The mad ship, p.46
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       The Mad Ship, p.46

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  Vivacia quickly glanced at him, then back to the battle. Kennit was the one who replied. “They brought it on themselves,” he pointed out. “They chose this, knowing well there was a chance they would die. I do not speak only of my own brave men, who leap willingly to battle. Those on board the Crosspatch expected to be attacked. They invited this. They proclaimed their readiness with their boasts. Recall that they were well supplied with leather jerkins, swords and bows. Would they have such things aboard if they did not expect battle, if they did not know they deserved to be challenged?” Kennit gave a deep laugh. “No,” he answered himself. “That is not slaughter you see over there. It is a contest of wills. One could even say it is but a physical manifestation of the eternal conflict between righteousness and injustice. ”

  “People are dying,” Wintrow repeated stubbornly. He tried to put conviction in his words, but found his certainty fading before the pirate's persuasive words.

  “People are always dying,” the pirate agreed smoothly. “As you and I stand here on this deck, we are fading already, withering with the briefness of summer flowers. Vivacia will outlive us all, Wintrow. Death is not bad. She absorbed several deaths, did she not, to allow her to quicken? Think of it this way, Wintrow. Is it our lives she witnesses each passing day, or our deaths? You can as easily say one as the other. Yes, there is pain and violence. They are a part of all creatures, and of themselves are not evil. The violence of a flood tears a tree from the riverbank, but the nurturing soil and water the flood brings more than compensate. We are warriors for right, my lady and I. If we must sweep away evil, let us do it swiftly, even if it involves pain. ”

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  His voice was low and rich as distant thunder, and as stirring. Somewhere in that seamless logic, Wintrow knew there were loose threads. If he could but find one, he could unravel the man's whole argument. He retreated to a line he had read in a book. “One of the differences between good and evil is that good can endure the existence of evil and still prevail. Evil, however, is always ultimately vanquished by good. ”

  Kennit smiled genially and shook his head. “Wintrow, Wintrow. Think what you have said. What kind of murky good can tolerate evil and permit it to go on? Good that fears for its own comfort and safety does that, and transforms itself from true good to blinkered complacency. Shall we turn away from the misery in that ship's hold, saying, 'Well, we are all free men here. That is the best we can do, and they will have to look out for themselves?' Surely that is not what you were taught in your monastery. ”

  “That is not what I meant!” Wintrow retorted indignantly. “Good endures evil as a stone can endure rain. It does not tolerate it, that is . . . ”

  “I believe it is over,” Kennit interjected smoothly. Bodies were splashing over the side of the Crosspatch. No serpents rose to receive them. Swift and clean, the ship had never attracted a following of the beasts. The Crosspatch's pennant was torn down. A red and black Raven flag swiftly replaced it. The hatches were opened. Slaves began to emerge onto the deck. Kennit glanced over his shoulder. “Etta. Have the ship's boat readied. I want to go and inspect our catch. ” He turned to Wintrow.

  “Care to go along, lad? It might be instructive for you to witness the gratitude of those we have saved. It may change your mind about what we do. ”

  Wintrow shook his head slowly.

  Kennit laughed. Then his voice changed. “Come with me anyway. Briskly now, no dawdling. I'll educate you in spite of yourself. ”

  Wintrow half suspected that the pirate's true motivation was to keep him from speaking privately with Vivacia about all they had just witnessed. Kennit wanted his words to be the ones she considered as she pondered the taking of the Crosspatch. Wintrow clenched his jaws but turned to obey the pirate's bidding. He could endure. He was shocked when Kennit threw an arm across his shoulders. He leaned on him as if for support. The captain's voice was affable as he said, “Learn to lose graciously, Wintrow. For you aren't really losing. You're gaining what I have to teach you. ” Kennit's grin twisted as he assured him, “I have much to teach you. ”

  Later, as they were seated in the ship's boat, being propelled across the water to the Crosspatch, Kennit leaned down to speak in Wintrow's ear. “Even a stone is worn down by the rain eventually, my boy. No shame to the stone in that. ” He patted him affably on the shoulder and then sat up straight on his seat. He beamed satisfaction as he looked across the sparkling water toward his prize.

  THE GUSTY WIND BROUGHT ALTHEA THE RANDOM NOTES OF A PIPE AS SHE hurried through the woods behind her home and then clambered down the cliffs. She had promised to meet Brashen and Amber at the beached ship by noon. Together they would give him the news. Anxiety was a nasty ball in the pit of her stomach as she wondered how Paragon would react. The pipe notes that came to her ears were not quite music; it sounded like experimentation to her. Some child, probably, at play on the beach.

  The deepness of the notes should have prepared her for the sight of the blind figurehead blowing into an oversized shepherd's pipes. The self-absorbed look on his face transformed him. The lines were smoothed from his brow, and the set of his shoulders was no longer so defensive. He looked a completely different creature from the spooky and suspicious ship she had befriended so long ago. She knew a brief moment of jealousy that Amber had been able to work such a change in him.

  The oversized pipes were obviously more of Amber's work. Althea shook her head at what she suddenly perceived as a lack in herself. In all the years she had known Paragon, she had never thought to give him the sort of gifts Amber did. The bead-maker gave him toys and trinkets, things to busy his hands and his mind. Althea had been his friend for years, but had never perceived him as anything other than a failed liveship. She was fond of him, and saw him as a person, not a thing. Nevertheless, her image of him had never changed. He was a ship that had disappointed his trust, an unsafe vessel that would never sail again. Amber had unlocked the part of him that was a lively, if stunted, child and responded to that. It had made all the difference in Paragon's spirit.

  Althea knew a moment's hesitancy as she drew closer. The ship was blissfully unaware of her as he played. The figurehead had originally been carved as a bearded, craggy-faced warrior. Years ago, a hatchet or axe had chopped away his eyes. Now, despite the wild beard and shaggy locks, what remained of his face looked oddly boyish. She had come to join Brashen and Amber in convincing him to once more confront the task at which he had spectacularly failed. She was coming to take away this sunny day and the boyish creature playing his pipes. She would ask him to do that which he most feared. What would it do to him? For the first time since Brashen had suggested the plan, she truly wondered how it would affect Paragon. Then she thought of Vivacia and hardened her heart. He was a liveship. He had been created to sail and, if she could restore that to him, it would be greater than any trinket Amber had ever given him.

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  She refused to think about what it would do to them all if he failed again.

  She smelled a cook-fire. Now that the summer weather had warmed, Amber did most of her cooking outside on the beach. Within the Paragon, she had wrought a gradual change, some of which Althea approved and some of which horrified her. The captain's quarters now gleamed with polished and oiled woodwork. The brassware had been buffed to a sheen. The vandalized cupboards and wrenched hinges had all been lovingly restored. The room was redolent of linseed oil, turpentine and beeswax. In the evenings when Amber lit a lantern inside the chamber, all was honey and gold.

  Dismaying was the trap door she had cut in the floor that led down into the hold. Both Brashen and Althea had been initially outraged on seeing it. She had tried to explain to them that she had wanted swifter access to the holds for her supplies, but neither of them accepted that. No ship, they explained, had a trap door in the captain's chamber. Even securely bolted and covered with a fine carpet, it offended Althea.
r />   Amber had restored other parts of the ship as well. The galley stove had been cleaned and polished. Although Amber did most of her cooking on the beach, she kept her pans and supplies there. How she coped with the cant of the deck, Althea was not sure. Amber would only say that restoring these places seemed to make Paragon feel better, and so she had done it. The entire ship had been swept free of sand. Those bits of wind-flung moss and seaweed that had managed to cling to the ship had been cleared away. She had burned cleansing herbs in smoke-pots throughout the ship to drive out both the damp and the insects. Doors, windows and hatchcovers were all tight now. All these things she had done before the re-launching of Paragon had been discussed. For an instant Althea pondered that, then set her speculations aside.

  “Paragon!” she called to him.

  He took the pipes away from his lips and grinned in her direction. “Althea! You've come to visit. ”

  “Yes, I have. Are Brashen and Amber here as well?”

  “Where else?” he asked jovially. “They're inside. For some reason, Brashen wanted to look at the linkage to my rudder. Amber is with him. They'll be out in a bit. ”

  “Your pipes are lovely. Are they new?”

  He looked abashed. “Not quite. I've had them for a day or so, but I still can't play anything. Amber says it doesn't matter if I don't follow a tune. Amber says that as long as the sounds please me, the music is mine. But I want to be able to play them. ”

  “I think Amber is right. The playing of tunes will come in time, as you get used to them. ”

  The shrieking of disturbed gulls turned Althea's head. Far down the beach, two women were making their way toward the ship. A portly man trundled along behind them. Althea frowned. They were early. She hadn't even broached the subject to Paragon yet, and soon he would discover it had been decided without him. She had to get Brashen and Amber out here quickly, before they arrived.

  “What disturbed the gulls?” Paragon demanded.

  “Just some walkers on the beach. I'd like to, uh, have a cup of tea. Do you mind if I go aboard and ask Amber for the use of her kettle?”

  “Go ahead, I'm sure she won't mind. Welcome aboard. ”

  She felt like a traitor as he unconcernedly lifted the pipes to his lips again. In a very short time, his entire life would be changed. She scrambled up the rope ladder that was Brashen's most recent contribution to Amber's abode and made her way across the sloping deck to the aft hatch. She was clambering down a ladder when she heard their voices at the bottom.

  “It seems to be in good condition,” Brashen was saying. “But it's hard to tell with the rudder wedged in the sand. Once the ship is freed, then we'll have to check how it moves. Grease wouldn't hurt anything, however. We could put Clef on it. ”

  Despite her worry, Althea had to smile. The slave-boy was an extreme annoyance to Brashen, according to Brashen. Yet, somehow he seemed to have already slipped into the role of ship's boy. Brashen gave him all the small, uncomplicated tasks that no one else had time to do. The boy had spoken true when he said he knew his way around a deck. He seemed completely comfortable living aboard the derelict ship. Paragon appeared to have accepted him much more swiftly than the boy had adapted to the living figurehead. Clef was still very shy of speaking directly to Paragon. A blessing, Althea decided, considering the secret they had been concealing from the ship for the last week.

  Davad Restart had not been easy to persuade. To Ronica, he had initially denied all knowledge of any bargains concerning Paragon. Ronica had been unrelenting in insisting that he did know about the offers and counter-offers. Moreover, she insisted that only he could negotiate this delicate contract. When he had finally admitted that he did know of the bargaining for Paragon, Althea had left the room. Disgust filled her. He was a Bingtown Trader, born of the same traditions she was. How could he have considered doing that to a liveship? How could he sink to tempting the Ludluck family with money to agree to so heinous a thing? What he had done was traitorous, cruel and wrong. For money and for the sake of gaining influence with the New Traders, he had betrayed his heritage. Beneath the disgust churned her hurt. Davad Restart, source of sweets and pick-a-back rides when she was tiny, Davad, who had watched her grow up and sent her flowers on her sixteenth birthday. Davad the betrayer.

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  Ronica and Keffria had handled what she now thought of as a ransoming. Althea had not been able to bring herself to take any part in it. She avoided Davad, for she did not think she could speak to him civilly, yet she dared not offend him.

  She dropped the rest of the way down the ladder. As her boots thumped the deck, she announced, “The others are coming. Mother is just down the beach. I'm afraid Trader Restart has chosen to tag along as well. I hope he has the good sense to keep his mouth shut, but I doubt it. Have you spoken to Paragon yet?” Her eyes were on Amber. It was easier so. There was no enmity between Brashen and her, but no comfort either.

  “Not yet!” Amber looked stricken. “I wanted you to be here. I did not expect the others so soon. ”

  “They're early. We could send Clef down the beach to them, to ask them to wait until we signal them. ”

  Amber pondered a moment. “No. I think the sooner it is done, the better. He will rant and pout, I fear, but I suspect that secretly he may rejoice, also. ” She gave a small sigh. “Let's go. ”

  Althea followed Amber up the ladder, with Brashen close behind her. Out on the beach again, they found Clef sitting on a rock before Paragon. Clefs face was bright red; he was trying to catch his breath. Paragon blew on his pipe, making an abrupt farting sound, and they both went off into gales of laughter. The ship lifted his free hand to smother his giggles, but the boy laughed loud and heartily. Althea halted and stared. Behind her, Brashen joined in their laughter. The Paragon turned blindly toward them and grinned. “So, here you are. ”

  “Here we are,” Amber agreed. “All of us. ” She approached the figurehead, then reached up a gloved hand to touch his forearm. “Paragon. We are all here because we want to speak to you about something. Something very important. ”

  The laughter faded from his face, replaced by uncertainty. “Something bad?”

  “Something good,” Amber said soothingly. “At least, we all think so. ” She looked around at the others and then glanced down the beach. Althea followed her gaze. Her mother and Amis Ludluck would be with them very soon. “It's about a chance we have to do something good, with your help. We can't do it without you. ”

  “I'm not a child,” the ship said. “Speak plainly. ” His anxiety was building. “How could we be together? What good thing?”

  Amber rubbed at her face nervously. She glanced again at Althea and Brashen, then focused herself on the ship. “I know you're not a child. I'm not doing this well, because I am so afraid you won't want to join us. Paragon, here it is. You know of the Vestrit family's liveship, Vivacia. Pirates have captured her. You know all about it. You've heard us talking about it, wondering what to do. Well. Althea wants to go and rescue them. Brashen and I want to go, too. ” She took a breath. “We want you to be the ship that takes us there. How would you feel about that?”

  “Pirates,” he said breathlessly. He scratched at his beard with his free hand. “I don't know. I do not know. I like you all. I like being with you. No ship should be left with pirates. They're terrible creatures. ”

  Althea began to breathe again. It was going to be all right.

  “Have the Ludlucks said they'll take me there?”

  Brashen coughed nervously. Amber glanced around, inviting one of them to speak, but neither offered. “The Ludlucks will allow you to take us there. ”

  “But who . . . you can't mean there won't be a member of my family aboard?” He was incredulous. “No liveship sails without a member of his family aboard. ”

  Brashen cleared his throat. “I'll be there, Paragon. After all the years we've known one another, you're as close to fa
mily as I have. Would I do?”

  “No. No, Brashen. ” The ship's voice rose nervously. “I like you, I do, but you're not a Ludluck and I am. You're my friend, but not my family. I can't sail without a family member aboard. ” He shook his head, emphasizing it. “They wouldn't let that happen to me. That would be like them saying that they'd given up on me forever, that I'll never, ever be any good. No. ” He gripped the shepherd's pipes with both hands, but still they shook. “No. ”

  Althea's mother and Amis Ludluck had halted. Amis was staring at the Paragon. She crossed her arms in front of her and set her mouth in a flat line. Althea read both denial and rejection there. She was glad the ship was blind. Davad was puffing, striving to close the distance and catch up with them.

  “Paragon,” she said calmingly. “Please. Listen to me. It has been years since there was a Ludluck aboard you. You have been alone, save for us. Nevertheless, you have survived. I think you are different from most liveships. I think you have a sense of yourself apart from your family. I think you have learned to be . . . independent. ”

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  “I survived only because I could not die!” he roared suddenly. He lifted the pipes high in one hand, as if he would dash them at her. Then, in a great show of self-control, he reached over his shoulder to set the precious instrument on his canted foredeck. He was breathing hard through his nose as he turned back to her. “I live in pain, Althea. I live at the edge of madness! Do you think I do not know that? I have learned . . . what have I learned? Nothing. Only that I must go on, and so I go on. An emptiness devours me from within and is never satiated. It eats my days, one at a time, consuming second after dripping second, and every day I grow less, but I never manage to wink out. ” He gave a sudden, wild laugh. “You say I have a self apart from my family? Oh, I do. Yes, I do, a self with talons and teeth, so full of misery and fury that I would rend the world to shreds if I could only make it all stop!” His voice had risen to a roar. He suddenly flung his arms wide and threw his head back. He shrieked out a cry, inhumanly loud, unbearably sad. Althea clapped her hands over her ears.

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