Ship of destiny, p.39
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       Ship of Destiny, p.39

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  She snorted her contempt. Her hand darted out, and with a single move demolished his defenses. “Something useful. Something you will actually put your mind to, rather than making motions while you dream elsewhere. ”

  He swept his playing pieces from the board. “What can I learn aboard this ship that I have not already learned?”

  “Navigation,” she suggested. “It confounds me, but you have the numbers learned already. You could master it. ” This time her eyes were serious. “But I think you should learn what you have put off far too long. Fill the gap that you wear like an open wound. Go where your heart has always led you. You have denied yourself long enough. ”

  He sat very still. “And that is?” he prompted her quietly.

  “Learn yourself. Your priesthood,” she said.

  His keen disappointment shocked him. He would not even consider what he had hoped she might suggest. He shook his head, and his voice was bitter as he said, “I have left that too far behind. Sa is strong in my life, but my devotion is not what it once was. A priest must be willing to live his life for others. At one time, I thought that would be my delight. Now…” he let his eyes meet hers honestly. “I have learned to want things for myself,” he said quietly.

  She laughed. “Ah, at teaching you that, Kennit would excel, I think. Yet I believe you misjudge yourself. Perhaps you have lost the intensity of your focus, Wintrow, but examine your heart. If you could have one thing, right now, what would you choose?”

  He bit back the words that sprang to his lips. Etta had changed, and he had been part of her changing. The way she spoke, the way she thought, reflected the books they had shared. It was not that she had become wiser; wisdom had shone in her from the start. Now she had the words for her thoughts. She had been like a lantern flame burning behind a sooty glass. Now the glass was clear and her light shone forth. She pursed her lips in annoyance: he had taken too long to reply. He avoided her question. “Do you remember the night when you told me that I should discover where I was in my life and go on from there? Accept the shape of my life and do my best with it?”

  She lifted one eyebrow as if to deny it. His heart sank. Could something so important to him have left no mark upon her? Then she shook her head ruefully. “You were so serious, I wanted to kick you. Such a lad. It does not seem possible you were so young such a short time ago. ”

  “Such a short time ago?” He laughed. “It seems like years. I’ve been through so many changes since then. ” He met her eyes. “I taught you to read, and you said it changed your life. Do you know how much you have changed my life as well?”

  “Well. ” She leaned back and considered. “If I hadn’t taught you to use a knife, you’d be dead now. So I suppose I’ve changed the course of your life at least once. ”

  “I try to imagine going back to my monastery now. I would have to bid farewell to my ship, to Kennit, to you, to my shipmates, to all my life has become. I don’t know if I could go back and sit with Berandol and meditate, or pore over my books. ” He smiled regretfully. “Or work the stained glass I once took such pride in. I would be denying all I had learned out here. I am like a little fish that ventured too far from its placid pool and has been swept into the river. I’ve learned to survive out here, now. I don’t know if I could be content with a contemplative life anymore. ”

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  She looked at him oddly. “I didn’t mean you should return to your monastery. Only that you should start being a priest again. ”

  “Here? On the ship? Why?”

  “Why not? You once told me that if a man is meant to be a priest, nothing could divert him from that. It will happen to him, no matter where he is. That perhaps Sa had put you here because there was something you were meant to do here. Destiny, and all that. ”

  She spoke his words flippantly, but beneath her tone he heard a desperate hope.

  “But why?” he repeated. “Why do you urge me to do this now?”

  She turned aside from him. “Perhaps I miss the way you used to talk. How you used to argue that there was meaning and structure to all that happened, even if we could not immediately perceive it. There was a comfort to hearing you say that, even if I couldn’t completely believe it. About destiny and all. ”

  Her hand strayed to her breast, then pulled away. He knew what she flinched from touching. In a small bag about her neck, she wore the charm from Others’ Island, the figurine of a baby. She had shown it to him while he was still recovering from his “miracle cure. ” He had sensed how important it was to Etta but had not given it any serious thought since then. Obviously, she had. She considered the odd charm as an omen of some kind. Perhaps if Wintrow believed that the Others were truly soothsayers and prophets, he would share her opinion, but he didn’t. Likely, a trick of winds and tides carried all manner of debris to the beach, and her charm among it. As for the Others themselves, the serpent he had freed had imprinted her opinion of them on him.

  Abominations. Her precise meaning had not been clear, but her horror and loathing was plain. They should never have been. They were thieves of a past not their own, with no power to foretell the future. The charm Etta had found in her boot was a mere coincidence, of no more portent than the sand that had been with it.

  He could not share his opinion with Etta without affronting her.

  Affronting her could be painful. He began carefully, “I still believe that every creature has a unique and significant destiny. ”

  She leapt to it before he could approach it gently. “It could be my destiny to bear Kennit’s child: to bring into being a prince for the King of the Pirate Isles. ”

  “It might also be your destiny not to,” he pointed out.

  Displeasure flashed across her face, replaced by impassivity. He had hurt her. “That is what you believe, then. ”

  He shook his head. “No, Etta. I have no beliefs, either way. I am simply saying that you should not lock your dreams onto a child or a man. Who loves you or who you love is not as significant as who you are. Too many folk, women and men, love the person they wish to be, as if by loving that person, or being loved by that person, they could attain the importance they long for.

  “I am not Sa. I lack his almighty wisdom. But I think you are more likely to find Etta’s destiny in Etta, rather than hoping Kennit will impregnate you with it. ”

  Anger writhed over her face. Then she sat still, anger still glinting in her eyes, but with it a careful consideration of his words. Finally, she observed gruffly, “It’s hard to take offense at your saying that I might be important for myself. ” Her eyes met his squarely. “I might consider it a compliment. Except that it’s hard to believe you are sincere, when you obviously don’t believe the same is true of yourself. ”

  She continued into his stunned silence, “You haven’t lost your belief in Sa. You’ve lost your belief in yourself. You speak to me of measuring myself by my significance to Kennit. But you do the same. You evaluate your purpose in terms of Vivacia or Kennit. Pick up your own life, Wintrow, and be responsible for it. Then, perhaps, you may be significant to them. ”

  Like a key turning in a rusty lock. That was the sensation inside him. Or perhaps like a wound that bleeds anew past a closed crust, he thought wryly. He sifted her words, searching for a flaw in her logic, for a trick in her wording. There was none. She was right. Somehow, sometime, he had abdicated responsibility for his life. His hard-won meditations, the fruit of another lifetime of studying and Berandol’s guidance, had become platitudes he mouthed without applying them to himself. He suddenly recalled a callow boy telling his tutor that he dreaded the sea voyage home, because he would have to be among common men rather than thoughtful acolytes like himself. What had he said to Berandol? “Good enough men, but not like us. ” Then, he had despised the sort of life where simply getting from day to day prevented a man from ever taking stock of himself. Berandol had hinted to him then that a time out in the world
might change his image of folk who labored every day for their bread. Had it? Or had it changed his image of acolytes who spent so much time in self-examination that they never truly experienced life?

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  He had been plunged into the world of ships and sailing against his will. He had never truly embraced it, or accepted all it might offer him. He looked back now, and saw a pattern of resistance in all he had done. He had set his will against his father, battled Torg simply to survive, and resisted the ship’s efforts to bond with him. He had allied with the slaves, but kept his guard up against them as soon as they became freed men. When Kennit came aboard, he had resolved to maintain his claim upon Vivacia despite the pirate’s efforts to win her. And all the while he had simmered in self-pity. He had longed for his monastery and promised himself that at the first opportunity he would become that Wintrow again. Even after he had resolved to accept the life Sa had given him and find purpose in it, even then he had held back.

  Layer upon layer of self-deceit, he now saw, layer upon layer of resistance to Sa’s will. He had not embraced his own destiny. He had grudgingly accepted it, taking only what was forced upon him and welcoming only what he found acceptable, rather than encompassing all in his priesthood.

  Something. Something there, an idea, an illumination trembling at the edge of his mind. A revelation waiting to unfold. He let the focus of his eyes soften, and his breathing eased into a deeper, slower rhythm.

  Etta set aside her sewing. She gathered the game pieces and returned them to their box. “I think we have finished with games for a time,” she said quietly.

  He nodded. His thoughts claimed him, and he scarcely noticed when she left the room.

  SHE WHO REMEMBERS RECOGNIZED HIM. THE TWO-LEGS WINTROW STOOD ON THE ship’s deck and looked down at the serpents who gamboled alongside in the moonlight. She was surprised he had lived. When she had nudged him aboard the ship, she had intended only that he die among his own kind. So he had survived. When he set his hands on the ship’s railing, She Who Remembers sensed Bolt’s reaction. It was not a physical shaking, but a trembling of her being. A faint scent of fear tinged the water. Bolt feared this two-legs?

  Mystified, the serpent drew closer. Bolt had begun as a dragon; that much She Who Remembers recognized. But no matter how vigorously Bolt might deny it, she was no longer a dragon nor was she a serpent. She was a hybrid, her human sensibilities blending with her dragon essence, and all encompassed in her ship form. She Who Remembers dived beneath the water, and aligned herself with the ship’s silvery keel. Here she could feel most strongly the dragon’s presence. Almost immediately, she sensed that the ship did not wish her to be there but She Who Remembers felt no compunction about remaining. Her duty was to the tangle of serpents she had awakened. If the ship were a danger to them, she would discover it.

  She was only mildly surprised when Maulkin the Gold joined her there. He did not bother to hide his intentions. “I will know more,” he told her. A slight lifting of his ruff indicated the ship they paced. “She tells us to be patient, that she is here to protect us and guide us home. She seems to know much of what has happened in the years since dragons filled the skies, but I sense that she withholds as much as she tells us. All my memories tell me that we should have entered the river in spring. Winter snaps at us now, and still she counsels us to wait. Why?”

  She admired his forthrightness. He did not care that the ship knew his reservations about trusting her. She Who Remembers preferred to be subtler. “We must wait and discover that. For now, she has the alliance of the two-legs. She claims that when the time is right, she will use them to help us. But why, then, does she tremble at the very presence of this one?”

  The ship gave no sign that she was aware of their submerged conversation. She Who Remembers tasted a subtle change in the water that flowed past. Anger, now, as well as fear. Deprived of the proper shape of her body, her frustrated flesh still attempted to manufacture the venoms of her emotions. She Who Remembers worked her poison sacs. There was little there to draw on; it took time for her body to replenish itself. Still, she gaped her jaws wide, taking in Bolt’s faint venom, and then replied with her own. She adjusted herself to the ship, to be better able to perceive her.

  Above them, the two-legs gripped the ship’s railing. In essence, he laid hands on the dragon’s own body. She Who Remembers felt the ship’s shiver of reaction, and the complete transfer of her attention.

  “Good evening, Vivacia. ” The sound of Wintrow’s voice was muted by water and distance, but his touch on the railing amplified the sense of his words. It carried through the ship’s bones to She Who Remembers. I know you said his touch. In the naming of the name that Bolt disdained, he claimed a part of her. And justly so, She Who Remembers decided, despite the ship’s resistance to him.

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  “Go away, Wintrow. ”

  “I could, but it would do no good. Do you know what I’ve been doing, Vivacia? I’ve been meditating. Reaching into myself. Do you know what I discovered?”

  “Your beating heart?” With callous cruelty, the ship touched him. She Who Remembers felt the clench of the boy’s hands tighten as his heart skipped in its rhythm.

  “Don’t,” he begged her convulsively. “Please,” he added. Reluctantly, the ship let him be. Wintrow clung to the railing. When his breathing steadied, he said quietly, “You know what I found when I looked within myself. I found you. Twined through me, flesh and soul. Ship, we are one, and we cannot deceive one another. I know you, and you know me. Neither of us are what we have claimed to be. ”

  “I can kill you,” the ship snarled at him.

  “I know. But that would not rid you of me. If you kill me, I still remain a part of you. I believe you know that also. You seek to drive me away, ship, but I do not think I could go so far that the bond would be severed. It would only make both of us miserable. ”

  “I am willing to take that chance. ”

  “I am not,” Wintrow replied mildly. “I propose another solution. Let us accept what we have become, and admit all parts of ourselves. If you will stop denying the humanity in you, I will accept the serpent and the dragon in myself. In our self,” he amended thoughtfully.

  Silence passed with the purling water. Something slowly built inside the ship, like venom welling in a serpent’s spiked mane. But when she spoke, she spilled bitterness like an abscess breaking. “A fine time to offer this, Wintrow Vestrit. A fine time. ”

  She struck him down like a dragon flicking away an annoying gorecrow. The two-legs fell flat to her deck. Drops of his blood leaked from his nostrils and dripped onto her planking. Though the ship roared defiantly, her planking soaked up the red stuff and took him into herself.

  Liveship Traders 3 - Ship of Destiny

  CHAPTER SIXTEEN - Tintaglia’s Bargain

  REYN TOOK A DEEP, GASPING BREATH OF AIR AND OPENED HIS EYES TO DARKNESS. He’d dreamed of the dragon, trapped in her coffin. The dream still had the power to make his heart thunder and his body break into a sweat. He lay still, panting and cursing the creature and the memories she had left him. He should try to go back to sleep. It would be his watch soon, and he would regret the sleep he had lost to the nightmare. He held his breath and listened to Grag’s deep snore and Selden’s lighter breathing. He turned restlessly, trying to find a more comfortable place in the sweaty sheets. He was grateful to have a bed to himself; many others were sharing. For the past few days, the Tenira household had been swollen with other folk so that it now encompassed a cross section of Bingtown’s population.

  The fledgling alliance of Old and New Traders, slaves and Three Ships folk had nearly died hatching. The same group that had gathered at the Tenira table, with the addition of several New Trader representatives, had boldly arrived at Restart mansion and demanded entrance. Their spies had already watched the remaining heads of the Bingtown Council enter. A number of Roed
s more rabid followers had assembled as well; Reyn had wondered if they were not plunging their heads into a noose. But Serilla had appeared calm as she came to the entrance. Roed Caern stood glowering just behind her left shoulder. Despite his scowls and muttered complaints, the Companion had graciously invited them all to enter and join in an “informal discussion of Bingtown’s situation. ” But as they had gathered uneasily at the bargaining table, trumpets and alarm bells had sounded in the city below. Reyn had feared treachery as they rushed outside. A rooftop sentry had shouted that a flotilla of Chalcedean ships was approaching Bingtown Harbor. Roed Caern had drawn a blade, shouting that the New Traders had invaded this meeting in the hopes of dispatching all of Bingtown’s rightful leadership at once while their Chalcedean allies made their attack. Like rabid dogs, he and his followers had flown at the New Trader emissaries. Knives that all had promised not to bring were suddenly flourished.

  The first blood of the current Chalcedean attack had been spilled there on Restart’s doorstep. To their credit, the heads of the Traders’ Council had opposed Roed and kept him and his men from massacring the Three Ships, Tattooed and New Trader delegates. The meeting dispersed as folk fled Roed’s madness and scrambled to protect their own houses and families from the invaders. That had been three days ago.

  The Chalcedeans had arrived, thick as grunion spawning on a beach. Sailing ships and oared galleys took over the harbor and spilled warriors onto the beaches and wharves. Their might had overwhelmed the disorganized Bingtown folk, and they had captured the Kendry. A prize crew sailed him out of the harbor. The ship had gone unwillingly, wallowing and fighting as small boats manned by Chalcedean sailors towed him out. Beyond that, Reyn had no knowledge of the fate of the ship or its crew. He wondered if they could force Kendry to take them up the river to Trehaug. Had they kept his family crew alive to use as hostages against the liveship?

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  The Chalcedeans now held the harbor and the surrounding buildings, clutching the heart of Bingtown in their greedy hands. Every day, they pushed farther inland, systematically looting and then destroying what they could not carry off. Reyn had never seen such destruction. Certain key structures, warehouses for storing their plunder, defensible buildings of stone, they left intact. But all the rest, they laid waste. Old Trader, New Trader, fisherman, peddler, whore or slave: it mattered not to the Chalcedeans. They killed and stole without discrimination. The long row of Three Ships dwellings had all been burned, their little fishing vessels destroyed and the people killed or driven away to take refuge with their neighbors. The Chalcedeans showed no interest in negotiating. There could be no surrender. Captives were put into chains and held in one of the sailing ships, to be carried off to new lives as slaves in Chalced. If the invaders had ever had allies among the Bingtown folk, they betrayed them. No one was immune to their destruction.

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