The mad ship, p.39
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       The Mad Ship, p.39

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
 

  “No. I will not stay. There is nothing here for me. ”

  Kennit gave a small sigh. “I was so sure you'd stay. Certain of it. Well. If you will not stay, at least do something for my mother before you depart. Bless the house or cow. ”

  Sa'Adar gave him a disdainful look. It was as if the pirate had given him a command more suited to a horse or dog. He looked over his shoulder at the weeping woman. “I suppose I could do that. ”

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  “I know you could. Take your time. As you have noticed, I do not move swiftly these days. I'll await you at the beach. ” Kennit shrugged. “You can row the boat for me. ”

  Kennit could see the priest weighing this. He knew the pirate could not outrun him. There was small chance he could launch the gig alone. Sa'Adar gave a grudging nod. “I'll be right along. I'll put a blessing on her house and garden. ”

  “How kind of you,” Kennit enthused. “I shall wait for you on the beach, then. Farewell, Mother. I shan't forget your tea cups. ”

  “Captain?” Saylah dared to ask softly. “Will you want any help to launch the boat?” She gave the priest a narrowed, sideways glance as she spoke. Her offer was plain.

  He managed a smile. “No, thank you all the same. I am sure the priest and I can manage it. You stay here and get settled in. Farewell. ” He tucked his crutch more securely under his arm and began his swinging trek back to the boat.

  The ground of the garden was soft. After that, his path led uphill. Kennit was more tired than he had realized. Nevertheless, he persevered until he was out of sight of the cottage before he paused to rest. He mopped sweat from his face and considered. He decided he did not need to fear treachery from the priest. Not just yet, anyway. Sa'Adar needed him to return to the ship. He would not be welcomed aboard without the captain.

  He took up a more leisurely pace. Once he stopped, and listened to the rustling of a pig in the brush. It did not come his way and he soon went on. He almost expected the priest to overtake him before he reached the beach, but he did not. Perhaps he was bestowing a very lengthy blessing upon the house. That would please his mother.

  The sand of the beach was loose and dry. His peg dragged through it. He was so weary. He could scarcely lift his leg high enough for the peg to clear the sand. He reached the gig and sat down. The tide was coming in. Soon the boat would be almost afloat, but it promised to be a long row back to the ship. Had he overestimated his strength? The warmth of the day and the aching fatigue of his body worked against him. He wanted to drowse. He wanted to sit still and drift in the warm afternoon. Instead, he massaged his aching armpit where the crutch had chafed him. He spurred himself, wondering if the priest delayed to visit Captain Haven. No. Dedge would not allow that. Not unless they had been in league all along. If that were so, they would come soon to kill him. They would have killed his mother already, of course. They would have found his treasure, carefully stowed in the big house. They would come to kill him, because he had been stupid. What would they do then? They could not return to the ship. Alternatively, could they? Was there enough treasure there to buy Sorcor and Etta, Wintrow and Brig? Perhaps. His heart grew cold with anger at his own stupidity. Then he smiled a wolfs smile. Perhaps there was enough treasure to buy human hearts. But not Vivacia's. The ship had already come to love him. He knew that. One could not buy nor steal the heart of a liveship. The heart of a liveship was true.

  Igrot had proved that, many years ago.

  Kennit smiled as he prepared himself and waited.

  When the priest finally came, he tramped like an angry man. So, Kennit thought to himself, you did try to sway Dedge to your cause. You failed. Turning his head to regard Sa'Adar, Kennit became certain of his conjecture. He had the rumpled look of a man who has narrowly averted a bad beating by fleeing. His face was redder than the walk back to the boat would explain. As he approached, Kennit climbed into the gig and seated himself on the rowing seat. He did not bother with a greeting. “Push it out into the water. ”

  Sa'Adar glared at him. “It would be easier if the gig were empty. ”

  “Probably,” Kennit agreed affably. He didn't move.

  The man was not soft, but he was not a hardened sailor either. He set his hands to the gig and pushed. Nothing happened. “Wait for a wave,” Kennit suggested.

  Sa'Adar gritted his teeth but obeyed the suggestion. The bottom of the gig grated on the sand and then abruptly bobbed free. “Keep pushing or she'll beach again,” Kennit warned him as he took up the oars. Soon Sa'Adar was wading alongside, trying to pull himself over and into the boat. Kennit pulled steadily at the oars. It had been some time since he had rowed a boat, but his body remembered it well enough. He braced his peg against the bottom of the boat to keep from slipping. Even so, it was difficult to pull evenly on the oars. A wave of desolation engulfed him as he decided that nothing would ever be completely as it had been. He had lost a part of his body and for the rest of his life, all his actions would have to compensate for what was missing.

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  “Wait!” Sa'Adar complained as he scrabbled to get aboard. Kennit ignored him and continued to row. Sa'Adar was still only halfway in when the next wave lifted the gig. The priest clambered aboard like a landsman, gasping and shivering as the brisk sea wind hit his soaked clothing. Once he was well aboard, Kennit shipped the oars. It pleased him that even with a peg and crutch, he moved more gracefully than Sa'Adar as he shifted his seat. The priest, arms clutched about himself, sneered at him. “You expect me to row?”

  “It will warm you,” Kennit pointed out.

  He sat in the bow, holding his crutch, and watched Sa'Adar struggle. Rowing a gig, even on a calm day, soon becomes serious work. There was a rising wind and a bit of a chop for him to contend with also. He worked the oars unevenly. Sometimes they skipped and splashed across the top of the water. Even when they bit well into the water, their progress was slow. Kennit was unconcerned. He could see Sa'Adar's impatience to be back aboard the ship in the furious energy he poured into his task. He decided to engage him in conversation as well.

  “So. Are you satisfied with the justice meted out to Captain Haven?”

  Sa'Adar had little breath to spare, but could not resist making speeches. “I wanted to see him before I left. To spit on him one more time and wish him joy of his chains and darkness. ” He caught his breath. “Dedge would not let me. He and Saylah both turned on me. ” Another breath. “But for me, they'd be slaves in Chalced right now. They would not be together still, and Saylah's child could celebrate his birth with a tattoo on his face. ” He was panting now.

  “Keep her nose into the waves. You see that point there, on that island? Where the two trees stand separate from the forest? Fix your eyes on that and row toward it. ”

  Sa'Adar gave an exasperated scowl. “One man cannot row this! You should take the bench beside me and help. It took four rowers to get us ashore. ”

  “The boat was more heavily laden then. Besides. I am greatly wearied from our hike. Remember that I am a man still recovering from a grievous injury. But in time, perhaps, I shall take a turn at the oars and let you rest. ” Kennit turned his face to the breeze and closed his eyes to slits. The bright sun danced on the moving water. Suddenly even his weariness felt good. This was something he had needed to do. He had taken independent, physical action on his own. He had proved to himself that he could still sway others to his will with little more than words. His body had been diminished, but it was sufficient to his ambition. He would triumph. King Kennit. King Kennit of the Pirate Isles. Would he someday have a palace on Key Island? Perhaps after his mother had died, he could establish himself there. As his father had once foreseen, the opening to the bay in Keyhole Island could be easily fortified. It would make a wonderful stronghold. He was still building his towers when Sa'Adar spoke again.

  “Should we be able to see the ships by now?”

  Kenn
it nodded. “If you were pulling at the oars like a man, instead of slapping and skipping them on the water, we'd have cleared the point of that island by now. Then, we'd be able to see the ships, though we would still have a long row ahead of us. Keep rowing. ”

  “The journey did not seem to take this long last night. ”

  “Things never seem to take as long or be as hard when someone else is doing the work. It is much like captaining a ship. It seems easy, when someone else is doing it. ”

  “Do you mock me?” It is hard to be disdainful when one was out of breath, but Sa'Adar managed it.

  Kennit shook his head sadly. “You do me wrong. Is it mockery to tell a man a thing he should have learned long ago?”

  “That ship . . . by rights . . . is mine. We had . . . already taken it . . . when you came. ” Sa'Adar's breath was coming harder.

  “There. You see. If I had not come alongside and put a prize crew aboard, the Vivacia would be at the bottom now. Not even a liveship can sail herself completely. ”

  “We would have . . . managed. ” Sa'Adar abruptly flung the oars down. One started to slip through the oarlock into the water. He snatched at it, and pulled it half into the boat. “Damn you, take a turn at this!” he gasped. “I am as good as you are. I will be treated like your slave no longer. ”

  “Slave? I have asked no more of you than I would of any ordinary seaman. ”

  “I am not yours to command. I never will be! Nor will I give up my claim to the ship. Wherever we go, I shall be sure that all hear of your injustice and greed. How so many can adulate you, I do not know! There is your poor mother, abandoned to a harsh life alone for Sa knows how long! You return to visit her for less than half a day, leaving only a trunkful of trinkets and a half-wit servant to wait on her. How can you treat your own mother so? Is not a man's mother to be ever revered as the symbol of the female aspect of Sa? Nevertheless, you treat her as you treat everyone else. As a servant! She tried to speak to me, poor thing. I could not make out what distressed her so, but it was not a lack of tea cups!”

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  Kennit could not help himself. He laughed aloud. It incensed the other man so that his face grew even redder. “You bastard!” he spat. “You heartless bastard!”

  Kennit glanced about. It wasn't far to the point of the island now. He could manage it. Once there, if he grew too weary, his coat tied to an oar and waved would bring someone from either the Marietta or the Vivacia. They would be watching for him by now.

  “Such language, from a priest! You forget yourself. Here. I'll row for a bit, while you recover. ”

  That quelled him. Sa'Adar rose from the rowing bench. In a stiff half-crouch, he waited for Kennit to change places with him as he rubbed at his aching back. Kennit tried to rise from his own bench, but sat down again heavily. The small vessel rocked. Sa'Adar cried out and made a wild grab for the gunwales. Kennit grimaced in embarrassment. “Stiff,” he grunted. “Today has taken more out of me than I thought. ” He sighed heavily. He narrowed his eyes at the disdainful look on the priest's face. “Still. I said I would row and I shall. ” He picked up his crutch, took a firm grip on it, and then extended the tip towards Sa'Adar. “When I give the word, you heave me to my feet. Once I'm up, I'll wager I can move about. ”

  Sa'Adar gripped the crutch end. “Now,” Kennit told him, and tried to rise. He sat down heavily once more. He set his jaw in grim determination. “Again,” he commanded the priest. “And this time, put your back into it. ”

  The weary man took a double-handed grip on the crutch. Kennit made better his own clutch upon it. “Now!” he commanded him. As the priest heaved, the pirate suddenly thrust forward, shoving with all his strength upon the crutch. It hit the priest in the chest and he went flailing wildly backwards. Kennit had hoped for a clean splash overboard. Instead, the man fell athwart the gunwales, almost out of the boat but not quite. Quick as a tiger springing, Kennit flung himself forward. He kept his weight low, as the landsman had not. He gripped one of Sa'Adar's feet and lifted it high. The man went over, but as he went he launched a kick at Kennit that slammed his bare foot hard into Kennit's face. Kennit's head rocked back on his shoulders; he felt the warm gush as blood flowed from his nose. He wiped it hastily on his sleeve, then scrabbled to the rower's bench and took up the oars. He seated the oars well in the oarlocks and began to pull mightily.

  An instant later, the priest's head bobbed up in the boat's wake. “Damn you!” he shouted. “Sa damn you!”

  Kennit expected the man's head to go under again. Instead, he struck out after the boat with long powerful strokes. So, he was a swimmer. Kennit had not reckoned on that. It was a pity the sea was warmer here in these island waters. He couldn't count on cold to kill him quickly. He might have to do it himself.

  Kennit did not strain. Instead, he set a steady pace and pulled on the oars. He had not lied to Sa'Adar. He had been stiff, but this was loosening him up. The priest swam with the swift, frantic strokes of a desperate man.

  He was gaining on the small boat; his body offered far less resistance to the waves than the lightened boat did. When he was within a stroke or two, Kennit carefully shipped the oars and drew the dagger from his belt. He moved to the stern and waited. He did not try for a killing stroke. He would have had to extend himself too far to do that easily and might end up being dragged into the sea by the priest. Instead, each time the drowning man reached for the boat, he slashed at his hands. He cut his reaching palms, he slashed the back of his knuckles when his grip closed on the stern. Kennit was silent as death itself while the priest cursed him, screamed, and then begged for his life. When he seized hold of the side and clung there stubbornly, the pirate risked a blinding slash across the man's face. Still he clutched the side, begging and praying to be allowed to live. It infuriated Kennit. “I tried to let you live!” he roared at him. “All you had to do was what I wanted you to do. You refused me! So!”

  He risked a stab and the dagger went deep into the side of the man's throat. In an instant, his hands were warm and slick with blood thicker and more salt than the sea itself. The priest fell away suddenly. Kennit released the haft of the dagger and let him go. For a wave, then two, he bobbed facedown on the water. Then the sea swallowed him up.

  Kennit sat for a time, watching the empty water behind the boat. Then he wiped his hands down the front of his coat. Slowly he moved back to the rower's bench. He took up the oars in hands that had begun to blister. It didn't matter. They would hurt, but it did not matter. It was done, and he would live. He knew it as surely as he knew his luck still rode with him.

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  He lifted his eyes and scanned the horizon. Not so far to go and he'd be where the ships' lookouts could spot him. He smiled to himself. “I'll wager Vivacia sees me before any of them. I'll wager she knows right now that I'm coming back to her. Watch for me, my lady! Cast about those lovely eyes!”

  “Perhaps I should open those eyes for her,” suggested a small voice close by. Kennit nearly lost his grip on the oars. He looked at the long silent charm strapped to his wrist. His own features in miniature, encarmined now in blood, blinked up at him. The small mouth opened, and a tiny tongue emerged to lick his lips as if they were parched. “What would she think of her captain bold, if she knew you as well as I do?”

  Kennit grinned. “Methinks she would think you a liar. She has been with me, and knows my deepest heart. She and the boy both have. And they love me still. ”

  “They may think they have,” the charm conceded bitterly. “But only one creature has ever seen to the bottom of your dark, dirty heart and still chosen loyalty to you. ”

  “You refer to yourself, I assume,” Kennit hazarded. “You have little choice in the matter, charm. You are bound to me. ”

  “As tightly as you are bound to me,” the charm replied.

  Kennit shrugged. “So we are bound to one another. So be it. I suggest you
make the best of it, and do the duty you were created to do. Perhaps that way, we shall both live longer. ”

  “I was never created for any duty to you,” the charm informed him. “Nor does my life depend upon yours. But for the sake of another, I will do what I can to preserve you. At least for a time. ”

  The pirate made no further reply. The blisters on his right palm broke stingingly. An expression, part grimace, part grin, lit Kennit's dark face. A little pain was nothing. His luck was holding. With luck, a man could do much.

  CHAPTER EIGHTEEN - Wishes Fulfilled

  “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH MY FATHER?”

  Kennit looked up from the tray of food Win trow had just placed before him. The pirate was freshly attired, washed and combed. That final effort had exhausted him. All he wanted right now was his food. Etta's flapping and whining about how worried she had been the whole time he was gone had been taxing enough. After she'd laid out fresh clothing for him, he'd banished her from his room. Nothing was more irritating to his nerves than someone fretting. He would not tolerate that atmosphere for his dinner. He ignored the lad. He picked up a spoon in his sore hand and stirred the soup before him. Pieces of carrot and fish bobbed to the top.

  “I beg you. I have to know. What have you done with my father?”

  Kennit looked at the boy, a sharp reply on the tip of his tongue, and relented. Wintrow's face was as pale as such a tanned and swarthy lad could be. He stood very straight and still, as if composed. The quickness of his breath and his teeth clenched on his lower lip betrayed him. His dark eyes were haunted. He supposed the youngster felt bad, but one had to take responsibility for one's choices. “I only did what you asked me to do. Your father is now somewhere else. You don't have to worry about him, you don't have to see him or contend with him. ” Before Wintrow could ask, Kennit added, “He is safe. When I keep a promise, I don't keep it halfway. ”

 
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