The mad ship, p.53
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       The Mad Ship, p.53
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         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  Kennit's boot had no sooner touched the deck of the Vivacia than the ship called out to him. “Kennit! Captain Kennit!” Her voice boomed in assertive command. There was a note in it that Wintrow had never heard. Kennit grinned in hard satisfaction. “Get the slaves settled and cut that hulk loose!” he ordered brusquely. He glanced at Wintrow and Etta. “See that they are made as clean as possible. Keep them aft. ” He turned and hastened away from them and toward the figurehead.

  “He wants to be alone with her. ” Etta stated it as blunt fact. Jealousy flamed in her eyes.

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  Wintrow looked down at the deck to keep her from seeing the same thing in his face.

  "FOR A MAN IN HIDING, YOU LIVE IN STYLE, ALTHEA OBSERVED, SMILING.

  Grag grinned, well pleased with himself. He leaned back in the small chair he was perched in, rocking it back on two legs. He reached overhead to bat casually at a cut-tin lantern that hung from the tree branch above him. “What is life, without style?” he asked rhetorically. They both laughed aloud easily.

  The swinging lantern scattered light around them dizzily. Patterned candlelight danced in the darkness of his eyes. He wore a dark shirt, open at the throat, and loose white trousers. When he moved his head, the light gleamed warmly on his gold earring. The summer sun had bronzed him; his coloring made him seem a part of the forest evening. When his teeth flashed white in a smile, he seemed the easy-going sailor lad from Rinstin. He looked about the clearing in front of the cottage and sighed peacefully.

  “I hadn't been up here in years. When I was a little boy, before I began sailing with Da, Mother used to bring us all up here for the hottest part of the summer. ”

  Althea glanced about the little garden. The house was little more than a cottage, with the forest encroaching almost to the door. “Is it cooler up here in the summer?”

  “A bit. Not much. But you know how Bingtown can stink in the summer. We were up here the year the Blood Plague first struck. None of us got it. Mother always believed it was because we avoided the evil humors of the city that summer. After that, she insisted on bringing us here every year. ”

  They both fell silent for a time, listening. She imagined this cabin and garden as a lively place, inhabited by a woman and her children. Not for the first time, Althea wondered how her life would have been different if her brothers had survived the Blood Plague. Would her father have taken her on the ship? Would she be married by now, with children of her own?

  “What are you thinking?” Grag asked her gently. He let his chair drop forward, then leaned his elbows on the table. He rested his chin in his hands and regarded her fondly. A bottle of wine, two glasses and the remains of a cold supper cluttered the table. Althea had brought the food up with her. The note that had come to the house had actually been from Grag's mother to hers. It had begged her mother's pardon, then asked if it would be possible for Althea to run a discreet errand for the Tenira family. Keffria had raised her eyebrows, but perhaps her mother had decided that Althea had no reputation left to protect. She had returned a note granting her leave.

  A horse had been waiting for her in a Bingtown stable. Althea had set out with no clear knowledge of her destination. As she passed a small tavern on the outskirts of Bingtown, a loiterer had hailed her and pressed a note into her hand. The note directed her to an inn, where she half expected to find Grag. Instead, when she arrived there, she was offered a fresh horse and a man's hooded cloak. The mount that awaited her had laden saddle packs. Still another note accompanied him.

  There had been an air of both mystery and adventure to tracking Grag down, but never did Althea forget that it was serious as well. In the days since Ophelia had defied the Satrap's tariff minister, Bingtown had grown more divided. The liveship's swift departure from the harbor had been a wise decision, for three new Chalcedean patrol vessels had arrived shortly thereafter. This “timely” arrival had sparked suspicions that the tariff ministry had closer ties to Chalced than perhaps even Jamaillia knew. Someone had broken into the minister's quarters, and messily killed a cote of homing pigeons there. The tariff warehouses that had survived the Council night fires had been torched twice since then. This had led to the Chalcedean mercenaries guarding the minister's quarters by night as well as ostensibly patrolling the harbor and adjacent waters. Some of those Old Traders who had initially been more conservative were now more sympathetic to those who quietly spoke of independence from Jamaillia.

  Grag Tenira had become a focus for the tariff minister's grievances with the town. There was a large price on his head. Brashen's suggestion that Althea could sell Grag for enough money to re-launch Paragon had been a jest, but not an exaggeration. If Grag did not put himself out of harm's reach soon, even those loyal to him might be tempted by the soaring bounty.

  So now, as she sat in the summer evening's mellow breeze and looked across at him, she felt a sense of foreboding. Grag had to act and soon. She had spoken to him of it before, and now she ventured, “I still do not understand why you linger near Bingtown. Surely, you could slip out of town on one of the liveships. I am only amazed that the Satrap's agents have not deduced that you would be here. It is well known that your family has a cabin in the Sanger Forest. ”

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  “So well known that they have been here twice and searched it. They may come again. But if they do, they will find it as empty and abandoned as the last times. ”

  “How?” Althea was intrigued.

  Grag laughed, but not lightly. “My great uncle was not the most moral of men. The family rumor is that he kept many a tryst up here. That is why there is not only a wine cellar concealed behind a false wall in the root cellar, but a tiny chamber behind that. And there is a very expensive sympathy bell, with its partner installed in the foot bridge you crossed. ”

  “I heard nothing when I crossed the bridge,” Althea protested.

  “Of course not. It's a tiny one, but very sensitive. When your passage rang it there, its partner answered up here. Thank Sa for the magic of the Rain Wilds. ”

  He lifted his glass in a toast to their Rain Wild brethren, and Althea drank with him. She set her glass down and dragged him back to her topic. “Then you intend to remain here?”

  He shook his head. “No. It would only be a matter of time before they caught me. Supplies must be brought up. The folk in this area know that I am here. Many of them are Three Ships families. Good people, but not rich. Eventually, one would give in to temptation. No, I am leaving and very soon. That is why I begged my mother to arrange this visit. I feared your family would forbid it; I knew it was not proper for me to seek to see you alone in these circumstances. Desperate times beget desperate measures. ” He looked apologetic.

  Althea gave a soft snort of amusement. “I don't think Mother gave it that much thought. I'm afraid my childhood reputation as a rebellious hoyden has followed me into adulthood. What would be scandalous for my sister to do is ordinary behavior for me. ”

  He reached across the table to put his hand over hers. He pressed it warmly, then possessed it. “Is it wrong for me to say that I am glad it is so? Otherwise, I would never have come to know you well enough to love you. ”

  The bald admission left her speechless. She tried to move her mouth to say she loved him too, but the lie would not come. Odd. She had not known it would be a lie until she tried to speak the words. She took a breath to say something true: that she had come to care for him as well, or that she was honored by his words, but with a shake of his head, he cut her off.

  “Don't speak. You don't have to say it, Althea. I know you don't love me, not yet. In many ways, your heart is even more cautious than mine is. I knew that from the beginning. Even if I had not, Ophelia was at great pains to tell me so when she was instructing me in how to woo you. ” He laughed self deprecatingly. “Not that I sought her advice. In many ways, she is a second mother to me. She does not wait for
me to ask for her advice. ”

  She smiled gratefully. “I find no fault with you, Grag. There is nothing you have done to turn back my feelings. My life has given me no time, of late, to dwell on hopes or dreams for myself. My family's problems weigh heavily on me. Lacking grown men in our line, the duty falls squarely on me. No one else can go after the Vivacia. ”

  “So you have told me,” Grag conceded, in a voice that did not concede complete agreement. “I have given up the hope that you might go with me now. I suppose that even in times such as these, that would be seen as too hasty a wedding to be seemly. ” He turned her hand over in his and brushed his thumb over her palm. It sent a shiver of pleasure up her arm. He looked down at her hand as he asked, “But what of later? Better times will come . . . ” He considered his own words and then gave a bitter laugh. “Or worse ones, perhaps. I would like to tell myself that in time, you will stand beside me and join my family. Althea. Will you marry me?”

  She closed her eyes and knew a moment of pain. This was a good man, an honest and upright man, handsome, desirable, even wealthy. “I don't know,” she told him quietly. “I try to look ahead, and imagine a time when my life will be my own, to arrange as I will, but I cannot see that far. If all goes well, and we win the Vivacia back, then I will still challenge Kyle for possession of her. If I win her, then I will sail her. ” She met his eyes honestly. “We have spoken of this before. I know you cannot leave Ophelia. If once more I possess Vivacia, I will not leave her. Where does that leave us?”

  His mouth twisted wryly. “You make it hard for me to wish you success, for if you win all you desire, I lose you. ” At the dawn of her frown, he laughed aloud. “But you know I do. Nevertheless, if you do not succeed . . . well, I will be waiting for you. With Ophelia. ”

  She lowered her eyes and nodded to his offer, but in her heart she felt a small chill. What would it be to fail? A lifetime ahead with no ship of her own. The Vivacia gone forever from her life. Grag's wife, aboard his ship as a passenger, minding her little ones lest they fall overboard. Seeing her sons grow up and sail away with their father while she stayed home and ran a household and married off her daughters. The future suddenly seemed a tightening net, webbing her in. She tried to breathe, tried to convince herself that her life would not be like that. Grag knew her. He knew her heart was at sea, not at home. But, just as he accepted her duty to her family now, once they were married he would expect her to do her duty to him. Why else did sailors take wives, save to have someone at home to mind the house and raise the children?

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  “I can't be your wife. ” Incredulously, she heard her say the words aloud. She forced herself to meet his eyes. “That is what truly keeps me from loving you, Grag. Knowing that that would be the price I must pay. I could love you, easily, but I could not live in your shadow. ”

  “In my shadow?” he asked in confusion. “Althea, I don't understand. You would be my wife, honored by my family, the mother of the Tenira heir. ” There was genuine hurt in his voice. He groped for words. “More than that, I could not offer. It is all and everything I have to offer any woman I marry. That and myself. ” His voice sank to a whisper. “I had hoped it would be enough to win you. ” Slowly he opened his hand. It was as if he released a bird.

  Reluctantly she drew her hand back. “Grag. No man could offer me more than that, or better. ”

  “Not even Brashen Trell?” he asked roughly. His voice thickened on the words.

  A terrible coldness welled up inside her. He knew. He knew she had bedded with Trell. She was glad she was sitting down. She tried to control her face even as she fought the roaring in her ears. Sa, she was going to faint! This was ridiculous. She could not grasp the extent of her reaction to his words.

  He stood suddenly, and walked a short distance away from the table. He stared off into the night forest. “So. You love him, then?” His words were almost accusatory.

  Guilt and shame had dried her mouth. “I don't know,” she managed hoarsely. She tried to clear her throat. “It was just something that happened between us. We'd both been drinking, and the beer was drugged and . . . ”

  “I know all that. ” He dismissed it brusquely. He still did not look at her. “Ophelia told me all that, when she warned me. I didn't want to believe her. ”

  Althea lowered her face into her hands. Warned him. The sudden gaping loss gutted her. She suddenly doubted that Ophelia had even liked her. “How long have you known?” she managed to ask.

  He sighed heavily. “The night she urged me to kiss you, and I did . . . she told me later. I suppose she felt, oh, I don't know, guilty. Afraid that I might get hurt, if I fell too deeply in love with you, and then found out you weren't . . . what I expected. ”

  “Why didn't you tell me before this?”

  She lifted her head to see his lopsided shrug. “I thought it wouldn't matter. It bothered me, of course. I wanted to kill the bastard. Of all the low things to do . . . but then Ophelia told me that you might have feelings for him. Might even be a bit in love with him?” It was a halfhearted question.

  “I don't think I am,” she said in a low voice. The ambivalence in her own voice surprised her.

  “That's twice,” Grag observed bitterly. “You know you don't love me. But you aren't sure about him. ”

  “I've known him a long time,” she said lamely. She wanted to say she didn't love him. But how could you know someone that long, be friends with someone that long, and not feel some kind of love for him? It was not that different from her relationship with Davad Restart. She could despise the Trader's actions, and still recall a kindly, avuncular bumbler. “For years, Trell was a friend and a shipmate. And what happened between us doesn't change those years. I . . . ”

  “I don't understand at all,” Grag said softly. She still heard the undercurrent of anger in his voice. “He dishonored you, Althea. He compromised you. When I found out, I was furious. I wanted to call him out. I was sure you must hate him. I knew he deserved to die. I thought he would never dare return to Bingtown after what he had done. When he did, I wanted to kill him. Only two things held me back. I could not do so without revealing the reason for challenging him. I didn't want to shame you. Then, I heard he had called at your home. I thought, perhaps, he was going to offer to do the honorable thing. If he had and you had refused him . . . Did he offer? Is that what this is about, do you feel some sort of obligation to him?”

  There was desperation in his voice. He was struggling so hard to understand.

  She stood up from the table and went to stand beside him. She, too, looked into the darkened forest. Shadows of twigs and limbs and trunks tangled and obstructed each other. “He didn't rape me,” she said. “That is what I must admit to you. What happened between us was not wise. But it wasn't violent and I was as much to blame as Brashen. ”

  “He's a man. ” Grag spoke the words uncompromisingly. He crossed his arms on his chest. “The blame is his. He should have been protecting you, not taking advantage of your weakness. A man should control his lust. He should have been stronger. ”

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  She felt struck dumb. Was this really how he viewed her? As a weak and helpless creature, to be guided and protected by whatever man happened to be closest to her? Did he honestly believe she could not have stopped Brashen if she had wanted to? She felt first a rift, and then a building anger. She wanted to rip him with words, to force him to see that she controlled her own life. Then, as swiftly as it had come, the anger fled. It was hopeless. She saw her liaison with Brashen as a personal event that had involved only the two of them. Grag viewed it as something that had been done to her, something that must change her forever. It affronted his whole concept of society. Her own shame and guilt had not come from a sense of wrongdoing, but from a fear of what the discovery could do to her family. The two views seemed radically different to her. She knew, with a sudden deep certainty, th
at they could never build anything together. Even if she could have given up her dreams of a ship of her own, even if she had suddenly decided she wanted a home and children to cherish, his image of her as a weak and defenseless woman would always humble her.

  “I should leave now,” she announced abruptly.

  “It's dark,” he protested. “You can't go now!”

  “The inn isn't far, once I'm past the bridge. I'll go slowly. And the horse seems very steady. ”

  Finally, he turned back to look at her. His eyes were wide, his face vulnerable as he pleaded, “Stay. Please. Stay and talk. We can resolve this. ”

  “No, Grag. I don't think we can. ” An hour ago, she would have touched his hand, would have wanted to kiss him good-bye at least. Now she knew she could never get past the barriers between them. “You're a good man. You'll find a woman who is right for you. I wish you all the best. And when next you see Ophelia, give her my best wishes also. ”

  He followed her back into the circle of dancing light from the cut-tin lanterns. She picked up her wine glass and drank the last swallow from it. When she looked around, she realized there was nothing further to do here. She was ready to leave.

  “Althea. ”

  She turned to the bereft tone of his voice. Grag suddenly looked very boyish and young. He met her eyes bravely and did not try to hide his pain. “The offer stands. I'll wait until you come back. Be my wife. I don't care what you've done. I love you. ”

  She searched for true words she could say to him. “You have a kind heart, Grag Tenira,” she said at last. “Farewell. ”

  CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE - Consequences

  SERILLA HAD NOT LEFT THE CAPTAIN'S CABIN SINCE SHE HAD BEEN dragged there. She ran her hands through her bedraggled hair and tried to decide how long that had been. She forced herself to review the events in her mind, but her memories would not stay in proper order. They jumped and jiggled about, the moments of terror and pain leaping up to demand her attention even as she refused to think about them.

  She had fought the sailor sent to bring her. Serilla had wanted to go with dignity, but found she could not. She had held back until he dragged her. When she struck him, he had simply picked her up and slung her over one wide shoulder. He stank. Her efforts to strike and kick him had amused not only him, but also the other members of the crew who had observed her humiliation. Her screams for help had been ignored. Those of the Satrap's party who had witnessed her abduction did nothing. Those who had chanced to see her kept their faces carefully expressionless, turning away from her plight or closing the doors they had peeped out. But Serilla could not forget the expressions on Cosgo and Kekki as they watched her hauled away. Cosgo smiled in smug triumph, whilst Kekki roused from her drugged stupor to watch in fascinated titillation. Her hand had lingered on Cosgo's thigh.

 
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