The mad ship, p.71
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       The Mad Ship, p.71

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  He would show them all.

  How he wished his beloved wife had survived to see this triumph.

  The thought of Dorill put a brief shadow across his victory. She and the boys had been claimed years ago, when the Rain Wilders brought the Blood Plague down the river. So many had died then, so very many. The plague had most cruelly spared him, left him to live alone, speaking to the memories of his family, always imagining what they would say, what they would think of all he was doing each day. He took a breath and tried to recapture his satisfaction in the moment. Dorill would be pleased and proud. He was sure of it.

  And the other Bingtown Traders would concede that he was as shrewd and foresighted a trader as they had ever seen. Tonight he was going to bring it all together. The Satrap himself would dine with them, and they would remember all that Jamaillia and elegant society meant to Bingtown. In the weeks to come, he would be at the Satrap's side as he and his Companions healed the rift between the Old and New Traders. He could not begin to imagine the trade benefits that would bring to his door. Not to mention that he would finally recapture his social stature with the Bingtown Traders. They'd have to welcome him back into their midst and admit that, over the years, he had seen more keenly than they had.

  Davad smiled to himself as he considered the final capstone to his evening's plans. Lovely as Kekki and Serilla were, they were drab compared to Malta Vestrit. They were fine as Companions, as advisors and intellectuals. But tonight it was Davad's intention to introduce the Satrap to his future consort. He was so certain the young man would be smitten with Malta that he could already almost imagine the festivities for their wedding. There would have to be two ceremonies, one in Bingtown and a second, grander one in Jamaillia. He would certainly attend both of them.

  It would save the Vestrit fortune and redeem him in Ronica's eyes. It would link Bingtown and Jamaillia forever. Davad Restart would be remembered forever as the man who had reconciled the towns. Years from now, the Satrap's children would call him Uncle Davad.

  He chuckled warmly to himself, swept away on the glorious tide of his future. He realized that Companion Serilla was looking at him uncertainly. His heart suddenly went out to the woman. No doubt, the Satrap would have no further need of her, once he was married to a woman who was Bingtown born and raised. He leaned toward her and patted her knee companionably.

  “Don't fret about your gown,” he whispered to her. “I am sure that all of Bingtown will honor you for your position, no matter what you are wearing. ”

  For an instant the poor thing just stared at him wide-eyed. Then she smiled. “Why, Trader Restart. How kind of you to attempt to be comforting!”

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  “Not at all, not at all. I simply wish to put you at your ease,” he assured her, and leaned back in the seat of his carriage.

  It was going to be a momentous evening in his life. He was sure of it.


  “MALTA! DELO! YOU SHOULD NOT BE JUST WANDERING ABOUT. IT is NEARLY time for you to be presented. ” Her mother sounded both exasperated and amused as she added, “Delo, I saw your mother just a few moments ago, and she was looking for you over by the fountain. Malta, you come with me!”

  They had both taken refuge behind one of the columns by the entrance, and had been spying on the late arrivals to the ball. Kitten, they agreed, had the finest dress; it was a pity she had not the figure for the neckline she had chosen. Tritta Redof had a headdress that was far too big for her, but her fan was exquisite. Krion Trentor had put on weight since he had begun courting Riell Krell, and had lost his melancholy poetic face. How had they ever thought he was handsome? Roed Caern was as dark and dangerous as ever. Delo had near swooned at the sight of him, but oddly enough, Malta had caught herself thinking that his shoulders were not nearly as wide as Reyn's.

  Veiled and hooded Rain Wild folk arrived to mingle with their Bingtown counterparts. Malta looked in vain for Reyn. “How will you know him when he gets here? They all look the same, muffled like that,” Delo complained. In a line worthy of the girl she had been last year, Malta sighed back, “Oh, I shall know him, never fear. My heart always leaps at the sight of him. ” For a moment Delo had stared at her wide-eyed, and then they had both broken down in gales of smothered laughter. As they whispered and spied, all the spring's awkwardness between them was forgotten. Delo had assured Malta that the fabric of her dress was far richer than anything that could be bought nowadays, and that the cut of it suited her tiny waist quite well, while Malta had sworn that Delo did not have thick ankles, and that even if she did, no one could see them tonight anyway. It was as girlish and gay as she had felt in a long time. As Malta obediently followed her mother away, she wondered that she had ever wanted to leave such things behind and become a woman.

  A screen trellised with flowers provided an alcove for the young women to be presented tonight. The fathers who would present them and then escort them into the Concourse for the first dance shifted restlessly outside, while within anxious mamas made last-minute adjustments to hair and hemlines. They had drawn lots, and it seemed the hand of fate that she would be presented last. Girl after girl was led away. Malta felt as if she could not get enough breath. As Keffria tugged a few stray hairs up and into place, she whispered to Malta, “Reyn has not arrived yet. I suppose he was delayed because the Kendry arrived so late. Do you want me to tell Davad to take the first dance with you?”

  Malta looked at her mother in horror, but to her shock, Keffria grinned wickedly. “I thought that might remind you that there are worse things than having to stand alone during the first dance of your formal presentation. ”

  “I shall wait it out and think of Papa,” Malta assured her. Her mother's eyes shimmered suddenly with tears, and then Keffria was tugging at the neck of her gown, saying, “Now be calm, keep your head up, mind your skirts and oh, it's your turn now!” The last words came out as a half-sob. Malta was suddenly blinking away tears of her own. Half-blinded by them, she stepped from behind the screen, to take her place in the circle of torchlight at the top of the stairs.

  “Malta Vestrit, the daughter of Kyle Haven and Keffria Vestrit, is presented now to the Bingtown Traders and the Rain Wild Traders. Malta Vestrit. ”

  For a moment, she was angered because they named her by her Trader name. Did not they think her father was good enough for their company? Then she accepted it as the Bingtown way. She would do him proud. He might not be here to extend an arm to her and descend the steps with her, but she would walk as his daughter. Head up, but eyes cast down, she sank in a slow curtsey to the assembled folk. As she came back up, she lifted her eyes. For a moment, the people seemed far too numerous, the stairs too many and too steep. She thought she might faint and go tumbling down them. Then she took a deeper breath and began her slow descent to the floor.

  Below her on the dance floor, the other girls and their papas awaited her in a half circle. It was her time, and her moment. She wanted it to last forever, and yet, as she reached the bottom of the stair, she felt grateful. As she joined the line of young women and their fathers, she lifted her eyes to look about the room. The folk of Bingtown and the Rain Wild displayed themselves in their finest clothes. Many were not so prosperous in years past, and it showed. Yet they all carried themselves proudly, and smiled at this latest crop of eligible young women. She did not see Reyn. Soon the music would strike up, and the young girls would be whirled away to it. She would be left standing alone while they danced. It fit so well with all the rest of her life, she thought bitterly. Then the impossible happened.

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  Things became worse.

  On the dais across the room, wedged into a chair between a pale young man and the head of the Bingtown Council, sat Davad Restart. Rather, she devoutly wished he had been sitting. He had half stood up, to lean across the table and frantically waggle his fingers at her. In an agony of hum
iliation, she lifted her hand slightly and waved her fingers at him. He didn't stop. Instead, once he was sure she had seen him, he made frantic gestures for her to cross the empty dance floor and come up to the dais. Malta was dying. She longed to faint, but could not. The leader of the musicians, who was awaiting the signal from the dais to begin the music, looked puzzled. At last, she realized she had no other choice. This nightmarish moment would not be over until she had left the safety of the other young women and their papas and crossed the vast expanse of the empty floor alone and presented herself to Davad to hear his congratulations.

  So be it.

  She drew a deep breath, took one glance at her grandmother's shocked white face, and then began her slow crossing of the dance floor. She would not hurry. That would be even more unseemly. She kept her head up, and lifted her skirts to allow them to float across the polished floor. She tried to smile as if this were something she had expected, as if it were a perfectly normal part of her presentation. She fixed her eyes on Davad and recalled the dead pig stuck in his carriage window. She managed to keep the smile, despite the roaring in her ears. Then she was standing before the dais. At that moment, she suddenly realized that the pale young man seated next to Davad must be the Satrap of all Jamaillia.

  She had just been humiliated before the Satrap of all Jamaillia and two of his Companions. The elegant women of the court were looking down at her in tolerant condescension. Now she would faint. Instead, some sort of instinct took over. She sank down before the dais in a low curtsey. Through the blood pounding in her ears, she heard Davad say enthusiastically, “This is the young woman I told you about. Malta Vestrit of the Bingtown Traders. Is not she the fairest young blossom you have ever seen?”

  Malta could not rise. If she stood now, she would have to look at their faces. Here she crouched, in her pieced-together gown and her made-over slippers and-

  “You did not exaggerate at all, Trader Restart. But why is this sweet flower unaccompanied?” Jamaillian accent, and a languid tone. The Satrap himself spoke of her.

  The leader of the Bingtown Council took pity on her and signaled the musicians. The tentative opening notes of the music suddenly flowed through the hall. Behind her, proud fathers escorted their daughters onto the dance floor. The thought of it suddenly was anger instead of pain. She came to her feet and lifted her eyes to meet the Satrap's indulgent stare. She spoke out clearly in answer to his question.

  “I am alone, Magnadon Satrap, because my father has been taken by pirates. Pirates that your Chalcedean patrol vessels did nothing to stop. ”

  The other people on the dais gasped. The Satrap dared to smile at her. “I see this little one has the spark of spirit to match her beauty,” he observed. As the hot flush colored Malta's cheeks, he added, “And at last I have met one Bingtown Trader who admits that the Chalcedean galleys are simply my patrol vessels. ” One of his Companions chuckled throatily at this cleverness, but the Bingtown Council did not look amused.

  Her temper got the better of her. “I shall concede that, sir, if you will concede they are ineffective. They have left my family bereft of both our ship and my father. ”

  The Satrap of all Jamaillia rose to his feet. He would order her dragged off and killed now, she decided. Behind her, in the room, the musicians played on and the couples whirled. She waited for him to summon guards. Instead, he announced, “Well, as you blame me for your father's absence, there is only one way I can rectify this. ”

  She could not believe her ears. Could it really be this simple? Ask for it, and get it? Breathlessly, she whispered, “You will command your ships to rescue him?”

  His laugh rang out through the music. “Certainly. That is their purpose, you know. But not right this moment. For now, I shall do my best to correct this tragic situation by taking his place on the dance floor with you. ”

  He rose from his place on the dais. One of his Companions looked shocked; the other horrified. Malta turned her eyes to Davad Restart, but there was no help there. He was beaming at her fondly and proudly. When her eyes met his, he nodded swift encouragement. The faces of the Bingtown Council members were carefully blank. What was she to do?

  The Satrap was leaving his seat, and now he was descending the steps to the dance floor. He was taller than she and very lean, his skin so aristocratically white as to be almost pallid. His clothing was unlike any she had ever seen on a man; it was soft and flowing, in pastel hues. His pale blue trousers were cuffed tight to his ankles above his low soft shoes. The loose folds of his saffron shirt shawled about his throat and shoulders. As he came closer to her, she could smell him, foreign smells, a strange perfume, a clinging smokiness on his breath. Then the most powerful man in the world bowed to her and held out his hand for hers.

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  She was frozen.

  “It's all right, Malta, you may dance with him,” Davad Restart announced benignly. He chuckled to the others on the dais. “Such a shy and sheltered little thing she is. She scarcely dares touch his hand. ”

  His words gave her the power to move. She felt cold and yet tingly as she set her hand in his. The Satrap's hand was very soft as it closed around hers. To her shock, he set his other hand on the back of her hips and drew her body closer to his. “This is how we dance this measure in Jamaillia,” he told her. His breath was warm on her upturned face. There was so little space left between them she feared he would feel her heart beating. He led her into the dance.

  For five steps, she was awkward, off balance, moving behind the measure. Then suddenly the music caught her, and it was as easy as if she were holding Rache's hands and moving to her count around the morning room. The other dancers, the brightly lit room, even the music faded around them. There existed only this man and the motion as their bodies kept time together. She had to look up to see him. He smiled down at her.

  “You are so tiny, like a child. Or a lovely little doll. The fragrance of your hair is like flowers. ”

  She could think of no reply to such compliments, not even to thank him. All her coquetry had been erased from her mind. She tried to speak, but could only ask, “Will you truly send your ships to rescue my father?”

  He raised one thin eyebrow. “Certainly. Why shouldn't I?”

  She lowered her eyes, then closed them. The music and his body leading hers were all she needed. “It seems too easy. ” She shook her head, a tiny motion. “After all we have endured . . . ”

  He gave a small laugh, high as a woman's. “Tell me, little bird. Have you lived all your life in Bingtown?”

  “Of course. ”

  “Well, then. You tell me. What can you really know of how the world works?” Suddenly, he drew her even closer, so that her breasts almost brushed his chest. She gasped and stepped back from him, stumbling out of rhythm with the music. He caught the step easily and kept her moving.

  “Are you shy, little bird?” he asked merrily, but his hand tightened on hers almost cruelly.

  The music had ended. He let go of her hand. When she glanced around, she heard the murmur of many-footed rumors running. All eyes looked toward them, although none quite stared. He bowed to her, deeply and graciously. As she sank into a curtsey, he breathed, “Perhaps we should speak later about rescuing your father. Perhaps you can better convey to me just how important it might be to you. ”

  She could not rise. Were his words a threat? Because she had stepped away from his touch, he would not send the ships to rescue her father? She wanted to cry out after him to wait, wait. But he had already turned away from her. A Bingtown matron with her own daughter beside her had claimed his attention. Behind her, the music was starting again. She managed finally to rise from her curtsey. She felt as if all the air had been knocked out of her. She had to get off the dance floor.

  She walked between the couples unseeingly. She caught a glimpse of Cerwin Trell; he seemed to be coming toward her, but she could not bear that just now. She hur
ried on, searching the crowd for her mother, her grandmother, even her little brother. All she wanted was some safe refuge for a few moments until she could gather herself. Had she just destroyed her father's chance of swift rescue? Had she made a fool of herself before all of Bingtown?

  A touch on her arm made her gasp. She recoiled from it as she turned to see who it was. He was veiled, hooded and gloved like any other Rain Wilder, but she knew it was Reyn. No one but he could take the secretive garb of a Rain Wilder and turn it to such elegance. His veil was black lace, but gilt and silver cat's eyes outlined where his eyes would be. The hood that covered his hair and the back of his neck was secured with an elaborately folded cravat of shimmering white silk. His soft white shirt and black trousers revealed as much of his physique as his veil and hood concealed of his features. The breadth of his shoulders and the depth of his chest were accentuated by his slim waist and narrow hips. His light dancing boots were filigreed with silver and gilt to match his veil. He held a glass of wine toward her. Softly he said, “You are pale as snow. Do you need this?”

  “I want my mother,” she said stupidly. To make it worse, she repeated it more desperately. “I want my mother. ”

  Reyn's whole stance stiffened. “What did he say to you? Did he hurt you?”

  “No. No. I just . . . I want my mother. Now. ”

  “Of course. ” As if it were the most normal of behaviors, he tapped a passing Trader on the shoulder and handed him the glass of wine. Reyn turned back to Malta. “This way. ” He did not offer her his arm or try to touch her in any way. Did he sense that just now she could not have tolerated it? Instead, he gestured gracefully with a gloved hand, and then walked slightly in front of her, parting the crowd for her. Folk stared after them curiously.

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