Ship of destiny, p.31
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       Ship of Destiny, p.31

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  “I’m coming,” she said wearily. Time to face it. All the way here, she had avoided speaking to Selden of what they might find. She swung her feet out of bed. She pushed at her hair then gave it up. A shawl would cover it. She found one, still damp from the last time she had been on deck, flung it about herself and followed him onto the deck.

  It was a gray day and the rain was steady. That felt right. She joined the other passengers looking toward Bingtown. No one chattered or pointed: they stood and stared silently. Tears ran down some faces.

  Bingtown Harbor was a boneyard. The masts of ruined vessels stuck up from the water. Kendry maneuvered carefully around the sunken ships, heading not toward the liveships’ traditional dock but to one that was newly repaired. The clean yellow lumber contrasted oddly with the weathered gray and scorched black of the rest. Men on the dock waited to welcome them. At least, she hoped it was welcome.

  Selden leaned against her. Absently, she lifted a hand and set it on his shoulder. Whole sections of the city were black ruins, burnt skeletons of buildings glistening in the falling rain. The boy leaned against her more heavily. “Is Grandma all right?” he asked in a muffled voice.

  “I don’t know,” she replied wearily. She was so tired of telling him she didn’t know. She didn’t know if his father was alive. She didn’t know if his brother was alive. She didn’t know what had happened to Malta. The Kendry had searched down the Rain Wild River to its mouth and found nothing. At Reyn’s frantic insistence, they had turned back and searched up the river all the way back to Trehaug. They had found no sign of the small boat that Reyn claimed he had seen. Keffria had never spoken it aloud, but she wondered if Reyn had not imagined it. Perhaps he had wanted so badly for Malta to be alive that he had deceived himself. Keffria knew what that was like.

  At Trehaug, Jani Khuprus had boarded the Kendry. Before they departed the Rain Wild city, they sent a bird to Bingtown, informing the Council that they had not recovered the Satrap, but were continuing the search. It was a foolish hope, but one that neither Keffria nor Reyn could abandon.

  On this last trip down the Rain Wild River, Keffria had spent every evening on deck, staring out through the gathering dusk. Time after time, she had been sure she glimpsed a tiny rowboat on the river. Once she had seen Malta standing up in it, one hand lifted in a plea for help, but it had only been a log, torn loose from the bank, a root upraised in despair as it floated past.

  Even after the Kendry had left the river behind, she had kept her nightly vigils on the deck. She could not trust the ship’s lookout to watch with a mother’s eyes. Last night, through a chilling downpour, she had glimpsed a Chalcedean ship that the Kendry had easily outrun. Last night’s Chalcedean vessel had been alone, but during their journey their lookout had sighted others, galleys in groups of two or three, and two great Chalcedean sailing ships. All had either ignored the Kendry, or given only token chase. What, the captain had demanded, were the raiders waiting for? Were they converging on the mouth of the Rain Wild River? On Bingtown? Were they part of a fleet that would take over the Cursed Shores? Reyn and Jani had joined the captain in his useless debating, but Keffria saw no use in speculation.

  Malta was gone. Keffria did not know if she had died in the sunken city or perished in the river. That she would never know ate at her like a canker. Would she ever find out what had become of Wintrow and Kyle? She tried to hope that they still survived, but could not. Hope was too steep a mountain to climb. She feared she would only fall into an abyss of despair when the hope proved futile. She lived instead in a suspension of all feeling. Now was all there was.

  REYN KHUPRUS STOOD BESIDE HIS MOTHER. THE RAIN SOAKED HIS VEIL. WHEN the wind stirred it, it slapped lightly against his face. There was Bingtown, fully as damaged as he had expected it to be from the news the messenger-birds had brought to Trehaug. He tried to find an emotion to fit to the sight, but none were left to him.

  “It’s worse than I feared,” his mother muttered beside him. “How can I ask aid of the Bingtown Council when their own city is a shambles, and their coast menaced by Chalcedean ships?”

  That was supposed to be part of their mission here. Jani Khuprus had often represented the Rain Wild Traders to their kin in Bingtown, but seldom on so grave a mission. After she had formally apologized to the Bingtown Council for the unfortunate loss of Satrap Cosgo and his Companion, she would ask for assistance for the Rain Wild Traders of Trehaug. The destruction of the ancient Elderling city was almost complete. With much careful work, parts of the city might eventually be reopened. In the meantime, the Trader families who had depended on the strange and wonderful objects unearthed in the city for their commerce were left abruptly destitute. Those families made up the backbone of Trehaug. Without the Elderling city to plunder, there was no economic reason for Trehaug to exist. While Trehaug harvested some foods from the Rain Wild forest, they had no fields in which to grow grain or pasture cattle. They had always bartered for food, supplying their needs through Bingtown. The Chalcedean interruption of trade was already felt in Trehaug. With winter coming, the situation would soon be desperate.

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  Reyn knew his mother’s deepest fear. She believed this latest disaster might destroy the Rain Wild folk. Their population had dwindled in the last two generations. Rain Wild children were often stillborn, or died in the first few months. Even those who lived did not have as long a life span as ordinary folk. Reyn himself did not expect to live much beyond his thirtieth year. It was one reason the Rain Wild Traders often sought their mates among their Bingtown kin. Such matches were more likely to be fecund, and the resulting children stronger. But Bingtown folk, kin or no, had become less willing in the last two generations to come to the Rain Wilds. Gifts for the family of a prospective spouse had risen in size, value and number. Witness his own family’s willingness to forgive the debt on a liveship simply to assure Reyn a bride. With Malta lost, Jani knew Reyn would never wed nor produce children for the Khuprus family. The bride-gifts would have been in vain. With the beggaring of Trehaug, other Rain Wild families would be sore pressed to feed the children they had, let alone negotiate for mates for them. The Rain Wild folk might disappear altogether.

  So Jani would come to Bingtown, to explain the loss of the Satrap and beg for aid. The combination of the two errands was a deep affront to her pride. Reyn felt sorry for his mother, but distanced by his own grief. The loss of the Satrap could trigger a war that might mean the complete destruction of Bingtown. The ancient Elderling city he loved was destroyed. But these tragedies were now merely the backdrop to his agony at losing Malta.

  He had caused her death. By bringing her to his city, he had put her on the path to her death. The only creature he blamed more was Tintaglia, the dragon. He despised himself for the way he had romanticized the dragon. He had believed her capable of nobility and wisdom, had lionized her as the last of her glorious kind. In reality, she was an ungrateful, selfish and egotistical beast. Surely, she could have saved Malta if she had only put her mind to the task.

  For his mother’s sake, he tried to say something positive. “It looks as if some of the folk have begun rebuilding,” he pointed out.

  “Yes. Barricades,” she observed as the ship approached the dock. She was right. With a sinking heart, Reyn noted that the men on the dock were well-armed. They were Traders, for he recognized several among them, and the captain of the Kendry was already roaring a greeting to them.

  Someone cleared her throat. He started and turned to find a shawled Keffria Vestrit at his shoulder. Her eyes moved from his mother to him. “I don’t know what I will find at home,” she said quietly. “But the hospitality of the Vestrit home is open to you. ” She smiled wryly. “Providing that it still stands at all. ”

  “We could not impose,” Jani assured her gently. “Do not be troubled for us. Somewhere in Bingtown, an inn must still stand. ”

  “It would scarcely be an imp
osition,” Keffria insisted. “I am sure Selden and I would welcome the company. ”

  Reyn suddenly understood that there might be more to this invitation than a simple return of hospitality. He voiced it. “It might not be safe for you to return to your home alone. Please. Let my mother and me arrange our business, and then we will accompany you there, to see you resettled. ”

  “Actually, I would be most grateful for that,” Keffria admitted humbly.

  After a moment of silence, Reyn’s mother sighed. “My mind has been busy with my own troubles. I had not stopped to think of all this homecoming might mean to you. Sorrow I knew there must be, but I had not considered danger. I have been thoughtless. ”

  “You have your own burdens,” Keffria told her.

  “Nevertheless,” Jani said solemnly. “Honesty must replace all polite words for a time. And not just between you and me. All Traders must be frank if any of us are to survive this. Ah, Sa, look at the Great Market. Half of it is gone!”

  As the crew worked the ship into the dock, Reyn’s eyes roved over the men gathering to meet the ship, and spotted Grag Tenira. He had not seen him since the night of the Summer Ball. The strength of the mixed feelings that surged up in him took him by surprise. Grag was a friend, yet now Reyn connected him with Malta’s death. Would her death edge every day of his life with pain? It seemed it must be so.

  The ship was secured to the dock and a gangplank run up to it. The moment there was any access to the ship, the crowd surged forward and folk began to cry out questions to the captain and the crew. Reyn pushed his way through the oncoming folk. His mother, Keffria and Selden followed in his wake. The second his foot touched the wharf, Grag stepped in front of him. “Reyn?” he asked in a low voice.

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  “Yes,” he confirmed for him. He extended a gloved hand to Grag and Grag took it, but used it to pull Reyn closer.

  Head close to Reyn’s, Grag asked anxiously, “Has the Satrap been found?”

  Reyn managed to shake his head. Grag frowned, and spoke hastily. “Come with me. All of you. I’ve a wagon waiting. I’ve had a boy watching for the Kendry from the headland for the past three days. Quickly, now. There have been some wild rumors in Bingtown of late. This is not a good place for any of you. ” From beneath his own cloak, Grag produced a ragged workman’s cloak. “Cover your Rain Wild garb. ”

  For an instant, Reyn was shocked into silence. Then he shook out the cloak and flung it over his mother’s before handing her off to Grag. He seized Keffria’s arm without ceremony. “Come along quickly and quietly,” he whispered to her. He saw Keffria grip Selden’s hand more tightly. The boy sensed that all was not right. His eyes widened, and then he hurried along with them. All their bags were left behind on the ship. It could not be helped.

  Grag’s wagon was an open cart more suited to hauling freight than passengers. There was a definite smell of fish to it. Two well-muscled young men lounged in the back. They wore the smocks of Three Ships fishermen. Reyn helped the women in as Grag jumped to the seat and took up the reins. “There’s some sailcloth back there. If you spread it over you, it will keep some of the rain off. ”

  “And hide us as well,” Jani observed sourly, but she helped Reyn to unfold the canvas and stretch it out. They huddled together under it. Their escorts sat on the tail of the wagon, feet swinging as Grag stirred the ancient horse.

  “Why is the harbor so empty?” Reyn asked one of the fishermen. “Where are the ships of Bingtown?”

  “On the bottom, or off chasing Chalcedeans. They made a poke at us yesterday. Two ships approached the harbor with three others hanging offshore. Ophelia took out after them, and our other ships followed. Sa, how they ran! But I don’t doubt our ships caught up to them. We’re still waiting for our ships to return. ”

  That didn’t seem right to Reyn, but he couldn’t put his finger on why it disturbed him. As the horse pulled the cart through Bingtown, he saw the city in glimpses from beneath the flapping canvas. Some commerce was taking place, but the city had an uneasy air. Folk hurried by on their errands or suspiciously watched the cart pass. The wind brought the clinging stink of low tide and burned houses. It seemed to Reyn that they took a roundabout route to the Tenira estate. At the gate, armed men waved Grag in and closed the gates behind the cart. As Grag pulled the horse to a halt, the door opened wide. Naria Tenira and two of Grag’s sisters were among those who spilled out. Their faces were anxious.

  “Did you find them? Are they safe?” Grag’s mother demanded as Reyn threw back the canvas that had covered them.

  Then Selden was scrabbling out of the cart, crying, “Grandma, Grandma!”

  On the doorstep of the Tenira manor, Ronica Vestrit opened her arms wide to her grandchild.

  SATRAP COSGO, HEIR TO THE PEARL THRONE AND THE MANTLE OF RIGHTEOUSness, picked at his chest, pulling off a long papery sheet of peeling skin. Malta looked aside to keep from grimacing. “This is intolerable,” the Satrap complained yet again. “My skin is ruined. Such an unsightly pink shows beneath! My complexion will never again be as fair as it was. ” He looked at her accusingly. “The poet Mahnke once compared the skin of my brow to the opalescence of a pearl. Now, I am disfigured!”

  Malta felt Kekki’s knee bump the small of her back. Kekki lay on her pallet by the Satrap’s bed and Malta was hunkered on the floor beside her. It was her place in the small room. Malta winced at the nudge against her aching back but recognized the hint. She searched her mind, then lied. “In Bingtown, it is said that the woman who washes her face once a year in Rain Wild River water will never age. It is an uncomfortable treatment, but it is said to keep the complexion youthful and fair. ”

  Kekki breathed out a sigh of approval. Malta had done well. Cosgo brightened immediately. “Beauty demands a price, but I have never flinched from a little personal discomfort. Still, I wonder what has become of the ship that we were to join at the mouth of the river. I am tired of this wallowing about. A ship of this size is ill-suited to open water like this. ”

  Malta lowered her eyes and stifled her opinion of his ignorance. The Chalcedeans traveled for months at a time in their galleys. Their ability to subsist on crude rations and endure the hardships of life aboard an open boat was legendary; it made their reputation as sailors and raiders.

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  They had emerged some days ago from the mouth of the river. The Satrap had been angry that the Chalcedean mother ship was not there to take him up. Malta had been bitterly disappointed that there were no liveships guarding the river mouth. She had been enduring by pretending that Bingtown liveships would halt the galley and rescue her. The despair that swept over her as the galley swept freely on was unbearable. She’d been a fool to dream of rescue. Such dreams had only weakened her. Angrily she purged her heart of them: no liveship patrol, no Reyn searching for her, no dreams at all. No one was going to magically appear and rescue her. She suspected her survival was in her own hands. She suspected many things that she did not share with the Satrap or Kekki. One was that the galley was in trouble. It did wallow, and it shipped a great deal more water than it should. Doubtless, the Rain Wild River had taken a toll on its tarred seams and perhaps on its planking. Since they had left the river, the captain had taken them north, toward Chalced. The galley hugged the shore; if it broke up, they’d at least have a chance of reaching the beach alive. She judged the man was running for home, and gambling he’d reach there with both ship and unexpected cargo intact.

  “Water,” Kekki croaked. She seldom spoke now. She no longer sat up at all. Malta kept her as clean as she could and waited wearily for her to die. The Companion’s mouth was ringed with sores that cracked and bled as Malta held a cup to her lips. Kekki managed a swallow. Malta dabbed at the pink-tinged water that ran from the corners of her mouth. She had drunk too much river water to live, but not enough to kill her quickly. Kekki’s insides were probably as ulcerated as
her mouth. The thought made Malta cringe.

  The Companion, despite her pain and weakness, had kept her word. Malta had kept her alive and seen them rescued, and now Kekki did her best to teach Malta how to survive. She could speak little now, but with nudges and small noises, she reminded Malta of her earlier advice. Some of her hints merely made life tolerable. Malta should always respond to the Satrap’s complaints with either a positive aspect of them, or a compliment on how brave, wise and strong he was in enduring such things. Initially the words had near gagged Malta, but it did divert him from whining. If she must be confined with him, it was best to keep him agreeable. She cherished the hours after his evening meal when his smoke with the captain left him mellowly drowsing and nodding.

  Other things Kekki had told her were more valuable. The first time Malta had taken their privy bucket to empty it, the sailors had hooted and clicked their teeth at her. On her return, one man had blocked her way. Eyes cast down, she had tried to step around him. Grinning, he shifted to prevent her escape. Her heart began to hammer in her throat. She looked away and tried once more to pass him. This time he let her slip by, but as she went past him, he reached from behind her, seized one of her breasts and squeezed it hard.

  She cried out in pain and alarm. He laughed and jerked her back against him, holding her so tight she could hardly breathe. His free hand snaked down her blouse and caught her other breast. Callused fingers roughly caressed her bare skin. Shock froze her motionless and silent. He ground his body against her buttocks. The other men watched him, eyes bright and grins knowing. When he reached down to lift the back of her skirts, she suddenly found control of her muscles. The heavy wooden bucket was still in her hand. She twisted and swung it hard, hitting him in the shoulder. The remnant waste in the bottom of the bucket spattered up into his face. He had roared his distaste and released her, despite the jeering encouragement of his fellows. She had sprung away and had run back to their canvas shelter and flung herself inside.

  The Satrap was not there. He had gone to take a meal with the captain. In abject terror, Malta huddled on the floor beside the sleeping Kekki. Every passing step might be the sailor coming after her. She shook until her teeth chattered. When Kekki stirred awake and saw Malta shivering in a corner, clutching a water mug as her only weapon, she had coaxed the tale from her. While Malta gasped the story out, Kekki had listened gravely. Then she shook her head. She spoke in short phrases to save her mouth and throat.

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