Ship of destiny, p.67
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       Ship of Destiny, p.67

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  The Satrap laughed. “The answer to that is frightfully simple. No one. There is no noble whose loyalty is unquestionable. As to wealth, why, those who are wealthiest have the most to gain by my being lost. If I perish, someone must become Satrap. Why use your wealth to buy the occupant of a throne when the throne itself could be yours?”

  Malta was silent. “Then no one will ransom you?” she asked quietly.

  He laughed again, and it was even more brittle. “Oh, assuredly, I shall be ransomed, and you alongside me. We will be ransomed by those who most need me to disappear, without witnesses. ” He rolled to face the wall. “We will be ransomed by those who cheered most loudly as my ship departed from Jamaillia. By those who conspired to send me off on this ill-fated adventure. I am not stupid, Malta. The Bingtown Traders were correct: there was a conspiracy, and it must have involved nobles and Chalcedean diplomats and even New Traders. They bit the hand that fed them, for each thought that once that hand was removed, each could claim the lion’s share of the meat. ”

  “Then they will be squabbling over that division even now,” Malta hazarded. “It all comes down to a bargain. Grandmother always said, ‘Look to see who benefits the most. ’ ” She knit her brows, ignoring the tugging of skin around her scar. “She told me that when you want to cut your way into a bargain that others are striking, you must look for the one who is benefiting the least. Shore up his interest, and he will take you as a partner. So. Who benefits the least by your being removed from the throne?”

  “Oh, come!” He sounded disgusted as he rolled back to face her. “This is degrading! You would reduce my life and the fate of the throne to the squabbling of merchants. ” He snorted in disdain. “But what else should I expect from a Trader’s daughter? Your whole life has been buying and selling. No doubt your mother and grandmother saw your brief beauty as a thing to be bartered away. Trader Restart certainly did. ”

  Malta stood taller. She did not speak until she was sure she had control of herself. Her armor, she decided, was to be impervious to such taunts. “Merchants broker trade goods. Satraps and nobles broker power. You, noble Magnadon, deceive yourself if you believe there is a great difference in the machinations. ”

  He seemed unimpressed, but he did not challenge her conclusion. “Well, then, to answer your question, all benefit from my absence. All the nobles with money or influence, anyway. ”

  “Then that is the answer. Consider those without money or influence. There are your allies. ”

  “Ah, such wonderful allies. With what will they buy my freedom? Sticks and stones? Dung and dust?”

  “Before you consider how they will buy your freedom, you must consider why it would profit them. Make them see it is to their advantage to free you, and they will find the means. ” She loosened her cloak and sat down on the end of his bed. The Satrap sat up to face her. “So, think now. ”

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  The Satrap of all Jamaillia leaned his head back against the wall. His pallid skin and the dark circles under his eyes made him look more like a grievously ill child than a troubled ruler. “It’s no use,” he said hopelessly. “It is all too far away. No one in Jamaillia will rouse to my cause. My enemies are too many. I will be sold and slaughtered like a feast-day lamb. ” He rolled his eyes to stare at her. “You see, Malta, not everything can be solved with your Trader’s ethic of buying and selling. ”

  An idea suddenly blossomed in her mind. “But what if it could, Magnadon Satrap?” She leaned forward tensely. “If, with my Trader’s ethic, I can save you and your throne, what would it be worth to me?”

  “You cannot, so why even speculate?” He waved a lax hand at her. “Go away. Your idiotic idea of a stroll on a freezing deck has wearied me. I will sleep now. ”

  “You will not,” she retorted. “You will lie awake and pity yourself. So, instead of that, rouse yourself to my challenge. You say I cannot save you. I think I can. I propose a wager. ” She lifted her chin. “If I save you, I am saved alongside you. You will give me an appointment to…”

  “Oh, do not ask to be a Companion of my Heart. That would be too humiliating. As well ask me to wed you. ”

  A spark of anger flashed in her. “I assure you, I would not so humble myself. No. You will appoint me and my family as your representatives in Bingtown and the Rain Wilds. You will recognize Bingtown and the Traders there as an independent entity. To my family, to the Vestrits, will go the exclusive right to represent Jamaillian interests there. ” A slow smile dawned on her face as the full brilliance of her idea shone in her mind. With such an accomplishment, she could return to Bingtown. No scar or shame would be remembered next to such a coup. It would be the ultimate bargain, the best trade that any dealer had ever struck. Even her grandmother would have to be proud of her. Even Reyn’s family might…

  “You want all of Bingtown for yourself! That is a ridiculous wager!”

  “Is it? I’m offering you both your throne and your life in exchange for it. ” She cocked her head. “Bingtown’s independence is virtually a reality anyway. You would only be recognizing what already exists, and making it possible for Jamaillia and Bingtown to continue on friendly terms. Losing this wager would only mean that you had to take what is a wise course of action in any case. ”

  He stared at her. “So I have heard it argued before. I am not sure I agree with it. But how will you regain my freedom and my throne for me?”

  “Show me my profit, and I will find the means. ” She smiled. “Agreed?”

  “Oh, agreed,” the Satrap snapped impatiently. “It is a ridiculous wager anyway, one that you cannot possibly win. I may as well agree to it. ”

  “And you will cooperate with me to help me win it,” she pressed.

  He scowled. “And how must I do that?”

  “By striving to present yourself to our captors as I direct you to, and by agreeing with what I shall tell them. ” Excitement was building in her. The fatalistic defeat she had felt earlier in the evening had evaporated. So all she had left to her fortune was her wits. Perhaps that was all she had ever needed.

  “What do you intend to tell them?”

  “I am not sure of that just yet. But you started me thinking when you said there was no one in Jamaillia who would profit by returning you to power. ” She chewed her lip thoughtfully. “I think we must discover a way by which the pirates themselves will profit most by returning you to power. ”

  Liveship Traders 3 - Ship of Destiny

  CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE - Kennit’s Women

  SHE WHO REMEMBERS AND MAULKIN DID NOT ARGUE. SHREEVER ALMOST wished they would. That would have meant that at least one of them had reached a decision. Instead, they discussed endlessly what had happened, what might happen and what it might mean. In the tides since Maulkin’s tangle had refused to kill the other ship, the serpents had trailed after Bolt and waited to see what would happen next. Bolt herself had barely spoken to them, despite the nagging queries of She Who Remembers. The silver creature seemed caught in some dilemma of her own. Chafing under the indecisiveness, Shreever’s temper frayed like an outgrown skin. With every changing tide, she felt a sense of loss. Time flowed, leaving the serpents behind. She was losing strength and body weight. Worse, she could not keep her thoughts straight.

  “I am dwindling,” she said to Sessurea as she swayed with the sea. They were anchored beside one another for the night. There was a nasty bit of current here; it stirred the silt constantly, making the water murky. “Tide after tide, we follow this ship. To what end? Maulkin and She Who Remembers swim always in her shadow, and speak only to one another. The toxins they waste on the ship’s hull taste strange, and bring us no prey. Repeatedly, they say we must be patient. I have patience, but what I have lost is endurance. By the time a decision is reached, I will be too weak to travel with the tangle. What does Maulkin wait for?”

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  Sessurea was silent for a time
. When the blue serpent finally spoke, there was more wonder than rebuke in his tone. “I never thought to hear you criticize Maulkin. ”

  “We have followed him long, and I have never questioned his wisdom,” she replied. She lidded her eyes briefly against the wash of silt. “I wish he would lead us again. Him I would follow until my flesh could no longer hold my bones together. Now, however, he defers, both to She Who Remembers, and to the silver ship. I accept the wisdom of She Who Remembers. But who is the silver creature that we should tarry to do her bidding while our cocooning season escapes us?”

  “Not who is the silver creature. What?” Maulkin materialized suddenly alongside them. His false-eyes gleamed faintly in the murky water. He anchored himself, then wrapped a lap of coil around them both. Gratefully, Shreever eased her grip on the rock. With Maulkin holding her, she would rest more fully.

  “I am tired,” she apologized. “I do not doubt you, Maulkin. ”

  Their leader spoke gently to her. “You have not doubted me, even when I have vacillated. You have paid a price for that loyalty, I know. I fear that the price we all pay for my indecision is too high. She Who Remembers has already pointed this out to me. Our tangle is mostly male. It will do little good for us to cocoon and hatch if we have delayed so long that no queens rise. ”

  “Delayed?” Shreever asked quietly.

  “That is what we debate. Every tide of lingering weakens us. Yet, without a guide, there is no sense in forging on, for this world does not match our memories. Not even She Who Remembers is sure of the way. We need Bolt’s guidance, so we must wait for her. As weak as we have become, we will need her protection as well. ”

  “Why does she make us wait?” Sessurea, blunt as always, bit to the spine of it.

  Maulkin made a disgusted sound, and a waft of toxin drifted from his mane. “To that, she has given us a score of answers, and none. She Who Remembers thinks the silver ship is more dependent on the fickle aid of humans than she will admit. As I told you, it comes down to what she is. She insists she is a dragon. We know she is not. ”

  “She is not?” Sessurea thundered in dismay. “What is she, then?”

  “Why does that matter?” Shreever moaned. “Why cannot she simply help us, as she said she would?”

  Maulkin spoke soothingly, but his words were alarming. “To help us, she will have to beg help of the humans. While she insists she is all dragon, I do not think she can humble herself to do that. ” He spoke slowly. “Before she can help us, she must accept what she is. She Who Remembers has been urging her to do that. She Who Remembers knows much of one two-legs aboard the ship. Wintrow aided her to escape the Others. In touching him, she knew him. He was full of knowledge of a ship, thoughts that She Who Remembers did not grasp fully at the time. Now She begins to piece it all together. We seek to awaken the other portion of the ship, to give her strength to emerge again. It is a slow process, stinging such a creature awake. She has been both weak and reluctant. But of late, she has begun to stir. We may yet prevail. ”

  KENNIT BALANCED THE TRAY IN ONE HAND AND TURNED THE KEY IN THE LOCK with the other. It was not easy, for a fine trembling was ruining his dexterity. A night and a day had passed since he had last entered this room. Since then, he had not slept and barely eaten. He had avoided the foredeck and the figurehead, avoided Etta and Wintrow. He could not completely recall how he had spent those hours. For some of them, he had been aloft. Sorcor had recently presented him with a leg-peg that had a groove cut in the bottom of it. This was the first time he had completely tested it, and he had been delighted. From the crow’s nest, he could look out over his entire domain. The serpents frolicked in the crested waves about his ship and the wind sped him on. With the wind in his face, he had dreamed, savoring repeatedly his time alone with Althea Vestrit. It had not been discipline and forbearance alone that kept him away from her. Anticipation was a pleasure in itself. He had waited until his passion was once more at full tide before coming here again. Now he stood outside her door, shivering with longing.

  Would he take her again? He had not yet decided. If she was wakeful enough to accuse him, he intended to deny everything. He would be so gracious, so concerned for her fears. There was such power in controlling another’s reality. Never before had he realized that. “Such a terrible nightmare,” he whispered in sham sympathy, and felt the creeping grin that threatened to overpower his face. He straightened his features and tried to calm himself. Several deep breaths later, he opened the door and stepped into the dimness.

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  The fading winter afternoon dimly lit the room. She huddled under the covers on the bunk, deeply asleep. The acid stink of vomit was thick in the small room. He leaned on his crutch as he shut the door, wrinkling his nose against the stench. That would never do; such a smell was very unappealing. It ruined everything. He would have to give her an extra dose of the poppy and mandrake sedative, and send in the ship’s boy to give the room a good scrubbing while she slept. Bitterly disappointed, he set the tray down on the table.

  Her full weight hit him between the shoulders. He went down, tray, crutch, food, all falling with him in a clattering mess. His head struck the table edge as he fell. Her hands clutched his throat. He twisted around, tucking his chin tight to his chest to keep her from getting a good strangle. She had a knee in the small of his back, but as he rolled she fell with him. Her reflexes were slow, dulled by the drugs. If he had still had two legs, she would not have had a chance against him. As it was, he managed to grip her wrist for an instant before she jerked away from him. She scrabbled to her feet, panting and swaying, and backed away from him in the small room as he came to his hands and knee. Her eyes were wide and black. His crutch had fallen out of reach. He edged toward it.

  “You bastard,” she panted raggedly. “You heartless beast!”

  He feigned bewilderment. “Althea, what has come over you?”

  “You raped me!” she grated hoarsely. Then, her words rising to a shout, uncaring of who heard, “You raped me. You killed my crew and burned my ship. You killed Brashen! You imprisoned Vivacia! It’s all your doing!”

  “You make no sense. My dear, your mind is unsettled. Calm down! You don’t want to shame yourself before the whole crew, do you?”

  He saw her glance about for a weapon. He had misjudged how dangerous she was. Despite the residue of drug that she fought, her muscles knotted convulsively. He knew the look of murder; he had seen it often enough in his own mirror. He lunged for his crutch, but in the next instant, she sprang not toward him, but to the door. She worked the latch clumsily, then jerked the door open, colliding with the jamb as she reeled out. He saw her strike the opposite wall, catch herself, and then stagger up the companionway.

  The figurehead. She was trying to get to the figurehead. He got his crutch under his arm, caught at the table’s edge and polled himself to his feet. She would get a surprise if she got as far as the foredeck. There would be no Vivacia to beseech for aid. He was tempted to let her go, but he could not have her ranting and raving to his crew. What if Wintrow or Etta heard her?

  He reached the door and looked out. Althea had slowed. She clung to the wall, stumbling doggedly on. Her dark hair hung in a lank curtain about her face. She was dressed in Wintrow’s clothing, soiled now with spilled food and vomit. She must have awakened, dressed and then huddled there, waiting for him. Quite a plan, for as much poppy as he had given her. He almost admired her. He’d have to increase the dosage.

  The silhouette of a crewman appeared in the doorway at the end of the hall. Kennit raised his voice in a command. “Detain her. Bring her back to her room. She is not well. She attacked me. ”

  The figure took two steps into the darkened companionway, and Kennit suddenly saw his error. The crewman was Wintrow. “Aunt Althea?” he asked incredulously. He offered her a steadying arm, but she disdained him. He doubted that she recognized Wintrow. Instead, she lifted her arm to point a sh
aking hand at Kennit.

  “He raped me!” She flung back her head to peer at the lad through her draggled hair. “And my ship is locked down deep in the dark. I’m drugged. I’m sick. Help me. Help her. ” Her words ran down with her strength. She sagged against the wall and slid down it while Wintrow stood transfixed in horror. Her head swayed like a poisoned cat’s. To Kennit’s dismay, another crewman had arrived. Then, worst of all, he heard Etta’s voice behind him.

  “What did that bitch say?” she demanded furiously.

  Kennit turned quickly to face her. “She’s ill. She makes no sense. She attacked me. ” He shook his head. “The loss of her companions seems to have driven her mad. ”

  Etta’s eyes went very wide. “Kennit, you’re bleeding!” she exclaimed in horror.

  He lifted a hand to his brow and his fingers came away scarlet. He had struck his head harder than he thought. “It’s nothing. I’ll be fine. ” He composed himself and spoke in a voice of both command and concern. “Wintrow. Be cautious but gentle with her. She doesn’t know what she’s saying. Watching Paragon bum has turned her mind. ”

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  “I’m sane enough, you raping, murdering bastard!” Althea snarled. Her words ran together. She thrashed about, trying to stand.

  “Aunt Althea!” Wintrow was shocked. Kennit could see the horror in the boy’s face. He crouched down and helped the woman to stand. “You need to rest,” he offered her sympathetically. “You’ve had quite a shock. ”

  She held onto his shoulders and looked at Wintrow as if he were an insect. He stared back at her in consternation. But for their expressions, they looked very alike. It reminded Kennit of the old depictions of Sa, male and female, face-to-face on the ancient coins. Then Althea turned her look of disgust on Kennit. He saw her decide, and he was ready for her shambling charge. He thought he could avoid her dazed attack, but he did not have to try. With a furious screech, Etta sprang out in front of him.

  The whore was larger than Althea, physically alert and more experienced in fighting. She knocked the Bingtown woman down effortlessly and then straddled her, pinioning her. Althea gave a full-throated roar of fury and struggled, but Etta held her easily. “Shut up!” the whore shrieked at her. “Shut your lying mouth! I don’t know why Kennit bothered saving your useless life. Shut up or I’ll break your teeth. ”

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