Ship of destiny, p.4
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       Ship of Destiny, p.4

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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  In the morning, after the sounds of riot and insurrection had died away, smoke snaked through the streets on the summer breeze. Briefly, Bingtown Traders controlled their own harbor again. In the lull, Ronica had urged her daughter and grandchildren to flee to the Rain Wilds for shelter. Kefifria, Selden and the badly injured Malta had managed to escape on a liveship. Ronica herself remained behind. She had a few personal tasks to settle before seeking her own asylum. She had secreted the family papers in the hiding place Ephron had devised long ago. Then she and Rache had hastily gathered clothing and food and set out for Inglesby Farm. That particular Vestrit family holding was far away from Bingtown, and humble enough that Ronica believed they would find safety there.

  Ronica had made one brief detour that day, returning to where Davad Restart’s carriage had been ambushed the night before. She’d left the road and clambered down the forested hillside, past his overturned carriage to Davad’s body. She had covered him with a cloth, since she had not the strength to take his body away for burial. He had been estranged from his extended family, and Ronica knew better than to ask Rache’s help in burying him. This last pitiful respect was all she could offer a man who had been both a loyal friend for most of her life and a dangerous liability to her these last few years. She tried to find words to say over his body, but ended up shaking her head. “You weren’t a traitor, Davad. I know that. You were greedy, and your greed made you foolish, but I won’t ever believe you deliberately betrayed Bingtown. ” Then she had trudged back up to the road to rejoin Rache. The serving woman said nothing about the man who had made her a slave. If she took any satisfaction in Davad’s death, she didn’t speak it aloud. For that, Ronica was grateful.

  The Chalcedean galleys and sailing ships did not immediately return to Bingtown Harbor. Ronica had hoped that peace would descend. Instead, a more terrible sort of fighting ignited between Old Trader and New, as neighbor turned on neighbor, and those with no loyalties preyed on anyone weakened by the civil discord. Fires broke out throughout the day. As Ronica and Rache fled Bingtown, they passed burning houses and overturned wagons. Refugees choked the roads. New Traders and Old Traders, servants and runaway slaves, merchants and beggars and Three Ships fisherfolk; all were fleeing the strange war that had suddenly blossomed in their midst. Even those abandoning Bingtown clashed as they fled. Taunts and insults were flung between groups. The jubilant diversity of the sunny city by the blue harbor had shattered into sharply suspicious fragments. Their first night on the road, Ronica and Rache were robbed, their sacks of food spirited away as they slept. They continued their journey, believing they had the stamina to reach the farm even without food. Folk on the road told tales that the Chalcedeans had returned and that all of Bingtown was burning. In the early evening of the second day, several hooded young men accosted them and demanded their valuables. When Ronica replied that they had none, the ruffians pushed her down and ransacked her bag of clothing before flinging her belongings contemptuously into the dusty road. Other refugees hurried past them, eyes averted. No one intervened. The highwaymen threatened Rache, but the slave woman endured it stoically. The bandits had Anally left to pursue wealthier prey, a man with two servants and a heavily laden handcart. The two servants had fled the robbers, leaving the man to plead and shout as the thieves ransacked his cart. Rache had tugged frantically at Ronica’s arm and dragged her away. “There is nothing we can do. We must save our own lives. ”

  Her words were not true. The next morning proved that. They came upon the bodies of the teashop woman and her daughter. Other fleeing folk were stepping around the bodies as they hurried past. Ronica could not. She paused to look into the woman’s distorted face. She did not know her name, but recalled her tea stall in the Great Market. Her daughter had always served Ronica smilingly. They had not been Traders, Old or New, but humble folk who had come to the gleaming trade city and become a small part of Bingtown’s diversity. Now they were dead. Chalcedeans had not killed these women; Bingtown folk had.

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  That was the moment when Ronica turned around and returned to Bingtown. She could not explain it to Rache, and had even encouraged the woman to go on to Inglesby without her. Even now, Ronica could not rationalize the decision. Perhaps it was that nothing worse could happen to her than what had already happened. She returned to find her own home vandalized and ransacked. Even the discovery that someone had scratched TRAITORS across the wall of Ephron’s study could stir no greater depth of distress in her. Bingtown as she knew it was gone, never to return. If it was all going to perish, perhaps it was best to end with it.

  Yet, she was not a woman who simply surrendered. In the days to come, she and Rache set up housekeeping in the gardener’s hut. Their life was oddly normal in a detached way. Fighting continued in the city below them. From the upper story of the main house, Ronica could just glimpse the harbor and the city. Twice the Chalcedeans tried to take it. Both times, they were repulsed. Night winds often carried the sounds of fighting and the smell of smoke. None of it seemed to involve her anymore.

  The small hut was easy to keep warm and clean, and its humble appearance made it less of a target for roving looters. The last of the kitchen garden, the neglected orchard and the remaining chickens supplied their limited needs. They scavenged the beach for driftwood that burned with green and blue flames in their small hearth. When winter closed in, Ronica was not sure what she would do. Perish, she supposed. But not gracefully, or willingly. No. She would go down fighting.

  That same stubbornness now made her tread carefully down the hallway in pursuit of the intruder. She grasped her cudgel in both hands. She had no clear plan for what she would do if or when she confronted the man. She simply wanted to know what motivated this lone opportunist who moved so secretively through her abandoned home.

  Already the manor was acquiring the dusty smell of disuse. The Vestrit family’s finest possessions had been sold earlier in the summer, to finance a rescue effort for their pirated liveship. The treasures that remained had been those with more sentimental than monetary value: the trinkets and curiosities that were souvenirs of Ephron’s sailing days, an old vase that had been her mother’s, a wall hanging that she and Ephron had chosen together when they were newly wed…. Ronica turned her mind away from that inventory. They were all gone now, broken or taken by people who had no idea what such items represented. Let them go. She held the past in her heart, with no need of physical items to tie it down.

  She tiptoed past doors that had been kicked off their hinges. She spared only a glance for the atrium where overturned pots and browning plants littered the floor as she hastened after the hooded man. Where was he going? She caught a glimpse of his cloak as he entered a room.

  Malta’s room? Her granddaughter’s bedchamber?

  Ronica crept closer. He was muttering to himself. She ventured a quick peek, then stepped boldly into the room to demand, “Cerwin Trell, what are you doing here?”

  With a wild cry, the young man leapt to his feet. He had been kneeling by Malta’s bed. A single red rose rested on her pillow. He stared at Ronica white-faced, his hand clutching at his breast. His mouth worked, but no sounds came out. His eyes traveled to the club in her hand and widened even more.

  “Oh, sit down,” Ronica exclaimed in exasperation. She tossed the club to the foot of the bed and took her own advice. “What are you doing here?” she asked wearily. She was sure she knew the answer.

  “You’re alive,” Cerwin said softly. He lifted his hands to his face and rubbed at his eyes. Ronica knew he sought to hide his tears. “Why didn’t you… Is Malta safe, too? Everyone said…”

  Cerwin sank down to sit beside his rose on Malta’s bed. He set his hand gently on her pillow. “I heard you had left the ball with Davad Restart. Everyone knows his coach was waylaid. They were only after the Satrap and Restart. That is what everyone says, that they would have left you alone if you had not been traveling wit
h Restart. I know Restart’s dead. Some claim to know what became of the Satrap, but they are not telling. Every time I asked about Malta and the rest of you…” He faltered suddenly, and his face flushed, but he forced himself to go on. “They say you were traitors, that you were in on it with Restart. The rumor is that you planned to turn the Satrap over to New Traders who were going to kill him. Then the Bingtown Traders would be blamed for his death, and Jamaillia would send Chalcedean mercenaries in to take over our town and deliver it to the New Traders. ”

  He hesitated, then steeled himself to go on, “Some say that you got what you deserved. They say terrible things and I… I thought you were all dead. Grag Tenira spoke up for your family, saying that was nonsense. But since he left on the Ophelia to help guard the Rain Wild River mouth, no one has taken your part. I tried, once, but… I am young. No one listens. My father gets angry with me for even speaking of Malta. When Delo wept about her, he confined her to her room and said he would whip her if she even uttered her name again. And he’s never whipped Delo before. ”

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  “What is he afraid of?” Ronica asked bluntly. “That folk will label you as traitors for caring what became of your friends?”

  Cerwin bobbed his head in a sudden nod. “Father was not pleased when Ephron took Brashen on after our family had disowned him. Then you made him captain of the Paragon and sent him off as if you actually believed he could save Vivacia. Father took it that you were trying to show us up, to prove that you straightened out the son he threw away. ”

  “What utter nonsense!” Ronica exclaimed in disgust. “I did nothing of the kind. Brashen straightened himself out, and your father should be proud of him, not angry with the Vestrits over that. But I take it that he is satisfied to see us branded as traitors?”

  Cerwin looked at the floor, ashamed. The dark eyes he finally lifted to hers were very like his older brother’s. “You’re right, I’m afraid. But please, torment me no longer. Tell me. Did Malta escape harm? Is she hiding here with you?”

  Ronica considered for a long moment. How much of the truth should she entrust to him? She had no wish to torture the boy, but she would not endanger her family for the sake of his feelings. “When last I saw Malta, she was injured, but not dead. Small thanks to the men who attacked us and then left her for dead! She, her mother and brother are hiding in a safe place. And that is all I’m going to tell you. ”

  She didn’t admit that she knew little more than that herself. They had gone off with Reyn, Malta’s Rain Wild suitor. If all had gone as planned, then they had reached the Kendry in safety, and escaped Bingtown Harbor and then sailed up the Rain Wild River. If all had gone well, they were safe in Trehaug. The trouble was that very little had gone well lately, and there was no way for them to send Ronica word. All she could do was trust to Sa that she had been merciful.

  Relief welled up in Cerwin Trell’s face. He reached to touch the rose he had left on Malta’s pillow. “Thank you,” he whispered fervently. Then he spoiled it by adding, “At least I now can cling to hope. ”

  Ronica repressed a grimace. She could see that Delo had not inherited all the melodramatic tendencies in the Trell family. She changed the subject firmly. “Tell me what is happening in Bingtown now. ”

  He looked startled by the sudden request. “Well, but, I don’t know that much. Father has been keeping our whole family close to home. He still believes this will all blow past somehow, and then Bingtown will go on as before. He will be furious if he discovers I’ve slipped away. But I had to, you know. ” He clutched at his heart.

  “Of course, of course. What did you see on the way here? Why does your father keep you close to home?”

  The boy knit his brows and stared down at his well-kept hands. “Well, right now, the harbor is ours again. That could change any time, though. The Three Ships folk have been helping us, but while all the ships are fighting, no one is fishing or bringing goods to market. So food is starting to be dear, especially as so many of the warehouses were burned.

  “In Bingtown, there has been looting and plundering. People have been beaten and robbed simply for trying to do business. Some say the culprits are New Trader gangs, others say they are escaped slaves out for anything they can get. The Market is deserted. Those who dare to open their doors to do business run many risks. Serilla had the City Guard seize what was left of the Satrap’s tariff dock. She wanted the message birds kept there, so that she might send word and receive tidings from Jamaillia. But most of the birds had died in the fire and smoke. The men she posted there did intercept a returning bird recently, but she would not share what tidings it brought. Some parts of the city are held by New Traders, some parts by Old. The Three Ships and other groups are caught between. At night, there are clashes.

  “My father is angry that no one is negotiating. He says that real Traders know that almost everything can be solved by the right bargain. He says that proves that the New Traders are to blame for everything that has happened, but they, of course, blame us. They say we kidnapped the Satrap. My father believes you were going to help kidnap the Satrap so they could kill him and blame it on us. Now the Old Traders squabble among themselves. Some want us to recognize Companion Serilla’s authority to speak for the Satrap of Jamaillia; others say it is time that Bingtown shook off Jamaillian authority entirely. The New Traders claim that we are ruled by Jamaillia still, but they won’t recognize Serilla’s documents. They beat the messenger she sent to them under a truce flag, and sent him back with his hands bound behind him and a scroll tied to his throat. It accused her of treason and being a party to the plot to overthrow the Satrap. They said our aggression against the Satrap and his lawful patrol boats provoked the violence in the harbor and turned our Chalcedean allies against us. ” He licked his lips and added, “They threatened that when the time came and strength was on their side, they would show no mercy. ”

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  Cerwin paused for breath. His young face looked older as he went on. “It’s a mess and not getting better. Some of my friends want to arm themselves and simply drive the New Traders into the sea. Roed Caern says we should kill any of them who won’t leave. He says we must take back what they stole from us. Many of the Traders’ sons agree with him. They say that only when the New Traders are gone can Bingtow go back to being Bingtown. Some say we should round up the New Traders and give them a choice of leaving, or death. Others talk of secret reprisals against those who dealt with the New Traders, and burning the New Traders out to force them to leave. I’ve heard rumors that Caern and his friends go out a great deal at night. ” He shook his head miserably. “That is why my father tries to keep me close to home. He doesn’t want me involved. ” He met Ronica’s eyes suddenly. “I am not a coward. But I don’t want to be involved. ”

  “In that, you and your father are wise. Nothing will be resolved that way. It will only justify them in more violence against us. ” Ronica shook her head. “Bingtown will never be Bingtown again. ” She sighed and asked, “When is the next Bingtown Council meeting?”

  Cerwin shrugged. “They have not met at all since this began. At least, not formally. All the liveship Traders are out chasing Chalcedeans. Some of the Traders have fled the city; others have fortified their homes and never leave them. Several times the heads of the Council have gathered with Serilla, but she has urged them to delay calling a meeting. She wishes to reconcile with the New Traders and use her authority as the Satrap’s representative to restore peace. She wishes to treat with the Chalcedeans, also. ”

  Ronica was silent for a moment. Her lips tightened. This Serilla, it seemed to her, was taking entirely too much authority to herself. What were the tidings she had concealed? Surely the sooner the Council met and formulated a plan to restore order, the sooner the city could heal. Why would she oppose that?

  “Cerwin. Tell me this. If I went to Serilla, do you think she would speak to me? Or do you think
they would kill me as a traitor?”

  The young man looked at Ronica with dismay. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “I no longer know what my own friends are capable of doing. Trader Daw was found hanged. His wife and children have disappeared. Some say he killed himself when he saw that fortunes were going against him. Others say his brothers-in-law did it, out of shame. No one talks much of it. ”

  Ronica was silent for a time. She could huddle here in the remains of her home, knowing that if she were murdered, folk would not talk much of it. Or she could find a different place to hide. But winter was coming, and she had already decided that she would not perish gracefully. Perhaps confrontation was all that was left. At least she would have the satisfaction of speaking her piece before someone killed her. “Can you carry a message to Serilla for me? Where is she staying?”

  “She has taken over Davad Restart’s house. But, please, I don’t dare carry a message. If my father found out-“

  “Of course. ” She cut him off abruptly. She could shame him into it. All she need do was imply that Malta would think him a coward if he did not. She would not use the boy to test the waters. What sense was there in sacrificing Cerwin to ensure her own safety? She would go herself. She had cowered at home long enough.

  She stood up. “Go home, Cerwin. And stay there. Listen to your father. ”

  The young man stood slowly. His gaze traveled over her, and then he looked away, embarrassed for her. “Do you… are you doing well here, by yourself? Have you enough to eat?”

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