The mad ship, p.27
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       The Mad Ship, p.27

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  “I believe that if I spoke such words to him, it would be death for you. Death for myself as well. Sa'Adar. Be content with what he has given you: a new chance at life. Seize it and go on. ” Wintrow tried to writhe away, but the man only tightened his grip. He bared his teeth in a snarl. Wintrow felt his self-control slipping. “Now get your hands off me and let me go. ” Suddenly, vividly, he was recalling this man in the hold of the Vivacia. Freed of his chains, his first act had been to take Gantry's life. Gantry had been a good man, in his way. A better man than Sa'Adar had ever shown himself to Wintrow.

  “I warn you-” the erstwhile priest of Sa began, but Wintrow's pent grief and banked anger suddenly overwhelmed him. He shoved the wooden tray hard into the man's gut. Taken by surprise, Sa'Adar staggered back, gasping for air. A part of Wintrow knew it was enough. He could have walked away. He was shocked when he dropped the tray, to drive two more blows into the man's chest. In detachment, he saw his right, and then his left fist connect. They were body punches, connecting with satisfyingly solid sounds. Even so, Wintrow was amazed to see the taller man give ground, stumbling back against the wall and sliding partially down it. It shocked him to discover his own physical strength. Worse, it felt good to knock the man down. He gritted his teeth, resisting the impulse to kick him.

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  “Leave me alone,” he warned Sa'Adar in a low growl. “Don't talk to me again or I'll kill you. ”

  The shaken man coughed as he clambered up the wall. Puffing, he pointed a finger at Wintrow. “See what you've become! It's the voice of this unnatural ship, using you as mouthpiece! Break free, boy, before you are damned forever!”

  Wintrow turned on his heel and strode away. He left the tray and crockery where it had fallen. It was the first time in his life he had fled from the truth.

  KENNIT SHIFTED IN HIS BEDDING. HE WAS DAMNABLY TIRED OF BEING CONfined to his bunk, but both Wintrow and Etta had convinced him that he must endure it a bit longer. He frowned at himself in a bedside mirror, then set his razor aside. His freshly trimmed mustache and beard improved his appearance, but the swarthiness of his skin had turned sallow and the flesh had fallen away from his cheeks. He practiced his hard stare at the mirror. “I look cadaverous,” he said aloud to the empty room. Even his voice sounded hollow. He set the mirror aside with a sharp clack. The action focused his attention on his hands. Veins and tendons stood out on their backs in sharp relief. When he turned them over, the palms looked soft as tallow. He made a fist and gave a snort of disdain at the result. It looked like a knot tied in a piece of old string. The wizardwood talisman, once strapped tightly to his pulse point, now dangled about his wrist. The silvery wood had gone gray and checked as if it, too, suffered from his lack of vitality. Kennit's lips tightened in a bare smile. Good. It should have brought him luck and instead it had served him this. Let the charm share his fate. He tapped at it with his fingernail. “Nothing to say?” he jeered at it. It was impassive.

  Kennit snatched up the mirror again and peered into it. His leg was healing; they all told him he would live. What was the good of that if he could no longer command respect from his crew? He had become a withered scarecrow of a man. His haggard reflection reminded himself of a street beggar in Divvytown.

  He slammed the mirror down again on the bedside table, half daring himself to break it. The ornate frame and heavy glass defied him. He flung the covers back from his legs and glared down at his stump. It lay on the creamy linen like a badly stuffed sausage, slightly withered at the end. He poked it savagely with a finger. The pain had receded substantially, leaving behind an obnoxious sensation between a tingle and an itch. He lifted it from the bed. It looked ridiculous, a seal's flipper, not a man's leg. Total despair washed over him. He imagined drawing cold salt water into his mouth and nose, pulling icy death into him, refusing to choke or splutter. It would be quick.

  The passion of his despair retreated abruptly, stranding him in helplessness. He did not even have the wherewithal to take his own life. Long before he managed to drag himself to the ship's railing, Etta would clutch at him, whining and imploring and bearing him back to this bed. Perhaps that had always been her aim in maiming him. Yes. She had chopped off his leg and fed it to the sea serpent so that she could finally master him. She intended to keep him here as her pet while she secretly undermined his command and became the true captain of the ship. Teeth clenched, fists knotted, the anger that rushed through him was intoxicating in its fierceness. He tried to feed on it, imagining in detail how she had probably planned it for months. Her eventual goal was to keep the liveship for herself, of course. Sorcor was probably involved in it as well. He would have to be very careful to conceal from them that he suspected. If they knew, they'd-

  Ridiculous. It was ridiculous and silly, the product of his long convalescence. Such thoughts were unworthy of him. If he must put such intensity of feeling into something, then let him put it into regaining his health. Etta might be lacking in many things, including breeding and courtesy, but she was certainly not plotting against him. If he was tired of his bed, he should tell them so. It was a fine spring day. He could be assisted to the foredeck. She would love to see his face again. It had been so long since they had talked.

  Kennit had dim, resentful memories of his mother's gentle hands carefully unfolding his chubby fingers from some forbidden object he had managed to possess. So had she spoken to him then, softly and reasonably as she took the gleaming wood and shining metal of the knife away. He recalled he had not succumbed to her gentleness but had screamed his displeasure. He felt the same defiance now. He did not want to be reasonable, he did not want to be consoled with something else. He wanted his fury to be justified and proven.

  But Vivacia was inside him, weaving herself through his being. He was too weakened to resist her as she took his angry suspicions and set them out of his reach. He was left with a sourceless dissatisfaction that made his head ache. He blinked the sting of tears from his eyes. Weepy, like a woman, he jeered at himself.

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  Someone tapped at his door. He took his hands away from his face. He flipped the blankets back over the remains of his legs. A moment, to compose himself. He cleared his throat. “Enter. ”

  He had expected Etta. Instead, it was the boy. He stood uncertainly in the door. The dim companionway framed him and the light from the stern windows fell on his face. His tattoo was hidden in shadow. His face was unflawed and open. “Captain Kennit?” he queried in a low voice. “Did I wake you?”

  “Not at all. Come in. ” He could not say why the sight of Wintrow was like balm to his spirit. Perhaps it had to do with the ship's feelings. The boy's appearance had improved since he had been in Kennit's care.

  He smiled at the youth as he approached the bed, and had the pleasure of seeing the boy shyly return it. His coarse black hair was sleeked back from his face and bound into the traditional seaman's queue. The clothing Etta had sewn suited him well. The loose white shirt, a bit large for him, was tucked into his dark blue trousers. He was small for his age, a lean and supple youth. Wind and sun had weathered the boy's face. The warm color of his skin, his white teeth and dark eyes, the dark trousers merging into the darkness of the corridor behind him: it was all a chance composition of perfect light and shadow. Even the hesitant, questioning look on his face was perfect as he emerged from dimness into the muted light of the chamber.

  Another step carried Wintrow further into the room. The tattoo on his face was suddenly not only visible; it was an indelible flaw, a stain on the boy's innocence. The pirate could see the torment in the boy's eyes, and sensed a misery in him. Kennit knew a moment of rage. “Why?” he demanded suddenly. “Why were you marked like that? What possible excuse did he have?”

  The boy's hand flew to his cheek. A flickering show of emotions rushed across his face: shame, anger, confusion, and then impassivity. His voice was even and low. “I suppose h
e thought it would teach me something. Perhaps it was his revenge because I had not been the son he wished me to be. Perhaps it was his way of repairing that. He made me a slave instead of his son. Or . . . it could have been something else. He was, I think, jealous of my bond with the ship. When he marked my face with hers, it was his way of saying we were welcome to one another, because we had rejected him. Maybe. ”

  It was enlightening to watch Wintrow's face as he spoke. The careful words could not completely disguise the pain. The boy's floundering attempts at an explanation revealed that it was a question he had agonized over often. Kennit suspected that none of the possible answers satisfied him. It was obvious his father had never bothered to explain it. The boy advanced to his bedside. “I need to look at your stump now,” he said. Blunt, this boy was. He didn't call it a leg, or an injury. It was a stump and that was what he called it. He didn't mince his way past Kennit's feelings. That integrity was oddly comforting. The boy would not lie to him.

  “You say you had rejected your father. Is that how you still feel about him?” Kennit could not say why the boy's answer would be so important to him.

  A shadow crossed the boy's face. For a moment, Kennit thought Wintrow would lie to him. But the hopelessness of truth was in his voice when he spoke. “He is my father. ” The words were almost a cry of protest. “I owe him the duty of a son. Sa commands us to respect our parents and exult over any goodness we find in them. But in truth, I wish-” His voice dropped lower as if to speak the thought shamed him. “I wish he were out of my life. Not dead, no, I don't wish that,” he added hastily as he met Kennit's intent stare. “I just wish he were somewhere else. Somewhere safe but,” his voice faltered guiltily, “where I just didn't have to deal with him anymore,” he finished in a near whisper. “Where I didn't have to feel diminished each time he looked at me. ”

  “I can arrange that,” Kennit answered him easily. The stricken look on the boy's face plainly wondered what wish he had just been granted. He started to speak, then apparently decided that keeping silent was safer.

  “Does the tattoo bother you?” he heard himself ask as Wintrow turned the blankets back. The boy-priest bent over Kennit's leg, his hands hovering above the stump. Kennit could almost feel a tickling ghost-touch on his flesh.

  “A moment,” Wintrow requested quietly. “Let me try this. ”

  Kennit waited expectantly for him to do something. Instead, Wintrow became absolutely still. He held his hands fractionally above Kennit's stump, so close he could feel the warmth of the boy's palms. The gaze of his eyes was focused on the backs of his own hands. The tip of his tongue crept out of his mouth and he bit it in his concentration. His breath moved in and out of him so silently, it was as if he did not breathe at all. The pupils of his eyes grew large, almost erasing the color. His hands trembled slightly as in vast effort.

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  After a few moments, the boy drew a sharp breath in. He lifted his eyes to give Kennit a dazed glance and shrugged in disappointment. He sighed. “I suppose I'm doing it wrong. You should have felt something. ” He frowned to himself, then remembered Kennit's question about his tattoo. He answered as if they were discussing the weather. “When I think of it. I wish it were not there. However, it is there, and will be there the rest of my life. The sooner I accept it as part of my face, the wiser I will be. ”

  “Wiser how?” Kennit pressed him.

  Wintrow smiled, thinly at first, but as he spoke it grew more genuine. “It was said often at my monastery, The wise man takes the shortest path to peace with himself. ' Acceptance of what is, that is the shortest path. ” As he spoke the final words, his hands came to rest on Kennit's stump in a light but firm grip. “Does this hurt?”

  Warmth started at the boy's hands and shot out from them. A jolt of heat went up Kennit's spine. The pirate was struck dumb. Wintrow's words seemed to echo through his bones. Acceptance of what is. That is the shortest path to peace with yourself. This is wisdom. Does it hurt? Does wisdom hurt? Does peace hurt? Does acceptance hurt? His skin tightened and tingled all over his body. Kennit gasped for breath. He could not answer. He was suffused with the boy's simple faith. It rushed through him, warm and reassuring. Of course, he was right. Acceptance. He could not doubt or deny it. What had he been thinking? Whence the weakness that had made him falter? His earlier thoughts of drowning himself were suddenly abhorrent, the self-pitying whining of a weakling. He was meant to go on, he was destined to go on. His luck had not failed him when the serpent took his leg. His luck had sustained him; his leg was all it had taken.

  Wintrow took his hands away. “Are you all right?” he asked worriedly. The words seemed unnaturally loud to Kennit's renewed senses.

  “You've healed me,” he said in a hoarse whisper. “I'm healed. ” He dragged himself to a sitting position. He looked down at his leg, almost expecting to find it restored. It was not, it was a stump, and there was still a pang of loss at beholding it. But that was all. The shape of his body had changed. Once he had been young and beardless, and now he was not. Once he had walked upon two legs; now he would learn to get about on one. That was all. A change. To be accepted.

  Quick as a cat's pounce, he seized the boy by his shoulders and jerked him near. Wintrow cried out and braced his hands on the bunk to keep from falling. Kennit captured the boy's head between his hands. For an instant, Wintrow struggled. Then his eyes locked with Kennit's. He stared, his gaze going wider and wider. Kennit smiled at him. He smoothed one long thumb across the boy's tattoo. “Wipe it away,” he commanded him. “On your face, it goes no deeper than your skin. You do not need to bear it on your soul. ” For five breaths more Kennit held him, until he saw a sort of wonder cross Wintrow's features. Kennit placed a kiss on his brow, then released him. As Wintrow drew back, Kennit sat all the way up. He swung his leg off the bed.

  “I'm tired of lying here. I need to be up and about. Look at me. I'm wasted to a shadow of myself. I need wind in my face, and plenty of food and drink. I need to command on my own deck again. Most of all, I need to discover what I can and cannot do. Sorcor made me a crutch. Is it still about?”

  Wintrow had staggered back from the bedside. He looked shocked at the change in the man. “I . . . I believe it is,” he stuttered.

  “Good. Lay out some clothes for me and help me dress. No. Lay out clothes for me and leave me to dress myself while you go to the galley. Bring me back a proper meal. If Etta is about, send her to me. She can fetch me bathing water. Be quick, now. The day is half spent as it is. ”

  It brought him great satisfaction to see Wintrow hasten to obey his commands. The boy knew how to take an order; now, that was a useful thing in a pretty lad, and no mistake. He did not know his way about Kennit's possessions. Etta was better at matching up his clothes, but what Wintrow had set out was serviceable enough. There would be plenty of time to educate his eye for dress.

  When Wintrow had bowed his way out of the room, Kennit turned his attention to educating himself. His shirt was not too difficult, but it displeased him to see how his chest and arms had dwindled. He refused to dwell on it. The trousers were more of a challenge. Even standing on his leg and leaning on the bed, it was awkward. The fabric hung up on his stump and rubbed against the new skin unpleasantly. He told himself he would soon build a callus. The empty pant leg flapped in a ghastly way; Etta would have to pin that for him, or better yet, sew it. The leg was gone. There was little sense in pretending otherwise.

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  He grinned wryly as he struggled with a single stocking and boot. Why should half as much work take twice as long? His body kept overbalancing and teetering on the edge of the bed. He was just finishing when Etta entered the room. She gave a start at the sight of him sitting jauntily on the edge of the bed. Her gaze turned reproachful. “I would have helped you with all that. ” She set a basin and a jug of hot water down on the stand by his bed. The scarlet blouse she
wore picked up the red of her lips. Her skirts were black silk and shifted with her hips, rustling invitingly when she walked.

  “I didn't need help,” he retorted. “Save with this pant leg. You should have sewn them up for me. I intend to be out of bed today. Where is my razor? Do you know where my crutch is?”

  “I think you are rushing yourself,” she complained. She frowned at him. “Only the night before last, you still had a touch of fever. You probably feel better, Kennit, but you are far from healthy. Your bed is the place where you belong, for a time yet. ” She came to the bed and began to fuss with his pillows, as if she would make him lie down again. How dare she? Had she completely forgotten who he was and what she was?

  “My bed is my place?” His hand shot out, to trap her wrist. Before she could react, he jerked her close to him, his other hand seizing her jaw. He turned her face to meet his eyes. “Don't ever tell me what I am healthy enough to do!” he reminded her severely. The closeness of her, her quick breath against his face and her wide eyes, suddenly stirred him. She took in a quick fearful breath and triumph coursed through him. This was right. Before he could take command on his deck again, he'd have to take command in his own chamber. This woman must not be allowed to think she was in charge. He hooked one arm about her waist and pulled her close. With his free hand, he seized the front of her skirt and hiked it up. She gasped as he pulled her against him. “My bed is where you belong, wench,” he told her in a voice suddenly gone husky.

  “If you say so,” she murmured submissively. Her eyes were black and huge. Her breath was coming very fast. He could almost hear the rapid beating of her heart. There was no resistance left in her as he yarded her onto the bunk and pushed her down.

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