Ship of destiny, p.32
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       Ship of Destiny, p.32

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  “This is bad… for all of us. They should fear… to touch you… without Cosgo’s permission. But they don’t. ” She paused, pondering. Then she drew breath, rallying her strength. “They must not rape you. If they do… and Cosgo does not challenge them… they will lose all respect… for all of us.

  “Don’t tell Cosgo. He would use it… to make you obey. To threaten you. ” She sucked in a painful breath. “Or give you to them… to buy favor. Like Serilla. ” She took breath again. “We must protect you… to protect all of us. ” Kekki groped weakly around herself, then picked up one of the rags Malta used to dab blood away from her mouth. “Here. Wear this… between your legs. Always. If a man touches you, say Fa-chejy kol Means ‘I bleed. ’ He will stop… when you say it… or when he sees this. ”

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  Kekki motioned for water and drank. She sighed, then gathered herself to speak. “Chalced men fear a woman’s blood time. They say-” Kekki took a breath and managed a pink-toothed smile. “A woman’s parts are angry then. They can slay a man’s. ”

  Malta was amazed that anyone could believe such a thing. She looked at the blood-streaked rag she held. “That’s stupid. ”

  Kekki shrugged painfully. “Be grateful they are stupid,” she advised her. “Save the words. They know you cannot always be bleeding. ” Then her face and eyes grew grave. “If he doesn’t stop… don’t fight him. He will only hurt you more. ” She dragged in a breath. “They would hurt you… until you stopped fighting. To teach you a woman’s place. ”

  That conversation had been days ago. It was the last time Kekki had spoken more than a few words to her. The woman weakened every day, and the smell from her sores grew stronger. She could not live much longer. For her sake, Malta hoped death came soon, though for her own sake, she feared Kekki’s death. When Kekki died, she would lose her only ally.

  Malta was weary of living in fear, but she had little choice. Every decision she made, she made in fear. Her life centered on her fear. She no longer left their chamber unless Cosgo ordered her directly. Then she went quickly, returned swiftly and tried to meet no man’s eyes. The men still hooted and clicked their teeth, but they didn’t bother her when she was emptying the waste bucket.

  “Are you stupid or just lazy?” the Satrap demanded loudly.

  Malta looked up at him with a jolt. Her thoughts had carried her far. “I’m sorry,” she said, and tried to make her voice sincere.

  “I said, I’m bored. Not even the food is interesting. No wine. No smoke, save at table with the captain. Can you read?” At her puzzled nod, he directed her, “Go and see if the captain has any books. You could read to me. ”

  Her mouth went dry. “I don’t read Chalcedean. ”

  “You are too ignorant for words. I do. Go borrow a book for me. ”

  She tried to keep fear from her voice. “But I don’t speak Chalcedean. How will I ask for one?”

  He snorted in disgust. “How can parents let their children grow up in such ignorance! Does not Bingtown border on Chalced? One would think you would at least learn your neighbors’ tongue. So damnably provincial. No wonder Bingtown cannot get along with them. ” He sighed heavily, a man wronged. “Well, I cannot fetch it myself, with my skin peeling like this. Can you remember a few words? Knock on his door, kneel down and abase yourself, then say, La-nee-ra-ke-je-loi-en. ”

  He rattled the syllables off in a breath. Malta could not even tell where one word began and another left off. “La-nee-ra-ke-en” she tried.

  “No, stupid. La-nee-ra-ke-je-loi-en. Oh, and add, re-kal at the end, so he doesn’t think you are rude. Hurry now, before you forget it. ”

  She looked at him. If she pleaded not to go, he would know she was afraid and demand to know why. She would not give him that weapon to bludgeon her with. She picked up her courage. Perhaps the sailors wouldn’t bother her if she was obviously bound for the captain’s cabin. On the way back, she’d be carrying a book. It might keep her safe from them; they wouldn’t want to damage their captain’s property. She muttered the syllables to herself as she left the chamber, making a chant of them.

  She had to walk the length of the galley between and above the rowers’ benches. The hooting and clicking of teeth terrified her; she knew her fearful expression only encouraged them. She forced herself to keep repeating her syllables. She reached the captain’s door without a man laying a hand on her, knocked, and hoped desperately that she had not knocked too loudly.

  A man’s voice replied, sounded annoyed. Praying that he had bid her come in, she opened the door and peered in timidly. The captain was stretched out on his bunk. He leaned up on one elbow to stare at her angrily.

  “La-nee-ra-ke-je-loi-en!” she blurted. Then, abruptly recalling the Satrap’s other instructions, she dropped to her knees and bent her head low. “Re-kal,” she added belatedly.

  He said something to her. She dared lift her eyes to him. He had not moved. He stared at her, then repeated the same words more loudly. She looked at the floor and shook her head, praying he would know she did not understand. He got to his feet and she braced herself. She darted a glance up at him. He pointed at the door. She scrabbled toward it, backed out of it, came to her feet, bowed low again and shut it.

  The moment she was outside the cabin, the catcalls and teeth-clicking resumed. The other end of the boat seemed impossibly far away. She would never get there safely. Hugging her arms tightly around herself, Malta ran. She was nearly at the end of the rowing benches when someone reached up and snatched hold of her ankle. She fell heavily, striking her forehead, elbows and knees on the rough planking. For an instant, she was stunned. Dazed, she rolled to her back and looked up at a laughing young man standing over her. He was handsome, tall and blond like her father, with honest blue eyes and a ready grin. He cocked his head and said something to her. A query? “I’m all right,” she replied. He smiled at her. Her relief was so great, she almost smiled back at him. Then he reached down and flung up the front of her skirts. He went down on one knee, his hands busy at his belt.

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  “No!” she cried wildly. She tried to scrabble away, but he seized her ankle and casually jerked her back. Other men were standing up to get a better view. As he exposed himself to Malta, Kekki’s words rushed back to her. “Fa-chejy kol!” she blurted. “Fa-chejy kol!” He looked startled. She pushed her hair back from her face. He recoiled suddenly in horror, uttering an exclamation of disgust. She did not care. It had worked. She jerked away from him, managed to stand, raced the last few strides to shelter, flung herself through the door flap and collapsed on the floor. Her breath sobbed in and out of her. Her elbows stung. She blinked something wet from her eye, then wiped at it. Blood. The fall had opened her scar again.

  The Satrap did not even lift his head from his pillow. “Where is my book?” he demanded.

  Malta gasped a breath. “I don’t think he has any,” she managed to say.

  Calm words. Steady voice. Do not let him know how scared you are. “I said the words you told me. He just pointed at the door. ”

  “How annoying. I fear I shall die of boredom on this boat. Come and rub my feet. Perhaps I will doze off. There is certainly nothing else to do. ”

  No choice, Malta told herself. Her heart was still thundering in her chest, her mouth so dry she could scarcely breathe through it. No choice, except painful death. Her elbows and knees stung; they were skinned raw. She pulled a splinter from her palm, then crossed the tiny room to sit on the floor by his feet. He glanced at her, then jerked his feet away from her touch. “What is the matter with you? What is that?” He stared at her brow.

  “I fell. I opened the cut again,” she said simply. She lifted her hand to touch it gingerly. Her fingers came away sticky with blood and a thick white pus. Malta stared at it in horror. She picked up one of Kekki’s rags and dabbed at her brow. It did not hurt much, but more of the stuff soake
d the rag. Malta began to shake as she looked at it. What was it, what did it mean?

  There was no mirror to consult. She had avoided touching the scar on her forehead. She had not wanted to remind herself it was there. Now she let her fingers walk over it. It hurt, but not as much as it seemed it should for all the blood and discharge. She forced herself to explore it. It was as long as her forefinger and stood up in a thick ridge as wide as two of her fingers. The scar felt knobby, ridged and gristly like the end of a chicken bone. A shudder ran over her. She wanted to vomit. She lifted her face to the Satrap. “What does it look like?” she demanded quietly.

  He did not seem to hear her. “Don’t touch me. Go clean yourself, and bind something across that. Feh! I cannot look at that. Get away. ”

  She turned away from him, refolded the rag and held it against her brow. It grew heavy and wet. Pink fluid trickled down her wrist to her elbow. It wasn’t stopping. She scooted over to sit by Kekki, seeking any kind of companionship. She was now too frightened even to cry. “What if I’m dying from this?” she whimpered. Kekki did not respond. Malta looked at her, and then stared.

  The Companion was dead.

  Out on the deck, a sailor shouted something excitedly. Others took up the cry. The Satrap sat up suddenly on his pallet. “The ship! They’re hailing the ship! Perhaps now there will be decent food and wine. Malta, fetch my… oh, now what ails you?” He glared at her irritably, and then followed her gaze to Kekki’s corpse. He sighed. “She’s dead, isn’t she?” He shook his head sadly. “What a nuisance. ”

  SERILLA HAD ORDERED THAT HER LUNCHEON BE BROUGHT TO THE LIBRARY. SHE sat awaiting it with an anticipation that had nothing to do with hunger. The tattooed serving woman who set it before her moved with precise courtesy that grated on Serilla’s nerves.

  “Never mind that,” she said, almost sharply, as the woman began to pour her tea for her. “I’ll do the rest for myself. You can go now. Please remember that I am not to be disturbed. ”

  “Yes, lady. ” The stoic woman bobbed her head and retreated to the door.

  Serilla forced herself to sit still at the table until she heard the door shut firmly behind her. Then she rose swiftly, cat-footed across the room and eased the latch into place. A servant had opened the drapes to the wet wintry day outside. Serilla drew them closed and surreptitiously checked to be sure the edges overlapped. When she was certain that no one could enter the room nor spy on her, she went back to the table. Ignoring the food, she took up the napkin and shook it hopefully.

  Nothing fell out.

  Disappointment squeezed her. Last time, the note had been folded discreetly within the napkin. She had no idea how Mingsley had managed it, but she had hoped he would contact her again. She had replied to his overture with a note of her own, left at his suggestion under a flowerpot in the disused herb garden behind the house. When she checked on it later, the note was gone. He should have replied by now.

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  Unless this was all a trick and the note had been a test of Roed’s devising. Roed suspected everything and everyone. He had discovered the power of cruelty, and it was corrupting him swiftly. He could not keep a secret, yet accused everyone around him of being the source of the rumors that plagued and terrorized Bingtown. He bragged to her of what happened to those who spoke out against him, though he never admitted to having a direct hand in any of it. “Dwicker’s had a good beating for his insolence. Justice has been done. ” Perhaps he had intended that such talk would keep her bound to him. It had had the reverse effect. She had felt so chilled and sickened that she was now willing to risk everything to break free of him.

  When the first note had come from Mingsley, offering an alliance, she had been shocked at his boldness. It had slipped out of her napkin onto her lap while she was dining with the heads of the Bingtown Council, but if one of them had been instrumental in delivering the note, she saw no sign of it. It must have been one of the servants. Servants were easily bribed to such tasks.

  She had agonized over replying. It had taken her a day to decide, and when she had finally set her note out, she had wondered if it would be too late. She knew her note had been taken. Why hadn’t he replied?

  Had she been too conservative in her own note? Mingsley had not been. The bargain that he had bluntly proposed had so stunned her she had barely been able to converse for the rest of the evening. Mingsley first proclaimed his own loyalty to her and to the Satrap she represented. He then plunged into accusations against those who were not so loyal. He minced no words in revealing that “traitorous New Traders” had intended to seize the Satrap from Davad’s house, and even that they had received support from nobles in Jamaillia and Chalcedean mercenaries in their pay. But the plan had soured. The Chalcedeans who had raided Bingtown had betrayed the alliance for the sake of quick plunder. The Jamaillian nobles who had backed them were plunged into civil unrest of their own.

  Some traitorous fools claimed the Jamaillian conspirators would raise a fleet to aid them and enforce their control of Bingtown. Mingsley believed it unlikely. The Traditionalists in Jamaillia City were more powerful than the conspirators had believed. The conspiracy had failed miserably, both in Bingtown and Jamaillia, thanks to her intervention. All had heard how she had boldly snatched the Satrap. Rumor suggested that the Satrap was now under the safe wing of the Vestrit family.

  In a finely penned and closely worded missive, Mingsley went on to declare that he and other honest New Traders were most anxious to clear their own names and salvage their investments in Bingtown. Her bold declaration that Davad Restart was innocent of treachery against the Satrapy of Jamaillia had heartened them. Simple logic showed that if Davad were innocent, then so were his former trading partners. These honest but misjudged New Traders were most anxious to negotiate a peace with the Bingtown Traders, and to establish their clear loyalty to the Satrapy.

  He then stated his bargain. The “loyalist” New Traders wanted Serilla to intercede for them with the Bingtown Council, but first she must divest herself of “the hot-headed, bloody-handed” Roed Caern. Only then would they treat with her. In return for this sacrifice, Mingsley and the other loyal New Traders would furnish her with a list of those New Traders who had plotted against the Satrap. The list would include the names of highly placed Jamaillian conspirators, as well as the Chalcedean lords who had been involved. He not so subtly pointed out that such a list, kept secret, was worth a great deal of coin. A woman possessing such information could live well and independently the rest of her life, whether she chose to remain in Bingtown or return to Jamaillia.

  Someone had informed Mingsley very well about her.

  When she finally replied to his note, her answer had been reserved. She included no greeting that mentioned him by name, nor had she signed her name. The plain square of paper had succinctly acknowledged that she found his offer interesting and inviting. She had hinted that there were others among her “current allies” who would also be receptive to such negotiations. Would he care to set a time and a place to meet?

  In composing the note, she had forced herself to think coldly. There was no truth in this sort of politics, and very little ethics. There were only stances and posturing. The Old Satrap had taught her that. Now she tried to apply his clarity of vision to this situation. Mingsley had been involved with the plot to take the Satrap. His intimate knowledge betrayed him. But the tide had turned against him, and now he wished to change his alliance. If she could, she would help him. It could only benefit her, especially as she was in the midst of doing the same thing. She would use Mingsley’s cooperation as her passage to establish credibility with Ronica Vestrit and other like-thinking members of the Bingtown Council. She wished now that Ronica Vestrit was still in the house. Not that she regretted giving her the warning that had allowed her to escape: thwarting Roed had finally given her the small measure of courage she needed to take back some control in her life. When the time w
as right, she could make Ronica aware of who had aided her. Serilla smiled grimly to herself. She could, if she chose, be like Mingsley, reordering all she had done to put herself in a better light.

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  The Trader woman would have been useful to her right now. The tangled threads of accusations and suspicion were difficult to follow. So much was based on what Mingsley knew or suspected. Ronica had had a gift for sorting out such things.

  And a gift for making her think. Ronica’s words kept coming back to her. She could be shaped by her past without being trapped by it. At one time, she had considered those words only in light of her rape. Now she leaned back in her chair and opened her mind to a wider interpretation. Satrap’s Companion. Must that determine her future? Or could she set it aside and become a woman of Bingtown, standing independent?

  “I HATE TO RUSH YOU,” GRAG APOLOGIZED AS HE ENTERED REYN’S GUEST chamber with an armload of clothes. He kicked the door shut behind him. “However, the others are gathered and waiting. Some of them have been here since early morning. The longer they wait, the more impatient they grow. Here are dry clothes. Some of these should fit you. Your clothes fit me well enough when I was a Rain Wilder for the Ball. ” He must have seen Reyn wince, for immediately he added, “I’m sorry. I never got to tell you that. Sorry about what happened with the coach, and sorry that Malta was injured. ”

  “Yes. Well. It makes small difference to her now, I suppose. ” Reyn heard how harsh his words sounded. “I’m sorry. I can’t… I can’t talk about it. ” He tried to interest himself in the clothes. He picked up a long-sleeved shirt. There were no gloves there; he’d have to use his wet ones. And the wet veil, too. It didn’t matter, nothing really mattered.

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