awakened. ” He watched her carefully as he gently mocked her. He must not take it to the point where she was angry, but he did not wish to appear too eager to bargain with her either. As her eyes began to narrow, he shifted his tactic. “Pirate with me. Be my queen of the seas. If dragon you truly are, then show me that nature. Let us prey where we will, and claim all these islands as our own. ”

  Despite her haughty stare, he had seen the brief widening of her eyes that betrayed her interest. Her next words made him smile.

  “What’s in it for me?”

  “What do you want?”

  She watched him. He stood straight and met her strange gaze with his small smile. She ran her eyes over him as if he were a naked whore in a cheap house parlor. Her look lingered on his missing leg, but he did not let it fluster him. He waited her out.

  “I want what I want, and when I want it. When the time comes for me to take it, I’ll tell you what it is. ” She threw her words down as a challenge.

  “Oh, my. ” He tugged at his moustache as if amused. In reality, her words trickled down his spine like ice water. “Can you truly expect me to agree to such terms?”

  It was her turn to laugh, a throaty chuckle that reminded him of the singsong snarl of a hunting tiger. It did not reassure Kennit at all. Nor did her words. “Of course you will accept those terms. For what other course is available to you? As little as you wish to admit it, I can destroy you and all your crew any time it pleases me. You should be content with knowing that it amuses me to pirate with you for a time. Do not seek more than you can grasp. ”

  Kennit refused to be daunted. “Destroy me and you destroy yourself. Or do you think it would be more amusing to sink to the bottom and rest in the muck there? Pirate with me, and my crew will give you wings of canvas. With us, you can fly across the waves. You can hunt again, dragon. If the old legends be true at all, that should more than amuse you. ”

  She chuckled again. “So. You accept my terms?”

  Kennit straightened. “So. I take a night to think about it. ”

  “You accept them,” she said to the night.

  He did not deign to reply. Instead he gripped his crutch and made his careful way across her deck. At the ladder, he lowered himself to the deck, and managed the steps awkwardly. He nodded curtly to two deckhands as he passed them. If they had overheard any of the captain’s conversation with the ship, they were wise enough not to show it.

  As he crossed the main deck, he finally allowed himself to feel his triumph. He had done it. He had called the ship back to life, and she would serve him once more. He thrust away her side of the bargain. What could exist that she could want for herself? She had no need to mate nor eat nor even sleep. What could she demand of him that he could not easily grant her? It was a good agreement.

  “Wiser than you know,” said his own voice in small. “A pact for greatness, even. ”

  “Is it?” muttered Kennit. Not even to his good-luck charm would he risk showing his elation. “I wonder. The more so in that you endorse it. ”

  “Trust me,” suggested the charm. “Have I ever steered you wrong?”

  “Trust you, and trust a dragon,” Kennit retorted softly. He glanced about to be sure no one was watching or listening to him. He brought his wrist up to eye level. In the moonlight, he could make out no more of the charm’s tiny features than the red glinting of its eyes. “Does Wintrow have the right of it? Are you a leftover bit of a stillborn dragon?”

  An instant of silence, more telling than any words. “And if I am?” the charm asked smoothly. “Do I not still bear your own face? Ask yourself this. Do you conceal the dragon, or does the dragon conceal you?”

  Kennit’s heart lurched in his chest. Some trick of the wind made a low moaning in the rigging. It stood Kennit’s hair on end.

  “You make no sense,” he muttered to the charm. He lowered his hand and gripped his crutch firmly. As he moved through his ship, toward his own bunk and rest, he ignored the minute snickering of the thing bound to his wrist.

  HER VOICE WAS RUSTY. SHE HAD SUNG BEFORE, TO HERSELF, IN THE MADDENING confinement of the cave and pool. Shrill and cracked had her voice been, crashing her defiance against the stone walls and iron bars that bound her.

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  But this was different. Now she lifted her voice in the night and sang out an ancient song of summoning. “Come,” it said, to any who might hear. “Come, for the time of gathering is nigh. Come to share memories, come to journey together, back to the place of beginnings. Come. ”

  It was a simple song, meant to be joyous. It was meant to be shared by a score of voices. Sung alone, it sounded weak and pathetic. When she moved from the Plenty up to the Lack and sang it out under the night sky, it sounded even thinner. She drew breath again, and sang it out, louder and more defiantly. She could not say whom she summoned; there was no fresh trace of serpent scent in the water but only the maddening fragrance from the ship. There was something about the ship she followed that suggested kinship to her. She could not imagine how she could be kin to a ship, and yet she could not deny the tantalizing toxins that drifted from the ship’s hull. She took in air to sing again.

  “Come, join your kin and lend strength to the weaker ones. Together, together, we journey, back to our beginnings and our endings. Gather, shore-born creatures of the sea, to return to the shores yet again. Bring your dreams of sky and wings; come to share the memories of our lives. Our time is come, ou
r time is come. ”

  The last piping notes of the song faded, carried away by the wind. She Who Remembers waited for an answer. Nothing came. Yet, as she sank disconsolately beneath the waves once more, it seemed to her that the toxins that trailed elusively from the ship ahead of her took on more substance and flavor.

  I mock and tease myself, she chided herself. Perhaps she was truly mad. Perhaps she had returned to freedom only to witness the end of all her kind. Desolation wrapped her and tried to bear her down. Instead, she fell back into her position behind the ship, to follow where it would lead her.

  Liveship Traders 3 - Ship of Destiny

  CHAPTER EIGHT - Lords of the Three Realms

  TINTAGLIA’S SECOND KILL WAS A BEAR. SHE MEASURED HERSELF AGAINST HIM, predator against predator, the beat of her wings against the swipe of his immense clawed paws. She won, of course, and tore open his belly to feast on his liver and heart. The struggle satiated something in her soul. It was a proof that she was no longer a helpless, pleading creature trapped in a coffin of her own body. She had left behind the humans who had stupidly cut up the bodies of her siblings. It had not been their doing that had imprisoned her. They had acted in ignorance, mostly, when they slew her kin. Eventually, two of them had been willing to sacrifice all to free her. She did not have to decide if the debts of murder were balanced by the acts of rescue. She had left them behind, for all time. As sweet as vengeance could have been, it would not save those of her kind who might still have survived. Her first duty was to them.

  She had slept for a time athwart her kill. The honey sunshine of autumn had baked into her through the long afternoon. When she had awakened, she was ready to move on. While she slept, her next actions had become clear in her mind. If any of her folk survived, they would be at their old hunting grounds. She would seek them there first.

  So she had arisen from the bear’s carcass, its rank meat already abuzz with hundreds of glistening blue flies. She had tested her wings, feeling the new strength she had gained from this kill. It would have been far more natural for her to emerge in early spring, with all the summer to grow and mature before winter fell. She knew that she must kill and feed as often as she could in these dwindling harvest days, building her body’s strength against the winter to come. Well, she would, for her own survival was paramount to her, but she would seek her folk at the same time. She launched from the sunny hillside where the bear had met his end, and rose into the sky on steadily beating wings.

  She rose to where the wind flowed stronger and hung there on the currents, spiraling slowly over the lands below. As she circled, she sought for some sign of her kin. The muddy riverbanks and shallows should have borne the trampled marks of dragon wallows, yet there were none. She soared past lofty rock ledges, ideal for sun basking and mating, but all of them were innocent of the clawed territorial marks and scat that should have proclaimed their use. Her eyes, keener than any hawk’s, saw no other dragon riding the air currents over the river. The distant skies were blue, and empty of dragons all the way to the horizons. Her sense of smell, at least as keen as her eyesight, brought her no musk of a male, not even an old scent of territory claimed. In all this wide river valley, she was alone. Lords of the Three Realms were dragonkind; they had ruled the sky, the sea and the earth below. None had been their equal in magnificence or intelligence. How could they all have disappeared? It was incomprehensible to her. Some, somewhere, must have survived. She would find them.

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  She flew a wide, lazy circle, studying the land below for familiar landmarks. All had vanished. In the years that had passed, the river had shifted in its wide bed. Flooding and earthquakes had re-formed the land numerous times; her ancestral memories recalled many changes in the topography of this area. Yet, the changes she saw now seemed more radical than any her folk had ever seen. She felt that the whole countryside had sunk. The river seemed wider and shallower and less defined. Where once the Serpent River had raced strongly to the sea, the Rain Wild River now twined in a lazy sprawl of swamp and marsh.

  The human city of Trehaug was built beside the sunken ruins of old Frengong of the Elderlings. The Elderlings had chosen that site for the city so that they might be close to the dragons’ cocooning grounds. Once, there had been a wide shallows there in the bend of the Serpent River. There the memory stone had shone as silvery-black sand on a gleaming beach. In long-ago autumns, serpents had wallowed out of the river onto the sheltered beaches there. With the aid of the adult dragons, the serpents had formed their cocoons of long strands of saliva mixed with the rich memory sand. Every autumn, the cocoons had littered the beach like immense seed pods awaiting the spring. Both dragons and Elderlings had guarded the hardened cases that protected the metamorphosing creatures all through the long winter. Summer light and heat would eventually come, to touch the cases and awaken the creatures inside.

  Gone, all gone. Beach and Elderlings and guardian dragons, all gone. But, she reminded herself fiercely, Frengong had not been the only cocooning beach. There had been others, further up the Serpent River.

  Hope battled misgiving as she banked her wings and followed the water upriver. She might no longer recognize the lay of the land, but the Elderlings had built cities of their own near the cocooning beaches. Surely, something remained of those sprawling hives of stone buildings and paved streets. If nothing else, she could explore where once her kind had hatched. Perhaps, she dared to hope, in some of those ancient cities the allies of the dragon folk still survived. If she could not find any of her kin, she might find someone who could tell her what had become of them.

  THE SUN WAS MERCILESS IN THE BLUE SKY. THE DISTANT YELLOW ORB PROMISED warmth, but the constant mists of the river drenched and chilled them all. Malta’s skin felt raw; the tattering of her ragged garments plainly showed that the mists were, as caustic as the river water itself. Her body was pebbled with insect bites that itched perpetually, yet her skin was so irritated that any scratching made her bleed. The cruel glittering of light against the water dazzled her eyes. When she felt her face, her eyes were puffed to slits, while the scar on her brow stood up in ridges of proudflesh. She could find no comfortable position in the tiny boat, for the bare wooden seats were not big enough to lie down on. The best she could do was to wedge herself into a half-reclining position and then drape her arm over her eyes.

  Thirst was her worst torment. To be parched of throat, and yet surrounded by undrinkable water was by far the worst torture of all. The first time she had seen Kekki lift a palmful of river water to her mouth, Malta had sprung at her, shouting at her to stop. She had stopped her that time. From the Companion’s silence and the puffiness of her swollen and scarlet lips now, Malta deduced that Kekki had yielded to the taunt of the water, and more than once.

  Malta lay in the tiny rocking vessel as the river swept it along and wondered why she cared. She could come up with no answer, and yet it made her angry to know the woman would drink water that would eventually kill her. She watched the Companion from the shelter of her arm’s shade. Her fine gown of green silk would once have left Malta consumed with envy. Now it was even more ragged than Malta’s clothing. The Companion’s artfully coiffed hair was a tangle of locks around her brow and down her back. Her eyes were closed and her lips puffed in and out with her breathing. Malta wondered if she were dying already. How much of the water did it take to bring death? Then she found herself wondering if she were going to die anyway. Perhaps she was foolish and it was better to drink, and no longer be thirsty, and die sooner.

  “Maybe it will rain,” the Satrap croaked hopefully.

  Malta moved her mouth, and finally decided to reply. “Rain falls from clouds,” she pointed out. “There aren’t any. ”

  He kept silent, but she could feel annoyance radiating from him like heat from a fireplace. She didn’t have the energy to turn and face him. She wondered why she had even spoken to him. Her mind wandered back to yesterd
ay. She had felt something brush her senses, clinging and yet as insubstantial as a cobweb against her face in the dark. She had looked all around, but seen nothing. Then she had turned her eyes upward and seen the dragon. She was sure of it. She had seen a blue dragon, and when it tipped its wings, the sun had glinted silver off its scales. She had cried out to it, begging it for aid. Her shouts had roused the Satrap and his Companion from their dozing. Yet, when she had pointed and demanded that they see it too, they had told her there was nothing there. Perhaps a blackbird, tiny in the distance, but that was all. The Satrap had scoffed at her, telling her that only children and ignorant peasants believed in dragon tales.

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  It had angered her so much that she did not speak to him again, not even when night fell and he complained endlessly of the dark, the chill and the damp. He had a knack for making every discomfort her fault, or the fault of the Bingtown Traders or the Rain Wild Traders. She had grown tired of his whining. It was more annoying than the shrill humming of the tiny mosquitoes that discovered them as darkness fell and feasted upon their blood.

  When dawn had finally come, she had tried to persuade herself that it brought hope. The lone board that she had to use as a paddle lasted less than half the morning. Her efforts to push them out of the main current of the river had been both exhausting and fruitless. It rotted away in her hands, eaten by the water. Now they sat in the boat, as helpless as children while the river carried them farther and farther from Trehaug. Like an uncomfortable and idle child, the Satrap picked at quarrels.

 
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