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The mad ship, p.45
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       The Mad Ship, p.45

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
Page 167


  “Ay'll go. Ay'll sail wiff you. ”

  The boy blushed a bit when they all stared at him, but he didn't lower his eyes from Brashen's face. The plate of food looked as clean as if it had been washed. With the meal, the boy seemed to have taken on substance and spirit as well.

  “That's a brave offer, lad, but you're a bit small yet. ” Brashen could not quite keep the amusement from his voice.

  The boy looked indignant. “I feshed wiff my Da, 'fore the slave raiders kem. Know ma way roun' a deck. ” He shrugged his thin shoulders. “D'ruther do that'n shovel hosshit. Hosses stink. ”

  “You're free now. You can go anywhere you want. Wouldn't you rather go home to your family?” Keffria asked him gently.

  His narrow face stilled. For an instant, it seemed as if her words had muted him again. Then he shrugged. His voice was harder and less boyish as he said, “Nothern but ashes'n bones there. D'ruther go back ta sea. S'my life, right? Freed, am't I?” He looked about defiantly as if he expected them to revoke that.

  “You're free,” Althea assured him.

  “Then 'm gone wiff him. ” He tossed his head at Brashen, who shook his head slowly.

  “There's another idea,” Malta broke in suddenly. “Buy a crew. I've seen some tattoo-faced sailors about Bingtown. Why couldn't we just buy some sailors?”

  “Because slavery is wrong,” Amber pointed out dryly. “On the other hand, I know some slaves who might be willing to risk punishment by running away and joining the crew. They were stolen from homes and families in the pirate isles. They might be willing to take part in a chancy venture, if they were promised the opportunity to go home. Some might even know something of the waters. ”

  “Could we trust slave sailors?” Keffria asked hesitantly.

  “On the ship, they wouldn't be slaves,” Brashen pointed out. “If it's a choice between an able-bodied runaway and a broken-down drunk, I'll hire the runaway. A little gratitude from a man given a second chance at life can go a long way. ” He looked suddenly thoughtful as he said this.

  “Who put you in charge of hiring?” Althea protested. “If we're going to do this, I'll want the final say on my crew. ”

  “Althea, you can't be thinking of sailing with them,” Keffria protested.

  “How could you think I would not? If we are going after the Vivacia, I must be on board. ” Althea stared at her sister as if she were crazy.

  “It's completely inappropriate!” Keffria was aghast. “The Paragon will be an unreliable ship, with a motley crew, going into dangerous waters, possibly into battle. You can't possibly go. What would people think of the Vestrits if we allowed you to sail on such a ship?”

  Althea's eyes grew flinty. “I worry more about what people would think if we were content to let others take all the risks of regaining our family ship. How can we say it is a vital errand and ask our friends for aid, but then say that it isn't worth one of the family taking a risk?”

  “I think she should, actually. ” This astonishing statement from Brashen left several of them gaping. He addressed his remarks to Keffria, acknowledging that the decision actually rested with her. “If you don't make it plain that this is a Vestrit venture, you won't get any of the other Traders to support it. They'll see it as entrusting a liveship to a ne'er-do-well, disinherited Trader's son and a foreigner. And if, I hope when, we regain the Vivacia, the ship will need Althea. Badly. ” He met eyes cautiously as he added, “But I do not think she should sail as captain, mate or even crew. This is going to be a tough crew, one that will be kept in line by fists and brawn, initially, anyway. The type of men we'll end up with aren't going to respect anyone who can't pound them to the deck if he has to. You don't qualify. And if you're working alongside them, they aren't going to give you respect. They'll test your abilities at every turn. Sooner or later, you would get hurt. ”

  Althea's eyes narrowed. “I don't need you to look after me, Brashen Trell. Remember? I've proved my abilities, and they're not based just on body strength. My father always said it was a poor captain who had to keep his crew in line by blows. ”

  “Maybe because he felt that was the first mate's job,” Brashen retorted. He modified his tone as he added, “Your father was a fine captain with a wonderful ship, Althea. He could have paid low wages and still had good men willing to work for him. We won't have his options, I'm afraid. ” Brashen yawned abruptly, then looked embarrassed. “I'm tired,” he said abruptly. “I need to get some sleep before we do anything further. I think we at least know what our difficulties will be. ”

  Page 168


  “There is one other problem we haven't addressed at all tonight,” Amber interjected. They all looked at her. “We can't assume the Paragon will enter into this willingly. He has many fears of his own. In some ways, he's a frightened boy. The dangerous side of the coin is that he is an angry man, just as often. If we are going to do this, I think it is essential that he do it willingly. For if we try to force him to do it, there is no possibility of success. ”

  “Do you think it will be hard to persuade him?” Ronica asked.

  Amber shrugged. “I don't know. Paragon is completely unpredictable. Even if he is agreeable at first, he may change his mind a day or a week later. It is something we must take into account on this venture. ”

  “We'll cross that bridge when we come to it. First, we must get Davad Restart to get the Ludlucks to agree to our plan. ”

  “I think I can prevail there,” Ronica said in a voice that had a cool steel edge to it. Keffria felt a moment of sympathy for Davad. “I think I shall have the answer to that before noon tomorrow. I see no point in delaying this. ”

  Brashen sighed heavily. “We are in agreement, then. I will return tomorrow afternoon. Good night, Ronica and Keffria. Goodnight, Althea. ” There was a very subtle change to his tone as he bid her sister goodnight.

  “Goodnight, Brashen,” Althea returned his farewell in a similar tone.

  Amber, too, bid them farewell. As Althea prepared to walk them to the door, the slave-boy also stood. Keffria knew a moment of exasperation with her sister's impulsive behavior. “Don't forget, you have to find a place for the boy to sleep,” she told Althea.

  The boy shook his head. “Not here, 'm gone wiff him. ” He tossed his head at Brashen.

  “No. ” Brashen made the single word final.

  “Freed, am't I?” the boy protested stubbornly. He cocked his head and stared at Brashen. “Ken't stop me. ”

  “Don't bet on that,” Brashen told him ominously. In a kinder voice he added, “Boy, I can't take care of you. I've got no home to go to; I'm on my own. ”

  “Me, too,” the boy insisted calmly.

  “I think you should let him go with you, Brashen,” Amber suggested. She had a strangely speculative look on her face. With a wry twist to her mouth, she added, “It might not be the best of luck to turn away your first willing crewman. ”

  “S'right,” the boy asserted cockily. “El ken't respect a man who don't dare. Dare tek me. Y'on't regret it. ”

  Brashen squinted his eyes shut tightly and shook his head. But as he left the room the boy followed him, and he made no motion to discourage him. Amber followed with a small smile on her face.

  “Do you think they can bring Papa home?” Malta asked in a small voice after they had left the room.

  While Keffria was trying to decide how to answer that, her mother spoke. “Our finances are foundering, my dear. There is no point to refusing this risk. If it succeeds, it may save the family fortunes. If they fail, we will sink a bit faster. That is all. ”

  Keffria thought it a cruel thing to say to a child, but to her surprise, Malta nodded slowly. “I was thinking the same thing myself,” she observed.

  It was the first time in the last year that she had spoken in a completely civil tone to her grandmother.


/>   WITH THE PREY IN SIGHT, ALL HER DOUBTS EVAPORATED LIKE THE MORNING mists on a sunny day. Wintrow's shared soul searching, all his anxieties and structured morality, fell away from her like paint peeling off quickened wizardwood. She heard the lookout's shout as the sail came into view and something ancient stirred in her: time to hunt. When the pirates on her deck took up the lookout's fierce cry, she herself gave voice, like the shrill ki-ii of a stooping hawk. First the sail and then the ship came into sight, fleeing madly from the Marietta. Sorcor's smaller vessel hounded the prey as Vivacia, concealed behind a headland, swooped out to join the chase.

  Her crew drove her on as she had never been driven, piling on canvas until her masts and spars strained to hold the wind's breath. The canvas billowing wide, the whistle of the wind past her cheeks stirred in her memories that were not born in human lives. She lifted her hands and, fingers crooked like talons, reached after the fleeing ship. A wild thundering filled her heartless, bloodless body, quickening her to frenzy. She leaned forward, sleeking her planked body to a fleetness that made her crew whoop with excitement. White spume flew as she cut the waves.

  “You see?” Kennit cried out in triumph as he clung to her forward rail. “It is in your blood, my lady! I knew it! This is what you were made for, not some sedate toting of cargo like a village woman with a bucket of water. After them! Ah, they see you; they see you, look how they scramble! But it will avail them nothing. ”

  Page 169


  Wintrow dug his fingers into the railing beside Kennit. Tears streamed from the corners of his eyes in the harsh kiss of the salt wind. He made not a sound. His jaws were clenched tight, near as tight he held the disapproval inside him. But the wild pounding of his heart betrayed him. His blood sang with this wild pursuit. His whole soul quivered in anticipation of the capture. He might deny this enthusiasm to himself, but he could not hide it from her.

  Kennit and Sorcor had not chosen this prey randomly. The rumor of the Crosspatch had reached Sorcor's ears weeks ago. More recently, with his captain's continuing recovery, he had shared the news with Kennit. Captain Avery of the Crosspatch had bragged, not only in Jamaillia City but in several smaller ports as well, that no pirate, no matter how daring or righteous would dissuade him from the slave trade. It had been a foolish boast, Kennit had told Vivacia. Avery's reputation was already well-known. He carried only the finest cargo, educated slaves suitable for tutors, house servants and estate managers. He transported the best of Jamaillia's civilized wares as well: fine brandies and incenses, perfumes and intricate silver work. His customers in Chalced expected the extravagantly fine from him, and paid accordingly for his goods.

  While his ship represented a rich target, it was not one that Kennit would have ordinarily chosen. Why challenge a ship that was fleet and well armed, crewed by well-disciplined men, when there was easier prey to seize? But Avery had spoken once too often and once too recklessly. Such impudence could not be tolerated. Kennit, too, had a reputation to uphold. Avery had been foolish to challenge it.

  Kennit had gone to the Marietta more than once to plan this capture with Sorcor. Vivacia knew they had discussed the best places for such an ambush, but knew little more of his plans than that. Her curious questions had received only evasive answers.

  As the two ships scissored toward their quarry, Vivacia considered Wintrow's words of last night. He had bluntly condemned Kennit. “He hunts this ship for glory, not righteousness,” he had said accusingly. “Other slavers carry far more slaves a board them, in great misery and deprivation. Avery, I have heard, does not chain his charges, but lets them move freely belowdecks. He is generous with both food and water, so his merchandise arrives in good condition and brings fine prices. Kennit chooses to pursue Avery's ship, not out of hatred of slavery, but for wealth and fame. ”

  She had pondered his words for some time. “That is not how he feels about it when he thinks of it,” she answered. She had not elaborated on that topic further, for she herself was not completely certain of what Kennit felt. She knew there were depths to him that he concealed from all. She tried a new tack. “I do not think the slaves below his decks will be less grateful for their freedom than those held in squalor and deprivation. Do you think slavery is acceptable, if the slave is treated like a prized horse or dog?”

  “Of course not!” he had retorted and from there, she had steered the conversation into channels she could negotiate more nimbly.

  It was only today that she had finally put a name to the emotional undercurrent in Kennit when he spoke of the Crosspatch. It was the lust of the hunt. The small ship that fled so fleetly before them was a thing of beauty, as irresistible to Kennit as a fluttering butterfly is to a cat. Pragmatic as he was, he would not have chosen this challenging prey. Neither could he resist the contest once he had been taunted to it.

  AS THE DISTANCE BETWEEN THE VIVACIA AND THE LITTLE TWO-MASTED Crosspatch closed, Wintrow felt a queasy anticipation build inside him. Repeatedly, he had warned Kennit that no blood must be shed on the Vivacia's decks. He had tried to explain to the pirate that the ship must forever carry the memories of the slain, but he could not convey to him how wearisome a load they were. If Kennit did not heed him, if the pirate permitted the fighting to reach her decks, or worse, chose to execute prisoners on her decks, Wintrow did not think the ship could handle it. When Wintrow had gone to plead that Vivacia not be put to piracy, Kennit had listened with a bored air, and then dryly asked him why he thought he had captured the liveship? Wintrow had chosen to shrug and keep silent. Further pleading might only drive Kennit to prove his mastery of both ship and boy.

  The crew of the Crosspatch was aloft, working the sails desperately. If the Marietta alone had pursued her, the Crosspatch might have escaped. The liveship was not only fleeter than the two-master, but in a position to crowd her over in the channel. For an instant, Wintrow thought the Crosspatch was going to slip past them and gain open water. Then Wintrow heard an angry command shouted, and saw the slaver spill wind from her sails in a frantic effort to avoid going aground. Minutes later, the Marietta and Vivacia boxed her. Grapples soared from the Marietta, to fall and bite into the decks of the Crosspatch.

  Page 170


  Her crew gave up their efforts to flee and fell to the tasks of defense. They were well prepared. Firepots were launched, to shatter and splatter flames on the Marietta's hull and deck. Men donned light leather armor and took up blades with casual competence. Other men with bows slung over their shoulders were moving swiftly up the Crosspatch's rigging. On the Marietta, some pirates tended to the defense of their own vessel, smothering the flames with wet canvas, while others worked the catapults. A steady rain of rocks fell upon the Crosspatch. Meanwhile the grapples pulled the unfortunate ship ever closer to the Marietta, where a bloodthirsty boarding party crowded the rails in anticipation. The fighters aboard the Marietta outnumbered the crew of the Crosspatch substantially.

  Aboard the Vivacia, men lined the railing enviously. They catcalled and whooped advice to their pirate brethren. Archers ascended the Vivacia's rigging, and a random rain of arrows began to fall on the crew and deck of the Crosspatch. That was the extent of their participation in the battle, but it was a deadly one. The fighters trying to defend the Crosspatch had to remember there was a second enemy at their backs. Hissing arrows skewered those who forgot. Kennit held the Vivacia back at the edge of the action, her bow pointed toward the conflict. He stood on the foredeck, his hands clutching the railing. He spoke in a low voice as if he were instructing her. Every now and then, a gust of wind would bring his muttered words to Wintrow's ears, but they were obviously intended for Vivacia. “There, you see him, first across the railings and onto the enemy's deck, him in the red kerchief, that's Sudge, a fine rascal, always has to be first. Behind him, now, that's Rog. The lad idolizes Sudge, which may get him killed someday-”

  The figurehead nodded to his words, while her eyes drank in
the scene. Her fists were clenched at her chest, her lips parted with excitement. When Wintrow reached to her, he felt her confused enthusiasm. The emotions of the men aboard, a mixture of lust, envy and excitement, beat against her like a rising tide. A separate strand of emotion was Kennit's pride in his men. Like a horde of ants, the brightly clad pirates surged onto the Crosspatch's deck and spread the battle. The wind and the open water between the ships muffled the curses and screams. If Vivacia was aware that the arrows that flew from her own rigging were piercing human flesh, she gave no sign of it. Distanced here, the slaughter was a spectacle of motion and color. There was pageantry to it, drama and suspense. A man fell from the rigging of the Crosspatch. He struck a spar, tangled briefly about it, and then crashed down to the deck. Wintrow winced at the impact but Vivacia didn't even blink. Her attention was fixed on the foredeck, where the captain of the vessel battled Sorcor. Captain Avery's fine blade glistened like a silver needle as he darted it at the more ponderous pirate. Sorcor turned the blade with a short sword in his left hand, and made his own attack with the long sword in his right. Death was dancing between them. Vivacia's eyes were bright.

  Wintrow gave Kennit a sidelong glance. Here, at a distance, she could see the excitement and action of the battle, but she was insulated from the horror. Blood did not spatter her decks, and the wind carried away the smoke and the screams of the dying and wounded. Like a stain spreading, the pirates flowed slowly but surely over the deck of the captured vessel. Vivacia saw it all, but she was detached from it. Did Kennit seek to accustom her to violence by a gradual introduction?

  Wintrow cleared his throat. “Men are dying over there,” he pointed out. “Lives are ending in pain and terror. ”

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