Ship of destiny, p.8
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       Ship of Destiny, p.8

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
 

  WINTROW SWAM DEEP, IN DARKNESS AND WARMTH. SOMEWHERE, FAR ABOVE, there was a world of light and shadow, of voices and pain and touch. He avoided it. In another plane, there was a being that groped after him, calling him by his name and baiting him with memories as well. She was harder to elude, but his determination was strong. If she found him, there would be great pain and disillusionment for both of them. As long as he remained a tiny formless being swimming through the dark, he could avoid it all.

  Something was being done to his body. There was clatter, talk and fuss. He centered himself against anticipated pain. Pain had the power to grasp him and hold him. Pain might be able to drag him up to that world where he had a body and a mind and a set of memories that went with them. Down here, it was much safer.

  It only seems that way. And while it seems that way for a long time, eventually you will long for light and movement, for taste and sound and touch. If you wait too long, those things may be lost to you forever.

  This voice boomed rich all around him like the thundering of surf against rocks. Like the ocean itself, the voice turned and tumbled him, considering him from all angles. He tried in vain to hide from it. It knew him. “Who are you?” he demanded.

  The voice was amused. Who am V. You know; who I am, Wintrow Vestrit. I am whom you most fear, and whom she most fears. I am the one you avoid acknowledging. I am the one you deny and conceal from yourself and each other. Yet, lama part of you both.

  The voice paused and waited for him, but he would not speak the words. He knew that the old naming magic worked both ways. To know a creature’s true name was to have the power to bind it. But the naming of such a creature could also make it real.

  I am the dragon. The voice spoke with finality. You know me now. And nothing will ever be the same.

  “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he babbled silently. “I didn’t know. None of us knew. I’m sorry, I’m so very sorry. ”

  Not as sorry as I am. The voice was implacable in its grief. Nor yet as sorry as you shall be.

  “But it wasn’t my fault! I had nothing to do with it!”

  Nor was it my fault, yet I am the one punished most grievously of all. Fault has no place in the greater scheme of things, little one. Fault and guilt are as useless as apology once the deed is done. Once the action has been taken, all must endure what follows.

  “But why are you down here so deep?”

  Where else should I be? Where else is left to me? By the time I recalled who I was, your memories were stacked many layers deep upon me. Yet here I am, and here I shall remain, no matter how long you deny me. The voice paused. No matter how long I may deny myself, it added wearily.

  Pain scoured him. Wintrow struggled in a blaze of heat and light, fighting to keep his eyes closed and his tongue stilled. What were they doing to him? It did not matter. He would not react to it. If he moved, if he cried out, he would have to admit he was alive and Vivacia was dead. He would have to admit his soul was linked to a thing that had been dead longer than he had been alive. It was beyond macabre; it numbed him with horror. This was the wonder and glory of a liveship. He must consort forever with death. He did not wish to awaken and acknowledge that.

  Would you prefer to remain down here with me? There was bitter amusement in the being’s voice now. Do you wish to linger in the tomb of my past?

  “No. No, I wish to be free. ”

  Free?

  Wintrow faltered. “I don’t want to know any of this. I don’t want to have ever been a part of it. ”

  You were a part of it as soon as you were conceived. There is no way to undo such a thing.

  “Then what must I do?” The words wailed through him, unvoiced. “I cannot live with this. ”

  You could die, the voice offered sardonically.

  “I don’t want to die. ” Of that, at least, he was certain.

  Neither did I, the voice pointed out remorselessly. But I did. Rich as I am in memories of flying, my own wings never were unfurled. For the sake of building this ship, my cocoon was stripped from me before I could hatch. They dumped that which would have been my body to the cold stone floor. All I am are memories, memories stored in the walls of my cocoon, memories I should have reabsorbed as 1 formed in the hot sun of summer. I had no way to live or grow, save through the memories your kind offered. I absorbed what you gave me, and when it was enough, I quickened. But not as myself. No. I became the shape you had imposed upon me, and took to myself the personality that was the sum of your family’s expectations. Vivacia.

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  A sudden shift in the position of his body freshened Wintrow’s physical pain. Air flowed over him and the warmth of the sun touched him. Even that contact scoured his denuded flesh. But worst of all was the voice that called to him in a mixture of gladness and concern. “Wintrow? Can you hear me? It’s Vivacia. Where are you, what are you doing that I cannot feel you at all?”

  He felt the ship’s thoughts reach for him. He cringed away, unwilling to let her touch minds with him. He made himself smaller, hid deeper. The moment Vivacia reached him, she must know all that he did. What would it do to her, to confront what she truly was?

  Do you fear it will drive her mad? Do you fear she will take you with her? There was fierce exultation in the voice as it framed the thought, almost like a threat. Wintrow went cold with fear. Instantly he knew that this hiding place was no asylum, but a trap. “Vivacia!” he called out wildly, but his body did not obey him. No lips voiced his cry. Even his thought was muffled in the dragon’s being, wrapped and stifled and confined. He tried to struggle; he was suffocating under the weight of her presence. She held him so close he could not recall how to breathe. His heart leaped arrhythmically. Pain slapped him as his body jerked in protest. In a distant world, on a sun-washed deck, voices cried out in helpless dismay. He retreated to a stillness of body and soul that was one degree of darkness away from death.

  Good. There was satisfaction in the voice. Be still, little one. Don’t try to defy me, and I won’t have to kill you. A pause. I really have no desire to see any of us die. As closely interwoven as we are, the death of any of us would be a risk to the others. You would have realized that, if you had paused to think. 1 give you that time now. Use it to ponder our situation.

  For a space, Wintrow focused only on his survival. Breath caught, then shuddered through his lungs again. His heartbeat steadied. He was peripherally aware of exclamations of relief. Pain still seethed. He tried to pull his mind back from it, to ignore its clamor of serious damage to his body so that his thoughts could focus on the problem the dragon had set him.

  He cringed at her sudden flash of irritation. By all that flies, have you no sense at all? How have creatures like you managed to survive and infest the world so thoroughly and yet have so little knowledge of yourselves? Do not pull back from the pain and imagine that makes you strong. Look at it, you dolt! It is trying to tell you what is wrong so you confix it. No wonder you all have such short life spans. No, look at it! Like this.

  THE CREWMEN WHO HAD CARRIED THE CORNERS OF THE SHEET SUPPORTING Wintrow’s body had lowered him gently to the deck. Even so, Kennit had seen the spasm of fresh pain that crossed Wintrow’s face. He supposed that could be taken as an encouraging sign; at least he still reacted to pain. But when the figurehead had spoken to him, he had not even twitched. None of the others surrounding the supine figure could guess how much that worried Kennit. The pirate had been certain that the boy would react to the ship’s voice. That he did not meant that perhaps death would claim him. Kennit believed that there was a place between life and death where a man’s body became no more than a miserable animal, capable only of an animal’s responses. He had seen it. Under Igrot’s cruel guidance, his father had lingered in that state for days. Perhaps that was where Wintrow was now.

  The dim light inside the cabin had been merciful. Out here, in the clear light of day, Kennit could not insist to h
imself that Wintrow would be fine. Every ugly detail of his scalded body was revealed. His brief fit of spasms had disturbed the wet scabs his body had managed to form; fluid ran over his skin from his injuries. Wintrow was dying. His boy-prophet, the priest who would have been his soothsayer, was dying, with Kennit’s future still unborn. The injustice of it rose up and choked Kennit. He had come so close, so very close to attaining his dream. Now he would lose it all in the death of this half-grown man. It was too bitter to contemplate. He clenched his eyes shut against the cruelty of fate.

  “Oh, Kennit!” the ship cried out in a low voice, and he knew that she was feeling his emotions as well as her own. “Don’t let him die!” she begged him. “Please. You saved him from the serpent and the sea. Cannot you save him now?”

  “Quiet!” he commanded her, almost roughly. He had to think. If the boy died now, it would be a denial of all the good luck Kennit had ever mustered. It would be worse than a jinx. Kennit could not allow this to happen.

  Unmindful of the gathered crewmen who looked down on the wracked boy in hushed silence, Kennit awkwardly lowered himself to the deck. He looked long at Wintrow’s still face. He laid a single forefinger to an unblemished patch of skin on Wintrow’s face. He was beardless still and his cheek was soft. It wrung his heart to see the lad’s beauty spoiled so. “Wintrow,” he called softly. “Lad, it’s me. Kennit. You said you’d follow me. Sa sent you to speak for me. Remember? You can’t go now, boy. Not when we’re so close to our goals. ”

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  He was peripherally aware of the hushed murmur that ran through the watching crewmen. Sympathy, they felt sympathy for him. He felt a flash of irritation that they might construe his speaking so as weakness. But, no, it was not pity they felt. He looked up into their faces, and saw only concern, not just for Wintrow, but for him. They were touched by their captain’s regard for this injured boy. He sighed. Well, if Wintrow must die, he would wring what good from it he could. Gently he stroked his cheek. “Poor lad,” he muttered, just loud enough to be heard. “So much pain. It would be merciful to let you go, wouldn’t it?”

  He glanced up at Etta. Tears ran unashamedly down her cheeks. “Try the water again,” he bade her gently. “But don’t be disappointed. He is in Sa’s hands now, you know. ”

  THE DRAGON TWISTED HIS AWARENESS. WINTROW DID NOT SEE WITH HIS EYES, nor wallow in the sensation of pain. Instead, she bent his awareness in a direction he had never before imagined. What was the pain? Damaged units of his body, breaks in his defenses against the outside world. The barriers needed repairing, the damaged units must be broken down and dispersed. Nothing must get in the way of this task. All his resources should be put to it. His body demanded this of him, and pain was the alarm that sounded through him.

  “Wintrow?” Etta’s voice penetrated the woolly blackness. “Here is water. ” A moment later he felt an annoying trickling of moisture against his lips. He moved his lips, choking briefly as he tried to evade it. An instant later, he realized his error. This liquid was what his body needed to repair itself. Water, sustenance and absolute rest, free of the dilemmas that encumbered him.

  A light pressure on his cheek. From far away, a voice he knew. “Die if you must, lad. But know that it hurts me. Ah, Wintrow, if you have any love for me at all, reach out and live. Don’t forsake the dream that you yourself foretold. ”

  The words stored themselves in him, to be considered later. He had no time for Kennit just now. The dragon was showing him something, something that was so much of Sa he wondered how it could have been inside himself all this time and remained unseen. The workings of his own body unfolded before him. Air whispered in his lungs, blood flowed through his limbs, and all of it belonged to him. This was not some uncontrollable territory; this was his own body. He could mend it.

  He felt himself relax. Unrestricted by tension, the resources of his body now flowed to his injured parts. He knew his needs. After a moment, he found the reluctant muscles of his jaws and his laggard tongue. He moved his mouth. “Water,” he managed to croak. He lifted a stiffened arm in a faint attempt to shield himself. “Shade,” he begged. The touch of the sun and wind on his damaged skin was excruciating.

  “He spoke!” Etta exulted.

  “It was the captain,” someone else declared. “Called him right back from death. ”

  “Death himself steps back from Kennit!” declared another.

  The rough palm that so gently touched his cheek, and the strong hands that carefully raised his head and held the blessedly cool and dripping cup to his mouth, were Kennit’s. “You are mine, Wintrow,” the pirate declared.

  Wintrow drank to that.

  I THINK YOU CAN HEAR ME. SHE WHO REMEMBERS TRUMPETED THE WORDS AS she swam in the shadow of the silvery hull. She kept pace with the ship. I smell you. I sense you, but 1 cannot find you. Do you deliberately hide from me7.

  She fell silent, straining with every sense after a response. Something, she tasted something in the water, a bitter scent like the stinging toxins from her own glands. It oozed from the ship’s hull, if such a thing could be. She seemed to hear voices, voices so distant that she could not make out their words, only that they spoke. It made no sense. The serpent half-feared she was going mad. That would be bitter irony, finally to achieve her freedom and then have madness defeat her.

  She shuddered her whole length, releasing a thin stream of toxins. Who are you? she demanded. Where are you? Why do you conceal yourself from me?

  She waited for a response. None came. No one spoke to her, but she was convinced that someone listened.

  Liveship Traders 3 - Ship of Destiny

  CHAPTER FOUR - Tintaglia’s Flight

  THE SKY WAS NOT BLUE, OH NO. NOT ONCE SHE HAD TAKEN FLIGHT, FOR compared to her own gleaming self, what could claim to be blue? Tintaglia the dragon arched her back and admired the sunlight glinting silver off her deep blue scales. Beautiful beyond words. Yet, even this wonder could not distract her keen eyes and keener nostrils from what was even more important than her glory.

  Food moved in a clearing far below her. A doe, fat with summer graze, ventured too bravely out into a forest clearing. Foolish thing! Once no deer would have moved into the open without first casting a watchful glance above. Had dragons truly been gone so long from the world that the hoofed ones had discarded their wariness of the sky? She would soon teach them better. Tintaglia tucked her wings and plummeted. Only when she was so close that there was no possibility the deer could evade her did she give voice to her hunt. The musical trumpet of her Ki-i-i as she stooped split the morning peace. The clutching talons of her forelegs gathered her kill to her breast as her massive hind legs absorbed the impact of her landing. She rebounded effortlessly into the air, carrying the deer with her. The doe was shocked into stillness. A swift bite to the back of her neck had paralyzed her. Tintaglia carried her prey to a rocky ledge overlooking the wide Rain Wild River Valley. There she lapped the pooling blood of her meal before scissoring off dark red chunks to sate her hunger, flinging back her head to gulp them down. The incredible sensory pleasure of eating nearly overwhelmed her. The taste of the hot bloody meat, the rank smell of the spilled entrails combined with the physical sensation of loading her gut with large pieces of sustenance. She could feel her body renewing itself. Even the sunlight soaking into her scales replenished her.

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  She had stretched herself out to sleep after her meal when an annoying thought intruded. Before she had made her kill, she had been on her way to do something. She considered the play of sunlight on her closed eyelids. What was it? Ah. The humans. She had intended to rescue the humans. She sighed heavily, sinking deeper into sleep. But it wasn’t as if she had promised them, for how could a promise between one such as herself and an insect be considered binding on one’s honor?

  Still. They had freed her.

  But they were probably dead and it was d
oubtless too late to rescue them anyway. Lazily, she let her mind drift toward them. It was almost annoying to find they were both still alive, though their thoughts were the merest humming of a mosquito now.

  She lifted her head with a sigh and then roused herself enough to stand. She’d rescue the male, she compromised with herself. She knew exactly where he was. The female had fallen into water somewhere; she could be anywhere by now.

  Tintaglia paced to the edge of the cliff and launched herself.

  “I’M SO HUNGRY,” SELDEN QUAVERED. HE PRESSED HIMSELF MORE TIGHTLY AGAINST Reyn, seeking body warmth that Reyn himself was rapidly losing. Reyn couldn’t even find the spirit to reply to the shivering boy. He and Selden lay together on a mat of tree limbs that was gradually sinking into the rising muck. When the mud consumed it, it would devour this last hope as well. The only opening out of the chamber was far overhead. They had attempted to build a platform of debris, but as fast as they piled up fallen earth and tree limbs, the muck swallowed them. Reyn knew they were going to die here, and all the boy could do was whine about being hungry.

  He felt like shaking some sense into him, but instead he put his arm around Selden and said comfortingly, “Someone must have seen the dragon. My mother and brother will hear of it and guess where she came from. They’ll send help. ” Privately, he doubted his own words. “Rest for a bit. ”

  “I’m so hungry,” Selden repeated hopelessly. He sighed. “In a way, it was worth it. I saw the dragon rise. ” He turned his face to Reyn’s chest and was still. Reyn let his own eyes close. Could it be as simple as this? Could they simply go to sleep and die? He tried to think of something important enough to make him go on struggling. Malta. But Malta was likely dead already, somewhere in the collapsed city. The city itself was the only thing he had cared about before discovering Malta, and it lay in ruins all around him. He’d never unearth its secrets. Perhaps dying here and becoming one of its secrets was the closest he would ever get to it. He found his heart echoing Selden’s words. At least he had freed the dragon. Tintaglia had risen, to fly free. That was something, but it was not a reason to go on living. Perhaps it was a reason to die content. He had saved her.

 
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