Ship of destiny, p.30
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       Ship of Destiny, p.30

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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  The second time she encountered him, he had the grace to be discomfited. He halted before her, and made some inconsequential comment about the storm. She agreed it was unpleasant, and made to move past him.

  “Althea. ” His voice stopped her.

  She turned back to him. “Sir?” she asked correctly.

  He stood staring at her. His face was a study in shifting flats and shadows in the swinging light from the ship’s lantern. She saw him blink cold rain from his eyes. Served him right. He had no real errand to bring him out on the deck in this weather. She watched him grope for an excuse. He took a breath. “I wanted to let you know that at the end of your watch, I’ll be lifting the restriction on speaking to the figurehead. ” He sighed. “I’m not sure it made any impression on him. Sometimes I fear that isolation will only drive him more deeply into defiance. So I’ll be lifting that order. ”

  She nodded once. “So you said. I understood, sir. ”

  He stood there a moment longer, as if expecting her to say more. But there was nothing more for the second mate to say to the captain about this announcement. He was about to change an order; she would see her crew obeyed it. She continued to give him her attention until he nodded briefly and then walked away from her. After that, she had gone back to her work.

  So they would be allowed to speak to Paragon again. She was not sure if she was relieved or not. Perhaps it would lift Amber’s spirits. The carpenter had brooded darkly since Paragon had killed. When they spoke of it, she always blamed Lavoy for it, insisting that the mate had incited the ship to it. Althea personally could not disagree, but neither could a second mate agree with such a statement. Therefore, she had held her tongue, which had only exasperated Amber.

  She wondered what Amber would say the first time she spoke to Paragon. Would she rebuke him, or demand that he explain himself? Althea knew what she, personally, would do. She would treat it as she had treated all of Paragon’s sins. She would ignore it. She would not speak of it to the ship, any more than she had ever really spoken of how he had twice capsized and killed all his crew. Some acts were too monstrous to recognize with words. Paragon knew how she felt about what he had done. He was an old liveship, built with much wizardwood throughout his frame. She could touch no piece of it without communicating her horror and dismay to him. Sadly, all she felt in response from him was defiance and anger. He felt justified in what he had done. He was angry that no one else shared that emotion. She added that to her unending list of mysteries about Paragon.

  She made another slow circuit of the deck, but found nothing to fault. It would have been a relief to discover some simple task. Instead, she found her thoughts turning to Vivacia. With every passing day, her hopes of recovering her ship dwindled. Her pain at being separated from her liveship was old pain now. It ached deep within her, like an injury that would not heal. Sometimes, as now, she prodded it, as if she were rocking an aching tooth. She dwelt on it to stir it to new flames, simply to prove her soul was still alive. If only she could recover her ship, she told herself, all would be well. If she had Vivacia’s decks beneath her feet, none of her other worries would matter. She could forget Brashen. Tonight her dream of regaining her ship seemed a hopeless one. From what that boy had said before Paragon killed him, Kennit would not be open to a ransom offer, especially not a humble one. That left only force or deceit. The crew’s haphazard defense of Paragon during the pirate attack had left her with little confidence in their ability to force anyone to do anything.

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  Deceit remained. Yet, the idea of pretending that they were runaways from Bingtown with hopes of becoming pirates struck her as material for a stage farce rather than a plan of action. In the end, it might prove worse than ridiculous or useless. It might play right into Lavoy’s hands. Plainly, he and his tattooed crew savored the idea. Did he hope to take it one step further, to take over Paragon and truly use him as a pirate vessel? To playact the role would inevitably put the idea into every sailor’s mind. The Bingtown dock-scrapings they had taken as crew would not harbor strong moral opposition to such a change in career and goal. As for the ship himself, she no longer knew.

  This whole adventure had revealed facets to Paragon’s character that she had never suspected. Time was what she needed, time to concoct a better plan, time to understand this poor, mad ship. But time burned through her hands like a wild line. Every watch carried them closer to Divvytown, Kennit’s stronghold.

  The rain let up toward morning. As her watch ended, the sun broke through the cloud cover, sending broad streaks of light down to touch the water and the islands that dotted it. The wind began to bluster and shift. She ordered her watch to assemble to hear Brashen’s change in orders as Lavoy’s men came on deck. Lavoy glowered at her in passing, but his hostility no longer surprised her. It was part of her job.

  When all hands were mustered onto the deck, Brashen spoke his piece. She listened impassively as he lifted his ban on speaking to the figurehead. As she had expected, Amber’s face expressed her relief. When Brashen went on to move men off her watch to order to shift the former slaves onto it, she managed to hold her peace. Without even consulting her, he had undone her careful efforts to make her watch operate as efficiently as possible. Now, as they sailed deeper every day into pirate territory, he had made her responsible for men she scarcely knew, men that perhaps Lavoy had been inciting to mutiny. A fine addition to her watch. She seethed silently, but gave no sign of her outrage.

  When Brashen was finished, she dismissed her sailors to food and sleep or whatever other amusement they could find. Her anger had killed her appetite. She went directly to her stateroom, wishing it were truly her own rather than a tiny space shared with two others. For once, it was empty. Jek would be eating and Amber was probably with Paragon already. She knew a moment of guilt that she avoided the figurehead. Then she centered herself in her anger and decided it was for the best. She had removed not only Brashen from her softer emotions, but also the ship and Amber. It was simpler so, and better. She could function most efficiently as a mate when she let no personal considerations stand between her and her tasks.

  Sleep, she decided, was what she needed. She had pulled her rain-dampened shirt out of her trousers and started to drag it over her head when there was a rap at the door. She hissed in annoyance. “What is it?” she demanded through the wood. Clef’s voice said something quietly outside the door. She pulled her shirt back on, snatched the door open and demanded, “What?”

  Clef took two steps back. “Cap’n wants to see you,” he blurted. His startled face was a dash of cold reality. She took a breath and smoothed her features.

  “Thank you,” she said brusquely, and shut the door again. Why couldn’t Brashen have taken care of whatever it was when she was mustered on deck with the others? Why did he have to cut into what little privacy and sleep she could find? She stuffed her shirttail back into her trousers and slammed out of the room.

  “ENTER!” BRASHEN CALLED IN RESPONSE TO THE THUDDING ON HIS DOOR. He looked up from his charts, expecting Lavoy or one of his sailors with important news. Instead, Althea entered and strode up to stand before him.

  “You sent Clef for me, sir. ”

  His heart sank in him. “I did,” he acknowledged and then could find no words. After a moment, “Sit down,” he invited her, but she took the chair stiffly as if he had ordered it. She sat, meeting his eyes with an unflinching gaze. Captain Ephron Vestrit had always been able to stare him down.

  “When your father looked at me like that, I knew I was in for a private reprimand that would leave my ears smoking. ”

  At the shocked look on her face, he realized he had spoken the words aloud. He was horrified, yet fought a wild impulse to laugh at her expression. He leaned back in his chair and managed to keep his face composed and his voice level as he added, “So why don’t you just say it and we’ll be done with it?”

  She glare
d at him. He could see the pressure building in her. His invitation was too much for her to resist. He braced himself as she took a deep breath as if she would roar at him. Then, surprisingly, she let it out. In a quiet controlled voice that still shook slightly, she said, “That’s not my place, sir. ”

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  “Sir. ” She was keeping it formal, yet her tension vibrated through him. He deliberately nudged at it, determined to clear the air between them. “I believe I just gave you permission. Something is troubling you. What is it?” At her continued silence, he found his own temper rising. “Speak!” he snapped at her.

  “Very well, sir. ” She bit off the words, her black eyes flashing. “I find it difficult to perform my duties when my captain obviously has no respect for me. You humiliate me in front of the crew, and then expect me to keep my watch in order. It isn’t right and it isn’t fair. ”

  “What?” he demanded, outraged. How could she say such things, after he had taken her on as a working mate, entrusted his private plans to her, even consulted with her on what was best for the vessel? “When have I ever ‘humiliated you in front of the crew’?”

  “During the battle,” she grated out. “I was doing my best to repel boarders. You not only stepped in and took the task from me, but also said to me, ‘Get back. Stay safe. ’ ” Her voice was rising with her anger. “As if I were a child you must shelter. As if I were less competent than Clef, who you kept by your side. ”

  “I did not!” he defended himself. Then he halted his words at the flare of fury on her face. “Did I?”

  “You did,” she said coldly. “Ask Clef. I’m sure he remembers. ”

  He was silent. He could not recall saying such words, but he did recall the lurch of fear in his heart at the sight of Althea in the midst of the fighting. Had he said such a thing? His heart sank with guilt. In the heat of battle and the chill of fear… probably, he had. He imagined the affront to her pride, and her confidence. How could he say such a thing to her in the midst of a fight, and expect her to keep her self-respect? He deserved her anger. He moistened his lips. “I suppose I did. If you say I did, I know I did. It was wrong. I’m sorry. ”

  He looked up at her. His apology had shocked her. Her eyes were very wide. He could have fallen into their depths. He gave a small shake of his head and a smaller shrug. She continued simply to look at him, silently. The simple sincerity of his apology had cracked his restraint with her. He struggled desperately to retain his control. “I have great faith in you, Althea. You’ve stood beside me and we’ve faced crimpers and serpents…. We put this damn ship back in the water together. But during the battle, I just…” His voice tightened in his throat. “I can’t do this,” he said suddenly. He lay his hands, palms up, on the table and studied them. “I can’t go on like this anymore. ”

  “What?” She spoke slowly, as if she hadn’t heard him correctly.

  He surged to his feet and leaned over the table. “I can’t go on pretending I don’t love you. I can’t pretend it doesn’t scare me spitless to see you in danger. ”

  She shot to her feet as if he had threatened her. She turned from him but two strides carried him to stand between her and the door. She stood like a doe at bay. “At least hear me out,” he begged. The words rushed out of him. He wouldn’t consider how stupid they would sound to her, or that he could never call them back again. “You say you can’t perform your duties without my respect. Don’t you know the same is true for me? Damn it, a man has to see himself reflected somewhere to be sure he is real. I see myself in your face, in how your eyes follow me when I’m handling something well, in how you grin at me when I’ve done something stupid but managed to make it come out all right anyway. When you take that away from me, when…”

  She just stood there, shocked and staring. His heart sank. His words came out as a plea. “Althea, I am so damn lonely. Worst is to know that whether we fail or succeed, I still lose you. Knowing that you are, every day, here on the same ship with me, and I cannot so much as share a meal with you, let alone touch your hand, is torment enough. When you will not look at me or speak to me… I can’t go on with this coldness between us. I can’t. ”

  Althea’s cheeks were very pink. Her rain-soaked hair was just beginning to dry, pulling out of her queue in curling tendrils that framed her face. For an instant, he had to close his eyes against the sweet pain of wanting her. Her words, broke through to him. “One of us has to be sensible. ” Her voice was very tight. She was standing right in front of him, not even an arm’s length away. She wrapped her arms tightly around herself as if she feared she might fly apart. “Let me pass, Brashen. ” Her voice was a whisper.

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  He couldn’t. “Just… let me hold you. Just for a moment, and then I’ll let you go,” he pleaded, knowing he lied.

  HE WAS LYING AND THEY BOTH KNEW IT. JUST FOR A MOMENT WOULD NEVER be enough for either of them. Her breath was coming hard, and when his callused palm touched her jaw, she was suddenly dizzied. She reached out a hand to his chest, just to steady herself, perhaps even to push him away, that was all, she would not be so stupid as to allow this, but his flesh was warm through his shirt and she could feel his heart beating. Her traitor hand clutched the fabric and pulled him closer. He stumbled forward and then his arms were around her, holding her so tightly she could scarcely breathe. For a time, they did not move. Then he sighed out suddenly as if a pain had eased in him. He spoke softly, “Oh, Althea. Why must it always be so complicated for us?”

  His breath was warm against the top of her head as he kissed her hair gently. Suddenly, it all seemed very simple to her. When he bent to kiss her ear and the side of her neck, she turned her mouth to meet his and closed her eyes. Let it happen, then.

  She felt him tug her shirt loose from her trousers. The skin of his hands was rough but his touch was gentle as his hands slid up under her shirt. One hand cupped her breast, then teased the tautness of her nipple. She could not move, and then she could. Her hands found his hips and snugged him against her.

  He broke the kiss. “Wait,” he cautioned her. He took a breath. “Stop. ”

  He had come to his senses. She reeled with disappointment as he turned away from her. He walked to the door. With shaking hands, he bolted it. Returning, he caught up her hand. He kissed the palm of it, let it go and then stood silently, looking down on her. For an instant, she closed her eyes. He waited. She decided. She took his hands in both of hers and drew him gently toward his bed.

  AMBER WAS SPEAKING GRAVELY AND SLOWLY. “l DON’T THINK YOU FULLY understood what you did. That is why I can forgive you. But this is the only time. Paragon, you have to learn what it means to a man to die. I don’t think you grasp the finality of what you did. ” The storm wind buffeted her but she clung to his railing and waited for a reply. He tried to think of something to say that would make her happy. He didn’t want Amber to be sad at him. Her sadness, when she let him feel it, went deeper than any human’s. It was almost as grievous as his own.

  Paragon turned all his senses inward, seeking. Something was happening. Something dangerous, something frightening. He had known this before, and he braced himself for the wrenching agony and shame of it. When humans came together like that, it always meant pain for the weaker one. What had made Brashen so angry with her? Why was she allowing it, why wasn’t she fighting him? Was she so frightened of him she could not resist?

  “Paragon. Are you listening to me?”

  “No. ” He drew a small breath through his open mouth. He didn’t understand this. He had thought he knew what this meant. If Brashen did not mean to punish her, if he was not trying to master her with pain, then why was he doing this? Why was Althea allowing it?

  “Paragon?”

  “Shh. ” He clenched his hands into fists and held them tight to his chest. He would not scream. He would not. Amber was talking at him but he closed off his ears and tuned his ot
her senses. This was not what he had thought it was. He had thought he understood humans and how they hurt one another, but this was different. This was something else. Something he could almost recall. Timidly, he shut the eyes he no longer had. He let his thoughts float, and felt ancient memories soar in him.

  ALTHEA HELD BRASHEN CLOSE TO HER AND FELT HIS HEART THUNDERING IN his chest. He gasped for breath beside the side of her neck. His hair was across her face. Her fingers gently walked the long ridge of the scarcely healed sword slash down his ribs. Then she set her hand flat to it, as if she could mend it with a touch. She sighed. He smelled good, like the sea and the ship and himself. When she held him, she held all those things within her. “Almost,” she breathed softly. “Almost, I thought we were flying. ”

  Liveship Traders 3 - Ship of Destiny

  CHAPTER THIRTEEN - Surviving

  “MAMA? WE CAN SEE BINGTOWN HARBOR NOW. ”

  Keffria lifted her aching head from the pillow. Selden stood in the doorway of the small stateroom they shared on the Kendry. She had not truly been asleep. She had simply been curled around her misery, trying to find out how to live with it. She looked at her son. His lips were chapped, his cheeks and brow reddened and chafed by the wind. Ever since his misadventures in the buried city, there had been a distant look behind his eyes, as if he were in some way lost to her, even as he stood before her. Selden was her last living child. That should have made her desperate to cherish him. She should have wanted him by her side every moment. Instead, it numbed her heart to him. Best not to love him too much. Like the others, he could be taken from her at any time.

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  “Are you coming to see? It looks really strange. ” Selden paused. “Some of the people on deck are crying. ”

 
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