The mad ship, p.15
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       The Mad Ship, p.15

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  He shook his head, then went on, “Some whispered that I was a eunuch, incapable of a man's passions. Their words did not bother me. I knew I had a heart, but it slept within me and I saw no need for it to awaken. In the runes I traced and deciphered, in the strange mechanisms I dismantled, I thought I had enough to occupy all my thoughts. I was annoyed when my mother insisted I accompany her to Bingtown for that meeting. Annoyed! All that was swept aside in the first moment I dared speak to you. As jidzin is wakened to light by touch, so your voice woke my heart to longing. Wild, boyish hope drove me to leave the dream-box for you. I was sure you would not open it, sure that one such as yourself would discard my dream before I could even broach it to you. But you did not. You opened my soul and shared with me a vision of such enchantment . . . you walked through my city and your presence awoke it to life! I had always believed the cold and silent city was my heart. You can guess what that meant to me. ”

  Malta heard his impassioned words with only half an ear. Her thoughts and heart were full of what he had already said. Anything that she asked, he would see that his family conceded. Anything! Her mind darted about like a startled fish. She should not ask so much that she seemed greedy. That might make him rethink his passion for her. Nor should she ask so little that she appeared foolish, or undervalued by her family. No. There was a line to tread here, one to be carefully considered. Instantly she seized on the one she considered wisest in the way of bargaining. Oh, if only her father were here, he would see to it that she used Reyn's passion to her best advantage. In an instant, she realized that was what she must do: delay the negotiations until her father returned.

  “You are silent,” Reyn observed in a chastened voice. “I have offended you. ”

  She moved to seize the advantage. He must think his position uncertain, but not hopeless. She tried to put a timorous smile on her face. “I am not accustomed . . . that is, no one has ever spoken to me of such . . . ” She let her voice trail away doubtfully. She took a breath as if composing herself. “My heart is beating so. . . . Sometimes, when I am frightened, I become quite . . . Do you suppose you could bring me a glass of wine?” She lifted both hands and patted lightly at her cheeks, as if endeavoring to restore herself. After the dream they had shared, could she make him believe her spirit was so delicate as to be distressed at such frank speech?

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  She could. There was suppressed panic in the set of his shoulders as he turned hastily from her. He snatched up a glass from the sideboard and poured her wine so hastily that it threatened to leap from the glass. When he brought it to her, she drew back slightly, as if fearing to take it from his hand. He expelled a small sound of dismay, and she forced a tremulous smile to her lips. As if she steeled herself to courage, she took the glass from him and raised it to her lips to sip delicately from it. It was an excellent vintage. She lowered the glass and sighed softly. “That is better. Thank you so much. ”

  “How can you thank me, when I am the one who caused you such distress?”

  She widened her eyes and looked up at him. “Oh, I am sure the fault is with me,” she said disingenuously. “How foolish I must appear to you, that I begin to tremble at mere words. My mother warned me that there was still a great deal that I did not know of what it is to be a woman. This, I suppose, is part of it. ” She made a small gesture around at the room. “As you can tell, we live a quiet life here. I suppose I have been more sheltered than I thought. I have well understood my family's need to live simply, within our means. Nevertheless, it has kept me apart from many experiences. ” With a tiny shrug, she confessed, “I know so little of the ways of young men. ” She folded her hands in her lap and looked down at them as she added meekly, “I must ask you to be patient while I learn, I fear. ” A final glance up at him through lowered lashes. “I hope you will not think me stupid and dull, nor be wearied with the need to teach me such things. I hope you do not give up on me as hopelessly simple. Almost, I wish I had had other suitors, that I could already know something of the ways of men and women. ” She gave a tiny shrug and a sigh as she looked back down. She held her breath for a moment, hoping the effort would redden her cheeks as with a blush. She whispered breathlessly, “I confess, I almost did not understand my own dream, that night I opened the box. ” She did not look up as she pleaded prettily, “Could you teach me what such things signify?”

  She did not need to see his face. She didn't even need to look up at his stance. She knew she had conquered completely in the moment he replied, “I could think of nothing I should like better than to be your tutor in such things. ”

  CHAPTER EIGHT - Immersions


  “No!” Wintrow shrieked, his voice breaking to a boy's on the word.

  He spun away from the railing and hurled himself from the foredeck to the main. He crossed it at a run, then raced down the companionway. Fear of death had been all that had kept the pirate clinging to life. When Wintrow and Vivacia had persuaded him not to fear it, Kennit had simply let go. At the door to the captain's quarters, Wintrow did not knock nor pause. Etta looked up in astonished anger at his mad entrance. She had been folding lint bandages. As Wintrow rushed to Kennit's bedside, she dropped them to the deck and tried to intercept him.

  “Don't wake him!” she cautioned him. “He's finally resting. ”

  “He's trying to be dead!” Wintrow contradicted her as he shouldered past her. At Kennit's bedside, he took the pirate's hand and called his name. There was no response. He tapped Kennit's cheek, then slapped it almost sharply. He pinched the man's cheek gently, then hard, trying to get a reaction. There was none. Kennit was not breathing.

  He was dead.

  KENNIT SETTLED INTO THE DARK, DRIFTING DOWN GENTLY LIKE A LEAF falling to the forest floor. He felt warm and comfortable. A thin silver thread of pain anchored him to his life. It attenuated as he fell. Soon it must fade to nothing and then he would be free of his body. It did not seem worth his attention. Nothing was worth his attention. He let go of himself and felt his consciousness expand. Never before had he comprehended how cramped a man's thoughts were when confined to a mere body. All those discordant worries and ideas jumbled together like a sailor's swag in his sea bag. Now they could spread out and disconnect. Each could assume its own importance.

  Abruptly he felt a tug. An insistence he could not resist drew him into itself. Reluctantly he gave way to it, but once it possessed him, it did not seem to know what to do with him. He mingled with it confusedly. It was like being plunged into a kettle of simmering fish chowder. First one thing and then another bobbed to the surface, only to float away a moment later. He was a woman, combing out her long hair as she stared thoughtfully across the water. He was Ephron Vestrit, and by Sa, he would bring his cargo through intact and on time, storm or no. He was a ship, the cold water purring past his bow, shining fish flickering below and stars glittering above him. Deeper, higher and wider than all others, encompassing them all but thin as a coat of shellac, there was another awareness, one that spread wide her wings and soared through a summer sky. That one drew him more strongly than any of the others did and when it drifted away from him, he tried to follow it.

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  No, someone forbade him, gently but firmly. No. I do not go there and neither shall you. Something drew him back and held him together. He felt like a child, supported in a mother's arms, protected and cherished. She loved him. He settled into her embrace. She was the ship, the lovely, intelligent ship he had won. The stirring of that memory was like a breath on the ember of his being. He glowed brighter and almost became aware of who he had been. That was not what he desired. He rolled over and burrowed into her, merging with her, becoming her. Lovely, lovely ship, hull to the cupping water, sails in a caressing wind, I am you and you are I. When I am you, I am wondrous and wise. He sensed her amusement at his flattery, but flattery it was not. In you, I could be
perfect, he told her. He sought to dissipate himself but she held him intact.

  She spoke again, her words intended for someone else. I have him. Here. You must take him and put him back. I do not know how.

  A boy's voice replied. It was uncertain and thin as smoke, coming from a great distance. Fear was making him jabber. I don't know what you mean. How can you have him, how can I take him? Put him back how? Put him back where? The pleading desperation in the young voice rang against something inside him. It woke echoes of another boy's voice, just as desperate, just as pleading. Please. I can't do that. I don't know how, I don't want to, please, sir, please. It was the hidden voice, the secret voice, the voice that must never be acknowledged. No one else must hear it, no one. He flung himself upon it, wrapped himself around it and stilled it. He absorbed it into himself to conceal it. The divergence that was the key to him was restored. A shiver of anger ran over him, that they had forced him to be himself again.

  Like that, she said suddenly to the other one. Like that. Find the pieces of him and put them back into one. More softly, she added, There are places where you almost match. Begin with those.

  What do you mean, he matches me? How could he match me?

  I meant only that in some ways you resemble one another. You share more than you realize. Do not fear him. Take him. Restore him.

  He clung to the ship's being more tightly than ever. He would not allow himself to be separated from her. Frantically, he strove to weave himself into her, twining his consciousness into hers as a single rope is woven from multiple strands. She did not repulse him, but neither did she welcome him in. Instead, he felt himself gathered back together, and offered in turn to an entity that was both of her and distinct from her.

  Here. Take him. Put him back.

  The connection between the two was amazingly complex. They loved one another and yet struggled not to be one another. Resentments burned like isolated brush fire in the landscape of their relationship. He could not discern where one left off and the other began, yet each clearly asserted ownership to a greatness of soul that could not be encompassed by a single creature. The outstretched wings of an ancient creature both sheltered and overshadowed them, yet they were unaware of it. Blind funny little creatures they were, fumbling in the midst of a love they feared to acknowledge. To win, all they had to do was surrender but they could not perceive that. The beauty of what they could have been together made him ache. It was a love he had been seeking all his life, a love to redeem and perfect him. That which he most desired, they feared and avoided.

  Come back. Please. It was the boy's voice, pleading. Kennit. Please choose to live.

  The name was a magic. It bound and defined him. The boy sensed that. Kennit. He repeated the name coaxingly. Kennit, please. Kennit. Live. At each touch of the word, he became more solid. Memories coagulated around the name, scabbing over the old wound of his life and sealing him into it.

  Please, he begged. He groped for his tormentor's name. Wintrow. Please let me go. Wintrow. He sought to bind the boy as he had been bound, by the use of his name. Instead of bending Wintrow to his will, it only locked him into an awareness of the boy.

  Kennit, the boy acknowledged him eagerly. Kennit. Help me. Come back to yourself, become yourself again. Enter your life again.

  A curious thing happened then. In Wintrow's urgent welcome of his self-awareness and Kennit's sensing of the boy, they mingled. Memories churned and tumbled free of their owners. A boy wept silent tears the night before he was sent from his family to a monastery. A boy yammered in terror as he watched his father beaten unconscious while a man held him and laughed. A boy struggled and yelped in pain as a seven-pointed star was needled into his hip. A boy meditated, and saw shapes of dragons in the clouds and images of serpents in swirling water. A boy struggled with his tormentor, who throttled him into compliance. A boy sat long and still, transported by a book. A boy choked and gasped, resisting the tattooing of his face. A boy spent hours practicing the careful formation of letters. A boy held his hand to the deck and refused to cry out as his infected finger was cut from his hand. A boy grinned and sweated with joy as a tattoo was seared from his hip.

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  The ship had been right. There were many conjunctions, many places where they matched. The congruency could not be denied. They overlapped, they were one another, and then they separated again.

  Kennit knew himself again. Wintrow cowered at the harshness that had been Kennit's early years. In the next instant, a wave of pity and compassion overwhelmed Kennit. It came from the boy. Wintrow reached out to him. Ignorantly, he sought to fix the parts that Kennit had deliberately broken away from himself. This was you. You should keep it, Wintrow kept insisting. You cannot simply discard parts of yourself because they are painful. Acknowledge them and go on.

  The boy had no concept of what he was suggesting. That whimpering, crippled thing could never be a part of Kennit the Pirate. Kennit defended himself from it in the same fashion he always had. With anger and contempt he rebuffed Wintrow, severing that brief connection of empathy. In the moment before they parted, he became aware of the boy's sudden hurt at his act. For the first time in many years, he felt remorse burn him. Before he could truly consider it, he heard as from a great distance, a woman's voice calling his name.

  “Kennit. Oh, my Kennit. Please, please, please, don't be gone. Kennit!”

  Unavoidable pain defined the confines of his body. There was a weight on his chest and his leg ended in a sensation of wrongness. He drew in a deep breath through a throat that was raw with spirits and bile. As if pulling up an anchor by himself, he hauled his eyelids open. Light scorched his brain.

  The whore clutched his left hand, weeping over it. Her wet face and disheveled hair, her shrill cries . . . it was really too distressing to tolerate. He tried to jerk his hand free of her grip, but he was too weak. “Etta. Do stop that. Please. ” His words came out in a hoarse croak.

  “Oh, Kennit!” she cried out in sudden joy. “You aren't dead. Oh, my love. ”

  “Water,” he said to her, as much to be rid of her as for the sake of his thirst. She sprang to the task, hastening to the carafe on the sideboard across the room. He swallowed in a dry throat, then pushed vaguely at the weight on his chest. Hairy. Rough hair under his hand, and a sweaty face. He managed to lift his head a tiny bit and look down at his chest. It was Wintrow. From a chair next to the bed, the boy was collapsed forward onto Kennit. The boy's eyes were shut, his face was a dreadful pasty color, and tears streaked his cheeks. Wintrow wept for him. A sudden rush of feeling confused Kennit. The boy's head was on his chest, making breathing even more difficult. He wanted to push him away, but the warmth of his hair and skin under his hand awoke a foreign longing as well. It was as if he himself were embodied afresh in this lad. He could protect this boy as he had not been protected himself. He had the power to stave off the destructive forces that had once torn his own life apart.

  After all, they were not that different. The ship had said so. To protect him would be like saving himself.

  It was a curious feeling, that power. It offered to sate a deep hunger that had lived nameless inside him since he had been a boy himself. Before he could wonder further at it, Wintrow's eyes opened. The boy's gaze was dark and unguarded. He looked full into Kennit's face with an expression of bottomless woe that changed suddenly to wonder. The boy's hand rose to touch Kennit's cheek. “You're alive,” he said in whispery awe. His voice wandered as if that of a fever victim but joy began to kindle in his eyes. “You were all in pieces. Just like a stained-glass window, all in pieces. So many parts to a man. I was amazed. You still came back. ” His eyes sagged shut on a sigh. “Thank you. Thank you. I didn't want to die. ”

  The boy blinked his eyes and suddenly seemed more himself. He lifted his head from Kennit's chest and looked around groggily. “I must have fainted,” he said to himself in a thin voice. “I went so
deep in the trance . . . that's never happened to me before, but Berandol warned me. . . . I suppose I'm lucky that I found my way back at all. ” He leaned back abruptly into the chair he was perched on. “I suppose we're both lucky,” he said woozily.

  “My leg is wrong,” Kennit told him. With the boy's head off his chest, it was easier to take breath and speak. He was now free to focus entirely on the strange sensation of his truncated body.

  “It's numb. I treated it with kwazi-fruit rind, to take the pain away for a while. You should sleep while you can. The pain will be back. We don't have enough rind to keep it away forever. ”

  “You're in my way,” Etta said tartly.

  Wintrow gave a guilty start. She stood beside him, holding a cup of water. The boy was not truly in her way; she could have simply brought it to the other side of the bed. Wintrow took her true meaning, however. “Beg pardon,” he said hastily, and rose. He staggered two steps toward the door and then collapsed to the deck as bonelessly as a dropped rag. He lay where he had swooned.

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  Etta gave an exclamation of annoyance. “I'll call a crewman to take him away,” she said. The sight of the unconscious boy on the deck distressed the pirate until she offered him the dripping cup.

  Her long-fingered hand was cool on the back of his neck as she held up his head. His thirst was suddenly all-consuming. It was ship's water, neither cold nor fresh, tasting of the barrel it had been stored in. It was nectar. He drank it down. “More,” he croaked when she took the cup away.

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