The mad ship, p.6
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       The Mad Ship, p.6

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  Wintrow braced himself to be seized and hustled along. Instead, when the man appeared, Brig ordered, “Shake down everyone on board. The medical chest is missing. If someone has it, I want it found. At the very least, I want to know who touched it last. Do it. ”

  “Aye,” Caj replied, and hastened away.

  When Wintrow did not leave, Brig sighed out through his nose. “Something else?” he demanded.

  “My father is-”

  “SHIP!” the lookout suddenly sang out. An instant later, he called out, “Chalcedean galley, but flying the flag of the Satrap's Patrol. They're coming up fast with oars and sail. They must have been laying back in that inlet. ”

  “Damn,” Brig spat. “He did it! The son of a whore brought in Chalcedean mercenaries. Clear the decks!” he suddenly roared. “Working crew only! Everyone else below and out of the way. Get some sail on!”

  Wintrow was moving, sprinting toward the figurehead. He dodged men nimbly. The deck became as busy as a stirred ant-nest. Ahead of them, the Marietta was sheering off in one direction as Vivacia leaned another. Wintrow gained the foredeck and then clung to the bow railing. Behind him, he heard thin shouts as the Chalcedean ship hailed them. Brig did not bother to reply.

  “I don't understand!” Vivacia called to him. “Why do Chalcedean war galleys fly the Satrap's colors?”

  “I heard rumors of it in Jamaillia. Satrap Cosgo hired Chalcedeans to patrol the Inside Passage. They're supposed to clear out the pirates, but that doesn't explain why they'd pursue us. A moment!” He flung himself into the rigging, scrabbling up to where he had a better view of what was going on. The Chalcedean ship in pursuit was built for warfare, not trade. In addition to her sail, two banks of slaves plied her oars. She was long and lean and her decks swarmed with fighting men. The spring sunlight glinted on helms and swords. The Satrap's flag with the white spires of Jamaillia on a blue field looked incongruous above the galley's blood-red sail.

  “He invites their warships into our waters?” Vivacia was incredulous. “Is he mad? The Chalcedeans are without honor. This is like putting the thief to guard your warehouse. ” She glanced fearfully over her shoulder. “Do they pursue us?”

  “Yes,” Wintrow said succinctly. His heart thundered within him. What should he hope? That they escaped cleanly, or that the Chalcedean patrol boat caught them? The pirates would not surrender the Vivacia without a battle. There would be more bloodshed. If the Chalcedeans prevailed, would they restore Vivacia to her legal owners? Perhaps. He suspected they would take the ship back to Jamaillia for the Satrap's decision. The slaves huddled belowdecks would be enslaved once more, and they knew it. They would fight. The slaves outnumbered the boarders that the Chalcedean vessel could be carrying, but they were unarmed and inexperienced. A great deal of bloodshed, he decided.

  So. Should he urge Vivacia to flee, or dawdle? Before he could even voice his uncertainty, the decision was snatched from him.

  The smaller, sleeker vessel, driven by oars as well as wind, was gaining on them. For the first time, Wintrow noted the cruel war ram at the bow of the galley. A flight of arrows rose from the Chalcedean's deck. Wintrow cried out a wordless warning to Vivacia. Some were aflame as they arced toward the ship. The first volley fell short, but they had made their intention plain.

  In a display of both seamanship and daring, the Marietta suddenly heeled over, changing her course into a curve that would take her behind Vivacia and right across the Chalcedean ship's bow. Wintrow thought he glimpsed the pirate Sorcor on the deck, exhorting his men to greater efforts. The Raven flag blossomed suddenly, a taunting challenge to the Chalcedeans. For a moment, it gave Wintrow pause. What sort of a captain was this pirate Kennit to be able to command such loyalty in his men? Sorcor's plain intention was to draw the pursuit off his captain and to himself.

  From Wintrow's perch, he saw the Marietta rock suddenly as her deckmounted catapults lofted a shower of ballast at the patrol vessel. Some of the stones fell short, sending white gouts of water leaping from the waves, but a satisfying amount of it rattled down onto the decks of the galley. It wrought havoc among the oarsmen. The steady beating of the oars suddenly looked like the wild scrabbling of a many-legged insect. The gap between the patrol vessel and Vivacia steadily and swiftly widened. The Marietta did not look as if she were staying to fight. Having worked her mischief, she was now piling on canvas and fleeing. As the galley regained the beat of its oars, it shot off in pursuit of her. Wintrow strained to see, but the helmsman was taking Vivacia into the lee of an island. His view was blocked. He suddenly understood the ruse. The Vivacia would be taken swiftly out of sight while the Marietta lured the pursuit well away.

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  He clambered down to drop lightly to the deck. “Well. That was interesting,” he remarked wryly to Vivacia. But the ship was distracted.

  “Kennit,” she replied.

  “What about him?” Wintrow asked.

  “Boy!” The woman's sharp voice came from behind him. He turned to see Etta glaring at him. “The captain wants you. Now. ” She spoke peremptorily, but her eyes were not on him. Her gaze locked with Vivacia's. The figurehead's face grew suddenly impassive.

  “Wintrow. Stand still,” she ordered him softly.

  Vivacia lifted her voice to speak to the pirate. “His name is Wintrow Vestrit,” she pointed out to Etta with patrician disdain. “You will not call him 'boy. ' ” Vivacia shifted her eyes to Wintrow. She smiled at him benignly and politely observed, “I hear Captain Kennit calling for you. Would you go to him, please, Wintrow?”

  “Immediately,” he promised her and complied. As he walked away from them, he wondered what Vivacia had been demonstrating. He would not make the mistake of thinking that she had been defending him from Etta. No. That exchange had been about the struggle for dominance between the two females. In her own way, Vivacia had asserted that Wintrow was her territory and that she expected Etta to respect that. At the same time, it had pleased her to reveal to the woman that the ship was aware of what went on in the captain's stateroom. From the spasm of anger that had passed over Etta's features, he deduced she was not pleased by it.

  He glanced back over his shoulder at them. Etta had not moved. He heard no voices, but they could have been speaking softly. He was struck again by the pirate woman's extraordinary appearance. Etta was tall, her long limbs spare of flesh. She wore her silk blouse and brocaded vest and trousers as casually as if they were simple cotton garments. Her sleek black hair was cut off short, not even reaching her shoulders. She offered neither roundness nor softness to suggest femininity. Her dark eyes were dangerous and feral. From what Wintrow had seen of her, she was savagely tempered and remorseless as a cat. Not one sign of tenderness had he seen in the woman. Nevertheless, all those traits contradicted themselves, combining to make her overwhelmingly female. Never before had Wintrow sensed such power in a woman. He wondered if Vivacia would win her battle of wills with Etta.

  Kennit was indeed calling his name, not loudly, but with a panting intensity. Wintrow did not knock but entered immediately. The tall, lean pirate was supine on the bed, but there was nothing restful about his attitude. His hands gripped the linens, knuckles white, as if he were a woman in labor. His head was thrown back against the disheveled pillows. The bared muscles of his chest stood out strongly. His gaping mouth gulped air spasmodically; his chest heaved up and down with the effort. His dark hair and open shirt were soaked in sweat. The sharp tang of it filled the cabin.

  “Wintrow?” Kennit gasped out yet again, as he reached the bedside.

  “I'm here. ” Instinctively, he took one of the pirate's calloused hands in his own. Kennit gripped Wintrow's hand in so violent a clench it was all he could do to keep from crying out. Instead, he returned the grip, deliberately pinching down hard between the pirate's thumb and fingers. With his other hand, he wrapped Kennit's wrist. He tried to set his fingers to the pirate's pulse, b
ut the man's bracelet was in the way. He contented himself with moving his hand to Kennit's forearm. Rhythmically he tightened and then loosened his grip in a slow, calming pattern while he maintained the pinch on Kennit's hand that was supposed to lessen pain. He dared to sit down on the edge of the bed, leaning over Kennit so that he could meet the tortured man's eyes. “Watch me,” he told him. “Breathe with me. Like this. ” Wintrow took a slow steadying breath, held it for a count, and then slowly released it. Kennit made a faint effort to copy him. His breath was still too short and too brisk, but Wintrow nodded encouragingly at him. “That's right. That is right. Take control of your body. Pain is only the tool of your body. You can master it. ”

  He held the pirate's gaze steady with his own. With every breath, he expelled soothing confidence and belief, so that Kennit might breathe it in. Wintrow centered himself within his own body, finding a core that touched his heart and both his lungs. He let the focus of his eyes soften, drawing Kennit's gaze deeper into his own so that he could share his calmness with the man. He tried to make his gaze draw Kennit's pain out and let it disperse in the air between them.

  The simple exercises drew his mind back to his monastery. He tried to imbibe peace from those memories, to add their strength to what he was trying to accomplish. Instead, he suddenly felt a charlatan. What was he doing here? Mimicking what he had seen old Sa'Parte do with patients in pain? Was he trying to make Kennit believe he was truly a priest-healer, instead of a brown-robed acolyte? He did not have the complete training to do this simple pain alleviation, let alone remove a diseased leg. He tried to tell himself he was simply doing the best he could to help Kennit. He wondered if he were being honest with himself; perhaps he was only trying to save his own skin.

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  Kennit's grip on his hand slowly lessened. Some of the tension left his neck and his head lolled back onto his damp pillows. His breathing grew slower. It was the labored breathing of a man fighting exhaustion. Wintrow kept possession of his hand. Sa'Parte had spoken of a technique for lending strength to the suffering, but Wintrow's learning had not progressed that far. He had expected to be an artist for Sa, not a healer. Still, as he clasped Kennit's sweating hand between his own, he opened his heart to Sa and begged that the father of all would intervene. He prayed that his mercy would supply what Wintrow lacked in learning. “I can't go on like this. ”

  From another man, the words might have sounded pitiful or pleading. Kennit spoke them as a simple statement of fact. The pain was ebbing, or perhaps his ability to respond to it was exhausted. He closed his dark eyes and Wintrow felt suddenly isolated. Kennit spoke quietly but clearly. “Take the leg off. Today. As soon as possible. Now. ”

  Wintrow shook his head, then spoke the denial aloud. “I can't. I don't have half of what I need. Brig said that Bull Creek is only a day or two away. We should wait. ”

  Kennit's eyes snapped open. “I know that I can't wait,” he said bluntly.

  “If it's just the pain, then perhaps some rum . . . ” Wintrow began, but Kennit's words over-rode his own.

  “The pain is bad, yes. But it's my ship and my command that suffer the worst right now. They sent a boy to tell me of the patrol ship. All I did was try to stand. . . . I fell. Right in front of him, I collapsed. I should have been on the deck as soon as the lookout spotted that sail. We should have turned and cut the throats of every Chalcedean pig aboard that galley. Instead, we fled. I left Brig in command, and we fled. Sorcor had to fight my battle. In addition, all aboard know of it. Every slave on board this ship has a tongue. No matter where I leave them off, every one of them will wag the news that Captain Kennit fled the Satrap's patrol ship. I can't allow that. ” In an introspective voice, he observed, “I could drown them all. ”

  Wintrow listened in silence. This was not the suave pirate who had courted his ship with extravagant words, nor the controlled captain. This was the man beneath that facade, exposed by pain and exhaustion. Wintrow realized his own vulnerability. Kennit would not tolerate the existence of anyone who had seen him as he truly was. Right now Kennit seemed unaware of how much he was revealing. Wintrow felt like the mouse pinioned by the snake's stare. As long as he kept still, he had a chance to remain undetected. The pirate's hand grew lax in his grip. Kennit turned his head on his pillow and his eyes began to sag shut.

  Just as Wintrow began to hope he might escape, the door to the cabin opened. Etta entered. She took in the room at a glance. “What did you do to him?” she demanded as she crossed to Kennit's bedside. “Why is he so still?”

  Wintrow lifted a finger to his lips to shush her. She scowled at that, but nodded. With a jerk of her head, she indicated the far corner of the room. She frowned at how slowly he obeyed her, but Wintrow took his time, easing the pirate's hand down gently on the quilt and then sliding slowly off the bed so that no movement might disturb Kennit.

  It was all in vain. As Wintrow left his bedside, Kennit said, “You will cut off my leg today. ”

  Etta gave a horrified gasp. Wintrow turned back slowly to the man. Kennit had not opened his eyes, but he lifted a long-fingered hand and pointed at him unerringly. “Gather what you have for tools and such, and get the job done. What we do not have, we must do without. I want to be finished with this. One way or another. ”

  “Sir,” Wintrow agreed. He changed course, moving hastily toward the door. As swiftly, Etta moved to block him. He found himself looking up into eyes as dark and merciless as a hawk's. He squared his shoulders for a confrontation. Instead, he saw something like relief in her face. “Let me know how I can help you,” she said simply.

  He bobbed a nod to her request, too shocked to reply, and slipped past her and out the door. A few steps down the companionway, he halted. He leaned suddenly against the wall and allowed the shaking to overtake his body. The bravado of his earlier bargain overwhelmed him. What had been bold words would soon become a bloody task. He had said he would set a knife to Kennit's flesh, would slice into his body and cut through his bone and separate his leg. Wintrow shook his head before the enormity of the situation could cow him. “There is no path but forward,” he counseled himself, and hastened off to find Brig. As he went, he prayed the medicine chest had been found.

  CAPTAIN FINNEY PUT DOWN HIS MUG, LICKED HIS LIPS AND GRINNED AT Brashen. “You're good at this. You know that?”

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  “I suppose,” Brashen reluctantly acknowledged the compliment.

  The smuggler laughed throatily. “But you don't want to be good at it, do you?”

  Brashen shrugged again. Captain Finney mimicked his shrug, and then went off into hoarse laughter. Finney was a brawny, whiskery-faced man. His eyes were bright as a ferret's above his red-veined nose. He pawed his mug about on the ring-stained table, then evidently decided he had had enough beer this afternoon. Pushing the mug to one side, he reached for the cindin humidor instead. He twisted the filigreed glass stopper out of the dark wooden container. He turned it on its side and gave it a shake. Several fat sticks of the drug popped into view. He broke a generous chunk off one and then offered the humidor to Brashen.

  Brashen shook his head mutely, then tapped his lower lip significantly. A little plug of the stuff was still burning pleasantly there. Rich, black, and tarry was the cindin that was sending tendrils of well-being throughout his bones. Brashen retained enough wit to know that no one was bribed and flattered unless the other party wanted something. He wondered hazily if he would have enough willpower to oppose Finney if necessary.

  “Sure you won't have a fresh cut?”

  “No. Thanks. ”

  “No, you don't want to be good at this trade,” Finney went on as if he had never interrupted himself. He leaned back heavily in his chair and took a long breath in through his open mouth to speed the cindin's effect. He sighed it out again.

  For a moment, all was silent save for the slapping of the waves against the Spri
ngeve's hull. The crew was ashore, filling water casks at a little spring Finney had shown them. Brashen knew that as mate he should be overseeing that operation, but the captain had invited him to his cabin. Brashen had feared Finney had a grievance with him. Instead, it had turned into drinking and cindin at midday, on his own watch. Shame on you, Brashen Trell, he thought to himself and smiled bitterly. What would Captain Vestrit think of you now? He lifted his own mug again.

  “You want to go back to Bingtown, don't you?” Finney cocked his head and pointed a thick finger at Brashen. “If you had your wishes, that's what you'd do. Pick up where you left off. You was quality there. You try to deny it, but it's all over you. You weren't born to the waterfront. ”

  “Don't suppose it matters what I was born to. I'm here now,” Brashen pointed out with a laugh. The cindin was uncoiling inside him. He was grinning, matching the smile on Finney's face. He knew he should worry that Finney had figured out he was from Bingtown, but he thought he could deal with it.

  “Exactly what I was about to tell you. See that? See? You're smart. Many men, they can't accept where they end up. They always go moping after the past, or mooning toward the future. But men like us-” He slapped the table resoundingly. “Men like us can grab what we're offered and make a go of it. ”

  “So. You're going to offer me something?” Brashen hazarded slyly. “Not exactly. It's what we can offer each other. Look at us. Look at what we do. I take the Springeve up and down this coast, in and out of lots of little towns. I buy stuff, I sell stuff, and I don't ask too many questions. I carry a good supply of fine trade goods, so I get the deals. I get fine quality stuff. You know that's true. ”

  “That's true,” Brashen agreed easily. Now was not the time to point out the pedigree of the goods they trafficked in. The Springeve and Finney traded throughout the pirate isles, buying up the best of the pirates' stolen goods and reselling them to a go-between in Candletown. From there, they were passed off as legitimate goods in other ports. Brashen didn't know much more than that and he didn't really care. He was mate on the Springeve. In exchange for that, and for acting as a bodyguard on occasion, he got his room, board, a few coins and some really good cindin. There wasn't much else a man needed.

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