The mad ship, p.56
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       The Mad Ship, p.56

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  A silence flowed through them all when he was still. He had used words that Shreever did not know, spoken of things she could not grasp. A terrible dread flowed chill over her. She knew that his tale was a monumental one, a tale of an ending of all her kind, but she did not know why. She was almost glad she could not comprehend the tragedy. Maulkin, still wrapped around him, had lidded his eyes. His colors had gone pale and sick.

  “I will mourn you, Draquius. Your name conjures echoes of memories in my soul. Once, I think, we knew one another. But now we must part as unremembered strangers. We will let you go. ”

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  “No! Please!” Draquius' eyes went wide and he strove to cling to Maulkin. “Do not let go of me. You speak my name and it rings in my heart like the bugling of the Dragon of Dawn. For so long, I have forgotten myself. They kept me always with them, never letting me have solitude, never allowing my old memories to surface. Layer on layer of their little lives they spread atop mine, until I believed I was one of them. If you let me go, they will reclaim me. It will all begin again, and perhaps, never end. ”

  “There is nothing we can do for you,” Maulkin apologized sorrowfully. “There is nothing we can do for ourselves. I fear you have told us the ending of our own tale. ”

  “Undo me,” Draquius pleaded in his thin little voice. “I am no more than the memory of Draquius. If he had survived, he would have been one of your guides, to bring you safely home. But he did not. I am all that is left, this poor shell of a life. I am memories. No more than that, Maulkin of Maulkin's tangle. I am a tale with no one left to tell me. So take my memories for your own. Had Draquius survived his transformation, he would have devoured his shell and taken all his memories back into himself. He did not. So take them for yourselves. Preserve the memories of one who died before he could trumpet his own name across the sky. Remember Draquius. ”

  Maulkin lidded his great copper eyes. “It will be a poor memorial, Draquius. We do not know how much longer we can sustain our own lives. ”

  “So take mine, and draw strength and purpose from it. ” He loosened his grip on Maulkin and folded his sticklike forelimbs across his narrow chest. “Free me. ”

  In the end, they obeyed him. They crushed and tore, splintering him into pieces. Some of his body, they discovered to their shock, was no more than dead strips of plants. But all that was silver and smelled of memories, they took and devoured. Maulkin ate that part of him that was shaped as a head and forebody. Shreever did not think he suffered, for he did not cry out. Maulkin insisted that all partake of Draquius' memories. Even those who were feral were subtly urged to the sharing.

  The silver threads of his memories had dried long and straight and hard. When Shreever took her portion in her jaws, she was surprised to feel it soften and melt. As she took it in, memories dawned bright in her mind. It was as if she swam from clouded water to clear. Faded images of another time came to mind and glowed bright with color and detail. She lidded her eyes in ecstasy and dreamed of wind under her wings.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE - The Launch of the Paragon

  THE HIGH TIDE WOULD COME JUST AFTER DAWN SO THE FINAL WORK WAS completed in a frenzy by lanternlight. Brashen stalked and cursed through the work site the whole night. The Paragon had been laid over and nudged as far toward the water as Brashen could manage without putting too much stress on the wood. With jacks and struts inside the hull, the ship had been brought groaning closer to true. Some preliminary caulking had been done, but not too much. Brashen wanted the planking free to shift as the water lifted the hull. A ship must be flexible to withstand the pounding of waves and water. Paragon must be allowed enough freedom to allow the water and hull to come to terms with each other. The full length of his keel was exposed now. Brashen had rung it with a hammer; it seemed sound. It ought to be, it was silver-gray wizardwood, hard as stone. Nevertheless, Brashen would not trust anything to be the way it should be. His experience with ships told him those were precisely the things that went wrong.

  He had a thousand worries about the refloating of the ship. He took it for granted that Paragon would leak like a sieve until his planking swelled again. Old joists and timbers, left in one position for so many years, might spring or split as they took up the tensions of a floating vessel once more. Anything could happen. He wished fervently that they had had a larger budget, one that would have allowed the hiring of master shipwrights and workers to oversee this phase of the salvage. As it was, he was using the knowledge he'd personally gained over the years, much hearsay and the labor of men who were usually sleeping off drunks at this hour. It was not reassuring.

  But repeatedly, his anxiety crested at Paragon's attitude. It had shown little improvement during the course of the work. The ship now spoke to them, but his temperament fluctuated wildly. Unfortunately, the spectrum of his emotions seemed to encompass only the darker ones. He was angry or bleak, whining miserably or ranting insanely. In between, he sank into a self-pitying melancholy that made Brashen wish the ship truly was a boy, simply so he could shake him out of it.

  Brashen suspected that discipline and self-control was something the ship had never truly learned. That, he explained to Althea and Amber, was the root of all Paragon's problems. No discipline. It would have to come from them until Paragon learned to manage himself. But how did one discipline a vessel? The three of them had considered that question over mugs of beer several nights before the peak tide.

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  The evening was muggy. They sat on driftwood logs on the beach. Clef had lugged the beer out from town for them. It was cheap beer and, even at that, too dear for their budget. But the day had been exceptionally long and hot, and Paragon especially difficult. They had convened in the shade of his stern. He had reverted today to his most infantile behavior, which included name-calling and sand-throwing. With the ship laid over on the beach, he could reach a near-unlimited supply. Brashen felt prickly from the sand stuck in his sweaty hair and down the back of his neck. Shouting and cursing him had no effect on him. In the end, Brashen had simply hunkered down and done the necessary work while making no response to the showers of sand from Paragon.

  Althea had shrugged one shoulder. Brashen could see black, gritty sand trapped along her hairline. “What can you do? He's a bit large to spank. You can't send him to bed, let alone without any supper. I don't think there is any way to discipline him. We may have to resort to bribes. ”

  Amber set down her mug of beer. “You're speaking of punishments. The issue is discipline. ”

  Althea looked thoughtful for a moment. “I suppose they are two different things, though I don't know how you separate them. ”

  “I'm ready to try anything to make him behave. Can you imagine the difficulty of sailing him as he is? If we don't make him more tractable soon, all of this work will have been for nothing. ” Brashen voiced his deepest fear. “He could turn on us. In a storm, or a confrontation with pirates . . . he could kill us all. ” In a lower voice, he forced himself to add, “He's done it before. We know he is capable. ”

  It was the one topic they had never openly discussed. Odd, Brashen thought. Paragon's madness was something they dealt with every day. They had spoken often of many aspects of it, but never bluntly considered it in its entirety. Even now, a silence followed his words.

  “What does he want?” Amber asked them all. “Discipline must come from within himself. He must desire to be cooperative, and that desire is only going to be based on what he wants. Ideally, we can hope that that is something we can either provide, or deny him, based on his behavior. ”

  She sounded troubled as she added, “He's going to have to learn there are consequences for bad behavior. ”

  Brashen had smiled wryly. “That will be almost harder on you than it is on him. I know you can't stand to see him unhappy. No matter how rotten he is, you always go to him when evening comes, to talk to him or tell him stories or
play music for him. ”

  Amber looked down guiltily, toying with the fingers of her heavy work gloves. “I can feel his pain,” she confessed. “So much has been done to him. So often, he has been left with no choices. And he is so confused. He fears to hope for the best, for whenever he has dared to hope in the past, all joy has been snatched from him. So he has made up his mind to believe, from the outset, that every man's hand is against him. He acts to hurt before he can be hurt. That's a thick wall to break through. ”

  “So. What can we do?”

  Amber closed her eyes tight, as if in pain. Then she opened them. “What is hardest, and hope it is also what is right. ” She had risen then and walked the length of the hauled down ship to the bow. Her clear voice carried to them when she spoke to the figurehead. “Paragon. You have behaved badly today. Because of that, I won't be coming to tell you stories tonight. I'm sorry it has to be this way. If you behave tomorrow, I will spend time with you tomorrow night. ”

  Paragon's silence was very brief. “I don't care. You tell stupid, boring stories anyway. What makes you think I want to hear them? Stay away from me forever. Leave me alone. I don't care. I never cared. ”

  “I'm very sorry to hear that. ”

  “I don't care, you stupid bitch! Didn't you hear me? I don't care! I hate you all!”

  Amber's step was slow and heavy as she came back to them. She resumed her seat on the log without a word.

  “Well. That went well,” Althea observed dryly. “I can see that his behavior will improve in no time. ”

  The words came back to haunt Brashen as he paced yet another circuit of the work site. Everything was ready and in position. Nothing more could be done until the tide came in. A heavy counterweight attached to what was left of Paragon's mast would ensure that the ship did not right himself too swiftly. Brashen looked out to the work barge anchored offshore. He had put a good man out there, one of the few of his new crew that he actually trusted. Haff would be watching for Brashen's flag signals and supervising the crew on the capstan that would drag the Paragon back toward the water. Inside the Paragon would be other men, ready to man the bilge pumps continuously. His biggest fears were for the side of Paragon that had been in contact with the abrasion and insects of the beach for all those years. He had done what he could from the inside of the hull. He had a weighted sheet of canvas to drop down along that side of the hull, as soon as the ship was in the water and righted. If, as he expected, water rushed through the gaps between those planks, the flow would press the canvas up against the hull, where the fabric would at least slow it. He might have to re-beach the Paragon, with that side up, for extended chinking and caulking on that planking. He hoped not, but was resigned to do whatever he must to make the ship seaworthy.

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  He heard a light step on the sand behind him. He turned to find Althea squinting out to the barge. She nodded when she saw the man on watch there. He jumped when she patted his shoulder. “Don't be so worried, Brash. It will all come together. ”

  “Or it won't,” he muttered sourly in reply. Her touch and reassurance, the affectionate shortening of his name, startled him. Of late, it seemed to him that they were resuming the casual familiarity of shipmates. She at least met his eyes when she spoke to him. It had made the work situation more comfortable. Like himself, she probably realized that this voyage would demand their cooperation. It was no more than that. He resolutely quenched the brief spark of hope that had kindled. He kept the conversation centered on the ship.

  “Where do you want to be for this?” he asked her. It had been agreed that Amber would stay near Paragon and talk him through it. She had the most patience with him.

  “Where do you want me?” Althea asked humbly.

  He hesitated, biting his tongue. “I'd like you belowdecks. You know what trouble looks like and sounds like before it becomes a disaster. I know you'd rather watch from up here, but I'd like to have someone I trust down below. The men I put on the pumps have muscle and endurance, but not much sea time. Or wits. I've got a few hands down there with mallets and oakum. You move them around as you see fit as he starts to take on water. They seem to know their business, but watch them and keep them working. I'd like you moving around down there, looking and listening and letting me know how we're doing. ”

  “I'm there,” she assured him quietly. She turned to go.

  “Althea,” he heard himself say aloud.

  She turned back immediately. “Was there something else?”

  He ransacked his mind for something intelligent to say. All he wanted to ask her was if she had changed her mind about him. “Good luck,” he said lamely.

  “To us all,” she replied gravely, and left.

  An incoming wave ran up across the sand. The white foam at the edge of it lapped against the hull. Brashen took a deep breath. This was it. The next few hours would tell all. “Everyone, get to your places!” he barked. He twisted his head and looked up at the top of the cliffs above the beach. Clef nodded that he was paying attention. He held two flags at the ready. “Signal them to start taking up the slack. But not too much. ”

  Out on the barge, the men at the turnstile leaned into their work. Someone took up a slow-paced chantey. The rough music of the men's deep voices reached to him over the water. Despite all his reservations, a grim smile broke out on his face and he took a deep breath. “Back to sea with us, Paragon. Here we go. ”

  EACH INCOMING WAVE WASHED CLOSER TO HIM. HE COULD HEAR IT. HE could even smell the water coming closer. They had shoved him down and weighted him and now they would let the waves swallow him up. Oh, he knew what they said, that they were going to refloat him. But he didn't believe them. He knew this was his punishment, coming at last. They would weight him down and pull him out under the water and then they would leave him there for the serpents to find. It was, after all, what he deserved. The Ludluck family had waited a long time, but they would finally take their vengeance today. They would send his bones to the bottom, just as he had done to their kin.

  “You're going to die, too,” he said with satisfaction. Amber perched like a seabird on his cockeyed railing. She had told him, over and over, that she was going to stay with him through the whole thing. That she wouldn't leave him, that everything was going to be fine. She'd find out. When the water finally rushed over them and pulled her down, too, she would found out how wrong she had been.

  “Did you say something, Paragon?” she asked him courteously.

  “No. ” He crossed his arms on his chest again and held them tightly against his body. He could feel water the full length of his hull now. The waves pushed at the sand under him like little tunneling insects. The ocean worked its greedy fingers up under him. Each wave that brushed him was a tiny bit deeper. He felt the rope from his mast to the barge grow tighter. Brashen shouted something, and the pressure steadied but did not increase. The men's work song stilled. Inside him, Althea called out in a carrying voice, “So far, so good!”

  The water crept under him. He shivered suddenly. The next wave might lift him. No. It came and went and he still rested on the sand. The next one, then. No. Well, then, the next . . . Wave after wave came and went. He was in an agony of anticipation and fear. Despite all his expectations, when he first felt that tiny bit of lift, the grating of hull against sand as he floated for a fraction of a second, he whooped in surprise.

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  He felt Amber tighten her grip convulsively. “Paragon! Are you all right?” she called out in alarm.

  Suddenly, he had no time for her fears. “Hang on!” he warned her jubilantly. “Here we go!” But wave after wave kissed against him and Brashen did nothing. Paragon could feel the sand shifting under him as the sea ate at it. He felt, too, a great stone revealed by the retreating sand.

  “Brashen!” he called out in annoyance. “Get onto it, man! I'm ready! Tighten that line! Have them put their back
s into it!”

  He heard the heavy sound of splashing. Brashen ran up to him, through licking waves that must be thigh-high on the man by now. “Not yet, Paragon. It's not quite deep enough yet. ”

  “Cark you if it isn't! Do you think I'm so stupid I don't know when I'm floating? I can feel myself starting to lift on every wave, and there's a damn big rock under me. If you don't start moving me down the sand I'm going to be pounding up and down against it soon. ”

  “Easy, then. Don't get excited, I'll take your word for it! Clef! Signal them to get started. Slow and easy now!”

  “Screw that! Tell them to put their backs into it now!” Paragon countermanded Brashen's order. “You hear me, Clef?” he bellowed when no one made any response. They had damn well better be listening to him, he thought savagely. He was tired of them treating him like a child.

  The line on his mast stub tightened with an abruptness that made him grunt.

  “Heave!” Brashen shouted, and the men with the levers strained against them. They rocked him up, but not quite enough. Once he started moving, he was supposed to tip forward onto a roller wedged under his hull. They would have been smarter to haul it out of there. Now it was only going to act as a wedge.

  “HEAVE!” Brashen shouted as the next wave peaked. Suddenly he bumped up and onto the roller. “TIGHTEN THAT LINE!” Paragon felt Brashen scramble aboard him. Suddenly he was moving, sliding down the beach, deeper and deeper into the incoming water. It was cold, ghastly cold after his years of lying out in the sun, and he gasped with the shock of it.

  “Steady. Steady. It's going to be all right. Take it easy. They'll right you as soon as the water is deep enough. Hang on. It's going to be all right. ”

  From inside him, he heard Althea call, “We're making water, but I think we're under control. You, get onto that pump! Don't wait for it to fill up, do it now!”

  He felt the thudding of mallets inside him as someone packed oakum into a seam that had opened. Althea's raised voice indicated they weren't doing it fast enough to suit her. He was sliding, sliding on his side down the beach, into ever-deeper water. Now as each wave hit him, he rocked. Both design and his own instinct tried to bring him upright, but the damn counterweight on his mast was holding him over.

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