Ship of destiny, p.5
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       Ship of Destiny, p.5

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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  “I’m fine. Thank you for asking. ” She felt oddly touched by his concern. She looked down at her garden-stained hands and her dirt-caked nails. She restrained an impulse to put her hands behind her.

  He took a breath. “Will you tell Malta that I came, that I was worried about her?”

  “I will. The next time I see her. But that may not be for quite a long time. Now go home. Obey your father after this. I am sure he has enough worries without you putting yourself in danger. ”

  That made him stand up a bit straighter. A smile touched his mouth. “I know. But I had to come, you see. I could know no peace until I discovered what had become of her. ” He paused. “May I tell Delo, also?”

  The girl was one of the worst gossips in Bingtown. Ronica decided that Cerwin did not know enough about anything to be a threat. “You may. But plead with her to keep it to herself. Ask her not to speak of Malta at all. It is the greatest favor she can do her friend. The fewer people who wonder about Malta, the safer she is. ”

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  Cerwin frowned dramatically. “Of course. I see. ” He nodded to himself. “Well. Farewell, Ronica Vestrit. ”

  “Farewell, Cerwin Trell. ”

  Only a month ago, it would have been unthinkable for him to be in this room. The civil war in Bingtown had turned everything topsy-turvy. She watched him go, and it seemed that he carried the last of that old familiar life away with him. All the rules that had governed her had fallen. For an instant, she felt as desolate and plundered as the room she stood in. Then an odd sense of freedom washed over her. What had she left to lose? Ephron was dead. Ever since her husband’s death, her familiar world had been crumbling away. Now it was gone, and only she remained. She could make her own way now. Without Ephron and the children, little of the old life mattered to her.

  She might as well make the new one interesting, as long as it was going to be unpleasant anyway.

  After the boy’s footsteps in the tiled passage had died away, Ronica left Malta’s bedchamber and walked slowly through the house. She had avoided coming here since the day they had returned and found it raided. Now she forced herself to walk through each room and look at the corpse of her world. The heavier furniture and some of the hangings and drapes remained. Almost everything else of value or use had been carried off. She and Rache had salvaged some kitchenware and bedding, but all the simple items that made living gracious were gone. The plates they set on the bare wooden table did not match, and no linens protected her from the rough wool of her blankets. Yet, life went on.

  As her hand fell on the latch of the kitchen door, she noticed one wax-sealed pot that had fallen on its side and rolled into a corner. She stooped down to retrieve it. It was leaking a little. She licked her sticky finger. Cherry preserves. She smiled ruefully, then tucked it into the crook of her arm. She would take this last bit of sweetness with her.

  “LADY COMPANION?”

  Serilla lifted her eyes from the map she was perusing. The serving boy at the door of the study looked deferentially at his feet. “Yes?” she acknowledged him.

  “There is a woman to see you. ”

  “I’m busy. She will have to come back at a better time. ” She was mildly annoyed with him. He should have known she did not want any other visitors today. It was late, and she had spent all the afternoon in a stuffy room full of Traders, trying to make them see sense. They quibbled over the most self-evident things. Some were still insisting that there must be a vote of the Council before they would recognize her authority over them. Trader Larfa had quite rudely suggested that Bingtown should settle Bingtown matters, with no advice from Jamaillia. It was most frustrating. She had shown them the authorization that she had extorted from the Satrap. She had written it herself, and knew it to be unchallengeable. Why would they not admit that she held the authority of the Satrap, and that Bingtown was subject to the Satrap’s authority?

  She consulted the Bingtown chart once more. So far, the Traders had been able to keep their harbor open, but it was at the expense of all trade. The town could not long survive those circumstances. The Chalcedeans knew that very well. They did not have to rush in and control Bingtown immediately. Trade was the lifeblood of Bingtown and the Chalcedeans were slowly but surely strangling it.

  The stubborn Traders were the ones who refused to see the obvious. Bingtown was a single settlement on a hostile coast. It had never been able to feed itself. How could it stand up to the onslaught of a warlike country like Chalced? She had asked that of the Council leaders. They replied that they had done it before and would do it again. But those other times, the might of Jamaillia backed them. And they had not had to contend with New Traders in their midst who might welcome a Chalcedean invasion. Many New Traders had close ties with Chalced, for that was the major market for the slaves they tunneled through Bingtown.

  She considered again the bird-message Roed Caern had intercepted and brought to her. It had promised a Jamaillian fleet would soon set out to take revenge on the corrupt and rebellious Old Traders for the murder of the Satrap. Just to think of it made Serilla cold. The message had arrived too soon. No bird could fly that fast. To her, it meant that the conspiracy was widespread, extending to the nobility of Jamaillia City itself. Whoever had sent the bird to Jamaillia had expected that the Satrap would be murdered and that evidence would point to the Old Traders. The swiftness of the reply indicated that those who responded had been awaiting the message.

  The only question was how extensive the conspiracy was. Even if she could root out the source of it, she did not know if she could destroy it. If only Roed Caern and his men had not been so hasty the night that they seized the Satrap. If Davad Restart and the Vestrits had survived, the truth might have been wrung from them. They might have revealed who of the Jamaillian nobility were involved in this. But Restart was dead and the Vestrits missing. She’d get no answers there.

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  She pushed the chart to one side and replaced it with an elegant map of Bingtown. The finely inked and illustrated work was one of the wonders she’d discovered in Restart’s library. In addition to the original grants of all the Old Traders, with each holding inked in the family’s color, Davad had penned in the main claims of the New Traders. She studied it, wondering if it might offer some clue to his allies. She frowned over it, then lifted her pen, dipped it and made a note to herself. She liked the location of Barberry Hill. It would be a convenient summer home for her, once all this strife was settled. It had been a New Trader holding; likely the Bingtown Traders would be glad to cede it to her. Or as the Satrap’s representative, she could simply take it.

  She leaned back in the immense chair, and wished briefly that Davad Restart had been a smaller man. Everything in this room was oversized for her. Sometimes she felt like a child pretending to be an adult. Sometimes all of Bingtown society seemed to have that effect on her. Her entire presence here was a pose. Her “authority from the Satrap” was a document she had coerced Satrap Cosgo into signing when he was ill. All her power, all her claims to social stature were based on it. And its power, in turn, was based on the concept that the Satrapy of Jamaillia lawfully ruled over Bingtown. She had been shocked the first time she had realized how prevalent the Bingtown Traders’ talk of sovereignty was. It made her supposed status amongst them even more dubious. Perhaps she would have been wiser to have sided with the New Traders. But no, for at least some among them realized that Jamaillia City nobles were trying to shake off the Satrap’s authority. If the Satrap’s power in the capital was questionable, how tenuous was it here in the Satrapy’s farthest province?

  It was too late to flinch. She’d made her choice and assumed her role.

  Now her last, best hope was to play it well. If she succeeded, Bingtown would be her home to the end of her days. That had been her dream ever since, as a young woman, she had heard that in Bingtown a woman could claim the same rights as a man.


  She rested against the cushions for an instant as her eyes traveled the room. A generous fire burned on the hearth of the study. The light from it and from the many tapers in the room gleamed warmly on the polished wood of the desk. She liked this room. Oh, the drapes were intolerable, and the books in the many cases lining the wall were disorganized and tatty, but all that could be changed. The rustic styling had been unsettling at first, almost annoying, but now that the estate was hers, it made her feel she was truly a part of Bingtown. Most of the Old-Trader homes she had seen looked much like this one. She could adapt. She wiggled her toes inside the cozy lambswool slippers she wore. They had been Kekki’s, and they were just a bit tight. Idly she wondered if Kekki’s feet were cold right now, but no doubt the Rain Wild Traders were taking good care of their noble hostages. She did not restrain her smile of satisfaction. Even in small servings, revenge was sweet. The Satrap probably had not yet discerned that she had arranged his snatching.

  “Lady Companion?”

  It was the serving boy again. “I said I was busy,” she reminded him warningly. Bingtown servants had no real concept of deference to their masters. She had studied Bingtown all her life, but nothing in its official history had prepared her for the egalitarian reality. She set her teeth as the boy spoke back to her.

  “I told the woman that you were busy,” the boy explained carefully. “But she insisted she would see you now. She says that you have no right to possess Davad Restart’s house. She says that she will give you one chance to explain yourself before she presents this grievance to the Bingtown Council on behalf of Davad’s lawful heirs. ”

  Serilla flung her pen down on the desk. Such words were too much to tolerate from anyone, let alone a servant. “Davad Restart was a traitor. By his actions, he forfeited all rights to his property. That includes the claims of his heirs as well. ” She suddenly realized she was explaining herself to a serving boy. Her temper snapped. “Tell her to go away, that I have no time to see her, not today, not any day. ”

  “Tell me that yourself, and we’ll have more time to argue it. ”

  Serilla stared in shock at the old woman framed in the doorway. She was dressed simply, in worn but clean clothes. She wore no jewelry, but her gleaming hair was meticulously neat. Her posture more than her accoutrements proclaimed her Trader status. She looked familiar, but as intermarried as the Bingtown Old Traders were, that did not surprise Serilla. Half of them were their own second cousins. Serilla glared at her. “Go away,” she said bluntly. She picked up her pen in a show of calmness.

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  “No. I won’t. Not until I have satisfaction. ” A cold anger was in the Trader’s voice. “Davad Restart was not a traitor. By branding him as such, you’ve been able to take over his holdings for yourself. Perhaps you don’t mind stealing from a dead man, even one who opened the hospitality of his home to you. But your false accusations have brought disaster to me. The Vestrit family has been attacked and near murdered, I’ve been driven from my home, my possessions stolen, and all because of your slander. I will not tolerate it longer. If you force me to take this before the Bingtown Council, you will find that power and wealth do not sway justice here as in Jamaillia. All the Trader families were little more than beggars when we came here. Our society is founded on the idea that a man’s word binds him, regardless of his wealth. Our survival has depended on our ability to trust one another’s word. To give false witness here is more grievous than you can imagine. ”

  This must be Ronica Vestrit! She looked little like the elegant old woman at the ball. All she had retained was her dignity. Serilla reminded herself that she was the one in authority here. She held that thought until she could believe it. She dared not let anyone question her supremacy. The sooner the old woman was managed, the less trouble for all. Her memory swept her back to her days at the Satrap’s court. How had he handled such complaints? She kept her face impassive as she declared, “You waste my time with this long list of supposed grievances. I will not be bullied by your threats and implications. ” She leaned back in her chair, attempting to appear serenely confident. “Don’t you know that you are an accused traitor? To charge in here with your wild accusations is not only foolhardy but ridiculous. You are fortunate I do not have you clapped into chains immediately. ” Serilla tried to catch the serving boy’s eyes. He should take that hint that he should run for aid. Instead, he only watched the two women with avid interest.

  Instead of being cowed, Ronica only became more incensed. “That might work in Jamaillia, where tyrants are worshipped. But this is Bingtown. Here, my voice is as loud as yours. Nor do we chain folk up without giving them a chance to speak first. I demand the opportunity to address the Bingtown Traders’ Council. I want to clear Davad’s name, or to be shown the evidence that condemns him. I demand decent burial for his remains in either case. ” The old woman advanced into the room. Her bony hands were clenched at her sides. Her eyes roved over the room, her outrage plainly growing as she noted the signs of Serilla’s occupancy. Her words became more clipped. “I want Davad’s property surrendered to his heirs. I want my own name cleared, and an apology from those who endangered my family. I expect reparations from them as well. ” The woman came even closer. “If you force me to go to the Council, I will be heard. This is not Jamaillia, Companion. Complaints from a Trader, even an unpopular Trader, will not be ignored. ”

  That scatterbrained serving boy had fled. Serilla longed to go to the door and shout for assistance. But she feared even to stand lest she provoke an attack. Already her traitorous hands were trembling. Confrontation unnerved her now. Ever since- No. She would not think of that now, she would not let it weaken her. To dwell on that was to concede that it had changed her irrevocably. No one had that sort of power over her, no one! She would be strong.

  “Answer me!” the woman suddenly demanded. Serilla started wildly and her flailing hands scattered the papers on the desk. The old woman leaned over the desk, her eyes blazing with anger. “How dare you sit there and ignore me? I am Ronica Vestrit of the Bingtown Traders. Who do you think you are, to sit in silence and stare at me?”

  Ironically, that was the only question that could have broken Serilla from her frozen panic. It was a question she had asked herself often of late. She had rehearsed the answer to her mirror in endless self-validation. She stood. Her voice quavered only slightly. “I am Serilla, vowed Companion to Satrap Cosgo. More than that, I am his representative here in Bingtown. I have the signed documents to prove it, documents that the Satrap created specifically to deal with this situation. While he is in hiding for his personal safety, my word holds the same force as his, my decisions are what his would be, and my rulings are as binding. I myself have investigated the matter of Davad Restart’s treachery, and I have found him guilty of treason. Under Jamaillian law, all he owned is forfeit to the throne. As I represent the throne, I have decided to make use of it. ”

  For a moment, the old woman looked daunted. Serilla took courage from that evidence of weakness. She picked up her pen once more. Leaning over the desk, she pretended to peruse her notes, then lifted her eyes to the Vestrit woman.

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  “As of yet, I have found no direct evidence of your treason. I have made no official pronouncement against you. I suggest that you do not goad me to look more deeply into your involvement. Your concerns for a dead traitor do not do you credit. If you are wise, you will leave now. ” Serilla dismissed her by looking down at her papers once more. She prayed the woman would just go away. Once she left, Serilla could summon armed men and send them after her. She pressed her toes against the floor to keep her knees from shaking.

  Silence lasted. Serilla refused to look up. She waited to hear this Ronica Vestrit trudge away in defeat. Instead, the Trader’s fist suddenly slammed down on the desk, making the ink hop in its well. “You are not in Jamaillia!” Ronica declared harshly. “You are in Bingto
wn. And here the truth is fixed by the facts, not by your decree. ” Ronica’s features were contorted with anger and determination. The Bingtown Trader leaned across the desk, shoving her face close to Serilla’s. “If Davad had been a traitor, there would be proof of it, here, in his records. However foolish he might have been, his accounts were always in order. ”

  Serilla pressed herself back into the chair. Her heart was hammering, and there was a roaring in her ears. The woman was completely deranged. She sought the will to leap to her feet and flee, but she was paralyzed. She glimpsed the serving boy behind Ronica, and then relief engulfed her as she saw several Traders behind him. A few minutes ago, she would have been furious at him for presenting them unannounced. Now she was so pitifully grateful that tears stung her eyes.

  “Restrain her!” she implored them. “She threatens me!”

  Ronica swiveled her head to look back at the men. For their part, they seemed shocked into immobility. Ronica straightened slowly, turning her back on Serilla. Her voice was cold with courtesy as she greeted them by their names. “Trader Drur. Trader Conry. Trader Devouchet. I am glad to see you here. Perhaps now my questions will be answered. ”

  The expressions that passed over the Traders’ faces told Serilla that her situation had not improved. Shock and guilt were quickly masked with polite concern.

  Only Trader Devouchet stared at her. “Ronica Vestrit?” he asked incredulously. “But I thought…” He turned to look at his companions but they had been swifter to compose themselves.

  “Is there a problem here?” Trader Drur began but Conry overrode him with, “I fear we have intruded on a private conversation. We can return later. ”

  “Not at all,” Ronica answered gravely, as if they had addressed her. “Unless you think my survival is a problem to be solved by the Companion. The true problem here is one more fit to be resolved by the Traders’ Council than by a Satrap’s Companion. Gentlemen, as you obviously know, my family has been savagely attacked, and our reputation smeared to the point at which it endangers our lives. Trader Restart has been treacherously murdered, and so maligned after the fact that those who killed him claim they were justified. I am here to demand that the Council investigate this matter and render justice. ”

 

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