The mad ship, p.24
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       The Mad Ship, p.24
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         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  Amber paused as if remembering a better time. She went on with a sigh, “But nothing thrives without limits. At first, the court was amused when he discovered the pleasures of the flesh and indulged in them. Characteristically, he set out to explore them all. Everyone supposed it was but a stage of his growth. It wasn't. It was the end of his growth. Mired in pleasure, lost in all but the titillation of his own senses, he became ever more self-centered. Ambitious people saw it as a path to the future Satrap's favor; they began to supply his desire. The unscrupulous saw it as a pathway to power. They taught him exotic new pleasures, ones they alone could supply. When his father died abruptly and he was catapulted into power, the strings of the puppet were already fixed. Since then, they have only become more confining. ” Amber gave a mirthless laugh. “It is bitter. The young man who was never restricted by the walls of discipline is now choking on the leashes of his addictions. His enemies will rob his folk and enslave his lands, and he will smile as the dream herbs smolder in his chambers. ”

  “You seem well versed in this history. ”

  “I am. ”

  The brusqueness of her answer cut off Althea's next question. She found a different one. “Why are you telling me all this?” she asked in a low voice.

  “To wake you up. Appeals to the Satrap's honor, and reminders of ancient promises, will not produce results. The diseases of power have eaten too deeply into the Satrap and the influential families of Jamaillia. They are too busy saving themselves and gathering what scraps of power they can to be interested in Bingtown's plight. If Bingtown wishes to continue as it has, then it must find its own allies. Not just those of the newcomers who share Bingtown's ideals, but the slaves brought here against their will, and . . . any others who share Bingtown's enemies. The Rain Wild Traders must also step out from the shadows, not only to assert their rights but also to take responsibility for what they do. ”

  Althea halted suddenly in the street. Amber took another step, then stopped and looked back at her.

  “I need to go home, to my family,” Althea said quietly. “All of what you say speaks to me, not only of Bingtown, but of my family's predicament. ”

  Amber released her arm. “If I have made you see that those two things are connected, I have not wasted my time this evening. Another time, you will come to Paragon with me. And you will help me convince him that he must support my efforts to buy him. ”

  “First I will have to convince myself of that,” Althea cautioned her. She took satisfaction in knowing that Paragon had had the good sense to resist Amber's efforts. As much as she liked her, there had to be a better buyer for the Paragon than she. Althea added that to her list of concerns. She would discuss it with Grag and his father when next she saw them.

  “You will be convinced, if you open your ears and eyes. Go carefully, Althea, and reach home safely. Visit me when you can. Until then, be aware. Consider all that troubles Bingtown. Notice all that seems wrong to you, even that which does not seem to involve you. You will reach the same conclusions I have. ”

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  Althea nodded at her. She didn't speak. It saved her from having to say she would reach her own conclusions. What was best for her family would come first.

  “ARE WE GOING TO SIT UP ALL NIGHT?” MALTA FINALLY ASKED.

  Keffria's reply was surprisingly mild. “I'm going to stay up until Althea gets home. I know you must be tired, dear. It's been quite a week for you. You can go to bed if you wish. ”

  “I thought you told me that Grandmother would start treating me more like an adult if I acted like one. ” She kept an eye on her grandmother as she said this, and saw the small flicker of her eyes that said her barb had struck. It was time the old woman realized that she and her mother did talk together about such things. “I think if you are both going to stay up and talk to Aunt Althea when she gets home, I should, too. ”

  “As you wish,” her mother said wearily. She picked up the needlework she had set aside and looked at it.

  Malta leaned back in her chair. She had curled her legs up and tucked her feet under her. Her back ached and her head pounded. She still smiled. It had been quite a week for her. She reached up and began to take her hair down. As she plucked the pins out and it cascaded darkly about her shoulders, she wondered what Reyn would think if he could see her like this. She imagined him sitting across from her, watching her hair slowly come down. He would tilt his head and his veil would move slightly when he sighed. He would toy with the fingertips of his gloves. He had confided to her that he found them more annoying than the veil. “To touch something, skin to surface, can tell one so much. A shared touch, skin to skin, can speak the words our mouths are not free to say. ” He had held his hand out, as if inviting her to touch his gloved fingers, but she had not moved. “You could remove your gloves,” she had told him. “I would not be afraid. ”

  He had laughed lightly, his veil puffing out with his amusement. “I think there is not much you would fear, my little hunting cat. But that would not make it proper. I have promised my mother that this courtship will be proper. ”

  “Did you?” She had leaned forward, dropping her voice to a breathy whisper. “Do you tell me that to make me feel safe? Or to discourage me from attempting any impropriety?” She had let a tiny smile curl her mouth and lifted one brow. It was an expression often practiced in her mirror.

  A slight movement of the lace over his face told her she had scored. That quick little intake of breath said he was both shocked and delighted at her boldness. But even better, past his shoulder, she glimpsed the dark scowl on Cerwin Trell's face. She had given a throaty little trill of laughter, contriving that her whole attention seemed focused on Reyn as she watched for Cerwin's reaction. Cerwin had snatched up a bottle of wine from a passing servant's tray and refilled his own glass. He was far too well bred to slam the bottle down on the table at his elbow, but it had made an audible thud. Delo had leaned over to rebuke him, but he had brushed his sister's remark away. What had he thought then? That he had been too timid in his suit? That he had missed his opportunity to have such a rare creature as Malta Haven smile at him like that?

  Malta certainly hoped so. She thought of the simmering tension between the two men and a shiver ran over her. She was so glad she had been able to talk her mother into the farewell party before Reyn left. She had begged a chance to introduce her friends to him, saying she needed to see for herself if they could accept her Rain Wild suitor. It had been more successful than she had ever dared dream. One and all, the girls had been eaten up with jealousy to see her pampered so.

  She had found a moment to slip aside with Delo and show her all the “small trinkets” that Reyn had managed to slip in with her approved gifts. The dragonfly perched motionless upon the flowers sent to her bedchamber had been artfully fashioned from precious metals and tiny gems. A tiny perfect deep blue flame gem had been inside a bottle of scent. A little basket of candied violets had been lined with what at first glance appeared to be a handkerchief. Shaken out, the fine sheer fabric was large enough to drape her bed. An unsigned note in its folds told her that Rain Wild women used such cloth to fashion their night garments for their bridal trousseau. An apple in a basket of fruit proved to be a clever deception. At a touch, it unfolded to present a string of water-opals and a tiny packet of silver-gray powder. The note with that directed her to place the powder in the dream-box ten days after his departure. When Delo had asked her what the dream-box did, Malta told her it sent her dreams that she and Reyn could share. Asked what sort of dreams, Malta had turned aside and managed a blush. “It would not be proper to speak of them,” she had whispered breathily.

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  No sooner had they returned to the festivities than Delo excused herself. A short time later Malta saw her in excited conversation with Kitten. The gossip had spread swiftly as a rising tide after that. Malta had seen it engulf Cerwin. She had refused to m
eet his eyes today, save for one glance. He had not hesitated to let her see the heartbreak in his gaze. She had sent him a stricken look of appeal. After that, she had feigned ignoring him. Enrapt in Reyn's conversation, she had left it to her mother to make her farewells to the departing guests.

  It was so delicious to wonder what Cerwin would do next.

  She was broken from her musings by the soft working of the kitchen door. Her mother and grandmother exchanged a glance. “I left it unlatched for her,” Grandma Vestrit said quietly. They both got to their feet, but before they could move, a man entered the room. Keffria gave a gasp and stepped back in horror.

  “I'm home,” Althea announced. She took off the ragged coat she was wearing and smiled at them all. Her hair was disgusting, bound flat to her head and then swinging behind her in a boy's plait. The skin of her face was red and wind-chapped. She strode into the room and held her hands out to the fire as if she were perfectly at home here. She smelled of tar, oakum and beer.

  “God of Fishes!” Keffria said, startling them all with the coarseness of the oath. She shook her head as she stared in dismay at her sister. “Althea. How can you do this to us? How can you do this to yourself? Have you no pride, no care at all for your family name?” She sat down heavily in her chair.

  “Don't worry about it. No one who saw me recognized me,” Althea retorted. She moved around the room like a stray dog sniffing. “You've moved Father's desk,” she accused them all.

  “The light is better by the window,” Grandmother said mildly. “The older I get, the harder it is to see fine lettering. It takes me four or five efforts to thread a needle now. ”

  Althea started to speak, then stopped. Her features changed slightly. “I am sorry to hear that,” she said sincerely. She shook her head. “It must be hard, to lose things you have always taken for granted. ”

  Malta was trying to watch them all at once. She saw her mother fold her lips tightly and guessed she was angered at how her complaint had been ignored. In contrast, Grandmother met Althea's eyes without anger, only a grave sadness. Malta ventured a move. “You can't know that no one recognized you. All you know is that no one showed that they had recognized you. Perhaps they were too ashamed for you to react. ”

  For an instant, Althea looked shocked that Malta had spoken at all. She narrowed her eyes. “I think you should remember your manners when you speak to your elders, Malta. When I was your age, I was not encouraged to speak out of turn when adults were conversing. ”

  It was like a spark to well-laid tinder. Malta's mother surged to her feet and stepped between them. “When you were Malta's age, as I recall clearly, you were a barefoot hoyden climbing around in the ship's rigging and conversing freely with all kinds of people. And sometimes doing more than conversing. ”

  Althea's face paled, making the smudges on it stand out more clearly. Malta smelled a secret there. Her mother knew something about Aunt Althea, something dirty. Secrets were power.

  “Stop it. ” Grandmother spoke in a low voice. “You two have been apart for almost a year, and the first time you are in a room together, all you do is spit at each other like cats. I haven't stayed up all night to listen to you squabble. Sit down, all of you, and keep silent for a moment. I intend that you should listen to me. ”

  Her mother returned slowly to her chair and her grandmother sat down with a sigh. As if to pique her sister, Althea sank down to sit on the hearthstones. She crossed her legs like a tailor; for a woman in trousers to sit like that struck Malta as obscene. She caught Malta staring at her and smiled back. Malta caught her mother's eye and gave a small shake of her head. Keffria gave a small sigh. Grandmother ignored it all.

  “Instead of criticizing each other, we all need to look at our family's situation and do what we can to improve it,” Grandmother began.

  “Aren't you even going to ask her where she's been all this time and what she has been doing? We were worried to death about her! Now she comes dragging in, dirty and dressed like a man, and-”

  “My niece is dressed like a woman, and is evidently being used as a lure to attract Rain Wild money. Why don't we talk about family pride and the morality of that first?” Althea demanded tartly.

  Grandmother stood up and walked between them. “I said it was my turn to speak. I am trying to talk about what is most important first, before we bog down in bickering. We all have questions. Those questions will keep until we have determined if we can act as a family. If we cannot, then there is no point to asking the questions. ”

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  “If Althea had been here, as she should have been, she would know what we face,” Keffria put in quietly. “But, I am sorry to interrupt. I will hear you out, Mother. ”

  “Thank you. I will be brief. Some of this, Althea, I told you about earlier today, but not in detail. I think all of us need to consider our family's situation, rather than our own individual concerns. We need to set aside our differences. Or at least conceal them. We must decide where this family stands, and then we must show that image to Bingtown. We can show no trace of dissent. We could not weather the slightest breath of scandal. ”

  Grandmother turned slightly so that her words were addressed more to Aunt Althea. “Althea, we are beset by our creditors. Our reputation is the only thing that keeps them at bay. Right now, they still believe that we will eventually pay them off, interest and all. Keffria and I-and Malta, I should add-have made many sacrifices to maintain an image of stability. We are living very simply. I have let go the servants, save for Rache. We have been doing for ourselves. We are not the only Bingtown Traders who have had to make this compromise, though few find themselves as straitened as we are. In some ways, it makes our situation worse. Many of our creditors are pinched; some who would have extended us understanding cannot afford to do so, for the sake of their own families. ”

  Grandmother went on and on. It was too familiar a litany to Malta.

  She had to fight to keep her eyes open. The only interesting thing was watching Aunt Althea as it was explained to her. Guilt and shame flickered across her face from time to time. Odd. Grandmother was not telling her that part of this was her fault, that if she had stayed at home properly she could have helped her family, but Althea still reacted as if the accusations had been spoken. When Grandmother spoke of how the Khuprus family had bought the note on the Vivacia and told her that there was no gracious way for little Malta to refuse the courtship, Althea even shot her a look of sympathy. Malta looked properly martyred in response.

  Grandmother finished with, “I am sure you have noted the changes in the house and grounds. Now you know they were necessary sacrifices, not neglect. Althea, this is what I ask you to do. Stay home. Dress properly, behave sedately. If Keffria concurs, you might be helpful in managing some of the properties that demand a more active overseeing. Or, if you feel you need more . . . freedom, you could take over the little farm from my dowry. Ingleby is a quiet place, but cozy. It could benefit from someone taking an interest in it. You might find it satisfying to make a project of it, and see what you could-”

  “Mother. That is not why I came home. ” Althea sounded almost sad. “I don't want a toy or a project. Nor do I wish to shame my family. I have come home to assist, but it will be in what I do best. ” Althea looked past Grandmother and locked eyes with her sister. “Keffria, you know the Vivacia should have been mine. You have always known that. I come home to claim her, to rescue her from being abused as a slaveship, and use her to create income for the family. ”

  Malta leaped to her feet. “My father owns that ship. He will never allow you to take it from him. ”

  Althea caught her breath. Anger blazed in her eyes. For an instant, she clenched her jaws. Then she turned aside from Malta to address only Keffria. She spoke in an even voice. “My sister, you 'own' the ship. What becomes of it is solely up to you. Bingtown is not Chalced, to steal a woman's wealth and give it to her husband. More
over, you all heard Kyle vow before Sa that if I could but show him a ship's ticket saying I am a worthy sailor, he would give the ship to me. I have that ticket, stamped with the likeness of the liveship Ophelia. Both her master and her mate will speak out as to my worthiness to command. I have been away nearly a year. In that time, this has been my only thought: not to shame my family, but to prove myself worthy of that which should have been mine without question. ” Althea's voice took on a note of appeal as she added, “Keffria, don't you see? I have made it easy for you. Give me the ship. Kyle would be keeping his oath before Sa; you would be doing what you know is right. I give you my word, but I will commit it to writing if you wish: the profits from every voyage will go back into your estate, save enough for me to refit and sail again. ”

  Malta felt sickened at her mother's expression. She was being swayed by Althea's words. But before she could intervene, Althea thwarted herself.

  “How could this be hard for you?” she demanded rhetorically. “Kyle may object, but all you have to do is stand up to him. You should have stood up to him a long time ago. This is family business, Vestrit business, Bingtown Trader business. It has nothing to do with him. ”

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  “He is my husband!” Keffria cried out, affronted. “He has his faults, and I am sometimes angry at him. But he is not a pet, nor a piece of furniture. He is a part of my family. He is a part of this family. For good or ill, that bond exists, Althea. I am sick at how he is dismissed by you and Mother. He is my husband and the father of my children, and he truly believes he is doing what is right. If you cannot have any respect for him, could you not at least respect my feelings for him?”

  “As he has respected mine?” Althea asked sarcastically.

 
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