Ship of destiny, p.27
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       Ship of Destiny, p.27

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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  Etta found herself grinning in spite of herself. She leaned on the railing. It had been a long time since there had been another woman to talk to, let alone one who spoke as forthrightly as a whore herself. “Kennit is not like other men,” she ventured.

  “We both know that. You’ve chosen a good mate. But what is the good of that if it stops there? Take it off, Etta. Don’t wait for him to tell you to do it. Look around you. Does he tell each man when the time is right for his task? Of course not. If he had to do that, he might as well do every task himself. He is a man who expects others to think for themselves. I’ll venture a wager. Has he not already hinted to you that he needs an heir?”

  Etta thought of his words when she had shown him the carved baby. “He has,” she admitted softly.

  “Well, then. Will you wait until he commands you? For shame. No female should wait on a male’s command for what is our business. You are the one who should be telling him such things. Take it off, queen. ”

  Queen. Etta knew that by the term, the dragon meant no more than female. Female dragons were queens, like cats. Yet, when Bolt said the word, it teased to mind an idea that Etta scarcely dared consider. If Kennit were to be King of the Pirate Isles, what would that make her? Perhaps just his woman. But if she had his child, surely, then…

  Even as she rebuked herself for such ambitions, her hand slipped under the silk of her shirt to the warm flesh of her belly. The little wizardwood charm, shaped like a human skull, was strung on a fine silver wire. It fastened with a hook and loop. She compressed it with her fingers and it sprang open. She slipped it out, careful of the hook, and held it in her hand. The skull grinned up at her. She shivered.

  “Give it to me,” Bolt said quietly.

  Etta refused to think about it. She held it out in her hand, and when Bolt reached back, she dropped it into the ship’s wide palm. For a moment, it lay there, the silver wire glittering in the sun. Then, like a child gulping a sweet, Bolt clapped her cupped hand to her mouth. Laughing, she showed Etta her empty hand. “Gone!” she said, and in that instant, the decision was irrevocable.

  “What am I going to say to Kennit?” she wondered aloud.

  “Nothing at all,” the ship told her airily. “Nothing at all. ”

  THE TANGLE HAD GROWN IN NUMBERS UNTIL IT WAS THE LARGEST GROUP OF serpents claiming allegiance to a single serpent that Shreever had ever known. Sometimes they separated to find food, but every evening found them gathered again. They came to Maulkin in all colors, sizes and conditions. Not all could recall how to speak, and some were savagely feral. Others bore the scars of mishaps or the festering wounds of encounters with hostile ships. Some of the feral ones frightened Shreever in their ability to transcend all the boundaries of civilized behavior. A few, like the ghostly white serpent, made her hurt with the simmering agony they encompassed. The white in particular seemed frozen into silence by his anger. Nevertheless, one and all, they followed Maulkin. When they clustered together at night, they anchored into a field of swaying serpents that reminded Shreever of a bed of kelp.

  Their numbers seemed to reinforce their confidence in Maulkin’s leadership. Maulkin near-glowed now, his golden eyes gleaming the full length of his body. By their numbers, too, they provided what each might lack individually. They comforted one another with the memories each held, and often a word or a name from one would wake a recollection in another.

  Yet despite their numbers, they were no closer to finding the true migration path. The shared memories only made their wandering more frustrating. Tonight, Shreever could not rest. She untangled herself from her sleeping comrades, and allowed herself to drift free, staring down at the living forest of serpents. There was something tantalizingly familiar about this place, something just beyond the reach of her memory. Had she been here before?

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  Sessurea, sensitive to her moods from their long companionship, writhed up to join her. Silently he joined in her sweeping survey of the sea floor. They let their eyes open wide to the faint moonlight that reached these depths. She studied the lay of the land by the faint luminescence of both serpents and minute sea life. Something.

  “You are right. ” Those were the first words Sessurea spoke. He left her side to undulate gently down to a particularly uneven piece of sea bed. He turned his head back and forth slowly. Then, to her consternation, he suddenly grasped a large frond of seaweed in his jaws and tore it loose. He flung it aside, seized another mouthful and dealt with it likewise. “Sessurea?” she trumpeted questioningly, but he ignored her. Clump after clump of seaweed he tore free and discarded. Then, just as she was sure he had gone mad, he settled to the bottom, then lashed his tail wildly, disturbing the muck of decades.

  Her call and Sessurea’s strange antics had awakened some of the others. They joined her in staring down at him. He uprooted more seaweed and then thrashed again. “What is he doing?” asked a slender blue serpent.

  “I don’t know,” she replied woefully.

  As abruptly as he began, Sessurea ceased his mad writhing. He flashed swiftly up to join them. He sleeked himself through a grooming turn before wrapping her excitedly. “Look. You were right. Well, wait a bit, until the silt settles. There. Do you see?”

  For a time, she saw only drifting sediment. Sessurea was out of breath, his gills pumping with excitement. Then, a moment later, the blue beside her suddenly trumpeted wildly, “It’s a Guardian! But it cannot be here, in the Plenty. This is not right!”

  Shreever goggled in confusion. The blue’s words were so far out of context, she could not make sense of them. Guardians were guardian dragons. Were there dead dragons at the bottom of the sea? Then, as she stared, the vague shapes amidst the drifting silt suddenly took a new form. She saw. It was a Guardian, obviously a female. She sprawled on her side, one wing lifted, the other still buried in the muck. Three claws had broken off one raised forepaw. Part of her tail thrust up oddly beside her. The statue had been broken in a fall; that much was clear. But how had it come to be here, beneath the sea? It had used to stand above the city gates of Yruran. Then her eyes discovered a fallen column. And over there, that would have been that atrium that Desmolo the Eager had built, to house all the exotic plants his dragon friends had brought back to him from the four corners of the earth. And beyond it, the fallen dome of the Temple of Water.

  “The whole city is here,” she trumpeted softly.

  Maulkin was suddenly in their midst. “A whole province is here,” he corrected her. All eyes followed him down toward the revealed remnants of the world they could almost recall. He wove his way through them, touching first one and then another of the exposed landmarks. “We swim where once we flew. ” Then he rose slowly toward them. The entire tangle was awake now and watching his gentle undulations. They formed a living, moving sphere with Maulkin at the center. His body and his words wove together as he spoke.

  “We seek to return to our home, to the lands where we hunted and flew. I fear we are already here. When before we found a statue or an arch, I pretended that chance had tumbled a coastal building or two. But Yruran was far inland. Below us lie the sunken ruins. ” He looped a slow denial of their hopes. “This was no minor shaking of the earth. All features have changed beyond recognition. We seek a river to lead us home. But without a guide from the world above, I fear we shall never find it. No such guide has come to us. North we have been, and south we have been, and still we have not found a way that calls to us. All is too different; the scattered memories we have mustered are not sufficient to this task. We are lost. Our only hope now is One Who Remembers. And even that might not be enough. ”

  Tellur, a slender green serpent, dared to protest. “We have sought such a one, to no avail. We grow weary. How long, Maulkin, must we wander and yearn? You have mustered a mighty tangle, yet many as we are, we are few compared to what we once were. Have they all perished, the other tangles that should be swarming now? Are we
all that is left of our people? Must we, too, die as wanderers? Can it be, perhaps, that there is no river, no home to return to?” He sang his sorrow and despair.

  Maulkin did not lie to them. “Perhaps. It may be we shall perish, and our kind be no more. But we shall not go without a struggle. One last time we shall seek One Who Remembers, but this time we shall bend all our efforts to that quest. We shall find a guide, or we shall die trying. ”

  “Then we shall die. ” His voice was cold and dead, like thick ice cracking. The white serpent wove his way to the center of the serpents, to twine himself insultingly before Maulkin. Shreever’s mane stood out in horror. He was provoking Maulkin to kill him. His insolent postures invited death. All waited for judgment to fall on him.

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  But Maulkin held back. He himself wove his body in a larger pattern, one that encompassed the white’s insults, forbidding the others to act against him. He spoke no word, though his mane stood up and leaked a pale trail of toxins in the water as he swam. The silence and the poisons became a web around the white serpent. The white’s movements slowed; he hung as motionless as a serpent could be. Maulkin had asked him no questions, yet he answered angrily.

  “Because I have spoken with She Who Remembers. I was wild and mindless, as much a beast as any of the dumb ones who now follow you. But she caught me and she held me fast and she forced her memories on me until I choked on them. ” He spun in a swift vicious circle as if he would attack himself. Faster and faster he went. “Her memories were poison! Poison! More toxic than anything that ever flowed from a mane. When I recall what we have been, what we should be now and compare it to what we have become… I gag. I would disgorge this foul life we still embrace!”

  Maulkin had not paused in his silent, weaving dance. His movements formed a barrier between the white and the serpents that hung listening.

  “It is too late. ” The white trumpeted each word clearly. “Too many seasons have passed. Our time for changing has come and gone a score of times. Her memories are of a world long gone! Even if we could find the river to the cocooning grounds, there is no one to help us make our casts. They are all dead. ” He began to speak faster, his words gushing like a running river. “No parents wait to secrete their memories into our windings. We would come out of our metamorphosis as ignorant as we went in. She gave me her memories, and I tell you, they were not enough! I recognize little here, and what I do recall lies wrong. If we are doomed to perish, then let us lose our voices and our minds before we die. Her memories are not worth the agony I carry. ” His erect mane suddenly released a cloud of numbing toxins. He plunged his own face into it.

  Maulkin struck, as swift as if he were taking prey. His golden eyes flashed as he wrapped the white and snatched him away from his own poison. “Enough!” he roared. His words were angry but his voice was not. The foolish white struggled, but Maulkin squeezed him as if he were a dolphin. “You are but one! You cannot decide for the whole tangle, or for the whole race. You have a duty, and you will do it before you take your own silly, senseless life. ” Maulkin released a cloud of his own toxins. The white serpent’s angrily spinning scarlet eyes slowed and became a dull maroon. His jaws gaped open lazily as the toxins did their work. Maulkin spoke gently. “You will guide us to She Who Remembers. We have already absorbed some memories from a silver provider. If need be, we can take more. With what we shall gain from She Who Remembers, it may be enough. ” Unwillingly, he added, “What other choice have we?”

  KENNIT BALANCED BEFORE HIS MIRROR, TURNING HIS FACE FROM SIDE TO SIDE before his reflection. A sheen of lemon oil gleamed on his hair and trimmed beard. His moustache curled elegantly, but without pretense. Immaculate white lace cascaded down his chest and from the cuffs of his deep blue jacket. Even the leather of his stump cup had been polished to a high gloss. Heavy silver earrings dangled. He looked, he reflected, like a man ready to go courting. In a sense, he was.

  He had not slept well last night after his conversation with the ship. His damned charm had kept him awake, whispering and tittering, urging him to accept the dragon’s terms. That very urging unnerved Kennit the most. Dare he trust the damned thing? Dare he ignore it? He had tossed and turned, and when Etta had come to join him in his bed, even her gentle rubbing of his neck and back could not lull him to sleep. As dawn grayed the sky, he had finally dozed off. When he awakened, it was to discover this determination in himself. He would win the ship back to him, all over again. This time, at least, he would not have her attraction to Wintrow to overcome.

  He knew little of dragons, so he had focused on what he did know. She was female. So he would groom his plumage, offer gifts and see what it bought him. Satisfied with his appearance, he turned back to his bed and surveyed the trove there. A belt of silver rings decorated with lapis lazuli would be offered as a bracelet. If it pleased her, he had two silver bracelets that could be refitted as earrings for her. Etta would not miss them. A heavy flask held a quantity of wisteria oil. It had probably been bound to a Chalcedean perfumery. He had no idea what other sensory items might delight her. If these treasures left her unmoved, he would think of other tacks to take. But win her he would. He slipped his offerings into a velvet bag and tied it to his belt.

  He moved best with his hands free. He did not wish to appear awkward before her.

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  He encountered Etta in the hall outside his cabin, her arms heavy with fresh linens. Her gaze roved over him, so that he felt almost affronted by her frank appraisal, and yet the approval that shone in her eyes assured him he had succeeded in his preparations. “Well!” she observed, almost saucily. A smile touched her lips.

  “I go to speak to the ship,” he told her gruffly. “Let no one disturb us. ”

  “I shall pass the word immediately,” she agreed. Then, her smile widening, she dared to add, “You are wise to go thus. It will please her. ”

  “What would you know of such things?” he observed as he stumped past her.

  “I had words with her this morning. She was passing civil with me, and spoke openly of her admiration for you. Let her see you admire her as well, and it will tickle her vanity. Dragon she may be, yet she is female enough that we understand one another. ” She paused, then added, “She says we are to call her Bolt, as in lightning bolt. The name fits her very well. Light and power shine from her. ”

  Kennit halted. He turned back to face her. “What has brought about this new alliance?” he asked her uneasily.

  Etta cocked her head and looked thoughtful. “She is different, now. That is all I can say. ” She smiled suddenly. “I think she likes me. She said we could be like sisters. ”

  He hoped he concealed his surprise. “She said that?”

  The whore stood clutching the linens to her bosom and smiling. “She said it would take both of us for you to realize your ambitions. ”

  “Ah,” he said, and turned and stumped away. The ship had won her. Just like that, with a kind word or two? It did not seem likely to him. Etta was not a woman easily swayed. What had the dragon offered her? Power? Wealth? But an even more pressing question was why. Why did the dragon seek to ally herself with the whore?

  He found himself hurrying and deliberately slowed. He should not meet the dragon in haste. Calm down. Court her leisurely. Win her over, and then her friendship with Etta will be no threat.

  As soon as he came out on the deck, he sensed a transformation. Aloft, the men were working a sail change, bandying jests as they did so. Jola shouted another command, and the men sprang to it. One man slipped, and then caught himself by one brawny arm. He laughed aloud and hauled himself up again. From the figurehead came a cry of delight at his skill. In an instant, Kennit knew the sailor had not slipped at all. He was showing off for the figurehead. She had the entire crew displaying their seamanship for her approval. They cavorted like schoolboys for her attention.

  “What have you d
one, to affect them so?” he greeted her.

  She chuckled warmly and glanced back at him over one bare shoulder. “It takes so little to beguile them. A smile, a word, a challenge to see if they cannot raise a sail more swiftly. A little attention, a very little attention, and they vie for more. ”

  “I am surprised you deign them worthy of your notice at all. Last night, you seemed to have small use for any human being. ”

  She let his words slip by her. “I have promised them prey, before tomorrow sunset. But only if they can match their skills to my senses. There is a merchant vessel, not too far hence. She carries spices from the Mangardor Islands. We shall soon catch her up, if they keep my canvas tight. ”

  So she had accepted her new body, it seemed. He chose not to comment on that. “You can see this ship, beyond the horizon?”

  “I do not need to. The wind brought me her scent. Cloves and sandal-wood, Hasian pepper and sticks of kimoree. The smells of Mangardor Island itself; only a ship with a rich cargo could have brought such scents so far north. We should sight her soon. ”

  “You can truly smell so keenly?”

  A hunter’s smile curled her lips. “The prey is not so far ahead. She picks her way through those islands. If your eyes were as keen as mine, you could pick her out. ” Then the smile faded from her face. “I know these waters as a ship. Yet as a dragon, I do not. All is vastly changed from when I last took wing. It is familiar and yet not. ” She frowned. “Do you know the Mangardor Islands?”

  Kennit shrugged. “I know the Mangardor Rocks. They are a hazard in fog, and in some tides, they are exposed just enough to tear the bottom out of any ship that ventures near. ”

  A long troubled silence followed his words. “So,” she said quietly at last. “Either the oceans of the world have risen, or the lands I knew have sunk. I wonder what remains of my home. ” She paused. “Yet Others’ Island, as you call it, seemed but little changed. So some of my world remains as it was. That is a puzzle to me, one I can only resolve when I return home. ”

 

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