Ship of destiny, p.57
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       Ship of Destiny, p.57
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         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  At that moment, Brashen was distracted by a tug at his sleeve. He looked down to find Clef. The boy cradled his injured arm across his belly. “It’s Amber, sir. ” His face was pale with pain and fear in the uneasy lamplight.

  Brashen shook his head. He rubbed at his stinging, streaming eyes. “Do the best you can for her, boy. I can’t come now. I’ve got to keep working on this. ”

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  “No, it’s a message, sir. She said to tell you, try the other hatch. The one in your cabin. ”

  It took a moment for the boy’s words to penetrate. Then Brashen shouted, “Come on! Bring the ram!” He snatched down a lantern and staggered off without waiting to see if anyone followed. He cursed his own stupidity. When Amber had lived aboard the beached Paragon, she had used the captain’s quarters as her bedroom, but stored her woodworking supplies below in the hold. For her convenience, she had cut a trapdoor in the floor of the room. Both Althea and Brashen had been horrified when they discovered it. Amber had repaired the floor, bracing it from below and pegging it together well. But all the bracing for it was below and accessible from this level. Paragon’s hatch covers had been designed to withstand the pounding of the sea, but the trapdoor inside his stateroom had been nailed and braced shut only.

  Brashen’s confidence ebbed when he looked up at the patched deck above him. Amber was a good carpenter and thorough in her work. The list of the ship made it difficult to work here. He was shoving vainly at a crate when his crew caught up with them. With their aid he stacked crates and barrels and then climbed up them to examine the patched floor above him. Clef passed up the tools.

  With hammer and crowbar, Brashen pulled away the bracing. This close to the ceiling, the smoke was thicker. In the lantern light, he saw the drifting gray tendrils reaching down through the seams of the deck. If they broke through, they might find fire above them. He didn’t hesitate. “Use the ram, boys,” he directed them, scrabbling out of the way.

  There was no strength behind their swing, but on the fourth attempt, Brashen saw the boards give way a bit. He waved the men aside and they fell back, coughing and wheezing. Brashen climbed his platform again and hammered at the wood blocking him from life. When it suddenly gave way, the planks of the patch cascaded bruisingly down around him. Yellow firelight illuminated the grimy faces below him.

  He jumped, caught the edge of the hole, and hauled himself up. The wall of the room was burning, but the fire had not spread within yet. “Get up here!” Brashen shouted with as much force as he could muster. “Get out while you can!”

  Clef was already at the lip of the hole. Brashen seized him by his good arm and hauled him up. The boy followed him as he made his way out onto the deck. Cold rain drenched him. A quick glance about showed him that Paragon was alone in the water. A single white serpent circled curiously. The pouring rain was an ally in putting out the fire, but by itself, it would not be enough. Flames still licked up the main mast and ran furtively along the sides of the deckhouse. Fallen rigging sheltered small pockets of burning wood and canvas. Brashen dragged smoldering debris off the top of the main hatch, undogged it and flung it open. “Get up here!” he shouted again. “Get everyone up on deck, except for the pump crew. Clear this-” He had to stop to cough his lungs clear. Men began dragging themselves up onto the deck. The whites of their eyes showed shockingly in their sooty faces. Groans and coughing came from below. “Clear away the burning stuff. Help the injured up on deck where they can breathe. ” He turned and made his way forward through a litter of charred debris. He threw overboard a tangle of rope and a piece of spar that still burned merrily. The cold downpour was as blinding as the smoke had been, but at least the air was breathable. Every breath he drew helped to clear his lungs.

  He reached the foredeck. “Paragon, close up your seams. Why are you trying to kill us? Why?”

  The figurehead did not reply. The uneven light of flames danced illumination over the figurehead. Paragon stared straight ahead into the storm. His arms hugged his chest. The knotted muscles of his back showed the tension of his posture. As Brashen watched, the white serpent rose before them. It cocked its maned head and stared with gleaming red eyes up at the figurehead. It vocalized at the ship, but received no answer.

  Clef spoke suddenly behind him. “I went back for Amber. She’s safe now. ”

  No one was safe yet. “Paragon! Close up your seams!” Brashen bellowed again.

  Clef tugged at Brashen’s sleeve. He looked down at the boy’s puzzled, upturned face. “He awready did. Din’t you feel it?”

  “No. I didn’t. ” Brashen seized hold of the railing, trying to will contact with the figurehead. There was nothing. “I don’t feel him at all. ”

  “I do. I feel ‘em both,” Clef said cryptically. An instant later, he warned, “Hang tight, ser!”

  With a startling suddenness, the ship leveled itself. The sloshing of the bilge left the deck rocking. As it subsided, Brashen heard wild oaths of amazement from the deck behind him, but he grinned into the darkness. They were riding low in the water, but they were level. If the ship had closed up its seams, if they could keep the bilge pumps going, if the storm grew no more violent, they would live. “Ship, my ship, I knew you wouldn’t let us die. ”

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  “It warn’t him. Least, not exactly. ” The boy’s voice was dropping to a mumble. “It’s them and him. The dragons. ” Brashen caught the boy as he sagged to the deck. “I bin dreamin’ ‘em for a while now. Thought they was jes’ a dream. ”

  “TAKE THEM UP,” KENNIT BARKED AT JOLA. HE WATCHED IN ANNOYANCE AS Wintrow and Etta were brought aboard. Frustration threatened to consume him. He had anchored in this cove to wait out the squall and decide what he wished to do. His initial plans to return to Divvytown might have to be changed. He had hoped to have more time alone with Althea, not to mention Bolt.

  “I did not send for you,” he greeted Etta coldly as she came aboard. She seemed undaunted by his rebuke.

  “I know. I thought to take advantage of the lull in the storm to return. ”

  “Whether I commanded it or not,” Kennit observed sourly.

  She halted without touching him, plainly puzzled. There was hurt in her voice as she complained, “It didn’t occur to me that you might not want me to return. ”

  Jola looked at him oddly. Kennit was well aware that the crew liked Etta and romanticized his relationship to the whore. With things as unsettled as they were now, there was no sense in upsetting them, or her.

  “Regardless of the risk to yourself?” he amended sharply. “Get to the cabin. You are drenched. Wintrow, you also. I have news to share with you. ”

  Kennit turned and preceded them. Damn them both for hauling him out on deck in this chilling rain. His stump began to ache with nagging intensity. When he reached his cabin, he dropped into his chair and let his crutch fall to the deck. Etta, dripping rain, picked it up reflexively and set it in its place in the corner. He watched in disapproving silence as they shed their soaked outer garments.

  “Well. So you are here. Why?” he challenged them before either could speak. He gave them almost time enough to gather their thoughts, then as Wintrow drew breath, he cut him off. “Don’t bother replying. I see it in your faces. After all we have been through, you still don’t trust me. ”

  “Kennit!” Etta cried out in unfeigned dismay. He ignored it.

  “What is it about me you find so doubtful? My judgment? My honor?” He set his face in lines of bitter remorse. “I fear you are justified? I showed poor judgment in my promise to Wintrow, and little honor to my crew in risking them attempting to keep that promise. ” He gave Wintrow a piercing look. “Your aunt is alive and aboard. In fact, she sleeps in your room. Stop!” he ordered as Wintrow rose hastily. “You cannot go to her just now. She was cold and battered from her time in the sea. She’s taken poppy to ease her. Not disturbing her rest is simpl
e courtesy. Despite the hostility of our reception by the Paragon, I, at least, will hold to what a truce flag means. ” He swung his gaze to Etta. “And you, lady, are to stay well away from both Althea Vestrit and the Six Duchies warrior who accompanied her. I fear a danger to your person from them. The Vestrit woman speaks fair words, but who knows what her true intentions are?”

  “They approached under truce, and then attacked?” Wintrow asked incredulously.

  “Ah. You were watching, then? They provoked our serpents into attacking by firing arrows at them. They mistook the serpents’ retreat for flight. Emboldened by that, they brought in their ship to challenge us directly. In the final battle, we prevailed. Unfortunately, a valuable prize was lost in the process. ” He shook his head. “The ship was determined to perish. ” That was a vague enough telling that he could later shift details as needed, if Wintrow doubted any of it. For now, it left the lad white-faced and stiff.

  “I had no idea,” Wintrow began awkwardly, but with a sharp wave of his hand, Kennit cut him off.

  “Of course you did not. Because you have not learned a thing, despite all my efforts to teach you. I deferred to my feelings for you, and made costly promises. Well, I kept them. The ship is not pleased, the crew has been risked and a rare prize has been lost. But I kept my word to you, Wintrow. As Etta begged me to. I fear it will bring neither of you joy,” he finished wearily. He looked from one to the other and shook his head in disgust at his own stupidity. “I suppose I am a fool to hope that either of you will obey my wishes regarding Althea Vestrit. Until I determine if she is a threat to us, I would like to keep her isolated. Comfortable but isolated from both ship and crew. I have no desire to kill her, Wintrow. But neither can I risk her discovering the secret ways into Divvytown, or undermining my authority with the ship. Her mere presence in these waters appears to have been enough to turn you against me. ” He shook his head again wearily. “I never dreamed you would be so quick to doubt me. Never. ” He went so far as to lower his face into his hands. His elbows rested on his knee as he curled forward in mimed misery. He heard Etta’s light footstep on the deck but still pretended to startle as her hands came to rest on his shoulders.

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  “Kennit, I have never doubted you. Never. And if you judge it best, I will return to the Marietta until you send for me. Though I hate to be parted from you…”

  “No, no. ” He forced himself to reach up and pat one of her hands. “Now that you are here, you may as well stay. As long as you keep well clear of Althea and her companion. ”

  “If this is your will, I shall not question it. In all other things as regard me, you have always been right. ” She paused. “And I am sure that Wintrow agrees with me,” she prompted the hapless boy.

  “I would like to see Althea,” Wintrow replied miserably. Kennit knew the effort it cost him, and in a tiny way he admired the boy’s tenacity. Etta did not.

  “But you will do as Kennit says,” she told him.

  Wintrow bowed his head in defeat. “I am sure he has good reasons for wishing me to do this,” he conceded at last.

  Etta’s hands were kneading Kennit’s neck and shoulders. He relaxed to her touch, and let the last of his worries lift. It was done. Paragon was gone and Althea Vestrit was his. “We make for Divvytown,” he said quietly. There, he would find a good excuse why Etta must be put ashore and remain there. He glanced at the morose Wintrow. With deep regret, he wondered if he would have to give the boy up as well. He would have to offer Bolt something by way of reconciliation. It might have to be Wintrow, sent off to be a priest.

  Liveship Traders 3 - Ship of Destiny

  CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE - Flights

  REYN HAD NOT BELIEVED HE COULD FALL ASLEEP IN THE DRAGON’S CLUTCHES, but he had. He twitched awake, then gave a half-yell at the sight of his feet dangling over nothing. He felt a chuckle from the dragon in response, but she said nothing.

  They were getting to know one another well. He could feel her weariness in the rhythm of her wing beats. She needed to rest soon. But for his presence, she had told him, she could have plunged down into shallows near an island, allowing the water to absorb her impact. Because he occupied her forepaws, she sought a beach that was open enough to permit a ponderously flapping landing. In the Pirate Isles, that was not easy to find. The little islands below them were steep-sided and pointed, like mountaintops poking up out of the sea. A few had gentle, sandy beaches. Each rest period, she would select a site and descend in sickening circles. Then, as she got closer to the ground, she would beat her great leathery wings so fiercely that their motion snatched the breath from Reyn’s lungs while filling the air with dust and sand. Once down, she would casually dump him on the sand and bid him get out of her way. Whether he did or not, she leapt into flight again. The turbulence of her passage was enough to fling him to the ground. She would be gone for a few hours or half a day, to hunt, feed, sleep and sometimes feed again.

  Reyn used these solitary hours to kindle a fire, eat from his dwindling supplies, and then roll himself up in his cloak to sleep; if he could not sleep, he tormented himself with thoughts of Malta, or with wondering what would become of him if the dragon failed to return.

  In the fading light of the winter afternoon, Reyn sighted a beach of black sand amid out-thrusts of black rock. Tintaglia banked her wings and swung toward it. As they circled, several of the black boulders littering the beach stirred. Napping marine mammals lifted their ponderous heads. The sight of the dragon sent them galloping heavily into the waves. Tintaglia cursed, finishing with, “But for carrying you, I’d have a fine, fat meal in my talons right now. It’s rare to find sea bullocks so far north this time of year. I won’t have another chance like that again!”

  The layer of black sand over the black bedrock proved to be shallower than it looked. Tintaglia landed, but without dignity, as her great talons scrabbled on the beach like a dog’s claws on a flagged floor. Lashing her tail wildly to keep her balance, she nearly fell on top of him before she managed to stop.

  Once she dropped him on the beach, he scuttled hastily away from her, but she did not take off immediately. She was still muttering disconsolately to herself about fine, fat sea bullocks. “Lean, dark red meat and layers of blubber and, oh, the richness of the liver, nothing compares to it, soft and hot in the mouth,” she mourned.

  He glanced back at the thickly forested island. “I’ve no doubt you’ll find other game here,” he assured her.

  But she was not consoled. “Oh, certainly I will. Lean bony rabbits by the score, or a doe going to ribs already. That is not what I crave, Reyn. Such meat will keep me, but my body clamors to grow. If I had emerged in spring, as I should have, I would have had the whole summer to hunt. I would have grown strong, then fat, and then strong again, and fatter still, until by the time winter threatened, I would have had the reserves to subsist easily on such lean and bony creatures. But I did not. ” She shook out her wings and surveyed herself dolefully. “I am hungry all the time, Reyn. And when I briefly sate that hunger, my body demands sleep, so it can build itself up. But I know I cannot sleep, nor hunt and eat as much as I should. Because I must keep my promise to you, if I am to save the last of my kind. ”

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  He stood without words, seeing an entirely different creature than he had but a few minutes before. She was young and growing, despite having lived a hundred lifetimes. How would it feel, to step forth into life after endless waiting, only to be seized by the necessity for selflessness? He suddenly felt pity for her.

  She must have sensed his emotion, but her eyes spun coldly. She tucked her wings back to her body. “Get out of my way,” she warned him, but did not give him enough time to move. The wind of her wings sent a stinging cloud of sand against his abused flesh.

  When he dared to open his eyes again, she was a flash of blue, iridescent as a hummingbird, still rising into the sky. Fo
r an instant, his heart sang with the pure beauty of such a creature. What right had he to delay her in her quest to perpetuate her species? Then he thought of Malta and his resolution firmed. Once she was safe, he would be willing to devote all his efforts to aiding Tintaglia.

  He chose a sheltered place in the lee of some boulders. The winter day was clear, and the thin sunlight almost warm. He ate sparingly of his dried food and drank water from his bag. He tried to sleep, but the bruises from her claws ached and the sun was too bright against his eyelids. He watched the sky for her return, but saw only wheeling gulls. Resigned to a substantial wait, he ventured into the forest to look for fresh water.

  It was odd to walk beneath trees on solid ground. The lush Rain Wild growth towering over swamp was the only forest he had ever known. Here the branches of trees swooped lower, and the undergrowth was thicker. Dead leaves were thick underfoot. He heard birds, but he saw few signs of small game, and none at all of deer or pig. Perhaps this island boasted no large animals. If so, Tintaglia might return as empty as she had left. The terrain became steeper and he soon doubted he would find a stream. Reluctantly, he turned back toward the beach.

  As he drew close to where the darkness of the forest was shot through with the light from the open beach beyond, he heard an odd sound. Deep and reverberating, it reminded him of a large skin drum struck with a soft object. He slowed his pace and peered from the brush before venturing out into the open.

  The sea bullocks had returned. Half a dozen of them basked on the sand. One lifted his muzzle; his thick throat worked like a bellows to produce the sound. Reyn stared, fascinated. He had never seen such immense creatures at close range. The creature lowered his massive head and snuffed loudly at the sand, apparently puzzled by the unfamiliar scent of dragon. He bared thick yellow tusks in distaste, shook his head, then sprawled down in the sand once more. The other dozing creatures ignored him. One turned over on its back and waved its flippers lazily before its face. It turned its head toward Reyn, and widened its nostrils. He thought it would immediately roll to its feet and wallow toward the sea, but it closed its eyes and went back to sleep.

 
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