The mad ship, p.16
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       The Mad Ship, p.16

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  “Right away,” she promised him.

  His eyes followed her as she returned to the water ewer. He noted in passing the limp boy on the floor. A moment ago, there had been something about him, something urgent he wished Etta to do. It had been important, but now he could not recall it. Instead, he was starting to float, rising off the bed. The experience was both unnerving and pleasant. The cup of water came back. He drank it all. “I can fly,” he observed to the woman. “Now that the pain is gone, I can fly. The pain was anchoring me down. ”

  She smiled at him fondly. “You're light-headed. And perhaps a bit drunk still. ”

  He nodded. He could not keep the foolish smile from his lips. A rush of gratitude suffused him. He had lived with the pain for so long and now it was gone. It was wonderful. His gratitude swelled to engulf his whole world.

  The boy had done it.

  He looked at Wintrow still sprawled on the floor. “He's such a good boy,” he said affectionately. “We care so much about him, the ship and I. ” He was getting very sleepy but he managed to bring his eyes back to the woman's face. Her hand was touching his cheek. He reached up slowly and managed to capture it. “You'll take care of him for me, won't you?” His eyes moved across her face, from her mouth to her eyes. It was hard to make his eyes see her whole face at once. It was too much work to refocus them. “I can count on you for that, can't I?”

  “Is that what you want?” she asked him reluctantly.

  “More than anything,” he declared passionately. “Be kind to him. ”

  “If that is what you want, I will,” she said, almost unwillingly.

  “Good. Good. ” He squeezed her fingers gently. “I knew you would if I asked you. Now I can sleep. ” He closed his eyes.

  WHEN WINTROW OPENED HIS EYES, THERE WAS A CUSHION UNDER HIS HEAD and a blanket thrown over him. He was on the deck of the captain's stateroom. He tried to find his place in time. He had a fragmented dream of a stained-glass window. A frightened boy had been hiding behind it. The window had broken. Somehow, Wintrow had reassembled the window. The boy had been grateful. No. No, in the dream, he had been the boy . . . no, he had pieced the man back together, while Berandol and Vivacia advised him from behind a curtain of water. There had been a serpent and a dragon, too. A seven-pointed star that hurt horribly. Then he had wakened, and Etta had been annoyed with him and then . . .

  It was no good. He could not make it come together. The long day was broken into pieces that he could not reconcile. Some parts, he knew, were from his dreams. Others seemed relentlessly real. Had he actually cut off a man's leg earlier this afternoon? That seemed the most unlikely recollection of all. He closed his eyes and groped toward Vivacia. He was aware of her, as he always was whenever he reached toward her. A wordless communion was constant between them. He could feel that much of her, but she seemed distracted. Not disinterested in him so much as intrigued with something else. Perhaps she was as disoriented as he was. Well. It was not going to do any good to lie here.

  He rolled his head and looked up at Kennit's bunk. The pirate's chest rose and fell reassuringly under his bedding. His color was terrible, but he was alive. At least that much of Wintrow's dream had been true.

  He drew a deep breath, and got his arms under him. He pushed up carefully from the deck, fighting his way through a wall of vertigo. Never had a working trance so weakened him. He still was not quite sure what he had done, or if he had truly done anything at all. In his work trances at the monastery, he had learned how to engage completely with his art. Immersed in it, the various tasks of creation became a whole act. It seemed he had somehow applied that to healing Kennit, but he did not understand how. He could not remember composing himself for a work trance.

  Once on his feet, he moved carefully toward the bed. Was this how it felt to be drunk, he wondered? Unsteady and dizzy, seeing colors as too bright, edges of objects sharply defined? It could not be. This was not pleasant. No one would willingly seek out these sensations. He halted at the edge of the bed. He dreaded checking the bandages on Kennit's leg, but he knew he should. He might still be bleeding. If he was, Wintrow had no idea what he would do. Despair, he decided. He reached gingerly for the edge of the blanket.

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  “Don't wake him, please. ”

  Etta's voice was so gentle he almost did not recognize it. He turned his whole body to see her. She was seated in a chair in the corner of the room. There were hollows under her eyes that he had not noticed before. Dark blue fabric overlay her lap while she plied a busy needle. She looked up at him, bit off a thread, turned her work and began a new seam.

  “I have to see if he's still bleeding. ” His words sounded thick and misshapen to his ears.

  “He doesn't seem to be. However, if you disturb the bandages to check the wound, you might start blood flowing. Best to leave well enough alone. ”

  “Has he awakened at all?” His mind was starting to clear itself.

  “Briefly. Right after you . . . brought him back. I gave him water, lots of it. Then he dozed off again. He's slept ever since. ”

  Wintrow rubbed at his eyes. “How long has that been?”

  “Nearly all night,” she told him placidly. “It will be dawn soon. ”

  He could not fathom her kindly manner toward him. It was not that she looked at him warmly or smiled. Rather something was gone from her voice, an edge of jealousy or distrust that had always been there before now. Wintrow was glad that she didn't seem to hate him anymore, but he wasn't quite sure how to deal with it. “Well,” he said inanely. “I suppose I should go back to sleep for a while then. ”

  “Sleep where you were,” she suggested. “It's clean and warm in here. You're close to Kennit in case he needs you. ”

  “Thank you,” he said awkwardly. He was not sure that he wanted to sleep on the deck here. His bed would be the deck no matter where he went on the ship, but the thought of having a stranger watching him while he slept was unnerving. What happened next was even stranger. She shook out the work on her lap, holding it up between them, her eyes going from him to her needlework and back again. It was a pair of trousers, and she was obviously eyeing him to see if they would fit. He felt like he should say something, but he did not know what. She folded it back into her lap without comment. She threaded her needle again and resumed her work.

  He returned to his blanket on the floor, rather like a dog returning to its designated spot. He sat but could not bring himself to lie down. Instead, he shawled the blanket over his shoulders. He looked at Etta until she returned his gaze. “How did you become a pirate?” he abruptly asked her. He hadn't realized he was going to speak until the words popped out.

  She took a breath, then spoke thoughtfully. There was no trace of regret in her voice. “I worked as a whore in a house in Divvytown. Kennit took a liking to me. One day I helped him kill some men who attacked him there. Afterwards, he took me out of the whorehouse and brought me here. At first, I was not sure why he had brought me to his ship, or what he expected of me. However, after a time, his thought became clear to me. I could be much more than a whore, if I chose to. He was giving me the chance. ”

  He stared at her. Her words had shocked him. Not her admission that she had killed men for Kennit; he had expected that of this pirate. She had called herself a whore. That was a man's word, a shame-word flung at a woman. But she did not seem ashamed. She wielded the word like a sword, slicing away all his preconceptions of who she was. She had earned her living by her sex, and she did not seem to regret it. It roused a strange shivering of interest in him. She suddenly seemed a more powerful creature than she had just moments ago. “What were you before you were a whore?” Unaccustomed to speaking the word, he put too much emphasis on it. He had not meant it to sound that way, he had not meant to ask that question at all. Had Vivacia nudged him to it?

  She frowned at him, thinking he rebuked her. Her eyes were straight and flat
as she said, “I was a whore's daughter. ” A note of challenge crept into her voice as she asked in turn, “And what were you, before your father made you a slave on his ship?”

  “I was a priest of Sa. At least, I was in training to be one. ”

  She lifted one eyebrow. “Really? I'd rather be a whore. ”

  Her words ended their conversation irrevocably. There was nothing he could say in reply. He did not feel offended. She had pointed up the vast gulf between them in a way that denied they could communicate at all, let alone offend one another. She went back to her sewing, her head bent over her work. Her face was carefully expressionless. Wintrow felt he had lost a chance. Moments ago, it had seemed that she had opened a door to him. Now the barrier was back, solid as ever. Why should he care, he asked himself, for the depth of his disappointment surprised him. Because she was a back door to influencing Kennit, because he might need her good will someday, the sly part of himself suggested. Wintrow pushed the thought aside. Because she, too, is a creation of Sa, he told himself firmly. I should reach out to befriend her for herself, not for any influence she has with Kennit. Nor because she is unlike any woman I have ever known at all and I cannot resist the puzzle of her.

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  He closed his eyes for a moment and tried to sweep aside all social artifice. When he spoke, his words were sincere. “Please. Can we try again? I'd like to be friends. ”

  Etta looked up in surprise. Then her expression changed to a humorless smile. “In case I can save your life later? By intervening with Kennit?”

  “No!” he protested.

  “That's good. Because I have no influence over Kennit that way. ” Her voice dropped a note. “What there is between Kennit and me, I would not use that way. ”

  Wintrow sensed an opening. “I would not ask you to. I just . . . it would be nice to talk to someone. Just to talk. So much has befallen me recently. My friends are all dead, my father despises me, the slaves I helped do not seem to recall what I did for them, I suspect Sa'Adar would like to do away with me. . . . ” His voice trailed away as he realized how self-pitying he sounded. He took a breath, but what came out next sounded even whinier. “I'm more alone than I've ever been. And I have no idea of what will become of me next. ”

  “Who ever does?” Etta asked him heartlessly.

  “I used to,” he said quietly. His thoughts turned inward as he spoke. “When I was at the monastery, life seemed to stretch out before me like a shining road. I knew I would continue my studies. I knew I excelled at my chosen work. I genuinely loved my life. I had no desire to change any of it. Then I was summoned home, my grandfather died, and my father forced me to serve aboard the ship. Since then, I have had no say in my life. Every time I tried to take control of it, I only bent it in a stranger direction. ”

  She bit off her thread. “Sounds normal to me. ”

  He shook his head sadly. “I do not know. Perhaps it is, for other folk. I only know it was not what I was accustomed to, nor what I expected. I keep trying to think of a way to get back to where I was and restore my life to what it is supposed to be, but-”

  “You can't go back,” she told him bluntly. Her voice was neither kind nor unkind. “That part of your life is over. Set it aside as something you have finished. Complete or no, it is done with you. No being gets to decide what his life is 'supposed to be. ' ” She lifted her eyes and her gaze stabbed him. “Be a man. Discover where you are now, and go on from there, making the best of things. Accept your life, and you might survive it. If you hold back from it, insisting this is not your life, not where you are meant to be, life will pass you by. You may not die from such foolishness, but you might as well be dead for all the good your life will do you or anyone else. ”

  Wintrow was stunned. Heartless as her words were, they brimmed with wisdom. Almost reflexively, he sank into meditation breathing, as if this were a teaching direct from Sa's scrolls. He explored her idea, following it to its logical conclusions.

  Yes, these thoughts were of Sa, and worthy. Accept. Begin anew. Find humility again. Pre-judging his life, that was what he had been doing. Always his greatest flaw, Berandol had warned him. There was opportunity for good here, if he just reached out toward it. Why had he been bent on returning to his monastery, as if Sa could only be found there? What had he just said to Etta? That the more he tried to take control of his life, the further he bent it. It was no wonder. He had been setting himself in opposition to Sa's will for him.

  He suddenly grasped how the slaves must have felt when the shackles were loosed from their ankles and wrists. Her words had freed him. He could let go of his self-imposed goals. He would lift up his eyes and look around him and see where Sa's way beckoned him most clearly.

  “Stop staring at me like that. ” There was both command and an edged uneasiness in Etta's voice. Wintrow immediately dropped his eyes.

  “I was not . . . I mean, I did not intend to stare. Your words simply woke in me such thoughts. . . . Etta. Where were you taught such things?”

  “Such things as what?” There was definite suspicion in her voice now.

  “Such things as accepting life and making the best of it . . . ” Spoken aloud, it seemed such a simple concept. Moments ago, those words had rung for him like great bells of truth. It was right, what they said: enlightenment was merely the truth at the correct time.

  “In a brothel. ”

  Even that revelation opened his mind to light. “Then Sa is truly there, as well, in all his wisdom and glory. ”

  She smiled and it almost reached her eyes. “To judge from the number of men who grunt out her name as they finish, I would say Sa is definitely there. ”

  Wintrow looked aside from her. The image was uncomfortably vivid. “It must be a hard way to make your living,” he blurted out.

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  “Do you think so?” She laughed aloud, a brittle sound. “That's a surprise to me, to hear you say that. But you are still just a boy. Most men tell us they wish they could earn their bread on their backs. They think we have it easy, dealing in 'pleasure' all day. ”

  Wintrow considered it for a moment. “I think it would be very hard, to be that intimate and vulnerable to a man one had no true feelings for. ”

  For just an instant, her eyes went pensive and dark. “After a time, all feelings go away,” she said in an almost-childish voice. “It's a relief when they do. Things get so much easier. Then it is no worse than any other dirty job. Unless you get a man who hurts you. Still, one can get hurt working anywhere: farmers are gored by their oxen, orchard workers fall from trees, fishermen lose fingers or drown. . . . ”

  Her voice trailed away. Her eyes went back to her stitching. Wintrow kept silent. After a time, a pale smile came to the edges of her mouth. “Kennit brought my feelings back. I hated him for it. That was the first thing he taught me to feel again: hate. I knew it was a dangerous thing. It is dangerous for a whore to feel anything. Knowing that he had made me feel emotions again just made me hate him even more. ”

  Why, Wintrow wondered, but he did not say the word aloud. He did not need to.

  “He came into the bagnio one day and looked around. ” Her voice was distant in reminiscence. “He was dressed very fine, and was very clean. A dark green broadcloth jacket with ivory buttons, and a spill of white lace down his chest and at his cuffs . . . He had never come to Bettel's bagnio before, but I knew who he was. Even then, most of Divvytown knew who Kennit was. He did not come to the brothel like most men did, with a friend or two, or his whole crew. He did not come drunk and boasting. He came alone, sober and purposeful. He looked at us, really looked at us, and then he chose me. 'She'll do,' he told Bettel. Then he ordered the room he wanted and the meal. He paid Bettel, right then, in front of everyone. Then he stepped up to me as if we were already alone. He leaned close to me. I thought he was going to kiss me. Some of the men do that. Instead, he sniffed the air
near me. Then he ordered me to go wash myself. Oh, I was humiliated. You would not think a whore can feel humiliation, but we can. Nevertheless, I did what I was told. Then I went upstairs and did as I was told, but no more than that. I was in a fury, and was cold as ice to him. I expected him to slap me, refuse me, or complain to Bettel. Instead, it seemed to suit his wishes. ”

  She paused. For a time, the silence rang in Wintrow's ears. He knew he did not want to hear any more about this, yet he avidly hoped she would say more. It was voyeurism, pure and simple, a keen curiosity to know in detail what went on between a man and a woman. He knew the physical mechanics; such knowledge had never been concealed from him. But knowing how such things are done does not convey the real knowledge of how it happens. He waited, looking at the deck by her feet. He dared not lift his eyes to see her face.

  “Every time after that, it was the same. He came, he chose me, he told me to wash, and he used me. He made it so cold. The other men who came to the bagnio, they'd pretend a bit. They would flirt, and laugh with the girls. They would tell stories and see who listened the best. They acted as if we had some say. They made us compete for them. Some would even dance with the whores, or bring little gifts, sweets or perfumes for the ones they liked best. Not Kennit. Even when he began asking for me by my name, it was still just a transaction,”

  She shook out the trousers, turned them right side out, and began to sew on them again. She took a breath once, as if she would continue. Then she gave her head a minute shake and went on with her sewing. Wintrow could not think of anything to say. Despite his fascination with her story, he was suddenly horribly tired. He wished he could go back to sleep, but he knew that even stretched out on the floor, sleep would not come to him. Outside, the night paled. Soon it would be dawn. He felt a brief stirring of triumph. He had cut Kennit's leg off yesterday, and the pirate was still alive today. He had done it. He had saved the man's life.

  Then he rebuked himself sharply. If the pirate still lived, it was only because his will had coincided with Sa's. To believe anything else was false pride. He glanced again at his patient. His chest still rose and fell. However, he had known that Kennit still lived before he looked. Vivacia knew, and through her, he knew. He did not want to consider that link, nor wonder how strong it was. It was bad enough that he was connected so to the ship. He did not want to share such a bond with the pirate.

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