The mad ship, p.30
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       The Mad Ship, p.30

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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  “Because I am the Satrap and I command it!” he spat out. He was abruptly furious. “You need no more reason than that. ” He sat up suddenly, shoving Kekki aside. She moaned dismally, but rolled away from him.

  “I am not a servant,” Serilla pointed out. “I am a Companion of the Heart. ” She drew herself up straight and recited. “ 'lest his head be turned by flattering women, lest his vanity be stroked by those who seek only to gain, let him choose for himself Companions, to sit beside him. Let them not be above him, let them not be below him, but let them speak their wisdom openly, advising the Satrap only in each one's specific area of erudition. Let him have no favorites amongst them. Let him not choose them based on comeliness or amiability. Let his Companion not praise him, let her not defer to his opinion, let her not be fearful of disagreeing with him, for any of these things may compromise the honesty of her counsel. Let her . . . ' ”

  “Let her shut up!” Cosgo shouted out and then laughed uproariously at his own wit.

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  Serilla fell silent, but not at his command. She did not move from where she stood.

  For a moment, he surveyed her silently. An odd spark of amusement lit his eyes. “You foolish woman. You are so full of yourself, so certain that a mouthful of words can protect you. Companion of my Heart. ” He sneered the words. “A title for a woman who fears to be a woman. ” He leaned back against Kekki's body as if she were a cushion. “I could cure you of that. I could give you to the sailors. Have you thought of that? The captain is Chalcedean. He would think nothing of me discarding a woman who had displeased me. ” He paused. “Perhaps he would use you first. Before he passed you on. ”

  Serilla's mouth went dry. Her tongue stuck to the roof of it. He could, she realized dully. He had become capable of it. It would be months before he returned to Jamaillia. Who would demand an accounting of what had become of her? No one. None of the nobles on board would oppose him. If they had had that strength of will, they would not be aboard. Some might even feel she had brought it upon herself.

  She had no alternative. Once she capitulated to him, his debasement of her would know no bounds. If she showed fear of this threat, he would continue to use it. She suddenly saw that clearly. Her only hope was to challenge him. “Do it,” she said coolly. She stood up straighter and crossed her arms on her chest. She could feel her heart hammering inside her. He could do it. He might do it. If he did, she would not survive it. The crew was large and rough. Some of the female servants had already appeared with bruised faces and unsteady gaits. No rumors had reached her ears, but she did not need rumors to have suspicions. Chalcedeans saw women as little more than cattle.

  She prayed he would back down.

  “I will. ” He lurched to his feet. He took two unsteady steps toward the door.

  Her traitorous legs began to tremble. She clenched her jaws to keep her lips from quivering. She had made her move and lost the game. Sa, help me, she prayed. She wanted to wail with fear. She feared she would faint. She blinked rapidly, trying to drive away the shadows at the corners of her vision. It was a bluff. He would stop. He wouldn't dare follow through on this.

  The Satrap halted. He swayed, but she could not tell if it was indecision or instability. “Are you sure this is what you want?” There was a leering taunt to the words. He cocked his head at her. “You would rather go to them than attempt to please me? I'll give you a moment to decide which you want. ”

  She felt dizzy and sick. It was the cruelest thing he could have done, to offer her this last chance. She felt her strength ebbing away from her. She wanted to fling herself to her knees and beg his mercy. Only her conviction that he had no concept of mercy held her still and upright. She swallowed. She could not reply. She clung to her silence and hoped it would pass for refusal.

  “Very well. Remember, Serilla, you chose this. You could have had me. ”

  He opened the door. There was a sailor outside it. There was always a sailor outside it. Serilla had always suspected he was as much gaoler as sentry. Cosgo leaned on the doorjamb and patted the man affably on the shoulder. “Run a message to your captain, my good man. Tell him that I offer him one of my women. The green-eyed one. ” He pivoted unsteadily to leer at her. “Warn him that she is bad-tempered and unwilling. Tell him I have found her a sweet mount, all the same. ” His eyes walked up and down her body. A cruel smile curved his mouth. “Have him send someone to claim her. ”

  CHAPTER FIFTEEN - Tidings

  ALTHEA ABRUPTLY HEAVED A SIGH. SHE PUSHED BACK FROM THE TABLE, causing Malta's pen to leave a squiggle on the paper. She stood up and rubbed her eyes. Malta watched her aunt walk away from the table and the scattered papers and tally sticks on it. “I have to go out,” she announced.

  Ronica Vestrit had just entered the room with a basket of cut flowers on her arm and a pitcher of water in her free hand. “I know what you mean,” she conceded as she set her burdens down on a side table. She filled a waiting vase with water and began to put the flowers into it. She had a mixed bouquet of daisies, baby's breath, roses and fern fronds. She scowled at the flowers as she arranged them, as if everything were their fault. “The accounting of our debts is hardly cheery work. Even I need to get away from it after a few hours. ” She paused, then added hopefully, “The flowerbeds by the front door need attention if you're in the mood for outdoor work. ”

  Althea shook her head impatiently. “No,” she said. She softened her tone and added, “I'm going to go down into town for a bit. Stretch my legs, see some friends. I'll be back before dinner. ” With a sideways glance at her mother's frown, she added, “I'll see to the walkway then. I promise. ”

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  Her mother folded her lips but said no more. Malta let Althea get almost to the door before she asked curiously, “Are you going to go see that bead-maker again?” She made a pretense of rubbing her eyes as she set aside her own pen.

  “I might,” Althea said evenly. Malta heard the restrained annoyance in her voice.

  Ronica made a small sound as if deciding whether to speak. Aunt Althea turned back to her wearily. “What?”

  Ronica gave a small shrug, her hands still busy with the flowers. “Nothing. I just wish you would not spend so much time with her, so openly. She is not Bingtown, you know. And some say she is no better than the New Traders. ”

  “She is my friend,” Althea said flatly.

  “The talk about town is that she has been squatting in the Ludlucks' liveship. That poor ship has never been right, and she has so unhinged him by living there that when the Ludlucks sent men to move her out of their rightful property, the ship had a fit. He said he'd rip their arms off if they tried to come aboard. You can imagine how distressing that was to Trader Ludluck. Amis has tried for years to keep her family name clean of scandal. Now it has been stirred again, and with it all the old tales of how Paragon went mad and killed everyone aboard him. It is entirely that woman's fault. She should not be meddling in Trader business. ”

  “Mother. ” Althea's patience sounded strained. “There is a great deal more to that story than you have heard. If you wish, I'll tell you all I know. But later. When only adults are around. ”

  Malta knew that little sling was intended for her. She rose to it like a shark to chum. “The bead-maker has an odd reputation about town. Oh, everyone says she is a wonderful artist. However, as we all know, artists can be strange. She lives with a woman who dresses and acts like a man. Did you know that?”

  “Jek is from the Six Duchies or one of those barbarian lands. That is just how women behave up there. Grow up, Malta, and stop listening to dirty little whispers,” Althea suggested brusquely.

  Malta drew herself up to her full height. “Usually, I ignore such gossip. Until I hear our own family name dragged into it. I know it is scarcely ladylike to discuss such things, but I feel you should know that some people say that you visit the bead-maker for
the same reason. To sleep with her. ”

  During the ensuing shocked silence, Malta added a spoonful of honey to her tea. As she stirred it, the sound of the spoon against the cup seemed almost merry.

  “If you mean fuck, say fuck,” Althea suggested. She enunciated the crudity deliberately. Her voice was cold with fury. “If you are going to be coarse, why be circumspect with the language?”

  “Althea!” Ronica finally emerged from her scandalized silence. “You will not say such things in our home!”

  “It was already said. I but clarified the topic. ” Althea bit off each word as she glowered at Malta.

  “You can scarcely blame people for talking,” Malta went on after she had sipped her tea. She made her voice casually conversational. “After all, you were gone almost a year, and then came home dressed like a boy. You are well past marrying age, but show no interest in men. Instead, you swagger about town acting as if you were a man yourself. People are bound to speculate that you are . . . strange. ”

  “Malta, that is both unkind and untrue,” Ronica said firmly. There were high spots of color on the tops of her cheeks. “Althea is not too old to be considered marriageable. You well know that Grag Tenira has expressed more than a passing interest in Althea of late. ”

  “Oh, him. We all well know that the Teniras have expressed an even greater interest in the ability of the Vestrits to sway the Bingtown Council. Ever since they began that futile show of defiance down at the Satrap's tariff dock, they have been trying to recruit others to their cause-”

  “It is scarcely futile. The principle of Bingtown's authority is at stake, not that I expect you to understand that. The Teniras defy the Satrap's tariffs because the tariffs are both unlawful and unjust. However, I doubt you have the wits to grasp that, and I have no desire to spend the afternoon listening to children prattle of matters they do not understand. Mother. Good afternoon. ”

  Her head up, her face tight with anger, Althea swept out the door.

  Malta listened to her footsteps fade down the hall. She pushed disconsolately at the paper in front of her. As it moved across the desk, it broke the silence in the room.

  “Why did you do that?” her grandmother asked her quietly. There was no real anger in her voice. Rather it was a flat curiosity.

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  “I did nothing,” Malta protested. Before Ronica could dispute that, she asked, “Why can Althea abruptly announce she is tired of our work and take herself off to town? If I attempted that-”

  “Althea is older than you. She is more mature. She is accustomed to making her own decisions. She has kept her part of the bargain we struck. She has lived quietly and respectfully, she has not . . . ”

  “If she had not, then why are there rumors?”

  “I have heard no rumors. ” Her grandmother picked up the now-empty basket and pitcher. She centered the fresh vase of flowers on the table. “I think I've had enough of you for now,” she said. “Good afternoon, Malta. ” As before, there was no anger in her voice, only a strange flatness, and a sort of hopelessness. On her face, she wore a look of distaste. She turned and walked away from Malta without another word.

  When she was around the corner but not quite out of earshot, Malta spoke aloud to herself. “She hates me. That old woman hates me. Oh, I hope Father gets back soon. He will quickly put things right around here. ”

  Ronica Vestrit's steps did not even falter. Malta slumped back in her chair. She pushed away the too-sweet tea. Everything here was so dull since Reyn had left. She could not even provoke her relatives into quarreling. The boredom was driving her mad. Lately she found herself nettling those around her simply to stir them up. She missed the excitement and importance of Reyn's visit. The flowers were long faded, the sweets eaten up. Save for her secret hoard of smuggled trinkets from him, it was as if he had never come calling at all. What good was a beau who lived far away?

  She felt she had once more fallen into a pit of ordinariness. Each day was filled with work and chores. Her grandmother would constantly nag at her to live up to family expectations, while letting Aunt Althea do whatever she wanted. It all came to the same thing. Do what her mother and grandmother wanted her to do. Be a little puppet on their strings. That was what Reyn wanted from her, also. She recognized that even if he did not. He was attracted to her not just for her beauty and charm, but because she was young. He thought he could control all her actions and even her thoughts. He would find out he was wrong about that. They would all find out they were wrong.

  She got up from the table where she had been reconciling the accounts and drifted over to the window. It looked out on gardens gone untidy and wild. Althea and her grandmother pecked at keeping them up, but it took a real gardener and at least a dozen assistants to keep the grounds properly. By the end of summer, the gardens would be completely unkempt if things went on as they were. That would not happen, of course. Her father would be home long before then, with a pocketful of money. He would put things right. There would be servants again, and good food and wine. He would be home any day now, she was sure of it.

  She clenched her teeth as she thought of the conversation at the dinner table last night. Mother had worried aloud that the ship was so late in returning. Aunt Althea had added that there was no word of Vivacia down at the docks. None of the ships arriving in Bingtown reported seeing her. Mother had said that perhaps Kyle had chosen to bypass Bingtown and take his cargo straight to Chalced. “None of the ships arriving from that direction have seen her either,” Althea had reported darkly. “I wonder if he ever intended to return to Bingtown. Perhaps from Jamaillia, he simply sailed south. ”

  She had said the words cautiously, feigning that she didn't intend to offend anyone. Mother had quietly but fiercely said, “Kyle would not do that. ” After that, Aunt Althea had kept silent. She had killed all the talk at the table.

  Malta cast about for any amusement. Perhaps she would use the dream-box tonight. The excitement of the forbidden shared dream beckoned her. In their last dream, they had shared a kiss. Would another dream stop there? Would she want it to continue? Malta shivered. Reyn had told her to wait ten days after he left and then use it. He would be home by then and settled back in. Malta had not done so. He had been too confident that she would do as he bid her. As much as she longed to use the box, she would not. Let him wait and wonder why she did not use the powder. Let him discover she was not his puppet. That was a lesson that Cerwin had learned well.

  She smiled slightly to herself. In the cuff of her sleeve was his latest note to her. It implored her to meet with him, at any time or any place she could manage. He promised his intentions were purely honorable. He would bring his sister Delo along, so her reputation would not be compromised. The thought of her being given to that Rain Wilder was driving him mad. He had known for ever so long that she was destined to be his. Please, please, please, if she had any feelings for him at all, she must meet with him so that they might discuss what could be done to forestall this tragedy.

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  She had the note memorized. It was a lovely composition of black pen strokes on thick creamy paper. Delo had delivered it yesterday when she came to call. The wax seal, imprinted with the Trell willow, had still been intact. Nevertheless, Delo's wide eyes and conspiratorial manner had betrayed that she was fully aware of the contents. When they were alone, Delo had confided that she had never seen her brother so distraught. Ever since he had seen Malta dancing in Reyn's arms, he had been unable to sleep. He only picked at his food. He had even given up gaming with the other young men. Instead, he burned the long evenings into the early morning hours sitting alone by the study fire. His father was becoming very impatient with him. He had accused Cerwin of being lazy, and declared that he did not disinherit his eldest son simply so that the younger boy could become as idle as the first. Delo was at her wit's end. Surely, Malta could do something to give her brother some
tiny ray of hope.

  Malta replayed the scene in her mind. She had stared off into the distance. A tiny tear had come into her eye and run down her cheek. She had told Delo she feared there was little she could do. Her grandmother had seen to that. She was no more now than a shiny bauble to be sold off to the highest bidder. She would do her best to stave off everything until her father returned home. She was certain he would rather see her in the arms of a man she cared for than one who was simply the wealthiest. Then she had given Delo a message to carry back. She dared not entrust it to paper, but would have to rely on her best friend's honor. Malta would meet him at midnight at the gazebo just past the ivy-covered oak at the bottom of the rose garden.

  That was tonight. She still had not decided if she would keep that tryst or not. A summer night spent outside under the oak tree would not hurt Cerwin a bit. Nor Delo. She could always plead later that she had been unable to escape the scrutiny of her guardians. It might heighten Cerwin's sense of urgency.

  “THE WORST PART is THAT SHE HAS SPIRIT AND INTELLIGENCE, I LOOK AT her and think, 'there, but for my father's interference, go I. ' If he had not taken me to sea, if I had been forced to stay at home and be suffocated under what was 'proper and correct for a girl to do,' I might have rebelled in the same way. I think my mother and sister are wrong to allow her to dress and behave as if she was a woman grown, but she is certainly not a child either. She has set herself up in opposition to all of us, and will not open her eyes to see that we are one family and must act together. She is so busy defending her notion of her father's perfection that she cannot even see our other problems. As for Selden, he has almost disappeared. He mouses about the house, and scarcely speaks above a whisper except when he is whining. Then they give him sweets and tell him to run and play, they are busy. Malta is supposed to help him with his lessons, but all she does is make him cry. I don't have time to do anything with him, even if I knew what it was a boy that age needs. ” Althea shook her head in exasperation and hissed out a sigh.

  She lifted her eyes from the tea she had been methodically stirring as she talked and met Grag's eyes. He smiled at her. They were sitting at a small table outside a Bingtown bakery. Here, in plain view, they did not need to fear the gossip-mongers who might otherwise be intrigued at their meeting unchaperoned. Althea had run into Crag in the street on her way to Amber's shop. He had convinced her to pause long enough to have some refreshment with him. When he had asked her what had upset her enough to send her out of the house without a hat, she had unloaded the morning's tale on him. Now she felt a bit shamed.

 
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