Ship of destiny, p.58
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       Ship of Destiny, p.58

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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  A plan unfolded in Reyn’s head. Silently, he retreated from the beach. Sticks were plentiful under the trees; he selected one that was straight, stout and long, then lashed his knife firmly to the end of it. He had never hunted before, let alone killed for meat, but he was not daunted. How hard could it be to creep up on one of the fat, docile creatures and make an end of it? A single spear thrust through the neck would provide fresh meat for both of them. When his makeshift spear was to his satisfaction, he sharpened another stake to back it up, then circled through the woods to the far end of the beach. When he emerged from the trees onto the sand, he bent low and raced up the beach to put himself between the creatures and their retreat to the water.

  He had expected some alarm at the sight of him. One or two turned their heads to regard him, but the bulk of the herd went on dozing and sunbathing. Even the nervous fellow who had earlier bellowed at the dragon’s scent ignored him. Emboldened, he chose a target on the outskirts of the scattered herd: a fine, fat one, scarred by a long life. It would not be tender, but there would be lots of it, and he surmised that would be more important to Tintaglia.

  His crouching stalk was a foolish waste of time. The sea bullock did not so much as open an eye until Reyn was within a spear’s length of it. Feeling almost ashamed for killing such dull prey, Reyn drew back his arm. The creature’s wrinkled hide looked thick. He wanted to give it a swift death. He took a deep breath and put all his weight behind his thrust as he stabbed.

  A moment before the point touched flesh, the sea bullock rolled to its feet with a roar. Reyn knew instantly that he had misjudged the creatures’ temperaments. The spear that he had aimed at the animal’s neck plunged deeply in behind its shoulder. Blood sprayed from the sea bullock’s nostrils. He’d pierced his prey’s lung. He clung doggedly to his spear and tried to thrust it deeper as the entire herd stirred to sudden activity.

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  With a roar, the animal spun to confront him. Reyn was carried along on his spear, his feet dragging in the sand. He barely managed to keep a grip on his sharpened stake. It now looked as effective as a handful of daisies, but it was the only weapon he had. For a stride, he managed to get his feet under him. He used his thrust to push the spear deeper. The animal bellowed again, blood starting from its mouth now as well as flying from its nostrils. He would win. Through the shaft of the spear, he could feel its strength waning.

  Then another sea bullock seized a great mouthful of his cloak and jerked him off his feet. He lost his grip on the spear, and as he went down, the wounded animal turned on him. Its big dull tusks suddenly looked sharp and powerful as it lunged at Reyn, jaws wide. He rolled clear of the attack, but that motion wrapped his cloak around him. He fought his sharpened stick clear of the entrapping fabric, and then jerked his foot away from the snapping jaws. He tried to stand up, but the other animal still gripped a corner of his cloak. It threw its head from side to side, jerking Reyn to his knees. Other sea bullocks were closing in swiftly. Reyn tried to tear free of his cloak and flee, but the knots defied him. Somehow, he had lost his sharpened stake. Another animal butted him, slamming him into the bullock that still gripped his cloak. He had a brief glimpse of his prey sprawling dead on the sand. Much good that did him now.

  Tintaglia’s shrill ki-i-i split the winter sky. Without releasing his cloak, the animal that held it twisted its head to stare up at the sky. An instant later, the entire herd was in a humping gallop toward the water. Reyn was dragged along, his cloak snagged on the sea bullock’s tusks.

  When the dragon hit the bullock, Reyn thought his neck would snap. They skidded through the sand together, the sea bullock squealing with amazing shrillness as Tintaglia’s jaws closed on its neck. With a single bite, she half-severed its head from its thick shoulders. The head, Reyn’s cloak still clutched in its jaws, sagged to one side of the twitching body under Tintaglia’s hind feet. Dazed, he crawled toward it and unsnagged his cloak from its tusks.

  “Mine!” roared Tintaglia, darting her head at him menacingly. “My kill! My food! Get away from it. ”

  As he stumbled hastily away, she lowered her jaws over the animal’s belly. A single bite and she lifted her head, to snap up and gulp down the dangling entrails. A waft of gut stench drifted over Reyn. She swallowed. “My meat!” she warned him again, and lowered her head for another bite.

  “There’s another one over there. You can eat him, too,” Reyn told her. He waved a hand at the sea bullock with the spear in it. He collapsed onto the sand, and finally succeeded in undoing the ties of his cloak. Snatching it off, he threw it down in disgust. Whatever had made him think he could hunt? He was a digger, a thinker, an explorer. Not a hunter.

  Tintaglia had frozen, a dripping mouthful of entrails dangling from her jaws. She stared at him, the silver of her eyes glistening. Then she threw her head back, snapped down her mouthful and demanded, “I can eat your kill? That is what you said?”

  “I killed it for you. You don’t think I could eat an animal that size, do you?”

  She turned her head as if he were something she had never seen before. “Frankly, I was amazed that you could kill one. I thought you must have been very hungry to try. ”

  “No. It’s for you. You said you were hungry. Though maybe I could take some of the meat with me for tomorrow. ” Perhaps by then the sight of her feeding and the smell of blood would not seem so disgusting.

  She turned her head sideways to shear off most of the sea bullock’s neck hump. She chewed twice, and swallowed. “You meant it for me? When you killed it?”

  “Yes. ”

  “And what do you want from me in return?” she asked guardedly.

  “Nothing more than what we’ve already agreed upon: help me find Malta. I saw that you wouldn’t find much game here. We travel better if you are well fed. That is all I was thinking. ”

  “Indeed. ”

  He could not read her odd inflection. He limped over to the animal he had killed and managed, on his third effort, to pull out the spear. He recovered his knife, cleaned it off and put it back in its sheath.

  Tintaglia ate her kill down to a collapse of bones before she began on his. Reyn watched in a sort of awe. He had not dreamed her belly could hold that much. Halfway through his kill, she slowed her famished devouring. Jaws and claws, she seized what remained of the carcass and dragged it up the beach out of reach of the incoming tide and adjacent to his fire. Without a word, she curled herself protectively around the carcass and fell into a deep sleep.

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  Reyn awoke shivering in full dark. The chill and damp of the night had penetrated his misused cloak and his fire had died to coals. He replenished it and found himself suddenly hungry. He tiptoed past the curl of Tintaglia’s tail and hunched over the chewed carcass in the darkness. While he was still trying to find some meat that was unmarred by the dragon’s teeth and saliva, she opened one huge eye. She regarded him without surprise. “I left you both front flippers,” she told him, and then closed her eyes again.

  He suspected she had portioned him the least appetizing part of the animal, but he cut off both platter-sized limbs. The fat, pink, hairless flippers with their dulled black claws did little to tempt his appetite, but he speared one on a stick and propped the meat over his fire. In a short time, the savory smell of fat meat cooking filled the night. By the time it was cooked, his stomach was rumbling his hunger. The fat was crisp and dripping, and the meat of the reduced digits was as flavorful as anything he’d ever eaten. He put the other flipper on to cook before he’d finished eating the first one.

  Tintaglia woke, snuffing, just as he took the second fin from the fire. “Do you want some?” he asked reluctantly.

  “Scarcely!” she replied with some humor. As he ate the second flipper, she finished off the rest of the animal. She ate in a more leisurely manner now and her enjoyment was obvious. Reyn nibbled the last meat from the bo
nes and tossed them into the embers of the fire. He washed the grease from his hands in the icy lap of the waves. When he returned, he built up the fire against the deepening chill of the night. Tintaglia sighed contentedly and stretched out, her belly toward the fire. Reyn, seated between the dragon and the fire, found himself cradled in stupefying warmth. He lay on top of his cloak and closed his eyes.

  “You are different from what I expected humans to be,” Tintaglia observed.

  “You are not what I thought a dragon would be,” he replied. He heaved a sigh of satiation. “We’ll fly at first light?”

  “Of course. Though if I had my choice, I’d stay here and pick off a few more of those sea bullocks. ”

  “You can’t still be hungry. ”

  “Not now. But one should always have a care for the morrow. ”

  For a time, silence hovered between them. Then Reyn had to ask, “Will you grow even larger than you are now?”

  “Of course. Why wouldn’t I?”

  “I just thought… well, you seem very large now. How big do dragons get?”

  “While we live, we grow. So it depends on how long one lives. ”

  “How long do you expect to live?”

  She gave a snort of amusement. “As long as I can. How long do you expect to live?”

  “Well… eighty years would be a good, long life. But few Rain Wilders last that long. ” He tried to confront his own mortality. “My father died when he was forty-three. If I am fortunate, I hope to have another score of years. Enough to have children and see them past their childhood. ”

  “A mere sneeze of time. ” Tintaglia stretched negligently. “I suspect that your years will stretch far longer than that, now that you have journeyed with a dragon. ”

  “Do you mean it will just seem that way?” Reyn asked, attempting levity at her confusing words.

  “No. Not at all. Do you know nothing? Do you think a few scales or bronze eyes are all a dragon can share with her companion? As you take on more of my characteristics, your years will stretch out as well. I would not be surprised to see you pass the century mark, and still keep the use of your limbs. At least, so it was with the Elderlings. Some of them reached three and four centuries. But of course, those ones had generations of dragon-touch to draw on. You may not live so long, but your children likely will. ”

  Reyn sat up, suddenly wide-awake. “Are you teasing me?”

  “Of course not. Why would I?”

  “Nothing. I just… I am not sure I wish to live that long. ” He was silent for a time. He imagined watching his mother and older brother die. That was tolerable; one expected to see one’s parents die. But what if he had to watch Malta grow old and die? What if they had children and he had to see them, too, become feeble and fade while he himself remained able and alert? An extended lifetime seemed a dubious reward for the doubtful honor of being a dragon’s companion. He spoke his next thought aloud. “I’d give all the years I hope to see for a single one assured with Malta. ”

  The speaking of her name was like a magical summoning. He saw her in his mind’s eye, the luster of her black hair, and how her eyes had shone as she looked up at him. His traitor memory took him back to the harvest ball, and holding her in his arms as they swept around the dance floor. Her Presentation Ball and he had given her but one dance before he had rushed off to save the world. Instead of which he had lost everything, including Malta.

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  His hand remembered the smallness of her fingers in his. Her head came only to his chin. He pushed away savagely the thought of Malta on a Chalcedean galley. The ways of Chalcedean men and unprotected women were well known. Terrible fear and seething anger rocketed through him. In their wake, he felt weak and negligent. It was all his fault, that she had been so endangered. She could not forgive him. He would not even dare ask it. Even if he rescued her and took her safely home, he doubted that she would ever endure his presence again. Despair roiled in him.

  “Such a storm of emotions as humans can evoke, all on the basis of imagination,” the dragon observed condescendingly. In a more reflective voice she asked, “Do you do this because you live such short lives? Tell yourselves wild tales of what might happen tomorrow, and feel all the feelings of events that will never happen? Perhaps to make up for the pasts you cannot recall, you invent futures that will not exist. ”

  “Perhaps,” Reyn agreed grudgingly. Her amusement stung him. “I suppose dragons never need imagine futures, being so rich with pasts to recall. ”

  She made an odd sound in her throat. He was not sure if she was amused or annoyed at his jab. “I do not need to imagine a future. I know the future that will be. Dragons will be restored to their rightful place as Lords of the Three Realms. We will once more rule the sky, the sea and the land. ” She closed her eyes.

  Reyn mulled over what she had said. “And where is this Land of the Dragons? Upriver from Trehaug, past the Rain Wilds?”

  One eye opened halfway. This time he was sure he saw amusement in the silver glints. “Land of the Dragons? As if there were only one, a space defined by boundaries? Now there is a future only a human could imagine. We rule the sky. We rule the sea. And we rule the land. All land, everywhere. ” The eye started to close again.

  “But what about us? What about our cities, our farms, our fields and vineyards?”

  The eye slid open again. “What about them? Humans will continue to squabble with other humans about who can harvest plants where, and what cow belongs to whom. That is the way of humanity. Dragons know better. What there is on the earth belongs to the one who eats it first. My kill is my food. Your kill is your food. It is all very simple. ”

  Earlier in the day, he had almost felt love for her. He had marveled at her blue sparkle as she glinted across the sky. She had come to his rescue when the sea bullocks would have killed him and freed her from her promise. Even now, he rested in the shelter she made with her body and the fire. But whenever they approached true companionship, she would say something so arrogant and alien that all he could feel for her was wariness. He closed his eyes but could not sleep for pondering what he had turned loose on the world. If she kept her word and rescued Malta, then he must keep his. He imagined serpents hatching into dragons, and other dragons emerging from the buried city. Was he selling humanity into slavery for the sake of one woman? Try as he would, he could not make it seem too high a price.

  MALTA TAPPED ON THE DOOR, THEN HURRIED IN WITHOUT WAITING FOR A reply. She exclaimed in annoyance at the darkness. Two strides carried her across the room. She tugged open the window curtain. “You shouldn’t lie about in the dark and pity yourself,” she told Cosgo sternly.

  He looked up at her from his pallet. His eyes were squinted nearly shut. “I’m dying,” he complained hoarsely. “And no one cares. He deliberately makes the ship pitch, I know he does. Just so he can mock me before the crew. ”

  “No, he does not. The Motley just moves like that. He showed me, last night at dinner. It has to do with her hull design. If you would come up on deck, breathe some cool air and look at the water, the motion would not bother you so much. ”

  “You only say that. I know what would help me. Smoke. It is a sure cure for seasickness. ”

  “It’s true. I was sick my first two days aboard. Captain Red told me to try that, and I was so desperate that I did. It works. He said it is something about seeing the ship move in relation to the water. When you sit in here and watch the walls, or huddle in the dark, your belly can’t make sense of what your head feels. ”

  “Perhaps my belly can’t make sense of what my head knows,” Cosgo retorted. “I am the Magnadon Satrap of all Jamaillia. Yet a ragtag gang of pirates holds me prisoner in appalling conditions. I hold the Pearl Throne: I am Beloved of Sa. I am descended of a thousand wise rulers dating back to the beginning of the world. Yet you speak to me as if I were a child, and do not even grant me the courtesy of formal address. ”
He turned his face to the wall. “Death is better. Let me die and then the world will rise up in wrath and punish all of you for what you have done. ”

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  Every shred of sympathy that Malta had for him vanished beneath his wave of self-pity. Appalling conditions indeed. He meant that his room was small and that no one but herself would wait on him. It irked him most that she had been given her own chamber. The Motley was not a capacious ship, but these particular pirates assigned a high priority to comfort. She had intended to coax him to the captain’s table. She abandoned the idea but made a final effort. “You would do better to show a bit of spirit rather than sulking like a child and imagining some future revenge on behalf of your dead body. Right now, the name you carry is the only thing that makes you valuable to them. Stand up and show them there is a man behind that title. Then they may respect you. ”

  “The respect of pirates, murderers and thieves! Now there is a lofty goal for me. ” He rolled to face her. His face was pale and thin. His eyes roved up and down her disgustedly. “And do they respect you for how quickly you have turned on me? Do they respect how swiftly you whored yourself to them for the sake of your life?”

  The old Malta would have slapped his insolent staring face. But the new Malta could ignore insults, swallow affront and adapt to any situation. This Malta would survive. She shook out the bright skirts she wore, red layered upon yellow over blue. Her stockings were red and white stripes, very warm. Her shirt was white, but the vest that buttoned snugly over it was both yellow and red. She had pieced it together herself last night. The scraps of the garments she had cannibalized to make it now formed her new headwear.

  “I will be late,” she told him coolly. “I will bring you something to eat later. ”

  “I shall have small appetite for your scraps and leavings,” he told her sourly. As she reached the door he added, “Your ‘hat’ doesn’t fit well. It doesn’t cover your scar. ”

  “It wasn’t intended to. ” She did not look back at him.

  “Bring me some smoking herbs instead!” he suddenly yelled. “I know that they have some on board. They must! You lie when you say that they have none. They are the only thing that can settle my belly, and you deliberately keep them from me. You witless whore! You stupid female!”

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