Ship of Magic (Liveship Traders #1)


by Robin Hobb

PROLOGUE - THE TANGLE

MAULKIN ABRUPTLY HEAVED HIMSELF OUT OF HIS WALLOW WITH A WILD THRASH THAT LEFT THE ATMOsphere hanging thick with particles. Shreds of his shed skin floated with the sand and muck like the dangling remnants of dreams when one awakes. He moved his long sinuous body through a lazy loop, rubbing against himself to rub off the last scraps of outgrown hide. As the bottom muck started to once more settle, he gazed about at the two dozen other serpents who lay basking in the pleasantly scratchy sediments. He shook his great maned head and then stretched the vast muscle of his length. “Time,” he bugled in his deep-throated voice. “The time has come.”

They all looked up at him from the sea-bottom, their great eyes of green and gold and copper unwinking. Shreever spoke for them all when she asked, “Why? The water is warm here, the feeding easy. In a hundred years, winter has never come. Why must we leave now?”

Maulkin performed another lazy twining of himself. His newly bared scales shone brilliantly in the filtered blue sunlight. His preening burnished the golden false-eyes that ran his full length, declaring him one of those with ancient sight. Maulkin could recall things, things from the time before all this time. His perceptions were not clear, nor always consistent. Like many of those caught twixt times, with knowledge of both lives, he was often unfocused and incoherent. He shook his mane until his paralyzing poison made a pale cloud about his face. He gulped his own toxin in, breathed it out through his gills in a show of truth-vow. “Because it is time now!” he said urgently. He sped suddenly away from them all, shooting up to the surface, rising straighter and faster than the bubbles. Far above them all he broke the ceiling and leaped out briefly into the great Lack before he dove again. He swam about them in frantic circles, wordless in his urgency.

“Some of the other tangles have already gone,” Shreever said thoughtfully. “Not all of them, not even most. But enough to notice they are missing when we rise into the Lack to sing. Perhaps it is time.”

Sessurea settled deeper into the muck. “And perhaps it is not,” he said lazily. “I think we should wait until Aubren's tangle goes. Aubren is ... steadier than Maulkin.”

Beside him, Shreever abruptly heaved herself out of the muck. The gleaming scarlet of her new skin was startling. Rags of maroon still hung from her. She nipped a great hank of it free and gulped it down before she spoke. “Perhaps you should join Aubren's tangle, if you misdoubt Maulkin's words. I, for one, will follow him north. Better to go too soon than too late. Better to go early, perhaps, than to come with scores of other tangles and have to vie for feeding.” She moved lithely through a knot made of her own body, rubbing the last fragments of old hide free. She shook her own mane, then threw back her head. Her shrill trumpeting disturbed the water. “I come, Maulkin! I follow you!” She moved up to join their still circling leader in his twining dance overhead.

One at a time, the other great serpents heaved their long bodies free of clinging muck and outgrown skin. All, even Sessurea, rose from the depths to circle in the warm water just below the ceiling of the Plenty, joining in the tangle's dance. They would go north, back to the waters from whence they had come, in the long ago time that so few now remembered.

MIDSUMMER

CHAPTER ONE - OF PRIESTS AND PIRATES

KENNIT WALKED THE TIDELINE, HEEDLESS OF THE SALT WAVES THAT WASHED AROUND HIS BOOTS AS THEY licked the sandy beach clean of his tracks. He kept his eyes on the straggling line of seaweed, shells and snags of driftwood that marked the water's highest reach. The tide was just turning now, the waves falling ever shorter in their pleading grasp upon the land. As the salt water retreated down the black sand, it would bare the worn molars of shale and tangles of kelp that now hid beneath the waves.

On the other side of Others Island, his two-masted ship was anchored in Deception Cove. He had brought the Marietta in to anchor there as the morning winds had blown the last of the storm clean of the sky. The tide had still been rising then, the fanged rocks of the notorious cove grudgingly receding beneath frothy green lace. The ship's gig had scraped over and between the barnacled rocks to put him and Gankis ashore on a tiny crescent of black sand beach that disappeared completely when storm winds drove the waves up past the high tide marks. Above, slate cliffs loomed, and evergreens so dark they were nearly black leaned precariously out in defiance of the prevailing winds. Even to Kennit's iron nerves, it was like stepping into some creature's half-open mouth.

They'd left Opal, the ship's boy, with the gig to protect it from the bizarre mishaps that so often befell unguarded craft in Deception Cove. Much to the boy's unease, Kennit had commanded Gankis to come with him, leaving the boy and boat alone. At Kennit's last sight, the boy had been perched in the beached boat. His eyes had alternated between fearful glances over his shoulder at the forested cliff-tops and staring anxiously out to where the Marietta strained against her anchors, yearning to join the racing current that swept past the mouth of the cove.