Ship of destiny, p.7
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       Ship of Destiny, p.7

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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  Kennit tightened his arms across his chest and lied. “I think you are prone to flights of fancy, my sea lady. No more than that. Perhaps you feel a bit guilty. I know that I chide myself for taking Wintrow to the Others’ Island where he was exposed to such danger. For you, it must be sharper. You have been distant with him of late. I know that I have come between you and Wintrow. Pardon me if I do not regret that. Now that you have been faced with the possibility of losing him, you appreciate the hold he still has on you. You wonder what would become of you if he died. Or left. ”

  Kennit shook his head at her and gave her a wry smile. “I fear you still do not trust me. I have told you, I will be with you always, to the end of my days. Yet still you cling to him as the only one worthy to partner you. ” Kennit paused, then ventured a gambit to see how she would react. “I think we should use this time to prepare for when Wintrow will leave us. Fond as we are of him, we both know his heart is not here, but at his monastery. The time will come when, if we truly love him, we must let him go. Do you not agree?”

  Vivacia turned away to stare out over the sea. “I suppose so. ”

  “My lovely water-flower, why cannot you allow me to fill his place with you?”

  “Blood is memory,” Vivacia said sadly. “Wintrow and I share both blood and memories. ”

  It was painful, for he ached in every limb, but Kennit lowered himself slowly to her deck. He put his hand flat on the bloodstain that still held the outline of his hip and leg. “My blood,” he said quietly. “I lay here while my leg was cut from my body. My blood soaked into you. I know you shared memories with me then. ”

  “I did. And again, when you died. Yet-” She paused, then complained, “Even unconscious, you hid yourself from me. You shared what you chose to reveal, Kennit. The rest you cloaked in mystery and shadow, denying those memories even existed. ” She shook her massive head. “I love you, Kennit, but I do not know you. Not as Wintrow and I know one another. I hold the memories of three generations of his family line. His blood has soaked me as well. We are like two trees sprung from a single root. ” She took a sudden breath. “I do not know you,” she repeated. “If I truly knew you, I would understand what happened when you returned from Others’ Island. The winds and sea itself seemed to answer to your command. A serpent bowed to your will. I do not understand how such a thing could be, yet I witnessed it. Nor do you see fit to explain it to me. ” Very softly, she asked him, “How can I put my trust in a man who does not trust me?”

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  For a time, silence blew by with the wind. “I see,” Kennit replied heavily. He got to his knee and then laboriously climbed up his crutch to stand erect. She had wounded him and he chose to let it show. “All I can say to you is that it is not yet time for me to reveal myself to you. I had hoped that you loved me well enough to be patient. You have dashed that hope. Still, I hope you know me well enough to believe my words. Wintrow is not dead. He shows signs of recovering. Once he is well, I have no doubt he will come to you. When he does, I shall not stand between you. ”

  “Kennit!” she cried after him, but he limped slowly away. When he got to the short ladder that led from the raised foredeck to the main deck, he had to lower himself awkwardly to it. He set his crutch flat on the deck and scrabbled his body around to the ladder. It presented difficulties for a one-legged man, but he surmounted them without help. Etta, who should have been at his side to aid him, was nursing Wintrow. He supposed that she, too, now preferred the lad’s company to his. No one seemed to care how his exertions on Others’ Island had exhausted him. Despite the warm weather, he had developed a cough from their long and arduous swim. Every muscle and joint in his body ached, but no one offered him sympathy or support, for Wintrow was hurt, the skin scalded from his body by sea-serpent’s venom. Wintrow. He was the only one that Etta and Vivacia noticed.

  “Oh. Poor pirate. Poor, pathetic, unloved Kennit. ”

  The words were drawled sarcastically, in a small voice. It came from the carved charm he wore strapped to his wrist. He would not even have heard the tiny, breathless voice if he had not been climbing down the ladder, his hand still gripping the rung by his face. His foot reached the lower deck. He held to the ladder with one hand as he tugged his coat straight, and corrected the fall of lace from his cuffs. Anger burned in him. Even the wizardwood charm he had created to bring him luck had turned on him. His own face, carved in miniature, flung mockery at him. He thought of a threat for the beastly little wretch.

  He lifted his hand to smooth the curl of his moustache. Carved face close to his mouth, he observed quietly, “Wizardwood burns. ”

  “So does flesh,” the tiny voice replied. “You and I are bound as tightly as Vivacia is bound to Wintrow. Do you want to test that link? You have already lost a leg. Would you like to try life without your eyes?”

  The charm’s words set a finger of ice to the pirate’s spine. How much did it know?

  “Ah, Kennit, there can be few secrets between two such as we. Few. ” It spoke to his thoughts rather than his words. Could it truly know what he thought, or did it shrewdly guess?

  “Here’s a secret I could share with Vivacia,” the charm went on relentlessly. “I could tell her that you yourself have no idea what happened during that rescue. That once your elation wore off, you cowered in your bed and trembled like a child while Etta was nursing Wintrow. ” A pause. “Perhaps Etta would find that amusing. ”

  An inadvertent glance at his wrist showed him the sardonic grin on the charm’s face. Kennit pushed down a deep uneasiness. He would not dignify the ill-natured little thing with a reply. He recovered his crutch and stepped swiftly out of the path of a handful of men hastening to reset a sail that was not to Jola’s liking.

  What had happened as they were leaving Others’ Island? The storm had raged about them, and Wintrow had been unconscious, perhaps dying, in the bottom of the ship’s boat. Kennit had been furious with fate that it would try to snatch his future away just as he was so close to realizing it. He had stood up in the gig, to shake his fist and forbid the sea to drown him and the winds to oppose him. Not only had they heeded his words, but the serpent from the island had risen from the depths to reunite the gig with its mother ship. He exhaled sharply, refusing credulous fear. It was difficult enough that his own crew now worshipped him with their eyes, cowering in terror at his slightest remonstrance. Even Etta quivered fearfully under his touch and spoke to him with downcast eyes. Occasionally, she slipped back into familiarity, only to be aghast with herself when she realized she had done so. Only the ship treated him as fearlessly as she always had. Now she had revealed that his miracle had created another barrier between them. He refused to surrender to their superstition. Whatever had happened, he must accept it and continue as he always had.

  Commanding a ship demanded that the captain always live a detached life. No one could fraternize on equal terms with the ship’s captain. Kennit had always enjoyed the isolation of command. Since Sorcor had taken over command of the Marietta, he had lost some of his deference for Kennit. The storm incident had once more firmly established Kennit as above Sorcor. Now his former second-in-command regarded him with a god-struck gaze. It was not the elevation in their regard that Kennit minded so much. It was knowing that a fall from this new pinnacle could shatter him. Even a slight mistake now might discredit him in their eyes. He must be more careful than ever before. The path he had set himself upon grew ever narrower and steeper. He set his customary small smile to his face. Let no one see his apprehension. He made his way toward Wintrow’s cabin.

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  “WINTROW? HERE is WATER. DRINK. ”

  Etta squeezed a small sponge above his lips. A pattering of drops fell. She watched anxiously as his blistered lips opened to the water. His thick tongue moved inside his mouth, and she saw him swallow. It was followed by a quick gasp for breath. “Is that better? Do you want more?”
r />   She leaned closer and watched his face, willing a response from him. She would accept anything, the twitch of an eyelid, the flaring of a nostril. There was nothing. She dipped the sponge again. “Here comes more water,” she assured him, and sent another brief trickle into his mouth. Again, he swallowed.

  Thrice more she gave him water. The last time, it trickled down his livid cheek. She dabbed it gently away. Skin came with it. Then she leaned back into the chair by his bunk and considered him wearily. She could not tell if his thirst was satiated or if he was too weary to swallow more. She numbered her consolations. He was alive. He breathed; he drank. She tried to build hope upon that. She dropped the sponge back into the pan of water. For a moment, she regarded her own hands. She had scalded them in Wintrow’s rescue, for when she had seized him to keep him from drowning, the serpent slime on his clothing had rubbed off on her, leaving shiny red patches, stingingly sensitive to both heat and cold. And it had done that damage after it had spent most of its strength on Wintrow’s clothing and flesh.

  His clothing had been corroded away to flimsy rags. Then, as warm water dissolves ice, the slime had eaten his flesh. His hands had taken the worst damage, but spatters of it had marred his face. It had eaten into his sailor’s queue, leaving uneven hanks of black hair clinging to his head. She had cut his remaining hair to keep it from lying in his sores. His shorn scalp made him look even younger than he was.

  In some places, the damage seemed no worse than sunburn; in others, raw tissue shone wet beside tanned and healthy flesh. Swelling had distorted his features, rendering his eyes as slits beneath a ledge of brow. His fingers were as sausages. His breath rattled in and out wetly. His oozing flesh stuck to the linen sheets. She suspected his pain was intense, and yet he gave few signs of it. He was so unresponsive that she feared he was dying.

  She closed her eyes tightly. If he died, it would reawaken all the pain she had schooled herself to leave behind. It was so monstrously unfair that she was going to lose him so soon after finally coming to trust him. He had taught her to read. She had taught him to fight. She had competed with him jealously for Kennit’s attention. Somehow, in the process, she had come to consider him a friend. How had she let herself be so careless? Why had she allowed herself such vulnerability?

  She had come to know him better than anyone else on board. To Kennit, Wintrow was a lucky piece and a prophet of his success, though he valued the boy, perhaps even loved him in his grudging way. The crew had accepted Wintrow, reluctantly at first, but with almost paternal pride since the mild lad had stood his ground at Divvytown, blade in hand, and voiced his support for Kennit as a king. His shipmates had been eager for Wintrow to walk the Treasure Beach, sure that whatever he discovered there would be omens of Kennit’s greatness to come. Even Sorcor had come to regard Wintrow with tolerance and affection. But none of them knew him as she did. If he died, they would be sad, but Etta would be bereaved.

  She pushed her own feelings roughly aside. They were not important. The vital question was, how would Wintrow’s death affect Kennit? She truly could not guess. Five days ago, she would have sworn she knew the pirate as well as anyone. Not that she claimed to know all his secrets; he was a very private man, and his motives often mystified her. Nevertheless, he treated her kindly and more than kindly. She knew she loved him. That had been enough for her; she did not need to be loved in return. He was Kennit, and that was all she required of him.

  She had listened with indulgent skepticism as Wintrow had shyly begun to voice his speculations. His initial distrust of Kennit had evolved slowly into a belief that Kennit was chosen by Sa to fulfill some great destiny. She had suspected Kennit of playing on the boy’s gullibility, encouraging Wintrow in his beliefs simply so he could enlist him in his own endeavors. Fond as she was of Kennit, she believed him capable of such deceptions. It did not make her think less of her man that he was willing to do whatever he must to achieve his ends.

  But that had been before she had seen Kennit lift his hands and voice to quell a storm and command a sea serpent. Since that moment, she felt as if the man she loved had been snatched away and another set in his place. She was not alone in this. The crew that would have followed Captain Kennit to any bloody death now fell silent at his approach and near cowered at a direct command from him. Kennit scarcely noticed. That was the uncanny thing. He seemed to accept what he had done, and expect the same of those around him. He spoke to her as if nothing had changed. Shockingly, he touched her as he always had. She was not worthy to be touched by such a being, yet she dared not deny herself to him, either. Who was she to question the will of one such as he?

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  What was he?

  Words she would once have scoffed came to her mind. God-touched. Beloved of Sa. Destined. Prophesied. Chosen by fate. She wanted to laugh and dismiss such fancies, but could not. From the very beginning, Kennit had been unlike any other man she had ever known. None of the rules had ever seemed to apply to him. He had succeeded where any other man would have failed, achieved the impossible effortlessly. The tasks he had set himself baffled her. The size of his ambitions astounded her. Had not he captured a Bingtown liveship? What other man had recovered from a sea serpent’s attack? Who but Kennit could have made the rag-tag villages of the Pirate Isles start to think of themselves as outposts of a farflung realm, Kennit’s rightful kingdom?

  What kind of a man harbored such dreams, let alone brought them to fruit?

  Such questions made her miss Wintrow even more sharply. If he had been awake, he could have helped her understand. Though he was young, he had spent almost his entire life in schooling at a monastery. When she had first met him, she had disdained him for his educated ways and gentle manners. Now she wished she could turn to him with her uncertainties. Words like destiny and fate and omen fell from his lips as easily as curses came from hers. From him, such words were believable.

  She found herself toying with the small pouch she wore around her neck. She opened it with a sigh, and once more took out the tiny manikin. She had found it in her boot, along with a quantity of sand and barnacle shells after they had escaped from Others’ Island. When she had asked Kennit what such an omen from the Treasure Beach might mean, he had told her that she already knew. That answer had frightened her more than any dire prophecy he could have uttered.

  “But truly, I don’t,” she said softly to Wintrow. The doll just filled her palm. It felt like ivory, yet it was colored the precise pink of a baby’s flesh. The curled and sleeping infant had tiny perfect eyelashes on its cheeks, ears like minute seashells and a coiling serpentine tail that wrapped around it. It warmed quickly in her hand, and the smooth contours of the tiny body begged to be touched. Her fingertip traced the curve of its spine. “It looks like a baby to me. But what can that mean to me?” She lowered her voice and spoke more confidentially, as if the youth could hear her. “Kennit spoke of a baby, once. He asked me if I would have a baby if he wanted that of me. I told him, of course I would. Is that what this means? Is Kennit going to ask me to have his child?”

  Her hand strayed to her flat belly. Through her shirt, her finger touched a tiny lump. A wizardwood charm, shaped like a tiny skull, was ringed through her navel to protect her from disease and pregnancy. “Wintrow, I’m afraid. I fear I cannot live up to such dreams. What if I fail him? What am I to do?”

  “I will not ask of you anything I believe is beyond you. ”

  Etta leapt to her feet with a startled cry. She spun to find Kennit standing in the open door. She covered her hand with her mouth. “I didn’t hear you,” she apologized guiltily.

  “Ah, but I heard you. Is our boy awake now? Wintrow?” Kennit limped into the room, to gaze hopefully on Wintrow’s still form.

  “No. He drinks water, but other than that, there is no sign of recovery. ” Etta remained standing.

  “But still you ask him these questions?” Kennit observed speculatively. He turned
his head to pierce her with his glance.

  “I have no one else to share such doubts,” she began, and then halted. “I meant,” she began hesitantly, but Kennit silenced her with an impatient motion of his hand.

  “I know what you meant,” he revealed. He sank into her chair. When he let go of his crutch, she caught it before it could clatter to the floor. He leaned forward to look at Wintrow more closely, a frown furrowing his brow. His fingers touched the boy’s swollen face with a woman’s gentleness. “I, too, miss his counsel. ” He stroked the stubble of hair on Wintrow’s head, then pulled his hand back in distaste at its coarseness. “I am thinking of putting him up on the foredeck, by the figurehead. She may be able to speed his healing. ”

  “But-” Etta began, then held her tongue and lowered her eyes.

  “You object? Why?”

  “I did not mean to…”

  “Etta!” Kennit barked her name, making her jump. “Spare me this whining and cringing. If I ask you a question, it is because I wish you to speak, not whimper at me. Why do you object to moving him there?”

  She swallowed her fear. “The scabs on his burns are loose and wet. If we move him, they may be rubbed off, and delay his healing. The wind and the sun may dry and crack raw skin all the more. ”

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  Kennit looked only at the boy. He appeared to be pondering her words. “I see. But we shall move him carefully, and we will not leave him there long. The ship needs assurance that he lives still, and I think he may need her strength to heal. ”

  “I am sure you know better than I-” she faltered, but he cut off her objection with “I am certain that I do. Go fetch some crewmen to move him. I shall wait here. ”

 

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