The mad ship, p.26
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       The Mad Ship, p.26

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  “Where did you get the picture of the liveship, anyway?” he asked.

  The other two men turned to stare at him.

  “Why do you care?” Captain Finney asked. His voice was not casual.

  Sincure Faldin broke in, obviously still hoping to dispose of the painting. “The painting comes from the ship herself. Rarely is a liveship ever captured: this authentic memento of such an event is among the rarest of the rare. ” As he re-pitched the desirability of the painting, he had snatched it up and was once more freeing it of its shroud.

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  Brashen shifted the small plug of cindin in his lip. “Don't believe it, then,” he said gruffly. He met Finney's eyes. “That's what was bothering me. If a man has a picture of a ship aboard, it is likely a picture of his own ship. But liveships don't get caught. Everyone knows that. It's a fake. ” He shifted his gaze, as if by chance, to the merchant. “Oh, I'm not calling you a liar,” he added hastily at the look of outrage on Faldin's face. “I'm just saying whoever sold it to you was probably gulling you. ” He smiled at the man, knowing well that insinuating that a man didn't know what he was talking about was the best way to get him to share all he knew.

  It worked. The trader's outrage faded to a look that was coldly smug. “I don't think so. Yet, I can understand why you might believe that was so. The taking of a liveship is not an ordinary feat. An ordinary man did not accomplish it. Captain Kennit did. If you know his name at all, you will not be surprised by it. ”

  Captain Finney gave a snort of contempt. “That horse's ass? Is he still alive? I would have bet gold that someone would have spilled his guts by now. He isn't still spouting that nonsense about becoming the King of the Pirates, is he?”

  For the first time, Brashen suspected Sincure Faldin's affront was genuine. The portly merchant drew himself up and took in a breath. His gaudy shirt filled like a sail bellying with wind. “You speak of a man who is all but engaged to my daughter. I have the highest regard for Captain Kennit, and am honored that he gives me the exclusive privilege of selling his goods. I will hear no disparagement of him. ”

  Finney rolled his eyes at Brashen. “Then you won't hear anything from me about him. The man is insane, Sincure. He's a top-notch captain, and he runs a tight ship. I won't fault him there. Last year there was all that wild talk about him saying he was destined to be King of the Pirate Isles. Rumor was that he'd gone to the Others Island, and got an oracle to say it was so. Well, you know how much we all want a king. Faugh! Then the next thing I hear about him, he's running down slaveships just for the sake of freeing the cargo. Not that I don't feel for those poor clods chained up in Chalcedean holds. I do. I feel for myself, too, when that damn Kennit stirred up enough dust that the boy Satrap thought he needed to send patrols out after pirates. The kid doesn't even have the sense to keep it a Jamaillian problem, no; he invites in Chalcedean privateers, supposed to clean us out of here. But all they're really doing is picking off the best cargoes for themselves and leaving us to take the blame. ” Finney shook his head. "King of the Pirate Isles. Sure.

  That's just about exactly what we'd expected we would get from a king. More dung raining down on us. "

  Sincure Faldin crossed his arms stubbornly. “No, no, my dear friend. Far be it from me to disagree with a customer, but you are not seeing the larger picture. Kennit has done great good for us all. The slaves he has freed have joined us, supplying our towns with artisans and craftsmen, not to mention fertile women. Who used to flee to us? Murderers and rapists, thieves and cut-throats. Those few honest men who ended up among us have had to do as you and I have done: devise a way to make an honest living in the midst of disorder. Kennit has changed all that. He swells our towns with folk who ask no more than a chance to live free again. He will make of us a nation rather than a collection of bickering outposts for renegades and refugees. Yes, he stirred the Satrap's wrath. Those among us so blind as to think we still owed loyalty to a drug-lulled boy who is ruled by his women and advisors now see him for what he truly is. His actions have shattered that sentimental fealty. All of us are coming to realize that we owe no loyalty at all to Jamaillia, that our concerns should be only for ourselves. ”

  A grudging agreement spread over Finney's face. “I don't say he's all bad. But we don't need a king. We've done fine running things ourselves. ”

  Brashen dredged up a fragment of half-forgotten gossip. “Kennit. Isn't he the one who kills everyone aboard a ship when he takes it?”

  “Not always!” Faldin objected. “Only on slaveships does he kill the whole crew. But there is a rumor he has spared some of the liveship's crew, although she was a slaver. The ship was joyous at being rescued. Now she dotes on Captain Kennit. ”

  “A liveship was being used as a slaver, and when she was captured, she abandoned her loyalty to her family?” Brashen shook his head, amused and disdainful. He spoke to his captain. “I may not know this particular ship, but I know enough of liveships to tell you those two things cannot be true. ”

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  “But they are!” Faldin looked from one man to the other. “You do not have to believe me,” he added in a superior voice. “You are only a day or so from Divvy town. Go there, if you doubt me. The liveship has been there the better part of a month, undergoing repairs. Speak to the slaves, now free folk, delivered by Kennit from her holds. I have not spoken to the ship myself, but those bold enough to do so say that she speaks well of her new captain. ”

  Brashen's heart was thundering in his chest. He felt as if he could not get quite enough air. It couldn't be true. Everything he knew about Vivacia and liveships told him it could not be true. Every scrap of evidence that Sincure Faldin offered him told him that it was. He managed a shrug and then coughed in an attempt to ease the tightness in his throat. “Up to the captain,” he managed to say. He made a great show of shifting the cindin in his mouth. He spoke around the plug. “He makes those decisions. Me?” He shifted the truncheon in his hands. “I do other things. ” He grinned at them both, a setting of his teeth.

  “If you came to Divvytown, I could show you a much fuller selection of merchandise. ” Sincure Faldin had suddenly reverted to being a merchant. His smile returned as he made his spiel. “My warehouse is there. Kennit's most recent voyage has stocked it well for me, though there is little else that is actually from the liveship. Slaves were the major cargo. Those he has freed. He has chosen to keep the choice appointments of the officers' quarters intact and otherwise restore the ship. He has not felt well enough yet to welcome visitors, but I am told that the captain's quarters are very fine, all polished wood and shining brass. ”

  Captain Finney made a nondescript noise. Brashen kept very still. The glint of interest had kindled in his captain's eyes. There was the prospect of seeing a captured liveship, perhaps even speaking to her. Given that sort of proof, and Faldin's assurance that the painting was the only trophy of its taking, he'd probably buy the portrait. Rarity always brought coin. Finney cleared his throat. “Well. Set the picture aside. I have got a bit of space in the hold to fill. Sounds like Divvytown might be the place to do it. If I see this liveship and your tale proves true, I'll buy the picture. Now. Let's back to business. Have you got any tapestries like those you sold me last year?”

  HAMMERS RANG ABOVE A CHORUS OF SAWS BURRING. THE SMELL OF HARDwood sawdust and fresh varnish filled the ship's companionways. The slaves that had crowded the decks and holds of the Vivacia had been replaced with gangs of carpenters and shipwrights. Wintrow stepped around a man applying varnish to a repaired doorframe, then dodged an apprentice bearing blocks of beeswax. With amazing swiftness, the Vivacia was being restored. The damage she had taken in the slave uprising had nearly been eradicated. Her holds were being cleaned, not just scrubbed but freshened by the careful burning of aromatic herbs. Soon only the stains of spilled blood would remain on her decks. Despite scrubbing, sanding or soaking, the wizar
dwood refused to forget.

  Sorcor was very much in evidence, striding about the ship energetically supervising everyone. His voice carried well and men jumped to obey his orders. Less obvious but no less commanding was Etta. She did not announce her presence with a bellowed command, but her quiet comments served just as well. Deckhands beamed at a word of praise from her. Wintrow had been watching her surreptitiously. He had expected that she would be waspish in her direction, sharply sarcastic. He had felt the razor edge of her tongue so often that he assumed it was her common demeanor. Instead, he discovered that she had a great talent for both charm and persuasion. He also detected the careful line she walked to get tasks accomplished to her satisfaction without interfering with Sorcor's authority. When the mate and the captain's woman were in proximity, they displayed both camaraderie and rivalry. It intrigued and puzzled Wintrow. Both their bond and their dispute was Kennit.

  How could one man command such loyalty from such diverse people? At the monastery, one oft-repeated old saying was “Sa's hand can fit around any tool. ” It was usually uttered when an unlikely novice suddenly bloomed with talent. After all, Sa had a purpose for all things. It was the limit of humanity that those reasons could not always be perceived. Maybe Kennit truly was a tool of Sa, and was aware of his destiny. Wintrow supposed that stranger things had happened. He simply could not recall any.

  Wintrow rapped once at a freshly restored door, then worked the latch and entered. Despite the sunshine slanting in through the porthole, the chamber seemed dark and close. “You should open the window and let in some fresh air,” he observed aloud. He set down the tray he was carrying.

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  “Shut the door,” his father replied gruffly. He unfolded his legs, stretched, and then stood. The rumpled bed behind him retained the imprint of his body. “What did you bring me this time? Sawdust cakes full of weevils?” He glared at the door that still stood open. In one angry stride he crossed the small room and slammed it shut.

  “Turnip and onion soup and wheatcakes,” Wintrow replied evenly. “The same food that everyone else got today. ”

  Kyle Haven grunted in reply. He lifted the bowl of soup, poked it with a finger. “It's cold,” he complained, and then drank it where he stood. His whiskery throat moved as he swallowed. Wintrow wondered when he had last shaved. When he lowered the bowl, he wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. He caught his son staring and glared back. “Well? What sort of manners do you expect of a man kept like a dog in a kennel?”

  “There are no longer any guards on the door. I asked some days ago if you might be allowed out on deck. Kennit said you could, so long as I was with you and took responsibility for you. It is your own decision to remain in this room as if it were a cell. ”

  “I wish there were a mirror in here, so I could see if I look as stupid as you think I am,” his father retorted sourly. He snatched up a wheatcake and wiped out the bowl with it before he bit into it. “You'd like that, wouldn't you?” he muttered around a mouthful of food. “You could trot along beside me on deck, and be oh - so - surprised and horrified when some sneaking bastard put a knife in my ribs. Then you would be rid of me for good and all. Don't think that I don't know that's what you want. That's what this has all been about. Not that you have the guts to do it yourself. Oh, no, not the boy in the skirts. He prays to Sa, rolls his big brown eyes, and sets it up for others to do his dirty work. What's this?”

  “Aide tea. And if I wanted so badly to be rid of you, I'd have poisoned it. ” Wintrow heard with a shock the heartless sarcasm in his own voice.

  His father halted with the mug halfway to his lips. He gave a hoarse bark of laughter. “No, you wouldn't. Not you. You'd get someone else to poison it, and then you would give it to me, so you could pretend none of it was your doing. Not my fault, you could whine, and when you crawled back to your mother, she would believe you and let you go back to your monastery. ”

  Wintrow pinched his lips together. I am living with a madman, he reminded himself. Conversing with him is not going to bring him to his senses. His mind has turned. Only almighty Sa can cure him and only in his own time. He found a modicum of patience within himself. He tried to believe it was not a show of defiance when he crossed the small room and opened the window.

  “Shut that,” his father growled. “Do you think I want to smell that scummy little town out there?”

  “It smells no worse than the stench of your own body that fills this room,” Wintrow countered. He walked two steps away from the open window. At his feet was his own pallet, seldom slept in, and the small bundle of clothes he could call his own. Nominally, he shared this small room with his father. The reality was that he slept most nights on the foredeck near Vivacia. The proximity made him uncomfortably aware of her thoughts, and through her, the presence of Kennit's dreams. Still, that was preferable to his father's irascible and critical company.

  “Is he going to ransom us?” Kyle Haven demanded suddenly. “He could get a good price for us. Your mother probably could scrape up a bit, and the Bingtown Traders would come through with more, to get a liveship back. Does he know that? That he could get a good price for us? You should tell him that. Has he sent a ransom note yet?”

  Wintrow sighed. Not this conversation again. He cut swiftly to the meat of it, hoping for a mercifully quick end. “He doesn't want to ransom the ship, Father. He intends to keep it. That means I have to stay with it. I don't know what he plans to do with you. I've asked him, but he doesn't answer. I don't want to make him angry. ”

  “Why? You never feared to make me angry!”

  Wintrow sighed. “Because he is an unpredictable man. If I push him, he may take . . . rash action. To demonstrate his power. I think it is wiser to wait for him to see he has nothing to gain from holding you. As he heals, he seems more reasonable. In time-”

  “In time I shall be little more than a living corpse, shut up in here, taunted and mocked and despised by all on this ship. He seeks to break me with darkness and poor food and no company save that of my idiot son!”

  His father had finished eating. Without a word, Wintrow picked up the tray and turned to go. “That's right, run away! Hide from the truth. ” When Wintrow made no reply as he opened the door, his father bellowed after him, “Make sure you take the chamberpot and empty it! It stinks. ”

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  “Do it yourself. ” Wintrow's voice came out flat and ugly. “No one will stop you. ”

  He shut the door behind himself. His grip on the tray was so tight his knuckles were white. His molars hurt where his teeth were clenched together. “Why?” he asked aloud of no one. More quietly, he added to himself, “How could that man be my father? I feel no bond to him at all. ”

  He felt a faint tremor of sympathy from the ship.

  Just before he reached the galley door, Sa'Adar caught up with him. Wintrow had been aware of him following him since he left his father's room, but he had hoped to elude him. The priest became more frightening with every passing day. He had all but disappeared for a time, after Etta had marked him with her knife. Like some parasitic creature, he had burrowed deep into the holds of the ship, to work his poison silently among the freed men and women. There were fewer discontents as the days passed. Kennit and his crew treated them even-handedly. They were fed as well as any crew member, and the same level of effort was expected from them in caring for the ship.

  When they reached Divvytown, it was announced to the former slaves that any who wished to disembark might take their freedom and go. Captain Kennit wished them well and hoped they would enjoy their new lives. Those who desired could request to stay aboard as crew, but they would have to prove themselves worthy and loyal sailors to Kennit. Wintrow had seen the wisdom in that; Kennit had effectively pulled Sa'Adar's teeth. Any slave who truly desired a life of piracy and had the skill to compete could claim one. The others had their freedom. Not many had taken the
road to piracy.

  The taller, older man stepped abruptly around Wintrow. Sa'Adar stood before him, blocking his passage. Wintrow glanced past him. He was alone. He wondered if his map-face guards had forsaken him to regain lives of their own. Wintrow had to turn his eyes up to look at Sa'Adar. The man's face was graven with discontent and fanaticism. His unkempt hair spilled onto his forehead; his clothes had not been washed in days. His eyes burned as he accused, “I saw you leave your father's room. ”

  Wintrow spoke civilly and ignored the question. “I'm surprised you are still aboard. I am sure there is much work for a priest of Sa in a place like Divvytown. The freed slaves would surely appreciate your assistance in beginning new lives there. ”

  Sa'Adar narrowed his dark eyes at Wintrow. “You mock me. You mock my priesthood, and in doing so you mock yourself and Sa. ” His hand snaked out to seize Wintrow's shoulder. The boy still gripped his father's breakfast tray. He clutched it tightly to keep from spilling the crockery on the deck, but he stood his ground. “You forsake your priesthood and Sa in what you do here. This is a ship built of death, speaking with death's tongue. A follower of the Life God should not be servant to it. But it is not too late for you, lad. Recall who you are. Align yourself once more with life and right. You know this ship belongs by right to those who seized it for themselves. This vessel of cruelty and bondage could become a ship of freedom and righteousness. ”

  “Let me go,” Wintrow said quietly. He tried to squirm out of the madman's grip.

  “This is my last warning to you. ” Sa'Adar came very close to him, his breath hot and rancid in Wintrow's face. “It is your last chance to redeem yourself from your past errors and put your feet on the true path to glory. Your father must be delivered to judgment. If you are the instrument of that, your own part in the transgressions can be forgiven. I myself will judge it is so. Then this ship must be surrendered to those who rightfully claim her. Make Kennit see that. He is a sick man. He cannot withstand us. We rose and unseated one despot. Does he believe we cannot do it again?”

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