Ship of destiny, p.74
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       Ship of Destiny, p.74

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
 

  When Wintrow finally ran out of words, Althea looked at her expectantly. But Malta suggested, “Let us tell our stories in order. You left Bingtown next. ”

  ALTHEA CLEARED HER THROAT. WINTROW’S SIMPLE TELLING HAD MOVED HER more than she was willing to show. Decisions she had faulted him for were now made clear. Truly, she should have allowed him to speak of this before. She owed him an apology. Later. Given what he had gone through with Kennit, it was no wonder he had sided with the man. It was understandable, if not forgivable. She realized she was staring silently at him. His face had reddened. She looked aside and sought order for her own thoughts. There was so much she did not wish to share with these youngsters. Did she owe Malta the truth about her relationship with Brashen? She would give them, she decided, the facts, not her feelings. Those belonged only to her.

  “Malta will remember the day we left Bingtown on Paragon. The ship handled well, and the sailing was good for the first few days, but-“

  “Wait,” Wintrow dared interrupt his aunt. “Go back to the last time I saw you, and tell me from there. I wish to hear it all. ”

  “VERY WELL,” ALTHEA CONCEDED GRUFFLY. FOR A TIME, SHE LOOKED AT THE sky outside the porthole. Wintrow could see her deciding how much to share with him. When she spoke, she told things in a bare, bald way, her voice becoming dispassionate as she approached more recent events. Perhaps it was the only way she could speak of them. She did not look at Wintrow, but spoke directly to Malta of the sinking of Paragon with all hands, including Brashen Trell. In a cold flat voice, she spoke of her rape. Wintrow lowered his eyes, shocked by the flare of both understanding and hatred in Malta’s eyes. He did not interrupt her. He kept his peace until she said, “Of course, no one aboard believes me. Kennit has impressed them all with his gentlemanly ways. Even my own ship doubts me. ”

  Wintrow’s throat and mouth were dry. “Althea. I don’t doubt you. ” They were among the most painful words he had ever spoken.

  The look she gave him near broke his heart. “You never spoke out for me,” she accused him.

  “It would have done no good. ” The words sounded cowardly, even to himself. He lowered his eyes and said honestly, “I believe you because Etta told me she believed you. That was why she left the ship. Because she could not live as witness to what he had done. Sa help me, I remained, but kept silent. ”

  “Why?” The flat, one-word question came not from his aunt but his sister. He forced himself to meet Malta’s eyes.

  “I know Kennit,” he found himself saying. The truth he acknowledged now cut him. “He has done good things, even great things. But one reason he could do them was because he does not bind himself by rules. ” His eyes went from Malta’s doubting face to Althea’s frozen one. “He accomplished much good,” he said softly. “I wanted to be part of that. So I followed him. And I looked aside from the evil things he did. I became very good at ignoring that which I could not countenance. Until finally, when the evil was directed at one of my own blood, it was still easier not to avow it aloud. ” His voice had become a whisper. “Even now, to admit it makes me… part of it. That is the most difficult part. I wanted to share in the glory he gained for the good he did. But if I claim that, then-“

  “You can’t play in shit and not get some on you,” Jek observed succinctly from her corner. She reached up to set a large hand on Althea’s knee. “I’m sorry,” she said simply.

  Shame burned in him. “I am sorry, too, Althea. So sorry. Not only that he did this to you, but that you suffered my silence. ”

  “We have to kill him,” Jek continued when neither Althea nor Malta spoke. “I see no alternative. ”

  For an icy moment, Wintrow supposed she spoke of him. Althea shook her head slowly. Tears stood in her eyes but did not spill. “I’ve thought about that. At first, I thought about little else. I would do it in an instant, if I could do it without injuring the ship. Before I take that step, she must see him for what he is. Wintrow. Are you willing to help me with that? To make Vivacia see him as he truly is?”

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  Wintrow lifted his chin. “I must. Not for you, not for the ship. For myself. I owe myself that honesty. ”

  “But what of Father?” Malta demanded in a low agonized voice. “Althea, I beg you, consider that. If not for his children, for Keffria, your sister. Whatever you think of Kyle, please do not endanger my father’s return to us. Hold back your hand from Kennit, for at least that long-“

  A LONG LOW SOUND SUDDENLY TRAVELED THROUGH THE SHIP. ALTHEA HEARD IT with her ears, but her bones shook with the sound. A meaning she could almost grasp ran along her skin, leaving goosebumps in its wake. She forgot all else, reaching after it.

  “It’s Vivacia,” Wintrow said needlessly.

  Malta got a distant look. “She calls the serpents,” she said softly.

  Althea stared at Malta, as did Wintrow. Her eyes were wide and dark.

  In the silence that followed, a long snore sounded from the Satrap’s bunk. Malta jerked as if awakening, then gave a small sour laugh. “It sounds as if I may now speak freely, without interruptions, corrections and accusations of treachery. ” To Althea’s surprise, Malta swiped at sudden tears, smearing the paint from her face. She drew a shuddering breath. Then she tugged off her gloves, revealing hands scalded scarlet. She snatched her headwrap off and threw it down. A shocking ridge of bright red scar began high on her brow and stood up well into her hairline. “Get the staring part over with,” she ordered them in a harsh hopeless voice. “And then I will speak…. ” Her voice broke suddenly. “There is so much. What happened to me is the least of it. Bingtown is destroyed; when last I saw it, fires smoldered and fighting was widespread. ”

  Althea watched her niece as she spoke. Malta spared them nothing. Her tale was in its details, but she spoke swiftly, the words tumbling from her lips, her voice soft. Althea felt the tears run down her cheeks at news of Davad Restart’s death; the strength of her reaction surprised her, but what followed left her numbed and reeling. The rumors of unrest in Bingtown were suddenly a personal disaster. She was devastated when she realized Malta had no idea if her grandmother or Selden still lived.

  Malta spoke of Bingtown and Trehaug with detachment, an old woman telling quaint stories of her vanished youth. Emotionlessly, she told her brother of her arranged marriage to Reyn Khuprus, of fleeing to his family in Trehaug when Bingtown fell, of the curiosity that had drawn her into the buried city and the quake that had nearly claimed her life. Once, Malta would have made an extravagance of such a tale, but now she simply recounted it. When Malta spoke of Reyn, Althea suspected the young Rain Wilder had won her niece’s heart. Personally, she felt Malta was still too young to make such decisions.

  Yet as Malta spoke on, her voice hushed and hurrying through her days with the Satrap, Althea realized the girl faced the world as a woman. Her experiences aboard the galley left Althea shuddering. Malta laughed, a terrible sound, at how her disfigurement had preserved her from worse treatment. By the time Malta finished, Althea loathed the Satrap, yet understood the value Malta placed on him. She doubted he would keep his promises to her, but it impressed Althea that even in her time of danger, Malta had thought of her home and family and done all she could for them.

  Truly, the girl had grown up. Althea recalled ashamedly that she had once felt that some hardship would improve Malta. Undoubtedly she had been improved, but the cost had been high. The skin on her hands looked as coarse as a chicken’s foot. The cicatrix on her head was a monstrous thing, shocking in both color and size. But beyond the physical scarring, she sensed a dulling of her high spirits. The girlchild’s elaborate dreams of a romantic future had been replaced with a woman’s determination to survive tomorrow. It felt like a loss to Althea.

  “At least you are with us now,” Althea offered her when Malta finished. She had wanted to say, “Safe with us,” but Malta was no longer a little girl to be cozened with falsehoods.


  “I wonder for how long,” Malta replied miserably. “For where he goes, I must follow, until I am sure he is safely restored to power, and that he will keep his word to me. Otherwise, all this has been for nothing. Yet, if I leave you here, will I ever see you again? Althea, at least, must find a way to get off this ship and away from Kennit. ”

  Althea shook her head with a sad smile. “I cannot leave my ship with him, Malta,” she said quietly. “No matter what. ”

  Malta turned aside from her. Her chin trembled for an instant, but then she spoke harshly. “The ship. Always the ship, distorting our family, demanding every sacrifice. Have you ever imagined how different our lives would have been if Great-great-grandmother had never bargained our lives away for this thing?”

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  “No. ” Althea’s voice went cold. She could not help it. “Despite all, I do not begrudge her anything. ”

  “She has made a slave of you,” Malta observed bitterly. “Blind to all else. ”

  “Oh, no. Never that. ” Althea tried to find words to express it. “In her lies my true freedom. ” But did it? Those words had once been true, but Vivacia had changed. She and the ship no longer completed one another. A tiny traitor portion of her mind recalled her stolen day with Brashen in Divvytown. If he had lived, would she have been able to say such words? Did she cling to Vivacia because she was all that was left to her?

  The whole ship suddenly reverberated with the trumpeting of serpents. “They come,” Malta whispered.

  “It would be safest for all of you if you stayed here,” Wintrow announced. “I’ll find out what is going on. ”

  KENNIT STOOD ON THE FOREDECK, RELIEF COURSING THROUGH HIS BODY. THE serpents were coming. He had spoken boldly to the envoy from the fleet, wondering all the while if the serpents would aid him. When he granted the Jamaillians time to confer, he was secretly stealing time for Vivacia to persuade the serpents. When first Vivacia had called them, the water about the ship had boiled with the serpents, but they had dispersed suddenly, and for a time, he feared that they had forsaken him. The Jamaillian ship rejoined its fleet and boats from the other vessels converged on it. Time dragged for Kennit. There, across the water, men discussed strategy to crush him while he waited docilely on his foredeck in the biting wind.

  After a time, the Jamaillian boats returned to their ships. He had not dared ask Vivacia what was happening. His crew had come to the ready and now waited. The anticipation aboard the ship was palpable. Kennit knew every pirate waited to see the serpents suddenly flash toward the fleet. At a distance, he would see a sudden turmoil of serpents and hear their muted calls. But none came near. Soon he would have to make a decision: stand and confront the Jamaillian fleet, or flee. If he fled, the fleet would certainly give chase. Even if they didn’t believe he held the Satrap, the odds against him were too great for the Jamaillians to resist. His piracy and his destruction of the slave trade would rankle with all of them.

  Then, with a suddenness that roused whoops of delight from his crew, a forest of serpent heads on supple necks rose suddenly around the Vivacia. They spoke to the ship, and she answered in their tongue. After a time, she glanced at him. He drew close to her to hear her soft words to him.

  “They are divided,” Vivacia warned him quietly. “Some say they are too weary. They will save their strength for themselves. Others say, this last time, they will aid you. But if we do not take them north tomorrow, all will leave without us. If I fail to keep my word-” She paused before stiffly resuming, “Some talk of killing me before they leave. Dismembering me and devouring the wizardwood parts of me for my memories might be helpful to them. ”

  It had never occurred to him that the serpents might turn on Vivacia. If they did, he could not save her. He would have to flee on the Marietta, and hope the serpents did not pursue them.

  “We’ll take them north tomorrow,” he confirmed to her.

  She murmured something that might have been agreement.

  Kennit considered only briefly. Tomorrow, this weapon might no longer be his to control. He would wield it one last time, in a way that would become the stuff of legend. He would break Jamaillia’s sea power while he had the strength to do so. “Attack them,” he commanded flatly. “Show no mercy until I say otherwise. ”

  He sensed a moment of indecision from Vivacia. Then she lifted her arms and sang in that unearthly voice to the gathered serpents. The maned heads turned toward the fleet and stared. As silence fell, the serpents surged forward, living arrows flying toward their targets.

  The serpents flashed and glittered as they streamed toward the oncoming ships. Only about a third of them went. Those that remained were impressive, he told himself, flanking his ship like an honor guard. He became aware of Wintrow behind him.

  “I did not send as many this time,” Kennit hastily told him. “No sense in risking sinking the ships, as they did with Paragon. ”

  “And safer for the serpents as well,” Wintrow observed. “They will be more spread out, and harder to hit. ”

  This had not occurred to him. Kennit watched the phalanx of serpents. Perhaps no other human eye could have discerned that they did not move as swiftly as they once had, or swim as powerfully. Even their colors were less jewel-like. Truly, the serpents were failing. Those who surrounded his ship still confirmed his fears. Once-gleaming eyes and scales had dulled. Rags of skin hung from a maroon serpent’s neck as if it had tried to slough its skin but failed. No matter, he told himself. No matter. If they would get him through this final battle, he would have no further need of them. He had pirated well before the serpents allied with him. He could do so again.

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  The decks of the oncoming Jamaillian ships teemed with activity as war machines were readied against the advancing creatures. Human shouts mingled suddenly with serpent calls. The smaller ships released volleys of arrows. Rocks arced over the glittering water, finishing in silvery splashes as several large ships released their catapults. By the sheerest luck, they struck a serpent on the first volley. Harsh cheers of triumph rose from the Jamaillian ship. The injured creature, a skinny green serpent, shrilly trumpeted its pain. The other serpents flocked to its cries. Its long body wallowed on the surface, sending up sprays of silver water as it thrashed.

  “Broke its back,” Wintrow harshly whispered. His eyes were narrowed in pained sympathy.

  The figurehead gave a low moan and dropped her face into her hands. “My fault,” she whispered. “He lived so long and came so far, to die this way? My fault. Oh, Tellur, I am so sorry. ”

  Before the green serpent sank out of sight, the rest of the serpents left Vivacia’s side. The purposeful wave of creatures cut the water in a multitude of wakes as they sliced toward the oncoming ships. On board the threatened ships, crews worked frantically, rewinding and reloading the catapults. The serpents no longer roared. The shouts of the frightened humans carried clearly across the water. Beside him, Kennit heard Wintrow draw in a deep breath. A deep mutter swelled behind him. Kennit glanced over his shoulder. His crew had halted in their tasks. They were transfixed in the anticipation of horror.

  They were not to be disappointed.

  The serpents encircled the ship that had fired the successful shot. The long-necked serpents reminded him of the closing tendrils of a sea anemone. Roaring and spraying venom, they engulfed the ship. The canvas melted from the masts, and then rigging tumbled to the deck like an armful of kindling. The shrill screams of the crew were a brief accompaniment to the serpents’ roars. Then the larger serpents threw themselves across its deck like living heaving-lines. Their great weight and thrashing coils bore the ship under, where it swiftly broke apart.

  From behind Kennit came hushed exclamations of awe and horror. Kennit himself could vividly imagine how Vivacia could come apart in their coils.

  As the Jamaillian ships retreated from the serpents’ victim,
they continued a hail of stones. The serpents snatched up the drowning crewmen and devoured them, then turned their attention to the other ships. Several vessels sought to flee, but it was already too late for that. The serpents spread throughout the fleet, as yielding but capturing as a bed of kelp. The efforts of the creatures were divided now, the results not as swift. Serpents circled the ships, spraying venom. Some of the larger serpents resorted to ramming. One ship lost its sails. Another serpent was hit. It screamed furiously, and lunged at the ship before falling away lifelessly. That ship became a target for the surviving serpents’ concentrated fury.

  “Call them back,” Wintrow pleaded in a low voice.

  “Why?” Kennit asked conversationally. “If we were in their hands and dying, do you think they would be seized with sudden mercy for us?”

  “Please, Vivacia! Call them back!” Wintrow cried out to the ship herself.

  Vivacia shook her great head slowly. Kennit’s heart soared to find her so loyal to him, but then in a mutter meant only for Kennit and Wintrow, she slew the pirate’s dream.

  “I cannot. They are beyond anyone’s control now. They are in a frenzy, driven as much by despair as revenge. I fear that when they are finished, they will turn on me. ”

  Wintrow’s face paled. “Should we flee now? Can we outrun them?”

  Kennit knew they could not. He chose to put a brave face on it. Well, at least no one would outlive him to tell any tales. He clapped Wintrow on the shoulder. “Trust the luck, Wintrow. Trust the luck. All will be well. Sa did not bring me through all this to leave me serpent bait at the end. ” A sudden thought occurred to him. “Signal Sorcor on the Marietta. . Tell him to send Etta back to me. ”

  “Now? In the midst of all this?” Wintrow was horrified.

  Kennit laughed aloud. “There’s no pleasing you, is there? You told me that Etta belonged at my side. I’ve decided you’re right. She should be beside me, especially on a day like this. Signal Sorcor. ”

  TINY CHALCEDEAN GALLEYS FLANKED A SAILING SHIP ON THE SEAS BELOW them.

 
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