The mad ship, p.80
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       The Mad Ship, p.80

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  HE WAS DIMLY AWARE OF HIS RESCUE. IT ANNOYED HIM TREMENDOUSLY. HE was so alive, so full of memory and sensory recall, he just wished to be still and absorb it. Instead, they kept clutching at him. The woman kept shaking him and shrilling at him to stay awake, stay awake. There was a man's voice. He kept yelling at the woman to keep his face up, keep his face out of the water, he's drowning, can't you see? Wintrow wished they would both shut up and leave him alone.

  He remembered so much. He remembered his destiny, as well as recalling all the lives he had led before this one. Suddenly it was all so clear. He had been hatched to be the repository of all memory for all serpents. He would contain them until such time as each was ready to come to him, and with a touch renew their rightful heritage. He would be the one to guide them home, to the place far up the river where they would find both safety and the special soil from which to create their cases. There would be guides awaiting them at the river, to protect them on their journey upriver and to stand watch over them as they awaited their metamorphosis. It had been so long, but he was free now, and all would be well.

  “Get Wintrow in first. He's unconscious. ”

  That was the man's voice, exhausted but still commanding. A new voice shouted, “Sa's breath! There's a serpent! Right under them, get them aboard, quick, quick!”

  “It brushed him. Get the boy in, quick!”

  A confusion of movement, and then pain. His body had forgotten how to bend; it was too swollen. They bent him anyway, seizing him tightly by his limbs as they pulled him from the Plenty into the Lack. They dropped him onto something hard and uneven. He lay gasping, hoping his gills would not dry out before he could escape.

  “What is that stuff on him? It stung my hands!”

  “Wash him off. Get that stuff off him,” someone advised someone else.

  “Let's get him to the ship first. ”

  “I don't think he'll last that long. At least get it off his face. ”

  Someone scrubbed at his face. It hurt. He opened his jaws and tried to roar at them. He willed toxins, but his mane would not stand. It was too painful. He slipped back from this life, into the previous one.

  He spread his wings wide and soared. Scarlet wings, blue sky. Below, green fields, fat white sheep to feed on. In the distance, the shining towers of a city gleamed. He could hunt, or he could go to the city and be fed. Above the city, a funnel of dragons circled like bright fish caught in a whirlpool. He could join them. The people of the city would turn out to greet him, singing songs, so pleased he had honored them with a visit. Such simple creatures, living scarcely for more than a few breaths. Which pleasure was more tempting? He could not decide. He hovered, catching the wind under his wings and sliding up the sky.

  “Wintrow. Wintrow. Wintrow. ”

  A man's voice, beating against his dream and breaking it into pieces. He stirred reluctantly.

  “Wintrow. He hears us, he moved. Wintrow!” The woman added her voice to the man's.

  That most ancient of magics, the binding of a man by the use of his name, gripped him. He was Wintrow Vestrit, merely a human, and he hurt, he hurt so badly. Someone touched him, making the pain sharper. He could not escape them now.

  “Can you hear me, boy? We're nearly to the ship. Soon we can ease the pain. Stay awake. Don't give up. ”

  The ship. Vivacia. He recoiled in sudden horror. If the Others were Abomination, what was she? He drew in a breath. It was hard to take in air, and harder to push it out as words. “No,” he moaned. “No. ”

  “We'll be on Vivacia soon. She'll help you. ”

  He could not speak. His tongue was too swollen in his mouth. He could not beg them not to return him to the ship. A part of him still loved her, despite knowing what she was. How could he bear it? Could he keep what he knew from her? For so long, she had believed she was truly alive. He must not let her know that she was dead.

  THE SEA HAD NEVER OPPOSED THEM AS IT DID NOW. ETTA CROUCHED IN the stern with Wintrow's sodden body in her arms. The four sailors on the oars fought them. The whites showed all around their eyes as they struggled. There seemed to be one current for Vivacia to contend with, and another that gripped the small boat and tugged at it like a dog with a bone. The rain lashed down and the wind added its push to the water's pull. Kennit huddled in the bow. His crutch had been lost when they hauled him from the water. Etta could scarcely see him for the rain that sheeted down between them. Kennit's hair was sleeked to his skull and his mustache had straightened completely in the wet. In one breathless break in the rain, Etta thought she glimpsed the Marietta far offshore. Her sails hung limp from her spars and sunlight glinted off her decks. In the next breath, Etta blinked the rain from her lashes. She told herself that what she had seen was impossible.

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  Wintrow was a heavy weight atop her legs. If she bent her head over his face, she could hear breath hiss in and out of him. “Wintrow. Wintrow, keep breathing. Keep breathing. ” If she had come upon his body anywhere else, she would not have known him. His fat, shapeless lips moved vaguely, but if he spoke it was without sound.

  She lifted her eyes. She could not bear to look at him. Kennit had come into her life and taught her how to be loved. He had given her Wintrow, and she had learned to be a friend. Now the damn serpent was going to steal that from her, just as she had discovered it. Her salt tears blended with the rain running down her face. She could not bear it. Had she learned to feel again, only to have to feel this? Could any amount of love ever be worth the pain of losing it? She could not even hold him as he died, for the slime still on him ate into her clothes and the abrasion of her touch wiped away his skin. She cradled him as loosely as she could, while the ship's boat rocked and reared wildly and never seemed to get any closer to the Vivacia.

  She lifted her face and peered through the storm. She found Kennit staring at her. “Don't let him die!” he commanded her loudly.

  She felt impotent. She could not even tell him how helpless she felt. She saw him crouch and thought he would crawl through the boat to help her somehow. Instead he suddenly stood, peg and foot braced. He turned his back on her and the rowers and faced into the storm that opposed them. He threw back his head to it. The wind flapped his white shirtsleeves against his arms and streamed his black, black hair out behind him.

  “NO!” he roared into it. “Not now! Not when I am so close! You can't have me and you can't have my ship! By Sa, by El, by Eda, by the God of Fishes, by every god nameless and not, I swear you shall not have me nor mine!” He held out his hands, his fingers like claws, as if he would grapple with the wind that defied them.


  Vivacia's voice roared through the storm. She reached for them with wooden arms, leaning toward the small vessel as if she would tear herself loose from the ship to come to him. Her hair streamed away from her face. A wave hit her, and she took it deep enough to send green water streaming across her deck. But she rose from it, and as she came up from the trough, her hands still reached. The storm she battled threatened to sweep her away, and yet she yearned toward him, mindless of her own safety.

  “I shall live!” Kennit bellowed suddenly into the storm. “I demand it. ” His one hand gripped his other wrist as he pointed into the storm. “I COMMAND IT!” he roared.

  The king worked his first miracle.

  From the depths of the very sea that opposed him, the creature rose to his command. The serpent rose at the stern of the vessel. She opened wide her jaws and added her roar to his. Etta shrank down, small, foolish creature that she was, clutching Wintrow to her breast. She groped for a knife long lost even as she wailed out her hopeless terror.

  Then the sea serpent, vast beast though she was, bent her head to Kennit's will. She made deep obeisance to him as he stood in the bow, defying the storm. He turned toward her at the sailor's voices. Face white and taut, he pointed at her wordlessly. His mouth was open, but either he sai
d nothing to the creature, or the wind blew his words away. Later, the rowers would tell the rest of the crew that however it was he commanded her, it was not for human ears to hear. She set her broad serpent's brow to the stern of the boat and pushed. Suddenly, the small boat was cutting through the water toward the Vivacia. Kennit, exhausted by this display of power, sank suddenly down to his seat in the bow. Etta dared not look at him. His face shone with something, an emotion that perhaps only the god-touched could feel.

  Behind her, the stern of the small boat steamed and stank where the serpent's slime touched it. It would have been faithless of her to be afraid of what it did, for it acted on Kennit's command. She bent forward over Wintrow's body, holding him as tenderly as she could, as the creature shoved them through the waves. She had no mercy on the tiny vessel, but forced it through the waves that opposed them. The rowers abandoned their oars and huddled in the bottom of the boat, wordless with terror and awe.

  The Vivacia plunged doggedly toward them. There was a moment when two oceans seemed to collide in turmoil. There was no pattern to wave nor winds. The breath of the world lashed them, threatening to snatch the clothes from their bodies, and the hair from their heads. Etta felt deafened by the onslaught, but the serpent inexorably pushed the tiny boat on.

  Then they were suddenly in the same wind and the same current as Vivacia. Joyously both sea and air caught at them, and conspired with the serpent to bring them together. The wind and current that Vivacia opposed swept their small boat toward her reaching arms. Vivacia took a wave hard. The sailors that waited at the bow of the ship, lines ready for throwing, clung madly to her railings instead to keep from being swept away by green water.

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  But as Vivacia came up from the wave that had swamped her briefly, her great arms cupped and held the helpless boat. She rose from the wave with it clasped to her. Etta had never been so close to the figurehead. As she bore them up out of the deep, her voice boomed out over them. “Thank you, thank you! A thousand blessings upon you, sister of the sea. Thank you!” Silver tears of joy streamed down the liveship's carved face and fell like jewels into the water.

  As the frightened sailors scrabbled toward their fellows on deck, Kennit sat roaring with joyous laughter in the bow of the boat. If there was an echo of madness in his mirth, that was the least fearsome thing about him now. For as his crewmen reached down to lay hands on him and haul him on board, the great green and gold serpent rose from the storming depths and gazed upon him. Etta felt gripped by that whirling gold stare. She looked into the depths of the creature's eyes and almost knew . . . something.

  Then the creature roared one final time and sank back into the suddenly calming depths.

  The small boat was going to pieces around them, the planks twisting away from their fellows as the stern gave way. Etta felt herself and Wintrow cradled in the ship's hands as Vivacia let the useless pieces of wood fall away. The ship herself lifted them to where eager hands gripped them and pulled them abroad. “Gently, gently!” she cried as they seized Wintrow from her arms. “Bring fresh water. Cut his clothes away and pour over him water and wine. Then . . . then . . . ”

  Vivacia suddenly cried aloud in wonder. She clasped her steaming hands together as if she prayed. “I know you!” she cried out abruptly. “I know you!”

  Kennit reached down to where Etta crawled on the deck. His long-fingered hand cupped her cheek. “I will take care of it, my dear,” he told her. The same hand that had commanded both sea and serpent touched her skin. Etta fell to the deck and knew no more.

  KENNIT HAD FOLLOWED ETTA'S ADVICE ABOUT WINTROW, FOR LACK OF ANY better. The boy, loosely wrapped in a length of linen, now slept in his own bed. Breath whistled in and out of him. He was ghastly. His entire body was so swollen as to be almost shapeless. The skin had blistered and bubbled up from his body. The slime had eaten through his clothing, and then melted skin and fabric together. In washing him, great patches of his skin had sloughed away, leaving raw red stretches of flesh. Kennit suspected it was good that he was unconscious. Otherwise, the pain would have been terrible.

  Kennit rose stiffly. He had been sitting on the foot of the bed. Now that the storm was over, he had time to think things through. But he would not. Some things were not to be too carefully considered. He would not ask Vivacia how she had known that she must abandon her post in Deception Cove and seek him out. He would not question what the serpent had done. He would not try to change the groveling deference the crew was currently showing him.

  There was a tap at the door and Etta entered. Her eyes went to Wintrow and then back to Kennit. “I've a bath waiting for you,” she said, and then her words halted. She looked at him as if she did not know what name to call him by. He had to smile at that.

  “That is good. Keep watch here, with him. Do whatever you think wise to make him easy. Keep giving him water whenever he stirs. I'll be back soon. I can manage my bath by myself. ”

  “I put out dry clothes for you,” she managed to say. “And hot food awaits you. Sorcor is abroad, asking to see you. I didn't know what to say to him. The lookout on the Marietta saw it all. Sorcor was going to have him flogged for lying. I told him the sailor wasn't lying. . . . ” Her words ran out.

  He looked at her. She had changed into a loose woolen robe. Her wet hair was smoothed to her skull, reminding him of a seal's head. She stared at him. Her scalded hands were clutched together in front of her. Her breath came short and fast.

  “And what else?” he prompted her gently.

  She moistened her lips and held out her hand. “This was in my boot. When I changed. I think . . . it must have come from the Others Island. ”

  She held out her hands toward him. Cupped in them, no bigger than a quail's egg, was a baby. The infant was curled tight in sleep, eyes closed, lashes on his cheeks, tiny round knees drawn up to his chest. Whatever it was carved from mimicked perfectly the fresh pink of young flesh. A tiny serpentine tail wrapped its body.

  “What does it mean?” Etta demanded, her voice quavering.

  Kennit touched it with a fingertip, his weathered skin dark against it. “I think we both know, don't we?” he asked her solemnly.


  “I LIKE IT HERE. IT'S LIKE LIVING IN A TREE-HOUSE CITY. ” SELDEN WAS sitting on the foot of the divan where she lay. He bounced thoughtfully as he spoke. Where did he get the energy? Malta wished her mother would come in and shoo him away.

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  “I always thought you belonged in a tree,” Malta teased her brother weakly. “Why don't you go and play somewhere?” He gave her an owly stare, then smiled cautiously. He looked around the sitting room, then edged closer to her on the divan. He sat on her foot and she winced and pulled it away. She still ached all over.

  Selden leaned too close to her and whispered in her face, “Malta? Promise me something?”

  She leaned back from him. He'd been eating spiced meat. “What?”

  He glanced around again. “When you and Reyn get married, can I live here with you in Trehaug?”

  She didn't tell him how unlikely it was that she would ever marry Reyn. “Why?” she asked him.

  He sat up straight, swinging his feet now. “I like it here. There are boys to play with, and I get to have my lessons with some of the Khuprus sons. I love the swinging bridges. Mother is always afraid I'll fall off them, but most of them have nets strung under them as well. I like watching the fire birds spoon in the shallows of the river. ” He paused, then added boldly, “I like it that not everyone here is so worried all the time. ” He leaned even closer and added, “And I like the old city. I sneaked into it last night, with Wilee, after everyone else was asleep. It's spooky. I loved it. ”

  “Were you in the city when it quaked last night?”

  “That was the best part!” His eyes were alight with the adventure.

, don't do it again. And don't tell Mama,” she warned him automatically.

  “Do I look stupid?” he demanded in a superior way.

  “Yes,” she confirmed.

  He grinned. “I'm going to go find Wilee. He promised to take me out in one of the thick boats, if we could sneak one. ”

  “Watch out, or the river will eat it from under you. ”

  He gave her a worldly look. “That's a myth. Oh, if there was a quake and the river ran white, then it might eat it fast. But Wilee says a thick boat will last ten days, sometimes more if the river runs regular. They last even longer if you pull them out at night, turn them upside down and piss on them. ”

  “Ew. That is probably another myth, one told to make you look foolish when you repeat it. ”

  “No. Wilee and I saw the men pissing on the boats two nights ago. ”

  “Go away, dirty boy. ” She tugged her coverlet away from him.

  He stood up. “Can I live with you, after you marry Reyn? I never want to go back to Bingtown. ”

  “We'll see,” she said firmly. Go back to Bingtown? She wondered if there even was a Bingtown. There had been no word from Grandmother since they arrived, and there wasn't likely to be. The only messages the birds carried back and forth had to do with the war. The Kendry that had ferried them up the river was the only liveship making the run. The others were all on patrol near the mouth of the river and around Bingtown Harbor, trying to drive off not only Chalcedean galleys but sea serpents. Lately the waters near the river mouth were infested with them.

  As abruptly as a bird taking flight, Selden hopped off the divan and left the chamber. She shook her head as she looked after him. He had recovered so swiftly. More than recovered; he had suddenly become a person. Was that what parents meant when they said children grew up so fast? She felt almost sentimental about her annoying little brother. She wondered, wryly, if that meant she were growing up, too.

  She leaned back on the divan and closed her eyes again. The windows of the chamber were open and the river air flowed in one and out the other. She had almost become accustomed to the smell. Someone scratched lightly at the door, then entered.

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