Ship of destiny, p.38
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       Ship of Destiny, p.38

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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  The talk that night had strayed to the lands of the far south. Some recalled a great dry place, void of any substantial game. “It took days to fly over it,” Tellur asserted. “And I seem to recall that when one settled, the sands were so hot that you could not stand upon it. You had to… to…”

  “Burrow!” Another serpent broke in excitedly. “How I hated the grit under my claws and in the folds of my hide. But it was the only way. To land gently was wrong. You had to slide in, so that right away you broke the hot crust of the sand and found the cooler layer. Not that the cooler layer was much cooler!”

  That sensory clue, grit in the fold of her skin, seized Shreever’s imagination. She not only felt the hot sand, but also tasted the peculiar bitterness of the region. She worked her jaws, recalling it. “Shut your nostrils against the dust!” she warned them triumphantly.

  Another serpent trumpeted excitedly. “But it was worth it. Because once you flew beyond the reaches of the blue sand, there was… there was…”

  Nothing. Shreever keenly recalled the anticipation. Once the sands changed from gold to blue, you were nearly there, and beyond the blue sand was something worth the long, foodless flight, something worth risking the dangers of sandstorms to reach. Why could they remember the heat and the irritation of grit, but not the goal of the flight?

  “Wait! Wait!” the white exclaimed in sudden excitement. “I know what it was! Beyond the blue sand was, oh, it was so beautiful, so wonderful, so joyous a thing to find! It was-” He swiveled his head, his scarlet eyes swirling to be sure of every serpent’s attention. “Dung!” he declared happily. “Great mounds of fresh, brown stinking dung! And then we declared ourselves the Lords of the Four Realms. Lords of the Earth, the Sea, the Sky and the Dung! Oh, and how we wallowed in our greatness, celebrating all we had conquered and claimed! The memory stands so clear and shining! Tell me, Sessurea Corpse, does not this of all memories stand out most clearly, most-“

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  It was too much. Sessurea’s orange mane lifted and he lunged at the white, jaws wide. Almost lazily, Maulkin rolled his body to come between them. Sessurea was forced aside. He would never challenge Maulkin, but he roared his frustration at the surrounding serpents, who gave him space for his wrath. His green eyes spun with fury, as he demanded, “Why must we tolerate this ill-begotten slime? He mocks our dreams and us. How can we believe that he leads us truly to She Who Remembers?”

  “Because he does,” Maulkin replied. He opened his jaws, taking in sea water and pumping it out through his gills. “Taste, Sessurea. Your senses have become dull with discouragement, but taste now and tell me what you scent. ”

  The great blue serpent obeyed. Shreever imitated him, as did most of the others. For a time, she scented only their own tangle, tasted only Carrion’s ever-dribbling toxins. Then it wafted to her, unmistakable for anything else. The taste of one who carried memories locked in her flesh floated faint in the water. Shreever worked her gills frantically, trying for more of the elusive flavor. It faded, but then a stronger drift reached her.

  Tellur, the slender green minstrel, shot like an arrow toward the Lack. As he thrust his head into the night air, he bugled a questioning call. All around Shreever, the tangle rose faster than bubbles, to bob up around Tellur. Their voices were added to his, a seeking chorus. Suddenly Maulkin shot out of the water in their midst, leaping so high that nearly a third of his length arced above the water before he dived again.

  “Silence!” he commanded when next he surfaced. “Listen!”

  The heads and arched necks of the tangle rode on the breast of the waves. Above them, the cold moon gleamed and the stars shone white as anemones. All manes stood out full and taut. The surface of the sea was transformed into a meadow of night-blooming flowers. For a breath, all they heard were the sounds of wind and water.

  Then, pure as light and sweet as flesh, a voice rose in the distance. “Come,” she sang, “come to me and I will give you knowledge of yourselves. Come to She Who Remembers, and your past will be yours, and with it, all your futures. Come. Come. ”

  Tellur trumpeted an eager response, but “Hush!” Maulkin bade him sternly. “What is that?”

  For a second voice had lifted in song. The words were oddly turned, the notes shortened, as if the serpent who sang had no depth to her voice. But whoever she was, she echoed the call of She Who Remembers. “Come, come to me. Your past and your future await you. Come, I will guide you, I will protect you. Obey me and I shall see you safely home. Once more you shall rise, once more you shall fly. ”

  All heads, every spinning eye turned to Maulkin. His mane stood out stiff about his throat and venom welled and dripped from every spine. “We go!” he trumpeted, but softly, to only his tangle, not to the siren voices. “We go, but we go with caution. Something is odd here, and we have been deceived before. Come. Follow me. ”

  Then he threw back his great head and opened his jaws wide to the night. His golden false-eyes shone brighter than moon or sun. When he released the blast of his voice, the water all around him shivered at his power.

  “We come!” he roared. “We come for our memories!”

  He plunged back into the Plenty. He flashed through the water, and his tangle followed him. Alone, the white held back. Shreever, still not trusting him, glanced back.

  “Fools! Fool! Fools!” Carrion trumpeted wildly into the night sky. “And I the biggest fool of all!” Then, with a wild cry, he plunged in to follow them.

  SHE WHO REMEMBERS LEFT THE SHIP TO GREET THE OTHERS. BOLT URGED HER to remain, saying they would welcome them together, but she could not. This was her destiny, come at last to join her. She could not put off this long-awaited consummation. She arced toward them, leaping awkwardly in attempted grace. There was a terrible conflict between her stunted body and her ancient memory of other, similar meetings. She should have been twice the size she was, powerfully muscled, a giant among serpents, armed with enough toxins to stun tangle after tangle into complete remembrance of their heritage. She thrust aside all misgivings. She would give them all she had. It had to be enough.

  When they were close enough to taste one another’s toxins, she halted. She allowed her body to sink beneath the water and finned there, awaiting them. The leader, a battered serpent that glowed with the fire of his false-eyes, came forward to meet her fang to fang. The others fanned out around them with all heads aligned toward her body. Beneath the turbulence of the sea’s waves, all hung there, as motionless as swimming creatures can be, as they held themselves in even spacing and careful alignment. They were many organisms, soon to be one, united in the racial memory of their kind. She opened her jaws wide, exposing her teeth in formal greeting. She shook her mane until the toxic ruff of spikes around her throat stood out in its full glory. Every spine was erect, swelling with the toxins she would soon release. Rigorously, she controlled herself. This was not the awakening of a single serpent. This was the resurrection of an entire tangle.

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  “Maulkin of Maulkin’s Tangle greets you, She Who Remembers. ”

  His great copper eyes traveled over her crooked body. His eyes spun once in what might have been dismay or sympathy, and then were stilled. He displayed his fangs to her. She clashed her teeth lightly against his. His mane stiffened in reflexive response. His tangle, attuned to his poisons by their long association, would be most vulnerable to hers in conjunction with the release of Maulkin’s toxins. He was essential to this awakening. She expelled a faint wash of her venom toward his open jaws, saw him gulp it in and watched it affect him. His eyes spun slowly and color washed through his mane, violets and pinks engorging his spines. She gave his body time to adjust itself. Then, almost languorously, she wrapped his long body with hers. As was fitting, he submitted to her.

  She matched her body to his, feeling the slime of his skin mingle with her own. She paused, lidding her eyes as her body adjusted
its acids. Then, in an ecstasy of remembering, she tangled her mane with his, stimulating both of them to release a mingled cloud of venoms. The shock of tasting a toxin not of her own secretion nearly stunned her.

  Then the night world sharpened. She knew every serpent in his tangle as he did. She took to herself his confused memories of many migratory pilgrimages, and sorted them for him. She shared, suddenly, a lost generation’s wandering. Pity sliced her soul. So few females left, and all their bodies so aged.

  Their souls had been trapped for decades in bodies meant for transitory use. Yet even as her hearts rang with pity, pride’s triumphant trumpeting drowned it. Despite all, her race had survived. Against all obstacles, they had prevailed. Somehow, they would complete their migration, they would cast their cocoons and they would emerge as dragons. The Lords of the Three Realms would once more fill the sky.

  She felt Maulkin’s spirit intertwine with her own. “Yes!” His trumpet of affirmation was her signal. She breathed her toxins into his face. He did not struggle. Rather, he plunged willingly into unconsciousness, surrendering his mind to become the repository of the memories of his kind. Her twisted tail lashed as she kept her grip upon his body. Slowly, with great effort, she began to turn them both, spinning them in a streaming circle of toxins that spread slowly to the waiting multitude. Dimly she saw the toxins reach them. The poised serpents stiffened in the grip of her spell, and then began the reflexive finning that held them in place as their minds opened to the trove of memories. She was small, crippled and tiring far too rapidly. She hoped her poison sacs held enough for them all. She stretched her jaws wide and worked the muscles that pumped the toxins from her mane. She strained, convulsively working the muscles long past the complete emptying of her sacs. Depleted, she toiled on, turning herself and Maulkin, using their bodies to disperse their mingled toxins to the entranced serpents. On she labored, and on, past instinct, consciously pushing her body to its limits.

  She became aware of Maulkin speaking to her. He held her now. She was exhausted. He moved with her, forcing water over her gills.

  “Enough,” he told her, his voice gentle. “It is enough. Rest. She Who Remembers, Maulkin’s tangle is now We Who Remember. Your duty is fulfilled. ”

  She longed to rest, but she managed to warn them. “I have awakened another one as well. The silver one claims our kinship. I am wary of her. Yet she alone may know the way home. ”

  THE WATER BOILED WITH SERPENTS. IN ALL HIS YEARS AT SEA, KENNIT HAD never seen such a sight. Before dawn, their trumpeting chorus awoke him. They swarmed around his liveship. They lifted immense maned heads to regard the ship curiously. Their long bodies sliced the water, cutting across Bolt’s bow and streaming in her wake. Their astonishing colors gleamed in the morning light. Their great eyes spun like pinwheels.

  Kennit felt himself the target of those unblinking stares. As he stood on the foredeck and watched, Bolt held court to these odd suitors. They rose from the water, some lifting near as tall as the figurehead to regard her. Some considered her in silence, but others trumpeted or whistled. When Bolt sang an answer to them, the immense heads inevitably turned toward Kennit and stared. For a man who had already lost one leg to a serpent, those avaricious stares were unnerving. Nevertheless, he held his post and his smile.

  Behind him, the men worked the deck and the rigging with greater than usual caution. Below them gaped the double death of water and fangs. It did not matter that the serpents were not showing any aggression toward the ship. Their roaring and cavorting were enough to intimidate anyone. Only Etta seemed to have shed her fear of the creatures. She clung to the railing, eyes wide and cheeks flushed, as she took in the spectacle of their flashing escort.

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  Wintrow stood behind her, arms crossed tightly on his chest. He addressed the ship. “What do they say to you, and what do you reply?”

  She glanced archly back at him. Then, as Kennit watched, the boy flinched as if jabbed. He paled suddenly, his knees folding, and staggered away from the railing. Walking uncertainly, his eyes unfocused, Wintrow left the foredeck without another word. Kennit briefly considered demanding an explanation, but decided to let it pass. He did not yet have Bolt’s full measure. He would not risk offending her. The expression on the figurehead’s face had never varied from pleasant. Bolt spoke, directing her words to Kennit. “What they say does not concern humans. They speak of serpent dreams, and I assure them that I share the same. That is all. They will follow me, now, and do as I tell them. Select your prey, Captain Kennit. They will cut it out and run it down for you like a pack of wolves culling a bull from a herd. Say where we shall go, and all we encounter between here and there will fall like ripe fruit into your hands. ”

  She flung him the offer carelessly. Kennit tried to accept it with equanimity, but he perceived instantly what it meant. Not just ships, but towns, even cities were his to plunder. He looked at his rainbow escort, and imagined them boiling in Bingtown Bay or cavorting before the docks of Jamaillia itself. They could weave a blockade that would stop all trade. With a flotilla of serpents at his command, he could control all traffic through the Inside Passage. She was handing him mastery of the entire coast.

  He saw her watching him from the corner of her eye. She knew very well what she was offering him. He stepped closer, and spoke only for her ears. “And what does it cost me? Only ‘what you ask for, when you ask for it’?”

  Her red lips curved in a sweet smile. “Exactly. ”

  The time for hesitation was past. “You have it,” he assured her quietly.

  “I know,” she replied.

  “WHAT AILS YOU?” ETTA DEMANDED CROSSLY.

  Wintrow looked up at her in surprise. “Your pardon?”

  “Pardon my ass!” She gestured impatiently at the game board on the low table between them. “It’s your move. It has been your move for as long as it has taken me to finish this buttonhole. But when I look up, there you sit, staring into the lantern. So what ails you? You cannot keep your mind on anything of late. ”

  That was because the whole of his mind was given over to one thing only. He could have said that, but chose to shrug. “I suppose I feel a bit useless of late. ”

  She grinned wickedly. “Of late? You were always useless, priest-boy. Why does it suddenly bother you?”

  Now there was a question. Why did it bother him? Since Kennit had taken over the ship, he had had no official status. He was not the ship’s boy, he was not the captain’s valet and no one had ever seriously respected his claim to own the ship. But he had had a function. Kennit had thrown him odd chores and honed his wits against him, but that had merely filled his time. Vivacia had filled his heart. A bit late to realize that, he thought sourly. A bit late to admit that his bond with the ship had defined his life and his days aboard her. She had needed him, and Kennit had used him as the bridge between them. Now neither of them required him anymore. At least, the creature that wore Vivacia’s body no longer needed him. Indeed, she scarcely tolerated him. His head still throbbed from her latest rebuff.

  He could dimly recall his healing. Days of convalescence had followed it. He had lain in his bunk and watched the play of light on the wall of his stateroom and thought of nothing. The rapid repair of his body had drained all his physical reserves. Etta had brought him food, drink and books he never opened. She had brought him a mirror, thinking to cheer him. He saw that the outside of his body had reconstructed itself at Kennit’s command. The skin of his face purged itself of the tattoo’s ink. Each day the sprawling mark his father had placed on him grew fainter, until Vivacia’s image vanished from his face as if it had never been.

  It was the ship’s doing. He knew that. Kennit had only been her tool, so that the captain might reap the benefit of performing yet another miracle. The message to Wintrow was that she did not need his compliance to work her will upon him. Bolt had struck him with his healing. She had not restored his mis
sing finger. He had stopped pondering whether that task was beyond both his body and her ministration, or if she had withheld it from him. She had expunged Vivacia’s image from his face, and the meaning of that was obvious.

  Etta slapped the table and he jumped.

  “You’re doing it again,” she accused him. “And you haven’t even answered my question. ”

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  “I don’t know what to do with myself anymore,” he confessed. “The ship no longer needs me. Kennit no longer needs me. The only use he ever had for me was to act as a go-between for them. Now they are together and I am-“

  “Jealous,” Etta filled in. “And fair green with it. I hope that I was subtler when I was in your place. For a long time, I stood where you stand now, wondering what my place was, wondering why or if Kennit needed me, hating the ship for fascinating him so. ” She gave him a twisted smile of sympathy. “You have my pity, but it won’t do you any good. ”

  “What will?” he demanded.

  “Keeping busy. Getting over it. Learning something new. ” She tied a knot. “Find something else to occupy your mind. ”

  “Such as?” he asked bitterly.

  She bit off her thread and tugged to see if the bone button was secure. With her chin, she gestured at the neglected game board. “Amusing me. ”

  Her smile made it a jest. The movement of her chin made the lamplight run over her sleek hair and glance off the strong bones of her cheeks. She glanced at him from under lowered lashes as she threaded her needle. Mirth glinted in her dark eyes. The corner of her mouth curved slightly. Yes, he could find something else to occupy his mind, something likely to lead to disaster. He forced his eyes back to the game board and made a move. “Learn something new. Such as?”

 
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