Ship of destiny, p.34
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       Ship of Destiny, p.34

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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  “What do we do here? We talk of agreements, but none of us has the power to make these agreements binding on all Bingtown. ”

  Her own mother contradicted her. “We have as much power as anyone in Bingtown these days. More than the Traders’ Council has, for we do not fear to wield it. They dare not meet without asking Serilla’s opinion. And she dares not give it without looking to Caern. ” She smiled grimly at her daughter. “There are more of us, Keffria, than just those you see here. More could not gather for fear of drawing attention. One of the Council heads sides with us; he told us of the secret meeting. After tonight, we shall not fear to gather openly. Our strength comes from our diversity. Those of us who were made slaves have an intimate knowledge of the New Traders and their holdings. The New Traders hope to hold what they have taken with folk they have tattooed. Once the Tattooed are freed, will they fight for their masters? I doubt it. When the New Traders are stripped of their slaves, their number is greatly reduced. Nor do they defend home and family as we do; their homes and their legitimate families are in Jamaillia. They have brought their mistresses and bastards to share the risks of living on the Cursed Shores, not their legitimate heirs. With Jamaillia in a civil uproar, the New Traders won’t get help from that quarter. Many will rush back to Jamaillia to defend ancestral holdings there.

  “There are also the pirates to consider. Eventually, Jamaillia may send an army against us to master us once more, but first it must make its way through the Pirate Isles. Well do I know to my own sorrow that that is not an easy journey these days. ”

  “Are you saying the New Traders are no threat to Bingtown?” Jani Khuprus asked incredulously.

  Ronica smiled bitterly. “Less of a threat than some would have us believe. Our first danger comes from those within our town who seek to corrupt the Traders and our ways. Tonight, we will defeat them. After that, the real danger will come from the usual source: Chalced. While Jamaillia is fighting internal battles and we chase one another through the streets with swords, Chalced has the opportunity to sweep in and subdue Bingtown. ” Again, her gaze swept the folk seated around the table. “But if we rally ourselves, we can stand them off. We have Trader ships, liveships and the working vessels of the Three Ships families. We know our waters better than anyone else. ”

  “You are still talking about a single city-state standing against all of Chalced. And possibly Jamaillia. ” Another of the Bingtown Traders spoke. “We might hold them off for a while, but in the long run they could starve us out. We’ve never been completely self-sufficient. And we must have markets for our trade goods. ” He shook his head. “We must retain our bond with Jamaillia, even if it means compromising with the New Traders. ”

  “There must be some compromises with the New Traders,” Ronica agreed. “Not all will simply leave. Compromises should include trade agreements with Jamaillia for fair and open trade. But those compromises must be on our terms, not theirs. No more tariff ministers. No more tariffs. ” She looked around the table for support.

  “Not compromise with New Traders. Ally. ” Startled eyes turned to Keffria. She could scarcely believe it was herself speaking, yet she knew her words made sense. “We should invite them to stand with us tonight when we break into Serilla’s secret meeting with the Council heads. ” She took a breath and crossed a line. “Ask them, boldly, to break with Jamaillia, stand with us and take up our ways. If Bingtown is to be one, then we must be one today. Now. We should send word to that friend of Davad’s… what was his name? Mingsley. He seemed to have sway with his fellows. ” She firmed her voice. “A united Bingtown is our only hope against both Chalced and Jamaillia. We have no other allies. ”

  A daunted silence followed her words.

  “Maybe the dragon would help us. ” Selden’s piping tenor voice was startling.

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  All eyes turned to her son, sitting so straight on his chair. His eyes were wide-open, but he looked at no one. “The dragon could protect us from Jamaillia and Chalced. ”

  An embarrassed silence fell. Reyn spoke at last, his voice heavy with emotion. “The dragon cares nothing for us, Selden. She showed that when she let Malta perish. Forget her. Or rather, remember her with contempt. ”

  “What is this about a dragon?” Sparse Kelter demanded.

  Gently, Naria observed, “Young Selden has been through a great deal of late. ”

  The boy’s jaw firmed. “Don’t doubt me. Do not doubt her. I have been carried in her claws, and looked down on our world. Do you know how small we truly are, how pitiful are even our greatest works? I have felt her heart beating. When she touched me, I realized there could be something beyond good and evil. She… transcends. ” He stared, unseeing. “In my dreams, I fly with her. ”

  A silence followed his words. The adults exchanged glances, some amused, some pitying, some annoyed at this interruption to their business. It stung Keffria to see her son treated so. Had not he been through enough?

  “The dragon was real,” Keffria declared. “We all saw it. And I agree with Selden. The dragon may change everything. ” Her words shocked them but the look Selden gave her was worth it. She could not recall the last time her son had looked at her with such shining eyes.

  “I don’t doubt that dragons are real,” Sparse hastily interjected. “I saw some myself, a few years back when sailing far to the north. They flew over, like jewels winking in the sun. Buckkeep mustered them against the Outislanders. ”

  “That old tale,” someone muttered, and Sparse glowered at him.

  “This dragon is the last of her kind. She hatched in the collapsing ruins of the Elderling city, just before the swamp swallowed it,” Reyn stated. “But she is no ally of ours. She is a treacherous and selfish creature. ”

  Keffria looked around the circle of faces. Disbelief loomed large. Pink-faced, Ekke Kelter suggested, “Perhaps we should return to discussing the New Traders. ”

  Her father slapped the table with a broad palm. “No. I can see now that I need the whole telling of what went on in the Rain Wilds. Long have we been kept ignorant of what is up that river. Let this be the first sign of openness from the Bingtown Traders to their new allies. I want a full telling of this dragon tale, and how Malta Vestrit and the Satrap perished. ”

  A heavy silence followed his words. Only the turning of their veiled heads revealed that Reyn and his mother conferred. All the other Traders at the table kept the silence of their ancestors. It was a mistake, Keffria knew. But even knowing that, she could not change it. The Rain Wild must choose to reveal itself, or remain hidden. Reyn leaned back. He crossed his arms on his chest.

  “Very well, then,” Sparse Kelter declared heavily. He set his wide, work-reddened hands to the table and pushed his chair back to rise.

  Selden glanced up at Keffria, gave her hand a quick squeeze, and suddenly stood beside his chair. It did not make him much taller, but the look on his face demanded recognition. “It all began,” Selden’s young voice piped, “when I told Malta I knew a secret way to get into the Elderling city. ”

  All eyes went to the boy. He met Sparse Kelter’s astonished gaze. “It’s my story as much as anyone’s. Bingtown Trader and Rain Wild Trader are kin. And I was there. ” The look he gave Reyn defied him. “She’s my dragon as much as yours. You may have turned on her, but I have not. She saved our lives. ” He took a breath. “It’s time to share our secrets, so we can all survive. ” The boy’s glance swept the table.

  With a sudden motion, Reyn threw back his veil. He pushed back his cowl as well and shook free his dark, curly hair. He looked with shining copper eyes from face to face at the table, inviting each of them to stare at the scaling that now outlined his lips and brows and the ridge of pebbled skin that defined his brow. When he looked at Selden, respect was in his eyes. “It began much farther back than my young kinsman’s memory,” he said quietly. “I suppose I was about half Selden’s age the first time my fath
er took me to the dragon’s chamber far underground. ”

  Liveship Traders 3 - Ship of Destiny

  CHAPTER FOURTEEN - Divvytown

  “I’M JUST NOT SURE. ” BRASHEN STOOD ON THE FOREDECK NEXT TO HER. THE late evening mist dampened his hair to curls and beaded silver on his coat. “It all looks different now. It’s not just the fog, but the water levels, the foliage, the beach lines. Everything is different from how I remember it. ” His hands rested on the railing, a handsbreadth from her own. Althea was proud that she could resist the temptation to touch him.

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  “We could just lie out here. ” She spoke softly, but her voice carried oddly in the fog. “Wait for another ship to go in or come out. ”

  Brashen shook his head slowly. “I don’t want to be challenged or boarded. That may happen to us anyway when we reach Divvytown, but I don’t want to look like I’m blundering about out here. We’ll go in cocky and knowing, sail up there and drop anchor in Divvytown as if we’re sure of a welcome. If I seem a bit of a braggart and a fool to them, their guards will drop faster. ” He grinned at her crookedly in the gathering darkness. “It shouldn’t take much effort for me to give them that impression. ”

  They were anchored off a coastline of swamp and trees. The rains of winter had filled the rivers and streams of this region to overflowing. At high tide, salt water and river water mingled in the brackish bogs. In the gathering darkness, trees both living and dead loomed out of the gently drifting mists. Breaks in the fog occasionally revealed dense walls of trees laced with dangling creepers and curtained with draping moss. The rain forest came right down to the waterline. By painstaking observation, Brashen and Althea had spotted several possible openings, any of which might be the narrow mouth of the winding river leading to the sluggish lagoon that fronted Divvytown.

  Brashen once more squinted at the tattered scrap of canvas in his hand. It was his original sketch, a hasty rendering done while he was mate on the Springeve. “I think this was meant to indicate a kelp bed exposed at low tide. ” He glanced around at his surroundings again. “I just don’t know,” he confessed quietly.

  “Pick one,” Althea suggested. “The worst we can do is waste time. ”

  “The best we can do is waste time,” Brashen corrected her. “The worst is considerably worse. We could get lodged in some silty-bottomed inlet and have the tide strand us there. ” He took a deep breath. “But I guess I choose and we take a chance. ”

  The ship was very quiet. By Brashen’s order, the crew walked softly and conversed only in whispers. No lights had been hung. Even the ship was trying to mute the small noises of his planked body. All canvas had been lowered and secured. Sound carried too well in this fog. He wished to be able to hear if another ship approached in the mist. Amber ghosted up to stand silently beside them.

  “If we’re lucky, some of this fog may burn off in the morning,” Althea observed hopefully.

  “We’re as like to be shrouded more thickly than ever,” Brashen returned. “But we’ll wait for what light day offers us before we try it. Over there. ” He pointed and Althea followed the line of his arm. “I think that’s the opening. We’ll try it at dawn. ”

  “You’re not sure?” Amber whispered in quiet dismay.

  “If Divvytown were easy to find, it would not have survived as a pirate stronghold all these years,” Brashen pointed out. “The whole trick of the place is that unless you know it’s there, you’d never think to look for it. ”

  “Perhaps,” Amber began hesitantly. “Perhaps one of the former slaves could help. They came from the Pirate Isles…. ”

  Brashen shook his head. “I’ve asked. They’ve all professed complete ignorance of Divvytown, denied they ever pirated. Ask any of them. They were the sons of runaway slaves who settled in the Pirate Isles to begin new lives. Chalcedean or Jamaillian slave raiders captured them, and they were tattooed and sold in Jamaillia. From thence they were brought to Bingtown. ”

  “Is it so hard to believe?” Amber asked him.

  “Not at all,” Brashen replied easily. “But a boy almost always picks up a generalized knowledge of the town he grows up in. These fellows profess too much ignorance of everything for me to be comfortable with their stories. ”

  “They’re good sailors,” Althea added. “I expected trouble when they were shifted onto my watch, but they haven’t been. They’d prefer to stay to themselves, but I haven’t allowed that, and they haven’t objected. They turn to with a will, just as they did when they first came aboard to work in secret. Harg, I think, resents losing some of his authority over the others; on my watch, they are all just sailors, on an equal footing with the rest. But they are good sailors… a bit too good for this to be their first voyage. ”

  Amber sighed. “I confess, when I first proposed bringing them aboard and allowing them to trade their labor for a chance to return to their homes, I never considered that they might have conflicting loyalties. Now, it seems obvious. ”

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  “Blinded by the opportunity to do a good turn for someone. ” Althea smiled and gave Amber a friendly nudge. Amber gave her a knowing smile in return. Althea knew a moment’s uneasiness.

  “Do I dare ask if Lavoy could assist us here?” Amber continued softly.

  Althea shook her head when Brashen didn’t reply. “Brashen’s charts are all we have to go by. With the shift in seasons, and the constant changes in the isles themselves, it becomes tricky. ”

  “Sometimes I wonder if I even have the correct bit of swamp,” Brashen added sourly. “This could be the wrong river entirely. ”

  “It’s the right bit of swamp. ” Paragon’s deep voice was very soft, almost a thrumming rather than speaking. “It’s even the right river mouth. As I could have told you hours ago, if anyone had seen fit to ask me. ”

  The three humans kept absolutely still as if by moving or speaking they would break some spell. A deep suspicion Althea had always harbored simmered in her mind.

  “You’re right, Althea. ” The ship answered her unspoken words. “I’ve been here before. I’ve been in and out of Divvytown enough times that I could sail up there in the blackest night, at any tide. ” His deep laugh vibrated all the foredeck. “As I’d lost my eyes before I ever went up the river, what I see or don’t see makes little difference. ”

  Amber dared to speak aloud. “How can you know where we are? You always said you feared to sail the open waters blind. Why are you so fearless now?”

  He chuckled indulgently. “There is a great difference between the wide-open sea and the mouth of a river. There are many senses besides sight. Cannot you smell the stink of Divvytown? Their wood fires, their outhouses, the charnel pit where they burn their dead? What the air does not carry to me, the river does. The sour taste of Divvytown flows with the river. With every fiber in my planking, I taste the water from the lagoon, thick and green. I’ve never forgotten it. It is as slimy now as it was when Igrot ruled there. ”

  “You could take us there, even in the blackest night?” Brashen spoke carefully.

  “I said that. Yes. ”

  Althea waited. To trust Paragon or to fear him. To place all their lives in his care, or to wait for dawn and grope their way up the fog-bound river… She sensed a test in the ship’s words. She was suddenly glad that Brashen was the captain. This was not a decision she would want to make.

  It was so dark now she could scarcely see Brashen’s profile. She saw his shoulders lift as he took a breath. “Would you take us there, Paragon?”

  “I would. ”

  THEY WORKED IN THE DARK, WITHOUT LANTERNS, PUTTING UP HIS CANVAS AND raising his anchor. It pleased him to think of them scurrying in the blackness, as blind as he was. They worked his windlass voicelessly, the only sound that of the turning gears and the rattling chain. He opened his senses to the night. “Starboard. Just a bit,” he said softly, as they raised hi
s canvas and the wind nudged him, and heard the command relayed in whispers the length of his deck.

  Brashen was on the wheel. It was good to have his steady hands there; even better to be the one deciding how he would go and feeling the sailors jump to his orders. Let them discover how it felt to have to place your life in the hands of one you feared. For they all feared him, even Lavoy. Lavoy made fine words about friendships that transcended time or kind, but in his gut, the mate feared the ship more profoundly than any other man aboard.

  And well they should, Paragon thought with satisfaction. If they knew his true nature, they would piss themselves with terror. They would fling themselves shrieking into the deeps, and count it a merciful end. Paragon lifted his arms out high and spread wide his fingers. It was a pitiful comparison, this damp wind flowing past his hands as his sails pushed him toward the mouth of the river, but it was enough to sustain his soul. He had no eyes, he had no wings, but his soul was still a dragon’s soul. « “This is beautiful,” Amber said to him.

  He startled. As long as she had been aboard, there were still times when she was transparent to him. She was the only one whose fear of him he could not feel. Sometimes he shared her emotions, but never her thoughts, and when he did catch a tinge of her feelings, he suspected it was because she allowed it. As a result, her words confused him more often than the others’ did. She was the only one who could possibly lie to him. Was she lying now?

  “What is beautiful?” he demanded quietly. She did not answer. Paragon put his mind to the task at hand. Brashen wanted him to take them up the river as silently as possible. He wanted Divvytown to wake tomorrow to the sight of them anchored in their harbor. The idea appealed to the ship. Let them gawk and shout at the sight of him come back from the dead. If there were any there that yet recalled him.

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  “The night is beautiful,” Amber said at last. “And we are beautiful in the night. There is a moon somewhere above us. It makes the fog gleam silver. Here and there, my eyes find bits of you. A row of silver droplets hung on a line stretched tight. Or the fog breaks for an instant, and the moon shines our way up the river. You move so smoothly and sweetly. Listen. There is the water against your bow, purring like a cat, and the wind shushes us along. The river is so narrow here; it is as if we knife through the forest, parting trees to let us pass. The same wind that pushes us stirs the leaves of the trees. It has been so long since I last heard the wind in the trees and smelled earth smells. It is like being in a silver dream on a magic ship. ”

 
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