The mad ship, p.43
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       The Mad Ship, p.43

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  “What's your stable boy's name?” Althea demanded in irritation.

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  Davad gawked at her. “I . . . I don't know. I don't talk to him. ”

  “Fine. ” She threw back her head and bellowed in her best first mate's style. “Boy! Get out here and tend to these horses. House steward! Your master is home!”

  Someone lifted a corner of a curtain and peered out at them. She heard footsteps inside the house, and then caught a glimpse of movement in the shadowy courtyard. She turned toward it. “Get out here and take these horses. ”

  The slender figure hesitated. “Now!” she barked at him.

  The boy that emerged from the shadows was no more than eleven years old. He came as far as the horses' heads, then halted uncertainly.

  Althea snorted in exasperation. “Oh, Davad, if you can't learn to manage your servants, you should hire a house steward who can. ” Her tact was all worn away.

  “I suppose you're right,” Davad agreed humbly. He clambered down from the carriage. Althea stared at him. In the ride from the Concourse to his home, Davad had become an old man. His face sagged, bereft of the cockiness that had always characterized him. He had not been able to avoid the manure and blood. It smeared his clothes. He held his hands out from himself in distaste and distress. She looked up to meet his eyes. He looked apologetic and hurt. He shook his head slowly. “I don't understand it. Who would do something like this to me? Why?”

  She was too tired to answer so large a question. “Go inside, Davad. Have a bath and go to bed. Morning is soon enough to think about all this. ” Absurdly, she suddenly felt he needed to be treated like a child. He seemed so vulnerable.

  “Thank you,” he said quietly. “There's a lot of your father in you, Althea. We didn't always agree, but I always admired him. He never wasted time in parceling out blame; like you, he simply stepped up to solve the problem. ” He paused. “I should have a man escort you home. I'll order up a horse and man for you. ” He did not sound certain he could do it.

  A woman came to the door and opened it. A slice of light fell out. She peered out, but said nothing. Althea's temper snapped. “Send out a footman to help your master into the house. Have a hot bath drawn for him and lay out a clean robe. See that hot tea and a simple meal is prepared for him. Nothing spicy or greasy. Now. ”

  The woman darted back into the house, leaving the door ajar. Althea heard her passing on the commands shrilly.

  “And now you sound like your mother as well. You've done so much for me. Not just tonight, but for years, you and your family. How can I ever pay you back?”

  It was the wrong moment to ask her such a question. The stable boy had come. The lamp revealed a spidery tattoo by the side of his nose. The ragged tunic he wore was scarcely longer than a shirt. He cowered from Althea's black-eyed stare.

  “Tell him he's not a slave anymore. ” Her voice was flat.

  “Tell . . . I beg your pardon?” Davad gave his head a small shake, as if he could not have heard her correctly.

  Althea cleared her throat. It was suddenly difficult to have any sympathy for the little man. “Tell this boy he's not a slave anymore. Give him his freedom. That's how you could pay me back. ”

  “But I . . . you can't be serious. Do you know how much a healthy boy like that is worth? Blue eyes and light hair are favored in Chalced for house servants. If I keep him a year and teach him some valet skills, do you know how much coin he'd be worth?”

  She looked at him. “Far more than you paid for him, Davad. Far more than you could sell him for. ” Cruelly, she added, “How much was your son worth to you? I've heard he was fair-haired. ”

  He blanched and stumbled backwards. He grasped at the carriage, then jerked his hand away from the blood-sticky door. “Why do you say such a thing to me?” he wailed suddenly. “Why is everyone turning against me?”

  “Davad . . . ” She shook her head slowly. “You have turned against us, Davad Restart. Open your eyes. Think what you are doing. Right and wrong is not profit and loss. Some things are too evil to make money from them. Right now, you may be gaining handsomely from the conflict between the Old and New Traders. But this conflict will not go on forever, and when it does end, there you will be. One side will see you as a runagate, the other as a traitor. Who will be your friends then?”

  Davad was frozen, staring at her. She wondered why she had wasted her words. He would not heed her. He was an old man, set in his ways.

  A footman came out of the door. He was chewing something and his chin shone with grease. He came to take his master's arm, then cringed away with a gasp. “You're filthy!” he exclaimed in disgust.

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  “You are lazy!” Althea retorted. “Help your master in and see to his needs, instead of stuffing your belly in his absence. Promptly, now. ”

  The footman reacted to her tone of command. Gingerly, he extended his arm to his master. Slowly Davad took it. He took a few steps, then halted. Without turning, Davad spoke. “Take a horse from my stable to get home. Shall I send a man with you?”

  “No. Thank you. I don't need one. ” She wanted nothing from him anymore.

  He nodded to himself. He added something quietly.

  “I beg your pardon?”

  He cleared his throat. “Take the boy, then. Stable boy. Go with the lady. ” He took a breath and spoke heavily. “You are free. ” Davad walked into the house without a backward glance.

  SHE HAD A MINIATURE OF HIM. SHE HAD BEGGED HIM TO SIT FOR IT, shortly after they were married. He had told her it was a foolish notion, but she was his bride, and so he gave in. He had not been gracious about sitting for it. Pappas was too honest an artist to paint Kyle Haven with patient eyes, or to leave out the small fold of annoyance between his brows. So now as Keffria looked at Kyle's portrait, he regarded her as it seemed he always had, with annoyance and impatience.

  She tried to cut past the layers of hurt in her heart to discover a core of love for him. He was her husband, the father of her children. He was the only man she had ever known. Yet, she could not honestly say that she loved him. Odd. She missed him and longed for him to return. It was not just that his return would mean the return of the family's ship and her son. She wanted Kyle himself. Sometimes, she thought, having someone stronger to depend on was more important than having someone you loved. At the same time, she needed to settle things with him. Over the months that he had been gone on this trip, she had discovered there were words she had to say to him. She had decided she would force him to respect her, even as she had learned to demand respect from her mother and sister. She did not want him to vanish from her life before she had wrung that respect from him. If she did not gain it, she would always wonder if she had ever been truly worthy of it.

  She closed the miniature's case and set it back on the shelf. She badly wanted to go to sleep, but wouldn't until Althea was safely home. She found her feelings for her sister closely mimed those she had for her husband. Every time she felt that she and Althea had regained some remnant of sisterly closeness, Althea would reveal that she still played only for herself. Tonight, at the meeting, she had made it clear that the ship was what she cared about, not Kyle nor Wintrow. She wanted the ship back in Bingtown so she could challenge Keffria for ownership of it. That was all.

  She left her bedroom and drifted through the house like a wraith. She peeked in on Selden. He was deeply asleep, careless of all the problems that beset his family. When she came to Malta's closed door, she tapped on it lightly. There was no reply. Malta, too, slept with the deep ease that children had for rest. She had behaved so well at the meeting. On the ride home, she had made no mention of the near riot, but had put Grag Tenira at ease with her casual conversation. The girl was growing up.

  Keffria went down the stairs. She knew she would find her mother in her father's study. Ronica Vestrit, too, would not sleep until Althea
returned. If they were going to stay up, they might as well do it together. As she passed through the hall, she heard a light footfall on the front porch. That would be Althea. Keffria frowned in annoyance when she knocked at the door. Why couldn't she go around to the unlocked kitchen door? “I'll get it,” she called to her mother and went to unlatch the big front door.

  Brashen Trell and that bead merchant stood on the porch. He was wearing the same clothes as when she had last seen him. His eyes were bloodshot. The bead merchant looked composed. Her expression was friendly but offered no apology for the late hour. Keffria stared at them both. This went beyond the boundaries of all courtesy. It was rude enough of Brashen to come calling so late, unannounced, but he had also brought an outsider with him. “Yes?” she asked uncomfortably.

  Her restraint didn't seem to bother him. “I need to talk to all of you,” he announced without preamble.

  “About what?”

  He spoke quickly. “About getting your ship and your husband back. Amber and I think we've come up with a plan. ” As he nodded toward his companion, Keffria noted a sheen of sweat on his face. The night was mild and pleasant. The feverishness of his face and manner was alarming.

  “Keffria? Did Althea come in?” her mother called from down the hall.

  “No, Mother. It's Brashen Trell and ah, Amber, the bead-maker. ”

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  This brought her mother swiftly to the door of the study. Like Keffria, she was in her night-robe and wrapper. She had taken her hair down. With the long graying strands of it around her face, she looked haggard and old. Even Brashen had the good grace to look a bit embarrassed. “I know it is late,” he apologized hastily. “But . . . Amber and I have conceived of a plan that might benefit all of us. Greatly. ” His dark eyes met Keffria's squarely. It seemed to take an effort on his part. “I believe it might offer us our only chance of bringing your husband, son and ship safely home. ”

  “I do not recall that you ever had any great warmth or respect for my husband,” Keffria said stiffly. If Brashen Trell had been alone, she might have felt more kindly toward him, but his strange companion put Keffria's hackles up. She had heard too many peculiar things about her. She did not know what these two were after, but she doubted it would be to anyone's benefit but their own.

  “Warmth, no. Respect, yes. In his own way, Kyle Haven was a competent captain. He just wasn't Ephron Vestrit. ” He considered her stiff stance and cold eyes. “Tonight, at the meeting, Althea asked for help. That's what I've come to offer her. Is she home?” His bluntness was appalling. “Perhaps at a more suitable time . . . ” Keffria began, but her mother cut her off.

  “Let them in. Bring them to the study. Keffria, we don't have the luxury of being picky about our allies. Tonight, I am willing to listen to anybody's plan to make our family whole again. No matter how late they come calling. ”

  “As you will, Mother,” Keffria said stiffly. She moved aside and let them enter. The foreign woman dared to give her a sympathetic glance. The woman even smelled odd as she passed Keffria, to say nothing of her strange coloring. Keffria had no quarrel with most foreigners. Many of them were both charming and fascinating. But this bead-maker made her uneasy. Perhaps it was the way the woman assumed equality, no matter what company she was in. As Keffria followed them reluctantly down the hall to the study, she tried not to think of the nasty rumor about this woman and Althea.

  Her mother did not seem to share her misgivings. Despite the fact that she and Keffria were both in their house-robes, she welcomed them in. She even rang Rache to ask her to bring in some tea for their visitors. “Althea has not returned home yet,” Ronica told them before Brashen could ask. “I'm waiting up for her. ”

  He looked concerned. “That was a harsh prank played upon Trader Restart. I wondered at the time if worse awaited him at home. ” He stood abruptly. “You probably have not heard. Bingtown has been very disturbed tonight. I think I had best go seek for Althea. Have you a horse I might borrow?”

  “Just my old-” Ronica began, but at that moment, there was a noise at the door. Brashen stepped into the hall to view the entry with an alacrity that betrayed his concern.

  “It's Althea, and a boy,” he declared, and strode off to meet her as if this were his home and she the guest. Keffria exchanged a look with her mother. Although Ronica looked only puzzled, Keffria was feeling increasingly affronted by his odd behavior. Something was not right about that man.

  SHE TRIED TO TAKE THE BOY'S HAND TO LEAD HIM TO THE DOOR, BUT HE drew back from her touch. Poor lad. How badly had he been treated, to fear the simple touch of a hand? She opened the door and gestured him inside. “It's all right. No one's going to hurt you. Come inside. ” She spoke slowly and reassuringly. She wasn't sure he even understood her. He hadn't spoken a word since they'd left Davad's house. It had been a long weary walk in the dark, with only dark thoughts to occupy her. She'd failed badly tonight. She'd talked out of turn at the Council's meeting, and possibly hastened its early adjournment. The Council hadn't even formally agreed to hear their concerns. She'd been forced to face what Davad Restart had become; she feared there were many other Traders who had slid down just as far. And her quick tongue had burdened her with a boy she had no means to care for. She'd brought that down on herself. She wanted nothing so much as a bath and her bed, but she supposed she'd have to see to the boy's needs first. At least, little else could go wrong tonight. Then she thought of facing Keffria and her mother after all she'd said to the Council. Her mood plummeted.

  The boy had come up the steps but made no move to go inside. Althea opened the door wide, and stepped inside. “Come on in,” she coaxed.

  “Thank Sa you're all right!”

  She jumped and spun about at the deep masculine voice behind her. Brashen was bearing down on her. Relief shone on his face, to be instantly replaced by a frown. A moment later he was chewing her out as if she were an incompetent deckhand.

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  “You're damn lucky you weren't waylaid. When I heard you'd driven Restart's carriage off, I couldn't believe it. Why would you throw in with an ass like that, with feelings running so high against . . . oh. What is that?” He halted a step away from her, his expression changing. He lifted a hand to his nose.

  “S'not me!” The boy beside her piped up indignantly. A Six Duchies' twang twisted his tongue. “S'her. She's got shit aloover'er. ” At Althea's outraged glare, he shrugged apologetically. “Y'do. Y'need a bat' ” he added in a small voice.

  It was the final blow. It was too much to endure. She transferred the frown to Brashen. “Why are you here?” she asked. The words came out more bluntly than she'd intended.

  Brashen's eyes traveled up and down her filthy robe before coming back to her face. “I was worried about you. As usual, you seemed to have survived your impulses. But, set that aside, I have something very important to discuss with you. Regarding going after Vivacia. Amber and I think we have a plan. You might think it's stupid, you probably won't like it, but I think it will work. ” He spoke hastily, his words coming too fast as if challenging her to disapprove. “If you'll only listen and think about it, you'll come to find it's really the only way to save her. ” He met her eyes again. “But that can wait. The boy is right. You should wash first. The smell is pretty bad. ” A small smile came and went on his face.

  It was too close an echo of his words when they'd parted in Candletown. Was he mocking her, to remind her of that, here and now? How dare he speak so familiarly to her, inside her own home? She scowled at him. He opened his mouth as if to speak, but the boy's voice cut him off. “Nothen' stenks wors'n peg shet,” the boy agreed cheerily. “Doon't let her get et on'yer,” he cautioned Brashen.

  “Small chance of that,” she told them both coldly. She met Brashen's eyes. “You can let yourself out,” she told him. As she stalked by him, he gaped after her. The boy she could forgive; he was only
a lad, in a foreign place and a strange situation. Trell had no such excuse for his manners. She'd had too long a day to listen to anything from him. She was exhausted, filthy and, Sa help her, hungry. Light and voices came from her father's study. She'd have to face her mother and Keffria as well.

  By the time she reached the door of her father's study, she had put a facade of calmness on her face. She stepped into the pleasant room, well aware that the smell of pig offal preceded her. She'd get it over quickly. “I'm home, I'm safe. I brought a little boy with me. Davad was using him as a stable boy. . . . Mother, I know we cannot take on any more burdens just now, but he was tattooed as a slave and I simply couldn't leave him there. ” The look on Keffria's face was one of social horror. Althea's explanation halted as she met Amber's eyes. She was here, too?

  The slave-boy stood in the doorway, pale eyes wide. His gaze darted from person to person. He did not speak. When Althea attempted to take his arm to pull him into the room, he snatched his hand away from her. She gave a false laugh. “I think it's the blood and dung. He didn't want to ride with me on the horse; that's what kept me so long. When I couldn't get him to mount with me, we left the horse and came home on foot. ”

  Althea glanced about for rescue. Keffria was staring past her. Althea glanced over her shoulder. Brashen Trell stood slightly behind her, arms crossed, looking very stubborn. He met her gaze steadily. His expression didn't change.

  “Come in, boy. No one will hurt you. What's your name?” Ronica sounded weary but kind. The lad stayed where he was.

  Althea abruptly decided to escape, at least for now. “I'm going up to bathe and change. I won't be long. ”

  “It won't take long for me to tell you our idea,” Brashen countered pushily.

  Their gazes locked. She refused to look aside from him. He himself smelled of smoke and cindin. Who did he think he was? She wasn't going to let him bully her here in her father's house. “I'm afraid I'm much too tired to listen to any more from you, Brashen Trell. ” Her voice walked a thin line between correct and cold as she added, “I believe it's far too late for conversation. ” The line of his mouth flattened. For a moment, he almost looked hurt at her rebuff.

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