The mad ship, p.67
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       The Mad Ship, p.67

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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  Haff's other trick was to defer to her as a woman rather than as the mate in command. He would make a sly show of stepping aside to allow her to precede him, or offering her a rope or tool as if it were a cup of tea. This last brought snickers from the other men, and today Lop had been fool enough to imitate it. He had been clumsily obvious as he bobbed his head obsequiously to her. Their positions had been right and she had delivered a substantial kick to his butt that had sent him down the companionway ahead of her. There had been a general laugh of support for her, ruined when some faceless wag called, “No luck, Lop. She likes Haff better'n you. ” From the corner of her eye, she had seen Haff grin broadly at the remark and waggle his tongue. She had pretended not to have seen, simply because there was no good way to deal with it. She thought she had pulled it off until she saw the look on Clefs face. Disappointment was writ large on his face. He had turned aside from her, shamed by her shame.

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  That as much as anything had convinced her she had to act the next time Haff stepped out of line. The problem was, she still had no idea what to do. Second mate was a hard position to hold down. She was both of the crew and above them. Neither officer nor honest seaman, she had to walk this line alone.

  “What would you like to do about Haff?” Amber asked her quietly from the bottom bunk.

  “It spooks me when you do that,” Althea complained.

  “I've explained it before. It's an obvious trick, used at every fair you've ever been to. You've been shifting about up there as if your bunk is full of ants. I simply picked the most likely cause of your anxiety. ”

  “Right,” Althea replied skeptically. “To answer your question, I'd like to kick him in the balls. ”

  “Exactly the wrong tack,” Amber told her in a superior way. “Every man that witnessed it would wince and imagine himself in Haff's place. It would be seen as a whore's trick, a woman hitting a man where he is most vulnerable. You can't be seen that way. You have to be perceived as a mate giving an uppity hand a take-down. ”

  “Suggestions?” Althea asked warily. It was unnerving to have Amber cut so swiftly to the heart of a problem.

  “Prove you're better than he is, that you deserve to be second mate. That's his real problem, you know. He thinks that if you stepped aside and became a passenger, he'd step up into your spot. ”

  “And he would,” Althea conceded. “He's a competent sailor and a natural leader. He'd be a good second, or even a first. ”

  “Well, there's your other option. Step aside and let him be second. ”

  “No. That's my spot,” Althea growled.

  “Then defend it,” Amber suggested. “But because you're already on top, you have to fight fair. You have to show him up. Wait for your moment, watch for it, then seize it. It has to be real. The rest of the crew has to have no doubt. Prove you're a better sailor than he is, that you deserve what you've got. ” Althea heard Amber shift in her own bunk.

  Althea lay still, pondering a disturbing idea. Was she better than Haff? Did she deserve to be mate over him? Why shouldn't he take the position from her? Althea closed her eyes. That was something she'd have to sleep on.

  With a muttered oath, Amber kicked at her footboard, then turned her pillow over. She settled down, only to shift again an instant later.

  “I haven't your gift. Why don't you tell me what's bothering you?” Althea called down.

  “You wouldn't understand,” Amber complained. “No one can. ”

  “Try me,” Althea challenged her.

  Amber took a long breath and sighed it out. “I'm wondering why you aren't a nine-fingered slave-boy. I'm wondering how Paragon can be both a frightened boy and a cruel-hearted man. I'm wondering if I should be aboard this ship at all, or if I was supposed to stay in Bingtown and watch over Malta. ”

  “Malta?” Althea asked incredulously. “What does Malta have to do with any of this?”

  “That,” Amber pointed out wearily, “is exactly what I would love to know. ”

  “SOMETHING IS WRONG, SIR! WITH DIVVYTOWN, I MEAN. ”

  Gankis stood framed in Kennit's stateroom door. The old pirate looked more distressed than Kennit had ever seen him. He had taken off his hat and stood wringing it. Kennit felt his stomach turn with a sudden premonition. He didn't let it show on his face.

  He raised one eyebrow queryingly. “Gankis, there are many things wrong with Divvytown. Which particular one has brought you to my door?”

  “Brig sent me, sir, to tell you the smell is bad. The smell of Divvytown, that is. Well, it's always bad, coming into Divvytown, but now it's real bad. Like wet ashes-”

  There. Like an icy finger in the small of his back. The moment the old hand mentioned it, Kennit was aware of it. It was faint inside the closed cabin, but there. It was the old smell of disaster, one he had not scented in a long time. Odd, how a smell brought memories back sharper than any other prod to the senses. Screaming in the night, and flowing blood, both slick and sticky. Flames, lifting to the sky. Nothing quite like the smell of burned houses, mixed with death.

  “Thank you, Gankis. Tell Brig I'll be up shortly. ”

  The door shut behind the sailor. He had been very troubled. Divvytown was as close to a homeport as this crew had. They all knew what the smell meant, but Gankis hadn't been able to bring himself to say it. Divvytown had been raided, probably by slavers. It was not an unusual event in a pirate town. Years ago, under the old Satrap, there had been fleets of raiding ships that had cruised these waters just for that purpose. They had found and wiped out a great many of the old pirate strongholds. Divvytown had weathered those years, undiscovered. In the lax years of the old Satrap's dying reign and Cosgo's incompetent one, the pirate towns had been undisturbed. They had learned both carelessness and prosperity. He had tried to warn them, but no one in Divvytown would listen to him.

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  “The circle is closing. ”

  He glanced down at the charm on his wrist. The be-damned thing was more nuisance than luck-piece anymore. It spoke only when it suited it, and then it mouthed nothing but threats, warnings and bleak prophecies. He wished he had never had it created but he could scarcely get rid of it. There was far too much of himself in it to trust it if it fell into other hands. Likewise, to destroy a living sculpture of one's own face must invite a like destruction to oneself. So he continued to tolerate the little wizardwood charm. Someday, perhaps, it might be useful. Perhaps.

  “I said, the circle closes. Do you not take my meaning? Or are you growing deaf?”

  “I was ignoring you,” Kennit said pleasantly. He glanced out the window of his stateroom. The Divvytown harbor was coming into sight. Several masts stuck up from the water. Beyond them, the town had burned. The jungly forest beyond the town showed signs of scorching. Divvytown's docks had survived as freestanding platforms that pointed at the shore with charred-off beams. Kennit felt a pang of regret. He had come back here, bringing his richest trove ever, in the expectation that Sincure Faldin could dispose of it at a tidy profit. No doubt, he had had his throat slit and his daughters and wife were dragged off for slaves. It was all damnably inconvenient.

  “The circle,” the charm went on inexorably, “seems to be composed of several elements. A pirate captain. A liveship for the taking. A burned town. A captive boy, family to the ship. Those were the elements of the first cycle. And now, what do we have here? A pirate captain. A liveship for the taking. A captive boy, family to the ship. And a burned town. ”

  “Your analogy breaks down, charm. The elements are out of order. ” Kennit moved to his mirror, then leaned on his crutch as he made a final adjustment to the curled ends of his mustache.

  “I still find the coincidence compelling. What other elements could we add? Ah, how about a father held in chains?”

  Kennit twisted his wrist so that the charm faced him. “Or a woman with her tongue cut out? I
could arrange one of those, as well. ”

  The tiny face narrowed its eyes at him. “It goes around, you fool. It goes around. Do you think that, once you have set the grindstone in motion, you can escape your ultimate fate? It was destined for you, years ago, when you chose to follow in Igrot's footsteps. You will die Igrot's death. ”

  He slammed the charm facedown on his table. “I will not hear that name from you again! Do you understand me?”

  He looked at the charm again. It smiled up at him serenely. On the back of his hand, blood spread under the surface of his skin. He tugged on his shirt cuff to conceal both the charm and the bruise with a fall of lace. He left his cabin.

  The stench was much stronger on deck. The swampy harbor of Divvytown had always had a stink of its own. Now the smells of burned homes and death joined it. An uncommon silence had fallen over his crew. The Vivacia moved like a ghost ship, pushed slowly by a faint wind over the sluggish water. No one cried out, nor whispered or even moaned. The terrible silence of acceptance weighed the ship down. Even the figurehead was silent. Behind them, in their wake, the Marietta came in a similar pall.

  Kennit's eyes went to Wintrow, standing on the foredeck of the Vivacia. He could almost feel the numbness they shared. Etta was beside him, gripping the rail and leaning forward as if she were the ship's figurehead. Her face was frozen in a strange grimace of disbelief.

  The destruction was uneven. Three walls of a warehouse stood, like hands cupped around the destruction within. A single wall of Bettel's elegant bagnio still stood. Here and there, isolated hovels had failed to catch well enough to burn. The soggy ground the town was founded on had saved these few places.

  “There's no point in tying up here,” Kennit observed to Brig. The young first mate of the Vivacia had drifted up wordlessly to his side. “Bring her about and let's find another port. ”

  “Wait, sir! Look! There's someone. Look there!” Gankis raised his voice boldly. The scrawny old man had climbed the rigging, the better to look down on the town's destruction.

  “I see nothing,” Kennit declared, but an instant later, he did. They came drifting in from the jungle, in ones and twos. The door of one hovel was flung open. A man stood in the open door, holding a sword defiantly. His head was bound in a dirty brown bandage.

  They tied up to the skeletal pilings that were the remnants of the main dock. Kennit rode in the bow of the ship's boat as it carried him ashore. Sorcor in the Marietta's boat kept pace with him. Both Etta and the boy had insisted on accompanying him. Grudgingly, he had said that the whole crew might have a brief shore time, provided a skeleton crew always manned the ship. Every man aboard seemed intent on getting ashore, to prove the destruction to himself. Kennit would have been content simply to leave. The burned town unsettled him. He told himself there was no telling what the desperate survivors might do.

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  The Divvytown survivors had gathered into a crowd before either gig touched the shore. They stood like ragged, silent ghosts, waiting for the pirates to land. Their silence seemed ominous to Kennit, as did the way he felt every pair of eyes follow him. The boat nudged suddenly into the mucky shoreline. He sat still, his hands gripping his crutch as the crew jumped out and dragged the boat further up. He did not like this one bit. The shining muck of the beach was black, with a thin oily overlay of greenish algae. His crutch and his peg were bound to sink into the muck as soon as he got out of the boat. He was going to look very awkward. Worse, he would be vulnerable if the crowd decided to rush him. He remained seated, staring over the crowd and waiting for some definite sign of their temperament.

  Then, from the Marietta's boat, he heard Sorcor exclaim, “Alyssum! You're alive!” The burly pirate was instantly over the side. He sloshed through the water and muck up to the waiting crowd. It parted before his charge. He seized a shrinking girl in his arms and swept her to his barrel chest. It took Kennit a moment to recognize her. The bedraggled creature had been much more fetching when Sincure Faldin had presented her and her sister Lily as prospective brides for Kennit and Sorcor. He recalled that Sorcor had seemed infatuated with the girls, but he had never suspected that he had continued the courtship. Sorcor stood gripping Alyssum Faldin now like a bear with a calf in its hug. She had wrapped her pale arms around the pirate's thick neck and was holding on to him. Amazing. Tears were rolling down her cheeks, but Kennit was willing to suppose they indicated joy. Otherwise, she would most likely be screaming as well. So the girl was glad to see him. Kennit decided it was safe to get out of the boat.

  “Give me your arm,” he told Wintrow. The boy looked pale. It would be good to give him something to do.

  “The whole town is gone,” he said stupidly as he climbed over the side and held out his arm to the pirate.

  “Some might think that an improvement,” the pirate captain observed. He stood in the boat, regarding the filthy water with distaste. Then he stepped over the side, peg first. As he had feared, it plunged into the soft muck. Only the boy's shoulder saved him from going knee deep, and he still nearly lost his balance. Then Etta was there, gripping his other arm and steadying him as he clambered out. They slogged up the mucky shore until they reached firmer ground. He spotted a rock protruding from the muck and chose that as a stopping place. He planted his peg firmly atop it and looked around.

  The devastation had been thorough. The new growth of jungle in the scorched areas told him that the raid had likely been weeks ago, but there was no sign that anyone had tried to rebuild. They were right. It was pointless. Once the slavers had discovered a settlement, they would return again and again until they had harvested every person there. Divvytown, one of the oldest of the pirate settlements, was dead. He shook his head to himself. “I don't know how many times I told them they needed to put up two watchtowers and some ballista. Even one tower with a watchman would have given them enough warning that they could have fled. But no one would listen to me. All they could worry about was who would pay for it. ”

  It was satisfying to have been so right, and no one could argue that he had not warned them. Usually his suggestions had been met with mockery, or the accusation that he just wanted to gather power to himself. Yet several of the survivors turned to him with accusing eyes. One man flushed scarlet with sudden anger as he pointed at Kennit and declared, “You! You are responsible! You brought the Chalcedeans down on us!”

  “I?” Kennit was incensed. “I just told you, it was I who warned you that this was coming. If you had listened to me, there would be many more survivors here now. Who knows? You might have even been able to defeat the raiders and seize their ships!” Kennit gave a snort of contempt. “I am the least to blame for what happened here. If you wish to blame anyone, blame your own pig-headed stubbornness!”

  It was the wrong tone to take. Almost instantly, Kennit knew that. Too late.

  The crowd rolled toward him like ice avalanching off an iceberg. He had that same sense of an inevitable wave of destruction. Etta, damn her, loosened her grip on his arm. Would she run? No. Her hand had fallen to her knife. Much good that would do against so many, but he appreciated the sentiment. He loosened his shoulders with a quick roll and took his hand from Wintrow's shoulder. He waved the boy aside. Kennit had his own knife: they wouldn't take him down cheaply. He summoned the small smile to his face and waited for them, his peg braced on his rock.

  He was shocked beyond words when the boy also drew a knife, a very valuable knife indeed, and stepped in front of him. Beside him, Etta gasped and then gave a snort of amusement. A glance at her showed a wild proud smile dawning on her face. It was perhaps the most frightening sight Kennit had ever seen. Well he knew that she enjoyed cutting up men. At least she was on his side this time. He heard splashing and the sloppy sounds of boots running through the mire as his crew formed up behind him. Only four men had come ashore with him. Some part of his mind registered that Vivacia was shouting something; she saw what was going
on, but there was nothing his ship could do for him now. By the time she put out another boat and sent more men ashore, it would be over. He stood his ground and waited.

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  The crowd rolled up to him, and then flowed ominously around him. Behind Kennit, the men at his back turned to face outward. Tension hummed in the air. Faced with a determined group of armed men, no one in the mob wanted to be the first to engage. The red-faced man he now confronted he recalled as a tavern owner: Boj, that was his name. He carried a cudgel that he tapped meaningfully against his leg, but he stayed out of the boy's knife reach. The others stood, waiting for him to attack. Kennit suspected Boj suddenly did not relish being leader of this mob. A glance to the side showed him Sorcor flanking the mob with his own sailors from the Marietta. The girl had vanished. Kennit had no time to wonder where. A look passed between the two men; Sorcor needed no sign from him. He would do nothing until it became inevitable. Then he would cut his way to Kennit as swiftly as he could.

  Boj glanced warily over his shoulder at his followers, then smiled with cold satisfaction at the ones that had surrounded the pirate. Sure of his backing, he confronted Kennit. He had to look over Wintrow's head to lock eyes with him. “It is your fault, you scummy bastard. You're the one that stirred things up, pirating slaveships. Had to show off, you couldn't be content with just making a living. You and your talk of being a king. A ship here, a ship there, that boy with a crown in Jamaillia didn't care. Not until you come along. The Satrap was leaving us alone, until you stirred the pot. You got into his pocket personal. Now look what you've done to us. We've got nothing left. We're going to have to find a new place, and rebuild from the ground up. Chances are we'll never find as good a hiding place as Divvytown was! We were safe here, and you destroyed that. The raiders that came here were looking specifically for you. ” Suddenly he slapped the cudgel meaningfully against his hand. “You owe us, is how I see it. Whatever you got on that ship, we are taking, so we can find ourselves a new hiding spot. Choose now how we get it. If you don't want to share easy, well . . . ” He swung the cudgel with a whistling motion. Kennit refused to flinch.

 
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