The mad ship, p.41
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       The Mad Ship, p.41

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
 

  “I don't want to be late,” her mother conceded. They all trooped out to the carriage. Before the surprised coachman was completely off the box, Althea had tugged the carriage door open. She shooed her relatives in ahead of her. Davad obediently squeezed over to make room. Althea sat down next to him. His musk-based perfume was nearly as dizzying as the camphor on her robes. Well, it would not be a long journey. Keffria, Mother and Malta settled facing them. Davad signaled the driver and the carriage jolted forward. The rhythmic squeaking of the carriage spoke of neglect, as did the grit in the seams of the upholstered seats. Althea frowned to herself but made no comment on it. Davad had never been adept at getting the best from his servants.

  “Just look what I've brought for you,” Davad announced. He produced a small beribboned box. Opening it himself, he presented them with an assortment of sticky jelly candies, the sort Althea had doted on when she was six. “I know they're your favorites,” he confided to them as he helped himself to one and then passed the box around to the others. Althea gingerly took one of the sticky treats and popped it in her mouth. Keffria made brief eye contact with her sister as she was handed the box. The look they exchanged was one of fond tolerance for Davad. Keffria took a red one.

  Davad himself beamed satisfaction at them. “Well! Don't you all look beautiful! I shall be the envy of every man at the Traders' meeting, arriving with a carriage full of such loveliness. I shall have to lay about me with a stick just to drive the young men back from the door!”

  Althea and Keffria smiled dutifully to the extravagant compliment, as they had smiled to his compliments since they were children. Malta looked affronted, while Mother commented, “Davad, you are always full of such flattery. Do you think we believe you after all these years?” She frowned and added, “Althea, would you straighten Davad's scarf for him? The knot has worked around to under his ear. ”

  Althea saw her mother's true concern. There was a blotch of gravy or some such predominantly displayed on the fine yellow silk. The scarf was not appropriate with his Trader robe, but she knew better than to try to persuade Davad to take it off. Instead she untied and re-knotted it for him in such a way that the stain scarcely showed.

  “Thank you, my dear,” he said fondly as he patted her hand gratefully. Althea smiled back and glanced at Malta to find her staring in distaste. She quirked one eyebrow at her young niece, asking her understanding. She could understand Malta's avid dislike of Davad. When Althea stopped and considered Davad's recent actions, she knew the same disgust. He had stooped to the low practices of the New Traders, and then surpassed them by aiding them against his own class. Ignoring the censure of the other Traders, he always spoke out for them at the Trader meetings now. He had acted as go-between for many of the more desperate Bingtown Trader families and the New Traders avid to buy their ancestral lands. Rumor said that he bargained keenly to get the best terms, not for the Trader involved, but for the newcomers. It was hard for her to believe half of what she had heard gossiped about Davad. She was forced to accept that he not only used slaves on his property now, he trafficked in them. That was bad enough, but by far the worst rumor she had heard was that he was somehow involved in the efforts of New Traders to buy the Paragon.

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  Now she studied the avuncular man beside her and wondered. At what point would her loyalty be strained to breaking? Would they reach that point tonight?

  To distract herself, she made conversation. “Well, Davad, you always know the most amusing gossip in Bingtown. What is the best tale you've heard today?” She expected nothing more than mildly scandalous. Davad was very strait-laced in his ways.

  He smiled at her compliment and patted his stomach complacently. “The juiciest rumor I have heard today is not about Bingtown, my dear, although if it turns out to be true, it will definitely have a most profound effect upon all of us. ” He looked around at each of them, securing his audience. “This I have from a New Trader. One of his messenger birds brought it from Jamaillia City. ” He paused, tapping his forefinger against his smiling lips as if he considered the wisdom of sharing his news. He wanted to be coaxed.

  Althea indulged him. “Do go on. We are always interested in the goings-on in Jamaillia. ”

  “Well. ” He leaned back in the seat. “You all know, I am sure, of that unfortunate fuss last winter. The Khuprus family . . . indulge me, Malta, I know their boy is enamored of you, but this is politics I'm talking, not romance. . . . The Khuprus family came to Bingtown on behalf of the Rain Wild Traders, to stir up trouble between us and the Satrap. I tried to talk sense to them, but you recall what a mob scene that meeting was, Ronica. Well. Anyway. The result was that a delegation of Bingtown Traders set off for Jamaillia City, with our original charter, with the intent of demanding the Satrap live up to the ancient document. How could they believe such antiquated agreements could be forced to apply to our modern age? Nevertheless, off they went. And they were received courteously, and told firmly that the Satrap would consider their position. And we heard no more. ” He glanced about to see if they were paying attention. It was all old news, but Althea listened dutifully. Malta stared out the dusty window.

  Davad leaned forward over his belly and lowered his voice, as if he feared the driver might be listening. “You have all heard the rumors that the Satrap promised to dispatch an envoy to Bingtown. We have all been expecting his arrival any day now. Well, the rumor I have heard is that there is no envoy. No! Instead, the Satrap himself, high-hearted adventurous young man that he is, has decided to come himself. It is said he will travel in disguise, with only a few choice Companions of his Heart, but well escorted by his Chalcedean honor guards. He hopes, it is said, to show Bingtown that he still considers our settlement to be as tightly tied to Jamaillia and the Satrapy as any of the cities in Jamaillia itself. When folk realize what he has endured to make this trip, and the concern he has that Bingtown remain loyal to him, well, I don't see how they can refuse to be more reasonable. How many years has it been since a reigning Satrap last visited Bingtown? Not in our lifetimes, eh, Ronica? Some of the New Trader families who have heard the rumor are already planning balls and parties such as Bingtown has never seen before. Oh, what a time to be a lovely and single young woman, eh, Malta? Don't be too hasty in accepting that Rain Wilder's suit, now. Perhaps, with my connections, I can arrange an invitation to a ball where you may catch the eye of the Satrap himself!”

  His words produced the shock he'd been hoping for. Even Malta stared at him wide-eyed. “The Satrap? Here?” queried her mother in disbelief.

  “He'd have to be out of his mind. ” Althea didn't realize she'd spoken the words aloud until Davad turned to stare at her. “I mean, such a long and hazardous journey to undertake so impulsively!”

  “Even so, he is on his way. So flies the rumor bird. Now, not a word of this to anyone, you understand?” He did not truly expect that last warning to be heeded. He always appended it to every bit of gossip he shared.

  Althea was still mulling over his tale when the driver pulled the horses in. The carriage came to a halt, and then gave a final bounce back. “Allow me,” Davad said, and leaned over Althea to reach the door handle. As the driver tugged from the outside, Davad put his wide shoulder against the inside of the door and shoved. The door flew open and Althea caught at the portly man's robe to keep him from spilling out. The driver reluctantly offered Davad his hand. The Trader exited the carriage, then proudly handed down each of the Vestrit women in turn.

  Grag Tenira was loitering at the top of the steps outside the Traders' Concourse. He had girt his dark blue Trader robe up in the old seafarer style. It showed a substantial amount of well-muscled legs and sandaled feet. Somehow, he managed to look both the daring sailor and the serious Trader. He was, she admitted to herself, a very handsome man. His wandering eyes told her that he was watching for her arrival. She had sent him a message at dawn about the seizure of the Vivacia. His immedia
te reply had been as warm and supportive as she could wish. He would stand beside her, and even do his best to see that she received time to speak at this meeting. He had written that his family and Ophelia shared her concern for Vivacia.

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  She smiled as she caught his eye, and he gave her a white-toothed grin in response. His smile froze when he glimpsed her escort. Althea quietly excused herself and hastened up the Concourse steps to meet Grag. He bowed formally over her extended hand. As he straightened, he murmured, “I should have thought to send a carriage for you. Next time, I shall. ”

  “Oh, Grag. It's only Davad. He has been a family friend for a long time. He would be very hurt if I refused to ride with him. ”

  “With friends like that, it is no wonder that the Vestrit fortune is foundering,” Grag observed tartly.

  For an instant her heart turned to ice. How could he imply such a thing? But his next words reminded her of how grievous his own situation was, and her feelings towards him softened.

  “Ophelia has been asking after you. She herself commanded wine boiled as an offering to Sa on Vivacia's behalf. She wanted you to know that. ” He paused, then smiled fondly. “She is completely bored with being tied up at the tariff dock. Now that the work on her hands is finished, she longs to sail again. Nevertheless, every time I promise her that we shall get back out to sea as soon as we can, she begs that I find a way for you to come along. I told her I could think of only one. ” He grinned engagingly at her.

  “And that was?” Althea asked curiously. Did he mean to offer her employment on the Ophelia? Her heart quickened at the idea. She loved the matriarchal old ship.

  He reddened and looked aside, but the smile still played about his mouth. “A hasty wedding and a bridal voyage. I suggested it in jest, of course. Such a scandal as that would raise! I expected Ophelia to scold me roundly. Instead, she thought it a wonderful idea. ” He gave her a sidelong glance. “Incidentally, so did my father. She brought it up to him, not I. ”

  He paused and looked at her expectantly, as if he had asked her a question. But he had not, not directly. Even if she had been passionately in love with him, she could scarcely have accepted such an offer while her own family liveship was in danger. Didn't he realize that? She could not keep the confusion from her face. Her distress only deepened when she glimpsed Brashen Trell standing at the bottom of the steps to the Concourse. Their eyes met, and for an instant, she could not look away.

  Grag interpreted her confusion as having a different source. “I don't truly expect you to consider it,” he said hastily. He tried not to look hurt. “Not here, not now. We both have too many other concerns just now. Tonight may resolve some of them. I hope it does. ”

  “As do I,” she responded, but it was difficult to put much warmth into her voice. Too much was going on behind his shoulder. Brashen looked at her as if she had stabbed him to the heart. He had not changed his clothes since she had last seen him: the loose yellow shirt and dark trousers he wore made him look like a foreigner amongst all the robed Traders.

  Grag followed her gaze. “What's he doing here?” he demanded, as if she would know. He took her arm as he spoke.

  “He brought us word of the Vivacia. ” Althea looked up at Grag as she replied quietly. She didn't want Brashen to think they were staring at him and discussing him.

  He met her eyes, his brow furrowed. “Did you ask him here, then?”

  “No. ” She gave a small shake of her head. “I don't know why he's here. ”

  “Is that Amber with him? Why is she here? Why are they together?”

  Althea had to look. “I don't know,” she murmured.

  Amber was dressed in a simple gold-brown robe, almost the same shade as her many-plaited hair that hung over her shoulders. She had come from somewhere to stand close beside Brashen. She said something low to him. Her expression was not pleasant, but she wasn't looking at Brashen or Althea. She was glaring, her eyes yellow as a cat's, at Davad Restart. Some vexatious fate had ordained that every facet of Althea's life would collide with every other tonight. Davad Restart had fixed his eyes on Grag Tenira. He was hastening toward them.

  Davad was already huffing up the Concourse steps but her mother succeeded in reaching Althea first. Keffria and Malta were but a step behind her. Ronica and Grag greeted one another. Then her mother looked directly in Crag's eyes. “My daughter Althea may sit with you, Grag, if you wish. I know you have important matters to discuss. ”

  Grag bowed formally. “Ronica Vestrit, you honor the Teniras with your trust. I vow we shall be worthy of it. ”

  “I, too, thank you for allowing this,” Althea replied formally to her mother. She had to admire the woman's foresight. Now she could take Grag's arm and steer him into the hall before Davad puffed up to them. At least that confrontation would be avoided. This Althea did, urging Grag along in a fashion just short of hasty. She tried not to wonder how her hurried departure would look to Brashen.

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  Inside the great hall, she followed Grag. She was aware of other people noting their passage. For her to be seated with his family during such a meeting was a public acknowledgment of serious courtship. For just an instant, she wanted to pull away from him and rejoin her family. But to leave him now would look as if they had had an abrupt disagreement. Instead she put a gracious smile on her face and allowed Grag to seat her between his mother and his sister. His mother was gray-haired and formidable in a solid Trader way. His younger sister gave Althea the grin of a fellow conspirator. They exchanged quiet greetings as the hall began to fill with people and conversation. Grag's mother and sister conversed softly, offering their condolences on the capture of the Vivacia, but Althea found herself unable to do more than nod to the conversation. A sudden nervousness gripped her. She prayed the Council would allow her to speak. Repeatedly, she rehearsed her thoughts. Somehow, she had to make the other Traders see that rescuing the Vivacia was a concern for all Bingtown, not just the Vestrit family.

  The shuffling and hubbub that preceded the Traders' Meeting seemed to go on forever. Half a dozen people made a point of coming by the Tenira bench to exchange greetings. Althea set a smile to her face and held it there. They seemed to expect that she and Grag would be giddy over their courtship rather than concerned about the matters at hand. Her irritation receded when Grag's mother gave a wink. In a very low voice, she murmured, “It is good that you are here. They will take all of us more seriously if it is plain we stand together. ” His sister gave Althea's hand a brief squeeze. Althea felt warmed by their regard, but also a bit uneasy. She was not sure if she wished to be claimed this swiftly.

  Conversation died as the Traders' Council members ascended the dais. They all wore the white robes that indicated they had surrendered their family alliances for now, to be loyal only to the greater good of Bingtown. Several black-robed order keepers took their places along the walls. Traders' Meetings sometimes became too lively. Their function was to keep the audience civil.

  Althea scanned the members of the Council as they greeted one another and took their places at a long table on the dais. She felt suddenly shamed that she could put names to so few of them. Her father would have known which were his allies and which his opponents. She had no such expertise. The chimes that indicated the beginning of the meeting rang. Voices quieted. Althea breathed a brief prayer to Sa to guide her words.

  She could have made it a much longer prayer. In a wordy opening speech, the Council head declared that there were several topics to cover, so he thought it best to dispense with the simpler disputes first. Althea lifted a querying eyebrow at Grag; she thought this meeting had been specially requested to hear the Tenira family concerns. He knit his brows and gave a small shrug.

  They were subjected to a heated discourse between two Trader families over water rights to a creek that bounded their properties. One man had cattle to water; the other T
rader wished to divert water to his fields. It was a lengthy argument settled by the Council's obvious decision that they must share the water. An arbitrator group of three was appointed to aid them in deciding how. As soon as the argumentative pair had bowed to one another and resumed their seats, Althea sat up expectantly.

  She was doomed to disappointment. The next dispute was not so easily settled. One Trader's prize bull had impregnated the herd of a neighboring Trader. Both claimed to be the injured party. One wanted substantial stud fees; the other countered that he had wished to use a different bull, hence this year's crop of calves was not what he had desired. One claimed the other's servant had sabotaged his fence; the second claimed the bull's owner had been negligent in confining his animal. The Council had great difficulty with this one. They retired to a back room where they could debate more freely. During this recess, the audience shifted restlessly or chatted with neighbors. When the Council returned, they announced that the calves should be sold as soon as they were weaned, and the profits divided between the two Traders. The bull's owner would be responsible for fortifying the fence. This did not suit either Trader, but the Council's decision was binding. Both Trader families rose and stalked out angrily. To Althea's dismay, several other families also rose and followed them. She had hoped they would be able to address the Traders themselves as well as the Council.

  The head of the Bingtown Traders' Council consulted a tablet before him. “The Tenira family has requested time to address the Council for the purpose of disputing the Satrap's tariffs levied against the liveship Ophelia and her detention at the tariff docks due to their failure to pay. ”

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  No sooner had the head of the Council announced this than a Trader stood to address the Council. They recognized Trader Daw, who spoke his obviously rehearsed words quickly. “This is not a proper matter for the Traders' Council. Trader Tenira's grievance is with the Satrap's tariff office, not with another Trader. He should take it up with them, and let the Council devote its precious time to matters that concern us all. ”

 
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