The mad ship, p.57
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       The Mad Ship, p.57

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  “Cut the weight loose! Let me come upright!” he bellowed angrily.

  “Not yet, lad. Not quite yet. Just a bit more. I've set a buoy, and as soon as we're past it, I'll know your keel will clear. Steady now, steady. ”

  “Let me up!” Paragon shouted, and this time he could not keep a note of fear out of his voice.

  “Soon. Trust me, lad. Just a bit further. ”

  In his years ashore, he had almost become accustomed to his blindness. But it was one thing to lie immobile and see nothing. It was quite another to suddenly be in motion, on the breast of the unpredictable sea once more, and to have no idea where he was or what was near him. A driftwood log could pound against him, an unseen rock could hole him, and he would have no warning until it happened. Why wouldn't they let him come upright?

  “All right, let it go!” Brashen suddenly yelled. The line that had been attached to the counterweight was loosened. Slowly he began to come upright, and then sudden as a cork, the next wave righted him. Amber gave an abrupt yell of surprise, but held on. Cold water suddenly washed against and below him on both sides. For the first time in over thirty years, he stood straight and tall. He flung his arms out and gave a roar of triumph. He heard Amber echo it in a wild laugh even as within him Althea shouted in alarm.

  “Get on those pumps! Now! Brashen, let go the canvas as soon as you can!”

  He heard the thunder of feet and wild shouting, but he didn't care. He wasn't going to sink. He could feel it. He stretched his arms, his back and his shoulders. As the water bore him up, he extended his awareness throughout his body. He could almost feel how his planks and beams should go. He took a deep breath and tried to bring himself into alignment. He listed suddenly to starboard. There was a cry of surprise from Amber and an angry roar from Brashen. He lifted his hands to his temples and squeezed. It was the same old thing: something was wrong inside him. His parts didn't go together right. He shifted again, ignoring the groans and squeaks of his wood as the planks worked against each other. Slowly he began to stabilize. Dimly he was aware of the frantic work going on within him. Men manned his pumps, trying to keep up with the water streaming in through his sprung seams. He felt the sudden press of canvas against his planking. Althea was shouting at the men inside him to hurry, hurry, get that oakum tamped into place. He could feel his wood starting to swell.

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  Abruptly he bumped against something, and Brashen was shouting, throw a line, throw a line and make it fast, you idiot!

  He groped toward the obstacle.

  Amber's comforting voice reached his ears. “It's the barge, Paragon. We're alongside the work barge and they're making you fast to it. You'll be safe here. ”

  Paragon wasn't so sure. He was still taking on water and settling lower. “How deep is it here?” he asked nervously.

  Brashen's jubilant voice sounded as if he were standing alongside Amber. “Deep enough to float you. Not so deep that if you go down we'll lose you. Not that we'd let you go down. We may have to beach you again to work on your port side. For now, don't worry. It's all under control. ” The speed with which he hastened away seemed to belie his words.

  For a time, Paragon listened. There were voices and hurrying footsteps inside him, running feet across his deck. On the barge beside him, the work crew was congratulating one another on their work and speculating on how many repairs he was going to need. However, those were not the things he heard. Instead, he listened to the slap of the waves against his hull and the sound of his wood creaking and settling, even the sounds his hull made rubbing against the bumpers on the barge. Everything was suddenly eerily familiar and yet strange. The smells seemed sharper out here, the cries of the seabirds louder. He rose and fell with the waves. The gentle rocking was soothing, but it was also the stuff of his nightmares. “Well,” he said aloud, but quietly. “I'm afloat again. I guess that makes me a ship and not a hulk. ”

  “I guess,” Amber agreed easily. She had been so still and silent, he had almost forgotten her. Unlike all other people he had ever known, she sometimes became transparent to his senses. He knew, without even reaching, where Brashen and Althea were. A moment's reflection, and he could locate every nameless worker on his deck or in his holds. But Amber was different. She seemed, he thought to himself, more contained and isolated than any other human he had ever known. Sometimes he suspected it was deliberate; that she only shared herself when she chose to, and then only in a limited way. Not unlike myself, he reflected, and then frowned at the thought.

  “Is something wrong?” she asked quickly.

  “Not yet,” he replied in a sour voice.

  She laughed lightly, as if he jested. “So. Are you glad to be a ship again?”

  “Glad or sorry, it makes little difference. You will do with me as you want to, and my feelings about it will not matter to anyone. ” He paused. “I admit, I did not believe you. I did not think I would float again. Not that I particularly wanted to float again. ”

  “Paragon, your feelings matter. Somehow, I do not believe that you truly wanted to remain on that beach forever. You once told me, quite angrily, that you are a ship and a ship is meant to sail. I suspect that even if you do not enjoy this at first, it will be good for you. All living things need to grow. You were not growing, abandoned there on the beach. You were close to giving up and believing yourself a failure. ” Her voice was affectionate. Suddenly he could not stand that. Did they think they could force him to do something, and then pretend it was for his own good?

  He laughed harshly. “On the contrary. I knew I had succeeded. I'd killed them all, every one of them who tried to oppose me. You are the ones who refuse to believe me a success. If you did, you'd have the good sense to fear me. ”

  An instant of horrified silence followed his words. He felt her let go of his railing and stand up straight. “Paragon. When you speak like that, I refuse to stand and listen to you. ” Her voice held no hint of what she was thinking.

  “Oh. I see. Then you are afraid?” he asked her wickedly.

  But she had turned and resolutely walked away. She made no reply at all.

  He didn't care. So he had hurt her feelings. So what? No one cared anything about his feelings. No one ever asked him what he wanted to do.

  “Why're you like that?”

  He had known Clef was there. The boy had come out to the barge with the beach crew. He didn't startle. For a time, he didn't even reply.

  “Why're you like that?” the boy persisted.

  “Like what?” Paragon finally asked in annoyance.

  “Ya'know. Allus mad. Or crazy fightin'. Say'n stuff ta be mean. ”

  “How else do you expect me to be?” Paragon retorted. “Joyous that they've dragged me out here? All excited to go off on a hare-brained rescue mission with them?”

  He felt the boy's shrug. “Ya could be. ”

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  “I could be?” Paragon snorted. “I'd like to know how. ”

  “S'easy. Ya decide t'be. ”

  “You decide to be happy? I should just forget everything that has been done to me, and be happy? Tra-la-la-la? Like that?”

  “Ya could. ” He heard the boy's nails against his scalp. “Lookit me. I coulda hated everyone o' 'em. I decided t'be happy. Decided ta take what I could get. Make a life outer it. ” A pause. “S'not like I'm gonna get another life. Gotta make this'n work. ”

  “It's not that simple,” Paragon snapped.

  “Could be,” Clef insisted. “In't no harder than decidin't'be mad allus. ”

  The boy sauntered away slowly. His bare feet scuffed lightly on the deck. “But it's a lot funner,” he called back over his shoulder.

  WATER STREAMED DOWN THE INSIDE PLANKING. THE CANVAS WAS SUCKED into place and the flow was slowing. The caulkers were working swiftly and efficiently, with more skill than Althea had expected from them. The men on the pumps conc
erned her. They were tiring. She had gone to find Brashen, to ask him if he had replacements for them. She ran into him as he came down a ladder. Behind him were several burly men from the barge. Before she could even speak, he tossed his head at them. “The shore crew is on the barge now. They're to spell your men on the pumps. How are we holding?”

  “We're keeping up with it, and even gaining a little. The wood is swelling fast, but wizardwood does that. If he were any other liveship, I'd say he could apply himself a bit and close up half the leaks. But with Paragon, I fear even to ask him. ” She took a breath, waited until the pump crew was out of earshot, then added very softly, “For fear he would do exactly the opposite. How is he?”

  Brashen scratched at his beard thoughtfully. “I don't know. When we were getting him off the beach, he was yelling out suggestions and commands as if he were eager to be afloat again. But like you, I'm afraid to assume that is so. Sometimes all it takes to plunge him into a foul temper is to assume that he is in a good mood. ”

  “I know what you mean. ” She met his eyes, commiserating. “Brashen, what have we let ourselves in for this time? While he was on the beach, and he was our only hope, it seemed a viable plan. But now that we are out here . . . do you realize how completely we are in his power? He holds our lives in his hands. ”

  For a moment, the sailor looked very tired. His shoulders sank in discouragement. Then he drew in a deep breath. “Don't stop believing in him now, Althea, or we are all lost. Don't show him any sign of fear or doubt. Paragon is more child than man. When I give Clef an order, I don't watch him to see if he'll obey. I'd never let him believe he had more power over me than I had over him. Boys can't deal with that. They'll keep groping for the limits until they find them. They only feel safe when they know where the boundaries are. ”

  She tried to smile at him. “You speak from experience?”

  The smile he returned her was a sickly one. “By the time I found the boundaries, I had fallen off the edge of the world. I won't let that happen to Paragon. ” He stood still for a moment, and she thought he might say more to her. Then he shrugged his shoulders, turned and hastened after the pumpers.

  It reminded her she had work of her own. She moved swiftly through the ship, checking on the workers caulking the hull. Mostly, they were reinforcing and tightening work that had been done while the Paragon was on shore. In a few places, they were even removing oakum to allow the planks to swell shut. Like most Rain Wild ships, Paragon had been well and tightly constructed, his planking designed to withstand the seething water of the Rain Wild River, as well as the vagaries of ocean waves. The workmanship had withstood even the neglect of thirty years. The gray wizardwood planks actually seemed to recall how they had been fitted together. Perhaps, she dared to hope, Paragon was cooperating after all. A liveship could do much to maintain himself, if he chose to do so.

  It seemed strange to move through the ship. It was the first time in all the years she had known him that his decks were level under her feet. Satisfied that her work crew was well occupied, she made a quick tour of the ship. The galley was a mess. The stove had broken loose of its stove-pipe and slid across the small room, trailing soot. Like as not, it would have to be repaired if not replaced. The master stateroom had suffered likewise. Amber's chests of belongings had spilled. A vial of scent had fallen and smashed, leaving the room reeking of lilac. As Althea stood looking about, the future became real to her. Amber would have to move her things out of here, and assume the humbler quarters befitting the ship's carpenter.

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  Then Brashen would move in.

  She had reluctantly accepted that he must captain this ship. She did not agree with any of his arguments. Her reasons were more personal. When they recovered Vivacia, she would need to be able to step off Paragon's deck and assume command there. If she were captain of the Paragon, that would prove very unsettling to a ship that was already flighty. Whoever sailed out as Paragon's captain must stay with him for the return journey. It would have to be Brashen.

  She still felt a twinge of regret as she closed the door on the chamber. Paragon had been built in the old style. The captain's quarters were by far the finest ones on the ship. Amber had done a great deal to restore the lavishly carved cabinet work and window frames. A bit of carpet covered the ill-conceived hatch she had cut between the cabin and the hold. The stained-glass windows had suffered cracks and portions of the glass were missing, but that was a minor detail. Their money would go first to pay for functional repairs.

  She moved on to consider the first mate's cabin. This would be hers. Much smaller than the captain's quarters, it was still palatial in comparison to crew quarters. She had a fixed bunk, a fold-down desk and two cupboards for her possessions. A third chamber, not much bigger than a good-sized closet, was intended for the second mate. Crew quarters were hooks in the forecastle where hammocks could be strung, and little more than that. The older liveships had not taken the crew's comfort into consideration. Cargo space had been their main goal.

  When she went on deck, she found Brashen pacing about. He was restless, and yet triumphant. He turned to her immediately. “We're holding steady. There's still water coming in, but no more than a two-man pump crew can keep up with. I think by tomorrow morning, he'll have tightened up. We've a bit of a list, but proper ballast should handle that. ” There was a light in his face she had not seen since he had sailed on Vivacia under her father. His step was brisk. “Nothing has cracked, nothing sprung. Our luck on this is almost too good to believe. I knew liveships were tough, but this beats all. Any other ship that had been beached for thirty years would be rot and kindling. ”

  His exuberance was contagious. She followed as he strode about the ship, pausing to shake a railing to see how much give it had in it, or open and shut a hatch to see if it was still square. There was still a great deal of work to do on the Paragon, but most of it would be refitting rather than rebuilding. “We'll stay with the barge for a while, to let his wood swell. Then we'll move him to the west wall to finish. ”

  “With the other liveships?” Althea asked uneasily.

  Brashen rounded on her in a manner almost challenging. “Where else? He is a liveship. ”

  She spoke as bluntly. “I fear what they may say to him. That a thoughtless remark may set him off into one of his frenzies. ”

  “Althea, the sooner we start dealing with that, the better. ” He stepped closer to her and for a moment, she thought he would take her arm. Instead, he gestured her to accompany him as he strode forward toward the figurehead. “I think we should plunge him into a normal life. Treat him as we would any liveship, and see how he reacts. The more we tiptoe around him, the more tyrannical he will become. ”

  “Do you really think it will be that simple? Start treating him normally, and he'll start behaving normally?”

  Brashen flung a grin at her. “No. Of course not. But it's where we'll begin and hope for the best. ”

  She found herself grinning back at him. Something in her responded to him on a level her intellect could not reach. She could not reason with the attraction she felt. She only knew it was a pleasure to see him moving and speaking as he once had. The bitter and cynical rogue that Kyle Haven and Torg had created was gone. This was the man who had been her father's first mate.

  She followed him as he sauntered up to the bow railing and leaned over. “Paragon! We've done it, old friend. You're afloat and we're going to make them all sit up and take notice. ”

  The figurehead ignored him. Brashen gave a small shrug and raised an eyebrow at Althea. Not even this could daunt him, it seemed. Leaning back on the railing, he stared off to the forest of masts that was Bingtown Harbor. A faraway look came over his face. “Do you hate me for this?” he asked suddenly.

  For an instant, she thought he addressed the ship. But then he glanced at her quizzically.

  “For what?”

  He turned to
face her and spoke with a bluff honesty she remembered well. “For standing here, as I never believed I would. For standing on my own deck as Captain Brashen Trell of the liveship Paragon. Where I know you'd love to be. ” Despite his efforts at gravity, a smile broke over his face. Something in it brought tears to her eyes. She turned hastily to look out over the water lest he see them. How hungry had he been for this moment, and for how long?

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  “I don't hate you for it,” she said quietly. It was true, she realized. It surprised her that there was not even one splinter of jealousy in her soul. Instead she felt a rising joy at seeing him triumph. She gripped Paragon's railing. “You belong here. So does he. After all these years, he's in good hands. How could I be jealous?” She stole another glance at him. The wind stirred his dark hair. His own chiseled features could have been a figurehead. “I think my father would have slapped you on the back and congratulated you. And warned you, as I do now, that when I have my own Vivacia under me again, you won't hold a candle to us. ” She smiled at him, holding nothing back.

  PARAGON HAD HEARD THEM COMING AND KNEW THEY WERE TALKING about him. Gossip, gossip, gossip. All of them were always like that. They'd always rather talk about him than to him. They thought he was stupid. They probably thought it was no good talking to him about anything. So he didn't feel a bit sneaky about listening in. Now that there was salt water around him again, he could sense them more clearly. It was not only their words that carried more clearly to his ears, but their feelings.

  He lost his irritation in a brief sense of awe. Yes. He could feel them much more clearly now. Almost as clearly as he could have felt one of his own family. He reached toward them very cautiously. He didn't want them to be aware of him. Not just yet.

  Their emotions were strong. Brashen was heady with triumph, and Althea shared it. Something more was there, too. Something else passed between them. He didn't have a word for it. In some ways, it felt like the salt water soaking into his wizardwood planks. Things were resuming their rightful places. Lines that had been skewed were coming back into true. He sensed the same adjustment between Brashen and Althea. The tension between them was one they accepted. It acted as a counter-force to easiness between them. He tried to find a simile for it. Like wind in his sails. Without the force against the canvas, he could not move. It was not a tension to be avoided, but one to be courted.

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