Ship of destiny, p.69
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       Ship of Destiny, p.69
 

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  “I assure you, I intend no harm at all to Althea Vestrit. Hurting her, offending her would run counter to all my hopes for her. ” He took a great breath and confided in the ship, “Truth be told, in the few days since she came aboard, I have conceived a great fondness for her. My feelings for her bewilder and confuse me. I am not sure how to deal with them. ” Those words, at least, rang with honesty.

  A long silence followed his words. Then she asked quietly, “And what of Etta?”

  Who was stronger in the ship, Bolt or Vivacia? Bolt had seemed to like Etta: Vivacia had never disguised her jealousy of her. “I am torn,” Kennit admitted. “Etta has been at my side a long time. I have seen her grow far beyond the common whore I rescued from Bettel’s bagnio. She has bettered herself in many ways, but she must suffer in comparison to Althea. ” He paused, and sighed lightly. “Althea is altogether a different sort of woman. Her birth and her breeding show in every movement she makes. Yet there is a competency to her that I find very attractive. She is more like… you. And I confess, part of the attraction is that she is so much a part of you. The same family that shaped you created her. To be with her is, in a sense, to be with you. ” He hoped she would find that flattering. He held his breath, waiting.

  Around them the night deepened. The serpents became disembodied sounds, their odd singing mingled with the random splashes of their passage. As the darkness became complete, the brief flashes of their gleaming, scaled bodies lit the waters around the ship.

  “You killed Paragon,” she said quietly. “I know that. Bolt saw it. I have her memories. ”

  He shook his head. “I helped Paragon die. It was what he wanted. It was what he had tried to do for himself so many times. I only made it easier for him. ”

  “Brashen was dear to me. ” The ship’s voice was choked.

  “I am sorry. I did not realize that. In any case, the man was a true captain to the end. He would not leave his ship. ” There was regretful admiration in his voice. He went on more quietly, “You have Bolt’s memories. Then you will remember she wanted Althea dead. I refused that. What does she remember of Althea’s ‘rape’?” His lips scarce touched the word.

  “Nothing,” the ship admitted. “She refused to touch minds with Althea. But I know what Althea recalls. ”

  Relief fueled his voice with kindness. “And Althea recalls a nightmare, a poppy dream, not a reality. Such dreams are especially vivid. I do not blame her, or you, for believing her nightmare was real. I blame myself. I should not have given her poppy syrup. I meant no harm, only to help her rest and give her time to absorb the tragedy that had changed her life. ”

  “Kennit, Kennit,” the ship burst out in an anguished voice. “You have become precious to me. It gives me pain even to try to believe such things of you. For me to admit such a horrendous act by you means I must admit I have been duped and deceived as to all you are. If it is true, it will make lies of all truths there have ever been between us. ” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “Please, please, tell me she is mistaken. Tell me you could not have done such an odious thing. ”

  What one wants to believe badly enough becomes real. “I will show you my proof. I will have Althea and Jek brought to you. You will see for yourself that they have taken no harm while in my care. Althea may have a few bruises, but,” he chuckled deprecatingly, “probably fewer than she gave me. She is not a large woman, but she is spirited. ”

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  A faint smile came to the ship’s face. “She is that. She has always been that. You will bring her here?”

  “Immediately,” he promised. He turned his head as Wintrow came up onto the foredeck. Kennit watched his face as he got his first look at the transfigured figurehead. His dark eyes, so troubled an instant before, kindled. Life came back to Wintrow’s face, flowing into it as if he were a carved statue awakening. He started forward eagerly. Kennit lurched to stand between them. That would not do. The ship was his; he could not let Wintrow reassert a claim to her.

  Swiftly, he took a ring of keys from his pocket. “Here, lad!” he exclaimed and tossed it. The keys flashed in the ship’s lantern light before Wintrow caught it. As their eyes met, the light of his joy in Vivacia dimmed. He gave Kennit an oddly measuring look. Kennit read it plainly. Wintrow wondered whom to believe. The pirate shrugged it off. To wonder was not to know. His luck was holding. He considered the boy through the darkness. With a wrench, he wondered if he could part with Wintrow if he had to. The idea dismayed him. But if Wintrow forced him to it, then it must be done in a way that did not compromise his luck, nor alienate the crew. Perhaps he could die in selfless service to Kennit. That might, perhaps, be arranged. The crew might find it inspiring to witness such dedication. He looked at him, mourning him already, then steeled himself to the harshness of life.

  “Wintrow,” he exclaimed heartily. “As you can see, Vivacia has rejoined us. She desires to see your Aunt Althea. Escort her and Jek to the foredeck, please. Make them comfortable for the time being. I myself will see that Althea’s old room is made more fitting for them to share. ” He turned back to the ship, but his words were for Wintrow as well. “I will do all I can for their comfort. You will see, in the days to come, that they are my honored guests, not prisoners. ”

  IT WAS COWARDLY, HE SUPPOSED, BUT HE FREED JEK FROM HER CHAINS FIRST. “Vivacia wants both you and Althea on the foredeck,” he began, but before he could explain any further, the blonde woman had snatched the keys from his hands and was working on the lock. Once free, she surged to her feet and looked down on him with cold blue eyes. Serpent venom had eaten through her clothing and bared her scalded skin. Despite her injuries, she was a formidable and powerful woman. “Where’s Althea?” she demanded.

  She followed him through the ship, and jostled him aside at the door. She worked the lock and opened the door, only to have Althea charge into her. His aunt’s shoulder caught the tall woman in the sternum. “Althea!” Jek exclaimed, and wrapped the smaller woman in her arms, containing her wildly flailing arms. “It’s me, it’s Jek, calm down!”

  After a moment, Althea stopped struggling. She threw her head back to look up at Jek. Her hair was wild, her eyes dilated to black pits. She breathed the stench of vomit. “I have to kill him,” Althea grated. Her head swayed on her neck. She clutched at her friend’s shoulder. “Promise me you’ll help me kill him. ”

  “Althea, what’s wrong with you?” Jek turned a furious gaze on Wintrow. “What has been done to her?”

  “He raped me,” Althea gasped. “Kennit raped me. He kept coming into my room, pretending kindness and kissing me, and then… And my ship, he’s been holding my ship down under where she couldn’t see or feel the wind…. ”

  Jek looked at Wintrow over Althea’s bent head, horrified at her friend’s rambling state. “You’ll be all right now,” she said faintly. Her eyes were uncertain.

  “Vivacia is asking for you, right now,” Wintrow told her hastily. It was the most comforting thing he could think to say. “She wants you to come to her right away. ”

  “My ship,” Althea half-sobbed. She staggered free of Jek’s embrace and careened down the hallway.

  “What’s wrong with her?” Jek demanded of Wintrow. Cold fury was in her eyes.

  “It’s too much poppy,” he explained, and then found he was talking to empty air. She had hastened after Althea.

  THE FOREDECK HAD NEVER BEEN SO FAR AWAY. ALTHEA MOVED IN A DREAM. THE air was gelid against her, but if she leaned on it, it gave way all too easily. She forced her way down the companionway, one shoulder braced against the wall. When she reached the open deck, it stretched leagues before her. She dared herself to brave it. Then Jek was at her side, taking her arm. Without a word, she leaned on her and began to step away the distance.

  Tears stung her eyes. She felt she walked through time as much as distance. She was finally walking away from her foolish decisions and toward the place she was meant t
o be. She had lost Brashen, and poor Paragon, and all the hands who had come so far with them. Kennit had brutalized her body and her ship was still in his hands, but somehow if she could just reach the foredeck and once more look into Vivacia’s eyes, she could deal with it all. It would not hurt less, the grief would not be eased, but there would still be something in her life worth the effort of living.

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  That dog’s son Kennit still stood on the foredeck. He had the nerve to look down on her and smile welcomingly. He moved back from the ladder as she approached it. He probably knew that if he stood too close, she’d try to pull him down and break his neck.

  “Move your other foot now,” Jek said quietly. “Lift it to the next rung. ”

  “What?” What was she talking about?

  “Here,” she offered, and abruptly Althea felt herself lifted and shoved up the ladder. She scrabbled at it faintly, got a grip, and then Jek unceremoniously shoved her the rest of the way up it. She crawled onto the foredeck on her hands and knees, knowing that something was wrong with that, but unable to think of a different way to manage it. Then Jek was beside her, hauling her onto her feet.

  “Let me go,” Althea told her plainly. “I want to go alone. ”

  “You’re not well,” Kennit said sympathetically. “I hold none of this against you. ”

  “Bastard,” she spat at him, and she thought he had moved closer. She swung at him, and then suddenly he was where he had been standing all along, the coward. “I’m still going to kill you,” she promised him, “but not where you’ll bleed on my deck. ”

  “Althea!”

  The beloved voice was shocked with worry for her, but there was something else there too, something she couldn’t name. She turned and after a blurry moment found Vivacia looking back at her. She should have looked joyful, not anxious. “It will be all right,” she assured her. “I’m here now. ” She tried to run to her, but it became a stagger. Jek was suddenly at her side again, helping her to the railing. “I’m here now, ship,” she told her, finally, after all the months. Then, “What has he done to you? What has he done to you?”

  It was Vivacia and it was not. All her features had subtly changed. Her eyes were too green, and the arch of her brows too pronounced. Her hair was like a mane, wild around her face. Yet for all that, the difference was what she felt as she clutched the railing. Once they had fit together like complementary parts of a puzzle box and completed one another. Now it was as if she gripped Jek’s hands, or Paragon’s railing. It was Vivacia, but she was complete without Althea.

  Yet Althea was not complete without her. The places she had expected the ship to fill were still empty and ached more horribly than ever.

  “I am one now,” the ship confirmed softly to her. “The memories of your family have merged with the dragon. It had to be, Althea. There was no going back to denying her, any more than she could truly go on without me. You don’t begrudge me that, do you? That I am whole now?”

  “But I need you!” The words broke from her before she could consider what they meant. Terrible to blurt out to all a truth you had never recognized yourself. “How can I be myself without you?”

  “Just as you have been,” the ship replied, and she heard her father’s wisdom in the words, and an elder sapience as well.

  “But I’m hurt,” she heard herself say. Words were welling from her like blood from a wound.

  “You will heal,” Vivacia assured her.

  “You don’t need me…. ” The knowledge of that sent her reeling. To have come all this way, striven so hard and lost so much, only to discover this.

  “Love can exist without need,” Vivacia pointed out gently. In the seas beyond the bow, several serpents had risen to regard them gravely. Either her eyes were still tricking her, or the yellow-green one was deformed.

  From somewhere, Wintrow had come to grip the railing beside her. “Oh, ship, you feel beautiful,” he exclaimed. Althea felt an odd tension run out of him. “You… you make sense now. You are complete. ”

  “Go away,” Althea told him distinctly.

  “You need to rest,” he told her gently. Mealy-mouthed, empty courtesy, just like Kennit’s.

  She swung at him, but he jerked his head back. “Go away!” she shouted at him. Tears, useless tears, started down her face. Where had her strength gone? She lurched with the realization that the ship did not reach out to her and supplement her in her need.

  Vivacia spoke quietly. “You must do that for yourself now, Althea. Each of us must. ”

  It was as if her own mother had pushed her aside. “But you were with me. You know what he did to me, how he hurt me…. ”

  “Not exactly,” the ship replied gently, and in those words, the separation was complete. The ship was a separate creature from her now, and just as capable of misunderstanding her as any human. Just as capable of disbelieving her.

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  “I know how real your pain is, and was,” Vivacia offered her. “It is just that… perhaps I know you too well, Althea. All the years you lived aboard me, all the dreams you dreamed with me before I awoke. I shared them, you know. And this is not the first time such a nightmare has plagued you. ” There was an awkward silence, then she added, “Devon did you great wrong, Althea. And it was not your fault. It was never your fault. And neither was Brashen’s death. ” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “You don’t deserve to be punished. ”

  Vivacia had gotten too close to a truth Althea didn’t want to hear. It was a truth she could not bear just now. All the connections between pain and fault, between Althea’s wicked willfulness and the deaths of those she loved and the bad things that happened to her because she deserved bad things- cause and effect suddenly spun dizzyingly around her. If she hadn’t defied her mother to go on the ship with her father, her mother would have loved her more and not given the ship to Keffria, and if Devon hadn’t taken her maidenhead, she wouldn’t have told Keffria, and Keffria wouldn’t have despised her all these years, and none of it would even have begun, and Paragon wouldn’t be sunk and Brashen dead, and Amber, and young Clef, how could she even think of him-

  “I need to go back to my room,” she begged huskily.

  “I’ll take you, “Jek said.

  WINTROW TAPPED AT THE DOOR OF HIS ROOM CAUTIOUSLY, THEN JUMPED WHEN Jek jerked it open. For an instant, he stood mutely looking up at the northern woman. Then he found his tongue. “Kennit thought you might want some women’s clothing. ”

  She scowled as if he had already offended her, but stepped back and waved him in. Althea sat on the bunk, her knees drawn up to her chest. A pallet had been made up on the floor for Jek. She looked better, in a haggard but alert way. The tension in the room suggested he had walked in on an argument. His aunt glanced disdainfully at his burden of slithering fabric. “Take them away. I accept nothing from him. ”

  “Wait,” Jek intervened. She gave Althea an apologetic look. “I’ve been in these clothes since we went overboard. I’m tired of smelling myself. ” She winced, then added reluctantly, “And you. Those clothes you’re in smell like vomit. ”

  “Don’t you see what those dresses are?” Althea flared. “They’re a bribe. And if I wear one of them, I’d be seen as a whore, bought with clothes. No one would ever believe what he did to me. ”

  “I don’t think he intends it that way,” Wintrow said quietly. He suspected the gift was more to gain the ship’s approval than Althea’s, but the look she shot him silenced him. He did not know how to begin to talk to her. Give her time, he told himself. Let her be the one to begin talking. He shut the door behind him before placing the armload of clothing on the foot of the bunk. He also unburdened himself of a chest of jewelry and several bottles of scent.

  Jek raised an eyebrow at the trove, then glanced back at Althea. “Would you mind if I looked through it?”

  “I don’t care,” Althea lied
. “You’ve already made it obvious you doubt my story. ”

  Jek flipped open the lid of the jewelry chest. She spoke as she considered the glittering contents. “You don’t lie, Althea. ” She took a deep breath and added reluctantly, “It’s the circumstances that make me… have doubts. The whole thing just doesn’t make sense. Why would he rape you? He has a woman of his own, he’s forbidden rape on this ship, and his reputation is that of a gentleman. Back in Divvytown, no one spoke ill of him. He saw me twice every day, and treated me with courtesy, despite the chains. Even the ship herself is shocked at the idea that he might do such a thing. ” She rummaged through the garments, and held a soft blue skirt up against herself. “I won’t be running the rigging in this,” she observed in an aside. Althea wasn’t distracted by her humor.

  “So you believe the whole thing was a poppy dream?” Althea demanded fiercely.

  Jek shrugged. “He gave me poppy syrup in brandy for my burns. It helped. But it did give me vivid dreams. ” She knit her brow. “I hate the man, Althea. But for him, my friends would be alive still. Despite that, he displays a sense of honor that-“

  “It wasn’t a dream. ” Althea turned her accusing gaze on Wintrow. “You don’t believe me, do you? You’ve become his meek little follower, haven’t you? You gave our family ship over to him without a fight. ”

  Before Wintrow could defend himself, Jek spoke. “Put yourself in my place, Althea. What if I’d told you that Brashen had attacked me? Think how difficult that would be for you to accept. Althea. You’ve been through a horrible experience. Near drowned, and recovered only to find your ship and all hands and Brashen drowned. You’re grieving. It is natural for you to hate Kennit and believe him capable of any evil. It could turn anyone’s mind. ”

 
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