The mad ship, p.65
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       The Mad Ship, p.65

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  When she had finished eating, and had enjoyed a glass of wine, she carried the Satrap's tray to his bedside. She swept back the bed curtains and regarded him critically. Perhaps, she thought, she had gone too far. His skin was pallid, his face almost skeletal from lack of flesh. The bony hands that rested atop the coverlet twitched from time to time. That was nothing new; his indulgence in pleasure drugs had done that to him years ago. It was only their feebleness that made them look like dying spiders, she decided.

  She sat down gently on the edge of the bed and set the tray on a low table. She smiled as she gently pushed back his hair. “You're looking so much better,” she told him. She patted his hand reassuringly. “Shall we get some food into you?”

  “Please,” he said. He smiled up at her fondly. He was convinced she was the only one who had stood by him, the only one he could rely on. She winced from his foul breath when he opened his mouth for the spoon. He had complained yesterday that some of his teeth felt loose. Well, he would probably recover swiftly enough. Or not. He just had to live long enough to get her ashore in Bingtown and ingratiated with the Traders. She did not want him to be so strong that he could contradict her account. Anything unfortunate that he said she intended to attribute to his wandering mind.

  A bit of food dribbled from his mouth. She slipped an arm around his shoulders and helped him to sit up. “Isn't that good?” she cooed to him as she spooned up some of the soggy bread. “And tomorrow we'll be in Bingtown. Won't that be nice?”

  RONICA VESTRIT COULD NOT RECALL THE LAST TIME THE GREAT BELL HAD rung to summon an emergency gathering of the Traders. Dawn was barely gray in the sky above the Traders' Concourse. Ronica and her family had hastened down the hill from their home on foot, only to be picked up by Trader Shuyev's coach on its way to the meeting. Folk milled about in front of the hall, calling to one another. Who had rung the bell? Why were they summoned? Some of the Traders who were arriving were in their morning robes, summer cloaks flung hastily about their shoulders. Others were red-eyed from lack of sleep and still wearing evening dress. All had come hastening as soon as the bell had clanged out its dire warning. Many carried weapons or had swords strapped to their sides. Children clung to their parents; young boys tried desperately to look brave, but many faces showed the tracks of panicky tears. The diverse crowd of worried folk looked incongruous amongst the planters full of blooming flowers and the garlanded arches and beribboned stairs of the Concourse. The festive decorations on the hall in preparation for the Summer Ball almost seemed mocking.

  “It's the Blood Plague,” someone declared on the edge of the crowd. “The Blood Plague has come to Bingtown again. That's all it could be. ”

  Ronica heard the rumor picked up and boosted along through the gathering. The muttering began to rise to a panicky roar. Then from the steps, Trader Larfa bellowed for attention. He was the owner of the liveship Winsome, a man usually steady to the point of dullness. This morning his cheeks were glowing red with excitement. His hair stood up in wild tufts on his head. “I rang the bell!” he proclaimed. “Listen to me, all of you! There isn't time to enter the hall and convene properly. I've already passed the word to every liveship in the harbor, and they've gone out to face them. Invaders! Chalcedean war galleys. My boy saw them at first light and came to wake me up. I sent him to the West Wall to rouse the other liveships. I don't know how many galleys are out there, but it's more than ten. They mean business. ”

  “Are you sure?”

  “How many?”

  “How many liveships went out? Can they hold them back?”

  The questions peppered him. He shook his fists at the crowd in frustration. “I don't know. I've told you all I know. There's a fleet of Chalcedean warships coming into Bingtown Harbor. If you've got a ship, man it and get it out there. We need to slow them down. Everyone else, bring weapons and buckets and come down to the harbor. Chalcedeans use fire. If they manage to get off their ships, they'll try to burn the town. ”

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  “What about our children?” a woman cried from the back of the crowd.

  “If they're old enough to tote a bucket, bring them with you. Leave the smallest ones here with the old and crippled. They'll have to look after each other. Come on. ”

  Little Selden stood beside her in the crowd. Ronica looked down at him. Tears were rolling down his cheeks. His eyes were huge. “Go into the Concourse, Selden,” Keffria told him in a falsely cheerful voice. “We'll be back for you soon. ”

  “Shan't!” he declared in a brittle little voice. “I'm big enough to carry a bucket. ” He choked back a frightened sob and crossed his arms defiantly on his chest.

  “Malta will be with you,” Keffria offered desperately. “She can help take care of the babies and old people. ”

  “I'd rather carry a bucket,” Malta declared sourly as she took Selden's hand in hers. For a moment she looked and sounded almost like Althea. “We're not going to hide here and wonder what is going on. Come on, Selden. Let's go. ”

  At the top of the Concourse steps, Trader Larfa was still shouting directions. “You. Porfro. Get word to the Three Ships families. Someone take word to the New Traders' Council. ”

  “As if they would care! Let them watch out for themselves!” someone shouted back angrily.

  “It's their fault we have Chalcedeans in the harbor in the first place,” someone added.

  “There's no time for that now. We need to defend the city!” Larfa argued. “Bingtown is what counts, not when we got here!”

  “Bingtown!” someone shouted. Others took up the cry. “Bingtown! To Bingtown!”

  Wagons and carriages were already rattling out of the courtyard, headed down into the city proper. Ronica overheard someone arranging riders to take word to the outlying farms and settlements. There was no time to go home and change into different clothes, no time to wonder about missed breakfasts or shoes that were more sensible. She saw a woman and her grown daughter matter-of-factly tearing their voluminous skirts from their gowns. They discarded the hobbling fabric and in their long cotton pantaloons followed the men of their family.

  Ronica seized Keffria's hand, counting on the children to follow. “Room for us?” she shouted to a passing cart. The driver halted it without a word. They piled into it, heedless of the crowding. Three young men leaped in after them. One wore a pitted sword at his hip. They were all grinning like maniacs. Their eyes were bright, their movements swift and powerful like young bulls ready to challenge one another. They smiled wide at Malta, who glanced at them and looked aside. The cart started with a jolt and Ronica seized hold of the edge. They began the trip down to Bingtown.

  At one place in the road, the trees parted and Ronica had a brief glimpse of the harbor. The liveships were drawn up in the mouth of it. Men clustered on their decks, milling and pointing. Out beyond them, she saw the tall mast of a ship. The many-oared galleys of the Chalcedeans surrounded it like foul, scuttling bugs.

  “They were flying the Jamaillian standard!” one young man in their cart cried out as they lost sight of the harbor.

  “Don't mean a thing,” another one sneered. “The cowardly buggers just want to get in close before they attack. There's no other reason for that many ships to be heading into our harbor. ”

  Ronica agreed. She saw a sickly smile blossom on Malta's face. She leaned close to the white-faced girl. “Are you all right?” she asked her quietly. She feared her granddaughter was about to faint.

  Malta laughed, a thin, near-hysterical sound. “It's so stupid. All this week, I've been sewing on my dress, thinking about Reyn, and the flowers and lights and dancing. Last night I could not sleep because my slippers displeased me so. And now I've a feeling that none of it may ever come to be. ” She lifted her head and her wide eyes swept over the stream of wagons, carts, and the folk beside them on foot and on horseback. She spoke with a quiet fatalism. “Everything in my life that I was sure I would do
someday has always been snatched away when it was almost within my reach. Perhaps it will happen again. ” A far look came into her eyes. “Perhaps by tomorrow we shall all be dead and our town a smoking ruin. Perhaps my presentation will never even be. ”

  “Don't say such things!” Keffria exclaimed in horror.

  Ronica said nothing at all for a time. Then she set her hand over Malta's where she gripped the side of the cart. “This is today. And this is your life. ” They were comfortless words, and she was not sure where they came from. “It is my life, also,” she added, and looked ahead of them, far down the winding road to Bingtown.

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  REYN STOOD ON THE AFTERDECK OF THE KENDRY, WATCHING THE WIDENING wake of the great liveship in the broad river. The coming of morning turned the milky water of the river to silver and made the ever-dripping canopy of the forested banks a shimmering curtain of falling jewels. The swiftness of the current and the ship's great sails carried them downriver at an incredible rate. He drew in a great breath to try to lift the heaviness from his heart. It would not go away. He bowed his head into his hands. Sliding his hands up under his veil, he scrubbed at his sandy eyes. Deep sleep seemed like a nursery tale from his childhood. He wondered if he would ever sleep well again.

  “You look like I feel,” a voice said quietly. Reyn startled and turned. In the dimness of the early morning light, he had not noticed the other man. Grag Tenira rolled a tiny parchment up and slipped it up the sleeve of his shirt. “But you shouldn't,” he continued, his brow creasing in a frown. “Are not you to be Malta Vestrit's escort at the Summer Ball? What is there to sigh about in that?”

  “Very little,” Reyn assured him. He plastered a smile onto his face. “I share her concerns for her father and their missing ship. That is all, but it is a heavy concern. I had hoped that her presentation ball would be a wholly festive occasion. I fear this will overshadow it. ”

  “If it's any comfort, the Kendry brought me word that the rescue expedition has already left Bingtown. ”

  “Ah. I had heard your name linked with Althea Vestrit's. This word comes directly from her then?” Reyn nodded his veiled head toward the missive that still peeped from Grag's sleeve.

  Grag gave a short sigh. “A farewell missive from her, before she set forth. She has great hopes for her expedition, but none at all for us. It's a very friendly letter. ”

  “Ah. Sometimes friendly is harder than cold. ”

  “Exactly. ” Grag rubbed his forehead. “The Vestrits are a stiff-necked bunch. The women are too damn independent for their own good. So everyone has always said of Ronica Vestrit. I've discovered the hard way that the same is true of Althea. ” He gave Reyn a bitter grin. “Let's hope your luck with the younger generation is better. ”

  “She gives little sign of that,” Reyn admitted ruefully. “But I think that if I can win her, the battle will have been worth it. ”

  Grag shook his head and looked away from the other man. “I felt the same way about Althea. I still feel that way. Somehow, I doubt that I'll get a chance to find out. ”

  “But you're returning to Bingtown?”

  “I won't be stopping there, I'm afraid. Once we get to town, it's belowdecks for me, until we're out at sea. ”

  “And then?” Reyn asked.

  Grag gave a friendly smile but shook his head dumbly.

  “Quite right. The fewer who know, the better,” Reyn agreed. He returned his gaze to the river.

  “I wanted to tell you personally how grateful the Teniras are for the support you've shown us. It is one thing to say you will back us. It's another to put your family fortune on the line as well. ”

  Reyn shrugged. “It is a time when the Rain Wilds and Bingtown must stand united, or give up who and what we are. ”

  Grag stared at the ship's white-edged wake. “Do you think enough of us will stand united for us to succeed? For generations, we have functioned as part of Jamaillia. All of our lives are patterned as closely as possible on Jamaillia City. It is not just our language and our ancestry. It is all our customs: our food, our style of dress, even our dreams for our futures. When we stand apart from that and say, We are Bingtown, what will we really be saying? Who will we be?”

  Reyn concealed his impatience. What did it matter? He tried to formulate a more political answer. “I think we will simply be recognizing the reality of the last three or four generations. We are the folk of the Cursed Shores. We are the descendants of those brave enough to come here. They made sacrifices and we inherited their burdens. I don't resent that. But I won't share my birthright with those who will not make the same commitment. I won't cede my place to people who don't recognize what it cost us. ”

  He glanced at Grag, expecting him to agree easily. Instead, the man only looked troubled. In a low voice, as if ashamed of the thought, Grag asked him, “Have you never thought of just kicking it all over and running away?”

  For a moment, Reyn just stared at him through his veil. Then he observed wryly, “Obviously, you have forgotten whom you are speaking to. ”

  Grag gave a lopsided shrug. “I've heard you could pass. If you wanted to. As for me . . . sometimes, when I am away from my ship for a while, I find myself wondering. What holds me here? Why do I stay in Bingtown, why must I be all a Trader's son must be? Some folk have kicked over the traces. Brashen Trell for instance. ”

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  “I don't believe I know him. ”

  “No. You wouldn't. And you never will. His family disowned him for his wild ways. When I heard about that, I halfway expected him to die from it. But he didn't. He comes and goes as he pleases, lives where he wants, sails where the wind blows him. He's free. ”

  “Is he happy?”

  “He's with Althea. ” Grag shook his head. “Somehow, the family picked him to captain the Paragon for them. And they entrusted him with Althea. ”

  “From what I've heard of Althea, she needs no man's protection. ”

  “She would agree with that. ” Grag sighed. “I don't. I think Trell has deceived her in the past, and may again. . . . It eats at me. But do I rush off to find her and bring her back? Did I leap in and say, 'I'll go, I'll captain your mad ship for you, so long as I can be with you?' No. I didn't and Trell did. And that's another difference between us. ”

  Reyn scratched at the back of his neck. Was something growing there? “I think you make a fault of what is actually a virtue, Grag. You know your duty and you are doing it. It isn't your fault if Althea can't appreciate that. ”

  “That's just the trouble. ” He tugged the small missive from his sleeve, then pushed it back again. “She does. She praised me for it and wished me well. She said she admires me. That's a poor substitute for love. ”

  Reyn could think of nothing to say to that.

  Grag sighed. “Well. No point in dwelling on any of that now. If it comes to war with the Satrap, it will come soon enough. Either Althea will come back to me, or she won't. It seems there is little I can do about my life; I'm like a leaf caught in a current. ” He shook his head, and grinned in embarrassment at his own melancholy words. “I'm going forward to talk to Kendry for awhile. You coming?”

  “No. ” Reyn realized how abrupt he sounded and sought to soften it. “I've got some thinking of my own to do. ”

  Reyn watched through a gray haze of veil as Grag walked forward to the figurehead. He stuffed his hands in his pockets. Even with gloves on, he would not take a chance on leaning on the railing. The whole ship shouted to him as it was, and it was not “Kendry” that spoke to him.

  He had traveled aboard liveships before and never had this problem. The dragon had done something to him. He wasn't sure what, or how, but it frightened him. He had broken his bargain with his mother and elder brother to pay her a final visit. It was wrong, but so was abandoning her without trying to make her see that he had done his best. He had begged her to let him go; sh
e had seen how hard he had tried. Instead, she had vowed that she would devour his soul. “As long as I am a prisoner here, Reyn Khuprus, so shall you be also,” she had cursed him. She had twined herself through his mind like a black vein in marble, mingling with him until he was no longer certain where she left off and he began. It frightened him worse than anything else she had ever done. “You are mine!” she had declared.

  As if to underscore her words, the entire floor of the chamber had trembled. It was only a tremor, a common occurrence on the Cursed Shores. It was not even a large one as quakes went, but never before had he been in the Crowned Rooster Chamber when one struck. His torch showed him the frescoed walls undulating as if they were draperies. He ran, fleeing for his life, with her laughter echoing inside his mind. He could not escape it. As he fled, he had heard the unmistakable sound of corridors giving way. The deadening rush of damp earth followed the clattering of falling tile. Even when he reached the outside and bent over, hands on his knees, trying to reclaim his breath, he could not stop shaking. There would be work tomorrow, and for days to come. Tunnels and corridors would have to be shored up. If it was bad, sections of the buried city might have to be abandoned. All would have to be inspected laboriously before there could be any new explorations. It was precisely the sort of work that he hated.

  “Toil away,” the dragon's voice had bubbled merrily in his mind. “You might be able to shore up the walls of this dead city, Reyn Khuprus. But the walls of your mind will stand no more against me or my kind. ”

  It had seemed an idle threat. What worse could she do to him than she had already done? But since then, his dreams had been plagued with dragons. They roared and battled one another, they stretched out on rooftops to sun themselves, they mated atop the lofty towers of an exotic city. He was witness to it all.

  It was not a nightmare. No. It was a dream of extraordinary brilliance and complexity. They trafficked with beings that were almost human, yet were subtly different. They were tall, with eyes of lavender or copper, and the shades of their flesh were subtly different from any folk he had ever encountered in his real life.

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  His real life. That was the problem. The dreams were far more compelling than his waking hours. He saw cities of the Elderkind and came tauntingly close to understanding their history. He suddenly grasped the wideness of their streets and corridors, the broad yet shallow steps, the height of the doors and the generous windows. The vastness of their constructions had been to accommodate the dragons that shared the city. He longed to venture inside the buildings, to linger close to the people as they strolled in the markets or ventured out on the river in their gaily painted boats. He could not.

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