The mad ship, p.14
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       The Mad Ship, p.14

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  As if carried by the music, Jani Khuprus swept up to greet her. Her face veil was white lace shimmering with pearls. The loose hood that covered her hair was decorated with braided and coiled silken tassels in many shades of blue. She wore an extravagantly beribboned blouse and loose pantaloons that were gathered at her ankles with yet more ribbons. Fanciful embroidery almost obscured the white linen that backed it. Ronica had never seen a woman in such garb, but she knew instantly it would become the new style in Bingtown. As Jani greeted her in the transformed room, Ronica felt as if she had been magically transported to the Rain Wilds, and that she was the guest in Jani's home. Jani's smile was warm, and only one quick puzzled glance betrayed her curiosity about Davad. “I am so glad you have come down to join us,” Jani welcomed her. With unnerving familiarity, she took both Ronica's hands in hers. She leaned closer to confide, “You must be quite proud of your daughter, Keffria. She has greeted us so warmly and so graciously! She is a credit to her upbringing. And Malta! Oh, I can see why my son was smitten so swiftly and so deeply. She is young, as you warned me, but already she is like an opening blossom. Any young man would fall prey to such eyes. No wonder he took such pains choosing what gifts to bring her. I confess, when the flowers are massed like this, they do appear a bit overwhelming, but surely you can forgive a young man's impetuosity in this. ”

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  “Especially as it's much too late to do anything else!” Davad replied while Ronica was still composing a response. He stepped forward to set his hand on top of Jani's and Ronica's clasp. “Welcome to the Vestrit home. I'm Davad Restart, a long-time friend of the family. We are so thrilled to have you here, and deeply honored by Reyn's courtship of our Malta. Don't they look charming together!”

  His words were so different from anything that Ronica would have chosen to say that she nearly lost control of herself. Jani's eyes went from Davad's face to Ronica's before she gently but unmistakably removed her hands from his clasp. “I recall you well, Trader Restart. ” The tone of her voice was chill; evidently, her recollection of him was not a kindly one. The subtlety was lost on Davad.

  “I am so pleased and honored that you do,” he exclaimed jovially. He beamed a smile at Jani Khuprus. He obviously believed that things were going well.

  Ronica knew she had to say something, but for the life of her, she could not find any significant words. She retreated into banality. “Such lovely flowers. Only the Rain Wild yields such extravagant colors and fragrances. ”

  Jani shifted her body, very slightly, but it was enough that she now faced Ronica while her shoulder was toward Davad, excluding him. “I am so glad you like them. I had feared you would rebuke me for letting Reyn indulge himself in such plenty. I know we had agreed he must keep his gifts simple. ”

  In actuality, Ronica felt that Jani had overstepped the bounds of her agreement. Before she could find a tactful way to let her know that Reyn must not do it again, Davad chimed for her. “Simple? What place has simplicity in a young man's passion? Were I a boy again and courting such a girl as Malta, I, too, would attempt to overwhelm her with gifts. ”

  Ronica finally found her tongue. “But I am sure a young man like Reyn will want to be valued for himself, not his presents. Such a display is worthy of their first presentation to one another, but I am sure his courtship to follow will be more restrained. ” By addressing her words to Davad rather than Jani, Ronica hoped to avoid giving offense while still letting her position be known.

  “Nonsense!” Davad insisted. “Look at them. Does she look to you as if she wishes him to be restrained?”

  Malta was all but enthroned in flowers. She sat in an armed chair, holding a great bouquet on her lap. Pots and vases of blooms and greenery had been placed around her. A single red flower had been pinned to the shoulder of her demure white dress. Another had been fastened into her upswept hair. They complemented the warm tones of her skin, and made her black hair seem even glossier. Her eyes were downcast as she spoke softly to the young man that stood so attentively beside her. Yet every so often, she would glance up at him through her eyelashes. When she did, her mouth would curve in the tiniest of cat-smiles.

  Reyn Khuprus was dressed all in blue. A discarded cloak of azure draped an adjacent chair. His traditional Rain Wild garb of loose trousers and a long-sleeved shirt effectively camouflaged any deformities from the casual eye. He had a lean waist that he had proudly sashed with a wide silk belt. It was a darker hue than his other clothes. Black boots peeped out from the loose cuffs of his trousers. The backs of his fine black gloves were studded with blue flame gems in a breathtaking display of casual wealth. His hood was plain, made from the same silk as his sash. His face veil was black lace, effectively obscuring his features. Although his face was invisible, one sensed his rapt attention in the cant of his head.

  “Malta is very young,” Ronica said. She spoke quickly, before anyone could say any more of the situation. “She does not have the wisdom to know when to go slowly. It is up to her mother and me to exercise that caution. Jani and I have agreed that, for their own sakes, these young people must not be allowed to be too impulsive. ”

  “Well, I fail to see why,” Davad contradicted her jovially. “What can come of this except good? Eventually, Malta must wed. Why stand in the path of young romance? Think of what may come of this: grandchildren for Jani, great-grandchildren for you, Ronica. And mutually profitable trade arrangements for all, I don't doubt. ”

  It pained Ronica to hear Davad so laboriously drag the conversation in the direction he wished it to go. Over the years, she had come to know the man too well. This was why he was truly here. He was an old friend of the family; he genuinely cared for Malta and what became of her. But the greatest part of his heart had long ago been given over to trade and the profits therefrom. For good or ill, it was how Davad's mind worked. He had never hesitated to use his friendships to the good of his business deals, though he seldom risked a business profit for the sake of friendship.

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  All this passed through Ronica's mind in a fraction of a moment. She saw Davad clearly, as she had always known him to be. She had never evaluated what it meant to have such a friend. Differences in politics had not persuaded her to set him aside, even when many other Traders ceased dealing with him. He was not a truly evil man; he simply did not give much thought to what he did. Profits beckoned and he followed, into slave trading, into the questionable practices of the New Traders, even to making a profit from Malta's unsought courtship. He meant no harm by it; he never considered it in terms of right and wrong.

  That did not make him harmless. Not in terms of what he could inadvertently do to the Vestrit family if he offended Jani Khuprus just now. The Khuprus family held the note on the liveship Vivacia. Ronica had reluctantly accepted Reyn's courtship of Malta in the certainty that he would soon realize how young and unsuitable she was. For Reyn to begin such a courtship and then break it off would give her an odd social advantage. The Vestrit family might be seen as the injured party; the Khuprus family would be expected to be more than civil in their business dealings. But if the Khuprus family broke off the courtship because the Vestrit family had undesirable political connections, the attitude of the other Traders toward her family might be substantially different. Ronica had already felt social pressure to cut off her association with Davad Restart. She would be in a financial quagmire if that were extended to trading pressure.

  The wise thing to do would be to dump Davad Restart.

  Loyalty forbade that. And pride. If the Vestrit family allowed itself to be governed by what others perceived as correct, they would lose all control of their destiny. Not that much control truly remained in their hands.

  The silence had grown uncomfortable. Ronica felt a resigned fascination coupled with horror. What dreadful thing would Davad say next? He was completely unaware of how gauche he was being. He smiled brightly and began, “S
peaking of trade alliances-”

  Rescue came from an unexpected quarter. Keffria swept up to them. A very fine mist of perspiration on her brow was the only visible sign of the agitation she undoubtedly felt at seeing Davad stand so close to Jani Khuprus for so long. She touched his arm lightly and asked him quietly if he could assist her in the kitchen, just for a moment. The servants were having difficulty opening some of the old wines she had chosen; could he come and supervise that task?

  Keffria had chosen well. Wine and the correct serving of it were one of Davad's favorite obsessions. He hastened away with Keffria following him, nodding as he spoke learnedly of the correct way to uncork a bottle to minimize agitation. Ronica sighed out in relief.

  “I wonder that you even tolerate him being here,” Jani observed quietly. Now that Davad had gone, she stood at Ronica's side. She spoke confidentially to her, beneath the music and conversation in the room. “The other day I heard him referred to as the Traitor Trader. He denies it, but all know he has been the go-between for the New Traders in many of their most tawdry dealings. It is even said that he is behind the New Traders who are making such ridiculous offers in the hope of buying the Paragon. ”

  “Shockingly ridiculous offers,” Ronica agreed in a low voice. “I think it is scandalous that the Ludluck family even allows them to be presented. ” She ventured a small smile as she presented this thought to Jani. To be sure her point was not missed, she added the old Trader adage, “After all, it takes two to strike a bargain. ”

  “Indeed,” Jani agreed coolly. “But isn't it cruel of Davad that he tempts the Ludlucks with such offers? He knows how straitened their circumstances are. ”

  “Most Bingtown Traders are feeling the pinch these days. Including the Vestrits. So we form alliances with one another, ones that may strike others as strange. Davad, for instance, came by today to offer me the use of his servants, for he was well aware we had reduced our staff to a mere skeleton. ”

  There. That was out in the open now. If Reyn's courtship were mistakenly based on a supposed wealth the Vestrit family no longer possessed, it would soon be terminated.

  When Jani Khuprus replied, Ronica discovered she had misjudged the depth of the woman's graciousness. “I, too, was aware of your financial worries. It pleases me to see Reyn courting a young woman who understands the necessity of living within one's means. Thrift and discipline are virtues always, no matter what one's wealth. The servants we brought with us were meant not to embarrass you, but to assist in making this a carefree time for all. ” Sincerity rang in her voice.

  Ronica answered it. “Davad can be a difficult friend. I could abandon him. However, I have never seen the virtue in that. I have never respected folk who cast out offspring or relatives that displeased them. It always seemed to me that the duty of family is to continue trying to correct, no matter how painful. Why should it be different with old family friends? Especially when, in many ways, we have become Davad's family. He lost his wife and sons to the Blood Plague, as you perhaps know. ”

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  Jani's reply caught Ronica off balance. “Then you did not force Althea out of your home for improper behavior?”

  The shock of the question astounded Ronica. Was that the Bingtown rumor? Spread as far as the Rain Wilds? She was grateful for the servant that suddenly presented them with a tray of delicate cakes. Was it only last night she and Keffria had baked these? She took one and then was immediately confronted by another serving person offering a fluted glass of some Rain Wild liqueur. She accepted it with thanks and took a sip from it. “This is wonderful,” she told Jani with genuine pleasure.

  “As are the cakes,” Jani replied. She looked aside, letting her gaze linger on Reyn and Malta. Whatever she had just said to him had made him laugh. The cant of Jani's head suggested she smiled also.

  Ronica considered letting the topic drop, but then steeled herself. Best to snuff rumors as soon as they were heard. Sa alone knew how long that one had been circulating, but it had probably been about ever since last summer.

  “I did not ask Althea to leave our home. In fact, she left against my will. The division of the inheritance from her father much distressed her. She had expected to inherit the Vivacia. She was hurt when she did not, and she disagreed with how Kyle chose to run the ship. There was a quarrel and she left. ” She found it hard, but she stared squarely at Jani's veil and added, “I do not know where she is now or what she is doing. If she came to the door this very moment, I would welcome her with all my heart. ”

  Jani seemed to return her look. “It was an awkward question, perhaps. It is my way, to speak directly. I do not mean to give offense by it. It has always seemed to me that honest words leave the least room for misunderstanding. ”

  “I share that sentiment. ” Ronica's eyes followed Jani's gaze as she turned to look at Reyn and Malta. Malta had lowered her face and turned her eyes aside. Her cheeks were pink with a blush, but her eyes were merry. The tilt of Reyn's head showed that he shared her amusement as he tried to see into her averted face.

  “Within a family, there is no room for secrets,” Jani added.

  IT WAS WONDERFUL, FAR MORE WONDERFUL THAN MALTA HAD EVER IMAGined it would be. So this was what it was like to be treated properly. Her soul had starved for this her entire life, and now it was able to sate itself in sweet sensations. Flowers scented the air all around her, every type of dainty food and fine drink that she could imagine had been offered to her, and Reyn himself could not have been more attentive. She could think of nothing that could have improved the day, unless perhaps some of her friends could be present to be enviously impressed. She indulged herself in imagining that scene. Delo and Kitten and Carissa and Polia would be seated over there, and as each tray of food or drink was offered to Malta, she would take her pick of it, and then send the rest over to her friends.

  Later, she would apologize warmly to them that she had had so little time for them. What a shame that Reyn had insisted on monopolizing her time! But, well, they knew how men were! She would smile at them knowingly. Then she would recount some of the compliments he had showered on her, or repeat some of his witticisms-

  “May I ask what now brings such a smile to your face?” Reyn requested gently. He stood a respectful yet attentive distance from her chair. He had not accepted her offer of a seat. She lifted her eyes to his veiled face. Her pretty daydream soured. Who knew what sort of a visage smiled beneath that veil? A little quivering turned restlessly in her belly. She did not let her unease show on her face. Instead, she answered in a pleasantly modulated voice, “Why, I was but thinking how gay it might be if some of my friends were here to share all this with us. ” She gracefully gestured at the festive room.

  “And I was thinking the opposite,” he replied. He had a pleasant voice. It was cultured and richly masculine. His face veil stirred lightly with the wind of his breath.

  “The opposite?” she wondered aloud as she raised an eyebrow to his words.

  He did not move from where he stood, but pitched his voice for more intimacy. “I was thinking how pleasant it will be when I am deep enough in your trust to see you more privately. ”

  All she had to go by was his posture and his voice. There was no raised brow or shy smile to accompany the words. She had spoken to men before, even flirted when her mother or grandmother was not present, but no man had ever been so frank with her. It was both heady and daunting. All the time she hesitated, she knew he studied her bared face. Try as she might, she could not keep all expression from it. How could one flirt and smile when one did not know if a man or a grotesque freak answered that smile? The thought put a tiny chill into her words. “Surely, we must first decide if this courtship is even to begin. Is not that what this first meeting is about: to see if we are suited to one another?”

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  He gave a small snort of amusement. “Mistress Malta, let us leave that sport
to our mothers. That is their game. See how, even now, they circle one another like wrestlers, awaiting an opening, a tiny bit of imbalance in the other? They will strike the bargain that joins us, and I do not doubt that both families will benefit in every way. ”

  He inclined his hooded head, very slightly, toward Jani Khuprus and Ronica Vestrit. Their facial expressions were carefully pleasant, but there was a poised alertness to them that suggested some verbal contest was in progress.

  “That is my grandmother, not my mother,” Malta pointed out. “And I do not understand why you speak of this meeting as a game. Surely, this is a serious moment. At least, it is for me. Do you find it trivial?”

  “I will never find trivial any moment spent in your presence. Of that, you may be assured. ” He paused, then let his words pour forth. “From the moment that you opened the dream-box and we ventured together into your imaginings, I have known that nothing could turn me aside from this courtship. Your family sought to dampen my hopes with the notion that you were more child than woman. That I found laughable. That is the game I spoke of, the game that all families play when their offspring wish to wed. Obstacles will be invented, only to dissolve when the balance is weighted with enough gifts and trade advantages . . . but this talk is too blunt for us. It speaks of the pocket and not of the heart. It speaks not at all of my hunger for you. ” His words tumbled swiftly, unchecked. “Malta, I ache for you. I long to possess you, to share every secret of my heart with you. The sooner my mother surrenders to every demand of your family, the better. Tell your grandmother that. Tell her she may ask anything she wishes and I will be sure the Vestrits receive it, so long as I may find you soon in my arms. ”

  Malta recoiled with a swift intake of breath. Her shock was not feigned, but Reyn mistook the source of it. He stepped back from her and inclined his head gravely. “Forgive me, I beg you. ” His voice went husky. “I am cursed with a tongue that speaks the words of my heart before my head can intervene. How crude I must seem to you, like an animal panting after you. I vow to you, that is not so. Ever since I saw you that evening outside the Traders' Concourse, I became aware that I had a soul as well as a mind. Before that, I was little more than an intelligent tool, serving my family as well as I could to advance their fortunes. When my brother or sisters spoke of passion and attractions, I could not grasp what they meant. ” He paused for breath, and gave a sort of laugh. “If you know aught of Rain Wild Folk, you will know that we usually find our hearts when we are young and wed soon after. By the customs of my folk, I have always been an odd fish. Some say I was ensorcelled young by my work, and would never know a true love for anyone human. ” A snort of disdain bespoke his disgust.

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