Ship of destiny, p.63
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       Ship of Destiny, p.63

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
Page 235


  Devon had held her so, pressing her down so hard she couldn’t breathe. The unwanted memory of that first time rushed back at her. The nightmares merged, and she struggled alone, afraid to cry out for fear someone else would see what was happening to her. She’d be disgraced, her father would know, and it was all her own fault. It was always her fault. She stood before Keffria, crying, and begged her sister to understand, saying, “I was frightened, I thought I wanted him to do it and then I knew I didn’t, but I didn’t know how to make him stop. ”

  “Your own fault,” Keffria hissed at her, too horrified to feel sorry for her wayward sister. “You led him to it, and that makes it your fault. ” The words forced the deed on Althea, made it her own action rather than something done to her, and it all came back to her, sharp as blood, the stabbing impacts of the man’s rough body and the panicky need for air, and the desperation of keeping it secret. No one must know. She gritted her teeth and ignored the rough clutch of his hand on her breast. She tried to wake herself up from the nightmare, she tried to crawl away from him, but he rode her and there was no escape. She butted her head hard against wood, half-stunning herself.

  She began to cry again, defeated. Brashen, she tried to say, Brashen, because she had promised herself there would never again be any other man, but a hand was still pressed tight on her mouth, and the brutal thrusting went on and on. It was so hard to breathe. The pain was not as frightening as the lack of air. Before it was over, blackness reached up to drag her down, but she plunged into it willingly, diving down, hoping it was death come to take her.

  KENNIT TURNED BACK AND CAREFULLY LOCKED THE DOOR BEHIND HIM. HIS hands trembled. His breath was still quick and he could not seem to calm it. It had been so intense. He had never imagined that any pleasure could be that fierce. He dared not dwell on it, or he would have to go back into the room again.

  He tried to think where he would go. He could not go back to his own chamber. The whore would be there, and possibly Wintrow as well. They might see something about him and wonder. He needed to be alone. He wanted to contemplate what he had done, yes, to savor it. And to make sense of it. He could not quite believe he had given in to himself like that. He could not go to the foredeck. Not yet. Bolt would be there, and she might know what he had done. Linked as she was to him and to Althea, she might have shared it.

  That thought put a whole new layer onto the experience. Had she shared it? Had she wanted him to do it? Was that why he had been unable to stop? Was that why it had been so powerful?

  He found his foot and crutch had carried him aft. The man on the wheel looked up at him curiously, then went on with his task. It was a fine, clear winter night. The skies were littered with stars. The ship rose to meet each wave and plunged on smoothly. Their escort of serpents flanked them, an undulating carpet of movement and color in the starlight. He leaned on the railing and looked out over the ship’s widening wake.

  “You’ve crossed the line,” a tiny voice at his wrist observed coldly. “What made you do it, Kennit? Was that the only way to banish the memories finally, by giving them to someone else?”

  The whispered questions hung in the night and for a time, Kennit didn’t answer them. He didn’t know the answers. He only knew it had brought him release, even more than sending Paragon and the memories to the bottom. He was free. Then: “I did it because I could do it,” he said coldly. “I can do what I want to do now. ”

  “Is that because you’re the King of the Pirates? Igrot used to call himself that sometimes, didn’t he? While he did what he wanted to do?”

  A rough hand clapped over his mouth. Pain. Humiliation. Kennit pushed the memory aside angrily. It should not exist. Paragon was supposed to have taken it with him. “It’s different,” he said, hearing the defensiveness in his own voice. “I didn’t do anything like that. She likes me. She’s a woman. ”

  “And that makes it permissible?”

  “Of course it does. It’s natural. It’s completely different from what happened tome!”

  “Sir?” the man on the wheel queried.

  Kennit turned to him in irritation. “What is it?”

  “Beg pardon, sir. I thought you spoke to me, sir. ” The whites of the man’s eyes caught starlight. He looked frightened.

  “Well, I didn’t. Attend to your task and leave me in peace. ” How much had the dolt overheard? It didn’t matter. If he became a problem, Kennit could make him disappear. Send him to the side on some premise. A blow to the head, a tip over the railing and no one would ever be the wiser. Kennit had no one to fear and would fear no one. Tonight, the last of his demons had been banished.

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  The charm on his wrist was silent, and the lengthening silence became more accusing than words.

  Kennit finally whispered, “She’s a woman. That happens to women all the time. They’re accustomed to it. ”

  “You raped her. ”

  He laughed aloud. “Scarcely. She likes me. She said I was courteous and a gentleman. ” He took a breath. “She only resisted because she’s not a whore. ”

  “Why did you really do it, Kennit?”

  The question was relentless. Did the charm know that the same query rattled endlessly in his own mind? He had thought he was going to stop. He had stopped, until she began crying in the dark. If she had not done that, he would have been able to leave. So it was as much her fault as his. Perhaps. Kennit fumbled toward an answer. He spoke very softly. “Perhaps so I could finally understand why he did it to me. How he could do that to me, how he could pendulum between kindness and cruelty, between lessons in etiquette and seizures of rage-” Kennit’s voice fell away.

  “You poor, pathetic bastard,” the charm ground out the slow accusing words. “You’ve become Igrot. Do you know that? To defeat the monster, you became the monster. ” The tiny voice became even fainter. “You have only yourself to fear now. ”

  ETTA FLUNG DOWN HER EMBROIDERY. WINTROW LOOKED UP FROM HIS BOOK, then, with a private sigh, set it upon the table and waited.

  “I’m in love with him. But that doesn’t mean I’m stupid about him. ” Her dark eyes stabbed Wintrow. “He’s with her again, isn’t he?”

  “He took her a tray of food,” Wintrow suggested. Over the last four days since they had returned to Vivacia, Etta’s temper had become ever more uncertain. He supposed it might be her pregnancy, but during his mother’s times with child, she had become as content as a fat purring cat. As far as he could remember. This, he supposed, was not much. Maybe it was not her pregnancy. Maybe it was Kennit’s odd, distracted behavior. Maybe it was plain jealousy over the amount of time Kennit was devoting to Althea. He regarded Etta warily, wondering if she were going to throw anything else.

  “I suggested she might dine with us. He said she still felt weak. But when I offered to take her tray to her, he said he feared she would do me harm. Does that make sense to you?”

  “It seems a contradiction,” Wintrow admitted warily. Conversations like this were dangerous. While she could criticize and even accuse Kennit, any word of disparagement from him was usually met with a tirade of abuse.

  “Have you spoken to her?” Etta demanded.

  “No. I have not. ” He would not admit he had tried. The door had been locked, from the outside. There had been no such lock on his door before. Kennit must have had it put there as soon as he cached Althea. There had been no response to his quiet call.

  She stared at him quietly, but he would volunteer no information. He hated to see her like this, so agitated and yet so hurt. Against his better judgment, he asked, “Have you told Kennit yet?”

  She stared at him as if he had said something obscene. She folded her arms, almost protectively, over her belly. “The time has not been right,” she said stiffly.

  Did that mean Kennit was no longer sharing her bed? If so, where was he sleeping? Wintrow himself was making shift whereve
r he could. Kennit was not at all concerned that he had given Wintrow’s space to Althea. Wintrow had had to ask him twice before he remembered to bring him any of his clothing. The captain was not himself lately. Even the crew noticed, though no one was brave enough to gossip about it yet.

  “And that Jek woman?” Etta asked acidly.

  He debated lying, but she probably already knew he’d been down there. “She won’t talk to me. ”

  Kennit had ordered Jek to be held in one of the chain lockers. Wintrow had managed one visit with her. She had met him with a peppering of questions about Althea. When he could not answer any of them, she had spat at him and then refused to respond to any of his queries. She was shackled, but not cruelly. She could sit, stand and move about. Wintrow did not really blame Kennit for that. She was a large and powerful woman. She had a blanket and regular food, and her serpent burns seemed to be healing. Her lot, he reflected, was not much worse than his had been when he was first brought aboard the ship. It was even the same chain locker. It frustrated him that she would not speak to him. He wanted her telling of what had befallen the Paragon; what he had heard from the crew did not quite match what Kennit had told him. The ship would not speak of it to him at all. Bolt only mocked him when he tried to talk to her.

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  “I tried to talk to the figurehead about her,” he ventured. Etta looked disapproving, but also curious. “Bolt was even less courteous to me than she usually is. She bluntly says she wants Althea off her decks. She speaks wildly of her, with curses and threats, as if she were…” He stopped his thoughts and shook his head, hoping Etta would not demand that he continue. The ship spoke of Althea as if she were a hated rival. Not for Wintrow’s attentions, of course. She no longer had any interest in Wintrow.

  He sighed.

  “You’re mooning about the ship again,” Etta accused him.

  “I am,” he admitted easily. “I miss her. Talking to Bolt is more a task than a pleasure. And you have preoccupations of your own these days. I am often lonely. ”

  “My own preoccupations? You are the one who stopped talking to me. ”

  He had thought her anger was reserved for Kennit. Now he had found his share of it. “I did not mean to,” he offered cautiously. “I didn’t want to intrude. I thought you would be, uh…” He halted. Everything he had assumed about her suddenly seemed silly.

  “You thought I would be so busy being pregnant I couldn’t think or talk anymore,” Etta finished for him. She stuck out her belly and patted it with a fatuous, simpering smile. Then she scowled at him.

  “Something like that,” Wintrow admitted. He rubbed his chin ruefully and braced himself for her fury.

  She laughed aloud instead. “Oh, Wintrow, you are such a lad,” she exclaimed. She said the words with such fondness that he looked up in surprise. “Yes, you,” she went on at his glance. “You’ve been fair green with jealousy since I told you, almost as if I were your mother about to forsake you for a new baby. ” She shook her head. He suddenly wondered if his jealousy pleased her. “Sometimes, between you and Kennit, you span the foolishness of all men. Him, with his stiffness and coldness and manly reluctance to admit any need, and you with your great puppy eyes begging for any moment of attention I can spare you. I didn’t realize how flattered I was by it until you stopped. ” She canted her head at him. “Talk to me as you used to. I haven’t changed, really. There is a child growing inside me. It’s not a disease or madness. Why does it trouble you so?”

  He let the words come almost before he knew what he was going to say. “Kennit is going to have everything: the ship, you, a son. And I will have nothing. You will all be together, and I will always be on the outside. ”

  She looked stunned. “And you want those things? The ship. A son. Me?”

  Something in her voice set his heart hammering. Did she want him to desire her? Was there in her the slightest warmth for him? He would speak and be damned. If he had to lose everything, then at least let it be said. Even if she banned him from her presence, she would know. “Yes. I want those things. The ship because she was mine. And you and a son because…” His courage failed him. “Because I do,” he finished lamely and looked at her. Probably with puppy eyes, he cursed himself.

  “Oh, Wintrow. ” She shook her head and looked away from him. “You are so very young. ”

  “I’m closer to your age than he is!” he replied, stung.

  “Not in the ways that matter,” she answered inexorably.

  “I’m only young because Kennit insists that I am,” he retorted. “And you persist in believing it as well. I’m not a child, Etta, nor a sheltered acolyte. Not anymore. A year on this ship would make any boy a man. Yet how am I supposed to be a man if no one allows me to be one?”

  “Manhood is not something that someone allows you,” Etta lectured him. “Manhood is something a man takes for himself. Then it is recognized by others. ” She leaned down to pick up her sewing.

  Wintrow stood up. His desperation was but one breath away from anger. Why did she dismiss him with platitudes? “Manhood is to be taken. I see. ” As she straightened in her chair, he put two fingers under her chin and turned her startled face up to his. He would not think. He was tired of thinking. He leaned down and kissed her, desperately hoping that he was doing it well. Then, as he felt her mouth under his, he forgot everything but this daring sensation.

  She pulled away from him, her hand flying to cover her mouth. She took a quick breath. Her eyes were very wide. An instant later, sparks of anger kindled in them. “Is this how you would begin asserting you are a man? By betraying Kennit, a man who has befriended you?”

  “That was not about betrayal, Etta. That had nothing to do with Kennit. That was all about what I wished was between us, but is not. ” He took a breath. “I should go. ”

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  “Yes,” she replied in a shaky voice. “You should. ”

  He stopped at the door. “If it were my son you were carrying,” he said huskily, “I would have been the first to know of it. You would not have had to share such confidences with another man. You would have been sure of my joy and acceptance. I would have-“

  “Go!” she commanded him harshly, and he went.


  “No. ” She knew her lips moved to form the word but she did not hear her own voice speak. She did not want to awaken. There was nothing good left in wakefulness. She willed herself deeper, past sleep, past unconsciousness, reaching for a place where she was no longer connected to her dirtied body. She reached for a dream in which Brashen was alive and they were in love and free. She reached back in time to the best of times, when she had loved him and not even known it, when they had both worked the deck of a beautiful ship and her father had watched over her with approval. And back again, even further back, to a little girl monkeying barefoot up the rigging, or sprawling on the sun-drenched foredeck to nap and dream with a dreaming figurehead.

  Althea! The voice rang with joy. You have found me. I never should have doubted you.

  Vivacia? Her presence was all around Althea, stronger than a scent, more pervasive than warmth, her reality sweeter than any memory. The being of her ship embraced her. Homecoming and farewell mingled; now, she could die in peace. Althea willed herself to let go but instead Vivacia enveloped her with love and need. Althea could not bear such tenderness. It beckoned her like a light and threatened her resolve. She turned away from it. Let me go, my dear. I want to die.

  And I with you. For I am made of death, a travesty, an abomination, and 1 am so weary of being held down here in the dark. Have not you come to free me, come so deep to take me to death?

  Vivacia’s wonder and welcome horrified Althea. To flee her own life was one thing; to end simultaneously the life of her ship was quite another. Decisions so clear a moment ago wavered. She pushed feebly at
the ship, trying to disentangle her awareness from Vivacia’s. Coldness crept through her from her abused body, but the more she retreated from life, the deeper she went into her ship.

  I am pressed so far down, it is almost like death, the ship confirmed. Did I know how to let go, 1 would. She has taken all from me, Althea. No sea, no sky, no wind on my face. If I reach for Wintrow, she threatens to kill him. Kennit cannot hear me at all. She keeps all awareness from me, and mocks me that 1 long for my humans. 1 try to die, but I do not know how. Save me. Take me with you when you die.

  No. Althea forbade it firmly. This, I must do alone. You must go on. She turned from her ship, but not without pain. She let go.

  So this is how it is done. The heart slows, the breath comes shallower and shallower. A poison creeps through your flesh; it will bear you away. But I have no such reprieve from her. I have no true heart of my own, nor will a lack of breath still me. She keeps me here, for she needs what I know. I cannot elude her. Don’t leave me here, alone in the dark. Take me with you.

  Althea felt her ship tendril through her and cling to her. It reminded her of a child clinging to its mother’s skirts. She endeavored to set the link aside. Vivacia resisted but Althea was firm. The effort of moving away from the ship stirred the embers of her life. Somewhere, her body coughed. A bitter taste rose in her throat. She gasped air past it, and felt her heart labor more doggedly. No. That was not what she wanted. She wanted to let go, not to struggle. Vivacia was making this so hard. Just let me die. Let me die and become part of you, with my father and those who went before him. Let me continue only in you. There is no joy left in life for me.

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