The mad ship, p.38
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       The Mad Ship, p.38

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  As it always had, her caution exasperated him. He was halfway across the garden before she was all the way out the door. She was barefoot, he noted with distaste, and dressed in cotton tunic and trousers like a peasant. Her pinned up hair was the color of wood-ash. Never a slender woman, she had thickened with the years. Her eyes widened as she finally recognized him. She hurried toward him at an inglorious trot. He had to suffer the indignity of her squashy embrace. She was weeping before she even reached him. Over and over, she pointed at his missing leg, gabbling in sorrow and query.

  “Yes, yes, Mother, it's all right. Now have done. ” She clutched at him, weeping. He seized her hands firmly and set them back from himself. “Have done!”

  Years ago, her tongue had been cut out. Although he had had nothing to do with that and had sincerely deplored it at the time, over the years he had come to see it was not an entirely unfortunate incident. She still talked endlessly, or tried to, but since the event he could steer the conversation as he wished it to go. He told her when she agreed with him, and when a topic was settled. As now.

  “I can't stay long, I'm afraid, but I've brought you a few things. ” He turned her determinedly and led his awe-stricken cavalcade toward the intact cottage. “The chest has a few gifts for you. Some flower seeds I thought you would like, some cooking spices, some cloth, a tapestry. A bit of this, a bit of that. ”

  They reached the door of the cottage and went inside. It was spotlessly tidy. Bare. On the table were smoothed shingles of white pine. Brushes and dyes were laid out beside them. So, she still painted. Yesterday's work still rested on the table, a wildflower done in intricate and realistic detail. A kettle of water bubbled on the hearth. Through the door into the second room, he glimpsed the neatly made bed. Everywhere he looked, he saw signs of a simple and placid life. She had always liked things that way. His father had loved opulence and variety. They had complemented one another well. Now she was like half a person. The thought suddenly agitated him beyond his self-control. He paced a turn around the room, then seized Ankle by the shoulders and thrust the girl forward.

  “I've thought of you often, Mother. See, this is Ankle. She's your servant now. She's not very bright, but she seems clean and willing. If she turns out not to be, I'll kill her when I come back. ” His mother's eyes flew wide in horror and the crippled girl crouched down, babbling for mercy. “So, for her sake, do try to get along well together,” he added almost gently. Already he wished he were back on the deck of his ship. Things were so much simpler there. He gestured at his prisoner.

  “And this is Captain Haven. Say hello and then good-bye for now. He will be staying, but you needn't bother much about him. I'll be putting him down in the old wine cellar under the big house. Ankle, you will remember to give him some food and water now and then, won't you? At least as often as you were fed and watered aboard the ship, right? That seems fair to everyone, now doesn't it?” He waited for answers but they were all gaping at him as if he were mad. All save his mother, who clutched the front of her blouse and wrung the fabric between her hands. She looked distressed. He thought he knew the problem. “Now, remember, I have given my word that he is to be kept safe. So I insist you do just that. I'll chain him up well, but you must see to the food and water part. Do you understand?”

  His mother gabbled frantically at him. He nodded in approval. “I knew you wouldn't mind. Now. What have I forgotten?”

  He glanced at the others. “Oh, yes. Look, Mother. I've brought you a priest, too! I know how you like priests. ” His eyes drilled Sa'Adar. “My mother is very devout. Pray for her. Or bless something. ”

  Sa'Adar's eyes went wide. “You're mad. ”

  “Scarcely. Why do people always accuse me of that when I'm arranging things to my liking instead of theirs?” He dismissed the priest. “Now, these two, Mother, are going to be your neighbors. They have a baby on the way, they've told me. I'm sure you'll like having a little one around, won't you? They're both handy at heavy work. Perhaps the next time I come to visit, I'll find things in better repair. Perhaps you'll be living in the big house again?”

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  The old woman shook her head so violently that her gray hair flew free of its pinning. Her eyes went wide with some remembered pain. She opened her mouth in a quavering cry. It revealed the stump of her tongue. Kennit looked aside in distaste. “This cottage does seem quite cozy,” he amended. “Perhaps you are better off here. But that doesn't mean we should stand by and let the big house fall down. ” He glanced at the map-face couple. “You two may choose one of the cottages for yourself. As may the priest. Keep him well away from the captain. I promised Wintrow that his father would be kept somewhere, intact, where the boy no longer needed to worry about him or deal with him. ”

  For the first time, Kyle Haven spoke. His jaw dropped and his mouth gaped for a moment. He strangled, and then the furious words roared out of him. “This is Wintrow's doing? My son did this to me?” His blue eyes flew wide in hurt and justified hatred. “I knew it. I knew it all along! The treacherous little viper! The cur!”

  Kennit's mother cowered from his vehemence. Kennit casually backhanded Haven across his mouth. Even supporting himself on his crutch, Kennit managed sufficient force that the captain staggered backward. “You're upsetting my mother,” he pointed out coolly. He gave a short sigh of exasperation. “I suppose it's time I put you away. Come along, then. You two bring him. ” This he addressed to his map-faces. Turning to the girl, he commanded her, “Make some food. Mother, you show her where the supplies are. Priest, stay here. Pray or something. Do whatever my mother wishes you to do. ”

  The map-faces hustled Captain Haven out the door. As Kennit followed, Sa'Adar announced, “You can't command what I do. You can't make me your slave. ”

  Kennit glanced back at him. He gave him a small smile. “Perhaps not. However, I can make you dead. It's an interesting choice, don't you think?” He turned and left without a backward glance.

  The map-faces awaited him outside. Haven sagged between the well-muscled pair. Disbelief warred with despair in his face. “You can't do this. You can't abandon me here. ”

  Kennit merely shook his head to himself. He was so weary of people telling him that he could not do what he obviously could. He did not bother to look at his followers as he led the way to the big house. The pebbled path was overgrown, the flowerbeds long gone to weed and ruins. He pointed it out to the map-faces. “I'd like this tidied. If you don't know anything about gardening, ask my mother for direction. She knows a great deal about it. ” As they came around the front of the house, he did not look at the remains of the other structures. There was no sense in dwelling on the past. Grass and creeping vines had long ago overpowered and cloaked the burnt remains. Let it lie so.

  Even the big house had taken some damage in that long ago raid. There were scorch marks on the planked walls where the flames from the neighboring structures had threatened to set it ablaze as well. Such a night of flames and screams that had been, as the supposed allies revealed their true intent. Such an orgy of cruelty as Igrot indulged to his sensual limits. The smells of smoke and blood were forever intermingled in his memories of that night.

  He climbed the steps. The front door was not locked. It had never been locked. His father had not believed in locks. He opened the door and strode in. For an instant, his memory leaped and showed him the interior as it once had been. Education and travel had sharpened his tastes since then, but when he was a child, he had found the hodge-podge of tapestries and rugs and statuary luxurious and rich. Now he would have scoffed at such a mish-mash of trash and treasures, but then his father had reveled in it and the boy Kennit with him. “You'll live like a king, laddie,” his father would say. “No. Better yet, you'll be a king. King Kennit of Key Island! Now doesn't that have a fine ring? King Kennit, King Kennit, King Kennit!” Singing that refrain, his father would scoop him up and swing him wildly about, capering d
runkenly around the room. King Kennit.

  He blinked his eyes. He saw the stripped walls and the bare floor of what was actually little more than a plantation house, not the aristocratic mansion his father had pretended it to be. Kennit had considered refurbishing the house many times. In the rooms upstairs were stored more than enough art and furniture to eclipse the house's former tawdry glory. It was his carefully gleaned collection, the finest of his troves, brought here a bit at a time in great secrecy. But that was not what he wanted. No. He would restore it with what Igrot had stolen from them. The same paintings, the same tapestries and rugs, chairs and chandeliers. Someday, when the time was right, he would go after all of it, bring it back here, and put it all back just as it had been. He would make it right. He had promised that to himself more times than he cared to remember, and now the fulfillment of that promise was within his grasp. All that Igrot had ever stolen from anyone was now his by right. A small hard smile formed on his mouth. King Kennit indeed.

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  His mother wanted no part of it. When he was younger, during the savage years, he would climb onto her lap, hug her neck tightly, and try to whisper his plans for vengeance into her ear. She would desperately and fearfully shush him. She had not even dared dream of revenge. Now she no longer wanted luxuries and wealth on display. No. She trusted to her simple life to protect her. Kennit knew the truth of that. No one can have so little that someone else can find nothing to envy. Poverty and simplicity were not shields from the greed of others. If you had nothing left to steal, they'd take your body and enslave it.

  For all his musings, he did not pause or tarry. He led his cavalcade briskly through the hall and back to the kitchen. He opened the heavy door and left it ajar as he led them down the steps to the cellar beneath. It had been painstakingly dug down into the rocky bones of the island. There were no windows but he didn't bother kindling a torch. He didn't plan to be down there that long. It was evenly cool, winter and summer. It had been a good wine cellar. No sign of that use of it remained now. The rusty chains on the floor and some odd stains recalled its later use as a makeshift dungeon and torture chamber for those who had displeased Igrot. Now it could serve that purpose again.

  “Chain him up,” he directed his map-faces. “Make sure you fasten him tight and true. There are some rings driven into that back wall. Fasten him to one of those. I don't want him trying to bother little Ankle when she comes with his food and water. If she comes with his food and water. ”

  “You're trying to frighten me. ” From somewhere, Captain Haven had found a last measure of aplomb. “I'm not easily scared. The only problem is that I have no idea what you want from me. Why don't you simply tell me?” He even managed to keep his voice steady as the male map-face led him down the steep steps. The woman had gone ahead to rummage for chains while her docile and implacable mate dealt with the man. “Regardless of what my son has told you, I am not an unreasonable man. Everything is negotiable. Even if you keep the ship and the boy, you could get a handsome ransom for me. Have you thought of that? I am worth far more to you alive than dead. Come. I'm not a stingy man. This profits no one. ”

  Kennit smiled sardonically. “My dear captain, not all of life is about profit. Sometimes it is about convenience. This is convenient for me. ”

  Kyle maintained his composure. He struggled savagely but silently when the rusty manacles were snapped about his ankles. It did him no good. His time shut up in his cabin had wasted him. Either of the map-faces alone could have bested him. Together they handled him as if he were a recalcitrant five-year-old. The lock was stiff but the old keys hanging on the ring by the kitchen door still turned it. Kennit thought he knew the precise moment the man broke. It was at the quiet snap of the lock being fastened. That was when he began cursing. He swore oaths of vengeance and called down the wrath of a dozen gods on them as they climbed the stairs and left him there. As they closed the door, shutting him into the dark and dank, he began to scream. The door to the wine cellar was heavy and well fitted. When it shut, it cut off his screams, just as Kennit had recalled. He hung the keys back on their peg.

  “Be sure you show Ankle the way here. I want him kept alive. Do you understand?”

  The woman nodded. Seeing her do so, Dedge nodded also. Kennit smiled, well pleased. These two would do fine here. Life on Key Island would offer them more than their wildest dreams. They would have their own cottage, plenty of food, peace and a place to raise their child. So simply had he bought their lives from them, he reflected. Strange how men would resist slavery savagely, only to sell themselves for a simple chance at life.

  As he walked back to the big house, they followed at his heels. He spoke over his shoulder to them. “My mother can show you all you need to know about the island. Pigs are plentiful. There are goats as well. Almost anything you need, the island can provide. If it is outside the big house, you can help yourself to what you need. All I ask in return is that you do the heavier chores for my mother. That, and be sure the priest never attempts to leave. If he does, simply put him in the cellar with the captain. Encourage him to amuse my mother. ” He stopped and looked back at them when they reached the cottage door. “Is there anything I've forgotten?” he asked them. “Anything you don't understand?”

  “It's all quite clear,” the woman replied quickly. “We'll keep our end of the bargain, Captain Kennit. Make no mistake. ” She rested one hand atop her belly, as if pledging to the child within rather than to him. That as much as anything they had done convinced him he had chosen well. He nodded, well satisfied with himself. He was rid of Sa'Adar without the bad luck associated with killing a priest. Kyle Haven would be where neither he nor Wintrow had to fret about him, yet he was still available to be ransomed off later if Kennit chose to do so. The disposal of the others had been convenient. They had rowed the boat ashore and seen that neither the priest nor the captain gave trouble. Yes. He had planned well.

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  He went into the cottage and glanced around. The priest stood in a corner, his arms folded on his chest. He did not look as if he were praying. His mother crouched over the open chest, aahing and clucking over the contents. She had already donned the turquoise earrings. As he entered the room, Ankle gimped the short distance from the hearth to the table with a platter of fresh flat bread. There was a bowl of berry preserves on the table, and a slab of yellow spring butter. Beside the butter, herb tea was steaming from the cracked lid of a pot. The table was set with odds and ends of crockery. Not a cup matched its fellow. Kennit knew a moment's annoyance. Although those gathered here would never leave this island, he did not like anyone to see his mother living in such circumstances. When he was king, it would not do for such tales to be noised about. “Next time I come to visit, I shall bring you a proper tea set, Mother,” he announced. “I know you are fond of these old pieces, but really . . . ”

  He let the words trail off as he helped himself to a piece of warm bread. His mother gabbled away at him as she poured him a cup of tea and offered him the only chair at the table. He seated himself gratefully. The crutch head was beginning to chafe him severely. He slathered his bread with butter and heaped it with preserves. His first bite nearly swept him away on a wave of sensory memories. These humble foods, still so delicious to his palate, were like ghosts. They belonged to the world of a very small boy, coddled and indulged and safe beyond all imagining. All that had been betrayed nearly thirty-five years ago. Odd, that such a sweet taste could summon up such bitterness. He ate the rest of his bread and three more pieces, caught between enjoyment and painful memory.

  The others joined him in the meal, obeying his mother's gestures to stand about the table. Only the priest demurred. His supercilious stare included Kennit. It did not bother the pirate. Hunger would cure him of his snobbery soon enough. For now, it was an oddly pleasant gathering. His mother gabbled on in her singsong way. The map-faces responded to her gestures an
d mouthing with nods and smiles, but few words. Her dumbness seemed contagious. Ankle appeared almost competent in this humble setting. She took up the brush and swept the ashes back into the hearth without being told. Her eyes had already lost some of their bruised look. Kennit knew a moment's reconsideration of her. He had wanted a docile servant for his mother; he hoped this girl did not recover too much of her spirits.

  He finished his tea and rose. “Well. I must be going. Now, Mother, don't start to carry on. You know I can't stay. ”

  Despite his words, she caught at his sleeve. The pleading look in her eyes spoke eloquently but he chose to misunderstand. “I won't forget the tea cups, I promise you. I'll bring them the next time I come. Yes, all done with pretty little designs, I'll remember. I know what you like. ” As he set her hands firmly away from his sleeve, he spoke over her shoulder to the others. “See that you mind well, Ankle. I shall expect to see a fine, fat baby when next I call, Dedge. No doubt there will be another on the way by then, eh?” He felt quite patriarchal as he said this. It occurred to him that eventually he could select others to come and live here. It could become his secret kingdom within a kingdom.

  As he stepped away from his mother, she surrendered, as she always did. She sank down onto the chair, bowed her head into her hands and wept. She always wept. It made no sense to him. How many times had she found that tears solved nothing? Yet still, she wept. He patted her gingerly on the shoulder and headed for the door.

  “I am not staying here,” the priest declared.

  Kennit paused to stare at him. “Oh?” he queried pleasantly.

  “No. I'm going back to the ship with you. ”

  Kennit considered this. “A pity. I am so sure my mother would have enjoyed having you here. You're certain you won't reconsider?”

  The pirate's smooth courtesy seemed to rattle Sa'Adar. He looked all around himself. Kennit's mother still wept. Ankle had approached her and was cautiously patting the old woman's shoulder. Dedge and Saylah looked only at Kennit. Their alert and expectant waiting reminded Kennit of well-trained hunting dogs. He made a small hand motion; the two map-faces relaxed slightly but remained attentive. The priest looked back at Kennit.

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