The Mad Ship (Liveship Traders #2)


by Robin Hobb

PROLOGUE - A Recollection of Wings

BELOW THE SERPENTS, THE BEDS OF WEEDS SWAYED GENTLY IN THE CHANGing tide. The water was warm here, as warm as it had been in the south before they had migrated. Despite Maulkin's declaration that they would no longer follow the silvery provider, her tantalizing scent hung in the salt water. She was not far away; they trailed her still, but at a distance. Shreever considered confronting him about it, but decided against it. She eyed their leader anxiously. The injuries Maulkin had taken in his brief battle with the white serpent were healing slowly. The gouges disrupted the pattern of his scales. The golden false-eyes that ran the length of his body and proclaimed him a prophet were faded and dull.

Shreever, too, felt faded and dull.

They had come far in search of One Who Remembers. Maulkin had been so confident at the beginning of their journey. Now he seemed as confused as she and Sessurea were. The three of them were all that remained of the great tangle of sea serpents who had begun the migration. The others in their tangle had lost faith in their quest, and had fallen away from Maulkin. The last she had seen of them, they had been following a great dark provider, feeding mindlessly on the unresisting flesh it distributed to them. That had been many tides ago.

“Sometimes,” Maulkin confided to Shreever quietly as they rested, “I lose my place in time. It seems to me that we have come this way before, done these things before, perhaps even shared these words before. Sometimes I believe it so strongly that I think that today is actually a memory or a dream. I think, then, that perhaps we need do nothing, for whatever has happened to us will occur again. Or has, perhaps, already occurred.” His voice was without strength or conviction.

She flanked him. They undulated gently in the current, finning no more than they must to maintain their position. Beneath them, Sessurea shook his mane suddenly, releasing a thin waft of toxins to alert them. “Look! Food!” he bugled.

Silver and shimmering, the school of fish came gliding toward them like a blessing. Behind the fish, shadowing them and feeding from the edges of the school, was another tangle of serpents. Three scarlets, a green and two blues they were. The hunters were not a large tangle but they appeared lively and healthy. Their gleaming hides and full flesh contrasted markedly with the slipping scales and sunken sides of Maulkin's tangle.

“Come,” Maulkin bade them, and led them to join the others in their feeding. Shreever made a tiny sound of relief. There would be, at least, full bellies for them. Perhaps the others might even join Maulkin's tangle, once they realized he was a prophet.

Their prey were not separate fish, but a school, silver and glinting, baffling to the eye. They moved as one creature, yet it was a creature that could separate and stream around a clumsy hunter. The serpents of Maulkin's tangle were not clumsy hunters, and all three flowed gracefully after the fish. The other tangle trumpeted warnings at them, but Shreever saw no danger. With a lash of her tail, she drove herself into the school, her gaping jaws engulfing at least three fish. She distended her throat to swallow them.

Two scarlet serpents suddenly turned aside and struck Maulkin, battering him with their snouts as if he were a shark or other mutual enemy. The blue came after Shreever, jaws gaping. With a swift coiling she eluded him, changing direction to dart away. She saw the other scarlet try to wrap Sessurea. The scarlet's mane was distended, spewing poison as he trumpeted obscenities and threats. There was neither sense nor syntax to his curses, only fury.

She fled, shrilling her fear and confusion. Maulkin did not follow. He shook his great mane, releasing a cloud of toxins that near stunned the scarlets. They backed away, shaking their open jaws and pumping their gills as they strove to flush his poisons away.

“What is the matter with you?” Maulkin demanded of the strange tangle. He twisted himself through a spiral, his mane distending threateningly as he rebuked them. He summoned a faint gleam to his false-eyes. “Why do you attack us like soulless beasts fighting over food? This is not the way of our kind! Even if there were few, fish belong only to the one who catches them, not to those who see them first. Have you forgotten who you are, what you are? Have your minds been stolen completely?”

For a moment the other tangle hung motionless, save for the slight flicks of their tails stabilizing them. The school of fish fled, forgotten. Then, as if the very sanity of Maulkin's words had incensed them, they turned on him. All six converged, jaws wide to display their teeth, manes erect and streaming toxins, tails lashing. Shreever watched in horror as they wrapped him and bore him struggling down to the muck.

“Help me!” Sessurea trumpeted. “They'll smother him!”