Ship of destiny, p.80
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       Ship of Destiny, p.80

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
 

  He gasped suddenly and bent over his wound.

  Malta looked as innocent as a babe as she held the rag firmly to the injury and proclaimed, “Oh, Lord Satrap, you must stop your shouting. Look, it has started your bleeding again. Come, we must go below. Leave them to Sa’s justice. ”

  “Bleeding again-ah, the treacherous cowards deserve to die more slowly. Kennit was right. He saved me, you know. ” Without asking permission, he clutched Reyn’s arm and leaned on him as they tottered him toward the ship’s house. “At the end, Kennit recognized that my survival was more important than his. Brave soul! I defied those traitors, but when they came with the killing thrust, brave Kennit took my death for me. Now there is a name that will be remembered with honor. King Kennit of the Pirate Isles. ”

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  So the Satrap sought to crown himself with Kennit’s deeds and reputation. Reyn embroidered his conceited fantasy for him. “No doubt minstrels will make wondrous songs to tell of your great adventure. To Bingtown and the Rain Wilds the bold young Satrap journeyed. To be saved at the end by the unselfish pirate king who belatedly recognized the ultimate importance of the Satrap of all Jamaillia is the only fitting end for such a song. ” Reyn drawled the words, loving that Malta must fight to keep from smiling. Between them, the Satrap’s face lit with delight.

  “Yes, yes. An excellent concept. And a whole verse devoted to the names of those who betrayed me and how they perished, torn apart by the serpents that Kennit had commanded to guard me. That will make future traitors pause before they conspire against me. ”

  “Doubtless,” Malta agreed. “But now we must go below. ” Firmly, she eased him along. Her anxious eyes met Reyn’s, sharing her fear that they would not survive the day. Despite the darkness of the emotion, Reyn treasured that he could sense so much of what she felt just by standing near her. He gathered his strength and radiated calmness toward her. Surely, Captain Kennit had been in worse situations. His crew would know how to get them out of this.

  “I’LL LAY OUT CANVAS FOR A SHROUD,” AMBER OFFERED.

  “Very well,” Brashen agreed numbly. He looked down on Kennit’s body. The pirate that had nearly killed them all had died on his deck. His mother rocked him now, weeping silently, a tremulous smile on her lips. Paragon had gone very still since he had handed Kennit to his mother. Brashen feared to speak to him lest he did not answer. He sensed something happening within his ship. Whatever it was, Paragon guarded it closely. Brashen feared what it might be.

  “We gonna get out of here?” Clef asked him pragmatically.

  Brashen looked down at the boy by his side. “Don’t know,” Brashen answered him shortly. “We’re going to try. ”

  The boy surveyed the enemy ships critically. “Whyer they holdin’ back?”

  “I suspect they fear the liveships. Why risk lives when rocks will work?”

  The Jamaillian ship was going down. A few desperate souls had fled to her rigging, for the white serpent had shown them that their ship’s boats would provide no escape for them. Kennit’s other two ships had engaged adjacent Jamaillian vessels and were trying to force a gap in the ring of vessels that surrounded them. Another missile landed uncomfortably close. Paragon rocked slightly with it. No doubt, as soon as they were clear of the Jamaillian ship, the rest of the fleet would be bolder with their rock throwing. “If we could get the white serpent to help those two pirate vessels, we might be able to break out. But then we’d have to outrun the fleet, too. ”

  “It doesn’t look good,” Clef decided.

  “No,” Brashen agreed grimly. Then he smiled. “But we aren’t dead yet, either. ”

  A strange woman was stepping down onto the railing from Paragon’s hands. She did not even glance at Brashen, but settled herself silently beside the fallen pirate. An inexpressible grief dulled her black eyes. She lifted Kennit’s hand and held it to her cheek. Mother reached across Kennit to rest a wrinkled hand on her shoulder. The women’s eyes met across his body. For a moment, the dark-haired woman studied Mother’s face. Then she spoke quietly.

  “I loved him. I believe he loved me. I carry his child. ”

  The woman smoothed Kennit’s curls back from his still face. Brashen, feeling an intruder, looked away from them to the retreating Vivacia. Wintrow and Althea stood together on the foredeck, conferring about something. Brashen’s heart leapt at the sight of her. Cursing himself for a fool, he sprang suddenly to the rail. If one woman could cross, so could another. “Althea!” he bellowed, but the two ships had already drifted apart. Nevertheless, at his call, she spun. She sprinted wildly toward the bow. His heart choked him as he saw her spring wildly to the figurehead’s shoulder. There was no mistaking the shock on Vivacia’s face. She caught Althea in her headlong flight.

  Her words to her ship carried clearly across the water to him. His heart flew on them. “Please, Vivacia. You don’t need me. I want to go to him. ”

  Vivacia glanced over at Paragon. Then her voice rang clear across the water. “Paragon! This one I give to you as well!”

  As a parent might playfully loft a child, Vivacia swung Althea high, low, and then high again, letting her fly toward the blind ship. Her body arced through the air.

  “No!” Brashen roared in terror, clutching the rail.

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  “I’ve got her!” Paragon cried reassuringly, and then, miraculously, he did.

  He caught her and swung her with her momentum, whirling her around before handing her off suddenly into Brashen’s reaching arms. She stumbled off the railing and slid down into his embrace. He clasped her to him, folding her into his arms. He didn’t even try to speak. He had no breath left. When he looked up at Paragon, the ship looked back. His pale blue eyes crinkled in a grin. Brashen was transfixed.

  “Welcome aboard and le’s get out of here ef we can!” Clef greeted her.

  “Oh, Brashen,” Althea said shudderingly into his chest. Her voice jolted Brashen from his shock. She lifted her face to look up at him but held him as closely as ever. She took a deep breath. “Wintrow’s plan. If we can break free, run north for Divvytown. That harbor’s defensible now. We can hold out there as long as we need to, until birds can bring Kennit’s other ships to help us. ”

  She broke her flow of words suddenly. She stared at Kennit’s still body. The old woman and Etta on either side of him seemed unaware of anyone else. “He’s dead,” Brashen whispered into her hair. “He died in Paragon’s arms. ” Althea clung to him as she never had before. He held her, wishing there were time for them. But there was not. Death threatened all around them. “Break free,” he muttered skeptically. “How?”

  Paragon spoke suddenly. He looked at Brashen over Althea’s bowed head and spoke as if they were completely alone. “Once I promised not to kill you. I was mad, and you knew it, and still you believed in me. ” The ship looked around, scanning their situation with cold blue eyes. “I’m whole now. Now I make you both a new promise. I’ll do all I can to keep you alive. ”

  “TAKE THEM UP!”

  The command came from behind them. Malta, Reyn and the Satrap turned to it. Wintrow, his shirt crimson with Kennit’s blood, pointed at the desperate nobles on the foundering ship. Jola hastened to his side. “Launch a boat?” he asked incredulously.

  “No. I won’t risk any of mine for them. ” He raised his voice to the Jamaillian nobles. “We’ll throw you a line! Those brave enough to cross may survive. It’s your choice. Your fleet isn’t giving us time to rescue you. Jola, see to it. ” He strode off to the foredeck again.

  Chaos broke out among the nobles. They crowded the side of the listing ship. One old man lifted his hands and begged Sa to be merciful. A dapper young man, more pragmatic, ran to the other side of the ship, where he waved his cloak and cried to their ships to cease their attack. No one heeded him. The waves lapped over the top of the railings now. Jola prepared a heavingline and threw
it. All the men snatched at it, and one immediately tried to swarm up it.

  “Not like that, you fool!” the mate roared down at them. “Secure the end to something, and come up it hand over hand. ”

  But some were graybeards and others gentlemen of leisure. Few could make the climb unassisted. In the end, it took several lines and some diligent but rapid hoisting to bring them aboard. By the time they arrived what remained of their finery was in tatters. “Be grateful she’s a liveship,” Jola informed them callously. “They don’t hold barnacles like regular wood. A smoother keelhauling than most is what you got. ”

  They stood before the Satrap, a dozen men that he knew by name, men he had dined with, men he had trusted. Malta gave him credit for a small courage. He stood face-to-face with them. Some met his gaze steadily, but most stared at their feet or off to the horizon. When he spoke, it was the last word Malta had expected to hear from him.

  “Why?” he asked. He looked at each in turn. Malta, still holding the rag to his belly, could feel that he trembled slightly. She glanced up at his face and saw a truth that perhaps no one else did. He was hurt by their betrayal. “Did you hate me that much, to seek my death by treachery?”

  The one he had called Lord Criath lifted gray eyes to stare at him. “Look at you,” he growled. “You’re weak and foolish. You think of nothing except yourself. You’ve plundered the treasury and let the city go to ruin. What else could we do but kill you? You were never a true Satrap. ”

  Satrap Cosgo met the man’s eyes squarely. “You have been my trusted advisor since I was fifteen years old,” he returned gravely. “I listened to you, Criath. Ferdio, you were Minister of the Treasury. Peaton, Kreio, did not you offer me counsels as well? Counsels I always heeded, despite what some of my Companions said, for I wanted you to think well of me. ” His eyes moved over them. “That was my mistake, I see. I measured myself by how sweetly you complimented me. I am what you taught me to be, gentlemen. Or I was. ” He stuck out his jaw. “A time out in the world among true men has been very enlightening. I am no longer the boy you manipulated and betrayed, my lords. As you will come to discover. ” As if he had the authority, he instructed Jola, “Secure them below. They need not be too comfortable. ”

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  “No. ” Wintrow had returned. He countermanded the order without apology. “Fasten them about the ship’s house, Jola. I want them visible to their fleet. They may discourage some of the arrows and boulders that will come our way when we break free of this. ” He spared a look for his sister, but she scarcely recognized him. Grief had set lines in his face and chilled his eyes. He tried to soften his voice, but his words still sounded like a command. “Malta, you are safer inside the captain’s stateroom. Reyn, will you take her there? And the Satrap, of course. ”

  She gave a final glance to the sinking Jamaillian ship. She did not linger to watch the nobles tied up as a living shield. This was war, she told herself harshly. He did what he did to try to save them all. If the nobles died, it would be because their own men fired on them. Death was a risk they had chosen when they plotted against the Satrap.

  That did not mean she took any satisfaction in it. Bitterly she reflected that scores of Bingtown folk, slaves and simple tradesmen as well as Traders, had died for their ambitions. If their plot had succeeded, Bingtown itself would have fallen and eventually the Rain Wilds as well. Perhaps it was time they felt what it was like to stand in danger they could not avoid.

  FROM THE TOP OF PARAGON’S MAST, ALTHEA HAD A WIDE VIEW OF THE BATTLE. She had told Brashen she would climb the mast to try to see a way out of their situation. He had believed her, not knowing she fled Paragon’s blue-eyed stare and his own possessive touch on her. The combination had suddenly filled her with unease. Brashen had not noticed. He had put Semoy to assembling Paragon’s reduced crew into defense while he took Paragon’s helm. It had wrung her heart to see how many of the sailors had perished, and how many of the survivors bore wounds. Amber’s scalded face and burnt scalp and Clef’s still-peeling burns horrified her. She felt oddly shamed that she had not shared their danger.

  From her vantage, she looked down on a scene of disaster and battle. She saw crews abandoning their serpent-damaged ships, and others struggling with fallen rigging and injured men. But those of the Jamaillian fleet that could still function seemed intent on continuing the battle. As far as she could see, there was no easy escape. The Motley had rammed a ship that had tried to head her off. The ships were locked together now, their rigging tangled and bloody battle raging on both decks. Althea suspected that no matter who won, both ships were doomed. The Marietta could have slipped through and escaped, but Sorcor held her back, trying to aid the Motley. Flight after flight of arrows soared from her deck, picking off the Jamaillian sailors, while her own small catapult launched stones at the surrounding ships in a vain effort to keep them back.

  It was a very uneven contest, growing worse. Now that Vivacia and Paragon were on the move, only their desire to keep their catapults at a useful range kept the Jamaillian ships from hemming in the two liveships completely. The white serpent hummocking through the water beside Paragon kept some of the ships at bay, while the lingering effects of the earlier serpent attacks delayed others. Althea saw a mainsail on one vessel suddenly crash down, and surmised that an earlier spraying of serpent-spittle had finally eaten through the sheets.

  Their only hope was to break out of the circle and flee for Divvytown. Wintrow had said the town was defensible, but defensible did not mean it could withstand a prolonged siege. She suspected that as long as the Satrap lived, the Jamaillian fleet would not give up. And once he had died, they would eliminate all witnesses. Would they hold back from wiping out a whole pirate settlement? She did not think so.

  Down on the deck, men were moving Kennit’s body. The old woman trailed after the body, but Etta lingered on the foredeck, gripping the railing and staring past the figurehead’s shoulder, careless of the battle around them. Perhaps she, too, sensed that more of Kennit remained with the figurehead than in the lolling body. Kennit was a part of Paragon now. He had died on Paragon’s deck, and the ship had welcomed him. She still had not grasped why.

  Amber suddenly spoke below her. “Best come down. Brashen is sure a rock is going to come by and carry you off with it. ”

  Paragon had already taken one solid hit that had taken out part of his railing and scored his deck.

  “I’d best get down, too,” Amber continued. “It sounds like Kyle is making a fuss over Kennit’s body being here. ”

  “Kyle?” The word burst out of Althea.

  “Didn’t Brashen tell you? Kennit’s mother brought him on board with her. Evidently Kennit had stashed him on Key Island. ”

  “No. He didn’t. We haven’t had much time to talk. ” Now there was an understatement. Kennit’s mother? Key Island? Althea scooted down the mast, passing Amber to gain the deck. She had thought that nothing could further complicate this day. She had been wrong.

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  Kyle Haven, Keffria’s missing husband, stood in the door of Paragon’s house, blocking the way. Althea recognized his voice. “Throw it over the side!” he demanded harshly. “Murderer! Thieving c-c-cutthroat!” He stammered hoarsely in his fury. “Deserved to die! Feed him to the serpents-as he fed my crew to the serpents. ”

  The two men bearing the body looked disgruntled, but the old woman who must be Kennit’s mother looked stricken. She still clutched her dead son’s hand.

  Althea dropped lightly to the deck and hurried over. “Let her pass, Kyle. Tormenting her won’t change a thing that Kennit did. ” As she spoke the words, she suddenly knew the truth of them. She looked impassively at Kennit’s dead face. He was beyond her vengeance now, and she would not take out her bitterness on this grieving old woman. Kyle, however, was not out of her reach. She had waited long for this confrontation. His arrogance and selfishness ha
d nearly destroyed her life.

  Nevertheless, as he turned to stare at her, her hatred melted into horror. His angry confidence had vanished the moment she challenged him. His hands jerked spasmodically as he glared at her without comprehension. “What?” he demanded querulously. “Who?”

  “Althea Vestrit,” she said quietly. She stared at him.

  He bore the marks of many beatings. Teeth were missing and scars seamed his face. Gray streaked his unkempt blond hair. Blows to his head had crazed his control of his head and hands. He moved with trembling and corrections like a very old man.

  Amber stood just behind Althea. She spoke gently, in the same tones she had used when Paragon was in one of his tempers. “Let it go, Kyle. He’s dead. It doesn’t matter anymore. You’re safe now. ”

  “Doesn’t matter!” he sputtered, outraged. “Does matter! Look at me. Damn mess. Your fault!” he suddenly declared, pointing at Althea with a shaky, crooked finger. His twisted hands made her feel faint to look at him. They bore the marks of systematic breaking. “Your fault-you unnatural-want to be a man. Shamed the family. Made the ship hate me. Your fault. Your fault. ”

  Althea scarcely heard his words. She saw instead how he struggled to find words and force them from his mouth. Kyle took a great breath, his face mottling red with his effort. “I curse you! Die on this mad ship! Curse you with bad luck. Dead man on board. You’ll die on this deck. Mark that! I curse you! All! I curse you!” He threw wide his shaky hands and saliva flew from his lips.

  Althea stared at him, unspeaking. The true curse was that he was Keffria’s husband, the father of Wintrow, Malta and Selden. It was her duty to restore him to them. The thought made her blood cold. Had not Malta suffered enough? She had idealized this man. Must she return this bitter wreckage to her sister’s side?

 

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