Ship of destiny, p.60
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       Ship of Destiny, p.60

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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  Her mother smiled almost indulgently. “If Grag is interested in her, I wish them the best. He is a good man, and deserves a good partner. Ekke could be that for him. She is a solid person, blunt but good-hearted, and knowledgeable about the sea and those who sail. Grag could do worse than Ekke Kelter. ”

  “Personally, I had hoped he would do better. ” Keffria poked at the fire. “I hoped that Althea would come home, come to her senses and marry him. ”

  Ronica’s face went grave. “At this point, my sole hope for Althea is that she does come home. ” She came over to the fire, then sat down suddenly on the hearthstones. “It is my prayer for all of them. Come home, however you can. Just come home. ”

  For a long time, there was a silence in the room. Then Keffria asked in a low voice, “Even Kyle, Mother? Are you hoping he will come home?”

  Ronica turned her head slightly and met her daughter’s eyes consideringly. Then, in a heartfelt voice, she said, “If that is what you are hoping, then I hope it for you also. ”

  Keffria closed her eyes for a time. She spoke from that private darkness. “But you think I should declare myself a sea widow, mourn him and then go on. ”

  “You could, if you chose,” Ronica said without inflection. “He has been missing long enough. No one would fault you for it. ”

  Keffria fought the rising misery that threatened to engulf her. She dared not give in to it, or she would go mad. “I don’t know what I hope, Mother. I just wish I knew something. Are they alive or dead, any of them? It would almost be a relief to hear Kyle was dead. Then I could mourn Tor the good things we had, and let go of the bad things. If he comes home… then I don’t know what. I feel too much.

  “When I married him, it was because he was so commanding. I was so sure he would take care of me. I’d seen how hard you had to work while Father was gone at sea. I didn’t want that sort of life for myself. ” She looked at her mother and shook her head. “I’m sorry if that hurts your feelings. ”

  “It doesn’t,” Ronica said shortly, but Keffria knew she lied.

  “But, when Father died, and everything changed, somehow I found myself living your life anyway. ” Keffria smiled grimly. “So many details, so many tasks to be done, until I felt there was no time left for myself at all. The odd part is, now that I’ve taken up the reins, I don’t think I can put them down again. Even if Kyle appeared on the doorstep tomorrow and said, ‘Don’t worry, dear, I’ll take care of it all,’ I don’t think I could let him. Because I know too much now. ”

  She shook her head. “One of the things I know now is that I’m better at these things than he would be. I began to discover that when I had to deal with our creditors myself. I could see why you had set things up as you had, and it made sense to me. But I also knew that Kyle would not like patiently working the family out of this a bit at a time. And…” She swung her eyes to her mother. “Do you hear how I am now? I don’t want to have these burdens. But I can’t bear to turn them over to anyone else, either. Because, despite all the work, I like being in control of my own life. ”

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  “With the right man, you can share that control,” Ronica offered.

  Keffria felt her smile go crooked. “But Kyle isn’t the right man for that. And we both know that now. ” She drew a deep breath. “If he came back now, I wouldn’t let him have the family vote on the Traders’ Council. Because I know more about Bingtown and can vote more wisely. But Kyle would hate that. I think that, alone, would be enough to drive him away. ”

  “Kyle would hate that you had to control your own vote? That you had to be able to take care of yourself while he was gone?”

  Keffria paused a moment before she answered. She forced the truth out. “He would hate that I was good at it, Mother. But I am. And I like being good at it. It’s one reason I feel I should let Selden go. Because, in his short years, he has shown me that he is better at taking care of himself than I am. I could keep him here, safe by me. But it would be a lot like Kyle keeping me in hand. ”

  A light tap at the door made both of them startle. Rache peered around the corner.

  “Jani Khuprus is here. She says she has come for Selden. ”

  Rache had changed in small ways since the upheavals in Bingtown. She still lived with them, and took on the duties of a house servant. But she also spoke openly of where she hoped she would get her piece of land, and what type of a house she would build when the final agreement was settled. Now when she spoke of Jani coming for Selden, her disapproval was more obvious in her voice than it would have been months ago. Keffria didn’t resent it. The woman had cared for her children, and in doing so, had come to genuinely care about them. Rache had been overjoyed at Selden’s return from the Rain Wilds. She hated to give him up again.

  “I’ll come down,” Keffria replied immediately. “You should come, too, if you wish to say good-bye to him. ”

  JANI STUDIED THE ROOM AS SHE WAITED NERVOUSLY FOR KEFFRIA. IT HAD changed from the happy days when Reyn had been here courting Malta. The room was clean but the furniture had obviously been scavenged from throughout the house. There were chairs to sit on and a somewhat wobbly table. But there were no books, no tapestries, no rugs nor any of the small domestic touches that finished a room. Her heart bled for the Vestrits. Their home had been taken from them; only the walls remained.

  True, she herself had seen the collapse of the buried city that was the source of the Rain Wilds’ and, indirectly, Bingtown’s wealth. Trehaug faced lean times ahead. But her home had weathered the storm. She had resources to draw on. Her pictures, her embroidered linens, her jewelry, her wardrobe of clothing awaited her safely at home. She had not been left near-destitute as the Vestrits had. It made her feel all the more selfish that she had come to take away the final vestige of the family’s true wealth. Their last son would go with her tonight. It had not been put into words between them, but the truth was writ large on Selden’s scaled face. He was Rain Wild now. It was not Jani’s doing; she would never have sought to steal a son, let alone the last of their line. It did not make her feel any less greedy that she cherished the thought of taking the boy with her. Another child for her household was a treasure beyond compare. She wished she did not have to gain it as her friends’ loss.

  The whisper of their sandals preceded them. First Keffria, then Ronica and finally Rache entered the room. Selden was not with them. That was as well. Jani preferred to make her proposal to Keffria before she had to say goodbye to her son. It would not seem so much like a trade. As she exchanged greetings with them, she noted that Ronica’s hand seemed frailer in hers, and that Keffria was more grave and reserved. Well, that was natural enough.

  “Would you care for a cup of tea?” Keffria asked in the courtesy of a bygone day. Then, with a nervous laugh, she turned to Rache. “That is, if we have any tea, or anything close to it?”

  The serving woman smiled. “I am sure I can find some sort of leaves to steep. ”

  “I would love a cup of anything warm,” Jani replied. “The cold outside bites to my bones. Why must so harsh a winter descend in our most difficult time?”

  They commiserated on that for a bit. Then Ronica rescued them from pointless pleasantries as Rache reappeared with the tea. “Well, let us stop being as nervous as if we do not well know why Jani is here. She has come to take Selden to the Rain Wilds when the Kendry sails tonight. I know Keffria has agreed to this, and it is what Selden wants. But…”

  And there Ronica’s courage failed her. Her voice went tight on her closing words, “But I do hate to lose Selden…. ”

  “I wish you did not feel that way,” Jani offered. “That you are losing him, I mean. He comes with me now, for a time, because he genuinely believes he has a duty to help us in our preliminary work. Certainly, the Rain Wilds have marked him as their own. But that does not mean he is no longer a Vestrit. And in days to come, I hope for a time when Rain Wilds and Bingtown will
mingle freely and often. ”

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  That brought little response. “Selden is not the only reason I am here,” she added abruptly. “I also bring two offers. One from the Rain Wild Council. One from myself. ”

  Before she could go on, Selden opened the door. “I’m ready,” he announced with undisguised satisfaction. He came into the room dragging a lumpy canvas sack behind him and looked around at the gathered women. “Why is everyone so quiet?” he demanded. Firelight danced on his scaled cheekbones.

  No one replied.

  Jani settled herself in her chair and accepted the cup of tea that Rache poured for her. She sipped at it, seizing the moment to organize her thoughts. It tasted of wintermint, with a tang of niproot in it. “This is actually quite delicious,” she complimented them sincerely as she set the cup down. Her eyes traveled over the waiting faces. Keffria held her tea but had not sipped it. Ronica had not even picked her cup up. Jani suddenly knew what was missing. She cleared her throat.

  “I, Jani Khuprus, of the Khuprus Family of the Rain Wild Traders, accept your hospitality of home and table. I recall all our most ancient pledges to one another, Rain Wilds to Bingtown. ” As she spoke the old, formal words, she was surprised to feel tears brim in her eyes. Yes. This was right. She saw an answering sentiment in the faces of the Bingtown women.

  As if it were a thing rehearsed, Ronica and Keffria spoke together. “We, Ronica and Keffria Vestrit, of the Vestrit Family of the Bingtown Traders, make you welcome to our table and our home. We recall all our most ancient pledges to one another, Bingtown to Rain Wilds. ”

  Keffria surprised them all when she spoke on alone. “And also our private agreement regarding the liveship Vivacia, the product of both our families, and our hope that our families shall be joined in the marriage of Malta Vestrit and Reyn Khuprus. ” She took a deep breath. Her voice shook only slightly. “In sign of the link between our families, I offer to you my youngest son, Selden Vestrit, to be fostered with the Khuprus family of the Rain Wilds. I charge you to teach him well the ways of our folk. ”

  Yes. This was right. Let it all be formalized. Selden suddenly stood taller.

  He let go of his sack and came forward. He took his mother’s hand and looked up at her. “Do I say anything?” he asked gravely.

  Jani held out her hand. “I, Jani Khuprus of the Khuprus family of the Rain Wilds, do welcome Selden Vestrit to be fostered with our family, and taught the ways of our folk. He will be cherished as one of our own. If he so wills it. ”

  Selden did not let go of his mother’s hand. How wise the boy already was! He instead set his free hand into Jani’s. He cleared his throat. “I, Selden Vestrit of the Vestrit family, do will that I be fostered with the Khuprus family of the Rain Wilds. ” He looked at his mother as he added, “I will do my best to learn all that is taught me.

  “There. That’s done,” he added.

  “That’s done,” his mother agreed softly. Jani glanced down at the rough little hand she held. It had already begun to scale around the nail beds. He would change swiftly. It was truly for the best that he went to the Rain Wilds where such things were accepted. For an instant, she wondered what her young daughter Kys would think of him. He was only a few years older than she was. Such a match would not be unthinkable. Then she set aside the selfish thought. She lifted her eyes to meet Keffria’s bleak stare.

  “You can come also, if you wish. And you, Ronica. That is my offer to you. Come up the river to Trehaug. I do not promise you that times are easier there, but you would be welcome in my home. I know you wait for news of Malta. I, too, await the dragon’s return. We could wait together. ”

  Keffria shook her head slowly. “I have spent too much of my life waiting, Jani. I won’t do that anymore. The Bingtown Council must be pushed into action, and I am one of those who must push. I can’t wait for ‘them’ to settle Bingtown’s unrest. I have to insist, daily, that all complaints be considered. ” She looked at her son. “I’m sorry, Selden. ”

  He gave her a puzzled look. “Sorry that you will do what you must do? Mother, it is your own example I follow. I go to Trehaug for the same reason. ” He managed a smile for her. “You let me go. And I let you go. Because we are Traders. ”

  There was a sudden loosening in Keffria’s face, as if an unforgivable sin had been expunged from her soul. She heaved a great sigh. “Thank you, Selden. ”

  “I, too, must stay,” Ronica said into the quiet. “For while Keffria is being the Trader for the Vestrit family, I must look after the rest of our interests. It is not just our home that was raided and vandalized. We have other holdings as well, similarly troubled. If we are not to lose them all, then I must act now, to hire workers who will labor for a share of next year’s crop. Spring will come again. Vineyards and orchards will put forth new leaves. Despite all our other troubles, those things must be anticipated. ”

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  Jani shook her head with a small smile. “So I expected you to answer. Indeed, so the Rain Wild Council told me you would, when I told them of my plans. ”

  Keffria frowned. “Why would the Rain Wild Council have an interest in how we answered?”

  Jani would keep it to herself that the Council had been as anxious as she to lay claim to Selden Vestrit. Instead, she told the rest of the truth. “They were anxious to avail themselves of your services, Keffria Vestrit. But for you to be effective, you would have to remain here in Bingtown. ”

  “My services?” Keffria was obviously astounded. “What services can I perform for them?”

  “You may have forgotten or dismissed the last time you spoke to the Rain Wild Council. They have not. You were quite inspiring in your offer to risk yourself in the service of the Traders. As it was, the situation changed so swiftly that your sacrifice was not necessary. But the fact that you were willing to offer, as well as your clear grasp of the situation, left a deep impression on the Council. With all the changes now in the wind, the Rain Wild Council needs an official voice in Bingtown. When Traders such as Pols, Kewin and Lorek can all agree that you are the best choice to represent us, you must realize that you left a very favorable impression. ”

  A faint pink rose in Keffria’s cheeks. “But the Rain Wild Traders have always been free to speak in the Bingtown Council, just as any Bingtown Trader can claim the right to speak in the Rain Wilds. You do not need me as a representative. ”

  “We disagree. Changes are raining down swiftly; our communities will need to cooperate even more closely than we have in the past. Message birds can only fly so swiftly. Liveship traffic on the Rain Wild River has been reduced in these dangerous times, as all our ships patrol against Chalcedean vessels. Yet more than ever, we need a voice sympathetic to Rain Wild concerns here in Bingtown. We see you as the ideal choice. Your family is already strongly linked to the Rain Wilds. While we would ask you to seek our advice when you could, we would also trust you to speak out when an immediate voice was needed. ”

  “But why not one of your own, here in Bingtown?” Keffria hesitated.

  “Because, just as you and your mother have told me, they need to remain close to their homes in this troubled time. Besides, in many ways, you are now one of our own. ”

  “It would be perfect, Mother,” Selden suddenly interjected. “For the dragon will need your voice here as well. You could help to make Bingtown see the necessity of aiding her, beyond any ‘agreement’ we have signed. ”

  Jani looked at him in surprise. Even in the well-lit room, she could see Selden’s eyes literally glowing with his enthusiasm. “But Selden, there may be times when the dragon’s interests are different from the Rain Wilds’ or Bingtown’s,” she cautioned him gently.

  “Oh, no,” he assured her. “I know it is hard for you to believe that I know these things. But what I know goes beyond who I am, and back to another time. I have dreamed the city that Tintaglia spoke of, and it is g
rand beyond imagination. Compared to Cassarick, Frengong was humble. ”

  “Cassarick? Frengong?” Jani asked in confusion.

  “Frengong is the Elderling name for the city buried beneath Trehaug. Cassarick is the city you will excavate for Tintaglia. There, you will find halls built to a dragon’s scale of grandeur. In the Star Chamber, you will discover a floor set with what you call flame jewels, in a mirror of the night sky on Springeve. There is a labyrinth with crystal walls, tuned to mirror the dreams of the ones who dare it; to walk its maze is to confront your own soul. Time’s Rainbow, they called it amongst themselves, for each person who completed it seemed to do so by a different route. Wonders are buried there and may be brought back to light…. ” Selden’s voice trailed away in rapture. He stood breathing deeply in silence, his eyes looking afar. The adults exchanged looks over his head. Then he spoke again, suddenly. “The wealth the dragons will bring to us all will surpass mere coin. It will be a reawakening of the world. Humanity has become a lonely race, and dangerously arrogant in our solitude. The return of the dragons will restore balance to our intellect and to our ambitions. ” He laughed aloud suddenly. “Not that they are perfect beings, oh, no. That is our value to one another. Each race presents to the other a mirror of presumption and vanity. In seeing another creature’s rash posturing of control and superiority in the world, we will realize how ridiculous our own claims are. ”

  Silence followed his words. The thoughts he had thrown out so casually echoed through Jani’s mind. His voice, his words had not the cadence or vocabulary of a child’s. Was this the dragons’ doing? What had they released back into the world?

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  “You have doubts now,” Selden spoke to her silent qualms. “But you will see. The welfare of the dragon is in the best interests of the Rain Wilds, as well. ”

  “Well,” Jani replied at last. “In that, perhaps, we shall have to trust to your mother’s judgment, as she represents us. ”

  “This is a weighty responsibility,” Keffria wavered.

  “We are well aware of that,” Jani replied smoothly. “And such a task should not be undertaken without recompense. ” She hesitated. “At the beginning, we would be hard pressed to pay you in coin. Until trade with the outside world is restored, I fear we must go back to bartering. ” She glanced about the room. “Household goods we have in plenty. Do you think we could work out a suitable exchange?”


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