Ship of destiny, p.52
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       Ship of Destiny, p.52

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
 
Page 193

 

  Bolt was visibly angry now. Behind him, Kennit was aware of the gawking of his crew. Never before had the serpents hesitated in obeying Bolt’s orders. Without turning his head, he warned Jola, “The men to their posts. ” The mate obeyed, sending them running.

  “What do they say?” he demanded of the charm again.

  “Use your eyes,” was the whispered retort. “They go to obey her. ”

  BRASHEN HAD REMAINED ON BOARD PARAGON. IT DID NOT SEEM WISE FOR BOTH of them to leave the ship, and Althea could not bear to be so close to Vivacia and not speak to her. In the boat with her, Haff and Jek bent to their oars. Lop, clutching a mooring line, sat in the bow and stared grimly ahead. Althea sat stiffly in the stern seat. She was freshly washed and hastily attired in the same clothes she had worn when the Paragon had left Bingtown. She resented the weight of the split skirt, but the occasion called for some formality, and these were the best clothes she possessed. Indeed, of all her garments, these were the only ones still remotely presentable. The chill winter wind tugged hopefully at her plaited and pinned hair. She hoped Kennit would not see her attempt at formality as hiding behind feminine garb. He had to take her seriously.

  She turned the scroll in her hands and stared at their destination. On the foredeck of her beloved Vivacia, a single figure stood. His dark blue cloak flapped in the wind and he stood hip-shot, all his weight on one leg. It had to be Kennit. Before she had left Paragon’s deck, there had been others with him. She had thought that one young man might be Wintrow. She could not claim to recognize him, but the figure’s dark hair and stance put her in mind of her father. Could it have been him? If it was, where had he gone? Why did Kennit alone await her?

  Reflexively, she glanced back at Paragon. She could see Brashen standing anxiously on the foredeck. Clef stood beside him, hands on his hips in unconscious mimicry of his captain. Amber’s hair blew like silk strands in the wind, and her set face made her a second figurehead. Paragon, arms crossed and jaw set, stared sightlessly toward Vivacia. There was a terrible finality in the brace of his muscles. He had not spoken a word to anyone since Vivacia came into sight. When Althea had dared to reach out and touch his muscular shoulder, she had found it set and hard as wood. It was like touching the tensed back of a snarling dog.

  “Don’t be afraid,” she had told him softly, but he had made no reply.

  A composed Amber sitting on the railing beside her had shaken her head. “He’s not afraid,” she had said in a low voice. “The anger that burns in him destroys every other emotion. ” Amber’s hair lifted slightly in the rising wind and she had spoken in a distant voice. “Danger cups us under its hand, and we can do nothing but stand witness to the turning of the world. Here we walk on the balancing line between futures. Humanity always believes it decides the fate of the whole world, and so it does, but never in the moment that it thinks it does. The future of thousands ripples like a serpent through the water, and the destiny of a ship becomes the destination of the world. ”

  She turned to look at Althea with eyes the color of brandy in firelight. “Can’t you feel it?” she asked her in a whisper. “Look around you. We are on the cusp. We are a coin spinning in the toss, a card fluttering in the flip, a rune chip floating in stirred water. Possibilities swarm like bees. In this day, in a moment, in a breath, the future of the world will shift course by a notch. One way or another, the coin will land ringing, the card will settle to the table, the chip will bob to the surface. The face that shows uppermost will set our days, and children to come will say, ‘That is just the way it has always been. ’”

  Her voice dwindled away, but Althea had a sense of the wind carrying the words around the world. Her scalp prickled. “Amber? You’re frightening me. ”

  Amber had turned a slow and beatific smile on her. “Am I? Then you grow wise. ”

  Althea did not think she could bear the steady gaze of those eyes. Then Amber blinked at her and saw her again. Then she had hopped from the railing to the deck, dusting her bare hands on the seat of her pants before drawing on her gloves. “It’s time for you to go,” she announced. “Come. I’ll help you with your hair. ”

  “Watch over Paragon for me,” Althea had asked quietly.

  “I would like to. ” Amber’s long-fingered hand caressed the railing. “But today is a day he must face alone. ”

  Now, Althea looked back from the ship’s boat and wished Amber had come with her. She tightened her grip on the scroll she held and wondered again if Kennit would be swayed by the carefully penned offer. He had to be! Everything she had heard of this man spoke of a resolute intelligence coupled with great foresight. He had hung out a truce flag of his own, so he was open to negotiation. He would at least hear her out. Even if he loved Vivacia, perhaps especially if he loved Vivacia, he would see that returning her to her family in exchange for vastly profitable trade agreements was in everyone’s best interest. Suddenly, Amber lifted a finger and pointed ahead of Althea. At the same instant, Lop gave a wild cry, echoed by Haff who dropped his oar and came halfway to his feet. Althea swiveled her head to see where Amber pointed and froze where she sat.

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  The sea around Vivacia’s bow boiled with serpents. Head after glittering head lifted from the depths until a forest of serpents stood abruptly between them and her ship. Althea’s heart near jumped out of her mouth. In the boat, Haff crouched and babbled, while Jek demanded, “Do we go back?” Lop crawled through the boat and took up Haffs oar hopefully. Althea could not find words. She had to do something. To have come so far only to see Vivacia perish before her eyes. Yet what happened next was even worse.

  Vivacia threw back her head and sang to the creatures. Her throat swelled and she opened her mouth wide. Inhuman moans, roars and trills came from her mouth. The serpents’ heads swayed, captivated by her song. After a time, they sang back as if ensorcelled by her. Althea realized she stood in a half-crouch, staring at the figurehead. Uneasiness squirmed through her. Vivacia spoke to them, that was plain, and they spoke back to her. The face of the ship as she stretched her features to make the serpent sounds was alien, as was the unnatural lifting and writhing of her hair. It reminded Althea of something, something she had not seen often but was unable to forget. It reminded her of a serpent’s mane unfolding and standing out just before they shook venom from it. Why was Vivacia miming the actions of a serpent? Was she trying to convince them not to harm her?

  As Althea stared up at her, wide-eyed, a terrible chilling knowledge moved deep inside her. She pushed it aside as one flings off the lingering terror of a nightmare, refusing to know it. Mine, she insisted to herself. Vivacia is mine, my family, my blood. Yet she heard herself give the low-voiced command, “Lop, Jek, get us out of here. Haff, sit down and shut up if you can’t be useful. ” She did not have to speak again. She sat down hastily as Lop and Jek bent eagerly to their oars.

  Vivacia lifted a great hand. She did not even glance down at Althea and the three others in the small boat but pointed commandingly at Paragon. From her throat issued a high ki-ii-ii like the cry of a striking hawk. Like a wheeling flock of birds, every serpent head turned toward the blind liveship. In the next instant the entire forest of serpents moved toward him in a purposeful rippling carpet of scintillant colors. Their heads split the water and their gleaming backs wove through the sparkling surface of the waves as they arrowed toward Paragon. Althea had never seen anything so lovely or so terrifying. As she watched, their jaws gaped wide, displaying scarlet maws and white teeth. Like flowers turning to the sun, their multihued manes began to open around their throats, standing out like deadly petals.

  On Paragon’s deck, Brashen bellowed for them to turn back, to come back to the ship now, as if his command could somehow make the small craft move faster. Althea stared back at the oncoming serpents and knew it was too late. Lop and Jek rowed hard, long deep strokes that sent the boat shooting through the water,
but a small boat and two rowers could never outdistance these creatures of the sea. Poor Haff, victim to his memory of his last encounter with a serpent, huddled in the bottom of the boat, panting in panic. Althea did not blame him. She watched the serpents gain on them, transfixed by danger. Then an immense blue serpent was towering over the boat, his erect mane an immense parasol of tentacles.

  All in the boat cried out their fear, but the huge creature merely shouldered them out of its way. The little boat rocked wildly in the serpent’s wake, only to be struck and spun about by yet another passing snake. The brush of the next passing serpent snatched the oar from Jek’s grip and tore the oarlock loose. There was little they could do save to crouch low in the boat and hope it did not capsize. Althea clung to the seat with a white-knuckled grip and wondered if they would survive. As the wild rocking of the boat settled, she watched with horror as the serpents closed around Paragon. There was nothing she could do for the ship or the crew on board him. She forced herself to think only of what measures she could take.

  The first mate made her decision. “Use that oar as a scull and make for the Vivacia. She’s our only hope now. We’ll never get back to Paragon through all those serpents. ”

  BRASHEN WATCHED HELPLESSLY AS ALTHEA’S SMALL BOAT WALLOWED AND swung in the wakes generated by the passing serpents. His mind rapidly sorted and discarded possibilities. Launching another ship’s boat could not aid them; it would only put more crew at risk. If Althea’s boat tipped over, there was nothing he could do for them. He looked away from her and took a deep breath. When his eyes found her again, he regarded her as a captain. He could not see her as his lover just now. If he believed in her at all, he’d trust her to take care of her boat and her crew. She’d expect him to do the same. The ship had to be his first responsibility.

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  Not that there was much he could do. He issued orders anyway. “Get our anchor up. I want to be able to maneuver if we have to. ” He wondered if he only said it to give the men something to do so they wouldn’t stare at the oncoming wave of serpents. He glanced at Amber. She held tight to the railing, leaning forward and speaking low to Paragon, telling him all she could see.

  He cast his mind back over his other encounters with serpents. Recalling Haffs serpent, he issued terse orders that brought his best bowmen to the rails. “Don’t shoot until I tell you,” he told them harshly. “And when you do, take your shot only if you can strike the brightly colored spot just back of the angle of their jaws. No other target! If you can’t hit it, hold fire until you can. Every shot has to count. ” He looked back to Amber and suggested, “Arm the ship?”

  “He doesn’t want it,” she replied in a low voice.

  “Nor do I want your archers. ” Paragon’s voice was hoarse. “Listen to me, Brashen Trell. Tell your men to set their bows and other weapons down. Keep them to hand, but do not brandish them about. I want no killing of these creatures. I suspect they are no danger to me. If you have any respect for me at all…” Paragon let the thought die away. He lifted his arms wide and suddenly shouted, “I know you. I KNOW YOU!” The deep timbre of his bellow vibrated through the whole ship. Slowly he lowered his arms to his sides. “And you know me. ”

  Brashen stared at him in confusion, but motioned for his bowmen to obey. What did the ship mean? But as Paragon threw back his head and filled his chest with air, Brashen suddenly knew that the ship spoke to the oncoming serpents, not the crew.

  Paragon dropped his jaw open wide. The sound that came from him vibrated the planks under Brashen’s feet, and then rose until it became a high ululation. Another deep breath, and then he cried out again, in a voice more like sea-pipes than a man speaking.

  In the silence that followed, Brashen heard Amber’s breathless whisper. “They hear you. They are slowing and looking at one another. Now, they come on, but slower than before, and every one of them looks to you. They are halting and fanning out in a great circle around you. Now one comes forward. He is green but gold flashes from his scales when he turns in the sun-“

  “She,” Paragon corrected her quietly. “She Who Remembers. I taste her in the wind, my planks feel her presence in the water. Does she look at me?”

  “She does. They all do. ”

  “Good. ” The figurehead drew breath again, and once more the cavernous language of the sea serpents issued from his jaws.

  SHREEVER FOLLOWED MAULKIN WITH HEAVY HEARTS. HER LOYALTY TO HIM WAS unquestioned; she would have followed him under ice. Shreever had accepted his decision when he surrendered his dominance to She Who Remembers. She had instinctively trusted the twisted serpent with a faith that went beyond her unique scent. The serpent herself inspired her confidence. Shreever felt certain that those two serpents together could save their race.

  But of late it seemed to her that these two leaders had given authority over to the silver ship who called herself Bolt. Shreever could find no trust for her. Although the silver one smelled like One Who Remembered, she had neither the shape nor the ways of a serpent. Her commands to the tangle often made no sense, and her promises to lead them safely to a cocooning place always began with “soon. ”

  “Soon” and “tomorrow” were concepts that the serpents could ill afford. The cold of winter was chilling the waters, and the runs of migratory fish were disappearing. Already the serpents were losing flesh. If they did not cocoon soon, they would not have the body reserves to last the winter, let alone enough to metamorphose.

  But She Who Remembers heeded the silver one, and Maulkin heeded her. So Shreever followed, as did Sessurea and all the rest of the tangle. Even though this last command from the ship made no sense at all. Destroy the other silver ship. Why, she wanted to know. The ship had not threatened them, nor challenged them in any way. He smelled of serpent, in a confusing, muted way, not as strong as Bolt did, but the scent was there, nonetheless. So why destroy him? Especially, why destroy him but leave his carcass undevoured? Why not bear him down to the bottom and crush him to pieces and share out his flesh amongst themselves? From the scent of him, it would be rich with memories. The other silver they had pulled down had willingly surrendered both flesh and memories to them. Why should this one be any different?

  But Bolt had given them their strategy. They were to spray the ship with venom to weaken its structure. Then the larger, longer males were to fling themselves against the ship to turn it on its side. Once its wings were in the water, the smaller serpents could add their weight and strength to seize it by its limbs and pull it under. There they must batter it to pieces, and leave the pieces to sink to the bottom. Only the two-legs of it could they eat. Waste. A foolish, deliberate waste of energy, life and food. Was there something about the ship that Bolt feared? A memory hidden in the silver ship that she did not wish them to share?

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  Then the silver ship spoke. His voice was deep and powerful, shimmering through the water. It brushed along Shreever’s scales commandingly. She found herself slowing, her mane slackening in wonder. “Why do you attack me?” he demanded. In a harsher voice, he added, “Does he bid you do this? Does he fear to face me then, but sends others to do this task in his stead? He was not once so guileful about treachery. I thought I knew you. I thought to name you the heirs to the Three Realms. But they were a folk who served their own ends. They did not scurry and slither to a human’s bidding. ” His voice dripped disdain like venom.

  Abruptly the serpents were milling in confusion. They had not been prepared to hear their victim speak to them, let alone question and accuse them. She Who Remembers spoke for them all as she demanded, “Who are you? What are you?”

  “Who am I? What am I? Those are questions with so many answers they are meaningless. I have pondered those questions for decades, and never discovered an answer. Even if I knew, why do I owe you an answer, when you have not replied to my question? Why do you attack me? Do you serve Kennit?”

&n
bsp; No one responded to his question, but no serpent attacked either. Shreever spared a glance for the silent two-legs that clustered along the ship’s flanks and clung to his upper limbs. They were still and unmoving, silently watching what transpired. They knew they had no say in this: it was business for the Lords of the Three Realms. What did his accusations mean? A slow suspicion grew in Shreever’s mind. Had the command to kill this ship truly come from Bolt, or did she speak for the humans aboard her? Shreever watched avidly as both She Who Remembers and Maulkin waited for the other to reply.

  But it was the nameless white serpent who spoke. He had remained an outsider to the tangle, always on the edges, listening and mocking. “They will kill you, not at the command of a man, but because the other ship has promised to guide them home if they do so. Being noble and high-minded creatures, they immediately agreed to murder as a small price for saving themselves. Even the murder of one of their own. ”

  The creature that was part of the ship spread wide his limbs. “One of your own? Do you truly claim me, then? How strange. For though with one touch I knew you, I still do not know myself. Even I do not claim myself. How is it that you do?”

  “He is mad,” a scarred scarlet serpent trumpeted. His copper eyes spun with impatience. “Let us do what we must do. Kill him. Then she will lead us north. Long enough have we delayed. ”

  “Oh, yes!” the white serpent chortled throatily. “Kill him, kill him quickly, before he forces us to face what we have become. Kill him before he makes us question what the other ship is, and why we should give credence to her. ” He twined himself through an insulting knot, as if he courted his own tail. “Perhaps this is a thing she has learned from her time infested with humans. As we all recall, they kill one another with relish. Have not we been assisting them in that task, all at Bolt’s behest? If, indeed, those commands come from Bolt at all. Perhaps she has become the willing servant of a human. Perhaps this is what she teaches us to be as well. Let us show her what apt pupils we are. Kill him. ”

 
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