The mad ship, p.61
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       The Mad Ship, p.61

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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  He sensed her helplessness when she spoke. “You will have to trust us. We will be eyes for you, Paragon. If we must go into danger, I swear I will be here, right beside you, telling you all we face. ”

  “Thin comfort,” Paragon replied after a time. “That is thin comfort, I fear. ”

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  “I know. It is all I can offer. ”

  He listened. The waves patted gently against his hull. Ropes creaked. Footsteps sounded as someone passed them on the dock. The evening sounds of Bingtown came to his ears. He wondered how much it had changed since he had last seen it. He stared ahead into a future of eternal darkness. “Amber,” he asked quietly. “Was it difficult to fix Ophelia's hands? Were they badly damaged?”

  “The scorching did not go deep, except in a few places. The problem was more one of keeping the proportions of finger to hand. Rather than simply carve away what was damaged, I had to rework both her hands. A good portion of the wood that I removed was not burnt at all. I think the hardest part of the task was for her to keep still, and for me to concentrate on my skill when I worried about causing her pain. ”

  “Then it was painful?”

  “Who knows? She said it was not. As you say, she also told me: liveships do not experience pain as humans do. Nevertheless, I think it was uncomfortable for her. She told me she felt a sense of loss at the wood I pared away; that was one reason I restored it to her as jewelry. She also told me that her hands felt 'wrong' when I was finished. ” Amber paused. “That was devastating to me. I had done the best work I could. But when I last visited her, before she sailed, she told me she had become accustomed to her new hands and that now they felt fine. She greatly desired that I would re-carve her hair for her, but Captain Tenira refused. He said they could not stay in port that long. To tell you the truth, I was grateful. Wizardwood is . . . uneasy wood. Even with my gloves on, I always felt it was trying to draw me into it. ”

  He scarcely heard her final words. “You could cut my beard off,” he suddenly exclaimed.

  “What?” She came to her feet in alarm in a single fluid motion, like a bird lifting in flight. “Paragon, what are you saying?”

  “You could cut my beard off, and shape it, and peg it back onto me as a new face. I'd be able to see again. ”

  “That's a crazy idea,” Amber said flatly.

  “A crazy idea from a mad ship. It would work, Amber. Look how much wood is here. ” He reached up to seize two great handfuls of his full beard. “There is plenty enough to make me new eyes. You could do it. ”

  “I would not dare,” she said flatly.

  “Why not?”

  “What would Althea and Brashen say? To repair Ophelia's hands was one thing. To completely refashion a new face for you would be something else entirely. ”

  He folded his arms on his chest. “Why should it matter what Althea or Brashen say? Do I belong to them? Am I a slave?”

  “No, it's just that-”

  He ignored her attempt to speak. “When you 'bought' me, did not you insist that it was but a formality for others? You said I belonged to myself. That I always had and always would. It would seem to me, then, that this should be my decision. ”

  “Perhaps it should. That does not mean that I have to agree to it. ”

  “Why would you refuse? Do you want me to be blind?” He felt anger shivering inside him, trying to find a way out. He swallowed it back like bile. Anger did not work on Amber. She would just walk away.

  “Of course not. Nor do I want you to be disappointed. Paragon, I do not understand wizardwood. My hands tell me it is one thing, my heart tells me it is another. Working on Ophelia was . . . difficult for me. She said she had a sense of wrongness about her hands. What I sensed was something subtler. Something closer to sacrilege. ” Her voice went soft on the last word. He could almost feel her confusion.

  “You did it for Ophelia, but you would not do it for me?”

  “Paragon, there is a very great difference there. On Ophelia, I removed damaged wood. You are talking about me pegging pieces on to create new eyes for you. As I said, I don't understand the nature of wizardwood. Would those pegged-on parts become alive as you are? Or would they remain scraps of pegged-on wood?”

  “Then do for me as you did for her!” Paragon burst out after an exasperated silence. “Cut away my old ruined face. Make me a new one. ”

  Amber breathed out some words in a different language. Paragon had no idea whether she prayed or cursed. He only sensed her horror at his suggestion. “Do you know what you are advocating? I would have to rework your face entirely . . . perhaps your whole body, to make you proportional. I've never taken on a project of such magnitude. I'm a woodcarver, Paragon, not a sculptor. ” She huffed out a sigh of disgust. “I might ruin you. Destroy your beauty forever. How would I live with that?”

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  Paragon lifted his hands to his face and clawed his fingers down his ruined eyes. He laughed aloud, a bold, bitter laugh. “Amber, I would rather be ugly than blind. Right now, I am both. How could you make it worse?”

  “The answer to that question is exactly what I don't want to discover,” she replied nimbly. Unwillingly she added, “But I know I will think about it. Give me time to think about it, Paragon. Give yourself time to consider it well. ”

  “Time is all I possess,” he pointed out. “Time and to spare. ”

  CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN - Kingdom's Foundation

  VIVACIA RODE HEAVY IN THE WATER. HER HOLDS WERE FILLED WITH KENnit's collections. It was, the ship thought drowsily, like the feeling a man got after a large, satisfying meal. She felt satiated and pleased with herself, even though her cargo had little to do with her own efforts. Kennit's wits had earned this trove. No. His wisdom, she corrected herself. Any minor pirate might make his living by his wits. Kennit was beyond that. He was a man of both destiny and vision. She was proud to be his ship.

  This last stint of sailing had not been so different from her days as a trader with Ephron Vestrit. Their first stop had been Divvytown, where the slaves had disembarked. Then there had been a meeting, mysteriously arranged, at which Kennit met a northbound ship and arranged for a ransom note to be taken to the owners of the Crosspatch and to Captain Avery's family. After that, Kennit had begun a systematic tour of his “share-ships” and their homeports. The Marietta kept them company. At every port of call, Kennit and Sorcor had gone ashore. Sometimes Etta and Wintrow had gone with them. Vivacia liked it when Wintrow accompanied Kennit. When he came back to her and told her of his experiences, it was almost as if she had been there herself. It was very different from the days when she had dreaded being parted from Wintrow for even a few hours. She supposed her sense of self had become more solid, now that she had been quickened longer. Or perhaps her need to know every detail of Kennit's life had become more pressing than her need for Wintrow's company. She had besought Kennit to conduct his business on board her, so that she might be more aware of it, but he had refused her.

  “You are mine,” he had told her jealously. “All your mystery and beauty I reserve to myself, my sea-lady. It pleases me that they look at you with awe and wonder. Let us keep that mystique intact. I would rather they envied and admired you from afar than that they came aboard and vainly tried to win you from me by charm or bloodshed. You are my castle and my stronghold, Vivacia. I will allow no strangers aboard you. ”

  She could recall not just his words, but his every inflection. They had soaked into her like honey into bread. She smiled to herself, recognizing her symptoms. He had courted her and won her. She no longer even attempted to sift his words for inaccuracies or tried to probe his heart for truth. It no longer mattered. He did not seek out and number her faults; why should she inventory his?

  She was anchored now in a pathetic excuse for a harbor. Why anyone would have chosen to settle there, she could not imagine. At the far end of it, the skeletal remnants
of a ship were subsiding into the mud. She tried to think of the name of the place. Askew. That was it. Well, it suited the look of the town. The sagging dock, the windswept huts, all looked slightly out of joint. There were recent signs of prosperity. The boardwalks that fronted the street were of new yellow lumber. Good intentions and paint covered some of the rickety houses. Someone had planted several rows of trees as a windbreak. Young fruit trees stood in a row beyond them. A herdboy kept a flock of goats well away from the trees' tender bark. Tied to the dock, amidst a clutter of smaller vessels was a larger ship. The Fortune, her nameplate proudly proclaimed. The Raven flag flew boldly at her mast. Even at a distance, her brasswork gleamed in the sun. The whole town, she decided, had the look of a place on the verge of becoming Someplace.

  Her attention perked as a party of men left the largest building in the village and moved toward the dock. Kennit would be amongst them. She spotted him soon, in the lead, his well-wishers flanking him or trailing behind him as their local status dictated. Sorcor walked beside him. Etta, tall and thin, shadowed him with Wintrow at her side. For a time the gathering clustered on the dock. Then, with many flourishes and bows, they bid her captain farewell. As he and his party clambered down the ladder and into her gig that was moored there, the townsfolk on the dock called farewells. So it had been in every town they had visited on this circuit. Everyone loved her captain.

  She watched the ship's boat approach her across the glittering water of the placid harbor. Kennit had dressed well for this visit. The black plumes on his hat nodded in the breeze. He saw her watching his approach and lifted a hand in greeting to her. The sun flashed off the silver buttons on the cuff of his jacket. He looked every bit the prosperous pirate. More, he sat in the bow of the boat as regally as any king.

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  “They treat him as such already,” Wintrow had confided to her the last time he had told her of such a visit. “They present his share of their takings without a murmur of discontent. But it is not just that they acknowledge his right to claim a portion of their piratical profits. They bring him their internal grievances. He has passed judgment on everything from chicken thieves to unfaithful spouses. He has drawn plans for the defense of the towns, and dictates what they must build and what must be torn down. ”

  “He is a judicious man. I am not surprised they have waited for his decisions. ”

  Wintrow snorted. “Judicious? Only in how it furthers his own popularity. I have stood behind him and listened to their grievances as they presented them. He listens, frowns and asks questions. But in each case, he decides with the popular sentiment, even when it is clearly not just. He does not judge, Vivacia. He merely validates their opinions and makes them feel justified in them. When he has dispensed that justice, he strolls through the town, looking at this and that. 'You need a well, for better water,' he will tell them. Or 'tear down that building before it burns down and takes the rest of the town with it. Repair your dock. That widow needs a new roof on her cottage. See that she gets it. ' In addition, he scatters coin to pay for what he suggests, as if it were largesse rather than returning what they gave him. He enraptures them. They adore him. ”

  “Why shouldn't they? It sounds as if he does great good for them. ”

  “He does,” Wintrow had admitted uncomfortably. “He does. He gives them money to be kind to the poor and the old amongst them. He makes them lift up their heads and see what could be. In the last town, he commanded that they create a place for their children to gather and learn. There was one man in the town who could read and cipher well. Kennit left enough money to pay him handsomely to teach the children. ”

  “I still do not grasp why you find that so reprehensible. ”

  “It is not what he does. What he does is fine, even noble. It is his motive for doing it that I suspect. Vivacia, he wants to be king. So he makes them feel good. With the money they parcel out to him, he buys what they should have bought for themselves. Not because it is the right thing to do, but because it makes them think well of him and feel good about themselves. They will connect that feeling of pride with his coming. ”

  She had shaken her head. “I still see no harm in it. In fact, I see much good. Wintrow, why are you so suspicious of him? Did you ever consider that perhaps he wants to be king of the Pirate Isles just so he can do such things?”

  “Does he?” Wintrow had demanded.

  To him, she owed the truth. Still. “I don't know,” she replied honestly. “But I hope that he does. The results are the same, in any case. ”

  “For now, they are,” he admitted. “But I do not know what the results will be over the long run,” he'd added darkly.

  She mulled his words as she watched the boat approaching. The youth was too suspicious. Some small-spirited part of him could not accept Kennit as a force for good. That was all. The boat came alongside and the rope ladder was flung down to them. She always hated this part. Kennit stubbornly insisted of late that he would get himself up the ladder and back aboard his ship. It seemed to take him forever to manage the climb. At every step she feared he would slip and fall down, to smash his bones against the boat below him. Or worse, he might fall into the water, to either vanish beneath the waves, or be snapped up by serpents. There was a veritable plague of serpents this year. Never could she recall a time when they had been so thick nor so bold. It was unnerving.

  In a short time, his peg-legged step sounded on her decks. She breathed a sigh of relief and awaited him impatiently. He always came to see her first, whenever he rejoined the ship. Sometimes Wintrow dogged his steps. Etta had used to, but of late, she had avoided the foredeck. Vivacia thought that was a wise decision on her part.

  This time, as she twisted her body about to greet him, she saw he was alone. Her smile deepened and became warmer. These were the best times, when they were alone and could speak unfettered by Wintrow's questions and skeptical looks. He returned her smile with a smug grin. “Well, my lady. Are you ready to take on more cargo? I've arranged for them to ferry it out this afternoon. ”

  “What sort?” she asked, knowing well that he delighted in enumerating his treasures.

  “Well,” he paused, savoring his pleasure. “Some very fine brandy in small casks. Bales of tea. Silver bars. Some woolen rugs, in truly amazing colors and designs. Quite a selection of books, all very well bound. Poetry, histories, an illustrated natural history and several travel journals, quite fine. Those I think I shall keep for myself, though I shall let Wintrow and Etta read them, of course. Foodstuffs, sacks of wheat, casks of oil and rum. And quite a quantity of coin, in various minting. Rufo has done quite well with the Fortune. I am quite pleased with how Askew has prospered. ”

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  Vivacia's attention had been captured by the mention of the books. “I suppose this means that Wintrow will continue to spend every spare moment he has closeted with Etta,” she observed sourly.

  Kennit smiled. He leaned over the railing and touched her hair, letting a heavy lock slide through his fingers as he spoke. “That's right. He will continue to distract Etta, and she will busy him. Thus you and I shall continue to have private time in which to talk of our own ambitions and interests. ”

  A shiver ran over her shoulders at his touch. She knew a moment of delightful confusion. “Then you have deliberately paired them, to give us more time together?”

  “Why else?” He picked up another lock of her hair and weighed the thickly carved coil. She glanced over her shoulder at him. His pale blue eyes were closed to slits. He was, she thought, an extraordinarily handsome man, in a cruel way. “You don't mind, do you? Etta is quite ignorant, poor thing. Whoring is such a narrow occupation. Wintrow is more patient a teacher than I could be. He will give her the tools she needs to better herself, so that when she leaves the ship, she need not go back to whoring. ”

  “Etta will leave?” Vivacia asked breathlessly.

  “O
f course. I only brought her aboard the Marietta for her own protection. We really have very little in common. She was kind, and useful while I was recovering from my injury. Nevertheless, it is hard to overlook that she was the source of the injury. ” He favored her with a narrow smile. “Wintrow shall educate her, and when she goes ashore, she will be able to do more than lie on her back. ” A thoughtful frown creased his brow. “I think it is my duty to leave people better than I found them, don't you?”

  “When will Etta be leaving?” Vivacia tried to keep eagerness from her voice.

  “Well. Our next port is Divvytown. That was her home. ” He smiled to himself. “But one never knows how things will develop. I shall not force her to leave, of course. ”

  “Of course,” Vivacia murmured in reply. He was twining the heavy lock of her black hair in his hand, and the tickling tip of it brushed her bare shoulder.

  A package was tucked under his arm, something wrapped in coarse burlap. “Your hair is so lovely,” he said quietly. “I thought of you the moment I saw this. ” He opened one end of it, then drew out a handful of something red. He shook it loose, and length upon length of wide red fabric unfurled, incredibly light and fine. He offered it to her. “I thought you might put it in your hair. ”

  She was flustered. “I have never had such a gift,” she marveled. “Are you sure you wish to give it to me? The sea and the wind may spoil it. . . . ” Yet as she spoke she twined it through her hands. She lifted it, to place a band of it across her brow. He caught the ends and tied it for her.

  “Then I should simply have to bring you more. ” He cocked his head, and smiled in admiration. “Such a beauty you are!” he said quietly. “My pirate queen. ”

  WINTROW UNBUCKLED THE CARVED WOODEN COVER OF THE BOOK CAREfully. He opened it gingerly, then sighed in awe. “Oh, this is incredible. Look at the detail here. ” He carried the open volume over to the window where the light fell on the artfully decorated page. “This is exquisite. ”

  Etta came slowly to stand at his shoulder and look down on the displayed page. “What is it?” she asked.

  “It's an herbal . . . a book about herbs, with drawings and descriptions and explanations of how they are to be used. I've never seen one so elaborate. ” Carefully he turned the page, to expose yet more beauty. “Even in our monastery library, we had nothing so fine as this. This is an incredibly valuable book. ” He touched his finger lightly to the page and outlined the drawing of a leaf. “See? This is peppermint. Look at the crinkles and tiny hairs on each leaf. Such an eye this artist had. ”

 
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