The mad ship, p.69
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       The Mad Ship, p.69

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
Page 257


  “Etta. Go back to Vivacia, to my stateroom. Bring the plans from my desk; they are labeled clearly. Do you know the ones I mean?”

  “I can find them. I can read,” she pointed out gently. She touched his arm briefly, her smile warm, then turned to commandeer two men to row for her.

  He called after her, “Tell the crew to make all secure. We will be here for a time, helping Divvytown rebuild. The Marietta has sacks of wheat aboard. Have them start ferrying the wheat ashore. These people are hungry. ”

  A murmur ran through the crowd. A young woman stepped forward. “Sir. You do not need to stand out here. My house is still standing, and I have a table. I can draw water for washing as well. ” She made a self-effacing gesture. “It is poor lodging, but I would be honored. ”

  He smiled at her, and then looked around at all his loyal subjects. “That would be most welcome. ”



  “I haven't used any,” the girl replied listlessly. She sat in her shift before the mirror, staring into the glass. Her shoulders were slumped, her hair but half brushed. She looked more like a weary serving girl at the end of her day's work than a Trader's daughter just an evening away from her presentation at the Summer Ball.

  Keffria's heart went out to her. She had come into her room, expecting to find her daughter primping and sparkling with excitement. Instead, the girl looked dazed. The summer had been too hard on her. She wished that somehow she could have spared Malta the drudgery and scrimping. Above all else, Keffria wished that this ball could have been as they had both imagined it. Malta was not the only one who had looked forward to this for years. Keffria, too, had dreamed of the proud moment when her only daughter would walk into the Traders' Concourse on her father's arm, to pause in the entry and be announced to the gathered Old Traders. She had dreamed of an extravagant gown for her daughter, a presentation of fine jewelry to commemorate the occasion. Instead, she would soon lace Malta into a dress concocted from older gowns. Her only jewelry would be gifts from Reyn, rather than a woman's wealth bestowed by her father. It was neither fitting nor proper, but what else were they to do? It rankled.

  She saw her own frown in the mirror over Malta's shoulder. Selfconsciously, she smoothed it from her face. “I know you didn't sleep well last night, but I thought you were going to rest this afternoon. Didn't you lie down?”

  “I did. I couldn't sleep. ” Malta leaned closer to the mirror, pinching at her cheeks to try to bring up some color in them. After an instant, she seemed caught in her own reflection. “Mother?” she asked quietly. “Do you ever look at yourself and wonder if there is someone else inside?”

  “What?” Keffria took up the hairbrush. Under the guise of smoothing Malta's hair, she felt her skin. She was not feverish. If anything, her skin seemed too cool. She lifted the heavy flow of Malta's hair. As she began pinning it up, she reminded her, “You need to wash the back of your neck. Or is that a bruise?” She bent closer to look at the pale blue spot. She brushed at it, and Malta flinched away. “Does that hurt?”

  “Not exactly. It buzzes, when you touch it. What is it?” Malta twisted her head to try to see it in the mirror, but could not.

  “It's just a grayish-blue spot, about the size of a fingertip. It looks like a bruise. Did you bump yourself, when you fainted on the ship?”

  Malta frowned distractedly. “Perhaps. Does it show much? Should I powder it?”

  Keffria had already dipped her fingers in the talc. With a quick dab, the smudge disappeared. “There. No one else will even notice it,” she said comfortingly. But Malta had already gone back to staring at her face in the mirror.

  “Sometimes I don't know who I am anymore. ” Malta spoke quietly, but her voice was apprehensive rather than dreamy. “I'm not the silly little girl I was last summer, all in a hurry to grow up. ” Malta bit her lower lip and shook her head at herself. “I've tried to be responsible and learn all the things you've tried to teach me. A part of me knows that they are important. But, in all honesty, I hate the fussing with numbers and the constant juggling of this debt against that one. That isn't who I am, either. Sometimes I think of Reyn or another young man, and my heart flutters and I think I could be so happy if I could just have him. But a few minutes later, that all seems like pretend, like a little girl being mother to her dolls. Or worse, it seems that I just want the man because he is who I wish I were . . . if that makes sense. When I try to think who I really am, all I feel is tired and somewhat sad in a way that doesn't have tears. And when I try to sleep and I dream, the dreams seem foreign and distorted. Then when I wake up, the dreams seem to follow me, and I find myself thinking someone else's thoughts. Almost. Does anything like that happen to you?”

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  Keffria was at a loss. Malta had never spoken like this before. She put a falsely bright smile on her face. “My dear, you are just nervous, and it is making you have all these odd thoughts. Once we arrive at the ball, your spirits will rise. This will be quite a ball, such as Bingtown has never seen. ” She shook her head. “Our problems all seem quite small to me when I consider all that is happening in Bingtown. Here we are, blockaded in our own harbor by Chalcedean galleys that claim to be the Satrap's patrol. The Satrap himself and most of his entourage are staying with Davad Restart. The Satrap will be coming to the ball tonight, with several of his Companions. That alone will make Bingtown history. Even those who most ardently oppose Jamaillia will be endeavoring to get a moment with him. Some say we are at the brink of war, but I prefer to believe that the Satrap intends to correct the wrongs done us. Why else would he have come so far?”

  “And brought so many fine Chalcedean galleys and mercenaries?” Malta added with a skewed smile.

  “I have heard it was to protect himself from pirates on his trip up,” Keffria told her. The girl sounded altogether too disillusioned for her years. Had they done this to her? Had their discipline, lessons and chores destroyed the selfish flighty girl and replaced her with this weary, cynical young woman? It squeezed her heart to think so.

  “Did they let the other ship come in? The one with the nobles aboard? I heard that the New Traders were quite upset about them being turned back. Many claimed to have relatives aboard. ”

  “Not the ship, no, but they allowed the nobles themselves to come ashore in small boats. Many of them were ill, or suffered injuries in their many battles with the pirates on their way here. It was only common mercy to let them come ashore. Besides, as you say, they have kin here, among the New Traders. They are not Chalcedean mercenaries. What harm can they do us?”

  Malta shook her head. “No more than their relatives have already done, I suppose. After the great panic when all those ships came into the harbor, I expected we would exercise more caution. We spent near the whole day in Bingtown, filling buckets and barrels with water. Not to mention hours standing about with no idea what was happening out on the ships during the confrontation. ”

  Keffria shook her head in exasperation at the memory. “That is because nothing was happening out there. Our ships held a line across the harbor mouth, and the Chalcedean galleys formed up across the sea entrance. I am glad all parties were reasonable and there was no bloodshed. ”

  “Mother, there has been no trade since then. Trade is the lifeblood of Bingtown. There is no bloodshed when someone is strangled, but it is murder all the same. ”

  “The Chalcedeans let the Kendry into the harbor,” Keffria pointed out. “With your young man aboard. ”

  “And they closed up the blockade behind him. Were I the captain of the Kendry, I would not have brought him in. I suspect they only let him through to have one more liveship corraled in the harbor. You know they fear our liveships since Ophelia stood up to their galleys. ” A mirthless light dawned in Malta's eyes.

Keffria tried again. “Davad Restart has promised us that he will see you are personally presented to the Satrap and his Companions. That is a great honor, you know. There are many distinguished matrons in Bingtown who will envy you that. Yet, I suppose you will hardly have eyes for the Satrap, once Reyn arrives. The Khuprus family is always known to distinguish itself in matters of dress. Your young man will probably be resplendent. You will be the envy of every girl at the ball. Most young ladies spend their presentation ball dancing with fathers, uncles and cousins, or standing modestly beside mothers and aunts. I know I certainly did. ”

  “I would throw both Reyn and the Satrap aside, could I have but one dance with my father,” Malta observed to herself. “I wish there was something I could do to bring him home. Something besides this eternal waiting. ” She sat for a time in utter stillness staring into the mirror. Suddenly, she drew herself up straight and looked hard at her reflection. “I look awful. I have not slept well in weeks; my dreams when I do sleep allow me no rest. I shall not go to my presentation looking like this; it is too important an opportunity. May I borrow rouge from you, Mother? And something to make my eyes look brighter?”

  “Of course. ” Keffria's relief was so intense her head swam. She knew this Malta. “I'll bring it to you right now, while you finish dressing your hair. Both of us need to get ready. Davad could not send his coach for us, of course; it will be much too busy, ferrying his grand visitors to the ball. But between your grandmother and me, we have scraped up enough for a hired coach. It will be coming soon, and we had best be ready. ”

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  “I intend to be ready,” Malta replied determinedly, but it did not sound as if she were speaking of rouge and dresses.

  SERILLA'S PLANS WERE IN TOTAL DISARRAY. NOT ONLY HAD THE YOUNGER sons from the second ship managed to talk their way ashore, they had brought with them the remainder of the Satrap's entourage from the main ship. The only positive aspect of that, as far as Serilla was concerned, was that her clothing and possessions had been brought ashore as well. In the days since then, not only had her control over the Satrap withered away but he had recovered his strength with amazing rapidity. A healer had declared the Satrap was mending well and given Serilla the credit. Cosgo still believed that she had saved his life, but with Kekki and his pleasure drugs restored to him, his dependency was fading. Their host seemed bent on nourishing him with every rich food imaginable and cosseting him with constant entertainment.

  Cosgo's restored vitality had set her plans awry. She had had to scramble to modify her position. The scroll that Cosgo had signed had been secreted in the knotted sleeve of one of her gowns. She herself had not brought up its existence since she had first shown it on the ship. When one Trader had asked her about it, she had smiled and assured him that since Cosgo had regained his health, it would not be needed. Cosgo himself did not seem to recall it existed. A special convening of the Bingtown Traders' Council had been scheduled. She hoped that before then she would find some opportunity to shift power in her favor once more. For now, she must abide.

  She looked out the window of the chamber Trader Restart had given her. She was definitely in the provinces, she reflected to herself. The gardens below had a willful, jungle look to them. The chamber itself, though large, was both outdated and musty with disuse. The bedding smelled of cedar and storage herbs, and the hangings were of a style that her grandmother would recognize. The bed was uncomfortably tall; she suspected it had been designed to protect the sleeper from rats and mice. The chamberpot was right under the bed instead of in a separate alcove. The housemaids only brought her warm wash water twice a day, and there were no fresh flowers in her room. The household had provided the Companions with only one personal maid, and Kekki had kept the poor girl at a dash since then. Serilla had had to tend to her own needs. That suited her, at present. She had no desire to allow any stranger access to the items concealed in her room.

  But, it was not the niceties that had fascinated her when she had chosen Bingtown as her area of expertise. This pioneer town had managed to survive. All other attempts to colonize the Cursed Shores had failed. In all she had ever read or heard of Bingtown, nothing had ever explained that to her satisfaction. Why had it survived and prospered? What had set it apart from all those other tragic efforts? Had it been the people, the location or purest luck? There was a mystery to be probed here.

  Bingtown was the main settlement on the Cursed Shores. It was surrounded by a network of outlying villages and farms, yet for the number of years it had existed, it had not grown as large as one would have expected. The population did not thrive. Even the influx of the Three Ships Immigrants had been only a temporary swell in population. Families were small, with rarely more than four surviving children. The wave of New Traders threatened to displace the old Bingtown Traders with their sheer number, not to mention the slaves they had brought in with them. The growth was not welcome. Bingtown resisted the idea of expanding into the surrounding countryside. The reason offered was that much of the ground was too boggy, and that tilling up what looked like a wild pasture usually transformed it into a marsh by the next spring. Good reasons. But Serilla had always suspected there was something more going on.

  Take, for example, the so-called Rain Wild Traders. Exactly who were they?

  They were not mentioned, at least by that name, in any charter issued by a Satrap. Were they a group of Bingtown Traders that had splintered off? A native people who had intermarried with the Bingtown folk? Why were they never openly discussed? No one ever spoke of a city on the Rain Wild River. Yet there must be one. All the most fascinating goods from Bingtown were always touted as being from the Rain Wilds. Little more than that was said about them. Serilla was convinced that the two secrets were linked. In all her years of delving, she had never found the bottom of that mystery.

  Now she was here, in Bingtown itself. Or, at least, on the outskirts of it. Through the trees, she could catch just a glimpse of the lights of the town. How she longed to go and explore it. Since she had arrived, their host had insisted that they remain in his home and rest. It was a tactic she suspected of being more to Trader Restart's advantage than theirs. While the Satrap and his Companions lodged with him, there would be a constant stream of visitors through his doors. She suspected, from the disused state of her chamber, that Trader Restart had not enjoyed such a jolt of popularity in many years. Yet, she was more than willing to smile and greet the Traders, both Old and New, that came to call. Every association that she could form, every woman she could dazzle with casual tales of palace life in Jamaillia, was one more foothold in her new home. For so she still intended to make it. Perhaps her opportunity to seize power had slipped away, but she still had a hope of making Bingtown her home.

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  As she leaned on the railing of the small balcony, the whole house trembled gently. Again. She stood straight and backed away from the edge and into her room. The earth had shivered almost daily since her arrival here, but the local folk seemed to pay it no mind. The first time it had happened, she had started up from her seat, exclaiming in surprise. Trader Restart had merely shrugged his round shoulders. “Just a little shiver, Companion Serilla. Nothing to be concerned about. ” The Satrap had already been too doused with Restart's wine to notice it. As it always did, the tremor passed. Nothing had fallen, no walls had cracked. She heaved out a small sigh. That was a part of the Cursed Shores; the restlessness of the earth under her feet. If she intended to make a life here, she had best get used to it. She squared her shoulders firmly and turned her mind to the business at hand.

  Tonight, her dream would come true. She would see Bingtown. She shut the tall window and went to the wardrobe to select clothing. She was to be a guest at some sort of summer assemblage the Traders held. She gathered that by their standards, it was quite an affair. It was for the Bingtown Traders only: outsiders were admitted only if they had married into a Bing
town Trader family. Young women would be presented as being of age, and she had heard some rumors of offerings of friendship exchanged between the Bingtown Traders and the Rain Wild Traders. Now that, she told herself, was a fascinating internal distinction, one that was not spoken of in Jamaillia. Why were offerings exchanged? Did one group subjugate the other? Questions, questions.

  Serilla frowned at her jewelry. She could scarcely wear what she had filched from the Satrap's chests. Kekki or one of the others would be sure to recognize it and comment upon it. While she was sure that, given enough time alone with the Satrap, she could make him “recall” giving it to her, she did not want the situation to arise in public. With a small sigh, she restored the jewelry to its hiding place inside a slipper. She would have to go unadorned.

  Yesterday, one of Davad Restart's visitors had sought to distinguish herself by bragging the gossip that Reyn Khuprus of the Rain Wild Traders was actually already courting a young girl who was to be presented tonight. The other Old Traders present had sternly hushed her. Then the woman, one Reft Faddon, had been bold enough to defy them, pointing out that surely the Satrap and his Companions would be introduced to young Khuprus at the ball. What was the point of concealing who he was?

  Davad Restart himself had intervened. The host, who had been almost stiflingly accommodating to that point, suddenly invoked his power. “But you cannot discuss young Khuprus without mentioning the Vestrit family and the young lady in question. In her father's absence, I regard her reputation to be my responsibility. I shall not tolerate any gossip about her. But I shall ensure that you shall meet her personally after her presentation. She is a dazzling young lady. Now. Shall we have more cakes?”

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