Ship of destiny, p.25
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       Ship of Destiny, p.25

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  It was a child’s logic, too simplistic to be real. Make it all go back to the way it was before, he proposed. Could not he see that history was not a cup of tea, to be poured back into a pot? She tried again, forcing strength she did not feel into her voice. “It does not seem fair to me. The slaves had no say in being brought here. Perhaps-“

  “It is fair. They will have no say in being sent away from Bingtown, either. It balances exactly. Let them go away and become the problem of those who brought them here. Otherwise, they will continue to run wild in the streets, looting and vandalizing and robbing honest folk. ”

  A tiny spark of her old spirit flared up in her. She spoke without thinking. “But how do you propose to do all this?” she demanded. “Simply tell them to go away? I doubt they will obey. ”

  For an instant, Caern looked shocked. A shadow of doubt flickered through his eyes. Then his narrow lip curled disdainfully. “I’m not stupid,” he spat. “There will be bloodshed. I know that. There are other Traders and Traders’ sons who stand with me. We have discussed this. We all accept that there must be bloodshed before this is over. It is the price our ancestors paid for Bingtown. Now it is our turn, and pay we shall, if we must. But our intent is that it shall not be our own blood that is spilled. Oh, no. ” He drew in a breath and paced a quick turn about the study.

  “This is what you must do. We will call an emergency meeting of the Traders-no, not all of them, only the Council heads. You will announce to them our grievous tidings: that the Satrap is missing in a Trehaug quake, and we fear he is dead. So you have decided to act on your own, to quell the unrest in Bingtown. Tell them that we must have a peace pact with the New Traders, but specify that it must be ratified by every New Trader family. We will send word to Mingsley that we are ready to discuss terms, but that every New Trader family must send a representative to the negotiations. They must come under truce, unarmed and without menservants or guards of any kind. To the Bingtown Concourse. Once we have them there, we can close our trap. We will tell the New Traders that they must all depart peacefully from our shores, forfeiting all their holdings, or the hostages will pay the price. Leave it to them how they manage it, but let it be known that the hostages will be set free in a ship to join them only after all of them are a day’s sail from Bingtown Harbor. Then…”

  “Are you truly prepared to kill all the hostages if they don’t agree?” Serilla could find no more strength for her voice.

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  “It won’t come to that,” he assured her immediately. “And if it does, it will be the doing of their own folk, not us. If they force us to it… but you know they will not. ” He spoke too quickly. Did he seek to reassure her, or himself?

  She tried to find the courage to tell him how foolish he was. He was a large boy spouting violent nonsense. She’d been a fool ever to rely on him for anything. Too late she had found that this tool had sharp edges. She must discard him before he did any more damage. Yet she could not. He stood before her, nostrils flared, fists knotted at his sides, and she could sense the anger seething behind his calm mask, the anger that powered his so-righteous hatred. If she spoke against him, he might turn that anger on her. The only thing she could think of to do was to flee.

  She stood slowly, trying to appear calm. “Thank you for bringing me this news, Roed. Now I must take some time to myself to think it through. ” She inclined her head to him gravely, hoping he would bow in his turn and then depart.

  Instead, he shook his head. “You have no time to debate with yourself on this, Companion. Circumstances force us to act now. Compose the letters summoning the Council heads here. Then summon a servant to deliver your messages. I myself will take the Vestrit woman into custody. Tell me which room is hers. ” A sudden frown divided his brows. “Or has she swayed you to her cause? Do you think you would gain more power if you allied with the New Trader conspiracy?”

  Of course. Any opposition to him would prompt him to classify her as an enemy. Then he would be just as ruthless with her as he was prepared to be with Ronica. The Vestrit woman had made him afraid when she stood up to him.

  Had it been Ronica in the hall? Had she heard the warning and understood it? Had the old woman had time to flee? Had Serilla done anything to save her, or was she sacrificing her to save herself?

  Roed’s fists were clenching and unclenching at his sides restlessly. Too clearly, she could imagine his brutal clasp on the Trader woman’s thin wrist. Yet she could not stop him. He would only hurt her if she tried: he was too large and too strong, too fearsomely male. She could not think with him in the room, and this errand would make him go away for a time. It would not be her fault, any more than Davad Restart’s death had been her fault. She had done what she could, hadn’t she? But what if the shadow at the door had not been anyone at all? What if the old woman still slept? Her mouth had gone dry, but a stranger spoke the horrifying words. “Top of the stairs. The fourth door on the left. Davad’s room. ”

  Roed left, his boots clacking purposefully as he strode away from her.

  Serilla watched him go. After he was out of sight, she curled forward, her head in her hands. It wasn’t her fault, she tried to console herself. No one could have come through what she had experienced unscathed. It wasn’t her fault. Like a rebuking ghost, Ronica’s words came to her: “That is the challenge, Companion. To take what has happened to you and learn from it, instead of being trapped by it. ”

  TO KNOW THE LAYOUT OF BINGTOWN, RONICA REFLECTED BITTERLY, WAS NOT the same as knowing its geography. With a tearless sob, she caught her breath at the sight of the deep ravine that cut her path. She had chosen to lead Rache this way, through the woods behind Davad’s house. She knew that if they hiked straight through the woods to the sea, they would come to the humble section of Bingtown where the Three Ships families made their homes. She had seen it often on the map in Ephron’s study. But the map had not shown this ravine winding through the woods, nor the marshy trickle of water at the bottom of it. She halted, staring down at it. “Perhaps we should have gone by the road,” she offered Rache miserably. She wrapped her dripping shawl more closely about her shoulders.

  “By the road, they’d have ridden us down in no time. No. You were wise to come this way. ” The serving woman took Ronica’s hand suddenly, set it on her arm and patted it comfortingly. “Let’s follow the flow of the water. Either we will come to a place where animals cross this, or it will lead us to the beach. From the beach, we can always follow the shoreline to where the fishing boats are hauled out. ”

  Rache led the way and Ronica followed her gratefully. Twiggy bushes, bare of leaves, caught at their skirts and shawls, but Rache pushed gamely onward through sword ferns and dripping salal. Cedars towered overhead, catching most of the rain, but an occasional low bough dumped its load on them. They carried nothing. There had been no time to pack anything. If the Three Ships folk turned them away, they’d be sleeping outdoors tonight with no more shelter than their own skins.

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  “You don’t have to be mixed up in this, Rache,” Ronica felt obliged to point out to her. “If you leave me, you could find refuge among the Tattooed. Roed has no reason to pursue you. You could be safe. ”

  “Nonsense,” the serving woman declared. “Besides, you don’t know the way to Sparse Kelter’s house. I’m convinced we should go there first. If he turns us away, we both may have to take shelter with the Tattooed. ”

  By midmorning, the rain eased. They came to a place where a trail angled down the steep slope of the ravine. Amidst the tracks of cloven hooves, Ronica saw the print of a bare foot in the slick mud. More than deer used this trail. She followed Rache awkwardly, catching at tree trunks and small bushes to keep from falling. By the time they reached the bottom, her scratched legs were muddy to the knees. It mattered little. There was no bridge across the wide, green sheet of water at the bottom of the ravine. The two women slogged through it silently.
The bank on the opposite side was neither as steep nor as tall. Clutching at one another, they staggered up it and emerged into woods that were more open.

  They were on a pathway now, and before they had gone much farther, it widened out into a beaten trail. Ronica began to catch glimpses of makeshift shelters back under the trees. Once she smelled woodsmoke and cooking porridge. It made her stomach growl. “Who lives back here?” she asked Rache as the serving woman hurried her on.

  “People who cannot live anywhere else,” Rache answered her evasively. An instant later, as if ashamed to be so devious, she told her, “Slaves that escaped their New Trader owners, mostly. They had to remain in hiding. They could not seek work, nor leave town. The New Traders had watchers at the docks who stopped any slaves without documents. This is not the only shantytown hidden in the woods around Bingtown. There are others, and they have grown since Fire Night. There is a whole other Bingtown hidden here, Ronica. They live on the edges, on the crumbs of your town’s trade, but they are people all the same. They snare game, and have tiny hidden gardens, or harvest the wild nuts and fruits of the forest. They trade, mostly with the Three Ships folk, for fish and fabric and necessities. ”

  They passed two huts leaning together in the shadow of a stand of cedars. “I never knew there were so many,” Ronica faltered.

  Rache gave a snort of amusement. “Every New Trader who came to your town brought at least ten slaves. Nannies, cooks and footmen for the household, and farmhands for fields and orchards: they didn’t come to town and walk amongst you, but they are here. ” A faint smile rippled her tattoo. “Our numbers make us a force to reckon with, if nothing else. For good or for ill, Ronica, we are here, and here we will stay. Bingtown needs to recognize that. We cannot continue to live as hidden outcasts on your edges. We must be recognized and accepted. ”

  Ronica was silent. The former slave’s words were almost threatening. Down the path, she glimpsed a boy and a small girl, but an instant later they had vanished like panicked rabbits. Ronica began to wonder if Rache had deliberately steered her to this path. Certainly, she seemed at ease and familiar with her surroundings.

  They climbed another hill, leaving the scattered settlement of hovels and huts behind them. Evergreens closed in around them, making the overcast day even darker. The path narrowed and appeared less used, but now that Ronica was looking for them, she saw other little paths branching away. Before the two women reached the Three Ships houses along the shale beach the trail looked like no more than an animal track. A chill wind off the open water rushed them along. Ronica winced at the tattered and muddy aspect she must present, but there was nothing she could do about it.

  In this section of Bingtown, the houses hugged the contour of the beach, where the Three Ships families could watch for their fishing vessels to return. As Rache hurried her down the street, Ronica looked about with guarded interest. She had never been here before. The exposure to storms off the bay pitted the winding street with puddles. Children played on the long porches of the clapboard houses. The smells of burning driftwood and smoking fish rode the brisk wind. Nets stretched between the houses, waiting to be mended. The rioting and the desolation that had followed it had had small effect on this section of town. A woman, well hooded against the nasty weather, hastened past them, pushing a barrow full of flatfish. She nodded a greeting to them.

  “Here, this is Sparse’s house,” Rache suddenly said. The rambling single-story structure looked little different from its neighbors. A recent coating of whitewash was the only indication of greater prosperity that Ronica could see. They stepped up onto the covered porch that ran the length of the house and Rache knocked firmly on the door.

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  Ronica pushed her rain-soaked hair back from her face as the door swung open. A tall woman stood in it, big-boned and hearty as many of the Three Ships settlers were. She had freckles and a reddish tint in her sandy, weather-frazzled hair. For a moment she stared at them suspiciously, then a smile softened her face. “I recall you,” she said to Rache. “You’re that woman begged a bit of fish from Da. ”

  Rache nodded, unoffended by this characterization. “I’ve been back to see him twice since then. Both times you were out in your boat, fishing flounder. You are Ekke, are you not?”

  Ekke no longer hesitated. “Ah, come in with you, then. You both look wetter than water. No, no, never mind the mud on your shoes. If enough people track dirt in, someone will start tracking it out. ”

  From the look of the floor just inside the door, that would begin happening soon. The floor was bare wood plank, worn by the passage of feet. Within the house, the ceilings were low, and the small windows did not admit much light. A cat sprawled sleeping beside a shaggy hound. The dog opened one eye to acknowledge them as they stepped around him, then went back to sleep. Just past the dozing dog was a stout table surrounded by sturdy chairs. “Do sit down,” the woman invited them. “And take your wet things off. Da isn’t here just now, but I expect him back soon. Tea?”

  “I would be so grateful,” Ronica told her.

  Ekke dipped water from a barrel into a kettle. As she put it on the hearth to boil, she looked over her shoulder at them. “You look all done in. There’s a bit of the morning’s porridge left-sticky-thick, but filling all the same. Can I warm it for you?”

  “Please,” Rache replied when Ronica could not find words. The girl’s simple, open hospitality to two strangers brought tears to her eyes, even as she realized how bedraggled she must look to merit such charity. It humbled her to know she had come to this: begging at a Three Ships door. What would Ephron have thought of her now?

  The leftover porridge was indeed sticky and thick. Ronica devoured her share with a hot cup of a reddish tea, pleasantly spiced with cardamom in the Three Ships fashion. Ekke seemed to sense they were both famished and exhausted. She let them eat and made all the conversation herself, chatting of changing winter weather, of nets to be mended, and the quantity of salt they must buy somewhere to have enough to make “keeping fish” for the stormy season. To all of this, Ronica and Rache nodded as they chewed.

  When they had finished the porridge, Ekke clattered their bowls away. She refilled their cups with the steaming, fragrant tea. Then, for the first time, she sat down at the table with a cup of her own. “So. You’re the women who’ve talked with Da before, aren’t you? You’ve come to talk with him about the Bingtown situation, eh?”

  Ronica appreciated her forthright approach, and reciprocated it. “Not exactly. I have spoken with your father twice before about the need for all the folk of Bingtown to unify and treat for peace. Things cannot continue as they are. If they do, the Chalcedeans need do no more than sit outside our harbor and wait until we peck each other to bits. As it is, when our patrol ships come back in, they have difficulty finding fresh supplies. Not to mention that it is hard for fathers and brothers to leave homes to drive off the Chalcedeans, if they must worry about their families unprotected at home. ”

  A line divided Ekke’s brow as she nodded to all this. Rache suddenly cut in smoothly, “But that is not why we are here, now. Ronica and I must seek asylum, with Three Ships folk if we can. Our lives are in danger. ”

  Too dramatic, Ronica thought woefully to herself as she saw the Three Ships woman narrow her eyes. An instant later, there was the scuff of boots on the porch outside, and the door opened to admit Sparse Kelter. He was, as Rache had once described him, a barrel of a man, with more red hair to his beard and arms than to the crown of his head. He stopped in consternation, then shut the door behind him and stood scratching his beard in perplexity. He glanced from his daughter to the two women at table with her.

  He took a sudden breath as if he had just recalled his manners. But his greeting was as blunt as his daughter’s had been, “And what brings Trader Vestrit to my door and table?”

  Ronica stood quickly. “Hard necessity, Sparse Kelter. My own folk have turned on me
. I am called traitor, and accused of plotting, though in truth I have done neither. ”

  “And you’ve come to take shelter with me and my kin,” Kelter observed heavily.

  Ronica bowed her head in acknowledgment. They both knew she brought trouble, and that it could fall most heavily on Sparse and his daughter. She didn’t need to put that into words. “It’s Trader trouble, and there is no justice in me asking you to take it on. I shall not ask that you shelter me here: only that you send word to another Trader, one that I trust. If I write a message and you can find someone to carry it for me to Grag Tenira of the Bingtown Traders, and then allow me to wait here until he replies… that is all I ask. ”

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  Into their silence she added, “And I know that’s a large enough favor to ask, from a man I’ve spoken to only twice before. ”

  “But each time, you spoke fairly. Of things dear to me, of peace in Bingtown, a peace that Three Ships folk could have a voice in. And the name Tenira is not unknown to me. I’ve sold them salt fish many a time for ship provisions. They raise straight men in that house, they do. ” Sparse pursed his lips, and then made a sucking noise as he considered it. “I’ll do it,” he said with finality.

  “I’ve no way of repaying you,” Ronica pointed out quickly.

  “I don’t recall that I asked any payment. ” Sparse was gruff, but not unkind. He added matter-of-factly, “I can’t think of any payment that would be worth my risking my daughter. Save my own sense of what I ought to do, no matter the risk to us. ”

  “I don’t mind, Da,” Ekke broke in quietly. “Let the lady write her note. I’ll carry it to Tenira myself. ”

  An odd smile twisted Sparse’s wide features. “I thought you might want to, at that,” he said. Ronica noted that she had suddenly become “the lady” to Ekke. Oddly, she felt diminished by it.

  “I have not even a scrap of paper nor a dab of ink to call my own,” she pointed out quietly.

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