The mad ship, p.37
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       The Mad Ship, p.37

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
 

  “It seems very real,” she whispered. Her breath was warm on his face.

  “Does it?” he asked in wonder.

  “It does,” she assured him.

  Cautiously he lowered his mouth to hers. She did not avoid his kiss. The thin layer of veil between their lips was an almost pleasant coarseness. Her arms came around him and held him with awkward inexperience.

  The sweetness of the kiss clung to him as the power of the dream-box faded and he drifted into ordinary sleep. “Come to me. ” Her words reached him faintly. “Come to me at the full moon. ”

  “I can't!” he cried out, desperate that his words reach her. “Malta, I can't!”

  He awakened saying the words into his pillow. Had she heard him?

  He closed his eyes and tried to will himself back into sleep and the shared dream. “Malta? I cannot come to you. I can't. ”

  “Is that what you say to all females?” Somewhere a voice laughed in wicked amusement. Claws twitched feebly against iron-hard wizardwood. “Don't fret, Reyn. You cannot go to her. But I shall. ”

  CHAPTER SEVENTEEN - Marooned

  THE MOON STOOD CLEAR IN THE SKY AND THE TIDE WAS HIGH WHEN KENnit decided it was time to keep his promise. It had taken some careful maneuvering, but everything was in place and ready. No sense in wasting time. He swung his leg over the side of the bunk and sat up, scowling when a sleepy Etta lifted her head from the pillows. He wanted no interference from anyone tonight. “Go back to sleep,” he commanded her. “If I need you, I'll tell you. ”

  Instead of looking chastened, she gave him a fond and drowsy smile, then closed her eyes again. Her placid acceptance of his independence was almost unnerving.

  At least she was coming to accept that he didn't need her damn help with everything. She had been tiresomely helpful in the weeks of his convalescence. Several times, he'd had to roar at her before she would retreat and let him take care of himself.

  He reached for the waiting peg and slipped his stump into the cup on the end. The harness of leather that secured it to his body still seemed awkward, but he was becoming accustomed to it. Pulling his trousers on past it was another difficulty. He frowned at it. The woman would have to come up with a better arrangement. He would tell her so in the morning. His belt held only a long sheathed dagger now. A sword was a useless vanity to a man who had to balance on one leg. He dragged on his boot, then took up the crutch that leaned against the bunk. He thudded his way across the room. Teetering precariously, he buttoned on a shirt and then donned a vest. A fine broadcloth coat went over it all. He added a clean kerchief and his usual items to his pocket. He tugged his collar straight and made sure his cuffs were even. Tucking the crutch firmly under his arm, he left his cabin, shutting the door quietly behind him.

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  All was at peace on the anchored vessel. The ship had been tidier and better run since he had reduced the crew in Divvytown. Most of the rescued slaves had been glad to leave the crowded ship. Some had wished to remain. He had sieved those rigorously. Some had simply not been able sailors. Others were too surly. Not all those with multiple tattoos across their faces were free spirits who would not bow to slavery. Some, quite simply, were men and women too stupid to learn their tasks well and do them willingly. He did not want them any more than their former owners had. A dozen former slaves, victims of Sa'Adar's influence, had insisted on remaining aboard. Kennit had graciously allowed it. It had been his only concession to their claim to own the ship. Doubtless, they still hoped for more. Doubtless they would be disappointed. Three others he had kept aboard for his own reasons. They would serve their purposes tonight.

  He found Ankle leaning on the forward railing. Not far from her, Wintrow was sprawled in the deep sleep of exhaustion. Kennit permitted himself a small smile. Brig had taken his request that the boy be kept very busy for a few days literally. The girl turned to the tapping of his peg on the deck. Ankle's wide dark eyes watched him approach with trepidation. She was not as fearful as she had been at first. A few days after he had taken the ship, Etta had put a stop to the freed men and crew using her for sex. The girl herself had not seemed to object, so Kennit had seen no problem with it, but Etta had insisted she was too addled by ill use to know how to resist their advances. Later Wintrow had told him what he knew of the girl. Ankle had gone mad in the hold and crippled herself struggling against her fetters. Wintrow believed she had been normal when she had first been put belowdecks. No one on board seemed to know anything else about her, not even her name or age. A shame, Kennit supposed, that her mind was gone. She would always limp. She was worse than useless aboard the ship, for she ate food and took up space that could have been given to an able man. He would have put her off in Divvytown if both Etta and Wintrow had not interceded for her. When Vivacia, too, had spoken out in her behalf, Kennit had allowed himself to be swayed. Nevertheless, it was time to be done with her. It was the kindest thing to do. A pirate ship was not a nursery for blighted souls.

  He made a small gesture to her to come to him. She advanced a single hesitant step.

  “What will you do with her?” Vivacia spoke softly from the shadows.

  “I mean no harm to her. You know me well enough now to understand that. ” He glanced toward Wintrow. “But let's not wake the lad. ” He made his suggestion in a kindly tone.

  The figurehead was silent for a time. “I sense you believe you are doing what is right for her. But I cannot see what that is. ” After a time, she added, “You block me. There are portions of your heart that you have never allowed me to see. You keep secrets from me. ”

  “Yes. Just as you keep secrets from me. You have to trust me in this. Do you?” He made a small test of the question.

  She was silent. He walked forward, past Ankle, who cowered slightly as he passed her. He took her place on the forward rail and leaned down to the ship. “Good evening, sweet sea-lady,” he greeted the ship, as if they were the first words he had spoken to her. His utterance was little more than a whisper on the evening wind.

  “It is more like a good night, gentle sir,” she replied in kind.

  He extended his hand to her and she twisted to reach up her large fingers to touch his. “I trust you are well. Tell me. ” He gestured at the surrounding panorama of scattered islands. “What do you think of my islands, now that you have seen a bit of them?”

  She made a warm sound in her throat. “There is a unique beauty to them. The warmth of the water, the drifting mists that veil and reveal them . . . even the birds that flock here are different. More colorful, and more tuneful in their songs than most seabirds. I have not seen such plumage since Captain Vestrit took me on a voyage far to the southlands. . . . ” Her voice trailed away.

  “You still miss him, don't you? I'm sure he was a fine captain, and showed you many wondrous places. But if you trust me, my lady, you and I shall see places even more exotic, and have adventures even more exciting. ” There was an almost jealous note in his voice as he asked, “Do you recall him that well? I had thought you were not quickened then. ”

  “I recall him like one recalls a good dream in the morning. Nothing is sharp, but a scent, a horizon, the taste of a current, will seem familiar and a memory comes with it. If Wintrow is with me, it is sharper. I can convey to him far more detail than I can speak. ”

  “I see. ” He changed the subject. “Nevertheless, you have never been in these parts before, have you?”

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  “No. Captain Vestrit avoided the Pirate Isles. We passed them by, keeping as easterly a course as we could. He always said it is easier to avoid trouble than to deal with it. ”

  “Ah. ” Kennit looked past her, to the Marietta also rocking at anchor. Sometimes he missed Sorcor. It would have been handy to have him here for this night's work. Still, one best keeps a secret alone. He recalled abruptly what he had come on deck to do. “On that, I would have to agree wi
th him. So, my lady, if you will excuse me, I need to avoid some trouble tonight. Think of me, until I return. ”

  “I shall. ” There was puzzlement in her voice. He tapped away from her, his crutch and peg making an odd rhythm as he swung across the deck. He gestured to Ankle to follow him. She came slowly, limping, but she came. When he reached the captain's gig, he told her, “Stay here. I'll take you for a ride. ” He made motions as he spoke, to be certain his command was clearly conveyed. She looked anxious, but obediently sat down on the deck.

  He left her sitting there in darkness. He passed the sailor on anchor watch and acknowledged him with a nod. The sailor bobbed his head but made no comment. Captain Kennit had always done as he pleased on the ship. He even sensed that the crew was more confident now that he had resumed his erratic tours of the ship. It reassured them that all was well with their captain.

  He could move almost swiftly now, with a stride and a swing on his crutch, when he chose. It was not without discomfort. Wintrow seemed to think he would build callus as time passed. He hoped so. Sometimes the leather cup that held his stump chafed abominably, and his armpit would ache at the end of the day from the bruising of the crutch's impact.

  Moving quietly was more of an effort than moving swiftly, but he managed. He had taken the time to ascertain where Sa'Adar slept every night and he made his way there with confidence. Even in the fitful light of the widely spaced lanterns, he knew his way. When he came to the reclining man, he stood still, looking down on him. Sa'Adar was not asleep, so Kennit made no pretense of waking him. In a very soft voice, he said, “If you would see justice done to Kyle Haven, rise and follow me now. Silently. ”

  In apparent confidence, he turned his back on the man and walked away from him. He did not deign to look back. His keen ears picked up the soft footfalls of the priest following him. He had judged him well. The air of mystery and secrecy drew him to come alone, without waking his comrades. Kennit strode on past other sprawled and sleeping men until he came to two others he had chosen earlier. Dedge slept with his arm thrown protectively over Saylah. She was curled around her own belly. He nudged Dedge twice with the tip of his crutch. He indicated the man's companion as well, and then moved on. Obedient as a good dog, the man nudged the woman awake and silently followed him.

  They moved through the mostly sleeping ship. Those who did stir or open an eye were wise enough to keep their thoughts to themselves. Up on the deck once more, Kennit led them into the aftercastle. He stopped at the chamber where Kyle Haven was confined. A curt nod of his head to the map-faces made his will known. Dedge unceremoniously opened the door and entered the chamber. Kyle Haven started up from his untidy bunk. His hair straggled wildly down his shoulders. There was a stink of unwashed flesh and urine in the room, reminiscent of the slave hold. Kennit wrinkled his nose against it. His voice was mild as he stood in the door and suggested, “You should come with us, Captain Haven. ”

  Haven's wild glance circled those who faced him. Sa'Adar was smiling. “You're going to kill me, aren't you?” he asked hoarsely.

  “No. ” Kennit didn't particularly care if the man believed him or not. He turned to his map-faces. “See that he comes with us, silently. ” He lifted one eyebrow at Haven as he added, “I don't particularly care what they have to do to ensure the silence. Your cooperation is not essential, but it would be easier for both of us. ” He turned away without seeing who would comply or how. Sa'Adar annoyed him by hurrying to catch up with him.

  “Aren't you going to wake the others? So they can witness this?”

  Kennit halted in mid-stride. He didn't bother to face the other man. “I believe I said I wanted silence,” he observed.

  “But-”

  The move came so naturally. He did not even think about doing it. He caught his weight on his good leg, braced a shoulder against the wall and lashed out solidly with the crutch. Sa'Adar caught the blow against his thighs and staggered back. He clutched at the wall, mouth open with pain. Kennit turned away from him. If the companionway had been wider, the pirate reflected, the arc of the blow would have been more effective. He considered this as he continued his swinging stride to the deck. It might be something he should practice.

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  He halted by the captain's gig and waited for the others to catch up. It pleased him that Haven had kept silent without being gagged or clubbed. Obviously, the man believed in his power. Perhaps he also realized that anyone roused by his cries would be unlikely to help him. Whatever his reasoning, his compliance made everything much easier. Ankle got to her feet as the others came up. Kennit looked at his map-faces. “Fetch the chest. You know which one. Then prepare to launch the boat. ” The man immediately obeyed him. The others waited silently. No one was stupid enough to ask any questions.

  He rode in the bow of the boat. Ankle sat in the stern near the chest, and the two map-faces took one set of oars, the priest and Captain Haven the other. Kennit pointed the way. From time to time, he quietly commanded changes in their course. He guided them between two small islands and into the lee of a third. Only when they were out of sight of both his ships did he finally point toward a fourth island that was their true destination.

  Even then, he did not permit the map-faces to land on the beach of Keyhole Island. He had them row on until they came to the mouth of a small bay. Kennit was well aware that it was more than a bay. What appeared to be an island was in fact little more than a wall of forest-topped cliffs, shaped like a near closed horseshoe. The bay filled its interior. One large island and a smaller one dotted the interior bay. The sky was beginning to gray as he directed the rowers wordlessly toward the shore of the larger interior island.

  From the water, it looked like any other small island. It had an unremarkable shoreline, and was forested with scrubby trees and coarse brush. Kennit knew that on the other side of the island, there was a good deep-water anchorage, but for his purposes tonight, the rocky beach was sufficient. At his gesture, the map-faces took the boat into shore. He sat in it like a king on a litter as all the others clambered over the side and seized the gunwales to run it up on the shore. They were scarce clear of the waves before Haven predictably let go of the boat and made a run for it. “Get him,” Kennit commanded tersely.

  A well-aimed rock from one of the map-faces felled him. Wintrow's father scrabbled on the rocky beach, but before he could come to his feet, Sa'Adar was upon him, seizing him by the throat and slamming his head to the ground. Kennit was annoyed. “Bind the captain's hands behind him and bring him. See that the priest doesn't harm him,” he ordered his map-faces. To Ankle he said, “Assist me. But only if I say I need it. ” The girl squinted at him but seemed to understand. She shadowed him.

  While the map-faces were prying the two cursing combatants apart and restraining them, Kennit clambered from the gig. The rock and sand of the beach were trickier for both his peg and his crutch than the smooth decks of the Vivacia had been. Stones shifted under his weight and sand gave way unexpectedly. Traversing it was going to be more difficult than he had supposed. He gritted his teeth and tried to make his turtle's pace look measured and deliberate rather than labored. “Well? Follow me!” he snapped at them when they stood watching his progress. “Bring the chest. ”

  He found the old path without too much trouble. It was overgrown. Probably the pigs and goats were the only creatures keeping it open now, he reflected to himself. Few others beside himself had ever come to this beach, and it had been years since he had passed this way. A slippery pile of fresh pig droppings confirmed his theory. He navigated carefully around them. Ankle was right behind him. Next came the priest and Saylah carrying the chest between them. Dedge followed, manhandling Haven to make him keep pace. Haven was not being quiet, but Kennit no longer really cared. They could do what they wished to the captain, as long as he arrived intact. He was sure they understood that.

  For a short time the trail led gently uphill. Then
it dipped and began to wind down into the gently rolling interior of the island. Kennit paused for a moment on the lip of that small valley. Forest gave way to tussocky pastureland. A grazing goat lifted his head and regarded them warily. Little had changed. To the west, he saw a tiny thread of smoke rising toward the sky. Well. Maybe nothing at all had changed. The path gave a twist then headed through the forest toward the smoke. Kennit followed it.

  The damn crutch was eating a hole in his armpit. It needed more padding. More cushioning was needed in the stump cup, too. He set his teeth and refused to show his discomfort. Sweat was trickling down his back before he reached the clearing. He halted once more on the edge of it. Dedge swore in wonder. The woman muttered a prayer. Kennit paid no heed to them.

  Before him stretched the tidy garden, laid out in neat well-tended rows. Chickens cackled and scratched in a pen just beyond a small henhouse. From somewhere, a cow lowed questioningly. Beyond the garden were six cottages, once as alike as peas in a pod. Now five of the thatched roofs sagged pitifully. Smoke rose from the chimney of one that retained a roof. Other than that pale moving pillar, all was still. Beyond the cottages, the upper story and shingled roof of a larger house were visible. Once this had been a small and prosperous freehold. Now this handful of houses was all that remained. Years of careful planning had gone into it. The entire settlement had been laid out with loving precision. It had been an ordered and tidy world, designed especially for him. That had been before Igrot the Terrible discovered its existence. Kennit's eyes traveled slowly over all of it. Something stirred inside him, but he stifled it before the emotion could make itself known.

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  He took a slow, deep breath. “Mother!” He called out. “Mother, I'm home!”

  For two breaths, nothing happened. Then a door was slowly opened. A gray-haired woman peered out. She squinted in the early morning light as she peered about the yard. She finally spotted them on the far side of the garden. She lifted a hand and clutched at her throat, staring wide-eyed. She made a small sign against wild spirits. Kennit gave a sigh of exasperation. He began to pick his way through the garden, his crutch and peg awkward in the rows of softened earth. “It's me, Mother. Kennit. Your son. ”

 
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