The mad ship, p.17
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       The Mad Ship, p.17

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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  Etta made a tiny sound, an intake of breath. Wintrow swung his attention back to her. She didn't look at him. She kept her eyes focused on her stitching. Yet, there was a quiet glow of pride about her. Plainly, there was something she had well considered and decided to say to him. When she spoke, he listened silently.

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  “I stopped hating Kennit when I realized what he was giving me, each time he came. Honesty. He preferred me, and he did not fear to show that. In front of everyone, he chose me, every time. He did not bait me to simper and flirt. I was what he wanted, and I was for sale, so he bought me. He was showing me that as long as I was a whore that was all we could ever share. An honest transaction. ”

  An odd little smile crossed her face. “Sometimes, Bettel would offer him other women. She had many. Some were fancier women, far more beautiful than I am, some were women who knew exotic ways to please a man. Bettel sought to win his favor that way. She did that with the house patrons, to keep them loyal to her. She offered them variety, and tempted them to . . . acquire new preferences. I knew it did not please her to see Kennit always come to me. It made her feel less important, I suppose. Once, in front of everyone, she asked him, 'Why Etta? So lanky, so plain. So ordinary. I have courtesans trained in the finest houses in Chalced. Or, if you prefer innocence, I have sweet virginal things from the countryside. You could afford the best in my house. Why do you prefer my cheapest whore?' ” The tiny smile reached Etta's eyes. “I think she thought to shame him, before the other patrons there. As if he could ever have cared what they thought. Instead, he said, 'I never confuse the cost of something with its value. Etta, go and wash yourself. I shall be upstairs. ' After that, all the other whores called me Kennit's whore. They tried to make it a name that stung. But it never bothered me. ”

  Obviously, Kennit was a deeper man than Wintrow had supposed him to be. Most sailors did not look beyond a whore's face and figure to make a choice. Kennit evidently had. On the other hand, perhaps the woman was deceiving herself. He glanced up at Etta's face and then away. Uneasiness swept through him. Whence had that thought sprung? For an instant, he had felt the sting of jealousy. Had it been from the ship herself? He felt the sudden need to speak with Vivacia.

  He stood, his knees crackling. His lower back was stiff, his shoulders sore. When had he last slept in a real bed, slept until he had awakened naturally? Eventually, he must pay heed to the needs of his own body, or it would enforce its demands for rest and food. Soon, he promised himself. As soon as he felt safe, he would see to himself. “It's dawn,” he said awkwardly. “I should check on the ship and on my father. I need to get some sleep for myself, also. Will you send for me if Kennit awakens?”

  “If he needs you,” Etta replied coolly. Perhaps that had been the point of her entire conversation: to make clear to Wintrow her prior claim upon Kennit. Did she see him as a threat somehow? Wintrow decided he did not know enough about women. She lifted her work to her mouth, and bit off a thread. Then she too, stood, shaking out the garment she had finished. “For you,” she said abruptly, and thrust the trousers at him. He started toward her to take the gift from her hands, but she tossed it at him, forcing him to catch it awkwardly. One trouser leg slapped him lightly in the face.

  “Thank you,” he said uncertainly.

  She didn't look at him, nor acknowledge his words. Instead she opened a clothes chest and rummaged through it. She came up with a shirt. “Here. This will do for you. It's one of his old ones. ” She fingered the fabric for a moment. “It's a very good weave. He knows quality, that one. ”

  “I am sure he does,” Wintrow replied. “He chose you, as you have told me. ” It was his first effort at gallantry. Somehow, it did not come out quite right. The comment hung crookedly between them. Etta stared at him, sorting the words to see if they held an insult. The heat of a blush rose to his cheeks; what had ever possessed him to say such a thing? Then she tossed the shirt at him and it opened wide, a white bird a-wing. It collapsed over his hands, heavy cloth, strong yet supple. It was a very good shirt, much too fine to dispose of so casually. Was there, he wondered, a message here, one that Etta scarcely knew that she conveyed? He draped the garments over his arm. “Thank you for the clothing,” he said again, determined to be polite.

  Her eyes leveled with his. “Kennit wants you to have them, I am sure,” she said. Just as he began to feel grateful, she doused it with, “You will be looking after him. He demands cleanliness of those around him. You should take time today to wash yourself, including your hair. ”

  “I'm not . . . ” he began and then stopped. He was dirty. A moment's reflection made him realize he stank. He had cleansed his hands after he cut off Kennit's leg, but he had not washed his entire body for days. “I will,” he amended humbly. Carrying the clothes, he left the captain's cabin.

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  The disarray and crowding on the captured ship almost seemed normal now. His eyes no longer snagged on every splintered doorjamb. He could look past bloodstains on the decks and walls. As he emerged onto the deck, he pressed his back to the wall to make room for a couple to pass him. They were both map-faces. The man was a bit simple, Wintrow recalled. Dedge was his name. He was one of the map-faces Etta had chosen to hold Kennit down. He always seemed to be with the younger, quicker Saylah. They scarcely noticed Wintrow as they brushed past him, so caught up were they in one another. That, too, had begun to happen. He should have expected it. After any disaster, that was always the first sign of returning hope. Men and women paired off and coupled. He looked after them curiously, wondering where they would find privacy. Idly, he wondered if they had been slaves long, if privacy were of any concern to them any more. He realized he was staring after them. With a twitch of annoyance at himself, he called to mind his errands. Confer with Vivacia. Check on his father. Eat. Bathe. Sleep. Check on Kennit. His life suddenly assumed a shape, with a schedule to his hours and purpose to his acts. He made his way forward.

  The Vivacia still swung at anchor in the small cove. Had it truly been just one night since they had hidden here? A mist was dispersing in the morning sunlight. Soon the sun might have enough strength to warm the day. The figurehead stared out toward the wide channel as if keeping watch. Perhaps she was.

  “I worry that the other ship will never find us. ” She spoke aloud in answer to his silent thought. “How will they know where to look?”

  “I have the feeling that Kennit and Sorcor have sailed together for a long time. Such men have ways of doing things, ways they pass on to their crews. Besides, Kennit is still alive. Before long, he may feel well enough to guide us to Bull Creek himself. ” Wintrow spoke reassuringly, attempting to comfort the ship.

  “Perhaps,” Vivacia conceded grudgingly. “But I would feel better if we were underway already. He has survived the night, that is true. Nevertheless, he is far from strong, or cured. Yesterday, he died when he stopped struggling to live. Today, he struggles to cling to life. I do not like how his dreams twitch and dance. I would feel better if he were in the hands of a real healer. ”

  Her words stung, just a bit. Wintrow knew he was not a trained healer, but she might have spoken some word of admiration at how well he had done so far. He glanced down at the deck where he had performed his crude surgery. Kennit's flowing blood had followed the contours of his supine body. The dark stain was an eerie outline of his injured leg and hip. It was not far from Wintrow's own bloody handprint. That mark had never been erased from the deck. Would Kennit's shadow stay as well? Uneasily, Wintrow scuffed at it with his bare foot.

  It was like sweeping his fingers across a stringed instrument, save that the chord he awoke was not sound. Kennit's life suddenly sang with his own. Wintrow reeled with the force of the connection, then sat down hard on the deck. A moment later, he tried to describe it to himself. It had not been Kennit's memories, nor his thoughts or dreams. Instead, it had been an intense awareness of th
e pirate. The closest comparison he could summon was the way a perfume or scent could suddenly call up detailed memories, but a hundred times stronger. His sense of Kennit had almost driven him out of himself.

  “Now you glimpse how it is for me,” the ship said quietly. A moment later she added, “I did not think it could affect you that way. ”

  “What was that?”

  “The power of blood. Blood remembers. Blood recalls not days and nights and events. Blood recalls identity. ”

  Wintrow was silent, trying to grasp the full import of what she was saying. He reached out a hand toward Kennit's spilled shadow on the deck. Then he pulled back his fingers. No amount of curiosity could draw him to experience that again. The potency of it had dizzied his soul and nearly displaced him from himself.

  “And that is what you felt,” the ship added to his thought. "You, who have blood of your own. At least you possess your own body, your own set of memories and your own identity. You can set Kennit aside and say, 'He is not I. ' I have none of that. I am no more than wood impregnated with the memories of your family. The identity you call Vivacia is one I have cobbled together for myself. When Kennit's blood soaked into me, I was powerless to refuse it. Just like the night of the slave uprising, when man after man entered me, and I was powerless to deny any of them.

  “The night all that blood was spilled . . . Imagine being drenched in identities, not once or twice, but dozens of times. They collapsed on my decks and died, but as their blood soaked into me, they made me the reservoir of who they had been. Slave or crew member, it made no difference. They came to me. All that they were, they added to me. Sometimes, Wintrow, it is too much. I walk the spiral pathways of their blood, and I know who they were in detail. I cannot free myself from those ghosts. The only more powerful influences are those of you who possess me doubly: with your blood soaked into my planks and your minds linked to mine. ”

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  “I do not know what to say,” Wintrow replied lamely.

  “Do you think I do not already know that?” Vivacia replied bitterly.

  A long silence fell between them. To Wintrow, it was as if the very planks of the deck emanated cold toward him. He crept away quietly, his new clothes bundled under his arm, but he took the knowledge with him that there was nowhere he could go that would free her from his presence. Accept life as it came. That was what Etta had said to him but a short time ago. Then, it had seemed brilliant. He tried to imagine accepting that their eternal fate was to be bound together. He shook his head to himself.

  “If this be your will, O Sa, I know not how to endure it gladly,” he said quietly. It was pain to feel Vivacia echo the same thought.

  IT WAS HOURS LATER AND THE SUN WAS HIGH WHEN THE MAR/ETTA FOUND them. She had a long scorched area along her starboard railing. Deckhands were already at work repairing it. An even plainer sign of both her encounter and her triumph was the string of severed heads that dangled from her bowsprit. The cry of the lookout had brought Wintrow out on deck. Now he stared in sick fascination as the ship drew nearer. He had seen carnage the night the slaves had risen and taken over the Vivacia. These trophies went beyond carnage into a planned savagery that he could not completely grasp.

  The men and women that lined the railings alongside him lifted up a cheer at the bloody prizes. To them, the heads represented not only the Satrap who had condoned their slavery but Chalced, the most avaricious market for enslaved humanity. As the Marietta drew closer, Wintrow could see other signs of their battle with the patrol galley. Several of the pirates wore crude bandages. That didn't stop them from grinning and waving to their compatriots aboard Vivacia.

  There was a tug at Wintrow's sleeve. “The woman says you're to come and wait on the captain,” Dedge told him dourly. Wintrow looked at him carefully, fixing the man's face and his name in his memory. He tried to look past the lineage of his slavery and see the man beneath the sprawling tattoos. His eyes were sea-gray, his hair no more than a fringe above his ears. Despite his years, muscle showed through his rags. Etta had already marked him as her own; he wore a sash of silk about his waist. “The woman” he had called her, like a title, as if she were the only woman aboard the ship. Wintrow supposed that in a sense, she was. “I'll come right away,” he responded to the man.

  The Marietta was dropping anchor. Soon a gig would be lowered to bring Sorcor aboard to report to Kennit. Wintrow had no idea why Ken-nit had summoned him, but perhaps Kennit would allow him to be in the room when Sorcor reported. Earlier today, when he had checked on his father, Kyle had insisted Wintrow must gather as much knowledge of the pirates as he could. Wintrow tried to push the memory of that painful hour away.

  Confinement and pain had made Kyle more of a tyrant than ever, and he seemed to believe Wintrow was his only remaining subject. In truth, the boy felt almost no loyalty to him at all, save for a residue of duty. His father's insistence that he must constantly spy and plot for a way to regain control of the ship struck him as laughable. But he had not laughed; he had merely let the man rant while he saw to his injuries and coaxed him to eat the dry bread and old water that were the only rations afforded him. It was easier to let his words flow past. Wintrow had nodded to them, but said little in reply. To try to explain their real situation aboard the Vivacia would only have angered Kyle. Wintrow had let him keep his far-fetched dream that they would somehow regain control of the ship. It seemed the easiest thing to do. Soon enough, they would reach Bull Creek, and then they both must confront what had befallen them. Wintrow would not battle his father to make him recognize reality; reality would do that itself.

  He tapped at the door, then entered at Etta's soft response. Kennit was awake on the bunk. He turned his head to greet him with, “She won't help me sit up. ”

  “She is right. You should not sit up, not yet,” Wintrow replied. “You should lie still and rest completely. How do you feel?” He set his hand to the pirate's forehead.

  Kennit rolled his head away from the touch. “Wretched. Oh, do not ask me what I feel. I am alive; what can it matter, what I feel? Sorcor is coming, fresh from triumph, and here I lie, mauled and stinking like a corpse. I will not be seen like this. Help me to sit up, at least. ”

  “You must not,” Wintrow warned him. “Your blood is quiescent just now. Lie still and let it remain so. To sit up will change the reservoirs of your organs, and may spill blood that then must find its way out through your wound. This I learned well at the monastery. ”

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  “This I learned well on the deck: a pirate captain who can no longer actively lead his crew is soon fish bait. I will be sitting up when Sorcor arrives here. ”

  “Even if it kills you?” Wintrow asked quietly.

  “Are you challenging my will in this?” Kennit demanded abruptly.

  “No. Not your will. Your common sense. Why choose to die here, in your bed, for a certainty, simply to impress a man who impresses me as unfailing in his loyalty to you? I think you misjudge your crew. They will not turn on you over your need to rest. ”

  “You're a puppy,” Kennit declared in disdain. He rolled his head away from the boy, choosing to look at the wall. “What can you know of loyalty, or how a ship is run? I tell you, I will not be seen like this. ” There was an edge in his voice that Wintrow suddenly recognized.

  “Why did you not say that your pain was back? The kwazi-rind essence can dull it again. You will think more clearly without agony distracting you. And you will be able to rest. ”

  “You mean I will be more tractable if you drug me,” Kennit snarled. “You simply seek to impose your will upon me. ” He lifted a shaking hand to his brow. “My head pounds with pain; how can that be due to my leg? Is it not more likely the result of some poison given me?” Even in his weariness, the pirate managed to summon up a look of sly amusement. Clearly, he supposed he had surprised Wintrow in a plot.

  His words shock
ed Wintrow into momentary silence. How did one deal with such suspicion and distrust? In a cold, stiff voice he heard himself say, “I will force no medicines upon you, sir. If your pain becomes such that you desire release from it, summon me and I shall apply the kwazi rind. Until then, I shall not trouble you. ” He spoke over his shoulder as he turned to go. “If you sit up to see Sorcor, the flow of blood you cause will end both our lives. But I cannot argue with your stubbornness. ”

  “Stop this,” Etta hissed at both of them. “There is a simple solution, one that may please us all. Will you allow me to suggest it?”

  Kennit rolled his head back to stare at her with dulled eyes. “It is?” he prompted.

  “Do not receive Sorcor. Simply give him an order to sail for Bull Creek and we will follow him. He does not need to know how weak you are. By the time we arrive in Bull Creek, you may be stronger. ”

  A spark of cunning lit in Kennit's eyes. “Bull Creek is too close,” he declared. “Have him lead us back to Divvytown. That will give me more time to recover. ” He paused. “But Sorcor will surely wonder that I do not wish to hear his report. He will suspect something. ”

  Etta folded her arms across her chest. “Say you are busy. With me. ” She gave him a small smile. “Send the boy to give the word to Brig, to pass to Sorcor. He will accept it. ”

  “It might work,” Kennit assented slowly. He flapped a slow hand at Wintrow. “Go now, right now. Tell Brig I am with Etta and do not wish to be disturbed. Pass on to him my orders that we are to head for Divvytown. ” Kennit's eyes narrowed, but from slyness or weariness, Wintrow could not tell. “Suggest I may judge Brig's seamanship by how well he manages the ship between here and there. Imply this is a test of his skill, not a lapse on my part. ” His eyelids sagged further. “Wait a time, until we are under way. Then come back here. I will judge you by how well this task is done. Convince Brig and Sorcor, and perhaps I will trust you to numb my leg for me. ” Kennit's eyes closed completely. In a smaller voice he added, “Perhaps I shall let you live. ”

 
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