The mad ship, p.22
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       The Mad Ship, p.22

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  Althea felt a sudden sense of vindication. This was the reaction she had hoped to get from her mother. Strange that it was a newcomer, and not even a Bingtown Trader who instantly grasped the full significance of her news. Amber had completely forgotten her earlier offer of tea. Instead she flung open a chest in the corner of the room and began to haul garments from it in frenzy. “Give me just a few moments and I shall be fit to accompany you. However, let us not waste an instant. Begin with the day you left here, and talk to me. Tell me everything of your travels, even those things you consider unimportant. ” She turned to a small table and opened a box on it. She made a brisk check of its contents of pots and brushes, then tucked it under her arm.

  Althea had to laugh. “Amber, that would take hours-no, days-to do. ”

  “Which is why we must begin now. Come. Start while I change. ” Amber bundled up an armful of cloth and disappeared behind a wooden screen in the corner. Althea launched into an account of her experiences aboard the Reaper, She had barely got past her first miserable months and Brashen's discovery of her before Amber emerged from behind the screen. But it was not Amber who stood before her. Instead, it was a smudge-faced slave girl. A tattoo sprawled across one wind-reddened cheek. A crusty sore encompassed half her upper lip and her left nostril. Her dirty hair was pulling free from a scruffy braid. Her shirt was rough cotton and her bare feet peeked out from under her patched skirts. A dirty bandage bound one of her ankles. Rough canvas work gloves had replaced the lacy ones Amber habitually wore. She spread a dirty canvas tote on the table and began to load it with woodworking tools.

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  “You amaze me. How did you learn to do that?” Althea demanded, grinning.

  “I've told you. I have played many roles in my life. This one disguise has proved very useful of late. Slaves are invisible. I can go almost anywhere in this guise and be ignored. Even the men who would not hesitate to force themselves on a slave are put off by a bit of dirt and a few well-placed scabs. ”

  “Have the streets of Bingtown become that dangerous for a woman alone?”

  Amber shot her a look that was almost pitying. “You see what is happening and yet you do not see. Slaves are not women, Althea. Nor men. They are merchandise, goods and property. Things. Why should a slave-owner care if one of his goods is raped? If she bears a child, he has another slave. If she does not, well, what is the harm done? That boy you were staring at . . . it costs his master nothing if he weeps himself to sleep every night. The bruises he is given cost his owner nothing. If he becomes sullen and intractable from poor treatment, he will simply be sold off to someone who treats him even worse. The bottom rungs of the ladder become very slippery, once slavery is accepted. If a human's life can be measured in counted coins, then that worth can be diminished, a copper at a time, until no value is left. When an old woman is worth less than the food she eats . . . well. ” Amber sighed suddenly.

  As abruptly, she straightened herself. “No time for that. ” She ducked to peer at herself in a mirror on the table, then snatched up a ragged scarf and tied it about her head and over her ears. The tool tote was concealed inside a market basket. She tucked her earrings up out of sight. “There. Let's go. We'll slip out the back way. On the street, take my arm, lean close and leer at me like a nasty sailor. That way we can talk as we go. ”

  Althea was amazed at how well the ruse worked. Those folk who took any notice of them at all turned aside in disgust. Althea continued the tale of her journey. Once or twice, Amber made small sounds as if she would interrupt, but when Althea paused she would insist, “No, go on. When you are finished, that is the time for questions. ” Never had anyone listened to her so intently, absorbing her words as a sponge soaks in water.

  When they approached the tariff docks, Amber pulled Althea aside for a moment. “How will you introduce me to the ship?” she asked.

  “I'll have you follow me aboard. I haven't discussed this with Captain Tenira yet. ” Althea frowned to herself as she suddenly realized how awkward all this could be. “You'll have to meet Captain Tenira and Grag before I take you forward to meet Ophelia. I honestly don't know how friendly they will be, to you or to the idea of someone not of Bingtown working on their ship. ”

  “Trust me to handle them. I can be charming when it is required. Now, forward. ”

  Althea was unchallenged at the ship's ramp. She gave a furtive look around and then made a show of beckoning Amber forward. The two tariff guards on the dock spotted her immediately. One made a grimace of distaste while the other brayed out a knowing laugh. Neither one interfered as the ship's boy smuggled his doxie aboard.

  The seaman on watch aboard the Ophelia raised an incredulous eyebrow, but at a sign from Althea, he bit his tongue. He escorted them to the door of Captain Tenira's cabin and stood by while Althea tapped.

  “Enter,” Tenira called. Althea jerked her head at Amber and she followed her in. The captain had been busy with a pen and parchment at his table while Grag stood looking out the windows. “What's this?” Captain Tenira demanded incredulously while Grag's mouth twisted in distaste.

  “I am not what I look, sir,” Amber replied before Althea could utter a word. Her voice was so genteelly modulated, her accent so pure, that no one could have doubted her. “Please excuse that I come disguised. It seemed prudent. I've been a friend of Althea's for some time. She knows I can be trusted. She has told me of your encounter on your way here. I am here not just to lend my support to your defiance of the tariffs, but to see if I can repair the damage that was done to Ophelia's hands. ”

  In one breath, she had smoothly stated everything that Althea would have stumbled over expressing. Then she stood quietly, hands clasped demurely in front of her, her spine straight, her eyes meeting theirs unashamedly. The two men exchanged a glance. The first words out of Captain Tenira's mouth shocked Althea.

  “Do you really think you can do something for Ophelia's hands? It pains me to see her ashamed of their appearance. ”

  There was a depth of emotion in the man's voice when he spoke of his ship that touched Althea's soul.

  “I don't know,” Amber replied honestly. “I know little of wizardwood. My small experience of it tells me that it is exceedingly fine-grained. The very density of it may have preserved her from taking deep harm. But I will know only when I look at her hands, and perhaps not even then. ”

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  “Then let us go forward and look,” Tenira immediately declared. He gave an almost apologetic look at Althea. “I know you bear tidings for me from your mother. Do not think I undervalue them. But Ophelia is my ship. ”

  “She must come first,” Althea agreed. “It was in my mind also, when I asked my friend Amber to accompany me. ”

  “That is so like you,” Grag observed warmly. He was so bold as to touch Althea's hand. He sketched a bow toward Amber. “Anyone that Althea calls friend, I am honored to know. It is the only credential you need with me. ”

  “My son recalls me to my manners. Forgive me, lady. I am Captain and Bingtown Trader Tomie Tenira of the liveship Ophelia. This is my son, Grag Tenira. ”

  Althea realized sharply that she did not know Amber's family name. But before she could stumble through that introduction, Amber spoke. “I am Amber the bead-maker, an artisan of Rain Wild Street. I look forward to meeting your ship. ”

  With no more ado, Captain Tenira led the way. Ophelia was obviously simmering with curiosity. She looked Amber up and down with a scandalized restraint that brought a grin to Althea's face despite herself. As soon as Amber's presence was explained, the ship showed no hesitation at turning to her and presenting her scorched hands for inspection. “Do you think you can do anything for me?” she asked gravely.

  It was the first time Althea had had a clear look at the damage. The tarry fireballs had clung to her fingers as they burned her. It had licked up the inside of Ophelia's left wrist. Her patri
cian hands looked like those of a scrub maid.

  Amber took one of the ship's large hands in both her own. She ran her gloved fingertips over the scorched surface lightly, then rubbed at it more firmly. “Tell me if I hurt you,” she added belatedly. Her brow was furrowed with concentration. “A most peculiar wood,” she added to herself. She opened the tote of tools and selected one. She scraped lightly at one blackened fingertip. Ophelia gave a sharp intake of breath.

  “That hurts?” Amber asked immediately.

  “Not as humans hurt. It feels . . . wrong. Damaging. ”

  “I think there is sound wood just below the scorched surface. Working with my tools, I could remove what is blackened. I might have to reshape your hands a bit; you would end up with slimmer fingers than you have now. I could keep a good proportion, I believe, unless the damage goes much deeper than I think. However, you would have to endure that sense of damage, unflinching, while I did my work. I do not know how long it would take. ”

  “What do you think, Tomie?” the ship demanded of her captain.

  “I think we have little to lose by trying,” he said gently. “If the sensation becomes unbearable, then Mistress Amber will stop, I am sure. ”

  Ophelia smiled nervously. Then a wondering look came into her eyes. “If your work on my hands is successful, then perhaps something could be done about my hair as well. ” She lifted a hand to touch the long loose curls of her mane. “This style is so dated. I have often thought that if I could contrive ringlets around my face and . . . ”

  “Oh, Ophelia. ” Tomie groaned as the others laughed.

  Amber had kept possession of one of Ophelia's hands. Her head was still bent over it, examining the damage. “I may have great difficulty in matching the stain. Never have I seen stain that mimics so well the color of flesh without obscuring the grain of the wood. Someone told me that a liveship creates its own colors as it awakens. ” She met Ophelia's eyes without selfconsciousness as she asked, “Will that happen again, if I have to plane so deep that I expose uncolored wood?”

  “I do not know,” Ophelia replied quietly.

  “This will not be the work of an afternoon,” Amber said decidedly. “Captain, you will have to give your watch permission to let me come and go. I shall keep this same guise. Is that acceptable?”

  “I suppose so,” the captain conceded grudgingly. “Though it may be hard to explain to other Traders why such delicate work is entrusted to a slave, or why I use a slave's labor at all. I oppose all slavery, you know. ”

  “As do I,” Amber replied gravely. “As do many, many folk in this town. ”

  “Do they?” Tomie replied bitterly. “If there is any great public outcry about it, it has escaped me. ”

  Amber lightly tapped her fake tattoo. “Were you to put on rags and one of these and stroll about Bingtown, you would hear the voices of those who oppose slavery most bitterly. In your efforts to waken Bingtown to its senses, do not ignore that pool of allies. ” She selected a small block plane from her tote of tools and began to adjust the blade on it. “If one were interested in, say, the inner workings of the household of the tariff minister, willing spies might easily be found among that pool. I believe the scribe who composes his correspondence to the Satrap is a slave, also. ”

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  A little shiver walked up Althea's spine. How did Amber come to know such things, and why had she troubled to find them out?

  “You speak as if you were knowledgeable about such things,” Captain Tenira pointed out gravely.

  “Oh, I have known my share of intrigues and plotting. I find it all distasteful. And necessary. Just as pain is occasionally necessary. ” She set the block to Ophelia's palm. “Hold steady,” she warned her in a low voice. “I'm going to take off the worst of the damage. ”

  There was a tiny silence followed by a dreadful scraping noise. Charred wood powdered away. The smell reminded Althea of scorched hair. Ophelia made a tiny noise then lifted her eyes to stare out over the water. Her jaw was set.

  Captain Tenira's face was almost expressionless as he watched Amber work. As if inquiring about the weather, he asked Althea, “Did you deliver my message to your mother?”

  “I did. ” Althea pushed aside an emotion that was close to shame. “I'm sorry. I do not bring much that is of great comfort. My mother said she would speak to my sister Keffria. She is legally the Trader of the family now. Mother will urge her to attend the next Council meeting, and to vote in support of your actions. ”

  “I see,” Tenira replied. His voice was carefully empty.

  “I wish my father were still alive,” Althea added miserably.

  “I could wish that you were Trader for the Vestrits. Truly, you should have inherited your family's ship. ”

  Althea revealed her deepest wound. “I do not know if Keffria can stand beside you at all. ” A stunned silence followed her words. She kept her voice even as she added, “I do not know how she can side with you, and still support her husband. The increased tariffs are based on the Satrap protecting trade from pirates, but we all know it is the slave trade he cares most about. He never bothered about the pirates until they began attacking slavers. So, if the issue comes down to slavery, and she must take a stance . . . She . . . Kyle is trading in slaves. Using Vivacia as a slave ship. I do not think she would oppose her husband in this. Even if she does not agree with him, she has never had the will to set herself against him in anything. ”

  Then, “No-o-o,” Ophelia gasped. “Oh, how could they do such a thing! Vivacia is so young. How will she withstand all that? What was your mother thinking to allow this to happen? How could they have done that to their own family's ship?”

  Grag and Captain Tenira were both silent. A stony look of condemnation settled over the captain's face while Grag looked stricken. The question hung in the air, an accusation.

  “I don't know,” Althea replied miserably. “I don't know. ”



  “I don't know. ” Her mother replied testily.

  Keffria looked down into the cup of tea she held. She forced her tongue to be still. She had nearly asked her mother if she was certain she had really seen Althea earlier. The last week had been so exhausting, she could have forgiven her mother for imagining the whole thing. That would be easier to forgive than her younger sister turning up and then abruptly vanishing again. It didn't help her temper that her mother seemed simply to accept Althea's outrageous behavior.

  Her mother relented and added, “She told me she would be back before morning. The sun has scarcely gone down. ”

  “Does it not seem odd to you that a young, unmarried woman of a good family should be out and about on her own at night, let alone on her first night home after she has been missing for nearly a year?”

  “No doubt that is so. It seems very like Althea to me, however. I've come to accept that I can't change her. ”

  “No such leeway is allowed to me!” Malta interjected pointedly. “I am scarcely allowed to walk around Bingtown by myself by day. ”

  “That's true,” Ronica Vestrit replied affably. Her needles ticked rhythmically against each other as she worked. She ignored Malta's noisy exhalation of frustration.

  They had dined early and were now sitting together in the study. No one had said that they kept vigil for Althea's return. No one needed to. Her mother knit as if she were in some sort of race. Keffria had no such concentration. She stubbornly poked her needle through her embroidery and dragged another stitch into place. She would not let her sister upset her; she would not let the small peace she had found be stolen from her.

  Malta did not even pretend to be constructively occupied. She had poked at their simple meal discontentedly and commented that she already missed Davad's servants. Now she strolled about the room, trailing her fingers on the desk-top, pickin
g up the smaller mementos of her grandfather's sailing years, handling them and then putting them down. Her restlessness was an irritant to Keffria's raw nerves. Keffria was glad Selden was abed, exhausted after the long week of company. Malta had thrived on it. Ever since the last carriage had pulled away down the drive, the girl had had a desolate look to her. She reminded Keffria of some sea-creature stranded by a retreating tide.

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  “I'm bored,” Malta announced, echoing her mother's thought. “I wish the Rain Wild Traders were still here. They don't sit about in the evening and do quiet work. ”

  “When they are at home, I am sure they do,” Keffria countered firmly. “No one has parties and games and music every night, Malta. You must not make that the basis for your relationship with Reyn. ”

  “Well, if he marries me and we have a home of our own, it will not be dull every night, I can tell you that. We shall have friends over to visit, and bring in musicians. Or we will go out to visit other friends. Delo and I have decided that when we are married women and free to do as we please, we shall often have . . . ”

  “If you marry Reyn, you will live in the Rain Wilds, not in Bingtown,” Ronica pointed out quietly. “You will have to make friends there, and learn to live as they do. ”

  “Why do you have to be so dismal?” Malta demanded sharply. “No matter what I say, you always say something to make it not so. I think you just want me to be unhappy forever!”

  “The fault is not in what I say, but in the silly fancies you spin to start. . . . ”

  “Mother. Please. I shall go mad if you two begin to bicker and snip tonight. ”

  A heavy silence followed. “I'm sorry. I do not wish Malta to be unhappy. I want her to wake up and see that she must choose to be happy within the framework of her life. These wild fancies of endless parties and entertainment are not . . . ”

  “No wonder Aunt Althea ran away!” Malta's cry cut off her grandmother's words. “All you can see ahead for anyone is boredom and toil. Well, my life is not going to be like that! Reyn has told me many exciting things about the Rain Wilds. When we go to visit his family, he is going to show me the ancient city of the Elder race, where flame jewels come from, and jidzin and other wonderful things. He has told me that there are places where you can go, and at a touch of your hand, you can light the chambers as they were of old. He says that sometimes he has even glimpsed the ghosts of the Elder folk coming and going on their errands. Not all can do that, only the very sensitive, but he says perhaps I have that skill. Very sensitive folk often do. Those most gifted can sometimes hear their music echoing still. He will dress me as befits a woman of the Khuprus family. I will not have to dust furniture or polish silver or cook food; there will be servants to do that. Reyn says . . . Mother, why are you smiling at me like that? Are you making fun of me?” Malta demanded indignantly.

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