Ship of destiny, p.76
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       Ship of Destiny, p.76

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  Now Etta would start it all over again. Was she mad? Didn’t she know what must come? Eventually, of course, he’d have to hurt the child. Not because he wanted to, but because it was inevitable. This moment marked one end of the pendulum’s swing. Ride it they must, until it peaked at the other end, the place where he was Igrot and Igrot was he. Then the child must step up to play the role that had once been Kennit’s.

  “You poor pathetic bastard,” the charm whispered in horror. But pity would not stay destiny. Nothing could save him, or the child. Events had to follow their pattern. Nothing could disrupt the cycling of time. Things would happen again just as they always had. Just as they always would.

  “SIR?” IT WAS JOLA, STANDING AT HIS ELBOW. HOW LONG HAD HE BEEN THERE? Kennit’s musings blew away like dandelion fluff blown by a child’s lips. What had he been thinking? When had it begun to rain? Damn the woman! Why had she chosen to distract him just now? His first mate swallowed and spoke. “The Jamaillian ship is hailing us. ”

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  “Where is the Satrap?” he demanded angrily. He pulled his cloak more tightly around him, and dashed water from his face. The rain was cold.

  Jola looked frightened. “Behind you, sir. ”

  Kennit glanced back at him. Malta, her headwrap again in place, stood beside the Satrap. Wintrow hovered near his sister. When had they all come up on the foredeck? How long had he stood there, dazed with Etta’s news?

  “Of course he is!” He kept his anger, but refocused it. “Exactly where he should be. Return their hail. Tell them King Kennit bids them think well. Remind them, that I can recall the serpents at any time. Then tell them that my intent is not to destroy them, but simply to make them heed a lawful treaty. They may send one ship forward with representatives. We will allow them aboard. They shall hear from the Satrap himself that my claims are true. ”

  Jola looked relieved. “Then the serpents haven’t left us? They’d come back if you called them?”

  If there had been a serpent close by, Kennit would have fed him to it.

  “Relay my message!” he barked at Jola. He turned back to stare at the threatening fleet. He recognized the type of fleet it was. Each ship belonged to a noble, and each cherished the hope of returning laden with booty and crowned with glory. They would vie to be the one to treat for the Satrap’s release; every noble would want to negotiate it. Would they be foolish enough to send him a hostage from every ship? He hoped so, and yet he knew that there might still be bloody fighting today.

  WHEN MALTA FLED, JEK AND ALTHEA HAD CARRIED REYN DOWN TO ALTHEA’S room. On her bunk, he had come to himself. “Where’s Malta?” he demanded woozily. “Didn’t I find her?” Blood leaked sluggishly from one nostril and water dripped from his hair.

  “You did,” Althea assured him. “But Captain Kennit has summoned her. ” Reyn suddenly clapped both hands to his bared face. “Did she see me?” he demanded, horrified. A question like that, at such a time, demanded a truthful answer.

  “Yes. She did,” Althea replied quietly. There was no point in lying, or trying to save his feelings. His copper eyes were hard to read but the set of his mouth was not. “She’s very young, Reyn,” Althea excused her niece. “You knew that when you began courting her. ” She tried to make her words gentle as well as firm. “You can’t expect-“

  “Leave me for a time. Please,” he requested quietly.

  Jek left off staring at him, and opened the door. Althea followed her out. “Those are Wintrow’s clothes on the pegs,” she said over her shoulder. “If you want some dry things on. ” Not that there was much hope any of it would fit him. Despite his scaly face and eyes, he was a well-made man, tall and muscled.

  Jek seemed to have been following her thoughts. “Even with the scales, he’s not bad-looking,” she observed quietly.

  Althea leaned against the wall outside her room, Jek beside her. “I should be out on the foredeck, not down here,” she grumbled to her friend.

  “Why? It’s not like you have any control over what happens up there,” Jek pointed out maddeningly. She lowered her voice suddenly. “Admit it, Althea,” she coaxed. “When you look at the scales on his face, you have to wonder about the rest of him. ”

  “No, I don’t,” Althea replied icily. She didn’t want to think about it. The man was a Rain Wilder, kin to Bingtown Traders; she owed him loyalty, not idle speculation about his body. She’d seen Rain Wilders before and, she told herself, she wasn’t shocked. They could not help what the Rain Wilds did to them. The Khuprus family was renowned for both their wealth and honor. Reyn Khuprus, scaled or not, was a good catch; that he had come seeking his betrothed so far, in such a way, was undeniable evidence of a brave heart. Still, she did not blame Malta for running away. She had probably fantasized a handsome face beneath his veil. To confront her scaly betrothed must have shaken her.

  REYN PULLED HIS WET SHIRT OFF. IT SLAPPED TO THE FLOOR ATOP HIS OTHER clothes. He took a deep breath through his tight throat and stared into the room’s small mirror forcing himself to see what Malta had seen. Tintaglia had not lied to him. His contact with her had accelerated the Rain Wild changes. He touched the fine dragon scaling of his face, lidded and opened the copper reptile eyes that stared at him. The scaled planes of his bared chest glinted bronze. There was a bluish cast to the skin beneath: bruising or a color change? He had seen Rain Wild gaffers of fifty who had not shown as much change as he already did. What would become of him as he aged? Would he grow dragon claws, would his teeth become pointed, his tongue ridged?

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  It scarcely mattered, he told himself. He’d grow old alone now, underground most of the time, digging for dragons. How he looked would not matter to anyone. Tintaglia had kept her end of the bargain. He would keep his. The irony did not escape him. He’d wagered the rest of his life against the hope that he could rescue Malta. He would not deny his wild fancies now. He’d dreamed that he would rescue her, unscathed despite the horrible dangers she’d endured, and that she would collapse into his arms and promise to always be at his side. He’d dreamed that when he unveiled before her, she would smile and touch his face and tell him it did not matter, that it was him she loved, not his face.

  But the reality was crueler. Tintaglia had dropped him and departed with her precious serpents. After days of battering flight and sleeping cold on isolated beaches, he’d nearly drowned. Malta’s kin had had to rescue him. They must think him an utter fool. His entire quest had been to no purpose, for Malta was safe already. He had no idea why the Vivacia was flying the Jamaillian flag, but obviously Althea Vestrit had managed to regain her ship and rescue her niece. They not only hadn’t needed his pathetic efforts, they’d had to rescue him.

  He took one of Wintrow’s shirts from a peg and held it up. With a sigh, he hung it up again. He picked up his own shirt from the floor and watched the water run from it. His veil was tangled with it. For a time, he stared at it. Then he tugged it loose and wrung it out. It was the first thing he put on.

  MALTA STOOD UNSEEING IN THE PELTING RAIN. THE FINE SCALING OF REYN’S face had been like silken mail, the warm gleam of his copper eyes like a beacon. Once, she had kissed those lips through the fine mesh of a veil. She felt her scrub-maid’s fingers on her chapped lips and snatched her hand away. Unattainable, now. She lifted her face to the cold rain and welcomed its icy touch. Numb me, she begged of it. Take away this pain.

  “I’m cold,” the Satrap whimpered beside her. “And I’m tired of standing here. ”

  Kennit shot him a warning glance.

  The Satrap had his arms wrapped tightly around himself but he still shook with the cold. “I don’t think they’re coming. Why must I stand here in the wind and rain?”

  “Because it pleases me,” Kennit snapped at him.

  Wintrow thought to intervene. “You can have my cloak, if you like,” he offered.

  The Satrap scow
led. “It’s dripping wet! What good would that do me?”

  “You could be wetter,” Kennit snarled.

  Malta took a long breath. The pirate and the Satrap did not seem much different from one another. If she could manage one, she could manage the other. It was not courage that motivated her to march across the deck and stand before Kennit with her arms crossed, but profound despair. He was a dangerous, violent man, but she didn’t fear him. What could he do to her? Ruin her life? The thought almost made her smile.

  Her low, even words were meant only for Kennit but the tall woman who stood behind his shoulder listened, too.

  “Please, King Kennit, let me fetch him a heavier cloak and a chair, if you will not allow him to go inside to shelter. ”

  She felt his gaze on her head, searching for signs of her scar. He answered her callously. “He’s being foolish. He takes no harm from a little rain. I do not see where it is your concern. ”

  “You, sir, are being more foolish than he. ” She spoke boldly, no longer caring if she gave offense. “Forget my concern. Consider your own. Whatever pleasure you take from making him miserable is not worth what you will lose. If you wish the captains of that fleet to see him as valuable, then you should treat him as the Lord High Magnadon, Satrap of all Jamaillia. If you think to bargain him for riches, that is who you must be holding. Not a wet, cranky, miserable boy. ”

  Her eyes flickered once from Kennit’s pale blue ones to those of his woman. To her surprise, she looked faintly amused, almost approving. Did Kennit sense that? He looked at Malta but spoke to his woman. “Etta. See what you can manage for him. I wish him to be very visible. ”

  “I can arrange that. ” The woman had a soft contralto voice, more refined than Malta had expected from a pirate’s woman. There was intelligence in her glance.

  Malta met her gaze frankly, and dropped her a curtsey as she said, “My gratitude to you, lady. ”

  She followed Etta from the foredeck and kept up with her. The wind had stirred a nasty little chop and the wet deck was unsteady, but in her days aboard the Motley, she had finally found her sea legs. She amazed herself. Despite all that was wrong in her life, she took pride in being able to move well on her father’s ship. Her father. Resolutely, she banished all thoughts of him. Nor would she dwell on Reyn, so close that she could feel his presence. Eventually, she must stand before him, ruined and scarred, and face the disappointment in those extraordinary copper eyes. She shook her head and clenched her teeth against the sting of tears in her eyes. Not now. She would not feel anything for herself just now. All her thoughts and efforts must go into restoring the Satrap to his throne. She tried to think clearly as she followed Etta into her father’s stateroom.

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  The room was as Malta recalled it from her grandfather’s days as captain on Vivacia. She looked in anguish at the familiar furnishings. With a flourish, Etta threw open a richly carved cedar chest. It was layered with garments in fabrics both sumptuous and colorful. At any other time, Malta would have been seized with envy and curiosity. Now she stood and stared sightlessly across the room as Etta dug through it.

  “Here. This will serve. It will be large on him, but if we seat him in a chair, no one will notice. ” She dragged out a heavy scarlet cloak trimmed with jet beads. “Kennit said it was too gaudy, but I still think he would look very fine in it. ”

  “Undoubtedly,” Malta agreed without expression. Personally, she felt it little mattered how a rapist dressed once you knew what he was.

  Etta stood, the rich fabric draped over her arm. “The hood is lined with fur,” she pointed out. Abruptly she asked, “What are you thinking?”

  There was no point in flinging harsh words at this woman. Wintrow had said that Etta knew what Kennit was. Somehow, she had come to terms with it. Who was she to criticize Etta’s loyalty? She must find Malta as craven for serving the Satrap. “I was wondering if Kennit has thought this through. I believe an alliance of Jamaillian nobles sought to have the Satrap die in Bingtown so they could blame the Traders for his murder and plunder our town. Are these nobles in this fleet of ships loyal to the Satrap and intent on his rescue? Or are they traitors hoping to finish what was begun in Bingtown? As well blame the Pirate Isles as Bingtown. Or both. ” She knit her brows, thinking. “They may have more interest in provoking Kennit to kill the Satrap than in saving him. ”

  “I am sure Kennit has considered everything,” Etta replied stiffly. “He is not a man like other men. He sees far, and in times of great danger, he manifests great powers. I know you must doubt me, but all you need do is ask your brother. He has seen Kennit calm a storm and command serpents to serve him. Wintrow himself was cured of serpent scald at Kennit’s hand, yes, and had the tattoo that his own father placed on his cheek erased by his captain. ” Etta met Malta’s skeptical gaze unwaveringly. “Perhaps a man like that does not have to abide by ordinary rules,” she went on. “Perhaps his own vision prompts him to do things forbidden to other men. ”

  Malta cocked her head at the pirate’s woman. “Are we still talking about negotiating to restore the Satrap to the throne?” she asked. “Or do you seek to excuse what he did to my father?” And my aunt, she added silently to herself.

  “Your father’s behavior needs more excuses than Kennit’s,” Etta returned coldly. “Ask Wintrow what it is like to wear slave chains and a tattoo. Your father got what he deserved. ”

  “Perhaps we all get what we deserve,” Malta returned sharply. Her eyes swept up and down Etta, and she saw the woman flush with anger. She experienced a moment’s remorse when she glimpsed sudden, unmasked pain in Etta’s eyes.

  “Perhaps we do,” the woman replied coldly. “Bring that chair. ”

  It was, Malta thought as she hefted the heavy chair, a petty revenge. She carried it awkwardly, knocking her shins against its thick rungs as she walked.

  REYN KHUPRUS STOOD WELL BACK FROM THE FOREDECK WHERE HE COULD observe without being seen. He watched Malta. The veil obscured his view, but he stared hungrily at her anyway. What he saw pained him, but he could not look away. She smiled at the Satrap as she set a chair in place for him. She turned to the tall woman beside her and indicated with pleasure the scarlet cloak she carried. The Satrap’s face did not lose its proud cast. He lifted his chin to her. What came next was like a knife turning in Reyn. Malta unfastened his wet cloak for him, smiling warmly all the while. He could not hear the words, but her tender concern showed on her face. She cast the wet cloak carelessly aside, and then hastened to wrap the Satrap in the grand red cloak. She pulled the hood up well and fastened it warmly around him. With light touches of her hand, she gently pushed the damp locks back from the Satrap’s forehead and cheeks. When the Satrap seated himself, she fussed with the fall of the cloak, even going down on one knee to adjust the folds of it.

  There was fondness in her every touch. He could not blame her. The Satrap with his pale, patrician countenance and lordly ways was a far more fitting match for Malta Vestrit than a scaled and battered Rain Wilder. With a pang, he recalled that the man had shared the first dance with her at her Presentation Ball. Had her heart begun to turn to him even then? She moved to stand behind the Satrap’s chair, and set her hands familiarly to the top of it. The trials they had endured together would undoubtedly have bonded them. What man could long resist Malta’s charm and beauty? No doubt, the Satrap felt great gratitude as well; he could not have survived on his own.

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  Reyn felt as if his heart had vanished from his chest, leaving a gaping hole behind. No wonder she had fled the sight of him. He swallowed hard. She had not even had a word of greeting for him, even as a friend. Did she fear he would hold her to her promise? Did she fear he would humiliate her before the Satrap? He bathed in the pain of watching them. She would never again be his.

olish bit of show herself, but none of this made any sense to her. They were all trapped in Kennit’s ridiculous and dangerous display of strength. She watched Malta take the Satrap’s wet cloak from his shoulders and wrap him warmly in the fresh one. She pulled the hood well up as if the man were Selden. When he had seated himself in his makeshift throne, she even tucked the cloak more snugly about his feet and legs. It pained her to watch Malta do such humble service. It stung her worse that Kennit watched the whole performance with a snide little smile on his face.

  Hatred so hot it tinged her vision red rushed through her. She actually gasped for breath as her nails bit deep into her palms. She leaned back against the ship’s rail and concentrated on letting it pass through her.

  “You want to kill him that badly,” the ship observed quietly. The comment seemed intended for her alone, yet Althea saw Kennit turn slightly to the words. He raised one eyebrow in a slight, mocking query.

  “Yes. I do. ” She let him read the words on her lips.

  KENNIT GAVE HIS HEAD A SORROWFUL LITTLE SHAKE. THEN HE PUT HIS attention back on a small ship that was drawing steadily closer to them. It came sluggishly through the darkening afternoon. Kennit wondered if it had taken damage in the serpent attack. An array of impressively garbed men stood on its deck staring toward them. Most of them looked portly beneath their rich cloaks. Sailors stood ready on deck to assist their betters to cross to Vivacia. A smile crooked his lips. It would be amusing if it began to sink while it was alongside. “Perhaps I should have dressed for the occasion,” he observed aloud to Etta. “Just as well that we have decked our Satrap so royally. Maybe clothing is all they can recognize. ” He folded his arms on his chest and grinned expectantly. “Toss some heaving-lines, Jola. Let’s see what catch they bring us. ”

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