Ship of destiny, p.22
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       Ship of Destiny, p.22

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  There was the tiniest pause before Lavoy answered, “Aye, sir!” As he moved aft to obey, his hearties went with him. Brashen could not see what glance passed between Amber and Lavoy as he passed her, but he marked the white pinch of Amber’s lips. Her clenched hands tightened on the weapon she had shaped for the ship. He wondered what she would have done if Lavoy had tried to take it. Brashen stored the incident in his mind, to deal with later. He stepped to the railing, and leaned over it to shout at the figurehead.

  “Paragon! Stop thrashing about and sail. I’d rather put these vermin behind us than fight them. ”

  “I won’t flee!” Paragon declared wildly. His voice went boyish and broke on the words. “Only cowards run! There’s no glory in running from a fight!”

  “Too late to run!” Clef’s excited voice piped from behind. “They’ve caught us, sir. ”

  In dismay, Brashen spun to survey Paragon’s deck. Half a dozen boarders had already gained the deck in two places. They were practiced fighters, and they held their formation, keeping a clear place behind them for their fellows swarming up the grappling lines. For now, the invaders sought only to defend the small gain they had made, and they did it very well. Brashen’s inexperienced fighters got in one another’s way as they attacked as a mob. Even as he watched, another grapple fell to the deck, slid and caught. Almost as soon as it was secure, he saw a man’s hand reaching for the top of the railing. His own men were so busy fighting those on board they did not even notice this new threat. Only Clef leaped away from him, to charge across the main deck and confront the men coming up. Brashen was horrified.

  “All hands, repel boarders!” he roared. He turned back to Paragon. “We’re not ready for this yet! Ship, they’ll take us if you don’t get us clear of them. Make him see reason!” he shouted at Amber.

  He sprang away to follow Clef, but to his dismay, Althea was there before him. As the boy darted his knife at the man trying to come over the railing, Althea tugged vainly at the grappling hook. The three-tined hook was set well into the railing, and the weight of the men swarming up the line attached to it only encouraged the metal to bite deeper into the wood. A shot of chain fastened directly behind the hook prevented the defenders from simply cutting the hook free. Before Brashen could reach them, Clef gave a wild scream and thrust frenziedly with his knife. It bit deeply into the throat of the grinning pirate who had just thrown an arm over the railing. The blood gouted dark red, spouting past the man’s beard to drench both Clef and Althea before spattering onto the deck. A deep shout from Paragon told Brashen the ship had felt it. The dying man fell backward. Brashen heard the impact as he crashed heavily in the small boat below. Cries told him the falling body had done damage.

  Brashen shouldered Althea aside. “Stay safe!” he ordered her. “Get back!” He swung one leg over the railing, and locked the other through it, so he straddled it firmly. He thrust down with his sword, slashing the face of a pirate who still clung to the line. Fortune had favored them. The falling man had near swamped the boat below and knocked down the man who had been bracing the line. As the second pirate lost his grip and fell, Brashen saw his chance. He sprang back to the deck and jerked the grapple loose. With a triumphant cry, he threw it down into the sea. He spun about, grinning, expecting Althea and Clef to share his victory. Instead, Althea’s face was twisted with anger. Clef still looked numbly at the knife in his hands and the blood that coated them. A shout from aft turned his head. The fight was not going well there. He leaned down and shook Clef’s shoulder. “Think later, boy! Come on, now. ”

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  His words broke the boy from his trance, and he followed as Brashen charged down the deck. It seemed to him that in the same moment the ship suddenly picked up momentum. He felt a moment of relief that Althea had not followed him as he plunged into the battle. Three of his own men were down, rolling and punching with a pirate as if this were a tavern brawl. He sprang past them to engage the blade of a tattooed man with a gleaming bald pate. Brashen let the man parry his blade easily so that he could lunge past him and spear his true target: the pirate who was just flinging a leg over the railing. As the man fell back, clutching his chest, Brashen paid for his audacity. The bald pirate slashed at him, a cut that Brashen almost evaded by flinging himself to one side. He felt the blade tug at his shirt as the fabric parted. An instant later, a line of fire down his ribs seared him with pain. He heard Clef’s hoarse cry of horror, and then the boy plunged into the thick of it. He came in low, jabbing at the man’s feet and calves. The astonished pirate leaped backward to avoid the boy’s cuts. Brashen surged to his feet, thrusting his blade before him two-handed. As he came up, the tip of his blade found the bald man’s breast and bit deep. The man hit the railing and tipped backward over it, screaming as he fell.

  Brashen and Clef had broken the magic circle of the defending pirates. His crew surged forward, turning the battle into a brawl. This was fighting they understood; they piled atop the remaining pirates, kicking and stamping. Brashen dragged himself clear of the melee and glanced about his deck. Aloft, the men were yelling that the pirate ship was falling behind as Paragon found his speed. A quick dash to the starboard side showed him that Lavoy and his men seemed to have handled their share of the attackers. Two of his crew were down, but still moving. Three of the pirates were still on Paragon’s deck, but their comrades below in the boat were shouting at them to jump, to give it up.

  Shouts from the bow alerted him to another boarding party. He’d have to trust that Lavoy could finish aft. Brashen raced forward with Clef still at his heels. Six men had gained Paragon’s deck. For the first time, Brashen clearly saw the black sigil on their red head scarves. It was a spread-winged bird. A raven? Kennit’s sign? They held their swords at the ready, defending the set grapple behind them. Yet from below came calls from their comrades. “Give it up! Cap’n’s flagging us back!” The boarding party stood indecisively, obviously reluctant to lose what they had gained.

  Althea was menacing them with a sword. Brashen swore under his breath; at least she’d had the good sense not to close with them. Amber was nearby, holding a blade competently if not aggressively. Lop, of all people, was backing Althea with a staff. Lavoy had proclaimed that he’d never trust the man with an edged weapon. The tall man grinned enthusiastically, clacking the end of the staff against the deck, and his wild-eyed battle enthusiasm seemed to make at least one of the pirates nervous.

  “We can still take this ship!” roared one pirate on the deck. Sword still at the ready, he shouted down to the boat below. “Get up here! They have set women to fight us off. Ten of us could take the whole ship!” He was a tall man. The old slave tattoo on his face had been overneedled with a spread-winged bird.

  “Go now!” Amber’s words cut through the wind, her tone oddly compelling. “You can’t win here. Your friends have abandoned you. Don’t die trying to take a ship you can never hold. Flee now, while you can. Even if you kill us, you can’t hold a liveship against his will. He’ll kill you. ”

  “You lie! Kennit took a liveship, and he lives still!” one of the men declared.

  A wild roar of laughter broke out from the figurehead. The boarders on the deck could not see Paragon, but they could hear him, and feel the deck rock as he thrashed his arms wildly back and forth. “Take me!” he challenged them. “Oh, do. Come aboard, my little fishes. Come and find your deaths in me!”

  The ship’s madness was like a wave in the air, like a scent that could not be snorted away. It touched them all with clammy hands. Althea blanched and Amber looked sickened. The crazy grin faded from Lop’s face like running paint, leaving only madness in his eyes.

  “I’m gone,” one of the boarders declared. In a breath, he had stepped over the railing and slid away down the rope. Another followed him without a word. “Stand with me!” their leader bellowed, but his men didn’t heed him. They fled over the side, like startled cats. “Damn you! Damn
you all!” the last man declared. He turned toward the rope, but Althea advanced on him suddenly. Her blade challenged his. Below, his men roared out to him to hurry, that they were leaving. On the deck, Althea suddenly declared, “We keep this one, to ask him what he knows of Kennit! Amber, throw the grappling hook over; Lop, help me hold him. ”

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  Lop’s idea of holding him was to swing his staff in a mighty arc that brushed mortally near Amber’s skull before cracking sharply against the pirate’s head. The tattooed man went down and Lop began to dance a wild victory jig. “I got him, hey, I got one!”

  STAY SAFE. THE WORDS WERE LIKE BARBS SET IN ALTHEA’S MIND. EVEN AS SHE moved through the routine tasks aimed at restoring order and calm to the deck, the words rankled bitterly in her soul. Despite all, Brashen still considered her a vulnerable female to be kept out of harm’s way. Stay safe, he had told her, and then he had taken her task for himself, jerking loose the grapple that had defied her lesser strength. Humiliating her by showing her that she was, despite all her efforts, unreliable. Incompetent. Clef had witnessed it all.

  It was not that she longed to fight and kill. Sa knew, her bones were still shaking from that first encounter. From the moment the invaders had begun to swarm up Paragon’s side, she had been tight with anxiety. Still, she had kept going. She hadn’t frozen up; she hadn’t shrieked or fled. She had done her best to fulfill her duties. But that hadn’t been enough. She wanted Brashen to respect her as a fully capable sailor and ship’s officer. He had made it obvious that he didn’t.

  She left the deck and climbed the rigging, not only to check for pursuit, but also to have a moment of silence and solitude. The last time she had felt such anger, Kyle had been at the root of it. She could scarcely believe that Brashen had stung her in just the same way. For an instant, she leaned her forehead against a thrumming line and shut her eyes. She had thought that Brashen respected her; more, that he cared for her. Now this. It made it all the more bitter that she had carefully preserved her distance from him, standing apart from him when she desired to be close to him, to prove herself independent and strong. She had assumed that they remained at arm’s length to preserve discipline on the ship. Could it be that he simply saw her as a distraction, an amusement to set aside while they were under way? All was denied to her. She could not present herself as a woman who desired him, nor as a shipmate who deserved his respect. What, then, was she to him? Baggage? An unwanted responsibility? When they were attacked, he had not treated her as a comrade who could aid him, but as someone he must protect while attempting to defend his ship.

  Slowly she descended the mast, then dropped the last few feet to the deck. Some small part of her felt she was, perhaps, being unfair. But her larger disposition, agitated by the pirates’ attack, did not care. Facing men armed with swords who would have gladly killed her had transformed her. Bingtown and all that was safe and noble had been left more than leagues behind her. This was a new life now. If she was going to survive in this world, she needed to feel competent and strong, not protected and vulnerable. The lecturing voice inside her head was suddenly stilled as she came face-to-face with a truth. This was why her anger at Brashen raged so hot. When he had acknowledged her weakness, he had forced her to see it as well. His words had eaten at her self-confidence like serpent-spittle. Her makeshift courage, her stubborn will to fight and act as if she were the physical equal of the men challenging her had been dissolved away. Even at the last, it had been Lop who took down her man for her. Lop, little more than a half-wit, was still more valuable than she was during a fight, simply because of his size and brawn.

  Jek prowled up to her, cheeks still flushed from the fighting. Her grin was wide and self-satisfied. “Cap’n wants to see you, about the prisoner. ”

  It was hard to look up at Jek’s self-assured face. At the moment, Althea would have given near anything to have the larger woman’s size and strength. “Prisoner? I thought we had several. ”

  Jek shook her head. “When Lop swings that staff, he means business. The man never awoke. His eyes swelled out and he began to jerk. Then he died. A pity, as I believe he was the leader of the boarding party. He probably would have been able to tell us the most. The men Lavoy was guarding tried to go over the side. Two made it, and one died on the deck. But one fellow survived. The captain intends to question him and wants you to be there. ”

  “I’ll go now. How did you fare during the boarding?”

  Jek grinned. “The captain put me in charge of passing out the weapons. I think he could see I was keeping my head better than some of the others. I didn’t have much of a chance to use a blade, though. ”

  “Maybe next time,” Althea promised her dryly. The tall woman gave her a puzzled glance, as if she had rebuked her, but Althea only asked, “Where are they? In the captain’s chamber?”

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  “No. On the foredeck. ”

  “Near the figurehead? What is he thinking?”

  Jek had no answer; Althea hadn’t really expected one. Instead, she hurried forward to see for herself. As she drew near, she was displeased to see Brashen, Amber and Lavoy already gathered with the prisoner. She felt slighted. Had Brashen sent for the others before her? She tried to push her anger and jealousy away, but they seemed to have taken root. She spoke not a word as she mounted to the foredeck.

  The sole remaining prisoner was a young man. He had been pummeled and throttled when he was taken, but other than bruises and swelling, he did not seem much harmed. Several slave tattoos crawled over his cheek. He had a thick thatch of wild brown hair that his red kerchief could not tame. His hazel eyes looked both frightened and defiant. He sat on the deck, his wrists bound behind him, his ankles chained together. Brashen stood over him, Lavoy at his shoulder. Amber, her lips pinched tight, stood back from the group. She did not hide her disapproval. A handful of crewmen loitered on the main deck to watch the interrogation. Clef was among them. Althea glared at him but the boy’s wide eyes were fixed on the prisoner. Only two of the tattooed crewmen were there. Their faces were stoic, their eyes cold.

  “Tell us about Kennit. ” Brashen’s voice was even, but his tone was that of a man who was repeating himself.

  The pirate seated on the deck stared ahead stolidly. He didn’t speak a word.

  “Let me have a go, Captain,” Lavoy begged, and Brashen did not forbid it. The brawny first mate crouched down beside the man, seized the hair on top of his head and forced him to meet his gaze.

  “It’s this way, bonny boy,” Lavoy growled. His grin was worse than a snarl. “You can be useful and talk to us. Or you can go over the side. Which is it?”

  The pirate took a short breath. “Whether I talk or not, I go over the side. ” There was half a sob to his words, and he suddenly looked younger to Althea.

  But his response roused cruelty rather than pity in Lavoy. “Talk, then. No one will know you did, and maybe I’ll knock you over the head before I let you sink. Where’s this Kennit? That’s all we want to know. That’s his emblem you’re wearing. You got to know where he docks. ”

  Althea shot Brashen an incredulous look. There was substantially more that she wanted to know. Had any of Vivacia’s crew survived? How fared Vivacia? Were there any hopes of ransoming her? But Brashen spoke not a word. The bound man shook his head. Lavoy slapped him, not hard, but the open-handed cuff was enough to knock the prisoner over. Before he could right himself, Lavoy seized him by the hair and dragged him back to a sitting position. “I didn’t hear you,” he sneered at him.

  “Are you going to-” Amber began furiously, but Brashen cut her off with an abrupt “Enough!” Brashen advanced to stand over the prisoner. “Talk to us,” he suggested. “Tell us what we need to know, and maybe you don’t have to die. ”

  The pirate took a ragged breath. “I’d rather die than betray Kennit,” he said defiantly. A sudden shake of his head ripped it from Lavoy’s grip.

  “If he’d rather die,” Paragon suddenly offered, “I can assist him with that. ” His voice boomed suddenly louder. The malice in it raised the hair on the back of Althea’s neck. “Throw him to me, Lavoy. He’ll talk before I give him to the sea. ”

  “Enough!” Althea heard herself echo Brashen’s word.

  She advanced to the prisoner and crouched down to be on eye level with him. “I’m not asking you to be disloyal to Kennit. ” She spoke softly.

  “What do you think you’re do-” Lavoy began in disgust, but Brashen cut him off.

  “Step back, Lavoy. This is Althea’s right. ”

  “Her right?” The first mate was both incredulous and furious.

  “Shut up or leave the foredeck. ” Brashen’s voice was flat.

  Lavoy subsided, but his color remained high.

  Althea didn’t spare either of them a glance. She stared at the prisoner until he lifted his eyes to meet hers. “Tell me about the liveship Kennit took. Vivacia. ”

  For a time, the man just looked at her. Then his nostrils narrowed and the skin around his mouth pinched white. “I know who you are. ” He spat out the words. “You’ve the look of the priest-boy. You could be his twin. ” He turned his head and spat on the deck. “You’re a damn Haven. I tell you nothing. ”

  “I’m a Vestrit, not a damn Haven,” Althea replied indignantly. “And the Vivacia is our family ship. You spoke of Wintrow, my nephew. He lives, then?”

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  “Wintrow. That was his name. ” The man’s eyes glinted fiercely. “I hope he is dead. He deserves death and not a swift one. Oh, he pretended to kindness. Bringing us a bucket of salt water and a rag, crawling around the filthy hold as if he was one of us. But it was all an act. All the time, he was the captain’s son. Many of the slaves said we should be grateful to him, that he done for us what he could, and that when we did break loose, it was because of him. But I think he was a damn spy all along. Otherwise, how could he have looked at us and left us chained down there that long? You tell me that. ”

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