The mad ship, p.58
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       The Mad Ship, p.58

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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  As they did?

  It wasn't until Brashen leaned over the railing and spoke to him that he realized how close they had come. He had been so aware of them he hadn't noticed the physical distance closing. Well, he wasn't about to answer them.

  Then Althea leaned on the railing also. The feelings flowed through him. From Brashen to Althea, from Althea to Brashen, it included him. The pride in Brashen's voice was not feigned. “Captain Brashen Trell, of the liveship Paragon. ” The words thrummed through the ship. Brashen spoke with more than pride. With fondness. Possession. Brashen had longed to claim him. Not just for this rescue, not because he was cheap and available. He wanted to be captain of the liveship Paragon. In wonder, he sensed Althea echoing his feelings. They both truly felt that he was where he belonged.

  Something long closed in Paragon opened. A tiny spark of self-worth suddenly burned in his darkness. “Don't bet on it, Vestrit,” he said quietly. He grinned as he felt them both start and then lean over the railing to try to see his face. His arms were still crossed on his chest, but he sank his bearded chin onto his chest in self-satisfaction. “You may think you and Vivacia can show us up. But Trell and I, we still have a lot to reveal. You haven't seen the half of us yet. ”

  CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX - Compromises

  “I THINK IT'S PERFECT. ” KEFFRIA COULD NOT KEEP THE SATISFACTION OUT of her voice.

  “It's lovely,” Rache echoed the sentiment. “But turn about just one more time for us. A little faster, so the skirts lift just slightly with the motion. I want to be sure the hem is perfectly even before we do the final stitching. ”

  Malta lifted her arms carefully to avoid the pins and turned on her stockinged feet. All about them on the floor was the litter of the gown's making. Older dresses had been robbed of lace. The bright panels of fabric set into the lavish sleeves of the dress had once been the skirts of another dress.

  “Ah! Like a lily floating on water, when a summer breeze ripples it. You could not be more beautiful. ” Rache was triumphant.

  “Unless she smiled,” Selden pointed out quietly. He sat on the floor in the corner of the room, his counters spread on the floor before him. Malta had been watching him. He was building castles with them, not working his problems. She was too dispirited to point out his idleness to their mother.

  “Your little brother is right, Malta. The gown cannot brighten your face as a smile can. What is wrong? Are you still wishing we had had a fashionable seamstress do this?”

  Of course she was! How could her mother even ask such a question? For years, she and Delo had talked of their first Summer Ball as young ladies. They'd drawn pictures of their elaborate gowns, discussed trims and seamstresses and slippers. Never again would the eyes of Bingtown fall so attentively upon them. All would see her dressed in a home-stitched dress with made-over slippers. Every waking moment of summer, she had spent longing for a miracle. It was useless even to speak of how she felt. She didn't want her mother to weep again, or her grandmother to tell her she should take pride in the sacrifices she'd made. This was the best they could do for her. What good would it do to speak of her disappointment?

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  “It is hard to smile these days, Mother. ” She took a breath. “I had always thought I would walk into the Summer Ball on my father's arm. ”

  “As did I,” Keffria Vestrit replied quietly. “It breaks my heart that you cannot have that, Malta. I still remember my first Summer Ball in a woman's gown. When they announced me, I was so nervous I thought I couldn't stand. Then Papa picked up my hand and set it on his arm. And we walked in together . . . he was so proud of me. ” Her voice choked suddenly. She blinked rapidly. “Wherever your father is, my dear, I am sure he is thinking of you as you are of him. ”

  “Sometimes it feels wrong to be thinking of the summer parties after the great ball, worrying about dresses and fans and headpieces while he is a prisoner in the Pirate Isles. ” Malta paused. “Perhaps we should put this off one more year. Perhaps by then, he would be home. ”

  “It's a little late now to be considering that,” Grandmother put in from her chair. She was sitting in the light from the window, trying to fashion a fan from the leftover fabric. “I used to know how to do this,” she muttered crossly to herself. “My fingers just aren't as nimble at this as they used to be. ”

  “I'm afraid your grandmother is right, dear. ” Her mother fussed with the lace at her cuffs. “Everyone is expecting us to present you. And it would make our situation with the Khuprus family even more difficult. ”

  “I don't think I like him anymore anyway. If Reyn were truly interested in me, he would have come to see me again. ” She twisted her head to look at her mother just as Rache tried to set her headdress in place. “Have you heard no more from his mother?” Rache seized her chin, straightened her head, and pinned the headdress in place.

  Keffria frowned at it. “It's too big. It overpowers her face. We need to make it more delicate. Take it off, we'll try again. ” As Rache unpinned it, Keffria asked, “What more could she write to us? She sympathizes with our plight. They pray your father will return safely to us. Reyn looks forward eagerly to the Summer Ball. ” Keffria sighed and added, “And she suggested, very delicately, that two weeks after the ball, we might discuss the payment on our debt. ”

  “Translation: she wants to see how Malta and Reyn get along at the ball,” Grandmother put in sourly. She squinted at the pretty work in her hands. “They have to consider appearances just as much as we do, Malta. For Reyn to call on you too often before you are even presented would be seen as unseemly haste. Besides, it is a substantial journey from the Rain Wilds to Bingtown, not to be undertaken lightly. ”

  Malta gave a small sigh. So she had told herself, often enough. But it seemed to her more likely that Reyn had simply decided she wasn't worth the nuisance of courting her. Perhaps the dragon had had something to do with it. She had dreamed of the dragon often since then, and the dreams ried from disturbing to frightening. Sometimes the dragon spoke of Reyn. She said that Malta was foolish to wait for him. He would not come to help her. Her only possible hope was to somehow come to the dragon and free her. Over and over, Malta had tried to tell her that was impossible. “When you say that,” the dragon had mocked her, “You are saying, really, that it is impossible for you to rescue your father. Is that what you truly believe?” That question always left her speechless.

  It did not mean she had given up. She had learned a great deal about men lately. It seemed to her that when she needed their strength or power most, they abandoned her. Both Cerwin and Reyn had vanished when she asked them for something more substantial than trinkets or sweets. Reluctantly she acknowledged a second thought. Just when she needed her own father's strength and power, he had sailed out of her life. And disappeared. It wasn't his fault. She knew that. It didn't change what she had learned. You couldn't depend on men, even powerful men, even when they truly loved you. To save her father, she was going to have to gather power to herself, and then use it.

  Afterwards, she would keep it.

  A thought occurred to her. “Mother. Father will not be here to escort me into the Summer Ball. Who will?”

  “Well. ” She looked uncomfortable. “Davad Restart has offered, of course. He would be honored; I suppose he feels we owe him something for negotiating for the Paragon . . . ” Her voice died away apologetically.

  Rache gave a small snort of contempt. She ripped the seams out of the headdress as if it were Davad's face she tore apart.

  “We owe him nothing,” Ronica Vestrit said firmly. She lifted her eyes from her stitching to regard her granddaughter. “You have no obligation to him, Malta. None. ”

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  “Then . . . if my Papa cannot be there . . . I should like to walk in by myself. ”

  Keffria looked troubled. “My dear, I am not sure if that would be proper. ”

  “
Proper or not, it is fitting. Let her do it. ”

  Malta looked in astonishment at her grandmother. Ronica returned the look almost defiantly. “Bingtown has left us to stand or fall on our own. Let them see that we stand, even to our youngest daughter. ” Her eyes locked with Malta's and something almost like understanding passed between them. “Let the Rain Wilds know it as well,” Ronica added quietly.

  ALTHEA STRODE DOWN THE DOCKS ON THE WEST WALL OF THE HARBOR. AT every third or fourth step, her skirts hobbled her. She would slow for a pace or two, then forget herself and step out again. Out on the beach, she had become accustomed to the luxury of trousers. Now that Paragon was tied up in town at the liveship dock, she had to make more of an effort to conform, but this was a compromise that suited no one. Her coarse cotton work-skirt scandalized Keffria and was still too confining to suit Althea. She longed to be out to sea, where she vowed she would dress as she pleased.

  “Althea!” boomed Kendry. She halted in her tracks to turn to the liveship with a grin.

  “Good morning!” She waved up at him. He was riding high today, but by sundown, he'd be heavy with cargo to take upriver. Barrows of melons were being trundled aboard him as they spoke. There was little arable soil up the Rain Wild River. Most of the foodstuffs had to be brought in. Kendry made it his regular run. He trafficked in little besides food supplies and Rain Wild goods.

  “Good morning, yourself, young lady!” The figurehead put his fists on the sides of his ship as if they were his hips. He looked down in mock disapproval. “You looked so like a scrub girl, I almost didn't know you. ”

  She grinned up at his good-natured teasing. “Well, you know yourself, it takes more than one scrub girl to keep a liveship clean. I'll be all over grease and tar before the day is out. Then we'll see if you recognize me more easily. ”

  The Kendry had been carved as a handsome young man. His affable grin and wide blue eyes made him a favorite on the liveship dock. Althea was long accustomed to his casual ways with her. “It'll take a rough scrubbing to get that off before the Summer Ball,” he suggested wryly.

  That was a more sobering topic. After much argument with her mother and sister, she had won her way. “I won't be going to the Summer Ball, Kendry. We hope to set sail before then. Besides, even if I went, who would dance with a scrub girl?” She tried to lighten her words with a smile.

  He glanced about and then dropped her a slow wink. “I know a sailor who might not be dismayed at such an idea. ” He lowered his voice. “I'd be happy to take a message to Trehaug with me, if you'd care to send one. ”

  So. Grag Tenira was still holed up in the Rain Wild city. She started to shake her head, then reconsidered. “I might send a note, if you didn't mind taking it. ”

  “Always happy to do a favor for a friend. ” He jerked his head down the dock. In a more confidential tone he asked, “And how is our other friend doing?”

  Althea suppressed annoyance. “As well as can be expected. He has his difficulties. He was very isolated and neglected for a long time, you know. And we've put him through a lot in a very short time. New rigging, new crew, not to mention that he has no true family member aboard. ”

  Kendry shrugged his bare, broad shoulders. “Well, if he hadn't killed so many of them, there might be a few more Ludlucks to go around. ” He laughed at Althea's scowl. “Just telling you how I see it, girl. Don't scrunch your face up at me. There isn't a ship in this harbor that doesn't feel he brought much of his troubles down on himself. That does not mean we do not wish him well. I would like nothing better than to see him straighten up and redeem himself. But,” he admonished her with a lifted forefinger, “I don't think he's worth a lady taking big chances. If things don't feel right by your sailing date, you let him go without you. ” He leaned back against his ship like a boy leaning on a sunny wall. “Maybe you'd like to take a trip up the river with me instead? Bet I could get my captain to let you ride free. ”

  “I'll bet you could, and I thank you for the offer. But when Paragon sails, I'm aboard him. After all, it's my family liveship that we're going after. Besides, I believe he'll do just fine. ” She glanced up at the sun. “I've got to hurry, Kendry. Take care of yourself. ”

  “Well, little one, you take care of yourself. Mind what you said. Don't take too long about that note. I plan to be away from this dock before noon tomorrow. ”

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  She turned and waved gaily as she walked away from him. She told herself they meant well, all the people who wished her success and then warned her about Paragon. Even Trell. Sometimes she had to work to remember that.

  The work had gone better than anyone had expected it to. Their small budget had been supplemented by Amber's mysterious influence. No less an artisan than Nole Plate had come down to volunteer his services in setting up the canvas for the new rigging. Althea couldn't imagine what Amber knew about Nole that had prompted the stingy old man to be so suddenly generous with his time. Some nasty little secret, she didn't doubt. Yesterday, a score casks of ship's biscuit had been donated by a well-wisher who insisted on remaining anonymous. Althea suspected Amber's hand there, as well.

  But the most useful had been Amber's slave recruits who quietly arrived in the dark of night, after Brashen had sent home the regular workers, to slip aboard Paragon and toil until dawn almost grayed the skies. Then they would disperse as swiftly as they had arrived. They spoke little and worked hard. Every face was tattooed. She hated to think what risks they took to slip away from their masters each night. Althea suspected that when they sailed, most of the night crew would be belowdecks. They'd fill out the hired crew as fighters and seamen. How this had been arranged, she didn't want to know. Brashen had tried to take her into his confidence about it one afternoon. She had lifted her hands to her ears. “A secret is kept best by one,” she reminded him.

  He had looked pleased.

  That thought brought a smile to her own face. She shook her head at herself. Why should she care if he were pleased with her or not? He'd made very little effort to please her with his latest decision. It should have been a monumental argument, but damn Brashen had insisted on remembering his privileges as captain.

  At least he had summoned her into the captain's quarters before breaking the news to her. No one would see her angry face, but the missing window meant that any passerby might hear raised voices. Brashen had sat nonchalantly at the newly refinished chart table. He was studying a handful of canvas scraps he'd taken from a bag.

  “I did as was my right. I hired my own first mate. ” He had cocked his head at her maddeningly. “Wouldn't you have done the same in my position?”

  “Yes,” she had hissed. “But I'd have hired you, damn you. I thought that was the agreement. ”

  “No,” he replied thoughtfully. He set a scrap of canvas down on the table, pushed at it thoughtfully, then seemed to decide the sketch on it was upside down. “There was no agreement about that. Save that you would sail with me . . . with the Paragon when he sailed. We made no other agreement. As you might recall, I suggested some time ago that you not work alongside the men, in light of the type of men I'd have to hire. ”

  She had made a small sound of disgust. Some of them barely merited the title of men. She took a breath to speak, but he held up a hand.

  “Any other ship, any other crew, you would have been first for me. You know that. But this crew will need a whip hand. Sweet reason will not sway many of these men. The real threat of a physical thrashing may. ”

  “I could hold my own,” she lied gamely.

  He shook his head. “You're not big enough. They wouldn't respect you until after they'd challenged you and had it proven to them. Even if you won, it would be more violence on the Paragon than I am willing to risk. If you lost-” He didn't go into the consequences of that. “So I've hired a man who is big enough and strong enough that most of the men won't want to challenge him. Those that do will certainly lose
. I've hired Lavoy. He is a brute, and that's one of the kinder things we can say about him. He's also a damn fine sailor. If it weren't for his temperament, he'd have risen to command years ago. I told him that I was giving him a chance on the Paragon. If he proves out here, all of Bingtown will know that he could be mate anywhere. He's hungry for this chance, Althea. The opportunity is what hired him; the coin I could offer was no better than he might get as a bully mate on a larger vessel. He wants to prove himself, but I suspect he doesn't have it in him. That's where you come in. I'm captain. He's the first. You will be second. We'll pin his authority between ours. Not undercut it, but moderate. Do you take my drift?”

  “I suppose,” she replied grudgingly. She saw the logic of it, but it still rubbed her raw. “Second, then,” she conceded.

  “There's something else. Something you'll like just as little,” he warned her.

  “And that is?”

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  “Amber has bought her right to be aboard. She's put more coin and time into this than any other sailor aboard, and I include us both in that. I don't know what sort of a sailor she'll make; she's told me she has little taste for traveling by ship. She's proven herself a fine carpenter, in matters both great and small. So that will be her capacity aboard the vessel. She'll bunk in with you. ”

  Althea gave a groan of protest.

  “And Jek,” he added remorselessly. “She wanted to come along, she has good sea time from the Six Duchies, and she was willing to hire on cheap, 'for the dare of it' as she told me. You've seen her up the rigging when we strung it. She's nimble and fearless. I'd be a fool to refuse such a hand. I'd also be a fool to house her in with the dock scrapings we've taken on as crew. There's at least one who's been branded as a rapist, and another that even I won't turn my back on. ” He shrugged. “She'll bunk in with you and Amber. I'll put you on different watches, so you shouldn't be too crowded to sleep. ”

 
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