Ship of destiny, p.71
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       Ship of Destiny, p.71

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  “Because I am a man who can learn from his errors,” he announced. Those words alone would have stunned her to silence, but what followed nearly made her gape. “Coming away from Jamaillia City and traveling through my domain has opened my eyes and my ears to facts that my advisors either hid from me, or were ignorant of themselves. My bold journey has borne fruit. My ‘foolishness’ in leaving the capital will now shine forth as true wisdom. ” He smiled graciously around the table. “My advisors and nobles often underestimated my intelligence. It was a grave error on their part. ”

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  He had them in the palm of his hand. Everyone at the table waited for his next words. The Satrap leaned forward slightly. He tapped his finger on the table as he made each point. Malta was entranced. She had never seen this man.

  “I find myself in the company of pirates, of men and women tattooed with the shame of slavery. Yet you are not what I was told you were. I do not find ignorance or stupidity amongst you, nor yet barbarism and savagery.

  “I have seen the patrol vessels negotiated by treaty with Chalced. Yet I see far too many of them in my waters. They wallow with the wealth they have taken. Clearly, I have put my trust in the wrong allies. Jamaillia City stands vulnerable to attack by the ships of Chalced. I would be wise to seek truer allies. Who better than those who already have learned to do battle with Chalcedeans?”

  “Who better indeed?” Captain Red asked those at his table. He grinned broadly, but then brought his smile under control as he added, “Of course, King Kennit will make all final decisions. But I suspect we are bringing him a prize far weightier than all the gold we have ever shared with him. We are only a few days out of Divvytown. A bird shall be sent at once to alert Kennit to what we bring. ” He lifted his glass in a toast. “Here’s to ransoms paid in more than coin or blood!”

  As all lifted their glasses and joined in, Malta heard the lookout’s cry of “Sail!”

  The men at the table exchanged wary looks. Chalcedean ships were to be avoided, now that the Motley was fully loaded. There was a rap at the door. “Enter!” Captain Red conceded, annoyance in his voice. The man detested anything that disrupted his meals, let alone a dramatic moment.

  The door opened. The ship’s boy stood there, his cheeks pink with excitement. With a broad grin he announced, “Sir, we’ve sighted the Vivacia, and the Marietta. ”

  KENNIT WATCHED THE APPROACH OF THE SMALL BOAT FROM THE MOTLEY with mixed feelings. Sorcor had come over from the Marietta for the occasion. He was attired in several acres of scarlet fabric. He stood just behind his captain’s right shoulder. Captain Red, at his other side in his own garish garments, seemed too caught up in his own triumph to be aware of his leader’s personal reservations. He was delivering to King Kennit a prize that no other of his captains would ever match. For a man with his theatrical background, it was the ultimate achievement. Ever after, he would be known as the pirate captain who gave the Satrap of all Jamaillia to King Kennit as a gift.

  Captain Red had come first to the Vivacia to share the news. Now, dramatically poised, he hovered by Kennit’s side as they watched the loot delivered. Kennit was both elated, and annoyed. The capture of the Satrap was remarkable, and the potential for gain from his ransom was vast. But this windfall also came at a time when his mind had another focus. He gave a sideways glance to where Althea Vestrit also stood at the railing watching the small boat approach. Jek was at her side. Jek was always at her side. The winter wind blew their hair and Jek’s bright skirts, and brought color to their faces. Jek was a stunning woman, tall, fair and bold. But Althea captivated Kennit as no other woman could.

  In the days since she had emerged from her cabin and been given the freedom of the ship, he had walked a careful line with her. He maintained to everyone that her terrible dream had been the result of poppy syrup, given her for the pain of a damaged back. For that, he had publicly apologized to her, while gently reminding her that she had complained of a painful back. Didn’t she recall taking the syrup? At her snarling denial, he had shrugged helplessly. “It was when you said you liked lace on a man,” he had delicately prompted her, even as his hand toyed with the lace at his throat. He had smiled fondly at her.

  “Don’t try to make that mean something,” she threatened him.

  He composed his face to injured resignation. “Doubtless you are far more susceptible to the poppy than you knew,” he courteously suggested.

  His luck had given him the power to adorn her as he saw fit. Her lack of garments had forced her to accept the clothing he selected from his plunder and sent to her stateroom. Jewelry, perfume and bright scarves he sent as well. Jek availed herself of this feminine bounty unashamedly, but Althea had resisted it for days. Even now, she kept herself as plain as one could be in silk trousers and damask vest. It pleased him that he chose the colors she wore, that he had touched the garments that now clung to her. How long could she remain proof against such largesse? Like a caged bird, she must eventually come fluttering to his hand.

  She avoided him as much as she could, but Vivacia was not a large ship. From threats of murder and foul names, she had simmered to seething hatred and murderous looks. He had met all her stares with grieved concern and solicitous courtesy. Deep inside him, a bizarre merriment bubbled at her predicament. He had a power over her that he never could have foreseen, even if he had deliberately created this situation. She believed herself a wronged victim, but was treated as the hysterical accuser of an innocent man. If she spoke of the rape, her words were received with pity rather than shared outrage. Even Jek, who bore him an impersonal hate for the sinking of the Paragon, had reservations about Althea’s accusations. A lack of support for her cause was undoubtedly very daunting to her desire to kill him.

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  Most of the crew were uninterested in what he had or had not done to her. He was, after all, the captain, and the pirates of his crew had never been overly afflicted with morality. Some, those fondest of Etta, were more concerned by her absence than by Althea’s presence. A few seemed to think he had wronged Etta somehow. He suspected that this was what troubled Wintrow most. He never spoke of it directly but from time to time, Kennit would catch Wintrow looking at him speculatively. Fortunately for Wintrow, he did not do this often. Instead, the boy spent most of his time in a futile effort to establish some sort of bond with his aunt.

  Althea resolutely ignored her nephew. Wintrow bore her rebuffs mildly, but managed to spend most of his free time in her vicinity. He obviously hoped for reconciliation. To busy him, Kennit had passed most of the day-today tasks of the ship’s command on to him. His wits were far sharper than Jola’s. If the circumstances had been different, Kennit would have moved him up to mate. He had the instinct for command.

  What grated on Kennit was that he had not had even a moment alone with Althea. As far as the pirate could determine, when Althea was not in the stateroom she shared with Jek, she was on the foredeck with the figurehead. It amused Kennit, for he knew the ship spent much time trying to convince her that Kennit would not have mistreated her as she claimed. More than any other influence, Vivacia’s attitude seemed to undermine the experience of Althea’s own senses. When he himself came to the foredeck each evening to converse with Vivacia, Althea no longer stormed away with Jek in her wake, but retreated a little way and then eavesdropped on them. She watched his every move, trying to see the monster she would make of him. His facade defied her.

  As the little boat drew nearer, Kennit saw that it held not only the Satrap, theatrically resplendent in borrowed garb, but also his young Companion. The Satrap stared straight ahead, ignoring their rippling serpent escort, but the young woman stared up at the ship, white-faced. Even at this distance, her dark eyes seemed immense. The oddly fashioned turban atop her head was doubtless some new Jamaillian fashion. He found himself wondering how Althea would look in such headgarb.

D OVER AT WINTROW. HE STARED DOWN AT THE MOTLEY’S boat as it battled toward them. He had matured since he had left Bingtown Harbor. It was uncanny to look at him in profile; they shared so many features, it was like looking at herself made male. That he looked so like her somehow made his betrayal all the more intolerable. She would never be able to forgive him.

  A trickle of rebuke rose through her from the railing she grasped. “I know, I know. Set it aside,” she murmured in response. Repeatedly, the ship had urged her to let go of her anger. But if she let go of her anger, all that would remain was grief and pain. Anger was easier. Anger could be focused outward. Grief corroded from within.

  She could not let the matter go. The rape made no sense, served no logic. She could not argue with that. It was the act of a madman, but civil and shrewd Captain Kennit was certainly not mad. So what had happened? Images of Devon and Keffria were mixed with her memories of the attack. Could it have been what he said, a twisted poppy-induced dream? The ship had tried to placate her by suggesting that perhaps it had been some other crewman. Althea refused that. She clung to the truth as she clung to her sanity, for to let the one go was to deny the other.

  In some ways, she thought savagely, it did not matter whether Kennit had raped her or not. He had killed Brashen and sunk Paragon. Those were reasons enough to hate him. Even her beloved Vivacia had been stolen from her, and changed so deeply that some of her thoughts and ideas were completely foreign to Althea. All her judgments were based on her deeper dragon nature. At one time, Althea had been sure she knew the ship to her core. Now she frequently glimpsed the stranger within. The values and concerns of a personage that did not share her humanity often baffled her. Vivacia agonized over the plight of the serpents. The commitment that once belonged to the Vestrit family now went to those scaled beasts.

  As clearly as if the figurehead had spoken, Althea sensed her thought through their renewed bond. Do you begrudge me that I am who I truly am? Should I pretend otherwise for the sake of pleasing you? If I did, it would be a lie. Would you rather love a lie than know me as I truly am?

  Of course not. Of course not.

  All the same, her ship’s distraction left her adrift and alone. She clung to an ugly reality that others believed was a dream. How could she leave it behind, when over and over it recurred as a nightmare? She had lost count of how many times Jek had shaken her from the confinement of that dream. Her traitor mind carried her from false memories of drowning with Brashen to a frightening struggle for breath in a dark bunk. The lack of sleep told on her judgment. She felt brittle and insecure. She longed for Vivacia as she had once been, a mirror and a reinforcement of Althea’s self. She longed for Brashen, a man who had known her to her bones. She drifted in her identity with no kindred spirit to anchor her.

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  “There is something about that young woman in the boat,” Vivacia murmured. “Do not you feel it also?”

  “I feel nothing,” Althea replied, and wished it were so.

  HEART IN MOUTH, MALTA STARED UP AT THE SHIP’S RAILING. THE SNATCHING waves, the chilling spray, the wind that pushed at the tiny boat and most of all the recklessly surging serpents all threatened her. The white-faced men pulling on the oars shared her fear of the serpents. She saw it in their set stares and straining muscles. As the creatures rose out of the water beside the boat, they stared at her with eyes of gold or silver or bronze. One after another, they threw back their heads as they passed the boat, trumpeting deep cries from their toothy scarlet maws. Not since she had dealt with Tintaglia had she felt such a pressure of sentience from another creature. Their gazes, fixed unwaveringly upon her, were too knowing, as if they sought to reach into her soul and claim her as their own. In terror, she fixed her gaze on the Vivacia to keep from looking at the scaled monsters.

  She focused on presenting a composed face to the pirate King who awaited them. Motley’s entire company had poured their energy into preparing her. In their eagerness that Kennit see the true sumptuousness of their gift, they had bathed and primped and dressed the Satrap more finely than when she had first seen him at the Bingtown Ball. The attention had bolstered his self-importance to a near-unbearable level. Malta had not been neglected. A burly deckhand with a pale snake tattooed beside his nose had insisted on painting her face for her. She had never seen such cosmetics and tools as he had brought to her room. Another had fashioned her turban, while one of the others had selected her jewelry, scent and robes from the plums of their plunder. Malta’s heart had sung at how they aided her in her role, all with the intent of making their gift seem more extravagant. She would not let their efforts go to waste. She stared at Vivacia, and tried not to wonder if her father was alive, or what he would think of her transformation.

  Then she saw Wintrow standing at the railing. Unbelieving, she came halfway to her feet. “Wintrow!” she called wildly to her brother. He stared at her stupidly. A glimpse of gold hair on a tall figure made her heart leap with hope, but it was not her father who looked down on her, but a woman. The Satrap scowled at her for her lack of decorum, but she ignored him. Anxiously she scanned the waiting folk, hoping against hope that Kyle Haven would step forward and call her name. Instead, the hand that lifted suddenly and pointed at her belonged unmistakably to her Aunt Althea.

  ALTHEA LEANED FORWARD PRECARIOUSLY ON THE RAILING. SHE GRIPPED JEK’S forearm and pointed emphatically at the girl in the boat. “Sa’s Breath! It’s Malta!” she exclaimed.

  “It can’t be!” Wintrow joined his aunt at the railing and peered down at the girl. “She does look very like Malta,” he faltered.

  “Who is this Malta?” Kennit asked despite himself.

  “My little sister,” Wintrow observed faintly as every stroke of the oars brought her closer. “She looks very like her. But it cannot be. ”

  “Well, it would be an extraordinary coincidence. But we shall soon see,” Kennit replied blithely. The wind seemed to echo his words in a whisper. His stomach tightened and he lifted his hand, pretending to smooth his hair. The charm spoke close to his ear.

  “There is no such thing as extraordinary coincidence. There is only destiny. So say the followers of Sa. ” Soft as a breath, it added, “This is not good fortune for you, but the delivery of your death. Sa will punish you for abandoning Etta. ”

  Kennit snorted, and put his hands casually behind his back. He had not abandoned the whore; he had simply put her aside for later. Sa would not punish him for that. No one would. Nor would Kennit tremble at the size of the opportunity presented to him. The biggest prizes went to the men with the boldest hands. He smiled to himself as his one hand gripped his other wrist, securely covering the charm’s eyes and mouth in a smothering of lace.

  Then Wintrow spoke and a shivering of dread ran down Kennit’s back. He stared at the oncoming boat and the girl’s upturned face as he said almost dreamily, “In Sa, there are no extraordinary coincidences. Only destiny. ”

  MALTA STARED UP AT THEM, FROZEN IN SHOCK BEYOND RESPONSE. WHAT could it mean? Had Althea joined Kennit’s pirate crew instead of rescuing the family liveship? She could not be so false. Could she? What of Wintrow, then? When they reached the side of the ship, the Satrap was hoisted aboard first. At the encouragement of the sailors, she herself seized the rope ladder that was dropped to them. One of the Motley’s crewmen accompanied her as she climbed the nastily swaying contraption of wet, rough rope. She tried to make a show of climbing it easily. The wet rungs bit right through the light gloves she wore to cover her roughened hands. The arduous climb was forgotten the moment she seized the railing and was assisted on board. A strange energy seemed to hum through her. She forgot to look for King Kennit as her eyes sought only for her father.

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  Abruptly Wintrow was there, sweeping her into a more manly hug than she would have thought her spindly brother was capable of. But he had grown and muscled, and when he cried out, “Malt
a! Sa himself has brought you safely to us!” his voice was deep and sounded not unlike their father. The tears that sprang to her eyes shocked her, as did the way she clung to him, unreasonably glad of his strength and welcome. After a long moment of being held, she realized that Althea’s arms were also around her. “But how? How do you come to be here?” her aunt asked her.

  But she had no desire to answer questions until the most important one had been asked. She leaned away from Wintrow, and was astonished to find how her brother had grown. “And Papa?” she asked him breathlessly.

  The deep anguish in his eyes told her all. “He is not here,” he told her gently, and she knew better than to ask where he was. He was gone, gone forever, and she had endured all, risked all for nothing. Her father was dead.

  Then the ship spoke and in Vivacia’s voice was a timbre that she had heard before, when Tintaglia spoke to her through the dream-box. A terrible recognition of kinship swept through Malta as the ship hailed her. “Well met and welcome, Dragon-Friend. ”

  Liveship Traders 3 - Ship of Destiny

  CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE - Bargaining Chips

  ALL EYES TURNED TO THE FIGUREHEAD. MALTA STEPPED FREE OF WINTROW’S embrace. No one save herself seemed to realize the ship spoke to her. Instead, their gazes traveled to the Satrap and back to the ship again. The Satrap stared at the moving, speaking figurehead in astonishment, but Malta’s eyes went past him. Beside the Satrap stood a tall dark man with one peg leg. His handsome, self-possessed face showed displeasure. Beside him, the confident look was fading from Captain Red’s face. He hated being upstaged. Captain Red glanced at the tall man, and Malta suddenly knew who he was. Captain Kennit, the King of the Pirate Isles. She took advantage of the distraction to appraise him. Her reaction was immediately both attraction and distrust. Like Roed Caern of Bingtown, he radiated danger. Once, she would have found him mysterious and alluring. She had grown wiser. Dangerous men were neither romantic nor exotic; they were men who could hurt you. This man would not be as easy to manipulate and convince as Captain Red had been.

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