Ship of destiny, p.33
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       Ship of Destiny, p.33

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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  “I’m afraid you’ll have to talk about it. ” There was genuine regret in Grag’s voice. “Your tie with Malta has brought this down on you. The rumor around town is either that she kidnapped the Satrap from where the Rain Wild Traders were holding him, or that she aided his escape. Roed Caern has been noising it about that she has probably turned him over to the Chalcedeans, because she is Chalcedean herself, and…”

  “Shut up!” Reyn drew in a deep breath. “A moment, please,” he said thickly. Despite his veil, he turned his back on Grag. He bowed his head and clenched his hands, willing that the tears would not spill, that his throat would not close up and choke him.

  “I’m sorry,” Grag apologized again.

  Reyn sighed. “No. I should apologize. You don’t know, you can’t know everything I’ve been through. I’m surprised that you’ve heard anything at all. Listen. Malta is dead, the Satrap is dead. ” A strange laugh bubbled up in him. “I should be dead. I feel I am dead. But… no. Listen. Malta went into the buried city for my sake. There was a dragon there. The dragon was… between lives. In a coffin or a cocoon type of thing… I don’t know what to call it. The dragon had been tormenting me, invading my dreams, twisting my thoughts. Malta knew. She wanted to make it stop. ”

  “A dragon?” Grag’s voice was questioning of both the word and Reyn’s sanity.

  “I know it’s a wild tale!” Reyn’s denial of Grag’s interruption was fierce. “Don’t ask me questions and don’t look skeptical. Just listen. ” Swiftly he recounted all that had happened that day. At the end of his tale, he lifted his veiled eyes to challenge Grag’s incredulous stare. “If you don’t believe me, ask the Kendry. The ship saw the dragon as well. It… changed him. He has been morose since then, constantly seeking his captain’s approval and closeness. We have been concerned for him. ”

  In a softer voice, Reyn went on, “I never saw Malta again. They’re dead, Grag. There was no plot to steal the Satrap from Trehaug. Only a girl, trying to survive an earthquake. She didn’t succeed. We searched the whole length of the river, twice. There was no sign of them. The river ate the boat and they perished in the water. It’s a horrible way to drown. ”

  “Sa’s breath. ” Grag shuddered. “Reyn, you’re right, I didn’t know. In Bingtown, all we’ve heard are conflicting rumors. We heard that the Satrap was missing or dead in the quake. Then a rumor started that the Vestrits had stolen him to sell him to the Chalcedeans or let the New Traders kill him. Ronica Vestrit has been hiding here with us. Caern has put it about that she must be captured and held. At any other time, we would have urged Ronica to go to the Council and demand that they hear her. But lately, there have been some ugly reprisals against folk that Roed Caern has accused of being traitors. I don’t know why the Companion trusts him so. It’s dividing the Bingtown Council, for some say we must listen to her as the Satrap’s representative, while my father and I feel it is time Bingtown kept its own counsel. ”

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  He took a breath. Gently, as if fearing his words would injure Reyn more, he added, “Roed has been saying that the Vestrits plotted with the Chalcedeans. He says that maybe pirates never took their liveship, but hints that Kyle Haven has been part of his ‘conspiracy,’ that maybe he took Vivacia up the Rain Wild River to pick up the Satrap and Malta. Well, too many of us know the lie of that, so he changed his tune, and said it didn’t have to be a liveship, maybe it was a Chalcedean ship. ”

  “Roed’s a fool,” broke in Reyn. “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. We’ve had ships, Chalcedean and others, try to come up the river. The river eats them. They try all the tricks we know don’t work: they grease their hulls or tar them. One ship was even shingled with baked clay. ” Reyn shook his veiled head. “They all perish, some fast, some slow. Besides, there have been liveships on patrol at the mouth of the Rain Wild River since this all started. They’d have been seen. ”

  Grag grimaced. “You have more faith in our patrols than I do. There has been an onslaught of Chalcedean ships. We chase them out of the harbor, and while we are gone, another wave comes in. I’m surprised you got past them as easily as you did. ”

  Reyn shrugged. “You’re right, I suppose. When the Kendry came out of the river mouth, there were no other liveships about. We sighted several Chalcedean vessels on our way here, however. Most gave us a wide berth; liveships have a reputation now, thanks to your Ophelia. One Chalcedean ship seemed interested in us last night, but Kendry soon left it behind. ”

  A moment of silence fell between them. Reyn turned his back on Grag and peeled off his wet shirt. As he shrugged into a dry one, Grag said, “There is so much happening, I can’t grasp it all. A dragon? Somehow, it is easier to believe in a dragon than to believe Malta is dead. When I think of her, I can only see her as she looked that night in your arms on the dance floor. ”

  Reyn closed his eyes. A small white upturned face stared at him from a tiny boat shooting down the river. “I envy you that,” he said quietly.

  “YOU ARE THE TRADER FOR THE VESTRITS. YOU DECIDE FOR THE FAMILY. If you do not wish to be involved in this, I understand. But as for myself, I remain here. ” Ronica took a breath. “I stand here as myself only. But know, Keffria, that if you decide to go to the Bingtown Council, I will stand with you there, also. You would have to be the one to present our view there. The Bingtown Council would not let me speak on the matter of Davad’s death. They will surely refuse to hear me on this. Nevertheless, I will stand by you while you speak. And accept the consequences. ”

  “And I would say what?” Keffria demanded wearily. “If I tell them that I don’t know what became of Malta, let alone the Satrap, it sounds like a deception. ”

  “You have one other alternative. You and Selden can flee Bingtown. You might be left at peace in Inglesby for a time. Unless someone decided to win favor with Serilla and Caern by hunting you down there. ”

  Keffria leaned her forehead into her hands. Heedless of how it might look to the others, she rested her elbows on the table. “Bingtown is not like that. It won’t come to that. ” She waited for someone to agree, but no one spoke. She lifted her head and looked at the grave faces that confronted her.

  Too much was happening too fast. They had allowed her time to bathe, and she was dressed in a fresh gown from one of the Tenira women. She’d had a simple meal in her room, and then she had been summoned down to this gathering. She had had little time with her mother. “Malta’s dead,” she had said to her as her mother hugged her in greeting. Ronica had stiffened in Keffria’s arms and closed her eyes, and when she had opened them, Keffria had seen the grief in her mother’s eyes over the death of her wayward granddaughter. It glittered there like ice, cold and immutable, too solid for tears. For a brief time, they shared sorrow, and oddly that had healed much of the rift between them.

  But whereas Keffria wanted to huddle somewhere until this incomprehensible pain passed, her mother insisted that they go on living. For her, that meant fighting as well, fighting for Bingtown and Selden’s future. Ronica had accompanied her to her room and helped her change into the dry clothes.

  While she did so, she spoke hurriedly of Bingtown. The words had rattled and flown past Keffria’s ears: a breakdown of the Bingtown Council’s ability to rule. Roed Caern and a handful of other young Traders terrorizing families that did not agree with his ideas. A need to create a new governing body for Bingtown, one that encompassed all the folk who lived there. A lecture on politics was the last thing Keffria wanted or needed just now. She had nodded numbly, repeatedly, until Ronica had departed to confer with Jani Khuprus. There had been a brief time of peace and solitude. Then Keffria had descended, Selden at her side, to find this mixed company of folk in the grand hall of the Tenira mansion.

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  It was an odd gathering around Naria Tenira’s great table. The Tenira family filled one set of chairs. Seated next to them, in a row, were
representatives from at least six Trader families. Keffria recognized Devouchet and Risch. The others she did not know by name; the introductions had eluded her weary brain. Two women and a man with tattooed faces filled the next chairs, and beside them sat four folk who, by their garb, were Three Ships immigrants. Reyn and Jani Khuprus came next, and completing the circle were the three remaining Vestrits. Keffria found herself at Naria Tenira’s left hand. The Trader woman had insisted that Selden be seated at the table and admonished the boy to pay great attention. “This is your future unfolding, lad. You’ve a right to witness how it comes into being. ”

  Initially, Keffria had thought that Naria was merely trying to include the boy and reassure him he was still important. Since they had left Trehaug, Selden had grown clingy and withdrawn. He seemed a much younger child than the boy who had swiftly adapted to the treetop city. Now she wondered if Trader Tenira’s words were not prophetic. Selden sat listening to it all with a rare concentration. Keffria looked at her young son as she conceded, “I am too tired to run anymore. We have to face whatever comes. ”

  “You need to do more than face it,” Naria corrected her. “You need to challenge it. Half of Bingtown is so busy huddling in the ruins that they don’t perceive the power that Serilla and her toady Caern have seized. We made a fine start of restoring order. Then, things began to happen. Trader Dwicker called a meeting. He had heard a rumor that Serilla was treating with the New Traders regarding a truce, bypassing the Bingtown Council completely. The entire Council condemned it. Caern denied it, on Serilla’s behalf. That was when we saw how close they had become. ” She paused and took a breath. “Dwicker was found later, so badly beaten that he never spoke again before he died. Another Council head had his barn set on fire. New Traders or slaves were blamed both times, but there are other, darker, rumors about town. ”

  A slave spoke up. “You hear how it affects Bingtown Traders. Worse things have been done to Tattooed families,” she said grimly. “Folk have been beaten, simply for going out to barter or buy food. Families have been burned out. We are blamed for every crime in Bingtown, and given no chance to prove innocence. Caern and his cohorts are known and feared by all. New Trader families who are less able to defend themselves have been attacked in their homes. Fires are set in the night, and the fleeing folk, even children, are ambushed. A cowardly, sneaky way to wage a war. We have no love for the New Traders who enslaved us, but neither do we wish to be a party to the slaughter of children. ” She met the eyes of the Traders at the table. “If Bingtown cannot bring Caern and his thugs under control soon, you will lose all opportunity to ally with the Tattooed. The rumors we hear are that the Bingtown Council supports Caern. That once Bingtown Traders are in full command of the town, we will be shipped out with the New Traders, driven forth from Bingtown and back into slavery. ”

  Ronica shook her head. “We have become a ghost town ruled by rumors. The latest rumor is that Serilla has appointed Roed as the head of a new Bingtown Guard and that he has called a secret meeting with the remaining leaders of the Bingtown Traders’ Council. Tonight. If we reach consensus today, we will all be there, to put an end to such nonsense, and an end to Caern’s brutality. When have secret meetings ever been part of Bingtown’s government?”

  The red-bearded Three Ships man spoke up. “All the doings of the Bingtown Traders’ Council have always been secret from us. ”

  Keffria looked at him, puzzled. “That is how it has always been. Trader business is for Traders,” she explained simply.

  His ruddy color heightened. “But running the whole town is what you claim as Trader business. That’s what forces Three Ships folk to the edge, and keeps us there. ” He shook his head. “If you want us on your side, then it has to be by your side. Not outside a wall, nor on a leash. ”

  She stared at him, uncomprehending. A deep unrest was building in her. Bingtown as she had known it was being dismantled, and the folk in this room seemed intent on speeding the process along. Had her mother and Jani Khuprus gone mad? Would they save Bingtown by destroying it? Were they seriously considering sharing power with former slaves and fishermen?

  Jani Khuprus spoke quietly. “I know my friend Ronica Vestrit shares your feelings. She has told me that the folk of Bingtown with similar goals must ally, regardless of whether they are Trader or not. ” She paused, turning her veiled face to survey all the folk at the table. “With great respect for those here, and for the opinions of dear friends, I do not know if that is possible. The bonds between the Bingtown Traders and the Rain Wild Traders are old and secured with blood. ” She paused. Her shoulders rose and fell in an eloquent shrug. “How can we offer that loyalty to others? Can we demand it in return? Are your groups willing to forge that strong a bond and abide by it as we have, not just binding ourselves, but binding our children’s children’s children?”

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  “That depends. ” Sparse Kelter, that was the bearded man’s name, Keffria suddenly recalled. He glanced at the slaves at the table as if this was something they had already discussed. “We would make demands in return for our loyalty. I may as well lay them on the table now. They’re simple, and you folks can say yea or nay. If the answer is nay, there’s no sense my wasting a tide’s fishing here. ”

  Keffria was suddenly reminded of her own father and his reluctance to waste time on mincing words.

  Kelter waited and when no one opposed him, he spoke. “Land for everyone. A man should own the spot his house stands on, and I’m not talking a patch of beach barely out of the tide’s reach. Three Ships folk are sea folk. We don’t ask much more than enough space for a proper house, some ground for a chicken to scratch in, some greens to sprout and a place to mend our nets. But those that have a bent to farming or beasts will need more than that. ”

  He was still looking around the table to see how this would be received when a Tattooed woman spoke. “No slavery,” she said huskily. “Let Bingtown become a place slaves can flee to, and not fear being turned back to their masters. No slavery, and land for those of us who are already here. ” The woman hesitated, then surged on determinedly. “And each family gets a vote in the Bingtown Council. ”

  “Council votes have always gone with land ownership,” Naria Tenira pointed out.

  “But where did that bring us? To here, to this mess. When the New Traders claimed votes based on land they’d purchased from financially wounded Traders, we were foolish enough to grant them. If it hadn’t been for the Traders’ Council, they’d be running Bingtown already. ” Devouchet’s soft deep voice somehow kept his words from sounding offensive.

  “We kept the Bingtown Traders’ Council separate before,” Keffria offered. These people were swaying her, but something, she felt, must be held back for Selden. She could not stand by and let being a Bingtown Trader become merely an empty title. “Could not we do that again? Have one Council where all landowners vote, and a separate one for the Bingtown Traders only?”

  Sparse Kelter crossed his arms on his chest. The woman beside him looked so like him, she must be some relation, Keffria decided. “Do that, and we all know where the true power would remain,” he said quietly. “No leashes. A fair say in Bingtown. ”

  “We’ve heard what you ask, but not what you offer,” another Trader spoke. Keffria admired the way he had sidestepped Kelter’s observation, but at the same time she wondered what they were doing. What was the sense of asking any of these questions? No one here had the power to make a binding decision.

  Sparse Kelter spoke again. “We offer honest hands and strong backs and knowledge, and we ask the same. Let us stand on an equal footing with you to share the work of rebuilding Bingtown. We offer to help defend her, not just from pirates and Chalcedeans, but from Jamaillia itself if need be. Or do you think the Pearl Throne will let you slip its leash and speak not a word to rebuke you?”

  The full realization of what they were discussing suddenly settled on Keffria. “We
are talking about separating Bingtown completely from Jamaillia? About standing on our own, alone, between Jamaillia and Chalced?”

  “Why not?” Devouchet demanded. “The idea has been broached before, Trader Vestrit. Your own father often spoke of it privately. We will not have a better chance than this. For better or worse, the Satrap has perished. The Pearl Throne is empty. The birds we’ve had from Jamaillia speak of civil unrest, rioting by the Jamaillian army over unpaid wages, an uprising by the slaves and even a Condemnation of State from the Temple of Sa in Jamaillia. The Satrapy is rotten. When they discover that the Satrap is dead, the nobles there will be too busy scrabbling for power in Jamaillia to pay any mind to what we do. They have never treated us as equals. Why not break free now, and make Bingtown a place where folk begin anew, all men standing on an equal footing?”

  “And all women, too. ” She must be Sparse’s daughter, thought Keffria. Even her voice echoed his in tone.

  Devouchet looked at her in surprise. “It was but a manner of speaking, Ekke,” he said mildly.

  “A manner of speaking becomes a manner of thinking. ” She lifted her chin. “I am not here simply as Sparse Kelter’s daughter. I’ve a boat and nets of my own. If this alliance comes to pass, I’ll want land of my own. Three Ships folk know that what a person has for a mind is more important than what is between their legs. Three Ships women will not give up our place alongside our men simply to say we are part of Bingtown now. That, too, must be understood. ”

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  “That is only common sense,” Grag Tenira asserted smoothly. He smiled warmly at the Three Ships woman as he added, “Look about this table, and see who speaks here. Bingtown has a long tradition of strong women. Some of the strongest are seated here today. That tradition will not change. ”

  Ekke Kelter leaned back in her chair. She returned Grag’s smile easily. “I just wanted to hear those words spoken aloud here,” she confirmed. She nodded to Grag, and for an instant, Keffria wondered if there was an understanding between them. Had Ekke spoken her piece knowing that Grag Tenira would take her side? Did Grag Tenira count her, Keffria, as one of those strong women? But as swiftly as her interest had been piqued, it faltered. She took a breath and spoke her thoughts.

 

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