The mad ship, p.21
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       The Mad Ship, p.21

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  Moreover, Davad Restart had leapt into the midst of that tangle, and had made one gaffe after another all week in his determination to wring a profit from the courtship. Just because the man was totally tactless did not mean he was without tactics. It had taken all her ingenuity to keep him diverted and to keep Reyn's family from taking offense. Keffria was insisting on trying to manage the family businesses. That was her right, true, but she wasn't giving them the attention they needed. Instead she was all caught up in the flowers and the frills of this courtship, and never mind that the grain fields were only half-plowed and the planting moon was only a week away. A late frost had taken at least half the blooms from the apple orchards. The roof in the second bedroom in the east wing had begun to leak, and there was no money to have it seen to right now, but if it were not repaired soon, that entire ceiling would give way and . . .

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  “Mother,” Althea said gently, and then, “Mother! A moment! My head is reeling with all this!”

  “Mine, also, and for far longer than yours,” her mother pointed out wearily.

  “I don't understand this. ” Althea tried to speak calmly although she wanted to shout. “Kyle is using Vivacia as a slave ship? And Malta is being practically sold off to the Rain Wild Traders to pay our family debts? How can Keffria allow that, let alone you? Even if the Vivacia has not yet returned, how can our finances be so bad? Didn't the shore-side properties used to pay their own way?”

  Her mother made small patting motions at her with her hands. “Calm down. I suppose this is a shock to you. I have seen the gradual slide, but you return to see us at the bottom of our fortunes. ” Her mother pressed her hands to her temples for a moment. She looked at Althea absently. “How are we to get you out of those clothes and properly attired without the servants asking questions?” she mused in an aside to herself. Then she drew a breath. “Just to explain all this to you wearies me so. It is like detailing the slow death of something you loved. Allow me to skip details and say just this instead: the use of slaves for field and orchard crops in Chalced and even in Bingtown lands has driven prices down. We have always hired workers for our fields; for years, the same men and women have plowed, planted and harvested for us. Now what are we to tell them? It would be more profitable to let the fields lie fallow or graze goats on them, but how can we do that to our farmers? So, we struggle on. Or rather, at my behest, Keffria does. She gives some heed to my counsel. Kyle, as you know, controls the ship. That was my error; I can not bear to look you in the face over it. But Sa help me, Althea! I fear he is right. If the Vivacia succeeds as a slaver, she may yet save us all. Slaves, it seems, are the only way to prosper. Slaves as cargo, slaves in the grain fields . . . ”

  Althea looked at her mother incredulously. “I cannot believe I am hearing those words from you. ”

  “I know it is wrong, Althea. I know. But what are our alternatives? Let little Malta unknowingly flirt herself into a marriage she isn't ready for, simply for the sake of the family fortune? Surrender Vivacia back to the Rain Wilds in forfeiture of the debt, and live in poverty? Or perhaps we could just flee our creditors, leave Bingtown, and go Sa knows where . . . ”

  “Have you truly considered such things?” Althea asked in a low voice.

  “I have,” her mother replied wearily. “Althea, if we do not take action on our own, then others will decide our fate. Our creditors will strip us of all we own, and then we might look back and say, well, if we had allowed Malta to wed Reyn, at least she would have been spared living in poverty. At least the ship would have been ours. ”

  “ 'The ship would have been ours'? How?”

  “I told you. The Khuprus family has bought the note on Vivacia. They have as much as said that forgiving the debt would be Reyn's wedding gift to the family. ”

  “That's crazy. ” Althea uttered the words flatly. “No one gives wedding gifts like that. Not even Rain Wild Traders. ”

  Ronica Vestrit took a deep breath. Changing the subject, she announced, “We have to sneak you up to your room and get you into some proper clothes. Though you look skinny as a rail. I wonder if anything you left here would still fit you. ”

  “I can't resume being Althea Vestrit just yet. I bring a message for you from Captain Tenira of the liveship Ophelia. ”

  “That is true? I thought it was only a ruse to get in to see me. ”

  “It's true. I've been serving aboard the Ophelia. When we have more time, I'll tell you all about that. But for now, I want to give you his message, and then take your reply back to him. Mother, the Ophelia has been seized at the tariff docks. Captain Tenira has refused to pay the outrageous fees they have demanded, especially all the ones they have tacked on to support those Chalcedean pigs tied up in the harbor. ”

  “Tied-up Chalcedean pigs?” Her mother looked confused.

  “Surely you know what I mean. The Satrap has authorized Chalcedean galleys to act as patrol vessels throughout the Inside Passage. One of them actually attempted to halt us and board us on our way here. They are no more than pirates, and worse than the ones they are supposed to control. I cannot understand why they are tolerated in Bingtown harbor, let alone that anyone would stomach the extra fees demanded of us!”

  “Oh. The galleys. There has been quite a stir about them lately, but I think Tenira is the first to refuse the fees. Fair or not, the Traders pay them. The alternative is no trade at all, as Tenira is finding out. ”

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  “Mother, that is ridiculous! This is our town. Why aren't we standing up to the Satrap and his lackeys? The Satrap no longer abides by his word to us; why should we continue to let him leech away our honest profits?”

  “Althea . . . I have no energy left to consider such things. I don't doubt you are right, but what can I do about it? I have my family to preserve. Bingtown will have to look after itself. ”

  “Mother, we cannot think that way! Grag and I have discussed this a great deal. Bingtown has to stand united before the New Traders and the Satrap and all of Jamaillia if need be. The more we concede to them, the more they take. The slaves that the New Traders have brought in are at the bottom of our family problems right now. We need to force them to observe our old law forbidding slavery. We need to tell the New Traders that we will not recognize their new charters. We need to tell the Satrap that we will pay no more taxes until he lives up to the letter of our original charter. No. We need to go further than that. We need to tell him that a fifty percent tax on our goods and his limits on where we may sell our goods are things of the past. We have already let it go on too long. Now we need to stand united and make it stop. ”

  “There are some Traders who speak as you do,” her mother said slowly. “And I reply to them as I do to you: my family first. Besides. What can I do?”

  “Just say you will stand united with those Traders who refuse the tariffs. That is all I am asking. ”

  “Then you must ask your sister. She has the vote now, not I. On your father's death, she inherited. She is the Bingtown Trader now, and the council vote is hers to wield. ”

  “What do you think she will say?” Althea asked after a long silence. It had taken her a time to grasp the full significance of what her mother had said.

  “I don't know. She does not go to many of the Trader meetings. She is, she says, too busy and she also says she does not want to vote on things that she has not had time to study. ”

  “Have you spoken to her? Told her how crucial those votes can be?”

  “It is only one vote,” Ronica said almost stubbornly.

  Althea thought she heard a trace of guilt in her mother's voice. She pressed her. “Let me go back to Trader Tenira and say this at least. That you will speak to Keffria, and counsel her both to attend the next Trader meeting, and to vote in Tenira's support. He intends to be there and to demand that the Council officially side with him. ”

  “I suppose I can d
o that much. Althea, you need not carry this message back yourself. If he is openly defiant of the tariff minister, then he could precipitate some sort of . . . of action down there. Let me have Rache fetch a runner to carry your word. There is no need for you to be in the middle of this. ”

  “Mother. I wish to be in the middle of this. Also, I want them to know I stand firmly with them. I feel I must go. ”

  “But not right now! Althea, you have only just come home. Surely you can stop to eat and bathe and change into proper clothes. ” Her mother looked aghast.

  “That I cannot. I am safer on the docks in these clothes. The guards at the tariff dock will not blink an eye at the errands of a ship's boy. Let me return for now, and . . . there is one other person I must go and see. But right after that, I shall return. I promise that by tomorrow morning, I shall be safely under your roof and attired as befits a Trader's daughter. ”

  “You'll be out all night? Alone?”

  “Would you rather I was with someone?” Althea asked mischievously. She disarmed her words with a quick grin. “Mother, I have been 'out all night' for almost a year now. No harm has come to me. At least, nothing permanent . . . but I promise I shall tell you all when I return. ”

  “I see I cannot stop you,” Ronica said resignedly. “Well. For the sake of your father's name, please do not let anyone recognize you! The family fortune is shaky enough as it is. Be discreet in whatever it is that you must do. And ask Captain Tenira to be discreet as well. You served aboard his ship, you said?”

  “Yes. I did. Moreover, I said I would tell you all when I return. The sooner I leave, the sooner I'm back. ” Althea turned toward the door. Then she halted. “Would you please tell my sister I'm back? And that I wish to speak to her of serious things?”

  “I will. Do you mean that you will try to, well, not make amends, or apologize, but make a truce with Kyle and your sister?”

  Althea closed her eyes tight and then opened them. She spoke quietly. “Mother, I intend to take my ship back. I will try to make you both see that I am ready to do so and that I not only have the most right to her, but that I can do the most good for the family with her. But I do not want to say any more just yet, to you or to Keffria. Please do not tell her that. Say, if you would, only that I wish to speak to her of serious things. ”

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  “Very serious things. ” Her mother shook her head to herself. The lines on her brow and around her mouth seemed to deepen. She drank more wine, without relish or pleasure. “Go carefully, Althea, and return swiftly. I do not know if your coming home brings us salvation or disaster. I only know I am glad to know you are alive. ”

  Althea nodded abruptly and slipped quietly out of the room. She did not go back the way she had come, but went out the front door. She acknowledged a serving man who was sweeping scattered flower petals from the steps. The massed hyacinths by the steps gave off a rising tide of perfume. As she hurried down the drive toward Bingtown, she almost wished she were simply Athel, a ship's boy. It was a beautiful spring day, her first day on shore in her homeport in almost a year. She wished she could take some simple gladness in it.

  As she hurried down the winding roads back to Bingtown proper, she began to notice that the Vestrit estate was not the only one that showed signs of disrepair. Several other great homes that she passed showed the neglect of a pinched purse. Trees had gone unpruned and winter-wind damage unrepaired. When she passed through the busier streets of Bingtown's market district, it seemed to her that she saw many unfamiliar folk. It was not just that she did not recognize their faces; she had been so often away from Bingtown in the last ten years that she no longer expected to know many friends and neighbors. These strangers spoke with the accents of Jamaillia and dressed as if they were from Chalced. The men all seemed to be young, in their twenties or early thirties. They wore wide-bladed swords in filigreed sheaths, and hung their pouches at their belts as if to brag of their wealth. The rich skirts of the women who trailed after them were slashed to reveal filmy underskirts. Their vividly colored cosmetics obscured rather than enhanced their faces. The men tended to speak more loudly than was necessary, as if to draw as much attention to themselves as possible. More often than not, the tone of their words was arrogant and self-important. Their women moved like nervous fillies, tossing their heads and gesturing broadly when they spoke. Their perfumes were strong, their bangled earrings large. They made the courtesans of Bingtown seem like drab pigeons in contrast to their peacock strutting.

  There was a second class of unfamiliar folk on the street. They bore the tattoos of slavery beside their noses. Their furtive demeanor said they wished nothing so much as to be unnoticed. The number of menial servants in Bingtown had multiplied. They carried packages and held horses. One young boy followed two girls little older than himself, endeavoring to hold a parasol over both of them to shield them from the gentle spring sunlight. When the younger of the girls cuffed him and rebuked him sharply for not holding the sunshade steady, Althea repressed an urge to slap her. The boy was far too young to cower so deferentially. He walked barefoot on the cold cobblestones.

  “It could break your heart, if you let it. But those two have been schooled not to have hearts at all. ”

  Althea started at the low voice so close to her ear. She spun to find Amber a step behind her. Their eyes met and Amber raised one knowing eyebrow. In a haughty tone, she offered, “I'll give you a copper, sailor-boy, if you'll carry this wood for me. ”

  “Pleased to oblige,” Althea replied and bobbed her head in a sailor's bow. She took the large chunk of ruddy wood from Amber's arms, and instantly found it much heavier than she had supposed. As she hefted it to a more secure grip, she caught the merriment in her friend's topaz eyes. She fell into step a deferential two paces behind Amber, and followed her through the Market to Rain Wild Street.

  Things had changed here as well. There had always been a few shops that kept night guards, and one or two that even employed guards by day. Now nearly every shop boasted a surly doorman with a short sword or a long knife at his hip. Doors did not stand invitingly open, nor was merchandise displayed on racks and tables outside the shops. The intricate and near-magical goods imported to Bingtown from the Rain Wilds were now visible only through the barred windows. Althea missed the waft of perfumes and the ringing of wind chimes and the savor of rare spices on the breeze. The shops and street were as busy as ever, but in both merchants and buyers there was a guarded wariness very unpleasant to behold. Even Amber's shop had a guard outside the latched door. The young woman at her door wore a leather doublet and nonchalantly juggled two truncheons and a sap as she waited for her mistress to open up. She had long blonde hair caught back in a tail. She gave Althea a toothy smile. Althea edged past her uncomfortably. A large cat might so appraise a fat rodent.

  “Wait outside, Jek. I'm not ready to open the store yet,” Amber told her succinctly.

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  “Whatever your pleasure, mistress,” Jek replied. Her tongue put a strange foreign twist on the words. She shot Althea one speculative glance as she carefully backed out the door and closed it behind her.

  “Where did you find her?” Althea asked incredulously.

  “She's an old friend. She is going to be disappointed when she discovers you're a woman. And she will. Nothing escapes Jek. Not that there is any danger of her betraying your secret. She is as close-mouthed as can be. Sees all, tells nothing. The perfect servant. ”

  “It's funny. I never imagined you having servants of any kind. ”

  “It's my preference not to, but I'm afraid a guard for the shop became necessary. I decided to live elsewhere, and with the increase of burglary in Bingtown, I had to hire someone to watch my shop at night. Jek needed a place to live; the arrangement works wonderfully. ” She took the chunk of wood from Althea's arms and set it aside. Then, to Althea's surprise, she seized her by both shoulders and held
her at arm's length. “You do make a fetching youth. I can scarcely blame Jek for eyeing you. ” She gave her a warm hug. As she released her, she added, “I am so glad to see you return unscathed. I have thought of you often and wondered how you fared. Come into the back. I'll make some tea and we can talk. ”

  As Amber spoke, she was leading the way. The back room was the cluttered cave Althea remembered. There were workbenches with scattered tools and partly finished beads. Clothes hung on hooks or were layered neatly into trunks. There was a bed in one corner and an unmade pallet in another. A small fire burned in the hearth.

  “I'd love tea, but I haven't time just now. At least, not yet. I've a message to deliver first. However, as soon as I've done it, I'll come right back here. I intended to do so, even before you spotted me on the street. ”

  “It is very important to me that you do so,” Amber replied so seriously that Althea stared at her. In answer to that look, Amber added, “It's not something I can explain quickly. ”

  Althea's curiosity was piqued, but her own concerns pushed it aside. “I need to speak to you privately as well. It's a delicate matter. Perhaps I have no right to interfere, but she is-” She hesitated. “Perhaps now is actually the best time, even though I haven't spoken to Captain Tenira about this yet. ” Althea paused, then plunged ahead. “I've been serving on the liveship Ophelia. She's been hurt, and I hope you can help her. A Chalcedean galley challenged us as we made our way back to Bingtown. Ophelia burned her hands fending them off. She says there is no pain, but she seems always to keep her hands clasped or otherwise hidden from view. I do not know how bad the damage is, or if a woodworker like yourself could do anything to repair scorched wood, but . . . ”

  “Challenged by a galley? And attacked?” Amber was horrified. “In the Inside Passage waters?” She exhaled in a rush. She stared past Althea, as if looking into a different time and place. Her voice went strange. “Fate rushes down upon us! The time drags and the days plod past, lulling us into thinking that the doom we fear will always so delay. Then, abruptly, the dark days we have all predicted are upon us, and the time when we could have turned dire fate aside has passed. How old must I be before I learn? There is no time; there is never any time. Tomorrow may never come, but todays are linked inexorably in a chain, and now is always the only time we have to divert disaster. ”

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