Ship of destiny, p.64
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       Ship of Destiny, p.64

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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  No. You do not want to join me. What I am now is not worth sharing. If you are going to leave life, you must leave it completely, not be trapped here in the dark with me. Please. Let us go together.

  Cold closed around her. The ship’s resolve was stone: she desired death. Althea was horrified. Despite herself, she clutched at her own life and awareness. Air sighed in and out of her lungs. She could not let Vivacia follow her into death. She must be dissuaded. Ship, my beautiful Vivacia, why?

  Why? You know why. Because life is ruined for me. There can be no good in any tomorrow.

  In a wave, the ship’s torment washed over her. The knowledge of her origin and the torment of her doubts plucked at Althea and near tore her loose from her body. Stubbornly she clung to her life now. She would not let her ship end this way. Vivacia clutched at Althea’s will and tried to drag them both under. I am made of death! she wailed in Althea’s soul.

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  No! No, you are not! Althea asserted it fiercely. She fought the ship’s plunge to nothingness, even though to do so thwarted her own desire for oblivion. You are made of life and beauty, and the dreams of my family for a hundred years. You are made of wind, water and wide blue days. My beauty, my pride, you must not die. If all else fails, if darkness devours all I was, you, at least, must go on. She opened both heart and mind to her ship, and flooded her with memories: her father’s deep booming laugh, and the proud moment when she had first taken the wheel into her own hands. A sun-swept vista from the crow’s nest, the horrific poetry of looking up at waves in a storm. You cannot end with me, Althea insisted fiercely. For if you do, all this dies with you. All this beauty, all this life. How can you claim to be made of death? It was not his death my father poured into you, but the summation of his life. How can you be made of death, when it was inheriting his life that quickened you?

  Stillness beyond silence encompassed them both. Somewhere, Althea was aware, her body failed. Cold and dark clutched at her thoughts, but she clung to awareness, waiting for her ship to surrender and promise to go on.

  And you? Vivacia asked her suddenly.

  I die, my dear. It is too late for me. My body is poisoned, and so is my spirit. Nothing good is left to me.

  Not even me?

  Oh, my heart, you are always good in my life. Althea found a truth she had not suspected. If by living I could restore you, I would. But I fear it is too late to change my mind. When Althea reached toward her own flesh, she found only lethargy and cold.

  Then you condemn me to this darkness. For without you, I have neither the strength nor the will to fight my way past her and take back my life. Will you leave me here, forever alone in the dark?

  All thoughts were stilled for a time.

  You have the courage to follow me into death, ship?

  I do.

  The profound wrongness of that gripped Althea. It was not courage to surrender to that oblivion, conceding the world to those who had wronged them. Sudden shame swept her at her cowardly flight from life. Death could make things stop, but it could not make things right. She abruptly despised herself for surrendering to death while the one who had destroyed her life went on living, for embracing death if it meant leaving her ship in darkness.

  Then pick up your true courage, ship, and follow me back into life. She reached for her body, but was suddenly reminded of her time under water. How she had struggled then, trying to claw her way up through icy water. This was worse. The tides of death offered no purchase for her desperate effort. Her own body denied her presence.

  Breath was stopped. Her erratic heartbeat felt like an interruption. In the timeless dark, she reached for consciousness, but could not find it. Her sense of her body became ever more tentative as her self came uncentered, and her will to live frayed. Her awareness spread wide and began to vanish in the same limitless dark that trapped Vivacia. Althea searched for more strength to draw on but found nothing within herself. Vivacia, she pleaded. Ship, help me!

  Silence. Then, Take all I have left. 1 hope it will be enough.

  Ship, no, wait!

  Althea! Hit the deck now! Her father’s familiar command boomed through her mind. In reflexive response, her body jerked, and she was falling. The wooden deck slammed against her, plank against flesh. Eyes and mouth jolted open with the impact. Tiny lights. Stars caught in a circle of porthole. She lay on her back, gasping like a fish. She rolled onto her side and vomited. The stuff was bitter and choking, clotting in her mouth and spewing from her nose. Reflex took over. She sneezed and then gasped.

  Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Wood to flesh, a distant voice counted the rhythm for her, Vivacia steadied the beating of her heart. The ship was joined to her, but the connection was tenuous and fading fast. Even so, it was not just Althea’s body she labored to heal, but her heart. Oh, my dear, my dear. 1 never thought he would do something like this to you. I misjudged him. I misjudged you. I even misjudged myself. The thought died away.

  Althea blinked. She felt terrible. Bile had scoured her throat and the inside of her mouth. There was a deep ache inside her. She sneezed again. Her body went on working. She voluntarily took a deep breath, then pressed her palms flat to the deck. Pain. It was so wonderful to feel pain again, to feel anything again.

  “So, Vivacia,” she croaked. “We’re going to live?”

  There was no reply, and only wood beneath her palms.

  Liveship Traders 3 - Ship of Destiny


  TRUE TO HIS OWN COMMAND, PARAGON HAD SAILED WITH THE TIDE. NOT elegantly, not smoothly, but when the rising water lifted him off the sands, the spliced lines raised his patched sails on his raw timber rigging. Half of his depleted crew bore injuries, great or small, and many were disheartened, but they sailed.

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  Paragon navigated. Amber had not carved his new face yet, let alone his eyes. In a flurry of work, she had roughed out her ambitions, making marks and taking measures. At the ship’s urging, she had set that work aside until more essential tasks were finished. The ship sailed blind, and yet not blind, for Amber’s eyes were his.

  She leaned on the railing, her hair streaming in the wind, and spoke of all she saw. Through her bare hands, she conveyed to him the feel of the islands they passed. It was not sight, but it was her sense of the ocean and the scattered islands that she shared with him. In return, he shared with her. The white serpent paced them, and urged the ship on in his own mad way. Paragon suspected that he sought to awaken the dragons in him, but they were already awake and stirring more strongly every day. Their thoughts mingled with his. The dragons reached through him to Amber, changing him as they did so. They were becoming him, and he was becoming them.

  “We fly,” Amber murmured. A stinging rain spattered against her face and soaked her patchy hair. Eyes wide, she stared ahead and with him dreamed these islands as once he had seen them.

  “Once, I flew. But these were not islands then, but mountaintops. The Great Inner Wall, we called the first range. Beyond it were the Lowlands, and then the Sea Mountains, a restless and rumbling place. Some of the mountains smoked and spat and vomited liquid stone, turning summer to winter and day to dusk. Now they are drowned. The tops of the Sea Mountains are what you call the Shield Wall and Old Woman Island and the like. These islands we thread are the sunken heights of the Great Inner Wall. ”

  “When you speak of them that way, I can see them in my mind. ”

  “Mm. Now we need to see them as Igrot saw them, and as Lucto Ludluck saw them. He was Sedge Ludluck’s son. Everyone in the Pirate Isles called him Lucky Ludluck. And Kennit was Lucky’s son. He seized on that name. ” Paragon was silent for a time, his mind roving the years. “Luck. It was always so important to him. ”

  Amber spoke cautiously. “When Althea told me your history, she told me you left Bingtown with Sedge Ludluck. ”

  “Lucto was
Sedge’s eldest son. He sailed with his father, but the tension between them was constant. Sedge had the imagination of a rock. He bought cheap and sold dear. That was his sole ethic in life, the Ludluck ethic. He paid his men as little as he could, and changed crew often because he was so callous to them. Their lives were always worth less to him than his cargoes. He never stopped to wonder if life could be different. He didn’t fear me because he lacked the imagination to know what I could do.

  “Lucto, his son, was different. He was a dreamer, a young man who savored the pleasures of life. Bingtown customs, manners and traditions stifled him. Lucto was the one who talked Sedge into a little side trade in the Pirate Isles. Lucto had a gift with the lawless folk. He relaxed among them, and in turn, they liked him. He helped the family fortune prosper again. That pleased his father. To reward him, he arranged a good match for the boy with the younger daughter of a very proper Trader. But Lucto had a heart and that heart already belonged to a girl from the Pirate Isles. He was about twenty-two the day his father dropped dead at the bargaining table in Divvytown. Lucto mourned him, but not enough to return to Bingtown and take up the dreary life planned for him. He buried his father ashore, and never went home. The crew was glad enough to follow him, for he liked whiskey as much as they did, and dispensed it with an open hand. He was a generous lad, but not as wary as he might have been. He married his Pirate Isles girl and vowed he would live like a king in his own little world. ”

  Paragon shook his head to himself. “He traded well and lived large. He built up a secret refuge for himself and his men. He trusted to the good will of his crew to keep his world safe. But there are always hungry men, men for whom a share of good fortune is not enough. And one brought Igrot into Lucky’s world. Igrot already had a reputation as the pirate who would do what other men did not even imagine. He came to Lucky with the fable that they would be partners in trade and piracy. Lucto believed him. But in the midst of celebrating their alliance, Igrot turned on him. He imprisoned my father to subdue me, and took Kennit hostage to control me, and we all had to obey him for fear he would hurt the others. He cut out my mother’s tongue-“

  “Paragon, Paragon. ” Amber’s voice was gentle but urgent. “Not your father. Kennit’s. Not your mother. Kennit’s. ”

  The ship smiled bitterly into the rain. “You draw lines that do not exist. It is what you do not understand, Amber. When you speak to Paragon, you speak to the human memories stored in me. When Kennit and I killed myself, it was our suicide. ”

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  “That is a thing I will never understand,” Amber observed in a low voice. “How can one hate oneself so much that one is willing to murder that self?”

  The ship shook his head and rain flew from his locks. “That is your mistake. No one wants the self to die. I only wanted to make all the rest of it stop. The only way to achieve that was to put death between the world and myself. ”

  He suddenly turned his blinded face toward an island. “There. That one. ”

  “That’s Key Island?” Her voice was incredulous. “Paragon, there’s nowhere to land. The island comes straight up out of the water, like a fortress with trees. ”

  “No, that’s not the Key. That is Keyhole Island. From this main channel, it looks like any other island. But if you leave the main channel and circle the island, you’ll find an opening in that wall. The island is shaped like a crescent, nearly closed. Until you enter the crescent, it looks like an unpromising inlet. But Keyhole Island cups a bay. Inside Keyhole Island, in the bay, is a smaller island. The Key in the Keyhole. On the back side of Key Island, there is a cove with good anchorage. There used to be a wharf and a pier, but I suppose they are long gone. That is where we are bound. ”

  BRASHEN WAS ON THE WHEEL. HE SAW THE WIDE WAVE OF AMBER’S ARM, AND nodded that he saw the indicated island. This area of the Pirate Isles was pocked with little islands jutting sharply up from the waves; this one looked no different. Paragon had been very close-mouthed about what made this one so special. The cynical part of Brashen’s soul laughed at him, yet he shouted his command to the crew, and as they shifted the wet sails, turned the wheel to bring the ship around. The steady wind had been favoring them before. Now it would be a long series of wearying tacks to take Paragon where Amber indicated.

  The reduced crew was running on the ragged edge. When the holds had flooded, much of the food had been ruined. Painful injuries, a reduced and monotonous diet, and the strenuous tasks of running the ship with too few men would have been demoralizing enough. But they knew that it was Brashen’s intent that they once more face Kennit in battle and they had no interest in rushing to their doom. Their seamanship had grown both grudging and sloppy. Were the ship himself not so eager to sail, the task would have been hopeless.

  Clef hastened up to the captain, blue eyes squinted against the rain. The boy seemed mostly recovered from his injuries though he still favored his scalded arm. “Sir! Amber says the ship says we’re to watch for an opening on the lee of the island. It opens to a bay inside the island, and an island in the bay. That island in turn will have good anchorage on its windward side. Paragon says to anchor up there. ”

  “I see. And what then?” The question was rhetorical. He didn’t expect Clef to answer.

  “He says that if we are lucky, the old woman who lived there will still be alive. We have to take her hostage, sir. She’s the key to Kennit himself. He’ll trade anything to get her back. Even Althea. ” The boy took a long breath, then blurted out, “She’s Kennit’s mother. So the ship says. ”

  Brashen raised an eyebrow to that. In a moment, he recovered. “And that is something best kept to yourself, lad. Go tell Cypros to take the wheel for a bit. I’ll hear for myself all Amber has to tell me now. ”

  THE RAIN EASED JUST AS BRASHEN DISCOVERED KEY ISLAND’S ANCHORAGE, BUT even the sun breaking through the day’s overcast did little to cheer him. As Paragon had predicted, a sagging pier ran out into the inlet, but time had swayed its pilings and gapped its planks. The rattling of the dropping anchor seemed to shatter the winter peace of the island. But as Brashen looked at the silent forested hillside above the dock, he reflected that such concerns had probably been unnecessary. If people had once lived here, the ramshackle wharf was the only sign that remained of them. He saw no houses. At the end of the wharf, the mouth of an overgrown path vanished beneath the trees.

  “Don’t look like much,” Clef gave voice to his captain’s thoughts.

  “No, it doesn’t. Still, we’re here, so we’ll take a look around. We’ll go ashore in the ship’s boats; I don’t trust that pier. ”

  “We?” Clef asked with a grin.

  “We. I’m leaving Amber aboard with Paragon and a handful of men. I’m taking the rest of the crew with me. It will do them good to get off the ship for a time. We may be able to find some game and take on fresh water here. If people once lived here, the island must have provided some of their needs. ” He didn’t tell Clef that he was taking most of the crew off so they couldn’t abscond with the ship while he was gone.

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  The crew assembled dispiritedly, but brightened at the prospect of going ashore. He had them draw lots for who would remain aboard, and then ordered the rest of them to the boats. Some would hunt and forage, and a picked handful would follow the path with him. While the men readied the boats, he sauntered forward to Paragon with feigned nonchalance. “Want to tell me what I should expect?”

  “A bit of a hike, to begin with. Lucto did not want his little kingdom to be easily visible from the water. I’ve Kennit’s memories of the way. You’ll go uphill, but when you crest the hill and start to go down, be alert. The path goes through an orchard first, and then to the compound. There was a big house, and a row of smaller cottages. Lucto took good care of his crewmen; their wives and children lived here in happier times, until Igrot slaughtered most of them. The rest he carried off as slaves.

  Paragon paused. He stared blindly at the island. Brashen waited. “The last time I sailed from here, Mother was still alive. Lucto had perished. Igrot had taken his games too far and Father died. When we departed, Mother was marooned alone. That amused Igrot, I think. But Kennit swore he would come back to her. I believe he would have kept that oath. She was a doughty woman. Even as battered as she was, she would have chosen to live. She may still be alive here. If you find her… when you find her, tell her your tale. Be honest with her. She deserves that much. Tell her why you have come to take her. ” The ship’s boyish voice choked suddenly. “Don’t terrorize or hurt her.

  She has had enough of that in her life. Ask her to come with us. I think she may come willingly. ”

  Brashen took a deep breath and confronted the villainous aspect of the ship’s plan. It shamed him. “I’ll do the best I can,” he promised Paragon. The best he could. Could the word “best” be applied at all to this task, the kidnapping and bartering of an elderly woman? He did not think so, yet he would do it to regain Althea safely. He tried to console himself. He would see that she came to no harm. Surely Kennit’s own mother had nothing to fear from the pirate.

  He voiced the largest hole in the plan. “And if Kennit’s mother is… no longer here?”

  “Then we wait,” the ship proposed. “Sooner or later, he will come here. ”

  Now there was a comforting thought.

  BRASHEN LED HIS FORCE OF ARMED MEN UP THE OVERGROWN TRAIL. FALLEN leaves were thick underfoot. Overhead, branches both bare and leafy dripped the morning’s rain. A sword weighted one side of his belt, and two of his men carried bows at the ready. The precaution was more against pigs, whose hoof tracks and droppings were plentiful, than against any imagined resistance. From what Paragon said, if the woman still lived, she likely lived here alone. He wondered if she would be mad. How long could a person live in complete isolation and remain sane?

  They crested the hill and started down the other side. The trees were as thick, though sizable stumps showed that once this hillside had been logged for timber. The forest had taken it back since then. At the bottom of the hill, they emerged into an orchard. Tall wet grass soaked Brashen to the thighs as he pushed his way through it. His men followed him through the bare-branched fruit trees. Some of the trees sprawled where they had fallen. Others reached to intertwine wet black branches overhead.


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