Ship of destiny, p.29
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       Ship of Destiny, p.29

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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  She had left humanity’s hovels behind her. If she must live alone, she would live near Kelsingra. Game was plentiful there, and the land firm enough to land upon without sinking to her knees. Should she desire shelter from the elements, the ancient structures of the Elderlings would provide it. She had many years ahead of her. She might as well spend them where there was at least a memory of splendor.

  As she flew through the steady downpour, she watched the banks of the river for game. She had small hope of finding anything alive. The river ran pale and acid since the last quake, deadly to anything not scaled.

  Far upriver of Trehaug, she spotted the struggling serpent. At first, she thought it was a log being rolled downstream by the river’s current. She blinked and shook rain water from her eyes, and stared again. As the scent of serpent reached her, she dropped down from the heights to make sense of what she saw.

  The river was shallow, a rushing flow of milky water over rough stone. This, too, was a divergence from her memory. Once this river had offered a fine deep channel that led far inland to cities such as Kelsingra and the farming communities and barter towns beyond it. Not only serpents but great ships had navigated it with ease. Now the battered blue serpent struggled feebly against the current in waters that did not even cover it.

  She circled twice before she could find a stretch of river where she could land safely. Then she waded downriver, hastening to the pitiful spectacle of the stranded serpent. Up close, its condition was wrenching. It had been trapped here for some time. The sun had burnt its back, and its struggles against the stony bed of the river had left its hide in rags. Once its protective scaled skin was torn, the river water had eaten deep sores into its flesh. So beaten was it that she could not even tell its sex. It reminded her of a spawned-out salmon, exhausted and washed into the shallows to die.

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  “Welcome home,” she said, without sarcasm or bitterness. The serpent regarded her with one rolling eye, and then suddenly redoubled its efforts to flail its way upstream. It fled from her. There was no mistaking its panic, nor the death stench upon it.

  “Gently, gently, finned one. I have not come to harm you, but to aid you if I can. Let me push you into deeper water. Your skin needs wetting. ” She spoke softly, putting music and kindness into her words. The serpent stopped struggling, but more from exhaustion than calm. Its eyes still darted this way and that, seeking an escape its body was too weary to attempt. Tintaglia tried again. “I am here to welcome you and guide you home. Can you speak? Can you understand me?”

  For reply, the serpent lifted its head out of the water. It made a feeble attempt to erect its mane, but no venom welled. “Go away,” it hissed at her. “Kill you,” it threatened.

  “You are not making sense. I am here to help you. Remember? When you come up the river to cocoon, dragons welcome you and aid you. I will show you the best sand to use to make your cast. My saliva in your cocoon will bestow the memories of our kind. Do not fear me. It is not too late. Winter is upon us, but I will guard you well for the cold months. When summer comes, I will scratch away the leaves and mud that have covered you. The sun will touch your cocoon, and it will melt. You shall become a lovely dragon. You will be a Lord of the Three Realms. I promise you this. ”

  It lidded its dull eyes, then opened them slowly. She could see the distrust war with desperation. “Deeper water,” the serpent pleaded.

  “Yes,” Tintaglia agreed. She lifted her head and glanced about. But there was no deeper water, not unless she dragged the poor creature downstream, and there it would find no food, nor anywhere to make its cocoon. The city of Trehaug marked the first cocooning ground. It had been swallowed by the rising water level. There had been another, not that much farther upstream. But the river had shifted in its wide bed, and ran shallow and stony past the once- rich banks of silver-banded sandy mud. How was she to help the serpent reach there? Once there, how to get mud, water and serpent together, so that the serpent could ingest the liquefied muck to secrete its cocoon?

  The serpent lifted its weary head and gave a low trumpet of despair. Tintaglia felt driven to act. She had lifted and carried two humans effortlessly, but the serpent was near her equal in weight. When she attempted to drag it into a slightly deeper channel of water near the river’s bank, her talons scored its softened flesh and sank deep into its open wounds. The creature screamed and thrashed wildly. Its lashing tail knocked Tintaglia staggering. She caught her balance by dropping to all fours. As she did so, her groping foot encountered something smooth, hard and rounded in the bed of the river. It turned and cracked under her weight. Obeying a sudden impulse, she hooked her claws under it and dragged it up to the surface.

  A skull. A serpent’s skull. The acid water of the river had etched the heavy bone to brittleness; it fragmented in her claws. She searched the shallows with heartsick certainty. Here were three thick spine bones, still clinging together. Another skull there. She clawed the bottom and came up with ribs and a jawbone, in various stages of decomposition. Some still had bits of cartilage clinging to their joints; others were polished smooth or eaten porous. The bones of her race were here. Those who had managed to recall this much of their migration route had met this final obstacle and perished here.

  The hapless serpent lay on its side now, wheezing its pain. The few drops of toxin it could muster ran from its mane into its own eyes. Tintaglia stalked over and stood looking down on it. The creature briefly lidded its great eyes. Then it gasped out a single word.

  “Please. ”

  Tintaglia threw back her head and gave shattering voice to her anger and hatred of the moment. She let the fury run free in her, let it cloud her mind and eyes to a scarlet haze. Then she granted its request. Her powerful jaws seized the serpent’s neck just below its toxin-dripping mane. With a single savage bite, she severed its spine. A quivering ran through it and the tip of its tail slashed and spattered the water. She stood over it as it finished dying. Its eyes spun slowly a final time. Its jaws open and shut spasmodically. Finally, it was still.

  The taste of the serpent’s blood was sharp and poignant in her jaws. Its pale toxins stung her tongue. In that instant, she knew his lifetime. Momentarily, she was him, and she trembled with exhaustion and pain. Permeating all was confusion. As Tintaglia regained herself, the utter futility of the serpent’s life left her shaken. Time after time, his body had responded to the signs that told him to migrate and change. She could not tell how often the pathetic creature had left the rich feeding grounds of the south and migrated north.

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  As she bent her neck and consumed his flesh, all became clear to her. His store of memories was added to her own. If the world had been turning as it should, she would have passed his memories on to her offspring, along with her own. Someone would have profited from his mis-spent life. He would not have died in vain. She saw all he had seen and been. She knew all his frustrations, and was with him as frustration degenerated to confusion and finally bestiality. At every migration, he had searched for familiar seascapes and One Who Remembers. Time after time, he had been disappointed. Winters had driven him south again, to feed and replenish his bodily reserves, until the turning of the years would once more send him north. This she could know, from her dragon’s perspectives. That the serpent had made it this far with only the memories of his serpent pasts was little short of a miracle. She looked down at his stripped bones, the foulness of his flesh in her mouth. Even if she had been able to help him to deeper water, he would still have died. The mystery of the sea serpents who fled from her was solved. She clawed up more bones and studied them idly. Here were her folk; here was her race. Here was the future and here was the past.

  She turned her back on the remains of the serpent. Let the river devour him as it had so many others. Doubtless it would eat others yet, until none remained. She was powerless to change it. She could not make the river run de
eper here, nor change its course to take it close once more to the banks of silver-shot earth. She snorted to herself. Lords of the Three Realms. Rulers of Earth, Sea and Sky, yet masters of none of them.

  The river was chilling her, and the acid kiss of its water was beginning to itch. Even her tightly scaled skin was not impervious to it when it ran this strong. She waded away from the bank to the center of the river, where there was open sky overhead, stretched forth her wings, set her weight back onto her hindquarters. She leapt, only to come down heavily in the water once more. The gravel had shifted under her clawed feet, spoiling her impetus. She was tired. For a moment, she longed for the hard-packed landing sites the Elderlings had lovingly prepared for their winged guests. If the Elderlings had survived, she reflected, her race would still flourish. They would have circumvented this shallow place in the river for the sake of their dragon-kin. But the Elderlings had died off, and left pathetic humanity as their heirs.

  She had crouched to attempt another leap when the thought shivered over her. Humans built things. Could humans dredge the river out, could they channel the flow of water through this stretch to make it deep enough for a serpent? Could they coax the river to flow once more near the silvery earth needed for proper cocooning? She considered what she had seen of their works.

  They could. But would they?

  Resolve flooded her. She leapt mightily and her beating wings caught her weight and lifted her. She needed to kill again, to take the foul taste of the serpent’s spoiled flesh from her mouth. She would do so, but while she did, she would think. Duress or bribe? Bargain or threaten? She would consider every option before she returned to Trehaug. The humans could be made to serve her. Her kind might still survive.

  THE RAP ON HIS STATEROOM DOOR WAS JUST A TRIFLE TOO HARD. BRASHEN SAT up straight in his chair, setting his teeth. He cautioned himself against jumping to conclusions. Taking a deep breath, he said quietly, “Enter. ”

  Lavoy came in, shutting the door firmly. He had just come off watch. His oilskins had kept him somewhat dry, but when he took his cap off, his hair was slicked wet to his head. The storm was not savage, but the driving insistence of the rain was demoralizing. It chilled a man to the bone. “You wanted to see me,” Lavoy greeted him.

  Brashen noted the lack of a “sir. ”

  “Yes, I did,” he agreed smoothly. “There’s rum on the sideboard. Take the chill off. Then I wish to give you some instructions. ” The rum was a courtesy, due any mate during such a cold storm. Brashen would extend it to him, even as he prepared to rake him over the coals.

  “Thank you, sir,” Lavoy replied. Brashen watched the man as he poured out his jot and tossed it off. That had lowered the mate’s guard. There was less surliness in his manner as he approached Brashen’s table and stood before it. “Instructions, sir?”

  He phrased it carefully. “I wish to make clear in advance how my orders are to be followed, specifically as regards yourself. ”

  That stiffened the man again. “Sir?” he asked coldly.

  Brashen leaned back in his chair. He kept his voice flat. “The crew’s performance during the pirate attack was abysmal. They were fragmented and disorganized. They need to learn to fight as a unit.

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  “I ordered you to mingle the former slaves with the rest of the crew. This has not been done to my satisfaction. Therefore, I now direct you to shift them to the second mate’s watch and let her integrate them. Make it clear to them that this is not due to any dissatisfaction with their performance. I don’t want them to believe they are being punished. ”

  Lavoy took a breath. “They’re like to take it that way. They’re used to working for me. They may be surly about the change. ”

  “See that they aren’t,” Brashen ordered succinctly. “My second direction has to do with talking to the figurehead. ” Lavoy’s eyes widened, only briefly, only slightly, but enough to make Brashen sure. Lavoy had already disobeyed that order. His heart dropped another notch. It was worse than he had feared. He kept his voice steady as he went on, “I am about to lift my order forbidding the crew from speaking to Paragon. I wish you to understand, however, that you are still barred from talking with him. For reasons of discipline and ship’s morale, I will allow you to keep that restriction a private matter between you and myself. Nevertheless, I will not tolerate even the appearance of your violating it. You are not to converse with the figurehead. ”

  The mate’s hands knotted into fists. His veneer of respect was thin as he growled, “And may I ask why, sir?”

  Brashen made his voice flat. “No. You don’t need to. ”

  Lavoy struggled to act like an innocent man. A mask of martyred protest came over his face. “I don’t know what you’re about, sir, or who’s been talking ill of me. I’ve done nothing wrong. How am I to do my job if you step between the crew and me? What am I supposed to do if the ship speaks to me? Ignore him? How can I-“

  Brashen wanted to wring the man’s neck, but he kept his seat and managed to keep the demeanor of a captain. “If the job is beyond you, Lavoy, say so. You may step down from it. There are other capable hands aboard. ”

  “Meaning that woman. You’d pull me down and let her step up to first mate. ” His eyes went black with fury. “Well, I’ll tell you something. She wouldn’t make it through her first watch as mate. The men wouldn’t accept her. You and she can pretend she has what it takes, but she doesn’t. She’s-“

  “Enough. You have your orders. Go. ” It was all Brashen could do to remain in his chair. He didn’t want this to end in blows. Lavoy wasn’t a man who learned from a beating; he’d only carry a grudge. “Lavoy, I took you on when no one else would have you. What I offered you was clear: a chance to prove yourself. You still have that chance. Become the first mate you’re capable of being. But don’t try to be more than that on this ship. Take my orders and see that they’re carried out. That is your only task. Do less, and I’ll have you put off the ship the first chance I get. I won’t keep you on as an ordinary sailor. You wouldn’t allow that to work for any of us. You can think about what I’ve said. Now get out. ”

  The man glared at him in ponderous silence, then turned and walked toward the door. Brashen spoke for a final time. “I’m still willing to let this conversation remain a private matter. I suggest you do the same. ”

  “Sir,” Lavoy said. It was not agreement. It was bare acknowledgment that Brashen had spoken. The door closed behind him.

  Brashen leaned back in his chair. His spine ached with tension. He had not solved anything. He had, perhaps, bought himself more time. He grimaced to himself. With his luck, he could hold it all together until it fell apart in Divvytown.

  He sat for a time, dreading his final task for the night. He had spoken to Paragon and confronted Lavoy. He still needed to straighten things out with Althea, but the ship’s taunt came back to him: so angry her fury had gone from hot to cold. He knew exactly what the ship meant and didn’t doubt the truth of his words. He tried to find the courage to summon her, then abruptly decided he’d wait until the end of her watch. That would be better.

  He went to his bunk, pulled off his boots, loosened his shirt and flung himself back on it. He didn’t sleep. He tried to worry about Divvytown and what he could do there. The specter of Althea’s cold fury loomed darker than any pirate’s shadow. He dreaded the encounter, not for what words she might fling at him, but for how much he desired the excuse to be alone with her.

  THE RAIN WAS NASTY, COLD AND PENETRATING, BUT THE WIND THAT DROVE IT was steady. Althea had put Cypros on the wheel tonight. The duty demanded little more than that he stand there and hold it steady. Jek was on lookout on the foredeck. The downpour of rain might loosen drift logs from the surrounding islands. Jek had a keen eye for such hazards and would warn the steersman well in advance of them. Paragon preferred Jek to the others on her watch. Although Brashen had forbidden anyone to speak to the figurehead,
she had the knack of making silence companionable rather than accusing.

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  As Althea prowled the deck, she chewed over her problems. Brashen, she told herself stubbornly, was not among them. Letting a man distract her from her real goals had been her greatest error. Now that she knew his true opinion of her, she could set him aside and focus all her efforts on regaining her own life. Once she stopped thinking about the man, everything became clear.

  Since the day of the battle, Althea had raised her own expectations of herself. It did not matter that Brashen regarded her as incompetent and weak, as long as she held herself to a high personal standard. She now centered her life on the ship and seeing that it ran perfectly. She had tightened discipline on her own watch, not with blows and shouts as Lavoy did, but with simple insistence that every task be done exactly as she commanded, and had uncovered both weaknesses and strengths in her deckhands. Semoy was not fast, but he had a deep knowledge of ships and their ways. During the first part of this voyage, he had suffered greatly from being separated from a bottle. Lavoy had pushed the old man onto her watch as a useless annoyance with shaky hands, but now that he had his sea legs again, Semoy had proved to know a great many tricks about rigging and line. Lop was simple and dealt poorly with decision-making or stress, but at the tedious and routine chores of sailing a ship, he was tireless. Jek was the opposite, quick and relishing challenges, but swift to become bored and then careless with repetitive work. Althea flattered herself that she now had her watch well matched to their tasks. She had not had to speak sharply to anyone for two days.

  So there was little excuse for Brashen to appear on the deck during her watch when he should have been sleeping. She could have forgiven it if the storm had been taxing her crew to the utmost, but the weather was only nasty, not dangerous. Twice she encountered him on her patrol of the deck. The first time he had met her eyes and offered her “Good evening. ” She had returned the courtesy gravely and continued on her way. She had noted he was on his way to the foredeck. Perhaps, she had reflected ironically, he was “watching” Jek at her duties.

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