The mad ship, p.74
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       The Mad Ship, p.74

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  Her vapid words hung in the air, then Ronica exclaimed, “By Sa's breath! Look at the harbor!”

  There was a break in the trees lining the road. Atop the coach, both Davad and the coachman swore in disbelief. Malta stared. It seemed as if the whole harbor were on fire, for the flames were reflected in the water and doubled there. It was not just a warehouse or two; the entire waterfront seemed to be burning, as well as several of the ships. Malta stared in horror, scarcely hearing the exclamations and speculation of the others. Well she knew that only fire could kill a liveship. Had the Chalcedeans known that as well? Were the ships that battled the flames out near the mouth of the harbor liveships or the ships and galleys the Satrap and his party had come on? But they had only that brief glimpse and the distance was too great to be sure what she had seen.

  “Perhaps we should go down there and see for ourselves,” the Satrap suggested boldly. He raised his voice. “Coachman! Take us down to the harbor!”

  “Are you mad?” Ronica exclaimed, heedless of whom she addressed. “That is no place for Selden or Malta just now. Take us home first, then do as you will!”

  Before the Satrap could reply, the coach gave a lurch as the coachman whipped up his horses. As blackness closed around them once more, Ronica exclaimed, “What can Davad be thinking, to travel at such a pace in the darkness? Davad? Davad, what are we doing?”

  There was no direct reply to her query, only muffled shouts exchanged atop the coach. Then Malta thought she heard another voice. She seized the windowsill and leaned out of it. Behind them, in the darkness, she thought she caught a glimpse of something. “I think some horsemen are coming up behind us quickly. Perhaps Davad is just trying to get out of their way. ”

  “They must be drunk, to gallop their horses at night on this road,” Keffria exclaimed in disgust. Selden was climbing up on the seat, trying to get to the window to look out. “Sit down, child! You're trampling my dress,” she exclaimed in annoyance. Suddenly Selden was thrown to the floor as the coachman cracked his whip and the horses suddenly surged forward against their harness. The coach rocked heavily now, shifting them back and forth against one another as it swayed. If they had not been packed so tightly together, they would have been sliding about inside the coach.

  “Don't lean against the doors!” her mother commanded her wildly, while Ronica cried out, “Davad! Make him slow the horses! Davad!”

  As Malta clung desperately to the windowsill to keep from being thrown about, she glimpsed sudden movement outside it. A horse and rider had pulled abreast of them. “Yield!” he shouted. “Halt and yield to us, and no one will be hurt!”

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  “Highwaymen!” Kekki exclaimed in horror.

  “In Bingtown?” Ronica retorted. “Never!”

  Yet now there was another horse and rider on the other side of the coach. Malta glimpsed him, and then she heard the driver shout something. A wheel bumped wildly, and she was thrown against the side of the coach as it slewed to one side. For an instant, it seemed to recover. All would be well, she told herself, and then the opposite side of the coach simply sank with an abrupt lurch. She was flung hard against the Satrap who sprawled against Companion Kekki. Incredibly, she was falling sideways, and then the roof of the coach was somehow almost under her. A door flew open beside her. She heard a scream, a terrible scream and saw a sudden great flash of white light.

  "DAVAD is DEAD. RONICA VESTRIT SPOKE THE WORDS so CALMLY, SHE could hardly believe it was her own voice. She had come across his body in the darkness, groping her way up the steep and uneven slope toward the road. She knew it was Davad by the heavy embroidery on his jacket. She was glad it was too dark to see his body. The heavy warm stillness and the stickiness of blood were overwhelming enough. She could find no pulse at his throat, only blood. There was no whisper of breath. She believed from the drenching of blood down the back of his jacket that his skull had been crushed, but she could not bring herself to touch him anymore. She crawled away from him.

  “Keffria! Malta! Selden!” She called the names wildly but without strength. Nothing made sense. Above her, she could see the bulk of the coach between her and the uneven light of torches. There were voices up there, and people moving in the darkness. Maybe her children were up there.

  The hillside was steep and brushy. She could not clearly recall how she had gotten out of the coach. She could not understand how she could be so far away from it. Had she been thrown clear?

  Then to her ears came Keffria's voice. She wailed, “Mama, mama!” just as she had used to call when she was a child and tormented by nightmares.

  “I'm coming!” Ronica called. Prickly bushes caught at her and she fell again. The entire left half of her body stung as if she had lost the skin off it. But that could be managed, that could be ignored, forgiven and forgotten, if she could just find the children. She fell again.

  It seemed to take a long time to get up. Had she fainted? She could see nothing at all now, not the coach, nor the flickering light. Had there been people moving about or had she imagined that? She listened hard. There. A sound, a squeaking of breath, or weeping. She scrabbled toward it.

  In the darkness, she found Keffria by touch. The squeaking had been her sobbing. She cried out when Ronica touched her, then clutched at her wordlessly. Little Selden was in her lap. The boy was curled in a tight little ball. The tension of his muscles told Ronica that he was alive. “Is he hurt?” were her first words to her daughter.

  “I don't know. He won't speak. I can't find any blood. ”

  “Selden, come here. Come to Grandma. ” He did not resist her but he did not try to come to her. She felt the boy over. No blood, nor did he cry out at her touch. He simply huddled, shivering. She gave him back to Keffria. For a miracle, neither of them seemed seriously injured. Keffria had some broken fingers, but more than that she could not tell, nor could Ronica see. The trees were too dense. No moonlight or starlight reached them to help them search.

  “Malta?” Ronica asked at last. She would not mention Davad before Selden.

  “I haven't found her yet. I heard the others, at first. Then I called . . . I thought I heard you, but you didn't come. Malta never answered. ”

  “Come. Let's get back up to the road. Perhaps she is there. ”

  In the dark, she more felt than saw Keffria nod. “Help me with Selden,” she said.

  Ronica hardened her voice. “Selden. Mama and I cannot carry you. You are too big a boy for that. Remember how you helped with the buckets, the day the ships first came? You were brave then. Now you must be brave again. Come. Take my hand. Stand up. ”

  He did not react at first. Nonetheless, she took his hand and tugged at it. “Come, Selden. Get up. Take your mother's good hand. You're strong. You can help us both get up this hill. ”

  Very slowly, the child unfolded himself. Each of them took a hand, and between the two of them, they hauled him up the hill. Keffria carried her injured hand curled to her chest. No one spoke much, except words of encouragement to the boy interspersed with calling Malta's name. No one replied. The noise they made had stilled the night birds. The only sounds were those they made themselves.

  The coach lay on its side. Here, closer to the road, the trees were thinner and starlight reached through to the ground. It showed Ronica the end of her world in shades of black and white. One dead horse was still tangled in its traces. Between the coach and the road uphill of it, the saplings were bent and snapped.

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  They searched all around the coach. Neither of them spoke of what they were really doing. They searched the ground for Malta's body, feeling about in the dark. After a time, Keffria said, “She might have been trapped inside the coach. ”

  The coach lay on its side on the steep slope, with its roof pointing downhill. The coachman's booted feet stuck out from under it. Ronica and Keffria both noticed them, but neither pointed them ou
t to the other. Selden had seen enough tonight. He did not need to be shown that. He did not need to wonder, as they did, if Malta's body was under there, too. Ronica guessed that the coach had rolled at least twice before coming to rest. Even now, it did not look stable. “Be careful,” she cautioned her daughter in a low voice. “It may slide further down the hill. ”

  “I'll be careful,” Keffria promised uselessly. Then she clambered slowly up the undercarriage of the coach. She gasped once as her injured hand slipped. She lay on the side of the vehicle, looking in the window. “I can't see a thing,” she called down to them. “I'll have to climb down inside it. ”

  Ronica listened to her wrestle with the door. She managed to drag it open. Then she sat on the edge of the opening for a moment, before lowering herself inside. Ronica heard her sharp exclamation of horror. “I stepped on her,” Keffria wailed. “Oh, my baby, my baby. ”

  The silence stretched all the way to the stars and back. Then Keffria began to sob. “Oh, Mother, she's breathing! She's alive, Malta's alive!”



  Kennit was not. When they had first returned to the ship, Etta had assisted him through a hot bath and into clean clothing. Then he had shooed her out of his cabin, and spread out the plans for Divvytown on the chart table. He set out his straight-edge, dividers and pens, and considered his previous effort with a scowl. He had been working from memory when he created it. Today, as he painstakingly stumped over the areas in question, he swiftly saw that some of his ideas were unworkable. He set out a new sheet of vellum and began work afresh.

  He had always loved this type of work. It was like creating his own world, a tidy and orderly world where things made sense and were arranged to their best advantage. It took him back to the days of his very early boyhood, when he had played on the floor beside his father's desk. The floor had been earth in that first home he remembered. When his father was sober, he worked on his plans for Key Island. It was not only his own grand manor house that he drew. He inked in the cottages in a row where the servants would live, designating how large the garden plots for each would be, and even calculating how much space each crop would need. He had sketched out the stable and the barn, the pens for the sheep, arranging them so that the manure piles would be handy to the garden plots. He had planned a bunkhouse for the ship's crew members should they want to sleep ashore. He set each structure in place so that the roads might run straight and level. It was the plan for a perfect little world on a hidden island. Often he had taken young Kennit on his lap, to show him his dream. He had told him tales of how they would all be happy here. All had been laid out so well. For a brief time, the dream had prospered.

  Until Igrot came.

  He had pushed that thought away, shoved it down to the back of his mind as he worked. He was working on the layout for the shelter at the base of the watchtower when the charm suddenly spoke. “What is the purpose of this?” it demanded.

  Kennit scowled at the squiggle of ink his start had caused. He blotted it carefully away. It would still leave a mark. He would have to sand it out of the vellum. He frowned as he leaned to the work again. “The purpose of this design,” he said, more to himself than to the insolent charm, “is that this structure can double as a safe haven in case of attack, as well as a temporary shelter until their homes are rebuilt. If they put a well here, inside, and fortify the outside structure, then-”

  “Then they could starve to death instead of being carted off for slaves,” the charm observed brightly.

  “Raiding ships don't have that type of patience, usually. They are after a quick, easy capture of plunder and slaves. They are not likely to besiege a fortified town. ”

  “But what is the purpose of these plans? Why do you take such an interest in creating a better town for folk you secretly despise?”

  For a moment, the question stymied him. He looked down at his plans. The folk of Divvytown were truly not worthy to live in such an orderly place. It did not matter, he discovered. “It will be better,” he said stubbornly. “It will be tidier. ”

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  “Control,” the charm corrected him. “You will have left your mark on how they live their lives. I have decided that that is what you are all about, Kennit. Control. What do you believe, pirate? That if you get enough control, you can go back and control the past? Make it all unhappen? Put your father's precise plan back to work, bring his little paradise back to life? The blood will always be there, Kennit. Like a smear of ink on a perfect plan, the blood sinks in and stains. No matter what you do, when you walk into that house, you will always smell the blood and hear the screams. ”

  He had thrown down his pen in fury. To his disgust, it had left a snake's trail of blood across his plans. No, not blood, he told himself angrily. Ink, black ink, that was all it was. Ink could be blotted and bleached away. So could blood. Eventually.

  He had gone to bed.

  In the darkness, he had lain awake and waited for Etta to come in. But when she did come in, she came slinking in like a cat after a night's hunt. He knew where she had been. He listened to her disrobe in the darkness. She came softly to the side of the bed she slept in and tried to slip under the covers.

  “So. How was the boy?” he asked her in a hearty voice.

  She gasped in surprise. He saw her silhouette as she set her hand to her heart. “You startled me, Kennit. I thought you were asleep. ”

  “Obviously,” he observed sarcastically. He was angry, he decided, not because she had slept with the boy. He had intended that all along, of course. It was that she thought she could deceive him about it. That meant she thought he was stupid. It was time to divest her of that notion.

  “Are you in pain?” she asked him. Her concern sounded genuine.

  “Why do you ask?” he asked in return.

  “I thought that might be what kept you awake. I fear Wintrow was injured more seriously than we thought. He did not complain this afternoon, but tonight his arm was so swollen he scarcely could get his shirt off. ”

  “So you helped him,” Kennit decided pleasantly.

  “Yes. I made a poultice for him. It took the swelling down. Then I asked him some questions about a book I've been trying to read. It seemed to me a foolish book, for all it spoke about was how to decide what was real in one's life and what was the product of how one considered life. Philosophy, he named it. A waste of one's time, I told him. What is the good of pondering how one knows that a table is a table? He argued that it makes us think about how we think. I still think it is foolish, but he insists I should read it. I had not realized how long we had argued until I left his room. ”


  “Not angrily. Discussed, I should have said. ” She lifted the coverlet and slid into the bed with him. “I've washed,” she added hastily as he shrugged away from her touch.

  “In Wintrow's room?” he asked nastily.

  “No. In the galley, where the water can be kept hot more easily. ” She settled her body against his and sighed. A moment later, she asked, almost sharply, “Kennit, why did you ask me that? Do you mistrust me? I am faithful to you. ”

  “Faithful!” The word shocked him.

  She sat up abruptly in the bed, her action snatching the blankets off him. “Of course, faithful! Faithful always. What did you think?”

  This could be a barrier to all his plans for her. He tugged at the blanket and she lay back down beside him. He formulated his words carefully. “I thought that you would be with me for a time. Until another attracted you. ” He shrugged lightly, more disturbed than he liked to admit. Why should it be so hard to admit this? She was a whore. Whores were not faithful.

  “Until another attracted me? Such as Wintrow, you mean?” She laughed a rich throaty chuckle. “Wintrow?”

  “He is close
r to your age than I am. His body is sweet and young, scarcely scarred and possessed, I might add, of two legs. Why would not you find him more desirable?”

  “You are jealous!” She said it as if he had just presented her with a diamond. “Oh, Kennit. You are being silly. Wintrow? I started to be kind to him only because you asked it of me. Now, I have come to see his value. I see what you wanted to show me about him. He has taught me much, and I am grateful for that. But why would I trade a man for an untried youth?”

  “He is whole,” Kennit pointed out. “Today he fought as a man. He killed. ”

  “He fought today, yes. But that scarcely makes him a man grown. He fought for the first time, with a blade we gave him and the skills I taught him. He killed, and that act consumes and torments him tonight. He spoke long about it, the wrong of taking from a man what Sa alone could give him. ” She lowered her voice. “He wept about it. ”

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  Kennit groped to follow. “And that made you despise him as less than a man. ”

  “No. It made me pity him, even as I wanted to shake him out of it. He is a youth torn between his natural gentleness of spirit and his need to follow you. He himself knows that. He spoke of it tonight. A long time ago, when we were first thrown into one another's company, I said things to him. Commonsense things, such as finding his life in what is instead of longing after what could be. He took those things to heart, so seriously, Kennit. ” She lowered her voice. “He now believes that Sa has steered him to you. Everything, he says, that happened to him since he left his monastery carried him toward you. He believes that Sa gave him over to slavery so that he might better understand your hatred of it. He fought the idea for so long. He says that he resisted it because he was jealous of how his ship swung so quickly to you. That jealousy blinded him and made him seek out faults in you. But over the last few weeks, he has come to see it is Sa's will for him. He believes he is destined to stand beside you, speak out for you and fight for you. Yet, he dreads the last. It tears him. ”

  “Poor boy,” Kennit said aloud. It was hard to sound sympathetic with triumph racing through his heart. He tried. It was almost as good as if she had slept with the boy.

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