The mad ship, p.44
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       The Mad Ship, p.44

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
 

  Rache coming into the room interrupted their standoff. She carried a tray with a large pot of tea and cups on it. There was a small plate of spice cakes, just enough to be polite. The boy didn't move from where he stood, but he flared his nose and snuffed after them like a dog.

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  “Althea. ” Her mother's tone more reminded than rebuked. “I, at least, am interested in what Brashen has to propose. I think we need to consider every possible solution to our situation. If you are that tired, we will, of course, excuse you. But I'd rather that you returned. ” Her mother's gaze traveled to the serving woman. She smiled at her apologetically. “Rache, if you don't mind, I think we'll need more cups. And something more substantial than spice cakes for the boy, please. ” Ronica's voice was as measured and controlled as if this were an everyday occurrence.

  Her mother's courtesy jabbed at Althea's conscience. This was still her father's house. She softened her tone. “If you wish, Mother. If you'll excuse me, I'll only be a few moments. ”

  KEFFRIA POURED FOR THEIR ODD GUESTS. SHE TRIED TO MAKE POLITE CONversation, but her mother stared at the cold grate while Brashen paced the room. Amber chose to sit cross-legged on the floor not far from where the boy hovered. She ignored Keffria's attempts at small talk. Instead, she lured the slave-boy with bits of cake, as if he were a shy puppy, until he finally snatched a whole cake from her hand. Amber did not seem to think her own behavior odd or outrageous at all. She smiled proudly when the boy stuffed the whole cake into his mouth. “You see,” she said to him quietly. “Folk are kind here. You're safe now. ”

  Althea was true to her word. Rache had scarcely come back with more tea, cups and a plate of warmed food for the boy before she returned. She must have washed with cold water to be so quick, Keffria thought to herself. She was attired in a simple house-robe. Her wet hair had been braided and pinned up severely. The cold water had rouged her cheeks. She somehow managed to look both tired and freshened. Without any apologies, she helped herself to tea and cakes. She glanced at Amber, then went to join her on the floor. The boy sat on the other side of her, completely engrossed in his food. She addressed her first words to Amber. “Brashen says you have a plan to save the Vivacia. He also told me I wouldn't like it, but that I'd come to see it was the only way. What is it?”

  Amber gave Brashen a sidelong glance. “Thank you for preparing her so well,” she said with dry sarcasm. She lifted her shoulders in a shrug followed by a sigh. “It is late. I think I should state it briefly, and then leave you all to think about it. ” The woman flowed smoothly to her feet, as if a string attached to her head had lifted her from the floor. She advanced to the center of the room and looked around at all of them to be sure of their attention. She smiled at the boy, who was wolfing down the food on the platter. He was aware of nothing save the next bite. Amber sketched a small bow and began. She put Keffria in mind of an actor on the stage.

  “I propose this. To recapture a liveship, let us use a liveship. ” Her gaze touched each of them in turn. “The Paragon, to be precise. We buy, lease or steal him, put a crew aboard with Brashen in command and go after the Vivacia. ” In the shocked silence that followed, she added, “If you suspect my motive in this, be assured that at least half of it is to save the Paragon from being turned into lumber. I think your good friend Davad Restart could be instrumental in getting the Ludlucks to part with the ship for a reasonable price. He has seemed to have their ear for the outrageous offers the New Traders have been making. Perhaps he might be willing to seize this opportunity to save face with the Old Traders. Perhaps that is even truer after tonight's events. I'm willing to put up everything I own as part payment for the ship. So. What say you?”

  “No. ” Althea spoke flatly.

  “Why not?” Malta demanded. She stepped into the room from the hallway. She wore a wrapper of thick blue wool over her white nightgown. Her cheeks were pink from sleep yet. She glanced about the room. “I had a nightmare. When I woke up, I heard your voices. I came down to see what was going on,” she offered by way of explanation. “I heard you say we might be able to send a ship after Papa. Mama, Grandmother, why should Althea be able to forbid us to do this? It seems a sensible plan to me. Why not go rescue Papa ourselves?”

  Althea began to tick the reasons off on her fingers. "Paragon is mad.

  He has killed whole crews before; he might again. Paragon is a liveship, who should not be sailed by anyone except his family. He hasn't been sailed in years. He hasn't even been floated. I don't think we have the coin to both buy the Paragon and refit him as he would need. Moreover, if we do this, why should Brashen be captain? Why not me?"

  Brashen gave a snort of laughter. His voice broke strangely. “And there you have her real objection!” he observed. He drew out a kerchief and wiped perspiration from his brow.

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  No one else laughed. There was a feverish note to his behavior that even Althea seemed to notice. She frowned at Amber, but the woman did not deign to notice it. Keffria decided that perhaps it was her turn to be blunt. “Forgive me if I sound skeptical. I do not see why either of you should wish to become involved in this. Why should a foreigner wish to risk her whole fortune on a mad liveship? What does it profit Brashen Trell to risk his life for a man who found his seamanship unsatisfactory? We could gamble what is left of the Vestrit finances, only to lose it all, if you never returned. ”

  Brashen's eyes flashed. “I may be disinherited, but that does not mean I am totally without honor. ” He paused and shook his head. “Plain words, tonight, will serve us all best. Keffria Vestrit, you fear I'd take the Paragon and turn pirate. I could. I don't deny that. But I wouldn't. Whatever differences Althea and I may have, I think she'll still vouch for my integrity. I know your father would have. ”

  “Speaking for myself,” Amber added smoothly, “I've already told you that I wish to prevent the Paragon from being dismantled. We are friends. I am also a friend of your sister Althea. In addition, this is something that I feel I am called to do. I can explain it no better than that. I'm afraid you'll have to take my offer at face value. I can offer you no other assurances. ”

  A silence fell in the room. Brashen slowly folded his arms on his chest. His brow was deeply lined. He fixed his gaze on Althea and stared at her, in a challenge that made no pretense of courtesy. Althea refused to meet it. She looked instead at her mother. Malta fidgeted, looking from one adult to another.

  “I'll come back tomorrow evening,” Brashen said suddenly. He waited until Althea glanced at him. “Think it over, Althea. I saw the mood of the Traders as they left tonight. I doubt that you'll get any other offers of aid, let alone a better one. ” He paused. In a softer voice he spoke only to her, “If you want to speak to me before then, leave a message at Amber's shop. She knows where to find me. ”

  “Are you living aboard Paragon?” Althea's voice sounded hoarse.

  “At nights. Sometimes. ” Brashen's voice was non-committal.

  “And how much cindin have you used today?” she suddenly demanded. There was a cruel edge to the question.

  “None at all. ” Brashen permitted himself a bitter smile. “That's the problem. ” He glanced at Amber. “I think I had best be going now. ”

  “I think I need to stay a bit longer. ” Amber sounded almost apologetic.

  “As you see fit. Well. Good evening to you all, then. ” Brashen sketched a bow.

  “Wait!” Malta's plea sounded sharp. “Please, I mean. Please wait. ” Keffria thought she had never heard such anxiety in her daughter's voice. “May I ask some questions? About Paragon?”

  Brashen focused his entire attention on her. “If you're asking my permission, certainly. ”

  Malta shot a pleading look around the room. “If he is going to leave us to think on this, then . . . it is like you are always telling me, Grandmother. We cannot argue with numbers. Nor can we make decisions w
ithout them. So, to consider this at all, we first need to know the numbers. ”

  Ronica Vestrit looked snared between shock and approval. “That's true. ”

  Malta took a breath. “So. My Aunt Althea seems to think that the Paragon will need many repairs before he can sail. But I have always heard the wizardwood doesn't rot. Do you think he needs to be refitted?”

  Brashen nodded. "Not as much as if he were a ship of ordinary wood, but yes, there is much to be done. The Paragon is an old ship. Far more wizardwood was used in his construction than in later liveships. Those parts of him that are wizardwood are sound. Much of the rest of him is in surprisingly good condition. I think wizardwood repels many of the boring worms and pests much as cedar repels moths. But there is still a great deal of work and supplies he would need. New masts, new canvas, new lines. Anchors, chain and a ship's boat, plus a kit for the kitchen, carpenter tools, a medicine chest . . . all of the things a ship must carry aboard it to become its own little world. Many of his seams should be re-caulked. A lot of his brightwork needs replacing. Amber has restored much of his interior wood and fixtures, but there is still a great deal to be done.

  “There would be the further expense of buying the foodstuffs necessary to stock the ship for the voyage. We'd need a secret store of money or goods, in the hopes we can make a ransom offer for the ship and men. Weapons, also, would have to be bought, in case Captain Kennit refuses to dicker, and if we can afford any deck machines, they'd have to be installed. And there would have to be some coin up-front to hire hands for the voyage. ”

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  Althea found her voice. “Do you believe you'll find any decent sailors willing to sign aboard the Paragon? I think you are forgetting his reputation as a killer. Unless you are willing to pay above top wages, why should a good hand ship out on such a vessel?”

  Keffria could hear that Althea was trying to keep her voice civil. She suspected that her sister's interest was roused despite her disparagement of the idea.

  “It would be a problem,” Brashen conceded easily. He pulled out the kerchief again and wiped his face. His hands trembled very slightly as he carefully refolded it. “There might be a few who would sign on simply for the daring of it. There are always some sailors with more guts than brains. I'd start with the Vivacia's old hands first, asking those of your father's crew that Kyle discharged. Some of them might go for the sake of the ship herself, or your father's memory. For the rest-” He shrugged. “We would end up with the dregs and the troublemakers. A great deal would depend on whom we could get as first mate. A good mate can make a working crew out of near anything, if he's given a free hand. ”

  “What's to keep them from turning on you when-”

  “Numbers!” Malta broke in irritably. “There is no sense in worrying about 'what ifs' until we know if it is financially possible. ” She went to her grandfather's old desk. “If I give you paper and ink, can you write up for us what you think it would cost?”

  “I'm not an expert,” Brashen began. “Some things would have to be done by professionals and-”

  “Assuming you'd find any shipwrights willing to work on the Paragon,” Althea chimed in sarcastically. “His reputation is bad. And assuming the Ludlucks give permission and-”

  Malta's hands clenched into fists on the paper she had taken from the drawer. Keffria thought she would ball it up and throw it to the ground. Instead, the girl closed her eyes for a moment and drew a deep breath. “Assuming all that, then. How much money? And can we possibly get it? Until we answer those questions, there is no point in asking others!”

  “We may just as easily be defeated by these other factors as by a lack of money!” Althea snorted in exasperation.

  “All I am saying,” Malta said in a tightly controlled voice, “is that we should consider those factors in the order in which they may defeat us. If we have no money to hire hands, then we don't have to worry about who will or will not sail for us. ”

  Althea stared at the girl. Keffria felt her muscles tighten. Althea could be sharp-tongued. If she mocked Malta now, when the girl was trying so hard to be pragmatic, Keffria would not even try to control her temper.

  “You're right,” Althea said suddenly. She looked suddenly at their mother. “Do we have any reserves left at all? Anything not entailed, anything we can sell off?”

  “There are a few things,” Ronica said quietly. She absently twisted the ring on her finger. “What we must recall is that whether or not we have possession of the liveship, a payment comes due soon. The Khuprus family will expect . . . ”

  “Don't consider that,” Malta said quietly. “I will accept Reyn's suit. I will set a date for our wedding, on condition that my father is home to attend it. I think that will win us a reprieve from that debt, and perhaps some financial help to launch the Paragon. ”

  A profound silence filled the room. To Keffria, it seemed that the room filled with stillness as a bucket brims with clear water. It was not just the quiet. It was a moment of cognizance. She looked at her daughter and suddenly saw her as someone else. The spoiled and stubborn girl who would stop at nothing to get her own way was suddenly a young woman who would sacrifice anything, even herself, to rescue her father. This unswerving act of will was rattling. Keffria bit her tongue to keep from telling her that Kyle wasn't worth it. He would never understand that what his daughter had been ready to sacrifice was not a moment's brave word but her whole life. No one, she thought, can be worth another's entire life spent in subservience. She glanced at the slave-boy, so silently watching them all, but found herself considering her marriage. A bitter smile bent her mouth. One woman had already made that sacrifice for Kyle Haven.

  “Malta. Please do not make such a decision under these circumstances. ” The power in her own voice surprised her. “I do not dispute that it is your decision to make. Proof enough of your womanhood is that you are willing to make it. I simply ask that you delay such a course until all others have been explored. ”

  “What other courses?” Malta asked hopelessly. “Through all our troubles, no one has come to our aid. Who do we think will help us now?”

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  “The Tenira family might,” Althea offered quietly. “Some few of the other liveship owners may come forward and . . . ”

  “They're going to be too busy with their own problems for some time,” Brashen broke in. “I'm sorry. It's hard for me to think straight tonight. I keep forgetting you probably don't know what else went on. There was a riot at the tariff docks tonight. Tenira and some of the others went down in force. They moved Ophelia out to the center of the harbor and a whole fleet of small boats went out to unload her. The cargo has been scattered all over Bingtown. Tenira gave it away rather than pay any tariffs on it. But that didn't stop the Chalcedeans from trying to interfere. ”

  “Sweet Sa, have mercy. Was anyone hurt?” Ronica demanded.

  Brashen's smile was not a friendly one. “The Bingtown harbor master is quite upset about two sunken galleys. Unfortunately, they went down right near the tariff docks. No large ships are going to be able to get in there to tie up for a time. Sa only knows when they'll find a way to raise them. . . . ”

  “They burned going down,” Amber added. She sounded both saddened and satisfied. She added casually, “Part of the tariff dock caught as well. When we left, some of the Satrap's warehouses were still burning. ”

  Brashen's tone challenged Althea, “You might concede there was good reason to be concerned for your safety, on such a night. ”

  “You were down there?” Althea looked from one to the other. “All those fires . . . too many to be one accidental fire spreading. This was planned in advance, wasn't it? Why didn't I know?”

  “Ophelia and I have become very good friends,” Amber replied evasively.

  “Why wasn't I told?”

  “Maybe it wasn't a fit place for a Trader's daughter to be. ” Brash
en shrugged. More sourly, he added, “Perhaps Crag cares enough for you that he wouldn't want to risk you being arrested also. ”

  “Grag was arrested?”

  “For a short time. They found the Chalcedean guards who were supposed to be holding him, but Grag himself has disappeared. ” He permitted himself a small smile. “I understand that he's fine, however. I'm sure you'll hear from him in a day or so. Surely he wouldn't leave his lady love in suspense. ”

  “How do you know so much? How did you happen to be down there?” Althea's anger was building. She had flushed a deep scarlet. Keffria could not understand why she was so upset about this. Did she wish she had been at a riot, instead of driving Davad home?

  “When I saw a band of disgruntled Traders form up and leave the meeting early together, I followed them. When I saw their real intent, I joined them. As did a good many others along the way. ” He paused. “Later, I heard some talk about what had been done to Davad Restart's carriage. And what some wished to do to him. If I'd been there, I would never have allowed you to drive that carriage off alone. What Tenira was thinking, I don't-”

  “I've told you before, I don't need you to look after me!” Althea was suddenly savagely angry. “I don't need anyone's help. ”

  Brashen folded his arms on his chest. “Oh, that's obvious, now. I'm only puzzled as to why you stood up at the Traders' meeting and asked for the help you now refuse. ”

  “I don't need help from you!” Althea clarified fiercely.

  “I do. ” Keffria found her sister's shock almost satisfying. She met Althea's glare with a calm look. “You seem to have forgotten that I, not you, am the Trader for this family. I am not so proud as to turn away the only help we may be offered. ” Keffria switched her glance to Brashen. “What do we need to begin this? Where do we start?”

  Brashen tilted his head toward Malta. “The little one is right. We need money to start. ” He nodded next to Ronica. “And the captain's lady will have to push Davad Restart to make him present this offer favorably to the Ludlucks. Any other liveship owners who would add their approval would help. Maybe Althea could get her sweetheart to put in his word on this. I know a few of the liveships, and I'll speak to them directly. You might be surprised how much pressure a liveship can put on his family. ” He took a breath and briefly rubbed his temples. He put his kerchief away slowly. “Althea is right. Getting crew will be a problem. I'll start on that immediately, put word out in the taverns that I'm hiring a lively crew of daring men. Those that come will half expect to turn pirate. They may turn away at the name of Paragon, but . . . ”

 
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