Ship of destiny, p.15
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       Ship of Destiny, p.15

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
 

  There were muttered greetings, and the small talk of folk engaged in the same task, but no one sought real conversation with her. Even more daunting, no one asked after Malta or Keffria. She had not expected anyone to commiserate with her on Davad’s death, but now she realized that the whole topic of that night’s events seemed unmentionable to them.

  There came a time when the hall was as tidy as hasty housekeeping could make it. The Council members began to take their places on the high dais, while families filled the chairs and benches. Ronica took a place in the third row. She held her composure, though it stung when the seats to either side of her remained vacant. When she looked over her shoulder, it was frightening to see how many seats remained vacant. Where were they all? Dead, fled or too frightened to come out? She ran her eyes across the white-robed Council heads, and then noticed with dismay that another seat had been added to the dais. Worse, instead of calling the Traders to order for the meeting, the Council was waiting for the seat to be filled.

  A greater silence rather than a murmur turned Ronica’s head. Companion Serilla made her entrance. Trader Drur escorted the Companion as she entered the Concourse, but her hand was not on his arm, and she walked half a pace in front of him. The peacock-blue gown she wore was opulently oversewn with pearls. With it, she wore a scarlet mantle trimmed with white fur that brushed the dirty floor behind her. Her hair had been dressed high, and secured with pearl pins. More pearls wrapped her throat and glowed warmly on her earlobes. The wealth so casually displayed offended Ronica. Did not she know that some of the people in the room had lost nearly everything they owned? Why did she flaunt her possessions before them?

  SERILLA COULD HEAR HER HEART IN HER EARS AS SHE CAREFULLY PACED UP the aisle that led to the raised dais in the center of the damaged hall. The place smelled terrible, of rain and mildew. It was cold, too. She was glad of the mantle she had selected from Kekki’s wardrobe. She kept her chin up and a poised smile on her face as she entered. She represented the true government of Bingtown. She would uphold the Satrapy of Jamaillia with more dignity and nobility than Cosgo ever had. Her calm would hearten them, even as the richness of her garments reminded them of her exalted station. This was something she remembered from the old Satrap. Whenever he went into a difficult negotiating session, he presented himself in his most royal robes and with a calm demeanor. Pomp reassured.

  She halted Drur at the bottom of the steps with a small hand motion. Alone, she ascended to the high dais. She advanced to the chair they had left vacant for her. It irked her slightly that it was not elevated but it would have to do. She stood, silent, by her chair until the men on the dais sensed her displeasure. She waited until they had all risen to their feet before she seated herself. Then she indicated with a nod that they might be seated as well. Although the assemblage below her had neglected to rise at her entrance, she nodded round to them as well, to indicate they might be at ease.

  She spoke softly to Trader Dwicker, the leader of the Bingtown Council. “You may begin. ”

  She sat through a brief prayer in which he begged Sa to send them wisdom to deal with these uncertain times. There followed silence. Serilla let it draw out. She wanted to be sure she had their complete attention before she addressed them. But to her surprise, Trader Dwicker cleared his throat. He looked out over the faces turned up to the Council and shook his head slowly. “I scarce know where to begin,” he said with blunt honesty. “So much disorder and strife confronts us. So many needs. Since Companion Serilla agreed to this meeting and we announced it, I have been inundated with suggestions for topics that we must settle. Our city, our Bingtown-” The man’s voice cracked for an instant. He cleared his throat and regained his aplomb. “Never has our city been so grievously assaulted by forces within and without it. Our only solution must be that we stand united, as we always have, as our ancestors before us stood. With that in mind, the Council has met privately and come to some preliminary measures that we would like to enact. We believe these are in the best interests of Bingtown as a whole. We present them for your approval. ”

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  Serilla managed not to frown. She had not been warned of any of this. They had formulated a recovery plan without her? With difficulty, she held her tongue and bided her time.

  “Twice before in our history, we have imposed a moratorium on debts and foreclosures. As we enacted this before, for the Great Fire that left so many families homeless, and again during the Two-Year Drought, it is appropriate now. Debts and contracts will continue to amass interest, but no Trader shall confiscate the property of any other Trader, nor press for payment on any debt until this Council declares this moratorium to be lifted. ”

  Serilla watched their faces. There was a low murmur of conversation in the hall, but no one leapt up to object. This surprised her. She had thought that opportunistic profit had been behind much of the looting. Did the Traders stand back from that now?

  “Secondly, every Trader family shall double their city-duty days, nor shall they be able to buy back this responsibility. Every Trader and every member of a Trader’s family over fifteen years of age shall fulfill this duty personally. Lots shall be drawn for tasks to be completed, but our first efforts shall be made on our harbor, wharves and city streets, that trade may be restored. ”

  Again, there was only a brief silent pause. Again, no one objected. A slight movement by another Council member caught Serilla’s eye. She glanced at the scroll in front of him, where he had just noted, “agreed to by all. ” This silence was assent, then?

  She gazed about incredulously. Something was happening here, in this room. This people was gathering itself up and finding the united strength to begin anew. It would have been heartwarming, save that they were doing it without her. As her eyes roved over the folk, she marked how some sat straighter. Parents held hands with one another and with their younger children. Young men and some of the women had assumed determined expressions. Then her eyes snagged on Ronica Vestrit. The old woman sat close to the front of the assemblage, in her worn dress and the dead woman’s shawl. Her eyes were bird-bright and they were fixed on Serilla in glittering satisfaction.

  Trader Dwicker spoke on. He called for young single men to supplement the City Guard, and read off the boundaries of the area that they would attempt to control. Within that area, merchants were urged to resume normal commerce, so that necessary trade could resume. Serilla began to see the method to their plan. They would restore order to a section of the city, attempt to bring it back to life and hope that the rejuvenation spread.

  When he had finished his list, she waited, expecting that he would next defer to her. Instead, a score of Traders stood and waited silently, hoping to be recognized.

  Ronica Vestrit was among them.

  Serilla startled everyone, including herself, when she stood. Instantly all eyes were focused on her. All that she had earlier planned to say fled her mind. All she knew was that she must somehow reassert the Satrap’s power, and hence her own. She must keep Ronica Vestrit from speaking. She had thought she had ensured the woman’s silence earlier when she spoke to Roed Caern. Listening to how assuredly the Bingtown mechanism had begun to govern once more, she suddenly had little faith in Roed. The power that people simply took for themselves here astonished her. Roed would be no more than a cat in the path of a carriage if Ronica managed to gain an audience.

  She did not wait for Trader Dwicker to recognize her. She had been foolish to let him even begin this meeting. She should have seized control at the very start. So now she looked around at the people and nodded and smiled until those standing slowly resumed their seats. She cleared her throat.

  “This is a proud day for Jamaillia,” she announced. “Bingtown has been called a shining gem in the Satrapy’s crown, and so it is. In the midst of adversity, the folk of Bingtown do not fall into anarchy and disorder. Instead, you gather amidst the ruins and uphold the civilization you are sprung fro
m. ” She spoke on and on, trying to make her voice ring with patriotism. At one point she reached across and picked up the scroll that lay before Trader Dwicker and held it aloft. She praised it, saying that Jamaillia itself was founded on just such a sense of civic responsibility. She let her eyes rove over the crowd as she tried to claim some credit for these measures, but in her heart, she wondered if any of them were fooled. She spoke on and on. She leaned forward toward them, she met their eyes, and she put the fervor of belief into her words. All the while, her heart trembled within her. They did not need the Satrap or the Satrapy to govern them. They didn’t need her. And once they realized it, she was doomed. All the power that she had thought she had amassed would vanish, leaving her just a helpless woman in a strange land, prey to whatever fate overtook her. She could not allow that to happen.

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  When her throat began to grow dry and her voice to shake, she sought desperately for an ending. Taking a deep breath, she declared, “You have made a brave start tonight. Now, as darkness closes around our city, we must recall that dark clouds still overshadow us. Return to the safety of your homes. Keep yourselves well there, and wait for word from us as to where your efforts can best be employed. On behalf of the Satrap, your ruler, I praise and thank you for the spirit you have shown. On your way to your homes this evening, please keep him in mind. But for the threats raised against him, he would be here himself tonight. He wishes you well. ”

  She took a breath and turned to Trader Dwicker. “Perhaps you should lead us in a closing prayer of thanksgiving to Sa before we disperse. ”

  He came to his feet, his brow creased. She smiled at him encouragingly, and saw him lose the battle. He turned to the assembled Traders and took a breath to begin.

  “Council, I would speak before we adjourn. I ask that the matter of Davad Restart’s wrongful death be considered. ” It was Ronica Vestrit.

  Trader Dwicker actually choked. For a moment, Serilla thought she had lost entirely. Then Roed Caern rose smoothly to his feet.

  “Council, I submit that Ronica Vestrit speaks without authority here. She is no longer Trader for her own family, let alone Restart’s. Let her sit down. Unless this matter is raised by a rightful Trader, the Council need not consider it. ”

  The old woman stood stubbornly, two high spots of color on her cheeks. She controlled her anger and spoke clearly. “The Trader for my family cannot speak for us. The attempt on our lives has sent her into hiding with her children. Therefore, I claim the right to speak. ”

  Dwicker managed a breath. “Ronica Vestrit, have you written authorization from Keffria Vestrit to speak as Trader for the Vestrit family?”

  A silence of six heartbeats. Then, “No, Council-head Dwicker, I do not,” Ronica admitted.

  Dwicker managed to contain his relief. “Then, according to all our laws, I fear we cannot hear you tonight. For every family, there is only one designated Trader. To that Trader, both voice and vote belong. If you obtain such a paper, duly witnessed, and come back to us when next we meet, then perhaps we can hear you. ”

  Ronica sank slowly back to her seat. But Serilla’s relief was short-lived. Other Traders rose to their feet, and Dwicker began recognizing them in turn. One Trader rose and asked if Wharf Seven could be repaired first, as it offered the best moorage for deep draft ships. Several others quickly agreed with this idea, and in quick succession a number of men volunteered to take this as their task.

  Proposal after proposal followed. Some referred to public matters, others to private. One Trader stood to offer space in his warehouse to any who would help him make quick repairs and to guard it at night. He quickly had three volunteers. Another had teams of oxen, but was running out of feed for them. He wanted to trade their labor for food to keep them alive. He, too, received several offers. The night grew later and later, but the Traders showed no inclination to go home. Before Serilla’s eyes, Bingtown knit itself back together. Before Serilla’s eyes, her hopes of power and influence faded.

  She had almost ceased listening to the proceedings when a somber Trader stood and asked, “Why are we being kept ignorant of what triggered this whole disaster? What has become of the Satrap? Do we know who was behind the threat to him? Have we contacted Jamaillia to explain ourselves?”

  Another voice was raised. “Does Jamaillia know of our plight? Have they offered to send ships and men to help us drive out the Chalcedeans?”

  All faces turned toward her. Worse, Trader Dwicker made a small motion encouraging her to speak. She gathered her thoughts hastily as she stood. “There is little that is safe to tell,” she began. “There is no practical way to send swift word to Jamaillia without risk of it being intercepted. We are also uncertain whom we should consider trustworthy and loyal there. For now, the secret of the Satrap’s location is best not shared with anyone. Not even Jamaillia. ” She smiled warmly at them as if certain of their understanding.

  “The reason I ask,” the Trader went on ponderously, “is that I had a bird from Trehaug yesterday, warning me that I should expect payment for some goods I sent upriver to be delayed. They had had a quake, and a big one. They weren’t sure how much damage had been done when they sent the bird, but said that the Kendry would certainly be delayed. ” The man shrugged one skinny shoulder. “Are we sure the Satrap came through it safely?”

  For a moment, her tongue could get no purchase on her thoughts. Then Roed Caern was rising gracefully to claim the floor. “Trader Ricter, I think we should not speculate on such things, lest we send rumors running. Surely if anything were amiss, we would have received word. For now, I propose we let all questions regarding the Satrap rest. Surely his security is more important than our idle curiosity. ” He had a trick of standing with one shoulder slightly higher than the other. He turned as he spoke, somehow conveying both the charm and arrogance of a well-clawed cat. There was no threat in his words, yet somehow it would be challenging him to ask more about the Satrap. A little ripple of uneasiness seemed to spread out from him. He took his time about resuming his seat, as if allowing everyone to consider his words. No one brought up the topic of the Satrap again.

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  A few other Traders stood after that to bring up lesser matters, volunteering to keep streetlamps filled and the like, but the feeling of the meeting was suddenly that it was over. Serilla was caught between disappointment and relief that it was finished when a man in a dark blue robe stood up in the far corner of the room.

  “Trader’s son Grag Tenira,” he announced himself when Trader Dwicker hesitated over his name. “And I do have permission, written and witnessed, to speak for my family. I speak for Tomie Tenira. ”

  “Speak, then,” Dwicker recognized him.

  The Trader’s son hesitated, then drew a breath. “I suggest that we appoint three Traders to consider the matter of Trader Restart’s death and the disposition of his estate. I claim interest in this matter, for monies owed by the estate to the Tenira family. ”

  Roed Caern was on his feet again, too quickly this time. “Is this a worthy use of our time?” he demanded. “All debt is to be held in abeyance just now. That was agreed at the very start of the meeting. Besides, how can the manner of a man’s death affect a debt that is owed?”

  Grag Tenira did not seem daunted by his reasoning. “An inheritance is not a debt, I think. If the estate has been confiscated, then we must give up all hope of regaining what is owed us. But if the estate is to be inherited, then we have an interest in knowing that, and in seeing it passed on to an heir before it is… depleted. ”

  “Depleted” was the word he used, yet “plundered” was in his tone. Serilla could not control the pink that rose to her cheeks. Her mouth was suddenly dry and she could not speak. This was far worse than being ignored; he had all but accused her of theft.

  Trader Dwicker did not seem to notice her distress. He did not even seem to realize it was up to her t
o answer this. Instead, he leaned back in his chair and said gravely, “A panel of three Traders to look into this seems a reasonable request, especially as another member of a Trader family has already expressed concern about this. Would volunteers with no connection to this matter please stand?”

  As quickly as that, it was done. Serilla did not even recognize the names of those Dwicker chose. One was a dowdy young woman holding a squirming child in her arms, another an old man with a seamed face who leaned on a cane. How was she supposed to exert her influence on such as those? She felt as if she dwindled into her chair as a wave of defeat and shame washed over her. The shame amazed her in its intensity and brought despair in its wake. Somehow, it was all connected. This was the power that men could take over her. She caught a sudden glimpse of Ronica Vestrit’s face. The sympathy in the old woman’s eyes horrified Serilla. Had she sunk so low that even her enemies pitied her as they tore her to pieces? A sudden ringing in her ears threatened her, and the hall grew dimmer around her.

  RONICA SAT SMALL AND QUIET. THEY WOULD DO FOR GRAG TENIRA WHAT they would not do for her. They would look into Davad’s death. That, she told herself, was the important thing.

  She was distracted from her thoughts by how pale the Companion had suddenly become. Would the woman faint? In a way, she pitied her. She was a stranger to this place, and caught in the turmoil of its civil upheaval with no hope of extricating herself. Moreover, she seemed so trapped in her role as Companion. She sensed that at one time there had been more to Serilla, but somehow it had been lost. Still, it was difficult to pity anyone so obsessed with obtaining and holding power for herself at any cost.

  Watching her sit so still and small through the rest of the meeting, Ronica scarcely noticed it ending. Trader Dwicker led them in a final prayer to Sa, at once asking for strength and thanking the deity for survival. The voices echoing his were certainly stronger than those that had responded to his opening prayer. It was a good sign. All that had happened here had been good tonight, for Bingtown.

 

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