Ship of destiny, p.88
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       Ship of Destiny, p.88

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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  Keffria looked at her mother. Her mother gave a small shake of her head. “It is not my decision,” she deferred.

  “Ten satrapes a month promised is not ten satrapes in hand,” Keffria mused. “I fear that in this I trust the Satrap as little as ever. Yet with or without his funds, I think the Bingtown Council can benefit from Serilla’s continued advice regarding Jamaillia. If the Satrap does not honor this offer he sends because he is displeased with my advisor, that will say to me that he does not fully acknowledge Bingtown’s right to regulate its own affairs. And I will tell him so.

  “Then I will advise the Bingtown Council to hire Serilla. To advise us specifically on dealing with Jamaillia. ” She gave the former Companion a level look. “Selden’s room is empty. You are welcome to it. I will warn you, however, that there are two conditions demanded for living here. ”

  “And those are?” Serilla prompted.

  Keffria laughed. “A high tolerance for fish. And a disregard for furniture. ”

  Liveship Traders 3 - Ship of Destiny

  CHAPTER FORTY - The Rain Wild River

  THE MORNING AIR WAS COOL AND SOOTHING ON HER FACE. PARAGON MOVED easily with the flow of the river. As she looked at the new day, Althea could tell Semoy was on the helm. It was more because he enjoyed it than because his skill was needed. This stretch of river was as placid as Paragon’s deck. Many of the crew had jumped ship in Bingtown. Others had stayed on as far as Trehaug, only to find new jobs there as laborers. When they had left Trehaug with little more than a skeleton crew, neither Brashen nor Althea had seen it as a real loss. It was going to be difficult enough to scrape together wages for those who remained. Their present errand was to return to Bingtown, where a load of stone awaited them. Althea suspected it was salvaged from destroyed New Trader holdings. It would be used to reinforce the bank where the dragons would eventually hatch. The dragon was adept at finding work for the liveships, and less than capable at finding pay for their crews.

  Althea shook such dismal worries from her head. Doggedly she seized onto optimism. She could believe all would go well, as long as she didn’t think too hard. She crossed the main deck and bounded up to the foredeck. “Morning!” she announced to the figurehead. She looked around, stretching. “Every day, I think these jungles cannot be greener. Every morning, I awake and find I am wrong. ”

  Paragon didn’t reply. But Amber spoke from over the side. “Spring,” Amber agreed. “An amazing season. ”

  Althea stepped up to the railing to look down at her. “You fall in this river, you’re going to be sorry,” she warned her. “No matter how fast we fish you out, it’s going to sting. Everywhere. ”

  “I won’t fall,” Amber retorted. One of Paragon’s hands cupped her before him. She sat on it, legs swinging, carving tool in hand.

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  “What are you doing?” Althea asked curiously. “I thought he was finished. ”

  “He is. This is just decoration. Scrollwork and things. On his axe handle and his battle harness. ” “What are you carving?”

  “Charging bucks,” Amber replied diffidently. She sheathed her tools abruptly. “Take me up, please,” she requested. Without a word, the figurehead restored her to the deck.

  The river was a vast gray road flowing away from them. The thick forest of the Rain Wilds loomed close on the starboard side, while on the port side the wide waters stretched far to another green wall of plant life. Althea took a deep breath of cool air flavored with river water and teeming plant life. Unseen birds called in the trees. Some of the vines that festooned the gigantic trees had put out fat purple buds. A tall column of dancing insects caught the sunlight on their myriad tiny wings. Althea grimaced at the sparkling sight. “I swear, every one of those pests spent the night in our cabin. ”

  “At least one of them was in my room,” Amber contradicted. “It managed to buzz near my ear most of the night. ”

  “I’ll be glad to see salt water again,” Althea replied. “How about you, Paragon?”

  “Soon enough,” the ship replied distractedly.

  Althea raised one eyebrow at Amber. The carpenter shrugged. For the past two days, the ship had had a preoccupied air. Althea was willing to give him however much space and time he needed. This decades-delayed home-coming had to be a strange and wrenching experience for him. She was neither serpent nor dragon, yet the daily losses of the serpents as they guided them north had appalled and distressed her. That the serpents fed upon their own dead, however pragmatic that practice might be in conserving food and inherited memories, horrified her.

  Tintaglia’s circling presence had protected them from the Chalcedean ships. Only twice had they been directly challenged. There had been one brief battle, put to an end when Tintaglia had returned to drive the foreign ship away. The second encounter had ended when She Who Remembers had risen from the depths to spray the Chalcedean vessel with venom. Her death, Althea thought, had been the most difficult one for Paragon. The crippled serpent had gradually wasted but had gamely continued in her migration. Unlike many of the serpents, she had actually reached the mouth of the Rain Wild River. The journey up it, against the current, had proven too much for her. One morning they had found her, wrapped motionless around Paragon’s anchor chain.

  Many had perished in the acid flow of the river water. Battered and weary as they were, their small injuries turned to gaping wounds in the rushing wash of the gray water. Neither the ship nor Tintaglia could make that last long stretch any easier for them. One hundred and twenty-nine serpents entered the river mouth with them. By the time the tangle reached the river ladder the Rain Wilders had constructed, their numbers had dwindled to ninety-three. The rough interconnecting corrals of thick logs impeded and diverted the river’s shallow rush, deepening the flow just enough for the serpents to wallow upriver.

  Rain Wild engineering skills had combined with the strong backs of both Traders and Tattooed to create an artificial channel that led to the ancient mudbanks. Tintaglia had supervised the quarrying of the silver-streaked mud. The stuff was near as stiff as clay. Yet another log corral had been built, and workers had toiled long cold hours painstakingly mixing the hard stuff with river water until Tintaglia approved of the sloppy muck. As the exhausted serpents managed to haul themselves out on the low banks of the river, workers had transported barrows of the sloshing mud and laved it over the serpents.

  It had tormented Paragon that he could not witness the cocooning of the serpents. A large ship such as he could not approach through the shallow waters. Althea had gone in his stead. To her had fallen the task of telling him that only seventy-nine of the serpents had managed to complete their cocoons. The others had died, their bodies too wasted to summon the special secretions that would bind the mud into long threads to layer around themselves. Tintaglia had roared her grief at each death, and then shared out the wasted bodies as food amongst the remaining serpents. Despite her extreme distaste for that behavior, Althea thought it just as well. The dragon herself looked little better than the serpents. She refused to take time to hunt while the cocooning was going on. In a matter of days, her glittering hide hung on her in folds, despite the sympathetic workers who brought her birds and small game. Such largesse kept her alive, but not thriving.

  Further work followed the cocooning. The muck-wrapped serpents had to be protected from the torrential deluges of a Rain Wild winter until the sheathing had dried hard. But eventually Tintaglia announced she was satisfied with the cocoons. Now the immense cases rested on the muddy bank of the river like giant seedpods hidden in a heaped litter of leaves, twigs and branches. Tintaglia once more gleamed since she had resumed her daily hunts. Some nights she returned to rest beside the cocoons, but increasingly she trusted the cadre of humans who watched over them from their tree-houses. True to her word, the dragon now patrolled the river to its mouth, and overflew the coast of the Cursed Shores.

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  Tintaglia still spoke hopefully of more serpents returning. Althea suspected this was the true motive behind her coastal vigilance. She had even hinted that perhaps she would send liveships far south to seek for lost survivors. Althea considered that a measure of her anguish at their losses. From Selden, Althea had learned that not all the cocoons would hatch. There was always some mortality at this stage of a dragon’s development, but these weakened creatures were dying at far higher rates than normal. Selden seemed to mourn them as much as Tintaglia, though he could not completely explain to Althea how he knew which ones had perished unhatched.

  She had never known her nephew well. In the weeks she had spent in Trehaug and at the site of Cassarick, she had seen him grow stranger. It was not just the physical changes that she marked. At times, he did not seem to be a little boy anymore. The cadence of his voice and his choice of words when he spoke to the dragon seemed to come from an older and foreign person.

  The only time when he seemed like the Selden she recalled was when he had returned dirty and weary from a day spent exploring with Bendir. They had festooned the swampy jungle behind the cocoon beach with bright strips of fabric tied to stakes or tree limbs. The colors were a code of sorts, incomprehensible to Althea, intended to guide future excavation. Over meals, Selden and Bendir discussed them earnestly and made summer plans for serious digging. She no longer knew her nephew, she reflected, but she was sure of one thing. Selden Vestrit was fired with enthusiasm for this new life he had found. In that, she rejoiced. It surprised her that Keffria had let him go. Perhaps her older sister was finally realizing that life was to be lived, rather than hoarded against an unseen tomorrow. Althea drew a deep breath of the spring air, savoring both it and her freedom. “Where’s Brashen?” Amber asked. Althea groaned. “Torturing Clef. ”

  Amber smiled. “Someday Clef will thank Brashen for insisting that he learn his letters. ”

  “Perhaps, but this morning it does not seem likely. I had to leave them before I lost my temper with both of them. Clef spends more time arguing about why he cannot learn them than he does trying to learn them. Brashen gives him no ground. The boy is quick-witted on his seamanship. He should be able to learn his letters. ”

  “He will learn his letters,” Brashen asserted as he joined them. He pushed his hair back from his face with an ink-stained hand. He looked more like a frustrated tutor than a sea captain. “I set him three pages to copy and left him. I warned him that good work would free him faster than messy. ”

  “There!” Paragon’s voice boomed. His sudden shout flung a small flock of bright birds skyward from the looming forest. He lifted a big hand aloft, to point up and back into the trees. “There. That is it. ” He leaned, swaying the entire ship slightly. “Semoy! Hard starboard!”

  “You’ll run aground!” Brashen cried in dismay. Semoy had not questioned the order. The ship swung in suddenly toward the looming trees.

  “It’s a mud bottom,” Paragon replied calmly. “You’ll get me off easily enough when you need to. ”

  Althea seized the railing, but instead of running aground, Paragon had found a deep if narrow channel of near-still water. Perhaps in the rainy season it was one of the many watercourses that fed the Rain Wild River. Now it was reduced to a finger of calm water winding back beneath the trees. They left the main channel of the Rain Wild River behind them. They did not get far, however, before Paragon’s rigging began to tangle in the overreaching branches. “You’re fouling your rigging,” Brashen warned him, but the ship deliberately moved deeper into the entangling mess. Althea exchanged an anxious grimace with him. He shook his head at her, and kept silent. Paragon was an independent soul. He had the right to command where his body would go. The new challenge to running this liveship was respecting his will for himself and crediting him with judgment. Even if it meant letting him run himself aground in a jungle lagoon.

  There were questioning yells from several deckhands, but Semoy was steady on the wheel. Leaves and twiggy branches rained down on them. Startled birds gave cry and fled. The ship slowed and then stopped.

  “We’re here,” Paragon announced excitedly.

  “We certainly are,” Brashen agreed sourly, staring up at the tangled mess.

  “Igrot’s hoard,” Amber breathed.

  They both turned to look at her. Her gaze was following Paragon’s pointing finger. Althea saw nothing save a dark mass high overhead in some ancient trees. The figurehead turned to regard them with a triumphant grin. “She guessed first, and she guessed right,” he announced as if they had been playing a game.

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  Most of their reduced crew was on deck, staring up where Paragon had pointed. Igrot’s infamous star had been branded deep in the bark of the near tree. Time had expanded the mark.

  “Igrot’s biggest haul,” Paragon reminisced, “was when he took a treasure shipment meant for the Satrap of all Jamaillia. This was back in the days when the Satrapy sent a tribute ship once a year, to collect what was due him from his outlying settlements. Bingtown had put in Rain Wild goods, a rich haul of them. But en route to Jamaillia, the entire barge disappeared. None of it was ever seen again. ”

  “That was before my time, but I’ve heard of it,” Brashen said. “Folk said it was the richest load ever to leave Trehaug. Some treasure chambers had been unearthed. All of it was lost. ”

  “Hidden,” Paragon corrected him. He looked again to the lofty trees. Althea peered up at the dark mass, festooned with vines and creepers, perched high. It spanned the live branches of several trees.

  Paragon’s voice was triumphant. “Didn’t you ever wonder why Igrot wanted a liveship? It was so he could have a place to hoard his trove, a place that no ordinary pirates could ever reach. Even if a member of his crew jabbered of where it was, robbers would need a liveship to recover it. He put in here, and his hearties traveled from my rigging to the trees. There they built a platform and hoisted the treasure up to it. He thought it would be safe forever. ”

  Brashen made a low sound. There was fury in his voice as he asked, “Did he blind you before or after he selected this place?”

  The figurehead didn’t flinch from the question. “After,” he said quietly. “He never trusted me. With reason. I lost count of how many times I tried to kill him. He blinded me so that I could never find my way back without him. ” He turned back to the awestruck crew on his deck and dropped Amber a slow wink. “He never thought that anyone might recarve me. Neither did I, back then. Nevertheless, here I am. Sole survivor of that bloody crew. It’s mine now. And hence, yours. ” A stunned silence followed his words. No one spoke or moved.

  The figurehead raised his eyebrows questioningly. “No one wants to reclaim it for us?” he asked wryly.

  GETTING THEIR FIRST LOOK AT IT WAS THE EASY PART. RIGGING CATWALKS AND hoists through the trees to transport the stuff back to Paragon’s deck was the time-consuming part. Despite the backbreaking labor, no one complained. “As for Clef, you would think Paragon had planned this specifically to get him out of his lessons,” Brashen pointed out. As the ship’s nimblest rigging monkey, the boy had been freed from his lessons for this task.

  “If he grins any wider, the top half of his head may come off,” Althea agreed. She craned her neck to see Clef. A heavy sack bounced on his back as he made his way back to the ship. Neither snakes nor swarming insects had dampened the boy’s enthusiasm for his rope-walking trips back and forth between ship and platform. “I wish he were a bit more cautious,” she worried. She, Brashen and several crewmen stood on a layered platform of logs. The vines had reinforced the old structure with their growing strength through the years, actually incorporating it into their system of tendrils and air roots. The chests and barrels that had held Igrot’s hoard had not fared as well. A good part of the day’s work had been repacking the spilled treasure into emptied food crates and casks. The variety of it astounded them. They had fou
nd Jamaillian coins and worked silver among the loot, a sure sign that Igrot had squirreled more than just the Rain Wild hoard here. Some of his booty had not survived. There were the long-moldered remains of tapestries and rugs, and heaps of iron rings atop the rotted leather that had once structured the battle shirts. What had survived far outweighed what had perished. Brashen had seen jeweled cups, amazing swords that still gleamed sharp when drawn from their filigreed scabbards, necklaces and crowns, statues and vases, game boards of ivory and marble with gleaming crystal playing pieces and other items he could not even identify. There were humbler items as well, from serving trays and delicate teacups to carved hair combs and jeweled pins. Among the Rain Wild goods was a set of delicately carved dragons with flakes of jewels for scales and a family of dolls with scaled faces. These last items Brashen was packing carefully into the onion basket from Paragon’s galley.

  “I think these are musical instruments, or what is left of them,” Althea theorized.

  He turned, stretching his back, to see what she was doing. She knelt, removing items from a big chest that had split its seams. She lifted chained crystals that tinkled and rang sweetly against one another as she freed them from their tomb and smiled as she turned to display them. She had forgotten that her hair was weighted with a net of jeweled chains. The motion caught glittering sunlight in her hair. She dazzled him. His heart swelled.

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  “Brashen?” she complained a moment later. He realized he was still staring at her. Without a word, he rose and went to her. He pulled her to her feet and kissed her, careless of the tolerant grins of two sailors who were scooping scattered coins into heavy canvas bags. He held her in his arms, still half-amazed that he could do this. He swept her closer. “Don’t ever go away from me,” he said thickly into her hair.

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