The mad ship, p.19
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       The Mad Ship, p.19

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  “It seems wise-” Althea began but Ophelia broke in, “You said they might seize me. I shall not allow it. I did not permit those Chalcedean swine to board me and I shall not permit-”

  “Yes, you shall. ” Captain Tenira's grave voice stopped her defiance cold. “Just as Grag and I shall permit them to detain us, if they attempt it. I have thought this through, my dear, to the bitter dregs. It is time Bingtown awakened. We have been slumbering and letting others chip and nibble away at what is ours. A few days ago, Chalcedean pirates masquerading as the Satrap's patrol attacked us. A day or so from now, brigands and kidnappers masquerading as lawful tariff collectors may hold us. We shall let them seize us and detain us. Not because we recognize their right to do so, nor because we cannot defy them, but only to show the rest of Bingtown the powers these little upstarts have claimed. The danger must be recognized, while it is still easy to destroy. Therefore, I beg you, if they attempt to seize you, even to put armed guards aboard you, I think we should permit it. They cannot hold us long, once Bingtown is roused. Let Ophelia become a rallying point for Bingtown Trader pride. ”

  Ophelia allowed the silence to hang for a moment. “I suppose I shall allow it,” she finally conceded. “Only because you ask it of me. ”

  “That's my good girl,” Tenira praised her warmly. “Never fear. Grag and I will see that you take no harm. ”

  Ophelia rolled her shoulders. “I shall see that you take no harm,” she suggested.

  Her captain smiled wanly. “Well. That is certainly a great relief to me. ” His glance went from Grag to Althea and then to the moonlit night above them. “I am suddenly weary,” he announced. He looked only at Althea. “Will you take my watch for me? You seem wide awake. ”

  “Pleased to do so, sir. You've given me a great deal to mull over. ”

  “Thank you. Carry on, then, Althea. Good night, Grag. ”

  “Good night, sir,” his son replied.

  Just before the captain was out of earshot, Ophelia observed, “How sweet! He found a way to leave you two alone in the moonlight. ”

  “Pity you can't do the same,” Grag replied without rancor.

  “Leave you unchaperoned? Shame upon you, for even suggesting such a thing. ”

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  He made no reply to that, but only went to the port side to lean on the railing. With a wink and a toss of her great head, Ophelia urged Althea to join him there. Althea sighed ruefully, then followed the ship's suggestion.

  “You haven't said much to me, these last few days,” Grag remarked quietly to the night sea.

  “My work has kept me busy. When your father gives me a ship's ticket, I want to have truly earned it. ”

  “You already have. No one on board this vessel would ever dispute your ability. However, I do not think you have truly been that busy. I think our last conversation made you uncomfortable. ”

  She did not deny it. Instead, she noted, “You speak very directly, don't you? I like that. ”

  “Simple questions usually get simple answers. A man likes to know where he stands. ”

  “That's reasonable. A woman needs some time to think. ” Althea tried to keep her tone light but not flippant.

  He did not meet her eyes as he pressed her. “Most women don't need time to think about whether or not they could love someone. ” Was there a trace of hurt in his voice?

  “I didn't think that was what you had asked me,” Althea replied honestly. “I thought the topic under discussion was a possible marriage between us. If you are asking whether I could come to care for you, then I believe the answer is an easy 'yes. ' You are thoughtful, courteous and kind. ” Althea glanced toward Ophelia. The figurehead was intently motionless, staring over the water. Althea pitched her voice just a trifle louder. “Not to mention that you are very handsome and likely to inherit a beautiful ship. ”

  As she had hoped, they both laughed, and suddenly the atmosphere eased. Grag reached casually to cover her hand with his. She did not move away but added in a lower voice, “Marriage is not about love alone. Especially not a marriage between two Bingtown Trader families. For that is what it would be, not a simple joining of you and me, but an alliance of our families. I have to think of many things. If I married you, and went to sea with you, what would become of my own ship? All I have done in the last year, Grag, I have done with an eye to recovering her. Would marrying you mean giving up Vivacia?” She faced him and he looked down on her with shadowed eyes. “Would you give up the Ophelia to marry me and live with me aboard the Vivacia while I captained her?”

  The shock on his face made it evident he had never considered such a question.

  “And that is but the first of my considerations. I must ask myself, what would I bring to our partnership, other than my family's debts? I inherited nothing from my father, Grag. Nothing except the sailing skills he taught me. I am sure my family would give me some sort of a dowry for the sake of respectability. But it would not be what you could usually expect to accompany a Trader's daughter. ” Althea shook her head. “You could get more marrying a Three Ship's girl. They'd pay richly for the family connection. ”

  He lifted his hand from hers. There was almost a chill in his voice as he asked, “Did you think that was why I made my proposal? To see how good an offer your family would make?”

  “No. Nevertheless, it is something I must consider, if only for the sake of my pride. You were the one who suggested that perhaps planning should come ahead of passion. So I consider the situation from every angle. Look at it coldly, Grag. To marry you, I must not only give up my ship, but also see her in the hands of a man I despise. To marry me, you must give up other partners who might create lucrative alliances for your family. If you consider these aspects, it does not look promising for us. ”

  Grag took in a slow breath. “I suppose you are right and-”

  “Just kiss her, you great booby!” Ophelia hissed loudly.

  Althea burst into a laugh that was cut off by Crag's mouth on hers. The kiss was startling, but her body's response to it was shocking. Heat washed through her and she turned toward him, lifting one hand to his shoulder. She expected him to embrace her and continue the kiss. Before she could wonder how far she would allow him to continue, he lifted his mouth from hers and drew back a little. He would not. This was Grag, not Brashen, she reminded herself. He was ruled by his head, not his passions. She denied the disappointment in the comparison. In the moment that he lifted his mouth from hers, she convinced herself that if he had not broken the kiss, she would have. Grag Tenira was to be taken seriously. He was not an anonymous fling in a distant seaport. How she conducted herself with him would affect the rest of her life in Bingtown. Caution was the better path.

  She took a breath. “Well!” she said, in a tone intended to convey surprise without affront.

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  “Sorry,” he muttered and looked aside with a half-grin that did not look repentant at all. “Ophelia's been bossing me around since I was eight years old. ”

  “That did sound like a direct order,” Althea agreed affably. She turned back to look out over the water. After a moment, his hand covered hers on the railing.

  “There would be difficulties to surmount,” he said judiciously. “That is true of any undertaking. Althea, I ask only that you consider my offer. I could scarcely ask you for an answer now. You have not discussed it with your family; I have not broached the subject with my parents. We do not even know what sort of a storm we shall encounter when we tie up in Bingtown. I'd just like you to consider my offer. That's all. ”

  “That I will,” she replied. The night was easy around them, and the clasp of his callused hand was warm.

  SHE DID NOT KNOW WHAT CAPTAIN TENIRA OR GRAG SAID TO THE CREW, but no one evinced any surprise when she appeared on deck in her boy's togs. Ophelia entered Bingtown Harbor on a crisp breeze that made the hands work lively. If any
of the crew recognized Althea as Athel from Candletown, no one was foolish enough to admit it. Instead, they accepted her toiling beside them with only a bit of good-natured teasing. Ophelia sailed with a will. The seasoned ship knew her business and cooperated with her crew, calling out suggestions to the man on the wheel. This was not operating a contraption of planks and canvas and lines to a place beside a dock, but the guiding of a cognizant creature into her home.

  The Ophelia's boats were put out to assist her to her berth at the tax dock. Althea took a spot on a bench and an oar; Captain Tenira had decided it was the best way to distance her from the ship and give her a chance to slip away if she needed it. After all their preparations, it was almost a disappointment to see the harbor traffic so ordinary. No one seemed to take any unusual notice of the Ophelia. As Althea's eyes roved over the busy trading port, she felt a sudden rush of emotion far stronger than any homesickness. She had been on longer voyages with her father, and traveled farther than on this last trip. Nevertheless, she felt as if she saw Bingtown for the first time in years.

  Bingtown was cupped in a sparkling blue bay. Rolling hills in the bright greens of spring backed the lively merchant town. Even before they docked, she could smell the smoke and cooking and cattle. The shrill cries of the hawkers in the market floated out over the water. The streets bustled with traffic, and the waters of the harbor were no less busy. Small craft plied back and forth between the shore and anchored ships. Little fishing vessels threaded their way through the tall-masted merchant ships to bring their catch to market. It was a symphony of sight and sound and smell, and its theme was Bingtown.

  A discordant note jarred the harmony as the departure of a ship slowly disclosed a Chalcedean galley tied up at the tax dock. The Satrap's banner hung flaccid from the single mast. Althea knew at a glance it was not the same galley that had accosted them; this one sported a fanged cat's face upon the figurehead, and showed no signs of fire damage. Her frown only deepened. How many of the galleys were in Bingtown waters? Why had it been allowed into the harbor at all?

  She kept her thoughts to herself and performed her share of the docking tasks as if she were no more than a ship's boy. When Captain Tenira barked at her to bring his sea bag and follow snappy, she did not flinch at the unusual order. She sensed he wanted her to witness his meeting with the Satrap's tax minister. She shouldered the small canvas bag and followed meekly at his heels. Grag, as first mate, stayed aboard to supervise the ship.

  Tenira strode into the tax minister's office. A clerk greeted them and brusquely demanded the manifest of the ship's cargo. Althea kept her eyes averted, even when Tenira slammed his fist on the counter and demanded to speak with the tariff minister.

  The clerk gave a startled squeak, then got his face and voice under control. “I am in charge here today, sir. Your manifest, please. ”

  Tenira tossed the bundled documents to the counter with a fine disdain. “There's my ship's manifest. Stick your nose in it, boy, and figure out what I owe. But get me someone down here who can talk of more than coppers and cargo. I've a complaint. ”

  The door to an inner room opened and a robed man emerged. His shaven pate and topknot proclaimed his status as the Satrap's minister. He was a well-fleshed man. His robe was embroidered on sleeves, breast and hems. His pale hands nestled together before him. “Why are you abusing my assistant?” he demanded.

  “Why is a Chalcedean war galley tied up to a Bingtown dock? Why did a similar galley accost my ship, supposedly in the Satrap's name? Since when have the enemies of Jamaillia been allowed safe harbor in Bingtown?” Tenira punctuated each query with a thud of his fist on the counter.

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  The minister was unruffled. “The Chalcedean privateers are agents of the Satrap. They have been allowed to dock here since the Satrap appointed them guardians of the Inside Passage. The galleys both reported here formally, presenting their letters of merit. Their sole purpose is to control piracy. They will attack pirates, on their ships and in their outlaw settlements. They will also combat the smuggling that supports the pirates; if those miscreants had no markets for their stolen goods, their trade would soon cease. ” The tariff minister paused to straighten a fold of his sleeve. In a bored tone, he resumed, “It is true there were some complaints from a few Bingtown residents about the Chalcedean presence, but the tariff dock is the property of the Satrap. No one save he can forbid the Chalcedeans to tie up here. And he has given his express permission that they may. ” The minister gave a small snort of contempt. “I do not think the captain of a trading ship can over-ride the Satrap's word. ”

  “This dock may belong to the Satrap, but the waters that surround it are Bingtown Harbor, given by charter to the Bingtown Traders. By tradition and by law, we allow no Chalcedean galleys in our waters. ”

  The minister looked past Tenira. In a bored voice he replied, “Traditions change, and laws do also. Bingtown is no longer a provincial backwater, Captain Tenira. It is a rapidly growing trade center. It is to Bingtown's benefit that the Satrap combats the pirates that infest the waterways. Bingtown should normalize trade with Chalced. Jamaillia sees no reason to consider Chalced an enemy. Why should Bingtown?”

  “Jamaillia does not share a disputed boundary with Chalced. Jamaillian farms and settlements have not been raided and burned. Bingtown's hostility toward Chalced is well-founded on history, not suspicion. Those ships have no right to be in our harbor. I wonder that the Bingtown Traders Council has not challenged this. ”

  “This is neither the place nor the time to discuss Bingtown's internal politics,” the minister suddenly declared. “My function here is to serve the Satrap by collecting his rightful tariffs. Corum. Are not you finished with those figures yet? When I accepted you for employment here, I understood from your uncle that you were swift with numbers. What is the delay?”

  Althea almost felt sorry for the clerk. He was obviously accustomed to being the subject of the minister's displeasure, however, for he only smiled obsequiously and clattered his tally sticks a bit faster. “Seven and two,” he muttered, apparently for the benefit of those watching him. “Docking fee and security fee . . . and patrol fee brings it to . . . And the surcharge on non-Jamaillian woven goods. ” He jotted a number onto the tablet, but before Althea could decipher it, the minister snatched it away. He ran a long-fingered nail down it with a disapproving glare. “This is not right!” he hissed.

  “I certainly hope not!” Captain Tenira agreed vehemently. He was taller than the minister and looked over his shoulder easily. “That is twice what I paid for 'fees' last time, and the percentage on non-Jamaillian woven goods is . . . ”

  “Tariffs have gone up,” the minister interrupted him. “There is also a new surcharge on non-Jamaillian worked-metal goods. I believe your tinware falls into that category. Refigure this immediately, accurately!” He slapped the tablet back down before the clerk, who only bowed his head and nodded repeatedly to the criticism.

  “Rinstin is a Jamaillian town!” Tomie Tenira declared indignantly.

  “Rinstin, like Bingtown, acknowledges Jamaillia's rule, but it is not in Jamaillia and is therefore not a Jamaillian town. You will pay the surcharge. ”

  “That I shall not!” Tenira exclaimed.

  Althea suppressed a small gasp. She had expected Tenira to bargain over the tariffs that were due. Bargaining was the fabric of Bingtown society. No one ever paid what was first asked. He should have offered a generous bribe to the minister in the form of a lavish meal in a nearby establishment, or a selection from the more choice goods on board the Ophelia. Althea had never heard a Bingtown Trader simply refuse to pay.

  The minister narrowed his eyes at Tenira. Then he gave a disdainful shrug. “As you will, sir. It is all one to me. Your ship will remain at this dock, her cargo on board until the proper fees are paid. ” He raised his voice suddenly. “Guards! Enter, please! I may require your assistance here!”

  Tenira did not even look toward the two burly men who stepped inside the door. His whole attention was riveted on the minister. “There is nothing proper about these fees. ” He poked at the tablet the scribe was still trying to complete. “What is this for 'patrol' and this for 'security?' ”

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  The minister gave a long-suffering sigh. “How do you expect the Satrap to reimburse those he has hired to protect you?”

  Althea had suspected that Tenira's outrage might be some sort of a bargaining ploy. Color rose so high in his face that she no longer doubted the sincerity of his anger as he asked, “You mean those Chalcedean scum, don't you? May Sa close my ears before I hear such idiocy! I won't pay for those pirates to anchor in Bingtown harbor. ”

  The guards were suddenly standing very close, right at Tomie Tenira's elbows. Althea in her role of ship's boy strove to look tough and follow her captain's lead. If Tenira threw a punch, she would be expected to jump in. Any ship's boy worth his scrap would do so, but it was a daunting prospect. She had never been in a real brawl before, other than that one brief dust-up with Brashen. She set her jaw and chose the younger of the two men as her mark.

  It didn't come to that. Tenira suddenly dropped his voice and growled, “I'll be presenting this to the Traders Council. ”

  “As you see fit, sir, I'm sure,” the minister purred. Althea thought him a fool. A wiser man would have known better than to bait Tomie Tenira. She half expected the captain to strike him. Instead, he smiled a very narrow smile.

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