Ship of destiny, p.59
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       Ship of Destiny, p.59

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  Outside, the door shut firmly behind her, she leaned against the wall and took a long breath. Then, she lifted her skirts and ran. Captain Red disliked folk coming late to his table.

  At the door, she paused to catch her breath. In a habit from another world, she pinched up her cheeks to rosy them and patted her hair into place. She hastily smoothed her skirts, and then entered. They were all seated at table already. Captain Red fixed her with a grave stare. She dropped a low curtsey. “Your pardon, sirs. I was detained. ”

  “Indeed. ” The captain’s single word was his only reply. She hastened to take her place at his left hand. The first mate, a man intricately tattooed from brow to throat, sat to his right. Captain Red’s own small tattoo was subtler, done in yellow ink that scarcely showed unless one knew to look for it. While slave actors and musicians were prized as possessions, their owners usually refrained from obvious ownership tattoos that might detract from their performances. The Motley’s crew was largely composed of an acting troupe that had been freed by Captain Kennit.

  At a sign from the captain, the ship’s boy sprang to life, serving the table. The snowy cloth, heavy china and glittering crystal belied the plainness of the fare. Ship’s food, Malta had decided, changed little from vessel to vessel. Bread was hard, meat was salt and vegetables were roots. At least on the Motley, her food was not someone else’s leavings and she ate at a table with cutlery. The wine, recent loot from the Chalcedean vessel, far surpassed the food it accompanied.

  There was table conversation, too, and if it was not always elevated, at least it was mannered and stylish, due to the composition of the crew. Neither slavery nor piracy had eroded their intelligence nor their braggadocio. Bereft of a theater, the table became the stage for their performances, and Malta their audience. They vied to make her laugh or gasp with shock. Lively wit was expected at the table, as were excellent manners. Had not Malta known, she would never have guessed these same men who jested and jousted with words were also bloody-handed pirates capable of slaughtering every soul on a ship. She felt she walked a tightrope when she dined amongst them. They had extended to her the courtesy of their company, yet she never allowed herself to forget that she was their captive as well. Malta had never expected that the social graces she had learned as a Bingtown Trader’s daughter would serve her in such good stead.

  Yet whilst they conversed with razor wit on the true meaning of the widow’s son in Redoief’s comedies or debated Saldon’s command of language versus his deplorable lack of dramatic pacing, she longed to turn the talk in more informative directions. Her opportunity did not come until the end of the meal. As the others were excused and pushed away from the table, the captain turned his attention to Malta.

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  “So. Our Magnadon Satrap Cosgo again saw fit not to join us at table?”

  Malta patted her lips and took her time answering. “Captain, I’m afraid he is still indisposed. His upbringing did not school him to the rigors of sea travel, I fear. ”

  “His upbringing did not school him to any rigors. Say rather that he disdains our company. ”

  “His health is delicate, and his circumstances distress him,” Malta replied easily, determined not to speak critically of the Satrap. If she turned on him, she would no longer be seen as his loyal, and perhaps valuable, attendant. She cleared her throat slightly. “He again requested smoking herbs, to ease his seasickness. ”

  “Pah. They do nothing for seasickness, save make a man too dazed to be bothered by it. I have told you we allow none aboard. It was debt for smoking herbs and other similar amusements that brought our company to the tattooist’s stocks. ”

  “I have told him that, Captain. I fear he does not believe me. ”

  “He longs for them so that he cannot imagine we do without them,” the captain scoffed. He cleared his own throat. His demeanor changed. “He would do well to join us tomorrow. We should like to discuss with him, genteelly, the terms of his ransom. Do urge him to be here tomorrow. ”

  “I shall,” Malta replied earnestly. “But I fear I cannot convince him that this would better the circumstances of his captivity. Perhaps you would allow me to act as a go-between with your terms. I am accustomed to his temperament. ”

  “Better say that you are accustomed to his temper, to his sulks, his arrogance, his childish spite. As to confiding my intentions, well, all have agreed that the Satrap of all Jamaillia will make a fine gift for Kennit, King of the Pirate Isles. Many of us would find it amusing if our boy-Satrap finished his days wearing a crow tattooed beside his nose and shackles on his feet. Perhaps he could be taught to wait at table for Kennit’s meals.

  “But Kennit tends toward greater pragmatism. I suspect that King Kennit will ransom the Lord High Spoiled One back to whoever will have him. It would behoove Cosgo to think of who that might be. It would please me to present him to Kennit with a list of names to be invited to bid for this prize. ”

  Kennit. The name of the man who had taken her father and his ship. What could this mean? Could she herself eventually stand before the man and somehow negotiate her father’s release? The Satrap Cosgo suddenly took on new value in her eyes. She took a breath and found a smile.

  “I shall persuade him to draw up such a list of names,” Malta assured the captain. Her eyes followed the mate; he was the last of the company to leave the room. “If you will excuse me, I will see if I cannot begin tonight. ” The door shut firmly behind the man. She cursed the increased beat of her heart, for she knew that the blood rose betrayingly to her face as well. She smiled as she edged toward the door.

  “Are you in such a hurry to leave me?” Captain Red asked with mock sorrow. He stood and walked around the table toward her.

  “I hasten to do your bidding,” Malta replied. She smiled and let a glint of flirtation come into her eyes. She walked a difficult line with this man. He thought very well of himself, and that was to her advantage. It pleased him to suppose that she desired him, and he enjoyed his pursuit and the dramatic opportunities it afforded him. He flaunted his courtship of her to his own crew. Nor did her scar daunt him. Perhaps, she thought, once a man’s own face had been marked against his will, he made less of the marks on others’ faces.

  “Could not you stay here and do my bidding as well?” he asked her with a warm smile. He was a very handsome man, with handsome ways. A cold, hard part of herself speculated that if she made herself mistress of this man, she could use him against Kennit. But no. It was not the sudden memory of Reyn’s wide shoulders or her hand resting in his strong one as they danced. Not at all. She had set all thoughts of the Rain Wilder aside as a future she would never see. She was ruined forever for marriage to such a man. But it was just possible, if she was ruthless enough, that she still could save her father. Despite all that had befallen her, he would love her still, with a father’s true love.

  She had been too distracted. Captain Red captured her hands and stood looking down on her with amusement. “I really must go,” she murmured, feigning reluctance. “I’ve taken the Satrap no dinner yet. If I am late, it will put him in a foul temper, and getting those names for you may prove-“

  “Let him starve,” Captain Red suggested brusquely, his glance roving over her face. “I’ll wager it’s a tactic no one has ever tried on him before: it might be exactly what he needs to make him more reasonable. ”

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  She managed gently to disengage one hand. “Were not his health so delicate, I would surely be tempted to try such a tactic. But he is the Satrap, and lord of all Jamaillia. Such an important man must be kept healthy. Do not you agree?”

  In reply, his free hand suddenly swooped around her waist. He pulled her close and bent to kiss her. She closed her eyes and held her breath. She tried to make her mouth move as if she welcomed this, but all she could imagine was how it would end. Suddenly he was the Chalcedean sailor, on one knee between her legs.
She wrenched free of him, gasping, “No. Please, please, no!”

  He stopped immediately. There was perhaps a trace of pity in his amusement. “I suspected as much. You’re a fine little actress. Were we both in Jamaillia, and I a free man and you unscarred, we might make much of you. But we are here, my dear, aboard the Motley. Such a crew as held you must have misused you. Was it very bad?”

  She could not grasp that a man could ask her such a question. “I was threatened, but only threatened,” she managed to say. She looked away from him.

  He did not believe her. “I will not force you. Never fear that. I have no need to force any woman. But I would not mind helping you unlearn your fear. Nor would I hurry you. ” He reached out a hand and traced the line of her jaw. “Your demeanor and manners show that you were gently raised. But both of us are what life has made us. There is no going back to an innocent past. This may seem harsh advice, but it is given from my own experience. You are no longer your father’s virgin daughter saving herself for a well-negotiated marriage. That is gone. So, accept this new life wholeheartedly. Enjoy the pleasures and freedom it offers you in place of your old dreams of a proper marriage and a place in a staid society. Malta the Bingtown Trader’s daughter is gone. Become Malta of the Pirate Isles. You might find it a sweeter life than your old one. ” His fingers moved lightly from the line of her jaw to the hollow of her throat.

  She forced herself to stand quietly as she revealed her last weapon. “The cook told me that you have a wife and three children in Bull Creek. I fear folk would talk. Your wife might be hurt. ”

  “Folk always talk,” he assured her. His fingers toyed with her collar. “My wife pays no mind to it. She says it is the price she pays for having a handsome, clever husband. Put them from your mind, as I do. They have nothing to do with what happens on this ship. ”

  “Don’t they?” she asked him quietly. “And if your daughter was taken by Chalcedean slave raiders, would you approve the same advice for her? To become wholeheartedly what they made her? Would you tell her that her father would never accept her back because she was no longer his ‘virgin daughter’? Would it no longer matter to you how often she was taken, or by whom?” She lifted her chin.

  “Damn you,” he cursed her, but with admiration. Frustration glittered in his eyes but he released her. She stepped back from him with relief. “I will get the names from the Satrap,” she offered him in compensation. “I will be sure he understands that his life depends on how much he can wring from his nobles. He sets great store on his own life. I am sure he will be generous with their coin. ”

  “He had better be. ” Captain Red had recovered some of his aplomb. “To make up for how stingy you are with woman’s coin. ”

  Malta smiled at him, a genuine smile, and allowed a swagger to her walk as she left his chamber. “

  Liveship Traders 3 - Ship of Destiny

  CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR - Trader for the Vestrit Family

  A FIRE OF BEACH WOOD BURNED IN THE HEARTH, ALMOST WARMING THE emptied room. It would take time to drive the chill of winter from the big house. It had stood uninhabited for weeks; it was amazing how swiftly cold and disuse changed a house.

  Housework was comforting. In cleaning and restoring a room, one could assert control. One could even pretend, briefly, that life could be tidied the same way. Keffria stood slowly, and dropped her scrubbing rag back into the bucket. There. She looked around her bedchamber as she massaged her aching hand. The walls had been wiped down with herb water and the floor scrubbed. The damp dust and musty smell were gone…. So was every trace of her former life here. When she had returned to her home, she had found that the bed she had shared with Kyle, their clothing chests and her wardrobe were gone. Drapes and hangings were missing, or slashed to ribbons. She had closed the door and put off worrying about it until the main areas of the house were habitable. Then she had come here alone to attack it. She had no idea how she would refurnish it. Other, deeper considerations had occupied her mind as she did the monotonous drudgery of scrubbing.

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  She sat down on the floor before the fire and looked around the room. Empty, clean and slightly cold. Rather like her life. She leaned back on the mortared stone that defined the hearth. Refilling and restoring the room and her life suddenly seemed like a waste of time. Perhaps it was best to keep both as they were now. Uncluttered. Simple.

  Her mother ducked her head into Keffria’s room. “There you are!” Ronica exclaimed. “Do you know what Selden is doing?”

  “Packing,” Keffria answered. “It won’t take him long. He hasn’t much to pack. ”

  Ronica frowned. “You’re letting him go? Just like that?”

  “It’s what he wants to do,” she replied simply. “And Jani Khuprus has said he would be welcome, and that he can stay with her family. ”

  “What about staying with his own family?” Ronica asked tartly.

  Keffria rolled her eyes wearily at her mother. “Have you talked to him? I did. I’m sure you heard the same things. He is more Rain Wild than Bingtown now, and changing more every day. He has to go to Trehaug. His heart calls him to help the dragon in her quest to save the serpents. ”

  Ronica came into the room, lifting her hems clear of the still-damp floor. It was an old reflex. Her worn gown didn’t merit such care. “Keffria, he’s still a child. He’s far too young to be making these sort of decisions for himself. ”

  “Mother, don’t. I’m letting him go. It has been hard enough to reach this decision without your questioning it,” Keffria repeated softly.

  “Because you think it’s the best thing for him to do?” Ronica was incredulous.

  “Because I don’t have anything better to offer him. ” Keffria stood with a weary sigh. “What remains in Bingtown to keep him here?” She looked around the empty room. “Let’s go down to the kitchen,” she offered. “It’s warmer there. ”

  “But not as private,” her mother countered. “Ekke is down there, cleaning the day’s catch. Fish for dinner. ”

  “What a surprise,” Keffria feigned. She was glad to shift the topic.

  “Monotonous, but far better than nothing for dinner,” her mother countered. She shook her head. “I’d rather talk here. As big as the house is, I still feel crowded at the thought of strangers sharing it with us. I never thought to see the day when we must take in boarders for the sake of the food they share with us. ”

  “I’m sure that they feel just as uncomfortable,” Keffria said. “The Bingtown Council needs to move swiftly at assigning land to the Three Ships families. Ekke and Sparse would start building tomorrow if they were granted a piece of land to call their own. ”

  “It’s the New Traders, still,” Ronica replied, shaking her head. “They slow down all healing. Without slave labor, they cannot possibly work those huge grants of land, but they persist in claiming them. ”

  “I think they merely try to make it the starting place for their bartering,” Keffria replied thoughtfully. “No one else recognizes their claims. Companion Serilla has shown them that the language of the Bingtown Charter forbids such grants as Satrap Cosgo gave them. Now they clamor that Jamaillia must pay them back for the land they have lost, but as the grants were written as ‘gifts,’ Companion Serilla says they are owed nothing. Devouchet lost his temper when they tried to debate that; he shouted at them that if they think Jamaillia owes them money, they should go back to Jamaillia, and argue it there. Still, at every meeting of the Council, the New Traders complain and insist.

  “They will soon have to come to their senses. Spring comes eventually. Without slaves, they cannot plow and plant. Much of the land they took is useless for crops now. They are discovering what we told them all along. The land around Bingtown cannot be cultivated as they farm in Jamaillia or Chalced. For a year or two, it bears well, but once you have broken the clay layer with plows, it just gets swampier year after year. You can’t grow grain in
a bog. ”

  Ronica nodded in agreement. “Some of the New Traders understand that. I’ve heard talk that many of them plan to return to Jamaillia, once travel is less dangerous. I think it would be best for them. They never really put their hearts into Bingtown. Their homes, their titles and ancestral lands, their wives and their legitimate children are all back in Jamaillia. Wealth was what lured them here. Now that they’ve discovered they aren’t going to find it here, they’ll go home. I think they only persist in their claims in the hopes of having something to sell before they depart. ”

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  “And leave us the mess to clean up,” Keffria observed sourly. “I feel sorry for the New Traders’ mistresses and bastards. They’ll probably have to stay in Bingtown. Or go north. I have heard that some of the Tattooed are talking of taking ship to the Six Duchies. It’s a harsh land, almost barbaric, but they feel they could begin anew there, without having to sign agreements. They feel that becoming Rain Wild Traders under Jani’s terms would be too restrictive. ”

  “When all who choose to leave have left, then those who remain will be closer in spirit to the original Bingtown Traders,” Ronica observed. She walked to the naked window and looked out into the evening. “I’ll be glad when it is all settled. When those who remain here are those who chose to be part of Bingtown, then I think we shall heal. But that may take time. Travel is not safe, either to north or south. ” Then she cocked her head at Keffria. “You seem very well-informed about the rumors and news of Bingtown. ”

  Keffria took that as an unvoiced but deserved rebuke. Once, her interests had centered only on her own home and children. “The gossip at the Council meetings is endless. I am out and about more than I used to be. There is less at home to claim my time. Also, Ekke and I talk, when we are cooking dinner. It is the only time she seems completely comfortable with me. ” Keffria paused. Her voice was puzzled as she asked, “Did you know that she is sweet on Grag Tenira? She seems to think he is interested in her as well. I didn’t know what to say to that. ”

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