Ship of destiny, p.84
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       Ship of Destiny, p.84

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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  Reyn spoke to Malta, but all overheard. “Would you rather go straight home to Bingtown rather than to Jamaillia?”

  Her glance flickered over her brother and her aunt. She didn’t lower her voice as her eyes met his unequivocally. “I’ll go where you go. ”

  A small silence followed her words. She boldly disarmed it by turning to Lord Criath. “Now. As you have heard, the dragon desires us to negotiate for foodstuffs to be shipped to the Rain Wilds. It remains to be seen which of the Satrap’s loyal nobles will win the privilege of supplying us. ”

  Criath knit his brows in puzzlement. Malta continued to meet his eyes levelly, waiting for him to realize what she offered. Then Lord Criath cleared his throat. He nodded around to his fellows, seeking support, as he spoke. “Magnadon Satrap Cosgo. I think I am not alone in now accepting the wisdom of your alliance. In fact,” he smiled at Malta, “I would like to offer my assistance to the dragon’s representatives. My holdings in Jamaillia include grain fields, and pastured cattle. Mutually beneficial trade with the Rain Wild folk could go far to make up the losses I must reconcile from my renunciation of my Bingtown land grants. ”

  The deepest part of night passed as they haggled. Althea kept silent, stunned by the realization that she witnessed the reordering of her world. Tintaglia was wise to send “her Elderlings” to Jamaillia to speak for her. They would not only open trade avenues between Jamaillia and the Rain Wilds. In Reyn’s scaled visage, the Jamaillians would confront the copper-eyed future of the world. She felt she floated on her exhaustion, disconnected from the scene around her. In a shifting of perception, she perceived a vast juncture left behind, and a swift current ahead. This new world of men and dragons would be ordered by negotiation rather than wars. Here, in this room, they set that precedent. Suddenly, she understood, and she tried to catch Amber’s eyes to acknowledge that, but the carpenter contemplated Wintrow ruefully.

  The Jamaillian nobles scented only profit and power. They were soon fiercely competing among themselves to set grain prices, and trying yet again to assert some rights to Bingtown. Both Reyn and Malta drew the line firmly. Althea was relieved that they still negotiated for their own kind as shrewdly as they did for the dragon. As the night wore on, most of the negotiating was between nobles arranging subagreements with other nobles, the Satrap setting the percentage of their profits that would go to the treasury, the captains backing Wintrow and Etta as they reminded the others that there would be a tariff for goods passing through the Pirate Isles….

  Althea jerked awake as Brashen elbowed her. “They’re finished,” he whispered. Around the table, men were signing papers, while Wintrow offered Etta his arm. She ignored it, standing on her own and rolling her shoulders.

  Althea tried to stretch unobtrusively. How long had her eyes been closed? “Did any of it have anything to do with us?” she asked quietly.

  “Never fear. Both Reyn and Malta stood up well for Bingtown, and when it came to the cutting edge, Bingtown and the Pirate Isles stood together. ” He gave a short laugh. “Wonder what your father would have thought of that? He’d have been damn proud of Malta, that I know. That woman’s as sharp a Trader as I’ve ever seen. ”

  Althea felt a tickle of jealousy at his admiration for her niece.

  “And now?” she asked him quietly. Everyone was standing. A sleepy ship’s boy was gathering coffee mugs onto a silver tray.

  “And now, we can have a few hours’ sleep before we get up, bid our farewells and set our sails again. ” He didn’t look at her as he spoke. She followed him out onto the deck. The chill night air was welcome after the stuffy chart room. The rain had paused.

  “Think the dragon will accept our terms?”

  Brashen rubbed his eyes wearily. “We’re only asking her help in what she already said we must do. Put an end to the territorial fighting on the Inside Passage. Best way to do that is to chase the Chalcedeans out of here. After what they did to ‘her’ serpents yesterday, I think she’ll be happy to help us do that. All the rest of it was wrangling between the other parties. ” He shook his head. “I think it’s all over save for her telling us what she wants us to do. ”

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  “That worries me, too,” Althea agreed. “We have struggled so hard and come so far, all in uncertainty, only to have a dragon suddenly decree, This is how your life will go. ’ I don’t like her directing our actions, saying who will go where. And yet,” she shrugged and almost laughed, “in an odd way it would almost be a relief to have those decisions snatched away. A lifting of a burden. ”

  “Some might see it that way,” Brashen replied sourly.

  “Hey, Bingtown!” A hail from Sorcor distracted her. “Watch the current,” the pirate captain warned them as he descended to his boat. “It runs tricky here when the tide is changing. Better check your anchors, and leave a good man on watch. ”

  “Thank you,” Althea answered for them. From what she had seen of the burly old pirate, she liked him. She watched him now as he annoyed Etta by watching her get safely into Vivacia’s boat. Malta leaned on Reyn’s shoulder as they waited for Wintrow. Althea frowned at that, but something stranger claimed her attention. To Althea’s surprise, Amber was also in Vivacia’s boat.

  “I overheard her tell Wintrow that she had something important to discuss with him. He was reluctant, but she was insistent. You know how unnerving she can be when she gets that look on her face. ” These tidings were from Jek, who had appeared at Althea’s shoulder.

  “Then it’s only we three returning to Paragon for the night?”

  “Two,” Jek corrected her with a grin. “I’ve been invited to stay aboard the Motley. ”

  Althea looked about and saw a handsome pirate leaning against a mast. Waiting.

  “Two,” she agreed, and turned to exchange a glance with Brashen. He was gone. She looked over the side to see him fitting the oars into the oarlocks of Paragon’s boat. “Hey!” she cried in annoyance. She more slid than climbed down the ladder, and deliberately rocked the small boat as she dropped into it. “You might have said you were ready to leave,” she informed him snippily.

  He stared at her. Then he looked over at the Vivacia’s boat. “When Amber climbed down, I assumed you were both going. ”

  She looked after the boat, and then to where she knew Vivacia rocked at anchor. It was too dark even to see her profile. A last night aboard her ship before she bid her farewell? Perhaps she should have. She suddenly had a strange echo of memory as if she had made this decision before. The day Vivacia had first awakened, she had quarreled with Kyle and stormed off the ship, to spend the evening getting drunk with Brashen. She had had no last words with her ship then. She had regretted it ever since. If she had spent that first night with her, would all that followed have turned out differently? She looked back at Brashen, sitting with the oars suspended above the water. Would she go back and change that, if it meant she would not end up here with him?

  That was the past, however. Vivacia was not her ship anymore. They had both recognized that. What was left to tell her, save goodbye?

  She cast off from the Motley, then clambered through the boat to sit down beside Brashen. “Give me an oar. ”

  He silently surrendered one to her, and together they pulled for the Paragon. Sorcor had been right to warn them. The current was tricky, and it took every bit of Althea’s remaining energy to keep the small boat on course. Brashen evidently felt similarly taxed for he did not speak a single word all the way back. A sleepy Clef caught their line, and Semoy welcomed them gruffly aboard. Brashen passed on Sorcor’s warning about the current at tide change and told him to put two men on anchor watch and get some sleep.

  “We’re going north,” Paragon asserted immediately.

  “Most likely,” Brashen agreed wearily. “Escorting sea serpents. The last thing I ever expected to be doing. But then, little of late has turned out as I expected it to. ”

&n
bsp; Paragon burst out, “Are you going to say nothing of the dragon? Your first close look at a dragon and you say nothing of her?”

  A slow smile spread on Brashen’s face. As he often did, Althea realized, he gripped the railing when he spoke to the ship. He spoke fervently. “Ship, she is beyond words. As a liveship is beyond words, and for much the same reason. ”

  Pride swelled Althea’s heart. Tired as Brashen was, he had the wisdom to acknowledge the link between the dragon and the liveship, but carefully said nothing that would make Paragon feel more sharply the loss of his true form.

  “And you, Althea?”

  Not Kennit. Not Kennit. Paragon. Paragon who she had played upon as a child, Paragon who had brought her so far and endured so much for the sake of her mad quest. She found words for that Paragon. “She is incredibly beautiful-her scales are like rippling jewels, her eyes like the full moon reflected in the sea. Yet, in all honesty, her arrogance was intolerable. Her calm assumption that our lives are hers to order is hard to take. ”

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  Paragon laughed. “You are wise to school your tongue to flattery, for queens such as Tintaglia feed upon praise more than they do meat. As for her arrogance, it is time humans recalled what it is like to receive such commands as well as give them. ”

  Brashen almost laughed. “That’s fair, ship. That’s fair. Keep an eye to your anchor tonight, will you?”

  “Of course. Sleep well. ”

  Was there a touch of irony to that wish? Althea glanced back at him. He watched her with his pale blue eyes. He tipped her a wink. It was like Paragon to do and say such a thing, she told herself. He was not Kennit. She raised her eyebrows at finding all her gear heaped in a corner in Brashen’s cabin. “I had to put Mother in yours,” he almost apologized. There was a moment of awkwardness. Then she saw the captain’s bed with its more generous mattress and thick covering of blankets and all she could think of was sleeping until someone forced her to wake up. With the arrival of the dragon, it seemed decisions were out of her hands. She might as well sleep until someone told her what would happen next.

  She sat down on the bunk with a sigh and pulled off her boots. Sweat had dried on her skin and the muck on the beach had penetrated her clothes. She felt sticky. She didn’t care. “I’m not washing,” she warned him. “I’m too tired. ”

  “That’s understandable. ” His voice had gone very deep. He sat next to her. With gentle hands, he took down the hair she had knotted out of her way. She sat still under his touch, until she realized she was clenching her teeth. She drew a breath. She could get past this. With time. She reached up to gently catch his hands.

  “I’m so tired. Can I just sleep beside you tonight?”

  For a moment, he looked stricken. Then he pulled his hands from hers. “If that’s what you want. ” He stood up suddenly. “Or if you prefer, you can have the bed to yourself. ”

  His abrupt withdrawal and brusque tone hurt her. “No,” she snapped. “That’s not what I prefer. That’s stupid. ” She heard herself and tried to mend things. “As stupid as starting a quarrel when we are both too tired to think. ” She moved over on the bed. “Brashen. Please. I’m so tired. ”

  For a moment, he just stared at her wordlessly. Then his shoulders sagged in defeat. He came back to the bed and sat on the edge of it. Outside, the rain returned in a sudden downpour. It rattled against the wall and came through the broken window. They’d need to fix that tomorrow. Maybe everything could be fixed tomorrow. Bury a pirate. Bid a liveship farewell. Leave it all behind.

  As Brashen kicked off his boots, he observed sullenly, “Maybe I’ve no pride left. If the most you’ll offer me this last night is to sleep beside me, I’ll take it. ” He began unbuttoning his shirt. He would not look at her.

  “You’re not making any sense,” she complained. He had to be at least as weary as she was. “Let’s just go to sleep. Too much has happened to us today for either of us to deal with it well. Tomorrow will be better, and tomorrow night better still. ” She hoped.

  He gave her a look that was completely wounded. His dark eyes had never looked so vulnerable. His hands had frozen on his shirt. “Brashen. Please. ” She nudged his hands aside and undid the last three buttons herself. Then she moved over on the bed, taking the side by the wall although she hated being confined. She tugged at his shoulder, pulling him back to lie beside her. He tried to turn away from her, but she pushed him onto his back and pillowed her head on his shoulder to hold him down. “Now go to sleep,” she growled at him.

  He was silent. She could feel him staring at the darkened ceiling. She closed her eyes. He smelled good. Suddenly everything was safe and familiar, and it was good to be there. His strong body rested between her and all the rest of the world. She could relax. She sighed deeply and rested a hand on his chest.

  Then he rolled toward her and put his arm around her. All her apprehensions stirred again. This was stupid. This was Brashen. She forced herself to kiss him, saying to herself, “This is mine, this is Brashen. ” He drew her closer and kissed her more deeply. But the weight of his arm upon her and the sound of his breathing was suddenly too much. He was bigger than she was, and stronger. If he wanted to, he could force her, he could hold her down. She’d be trapped again. She set her hand to his chest and pushed a little away from him.

  “I’m so tired, my love. ”

  He was very still. Then, “My love,” he said quietly. Slowly he turned onto his back. She moved a little apart from him. He was still, and she stared into the darkness. She closed her eyes, but sleep would not come. She could feel the damage her secret was doing. With every passing moment, the misunderstanding loomed larger. One night, she told herself. One night is all I need. Tomorrow will be better. I’ll watch Kennit slip over the side, and I’ll know he’s gone forever. One night, she excused it, was not too much to ask him.

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  It didn’t work. She could feel Brashen’s hurt radiating from him like warmth. With a sigh, she turned slightly away from him. Tomorrow, she would repair things between them. She could get past this, she knew she could.

  THE WOMAN WAS PECULIAR. SHE WAS NOT EVEN PRETTY, THOUGH ETTA WOULD admit she was fascinating in a mysterious way. Serpent scald had marred her face and left her hair hanging in uneven hanks. A faint sheen of fuzz on her skull foretold that eventually it would grow back, but for now, she was certainly no beauty. Yet Wintrow had given her sidelong looks all evening. In the midst of the most important decision of his life, she had still had the power to distract him. No one had said who she was, or why she was included in the talks.

  Etta had lain down on Kennit’s bed, pillowed her head on cushions that smelled of his lavender, burrowed into his blankets. She could not sleep. The more she immersed herself in his things, the more isolated she felt. It was almost a relief to ponder Amber. Not that it mattered to her, but yes, it did. How could Wintrow be giving his attention to a woman at a time like this? Did not he realize the gravity of the tasks Kennit had left him?

  Even more unsettling than the way Wintrow looked at Amber had been her wholehearted fascination with him. The woman had studied him with her peculiar eyes. It was not honest lust, such as the blond barbarian displayed all evening. Amber had observed Wintrow as a cat watches a bird. Or as a mother watches her child.

  She had not asked if she might go back to Vivacia with them. She had merely been waiting in the boat. “I must speak to Wintrow Vestrit. Privately. ” No apology, no explanation. And Wintrow, for all his obvious exhaustion, had curtly nodded to her request.

  So why did it bother her? With one man dead, did she so swiftly seek another? She had no claim upon Wintrow. She had no claim upon anyone. But, she uneasily realized, she had been counting on him. In her half-spun dreams for Kennit’s child, it had always been Wintrow who taught him to read and to write, Wintrow at his side to temper Kennit’s aloofness and her own uncertaintie
s. Wintrow had named her Queen tonight, and none had dared challenge him. But that did not mean he would remain at her side. Tonight, a woman had looked at him, and Etta knew that he might simply step aside from her to claim a life of his own.

  Etta drew a comb through her dark hair. She caught sight of herself in Kennit’s mirror, and suddenly wondered, Why? Why bother combing her hair, why bother sleeping, or breathing? Her head pounded with the pain of her thoughts. Why bother thinking? She bowed her head into her hands again. She had no tears left. Her eyes were full of sand, her throat rasped rough with her grieving, but it gave her no relief. Not tears nor screaming could ease this pain. Kennit was dead. The agony knifed through her again.

  But his child is not.

  As clearly as if Kennit himself had whispered the words, the thought reached her. She straightened herself and took a breath. She would walk a turn around the deck to calm herself. Then she would lie down and rest at least. She would need her wits about her tomorrow, to look out for the interests of the Pirate Isles. Kennit would have expected that of her.

  “I’M SORRY. YOU’LL HAVE TO SPEAK TO ME HERE. CURRENTLY, I DON’T HAVE A room to call my own. ”

  “It doesn’t matter where we speak, only that we do. ” Amber studied him as if he were a rare book. “And sometimes public is far more private than private can be. ”

  “I’m sorry?” The woman had an intricate and tricky way of speaking. Wintrow had the feeling he should be careful what he said to her, and even more careful of what she said to him. “I’m very tired,” he excused himself.

  “We all are. Far too much has happened in one day. Who would have believed so many threads could converge in one location? But so it happens, sometimes. And the end of the thread must pass through the tangle many times before all is unknotted. ” She smiled at him. They stood on the after-deck in the darkness. The only light came from the distant bonfires on the beach. He could not really see her features, only the shifting planes of her face. But he knew she smiled as she toyed with her gloves.

  “I’m sorry. You wanted to speak to me?” He hoped she would get to the point.

 

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