The mad ship, p.28
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       The Mad Ship, p.28

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  THE SUN WAS JUST GOING DOWN AS THE SPRINGEVE SAILED INTO DIVvytown's so-called harbor. Brashen looked at the sprawling settlement with amazement. When he had been here last, years ago, there had been a few huts, a wharf and some shacks that passed for taverns. Now candlelight shone through dozens of windows, and the brackish anchorage boasted a small forest of masts. Even the smells of squalor that hung in the air had become thicker. If all the scattered pirate settlements he had seen were gathered into one place, they would equal or possibly exceed the population of Bingtown. They were growing, too. If they were mustered under one leader, they would be a force to reckon with. Brashen wondered if that was the potential this Kennit, would-be King of the Pirates, also saw. If he gained such power, what would he do with it? Captain Finney had seemed to think him mostly a braggart; Brashen fervently hoped it was so.

  Then, as they passed slowly down the long line of anchored vessels, Brashen saw a familiar profile limned against the setting sun. His heart turned over in his chest then sank inside him. The Vivacia rocked at anchor there. At her masthead, the Raven flag fluttered fitfully in the evening breeze. Brashen tried to convince himself that it was only a ship similarly outfitted and with a similar figurehead. Abruptly Vivacia gave her head a shake, then reached up to smooth her hair. It was a liveship all right, and she was unmistakably Vivacia. This Kennit had captured her. If the rumors were true, that meant that every one of her crewmen had been slaughtered. He squinted at the silhouetted ship, trying to make out more detail. A skeleton crew moved leisurely about on her decks. He did not recognize anyone; would he have recognized any of them, in this light, at this distance? He did not know. Then he spotted a small slender figure coming onto the foredeck. The figurehead turned to exchange greetings. He knit his brow. The way the sailor moved seemed familiar. Althea! No, he told himself. It could not be. He had last seen Althea in Candletown. She had declared she would find work on a Bingtown-bound ship. Vivacia had not been in the harbor. She could not be on the ship. It was impossible. Save that he was familiar with the strange ways of winds, tides and ships, and how unlikely paths always seemed to cross in the strangest ways.

  He watched the slender figure come to the bow rail and lean on it. He stared, hoping for some gesture, some sign that would let him know it was or was not Althea. He got none. Instead, the longer he watched the more convinced he became that it was she. So did Althea cock her head when she listened to the ship. Thus did she lift her face to the wind. Who else would converse so familiarly with the figurehead? By what chance, he knew not, but the figure on the foredeck was Althea.

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  Brashen's emotions churned. What should he do? He was one man alone. He had no way to make his presence known to her or the ship. Anything he tried now would likely just get him killed, and no one in Bingtown would ever know what had become of any of them. His dull fingernails bit right through his callused palms. He closed his eyes tightly and tried to think what, if anything, he could do.

  Captain Finney spoke softly from close behind him. “Sure you don't know her?”

  Brashen managed a shrug. His voice was too tight. “I could have seen her before . . . I don't know. I was just marveling. A liveship, taken by a pirate. That's a first. ”

  “No, it ain't. ” Finney spat over the side. “Legend says that Igrot the Bold took a liveship and used it for years. That's how he managed to take the Satrap's treasure ship. Fleet as it was, it couldn't outrun a liveship. After that, Igrot lived like a gentleman. The best of everything for himself, women, wine, servants, clothes. Lived very elegant, they say. He had an estate in Chalced and a palace in the Jade Islands. It has been said that when Igrot knew he was dying, he hid his treasure and scuttled his liveship. If he couldn't take the damn thing with him, he was going to be sure no one else got it. ”

  “I've never heard that before. ”

  “Probably not. It's not a commonly told tale. They say he kept it painted and made it keep still so no one would know what he had. ”

  . Brashen shrugged stiffly. “Sounds to me like he had a regular ship, but just lied about it to make people think it was a liveship. Maybe,” he added in a more conciliatory tone. He glanced about the deck to be sure they were alone, then shifted the conversation abruptly. “Cap. Remember what we talked about, months ago? About how maybe you'd like to make a little side run into Bingtown if I knew of anyone who could make you a good price on some choice bits?”

  Finney gave a short, guarded nod.

  “Well, I've just been thinking. If you were to buy that portrait from Faldin, well, the place it would sell best is Bingtown. That's where folk would know what it was and how much it was worth. ” He crossed his arms and leaned back against the railing. He tried to look like a man well pleased with himself.

  “And that's also where a man could get into the hottest water, selling such a thing,” Finney pointed out suspiciously.

  Brashen affected a casualness he did not feel. “Not if you knew the right people and pitched it the right way. Now, if you came to town, and I hooked you up with the right go-between, why, you could make it seem like you were doing a good deed. Just bringing the portrait home, with a sad tale of what you knew. Leave it to the go-between that such a kind-hearted trader captain deserved a hefty reward for such a turn. ”

  Finney moved a quid of cindin in his lip. “Maybe. But the trip wouldn't be worth it just to unload one piece. ”

  “Of course not! I'm just betting that would be the plum piece of the deal. It might bring you a lot more than you'd imagine. ”

  “Maybe a lot more trouble than I'd imagined, too. ” Finney scowled into the sunset. After a time, he asked, “What else do you suppose might go there?”

  Brashen shrugged. “Anything Bingtown can't make for itself or get from further north. Think spices, teas . . . Jamaillian spirits and wines. Exotic stuff from the southlands, or good Jamaillian antiques. That sort of thing. ”

  “You know of someone who would be the go-between?”

  Brashen tilted his head. “I've thought of a likely candidate. ” He gave a brief chuckle. “If all else failed, I suppose I could try doing it myself. ”

  Finney wordlessly held out his hand. Brashen took it and in the clasp the deal was sealed. He felt a deep sense of relief. He had a way to carry word back to Bingtown. Surely Ronica Vestrit would have the wherewithal to rescue both her daughter and her ship from these pirates. He glanced back at the Vivacia and Althea apologetically. This flimsy plan was the best rescue effort he could offer. He prayed Althea and the ship would both be well until then.

  He swore suddenly and vehemently.

  “What's the matter?” Finney demanded.

  “Nothing. Just got a splinter under my nail. I'll put the boys to sanding this railing tomorrow. ” He turned away from his captain and made a pretense of examining his hand.

  In the distance, the slim silhouette urinated off the side of the Vivacia.



  IT WAS NOT A TRUE TANGLE, SHREEVER REFLECTED TO HERSELF. A TRUE tangle gathered itself to follow a respected leader. These were stray serpents whom they had picked up one or two at a time as the provider moved north and the tangle followed it. The serpents that swam alongside them now shared no camaraderie with Maulkin's tangle. They were simply following the same food source. Still, there was comfort in the company of other serpents. Some of them seemed almost lucid at times. Others were ghost-like in their silence and blank stares. The worst ones were little better than animals, likely to turn venom or fangs on anyone who came too close to food they had claimed. Shreever, Maulkin and Sessurea had learned to ignore those who had reverted to such a bestial level. In truth, their presence was not the hardest to bear. The heart-wringing ones were those who were pathetically close to recalling who they were and what they had been.

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  The three original
serpents of Maulkin's tangle had fallen almost as silent as the newcomers. It was difficult to find topics that did not lead all of them deeper into despair. Shreever could dimly recall earlier times of physical starvation. Too long a fast could make anyone's thoughts become scattered and unfocused. She had her small rituals to keep herself sane. Daily she reminded herself of their purpose. They had come north when Maulkin had known the time was right. She Who Remembers should have greeted them. That one should have renewed all their memories, and should have led them through the next step.

  “But what would that be?” she muttered softly to herself.

  “Eh?” Sessurea asked sleepily.

  The three were anchored together in the midst of a grove of slumbering serpents. There were about a dozen of the other serpents. Only at night did they seem to recall any vestige of civilized ways, and link their coils in slumber as if they were a true tangle. Shreever gripped her thought tightly. “After we find One Who Remembers, and our memories are restored. What happens then?”

  Sessurea heaved a sleepy sigh. “If I knew the answer to that, perhaps we would not need to find a memory keeper. ”

  Between them, Maulkin did not even stir. The prophet seemed to dwindle every day. She and Sessurea had become more aggressive in holding on to the food the provider distributed to them. Maulkin refused to forsake the old ways. Even after he had grasped a limp body tumbling through the Plenty, if one of the soulless ones seized it, he would let it go. He would relinquish his rightful claim to food rather than fight for it like an animal. The once bright false-eyes that ran the length of his body were now little more than dappling in his color. Sometimes, he would allow Shreever to bring him food, but as often he turned away from it. She had not had the courage to ask him if he, too, were close to abandoning their quest.

  There was a sudden shifting in the forest of sleeping serpents. With dreamlike slowness, a slender, verdantly green serpent wriggled free of the slumbering tangle and languorously rose up to the Lack. Shreever and Sessurea exchanged glances that were at once puzzled and too weary to be curious. The actions of the soulless ones made no sense; there was no future in speculating about his action. Shreever lidded her eyes.

  Then, from high above them, came the curiously pure notes of a voice raised in song. For a time, Shreever listened in awe. Each note was true, each word perfectly enunciated. It was not the random piping and roaring any lighthearted serpent might indulge in, but the glorious exultation of one called to sing. She unlidded her eyes.

  “Song of Simplicity,” Maulkin breathed hoarsely. Sessurea's eyes spun slowly in agreement. Gently the three worked themselves free, to undulate to the top of the Plenty, and then lift their heads out into the Lack.

  There, under the light of a full round moon, the green serpent flung back his head and sang. His heavy mane hung lax about his throat. His maw gaped wide in full, carrying voice. Clear and sweet, the words emerged from one who had been mute. Verse after verse he sang of the elegant words of the ancient song of beginnings. In the old days, listeners would have joined in the refrain, to celebrate together the days of warmer Plenty and migrating fish. Now they were voiceless, listening to this blessing, but fearing to join in lest they break it.

  The singer was beautiful in his intensity and concentration. His head swayed slowly as he sang, his throat distending and then stretching as he pumped out the deep, rich notes. Shreever did not look at his eyes. They were wide and empty of intent even as he gave voice to this most sacred of songs. Beside her, Maulkin bowed his head. Emotion rippled through him, bringing a brief gleam to his false-eyes. Very slowly, his mane began to stand out about his throat. His venom, once so plentiful and toxic, now barely brimmed to the tips. A single drop fell to sting ecstatically on Shreever's skin. For a long moment, the night was clear, bright and warm with promise.

  “Save your strength,” Sessurea advised him sadly. “His music is beautiful, but there is no heart behind it. We cannot revive him. To try would only weaken you. ”

  “My strength is not my own to hoard,” Maulkin observed. More sourly, he added, “Sometimes I fear there is nothing to save it for. ” Despite his words, he did not move toward the green serpent. Instead, the three remained as they were, sharing in his enraptured song but oddly divorced from it. It was as if the words reached them from a distant past, a time they could never revisit.

  His gaze fixed on the moon, head swaying gracefully to his song, the green serpent repeated the final refrain the prescribed three times. As he held a last pure note, Shreever became aware that some of the other serpents had joined them. Most gazed randomly about as if they expected a food source. The provider had moved on through the night as it always did. Its bulk did not distort the horizon. Tomorrow they would all follow its scent through the Plenty. It was easy to catch up with it.

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  Without the provider to focus on, their eyes turned to the green serpent. He remained poised as he had been, his gaze fixed on the moon. The last of his breath flowed from his throat in that single sustained note. It ended. A silence that seemed the only correct continuation of the song engulfed them all. In that moment, Shreever became aware of a very slight difference in the group. Some of the other serpents looked puzzled as if they struggled to recall something. All kept the stillness and silence.

  All save Maulkin. With a suddenness that belied his dimmed coat and shrunken girth, the great serpent flashed across the distance between himself and the green. His faded false-eyes gleamed gold briefly and his eyes spun copper as he wrapped the green. Maulkin smeared the other serpent with what little toxin he had been able to produce, then bore him down in his embrace.

  Shreever heard the creature's outraged shriek. There was nothing of intelligence in that cry. It was the fury of a cornered animal given vent. She and Sessurea dove down, following the struggling pair to the mucky bottom. As they thrashed together, silt clouded and then choked the Plenty. “He'll smother!” Shreever cried out in alarm.

  “Unless that green shreds him to pieces first,” Sessurea replied grimly. Both of their manes began to swell with toxins as they lashed downward in pursuit. Behind them, Shreever was dimly aware of the other serpents coiling and tangling in confusion. Maulkin's actions had alarmed them; there was no telling how they would react. It was possible, she thought coldly, that they would all turn upon the three. If they did, Maulkin's tangle had small chance of survival.

  She flanked Sessurea as he plunged into the silt-laden darkness. Almost instantly, she was choking. It was a terrible sensation. Every instinct she possessed urged her to flee to cleaner water. However, she was not an animal to be controlled by her instincts. She forced herself down and deeper until she felt the vibration of the struggle and could wrap the combatants. She was so choked she could not smell who was who. She had lidded her eyes twice against the gritty silt. She released the puny cloud of toxin she could muster; she hoped it would not stun or weaken Sessurea. Then she lapped a coil of herself about the struggling bodies and devoted all her strength to pulling them up to clear water where they could all breathe.

  She felt she swam through a school of tiny glowing fish. Specks and streaks of colors taunted her vision. Someone beside herself had released venom. It scorched and seared her, burning visions into her mind. Surely, it was the floor of the Plenty itself that she strove to lift. She longed to let go of her burden and shoot up to where she could breathe. Doggedly she struggled on.

  Suddenly her gaping gills sensed cleaner water. Cautiously she unlidded her eyes. She opened her mouth wide, flushing out her gills. The act made her more susceptible to the mixed poisons in the water. She tasted the faint echo of Maulkin's once-powerful toxins, and the less-disciplined acids of Sessurea. The green had released toxins, too. They were thick and strong, but formulated mostly for the stunning of fish. Unpleasant as they were, they did not confound her. Her gaze met Sessurea's whirling glance. He gave a final shake of his ma
ne, and the feebly struggling green grew limp.

  Maulkin managed to lift his head. “Gently, gently,” he cautioned them. “As we fought, he spoke to me. It was just curses at first, but then he demanded by what right I attacked him. I think he might still be awakened. ”

  Shreever did not have the strength to reply. It took all her will to maintain her grip on the others as she and Sessurea strove to traverse the clouded bottom. Sessurea spotted an upthrust of stone. It was awkward to maneuver them there and even harder to find secure grips that would hold them all. Maulkin was no more helpful than a thick strand of kelp. The green was senseless still. Once they had settled, Shreever could think of nothing but rest. She dared not relax, however. They still cradled a stranger in their midst, one who might awaken violently. Several of the other serpents had discovered them, also. They hung back at a distance, eyeing them curiously. Or hungrily, perhaps. With a shudder of revulsion, she wondered if that was their interest. If they had seen Maulkin's tangle devouring the green, would they have pressed in to steal a portion? So she feared. She watched them warily.

  Maulkin was exhausted. The terrible dun color of his hide betrayed that. But he did not give up. He massaged the green serpent with his coils, anointing him with the small drops of toxin he could muster. “Who are you?” he kept demanding of the lax green serpent. “You were a minstrel once, and an excellent one. Once you had a memory that could hold thousands of melodies and the words of those songs. Reach for it. Tell me your name. Just your name. ”

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  She wanted to tell him to stop wasting his strength, but could not summon the energy to do so. It was obviously futile. It did not seem to her that the green serpent was even conscious. She wondered how long Maulkin would insist on trying. Did any of them have the reserves to do this now and still catch up with the provider tomorrow? Maulkin's actions might have cost them their last chance at survival.

  “Tellur,” the green muttered. His gills fluttered a moment. “My name is Tellur. ” A rippling shudder ran the length of his body. He suddenly twined his body about Maulkin's and held tight as if a strong current threatened to sweep him away. “Tellur!” he cried out. “Tellur. Tellur. I am Tellur. ” He lidded his eyes and lowered his head. “Tellur,” he muttered quietly. He was exhausted. Shreever tried to feel some sense of triumph. Maulkin had reawakened this one. But for how long? Would he help them in their quest, or simply become one more drain on their resources?

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