“And leave us the mess to clean up,” Keffria observed sourly. “I feel sorry for the New Traders’ mistresses and bastards. They’ll probably have to stay in Bingtown. Or go north. I have heard that some of the Tattooed are talking of taking ship to the Six Duchies. It’s a harsh land, almost barbaric, but they feel they could begin anew there, without having to sign agreements. They feel that becoming Rain Wild Traders under Jani’s terms would be too restrictive.”
“When all who choose to leave have left, then those who remain will be closer in spirit to the original Bingtown Traders,” Ronica observed. She walked to the naked window and looked out into the evening. “I’ll be glad when it is all settled. When those who remain here are those who chose to be part of Bingtown, then I think we shall heal. But that may take time. Travel is not safe, either to north or south.” Then she cocked her head at Keffria. “You seem very well-informed about the rumors and news of Bingtown.”
Keffria took that as an unvoiced but deserved rebuke. Once, her interests had centered only on her own home and children. “The gossip at the Council meetings is endless. I am out and about more than I used to be. There is less at home to claim my time. Also, Ekke and I talk, when we are cooking dinner. It is the only time she seems completely comfortable with me.” Keffria paused. Her voice was puzzled as she asked, “Did you know that she is sweet on Grag Tenira? She seems to think he is interested in her as well. I didn’t know what to say to that.”
Her mother smiled almost indulgently. “If Grag is interested in her, I wish them the best. He is a good man, and deserves a good partner. Ekke could be that for him. She is a solid person, blunt but good-hearted, and knowledgeable about the sea and those who sail. Grag could do worse than Ekke Kelter.”
“Personally, I had hoped he would do better.” Keffria poked at the fire. “I hoped that Althea would come home, come to her senses and marry him.”
Ronica’s face went grave. “At this point, my sole hope for Althea is that she does come home.” She came over to the fire, then sat down suddenly on the hearthstones. “It is my prayer for all of them. Come home, however you can. Just come home.”
For a long time, there was a silence in the room. Then Keffria asked in a low voice, “Even Kyle, Mother? Are you hoping he will come home?”
Ronica turned her head slightly and met her daughter’s eyes consideringly. Then, in a heartfelt voice, she said, “If that is what you are hoping, then I hope it for you also.”
Keffria closed her eyes for a time. She spoke from that private darkness. “But you think I should declare myself a sea widow, mourn him and then go on.”
“You could, if you chose,” Ronica said without inflection. “He has been missing long enough. No one would fault you for it.”
Keffria fought the rising misery that threatened to engulf her. She dared not give in to it, or she would go mad. “I don’t know what I hope, Mother. I just wish I knew something. Are they alive or dead, any of them? It would almost be a relief to hear Kyle was dead. Then I could mourn Tor the good things we had, and let go of the bad things. If he comes home… then I don’t know what. I feel too much.
“When I married him, it was because he was so commanding. I was so sure he would take care of me. I’d seen how hard you had to work while Father was gone at sea. I didn’t want that sort of life for myself.” She looked at her mother and shook her head. “I’m sorry if that hurts your feelings.”
“It doesn’t,” Ronica said shortly, but Keffria knew she lied.
“But, when Father died, and everything changed, somehow I found myself living your life anyway.” Keffria smiled grimly. “So many details, so many tasks to be done, until I felt there was no time left for myself at all. The odd part is, now that I’ve taken up the reins, I don’t think I can put them down again. Even if Kyle appeared on the doorstep tomorrow and said, ‘Don’t worry, dear, I’ll take care of it all,’ I don’t think I could let him. Because I know too much now.”
She shook her head. “One of the things I know now is that I’m better at these things than he would be. I began to discover that when I had to deal with our creditors myself. I could see why you had set things up as you had, and it made sense to me. But I also knew that Kyle would not like patiently working the family out of this a bit at a time. And…” She swung her eyes to her mother. “Do you hear how I am now? I don’t want to have these burdens. But I can’t bear to turn them over to anyone else, either. Because, despite all the work, I like being in control of my own life.”
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