Ship of destiny, p.68
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       Ship of Destiny, p.68

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
 

  Kennit stared in horrified fascination. He had seen women fight before; in Divvytown, it was so common a sight as to be unremarkable, but he had always considered it a tawdry spectacle. Somehow, this humiliated him. “Etta. Get up. Wintrow. Put Althea back in her room,” he commanded.

  Althea gasped her words from beneath Etta’s weight. “I’m a stupid bitch? He raped me. Here, on my own family ship! And you, a woman, defend him?” She rolled her head and stared up wildly at Wintrow. “He’s buried our ship! How can you look at him and not know what he is? How can you be so stupid?”

  “Shut up! Shut up!” Etta’s voice slid up the scale, cracking on hysteria. She slapped Althea, an openhanded blow that rang in the confined companionway.

  “Etta! Stop that, I said!” Kennit cried in horror. He seized the whore’s upraised hand by the wrist and tried to drag her off Althea. Instead, Etta only struck her with her other hand, and then, to Kennit’s complete mystification, burst into tears. Kennit lifted his eyes to find half a dozen sailors crowding the end of the hall, staring in openmouthed wonder at the spectacle. “Separate them,” he snapped. Finally, several men moved forward to do his bidding. Wintrow took Etta by the arm and pulled her from Althea. For a wonder, she did not fight him, but allowed him to hold her back. “Put Etta in my chamber until she calms herself,” he directed Wintrow. “You others, put Althea back in her room and fasten the lock. I will deal with her later. ”

  Althea’s brief struggle with Etta had consumed her resistance. Her eyes were open, but her head lolled on her neck as two men dragged her to her feet. “I’ll… kill… you,” she promised him gaspingly as they hauled her past him. She meant it.

  He drew his handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at his brow. The blood on the cloth was darker; the cut was clotting. He probably looked a sight. The prospect of confronting Etta did not appeal to him, but it could not be avoided. He would not walk about with blood dribbling down his face and spattered food on his clothing. He drew himself up straight. As the crewmen returned from locking Althea up, he managed a wry smile for them. He shook his head conspiratorially. “Women. They simply do not belong aboard a ship. ” One crewman returned him a grin, but the others looked uneasy. That was not good. Was Etta that great a favorite with the crew? He’d have to do something about that. He’d have to do something about this whole situation. How had it become so untidy? He straightened his rumpled jacket and brushed food from the sleeve.

  “Captain Kennit, sir?”

  He looked up in annoyance at yet another rattled deckhand. “What is it now?” he snapped.

  The man licked his lips. “It’s the ship, sir. The figurehead. She says she wants to see you, sir. ” The sailor swallowed, and then went on, “She said, Tell him right now. Now!’ No disrespect intended, sir, but that was how she spoke, sir. ”

  “Did she?” Kennit managed to keep his voice coolly amused. “Well, you may tell her, with no disrespect intended, that the captain has another matter to tend to, but that he will be with her presently. At his earliest convenience. ”

  “Sir!” The man fumbled for a way to begin a desperate protest. Kennit speared him with a cold gaze. “Yes, sir,” he conceded. His step dragged as he departed.

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  Kennit did not envy him his errand, but he could scarcely let the ship see him like this, let alone have a common seaman see him dash to obey the ship’s summons. He lifted a hand to smooth his moustache. “Slow. Calm. Steady. Take control of it again,” he counseled himself.

  But a tiny voice spoke from his wrist in mocking counterpoint. “Swiftly. Messily. It all falls to pieces. In the end, dear sir, you will not even have control of yourself. No more than Igrot did when he met his fate at your hands. For when you became the beast, little Kennit, you doomed yourself to share the beast’s end. ”

  “ETTA. ETTA, PLEASE,” WINTROW BEGGED HER, HELPLESSLY TORN. HE SHOULD be seeing to Althea. She had appeared both sick and deranged, but how could he leave Etta like this? She paid no attention. She wept on, sobbing into the pillows as if she could not stop. He had never seen anyone weep this way. There was a terrible violence to her gasping sobs, as if her body sought to purge herself of sorrow, but the misery went too deep for tears to assuage.

  “Etta, please, Etta,” he tried again. She did not even seem to hear him. Timidly, he patted her on the back. He had dim memories of his mother patting his little sister so, when Malta was so immersed in a tantrum that she could not calm herself. “There, there,” he said comfortingly. “It’s all over now. It’s all over. ” He moved his hand in a small, comforting circle.

  She took a deep breath. “It’s all over,” she confirmed, and broke into fresh mourning. It was so unlike Etta that it was like trying to comfort a stranger. Her behavior was as incomprehensible as Althea’s.

  The scene with Althea had been horrible; something was deeply wrong with his aunt, and he had to speak with her, regardless of what Kennit commanded. Her wild accusations of rape and strange talk of a buried ship stirred deep fears for her sanity. He should never have let Kennit prevent him from seeing her. The isolation had not rested her, but had left her alone with her grief. How could he have been so stupid?

  But Etta wept on, and he could not leave her. Why had Althea’s crazed words affected Etta like this? Then the answer came to him: she was pregnant. Women always behaved strangely when they were pregnant. He felt almost giddy with relief. He put his arm around her and spoke by her ear.

  “It’s all right, Etta. Just cry it out. These emotional storms are to be expected, in your condition. ”

  She sat up on the bed abruptly, her face mottled red and white, her cheeks shining with smeared tears. Then she swung. He saw her clenched fist coming, and almost managed to evade the punch. It clipped the point of his chin, clacking his teeth together and jolting stars into his eyes. He recoiled, his hand going to his jaw as he stood. “What was that for?” he demanded, shocked.

  “For being stupid. For being blind, as they say only women are blind. You are an idiot, Wintrow Vestrit! I don’t know why I ever wasted my time on you. You know so much, but you learn nothing at all. Nothing!” Her face suddenly crumpled again. She dropped her face to her knees and rocked back and forth like a disconsolate child. “How could I have ever been so stupid?” she moaned. Sitting up, she reached for him.

  Hesitantly, he sat down on the bed beside her. When he tried to pat her on the shoulder, she came into his arms instead. She put her face against his shoulder and sobbed, her shoulders shaking. He held her, gingerly at first, and then more firmly. He had never held a woman in his arms before. “Etta,” he said softly. “Etta, my dear. ” He dared to stroke her shining hair.

  The door opened. Wintrow startled, but did not release her. He had nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to be guilty about. “Etta is not herself,” he told Kennit hastily.

  “Indeed. That may be a relief, if whoever she is can behave better than the real Etta,” he returned churlishly. “Brawling in the corridor like a common guttersnipe. ” When Etta did not lift her head from Wintrow’s shoulder, he went on sarcastically, “I do hope I’m not interrupting you two. A small matter like my face bleeding or my clothes being filthy should not distress either of you. ”

  To Wintrow’s amazement, Etta slowly lifted her head. She looked at Kennit as if she had never seen him before. Something passed between them in that look, something Wintrow was not privy to. It seemed to break the woman, but she wept no more. “I’m finished,” she said brokenly. “I’ll get up and find…”

  “Don’t bother,” Kennit snarled as she stood. “I can see to my own needs. Go to Jola instead. Tell him to signal Captain Sorcor to send a boat for you. I think it will be better if you stay aboard the Marietta for a time. ”

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  Wintrow expected an outburst at those words, but Etta stood silent. She looked different. Slowly he realized the change in h
er. Usually, when she looked at Kennit, her eyes shone and a glow of love suffused her. Now she stared at him, and it was as if her life were draining out of her. When she spoke, her capitulation was complete. “You are right. Yes. That would be best. ” She lifted her hands and rubbed her face as if awakening from a long dream. Then, without another word or glance, she left the room.

  Wintrow stared after her. This could not be happening None of it made sense to him. Then, “Well?” Kennit demanded icily. His cold blue stare swept Wintrow head to foot.

  Wintrow came to his feet. His mouth was dry. “Sir, I don’t think you should send Etta away, not even for her own safety. Instead, as soon as possible, we should remove Althea from the ship. Her mind is turned. Please, sir, take pity on the poor woman and let me send her home We are only a few days from Divvytown. I can pay her passage home on one of the trading vessels that comes to Divvytown now. The sooner she is gone, the better for all of us. ”

  “Really?” Kennit asked dryly. “And what makes you think you have any say at all in what I do with Althea?”

  Wintrow stood silent, numbed by Kennit’s words.

  “She is mine, Wintrow. To do with as I will. ” Kennit turned away from him and began to disrobe. “Now. Fetch me a shirt. That is all I require of you just now. Not thinking, not deciding, not even begging. Fetch me a clean shirt and lay out trousers for me. And get me something to clean this cut. ” As Kennit spoke, he was unbuttoning his soiled shirt. His jacket already lay on the floor. Without thinking about it, Wintrow moved to obey him. The anger coursing through him obliterated all thought. He set out the clean clothing, and then found a cloth and cool water for Kennit. The cut was small, and already closed. Kennit wiped the blood from his brow and tossed the wet cloth disdainfully to the floor. Wintrow retrieved it silently. As he returned it to the washbasin, he found the control to speak again.

  “Sir. This is not a good time for you to send Etta away. She should be here. With you. ”

  “I think not,” Kennit observed lazily. He held out his wrists for Wintrow to button his cuffs. “I prefer Althea. I intend to keep her, Wintrow. You had best get used to the idea. ”

  Wintrow was aghast. “Will you hold Althea here, against her will, while you banish Etta to Sorcor’s ship?”

  “It will not be against her will, if that is what upsets you. Your aunt has already indicated that she finds me a comely man. In time, she will come to accept her role beside me. Today’s little… incident was an aberration. She merely needs more time to rest and adapt to the changes in her life. You need not be troubled on her behalf. ”

  “I will see her. I will speak- What was that?” Wintrow lifted his head.

  “I heard nothing,” Kennit replied disdainfully. “Perhaps you should join Etta on board the Marietta until-” It was his turn to stop in midsentence. His eyes widened.

  “You felt it, too,” Wintrow said accusingly. “A struggle. Inside the ship herself. ”

  “I felt no such thing!” Kennit replied hotly.

  “Something is happening,” Wintrow declared. Bolt had taught him to dread his connection to the ship. He felt his link to her roiling with turmoil, yet he feared to reach toward her.

  “I feel nothing,” the pirate declared disdainfully. “You imagine it. ”

  “Kennit! Kennit!” It was a long, drawn-out call, threatening in its intensity. Wintrow felt the hair stand up on the back of his neck.

  Kennit shrugged hastily into his fresh jacket and straightened his collar and cuffs. “I suppose I should go and see what that is about,” he said, but Wintrow could see his nonchalance was feigned. “I imagine the little fracas in the corridor has upset the ship. ”

  Wintrow made no reply, except to open the door for Kennit. The pirate hastened past him. Wintrow followed him more slowly. As he passed Althea’s door, he heard the low murmur of a voice. He stopped to listen, his ear close to the jamb. The poor woman was talking to herself, her voice so low and rapid that he could not make out any words. “Althea?” He tried the door, but the lock on it was stout. He stood a moment in indecision, then hastened after Kennit.

  He had nearly reached the door when Etta entered the companionway. She walked very straight and tall, and her face was impassive. He lifted his eyes to meet hers. “Are you all right?” he asked.

  “Of course not. ” Her voice was soft and flat. “Sorcor has a boat on its way. I must gather a few things. ”

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  “Etta, I spoke to Kennit. I asked him not to send you away. ”

  She seemed to vanish in stillness. Her voice came from far away. “I suppose you meant well by that. ”

  “Etta, you should tell him you’re with child. It might change everything. ”

  “Change everything?” Her smile was brittle. “Oh, Kennit has already changed everything, Wintrow. There is no need for me to add to it. ”

  She started to walk away. He dared to reach out and take her arm to restrain her. “Etta, please. Tell him. ” He clenched his jaws to keep from saying more. Perhaps if Kennit knew that she was pregnant, he would not set her aside to claim Althea. Surely, it would change his heart. What man could remain unmoved by such news?

  Etta shook her head slowly, almost as if she could hear his thoughts. “Wintrow, Wintrow. You still don’t understand, do you? Why do you think I was so shaken? Because I’m pregnant? Because she struck Kennit and made him bleed?”

  Wintrow shrugged in helpless silence. Etta leaned her head closer to his. “I wanted to kill her. I wanted to do whatever I had to do to her to make her be silent. Because she was speaking the truth, and I couldn’t stand to hear it. Your aunt is not mad, Wintrow. At least, no more mad than any woman becomes after rape. She spoke the truth. ”

  “You can’t know that. ” His mouth was so dry he could scarcely form the words.

  Etta closed her eyes for an instant. “For women, there is an outrage that cannot be provoked in any other way. I looked at Althea Vestrit, and I recognized it. I have seen it too often. I have felt it myself. ”

  Wintrow glanced at the locked door. The betrayal numbed him. Believing her hurt too much. He clung to doubt. “But why didn’t you confront him?”

  She looked deeply into his eyes, turning her head as if she were trying to see how he could be so foolish. “Wintrow. I have told you. Hearing the truth was bad enough. I don’t want to live it. Kennit is right. It is best that I stay on the Marietta for a time. ”

  “Until what?” Wintrow demanded.

  She shrugged one shoulder stiffly. The gleam of tears sprang into her eyes again. Her voice was tight as she said very quietly, “He may weary of her. He may want me back. ” She turned away. “I have to gather my things,” she whispered hoarsely.

  This time, when she stepped away from him, he let her go.

  THEY WERE ALL LOOKING AT HIM. KENNIT COULD FEEL THE EYES OF EVERY crewman tracking his progress as he made his way forward. He dared not hurry. The spat between the two women had been bad enough. They would not witness him racing to the ship’s summons, no matter how urgent.

  “Kennit!” The figurehead threw back her head and bellowed the word. In the twilit waters beside the ship, the serpents arched into sight and dove again with lashing tails. The sea around the ship seethed with the ship’s agitation. He gritted his teeth to keep his expression bland and limped on. Althea had left several bruises that were starting to ache. The ladder to the foredeck was annoying, as always, and all the while he struggled, the ship shouted his name. By the time he reached her, sweat coated him.

  He took a breath to steady his voice. “Ship. I’m here. What do you want?”

  The figurehead swiveled to look at him and he gasped. Her eyes had gone green, not a serpent green, but a human green, and her features had lost the reptilian cast they had assumed of late. She did not entirely look as Vivacia had, but this was definitely not Bolt. He almost stepped back from her.

 
“I’m here, too. What do I want? I want Althea Vestrit out here on the foredeck. I want her companion, Jek, as well. And I want them here now. ”

  His mind raced. “I’m afraid that isn’t feasible, Bolt,” he ventured. He used the name deliberately, and waited for her response.

  The ship gave him the most disdainful look he had ever endured from a feminine face. “You know I am not Bolt,” she replied.

  “Are you Vivacia, then?” he asked soberly.

  “I am myself, in my entirety,” she replied. “If you must name me by a name, then address me as Vivacia, for that part of me is as integral as the plank I was built from. But I did not call you to discuss my name or identity. I want Althea and Jek brought here. Now. ”

  “Why?” he countered, his voice as controlled as hers.

  “To see them for myself. To know that they are not being ill-treated. ”

  “Neither of them have been ill-treated!” he declared indignantly.

  The lines of the ship’s mouth went flat. “I know what you did,” she said bluntly.

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  For a moment, Kennit stood in the center of a great stillness. In all directions, it led to disaster. Had his luck finally deserted him? Had he finally made the one error that was not correctable? He took a breath. “Are you so swift to believe such evil of me?”

  Vivacia glared at him. “How can you ask me something like that?”

  She was not absolutely certain. He read it in her response. Once, she had cared for him, in a gentler way than Bolt had. Could he rouse that in her again? He ran his hand soothingly along the railing. “Because you see, not with your eyes, but with your heart. Althea believes she experienced something horrible. And so you believe her. ” He paused dramatically. He let his voice drop. “Ship, you know me. You have been inside my mind. You know me as no one else can. ” He took a chance. “Can you believe that I am capable of such a thing?”

  She did not answer him directly. “It is the greatest wrong that can be done to a female, human or dragon. It affronts and disgusts me on all levels. If you have done this, Kennit, it is irreparable. Not even your death could atone for it. ” There was more than human fury repressed in her voice: there was a cold reptilian implacability. It went beyond revenge and retaliation to annihilation. It sent a chill up his spine. He gripped her railing to steady himself. His voice was tight with self-justification when he spoke.

 

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