The mad ship, p.49
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       The Mad Ship, p.49

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  “Let me speak to him instead,” the charm offered. “Perhaps I could persuade him to kill you. ”

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  Kennit chuckled appreciatively and released himself into sleep.


  THE BREEZE OFF THE WATER WAS THE ONLY THING THAT MADE WORKING tolerable. The summer sun beat down from the cloudless sky. When Brashen looked out across the waves, the reflected light was dazzling. The brightness pounded spikes of pain into his brow. The only thing that made him scowl more deeply was the workmen moving lackadaisically, performing their tasks without energy or enthusiasm.

  He stood braced on the slanting deck of the Paragon. He shut his eyes for a moment then re-opened them and tried to consider the task from a fresh perspective. The ship had been hauled out on the beach over a score of years ago. Abandoned and neglected, the elements had had their way with him. Were it not for his wizardwood construction, he would be no more than a skeleton. Storms and tides had conspired to push the Paragon to the limits of the high-tide line. The passage of years had heaped sand against his hull. He now lay with his keel toward the water, heeled over on the sandy beach. Only the very highest tides now touched him.

  The solution was deceptively easy. The sand must be shoveled away. Timbers shoved under the hull would act as skids. Put a heavy counterweight on the top of his shattered main mast to lay him even further over on his side. At the highest tide at the end of the month, anchor a barge offshore. Run a line from the Paragon to the barge's stern windlass. With men on shore with levers to urge him down the skids and men on the barge working the windlass, the ship would slide on his side toward the water. The counterweight on his hull would keep him heeled over and allow him to float in shallower water. Once they got him into deeper water, they'd right him.

  Then they would see what happened next.

  Brashen sighed. A man could describe the whole operation in a breath or two. Then he could work for a solid week and be no closer to the solution.

  All around the ship, men toiled with shovels and barrows. Heavy timbers had been floated in on yesterday's high tide. Securely roped together, they awaited use on the beach. Near them was another raft of roller logs. If all went well, eventually Paragon would ride them down the beach to be re-launched. If all went well. Some days that seemed like a vain hope.

  The new crew of workmen moved sluggishly in the hot sun. Hammers rang in the summer air. There was rock under the sand. In some places it could be chipped away to allow the skids under the ship. In others, the workers were trying to set levers under the hull. Then there would be a massive effort of lifting, so that other levers could be grounded even more deeply. Each shifting placed new wracks on the old vessel.

  After all the years of lying on his side, there was bound to be some shifting of timbers and planks. From what Brashen could see, the hull was not too badly racked, but the ship would have to be lifted before he could be sure. Once he was upright and floating free . . . and he prayed Paragon would float freely . . . the real work would begin. The entire hull would have to be trued up before it could be re-caulked. Then a new mast would have to be stepped. . . . Brashen abruptly stopped the chain of thought. He could not think that far ahead, or he would become completely discouraged. One day and one task at a time were all his aching head could handle.

  He absentmindedly ran his tongue about inside his lower lip, feeling for a piece of cindin that wasn't there. Even the deep sores from the addictive drug were starting to heal now. His body seemed able to forget the drug faster than his spirit. He longed for cindin with an intensity as relentless as thirst. He'd traded away his earring for a stick two days ago, and regretted it. Not only had it set him back in forgetting the drug, but the cindin had been poor quality, no more than a tease of relief. Still, if he'd had even a shard of silver to his name, he would not have been able to resist the urge. The only coins he possessed were those in the bag Ronica Vestrit had entrusted to him. Last night he'd awakened drenched in a cold sweat, his head pounding. He'd sat up until dawn, trying to rub the cramps from his hands and feet while he stared at the dwindling purse. He'd wondered how wrong it would be to take a few coins to set himself right. The cindin would help him to stay alert longer and have more energy for this task. Towards dawn, he had opened the bag and counted the coins out into his hand. Then he had put them back and gone into the galley, to brew and drink yet another pot of chamomile tea.

  Amber, sitting there and whittling, had wisely said nothing. He was still amazed at how easily she had adapted to his presence. She accepted his coming and going without comment. She still occupied the captain's cabin. Time enough to make that space his own when the Paragon floated free once more. For now, he had slung his hammock in the tween decks. Living in the canted ship became more challenging daily as the angle of the deck grew ever sharper.

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  “Paragon, no!”

  Amber's voice, raised in disbelief, coincided with the immense crack of a timber. Voices cried out in alarm. Brashen scrambled forward, arriving on the foredeck just in time to hear a timber strike ringingly against a rocky outcrop of the beach. All around Paragon, the workers were retreating from the ship. They called warnings to one another, pointing not just at the thrown timber but at the trench it had made in the beach when it landed. Without a word, his face expressionless, Paragon refolded his thick arms on his muscled chest. He stared blindly out across the water.

  “Damn you!” Brashen cried out with great feeling. He glared around at the workers. “Who let him get hold of that timber?”

  A white-faced oldster replied. “We was setting it in place. He reached down and snatched it away from us. . . . How in Sa did he know it was there?” The old man's voice was full of superstitious dread.

  Brashen clenched his hands into fists. If it had been the ship's first display of sulkiness, he might have been surprised. But every day since they began, he had created one delay after another. His displays of temper and strength made it difficult for Brashen to keep workers. Through them all, Paragon had spoken not one civil word to Brashen.

  Brashen leaned over the railing. From the corner of his eye, he spotted Althea, just arriving at the ship for the day's work. She looked puzzled at the frozen scene. “Get back to work!” he bellowed at the men who were gawking and nudging one another. He pointed at the thrown timber. “Pick that up and put it back in place. ”

  “Not me!” one worker declared. He wiped sweat from his face, then tossed his mallet to the sand. “He could have killed me, just then. He can't see where he's throwing stuff, even if he did care. And I don't think he does. He's killed before, everyone knows that. My life is worth more than you're paying me for a day's work. I'm gone. I want my pay. ”

  “Me, too. ”

  “Same for me. ”

  Brashen clambered over the railing, then dropped lightly to the beach. He didn't let his face show how the pain shot to the top of his skull. He advanced on the men in a show of aggression, praying he wouldn't have to back it up. He thrust his face into that of the first man who had spoken. “You want to get paid, you stick around and finish out your day's work. You walk now, you don't get a copper. ” He scowled round at the lot of them and hoped his bluff would work. If these ones walked, he didn't know where he would find others. They were the dregs of the taverns, men who would only work long enough to earn coins for the night's drinking. He had had to offer them better wages than they could get anywhere else to lure them out to the bad-luck ship. As the men about him muttered discontentedly, he barked, “Take it or leave it. I didn't hire you for half a day's work, and I'm not paying for half a day's work. Get under that timber, now. ”

  “I'll work,” one of the men offered. “But not up here, not where he can reach me or crush me with a thrown timber. I won't do that. ”

  Brashen spat in disgust. “Work on the aft keel then, lionheart. Amber and I will ta
ke the bow, if none of you here has the courage to do so. ”

  A slow and evil smile spread across Paragon's face. “Some prefer a quick death, some a slow one. Some don't care if their sons are born legless and blind like this cursed ship. Pick up your mallets and work on. What care you about what happens tomorrow?” In a lower voice he added, “Why should you expect to live that long?”

  Brashen had spun to confront the ship. “Are you talking to me?” he demanded. “All your days of silence, and then you say that to me?”

  For an instant, the Paragon's face changed. Brashen could not say what emotion was displayed there, but it froze his soul and squeezed his heart. An instant later, it was replaced with a supercilious stare. The figurehead took a breath and settled into stillness.

  Brashen's temper snapped. The brightness of the day blazed inside his skull, igniting the pain to unbearable heat. He snatched up one of the buckets of drinking water that the workers had left near the bow. With every ounce of strength he had, he dashed it in Paragon's face.

  The entire ship shuddered and Paragon gave an angry roar. Water dripped from his beard and ran down his chest. Below him on the sand, Brashen dropped the now-empty bucket. He roared at the ship, “Don't pretend you can't hear me. I'm your captain, damn it, and I won't tolerate insubordination from you nor anyone else. Get this through your wooden head, Paragon. You're going to sail. One way or another, I'm dragging you out into the water again and putting canvas on your bones. Now you have a choice, but you'd better choose fast, because I am all out of patience. You can go out of here listing and wallowing, sulking like a brat, and the whole damn fleet will watch you go that way. Or you can lift your head up and sail out of here like you don't give a damn about anything that anyone has ever said about you. You have a chance to prove them all wrong. You can make them eat every foul thing they've ever said about you. You can sail out of here like a Bingtown liveship and we'll go give some pirates a bloody bad time. Or you can prove they were right all along and that I was the fool. I'm telling you this because that is the only thing you have a choice in. You don't get to decide whether you're going or not, because I'm the captain and I already decided that. You're a ship, not a flowerpot. You were meant to sail and it is what we are going to do. Are we clear on that?”

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  The ship clenched his jaws and crossed his arms on his chest. Brashen spun about and snatched up a second bucket. With a grunt of effort, he dashed it up into the figurehead's face. Paragon recoiled, sputtering with shock.

  “Is that clear?” Brashen bellowed. “Answer me, damn you!”

  Around him, the workmen were transfixed with awe. They waited for him to die.

  Althea had gripped Amber's arm. The bead-maker's eyes blazed with outrage. Only that hold kept her from charging out between Brashen and the ship. With a sign, Althea warned her to keep silent. Amber clenched her fists, but kept her tongue still.

  “It's clear,” Paragon finally replied. The words were clipped and unrepentant. But he had answered. Brashen clung to that tiny triumph.

  “Good,” Brashen replied in a surprisingly calm voice. “I leave you to think about your choice. I think you can make me proud. I have to get back to my work. I intend that when you sail, you'll look as sharp as the first time you were put into water. ” He paused. “Maybe we can make them eat every slur they ever uttered about me, too. ”

  He turned back to Amber and Althea with a grin. Neither woman returned it. After a moment, it faded from his face. He took a breath and shook his head in resignation. In a low voice, he spoke only to them. “I'm doing my best with him, the only way I know how. I'm sailing. I'll do or say whatever I must to get this ship in the water. ” He glared at their disapproving silence. “Maybe you two need to decide how badly you want this to happen. But while you're thinking, we're the bow work crew. Maybe tonight I can hire some new workers who aren't afraid of him, but I can't waste daylight on it now. ” He pointed at the flung timber. “We're putting that back in place. ” In the quietest voice he could summon, he added, “If he thinks you're afraid of him . . . if he thinks he can get away with behaving like this . . . we are all lost. Paragon included. ”

  It was the start of a long, sweaty day. The skid timbers were massive. In a fit of perversity, Brashen spared neither of the women nor himself. He worked in the sun until he felt his brain boiling inside his skull. They dug away dry sand and hauled it away. The rocks they encountered were always wedged together in layers, or just slightly larger than one person could move. He drove his body relentlessly, punishing it for its unceasing itch for cindin. If either Althea or Amber had asked for quarter, he could have given it. But Althea was as stubborn as he was, and Amber amazingly tenacious. They matched the pace he set. More, as they worked under the nose of the figurehead, they included Paragon in the conversation, ignoring his stubborn silence.

  The efforts of two mere women and their lack of fear seemed to shame the hired workmen. First one, and then another came to join them at the bow. When Amber's friend Jek walked out from town to see what they were doing, she gave them a couple of hours of her strong back as well.

  Clef came and went, underfoot as often as he was helpful. Brashen snarled at the boy as frequently as he praised him, but his stint as a slave had given him a thick skin. He worked doggedly, handicapped more by his size than any lack of skill. He had all the makings of a good hand. Against his conscience, Brashen would probably take him along when they sailed. It was wrong, but he needed him.

  The other workmen on the ship watched them surreptitiously. Perhaps it shamed them to see the women working where they had refused to go. They stepped up the pace of their own labors. Brashen had never expected that such a sorry lot of dock scrapings would have any pride left. He seized the opportunity to push them harder.

  THE AFTERNOON WAS SWELTERING INSIDE THE MORNING ROOM. OPENING the windows hadn't helped; there wasn't a breath of air stirring. Malta plucked at the collar of her dress, pulling the damp fabric away from her skin.

  “I remember when we used to drink iced tea here. And your cook would make those tiny lemon pastries. ” Delo sounded more fretful about Malta's reduced circumstances than Malta herself. In fact, it rather irritated Malta to have her friend so pointedly noticing all the deficiencies in her home.

  “Times have changed,” Malta pointed out wearily. She walked over to the open window and leaned out to look at the neglected rose garden. The bushes were blooming voluptuously and sprawling, rejoicing in their lack of discipline. “Ice is expensive,” she pointed out.

  “My papa bought two blocks yesterday,” Delo said negligently. She fanned herself. “Cook is making ices for dessert tonight. ”

  “Oh. How nice. ” Malta's voice was void of expression. How much of this did Delo expect her to take? First, she had shown up in a new dress with a fan and a hat to match. The fan was made of spice paper, and gave off a pleasant scent when she used it. It was the newest vogue in Bingtown. Then Delo hadn't even asked how the ship was coming along, or if they'd received a ransom note yet. “Let's go out in the shade,” Malta suggested.

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  “No, not yet. ” Delo glanced around the room as if servants might be spying. Malta almost sighed. They didn't have servants to eavesdrop. With a great show of secrecy, Delo pulled a small purse from inside the waistband of her skirt. In a lowered voice, she confided, “Cerwin sent you this, to help you in these troubled times. ”

  For an instant, Malta could almost share Delo's enjoyment of this dramatic moment. Then it fluttered away from her. When she had first learned of her father's abduction, it had seemed exciting and fraught with tragedy. She had thrown herself into exploiting the situation to the limit of its theatrical possibilities. Now the days had passed, one after another, full of anxiety and stress. No good news had come. Bingtown had not rallied to their side. People had expressed sympathy, but only as a courtesy. A few had
sent flowers with notes of commiseration, as if her father were already dead. Despite her plea to Reyn that he come to her, he had not. No one had rallied to her.

  Day after day had ground by in deadly, boring desperation. It had slowly come to Malta that this was real, and that it might be the death knell for her family's fortune. She could not sleep for thinking of it. When she did fall asleep, her dreams were disturbing ones. Something stalked her, determined to bend her to its will. The dreams she could remember were like evil sendings from someone determined to break her hopes. Yesterday morning she had awakened with a cry, from a nightmare in which her father's wasted body washed up on the beach. He could be dead, she suddenly realized. He could already be dead and all these efforts for nothing. She had lost spirit that day, and had not been able to recover hope or purpose since then.

  She took the little purse from Delo's hand and sat down. Her friend's discontented expression showed that she had expected a more passionate response. She feigned examining it. It was a little cloth purse, extensively embroidered and closed with gilt strings. Cerwin had probably bought it especially for this gift. She tried to take some pleasure in that. But thoughts of Cerwin were not as exciting as they had once been. He hadn't kissed her.

  She still hadn't recovered from that disappointment. But what had followed was even worse. She had believed that men had power. The very first time she ever asked one to use that power for her, he failed her. Cerwin Trell had promised her he would help, but what had he done? At the Trader meeting, he had stared at her most improperly. Half the people there must have noticed it. Did he get up and speak when Althea was asking the Traders to help? Had he nudged his father to speak? No. All he had done was make calf eyes at her. No one had helped her. No one would help her.

  “Free me and I will aid you. I promise you this. ” The words of the dragon from the dream she had shared with Reyn suddenly echoed in her head. She felt a twinge of pain, as if a string pulled tight between her temples had suddenly become tauter. She wished she could just go and lie down for a time. Delo cleared her throat, abruptly reminding Malta that she was just sitting there, holding Cerwin's gift-purse.

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