The mad ship, p.62
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       The Mad Ship, p.62

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  They were in the small stateroom he had once shared with his father. All signs of that time had been scrubbed away long ago. Now there was only his neatly made bunk, the small fold-down desk and a case full of manuscripts and scrolls and books. Wintrow had begun Etta's lessons in the captain's quarters, but Kennit had soon decided that they made too much clutter with their books, papers and pens. He had banished their studies to Wintrow's room. Wintrow did not mind. Never before had he had complete and unhampered access to so much written work. Certainly, he had never before even glimpsed a book to rival the quality of the one he now held.

  “What does it say?” Etta asked reluctantly.

  “You can read it,” he encouraged her. “Try. ”

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  “The letters are all crawly,” she complained, but she accepted the book he tenderly transferred into her hands. She knit her brows over it.

  “Don't let that discourage you. His hand was very decorative, and some of the characters are formed elaborately. Look only at the basic forms of the letters, and ignore the flourishes. Try it. ”

  Her finger moved slowly across the page, piecing the words together. Her mouth moved as she puzzled them out. Wintrow clamped his jaws together to keep from helping her. After a time, she drew a deep breath and began. “Of all the goodly herbs known, this is the queen. A tea brewed from fresh leaves is best for a closed head . . . ”

  She stopped abruptly, and closed the book carefully. When Wintrow glanced up at her face in confusion, he saw her eyes were closed as well. As he watched, tears leaked out from under her lashes.

  “You can read,” he confirmed for her. He stood very still, afraid to say more. It had been a very arduous journey to this place. Etta had been a difficult student. She was bright enough. But his efforts to teach her had uncovered a deep anger within her. For a time, he had been sure the anger was directed at him. She was surly, disdaining his help and then accusing him of withholding it to make her look stupid. She had a temper that did not stop at flinging a precious book across the room, or shredding expensive paper to bits. More than once, she had shoved him away as he bent over her work to correct her. Once he had raised his voice to her when he had had to explain for the fifth time that she was reversing a letter. She had struck him. Not a slap, but a closed-fist blow to his face that had sent him reeling. Then she had stalked out of the room. She had never apologized for that.

  Only after days of working with her did he realize that her anger was not for him. It was for her own abysmal ignorance. She felt shamed that she did not know. It humiliated her when she had to ask him for help. If he insisted she try it on her own, she interpreted that as taunting her for her stupidity. Given her propensity for taking it out on him, she was not only a difficult student but also an intimidating one. Praising her too much was as dangerous as letting her struggle. He had tried once to escape. He had approached Kennit to beg off from this task. He had expected Kennit to order him back to it. Instead, the pirate had only cocked his head and asked him gently if he truly believed it was Sa's will that he not help Etta. While Wintrow had stood silent, struck dumb by the question, Kennit's face had suddenly changed.

  “It's because she was a whore, isn't it?” he had demanded starkly. “You don't think she's good enough to benefit from such learning. You're repulsed by her, aren't you?” He asked the question with a face so kindly and understanding and yet so grieved that Wintrow felt as if the deck were rocking under him. . Did he look down on Etta? Did he secretly harbor a belief in his own superiority, a belief he would have found reprehensible in anyone else?

  “No-no!” he had faltered and then exclaimed, “I do not look down on Etta. She is an amazing woman. I just fear . . . ”

  “I think I know what you fear,” Kennit had smiled indulgently. “You are uncomfortable because you find her attractive. You must not be distressed by that, Wintrow. Any healthy young man would find a sensuous woman like Etta hard to resist. She does not intend to be so tempting. Poor thing. She has been schooled to it since she was a child. Seducing a man is as natural to her as swimming is to a fish. I caution you: be very careful how you reject her. You could hurt her far more than you intended. ”

  “It's not that! I would never . . . ” he stuttered and then lost his ability to choose words. It would not have been so humiliating if he had been completely innocent. She did fascinate him. He had never spent time with a mature woman, much less alone with one. She invaded all his senses. The perfumes she wore lingered in his room after she had departed. He was aware of not only her husky voice but also the susurrus of the rich fabrics she wore. She would turn her head, and the light would dance suddenly on the sheen of her hair. He was aware of her, and sometimes she troubled his sleep. He was prepared to accept that as normal. He was less prepared for Kennit's indulgent smile.

  “It's all right, lad. I could scarcely blame you if you did. I would, however, think less of you if you let that come between you and doing what we both know is right. She cannot better herself without letters, Wintrow. You and I both know that. So do your best with her and do not be discouraged. I shall not allow either of you to give up when we are so close to success. ”

  The days of teaching her that followed had provided a unique torture. The captain's words had made him more aware of the woman, not less. The “accidental” brush of her hand against his as they shared a book sometimes seemed contrived. Why did she wear such perfumes, if not to beguile him? Did she intend her direct stares as seduction? At some time, his awareness of her had become unmistakable attraction. From dreading his time alone with her, he had gone to living for it. He was sure it was not reciprocated. Well, almost sure. It did not matter if it was; she was irrevocably Kennit's. All the tragically romantic ballads he had ever heard, all the tales of illfated lovers that had once seemed so vapidly emotional now rang true in his heart.

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  Now, watching her face as she savored her victory, he suddenly knew that Kennit had been right. Any torment of temptation he had endured had been worth this. She could read. He had never known it was in his power to give such joy to anyone. He felt exulted by it in a way that surpassed all carnality. He had given her a gift that somehow completed himself.

  She stood, clasping the exquisite book to her bosom as if it were her child. Her face, eyes closed, was turned toward the small porthole in his cabin. The light touched it, making her bronzed skin golden and glinting off the tears on her cheeks and the sheen of her hair. She reminded him of a sunflower turned toward the light. He had seen her merry before, laughing with Kennit or jesting with the other pirates. Now he saw her transfigured with joy. The two could not be compared.

  Her bosom rose and then fell in a long sigh. She opened her eyes and smiled at him. “Wintrow,” she said quietly. She shook her head slowly, her smile widening. “Kennit is so wise, is he not? I saw no value in you, at first. Then, I was jealous at how much he cared for you. I hated you, you know. And now, what I feel for you . . . ” She hesitated. “I thought only Kennit could stir my heart as you have,” she admitted quietly.

  The simple words astounded him. Sternly, he told himself that she had not said she loved him, only that he stirred her heart. His own teachers had stirred his emotions. That was all she meant by her words. Even if she meant more, he'd be a fool to let himself react to them A fool.

  “Please,” she said quietly. She held out a hand to him. “Help me choose a book. Perhaps the new one you said was poetry. Then let me practice with you. I want to read to Kennit tonight. ” She shook her head in fondness. “I almost cannot grasp that I can do this thing. He is so . . . I know, you are the one who taught me. However, he made it all possible. Can you imagine how that makes me feel? What does Kennit see in me, Wintrow? How can I be worthy of such a man? I was a skinny little whore in Bettel's house when he first saw me. I never saw myself as more than that. How did he?” She cocked her head and her dark
eyes peered into his soul, seeking her answer. He could not deny her.

  “You shine,” he said quietly. “Even when I first saw you. Even when I knew you hated me. There is something about you, Etta. Something in you that cannot be quenched, by hardship or ill treatment. Your soul gleams like silver beneath a patina of hard use. He is right to love you. Any man would love you. ”

  Her eyes widened at his words. She turned aside from him, and unbelievably, a blush touched her wind-burnt cheeks. “I am Kennit's,” she reminded him. She spoke the words proudly.

  “I know,” Wintrow said. Very softly, only to himself, he added, “I envy the man. ”

  KENNIT'S DAY HAD BEEN A LONG ONE, FULL OF SATISFACTIONS. ASKEW WAS the last port before they returned to Divvytown. He and Sorcor had visited the homeports of every pirate ship he had created and manned with rescued slaves. Some had done better than others, but in every town he had been met with acclamation. Even bluff Sorcor had come to believe in his plan. It showed in the rough sailor's swagger. His beefy face gleamed with pride as he stood at Kennit's shoulder and listened to the tally of their takings.

  Both the Marietta and Vivacia rode heavy with spoils. The loading of this last treasure had been a pleasant challenge. Young Rufo had operated the Fortune aggressively, taking nearly every ship they pursued, if he could trust the tales he'd been told. There had been coin aplenty, as well as freed slaves to swell their population. With the aid of the village's head woman, the young pirate had kept a tally. They had showed their record sticks to Kennit as proudly as any steward. He had listened to the accounting of every coin they had spent for lumber or fruit trees or goats. They had even hired themselves several artisans to come and live in Askew. Rufo had saved for Kennit's share the prizes that were most exotic and rare. These treasures they ceded to Kennit with the knowledge that he would take pleasure in them. He had sensed that, and made great display of his delight. It had only fueled their desire to please him more. He had promised them another ship, the next one he took. Well, and why not? They deserved it. Perhaps he would bring the Crosspatch here if her owners were slow to ransom her.

  But even pleasure can be taxing. The type of cargo they had taken on could not be treated like crates of salt fish. He had been most particular about how it was stowed, insisting on overseeing it himself. The very best of their prizes, the smallest and most valuable items, he had ordered taken to his cabin. Now as he opened the door, he almost dreaded the delightful task of arranging these new treasures so he would not be crowded. Perhaps he would sleep first and then do it in the morning, after both ships were underway to Divvytown.

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  He opened the door of his cabin to a wash of golden lamplight and drifting incense. Not again. Did the woman's appetites know no bounds? He expected to find her artfully arranged upon his bed. Instead, she sat in one of two chairs she had drawn close together. A pool of lamplight illuminated her and the open book in her lap. She had on a nightdress, but it was demure rather than seductive. She almost looked like somebody's daughter.

  With a glance of annoyance, he realized she had already moved his treasures. His initial response was one of swift outrage. How dared she touch his things! It was followed by a smaller wave of both resignation and relief. Well, at least they were all put away. Nothing stood between him and his bed. He limped over to the bed and sat down on the edge of it. The leather cup around his stump was chafing abominably. It needed to be relined again.

  “I want to show you something I can do,” she said quietly.

  He gave a small sigh of exasperation. Did the woman think of nothing but her own pleasures? “Etta, I have had a very long day. Help me with my boot. ”

  Obediently she set her book aside and came to him. She tugged his boot off, then rubbed his foot gently. He closed his eyes. “Fetch me a nightshirt. ”

  She complied quickly. As swiftly as he removed his garments, she shook them out, folded them and returned them to his clothing chest. As he eased the cup and peg off the stump of his leg, he pointed out the abrasion to her. “Cannot you pad this thing so that it stays comfortable?”

  She turned the cup, examining the lining. “Were you a less active man, it might be easier. I will try silk this time. Despite its softness, it is a sturdy material. ”

  “Good. I'll need it by morning. ” He hopped onto his leg, pulled the bedding open and sat down on the linens. They were cool and clean as he lay back in them. The pillow smelled of lavender. He closed his eyes.

  Her soft clear voice broke into his emptying mind:

  "Our souls have loved a thousand times.

  Down pathways we no longer recall, we have ventured in other lives. I know you too well, love you too deeply, for this to be the growth of mere years. As a river carves a course within a valley, so has your soul marked mine with its passage. In other bodies, we have known completeness, such as never-"

  He interrupted her recitation wearily. “I have never cared for the Syrenian school of poetry. They speak too plainly. Poetry should not be doggerel. If you are going to memorize something, find something by Eupille or Vergihe. ” He shouldered deeper into the blankets. He gave a low growl of content and surrendered himself to sleep.

  “I didn't memorize it. I was reading it. I can read, Kennit. I can read. ”

  She expected him to be surprised. He was too tired. “That's good. I'm glad Wintrow was able to teach you. Now we'll see if he can teach you what is worth reading. ”

  She set the book aside, and blew out the lamp. It plunged the room into darkness. He heard the soft scuff of her feet as she came to the bed and crawled in beside him. He had to find somewhere else for her to sleep. Perhaps she could hang a hammock in the corner of the room.

  “Wintrow says I no longer need his help. Now that I have my letters, he says I should simply explore every manuscript or scroll that comes my way. Only practice will make me read swifter, or write a better hand. That I can do on my own. ”

  Kennit dragged his eyes open. This would not do. Grudgingly he rolled over to face her. “But you would not want that. Surely you have enjoyed the hours you have spent in his company. I know he enjoys teaching you. He has been very honest with me about what a pleasure he takes in your company. ” He managed a warm chuckle. “The lad is quite enamored of you, you know. ”

  She surprised him. She made no attempt to dissemble. “I know. He's a sweet boy, and gently mannered. I understand now why you are so fond of him. He has given me a gift that I shall keep the rest of my life. ”

  “Well. I hope you thanked him appropriately. ” All he wanted to do was sleep. At the same time, he could not resist this conversation. It sounded as if perhaps his scheme might bear fruit. She had called him a sweet boy. He had seen how Wintrow's eyes followed her when she was on deck. Had they acted on the impulse yet? Did she, perhaps, already carry an heir for his liveship? He slid his hand down her arm as if he were caressing her, then set his hand flat on her belly. The tiny skull still jutted from her navel. Time, he cautioned his disappointment. These things took time. If he penned them together long enough, they would breed. So it had always worked with his family's pigeons, goats and pigs when he was a boy.

  “In truth, I don't know how to thank him,” Etta demurred.

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  The answer to that was obvious to Kennit, but he refrained from stating it baldly. “I think the lad is lonely. Show him that you have become fond of him and enjoy his company. That will please him. Think of what knowledge you have that he might benefit from, and teach him. That would seem an appropriate exchange to me. ”

  There. Was that too broad of a suggestion for her to take?

  “I know so little,” she faltered after a moment. “What would Wintrow learn from someone like me?”

  Kennit sighed and tried again. Delicately, he reminded himself. Delicately. “Oh, I am sure you know far more of the world than he does. The boy has spent
most of his life in a monastery. He may know much of letters and the arts, but he is woefully ignorant of more worldly skills. Your situation, of course, was just the opposite. So, share with him what life taught you. Teach the boy to be a man. He could have no better instructor. ” He stroked the length of her body.

  She was silent. He could almost hear her thinking. “I would like to give him . . . Kennit, would you mind greatly if I gave him something of yours? Something from our cargo?”

  This was not quite what he had in mind, but it was along the right path. Who knew where her gift giving might end, once she had started? “Do not hesitate,” he encouraged her. “I am, as you know, very fond of the boy. I do not mind sharing with him what is mine. ”

  WINTROW CAME AWAKE TO HIS DOOR OPENING. SOMEONE CAME SILENTLY into his cabin and shut the door stealthily. For a moment, fear paralyzed him. He had slept better since Sa'Adar was no more, but he had always feared that some of the ex-slaves would blame him for their leader's death. He caught his breath and held it. He tried to edge silently over in his bed. Maybe the first attack would miss him and he'd have a chance to escape. Whoever it was crossed to the small desk in his room and set something down there.

  “I know you're awake,” Etta said quietly. “I heard you stop breathing. Get up and strike a light. ”

  “It's not morning,” he protested in confusion. “What are you doing here?”

  “I noticed that,” she replied wryly. “I've come to teach you something. Some things are better learned privately. Night seemed the best time for the lessons I have come to teach. ”

  He groped for a candle, and then stepped out into the companionway to light it at the small lamp that burned there. He brought it back to the cabin, shut the door and fixed the candle into a candlestick. When he turned to face her, he was hard put not to gasp. She wore leggings and a snug-fitting jerkin. Never before had he seen a female form so blatantly displayed. She ignored his stare. Instead, she walked around him slowly. Her eyes ran up and down his body appraisingly. The frankness of her gaze warmed his cheeks. She gave a small snort of displeasure.

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