The mad ship, p.11
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       The Mad Ship, p.11

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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  The Ophelia was a trading cog, not built for fighting of any kind. Pirates seldom menaced liveships. It was well known that a liveship could out-maneuver and out-sail any ordinary ship of her kind. Althea doubted that anyone had ever challenged Ophelia for right of passage before, let alone demanded to board her. She carried no weaponry; her sailors had no experience in turning aside this kind of a threat. As Tenira shouted the orders that would veer Ophelia to one side, men raced to obey. “It won't be enough,” Althea said in an undertone to Grag, at her side. “They'll set fire to us. ”

  “Get oil from belowdecks. We'll throw firepots of our own!” Grag commanded angrily.

  “And draw water for firefighting!” Althea shouted. “Grag. A spare spar, an oar, anything. Give Ophelia something to use to fight them! Look. She's not going to back down. ”

  While her decks bustled with frantic activity, Ophelia again took matters into her own hands. Despite the man on the wheel, she leaned toward the galley, not away. She stretched forth both her arms, and as the Chalcedean firepots were kindled and the bows drawn, she slapped wildly at the galley like an infuriated schoolgirl, all the while shrieking insults. “You Chalcedean pigs! Do you think you can stop us in our own waters? You lying sons of whores! You are the true pirates, you slave-mongering vermin!” One of her windmilling slaps connected. Her great wooden hand struck the painted horse that was the galley's figurehead. Instantly her fingers closed on it. She thrust down on it savagely, a wild motion that pitched the decks of both ships. Sailors on both vessels cried out as they were flung off their feet. The smaller galley suffered the most. Ophelia released the bow abruptly so that the ship reared back up, a crazed rocking-horse of a vessel. The drawn bows went off, the tar pots flying wildly. One shattered and ignited the galley's own deck; two flew across Ophelia's decks to douse themselves in black smoke and steam on the other side of her.

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  One struck her on her starboard bow. Without hesitation, the ship slapped at the burning smear. She pulled back her hand and the tar on her hull flamed up again. She screamed as her fingers ignited suddenly.

  “Smother the flames!” Althea yelled to her as crew members poured water down her hull in an effort to put out the fire on her bow. Ophelia was in too much panic to heed her. She bore down suddenly on the galley, her sheer will defying her rudder and with her flaming hands caught hold of the smaller boat. She shook it like a toy, then flung it contemptuously aside. She left most of the burning residue from her hands on the other ship. As she let go of it, she clasped her great hands together. Gritting her teeth savagely, she clenched her hands into fists, squeezing out the flames that had seared her. Then, like an affronted lady lifting her skirts and storming out of the room, she suddenly answered both helm and sails. She turned aside from the troubled galley, opening the water wide between her and the smaller vessel. She tossed her head as she sailed past it.

  Flames roared, and black smoke billowed up in harmony with the cries of the sailors trapped on the burning ship. Some one or two had the wind and the will to shout threats after Ophelia, but the noise of the fire shushed their words into unintelligible cries. The Ophelia sailed on.

  CHAPTER SIX - Satrap Cosgo

  “I'M BORED AND MY HEAD ACHES. DISTRACT ME FROM MY PAIN. AMUSE ME. ” The voice came from the divan behind her.

  Serilla did not even put down her pen. “Magnadon Satrap, that is not my duty,” she pointed out quietly. “You summoned me here to advise you on the Bingtown matter. ” She gestured at the opened scrolls and books on the table. “As you can see, that is what I am prepared to do. ”

  “Well, you can scarcely expect me to pay attention to your advice while my head is throbbing so. I can hardly see for the pain. ”

  Serilla set aside the texts she was perusing. She turned her attention to the young man sprawled facedown on the divan. The Satrap was nearly engulfed by silken cushions. She tried to keep the annoyance from her voice. “I cannot promise that my advice will amuse you. However, if you would care to join me here at the table, I can enlighten you as to the facts of the Bingtown Traders' dispute. ”

  The Satrap groaned. “Serilla, you delight in giving me headaches. If you can't be more sympathetic, go away and send in Veri. Or that new Companion from the Jade Island. What was her name? It reminded me of a spice. Meg. Send in Meg. ”

  “Gladly shall I obey you, Magnadon Cosgo. ” She did not bother to hide her affront as she shoved the texts away and pushed back from the table.

  He rolled about in his pillows, then stretched a pale hand out toward her. “No. I've changed my mind. I know that I must hear your wisdom about Bingtown. All my advisors have told me the situation is crucial. But how can I think when I am in such pain? Please. Rub my head for me, Serilla. Just for a short time. ”

  Serilla arose from her table, and put a determinedly pleasant expression on her face. She reminded herself that the Bingtown issue must be resolved. It might even be resolved to her personal advantage. “Magnadon Cosgo, I did not mean to be vexing. Do you have a headache? Let me massage it away. Then we will speak about Bingtown. As you say, the issue is crucial. And in my opinion, the Satrap's present position with them is untenable. ” She crossed the chamber and pushed a number of pillows to the floor. She seated herself on the end of the divan. Cosgo immediately crawled over and put his head in her lap. He closed his eyes and rubbed his cheek against her thigh like a lamb nuzzling for milk. She clenched her teeth.

  “It is a curse. The headaches, the loose bowels, the flatulence. Some witch has put a curse on me. Why else should I be the victim of so much pain?” He moaned softly. He brought one hand up to rest on her thigh.

  She set her fingers at the base of his skull and began to walk his tension points with her fingertips. There did seem to be some pain. “Perhaps some fresh air would ease you. Exercise is most efficacious for bowel problems. It is lovely in the grounds on the south side of the temple. If we took ourselves to the thyme gardens, the fragrance might ease your pain. ”

  “It would be simpler to have a servant bring cuttings here. I do not care for bright days such as this. The light pains my eyes. How can you even suggest that I walk there myself when I am in such pain?” Almost idly, he lifted the hem of her robe. His fingers explored the smooth skin beneath. “And last time I was in the temple grounds, I stumbled on an uneven paving stone. I fell to my knees as if I was a slave. My hands went into the dirt. You know how I detest filth. ” He was petulant.

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  She set her hands to the muscles between his neck and shoulders and kneaded them deeply, making him wince with discomfort. “You were intoxicated, Magnadon,” she recalled for him. “That was why you fell. The filth on your hands was your own vomit that they slipped in. ”

  He twisted his head abruptly to stare up at her. “That makes it my fault, I suppose?” he asked sarcastically. “I thought the whole purpose of paving stones was to make the ground even and safe for walking. My poor gut was severely shocked by that fall. It was no wonder I could not keep my food down. Three healers agreed with me about that. But, I am sure that my well-educated Companion knows far better than the Magnadon Satrap Cosgo or his healers. ”

  She stood abruptly, not caring that it unsettled him. She caught the wrist of his exploring hand and thrust it toward his own groin in disdain. “I am leaving. I am the Companion of your Heart. Nothing binds me to tolerate licentiousness from you. ”

  Cosgo sat up. He clenched his hands on his knees. “You forget yourself! No one walks away from the Magnadon Satrap Cosgo. Come back. I shall say when you may leave. ”

  Serilla drew herself up to her full height. She was easily a head taller than this pale, self-indulged young man. She looked him up and down, her green eyes flashing. “No. You forget yourself, Cosgo. You are not some Chalcedean so-called noble, with a harem of whores that scrabble to fondle and mouth you at your whim. You are the Satrap of
Jamaillia. I am a Heart Companion, not some oiled and perfumed body tool. You say when I may leave, that is true. That does not mean I cannot leave when I find you disgusting. ” She spoke over her shoulder as she walked toward the door. “Send me word when you want to find out just how much trouble you can expect from Bingtown. That is my area of expertise. Find someone else to deal with your crotch. ”

  “Serilla!” he protested frantically. “You cannot leave me in such pain! You know it is the pain that makes me forget myself. You cannot hold that against me. ”

  She halted at the door. Her brow creased as she frowned at him. “I certainly can. And I do. Your father suffered extreme pain from his joints as he aged, yet he never treated me discourteously. Nor did he ever touch me uninvited. ”

  “My father, my father,” Cosgo whined. “That is all you ever say to me. That I am not as good as he was. It makes me sick to think of that shriveled old man touching you. How could your parents have given such a young girl to such an old man? It's disgusting. ”

  She advanced several steps toward him, hands knotted into fists. “You are disgusting, for imagining such things! My parents did not 'give' me to your father. I came to Jamaillia City myself, on my own, determined to pursue my studies. He was impressed with my learning when he overheard me in the Library of the North Lands, reciting for my master. He invited me to be a Companion of his Heart, to advise him on those lands. I considered it well, for three days, before I consented and accepted his ring. I took the vow to remain at the Satrap's side and advise him. It had nothing to do with his couch. He was a fine man. He made it possible for me to study, and he always listened well to me when I counseled him. When we disagreed, he did not blame it on a headache. ” Her voice fell. “I still mourn him. ”

  She opened the door and left the room. Outside, two stone-faced guards pretended they had not heard the squabble. She strode between them. She had not gone more than a dozen steps down the hall before she heard the door flung open. “Serilla! Come back!”

  She ignored the imperious command.

  “Please!” the Satrap's voice grated.

  She kept walking, her sandals whispering over the marble floor.

  “The Magnadon Satrap Cosgo courteously requests that Companion Serilla return to his chambers to advise him on the Bingtown matter. ” These words were bellowed after her down the hallway. She paused, then turned. The expression on her face was studiously polite. It was in her vows. She could not refuse him her company if he asked advice in her area of expertise. Her considered advice was all she had vowed to give him.

  “I would be honored, Magnadon. ” She retraced her steps. He leaned in the doorway, his normally pale cheeks reddened. His dark hair was tousled over his bloodshot eyes. She had to admire the expressionless guards. She re-entered the chamber and did not flinch as he slammed the door behind her. Instead, she crossed the chamber and hauled the heavy drapes to one side. Afternoon sunlight spilled into the room. She went to the table, seated herself, and then leaned forward to blow out the lamp she had been using. The afternoon light was ample, once the drapes were opened. Cosgo came grudgingly to sit beside her. She had deliberately spread her elbows apart to keep him at a distance. He seated himself as close to her as he could without actually touching her. His dark eyes were reproachful.

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  She indicated the texts arranged on the table. “Here we have a copy of the original Bingtown Charter. This, the list of grievances they have submitted to us. This stack is made up of copies of new land grants you have issued in the Bingtown area. ” She turned to face him. “Considering their first point: I find that we have most definitely violated their original charter. All the new grants are in direct violation of the old agreement. You had no authority to issue new land grants to Bingtown lands without consulting the Traders first. That was clearly spelled out in their initial charter. ”

  He scowled but said nothing. She ran her fingertip down the scroll. “They also protest the new tariffs that have been levied, as well as the increases in the old ones. Those, I think we can justify, though we may have to be more moderate in the percentages. ” She perused the Traders' list of grievances. “They complain also about the New Traders trafficking in slaves, and using slaves on their properties. And there is a final complaint about the financing of Chalcedean patrol boats and the stationing of patrol boats in Bingtown Harbor. These are areas in which I think we can negotiate compromises. ”

  “Compromises,” Cosgo muttered in disgust. “Am I not the Satrap? Why need I compromise at all?”

  She set her chin in her hand and stared out over the gardens pensively. “Because you have violated the word of your ancestor. The Bingtown Traders are provincial in many ways. And conservative. They follow many of the old traditions. They keep their bargains to the written letter; a man's word does not die with him, it is the responsibility of his heirs to honor it. They expect others to do the same. The delegation was very angry when they arrived. They had had a long voyage in which to commiserate with one another. They reinforced one another's opinions until they were mutually convinced that their position was unassailable. And, of course, only those most angered by our recent actions would take the time to come so far to confront us. They were definitely our adversaries. Still, they might have been mollified on some of their complaints if you had agreed to meet with them personally. ” She turned back to face the Satrap.

  He looked both grim and sulky. “I was ill that week. It was all I could do to meet with the Chalcedean trade delegation. You might also recall that there was an investiture of priests that I had to attend. ”

  “You spent most of the week in a stupor, sampling the new pleasure drugs the Chalcedeans had brought you. Twice you promised me you would meet with the Bingtown delegation. Each time you kept them waiting for hours before sending word you were indisposed. You left me in a very uncomfortable position. They departed feeling snubbed and ignored. They were more convinced than ever of their own righteousness. ” She did not add that she agreed with them. It was her task to present the facts to him, not her feelings. At least, that was her present task. She hoped soon to take on more than that, if her plans prospered.

  “Stiff-necked sons of outcasts and outlaws,” he sneered. “I should do as my friend Duke Yadfin advised me. Put him in place as my appointed governor in Bingtown. Dissolve their silly, feuding Councils. Old Traders, New Traders . . . who can keep up with it all? A little Chalcedean discipline would do that rabble good. ”

  Serilla could not help herself. She gaped at him. He scratched his nose negligently.

  “You cannot be serious,” she offered at last. She was even prepared to feign amusement at his tasteless jest. Put a Chalcedean noble in authority over Bingtown?

  “Why not? Chalced is a good ally. Bingtown's base slandering of them has proven groundless. Bingtown is closer to Chalced than it is to Jamaillia. A governor from Chalced could better regulate the folk there, and as long as I still received my percentages and tariffs, what harm-”

  “All of Bingtown would rise up in rebellion against you. There has already been talk of such a revolt. They would break with Jamaillia and govern themselves before they would tolerate a Chalcedean in power over them. ”

  “Break with Jamaillia? They are nothing without Jamaillia. Bingtown is a backward trade town, a frontier settlement with no future save trade with my city. They would not dare break with Jamaillia. ”

  “I fear you have greatly misjudged the temperament of the folk there. For too long, you have left them to fend for themselves. They begin to question why they should be taxed for protection and improvements they have not received for five years. ”

  “Oh, I see. Since my father's death, you mean. You blame the discontent of this rabble on me, do you?”

  “No. Not entirely. ” She kept her voice flat. “Before your father died, his mind had begun to wander. He was not as adept at detail work as he had been when a
young man. He, too, had begun to neglect Bingtown. You have simply let the slide continue. ”

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  “All the more reason then to put a governor there. You see? By your own logic, my idea is a good one. ” He sat back, fanning himself contentedly.

  She was silent until she could speak without shrieking. “It is not your idea, Magnadon. It is Duke Yadfin's plan to fleece you while you smile and smoke his pleasure herbs. Legally, you cannot appoint a governor for Bingtown, let alone one from Chalced. That is not the structure of the charter of their founding. ”

  “Then do away with the stupid charter!” he roared at her. “Why do I owe them anything? They fled to the Cursed Shores, exiles, criminals and rebellious young lords. For years, they have lived as they pleased up there, enjoying all the benefits of Jamaillian citizenship without shouldering the burdens. . . . ”

  “They cede to you fifty percent of their profits, Magnadon. That is a higher rate than any other class of citizens pay. They argue, and well, that they receive few benefits, that they have paid for all improvements to their harbors and that the piracy in the Inside Passage is worse than it has been since . . . ”

  “Yet they resist my efforts to control the pirates. How can I protect them if they will not permit my patrol boats to shelter in their harbor?”

  She sorted pages quickly. “Here. They propose that instead of your Chalcedean hirelings, they be allowed to keep those taxes and fund their own patrol vessels. Their argument is that as they are familiar with the tides and channels, that they could patrol their area more effectively. Their figures indicate they could do it less expensively. ”

  “But would they do a good job?” Cosgo demanded.

  Serilla sighed. “It is in their own best interests to do a good job. ” She leafed through several more sheets of thick paper. “I think this is one proposal you could have accepted easily, and gained much support from them in the process. ”

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