The mad ship, p.59
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       The Mad Ship, p.59

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  “We're going to be stacked like cordwood in there,” Althea complained.

  “Amber is as displeased about it as you are. She claims that some solitary time each day is essential to her. I've told her I'll give her some access to my room when I'm not in it. Same goes for you. ”

  “That'll cause talk amongst the crew. ”

  Brashen had grinned sourly. “Let's just hope that's the most unsettling thing they have to gossip about. ”

  That was a sentiment Althea fervently shared. Even now, as she made her way down the sun-swept dock toward the ship, she prayed for an ordinary day. Let Paragon not be weeping endlessly into his hands, or reciting the same bawdy poem over and over. Some days, when she arrived and he gave her a pleasant good morning, it was like a direct blessing from Sa. Yesterday when she got to the dock, he had been holding a dead flounder some passing wag had given him. For some reason, the dead fish upset him, and yet he would not give it to her or put it down himself. Amber had finally coaxed it away from him. Sometimes she was the only one who could handle him.

  Their total complement of crew members had been hired several days ago, and several times since then. Brashen would find sailors, convince them to sign aboard, and get them moved on, only to have them walk the next day. It wasn't just the bizarre things Paragon said or did. Like the smell of fear-sweat, his madness flavored the air of the ship. Those sensitive enough to feel it without knowing the source suffered nightmares, or sudden panics while working in the holds. Neither Brashen nor Althea tried to force any man to remain aboard. Althea knew it was better to lose them now than to have jittery or frightened men aboard once they set sail. It was still becoming a local joke. The mongrelized crew was unusual enough by Bingtown standards, without men jumping ship in the harbor and spreading rumors of the odd goings-on aboard the ship.

  Today Paragon seemed calm enough. At least, she did not hear him ranting. As she reached his slip, the traffic along the dock seemed normal. “Hey, Paragon,” she greeted him as she passed the figurehead on the way to the gangplank.

  “Hey, yourself,” he replied affably. Amber was sitting on the bow rail swinging her legs. Her freed hair floated on the wind. She had adopted a strange style of dress of late, loose pantaloons and a blouse with a vest. As a foreigner in Bingtown, she could get away with such things. Althea envied her.

  “Any word of the Ringsgold?” Paragon asked as she passed him.

  “Not that I've heard,” she replied. “Why?”

  “There's been talk that he's late returning to Bingtown. The ships that should have seen him, haven't. ”

  Althea's heart sank in her. “Well, a lot of things can delay a ship, even a liveship,” she pointed out jovially.

  “Of course,” Paragon replied. “Pirates. Serpents. Deadly storms. ”

  “Unfavorable winds,” Althea countered. “Delays loading cargo. ”

  He gave a snort of contempt. Amber shrugged her shoulders at Althea. Well, at least he was rational today. Althea continued to the gangplank and came aboard. Lavoy was standing in the center of the deck. His fists were on his hips and he was glaring about with a hard eye. This was the most difficult, grating part.

  “Reporting, sir,” she said stiffly.

  He gave her a fish-eyed look. His gaze traveled up and down her and his mouth twisted in contempt. “So I see,” he said after a moment. “Supplies are coming aboard today. Pick a crew of six men and get below. Stow the goods as they come on. You know how to do that. ” There was just the slightest bit of a question in his voice.

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  “I do,” she said flatly. She wasn't going to recite her credentials for him. She wore her ship's tag from Ophelia at her belt. It would have been good enough for anyone else on the Bingtown dock. She glanced about the deck and chose her hands for the day by jabbing a finger at them. “Haff and you. Jek. Cypros. You and Kert. Come on. ” She was still learning names. It wasn't made any easier by the way hands came and went. She didn't look forward to the task as she led them down to the hold.

  Lavoy was running the shore crew, bringing the supplies on board and passing them down to her gang. It would be her job to load the cargo evenly and well. She suspected he would work his crew as fast and hard as he could to see if hers could keep up. There was always that sort of chivvying between mates on a vessel. Sometimes it was good-natured. This was not.

  The Paragon had proven to be a lively ship on the water. Brashen had been most particular about his ballast, but he still rolled more than Althea liked. How he was loaded was going to be critical, especially if they were under full sail and a wind came up. Althea was divided. She didn't want to be the one responsible for his stability; at the same time, she didn't trust anyone else to do it, save perhaps Brashen. Her father had always been most particular about cargo. Perhaps she'd inherited that tendency.

  Belowdecks, the air was hot and thick with ship smells. Even with the hatches open, the air was still and stagnant. She was grateful it was the smell of new tar and oakum and varnish. Before this voyage was over, the smells of aged bilge water, human sweat and rancid cooking would be added to the bouquet. For now, Paragon actually smelled like a new ship.

  But he wasn't. Throughout him were the small signs of his usage. Initials carved in a bulkhead, old hooks where a hammock or ditty bag had been hung. Some signs were grim. Bloody handprints that suggested someone had crawled while bleeding heavily. A spatter that was obviously from a heavy blow. Wizardwood remembered. She suspected that at one time there had been a massacre on board the ship. That did not fit with Paragon's claims to have killed his crews, but any hint of a question about such things sent him into frenzy. She supposed they would never know the full truth of what he had endured.

  She had been right about Lavoy. A steady stream of supplies soon threatened to overwhelm her work crew. Any fool could bring a box or cask aboard a ship quickly, she told herself. It took someone with some sea sense to know how to stow it all correctly. She worked alongside her crew. As second mate, that was expected of her. She sensed that this was part of the compromise that Brashen had offered. She still believed she could earn the crew's respect as an equal. She would get no better chance than now to prove it. She pushed Jek as hard as she did herself, taking the woman's measure to see if she was all she claimed to be. Jek appeared more at ease working alongside the men than the men did with her, but that was to be expected. Hers was the Six Duchies way. Jek measured up, and her good-natured humor eased the task. She would be a good shipmate. Althea's only concern was that she might become too friendly with the men. She had made no effort to conceal her lively appetites. Althea wondered if it would lead to later problems aboard the ship. Reluctantly, she concluded it was something she would have to bring up to Brashen. He was captain, after all. Let him handle it.

  Light from the open hatches fell in squares down into the massive timbered holds. Once the crates, barrels and casks were loaded down, it was the work of muscles and bones alone to move them. Here Althea's shorter height gave her an odd advantage as she scrabbled over and around their cargo. Crates and bins were lowered down; her crew seized them by hand or snagged them with freight hooks. Container after container was shouldered into place, then blocked and wedged to prevent shifting. As barrel after barrel came down to be stowed, she reminded herself that all too soon they would likely wish they had had more to load aboard. The crew Paragon carried was larger than normal. They'd need enough men to fight and sail the ship at the same time. With no definite port in their plans, and no chance to re-provision, they'd load the ship as full as they could afford now. Far better to have too much than too little.

  She watched her crew as she worked alongside them, quickly learning who worked well and who did as little as possible. Cypros and Kert did a fair share, but required direction. Jek was a jewel, putting her back into what she did and looking ahead to foresee possible difficulties. Semoy, an older man with a drink-redd
ened nose, was already pleading that a sore shoulder was troubling him. If he couldn't keep up, it was better he was off the vessel before they sailed. Of the two others, Haff was a loudmouth youngster who made no secret of his disdain for Althea's commands while Lop, a skinny man of middle years, was willing but stupid. She preferred his stupidity to Haffs near-insubordination. Soon, she knew, she would have to hash things out with Haff. She didn't look forward to it. He was larger than she was, and well-muscled. She told herself that if she handled herself correctly, it would never become a physical confrontation. She prayed to Sa she was correct.

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  Lavoy came down twice that morning, to inspect her work. Each time he complained about small issues. Each time she gritted her teeth and shifted the load to suit him. He was first mate, she reminded herself. If she ignored him, it would undermine his authority with the crew. The fourth time he came down the ladder, she thought she was going to grind her molars flat. Instead he looked around, and gave a grudging nod to her work. “Carry on. ” That was all the encouragement he offered, but she actually felt complimented by it. So he felt the need to try her mettle. He wouldn't find her slack nor insubordinate. She had agreed to this with Brashen; she'd keep her word to him.

  It still made for a long day. By the time her watch was over and she emerged onto the deck, the sunny afternoon felt open and fresh. She plucked her sweat-soaked shirt free of her body and lifted her braided hair from the back of her neck. She went forward to look for Amber.

  She found the ship's carpenter engaged in conversation with Brashen. She held the ends of two coils of line in her gloved hands. Althea watched silently as she awkwardly put a double sheet bend into the lines. Brashen took it from her, shook his head, undid it and tossed it back. “Do it again. Keep doing it until you can tie it with your eyes shut. If we're ever so hard-pressed that I haul you out on deck, it's likely to be in bad weather. ”

  “That's reassuring,” Amber muttered quietly, but did as he bade her. Althea marveled at how swiftly the woman adapted herself. With all of them, Brashen was quietly asserting his new status as captain of the vessel. Althea was accustomed to such a shifting of roles. She'd seen it before, on the Vivacia, when a deckhand rose to mate status and suddenly had to change his relationship with his fellows. She knew that sometimes it could be bloody, though she had never seen it go that far on Vivacia. She was willing to cede to Brashen both the distance and the respect he needed to function as captain. That distance might make it easier for both of them.

  So she schooled her tongue to respect as she said, “Sir, I've a concern about the crew. ”

  He gave her his full attention. “And that is?”

  She took a breath, then plunged in. “Jek is a bit too friendly with the other hands. It may lead to problems later. While we are in port, it is one situation. Out on the open water, it may become something else. ”

  He nodded. “I know. I've given it some thought. Most of these men have never sailed with women aboard, save for perhaps a captain's wife. I intend to gather the whole crew and speak plainly. The message will be, it won't be tolerated on board the vessel. ”

  Amber had followed the exchange with raised eyebrows.

  For the first time, Paragon spoke. “What won't be tolerated?” he asked curiously.

  Althea managed not to smile. Brashen took the question seriously. “I won't tolerate any relationship between hands that affects the operation of this vessel. ”

  Jek had approached as they were speaking. She raised one eyebrow, but kept her silence until Brashen acknowledged her. “Jek. Is there a problem?”

  She had heard what they were discussing. She didn't pretend otherwise. “No, sir. Nor do I expect there to be one. I've sailed before, with mixed crews. If you don't mind my saying so, I know how to handle myself in close quarters. ”

  Probably only Althea could tell that Brashen fought to keep from smiling. “I don't doubt that you do, Jek. My concern is mostly for the men who don't know how to govern themselves. ”

  Jek didn't smile. “I'm sure they'll learn, sir. ”

  Surprising them all, Paragon added, “Let's hope the lesson is not too painful for anyone. ”

  “HE HAS SPENT THE PAST THREE DAYS ON IT. ALL I'M SAYING IS THAT IF IT'S something of value, he should know it by now. And if it isn't, there are other places I'd like to put him to work. Places that, in my opinion, show a lot more promise than that little cell. ” Bendir put down his pipe. “That's all I'm saying,” he repeated defiantly. He cast an exasperated look at his younger brother. Reyn sat across the polished wood table. He looked harried and pale. His shirt was rumpled as if he had slept in it.

  “You said much the same thing when I insisted I needed more time to puzzle out the flame jewels,” Reyn retorted. “If you had listened to me then, far fewer of them would have been damaged in recovery. Some things don't happen overnight, Bendir. ”

  “Such as your growing up, for instance,” Bendir grumped to himself. He examined the bowl of his pipe. It had gone out. He set it aside. His embroidered shirt and neatly combed hair contrasted sharply with his younger brother's appearance.

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  “Bendir!” Jani Khuprus instantly rebuked her eldest son. “That is not fair. Reyn has told us that he is having a hard time keeping his mind on this task. We should be understanding, not condemn him for that. As I recall, you were none too focused when you were courting Rorela. ” She smiled fondly at her youngest son.

  “He'd be a lot less distracted if he chose a sensible woman like Rorela, instead of a spoiled Bingtown girl who doesn't even know her own mind,” Bendir retorted. “Look at him. He has the color of a mushroom. It's a wonder he doesn't go about walking into walls. Ever since he began courting this Malta, she has done nothing but torment him. If she can't make up her mind, then . . . ”

  Reyn leaped to his feet. “Shut up!” he told his brother savagely. “You don't know anything at all about what she's going through, so just shut up. ” He snatched up the ancient parchments from the table with a fine disregard for their fragility and stalked off toward the door. Jani gave her elder son an exasperated look. She hastened after Reyn to set a restraining hand on his arm.

  “Please, son. Come back, sit down, and talk with us. I know the strain you are under. And I appreciate how you must share Malta's grief over her missing father. ”

  “Not to mention our missing liveship,” Bendir added under his breath. He had intended that Reyn hear his remark, and his brother took the bait. He spun to face this new provocation.

  “That's all you care about, isn't it?” he accused him. “A good deal. A sharp bargain. You care nothing for what I feel about Malta. You could not even grant me time away from the city and transport to Bingtown last month when she first received her bad news. It's always the same with you, Bendir. Money, money, money. I find these parchments, and I want the time to make sense of them. It is not easy. There are very few written documents from the Elderlings. That makes translating what we do find difficult. I want to discover all of what they can tell us. I hope they may be a clue as to why there are so few written records. They obviously were a literate folk; there should be a wealth of books and scrolls. But where? You care nothing for solving the greater mystery that may be the key to the whole city. To you, these documents only represent one thing. Can we make a profit from what they say? If not, toss them aside and go dig up something else. ” As if to mock Bendir's attitude, he flung the parchments casually onto the table between them. Jani winced as they landed. It would not take much abuse to crumble them into fragments.

  “Please,” she said sharply. “Both of you. Sit down. There are things to discuss. ”

  Grudgingly, they came to the table. Jani seated herself at the head of it, intentionally taking the position of authority. Bendir had become a bit too officious with his younger brother lately. It was time to take her eldest son down a notch or
two. At the same time, she did not want to encourage Reyn in his sullen melancholy. Of late, it seemed that was his only mood. She, for one, was heartily sick of it. She gave them no warning before she attacked.

  She leveled a forefinger at Bendir. “You have no excuse for being jealous of your brother's courtship. When you were first infatuated with Rorela, the entire family was tolerant of your antics. You spent every spare moment you had on her doorstep. I seem to recall that you demanded we redecorate an entire wing of Rooster Hall for her, painting all of it in shades of green because you said it was her favorite color. Nor would you allow me to consult with her as to whether that was truly her wish. Do you recall how she reacted to your 'surprise' for her?”

  Bendir glared. Reyn grinned, an expression she had not seen on his face for some time. She wished she could have let it linger, but one had to strike while the iron was hot.

  “And you have to stop acting like a lovesick boy, Reyn. You're a man. I would have expected this of you had you fallen in love at fourteen, but you are over twenty. You need to practice more restraint in how you display the heart on your sleeve. Your request to dash off to Bingtown, unannounced, at a moment's notice to us, was simply unreasonable. Your sulking since then ill becomes you. You will go downriver shortly, and you will escort your lady to her first Summer Ball. What more can you ask of us?”

  Glints of anger came into his eyes. Good. If she could make them both irritated with her, chances are they would commiserate with each other. So it had always worked when they were boys.

  “What more could I ask of you? I could ask a little understanding of what she is enduring! I wanted to go to her, to lend her and her family what support I could during this crisis. Instead, what have I been allowed? Nothing. You have sent off polite notes of sympathy, and say that letters directly from me to Malta would be precipitate. Mother, I intend to marry her. How can it be precipitate to ask my family to aid hers?”

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