Ship of destiny, p.20
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       Ship of Destiny, p.20

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  “What is it?” the Satrap enunciated painfully.

  “Hush. It’s a Chalcedean war galley. ” Malta stared at the oncoming ship. Her heart hammered against her ribs. What business had a Chalcedean ship coming up the Rain Wild River? It could only be to spy or raid. Still, it was the only ship they had seen. Here was rescue, or brutal death. While she hesitated, wondering what to do, the Satrap acted.

  “Help! Help! Over here! Over here!” He rose to a half-crouch in the stern of the boat, clinging to the side of the boat with one hand and waving wildly with the other.

  “They may not be friendly!” Malta rebuked him.

  “Of course they are! They are my allies, my hirelings to rid Jamaillia’s waters of pirates. Look! They have Jamaillian colors on their flagstaff. They’re some of my mercenaries, hunting pirates. Hey! Over here! Save us!”

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  “Hunting pirates up the Rain Wild River?” Malta retorted sarcastically. “They’re raiders!”

  They ignored her. Kekki, too, had roused. She dragged herself to a sitting position in the bow, flailed one arm feebly and yowled wordlessly for help. Even through their clamor, Malta heard the surprised shout of the lookout on the galley. In moments, a cluster of lanterns appeared on the bow of the ship, throwing over them a distorted shadow of the monster-headed prow. A silhouette of a man suddenly pointed toward them. Two others joined him. Shouts from the galley’s deck betrayed their excitement. The ship diverted to make straight for them.

  It seemed to take a very long time for the ship to reach them. A line was thrown and Malta caught it. She braced herself as they drew the boats together. Lanterns held over the side of the galley blinded her. She stood stupidly holding the line as first the Satrap and then Kekki were taken on board.

  When it was her turn, she reached their deck and found her legs would not hold her. She sank down to the planks. Chalcedean voices asked insistent questions but she just shook her head. From her father, she had a smattering of the language, but her mouth was too dry to speak. They had given the Satrap and Kekki water, and Kekki was haltingly thanking them. When the waterskin was offered to Malta, she forgot all else. They took it away before she had near enough. Someone threw her a blanket. She wrapped it around her shoulders and sat shivering miserably, wondering what would become of them now.

  The Satrap had managed to drag himself to his feet. His Chalcedean was fluent, if roughened by the condition of his throat. Malta listened dully as the fool declared himself to them and thanked them for rescuing him. The sailors listened to his words with broad grins. She did not need the language; their gestures and tones betrayed their skepticism. When the Satrap grew angry, their mirth increased.

  Then Kekki rallied. She spoke more slowly than the Satrap had, but again Malta learned more from her tone than from the smattering of words she picked out. It did not matter that her clothes were dirty and torn, her complexion harshened and her lips chapped. The Companion berated them and taunted them in polished Chalcedean, using the noble pronouns rather than the common forms. Moreover, Malta knew that no Chalcedean woman would dared have spoken so, unless she trusted firmly in the status of the male who protected her to shelter her from the sailors’ wrath. Kekki gestured at the banner of Jamaillia that hung limply from the ship’s mast, and then back to the Satrap.

  Malta watched the men’s attitude shift from scorn to uncertainty. The man who helped her to her feet was careful to touch only her hands or arms. To do otherwise was deadly insult to father or husband. Malta tugged her blanket more firmly around her shoulders and managed to totter stiffly after the Satrap and Kekki.

  She was not impressed with their ship. A raised deck ran the length of it between the benches for the rowers. Fore and aft were above-deck structures designed more for battle than shelter or comfort. They were escorted to the aft one and ushered into a cabin. The sailors left them there.

  It took a moment for Malta’s eyes to adjust. The warmly lit cabin seemed brilliant to her dazzled eyes. Lush furs covered the bedstead while a thick rug underfoot comforted her cold bare feet. A small brazier burned in a corner, giving off fumes and heat in equal proportion. The warmth made her skin sting and tingle. A man seated behind a chart table finished inking in a line and made a small notation to himself. He lifted his eyes slowly to regard them. The Satrap boldly, or foolishly, advanced to drop into another chair beside the table. When he spoke his tone was neither command nor request. Malta caught the word for “wine. ” Kekki sank to the floor, to sit at the Satrap’s feet. Malta remained standing by the door.

  She watched the events as if she watched a play. With a sinking heart, she knew that her fate was in the Satrap’s hands. She had no faith in the man’s honor or intelligence, yet circumstances trapped her. She did not have enough Chalcedean to speak for herself, and she well knew her inferior status by Chalcedean custom. If she tried to declare herself independent of the Satrap, she would also be shearing herself of whatever protection he might offer her. She stood silent, trembling with hunger and fatigue, and watched her destiny unfold.

  The ship’s boy brought the captain wine and a tray of sweet biscuits. She had to endure watching the captain pour wine for himself and the Satrap. They drank together. They spoke, with the Satrap doing most of the talking, interspersed with frequent sips of wine. Someone brought the Satrap a steaming bowl of something. As he ate, from time to time the Satrap handed Kekki a biscuit or a piece of bread as if she were a dog under the table. The woman took the tidbits and nibbled at them slowly with no indication she desired more. The woman was exhausted, but Malta marked that the Companion seemed to be striving to follow the conversation. For the first time, Malta felt a stirring of admiration for Kekki. Perhaps she was tougher than she looked. The days of exposure had left her eyes mere slits in her swollen face, but a shrewd light still glinted in them.

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  The men finished eating, but remained at table. A boy came in bearing a lacquered box. From it, he took two white clay pipes, and several pots of smoking herbs. Cosgo sat up with an exclamation of delight. Anticipation shone in his eyes as the captain tamped a load into a pipe for him and offered it to him. He leaned forward toward the flame the captain offered. As the mixture of intoxicant herbs kindled, Cosgo took a long draw from his pipe. For a moment, he simply held his position and breath, a blissful smile spreading across his face. Then he leaned back and breathed out smoke in a sigh of contentment.

  Soon smoke tendriled through the room. The men talked expansively and laughed often. Malta found she could scarcely keep her eyes open. She tried to keep her attention on the captain and judge his reactions to what the Satrap said, but it was suddenly hard to concentrate. It took all her will just to remain standing. The table and the men at the other end of the cabin receded into a warm distance. Their voices were a soothing murmur. She twitched back to alertness as the captain stood. He extended a hand toward the door, inviting the Satrap to precede him. Cosgo rose stiffly. The food and wine seemed to have restored some of his strength. Kekki tried to follow her master, but sank back down to the carpet. The Satrap gave a snort of disdain and said something deprecating to the captain. Then he focused on Malta.

  “Help her, stupid,” he commanded her in disgust. The two men left the cabin. Neither looked back to see if the women followed.

  Behind their backs, Malta seized a biscuit from the table and crammed it into her mouth. She chewed it dry and gulped it down hastily. Malta did not know where she found the strength to help Kekki rise and follow. The woman kept stumbling into her as they staggered along together. The men had walked the full length of the ship and the two women were forced to hurry after them. Malta did not like the looks she got from some of the sailors. They seemed to mock her appearance even as they leered at her and Kekki.

  She and Kekki halted behind the Satrap. A man was hastily moving his possessions out of a rough wooden-framed tent set
up on the deck below the skeletal castle. The instant he dragged his gear out, the captain gestured the Satrap in. The Satrap inclined his head graciously to the captain and entered the temporary chamber.

  As Malta helped Kekki into the room, the man who had moved his belongings set his hand on her arm. She looked up at him in confusion, wondering what he wanted, but he grinned as he addressed a query over her head to the Satrap. The Satrap laughed aloud in reply, then shook his head. He added something with a shrug. Malta caught the word “later. ” Then the Satrap rolled his eyes as if marveling at the man’s question. The man made a face of mock disappointment, but, as if by accident, he ran his hand down Malta’s arm, briefly touching the curve of her hip. Malta gave a shocked gasp. The captain gave the man a friendly shove; Malta decided he must be the mate. She was confused as to what had just taken place, but decided she didn’t care. She ignored all of them to help Kekki toward the lone cot, but when they reached it, the woman sank down bonelessly on the deck beside it. Malta tugged hopelessly at her arm.

  “No,” Kekki muttered. “Leave me here. Go stand by the door. ” When Malta looked at her in consternation, the woman mustered all her strength to command, “Don’t question it now. Do as I say. ”

  Malta hesitated, then became aware of the captain’s gaze on her. She rose awkwardly and limped across the room to stand by the door. Like a servant, she suddenly realized. Anger burned in her but gave her no strength. She let her eyes rove the small room. The walls were of hide. There was a single cot and a small table where a lantern burned. That was all. Obviously temporary. She wondered at that. A moment later the captain was bidding the Satrap good evening. As soon as the door flap fell behind the man, Malta sank to the floor. She was still hungry and thirsty, but sleep would do for now. She pulled her blanket closer about herself.

  “Get up,” the Satrap advised her. “When the boy returns with food for Kekki, he will expect her servant to take it from him. Don’t humiliate me by refusing it. He is bringing warmed water as well. After you bathe me, you can see to her as well. ”

  “I’d rather throw myself over the side,” Malta informed him. She did not move.

  “Then stay there. ” Food and wine had restored his arrogance. With total disregard for Malta’s presence, he began to peel off his filthy clothing. Affronted, she looked away from him, but could not escape his words. “You won’t have to throw yourself over the side. The crewmen will probably do that, after they have finished with you. That was what the first mate asked about you, as you came in. ‘Is the scarred one available?’ he asked me. I told him you were a servant for my woman but that perhaps later she could spare some of your time. ” A superior smile curled the comers of his mouth. His voice was unctuous with false kindness. “Remember, Malta. On this ship, you might as well be in Chalced. On this boat, if you are not mine, then you are no man’s woman. And in Chalced, no man’s woman is every man’s woman. ”

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  Malta had heard the saying before, but never fully grasped what it meant. She clenched her jaws together. Kekki’s rusty voice turned Malta’s eyes back to her. “The Magnadon Satrap Cosgo speaks truth, girl. Stand up. If you would save yourself, be a servant. ” She sighed in a breath and added cryptically, “Remember my promise to you, and heed me. We all need to live, if any of us are to survive. His status will protect us, if we protect it. ”

  The Satrap kicked the last of his garments aside. His pale body was shocking to Malta. She had seen the bare chests of dockworkers and farmhands before, but never had she seen a man completely naked. Against her will, her eyes were drawn down to his loins. She had heard it called a manhood; she had expected more of it than a bobbing pink stalk in a nest of curly hair. The dangling member looked wormy and unhealthy to her; were all men made so? It appalled her. What woman could bear to have a repulsive thing like that touch her body? She snatched her gaze away. He did not seem to notice her distaste. Instead, he complained, “Where is that bath water? Malta, go and ask what the delay is. ”

  There was a knock at the door frame before Malta had time to refuse. She stood hastily, despising herself for her capitulation. The door flap was pushed open and the ship’s boy entered, kicking a wooden tub across the deck before him while toting two buckets of water. He set down his burdens and stared at the Satrap as if he, too, had never seen a naked man. Malta privately wondered if it were the Satrap’s paleness or the slack slenderness of his body. Even Selden had more muscle to his chest than the Satrap did. Behind the boy came another sailor bearing a tray of food. He glanced about, then handed it to Malta, but a flip of his hand indicated that it was intended for Kekki. Boy and sailor exited.

  “Give her the food,” the Satrap snapped as Malta stared at the water, ship’s biscuit and thin broth on the tray. “Then get over here and pour my bath water. ” As he spoke, he stepped into the shallow tub and crouched down. He hunkered there, waiting. Malta glared at him. She was trapped and she knew it.

  She crossed the room and clacked the tray onto the floor beside Kekki. The woman reached out and took up a piece of hard ship’s biscuit. Then she set it down, pillowed her head on her arms, and closed her eyes. “I am so tired,” she whispered hoarsely. For the first time, Malta noticed the glistening of fresh blood at the corner of Kekki’s mouth. She knelt beside the Companion.

  “How much river water did you drink?” she asked her. But Kekki only sighed deeply and was still. Timidly, Malta touched her hand. Kekki made no response.

  “Never mind her. Get over here and pour my water. ”

  Malta looked longingly at the food. Without turning, she lifted the bowl of broth and drank half of it greedily. Moisture and warmth in one. It was wonderful. She broke off a chunk of ship’s bread and put it to her mouth. It was hard and dry and coarse, but it was food. She gnawed at it.

  “Obey me now. Or I shall call the sailor who wants you. ”

  Malta remained where she was. She swallowed the bite of ship’s biscuit. She took up the flagon of water and drank half of it. She would be honorable. She would leave half for Kekki. She glanced at the Satrap. He crouched, naked, in the shallow tub. His tousled hair and windburned face made it look as if his head did not belong with his pale body. “Do you know,” she asked conversationally, “how much you look like a plucked chicken in a roasting pan?”

  The Satrap’s chapped face suddenly mottled red with fury. “How dare you mock me?” he demanded angrily. “I am the Satrap of all Jamaillia and I-“

  “And I am the daughter of a Bingtown Trader, and will one day be a Bingtown Trader. ” She shook her head at him. “I do believe my Aunt Althea was right after all. We owe Jamaillia no allegiance. I certainly feel no obligation to a skinny youth who cannot even wash himself. ”

  “You? You think you are a Bingtown Trader, little girl. But in reality, do you know what you are? Dead. Dead to everyone who ever knew you. Will they even look for you down this river? No. They’ll mourn you for a week or so and then forget you. It will be as if you never existed. They’ll never know what became of you. I’ve spoken to the captain. He is turning the boat downriver. They were exploring upriver, but now that they have rescued me, of course their plans have changed. We’ll rejoin his fellows at the river mouth, and make straight for Jamaillia. You’ll never see Bingtown again. So. This is your life now, and the best you’ll get. So choose now, Malta Vestrit, once of Bingtown. Live as a servant. Or die as a used-up slattern, thrown off a war galley. ”

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  The biscuit suddenly stuck in Malta’s throat. In his cold smile, she saw the truth of what he said. Her past had been torn away from her. This was her life now. She rose slowly, and walked across the room. She looked down at the man who would rule her, crouched incongruously at her feet. He gestured disdainfully at the buckets. She looked at them, wondering what she would do. It suddenly seemed all so distant. She was so weary and so hopeless. She didn’t want to be a servant,
nor did she want to be used and discarded by a boatload of filthy Jamaillian sailors. She wanted to live. She would do what she must to survive.

  She picked up the steaming bucket. She stepped up to the Satrap’s tub and poured a slow stream of water over him till he sighed in pleasure at the running warmth. A sudden waft of the steam made Malta smile. The idiots had heated river water for his bath. She should have guessed. A ship this size would not carry a vast supply of fresh water. They would conserve what they had. The Chalcedeans evidently knew they could not drink river water, but did not realize they should not bathe in it, for they probably did not bathe at all. They would not know what it would do to him. Tomorrow, blisters would cover him.

  She smiled sweetly as she asked, “Shall I pour the second bucket over you as well?”

  Liveship Traders 3 - Ship of Destiny


  ALTHEA GLANCED ABOUT THE DECK; ALL WAS RUNNING SMOOTHLY. THE WIND was steady, and Haff was on the wheel. The sky overhead was a clear deep blue. Amidships, six sailors were methodically moving through a rote series of attacks and parries with sticks. Although they weren’t putting much spirit into it, Brashen seemed satisfied with the form and accuracy they achieved. Lavoy moved among them, chastising and correcting loudly. She shook her head to herself. She did not claim to know anything of fighting, but this set routine baffled her. No battle could be as orderly as the give-and-take of blows the sailors practiced, nor as calm and unhurried as the archery practice that had preceded it. How could it be useful? Nevertheless, she kept her mouth shut, and when it was her turn, she drilled with the rest of them, and tried to put her heart into it. She was becoming a fair shot with the light bow allotted to her. Still, it was hard to believe that any of it would be useful in a real fight.

  She hadn’t taken her doubts to Brashen. Lately her feelings for him had been running warmer. She would not tempt herself with private conferences with him. If he could control himself, then so could she. It was merely a matter of respect. She listened to the rhythmic clacking of the mock swords as Clef paced them with a chantey. If nothing else, she told herself, it kept the crew out of mischief. The Paragon carried more than a working crew, for Brashen had hired enough men to fight as well as run the ship, and extras to allow for losses. The stowaway slaves had swelled their population even more. The cramped quarters bred idle quarreling when the men were not kept busy.

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