Ship of destiny, p.72
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       Ship of Destiny, p.72

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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  “Are you too shy to speak to me?” the ship invited her warmly.

  She sent the figurehead one desperate, pleading glance. She did not want the peg-legged man to see her as especially important. She must be only the Satrap’s advisor. Did a flicker of understanding pass through Vivacia’s eyes?

  The Satrap seemed offended at the ship’s coaxing words. He believed she spoke to him. “Greetings, liveship,” he accorded her stiffly. His brief moment of wonder at her had passed. Malta supposed it reflected a lifetime of being showered with new and surprising gifts. No miracle amazed him for long. His gratitude was likewise short-lived. At least he seemed to recall her counsel: “Do not behave as a captive, nor as a supplicant. ”

  He turned to Kennit. He did not bow nor salute him in any way. “Captain Kennit,” he addressed him unsmilingly. His official recognition of Kennit as King of the Pirate Isles was one of the negotiation points.

  Kennit regarded him with cool amusement. “Satrap Cosgo,” he acknowledged him familiarly, already claiming equality. The Satrap’s gaze grew frostier. “This way,” Kennit indicated. He frowned slightly at the Vestrits.

  “Wintrow. Come. ” To Malta, it seemed that he spoke as if her brother were a dog or a servant.

  “Malta!” The Satrap’s chill voice sternly reminded her of her duties.

  She had a facade to maintain. She could not be Wintrow’s sister, nor Althea’s niece right now. She kept her voice low. “Ask me nothing now. We must talk later. Please. Trust me. Don’t interfere with what I do. ” She stepped away and they let her go, but Althea’s eyes were flinty. Wintrow hurried to his captain’s command.

  AS THE OTHERS LEFT THE FOREDECK, ALTHEA ASKED ALOUD, “HOW DOES she come here? What does it mean?”

  “She’s your niece,” Jek returned bluntly, staring wide-eyed after them.

  “As if that gives me any answers. I will hold my questions and not interfere, not because she is such a font of wise actions, but because there is nothing else I can do. I hope she realizes what a treacherous snake Kennit is. ”

  “Althea,” the ship cautioned her wearily.

  Althea turned back to the ship. “Why did you greet him as Dragon-Friend? The Satrap is a friend to dragons?”

  “Not the Satrap,” the ship replied evasively. “I would as soon not speak of it just now. ”

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  “Why?” Althea demanded.

  “I am troubled about other things,” Vivacia replied.

  Althea sighed. “Your serpents. Their need to be guided back to their spawning river and escorted up it. It is hard for me, still, to think of you as a dragon. ” And harder still for her to accept that Vivacia had a loyalty that superseded all others. But if the serpents were first in her heart, before the Vestrits, perhaps they preceded Kennit as well. Childishly, Althea perceived a possible wedge. “Why do you not simply demand it of Kennit?”

  “Do you know anyone who reacts well to a demand?” Vivacia asked rhetorically.

  “You fear he would refuse you. ”

  Vivacia was silent, and that quiet jolted Althea from the rut of her own concerns. It was like being lifted high on a wave and suddenly seeing to a farther horizon. She perceived Vivacia’s confinement, spirit of a dragon encased in a body of wood, dependent on the men who set her sails and the winds that pushed her canvas. There were, she suddenly saw, many ways to be raped. The revelation broke her heart. Yet her next words sounded childish in her ears. “Were you mine again, we would leave today, this minute. ”

  “You mean those words. I thank you for them. ”

  Althea had almost forgotten Jek was there until she spoke. “You could force him. Threaten to open up your seams. ”

  Vivacia smiled bitterly. “I am not mad Paragon, to recklessly menace my entire crew with wild acts of defiance. No. ” Althea felt her sigh. “Kennit will not be swayed by threats or demands. Even if I had the will, his pride would make him defy me. For this, I must hark back to your family’s wisdom, Althea. I must bargain, with nothing to offer. ”

  Althea tried to consider it coldly. “First, what do you want of him? Second, what can we offer him?”

  “What do I want? For him to sail me back to the Rain Wild River, as swiftly as possible, and up it to the cocooning grounds. For me to remain there, near the serpents all winter, doing all we could to protect them until they hatched. ” She laughed hopelessly. “Even better would be an escort of his vessels, to guard my poor, weary serpents on their long journey. But every bit of that runs counter to Kennit’s best interests. ”

  Althea felt stupid for not seeing it earlier. “If he helps the serpents, he loses the use of them. They disappear to become dragons. He loses a powerful tool against Jamaillia. ”

  “Bolt-self was too eager to flaunt her strength to him. She did not foresee this. ” She shook her head. “As for your second question, I have nothing to offer him that he does not already possess. ”

  “The dragons could promise to return and aid him after they hatched,” Jek speculated.

  Vivacia shook her head. “They are not mine to bind that way. Even if I could, I would not. It is bad enough that, for as long as wizardwood endures, I must serve humans. I will not indenture the next generation. ”

  Jek rolled her shoulders restively. “It’s useless. There is nothing he wants that he doesn’t have already. ” She smiled mirthlessly. “Save Althea. ”

  A terrible quiet followed her words.

  JUST WHEN ETTA WOULD HAVE BEEN USEFUL, SHE WAS NOT ON BOARD, KENNIT reflected in annoyance. He had to order everything himself, for Wintrow seemed completely addled by the presence of his sister. “Arrange chairs and a table in the chart room. Get some food and drink as well,” he instructed him hastily.

  “I’ll help him,” Sorcor volunteered good-naturedly, and lumbered off after Wintrow. As well. Sorcor and his family had suffered much at the hands of the Satrap’s tax collectors and his slave masters. In their early days together, he had often drunkenly held forth on exactly what he would do if he ever got his hands on the Satrap himself. Best not to give him too much opportunity to dwell on that right now.

  Kennit followed them at a leisurely pace, to give Wintrow and Sorcor time to prepare the room. He saw the young woman eyeing his stump and peg. Malta Vestrit resembled her father. Kyle Haven’s arrogance was in her carefully held mouth and narrowed eyes. He halted suddenly, and flourished his stump at her. “A serpent bit it off,” he informed her casually. “A hazard of life upon the seas. ”

  The Satrap recoiled, looking more distressed than his young Companion did. Kennit kept his smile small. Ah. He had forgotten the noble Jamaillian distaste for physical disfigurement. Could he use that? Captain Red had outlined the details of the Satrap’s proposal. A dazzling offer, Kennit reflected gleefully, and only the first offer.

  Kennit led them into the chart room. The preparations were adequate. Wintrow had spread a heavy cloth and added silver candlesticks. The silver tray that Wintrow held bore a collection of bottles and several glazed jugs of a Southby Island intoxicant, all recent plunder. Glasses and noggins suitable for the various drinks had been assembled as well. It was a suitable showing of wealth, without being extravagant. Kennit was pleased. He gestured at the table. “Please, please, come in. Wintrow, do the honors with drink, there’s a good fellow. ”

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  Malta Vestrit stared round the room. Kennit could not resist. “No doubt this chamber has changed since last you saw it, Companion. But, please, be as at ease as if your father still occupied it. ”

  That provoked an unforeseen response. “Malta Vestrit is not my Companion. You may address her as Advisor,” the Satrap informed him haughtily.

  But even more interesting was how pale Malta went. She fought a look of anguish from her face.

  Weakness was made to be exploited. Captain Red had warned him she was a wily negotiator. A bit of rat
tling might take the edge off her wits. Kennit cocked his head at her and gave a small shrug. “A pity Captain Haven became involved in the slave trade. If he had not made that choice, this ship might still be his. I am sure you are aware of my promise to my people. I will rid the Pirate Isles of slavers. Taking Vivacia was one of my first steps. ” He smiled at her.

  Her mouth moved slightly, but her agonized questions went unvoiced.

  “We are here to negotiate my restoration to Jamaillia City,” the Satrap observed tightly. He had already seated himself at the negotiation table. The others had chosen seats but remained standing, waiting for Kennit. This assumption of protocol did not escape the pirate.

  “Of course we are. ” Kennit smiled widely. He limped to the head of the table. “Wintrow,” he said, and he obediently drew the chair out and accepted Kennit’s crutch after he was seated. “Please. Be comfortable,” Kennit invited them, and the others took their places. Sorcor was to his right, and Captain Red beyond him. Wintrow claimed the seat to his left. The Satrap and Malta were opposite Kennit. She had regained her composure. She steepled her hands on the table before her and waited.

  Kennit settled himself comfortably in his chair. “Of course, your father is still alive and in my custody. Oh, not on this ship, of course. Kyle Haven generated far too much ill-will among the crew for that. But he is quite secure where he is. If we reach a satisfactory finish today, perhaps I shall throw him in as a token to Advisor Malta Vestrit, in humble gratitude for helping us negotiate. ”

  The Satrap’s boyish face flushed with rage. There. That had divided them. Malta had instantly suppressed it, but hope had flared bright in her eyes. She now had an interest in pleasing Kennit rather than protecting the Satrap.

  She drew a sharp breath. Her voice was almost steady. “That is most kind of you, Captain Kennit. But my interests are not those of my family today. ” She tried to make eye contact with the Satrap, but he stared stonily at Kennit. “I am here as the Satrap’s most loyal subject,” she finished. She tried to put the ring of truth in her words, but Kennit heard her doubts.

  “Of course, my dear. Of course,” he purred.

  Now, he was ready to begin.

  BRASHEN WAS CATNAPPING ON HIS BUNK. DIVVYTOWN WAS LITTLE MORE THAN a day and a night away. He shifted in his bedding, trying to burrow his way to sleep. He had wrapped himself in Althea’s blanket. It still smelled of her. Instead of soothing him, it made him ache with longing. He feared for her. What if their plans failed? All had gone well the last few days, he reminded himself. The crew’s morale had vastly improved. A day ashore, fresh meat and vegetables, and the triumph of “stealing” Kennit’s mother had restored their faith in themselves. Mother herself seemed to have a cheering effect on them. When weather drove her from the foredeck, she went to the ship’s galley, where she revealed a gift for turning hardtack into a sort of doughy pudding much favored by the crew. Most encouraging to Brashen was that Clef had assured him that the men were putting their hearts into recovering Althea. Some felt loyalty to her; others yearned to regain pride lost at the drubbing they had received from the pirate.

  A deep, recurrent sound penetrated Brashen’s mind. Sleep fled. He rolled from his bunk, rubbed his sandy eyes, and thrust his feet into his shoes. He emerged onto the deck into thin winter sunlight and a fresh breeze. Paragon knifed effortlessly through the waves. The crew took up a sudden chorus, and he looked up to see still more canvas blooming on the masts. He suddenly realized what had wakened him. Paragon’s deep voice vibrated the deck with a chantey, marking time for the crew as they hoisted canvas. A shiver went up Brashen’s spine, followed by a lurching lift of his heart. Familiar as he was with how a liveship’s disposition could affect its crew, he was still unprepared for this. The crew aloft was working with good-hearted energy. He hurried forward and encountered Semoy. “Too fine a wind to waste, sir!” the acting mate greeted his captain with a gap-toothed grin. “I think we could see Divvytown before noon tomorrow if we can keep our canvas full!” Squinting with determination, he added, “We’ll get our Althea back, sir. You’ll see. ”

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  Brashen nodded and smiled uncertainly. When he reached the foredeck, he found Amber and Mother. Someone had secured Paragon’s long dark hair in a warrior’s tail. “What goes on here?” Brashen asked in quiet disbelief.

  Paragon turned his head, mouth wide as he held the final note of the chantey, then cut it off abruptly. “Good afternoon, Captain Trell,” he boomed.

  Amber laughed aloud. “I’m not sure, but no one can resist his mood today. I don’t know whether it’s because Mother finished reading his logs to him, or simply that he is-“

  “Decided!” Paragon declared abruptly. “I’ve reached a decision, Brashen. For myself. As I never have before. I’ve decided to put my heart into what we do. Not for you, but for myself. I now believe that we can prevail. So does Mother. She is sure that, between the two of us, we can make Kennit see reason. ”

  The old woman smiled gently. The chill wind flushed her cheeks. In a strange contradiction, she seemed both frailer and more vital than she had. She nodded, approving Paragon’s recital.

  “The logbooks were a part of it, Brashen, but not the largest piece. The largest piece is me. It has done me good to look back and see my voyages through my captains’ eyes. The places I’ve been, Brashen, and the things I’ve seen, just in my life as a ship; they’re all mine. ” He turned away from Brashen. His eyes were still closed but he seemed to stare far over the waters. In a lowered voice he went on, “The pain was just a part of all that. I had lives before this one, and they are just as much mine as this. I can take all my pasts, keep them and determine my own future. I don’t have to be what anyone made me, Brashen. I can be Paragon. ”

  Brashen lifted his hands from the railing. Did the others hear the desperation behind the ship’s hopeful words? If Paragon failed at this last grasp for wholeness, he suspected the ship would spiral down into madness. “I know you can,” Brashen told the ship warmly. A black corner of his soul felt sour and old at his lie. He dared not trust the ship’s sudden elation. It seemed a mirrored distortion of his formerly bleak moods. Could not it vanish just as swiftly and arbitrarily?

  “Sail!” Clef’s clear tenor called down from aloft. Then, “Sails!” he amended. “Lots o’ ‘em. Jamayan ships. ”

  “That makes no sense,” Brashen observed.

  “You want me to go aloft and take a look?” Amber offered.

  “I’ll do it myself,” Brashen assured her. He wanted some time alone, to think over the situation. He hadn’t been up in the rigging since they’d done their reconstruction. This would be as good a time as any to see how their repairs were holding up. He started up the mast.

  He was soon distracted from the repaired rigging. Clef was right. The distant ships were Jamaillian. The hodgepodge fleet flew not only the colors of Jamaillia, but the flags of the Satrapy as well. Ballista and other siege machines cluttered the decks of several larger ships. This was no merchant fleet. The same wind that was speeding Paragon north toward Divvytown drove them. Brashen doubted that they were heading for the pirate town. All the same, he had no desire to attract their attention.

  Once on the deck, he ordered Semoy to slack off the speed. “But gradually. If their lookouts are watching, I want it to appear that we are merely falling behind due to their speed, not slowing down to avoid them. They have no reason to be curious about us. Let’s not give them any. ”

  “Althea said something about rumors in Divvytown,” Amber spoke up.

  “She thought it was just a wild tale. Something about the Bingtown Traders offending or injuring the Satrap, and Jamaillia sending out a fleet to punish the town. ”

  “Like as not, the Satrap has finally tired of both the real pirates and the pirates that masquerade as Chalcedean patrol vessels. ”

  “Then they may be our allies against Kennit?” Amber specu
lated.

  Brashen shook his head and gave a rough laugh. “They’ll be after plunder and slaves as much as clearing the channels of pirates. Any ship they capture, they’ll keep, and the folk on board. No. Pray Sa to keep Vivacia well out of their sight, for if they seize her, our chances of getting Althea back are reduced to buying her on the slave block. ”

  “MORE CANDLES, WINTROW,” KENNIT SUGGESTED MERRILY.

  Wintrow stifled a sigh and rose to obey. The Satrap looked like a hollow-eyed ghost and the paint showed starkly on Malta’s pale face. Even Captain Red and Sorcor had begun to show signs of weariness. Only Kennit still possessed his frenzied energy.

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  Malta had come to the table with the dignity and composure of a Trader. Wintrow had been proud of his younger sister. She had presented her proposal in careful phrases, and at every point, had enumerated the advantages it would bring to both Kennit and the Satrap. Recognition of Kennit as King of the Pirate Isles, a sovereign state. An end to Jamaillian slave raiders in the Pirate Isles. No more Chalcedean “patrol” boats in the Pirate Isles. Captain Red and Sorcor had grinned with triumph. They had been more subdued as she went on to list what the Satrap wanted in exchange: his safe return to Jamaillia City, escorted by Kennit’s fleet, with the assurance that the Pirate Isles recognized and supported him as the Satrap of Jamaillia. In the future, Kennit would pledge safe passage for Jamaillian-flagged ships through the Inside Passage, and would himself subdue any “independent” pirates who ignored the agreement.

  At first, Kennit had waxed enthusiastic. He had sent Wintrow for parchment, pen and ink, and instructed him to write it up. That had been straightforward, save for the matter of the proper forms for referring to the Satrap. That alone took nearly half a page of “His Most Glorious and Magnificent Honor” and the like. Kennit had leaped into the spirit of it, dictating that the document refer to him as “The Daring and Undefeated Pirate Captain Kennit, King of the Pirate Isles by Virtue of his Boldness and Cunning. ” Wintrow had seen the dancing merriment in Captain Red’s eyes as well as the profound pride in Sorcor’s as he transcribed these illustrious titles. He had thought that would bring a swift end to the negotiations, but Kennit had only begun.

 
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