The mad ship, p.10
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       The Mad Ship, p.10
 

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  “So. What did he do? Tell the captain?” Grag asked when the silence had lengthened.

  “No. Nothing like that. He was just . . . watchful. That's the word, I suppose. I had a tough time on that ship. Knowing he was watching me scrabble just to keep up made me feel . . . humiliated. ”

  “He had no right to do that to you,” Grag observed in a low voice. Two sparks of anger burned deep in his eyes. “Your father took him on when no one else would. He owes your family. The least he could have done was protect you rather than mock your efforts. ”

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  “No. It wasn't like that, not at all. ” Suddenly she was defending Brashen. “He didn't mock me. Mostly he ignored me. ” When Crag's expression became even more indignant, she hastily clarified, “That was how I preferred it. I did not want special treatment. I wanted to make it on my own. And I did, eventually. What bothered me was that he was a witness to how hard I had to struggle. . . . I don't know why we're even talking about this. ”

  Grag shrugged. “You brought it up, not I. There had always been a bit of speculation as to why your father took Brashen Trell on when his own family had given up on him. He'd been in enough trouble over the years that when his father threw him out, no one was really surprised. ”

  “What kind of trouble?” Althea heard the avidity in her own question and toned it down. “I was just a girl when that happened, with little interest in Bingtown gossip. Years later, when he hired aboard the Vivacia, my father did not speak of it. He said a man deserves to be judged on who he is, not who he was. ”

  Grag was nodding to himself. “It wasn't a noisy scandal. I know about it mostly because we schooled together. It started out in small ways. Pranks and silliness. As we got older, he was always the boy who would slip away when the master's back was turned. At first, it was just to avoid lessons, or go to the market and buy sweets. Later he was the boy who seemed to know more than the rest of us about things like girls and cindin and dice games. My father still says it was Trell's own fault his son went bad. Brashen always had too much money to spend and too much free time to amuse himself. No one drew a line with him. He'd get into mischief, like gambling more money than he had, or being drunk somewhere public in the afternoon, and his father would drag him home and threaten him. ”

  Grag shook his head. "He never carried out his threats. A day or so later, Brashen would be on the loose, doing the same things again. Trell always said he was going to cut off his credit, cane him or make him work off his debts. However, he never did. I heard his mother would always weep and faint when his father tried to punish him. He got away with everything that he did. Until one day Brashen came home and found the door closed to him. Just like that. Everyone, including Brashen, thought it was a bluff. We all expected the storm to blow over in a day or so. It didn't. A few days later, old man Trell made it known that he had officially recognized his younger son as his heir and disowned Brashen entirely. The only surprising thing about the whole affair was that Trell finally drew a line and stuck to it.

  “For a time, Brashen was around town, staying wherever he could, but he soon wore out his welcome and ran out of money. He got a reputation for leading younger boys into trouble and wild ways. ” Grag grinned knowingly. “Both I and my younger brother were forbidden to associate with him. Soon no one wanted to be connected with him. Then he disappeared. No one knew what became of him. ” Grag made a wry face. “Not that anyone much cared. He left many debts behind him. By then folk knew he did not intend to pay them off. So he was gone. Most people felt Bingtown was a better place without him. ” Grag looked aside from her. “After he left, there was a rumor that a Three-Ships girl was carrying his child. The baby was stillborn; a mercy, I suppose. The girl was still ruined. ”

  Althea felt faintly ill. She hated to hear Grag so disparage Brashen. She wanted to deny what he said of the man, but he obviously spoke with an insider's knowledge of the truth. Brashen had not been an illused, misjudged youth. He had been a spoiled eldest son without discipline or morals. Her father had taken him on years later and, under her father's control, he had become a decent man. Without her father, he had reverted. She had to admit to herself that was true. The drunkenness, the cindin. The whoring around, she added harshly to herself.

  Ruthlessly she stripped the truth of her foolish embroideries. She had been pretending he had been infatuated with her when he bedded her. The truth was that she had been behaving like a slut and she'd found the partner she deserved. To prove it to herself, all she had to do was think about how they had parted. The moment he realized that she had come to her senses and was not going to allow him her body, he had turned against her. Shame flooded her. How could she have been so stupid and foolish? If he ever returned to Bingtown and spoke of what they had done, she would be ruined, just like the Three-Ships girl that he had left in his wake.

  Grag was unaware of her discomfort. He had crouched down by a chest at the foot of his bed and was rummaging inside it. “I'm ravenous. Since I have this supposed toothache, Cook has only been bringing me soup and bread to sop in it. Would you care for some dried fruit? Jamaillian apricots or dates?”

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  “I've no appetite. Thank you. ”

  Grag stopped his rummaging and swiveled to face her with a grin.

  “Now that's the first time you've sounded like a proper Bingtown Trader's daughter since you came aboard. I don't know whether I'm relieved or disappointed. ”

  Althea wasn't sure if she was flattered or insulted. “What do you mean?”

  “Oh. Well. ” He brought the package of fruit out and sat down on his bunk with it. He patted the place beside him and she sat down. “There. You see,” he exclaimed triumphantly. “Not only are we alone and unchaperoned, behind a closed door, but you fearlessly sit down on my bed beside me. When I told you Brashen left a woman pregnant, you do not go pale or rebuke me for speaking of such things. You look thoughtful. ”

  He shook his head, bemused. “You wear your hair sensibly on deck, I've seen you wipe your hands down your shirt front, and you went barefoot and trousered the whole time you were pretending to be a ship's boy. Yet I can still remember a very feminine woman in my arms, perfumed like violets, and dancing as gracefully as . . . well, as gracefully as you scamper up the rigging. How do you do it, Althea?” He leaned back against the bulkhead, but the way he looked at her seemed to bring him closer to her. “How do you move so easily in both worlds? Where do you really belong?”

  “Why must it be one or the other?” she countered. “You are both a capable seaman and the son of a Bingtown Trader. Why should not I have both sets of skills?”

  He threw his head back and laughed. “There. That is not the answer one would expect from a Trader's daughter, either. At least, not one of our generation. A proper girl would be simpering over my compliment to her dancing, not asserting her ability to be a good sailor. You remind me of the tales Ophelia tells. According to her, there was a time when the women worked right alongside the men, in every trade, and sometimes excelled them. ”

  “Anyone who knows the history of Bingtown knows that when our ancestors came to the Cursed Shores, each one had to scrabble for a living. You know that as well as I do. ” She felt a bit annoyed with him. Did he think she was improper?

  “I know it,” he admitted quietly. “But there are a lot of women in Bingtown who would no longer admit that. ”

  “Mostly because it is no longer fashionable. Mostly because their fathers or brothers would be ashamed of them if they did. ”

  “True. However, watching you, I have come to see that they are false, not just to history but to life. Althea. Of late, my parents have been urging me to seek a wife. I was born late in their lives; they'd like to see grandchildren before they are too old to enjoy them. ”

  Althea listened in stunned silence. His sudden words shocked her. He could not be taking this conversation in that direct
ion, could he?

  “When I'm in Bingtown, my mother invites Trader daughters and their mothers over to endless teas. I've obediently attended the gatherings and balls. I've danced with a few women. ” Here he smiled at her warmly. “Several have seemed interested in me. Nevertheless, all the courtships I have begun have ended in disappointment. Always the same thing. My father looks at the woman I am seeing, and asks me, 'Will she be able to take care of herself and a household and children, while you are off sailing?' Then I look at her with that in mind, and no matter how lovely or witty or charming she is, she never seems strong enough. ”

  “Maybe you are not giving the women a chance to prove themselves to you,” Althea ventured.

  Grag shook his head regretfully. “No. Two of them I asked directly. I reminded them that I expected to be someday the captain of the liveship Ophelia. How would it be, I asked, to know you must share me with a ship? A demanding and sometimes possessive ship, I added to be honest. I reminded them I would be gone months at a time. That I might not be home when my children were born, or when the roof sprang a leak or harvest season came around. ” He shrugged eloquently. “One and all, they told me that surely I could arrange to be home more after we were married. When I said I could not, they refused my suit. Genver went so far as to come aboard the Ophelia, and suggest that she could sail with me after we were married, if I could triple the size of the captain's room. But only until we had children. Then I would have to somehow arrange my life to be home more often than not. ”

  “Did not you court anyone who was born into a liveship family? A girl who would understand what your ship meant to you?”

  “I danced with one once,” he said quietly.

  The silence held. If he expected her to say something, Althea had no idea what. Grag moved very slowly, as if he were afraid she would startle. With one finger, he touched her hand where it rested on the bed. A small touch, but it sent a shiver up her arm even as dismay filled her heart. She liked Grag and found him attractive, but this was no time for either of them to act on that. Had she invited this? How should she deal with it? Was he going to try to kiss her? If he did, would she let him?

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  She suspected she would.

  Grag came no closer. His voice went deeper and softer. His blue eyes were gentle and confiding. “In you, I see a strong woman. One who could sail with me, or capably manage things ashore while I was gone. I see someone who is not jealous of Ophelia. ” He paused and smiled ruefully. “If anything, I am a bit jealous of how quickly she has become fond of you. Althea, I cannot imagine a better choice for a wife than you. ”

  Although she had been anticipating his words, they still stunned her. “But . . . ” she began, but he lifted a warning finger.

  “Hear me out. I have been giving much thought to this, and I see advantages for you, as well. It is scarcely a secret that the Vestrit fortunes have not prospered lately. The Vivacia is not yet paid for; that leaves you as ransom to the family's debt. It is also well known that the Rain Wild Traders would not consider taking a woman who is already married, or who has pledged marriage. Simply by considering my offer, you could put yourself out of their reach. ” He watched her face carefully. “We are a wealthy family. My wedding gift to your mother would be substantial, enough to secure her old age. You have made it clear you have no faith that Kyle will care for her. ”

  Althea found it hard to speak. “I don't know what to say. We've talked as friends, and yes, we've flirted a bit, but I had no notion that your feelings ran strong enough to propose marriage. ”

  Crag gave a small shrug. “I'm a cautious man, Althea. I see no sense in letting my feelings run ahead of me. In this stage of our relationship, I see planning rather than passion as what we must first share. We should be talking honestly with one another, to see if we share the same ambitions and goals. ” He was watching her face carefully. As if to give the lie to these words, he touched her hand again with one fingertip. “Do not think I don't feel an attraction toward you. You must know that I do. Nevertheless, I am not the sort of a man who would fling his heart where his head had not gone first. ”

  He was so serious. Althea tried for a smile. “And I feared you were going to try to kiss me. ”

  He returned her smile, shaking his head. “I am not an impulsive boy, nor a rough sailor. I would not kiss a woman who had not given me her permission to do so. Besides, there is no sense in taunting myself with what I cannot yet claim. ” He looked aside from her startled expression. “I hope I have not spoken too crudely. Despite the rough shipboard life you have shared, you are still a lady and a Trader's daughter. ”

  There was no way to share with him the thought that had suddenly flashed through her mind. She knew, with vast certainty, that she would never desire to be kissed by a man who had first asked her permission. “Permission to come aboard,” some impish part of her mind whispered, and she fought to keep from grinning. Perhaps, she suddenly thought, Brashen had already ruined her, but not in the social sense. After the sailor's matter-of-fact declarations of his desire, Crag's restrained and polite courtship seemed almost silly. She liked the man, truly she did. Yet, his careful negotiations left her unmoved. Abruptly, the situation was impossible. And as if Sa knew that there was no way Althea could rescue herself, fate suddenly intervened.

  “All hands on deck!” someone roared in a voice that mixed both indignation and fear. Althea did not hesitate as she plunged out the door, nor did Grag even pause to put his toothache binding about his jaws. All hands meant all hands.

  The crew of the Ophelia lined the bow railing, looking down. When she joined them, Althea was incredulous at the sight that met her eyes. A Chalcedean war galley, flying the Satrap's colors, was challenging Ophelia's passage. The size comparison between the two ships might have been laughable were it not that the galley bristled with soldiers and their weaponry. The smaller, lighter galley confronting them was far more maneuverable than the cog. Such a vessel was often swifter than a sailing ship as well. In the light evening breeze, Ophelia could not avoid and outrun such a ship. The galley had run up to her on the windward side, taking advantage of the light breeze that pressed the ships together. They had no choice now; they would have to deal with the galley. The liveship's figurehead stared down at the Chalcedean's horse-prowed ship, still and shocked. Ophelia's arms were crossed stubbornly on her chest. Althea lifted her eyes to scan the horizon. The Chalcedean appeared to be operating alone. Captain Tenira shouted down, “What mean you by barring our way?”

  “Throw down a line. In the name of your Satrap, we will board you!” declared a bearded man standing in the galley's bow. His blond hair was bound back in a long tail down his back, and battle trophies-finger bones bound with hanks of hair-decorated the front of his leather vest. Missing teeth gapped his threatening snarl.

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  “On what grounds?” Althea demanded of those around her, but Captain Tenira did not bother with such questions.

  “No. You will not. You have no authority over us. Stand aside. ” The Trader captain stood firm, looking down on the galley. His voice was even and strong.

  “In the name of the Satrap, throw down a line and submit to boarding. ” The Chalcedean smiled up at them, more teeth than affability. “Do not make us take you by force. ”

  “Try,” Captain Tenira suggested grimly.

  The captain of the galley took a handful of documents from his mate. He waved the bundled tube of scrolls up at Tenira. A red ribbon bound them, weighted with a heavy seal of crimped metal. “We have authority. Right here. We shall bring our writs aboard to prove it. If you are an honest ship, you have nothing to fear. The Satrap has allied with Chalced to stop piracy in the Inside Passage. We are authorized by him to stop any suspicious ship and search for stolen goods and other signs of piratical activity. ” While the captain was speaking, several of his men had stepped forward with coils of lin
e and grappling hooks.

  “I'm an honest Bingtown Trader. You have no call to stop me, nor will I submit to search. Be out of our way!”

  The grapples were already spinning, and as Captain Tenira finished speaking, three were launched toward the Ophelia. One fell short as the liveship sidled to one side. Another landed well on the deck but was immediately seized and thrown back by the Ophelia's crew before it could be set in her wood.

  Ophelia herself caught the third. In a sudden motion, she plucked it out of the air as it whirred past her. With a shout of anger, she gripped the line below the grapple and snatched up the rope. The man who had thrown it came with it, kicking and cursing in surprise. She disdainfully threw grapple, rope and sailor aside into the water. She set her fists to where a woman's hips would have been. “Don't try that again!” she warned them angrily. “Get out of our way or I'll run you down!”

  From the galley came cries of amazement and fear. While many had undoubtedly heard of the liveships of Bingtown, few Chalcedean sailors would have ever seen one before, let alone seen one angered. Liveships seldom frequented the ports of Chalced; their trade routes were to the south. From the galley, a line was thrown to the Chalcedean sailor struggling in the water.

  On board the Ophelia, Captain Tenira bellowed, “Ophelia, let me handle this!” while on the galley deck below them the Chalcedean captain angrily called for firepots to be prepared.

  Ophelia paid no attention to her captain. At the mention of firepots, she had first gasped, then shrieked her wordless anger when she saw the smoking pots of tar brought out on his deck. For them to be readied so swiftly meant that the captain of the galley had had them prepared from the beginning. “In Sa's name, no!” Althea cried as she saw the pots readied for launching. Arrows were thrust headfirst into the small, fat pots; fuses of charred linen dangled. They would be lit before the arrows were released, and given time to ignite the contents of the pots. When the pots of grease and tar struck Ophelia, they would shatter, and the flames would leap up. Ophelia could not avoid them all, and every liveship was vulnerable to fire. It was not just for her rigging and decks that Althea feared, but for Ophelia herself. The only liveship that had ever died had perished in a fire.

 
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