Ship of destiny, p.81
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       Ship of Destiny, p.81

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
 

  When his words did not make his wife’s sister flinch, his face wrinkled with fury. He spat on the deck before her, intending insult, but the spittle dribbled from his chin and she felt only appalled. She found words and spoke them calmly. “Kyle. Let him by, for the sake of his mother’s grief. Let them pass. ”

  While Kyle stared at her in slow comprehension, the men slipped past him with Kennit’s body. Mother followed with one reproachful glance back at him. Etta was beside her now. For an instant, her eyes met Althea’s. There were no words for what passed between them. “Thank you. ” The words were stiff and resentful. Hatred still burned in Etta’s eyes, but the hatred was not for Althea. It was for the shameful truth that tormented both of them. Althea turned aside from that searing knowledge. Kennit had raped her. Etta knew, and the admission was a stake in the heart of her memories of him. Neither woman could escape what he had done to them.

  Althea looked away, only to have her eyes fall on Kyle. Still muttering and swinging feeble fists in a display of anger, he gestured wildly as he shuffled away from them. His left foot turned out awkwardly.

  Amber spoke quietly. “At night, in our room, you used to say you longed to meet him just one more time. Just so you could confront him with what he did. ”

  “He stole my ship from me. He ruined my dreams. ” She spoke the old accusation. It sounded impossible now. Althea could not look away from the lurching figure. “Sa save us all. ” The encounter had taken but a few seconds but she felt years older. She dragged her gaze from Kyle to look at her friend. “Cheated of vengeance twice in one day,” she observed in a shaky voice.

  Amber gave her a surprised look. “Is that truly how you feel?”

  “No. No, it isn’t at all. ” Althea searched her heart and was surprised at what she felt. “Grateful. For my life, for my intact body. For a man like Brashen in my life. Sa’s breath, Amber, I have nothing to complain about. ” She looked up suddenly, as if waking from a nightmare. “We’ve got to survive this, Amber. We have to. I’ve a life to live. ”

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  “Each of us does,” Amber replied. She looked across the water to where men fought on the decks of the locked ships. “And a death to die as well,” she added more softly.

  “WHAT WOULD KENNIT DO NOW?” WINTROW MUTTERED TO HIMSELF AS HE scanned the closing circle of ships. He had taken up the men from the Jamaillian ship because he had not the heart to leave them to drown or be eaten. Weakness, Kennit would have said. Precious time wasted when he should have been getting his ship away. Jola was dutifully chaining them up, at his command. The thought made him queasy. But there was no time for second thoughts. He was alone in this now. Kennit was dead, and Etta sent off to mourn him. Althea had crossed to the Paragon. He had taken command of Vivacia, for he could not tolerate Jola captaining her. Now that he had her, he was afraid he would lose her and all hands. His mind flew back to the last time he had seized control of the ship. Then he had been replacing his father to bring her through a storm. Now he stepped up to fill Kennit’s place, in the midst of battle. Despite the time that had passed, he still felt just as uncertain. “What would Kennit do?” he asked himself again. His mind refused to work.

  “Kennit is dead. ” Vivacia spoke the harsh words softly. “You are alive. Wintrow Vestrit, it is up to you. Save us both. ”

  “How? I don’t know how. ” He looked around again. He had to act and swiftly. The crew believed in him. They had answered his every command willingly, and now he stood paralyzed as death closed in on them. Kennit would have known what to do.

  “Stop that. ” She spoke in his heart as well as aloud. “You are not Kennit. You cannot command as he did. You must command as Wintrow Vestrit. You say you fear to fail. What have you told Etta, so often it rings in my bones? When you fear to fail, you fear something that has not happened yet. You predict your own failure, and by inaction, lock yourself into it. Was not that what you told her?”

  “A hundred times,” he returned, almost smiling. “In the days when she would not even try to read. And other times. ”

  “And?”

  He took a breath and centered himself. He scanned the battle again. His oldest training came suddenly to the fore. He drew another deep breath. When he let it out, he sent doubt with the spent air. He suddenly saw the battle as if it were one of Etta’s game boards. “In conflict, there is weakness. That is where we will break through. ” He pointed toward the Marietta and the Motley, already locked in a struggle with the Jamaillian ships. Several others were moving to join the battle.

  “There?” Vivacia asked, suddenly doubtful.

  “There. And we do our best to free them with us. ” He lifted his voice in sudden command. “Jola! Bring us about. Archers to the ready. We’re leaving!”

  It was not what they expected, but once he had realized he could not forsake his friends, the decision was simple. Vivacia answered the helm readily and for a blessing, the wind was with them. Paragon followed without hesitation. He had a glimpse of Trell at the liveship’s helm. That simple act of confidence restored Wintrow’s faith in himself. “Do not hesitate!” he urged the ship. “We’ll make them give way before us. ”

  A Jamaillian ship veered in to flank her. It was a smaller vessel, fleet and nimble, her railing lined with archers. At the cries of his hostages, the bowmen faltered, but an instant later they let fly. Wintrow flung himself flat to avoid two shafts aimed at him. Another struck Vivacia’s shoulder, but rebounded harmlessly. She shrieked her outrage, a cry as shrill as a serpent’s. Wizardwood need fear no ordinary arrow. Pitchpots and flames would be another matter, but Wintrow judged correctly that they would fear to use them in such crowded circumstance. The lively wind would be very ready to carry scraps of flaming canvas from one vessel to another. Vivacia’s archers returned the volley, with far greater accuracy. The smaller boat veered off. Wintrow hoped the news of their hostages would spread.

  Just as he thought they had escaped unscathed, a man fell from the rigging. The arrow had pierced his throat; Gankis had died soundlessly. The old man had been one of Kennit’s original crew. As his body struck the deck, Vivacia screamed. It was not a woman’s cry, but the rising shriek of an outraged dragon. The anger that surged up from her invaded Wintrow as well. An answering roar came from Paragon, echoed by a shrill trumpeting from the white serpent.

  A large ship was moving steadily into their path. No doubt, her captain sought to force Vivacia back into the thick of the fleet. Wintrow gauged their chances. “Cut it as fine as you can, my lady,” he bade her. “Cry the steersman as you wish. ” He gripped the forerail and hoped he was not leading them all to their deaths. Canvas full and billowing, it became a race of nerves between the two ships. At the last possible moment the other captain slacked his sails and broke away. Vivacia raced past virtually under his bow. Wintrow became aware that the white serpent had moved up to pace them when it roared and sprayed the ship in passing.

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  Now the embattled Motley was right before them. One of her brightly-colored sails was down and drooping uselessly. The crew had cleared most of her deck of boarders, but the two ships were still both grappled and tangled. Vivacia bore down on them, screaming like a dragon, archers ready. The Marietta moved off to allow them room. Sorcor’s supply of both arrows and shot were probably nearly spent.

  “Look at that!” Wintrow exclaimed suddenly. The white serpent had surfaced by the Jamaillian ship that was locked with the Motley. As if it knew their plans, it roared, and then opened wide its jaws to spray the deck with venom. Men screamed. The serpent was too close for their catapult to be of any use. Their volley of arrows rattled off him harmlessly. He disappeared beneath the waves, then surfaced again off the ship’s bow. He sprayed the ship again, then bent his great head to press his brow against the wood of the hull. He pushed furiously, lashing the sea to cream with his efforts. Wintrow heard the groan of wood. The g
reat timbers, smoking with the serpent’s venom, actually bent with the pressure. On board the Motley, men struggled to push their ship clear. Overhead, tangled rigging resisted, but sailors with axes were swarming aloft. They cut themselves free with reckless abandon. With a lurch, the ships suddenly parted.

  As the pirates on the Motley gave an uneven cheer, the serpent rose once more to spray the other ship with venom. A lone archer, screaming with the pain of his scalds, let fly a single arrow. It struck the white serpent, just behind the angle of his jaw. The shaft plunged out of sight and the serpent screamed in agony. It whipped its head about wildly as if it sought to dislodge the arrow. In horror, Wintrow saw a sudden wound open on the serpent’s neck. It ran blood and steaming white toxins. Its own venom was eating away at its flesh. Vivacia gave a cry of fury and horror.

  Paragon suddenly swept past them. With complete disregard for the figurehead, the ship rammed the Jamaillian craft. As his bow caught the other vessel amidships, Paragon screamed in wordless fury. He seized the ship’s railing and tore it loose.

  Wintrow had never thought to gauge the strength of a liveship’s figurehead. Before his eyes, an enraged Paragon used the ship’s railing as a club to batter at the hapless vessel. Splinters flew at every blow. Men fled, seeking shelter from the flying pieces of wood. When the railing gave way, he snatched the war axe from his belt. He wielded it two-handed. With every crushing stroke, Paragon roared. Deck planks gave way, and then he reached overhead to tear at canvas and rigging. With his axe and his hands, he reduced the ship to wreckage before Wintrow’s disbelieving eyes. On Paragon’s deck, his own crew darted for cover, shouting with terror.

  THE OTHER JAMAILLIAN SHIPS HAD MOVED BACK DEFENSIVELY. PARAGON continued to throw chunks of wreckage at them. An anchor trailing a length of chain crashed into the rigging of one ship. A ship’s boat, flung with wild strength, cleared half the deck of another. In their haste to be out of his range, one Jamaillian ship rammed another. They drifted in a circle, rigging tangled. Paragon’s wild attack had broken an opening for them. Small good it would do them, but Althea watched as the Marietta swept through it, followed by the limping Motley. They at least would escape.

  “Paragon! Paragon!” From the helm, Brashen yelled the ship’s name hoarsely. It did no good. The rage of a dragon burned in him, and with every wild blow, he roared it. Vivacia swept through the gap in the circle. “Follow, follow!” she cried to Paragon as she escaped, but he appeared not to hear. His sails strained to push him on, but he caught hold of the Jamaillian ship with one hand and kept punishing it with the other. The two vessels groaned against one another. A stone thudded against their stern, reminding Althea that the Jamaillian ships were still attacking. Another stone hit the afterdeck and took out a piece of Paragon’s railing. If they smashed his rudder, they were doomed. Another stone struck. Death reached for them.

  Kyle Haven had emerged from hiding. In the midst of the chaos, he danced a madman’s jig on the main deck. “Die here, die here!” he chanted shrilly. “Die as you all deserve, every one of you! Serves you right! You brought his body on board! We’ll take it to the bottom with us. ”

  Etta had been closeted with Mother. Now she appeared and made a determined rush down the deck. As she ran, a small ship swept past, the same one that had harried Vivacia earlier. “Get down!” Althea cried as the row of archers let fly.

  Etta heeded her. Kyle did not.

  He fell, jerking, with two arrows through his body. Etta did not give him a glance. She picked herself up and ran. When she reached the foredeck, she screamed her words with the force of a sudden cold wind. “Faithless ship! Bear us away! Or Kennit’s child will die unborn, a child he bid me name ‘Paragon’. ”

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  The figurehead twisted back to look at her. His wide blue eyes shone with madness. He stared at her and a sudden silence fell. In one hand, he gripped a timber from the shattered ship. He lifted it high over his head, then flung it into the rigging of an approaching Jamaillian ship. He thrust his axe back into his harness. At last, he seized the battered hulk in both hands and pushed savagely free of it. The impetus aimed them toward the closing gap and thrust the wreckage into the path of two other ships. Suddenly unimpeded, his full sails sent him shooting forward. Swift as only a liveship was swift, he cut past the bow of a Jamaillian ship and into clear water.

  Like a blessing from Sa, there was suddenly open ocean before them. Paragon poured himself into it. The wind sped them as they fled after Vivacia. On the deck, Kyle Haven’s blood pooled in standing puddles.

  Liveship Traders 3 - Ship of Destiny

  CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX - Secrets

  THEIR ESCAPE HAD FORCED THEM NORTH, THE WRONG DIRECTION FOR FLEEING to Divvytown.

  The day was fading as Paragon caught up with the others. Vivacia moved swiftly and surely to the fore of their little group of vessels. Wintrow had clearly taken over command of the small pirate force. Althea was proud of him. It was a shame his father had never seen his son as Kennit had, she thought.

  No one who had ever loved Kyle Haven would have to look at what had been done to him. Amber had silently helped her slide his body into the sea. Althea herself had wiped from Paragon’s deck the blood his wizardwood refused to absorb. She still did not know what she would tell Malta or Keffria. She knew what she would not tell them. She felt sick and bloated with ugly secrets.

  Althea lifted her eyes and studied the ships critically. Vivacia led the way, sailing as only a liveship could. The Marietta, Sorcor’s trim little vessel, strove to keep pace with her. The battered Motley trailed them substantially. Last came Paragon. Althea could feel that he still mourned the serpent. Kennit was part of the ship now, and yet she could not deny her bond with him. A shiver, half shudder, ran up her.

  Althea made her way aft to the wheel looking for Brashen. She was not ready to be near the figurehead yet. She excused herself that Etta stood on the foredeck, and undoubtedly wished to be alone. As she walked the deck, Amber emerged from the hatch, carrying a pannikin of stew. The smell of it sickened Althea. She could not recall when she had last eaten.

  Semoy was on the wheel. He greeted her with a grin and a wink. “Knew we’d get you back,” he claimed. She clapped him on the shoulder in passing, surprised that his welcome should move her so. Wordlessly, Amber handed him the food. He gave the wheel to her and came to stand beside Althea. Between shoveled mouthfuls, he nodded aft. “They still aren’t giving up, are they?”

  Behind them the Jamaillian ships had sorted themselves out from Paragon’s rampage. Some were giving chase. “I don’t think they dare,” Althea replied. “As long as we have the Satrap and he’s alive, they can’t give up. If he isn’t dead, all the rest of their plan falls to pieces. They lose everything. ” She watched the enemy ships critically. “We’re right to flee. Some of those ships won’t last the night. I’ve seen the effects of serpent-spittle. What looks like sound canvas will soon split and shred. If we run, we can leave at least some of them behind. Then, when we must fight, we’ll face a smaller force. ”

  “An even better hope is that we may lose them in the night. ” Brashen spoke behind them. “Even if we don’t, Wintrow has hostages now. ” A shadow came over his face. “I don’t think he’ll hesitate to use them. ”

  “Hostages?” Althea asked as Brashen came to join them at the aft railing. His face was gray; he looked as if he had aged a year in a day. Still, he put his arm around Althea and pulled her close. She hooked an arm around his waist.

  From his tone, she could not tell if Brashen approved or was horrified. “At the last possible moment, Wintrow pulled a dozen or so men off the Jamaillian ship. Nobles, by their clothing. They should be worth something as hostages. But we’re right to flee until we’re in a position to bargain. There are many places to hide in the Isles, and we follow three ships that know these waters well. We may escape death today. ”

  Semoy had finished hi
s food. He thanked Amber and traded her the dish for the wheel. It seemed strange that such an ordinary exchange could occur on such a day. Peace seemed foreign to Althea now.

  Brashen spoke suddenly, addressing Amber. “Ornamental?” he asked accusingly.

  She shrugged, and there was wonder in her strange eyes. “I pegged the axe in place. I never dreamed he’d be able to take it out and use it. ” She shook her head. “The more I know of it, the stranger stuff is wizardwood. ”

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  “Lucky for us he could,” Semoy observed approvingly. “Didn’t the splinters fly?”

  No one seemed ready to reply to that observation.

  Althea leaned against Brashen and watched the distance widen between them and their pursuers. There was so much to tell him, and absolutely nothing to say that was not said better with this simple touch. Clef appeared suddenly. He stood before Althea and Brashen, and shook his head reprovingly. “In fronter the crew an’ all,” he disparaged them with a disrespectful grin. Althea assayed a playful swipe at him. To her surprise, Clef caught her flying hand and held it firmly to his cheek. “Good yer back,” he blurted. “So good yer ent dead. ” As swiftly as he had seized her hand, he released it. “How come yer heven’t said nought to Paragon yet? He’s got a new face, y’know. An’ an axe. An’ blue eyes like me. ”

  “Blue eyes?” Amber exploded incredulously. “They’re supposed to be dark brown, nearly black. ” She suddenly spun about and hastened forward.

  “Wizardwood is strange stuff,” Brashen reminded her smugly.

  “Bit late to change ‘em,” Clef observed cheerily. ” ’sides, I like ‘em. They’re kind. Like Mother’s. ” He hastened after her.

  They were nearly alone now, if one did not consider Semoy. The old sailor considerately kept his eyes forward as Brashen kissed her. Only for an instant did her memory of Kennit’s assault intrude. Then she seized him and kissed him firmly in defiance, refusing any comparison between this and the pirate’s attack on her. She would not let that stand between them.

 
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