Ship of destiny, p.55
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       Ship of Destiny, p.55

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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WINTROW BLINKED AWAY THE POURING RAIN AND STARED. “l DON’T UNDERstand,” he said again quietly. He thought he spoke to himself and was startled when Etta replied. He had not heard her soft tread through the downpour pelting the deck.

  “Stop trying to guess at what happened. Kennit will explain it all when next we see him. ”

  “I just want to know what happened,” he said stubbornly. He stared disconsolately at the faint smear of flame that had been the Paragon. He had watched the battle, but still could not grasp what had occurred. Why had Paragon so foolishly challenged both the serpents and the Vivacia? How had the fire broken out and why had Kennit abandoned such a valuable prize? Had he taken any prisoners? The emptiness of not knowing threatened to devour him.

  The storm that had threatened all day had finally broken. The heavy rain was a billowing gray drapery between them and the blazing Paragon. Cold and drenched, he stood on the deck and stared at the foundering ship his family had sent. It would take their hopes of ransom and rescue to the bottom. The rain was a relief. He had not been able to find tears of his own.

  “Come inside,” Etta suggested, her hand warm on his arm. He turned to look at her. If there was any comfort left for him at this miserable point in his life, it was Etta. She had put on Sorcor’s oilskin; it hung huge on her slender form. She peered at him from the depths of the hood. A few drops of rain had found her face and jeweled her lashes. She blinked and the drops ran down her face, mock tears. He stared at her, dumb with desire and with the necessity of never acknowledging that desire. She tugged at his arm again, and he allowed her to lead him away.

  Sorcor had surrendered his stateroom to her. The steaming pot of tea on the table and the two waiting cups touched him. She had prepared this and brought him to share it. She indicated a chair and he sat, his clothes dripping, while she hung the oilskin on its peg. Once this chamber had been Kennit’s and some of his furnishings remained. Elsewhere, Sorcor’s taste for the bright and showy overpowered Kennit’s more simple choices. The embroidered and tasseled cloth obscured the elegantly simple lines of the table beneath it. Etta shook some drops of rain from her hair and took the other chair. “You look as woeful as a stray dog,” she commented as she poured the tea. Pushing his cup toward him, she added rebukingly, “I do not understand why I must remind you to have faith in Kennit. Whatever happened, we should trust his judgment. Long ago, you told me he was Chosen of Sa. Do you no longer believe that?”

  He sipped the tea and tasted the warmth of cinnamon. Despite his deep melancholy, it gave him pleasure. Etta seemed to know well that the small delights of the flesh were sometimes the most potent medicine against the deep pains of the spirit. “I don’t know what I believe anymore,” he admitted wearily. “I’ve seen the good he has done everywhere. He is a powerful force for freedom and the bettering of people’s lives. He could build himself a majestic house full of riches and servants, and folk would still lionize him, but he continues to sail, to do battle with the slavers and to free the imprisoned. Given all that, how can I doubt the greatness of his soul?”

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  “But you do, don’t you?”

  Wintrow sighed. “Yes. I do. Sometimes, at night, when I try to meditate, when I try to find my place in his world, I cannot make it all fit together. ” He pushed his wet hair away from his face and looked at her frankly. “There is something missing in Kennit. I feel it but I cannot name it. ”

  A shadow of anger crossed her face. “Perhaps what is missing is not from him, but from you. Perhaps you lose faith whenever Sa’s path for you carries you where you do not wish to go. ”

  Her words numbed him. He had never expected to hear such a rebuke from her, let alone to have it ring so true. She spoke on. “Kennit has his faults. But we should look at what he achieves in spite of all his own doubts and pains. ” Her eyes swept up to his accusingly. “Or do you think that a man must first become perfect before he can do good?”

  “Sa’s hand can fit around any tool,” he muttered. Then, an instant later, he burst out, “But why must he take my ship from me? Not just take her, but change her to a creature I don’t even recognize? Why must he kill those who came only to take us home? I don’t understand that, Etta, and I never shall!”

  “Perhaps because you have already determined that you will not understand it?” She met his gaze steadily. “I read, in a book you gave me, that our words shape our reality. Look at what your words have just done to what is. You have reshaped it to make it a grievance against yourself. Your ship, you say. Is she? Was she ever anyone’s ship? Or was she a living creature, imprisoned in an unfamiliar body and then claimed as a possession? Has Kennit changed her, or has he simply freed her to become who she truly was? How do you know he has killed those who came to free you, if that indeed was what they intended? As yet, we know nothing. Yet you have already decided it is a wrong done you, so that you can nurture your anger and feel justified. That’s no better than wallowing in self-pity. ” Her voice had grown angrier and angrier. Now she folded her lips tight and turned aside from him. “I wanted to share something with you, something that must remain secret between us. Now I wonder if I dare, or if you will somehow twist it to be something it is not. ”

  All he could do was look at her. Although he had had a hand in her transformation, the changes in her could still astonish him. She no longer flew at him with blows when he crossed her will. She did not need to; the edge of her tongue was as cutting as any blade. He had recognized her intelligence and respected her cunning and her courage from the first day he had met her. Now there was schooling behind the intellect, and an ethic behind the courage. It amplified her beauty. He turned his hand on the table, palm up, to indicate his surrender. To his surprise, she leaned over and put her hand in his. As his fingers closed on her hand, she smiled. He had not thought she could be more beautiful, but a sudden light shone in her face. She leaned closer to breathe her next words. “I’m pregnant. I carry Kennit’s child. ”

  Those words shut the door between them, closing him off from her life and her light. She was Kennit’s, she had always been Kennit’s, and she would always be Kennit’s. Wintrow himself would always be alone.

  “I wasn’t sure, at first. Yet, ever since a certain night, I have had a feeling it was so. And today, when he sent me away, as he has never done before, I thought perhaps there might be a reason. So I sat here and I tested myself with a needle on a thread held over my palm. It swung so violently there can be no doubt. All indications are that I carry a son, a man to follow after him. ” She took her hand from his and proudly set it upon her flat belly.

  Misery numbed Wintrow. “You must be very happy. ” He forced the words past his choking pain.

  Her smile dimmed a fraction. “And that is all you have to say to me?” she asked.

  It was all he dared to say. Every other thought was better left unuttered. He bit his tongue and looked at her in helpless silence.

  She gave a small sigh and looked aside. “I had hoped for more. Foolish, I suppose. But Kennit has so often called you his prophet that I-now do not laugh-I had fancied that when I told you I carried the son of the King of the Pirates, you would, oh, I don’t know, say some words that foretold his greatness, or that…” Her voice dwindled away. A faint flush rose to her cheeks.

  “Like in the old tales,” Wintrow managed to say. “A soothsaying of wonders to come. ”

  She turned aside from him, suddenly embarrassed to have dreamed such large dreams for her child. Wintrow made a valiant effort to set aside the hurt boy in himself and speak as both a man and a priest to her. “I have no prophecies for you, Etta. No Sa-sent foretelling, no inspired prognostication. I believe that if this child is pledged to greatness, his heritage will come just as much from you as from his father. I see this in you, right now: that regardless of what other folk do or do not see in your child, he will always reign in your heart. You will see the value of him long before others do, a
nd know that the greatest trait he will carry is simply that he is himself. A child takes root in his parents’ acceptance. Your baby already has that gift from you. ”

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  His words moved her as if he had spoken a prophecy. She glowed. “I cannot wait to see Kennit’s face when I tell him. ”

  Wintrow took a deep breath. Sureness filled him, and if Sa inspired him to speak, he knew it was then. “I counsel you to keep these tidings secret for a time yet. His mind is so full of concerns just now. Wait for a time when he truly needs to hear it. ”

  “Perhaps you are right in this,” she said regretfully.

  Wintrow doubted she would heed him.

  THE SQUALL THAT HAD THREATENED ALL DAY HAD FOUND THEM. PARAGON turned his face up, and tasted the last rain he would ever know. The chop of the waves jolted against him, but could do little to rock him as his heavy bulk settled ever deeper. The pounding on the hatch cover had weakened. The oil-fed fires that Kennit had kindled smoked and stank in the rain, but burned still. Occasionally there was a crash as scorched rigging gave way and fell to his deck. He ignored it all. He was sinking inside himself to a place deeper than any ocean floor.

  Inside him, Amber wept. That was hard to bear. He had not realized how much he had come to cherish her. And Clef. And Brashen, so proud to be his captain. Resolutely, he forced such thoughts away. He must not give in to them now. The carpenter had crawled as far forward in his bow as she could get under the deck. Despite the pain of her scalds, she had dragged herself through the cold water flooding his holds. He wished she had succumbed to the numbing water; it would be a kinder end. But she lived, and clung to his mainstem and spoke faintly. He held himself back from her.

  A serpent butted against him. “Hey. Stupid. Are you just going to let them do this to you?” The creature’s tone was disdainful. “Wake up. You’ve as much a right to live as she does. ”

  “I’ve as much a right to die, also,” Paragon retorted. Then he wished he had not roused himself to speak, for now he was aware of Amber’s agonized words as well.

  “Paragon. Paragon, I don’t want to die. Not like this. Not with all my work unfinished. Please, ship. Please don’t do this. ” She was weeping, and her tears scalded him as sharply as serpent venom.

  “No one has the right to die uselessly,” the serpent proclaimed. Paragon recognized his voice now. He was the one who had shouted mockingly at the other serpents as they attacked him. He butted Paragon again. It was annoying.

  “Dying is the most useful thing I can do for Kennit,” Paragon reminded himself. He struggled to compose himself once more.

  The serpent pressed his head against Paragon’s listing hull and pushed hard. “I do not speak of ‘kennit. ’ I speak of being useful to your own kind. Bolt brags that she alone can lead us home and protect us. I don’t believe her. The memories I have recall many guides and protectors. Surely what one can do well, two can do better. Why is she so eager to kill you to please this ‘kennit’? Why do either of you care about him at all?”

  “She wishes me to be dead, to please Kennit?” The words came slowly to Paragon. He could not attach sense to them. Surely, this was Kennit’s sorrowful will for him. It had nothing to do with Vivacia, or Bolt as she now styled herself.

  Unless she wanted Kennit for herself. Unless she wished to do away with Paragon so she would have no rivals. Perhaps Kennit had deceived him. Perhaps Kennit wished him dead so he could be with Vivacia.

  The traitor thought shocked him. “Go away! This is my decision. ”

  “And who are you to decide?” the serpent pressed him.

  “Paragon. I am Paragon of the Ludlucks!” The name was a talisman to hold other identities at bay.

  The serpent rubbed against him, a long caress, skin to hull. “And who else are you?” he demanded.

  Inside him, he felt the sudden press of Amber’s bare hands against him. “No!” he screamed at both of them. “No! I am Paragon of the Ludlucks. Only that. ”

  But within him, from darkness deeper than any human soul, other voices spoke, and Amber listened to them.

  ALTHEA OPENED HER EYES AND WAITED FOR THE BAD DREAM TO DISPEL. IT seemed she was on board Vivacia, inside her old stateroom. The look of the room was right, but the feel of it was subtly wrong. A memory from the Reaper stirred. That ship had felt this way. Dead wood. She received no sense of the liveship at all. She reached out, but felt only the motion of the vessel. Had they taken the ship? Was Brashen on the wheel, taking them home?

  She sat up too suddenly. A violent fit of coughing shook her. A stray memory surfaced as from a dream: sprawling on Vivacia’s deck, very cold, coughing up sea water. The taste of brine was still in her mouth and stinging her nose. That had been real. The deck under her had been very hard, and not just in the way of wood. She had felt refusal in the planks under her hands. Jek had been with her, but was not here now. Her hair was still damp, so not too much time had passed. The dusk of an early winter evening was in the window, darkened more by a spitting storm. A lantern, wick turned low, hung from a hook.

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  She sat still, trying to piece time together. The serpents had swamped the little boat, and then one had hit it broadside. Boat and all, they had bounced down the serpent’s humped spine. She remembered the slap of the water as she hit it. She had struggled under water, kicking off her boots, but the cold sea had dragged at the heavy fabric of her clothing, each successive wave ducking her under for a longer time. She did not remember Jek seizing her, but she was sure the tall woman had come to her aid. They had been fished out of the water and onto the deck of Vivacia.

  And now she was here. Someone had dressed her in a man’s nightshirt of very fine linen, and warm woolen blankets covered her legs. Someone had cared for her with kindness. She seized on that as a sign; the truce negotiations had gone well. Brashen was probably on board right now, talking with Captain Kennit. That would explain why she had not been returned to the Paragon. She’d dress and go to find them, right after she went forward to see the figurehead. She had been parted from her ship for far too long. Once she had words with Vivacia, surely she could resolve whatever barrier divided them.

  She glanced about the room but saw no sign of her own clothing. There were shirts and trousers hung on pegs, however, and they looked about her size. This was no time to be shy; later she would thank whoever had surrendered his room and clothes to her. Probably the mate. The books on the shelf showed him to be a man of some education. Her respect for Kennit increased. The quality of a crew said a great deal about the captain. She suspected she would get along well with the pirate. In a habitual motion that dated back to her childhood aboard the ship, she reached up and put her palms flat to the exposed beam of wizardwood overhead. “Vivacia,” she greeted her warmly. “I’m back. I’ve come to take you home. ”

  The impact slammed her back against the mattress. Dazed, she lay flat, looking up at the ceiling overhead. Had she struck her head somehow? It made no sense. Nothing had hit her, but the sensation was as stunning. She looked at her palms, half-expecting them to be reddened. “Vivacia?” she queried cautiously. She tried again to sense her ship, but felt nothing.

  She gathered her courage and again reached up to the beam. A finger’s length short of touching, she stopped. Antagonism radiated from the wood like heat from a fire. She pressed against it. It was like pushing her hand into packed snow. Cold and burning both engulfed her fingers, followed by a spreading numbness. She set her teeth and pressed on. “Vivacia,” she grated. “Ship, it’s me. Althea Vestrit. I’ve come for you. ” The opposition to her touch only grew stronger.

  She heard a key turn in a lock and the door was flung open. She spared a glance for the man framed in the entry. A tall man, he was handsome and well-dressed. The scent of sandalwood came with him. He carried a tray with a steaming bowl on it. His gleaming black hair shone, and his moustache wa
s precisely curled. There was white lace at his throat and cuffs, and a diamond that any dandy would envy sparkled in one ear, but the wide shoulders of his well-cut blue coat proclaimed him far from effete. He leaned on a crutch of brass and polished wood, a carefully chosen accoutrement rather than a tool for a cripple. He had to be Kennit.

  “Don’t!” he warned her. He shut the door behind him, set the tray on her table and crossed the room in two sloping strides. “Don’t, I said. She’ll only hurt you. ” He seized her wrists in his strong hands and pulled them away from the beam. She felt suddenly dizzied from both the effort and the numbing rejection. She knew what Vivacia had done to her. The ship had subtly stirred every self-doubt Althea had ever harbored and awakened in her mind every memory of bad judgment, selfishness or stupidity that the ship had ever witnessed. She burned with shame at how inferior a person she was, even as logic tried to assert itself.

  “She’ll only hurt you,” Kennit repeated. He kept possession of her wrists. After one attempt to pull free of him, Althea subsided. He was strong. Better to behave with dignity than react like a thwarted child.

  She met his pale blue eyes. He smiled at her reassuringly and waited. “Why?” she demanded. “Why should she try to hurt me? She’s my ship. ”

  His smile widened. “And I’m pleased to meet you also, Althea Vestrit. I trust you feel better. ” His eyes roved over her frankly. “You look much better than when I first fished you out. You vomited quite a quantity of sea water onto my clean deck. ”

  It was precisely the right mixture of wryly polished comments to remind her of manners, situation and her debt to him. She let her hands relax, and as soon as she did, he released her wrists, giving her hands a reassuring pat in passing. Her cheeks burned. “I beg your pardon,” she said very sincerely. “I presume you are Captain Kennit. I am sure you saved my life, and I do thank you. But to have my own ship so reject me is-” She sought for a word. “Beyond distressing,” she finished lamely.

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  “Oh, I am sure it is devastating. ” Casually he reached up and set his palm gently to the silvery gray wood overhead. “To both of you. You must give one another time. I am sure you are not who you were the last time you were aboard this ship. And the ship is certainly not. ” He added quietly as he lowered his hand, “No creature of any sensitivity could endure what she has and be unchanged by it. ” He leaned closer to add in a whisper, “Give her time. Take time to meet her and accept her as she is. And be tolerant of her anger. It is well-rooted, and justified. ” His warm breath was scented with cloves. Without ceremony, he seated himself on the bed beside her. “For now, tell me this. Are you feeling better?”

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