The mad ship, p.9
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       The Mad Ship, p.9

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  “Mixed feelings?” Ophelia asked her with a throaty chuckle. The buxom figurehead gave her a knowing glance over her bared shoulder.

  “You know you are right,” Althea conceded. “About everything. Nothing in my life makes sense anymore. ” She began to tick her confusions off on her fingers. “Here I am, serving as first on a liveship merchant vessel, about the highest post a sailor can aspire to. Captain Tenira has promised me a ship's ticket out of this. It's all the proof I need that I am a competent sailor. With that credential, I can go home and press Kyle to keep his word, and give me back my ship. Yet, oddly enough, I feel guilty about it. You have made it so easy. I worked three times as hard when I was serving as ship's boy on the Reaper. It just doesn't seem right. ”

  “I could make your tasks harder if you wish,” Ophelia offered teasingly. “I could develop a list, or start taking on water or . . . ”

  “You wouldn't do that,” Althea told her with certainty. “You're too proud of how well you sail. No. I do not wish my tasks to be harder. Nor do I regret my months aboard the Reaper. If nothing else, they proved to me that I could scramble. Serving aboard that hulk made me a better sailor, and showed me a side of sailing I had never seen before then. It wasn't a waste of time. It was time away from the Vivacia; that is where the rub is. Time lost forever. ” Althea's voice trailed away.

  “Oh, my dear, that's so tragic. ” Ophelia's voice was full of solicitude.

  A moment later, she went on sarcastically, “The only way it could be worse would be if you wasted still more time mooning about it. Althea. This is not like you. Look forward, not back. Correct your course and go on. You can't undo yesterday's journey. ”

  “I know,” Althea said with a rueful laugh. “I know that what I am doing now is the right thing to do. It just seems strange that it is so easy and pleasant. A beautiful ship, a lively crew, a good captain . . . ”

  “A very handsome first mate,” Ophelia interjected.

  “He is that,” Althea admitted easily. “And I appreciate all Grag has done for me. I know he says he is enjoying the chance to read and relax, but it must be tedious to pretend he is ill so I can have the chance to fill his position. I have a lot of reasons to be grateful to him. ”

  “Odd. You haven't shown him that gratitude. ” For the first time, a touch of chill crept into the ship's voice.

  “Ophelia,” Althea groaned. “Please, let's not get into that again. You don't want me to pretend feelings for Grag that I simply don't have, do you?”

  “I simply can't understand why you don't have those feelings, that's all. Are you sure you do not deceive yourself? Look at my Grag. He is handsome, charming, witty, kind and a gentleman. Not to mention that he is born of a Bingtown Trader family and stands to inherit a sizable fortune. A fortune that includes a magnificent liveship, I might add. What more could you be looking for in a man?”

  “He is all those things and more. I conceded that to you days ago. I find no faults with Grag Tenira. Or with his magnificent liveship. ” Althea smiled at the ship.

  “Then the problem must be with you,” Ophelia announced inexorably. “Why aren't you attracted to him?”

  Althea bit her tongue for a moment. When she spoke, her voice was reasonable. “I am, Ophelia. In a way. Nevertheless, there are so many other things going on in my life that I cannot allow myself . . . I just do not have time to think about things like that. You know what I face when we get to Bingtown. I need to make amends with my mother, if that is possible. And there is another 'magnificent liveship' that occupies my thoughts. I have to persuade my mother to support me when I try to take the Vivacia back from Kyle. She heard him vow before Sa that if I could but prove myself a sailor, he would give me the ship. However rashly he spoke, I intend to make him keep that vow. I know it is going to be an ugly struggle to force him to surrender Vivacia to me. I need to keep my mind focused on that. ”

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  “Don't you think Grag could be a powerful ally in such a struggle?”

  “Would you think it honorable of me to encourage his advances only to use him as a tool to get my ship back?” Althea's voice was cool now.

  Ophelia laughed low. “Ah. He has made advances, then. I was beginning to worry about the boy. So. Tell me all about it. ” She quirked an eyebrow at Althea.

  “Ship!” Althea warned her, but after a moment, she could not help joining her laughter. “Are you going to pretend to me that you don't already know everything that goes on aboard you?”

  “Umm,” Ophelia mused. “Perhaps I know most of what happens in the staterooms and belowdecks. But not all. ” She paused, then pried, “That was a very long silence inside his quarters yesterday. Did he try to kiss you yesterday?”

  Althea sighed. “No. Of course not. Grag is far too well bred for that. ”

  “I know. More's the pity. ” Ophelia shook her head. As if she had forgotten to whom she was speaking, she added, “The boy needs a bit more spark to him. Nice is fine, but there's a time when a man should be a bit of a rogue, to get what he wants. ” She cocked her head at Althea. “Like Brashen Trell, for instance. ”

  Althea groaned. The ship had wormed his name out of her a week ago, and had given her no peace since then. If she was not demanding to know what was wrong with Grag, and why didn't Althea fancy him, then she was pestering her for the sordid details of her brief liaison with Brashen. Althea did not want to think about the man. Her feelings on that topic were too confusing. The more she decided she was finished with him, the more he intruded into her thoughts. She kept thinking of all the witty things she should have said at their last parting. He had been so rude when she had not kept a rendezvous she knew was unwise. The man had assumed too much, far too soon. He didn't deserve a moment of her thoughts, let alone dwelling on him. But despite her waking disdain for him, he intruded into her dreams. In her dreams, the poignancy of his gentle strength seemed a safe harbor worth seeking. In her dreams, she reminded herself, setting her teeth. In her waking hours, she knew he was no safe harbor, but a whirlpool of foolish impulses that would draw her to her doom.

  She had been silent too long; Ophelia was watching her face with a knowing look. Abruptly Althea stood straight and put a small smile on her face. “I think I'll go and see Grag before I turn in. There are a few questions I need answered. ”

  “Um,” Ophelia purred, pleased. “Take your time asking them, my dear. The Tenira men think deeply before they act, but when they do act . . . ” She lifted both her eyebrows at Althea. “You might not even remember Trell's name afterward,” she suggested.

  “Believe me. I'm already doing my best to forget it. ”

  Althea was relieved to hurry away from her. Sometimes it was wonderful to spend part of the evening sitting and talking with the ship. The wizardwood figurehead incorporated many generations of Tenira sailors, but women had formed her first and deepest impressions. Ophelia retained a female perspective on life. It was not the fragile helplessness that now passed for femininity in Bingtown, but the independent determination that had distinguished the first women Traders. The advice she offered Althea was often startling to her, yet it frequently reinforced views Althea had privately held for years. Althea had not had many women friends. The tales Ophelia had shared with her had made her realize that her dilemmas were not as unique as she had believed. At the same time, Ophelia's brazen discussions of Althea's most intimate problems both delighted and horrified her. The ship seemed to accept Althea's independence. She encouraged Althea to follow her heart, but also held her responsible for the decisions she had made. It was heady to have such a friend.

  She hesitated outside the door to Crag's cabin. She paused to straighten her clothing and hair. She had been relieved to abandon the boy's guise she had worn aboard the Reaper. On this ship, the crew knew her name. Althea Vestrit had to uphold the honor of her family. So although she dressed practically, in heavy cotton fabric, the trousers she w
ore were closer to being a split skirt. She had bound her hair back out of the way, but not tarred it into a queue. The laced-up blouse that she tucked carefully into her trousers even had a touch of embroidery on it.

  She felt a pleasant anticipation at the thought of seeing Grag. She enjoyed sitting and talking with him. There was a gratifying little tension of awareness between them. Grag found her attractive and was undaunted by her competency. He seemed impressed by it. It was a new and flattering experience for Althea. She wished she could be certain that was all she felt. Despite her fling with Brashen-despite living aboard ship with men for years-in some areas she was very inexperienced. She was not sure if she was attracted to Grag for himself, or simply because he seemed to be fascinated with her. Surely, this was just a harmless flirtation between them. What more could it be, between two strangers flung together by chance?

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  She took a breath and knocked.

  “Enter. ” Grag's voice was muffled.

  She found him sitting up on his bunk, his face swathed in bandaging. There was a strong scent of cloves in the air. At the sight of her, a welcoming glint came into his blue eyes. As she shut the door behind her, he pulled the wrappings off his jaw and let them drop gratefully. The pretense of the bandages had left his hair tousled like a boy's. She grinned at him. “So. How's the toothache?”

  “Convenient. ” He stretched, rolling his wide shoulders, then made a show of flinging himself back on his bunk. “I can't remember when I last had this much time to myself. ” He swung his legs up onto his bunk and crossed them at the ankle.

  “You're not getting bored?”

  “No. For any sailor, idle time is too much of a novelty. We always find a way to fill it. ” He fished around at the edge of his bunk and came up with a handful of ropework. He unrolled it on his lap to reveal a fancifully knotted mat. The intricate pattern had created a lacy effect from the stout twine he had used to create it. It was hard to believe such a delicate design came from his work-scarred fingers.

  Althea touched the edge of it. “Beautiful. ” Her fingers traced the pattern of knotted twine. “My father could take an empty wine bottle, and some twine, and create this wonderful pattern of knots over the glass. It looked like flowers, or snowflakes. . . . He always promised he'd teach me how to do it, but we never found the time. ” The gaping sense of loss that she had believed she had mastered overwhelmed her again. She turned away from him abruptly and stared at the wall.

  Grag was silent for a moment. Then he offered quietly, “I could teach you, if you wanted. ”

  “Thanks, but it wouldn't be the same. ” She was surprised by the brusqueness in her own voice. She shook her head, embarrassed by the sudden tears that brimmed her eyes. She hoped he had not seen them. They made her vulnerable. Grag and his father had already done so much for her. She did not want them to see her as weak and needy, but as a strong person who would make the best of her opportunities. She drew in a long breath and squared her shoulders. “I'm all right now,” she said in answer to his unspoken question. “Sometimes I miss him so badly. There's a part of me that can't accept that he's dead, that I'll never see him again. ”

  “Althea . . . I know that perhaps this is a cruel question, but I've wondered. Why?”

  “Why did he take the ship I'd worked on for so many years and will it to my sister instead?” She glanced over at Grag to see his quick nod. She shrugged. “He never told me. The closest he came to a reason was to say something about providing for my sister and her children. On good days, I tell myself that that meant he knew I could provide for myself and he was not afraid for me. On bad days, I wonder if he thought that I was selfish, if he feared that I would take Vivacia and care nothing for their welfare. ” She lifted her shoulders again.

  She caught a glimpse of herself in Grag's shaving mirror. For an eerie instant, her father looked out at her. She had his wiry black hair and dark eyes, but not his size. She was small, like her mother. Nevertheless, the resemblance to her father was still strong, in the set of her jaw and the way her brows drew together when she was troubled. “My mother said that it was her idea and she talked him into it. She felt the estate had to be kept intact, the liveship inherited with the land holdings, so that the income from the one would go on supporting the other until all the debts were paid. ”

  She rubbed at her brow. “I suppose that makes sense. When father decided that we would no longer trade up the Rain Wild River, he doomed us to a much lower income. The goods he brought back from the southlands were exotic, but nothing like the magic goods from the Rain Wilds. Our land holdings yielded well, but we could not compete with Chalced's slave-tended grain and fruit. Consequently, our debt for the ship is still substantial. Moreover, it is secured with our land holdings. If we fail to keep our promise to repay it, we could lose both ship and family land. ”

  “And you are hostage for that debt as well. ” Grag pointed the fact out quietly. As a member of a Bingtown Trader family that owned a liveship, he was well aware of the standard terms for such a bargain. Liveships were rare and costly. Just as it took three generations for a liveship to quicken and come to cognizance, so it also took generations to pay for one. Only the Rain Wild Traders knew the source of the wizardwood lumber that made up the liveship hulls and figureheads. Only in a ship constructed of wizardwood could one safely negotiate the Rain Wild River and participate in the trade of their near-magical goods. Their value was such that families pledged their fortunes for them. “In blood or gold, the debt is owed,” Grag added quietly. If the Vestrit family could not pay for the ship with coin, then a daughter or son of the family could be claimed.

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  Althea nodded slowly. Odd. She had known the terms of the bargain ever since she was old enough to be considered a woman, but somehow she had never applied it to herself. Her father had been a wonderful trader; he had always seen that there was money in the household to discharge their just debts. Now that her brother-in-law Kyle was in charge of the family's liveship and finances, who could say how things would go? Her sister's husband had never liked her. The last time they had been in the same room, in that final spectacular family argument, he had said it was her duty to marry well and stop being a burden on the family. Perhaps that was exactly what he had been hinting: that if she went willingly to a Rain Wild man, the family could enjoy a lessening of their debt.

  Ever since she was a tiny child, her duties to her family's honor had been impressed upon her. A Bingtown Trader paid his debts and kept his word. No matter what their personal disagreements might be, when threatened by outsiders, the Traders closed ranks and endured. Those ties of kinship and duty included the Traders who had chosen to remain behind in the Rain Wilds and settle there. Distance and years might have separated them, but the Rain Wild Traders were still kin to the Bingtown Traders. Contracts with them were honored, and the duties of family were respected. She felt something inside her go hard and cold with purpose. If Kyle failed in the Vestrit family obligations, it would be her duty to offer herself. Fecundity was the one treasure the Rain Wild folk lacked. She would have to go to the Rain Wilds, take a husband there and bear children to him. It was what her forebears had promised, so long ago. Not to do so would be unthinkable. Nevertheless, to be forced into it by Kyle's malice or ineptitude was intolerable.

  “Althea? Are you all right?”

  Crag's voice broke in on her thoughts and brought her back to herself. She realized she was glaring at a bulkhead. She gave a small shake and turned to face him. “I came to ask your advice, actually. I'm having a bit of trouble with one of the deckhands. I can't decide if I should take it personally or not. ”

  The concerned look on Grag's face deepened. “Which one?”

  “Feff. ” Althea shook her head in mock frustration. “One moment he listens and steps lively when I give an order. The next, he'll look me straight in the face and stand there with a
silly grin on his face. I don't know if he's mocking me, or . . . ”

  “Ah!” Grag grinned. “Feff's deaf. In his left ear. Oh, he will not admit it to anyone. It happened when he fell from the mast about two years ago. He hit the deck hard, and for a day or so, we thought he wasn't going to live. Eventually, he came out of it. He's a bit slower about some things than he used to be, and I don't send him aloft unless I have to. He doesn't seem to have the balance he once did. He can't always hear what you say, especially if he's to the right of you. Sometimes if the wind is blowing strong, he can't hear at all. He doesn't mean to be insubordinate . . . that's what the silly smile is about. Other than that, he's a good man, and he's been with the ship a long time. It wouldn't be right to tie him up for that. ”

  “Ah. ” Althea nodded to herself. “I wish someone had told me sooner,” she said a bit crossly.

  “It's one of those things Da and I don't even think about anymore. It's just how the ship is. No one meant to make your job harder. ”

  “No, I didn't mean that,” Althea replied hastily. “Everyone has gone out of their way to make my tasks easier. I know that. It's wonderful to be back on board a liveship again, and even more wonderful to discover that I actually can do this job. My father's will and my quarrel with Kyle and Brashen's concerns all made me wonder if I really was competent. ”

  “Brashen's concerns?” Grag asked in a quietly leading voice.

  Why had she said it? Where had her mind been? “Brashen Trell was my father's first mate on the Vivacia. After I signed aboard the Reaper, I found out he was part of her crew, too. When he discovered I was aboard as ship's boy . . . well. He had already made it plain to me back in Bingtown that he did not think I could cut it on my own. ”

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