Ship of destiny, p.13
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       Ship of Destiny, p.13

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
 

  Ronica Vestrit swept into the room. She carried a ledger under her arm. “Good morning,” she greeted Serilla briskly. As the servant left the room, Ronica glanced after her. “Would not it be far simpler for me to announce myself, rather than have me find the servant to knock at the door and say my name?”

  “Simpler, but not proper,” Serilla pointed out coldly.

  “You’re in Bingtown now,” Ronica replied evenly. “Here we do not believe in wasting time simply for the purpose of impressing others. ” She spoke as if she were instructing a recalcitrant daughter in manners. Without asking leave, she went to the study table and opened the ledger she had brought. “I believe I’ve found something here that may interest you. ”

  Serilla walked over to stand by the fire. “That I doubt,” she muttered sourly. Ronica had been far too assiduous in tracking down evidence. Her constant ploys to mislead Serilla were vexatious, and making her own deception wear thin.

  “Do you weary so quickly of playing Satrap?” Ronica asked her coldly. “Or is this, perhaps, the way you believe a ruler is to behave?”

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  Serilla felt as if she had been slapped. “How dare you!” she began, and then her eyes widened even more. “Where did you get that shawl?” she demanded. Serilla knew she had seen it in Davad’s bedroom, flung over the arm of a chair. How presumptuous of the woman to help herself to it!

  For an instant, Ronica’s eyes went wide and dark, as if Serilla had caused her pain. Then her face softened. She reached up to stroke the soft fabric draped across her shoulders. “I made it,” she said quietly. “Years ago, when Dorill was pregnant with her first child. I dyed the wool and wove it myself to be a special gift from one young wife to another. I knew she loved it, but it was touching to find that of all her things, this was what Davad had kept close by him to remember her. She was my friend. I don’t need your permission to borrow her things. You are the one who is a looter and an intruder here, not I. ”

  Serilla stared at her, speechless with fury. A petty vengeance occurred to her. She wouldn’t look at the woman’s feeble evidence. She would not give her the satisfaction. She gritted her teeth and turned away from her. The fire was dying. That was why she felt suddenly chilled. Were there no decent servants anywhere in Bingtown? Angrily Serilla picked up the poker herself to try to stir the coals and logs back to life.

  “Are you going to look at this ledger with me, or not?” Ronica demanded. She stood, her finger pointing at some entry as if it were of vast importance.

  Serilla let her anger boil over. “What makes you think I have time for this? Do you think I have nothing better to do than strain my eyes over a dead man’s spidery handwriting? Open your eyes, old woman, and see what confronts all of Bingtown instead of dwelling on your private obsession. Your city is dying, and your people do not have the backbone to fight its death. Despite my orders, gangs of slaves continue to loot and steal. I have commanded that they be captured and forced to serve in an army to defend the city, but nothing has been done. The roads are blocked with debris, but no one has moved to clear them. Businesses are closed and folk huddle behind the doors of their homes like rabbits. ” She whacked a log with the poker, sending a stream of sparks flying up the chimney.

  Ronica crossed the room and knelt down by the hearth. “Give me that thing!” she exclaimed in disgust. Serilla dropped the poker disdainfully beside her. The Bingtown Trader ignored the insult. Picking it up, she began to lever the ends of the half-burned logs back into the center of the fire. “You are looking at Bingtown from the wrong vantage. Our harbor is what we must hold, first. As for the looting and disorder-I blame you as much as my fellow Traders. They sit about like a great flock of boobies, half of them waiting for you to tell them what to do and the other half waiting for someone else to do it. You have brought division amongst us. But for you proclaiming that you speak with the Satrap’s authority, the Bingtown Council would have taken charge as we always have before. Now some of the Traders say they must listen to you, and some say they must take care of themselves first, and others, wisely I think, say we should simply convene all the like-minded folk in the town and get to work on things. What does it matter now if we are Old Traders or New Traders or Three Ships people or just plain immigrants? Our city is a shambles, our trade is ruined, the Chalcedeans pluck all who venture out of Trader Bay, while we squabble amongst ourselves. ” She rocked back on her heels, and looked in satisfaction at the recovering fire. “Tonight, perhaps, we shall finally act on some of that. ”

  A terrible suspicion was forming in Serilla’s mind. The woman intended to steal her plans and present them as her own! “Do you spy upon me?” she demanded. “How is it that you know so much of what is said about the city?”

  Ronica gave a snort of contempt. She rose slowly to her feet, her knees cracking as she stood. “I have eyes and ears of my own. And this city is my city, and I know it better than you ever could. ”

  AS RONICA HEFTED THE COLD WEIGHT OF THE POKER IN HER HAND, SHE watched the Companion’s eyes. There it was again, that flash of fear in the woman’s face. Ronica suddenly knew that the right choice of words and threats could reduce this woman to a sniveling child. Whoever had broken her had broken her completely. She was a hollow shell of authority concealing an abyss of fear. Sometimes the Trader felt sorry for her. It was almost too easy to bully her. Yet, when such thoughts came to her, she hardened her heart. Serilla’s fear made her dangerous. She saw everyone as a threat. The Companion would rather strike first and be mistaken than suffer the possibility someone might act against her. Davad’s death proved that. This woman had claimed an authority over Bingtown that Ronica did not believe anyone, even the Satrap, possessed. Worse, her attempts to wield the power she claimed were fragmenting what remained of Bingtown’s ability to govern itself. Ronica would use whatever tactics came to hand to try to move Bingtown back toward peace and self-government. Only if there was peace was there any hope of Ronica recovering her family, or indeed, finding out if any of them had survived.

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  So she mimed the woman’s contemptuous gesture and tossed the poker onto the stone hearth. As it landed with a clang and rolled away, she saw the Companion flinch. The fire was recovering nicely now. Ronica turned her back on it and crossed her arms on her chest as she faced Serilla. “People gossip and, if one wants to know what is really going on, one listens to them. Even servants, if treated as human beings, can be a source of information. So it is that I know that a delegation of New Traders, headed by Mingsley, has made overtures of truce to you. That is precisely why it is so important that you look at what I have uncovered in Davad’s records. So you will proceed with caution where Mingsley is concerned. ”

  Serilla’s cheeks turned very pink. “So! I invite you into my home, out of pity for you, and you take the opportunity to spy on me!”

  Ronica sighed. “Haven’t you heard a word I said? That information did not come from spying on you. ” Other information had, but there was no point in revealing that now. “Nor do I need your pity. I accept my current fortune. I’ve seen my situation change before, and I will see it change again. I don’t need you to change it. ” Ronica gave a small snort of amusement. “Life is not a race to restore a past situation. Nor does one have to hurry to meet the future. Seeing how things change is what makes life interesting. ”

  “I see,” Serilla commented disdainfully. “Seeing how things change. This is the hardy Bingtown spirit I have heard touted about so much, then? A passive patience to see what life will do to you. How inspiring. Then you have no interest in restoring Bingtown to all it was?”

  “I have no interest in impossible tasks,” Ronica retorted. “If we focus on trying to go back to what Bingtown was, we are doomed to defeat. We must go forward, create a new Bingtown. It will never be the same as it was. The Traders will never again wield as much power as we did. But we can still go on. That is th
e challenge, Companion. To take what has happened to you and learn from it, instead of being trapped by it. Nothing is quite so destructive as pity, especially self-pity. No event in life is so terrible that one cannot rise above it. ”

  The look Serilla gave her was so peculiar that Ronica felt a shiver down her spine. For an instant, it was as if a dead woman stared out of her eyes. When she spoke, it was in a flat voice. “You are not as worldly as you think you are, Trader. If you had ever endured what I have faced, you would know that there are events that are insurmountable. Some experiences change you forever, past any cheery little wish to ignore them. ”

  Ronica met her gaze squarely. “That is only true if you have determined it is true. This terrible event-whatever it was-is over and done. Cling to it and let it shape you and you are doomed to live it forever. You are granting it power over you. Set it aside, and shape your future as you wish it to be, in spite of what happened to you. Then you have seized control of it. ”

  “That’s easier said than done,” Serilla snapped. “You cannot imagine how appallingly ignorant you sound, with your girlish optimism. I think I’ve had enough provincial philosophy for one day. Leave. ”

  “My ‘girlish optimism’ is the Bingtown spirit you have ‘heard touted about so much,’ ” Ronica snapped back at her. “You fail to recognize that a belief in being able to conquer your own past is what made it possible for us to survive here. It is what you need to find in yourself, Companion, if you hope to be one of us. Now. Are you going to look at these entries, or not?”

  Ronica could almost see the woman’s hackles rise. She wished she could approach Serilla as a friend and ally, but the Companion seemed to regard any woman as a rival or a spy. So she stood straight and cold while she waited for Serilla’s reaction. She watched her with a bargainer’s eyes and saw Serilla’s glance dart to the opened ledgers on the table, and then back to Ronica. The woman wanted to know what was in them, but she did not wish to appear to be giving in. Ronica gave her a bit more time, but when the Companion was still silent, she decided to risk it all.

  “Very well. I see you are uninterested. I had thought you would wish to see what I had discovered before I took it to the Bingtown Council. But if you will not listen to me, I am sure they will. ” With a resolute stride, she crossed to the ledger on the desk. Closing it, she tucked the heavy volume under her arm. She took her time leaving the room, hoping that Serilla would call her back. She walked slowly down the hall, still hoping, but all she heard was the firm shutting of Davad’s study door. It was no use. With a sigh, Ronica began to climb the stairs to Davad’s bedchamber. She halted at the sound of a knock on the great front door, then moved swiftly to stand near the banister and look down silently at the entry below.

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  A serving woman opened the door, and began a correct greeting, but the young Trader pushed past her. “I bear tidings for the Companion Serilla. Where is she?” Roed Caern demanded.

  “I will let her know that you are-” the servant began, but Roed shook his head impatiently.

  “This is urgent. A messenger bird has come from the Rain Wilds. Is she in the study? I know the way. ” Without allowing the servant time to reply, he pushed past her. His boots rang on the nagging and his cloak fluttered behind him as he strode arrogantly down the hall. The serving woman trotted at his heels, her protests unheeded. Ronica watched him go, and wondered if she had the courage to venture down to eavesdrop.

  “HOW DARE YOU CHARGE IN LIKE THAT!” SERILLA SPOKE AS SHE ROSE FROM POKING again at the fire. She let every bit of her anger and frustration at the Trader woman vent. Then, as she met the sparks in Roed Caem’s eyes, she took an inadvertent step back toward the hearth.

  “I beg pardon, Companion. I foolishly assumed that tidings from the Rain Wilds would merit your immediate attention. ” Between thumb and forefinger, he held a small brass cylinder of the type messenger birds carried. As she stared at it, he dared to bow stiffly. “I shall, of course, await your convenience. ” He turned back toward the door where the serving woman still gaped and spied.

  “Shut that door!” Serilla snapped at her. Her heart thundered in her chest. The Satrap’s guardians had taken only five messenger birds from Davad’s cotes the night she had dispatched the Satrap to the Rain Wilds. They would not use them needlessly. This was the first message to come since she had heard the Satrap had arrived there and that the Rain Wild folk had consented to hold him in safekeeping. She had sensed then their ambivalence about her request. Had the Satrap swayed the Rain Wilders to his point of view? Was this to charge her with treason? What was in the cylinder and who else had read it? She tried to compose her face, but the cruel amusement on the tall dark man’s face made her fear the worst.

  Best to soothe his ruffled fur, first. He reminded her of a savage watchdog, as like to turn on its master as protect her. She wished she did not have such need of him.

  “You are correct, of course, Trader Caern. Such tidings do need to be delivered immediately. In truth, I have been plagued with household affairs this morning. Servant after servant has disturbed my work. Please. Come in. Warm yourself. ” She even went so far as to accord him a gracious bow of her head, though, of course, her rank was far higher than his.

  Roed bowed again, deeply, and she suspected, sarcastically. “Certainly, Companion. I understand how annoying that can be, especially when such weighty matters press upon your delicate shoulders. ”

  It was there, a note in his voice, a selection of a word.

  “The message?” she prompted him.

  He advanced, and bowed yet again as he presented the cylinder to her. The wax it had been dipped in appeared undisturbed. But nothing would have prevented him from reading the missive, and then redipping the container. Useless to worry. She flicked the wax away from the cylinder, unscrewed it, and coaxed the tiny roll of parchment into her fingers. With a calmness she did not feel, she seated herself at the desk and leaned close to the lamp as she unrolled the message.

  The words were brief, and in their brevity, a torment. There had been a major earthquake. The Satrap and his Companion were lost, perhaps killed in the collapse. She read it again, and yet again, willing there to be more information there. Was there any hope he had survived? What did it mean to her ambitions if the Satrap were dead? On the heels of that, she wondered if this message were a deception, for reasons too intricate to unravel. She stared at the crawling letters.

  “Drink this. You look as if you need it. ”

  It was brandy in a small glass. She had not even noticed Roed taking the bottle down or pouring, but she accepted it gratefully. She sipped it and felt its heat steady her. She did not challenge him as he picked up the tiny missive and read it. Without looking at him, she managed to ask, “Will others know this?”

  Roed seated himself insolently on the corner of the desk. “There are many Traders in this city that keep close ties with their Rain Wild kin. There are other birds a-wing with the same news. Depend on it. ”

  She had to look up at his smile. “What shall I do?” she heard herself ask, and hated herself. With that one question, she put herself completely in his power.

  “Nothing,” he replied. “Nothing, just yet. ”

  RONICA OPENED THE DOOR OF DAVAD’S BEDCHAMBER. HER SLIPPERS WERE STILL damp. The stout door of the study had contained the Companion’s conversation too well, and her walk through the garden had been fruitless. The study windows were tightly closed as well. Ronica looked around Davad’s room with a sigh. She longed for her own home. She was, perhaps, safer here, and she knew she was closer to the work she must do, but she missed her own home, no matter how ransacked it was. She still felt an intruder here. She found Rache at work scrubbing the floor, apparently bent on eradicating every trace of Davad from the chamber. Ronica shut the door quietly behind her.

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  “I know you hate being here, in Dav
ad’s home, amongst his things. You don’t have to stay, you know,” she said gently. “I am more than capable of taking care of myself. You owe me nothing. You could go your own way now, Rache, with little fear of being seized as a runaway slave. You are more than welcome to continue to make your home with me, of course. Or, if you wished, I could give you a letter and directions. You could go to Inglesby, and live on the farm there. I am sure that my old nanny would make you welcome there, and probably be glad of your company. ”

  Rache dropped her rag into the bucket and got stiffly to her feet. “I would not abandon the only one who showed me kindness in Bingtown,” she informed her. “Perhaps you can take care of yourself, but you still have need of me. I care nothing at all for Davad Restart’s memory. What does it matter if he is a traitor, when I know he was a murderer? But I would not see you defamed simply by your connection to him. Besides, I have more tidings for you. ”

  “Thank you,” Ronica said, stiffly. Davad had been a longtime family friend, but she had always acknowledged his ruthless side. Yet how much blame should Davad bear for the death of Rache’s child? True, Davad’s money had bought them, and he was a part-owner of the slave ship. But he had not been there when the boy had died in the hold of the ship, overcome by heat, bad water and little food. Nonetheless, he was the one who profited from the slave trade, so perhaps he was to blame. Her soul squirmed within her. What, then, of the Vivacia and the slaves that had been her cargo? She could blame it all on her son-in-law. The ship had been in Keffria’s control, and her daughter had let her husband Kyle do as he wished with it. But how firmly had Ronica resisted? She had spoken out against it, but perhaps if she had been more adamant…

 
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