The mad ship, p.20
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       The Mad Ship, p.20

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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  “As I see fit,” he rejoined smoothly. With a curt gesture to Althea to follow him, they left the tariff office. He spoke not a word to her until they were back aboard the ship. Then he sent her to “Fetch the mate, and smartly now. Have him come to my cabin. ” Althea obeyed him promptly.

  When they were sequestered in the captain's cabin, Tenira himself poured three jots of rum for them. He didn't pause to consider propriety, nor did Althea as she drank it off. The scene in the tariff office had chilled her worse than a cold night on deck. “It's bad,” was Tenira's first greeting to his son. “Worse than I'd feared. Not only are the Chalcedeans tied up here, but the Traders Council hasn't even challenged it. Worse, the damn Satrap has tacked more duties and taxes on to our trade to pay them to be here!”

  “You didn't pay them?” Grag asked incredulously.

  “Of course not!” Tenira snorted. “Someone around here has to start standing up to this nonsense. It may be a bit rocky to be the first one, but I'll wager once we've set the example, others will follow. The minister says he's going to detain us here. Fine. While we're tied up here, we take up this much dock space. A few more like us, and he won't be able to process ships or tariffs. Grag, you'll have a quiet word with Ophelia. Sa help us all, but I plan to give her free rein and let her be as unpleasant and bitchy as only she knows how. Let the dock workers and passers-by deal with that. ”

  Althea found herself grinning. The small room was as charged as if a storm were brewing. It was a storm, she told herself, and one her father had seen gathering for years. Still, it humbled her to watch an old captain like Tenira announce that he would call the first bolt down on himself. “What do you want me to do?” she asked.

  “Go home. Take word to your mother of all you saw and heard. I didn't see the Vivacia in the harbor, but if she is in, I ask you to set aside your differences with your brother-in-law and try to make him see why we must all be together in our defiance. I'll be heading home myself in a bit. Grag, I'll be trusting the ship to you. At the first whiff of any sign of trouble, send Calco to me with a message. Althea?”

  Althea weighed his words, then nodded slowly. As much as she hated the idea of a truce with Kyle, Captain Tenira was right. It was no time for the Bingtown Traders to be divided on anything.

  The smile the Teniras gave her was worth it. “I suspected I could count on you, lass,” Captain Tenira said fondly.

  Grag grinned at her. “And I knew I could. ”

  CHAPTER TEN - Homecoming

  THE VESTRIT MANSION, LIKE THE HOMES OF THE OTHER BINGTOWN TRADers, was set in the cool and forested foothills that surrounded Bingtown itself. It was a brief carriage ride from the docks, or a comfortable walk on a pleasant day. Along the way, one could glimpse other elegant Trader homes set well back from the main road. She passed flowering hedges and drives lined with trees extravagantly green with spring growth. Ivy sprawled in a mantle over the Oswells' stone wall. Crisp yellow daffodils were showing their first blooms in clumps by their gate. The spring day was rich with birdcalls and the dappling shade of newly leafed trees and the scents of early flowers.

  Never before had it seemed to be such a long walk.

  Althea marched on as if going to her death.

  She still wore her ship's-boy garb; it had seemed wisest to them all that she retain her disguise as she left the docks. She wondered how her mother and sister would react to it. Kyle was not home. Relief at that almost balanced her disappointment that Vivacia was not in the harbor. At least she did not have to worry about his extreme distaste. It was not quite a year since she had quarreled with her brother-in-law and then stormed out of their family home. She had learned so much since then that it seemed like a decade. She wanted to have her family recognize how she had grown. Instead, she feared they would see only her clothes and her oiled plait of hair and judge it all a childish masquerade of defiance. Her mother had always said she was headstrong; for years, her sister Keffria had believed her capable of disgracing the family name simply for her own pleasure. How could she go back to them now, dressed this way, and make them believe she had matured and was worthy to claim the captaincy of the family liveship? How would they greet her return? With anger or cold disdain?

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  She shook her head furiously to clear it of such thoughts and turned up the long driveway to her home. She noted with annoyance that the rhododendrons by the gate had not been pinched back. Last spring's leggy growth now sported this spring's swelling buds. When they were properly cut back, they would lose a whole year of flowers. She felt a tinge of worry. Col, the groundskeeper, had always been most particular about those bushes. Had something happened to him?

  Her whole journey up the drive spoke to her of the garden's neglect. The herbaceous borders swelled and straggled out of their beds. Bright green leaf buds were unfurling on rose bushes that still bore the winter-blackened stalks of last year's growth. A wisteria had fallen off its trellis and now valiantly opened its leaves where it sprawled. Winter winds had banked last autumn's fallen leaves wherever they wished; branches broken by storms still littered the grounds.

  She almost expected to find the house abandoned to match the neglected grounds. Instead, the windows were flung open to the spring day and sprightly music of harp and flute cascaded out to greet her. A few gigs drawn up before the front door told her that a gathering was in progress. It was a merry one, judging by the sudden trill of laughter that mingled for a moment with the music. Althea diverted her steps to the back entrance, wondering more with every step she took. Her family had hosted no gatherings since her father fell ill. Did this party mean that her mother had ended her mourning period already? That did not seem like her. Nor could Althea imagine her mother allowing the grounds to be neglected while spending coin on parties. None of this made sense. Foreboding nibbled at her.

  The kitchen door stood open and the tantalizing smell of freshly baked bread and savory meat wafted out to mingle in the spring sunshine. Althea's stomach grumbled appreciatively at the thought of shore-side food: risen bread and fresh meat and vegetables. She abruptly decided that she was glad to be home, no matter what reception she might get. She stepped into the kitchen and looked around.

  She did not recognize the woman rolling out dough on the tabletop, nor the boy turning the spit at the cook-fire. That was not unusual. Servants came and went in the Vestrit household. Trader families regularly “stole” the best cooks, nannies and stewards from one another, coaxing them to change households with offers of better pay and larger quarters.

  A serving girl came into the kitchen with an empty tray. She clattered it down and rounded on Althea. “What do you want here?” Her voice was both chill and bored.

  For once, Althea's mind was faster than her mouth. She made a sketchy bow. “I've a message from Captain Tenira of the liveship Ophelia for Trader Ronica Vestrit. It's important. He asked me to deliver it to her in private. ” There. That would get her some time alone with her mother. If there were guests in the house, she didn't want to be seen by them while she was still dressed as a boy.

  The serving girl looked troubled. “She is with guests just now, very important ones. It is a farewell gathering. It would be awkward to call her away. ” She bit her lower lip. “Can the message wait a bit longer? Perhaps while you ate something?” The maid smiled as she offered this little bribe.

  Althea found herself nodding. The smell of the newly cooked food was making her mouth water. Why not eat here in the kitchen, and face her mother and sister with a full stomach? “The message can wait a bit, I suppose. Mind if I wash my hands first?” Althea nodded toward the kitchen pump.

  “There's a pump and trough in the yard,” the cook pointed out, a sharp reminder of Althea's supposed status. Althea grinned to herself, then went outside to wash. By the time she returned, a plate was ready for her. They had not given her choice cuts; rather it was the crispy outside end of the pork roast, and
the heels of the fresh cooked bread. There was a slab of yellow cheese with it and a dollop of fresh churned butter for the bread and a spoonful of cherry preserves. It was served to her on a chipped plate with a stained napkin. The niceties of cutlery were supposed unknown to a ship's boy, so she made do with her fingers as she perched on a tall stool in the corner of the kitchen.

  At first, she ate ravenously, with little thought for anything other than the food before her. The crust of the roast seemed far richer in flavor than the best cut she had ever enjoyed. That crispy fat crunched between her teeth. The new butter melted on the still warm bread. She scooped up the tart cherry preserves with folded bits of it.

  As her hunger was sated, she became more aware of the kitchen bustle around her. She looked around the once-familiar room with new eyes. As a child, this room had seemed immense and fascinating, a place she had never been allowed to explore freely. Because she had gone to sea with her father before she had outgrown that curiosity, the kitchen had always retained an aura of the forbidden for her. Now she saw it for what it was, a large, busy work area where servants came and went in haste while a cook reigned supreme. As every servant came in, he or she inevitably gave a brief report on the gathering. They spoke familiarly and sometimes with contempt of the folk they served.

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  “I'll need another platter of the sausage rolls. Trader Loud-Shirt seems to think we baked them for him alone. ”

  “That's better than doing what that Orpel girl is doing. Look at this plate. Heaped with food we worked all morning to prepare, she's scarcely nibbled it and then pushed it aside. I suppose she hopes a man will notice her dainty appetite and think she's an easy keeper. ”

  “How's the empress's second choice faring?” the cook asked curiously.

  A serving man mimed the tipping of a wineglass. “Oh, he drowns his troubles and scowls at his rival and moons at the little empress. Then he does it all over again. All very genteelly, of course. The man should be on a stage. ”

  “No, no, she's the one who should be on a stage. One moment she's simpering at Reyn's veil, but when she dances with him, she looks past his shoulder and flutters her lashes at young Trell. ” The serving maid who observed this added with a snort of disgust, “She has them both stepping to her tune, but I'll wager she cares not a whit for either of them, but only for what measures she can make them tread. ”

  For a brief time, Althea listened with amusement. Then her ears and cheeks began to burn as she realized that this was how the servants had always spoken of her family. She ducked her head, kept her eyes on her plate, and slowly began to piece the gossip into a bizarre image of the current state of the Vestrit family fortunes.

  Her mother was entertaining Rain Wild guests. That was unusual enough, given that her father had severed their trading connections there years ago. A Rain Wild suitor was courting a Trader woman. The servants did not think much of her. “She'd smile at him more if he replaced his veil with a mirror,” one servant sniggeringly observed. Another added, “I don't know who's going to be more surprised on their wedding night: her when he takes off his veil and shows his warts, or him when she shows her snake's nature behind that pretty face. ” Althea knit her brow trying to think what woman was a close enough friend to the Vestrit family that her mother would host a gathering in her honor. Perhaps one of Keffria's friends had a daughter of marriageable age.

  A kitchen maid tugged her empty plate from her lax hands and offered her a bowl with two sugar dumplings in it. “Here. You may as well have these; we made far too many. There are three platters left and the guests are already starting to leave. No sense a young man like you going hungry here. ” She smiled warmly and Althea turned her eyes aside in what she hoped was a convincing display of boyish shyness.

  “Can I take my message to Ronica Vestrit soon?” she asked.

  “Oh, soon enough, I imagine. Soon enough. ”

  The sweet gooey pastries were messy to eat but delicious. Althea finished them, returned her bowl and used her sticky hands as an excuse to go back to the yard pump. A grape arbor screened the kitchen yard from the main entrance, but the new leaves were still tiny. Althea could watch the departing carriages through the twining branches. She recognized Cerwin Trell and his little sister as they left. The Shuyev family had also come. There were several other Trader families that Althea recognized more by crest than by face. It made her realize how long it had been since she had truly belonged to their social circle. Gradually the number of carriages dwindled. Davad Restart was one of the last to depart. Shortly after that, a team of white horses arrived drawing a Rain Wild coach. The windows were heavily curtained and the crest on the door was an unfamiliar one. It looked something like a chicken with a hat. An open wagon was drawn up behind it and a train of servants began carrying luggage and trunks from the house to that conveyance. So. The Rain Wild Traders had been houseguests at the Vestrit home. Increasingly mysterious, Althea thought to herself. Crane her neck as she might, she got no more than a glimpse of the departing family. Rain Wilders were always veiled by day and this group was no exception. Althea had no idea who they were or why they were staying at the Vestrit home. It made her uneasy. Had Kyle chosen to renew their trading connections there? Had her mother and sister supported such an idea?

  Had Kyle taken Vivacia up the Rain River?

  She clenched her fists at the idea. When the kitchen maid tugged at her sleeve, she spun on her, startling the poor girl. “Beg pardon,” Althea apologized immediately.

  The maid looked at her strangely. “Mistress Vestrit will see you now. ”

  Althea suffered herself to be led back into her own home and down the familiar hallway to the morning room. Everywhere were the festive signs of guests and lively company. Vases of flowers filled every alcove and perfume lingered in the air. When she had left, this had been a house of mourning and family contention. Now the household seemed to have forgotten those difficult days and her with them. It did not seem fair that while she had toiled through hardship, her sister and mother had indulged in social celebration. By the time they reached the morning room, the simmering confusion inside her was so great she guarded against it breaking forth as anger.

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  The maid tapped at the door of the chamber. When she heard Ronica's murmured assent, she stepped aside, whispering to Althea, “Go in. ”

  Althea bobbed a bow, then entered the room. She shut the door quietly behind herself. Her mother was sitting on a cushioned divan. A low table with a glass of wine upon it was close to hand. She wore a simple day-gown of creamy linen. Her hair was coiled and perfumed, and a silver chain graced her throat, but the face she lifted to meet Althea's gaze was taut with weariness. Althea forced herself to meet her mother's widening eyes with a direct look. “I've come home,” she said quietly.

  “Althea,” her mother gasped. She lifted a hand to her heart, and then put both hands over her mouth and breathed in through them. She had gone so pale that the lines in her face stood out as if etched. She dragged in a shuddering breath. “Do you know how many nights I have wondered how you died? Wondered where your body lay, if it was covered in a decent grave or if carrion birds picked at your flesh?”

  The flood of angry words caught Althea off-guard. “I tried to send you word. ” She heard herself lying like a child caught in a misdeed.

  Her mother had found the strength to rise and now she advanced on Althea, her index finger leveled like a pike. “No, you did not!” she contradicted her bitterly. “You never even thought of it until just now. ” She halted suddenly in her tracks. She shook her head. “You are so like your father, I can even hear him lying with your tongue. Oh, Althea. Oh, my little girl. ” Then her mother suddenly embraced her, as she had not in years. Althea stood still in the circle of her pinning arms, completely bewildered. A moment later she was horrified when a sob wracked her mother's body. Her mother clung to her and
wept hopelessly against her shoulder.

  “I'm sorry,” Althea said uncomfortably. Then she added, “It's going to be all right now. ” A few moments later she tried, “What's wrong?”

  For a time, her mother did not reply. Then she drew a deep, rattling breath. Ronica stepped back from her daughter and rubbed her sleeve across her eyes like a child. It smeared the careful paint on her lashes and eyelids, marking the fabric of her sleeve. Her mother took no notice of that. She walked unsteadily back to her divan and sat down. She took a long drink of her wine, then set it down and tried to smile. The smeared paint on her face made it ghastly. “Everything,” she said quietly. “Everything that could be wrong, is. Save for one thing. You are home and alive. ” The honest relief on her mother's face was more searing than her anger had been.

  It was hard to cross the room and seat herself on the end of the divan. Harder still to say calmly and rationally, “Tell me about it. ” For so many months, Althea had looked forward to coming home, to telling her story, to forcing her family to finally, finally listen to her view. Now she was here, and she knew with the unerring truth of Sa's own revelation that duty demanded she listen first to all her mother would say.

  For a moment, Ronica just looked at her. Then the words began to spill out. It was a disordered tale of one disaster after another. The Vivacia was late coming home. She should have been back by now. Kyle might have taken her straight on to Chalced to sell the slaves, but surely he would have sent word by another ship if he intended to do so. Wouldn't he? He knew how poor the family finances were; surely, he would have sent word so that Keffria would have something to tell their creditors. Malta had been into one kind of mischief after another. She didn't even know where to begin that tale, but the end of it was that a Rain Wild Trader was now courting Malta. As his family held the paper on the Vivacia, courtesy and politics dictated that the Vestrits at least entertain his suit, although Sa knew Malta was not truly a woman and old enough to be courted.

 
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