He’d made his plans so carefully. He’d reduced his crew to a handful of men whom he absolutely trusted. He’d found men who had worked wizardwood, men with sterling reputations for honesty and carpentry skill. He’d scrimped and saved and bartered for the tools he needed to have. And when all was ready, he’d transported them to where he had found and secured the log of wizardwood.
And he had done it knowing that it was neither log nor wood.
He’d run Tarman aground, and then with lines and pulleys he’d winched the barge up into an isolated inlet along the river’s shore. He’d lost most of a summer’s work to that project. The wizardwood log had to be cut into rough planks and blocks on site and then fastened to Tarman. The barge had to be lifted up on blocks to allow the workmen access to the bottom; the soft ground along the river meant that every day, the blocking had to be reinforced and releveled.
But when all was finished Tarman had what the barge had conveyed to Leftrin it most desired. Four stout legs with webbed feet and a long tail had been added to the hull. Tarman could now go almost anywhere he and his captain wished to go.
It had taken several weeks for Tarman to get complete motion in all his limbs. Leftrin had been terrified for him the first time the blocks were jerked out from under the hull. But Tarman had caught himself, with difficulty, and slowly dragged himself back into the river. The ship’s eyes had gleamed with satisfaction as he propelled himself about in the shallows. He was equally content to swim in the river or crawl along in the shallows. His crew became more a sham than a workforce. They preserved the illusion that Tarman was a barge like any other.
Every scrip and scrap of leftover “wood” had been stowed inside Tarman as dunnage. Not so much as a sliver of the stuff had he sold; that would have been breaking faith with his ship. He respected the dragon stuff Tarman was made from. As the weeks and months passed, he had sensed the ship integrating his new material and memories. Tarman’s placid nature had changed; he had become more assertive and adventurous, sometimes even edging into mischievousness. Leftrin had enjoyed the changes in his ship just as much as if he’d been watching a child grow to manhood. Tarman’s eyes had become more expressive, his connection to his captain more eloquent, and his efficiency as a barge a wonder. If any of the other Traders suspected Leftrin’s secret, none asked about it. Almost every Trader had his own store of undisclosed magic or technology. Not prying too deeply into the affairs of others was an essential part of being a Trader. Leftrin had had no problems, and his profits had steadily grown.
All had been well until one of the carvers had flapped his mouth to that Chalcedean trader, and the hunter had come on board to threaten them, his own kind. Leftrin gritted his teeth so hard that it made a noise. Beneath him, he felt Tarman dig his feet into the mud in anger. Betrayal! Betrayal is not to be tolerated. The traitor must be punished.
Leftrin immediately loosened his grip on the railing and calmed his own emotions. The captain of a liveship always had to keep a rein on his darker thoughts. His emotions could infect his ship in dangerous ways. The strength and clarity of Tarman’s response startled him. He seldom conveyed his thoughts so directly. He had not realized the ship felt so strongly about the hunter. So now he calmly pointed out that the river had done their task for them. Jess was gone, most likely drowned.
At that thought, he sensed a wave of grim satisfaction from the ship, tinged with a bloody amusement. Did the ship know more of Jess’s fate than he had shared? Leftrin wondered uneasily. And then he hastily turned his thoughts away from that. The liveship had a right to his own secrets. If he had seen Jess struggling in the water and deliberately turned away from him, that was the ship’s business, not Leftrin’s.
Don’t be troubled about that. I didn’t need to do anything so crude.
He ignored the amusement in the ship’s tone. “Well, I’m glad of that, Tarman. I’m glad of that. If I’d had to face that, well. Just glad it was a decision that didn’t come my way.” He sensed the ship’s calm assent. “And tomorrow we can expect Carson to rejoin us.”
Yes. You should expect that.
Sometimes the ship just knew things. The ship had heard Carson’s horn when he’d first found the survivors and told Leftrin. The captain had learned better than to ask him how he sensed things or to ask for details. Only once had Tarman been in a mood to tell him anything, and then he had only said, Sometimes the river shares its secrets with me. Sometimes, but not always. For tonight, Leftrin simply accepted that tomorrow the hunter would rejoin them, and he asked no more. Instead he suggested, “Think we’ll head upriver tomorrow, then? Or anchor another night here?”