The mad ship, p.63
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       The Mad Ship, p.63

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
 

  “Well. It's plain you've worked hard, but not heavy. Still. You're lithe and quick. I've marked that about you. And that may be more telling in this game than muscle or bulk. ”

  He blinked at her. “I still don't know what this is about. ”

  “Kennit suggested it. I told him I felt a debt to you for teaching me to read. He said I should return it in kind, by teaching you something I know well. Something of my more worldly skills, as he put it. I've come to do that. Take your shirt off. ”

  Slowly he obeyed her. He refused to think about what he was doing, or what her intentions were.

  She smiled grimly. “You're sweet and smooth as a little girl. Not a hair to your chest yet. A little more muscle would please me, but that will come in time. ” She went back to his table, and worked the latch on the flat box there. As she opened the box, she repeated, “Some things are best learned in private. The skills of a man are among them. Were we more open with this, the crewmen would mock you. This way, you can pretend it was something you've always known how to do. ” When she turned back to face him, she held a dagger in either hand.

  “These are for you, now. Kennit said I could give them to you. You should begin to wear one at your belt whenever we go into a port. After a time, start wearing it all the time, and sleep with it under your pillow. But, first, you have to learn how to use it. ”

  She threw one at him suddenly. It was a toss, really, the weapon coming at him hilt first. He caught it awkwardly, but not squarely. The blade bit into his thumb. She laughed at his exclamation. “First blood to me!” A menacing light came into her eyes. “Grip that like you mean it and get ready. I'm going to teach you how to fight. ”

  “I don't want to know how to fight,” he protested in dismay. He retreated. “I don't want to hurt you. ”

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  She grinned merrily. “I'm very sure you won't. Don't worry about it in any case. ” She had gone into a knife-fighter's crouch, her blade at the ready. She swayed gracefully, and transferred the knife from hand to hand almost more swiftly than he could follow. Suddenly, she came at him, menacing as a tigress, her blade leading the way. “Just concentrate on keeping me from hurting you. That is always the first lesson. ”

  CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT - Departure of the Paragon

  “I WISH WE HAD TIME FOR MORE SEA TRIALS. ”

  Amber gave Althea a weary look. “No time. No money. And after each one, at least two or three hands jump ship. A few more sea trials, Althea, and we'll have no crew left at all. ” She paused and cocked her head at Althea. “Is this the fifth time we've had this conversation, or the sixth?”

  “The twenty-seventh, by my count,” Brashen interjected, coming up between them. They shifted aside to make a space for him at the after rail. He joined them in staring out to the open water past the mouth of Bingtown Harbor. He gave a small chuckle. “Get used to it, Amber. Sailors have the same conversations over and over. Chief topics: the bad food, the stupid captain and the unfair mate. ”

  “You forgot the rotten weather and the unruly ship,” Althea filled in.

  Amber shrugged. “I have a lot to become accustomed to. It has been years since I took an extended sea voyage. As a youth, I was a bad sailor. I hope that my living aboard here in the harbor will have schooled my stomach to a moving deck. ”

  Althea and Brashen both grinned. “Trust me. It hasn't,” Brashen warned her. “I'll try not to expect too much of you the first few days out. But if I need you, I'll need you, and then you'll have to crawl about and do your best between trips to the rail. ”

  “You're so cheery,” Amber thanked him.

  A silence fell over them. Despite their easy words, they all had reservations about what they faced today. The ship was loaded, most of the crew aboard. Secreted belowdecks, unbeknownst to their hired crew, were seven slaves who had resolved to take this opportunity to escape to a new life. Althea tried not to think of them. The risk they took was not just to themselves. If anyone else discovered them before they sailed, who knew what might come of it? Nor did she know how their hired crew would react to these extra hands. She hoped they would be relieved there would be more backs to bear the work. Most likely, there would be some scuffling for position and bunking space, but that happened aboard any ship. She took a breath and told herself it would be all right. She still pitied the crowded men hidden below. The suspense for them must be agonizing.

  At first light, they would sail. Althea almost wished they could just slip away now. But to sail off silently into the dimness would be an ill leave-taking. Better to wait and endure the farewells and good wishes of those who came to see them off. Better, also, to have clear light and the morning breezes to speed them.

  “How is he?” Brashen asked quietly. He stared off into the distance.

  “He's anxious. And excited. Eager, and scared to death. His blindness-”

  “I know. ” Brashen was brusque. “But he's endured it for years. He got himself back to Bingtown, blind and capsized. This is no time for a risky experiment in carving wizardwood. He'll have to trust us, Amber. He has done so much to turn himself around that I don't want to risk changing any of his conditions. If you tried and failed, well,” Brashen shook her head. “I think it's better for us to sail as he is. He's familiar with this hindrance. I think he can cope better with blindness he's accepted than with a great disappointment. ”

  “But he has never accepted it,” Amber began earnestly.

  “Forty-two,” Althea cut in. She gave a sigh but managed a smile. “We've had this conversation at least forty-two times. ”

  Amber nodded in acceptance. She changed the subject. “Lavoy. ”

  Brashen groaned, then laughed. “I gave him the last night in town. He'll be on deck on time. I'll vouch for that. He'll have a head, no doubt of that, and he'll take it out on the hands. That's traditional, and they'll expect it. I expect he'll drive them hard and they'll resent him. That's traditional, too. He's the best we could have hired for the job. ”

  Althea bit her tongue firmly. She had lost count of how many times she and Brashen had wrangled about that. Besides, if they got into it again, he would probably make her admit that Lavoy was not as bad as she had expected him to be. The man had a streak of fairness in him. It was unreliable, but when it did surface, he held himself to it. He would be a tyrant. She knew that. So did Brashen. As long as he did not go too far with it, a tyrant was exactly what this crew needed.

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  The sea trials had exposed every weakness in their crew. Althea now knew which hands wouldn't scramble, and which ones seemed incapable of it. Some were lazy, some stupid and some slyly determined to do as little as possible. Her father, she was convinced, would have sacked the lot of them. When she had complained to Brashen, he had told her she could replace any and all of them with better men at her discretion. All she had to do was find such men and hire them at the wages he could offer.

  That had ended that conversation.

  “I wish we were already out there,” Brashen said quietly.

  “So do I,” Althea agreed. And yet she dreaded it also. The sea trials had exposed more than the weaknesses of the crew. She knew now that Paragon was far more fragile than she had ever expected. True, he was a stoutly built ship. Once Brashen had arranged the ballast to his liking, he had sailed well, but he did not sail like a liveship. Althea was ready to accept that, as long as he did not actively oppose the men working his decks. What was most difficult for her was his obvious torment. Every time Brashen called a course change, the figurehead flinched. His hands would break free briefly from his crossed arms, to tremble before him. Almost instantly, he would recross his arms and hold them firm against his chest. His jaws were clenched tightly shut, but his fear simmered throughout the ship. All around her, Althea could see the crew reacting to it. They glanced at one another, up at the rigging, out over the water, all seeking the source of t
heir uneasiness. They were too new to the ship to realize they were infected with his fear. That made them more prone to panic, not less. To tell them the cause would only have made it worse. They would learn, she had promised herself. In time, they would learn.

  TRADER RESTART HAD HAD HIS CARRIAGE REPAIRED. THE UPHOLSTERY HAD been thoroughly cleaned as well. Now the doors opened and shut as they should, the springs had not groaned alarmingly as Malta climbed in, and when the horses did start, the jolt did not clack her teeth together. It all looked quite clean. As it worked its way through the busy Bingtown streets, a breeze came in the window. Still, she could not convince herself that she didn't smell dead pig. She dabbed at her face with her scented handkerchief.

  “Are you all right, dear?” her mother asked her for the tenth time.

  “I'm fine. I didn't sleep well last night. ” She turned and looked out the window and waited for her mother's next line in the dialogue.

  “Well, it's natural for you to be excited. Our ship is sailing today and the ball is only eight days away now. ”

  “Quite natural!” Davad Restart agreed heartily. He smiled round at them all eagerly. “You shall see, my dear. This shall mark the turn of all our fortunes. ”

  “I'm sure it will,” Ronica agreed, but to Malta, it sounded more as if her grandmother prayed it would be so.

  “And here we are!” Davad brayed out enthusiastically, as if no one else had noticed. The carriage halted smoothly. “No, sit still, sit still,” he told them as Keffria reached for the door. “The driver will open that. ”

  The slave did indeed come to the door of the carriage, open it for them, and then assist them all out. As first Ronica and then Keffria thanked him for this courtesy, the man looked uneasy. He glanced at Davad as if expecting to be rebuked, but the Trader was too busy straightening his jacket. Malta frowned briefly to herself. Either Davad had become more prosperous lately, or he had simply decided to be freer with his money. The repaired carriage, the trained driver, Davad's new clothes . . . he was preparing for something. She made a mental note to be more watchful of the Old Trader. Foolish as Davad was socially, he had a shrewd streak for sensing profit. Perhaps there was a way to turn whatever he was doing to her family's advantage as well.

  He offered his arm to her grandmother. Ronica allowed it. They were all dressed in their best summer clothes. Grandmother had insisted on it. “We cannot afford to look poor on this day,” she had said, somewhat fiercely. So fabric had been salvaged from old gowns, washed, turned and pressed to make new dresses for all of them. Rache was developing into quite a seamstress. Malta had to admit she had an eye for copying the newer styles on the streets of Bingtown. Today they were almost fashionable, save for last year's parasols. Even Selden was properly dressed, in blue trousers and a white shirt. He was digging at his collar again. Malta frowned at him severely and shook her head. “A proper little Trader boy doesn't fuss with his collar,” she told him.

  He dropped his hand but scowled at her. “Being a proper little Trader is choking me,” he returned snippily.

  “Get used to it,” she advised him, and took his hand.

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  The day was warm, the breeze fresh and the Bingtown docks as lively as always. Her mother followed her grandmother, and Malta came on her heels with Selden. She could not deign to notice them, but it was still gratifying to see the sailors' heads turn as she passed. A few made admiring, if unseemly, comments to their fellows. She kept her head up and did not change her pace. Sharp and sudden, she wished she were a Three Ships girl. She could have winked and flirted back and no one would think she had made a bad match if she attracted a hearty young sailor. She was having to live as cheaply as a fisher girl; why could not she have the carefree ways of one?

  Her grandmother slowed the pace as they reached the West Wall. As they proceeded down the docks, she greeted each liveship by name. Without failure, every ship returned her greeting, and added good wishes for the Paragon's voyage. Some spoke the words formally, but Malta thought she detected genuine warmth from others. Ronica Vestrit thanked every ship before going on.

  When they finally reached the Paragon, the rush of emotion she felt surprised Malta. There he was, the blind ship, the mad ship that her family had scraped and strained to refloat. He rode easily beside the dock. His brass gleamed, his wood shone. He looked like a new ship. He held his head high, his arms crossed on his muscled chest. Below his splintered eyes, his jaw was set firmly and his chin jutted. He looked nothing like the rotting old wreck she had last seen on the beach below the cliffs. Selden's small hand tightened on hers.

  Her grandmother halted and looked at the figurehead. She raised her voice. “Good day to you, Paragon! A fine day to begin a voyage. ”

  “Good day to you, Mistress Vestrit. ” A sudden smile cracked his beard. “I'm blind, not deaf. You needn't shout. ”

  “Paragon!” Brashen rebuked him. He had appeared suddenly on the foredeck. Althea hastened up the docks to them.

  “It's quite all right, Captain Trell. The ship is correct. ” Ronica Vestrit refused to take offense. “But I shall say again it is a lovely day to begin a voyage. ”

  There followed an exchange of pleasantries between Brashen, the ship and her grandmother. Malta did not pay too much attention. She was glad the ship wasn't whining or raving. She had feared he would be in one of his mad moods today, throwing things about and shouting. She had seen him like that once, when she had ventured down to the beach to see how things were progressing. He had frightened her so that she had immediately turned around and gone back home.

  Most of her attention shifted between her Aunt Althea and Brashen Trell. She still suspected there was something between them, but today she could detect no sign of it. Brashen was very much Captain Trell today. His clothes were clean and neat, his white shirt and dark blue trousers fastidiously pressed. The dark blue jacket gave him dignity. They were her grandfather's clothes, made over to his size. She wondered if he knew that, if he felt odd wearing his old captain's cast-offs. Althea was dressed unusually sedately. She wore a white blouse, and a split skirt with a matching vest. She even had her shoes on. Malta was willing to bet that these clothes were for show only. Even though she'd be acting as second mate, she suspected her aunt would revert to boy's clothes as soon as she could. There was something decidedly odd about Aunt Althea.

  Her friend Amber appeared to have resolved that if people were going to stare, she'd give them a good reason. When she appeared, she wore the togs of an ordinary sailor, but every button to her trousers and shirt was a hand-carved bead. The garb was not flattering to her; it showed that she had a very spare figure, flat-chested and narrow-hipped. She wore a snugly laced vest with fanciful butterflies embroidered on it. The only part of her that seemed at all attractive to Malta was her coloring. Like some pale honey-wood was her skin and hair, and her eyes almost the same shade. She had pulled her long hair back, braided it, and then pinned it to her head. Foreign was the only word that fit her. Even her earrings did not match.

  “Welcome aboard,” Brashen was saying. The others had started up the gangplank. He had come down to greet them all, and was now actually offering Malta his arm as he invited her to board the ship. Not so long ago, she would have felt giddy and flattered. He was handsome enough, and challenging in a rakish way. But her fears and her dreams seemed to have scorched that part of her to death.

  Once on board the ship, Althea guided them about, pointing out what had been done. Most of it was meaningless to Malta, but she kept a politely interested look on her face. Sailors busy with the last-minute tasks of readying the ship for departure stepped hastily out of their paths, but stared after her. Their eyes were too bold and their manners too crude for Malta to find it flattering. She wondered how Aunt Althea would fare amongst them in the long weeks to come. Perhaps she enjoyed it, she thought in dismay. She felt distant from all of it as she followed her mother and gr
andmother on a slow tour of the upper deck.

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  Brashen was at the top of the gangplank, where other well-wishers had begun to gather. It was gratifying to see the Bingtown Traders at least show them this much support. Most of those who came were from liveship families. Perhaps only a seafaring family could appreciate their predicament. Some were dressed as if they had planned to bid them farewell. Others were the captains or crew members of other liveships currently in port. It was, Malta decided, a substantial turnout for such a venture. A few even paused to speak to Davad. The Trader had sagaciously stationed himself by Brashen, where anyone coming aboard must greet him as well. Malta gathered that he had been able to restore slightly his reputation with the other Traders by acting as a go-between in this arrangement. Even so, the greetings they gave him were formal and brief. Davad beamed as if he didn't know any better. At the slightest excuse, he began a well-rehearsed and long-winded account of all he had done to make today possible. Malta was careful to stay out of earshot and not make eye contact with him. The man was a toad.

  “Coming, Malta?” her aunt asked her with a smile. She gestured that they were about to leave the foredeck and be shown the rest of the vessel. Malta had no desire to see the holds or the smelly quarters.

  “I think I shall stay here,” she ventured. “It's too lovely of a day to go below. ”

  “Well, I'm going,” Selden declared boldly and tugged free of her hand.

  Althea looked troubled for an instant. Her glance strayed to the crewmen nearby. Plainly, she did not think she should leave her niece in such company. Then her look suddenly cleared and she nodded. “Of course you may. ”

  Malta glanced over her shoulder. Amber was standing behind her, leaning on the rail by the figurehead. Some sort of sign had passed between Althea and Amber. Althea now felt Malta would be safe. Interesting.

 
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