Ship of destiny, p.26
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       Ship of Destiny, p.26

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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  “We have both. Just because we are Three Ships does not mean we don’t have our letters,” Ekke said. A tart note had come into her voice. She rose briskly to bring Ronica a sheet of serviceable paper, a quill and ink.

  Ronica took up the quill, dipped it and paused. Speaking as much to herself as to Rache, she said, “I must pen this carefully. I need not only to ask his aid, but to tell him tidings that concern all of Bingtown, tidings that need to reach many ears quickly. ”

  “Yet I noticed you haven’t offered to share them here,” Ekke observed.

  “You are right,” Ronica agreed humbly. She set her pen aside and lifted her eyes to Ekke’s. “I scarcely know what my news will mean, but I fear it will affect us all. The Satrap is missing. He had been taken upriver, into the Rain Wilds, for safety. All know none but a liveship can go up that river. There, it seemed, he would be safe from any treachery from New Traders or Chalcedeans. ”

  “Indeed. Only a Bingtown Trader could get to him there. ”

  “Ekke!” her father rebuked her. To Ronica he said with a frown, “Tell on. ”

  “There was an earthquake. I know little more than that it did great damage, and for a time he was missing. Now the word is that he was seen in a boat going down the river. With my young granddaughter, Malta. ” The next words came hard. “Some fear that she has turned him against the Old Traders. That she is a traitor, and has convinced him that he must flee his sanctuary to be safe. ”

  “And what is the truth?” Sparse demanded.

  Ronica shook her head. “I don’t know. The words I overheard were not meant for me; I could not ask questions. They spoke something about a threatened attack by a Jamaillian fleet, but said too little for me to know if the threat is real or only suspected. As for my granddaughter…” For an instant, her throat closed. The fear she had refused suddenly swamped her. She forced a breath past the lump in her throat, and spoke with a calmness she did not feel. “It is uncertain if the Satrap and those with him survived. The river might have eaten their boat, or they may have capsized. No one knows where they are. And if the Satrap is lost, regardless of the circumstances, I fear it will plunge us into war. With Jamaillia, and perhaps Chalced. Or just a civil war here, Old Trader against New. ”

  “And Three Ships caught in the middle, as usual,” Ekke commented sourly. “Well, it is as it is. Pen your letter, lady, and I shall carry it. This is news, it seems to me, that it is safer spread than kept secret. ”

  “You see quickly to the heart of it,” Ronica agreed. She took up the quill and dipped it once more. But as she set tip to paper, she was not only thinking of what words would bring Grag here most swiftly, but of how difficult it was going to be to forge a lasting peace in Bingtown. Far more difficult than she had first perceived. The quill tip scratched as it moved swiftly across the coarse paper.

  Liveship Traders 3 - Ship of Destiny

  CHAPTER ELEVEN - Bodies and Souls

  THE DAWN SUNLIGHT GLINTED FAR TOO BRIGHTLY OFF THE WATER. THE COARSE fabric of Wintrow’s trousers chafed his raw skin. He could not bear a shirt. He could stand and walk alone now, but became giddy if he taxed himself at all. Even limping to the foredeck was making his heart pound. As he made his slow journey, working crewmen slowed to stare at him, then, with false heartiness, congratulated him on his recovery. Scarred enough to make a pirate flinch, he told himself caustically. The crewmen were sincere in their good wishes to him. He was truly one of their own now.

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  He ascended the short ladder to the foredeck, two feet to each step. He dreaded confronting the gray and lifeless figurehead, but when he reached the railing and looked down on her renewed colors, his heart leapt. “Vivacia!” he greeted her joyously.

  Slowly she turned to him, her black mane sweeping across her bare shoulders. She smiled at him. The swirling gold of a dragon’s eyes gleamed above her red lips.

  He stared at her in horror. It was like seeing beloved features animated by a demon. “What have you done to her?” he demanded. “Where is she?” His voice cracked on the words. He gripped the railing tightly as if he could wring the truth out of the dragon.

  “Where is who?” she responded coolly. Then she slowly blinked her eyes. They went from gold to green to gold again. Had he, for an instant, glimpsed Vivacia looking out of those orbs? As he stared at her, the colors of her eyes whirled slowly and mockingly. Her scarlet lips bent in a taunting smile.

  He took a breath and fought to speak calmly. “Vivacia,” he repeated doggedly. “Where is she now? Do you imprison her within yourself? Or have you destroyed her?”

  “Ah, Wintrow. Foolish boy. Poor foolish boy. ” She sighed as if sorry for him, then looked away over the water. “She never was. Don’t you understand? She was just a shell, a muddle of memories that your ancestors tried to impose on me. She wasn’t real. As a result, she isn’t anywhere, not imprisoned in me nor destroyed. She is like a dream I had, and part of me, I suppose, in the sense that dreams are part of the dreamer. Vivacia is gone. All that was hers is mine now. Including you. ” Her voice went hard on the last two words. Then she smiled again and put warmth in her voice as she added, “But let us forego such inconsequential chatter. Tell me. How are you feeling today? You look so much better. Though I believe you would have to be dead to look worse than you did. ”

  Wintrow did not dispute that. He had seen himself in Kennit’s shaving mirror. Every trace of the fresh-faced boy who had wanted to be a priest was gone. What his father had begun, with his amputated finger and his tattooed face, he had well and truly completed himself. His face, hands and arms were splotched red, pink and white. In some spots, he would heal and his skin would tan and look almost normal. But on his hand and his cheek and along his hairline, the dead-white skin was taut and shiny. Likely, it would always remain so. He refused to allow it to distress him. There was no time to be concerned with himself now.

  She turned away from him to stare ahead at the islands of the barrier. They would come soon to the rocky shallows and scattered upthrusts in the treacherous passage between Last Island and Shield Island. “Ah, but I could show you how to repair those scars. The knowledge is there, buried in the back of your mind, coated over and hidden from you. Poor little thing, with no more than the memory of your fifteen short summers. Reach out to me. I’ll show you how to heal yourself. ”

  “No. ”

  She laughed. “Ah, I see. This is how you profess your loyalty to ‘Vivacia. ’ By refusing to touch minds with me. A feeble tribute, but likely the best you can manage. I could force you, you know. I know you as no one else can. ” For a crawling moment, he felt the presence of her mind twined through his. She did not reach out for him; rather she let him sense that she was already there. Then she let her awareness of him go dormant again. “But, if you would rather remain disfigured…” She did not bother to finish the thought.

  Longing devoured him. He could recall the intense satisfaction he had felt at consciously directing his body’s repair while he slept in the dragon. Awake and alive once more, he could not sink his consciousness deep enough to attain that control over himself. Could she teach him to find that mastery at will? His desire for that knowledge went far beyond freedom from pain and erasing his latest scars. Could she show him how to expel the tattoo’s ink from his face? Teach him to regenerate his lost finger as well? Once learned, could he use this skill for others? It would be the unlocking of a great mystery. All his life, Wintrow had loved knowledge, loved the pursuit of knowledge. She could not have chosen better bait to tempt him.

  “Such a healer as you could be. Consider. I could persuade Kennit to let you go. You could return to your monastery, to your simple and satisfying service to Sa. You could have your own life back again. You could serve your god, with a clean conscience. With Vivacia gone, there is no real reason for you to be here. ”

  She had almost had him. He had felt his heart soaring on her words,
but the last sentence brought him painfully back. With Vivacia gone. Gone where?

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  “You want me to go. Why?” he asked quietly.

  A flashing glance of her swirling gold eyes. “Why do you ask?” she asked tartly. “Isn’t it what you have dreamed of, since you were forced aboard the ship? Did not you constantly fling that at Vivacia? ‘But for you, my father would not have taken me from my priesthood. ’ Why do you not simply take what you want and leave?”

  He thought for a time. “Perhaps what I truly want does not involve me leaving. ” He considered her carefully. “I think that you make it too attractive to me. So I ask myself, what do you gain by my departure? The only thing I can think of is that it would somehow weaken Vivacia within you. Perhaps if I were not here, she would surrender and become quiescent in you. Sa knows, something in me cries out for her. Perhaps she longs for me as well. While I live and I am here, some part of Vivacia lives. Do you fear that my presence will call her up again? You struggled hard to defeat her. She nearly dragged you into death. You did not conquer her by much. ”

  Certainty grew in him. “You once said yourself that we three are closely intertwined; the death of any one of us would threaten the other two. Vivacia still lives within you, and all that lives is of Sa. My duty to my god is here, as is my duty to Vivacia. I shall not give her up so easily. If being healed by you means surrendering Vivacia, then I refuse the healing. I will stay scarred. I say this to you and I know that she hears it also. I shall not give her up at all. ”

  “Stupid boy. ” The figurehead made a show of casually scratching the back of her neck. “How dramatic you are! How stirring! If there was anything to be stirred, that is. Wear your scars then, as a pathetic tribute to someone who never was. Let them be the last trace of her existence. Do I wish you to go? Yes, and the reason is that I prefer Kennit. He is a better mate for my ambitions. I wish Kennit to partner me. ”

  “You do, do you?” Etta’s voice was cool and low.

  Wintrow startled, but the figurehead appeared only amused.

  “As do you, I am sure,” the ship murmured. She let her eyes walk over Etta. An approving smile curved her mouth. She dismissed Wintrow from her attention to focus on Etta. “Come closer, my dear. Is that silk from Verania? My, he does spoil you. Or perhaps he spoils himself, in how he displays his treasure to all. In that color, you gleam like a rich gem in an exotic setting. ”

  Etta’s hand rose, almost self-consciously, to finger the deep blue silk of her shirt. A moment of uncertainty passed over her face. “I don’t know where the fabric originated. But it came to me from Kennit. ”

  “I am almost certain we are looking at Veranian silk here. The finest that there is, but doubtless he would offer you no less than that. When I was in my proper shape, I had no need for fabrics, of course. My own sweet skin flashed and shone more beautifully than anything human hands could make. Still, I know something of silk. Only in Verania could they make that shade of dragon blue. ” She cocked her head at Etta. “It quite becomes you. Your coloring favors bright hues. Kennit is right to deck you in silver rather than gold. Silver sparkles against you, where gold would merely be warm. ”

  Etta touched the bangles at her wrist. A deeper blush touched her cheeks. She ventured a step or two closer to the railing. Her eyes met the dragon’s and for a time they seemed entranced with one another. Wintrow felt excluded. To his surprise, a shiver of jealousy passed over him. He did not know if it was Vivacia he did not wish to share with Etta, or Etta he wished to keep from the dragon.

  Etta gave a small shake of her head, as if to break a glamour. It set her sleek black hair swinging. She looked at Wintrow and a slight frown creased her forehead. “You should not be out in the sun and the wind. It peels the skin from flesh that is trying to heal still. You should stay in your cabin for at least another day. ”

  Wintrow looked at her closely. Something was awry here. Such solicitude was not her usual manner with him. He would more expect her to tell him that he ought to be toughening himself rather than convalescing. He tried to read her eyes, but she looked past him, not meeting his stare.

  The dragon was blunter. “She would like to speak to me privately. Leave, Wintrow. ”

  He ignored the dragon’s command and spoke to Etta. “I would not trust much of what she says. We have not yet heard the truth about Vivacia. Legends are rife with the dangers of conversing with dragons. She will tell you what she knows you want to…”

  She was suddenly there again, inside him. This time he felt her presence as a physical discomfort. His heart skipped a beat, then surged on unevenly. A sweat broke out on his forehead. He could not draw a full breath.

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  “Poor boy,” the dragon sympathized. “See how he sways, Etta. He is not at all himself today. Leave, Wintrow,” the dragon repeated. “Go rest yourself. Do. ”

  “Be careful,” he managed to gasp to Etta. “Don’t let her…” A giddying weakness overtook him. Nausea rose in him; he dared not speak lest he vomit. He feared he would faint. The day was suddenly painfully bright. He flung his arm across his eyes and staggered across the foredeck to the ladder. Darkness. He needed darkness and quiet and stillness. The need for those things overwhelmed all else in him.

  Only when he was in his own bunk did the symptoms recede. Fear replaced them. She could do this to him at any time. She could heal him, or she could kill him. How could he help Vivacia when the dragon had such power over him? He tried to seek comfort in prayer, but a terrible weariness overcame him and he sank into a deep sleep.

  ETTA SHOOK HER HEAD AFTER HIM. “LOOK AT HIM. HE CAN SCARCE WALK straight. I told him he needed to rest. And last night he drank far too much. ” She swung her gaze to meet the figurehead’s eyes. They swirled like molten gold, beautiful and compelling. “Who are you?” Her words were bolder than she felt. “You are not Vivacia. She never had a civil word for me. All she wanted was to drive me away that she might have Kennit for herself. ”

  A deeper smile curved the ship’s lush red lips. “At last. I should have known that the first sensible person I spoke to would be one of my own erstwhile sex. No. I am not Vivacia. Nor do I wish to drive you away, nor take Kennit from you. Think of the man that Kennit is. There need be no rivalry between us. He needs us both. It will take both of us to fulfill his ambitions. You and I, we shall become closer than sisters. Now. Let me think of a name you may call me by. ” The dragon narrowed her golden eyes, thinking. Then her smile grew wider. “Bolt. Bolt will do. ”

  “Bolt?”

  “One of my earliest names, in an ancient tongue, might be ‘Conceived in a Thunderstorm at the Instant of a Lightning Bolt. ’ But you are a short-lived folk, given to shortening every life experience in the hope of comprehending it. Your tongue would trip over so many words. So you may call me Bolt. ”

  “Have you no true name?” Etta ventured.

  Bolt flung back her head and laughed heartily. “As if I would tell it. Come, woman, to entrance Kennit, you must have more guile than that. You shall have to do better than to simply ask my secrets with an innocent face. ” A look of bemusement came briefly over her carved features. Then she called out, “Helmsman! Two points to starboard the channel deepens and the current is more favorable. Take us over. ”

  Jola was on the wheel. Without a word of question, he put the ship over. Etta frowned briefly to herself. What would Kennit think of that? Some time back, he had told the men that whoever was on watch should give as much heed to the ship’s commands as to his own. But that was before she had changed. As the ship took up the change in course, Etta felt her go more swiftly and smoothly. She lifted her face to the wind against her cheeks and her eyes scanned the horizon. Kennit said they were bound for Divvytown, but that would not stop him from taking prey along the way. Wintrow was recovering well; there was no need to hasten to a healer. Like as not, a healer could do little for him
. He would wear his scars to the end of his days.

  “You’ve the eyes of a hunter,” Bolt observed approvingly. She turned her great head to scan the horizon from side to side. “We could hunt well together, we two. ”

  An odd thrill ran down Etta’s spine. “Should not such words be given to Kennit, rather than me?”

  “To a male?” Bolt asked, a small stain of disdain on her laugh. “We know how males are. A drake hunts to fill his own belly. When a queen takes flight and seeks a kill, it is to preserve the race itself. We are the ones who know, from our entrails out, that that is the purpose of every movement we make. To continue our species. ”

  Etta’s hand went to her flat belly. Even clothed, she could feel the tiny bump of the skull charm on her navel ring. It, like the figurehead, was carved of wizardwood. Its purpose was to keep her from conceiving. She had worn it for years, ever since she had become a whore when she was little more than a girl. By now, it should seem a part of her. Yet of late it had begun to chafe and irritate, physically as well as mentally. Since she had found the small figurine of a babe on the Treasure Beach and inadvertently carried it off with her, she had begun to hear her own body’s questing for a child.

  “Take it off,” Bolt suggested.

  Etta settled into a great stillness. “How do you know about it?” she asked in a deadly quiet voice.

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  Bolt did not even glance back at her, but continued to peruse the open sea before them. “Oh, please! I have a nose. I can smell it on you. Take it off. It does no honor to the one it was once part of, nor you to put him to such a purpose. ”

  The thought that the charm had once been part of a dragon suddenly made Etta’s flesh crawl. She longed to take it off. However, “I must talk to Kennit first. He will tell me when he is ready for us to have a baby. ”

  “Never,” Bolt said flatly.

  “What?”

  “Never wait for a male on any such decision. You are the queen. You decide. Males are not made for such decisions. I have seen it time and time again. They would have you wait for days of sunshine and wealth and plenty. Yet to a male, enough is never sufficient, and plenty never reached. A queen knows that when times are hardest and game most scarce, that is when one must care most about the continuance of the race. Some things are not for males to decide. ” She lifted her hand and smoothed her hair back. She flashed Etta a confiding grin that was suddenly very human. “I’m still not used to hair. It fascinates me. ”

 
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