Ship of destiny, p.3
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       Ship of Destiny, p.3

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  “Thank you. ” Jani indicated the basin to Keffria. She laved her hands and arms and splashed her face. The warmth made her realize how cold she was. The binding on her broken fingers was soaked and gritty. “That needs to be changed,” Jani observed while Keffria used the towel. Jani washed, and again thanked the child, before guiding Keffria toward several tables where healers were plying their trade. Some were merely salving blistered hands or massaging aching backs, but there was also an area where broken limbs and bleeding injuries were being treated. The business of clearing the collapsed corridor was hazardous work. Jani settled Keffria at a table to await her turn. A healer was already at work rebandaging her hand when Jani returned with morning bread, soup and coffee for both of them. The healer finished swiftly, abruptly told Keffria that she was off the work detail, and moved on to his next patient.

  “Eat something,” Jani urged her.

  Keffria picked up the mug of coffee. The warmth of it between her palms was oddly comforting. She took a long drink from it. As she set it down, her eyes wandered over the amphitheater. “It’s all so organized,” she observed in confusion. “As if you expected this to happen, planned for it-“

  “We did,” Jani said quietly. “The only thing that puts this collapse out of the ordinary is the scale of it. A good quake usually brings on some falls.

  Sometimes a corridor will collapse for no apparent reason. Both my uncles died in cave-ins. Almost every Rain Wild family who works the city loses a member or two of each generation down here. It is one of the reasons my husband Sterb has been so adamant in urging the Rain Wild Council to aid him in developing other sources of wealth for us. Some say he is only interested in establishing his own fortune. As a younger son of a Rain Wild Trader’s grandson, he has little claim to his own family’s wealth. But I truly believe it is not self-interest but altruism that makes him work so hard at developing the foragers’ and harvesters’ outposts. He insists the Rain Wild could supply all our needs if we but opened our eyes to the forest’s wealth. ” She folded her lips and shook her head. “Still. It does not make it any easier when he says, ‘I warned you all’ when something like this happens. Most of us do not want to forsake the buried city for the bounty of the rain forest. The city is all we know, the excavating and exploration. Quakes like this are the danger we face, just as you families who trade upon the sea know that eventually you will lose someone to it. ”

  “Inevitable,” Keffria conceded. She picked up her spoon and began to eat. A few mouthfuls later, she set it down.

  Across from her, Jani set down her coffee mug. “What is it?” she asked quietly.

  Keffria held herself very still. “If my children are dead, who am I?” she asked. Cold calmness welled up in her as she spoke. “My husband and eldest son are gone, taken by pirates, perhaps already dead. My only sister has gone after them. My mother remained behind in Bingtown when I fled; I know not what has become of her. I only came here for the sake of my children. Now they are missing, and perhaps already dead. If I alone survive-” She halted, unable to frame a thought to deal with that possibility. The immensity of it overwhelmed her.

  Jani gave her a strange smile. “Keffria Vestrit. But the turning of a day ago, you were volunteering to leave your children in my care, and return to Bingtown, to spy on the New Traders for us. It seems to me that you then had a very good sense of who you were, independent of your role as mother or daughter. ”

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  Keffria propped her elbows on the table and leaned her face into her hands. “And this now feels like a punishment for that. If Sa thought I undervalued my children, might he not take them from me?”

  “Perhaps. If Sa had but a male aspect. But recall the old, true worship of Sa. Male and female, bird, beast and plant, earth, fire, air and water, all are honored in Sa and Sa manifests in all of them. If the divine is also female, and the female also divine, then she understands that woman is more than mother, more than daughter, more than wife. Those are the facets of a full life, but no single facet defines the jewel. ”

  The old saying, once so comforting, now rang hollow in her ears. But Keffria’s thoughts did not linger on it long. A great commotion at the entrance to the hall turned both their heads. “Sit still and rest,” Jani advised her. “I’ll see what it’s about. ”

  But Keffria could not obey her. How could she sit still and wonder if the disruption were caused by news of Reyn or Malta or Selden? She pushed back from the table and followed the Rain Wild Trader.

  Weary and bedraggled diggers clustered around four youngsters who had just slung their buckets of fresh water to the floor. “A dragon! A great silver dragon, I tell you! It flew right over us. ” The tallest boy spoke the words as if challenging his listeners. Some of the laborers looked bemused, others disgusted by this wild tale.

  “He’s not lying! It did! It was real, so bright I could hardly look at it! But it was blue, a sparkly blue,” amended a younger boy.

  “Silver-blue!” a third boy chimed in. “And bigger than a ship!” The lone girl in the group was silent, but her eyes shone with excitement.

  Keffria glanced at Jani, expecting to meet her annoyed glance. How could these youngsters allow themselves to bring such a frivolous tale at a time when lives weighed in the balance? Instead, the Rain Wild woman’s face had gone pale. It made the fine scaling around her eyes and lips stand out against her face. “A dragon?” she faltered. “You saw a dragon?”

  Sensing a sympathetic ear, the tall boy pushed through the crowd toward Jani. “It was a dragon, such as some of the frescoes showed. I’m not making it up, Trader Khuprus. Something made me look up, and there it was. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It flew like a falcon! No, no, like a shooting star! It was so beautiful!”

  “A dragon,” Jani repeated dazedly.

  “Mother!” Bendir was so dirty that Keffria scarcely recognized him as he pushed through the crowd. He glanced at the boy standing before Jani, and then to his mother’s shocked face. “So you’ve heard. A woman who was tending the babies up above sent a boy running to tell us what she had seen. A blue dragon. ”

  “Could it be?” Jani asked him brokenly. “Could Reyn have been right all along? What does it mean?”

  “Two things,” Bendir replied tersely. “I’ve sent searchers overland, to where I think the creature must have broken out of the city. From the description, it is too large to have moved through the tunnels. It must have burst out from the Crowned Rooster chamber. We have an approximate idea of where that was. There may be some sign of Reyn there. At the least, there may be another way we can enter the city and search for survivors. ” A mutter of voices rose at his words. Some were expressing disbelief, others wonder. He raised his voice to be heard above them. “And the other thing is that we must remember that this beast may be our enemy. ” As the boy near him began to protest, Bendir cautioned him, “No matter how beautiful it may seem, it may bear us ill will. We know next to nothing of the true nature of dragons. Do nothing to anger it, but do not assume it is the benign creature we see in the frescoes and mosaics. Do not call its attention to you. ”

  A roar of conversation rose in the chamber. Keffria caught at Jani’s sleeve desperately. She spoke through the noise. “If you find Reyn there… do you think Malta may be with him?”

  Jani met her eyes squarely. “It is what he feared,” she said. “That Malta had gone to the Crowned Rooster chamber. And to the dragon that slept there. ”

  “I’VE NEVER SEEN ANYTHING SO BEAUTIFUL. DO YOU THINK SHE WILL COME back?” Weakness as well as awe made the boy whisper.

  Reyn turned to regard him. Selden crouched on an island of rubble atop the mud. He stared up at the light above them, his face transfigured by what he had just witnessed. The newly released dragon was gone, already far beyond sight, but still the boy stared after her.

  “I don’t think we should count on her to return and save us. I think that is up to us,
” Reyn said pragmatically.

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  Selden shook his head. “Oh, I did not mean that. I would not expect her to notice us that much. I expect we’ll have to get ourselves out of here. But I should like to see her, just once more. Such a marvel she was. Such a joy. ” He lifted his eyes once more to the punctured ceiling. Despite the dirt and muck that streaked his face and burdened his clothes, the boy’s expression was luminous.

  Sun spilled into the ruined chamber, bringing weak light but little additional warmth. Reyn could no longer recall what it felt like to be dry, let alone warm. Hunger and thirst tormented him. It was hard to force himself to move. But he smiled. Selden was right. A marvel. A joy.

  The dome of the buried Crowned Rooster chamber was cracked like the top of a soft-boiled egg. He stood atop some of the fallen debris and looked up at dangling tree roots and the small window of sky. The dragon had escaped that way, but he doubted that he and Selden would. The chamber was filling rapidly with muck as the swamp trickled in to claim the city that had defied it for so long. The flow of chill mud and water would engulf them both long before they could find a way to reach the egress above them.

  Yet bleak as his situation was, he still marveled at the memory of the dragon that had emerged from her centuries of waiting. The frescoes and mosaics that he had seen all his life had not prepared him for the reality of the dragon. The word “blue” had gained a new meaning in the brilliance of her scales. He would never forget how her lax wings had taken on strength and color as she pumped them. The snake-stench of her transformation still hung heavy in the moist air. He could see no remnants of the wizardwood log that had encased her. She appeared to have absorbed it all as she metamorphosed into a mature dragon.

  But now she was gone. And the problem of survival remained for Reyn and the boy. The earthquakes of the night before had finally breached the walls and ceilings of the sunken city. The swamps outside were bleeding into this chamber. The only means of escape was high overhead, a tantalizing window of blue sky.

  Mud bubbled wetly at the edge of the piece of fallen dome Reyn stood on. Then it triumphed, swallowing the edges of the crystal and slipping toward his bare feet.

  “Reyn. ” Selden’s voice was hoarse with his thirst. Malta’s little brother perched atop a slowly sinking island of debris. In the dragon’s scrabbling effort to escape, she had dislodged rubble, earth and even a tree. It had fallen into the sunken chamber and some of it still floated on the rising tide of muck. The boy knit his brows as his natural pragmatism reasserted itself. “Maybe we could lift up that tree and prop it up against the wall. Then, if we climbed up it, we could-“

  “I’m not strong enough. ” Reyn broke into the boy’s optimistic plan. “Even if I were strong enough to lift the tree, the muck is too soft to support me. But we might be able to break off some of the smaller branches and make a sort of raft. If we can spread out our weight enough, we can stay on top of this stuff. ”

  Selden looked hopefully up at the hole where light seeped in. “Do you think the mud and water will fill up this room and lift us up there?”

  “Maybe,” Reyn lied heartily. He surmised that the muck would stop far short of filling the chamber. They would probably suffocate when the rising tide swallowed them. If not, they would eventually starve here. The piece of dome under his feet was sinking rapidly. Time to abandon it. He jumped from it to a heap of fallen earth and moss, only to have it plunge away under him. The muck was softer than he had thought. He lunged toward the tree trunk, caught one of its branches, and dragged himself out and onto it. The rising mire was at least chest-deep now, and the consistency of porridge. If he sank into it, he would die in its cold clutch. His move had brought him much closer to Selden. He extended a hand toward the boy, who leapt from his sinking island, fell short, and then scrabbled over the soft mud to reach him. Reyn pulled him up onto the fallen evergreen’s trunk. The boy huddled shivering against him. His clothing was plastered to his body with the same mud that streaked his face and hair.

  “I wish I hadn’t lost my tools and supplies. But they’re long buried now. We’ll have to break these branches off as best we can and pile them up in a thick mat. ”

  “I’m so tired. ” The boy stated it as a fact, not a complaint. He glanced up at Reyn, then stared at him. “You don’t look so bad, even up close. I always wondered what you looked like under that veil. In the tunnels, with only the candle, I couldn’t really see your face. Then, last night, when your eyes were glowing blue, it was scary at first. But after a while, it was like, well, it was good to see them and know you were still there. ”

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  Reyn laughed easily. “Do my eyes glow? Usually that doesn’t happen until a Rain Wild man is much older. We just accept it as a sign of a man reaching full maturity. ”

  “Oh. But in this light, you look almost normal. You don’t have many of those wobbly things. Just some scales around your eyes and mouth. ” Selden stared at him frankly.

  Reyn grinned. “No, not any of those wobbly things yet. But they, too, may come as I get older. ”

  “Malta was afraid you were going to be all warty. Some of her friends teased her about it, and she would get angry. But…” Selden suddenly seemed to realize that his words were not tactful. “At first, I mean, when you first started courting her, she worried about it a lot. Lately, she hasn’t talked about it much,” he offered encouragingly. He glanced at Reyn, then moved away from him along the tree trunk. He seized a branch and tugged at it. “These are going to be tough to break. ”

  “I imagine she’s had other things on her mind,” Reyn muttered. The boy’s words brought a sickness to his heart. Did his appearance matter that much to Malta? Would he win her with his deeds, only to have her turn away from him when she saw his face? A bitter thought came to him. Perhaps she was already dead, and he would never know. Perhaps he would die, and she would never even see his face.

  “Reyn?” Selden’s voice was tentative. “I think we’d better get to work on these branches. ”

  Reyn abruptly realized how long he had hunkered there in silence. Time to push useless thoughts aside and try to survive. He seized a needled branch in his hands and broke a bough from it. “Don’t try to break the whole branch off at once. Just take boughs from it. We’ll pile them up there. We want to intermesh them, like thatching a roof-“

  A fresh trembling of the earth broke his words. He clung to the tree trunk helplessly as a shower of earth rained down from the ruptured ceiling. Selden shrieked and threw his arms up to protect his head. Reyn scrabbled along the branchy trunk to reach him and shelter him with his body. The ancient door of the chamber groaned and suddenly sagged on its hinge. A flow of mud and water surged into the room from behind it.

  Liveship Traders 3 - Ship of Destiny

  CHAPTER TWO - Traders and Traitors

  THE LIGHT SCUFF OF FOOTSTEPS WAS HER ONLY WARNING. IN THE KITCHEN garden, Ronica froze where she crouched. The sounds were coming up the carriageway. She seized her basket of turnips and fled to the shelter of the grape arbor. Her back muscles kinked protestingly at the sudden movement, but she ignored them. She’d rather be careful of her life than of her back. Silently she set the basket at her feet. Unbreathing, she peered through the hand-sized leaves of the vines. From their screening shelter, she could see a young man approaching the front entry of the house. A hooded cloak obscured his identity, and his furtive manner proclaimed his intentions.

  He climbed the leaf-littered steps. At the door he hesitated, his boots grating on broken glass as he peered into the darkened house. He pushed at the big door that hung ajar. It scraped open and he slipped into the house.

  Ronica took a deep breath and considered. He was probably just a scavenger, come to see if there was anything left to plunder. He would soon find there was not. What the Chalcedeans had not carried off, her neighbors had. Let him prowl through the ravaged h
ouse, and then he would leave. Nothing left in the house was worth risking herself. If she confronted him, she could be hurt. She tried to tell herself that there was nothing to gain. Still, she found herself gripping the cudgel that was now her constant companion as she edged toward the front door of her family home.

  Her feet were silent as she picked her way up the debris-strewn steps and through the glass fragments. She peered around the door, but the intruder was out of sight. Soundlessly, she slipped inside the entry hall. She froze there, listening. She heard a door open somewhere deeper inside the house. This villain seemed to know where he was going; was he someone she knew, then? If he was, did he mean well? She considered that unlikely. She was no longer confident of old friends and alliances. She could think of no one who might expect to find her at home.

  She had fled Bingtown weeks ago, the day after the Summer Ball. The night before, the tension over Chalcedean mercenaries in the harbor had suddenly erupted. Rumors that the Chalcedeans were attempting a landing while the Old Traders were engaged in their festivities had raced through the gathering. It was a New Trader plot, to take the Satrap hostage and overthrow Bingtown; so the gossip flew. The rumor was enough to ignite fires and riots. The Old and New Traders had clashed with one another and against the Chalcedean mercenaries in their harbor. Ships were attacked and burned, and the tariff docks, symbol of the Satrap’s authority, went up in flames yet again. But this time, the fires spread through the restless town. Angry New Traders set the elite shops along Rain Wild Street aflame. New Trader warehouses were torched in vengeance, and then someone set the Bingtown Traders’ Concourse alight.

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  Meanwhile, the battle in the harbor raged. The Chalcedean galleys that had been resident in the harbor, masquerading as Jamaillian patrol vessels, made up one arm of the pincers. The Chalcedean ships that had arrived bringing the Satrap made up the other half. Caught between them were Bingtown liveships and trading vessels and the larger fishing vessels of the Three Ships immigrants. In the end, the rallying of the small boats of the Three Ships folk had turned the tide of battle. In the dark, the tiny fishing vessels could slip up on the large Chalcedean sailing ships. Suddenly pots of burning oil and tar shattered against the hulls of the ships or were lobbed onto the decks. Abruptly the Chalcedean ships were too engaged in putting out fires to contain the ships in the harbor. Like gnats harrying bulls, the tiny boats had persisted in attacking the ships blocking the harbor mouth. Chalcedean fighters on the docks and in Bingtown were horrified to see their own ships driven from Bingtown Harbor. Abruptly the cut-off invaders were fighting for their lives. The running battle had continued as the Bingtown ships pursued the Chalcedeans into the open water.

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