Ship of destiny, p.35
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       Ship of Destiny, p.35

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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  Paragon found himself smiling. “I am a magic ship. ”

  “I know. Oh, well do I know what a wonder you are. On a night such as this, moving swift and silent in the dark, I almost feel as if you could unfurl wings and lift us into the very sky itself. Do you not feel it, Paragon?”

  Of course he did. The unnerving part was that she felt it also, and put words to it. He did not speak of that. “What I feel is that the channel is deeper to starboard. Ease me over, just a bit. I’ll tell you when. ”

  Lavoy came up onto the deck. Paragon felt him pace aft to where Brashen held the wheel. There was anger in his stride, and aggression. Would it be tonight? Paragon wondered and felt a tightening of excitement. Perhaps tonight the two males would challenge one another, would circle and then strike, exchanging blows until one of them was prostrate and bleeding. He strained to hear what Lavoy would say.

  But Brashen spoke first. His soft deep voice carried cold through Paragon’s wood. “What brings you out on deck, Lavoy?”

  Paragon felt Lavoy’s hesitation. Fear, uncertainty, or simply strategy. He could not tell clearly. “I expected us to anchor all night. The change in motion woke me. ”

  “And now that you’ve seen what we’re about?”

  “This is mad. We could run aground at any moment, and then we’d be easy prey for whoever chanced upon us. We should anchor now, if we can do so safely, and wait for morning. ”

  Amusement tinged Brashen’s voice as he asked, “Don’t you trust our ship to guide us, Lavoy?”

  Lavoy sank his deep voice to a bare whisper and hissed a reply. Paragon felt a prickling of anger. Lavoy did not whisper for Brashen’s sake; he whispered because he did not wish Paragon to know his true opinion.

  In contrast, Brashen spoke clearly. Did he know Paragon would hear every word? “I disagree, Lavoy. Yes, I do trust him with my life. As I have every day since we started the voyage. Some friendships go deeper than madness or common sense. Now that you’ve expressed your opinion of your captain’s judgment and your ship’s reliability, I suggest you retire to your bunk until your watch begins. I’ve some special duties for you tomorrow. They may prove quite tiring. Good night to you. ”

  For five breaths longer, Lavoy lingered there. Paragon could imagine how they would stand, teeth bared, wings slightly uplifted, long powerful necks arched for the strike. But this time the challenger turned his eyes aside, bowing his head and lowering his wings. He moved slowly away, expressing his subservience, but grudgingly. The dominant male watched him go. Did Brashen’s eyes glitter and spin with triumph? Or did he know that this challenge was not settled, merely deferred?

  THEY DROPPED ANCHOR LONG BEFORE DAWN. THE RATTLING OF THE CHAIN WAS the loudest noise they had made since they left the river mouth. They had eased into place in the harbor, not too close to the three other ships secured there. All was quiet aboard the other vessels. Woe to whomever had been left on watch; surely, they’d be chastised tomorrow. Brashen had sent the crew below save for a carefully chosen anchor watch. Then he had ordered his second mate to join him on the afterdeck.

  Brashen stood at the railing and looked toward the lights of Divvytown. They glinted like yellow eyes through the fog, winking and then glittering as the fog drifted and changed. One puzzled him, a single light, brighter than the others and much, much higher. Had someone left a lantern burning at the top of a tree? That answer made no sense, so he pushed it aside. Dawn’s light would likely solve that mystery. The other scattered lights did not quite match his recollection of the town, but doubtless the fog had something to do with that. Divvytown, again. The noisome little town never slept. The fog carried odd bits of distorted sound to his ears. Cheerful shouts, a snatch of drunken song, a dog barking. Brashen yawned. He wondered if he dared to try for a few hours’ sleep before dawn revealed the Paragon and his crew to Divvytown.

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  Bare feet padded up softly behind him. “She’s not here,” Althea whispered disappointedly. “At least, I’ve seen no sign of her in the harbor…. ”

  “No. I don’t think Vivacia is anchored here tonight. That would have been expecting too much luck. But she was here the last time I was, and I think it likely she’ll be here again. Patience. ” He turned to her. In the concealing fog, he dared to catch her hand and pull her closer. “What were you imagining? That we’d find her here, tonight, and somehow manage to spirit her away without a fight?”

  “A child’s dream,” Althea admitted. Momentarily, she let her forehead rest against his shoulder. He wanted so badly to take her in his arms and hold her.

  “Then call me a child, for I had the same vain hope. That something could be simple and easy for us. ”

  She straightened with a sigh, and moved away from him. It made the damp night colder.

  Wistfulness twined through him. “Althea? Do you think there will ever be a time and place when things are simple and easy for us? A time when I can walk down the street with you on my arm under the light of day?”

  She answered slowly. “I’ve never allowed myself to look that far ahead. ”

  “I have,” Brashen said bluntly. “I’ve thought ahead to you captaining Vivacia and me still running Paragon. That’s the happiest ending we could expect from this quest. But then I ask myself, where does that leave us? When and where do we make a home for ourselves?”

  “Sometimes we’d both be in port at the same time. ”

  He shook his head. “That isn’t enough for me. I want you all the time, always at my side. ”

  She spoke quietly. “Brashen. I cannot allow myself to think of that just now. I fear that all my planning for tomorrow must begin with my family ship. ”

  “And I fear it will always be so. That all your plans will always begin with your ship. ” Abruptly he realized that he sounded like a jealous lover.

  Althea seemed to feel the same. “Brashen, must we speak of such things now? Cannot we, for now, be content with what we have, with no thoughts for tomorrow?”

  “I thought I was supposed to be the one to say such things,” he replied gruffly after a moment. “Still, I know that for now, I must be content with what I have. Stolen moments, secret kisses. ” He smiled ruefully. “When I was seventeen, I would have thought this the epitome of romance: covert passion aboard a ship. Furtive kisses on the afterdeck on a foggy night. ” With a step he swept her into his arms and kissed her deeply. He had not surprised her; had she been waiting for him to do this? She held nothing back; her body fitted sweetly against his. Her easy response stirred him so deeply he groaned with longing. Reluctantly, he separated his body from hers.

  He found a breath. “But I’m not a boy anymore. Now this just drives me mad. I want more than this, Althea. I don’t want suspense and quarrels and jealousy. I don’t want sneaking about and concealing what I feel. I want the comfort of knowing you are mine, and taking pride in everyone else recognizing that as well. I want you in my bed beside me, every night, and across the table from me in the morning. I want to know that years from now, if I stand on another deck somewhere, on another night, you will still be beside me. ”

  SHE TURNED TO LOOK UP AT HIM INCREDULOUSLY. SHE COULD BARELY PICK OUT his features. Was he teasing her? His voice had sounded serious. “Brashen Trell, are you proposing marriage to me?”

  “No,” he said hastily. There was a long uncomfortable silence. Then he laughed softly. “Yes. I suppose I am. Marriage, or something very like it. ”

  Althea took a long breath and leaned back on the railing. “You never cease to surprise me,” she observed shakily. “I… I don’t have an answer for you. ”

  His voice also shook, though she knew he tried for levity. “I suppose that’s all right, as I haven’t really asked the question yet. But when all this is over, I shall. ”

  “When all this is over, I’ll have an answer for you. ” She made the promise, knowing she had no idea what that answer would be. Frantically,
she pushed that worry to the back of her mind. Other things, she told herself, there were other, more pressing matters to deal with, even if those other matters did not make her heart shake as this had. She tried to quench her quick breathing and the yearning of her flesh.

  “What happens next?” she asked, gesturing toward the muted lights.

  He countered her question with another question. “Of those on board, who do you trust most? Name me two names. ”

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  That was effortless. “Amber and Clef. ”

  His short laugh was rueful. “And my answer is the same. Who do you trust least?”

  Again she did not need to pause. “Lavoy and Artu. ”

  “Then they are off the list of those we take ashore. We won’t take our problems with us, nor leave them unattended on the ship. ”

  We. She liked the sound of that. “Who are we taking, then?”

  He didn’t hesitate. “Jek. Cypros and Kert. I’d like to take one or two of your former slaves, to give the impression that we’re a mixed crew. You’ll have to choose them. ” He paused, thinking. “I’m leaving Lop with Amber. I’ll let Haff know that he is to back her if she asks him to. I’ll give her the word that if there’s any trouble at all, from inside or outside the ship, Lop is to row Clef ashore to find us. ”

  “You’re expecting trouble from Lavoy?”

  He made a disparaging noise. “Not expecting. Planning for all possibilities. ”

  She lowered her voice. “It can’t go on like this. What are you going to do about him?”

  He spoke slowly. “Let him make the first move. And then, when it’s over, I’ll see what’s left. Maybe I can make a serviceable deckhand out of it. ”

  DAWN CAME, A DISAPPOINTMENT. A HIGH YELLOW SUN SHREDDED THE MIST to wandering ghosts. The clouds blew in, covering the sun’s face, and a miserable chill rain lanced down. Brashen ordered out the ship’s gig. While it was made ready, he stared at Divvytown. He scarcely recognized it. The elevated light of the night before resolved itself as a watchtower. The wharves were in a new location, backed by warehouses built of fresh lumber. On the edges of the town, the shells of some burned - out structures remained, as if a spreading fire had created the rebuilt town. He doubted it had been an accident; the watchtower spoke of people determined not to be taken unawares again.

  He grinned wolfishly. It would probably upset them to find a strange vessel in their harbor. He considered waiting aboard for whoever they might send out to question him, but decided against it. Bold and brash as his name he would be; he would assume a welcome and fellowship, and see where it got him.

  He took a deep breath. His own grin surprised him. He should be exhausted. He’d been up most of the night, and risen again before dawn, just for the pleasure of rousting Lavoy out of bed. He’d given the mate his orders. He was to keep order aboard the ship, and not permit the crew to leave it or converse with any folk who came out to the ship. Above all, calm was to prevail. Clef and the other ship’s boat were at Amber’s disposal. Before Lavoy could dare to ask why, Brashen had added that she had her separate orders, and Lavoy was not to interfere with them. In the meantime, he wanted all the crew’s bedding brought up on deck and aired, the sleeping areas smoked to drive out lice and other vermin, and the galley given a good scrubbing. It was work calculated to keep both mate and men busy, and they both knew it. Brashen stared Lavoy down until the first mate grudgingly acknowledged his orders. Then he had turned on his heel.

  To Amber and Paragon, he had given his most difficult commands. The ship was to keep still and silent, to pretend he was an ordinary wooden vessel. Amber was to help him in this ruse however she could. He trusted her to pick up the meaning between his words: let nothing upset the ship. Allow no one to provoke him.

  Brashen shrugged his shoulders, trying to find more room in his jacket. He was dressed for his role in the finery of a merchant captain, clothes not worn since he had bidden Bingtown a formal farewell. He’d tied a kerchief made from his yellow shirt about his brow and left his shirt open at the throat. He didn’t want to appear too staid. He wondered what Captain Ephron Vestrit would think if he could see the use his tailored blue jacket and fine white shirt were being put to. He hoped the old man would understand and wish him luck of them.

  “Boat’s ready, sir. ” Clef grinned up at him hopefully.

  “Thank you. You have your orders. See that you obey them. ”

  Clef rolled his eyes, but replied, “Yes, sir,” with no trace of rebellion. He bounced along at Brashen’s heels as he made his way to the ship’s boat.

  As their boat left the Paragon’s shadow, Brashen marked three other small craft on their way out to meet him. “To your oars,” he ordered in a low voice. “Put your backs to it. I want us well away from Paragon before they can cut us off. ” As the crew obeyed, Brashen glanced back at his ship. The figurehead, silent and stoic, had his arms crossed on his chest. Amber leaned on the railing behind him. She lifted a hand in farewell, and Brashen nodded curtly. He looked at the rowing crew. “Remember your orders. We’re friendly. Don’t hesitate to spend freely the coin you’ve been given. No brawling. I don’t want anyone getting so drunk that he can’t guard his tongue. If they’ll allow us the free run of the town, spread out. Ask questions. I want every bit of information about Kennit and the Vivacia that we can gather, but don’t be too dogged about asking. Get them talking, then lean back and listen. Curious, not nosy. We’ll meet back at the docks at nightfall. ”

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  They were more than halfway to the docks when the three other boats surrounded him. At a sign from Brashen, his crew shipped their oars.

  “State your business here!” a skinny graybeard in one of the boats commanded him. The rain had soaked his shapeless hat to his head. An ancient slave tattoo was just visible above his beard.

  Brashen laughed aloud. “My business in Divvytown? Divvytown has but one business, and I’ll wager that mine is the same as yours, old man. My name is Brashen Trell, and before I state anything else, I’ll know to whom I’m stating it. ” He grinned at him easily. Jek lolled at her oars, smiling broadly. Althea’s smile looked a bit more forced, while the others were apparently uninterested in the proceedings.

  The oldster took himself very seriously. “I’m Maystar Crup, and I’m the harbormaster. Captain Kennit hisself appointed me, and I got the right to ask any what come here what they’re about. ”

  “Kennit!” Brashen sat up straight. “That’s the name, sir, the name that brings me here. I’ve been here before, you know, aboard the Springeve, though that was a brief visit and I’ll fault no one if they don’t recall me. But the tales I heard then of Captain Kennit are what have brought me back now, me and my good ship and crew. We’d like to throw in our lots with his, so to speak. Think you that he’d see us today?”

  Maystar ran a cynical eye over him. He licked his lips, revealing that most of his remaining teeth were yellow. “He might. If he were here, which he’s not. If you know about Kennit, how is it you don’t know he has a liveship? You don’t see no liveship in our harbor just now, do you?”

  “I had heard Kennit was a man of many ships. Moreover, I’d heard the first mistake any man could make about him was to assume anything about him. Sly as a fox is he, that is what is said, and keen as an eagle’s eye. But this is a chill and uncomfortable place to discuss such things. Divvytown has changed more than a bit since the last time I saw it, but surely it still has a tavern where men can talk at ease?”

  “It does. When we decide a man is welcome in Divvytown. ”

  Brashen raised one shoulder. “Perhaps that would be better decided over a bit of brandy. And then you can tell me if the rest of my crew would be welcomed ashore. We’ve been a time at sea. They’ve dry gullets and the coin to spend to wet them. Divvytown, they agreed, would be a fine place to divvy out our spoils. ” He smiled engagingly and slapped the fa
t purse at his belt. The coins in it clinked against the nails and the cut-up spoon he’d padded it with. He carried enough to stand a round of drinks or two, as well as pick up some minor supplies for the ship. His picked crew had enough coin for a fine show as well. Successful pirates they were, with money to spend.

  Brashen’s smile was stiffening in the chill winter rain before Maystar gave him a grudging nod. “Aye. We can talk in the tavern, I suppose. But your men… your crew will stay with us there, and those on the ship will stay there for the time being. We don’t take kindly to strangers here in Divvytown. Not from ships that sneak in during the dark of night. ”

  That puzzled him, did it? Well, let the old man focus on that. “To the tavern, then!” Brashen agreed heartily. He sat back in the stern and rode into town like a king, escorted by Divvytown’s constabulary. Half a dozen curious onlookers were huddled on the dock, shoulders hunched to the cold rain. Maystar preceded Brashen up the ladder. By the time he reached the top, Maystar was already the center of a hail of questions. Brashen shifted all attention to himself when he proclaimed, “Gentlemen! Won’t someone guide us to the tavern?” He beamed at the gathered crowd. From the corner of one eye, he noticed Jek’s smiling appraisal of the men. The grins she was getting in response could not hurt his cause. As his crew joined him on the dock, the onlookers relaxed. These were not raiders, but honest freebooters like themselves.

  “The tavern’s this way,” Maystar told him grumpily.

  Perhaps he was jealous of his importance. Brashen immediately targeted him. “Please, lead on,” he told him. As they trailed Maystar, Brashen noticed that their following had already diminished. That suited him well. He wanted to gather information, not enthrall the whole town. He noted that Althea had positioned herself to his left and one step behind him. It was good to know someone was there with a ready knife if the Divvytown folk did decide to turn on him. Cypros and Kert were right behind him. Harg and Kid, the two tattooed ones that Althea had chosen, followed them. Jek had dropped back to the end of their group and had already struck up a conversation with a handsome young man. He caught a word or two; she was asking him if he thought they’d be given the run of the town, and if so, what entertainment he recommended for a lonely sailor on her first night in port. Brashen gripped his smile with his teeth. Well, he’d asked her to be friendly and gather information.

 

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