The mad ship, p.13
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       The Mad Ship, p.13

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  She sought the relative peace of her own chambers. With the coming of spring, Ronica had had the room cleaned and freshened as she did every year. It had not helped. The memory of the odor of sickness lingered. The sunlight spilling in the tall windows seemed false. The clean linens on the bed looked glacially white and cold, not fresh and inviting. She went to her own dressing table and sat down. She looked at herself in the mirror. Malta was right. She had become a dowdy old woman. She had never considered herself beautiful, but when Ephron had been alive, she had maintained herself. Since he had died, she had forgotten. She had stopped being a woman at all. The lines in her face had deepened; the skin of her throat sagged. The few pots of cosmetics on the table were dusty. When she opened her jewelry chest, the contents seemed both familiar and foreign. How long had it been since she had last taken pains with her appearance? How long since she had cared at all how she looked?

  She took a deep breath. “Ephron. ” That was all she said, simply speaking his name aloud. Part plea, part apology, part farewell. Then she reached up to release her hair. She shook it down to her shoulders, frowning at how it had thinned. She lifted her hands to her face, prodding the papery dryness of her skin, and trying to smooth away the lines that framed her mouth. She shook her head at herself and then lowered her head to blow the dust off the cosmetic pots. She opened the first one.

  She was just finishing by applying perfume when Rache's hesitant tap came at her door. “Come in,” Ronica called casually. Since Nana had left, Rache was the sole remaining house servant in the formerly bustling household. When the slave-woman entered, Ronica instantly knew why she was there. Only a visit from Davad Restart put such a look of guarded hatred in the slave's eyes. Rache still blamed him for her son's death on board Davad's slave ship. Any mention of the Trader wakened that look in her; it was the only time when the young woman seemed truly alive. So although Ronica sighed and begged, “Please, no,” she knew the man was already in the sitting room.

  “I am sorry, ma'am,” Rache said in a nearly toneless voice. “It is Trader Restart. He insisted he must see you. ”

  “It's all right,” Ronica replied with a deeper sigh. She rose from her dressing table. “I'll be down as soon as I'm dressed. No. Do not trouble to go and tell him that. If he cannot be bothered to send a runner ahead of a social call, then he can simply wait until I am ready. Help me with dressing, please. ”

  She tried to make it a joke on Davad that the two of them could share, but Rache's mouth remained in a flat line. He had deposited Rache at the Vestrit household when Ephron was dying, ostensibly to help. Ronica suspected it had been to get rid of Rache and her murderous gaze. Technically, she supposed the woman still belonged to him, a slave under Jamaillian law. Bingtown did not recognize slavery. Here in Bingtown, she was genteelly referred to as an indentured servant. There were a great many “indentured servants” about Bingtown lately. Ronica treated her as she would any hired servant.

  Ronica took her time choosing, finally selecting a dress of pale green linen. It had been so long since she had worn anything but a loose household robe. She felt oddly naked in it, even when the skirts were sashed about her waist and the over-blouse laced up from behind. She paused to look at herself again in the mirror. Well. She did not look lovely. She did not look young. However, she once more appeared as a matriarch of a Bingtown Family should present herself. She looked both groomed and dignified. She paused at her jewelry cask, to rope her throat recklessly with pearls and hang more from her ears. There. Now let the little minx insinuate she was a dowdy old woman.

  She turned from the mirror to find Rache watching her with widened eyes. Ronica felt almost flattered by the serving woman's surprise. “I will see Davad now. Would you bring coffee and simple cakes from the kitchen, please? Nothing elaborate. I do not wish to encourage him to linger. ”

  “Yes, ma'am. ” Rache sketched a curtsey and left silently.

  Ronica's skirts whispered as she walked down the hall to the sitting room. The pearls were cool against her skin. Strange, how a change of garments and a bit of care for her appearance made her feel so different. Her deep mourning for Ephron was still there, as was her anger for all that had befallen her with his death. All winter she had done her best to cope with the blows as they fell. It had been staggering to find that her trust in her son-in-law had been misplaced. Kyle's greed had driven away Althea and his need for ruthless control had all but paralyzed Keffria. The discovery that his daughter Malta seemed set on growing up to be just like him had been unnerving. A few months back, Keffria had promised to take a hand with Malta and change her. Ronica snorted softly to herself. So far, the only changes were that Malta was becoming more deceptive daily.

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  At the entrance to the sitting room she paused, and put such thoughts out of her head. By an act of will she smoothed her brow and put a pleasant expression on her face. She straightened her back and shoulders, then opened the door and swept into the room with a “Good morning, Davad. Such a surprise to have you call on us like this. ”

  His back was to her. He had taken a book from the shelf and was standing by the window to peruse it. With his wide rounded back encased tautly in a dark blue jacket, he reminded Ronica of a beetle. He closed the book and spoke as he turned. “Not surprising. Rude. Even as socially inept a blunderer as I know that I should have asked if you had time to see me. But I knew you would say no, and I had to . . . Ronica! You look amazing!”

  His eyes swept up and down her, quite familiarly, bringing an unexpected blush to her face. A returning smile broke out on his ruddy round face.

  “I had become accustomed to seeing you in such dreary clothes, I had forgotten how you truly looked. I remember that dress. It is quite old, isn't it? Didn't you wear it to one of the parties you gave to announce Keffria's wedding to Kyle? It takes years off your face. You must be quite proud to be able to squeeze yourself into it still. ”

  Ronica shook her head at the old family friend. “Davad Restart. Only you can so completely ruin so many compliments in one brief speech. ” He stared at her, completely flummoxed. As was often the case, he was completely unaware of how tactless he was. She moved to a divan and seated herself. “Come and join me,” she invited him. “I've asked Rache to bring coffee and cakes, but I warn you, I have only a brief moment or two to spare. We are receiving Reyn Khuprus this afternoon. He is coming to call on Malta for the first time, and I still have a great deal of preparation. ”

  “I know,” he admitted easily. “Bingtown gossip has been full of it. It's a bit unusual, isn't it, to allow a man to court her before she's even been presented as a woman? Not that she doesn't think she's ready, I'm sure. After her escapade last winter at the ball . . . well. I don't blame you for trying to marry her off quickly. The sooner that girl has a man to settle her down, the safer all of Bingtown will be. ” He paused and cleared his throat. For the first time, he looked a bit uncomfortable. “Actually, Ronica, that is why I'm here. To beg a very great favor from you, I'm afraid. ”

  “You wish to ask a favor of me, and somehow it's connected to Reyn's visit?” Ronica was both puzzled and uneasy.

  “Yes. It's simple. Invite me, too. Please. ”

  She managed not to gape at him. She was saved from having to reply immediately by Rache's entry into the room with the coffee tray. Ronica dismissed her almost immediately; there was no sense in forcing Rache to serve coffee to a man that she hated. The small business of pouring coffee gave Ronica some time in which to think. Davad broke into her thoughts before she could begin her graciously worded refusal.

  “I know it isn't proper, but I've thought of a way around that. ”

  Ronica decided to be blunt. “Davad, I don't want to find a way around impropriety. The Khuprus family is socially powerful. I cannot afford to give anyone in Bingtown offense these days, let alone the son of such a family. You have not said why you wish to be here when we receive h
im. Traditionally, only the family of the girl is present when the young man first comes calling. To make him more at ease, you know. ”

  “I know, I know. But seeing as how Ephron is dead and Malta's father is at sea, I thought you could present me as an old friend who was standing in . . . a sort of protector in the absence of your family men. . . . ”

  Davad's voice trailed off at the look on Ronica's face. She spoke in a low, controlled voice. “Davad. You well know that I have never required a man to be my protector. When the girls were small and Ephron was often at sea, I never asked his friends to settle business transactions for him, or deal with unpleasant realities in his absence. I coped. All Bingtown knows that. It is who I am. Now that I am truly alone, shall I quaver and faint and hide myself behind you? I think not. Reyn Khuprus comes today to meet the family of the girl he wishes to wed. He shall meet us as we truly are. ”

  As Ronica paused to draw breath after this onslaught, Davad spoke hastily. “It's for me. For my benefit, I mean. I will be honest with you. There is no benefit to you, I admit that freely, and it might even cause you some embarrassment for me to be here. Sa knows, several families in Bingtown no longer receive me. I am well aware that I am a social embarrassment. At first, it was because I was inept. Well, I have never been good at the social things. Dorill was. She always took care of those things. After she died, many folk in Bingtown still treated me kindly, in memory of her, I think. But year after year, the number of Traders who hailed me as friend dwindled. I suppose I give offense without intention. Until now, of all the Bingtown Traders, you are the only one I dare call 'friend. ' ”

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  He paused and sighed heavily. “I have no one else to turn to in my isolation. I know I must rebuild my alliances. If I could form some trade connections with the Rain Wild Traders, I could do so. I know that many in Bingtown do not approve of my politics. They say I grovel to the New Traders, that my dabbling in slavery is a disgrace, that I have betrayed the Bingtown Traders by negotiating for the New Traders. But you know that I only do so to survive. What else is there for me? Look at me! I have no one, nothing but my own wits to depend on. No wife to comfort me, no children to inherit my holdings. All I am trying to do is maintain enough property and income to keep me comfortable through my old age. After that, it all ends. ” He paused dramatically and then finished in a dwindling voice, “My line ends with me. ”

  Ronica had closed her eyes halfway through this recitation. When Davad sighed yet again, she opened them. “Davad,” she said in a warning voice. “Shame on you, trying such tricks on me. I refuse to pity you, any more than I pity myself. The pits we are in, we have dug ourselves. You know the roots of your problems; you just listed them yourself. If you want to regain the respect of the Bingtown Traders, leave off politicking for the New Traders. Stop 'dabbling' in the selling of humans. Go back to being who you were and your friends will return. Not quickly, for you have trodden firmly on too many toes. But eventually. You are Old Trader. As soon as you recall that to yourself, our compatriots will recall it as well. ”

  “And in the meantime, I should genteelly starve?” Davad blustered. As if to fend off such a dire fate, he took a large bite of the spice cake in his hand.

  “You will not starve,” Ronica pointed out implacably. “As you have said, you have only yourself to support. You could live off your own holdings if you chose to apply yourself, even if you never negotiated another trade in your life. I venture to say that if you reduced your servants, you could supply most of your own wants from a kitchen garden, some chickens and a few cattle. You could revert to simplicity, as Keffria and I have been forced to do. As for your being alone in the world, well, as I recall, you have a grandniece. Approach her, if you want an heir. It might mend a great deal with that branch of your family. ”

  “Oh, she hates me. ” Davad brushed the idea away with the cake crumbs that had fallen into his lap. “Some chance remark I made to her husband when he was courting her. She treats me as if I have the plague. It's beyond all mending. ” He took a drink of his coffee. “Besides. How can you criticize my 'dabbling' in slavery? Isn't that where Kyle and the Vivacia are right now, on a round of slave-trading?” At the darkening look on Ronica's face, he abruptly changed his tactics. “Please, Ronica. I won't linger. Just allow me to be here when he arrives, simply introduce me as a family friend. That's all I ask. Just help me to establish a nodding acquaintance. I'll do the rest for myself. ”

  He looked at her appealingly. The perfumed oil on his hair had left a sheen on his brow. He was pathetic. He was an old friend of the family. He trafficked in slaves. He and Dorill had been wed a week after she and Ephron had married; they had danced at one another's weddings. He was certain to say something unfortunate to Reyn. He had come to her as his last hope.

  He was a disaster in the making.

  She was still looking at him dumbly when Keffria came into the room. “Davad!” she exclaimed. She smiled stiffly. Her eyes were round with horror. “Such a surprise! I did not know you were here. ”

  Davad rose hastily, nearly oversetting his coffee cup. He charged at Keffria, took her hand and beamingly exclaimed, “Well, I know it is not completely correct, but I simply could not resist. With Kyle away, I thought it only fitting that there be some man about your household to appraise this youngster who thinks to come courting our Malta!”

  “Indeed,” Keffria said faintly. She turned an accusing gaze on her mother.

  Ronica steeled herself to the truth. In a quiet voice she spoke. “I've told Davad it is completely inappropriate. Later in the courtship, if both young people choose to continue it, we will offer a tea and invite family friends. That would be a more appropriate time for him to meet Reyn and his family. ”

  “I suppose,” Davad said heavily. “If that's the best you can offer your oldest, truest friend, Ronica Vestrit. I'll come back when I'm invited, then. ”

  “It's too late for that,” Keffria said faintly. “That's why I came to find Mother. Reyn and his family are already here. ”

  Ronica rose swiftly. “His family! Here?”

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  “In the morning room. I know: I did not expect them either. I did not expect Reyn until late this afternoon; the ship had good sailing. Nevertheless, Jani Khuprus is here with him, and an older brother . . . Bendir. Awaiting outside is a train of servants bearing baskets of gifts and . . . Mother, I need your help. With such a reduced staff of our own, how are we to deal-”

  “Quite simply,” Davad interjected. Suddenly, his whole attitude had changed from petitioner to commander. “You still keep a boy for the garden and stable. Send him here to me. I'll jot down a note, he can carry it to my house, and in no time, my serving staff will arrive here. Discreetly, of course. I'll give very specific instructions that they are to behave as if they are your servants and this is their normal place of employment and . . . ”

  “And when the gossip spreads through Bingtown, as it must whenever servants are involved, we shall be a matter of much jest. No, Davad. ” It was Ronica's turn to sigh. “We'll take you up on your offer. We must. However, if we must borrow servants, then I shall not hesitate to admit that is so. Nor should your kindness in this matter be hidden for the sake of our pride. ” Belatedly recalling that her daughter's opinion might differ, Ronica turned to Keffria. “Do you agree?” she asked her bluntly.

  She shook her head helplessly. “I suppose I must. Malta is not going to care for this one bit. ” The last she added almost to herself.

  “Simply don't let her trouble her pretty little head about it. ” Davad was beaming now. Ronica longed to club him as he went on, “I am sure she is going to be too much interested in her suitor to pay much attention to an old family friend anyway. Now. Where's that paper, Ronica? I'll dash a note off and you can get your boy on his way. ”

  Despite Ronica's misgivings, all was accomplished quickly and easily. Keffria
returned to the guests, assuring them that her mother would appear shortly. The message was sent. Davad insisted on a last-minute peek in a mirror. Ronica was not sure if she was motivated by pity for him or for herself, but she persuaded him to blot the oil from his hair and forehead, and re-comb his hair in a more dignified styling. The way his hose sagged at the knees could not be helped, he told her, all his leggings did that, and as for the coat, it was new, and the cut of it was considered quite stylish. Ronica bit her tongue and did not point out the difference between stylish and becoming. Then, with a great deal of trepidation, she entered the morning room on Davad's arm.

  She had heard that the courtship of a Rain Wild man was less restrained than that practiced in Bingtown. Before Keffria had consented to Reyn courting her daughter, they had been promised that the young man would not offer her expensive gifts that might turn a young girl's head. Ronica had been prepared for him to present Malta with a bouquet of flowers and perhaps some sweets. She had expected to be introduced to a shy young man, accompanied perhaps by his tutor or uncle.

  The morning room had been transformed. The simple arrangements of spring flowers that she and Keffria had contrived from the garden had all but disappeared. Baskets, bowls and vases of exotic Rain Wild blooms blossomed in profusion throughout the room. The heady floral fragrance was thick as smoke. Platters and bowls of fruit, bottles of wine and trays of sweets and pastries had joined the carefully arranged repast on the table. Brightly colored songbirds twittered in a brass cage hung in an artificial tree constructed from bronze and cherry wood. A little spotted hunting cat, no more than a kitten, prowled hopefully beneath the cage. Servants, both veiled and open-faced, moved silently and industriously about the room, completing its metamorphosis. As Ronica entered, a young man whose veiled face proclaimed him a Rain Wild Trader struck up a plaintive melody on a lap-harp.

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