The mad ship, p.33
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       The Mad Ship, p.33

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  Spilling his guts about his family quarrel was the last thing he wished to do now. He could not recall that he had ever been in such an awkward situation. One moment Malta seemed an innocent child doing her best to welcome a guest in the absence of her elders. The next she seemed like a temptress toying with him. His news was pressing, and he wished to see Althea, but the longer he remained here, the uneasier he felt. It was belatedly occurring to him that perhaps this whole situation would be seen as improper. He was, to all appearances, completely alone with a young woman of good family. He knew some fathers and brothers who had fought duels over lesser offenses. He stood again. “I fear I must go. I have other errands. I will return, late this afternoon. Please give your family my regards. ”

  Malta made no effort at rising. He didn't wait for her to do so. “Very pleasant to have seen you again. ” He bowed to her, and turned to leave.

  “Your brother Cerwin doesn't think I'm a child. ” There was a challenge in those words.

  Unwillingly he turned back to face her. She had not arisen, but she had thrown back her head against the chair, baring the white column of her throat. A bit of her hair had come loose and she reached up to twine it through her fingers as she spoke. She smiled lazily. “He is sweet, like a little house cat. You, I suspect, are more like a tiger. ” She put a fingertip in her mouth and nibbled at it thoughtfully. “Pets can be such boring creatures,” she observed.

  Brashen suddenly discovered that the heart of a correctly mannered Bingtown Trader's son beat in his chest under his pirate's blouse. He was shocked to his core. There could be no mistake in her inflection. Captain Vestrit's granddaughter, in his family home, was honing her seductive wiles on him. It was outrageous.

  “You should be ashamed of yourself,” he said with honest indignation.

  He did not turn back at her shocked gasp, but proceeded down the hall to the main door. He pulled it open to let himself out and found himself looking down into the startled faces of Ronica Vestrit and Keffria Haven. “Oh, thank Sa you've come,” he exclaimed, even as Keffria demanded, “Who are you and what are you doing in our house?” She glanced about wildly as if to summon menservants to seize him.

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  “Brashen Trell,” he told her hastily, bowing low. “I bring tidings of the Vivacia. Urgent and troublesome tidings. ”

  The shock of his words instantly seized their attention.

  “What is wrong? Has anything happened to Kyle? Have you word of my son, of Wintrow?” Keffria demanded immediately.

  “No. ” Ronica Vestrit commanded. “Not here, come inside and sit down. Come, Keffria. To the study. ”

  Brashen stepped aside to allow them to precede him. He spoke as he followed them. “Your granddaughter Malta let me in. I presumed the runner she had sent to fetch you would have prepared you for my tidings. ” He wanted to ask if Althea were coming, but held his tongue against that.

  “No runner found us,” Ronica Vestrit informed him tersely. “But I had feared that sooner or later, someone would knock at our door and the tidings would not be good ones. ” She ushered them into the study and shut the door firmly. “Have a chair, Trell. What do you know? You didn't sail with the Vivacia; I know that Kyle replaced you with a man of his own choosing. So how do you come to bear this message to us?”

  How much of the truth did he owe her? If she had been Althea and they had been sitting quietly over a couple of beers, he would have told her all, and allowed her to judge him as she saw fit. Trafficking with pirates was a hanging offense; there was no denying that was what he had been doing. He wouldn't lie; he simply wouldn't tell.

  “Vivacia has been taken by pirates. ” He dropped the words like an unchained anchor. Before they could recover enough to pelt him with questions, he added, “I know very little more than that. She was seen in a pirate outpost harbor, anchored up. I do not know what has become of her captain or crew. I'm sorry to tell you that, and sorrier to tell you that the pirate who has seized her is one Captain Kennit. I don't know why he went after Vivacia. His reputation is that of an ambitious crusader. He dreams of uniting the Pirate Isles into a kingdom for himself. To that end, he has been pursuing slaveships. The rumors say that he kills all the crew, and sets the slaves free, to gain their goodwill and that of other pirates who hate slavery as he does. ” He ran out of breath and words. As he spoke, Keffria had appeared to become boneless, settling deeper and deeper into her chair as if his words were taking all life from her body. She had lifted both hands to cover her mouth, holding in a wail of horror.

  In contrast, Ronica Vestrit stood as if turned to wood. Her face was frozen in a rictus of despair. Her old hands clutched the back of a chair like a bird's talons gripping a perch.

  After a long moment, Ronica drew in a breath. She spoke in a whisper that seemed to tax her. “Do you bring us a ransom offer?”

  It shamed him. The old woman was quick-witted. She had seen the cut of his clothes, and guessed where he had been making his living. She thought he was Kennit's go-between. The shame burned him, but he could not fault her for it. “No,” he said simply. “I know little more than I've told you, and half of that is rumor and gossip. ” He sighed. “I do not think there will be a ransom offer. This Captain Kennit appears very pleased with his prize. The ship, at least, I suspect he will keep. I know nothing of the men who were aboard her. I'm sorry. ”

  The silence that welled up now seemed chilling. His tidings had changed the course of their lives. With a score of words, he had slain their hopes. The ship was not merely delayed. Her captain would not come home with coin to restore their fortunes. Instead, whatever they had left to muster must be sacrificed for a ransom, if they were fortunate enough to receive a ransom offer. The news he had brought ruined the Vestrit family. They would hate the bearer of such tidings. He waited for the storm to break.

  Neither of them wept. Neither of them screamed, nor accused him of lying. Keffria buried her face in her hands. “Wintrow,” she said very softly. “My little boy. ” Ronica aged before his eyes, her shoulders sagging, the lines in her face graving more deeply. She groped her way into her chair and sat in it, staring. A horrible weight of responsibility settled on Brashen. What had he expected? He groped after vanished imaginings in which Althea had been fiery-eyed with anger, and turned to him as her friend to aid her in rescuing her ship. This was the reality. He had dealt the final crushing blow to a family who had once befriended him.

  There was a sudden squawk, a thudding on the door, and then it was flung open. Althea entered, pushing a disheveled and struggling Malta before her. “Keffria! This brat was eavesdropping again. I'm tired of her spying, sneaking ways. It isn't worthy of anyone in this family-Brashen? What are you doing here? What's happened, what is going on?” Althea let go of Malta so suddenly that the girl sat down flat with a thud on the floor. She stared at him wild-eyed, her mouth open as if he had knocked the wind out of her lungs.

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  He stood and took a step toward her. His story spilled out. “The Vivacia has been captured by pirates. I saw her anchored up in a pirate stronghold, with the Raven flag flying from her masthead. That's Kennit. I'm sure you know his reputation. It is said he kills the full crew of every slaver he captures. I don't know the crew's fate. ”

  A piercing wail from Malta blasted away all other responses. She drew a second breath, and came to her feet. She charged Brashen, swinging her fists wildly. “No. It's a lie, it's a lie! Father said he would come home, he was going to make everything right! He is going to come home and make us rich again and throw out Althea and make everyone treat me well! You're only saying that, you pig. It isn't true, it isn't true. My father can't be dead, he can't!”

  He caught one of her wrists, and then the other after she had hit him twice. He expected she would surrender. Instead, she kicked him sharply twice in the shins. “Malta! Stop that!” Ronica commanded sharply while Keff
ria cried out, “Stop it, stop it. It won't solve anything. ”

  Althea was more direct. She strode up, seized Malta by the hair on the back of her head and pulled her sharply back. The girl cried out in pain. Brashen promptly released her wrists. Then Althea shocked him by pinning Malta in a rough embrace. “Stop it, stop it now,” she whispered hoarsely to the struggling girl. “It won't do any good. Save your strength and your wits. We can't waste them fighting each other. We have a common enemy now. We have to put everything we have toward rescuing them. Malta. Malta. I know this is terrible, but we have to cope, not thrash about in hysteria. ”

  Malta quieted abruptly. Then she thrust Althea savagely away and staggered clear of her aunt before turning to accuse her. “You're happy this happened. You are! You don't care anything about my father, you never did. All you want is that ship. You hope he is dead, I know you do! You hate me. Don't pretend to be my friend. ” She clenched her teeth and glared at Althea. A moment of stark silence filled the room.

  Althea's voice was stone. “No. I'm not your friend. ” She pushed her mussed hair back from her face. “Most of the time, I don't like you at all. But I am your aunt. Fate has made us family, and now it has made us allies as well. Malta. Put aside your airs and flouncing and sulking. Set your mind to this problem. It is what we all must do. We need to get our family ship back and rescue any of her crew who may still be alive. That is the only problem we can put our energies to right now. ”

  Malta looked her up and down suspiciously. “You're trying to trick me. You still want the ship for yourself. ”

  “I still want to command the family ship,” Althea agreed easily. “That's true. But that quarrel will have to wait until Vivacia is safely back in Bingtown. Right now, that is what all of us want. It is rare when the women of this family agree on anything. So, while we do, you need to stop behaving like a hysterical girl with the brains of a chicken. ”

  Althea's gaze swept to include her mother and sister. “None of us can afford to give way to our emotions right now. We have only one course that I can see. We need to raise money for a ransom. A substantial one. That is, frankly, our best chance of getting both ship and crew back uninjured. ” She shook her head. “It sticks in my craw to have to buy back what is ours, but that is our most practical way to regain it. If we are fortunate, he will take our money and return what is ours. Brashen is right, however. I have heard of this Captain Kennit. If he pursued the Vivacia, it is because he means to keep her. If that is so, we can only pray to Sa that he has been wise enough to keep her family members and familiar crew alive to keep her sane. So, you see, Malta, I have reasons of my own for hoping your father and brother are alive and well. ” Althea delivered this wry aside with a pained clench of a smile.

  In a lower voice she went on, “The Bingtown Trader Council meets tomorrow night. They are supposed to give the Tenira family a hearing on the Satrap's tariff, the presence of the so-called Chalcedean 'patrol ships' and slaves in Bingtown. I've promised Grag I'll be there to support his father's views. Mother, Keffria, you should come as well. Rally any others that you can. It is time the Bingtown Traders were awakened to all that is going on. The worsening piracy and their increasing boldness is yet another part of the Satrap's mess. When the time is right, we need to bring up the Vivacia's situation and ask for support from at least the other liveship families, if we cannot sway all the Traders to help us. This is something that affects us all. At the risk of setting off Malta again, I will add that it directly relates to the slavery issue. If Kyle hadn't been using Vivacia as a slaver, this would not have befallen her. It is well known that Kennit targets slaveships. It is also known,” she added in a slightly louder voice as Malta took a breath to interrupt, “that the pirate activities are why we have these Chalcedean privateers tied up in our harbor. If Bingtown itself takes a stand against the pirates, perhaps we can show the Satrap we don't need his patrol boats and we don't intend to pay for them. ” She turned and looked out the window at the waning afternoon. “And if we succeed in all that, perhaps we can waken all Bingtown to the fact that we don't need Jamaillia or the Satrap at all. That we can take care of ourselves now. ” Those words were very softly spoken but they sounded clear in the quiet room.

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  Althea gave a sudden deep sigh and her shoulders drooped. “I'm hungry. Isn't that stupid? Brashen brings me the worst possible news that I can imagine, and somehow I still get hungry at dinner time. ”

  “No matter what befalls you, your body tries to go on living. ” Ronica spoke the heavy words with the experience of a survivor. She moved stiffly as she crossed the room to her granddaughter. She held out her hand to her. “Malta. Althea is right. We must stand as a family now, putting aside all quarrels with each other. ” She lifted her eyes and smiled grimly around at them all. “Sa's breath. Look what it takes to make us remember we are family. I feel ashamed. ” She returned her gaze to her granddaughter. Her empty hand waited, hovering. Slowly Malta extended her own. Ronica took it. She looked deep into the girl's angry gaze. Suddenly she gave her a brittle hug. Malta cautiously returned it.

  “Malta and Papa aren't bad anymore?” a young voice wondered aloud. All heads turned to the boy in the doorway.

  “Oh, Selden!” Keffria cried in weary dismay. She pulled herself up from her chair and went to her young son. She tried to hug him but he pulled stiffly free. “Mama, I'm not a baby!” he cried in annoyance. His eyes went past his mother to Brashen. He considered him gravely. He cocked his head. “You look like a pirate,” he decided.

  “I do, don't I?” Brashen said. He squatted down to be on a level with the small boy. He smiled and held out a hand. “But I'm not. I'm just an honest Bingtown sailor, a bit down on my luck. ” For a moment, he believed it was true. He could almost forget the stub end of a cindin stick his wayward fingers had found in the corner of his jacket pocket.

  CHAPTER SIXTEEN - Taking Charge

  ALTHEA WATCHED HIM LEAVE. SHE HAD NOT JOINED HER MOTHER TO WALK him to the door. Instead, she had fled to a maid's chamber in the upper story of the house. She had left the dusty room dark, and did not even lean too close to the window lest Brashen look back and chance to see her. The moonlight washed the gaudy color from his clothes. He walked slowly, not looking back, his gait as rolling as if he strode a deck instead of a carriage drive.

  Althea had been lucky she had been struggling with Malta when she first entered the study that evening. No one had remarked on her red cheeks or lost breath. She did not think that even Brashen had realized her moment of panic at seeing him. The stricken expressions that Keffria and Mother had worn had near stilled her heart. For one ghastly instant, she had imagined that he had come to her mother to confess all and offer to redeem Althea's shame by marrying her. Even while she reeled from the severity of Brashen's real tidings, she had felt a secret relief that she did not have to admit publicly what she had done.

  What she had done. She accepted that now. Amber's words had made her confront herself on that issue weeks ago. She was almost ashamed now that she had tried to hide behind excuses. What they had done, they had done together. If she wanted to respect herself as a woman and an adult, she could not claim otherwise. She had only spoken otherwise, she decided truthfully, because she had not wanted to be blamed for such an irresponsible act. If he had really tricked or coerced her into bed with him, then she could justify the pain she had felt since then. She could have been the wronged woman, the seduced innocent, abandoned by a heartless sailor. But such roles insulted both of them.

  She had not been able to meet his eyes tonight, nor yet look away from him. She had missed him. The years of shipboard camaraderie, she told herself, outweighed the harsh way they had parted. Time and again, she had stolen glances at him, storing his image in her mind as if she were satisfying some sort of hunger. The devastating news he had brought still tore at her heart, but her traitor eyes had studied only the bright darkness of hi
s eyes, and how his muscled shoulders moved under his silk shirt. She had noticed a cindin sore at the edge of his mouth; he was still using the drug. His freebooter's garb had appalled her. It hurt and disappointed her that he had turned pirate. Yet, such clothes suited him far better than the sober dress of a Bingtown Trader's son ever had. She disapproved of everything about him, yet the sight of him had set her heart racing.

  “Brashen,” she said hopelessly to the darkness. She shook her head after his departing form. She had regrets, she told herself. That was all. She regretted that bedding with him had destroyed their easy companionship. She regretted that she had let herself do such an inappropriate thing with such an inappropriate person. She regretted that he had given up and not become the man her father had believed he would. She regretted his poor judgment and weak character. That was all she felt. Regrets.

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  She wondered what had brought him back to Bingtown. He would not have come all this way just to tell them Vivacia had been captured. At the thought of her ship, the pain in her heart wrenched one notch tighter. Losing her to Kyle had been hard enough; now she was in the hands of a pirate capable of murder. It would mark the ship. There was no escaping that. If she ever did recover Vivacia, she would be very different from the lively and spirited ship that had left Bingtown over a year ago.

  “As different as I am from whom I was then,” she said aloud to the night. “As different as he is. ” She watched Brashen until the darkness swallowed him.

  MIDNIGHT HAD COME AND GONE BEFORE MALTA MANAGED TO SUP AWAY from the house. The family had all eaten in the kitchen like servants, making a late meal off what was there. They had included Brashen in their company. When Rache had come in later from her day off in town, the family and Brashen had moved to her grandfather's study and continued their discussion. Even Selden had been included, much to Malta's disgust. All he did was ask stupid questions, which would not have been so bad, except that everyone kept trying to answer them in ways that he would understand, while insisting that he should not be scared. Finally he fell asleep on the hearth. Brashen had offered to carry him up to his bed and her mother had actually allowed that instead of rousing the little bug. Malta drew her cloak more tightly about her. It was a fine summer night, but the dark cloak helped both camouflage her and kept the dew at bay. Her slippers and the hem of her gown were already soaked. It was much darker outside at night than she had expected. The white pebbled walkway that led to the oak tree and the gazebo reflected the moonlight to guide her feet. In some places, grass sprawled over the path. Wet brown leaves, unraked since autumn, clung to the bottoms of her slippers. She tried not to think of slugs and worms mashed under her feet.

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