Ship of destiny, p.82
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       Ship of Destiny, p.82

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  Yet, when she released him, there was a shadow in Brashen’s eyes. He was too perceptive. He looked into her face questioningly. She gave a tiny shrug. Now was not the time to tell him. She wondered if it would ever be the time to tell him all of it.

  He probably thought he was changing the subject. “So, why don’t we go forward and assure Paragon you’re aboard and well?”

  “He knows that I am. But for him, I wouldn’t be,” she replied. The shock of seeing his eyes as he caught her had still not left her. Kennit’s eyes. She had nearly shamed herself by screaming as the ship’s big hands had closed on her. She knew Paragon had sensed it. He had not paused, but had set her swiftly into Brashen’s reach. To Brashen’s puzzled silence now, she replied, “I will see him and speak with him in a quiet moment, Brashen. Not just yet. ” She made the beginning of an attempt. “Kennit is part of him now. Isn’t he?”

  He tried to explain it to her. “Kennit was a Ludluck. Had you worked that out?”

  “No,” she said slowly. Kennit was Bingtown Trader stock? It appalled her. Brashen gave her a few moments to absorb that before he added, “We suspected since Divvytown that Paragon was Igrot’s fabled ship. Bingtown always denied the pirate might have had a liveship. But he did: Paragon. And in Kennit he had a hostage, to keep the ship subservient to him. ”

  “Sa’s breath. ” The pieces were all fitting now. Her mind struggled to encompass it all. “So Kennit came home to die on his deck. To be one with his ship. ” A little chill of horror ran up her spine.

  Brashen nodded, watching her face. “He always has been, Althea. I don’t think his death on the ship has changed Paragon, save to put him at peace. He is finally one, a complete self. The dragons, the Ludlucks, men and boy, and Kennit are all merged into one. ” She turned aside at that but he put two fingers under her chin and turned her face up to his. “And us,” he said almost fiercely. “You and I. Amber and Jek. Clef. All we have put into him became a part of him, too. Don’t turn away from him now. Please. Don’t stop loving him. ”

  She could scarcely concentrate on his words. She had dreaded telling Brashen about the rape, but had resolved she must. Yet, how could she tell him, without compromising his feelings for his ship? The convolutions of her thoughts dizzied her.

  “Althea?” Brashen asked her anxiously.

  “I’ll try,” she said faintly. She suddenly didn’t care who was watching. She tugged his arms around her and stepped into his embrace. “Hold me,” she told him fiercely. “Hold me very, very close. ”

  SHE HAD SAID SHE WOULD TRY. WITH DIFFICULTY, BRASHEN DID NOT PRESS HER for more than that. Something had happened on board Vivacia, something that kept her apart from him now. He set his chin upon her dark head and wrapped her in his arms. He thought he knew what.

  Althea seemed to sense his thoughts, for she changed the subject. “The chop’s getting worse. ” She shifted slightly in his arms. He pretended not to see that she wiped tears on his shirtfront.

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  “That it is. I suspect we’ve got a bit of a squall coming up. But we’ve been through storms before. Paragon’s a good ship for stormy weather. ”

  “All the better for us to hide in. ”

  “I think we’re gaining distance from the Jamaillians. ”

  “They’ve doused their lights. They’re hoping to creep up on us in the dark. ”

  “They’ll have to find us first. ”

  “It will be harder for the Marietta and the Motley to keep pace with the liveships in the dark. ”

  “They’re running dark, too. ”

  “Vivacia won’t leave them behind. She’ll protect them no matter the risk to herself. ”

  An ordinary conversation, discussing the obvious. It spoke too plainly to Brashen. She had been back on the Vivacia, and found her heart once more. He could not blame her. Vivacia was Althea’s family ship. With Kennit dead, she had a much better chance of reclaiming her. And unlike Paragon, Vivacia had not embraced the anma of a murdering pirate who had done vast damage to Althea’s family. When she had come back from Vivacia, he had deceived himself that she come back to him. Instead, she had come to share battle plans. Watching the distracted frown on her face, he knew where her thoughts were.

  She loved him, in her way. She gave him as much as she could, without forsaking her ship and her family. He had no right to ask more than that. If he’d still had a family to claim him, perhaps he would have been just as torn. For a fleeting instant, he considered leaving Paragon to follow her. But he couldn’t. No one else knew this ship as he did. No one else had endured alongside him. He could not make Paragon vulnerable to a captain that might not tolerate his uneven moods. And what of Clef? Would he tear the boy from the ship that loved him? Or leave him on Paragon, to be trained by a master who might not have his best interests at heart? And Semoy would not be first mate under any other captain. He’d go back to being a washed-up drunk, and lose whatever years he had left to a bottle. No. As much as he loved Althea, he had responsibilities here. She would not respect a man who abandoned his ship to follow her. Brashen Trell was finished with walking away from his duties. Here he must remain, and if need be, love Althea from afar and when they could.

  In that acknowledgment, he suddenly knew that he did have a family again.

  ETTA LEANED ON THE RAILING, STARING FORWARD INTO THE DARK. PARAGON could feel her there, though her presence was limited to the warm press of her forearms against his wizardwood railing. With no bond with her, he could not sense her emotions at all.

  She broke the silence suddenly. “I know a little bit of liveships. From Vivacia. ”

  He had nothing to say to that. He waited.

  “Somehow, I don’t understand how, Kennit was your family. When he died, he went into you?” Her voice tightened on the awkward words. He felt her trembling.

  “In a manner of speaking. ” His words sounded too cold; he sought to add something gentler. “He was always a part of me and I of him. For many reasons, we were bound more tightly than is usual. It was very important, to both of us, that he come back at the moment of his death. I knew that. I don’t think Kennit realized it until it happened. ”

  She took a breath. In a strangled voice she asked, “So you are Kennit now?”

  “No. I’m sorry. Kennit is a part of me. He completes me. But I am, irrevocably, Paragon. ” It felt good to make that declaration. He suspected that it might be painful for her to hear. To his surprise, he felt genuine sorrow that he had to hurt her. He tried to remember the last time he had had such a feeling, and could not. Was this yet another aspect of being whole: the ability to feel sympathy? It would take time to adjust to feeling such things.

  “Then he is gone,” Etta said heavily. He heard her take a struggling breath. “But why couldn’t you heal him as Vivacia healed Wintrow?”

  He thought silently for a time. “You say she healed him? I know nothing of that. I can only guess at what she did. It is what dragons can do, if they must. They burn the resources of their bodies to speed a healing. If Vivacia did that to Wintrow, he was lucky to survive it. Few humans have such reserves. Kennit certainly did not. ”

  Her silence lasted long. The night deepened around them. Even darkness was a pleasure to his newly restored vision. Night was not truly dark. He turned his eyes to the skies above, to clouds obscuring and then revealing the moon and stars. Phosphorescence outlined the waves. His keen vision, part of his dragon heritage, picked out the outlines of the ships he followed.

  “Would you know something about him-Kennit? If I asked you something, could you tell me true?”

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  “Perhaps,” Paragon hedged. He glanced back at her. She had lifted her hands from the railing and was turning her bracelet restlessly.

  “Did he love me?” The question burst from her, painful in its intensity. “Did he truly love me? I need to know. ”

; “Kennit is part of me. But I am not Kennit. ” Paragon debated furiously with himself. She carried a child, the child promised him so long ago. Paragon Ludluck. A child needed to be loved, loved without reservations.

  “If you have his memories, you know the truth,” Etta insisted. “Did he love me?”

  “Yes. He loved you. ” He gave her what she needed to hear, without compunction. I have Kennit’s memories, but I am not Kennit. Still, I can lie as well as he did. And for better cause. “He loved you as fully as his heart could love. ” That was true, at least.

  Thank you. As clear and brief as a drop of falling rain, the thought reached him. He groped for the source, but found nothing. The feel of the voice was oddly familiar, almost as if it came from Kennit, yet it was outside himself.

  “Thank you,” Etta unconsciously echoed the sentiment. “Thank you more than you can know. From both of us. ” She walked swiftly away from the foredeck, leaving him with a mystery to ponder.

  Ahead of him, on the Motley’s deck, a lantern flashed suddenly. It was held aloft thrice and swung once, then masked again. It was still almost a surprise to have access to Kennit’s memories. The old pirate signals were his to decipher. Brashen was summoned to the Vivacia.

  “THIS HAD BETTER BE IMPORTANT,” BRASHEN GRUMBLED TO ALTHEA AS THEY bent to the oars. Etta and Amber manned a second pair. The gusting wind blew Amber’s ragged hair past her mottled face. Etta stared straight ahead.

  “I’m sure it is,” Althea muttered. They worked heavily, struggling against wind, water and the darkness to catch up with the lead ship. The four ships had closed up the gap between them, but they had not stopped, even for this meeting. Vivacia led them as they picked their way through a maze of small islands. Some loomed steep and rocky, while others showed only as waves breaking and running on a jagged surface. The ships threaded a meandering path through them. Brashen guessed that at a lower tide this route would be impassible. He prayed that both Wintrow and Vivacia knew this route as well as they seemed to.

  Brashen approved the choice to put as much distance between them and the Jamaillian fleet as possible, but he still had reservations about leaving his ship to go to Vivacia. Althea had assured him that Wintrow could be trusted, but he reminded himself that they knew little of the crew on the Vivacia, or the captains and crews of the other two ships. They had been thrown into an unlikely alliance with the pirates. Memories of being under the hatch in a sinking ship were still fresh in his mind.

  Vivacia took them up just as a drenching rain began to fall. By the light of a dimmed lantern, they were hauled aboard. She already trailed boats from the Marietta and the Motley. They were last to arrive. Brashen’s wariness rose another notch. Etta climbed up first. Althea began to follow, but he stopped her with a touch. “I’m going next,” he growled low. “At any sign of treachery, go back to Paragon. ”

  “I don’t think you need fear,” Althea began but he shook his head.

  “I lost you once. I won’t gamble you again,” he told her.

  “Wise man,” Amber observed quietly as he seized the wet ladder and began to climb. As he set his hands to the Vivacia’s railing, incredible emotions raced through him. For an instant, he was unmanned. Tears stung his eyes. Warmth and welcome flowed through him. Joy at his safety. He set foot on the deck he had not trod since the day of the ship’s awakening.

  “Brashen Trell!” the ship called back to him in a low contralto. “Paragon has done you good. You are more sensitive to us than ever you were when you worked my decks. For the first time in my waking life, I bid you welcome aboard. ”

  “Thank you,” he managed. Etta was nowhere in sight. Wintrow stood on the deck in the pouring rain, offering him a hand to shake. The self-effacing lad he had met at Ephron’s funeral now stood straight and met his eyes. Heavy grief had aged his face. He would never be a large man, but man he definitely was. “You remember the way to the chart room, I’m sure,” he said and Brashen found himself answering a familiar smile with one of his own. Wintrow’s resemblance to Althea was truly uncanny.

  He watched Althea’s face as she came aboard the ship. When she set hands to the rail, he saw how she suddenly glowed. Malta came to meet her and they immediately fell into conversation as they hurried inside. Amber seemed less affected by her first contact with the liveship. It was when she set eyes on Wintrow that her face went slack with shock. “The nine-fingered slave boy,” she blurted out.

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  Wintrow lifted a hand swiftly to his cheek, then dropped it self-consciously. He gave Brashen an uneasy glance as Amber stared at him. It was only broken when Jek burst from the shadows to seize Amber in a fierce hug. “Aow, you look worse than I do!” she greeted her as Wintrow hastily turned away. Brashen felt mixed emotions as he trod the once-familiar deck. Kennit, he observed, had run a tight ship. The man had been a good captain. Then he shook his head, incredulous that such a thought could even come to him.

  The chart room was crowded. Etta was there, as was Malta’s Rain Wilder. Reyn seemed to be determined to be unaware of the attention he attracted. The Satrap was dramatically aware of his own importance. Two men, one broad and stocky, the other flamboyantly clad, would be the other pirate captains. The stocky man’s eyes were reddened with weeping. His red-headed comrade wore a grave demeanor. They knew of Kennit’s death, then.

  The captured Jamaillian nobles lined the walls, a bedraggled and weary group. Several looked on the verge of collapse. Wintrow shut the door behind him and gave them a moment to discard wet cloaks. He gestured to seats around the crowded table, while he remained standing. The heavyset pirate captain was pouring brandy for all of them. Brashen was glad of the warming stuff. He recognized the snifter. Ephron Vestrit had reserved it for special occasions. Althea hastened to a seat beside him. She leaned close to him and whispered hurriedly, “The best of news! When Reyn and the dragon left Bingtown, my mother and Keffria and Selden were all there and in good health. ” She took a breath. “I fear that is the only good news, however. My family is beggared, my home a vandalized shell, our holdings sacked. Now more than ever, a liveship would… I’ll tell you later,” she amended hastily as she realized all other conversation at the table had ceased. All turned to Wintrow at the head of the table.

  Wintrow drew a breath and spoke decisively. “I know none of you are easy at being called away from your ships. It was necessary. Kennit’s death has forced a number of decisions on us. I’m going to tell you what I’ve decided, and let each of you plot your course accordingly. ”

  There it was, Brashen thought: the assumption of command and authority was in his voice. He half expected someone to challenge it, but all were silent. The other pirate captains had already deferred to him. Everyone waited respectfully. Only the Satrap’s satisfied smile let everyone know he already knew what was to come.

  Wintrow took a breath. “The treaty, so painstakingly hammered out by King Kennit of the Pirate Isles and the Lord High Magnadon Satrap Cosgo of Jamaillia has been acknowledged and approved by these nobles. ”

  A shocked silence followed these words. Then both Captain Red and Sorcor leapt to their feet with cries of triumph. Etta lifted her eyes to Wintrow’s face. “You’ve done it?” she asked in wonder. “You’ve finished what he promised us?”

  “I’ve made a start on it,” Wintrow replied grimly. “My sister Malta has been instrumental in persuading them to this wise action. But there remains much to do. ”

  At a look from him, his two captains resumed their seats. Sorcor’s deep voice broke the silence. There was fierce satisfaction in his voice. “When you told me Kennit was dead, I thought our dreams had died with him. I should have had more faith, Wintrow. Kennit chose well in you. ”

  Wintrow’s voice was grave, but the hint of a smile played on his face as he spoke on. “We know these waters well. We’ve left the Jamaillian fleet behind us in the dark. I recommend that as soon as Sorcor and Red r
eturn to their vessels, they separate and loop back through the islands and return to Divvytown. Send birds to command a massing of the pirate fleet. Then lie quiet there for a time until the other ships arrive. ”

  “And you, sir?” Sorcor asked.

  “I’ll be going with you, Sorcor, on the Marietta. Also Etta and the Lord High Magnadon Satrap Cosgo. As well as our captives… noble guests,” he amended smoothly. He raised his voice to forestall questions. “The Satrap requires our protection and support. We will mass our fleet at Divvytown. Then we will undertake to return him to Jamaillia City, where he can present to the rest of his nobles the endorsed treaty that allies him with the Kingdom of the Pirate Isles. Our guests shall remain well cared for in Divvytown until our claims are recognized. Now, Etta-” He paused, then plunged on, “Queen Etta, chosen by Kennit to sail beside him, and the mother of his unborn son, will go with us to see that the claims of the Pirate Isles are recognized. She will reign for her child until he comes of age. ”

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  “A child? You carry his child?” Sorcor jumped to his feet, then lunged to engulf Etta in a hug. Tears ran unabashedly down his face. “No more sword-play until after the baby’s born, now,” he cautioned her, holding her at arm’s length, then looked offended when Red laughed aloud. Etta looked shaken, and then amazed. Even when Sorcor resumed a seat, he kept his big hand upon Etta’s wrist as if to keep her close and safe.

  “Kennit left us a son,” Wintrow confirmed when the hubbub had died down. His eyes met Etta’s as he spoke. “An heir to reign after him, when he has come of age. But until then, it is up to us to carry out Kennit’s ideas and keep his word. ”

  Brashen felt Althea’s muscles tighten every time the pirate’s name was spoken. Her eyes were black as she stared at her nephew. Under the table, Brashen’s hand sought hers. She gripped it hard.

  The Satrap suddenly surged to his feet. “I will keep my word,” he announced as if it were a surprising gift to them. “These last few days, I have seen for myself why the Pirate Isles has the right to rule its own. I must count on your support to regain my own throne, but once I am returned to Jamaillia City-“

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