The mad ship, p.31
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       The Mad Ship, p.31

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
 

  “I'm sorry. You invite me to tea and all I do is whine about my niece. It can't be pleasant for you to listen to such things. Nor should I be speaking so of my family. But that Malta! I know she goes into my room when I am not home. I know she goes through my things. But . . . ” Belatedly, Althea stopped her tongue. “I shouldn't let the little minx get to me. I see now why mother and my sister agreed to this early courtship. It might be our only chance to be rid of her. ”

  “Althea!” Crag rebuked her with a grin. “I am sure they would not do that. ”

  “No. They actually have the best interests of all in mind. My mother has told me, plainly, that she expects Reyn will drop the courtship when he gets to know Malta better. ” Althea gave a sigh. “If it were up to me, I'd hurry it along before he gets wise. ”

  Grag lifted a finger from the tabletop and boldly touched the back of her hand. “No you wouldn't,” he assured them both. “You haven't got that kind of meanness in you. ”

  “Are you sure of that?” she teased him gently.

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  He widened his blue eyes in mock alarm.

  “Oh, let us speak of something else. Anything would be a more pleasant topic. Tell me how your battle has been going. Has the Council agreed to hear you?”

  “The Bingtown Council has been a more stubborn opponent than the Satrap's officials. But, yes, they have finally agreed to hear us. Tomorrow night, in fact. ”

  “I'll be there,” Althea promised him. “I'll lend what support I can. And I'll do my best to get my mother and sister there, also. ”

  “I'm not sure that it will do us any good, but I'll be glad to get a hearing. I have no idea what Father will decide to do. ” Grag shook his head. “He has refused all compromises so far. He won't pay; he won't promise to pay later. There we sit, a full cargo, merchants waiting for it, but the tariff dock won't release us, Father won't pay, and no other Bingtown Trader will back us. It's hurting us, Althea, hurting us badly. If it goes on much longer, it may break us. ” He stopped abruptly, shaking his head. “You don't need any more worries and bad news. You have enough of your own. But, you know, there is some good news. Your friend Amber finished with Ophelia's hands, and the results are magnificent. It has been difficult for Ophelia. Although she says she does not feel pain as we do, I feel it as discomfort and loss when . . . ” Grag's voice trailed away. Althea did not press him. She understood that speaking of what he shared with his liveship could be too self-revealing.

  The dull ache she felt at her separation from Vivacia peaked into a sudden sharp pang of isolation. She clenched her hands in her lap for a moment, resolutely pushing aside her anxiety. There was nothing she could do, until Kyle brought Vivacia home. If he brought Vivacia home. Keffria claimed he would never abandon her and the children; Althea did not see it that way. The man had a priceless ship in his control, a vessel he did not really have any right to own. If he took it south, he could operate as if he owned the ship free and clear. He could be a wealthy man with no responsibilities save himself.

  “Althea?”

  She gave a guilty start. “I'm sorry. ”

  Grag smiled understandingly. “In your position, I'm sure I would be as preoccupied. I continue to ask every ship that comes into the harbor for word of her. I'm afraid that is as much as I can do right now. Next month, when we sail again to Jamaillia, I will seek word from every ship I encounter. ”

  “Thank you,” she told him warmly. Then, as his look became too tender, she distracted him. “I have missed Ophelia. If I had not promised Mother that I would be more conservative in my behavior, I would have come calling on her. The only time I ventured down there, the Satrap's tariff guards challenged me. For the sake of propriety, I did not make an issue of it. ” She sighed, then changed her tone. “So Amber was able to repair Ophelia's hands. ”

  Grag leaned back in his chair. He squinted his eyes in the afternoon sunlight. “More than repair. She had to reshape them as a whole to keep the more slender fingers proportional. When Ophelia expressed concern for the scraps of wizardwood that had to be removed, Amber made a practice of saving every scrap in a special box. They never left the foredeck. The loss of them seemed very threatening to Ophelia; I was surprised that someone not of Bingtown stock could be so perceptive to the ship's distress. Now she has even gone one step further. After consulting with Ophelia, she has gained my father's permission to refashion the larger scraps into a bracelet for the ship. She will cut the pieces into fine rods and bars and then peg them together. 'No other liveship in the harbor possesses such jewelry, made not only by a prominent artist but carved of her own wizardwood. ' Ophelia is ecstatic. ”

  Althea smiled but she was still slightly incredulous as she asked, “Your father permits Amber to work wizardwood? I thought that was forbidden. ”

  “This is different,” Grag pointed out hastily. “It is actually a part of the repair. Amber is only restoring to Ophelia as much of her wizardwood as she can. My family discussed this in great depth before my father permitted it. Amber's integrity weighed heavily in our decision. She did not attempt to take any of the scraps. We watched her, you know, for as wizardwood is so rare, even the tiniest bit has value. She has been honorable. Moreover, she has been extraordinarily flexible in completing all the work on board the ship. Even the bracelet will be carved there rather than in Amber's shop. She has had to haul quite a number of tools back and forth, and all in her guise of a slave-whore. ” Grag took another bite of his pastry and chewed thoughtfully.

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  Amber had told Althea nothing of all this. She was not surprised. There were depths of reserve to the bead-maker that she never expected to plumb. “She's quite a person,” Althea observed, as much to herself as to Grag.

  “My mother said the same thing,” he agreed. “That, I think, has been the strangest development. My mother and Ophelia have always been very close, you know. They were friends even before she married my father. When she learned Ophelia had been injured when we were attacked, she was distraught. She had many reservations about letting a stranger work on Ophelia's hands, and she was rather piqued with my father for agreeing to it without consulting her first. ”

  Althea grinned knowingly in answer to Grag's straight-faced minimization of Naria Tenira's legendary temper. It woke an answering grin on his handsome face. For an instant, she glimpsed a carefree sailor rather than the conservative Bingtown Trader that was his other face. Here in Bingtown, Grag was far more aware of both his family's reputation and Bingtown propriety. His sailor clothes had given way to a dark coat and trousers and a white shirt. It reminded her of her father's conservative dress when he was in Bingtown. It made him seem older, more serious and stable. Her heart gave a small leap of interest that a wicked grin could still light his face. The trader was an interesting and respectable man; the sailor was an attractive one.

  “Mother insisted that she would be present when Ophelia's hands were worked on. Amber did not object, but I believe she was a bit offended. No one relishes distrust. As it turned out, she and Mother talked for hours while Amber worked, about everything under the sun. Ophelia joined in, of course. You well know that you cannot speak anywhere on the foredeck without Ophelia sharing her opinion. The result has been surprising. Mother has become virulently anti-slavery. The other day she accosted a man on the street. There was a little girl with a tattooed face carrying his parcels. Mother knocked the packages from the child's hands and told the man he should be ashamed at having such a young child away from her mother. Then she brought the girl home. ” Grag looked a trifle discomfitted. “I don't know what we will do with her. She is too scared to say more than a few words at a time, but my mother says the child has no relatives in Bingtown. She was torn from her family and sold, like a calf. ” As Grag spoke, his voice thickened with suppressed emotion. This was a new side of him.

  “Did the newcomer just accept your mother taking
the child?”

  Grag grinned again, but there was a fierce edge to it. A glint came into his eyes. “Not gracefully. However, Lennel, our cook, was with Mother. He is not a man to accept anyone trifling with the mistress. The slave-owner stood in the street and shouted threats after them, but did little more than that. Those that took notice either sneered or laughed. What will he do? Go to the town council and complain that someone kidnapped the child he had illegally enslaved?”

  “No. More likely he will go to the town council and lend his support to those who would make slavery a law as well as a fact here. ”

  “My mother has already declared that when the Bingtown Council hears our grievances against the Satrap's servants, she will bring up the matter of slavery as well. She intends to demand that our laws against it be enforced. ”

  “How?” Althea asked bitterly.

  Grag just looked at her. In a quiet voice he said, “I do not know. But it should at least be attempted. We have looked aside from it. Amber says that if the slaves truly believed we would support their liberty, they would not be so fearful to admit they were truly slaves. They have been told by their masters that if they are defiant and claim freedom, they will be tortured to death and that no one will interfere. ”

  Althea felt a terrible coldness well up in her. She thought of the child Naria had claimed. Did she still fear torture and death? What would that do to anyone, to grow up under such a shadow?

  “Amber feels that with genuine support, they would rise up and walk away from their slavery. They far outnumber their masters. She also feels that if Bingtown does not act soon to restore their rightful freedom, there will be a bloody rebellion that will ruin the whole city. ”

  “So. We help them regain their rightful freedom soon, or we will all go down in flames when they take it for themselves?”

  “Something like that. ” Grag lifted his mug of beer and drank thoughtfully.

  After a long moment, Althea heaved a sigh. She took another sip of her tea and stared off into the distance.

  “Althea. Don't look so woebegone. We're doing all that can be done. We go before the Council tomorrow night. Maybe we can bring them to their senses about both the Satrap's tariffs and slavery in Bingtown. ”

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  “Perhaps you're right,” Althea agreed glumly. She did not tell him that she had not been considering slavery or tariffs. She had been looking at the handsome and good-hearted young man across the table from her and waiting. She waited in vain. She felt only affectionate friendship. She had sighed, wondering why a decent and respectable man like Grag Tenira could not stir her heart and senses as Brashen Trell had.

  HE NEARLY WENT AROUND TO THE BACK DOOR. THEN SOME REMNANT OF old pride made him stride up to the front and ring the bell. He refused to look down at himself as he waited. He was not ragged, nor dirty. The yellow silk shirt was of the finest quality, as was the scarf at his throat. The dark blue trousers and short jacket he wore had seen some mending, but the work of his own needle never shamed a good sailor. If the fabric and cut were more suited to the pirates of the isles than to a Bingtown Trader's son, well . . . Brashen Trell was likely more one than the other these days. There was a small cindin burn at the corner of his mouth where he had fallen asleep while indulging, but his current mustache hid most of that. A small smile came and went on his face. If Althea got close enough to see it, he doubted she'd be thinking about it. His quick ears detected the light scuff of & serving girl's step in the passageway. He took off his hat.

  A well-rigged young woman opened the door to him. She looked him up and down, plainly disapproving of his rakish clothes. She returned his cheery grin with an affronted stare. “Did you wish something?” she asked him haughtily.

  He winked at her. “I could wish for a more courteous greeting, but I doubt that would get me one. I'm here to see Althea Vestrit. If she is not available, I'd like to meet with Ronica Vestrit. I've news that won't wait. ”

  “Indeed? Well, I'm afraid it will have to, as neither of them is at home at present. Good day. ”

  The inflection of her voice plainly said it was not at all a good day that she wished him. He stepped forward quickly to catch the edge of the door before it could close.

  “But Althea is back from sea?” he pressed, needing to hear those words spoken.

  “She has been home from sea for weeks. Let go!” she spat at him.

  His heart lurched with relief. She was home, safe. The girl was still tugging at the door he gripped. He decided the time for tact was past. “I won't leave. I can't. I bring important news. I won't be put off by a serving girl's tantrum. Let me in, right now, or both your mistresses will be greatly displeased with you. ”

  The little maid fell back a step, gasping in shock. Brashen took the opportunity to step into the entryway. He glanced about himself, frowning at what he saw. This entryway had always been the captain's pride. It was still clean and bright, but the woodwork and brass no longer gleamed. He missed the warm scents of beeswax and oil. He even saw wisps of a high cobweb in a corner. He had no time to see more. The housemaid stamped her small foot at him indignantly. “I am not a servant, you misbegotten bit of wharf-trash. I am Malta Haven, daughter of this household. I'll thank you to take your stench out of my home. ”

  “Not until I've seen Althea. I'll wait as long as I need to. Put me anywhere, I'll sit still and mind my manners. ” He peered at the girl more closely. “It is Malta! Beg pardon, I didn't recognize you. The last time I saw you, you were in a little girl's frocks. ” He attempted to make amends for his earlier slight. He smiled down on her. “My, don't you look grand today? Are you and your friends playing a tea party, then?”

  His attempt at disarming friendliness was a disaster. The girl's eyes went wide, and her upper lip sneered back from her teeth in disdain. “Who are you, sailor, to dare speak to me so familiarly, in my father's house?”

  “Brashen Trell,” he said. “Former first mate for Captain Vestrit. Beg pardon for not saying so sooner. I bring news of the liveship Vivacia. I need to see your aunt or grandmother immediately. Or your mother. Is she at home?”

  “She is not. She and Grandmother have gone into town, to discuss spring planting arrangements. They will not be back until later. Althea is off doing whatever it is that currently amuses her. Sa knows when she will wander in. However, you can tell your news to me. Why has the ship been so long delayed? Will they be much longer?”

  Brashen cursed his own dull wits. The prospect of seeing Althea had displaced some of the gravity of his news in his mind. He looked at the girl before him. He was bringing tidings that her family ship had been seized by pirates. He would not be able to tell her if her father were still alive. That was not news he was going to deliver to a child at home by herself. He ardently wished that she had allowed one of the servants to open the door to him. He wished even more that he had had the sense to hold his tongue until an adult was present. He chewed his lip, then winced as it tugged at the cindin sores. “I think you had best send a boy down to the town, to ask your grandmother to come home right away. This is news she should receive first. ”

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  “Why? Is something wrong?”

  For the first time, the girl spoke in her own voice, not a parody of an adult's. Oddly, it made her seem more mature. The sudden fear in her voice and eyes went to Brashen's heart. He stood tongue-tied. He didn't want to lie to her. He didn't want to burden her with the truth without her mother or aunt to help her absorb the blow. He turned his hat in his hands. “I think we had best wait for an adult to be here,” he suggested firmly. “Do you think you could send a lad to find your mother or grandmother or aunt?”

  Her mouth twisted, and he almost saw her fears turn to anger. Her eyes glinted with anger as she crisply replied, “I shall send Rache. Wait here. ”

  With that command, she marched away and left him standing in the doorway. He
wondered why she had not simply summoned a servant to carry the message. She had answered the door herself also. He ventured a few steps further into the once-familiar room and peered down the hall. His quick eyes picked up minor signs of neglect there also. He cast his mind back to his walk here; the carriageway had been littered with broken branches and unraked leaves. The steps had been unswept. Had the Vestrit family come on hard times or was this just Kyle being tight-fisted? He waited restlessly. The evil tidings he was bearing might be much graver than he had first imagined. The capture of their family vessel might spell their ruin. Allheal he thought fiercely as if he could summon her by will alone.

  The Springeve was anchored in Bingtown Harbor. They had arrived in port today. As soon as the ship was secured, Finney had sent Brashen ashore. Finney supposed he was arranging for a buyer for the best of their loot. Brashen had come straight to the Vestrit's home instead. The portrait of the Vivacia was aboard the Springeve, mute evidence that what he said was true. He doubted they would demand to see it, though Althea would definitely want to reclaim it. Brashen was not sure what Althea's feelings for him were right now, but she would know he was not a liar.

  He tried to push thoughts of Althea away, but once turned to that topic, his mind refused to give it up. What did she think of him? Why did it matter so much to him? Because it did. Because he wanted her to think well of him. They had not parted well, and he had regretted that ever since. He didn't believe she would hold his rough jest against him when they met again. She wasn't like that; she wasn't some prissy female to take grave offense at an awkward joke. He closed his eyes a moment and almost prayed he was right. He thought more than well of her. He thrust his hands in his pockets and paced a turn around the hallway.

 
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