The mad ship, p.52
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       The Mad Ship, p.52

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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  A spasm of anger passed over Kennit's face. Wintrow watched him smooth his features, then hold his hand out to the woman. “Because I wish you to,” he said, almost gently. She came back to him, but gazed at the book he picked up as if it were a hated rival. He held it out to her. “You should read this. ”

  “I can't. ”

  “I wish you to. ”

  She clenched her teeth. “I don't know how!” she raged. “I never had teachers or lessons. Not unless you count the men who taught me my trade before I was even a woman! I'm not like you, Kennit, I . . . ”

  “Quiet!” he barked at her. Again, he held the book out to her. “Take this. ” It was an order.

  She snatched it from his hand and stood holding it as if it were a sack of offal.

  Kennit shifted his attention to Wintrow. A very slight smile played about his face. “Wintrow will teach you to read it. Barring that, he will read it to you. ” He glanced back at Etta. “He will have no other tasks aboard ship until he has completed this one. I don't care how long it takes. ”

  “The crew will laugh at me,” Etta protested.

  Kennit narrowed his eyes. “Not for long. It's difficult to laugh with one's tongue cut out. ” He took a breath, then smiled. “And if you wish to keep these lessons private, so be it. You may use these chambers. I will see that you have sufficient time alone and undisturbed to complete this task. ” He gestured at the other plundered books scattered about the chamber. “There is much here for you to learn, Etta. Poetry and history as well as philosophy. ” Kennit leaned forward. He captured Etta's hand and drew her closer. With his free hand, he stroked her hair back from her face. “Don't be stubborn. I wish you to enjoy this. ” He shot Wintrow a peculiar, flickering glance. It was almost as if he wished to be sure he was watching them. “I hope it will bring great pleasure and learning to both of you. ” He brushed his lips across her face. Etta closed her eyes to his touch. But Kennit's eyes were wide open, and watching Wintrow.

  Wintrow was acutely uncomfortable. In some unnatural way, he felt included in the embrace. “You must excuse me,” he muttered, rising hastily from the gameboard. Kennit's voice stopped him at the door.

  “You won't mind teaching Etta. Will you, Wintrow?” There was little query in his voice. He held the woman close to him and looked at Wintrow over her bent head.

  Wintrow cleared his throat. “Not at all. ”

  “Good. See that you begin soon. Today, in fact. ”

  As Wintrow fumbled for an answer, he heard the now familiar cry. “Sail!” He felt a shock of relief. The thunder of running feet resounded throughout the ship. “On deck!” Kennit barked, and Wintrow sprang gratefully to obey. He flung himself out the door and ran while the pirate was still reaching for his crutch.

  “There! There it is!” Vivacia was crying as Wintrow gained the foredeck. She scarcely needed to point. Even at this distance, the wind carried the taint of the slaver. The ship that hove into sight was the filthiest, most dilapidated vessel that Wintrow had ever seen. Her hull gleamed with slime where waste had slopped over her side. She rode low in the water, obviously overloaded. Her unevenly patched jib puckered with the wind. A sporadic gushing of water from her indicated that her bilge pumps were being manned, probably by slaves. Some small part of Wintrow reflected that it was probably a constant effort to keep the wallowing ship afloat. In her wake were visible the additional V's of serpents trailing her. The loathsome creatures seemed to sense the panic on board, for they lifted their great maned heads and looked back at the Marietta. There were at least a dozen of the beasts, their scaled bodies gleaming in the sun. Wintrow felt ill.

  Vivacia leaned forward, her face avid. Her eagerness was so great, she almost seemed to pull the ship after her. “Look at them, look at them flee!” Her crooked fingers and outstretched arms reached after the ship.

  As her crew sprang to set her sails for the pursuit, the wind put its power to their backs.

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  “It's a slaver. Kennit will kill them all,” Wintrow warned her in a low voice. “If you help him capture that ship, all the crew will die. ”

  She spared him one glance back. “And if I do not, how many slaves will die each day of their voyage?” She fixed her gaze on her prey once more and her voice hardened. “Not all humans are worthy of life, Wintrow. At least our way preserves the most lives. If she sails on as she is, it will be a miracle if any on board survive the journey. ”

  Wintrow scarcely heard her. He was watching, incredulously, as the slaver began to pull away from the Marietta. The distance between the two vessels widened. The slaver was not blind to opportunity, nor to the new threat the Vivacia represented. The over-laden ship made for the center of the channel. The Marietta was too far behind her. Without the pirate ship to crowd her, the pincer technique had but one jaw. Incredibly, the slaver would escape.

  Kennit set his crutch down on the foredeck, and then hauled himself up the rest of the way. Once on the deck, he struggled to his feet and tucked his crutch under his arm. Etta was nowhere in sight. Laboriously he made his way over to the railing to join them. Once there, he shook his head in disappointment. “Those poor souls. The slaver is getting away. I'm afraid they're doomed to their fate. ”

  There would be no killing today. Wintrow felt a moment of relief. Then Vivacia screamed. The cry was one of thwarted lust. In that instant, the ship picked up speed. Every plank and sail suddenly aligned to their best use. The whoops and calls of the crew grew fierce as the gap between Vivacia and the slaver began to close. Her intentness caught Wintrow's awareness like a butterfly snared in a spider's web. “My lady!” Kennit exclaimed in vast approval. It was benediction and Vivacia glowed with satisfaction. Wintrow felt it heat him. Kennit was barking commands. Behind him, he heard the rattle of blades and the jests of men making ready to go and kill other men. Challenges and bets were exchanged as the boarding party readied itself. Grapples and lines were brought out on deck, while laden archers moved hastily to their places in Vivacia's rigging.

  Vivacia ignored them all. This was her pursuit, her kill. The men on board her she heeded not at all. Dimly Wintrow was aware of his own body. His hands were set like claws to the bow rail and the wind of their passage lashed his hair. Vivacia suffocated his small self in her greater energy. As in a dream, he saw the slaver grow larger before him. The stench of her grew stronger, and the scurrying men on her decks wore fear-stricken faces. He heard the voices of the pirates raised in excitement as the grapples were thrown and the first volleys of arrows loosed. The screams of those the arrows found and the muffled roar of the terrified slaves belowdecks were like the cries of distant shorebirds. He was far more keenly aware of the Marietta suddenly gaining on them. She threatened to steal the kill from Vivacia. The ship would not tolerate it.

  Vivacia literally leaned over and grasped at the other ship as the grappling lines were pulled tight. Her clawing fingers reached nothing but the avidity on her face terrified the crew of the slaver. “At them! At them!” she cried out mindlessly, heedless of the orders Kennit was trying to give. Her fierce blood lust was contagious. The moment the span between the ships was leapable, the boarding party began their exodus.

  “She has done it! Our beauty has done it! Ah, Vivacia, never did I suspect you had such speed and skill!” Kennit was worshipful in his praise.

  A wave of purest adoration for Kennit flowed through Wintrow. The ship's emotion completely overwhelmed his own fear of what would follow now that the slaver had been captured. The figurehead twisted about to lock eyes with Kennit. The admiration that passed between them was the mutual recognition of predators.

  “We will hunt well together, we two,” Vivacia observed.

  “That we shall,” Kennit promised her.

  Wintrow felt adrift. He was linked to them but they ignored him. He was irrelevant to what they had just discovered in one another. He could sense them connecting o
n a deeper, more basic level than any he had ever attained. What, he wondered dimly, did they acknowledge in one another? Whatever it was, he felt no answering echo in himself. Across a body-length of water, there was another deck, where men were fighting for their lives. Blood was flowing there, but what flowed here, between the liveship and the pirate, was something even thicker.

  “Wintrow. Wintrow!” In a sort of daze, the boy heard his name and turned to it. Kennit's grin was white and wide as he indicated the captured ship. “With me, lad!”

  He found himself following Kennit across the railing and onto a foreign deck where men struggled, cursed and screamed. Etta suddenly flanked them, a drawn blade in her hand. She strode with a pantherish awareness of all around her. Her black hair shone sleek in the sunlight. Kennit himself carried a long knife, but Wintrow was weaponless and wide-eyed in this strange world. His mind cleared somewhat as he left Vivacia's wizardwood behind, but the chaos he plunged into was nearly as numbing. Kennit strode across the deck fearlessly. Etta had placed herself on his right side, adjacent to his crutch. They threaded their way across the filthy and stinking deck. They passed by men intent on killing one another and circled around a man curled in a pool of blood on the deck. An arrow had skewered him, but the fall from the rigging had done more damage. His face was hideous as he grinned with his pain, his eyes crinkled as if in merriment while blood trickled from his ear and into his scruffy beard.

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  Sorcor came bounding across the deck toward them. Evidently, the Marietta had caught up swiftly, once she put her mind to it. She had grappled the slaver from the other side. The embattled crew never had a chance. The drawn blade in Sorcor's hand dripped while his tattooed face shone with savage satisfaction. “Just about done here, sir!” he greeted Kennit affably. “Just a few live ones left up on the poop. Not a real fighter amongst them. ” A wild yell punctuated his comment, followed by a flurry of splashing. “And one less now,” Sorcor remarked cheerily. “I've got some men opening hatch covers. It's a stinking hole belowdecks. I think they have got as many bodies chained up down there as they do live men. We're going to have to take the survivors off fast. This ship is making water like a sailor pissing beer. ”

  “Do we have room for them all, Sorcor?”

  The stocky pirate waggled his eyebrows in a shrug. “Most likely. It'll crowd both our ships, but when we rejoin the Crosspatch, we can transfer a lot of them to her. I'd say that about fills us up, though. ”

  “Excellent. ” Kennit nodded almost absently. “We'll be making for Divvytown, after we pick up the Crosspatch. Time to let out the word as to how well we've done. ”

  “I'd say so,” Sorcor grinned.

  A blood-smudged pirate hastened up to the group. “Begging your pardons, sirs, but the cook wants to yield. He's holed up in the galley. ”

  “Kill him,” Kennit told the man in annoyance.

  “Begging your pardon, sir, but he says he knows something that would make it worth our while to let him live. Says he knows where there's treasure. ”

  Kennit shook his head in wordless disgust.

  “If he knew where there was treasure, why wasn't he going after it instead of hauling slaves in this tub?” Etta demanded sarcastically.

  “Don't know, ma'am,” the sailor apologized. “He's an old 'un. Missing an eye and a hand. Claims he used to sail with Igrot the Bold. That's what got us thinking. Everyone knows that Igrot knocked off the Satrap's treasure barge and that lot was never seen again. Maybe he does know. . . . ”

  “I'll take care of it, Captain,” Sorcor promised in irritation. “Where's he at?” he demanded of the hand.

  “Hold on a moment, Sorcor. Perhaps I'll have a word with this cook. ” Kennit sounded both intrigued and suspicious.

  The young pirate looked uncomfortable now. “He's holed up in the galley, sir. We got the door half kicked down, but he's got a lot of knives and choppers in there. Pretty good at throwing them, too, for an old man with one eye. ”

  Wintrow saw a change come over Kennit's face. “I'll talk to him. Alone. You see to getting the slaves up and out of the holds. She's starting to list. ”

  Sorcor was used to taking orders. He didn't hesitate, just bobbed his head and turned. He was already barking orders as he strode away. Wintrow became aware of slaves. They were standing on the deck in listless groups, blinking at the sunlight. Coated with filth, shivering in the shock of the fresh air, they looked bewildered at the sudden change. The smell and the dazed faces suddenly took him back to the night the slaves emerged from Vivacia's hold. A wave of pity swept over him. Some of them were so feeble they had to be helped to stand. Slave after slave emerged from the holds. He looked at them, and knew the ineffable Tightness of what Kennit had done. To eliminate this misery was right. But his method of achieving it . . .

  “Wintrow!”

  There was a spark of annoyance in Etta's voice. Wintrow was standing, staring while Kennit was moving swiftly and with purpose across the deck. The list to the ship was becoming more perceptible every moment. There was no time to waste. He hurried after them.

  As he crossed the deck, he heard the roaring of serpents, followed by a sudden splashing. They were throwing bodies to the creatures. An appreciative murmur and laughter rose from the watching pirates as the serpents squabbled over the feed.

  “Leave off that!” he heard Sorcor bellow. “They'll have all the dead soon enough. Get the slaves out of the hold and onto the other ships. Swiftly, now! I want to cut this wreck loose as soon as we can. ”

  The galley was in a low deckhouse. Blades drawn, a cluster of pirates huddled around the door, unaware of Kennit's approach. As Wintrow watched, one kicked the barricaded door. It brought a volley of curses from the man cornered within and then a blade appeared in the small opening. “I'll cut the first man what tries to come through. Get your captain. I'll yield to him, and him alone. ” The mocking pirates only crowded closer. They reminded Wintrow of a pack of dogs with a cat up a tree.

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  “He's here,” Kennit announced loudly. The laughing, grinning men suddenly sobered. They fell back from the door, making way for him. “Be about your work!” Kennit ordered them brusquely. “I'll deal with this. ”

  They dispersed quickly, but not willingly, with many a backward glance. The rumor of treasure was enough to hold any man's interest, but Igrot's treasure was legendary. Plainly, they would have liked to stay and hear what bait the man would trade for his life. Kennit ignored them. He lifted his crutch and gave the door a thump. “Come out,” he commanded the cook.

  “You the captain?”

  “I am. Show yourself. ”

  The man peeped one eye around the door, then darted back out of sight. “I got something to trade. You let me live, I'll tell you where Igrot the Bold stashed his loot. The whole lot. Not just all he got from the treasure barge, but all he took afore that. ”

  “No one knows where Igrot hid his treasure,” Kennit declared with confidence. “He and his whole crew went down together. No one survived. If anyone had, they would have plundered his trove a long time ago. ” With amazing stealth, Kennit eased forward to stand immediately beside the doorjamb.

  “Well, I did. Been waiting for years to get to where I could go back and get it. But I never was in the right position. Anytime I'd a told, all I woulda got is a knife in the back. And not just any man could go after it. It would take a special ship. A ship like you got, just the same as Igrot once had . . . and I'm sure you're taking my drift now. There's places as a liveship can go that no other can follow. But now, well, I told you enough. You keep me alive, I'll lead you there. But you gotta let me live. ”

  Kennit didn't reply. A stillness came over him. He was poised motionless beside the door. Wintrow glanced at Etta. She was as silent and motionless as Kennit. Waiting.

  “Hey! Hey, you, Captain, what say you? Is it a deal? It's more
treasure than you can ever imagine. Heaps of it, and half of it magical Bingtown Trader stuff. You could just walk right in and take it. You'll be the richest man alive. All you got to do is say I can live. ” The cook sounded jubilant. “That's a fair trade, isn't it?”

  The ship's list had begun to increase markedly. Wintrow could hear Sorcor and his men hurrying the slaves along. One man's voice raised suddenly. “He's dead, woman. Nothing we can do. Leave him. ” A woman's sudden wail of anguish floated on the sea wind, but around the door, all was silent. Kennit made no reply to the cook.

  “Hey? Hey, Cap, you out there still?”

  Kennit's eyes narrowed as if in thought. Something almost like a smile played about his mouth. Wintrow felt a sudden shiver of nervousness. It was time to finish this and get off this ship. It was taking on water, and as the vessel grew heavier, the sea gained more power over it. He took a breath to speak but Etta elbowed him sharply. What happened next occurred simultaneously. Wintrow was left staring, trying to comprehend. Did Kennit's knife hand move first or did he glimpse the motion of the man peering around the door? The two objects came together as swiftly and synchronously as clapping hands. Kennit's blade sank deep into the man's good eye and then was pulled out. The man's body tumbled back out of sight. “There are no survivors from Igrot's crew,” Kennit asserted. He took an uneven breath. When he looked around, he blinked as if awakening from a dream.

  “Stop dallying here. This ship is going down,” he exclaimed in annoyance. Bloody knife still gripped in his hand, he stalked back to the Vivacia. Etta walked almost beside him. The woman appeared unfazed by what had just happened. Wintrow trailed them numbly. How did death happen so swiftly? How could the whole equation of a man's life be so swiftly reduced to zero? What he had done was an immense shock to the youth. A brief extension of the pirate's hand, and death bloomed. Yet, the holder of the knife felt nothing. Wintrow felt scored by his association with the man. He suddenly longed for Vivacia. She would help him think about this. She would say there was no justification for the guilt that he felt.

 
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