The mad ship, p.42
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       The Mad Ship, p.42

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
 

  With a sinking heart, Althea noted that Davad Restart was seated right next to Daw, nodding soberly to his words.

  Tomie Tenira stood. The old sea-captain's taut shoulders strained the sleeves of his Trader's robe. His fists were knotted at his sides. He strove to keep the anger from his voice. “When was the Traders' Council reduced to a nanny quelling squabbles between siblings? What is the Traders' Council, if not Bingtown's voice? The grievance I present is not between the tariff officer and me. It is about an unjust tax levied against all ship owners. Our original charter called for fifty percent of our profits to go to the Satrap's coffers. Outrageous as that is, our forebears agreed to it, and I willingly abide by it. However, nowhere in that charter are these tariffs mentioned. Moreover, no document anywhere says that we must tolerate murdering, thieving Chalcedean mercenaries in our harbors. ” Tomie Tenira's voice had begun to shake with fury. He strangled into silence, trying to regain control of himself.

  Davad Restart came to his feet. Althea felt ill.

  “Council members, all Jamaillian merchants pay tariff to the Satrap. Why should we be any different? Is he not our good and just ruler? Do not we owe him support to maintain the reign that benefits all of us? These tariffs go to maintain the docks and facilities in Jamaillia City, as well as to pay for those who patrol the Inside Passage against piracy. The very qualities Trader Tenira disparages in the Chalcedeans are those that make them excellent defenders against piracy. If he does not care for their services, then perhaps he should . . . ”

  “The Chalcedean 'patrol ships' are no more than pirates themselves! They stop legitimate ships, with no other intent than extortion. All here know how my liveship Ophelia was injured defending herself from such an unwarranted intrusion. Bingtown ships have never willingly submitted to being boarded by foreigners. Are you suggesting we accept it now? The tariffs began simply, as reasonable fees. Now they are so complicated to figure that we must accept the word of a hired scribe as to what we owe. The tariffs have one purpose only: to make it unprofitable for us to trade anywhere except Jamaillia City. They steal our profits to bind us more tightly to their purse strings. Anyone who has tied up in Jamaillia recently can testify that the charges we are paying are not going for dock maintenance there. I doubt if anything has been spent on those docks in the last three years. ”

  A general rumble of agreement, with some laughter, followed his last statement. “My ship's boy damn near fell through the last one we tied up to,” someone in the back called out.

  Daw stood again quickly, inserting his words into the pause. “Council members, I suggest you adjourn to see if you should even be hearing this matter before you accept any more testimony about it. ” He glanced about. “Evening draws close to night. Perhaps we should save this matter for a later meeting. ”

  “We are well within our purpose in hearing this, I believe,” the head of the Council replied, only to have two lesser members immediately shake their heads in denial. This necessitated another withdrawal to the private room.

  This time the room was less patient and social while they were gone. Folk got up and milled about. Trader Larfa of the liveship Winsome came to stand before Tomie Tenira. He did not lower his voice as he announced, “Count on me, Tomie. No matter how it goes here. If you want, give the word now. Me and my sons will be with you, and we'll go right now and untie your ship from that damned tariff dock. ” Two tall young men behind him nodded soberly to their father's offer.

  “You wouldn't be alone,” offered another man, one Althea didn't recognize. Like Trader Larfa, he was flanked by his sons.

  “Let us hope it doesn't come to that,” Tomie said quietly. “I would like this to be something Bingtown acts on, not the Tenira family alone. ”

  At that moment, a shouting match broke out elsewhere in the room. Althea half stood and craned her neck. She could see little, due to others standing up between her and the dispute, but it seemed to center where Traders Daw and Restart had been seated. “You liar!” someone accused. “You did and you know you did. Without you, the damn New Traders would never have become so deeply entrenched here. ” Another voice muttered a bland denial. The Council's order keepers were already moving to quell the disturbance. Althea felt her nails bite into her palms. The room was on the edge of breaking into violence, Trader against Trader.

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  “This serves no one!” she heard herself announce bitterly. By chance, her voice had sounded in a lull in the noise. Heads turned toward her. Even Grag and Tomie Tenira were looking at her in astonishment. She took a breath. If she waited, the Council might well adjourn for the night. Precious time would be lost. This might be her only chance to speak. “Look at us! We squabble like children, Trader against Trader. Ask yourself who wins that battle? We need to find agreement here. We need to speak of the larger matter that confronts us. What is Bingtown becoming? Are we going to bow our heads to the Satrap's rules, accept his tariffs and restrictions, no matter how heavy they become? Will we tolerate his hirelings tying up in our harbor? Will we pay to feed and outfit them, so they can stop our ships and fleece them before they reach port? Why?”

  Every eye in the room had turned to her. Some people were resuming their seats, willing to hear what she had to say. She glanced down at a seated Grag. He gave her a nod of encouragement. She felt his mother reach up and take her hand. She gave it a squeeze before releasing it. Althea felt heady with power. “My father told me, two years ago, that it would come to this. I am not the Trader he was, but I do not hesitate to repeat his wisdom. A time will come when Bingtown must stand on its own, and determine its own future. That is what he told me. I think that time is now. ”

  She looked around the room. Keffria, hand over her mouth, stared at her in horror. Davad's face was as red as a turkey's wattle. Some women looked scandalized that one of their sex should speak out so in public. But other Traders nodded, or looked seized by her words. She drew another shuddering breath. “There is too much we can no longer tolerate. These so-called New Traders usurp our lands. They know nothing of our ancient sacrifices, nothing of our blood bonds with the Rain Wild Traders. They mock our laws with their tattooed slaves. The Satrap is no longer content with half our profits. He will take all we have bought with blood and sell it for coin to his new friends, be they New Traders or Chalcedean privateers!”

  “You're talking rebellion!” someone in the back of the room accused.

  Something inside her turned over. Step forward and admit it, she counseled herself. “Yes. I am,” she said calmly.

  She was unprepared for the hubbub that broke out at her words. From the corner of her eye, she became aware of the order keepers closing in on her. She also became aware that they were having a difficult time reaching her through the assembly. Folk were not stepping aside. Legs were thrust out, or benches shoved in their paths. Nevertheless, the order keepers would reach her soon and eject her. She had but a few more moments.

  “My father's ship!” Her voice rang out over the noise. The room quieted somewhat. “The Vivacia, a liveship of Rain Wild make, has been taken by pirates. I know that some of you have heard the rumors. I stand to tell you it is the truth. The unthinkable has happened. Pirates have taken a Bingtown liveship. Do you think the Satrap's Chalcedean mercenaries will help me recover her? If by chance she does fall into their hands, do you think they will respect a Bingtown claim to her? She will be taken to Jamaillia City, as if she were plunder, and kept there. Think but a moment of the Rain Wild River, and you know what that would mean! I need your help. Bingtown, please, I beg you, stand firm with me. I need money and a ship to go after my birthright. ”

  She had not meant to say those words. Her mother gave her a stricken glance of disbelief. Her thought was plain. Althea was making a public claim on the ship as her own. She had meant to speak for her family, but her heart had chosen the words.

  “The Vestrit family brought that on themselves!”
someone shouted. “They let their family ship sail with a foreigner as captain. Shame on them! She talks a good wind, she does, but whom did she ride in with? Davad Restart and, gentlemen, we all know where he stands. Her wild talk is a New Trader trap. If we rise in defiance of the Satrap, we cannot expect him to be fair with us. We need to reason with the Satrap, not set ourselves up against him. ” Some were nodding and muttering agreement.

  “Why don't the damn Chalcedean patrol boats go out to rescue the Vivacia? Isn't that what all the new tariffs are about, paying them to run off the pirates? Why don't they get out there and show us what our money bought?”

  “She talks against Chalcedeans, but her own sister married one!” someone else sneered.

  “Kyle Haven can't help his blood. He's a good captain!” someone defended him.

  “Ephron Vestrit left his ship in that foreigner's hands,” another added. “He lost it. That's a Vestrit problem, not a Bingtown crisis. If they want the ship back, let them pay ransom on it. ”

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  Althea stood on tiptoe, craning to identify the speaker. “Trader Froe,” Grag told her in a low hiss. “Never stood up for anything in his life. Pinches his coins so tight, they come away with his fingerprints on them. ”

  As if he had heard the words, Froe asserted, “I'm not giving her one copper shard of mine. They shamed their ship, and Sa took it from them. I heard she was being used as a slaver . . . any liveship worth her salt would rather turn pirate than that!”

  “You can't mean that!” Althea was outraged. “You can't dismiss her like that. There is a boy on that ship, my nephew. However you regard his father, you cannot deny he is Trader stock. The ship herself is Bingtown-”

  Beside her, Grag stepped to block one order keeper, but another stepped past him to seize Althea's arm. “Out!” he told her firmly. “The Council is recessed. No one is to speak right now. You do not even have the Council's permission to speak. She is not the Trader for the Vestrit family!” he added more loudly as others raised their voices in protest of Althea's treatment. “In the interest of order, she must go!”

  It was the spark in the kindling. A bench overturned with a crash. “No!” Althea cried out in horror, and for a wonder, they heeded her. “No,” she said more softly. She put a light hand on Grag's arm. He slackened his grip on the order keeper he had been restraining. “I didn't come here to cause trouble. I came here to ask for help. I've asked. I also came to stand up in favor of the Tenira family. It is wrong for Ophelia to be detained at the tariff dock. They have no legal claim on any of her cargo. ” In a lower voice she added, “If any of you want to help the Vestrit Traders, you know where our home is. You will be welcomed and you will hear our full tale. But I won't be named as the one at fault for a riot in the Traders' Concourse. I'm leaving now. Peacefully. ” To Grag, she murmured, “Don't follow me. Stay here, in case the Council reconvenes. I'll wait outside. ”

  Head up and unescorted, she moved through the crowd. She knew she could do no more good here tonight. Others seemed to share her opinion. Those Trader families who had brought small children with them were herding them out, apparently for their safety. All over the room, the order had broken down. Traders stood in small knots, some talking quietly, others arguing with wild hand gestures and raised voices. Althea picked her way past all of them. A glance showed her that her own family had remained. Good. Perhaps they might yet have a chance to speak out officially for rescuing Vivacia.

  Outside it was a deceptively peaceful summer night. Crickets were chirping. The brightest stars were pricking their way into the twilight sky. Behind her, the Traders' Concourse hummed like a hive of disturbed bees. Some families were departing on foot, others entering carriages. Despite herself, she glanced about for Brashen, but saw no sign of him or Amber. Reluctantly, Althea turned her steps toward Davad's carriage. She would sit there and wait for the general adjournment of the meeting.

  It was nearly at the end of the long line of carriages. She reached it, then halted in horror. The driver had vanished. The team, old and placid as they were, snorted restively and pawed. Blood ran down the door of the carriage, thick and black in the twilight. A slaughtered pig, its throat cut wide, lolled halfway out the carriage window. “SPY” was written in blood over the Restart coat of arms. Althea felt dizzy with disgust.

  Behind her, the meeting seemed to have come to a close. Traders were streaming from the Concourse. Some conversed in loud, angry voices. Others hissed in whispers, glancing about suspiciously for eavesdroppers. Her mother was the first to reach her side. “The Council adjourned. They'll have a private meeting to see if they can hear-” Her words halted as she saw the pig. “Sa's breath,” she gasped. “Poor Davad. How could anyone do this to him?” She glanced about as if the culprits might still be lurking.

  From somewhere, Grag appeared. After one horrified look, he took Althea's arm. “Come away,” he said quietly. “I'll see that you and your family get safely home. You don't want to be involved in this. ”

  “No,” she agreed grimly. “I don't. Neither does Trader Restart, I'll wager. I won't abandon him here, Grag. I can't. ”

  “Althea, think! This isn't someone's impulsive nastiness. Someone planned this. This pig was brought here, for this purpose, before anyone spoke to the Council. It's a serious threat. ” He tugged at her arm.

  She spun to confront him. “That's why I can't let Davad face it alone. Grag, he is an old man, with no real family left. If his friends abandon him, he's alone. ”

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  “Maybe he deserves to be alone!” Grag kept his voice low. He kept glancing at the knot of gawkers forming around the carriage. He obviously wanted to get away from it. “How can you accept how he thinks, Althea? How can you let him drag your family into this?”

  “I don't accept how he thinks. I accept who he is. He is a wrong-headed old fool, but he has been like an uncle to me for as long as I can remember. Whatever he has done, he doesn't deserve this. ”

  She looked past Grag to see Davad approaching the carriage. Trader Daw was at his side, their arms linked. They seemed to be congratulating themselves. Daw saw the pig first. His jaw dropped. An instant later, he unhooked his arm from Davad's and scuttled off without a word. Privately Althea hoped a slaughtered pig waited in his carriage as well.

  “What's this? I don't understand this. Why? Who has done this? Where is my driver? Did the coward run off, then? Look at the leather, it's ruined, it's completely ruined. ” Davad flapped his arms about like a flustered chicken. He stepped close to his carriage, peered at the pig, then stepped back. He sent a bewildered look round at the crowd that had gathered. In the back, someone guffawed loudly. Others simply stared. No one expressed horror or disgust. They were watching him, to see what he would do.

  Althea's eyes traveled from face to face. They seemed strangers to her, more foreign than Jamaillian New Traders. She did not know Bingtown anymore.

  “Please, Grag,” Althea whispered. “I'll stay with him and get him home. Would you take my mother, sister and niece? I don't think Malta should have to deal with this. ”

  “I don't think any of you should have to deal with this,” Grag said acidly, but he was too well-bred to refuse. Althea had no idea what he said to her mother and Keffria that made them leave so quietly. Young Malta merely looked elated at the prospect of leaving in a finer carriage than the one she had arrived in.

  As they walked away, Althea took Davad's arm. “Calm down,” she told him quietly. “Don't let them see you are rattled. ” Heedless of the blood, she jerked the door of the carriage open. The stubborn carcass rode in the window still. It was a runty pig; no one had sacrificed good stock to do this. In death, its bowels had relaxed. The stench of pig manure spilled out with it. Althea reminded herself that blood was no stranger to her. She'd seen far too much slaughter in the Barrens to be put off by a bit of pig blood now. Boldly she seized the dead a
nimal's hind legs. A sharp tug freed it from the window. She let it drop to the street. She glanced at Davad, who stared at her wide-eyed. Blood and offal had soiled the front of her robe. She ignored it.

  “Can you climb up onto the box?” she asked him.

  He shook his head dumbly.

  “Then you'll have to ride inside. The other seat is almost clean. Take my handkerchief. The scent on it will help. ”

  Davad said not a word. He took the kerchief, and climbed ponderously into the carriage, making small distressed sounds the whole time. He was scarcely inside before Althea slammed the door behind him. She did not look about at the gawkers. Instead she walked around the team, had a quiet word with the horses, and then clambered up on the box. She took up the reins. She had not done this in years, and never with a team she didn't know. She kicked off the brake and shook the reins hopefully. The horses started forward at an uncertain walk.

  “From sailor to driver. That's the girl for Grag! Think of the money they'll save on hired help!” cried someone in the crowd. Someone else hooted loudly in appreciation. Althea kept her eyes forward and her chin up. She slapped the reins on the team, and they lurched into a trot. She trusted they'd know the way home, even in the gathering dark.

  She wasn't sure if she did, anymore.

  CHAPTER NINETEEN - Aftermath

  YOU RE HOME, DAVAD. COME OUT.

  The door was stuck, and Davad wasn't trying to open it. In the gloom, Althea could just see the pale shape of his face. He huddled in a corner of the seat, his eyes tightly shut. She braced a foot against the carriage and jerked on the door again. It popped open and she nearly fell backwards. It wouldn't have hurt her robe. It stank of pig blood, dung and her own sweat. The drive home had been nerve-wracking. All the way home, she had expected to either run the carriage off the side of the road or be accosted by Davad's enemies. Now they had reached his own front door, but no steward or stable boy came to greet them. Random lights shone in the windows of his house, but for all the greeting the master received, it might as well have been abandoned. A single lantern burned feebly by the doorpost.

 
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