Ship of destiny, p.75
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       Ship of Destiny, p.75

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  “Shall we liven up their day?” Tintaglia suggested in a low rumble.

  “Please, no,” Reyn groaned. The deep bruises on his chest made even breathing painful. The last thing he wanted was to be shaken in her clutches as she swooped and darted above the ships. He felt a shudder of anticipation run through her and groaned, but she did not dive on the ship.

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  “Did you hear that?” she demanded.

  “No. What?” he demanded, but instead of answering, her great wings stroked with a sudden energy. The ocean and the ships upon it receded beneath him. He shut his eyes as she beat her way higher still. When he dared to open them again, the ocean below them was a rippling fabric, the islands scattered toys. He could not get his breath. “Please,” he begged dizzily.

  She did not reply. Instead, she caught a cold current of air with her wings and hung there. He closed his eyes and endured miserably. “There!” she cried out suddenly. He did not have the breath to ask her what. They tipped and went sliding down the sky. The cold wind bit to his bones. Just when he thought he could be no more miserable, Tintaglia gave vent to an ear-shattering scream. The sound rang in his ears even as his small human soul was consumed by her mental shout of triumph. “See them! There they are!”

  “SOMETHING’S HAPPENED!” ALTHEA ANNOUNCED TO THE OTHERS IN THE ROOM. “The serpents cease their attack. They all turn their heads. ” She stared out of the small porthole. She could see a small segment of the battle, but by it she judged the whole. Of the five ships she could see, all had taken damage. On one, sails drooped in tatters and there was little deck activity. It would never see port again. The serpents had broken the fleet’s formation and scattered them, forcing each ship to battle individually. Now the serpents had suddenly ceased their attacks and stared up at the sky with their huge gleaming eyes.

  “What?” Malta asked anxiously, sitting up straight.

  Jek gave up her vigil at the door. “Let me see,” she demanded, coming to the porthole. Althea ducked out of her way and stepped to the middle of the room. She reached overhead to put her hands flat to a beam. “I wish I were more closely linked to Vivacia. I wish I could see with her eyes, as I once did. ”

  “What does she feel? Wait! Where are all the serpents going?” Jek demanded.

  “She feels too much. Fear and anxiety and sorrow. Are the serpents leaving?”

  “They’re going somewhere,” Jek replied. She turned away from the porthole with an impatient snort. “Why are we staying in here? Let’s go out on the deck and see. ”

  “Might as well,” Althea replied grimly.

  “Wintrow said we’d be safer here,” Malta reminded them. She lifted her hands suddenly to her head as if even the thought of venturing onto the deck pained her.

  “I don’t think he expected things to go this way,” Althea replied reassuringly. “I think we should find out what is happening. ”

  “I demand that you all remain here!” the Satrap shouted suddenly. He sat up, his face creased with anger. “I will not be abandoned! As my subjects, you owe me loyalty. Remain here, to protect me as necessary. ”

  A grin twisted Jek’s mouth. “Sorry, little man. I’m not your subject, and even if I were, I’d still go up to the deck. But if you want to come with us, I’ll watch your back for you. ”

  Malta dropped her hands from her face. She drew a sudden breath through her gaping mouth, then announced, “We have to get to the deck. Right now! Tintaglia comes! The dragon calls to the serpents. ”

  “What? A dragon?” Althea demanded incredulously.

  “I can feel her. ” Wonder was in Malta’s voice. She jumped to her feet, her dark eyes growing ever larger. “I can feel the dragon. And hear her! Just as you can know things through the ship. Don’t doubt me, Althea. This is true. ” Then she paled, her wonder turning to despair. “And Reyn is with her. He comes, all this way, seeking me. Me!” She lifted a hand to cover her mouth and her face crumpled.

  “Don’t be frightened,” Althea said gently.

  The girl hunched on her chair. Her fingertips prodded the ridged scar on her brow. She dropped her hands away as if burned, then stared at her claw-like fingers. “No,” she whispered. “No, it’s not fair. ”

  “What is the matter with her?” the Satrap demanded disdainfully. “Is she ill? If she is ill, I wish her taken away. ”

  Althea knelt beside her niece. “Malta?” What ailed the girl? “Stop. ” The word was as much command as plea. Malta pushed herself ponderously to her feet. She moved as if she were made of separate pieces, none of which fit together very well. Her eyes were flat. She picked up her headwrap from the table, looked at it, then let it fall from her fingers. “It doesn’t matter. ” Her voice was distant, impartial. “This is who I am now. But…” She let her thought die away. She walked toward the door as if she were entirely alone. As she passed through it, Jek held it wide for her. The Six Duchies woman gave Althea a quizzical look. “Are you coming?”

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  “Of course,” Althea murmured. She suddenly grasped what her mother must have felt down the years, wanting good things for her daughters, but so powerless to make them go well. It was a sickening feeling.

  “Halt! What about me? You cannot leave me here, unattended,” the Satrap protested angrily.

  “Well, hustle along then, little man, or be left behind,” Jek told him. But she did hold the door for him, Althea noted.

  KENNIT STARED UP, AWARE THAT HE GAPED BUT UNABLE TO DO ANYTHING about it. He was dimly aware that Vivacia gazed upward also, her hands clasped before her bosom as if she prayed. Beside him, Wintrow did pray, not a prayer for mercy, as Kennit might have expected, but instead a joyful flow of words that celebrated the wonder of Sa. The boy sounded as if he were chanting in a trance. “The wonder, the glory is yours, Creator Sa…. ” He could not tell if Wintrow mouthed familiar words or if the majesty of the creature above them had spurred him to spontaneous worship.

  The dragon circled again, blue scales glinting to silver as the winter sunlight ran along its flanks. Again, it gave cry. When the dragon spoke, Kennit felt Vivacia’s response. A terrible deep yearning ran through the ship and infected him. She longed to move that freely through the sky, to soar and dip and circle at her own pleasure. It put the ship in mind of all she was not, and never would be. Despair like poison seeped through her.

  The serpents had ceased their attack on the Jamaillian ships and swarmed in the open sea. Some were near motionless, heads raised high, great eyes spinning as they stared aloft. Others frolicked and cavorted as if their antics could attract the dragon’s attention. The Jamaillian fleet had seized this opportunity. From certain death, they grasped at survival. One smaller vessel was sinking, her decks awash. Her crew was abandoning her for another ship. On other decks, men sought to make order out of chaos and disaster. They cut fallen rigging free and threw canvas overboard. Yet even there, despite all they had endured, men shouted and pointed at the dragon as their ships retreated.

  In the boat that Sorcor had dispatched, Etta crouched low. Her gaze darted from the cavorting serpents to the circling dragon. Her face was pale, her eyes fixed on Kennit. The men in the boat with her pulled savagely at the oars, their heads hunched down between their shoulders.

  On every circling pass, the dragon swooped lower. Unmistakably, Vivacia was at the center of its gyre. It clasped something in its front legs, Kennit saw. Prey, perhaps, but he could not make out what it was. Was it sizing up the ship before an attack? Would it land on the water like a gull? It swept past yet again, so close that the gust of its wings buffeted the ship’s sails and set her to rocking. The sea serpents set up an ungodly ululation that rose in volume and pitch as the dragon descended. Then, as it passed right over Etta’s rowboat, the dragon let its burden drop. Whatever it was narrowly missed hitting the boat; it landed beside it in a gout of water. With a ponderous flapping of
wings, the creature rose laboriously. It roared and the serpents clamored an answer. Then it flew away, much more slowly than it had come.

  The serpents followed it. Like autumn leaves caught in a gust of wind, they trailed after the dragon. The swift led the way, while others hummocked painfully through the water in the foaming wake, but all were leaving. The dragon gave a final, drawn-out cry as it flew away, taking Kennit’s triumph with it.

  IT WAS A MAN, AND HE WAS ALIVE. ETTA HAD A SINGLE, ASTONISHING GLIMPSE of him as he plummeted into the water. His legs kicked wildly as he fell, then the splash of his impact swallowed him. The dragon had dropped him so near the boat that he had nearly swamped it. Etta would have sworn it was deliberate. The boat rocked wildly in the surge of his dive. Despite that, she seized the edge of the boat and leaned over the side, looking after him. Would he drown? Would he come up at all? “Where is he?” she shouted. “Watch for him to come up!”

  But the men in the boat paid no attention to her. The serpents were flowing away with the retreating dragon. They seized the opportunity to make all speed for the Vivacia. On the main deck, amidst pointing and babbling crewmen, both Kennit and Wintrow stared after the dragon.

  Only the figurehead shared Etta’s concern. Vivacia gave one last, anguished look after the dragon. Then her eyes, too, scanned the waters around the small boat. Etta was still the first to see a pale movement under the waves and she pointed, crying, “There, there he is!”

  But the creature that shot gasping to the surface of the water was not a man. He had the shape of a man, but his staring eyes gleamed copper. His dark wet curls, streaming water, reminded her of tangled kelp. He saw the boat, and strained toward it with a reaching hand, but Etta saw that his hand shone with more than wet. He was scaled. With a bubbling cry, he sank again. The rowers who had seen him roared with dismay and leaned into their task. Etta was left transfixed, staring at the place where he went down.

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  “Take him up! Please!” a girl’s voice shrieked. Etta lifted her eyes to an elegantly garbed girl on the deck. Why, the Satrap’s Companion looked no older than Wintrow!

  Then Vivacia pointed a large and commanding finger at the water. “There! There, you fools, he comes up again! Quickly, quickly, take him up!”

  Panicked as they were, the rowers had ignored Etta’s plea, but the figurehead’s command was another matter. White-faced, they slacked their oars. Then, as the man bobbed up again, they dug their oars in to spin the boat toward him. He saw them and reached desperately. He tried to claw his way toward them, but went under.

  “That’s it for him,” one of the rowers predicted, but an instant later grasping hands broke the surface of the water. His drowning white face appeared and Etta heard him gasp for breath. A rower thrust an oar within his reach. He seized it so strongly he nearly tore it from the man’s grip. They pulled him closer to the boat. In another moment, he had managed to seize the side. He could do no more than cling there. It took two men to haul him on board. When they had him in, he lay in the bottom, water streaming from his garments. He gagged. When he snorted his nose clear of sea water, blood followed it. He blinked his inhuman eyes up at Etta. At first, he did not appear to see her. Then he mouthed silent words. “Thank you. ” His head fell to one side and his eyes closed.

  Liveship Traders 3 - Ship of Destiny

  CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE - Ship of Destiny

  THE CREWMEN PARTED TO MAKE WAY FOR KENNIT. HE STEPPED PAST THEM AND peered down at the figure sprawled facedown on his deck. Water ran from his clothes. Dripping hair masked his features. “Interesting bit of flotsam, Etta,” he observed sourly. Whoever he was, or, Kennit privately amended as he studied his hands, whatever he was, he represented an unwelcome complication to a situation that was already too confusing. He had no time for this.

  “You fished him out. You may keep him,” Kennit announced, then staggered as the Satrap’s advisor pushed past him. Kennit glared at her, but she did not notice. He started to speak, then his words died. What was that thing on her head? Althea crowded behind her, managing to brush past him while ignoring him completely. Jek stayed at the edge of the crowd with the pouting Satrap.

  “Is he breathing? Is Reyn alive?” Malta demanded breathlessly. She hovered over the man but did not touch him.

  Althea knelt beside her. Gingerly, she set her ringers to the side of the man’s throat. Her face was still for an instant, and then she smiled up at her niece. “Reyn is alive, Malta. ” Wintrow had joined them. At Althea’s words, he started, then gave his sister an incredulous smile.

  As Wintrow smiled at his sister, something almost like jealousy flitted across Etta’s face. In an instant, it was gone. She transferred her gaze to Kennit. Her voice was almost sulky as she said, “You sent for me?”

  “I did. ” He became aware that the gathered crew closely followed this conversation. He softened his voice. “And you came. As you always have. ” He smiled at her. There. She and the crew could make whatever they wanted out of that. He gestured at the man at his feet. “What is this?”

  “The dragon dropped him,” Etta explained.

  “So, of course, you picked him up,” Kennit observed wryly.

  “Vivacia said we should,” one of the men from Sorcor’s boat explained nervously. Was King Kennit displeased with him?

  “He’s Reyn Khuprus, a Rain Wilder. My sister is betrothed to him. ” Wintrow uttered these amazing words quite calmly. “Sa alone knows how he managed to find her here, but he did. Help me turn him over,” he added. He seized the man by one shoulder. As he tugged, Reyn groaned. His hands scrabbled weakly against the deck.

  Althea crouched beside Wintrow. “Wait. Give him time to clear his lungs,” she suggested as he began to cough. Reyn wheezed, lifted his head slightly from the deck, and then let it sag back. “Malta?” he asked in a thick voice.

  She gasped and sprang back from him. She threw her hands up before her face. “No!” she cried out, then wheeled and jostled her way through the crowd. Etta stared after her in consternation.

  “What was that about?” she asked of anyone.

  Before anyone could answer, a lookout shouted, “Sir! The Jamaillian ships are coming back!”

  It was Kennit’s turn to whirl and hasten away. He should not have let anything distract him from his enemy, no matter how damaged and scattered they had appeared. He gained the foredeck as swiftly as he could and stared in amazement at the oncoming ships. They were attempting to close around his three ships. Were they insane? Some were obviously limping, but two in good condition had come to the fore, leading the others. On their decks, he saw the telltale scrabble of men readying war machines. He appraised them thoughtfully. He had the Marietta and the Motley to back him, both with seasoned crews. The Jamaillian men would, at the least, be wearied, and they had probably spent a good amount of their shot. Technically, the Jamaillian fleet still outnumbered him, but most of their ships had taken substantial damage. Two were already going down, their crews seeking safety in small boats.

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  Kennit held the Satrap as a bargaining chip. It was as good a time as any to challenge the fleet of Jamaillia. “Jola!” he commanded. “Get the men back to their posts and have them stand ready. ”

  Vivacia watched the oncoming ships with him but her mind was elsewhere. “How is the Rain Wilder?”

  “Alive,” he replied briefly.

  “The dragon brought him. Here, to me. ”

  “Wintrow seems to think the dragon dropped him off for his sister,” Kennit replied acidly.

  “That would make sense,” the ship said thoughtfully. “They belong together. ”

  “As much sense as anything that has happened today. What are the odds of such a thing happening, Vivacia? Out of all the ships around us, the dragon drops Malta’s beloved by the correct one to find her. ”

  “There was nothing random about it. T
he dragon came seeking Malta and found her. But-” The figurehead slowly scanned the approaching ships and said in a soft voice, “Something hovers here, Kennit. Something even more powerful than the luck you worship. ” She smiled but there was sadness in her expression. “Destiny knows no odds,” she added mysteriously.

  He had no answer to that. The very idea of it annoyed him. Destiny was all very well when it meant he would succeed. But today fate seemed to be weighting the balance against him. He recognized Etta’s footfalls on the foredeck behind him. He turned to her. “Bring the Satrap up here And Malta. ”

  She didn’t reply. “Well?” he asked her at last. Her expression was odd. What was wrong with her today? He’d brought her back to the ship. What more could she want from him? Why must she want it right now?

  “I’ve something to tell you. It’s important. ”

  “More important than our survival?” He glanced back at the oncoming ships. Would they halt and parley first, or just attack? Best not to take a chance. “Send Jola and Wintrow to me as well,” he commanded her.

  “I shall,” she promised. She took a breath and added, “I’m pregnant. I carry your child. ” Then she turned and walked away from him.

  Her words froze time around him. He suddenly felt he stood, not on a deck, but encapsulated in a moment. So many paths spread out from this instant, and in so many directions. A baby. A child. The seed of a family. He could be a father, as his own father had been. No. Better. He could protect his own son. His father had tried to protect him, but his father had failed. He could be a king and his son a prince. Or he could be rid of Etta, take her somewhere, leave her there and go on, with no one to depend on him, no one he could fail. His thoughts did not spin; they rattled in his brain like stones. Maybe she was lying. Maybe she was wrong. Did he want a child? What if it was a girl?

  “Would you still name her Paragon?” the charm on his wrist whispered viciously. It gave a low laugh. “Destiny no longer hovers. Some of it has flown off with the dragon. It decrees that the Lords of the Three Realms will fly again. The rest of today’s destiny has fallen upon your head. It weighs a bit more than a crown, does it not?”

  “Leave me alone,” Kennit whispered. He spoke not to the charm, but to the past that had reached forth and reclaimed him. Other memories, memories most deeply denied flooded back to him. Standing within the circle of his father’s arms, reaching up to rest his own small hands on the inner spokes of Paragon’s wheel while his father held the ship steady. He recalled riding tall on his father’s shoulders, his mother laughing up at him, a bright scarf fluttering in her dark, dark hair as they strode through Divvytown. These recollections, bright and joyful, were more intolerable than any remembered pain. They were a mockery, a lie, for all fondness and safety had been erased one dark and bloody night.

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