Ship of destiny, p.51
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       Ship of Destiny, p.51

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  Kennit tried to breathe, but his lungs felt heavy and sodden. Dread and anticipation warred in him. To speak to the ship again, to tread once more his decks would be to come full circle. All the past defeats and pain would be drowned in that triumph. The ship would take joy in how he had prospered and grown and… No. It would not be like that; it would be confrontation and accusation, humiliation and shame. It would be opening the door to all past sorrows and letting them pour out to poison the present. It would be looking into the face of your betrayed beloved. It would be admitting what he had done to ensure his own selfish survival.

  Worse, it would be public. Every man on his ship would know who he had been and what had been done to him. The crew of the Paragon would know. Etta and Wintrow would know. Bolt would know. And none of them would ever respect him again. Everything he had built so painstakingly, all his years of work would come undone.

  He could not allow it. Despite the screaming in the back of his mind, he could not allow it. The past could not be changed. The beaten, begging boy would have to be silenced once more. One last time, he would have to erase the groveling, craven lad from the world’s memory.

  Jola came running down the deck to him. “Sir, that ship the lookout spotted? They’ve unfurled a flag, large and white. A truce flag. They’re taking up their anchor and coming toward us. ” His excited words died away at a baleful look from Kennit. “What do you want us to do?” he asked quietly.

  “I suspect treachery,” he told Jola. “Faldin’s message warned me of it. I will not be lulled by their actions. If necessary, I shall make an example of this ship and its crew. If this is perfidy, the ship goes to the bottom with all hands. ” He made his eyes meet Jola’s. “Prepare yourself to hear many lies today, Jola. This particular captain is a very clever man. He tries to use a liveship to take a liveship. We must not allow that to happen, of course. ”

  Abruptly, his throat closed with pain. Terror rose in him, that Jola might turn toward him just now and see his eyes brim with sudden tears. Feelings change, he reminded himself savagely. This is the choking of a boy, the tears of a boy who no longer exists. I stopped feeling this long ago. I do not feel this.

  He coughed to cover his moment of weakness. “Ready the men,” he ordered him quietly. “Bring us about and drop anchor. Run up a truce flag of our own to chum them in closer. We’ll pretend to be gulled by his ruse. I shall have the ship send forth the serpents. ” He showed his teeth in mockery of a smile. “I doubt that Trell knows of our serpents. Let him negotiate his truce with them. ”

  “Sir,” Jola acknowledged him and was swiftly gone.

  Kennit made his way forward. The tapping of his peg sounded loud to him. Men hurried past and around him, each intent on getting to his post. None of them really paused to look at him. None of them could really see him anymore. They saw only Kennit, King of the Pirate Isles. And was not that what he always wanted? To be seen as the man he had made of himself? Yet still he could imagine how Paragon would bellow in dismay at the sight of his missing leg, or exclaim in delight over the fine cut of his brocade jacket. Triumph was not as keen, he suddenly saw, when it was shared only with those who had always expected you to succeed. On all the seas in all the world, there was only one who truly knew all Kennit had gone through to reach these heights, only one who could understand how keen the triumph was and how deep the pits of misfortune had been. Only one who could betray his past so completely. Paragon had to die. There was no other way. And this time, Kennit must be sure of it.

  As he climbed the short ladder to the foredeck, he saw with dismay that Etta and Wintrow were already there. Wintrow leaned on the railing, obviously deep in conversation with the figurehead. Etta merely stared across the water at Paragon, a strange expression on her face. Her dark hair teased the rising wind. He gained the foredeck and shaded his eyes to follow her gaze. The Paragon was drawing steadily closer. Kennit could already make out the familiar figurehead. His heart turned over at the sight of the cruelly chopped face. Shame burned him, followed by a rush of fury. It could not be blamed on him. No one, not even Paragon could blame him. Igrot’s fault, it was all Igrot’s fault. The cold horror of it reached across the water and burned him. The blood rushed uncontrollably to his face. Dread dizzied him, and he lifted a shaking hand to his face.

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  “You let him take all the pain for you,” the charm breathed by his ear. “He said he would, and you let him. ” The charm smiled. “It’s all still there, just waiting for you. With him. ”

  “Shut up,” Kennit grated. With trembling fingers, he tried to unknot the damnable thing from his wrist. He would throw it overboard, it would sink and be gone forever with all it knew. But his fingers were oddly clumsy, almost numb. He could not undo the tight leather knots. He tugged at the charm itself, but the cords held.

  “Kennit, Kennit! Are you well?”

  Stupid whore, always asking the wrong questions at the wrong time. He wrenched his emotions under control. He took out his handkerchief and patted sweat from his chilled brow. He found his voice.

  “I am quite well, of course. And you?”

  “You looked so… for an instant, I feared you would faint. ” Etta’s eyes roved over his face, trying to read it. She tried to take his hands in hers.

  That would never do. He smiled his small smile at her. Distract her. “The boy,” he asked in a low voice with a nod toward Wintrow. “This may be hard for him. How is he?”

  “Torn,” Etta immediately confided in him. A lesser man might have been offended at how easily he had turned her concern from himself to Wintrow. But Etta was, after all, only a whore. She sighed. “He strives, over and over, to wring some response from the ship. He demands that she react to him as Vivacia. Of course, she does not. Just now, he seeks some reaction to Althea’s presence from her. She gives him nothing. When he reminded her that you had promised him Althea would not be harmed, she laughed and said that was your promise, not hers. It struck him to the heart that she said that an agreement with you was not a promise to him. ” She dropped her voice lower. “It would mean much to him if you would reassure him that you would keep your word. ”

  Kennit lifted one shoulder in a helpless shrug. “As much as I can, I will. It is as I told him before. Sometimes folk are determined to fight to the death, and then what can I do? Surely he does not expect me to allow her to kill me in order to keep my word to him?”

  For a moment, Etta just looked at him. She seemed twice on the point of saying something, but made no sound. Finally, she asked quietly, “They have hoisted a truce flag. I suppose that could be a deception. But… but you will try to keep your promise?”

  He cocked his head at her. “Such an odd question. Of course I shall. ” He made his smile warmer. He offered her his arm, and she took it and walked beside him to the railing. “If things begin to go badly-use your judgment in this-but if you suspect that things may not turn out as Wintrow would wish, take him below,” he said quietly. “Find an excuse, a distraction of any kind. Any kind at all. ”

  Etta flickered a glance at him. “He is scarcely a child, to forget one toy when another is waved at him. ”

  “Do not misunderstand me. I only say what we both know is true. You are a woman well capable of distracting any man. Whatever you must do, I would not hold it against you. Anything. I do not expect you can make him forget his family is involved in this, but he need not witness it at firsthand. ” There. He could not make the hint any broader without actually commanding her to seduce him. Sa knew the woman had enough appetite for two men. Of late, she had been insatiable. She should be able to keep Wintrow busy for as long as it took Kennit to deal with this problem. She seemed to be thinking deeply as they approached Wintrow. He was speaking softly to the ship.

  “Althea practically grew up on this deck. She expected you to be hers. If the choice had been hers, she would never have left you. You will see. When she stands o
n this deck again, your feelings for her will return. Vivacia, she will bring you back to yourself, and I know you will welcome her. Once she is here, you will have to let go the anger you feel over something she was forced to do. ” He smiled reassuringly. “You will be yourself again. ”

  Bolt’s arms were crossed on her breast. All around her, the water seethed with serpents. “I am not angry, Wintrow. I am bored. Bored with your whole recitation. I have often heard of priests, that they will argue until a man agrees with them simply to still their tongues. So I will ask you this. If I pretend to feel something for her, will you shut up and go away?”

  For an instant, Wintrow bowed his head. Kennit thought she had defeated him. Then he lifted it to stare at the advancing Paragon. “No,” he said in a low voice. “I won’t go away. I’m staying right here, beside you. When she comes aboard, there should be someone here to explain to her what has happened to you. ”

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  This would never do. He made a swift decision. Kennit cleared his throat. “Actually, Wintrow, I have a small task for you first. Take Etta with you. As soon as we are anchored, I wish you to take the ship’s boat and row over to the Marietta. Some of Sorcor’s men are a bit hotheaded, and of late they have grown used to having their own way. Tell Sorcor, diplomatically of course, that I alone will be in charge of taking this ship. I wish him to hold the Marietta well back; it would suit me best if his crew did not even crowd the railings. This ship comes to us under a truce flag; I don’t wish them to feel outnumbered and threatened. That could lead to violence where none is needed. ”

  “Sir, could not you send…” Wintrow began pleadingly.

  Kennit patted Etta’s hand heavily. She took the hint.

  “Don’t whine, Wintrow,” she rebuked him. “It will do you no good to remain here and let Bolt torment you. She toys with you like a cat with a mouse, and you have not the sense to remove yourself. So Kennit is doing it for you. Come. You have a gift for smooth words, and will be able to pass this order on to Sorcor in such a way that he does not feel slighted. ”

  Kennit listened in admiration. She was so adept at making Wintrow seem both foolish and selfish for trying to oppose him. It must be a female talent.

  There had been a time when his mother had spoken to him like that, letting the edge of impatience show to convince him of his error. He thrust the memory from him. The sooner Paragon was gone, the better. Not for years had so many buried recollections stirred so uncomfortably in him.

  Wintrow glanced uncertainly from one to the other. “But I had hoped to be there when Kennit met-“

  “It would look as if we flaunted you as hostage. I wish them to see you are a willing member of my crew, unconstrained. Unless…” Kennit paused, and then gave Wintrow an odd look. “Did you wish to leave the ship? Are you hoping to go with them? For if that is your desire, you but have to speak it. They could take you back to Bingtown, or your monastery…. ”

  “No. ” Even Etta looked surprised at how swiftly Wintrow replied. “My place is here. I know that now. I have no desire to leave. Sir, I would remain at your side, and be witness to the creation of the Pirate Isles as a recognized kingdom. I feel-I feel this is where Sa intended me to be. ” He looked down at the deck silently for an instant. Then he met Kennit’s serious gaze again. “I’ll go to Sorcor, sir. Right now?”

  “Yes. I’d like him to hold off where he is. Be sure he is clear on that. No matter what he sees, he is to let me resolve it. ”

  He watched after them as they hastened away, then took Wintrow’s place at the railing. “Why do you take such delight in tormenting the boy?” he asked the ship in amused tolerance.

  “Why does he insist on bothering me with his fixation on Vivacia?” the ship growled in return. She flung her head around to stare at the oncoming Paragon. “What, exactly, was so marvelous about her? Why cannot he accept me in her stead?”

  Jealousy? If he had had more time, it would have been an interesting possibility to explore. He rolled her questions aside with, “Boys always strive to keep things as they always have been. Give him time, he’ll come around. ” Then he asked a question he had never dared before: “Can serpents sink a vessel? I don’t mean just batter it so it can’t sail; I mean send it all the way to the bottom?” He took a breath. “Preferably in pieces. ”

  “I don’t know,” she replied lazily. She turned her head, giving him her profile. Glancing at him from the corner of her eye, she asked him, “Would you like us to try?”

  For a moment, his mouth could not find the shape of the word. Then, “Yes,” he admitted. “If it becomes necessary,” he added feebly.

  Her voice dropped throatily. “Consider what you are asking. Paragon is a liveship, like myself. ” She turned to stare across the water at the oncoming ship. “A dragon, kin to me, sleeps within those wooden bones. You are asking me to turn on my own kind, for your sake. Do you think I would do that?”

  This sudden gaping hole in his plans nearly unmanned him. They were bringing the Paragon about and dropping anchor, just out of arrow range. They were not complete fools. He had to win her over, and swiftly.

  “With me, you come before all others. Should you ask a similar sacrifice from me, I would not hesitate,” he promised her heartily.

  “Really?” she queried him callously. “Even if it were Etta?”

  “Without a pause,” he promised, refusing to let himself think.

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  “Or Wintrow?” Her voice had gone soft and knowing.

  A knife twisted in him. How much did she truly read of his heart? He took a deep breath. “If you demanded it. ” Would she? Could she insist he give him up? He pushed the thought aside. He’d talk her out of it. “I hope I hold as dear a place with you. ” He tried to think of other fine words for her. Failing, he asked her instead, “Will you do it?”

  “I think it’s time to tell you the price,” she countered.

  The Marietta had taken up Wintrow’s small boat. Sorcor’s ship was veering off. Soon they would drop anchor at a discreet distance. He watched the routine of Sorcor’s crew and waited.

  “When we are finished here, you will muster all your ships, every one that flies a raven flag. You and they will serve as escort for us. The serpents must travel north, far north, to a river mouth they scarcely remember, but one I have entered many times in my life as Vivacia. As we move north, we will seek to gather up other serpents. You will protect them from attacks from humans. When we reach the river, I shall take you up it, while your other ships guard the mouth of it. Well do I know that no ordinary wooden ship can accompany them on that migration. You will give to me, Kennit Ludluck, all that remains of this winter, all of spring, all your days until high summer and the sun’s full heat, as we aid the serpents in what they must do, and guard them through their helpless time. That is the price. Are you willing to pay it?”

  In the naming of his name, she bound him. How had she known? Had she guessed? Then he glanced down at the small grinning charm on his wrist. Looking into features twin to his own, he knew his betrayer. The charm winked up at him.

  “I, too, was once a dragon,” it said quietly.

  There was so little time to think. For him to vanish with the serpents now for all those months might undo all he had built. Yet, he dared not refuse her this. Perhaps, he thought grimly, it would only add to his legend. The Paragon was lowering a small boat into the water. Althea Vestrit would be in it. That would never do. He dared not allow Althea on board the Vivacia. Bolt denied the connection, but Kennit would not take the chance. She had to be turned back and stopped now. He had taken Vivacia from Wintrow. He would not chance losing her to another.

  “If I do as you ask, you will sink Paragon?” It was harder to ask now, for he knew that she knew all the reasons he desired Paragon to end.

  “Tell me why you want him to be gone. Say the words. ”

  He to
ok a breath and met her gaze. “I suppose my motives are the same as yours,” he said coldly. “You do not wish Althea to come aboard, for you fear she would ‘bring you back to yourself. ’ ” He lifted his eyes and stared at the Paragon. “There floats a piece of myself I could do without. ”

  “Then it seems wisest, for both of us,” she agreed coldly. “He is mad. I cannot count on him to aid us; worse, as a liveship, he could follow us up the river and oppose us. He can never fly again as a dragon. So let us put him out of his misery. And end your misery as well, while binding you to me. Only me. ”

  Jealousy. This time it was unmistakable. She would tolerate no rivals for his attention, let alone so potent a competitor as Paragon. In this also, they were alike. She tucked her chin to her chest and summoned the serpents. The sound she made was something Kennit more felt than heard. Their serpent escort had lagged behind them to hunt and feed, but at her call, they came swiftly. Kennit felt their response, and then the water around the bow boiled with serpents. An instant later a forest of attentive heads upon gracefully curved necks rose around them. The green-gold serpent from Others’ Island came to the front of the throng. When Bolt paused, the serpent opened her jaws and roared something back at her. Bolt threw back her head and sang. Her voice battled against a wind that promised a storm to come. There were several exchanges of moans, bellows and high, thin cries between the two. Two other serpents added their voices as well. Kennit grew restless. This had to be a discussion of Bolt’s orders. That had not happened before. He did not think it auspicious, but dared not interrupt her with a question. His own crew was now listening and watching curiously. He glanced down to his hands gripping the railing, and saw the small face at his wrist staring up at him. He brought the charm close to his face.

  “Do they oppose her?” he demanded of it.

  “They question the necessity. She Who Remembers thinks Paragon might be useful to them alive. Bolt counters that he is both mad and a servile tool of the humans aboard him. Shreever asks if they may eat him for his memories. Bolt opposes this. She Who Remembers demands to know why. Now Maulkin asks if the ship holds knowledge she wishes to keep from the serpents. ”

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