Ship of destiny, p.54
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       Ship of Destiny, p.54

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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  The double strength of the mutual memory seared him. Kennit could recall vision falling from him in pieces, not at all as a man would have lost his sight. Rather it was like someone cut away pieces of a picture before his eyes, leaving him in blackness. In the aftermath of it, he trembled and vertigo took him for a moment. When he came back to himself, he was clutching the fore-rail. A mistake. He had not intended to touch any part of the ship with his bare hands, yet here he was. Linked again. Bound by blood and memories.

  “Paragon. ” He said the name quietly.

  The ship flinched, but did not lift his head. A long silence wrapped them. Then: “Kennit. Kennit, my boy. ” His deep gentle voice was choked. Incredulous recognition overwhelmed all other emotions. “I was so angry with you,” the ship apologized in wonder. “Yet, you stand with me, and I cannot even imagine ever feeling anger for you. ”

  Kennit cleared his throat. It was a little time before he could speak. “I never thought to stand here again. I never expected to speak to you once more. ” Love was rising from the ship like a flood tide. He fought to hold his identity separate from Paragon’s. “This was not what we agreed upon, ship. This was not what we agreed upon at all. ”

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  “I know. ” Paragon spoke into his hands, cupped over his face. Shame swept through him and touched Kennit as well. “I know. I tried. I did try. ”

  “What happened?” Despite himself, Kennit spoke gently. He did not want to know. Paragon’s rich deep voice reminded him of thick treacle over morning cakes, of warm summer days running on his decks barefoot while his mother begged his father to make the boy be more cautious. Memories, all those memories, had soaked into the wood of this ship and were bleeding up into him.

  “I went down to the bottom and stayed there. I did. Or I tried. No matter how much water I let in, I could not sink all the way. But I stayed under and I stayed hidden. Fish and crabs came. They picked clean the bones. I felt purified. All was silent, cold and wet.

  “But then serpents came. They talked to me. I knew I could not understand them, but they insisted I did. They nagged me and pushed me, asking me questions, demanding things of me. They wanted memories, they asked me for memories, but I kept my word to you. I kept all our memories secret. It made them angry. They cursed me, and they taunted me and mocked me and… I had to, don’t you see? I knew I had to be dead and forgotten by all but they would not let me be dead and forgotten. They kept making me remember. The only way I could do as I had promised you was to rise again. And… then, somehow I was in Bingtown again, and they righted me and I feared they would sail me but they dragged me up on shore and chained me there. So I could not be dead. But I did my best to forget. And to be forgotten. ”

  The ship drew a ragged breath.

  “And yet you are here,” Kennit pointed out to him. “And not only here, but bringing folk who would kill me to my own waters. Why, ship? Why did you betray me like that?” True agony was in his voice as he asked, “Why do you make us both face this all over again?”

  Paragon reached up to seize handfuls of his own beard and drag at it. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he cried. The penitent boy’s voice came oddly from those bearded lips. “I did not mean to. They did not come to kill you. They said they only wanted Althea’s ship back. They were going to offer to buy Vivacia back from you. I knew they did not have enough coin for that, but at one point I hoped that when you saw me, you would want me back. That perhaps you would take me in trade. ”

  The voice was rising to an edge of anger now. Paragon’s shock at feeling his presence was wearing off. “I thought perhaps when you saw me, clean and well-rigged and riding level in the water, you would want me back. I thought a Ludluck might want the rightful ship of his own family instead of one he had stolen! Then I heard from the lips of a pirate that you had said you had always wanted a ship like her, a liveship of your own. But you’d had one. Me! And you’d cast me aside, told me to be dead and forgotten. And I’d agreed to it, I’d promised to die and take the memories with me. Remember that night? The night you said you could not live with such memories, that you had to kill yourself because you could not go on? And it was I who thought of it, I who said I would take all the memories, the pain memories, the bad memories, even the good memories of times that could never come again, and I would take them and die so that you could live and be free of them. And I thought of how we could end them all. I took them all with me, everyone who knew what had been done to you. Remember? I purified your life for you, so you could go on living. And you said you would never love another ship as you had loved me, that you would never want to love another ship as we had loved. Don’t you remember that?”

  The memory burned up from Kennit’s clutching hands to his shaking soul and settled there. He had forgotten how painful such memories could be. “You promised,” Paragon went on in a shaking voice. “You promised and you broke that promise, just as I broke mine. So we are even. ”

  Even. A boy’s concept. But the soul of Paragon had always been a boy’s soul, abandoned and forsaken. Perhaps only another boy could have won his love and friendship as Kennit had. Perhaps only a boy who had been as abused and neglected as Paragon could have stood by Kennit’s side through the long days of Igrot’s reign over him. But Paragon had remained a boy, ever a boy with a boy’s logic, while Kennit had grown to be a man. A man could face hard truths, and know that life was seldom even or fair. And another hard truth: the shortest distance between a man and his goal was often a lie.

  “You think I love her?” Kennit was incredulous. “How could I? Paragon, she is not blood of my blood. What could we share? Memories? I cannot. I have already entrusted them all to you. You hold my heart, ship, as you always have. I love you, Paragon. Only you. Ship, I am you, and you are me. Everything I am, or was, is locked within you. Safe and secret still… unless you have divulged it to others?” Kennit asked the question cautiously.

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  “Never,” the ship declared devoutly.

  “Well. That is good. For now. But we both know there is only one way they can be truly safe forever. Only one way to keep our secrets hidden. ”

  A silence followed his words. Kennit let it be. A quietness was growing in him, a certainty. He should never have doubted Paragon. His ship was true to him, as it always had been. He seized that thought and let it grow in his heart. He basked in the warmth of it, and shared that security with Paragon. For this time only, he let himself love the ship as he once had. He loved him with the complete faith that Paragon would decide to do what was best for Kennit.

  “What about my crew?” Paragon asked wearily.

  “Take them with you. ” Kennit made the suggestion gently. “They served you as best they could. Keep them safe forever inside you. Never be parted from them. ”

  Paragon took a breath. “They will not like dying. None of them want to die. ”

  “Well. But you and I know that dying only takes a little time for humans. They will get over it. ”

  His hesitation this time was even longer. “I don’t know if I really can die, you know. ” A space of a breath. “Last time, I couldn’t even stay down there. Wood wants to float, you know. ” A longer pause. “And Brashen is locked down below, too. I made a little promise to him, Kennit. I promised him I wouldn’t kill him. ”

  Kennit knit his brows thoughtfully and let Paragon feel his studied consideration of the matter. At last he offered kindly, “Do you want me to help you? Then you wouldn’t be breaking your promise. None of it would be your fault. ”

  This time the ship swiveled his great head toward Kennit. The chopped place that had been his eyes seemed to regard him. The pirate studied the features he knew as well as his own. The shaggy head, the lofty brow, the strong nose above the fine mouth and bearded chin. Paragon, his Paragon, best of all possible ships. His heart swelled painfully with love of his ship. Tears for both of them stung
his eyes. “Could you?” Paragon pleaded quietly.

  “Of course I could. Of course,” Kennit comforted him.

  AFTER KENNIT LEFT HIS DECKS, SILENCE FLOWED IN AND FILLED HIM. IT WAS A silence not of the ears but of the heart. There were other noises in the world: the questioning cries of the crew inside his battened-down holds, the trumpeting of the serpents, the rising winds, the small sounds of a stern line being released, the crackling of flames conversing with one another. He swung free suddenly in a gust of wind. No one was on the wheel to check his motion as the building storm pushed against his venom-tattered sails. There was a sudden whoosh and a blast of heat as the fire suddenly ran up his rigging. More surefooted than ever sailor had been, the flames fanned out, devouring canvas and licking at wood.

  He would have to be patient for a time. It would take time to spread. Wizardwood did not kindle easily, but once it took flame, the fire was near unquenchable. The other wood of his house and his rigging would burn first, but eventually the wizardwood would ignite. Patience. He had learned patience well. He could wait. The only distraction from his patience was his crew. Those inside his hold were hammering on the hatch covers now. No doubt they felt him drifting; perhaps they smelled the smoke.

  Resolutely he turned his mind to more important things. His boy was a man now. Kennit had grown well. He was tall now, from the direction of his voice. And strong. The grip of his hands on the railing had been a man’s firm grip. Paragon shook his head in loving pride. He had succeeded. The sacrifice had not been in vain. Kennit had grown to be the man they had always dreamed he would be. Amazing, how the sound of his voice and the touch of his hand, even his scent on the breeze had brought it all back. All the things he had lost sight of Kennit had returned to him. And the sound of his voice saying “Paragon” had erased all the imagined slights and hoarded transgressions that had allowed the ship to be angry with him. Angry with him? The very thought now seemed foolish. Angry with the only one who had ever loved him wholeheartedly. That made no sense. Yes, Paragon had sacrificed for him, but what else could he have done? Someone had to set Kennit free. And he had. He had succeeded, and his boy would reign as King of the Pirate Isles. And someday, just as Kennit and he had planned, he would have a son and name him Paragon. Someday there would be a Paragon Ludluck who was loved and cherished. Perhaps there already was! Paragon wished desperately now that he had thought to ask Kennit if he had a son yet. It would have been comforting to know that the child they had imagined was real.

  Down inside him, the crew had torn something loose and were using it for a battering ram against his hatch cover. They did not seem to be doing it with much energy. Perhaps his hold was filling with smoke. That would be good. They could all just go to sleep and die.

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  Paragon sighed and let himself list, just a little, as he always did if he wasn’t thinking about it. It wasn’t his fault. It was a flaw in his construction. It was the sort of thing that was bound to happen when a ship was built from two different logs of wizardwood. One dragon would always try to dominate the other. Fight, fight, fight, that was all they ever did, until he was sick of trying to make sense of those other selves. He had pushed them down deep and decided to be just Paragon. Paragon Ludluck. He said the name aloud, but softly. He closed his mouth. He stopped breathing. He didn’t really have to breathe, that was just a part of the shape they had given him. It was a shape he could change, if he thought about it carefully. Each carefully fitted plank of wizardwood could shift, just a tiny bit. For a time, he felt nothing. Then inside himself he knew the sheen of seeping water, the slow chill of water running slowly down the inside of his planking. Slowly, ever so slowly he began to grow heavier. He let himself list more. Inside him, the crew began to be aware of it. There were shouts, and the thunder of feet as men ran to try to find where the water was coming in. Every single seam oozed water now. The only question that remained now was whether the fire or the sea would take him first. Probably a bit of both, he thought placidly. But it would not be his fault. He crossed his arms on his chest, faced into the rising storm and composed himself for death.

  “I THOUGHT YOU’D WANT TO MAKE THE DECISION YOURSELF, SIR. ” JOLA STOOD very stiff. He knew he ventured onto dangerous ground, but he was sage enough to realize that not to defer this to Kennit would have been even more dangerous. Still, Kennit rather wished the mate had just let them drown. It would have been so much tidier.

  He leaned over the railing and looked down at the woman in the water. Her blonde hair floated around her like a mat of seaweed. The cold water was taking its toll on her, as was the rising chop of the waves. Soon it would all be over. Even as he watched, a wave washed over her, ducking her under for the duration of its passage. Surprisingly, her head reappeared. She was treading water doggedly. She could have lasted longer if she had let go of her companion. The lad in her arms looked dead anyway. Odd, how stubborn a dying person could be.

  The pale woman in the water rolled her head back and coughed. “Please. ” He did not hear the word. She was too weak to shout, but he read it formed on her lips. Please. Kennit scratched the side of his beard thoughtfully. “She’s from the Paragon,” he observed to Jola.

  “Doubtless,” the mate agreed through gritted teeth. Whoever would have suspected that he would be so distressed by watching a woman drown? Kennit never ceased to marvel at the strange weaknesses that could hole a man’s character.

  “Do you think we should take her up?” Kennit’s tone made it clear he was not offering the decision to the mate, only seeking his opinion. “We are pressed for time, you know. The serpents have already left. ” In reality, Bolt had commanded them to leave. Kennit had been relieved to see that she still had that much control over them. Their failure to sink Paragon had rattled him badly. Only the white serpent had defied her orders. It continued to circle the ship, its red eyes oddly accusing. Kennit found he did not like it. It irritated him that it had not eaten the two survivors in the water. It would have saved him all this trouble. But no, it just hung there in the water, watching them curiously. Why didn’t it obey the ship?

  He looked away from it, forcing his mind to the problem at hand. Bolt herself had indicated that she did not wish to witness the burning of the liveship. Kennit glanced up at the gathering storm. Leaving this place suited Kennit as well.

  “Is that what you wish?” the mate weaseled. Kennit’s estimation of the man dropped. Sorcor, dumb as he was, would have been brave enough to express his opinion. Jola had not even that to his credit. The pirate captain glanced aft once more. The Paragon was burning merrily now. A gust of shifting wind carried the smoke and stench to him. Time to go. He wished to be out of the ship’s vicinity. It was not just that he expected the figurehead to do some screaming before the end; there was a real danger that the wind might carry burning scraps of canvas from Paragon’s rigging to Vivacia’s. “A shame we are so pressed for time just now,” he observed to Jola, and then his command to set sail died in his throat.

  The blonde woman had leaned back in the water, revealing the features of the lad whose head she supported just out of the waves. “Wintrow!” he exclaimed incredulously. By what misfortune had Wintrow fallen into the sea, and how had she come to rescue him? “Take them up immediately!” he ordered Jola. Then, as the mate sprang to his command, a wave lifted the two floaters fractionally higher. It was not Wintrow. It was not even a man. Yet the compelling resemblance the woman in the water bore to the lad gripped Kennit, and he did not rescind his command. Jola was already shouting for a line to be flung.

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  “You know it has to be her,” his charm whispered at his wrist. “Althea Vestrit. Who else could look so like him? Bolt will not like this. You serve your end, but not hers. You bring aboard the one person you should have been most sure to kill. ”

  Kennit clapped his other hand over the charm, and ignored the writhing of the small face un
der his hand. He watched in mounting curiosity as a rope was thrown. The blonde woman caught at it, but her hands were so numbed with cold that she could not hold it. A sailor had to go over the side into the cold water with them. He lapped the line about them both and worked a hasty knot. “Haul away,” he shouted, and up they all came, the women limp as seaweed. Kennit stood by until they were deposited on the deck. The resemblance was uncanny. His eyes walked over her features greedily. A woman with Wintrow’s face. A Vestrit woman.

  He realized he was staring, recognized, too, the puzzled silence of the crewmen who had gathered around the sprawled woman. “Well, get them below! Must I command you to the obvious? And Jola, set a course for Divvytown. Signal the Marietta to follow us. A squall is coming up. I want to be on our way before it hits. ”

  “Sir. Shall we wait for Wintrow and Etta to rejoin us before we sail?”

  He glanced at the dark-haired woman who was beginning to cough and stir. “No,” he replied distractedly. “Not just now. Leave them where they are for now. ”

  Liveship Traders 3 - Ship of Destiny

  CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO - Family Reunion

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