Ship of destiny, p.61
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       Ship of Destiny, p.61

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  A spark of hope kindled in Ronica’s eyes. “I am sure we could,” Keffria replied almost immediately. With a rueful laugh she added, “I can think of no household goods that we could not find a use for. ”

  Jani smiled, well-pleased with herself. She had feared it would seem too much as if she were buying Selden from his family. In truth, she felt she had struck that best of all bargains, the one in which each Trader felt she had won the best of the trade. “Let us make a list of what you need most,” she suggested. She set a hand on Selden’s shoulder, taking care that it did not seem too possessive. “When we reach Trehaug, Selden can help me select what he thinks will suit you best. ”

  Liveship Traders 3 - Ship of Destiny



  “Not for long,” Amber assured him. She set her gloved hand briefly to his deck. It was a gesture of kindness, but a gesture only. She had slept deeply for a long time and he had looked forward to her awakening, to the sense of connection they had briefly shared. But that was not to be. He could not reach her, and could scarcely feel her. He was as alone as ever.

  Brashen no longer trusted him. Paragon had tried to tell him that there was no damage below the waterline, but Brashen had insisted on beaching him. The captain had apologized stiffly, but said he would do the same with any ship as damaged as he was. Then he had run Paragon’s scorched body up onto a sandy beach. The tide had retreated, stranding him there with most of his hull bared. At least he was out of reach of the serpent and his endless circling. The creature’s nagging him toward revenge was maddening.

  Brashen had tersely told what remained of the crew to make repairs. He stalked the deck, commanding with his presence but speaking scarcely a word, and the work proceeded, even if the men moved without spirit. The spare mast had been brought out and stepped. Shackles and fittings had been salvaged, sound bits of line spliced together and spare canvas and other supplies dragged out onto the deck. Ruined food stores were dumped over the side. The broken windows in the captain’s quarters were planked over. A crew had been sent ashore to cut timber for spars. The green lumber would be miserable to work with, but they had no alternative. There was no chatter, no chantey, no jesting. Even Clef was withdrawn and silent. No one had attempted to scrub the bloodstains from his deck. They walked around them, or stepped over them. The serpent venom had left pits and indentations in his wizardwood. It had stippled his face and left streaks down his chest. More scars for him to bear.

  Amber, clothed in a loose garment made from a sheet, had toiled alongside the others, until Brashen had brusquely ordered her to take some rest. For a time, she had lain silently in her bunk. Then she had arisen, as if she could not bear to be still. Now she sat on the foredeck, laying out tools for her next task. She moved awkwardly, favoring the burned side of her body. He had become accustomed to her verbally sharing all she was doing, but today she was quiet. Paragon felt her preoccupation, but could not fathom it.

  Kennit and the Vivacia were gone as if they had never been there. Only one serpent remained of the horde that had attacked him. The mild days since the storm’s passing made it all seem like a dream. But it was not. The dragons lurked in him, just below the surface. New blood marked his deck. Some of the crew were angry with him still. Or frightened. Sometimes, with humans, it was hard to tell the difference. It stung most that Amber was distant with him.

  “I couldn’t help it,” he complained again.

  “Couldn’t you?” Amber asked him unemotionally.

  She had been like that all afternoon. Not accusing him, but not accepting anything he said either. His temper snapped. “No. I could not! And since you’ve pawed through my memories, you should understand that. Kennit is family to me. You know that now. You know everything now. All the secrets I vowed I would keep safe for him, you have stolen. ”

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  He fell silent, guilt roiling through him again. He could not be true. If he was true to Kennit, he was disloyal to both Amber and his dragon selves. Kennit was family to him, yet he had once again failed in his promise to him. He was disloyal and wicked. Worse, he was relieved. His feelings spun like a weathervane. He had not truly wanted to die, nor to kill all his people. Amber should know that. She knew everything now. There was shameful comfort in sharing the terrible knowledge, for he was glad that someone else finally knew it all. A childish part of him hoped that now she would tell him what he should do. For too long, he had wrestled with these secrets, not knowing what to do with such frightening and shameful memories. Hiding them for so long should have made them go away, should have made them not matter. Instead they had festered like a boil, and just when he had a new life, the old wound had burst open and poisoned everything. It had nearly killed them all.

  “You should have told us. ” Her words came out stiffly, as if she wished to hold them back. “All this time, you knew so much that could have helped us, and you kept it to yourself. Why, Paragon? Why?”

  He was silent for a time. He could feel what she was doing. She was securing a line to a cleat. She tested her weight against it. Then she came to the railing and climbed stiffly over it. She dropped over the bow, swung across in front of him and without warning, landed light-footedly against his chest. His hands came up reflexively to catch her. She froze in his grip, then spoke resignedly. “I know. You could kill me right now, if you chose. But from the beginning, we’ve had no choice but to trust our lives to you. I had hoped that trust went both ways, but obviously, it didn’t. You’ve shown you’re capable of killing us all. That being so, I see no sense in fearing you anymore. Either you’ll kill us or you won’t. You’ve shown me I’ve no control over that. All I can do is keep my own life in order, and do what I am meant to do. ”

  “Perhaps that is all I can do as well,” he retorted. He made his hands a platform for her to stand on, just as he had done for the boy Kennit so many years ago.

  She seemed to ignore his words. Her gloved hands moved lightly over his face, not just fingering his new scars, but touching his cheeks, his nose and his beard.

  He could not leave the silence alone. “That night, you loved me. You were willing to lose your life to save mine. How can you be so angry at me now?”

  “I am not angry,” she denied. “I cannot help but think that it all could have turned out differently. I am… hurt. No. Stricken. By all you did not do when we did all we could for you. At all you held back from us. And probably the depth of that feeling has much to do with how much I do love you. Why couldn’t you have trusted us, Paragon? If you had shared your secrets, it all could have come out differently. ”

  He considered her words for a time while she poked at his neck and jaw-line. “You are full of your own secrets,” he suddenly accused her. “Things you have never shared with the rest of us. How can you despise me for doing the same?”

  Her tone was suddenly formal. “The secrets I hold are mine. My keeping them does no harm to anyone. ”

  He picked up her doubts. “You are not sure of that. My secrets were as dangerous to share as they were to hold. But, as you said, my secrets were mine. Perhaps the only thing in the world that were truly mine. ”

  She was silent a long time. Then, “Where are the dragons? What are the dragons and why are there dragons in you? Are you why I have dreamed of serpents and dragons? Were my callings actually bringing me to you?”

  He pondered a moment. “What will you trade me for an answer? A secret of your own? To show you are trusting me as much as I am trusting you. ”

  “I do not know if I can,” Amber replied slowly. She had stopped touching his face. “My secrets are my armor. Without them, I am very vulnerable to all sorts of hurts. Even hurt that folk do not intend. ”

  “See. You do understand,” he replied quickly. He felt that barb score.

  She took a breath, and spoke quickly, as if plunging int
o cold water. “It is hard to explain. When I was much younger, and I spoke of it, people thought that I was too full of myself. They tried to tell me that I could not be what I knew I was. Finally, I ran away from them. And when I did, I promised myself that I would no longer fear what other folk thought of me. I would keep to myself the future I knew lay ahead of me. I have shared my dreams and ambitions with very few others. ”

  “You are telling me nothing with many words,” Paragon pointed out impatiently. “What, exactly, are you?”

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  She gave a small laugh that had no joy in it. “In a word, I do not know how to tell you. I have been called a fool as often as I have been called a prophet. I always have known that there were things I must do for the world, things no one else could do. Well. The same is true of every man, I do not doubt. Yet I follow a path I cannot see clearly. There are guides along the way, but I cannot always find them. I set out seeking a slave-boy with nine fingers. ” She shook her head. He felt it.

  “I found Althea instead, and though she was not a boy nor a slave and had all ten fingers, I felt a connection through her. So I helped her. May the gods forgive me, I helped her seek her death. Then I encountered Malta, and wondered if she was the one I should have been aiding. I reach forward, Paragon, through mists of time to symbols that become people and people who teeter on the verge of legend. There is a task I must do here, but what it is remains cloaked from me. All I can do is push toward it, and hope that when the time comes, I will recognize it and perform the right actions. Although there is little hope of that now. ” She took a breath. “Why are there dragons in you?” she demanded.

  He felt that she changed the subject, deliberately. He answered her anyway. “Because I was meant to be dragons. What you call wizardwood is actually a protective casing that sea serpents weave about themselves before they begin their change into dragons. The Rain Wild traders came upon encased dragons in the ruins of an ancient city. They killed them, but used the casings, rich with dragon memories, to build ships. Liveships they call us, but we are truly dead. Yet while memory lives, we are doomed to a half-life, trapped in an awkward body that cannot be moved without the aid of humans. I am more unfortunate than most, for two cocoons were used in my construction. From the time I was created, the dragons within me have warred for dominance over each other. ” He shook his great head. “I woke too soon, you see. I had not absorbed enough human memories to be strongly centered in them. From the time I first opened my eyes, I have been torn. ”

  “I do not understand. Why are you Paragon then, and not a dragon?”

  He laughed bitterly. “What else do you think Paragon is, save a human veneer of memories over battling dragons? In quarreling with one another for mastery, they allowed me ascendance. When I say ‘I,’ I scarcely know what I mean. ” He sighed suddenly. “That was what Kennit gave me, and what I shall miss most. A sense of self. A sense of kinship. When he was aboard me, I had no doubts as to my identity. You see him as blood-shedding pirate. I recall him first as a wild and lively boy, full of joy in the wind and waves. He laughed aloud, swung in the rigging and would not leave me alone. He refused to fear me. He was born aboard me. Can you imagine that? The only birth I have ever known was able to obliterate all the deaths that had gone before it. His father offered him to me, his birth-blood still on his skin. ‘You’ve never been my ship, Paragon. Not in your heart. But perhaps you can be his as he is yours. ’ And he was. He kept the dragons at bay. You, you have loosed them, and now we must all bear the consequences. ”

  “They seem quiet. Dormant,” Amber ventured. “You seem very much yourself, only more-open. ”

  “Exactly. Cracked open and leaking my secrets. What are you doing?” He had thought she was inspecting for fire damage. He had expected her to spider along his hull, not walk all over his body.

  “Keeping my word, to you and to the dragons. I’m going to carve some eyes for you. I’m trying to decide where to begin to repair this. ”

  “Don’t. ”

  “Are you sure?” Amber asked him quietly. He sensed her dismay. She had promised this to the dragons. What would she do if Paragon forbade it now?

  “No. I mean, don’t repair my face. Give me a new one. One that is all of me. ”

  For a mercy, she did not ask him what he meant by that. She only asked, “Are you sure?”

  He pondered a moment. “I think… I do not want to be a dragon. That is, I do, but I wish to be both of them, if I must. And yet to be Paragon as well. To be, as you said, three merged into one. I want…” He hesitated. If he said it and she laughed, it would be worse than death, as life was always sharper and harder than death. “Give me a face you could love,” he quietly beseeched her.

  She went still and soft in his hands. The tension he had sensed thrumming through her muscles went away. He felt her do something, and then her bared hands danced lightly over his face. By her touch, she both measured him, and opened herself. Skin to skin, she hid from him no longer. He touched enough to know it was the bravest thing she had ever done. He stifled his curiosity and tried to reciprocate her trust. He did not reach into her and plunder her of her secrets. He would wait, and take only what she offered him.

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  He felt her hands walk his face, measuring off proportions. Then she touched his cheek flat-handed. “I could do that. It would, in fact, be easy. ” She cleared her throat. “It will be a lot of work, but by the time we sail into Bingtown again, you will wear a new face. ”

  “Bingtown?” He was astonished. “We’re going home?”

  “Where else? What point is there in challenging Kennit again? Vivacia seems content to be in his hands. And even if she were not, what could we do?”

  “But what about Althea?” he objected.

  Amber stopped what she was doing. She leaned her forehead against his cheek and shared the full depth of her misery. “All of this was about Althea, ship. Without her, whatever task I was to perform becomes meaningless. Brashen has no heart to continue, nor has this crew the mettle for vengeance. Althea is dead and I have failed. ”

  “Althea? Althea is not dead. Kennit took her up. ”

  “What?” Amber stiffened. She set her hands flat to his face.

  Paragon was amazed. How could she not know that? “Kennit took her up. The serpent told me so. I think he was trying to make me angry. He said Kennit had stolen two of my humans, both females. ” He halted. He felt something radiating from her. It was as if a shell around her cracked open; warmth and joy poured from her.

  “Jek, too!” She took a deep shuddering breath, as if she had not been able to find air for a long time. She spoke to herself. “Always, always, I lose faith too easily. By now, I should know better. Death does not conquer. It threatens, but it cannot subdue the future. What must be, will be. ” She kissed his cheek, striking him dumb with astonishment, then tugged at his beard. “Up! Up! Get me up on the deck! Brashen! Clef! Althea is not dead. Kennit took her up. Paragon says so! Brashen! Brashen!”

  HE CAME RUNNING TO AMBER’S WILD CALL, FEARING THAT PARAGON HAD injured her. Instead, Brashen saw the figurehead set her gently on his scorched foredeck. She took a stumbling step toward him, babbling something about Althea, and then collapsed to her knees. “I told you to take some rest!” he rebuked her angrily. Her damage from the serpent venom was appallingly apparent. Her tawny hair hung in hanks from a peeling red scalp. The left side of her face and neck were scarlet. How far the damage extended down her body, he was not sure. She walked with a pronounced limp and kept her left arm close to her body. Every time he saw her, he was shocked that she was out of bed at all.

  He hastened to her side, seizing her right arm to steady her. She leaned against him. “What is it? Are you all right?”

  “Althea is alive. A serpent told Paragon that Kennit took up both the women from our ship. He has Althea and Jek. We can get them back. ” The words
tumbled from her lips as he held her. Clef hurried up, his brow wrinkled with confusion. Brashen tried to wring sense from the words. Althea was alive. No. That could not be what she meant. His grief and loss had penetrated to his bones. This offer of joy cut too sharply. He could not trust it. He said the harsh words. “I don’t believe it. ”

  “I do,” Amber contradicted him. “The way in which he told me leaves me no doubt. The white serpent told him. It saw Kennit take up two women from our ship. Althea and Jek. ”

  “The words of a serpent, passed on through a mad ship,” Brashen scoffed. But regardless of his words, hope flared painfully in him. “Can we be sure the serpent knows what it speaks of? Were they alive when Kennit took them up, do they still live? And even if they do, what hopes do we have of rescuing them?”

  Amber laughed. She seized his shoulder in her good hand and tried to shake him. “Brashen, they are alive! Give yourself a moment to savor that! Once you take a breath and say, Althea lives,’ all the other obstacles are reduced to annoyances. Say it. ”

  Her gold-brown eyes were compelling. Somehow, he could not refuse her. “Althea lives. ” He tried the words aloud. Amber grinned at him, and Clef cut an uneven caper about the deck. “Althea is alive!” the boy repeated.

  “Believe it,” Paragon encouraged. “The serpent has no reason to lie. ”

  Something dead inside him stirred to life. Perhaps, despite his defeat, she still lived. He had accepted the burden of her death due to his failures. Trying to live with that dereliction had baffled him. This reprieve unmanned him. Something very like a sob shook him, and despite Clef’s astonished look, the weeping he had refused at her death suddenly clawed its way out of him. He dashed tears from his eyes, but could not control the shaking that overtook him.

  Clef was bold enough to seize his wrist and tug at him. “Cap’n, don’t yer unnerstan’? She’s alive. Ya don’ need ter cry now. ”

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