Ship of destiny, p.49
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       Ship of Destiny, p.49

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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  Days had been taken up with such quibbling, until Reyn had thought he would go mad. The dozen or so surviving pigeons that served Bingtown and Trehaug had been flown into a state of exhaustion. The terse missives sent and received had seemed incapable of explaining all that was going on in both cities. Reyn had been relieved when a single line informed them that his stepfather and half-sister had returned to the city in good health. Bendir had left Trehaug to venture upriver to locate the place Tintaglia had indicated on the tiny river chart they’d sent. He would begin both to ponder a method of deepening the river, and to survey for signs of a buried city. Content that her goals were being advanced, Tintaglia had finally agreed to depart to search for Malta. Reyn was surprised at how many folk had gathered to watch his departure, probably more from curiosity than any deep concern for his mission. Malta’s life or death would little affect them.

  “Are you ready?” Tintaglia asked him irritably. Through their bond, she spoke in his mind, so that he could feel her annoyance.

  Resolutely, he set her emotions aside from his own. Unfortunately, that left him with little more than nervousness and dread. He stepped up to the dragon. “I am ready. ”

  “Very well then,” she replied. She swept her gaze over those assembled to bid them farewell. “When I return, I expect to see progress. Great progress. ”

  Selden broke suddenly from his mother’s side and thrust a small cloth bag into Reyn’s hands. It rattled. “Take these. They were Malta’s. They might help you get through. ”

  Gravely Reyn poked the mouth of the small bag open, expecting some token of jewelry. Instead, he found a handful of tinted honey drops. He looked up from the candy in puzzlement. Selden shrugged.

  “I was at our old house yesterday, seeing what was left there. Almost everything had been stolen or destroyed. So I looked in some of the less obvious places. ” Selden grinned, abruptly a small brother. “I always knew where Malta hid her candy. ” The smile softened at the edges. “She loves honey drops. But they might keep you going in the cold. I don’t think she’d mind if you ate them. ”

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  It was so Malta. Hoarded sweetness against an uncertain tomorrow. Reyn tucked the bag into the top of his pouch. “Thank you,” he replied gravely. He pulled a wool veil down over his face and tucked it into the throat of his jacket. It would keep his face warm, but limited his vision.

  “That’s wise,” Selden observed encouragingly. “You’ve been changing a lot, you know. When I first saw you, I didn’t think Malta would mind much. But you’re a lot more lumpy now. ” The boy lifted an unself-conscious hand to his face, and ran his fingers over his eyebrows. “She’s going to have fits when she sees me,” he predicted merrily.

  The dragon reared back onto her hind legs. “Hurry up,” she ordered Reyn tersely. To Selden, she spoke more gently. “Move to the side, small minstrel, and turn your eyes away. I would not blind you with dust blasted by my wings. ”

  “I thank you, Great One. Though to be blinded might not be so great a loss, if my last sight were of you, gleaming silver and blue as you rose. Such a memory might sustain me to the end of my days. ”

  “Flatterer!” the dragon dismissed his words, but she did not hide her pleasure. As soon as Selden was clear, she snatched Reyn up from the ground as if he were a toy. She held him around his chest, his legs and feet dangling.

  She shook out her wings and crouched on her powerful hind legs. Once, twice, she flapped her wings in a measuring way. He tried to call a farewell, but could not summon enough breath. She sprang upward with a suddenness that snapped his head back. The shouted farewells were lost in the steady thunder of her wings. He closed his eyes against the cold wind. When he forced them open again, he looked down on a glittering carpet of blue and gray, a pattern rippling slowly across it. The sea, he realized, was very, very far below him. Nothing was below him except deep, cold water. He swallowed against a rising fear.

  “Well. Where did you want to go?”

  “Where do I want to go? To wherever Malta is, of course. ”

  “I told you before, I can sense she is alive. That doesn’t mean I know where she is. ”

  Desolation swallowed Reyn. The dragon took sudden pity on him. “See what you can do,” she suggested. Through her, he again shared her awareness of Malta. He closed his eyes and slipped into that sensing that was not hearing nor sight nor scent, but an eerie shadow of all three. He found himself opening his mouth and breathing deep as if he could taste her scent on the cold air. Something of himself, he was sure, flowed out to meet her.

  They merged in a warm sleepy lassitude. As they had when they shared the dream-box, he experienced her perceptions of her world. Warm. A slow, rocking motion. He breathed deep with her, and tasted the unmistakable smell of a ship. He loosened his awareness of his own body and reached more boldly for her. He felt warm bedding around her. He caught the deep rhythm of her breathing and then shared it. She slept with her cheek on her hand. He became that hand, cradling the warm softness of her cheek. He caressed it. She smiled in her sleep. “Reyn,” she acknowledged him, without recognizing his true presence.

  “Malta, my love,” he returned her gently. “Where are you?”

  “In bed,” she sighed. There was warm interest in her voice.

  “Where?” he persisted, regretfully ignoring that invitation.

  “On a ship. Chalcedean ship. ”

  “Where are you bound?” he asked her desperately. He could feel his contact with her fading as his irritating questions clashed with her dream. He clung to her, but her mind pulled away from sleep, disturbed by his insistence that she answer. “Where?” he demanded. “WHERE?”

  “JAMAILLIA BOUND!” MALTA FOUND HERSELF SITTING BOLT UPRIGHT IN HER bedding. “Jamaillia bound,” she repeated, but could not recall what prompted the words. She had the tantalizing feeling that she had just left a very interesting dream, but now could not remember even a scrap of it. It was almost a relief, really. By day, she could control her thoughts. Nights were when her treacherous mind brought her dreams of Reyn, achingly sweet with loss. Better to awake and remember nothing than to awake with tears on her face. She lifted her hands to her face and touched her cheeks. One tingled strangely. She stretched, then conceded she was irrevocably awake. She threw back the coverlet and stood up, yawning.

  She was almost accustomed to the opulence of the chamber now. That had not dulled her pleasure in it. The captain had allotted her two deckhands and permission to search the hold for whatever might make the Satrap more comfortable. She had cast aside all moderation. A thick rug of soft wool on the floor and brightly figured hangings warmed the room. Candelabra had replaced the smoky lantern. Stacked blankets and furs made up her pallet. The Satrap’s bed was lined with thick bearskins and sheepskins. An elaborate hookah squatted next to it, and a damask drapery around it curtained him from drafts.

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  From behind the drapery came his fitful snore. Good. She had time to dress herself before he woke. Moving quietly, she crossed the room to a large trunk, opened it and dug through the layers of garments within. Fabrics of every hue and texture met her questing hands. She selected something warm, soft and blue and pulled it out. She held the robe against her. It was too large, but she would make it do. She glanced uncomfortably at the Satrap’s bed hangings, then pulled the blue robe over her head. Beneath it, she let her nightgown fall, then thrust her arms through the long blue sleeves. A faint perfume clung to it, the scent last worn by its owner. She would not wonder how the trunk of lovely clothing had come to the Chalcedeans. Going in rags herself would not restore life to the rightful owner. It would only make her own survival more precarious.

  There was a mirror in the lid of the trunk, but Malta avoided looking in it. The first time she had gleefully opened the trunk, her own reflection had been the first thing she saw. The scar was far worse than she had imagined. It s
tood up, a double ridge of pale, rippling flesh that reached almost to her nose and disappeared in her hair. She had touched the lumpy cicatrix in disbelief, and then scrabbled back from the trunk in horror.

  The Satrap had laughed.

  “You see,” he mocked her. “I told you so. Your brief moment of beauty is gone, Malta. You would be wise to learn to be useful and accommodating. That is all that is left to you now. Any pride you retain is self-delusion. ”

  She could not respond to his hateful words. Her voice was stilled, her gaze trapped in her own image. For a time, she had stared in silence, unable to move, unable to think.

  The Satrap had broken the spell by nudging her with his foot. “Get up and busy yourself. I am to dine with the captain tonight, and you have not yet set out my clothes. And in Sa’s name, cover that split in your head. It is humiliating enough to me that the whole crew knows you are disfigured without your flaunting it. ”

  In numbed silence, she had obeyed him. That night, she had sat on the floor beside his chair like a dog. She had reminded herself of Kekki, subservient but alert. But for a few words of Jamaillian, the table conversation was out of her reach. From time to time, he passed food down to her. After a time, she realized it was when he had sampled a dish and disliked it. She kept silent behind a stiff little smile, even when he had casually wiped his fingers on her gown. Once the men at the table spoke of her. The Satrap said something, the captain replied and then there was general laughter. The Satrap had given her a disparaging nudge with his foot, as if she sat distastefully close to him.

  She was astonished at how hurt she felt at that. She had fixed the small smile on her face as she stared at nothing. They feasted on rich foods and valuable wines pirated from other ships. After dining, they shared rare pleasure herbs from Captain Deiari’s own lacquer-boxed cache. Later, the Satrap would disdainfully tell her this ship was not a pirate vessel but one of his patrol ships, and that all the loot was cargo confiscated from smugglers and real pirates. In fact, he’d gone on loftily, one of his favorite nobles in Jamaillia had contributed heavily in commissioning this ship and had an interest in her spoils.

  She had managed to keep her mask in place all evening. Even when she had dutifully followed the Satrap back to their cabin and assisted him in disrobing for bed and resisted his lackadaisical advances, she had kept her aplomb. Only after she was sure he was asleep had the tears come. Accommodating and useful. Was that truly all that was left to her life? With creeping dismay, she realized it sounded like her mother. Accommodating and useful to her Chalcedean father. What would he think if he could see her now? Would he be horrified, or would he think that she had finally learned to be graciously female? It hurt to wonder such things about someone she loved. She had always believed that he loved her best of all his children. But how did he love her? As an independent young woman, a Trader’s daughter? Would he more approve the role she played now?

  The same thought haunted her as she tightened the bodice laces on the blue robe and belted it securely so she would not tread on the hem. She coiled her hair and pinned it at the back of her neck. She concealed her scar with a scarf. When she was finished, she considered her face in the mirror. Shipboard life did not agree with her skin. She was far too pale, save for her eyes, and lips which were wind chafed. “I look coarse,” she said quietly to herself. “Like a hard-used servant. ”

  Resolutely, she shut the lid of the trunk. Attitude, not appearance, had won her the captain and crew’s deference. If she lost that now, she would lose her ability to deal with them. She had small faith that Cosgo could continue this farce without her. Only her continued obsequiousness to him enabled him to act like a Satrap at all. It was disgusting that she spent so much of her strength bolstering his belief in his superiority. Worse: the more she flattered him, the more attractive he found her, but she was stronger than he was. His few efforts at physical advances she had easily defeated, setting his pawing hands aside and reminding him that she was not worthy of his attentions.

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  Soft leather slippers covered her feet, and then she was ready. She crossed to the Satrap’s bed, cleared her throat loudly, and drew back his curtain. She did not wish to surprise him in any sort of nastiness. “Lordly one, I hesitate to disturb your rest, but I ask your permission to fetch your breakfast. ”

  He opened one eye. “You may. See that it comes hot to me, not lukewarm like yesterday. ”

  “I shall, my lord,” she promised humbly. She could not remind him that he had lain abed smoking long after she had brought his tray yesterday. Nothing was ever his fault. She settled a cloak about her shoulders, and left quietly.

  This was her stolen time. Out of the Satrap’s sight, moving purposefully, she could enjoy a measure of freedom, unchallenged by anyone. When she encountered any of the sailors, they stared at her bound brow, and made comments behind her back, but they gave way.

  The cookstove was in a deckhouse located amidships. When she reached it, the sliding door stood open. The cook, a pale, mournful man, nodded a greeting to her. He set out a tray and two bowls and some utensils, then took up a ladle and stirred the thick porridge that was morning ration for every one. Some things not even the complaints of a Satrap could change. A sudden outcry from the lookout sent the cook hastening to the door. An instant later, a wild clamor of voices broke out on deck. The relative peace of the swiftly moving ship was broken by thundering feet and shouted orders. She did not need her limited Chalcedean to know that a great number of curses were mixed with the shouted words. At the door, the cook added a few choice phrases of his own, flung his ladle aside and sternly ordered Malta to do something. Then he left, slamming the door behind him. Malta immediately opened it a crack to peer out.

  The deck swarmed with purposeful activity. Was a storm coming? She watched in awe as ropes were loosened, sails unfurled and ropes fastened off again. As she watched, more canvas blossomed on masts already white with sail. She felt the deck tilt under her feet as the ship’s speed increased.

  Lookouts at the tops of the masts shouted reports down. Malta ventured two steps outside the deckhouse and craned her neck. She caught a glimpse of an outstretched hand and her eyes followed the pointing finger.

  Sails. Another ship, coming up fast. A second shout from above made her duck back into the deckhouse and peer out the opposite window. Still another ship, sails full of wind, was likewise swiftly gaining on them. Both ships flew odd patchwork flags showing a spread-winged raven. Her mind worked frantically. The Chalcedean ship fled from those two others. Did that mean they were from Bingtown? Or were they pirates? Did pirates prey on other pirates? She did not know whether to hope the Chalcedean ship outran them or was captured. If they were captured, and the other ships were pirates, what would become of her and the Satrap? A hasty plan formed in her mind.

  She waited for an opportune moment, then dashed from the deckhouse to dart down the hatch like a mouse down a hole. The hatch cover dropped down behind her, plunging her into darkness. She scurried through the ship and found the crew’s quarters deserted. By the fading light of a lantern, she helped herself to an assortment of garments before hastening to the Satrap’s cabin. When she burst into it, he opened one lazy eye and regarded her irritably.

  “Your behavior is unseemly,” he told her. “Where is my breakfast?”

  Even in this crisis, she must play her role. “Your forgiveness, lordly one, I pray you. Our ship flees from two others. If they catch us, there will be battle. If there is battle, I fear we will be overwhelmed. I fear they are pirates from the Pirate Isles with little love or respect for the Satrap of Jamaillia. So I have borrowed clothing for you to disguise yourself. As a simple sailor, you may escape their notice. And I, also. ”

  As she spoke, she began to sort the clothing hastily. She chose a rough shirt and trousers for herself, and a sailor’s cap to conceal her brow. A heavy sweater, far too large for her, might help her pa
ss herself off as a boy. For the Satrap, she had chosen the cleaner garments. With these over her hands, she advanced to the bed. He scowled at her and clutched the edge of his blanket tighter.

  “Rise, glorious one, and I will help you dress first,” she offered. She wanted to bark it like a command to a recalcitrant child, but knew that would only make him more stubborn.

  “No. Put those disgusting rags aside and lay out proper garb for me. If I must rise and dress before I’ve had any breakfast, I will dress as befits me. You do a great injustice to our Chalcedean sailors to imagine they shall be captured and beaten so easily. There is no need for me to hide myself behind a churlish disguise. ” He sat up in his bedding, but crossed his arms resolutely on his chest. “Bring me decent clothes and shoes. I shall go out on the deck, and watch my patrol vessel disperse these common pirates. ”

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  Malta sighed, defeated. Well, if he would not hide himself, then she would make his ransom value obvious. Might not pirates be more gentle with valuable captives?

  She bowed low. “You are right, of course, gracious one. Pardon the foolishness of a simple woman, I beg you. ” She threw the rejected sailor garb out into the companionway. Back in their chamber, she selected the most resplendent robes she could find and took them to the Satrap.

  A sudden shock sent her crashing against the bed. She caught her breath and then held it, listening. The sounds on the deck above had changed. The tread of feet and angry shouts and wild cries. Had they been rammed? Were they being boarded even now? She snatched a breath. “Lordly one, I think we were wise to hurry. ”

  “Very well. ” With a martyred sigh, he pushed his blankets aside. He held his arms out from his sides. “You may garb me. ”

 

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