The mad ship, p.66
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       The Mad Ship, p.66

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  In the dream, he was with the dragons and of the dragons. They regarded their two-legged neighbors with tolerant affection. They did not consider them peers. Their lives were too short, their concerns too shallow. Reyn, while he dreamed, shared that attitude. It was the dragon culture he steeped in, and their thoughts began to color his, not just sleeping but in waking times as well. The emotions they felt were a hundred times as strong as anything Reyn had ever experienced was. Human passion, intense as it might be, was but a snap of the fingers compared to the enduring devotion of a dragon to his mate. They treasured one another, not just through years but through lives.

  He saw the world with new eyes. Cultivated fields became a patchwork quilt flung across the land. Rivers, hills and deserts were no longer barriers. A dragon, on a whim, went where a man might not venture in his entire lifetime. The world, he saw, was at once much greater and far smaller than he had known.

  The curse of such dreams manifested itself slowly. He awoke unrested, as if he had never slept at all. The potency of his other life drew him. He spent his human days in a fog of discontent and restlessness. He regarded his own existence with disdain. A double curse of weariness dogged him. He longed to sleep, but sleep gave him no rest. Yet he desired sleep, not to rest, but to leave his dreary human life behind and immerse himself once more in a draconian world. His life as a man had become a string of weary days. The only thoughts that could still stir his heart at all were thoughts of Malta. Even in those fancies, he could not shake the dragon's curse, for in his mind's eye Malta's hair shone like the scales of a black dragon.

  Behind all his thoughts and dreams, in words almost too soft to hear and yet never silent, came the mourning of the trapped dragon in the Crowned Rooster Chamber. “No more, no more, no more. They are all gone and dead, all the great bright ones. And it is your fault, Reyn Khuprus. You ended them, by cowardice and laziness. You had it in your power to create their world anew, and you walked away from it. ”

  That had been the sharpest of his torments. That he had it within his power, she believed, to free her and bring true dragons back into the world.

  Then he had stepped aboard the Kendry, and his torment took an even more cruel turn. The Kendry was a liveship; the bones of the ship's body were wizardwood. Generations ago, Reyn's ancestors had pounded wedges into a great wizardwood log within the Crowned Rooster Chamber. They had split the immense trunk open, and plank after plank of lumber had been sawn and peeled from it. One immense chunk had been taken whole, to form the figurehead.

  The soft, half-formed creature within had been unceremoniously spilled out onto the cold stone floor of the chamber. Reyn twisted inside every time he thought of that. He had to wonder: had it squirmed? Had it mouthed airless cries of pain and despair? Or, as his brother and mother insisted, had it been a long dead thing, an inert mass of tissue and nothing more than that?

  If there was nothing for the Khuprus family to be ashamed of, why had it always been kept secret? Not even the other Rain Wild Traders knew the full secret of the wizardwood logs. Although the buried city was their mutual property, the Trader families had long ago established their territories within it. The Crowned Rooster Chamber and the odd sections of wood within it had long ago been ceded to the Khuprus family. It was ironic that, at the time, the immense logs had been considered of little value. An accident had revealed their unique properties, or so Reyn had always been told. Exactly how that had happened, he had never been able to discover. If any of his living family knew the tale, they had held it back from him.

  The Kendry held nothing back. The figurehead was that of a smiling and affable young man. No one was more knowledgeable about the ways of the Rain Wild River. In previous times, Reyn had enjoyed many pleasurable conversations with him. Since the dragon's curse had fallen on him, the figurehead could no longer abide him. The smile faded from Kendry's lips, the words died unspoken in his mouth when Reyn approached him. The young man's face became, not hostile, but apprehensive at the sight of the Rain Wilder. He would regard Reyn watchfully, forgetting all conversation. The crew of the Kendry had noticed his odd behavior. Although none had been so bold as to remark on it, Reyn felt the pressure of their attention. He avoided the foredeck entirely.

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  Yet if Kendry felt anxious at the sight of Reyn, Reyn's emotions ran sharper and deeper. For Reyn knew that deep within his fibers, down past the affable face of the handsome young man, there lurked the spirit of a furious dragon. Whenever Reyn slept, even if he so much as dozed off in a chair, the buried spirit awaited him. Savagely the creature mourned the death of all he had once been. He railed at the fortune that had torn away his wings and replaced them with flapping canvas. Instead of talons for seizing prey, he had soft little paws with appendages like wilted tubers. He who had once been a high lord of three kingdoms was now confined to the surface of water, pushed about by the wind, ridden with humanity like vermin on a dying rabbit. It was intolerable.

  He knew it, even if the smiling figurehead did not. Now Reyn knew it, too. He knew the spirit that lurked in the bones of the Kendry thirsted for revenge. He feared that his presence on board the liveship was strengthening those buried memories. If those recollections could ever break through to the surface, what would Kendry do? On whom would his vengeance fall harshest? Reyn was terrified the dragon would discover who he was: the descendant of those who had tumbled him unborn from his cradle.

  SERILLA STOOD ON THE DECK OF THE SHIP. BESIDE HER, TWO STOUT Chalcedean sailors held the Satrap. He was prone on a makeshift litter devised from oars and canvas. The wind had brought a faint reddening to his cheeks. She smiled down on him fondly. “Let me speak for you, Magnadon. You need to conserve your strength. Besides, these are only sailors. Save your words for when you address the Traders' Council. ”

  In his ignorance, he nodded gratefully to her words, “just tell them,” he instructed her. “Tell them I want to get off this ship and onto shore as swiftly as possible. I need a warm room with a good bed and fresh food and-”

  “Shush, now. You'll tire yourself. Let me serve you in this. ” She leaned down to tuck the blankets about him more snugly. “I won't be gone long, I promise you. ”

  That, at least, was true. She meant to make all haste. She hoped to persuade the Bingtown ship to take only herself and the Satrap to their town. There was no sense in having any of the others from the Satrap's party along. Their stories might only prove confusing to the Traders. She intended that her tale would be the one told first and most convincingly. She straightened up and pulled her cloak more tightly about her. She had chosen her clothes with care, and even insisted on time in which to dress her hair. She wished to appear imperious, and yet somber. In addition to the subtle jewelry she wore, the toes of her slippers were heavy with several pairs of the Satrap's best earrings. Whatever became of her, she did not intend to begin anew in poverty.

  She ignored the Chalcedean captain who stood scowling nearby. She advanced to the railing. She looked across the space of open water that separated the ships and did her best to make eye contact with the group of men on the other ship. The carved figurehead of the ship glared at her fiercely. When it lifted its arms and crossed them defiantly on its chest, she gasped softly. A liveship. A real liveship. In all her years in Jamaillia, she had never seen one. Beside her, the Chalcedean crewmen muttered and several made the hand signs they believed would ward off magic. Their superstitious dread made her stronger. She harbored no such fears. Drawing herself up to her full height, she took a deep breath and pitched her voice to carry.

  “I am Serilla, Heart Companion to the Magnadon Satrap Cosgo. My area of expertise is Bingtown and its history. He chose me to accompany him here. Now, weakened by illness and in sore distress, he chooses me to come to you and present you with his greetings. Will you send a boat for me?”

  “Of course we shall!” a portly man in a wide yellow vest declared, but a bearded man sh
ook his head.

  “Quiet, Restart! You're only here on my suffrance. You! Companion. You say you will come to us. You alone?”

  “I, alone. To make known to you the Satrap's will. ” She lifted her arms wide, holding her cloak open. “I am a woman, and unarmed. Will you let me cross to you and hear my words? There has been a great misunderstanding here. ”

  She watched them confer. She felt confident that they would take her. The worst that could befall her was that she would become their hostage. Even that would get her off this hellish ship. She stood tall and still, the wind blowing her hair into gradual disarray. She waited.

  The bearded man came back to the railing. He was obviously the captain of the liveship. He pointed at the Chalcedean captain. “Send her across in your boat! Two sailors at the oars, no more. ”

  The captain actually glanced at her before he looked at the Satrap. It sent a small shiver of triumph through her. Did her rapist finally realize that she had taken a share of power for herself? She cautioned herself to discretion and cast her eyes down. For the first time, her hatred of him was the equal of her fear. Someday, she thought, I might be strong enough to kill you.

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  Once it was settled, things happened quickly. She was bundled into the boat as if she were cargo rather than a person. The boat itself seemed alarmingly small and lively. The waves lifted and dropped it, and an inordinate amount of water splashed over the sides on their way to the Bingtown ship. When she reached the other ship, a young sailor descended to meet her. The most frightening part of the episode was having to stand up in the boat. As a wave lifted the tiny vessel within reach, the sailor leaned out and scooped her into an arm like a cat snatching a mouse from under a cupboard. He said not a word, nor did he allow her time to feel more secure before he dashed up the ladder with her.

  Once they reached the deck, he set her on her feet. For a moment, her ears roared and her heart thundered so that she scarcely heard the introductions the bearded man barked at her. When a silence fell and she realized they were all staring at her, she took a breath. It was suddenly daunting to stand here, in the middle of a group of strange men on the deck of a liveship. Suddenly Jamaillia was so far away, it almost didn't exist. She willed it back to reality with her words.

  “I am Serilla, Heart Companion to the Magnadon Satrap Cosgo. He has come a long way to hear your grievances and resolve them. ” She looked at the faces of the men. They were all listening intently. “On the journey here, he was taken gravely ill, along with many of his party. When he realized how sick he was becoming, he took steps to assure that his mission would be completed successfully, no matter what became of him. ” She reached deep inside her cloak, to the pocket she had stitched there just last night. She drew out the rolled parchment and proffered it to the bearded man. “In this document, he appoints me as his Envoy in Residence to the Bingtown Traders. I am authorized to speak for him. ”

  Several of the men looked incredulous. She decided to risk it all rather than not have them take her seriously. She opened her eyes wide and looked at the bearded man beseechingly. She lowered her voice, as if she feared the Chalcedeans might hear. “Please. I believe the Satrap's life is in danger, as does he. Think on it. Would he ever have ceded so much power to me if he thought he was going to reach shore alive? If it is at all possible, we must get him off the Chalcedean ship and to the safety of Bingtown. ” She glanced fearfully back at the Chalcedean ship.

  “Say no more,” the captain cautioned. “These words should be for the Bingtown Traders' Council. We will send a boat for him immediately. Do you think they will allow him to leave?”

  She shrugged helplessly. “I but ask you to try. ”

  The captain scowled. “I warn you, lady. There are many in Bingtown who will consider this but a ploy to get into our good graces. Feelings for the Satrapy have run foul of late, for you have not . . . ”

  “Please, Trader Caern! You are distressing our guest. My lady Companion, please, allow me. I shall be proud to extend to the Satrap the hospitality of Restart Hall. Although we Traders may seem a bit divided at the moment, I am sure that you shall find that the hospitality of Bingtown lives up to its legendary standards. For now, let us get you off this windy deck and into the captain's sitting room. Come along. Fear nothing. Trader Caern will send off a boat for the Satrap. You shall have a hot cup of tea and tell us all about your adventures. ”

  There was something almost comforting in the broad man's assumption that she was a helpless, trusting female. She set her hand atop his forearm and allowed him to escort her away.

  CHAPTER THIRTY - Shakedown


  Althea half-rolled over in her bunk, then worked the rest of the way over on her elbows. The bunk was so damn narrow she could not even roll all the way over in it. She peered down at Amber. The carpenter stood, hands on her hips, and teeth clenched, glaring at Jek's gear bag. She was panting as if she had just run the rigging.

  “Calm down,” Althea cautioned her. “Take a breath. Tell yourself it doesn't really matter that much, it's just the cramped quarters. ” She grinned. “Then kick it as hard as you can. You'll feel much better. ”

  For an instant, Amber stared at her. Her eyes were flat and hard as her namesake. Then she turned wordlessly and kicked Jek's duffel under her bunk. With a sigh, she hunched down onto her own bunk. It was immediately under Althea's. Althea heard her trying to arrange herself in it. “I hate this,” she muttered savagely after a few moments. “I've seen coffins that were bigger than this bed. I can't even sit up all the way. ”

  “If we get into any weather, you'll be glad it's so tight. You can brace yourself and still manage to sleep,” Althea advised her.

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  “Now there's something to look forward to,” Amber muttered.

  Althea hung her head over the edge of her bunk and peered down at her curiously. “You're serious, aren't you? You really hate this that much?”

  Amber didn't look at her. She stared at the bulkhead that was in front of her nose. “All my life, I've always had somewhere I could go to be alone. To go without solitude is like going without salt. ”

  “Brashen offered you the use of his room, when he is not in it. ”

  “It used to be my room,” Amber said without rancor. “Now it is his, with his things in it. That is all the difference in the world. I cannot settle myself in there. I feel like an intruder. Nor can I latch the door against the world. ”

  Althea pulled her head back up. She racked her brains. “It would not be much, but you could curtain your bunk with canvas. It would be a tiny space, but Jek and I would respect it. Or you could learn to climb the rigging. Up at the top of the mast is an entirely different world. ”

  “Exposed to everyone's view,” Amber suggested sarcastically. But there was a note of interest in her voice.

  “Up there, the sky and the ocean are so large that the little world below you does not matter. In reality, once you are up the mast, you are almost invisible to anyone on deck. Take a look up there the next time you're on deck. ”

  “Perhaps I shall. ” Her voice was low again, almost subdued.

  Althea judged it was best to leave her alone. She had seen this before, in new sailors. Either Amber would adapt to shipboard life, or she'd crack. Somehow, Althea could not imagine her going to pieces. She had an advantage over most new hands in that she had not come to the sea to make an exciting new life for herself. The adventurers fared the worst: they woke up on the fifth day to realize that the monotonous food, enforced companionship and general squalor of the crew quarters were the norm of the glorious new life they had embarked upon. Those were the ones who not only broke, but often took others with them.

  Althea closed her eyes and tried to sleep. Soon enough she'd have to be out on deck again
and she had problems of her own to wrestle. The weather had been fair and the Paragon was sailing as well as any ordinary ship would have. The ship had not been jolly, but he had not descended into one of his morose moods, either. For those blessings, she thanked Sa. The other side of the coin was that she was having problems with the crew. In fact, she was having the very kind of problems that Brashen had predicted she would, damn him. Somehow, that made it impossible to go to him for advice. She had been so cocky, back on the beach. She had been sure she could handle herself and the men under her command. Now her crew seemed bent on proving the opposite.

  Not all of them, to be fair, she reminded herself. Most, she thought, would have fallen into line well enough, if not for Haff. He bucked her at every opportunity. Worse, he was charismatic. The others easily fell in with his attitude. He was handsome, clean and engaging. He always had a cheery word or a jest for his shipmates. He sprang to it readily when another man was in trouble. He was the ideal shipmate, well liked by the rest of the crew. His own natural leadership, she decided wearily, was exactly why he was always at odds with her. Her sex was the rest of the issue. He seemed to have no problems taking orders from Brashen or Lavoy. That was another reason why she could not take her grievances to them. This was something she'd have to unknot for herself.

  If the man had been openly insubordinate, she could have dealt with it openly. But he defied her subtly and made her appear incompetent to her crew. She imagined herself making that complaint to Brashen and winced. Haff was clever. If she was paired with him, hauling on a line, he held back his strength, forcing her to work to the limits of hers. The one time she had told him to put his back into it, he had looked shocked at her rebuke. The other men had glanced at them in surprise. Paired with anyone else, Haff always did more than his share. It made her look weak. She was not as strong as the men she worked alongside. She could not change that. Nevertheless, damn him, she did her share, and it humiliated her when he made the others think she could not keep up. When she set him to a task on his own, he did it swiftly and well. He had an air of rakish showmanship that turned the simplest job aloft into a feat. Disdain for her command and a certain relish of risk: uncomfortably, she recalled a young sailor named Devon who had shared those traits and how she had admired him. No wonder her father had gotten rid of him.

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