The mad ship, p.72
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       The Mad Ship, p.72

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
Page 268


  Keffria came swiftly through the crowd, as if she had been seeking her. “Oh, Malta,” she cried out in a low voice, and Malta braced herself for the inevitable recrimination. Instead her mother went on, “I was so worried, but you handled yourself beautifully. Whatever was Davad thinking? I was trying to get to you after you danced and he dared to catch hold of my arm and advise me to tell you to come to him, that he could see you got another dance with the Satrap. ”

  Malta was trembling all over. “Mother. He said he would send ships to rescue Papa. But then-” She faltered, and suddenly wished she had said nothing. Why tell her mother? It would have to be her own decision.

  How important was it to her that her father be rescued? She knew exactly what he had insinuated to her. It was unmistakable. The choice was hers. If she was the one who would have to pay the price, did not the decision belong to her alone?

  “And you believed him?” Reyn butted in incredulously. “Malta, he was toying with you. How could he toss out such an offer as if it were a bit of flattery? The man has no compunctions at all, no ethics. You are barely more than a girl, and he torments you like this. . . . I should kill him. ”

  “I am not a girl,” Malta asserted coldly. Girls did not have to face decisions such as this. “If you believe I am such a child, where are your ethics in courting me?” She hardly knew what she was saying. She needed to be alone somewhere, to think about what the Satrap had offered, and what he had implied the price was. Her tongue flew on without her mind. “Or is this how you seek to make your claim exclusive, the first time another man shows an interest in me?”

  Her mother caught her breath sharply. Her eyes flitted from Reyn to Malta. “Excuse me,” she murmured, and fled their lovers' quarrel. Malta scarcely noticed her going. A moment ago, she had longed for her. Now she knew her mother could not help her with this.

  Reyn actually took a half-step backwards. The silence quivered like a bowstring between them. Abruptly he sketched a bow toward her. “I beg your pardon, Malta Vestrit. ” She actually heard him swallow. “You are a woman, not a child. But you are a woman newly admitted to society, with little experience in the ways of low men. I thought only to protect you. ” He turned his veiled face to watch the dancers as they moved through the formal steps of a multi-partnered dance. His voice lowered as he added, “I know that rescuing your father is foremost in your thoughts. It is a vulnerability in you just now. It was cruel of him to offer to help you. ”

  “Odd. I thought it was cruel of you to refuse me when I begged your help. I now see you intended to be kind. ” She heard the icy scorn in her own voice and recognized it. This is how my father quarrels with my mother, she thought, turning her own words against her. Something in her wanted to stop this, but she did not know how. She needed to think, she needed time to think, and instead everything just kept happening. The only presentation ball she would ever have was whirling on around her, she might be able to get the Satrap to save her father, and instead of all the other girls watching enviously as her elegant beau danced with her, she was standing here having a stupid quarrel with him. It wasn't fair!

  “I did not intend to be kind. I intended to be truthful,” he said quietly. The music had ended. The dancers were leaving the floor or securing new partners. Reyn's words fell in the silence, not loudly, but enough that several heads turned their way. Malta sensed that he was as uncomfortably aware of the attention as she was. She tried to put a small smile on her face, as if his words were some kind of a witticism, but her cheeks felt hot and stiff. At that moment, someone cleared his throat behind her. She turned her head.

  Cerwin Trell swept a low bow to her. “Would you allow me the next dance?” There was a small challenge in his voice, almost as if the words were directed to Reyn rather than to her. Reyn took it up.

  “Malta Vestrit and I were sharing a conversation,” he pointed out in a dangerously pleasant voice.

  “I see,” Cerwin retorted, his voice equally controlled. “I thought she might more enjoy sharing a dance with me. ”

  The first strains of the music threaded through the hall. Folk were staring at them. Without asking her, Reyn took her hand in his. “We were just about to dance,” he informed Cerwin. His other hand caught her waist, and as easily as if he lifted a child, he suddenly whirled her into the dance.

  It was a spirited tune, and she found she could either dance or stumble awkwardly after his grip on her hand. She chose to dance. She quickly caught up a finger-pinch of her skirts to display her lively feet, and then deliberately embellished the sprightly dance. He met her challenge without missing a beat, and suddenly it took every bit of her concentration to match herself to him. For a moment, she was aware of the effort, and then they moved as one. Couples who had been stealing peeks at them suddenly moved aside to cede them more of the dance floor. She caught a fleeting glimpse of her grandmother as Reyn twirled her through a step. The old woman was smiling fiercely at her. She found, with surprise, that she herself was smiling in genuine pleasure. Her skirts floated as he turned her through the elaborate steps. His touch on her waist was sure and strong. She became aware of his scent, and was not sure if it was a perfume he wore or the musk of his skin. It did not displease her. She was almost aware of the admiring looks from the spectators at the ball, but Reyn was at the center of her thoughts. Without quite intending to, she closed her fingers firmly on his, and his grip on her hand strengthened in response. Her heart lifted unexpectedly.

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  “Malta. ” It was only her name he spoke. It was not an apology for anything, but it was an affirmation of all he felt for her. A wave of feeling washed through her in response. She suddenly perceived that the incident with the Satrap was separate entirely from what was between herself and Reyn. It had been her error to even mention it in his presence. It had nothing to do with him or with her relationship with him. She should have known it would only upset him. At this moment, for now, neither of them had to think about anything outside of what they were together. That was the language of this dance. For this space of time, they moved perfectly together and understood each other. That was what she should be savoring.

  “Reyn,” she conceded, and smiled up at him. The quarrel was swept away by their moving feet, trodden down and forgotten. Too soon the music was ending and he spun her gracefully through the closing measure, then caught her briefly in his arms to halt her movement. It caught her breath as well. “When we move together, like this,” she whispered shyly. “I almost feel we are destined to always move as one. ”

  He held her a moment longer in his arms than was strictly proper. It set her heart to racing. She could not see his eyes, but she knew he looked down into her face. He spoke softly. “All you have to do, my dear, is trust me to lead you in your steps,” he told her indulgently.

  His patronizing words popped the bubble he had created around them. She stepped free of his embrace, to drop him a very formal curtsey. “I thank you for the pleasure of the dance, sir,” she told him coolly. “You will excuse me now. ” As she rose, she nodded a farewell to him. She turned and walked away as if she knew where she was going. From the corner of her eye, she saw him start to come after her, only to have a Rain Wild man hasten up to him and catch him by the arm. Whatever the man wanted of him seemed more important than his pursuit of her. He halted and turned to him. Fine. She kept walking. The agitation in her heart would not let her stand still. Why did he have to spoil everything like that? Why did he have to say such condescending words to her?

  She could not see anyone she knew. Not her mother or grandmother, not a girl of her acquaintance, not even Davad Restart. She saw the Satrap, surrounded by a circle of Bingtown society matrons. She could scarcely intrude on that group. The musicians had struck up another tune. She moved toward a table laden with wine and glasses. It would have been more proper for a young man to bring her refreshment. It was suddenly so awkward t
o be alone. She imagined that every eye in the room tracked her solitary movement.

  She was almost there when Cerwin stepped in front of her. She had to stop to keep from bumping into him. “Perhaps we can dance now?” he asked gently.

  She hesitated. It would anger Reyn or perhaps fill him with jealousy. But she no longer wished to play such games. This was complicated enough without that. As if Cerwin sensed her reservations, he nodded somberly to the dance floor. “It did not take him so long to decide on a new partner. ”

  In disbelief, she turned to see what he indicated. Her heart stood still in her chest. Reyn moved gracefully through the languid dance steps with one of the Satrap's Companions in his arms. It was not even the beautiful one. It was the unadorned woman in the cream gown that he held close and listened to so attentively.

  “No,” Cerwin whispered. “Don't stare. Put your head up and look at me. Smile. And off we go. ”

  With a frozen little smile, she set her hand in his. He gathered her in and they moved out onto the dance floor with all the grace of two dogs circling one another. His dance stride was short after matching herself to Reyn. She felt like she lurched about in his arms. He seemed blissfully unaware of this awkwardness. Instead, he smiled down at her. “At last, I find you in my arms,” he said softly. “I thought my dreams would never come true. Yet here you are, presented as a woman! And that Rain Wild fool has cast you aside for someone he can never hope to possess. Ah, my Malta. Your hair gleams so that it dazzles me. The fragrance of your hair intoxicates me. I could never dream to possess a more precious treasure than your tiny hand in mine. ”

  The compliments rained down on her. She set her teeth in a smile and endured them. She tried not to watch Reyn dance with the other woman. His veil made it hard to tell, but it seemed that she had captured his attention completely. Not once did his head turn in her direction.

  She had lost him. That simply, that quickly. One tart word too many, and the man was gone. She actually felt as if her heart had been tugged out of her chest, leaving only an empty space. Foolishness. She had not even decided whether or not she loved him. So that could not be it. No. It was that he had claimed to love her, and she had foolishly believed him. Obviously, he had lied to her. It was only injured pride that she felt, she was sure of it. It was only that she felt angry because he had made a fool of her. Why should she care at all? She was right now dancing in the arms of another man, a very handsome man who obviously doted on her. She didn't need Reyn. She had never even seen his face; how could she love him?

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  She felt suddenly dizzy as she glimpsed Reyn bending his head, to speak to the Companion more privately. The woman answered earnestly and at length. Malta nearly stumbled, and Cerwin tightened his grip on her. He was uttering some nonsense about how pink her lips were. What in Sa's name did he expect her to reply to such inanity? Should she compliment his teeth, or the cut of his shirt? She actually heard herself say, “You look very handsome tonight, Cerwin. Your family must be proud of you. ”

  He smiled as if she had praised him to the stars. “Such words from your lips mean so much to me,” he assured her.

  The music ended. He reluctantly released her and she stepped back from him. Her traitorous eyes sought out Reyn. He bowed low over the Companion's hand, and then gestured toward the doors that led out into the lantern-lit garden and walks of the Traders' Concourse. She tried to find some hardness or resolve to cling to, but all she felt was the desolation of her soul.

  “May I bring you some wine?” Cerwin asked her.

  “Please. I should like to sit down for a while. ”

  “Of course. ” He offered his arm to escort her.

  WHEN GRAG GRIPPED REYN's ARM, REYN HAD SPUN TO FACE HIM AND nearly struck him. “Not now! Let me go!” he protested. Malta was walking away from him. That milky-skinned Trell boy was cutting hastily through the crowd to reach her. This was no time for a friendly word on the dance floor.

  But Grag gripped his arm more tightly and spoke in a low, urgent voice. “One of the Satrap's Companions just danced with me. ”

  “That's wonderful. I hope it was the pretty one. Now let go. ” He craned his neck trying to follow her progress through the crowd.

  “No. You should ask her for the next dance. I want you to hear for yourself what she told me. Afterwards, come and find me in the gardens, near the pin oak on the east walk. We need to decide who else to tell, and what actions to take. ”

  Crag's voice was taut with tension. Reyn didn't want this now. He attempted levity. “I need to speak to Malta first. Then we'll discuss burning warehouses. ”

  Grag didn't release him. “It's not a jest, Reyn. It won't wait. I fear we may be too late already. There's a conspiracy against the Satrap. ”

  “Go join it,” Reyn advised him in annoyance. How could he think about politics just now? Malta was hurt. He could almost feel her pain himself, it was so intense. He had hurt her and now she was wandering through the crowd like a lost kitten. He needed to speak to her. She was so vulnerable.

  “The Chalcedeans and some of his own nobles plan to kill him. Bingtown will take the blame for it. They'll raze us to the ground, with the blessings of all Jamaillia. Please, Reyn. It has to be now. Go and ask her to dance. I have to find my mother and sisters and ask them to start arranging for some of the other Traders to meet us outside. Go ask her. She's in the plain cream-colored gown, over by the high dais. Please. ”

  Malta had vanished. Reyn shot Grag a look that he seemed to feel even through his veil. The Trader's son let go of Reyn's arm. He shrugged his shoulders then gave an angry shake of his head. Grag hastened away.

  Slowly, his heart sinking inside him, Reyn turned and made his way toward the Satrap's Companion. She was watching for him. As he approached, she made some witty remark to the woman she was conversing with, nodded and began to move away. He intercepted her and gave her a short bow. “Would you honor me with a dance, Companion?”

  “Certainly. It would give me great pleasure,” she replied formally. She lifted her hand and he took it in his gloved one. The first strains of the music began. It was a slow melody, traditionally a lovers' dance. It would give couples both old and young an excuse to hold one another as they moved slowly to the dreamlike music. He could be taking Malta in his arms right now, soothing her hurt and his own. Instead, he found himself matched with a Jamaillian woman nearly as tall as himself. She made an excellent dance partner for him, graceful and light-footed. Somehow that only made it worse. He waited for her to speak.

  “Did your cousin pass on my warning to you?” she finally asked.

  Her directness shocked him. He strove to be contained. “Not really. He merely said you had told him something interesting, something he wished me to hear for myself. ” He put quizzical concern in his voice, nothing more.

  She gave an impatient snort. “I fear we have no time for tiptoeing about like this. It occurred to me on the way here tonight that this would be the perfect time for them to put their plot in motion. Here you are, all gathered together, Bingtown Traders and Rain Wild Traders, with the Satrap in your midst. All know how strong the feelings run against the New Traders and the Satrap's Bingtown policies. What better time to set off a riot? In the confusion, the Satrap and his Companions will be killed. Then the Chalcedeans can move with just anger to punish you all. ”

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  “A nasty little scene. But who does it profit? Why?” His voice said he found it improbable.

  “It profits those who banded together to plan it. The Jamaillian nobles are tired of a self-indulgent boy who knows nothing of ruling except how to spend the treasury on himself. Chalced gains Bingtown for its own province, to plunder as it pleases. They have long claimed that this territory of the Cursed Shores was rightfully theirs. ”

  “Jamaillia would be foolish to give Bingtown up to Chalced. What other province yields s
uch a rich harvest to the Satrapy?”

  “Perhaps they believe it is better to yield Bingtown as part of a bargain than to simply lose it to the Chalcedeans as a conquest of war. Chalced grows stronger and more warlike. Internal strife and Northland raiders paralyzed the Six Duchies for years. That kingdom used to keep Chalced occupied. In the years since the Red Ship Wars, the Six Duchies have been occupied with rebuilding. Chalced has become a powerful nation, rich with slaves and ambition. They push to the north, in border skirmishes. But they also look south. To Bingtown and its rich trade. And the Rain Wild River lands. ”

  “Lands?” Reyn gave a snort of contempt. “There is so little . . . ” He halted his words abruptly, recalling to whom he was speaking. “They are fools,” he finished succinctly.

  “On the ship, coming here-” For a moment, the woman seemed to have sudden difficulty speaking, as if she could not catch her breath. “I was held captive for a time in the captain's quarters. ” He waited, then leaned closer to capture her soft words. "There were charts in his room.

  Bingtown Harbor. The mouth of the Rain Wild River. Why else would he have such things, if he did not intend to use them?"

  “The Rain Wild River protects its own,” Reyn declared boldly. “We have nothing to fear. The secret ways of the river are known to none but our own. ”

  “But tonight, there are many of you here. Representatives from many Rain Wild families, I am told. If they were taken hostage in the plundering of Bingtown, can you be sure that none of them would reveal your Rain Wild secrets?”

  Her logic was relentless. Suddenly, small inconsistencies made sense. Why else allow the Kendry through the blockade and into the harbor? “They would have allies among the New Traders here,” he said half aloud, thinking of all the new folk who had just come ashore as well. “People whose ties to the slave trade in Chalced are as strong or stronger than their links to Jamaillia. People who have lived amongst us and learned enough of our ways to know that both Bingtown Traders and Rain Wild Traders would be gathered here tonight. ”

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