Ship of destiny, p.78
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       Ship of Destiny, p.78

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
 

  Behind him, he felt the Satrap stirring from his dead faint. He moaned faintly. Kennit elbowed him unobtrusively. “Quiet,” he said in a low voice. “Sit up. Try to look competent. The more weakness you admit, the more they’ll hurt you. I need you in one piece. ”

  The Lord High Satrap of all Jamaillia sat up, sniffled and looked fearfully around. On the deck, men thundered past them, intent on wringing yet more speed out of the ship. Two men guarded them, one with a long knife, the other with a nasty short club. Kennit’s left arm was near numb from his last encounter with it.

  “I am lost. All is lost. ” The Satrap rocked himself.

  “Stop it!” Kennit hissed. In a low voice he continued, “While you whine and moan, you are not thinking. Look around us. Now, more than ever, you must be the Satrap of all Jamaillia. Look like a king if you wish to be treated as one. Sit up. Be alert and outraged. Behave as if you have the power to kill them all. ”

  Kennit himself had already followed his own advice. If the Jamaillians had taken the Satrap to be rid of him, he reasoned, they would have killed him outright. That they both still lived meant that the Satrap had some living value to them. And if he did, and if the Satrap felt some small measure of gratitude to Kennit, perhaps he might preserve the pirate’s life as well. Kennit gathered strength into his voice. He poured conviction into his whisper. “They shall not emerge unscathed from this treatment of us. Even now, my ships pursue us. Look at our captors, and think only of how you will kill them. ”

  “Slowly,” the Satrap said in a voice that still shook slightly. “Slowly they will die,” he said more firmly, “with much time to regret their stupidity. ” He managed to sit up. He wrapped the scarlet cloak more closely about himself and glared at their guards. Anger, Kennit reflected, suited him. It drove the fear and childishness from his face. “My own nobles turned on me. They will pay for their treason. They, and their families. I will tear down their mansions, I will cut their forests, I will burn their fields. To the tenth generation, they will suffer for this. I know their names. ”

  A guard had overheard him. He gave the Satrap a disdainful shove with his foot. “Shut up. You’ll be dead before the day is out. I heard them say. They just want to do it where they all can witness it. Binding by blood, they call it. ” He grinned, showing a sailor’s teeth. “You, too, ‘King’ Kennit. Maybe they’ll let me do it. I lost two shipmates to them damn serpents of yours. ”

  “KENNIT!”

  The roar was the voice of the wind itself, the cry of an outraged god. The taunting guard spun around to look aft. A terrible shiver ran over Kennit. He did not have to look. It was the voice of his dead ship, calling him to join it. He struggled to stand, but without his crutch, it was hard. “Help me up!” he commanded the Satrap. At any other time the royal youth would probably have disdained such a command, but the sound of the pirate’s name still lingered in everyone’s ears. He stood quickly and extended a hand to the pirate. Even the men on deck had slowed in their appointed tasks to look back. A look of horror dawned on some faces. Kennit hauled himself to a standing position by the Satrap’s slender shoulder and stared wildly about for the ghost ship.

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  He found it, coming up swift on their starboard.

  Impossibly, it was Paragon, transfigured in death to a youth. A ghostly white serpent gamboled before the ship. More swift than the wind, unnaturally fleet, the liveship drew alongside. Completing the nightmare, his mother stood on the foredeck, her white hair streaming in the wind. She saw him. She reached a beseeching hand toward him. A golden goddess stood beside her, and a dead man commanded the crew. Kennit’s tongue clove for an instant to the roof of his mouth. The ghosts of his past came on, impossibly swift, drawing abreast of the Jamaillian ship and then veering toward it. “Kennit!” the voice thundered again. “I come for you!” Paragon put cold fury in his voice. “Yield Kennit to me! I command it! He is mine!”

  “Yield!” Vivacia’s voice cracked the sky, coming from the port side of the ship. Kennit’s view of her was blocked, but he knew she was close. His heart lifted painfully in his chest. She could save him. “Yield, Jamaillian ship, or we take you to the bottom!”

  The Jamaillian ship had nowhere to go. Despite her master’s frantic commands to spill wind from her sails, he could not slow her fast enough. The Paragon cut recklessly toward her bow. The Jamaillian ship veered, but it was not enough. With a terrible splintering sound followed by the groans of stressed timbers, she caromed at an angle against Paragon. His wizardwood absorbed her impact, but splinters flew from the Jamaillian ship. The Jamaillian ship slewed around, all control lost. Overhead, canvas flapped wildly. Suddenly, there was another grinding impact as the Vivacia pressed up against her other side. It was a reckless maneuver, one that could take all three ships down. The halted momentum of the ships swung them all in a slowly turning circle. Sailors on every deck roared in dismay. Overhead, rigging threatened to tangle. To either side, the Marietta and the Motley swept past, to hold off approaching Jamaillian vessels.

  The deck under Kennit was still shuddering from the impacts when grapples from both liveships seized onto it. Boarders from both sides leapt over the railings. The clash of fighting rose around them, supplemented with the wild shouts of the liveships themselves. Even the serpent added his trumpeting. Their captors were suddenly intent on defending their own lives.

  “Satrap! We must try to get to the Vivacia. ” Kennit kept his firm grip on the Satrap’s shoulder and shouted by his ear. “I’ll guide you there,” he asserted, lest his living crutch try to go on his own.

  “Kill them!” The Jamaillian captain’s roar cut through the sounds of battle. It was the furious cry of a desperate man. “By Lord Criath’s order, they must not be taken alive. Kill the Satrap and the pirate king. Don’t let them escape!”

  BODIES STILL CLUTTERED VIVACIA’S DECK, THE BLOOD BEADING AND RUNNING over the sealed wood. Walking was slippery. The frantically scrambling sailors, the outstretched, pleading hands of the injured and the increased shifting of the deck made Malta’s journey to where Reyn had fallen a nightmare. She felt she moved sluggishly, alone, through chaos and insanity, to the end of the world. Pirates darted past her to Wintrow’s shouted commands. She did not even hear them. Reyn had come all this way, seeking her, and she had been too cowardly to give him even a word. She had dreaded the pain of his rejection so much that she had not had the courage to thank him. Now she feared she sought for a dead man.

  He lay facedown. She had to pull another body off his. The man on top of him was heavy. She tugged at him hopelessly while all around her the world went on a mad quest to save Kennit. No one, not her brother, not her aunt, came to her aid. She sobbed breathlessly, fearfully as she worked. She heard the two liveships shouting to one another. Rushing sailors dodged around her, heedless of her toil. She fell to her knees in the blood, braced a shoulder against the dead man’s bulk, and shoved him off Reyn.

  The revealed carnage left her gasping. Blood soaked his garments and pooled around his body. He sprawled in it, horribly still. “Oh, Reyn. Oh, my love. ” She squeezed out the hoarse words that had lived unacknowledged in her heart since their first dream-box sharing. Heedless of the blood, she bent to embrace him. He was still warm. “Never to be,” she moaned, rocking. “Never to be. ” It was like losing her home and her family all over again. In his arms, she suddenly knew, was the only place where she could have been Malta again. With him died her youth, her beauty, her dreams.

  Tenderly, as if he could still feel pain, she turned him over. She would see his face one last time, look into his copper eyes even if he did not look back at her. It would be all she would ever have of him.

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  Her hands were thick with his blood as she untucked the veil from the throat of his shirt. She used both hands to lift it up and away from his face. It peeled away, leaving a latticework of blood inked on his sla
ck face. Tenderly she wiped it away with the hem of her cloak. She bent down and kissed his still mouth, lips to lips, no dream, no veil between them. Dimly she was aware that the shouting world of sail and battle went on around them. She did not care. Her life had stopped here. She traced the scaled line of his brow, the pebbled skin like a finely wrought chain under her fingertip. “Reyn,” she said quietly. “Oh, my Reyn. ”

  His eyes opened to slits. Copper glints shone. Transfixed, she stared, as he blinked twice, then opened his eyes. He squinted up at her. He gave a gasp of pain, his right hand going to the wet sleeve on his left arm. “I’m hurt,” he said dazedly.

  She bent closer over him. Her heart thundered in her ears. She scarcely heard her own words. “Reyn. Lie still. You’re bleeding badly. Let me see to you. ” With a competence she did not feel, she began to undo his shirt. She would not dare to hope, she hoped for nothing, no, she did not even dare to pray, not that he would live, not that he would love her. Such hopes were too big. Her shaking hands could not unfasten the buttons.

  She tore the shirt and spread it wide, expecting ruin within. “You’re whole!” she exclaimed. “Praise Sa for life!” She ran a wondering hand down his smooth bronze chest. The scaling on it rippled under her hand and glinted in the pale winter sunlight.

  “Malta?” He squinted, as if finally able to see who knelt over him. In his bloody right hand he caught both of hers and held her touch away from him as his eyes fixed on her brow. His eyes widened and he dropped her hands. Shame and pain scorched Malta, but she did not look away from him. As if he could not resist the impulse, he lifted a hand. But he did not touch her cheek as she had hoped. Instead, his fingers went straight to her bulging scar and traced it through her hair. Tears burned her eyes.

  “Crowned,” he murmured. “But how can this be? Crested like the ancient Elderling queen in the old tapestries. The scaling is just beginning to show scarlet. Oh, my beauty, my lady, my queen, Tintaglia was right. You are the only one fit to mother such children as we shall make. ”

  His words made no sense, but she did not care. There was acceptance in his face, and awe. His eyes wandered endlessly over her face, in wonder and delight. “Your brows, too, even your lips. You are beginning to scale. Help me up,” he demanded. “I must see all of you. I must hold you to know this is real. I have come so far and dreamed of you so often. ”

  “You are hurt,” she protested. “There is so much blood, Reyn…. ”

  “Not much of it mine, I think. ” He lifted a hand to the side of his head. “I was stunned. And I took a sword thrust up my left arm. However, other than that-” He moved slowly, groaning. “I merely hurt all over. ”

  He drew his feet up, got to his knees and slowly managed to stand. She rose with him, steadying him. He lifted a hand to rub his eyes. “My veil,” he exclaimed suddenly. Then he looked down at her. She had not thought such ‘joy could shine on a man’s face. “You will marry me, then?” he asked in delighted disbelief.

  “If you’ll have me, as I am. ” She stood straight, chose truth. She could not let him plunge into this blindly, not knowing what others might later whisper about his bride. “Reyn, there is much that you first need to know about me. ”

  At that instant, Vivacia shouted something about yielding. An instant later, a wrenching impact threw them both to the deck again. Reyn cried out with pain, but rolled to throw himself protectively over her. The ship shuddered beneath them as he gathered her into his embrace. He lay beside her, holding her tight with his good arm, bracing them both against the blows of the world. As sailors clamored and the fresh clatter of battle rose, he shouted by her ear, “The only thing I need to know is that I have you now. ”

  WINTROW KNEW HOW TO COMMAND. AMIDST ALL ELSE, AS ALTHEA SCRAMbled to his orders with the others, she saw the sense of them. She saw something else, something even more important than whether she approved of how he ran his deck. The crew was confident in him. Jola, the mate, did not question his competence or his authority to take over for Kennit. Neither did Etta. Vivacia put herself in his hands, without reservations. Althea was aware, jealously, of the exchange between Vivacia and Wintrow. Effortless as water, it flowed past her. Naturally, without effort, they traded encouragement and information. They did not exclude her; it simply went past her the way adult conversation went over a child’s head.

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  The priest-boy, small and spindly as a child, had become this slight but energetic young man who roared commands with a man’s voice. She knew, with a sudden guilt, that her own father had not seen that possibility in Wintrow. If he had, Ephron Vestrit would have opposed Keffria sending him off to the priesthood. Even his own father had intended to use him only as a sort of placeholder until Selden, his younger, bolder son, came of age. Only Kennit had seen this, and nurtured this in him. Kennit the rapist had somehow been also the leader that Wintrow near worshiped, and the mentor who had enabled him to take his place on this deck and command it.

  The thoughts rushed through her head as swiftly as the wind that pushed the sails, trampling her emotions as the barefoot sailors trampled Vivacia’s decks. She poured her angry strength into hauling on a line. She hated and loathed Kennit. Even more than she longed to kill him, she needed to expose him. She wanted to tear his followers’ love and loyalty away from him the way he had torn her dignity and privacy from her body. She wanted to do to him what he had done to her, take from him something he could never regain. Leave him always crippled in a way that did not yield to logic. She did not want to hurt those two, her nephew and her ship. But no matter how much she cared for both of them, she could not walk away from what Kennit had done to her.

  It hurt worse, now that she knew Brashen was alive. Every time she caught a glimpse of him on Paragon’s deck, her leaping joy was stained with dread. The thought of telling him tainted her anticipation of reunion. Would even Brashen grasp the whole of it? She was not sure what she feared most: that he would be enraged by it, as if Kennit had stolen from him, that he might spurn her as dirtied, or that he might dismiss it as a bad experience that she would get over. In not knowing how he would react, she suddenly feared that she did not know him at all. The open love and trust between Brashen and her was, in some ways, still new and fresh. Could it bear the weight of this truth? Her anger roiled inside her as she wondered if that, too, would be a thing that Kennit had destroyed.

  Then there was no time to think anymore. They were beside the Jamaillian ship. Althea heard a terrible sound as it collided with something. Probably the Paragon, she thought with sudden agony. Her poor mad ship flung into this battle for Kennit’s sake. The Jamaillian ship loomed larger, and closer and-

  “Brace!” Someone shouted the word.

  An instant later, she knew it had been meant as a warning, but by then, she was sliding across the deck. Anger flashed through her as she rolled and skidded. How dared Wintrow risk her ship that way? Then she felt, through her flesh against the wizardwood, how intent the ship had been on this chase and capture. Vivacia had chosen the peril. Wintrow had done all he could to minimize it. Althea fetched up against one of the bodies on the deck. With a shudder, she rolled to her feet. The side of the Jamaillian ship was as close as a pier. She saw Etta make the jump, deck to deck, a blade in her hand. Had Wintrow led the way? She could not see him anywhere. She scrabbled for the blade the dead man still clutched.

  An instant later, her feet hit the Jamaillian deck. There was fighting all around her, too thick for her to make sense of any of it. Where was her nephew? A Jamaillian sailor sprang to meet her wavering blade. Althea clumsily parried his first two efforts at killing her. Then, from somewhere, another blade licked in, slashing him across the chest. He turned with a cry and staggered away from her.

  Jek was at her shoulder suddenly, grinning insanely as she did for any danger. “Think if I save the Satrap, he’ll marry me? I’d fancy being a Satrapess, or whatever she’s called. ”

/>   Before Althea could answer, something rocked the deck under her, sending combatants staggering. She clutched at Jek. “What was that?” she asked, wondering if the Jamaillian fleet was using its catapults against the locked ships. Her answer came in a frenzied shout from a Jamaillian sailor. “Cap’n, Cap’n, the damnable serpent has torn our rudder free. We’re taking on water bad!”

  “We’d best get what we came for and get off this tub,” Jek suggested merrily. She plunged into the battle, not singling out any opponent, but scything a way for herself through the melee. Althea followed on her heels, doing little more than keeping men off their backs. “I thought I saw Etta-ah, here we are!” Jek exclaimed. Then, “Sa’s breath and El’s balls!” she swore. “They’re down and bloody, both of them!”

  THE JAMAILLIAN CAPTAIN HAD TAUGHT HIS MEN TO OBEY WITHOUT QUESTION. That was a thing to admire, until it was turned on you. Their complete obedience was in their eyes as they closed on Kennit. They’d kill both the pirate and the Satrap, without hesitation, on their captain’s order. Evidently the Satrap either had to be in their control, or dead. Kennit’s estimate of Cosgo’s value soared. He’d keep him alive and in his own control. Clearly that was where he was the greatest threat to the Jamaillians, and hence most valuable. They’d come through a serpent attack and risked everything to capture him. Kennit would take him back, and then they’d pay more dearly than they had ever imagined. Vivacia was alongside; he only needed to hold them off for a few minutes until Etta and Wintrow came for him.

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  “Get behind me!” he commanded the Satrap, and pushed him roughly back. Kennit braced his hand on the ship’s house to keep from toppling over. His body shielded the cowering Magnadon. With his free hand, Kennit tore his cloak loose. The oncoming men didn’t pause. He foiled the first man’s thrust by flinging his cloak around the blade as it came in and shoving it aside. He tried to grab for it, risking that he could wrench it loose from its owner’s grip, but it slipped out from the folds of heavy cloak.

 
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