Ship of destiny, p.42
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       Ship of Destiny, p.42

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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  “She breathed on them, and they just melted away like candles in a flame. ”

  “Smashed the whole hull with one blow of her tail. ”

  “Not even Chalcedeans deserve to die like that. ”

  “Don’t they? They deserve to die however we can manage it. ”

  “The dragon is a blessing from Sa, sent to save us. We should prepare thanksgiving offerings. ”

  Many folk stood silent, eyes fixed on the raised stone dais that had survived to elevate the chosen leaders from each group.

  Serilla was there, representing Jamaillia, with Roed Caern glowering beside her. The sight of him on the dais made Ronica clench her teeth but she forced herself not to stare at him. She had hoped that Serilla had broken off with Roed following his ill-advised attack upon the New Traders. How could she be so foolish? The Companion stood, eyes cast down as if in deep thought. She was dressed far more elegantly than anyone else on the dais, in a long, soft white robe, decorated with crossing ropes of cloth-of-gold. Ashes and soot had marred the hem of it. Despite the garment’s long sleeves and the thick woolen cloak she wore, the Companion stood with her arms crossed as if chilled.

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  Sparse Kelter was also on the dais, and the blood on his rough fisherman’s smock was not fish blood today. A heavy-boned woman with tattoos sprawling across her cheek and onto her neck flanked him. Dujia, leader of the Tattooed, wore ragged trousers and a patched tunic. Her bare feet were dirty. A rough bandage around her upper arm showed that she had been in the thick of the fighting.

  Traders Devouchet, Conry and Drur represented the Bingtown Council. Ronica did not know if they were the only surviving Council heads, or the only ones bold enough to dare displeasing Caern and his cohorts. They stood well away from Serilla and Roed. At least that separation had been established.

  Mingsley was there for the New Traders. His richly embroidered vest showed several days of hard wear. He stood at the opposite side of the dais from the slave woman and avoided her gaze. Ronica had heard that Dujia had not led an easy life as his slave, and that he had good reason to fear her.

  Sitting on the edge of the dais, feet dangling, oddly calm, was Ronica’s own grandson, Selden. His eyes wandered over the crowd below him with an air of preoccupation. Only Mingsley had dared question his right to be there. Selden had met his gaze squarely.

  “I will speak for us all when the dragon comes,” he had assured the man. “And, if needed, I will speak for the dragon to you. I must be here so she can see me above the crowd. ”

  “What makes you think she will come here?” Mingsley had demanded.

  Selden had smiled an other-worldly smile. “Oh, she will come. Never fear,” he had replied. He blinked his eyes slowly. “She sleeps now. Her belly is full. ” When her grandson smiled, the silvery scaling across his cheeks rippled and shone. Mingsley had stared, and then stepped back from the boy. Ronica feared that she could already detect a blue shimmer to Selden’s lips beneath the chapping. How could he have changed so much, so swiftly? As baffling, perhaps, was the inordinate pleasure he took in the changes.

  Jani Khuprus, representing the Rain Wilds, stood protectively behind Selden. Ronica was glad she was there, but wondered at her intent. Would she claim the last heir to the Vestrit family and carry him off to Trehaug? Yet, if she did not, what place would there be for him in Bingtown?

  Keffria stood so close to the dais that she could have reached out and touched her boy. But she didn’t. Ronica’s daughter had been silent since Reyn had brought Selden to them. She had looked at the silvery path of scales across the tops of her son’s cheeks, but she had not touched them. Selden had joyously told her that Malta was alive, for the dragon said so. When Keffria had said nothing in response to his news, he had seized her arm, as if to waken her from sleep. “Mother. Put your grief aside. Tintaglia can bring Malta back to us. I know she can. ”

  “I will wait for that,” Keffria had said faintly. No more than that. Now she looked up at her son as if he were a ghost, as if a tracery of scales had removed him from her world.

  Just beyond Keffria stood Reyn Khuprus. He, like Jani, went unveiled now. From time to time, Ronica saw folk turn their heads and stare at the Rain Wilders, but both were too preoccupied to be offended. Reyn was in deep conversation with Grag Tenira. There seemed to be a difference of opinion, one that was civil but intense. She hoped it would not cause discord between them tonight. Bingtown needed every semblance of unity it could muster.

  Ronica’s eyes traveled across the assembled folk in all their variety. She smiled grimly to herself. Selden was still her grandson; despite his scales, he was still a Vestrit. Perhaps the changes on Selden’s face would be no more of a stigma than the tattoos that others would wear unashamedly in the new Bingtown. One of the ships that the dragon had dismasted had been filled with Bingtown captives. Many had already been forcibly tattooed, their faces marked with the sigils of their captors so that each raider would receive his profit when they were sold in Chalced. The Chalcedeans had abandoned the dismasted ship and attempted to escape in galleys, but Ronica did not think any had been successful. Bingtown folk had poled out on a makeshift raft to the listing vessel to rescue their kin, while the dragon pursued Chalcedean prey. Many who had never expected to wear a slave tattoo now did, including some New Traders. She suspected they might shift their politics in response.

  Anxiety shifted the gathered folk endlessly. When the dragon had returned from hunting Chalcedeans, she had ordered their leaders to assemble, saying that she would treat with them soon. The sun had been high then. Now night threatened and still she had not returned. Ronica returned her gaze to the dais. It would be interesting to see who would try to call this gathering to order, and whom the crowd would follow.

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  Ronica was expecting Serilla to use her claim of the Satrap’s authority, but Trader Devouchet stepped to the front of the dais. He lifted his arms high and the crowd hushed.

  “We have gathered here in the Bingtown Traders’ Concourse. Since Trader Dwicker has been murdered, I step up to the position of leader of the Bingtown Traders’ Council. I claim the right to speak first. ” He looked over the assembled folk expecting some dissent, but for now, all was silent.

  Devouchet proceeded to state the obvious. “We are gathered here, all the folk of Bingtown, to discuss what we will do about the dragon that has descended upon us. ”

  That, Ronica thought to herself, was inspired. Devouchet mentioned nothing of the differences that had set the town to battling in the first place. He focused all of them, as a single entity, on the problem of the dragon. Devouchet spoke on.

  “She has driven the Chalcedean fleet from our harbor and hunted down several roving bands of raiders. For now, she has disappeared from our skies, but she said she would soon return. Before she does, we must decide how to deal with her. She has freed our harbor. What are we prepared to offer her in exchange?”

  He paused for breath. That was his mistake, for a hundred voices filled in, with a hundred different answers.

  “Nothing. We owe her nothing!” one man bellowed angrily, while another made heard his comment, “Trader Tenira’s son has already struck our deal. Grag told her that if she drove the Chalcedeans away, we would help her with a task she named. That seems fair enough. Does a Bingtown Trader go back on his word, even to a dragon?”

  “We should prepare offerings for it. The dragon has liberated us. We should offer thanksgiving to Sa for sending us this champion!”

  “I’m not a Trader! Neither is my brother, and we won’t be bound by another man’s word!”

  “Kill it. All the legends of dragons warn of their treachery and cruelty. We should be readying our defenses, not standing about talking. ”

  “Quiet!” Mingsley roared, stepping forward to stand at Devouchet’s shoulder. He was a stout man, but the power of his voice still surpri
sed Ronica. As he looked about over the crowd, the whites showed all around his eyes. The man, Ronica realized, was deeply frightened. “We have no time for squabbling. We must move swiftly to an accord. When the dragon returns, we must meet her as a united folk. Resistance would be a mistake. You saw what she did to those ships and men. We must placate her, if we hope to avoid the same fate. ”

  “Perhaps some here deserve the same fate as the Chalcedeans,” Roed Caern observed callously. He pushed forward to stand threateningly close to the stout merchant. Mingsley stepped back from him as Roed turned to the crowd. “I heard it spoken clearly, earlier. A Trader has already struck an accord with the dragon. The dragon is ours! She belongs to the Bingtown Traders. We should honor our bargain, Bingtown Traders, without recourse to any of the foreigners who have sought to claim our town as their own. With the dragon on our side, Bingtown can not only drive the dirty Chalcedeans back to their own land, we can force out the New Traders and their thieving slaves with them. We have all heard the news. The Satrap is dead. We cannot rely on Jamaillia to aid us. Bingtown Traders, look around you. We stand in our ruined hall in a ravaged town. How have we come to this pass? By tolerating the greedy New Traders in our midst, folk who came here in violation of our Charter, to plunder our land and beggar us!” A sneer of hatred curled his lip as he stared at Mingsley. With narrowed eyes, he suggested, “How can we pay our dragon? With meat. Let the dragon rid us of all outsiders. ”

  What happened next shocked everyone. Even as the mutter of outrage at his words became a roar, Companion Serilla stepped forward resolutely. As Roed turned, surprised, she set her small hand to the center of his chest. Baring her teeth in sudden effort, she shoved him backward off the dais. The fall was a short one; it would have been an easy jump if he had been prepared, but he was not. He went over with a yell, arms flailing. Ronica heard the sharp crack of his head against the floor, and then his howl of pain. Men closed in around him. There was a brief flurry of struggle.

  “Stand clear of him!” Serilla shouted, and for one confusing instant, Ronica thought she defended the man. “Disperse, or share his fate!” Like trickling water vanishing in sand, those few who had attempted to help Roed fell back and merged suddenly into the crowd. Roed alone remained, held immobile by his captors, one arm twisted up behind him. He gritted his teeth against the pain, but managed to spit a curse at Serilla. Traders, both Old and New, were the ones who held him. At a nod from Serilla, they wrestled him away from the gathering. Ronica wondered, as she watched him taken away, what they would do with him.

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  Companion Serilla suddenly flung her head up and looked out over the crowd. For the first time, Ronica saw the woman’s face alight as if a true spirit resided in her. She did not even look after the man she had overthrown. She stood, whole and temporarily in command.

  “We cannot tolerate Roed Caern, or those who think like him,” she declared loudly. “He seeks to sow discord when what we need is unity. He speaks against the authority of the Satrapy, as if it perished with Satrap Cosgo. You know it has not! Heed me, folk of Bingtown. Whether or not the Satrap is alive does not matter at this time. What does matter is that he left me in authority, to take on the weight of his rule if he should perish. I shall not fail him, nor his subjects. Whatever else you may be, one and all, you are subjects of the Satrap, and the Satrapy rules you. In that, at least, you can be equal and united. ” She paused and let her gaze travel over the others who shared the dais with her. “None of you are needed here. I am capable of speaking for all of you. Moreover, whatever treaty I work out with the dragon will bind all of you equally. Is not that best? To let someone with no personal ties to Bingtown speak for all of you, impersonally?”

  She almost succeeded. After Roed, she sounded reasonable. Ronica Vestrit watched folk exchanging glances. Then Dujia spoke from the other end of the dais. “I speak for the Tattooed when I say that we have had enough of the ‘equality’ the Satrap bestowed upon us. Now we will make our own equality, as residents of Bingtown, not Jamaillian subjects. We will have a voice in what is promised to this dragon. For too long, others have disposed of our labor and our lives. We can tolerate it no longer. ”

  “I feared this,” Mingsley broke in. He pointed a shaking finger at the tattooed woman. “You slaves will spoil everything. You care only for revenge. No doubt, you will do all in your power to defy the dragon, for the sake of bringing her wrath down on your masters. But when all is done, even if all your New Trader masters die, you will be the same folk you are today. You are not fit to govern yourselves. You have forgotten what it is to be responsible. The proof of it is in how you have behaved since you betrayed your rightful masters and abandoned their discipline. You have reverted to what you were before your masters took control of you.

  “Look at yourself, Dujia. You became a thief first, and a slave afterward. You deserved your fate. You chose your life. You should have accepted it. But master after master found you a thief and a liar, until the map of those you have served stretches across your face to your neck. You should not even be up here, asserting the right to speak.

  “Good people of Bingtown, the slaves are not a separate folk, save that they are marked for their crimes. As well give the whores a right to speak in this, or the pickpockets. Let us listen to Serilla. We are all Jamaillian, Old Trader and New, and all should be content to be bound by the Satrap’s word. I speak for the New Traders when I say I accept Companion Serilla to negotiate for us with the dragon. ”

  Serilla stood straight and tall. She smiled, and it seemed genuine. She looked past Mingsley to include Dujia in the smile. “As the Satrap’s representative, of course I shall negotiate for you. For all of you. New Trader Mingsley has not well considered his words. Has he forgotten that some in Bingtown now wear the tattoos of slavery, when their only crime was to be captured by the Chalcedeans? For Bingtown to survive and prosper, it must go back to its oldest roots. By its charter, it was a place where ambitious outcasts could forge new homes and lives for themselves. ” She gave a small, disarming laugh. “Left here to wield the Satrap’s power, I, too, am an exile of sorts. Never again will I return to Jamaillia. Like you, I must become a citizen of Bingtown, and build a new life for myself here. Look at me. Consider that I embody all that Bingtown is. Come,” she urged them softly. She looked all around at the crowd. “Accept me. Let me speak for all of you, and bind us into one accord. ”

  Jani Khuprus shook her head regretfully as she stepped forward to claim the right to speak. “There are those of us who are not content to be bound by the Satrap’s word, or any man’s word, save our own. I speak for the Rain Wilds. What has Jamaillia ever done for us, save restrict our trade and steal half our profits? No, Companion Serilla. You are no companion of mine. Bind Jamaillia as you will, but the Rain Wilds will bear that yoke no more. We know more of this dragon than you do. We will not let you bargain our lives away to placate her. My people have said that I speak for them, and I shall. I have no right to let their voices be muffled in yours. ” Jani glanced down to exchange a look with Reyn.

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  Ronica sensed that Jani and Reyn had prepared for this moment.

  Reyn spoke up from the floor. “Listen to her. The dragon is not to be trusted. You must guard your senses against her glamour, and your hearts against her clever words. I speak as one who was long deceived by her, and paid for that deception with a deep and painful loss. It is tempting to look on her beauty and believe her a wondrous wise creature, sprung from legend to save us. Do not be so gullible. She would have us believe she is superior to us, our conqueror and ruler simply by virtue of what she is. She is no better than we are, and in my heart I believe she is truly no more than a beast with the cunning to shape words. ” He raised his voice to be heard by all. “We have been told that she is sleeping off a full belly. Dare any of us ask, full of what? On what meat has she fed?” As his words settled on his listeners, he added, “Ma
ny of us would rather die than be slaves anymore. Well, I would rather die than be either her slave or her food. ”

  The world dimmed suddenly. An instant later, a blast of cold air, noisome with the stench of snakes, swept over the crowd. There were shrieks of terror and angry shouts as the gathered folk cowered in the shadow of the dragon. Some instinctively sought shelter near the walls while others tried to hide themselves in the center of the crowd. Then, as the shadow swept past and the fading light of day returned, Ronica felt the creature land in the Concourse grounds. The impact of her weight traveled through the paving stones and made the walls of the Concourse shudder. Although the doors were too small to admit her, Ronica wondered if even the stout stone walls would withstand a determined assault by the dragon. An instant later, the creature reared up; her clawed front feet came to rest on the top of the wall. Her cart-sized head on her serpentine neck looked down on them all. She snorted, and Reyn Khuprus was staggered by the blast of air from her nostrils.

  “So, I am a beast cunning enough to speak, am I? And what title do you give yourself then, human? With your paltry years and truncated memory, how can you claim to be my equal?”

  Everyone pressed back against their fellows to clear a space around the object of Tintaglia’s displeasure. Even the diplomats on the dais raised their arms to shield their faces as if they feared to share Reyn’s punishment. All waited to see him die.

  In a move that made Ronica gasp, Selden jumped lightly from the edge of the dais. He placed himself in the dragon’s sight, then boldly inserted his small body between Reyn and the dragon’s angry gaze. To the dragon, he swept a courtly bow. “Welcome, gleaming one!” Every eye, every ear was focused only on him. “We have gathered here, as you bid us. We have awaited your return, sky-ruler, that we might learn exactly what task you wish us to perform. ”

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