Ship of destiny, p.14
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       Ship of Destiny, p.14

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  “Do you wish to hear my news?” Rache asked her.

  Ronica came back from her woolgathering with a start. “Certainly. ” She moved to the hearth and checked the kettle on the hob. “Shall we have tea?”

  “It’s nearly gone,” Rache cautioned her.

  Ronica shrugged. “When it’s gone, it’s gone. No use letting it go stale for fear of going without. ” She found the small container of tea and shook some into the pot. They ate at Serilla’s table, but here in their rooms, Ronica liked the small independence of her own teapot. Rache had matter-of-factly liberated teacups, saucers and other small amenities from Davad’s kitchen. She set these out on a small table as she spoke.

  “I’ve been out and about this morning. I went along the wharves, discreetly of course, but there is little going on down there. The small ships that do come in unload and load quickly, with armed men standing about all the time. I’d say there was one New Trader, probably a joint venture by several families. The cargo appeared to be mostly foodstuffs. Two other ships looked Old Trader to me, but again, I didn’t go close enough to be sure. The liveship Ophelia was in the harbor, but anchored out, not tied. There were armed men on her decks

  “I left the harbor. Then, I did as you suggested, and went down to the beach where the fisherfolk haul out. There it was livelier, though there were not near the number of little boats there used to be. There were five or six small boats pulled out, with folk sorting the catch and restowing their nets. I offered to work for a bit offish, but they were cool to me. Not rude, mind you, but distant, as if I might bring trouble or be a thief. The ones I talked to kept looking off behind my shoulder, as if they thought I might be distracting them from someone else, someone that meant them harm. But after a while, when I was obviously alone, some of them felt sorry for me. They gave me two small flounders, and talked with me a bit. ”

  “Who gave you the flounders?”

  “A fisherwoman named Ekke. Her father told her to, and when one of the other men looked as if he might object, he said, ‘Folk got to eat, Ange. ’ The generous man’s name was Kelter. A wide man, chest and belly all one big barrel, with a red beard and red hair down his arms, but not much on the crown of his head. ”

  “Kelter. ” Ronica dug through her memories. “Sparse Kelter. Did anyone call him Sparse?”

  Rache gave a nod. “But I thought it more a tease than a name. ”

  Ronica frowned to herself. The kettle was boiling, the steam standing well above the spout. She lifted it from the hob and poured water into the teapot. “Sparse Kelter. I’ve heard the name somewhere, but more than that I can’t say of him. ”

  “From what I saw, he’s the man we want. I didn’t speak to him of it, of course. I think we should go slow and be careful yet. But if you want a man who can speak to and for the Three Ships families, I think he is the one. ”

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  “Good. ” Ronica let the satisfaction ring in her voice. “The Bingtown Council meets tonight. I plan to present what information I have, and urge that we begin to unite with the rest of the city once more. I do not know what success I shall have, if any. It is so discouraging that so few have done anything for themselves. But I will try. ”

  Silence held for a few moments. Ronica sipped at her tea.

  “So. If they will not listen to you, will you give up, then?” Rache asked her.

  “I cannot,” Ronica replied simply. Then she gave a short, bitter laugh. “For if I give up, I have nothing else to do. Rache, this is the only way I can help my family. If I can be the gadfly that stings Bingtown into action, then it might be safe for Keffria and the children to return. At the very least, it might be possible for me to get word to them, or to hear from them. As things stand, with the sporadic fighting in the city and my neighbors distrusting one another, not to mention considering me a traitor, my family cannot return. And if by some miracle Althea and Brashen do manage to bring Vivacia home, then there must be a home for them to return to. I feel like a juggler, Rache, with all the clubs raining down upon me. I must catch as many as I can and try to set them spinning again. If I cannot, I am nothing more than an old woman living hand to mouth until my days end. It is my only hope to regain my life. ” She set her teacup down. It clinked gently against the saucer. “Look at me,” she went on quietly. “I have not even a teacup to call my own. My family… dead, or so far away that I know nothing of them. Everything I took for granted has been snatched from me; nothing in my life is as I expected it to be. People are not meant to live like this…. ”

  Ronica’s words trailed off as Rache’s eyes met hers. She suddenly recalled to whom she was speaking. The next words fell from her tongue without thought. “Your husband was sold ahead of you and sent on to Chalced. Have you ever thought of seeking him out?”

  Rache cupped both hands around her tea as she looked down into it. The lashes of her eyes grew wet, but no tears fell. For a long moment, Ronica regarded the straight pale parting in her dark hair.

  “I’m sorry-” she began.

  “No. ” Rache’s voice was soft but firm. “No. I shall never seek him out. For I like to imagine that he has found a kind master who treats him well for the sake of his pen skills. I can hope that he believes that his son and I are alive and well somewhere. But if I went to Chalced, with this mark upon my face, I would quickly be seized as a runaway slave. I would become chattel again.

  Even if I didn’t, even if I found him alive, then I should have to tell him how our son died. How our son died and yet I still lived. How could I explain that to him? No matter how I imagine it, it never comes out well. Follow it to the end, Ronica. It always ends in bitterness. No. As bitter as it is now, it is still the best ending I can hope for. ”

  “I’m sorry,” Ronica repeated lamely. If she had still had money, if she had had a ship, she could have sent someone to Chalced, to seek for Rache’s husband, to buy him and bring him back. Then… and then they could both live with the knowledge of their dead son. But there could be other children. Ronica knew that. She and Ephron had lost all their sons in the Blood Plague, but Althea had been born to them afterwards. She said nothing to Rache, but she made a small promise to herself and Sa. If her fortune turned, she would do what she could to change Rache’s fortunes as well. It was the least she could do for the woman after she had stood by her side for so long.

  First, she would have to change her own fortune. It was time she stopped letting other folk do her dangerous work.

  “I make no progress with Serilla,” she told Rache abruptly. “It is time to take what I know and build upon it, regardless of what the Council decides tonight. If they decide anything at all. Tomorrow, very early, I will go with you to the fishermen’s beach. We will have to catch them before they go out for the morning’s fishing. I will talk to Sparse Kelter myself, and ask him to speak to the other Three Ships families. I will tell them it is time, not only to make peace with Bingtown, but for Bingtown to declare that we rule ourselves. But it will take all of us, not just Old Traders. Three Ships immigrants, even those New Traders who can be persuaded to live by our old ways. No slavery. All must be a part of this new Bingtown we shall build. ” Ronica paused, thinking. “I wish I knew of even one New Trader who was trustworthy,” she muttered to herself.

  “All,” Rache said quietly.

  “All the New Traders?” Ronica asked in confusion.

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  “You said all must be part of this new Bingtown. Yet there is a group you have left out. ”

  Ronica considered. “I suppose that when I say Three Ships, I mean all the folk who came to settle after the Bingtown Traders had established Bingtown. All the folk who came and took our ways as their own. ”

  “Think again, Ronica. Do you truly not see us, even though we are here?”

  Ronica closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them, she met Rache’s gaze honestly. “I am ashamed of
myself. You are right. Do you know of anyone who can speak for the slaves?”

  Rache looked at her levelly. “Call us not slaves. Slave was how they named us to try to make us something we were not. Among ourselves, we call ourselves Tattooed. It says that they marked our faces, not that they could own our souls. ”

  “Have you a leader?”

  “Not exactly. When Amber was in Bingtown, she showed us a way to help ourselves. In each household, she said, find one who will be the information holder. If anyone discovered a useful thing, something that could aid anyone who wished to escape, or to have some time to herself, such as a door with a broken lock, or where the master kept money that could be quietly taken, well, that information was passed on to the information holder. Then there would be another, a person who did marketing or washing or anything that took him into town and brought him into contact with Tattooed from other households. He would pass along the information from the information holder to other households, and bring back other tidings to be shared.

  “Thus, a Tattooed one might be able to use the knowledge that a master was sending a wagonload of seed grain out to send word to family or friends working at that farm. Or steal money from one master, and hide in a wagon of hay belonging to another to escape. Amber urged us not to have one leader we relied on, but to have many, like the knots in fishing net. One leader could be captured and tormented and betray us all. But as long as we kept the leadership spread, we were like the netting. Even if you cut a net in twain, there are still many knots in each half. ”

  “Amber did all this? Amber the bead-maker?” Ronica queried. When Rache nodded, she demanded, “Why?”

  Rache shrugged. “Some said she had been a slave herself once, despite the fact she has no tattoo. She wears a freedom ring in one ear, you know, the earring that Chalcedean freed-slaves must purchase and wear to prove they have been granted their freedom. I asked her once if she had bought her freedom, or if it had belonged to her mother. She was quiet for a time, and then said it was a gift from her one true love. When I asked Amber why she helped us, she simply said that she had to. That, for reasons of her own, it was important to her.

  “Once, a man got very angry with her. He said it was easy enough for her to play at taking chances and stirring up rebellion. He said she could get us all into great danger, and then walk away from it. Her tattoo could be scrubbed away. Ours could not. Amber met his eyes and said, yes, that was true. Therefore, he demanded that she tell us why she did such things, before he would trust her. It was so strange. She sat back on her heels, very still and silent for a moment. Then she laughed aloud, and said, ‘I’m a prophet. I’ve been sent to save the world. ’ “

  Rache smiled to herself. A silence fell as Ronica regarded her in consternation. After a moment, Rache cocked her head and speculated, “That made a lot of us laugh. We were all gathered at one of the washing fountains, scrubbing out laundry not our own. You had sent me to town to buy something, and I had stopped to talk there. It was a sunny blue day, and with her talk and plans, Amber made us feel as if we could actually regain lives of our own choosing again. Everyone thought that what she said about saving the world was just a jest. But the way she laughed… I always thought she was laughing because she knew it was safe to tell us the truth, because none of us would ever believe it. ”

  RONICA WALKED TO THE TRADERS’ CONCOURSE. SHE KNEW BETTER THAN TO expect Companion Serilla to arrange for her transport. She left Davad’s house early, not only to allow for the walk, but also to be one of the first there. She hoped to speak to individual Traders as they arrived and sound them out on what they thought the Council should do. It was not an easy walk, nor a safe one. Rache wanted to accompany her, but Ronica insisted that she remain behind. There was no sense in risking both of them. The former slave would not be admitted to the Bingtown Traders’ Council meeting, and Ronica would not ask her to wait outside in the gathering darkness. She herself hoped to beg a ride home when the meeting was over. The chill autumn winds tugged at her clothes, and the conditions she saw as she walked tugged at her heart.

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  Her path did not lead her down into the city, for the Concourse had been built on a low hill that overlooked Bingtown. Her journey took her past many of the Traders’ estates. The open gateways and wide carriage roads up to the properties now were barricaded, and frequently men with weapons stood guard at the closed gates. No home was safe from the roving bands of thieves and looters. The guards watched her go by with unfriendly stares. No one called a greeting or even nodded to her.

  Ronica was the first to arrive for the Council meeting. The Concourse itself had suffered as badly as Bingtown. This old building was more than just a structure where the Traders met. It was the heart of their unity, a symbol of who they were. Its stone walls would not burn, but someone had managed to set its roof alight. Ronica stood for a time staring up at it in dismay. Then she braced herself against what she might find, and climbed the steps. The doors had been broken open. She peered past them cautiously. Only one corner of the roof had burned, but the smell of smoke mingled with the damp to make the whole hall reek. The weak light of late afternoon came in through the breached roof to illuminate the empty hall. Ronica pushed past the broken-latched door and advanced cautiously. The gathering hall was cold. The moldering decorations from the Summer Ball still trailed down the walls and stirred in the trespassing wind. Garlands had degenerated to bare branches on the door arches and rotting leaves on the floor. Tables, chairs and the raised dais were still in place. There was even a scattering of dishes on some of the tables, though most had been looted. Dead bouquets were rotting beside broken vases. Ronica gazed about herself with a growing dismay. Where were those who were assigned to prepare the hall for the gatherings? What had become of the Traders appointed to caretake the hall? Had everyone abandoned every responsibility save to care for their own welfare?

  For a time, she simply waited in the chill, dim hall. Then the clutter and disorder began to clatter against her calm. In her younger days, she and Ephron had served a term as hall-keepers. Almost every young Trader couple did. With a strange twinge of heart, she recalled that Davad and Dorill had served alongside them. They had come early to the Council meetings, to fill the lamps and set the fires, and stayed afterward to wipe down the wooden benches with oily cloths and sweep the floors. Back then it had been simple, pleasant work, performed in the company of other young Trader couples. Recalling those days was like finding a touchstone for her heart.

  She found the brooms, candles and lamp oil where they had always been kept. It cheered her a tiny bit to find that the storage room had not been looted. That meant that slaves or New Traders had done the other thievery, for any Trader family would have known where to look for the hall supplies. She could not restore the hall completely, but she could begin to set it right.

  She needed light first. She climbed on a chair to fill and light the wall lanterns. Their flames flickered in the breeze, and illuminated more clearly the leaves and dirt that had blown in with the fallen bits of charred roof. She gathered the scattered dishes into a washing tub and set it aside. She pulled down the damp banners and denuded garlands from the walls and bundled them into a corner. The broom she chose next seemed a puny weapon against the littered floor of the great hall, but she set to with a will. It felt good, she suddenly decided, to set herself to a physical task. For this small time, at least, she could see the results of her effort and her will. She found herself humming the old broom song as she moved a line of litter rhythmically across the floor. She could almost hear Dorill’s sweet alto swinging the repetitive refrain.

  The rasp of her broom covered the scuff of footsteps. She became aware of the others only when two other women joined in with brooms of their own. Startled, she halted in her sweeping to stare around her. A group of Traders huddled together in the entry. Some looked at Ronica with hollow eyes and sagging shoulders, but others were moving p
ast those who only stared. Two men came in bearing armloads of firewood. A group of youngsters united in gathering up the smelly banners and dragging them out of the hall. Suddenly, like a knot of debris yielding to the force of water, the folk in the entry flowed into the hall. Some began to move benches and chairs into their proper configuration for a Council meeting. More lamps were kindled, and a hum of conversation began to fill the hall. The first time someone laughed aloud, the buzz of voices ceased for an instant, as if all were startled by this foreign sound. Then talk resumed, and it seemed to Ronica that folk moved livelier than they had.

  Ronica looked around at her neighbors and friends. Those who gathered here were the descendants of the settlers who had originally come to the Cursed Shores with little more than land grants and a charter from Satrap Esclepius. Outcasts, outlaws and younger sons, their ancestors had been. With small hope of building or regaining fortunes in Jamaillia, they had come to try their luck on the ominously named Cursed Shores. Their first settlements had failed, doomed by the weirdness that seemed to flow down the Rain Wild River with its waters. They had moved farther and farther from what initially had seemed a promising waterway until they had settled here, on the shores of Bingtown Bay.

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  Some of their kin had stayed to brave the strangeness of life along the Rain Wild River. The river marked those who lived along its shores, but no true Trader ever lost sight of the fact that they were all kin, and all bound by the same original charter. For the first time since the night of the riots, Ronica glimpsed that unity. Every face she greeted looked wearier, older and more anxious than the last time she had seen them. Some wore their Trader robes in their family colors, but as many were dressed in ordinary clothes. Evidently, she was not the only one who had lost possessions to looters. Now that they were here, they moved about the business of straightening up the hall with a practiced doggedness that had always been the Trader hallmark. No matter what, these were folk who had prevailed, and they would prevail again. She took hope from that, at the same time that she dully realized how few acknowledged her.

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