Ship of destiny, p.46
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       Ship of Destiny, p.46

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  With a bitter smile, she recalled how carefully she had prepared herself for her Presentation Ball, and how she had fretted over her madeover gown and slippers. “Attitude and bearing,” Rache had counseled her then. “Believe you are beautiful, and so will everyone else. ” She had not been able to believe the slave woman. Now her words were Malta’s only hope.

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  When she had done her best, she composed herself. Stand straight, head up. Imagine little brocade slippers on her feet, rings on her fingers, a crown of blossoms on her head. She fixed her eyes angrily on the door and addressed it firmly. “Leu-fay!” she demanded of it. She took a deep breath, then another. On the third she walked to the door, lifted the latch and went out.

  She ventured down a long walkway lit only by a swaying lantern at the other end. The shadows shifted with the light, making it difficult to keep her regal bearing. She walked between stowed cargo. The variety of it aroused her suspicions. Honest merchant ships did not carry such a wide spectrum of goods, nor would they stow them so haphazardly. Pirates or raiders, she told herself, though perhaps they thought otherwise of themselves. Was the Satrap no more to them than plunder to be sold to the highest bidder? The thought nearly sent her back to the room. Then she told herself that she would still demand that he be treated well. Surely, such a trade good would command a better price if it were in the best possible condition.

  She went up a short ladder, and found herself in a room full of men. It stank of sweat and smoke. Hammocks swung nearby, some with snoring occupants. One man mended canvas trousers in the corner. Three others were seated around a crate, with a game of pegs scattered across the top of it. As she entered, they all turned to stare. One, a blond man of about her age, dared to grin. His grimy striped shirt was opened halfway down his chest. She lifted her chin, and reminded herself once more of her glittering rings and blossom crown. She neither smiled nor looked away from him. Instead, she reached for her mother’s disapproving stare when she encountered idle servants. “Leu-fay. ”

  “Leufay?” a grizzled old man at the game table asked incredulously. His eyebrows leapt toward his balding pate in astonishment. The other man at the table chuckled.

  Malta did not allow her face to change expression. Only her eyes became colder. “Leu-fay!” she insisted.

  With a shrug and a sigh, the blond man stood. As he advanced toward her, she forced herself to stand her ground. She had to look up at him to meet his eyes. It was hard to keep her bearing. When he reached for her arm, she slapped his hand away contemptuously. Eyes blazing, she touched two fingers to her breast. “Satrap’s,” she told him coldly. “Leu-fay. Right now!” she snapped, not caring if they understood her words or not. The blond man glanced back at his companions and shrugged, but he did not try to touch her again. Instead, he pointed past her. A flip of her hand indicated that he should lead the way. She did not think she could stand to have anyone behind her.

  He led her swiftly through the ship. A ladder took them up through a hatch onto a wind-washed deck. Her senses were dazzled by the fresh cold air and the smell of salt water and the sun sinking to its rest behind a bank of rosy clouds. Her heart leapt. South. The ship was taking them south, toward Jamaillia, not north to Chalced. Was there any chance a Bingtown ship might see them and try to stop them? She slowed her steps, hoping to catch sight of land, but the sea merged with clouds at the horizon. She could not even guess where they were. She lengthened her stride to catch up with her guide.

  He took her to a tall, brawny man who was directing several crewmembers splicing lines. The sailor bobbed his head to the man, indicated Malta, and rattled off something, in which Malta caught the word “leu-fay. ” The man ran his eyes up and down her in a familiar way, but she returned his look with a haughty stare. “What you want?” he asked her.

  It took every grain of her courage. “I will speak to your captain. ” She guessed that the sailor had taken her to the mate.

  “Tell me what you want. ” His accent was heavy, but the words were clear.

  Malta folded her hands on her chest. “I will speak to your captain. ” She spoke slowly and distinctly as if he might be merely stupid.

  “Tell me, “he insisted.

  It was her turn to look him up and down. “Certainly not!” she snapped. She tossed her head, turned with a motion that she and Delo had practiced since they were nine years old (it would have flounced the skirts on a proper gown), then walked away from them all, keeping her head high and trying to breathe past her hammering heart. She was trying to remember which hatch they had come up when he called out, “Wait!”

  She halted. Slowly she turned her head to look back at him over her shoulder. She raised one brow questioningly.

  “Come back. I take you Captain Deiari. ” He made small hand motions to be sure she understood.

  She let him flap his hand at her several times before returning, at a dignified pace.

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  The captain’s quarters in the stern were resplendent compared to the chamber she shared with the Satrap. There was a large bay window, a thick rug on the floor and several comfortable chairs, and the chamber smelled sweetly of tobacco smoke and other herbs. In one corner, the captain’s bed boasted a fat feather mattress as well as thick coverlets and even a throw of thick white fur. Books leaned against one another on a shelf, and several glass decanters held liquors of various colors.

  The captain himself was seated in one of the comfortable chairs, his legs stretched out before him and a book in his hands. He wore a shirt of soft gray wool over heavy trousers. Thick socks shielded his feet from the cold; his sturdy wet boots were by the door. Malta longed for such warm, dry, clean clothing. He looked up in annoyance as they entered. At the sight of her, he barked a rough question at the mate. Before the man could reply, Malta cut in smoothly.

  “Deiari Leu-fay. At the merciful Satrap Cosgo’s pleasure, I have come to offer you the chance to correct your mistakes before they become irredeemable. ” She met his eyes, her gaze cold, and waited.

  He let her wait. A chilling certainty grew in her; she had miscalculated. He was going to have her killed and thrown overboard. She let only the coldness show on her face. Jewels on her fingers, a crown of blossoms, no, of thick gold on her brow. It was heavy; she lifted her chin to bear the weight and watched the man’s pale eyes.

  “The merciful Satrap Cosgo,” the man finally said colorlessly. His words were clear, unaccented.

  Malta gave a tiny nod of acknowledgment. “He is a more patient man than many. When first we came aboard, he excused your lack of courtesy toward him. Surely, he told me, the captain is busy with all the men he has taken aboard. He has reports to hear, and decisions to consider. The Satrap knows what it is to command, you see. He said to me, ‘Contain your impatience at this insult to me. When he has had time to prepare a proper reception, then the leufay will send an envoy to this poor cabin, little better than a kennel, that he has provided for me. ’ Then, as day after day passed, he found excuse after excuse for you. Perhaps you have been ill; perhaps you did not wish to disturb him while he was recovering his own strength. Perhaps you were ignorant as to the full honor that should be accorded him.

  “As a man, he makes little of personal discomfort. What is a bare floor or poor food compared to the hardships he endured in the Rain Wilds? Yet as his loyal servant, I am offended for him. Charitably, he supposes that what you have offered him is your best. ” She paused, and looked about the chamber slowly. “Such a tale this will make in Jamaillia,” she observed quietly, as if to herself.

  The captain came to his feet. He rubbed the side of his nose nervously, then made a dismissive wave to the mate who still stood at the door. The man whisked himself out of sight immediately, and the door shut solidly behind him. Malta could smell the tang of sudden sweat, but the captain appeared outwardly calm.

  “It was such a wild t
ale, I scarcely gave it credit. This man is truly the Satrap of all Jamaillia?”

  She gambled. All pleasantness faded from her face as she lowered her voice to an accusation. “You know that he is. To profess ignorance of his rank is a poor excuse, sir. ”

  “And I suppose you are a lady of his court, then?”

  She met his sarcasm squarely. “Of course not. My accent is Bingtown, as I am sure you know. I am the humblest of his servants, honored to serve him in his hour of need. I am acutely aware of my unworthiness. ” She gambled again. “The demise of his Companion Kekki on board a Chalcedean galley has grieved him greatly. Not that he blames the captain of the galley. But surely if first his Companion, and then the Satrap himself dies in Chalcedean hands, it will speak poorly of your hospitality. ” Very softly, she added, “It may even be seen as political intent, in some circles. ”

  “If any were to hear of it,” the captain pointed out heavily. Malta wondered if she had overplayed her game. But his next question re-armed her. “What, exactly, were you doing up that river anyway?”

  She smiled enigmatically. “The secrets of the Rain Wilds are not for me to divulge. If you wish to know more perhaps the Satrap might choose to enlighten you. ” Cosgo did not know enough about the Rain Wilds to betray anything of significance. She breathed out. “Or not. Why should he share such secrets with one who has treated him so shamefully? For one who is nominally his ally, you have shown yourself a poor host. Or are we your captives in fact as well as in circumstance? Do you hold us with no thought but to ransom us, as if you were a common pirate?”

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  The directness of her question jolted the man. “I… of course not, not captives. ” His chin came up. “If he were a captive, would I be bearing him with all haste to Jamaillia?”

  “Where he will be sold to the highest bidder?” Malta asked dryly. The captain took a sudden angry breath, but she went on before he could speak. “There must, of course, be that temptation. Only a fool would not see that possibility, in the midst of the current unrest. Yet, a wise man would know of the legendary generosity of the Satrap to his friends. Whereas the largesse of a man who pays you blood money brings his disdain and shame with it. ” She cocked her head slightly. “Will you be instrumental in cementing the friendship of Chalced and Jamaillia? Or will you forever tarnish the reputation of Chalcedeans, as turncoats who sell their allies?”

  A long silence followed her words. “You speak like a Bingtown Trader. Yet the Traders have never been fond of Chalced. What is your interest in this?”

  My life, you idiot. Malta feigned scandalized surprise. “You wish to know the interest of a woman, sir? Then I tell you: my father is of Chalced, sir. But my interest, of course, does not factor into this. The only interest I consider is the Satrap’s. ” She bowed her head reverently.

  Those last words lay like ashes on her tongue. In the silence that followed them, she watched the careful working of the man’s mind. He had nothing to lose by treating the Satrap well. A healthy, living hostage would undoubtedly bring more than one on the point of death. And the gratitude of the Satrap might be worth more than what could be wrung out of his nobles for his return.

  “You may go,” the man dismissed her abruptly.

  “As you wish, I am sure,” Malta murmured, her submission tinged with sarcasm. It would not do for the Satrap’s woman to be too humble. Kekki had shown her that. She inclined her head gravely, but then turned her back on him rather than reversing from the room. Let him make what he would of that.

  When she stepped out into the chill evening wind, a wave of vertigo spun her, yet she forced herself to remain upright. She was exhausted. She once more lifted her head beneath the weight of her imaginary crown. She did not hasten. She found the right hatch, and descended into the noisome depths of the ship. As she passed through the crew quarters, she pretended not to notice any of the men; for their part, they ceased all conversation and stared after her.

  She regained the cabin, shut the door behind her, crossed to the bed and sank shakily to her knees before it. It was as well that this collapse fit with the role she must continue to play. “Exalted one, I have returned,” she said quietly. “Are you well?”

  “Well? I am half-starved and nattered at by a woman,” the Satrap retorted.

  “Ah. I see. Well, lordly one, I have hopes that I have bettered our situation. ”

  “You? I doubt it. ”

  Malta bowed her forehead to her knees and sat trembling for a time. Just as she decided she had failed, there was a knock at the door. That would be the ship’s boy with their dinner. She forced herself to stand and open the door rather than simply bid him enter.

  Three brawny sailors stood behind the mate. The mate bowed stiffly. “You come to leu-fay’s table tonight. You, for you, wash, dress. ” This message seemed to strain his vocabulary, but a gesture indicated the men bearing buckets of steaming water and armloads of clothing. Some, she noted, was woman’s garb. She had convinced him of her own status as well. She fought to keep delight and triumph from her face.

  “If it pleases the Satrap,” she replied coolly, and with a gesture bade them bring it all inside.

  “WHAT WILL YOU DO?” WINTROW DARED TO ASK THE SHIP. THE CHILL NIGHT wind blew past them. He stood on the foredeck, arms wrapped around himself against the cold. They were making good time back to Divvytown. If Wintrow could have done so, he would have stilled the wind, slowed the ship, anything to gain time to think.

  The sea was not dark. The tips of the waves caught the moonlight and carried it with them. Starlight snagged and rippled on the backs of the serpents that hummocked through the water beside them. Their eyes shone in lambent colors, copper, silver and warm gold, eerie pink and blue, like night-blooming sea flowers. Wintrow felt they were always watching him whenever he came to the foredeck. Perhaps they were. Coinciding with the thought, a head lifted from the water. He could not be sure in the gloom, but he thought that it was the green-gold serpent from the Others’ beach. For the space of three breaths, she held her place beside the ship, watching him. Two-legs, I know you, whispered through his mind, but he could not decide if she spoke to him or if he only recalled her voice from the beach.

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  “What will I do?” the ship taunted him lazily.

  She could smash him at will. Wintrow pushed the useless fear aside. “You know what I mean. Althea and Brashen are seeking us. They may be lying in wait for us near Divvytown, or they may simply confront us in the harbor. What will you do, you and your serpents?”

  “Ah. About that. Well. ” The figurehead leaned back toward him. Her dark locks writhed like a nest of snakes. She put a hand to one side of her mouth, as if to share a secret with him. But her whisper was loud, a stage whisper intended for Kennit as he came step-tapping onto the deck. “I will do whatever I please about that. ” She smiled past him at the pirate. “Good evening, my dear. ”

  “Good evening, and good wind, lovely one,” Kennit responded. He leaned over the railing and touched the large hand the ship held up to him in greeting. Then he smiled at Wintrow, his teeth white as a serpent’s in the moonlight. “Good evening, Wintrow. I trust you are well. When you left my cabin earlier, you looked a bit peaked. ”

  “I am not well,” Wintrow replied flatly. He looked at Kennit, and his heart came up in his throat. “I am torn, and I cannot sleep for the fears that roil through me. ” He turned his gaze back to the ship. “Please, do not be so flippant with me. We are speaking of our family. Althea is my aunt, and your longtime companion. Think, ship! She set the peg in you, and welcomed you as you awoke. Don’t you remember that?”

  “I well remember that she left me not long after that. And allowed Kyle to turn me into a slaver. ” Bolt arched one eyebrow at him. “If those were your final memories of her, what reaction would you have to her name?”

  Wintrow clenched his fists at his s
ides. He would not be distracted from his question. “But what are we to do? She is still our family!”

  “Our? What is this ‘our’? Are you confusing me with Vivacia again? Dear boy, between us there is no ‘we,’ no ‘our. ’ There is you and there is me. When I say ‘we’ or ‘our,’ I am not referring to you. ” She ran her eyes over Kennit caressingly.

  Wintrow was stubborn. “I refuse to believe there is nothing of Vivacia in you. Otherwise how could you be so bitter at the memories you do recall?”

  “Oh, dear,” the ship muttered, and sighed. “Are we back to that again?”

  “I’m afraid we are,” Kennit answered her consolingly. “Come, Wintrow, don’t glare like that. Be honest with me, lad. What do you expect us to do? Surrender Bolt back to Althea to prevent your feelings from being hurt? Where is your loyalty to me in that?”

  Wintrow came slowly to stand beside Kennit at the railing. Eventually, he spoke. “My loyalty is yours, Kennit. You know that. I think you knew it even before I admitted it to myself. If you did not have my loyalty, I would not be in such pain now. ”

  The pirate seemed genuinely moved by this confession. He set his hand on Wintrow’s shoulder. For a time, they shared silence. “You, my dear boy, are so very young. You must speak aloud what you want. ” Kennit’s voice was no more than a whisper.

  Wintrow turned to him in surprise. Kennit gazed ahead through the night as if he had not spoken. Wintrow took a breath and forced his thoughts into order. “What I would ask of you both is that Althea not be harmed. She is my mother’s sister, blood of my blood, and true family to the ship. Bolt may deny it, but I cannot believe that she could see Althea die and not be harmed by it. ” In a lower voice he added, “I know I could not. ”

  “Blood of your blood, and true family to the ship,” Kennit repeated to himself. He squeezed Wintrow’s shoulder. “For myself, I promise not to harm a hair of her head. Ship?”

  The figurehead shrugged her great shoulders. “Whatever Kennit says. I feel nothing, you see. I have no desire to kill her, or to let her live. ”

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