Ship of destiny, p.83
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       Ship of Destiny, p.83
 

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
“Hey. What about Vivacia. 7 Why is everyone coming on the Marietta?” Sorcor seemed unaware that he had interrupted the Lord High Magnadon Satrap of all Jamaillia. Wintrow took control back easily.

  “Vivacia goes to keep one of Kennit’s other promises. We all are indebted to the serpents. They have gone north, following the dragon. But Vivacia insists that they will need her help to make the journey. She feels she must follow them. Moreover, Kennit had promised this to her. ” He paused, and then spoke with obvious difficulty. “I cannot go with her. I long to, for I long to see my family again. But my duty is here, for a time longer. ” He fixed his eyes, finally, on Althea. “I ask Althea Vestrit to take Vivacia north. Jola has spoken for the crew. They’ll follow her, as that was Captain Kennit’s will. However, I caution you, Althea. Vivacia promised Kennit that when her service to the serpents was over, she would return. And that, too, is what the ship wishes to do. Guide the serpents home. Take news of us to Bingtown. But after that, you both must return to us. ”

  Wintrow held up a hand as Althea began to speak, and for a wonder she heeded it and kept silent. His gaze swung to meet Brashen’s. Brashen stared at him numbly. He’d suspected it was coming, but the reality still stunned him. Wintrow had just taken Althea away from him. Once more, duty to her family and her ship claimed her. She would have her dream: she would captain Vivacia, she would sail victorious into Bingtown. Afterward, she must return Vivacia to Divvytown. Would she then leave her ship to come back to him? He doubted it. He held her hand tightly, but knew she was already gone. It was hard for him to focus on Wintrow’s next words.

  “You and Paragon are free to do as you wish, Brashen Trell. But I ask that Paragon accompany Vivacia to the Rain Wild River with the serpents. Vivacia says that two liveships will guide and protect better than one. Malta and Reyn will undoubtedly wish to make that journey also. ”

  Reyn spoke, surprising them all. “We will need two ships against all the Chalcedeans headed this way. One to guard, one to fight. ”

  “We had heard rumors,” Wintrow acknowledged in dismay. “But only rumors. ”

  “Believe them,” Reyn said. He turned in his chair to address the Jamaillian nobles who lined the walls. His copper eyes walked over them. “As Tintaglia and I flew south, we saw Chalcedean ships accompanied by galleys.

  That, as you know, is their configuration for serious warfare. I suspect Jamaillia City is their target. I believe they have decided that the little plunder left in Bingtown is not worth fighting a dragon for. ”

  Malta’s words followed Reyn’s. “I see in your faces that you doubt us. But I saw their first attack on Bingtown. Reyn was present during their last one. Your Chalcedean conspirators saw no reason to wait for you. They expected to claim the cream of the plunder before you arrived. Nor do I think they ever intended to turn Bingtown over to your New Trader sons and brothers. Cheated of the easy prey you promised them in Bingtown, driven away by Tintaglia, they now come south. Those are the allies you chose. Your Satrap has been wiser. You have signed the treaty under duress. I can read your hearts. Given the chance, you will retract your agreement. That would be foolish. You should speed your Satrap’s alliance with the Pirate Isles, for when the Chalcedean ships and their raiding galleys arrive, you will need every friend you can call upon. ” Her eyes raked them. “Mark my words. They are without mercy. ”

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  A scant year ago, Malta had turned her wiles on Brashen. In her words, he heard her girlish cunning matured into genuine diplomacy. Some of the nobles exchanged looks, impressed with her words. Even the Satrap seemed pleased with her, nodding to her words as if she but spoke aloud his own thoughts.

  MALTA CLAPPED HER HANDS TO HER EARS BEFORE REYN HEARD THE SOUND. When it broke into his hearing range, he flinched with her. The others looked about wildly, while one Jamaillian lord wailed, “The serpents return!”

  “No. It’s Tintaglia,” Reyn replied. Anxiety clutched him. The dragon cried for help as she came. He moved toward the door, and everyone else at the table rose and followed him. Malta seized his hand as they emerged onto the deck. Together, they stared up into the downpour. Tintaglia swept over them, a pale gleaming of silver and blue against the overcast night sky. Her wings beat heavily. She swung in a wide circle, then gave cry again. To Reyn’s amazement, her call was answered. The ship’s deck hummed with the force of Vivacia’s reply. A deeper call from Paragon echoed hers.

  Malta was frozen, looking up in awe. An instant after the sound died, she met Reyn’s eyes with a question. “She asks for help?”

  Reyn snorted. “No. She demands our help. Tintaglia seldom ‘asks’ for anything. ” His heart sank despite his callous words. They had grown too close for her to conceal her fear from him. He felt both her weariness and the deep grief in her soul.

  “I did not understand all of it. ” Malta added, “I am shocked that I understood any of it. ”

  Reyn replied in a low voice, “The longer you are around her, the more clear it comes to your mind. I think our ears have little to do with it. ” The dragon’s vocalizations shook the skies again. All around them, sailors either craned to look at the beast or cowered under shelter. Reyn stared up, heedless of the rain that pelted his face. He spoke loud to be heard through the answering cries of the ships.

  “The dragon is exhausted. She flies too swiftly for the serpents to keep up with her. She has had to constantly circle to match her pace to theirs. She has not hunted or fed, for she has feared to leave her serpents. When they encountered a Chalcedean ship, it attacked her. She was not injured badly but the serpents rose against the ship. ” He took a breath. “They knew how to kill serpents. Archers killed six of the tangle before they sank the ship. ” The outrage and sorrow of the liveship rose through them. “The tangle rests for the night, but she has returned to ask our aid. ” He turned beseechingly to the captains. “Darkness caught her on the wing. She needs a sandy beach to land on-or any beach, with a fire to guide her in. ”

  Sorcor spoke suddenly. “Would muck do? It’s slippery, but softer than rock. ”

  “Stink Island,” Etta confirmed.

  “It’s not far,” Red added. “She probably flies over it each time she circles. Bad place for a ship, though. Shallow water. ”

  “But you can run a boat up on it. ” Etta dismissed this problem. “And there’s lots of driftwood there for a fire. ”

  “We need to get there. Now. ” Reyn glanced up anxiously at the sky. “If we do not hurry, the ocean will claim her. She is at the end of her strength. ”

  Liveship Traders 3 - Ship of Destiny

  CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN - A Dragon’s Will

  THE WET DRIFTWOOD WOULD NOT KINDLE. WHILE REYN STRUGGLED WITH tinder that the wind kept claiming, Malta took off her cloak and stuffed it into the tangle of wood. He looked up to the sudden crash as she smashed their lantern onto the pile. A moment later, flames licked up the edges of her cloak. He feared the fire would die there, but after a few moments, he heard the welcome crackling of wood igniting. By then, Malta had come to the shelter of his cloak. When her brother gave them an odd look, she lifted her chin and stared him down defiantly. She pressed her wet and shivering body firmly against Reyn’s. In the sheltering darkness, he held her, smelling the fragrance of her hair. Boldly he kissed the top of her head. The fine scaling of her crest rasped his cheek, and Malta gave an involuntary shiver. He felt her body flush suddenly with warmth. She looked up at him, surprise intensifying the pale gleam of her Rain Wild eyes.

  “Reyn,” she gasped, caught between delight and scandal. “You should not do that,” she chided primly.

  “Are you sure?” he asked by her ear.

  “Not when my brother is watching,” she amended breathlessly.

  The bonfire was burning well now. Reyn lifted anxious eyes to the sky. He had not heard Tintaglia pass overhead for some time, but her anxiety hung strong and infected him. She was still up there, somewhe
re. He glanced around at the people who had come to the beach with them. Stink Island lived up to its name. All were muck to the knee, and Red, much to his disgust, had fallen in the stuff and was probably regretting his desire to see a dragon up close.

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  A second bonfire was kindled from the first. Out on the water, the ships suddenly cried out and the dragon replied from a distance. Reyn sounded the warning: “Get out of her way!”

  Tintaglia came down in a heavy battering of wings, fighting both the rain and the gusting wind. Unencumbered by a human burden, she would land gracefully, Reyn expected. But as Sorcor had predicted, the muck was slippery. The dragon’s braced feet slid and mud flew up from her wildly lashing tail and flapping wings. She skittered to a halt nearly in the bonfire. Tintaglia’s eyes flashed angrily over her compromised dignity. She quivered her dripping wings, spattering more mud on the humans.

  “What idiot chose this beach?” she demanded furiously. In the next breath, she demanded, “Is there no food ready?”

  She complained her way through two hogsheads of salt pork. “Nasty, sticky stuff, too small to bite properly,” she proclaimed at the end of her meal, and stalked off to a nearby spring.

  “She’s immense,” Sorcor exclaimed in wonder.

  Reyn realized he had become accustomed to her magnificence. Malta had her memories from the dream-box, but this was the first opportunity for the others to see a dragon other than on the wing.

  “She is full of beauty, in form and movement,” Amber whispered. “I see now what Paragon meant. Only a trueborn dragon is a real dragon. All others are but clumsy imitations. ”

  Jek gave Amber a disdainful glance. “Six Duchies dragons suited me just fine. Would have been fine by you, too, if you’d lived with the fear of being Forged. But,” she admitted grudgingly, “she is astounding. ” Reyn turned aside from their incomprehensible conversation.

  “I wonder what Vivacia would have looked like,” Althea said quietly. Firelight danced in her eyes as she stared at the dragon’s shadowy shape.

  “Or Paragon’s dragons,” Brashen inserted loyally.

  Reyn felt a grating of guilt at their words. His family had transformed dragons to ships. Would there some day be an accounting for that? He pushed the thought away.

  When Tintaglia came stalking back from the spring, she had cleaned much of the muck from her wings and belly. She gave Reyn a baleful look from her spinning silver eyes. “I said, ’sand,’ ” she rebuked him. She swung her great head to regard the gathered humans. “Good,” she acknowledged them. Smoothly she shifted from complaining to demanding. “You will have to build another fire, farther from the waves, where the muck turns to rock. Stone does not make the best of beds, but it is preferable to mud, and I must rest tonight. ” Then she caught sight of Malta. Her eyes spun more swiftly, gleaming like full moons.

  “Step out into the light, little sister. Let me see you. ”

  Reyn feared Malta would offend the dragon by hesitating, but she came boldly to stand before her. Tintaglia’s eyes traveled over her from crest to feet. In a warm voice, she announced, “I see you have been well rewarded for your part in freeing me, young Queen. A scarlet crest. You will take much pleasure from that. ” At Malta’s puzzled blush, the dragon chuckled warmly. “What, not even discovered it yet? You will. And you will enjoy a long life in which to relish it. ”

  She swung her gaze to Reyn. “You chose well. She is fit to be an Elderling Queen, and a speaker for dragons. Selden will be delighted that she has changed as well. He has been a bit worried, you know, that she would disparage his changes. ”

  Reyn smiled awkwardly. He had not yet apprised the Vestrits of Selden’s changes. Tintaglia distracted them from their exchange of puzzled glances.

  “I will sleep the night, and require more food before I fly in the morning. The tangle rests well north of here. For the night, at least, they are safe. ” She blinked her great eyes and the silver whirled coldly. “I have done away with those who dared to threaten them. But my serpents are wearied. Serpents, even in prime condition, cannot keep pace with a dragon a-wing. In the days of old, there would have been several of us to shepherd them along, and several serpents with the memory to guide them. They have only me, and one serpent guide. ”

  She lifted her head. There was determination to the motion, but Reyn sensed desperation beneath her boldness. Despite her arrogance, his heart went out to her.

  “I have spoken to the liveships. Paragon will accompany my serpents north. That ship’s crew will aid me in protecting the serpents, and will anchor beside them each night when I must come ashore to feed and rest. ”

  Wintrow spoke up boldly. “Both liveships will go north. We have already made decisions-“

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  “That interests me not in the least!” the dragon cut in harshly. “Or do you think you still ‘own’ the liveships? Vivacia will go south, to your big city. My Elderlings will go with her, to speak for me, to arrange the shipments of grain and foodstuffs for the workers, to hire engineers as Reyn sees fit, to inform the people in that city of what dragons will henceforth require of it, to arrange-“

  “Require?” Wintrow cut in coldly. Outrage had stiffened him.

  The dragon rounded on Reyn in exasperation. “Have you told them nothing? You’ve had the whole day!”

  “Perhaps you don’t recall that you dropped me in the middle of a sea battle?” Reyn asked irritably. “We have spent most of our day trying to be alive at the end of it. ”

  “I recall well enough that my serpents had been endangered for purely human ends. Humans are always squabbling and killing one another. ” She glared at them all. “It will no longer be tolerated. You will put such things aside until my ends have been served, or risk my wrath. ” She threw her head high and half-lifted her wings. “That, too, my Elderlings will establish. No ship is allowed to interfere with a serpent! No petty warfare will be tolerated if it interferes with supplies to the Rain Wilds. You will not-“

  Wintrow was incensed. “What manner of creature are you, to seek to order our lives by force? Do our dreams, our plans, our ambitions count for nothing in your greater scheme of things?”

  The dragon paused and turned her head, as if considering his questions gravely. Then she leaned her great head close to him, so close that his clothing moved in the rush of her breath. “I am a dragon, human. In the greater scheme of things, your dreams, plans and ambitions count for next to nothing. You simply do not live long enough to matter. ” She paused. When she spoke again, Reyn could tell she was trying to make her voice kinder. “Save as you assist dragons, of course. When you have completed this task, my kind will remember your service for generations. Could humans hope for a higher honor?”

  “Perhaps we hope to live out our insignificant little lives as we see fit,” Wintrow retorted. He did not move back from the dragon he defied. Reyn recognized the set of his shoulders and the way he held his mouth. Her brother shared Malta’s stubborn streak. The dragon’s chest had started to swell.

  Malta hastened to stand between her brother and the dragon. She looked fearlessly from one to the other. “We are all weary, too weary to bargain well tonight. ”

  “Bargain!” the dragon snorted contemptuously. “Oh, not again! Humans and their bargaining. ”

  “Far simpler to kill anyone who disagrees with you?” Wintrow suggested tartly.

  Malta set a restraining hand to her brother’s arm. “All of us must sleep,” she suggested firmly. “Even you, Tintaglia, are in need of rest. By morning, we will be rested, and each can state what he needs. It is the only way this can be resolved. ”

  THE DRAGON, ALTHEA REFLECTED, WAS THE ONLY ONE TO GET ANY SLEEP. THE humans gathered once more, aboard the Motley this time, for Captain Red had bragged that he had coffee as well as a slightly larger chart room. She was beginning to have a grudging admiration for Malta’s ability to negotiate.
Her niece had inherited some of Ronica’s trading skills but much rested in Malta’s inherent charm. Her first achievement was in insisting that the Jamaillian nobles be seated at the table with them. Althea heard a few words of her whispered argument with the offended Satrap. “…bind them to your service with their own interests. If you break them too low, they will ever after be as a treacherous cur at your heels. This will assure that they will not later disclaim the treaty,” she had insisted heatedly.

  For a wonder, the Satrap acceded to her demands. Her second stroke of genius was in arranging food for all before they convened. When they finally gathered around Captain Red’s table, tempers were calmed. Malta and Reyn had privately conferred as well, for she rose and announced that they could not proceed until she had informed everyone more fully of events in Bingtown. Despite her own interest in Malta’s tale, Althea found herself watching the faces of the others. The Jamaillian nobles looked stricken as they finally recognized the fullness of the Chalcedean betrayal. Etta listened quietly but attentively. Amber stared obsessively at Wintrow, a look of near-tragic speculation on her face. Brashen beside her was unnaturally silent, but his hand under the table was warm in hers. The only time he spoke was when Reyn began to discuss the quake damage to Trehaug. Brashen leaned forward to claim attention with a light slap on the table. His words were only for Reyn as he asked, “Is Rain Wild Trader business so openly discussed before outsiders?”

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  Reyn did not take offense. He bowed his head gravely to Brashen’s concern and replied, “We have discovered that we must become a part of the greater world, or perish. I say nothing that has not already been openly spoken at a town meeting in Bingtown. The time has come to share our secrets or perish alongside them. ”

  “I see,” Brashen replied gravely, and leaned back in his chair.

  When Reyn had finished speaking, Wintrow claimed attention by standing. To Althea, he looked too weary to remain upright. The note of resigned amusement in his voice surprised her. “Considering what Reyn has told us and the nature of liveships, I believe we must follow Tintaglia’s wishes. ”

  “If the liveships agree with her, I don’t see where we have any choice,” Althea agreed.

 
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