Ship of destiny, p.24
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       Ship of Destiny, p.24

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  The Bingtown Council’s consideration of Davad’s death was concluded. Serilla had proclaimed that by the Satrap’s authority, she found Davad’s death due to misadventure and that no one was responsible. The Satrapy, she announced, had decided there was not enough evidence to prove Davad a traitor to Jamaillia. For this reason, his niece would inherit his estate, but Companion Serilla would continue to occupy Restart Hall. His niece would, of course, be suitably compensated for her continued hospitality, in a timely fashion, after all civil unrest had been resolved. Serilla had made a great performance of this pronouncement. She had summoned the heads of the Council to Davad’s study, fed them well on delicacies and wine from Davad’s cellar, and then read her conclusion aloud from a scroll. Ronica had been present, as had Davad’s niece, a quiet, self-possessed young woman who had listened without comment. At the close of the proceedings, the niece had told the Council that she was satisfied. She had glanced at Roed as she spoke. Davad’s niece had had little reason to be fond of her uncle, but Ronica still wondered if the woman’s response had been purchased or coerced by Roed. The Council had then declared that if the heir was satisfied, they were content also.

  No one except Ronica seemed to recall that it left the blemishes on her family’s reputation intact. No one else had frowned at the idea that Davad’s supposed treason had been to Jamaillia rather than to Bingtown. It left Ronica feeling oddly isolated, as if the rules of the world had shifted subtly and left her behind. Ronica had expected Serilla to turn her out of the house as soon as the Council agreed to her findings. Instead, the woman had emphatically encouraged Ronica to stay. She had been overly gracious and condescending as she said she was sure Ronica could help her in her efforts to reunite Bingtown. Ronica doubted her sincerity. The real reason for Serilla’s continued hospitality was what Ronica hoped to discover. So far, that secret had eluded her.

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  She held her breath and strove to catch every word. The Companion was speaking now. “Escaped? The message said escaped?”

  Roed’s reply was surly. “It didn’t need to. Only so many words will fit on a message scroll on a bird’s leg. He is gone, Companion Kekki is gone and that girl with them. If we are lucky, they all drowned in the river. But remember the girl is Bingtown-raised, and the daughter of a seafaring family. Chances are she knew her way around a boat. ” He paused. “That they were last seen in a small boat cries to me of conspiracy. Does not it all seem a bit strange to you? The girl went into the buried city and got them out, in the midst of the worst earthquake that Trehaug has suffered in years. No one sees them leave, until they are later seen from the dragon in a small boat. ”

  “What does that mean, ‘from the dragon’?” Serilla demanded, interrupting.

  “I have no idea,” Roed declared impatiently. “I’ve never been to Trehaug. I imagine it must be some tower or bridge. What does it matter? The Satrap is out of our control. Anything can happen. ”

  “I’d like to read that part of the message for myself. ” The Companion’s voice sounded very tentative. Ronica frowned. The messages came to Roed before they reached her?

  “You can’t. I destroyed it as soon as I’d read it. There is no sense in taking the chance that this information will reach others in Bingtown any sooner than it must. Be assured this will not be our secret for long. Many Traders keep close ties with their Rain Wild kin. Other birds will carry this news. That is why we must act swiftly and decisively, before others clamor to have a say in what we do. ”

  “I just don’t understand. Why has it come to this?” The Companion sounded distraught. “They promised to make him comfortable and safe there. When he left here, I had convinced him it was the wisest course for his own welfare. What would change his mind? Why would he flee? What does he want?”

  Ronica heard Roed’s snort of laughter. “The Satrap may be a young man, but he is not a fool. The same mistake is often made of me. Not years, but the heritage of power is what suits a man to take command. The Satrap was born to power, Companion. I know you claim he does not pay attention to the undercurrents of politics, but he cannot be blind to your quest for influence. Perhaps he fears what you are doing right now: taking over for him, speaking with his voice, making his decisions here in Bingtown. From what I have seen and what you have said, your words are not what I expect the Satrap would truly say. Let us abandon all pretenses. You know he has abused his power over us. I know what you hope. You would like to take his power as your own, and rule us better than he did. ”

  Ronica heard Roed’s boots on the floor as he paced about the room. She drew back a little from the door. The Companion was silent.

  Roed’s voice had lost its charm when he spoke again. “Let us be frank. We have a common interest, you and I. We both seek to see Bingtown restored to itself. All about us, folk prate wildly of independence for Bingtown, or sharing power with the New Traders. Neither plan can possibly work. Bingtown needs to keep its ties with Jamaillia for us to prosper in trade. For the same reason, the New Traders must be forced out of Bingtown. You represent to me the ideal; if you remain in Bingtown, speaking with the Satrap’s voice, you can secure both goals for us. But if the Satrap perishes, with him goes your source of power. Worse, if the Satrap returns uncontrolled, your voice is drowned in his. My plan is simple in form if not execution. We must regain control of the Satrap again. Once we have him, we force him to cede power over Bingtown to you. You could reduce our taxes, get the Chalcedeans out of our harbors, and confiscate the New Traders’ holdings. We have the most obvious bargaining chip of all. We offer the Satrap his life in return for these concessions.

  Once he has put them down on paper, we keep him here in honor. Then, if the threatened Jamaillian fleet appears, we still have our game chip. We show him to them, to prove there is nothing for them to avenge. Eventually, we will send him safely back to Jamaillia. It all makes sense, does it not?”

  “Except for two points,” Serilla observed quietly. “We no longer have the Satrap in our possession. And,” her voice grew shrewder, “there does not seem enough profit in this for you. Patriot you may be, Roed Caern, but I do not believe you completely selfless in this. ”

  “That is why we must take swift steps to recover the Satrap, and control him. Surely, that is obvious. As for myself, my ambitions are much the same as yours, as is my situation. My father is a robust man of a long-lived line. It will be years, possibly decades before I become the Trader for the Caerns. I have no desire to wait that long for power and influence. Worse, I fear that if I do, by the time I inherit any authority, Bingtown may be no more than a shadow of itself. To insure my future, I must create a position of power for myself. Just as you do now. I see no reason why our efforts should not be united. ”

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  Caern’s boot heels tapped briskly across the floor. Ronica imagined that he had returned to stand before the Companion. “You are obviously unused to being on your own. You need a protector here in Bingtown. We marry. In return for my protection, my name and my home, you share power with me. What could be simpler?”

  The Companion’s voice was low and incredulous. “You presume too much, Trader’s son!”

  Roed laughed. “Do I? I doubt you will get a better offer. By Bingtown standards, you are nearly an old maid. Look ahead, Serilla, more than a week or a month. Eventually these troubles will pass. Then what will become of you? You cannot return to Jamaillia. A man would have to be blind and deaf to imagine that you cherished your role as Companion to Satrap Cosgo. So. What will you do? Remain here in Bingtown, to live in social isolation among a people who would never completely accept you? Eventually you would become an elderly woman, alone and childless. Trader Restart’s home and pantry will not always be at your disposal. Where will you live, and how?”

  “As you have suggested, I will have the Satrap’s voice here in Bingtown. I will use my authority to create my own living circumstances.
” Ronica almost smiled to hear the Companion stand up to Roed Caern.

  “Ah. I see. ” The amusement was undisguised. “You imagine you will be a woman living independently in Bingtown. ”

  “And why not? I see other women managing their own affairs and exercising their own authority. Consider Ronica Vestrit, for instance. ”

  “Yes. Let us consider Ronica Vestrit. ” Roed’s voice cut impatiently across hers. “We should keep our minds to the matters at hand. Soon enough, you will realize that I have made you a handsome offer. Until then, our minds should focus on the Satrap. We have had reason before this to suspect the Vestrits. Consider the antics Davad Restart went through to put Malta Vestrit before the Satrap’s eyes at the ball. If Malta Vestrit whisked the Satrap away from the Rain Wilders, it is part of the conspiracy’s plan. Perhaps they will bring him back to Bingtown to side with the New Traders. Perhaps he flees from the river to the sea, to bring his Chalcedean allies down on us with flame and war machines. ”

  Silence fell. Ronica opened her lips and drew a long silent breath. Malta? What was this talk of her taking the Satrap? It made no sense. It could not be true. Malta could not be mixed up in this. Yet she felt with a sinking certainty that she was.

  “We still have a weapon. ” Roed’s voice broke into Ronica’s speculations. “If this is a conspiracy, we have a hostage. ” His next words confirmed Ronica’s worst fears. “We hold the girl’s grandmother. Her life is forfeit to the girl’s cooperation with us. Even if she cares nothing for her own family, there is her fortune to consider. We can confiscate her family home, threaten to destroy it. The Vestrit girl has friends within the Bingtown Traders. She is not immune to ‘persuasion. ’ “

  A silence followed his words. When the Companion spoke again, her voice was lifted in outrage. “How can you consider such a thing? What would you do? Seize her right here, under my own roof?”

  “These are harsh times!” Roed’s voice rang with conviction. “Gentleness will not restore Bingtown. We must be willing to take harsh actions for the sake of our homeland. I am not alone in this idea. Traders’ sons can often see what their dim-eyed fathers cannot. In the end, when the rightful folk of Bingtown once more rule here, all will know we did right. We have begun to make the oldsters on the Council see our strength. It does not go well for those who act against us. But let us set that aside. ”

  “The rightful folk of Bingtown?”

  Ronica had no chance to hear who Roed considered the rightful folk of Bingtown. The creak of a distant door warned her just in time. Someone was coining this way. Light-footed as a child, she sprang away from her eavesdropping, raced down the hall and whisked herself into a guest parlor. She halted there, standing in the shuttered dimness, her heart thundering in her ears. For moments, all she could hear was the sound of her body’s panic. Then, as her heart calmed and her breathing steadied, other noises came to her ears, the small sounds of the great house awakening. Her ear to the cracked door of the parlor, she heard a servant deliver breakfast to Davad’s study. She waited, aching with impatience, until she heard the woman dismissed. Ronica gave her time to return to the kitchen, then hastened from her hiding place back to her rooms.

  Rache opened befuddled eyes as Ronica gently closed the door behind her. “Wake up,” Ronica told her softly. “We must gather our things and flee immediately. ”

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  SERILLA FELT PATHETICALLY GRATEFUL FOR THE INTERRUPTION OF THE MAID with the coffee and rolls. Roed glared at the interruption, but he also fell silent. Only in the silence did she feel she could truly think her own thoughts.

  When Roed was in the room, when he stood so tall and spoke so strongly, she found herself nodding at him. Only later would she be able to recall what he had been saying, and feel ashamed that she had agreed.

  He frightened her. When he had revealed that he knew she secretly hoped to seize the Satrap’s power, she had nearly fainted. When he had calmly assumed he could take her to wife, and sidestepped her affront with amusement, she had felt suffocated. Even now, her hands were damp with perspiration and trembling in her lap. Her heart had been shaking her body since her maid had wakened her and told her that Roed was below, demanding to see her immediately. She had flung on her clothing, snapping at the woman when she tried to help her. There had been no time to dress her hair properly. She had brushed it out roughly, twisted it up tightly and pinned it to her head. She felt as untidy as a lax housemaid.

  Yet a tiny spark of pride burned inside her. She had stood up to him. If the shadow she had glimpsed at the door’s crack had been Ronica, she had warned her. She had suspected someone was outside the door, just at the moment when he made his outrageous marriage proposal. Somehow, the thought that Ronica might be overhearing his brash offer had given Serilla the composure to rebuff him. It had stirred shame in her, that the Bingtown Trader woman might overhear Roed speaking so to her. The shame had metamorphosed into artificial courage. She had defied Roed by warning Ronica. And he didn’t even know it.

  She sat rigidly stiff at Davad’s desk as the servant set out a breakfast of coffee and fresh sweet rolls from the kitchen. Any other morning, the fragrant coffee and the rich aroma of the warm rolls would have been appetizing. With Roed standing there, simmering with impatience, the smell of the food left her queasy. Would he guess what she had done? Worse, would she regret it later? In the days she had known Ronica Vestrit, she had begun to respect her. Even if the Trader woman was a traitor to Jamaillia, Serilla wanted no part of her capture and torture. The memory of her own experiences assaulted her. Just as casually as Roed had spoken of “persuading” Ronica, so had the Satrap turned her over to the Chalcedean captain.

  As soon as the serving woman left Roed strode over to the food and began to help himself. “We can’t waste time, Companion. We must be prepared before the Satrap arrives with the Chalcedeans on his leash. ”

  It was more likely to be the other way, she thought, but was unable to voice the words. Why, oh why, had her moment of courage fled? She could not even think logically when he was in the room. She didn’t believe what he said; she knew she was more politically experienced than he, and more capable of analyzing the situation, but somehow she could not act on that thought. While he was in the room, she felt trapped in his world, his thoughts. His reality.

  He was frowning at her. She had not been paying attention. He had said something and she had not responded. What had he said? Her mind scrabbled frantically backward but could find nothing. She could only stare at him in mounting dismay.

  “Well, if you don’t want coffee, shall I summon the servant for tea?”

  She found her tongue. “No, please don’t trouble yourself. Coffee is fine, really. ”

  Before she could move, he was pouring for her. She watched as he stirred honey and cream into it, far too much for her taste, but she said nothing. He put a sweet bun on a plate as well and brought them to her. As he set them before her, he asked bluntly, “Companion, are you well? You look pale. ”

  The muscles stood out in his tanned forearms. The knuckles of his hand rose in hard ridges. She lifted her cup hastily and sipped from it. When she set it down, she tried to speak with a steady voice. Her reply was stiff. “I am fine. Please. Continue. ”

  “Mingsley’s overtures of peace are a farce, a distraction to keep us busy while they muster their forces. They know of the Satrap’s escape, and probably in more detail than we do. Also, I am certain the Vestrits have been involved in this from the beginning. Consider how that old woman tried to discredit us at the Traders’ Council meeting! It was to shift attention away from her own treachery. ”

  “Mingsley-” Serilla began.

  “Is not to be trusted. Rather, we shall use him. Let us allow him to make overtures of truce. Let us appear even eager to meet him. Then, when we have drawn him out far enough, let us chop him off. ” Roed made a sharp gesture with his hand.

  Serilla s
ummoned all her courage. “There is a discrepancy. Ronica Vestrit has cautioned me not to trust Mingsley. Surely if she were in league with him…”

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  “She would do all she could to appear not to be,” Roed finished decisively. His dark eyes glinted with anger.

  Serilla drew a breath and stiffened her spine. “Ronica has urged me, often, to structure a peace in which all of Bingtown’s factions have a say. Not just the Old Traders and the New, but the slaves and the Three Ships folks and the other immigrants. She insists we must make all a party to a truce in order to achieve a fairly won peace. ”

  “Then she is damned by her own tongue!” Roed Caern declared decisively. “Such talk is traitorous to Bingtown, the Traders and Jamaillia. We should all have known the Vestrits had gone rotten when they allowed their daughter to marry a foreigner, and a Chalcedean at that. That is how far back this conspiracy reaches. Years and years of their plotting and making a profit at Bingtown’s expense. The old man never traded up the Rain Wild River. Did you know that? What Trader in his right mind, owner of a liveship, would forego an opportunity like that? Yet, he kept making money, somehow. Where? From whom? They take a Chalcedean half-breed into their own family. That looks like a clue to me. Does that not make you suspect that, from the very beginning, the Vestrits had abandoned their loyalties to Bingtown?”

  He stacked his points up too quickly. She felt bludgeoned by his logic. She found herself nodding and with an effort, stopped. She managed to say, “But to make peace in Bingtown, there must be some sort of accord reached with all the folk who live here. There must. ”

  He surprised her by nodding. “Exactly. You are right. But say rather, all the folk who should live here. The Old Traders. The Three Ships immigrants, who made pacts with us when they got here. And those who have arrived since, in ones and twos and families, to take up our ways and live by our laws, while recognizing that they can never become Bingtown Traders. That is a mix we can live with. If we expel the New Traders and their slaves, our economy will be restored. Let the Bingtown Traders take up the lands that were wrongfully granted to the New Traders, as reparation for the Satrap breaking his word to us. Then all will be right again in Bingtown. ”

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