Ship of destiny, p.21
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       Ship of Destiny, p.21

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  Satisfied that nothing required her immediate attention, she sprang to the mast. She pushed herself for speed going up it; sometimes her muscles ached due to the confines of the ship. A brisk trip to the lookout’s platform eased some of the kinks in her legs.

  Amber heard her coming. She always seemed preternaturally aware of folk around her. Althea saw the carpenter’s resigned smile of welcome as she hauled herself over the lip of the platform and sat down beside her, legs dangling. “How do you feel?” she greeted Amber.

  Amber smiled ruefully. “Fine. Will you stop worrying? I’m over it. I’ve told you, this ailment comes and it goes. It’s not serious. ”

  “Mm. ” Althea was not sure she believed her. She still wondered what had happened that night when she had found Amber unconscious on the deck. The carpenter claimed that she simply passed out, and that the bruises on her face came from striking the deck. Althea could think of no reason that she would lie. Surely if Lavoy had struck her down, either Amber or Paragon would have complained of it by now.

  She studied Amber’s face. Lately the carpenter had begged for lookout duty, and Althea had reluctantly given it to her. If she passed out up here and fell to the deck, it would do more than bruise her face. Yet, the lofty, lonely duty seemed to agree with her, for though the wind had burned her face until it peeled, the skin beneath was tanned and glowing with health, which made her eyes seem darker and her hair more tawny. Althea had never seen her looking more vital.

  “There’s nothing to see,” Amber muttered uncomfortably, and Althea realized she was staring. Deliberately she pretended to misunderstand. She scanned the full horizon as if checking for sails.

  “Amongst all these islands, you never know. That’s one reason the pirates love these waters. A ship can lie low and wait for her prey to come into sight. With all the little coves and inlets, a pirate might be lurking anywhere. ”

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  “Over there, for instance. ” Amber lifted an arm and pointed. Althea followed the gesture. She stared for a time critically, then asked, “You saw something?”

  “I thought I did, for an instant. The tip of a mast moving behind the trees on that point. ”

  Althea stared, squinting. “There’s nothing there,” she decided, and relaxed her posture. “Maybe you saw a bird moving from tree to tree. The eye is drawn to motion, you know. ”

  The waterscape before them was a dazzling vista of greens and blues. Rocky steep-sided islands broke from the water, but above their sheer cliffs, they were lush with vegetation. Streams and waterfalls spilled down their steep sides. The bright flowing water glittered in the sunlight as it fell to shatter into the moving waves. So much anyone could see from the deck. Here, atop the mast, one could see the true contours of both land and water. The color of the water varied not only by depth, but also with how much sweet water was floating atop the salt. The varying blues told Althea that the channel ahead was deep enough for Paragon, but rather narrow. Amber was supposed to watch these shades and give cry back to Haff on the wheel if shallows impeded their passage. Shifting sandbars were the second-most legendary danger of the Pirate Isles. To the west, a multitude of jutting islets could be seen as islands, or as easily visualized as the mountaintops of a submerged coast. Fresh water flowed endlessly from that direction, carrying with it sand and debris that formed new sandbars and shallows. The storms that regularly battered the area swept through and rearranged these obstacles to shipping. Charting the Pirate Isles was a fruitless task. Waterways silted in and became impassable, only to be swept clean in the next storm. The hazards of navigation that slowed heavily laden merchant vessels were the pirates’ ally. Often pirate craft were shallow draft, powered by sweeps as well as sail, and manned by men who knew the waters as well as they could be known. In all Althea’s days of sailing the Cursed Shores, she had never ventured this deeply into the Pirate Isles. Her father had always avoided them, as he avoided any kind of trouble. “The profit from danger only pays you interest in trouble,” he’d said more than once. Althea smiled to herself.

  “What are you thinking about?” Amber asked her quietly.

  “My father. ”

  Amber nodded. “It’s good that you can think of him and smile now. ”

  Althea murmured an assent, but said no more. For a time, they rode the mast in silence. The high platform amplified the gentle rolling of the ship below them. Althea could not remember a time when she had not found the movement intoxicating. But peace did not last. The question itched at her. Without looking at Amber, she asked yet again, “Are you sure Lavoy did nothing to you?”

  Amber sighed. “Why would I lie to you?” she asked.

  “I don’t know. Why would you answer my question with another question?”

  Amber faced her squarely. “Why can’t you accept that I was feeling sick and collapsed? If it had been anything other than that, do you think Paragon would have kept silent about it all this time?”

  Althea did not reply immediately. Then she said, “I don’t know. Paragon seems to be changing lately. It used to annoy me when he was sulky or melodramatic. He seemed like a neglected boy to me then. Yet there were times when he was eager to please. He spoke of proving himself to me and Brashen. But lately, when he talks with me at all, he says shocking things. He brings up pirates, and all he talks of is blood, violence and killing. Torture he has seen. He says it all in such a way that it is like dealing with a braggart child who deliberately lies to shock me. I cannot even decide how much of it to believe. Does he think I will be impressed with how much cruelty he has witnessed? When I challenge him, he agrees such things are horrendous. But he relates those stories with such salacious glee; it is as if there is a violent and cruel man hiding within him, relishing what he is capable of doing. I don’t know where all the viciousness is coming from. ” She glanced away from Amber and added quietly, “But I don’t like how much time he spends with Lavoy. ”

  “You could more correctly say how much time Lavoy spends with him. Paragon can scarcely seek out the mate. The man comes to him, Althea. And truly, Lavoy brings out the worst in Paragon. He encourages him in violent fantasies. They vie in the telling of such stories, as if witnessing cruelty were a measure of manhood. ” Amber’s voice was deceptively soft. “For his own ends, I fear. ”

  Althea felt uncomfortable. She had the sudden feeling that she was going to regret leading the conversation in this direction. “There is little that can be done about that. ”

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  “Isn’t there?” Amber gave her a sideways glance. “Brashen could forbid it. ”

  Althea shook her head regretfully. “Not without undermining Lavoy’s command of the ship. The men would see it as a rebuke to him and-“

  “Then let them. It is my experience that when a man in command of other men starts to go rotten, it is best to expel him as soon as possible. Althea, think. The ship is not subtle. Paragon says what is in his mind. The sailors are wiser than that. But if Lavoy is influencing the ship to his way of thinking, can you imagine he is doing less with the crew, especially the Tattooed? Lavoy has gained far too much influence over them. They are, in some ways, like Paragon. They have been brutalized by life and the experience has left them capable of cold cruelty. Lavoy builds on that in men. Look how he encourages the crew to deride and torment Lop. ” She looked away from Althea, out over the water. “Lavoy is a danger. We should be rid of him. ”

  “But Lavoy-” Althea began. She was interrupted by Amber springing to her feet.

  “Ship!” she shouted, pointing. On the deck below, the secondary watchman took up the cry and pointed in the same direction for the benefit of the man on the wheel. Althea saw it now, a mast moving behind a thin line of trees on a long point of land, close to where Amber had been watching earlier. The ship had probably held back and waited there, allowing the Paragon to come closer before they made their attempt.

“Pirates!” Althea confirmed. And “PIRATES!” she yelled down to alert the crew below. As if aware that they had been seen, colors suddenly unfurled from the other ship’s flagstaff, a red flag with a black emblem on it. Althea counted six small boats being prepared for launch from the other ship. That would be their tactic then; the little boats would harry Paragon and board him if they could while the larger ship tried to force him into the shallows ahead. If the small boats’ crews were successful at overrunning Paragon’s deck, they could deliberately run him aground and pluck him at their leisure. Althea’s heart hammered. They had spoken of this, prepared for this, but somehow it still shocked her. For an instant, fear gripped her so strongly she could not breathe. The men in those boats would do all in their power to kill her. She choked a breath past her terror, shut her eyes and then opened them wide. There was no time to fear for her own life. The ship depended on her.

  Brashen had appeared on deck at her first shout. “Put on sail!” Althea shouted down to him. “They’re trying to wolf-pack us, but we can outrun them. Six small boats and a mother ship. Be wary! There are shallows ahead. ” She turned to Amber. “Go down to Paragon. Tell him he must aid us to keep him in the best channel. If the pirates start to get close to us, arm him. He could do a lot to drive back a small boat. I’m going to keep the watch here. The captain will run the deck. ”

  Amber did not wait to hear more. She was gone, spidering down the lines as if she had done it all her life. As Paragon drew abreast of the point of land, the small boats raced to intercept him. Six men in each craft manned the oars while others clutched weapons or grapples and awaited their opportunity.

  Below her, Paragon’s deck swarmed with activity. Some crew hastened to add canvas while others passed out weapons or took up watch positions all along the railings. The frenzied activity was not the coordinated preparation she had hoped to see.

  Althea felt a sudden rush of anticipation. The excitement was giddying, submerging her fear. After all the waiting, her chance had finally, finally come. She would fight and she would kill. All of them would see what she could do; they would have to respect her after this. “Oh, Paragon,” she whispered to herself as she realized abruptly the source of her feelings. “Oh, ship, you have nothing to prove to anyone. Don’t let this become you. ”

  If he was aware of her thoughts, he gave no sign of it. Almost, she was glad to cloak her fear in his bravado. As she called down to Brashen the locations of the oncoming boats that he might steer to avoid them, Paragon was shouting for their blood. Amber had not armed him yet. He roared his threats and thrashed mightily, blindly flailing his arms as he sought for prey within his reach. As Althea watched from her rocking perch, two of the small boats slackened their efforts at the sight and sound of the infuriated figurehead. The other four came on unchecked. She could see them clearly now. The men wore red kerchiefs with a black sigil on their brows. Most of them had tattooed faces. Their mouths were wide as they yelled their own threats back at the ship and brandished swords.

  What was happening on Paragon’s deck was not so clear to Althea. Rigging and canvas blocked her view, but she could hear Brashen bellowing orders and curses. Althea continued to cry the positions of the small boats. She took heart that two of the little boats were already falling back. Perhaps they might just slip by all of them. Brashen gave orders intending to evade them, but the wild leaning of the figurehead was thwarting the steersman’s efforts. From her perch, Althea heard Amber’s voice raised clearly once. “I decide!” she declared emphatically to someone.

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  BRASHEN’S HEART SANK WITHIN HIM. NONE OF THE CREW’S TRAINING SEEMED to be bearing fruit. He glanced about for Lavoy. He was supposed to be commanding the archers. The mate should also be bringing the deck under control, but the man was nowhere to be seen. There wasn’t time to find him: Brashen needed the crew to function now. They raced about like unruly children playing a wild game. At this first challenge, most of them had reverted to being the waterfront scum he had recruited in Bingtown. He recalled with chagrin his orderly plan: one set of men to defend the ship, a second ready to attack, whilst a third saw to the sailing of the ship. The railing should have been lined with a row of archers by now. It wasn’t. He estimated that perhaps half his crew recalled what they were supposed to be doing. Some gawked, or leaned over the railing shouting and making bets as if they were watching a horse race. Others shouted insults at the pirates, and shook weapons at them. He saw two men squabbling like schoolboys over a sword. The ship was the worst of all, wallowing about instead of answering the helm. With every instant, the pirates drew closer.

  He abandoned the distance a captain kept from his crew. Haff on the wheel seemed to be the only man focused on his task. Brashen moved swiftly about the deck. A well-aimed kick broke up one group of gawkers. “To your posts,” he snapped at them. “Paragon!” he bellowed. “Straighten yourself!” Five steps carried him to where the men were pawing through the arms. The two squabblers he seized by their collars, knocked their heads together, and then armed them both with less desirable blades. The sword they had fought over he kept for himself. He glanced about. “Jek! You’re in charge of passing out weapons. One to a man, and if anyone doesn’t take what he’s offered, he does without. The rest of you, get in line!” He ordered aloft three men who were hanging back, bidding them watch and cry down to him all they saw. They sprang to with a will, gladly giving up their weapons to those more anxious to fight.

  Brashen berated himself for not foreseeing this chaos. As their cries and Althea’s shouts told him the positions of the advancing boats, he shouted his orders to the man on the wheel and the crew working the rigging. He judged that they would be able to evade the smaller boats, but not by much. As for the larger vessel behind him, well, the same wind filled her sails as his. He had a lead, and should be able to keep it. Paragon was a liveship, damn it. He should be able to outrun anything he had a lead on. Yet for all that, the ship’s responses lagged, as if Paragon resisted the crew’s efforts to speed him along. Dread uncoiled inside Brashen. If Paragon did not pick up speed, the smaller boats would close with him.

  In a matter of minutes, Brashen had the ship’s deck crew working smoothly. As the chaos subsided, he glanced about for Lavoy. Where was the man whose job he’d been doing?

  He spotted Lavoy headed for the foredeck. Even more unnerving than the previous disorder was the small, orderly group of men around Lavoy. Composed mostly of the former slaves they had smuggled out of Bingtown, this group flanked the first mate as if they were his personal escort. They carried both bows and swords. They ranged themselves on the foredeck. Purpose was in Lavoy’s stride as he paced it. Brashen felt an irrational flash of anger. The way the men moved around Lavoy told all. This was Lavoy’s elite crew. They answered to him, not Brashen.

  As Brashen crossed the deck, his coat snagged on something. He spun in annoyance to free it, and found a flush-faced Clef hanging on to him. The boy held a long knife in his right hand and his blue eyes were wide. He quailed at Brashen’s stern look but did not let go of his jacket. ” ‘m watchen your back, Cap’n,” he announced. A disdainful toss of his head indicated Lavoy and the men around him. “Wait,” Clef suggested in a lowered voice. “Jes’ watch ‘em for a minute. ”

  “Let go,” Brashen ordered him in annoyance. The boy complied, but followed him as closely as a shadow as Brashen headed for the foredeck.

  “Come here! I’ll kill you all! Come closer!” Paragon shouted gleefully at the pirates in the small boats. His voice was deeper and hoarser than Brashen had ever heard it. If not for the volume of the words, he would not have known it was his ship. He felt Paragon’s bloodlust himself for an instant; a boy’s wild determination to prove himself spiked with a man’s drive to crush any who opposed him. It chilled him, and his spine grew colder as he heard Lavoy’s wild shout of laughter. Was Lavoy unknowingly feeding off Paragon’s wild emotions?

p; The mate goaded the ship on. “You bet we will, laddie. I’ll cry you where to strike and you knock them. Give him his staff, woman! Let him show these rogues what a Bingtown liveship can do!”

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  “I decide!” Amber’s voice was not sharp, but the pitch of it made it carry. “The captain put me in charge of this. I decide when the ship needs a weapon. We’ve been ordered to flee, not fight. ” He thought he heard an edge of fear in her voice, but the cold anger masked it well. In a quiet, earnest voice, he heard her exhort Paragon, “It’s not too late. We can still outrun them. No one has to die. ”

  “Give me my staff!” Paragon demanded, his voice going shrill on the last word. “I’ll kill the bastards! I’ll kill them all!”

  Brashen could see them now, a tableau on the foredeck. Amber stood, Paragon’s long staff gripped in both hands. Lavoy’s stance was confrontational, but despite his words and the men at his back, he hadn’t dared to set a hand on the staff. Amber looked past him to Paragon.

  “Paragon!” Amber pleaded. “Do you truly want blood on your decks again?”

  “Give it to him!” Lavoy urged. “Don’t try to hide a whole ship behind your skirts, woman! Let him fight if he wants to! We don’t need to run. ”

  Paragon’s answer was interrupted by a different sound. Behind Brashen, a grapple thudded to the deck, rattled across it and caught for an instant in the railing before it fell back into the water. Eager shouts rang out from below, and another grapple was thrown.

  “Boarders!” Haff cried out. “Starboard aft!”

  Brashen put steel in his voice as he swiftly mounted the foredeck. “Lavoy! Get aft. Repel those boarders! Archers. To the railing and hold the boats off us. Paragon. Answer the helm, with no wallowing. Are you a ship or a raft? I want us out of here. ”

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