The mad ship, p.70
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       The Mad Ship, p.70

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  He had effectively ended the conversation. While some of the Bingtown Traders had regarded him with approval, a few of the others had rolled their eyes at his circumspect ways. Interesting. She could sense the pull and stress of power at play here. This Davad Restart seemed to be some sort of a bridge between the Old and New Traders. Circumstance seemed to have landed them in an ideal position, for both sides of the divided society seemed moderately comfortable in calling on Davad. While the New Traders brought the Satrap extravagant gifts and invitations to their homes, the Bingtown Traders brought only their dignity and implied power. She did not think the Satrap had made a particularly good impression on the Old Traders, nor they on him. It would be interesting to see how things proceeded. There was so much going on here; it was so much livelier than the staid and stagnant court at Jamaillia. Here, if a woman was bold, she could make a place for herself. She pulled a gown from the wardrobe and held it against her. It would do, she decided. It was simple, but well made; surely, that would be appropriate for an evening among provincial folk.

  Changing into the gown necessitated baring her body. She resolutely turned her back to the mirror in the room while she dressed. Yesterday morning, as she dressed, a casual look in the mirror had revealed to her that the deep bruises on her back and the back of her thighs had faded to shades of green, brown and yellow. Yet, that brief betraying glance had suddenly swept her back into horror and helplessness. She had been caught there, staring at herself. Suddenly a deep shuddering, more kin to convulsion than trembling, had taken her. She had sat down abruptly on the edge of her bed, and taken great breaths to keep the deep sobs from tearing out of her. Tears would have been a relief. Even after she had managed to dress, she had been unable to force herself out the door and down to breakfast. They would know. They would all know. How could anyone look at her and not know how badly she had been hurt?

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  It had taken her until noon to compress her feelings and master them again. The panic had passed, and she had been able to join the party, pleading a morning headache as excuse for her absence. Since then, she had wondered if it were strength or a sort of madness that let her pretend she was normal. As before, she resolved to create for herself a place where no man had authority over her. She lifted her chin as she touched scent to her throat. Tonight, she told herself. The opportunity might come tonight. If it did, she would be ready.

  “HOW DO YOU STAND THE VEIL?” GRAG TENIRA ASKED REYN. “I THOUGHT I was going to die of suffocation in the carriage on the way here. ”

  Reyn shrugged. “One gets used to it. I have lighter ones than the one I loaned you, but I feared you might be recognized if you were not veiled heavily. ”

  They sat together in a guest chamber in the Tenira home. A small table had been bustled in, laden with bread, fruit, plates, glasses and a bottle of wine. From the hallway outside came the heavy tread of the servants bringing Reyn's trunks and chests up the stairs. Crag's discarded Rain Wild garb was strewn across the bed. He tousled up his sweaty hair to cool himself, and then advanced on the table. “Wine?” he offered Reyn.

  “It would be most welcome, little cousin,” Reyn replied wryly.

  Grag gave a half-laugh, half-groan. “I don't know how to thank you enough. I had not intended to come ashore in Bingtown at all. Yet here I am, not only on shore but back in my family's home, for however brief a time. If you had not been willing to aid me in this ruse, I fear I would still be cowering in the Kendry's hold. ”

  Reyn accepted the glass of wine, deftly slipped it under his veil and drank. He gave a sigh of satisfaction. “Well,” he balanced it, “if you had not extended me the hospitality of your home, I'd be standing outside the inn with my cases. The town is crawling with New Traders and the Satrap's minions. My rooms at the inn were long ago given away. ” Reyn paused uncomfortably. “With the harbor blockaded, and the inns full, I do not know how long I will have to beg hospitality of you. ”

  “We are more than happy to welcome you both. ” These words came from Naria Tenira as she pushed into the room carrying a tureen of steaming soup. She kicked the door closed behind her and scowled at Grag as she set the soup down on the table. “It is a relief to have Grag at home, and know he is safe. Do have something hot to eat, Reyn,” she invited him before rounding on her son and demanding, “Put that veil back on, Grag. And the gloves and hood. What if I had been a serving girl? I have told you, I trust no one. For as long as you are at home, we must carry on the pretense that you are a Khuprus from the Rain Wilds, guesting with us. Otherwise, you endanger your own life. Since we spirited you out of town, the offer for your capture has only gone up. Half the vandalism to New Trader businesses and the Satrap's ministries that has gone on in your absence has been attributed to you. ”

  She turned from her son and began dishing up soup for Reyn as she continued, “You're near a hero to some of the young men in town. I fear it is all getting out of hand, and the Satrap's minister has made you the scapegoat for it. The Traders' sons dare one another to 'Tenira' a warehouse, and all know what is meant by that. ” She shook her head as she set food before Reyn. "No matter how quietly your sisters and I live, folk still turn and whisper when we go into town.

  “You are not safe here, son. I wish your father were here. I declare, I am at my wit's end to know how to protect you. ” She pointed commandingly at the discarded veil.

  “I'm a bit old to be hiding behind your skirts, Mother,” Grag protested as he picked up the veil with distaste. “I'll put this on after I've eaten. ”

  “I'm a bit old to hope to have another son if they kill you,” she pointed out in a soft voice. She gathered up the gloves and handed them to him. “Put them on now, and get used to them,” she begged him. “This disguise is your only hope. Sa alone knows when the Kendry or any other ship will get out of Bingtown. You must continue to play the part of a Rain Wilder, and play it convincingly. ” She looked at Reyn beseechingly. “Will you help him?”

  “Of course. ”

  “I've given word to the servants that you are both excessively private young men. They are not to enter without knocking. To honor you, I've told them, Grag's sisters themselves will see to tidying the room daily. ” She turned a severe glance on her son. “Don't abuse that, Grag, however humorous you might find it. ”

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  Grag was already grinning widely.

  She ignored him and turned to Reyn. “I must beg your pardon that I ask you to share your garments with my son. It seems the best way to preserve the masquerade. ”

  Reyn laughed self-deprecatingly. “I assure you, in my nervousness about the ball, I have probably brought enough garments to well clothe half a dozen young men. ”

  “And I, for one, am looking forward to both the elegance and the mystery of being a Rain Wild son at the Bingtown Summer Ball,” Grag chimed in. He held up the veil and peered around the corner of it at his mother.

  She looked dismayed. “Be serious, Grag. Stay at home, here, where you are safe. Reyn, of course, must go, as must your sisters and I. But-”

  “It would look decidedly odd for me to have come all the way from the Rain Wilds and then not attend the ball,” Grag pointed out.

  “Especially as we have announced him as my cousin,” Reyn agreed.

  “Could not we say he was taken ill?” Naria Tenira pleaded.

  “Then surely it would be expected that someone would stay with me here. No, Mother, I think the least attention will be paid to me if I continue to play my role as expected. Besides. Do you think I could resist the chance to see the Satrap face-to-face?”

  “Grag, I beg you, none of your wildness tonight. You shall go, then, as you seem so set on it. But I beg you, do not be tempted to do anything to call attention to yourself. ” She fixed him with a grave stare. “Remember, the trouble you bring down may fall upon others besides yourself. Your sisters, for instance. ”

  “I'll behav
e like a very gentlemanly Rain Wilder, Mother. I promise. But if we are not to be late, we must all make haste now to get ready. ”

  “Your sisters were ready long ago,” Naria admitted wearily. “They have only been waiting for me, not that it takes long for an old woman like myself to dress. I do not pay as much attention to primp and powder as they do. ”

  Grag leaned back in his chair with a soft snort of disbelief. “That means that we have plenty of time to eat, bathe and dress, Reyn. No woman in my family can be ready to do anything in less than half a watch. ”

  “We shall see,” Reyn told him pleasantly. “You may find that attiring yourself as a Rain Wilder takes longer than you think. A Rain Wild man seldom uses a valet or body servant. It is not our way. And you must practice, at least a bit, how to sip a glass of wine through a veil. Put it on. I'll show you now, so my 'cousin' doesn't disgrace me at the ball this evening. ”

  THE INSIDE OF THE HIRED COACH SMELLED LIKE STALE WINE. HER mother had insisted on inspecting the seats before she had allowed Malta to sit down on them. Her grandmother had insisted on inspecting the coachman before she allowed him to drive them. Malta had felt impatient with both of them. The excitement of her presentation had finally sparked her. Despite the hired coach and her made-over dress, her heart was beating faster than the rattling of the horse's hooves.

  The Traders' Concourse had been transformed. Scores of tiny lanterns had been set out in the gardens and ground surrounding it. In the late summer evening, they seemed reflections of the stars in the clear sky. Arches erected over the walks were garlanded with greenery. Pots of sweet-scented night-blooming flowers, imported from the Rain Wild, added their eerily glowing blooms to the colors of the walkways. All this Malta glimpsed from the window. It was so hard to resist the urge to hang her head out the window like a child. Their hired coach joined a line of carriages and coaches. As each reached the steps before the main entrance, it paused and footmen opened the doors and handed down the ladies. Malta turned to her mother. “Do I look all right?” she asked anxiously.

  Before Keffria could answer, Malta's grandmother replied quietly, “You are the loveliest thing to grace this gathering since your mother was presented. ”

  The most shocking thing was not that she had said it with such sincerity. What amazed Malta was that, at that instant, she believed it, too. She held her head a notch higher and waited for her coach's turn.

  When the footman opened the door at last, her grandmother descended first, followed by her mother. Then they stood to either side, as if they were already presenting her, whilst the footman helped her step down from the coach. She stood between them, and then little Selden, groomed and scrubbed, came out to offer his grandmother his arm. She took it with a smile.

  The night was suddenly a mystical and magical place. Little glass cups in different hues held candles that edged the steps to the entrance. Other families clad in their best and bearing their symbolic offerings to the Rain Wild Traders were making their way into the hall. Keffria, as Trader for the Vestrit family, carried their offering. It was a simple tray of carved wood, one that Grandfather had brought back from the Spice Isles long ago. On it were six little pots of homemade preserves. Malta knew that the gifts were largely symbolic, gestures of remembered bonds and kinship. Even so, she could remember when the gift had been lengths of rainbow hued silk so heavy that Papa had had to help Grandfather carry them. It did not matter, she told herself stoutly.

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  As if her grandmother sensed her uncertainty, she whispered, “The receiver of the gifts tonight is none other than our old friend Caolwn Festrew. She has always loved our sweet cherry preserves. She will know we thought especially of her when we prepared this gift. All will be well. ”

  All will be well. Malta lifted her eyes to the top of the steps. The smile that dawned on her face was genuine. All would be well. As Rache had shown her and she had practiced on the steps at home, she set her hands lightly on her skirts and lifted them just enough to help them skim the ground. She kept her chin up, her eyes on her destination, as if she had never even considered she might trip over her own skirts. She preceded her mother and grandmother this night as she climbed the steps and entered the bright mouth of the Traders' Concourse.

  Within, the wide hall was scarcely recognizable to her. It blazed with light and color. Malta felt dazzled by it. They were amongst the early arrivals. The musicians were playing softly, but as yet there was no dancing. Instead, folk stood in small knots conversing. At the far end of the hall were the long tables, set with snowy cloths and gleaming service for the communal meal that was the final symbolism of their shared kinship. Malta noted that the raised dais that was reserved for the visiting representative of the Rain Wilds and the Bingtown Council members had been enlarged. No doubt, the Satrap and perhaps his Companions would share the high table as well. For an instant, she wondered whether it was display or honor afforded him.

  She glanced back for the rest of her family. They were already caught up in the social ritual of recognizing friends and greeting them. She had a few moments to herself to look around. Technically, she smiled to herself, this was her last time as a child, free to mingle without social restraint. After her presentation, she would be bound by all of Bingtown's unspoken rules. She would take one last unchaperoned stroll around the Concourse. Then her attention was caught by a figure at once familiar and strange. Delo Trell swept up to her in a wave of scent and rustling fabric. Sparkling blue stones shone at her throat and wrists and on the fine silver chains that secured her upswept hair. Her eyes and mouth were expertly painted. She carried herself scrupulously erect, and the polite expression on her face was as still as a doll's painted smile. Malta blinked her eyes, intimidated by this woman grown. Delo regarded her coolly. Yet for all that, Malta suddenly realized, she was still Delo Trell. Malta found herself smiling widely at her old friend. She caught both her hands in hers, squeezed them warmly and heard herself say, “Here we are! Did you ever really believe we would be here?”

  Delo's painted face of pleased interest held steady. For an instant, Malta's heart lurched within her. If Delo snubbed her now-then Delo's smile cracked just a fraction wider than it had been. She pulled Malta closer and whispered, “I was so nervous all day I was afraid to eat for fear I would get the trots. Now that I am here, I am so hungry that my stomach is growling like a bear. Malta, what shall I do if I am dancing or talking with someone and it makes a noise?”

  “Look at someone else accusingly,” Malta suggested facetiously. Delo nearly giggled, then remembered her new dignity. She lifted her fan swiftly to cover her face.

  “Walk with me,” Delo begged her friend. “And tell me all you have heard of what is going on in Bingtown! Whenever I come into the room, Papa and Cerwin stop speaking about it. They say they don't want to frighten me with things I can't understand. Mama talks only of how to hold my elbows in, or what to do if I drop something at the table. It drives me mad. Are we truly on the brink of war? Kitten Shuyev said she had heard rumors that while we were all at the ball tonight, the Chalcedeans might sweep in and bum the whole city and kill us all!” She paused dramatically, and then leaned closer to whisper behind her fan, “You can imagine what she said they would do with us!”

  Malta patted her friend's hand comfortingly. “I scarcely think they would attempt that, while the Satrap, with whom they are supposedly allied, is in our midst. All the Traders would have to do is take him hostage. That he came ashore with the first group, without Chalcedean guards, is why we can believe he has truly come to mediate and negotiate. Besides, we are not all at the ball tonight. The liveships maintain their vigil in our harbor, and I have heard that many Three Ships families patrol with their boats as well. I think it is safe for us to relax and have fun. ”

  Delo shook her head in amazement at her friend. “How do you do it? You comprehend things so well. Sometimes you sound almost like a man when you talk.

  Malta was taken aback for a moment, then decided the comment had been intended as a compliment. She nearly shrugged, then remembered to act the lady. She lifted one eyebrow instead. “Well, as you know, the women of my family have had to take care of themselves lately. My mother and grandmother believe it is more dangerous for me not to know these things. ” She lowered her voice. “Had you heard that the Chalcedeans did admit the Kendry through the blockade? He came in late, so I have had no word, yet I dare to hope that Reyn was aboard. ”

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  Instead of looking pleased for her, Delo looked troubled. “Cerwin will not rejoice at that news. He had hoped to claim a dance or two with you tonight . . . and perhaps more, if your beau was not here. ”

  Malta could not resist. “Surely I am permitted to dance with whom I please tonight? I have not given my promise to Reyn yet. ” Some of her old giddiness swept through her. “I shall certainly save a dance for Cerwin. And perhaps for others as well,” she added mysteriously. As she had just given herself permission, her eyes swept over the gathered folk, lingering on the young men. As if they were surveying a tray of dainties, she invited Delo, “And who do you think your first dance will be with?”

  “My fourth, you mean. I have a father, a brother and an uncle who will claim dances with me, after I am presented. ” Her brown eyes suddenly went wide. “I had the most awful dream last night. I dreamed that at the moment I was presented and was making my curtsey, the stitches in my dress all came out and my skirt fell off! I woke up shrieking. Can you imagine a worse dream than that?”

  A tiny chill went up Malta's spine. For a moment, the brightness of the ball dimmed and the music seemed to fade. She clenched her teeth and willed the darkness away. “Actually, I can. But, look, the servants are ready at the refreshment table. Let's go and get something to still the bear in your stomach. ”

  DAVAD RESTART WIPED HIS SWEATY PALMS ON THE KNEES OF HIS TROUSERS. Who would ever have believed it? Here he was, going to the Summer Ball as he had for so many years, but not alone this time, oh no. Not this year. Across from him in the coach sat the Satrap of all Jamaillia, and beside him the lovely Companion Kekki in an astonishing gown wrought of feathers and lace. Beside him was the less flamboyant, but still important, Companion Serilla in her demure cream gown. He would escort them into the ball, he would sit at table with them and he would introduce them, to all Bingtown society tonight. Yes.

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