Ship of destiny, p.66
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       Ship of Destiny, p.66

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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  “Humans were never meant to be dropped that way,” Reyn responded wearily. Even breathing hurt.

  “As I tried to tell you before we began this foolishness. ”

  “Go hunt,” Reyn responded. There was no hope in conversing with her when she was hungry. No matter what they discussed, it was always his fault.

  “I’m not likely to find anything in this light,” she snorted. But as she gathered herself to take flight again, she added, “I’ll try to bring you some fresh meat. ”

  She always said that. Sometimes she actually remembered to do it.

  He didn’t try to stand up until he had felt the wind of her wings pass over him. Then he forced himself to his feet and staggered up the beach to the edge of a wood. He followed what had become a weary ritual for him. Wood. Fire. Fresh water if any was to hand, water from his skins if there was not. A sparing meal from his supplies, now woefully low. Then he bundled himself up near the fire and took whatever sleep he could get. Tintaglia was right about her hunting. The short winter day had passed swiftly, and the stars were already starting to show in the sky. It was going to be clear and cold. At least he would not be rained on tonight. Only frozen.

  He wondered idly how his people were getting on with the work Tintaglia had outlined for them. Dredging the Rain Wild River was hazardous, not just for the unpredictable winter flow of the waters, but for the acidity of it. Those Tattooed who bought their Rain Wild Trader status with labor would have paid fairly for it.

  He wondered if Bingtown had managed to remain united, and if the Chalcedeans had made any other attacks since he had left. Tintaglia had been ruthless in her destruction of their vessels. Perhaps just the threat of a dragon might keep them at bay. In their flight over the Inland Passage, they had seen many Chalcedean vessels, both oared and sailing ships. The number of them convinced him that their plans included something more significant than overwhelming Bingtown. The ships were all moving south. They traveled as Chalcedean war clans did, with one great sailing ship for supplies and several galleys for raiding and fighting. Once, they had flown over a smoking village, possibly a pirate settlement, raided by Chalcedeans on their way south.

  Tintaglia often menaced the ships and galleys they passed, taking obvious joy in the panic she created. The steady beat of oars faltered and failed as her shadow passed over their decks. Men on the decks cowered while those in the rigging fled their lofty perches. Once Reyn saw a man plummet from a mast to disappear into the sea.

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  Every vessel they overflew left him in an agony of doubt. Was Malta held prisoner on board that ship? Tintaglia had loftily assured him that if she had come that close to where Malta was held, she would have sensed her.

  “It is a sense you do not possess, and hence I cannot explain it to you,” she added condescendingly. “Imagine trying to explain a sense of smell to someone who had none. What sounds like an arbitrary, almost mystic ability is no different from smelling apple blossoms in the dark. ”

  Hope filled Reyn’s heart to breaking, and anxiety clawed him daily. Each day that passed was another day of separation from her, but worse, it was another day of Malta in Chalcedean captivity. He cursed his imagination for how it tormented him with images of her in coarse hands. As he bedded down near the fire, he hoped he would not dream tonight. Too often, his dreams of Malta turned to nightmares. Yet trying not to think of her as he was dozing off was like trying not to breathe. He recalled the last time he had beheld her. Heedless of all propriety, they had been alone together, and he had held her in his arms. She had asked to see his face, but he had refused her that. “You can see me when you say you’ll marry me,” he had told her. Sometimes, in his dreams, when he finally held her safe in his arms, he foolishly allowed her to lift his veil. Always, she recoiled in horror and struggled from his embrace.

  This would not do. He would never fall asleep with such thoughts.

  He recalled instead Malta at a window, looking out over Trehaug while he drew a brush through her thick, black hair. It was like heavy silk in his gloved fingers, and the fragrance of it rose to his nostrils. They had been together, and she had been safe. He slipped one of her honey drops into his mouth and smiled at the sweetness.

  He was skimming sleep when Tintaglia returned. She woke him, as she always did, by adding too much fuel to his fire. In what had become a habit, she lay down beside him, between his body and the night. The curve of her body trapped the warmth of the fire around him. As the logs she had dropped on the fire warmed and then kindled, Reyn dropped deeply into slumber.

  In his dream, he once more drew a brush down the shining length of Malta’s hair, but this time she stared out over the bow of a ship as he did so. The night was clear and cold. Stars shone sharply above her, piercing the winter night. He heard the snap of canvas in the wind. On the horizon, the black shapes of islands blotted out the stars, glittering stars that swam as she looked up at them, and he knew that tears stood in her eyes. “How did I ever come to be so alone?” she asked the night. She lowered her head and he felt the warm drip of tears down her cheeks. His heart smote him. Yet, in the next instant his chest swelled with pride in her as she lifted her head once more, her jaw set in determination. He felt her draw a deep breath, and stood with her as she squared her shoulders and refused to surrender to despair.

  He knew in that instant that he desired nothing more than to stand at her side. She was no cooing dove of a woman to be sheltered and protected. She was a tigress, as strong as the wind that swept her, a partner a Rain Wild man could depend on. The strength of his emotion rushed out and wrapped her like a blanket. “Malta, my dear, my strength to you,” he whispered. “For you are my strength and my hope. ”

  She turned her head sharply to his words. “Reyn?” she asked the night. “Reyn?”

  The hope in her voice jolted him awake. Behind him, sand and stone rasped against Tintaglia’s scaled body as she stirred.

  “Well, well,” she said in a sleepy voice. “I am surprised. I thought only an Elderling could dreamwalk on his own. ”

  He drew a deep breath. “It was like sharing the dream-box with her. It was real, wasn’t it? I was with her, as she stood there. ”

  “It was definitely a sharing with her, and real. But I do not know what you mean by a dream-box. ”

  “It is a device of my people, something lovers occasionally use when they must be apart. ” His words trickled to a halt. He would not mention that such boxes worked because they contained a minute amount of powdered wizardwood mixed in with potent dream herbs. “Usually, when lovers meet in such dreams, they share what they imagine. But tonight I felt as if Malta were awake but I was with her, in her mind. ”

  “You were,” the dragon observed smugly. “A pity you are not more adept at such dream travel. For if you were, you could have made her aware of yourself, and she would have told you where to find her. ”

  Reyn grinned. “I saw the stars. I know the heading her ship is on. And I know that she was not in pain, nor confined in any way. Dragon, you cannot know how heartening that is to me. ”

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  “Can’t I?” She laughed softly. “Reyn, the longer we are in proximity, the thinner the barriers between us will grow. The Elderlings who could dreamwalk were all dragon-friends. I suspect your newfound ability has the same source. Look at yourself. Daily you take on more of my aspects. Were you born with copper eyes? I doubt it, and I doubt even more that they ever glowed as they do now. Your back aches with your growth. Look at your hands, at the thickening of the nails that mimics my claws. Even now, the firelight dances on the sheen of scales on your brow. Even encapsulated in our cocoons, my kind left its marks on yours. Now that dragons are awake and walking in the world once more, those who claim friendship with us will wear the badges of that association. Reyn, if you find a mate, and if you can father children, you will get the next generation of Elderlings.

  Her words took his breath away. He sat up, gaping at her. She stretched her fearsome jaws wide with amusement and spoke in his mind. Open your thoughts to me. Let me see the stars and islands that you glimpsed. Perhaps 1 may recognize something. Tomorrow, we resume our search for a woman worthy to be mother to Elderlings.

  MALTA TOOK A FEW HESITANT STEPS INTO THE DARKNESS. “REYN?” SHE whispered again, her heart hammering. Foolishness, she knew. But it had seemed so real. She had felt his touch on her hair, she had tasted his scent on the air…. It could not be. It was only her childish heart, yearning after a lost past. Even if she could return to Bingtown, she could never be who she had been. The ridged scar down her forehead was stigma enough, but to it would be added rumors and gossip. Reyn himself might still want her, but his family could not permit their marriage. She was a ruined woman. The only socially acceptable end for her in Bingtown was to live simply and out of sight. She set her jaw and let anger be her strength. She would never go back to that. She would churn her way forward against a tide of misfortune, and build a new life for herself. Dreaming of the past could only cripple her with longing. Resolutely she set thoughts of Reyn aside. Coldly she assessed the only tools that remained to her. Her body and her wits were hers; she would use them.

  She had crept out on the night deck to be alone, away from the two men who currently plagued her life. Each continued his obstinate efforts to possess her body. Captain Red fancied himself as her instructor in carnal pleasure; the Satrap saw her body as an infant might see a sugar-sop, as a physical consolation for times of duress. The avid gallantries of the one and the pawing pleas of the other left her feeling grimy and jaded. Each must be discouraged, but not completely denied all possibility. Men, she had discovered, were ruled by their imaginations in that regard. As long as Captain Red and the Satrap fancied that she might give in, they would both keep striving to impress her. From Captain Red she was able to extract the small liberties that made life tolerable: she could walk the deck alone, dine at his table and speak her mind almost freely. From the Satrap, she gleaned information from his bragging tales of his glories at court. It was information that she hoped to use to buy their freedom from Kennit.

  For she was determined to ransom Cosgo as well as herself. Somehow, during her captivity with the Satrap, he had come to be her possession. As annoying as he was, she felt a proprietary sense toward him. She had kept him alive and intact. If anyone was going to profit from his value as a hostage, it would be Malta Vestrit. Satrap Cosgo would be the key to her survival in Jamaillia. When the Satrap was released to his Jamaillian ransomers, she would go with him. By then, she would be indispensable to him.

  She summoned her courage once more. She dreaded these sessions with Cosgo. She left her hair, her last aspect of beauty, long and loose as if she were a girl still, went to his small chamber and tapped.

  “Why bother?” he called out bitterly. “You will enter whether I wish your company or not. ”

  “That is true, lordly one,” she conceded as she entered. The room was dark, save for a guttering lamp. She turned up the wick and sat down on the foot of his bed. The Satrap sat hunched, his knees drawn up to his chin, on the pillow. She had known he would be awake. He slept by day, and brooded by night. As far as she could determine, he had not left his cabin since they had come aboard. He looked very young. And very sulky. She mustered a smile. “How are you this evening, Magnadon Satrap?”

  “Just as I was last night. Just as I shall be tomorrow night. Miserable. Sick. Bored. Betrayed. ” This last he uttered while staring at her accusingly.

  She did not react to it. “Actually, you appear to be much better. But it is stuffy in this little room. There is a cool breeze outside. I thought you might wish to join me in a turn around the deck. ”

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  The Satrap’s seasickness had finally passed. In the last two days, his appetite had increased. The plain ship’s fare she brought to him had not changed, but he had given up complaining about it. Tonight, his eyes were clear for the first time since she had known him.

  “Why should I?”

  “For variety, if nothing else,” she suggested. “Perhaps the Lordly One would enjoy-“

  “Stop it,” he growled in a voice she had never before heard him use.

  “Magnadon Satrap?”

  “Stop mocking me. Lordly this and Mighty that. I am nothing of that, not anymore. And you despise me. So stop pretending otherwise. It demeans us both. ”

  “You sound like a man,” she exclaimed before she could stop herself.

  He gave her a baleful glance. “What else should I sound like?”

  “I spoke without thinking, my lord,” she lied.

  “You do that frequently. So do I. It is one of the few things I enjoy about you,” he retorted.

  She was able to continue smiling by reminding herself that he belonged to her. He shifted about on his bed, then lowered his feet to the floor. He stood uncertainly. “Very well, then,” he announced abruptly. “I will go out. ”

  She covered her surprise by stiffening her smile. She found a cloak and put it around him. The garment hung on his diminished body. She opened the door and he preceded her, keeping one hand on the wall, and surprised her by taking her arm. He walked like an invalid, with small hesitant steps, but she resisted her impulse to hurry him. She opened the outer door for him, and the crisp winter wind blew past them. He gasped, and halted.

  She thought he would go back then, but he went doggedly on. On the open deck, he hugged his cloak tightly to himself as if it were far colder than it was. He looked all around and up as well before stepping away from the ship’s house. In his old man’s shuffle, he toddled toward the railing, to stare out over the wide water and up at the night sky as if it were a foreign landscape. Malta stood beside him and said nothing. He was puffing as if he had just run a race. After a time, he observed aloud, “The world is a wide and savage place. I never fully realized that until I left Jamaillia. ”

  “Magnadon Satrap, I am sure your nobles and your father felt the need to protect the heir to the Pearl Throne. ”

  “There was a time,” he began hesitantly. A line furrowed his brow. “It is like recalling another life. When I was a boy, I used to ride and hawk. One year, when I was eight, I caused a stir by entering the Summer Races. I raced against other boys and young men of Jamaillia. I did not win. My father praised me, all the same. But I was devastated. You see, I had not known I might lose…. ” His voice trailed away but Malta could almost see the intentness of his thought. “They neglected to teach me that, you see. I could have learned it, when I was younger. But they took away the things I did not succeed at, and praised my every success as if it were a wonder. All my tutors and advisors assured me I was a marvel, and I believed them. Except that I began to see the disappointment in my father’s eyes. When I was eleven, I began to learn the pleasures of men. Fine wines, cunningly mixed smokes and skilled women were gifts to me from nobles and foreign dignitaries, and I sampled them all. And, oh, how I succeeded with them. The right smoke, the right wine, the right woman can make any man brilliant. Did you know that? I didn’t. I thought it was all me. Shining like the high jewel of all Jamaillia. ” He turned abruptly away from the sea. “Take me back in. You were wrong. It is cold and wretched out here. ”

  “Of course, Magnadon Satrap,” Malta murmured. She offered him her arm and he took it, shaking with chill, and leaned on her all the way back to his chamber.

  Once inside the room, he let the cloak fall to the floor. He climbed into his bed and drew his blankets closely around himself. “I wish Kekki were here. ” He shivered. “She could always warm me. When no other woman could stir me, she could. ”

  “I shall leave you to rest, Magnadon Satrap,” Malta hastily excused herself.

  His voice stopped her at the door. “What is to become of me, Malta? Do you know?”

  The plaintive qu
estion stopped her. “My lord, I do not know,” she admitted humbly.

  “You know more than I. For the first time since I became Satrap, I think I understand what Companions of the Heart are supposed to do… not that many of mine did it. They are to know the details of that which I have had no time or opportunity to learn. And they are to be truthful. Not flattering, not tactful. Truthful. So. Tell me. What is my situation? And what do you advise?”

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  “I am not the Companion of your Heart, Satrap Cosgo. ”

  “Absolutely true. And you never will be. Nonetheless, you will have to serve as one for now. Tell me. What is my situation?”

  Malta took a deep breath. “You are to be a gift to King Kennit of the Pirate Isles. Captain Red thinks that Kennit will ransom you to the highest bidder, but even that is not assured. If Kennit does, and coin is all that you can bring him, then it will not matter to him if the buyer is your enemy or your ally. Captain Red has urged me to discover who among your nobles would offer the most for you. ”

  The Satrap smiled bitterly. “I suppose that means they already know which of my enemies will bid for me. ”

  “I do not know. ” Malta thought hard. “I think that you should consider which of your allies might offer a fat reward for your life. When the time comes, you should write a letter asking them to ransom you. ”

  “Foolish child. That is not how it will be done. I will negotiate my own ransom with Kennit, issue him letters of credit and insist that he provide me passage back to Jamaillia. I am the Satrap, you know. ”

  “My Lord Satrap,” she began hesitantly. She firmed her voice. Truthfulness he had asked for. She would see what he did with it. “Others see your situation differently. Kennit will not accept letters of credit from you or anyone else. He will want your ransom in cold coin, and he will see it before he releases you. And he will not care who it comes from: nobles loyal to you, or those who do not wish you to return to Jamaillia, New Traders, Chalcedeans who might use you as a hostage-he will not care. That is why you must think, and think well for yourself. Whose fidelity is unquestionable? Who has both loyalty to you, and wealth enough to buy your freedom?”

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