The mad ship, p.48
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       The Mad Ship, p.48

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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  Not that those times had been as frequent lately as she could hope for. She looked into the glass in his cabin and shook her head at herself. Ungrateful woman. It had not been that long since he was flat on his back, burning with fever. She should be grateful that he had recovered his manly appetites at all. She had heard that some never did after they had been maimed. She picked up a brush and drew it through her thick hair, sleeking it down. She was letting it grow longer. Soon it would be to her shoulders. She thought of his hands in her hair and his weight upon her, and felt her blood stir. When she had been a whore, she had never imagined she would come to this. Longing for a man's touch, rather than wishing they would just get on with it and finish. Then again, she had never imagined that she would feel jealous of a ship.

  Now that was foolishness. She lifted her chin to put scent on her throat. She sniffed it critically. This was a new fragrance, also taken from the Crosspatch just today. Spicy and sweet. She decided it would do. She resolved to have more faith in Kennit. Didn't he have enough on his mind, without her giving in to feelings of jealousy? Foolish jealousy at that. It was a ship, not a woman.

  She drifted about the cabin, tidying after Kennit. He was always drawing or writing something. Sometimes she watched him, when he allowed it. The skill fascinated her. His pen moved so swiftly, scratching down the precise marks. She paused to look at some of the scrolls before she rolled them and moved them to his chart table. How did he remember what all the little marks meant? It was a man's skill, she supposed. From the deck outside, she heard Brig's voice raised in command. Shortly thereafter, she heard the anchor going down. So they would stop for the night. Good.

  She left the cabin and went looking for Kennit. She made her way to the foredeck. Wintrow sat cross-legged on the deck by Opal, keeping vigil with him. She looked down on the injured ship's boy. The stitches had drawn the edges of the cut together. That was all that could be said for their work. She crouched down to touch his brow. As she did so, her skirts crinkled pleasantly around her. “He feels chilled to me,” she observed.

  Wintrow glanced up at her. He was paler than Opal. “I know. ” He snugged a blanket more closely about his patient. More to himself than to her, he added, “He seems so weak. I am sure the surgeon did what was best. I wish the night was warmer. ”

  “Why not take him below, away from the night chill?”

  “I think he takes more good from being here than he would from being below. ”

  She cocked her head at him. “You believe your ship has healing powers?”

  “Not on the body. But she lends strength to his spirit, and helps it heal the body. ”

  She straightened up slowly, but remained looking down on him. “I thought that was what your Sa did,” she observed.

  “It is,” he agreed.

  She could have mocked him then, asking him if he still needed a god if he had this ship. Instead, she suggested, “Go get some sleep. You look exhausted. ”

  “I am. But I'm going to sit with him tonight. It doesn't seem right to leave him alone. ”

  “Where did the surgeon go?”

  “Over to the Marietta. There are other injured men there. He's done what he could do here. Now it is up to Opal. ”

  “And your ship,” she could not resist adding. She glanced about the foredeck. “Have you seen Kennit?”

  Wintrow glanced toward the figurehead. It took her a moment to pick out his silhouette, for he shared a shadow with Vivacia. “Oh,” she said quietly. She did not usually seek him out when he was talking to the ship. But having asked after him aloud, she could not very well just walk away. Trying to appear casual, she joined him at the bow rail. For a time, she did not speak. He had selected a small cove in one of the lesser islands for their anchorage. The Crosspatch rocked nearby, and the Marietta just beyond her. They showed few lights, but those few zigzagged away in reflections on the water. The wind had died off to an insistent breeze that made a faint music in the rigging. So close to land, the smell of the trees and I plants was as strong as the salt water. After a moment, she observed, “The attack went well today. ”

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  “Are you telling me that because you think I don't know it?” He put a small bite of sarcasm on his words.

  “Will you do it again? Use that channel that way?”

  “I might. ” His brief answer chilled her effort at conversation.

  The ship was blessedly silent, but Etta still felt her presence as an intrusion. She wished they were on board the Marietta. There she could have contrived to move closer to him and make him aware of her. Here, the ship was like a duenna. Even in the privacy of the cabin, Etta felt her presence. She smoothed a hand down her skirt, taking pleasure in the crinkle and rustle of the fabric.

  “Before we were interrupted,” Vivacia said abruptly, “we were discussing plans for tomorrow. ”

  “We were,” Kennit conceded. “At first light, we sail for Divvytown. I need a good place to stash the Crosspatch until she is ransomed. And I wish to put the slaves aboard her onto land as soon as possible. So we shall start back for Divvytown. ”

  They were ignoring her. Etta's jealousy simmered, but she refused to stalk off.

  “And if we encounter other ships?” the ship continued.

  “Then it will be your turn,” Kennit said quietly.

  “I'm not sure if I'm ready. I still don't know . . . all the blood. The suffering. Humans feel such pain. ”

  Kennit sighed. “I suppose I should not have brought Opal aboard. I was worried about the boy and wanted him near me. I didn't think you would mind. ”

  “I don't, really,” Vivacia added hastily.

  Kennit went on speaking as if he hadn't heard her. “I don't enjoy watching his pain, either. But what sort of a man would I be to turn away from it? Shall I turn aside from one who has taken hurt for my sake? For four years, my ship has been the only home that he has known. He wanted to be part of the boarding party today-Oh, how I wish Sorcor had stopped him! I know he did it to impress me. ” Kennit's voice choked with emotion. “Poor lad. Young as he is, he was still willing to risk everything for what he has come to believe in. ” His words came tighter as he said, “I fear I have been the death of him. If I had not undertaken this crusade . . . ”

  Etta could not help herself. She had never heard Kennit speak such words. She had never imagined he carried such a depth of pain inside him. She stepped close to him and took his hand. “Oh, Kennit,” Etta said softly. “Oh, my dear, you cannot take it all upon yourself. You cannot. ”

  For an instant, he stiffened as if affronted. The figurehead glared at her. Then Kennit turned and to her shock, he dropped his head down to rest it on her shoulder. “But if I do not?” he asked wearily. “Oh, Etta, if I do not take this on, who will?”

  Her heart broke with tenderness for the strong man who suddenly leaned on her. She lifted her hand to the back of his head. His hair was silky under her touch as she stroked it. “It will come out right. You'll see. Many love you and will follow you. You must not take it all upon your own shoulders. ”

  “Whatever would I do without them? I could not go on. ” His shoulders shook briefly, as if he suppressed a sob. He coughed instead.

  “Captain Kennit,” Vivacia said in dismay, “I did not mean that I don't share your ideals. I only said I was not sure if I was ready to completely-”

  “It's all right. No, really, it's all right. ” His reply cut off the ship's even as his tone dismissed her words as mere courtesy. “We have only known one another a short time. It is far too soon for me to ask you to throw your fate in with mine. Good night, Vivacia. ” He drew in a long breath, let it out as a sigh. “Etta, my sweet. I fear my leg pains me tonight. Could you help me to our bed?”

  “Of course. ” It touched her. “Bed would be wisest. There was some scented oil on the Crosspatch. I took some; I know how your crutch makes your back and shoulder ache. Let m
e warm the oil and rub them for you. ”

  He leaned on her as she assisted him away from the railing. “Your faith in me gives me such strength, Etta,” he confided to her. He stopped suddenly and she halted beside him, confused. With an odd deliberation, he took her chin in his hand and turned her face up to his. He leaned down and kissed her slowly. Sensation washed through her, not just the warm press of his lips on hers and his strong arms around her, but the openness of this demonstration of affection. He ran his hands over her, the fabric of her skirt crackling to his touch as he snugged her close to him. He had placed her on a pinnacle for all to see his feelings as he kissed her. She felt glorified by it. He broke the kiss at last, but kept his arms around her. She trembled like a virgin.

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  “Wintrow,” Kennit said quietly. Etta turned her head to find the young man looking up at them wide-eyed. “If anything happens with Opal, in the night. You will come to me right away?”

  “Yes, sir,” Wintrow whispered. His eyes traveled over both of them. Awe like hunger was in his eyes.

  “Come, Etta. To our bed. I need the comfort of your closeness. I need to feel your belief in me. ”

  To hear him speak such words aloud dizzied her. “I am beside you always,” she assured him. She took his crutch from him to help him descend to the main deck.

  “Kennit,” Vivacia called after him. “I believe in you. In time, I will be ready. ”

  “Of course you will,” he said politely. “Good night, ship. ”

  It took a year to cross the deck and another before she could close the door of their cabin behind them. “Let me warm the oil,” she offered. But as she held it over the lamp, he limped over to her. He took the half-warmed oil from her hands and set it aside. For an instant, he frowned at her, his brows knit as if she presented a problem. She looked at him questioningly. He braced his crutch under his arm and lifted his hands to her throat. He caught his lower lip between his teeth as his large hands struggled with the fine ribbon that closed her shirt. She put her hands up to untie it for him, but with amazing gentleness, he set them aside. “Allow me,” he said softly.

  She shivered as he painstakingly negotiated the ties and buttons of her clothes. He drew off each separate piece and dropped it to one side. Never before had he done such a thing. When she stood naked before him, he took up the dish of oil. He dipped his fingers in it. “Like this?” he asked her uncertainly. His trailing fingers left shining tracks on her breasts and belly. She gasped at the lightness of his touch as he anointed her. He bent his head to kiss the side of her throat. He herded her gently toward the bed. She went willingly, though puzzled at this strange behavior.

  He lay himself down beside her and touched her. He watched her face the whole time, taking note of her every reaction. He leaned close to her and whispered into her ear. “Tell me what to do, to please you. ” The admission shocked her. He had never done this before; she was the first woman he had ever tried to please. It made her catch her breath. Suddenly his boyish incompetence was sweepingly erotic. He offered no resistance as she took his hands and guided them on herself. Never had he offered her this dominance; it was heady.

  He was not an apt pupil. His touch was hesitant, and as sweet as honeysuckle nectar. She could not look long at his intent face; she feared she would weep if she did, and he would not understand that. Instead, she surrendered herself to him. She watched him learn, guided by the sudden intake of her breath and the other small sounds that she could not control. A pleased smile began to hover around his mouth and his eyes grew brighter. She could almost see him learn that being able to bring her this much pleasure was a form of mastery. As the realization grew in him, his touch grew surer, but never rough. When he finally joined his body to hers, her release was immediate. Then came the tears she could not restrain. He kissed them away and began again.

  She lost track of time. When her entire body was so satiated and so sensitized that his touch was almost painful, she spoke quietly. “Please, Kennit. Enough. ”

  A slow smile came to his face. He eased away from her, letting cooler air touch them both. Suddenly he leaned over and flicked the tiny skull charm at her navel. She winced at the impact. The little ring of wizardwood that pierced her navel protected her from both diseases and pregnancy.

  “Does this come off?” he asked her brusquely.

  “It could,” she conceded. “But I am careful. It has never . . . ”

  “And then you could get pregnant. ”

  Her breath caught in her throat. “I could,” she admitted guardedly.

  “Good. ” He lay down beside her with a contented sigh. “I might want you to have a child. If I wanted you to have a baby, you'd do that for me, wouldn't you?”

  Her throat clenched so she could scarcely speak. She whispered, “Oh, yes. Yes. ”


  “What is it?” he called hoarsely. Beside him, the woman slept on deeply.

  “It's Wintrow. Captain Kennit . . . sir. Opal's dead. He just . . . died. ”

  That wasn't good. The whole idea had been that Opal would endure pain, and then survive it. He was supposed to be an object lesson for Vivacia. Kennit shook his head in the darkness. Now what? Could it be saved?

  “Captain Kennit?” Wintrow sounded desperate.

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  Kennit pitched his voice low. “Don't question it, Wintrow. Accept it. That's all we can do. We are, after all, only men. ” He sighed loudly, and then put concern in his voice. “Go get some rest, lad. Tomorrow morning is soon enough to face this sorrow. ” He paused. “I know you tried, Wintrow. Don't feel you have failed me. ”

  “Sir. ” After a moment, he heard the soft pad of the boy's feet as he moved away. Kennit lay back down. So. What would he say to the ship tomorrow? Something about a sacrifice, something that made Opal seem noble and inspiring instead of just dead. The words would come to him, if he just relaxed and trusted to his luck. He put his arms up above his head and leaned back on his pillows. His back ached abominably. He had had no idea that women had such stamina.

  “Vivacia is roiling with jealousy. But that was what you intended, wasn't it?”

  He turned slightly toward the charm on his wrist. “If you know so much, why do you ask so many questions?”

  “To hear you admit what a cad you are. Do you feel anything at all for Etta? Are not you ashamed at all at what you do to her?”

  Kennit was offended. "Ashamed? She has not suffered at my hands.

  On the contrary, I gave her a night tonight that she will never forget. “ He stretched, trying to ease his aching muscles. ”And at no small cost to myself," he added petulantly.

  “Such a performance,” the little wizardwood face muttered sarcastically. “Did you fear the ship would not know it if she did not cry out with pleasure? I assure you, Vivacia is keenly aware of you at all times. It was your efforts on Etta's behalf that scalded her, not any pleasure Etta took. ”

  Kennit rolled over and spoke more softly. “So. How aware of the ship are you?”

  “She guards against me,” the charm admitted reluctantly. “But there is still much I can tell. She is far too large, and all around me. She cannot completely conceal her awareness from me. ”

  “And Wintrow? Can you sense him through her? What does he feel tonight?”

  “What? Do you need to know more than how he sounded when he came to bring you the news? He was devastated by Opal's death. ”

  “Not about Opal's death,” Kennit said impatiently. “I saw him watching us, when I kissed Etta in front of Vivacia. It surprised me. Does he have feelings for the whore?”

  “Don't call her that!” the charm warned him in a low growl. “If you speak of her like that again, I shall tell you nothing. ”

  “Does he find Etta attractive?” Kennit persisted doggedly.

  The charm
relented. “He is naive. He admires her. I doubt he would presume to find her attractive. ” The small voice paused. “Your little display tonight set him thinking for a time. He will contrast that with Opal's death. ”

  “An unfortunate coincidence,” Kennit muttered. He fell silent, considering how he could make Wintrow more aware of Etta. He should have her wear more jewelry, he decided. Boys were always attracted to sparkly things. He would display her as an attractive possession.

  “Why did you ask her about a baby tonight?” the charm demanded abruptly.

  “A passing thought. A child might be useful. Much depends on how Wintrow develops. ”

  The charm was baffled. “I don't understand what you are suggesting. I suspect if I did, I would find it repugnant. ”

  “I don't see why,” Kennit replied easily. He composed himself for sleep.

  “How could a child be useful to you?” the charm demanded a few moments later.

  “I won't be quiet until you answer me,” it added when some silence had passed.

  Kennit drew a weary breath and sighed it out. “A child would content the ship. If Wintrow becomes too intractable, if he interferes with me persuading the ship to obey me willingly, well, he could be replaced. ”

  “With your own child, by Etta?” the charm asked incredulously.

  Kennit chuckled sleepily. “No, of course not. Now you are being ridiculous. ” He stretched and turned his back to Etta. He curled up and closed his eyes. “Wintrow would have to father the child. So it would be of the ship's family. ” He gave a deep sigh of satisfaction, then frowned to himself. “I imagine a baby aboard would be a nuisance. It would be simpler if Wintrow learned to accept his fate. The boy has great potential. He thinks. I simply have to school him to think my way. Perhaps I shall take him to the Others' oracle. Perhaps they could persuade him it is his destiny. ”

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