Ship of destiny, p.85
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       Ship of Destiny, p.85
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         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  “I did. To say to you what you’ve said three times to me. I’m sorry. I apologize to you, Wintrow Vestrit. I don’t know how I missed you. For over two and a half years I searched for you. We must have walked the same streets in Bingtown. I could feel you, so close for a time, and then you were gone. I found your aunt instead. Later, I found your sister. But somehow, I missed you. And you were the one I was meant to find. As I stand near you now, I know that without any doubt. ” She suddenly sighed and all puzzles and levity were gone from her words as she shook her head and admitted, “I don’t know if I’ve done what I was meant to do. I don’t know if you have fulfilled your role, or only begun it. I’m so tired of not knowing, Wintrow Vestrit. So tired of guessing and hoping and doing my best. Just once, I’d like to know I did it right. ”

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  His body hummed with weariness. Her words almost made sense to him. But he had no thoughts to offer her, only courtesy. “I think you need sleep. I know I do. I don’t have a bed to offer you, but I can find you a clean blanket or two. ”

  He could not see her eyes, but still felt her looking into his. Almost desperately, she asked, “Is there nothing here for you? When you look at me, there is no spark? No sense of connection, no echo of opportunity missed? No wistfulness for a path untrod?”

  He almost laughed at her twisting words. What response did she hope to wring from him? “Just now, my only regret is for a bed unslept in,” he suggested wearily.

  Once, at the monastery, he had taken shelter in a wooden hut during a thunderstorm. As he watched the storm, gripping the wet door frame, lightning had struck a tree nearby. As the blast split the oak, a sensation of power had darted through him and left him sprawled on the earth in the falling rain. A similar feeling shocked him now. The woman twitched as if he had poked her. For an instant the distant flames of the bonfires leaped in her eyes.

  “A bed unslept in, and a woman unbedded. The bed is yours by right, but the woman, though she may come to you in time, never completely belongs to you. Yet the child is yours, for this child belongs not to he who makes him but to he who takes him. ”

  Meanings danced all around him, like the spattering rain that began to fall. Small hail was mixed with it, bouncing off the deck and Wintrow’s shoulders. “You speak of Etta’s child, don’t you?”

  “Do I?” She cocked her head. “You would know better than I. The words come to me, but the sense of them belongs to another. But mark how you call him. Etta’s child, when all others speak of him as Kennit’s. ”

  Her words nettled him. “Why should I not name him hers? It takes two to make a child. His value is not solely in that Kennit fathered him. When they name him so, they discount Etta. I tell you this, stranger. In many ways, she is more fit to be the mother of a king than Kennit was to father one. ”

  “You should remain near him, for you will be one of the few that know that. ”

  “Who are you? What are you?” he demanded.

  The drenching rain descended suddenly in a roar that drowned out speech, and the hailstones grew larger. “Inside!” Wintrow shouted, and led the way at a run. He held the door open and waited for her to follow him. But the cloaked figure who hastened in from the downpour was not Amber but Etta. He looked past her, but saw no one there.

  Etta pushed her hood back. Her dark hair was plastered to her skull and her eyes were huge. She caught her breath. Her voice came from the depths of her soul. “Wintrow. I have something to tell you. ” She drew another breath. Her face suddenly crumpled. Tears ran with the rain down her face. “I don’t want to raise this child alone. ”

  He did not take her in his arms. He knew better than that. But the words came easily. “I promise you, you won’t have to. ”

  HE ATTACKED HER IN THE DARKNESS, HIS WEIGHT PINNING HER DOWN. FEAR paralyzed her. Althea gasped for air, trying to find a scream. She could not even squeak. She thrashed, trying to escape him, but only hit her head on the wall. There was no air. She could not fight him. With a spectacular effort, she freed an arm and struck him.

  “Althea!”

  His outraged yell woke her. She jerked to consciousness. The gray of early dawn leaked in the broken window. Brashen sat up on the bed, holding his face. She managed to get a breath in, then panted another. She hugged herself tightly, trying to still her own trembling. “What? Why’d you wake me?” she demanded. She groped after her dream, but could find only the ragged edges of terror.

  “Why’d I wake you!” Brashen was incredulous. “You nearly broke my jaw!”

  She swallowed dryly. “I’m sorry. I think I had a nightmare. ”

  “I suppose so,” he agreed sarcastically. He looked at her, and she hated how his eyes softened with sympathy. She didn’t want his pity. “Are you all right now?” he asked gently. “Whatever it was, it must have been bad. ”

  “It was just a dream, Brashen. ” She pushed his concern aside.

  He looked away, cloaking his emotion. “Well. I suppose it’s morning, or nearly so. I may as well get dressed. ” His voice was flat.

  She forced a smile. “It’s another day. It has to be better than yesterday. ” She sat up, stretching. Every muscle ached, her head pounded, and she felt half-sick. “I’m still tired. But I’m looking forward to getting under way. ” That, at least, was true.

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  “GOOD FOR YOU,” BRASHEN GROWLED AT HER. HE TURNED HIS BACK ON HER. HE went to his clothing chest and began to rummage through it. She’d be getting her ship back today. No wonder she was alert with anticipation. He was glad for her. Truly, he was. He could remember what it was like to step up to command. He found a shirt and dragged it on. She’d do well. He was proud of her. She’d been happy for him when he took over Paragon. He was happy for her now. Honestly. He turned back to her. She crouched on the floor by her duffel bag surrounded by scattered garments. The look she gave him was one of misery. She looked so worn, Brashen felt a rush of remorse. “I’m sorry I’m so abrupt,” he said gruffly. “I’m just very tired. ”

  “We both are. No need to apologize. ” Then she smiled and offered him, “You could go back to bed. There’s no real reason we both have to be up this early. ”

  Was that supposed to make him feel better? That she was willing to just walk away, leave him sleeping in his bunk? This reminded him too much of the harsh way they’d parted in Candletown. Maybe this was just how Althea Vestrit said goodbye to her men. “You must have slept through that part last night. Wintrow warned us that we’d all have to be up early to catch this tide to get clear of here. Semoy’s a good hand, but I want to bring Paragon out of this maze myself. ”

  “I think I can steer a tricky passage as well as you can. ” She rocked slightly back on her heels to give him an offended look.

  “I know you can,” he barked back. “But it won’t do Paragon much good when you’re at Vivacia’s wheel,” he retorted.

  She looked at him blankly. Then her face changed. Understanding dawned. “Oh, Brashen. ” She came to her feet. “You thought I was going away today. On Vivacia. ”

  “Aren’t you?” He hated the slight hoarseness in his voice. He looked at her sullenly, refusing to hope.

  She shook her head slowly. He saw an echo of loss in her eyes. “There’s no place there for me, Brashen. I saw that yesterday. I will always love her. But she is Wintrow’s ship. To take her away from him would be… identical to what Kyle did to me. Wrong. ”

  He fitted the words together. “Then you’re staying on with Paragon?”

  “Yes. ”

  “And with me?”

  “So I assumed. ” She cocked her head at him. “I thought we both wanted this. To be together. ” She looked down. “I know it’s what I want. Even though I’m losing my liveship, I know I want to be with you. ”

  “Althea, I’m so sorry. ” He tried to get his face under control. “Really, I am. I know what the Vivacia meant
to you, what she still means to you. ”

  Both amusement and irritation glinted in her eyes. “You’d look more sincere, if you’d stop grinning. ”

  “I would if I could,” he assured her sincerely. She took three steps. Then she was in his arms. He held her. She was staying with him. She wanted to stay with him. It was going to be fine. For a time he just held her. A long moment later, he asked, “And you’re going to marry me? In Bingtown, at the Traders’ Concourse?”

  “That was the plan,” she agreed.

  “Oh. ”

  SHE LOOKED UP INTO HIS FACE. HIS EYES AND HIS HEART WERE SO OPEN TO HER now. She saw all the uncertainty and pain she’d caused him, without intention. She had never meant to do that. He smiled at her and she managed to smile back. His hold on her tightened and she resisted the urge to gently free herself. She had to get past this. This was Brashen. She loved him.

  She took a breath. She had never imagined that she’d have to force herself to endure his touch. But just this time, just this once, she would, for both of them. She could relax and tolerate it. He needed this reassurance of her love. And she needed to prove to herself that Kennit had not destroyed her. Just this once, she could pretend desire. For Brashen’s sake. She turned her mouth up to his and let him kiss her.

  SPRING

  Liveship Traders 3 - Ship of Destiny

  CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT - Jamaillia City

  HER CHAMBERS WERE BEYOND ANYTHING MALTA HAD IMAGINED. NO MATTER where she turned her eyes, she saw opulence. The frescoes of forests on the wall merged into a pale blue ceiling of birds and butterflies in flight. The deep carpets underfoot were green as moss, while the permanently flowing bath of steaming water bubbled through an immense tub framed by marble water-birds and screened by a wall of potted reeds and cattails. And this was merely her dressing chamber.

  The mirror beside her dressing table was larger than she was. She had no idea what half the little pots of cosmetics and unguents held. She did not need to. That was the business of the three maids who applied them artfully to her skin.

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  “If it pleases my lady, would she lift her brows, that I may outline her eyes more fully?” one of them requested gently.

  Malta lifted a hand. “They are fine as they are, Elise. All three of you have done wonderfully by me. ” She had never thought she would get tired of being fussed over, but she was ready for some time alone. She smiled in the mirror at the women around her. Elise had shaved a part in her own dark hair. A comb, decorated with red glass, rested there in artful imitation of Malta’s crest. The other two young women had plucked their eyebrows and replaced them with a glistening cosmetic made from flaked mother-of-pearl and coloring. One had chosen red in Malta’s honor. The other’s shimmering brows were blue. Malta wondered if this were an effort to flatter Reyn.

  Another glance in the mirror assured her that no cosmetic efforts could make them look as exotic as she. Malta smiled at herself, enjoying how light moved on her scaling. She turned her head slowly from side to side. “Wonderfully,” she repeated. “You may all go. ”

  “But, lady, your stockings and slippers…”

  “I shall put them on myself. Go on, now. Or would you have me believe there are no young men anxiously hoping you may be released a few moments early tonight?”

  The smiles that met hers in the mirror told her that she had guessed true.

  A great ball such as this created excitement through all the levels of the Satrap’s palace. There would be dancing in no less than four separate ballrooms, for every level of aristocracy, and Malta knew that the excitement and glitter would extend to celebration in the servants’ hall as well. That it was the third such gala in less than a month did not seem to dim anyone’s enthusiasm. No one wished to miss the chance to once more glimpse the grave and slender beauty that was the Queen of the Pirate Isles, let alone bypass an opportunity to see the Elderlings dance together. Newly influential advisors and nobles of Jamaillia would once more convene to flatter and exalt the young Satrap who had so valiantly set forth to adventure through the wild world and then returned home with such lofty new allies. Tonight would be their last such opportunity. Tomorrow, she and Reyn would sail north on the Vivacia with Wintrow and Queen Etta. Tomorrow they would finally begin the journey home.

  Malta drew on her stockings and then her little white satin slippers. In the midst of tying the second one, she looked down at it closely. She tried to remember how tragic it had been not to have new slippers for her first ball. Her heart went out to the girl she had been even as she shook her head over her ignorance. She took the white lace gloves from her dressing table. They came to her elbow, and were cleverly fashioned to permit hints of her gleaming scarlet scaling to show through the lace. Yesterday, one of her maids had told her that in the bazaar, they now sold gloves with glittering insets to mimic the effect.

  Malta looked at herself in the mirror disbelievingly. Everyone, everyone thought she was beautiful. Her gown was a confection of white with hidden panels of scarlet fabric that would flash only when Reyn whirled her on the dance floor. The seamstress who had created it had told her it had come to her in a dream of dragons. She set her hands to the tiny waist of the dress and spun before the mirror, nearly falling as she tried to turn her head to catch the flashing of the red. Then, laughing at her own foolishness, she left her dressing chamber.

  Moments later, she tapped twice at a door, and then boldly let herself in. “Etta?” she gently asked of the dimness.

  “In here,” the Queen of the Pirate Isles replied.

  Malta swiftly crossed the darkened chamber and entered Etta’s immense dressing chamber. Closets stood open, gowns were strewn on the chairs and the floor, and Etta sat in her undergarments before her mirror. “Where are your dressing maids?” Malta asked carefully. Wintrow had warned her of Etta’s temper. Malta herself had never seen her anger, only the black depths of her sorrow.

  “I sent them away,” Etta said brusquely. “Their chatter was maddening. ‘Try this scent, let us pin your hair so, will you wear the green, will you wear the blue, oh, lady, not the black, not again. ’ Like so many shrieking gulls, all come to feed on my corpse. I sent them away. ”

  “I see,” Malta said gently. A second door opened, and Mother suddenly appeared bearing a tray. A steaming teapot was on it, and matching cups. It was a lovely service, white with flowers done all in blue. Mother muttered a soft greeting to Malta and set the tray down on Etta’s dressing table. Her pale-blue eyes lingered on Etta fondly. She spoke to herself as she poured tea for Etta, a gentle stream of words, soothing as a cat’s purr. Etta appeared to listen, though Malta could make no sense of the sounds. Then Queen Etta sighed, took up the cup and sipped it. Despite Mother’s status at court, she had refused title and chambers of her own. Instead, she shared Etta’s chamber, and waited on her at every opportunity. Malta thought such constant attention would chafe her to fury, but Etta seemed to take comfort from it. The Queen of the Pirate Isles set down her cup.

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  “I will wear the black again,” she said, but there was only sadness in her voice now, no anger or bitterness. With a sigh, she turned back to her mirror. Malta found the black dress and shook out its simple lines. Etta wore it to mourn Kennit, just as the only jewelry she wore was the little miniature of him strapped to her wrist and the earrings he had given her. She seemed unaware that the tragic simplicity of her garb and demeanor had captured the dramatic interest of every poet in Jamaillia.

  She sat before her mirror but looked down at her hands as Mother brushed her sleek black hair and pinned it up with jeweled pins. From anyone else, Etta would have protested such decoration, but Mother hummed a calming little melody as she did so. When she was finished, Etta’s dark hair was the night sky for a score of glittering stars. Mother next took up a scent bottle, and dabbed her throat and wrists.

  “Lavend
er,” Etta said quietly. Her voice broke on the word. “Kennit always loved that scent. ” She suddenly put her head down into her hands. Mother gave Malta a look. When the old woman withdrew to the other side of the chamber and busied herself rehanging garments, Malta humbly helped her.

  When Etta lifted her head, there was no track of tears down her face. She looked weary, but she still managed to smile. “I suppose I must get dressed,” she surrendered. “I suppose I must be the Queen again tonight. ”

  “Wintrow and Reyn will be waiting for us,” Malta agreed.

  “Sometimes,” Etta confided as Malta fastened the endless row of tiny buttons up her back, “when I am most discouraged, if I take a moment to myself, I swear I can hear him speaking to me. He bids me be strong, for the sake of the son I carry. ”

  Mother gabbled soft agreement as she brought Etta’s slippers and stockings.

  Etta spoke on softly, almost dreamily. “At night, just before I fall asleep, I often hear his voice. He speaks to me, words of love, poetry, good counsel and encouragement. I swear it is all that keeps me from going mad. I feel that in some way, the best part of Kennit is still with me. That he will always be with me. ”

  “I’m sure he is,” Malta replied easily. Privately, she wondered if she were as blind to Reyn’s faults. The Kennit that Etta recalled did not match Malta’s recollection at all. She had felt only a shiver of relief when she had seen Kennit’s canvas-wrapped corpse leave Vivacia’s deck to slip beneath the salt water.

  Etta stood. The black silk whispered around her. Her pregnancy did not show yet, but all knew of it. The Queen carried the heir of King Kennit. None questioned her right to rule in his stead, just as none questioned the seeming youth of the man who commanded his fleet. In pirate tradition, Wintrow had succeeded to Kennit’s position by a vote of his captains. Malta had heard that it was unanimous.

  Wintrow and Reyn awaited them at the foot of the stair. Her brother suffered in comparison to the Rain Wilder. The close tailoring of his jacket did nothing to hide the slightness of his build. The formality of Wintrow’s Jamaillian garb made him look even younger than he was until one noticed his eyes. Then he seemed a fitting match for Etta. As always, he wore black as she did. Malta wondered if it was truly to mourn the pirate, or if it was merely to complement Etta and mark them as a pair.

 
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