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The Liveship Ophelia
Althea's watch was over; her time was now her own. She was tired, but pleasantly so. The spring afternoon had been almost balmy. It was rare for the season to be this kindly and Althea had enjoyed it. The Ophelia herself had been in an expansive mood all day. The liveship had made the sailors' tasks easy, moving northward toward home with a will. She was a ponderous old cog, now heavy with goods from a successful trading journey. The early evening wind was gentle rather than brisk, but Ophelia's sails caught every breath of it. She slid effortlessly through the waves. Althea leaned on the forward rail, watching the beginning of the sunset off the port bow. Home was only a few days away.
"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."
"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 Grag'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 wore 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?
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."