The mad ship, p.47
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       The Mad Ship, p.47

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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  From the comer of her eye, she saw Amis Ludluck turn and run away. Her mother spun after her. Althea watched as Ronica caught up with her and grabbed her arm. She halted her and turned her around. Althea knew she was remonstrating with her, but had no idea what she was saying. Davad was beside them now, tut-tutting and wiping his sweating face with a silk kerchief. Althea knew what had happened. Amis Ludluck had changed her mind. Althea was sure of it. She had lost her only chance to rescue Vivacia. It would not have been so devastating if she could believe Paragon had won, but she could not believe that, either. The Ludlucks would not sell Paragon, but they would not sail him. He would stay here on the shores of Bingtown, getting older and crazier with each passing year. Althea wondered if she would do the same.

  Amber was standing dangerously close to Paragon. One hand rested on his hull. She was talking softly to him. He wasn't paying any attention. He had dropped his shaggy head into his hands and was weeping, shoulder-shaking sobs like a heartbroken child. Clef had drawn closer, staring up wide-eyed at the overcome ship. He clenched his teeth on his lower lip. His fists were knotted at his sides.

  “Paragon!” Amis Ludluck shouted his name.

  He jerked his scarred visage up from his hands and stared sightlessly about. “Who's that?” he demanded frantically. He rubbed at his cheeks, as if to wipe away tears he had not eyes to cry. He was plainly distressed at having a stranger witness his grief.

  “It's Amis Ludluck. ” The woman sounded defensive. Her graying hair had blown out of her summer bonnet, and her shawl flapped in the wind. She said no more than that, waiting for his reaction.

  The ship looked stunned. He opened and closed his mouth twice before he found words. “Why have you come here?” His voice and tone were surprisingly reserved, that of a man rather than a boy. Misery shone from him. He dragged in a breath, composed himself even more. “Why, after all these years, have you come to speak to me?”

  She looked more shaken than if he had shouted at her, Althea thought. She fumbled for words. “They've told you, haven't they?” she finally asked him lamely.

  “Told me what?” he asked her mercilessly.

  She straightened herself. “I've sold you. ”

  “You can't sell me. I'm part of your family. Could you sell your daughter, your son?”

  Amis Ludluck shook her head. “No,” she whispered. “No, I could not. Because I love them and they love me. ” She lifted her gaze to stare up at the disfigured ship. “That is not true of you. ” Her voice went suddenly shrill. "For as long as I can remember, you have been the bane of my family. I was not even born when last you sailed away, but I grew up with the pain of my mother and grandmother at their losses. You disappeared and the men of our family went with you, never to return. Why? What was it you wished to punish us for, save that we were your family? It would have been bad enough if you had never returned. At least we would have been able to wonder. We could have imagined that you had all gone down together, or that they still lived somewhere, alive but unable to get back to us. Instead, you had to come back, to prove to us that you had killed once more. Yet again, you had slain the men of the family who had made you and left the women to mourn.

  “Here you have been, for thirty years! A constant reproach to my family, a symbol of our shame and our guilt. Every ship that passes in or out of the harbor sees you here. There is no one in Bingtown who does not have an opinion as to why you failed. Most lay the blame at our door. We have been called greedy, reckless, selfish and cold-hearted. Some say we deserved what befell us. As long as you are here, we can never forget, nor forgive ourselves. It would be better by far if you were gone. They are willing to take you and we are more than willing to be rid of you. ” She doused them all with her poisonous words. The pain Althea felt for Paragon left her speechless. The woman's eyes bulged with madness. Perhaps, after all, Paragon was made of the same stuff as the Ludlucks.

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  “We were a powerful family, before you! You were to have been our glory, the Paragon of our success. Instead, it beggared our fortune to pay for you, and all you ever brought us was misery and despair. Well? Will not you at least deny it? Speak, oh wondrous ship! After all these years, tell me why? Why did you turn on them, why did you kill our dreams, our hopes, our men?” She finally stopped and stood panting with the force of her emotions. Beside her, Ronica Vestrit looked sickened. But the look on Davad Restart's face was the most arresting. He looked disquieted, and yet a sort of righteousness shone in his eyes.

  “The Rain Wild River,” Davad said quietly. “Nothing good ever came out of the Rain Wilds. Poisonous magic, insidious sickness. That is all that ever . . . ”

  “Stop it,” Amber hissed. “Shut up and go away. Go away now. He knows. Here. Here it is, take it, it is yours, it's all yours. All I have, in exchange for him. As I promised. ” From around her neck she took a key on a leather thong. She flung it at Davad's feet. It hit a beach rock and rang a clear note before it bounded onto the sand. He leaned down laboriously to pick it up. Althea recognized the massive key to the shop on Rain Wild Street. He dropped it into his pocket. Amis Ludluck stood looking up at the ship. A few tears had tracked down her withered cheeks, but she didn't weep now. She just stared at Paragon, her mouth set in silence.

  Above her, Paragon crossed his arms on his chest. His head was lifted. If he had had eyes, they would have been staring out to sea. The bunched muscles of his jaws clamped his mouth tightly shut. He was as still as if carved of ordinary wood.

  Davad took Amis Ludluck's arm and tugged. “Come along, Amis. I'll take you home now. Then I'll go and secure your shop for you. I think you've made the best of a bad bargain. I think we all have. Good day, Ronica, Althea. Remember, this transaction did not begin with me. ”

  “We'll remember,” Althea said flatly. She didn't watch them go. She stared up at the unmoving and silent ship. Guilt gnawed at her. Why had she thought that if Amis Ludluck came down here, she would persuade Paragon to go willingly? Ludluck spite was legendary in Bingtown. Why had she thought the woman would not turn it on her own abandoned ship? Suddenly, it all seemed insane. To set sail on a mad ship, in the dim hope of seeking out and recovering her family's liveship was an errand for a fool. Who else could believe in the success of such an undertaking?

  “Paragon?” Amber said quietly. “Paragon, she's gone now. Everything is going to be all right, you'll see. It's for the best. You'll be with people who care about you now. Out on the sea again, where a ship belongs. When you next return to Bingtown, you'll be a hero. All will see your value then, even the Ludlucks. Paragon?”

  Clef crept out from behind Brashen. He slipped up to the ship and shyly set a hand to his planking. He looked up at the still figurehead above him. “Sometimes,” he said earnestly, “Y'ave t'be yer own fam'ly. When yer all at's left ov et. ” Paragon did not speak.

  THE CROSSPATCH WAS AS PRIME A CATCH AS ANYTHING HE'D EVER TAKEN.

  A rare elation rilled Kennit as he was hoisted onto her deck. Etta was waiting for him, to hand him his crutch. There was a double spice to this victory. Not only was it his first substantial catch since he had been healed, but Wintrow was here to witness it. He could almost feel the wonder in the boy at his heels. Well, let him gawk about at the spit - and - polish little vessel, and rethink his measure of Captain Kennit. Did young Wintrow think he was some one-legged rascal, fit only to catch stinking slaveships? Let him look about at this, and know Kennit for one of the best freebooters that had ever sailed the Inside Passage.

  His satisfaction expressed itself as magnanimity toward the crew and Sorcor in particular. When the red-handed rogue hastened up to report to him, Kennit shocked him with a hearty clap on the shoulder and a “Well done! As nice a bit of piracy as I've ever seen! Any hostages?”

  Sorcor grinned, elated at such praise. “Just ship's officers, Captain. It was like you said it would be; the others were as much fighters as sailors. N
one of them wanted to lay down weapons and take up with us. Gave them a chance twice, I did. Told them, yield, we'll let you sign articles with us. But they wouldn't. Damn shame, too. There was some fine fighters aboard, but the only ones left are the ones who came here with me. ” Sorcor grinned at his own joke.

  “The ship's officers, Sorcor?”

  “Confined below. Their mate took a couple bad knocks to the head before he'd go down, but he'll be fine. There's a pretty tally of other loot, too. The slaves are okay. Some are a bit rattled at the sudden change, but they'll come round. ”

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  “Losses?” Kennit stumped along briskly.

  Sorcor's grin faded. “Heavier than we expected, sir. These were fighters, and they went down blades in hands. We lost Clifto, Marl and Burry. Kemper's short an eye. A few of the others took minor damage. Opal got his face laid open to his teeth. He's wild with the pain; I sent him back to the Marietta already. He was screaming something awful. ”

  “Opal. ” Kennit considered a moment. “Have him sent over to Vivacia. Wintrow will do what he can with him in a bit. Lad has a knack for healing. I notice you've made no mention of yourself, Sorcor. ”

  The big pirate grinned and made a deprecatory gesture at his bloodied left sleeve. “Two swords to his one and he still managed to cut me. I'm ashamed of myself. ”

  “Nevertheless, we'll have it seen to. Where's Etta? Etta! See to Sorcor's arm, there's a good lass. Wintrow, you'll come with me. Let's take a quick look at what we've won today. ”

  It was not a quick look. Kennit deliberately led the boy through every hold. He showed him tapestries and rugs rolled and wrapped in canvas for the journey. He showed him casks of coffee beans and chests of tea, thick ropes of dream herbs coiled in stoppered clay pots and glistening spools of thread in gilt, red and purple. All of this, Kennit explained to him, was the fruit of slavery. Pretty as they might be, they had been bought with blood. Did Wintrow think it right that men such as Avery and his backers be allowed to keep their ill-gotten gains? “As long as slavery is profitable, men will traffic in it. Greed was what brought your own father into this game. It was his downfall. I intend to see that it is the downfall of all who trade in human flesh. ”

  Wintrow nodded slowly. Kennit was not sure if he was completely convinced of the captain's sincerity. Perhaps that didn't matter. As long as he could cite righteous reasons for piracy and battle, the boy would have to agree with him. That would make it easier to sway the ship to his will. He threw an arm around Wintrow's shoulders and suggested, “Let's go back to Vivacia. I wanted you to see this, and hear from Sorcor himself that we offered those wretches a chance to live. What more could we have done, eh?”

  It was the perfect endnote. He should have known it was too good to last. As he and Wintrow emerged onto the deck, three female slaves hurried toward him. Before they could reach him, Etta stepped in front of them, stopping them with her hand on the hilt of her blade. They cowered together as she stared at them. Etta spoke to Kennit. “Bit of a problem here. These three are insisting they don't want to be freed. They want to be ransomed with the captain and mate. ”

  “And why is that?” Kennit asked in cool but civil tones. He ran his eyes over them. They were all comely women, young and smooth-skinned. Their slave tattoos were tiny pale things, barely visible in the sunlight.

  “The stupid bitches think they'd rather go on being slaves than have to find their own lives in Divvytown. Used to being rich men's pets, they are. ”

  “I'm a poet, not a whore,” one woman broke in angrily. “Captain Avery came to Jamaillia City to buy me especially for Sep Kordor. He is a wealthy noble and well known as a fair-handed master. If I go to him, he will provide for me and let me pursue my art. If I go with you, who knows what I must do to support myself? Even if I continue to compose, who will be my audience, save thieves and cut-throats in a backwater scum-town?”

  “Maybe you'd rather sing for the serpents?” Etta suggested sweetly. She drew her blade and touched the tip lightly to the woman's belly above her navel. The poet refused to flinch. She gave her head a shake and stared at Kennit instead.

  “And you two . . . are you poets also?” Kennit asked lazily. They shook their heads.

  “I weave tapestries,” one replied huskily.

  “I am a body servant, skilled in massage and the lesser healings,” the other said when Kennit fixed his eyes on her.

  “And . . . let me guess . . . all of you are for the Sep whoever . . . the very rich man with many servants?” Kennit's jovial tone woke an answering sparkle in Etta's eyes. She casually put more pressure on her blade, to nudge the first one back into line with the others. The other two slaves nodded.

  “There, you see. ” Kennit turned away from them, dismissing them with a wave of his hand. “That is what slavery does, Wintrow. A rich man buys their talents for his own glory. He buys them for money, and they do not even know they are whores. Not one has enough pride to speak her own name. They have become a part of their master already. ”

  “What shall I do with them?” Etta called after him as he limped away.

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  He gave a small sigh. “They wish to be slaves. Put them with the others to be ransomed. Sep Kordor bought them once: he may as well buy them again. ” Inspiration struck Kennit. “Whatever they bring in ransom, we will divide amongst those who have chosen freedom. It will give them a better start. ” Etta nodded in slow consternation before she herded her charges away. Kennit turned to Wintrow at his side. “You see, I do not force people to my way of thinking. I won't force you, nor Vivacia. I think you are already coming to see that I am not the wicked pirate you supposed me to be. ”

  As they strolled toward the rope chair that would return Kennit to the Vivacia's boat, he asked Wintrow, “Have you ever imagined what it would be like to be captain of your own ship? A sweet little vessel like this, perhaps?”

  Wintrow looked around before he answered. “She's a lovely ship. But, no, my heart does not lie in that direction. Given my freedom, I'd still return to my monastery. ”

  “Your freedom? Wintrow! The tattoo on your face means nothing to me. Do you still consider yourself a slave?” Kennit feigned astonishment.

  “No. A tattoo does not make me a slave,” Wintrow agreed. He closed his eyes tightly for a moment. “It is my blood that binds me to Vivacia almost as firmly as chains. The bond between us grows stronger with every passing day. I think that perhaps, I could still leave her and find completeness in a life dedicated to Sa. But that would be a selfish act, one that would leave her forever hollowed by my absence. I do not think I could find serenity, knowing that I had left her. ”

  Kennit cocked his head. “And you do not think she could ever accept me in your stead? For I only want what will make the both of you happy. Your monastery for you, if it can be managed without destroying the ship's spirit. ”

  Wintrow shook his head slowly. “It would have to be someone of my blood. Someone who shares a family tie with the ship. Only that could keep her from going mad at the abandonment. ”

  “I see,” Kennit said pensively. “Well. That does leave us in a fix, doesn't it?” He patted the boy's shoulder comfortingly. “Perhaps I shall be able to think of something that would make us all happy. ”

  THE WATER MOVING AGAINST THE HULL MADE A PLEASANT SOUND. VIVACIA was underway once more, flanking the Crosspatch with Marietta. Kennit wanted all three ships well away from the ambush site. Kennit had told Etta that ransom was more swiftly paid when preceded by uncertainty. The Crosspatch would simply disappear for a time. He would take the ship to Divvytown first, to show off his prize and his captives. In a month or two, he would arrange for word to be sent to Chalced that the ship and the survivors could be ransomed. The cargo he would dispose of himself. Etta had already helped herself to some of it. She smoothed the fabric that lay across her lap, marveling yet again at its textu
re before putting more thread on her needle.

  The night was dark around the ships now. Kennit himself was on the wheel. Etta tried not to be annoyed at that. After all the time he had spent talking with the ship earlier today, it seemed as if he could rest now. It had been a long day for all of them. She herself had sewn up Sorcor's arm. The big man had sat still, teeth clenched in a grin of pain as she closed the long slash up his arm. She didn't enjoy such work, but at least he hadn't been screaming like poor Opal.

  They had brought Opal over to the Vivacia to heal him. He'd struggled as they pinned him down on the foredeck as if they were going to flog him. A sword cut had laid open his cheek and nose to the bone. The gash had to be stitched closed if he was ever going to eat normally again. Evening was falling; they hung a lantern and the light fell upon him in a circle. There had been a surgeon on the Crosspatch among the slaves. At Wintrow's earnest request, Kennit had sent for him as well. Opal would not allow anyone to touch the wound. When Wintrow tried to hold the flesh together for the surgeon to stitch, the boy had shrieked and thrown his head about so wildly they had given it up. The surgeon had decided they must bleed him to ease the force of the pain, and this he had done until Opal had subsided. Etta had watched for a time whilst Kennit had spent the time explaining the process to the ship. The pain the boy endured was necessary: he could not be healed without it. Kennit compared it to the necessary killing he did in his effort to rid these waters of slavers. Wintrow had scowled at the words, but his task of catching Opal's blood had kept him busy. He had been very conscientious about it, insisting that canvas be put down thickly to keep even a drop from staining the liveship's decks. Eventually Opal's hoarse cries of pain subsided to muted little sighs and they took up their needles to make the boy's face whole again. He would never be as pretty as he had been, but he would be able to eat. It had been Opal's first time to be part of a boarding party. Bad luck had caught him, that was all.

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  Etta finished the last looping stitches of the hem. She bit off the thread, stood up and unfastened her skirt. It fell to the floor around her feet in a scarlet puddle. She stepped into her new creation, drew it up and fastened it at her waist. She did not know the proper name for this fabric. It had a crisp texture, crinkling deliciously under her hands as she smoothed it. It was a cedar green, but when she moved, it caught the lamplight in watermarks on the fabric, making the color ripple gently. The feel of the cloth pleased her the most. She ran her hands over it again, sleeking it against her hips. It made a slight crackling sound. Ken-nit would like it. He could appreciate sensation, at those times when he let himself focus on it.

 
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