The mad ship, p.76
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       The Mad Ship, p.76

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
 

  In agony, the serpent flung its head back. “Get away!” she cried needlessly to Brashen. He had already ducked and rolled away. She gave a final jerk on the hook. It tore flesh, and smoking hot poison ran down the serpent's own neck. It shrieked, fountaining poison and blood from its wide-open mouth. It shook its head wildly, snatching the gaff from her numbed hands. She sat down hard and stared helplessly up at the thrashing creature. Some of its poison landed harmlessly in the sea, but some spattered across Paragon's deck and side. The ship cried out wordlessly and a tremor ran through his wooden body. As the serpent fell back and sank beneath the waves, Brashen was already shouting for buckets, seawater and brushes. “Get it off the deck! Now!” He roared from where he crouched on his hands and knees. His face was scalded scarlet by the serpent's venom. He rocked back and forth as if he were trying to rise but could not. She feared he was blinded.

  Then from the bow came the wild cry that chilled Althea's blood. “I knew you!” the Paragon bellowed. “And you knew me. By your poisons, I know myself!” His wild laughter rose on the wind. “Blood is memory!”

  HOW MUCH COULD THE WORLD CHANGE IN ONE NIGHT, RONICA VESTRIT wondered?

  If one stood on a chair in Althea's old bedroom and looked out the window, there was a partial view of Bingtown and the harbor over the intervening treetops. Today, peer as she might, all she could see was smoke. Bingtown was burning.

  She clambered stiffly down from the chair, and picked up the armful of linens from Althea's bed. She would use it to make bundles for them to carry as they fled.

  She remembered far too much of the long walk home in the darkness. Malta had lurched along between them like a crippled calf. After a time, Selden had come out of his daze and begun to cry. He wailed endlessly, demanding to be carried, as he had not been in years. Neither of them could do it. Ronica had gripped his hand in hers and towed him along, with her other arm about Malta's waist. Keffria had gripped Malta's upper arm and helped her along while she carried her own injured hand curled to her chest. The walk had been eternal. Twice riders had passed them, but despite their cries for help, the horsemen had simply thundered past.

  Daybreak came late, for the smoky air extended night's hold on the land. Night had been more merciful. Daylight revealed their tattered clothes and scraped flesh. Keffria was barefoot, her shoes lost in the wreck. Malta shuffled along in the ragged remnants of slippers never intended for the street. Selden's shredded shirt clung to his raw back; he looked as if he had been dragged by a horse. Malta had struck her forehead. Blood had dried in macabre stripes down her face. Both her eyes were blacked and closed to slits. Ronica looked at the others and could imagine how she looked.

  They spoke hardly at all. Once, Keffria observed, “I forgot all about them. The Satrap and his Companion, I mean. ” In a lower voice she asked, “Did you see them?”

  Ronica shook her head slowly. “I wonder what happened to them,” she had replied, although in truth she did not. She did not wonder anything about anybody except her own just now.

  Malta spoke thickly through her puffed mouth. “The horsemen took them away. They looked for the other Companion, and when they found that I was not she, they just left me there. One of them said I was nearly dead anyway. ”

  She fell silent again. The silence lasted the rest of the way home.

  Like a string of battered beggars, they limped up the unkempt drive to Vestrit Manor, only to find the door latched and barred to them. Keffria had given way to tears then, pounding weakly on the door as she sobbed. When Rache came to let them in at last, she carried a stick of kindling in her hand as a makeshift club.

  Somehow, half the morning had passed since then. Wounds had been bathed and dressed. Their fine and bloodied ball clothes were heaped in the hallway. Both the youngsters were in bed, sleeping heavily. With Rache's aid, both Ronica and Keffria had bathed and changed clothes, but as yet there was no rest for them. Keffria's fingers had swollen to agony. That left Ronica and Rache to gather provisions and spare clothes for all of them. Ronica was not sure what was going on in Bingtown below, but armed horsemen had taken the Satrap and his Companion from the coach last night and left the rest of them to die. The town was burning. The haze was too thick to see what was taking place in the harbor. She would not wait for the chaos to reach her door. They had her old saddle mare and Selden's fat pony. They could not take much with them, but, she reflected bitterly, there was precious little of value left. They'd go with their lives. Ingleby Farm had been part of her bridal portion. It would take them at least two days to get there. She wondered what old Tetna, the caretaker, would think of her. She had not seen her ancient nursemaid in years. She tried to pretend she looked forward to it.

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  When the pounding came at the door, she dropped the linens in the hallway. She wanted to run away. She could not. She stood alone between whatever was at the door and the children of her family. She saw Rache venture out from the kitchen, her kindling in hand. Ronica stepped briefly into the study. It had been Captain Vestrit's conceit to keep a marlinespike on the corner of his desk. It was still there. She had it in her hand as she stood inside the door and demanded, “Who's there?”

  “Reyn Khuprus! Please. Let me in!”

  Ronica nodded at Rache, but did not put down the marlinespike. The serving woman undid the latch and bolt. As the door swung open, Reyn recoiled in horror at the sight of the battered old woman.

  “By my honor, I prayed it was not true!” he cried. “And Malta?”

  Ronica stared at the young Rain Wild man. He was still dressed in his elegant evening wear, but the smells of dust and smoke clung to him. He had been in the thick of it. “She's alive,” Ronica said flatly. “Davad Restart is dead. As is the coachman. ”

  He did not seem to hear her words. “I swear, I did not know. She came in a hired coach, they told me you all arrived in a hired coach. I expected her to leave that way. Please, please. Is Malta all right?”

  Ronica made the connection. Cold enveloped her. “Your men left her to die. In fact, they told her she was dying. That should tell you something of her condition. Good day, Reyn Khuprus. ” She motioned to Rache, who began to close the door.

  Reyn flung himself bodily against it. Rache could not hold it against him. He stumbled into the hall, then straightened and faced them. “Please, please. There is so little time. We've driven the galleys from the harbor mouth. I came to get Malta, to get all of you. I can get you out now, and up the Rain Wild River. You'll be safe up there. But there isn't much time. The Kendry will sail soon, with or without us. The galleys could return and close the harbor at any time. We have to go now. ”

  “No. ” Ronica said flatly. “I think we'll take care of our own, Reyn Khuprus. ”

  He spun away from her abruptly. “Malta!” he cried. He sprinted down the hallway toward the wing of bedchambers. Ronica started after him, only to suddenly grasp at the wall, her head reeling. Her body would betray her now? Rache took her arm and helped her follow Reyn.

  The young Rain Wilder had gone mad. He roared Malta's name as he raced down the hall, flinging doors open. He reached Malta's room just as Keffria came flying out of hers at the end of the hall. He looked inside, gave a cry of anguish, and disappeared into her room.

  “Don't you touch her!” Keffria cried, and raced toward the door. But Reyn reappeared in the door, Malta, wrapped in a blanket, in his arms. She was as white as the bandages that bound her head. Her eyes were closed and her head lolled against him.

  “I'm taking her,” he said defiantly. “The rest of you should come, too. But that's up to you. I can't force you to come with me, but I won't leave Malta here. ”

  “You have no right!” Keffria cried. “Is this the new way of your folk, to abduct their brides?”

  Reyn gave a sudden wild laugh. “By Sa, she dreamed true! Yes! I take her now. I have the right. 'By blood or gold, the debt is owed. ' I claim her.
” He babbled the crazy words. He looked down into her face. “She is mine,” he asserted.

  “You cannot! The payment is not due-”

  “It will be soon, and you cannot possibly amass it. I'm taking her, while she is still alive. If I must do it this way, then I shall. Come with me, I beg you. Don't make it be like this for her. ” He turned to face Keffria. “She will need you. And Selden is not safe here, not if the Chalcedeans over-run the town. Would you see your little son with a slave tattoo on his face?”

  Keffria's hands flew up to cover her mouth in horror. She looked at Ronica. “Mother?” she asked through her fingers.

  Ronica decided for all of them. “Get the boy. Go quickly, take nothing, just go. ”

  SHE STOOD ON THE PORCH AND WATCHED THEM RIDE AWAY. REYN HELD Malta bundled before him on the horse. Keffria rode their old mare and a stoic Selden sat his fat old pony. “Mother?” Keffria asked a last time. “The horse can carry two of us. It is not so far for her. ”

  “Go. Go now,” Ronica repeated, as she had already said over and over. “I'm staying. I have to stay. ”

  “I can't leave you like this!” Keffria wailed.

  “You must. It is your duty to your family. Now go. Go! Reyn, take them away from here before their only chance is gone. ” Only to herself did she add, “If Bingtown is going to end in blood and smoke, I will see it. And I must see to burying Davad. ”

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  Rache stood at her side on the porch. They watched until they were out of sight. Then Ronica sighed heavily. Everything was suddenly so simple. Reyn would get them out of the harbor and to safety. There was only herself to worry about now and she had stopped caring what became of her a long time ago. She felt a faded smile come to her scratched face. She turned to the former slave at her side and took her hand.

  “Well. A quiet moment at last. Shall we have a cup of tea?” she asked her friend.

  SOMEONE KNOCKED HARD ON THE CABIN DOOR. ALTHEA GROANED. SHE opened one eye. “What?” she demanded from her bunk.

  “Captain wants to see you. Now. ” Clefs boyish voice, officious with the command, reached through the door.

  “He would,” she muttered to herself. To the door she announced, “I'm coming. ” She clambered stiffly down from her bunk.

  It was afternoon, but felt like the middle of the night to her. She should have been sleeping. She looked around the small room blearily. Jek was on watch, and it looked as if Amber had stayed with Paragon. Althea had given up on him, at least for now. After the incident with the serpent, the ship had ranted for a time, phrases that taunted Althea because they almost made sense. “Blood is memory,” he had proclaimed. “You can spill it, you can devour it, but you can never erase what it holds. Blood is memory. ” He had repeated it until she thought she would go crazy, not with the recitation but with her failure to grasp the meaning. It was at the edge of her understanding.

  She picked up her shirt. In some places, it was stiff with her own blood, in others the serpent's venom had eaten holes. The thought of pulling the rough cotton on over her blistered and bruised body made her shudder. With a groan, she crouched down to drag her gear bag out from under Amber's bunk. There was a light cotton shirt in there, a “town” shirt. She dug it out and pulled it on over her sore flesh.

  Paragon had finally subsided to confused muttering. Then he had fallen silent, in that terrible impervious silence that was his retreat from the world. It had seemed to Althea that there was almost a smile on his mouth, but Amber had been frantic with worry. When Althea had left her, the bead-maker had been sitting out on the bowsprit, playing her pipes. Nursery tunes, she called them, but they were no songs Althea had ever known. Althea had passed the work crews that were scrubbing the venom and blood from Paragon's pitted decks. She had paused to marvel at the damage done so swiftly to the iron-hard wood. It had melted gouges and dips into the deck. Then she had come back to her cabin and crawled into her bunk.

  How long ago had that been? Not long enough. And now Brashen had sent Clef to roust her out. He probably wanted to tell her how she should have handled it. Well, that was the captain's prerogative. She just hoped he talked fast, or she'd fall asleep in his face. She belted up her trousers and went to face her doom.

  At the door of his cabin, she smoothed her hair back from her face and tucked in her shirt. She wished vainly that she'd stopped to wash up after the fight and before she'd gone to bed. At the time, it had seemed too much trouble. Too late now. She rapped smartly at the door and waited for Brashen's “Enter. ”

  She shut the door behind her and then stared. Forgetting herself, she cried out, “Oh, Brashen!”

  His dark eyes were shocking in his scarlet face. Huge watery blisters stood up on his cheeks and brow like a Rain Wilder's warts. The tattered remains of the shirt he had been wearing hung across the back of a chair. He wore his fresh shirt loosely, as if he could scarcely bear the touch of it against his skin. He showed his teeth in a grimace meant to be a smile. “You look no better,” he offered her. He made a small gesture at the washbasin in his room. “I've left you some warm water in the pitcher. ”

  “Thank you,” she said awkwardly. He turned his back to her as she took him up on his courtesy. She hissed when she first lowered her bruised hands into the basin; then as the stinging eased, she thought she had never felt anything so good.

  “Haff's going to be all right. He got it worse than either of us. I had the cook wash him down with fresh -water. Poor bastard could hardly stand it. He's all over blood blisters. It ate the clothes right off his body, and still did that to him. That handsome face will bear some scars, I suspect. ” He paused, then pointed out, “He disobeyed your order as well as mine. ”

  Althea lifted the warm washrag to her face. Brashen had a mirror fixed to the wall, but she hadn't dared look in it yet. “I doubt that he remembers that right now. ”

  “Perhaps not now. But as soon as he's out of bed, I'll see that he does. If he'd left the damn serpent alone, it might have gone away. His actions endangered the whole ship and crew. He seems to think he knows better than mate or captain what to do. He discounts your experience and mine. He wants a bit of stepping on. ”

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  “But he is a good hand,” Althea pointed out reluctantly.

  Brashen did not falter. “When I'm finished stepping on him, he'll be a better hand. One that obeys. ”

  She supposed there was a small rebuke for herself in there, in that she hadn't taught Haff that lesson herself. She bit her tongue and looked at herself in the mirror. Her face looked scalded. She ran her fingers lightly over it; it was pebbled stiff with tiny blisters. Like the serpent's scales, she thought, and snagged for a moment in the memory of its beauty.

  “I'm taking Artu off your watch, and putting him on Lavoy's,” Brashen went on.

  Althea stiffened where she stood. Her father's eyes, black with anger, stared back at her from the mirror. She kept her voice cold. “I don't think that's fair. Sir. ” She ground the last word out between her teeth.

  “Neither do I,” Brashen agreed easily. “But he begged Lavoy on his knees, and the man finally gave in to be rid of him. Lavoy promised him every dirty duty he could find on the ship, and Artu wept tears of gratitude. What on earth did you do to him?”

  Althea bent over the washbasin and lifted a double handful of water to her face. She rubbed it gently over her face. It dripped red-tinged back into the basin. She examined the cut at her hairline; she'd done that on Artu's teeth. She spoke through clenched teeth as she washed it out more thoroughly. “The captain should never be too interested in that sort of thing. ”

  Brashen gave a soft snort of laughter. “That's funny. Clef came running to get me, and I came, my heart in my throat. Clef said Paragon was shouting that you were being killed. Then I got there, and here you were, hauling Artu along on a freight hook. I looked at that, and I thought to myself,
'Sa's breath, what would Captain Vestrit say to me if he could see her now?' ”

  She could see the back of his head in the mirror. She scowled at it. Would he ever understand that she could take care of herself? She remembered that Artu had bitten her arm. She folded back her sleeve, and cursed silently at the uneven row of tooth marks. She dipped her fingers into Brashen's soap, and rubbed at them. It stung. She would rather that a rat had bitten her.

  He went on in a softer voice. “All that came to mind was Ephron Vestrit's voice saying, 'If the mate is handling it, the captain shouldn't see it. ' He was right. He never interfered with me when I was settling small matters aboard the Vivacia. Even Lavoy knew that. I shouldn't have said a word. ”

  It was almost an apology. “Lavoy's not so bad,” Althea offered in return.

  “He's coming around,” Brashen agreed sagely. He suddenly crossed his arms on his chest. “I'll leave, if you'd like to make fuller use of that water. ”

  “No, thank you. Sleep is what I need most. I do appreciate the offer. I don't smell that bad, do I?” The unfortunate words were out before she recalled how he might take them.

  A little silence stood like a wall. She'd overstepped the bounds.

  “You never did,” he admitted quietly. “I was just angry. And hurt. ” He was still facing away from her, but she saw his shrug in the mirror. “I had thought there was something between us. Something that-”

  “We're better as we are now,” Althea broke in quickly.

 

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