The mad ship, p.12
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       The Mad Ship, p.12

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
 

  “Oh, very well. ” He shoved at her sorted papers in disgust. “I'll see them and agree to that one. But they have to . . . ”

  “Magnadon Cosgo, it is too late for that,” she pointed out impatiently. “The delegation left here weeks ago. They went back to Bingtown. ”

  “Then why are we worrying about any of this?” he demanded. He rose. “Come. Accompany me to the steam pools. I think it would ease my head. ”

  Serilla didn't move. “You promised that you would consider their complaints and reply to each one. You promised you would send your decision to them soon. ” She weighed her chances, decided to risk all. “I would like to write up your decisions and take ship to Bingtown. The sooner I carry your decisions to them, the sooner the crisis is resolved. ” She shuffled papers yet again, aligning them with obsessive tidiness. “I have drawn up a doctrine authorizing me to negotiate on your behalf. If you wish, you could simply sign it. I could take ship tomorrow, and you would not be bothered by any more of this discussion. ” She fought to keep hope from her face and voice.

  He leaned over the table to look at the document penned in her even hand. Her heartbeat quickened. She longed to nudge the pen and ink toward him, but resisted. That would be too obvious.

  “This says I give my consent for you to make all decisions on my behalf, as regards the Bingtown Charter controversy. ” He sounded outraged. “I do not give that sort of power to anyone!”

  Her heart sank. It wasn't going to be as easy as she had hoped, but she would not give up yet. “It is true that you have not given anyone that sort of power in the past. Still, just a moment ago you spoke of appointing a Chalcedean governor. That would be ceding a great deal more power than this. This is but a temporary measure. ” She took a deep breath. She tried to put concern into her voice. “There was a time when your health used to be more robust. I know how these negotiations task you. I see no sense why the entire Satrapy should endure the risk to your health. Bingtown is my area of expertise. I should be very happy to serve you in this regard. I feel it is my duty. ”

  “Your duty? I wonder. Not your opportunity, then?”

  He had always been slyer than he looked. She tried to appear baffled by his words. “Magnadon, I have always considered my duty to the Satrapy to be my greatest opportunity in life. Now. As you can see, I have left plenty of room at the bottom where we can write in some limitations. A time limit seems called for, for example. ” She shrugged. “I simply saw this as the swiftest, easiest way to solve this. ”

  “You would go to Bingtown? Alone? The Companions of the Heart do not leave the grounds of the palace. Not ever. ”

  Freedom receded. She let nothing show on her face. “As I said, I sought the swiftest, easiest way to resolve this without taxing your health. I am completely informed on the history of the situation. I imagined you would convey your wishes to me, and that in turn I would pass them on to the Bingtown Traders. By honoring them with a visit from one of your Heart Companions, you convince them of both your sincerity and your regard for them. It would also present me with the opportunity to see firsthand a city that has been at the heart of my studies for several years. ” Fabled Bingtown. Frontier city of magic and opportunity. The only settlement that had ever survived the Cursed Shores, let alone prospered there. How she longed to see it for herself. She said nothing of the Rain Wild Traders, and their reputed cities far up the Rain Wild River. They were no more than an elusive legend. To imply there was treasure he did not even suspect would only excite his greed. She tried to refocus her thoughts. “Before your father died, he promised me that someday I would see that city for myself. This is also an opportunity for you to keep that promise. ” As soon as she uttered the words, she knew they were a mistake.

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  “He said he would let you go to Bingtown? Preposterous! Why would he promise you such a thing?” His eyes narrowed with sudden suspicion. “Or is that what you demanded in return for your favors? Did my father ever lie with you?”

  A year ago, when he had first dared ask her that question, it had shocked her into silence. He had asked it so often since then that the silence was a reflex now. It was the only true power she had over him. He didn't know. He didn't know if his father had had what she refused him, and it gnawed at him.

  She recalled the first time she had ever seen Cosgo. He had been fifteen, and she was nineteen. She was very young to be a Heart Companion. It was surprising that such an elderly Satrap would even take a new Companion. When she had been presented to Cosgo as his father's new advisor, the young man had looked from her to his father and back again. His glance had spoken his thoughts plainly. She had blushed, and the Satrap had slapped his son for his insolent gaze. Young Cosgo had taken that to mean that his base suspicions were true.

  When his father died, Cosgo had dismissed all his father's Heart Companions. Ignoring all tradition, he had sent them off without the mercy of shelter and sustenance for their declining years. Most had been elderly women. Serilla alone he retained. She would have left then, if she could have. As long as she wore a Satrap's ring, she was bound to the Satrap's side. Cosgo was Satrap now. Her vows demanded that she stay and advise him as long as he desired it. Her advice was all he could require of her. From the beginning, he had made it plain he wished more. For his other Heart Companions, he had chosen women more educated in the flesh than in diplomacy. Not one of them refused him.

  Traditionally, the Companions of the Heart were not a harem. They were supposed to be women with no other loyalties than to the Satrapy. They were supposed to be what Serilla was: blunt, out-spoken and ethically uncompromising. They were the Satrap's conscience. They were supposed to be demanding, not comforting. Sometimes Serilla wondered if she were the only Companion who remembered that.

  Serilla suspected that if she ever did allow him into her bed, she would lose all power over him. As long as she represented a possession of his father's that he could not claim, he would want her. He would pretend to listen to her, and occasionally actually follow her advice in an attempt to please her. It was the last vestige of power left to her. She hoped she could use it as a lever to gain her freedom.

  So now, she regarded him in cool silence. She waited.

  “Oh, very well!” he suddenly exclaimed in disgust. “I will take you to Bingtown, then, if it means so much to you. ”

  She teetered between elation and dismay. “You'll let me go, then?” she asked breathlessly.

  A tiny frown creased his brow. Then he smiled at her. He had a tiny thin mustache that twitched just like a cat's whiskers. “No. That is not what I said. I said I'd take you there. You can accompany me, when I go. ”

  “But you are the Satrap!” she faltered. “For two generations, no ruling Satrap has left Jamaillia City!”

  “It is as you said. This will convince them of my sincerity when we negotiate. Besides. It is on my way to Chalced. I have been invited there numerous times. I had already decided to go. You shall accompany me there, after we have settled the rebellious rabble in Bingtown. ” His smile widened. “There is much you can learn in Chalced. I think it will be good for both of us. ”

  CHAPTER SEVEN - A Bingtown Trader's Daughter

  SIT STILL.

  “It hurts,” Malta protested. She lifted a hand to touch the hair her mother was twining into gleaming coils. Her mother pushed her hand away.

  “Most of being a woman hurts,” Keffria told her daughter pragmatically. “This is what you wanted. Get used to it. ” She tugged at the weight of shining black hair in her hand, then deftly tucked a few stray strands into place.

  “Please don't fill her head with nonsense like that,” Ronica said irritably. “The last thing we need is her going about the house feeling martyred simply because she is a female. ” Malta's grandmother set down the handful of ribbons she had been sorting and paced a restless turn around the room. “I don't like this,” she said suddenly.


  “What? Getting Malta ready for her first beau?” There was bemused, maternal warmth in Keffria's voice.

  Malta frowned to herself. Her mother had initially refused to accept Malta being treated as a woman. Only a few weeks ago, she had said her daughter was much too young to have men courting her. Did she now approve of the idea? Malta shifted her eyes to try to see her mother's face in the looking-glass, but Keffria's head was bent over her hairdressing task.

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  The chamber was light and airy, perfumed by hyacinths in small glass vases. Sunlight spilled into the room from the tall windows. It was a lovely afternoon in early spring, a day that should have brimmed with promise. Instead, Malta felt weighted with the listlessness of the two older women. There was no lighthearted chatter as they readied her to meet her first suitor. The house seemed stagnated in mourning, as if her grandfather's death last spring had visited a permanent desolation upon them.

  On the table before Malta were small pots of paints and creams and perfumes. None of them were new. They were leftovers from her mother's rooms. It rankled Malta that they thought she deserved no better than that. Most were not even from the bazaar. They had been made at home, in the kitchen, rendered down like soup stock from berries, flowers, cream and tallow. Her mother and grandmother were so disappointingly old-fashioned about these things. How could they expect Bingtown society to respect them if they lived as meagerly as paupers?

  They spoke over her head as if she were a baby incapable of understanding them.

  “No, I've surrendered on that. ” Her grandmother sounded more irritable than resigned. “I don't like that we haven't heard anything from Kyle and the Vivacia. That is what worries me. ”

  Keffria's voice was carefully neutral when she spoke of her husband and the family ship. “The spring winds can be fickle. No doubt, he will be home in a handful of days . . . if he chooses to stop in Bingtown. He may pass us and go directly to Chalced to sell his cargo while it is still in good condition. ”

  “You mean while the slaves are still alive and marketable,” Ronica observed relentlessly. She had always opposed using the family liveship as a slaver. She claimed to oppose slavery on principle, but that did not prevent her from keeping a slave in the house. Ronica had claimed it would be bad for the ship to be used as a slaver, that a liveship could not cope with the dark emotions of such a cargo. Vivacia had quickened only a short time before she set out on this voyage. Everyone said that liveships were very sensitive to the feelings of those who lived aboard them and young ships even more so. Malta had her doubts. She thought the whole thing about liveships was silly. As far as she could see, owning a liveship had brought her family only debt and trouble.

  Look at her situation now. After she had begged for months to be allowed to dress and socialize as a young woman instead of a little girl, her family was finally giving in to her. And why? Not because they had seen how reasonable her request was. No. It was because some stupid contract said that if her grandmother could not keep up the payments on the family liveship debt, one of the family's children would have to be offered to the Rain Wilds in place of the gold.

  The unfairness of the whole thing rose and choked her. Here she was, young, lovely, and fresh. Who would her first suitor be? A handsome young Trader like Cerwin Trell, a melancholy poet like Krion Trentor? No. Not for Malta Vestrit. No, she got some warty old Rain Wild Trader, a man so hideously deformed he had to wear a veil if he wished to come to Bingtown. Did her mother and grandmother even care about such things? Did they ever stop to think what it might mean to her to have such a man foisted upon her? Oh, no, not them. They were too busy worrying about the ship or what was happening to her precious brother Wintrow or where her Aunt Althea was. Malta counted for nothing. Here they were, helping her dress, doing her hair and still not paying attention to her. On what might be the most important afternoon of her life, they were arguing about slavery!

  “. . . doing the best he can for the family. ” Her mother spoke in a low even voice. “You have to admit that much. Kyle can be thoughtless of feelings. I admit that. He has injured mine more than once. Nevertheless, he is not an evil man, nor selfish. I have never known him to do anything that he did not believe was best for all of us. ”

  Malta was a bit surprised to hear her mother defending her father. They had clashed badly right before her father sailed, and her mother had spoken little of him since then. Perhaps in her own dowdy, homebody way she still cared about her husband. Malta had always pitied her father; it was a shameful waste that so handsome and adventurous a sea-captain should be married to a mousy little woman with no interest in society or fashion. He deserved a wife who dressed well, one who orchestrated social gatherings in their home and attracted fit suitors for their daughter. Malta felt she deserved a mother like that also. A new thought filled her with sudden alarm.

  “What are you planning to wear today?” she asked her mother.

  “What I have on,” her mother replied tersely. She added suddenly, “I will hear no more about that. Reyn is coming to visit you, not me. ” In a lower tone she added, almost reluctantly, “Your hair gleams like night itself. I doubt he will see anyone else but you. ”

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  Malta did not allow the rare compliment to distract her. The simple blue woolen robe her mother was wearing was at least three years old. It had been well cared for and did not look worn: merely sedate and boring. “Will you at least dress your hair and put on your jewelry?” she begged. Almost desperately, she added, “You always ask me to dress well and behave appropriately when I am about Trader business with you. Will not you and Grandmother do the same for me?”

  She turned away from the mirror to confront them. They both looked surprised. “Reyn Khuprus may be a younger son, but he is still a member of one of the most wealthy and influential Rain Wild Trader families. You told me that yourself. Should not we dress as if we are receiving an honored guest, even if you are secretly hoping he will find me unappealing and simply go away?” In a lower voice she added, “Surely we owe ourselves at least that much self-respect. ”

  “Oh, Malta,” her mother sighed.

  “I do believe the child is right,” her grandmother said suddenly. The small dark woman, burdened in her widow's robes, suddenly straightened herself. “No. I know she is right. We have both been near-sighted in this. Whether or not we welcome Reyn's courtship of Malta is not the issue here. We have given permission for it. The Khuprus family now holds the note for the Vivacia. Our contract is now with them. Not only should we treat them with the same courtesy we did the Festrews, we should present the same face to them as well. ”

  Ronica paced a quick turn about the room. She ticked off her concerns on her fingers. “We have prepared a fine table, and the rooms are newly freshened for spring. Rache can wait upon table; she does well at that. I wish Nana was still with us, but it was too good of an opportunity for her to ask her to let it go. Do you think I should send Rache to Davad Restart's, to beg the loan of other serving folk?”

  “We could,” Malta's mother began hesitantly.

  “Oh, please, no!” Malta interjected. “Davad's servants are horrid, unmannered and impertinent. We are better off without them. I think we should present our household as it truly is, rather than make a false show with ill-trained servants. Which would you find more genteel? A household with limited means who chooses the best their budget allows, or a household that borrows lackadaisical help?”

  It pleased Malta to see both her mother and her grandmother surprised. Her mother smiled proudly as she said, “The girl has sense. Malta, I am sure you have seen to the heart of it. It pleases me to hear you speak so. ”

  Her grandmother's approval was more wary. She pursed her lips at Malta, and gave a brief nod. Malta looked at her mirror, turning her head to see how well her mother had succeeded with her hair. It would do. She glanced once more at her grandmother's refle
ction. The old woman was still perusing her. Malta decided it was hard for Ronica Vestrit to accept anyone else as clever. That was it. Her grandmother was jealous that Malta could think things through as clearly as she could. More clearly in fact. Her mother, however, had been proud of her. Her mother could be won over with her cleverness. Malta had never considered that before. A sudden inspiration came to her.

  “Thank you, Mother. I love what you have done with my hair. Now let me fix yours for you. Come. Sit down. ” She rose gracefully and drew her startled mother to her seat before the mirror. She pulled the long pins from her mother's dark hair. It cascaded to her shoulders. “You dress your hair as if you were a dowdy old woman,” she said artlessly. She did not need to point out that her grandmother wore hers in an identical fashion.

  She leaned down to put her cheek beside her mother's, and met her eyes in the looking-glass. “Let me arrange it with some flowers, set off with your pearl pins. It is spring, you know, and time to celebrate the blossoming of life. ” Malta lifted the silver-handled brush and drew it through her mother's hair. She cocked her head to smile at her mother's reflection in the mirror. “If we cannot afford to buy new robes and gowns before Father returns, perhaps we could brighten some of our older ones with new embroidery. I am sure it would please him. Besides, it is time I learned your rosebud stitch. Perhaps, after Reyn's visit, you could teach me. ”

  RONICA VESTRIT WAS SKEPTICAL OF HER GRAND DAUGHTER'S SUDDEN SWEETness. She felt diminished by her own pessimism, but dared not set it aside. She cursed the circumstances that had put her family's reputation and finances into the awkward hands of this giddy girl. Even more frightening was that those awkward hands were greedy and grasping, and that Malta's foolishness was fueled by cunning. If the girl had only applied her keen mind to doing what was genuinely best for her family and herself, she would have done the Vestrits proud. As it stood, she was a dangerous liability.

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  As Ronica silently withdrew from the room where Malta plaited her mother's hair into coils, she reflected sourly that if luck favored her, perhaps Reyn Khuprus would take Malta off their hands. It would be restful to have the conniving little wench out of the house; then Ronica imagined Malta as Jani Khuprus's daughter-in-law, and winced. No. Malta was a Vestrit problem. It was best to keep her at home until she had been taught to behave as befit her family. Sometimes Ronica thought the only way to do that would be with a strap.

 
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