Ship of destiny, p.56
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       Ship of Destiny, p.56
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         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  “Much better, thank you. Where is Jek, the woman who was with me? Is Brashen aboard? Did the serpents damage Paragon much? How did you run them off? My nephew Wintrow, is he alive and well?” With each question she asked, another formed behind it, until Kennit leaned forward to set two fingers to her lips. She bridled at the touch, then endured it, forcing herself to realize he probably meant nothing by it.

  “Hush,” he said gently. “Hush. One at a time, though you should not be fussing yourself with such things. You have been through quite enough for one day. Jek is sleeping very soundly. A serpent must have brushed her; one leg and her ribs were scalded, but I am confident she will heal well. I gave her some poppy syrup for the pain. For now, I suggest we do not disturb her. ”

  A sudden disturbing question rose in her. “Then who took care of me? Put me to bed here?” Her hand reached reflexively to the buttoned collar of the nightshirt.

  “I did. ” He spoke quietly without looking at her. A smile teased at the corner of his mouth, but he kept it at bay. “It was scarcely a duty I would entrust to my deckhands, and there are no women on board. ”

  Althea’s face burned.

  “I brought you something. ” He rose as he spoke, and tucked his crutch back under his arm. He crossed the room to the table, took up the tray he had brought, and carried it back to her bedside. Despite his missing leg, he moved with the rolling grace of a true seaman. She moved her legs to make a place for the tray. He set it down and then took a place next to it. “This is wine and brandy, mulled with spices. It’s an old Divvytown recipe, very warming, very restoring, and excellent for pain. Do try some, while I talk. It is best when it is warmest. ”

  She lifted the bowl in both hands. The rising fumes were themselves a comfort. Dark spices swirled in the bottom of the amber liquid. She lifted it to her mouth and sipped. Warmth spread through her, unknotting tension, and a sudden shiver raced up her, bringing gooseflesh to her arms. It was as if her body had trapped the cold of the sea inside it and was only now letting it go.

  “That’s better,” Kennit said encouragingly. “Let me see. Wintrow is not on board the ship at the moment. He is serving on the Marietta under Sorcor, my second-in-command. I have discovered that moving a promising man from ship to ship and giving him shifting responsibilities encourages him to develop his seamanship and his ability to think for himself. You have realized, no doubt, that you occupy his room and his bed just now. Don’t trouble yourself about that. He is perfectly comfortable where he is, and I know he would begrudge you nothing. ”

  “Thank you,” she said carefully. She tried to compose her thoughts. Kennit obviously thought of Wintrow as his, someone to train up for heavier responsibility, like a son in a family business. She had never envisioned this situation, and she could not decide how to react to it. “It is kind of you to afford him such opportunities,” she heard herself say. A part of her was shocked at the words. Kind of him to afford Wintrow the opportunity to become a better pirate? She tried to force order on her thoughts. “I must ask this. How does Vivacia react to Wintrow being gone? It is not good for a liveship to be left long without a family member aboard her. ”

  “Please. Drink that while it is warm,” he encouraged her. As she obeyed, he glanced down at the bed between them, as if he feared his next words would displease her. “Vivacia has been fine. The ship does not miss Wintrow that much. You see, she has me. ” He reached up again to caress the silver-gray beams. “What I have discovered is that ‘family’ is not so important to a ship as a kindred spirit. Vivacia and I share many of the same qualities: a love for adventure, a hatred for the slave trade, a desire to-“

  “I think I know my own ship,” Althea broke in but Kennit’s mild blue glance gently reproved her. She lifted the bowl and drank from it to cover her discomfiture. The warmth of the liquor was spreading through her now, relaxing her. A wave of vertigo swept her. She felt Kennit’s hands steady the bowl she held.

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  “You are more weary than you know,” he said sympathetically. “You were quite a long time in very cold water. And now my careless words have distressed you as well. I am sure this is difficult for you to face. Perhaps you thought you were coming to rescue the ship and your nephew. Instead you have discovered you would be tearing them away from a world they love. Please. Rest for a time before we talk more. Your exhaustion is making you see the worst side of everything. Wintrow is strong and happy and convinced that he has discovered Sa’s will for him. The ship is avid in her pursuit of slavers, and enjoys the adventure of the life we lead. You should rejoice for them. And you are safely aboard your family ship. From this moment, things can only get better for you. ”

  She drank until the spices at the bottom bumped against her lips. He took the bowl from her hands and caught her as she swayed. He smelled nice. Sandalwood. Cloves. She leaned her head against the shoulder of the fine blue jacket. The lace at his neck tickled against her face. Lace would do well on Brashen. And a jacket such as this. “I like lace on a man,” she observed. Kennit cleared his throat. She felt her face flush. “I’m dizzy,” she apologized, trying to straighten herself. “I should not have drunk that so fast. It’s gone right to my head. ”

  “No, no, that’s all right. You’re expecting too much of yourself. Here. Lie back. ” A gentleman to the bone, he evaded her embarrassment.

  He hopped from the bunk to stand on his leg while he straightened her pillow for her. Obediently she lay back. The cabin rocked around her. “Is the storm building?” she asked anxiously.

  “Here in the Pirate Isles, we consider this only a squall. We’ll be out of it soon. We’ll anchor in a sheltered cove and let this pass. Don’t be concerned. Vivacia can handle a much harder blow than this. ”

  “I know. I remember. ” She expected him to leave. Instead, he came back to her bedside. Memories swirled through her mind, of another tall dark-haired man standing by her bunk. Her father had taken Vivacia through many a storm with Althea on board. When she was small, this ship had been the safest place in the world. The Vivacia had been her father’s world, where he controlled everything and never let her come to harm. All would be safe, all would be well. There was a strong man in command of the ship, and a steady hand on the wheel. She closed her heavy eyes. It had been a long time since she had felt so safe.

  KENNIT LOOKED DOWN ON HER. HER HAIR, CURLING WITH DAMP, TANGLED ON the pillow. The eyelashes on her cheeks were not so long as Wintrow’s, but even up close, the resemblance was uncanny. He pulled the blankets up and tucked them securely around her. She did not stir. He wasn’t surprised. He’d already tested the mixture of poppy and mandrake in brandy on Jek. She would sleep deeply, and he would have time to ponder his role and how to deal with her questions.

  Paragon had perished with all hands. So sad. The serpents had attacked in response to Brashen’s arrows. That might work, as long as she never spoke to any of the crew. Could he keep her that isolated without rousing her suspicions? It was going to be difficult to concoct the right lies, but something would come to him.

  He stood a time longer looking down on her. She was Wintrow, in female form. With his forefinger, he traced the curve of her cheek, the arch of her brow, the flare of her nostrils. Bingtown Trader stock, well-born and raised well. There was no mistaking one’s own kind. When he bent over and kissed her, her lax lips were warm. Her unresponsive mouth teased his with the taste of the spices and brandy. He could take her right now if he wanted to. No one else would know; she herself might not even realize he had done it. Such an amusing idea curved his lips in a true smile. His fingers started on the top button of the nightshirt. His own nightshirt, he thought, and it was as if he undressed himself. She breathed deeply and steadily.

  “You only want her because she resembles the boy,” the charm said snidely. The nasty little voice shattered the peace in the room.

  Kennit froze. He glared down at the noxious thing. Its s
mall eyes glittered up at him. Were there truly blue sparks in the carved wood, or did he imagine them? The etched mouth turned down in disgust at him.

  “And you only want the boy because he so reminds you of yourself at that age. Only, in reality, you were much younger when Igrot dragged you to his bed. ”

  “Shut up!” Kennit hissed. Those memories were forbidden. They had all gone to the bottom with Paragon. What else had all this been for, if not to destroy those memories? For the charm to speak such words endangered everything. Everything. He knew now he would have to destroy the thing.

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  “It won’t help,” it mocked him. “Destroy me, and Bolt will know why. But I tell you this. Take this woman against her will, and the whole ship will know why you wanted her. I will see to it. And I will see that Wintrow is the first to know. ”

  “Why? What do you want of me?” Kennit’s question was an infuriated whisper.

  “I want Etta back on this ship. And Wintrow. For my own reasons. I warn you. Both Bolt and I would find rape extremely distasteful. Among dragons, it is not done. ”

  “A scrap of a charm, no bigger than a walnut, claims to be a dragon!”

  “One does not need the size of a dragon to have the soul of a dragon. Take your hands off her. ”

  Kennit slowly complied. As he stood and took up his crutch, he observed, “I’m not afraid of you. As for Althea, I will have her. Of her own free will. You will see. ” He breathed out a long, slow breath. “Ship, woman and boy. All will be mine. ”

  HOW HAD SHE KNOWN? PARAGON WONDERED MISERABLY. HOW HAD AMBER known just where to put her hands to reach each of them, both of them, all of him at once? Her bare fingers pressed his wood, and she was open to him now. If he had wanted, he could have reached into her and plumbed all of her secrets. But he did not wish to know any more of her than he already did. He only wanted her to give up and die peacefully. Why would not she do that for him? He had always been a friend to her. But she ignored him now, reaching past him to speak to the others that shared his wood. She spoke to him, but they listened, and their listening echoed through him, vibrating his soul.

  “I need to live,” she begged. “Only you can help me. There is still so much I must do in my life. Please. If there is any bargain we can strike, tell me. Ask of me anything, and if it is in my power, it is yours. But help us live. Close up your seams, and stop the cold water flowing. Let me live. ”

  “Amber. Amber. ” Against all wisdom, he spoke to her. “Please. Just let go. Be still. Be silent. We will die together. ”

  “Ship. Paragon. Why? Why do we have to die? What changed, why are you doing this? Why can’t we live?”

  She would never understand. He knew it was foolish, but he tried anyway. “The memories have to die. If no one remembers them anymore, then he can live as if they never happened. So Kennit gave the memories to me, and I was to die with them. So that one of us could live free. ”

  They were listening still, both of them. The Greater spoke suddenly, his thoughts ringing through his half of the hull. “It doesn’t work that way. Silencing memories does not make them stop existing. Events cannot be undone by forgetting them. ”

  He felt Amber’s shock. Valiantly she tried to overcome it. She spoke to him as if she had not felt the Greater. “Why does Kennit do this to you? How can he? What is Kennit to you?”

  “He is my family. ” Paragon could not conceal his love for the pirate. “He is a Ludluck, like me. The last of his line, born in the Pirate Isles. A Bingtown Trader’s son took a Pirate Isles bride. Kennit was their child, his son, his prince. And my playmate. The one who finally loved me for myself. ”

  “You are not a Ludluck,” the Greater interrupted him. “We are dragons. ”

  “Yes, we are dragons, and we wish to live. ” It was the Lesser, managing to insert a thought of his own.

  “Silence!” the Greater one quashed him. Paragon’s list became more marked as the Greater asserted his control.

  “Who are you?” Amber asked in confusion. “Paragon, why are there dragons in you?”

  The Greater laughed. Paragon knew better than to try to reply.

  “Please,” Amber begged of them now. “Please, help us live. ”

  “Do you deserve to live?” the Greater demanded of her. He spoke with Paragon’s mouth in Paragon’s voice, taking control of the figurehead and booming his voice into the wind. It did not matter to him that Amber heard his thought through her hands. He spoke as he did, Paragon knew, to prove to the ship how strong he had grown. “If you did, you would see it is right now within your power to save all of us. But if you are too stupid to see how, I think we should all die here together. ”

  “Tell her how,” pleaded the Lesser. “It is our time, come again, and you will let us die because a human is stupid? No! Tell her. Let her save us so we can go on and-“

  “Silence, weakling! You have kept company with humans too long. The strong survive. Trapped as we are in this body, we are better off dead if the humans aboard us are stupid. So let her show us that she can make our life worth the living. If she can fathom how to live, we will let her give us eyes again. A Paragon we shall be, but not Paragon of the Ludlucks. Paragon of the Dragons. Two made into one. ”

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  “What of me?” Paragon cried out wildly. Rain cascaded down his blind face and his chest. He gripped his beard and dragged at it fiercely. “But what of me?”

  “Be with us,” the Greater said. “Or do not be. That is the only choice that remains to you. The serpent spoke true. There remains to us a duty to our own, and no other dragon or dragon-made-ship has the right to deny it to us. We can be only one. Be one with us, or do not be. ”

  “We’re dying!” Amber cried. Her voice was weak, hoarse from the smoke she breathed. “Fire burns above us, and water fills the hold. How can I save you, or myself?”

  “Think,” the Greater one commanded her. “Prove yourself worthy. ”

  For an instant, Amber rallied. She reached strongly after the Greater, as if she would steal from him what she must know. Then, a fit of coughing shook her. Every spasm of it set her scalded flesh to screaming. As the coughing passed, Amber faded from Paragon’s awareness. He felt her pass to transparency, and then nothingness. As she died, he felt both grief and relief. The heaviness of the cold water in him dragged him down. The waves were getting taller. Soon they would wash over his deck. The fires would go out as the waves took him down, but that was all right. The fire and smoke had accomplished their work.

  Then, like an arrow striking home to a target, Amber was suddenly within him. She gasped as she plunged deep into the memories of dragonkind. Paragon felt her floundering, overwhelmed by the unending chain of memories, going from dragon to serpent to dragon to serpent, back beyond to the very first egg. She could not hold it all. He felt her drowning in the memories. She fought valiantly, searching for what the Greater withheld from her as he allowed his memories to flood her.

  “It is not in my memory, but in your own, little fool,” he told her. He witnessed her struggling as one watches tree sap flow over a trapped ant.

  She wrenched clear of him as if she tore her own hands from the ends of her arms. Paragon felt her fall, and knew that she dragged in breath after smoky breath, striving for fresh air that was not there. She began to fade again, slipping below consciousness. Then, slowly, she lifted her head.

  “I know what it is,” she announced. “I know how to save us. But I will not buy my life at Paragon’s expense. I will save us if you promise me this. You will be, not two made one, but three. Paragon must be preserved in you. ”

  He could feel her fear. It ran from her with her sweat, she expelled it with every breath. He was struck dumb by the idea that someone would be willing to die rather than betray him.

  “Done!” the Greater announced. A faint thread of admiration shimmered through his words. “This
one has a heart worthy of being partnered with a dragon-ship. Now let her prove she has a mind as well. ”

  Paragon felt Amber strive to rise, but she had spent the last of her strength. She fell back against him. For her, he tried to close up his seams. He could not. The dragons would not let him. So he fed her such strength as he could, pouring it from his wood into the frail body that rested against him. She lifted her head in the smoky darkness.

  “Clef!” she called. Her great exertion produced such a weak call. “Clef!”

  “PUT YOUR BACKS INTO IT, DAMN YOU!” BRASHEN BELLOWED. THEN HE WENT off into a fit of coughing. He let the makeshift ram come to a rest on the deck. The men who had been helping him pound on the underside of the hatch sank down around him. The hatch above was not surrendering and time was fleeting. He pushed his panic away. Wizardwood was hard to kindle. There was still a little time, still a chance for survival, but only if he kept trying.

  “Don’t slack off on that pump! Drowning’s no better than burning. ” At his shouted command, he heard the pump crew go back to work, but the tempo was half-hearted. Too many of the men had been killed, too many injured. The ship was alive with ominous sounds: the working of the bilge pumps, the moaning of the injured, and from above the faint crackling of flames. The bilges were rising, bringing their stink with them. The more water Paragon shipped, the more pronounced the tilt of the deck became. The smoke filtering down into the hold was getting denser, also. Time was running out for them.

  “Everybody on the ram again. ” Three of the men staggered to their feet and took a grip on the beam they wielded.

 
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