Ship of destiny, p.44
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       Ship of Destiny, p.44

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
 

  Twice before, he had touched souls with Malta. In the mystic intimacy of the dream-box, in the joining made possible by finely powdered wizardwood, their thoughts had mingled. They had dreamed well together. The memory of it still stirred his blood to heat. In the dream-box unity, he had known her in a way he could never mistake for another. Beyond scent, touch or even the taste of her lips was another sensation that was the essence of Malta in his mind.

  The dragon seized his mind: he was held, whether he would or not. He struggled, until he sensed in the dragon another reaching. Faint as perfume on the wind, a rare yet familiar sensation touched his mind. Malta. Through the dragon he sensed her but could not touch her. It was as taunting as seeing her silhouette on a blowing curtain, or smelling her scent and feeling the warmth of her cheek on a recently vacated pillow. He leaned toward it, yearning, but could find no substance. He felt Tintaglia’s efforts, as if she sorted Malta’s thread from a tangled skein of sensations. Here it was strong and clean, and then it vanished into memories of wind and rain and salt water. Where is she? his mind frantically demanded of Tintaglia’s. How is she?

  1 cannot know such things by this sense! the dragon replied disdainfully. As well sniff for a sound, or taste sunlight! This is the bonding sense, not meant to flow between human and dragon. You have not the ability to reciprocate, and so she is unaware of your yearning. I can only tell you that she lives, somewhere, somehow. Now do you believe me?

  “I BELIEVE MALTA IS ALIVE. I BELIEVE SHE LIVES. SHE LIVES. ” REYN HOARSELY whispered the words. Agony or rapture could have been his emotion; it was hard to tell.

  Jani had clambered from the dais and forced her way through the crowd to kneel beside her son. Now she looked across Reyn’s body at Selden. “What did she do to him?” she cried.

  Keffria watched them both. Did Jani know how much she resembled the dragon? The fine scaling on her lips and brow and the faint glow of her eyes in the torchlight all contributed to the effect. Jani knelt by Reyn’s body and stared down at him just as Tintaglia looked down on them. How could one who looked so like the dragon ask her son such a question? Selden knelt beside them, but he gazed raptly up at the dragon that loomed over them. His lips moved as if he prayed, but his eyes were on Tintaglia.

  “I don’t know,” Keffria replied for her son. She looked down at Malta’s stirring betrothed. He looked half a dragon himself, but he had been willing to risk his life to save her daughter’s. His heart was as human as hers. She glanced at her own son, regarding the dragon so intently. Light ran across Selden’s light scaling. He, too, had stood before the dragon and begged for his family. He was still hers. In an odd way, so was Reyn. Keffria set her hand gently on Reyn’s chest. “Lie still,” she bade him. “You’ll be all right. Just lie still. ”

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  Above them, the dragon threw back her head and trumpeted triumphantly. “He believes me! You see, folk of Bingtown. I do not lie! Come. Let us seal this bargain we have made, and tomorrow begin a new life for all of us. ”

  Jani swept suddenly to her feet. “I will not agree. There will be no bargain here until I know what you have done to my son!”

  Tintaglia gave Reyn a careless glance. “I have enlightened him, Trader Khuprus. That is all. He will not doubt me again. ”

  Reyn abruptly clutched Keffria’s wrist in his scaly hand. His eyes bored into hers. “She lives,” he promised her wildly. “Malta truly lives. I have touched minds with her, through the dragon. ”

  Beside her, Ronica gave a broken sob. Keffria still could not find hope. Was this true, or a dragon’s deception?

  The whites of Reyn’s copper eyes glowed as he struggled to a sitting position. He drew an uneven breath. “Strike what bargain you will with Bingtown, Tintaglia,” he said in a low voice. “But before you do, we will make our own agreement. ” His voice dropped. “For you have handed me the final piece of a puzzle. ” He lifted his eyes to stare at her boldly as he offered, “Others, dragons like yourself, may still survive. ”

  At this last sentence, Tintaglia froze, looking down on Reyn. She twisted her head speculatively. “Where?” she demanded.

  Before Reyn could reply, Mingsley had clambered down from the dais to push between the dragon and Reyn. “This is not fair!” he proclaimed. “People of Bingtown, listen to me! Do the Rain Wilds speak for all of us? No! Should this one man be able to halt our bargaining over a matter of the heart? Of course not!”

  Selden stepped up to him. “A matter of the heart? A matter of my sister’s life!” He switched his gaze to the dragon. “She is as dear to me as any serpent is to you, Tintaglia. Keep faith with me on this. Show them all that you see my family’s need for her is as pressing as your drive to save your own kind. ”

  “Silence!” The dragon’s head shot down. A tiny nudge sent Mingsley sprawling to one side. Her eyes fixed on Reyn. “Other dragons? You have seen them?”

  “Not yet. But I could find them,” Reyn replied. A faint smile played about his mouth but his eyes were grave and hard. “Provided you do as Selden suggests. Prove that you understand our kin matter as much to us as yours do to you. ”

  The dragon flung her head up suddenly. Her nostrils flared and her eyes spun wildly. She spoke as if to herself. “Find them? Where?”

  Reyn smiled. “I do not fear to tell you. It will take man’s work to unearth them for you. If the Elderkind took cocooned dragons into shelter in one city, perhaps they did in another as well. It is a fair trade, is it not? Restore my love to me, and I shall endeavor to rescue any of your kin who may have survived. ”

  The dragon’s nostrils flared wide. The glow of her eyes brightened. Her tail lashed with excitement and from outside the walls, Keffria heard the fearful cries of watching folk. But within the walls, Reyn stood still, teetering on the edge of triumph. All around him, folk were frozen into a listening silence.

  “Done!” roared the dragon. Her wings twitched, shivering and rustling as if she longed to spring into flight immediately. They stirred the cold night air and sent it whispering past the huddled folk in the roofless building. “These others will make plans for the dredging of the river. You and I will leave at first light, to begin the search for the ancient ruins-“

  “No. ” Reyn’s reply was quiet but the dragon’s outraged roar rang against the night sky. People cried out in terror and cowered where they stood, but not Reyn. He stood tall and still as the dragon vented her fury.

  “Malta first,” Reyn dictated calmly as she drew breath.

  “Seek for your female, while my kind lies trapped in the cold and dark? No!” This time the blast of anger from the dragon vibrated the floor beneath Keffria’s feet. Her ears rang with it.

  “LISTEN TO ME, DRAGON,” REYN RESUMED CALMLY. “HIGH SUMMER is THE TIME to explore and dig, when the river runs low. Now is the time for us to seek Malta. ” As the dragon threw back her head, jaws wide, he shouted up at her, “For this to work, we must negotiate as equals, without threats. Will you be calm, or must we both live with loss?”

  Tintaglia lowered her head. Her eyes spun angrily, but her voice was almost civil. “Speak on,” she bade him.

  Reyn took a breath. “You will aid me to save Malta. And I will then devote myself to unearthing the Elderling city, not for treasure, but for dragons. That is our agreement. Your bargain with Bingtown is more complicated. The dredging of a river for the protection of their coast, with other stipulations. Would you have it set down in writing, and the agreement acknowledged as binding?” Reyn looked away from the dragon to Devouchet. “I am willing to be bound by my spoken word in this. Will the Council of Bingtown deal likewise?”

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  Up on the dais, Devouchet glanced about indecisively. Keffria supposed he was rattled to have control put back into his hands. Slowly the Trader drew himself up. To her surprise, he shook his head slowly. “No. What has been proposed tonight will change the life o
f every person who lives in Bingtown. ” The Trader’s eyes traveled gravely over the hushed crowd. “An agreement of this magnitude must be written and signed. ” He took a breath. “Moreover, I propose that it must be signed, not just by our leaders, but as we did of old in Bingtown, when every Trader and every member of the Trader’s family set hand to the document. But this time, marks must be made by every person, young and old, who wishes to remain in Bingtown. All who sign will bind themselves, not just to an agreement with the dragon, but to each other. ”

  A mutter ran through the crowd, but Devouchet spoke on. “Everyone who makes a mark agrees to be bound by the rules of old Bingtown. In turn, each head of a family will gain a vote on the Bingtown Council, as it was of old. ” He looked around, including the leaders on the dais. “All must agree that the Bingtown Council’s judgments upon their disputes will be final. ” He took a deep breath. “And then, I think, there must be a vote to choose new members of the new Bingtown Council. To assure that every group gains a voice. ”

  Devouchet’s eyes went back to the dragon. “You, too, must make a mark to signify your agreement. Then the Kendry must be returned to us, and the other liveships summoned back, for without them no workers or materials can be carried upriver. Then you must look at our charts with us, and help us mark out the stretches of the river that we do not know, and show us where this deepening of the river must occur. ”

  People were nodding, but the dragon gave a loud snort of disgust. “I have no time for this writing and marking! Regard it as done, and let us begin tonight!”

  Reyn spoke before anyone else could. “Swift is better; on that you and I agree. Let them set their words to paper. Between you and me, I offer you my word, and I am willing to take yours. ”

  Reyn took a breath. When he spoke again, he made his tone formal. “Dragon Tintaglia, do we have a bargain?”

  “We do,” the dragon replied heavily. Tintaglia looked at Devouchet and the others on the dais. “Set your pen to paper, and do it swiftly. I am bound by my name and not by a mark. Tomorrow, Tintaglia begins to do what she has promised. See that you are as quick to keep your word. ”

  Liveship Traders 3 - Ship of Destiny

  CHAPTER EIGHTEEN - Loyalties

  KENNIT LOOKED DOWN AT THE SCROLL IN HIS HAND. THE PIECES OF WAX SEAL ON his desk had borne the sigil of Sincure Faldin. That worthy merchant had adapted to the loss of his wife and one daughter. His sons and his ship had survived the slavers’ raid on Divvytown unscathed, for they had been out trading at the time. As Kennit had predicted to Sorcor, Sincure Faldin had accepted Sorcor’s marriage to Alyssum, for the Durjan merchant had always been swift to see where power resided. This urgent message was but one more effort by him to curry goodwill with Kennit. As such, he regarded it suspiciously.

  The writing on the scroll was laboriously elaborate, and the wording stilted. A full third of the page was an opulent greeting and wish for Kennit’s good health. How like the overdressed Durjan merchant, to waste his ink and his time so painstakingly before unfolding his dire news. Despite the hammering of his heart, Kennit forced himself to reread the scroll with an impassive face. He sifted facts from the merchant’s flowery prose. Faldin had mistrusted the strangers who came to Divvytown, and had been among the first to suspect the ship was a liveship. He had had his son lure the captain and his woman into his shop and ply them with tales to get them to divulge some of their own history, but to little avail.

  Their abrupt departure in the middle of the night was as strange as their arrival had been, and tales told the next day by men who had deserted the ship bore out his suspicions. On board was one Althea Vestrit, who claimed ownership of the Vivacia. The crew of the liveship had been oddly mixed, men and women, but the captain had been that Brashen fellow, lately of the Springeve, and before that, Bingtown born and bred, or so rumor had it. If one could believe deserters, the ship’s true mission was to reclaim the liveship Vivacia. The ship had been a liveship, the figurehead badly damaged, and by name Paragon.

  The inked name seemed to burn into his eyes. It was hard to concentrate on the meandering section that followed and quoted gossip and bird-borne rumors that Jamaillia City was raising a fleet to sail northward and inflict punishment on Bingtown for the kidnapping of the Satrap and the destruction of his tariff dock there. It was Faldin’s studied opinion that the nobles of Jamaillia had long been seeking an excuse to plunder Bingtown. They seemed to have found it.

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  Kennit raised incredulous eyebrows at that tale. The Satrap had left Jamaillia, gone to Bingtown and been kidnapped there? The whole narrative seemed far-fetched. The meat of the rumor, of course, was that Jamaillia City was raising a retaliatory fleet. Purposeful warships passing through Pirate Isles waters were to be avoided. When they returned with the spoils of their war-making, however, they would be fat prey. His serpents would make such piracy near effortless.

  The missive closed with another string of earnest compliments and good wishes, and rather unsubtle reminders that Kennit should be grateful to Sincure Faldin for sending him these tidings. At the bottom was an intricate signature done in two colors of ink, followed by a tasteless postscript exulting over how ripely Alyssum was swelling with Sorcor’s seed.

  Kennit set the scroll down on his desk and let the cursed thing roll itself up. Sorcor and the others gathered in his cabin stolidly waited to hear the news. The messenger had followed Faldin’s explicit orders to deliver the message to Sorcor so that he could take it immediately to Captain Kennit, probably so Sorcor could admire his father-in-law’s cleverness and loyalty.

  Or was there more? Could either Sorcor or Sincure Faldin suspect what this news meant to Kennit? Had there been another message, for Sorcor’s eyes only, in which Faldin bid him watch how his captain reacted? For an instant, doubt and suspicion gnawed at Kennit, but for an instant only. Sorcor could not read. If Faldin had wanted to rope his son-in-law into a plot against Kennit, he had chosen the wrong medium.

  The first time Kennit had read the liveship’s name and description, his heart had lurched in his chest. He had forced himself to continue breathing evenly, and maintained his calm expression. A second slow perusal of the page had allowed him time to compose his voice and manner. There were many questions to answer. Did Faldin suspect the connection? If so, how? He did not mention it, unless the words about the sailors who had jumped ship from the Paragon were a hint. Did those sailors know and had they talked? Did this Althea Vestrit know, and if she did, did she intend to use Paragon somehow as a weapon against him? If it was known, how widely was it known? Was it beyond the control of killing a few men and sinking a ship again?

  Would his past never stay submerged?

  For one wild instant, Kennit offered himself escape. He did not have to go back to Divvytown. He had a liveship under him and a fleet of serpents at his disposal. He could abandon all and go anywhere, anywhere there was water, and still make his fortune. He would have to begin all over, of course, to establish his reputation, but the serpents would assure that that happened swiftly. He lifted his eyes briefly and scanned the people in his room. They would all have to die, unfortunately. Even Wintrow, he thought with a pang. And he’d have to get rid of his entire crew and replace them somehow. And still the ship would know who he had been…

  “Captain?” Sorcor prodded him gently.

  The daydream popped like a bubble. It wasn’t feasible. Far more pragmatic to go back to Divvytown, tidy away whoever suspected and go on as before. There was the ship himself, of course, but he had dealt with Paragon once. He’d just have to do it again. He pushed that thought aside. He could not face it yet.

  “Bad news, Cap’n?” Sorcor dared to ask.

  Kennit managed a sardonic smile. He would parcel out the tidings and see if anyone flinched. “News is news, Captain Sorcor. It is up to the recipient to make good or bad of it. But these tidings are… interesting. I am sure we are all
pleased to know that your Alyssum grows ever rounder. Sincure Faldin also reports that a strange ship has visited Divvytown, professing a desire to join us in our crusade to rid the Inside Passage of slaveships. But our good friend Faldin was not convinced of their sincerity. The ship arrived rather mysteriously, negotiating the passage to the harbor in the dark of night and leaving the same way. ” He glanced back at the scroll negligently. “And there is a rumor that Jamaillia City raises a fleet to plunder Bingtown, in revenge for some affront to the Satrap. ”

  Kennit leaned back casually in his chair to have more faces in view. Etta was there with Wintrow at her side. He always seemed to be at her side lately, he reflected briefly. Sorcor, his broad, scarred face beaming loyalty and devotion to Kennit and pride in his woman’s fecundity, stood next to Jola, Kennit’s current first mate.

  All were resplendent in the rich yields of their most recent piracies. Etta had coaxed even Wintrow into a wide-sleeved shirt of dark blue silk embroidered with ravens by Etta’s own needle. Staunch Sorcor wore emeralds in his ears now, and a broad belt of leather worked with silver held two matching swords. The richness of the fabrics Etta wore was only heightened by her remarkable cut of them. Had cloth-of-gold ever been worn to climb a mast before? In the hold were other harvests from the sea: rare medicines and exotic perfume oils, gold and silver stamped with the likenesses of many different Satraps, jewels both raw and wrought into jewelry, fabulous pelts and glowing tapestries. The wealth in his hold now easily equaled last year’s full gathering.

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  Hunting had been bountiful lately; piracy had never been so effortless. Flanked by his flotilla of serpents, he need do no more than sight an interesting sail. He and Bolt selected their targets and she sent the serpents forth. An hour or two of harassment by the serpents, and the prey surrendered. At first, he had then closed on the demoralized ships and demanded surrender of all their valuables. The crews had always been subservient and willing. Without even a sword drawn, Kennit fleeced the vessels and then sent them on their way, with a stern reminder that these waters were now the province of King Kennit of the Pirate Isles. He suggested that if their rulers were interested in establishing generous tariffs to pass through his territory, he might be willing to treat with them.

 

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