The mad ship, p.51
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       The Mad Ship, p.51

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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  Althea ignored the remark to tell Amber, “Grag said he wished he could offer help to me, but his own situation makes everything difficult. His family got a fraction of what the Ophelia's cargo was worth. And they have resolved not to trade in Bingtown or Jamaillia until the Satrap rescinds the unfair tariffs. ”

  “Didn't the Ophelia sail a few days ago?” Brashen asked determinedly.

  Althea nodded. “She did. Tomie thought it best to take her out of Bingtown Harbor before any more galleys arrived. The Satrap's tariff ministries have been making threats to seize the ship. They are now claiming that the Satrap can regulate where liveships trade, and that Rain Wild goods can be sold only in Bingtown or Jamaillia City. I doubt that they could enforce that, but Tomie saw no sense in waiting for trouble. The Tenira family will continue to battle them, but he won't put Ophelia in the middle of it. ”

  “If it was me,” Brashen said speculatively, “I'd take her up the Rain Wild River. Nothing except another liveship could follow her up there. ”

  He cocked a head. “That's the plan, isn't it? Grag will be smuggled upriver on another liveship to rejoin them there. Am I right?”

  Althea gave him a sidelong glance and a shrug.

  Brashen looked offended. “You don't trust me?”

  “I promised not to tell anyone. ” She looked at the water.

  “You think I'd pass the word about?” He was outraged. What kind of a man did she think he was? Did she really think he would let his rivalry with Grag go that far?

  “Brashen. ” She sounded at the end of her patience. “It is not that I don't trust you. I gave him my word to keep silent. I intend to keep it. ”

  “I see. ” At least, she was finally speaking directly to him. A question burned in him. He cursed himself, but asked it anyway. “Did he ask you to go with him?”

  Althea hesitated. “He knows I have to stay here. He even understands that I have to sail when the Paragon goes. ” Althea scratched her chin, then scraped at the dirt on her cheek. Irritably, she added, “I wish I could make Keffria understand that. She's still squawking to Mother that it isn't proper. She doesn't approve of me being down here to help. She hates the way I dress when I come down here to work. I don't know what she would approve. Perhaps I should sit at home and wring my hands in distress. ”

  Brashen knew she was trying to change the subject. He couldn't leave it alone. “Sure, Grag knows that you have to go after Vivacia. But he still asked you to come with him, didn't he? He still wanted you to go. You probably should. Cut your losses. Wager on the winner. None of the Traders really expects we'll succeed. That's why none of them have offered help. They think it would be a waste of time and money. I'll bet Grag had all kinds of sound reasons why you should abandon us, including that we'll never get this derelict off the sand. ” Brashen thudded his heels on the ship's hull. He felt a sudden, irrational rush of anger.

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  “Don't call him a derelict!” Amber snapped.

  “And stop whining,” Althea added nastily.

  Brashen stared at her, outraged. Then he raised his voice in a shout. “Derelict! Piece of beach junk! You hear me, Paragon? I'm talking about you. ”

  His words echoed from the sea cliffs behind them. Paragon made no reply. Amber glared at him, breathing out sharply through her nose. “That isn't going to help anything,” she scolded.

  “Instead of starting quarrels with everyone, why don't you go panhandle some cindin?” Althea asked him sarcastically. “We all know that is your real problem. ”

  “Yeah?” Brashen set his cup down. “And I know what your real problem is. ”

  Althea's voice went soft and deadly. “You do, do you? Well, why don't you tell us all plainly?”

  He leaned close to her. “Your real problem is that last winter you finally figured out who you are, and you've spent every day since then trying to deny it. It scared you so you ran home to try and forget it. ”

  His words were so different from what she had expected that Althea was struck dumb. He almost grinned at her astonishment. She gawked up at him where he stood over her on the slanting deck. “And to make it perfectly clear,” he added in a softer voice, “I'm not talking about anything that happened between you and me. I'm talking about what happened between you and yourself. ”

  “Brashen Trell, I have no idea what you're talking about!” Althea declared quickly.

  “You don't?” He did grin then. "Well, Amber does, sure as Sa has balls and tits. I've known that she's known all about that since I got back to Bingtown. It was on her face the first time she looked at me. Funny that you'll talk to her about it, but not me. But I told you. That isn't the issue. You went out and you found out that you weren't a Trader's daughter. Oh, you're Ephron Vestrit's daughter, all right, and no mistake about that. But you aren't bound to this damn town and its traditions any more than he was. He didn't like the cost of trading up the Rain Wild River, so, by Sa, the man stopped trading there. He went out and found his own contacts and his own trade goods. You're like him, right down to the bone. If they wanted to weed that out of you, they're too late. You can't change that about yourself. You should stop pretending.

  “You can't really settle down and be Grag Tenira's female half. It'll break both your hearts if you try. You're never going to stay home and make babies for him while he goes out to sea. You talk big about family and duty and tradition, but the reason you're going after the Vivacia is that you want your own damn ship. And you intend to get out there and take it. If you can just find the guts to leave Bingtown again, that is. ”

  The words had spilled out of him. He found himself out of breath, and almost panting. Althea stared up at him. He wanted so badly to reach down and pull her up into his arms. He'd kiss her. She'd probably break his jaw.

  She finally found her tongue. “You could not be more wrong,” she declared, but there was no strength in her words. Beside her, Amber hid her smile in her teacup. When Althea glared at her accusingly, she shrugged. Sudden embarrassment claimed Brashen. Disdaining the rope ladder, he clambered over the railing and dropped lightly to the sand. Without another word or look back, he stalked off to the bow of the ship.

  Clef had a small cook-fire going. Cooking the evening meal was his task. The work on the ship kept him busy in many ways. He had gone to fetch more drinking water for the men after Brashen had flung their ration at Paragon. He sharpened tools, he ran errands, and when evening came, he fetched supplies from the Vestrit home and fixed food for them. Ronica Vestrit had told them they were welcome to eat at her table, but Amber had courteously refused, saying she did not feel comfortable leaving Paragon alone. It had been a handy excuse for Brashen. There was no way to conceal his anxiety; sitting at a polite table would have strained him past the breaking point.

  Sa, he wished he had just one tiny nubbin of a cindin stick left. Just enough to make his skin stop tingling with longing. “So. What's for supper?” he asked the boy.

  Clef gave him a fish-eyed stare but didn't reply.

  “Don't you start with me, boy!” Brashen warned him, his temper flaring again.

  “Fesh soup, sir. ” Clef scowled as he clacked the wooden spoon about in the pot. He looked at the soup as he defiantly muttered, “He'n't junk. ”

  So that was what had tweaked the boy. Brashen softened his voice. “No. Paragon isn't junk. So he shouldn't behave like beach junk. ” He turned to look up through the gathering darkness at the figurehead that loomed silently above them. He addressed Paragon more than the boy. “He's a damn fine sailing ship. Before this is all over, he'll recall that. So will everyone else in Bingtown. ”

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  Clef scratched his nose and then stirred the pot. “ 'zee bad luck?”

  “Is he bad luck,” Brashen corrected him wearily. “No. He just had bad luck, from the very beginning. When you have bad luck, and then heap your own mistakes on top of it
, sometimes you can feel like you'll never get out from under it. ” He laughed without humor. “I speak from experience. ”

  “Y'got bad luck?”

  Brashen frowned. “Speak plain, boy. If you're going to sail with me, you have to be able to make yourself understood. ”

  Clef snorted, “I say, ya got bad luck?”

  Brashen shrugged. “Better than some, but worse than most. ”

  “Turn yer shert about. My da tole me, t'change yer luck, change yer shert. ”

  Brashen smiled in spite of himself. “It's the only shirt I've got, lad. Wonder what that says about my luck?”

  ALTHEA STOOD SUDDENLY. SHE DASHED THE TEA OUT OF HER CUP ONTO THE beach. “I'm going home,” she announced.

  “Farewell,” Amber replied neutrally.

  Althea slapped the stern rail. “I always knew he'd throw that at me some day. I always knew it. It was what I feared all along. ”

  Amber was puzzled. “Throw what at you?”

  Even alone on the isolated ship, she lowered her voice. “That I bedded with him. He knows he can ruin me with that. All he has to do is brag to the right person. Or the wrong person. ”

  A glint came into Amber's eyes. “I have heard people say some stupid things when they were frightened or hurt. But that is among the stupidest. Althea, I don't believe that man has ever considered that as a weapon. I don't think he has a braggart's nature. Nor do I believe he would ever deliberately hurt you. ”

  An uncomfortable silence held for a time. Then, she admitted, “I know you're right. Sometimes I think I just want a reason to be angry with him. ” She crossed her arms on her chest. “But why does he have to say such stupid things? Why does he have to ask me questions like that?”

  Amber let the questions hang for a moment. Then she asked one of her own. “Why does it upset you so much when he does?”

  Althea shook her head. “Every time I start to feel good about what we're doing, he . . . and we had a good day today, Amber. Damn him! We worked hard, and we worked well together. It was like old times. I know how he works and how he thinks; it's like dancing with a good partner. Then, just when I start thinking that it's going to be comfortable between us again, he has to . . . ” Althea's voice trailed off into silence.

  “Has to what?” Amber pressed.

  “He has to ask me a question. Or he says something. ”

  “Something more than, 'Get under that beam!' or 'Pass me the mallet'?” Amber inquired sweetly.

  Althea smiled miserably. “Exactly. Something that reminds me of how we used to talk when we were friends. I miss it. I wish we could go back to it. ”

  “Why can't you?”

  “It wouldn't be right. ” She scowled to herself. “There's Grag, now, and . . . ”

  “And what?”

  “And it could lead to more, I suppose. Even if it didn't, Grag wouldn't approve. ”

  “Grag wouldn't approve of you having friends?”

  Althea scowled. “You know what I mean. Grag wouldn't like me being friends with Brashen. I don't mean polite friends. I mean, as we used to be. Comfortable. Feet up and beer on the table. ”

  Amber laughed softly. “Althea, in a short time, we're all going to sail off in his ship. Do you expect to use tea-party manners with someone you work with each day?”

  “Once we sail, he won't be Brashen. He'll be the captain. He's already rubbed my nose in that. No one gets chummy with the captain. ”

  Amber cocked her head and looked up at Althea in the darkness.

  “Then why are you worrying about it? It sounds to me like time will cure all. ”

  Althea spoke in a very low voice. “Maybe I don't want it cured. Not that way. ” She looked at her hands. “Maybe I need Brash's friendship more than Grag's approval. ”

  Amber shrugged one shoulder. “Then maybe you should start talking to him again. And say something more than 'Here's the mallet. ' ”

  CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO - A Change of Heart

  VIVACIA WAS SEETHING. WINTROW FELT AS IF HE WERE IN THE PRESENCE OF a bubbling pot that was perpetually on the verge of boiling over and scalding everyone. The worst part was that he could do nothing to calm her. She not only would not allow herself to be calmed; she actively repelled any attempts to soothe her.

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  It had gone on for nearly a month, now. Wintrow sensed in her the vengeful purpose of a child who has been told she is too small to do something. Vivacia was determined to prove herself, and not just to Ken-nit. Her defiant enthusiasm included Wintrow. In the days since Opal had died on her deck, her resolve had grown and strengthened. She would turn pirate. Every time Wintrow tried to dissuade her, she became more stubborn. More troubling was that she grew more remote from him every day. She was reaching out toward Kennit so strongly that she had left Wintrow behind and alone.

  Kennit sensed her turmoil. He was well aware of the feelings he had stirred in her. The pirate did not ignore her. He spoke gently to her and treated her with all courtesy. But he no longer courted her. Instead, he had turned the sun of his face onto Etta, and in his light, the woman bloomed extravagantly. Like a spark set to tinder, he had kindled her. She walked the decks like a tigress on the prowl, and all heads turned to watch her pass. There were a few other women aboard; Kennit had permitted some of the freed women to remain aboard, but in contrast to Etta, they seemed only moderately female. The puzzling thing to Wintrow was that he could not name any specific change she had made in herself. She dressed as she always had. Despite Kennit's presentations of jewelry, she seldom wore more of it than a tiny ruby earring. Instead, it was as if the ash had been brushed from a coal to reveal the fire burning within. She had not stopped working the deck; she still flowed up the rigging with pantherish speed; she still talked and laughed with the men as her sail needle flashed in the sun. Her tongue was as sharp as ever, her humor as biting. Yet, when she looked at Kennit, even across the deck, the life in her seemed to multiply. Captain Kennit, for his part, seemed to revel in her glory. He could not pass her without touching her. Even bluff Sorcor near blushed at the sight of them together on the deck. Wintrow could only watch them in amazement and envy. To his chagrin, every time Kennit caught him looking at them, he would raise his eyebrow at him. Or wink.

  The entire crew responded to this new stimulus. Wintrow would have expected jealousy, or discontent as the captain flaunted his lady. Instead, they took pride in him, as if his virility and his possession of this desirable woman did credit to them all. The morale on the ship had leaped to a higher level than Wintrow had ever known. The new crew members were blending seamlessly with the old. Any discontent the freed slaves had felt had evaporated. Why clamor to possess a ship when one could be a part of Kennit's own crew on his ship?

  Vivacia had witnessed three more piracies since Opal had died. In each case, they had been small cargo vessels, not slavers. Wintrow knew the pattern. The channel Kennit and Sorcor had selected was admirably suited to these ambushes. Sorcor lurked to the south of them. He selected the ships and started the chase. Vivacia waited at the head end of the channel. Her task was to run the pursued vessel onto the rocks. Once the prey was aground, the pirates from the Marietta moved in to pick their prey clean of whatever they fancied. The small cargo ships were not well manned or defended. To give Kennit credit, he did not slaughter their crews. There was little bloodshed, for once the ships were grounded, resistance flagged. Kennit did not even hold them for ransom. He simply took the cream of their cargo, and let them go with a stern warning to spread the word that Kennit of the Pirate Isles would not tolerate slavers passing through his waters. He did not name himself as king. Not yet. All three ships had managed to limp away from their encounters with him. The word would spread swiftly.

  Vivacia both sulked and chafed at being held back from the action. Like a child dismissed from adult conversation, she was no longer invited to discuss piracy or politics with Kennit. He spent m
ost of his evenings aboard the Marietta with Sorcor and Etta. It was there that they planned their attacks and celebrated their victories. When the pirate and his lady returned late at night, Etta was always decked with Kennit's latest gifts to her. Merry with wine, they would immediately retreat to their chamber. While Wintrow suspected this was a deliberate ploy to make Vivacia both curious and jealous, he did not speak of it to her. She would not have tolerated hearing it from him.

  Between piracies, the life of the pirates was almost indolent. Kennit still kept his crew occupied, but he fed them well from the plundered vessels, and gave them time for both gaming and music. He included Wintrow in these pursuits, often summoning him to his cabin. Not for Kennit simple games of dice or cards. He challenged Wintrow to games of strategy, not chance. Wintrow had the uneasy feeling that the pirate was evaluating him. Often, before the long afternoons were over, the game would lie forgotten between them while Kennit quizzed him on the philosophy of Sa. The second ship they had raided had been carrying a good store of books. Kennit was a voracious reader and shared his trove with Wintrow. Wintrow could not deny these interludes were pleasant ones. Sometimes Etta would sit in on both the game and the discussion. Wintrow had come to respect her lively intelligence, which was at least the match of Kennit's, though less schooled. She kept up well with both of them as long as they were speaking in generalities; it was only when they discussed the views of particular philosophers that she would grow first taciturn, and then withdrawn. One afternoon when Wintrow deliberately made an effort to include her, he stumbled onto her deficiency. He attempted to pass the book they were discussing to her. She would not accept it from his hands.

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  “I can't read it, so don't bother,” she had declared angrily. She had been perched on a bench behind Kennit, gently massaging his shoulders as they talked. Now she abruptly stood and walked to the door of the chamber. Her hand was on the latch when Kennit's voice stopped her.

  “Etta. Come back here. ”

  She turned to face him. For the first time since he had met her, Wintrow saw a flash of defiance in her eyes as she looked at Kennit. “Why?” she challenged him. “So I can see all the more clearly how ignorant I am?”

 
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