The mad ship, p.29
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       The Mad Ship, p.29

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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  The watching ring of serpents had drawn closer. Shreever felt Sessurea shift wearily and knew that he prepared himself for battle. She lifted her own head and tried to shake out her mane. Precious little venom answered. She attempted a baleful glare at the surrounding serpents. They were not impressed. A massive cobalt, the largest of the other serpents, drew closer. He was easily a third longer than Sessurea, and twice his bulk. His maw gaped wide, tasting the water for toxins. He suddenly threw back his head and brought his own mane to a full bristle. “Kelaro!” he bellowed. “I am Kelaro!” His jaws worked hungrily, gulping in the diluted toxins and pumping them over his gills. “I remember,” he proclaimed. “I am Kelaro!” At his bellow, some of the others retreated like startled fish. Others ignored his outburst. He turned his head to regard a much-scarred red in the group. “And you are Sylic. My friend Sylic. Once we were part of Xecres' tangle. Xecres. What became of Xecres? Where is the rest of our tangle?” He advanced almost angrily on the scarred scarlet serpent who continued to regard him with wide empty eyes. “Sylic. Where is Xecres?”

  Sylic's blank stare roused his fury. The great blue suddenly wrapped his companion, squeezing him as if he were a whale to be drowned and devoured. His own ruff stood out full and poisonous. Toxins trailed in a cloud about them as they struggled. “Where is Xecres, Sylic?” he demanded. When the scarlet serpent only struggled the harder, he squeezed him tighter. “Sylic! Say your own name. Say, 'I am Sylic!' Say it now!”

  “He's going to kill him,” Sessurea warned them in a low, horrified voice.

  “Stay out of it,” Maulkin rumbled low. “Let it happen, Sessurea. For if he cannot awaken Sylic, then he is better off dead. We all are. ”

  The resignation in his voice was chilling. Shreever turned her head to look at him but Maulkin avoided her stare. He looked instead at the slumbering green in the midst of their tangle. She heard a new voice behind them, shrill and breathless.

  “Sylic,” it conceded. “My name is Sylic. ” The red struggled feebly. Kelaro loosed his coils but did not release him.

  “What has become of Xecres?”

  “I don't know. ” The edges of Sylic's words were blurred, as if speech were an effort. His statements came slowly, as if he struggled to link words with thoughts. “He forgot himself. One morning we awoke to find him gone. He abandoned his tangle. Soon after, the others began to forget themselves. ” He shook his head angrily, a cloud of toxins spilling from his own ragged mane. “I am Sylic!” he repeated bitterly. “Sylic the friendless. Sylic of no tangle. ”

  “Sylic of Maulkin's tangle. Kelaro of Maulkin's tangle. If you wish. ”

  Maulkin's voice had regained some of its lost timbre. His false-eyes even gleamed gold briefly. Kelaro and Sylic regarded him in silence briefly. Then Kelaro advanced on them, Sylic still casually wrapped in his grasp. His eyes were huge and baleful. They spun blackly with hints of silver in their depths as he regarded the battered tangle he had been invited to join. Then he gravely bowed his great maned head.

  “Maulkin. ” He acknowledged him. He lapped a coil of himself about their anchoring rock and drew his friend in close to them. Carefully, lest he give offense, he intertwined with Sessurea, Shreever and Maulkin. “Kelaro of Maulkin's tangle greets you all. ”

  “Sylic of Maulkin's tangle,” echoed the battered scarlet serpent.

  As they wearily settled themselves for rest, Sessurea observed, “We cannot sleep too long if we intend to catch up with the provider. ”

  “We can sleep until we are ready to travel,” Maulkin corrected him. “We are finished with providers. From now on, we hunt as befits serpents. A strong tangle need depend on no one's largesse. When we do not hunt food, we hunt for One Who Remembers. We have been given a final chance. We must not squander it. ”

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  CHAPTER FOURTEEN - Serilla's Choice

  THE RICHLY APPOINTED CHAMBER WAS CLOSE AND STUFFY WITH SMOKE. Serilla's head reeled with it while her stomach protested the constant swaying of the deck. Every joint in her body ached from the unending motion. She had never been a good sailor, not even when she was a girl. The intervening years in the Satrap's palace had not improved her stomach for travel. She wished they had taken a smaller, more seaworthy vessel. The Satrap had insisted on an immense, full-bellied ship for himself and his entourage. Half of the delay in their departure had been the revamping of the ship's interior to allow for these spacious quarters. Serilla had heard some arguments from the shipwrights doing the work. It had had something to do with ballast and stability. Serilla had not understood the basis for their concerns, but she now suspected that the ship's wallowing gait was the result of Cosgo's insistence on his own plans. She reminded herself yet again that every tedious lurch carried her one wave closer to Bingtown.

  It was hard to recall that she had spent days looking forward with eagerness to this voyage. She had packed and re-packed garments, choosing and discarding and choosing again. She did not want to look dowdy, nor suggestive. She did not want to look young, nor old. She had agonized over what attire would make her appear scholarly but still attractive. She had settled on simple robes, modestly cut, but elaborately embroidered by her own hand. She had no jewelry to adorn herself. By tradition, a Heart Companion possessed and wore only the jewelry the Satrap had given her. The old Satrap had always given her books and scrolls instead of jewels. Cosgo had never given her anything, though he decorated the Heart Companions he had chosen for himself with jewels as if they were cakes to be sprinkled with sparkling sugar. She tried not to care that she must appear before the Bingtown Traders unadorned. She was not going to Bingtown to impress them with her jewelry. She was going there to see, at last, the land and the folk she had studied for more than half her life. She had not known such anticipation since the old Satrap had first noticed her and invited her to become his Companion. She prayed that this visit to Bingtown would be a similar beginning.

  At the present moment, it was difficult to cling to such dreams. Never had she felt her life so sordid and tawdry as now. In Jamaillia, she had always been able to insulate herself from the more debased practices of the Satrap's court. When the young Satrap had begun to let the feasts degenerate into celebrations of gluttony and lewdness, she had simply stopped attending them. On board the ship, there was nowhere to flee his excesses. If she wished to eat, she must eat with the Satrap. To leave this chamber and walk in the fresh air on the open deck was to invite the coarse attention of the Chalcedean crew. There was no relief there, even if she had had Cosgo's leave to depart the room.

  Satrap Cosgo and Companion Kekki sprawled on the large divan of the chamber. They were both nearly insensible from pleasure herbs and smoke. Kekki had whined that they were the only way to keep her mind from her queasiness, and loudly lamented that never before this had she been so seasick. Serilla had been too tactful to ask if she might be pregnant. It was not unheard of for a Satrap to impregnate one of his Heart Companions, but it was still seen as tasteless. Children of such unions were turned over to the servants of Sa as soon as they were born, to be raised as priests. They were never told of their parentage. Only with his lawful spouse could the Satrap conceive an heir. Cosgo had not yet taken a wife. Serilla doubted that he would until his nobles forced it on him.

  If he lived that long. She glanced at him, sprawled half atop Kekki and breathing hoarsely. Another Companion, also stupefied, lolled across the pillows at his feet. Her head was flung back, her dark hair scattered across the cushions. Her slitted eyes showed slices of white. Periodically, her fingers spasmed. To look at her made Serilla queasy.

  The entire voyage so far had been a series of feasts and entertainment, followed by Cosgo's extended periods of nausea and stupor brought on by too much wine and soporifics. Then he would demand his healers, who would dose and drug him in a different direction, until he felt well enough to prescribe his own pleasures again. The other nobles on board were as self-indulgent
, save a few who often claimed seasickness as an excuse to remain in their quarters.

  Several Chalcedean nobles journeyed north with him. Their ships traveled in company with the Satrap's flagship. They often joined him for dinner. The women they brought with them were like dangerous pets as they vied for attention from those they deemed most powerful. They horrified Serilla. The only more terrifying aspects of those dinners were the political discussions that followed. The Chalcedean nobles urged Cosgo to make an example of Bingtown, to tolerate none of the Traders' rebellious talk, to take a firm hand and quash them. They were building in the Satrap a sense both of self-righteousness and anger that Serilla deemed unjustified. She no longer attempted to make her own voice heard. The Chalcedeans only shouted her down with their laughter, or made mock of her. Last night Cosgo had bid her to be silent as befit her. The thought of his public insult to her still stirred the flames of anger in her heart.

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  The Chalcedean who captained his ship accepted the rare wines that Satrap Cosgo offered him, but disdained the young ruler's company. He pleaded the responsibility of his command, but Serilla saw the veiled contempt in the older man's eyes. The more Cosgo tried to impress him, the more the captain ignored him. Cosgo's attempts to mimic the Chalcedean's swagger and aggression were humiliating to watch. It pained Serilla to see Companions like Kekki encourage him in it, as if his juvenile pushiness were manly. Cosgo now took umbrage at everything that was not precisely as he ordered it. His behavior reminded Serilla of a spoiled child. Nothing pleased him. Cosgo had brought jesters and musicians with him, but their routines had grown stale. The Satrap grew ever more peckish with boredom. The slightest challenge to his will propelled him into cursing, stamping tantrums.

  Serilla sighed. She wandered the room, then paused to toy with the tasseled edge of the embroidered tablecloth. Wearily she moved some of the sticky dishes out of the way. She sat down at the table and waited. She longed to return to the small closet that was her own chamber, but as Cosgo had summoned her on the pretext of seeking her advice, she could not leave until he dismissed her. If she woke him to ask his permission, he would surely refuse it.

  She had tried to dissuade him from this journey. He had suspected her of wanting to travel alone. That was true; she would far rather be traveling to Bingtown alone, empowered to make decisions for a land she knew much better than he did. However, he was too jealous of his power to allow that. He, the reigning Satrap, would descend upon Bingtown in all his power and glory and cow them with his might. The Bingtown Traders would be brought to heel, and reminded that he ruled them all by the grace of Sa. They had no right to dispute that.

  She had been confident that the Council of Nobles would dissuade him and had been sick with astonishment when they had supported the journey. His Chalcedean allies had encouraged him as well. There had been many nights of drinking with them before the preparation for the journey began. She had heard of their bragging and promises. They would support him. Let him show those Bingtown upstarts who ruled Jamaillia. His Chalcedean friends would back him up. He need not fear those festering rebels. If they dared to lift a hand against their rightful rulers, Duke Yadfin and his mercenaries would give them fresh reason to call their land the Cursed Shores. Even now, Serilla shook her head to herself when she thought of it. Could not Cosgo see that he could be used as bait in a trap?

  If the Chalcedeans could provoke the Old Traders to kill him, they would have complete license to plunder and destroy all of Bingtown.

  The wallowing mother ship carried, in addition to the Satrap, a selection of his Companions, a full complement of servants and six nobles he had ordered to attend him, with their smaller entourages. A lesser vessel, full of hopeful younger sons from noble houses, accompanied the Satrap's ship. These he had lured into the adventure with the prospect that, if their families invested in his expedition, their sons might be given grants of land in Bingtown. In vain had Serilla remonstrated with him about that. To arrive with these would-be settlers would insult the Traders. It was a plain sign that the Satrap had never taken their complaints about the New Traders seriously. He ignored her.

  To make matters worse, ranging ahead of the sailing ships and flanking them were seven large galleys, fully armed with well-equipped Chalcedean mercenaries. Their announced purpose was to escort safely the Satrap's vessel through the pirate-infested waters of the Inside Passage. Only when they were underway did Serilla discover that they would provide a further show of the Satrap's power enroute. They intended to raid and pillage any pirate settlements the ranging galleys discovered on the journey north. Whatever wealth and slaves they carried off from these raids would be transported to Chalced in the young nobles' ship, to help offset the cost of the diplomatic mission. The younger sons would participate in the raids, to prove themselves worthy of favor.

  The Satrap had been especially proud of this bit of accounting. Over and over, Serilla had had to listen to him enumerate the advantages. “One, Bingtown will be forced to admit that my patrol ships have discouraged the pirates. The slaves we take will be proof of that. Two, Bingtown will be impressed with the might of my allies, and hence will be less prone to oppose my will. Three, we will be reimbursing the treasury for the cost of this little expedition. Fourth, it will make of me a living legend. What other Satrap has ever gone forth like this, to take matters into his own hands and straighten things out? What other Satrap has ever been so bold?”

  Serilla could not decide which danger was greater: that the Chalcedeans would take him to Chalced, hold him as a hostage and make him a puppet ruler, or that the nobility of Jamaillia would seize every scrap of power they could while the boy Satrap was gone. Probably both, she decided bitterly. There were times, like tonight, when she wondered if she would ever see Bingtown at all. They were completely in the power of the Chalcedean mercenaries operating the ships. There was nothing to stop them from taking Cosgo directly to Chalced. She hoped they would believe it was to their advantage to take him to Bingtown first. If they did, she swore that somehow she would escape there. Somehow.

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  Only two of his old advisors had tried to dissuade the Satrap Cosgo from this trip. The others had all nodded affably, admitting that it was an unheard-of journey for a reigning Satrap, but encouraging him to do as he thought best. None had offered to attend him. They had loaded him with gifts for traveling and all but nudged him onto the ship. Those he had ordered to accompany him had gone reluctantly. Still Cosgo had been unable to see the danger signs of a conspiracy to be rid of him. Two days ago, she had dared speak of her concerns to him. He had first mocked her, and then become angry. “You are playing on my fears! Well you know how my nerves trouble me! You seek to upset me, to ruin my health and digestion with your wild talk. Be silent! Go to your cabin and remain there until I summon you. ”

  Her cheeks burned when she recalled how she had been forced to obey him. Two grinning Chalcedean seamen had escorted her there. Neither one had touched her, but they had discussed her body freely, in word and gesture, as they took her there. She had set the flimsy door catch as soon as she was inside and then put her clothing chest against the door. He had let a full day pass before he called her. When Cosgo did summon her back to his side, the first thing he asked her was if she had learned her lesson. Fists on his hips, he had stood grinning, awaiting her reply. Never would he have dared speak so to her if they had been in Jamaillia still. She had stood before him, eyes downcast, and muttered that she had. It had seemed the wiser course, but inside she had been seething.

  She had learned her lesson. She had learned that he had left civilized ways behind him. Before, he had been a man toying with dissipation. Now he embraced degeneracy. She decided to take her freedom as soon as she could. She owed this swine nothing. Only her loyalty to the Satrapy troubled her conscience. She had silenced it by convincing herself that there was little she, a woman alone, could d
o to stop its decay.

  Ever since then, the Satrap had watched her like a cat, waiting for her to challenge him. She had been careful to avoid that, yet would not appear too subservient either. She had set her jaw and been both deferential and courteous, while contriving to avoid him as much as possible. When he had summoned her tonight, she had feared a clash of wills. She had blessed Kekki's rabid jealousy. The instant Serilla had been admitted to the Satrap's chamber, the other Companion had done all in her power to occupy Satrap Cosgo completely. She had succeeded very well. Cosgo was unconscious.

  Kekki had no shame. She had become a Companion on the strength of her knowledge of Chalcedean language and customs. It was now apparent to Serilla that she had embraced their culture as well. In Chalced, a woman enjoyed power only through whatever man she could captivate. Tonight, Kekki had shown she would go to any limit to keep Cosgo's attention. A shame, Serilla thought, that Kekki's path was the swiftest way to lose Cosgo's fascination with her. She would soon be discarded. Serilla only hoped Kekki's blandishments could keep him entertained until they reached Bingtown.

  Serilla was still staring at them when the Satrap opened one drug-reddened eye. She did not avert her glance. She doubted he was even aware of her presence.

  It was a mistake.

  “Come here,” he ordered her.

  She crossed the thickly carpeted deck, picking her way past abandoned garments and discarded dishes. She stood an arm's length from his couch. “You summoned me for consultation, Magnadon?” she asked him formally.

  “Come here!” he repeated petulantly. His forefinger stabbed at a spot adjacent to his couch.

  She could not take those final steps. Her pride simply would not allow it. “Why?” she demanded of him.

 
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