The mad ship, p.32
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       The Mad Ship, p.32

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  ALTHEA STOOD IN AMBER'S SHOP, IDLY RUNNING HER HANDS THROUGH A basket of beads. She fished one out at random, and looked at it. An apple. The next was a pear, and the next was a cat, its tail curled around its body. At the door, Amber bid her customer farewell, promising that she would have his selections strung into a necklace by this time tomorrow. As the door shut behind him, Amber rattled a handful of beads into a small basket, and then began to restore the rejected wares to their shelves. As Althea came to help her, Amber picked up their earlier conversation.

  “So. Naria Tenira will confront the Bingtown Council about slavery? Is that what you came to tell me?”

  “I thought you'd want to know how persuasive she'd found you. ”

  Amber smiled, pleased. “I already knew, of course. Naria told me. I scandalized her by saying I wished I could be there. ”

  “The meetings are for Trader folk only,” Althea protested.

  “She said the same,” Amber replied affably. “Is that what brought you here so swiftly?”

  Althea shrugged. “I hadn't seen you in awhile. And I couldn't face going home to the accounts or to Malta. Someday, Amber, I'm going to shake that girl until her teeth rattle. She is so infuriating. ”

  “Actually, she sounds as if she's a lot like you. ” At Althea's outraged glare, Amber amended, “As you would have been if your father had not taken you to sea. ”

  Althea observed reluctantly, “Sometimes I wonder if what he did was kind. ”

  It was Amber's turn to be surprised. “Would you have it otherwise?” she asked quietly.

  “I don't know. ” Althea ran her hands through her hair distractedly. Amber watched in amusement.

  “You're not playing the role of a boy anymore. You'd best smooth out that mess you just made. ”

  Althea groaned, and patted at her hair. “No. Now I'm playing the role of a Bingtown woman. It's equally false to me. There. Does it look all right now?”

  Amber reached across the counter to push a lock of Althea's hair back into place. “There. That's better. False, how?”

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  Althea bit her lip for a moment. Then she shook her head. “False in every way. I feel trapped in these clothes; I must walk a certain way, sit a certain way. I can scarcely lift my hand over my head without the sleeves binding me. The pins in my hair give me a headache. I must speak to people according to proper protocol. Even to stand here, speaking intimately with you in your shop, is potentially scandalous. But worst of all, I must pretend to want things I don't really want. ” She paused briefly. “Sometimes I almost convince myself I do want them,” she added confusedly. “If I could want them, life would be easier. ”

  The bead-maker made no immediate reply. Amber picked up the small baskets of beads. Althea followed her as she walked to an alcove at the back of the store. Amber let down a rattling curtain of hand-carved beads to shield them from casual eyes. She sat down on a tall stool by a worktable. Althea took a chair. The arms of it bore the marks of Amber's idle whittling.

  “What don't you want?” Amber asked kindly as she began to set the beads out on the table before her.

  “I don't want all the things a real woman would want. You made me realize that. I don't dream of babies and a pretty house. I don't want a settled home, and a growing family. I'm not even sure I want a husband. Today Malta accused me of being odd. It stung worse than anything else she flung at me. Because it's true. I suppose I am. I don't want any of the things a woman is supposed to want. ” She rubbed her temples. “I should want Grag. I mean . . . I do want Grag. I like him. I enjoy his company. ” She stared at the front door as she added more honestly, “When he touches my hand, it warms me. But when I consider marrying him and all that would go with it . . . ” She shook her head. “It's not what I want. It would cost too much. Even though it would, perhaps, be wise. ”

  Amber said nothing. She was setting out bits of metal and wooden spacers. She measured off several lengths of gleaming silken thread, and then began to knot them together into a woven rope. “You don't love him,” Amber suggested.

  “I could. I don't allow myself to love him. It's like wanting something you can't possibly afford to buy. There is no reason not to love him, save that there is so much . . . attached to him. His family. His inheritance. His ship, his position in the community. ” Althea sighed again, and looked miserable. “The man himself is wonderful. But I can't bring myself to give up everything I'd have to surrender to love him. ”

  “Ah,” Amber said. She fitted a bead to the woven strand and knotted it in place.

  Althea traced an old carving on the chair's arm. “He has expectations. They don't include me captaining my own liveship. He'd want me to settle down and manage things for him. I'd make a home for him to come back to, and raise our children and keep our household in order. ” Her brows knit over her dark eyes. “I'd do everything that needed to be done so that he could sail off without any worries save the ship. ” Bitterness came into her voice. “I'd do all the things that made it possible for him to live the life he wanted. ” She spoke the next words sadly. “If I decide to love Grag, to marry him, it would cost me everything else I've ever wanted to do with my life. I'd have to lay it all down for the sake of loving him. ”

  “And that's not what you want to do with your life?” Amber asked.

  A sour smile twisted Althea's mouth. “No. I don't want to be the wind in his sails. That's what I want someone else to do for me. ” She sat up straight suddenly. “That is . . . that didn't come out right. I'm not explaining this very well. ”

  Amber looked up from her work to grin at her. “On the contrary, I think you are uncomfortable only because you have stated it so plainly. You want a mate who will follow your dream. You don't want to give up your own ambitions to make someone else's life possible. ”

  “I suppose that's true,” Althea admitted reluctantly. An instant later she demanded, “Why is that so wrong?”

  “It isn't,” Amber assured her. A moment later she added wickedly, “As long as you're male. ”

  Althea leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms stubbornly. “I can't help it. That's what I want. ” When Amber said nothing, Althea asked, almost angrily, “Don't try to tell me that that is what love is, giving it all up for someone else!”

  “But for some people, it is,” Amber pointed out inexorably. She bound another bead into the necklace, then held it up to look at it critically. “Others are like two horses in harness, pulling together toward a goal. ”

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  “I suppose that wouldn't be so bad,” Althea conceded. Her knit brows said she did not entirely believe it. “Why can't people love one another and still remain free?” she demanded suddenly.

  Amber paused to rub her eyes, then tug thoughtfully at her earring. “One can love that way,” she conceded regretfully. “But the price on that kind of love may be the highest of all. ” She strung her words together as carefully as she strung her beads. “To love another person like that, you have to admit that his life is as important as yours. Harder still, you have to admit to yourself that perhaps he has needs you cannot fill, and that you have tasks that will take you far away from him. It costs loneliness and longing and doubt and-”

  “Why must love cost anything? Why does need have to be mixed up with love? Why can't people be like butterflies, coming together in bright sunshine and parting while the day is still bright?”

  “Because they are people, not butterflies. To pretend that people can come together, love and then part with no pain or consequences is more false a role than pretending to be a proper Trader's daughter. ” She set her beads down and met Althea's gaze. She spoke bluntly. “Don't, please, convince yourself that you can bed Grag Tenira and walk away from it without diminishing both of you. A moment ago you spoke of love without need. To sate your need without love is theft. If you must have that, hire it done. But don't s
teal that from Grag under the pretense that it is free. I know Grag Tenira now. He cannot give you that, not that way. ”

  Althea crossed her arms on her chest. “I wasn't thinking of doing that. ”

  “Yes, you were,” Amber asserted, her eyes back on her beads. “We all think about doing that. That doesn't make it right. ” She turned her work and began a new pattern of knots. In the silence she added, “When you bed someone, there is always a commitment. Sometimes that commitment is only that you will both pretend it doesn't matter. ” Her strangely colored eyes held Althea's for a moment. “Sometimes that commitment is made only to yourself. The other party never knows it or agrees to it. ”

  Brashen. Althea shifted uncomfortably in her chair. Why did he always come to mind at such inopportune moments? Whenever she thought she had weeded him from her memory, the leaves of that interlude unfurled again. It made her angry all over again, but she was no longer sure it was Brashen she was angry with. She pushed such thoughts away. It was over and done with, a part of her life she was finished with. She could put it behind her. She could cover it up with other things.

  “Love isn't just about feeling sure of the other person, knowing what he would give up for you. It's knowing with certainty what you are willing to surrender for his sake. Make no mistake; each partner gives up something. Individual dreams are surrendered for a shared one. In some marriages, one partner gives up almost everything she once thought she wanted. But it's not always the woman who does so. Such sacrifice is not shameful. It's love. If you think the man is worth it, it works. ”

  She sat still for a time, pondering. Then Althea leaned forward suddenly, to ask Amber, “Do you think that if I married Grag, I'd change my mind?”

  “Well. Someone would certainly have to,” Amber replied philosophically.

  BRASHEN VENTURED A PEEK DOWN THE HALLWAY AGAIN. WHERE WAS THE girl? Was she going to leave him standing here until the runner returned with her mother? Waiting was always hard for him. He grinned to himself, the prospect of seeing Althea lightening his heart despite the gravity of the tidings he bore. He wished he had just the tiniest end of a cindin stick to sustain him, but he had resolutely left them behind on the Springeve. He knew Althea disapproved of his small vice. He didn't want her to think he was the sort of man who had to carry it with him always. She already considered it enough of a fault. Well, he already knew all Althea's faults. Proximity had forced him to tolerate them for years. They didn't matter. He had come to care for her, and it was more than a single night of bedding together. That night had only made him admit what he already felt. For years, he'd seen her nearly every day. They'd shared a drink or a meal in many ports, gamed together, mended sail together. She didn't treat him like the disgraced son of a Bingtown Trader. She treated him like a valuable ship's officer, respected him for his knowledge and his ability to command men. She was a woman, but he could talk to her, beyond complimenting her gown or comparing her eyes to stars. How rare was that?

  He wandered back to a window, looked out down the drive. A light footfall behind him turned him around. It was Malta again. A bit spoiled, if Althea's tales of her were true. Her eyes met his, and she smiled gravely. Her demeanor had changed yet again. “I've sent off a runner, as you suggested. If you'd like to follow me, I can offer you a cup of coffee and some morning cake. ” Her genteelly modulated voice was that of a well-bred young lady welcoming him to her home.

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  It recalled him to his own manners. “Thank you. That would be most welcome. ”

  She gestured to the hallway, and surprised him by taking his arm. She scarcely came to the top of his shoulder. He noticed her scent now, some floral oil, violets perhaps. It wafted up from her hair. She glanced up at him once through her eyelashes as he accompanied her down the hall. The look made him reevaluate his first impression of her. Sa's breath, how fast children grew up. Hadn't she been a playmate of little Delo? The last time he had seen his little sister, she had been in disgrace for muddying her pinafore. He hadn't even set eyes on her in years. A peculiar sense of loss assailed him. He had lost more than just home and fortune when his father had disowned him.

  She led him into the morning room. Coffee service and a plate of morning bread had already been set out on a small table flanked by two comfortable chairs. The opened window presented a garden vista. “I hope you'll be comfortable waiting here. I made the coffee myself. I hope it isn't too strong. ”

  “I'm sure it will be fine,” he said lamely. He felt doubly shamed. That had been what had delayed her, and yes, the Vestrit family had fallen on hard times when a daughter of the house made coffee and sliced bread for visitors. “You know my sister, don't you?” he burst out suddenly. “Delo?”

  “Of course I do. Dear, sweet Delo. She is my closest friend. ” Again, she gave him that smile. She gestured him to a seat, and took the opposite one at the small table she had arranged. She poured the coffee, and served him the sweet seed-studded bread.

  “I haven't seen Delo in years,” he found himself admitting.

  “You haven't? What a shame. She has quite grown up, you know. ” Her smile was slightly different as she added, “I know your brother also. ”

  Brashen knit his brows at her knowing tone. “Cerwin. He is well, I trust. ”

  “I suppose. He was the last time I saw him. ” She gave a small sigh and looked away from him. “I do not see him often. ”

  Was she infatuated with young Cerwin? Brashen quickly reckoned his siblings' ages from his own. Well. He supposed Cerwin was of an age to be courting young ladies. Yet, if Delo and Malta were the same age, Malta seemed rather young to be courted. He began to feel a bit uncomfortable. Was this pretty little charmer girl or woman? She stirred her coffee, and somehow contrived to make him notice the elegance of her hands as she did so. Then she leaned across the little table and offered to spice his coffee for him. Surely, she had not intended to display quite that much bosom as she did so. He looked away but her scent still reached him.

  She sat back in her chair. She lifted her coffee, sipped it, and then pushed a stray strand of hair back from her unlined brow. “You know my Aunt Althea, I believe?”

  “Of course. We served together . . . on the Vivacia, for many years. ”

  “Of course. ”

  “She returned safely to Bingtown?”

  “Oh, yes. Weeks and weeks ago. She came back aboard the Ophelia. That's the Tenira family liveship, you know. ” Her eyes met his squarely as she added, “Grag Tenira is very enamored of her. It has made Bingtown buzz with gossip. Not a few are startled at the idea of my headstrong aunt suddenly losing her heart to such a steady young man. My grandmother, of course, is quite thrilled. We all are. We had almost given up hope of her ever making a good match and settling down. I am sure you know what I mean. ” She gave a small confidential laugh, as if these were words she would not share with just anyone. She watched him so closely, as if she could see how the barbs of her words set in his heart and clawed there.

  “A good match,” he repeated numbly. He found himself nodding like a bob-head toy. “Tenira. Grag Tenira. Oh, he would. Be a good match, I mean. He's a good sailor, too. ” This last he added more to himself. It was the only thing he could think of that might have attracted Althea to Grag Tenira. Well, he was handsome, too. Brashen had heard him called handsome. He also wasn't disinherited and didn't have a fondness for cindin. The thought of the drug made him abruptly long for some, to distract him from this nasty new sensation. There might be part of a stick in his jacket pocket, but he could scarcely indulge in a waterfront vice here in front of this gently reared child.

  “. . . more bread, Brashen?”

  He caught only her last few words. He glanced down at his untouched plate. “No. No, thank you very much. It's very good, though. ” He hastily took a bite of the bread. In his dry mouth, the seedy texture was like sawdust. He washed it down with a gulp of the coffee, and then re
alized he was eating like a deckhand at a galley table.

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  Malta reached across the table to lightly touch the back of his hand with her slender little fingers. “You seem quite travel-worn. I was so upset when I first let you in . . . I never thanked you for coming so far to bring us tidings of my father's ship. You have come from afar, haven't you?”

  “Quite a ways,” he admitted. He drew away from her and rubbed his hands together in his lap, as if that would still the tingling of her touch. She smiled knowingly at that, and then turned her face aside. A blush rose on her cheeks. She was aware of her flirting then, it wasn't the casual touch of a child. He felt besieged and confused. There were too many things to consider here. His mouth ran at the thought of even a small piece of cindin to clear his mind. He forced himself to take another bite of bread instead.

  “You know, I look at you, and I wonder how your brother might look if he grew a mustache. Yours is quite flattering to your jaw and lips. ”

  Brashen lifted a hand to his own face to smooth his mustache selfconsciously. Her words were not appropriate, nor the way her eyes followed his fingers almost avidly. Brashen stood. “Perhaps I should come back later this afternoon. Please let them know to expect me. I probably should have sent word before I came calling today. ”

  “Not at all. ” The girl remained seated. She did not stand to escort him to the door or even acknowledge his desire to leave. “I've already sent the runner. I am sure they will return soon. They will want to hear news of my father and his ship as swiftly as possible. ”

  “I am sure they will,” Brashen agreed stiffly. He could not understand this young woman. She looked at him guilelessly. Perhaps her words had been a child's artless error. Perhaps he had been too long at sea. He sat down, his back rigidly straight, and held his hat in his lap. “I will wait for them, then. I am sure I have interrupted your day. Please, do not feel you must remain with me. I shall be fine waiting here by myself. ”

  She gave a bubble of laughter at his awkward words. “Oh, dear. I have made you uncomfortable. I am terribly sorry. I suppose I have been too familiar with you. It is only because you were dear Grandfather's first mate so long that I feel you are almost a relative. Also, knowing Cerwin and Delo as well as I do, I naturally wished to extend a warm welcome to their brother. ” Her voice dropped dramatically. “I think it is so tragic that you are no longer welcome in your family home. I have never understood exactly what happened between you and your father. . . . ” She let her words trail off, inviting his confidence.

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