Ship of destiny, p.36
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       Ship of Destiny, p.36

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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  THE INTERIOR OF THE TAVERN WAS DIM. MOST OF THE WARMTH CAME FROM body heat rather than from the blazing fire in the hearth. The smells of damp wool, sweat, smoke and cooking lingered in the air. Althea loosened her coat but didn’t take it off. If they had to get out of here fast, she didn’t want it left behind. She looked about her curiously.

  The building was fairly new, but the walls had already begun to discolor with smoke. It had a plank floor, strewn with sand to make each night’s sweeping out easier. A window at one end faced the sea. Brashen led them toward the hearth end of the open chamber. Plank tables and long benches supported a variety of eaters, drinkers and talkers. Evidently the oncoming storm kept folk in today. They were regarded with varying degrees of curiosity, but no outright animosity. Brashen just might dance through the deception without missing a step.

  Brashen clapped a friendly hand on Maystar’s shoulder as they seated themselves at the table, and before he could say a word, bellowed out an order for brandy for the harbormaster and himself, and ale all round for his crew. A bottle was swiftly brought and opened, and two clay noggins set out. As the tavern boy began to load a tray with foaming mugs, Brashen turned to Maystar. “Well, much has changed in Divvytown. New buildings and a welcoming party for my ship are the least of it. I’ve never seen the harbor so deserted. Tell me. What has befallen the place since last I was here?”

  For an instant, the old man looked puzzled. Althea wondered if he even remembered that he was supposed to be the one asking the questions. But Brashen had pegged his garrulous nature well. He probably didn’t often get the chance to hold forth as an expert for so long. Brashen became the most attentive and flattering of audiences as Maystar told in lurid detail of the slaver’s raid that had changed forever not just the layout but the very nature of Divvytown. As he spoke on, at great length, Althea began to grasp that this Kennit was no ordinary pirate. Maystar spoke of him with admiration and pride. Others added their own stories of things Kennit had said, or done, or caused to be done. One of the speakers was a man of obvious learning. The tattoo on his cheek wrinkled as he scowlingly recounted his days below deck in a slaveship before Kennit had freed him. They spoke of the man as if they were telling hero tales, Althea realized uneasily. The stories made her grudgingly admire the pirate, even as they chilled her heart. A man like that, bold and sage and noble, would not easily give up a ship like Vivacia. And if half the tales told of him were true, perhaps the ship had given her heart to him. Then what?

  Althea fought to keep the smile on her face and to nod to Maystar’s tales as she pondered it. She had been thinking of Vivacia as a stolen family treasure, or as a kidnapped child. What if she was more like a headstrong girl who had eloped with the love of her life? The others were all laughing at some witticism. Althea chuckled dutifully. Did she have the right to take Vivacia away from Kennit, if the ship had truly bonded to him? What was her duty, to her family, to the liveship?

  Brashen leaned over to reach the brandy bottle. It was a pretense, to bring his leg into contact with hers. She felt the steady warm pressure of his knee against hers, and realized that he saw her dilemma. His brief glance spoke volumes. Worry later. Pay attention now, and later they would consider all the implications of what they had heard. She finished her mug of ale and held it aloft for a refill. Her eyes met those of the stranger across the table. He was watching her intently; Althea hoped her earlier thoughtfulness had not made him too curious. At the far end of the table, Jek was engaged in arm wrestling with the man she had targeted earlier. Althea judged that she was letting him win. The man across the table followed her gaze, and then his eyes came back to hers. Merriment danced in them. He was a comely man, his looks spoiled only by a trail of tattoos across his cheek. In a lull in Maystar’s explanations, she asked him, “Why is the harbor so empty? I saw but three ships where several dozen could easily anchor. ”

  His eyes lit at her question, and he grinned more broadly. He leaned across the table to speak more confidentially. “You’re new to this trade, then,” he told her. “Don’t you know that this is the harvest season in the Pirate Isles? All the ships are out reaping our winter livelihood. The weather is our ally, for a ship from Jamaillia may have been running three days in a storm, its crew weary and careless, when we step out from our doorsteps to stop it. We let winter do our harrying for us. This time of year, the cargoes are fatter, for the fruits of the harvest are now in transit. ”

  His grin faded as he added, “It is also the worst time of year for those taken by slaveships. The weather is rough, and the seas run cold. The poor bastards are chained below in damp holds, in irons so cold they bite the flesh from your bones. This time of year, slaveships are often little more than floating cemeteries. ”

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  He grinned again, fierceness lighting his face now. “But there is sport this year, as well. The Inside Passage swarms with Chalcedean galleys. They hoist a flag and proclaim they are the Satrap’s own, but it is all a sham to pick off the fattest hogs for themselves. They think themselves so sly. Captain Brig, Kennit’s own man, has taught us the game of it. Let the galleys prey and fight and glut themselves with wealth. When their ships ride heavy, the harvest is ripe for gathering. We go in, and in one battle, we harvest the cream of many ships they’ve taken. ”

  He sat back on the bench, laughing aloud at Althea’s incredulous look, then seized his mug and banged it on the table to attract the serving boy’s attention. After the boy brought him a fresh mug, he asked, “How came you to this life?”

  “By as crooked a road as your own, I’ll wager,” she returned. She cocked her head and looked at him curiously. “That’s not Jamaillia I hear in your accent. ”

  The ruse worked. He launched into his life history. Indeed, a convoluted path had brought him to Divvytown and piracy. There was tragedy in his tale, as well as pathos, and he told it well. Unwillingly, she began to like him. He told of the raid that ended his parents’ lives and of a sister vanished forever. Carried off from his family’s sheep farm in some little seacoast town far to the north, he passed through a succession of Chalcedean masters, some cruel, others merely callous, before he found himself on a ship southbound, sent off with half a dozen other slaves as a wedding gift. Kennit had stopped the ship.

  And there it was again. His story challenged not just her idea of who and what Kennit was, but her notion of what slavery meant and who became slaves. Pirates were not what she had expected them to be. The greedy immoral cutthroats she had heard tales of were suddenly men pushed to the edge, clawing their way out of slavery, stealing back a portion of what had been stolen from them.

  He told her other things that greatly surprised her. Part of the shock was his casual assumption that all knew these things were so. He spoke of the carrier pigeons that ferried news between the exiles in the Pirate Isles settlements and their kin in Jamaillia City. He spoke of the legitimate trading ships from Jamaillia and even Bingtown that regularly made furtive stops in the Pirate Isles. The latest gossip from both towns was common knowledge in Divvytown. The news he passed on seemed far-fetched to Althea. An uprising in Bingtown had burned half the town. In retaliation, the Bingtown Traders had taken the visiting Satrap hostage. New Traders had conveyed that word to Jamaillia City, where those loyal to the Satrap were raising a fleet of warships to teach the rebellious province proper humility. There would be rich pickings in the wake of battle between Bingtown and Jamaillia. The pirates were already anticipating Jamaillian ships fat with Bingtown and Rain Wild goods. Discord between the two cities could only be good for the Pirate Isles.

  Althea hung on his every word, trapped between horror and fascination. Could any of this be true? If it was, what did it mean for her family and home? Even if she accepted that time and distance had fertilized the rumors, it boded ill for all she held dear. Meanwhile, the pirate waxed large in his telling of these tales, flattered and encouraged by her rap
t attention. He gloated that when Kennit returned and heard these tidings, he would know that his time was truly come. In the midst of his neighbors’ discord, he could seize power. He had often told them that when the time was right, he planned to control all trade through the Pirate Isles. Surely, that time was soon.

  A sudden gust of wind hit the tavern’s window, rattling it and making her jump. It made a space in the conversation. “This Kennit sounds to me like a man worth meeting. Is he returning to Divvytown soon?”

  The young man shrugged. “When his holds are full, he’ll return. He’ll bring us word from the Others’ Island as well; he has taken his priest there for the Others to augur his destiny. But no doubt Kennit will pirate his way back. Kennit sails when and where he will, but he never passes up prey. ” He cocked his head. “I understand your interest in him. There is no woman in Divvytown who does not sigh at his name. He is a man to put the rest of us into the shade. But you should know that he has a woman. Etta is her name and her tongue is as sharp as her knife. Some say that in Etta, Kennit has found the missing half of his soul. All men should be so fortunate. ” He leaned closer, eyes warm, and spoke quietly. “Kennit has a woman, and is content with her. But I do not. ”

  Brashen stretched, rolling his shoulders and spreading his arms. When he rocked forward, his left hand rested on Althea’s shoulder. He inclined very slightly toward the other man, and gently confided, “What a pity. I do. ” He smiled before he went back to Maystar’s conversation, but left his arm across Althea’s shoulder. She tried for a disarming smile and shrugged her free shoulder.

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  “No offense meant,” the man said a bit stiffly.

  “None taken,” she assured him. A warm flush rose to her face when, down the table, Jek caught her eye and dropped her a slow congratulatory wink. Damn Brashen! Had he completely forgotten that they were trying to keep this a secret? Yet, she could not deny that she took keen pleasure in the weight of his arm across her shoulder. Was this what he had been speaking of, the comfort of publicly claiming one another? Once they returned to the ship, they would both have to disavow this as a sham, as part of their overall ploy to gain information. But for now… She relaxed into him, and felt the solid warmth of his body, his hip against hers. He shifted slightly to accommodate her.

  The pirate drained off his beer. He set the mug down with a thump. “Well, Maystar, I see little threat from these folk. Noon’s well past now, and I’ve still a day’s work to do. ”

  Maystar, in the midst of a long-winded tale, dismissed him with a wave. The man gave Althea a farewell nod, rather curt, and left. With his departure, several others also made their excuses and left. Brashen gave her shoulder a slight squeeze. Well done. They’d established they were no risk to Divvytown.

  Rain still streamed down the tavern window. The uniform grayness of the day had disguised the passage of time. Brashen patiently heard Maystar’s tale out to the end, and then made another show of stretching. “Well, I could listen to you all day; it’s a pleasure to hear a man who can properly spin a yarn. Unfortunately, that won’t fill my water barrels. I’d best put some of my crew to that, but I’ve noticed that the old water dock is gone completely. Where do ships take on water now? And I’ve promised the crew a bit of fresh meat if there’s any to be had. Be kind to a stranger, and steer me to an honest butcher. ”

  But Brashen was not rid of Maystar that easily. The garrulous harbormaster told him where to take on water, but then went on to discuss at great length the relative merits of the two butchers in Divvytown. Brashen interrupted the man briefly, to put Jek in charge of the others. They could take their shore time now, but he warned them that he expected the ship’s casks to be filled before noon tomorrow. “Be back at the docks by nightfall. The second’s coming with me. ”

  When a boy came running to tell Maystar that his pigs were loose again, the old man hurried off, uttering oaths and threats against the hapless swine. Brashen and Jek exchanged a look. She stood up, stepping over the bench she’d been seated on. “Care to show me where we can fill our ship’s casks?” she asked the man she’d been talking with, and he agreed readily. Without further ado, the crew dispersed.

  Outside the tavern, the rain was falling determinedly, driven by a relentless wind. The streets were mud, but they ran straight. Brashen and Althea walked in silent companionship down a wooden walkway; a ditch beneath it rushed with rain water draining from the street down to the harbor. Few of the structures boasted glass windows and most were tightly shuttered today against the downpour. The town had not the elegance or beauty of Bingtown, but it shared Bingtown’s purpose. Althea could almost smell the commerce here. For a town burnt to the ground not so long ago, it had recovered well. They passed another tavern, this one built of raw timbers, and heard within it a minstrel singing with a harp. Since they had anchored, another ship had come into the lagoon and tied up at the pier. An ant line of men with barrows was unloading the cargo from the ship to a warehouse. Divvytown was a prosperous lively trade port; folk everywhere thanked Kennit for that.

  The people hurrying along the walkway to escape the rain wore an amazing variety of garb. Some of the languages she overheard she did not even recognize. Many folk wore tattoos, not just on their faces, but on arms, calves and hands. Not all face tattoos were slave marks: some had decorated themselves with fanciful designs.

  “It’s a declaration,” Brashen explained quietly. “Many bear tattoos they cannot erase. So they obscure them with others. They dim the past with a brighter future. ”

  “Odd,” she muttered quietly.

  “No,” he asserted. She turned in surprise at the vehemence in his voice. More quietly, he went on, “I understand the impulse. You don’t know how I’ve fought, Althea, to try to make folk see the man I am instead of the wild boy I was. If a thousand needle pricks in my face would obscure my past, I’d endure it. ”

  “Divvytown is a part of your past. ” There was no accusation in her voice.

  He looked around the busy little port as if seeing another place and time. “It was. It is. I was last here on the Springeve, and that was none too honest an operation. But years ago, also, I was here. I had only a few voyages under my belt when pirates took the ship I was on. They gave me a choice. Join them or die. I joined. ” He pushed his wet hair back and met her eyes. “No apologies for that. ”

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  “None are needed,” she replied. The rain on his face, the drops glistening in his hair, his dark eyes and the simple nearness of him suddenly overwhelmed her. Something of her rush of emotion must have shown on her face, for his eyes widened. Heedless of who might see, she seized his wet hand. “I can’t explain it,” she laughed up at him. For an instant, just looking at him was all she needed in the world.

  He squeezed her hand. “Come on. Let’s buy some stuff and talk to people. We do have a reason to be here. ”

  “I wish we didn’t. You know, I like this town and I like these people. In spite of every reason that I shouldn’t, I do. I wish we could just be here, on our own like this. I wish this were our real life. Almost, I feel like I belong here. I’ll bet Bingtown was like this, a hundred years ago. The rawness, the energy, the acceptance of folk for who they are; it draws me like a candle draws a moth. Sa forgive me, Brashen, but I wish I could kick over every responsibility to my name and just be a pirate. ”

  He looked at her in astonished silence. Then he grinned. “Be careful what you wish for,” he cautioned her.

  It was a strange afternoon. The role she played felt more natural than reality. They bought oil for the ship’s lanterns and arranged to have it sent down to the dock. At another merchant’s, Althea selected herbs and potents to restock Paragon’s medicine chest. Impulsively, Brashen tugged her inside a dry goods store and bought her a brightly colored scarf. She bound her hair back with it, and he added hoop earrings embellished with jade and garnet beads.
“You have to look the part,” he muttered in her ear as he fastened the catch of a necklace.

  In the clouded mirror the shopkeeper offered, she caught a glimpse of a different Althea, a side of herself she had never permitted into the daylight. Behind her, Brashen bent to kiss the side of her neck. When he glanced up, their eyes met in the mirror. Time rocked around her, and she saw the wild, runaway Bingtown boy and the willful virago who had scandalized her mother. A likely pair; piracy and adventure had always been their destiny. Her heart beat faster. Her only regret for this moment was that it was a sham. She leaned back against him to admire the glittering necklace on her throat. They watched themselves in the mirror as she turned her head and kissed him.

  At each place they went, one or the other would turn the conversation to Kennit or his liveship. They gathered nuggets of information about him, both useful and trivial. Like legends; each teller added personal embellishments to their stories of Kennit. His boy-priest had cut off his mangled leg, and Kennit had endured it without making a sound. No, he had laughed aloud in the face of his pain, and bedded his woman scarce an hour later. No, it was the boy’s doing: the pirate king’s prophet had prayed and Sa himself had simply healed Kennit’s stump. He was beloved of Sa; all knew that. When evil men had tried to rape Kennit’s woman, right here in Divvytown, the god had protected her until Kennit appeared to slay a dozen men single-handedly and carry her off from her imprisonment. Etta had lived in a whorehouse, but kept herself only for Kennit. It was a love story to make the most hardened cutthroat weep.

 

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