Ship of destiny, p.45
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       Ship of Destiny, p.45

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  The last two ships he had ordered the serpents to “fetch” for him. The Vivacia anchored until the serpents herded her victims to her. The last cap-tain had surrendered on his knees while Kennit sat enthroned on a comfortable chair on the Vivacia’s foredeck. Bolt delighted in the captive captain’s ill-concealed terror of her. After Kennit had made his selections from the ship’s manifests, the captured crew had seen to the cargo transfer. Kennit’s only concern would be to keep his own crew from becoming bored or complacent. From time to time, he planned to stop a slaver, to let the crew indulge their need for bloodshed and feed the serpents to increase their loyalty to him. ‘

  Faldin’s message had arrived on a swift little ship named Sprite. Although Jola had recognized the ship and she had been flying Kennit’s raven flag, neither Kennit nor Bolt had been able to resist flaunting their power. The serpents had been sent forth to surround the small ship and escort it to Kennit. The captain had made a brave show of greeting Kennit but no amount of bravado could quite banish the quaver from his voice. The messenger had been pale and silent when he reached the deck of the Vivacia, for he had made the crossing in a tiny boat through the gleaming backs of serpents.

  Kennit had taken the missive and dismissed the messenger to a “well-deserved ration of brandy. ” Every man aboard the Sprite would carry word to Divvytown of Kennit’s new allies. It was well to impress one’s enemies with a show of strength. It was even better to be sure one’s friends remembered it as well. Kennit kept that in mind as he slowly surveyed the faces around him.

  Sorcor’s brow furrowed as he endeavored to think. “Did Faldin know the skipper? He should. He knows damn near everyone in Divvytown, and it takes an experienced man to bring a ship up the slough, even in daylight. ”

  “He did,” Kennit confirmed easily. “One Brashen Trell, of Bingtown. I gather he did business in Divvytown last season on the Springeve with old Finney. ” Kennit feigned glancing at the missive again. “Perhaps this Trell is an extraordinary navigator with an excellent memory, but Faldin suspects it was more the ship he used than the man. A liveship. With a chopped face. By name, Paragon. ”

  Wintrow’s face betrayed him. His cheeks had flushed at the name of Trell. Now he stood, tongue-tied and sweating. Interesting. Impossible that the lad was in league with Sincure Faldin; he simply had not had enough free time in Divvytown. So this was something else. As if by accident, he let his eyes meet the boy’s. He smiled mildly at him and waited.

  Wintrow looked stricken. Twice his lips parted and closed again before he cleared his throat faintly. “Sir?” he managed in a whisper.

  “Wintrow?” Kennit put warm query into his voice.

  Wintrow crossed his arms on his chest. What secret, Kennit wondered, did he seek to hold inside? When Wintrow spoke, his voice was small. “You should heed Faldin’s warning. Brashen Trell was first mate to my grandfather, Captain Ephron Vestrit. Perhaps he truly seeks to join you, but I doubt it. He served aboard the Vivacia for years, and may still feel great loyalty to the Vestrits. To my family. ”

  At these final words, the boy’s fingers tightened on his arms. So there it was. Wintrow chose to be loyal to Kennit but still felt it as a betrayal of his family. Interesting. Almost touching. Kennit steepled his fingers on the table before him. “I see. ” A vague shivering had passed throughout the ship at the mention of her old captain’s name. That was even more interesting than Wintrow’s divided loyalty. Bolt claimed that there was nothing left of the old Vivacia. Why, then, would she tremble at Captain Vestrit’s name?

  Silence reigned. Wintrow stared down at the edge of the table. His face was very still, his jaw set. Kennit reflected, tossed up his last bit of information. He gave a small, resigned sigh. “Ah. That would explain the presence of Althea Vestrit among the crew. Deserters from the Paragon say that she intends to take Vivacia away from me. ”

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  A second shivering ran through the ship. Wintrow froze, his face paling. “Althea Vestrit is my aunt,” he said faintly. “She was closely bonded to the ship, even before she awakened. She had expected to inherit Vivacia. ” The boy swallowed. “Kennit, I know her. Not well, not in all things, but where this ship is concerned, she will not be dissuaded. She will try to take the Vivacia. That is as certain as sunrise. ”

  Kennit smiled faintly. “Through a wall of serpents? If she survives them, she will discover that Vivacia is no longer who she once was. I do not think I need to fear. ”

  “No longer who she once was,” Wintrow repeated in a whisper. His look had become distant. “Are any of us?” he asked, and lowered his face into his hands.

  MALTA WAS SICK OF SHIPS. SHE HATED THE SMELLS, THE MOTION, THE APPALLING food, the coarse men and most of all she hated the Satrap. No, she corrected herself. Worst of all she hated that she could not show the Satrap how much she loathed and despised him.

  The Chalcedean mother ship had taken them up days ago. Kekki’s body had been hastily abandoned with the badly leaking galley. As Malta and the others had been hauled to safety aboard the three-masted ship, their rescuers hooted and pointed at the sinking galley. She suspected the captain of the galley had suffered a great loss of status by losing his ship that included forfeiting his rights to his “guests,” for they had not seen the man since they had come aboard.

  The single chamber she now shared with the Satrap was larger, with real walls of solid wood and a door that latched securely. It was warmer and drier than the makeshift tent cabin on the deck of the galley, but just as bare. It had no window. It offered little more than the absolute necessities for life. Food was brought to them, and the dishes taken away afterward. Once every two days, a boy came to carry away their waste bucket. The air of the cabin was close and stuffy; the sole lantern that swung from an overhead beam smoked incessantly, contributing to the thick atmosphere.

  Fastened to the wall were a small table that folded down for use and a narrow bunk with a flattened mattress and two blankets. The Satrap ate while seated on his bunk; Malta stood. The chamber pot was under the bunk, with a small railing to keep it from sliding about. A jug for water and a single mug rested on a small, railed shelf by the door. That was it. As Malta disdained to share the bunk with the Satrap, the floor was her bed. After he was asleep, she could sometimes filch one of the blankets from under his slack grip.

  When she and the Satrap had first been shown to the room and the door shut securely behind them, he had stared slowly around himself. His pinched lips white with fury, he had demanded, “This is the best you could do for us?”

  She had still been sodden with shock. Her near-rape, the death of Kekki and the sudden change in ships had left her reeling. “I could do for us?” she asked stupidly.

  “Go now! Tell them I will not tolerate this. Right now!”

  Her temper snapped. She hated the tears that brimmed her eyes and spilled down her cheeks as she demanded, “Just how am I to do that? I don’t speak Chalcedean; I don’t know who to complain to if I did. Nor would these animals listen to me. In case you haven’t noticed, Chalcedeans don’t exactly respect women. ”

  He gave a snort of contempt. “Not women like you, they don’t. If Kekki were here, she would soon set things right. You should have been the one to die. At least Kekki knew how to manage things!”

  Going to the door, he had flung it open. He stood in the door frame and yelled for attention until a deckhand came, then shrieked at the man in Chalcedean. The deckhand had looked from the Satrap to Malta and back again, in obvious puzzlement. Then he had bowed sketchily and disappeared. “It’s your fault if he doesn’t even come back!” the Satrap had spat at her, flinging himself down on the bunk. He pulled the blankets over himself and ignored her. Malta had sat down in the corner on the floor and sulked. The deckhand had not returned.

  The corner had become her part of the room. She sat there now, her back braced against the wall, contemplating her grubby feet. She longed
to get out on the deck, to get one breath of clean, cold air, to see the sky and above all to discover in which direction they sailed. The galley had been carrying them northward, toward Chalced. The Chalcedean ship that had picked them up had been traveling south. But she had no way of knowing if it had continued on its course, or had turned back to Chalced. To be so confined and have no idea of when their voyage would end was yet another torture. Enforced idleness and tedium had become the fabric of her days.

  Nor could she wring any information from the Satrap. The wallowing of this round-hulled ship made him queasy. When he was not vomiting, he was complaining of hunger and thirst. When food and drink were brought to him, he immediately gorged himself, only to disgorge it a few hours later. With each of his meals came a small quantity of coarse smoking herbs. He would thicken the air of the small cabin until Malta was dizzy with the odor, all the while complaining that the poor quality of the herb left his throat raw and his head unsoothed. In vain had Malta entreated him to take a bit of air; all he would do was lie on the bed and groan, or demand that she rub his feet or his neck.

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  As long as the Satrap confined himself to the cabin, Malta was effectively jailed there as well. She dared not venture out without him.

  She rubbed at her burning eyes. The smoke from the lantern inflamed them. Their noonday repast had already been cleared away. The long hours until dinner stretched endlessly before her. The Satrap, against her gentle counseling, had once more stuffed himself. He now puffed at a short black pipe. He took it from his mouth, glared at it, and then drew on it again. The dissatisfied look on his face spoke of trouble brewing for Malta. He shifted uncomfortably on the bed, and then belched loudly.

  “A stroll about the deck might aid your digestion,” Malta suggested quietly.

  “Oh, do be quiet. The mere thought of the effort of walking makes my poor belly heave. ” He suddenly snatched the pipe from his mouth and flung it at her. Without even waiting for her reaction, he rolled to face the wall, ending the conversation.

  Malta leaned her head back against the wall. The pipe had not hit her, but the implied threat of his temper had rattled her nerves. She tried to think of what she should do next. Tears threatened. She set her jaw and clenched her fists against her eyes. She would not cry. She was a tough descendant of a determined folk, she reminded herself, a Bingtown Trader’s daughter. What, she wondered, would her grandmother have done? Or Althea? They were strong and smart. They would have discovered a way out of this.

  Malta realized she was absently fingering the scar on her forehead and pulled her hand away. The injury had closed again, but the healed flesh had an unpleasant gristly texture. The ridged scar extended back into her hairline a full finger’s length. Malta wondered what it looked like and swallowed sickly.

  She pulled her knees in tightly to her chest and hugged them. She closed her eyes, but kept sleep at bay. Sleep brought dreams, terrible dreams of all she refused to face by day. Dreams of Selden buried in the city, dreams of her mother and grandmother reviling her for luring him to his death. She dreamed of Delo, recoiling in horror from Malta’s ruined face. She dreamed of her father, turning away, face set, from his disgraced daughter. Worst were the dreams of Reyn. Always, they were dancing, the music sweet, the torches glowing. First, her slippers fell away, showing her scabby, dirty feet. Then her dress tattered suddenly into filthy rags. Finally, as her hair tumbled lankly to her shoulders and her scar oozed fluid down her face, Reyn thrust her from him. She fell sprawling to the floor, and all the dancers surrounded her, pointing in horror. “A moment of beauty, ruined forever,” they taunted, pointing.

  A few nights ago, the dream had been different. It had been so real, almost like the shared visions of the dream-box. He had outstretched his hands to grasp hers. “Malta, reach for me!” he had begged. “Help me come to you. ” But, even in the dream, she had known it was useless. She had clasped her hands behind her, and hidden her shame from him. Better never to touch him again than to see pity or revulsion on his face. She had awakened sobbing, stabbed by the sweetness of his voice. That dream had been worst of all.

  When she thought of Reyn, her heart ached. She touched her lips, remembering a stolen kiss, the fabric of his veil a soft barrier between their mouths. But every sweet memory was edged with a hundred sharp regrets. Too late, she told herself. Forever too late.

  With a sigh, she lifted her head and opened her eyes. So. Here she was, on a ship, bound Sa knows where, dressed in rags, scar-faced, stripped of her rights and rank as a Trader’s daughter, and in the company of an insufferable prig of a boy. She certainly couldn’t depend on him to do anything to better their circumstances. All he did was lie on the bunk and whimper that this was no way to treat the Satrap of all Jamaillia. Clearly, he had not yet grasped that they were the prisoners of the Chalcedeans.

  She looked at Cosgo and tried to see him impartially. He had grown pale and bony. Now that she thought of it, he had not even complained much the last day or so. He no longer tried to groom himself. When they had first come aboard, he had tried to keep up his appearance. With no combs or brushes, he had directed Malta to groom his unbound hair with her fingers. She had done so, but had scarcely managed to conceal her distaste. He had enjoyed her touch too obviously, leaning his body back against her as she sat on the edge of his bed. In grotesque flirtation, he had mocked her, foretelling that someday she would brag to others of how she had attended the Satrap in his hardship. But he would tell all how miserably she had failed as both a dutiful subject and a woman. Unless… And then he had seized her wrist and tried to guide it where she would not let it go. She had jerked free of him and retreated.

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  But all of that had been before the seasickness mastered him. Since he had become sick, he had grown quieter every day. A sudden worry shook her. If he died, what would become of her? Dimly, she recalled something Kekki had said, back on the galley…. She knit her brow, and the words came back to her. “His status will protect us, if we protect it. ” Abruptly she sat up straight and stared at him. She did not need to be a Bingtown Trader here; to survive on this ship, she must think like a woman of Chalced.

  Malta went to the bunk and stood over the Satrap. His closed eyelids were dark; he clutched feebly at the blanket with thin hands. As much as she disliked him, she found she pitied him. What had she been thinking, to imagine that he could do anything for them? If anyone was to better their situation, it would have to be her. It was what the Satrap expected, that his Companions would care for his needs. More, she realized, it was what the Chalcedeans had expected. She had cowered in their room while she should have angrily demanded good treatment for her man. Chalcedeans would not respect a man whose own woman doubted his power. The Satrap had been right. She, not he, had condemned them to this miserable treatment. She only hoped it was not too late to salvage his status.

  She dragged the blanket away from him despite his mumbled protest. As she had seen her mother do when Selden was sick, she set her hand to the Satrap’s brow, and then felt under his arms, but found no fever or swellings. Very gently, she tapped his cheek until his eyes cracked open. The whites were yellowish, and when he spoke, his breath was foul. “Leave me alone,” he moaned, groping for the blankets.

  “If I do, I fear you will die, illustrious one. ” She tried for the tone that Kekki had always used with him. “It grieves me beyond words to see you misused this way. I shall risk myself and go to the captain myself to protest this. ” The thought of venturing out alone terrified her, yet she knew it was their only chance. She rehearsed the words that she hoped she’d be brave enough to say to the man’s face. “He is a fool, to treat the Satrap of all Jamaillia so shamefully. He deserves to die, and his honor and name with him. ”

  The Satrap’s eyes opened wider and he stared at her in dull surprise. He blinked and sparks of righteous anger began to bum in his eyes. Good. If she played her
role well enough, he would have to live up to it with disdain of his own. She took a breath.

  “Even on this tub of a ship, they should be able to provide better for you! Does the captain reside in a bare room, with no comfort or beauty? I doubt it. Does he eat coarse food; does he smoke stable straw? Whatever balm for the soul he enjoys should have been offered you when you boarded. Day after cruel day, you have waited with patience for them to treat you as you deserve. If the wrath of all Jamaillia falls upon them now, they have only themselves to blame. You have practiced the very patience of Sa himself. Now I shall demand that they right this disgrace. ” She crossed her arms on her chest. “What is the Chalcedean word for ‘captain’?”

  Consternation touched his face. He took a breath. “Leu-fay. ”

  “Leu-fay,” she repeated. She paused and looked more closely at the Satrap. Tears of either self-pity or amazement had welled to his eyes. She covered him, snuggling the blankets around him as if he were Selden. A strange resolve had wakened in her. “Rest now, lordly one. I shall prepare myself, and then I shall see that you are treated as the Satrap of Jamaillia deserves, or die trying. ” That last, she feared, was true.

  When his eyes sagged shut again, she stood and went to work. The robe she wore was the same one she had worn since the night she had left Trehaug. She had managed to rinse it out once on board the galley. The hem hung in tatters, and it was stained with hard use. She took it off, and with fingers and teeth she tore the dangling pieces away. She shook it well, and rubbed the worst of the dirt from it before putting it back on. It left her legs bared from the knees down, but that could not be helped. She used the scraps from her robe to fashion a long braid of material. She combed her hair as best she could with her fingers, and then fashioned the braided fabric into a head wrap for herself. Covering her hair, she hoped, would make her appear older, as well as concealing most of her scar. There was some water in the pitcher. She used a scrap of material as a washcloth to cleanse her face and hands, and then her feet and legs.

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