Ship of destiny, p.12
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       Ship of Destiny, p.12

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  “Have you asked Paragon about it?”

  Brashen shook his head. “I was afraid to bring it up to him; he might think that meant I approved it. Then he would fix all his energy on it. Or that I didn’t approve of it, in which case he might decide to insist on it just to prove he could. You know how he can be. I didn’t want to present the idea unless we were all behind it. Any mention of it from me, and he might set his mind on piracy as the only correct course of action. ”

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  “I wonder if that damage isn’t already done,” Althea speculated. The rum was making a small warm spot in her belly. “Paragon has been very strange of late. ”

  “And when has that not been true of him?” Brashen asked wryly.

  “This is different. He is strange in an ominous way. He speaks of us encountering Kennit as our destiny. And says nothing must keep us from that end. ”

  “And you don’t agree with that?” Brashen probed.

  “I don’t know about the destiny part. Brashen, if we could come upon Vivacia when she had only an anchor watch aboard her and steal her back, I would be content. All I want is my ship, and her crew if any have survived. I have no desire for any more battle or blood than there must be. ”

  “Nor have I,” Brashen said quietly. He added another jot of rum to each glass. “But I do not think we will recover Vivacia without both. We must harden ourselves to that now. ”

  “I know,” she conceded reluctantly. But she wondered if she did. She had never been in any kind of battle. A couple of tavern scuffles were the extent of her brawling experience. She could not picture herself with a sword in her hand, fighting to free the Vivacia. If someone attacked her, she could fight back. She knew that about herself. But could she leap onto another deck, blade swinging, killing men she had never even seen before? Sitting here with Brashen in a warm and comfortable cabin, she doubted it. It wasn’t the Trader way. She had been raised to negotiate for whatever she wanted. However, she did know one thing. She wanted Vivacia back. She wanted that savagely. Perhaps when she saw her beloved ship in foreign hands, anger and fury would wake in her. Perhaps she could kill then.

  “Well?” Brashen asked her, and she realized she had been staring past him, out the stern window, at their lace-edged wake. She brought her eyes back to his. Her fingers toyed with her glass as she asked, “Well what?”

  “Do we become pirates? Or at least put on the countenances of pirates?”

  Her mind raced in hopeless circles. “You’re the captain,” she said at last. “I think you must decide. ”

  He was silent for a moment. Then, he grinned. “I confess, on some level, it appeals to me. I’ve given it some thought. For our flag, how about a scarlet sea serpent on a blue background?”

  Althea grimaced. “Sounds unlucky. But frightening. ”

  “Frightening is what we want to be. And that was the scariest emblem I could think of, straight from my worst nightmares. As to the luck, I’m afraid we’ll have to make that for ourselves. ”

  “As we always have. We’d go after slavers only?”

  His face grew grave for a moment. Then a touch of his old grin lightened his eyes. “Maybe we wouldn’t have to go after anything. Maybe we could just make it look like we had… or that we intend to. How about a bit of playacting? I think I’d have to be a dissatisfied younger son from Bingtown, something of a fop, perhaps. A gentleman come south to dabble in piracy and politics. What do you think?”

  Althea laughed aloud. The rum was uncoiling in her belly, sending tendrils of warmth throughout her body. “I think you could come to enjoy this too much, Brashen. But what about me? How would you explain female crew aboard a Bingtown vessel?”

  “You could be my lovely captive, like in a minstrel’s tale. The daughter of a Trader, taken hostage and held for ransom. ” He gave her a sideways glance. “That might help establish my reputation as a daring pirate. We could say the Paragon was your family ship, to explain away the liveship. ”

  “That’s a bit overly dramatic,” she demurred softly. There was a brighter spark in his eyes. The rum was reaching them both, she decided. Just as she feared that her heart would overpower her head, his face turned suddenly grim.

  “Would that we could play-act such a romantic farce and win Vivacia back. The reality of playing pirate would be far more bloody and ruthless. My fear is that I won’t enjoy it nearly as much as Lavoy. Or Paragon. ” He shook his head. “Both of them have a streak of-what shall I call it? Just plain meanness, I sometimes think. If either one were allowed complete indulgence of it, I suspect they would sink to a savagery that you or I would find unthinkable. ”

  “Paragon?” Althea asked. There was skepticism in her voice, but a little shiver of certainty ran up her spine.

  “Paragon,” Brashen confirmed. “He and Lavoy may be a very bad mix. I’d like to keep them from becoming close, if such a thing is possible. ”

  A sudden knock at the door made them both jump. “Who is it?” Brashen demanded roughly.

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  “Lavoy, sir. ”

  “Come in. ”

  Althea jumped to her feet as the first mate entered. His quick glance took in the rum bottle and the glasses on the table. Althea tried not to look startled or guilty, but the look he gave her expressed his suspicions plainly. His sarcasm was little short of insubordinate as he addressed Brashen. “Sorry to interrupt you both, but there’s ship’s business to attend to. The carpenter is unconscious on the forward deck. Thought you’d like to know. ”

  “What happened?” Althea demanded without thinking.

  Lavoy’s lip curled disdainfully. “I’m reporting to the captain, sailor. ”

  “Exactly. ” Brashen’s voice was cold. “So get on with it. Althea, go see to the carpenter. Lavoy, what happened?”

  “Damn me if I know. ” The burly mate shrugged elaborately. “I just found her there and thought you’d like to know. ”

  There was no time to contradict him, nor was it the right time to let Brashen know she had left them alone together. Her heart in her mouth, she raced off to see what Lavoy had done to Amber.

  Liveship Traders 3 - Ship of Destiny

  CHAPTER SIX - An Independent Woman

  A DRIZZLING RAIN WAS FALLING FROM THE OVERCAST SKY. WATER DRIPPED endlessly from the bushes in the gardens. Wet brown leaves carpeted the sodden lawns. Serilla let the lace edge of the curtain fall back into place. She turned back to the room. The grayness of the day had crept inside the house and Serilla felt chill and old in its embrace. She had ordered the curtains drawn and the fire built up in an effort to warm the room. Instead of feeling cozier, she felt muffled and trapped in the day. Winter was creeping up on Bingtown. She shivered. Winter was always an unpleasant season at best. This year it was an untidy and unsettled time as well.

  Yesterday, with a heavy guard attending her, she had driven from Restart’s estate down into Bingtown. She had ordered the men to take the carriage through the town, along the old market, and past the wharves. Everywhere she had seen destruction and disrepair. She had looked in vain for signs of repair and rebirth in the shattered city. Burned homes and shops gave off their clinging odor of despair. Piers ended in charred tongues of wood. Two masts stuck up from the sullen waters of the harbor. All the folk out in the streets had been hooded and cloaked against the day’s chill, all hurrying somewhere. They looked away from her carriage as it passed. Even those streets of the city where the remnants of the City Guard patrolled seemed edgy and repressed.

  Gone were the bright teashops and prosperous trading companies. The bright and busy Bingtown that she had passed through on her first trip to Davad Restart’s house had died, leaving this smelly, untidy corpse. Rain Wild Street was a row of boarded-up shopfronts and deserted stores. The few places that were open for trade had a guarded, anxious look to them. Thrice her carriage had been turned back by barricades of rubble.

  She had planned to find merchants and neighbors who were making an effort to restore the city. She had imagined she would dismount from her carriage to greet them and praise their efforts. They were supposed to have invited her into their struggling shops, or walked her through their efforts at rebuilding. She would have congratulated them on their stout hearts, and they would have been honored by her visit. Her plan had been to win their loyalty and love. Instead, she had seen only harried refugees, sullen-faced and withdrawn. No one had even offered her a greeting. She had returned to Davad’s house and simply gone up to her bed. She had no appetite for supper.

  She felt cheated. Bingtown was the glowing bauble she had always promised herself that she would someday possess. She had come so far and endured so much, simply to behold it so briefly. As if fate could not allow her any joy, the moment it seemed she might attain her goal, the city had destroyed itself. A part of her wanted simply to admit defeat, board a ship, and return to Jamaillia.

  But there were no ships sailing safely to Jamaillia anymore. The Chalcedeans lay in wait for any ship that tried to leave or enter Bingtown Harbor. Even if she could somehow reach Jamaillia, what welcome would she receive? The plot against the Satrap had its roots in Jamaillia. She might be seen as a witness and a threat. Someone would find a way to eliminate her. She had been suspicious from the time the Satrap proposed that he leave Jamaillia on this jaunt to Bingtown and then visit Chalced afterward. His nobles and advisors should have loudly protested such a move; it was rare for the reigning Satrap to travel so far outside the borders of Jamaillia. Instead of objections, he had received encouragement. She sighed to herself. The same set of sycophants who had taught him so young about the pleasures of flesh and wine and intoxicating herbs had encouraged him to leave the governing of his land completely to them while he traveled through hostile waters, in the care of dubious allies. Gullible and lazy, he had accepted the bait. Enticed by the invitations of his Chalcedean “allies,” promised exotic drugs and even more exotic fleshly pleasures, he had been led away from his throne like a child baited with candy and toys. His “most loyal” followers who had always encouraged him to have his own way had done so to unseat him.

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  A sudden realization shocked her. She did not much care what became of the Satrap or his authority in Jamaillia. All she wished to do was to preserve his power in Bingtown, so she could claim it for her own. That meant uncovering who in Bingtown had been so willing to aid in his overthrow. The same people would try to depose her as well.

  For a fleeting moment, she wished she had studied more about Chalced. There had been letters in the cabin of the Chalcedean captain, written in Jamaillian lettering, but in the Chalcedean language. She had recognized the names of two high Jamaillian nobles and the notation for sums of money. She had sensed then that she held the roots of a conspiracy in her hands. What had the Chalcedeans been paid to do? Or were they the ones who had paid? If she had been able to read those letters when the Chalcedean captain had held her prisoner there… then her mind shied away.

  She hated what those nightmare days of confinement and rape had done to her. They had changed her irrevocably, in ways she despised. She could not forget that the Chalcedean captain had possessed life and death control over her. She could not forget that the Satrap, the boyish, spoiled, self-indulgent Satrap, had had the power to put her in such a position. It had forever altered her image of herself. It had made her recognize the full extent of the power men had over her. Well, she had power now, and as long as she guarded that power well, she would be safe. No man could ever impose his will on her again. She had the strength of her exalted position. Position would protect her. She must maintain it at any cost.

  Yet for power, there was a price.

  She lifted the corner of the curtain again and peered out. Even here in Bingtown, she was not safe from assassination attempts. She knew that. She never went out unaccompanied. She never dined alone and she always made sure that her guests were served before her and from the same dishes of which she would partake. If they did manage to kill her, at least she would not die alone. But she would not let them kill her, nor wrest from her the influence she had fought so hard to secure. There were threats to that power, but she could defeat them. She could keep the Satrap isolated and unable to communicate. For his own good, of course. She permitted herself a small smile. She wished they had not taken him so far away. If he were here in Bingtown, she could see that he got the pleasure herbs and comforts that would keep him manageable. She could find a way to separate him from Kekki. She could convince him that he was wise to lie low and let her manage things for him.

  A discreet rap at the door interrupted her thoughts. She let the curtain fall again and turned back to the chamber. “Enter. ”

  The serving woman had a tattooed face. Serilla was repulsed by the tattoo that spidered greenly across her cheek. She refused to look at her any more than she must. She would not have kept her, save that she was the only servant Serilla could find that was properly trained in Jamaillian courtesy. “What is it?” she demanded as the woman curtseyed.

  “Trader Vestrit wishes to speak with you, Companion Serilla. ”

  “Let her enter,” Serilla replied listlessly. Her spirits dropped yet another notch. She knew she was wise to keep the woman close, where she could watch her. Even Roed Caern had agreed to that. Serilla had been so pleased with herself when she first thought of the ruse. In a secret meeting, the heads of the Traders’ Council had been horrified at her demand to have Ronica Vestrit seized. Even in times such as these, they refused to see the wisdom of such an act, and the thought of that confrontation made Serilla grit her teeth. It had proved to her the limitations of her power over them.

  But she, in turn, had demonstrated to the Council heads her own resourcefulness. A graciously worded request had summoned the Trader woman to be Serilla’s guest in Restart Hall. Ostensibly, Ronica was to aid Serilla by exploring all of Restart’s records, not only to prove Davad’s innocence but her own. After some hesitation, Ronica had agreed. Serilla had initially been pleased with herself. Having Ronica Vestrit live under her roof simplified Roed’s task of spying on her. He would soon uncover who was in league with her. But there was a cost to Serilla’s tactic. Knowing the Trader woman was close by was like knowing there was a serpent in one’s bed. To be aware of a danger did not necessarily disarm it.

  The day Ronica arrived, Serilla had been sure of her triumph. Ronica brought no possessions save the bundles she and her maid carried. Her servant was a tattoo-faced former slave who treated the Trader woman almost as if they were equals. The Vestrit woman had little clothing and no jewelry at all. As plain Ronica had sat eating at the foot of Serilla’s table that evening, the Companion had felt triumphant. This pitiful creature was no threat: she would become a symbol of the Companion’s charity. And eventually some slip of hers would betray her fellow conspirators. Whenever she left the house, Roed followed her.

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  Nevertheless, since Ronica had moved into Davad’s old bedroom, the woman had not let Serilla have even one day of peace. She was like a humming gnat in her ear. Just when Serilla should be concentrating all her efforts on consolidating her power, Ronica distracted her at every turn. What was she doing about clearing the sunken ships from the harbor? Was there any word of aid from Jamaillia? Had she sent a bird to Chalced, to protest these acts of war? Had she tried to gain the support of the Three Ships folks to patrol the streets at night? Perhaps if the former slaves were offered paying work, they would prefer it to roaming as looting gangs. Why had Serilla not urged the Bingtown Council to convene and take charge of the city again? Every day, Ronica pushed at her with questions like these. In addition, at every opportunity, she reminded Serilla that she was an outsider. When Serilla ignored her other demands, Ronica went back with monotonous tenacity to insisting that Davad was not a traitor, and that Ser
illa had no right to his property. The woman did not seem to respect her at all, let alone afford her the courtesy due a Satrap’s Companion.

  It rankled even more because Serilla was not sure enough of her position to bring her authority to bear on the Trader. Too often she had given in to the woman’s nagging; first, to have Davad buried, and again to surrender some orchard to the traitor’s niece. She would not give in to her again. It only encouraged her.

  Roed had reported to her how the woman spent her mornings. Despite the dangers of the street, Ronica Vestrit and her maid ventured out each day, to go on foot from door to door, rallying the Traders to convene. Roed had reported that she was often turned away or treated brusquely by those she called upon, but the woman was insistent. Like rain on a stone, Serilla thought, she wore down the hardest heart. Tonight she would gain her largest triumph. The Council would convene.

  If the Traders listened to Ronica tonight and decided that Davad had never been at fault, it would seriously undermine Serilla’s authority. If the Council decided his niece should inherit his estate, Serilla would have to move out of Restart Hall and be forced to ask hospitality of another Trader. She would lose her privacy and her independence. She could not allow that to happen.

  Serilla had gently but firmly opposed the Council’s convening, telling them all it was too early, that it was not safe for the Traders to gather in one place where they could be attacked; but they were no longer listening to her.

  Time was all Serilla had needed; time to make her alliances stronger, time to know who could be persuaded with flattery and who needed offers of titles and land. Time might bring her another bird with tidings from Jamaillia. One Trader had brought her a bird-message from his trading partner in Jamaillia. Rumors of the Satrap’s death had reached the city, and riots were imminent. Could the Satrap send a missive in his own hand to defuse this dangerous gossip?

  She had sent back a bird with a message of reassurance that the rumor was false, and a query as to who had received the message about the Satrap’s death, and from whom. She doubted she would get a reply. What else could she do? If only she had another day, another week. A bit more time, and she was sure she could master the Council. Then, with her superior education and experience of politics and knowledge of diplomacy, she could guide them to peace. She could make them see what compromises they must accept. She could unite all the folk of Bingtown and from that base, treat with the Chalcedeans. That would establish for all her authority in Bingtown. Time was all she needed, and Ronica was stealing it from her.


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