The mad ship, p.34
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       The Mad Ship, p.34

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  She heard a rustle in the bushes to her right and stopped with a gasp. Something hastened away through the underbrush, but she remained frozen, listening. Once in a great while, mountain cats were seen near Bingtown. It was said they would carry off small livestock, even children. She longed to go back to the house, but she reminded herself she must be brave. This was no prank or test of her will. What she did now, she did for her father's sake.

  She was sure he would understand.

  She had found it very ironic that Aunt Althea had implored her to unite with her family to get the ship and her father back. Even her grandmother had made a fine show with that squishy hug. The truth was, neither of them thought Malta could do anything to help, save stay out of trouble. Malta knew the opposite was true. While Mother wept in her bedchamber and boiled wine as an offering to Sa, and Aunt Althea and her grandmother lay awake thinking of what might be sold off to raise coin, only Malta would act. Malta alone realized that she was the one who could rally others to their aid. Her resolve hardened as she thought about it. She would do whatever she had to do to bring her father safely home. Then she would see to it that he knew who had truly made a sacrifice for him. Who said that women could not be brave and daring for the sake of those they loved? Fortified with this thought, she picked her way along the path.

  A weird glow through the trellised roses sent a shiver up her spine. A soft yellow light flickered and swayed. For a second all the spook tales she had ever heard about the Rain Wilds assailed her. Had Reyn set something to watch over her, and would it think she was betraying him? She almost turned back until a slight breeze brought her the scent of burning candle wax and the jasmine perfume that Delo lately favored. She crept toward the oak. From its deeper shadow, she discerned the source of the glow. Yellow light shone gently through the slats of the old gazebo, outlining the leaves of the ivy that draped the structure. It seemed a magical place, romantic and mysterious.

  Cerwin awaited her there. He had lit a candle to guide her to him. Her heart surged and raced. It was perfect, a minstrel's romantic tale. She was the heroine, the young woman wronged by fate and her family, beautiful, young and heartbroken over her father's captivity. Despite all that her unloving family had done to her, she would be the one to make the ultimate sacrifice that saved them all. Cerwin was the young man who had come to deliver her, for his manly young heart thundered with love for her. He could not do otherwise. She stood still in the fickle moonlight, savoring the drama of it all.

  She walked softly until she could peek inside the leafy door. Two figures waited inside. Delo was huddled up in a corner in her cloak, but Cerwin paced back and forth. It was his motion that made the candle's light erratic. His hands were empty. She frowned to herself. That didn't seem right. Reyn would have brought her flowers at least. Well, perhaps whatever Cerwin had for her was small. Maybe it was in his pocket. She refused to let it spoil the moment.

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  Malta paused only to push back her hood, shake out her hair and spread it carefully over her shoulders. She scraped her teeth over her lips to redden them, then entered the spill of light from the gazebo. She walked forward with a dignified pace, her face grave. Cerwin noticed her immediately. She stopped where she could be half in shadow. She turned her face to the candlelight's caress and opened her eyes wide.

  “Malta!” he whispered in a voice choked with suppressed emotion. He strode toward her. He would sweep her up in his arms. She braced herself for that, but instead he halted and then dropped to one knee before her. His head was bowed and she could see only his dark curly hair. In a tight voice he said, “Thank you for coming. When midnight passed and you were not here, I feared-” He gasped in a breath that was almost a sob. “I feared I had no hope at all. ”

  “Oh, Cerwin,” she murmured sorrowfully. From the corner of one eye, she noted that Delo had crept to the door of the gazebo and was peeking out at them. For a moment, it annoyed her. It spoiled the mood to have Cerwin's little sister watching them. She pushed the thought away. Ignore her. It didn't matter. Delo couldn't tell anything without getting in big trouble herself. Malta took a step closer to Cerwin. She set her pale hands to his dark head and ran her fingers through his curls. He caught his breath at her touch. She turned his face up to hers. “How could you think I would not come?” she asked him gently. She gave a soft sigh. “No matter what sorrows batter me, no matter what danger to myself . . . you should have known I would come. ”

  “I dared to hope,” he admitted. When he looked up at her, she was shocked. He strongly resembled Brashen, yet he suffered in the comparison. She had thought Cerwin manly and mature. Now, after she had watched Brashen for an evening, Cerwin appeared a callow youth. The comparison annoyed her. It made her conquest less of a triumph. He caught her two hands, then dared to kiss each of her palms before releasing them.

  “You must not,” she murmured to him. “You know I am promised to another. ”

  “I will never allow him to have you,” he vowed.

  She shook her head. “It is too late. The tidings your brother brought us tonight have made me see that. ” She looked aside from him to stare wide-eyed into the night forest. “I have no choice but to fulfill my fate. My father's life depends on it. ”

  He surged to his feet. “What are you saying?” His voice was a low cry. “What news came . . . my brother brought it? Your father's life . . . I don't understand. ”

  For an instant her voice tightened with real tears. “Pirates have captured our family ship. Brashen was kind enough to bring us word of it. We fear my father and brother may already be dead, but if they are not, if any chance remains . . . oh, Cerwin, somehow we must find the money to ransom them. And yet, how can we? Humbling as it is, I know you are aware of our financial difficulties. Once word gets out that our ship has been taken, our creditors will close in like sharks. ” She lifted her hands to her face. “I do not know how we will feed ourselves, let alone find money to ransom my father. I fear I will be wed off to the Rain Wilder immediately. As much as that distresses me, I know it is what I must do. Reyn is a generous man. He will help us to get my father back. If marrying him is what it will take . . . I do not mind . . . so much. ” Her voice cracked on these final words. She swayed, genuinely overcome by her cruel fate.

  He caught her in his arms. “You poor, brave child. Can you imagine that I would allow you to go to a loveless marriage, even for the sake of your father?”

  She whispered against his chest. “The choice is not ours, Cerwin. I will offer myself to Reyn. He has both the wealth and power to help me. That will be what I think of when . . . that time comes when . . . I must accommodate him. ” She hid her face against his shirt as if ashamed to speak of such things.

  Cerwin clutched her upper arms more tightly. “Never,” he promised her. “That time will never come. ” He took a breath. “I do not claim to be as wealthy as a Rain Wilder. But all I have, and all I ever will have, I put at your service. ” He held her a little away so he could look down into her face. “Did you think I would do less than that?”

  She shrugged her shoulders helplessly. “I did not think you could,” she admitted. “Your father is still the Trader of your family. Poor Brashen is proof that he runs his household with a firm hand. I know what your heart bids you to do, but, in reality-” she shook her head sadly- “there may be little you can actually command. ”

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  “Poor Brashen!” He snorted disdainfully, distracted from her real problem. “My brother brought about his own misfortunes. Do not pity him. Your other words are true, and I do not deny them. I cannot put the entire Trell fortune at your disposal, but-”

  “As if I would ask that! Oh, Cerwin, what must you think of me? That I come to you at night, at risk to my reputation, to ask for money?” She turned aside from him in a swirl of cloak that briefly revealed the white cotton nightgown she wore beneath it. She heard Delo's indrawn gasp. She scu
ttled out of the gazebo to stand beside Malta.

  “You are practically naked!” she scolded her. “Malta, how could you!”

  There. If Cerwin had been too dense to notice it before, he knew it now. Malta drew herself up with dignity. “I had no choice. I had but one chance to slip out of the house to meet you, and I took it. I don't regret it. Cerwin has been gentleman enough to ignore it and not shame me. It is not as if I chose to come to him this way. Cannot you understand that my father's life is at stake, Delo? This is not an ordinary time, and the ordinary rules do not apply. ” She set her hands pleadingly over her heart.

  She watched Cerwin's reaction from the corner of her eye. He was staring at her with horrified admiration. His eyes traveled her body as if he could see through her cloak. “Delo,” he said brusquely, “it is of no importance. You are such a child, to make much of it. Please. Allow me to speak to Malta privately. ”

  “Cerwin!” Delo protested in outrage.

  He had made her angry, calling her a child. Malta did not want that. An angry Delo might gossip too much. Malta stretched out a languid hand to her. “I know you are only trying to protect me. I love you for it. Nevertheless, I am sure that your brother would never do me harm. ” She met Delo's eyes. “You see, I know your heart, and that tells me much of his. You are honorable people. I do not fear to be alone with him. ”

  Eyes shining, Delo stepped back and away from them. “Oh, Malta. You see so much. ” Obviously moved, she retreated once more to the gazebo. Malta looked back at Cerwin. She gathered her cloak in tightly to cover herself, well aware that doing so accented the smallness of her waist and the fullness of her hips. Then she looked up at him with a shy smile.

  “Cerwin. ” She said his name, then gave a sigh. “It shames me that I must speak so plainly, but my need forces me to it. I do not ask all that you have and all you will ever possess. Whatever you can offer me, discreetly and comfortably, I shall gratefully accept. But more important to me would be for your family to join forces with mine. Tomorrow night there is to be a Traders' Council meeting. I shall be there. Please come. If you can move your father to attend and speak out for us, it would help us greatly. The loss of our ship and my father is not solely my family's loss. It affects all Bingtown Traders. If these cut-throat pirates do not fear to capture a liveship, what will they not take? If they do not fear to hold prisoner a Bingtown Trader and his son, who is safe?” Malta's voice had grown righteously impassioned. Her hands darted out to seize Cerwin's hands. “If your family could unite with mine in this-” she dropped her voice “-perhaps my grandmother would reconsider Reyn's courtship. Perhaps she might see there are . . . better matches. ”

  She loosened her grip on his hands, her heart racing. Strange warmth flushed her body. Now he would take her in his arms and kiss her, and it would be like the end of a minstrel's song. She waited for the touch of his lips that would bear her up like a leaf on the wind. She half closed her eyes.

  Instead, he fell to his knees before her. “I will come to the Traders' Council tomorrow night. I will speak to my father and convince him the Trells should lend their support to your family. ” He looked up at her adoringly. “You will see. I will prove to you and your family that I am worthy of you. ”

  It took her a moment to find a suitable response. She had been so certain he would kiss her. What had she done wrong? “I have never doubted your worthiness,” she faltered at last. She could almost taste her disappointment.

  He came back to his feet slowly. He looked down at her, eyes shining. “I will be worthy of your confidence,” he promised her.

  She waited, thinking he might suddenly embrace her and kiss her ardently. Her skin tingled all over, awaiting his touch. She dared to look straight into his face, her eyes burning with passion. She wet her lips and parted them invitingly as she tilted her chin up toward him.

  “Until tomorrow, Malta Haven,” he said fervently. “You will see how well I keep my word. ”

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  Then, as if he were bidding her farewell at an afternoon tea, he bowed gravely. He turned to his sister. “Come, Delo. I had best be getting you home. ” He swept his own dark cloak about him and then turned and strode off into the night.

  “Farewell, Malta,” Delo sighed. Then she waggled her fingers at her friend. “I'll ask my mother if I may come to the Traders' Council also. Maybe we can sit together. I'll see you then. ” She turned abruptly and hurried away. “Cerwin! Wait for me!”

  For some little time, Malta stood in disbelief. What had she done wrong? No gift token of his affection, no passionate kiss . . . he had not even pleaded to be allowed to escort her part of the way back to her house. She frowned after them. Then in an instant, she realized her error. The fault was not hers, but Cerwin's. She shook her head to herself. He was simply not man enough to live up to her expectations.

  She turned and began to pick her way back to the house through the darkness. She knit her brows in thought, then selfconsciously smoothed her forehead out. She certainly didn't want to end up with a lined forehead like her mother. Brashen had made her frown. He had been so rude to her at first, but then, when she was offering him coffee and flirting a bit, he had definitely reacted to her. She would wager that if he had been the one meeting her in the gazebo tonight, she would have been thoroughly kissed. A sudden shiver ran up her back at that thought. It was not that she liked him. He looked far too coarse in his pirate's silks and long mustache. He had still stunk of the ship when he came to the door, and his hands were scarred and rough with calluses. No. She felt no attraction to the man. But his sidelong glances at her Aunt Althea had stirred her interest. The sailor had watched her move like a hungry cat stalking a bird. Althea never met his eyes. Even when she spoke to him, she contrived to be looking out the window, or stirring a cup of tea or picking at her fingernails. Her avoidance of his glance had distressed him. Time after time, he had addressed his remarks directly to her. At one point she had even gone over to Selden and sat on the floor beside him, taking his hand as if her nephew could shield her from Brashen's avid eyes.

  Malta didn't think her mother or grandmother had noticed, but she had. She firmly intended to find out what was between them. She would discover just what Althea knew that could make a man look at her like that. What would she have to say to make Cerwin look at her so warmly? She shook her head. No. Not Cerwin. Comparing him to his older brother had opened her eyes. He was a boy still, with no heat to his glance or power of his own. He was a poor fish, a catch she should throw back. Even Reyn had had more warmth to his touch. Reyn always brought her gifts. She reached the kitchen door and eased it open. She might, after all, use the dream-box tonight.

  BRASHEN STOOD UP FROM THE TABLE. THE BEER HE HAD ORDERED WAS still untouched. As he turned and left the tavern, he saw the furtive movement of someone else claiming it. He smiled bitterly to himself. Nice place he'd chosen to drink; it was suited perfectly to the man who couldn't hold onto anything.

  Outside the tavern, another Bingtown night was unraveling. He was in the roughest part of Bingtown, patronizing one of the waterfront dives that shared a street with warehouses, whorehouses and flophouses. He knew he should go back to the Springeve. Finney would be expecting him. But he had nothing to tell the man, and it suddenly occurred to him that he probably wouldn't go back at all. Ever. It wasn't likely Finney would come into Bingtown looking for him. Time to cut himself loose from that operation. Of course, that meant that the cindin in his pocket was the last he had. He stopped where he stood and groped for it. When he found it, it was shorter than he remembered. Had he already used some of it? Perhaps. Without regret, he tucked the last bit into his lip. He resumed walking down the darkened street. Just over a year ago, he and Althea had walked down a Bingtown street together at night. Forget it. It wasn't likely that would ever happen again. She went strolling with Grag Tenira now.

  So. If he wasn't going back to the Springeve, where
was he going? His feet had already known the answer to that. They were taking him out of town, away from the lights and up the long empty beach to where the abandoned Paragon rested on the sands. A smile sneered over Brashen's face. Some things never changed. He was back in Bingtown, close to penniless, and an abandoned ship was the closest thing he had to a friend. He and the ship had a lot in common. Both were outcasts.

  All was peaceful under the summer starlit skies. The waves muttered and shushed one another along the shore. There was just enough of a breeze to keep him from sweating as he strode along on the loose sand. It would have been a lovely evening if he had felt good about anything.

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  As things stood, the wind blew emptiness through him and the starlight was cold. The cindin had energized him, but purposelessly. All it had done was given him plenty of wakefulness in which to be confused. Malta, for instance. What game, by Sa's beard, had she been playing with him? He did not know whether to feel stalked, mocked or flattered by her attention. He still did not know how to think of her, child or woman. Once her mother had returned, she had become a demure young lady, save for the occasional sharp remark delivered so innocently that it seemed accidental. Despite Malta's apparent decorum once her older relatives arrived, he had caught her eyes on him more than once that evening. He had seen her speculative gaze go from him to Althea, and her look had not been kind.

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