Ship of destiny, p.89
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       Ship of Destiny, p.89

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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  She turned her head up to grin at him. “Why would I leave a rich man like you?” she teased. She put her hands on his chest and pushed gently free of him.

  “I knew you were after my fortune,” he replied, letting her go. He held back a sigh. She always wanted to be clear of him before he was ready to let her go. It was her independent nature, he supposed. He refused to worry that she was wearying of him. Yet she had not seemed overly upset when he had been unable to arrange their wedding at the Traders’ Concourse. Perhaps she did not wish to be bound to him quite that permanently. Then he chided himself for his lingering doubts and discontent. Althea was still beside him. That was more than he’d ever had in his life and it was worth more to him than this incomprehensible wealth of treasure.

  He looked around the platform they stood on, then lifted his eyes to the similar structures in two adjacent trees. “This booty will fill Paragon’s hold. Igrot brought him here heavy with treasure, and so he will be when we leave. I try to imagine how this will change things for us, and I cannot. I get caught up in the wonder of the individual pieces. ”

  Althea nodded. “I cannot relate it to myself. I think mostly of how it will affect others. My family. I can help Mother restore our home. Keffria need not worry so about the family finances. ”

  Brashen grinned. “My plans are mostly for Paragon. New windows. New rigging. The services of a good sailmaker. Then, something for us. Let’s make a trip south to the Spice Isles, a slow journey, exploring, with no schedules and no need to turn a profit. I want to revisit the ports we haven’t seen since your father was master on Vivacia. ” He watched her face carefully as he added, “Maybe we could rendezvous with Wintrow and Vivacia. See how they’re getting along. ”

  He watched her consider it. For Althea, a visit to the southernmost trade isles would be a return to the ports of her childhood travels. Maybe there she could lose some of the constant regret that overshadowed her. And perhaps seeing Wintrow and Vivacia could lay some ghosts to rest. If she saw her ship was content and in good hands, would it lift the burden from her heart? He refused to fear such an encounter. Much as it hurt him to admit, if he could not lift her melancholy soon, it might be better to let her go. It was not that she did not smile and laugh. She did. But always, her smiles and laughter faded too soon into a silence that excluded him.

  “I’d like that,” she conceded, recalling him to himself. “If Paragon could be persuaded. We could look for Tintaglia’s serpents at the same time. ”

  “Good,” he said with false heartiness. “That’s what we’ll do then. ” He drew a deep breath and lifted his eyes. The brief spring day was closing. Through the interlacing treetops, he could glimpse storm clouds. Winter might make a brief return tonight. “Best get us all back to the ship for the night,” he decided. “It gets dark fast, and I see no sense in risking man or treasure to move it tonight. ”

  Althea nodded. “I’ll want to see how they’ve stowed it anyway. ” She turned to the others. “Last load, men. Tomorrow is soon enough to finish this. ”

  SHE CAME OUT ON DECK INTO THE DARKNESS, BEARING A LANTERN. PARAGON did not turn to see who it was. He recognized Amber’s light barefoot tread. She often came to him by night. They had had many night conversations. They had also shared many times without talk, content to let the sounds of the night birds and the river running remain undisturbed. Usually, her hands on his railing radiated peace to him. Tonight she hung the lantern on a hook, and set something down on his deck before she leaned on the railing. “It’s a lovely night, isn’t it?”

  “It is. But it won’t be for long, for you. That lantern will attract every insect that flies. They are thickest immediately before a storm. Linger long and you’ll be bitten all over. ”

  “I just need it for a short time. ” She drew a breath, and he sensed an unusual excitement running through her. She sounded almost nervous. “Paragon, earlier you offered to share your treasure with us. I’ve found something among it, something I desperately long to possess. ”

  He looked back at her. She was in her night robe, a long loose garment that reached to her bare feet. Her uneven hair fell loose to her shoulders. Her serpent scalds still showed, dead white against her golden skin. Time, perhaps, would erase those scars, or so he liked to think. In the lantern light, her eyes sparkled. He found himself returning her smile. “So what is this treasure you must possess? Gold? Silver? Ancient Elderling jewelry?”

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  “This. ” She stooped to a rough burlap sack at her feet, opened the mouth of it and reached within. From it, she pulled a carved wooden circlet. She handled it almost reverently as she turned it in her hands. Then, daringly, she crowned herself with it and then lifted her gaze to his. “Reach into your dragon memories, if you can. For me. Do you recall this?”

  He looked at her silently and she returned his gaze. She waited. The crown was decorated with the heads of birds. No. Chickens. He quirked one eyebrow at her. Regretfully, she took off the crown and held it out to him. He took it carefully in his hands. Wood. Carved wood. He shook his head over it. Gold and silver, jewels and art. He had offered her the pick of the riches of the Cursed Shores. What did the carpenter choose? Wood.

  She tried again to wake a response in him. “It was gilded once. See. You can still see bits of gilt caught in the details of the rooster heads. And there are places for tail feathers to be set into it, but the feathers have rotted away long ago. ”

  “I remember it,” he said hesitantly. “But that is all. Someone wore it. ”

  “Who?” she pressed him earnestly. He held it out to her and she took it back again. She shook her hair from her eyes, and then set the rooster crown on her head again. “Someone like me?” she asked hopefully.

  “Oh. ” He paused, striving to recall her. “I’m sorry,” he said, shaking his head at last. “She wasn’t an Elderling. That’s all I can recollect of her. ” The woman who wore it had been pale as milk. Not like Amber at all.

  “That’s all right,” she assured him quickly, but he sensed her disappointment. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to have this. ”

  “Of course. Did the others object?”

  “I didn’t ask them,” she replied sheepishly. “I didn’t give them the chance. ” She took the crown off again. Her eyes and fingers wandered lovingly over the carving.

  “It’s yours,” Paragon confirmed. “Take it with you when you go. ”

  “Ah. You guessed that I am leaving, then. ”

  “I did. You will not even stay with me until high summer? That is when I will return here, to be near when the dragons hatch. ”

  Her fingers tracked the details of the carved bird heads. “I am tempted. Perhaps I will. But eventually, I think I must go north again. I have friends there. I haven’t seen them in a long time. ” She lowered her voice. “A suspicion itches at me. I think I should go interfere in their lives some more. ” She laughed with false lightness. “I hope I will fare better with them than I have down here. ” Her face grew troubled. She climbed suddenly to the railing, saying softly, “Take me up. ”

  He reached over his shoulder to offer her his right hand. She climbed onto it and he turned back to contemplate the tangled jungle. It was easier to look away from the light and into the darkness. More restful. Carefully he shifted, until his arms were crossed on his chest. Trusting as a child, she sat on his crossed arms and leaned back against him companionably. All around them, night insects shrilled. Her bare legs dangled down.

  She was always the one who dared to ask the questions others left unuttered. Tonight she had another one. “How did they all die?”

  He knew exactly what she meant. Pointless to pretend he didn’t. And pointless to keep it a secret anymore. It almost felt good to share it with someone. “Wizardwood. Kennit kept a chunk from my face. One of his chores was to help with the cooking. He boiled it with the soup. Almost all of Igrot’s crew died from it. ” He fel
t her cringe.

  He tried to make her understand. “He was only finishing what Igrot had started. Men had begun to die on the ship. Igrot keelhauled two sailors for insubordination. They both drowned. Two others went over the side during a stormy night watch. There was a stupid accident in the rigging. Three died. We decided Igrot was behind it. He probably meant to do away with anyone who knew where the treasure was hidden. Including Kennit. ” He forced himself to unclench his hands. “We had to do it, you see. To save Kennit’s life. ”

  Amber swallowed. She asked the question anyway. “And those that didn’t die from the soup?”

  Paragon took a breath. “Kennit put them over the side anyway. Most were too poisoned to put up much of a fight. Three, I think, managed to put out a boat and escape. I doubt they survived. ”

  “And Igrot?”

  The jungle seemed a black and peaceful place. Things moved in it, outside the circle of the lantern light. Snakes and night birds, small tree-dwelling creatures, both furred and scaled. Many things lived and moved in the tangled dark.

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  “Kennit beat him to death. Belowdecks. You’ve seen the marks down there. The handprints of a crawling man. ” He took a breath. “It was fair, Amber. Only fair. ”

  She sighed. “Vengeance for both of you. For the times when he had beaten Kennit to death. ”

  He nodded above her. “Twice he did that. Once the boy died on my deck. But I couldn’t let him go. I could not. He was all I had. Another time, curled up belowdecks in his hidey-hole, he died slowly. He was bleeding inside, growing so cold, so cold. He cried for his mother. ” Paragon sighed. “I kept him with me. I pushed life into him, and forced his body to mend itself as best as I could. Then I put him back in his body. Even then, I wondered if there was enough of him left to be a whole being. But I did it. It was selfish. I did not do it for Kennit. I did it for myself. So I would not be left alone again. ”

  “He truly was as much you as he was himself. ”

  Paragon almost chuckled. “There was no such line between Kennit and me. ”

  “And that was why you had to have him back?”

  “He couldn’t die without me. Not any more than I could truly live without him. I had to take him back. Until I was whole again, I was vulnerable. I could not seal myself to others. Any blood shed on my deck was a torment to me. ”

  “Oh. ”

  For a long time, she seemed content to leave it at that. She leaned back against him. Her breathing became so deep and regular that he thought she slept. Behind him, on the deck, insects battered themselves against her lantern. He heard Semoy do a slow circuit of the deck. He paused by the lantern. “All’s well?” he asked Paragon quietly.

  “All’s well,” the ship replied. He had come to like Semoy. The man knew how to mind his own business. His footsteps receded again.

  “Do you ever wonder,” Amber asked him quietly, “how much you changed the world? Not just by keeping Kennit alive. By simply existing. ”

  “By being a ship instead of a dragon?”

  “All of it. ” A slight wave of her hand encompassed all his lives.

  “I lived,” he said simply. “And I’ve stayed alive. I suppose I had as much a right to do that as anyone. ”

  “Absolutely. ” She shifted, then reclined in his arms to look up. He followed her gaze but saw only darkness. The clouds were thick beyond the trees. “All of us have a right to our lives. But what if, for lack of guidance, we take the wrong paths? Take Wintrow for instance. What if he was meant to lead a different life? What if, because of something I failed to do or say, he became King of the Pirate Isles when he was meant to be a man leading a life of scholarly contemplation? A man whose destiny was to experience a cloistered, contemplative life becomes a king instead. His deep spiritual meditations never occur and are never shared with the world. ”

  Paragon shook his head. “You worry too much. ” His eyes tracked a moth. It fluttered earnestly by, intent on battering itself to death against the lantern. “Humans live such short lives. I believe they have little impact on the world. So Wintrow will not be a priest. It is probably no more significant than if a man who was meant to be a king became a philosophical recluse instead. ”

  He felt a shiver run over her body. “Oh, ship,” she rebuked him softly. “Was that meant to be comforting?”

  Carefully, he patted her as a father might soothe an infant. “Take comfort in this, Amber. You are only one small, short-lived creature. You’d have to be a fool to think you could change the course of the whole world. ”

  She was silent until she broke out in a shaky laugh. “Oh, Paragon, in that you are more right than you know, my friend. ”

  “Be content with your own life, my friend, and live it well. Let others decide for themselves what path they will follow. ”

  She frowned up at him. “Even when you see, with absolute clarity, that it is wrong for them? That they hurt themselves?”

  “Perhaps people have a right to their pain,” he hazarded. Reluctantly he added, “Perhaps they even need it. ”

  “Perhaps,” she conceded unhappily. Then, “Up, please. I think I shall go to bed and sleep on what you have told me. Before the rain and the mosquitoes find me. ”

  ALTHEA SMOTHERED IN NIGHTMARE. IT DID NO GOOD TO KNOW SHE DREAMED. She could not escape it. She could not breathe, and he was on her back, bearing her down and hurting her, hurting her. She wanted to scream, and could not. If only she could scream, she could wake up, but she could not find the sound to give it vent. Her screams were trapped inside her.

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  The dream changed.

  Paragon suddenly stood over her. He was a man, tall, dark-haired and grave. He looked at her with eyes like Kennit’s. She cowered away from him. There was hurt in his voice when he spoke. “Althea. Enough of this. Neither of us can endure it longer. Come to me,” he commanded her. “Silently. Right now. ”

  “No. ” She felt him plucking at her and she resisted. The knowing look in his eyes threatened her. No one should comprehend so fully what she felt. “Yes,” he told her as she resisted. “I know what I’m doing. Come to me. ” She could not breathe. She could not move. He was too big and too strong. But still she struggled. If she struggled and fought, how could it be her fault?

  “It wasn’t your fault. Come away from that memory; it isn’t now. That is over and done. Let yourself be done with it. Be still, Althea, be still. If you scream, you’ll wake yourself. Worse, you’ll wake the whole crew. ”

  Then they all would know her shame.

  “No, no, no. That isn’t it at all. Just come to me. You have something of mine. ”

  The hand was gone from her mouth, the weight from her body, but she was still trapped inside herself. Then, abruptly, she floated free. She was somewhere else, somewhere cold and windy and dark. It was a very lonely place. Anyone’s company was better than that isolation. “Where are you?” she called, but it came out as a whisper.

  “Here. Open your eyes. ”

  In a night storm, she stood on the foredeck. Rising wind shook the trees overhead, and little bits of debris fell in a dirty rain. Paragon had twisted to look back at her. She could not see his features, but she heard his voice. “That’s better,” he said reassuringly. “I needed you to come here, to me. I waited, thinking that eventually you would come on your own. But you did not. And this has gone on far too long for all of us. I know now what I must do. ” The figurehead paused. His next words came harder from him. “You have something of mine. I want it back. ” !

  “I have nothing of yours. ” Did she speak the words, or only think them?

  “Yes, you do. It’s the last piece. Like it or not, I must have it, to make myself whole. To make you whole as well. You think it is yours. But you’re wrong. ” He glanced away from her. “By right, that pain is mine. ”

  Rain had begun to fall, icy cold. She h
eard it first in the trees above. Then the drops found their way through the canopy. They fell gently at first. Then a rising wind whipped the treetops, and they dropped their cold burden in a deluge. Althea was already numbed to the cold. Paragon spoke on, softly. “Give it back to me, Althea. There is no reason for you to keep it. It was never even his to give you. Do you understand that? He passed it on to you. He tried to get rid of pain by giving it away, but it was not his. It should have stayed with me. I take it back from you now. All you have to do is let it go. I leave you the memory, for that, I fear, is truly yours. But the hurt is an old hurt, passed on from one to another like a pestilence. I have decided to stop it. It comes back to me now, and with me it remains. ”

  For a time, she resisted, gripping it tightly. “You can’t take it from me. It was that horrible. It was that bad. No one would understand it; no one would believe it. If you take the pain away, you make a lie of what I endured. ”

  “No. No, my dear, I make it only a memory, instead of something that you live continuously in your mind. Leave it in the past. It cannot hurt you now. I will not let it. ”

  He reached a wide hand to her. Fearing him, but unable to resist, she set her small hand upon his. He sighed deeply. “Give it back to me,” he said gently.

  It was like having a deep splinter pulled. There was the dragging pain of the extraction, and then the clean sting of fresh blood flowing. Something clamped tight inside her suddenly eased. He had been right. She did not have to grip her pain. She could let it go. The memory was still there. It had not vanished, but it had changed. It was a memory, a thing from her past. This wound could close and heal. The injury done to her was over. She did not have to keep it as a part of herself. She could allow herself to heal. Her tears were diluted in the rain that ran down her face.

  “ALTHEA!”

  She didn’t even flinch. The continued rain was washing the night from the sky, bleaching it to a gray dawn that barely penetrated the tree cover.

  Althea stood on the foredeck, hands outstretched to the dimness, as the pouring rain drenched her. It sealed her nightgown to her body. Cursing her and himself for a fool, Brashen dashed across the deck to seize her by the shoulder and shake her. “Are you out of your mind? Come inside. ”

 
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