The mad ship, p.35
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       The Mad Ship, p.35

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
 

  He tried to pretend that she was the reason Althea had not met his eyes. She had not wanted her young niece to guess what had passed between them. For three strides, he believed it. Then he admitted glumly to himself that she had not given him the least sign of warmth or interest. She had been courteous to him, just as Keffria had been courteous to him. No more than that, and no less. As befitted a daughter of Ephron Vestrit, she had been gracious and welcoming to a guest, even when he brought bad tidings to the family. The only time she had failed in courtesy had been when Ronica had offered him a bedchamber. Keffria had urged him to accept it, citing the lateness of the hour and how weary he looked. Althea, however, had kept silent. That had made his decision. He left.

  Althea had been lovely. Oh, not as her sister was attractive, nor as Malta was beguiling. Keffria and Malta were careful and constructed in their beauty. The touch of paint, the brush of powder, the careful arranging of hair and selection of clothing all combined to set off their best features. Althea had come in from the streets, her sandals dusty, her hair tendriled with perspiration at her brow and the back of her neck. The warmth of summer was on her cheeks, and the liveliness of Bingtown's market shone in her eyes. Her skirt and blouse were simple garments, chosen for freedom of movement rather than fineness of weave. Even her struggle with Malta when she first entered the room had impressed him with her vitality. She was no longer the boyish hand she'd been on the Reaper, nor even the captain's daughter from Vivacia. Her stay in Bingtown had been kind to her hair and skin. Her attire was softer and a bit less pragmatic. She looked like a Trader's daughter.

  Hence, unattainable.

  A hundred might-have-beens passed through his mind. If he were still heir to the Trell fortune and Trader status. If he had listened to Captain Vestrit and saved some money. If Althea had inherited the ship and kept him on as first mate. So many ifs, but he had no more hope of winning her than of being re-inherited by his father. So, throw it away, with his other discarded futures. Walk on into the empty night.

  He spat out bitterness with the fibrous remnants of the cindin stick. The dark hulk of the Paragon loomed ahead against the bright canopy of the starry night sky. He caught a faint whiff of wood-smoke from somewhere. As he approached, he began to whistle loudly. He knew Paragon did not like to be surprised. As he drew closer, he called out jovially, “Paragon! Hasn't anyone made you into kindling yet?”

  “Who goes there?” A cold voice from the shadows halted him in his tracks.

  “Paragon?” Brashen queried in confusion.

  “No. I am Paragon. If I'm not mistaken, you're Brashen,” the ship jestingly replied. He added in an aside, “He's no danger to me, Amber. Set aside your staff. ”

  Brashen peered through the gloom. A slender silhouette stood between him and the ship, tension in her stance. She moved, and he heard the clatter of hardwood on stone as she leaned her stick on a rock. Amber? The bead-maker? She sat down on something, a bench or stacked stone. He ventured closer. “Hello?”

  “Hello. ” Her voice was cautiously friendly.

  “Brashen, I'd like you to meet my friend Amber. Amber, this is Brashen Trell. You know something of him. You cleaned up after him when you moved in. ” There was breathless excitement in Paragon's boyish voice. He was obviously enjoying this encounter. There was an element of adolescent brag in his voice as he teased Brashen.

  “Moved in?” Brashen heard himself query.

  “Oh, yes. Amber lives inside me now. ” A hesitation. “Oh. You were probably coming to me for a place to sleep, weren't you? Well, there is plenty of room, you know. It's only the captain's quarters that she has taken over, and stored a few things in my hold. Amber? You don't mind, do you? Brashen always comes to sleep here when he has no other place to stay, and no more money. ”

  The pause was just a trifle longer than was polite. Brashen heard a touch of uneasiness in Amber's voice as she replied, “You belong to yourself, Paragon. It's not up to me who you welcome aboard. ”

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  “I do, do I? Well, if I belong to myself, why are you so intent on buying me?” Now he teased her, hooting like a boy at his own joke.

  Brashen found nothing humorous about it. What business had she with the liveship? “No one can buy a liveship, Paragon,” he corrected him gently. “A liveship is a part of a Trader's family. You could not sail without a family member aboard you. ” In a quieter voice, he added, “It isn't even good for you to be out here by yourself so much. ”

  “I'm not by myself, not anymore,” the figurehead protested. “Amber comes out almost every night to sleep aboard me. And every ten-day, she takes a holiday and spends the whole afternoon with me. If she buys me, she won't sail me. She's going to just have me leveled up, and she's going to create some cliff-gardens over there, and . . . ”

  “Paragon!” Brashen rebuked him almost sternly. “You belong to the Ludlucks. They can't sell you and Amber can't buy you. Nor are you some great flowerpot to be decorated with vines. Only a cruel person would tell you such things. ” He glared at the slender figure sitting silently in the shadows.

  Amber flowed to her feet. She advanced on him, shoulders squared, as if she were a man about to challenge him to a fight. Her voice was tight but even as she said, “If what you claim is true, then the cruelty originates with the Ludlucks. They have left him here to brood and rot, all these years. Now, when times are changing and it seems that all of Bingtown can be bought, they entertain offers from New Traders. They would not make Paragon into a 'great flowerpot. ' No. They'd chop him up into bits and sell him off as trinkets and curiosities. ”

  Brashen was struck dumb with horror. Instinctively he reached out a hand to the ship's silvery hull in a calming gesture. “That can't happen,” he assured him in a husky voice. “All of the Traders would rise up in arms before they'd let such a thing happen. ”

  Amber shook her head. “You've been gone a long time from Bingtown, Brashen Trell. ” She turned and kicked at the sand. Sparks flew up from the fading coals of a campfire. She stooped and, a moment later, tiny flames blossomed. Brashen watched in silence as she awakened the fire with twigs and then larger sticks of wood. “Sit down,” she invited him in a weary voice. In a conciliatory tone, she added, “This has begun badly. Actually, I have looked forward to your returning to Bingtown. I had hoped that you and Althea might work together to aid me in this. She has grudgingly agreed that my acquiring Paragon might be the best thing for him. If you join your voice to hers, perhaps we could all go to the Ludlucks and make them see reason. ” She lifted her gaze to his disapproving stare. “Would you care for a cup of tea?”

  He sat, lowering himself stiffly to perch on a driftwood log. He tried to keep his voice conversational as he said, “It is hard for me to believe Althea would ever support the sale of a liveship. ”

  “I but pointed out the facts to her and she concurred. ” In the firelight, she rolled her eyes toward Paragon. The small jerk of her head was a plain indication she didn't want to discuss details in front of the ship. Curiosity burned in Brashen, but he recognized the wisdom. Paragon was in a cheery mood tonight. There was no sense in awakening the quarrelsome side of him. For now, the best course was to humor them both and collect what information he could. “So. I know Paragon is happy to see you and will want to know all of your adventures. How long have you been back in Bingtown?” Amber went on in a natural voice.

  “We just anchored up today,” he replied. A silence fell after his words. The oddness of the situation swept over him. Amber was conducting this as if she were a Bingtown matron hosting a tea.

  “And will you be staying long?” she prodded him.

  “I don't know. I came back to tell Althea I had seen Vivacia. Pirates have captured her. I don't know if Kyle and Wintrow are alive. I don't know if any of the crew is alive. ” The words spilled from him before he could consider the wisdom of sharing this information.

 
There was true concern in Amber's voice as she asked, “Althea knows this? How did she react?”

  “She is devastated, of course. Tomorrow she goes to the Bingtown Council to seek their aid in recovering the ship. The damnable part of it is that this Kennit most likely doesn't want a ransom. He wants to keep the ship. If Wintrow and Kyle are still alive, he'll probably have to keep them as well to keep the ship sane-”

  “Pirates. ” Paragon's voice was almost dreamy save for the terror in it. “I know about pirates. They kill and kill and kill on your decks. The blood soaks in, deeper and deeper, until your wood is so full of lives you cannot even find your own. Then they chop off your face and open your seacocks and you go under. The worst part is, they leave you to live. ” His voice broke into a boyish treble before it tremored into silence.

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  Brashen's eyes met Amber's. Hers glittered with unspoken horror. She and Brashen rose as one, both reaching out toward the ship. His voice stopped them. “Don't touch me!” His voice was deep and hoarse, a man's frantic command. “Be gone from me, you traitorous vermin! Feckless, dung-crawling rats! You have no souls! No creature with a soul could endure doing what you did to me!” He turned his face from side to side blindly. His huge hands, knotted into fists, swung back and forth before him defensively. “Take your memories away from me. I do not want your lives. You are drowning me! You are trying to make me forget who I am . . . who I was. I will not!” This last he roared out in defiance. Then his voice dropped low into a wild laugh, followed by a string of mocking obscenities.

  “He's not talking to us,” Amber assured Brashen in a low tone, but he was not so sure. He made no move to touch the ship. Neither did she. Instead, she took his arm, turned him away from the ship and walked him down the beach into the darkness. The sounds of Paragon's rabid curses and imprecations followed them. When the light of the fire no longer touched their faces, she halted and turned to him. She still spoke in a hushed voice. “His hearing is exceptionally keen. ” She glanced back at him. “He's best left alone at times like this. If you try to talk him back to rationality, he only gets worse. ” She shrugged helplessly. “He has to come back on his own. ”

  “I know. ”

  “I know that you know. I think you understand that he can't take much more of this. Every moment of every day, he dreads them coming for him. He cannot even sleep to escape it. Almost every day now, he retreats into his madness. I try to let nothing trouble him, but he is not stupid. He knows that his survival is threatened and that there is very little he can do to defend himself. ” Even in the dark, he could feel the strength of her gaze. “You have to help us. ”

  “There is nothing I can do. I don't know what the ship or Althea Vestrit told you about me to make you think I have some kind of influence, but it's not true. The truth is the opposite. Anything I support, proper Bingtowners will righteously oppose. I'm as much of an outcast as that ship. Your cause is more likely to succeed without me. ” He shook his head at her. “Not that I think it can succeed at all. ”

  “So. I should just give up now?” she asked mildly. “Just let him spiral down into madness until the New Traders come to haul him away and chop him up? What will we say to one another afterwards, Brashen? That there was nothing we could do, that we never believed it would really happen. Will that make us innocent?”

  “Innocent?” He was incensed at her suggestion he was somehow responsible for this mess. “I've done nothing wrong, I intend nothing wrong. I am innocent!”

  “Half the evil in this world occurs while decent people stand by and do nothing wrong. It's not enough to refrain from evil, Trell. People have to attempt to do right, even if they believe they cannot succeed. ”

  “Even when it's stupid to try?” he asked with savage sarcasm.

  “Especially then,” she replied sweetly. “That's how it's done, Trell. You break your heart against this stony world. You fling yourself at it, on the side of good, and you do not ask the cost. That's how you do it. ”

  “Do what?” he demanded, truly angry now. “Get myself killed? For the sake of being a hero?”

  “Perhaps,” she conceded. “Perhaps that. But it is definitely how you redeem yourself. How you become a hero. ” She cocked her head and eyed him appraisingly. “Don't tell me you've never wanted to be the hero. ”

  “I've never wanted to be the hero,” he defied her. Paragon was still cursing someone defiantly. He sounded drunken and rambling. Brashen turned his head, to stare at the ship. The yellow glow of firelight danced on his chopped face. What did this woman expect of him? There was nothing he could do to help the ship, nothing he could do to help anyone. “All I ever wanted to do was live my own life. And I'm having damn little success at that. ”

  She laughed low. “Only because you keep standing back from it. And turning aside from it. And avoiding it. ” She shook her head. “Trell, Trell. Open your eyes. This horrible mess is your life. There is no sense in waiting for it to get better. Stop putting it off and live it. ” She laughed again. Her eyes and voice seemed to go afar. “Everyone thinks that courage is about facing death without flinching. But almost anyone can do that. Almost anyone can hold their breath and not scream for as long as it takes to die. True courage is facing life without flinching. I don't mean the times when the right path is hard, but glorious at the end. I'm talking about enduring the boredom, and the messiness, and the inconvenience of doing what is right. ” She cocked her head and considered him. “I think you can do that, Trell. ”

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  “Stop calling me that,” he hissed. His surname was like salt in a wound.

  She suddenly gripped his wrist. “No. You stop. Stop thinking you're the son your father disowned. You're not who he expected you to be; that doesn't mean you aren't somebody. Nor are you perfect. Stop using every mistake you make as an excuse to fail completely. ”

  He jerked his wrist free of her grip. “Who are you, to speak to me of these things? What are you, to even know these things?” With chagrin, he finally realized the only possible source of her knowledge. Althea had been talking about him. How much had she told Amber? He looked in her face and knew. Althea had told her everything. Everything. He turned and walked swiftly away from her. He wished the darkness could completely swallow him.

  “Brashen? Brashen!” She hissed out the call.

  He kept walking.

  “Where will you go, Trell?” It was a hoarse cry in the darkness. “Where will you go to get away from yourself?”

  He didn't know. He couldn't answer.

  THE SLIPPERS WERE RUINED WITH DAMP. MALTA FLUNG THEM INTO A CORner of her closet and took down a warm robe. Her night stroll had chilled her despite the mildness of the season. She took the dream-box down from its shelf. The gray powder she had hidden inside a larger bag of headache herbs. She fished it out and brushed the crumbles of herbs from the outer bag. A shiver of excitement ran over her as she tugged open the laced mouth. She up-ended it into the dream-box and shook it out carefully. A fine powder of dream dust hung glittering in the air. She sneezed violently, and hastily shut the lid of the box. The back of her throat felt odd, numb and yet warm. “Shake the box well, wait, and then open the box by the bedside,” she instructed herself. As she crossed the room to her bed, she shook the box. She drew back the coverings of her bed, climbed in and then put the open box by her bed. With a puff, she blew out her candle and lay back on her pillows. She shut her eyes and waited.

  Waited.

  Anticipation was betraying her. She could not fall asleep. Resolutely, she kept her eyes closed. She tried to think sleepy thoughts. . When that failed, she focused her thoughts on Reyn. She found him much more attractive after Cerwin's disappointing performance. When Cerwin had taken her in his arms, he had seemed thin compared to Reyn's broad chest during his one stolen embrace. She considered it. Certainly, Reyn would not have missed a chance to steal a kiss. Her heart b
eat faster at the thought.

  Reyn raised a storm of conflicting emotions in her. His gifts and attention made her feel important. His wealth was attractive, especially after a whole year of penury. Sometimes she did not mind his veiled face and gloved hands. They made him mysterious. She could look at him and imagine a handsome young man hidden beneath them. When he led her with such grace through intricate dance steps, she felt both his strength and his agility in his light touch upon her hand and back. Only occasionally did she wonder if his veil hid a warty visage with misshapen features.

  When they were apart, her doubts assailed her. Even worse was the sympathy of her friends. One and all, they were certain he must be a monster. Half the time, Malta suspected they were just jealous of the gifts and attentions he showered on her. Maybe they just wanted him to be ugly, out of envy for her good fortune. Oh, she did not know what she felt or how she believed. Nor was she falling asleep. She had wasted the dream-box powder. Nothing had come out right. She tossed in her bed, both mind and body restless with longings she scarcely understood. She wished her father had come home to make everything right.

  “I WANT TO COME OUT. WHY WON'T YOU HELP ME? ”

  “I can't. Please. Understand that I can't, and stop pleading with me. ” The imprisoned dragon was contemptuous. “You won't. You could, but you won't. All it would take is sunlight. Open the shutters and let in the sunlight. I would do the rest. ”

  “I have told you. The chamber you are in is buried. Once, I am sure, there were great windows and shutters to open and close them. But the whole structure is buried now. Earth covers you, and trees grow in it. You are beneath a whole forested hillside. ”

 
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