The mad ship, p.64
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       The Mad Ship, p.64

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  And interesting, too, to be left in the company of such a mysterious and scandalous figure as the foreign bead-maker.

  “Behave yourself, Malta,” Keffria cautioned her daughter worriedly, but she allowed Althea to lead her away with Grandmother. As soon as they had left the deck, Malta focused her attention on Amber. She put a social smile on her face and extended a hand toward the woman.

  “Best wishes for your voyage, Mistress Amber. ”

  The woman looked coolly amused. “Thank you, Mistress Haven. ” She merely inclined her head, but it was as courtly as a bow. She touched Malta's hand briefly with the tips of her gloved fingers. It sent a little shiver up Malta's arm. The woman was so strange. Amber shifted her eyes to stare out over the sea. Malta wondered if it were an attempt to end the conversation. She refused to let it die.

  “It seems you have good weather for an auspicious start. ”

  “Yes. It does indeed. ” Amber's voice was polite.

  “And the ship seems to be in excellent condition. ”

  “I would venture to agree with that, also. ”

  “The crew seems fit and ready. ”

  “Captain Trell has trained them as thoroughly as time has permitted. ”

  “Indeed, it seems that all aspects are favorable for this voyage. ” Malta suddenly tired of the game. “Do you think there is any chance you'll succeed?” she asked bluntly. She needed to know. Was this all a fanciful exercise, a show of caring by her family, or was there truly a chance they might rescue her father?

  “There is always a chance of anything happening,” Amber replied. Her voice was suddenly serious. She turned back to face her. The intensity of her sympathy burned Malta. “And when anyone takes action to attempt to make something happen, that something becomes more likely. Many folk have taken actions to try to rescue your family's ship and your father and brother, Malta. ” When Amber spoke her name, Malta had no choice but to meet her eyes. They were strange eyes, and it was not just the color. Somehow, that did not matter. She could feel the other woman's words reach for her. “We have no other focus than rescuing them. I cannot promise you that we will succeed, but we shall sincerely try. ”

  “I don't know if your words make me feel better or worse. ”

  “What I want to tell you is that you have done all that you can. Be content with it. You have a wild young heart; right now, it is like a caged bird that batters itself against the bars. To struggle harder will only hurt you more. Wait. Be patient. Your time will come to fly. And when it does, you must be strong, not bloodied and weary. ” Amber's eyes went suddenly wider. “Beware of one who would claim your wings for her own. Beware of one who would make you doubt your own strength. Your discontent is founded in your destiny, Malta. A small life will never satisfy you. ”

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  Malta crossed her arms on her chest, and actually took a step back. She shook her head. “You sound like a fortune-teller,” she said. The laugh that came from her lips cracked in the summer air. “How you have made my heart beat!” She tried to laugh again, to dismiss the moment as a foreigner's social gaffe.

  “Sometimes I do,” Amber admitted. It was her turn to look away from Malta. The woman looked uncomfortable. “Sometimes I am. But a fortune-teller is not a fortune-maker. We all make our own fortunes. ”

  “And how is that?” Malta felt as if she had somehow taken the upper hand in the conversation. When Amber turned back to meet her eyes, that feeling vanished.

  “You earn your future, Malta Vestrit. ” The bead-maker cocked her head at her. “What does tomorrow owe you?”

  “Tomorrow owes me?” Malta repeated in confusion.

  “Tomorrow owes you the sum of your yesterdays. No more than that. ” Amber looked out to sea again. “And no less. Sometimes folk wish tomorrow did not pay them off so completely. ”

  Malta suddenly felt she must change the subject. She advanced to the railing and leaned on it to peer down at Paragon. “Our ship looks very handsome today!” she complimented him recklessly. “You absolutely gleam, Paragon. How excited you must be!”

  As sudden as a snake striking, the ship twisted his head to look up at her. That was the chilling part. The wrecked space between his brow and nose froze her with its shattered glance. The coloring of the rest of his face was so natural, but the chopped place was silvered and splintered wood. Her tongue clove to the roof of her mouth. She gripped the railing to keep from falling. Paragon's mouth parted in a wide, white smile. It was the rictus of madness.

  “Too late for her,” he whispered. Malta did not know if he spoke to her or about her. “Too late for her. Wide wings hang above her. She crouches like a mouse in the owl's falling shadow. Her little heart beats to bursting. See how she trembles. But it is too late. Too late. She sees her. Knows me as well!” He threw back his head. The laughter roared from him. “I was a king!” He was incredulous in his triumph. “I was lord of the three dominions. But you have made me this. A shell, a toy, a slave!”

  Perhaps lightning struck her from the still blue sky. She fell into a roaring black gulf. She tumbled, soundless, through endless black space. Then from nowhere, a flash of gold appeared. It was too large a shape for her to see it all. In an instant, it loomed too close to her to be seen. Great talons seized her, wrapping around her chest and waist. They squeezed the air from her. She clawed at them, but they were armored in scales like metal. She could not pry them loose to let herself breathe. Nor did she want to fall to her death if they let go of her. Choose a death, a dragon whispered. That's all you have left, pretty little one. . The choice of your death.

  No! She is mine, mine! Let her go!

  Prey belongs to he who seizes it first!

  You are dead. I have still a chance at life. I will not see it snatched from me!

  Iridescent silver clashed suddenly with gold. Mountains collided and fought for possession of her. The talons clenched, cutting her in two. I shall kill her before I let you take her!

  Malta had no breath to cry out. There was almost nothing left of her at all. These two were so immense; there was no room for her to exist in their world. She was going to blink out like a dying spark.

  Someone spoke for her. “Malta is real. Malta exists. Malta is here. ” As if she were being wound up like a ball of yarn, the layers of herself were gradually restored to her. Someone held her against the maelstrom of forces that tried to shred her apart. It was like being cupped in warm hands. She curled tighter into herself, holding on. Finally, she spoke for herself.

  “I am Malta. ”

  OF COURSE YOU ARE, KEFFRIA SPOKE THE WORDS COMFORTINGLY, TRYING to stay calm despite her panic. Her daughter was pale as death. The slits of her eyes showed only white. When they had heard the commotion on deck and hastened back up, she had never suspected it would be Malta. She had collapsed, and lay half in the bead-woman's arms, her head supported by one of the woman's hands. The entire ship had been rocking. The figurehead was doing it, his head bent into his hands as he wept. “I'm sorry, I'm sorry,” he sniveled over and over. “Be quiet,” Keffria heard Amber tell him irritably. “You did nothing. Just be quiet. ” Then, as they had burst through the circle of staring sailors, Keffria saw Amber look up and speak directly to Althea.

  “Help me get her off the ship. Right now. ”

  Something in the foreigner's voice brooked no argument. Althea stooped and actually lifted her niece bodily, but then Brashen was there, taking her into his own arms. Keffria had a glimpse of Amber's disfigured hands before the woman gloved them hastily. She glanced up to meet Keffria's stare. The look in the bead woman's eyes chilled her to the bone.

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  “What happened to my daughter?” Keffria had demanded.

  “I don't know. You should go to her. ”

  The first was obviously a lie, the second a plain truth. Keffria hastened after her daughter as Amber turned back to the figure
head and spoke to him in a low, intense voice. The ship quieted abruptly and the rocking eased. Then Selden began to cry. The boy wept at everything. It was not right for a boy to be so highly strung, and how could she be thinking of something like that at this moment? “Shush, Selden. Come with me,” she snapped at him. Her son followed her, wailing. When she reached the dock, she found that Brashen had spread out his coat and lay Malta down upon it. Ronica took over Selden, patting and shushing him. Keffria sank down beside her daughter. This was terrible, an awful omen for the launch of the ship, and so improper for Malta to be stretched out unconscious like this in front of every passerby. Then she moaned and began to mutter, “I am Malta, I am Malta. ”

  “Yes. You are Malta,” she assured her daughter. “You're here and you're safe, Malta. ”

  As if those words were a magic charm, the girl suddenly opened her eyes. She looked around dazedly, then gasped. “Oh, help me up!” she begged her mother.

  “Rest a moment longer,” Brashen counseled her, but Malta had already seized her mother's arm and was pulling herself upright. She rubbed at the back of her neck, winced, and then rubbed her eyes.

  “What happened?” she demanded.

  “You fainted,” Amber told her. She had appeared suddenly at the edge of the group. Now she pushed closer to Malta and their eyes met. “That is all. I suspect the light on the water dazzled you. That can happen, you know, if you stare at the sea too long. ”

  “I fainted,” Malta agreed. She lifted a hand to pat nervously at her throat and gave a giddy little laugh. “How silly of me!”

  Her words and gestures were so contrived that Keffria could not believe that anyone could accept them. But Davad bustled up, to add, “The excitement of the day, no doubt. And we all know how Malta has pined for her father. No doubt this launch of his rescue has overwrought the poor child. ”

  Malta glared at him. “No doubt,” she said in a venomous little voice. Even thick-skinned Davad seemed to feel the barb. He recoiled a bit, and looked at her oddly.

  “I fainted,” Malta repeated. “Dear me. I hope I have not delayed the sailing. ”

  “Not by much. But you are right, we must be on our way. ” Brashen turned away from her, but before he could shout an order, Trader Ashe stepped up to him.

  “Let your men save their backs. I'll have the boats from Sea Rover give you a tow out. ”

  “Leave room for one from Winsome,” Trader Larfa brayed. In a moment, half a dozen other liveship owners had offered assistance. Keffria stood, wondering if this was a belated show of good will, or simply a sign of how eager they were to have Paragon out of the harbor. There had been rumors that some of the other liveships found him unsettling, but no one had been crass enough to challenge his right to dock there.

  “Gentlemen, I give you my thanks,” Brashen had replied in such a wry voice that Keffria was certain he wondered the same things.

  They did not re-board the vessel, but said their good-byes right there. Mother was more emotional than Keffria had expected her to be. Over and over, she cautioned Althea to be careful and come home safely. Althea scowled when Brashen promised to do all he could to watch over her. As she embraced her sister in their own good-bye, Keffria could only wish that things had been different between them. Her heart was so full of conflicting emotions that she could barely wish her farewell.

  It was even more disturbing to turn from that and see Amber holding one of Malta's hands in her two gloved ones. “Take good care of yourself,” the foreigner was saying to her. Her gaze was far too intense.

  “I will,” Malta had promised her. They spoke almost as if Malta were the one sailing off into the unknown. Keffria watched Amber turn away from her daughter and re-board the ship. A moment later, the bead woman reappeared on the foredeck by the figurehead. She leaned down and said something to him. The carved figure dropped his hands away from his face. He brought his head up, took in a breath that swelled his chest, and then crossed his arms on his chest tightly. His jaw set into lines of stark determination.

  The lines were cast off, the final farewells and good wishes exchanged. The crews of the small rowing vessels bent to their oars and began to draw Paragon away from the dock and out into the waters of the harbor. Althea and Brashen joined Amber on the foredeck. Each in turn bent to speak to Paragon, but if he acknowledged them in any way, Keffria could not see it. She glanced away from the spectacle and found Malta staring raptly at the ship. She could not decide if her daughter's expression was one of terror or love. Nor, she frowned to herself, could she tell if she stared at the figurehead or Amber.

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  Malta gasped and Keffria immediately looked out to the ship again. The small boats were catching back the lines thrown to them. Brashen was waving his thanks as the sails began to blossom on the ship's rigging. Despite the men scampering about frantically, it was a truly graceful sight. As Keffria watched, the figurehead suddenly threw wide his arms as if to embrace the horizon. He shouted and a trick of the wind carried the words to them. “I fly again!” It was a triumphant challenge to the world. Paragon's sails swelled with wind and he began to move under his own power. From his deck, a faint cheer rang out. Tears pricked Keffria's eyes.

  “May Sa speed you,” Malta whispered.

  Keffria heard her daughter's voice break on the words. “May Sa speed you, and bring you safely home again,” she herself said aloud. The breeze seemed to blow her prayer away.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE - Bingtown Convergence

  THE FLEET THAT ACCOMPANIED THEM HAD GROWN. SERILLA THOUGHT IT would be very interesting to discover how it had been arranged for the other ships to join them en route. How long had all this been in the planning? Did anyone in Jamaillia know this show of force accompanied the Satrap as he descended upon Bingtown? She was now almost sure that the Satrap would be sacrificed to justify a Chalcedean attack on Bingtown. She clutched that morsel of knowledge to herself as if it were a gold nugget. To warn the Old Traders might be her surest way of buying their trust of her. If she had any loyalties left, they now belonged to the wondrous place she had studied for years. She lifted her eyes and stared through the night. On the horizon was a very faint glow: the lights of the Night Market rose into the starlit sky. By morning, they would arrive in Bingtown.

  A sailor came to stand at her shoulder. “Satrap call for you. Want to come out, too. ” He clipped the words curiously with his foreign tongue.

  “He can't. His health is much too delicate. But I shall go to him now. ”

  She would have ignored his summons, except that the Chalcedean captain might hear of it. Despite her newfound strength, she still did not dare to cross him. She had encountered him twice since he had returned her to the Satrap. It shamed her that she had been unable to look at him. The first time she had turned a corner in the corridor and run into him, she had nearly wet herself with terror. He had laughed aloud as she had scuttled away from him. It was incomprehensible that she could so fear another human being. Sometimes, when she was alone, she tried to work up a fury toward him or hatred. It was useless. The captain had steeped her in terror. She could feel nothing else about him. The thought of him hastened her footsteps as she returned to the Satrap's chamber.

  She ignored the Chalcedean on duty at the door. She entered a chamber that was clean and uncluttered. The fresh ocean air swept through the room from the open window. She nodded to herself with satisfaction. The servants had left her evening repast on the table, and lit the candelabra for her. There was a platter of sliced meat, and a pudding of steamed fruit and several flats of unleavened bread to accompany it. A bottle of red wine and a single goblet awaited her. Simple foods, she thought with satisfaction, prepared to her command. She was taking no chances with herself. Whatever had sickened the rest of the Satrap's company had not touched the Chalcedean captain or crew. She doubted poison, only because she could not see how anyone would profit from it. She suspected one of
the more elaborate delicacies the Satrap had brought with him. Perhaps the pickled eggs and walnuts, or the fat pork pastries had gone bad.

  On a smaller tray was the Satrap's meal. There was a bowl of bread soaked in hot water, and a smaller dish of steamed onions and turnips mashed together. As a treat, she would allow him some watered wine. Perhaps she would even shred some meat for him. She had stopped seasoning his food with emetics two days ago. It would not do to have him too weak when he arrived in Bingtown. She smiled, pleased with herself, and sat down to her meal. He should rally briefly before he died. As she transferred a slice of meat to her plate, she heard the Satrap stir in his bedding.

  “Serilla?” he whispered. “Serilla, are you here?” She had closed the drapes around his bed. She considered not answering him. He was so weak now that to sit up and part his own curtains would require a substantial effort. She decided to be kind. “I'm here, Magnadon. I'm preparing some food for you. ”

  “Oh. That's good. ” He fell silent.

  She ate at her leisure. She had trained him to be patient. The servants were barred from his chamber, save once a day when they came in to tidy under her particular supervision. She allowed him no other visitors. His health was far too delicate, she told him. It had not taken much effort to inflate his fears of death to a stultifying level. A substantial number of his party had died from this illness. Even Serilla had been appalled at the toll it had taken. She believed she was quite safe from whatever it had been. But she had filled the Satrap's head with the idea that the disease still ran rampant on the ship.

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  It had not been hard. The more she restricted his food and dosed him with poppy syrup, the more tractable he became. When his eyes were wide and wandering whatever she told him became his truth. When she had first taken over caring for him, the others had been too ill to visit him, let alone intervene. Since they had recovered, she had successfully turned them back at the door. It was the Satrap's order that he not be disturbed. Serilla had had the spacious chamber to herself, save for the bed the Satrap occupied. She had been quite comfortable.

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