The mad ship, p.50
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       The Mad Ship, p.50
 

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  Malta tugged open the neck of the bag and spilled the contents out into her lap. There were some coins in it, and a few rings. “Cerwin is going to be in big trouble if Papa finds out he gave those rings to you,” Delo told Malta accusingly. “That little silver one is one Mama gave him for doing well at his lessons. ” She crossed her arms and looked at Malta disapprovingly.

  “He won't find out,” Malta told her bleakly. Delo was such a child. The rings were scarcely worth the trouble of selling them. No doubt, Delo thought this little bag a magnificent gift, but Malta knew better. She had spent the entire morning on the household books, and knew that what was in this purse was barely enough to hire two good workmen for a week. She wondered if Cerwin had as little knowledge of finances as Delo did. Malta hated helping to keep the accounts, but she understood money far better now. She recalled the rush of chagrin she had felt when she discovered just how foolishly she had spent the coins her father had given her. They should have been enough for a dozen dresses. Those small gold pieces had been worth far more than was in this bag. She wished she had them back now. They would have gone much further toward getting that ship off the sand than what Cerwin had given her. The boy simply did not grasp the size of her problem. It was as disappointing as the lack of a kiss.

  “Why didn't he say anything at the meeting?” she wondered aloud. “He knows what is at risk. He knows what it means to me. But he did nothing. ”

  Delo was huffy. “He did. He did everything he could. He talked to Papa at home. Papa said it was a very complicated situation and that we could not get involved. ”

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  “What is complicated?” Malta demanded. “My father has been kidnapped and we must go and rescue him. We need help!”

  Delo folded her arms on her chest and cocked her head. “That is a Vestrit matter. The Trell family cannot solve it for you. We have trading interests of our own to maintain. If we invest money in a search for your father, what will the return be for us?”

  “Delo!” Malta was shocked. The pain she felt was genuine. “We are talking about my father's life . . . the only one who truly cares what becomes of me! This isn't about money and profit!”

  “Everything eventually comes down to a profit,” Delo declared harshly. Then her expression suddenly softened. “That is what my father said to Cerwin. They argued, Malta. It frightened me. The last time I remember two men shouting at each other was when Brashen lived at home. He used to argue with my father all the time. . . . At least, he would stand there like a stick while my father roared at him. A lot of it I don't remember. I was little. They always sent me out of the room. Then, one day, my father told me that Cerwin was my only brother now. That Brashen would never be coming home again. ” Delo's voice faltered. “The arguing stopped. ” She swallowed. “It's not like your family, Malta. You all argue and shout and say terrible things, but then you hold together. No one is thrown out forever, not even your Aunt Althea. My family isn't like that. There isn't room in my family for that. ” She shook her head. “If Cerwin had kept arguing, I'm afraid I'd have no brothers at all now. ” She looked at Malta in a direct appeal. “Please. Don't ask my brother to help you with this. Please. ”

  The plea rattled Malta. “I'm . . . sorry,” she said awkwardly. She had never thought that her experiments with Cerwin would affect anyone besides him. Lately, everything seemed so much bigger and far-flung than it once had. When she had first heard that her father was taken, it had not seemed real. She had used it as an opportunity to indulge her sense of the tragic. She had play-acted the role of a stricken daughter, but she had really believed that any day at all, her father would come home. Pirates could not really have taken her papa. Not brave, handsome Kyle Haven. Nevertheless, slowly it had become real. At first, she had feared that he would never come home to make her life better. Only now was she realizing he might never come home at all.

  She scooped the coins and rings back into the purse. She offered it to Delo. “You should take this back to Cerwin. I don't want him to get in trouble. ” It also wasn't enough to do her any good, but she wouldn't mention that.

  Delo looked horrified. “I can't. He'd know that I'd said something to you. He'd be furious with me. Please, Malta, you have to keep it, so I can tell him I gave it to you. Also, he asked me to ask you to write him a note back or send him a token. ”

  Malta just looked at her. Sometimes, lately, she felt like she had run out of ideas and plans. She knew she should stand and pace a turn about the room. She knew she should say something like, “There are so few things left I can call mine . . . most of them I have sold to raise money to rescue my father. ” At one time, that would have seemed so fine and romantic. She had felt like a heroine in a story when she had emptied her jewelry box onto the table that first day. She had put her bracelets and rings and necklaces out and then sorted them into piles as Grandmother and Aunt Althea and her own mother were doing. It had seemed like a ritual for women. The little muttered comments were like prayers. This is gold, this is silver, this is old-fashioned, but the stones are good. And all the little stories they had told one another, stories they already knew. “I remember when Daddy gave me this, the very first ring I ever had, look, it won't even go on my little finger now. ” Or, Grandmother saying, “These still smell so lovely,” and Althea adding, “I remember the day Papa chose those for you. I remember asking him why he was buying perfume gems, when he didn't like Rain Wild goods, and he said you wanted them so badly he didn't care. ” They shared stories as they sorted out gold and jewels that were suddenly memories of better times. But no one had flinched, no one had held anything back, not even their tears. Malta had even wanted to put out the things Reyn had given her, but they had all told her that she must keep them, for if she eventually refused his suit, then they all must be returned. That morning was both dismal and shining in her memory. Odd. That day she had felt more like a woman grown than any time before then.

  But in the days since then, there had been only the reality of the empty jewelry box gaping at her from her dresser. She had things she could have worn, a child's ornaments, enameled pins and shell beads, as well as the things from Reyn, but somehow she could not wear them while the other women of her family went ringless and unornamented. She rose and went to the small writing desk. She found a pen, ink and a sheet of thin paper. She wrote quickly. “Dear friend, thank you so much for your expression of caring in our time of need. With great sincerity. ” The words reminded her of the correct thank-you notes she had helped pen to those who had sent flowers to them. She signed it with her initials, then folded it and sealed it with a drop of wax. As she gave it to Delo, she wondered at herself. Even a week ago, she would have carefully composed any missive she sent Cerwin. She would have filled it with innuendoes and words that seemed to say a great deal more than they did. She managed a sad smile. “The words are bland. I feel much more than I dare commit to paper. ”

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  There. That would leave him some hopes. It was all she had the energy for on this hot day.

  Delo took it and slipped it into her cuff. She looked around the room. “Well,” she said disappointedly. “I suppose I should go home. ”

  “I'm not much company today,” Malta admitted. “I'll walk you out. ”

  At the door, a pony trap and a man to drive it awaited Delo. That, too, was new. The Trell family was obviously preparing to present Delo as a young woman at the midsummer ball. Malta would be presented at the same ball. She and her mother were using the fabric from several older dresses in the house to create a new gown for her. Her slippers would be new, as would her headpiece and her fan. At least, so she hoped. Nothing was certain anymore. She imagined she would ride there in Trader Restart's old carriage. It was yet another humiliation that she could not face just now.

  Delo hugged her and kissed her on the cheek at the door. She did it as if it were a trick she had recently learned. It
probably was, Malta reflected bitterly. Many of the young girls of the better families received instruction in the finer points of etiquette before they were presented. Another small thing that Malta would never have. She shut the door while Delo was still waving farewells with her new fan. It was a petty revenge, but she felt better for it.

  She took the small bag of coins and the rings to her room. She spilled them out on her bed. They had not grown. She looked at it and wondered how she could make this small addition to their ship fund without explaining where it came from. She frowned. Could she do nothing right?

  She scooped the coins and baubles into the bag and tucked it into her blanket chest. She flung herself down on her bed to think.

  The day was too hot and there was too much work to do. There was weeding in the kitchen garden, and herbs to gather, tie and hang. Her dress for the Summer Ball was still only half finished. She had not the heart to work on it, not after seeing Delo's new finery. Malta was sure that everyone would know it was made over from old dresses. She recalled how she had dreamed of her first Summer Ball. She had visualized herself in an extravagant gown, entering on her father's arm. She smiled bitterly and closed her eyes. It was almost as if she were under a curse. Anything sweet, wonderful, and romantic that she ever imagined, she would never have.

  She counted her disappointments drowsily. No lovely dress and carriage for the ball. No dashing sea-captain father to escort her. Cerwin had failed her; he didn't even know when to kiss a girl. Reyn had not come to her. She hated her life. All the problems were too big. She was trapped in a life she was helpless to change. The day was too hot. She was suffocating in its embrace. It was so stuffy.

  She tried to roll over but there was not enough room. Perplexed, she tried to sit up. Her head thudded against a barrier. Her uplifted hands met only damp, shredded wood. The dampness, she suddenly realized, was from her own breath. She opened her eyes to blackness. She was trapped in here, trapped, and no one cared. She lifted frantic hands to press against whatever enclosed her. “Help me! Let me out of here! Someone help me!” She shoved against her boundaries, pushing with her hands, her elbows, her knees and feet. Nothing gave way. It only made the enclosure seem smaller. The only air she had to breathe was already warm and moist from her breath. She tried to scream, but there was not even enough air for that.

  “It's a dream,” she told herself. She forced herself to be very still. “This is a dream. I am safe in my own bed. All I have to do is wake up now. Wake up. ” She stretched and contorted her eye muscles, trying to open her eyes. She could not. There was not even enough room for her to bring her hands up to her face. She began to pant convulsively in fear. A whine escaped her.

  “Do you see, now, why he must free me. Help me. Make him free me and I promise I will help you. I will bring back your father and the ship. All you have to do is make him free me. ”

  She knew that voice. She had heard it echoing through her dreams since she had shared the dream with Reyn. “Let me out,” she begged the dragon. “Let me wake up. ”

  “Will you make him help me?”

  “He says he cannot. ” Malta could scarcely find breath for the words. “I think he would if he could. ”

  “Make him find a way. ”

  “I can't. ” A second layer of darkness was closing in on her as she panted. She was going to faint. She'd suffocate in this dream. Could someone faint in a dream? Could she die in a dream? “Let me out!” she cried faintly. “Please. I have no control over Reyn! I can't make him do anything. ”

  The dragon chuckled, a deep rich laugh. “Don't be foolish. He is only a male. You and I, we are queens. We are destined to master our males. It is the proper balance of the world. Think about it. You know how to get what you want. Take it. Free me. ”

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  Malta felt herself abruptly flung up into darkness. The boundaries around her were gone. She clawed for purchase but her outstretched hands found nothing. She tumbled through blackness while the wind screamed past her. She fell heavily onto a yielding surface.

  She opened her eyes to her bedroom, to a hot summer day and bright light streaming in the open window. “Remember. ” Someone spoke the word right by her ear. She heard it. But no one was there.

  EVENING FOUND THEY HAD DONE MORE THAN IN ANY TWO OTHER DAYS.

  Even so, Brashen wondered how many of the workmen would return tomorrow. He could not blame them. He no longer understood why he himself stayed on. It wasn't his ship at risk, nor his nephew. When he asked himself why he continued he came back to the negative that he had nothing better to do. The Springeve had vanished from the harbor the second night after he had jumped ship. No doubt Finney had smelled a rat, and decided to cut his losses and run. There was no going back to that life.

  Seldom did he concede to himself that this was the only way he could be near Althea. Pride wouldn't let him. She showed him less attention than she paid Clef. At least she smiled at the boy. He stole a glance at her. Her hair was sweated to her skull. She wore loose white trousers and a roomy tunic of the same fabric. Sand clung to her garments and her damp skin. He watched her walk over to the water buckets. She drank deeply, then splashed water up on her face and neck. The ache of wanting her near choked him. He reminded himself that she was all but promised to Grag Tenira. Tenira wasn't a bad hand. He'd be a wealthy man someday. Brashen tried to feel satisfaction for her. She could have done worse. She could have been content with a disinherited Trader's son. He shook his head and tossed his mallet to the sand. “That's a day!” he called abruptly. The light was fading anyway.

  Althea and Amber retired to the galley while Brashen paid off the crew. Brashen lingered with his book and pen after the last workman had left, toting up his figures and shaking his head over them. Ronica Vestrit had given him a free hand with the funds to restore the Paragon. Althea had been surprised to find that his shipwright's knowledge extended far beyond what she would have expected of a mate. He had taken satisfaction in her surprise, but it did not make his task any easier. He agonized over the trade-off between the best quality of material and the best tradesmen to do the job. Often enough, he couldn't get the workmen he preferred anyway. The Paragon's reputation was well established, and his recent behavior confirmed it. Most of the shipwrights claimed they were not superstitious but that their other customers would turn away a man who had worked on such a ship. What excuse they gave didn't matter to Brashen. The delay did. Time was their greatest enemy. With every passing day, the task of tracking Vivacia from where Brashen had last seen her became more difficult. Moreover, the work must be timed to the tide. An exceptionally high tide was expected at the end of the month; Brashen hoped it would be the one to float the Paragon. The most frustrating part was that much of the work they could reasonably do themselves could only be done after the more massive tasks were completed. Each job depended on the one before it.

  By the time he went to join the women, they were no longer in the galley. He followed the soft sounds of their voices and found them sitting on the slanting stern of the ship. Side by side, legs dangling, they could have been two ship's boys idling furtively. Amber had taken to binding her honey-colored hair back in a tail. It was not a flattering change; the bones of her cheeks and the line of her nose were too sharp to be feminine. In contrast, even with a smudge of tarry dirt down her cheek, Althea's profile made his heart turn over. She was not softly feminine. Instead, she was female in a cat-like way that was as much threat as it was enticement. And she was unaware of it. He looked at her, and wished fervently he had never touched her. It was not just that he had somehow spoiled it so that she would not even meet his glance anymore. The worst was that he could not look at her without recalling the taste of her skin and the honesty of her body. He closed his eyes for a moment. Then he opened them and made his way aft.

  Amber and Althea both held teacups that steamed. A fat ceramic pot sat between them with an extra cup beside it. Br
ashen poured a cup for himself. He considered sitting down between them, then decided to stand. Amber was staring out to sea. Althea was running her fingertip around the rim of her cup and watching the waves. Their conversation had died at his approach. Amber sensed the awkwardness. She glanced up at him. “Early start again tomorrow?”

  “No,” Brashen said succinctly. He took a sip of his tea and added, “I don't think so. I suspect I'll spend the morning hunting up new workers. ”

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  “Not again,” Althea groaned. “What did I miss?”

  Brashen took a breath as if to speak, then clamped his jaws and shook his head.

  Althea rubbed her temples. “At least, he was talking to you again?” She offered the words to Amber hopefully.

  “Not to us,” Amber said dejectedly. “He had lots of things to say to the work crew, though. Mostly nasty whispered stuff, before he got onto how their children would be born without legs and blind, because they'd worked near a cursed ship. ” In bitter admiration, she added, “He was very descriptive. ”

  “Well. That's creative. At least he didn't throw any more timbers after the first one. ”

  “Maybe he's saving some for tomorrow,” Brashen pointed out.

  They shared a discouraged silence. Then Amber asked sadly, “Well. Have we given up, then?”

  “Not quite yet. Let me finish this cup of tea while I ponder how hopeless it all is,” Brashen replied. He frowned as he turned to Althea. “Where were you this morning, anyway?”

  She didn't look at him as she answered. Her voice was cool. “Not that you have a right to ask, but I went to see Grag. ”

  “I thought Tenira was still in hiding. Price on his head, and all that. ” Brashen's voice was very detached. He sipped his tea and looked at the water.

  “He is. He found a way to send me word. I went to see him. ”

  Brashen shrugged one shoulder. “Well, at least that solves one problem. When we run out of money, you can always turn him in to the Satrap's ministers. We can use the reward to hire still another work crew. ” He showed his teeth in a grin.

 
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