The mad ship, p.23
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       The Mad Ship, p.23

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  “No. It's not that at all. I was thinking that it sounds to me as if you like this young man very much. ” Keffria gave her head a small shake. “I remember all the grand plans that your father and I made for our life together. Those dreams do not always come true, but the spinning of them is very sweet. ”

  “It sounds to me as if she likes the prospect of all he will bring her,” Ronica corrected softly. More gently, she added, “But there is nothing wrong with that, either. Young people who share the same dreams often make very good partners. ”

  Malta came back to poke at the fire in the grate. “Don't talk as if it were all agreed upon, because it isn't,” she said petulantly. "There are a lot of bad things about him. Not just his veil and gloves; who can even imagine what he really looks like? He also goes on and on about politics. One minute he is talking of parties and friends; the next he speaks of war with Jamaillia and how we must stand firm no matter how difficult life becomes. He talks as if that would be some big adventure! Moreover, he says slavery is evil, although I told him that Papa thinks it might be good for Bingtown and that Papa is rebuilding our fortune by selling slaves. He dared to say that Papa would have to change his ways and see that slavery is wrong and bad for our economy, too, and trade up the Rain Wild River instead!

  “And he talks about having children as if I am to have a baby the day after we are wed! When I said we must have a house in Bingtown as well as in the Rain Wilds so we can visit often and see my friends, he laughed! He says that once I see the wonders of his city, I will forget all about Bingtown, and that we will not have our own house, but only a set of rooms in the great house the Khuprus family shares. So. I am not at all certain that I will choose Reyn. ”

  “It sounds as if you two talked a great deal about your future together,” Ronica ventured.

  “He speaks as if it is all assured! When I tell him it is not, he smiles and asks why I love to torture him so. Are all men so obtuse?”

  “Every one of them that I've ever known,” Ronica assured her complacently. Then, more seriously, she added, “But if you have decided to deny his suit, then you must tell us so. The sooner the courtship is broken off, the least discomfort to both families. ”

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  “Oh . . . I haven't decided. Not really. It may take me a while. ”

  The room fell silent as Malta considered her prospects and the two older women privately contemplated what her choices might mean to them.

  “I wish I knew where Althea was,” Keffria heard herself say again.

  Her mother sighed.

  ALTHEA SET HER MUG DOWN. THERE WAS VERY LITTLE LEFT OF THE ROAST fowl on the table before them. Across the table from her, Amber set her knife and fork carefully across her plate. Jek leaned back in her chair and picked at something caught in her teeth. She caught Althea watching her and grinned. “You don't have any big brothers at home, do you?” she teased. “Eyes such as yours are wasted on a woman. ”

  “Jek,” Amber rebuked her amusedly. “You are making Althea uncomfortable. Why don't you go stroll about Bingtown for a bit? We have some serious talking to do. ”

  Jek pushed up from the table with a grunt. She rolled her shoulders and Althea heard the crackling of muscle. “Take my advice. Do some serious drinking instead. Serious talking is no way to spend your first evening back in your home town. ” When she grinned, her teeth were white as a carnivore's.

  “Who knows? It may come to that as well,” Amber conceded affably. She watched Jek tug on her boots and then find a light cloak. As soon as the door closed behind her, Amber leaned forward on her elbows. She pointed a long finger at Althea. “Continue from where you left off. And this time, don't bother to gloss over the parts where you feel you behaved badly. I'm not asking this of you so I can judge you. ”

  “Why are you asking this of me?” Althea asked. To herself, she wondered why she was granting this to Amber. She still knew relatively little about the woman. Why was she favoring her with a detailed account of her travels and experiences since the last time she had seen her?

  “Ah. Well. I suppose that is a fair trade, considering all I've asked you. ” Amber took a breath as if putting her words in order. “I cannot leave Bingtown. I must do things here. But the timing of those tasks is dependent on events that are happening elsewhere. In Jamaillia and the Inside Passage, for instance. So I ask you to tell me what changes you have seen in those places. ”

  “That tells me nothing at all,” Althea pointed out quietly.

  “I suppose it doesn't. Let me be blunt then. I am dedicated to bringing about certain changes. I wish to see an end to slavery, not just in Bingtown, but in all of Jamaillia and Chalced as well. I wish to see Bingtown shake off Jamaillian rule. And I wish, most of all, to solve the riddle of the dragon and the serpent. ” She smiled significantly at Althea as she said this. She tapped first the dragon earring she wore in her left ear and then the serpent that swung from her right. She raised an eyebrow at Althea and waited in anticipation for her response.

  “The dragon and the serpent?” Althea queried, baffled.

  Amber's face changed. A terrible dread washed over it, followed by a look of weariness. She leaned back in her chair. She spoke quietly. “When I finally said that to you, you were supposed to leap to your feet and look startled. Or perhaps shout, 'Aha!' or shake your head in wonderment and then explain it all to me. The last thing I ever imagined you doing was sitting there being politely puzzled. ”

  Althea shrugged. “Sorry. ”

  “The words have no significance to you at all? The dragon and the serpent?” There was a desperate note in Amber's voice.

  Althea shrugged again.

  “Think hard,” Amber begged. “Please. I have been so certain that you were the one. Certain dreams have shaken that conviction from time to time, but when I saw you again on the street, surety leapt up in me once more. You are the one. You have to know. Think. The dragon and the serpent. ” She leaned forward on the table and fixed Althea with a pleading stare.

  Althea took a deep breath. “Dragon and serpent. All right. On one island in the Barrens, I saw a rock formation that is called the Dragon. And our ship was attacked by a sea serpent on the way home. ”

  “You mentioned nothing of a dragon when you told me about your time on the Barrens!”

  “It didn't seem significant. ”

  “Tell me now. ” Amber's eyes burned with a cat-like intensity.

  Althea leaned forward and replenished her mug from the earthenware pitcher of beer on the table. “There's not much to tell. We camped in the lee of it when we were working the slaughter. It is just a big rock that sticks out of the earth. When the light hits it right, it looks like a dead dragon. One of the older hands spun a yarn that it was really a slain dragon and that if I climbed up there, I'd find an arrow in its chest still. ”

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  “Did you?”

  Althea grinned sheepishly. “I was curious. I climbed up on its chest one night. Reller had told the truth. Its forelegs were clutching at an arrow sticking out of its chest. ”

  “Then it wasn't just an accidental formation of stone? It truly had forelegs?”

  Althea pursed her lips. “Or maybe some sailors with a bit of time on their hands had 'enhanced' it a bit. That was my opinion. Reller's claim was that that thing had been sprawled there for ages and ages. But the arrow shaft didn't look weathered or splintered. It was as nice a piece of wizardwood as I've ever seen. The only surprising thing to me was that no one had ever taken it. But sailors are a superstitious lot, and wizardwood has a dangerous reputation. ”

  Amber sat as if transfixed.

  “The serpent-” Althea began, but “Hush!” Amber ordered her. “I need to think a moment. A wizardwood arrow. Is that what all this has been about? A wizardwood arrow? Shot by whom, and when? Why?”

  Althea had no answers to any of that. She lifted h
er mug and took a long drink. When she set it down, Amber was smiling at her. “Go back to your tale, and finish it for me. Put in the serpent when you come to him, and tell me as much about him as you can. I promise to be a good listener. ” Amber tipped a small measure of golden brandy into her own glass and leaned back expectantly.

  Jek was right. The beer pitcher had been emptied twice and Amber's bottle of brandy was seriously lightened before the tale was told. Amber went over Althea's account of the serpent attacking the ship several times. She seemed interested in how its spittle had eaten through cloth and flesh, and nodded to herself at Brashen's assertion that it was not a mere predatory attack, but a thinking creature bound on vengeance. Nevertheless, Althea sensed that nothing in that part of her tale rang Amber's interest as the wizardwood arrow had. At last, even Amber's questions seemed to run out. The flames in the grate had burned low. Althea returned from a trip to the back-house to find Amber spilling the last of the brandy into two small glasses. Carved wooden holders, obviously the work of Amber's hands, twined ivy leaves around the glasses.

  “Let us drink,” Amber proposed. “To all that is right with the world. To friendship, and good brandy. ”

  Althea lifted her glass but could not think of anything to add to the toast.

  “The Vivacia?” Amber suggested.

  “I wish her well, but until her decks are under my feet again, she is tangled with all that is most wrong in my world. ”

  “To Grag Tenira?” Amber proposed facetiously.

  “That is also too complicated. ”

  Amber grinned broadly. “To Brashen Trell!”

  Althea groaned and shook her head, but Amber raised her glass anyway. “Here's to irresponsible men who give in to their passions. ” She drained off her brandy. “So women can claim it was none of their doing. ”

  This last she uttered just as Althea had given in and was tossing her brandy down. She choked and sputtered. “Amber, that's not fair. He took advantage of me. ”

  “Did he?”

  “I told you,” Althea replied stubbornly. Actually, she had told Amber very little, other than to admit with a shrug that it had happened. At the time, Amber had let it pass with but a raised eyebrow. Now she met Althea's glare with a steady gaze and a small knowing smile. Althea took a breath. “I had been drinking, and drugged beer at that, and I'd taken a good blow to the head. Then he gave me some of his cindin. And I was cold and wet and exhausted. ”

  “All of that was true of Brashen as well. I'm not finding fault, Althea. I don't think either of you needs to make excuses for what happened. I think you shared what you each needed most. Warmth. Friendship. Release. Acknowledgment. ”

  “Acknowledgment ?”

  “Ah, so you agree to the first three without question?”

  Althea didn't answer the question. “Talking to you is a balancing act,” she complained. Then, “Acknowledgment of what?” she demanded.

  “Of who you are. What you are. ” Amber's voice was soft, almost gentle.

  “So you think I'm a slut, too. ” The effort at putting humor in her voice fell flat.

  Amber considered her for a moment. She tipped back on her chair, balancing it on two legs. “I think you know what you are. You don't need my opinion. All you have to do is look at your daydreams. Have you ever fancied yourself settled down, a wife and mother? Ever wondered what it will be like to carry a babe within you? Do you dream of taking care of your wee ones while awaiting your husband's return from sea?”

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  “Only in my worst nightmares,” Althea heard herself admit with a laugh.

  “So. If you never truly expect yourself to be a settled wife, do you expect that you will live all your life knowing nothing of men?”

  “I hadn't given much thought to it. ” She pulled her beer mug closer.

  Amber snorted. “There is a part of you that thinks of little else, did you but care to admit it. You simply don't want to accept the responsibility for it. You'd like to pretend it is just something that happens to you, something a man tricked you into doing. ” She returned her chair to the floor with a thump. “Come on,” she invited Althea. “The tide is rising and I've an appointment. ” She gave a small belch. “Walk with me. ”

  Althea rose. She could not decide if Amber's words had offended or amused her. “Where are we going?” she asked as she accepted a ragged coat.

  “The beach. I want you to meet a friend of mine. Paragon. ”

  “Paragon? The ship? I know Paragon well!”

  Amber smiled. “I know you do. He spoke of you one night. It was a slip of his tongue and I gave no sign of recognizing your name. However, even if he hadn't, I would have known. You left signs of your stay aboard him. They were mixed in with Brashen's things. ”

  “Like what?” Althea demanded suspiciously.

  “A little hair comb I had seen you wearing the first time I noticed you. It was left perched on a window ledge, as if you had stood there to fix your hair and then forgotten it. ”

  “Ah. But what have you to do with the Paragon?”

  Amber measured her reaction as she said, “I told you. He's my friend. ” More cautiously, she added, “I'm in the process of buying him. ”

  “You can't!” Althea declared, outraged. “The Ludlucks cannot sell their liveship, no matter how he has disgraced himself!”

  “Is there a law against it, then?” Amber's voice was inquisitive, nothing more.

  “No. There has never been any need to make such a law. It is the tradition of Bingtown. ”

  “Many of Bingtown's most venerated traditions are giving way before the onslaught of the New Traders. It is not publicly noised about, but anyone in Bingtown who cares about such things knows that the Paragon is up for sale. And that bids from New Traders are being considered. ”

  Althea was silent for a time. Amber put on a cloak and drew a hood well up over her pale hair. When Althea spoke, her voice was low. “If the Ludluck family is forced to sell Paragon, they will sell him to other Old Traders. Not a newcomer like you. ”

  “I wondered if you would point that out,” Amber replied in a conversationally even voice. She lifted the bar on the back door and opened it. “Coming?”

  “I don't know. ” Althea preceded her out the door, then stood in the dark alley as Amber locked up. The last few minutes of conversation with Amber had taken a decidedly uncomfortable turn. Most unsettling was the feeling she had that Amber had deliberately engineered this small confrontation. Was she trying to test their friendship? Or was there some larger agenda behind her needling? She chose her words carefully.

  “I don't think you are less, or not as good as I am, simply because I am Trader born and you are not. Some things are the sole province of the Bingtown Traders, and we guard those things jealously. Our liveships are very special. We feel the need to protect them. It would be hard to make an outsider understand all that our liveships are to us. ”

  “It is always difficult to explain that which you don't understand yourself,” Amber retorted quietly. “Althea, this idea has to break through, not just to you but to all the Bingtown Traders. To survive, you will have to change. You will have to decide what things are most important to you, and preserve those things. You must accept the allies who share those values, and not be so suspicious of them. Above all, you must relinquish your claims to things that don't belong to you. Things that don't belong even to the Rain Wild Traders, but are the rightful heritage of all. ”

  “What do you know about the Rain Wild Traders?” Althea demanded. She peered at Amber in the dimness of the alley.

  “Precious little. Your close-mouthed Bingtown traditions have seen to that. I suspect they plunder the cities of the Elderlings of their treasures, and claim that ancient magic as their own. Bingtown and the Bingtown Traders act as a shield to conceal a people unknown to the rest of the world. Those people delve deep into secrets they cann
ot grasp. They dismantle the hard-won knowledge of another folk and time, and market it as amusing trinkets. I suspect they destroy as much as they pilfer. Come on. ”

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  Althea took a deep breath to reply, then clamped her jaws firmly. She followed Amber.

  A brief silence fell. Then Amber laughed. “You see. You will not even tell me if my deductions are correct. ”

  “Those things are Bingtown Trader business. One doesn't discuss it with outsiders. ” Althea heard the coldness in her own voice but could not repent it.

  For a time, they walked in false companionship. The revelry of the Night Market reached them as distantly as a memory of better times. The wind off the water was cold. In these hours before dawn, spring was forgotten. The world returned to the dark and chill of winter. Althea touched the bottom of despair. She had not realized how much she had valued her friendship with Amber until it was threatened.

  Amber took her arm suddenly. The contact made the intensity of her voice more compelling. “Bingtown cannot stand alone,” she said. “Jamaillia is corrupted. The Satrap will cede you to Chalced, or sell you to New Traders without even a moment of consideration. He doesn't care, Althea. Not about his honor, or his ancestor's pledge or the people of Bingtown. He doesn't even care about the citizens of Jamaillia. He is so engrossed in himself, he cannot perceive anything except as it relates to him. ” Amber shook her head, and Althea thought she sensed a deep sadness. “He comes to power too young, and unschooled. He had great promise and much talent. His father took joy in his potential, and he charmed his teachers. No one wished to daunt that inquisitive spirit; he was allowed complete freedom in his explorations. No discipline was imposed on him. For a time, it was like watching an extravagant blossom unfold. ”

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