The mad ship, p.7
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       The Mad Ship, p.7

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  “The best,” Finney repeated. “Damn good stuff. And we take all the risks of getting it. Us. You and I. Then we take that stuff back to Candletown, and what do we get there?”


  “A pittance. We bring in a fat pig and they throw us back the bones. But together, Brashen, you and I could do better for ourselves. ”

  “How do you figure?” This was starting to make him nervous. Finney had an interest in the Springeve, but he didn't own it. Brashen didn't want any part of genuine piracy. He'd already done his share of that early in life. He'd had a gut full of it back then. No. This trading in stolen goods was as close as he wanted to get to it. He might not be the respectable first mate of the liveship Vivacia anymore-he wasn't even the hard-working second mate of a slaughter ship like Reaper anymore, but he hadn't sunk so low as piracy.

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  “You got that look to you, like I said. You are Trader born, ain't you? Probably a younger son or something, but you would have the connections in Bingtown, if you wanted to use them. We could take a good haul up there, you would hook us up, and we could trade some top-quality merchandise for some of that magical stuff that the Traders have. Them singing chimes and perfume gems and whatnot. ”

  “No. ” Brashen heard too late how abrupt his reply was. Quickly he softened it. “It's a good idea, a brilliant idea, except for one thing. I don't have any connections. ” In a burst of generosity that was probably due to the cindin, he gifted Finney with the truth. “You're right, I'm Trader born. But I tangled those lines a long time ago, and my family cut me loose. I couldn't get a glass of water begging at my Da's door, let alone cut you a trade deal. The way my father feels about me, he wouldn't piss on me if I was on fire. ”

  Finney guffawed and Brashen joined with a wry smile. He wondered why he spoke of such things at all, let alone why he made them a cause for levity. Better than being a crying drunk, he supposed. He watched Finney compose himself, laugh once more and then take another drink of his beer. He wondered if the older man still had a father of his own somewhere. Perhaps he had a wife and children, too. Brashen knew next to nothing about him. It was better so. If he had an ounce of sense, he'd get up now, say he had to check on the crew, and leave before he told Finney any more about himself. Instead he spat the soggy remains of the cindin into the bucket under the table and reached for the humidor. Finney grinned at him as Brashen broke another plug from the stick.

  “Wouldn't have to be your own father. A man like you has chums, old friends, eh? Or you know someone with a bent for this, you've heard rumors about him. In any town, there are some that wouldn't mind adding a few coins to their purses, quiet-like. We could go in there, once or twice a year, with a load of our very best, held back from our usual buyers. Not a lot, but of the finest quality. And that's what we would ask in return. Confidentially. Only you and I would need to know. ”

  Brashen nodded, more to himself than Finney. Yes. The man was planning on going behind his partner's back, to make a bit more money for himself. So much for honor among thieves. He was quietly offering to cut Brashen in on the deal, if Brashen would help him find the sources. It was a low trick. How could Finney look at him and believe he was that sort of man?

  How long could he pretend he was not? What was the point of it, anymore?

  “I'll think about it,” Brashen told him. “You do that,” Finney grinned.

  IN LATE AFTERNOON, WINTROW CROUCHED ON THE FOREDECK BESIDE KENnit. “Ease him off the blanket,” he directed the men who had borne him there. “I want him to be lying on the planking of the deck, with as little between him and the wizardwood as possible. ”

  A short distance away, her arms crossed on her chest, Etta stood, apparently impassive. She would not look toward Vivacia. Wintrow tried not to stare at the pirate woman. He wondered if anyone else noticed her clenched fists and tight jaw. She had battled his decision to do the cutting here. She had wanted privacy and walls around this messy, painful business. Wintrow had brought her here, and showed her his own bloody handprint on the deck. He had promised her that Vivacia could help Kennit with the pain as she had helped him when his finger was cut off. Etta had finally given in to his will. Neither he nor Vivacia were certain how much help the ship could give, but as they still lacked the medicine chest, anything she could do for Kennit would be helpful.

  The ship was anchored in a nameless cove of an uncharted island. Wintrow had gone to Brig, to ask once more about both where the medicine chest was and when they would get to Bull Creek. Both answers had been disappointing. The medical supplies had not been found, and without the Marietta to guide him, Brig did not know how to get back to Bull Creek. The answer had disheartened Wintrow but not shocked him.

  Brig's temporary command of the Vivacia was a giant step up for him. Only a few days ago, Brig had been a common seaman. He didn't know how to navigate or read charts. He intended to find a safe place to anchor up, and wait until either the Marietta found them or Kennit was well enough to guide him. When Wintrow had asked incredulously if they were completely lost, Brig had replied that a man could know where he was, and still not know a safe course to somewhere else. The crisp anger in the young sailor's voice had warned Wintrow to hold his tongue. There was no sense in letting the former slaves know of their situation. It presented too great an opportunity for Sa'Adar.

  Even now, the wandering priest hovered at the edge of the group. He had not offered to be helpful and Wintrow had not asked him. Most often, wandering priests were judges and negotiators rather than healers or scholars. While Wintrow had always respected the learning and even the wisdom of that order, he had never been completely comfortable with the right of any man to judge another. It did not help right now to feel that scrutiny was being applied to him. Whenever he sensed Sa'Adar gaze at him, he felt a chill knowledge that the man found him unworthy. The older priest stood, arms crossed on his chest. Two map-faces flanked him; he spoke to them quietly. Wintrow pushed aside his awareness of them. If Sa'Adar would not help, Wintrow would not be distracted by him. He rose and walked to the bow of the ship. Vivacia looked back at him anxiously.

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  “I will do my best,” she said before Wintrow could ask. “But keep in mind we have no blood bond with him; he is not kin to us. Nor has he been aboard long enough for me to be familiar with him. ” She lowered her eyes. “I will not be much help to you. ”

  Wintrow leaned far down to touch his palm to hers. “Lend your strength to me, then, and that will do much,” he consoled her.

  Their hands met, confirming and increasing the strange bond between them. He did draw strength from her. As he acknowledged that, he saw an answering smile dawn on her face. It was not an expression of happiness, not even a sign that all was now right between them, but a sign of shared determination. Whatever else might threaten them, whatever doubts they harbored about one another, they still went into this together. Wintrow lifted his face to the sea wind and offered up a prayer that Sa might guide them. He turned back to his task. As he drew a deep breath, he could feel Vivacia with him.

  Kennit lay limply on the deck. Even at this distance, Wintrow could smell the brandy. Etta had sat beside Kennit, and patiently coaxed him to drink far beyond his desire. The man had a good capacity for liquor. He was sodden but not senseless. Etta had also been the one to choose who would hold him down. To Wintrow's surprise, three of those she had chosen were former slaves. One was even an older map-face. They looked uneasy but determined as they stood amongst the gawking onlookers. That would be the first thing Wintrow would deal with. He spoke calmly but clearly.

  “Only those who have been summoned should be here. The rest of you, disperse to give me room. ” He did not wait to see if they obeyed him. To watch them ignore his command would only be an additional humiliation for him. He was sure that if they did, Etta would intervene. He knelt down beside Kennit. It would be awkward to work wi
th him lying flat on the deck, but Wintrow felt that whatever strength Vivacia could lend him would be worth it.

  He looked over the paltry array of tools he had scavenged. They lay in a tidy row on a piece of clean canvas next to his patient. It was a motley assortment of makeshift equipment. The knives, freshly sharpened, had come from the cook's supplies. There were two saws from the carpenter's box. There were sail-making needles, large and coarse, and some sewing needles that belonged to Etta. Etta had provided him with neatly torn bandaging, both linen and silk. It was ridiculous that he had not been able to salvage better equipment. Almost every sailor aboard had had his own needles and tools. All the belongings of the slaughtered crewmen had disappeared. He was sure the slaves had claimed them when they took over the ship. That none of them had been surrendered to this need spoke deeply of how much the former slaves resented Kennit's claiming of the ship. Wintrow could understand their feelings, but it did not help his predicament. As he looked down on the crude tools, he knew he was doomed to fail. This would be little better than lopping the man's leg off with an axe.

  He lifted his eyes and sought out Etta. “I must have better tools than these,” he asserted quietly. “I dare not begin without them. ”

  She had been musing, her gaze and thoughts afar. “I wish we had the kit from aboard the Marietta,” she replied wistfully. For that unguarded moment, she looked almost young. She reached down to twine one of Kennit's black curls through her fingers. The sudden tenderness in her face as she looked on the drowsing man was startling.

  “I wish we had Vivacia's medicine chest,” Wintrow replied as solemnly. “It was kept in the mate's cabin, before all this began. There was much in it that would be useful, both medicines and tools. It could have made this much easier for him. No one seems to know what became of it. ” Etta's gaze darkened and her face hardened into a scowl. “No one?” she asked coldly. “Someone always knows something. You just have to ask the right way. ”

  She stood abruptly. As she crossed the deck, she drew her knife from its hip sheath. Wintrow immediately discerned her target. Sa'Adar and his two guards had withdrawn but not left the foredeck. Too late, the wandering priest turned to acknowledge Etta's approach. His gaze of disdain became a goggle of shock as Etta casually ran the honed edge of her blade down his chest. He stumbled back with a shout, then looked down at the front of his ragged shirt hanging open. A thin line down his hairy chest became red and widened as the blood began to seep. His two burly guards looked down at Etta's knife held low and ready. Brig and another pirate had already closed ranks with her. For an instant, no one spoke or moved. Wintrow could almost hear Sa'Adar assessing his choices. The wound was a shallow scoring of his skin, very painful but not life-threatening. She could have gutted him where he stood. So. What did she want?

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  He chose wronged righteousness. “Why?” he demanded theatrically. He opened his arms wide to expose the slash down his chest. He half turned, so that he addressed the slaves still clustered amidships as well as Etta. “Why do you choose me to attack? What have I done, except come forward to offer my aid?”

  “I want the ship's medicine chest,” Etta responded. “I want it now. ”

  “I don't have it!” Sa'Adar exclaimed angrily.

  The woman moved faster than a clawing cat. Her knife licked out and a second line of blood bisected the first. Sa'Adar set his teeth and did not cry out or step back, but Wintrow saw the effort it cost him.

  “Find it,” Etta suggested. “You bragged that you organized the uprising that overthrew the captain. You go among the slaves, exhorting them that you are the true leader they should follow. If that is true, you should know which of your men plundered the mate's cabin. They took the chest. I want it. Now. ”

  For a breath longer, the tableau held. Did some sort of a sign, a flicker of a glance, pass between Sa'Adar and his men? Wintrow could not be certain. Sa'Adar began talking, but to Wintrow his words seemed oddly staged. “You could have simply asked me, you know. I am a humble man, a priest of Sa. I seek nothing for myself, only the greater good of human' ity. This chest you seek . . . what did it look like?” His querying eyes fell on Wintrow and his mouth stretched in a manufactured smile.

  Wintrow forced himself to keep a neutral expression as he answered. “A wooden chest. So by so. ” Wintrow measured it in the air. “Locked. Vivacia's image was burned into the top of it. Within were medicines, doctoring tools, needles, bandaging. Anyone who opened it would know instantly what it was. ”

  Sa'Adar turned to those gathered in the waist of the ship. “Did you hear, my people? Do any of you know of such a chest? If so, please bring it forth now. Not for my sake, of course, but for that of our benefactor, Captain Kennit. Let us show him we know how to be kind to those who are kind to us. ”

  It was so transparent, Wintrow thought Etta would cut him down where he stood. Instead, an oddly patient look came over her face. By his knee, on the deck, Kennit spoke very softly. “She knows she can wait. She likes to take her time killing, and do it in privacy. ”

  Wintrow's eyes snapped to the pirate, but he seemed to be nearly unconscious. His lashes lay long on his cheeks; his face was slack. A loose smile twitched over his mouth. Wintrow set two fingers lightly to Kennit's throat. His pulse still beat steady and strong there, but the man's skin was fevered. “Captain Kennit?” Wintrow asked softly.

  “Is this it?” A woman's voice rang out. The freed slaves parted, and she came striding forward. Wintrow stood up. She carried the medicine chest. The lid had been splintered, but he recognized its worn wood. He did not move forward but let the woman bring it to Etta instead. Let this be her battle with Sa'Adar. He had enough bad blood with the man already.

  She lowered her eyes to gaze down at the opened chest when it was placed before her feet. She did not even stoop to stir the disheveled contents. When she lifted her eyes back to Sa'Adar's face, she gave a small snort of contempt. “I do not enjoy games,” she said very softly. “But if I am forced to play them, I always make sure I win. ” Her stare met his. Neither looked aside. The planes of her cheeks tightened, exposing her teeth in a snarling smile. “Now. Take your rabble off this deck. Get belowdecks and close the hatches. I neither wish to see you, nor hear you, nor even smell you while this is going on. If you are very wise, you will never draw my attention to you again. Do you understand?”

  Wintrow watched as Sa'Adar made a very serious mistake. He drew himself up to his full height, not quite the match of Etta's. His voice was coolly amused. “Am I to understand that you, and not Brig, are in command here?”

  It would have been a deft play, if there had been any rivalry between the two to exploit. Brig only threw his head back in a guffaw of laughter as Etta's knife danced in to add yet another stripe to Sa'Adar's chest. This time he cried out and staggered back a step. She had made the knife bite deeper. As the wandering priest clutched at his blood-slicked chest, she smiled darkly. “I think we understand that I am in command of you. ”

  One of the map-faces started forward, his face dark with fury. Etta's knife moved in and out of him, and he went down, clutching at his belly. Vivacia gave a muffled cry at this new spillage of blood on her deck, an echo of the cries and gasps of the watching freed folk. Wintrow shared the deep shudder of horror that passed through the ship at this fresh violence, but he could not take his eyes away. Sa'Adar shrank back behind his other bodyguard, but that burly man was also cowering away from the woman with the knife. None of the others sprang forward to defend the priest. Instead, there was a subtle movement away from him as folk distanced themselves.

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  “Be clear on this!” Etta's voice rang out like a hammer on an anvil. She lifted the bloody knife and swept it in an arc that encompassed the whole ship and every staring face, tattooed or not. “I will tolerate no one who threatens the well-being and comfort of Captain Kennit. If you wish to avoid my wrath,
then you will do nothing to inconvenience him. ” Her voice grew softer. “It is very simple, really. Now clear these decks. ”

  This time the crowded folk on the deck disappeared like water swirling down a drain. In a matter of moments, the only people remaining abovedeck were the pirate crewmen and those few slaves Etta had chosen to hold Kennit down. Her chosen ones regarded her with an odd mixture of respect and horror. Wintrow suspected they had now completely changed allegiance and would follow her anywhere. It remained to be seen how formidable an enemy she had created in Sa'Adar.

  As Etta came to Wintrow, their eyes met. The demonstration with Sa'Adar had been for his benefit as well. If Kennit died under his hands, Etta's vengeance would be furious if not swift. He drew a deep breath as she approached him, the medicine chest in her hands. He took it from her wordlessly, placed it on the deck and swiftly sorted through its contents. Some of it had been pilfered, but most of it was there. With a deep sigh of relief, he found kwazi rind preserved in brandy. The bottle was tiny. He reflected bitterly that his father had not seen fit to use it to ease his pain when his finger was amputated; then the thought intruded that if he had, Wintrow would not have it now to use on Kennit. He shrugged at the vagaries of fate and began methodically to set out his tools. He pushed aside his collection of kitchen knives, replacing them with the finer-edged blades in the chest. He selected a bone saw with a carved handle like a bow. Three needles he threaded with hair from Kennit's own head. When he lay them down on the canvas, the black hair spiraled into a lax curl. There was a leather strap with two rings on the end to cinch about the limb before he cut it.

  That was all. He looked a moment longer at the row of tools. Then he glanced up at Etta. “I would like to offer prayers. A few moments of meditation might better prepare all of us for this. ”

  “Just get on with it,” she ordered him harshly. The line of her mouth was set flat, and the high planes of her cheeks were rigid.

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