The mad ship, p.60
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       The Mad Ship, p.60

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  "The family's resources are not yours to dispense, Reyn. You have to understand that. In your ardor, you would commit us all, far too deeply. I know it is her father and her family liveship at stake. My heart bleeds for them. It also represents a sizable investment on our part, one that may already be irretrievably lost. Reyn, we cannot throw good money after bad. No. Do not stalk off. Hear me out. What you perceive as cruel is only common sense. Should I allow you and Malta to beggar yourselves in what may be a lost cause? We've all heard tales of this Kennit. My opinion of Kyle Haven, apart from his being Malta's father, is not a high one. This I say only for your ears. He has brought this on himself. I do not say he deserved this, only that he left himself and his family and ship open to this.

  "Nor can I approve of the course the Vestrits have chosen to follow in this 'rescue' attempt. Not even their own friends and neighbors are supporting them in this. It is all very ill-advised: Althea is strong-willed to the point of mulishness, they have this disowned Trader's son at the helm and some foreigner providing money. The ship they are using should never have left the beach again. Paragon is a rebuke to all of us. Our ignorance is our only claim to innocence. He should never have been built from mixed plank, but even so, the Ludlucks have a heavier share of the blame. They loaded him too heavy with cargo on deck and then piled on the sail to make up for it. He was top heavy when he went over.

  “Our greed built that ship too swiftly, and their greed drove him mad. We were both to blame for what he became. Beaching him was the wisest thing that was ever done with him; refitting him has to be the most foolish. ”

  “What other choice did the Vestrit family have?” Reyn asked quietly. “Their fortunes are teetering. They have been most honest with us about that. So they mount what effort they can with the resources they can beg or borrow. ”

  “They could have waited,” Jani declared. “It has not been all that long. Kennit is known for making his victims wait for the ransom offer. It will come. ”

  “No, it won't. By all accounts, the man wanted a liveship, and he took one. Now there is a rumor the Ringsgold has vanished as well. Do you realize how vulnerable that leaves us, Mother? Pirates could come right up the Rain Wild River. We have never planned for such an emergency. We have nothing in place to stop them. I think the Vestrits have taken the only sensible action. That liveship must be recovered, at any cost. They are risking their kin and their family fortune to do so. Ultimately, they do so to protect us. And what do we do? We let them. ”

  “What do you want us to do?” Bendir asked wearily.

  Reyn leaped on this opportunity. “Forgive the liveship debt. Help fund this expedition, at the least. Take action against the Satrap, who has allowed piracy and slavery to flourish and thus precipitated this whole situation. ”

  Bendir was instantly outraged. “Not only do you propose to risk our fortunes along with theirs, but to plunge us into a political whirlpool. This has been discussed in the Rain Wild Traders' circle. Until Bingtown commits to stand beside us, it is too soon to defy the Satrap. I am as sick as you are of his boot upon our neck, but-”

  “But you'll endure it until someone else is ready to take the first risk!” Reyn finished angrily for his brother. “Just as Bingtown is ready to let the Vestrits take the first risk in challenging the pirates, and Tenira stood alone in challenging the tariff. ”

  Jani had not foreseen the conversation venturing into this area, but she leaped at her chance. “In this, I must agree with Reyn. The situation has not improved since I last addressed the Bingtown Traders' Council, but I think the climate of opinion in Bingtown has. From the reports I received of the tariff riot, I think that if the Khuprus family took a stand, others would follow. And I think that stand must be for complete independence. ”

  A profound silence followed her words. After a time, Reyn said in a small voice, “So much for me being the one willing to risk the complete family fortune. ”

  “We risk it more when we do nothing,” Jani declared. “It is time we aligned ourselves with like-minded persons, whether they are from The Wilds or Bingtown. ”

  “Like Grag Tenira?” Reyn asked.

  “I do not think it is coincidence he fled here. The Grove family has been hosting him; they have strong trade ties with the Tenira family. ”

  “And strong sympathy for any who wish to stand against the Satrap,” Reyn added thoughtfully.

  Bendir looked surprised. “When did my little brother become so interested in politics? It seemed to me that we had to drag you to that meeting in Bingtown. ”

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  “It was well that you did. It opened my eyes to many things,” Reyn replied easily. To his mother, he suggested, “We should have Grag Tenira over to dinner. With the Groves, of course. ”

  “I think that would be a wise course. ” She watched her older son, and when he nodded approval, she breathed a secret sigh of relief. She would not live forever. The sooner her sons learned to work together, the better. She ventured to divert the topic. “So, Reyn. Have you made any sense of those old papers?” She nodded to the ancient parchments he had abandoned on the table.

  “Some. ” He frowned as he drew them toward him. “There are a lot of unfamiliar words in them. What I have deciphered is both exciting and frustrating. There seems to be references to another city, substantially upriver of us. ” He scratched at a scaly patch on his cheek. “If I am interpreting it correctly, it would be way to the back of beyond. Almost to what some call the Mountain Kingdom. If such a city existed and we could locate it . . . well. It might represent the greatest find since Trehaug was founded here. ”

  “A smoke dream,” Bendir said dismissively. “There have been explorations up the river before. Nothing was found. If there is another city, it is likely buried deeper than Trehaug was. ”

  “Who knows?” Reyn challenged him. “I tell you, from what I can translate, it is quite a ways upriver from us. It might have escaped destruction altogether. ” He looked speculative. “For all we know, the Elder race could have survived there. Imagine what they could teach us. . . . ” He let his voice trail off, unaware of the worried glance that passed between his mother and brother. “I think it is worth more study. And I think I will take my questions to the dragon and see what she says. ”

  “No. ” Bendir forbade it bluntly. “Reyn, I thought we were clear on that. You are to stay out of the Crowned Rooster Chamber. That log has entirely too much power over you. ”

  “It's not a log. She's a dragon. She should be freed. ”

  Jani and Bendir did not try to hide the look they exchanged. Bendir spoke almost angrily. “I should have cut up that damn thing a long time ago, when I first suspected you were susceptible to it. But the time wasn't right. It's the last log of wizardwood, and the biggest. The ship we build from it will be the last liveship . . . unless you are right about this other city of yours. Perhaps we might find more wizardwood there. ”

  “You won't find it without me,” Reyn pointed out quietly. “And I won't help you if you kill the dragon. ”

  Bendir crossed his arms on his chest. Jani knew the gesture well. He was trying to contain his anger with his youngest brother. Reyn the dreamer, Reyn the scholar, so often frustrated pragmatic Bendir. She had always hoped that with time her boys would learn to complement one another. Now she feared they would always be at odds.

  “There is no dragon,” Bendir spoke slowly, with great finality. “Whatever was in there died long ago. It was probably mad before it died. All that is left of it is its memories. It is no more alive than liveships are truly alive. The planks absorb memories, and retain them. That is all. If it weren't true, we wouldn't be able to cut up a log and allow Bingtowners to store fresh memories in them. Anyone who talks to a liveship is really talking to himself, mingled with the family memories stored in the wood. That is all. When you talk to that log, you hear your own thoughts, as interpreted by the mad memories o
f some poor creature that died long before we even discovered this city. ” He was almost pleading as he added, “Reyn. Don't let stillborn madness speak with your voice. Put it away from you. ”

  Uncertainty wavered across Reyn's face. Then it hardened into stubbornness. “It's easy enough to prove to me. Help me bring the log out into light and air. If nothing happens, I'll acknowledge how foolish I was. ”

  “That would truly be a madman's bargain!” Bendir exclaimed in disgust. “That log is immense. We'd have to take the whole top of the hill off. Or excavate the slide area over the original entrance, and risk collapsing the chamber in the process. The wall above the door is cracked. Even if we knew how to open it, we risk compromising the whole wall. Reyn, you can't be serious. ”

  “She's alive. ” Defiantly he added, “And she says she would be willing to aid Malta and her family. Think on that. Think of the potential of such an ally. ”

  “Think of the potential of such an enemy!” Jani retorted angrily. “Reyn, we have been through this and through this. Even if there is some creature alive inside that log, we can't get it out, and we'd be stupid to release it if we could. Now that is over. It's finished. Do you understand me? We will not speak of this again. I forbid it. ”

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  He opened his mouth. His jaw and lower lip quivered, just as they had when he was a small child and was about to bellow forth his discontent. Then he shut his mouth with a snap. Without a word he rose from the table and turned away from it.

  “We are not finished here!” Jani Khuprus warned him.

  “I am. ”

  “No. You are not. Come back to this table and tell us what you have learned from the parchments so far. I demand it. ”

  He turned back to them. His eyes had gone cold and dark. “You demand it? This is what I demand, then. Make it worth my while. If you will not give me the dragon, then give me some of your precious money, Mother. Because one way or another, I will help my beloved. I will not go to the Bingtown Ball, take her hand, dance with her and then leave her as beggared of hope and coin as when I arrived there. I won't. ”

  It was Bendir's turn to be outraged. “When did you stop being a member of this family? Must we bribe you to do your family duty? Should we pay you for giving back a measure of what you have taken? I will be damned first!”

  “Then be damned!” Reyn replied coldly.

  “Reyn. ” Jani tried to keep her voice reasonable. “Speak plainly. Exactly what do you ask of us? What would we have to offer you to have you surrender this dragon dream of yours ?”

  “Mother, I refuse-”

  “Hush, Bendir. Hear what he asks before you say no. ” She prayed she had not given too broad a hint of her plan. Reyn had to believe he walked into this of his own will. “What are you asking for, son?”

  Reyn licked his dry lips. He looked furtive and cornered, now that he finally had to speak the words aloud. He cleared his throat. “First. Forgive the Vestrits' debt for the liveship. It's but a formality anyway. It was openly acknowledged that that would be my bridal gift to Malta. Give it now, while it is needed most. Don't let her believe that we would continue to wring coins from her family when they are sorely beset. Don't make her fear,” and his voice went hoarse, “don't make her fear that for the sake of coin, she must come to wed me, whether she would or not. I don't want her that way. I don't want her to fear that we will invoke the blood agreement. ”

  “She would come to love you in time, Reyn. Don't doubt that. Many a bride who has come to the Rain Wilds reluctantly has soon learned to love-”

  “I don't want her that way,” Reyn repeated stubbornly.

  “Then we won't invoke that part of the contract,” his mother assured him.

  “Fine, it's done. We'll just throw the contract away. Now. What did you learn from the parchments?” Bendir spoke brusquely, his voice thick with fury.

  “There's more,” Reyn said implacably.

  “Oh, what else can there be? Do you wish to be Satrap of the Rain Wilds?” Bendir demanded sarcastically.

  “No. Only ruler of my own life. I want to be able to go and see her whenever I wish, until we are wed and she comes here. I want an allowance issued to me, money I can spend without accountability to anyone. In short, I want you to treat me as if I were a man. You had a purse of your own when you were younger than I am now. ”

  “Only because I also had a wife! When you are wed, you will have your income. Right now, you don't need it. I have never been stingy with you. Mother has always indulged you far above the rest of us. The more we give, the more you ask!”

  “You may have that, also,” Jani broke in relentlessly.

  Bendir's face went from incredulous to furious. He threw up his hands. “Why am I here at all?” he asked rhetorically. “It seems I have no say in anything!”

  "You are here to witness your brother giving his word to me. Reyn.

  This is what we have asked of you: that you will give up the dragon dream, and not visit the log anymore. You will no longer claim a say in what becomes of the log. You will do your duty to your family, employing your skills as we ask. You will not enter the city, save with the approval of your brother and me, and then only for work we sanction. In return, we will void the contract for the liveship Vivacia, issue you a man's independent allowance and allow you to visit your beloved as you wish. Do you agree to this?"

  She had phrased it formally. She watched her son consider it as she had taught him, going over each phrase, committing to memory the terms of the agreement. He looked from her to his brother. His breath began to come faster. He rubbed his temples, as if he waged some internal battle with himself. The terms of the contract were steep, for both sides. She was offering much to gain much. He was taking too long to reply. He would refuse. Then, “Yes. I agree. ” He spoke hastily, as if his words hurt him.

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  She let out her pent breath soundlessly. She had done it. The trap closed behind him, unsuspected. She took a deep breath to quell her queasiness at doing this to her own son. It was necessary, she told herself. Necessary, and therefore honorable. Reyn would abide by his word. He always had and always would. What was a Trader, if he was not as good as his word?

  “As Trader for this family, I accept your agreement. Bendir, do you witness it?”

  “I do,” he agreed sourly. He would not meet her eyes. She wondered if he suspected what she had done and was disgusted by it, or if he were dismayed at the terms.

  “Then let us say enough of this for tonight. Reyn, please devote another day to the parchments, and then give us the best written translation that you can. Please document any new symbols in them, and note what you think they mean. But not tonight. Tonight, we all need to sleep. ”

  “Oh, not I,” Reyn retorted with bitter amusement. “No sleep for me, I fear. Or rather, I fear that I will sleep. I'll begin tonight, Mother. Perhaps I'll have something for you by morning. ”

  “Do not overtax yourself,” she suggested, but he was already gathering up his parchments and leaving. She waited until he was out the door and then hastily stepped in front of Bendir as he approached the door. “Wait,” she commanded him.

  “For what?” he demanded in a surly tone.

  “For Reyn to be well out of earshot,” she told him bluntly. That got his attention. He looked down at her in shock.

  She let a few slow minutes pass. Then she took a deep breath. “The dragon-log, Bendir. We need to be rid of it, and soon. Cut it up. Perhaps you are right; perhaps it is time the Khuprus family had a ship of our own. Or have it sawn into planks and store them. Get rid of the thing inside it. Otherwise, I fear we will lose your brother. The log, not Malta, is the root of our problems with your brother. It preys upon his mind. ” She took a deep breath. “I fear he will drown in the memories. He already walks a narrow path beside a precipice. I think we should keep him from the city as much as pos
sible. ”

  A look of concern came into his face. It eased her heart. It was unfeigned. He truly cared for his younger brother. The depth of his feelings showed in his next question. “Now? You mean, cut up the log before he goes off to the Summer Ball in Bingtown? I don't think that is wise, Mother. No matter that he has agreed to give up any say about it. That should be a happy time in his life, not one tormented by second thoughts. ”

  “You are right. No. Wait until he is safely away. I expect he will spend a week or more in Bingtown. Do it then. Let him come home to it as something that is done and irrevocable. That will be best. ”

  “He will blame me, you know. ” A shadow passed over Bendir's face. “This will not make anything easier between us. ”

  “No. He will blame me,” his mother assured him. “I will see that it is so. ”

  NIGHT HAD FALLEN OVER THE HARBOR. PARAGON COULD SENSE IT. THE wind had shifted. Now it carried the smells of the town to his nostrils. He reached up to touch his nose. Cautiously his fingers ventured higher, exploring the splintered wreckage of his eyes.

  “Are you in pain?” Amber asked him quietly.

  He immediately dropped his hands from his face. “We do not know pain as humans do,” he assured her. A moment later, he asked her, “Tell me about the town. What do you see?”

  “Oh. Well. ” He felt her shift on the foredeck. She had been lying on her back, either dozing or looking up at the stars. Now she rolled onto her belly. Her body was warm against his planking. “All around us is a forest of masts. Black sticks against the stars. A few of the ships have small lights showing, but not much. But in town, the lights are many. They reflect in the water and-”

  “I wish I could see them,” he said plaintively. More loudly, he complained, “I wish I could see anything. Anything! It's all darkness, Amber. To be blind on the beach was bad, Amber, but after a time, I became accustomed to it. But here, in the water once more . . . I don't know who is passing me on the docks, or what vessels may come alongside me. Fire could break out on the docks, and I would not know it until it was too late. All that is bad enough, but soon we will sail. How can you expect me to venture into that vastness blindly? I want to do well. I do. But I fear I cannot. ”

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