The mad ship, p.4
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       The Mad Ship, p.4

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  “No. Not Kennit,” the tiny voice confirmed in amusement. “Nor are you the Vestrit you think yourself to be. Who are you?”

  It was disconcerting to feel a mind groping after her reaction. Instinctively she recoiled from the contact. She was stronger far than he was. When she pulled away from him, he could not follow her. In doing so, she severed her tentative contact with Kennit as well. Frustration and agitation roiled through her. She clenched her fists at her side and took the next wave badly, smashing herself into it rather than through it. The helmsman cursed to himself and made a tiny correction. Vivacia licked the salt spray from her lips and shook her hair back from her face. Who and what was he? She held her thoughts still inside herself and tried to decide if she were more frightened or intrigued. She sensed an odd kinship with the being who had spoken to her. She had turned his aggressive prying aside easily, but she disliked that someone had even tried to invade her mind.

  She decided she would not tolerate it. Whoever this intruder was, she would unmask him and confront him. Keeping her own guard up, she reached out tentatively toward the cabin where Kennit shifted in his sleep. She found the pirate easily. He still struggled through his fever dreams, hiding within a cupboard while some dream being stalked him, calling his name in a falsely sweet tone. The woman set a cool cloth on his brow, and draped another over the swollen stump of his leg. Vivacia almost felt the sudden easing it brought him. The ship reached out again, more boldly, but found no one else there.

  “Where are you?” she demanded suddenly and angrily. Kennit jerked with a cry as the stalker in his dream echoed her words, and Etta bent over him, murmuring soothing words.

  Vivacia's question went unanswered.

  KENNIT SURFACED, GASPING HIS WAY INTO CONSCIOUSNESS. IT TOOK HIM A moment to recall his surroundings. Then a faint smile of pleasure stretched his fever-parched lips. His liveship. He was on board his liveship, in the captain's well-appointed chambers. A fine linen sheet draped his sweating body. Polished brass and wood gleamed throughout a chamber both cozy and refined. He could hear the water gurgling past as Vivacia cut through the channel. He could almost feel the awareness of his ship around him, protecting him. She was a second skin, shielding him from the world. He sighed in satisfaction, and then choked on the mucus in his dry throat.

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  “Etta!” he croaked to the whore. “Water. ”

  “It's right here,” she said soothingly.

  It was true. Surprising as it was, she was standing right beside him, a cup of water ready in her hand. Her long fingers were cool on the back of his neck as she helped him raise himself to drink. Afterward, she deftly turned his pillow before she lowered his head again. With a cool cloth she patted the perspiration from his face and then wiped his hands with a moist cloth. He lay still and silent under her touch, limply grateful for the comfort she gave. He knew a moment of purest peace.

  It did not last. His awareness of his swollen leg rose swiftly to recognition of pain. He tried to ignore it. It became a pulsing heat that rose in intensity with every breath he took. Beside his bed, his whore sat in a chair, sewing something. His eyes moved listlessly over her. She looked older than he recalled her. The lines were deeper by her mouth and in her brow. Her face looked thinner under the brush of her short black hair. It made her dark eyes even more immense.

  “You look terrible,” he rebuked her.

  She set her sewing aside immediately and smiled as if he had complimented her. “It's hard for me to see you like this. When you are ill . . . I can't sleep, I can't eat. . . . ”

  Selfish woman. She'd fed his leg to a sea serpent, and now tried to make it out that it was her problem. Was he supposed to feel sorry for her? He pushed the thought aside. “Where's that boy? Wintrow?”

  She stood right away. “Do you want him?”

  Stupid question. “Of course I want him. He's supposed to make my leg better. Why hasn't he done so?”

  She leaned over his bed and smiled down at him tenderly. He wanted to push her away but he had not the strength. “I think he wants to wait until we make port in Bull Creek. There are a number of things he wants to have on hand before he . . . heals you. ” She turned away from his sickbed abruptly, but not before he had seen the tears glinting in her eyes. Her wide shoulders were bowed and she no longer stood tall and proud. She did not expect him to survive. To know that so suddenly both scared and angered him. It was as if she had wished his death on him.

  “Go find that boy!” he commanded her roughly, mostly to get her out of his sight. “Remind him. Remind him well that if I die, so does he and his father. Tell him that!”

  “I'll have someone fetch him,” she said in a quavering voice and started for the door.

  “No. You go yourself, right now, and get him. Now. ”

  She turned back and annoyed him by lightly touching his face. “If that's what you want,” she said soothingly. “I'll go right now. ”

  He did not watch her go but listened instead to the sound of her boots on the deck. She hurried, and when she went out, the door shut quietly but completely behind her. He heard her voice lifted to someone, irritably. “No. Go away. I won't have him bothered with such things right now. ” Then, in a lower, threatening voice, “Touch that door and I'll kill you right here. ” Whoever it was heeded her, for no knock came at the door.

  He half closed his eyes and drifted on the tide of his pain. The fever razored bright edges and sharp colors to the world. The cozy room seemed to crowd closer around him, threatening to fall in on him. He pushed the sheet away and tried to find a breath of cooler air.

  “So, Kennit. What will you do with your 'likely urchin' when he comes?”

  The pirate squeezed his eyes tight shut. He tried to will the voice away.

  “That's amusing. Do you think I cannot see you with your eyes closed?” The charm was relentless.

  “Shut up. Leave me alone. I wish I had never had you made. ”

  “Oh, now you have wounded my feelings! Such words to bandy about, after all we have endured together. ”

  Kennit opened his eyes. He lifted his wrist and stared at the bracelet. The tiny wizardwood charm, carved in a likeness of his own saturnine face, looked up at him with a friendly grin. Leather thongs secured it firmly over his pulse point. His fever brought the face looming closer. He closed his eyes.

  “Do you truly believe that boy can heal you? No. You could not be so foolish. Of course, you are desperate enough that you will insist he try. Do you know what amazes me? That you fear death so much that it makes you brave enough to face the surgeon's knife. Think of that swollen flesh, so tender you scarce can bear the brush of a sheet upon it. You will let him set a knife to that, a bright sharp blade, gleaming silver before the blood encarmines it. . . . ”

  “Charm. ” Kennit opened his eyes to slits. “Why do you torment me?”

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  The charm pursed his lips at him. “Because I can. I am probably the only one in the whole world who can torment the great Captain Kennit. The Liberator. The would-be King of the Pirate Isles. ” The little face snickered and added snidely, “Brave Serpent-Bait of the Inside Passage. Tell me. What do you want of the boy-priest? Do you desire him? He stirs in your fever dreams memories of what you were. Would you do as you were done by?”

  “No. I was never . . . ”

  “What, never?” The wizardwood charm snickered cruelly. “Do you truly believe you can lie to me, bonded as we are? I know everything about you. Everything. ”

  “I made you to help me, not to torment me! Why have you turned on me?”

  “Because I hate what you are,” the charm replied savagely. “I hate that I am becoming a part of you, aiding you in what you do. ”

  Kennit drew a ragged breath. “What do you want from me?” he demanded. It was a cry of surrender, a plea for mercy or pity.

  “Now there's a question
you never thought of before this. What do I want from you?” The charm drew the question out, savoring it. “Maybe I want you to suffer. Maybe I enjoy tormenting you. Maybe . . . ”

  Footsteps sounded outside the door. Etta's boots and the light scuff of bare feet.

  “Be kind to Etta,” the charm demanded hastily. “And perhaps I will-”

  As the door opened, the face fell silent. It was once more still and silent, a wooden bead on a bracelet on a sick man's wrist. Wintrow came in, followed by the whore. “Kennit, I've brought him,” Etta announced as she shut the door behind them.

  “Good. Leave us. ” If the damn charm thought it could force him into anything, it was wrong.

  Etta looked stricken. “Kennit . . . do you think that's wise?”

  “No. I think it is stupid. That's why I told you to do it, because I delight in stupidity. ” His voice was low as he flung the words at her. He watched the face at his wrist for some sort of reaction. It was motionless, but its tiny eyes glittered. Probably it plotted revenge. He didn't care. While he could breathe, he would not cower before a bit of wood.

  “Get out,” he repeated. “Leave the boy to me. ”

  Her back was very straight as she marched out. She shut the door firmly behind her, not quite slamming it. The moment she was outside, Kennit dragged himself into a sitting position. “Come here,” he told Wintrow. As the boy approached the bed, Kennit seized the corner of the sheet and flung it aside. It exposed his shortened leg in all its putrescent glory. “There it is,” Kennit told him in disgust. “What can you do for me?”

  The boy blanched at the sight of it. Kennit knew he steeled himself to approach the bedside and look more closely at his leg. He wrinkled his nose against the smell. Then he lifted his dark eyes to Kennit's and spoke simply and honestly. “I don't know. It's very bad. ” His glance darted back to Kennit's leg then met his eyes again. “Let's approach it this way. If we do not attempt to take off your leg, you will die. What have we to lose by trying?”

  The pirate forced a stiff grin to his face. “I? Very little, it seems. You have still your own life and your father's on the scale. ”

  Wintrow gave a short, mirthless laugh. “I well know that my life is forfeit if you die, with or without my efforts. ” He made a tiny motion with his head toward the door. “She would never suffer me to survive you. ”

  “You fear the woman, do you?” Kennit permitted his grin to widen. “You should. So. What do you propose?” He tried to keep up his bravado with casual words.

  The boy looked back at his leg. He furrowed his brow and pondered. The intensity of his concentration only made his youth more apparent.

  Kennit glanced down once at his decaying stump. After that, he preferred to watch Wintrow's face. The pirate winced involuntarily as the boy extended his hands toward his leg. “I won't touch it,” Wintrow promised. His voice was almost a whisper. “But I need to discover where the soundness stops and the foulness begins. ” He cupped his hands together, as if to capture something under them. He began at the injury and slowly moved his hands up towards Kennit's thigh. Wintrow's eyes were closed to slits and his head was cocked as if he listened intently to something. Kennit watched his moving hands. What did he sense? Warmth, or something subtler, like the slow working of poison? The boy's hands were weathered from hard work, but retained the languid grace of an artisan's.

  “You have only nine fingers,” Kennit observed. “What happened to the other one?”

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  “An accident,” Wintrow told him distractedly, then bade him, “Hush. ”

  Kennit scowled, but did as he was bid. He became aware of the boy's cupped hands moving above his flesh. Their ghostly pressure reawakened him to the pounding rhythm of the pain. Kennit clenched his teeth, swallowed against it and managed to push it from his mind once more.

  Midway up Kennit's thigh, Wintrow's hands halted and hovered. The lines in his brow grew deeper. The boy's breathing deepened, steadied and his eyes closed completely. He appeared to sleep standing. Kennit studied his face. Long dark lashes curled against his cheeks. His cheeks and jaw had lost most of a child's roundness, but showed not even the downy beginning of a beard. Beside his nose was the small green sigil that denoted he had once belonged to the Satrap. Next to that was a larger tattoo, a crude rendering that Kennit recognized as the Vivacia's figurehead. Kennit's first reaction was annoyance that someone had so compromised the boy's beauty. Then he perceived that the very harshness of the tattoo contrasted with his innocence. Etta had been like that when he first discovered her, a coltish girl in a whorehouse parlor. . . .

  “Captain Kennit? Sir?”

  He opened his eyes. When had he closed them?

  Wintrow was nodding gently to himself. “Here,” he said as soon as the pirate looked at him. “If we cut here, I think we'll be in sound flesh. ”

  The boy's hands indicated a spot frighteningly high on his thigh. Kennit took a breath. “In sound flesh, you say? Should not you cut below what is sound?”

  “No. We must cut a bit into what is still healthy, for healthy flesh heals faster than poisoned. ” Wintrow paused and used both hands to push his straying hair back from his face. “I cannot say that any part of the leg is completely without poison. But I think if we cut there, we would have our best chance. ” The boy's face grew thoughtful. “First, I shall want to leech the lower leg, to draw off some of the swelling and foulness. Some of the monastery healers held with bleeding, and some with leeches. There is, of course, a place and a time for each of those things, but I believe that the thickened blood of infection is best drawn off by leeches. ”

  Kennit fought to keep his composed expression. The boy's face was intense. He reminded Kennit of Sorcor attempting to plot strategy.

  “Then we shall place a ligature here, a wide one that will slow the flow of blood. It must bind the flesh tightly without crushing it. Below it, I shall cut. I shall try to preserve a flap of skin to close over the wound. The tools I shall need are a sharp knife and a fine-toothed saw for the bone. The blade of the knife must be long enough to slice cleanly, without a sawing motion. ” The boy's fingers measured out the length. “For the stitching, some would use fine fish-gut thread, but at my monastery, it was said that the best stitches are made with hair from the man's own head, for the body knows its own. You, sir, have fine hair, long. Your curls are loose enough that the hair can be pulled straight. It will serve admirably. ”

  Kennit wondered if the boy sought to unnerve him, or if he had completely forgotten that he was talking about Kennit's flesh and bone. “And for the pain?” he asked with false heartiness.

  “Your own courage, sir, will have to serve you best. ” The boy's dark eyes met his squarely. “I shall not be quick, but I shall be careful. Brandy or rum, before we begin. Were it not so rare and expensive, I would say we should obtain the essence of the rind of a kwazi fruit. It numbs a wound wonderfully. Of course, it works only on fresh blood. It would only be effective after we had done the cutting. ” Wintrow shook his head thoughtfully. “Perhaps you should think well of what crewmen you shall want to hold you down. They should be large and strong men, with the judgment to ignore you if you demand to be released or threaten them. ”

  Unwillingness washed over Kennit like a wave. He refused to consider the humiliation and indignity he must face. He thrust away the idea that this was inevitable. There had to be some other way, some alternative to vast pain and helplessness. How could he choose them, knowing that even if he endured it all, he might still die? How foolish he would look then!

  “. . . and each of those must be drawn out a little way, and closed off with a stitch or two. ” Wintrow paused as if waiting for his agreement. “I've never done this by myself,” he admitted abruptly. “I want you to know that. I have seen it done twice. Once an infected leg was removed. Once it was a hopelessly smashed foot and ankle. Both times, I was there to help the healer, to pass
tools and hold the bucket. . . . ” His voice trailed off. He licked his lips and stared at Kennit, his eyes going wider and wider.

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  “What is it?” Kennit demanded.

  “I'll have your life in my hands,” he wondered aloud.

  “And I have yours in mine,” the pirate pointed out. “And your father's. ”

  “That's not what I mean,” Wintrow replied. His voice sounded like a dreamer's. “You are doubtless accustomed to such power. I have never even wished for it. ”

  CHAPTER THREE - The Crowned Rooster

  HER FOOTFALLS RANG HOLLOW IN THE CAVERNOUS CORRIDOR AS JANI Khuprus hastened down it. As she strode along, she trailed her fingers down the long strip of jidzin set into the wall. Her touch triggered a faint light that moved with her down the dark hall that carried her ever deeper into the Elderlings' labyrinthine palace. Twice she had to circle dark puddles of water on the stone floor. Each time, she routinely noted to herself the location. Whenever the spring rains returned, they had the same problem. The thick layer of soil on top and the questing roots that sought through it were beginning to win the long battle with the ancient buried structure. The quiet dripping of the water was a counter rhythm to her own hurrying feet.

  There had been a quake last night, not a large one by Rain Wild standards, but stronger and longer than the usual gentle shivering of the earth. She resolved not to think about it as she hurried through the dimness. This structure had withstood the great disaster that had leveled most of the ancient city; surely, she could trust it to stand a bit longer. She came at last to an arched entryway closed with a massive metal door. She ran her hands over it lightly and the Crowned Rooster embossed on the surface shimmered into life. It never failed to impress her. She could well understand her ancestor discovering this and immediately making the Crowned Rooster his own heraldic device. The cock on the door was lifting a spurred foot threateningly and his wings were half-raised in menace. Every hackle feather on his extended neck shone. A gem set in his eye sparkled blackly. Elegance and arrogance combined in him. She set a hand firmly to his breast and pushed the door open. Darkness gaped at her.

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