The mad ship, p.25
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       The Mad Ship, p.25

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
“Stop it,” Grandmother broke in, her voice low. “This is what I fear, more than anything. That we cannot set aside our own differences long enough to preserve our family fortune. ”

  For a moment longer, the two daughters glowered at one another. Malta bit her tongue. She longed to leap up and say that Althea should just leave. What was she, anyway? A husbandless, childless woman, a dead branch on this family's tree. She had no interest in the family's fortune, save what riches it could bring to her. Malta and Selden were the ones most sharply affected by the mess that her grandparents' mismanagement had caused. It seemed so logical to her: why could they not see it? Her father was the only strong man that remained to them. His children would profit most or suffer greatest from how the fortune was handled. He should be the one to make all the decisions. Oh, if only he were here.

  But he was not. All Malta could do was to be his eyes and ears for him. When he came back, he would know all. She would not let him walk about vulnerable to the treachery of these power-hungry women.

  Her grandmother had risen. She stood between her quarreling daughters. Slowly and silently, she extended a hand to each of them. Neither daughter was eager; each reluctantly took her hand. “This is what I ask of you,” she said quietly. “For now. Let our quarrels remain within our walls. Outwardly, let us act as one. Althea, Keffria, no action can be taken as regards the Vivacia until she returns to port. Let us, until then, do what we have not done for years. Let us live as a family in one house, putting all our efforts to our mutual good. ” She looked from one daughter to another. “You are not so different from one another as you believe. I think that once you have seen what your united strength can do, you will have no wish to oppose each other. You have taken opposite positions, but there are many possible compromises. Once you have come to know one another again, you may be more open to them. ”

  The power her grandmother exerted over her daughters was almost palpable. A silence filled the room. Malta could almost feel them struggle to refuse. Neither would look at each other or their mother. Nevertheless, as the silence lengthened, first Althea and then Keffria lifted her eyes to the other. Malta clenched her hands into fists as their eyes met and something passed between them. What was it? A memory of long ago accord? An acknowledgment of duty to their family? Whatever it was, it bridged the gulf between them. There were no smiles, but the stubbornness faded from their mouths and eyes. Keffria lifted a traitorous hand toward her sister. Althea reached in surrender to take it. Grandmother heaved a vast sigh of relief. They closed the circle of family.

  No one save Malta marked that she was excluded from it.

  Coldness burned inside her as Ronica promised them, “You will not be sorry you tried. I promise you that. ”

  Malta showed her bitter smile only to the dying fire. She had promises of her own to keep.

  CHAPTER TWELVE - Portrait of Vivacia

  BRASHEN LOUNGED AGAINST THE WALL IN THE CAPTAIN'S CABIN, ATTEMPTing to look both threatening and unconcerned. It was not an easy pose, keeping both his affable smile and his heavy truncheon equally in evidence. Then again, very little about this job had turned out to be as simple and easy as he had expected it to be.

  A stream of servants bearing wares flowed through the cabin. They were rapidly transforming Finney's untidy domain into a showplace for the merchant's goods. The chart table already had been spread with a length of lush velvet the color of a blue midnight. Arranged against this backdrop and securely stitched to it to prevent theft were an assortment of earrings, necklaces, bracelets and baubles in a variety that indicated their many sources. The gaudy vied with the sophisticated. Every kind of precious stone or metal seemed to be represented. Finney sat at his ease, contemplating this trove. His thick fingers grasped the delicately fluted stem of a wine glass. The merchant-trader, a Durjan named Sincure Faldin, stood respectfully at his shoulder. He called Finney's attention to each piece of jewelry in turn.

  As he gestured at a simple but elegant pearl necklace with matching earrings, he attested, “These, now, these were the property of a nobleman's daughter. Note the twisting of the gold links between each pearl, as well as their warm luminescence. It is well known that pearls bloom best on those of a passionate nature, and this woman . . . ah, what can I say of her, save that once she beheld her captors, she had no wish to be ransomed back to her wealthy family. Such pearls, it is said, if given to a cold woman will allow her hidden passions to surface, while if given to a warm-natured woman, well, a man does so at the risk of his own complete exhaustion. ”

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  The trader quirked his eyebrows and grinned broadly. Finney laughed aloud in delight.

  The trader had a knack for tales. To hear him tell it, every piece on the table had a history at once romantic and fascinating. Never before had Brashen seen stolen goods so elaborately displayed. Resolutely alert, the mate drew his attention away from the brightly attired Sincure Faldin to keep an eye on his sons who were still bringing aboard and displaying other wares. The whole family seemed to share the father's flair for showmanship. Each of the three boys was dressed as opulently as his father, in garments fashioned from the same fabrics that one boy was now arranging in a rainbow of swaths unrolled from fat bolts of cloth. An older son had opened the doors of an elaborately carved cabinet he had carried aboard, to display several racks of tiny stoppered bottles. Brashen did not know if they were samples of liquors and wine or oils and perfumes. The third son had spread a white cloth over Captain Finney's bunk and was setting out a hodge-podge of weaponry, table cutlery, books, scrolls and other items. Even this was not done randomly. The knives were arranged in a fan of blades and hilts, the scrolls and books fixed open to illustrations, and every other item displayed in a way calculated to invite the eye and intrigue the buyer.

  This third boy was the one Brashen watched most closely. He doubted they were anything other than diligent and enthusiastic merchants, but he had resolved to be more suspicious since the unfortunate incident ten days ago. It had taken the ship's boy the better part of a day to holystone that rogue's bloodstain from the Springeve's deck. Brashen was still unable to decide how he felt about what he had done. The man had forced him to act; he could not have simply stood by and let him rob the ship, could he? Yet, Brashen could not shake the uneasy notion that he should never have taken this berth. If he had not been here, he would not have had to shed blood.

  Where would he have been? He had not known where this job was leading. Nominally, he had been hired on simply as the first mate. The Springeve was a lively little ship, shallow draft and skittish in high winds, but wonderful for negotiating the waterways to the lagoon towns and river settlements she frequented. Nominally, the Springeve was a tramp freighter and trader, hauling and bargaining whatever goods came her way.

  The reality was grimmer. Brashen was whatever Captain Finney told him he was: mate, bodyguard, translator or longshoreman. As for Finney himself, Brashen still could not fathom the man. He wasn't sure if Finney had decided to trust him, or was testing him. The man's disarming frankness was a guise used to gull the mostly disreputable merchants who traded with him. The stout man could never have survived all his years in this trade if he were actually as trusting and open as he appeared to be. He was a capable man on board his ship, and adept at charming people. However, Brashen suspected that he was capable of near anything for self-survival. At some time, a knife had left a long mark across his belly; the ridged scar was at odds with the man's seemingly affable nature. Ever since Brashen had seen it, he had found himself watching his captain as closely as he did those whom came aboard to trade.

  Now he watched Finney lean forward casually to tap, in swift succession, twelve different pieces of jewelry. “These I wish included in our trade. Take the others away. I have no interest in street vendors' wares. ” The captain never lost his easy smile, but the swiftly tapping ringer had unerringly chosen what Brashen also considered the better pieces in
Faldin's collection. Faldin smiled back at him, but Brashen's eyes caught a flash of unease on the merchant's face. Brashen's face remained neutral. Repeatedly, he had seen Finney do this. The man would be as soft and easy as a fat purring cat, but when it came to the bargaining, this Faldin would be lucky to walk off with the shirt still on his back. Brashen himself did not see the advantage to such a tactic. When he had worked for Ephron Vestrit, his captain had told him, “Always leave enough meat on the bones that the other man is also satisfied. Otherwise, you'll soon have no one willing to trade with you. ” Then again, Captain Vestrit had not been trading with pirates and those who disposed of stolen goods for pirates. The rules were bound to be different.

  Since they had left Candletown, the Springeve had made a very leisurely trip up the coast of the Cursed Shores. The little craft had nosed up sluggish rivers and tacked into lagoons that were on no charts Brashen had ever seen. The whole section of “coast” known as the Pirate Isles was constantly in flux. Some claimed that the multitude of rivers and streams that dumped into the Inside Passage around the Pirate Isles were actually one great river, eternally shifting in its many-channeled bed. Brashen didn't much care if the steaming waters that emptied out into the channel were from one river or many. The facts were that although the warm water mellowed the climate of the Pirate Isles, it also stank, fouled boat bottoms at a prodigious rate, weakened ropes and lines and created billowing fogs in every season of the year.

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  Other ships did not willingly linger there. The air was humid, and what “fresh” water they took on turned green almost overnight. If the Springeve anchored close to shore, insects swarmed to feast on the crew. Strange lights danced often on these waters and sound traveled deceptively. Islands and channels shifted and disappeared as the wandering rivers dumped their silt and sand only to have a storm, rain flood or tide gulp away in a single night all that had been deposited during a month.

  Brashen had only hazy memories of this area from the days when he had unwillingly sailed as a pirate. As a ship's boy, he had been little better than a slave. Weasel, they had called him when he crewed aboard the Hope. He had paid little attention to anything save scrabbling fast to stay ahead of a rope's end. He recalled the villages as tiny clusters of decaying huts. The only residents had been desperate men who had nowhere else to go. They had not been swaggering pirates, but little more than castaways who lived off whatever trade the true pirates brought to their tiny settlements.

  Brashen winced at those memories. Now he had come full circle and could only marvel at how a few clusters of outlaw settlements had apparently grown into a network of towns. When he had been mate on the Vivacia, Brashen had listened skeptically to tales of permanent pirate settlements built on pilings or far up the brackish rivers and lagoons. Since he had begun sailing on the Springeve, he had gradually formed a different picture of these shifting islands and the bustling settlements that clung to their unreliable shores. Some were still little more than places where two ships might stop to trade goods, but others boasted houses with paint on their boards, and little shops along their muddy streets. The slave trade had swelled the population, and widened its variety. Artisans and educated slaves who had escaped Jamaillian owners rubbed elbows with criminals who had fled the Satrap's justice. Some residents had families. Women and children now formed a minor part of the population. Many of the escaped slaves were obviously trying to re-establish the lives stolen from them. They added a note of desperate civilization to the renegade towns.

  Captain Finney seemed to rely solely on his memory to navigate the treacherous channels, tides and currents that brought them to each hamlet. Unerringly he guided the Springeve from town to town. Brashen suspected that he had private charts he consulted, but so far, he had not seen fit to give his mate so much as a glimpse of them. Such a lack of trust, Brashen reflected, as he watched the merchant's sons through narrowed eyes, almost demanded treachery in return. At least, he suspected that Finney would see the careful inking of shorelines and soundings that Brashen had marked onto the canvas scraps under his bunk as treachery. A good part of Finney's value as captain depended on his arcane knowledge of the Pirate Isles. He would see Brashen's careful hoard as a theft of his hard-won knowledge. Brashen saw it as the only long-term benefit he might carry away from this voyage. Money and cindin were all very well, but they were too soon gone. If fortune forced him into this trade, he would not sail as a mate forever.

  “Hey. Brash. Over here. What do you think of this?”

  He glanced away from the boys to the new selection of merchandise Finney was considering. Finney was holding up an illustrated scroll. Brashen recognized it as a copy of the Contradictions of Sa. The qualities of the parchment made him suspect it was a good one. Too familiar a knowledge of such things might indicate to Finney that he was not illiterate. He gave a shrug. “Lots of pretty colors and fancy birds. ”

  “What do you think it's worth?”

  Brashen shrugged. “To whom?”

  Finney narrowed his eyes. “In a Bingtown shop, say. ”

  “I've seen them there. Never wanted to buy one, myself. ”

  Sincure Faldin rolled his eyes at the sailor's ignorance.

  “I might take it. ” Finney began to rummage through the rest of the goods. “Set it aside for now. What is this?” There was a trace of amused annoyance in Finney's voice. “It's broken. You know I trade only in the finest merchandise. Take it away. ”

  “Only the frame is damaged, no doubt in the haste of, er, salvaging it. The canvas is intact and quite valuable, I am told. It appears to be the work of a noted Bingtown artist. But that is not the only thing that makes it exceedingly valuable. ” His voice hinted of a great secret to share.

  Finney pretended disinterest. “Oh, very well, I shall look at it. A ship. Now that's original. A ship under sail on a pretty day. Take it away, Sincure Faldin. ”

  The merchant continued to hold the painting proudly. “I think you shall regret it if you let this get by you, Captain Finney. It was painted by Pappas. I am told he accepts few commissions, and that all of his canvases go dearly. However, as I told you, this is even more unique. It is a portrait of a liveship. It was taken from a liveship. ”

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  Brashen felt an odd little sideways wrench in his gut. Althea had commissioned a portrait of Vivacia from Pappas. He didn't want to look. He had to. Foolish not to, it could not be what he feared. No pirate vessel could ever overtake the Vivacia.

  It was.

  Brashen stared, sickened, at the familiar painting. It had hung in Althea Vestrit's stateroom on the Vivacia. The lovely rosewood frame was splintered where someone had hastily pried it free from the wall instead of unfastening it. Vivacia as she had been before she was quickened was the subject. In the painting, the figurehead's features were still, her hair yellow. Her graceful hull cut through the painted waves. The artist's skill was such that Brashen could almost see the clouds scudding across the sky. The last time he had seen that painting, it had still been securely fastened to a bulkhead. Had Althea left it there when she left the ship? Had it been taken from the ship by pirates, or somehow stolen from the Vestrit family home? The second possibility did not make sense. No thief would steal such a thing in Bingtown and then bring it to the Pirate Isles to sell it. The best prices for art were in Chalced and Jamaillia. Logic told him that the painting had been taken off the Vivacia. Yet, he could not believe pirates could have overtaken the sprightly little liveship. Even before she had quickened, Ephron Vestrit had been able to show her heels to anything that even considered pursuing her. Quickened and willing, nothing should have been able to catch her.

  “You know the ship, Brash?” Finney asked in a soft, friendly voice.

  The captain had caught him staring at the painting. He tried to make his look of dismay seem one of puzzlement. He knit his brows deeper.

  “Pappas. I
was looking at that name, thinking I knew it. Pappas, Pappas . . . naw. Pappay. That was the fellow's name. Terrible cheat at cards, but a good hand aloft. ” He gave Finney a shrug and a halfhearted grin. He wondered if he had fooled him.

  “It's a liveship, out of Bingtown. Surely, you know her. Liveships are not that common. ” Finney pressed.

  Brashen took a step closer, peered at the painting, then shrugged. “They're not that common, true. But they tie up at a different dock from the common ships. They keep to themselves, and idlers aren't too welcome there. Traders can be a snooty lot. ”

  “I thought you were Trader born. ” Now both of them were looking at him.

  He spat out a laugh. “Even Traders have poor relatives. My third cousin is the real Trader. I'm just a shirt-tail relative, and not a welcome sight on the family's doorstep. Sorry. What's her name plate say?”

  “Vivacia,” Finney said. “I thought that was a ship you'd served on. Didn't you say as much to the agent back in Candletown?”

  Brashen cursed his cindin-fogged memories of that meeting. He shook his head thoughtfully. “No. I told him I was mate on the Vicious Vixen. She was out of a Six Duchies harbor, not Bingtown. Not a bad vessel, if you like living with a bunch of barbarians who think fish-head stew is a real treat. I didn't. ”

  Finney and Faldin both chuckled dutifully. It wasn't much of a jest but it was enough to turn the topic. Faldin flourished the painting a final time; Finney dismissed it with a headshake. Faldin made a great show of carefully re-wrapping the painting, as if to emphasize the value that Finney was missing. Finney was already poking through the rest of the scrolls. Brashen tried to resume his watchful air, but he felt sick. The splintered frame indicated the painting had been taken hastily. Had she been sinking as the framed painting was torn off the wall? One of Faldin's boys, passing near him, shot him a fearful glance. Brashen realized he was glaring at no one, and rearranged his face.

  Some of the men he had worked with aboard the Vivacia had been his comrades for years. Their faces rose in his memory: Grig, who could splice line faster than most men could lie, and Comfrey the prankster, and half a dozen others with whom he had shared the forecastle. The ship's boy, Mild, had had the makings of a top-notch sailor, if his love for mischief hadn't killed him first. He hoped they had had the good sense to turn pirate when they were offered that option. His need to ask the merchant what he knew of the liveship burned inside him. Was there a way to be curious without betraying himself? Brashen suddenly didn't care.

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