Ship of destiny, p.73
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       Ship of Destiny, p.73

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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  Swiftly and surely, he began to tack other provisions on to the pact. The fabulously powerful Satrap of Jamaillia could not expect him, king of scattered towns of outcasts, to patrol these waters against miscreant pirates with no remuneration. Whatever agreement Jamaillia had had with the Chalcedean patrol vessels would be passed on to Kennit and his “patrol” ships. How could the Satrap object? It would not mean any more coins out of his coffers; they would simply be going to a different set of ships. And, of course, in reciprocal courtesy, ships bearing Kennit’s raven flag would pass unmolested in Jamaillian waters on their journeys to points south. As for selective pardons to criminals who had fled to the Pirate Isles, why, that was all much too confusing. A blanket pardon of every one of Kennit’s subjects would be much easier to manage.

  When the Satrap objected that these “Tattooed” would be indistinguishable from the lawful slaves of Jamaillia, Kennit had appeared to take him seriously. He had gravely proposed that the Satrap, by edict, have all free folk of Jamaillia tattooed with a special mark that would proclaim them free subjects of the Satrap. Captain Red had had a coughing fit to cover his laughter, but the Satrap had flushed scarlet. Standing, he had declared himself irrevocably offended. The Satrap had stalked to the door and out of it. Malta had followed him miserably. Her humiliated stare betrayed that she realized what the Satrap did not. There was noplace for him to go. This “negotiation” was to become little more than a documented robbery. While they waited out the Satrap’s temper tantrum, Kennit ordered Wintrow to pour the finest spirits for his lieutenants, and sent him to fetch samples of the cheeses and exotic preserved fruits he had captured on his most recent foray. They were relaxed and warm and comfortable when the Satrap returned followed by a defeated Malta. They resumed their seats at the table. In a chill voice, the Satrap offered Kennit one hundred signed pardons that he could distribute as he saw fit.

  “A thousand,” Kennit countered as coolly. He leaned back in his chair. “And you would give me the authorization to issue others as needed. ”

  “Done,” the Satrap snapped sulkily as Malta’s mouth opened in angry protest. The young ruler glared at her. “It costs me nothing. Why should not I give it to him?”

  That set the tone for all that followed. Malta’s efforts to give ground grudgingly were undermined by the Satrap’s obvious despair and ultimately his boredom with the whole process. Jamaillian ships that stopped for water, supplies or trade in the Pirate Isles would pay a fee to Kennit. Jamaillia would not interfere with Kennit’s right to regulate trade and ships passing through the Pirate Isles. Sorcor’s triumph was that persons condemned to be sold on the block for debt would be offered the option of exile to the Pirate Isles. Captain Red inserted that individual actors would no longer be responsible for the debts of a troupe. From there, the political significance of Kennit’s demands dwindled to mere piracy of privilege. A suite of rooms in the Satrap’s palace would be reserved exclusively for Kennit in the event that he ever chose to visit Jamaillia City. Any serpent sighted in Inside Passage waters was to be considered Kennit’s property and left unmolested. Kennit was always to be referred to as the Merciful and Just King Kennit of the Pirate Isles. The negotiations flagged only when Kennit’s inventiveness began to fail him.

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  As Wintrow rose to fetch fresh candles for the table, he reflected that soon they would not need them. The talks had consumed the night: a late winter dawn was breaking over the water. He stood beside Malta as he fitted the candles into the heavy silver holders and wished he could reach her as he did the ship, with no more than a focused thought. He wished she knew that although he sat with those who opposed her, he was proud of her. She had bargained like a true Trader. If Kennit’s offer of restoring their father had weighed on her mind, she had refused to show it. Small hope that Kennit would honor that offer. How Malta had come to be in the Satrap’s company was still a mystery, but the rigors of that journey showed on her face. If the negotiations went successfully, what then? Would she leave with the Satrap?

  He longed for this to be over, so he could talk with her. His hunger for news from home was more powerful than his need for food and sleep. He lit the last candle and resumed his seat. Kennit surprised him by clapping him genially on the shoulder. “Tired, son? Well, we are nearly at the end of this. All that remains to negotiate now is the actual ransom itself. Some prefer coins, but I am more lenient in these matters. Precious gems, pearls, furs, tapestries, even…”

  “This is outrageous!” Despite his weariness, the Satrap lurched to his feet. His mouth had gone white and pinched. His clenched hands trembled with fury. For one horrifying instant, Wintrow feared he would burst into angry tears. Malta reached a supportive hand toward him, but stopped short of touching him. She sent Kennit a killing glare. When she spoke, her voice was calm.

  “Lord Magnadon Satrap, I see the logic of this. Your nobles will value you less if they have not had to pay anything to recover you. Consider this. It will give you a way to gauge who is truly loyal to you. You will reward those who are willing to contribute to your recovery later. Those who are not will feel your magnificent wrath. King Kennit is, after all, my lord, still a pirate. ” She gave Kennit a tight-lipped smile, as if to be sure her barb hit home. “All your nobles would distrust a treaty in which he did not demand some sort of reward for himself, rather than merely benefits for his people. ”

  It was pathetic. She saw that the Satrap was powerless to refuse Kennit. She sought to save the boy’s pride for him. The Satrap’s mouth worked soundlessly for a moment. He shot Malta a venomous look. Then, in a quiet voice, he hissed, “Certainly this is so. It has nothing to do with you groveling to regain your father, does it?” He swung his look to Kennit. “How much?” he snapped bitterly.

  “SAILS!” All heads turned to the lookout’s cry, but Kennit merely looked annoyed. “See to that, would you, Sorcor?” he requested lazily. He turned back to the Satrap and smiled, a great black tomcat toying with a mouse. But before Sorcor could reach the door, Wintrow heard running footsteps outside it. Jola did not knock; he pounded on the wood. Sorcor jerked the door open.

  Jola blurted out, “Sir, Jamaillian ships! A whole fleet of them headed our way from the south. Lookout says he sees war machines on their decks. ” He drew breath. “We can escape them if we up anchor now. ”

  Hope kindled in the Satrap’s eyes. “Now we shall see!” he declared.

  “Indeed we shall,” Kennit agreed affably. He turned to his mate with a rebuke. “Jola, Jola, why would we flee, when fate has given me every advantage in this confrontation? We are in familiar waters, our serpents surround us and we have the supreme Magnadon Satrap as our… guest. A small demonstration of power is in order. ” He turned to the Satrap. “Your fleet may be more prone to honor our agreement if they have first enjoyed the attentions of a few serpents. Then we shall see how well they negotiate for your release. ” He gave a thin-lipped smile to the Satrap and thrust the treaty toward him. “I am going to enjoy finalizing this. Your signature, sir. Then I shall affix mine. When they confront us, if they do, we shall see what regard they have for their Satrap’s word. And for his life. ” He grinned at Sorcor. “I believe we have several Jamaillian flags among our plunder. As the Lord High Magnadon Satrap of all Jamaillia is our guest, it is only fitting that we fly them in his honor. ”

  Kennit rose from the table, abruptly a sea captain again. He gave his first mate a disdainful look. “Jola. Calm yourself. See that the Satrap’s flag is added to our own, then have the men prepare themselves for battle. Sorcor, Red, I recommend you return to your ships and do likewise. I must consult with my ship and the serpents. Ah, yes. Our guests. Wintrow, make them comfortable and secure in Althea’s room, will you? She and Jek will join them there until this is over. ”

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  He did not specifically command that they be locked in. Wintrow clutched that omission to himself
. He would have a few moments with his sister.

  Liveship Traders 3 - Ship of Destiny

  CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO - An Ultimatum

  ALTHEA WAS NOT GRACIOUS ABOUT LEAVING THE FOREDECK. SHE HAD SEEN the oncoming sails, and her fears for Vivacia battled with her hopes of Kennit’s defeat. Wintrow’s urgent pleas went unheeded until Vivacia herself turned to her. “Althea. Please go below. This might be my chance to strike a bargain with Kennit. It will be easier for me if you are not present. ” Althea had scowled, but left the foredeck, Jek trailing after her.

  Wintrow made a hasty side trip to the galley, to cobble together a large tray of food and drink. By the time he reached the cabin, Althea and Malta were already facing one another across the room. The Satrap had thrown himself onto the bunk and was staring at the wall. Jek sat morosely in the corner. Malta was furious. “I don’t understand why either of you would take his part. He pirated our liveship, killed her crew and holds my father captive. ”

  “You are not listening,” Althea said coldly. “I despise Kennit. All the assumptions you have made are false. ”

  Wintrow clashed the tray down onto the small table. “Eat and drink something. All of you. Then talk, one at a time. ”

  The Satrap rolled to look at the table. His eyes were red. Wintrow wondered if he had been weeping silently. His voice was choked with an emotion, possibly outrage. “Is this another of Kennit’s humiliations for me? I am expected to eat here, in these crowded circumstances, in the company of common folk?”

  “Magnadon Satrap, it is no worse than sharing a table with pirates. Or eating alone in your room. Come. You must eat if you are to keep up your strength. ”

  Wintrow and Althea exchanged incredulous looks at Malta’s solicitous tone. Witnessing this, Wintrow felt suddenly uncomfortable. Were they lovers? His aunt’s admission had made all sorts of unthinkable things possible. “I’m going up on deck, to see what is happening. I’ll try to bring back word to you. ” He hastened from the room.

  The Jamaillian ships drew ever closer, spreading out as they came. Their obvious strategy was to bar his way south and surround him. The ships on the wings of the formation had picked up their speed. If he was going to flee, he must turn tail soon, before the Jamaillians could close their net. This was no time for talk, but the liveship spoke anyway.

  “Kennit. You cannot question my loyalty to you. But my serpents grow weary. They need food and rest. More than anything else, they need me to lead them home soon. ”

  “Of course they do. ” Kennit heard the haste in his own voice and tried to change his tone. “Believe me, sweet sea lady, your concerns are my own. We, you and I, shall see them safely home. I shall give you the time you have asked me to give you, that you may watch over them. Immediately after this. ”

  One of the smaller ships separated from the fleet and came on. No doubt, it would hail them soon. Kennit needed to be ready, not engaged in conversation. The opportunity for complete victory was as large as the danger of complete failure. If the serpents did not help him, his three ships stood small chance against such a fleet.

  “What do you ask of us?” Vivacia asked wearily.

  Kennit did not like the sound of that. He tried to change it. “We will ask them to subdue this fleet for us. It would take little effort from them. Their presence alone may be enough to persuade the ships to surrender. Once we show the Jamaillians that we have the Satrap, I suspect we’ll gain their full cooperation. Then the serpents would escort us as we journey to Jamaillia City, in a show of force. Once the Satrap and his nobles have conceded to the terms of our treaty, why then, we will be free to follow our hearts. I will summon every vessel at my command. We will protect and guide the serpents on their journey home. ”

  Vivacia’s face had grown graver as he spoke. Desperation came into her eyes as she slowly shook her head. “Kennit. Bolt in her rashness made you offers that we cannot keep. Forgive me, but it is so. The serpents do not have that sort of time. Their lives begin to dwindle within them. We must go soon. Tomorrow, if we can. ”

  “Tomorrow?” Kennit suddenly felt as if the deck were falling away from him. “Impossible. I would have to let the Satrap go, release him to his own ships, and then flee like a dog with its tail between its legs. Vivacia, it would destroy all we have worked for, just when our goal is within our grasp. ”

  “I could ask the serpents to help you this last time. After the fleet concedes to you, you could take the Satrap onto the Marietta. Have the Motley carry the word to Divvytown, and have it dispersed from there that all your ships are to join you on your journey south. That would be as impressive as weary and dying serpents. ” She stopped the sarcasm that had crept into her voice. “Let Wintrow and Althea take me north, with my serpents. They could stay with me while I keep watch over the cocoons, freeing you to firm your kingship. I vow I would return to you by high summer, Kennit. ”

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  She spoke her treachery aloud to him. Here, at the pinnacle of his need for her, she would leave him, to return to her Bingtown family. He cursed himself silently for not heeding Bolt. He never should have brought Althea on board. He gripped his crutch and forced calmness on himself. The terrible plummet from dawning triumph to imminent disaster choked him.

  “I see,” he managed to say. Behind him, the mood on the deck was jubilant. Unaware of her betrayal, his crew exchanged rough jests as they eagerly awaited the encounter. The ostentatious Captain Red had spread wide the news of Kennit’s negotiations. All expected him to succeed. To fail now, so publicly, was unthinkable.

  “Help me as you can today,” he suggested. He refused to think he begged. “And tomorrow will have to take care of itself. ”

  A strange look passed over Vivacia’s face, like anticipated pain. She closed her wide green eyes for an instant. When she opened them, her gaze was distant. “No, Kennit,” she said softly. “Not unless you give me your word that tomorrow we take the serpents north. That is the price for them helping you today. ”

  “Of course. ” He did not think about the lie. She knew him too well. If he paused to consider it, she would know the falsehood. “You have my word, Vivacia. If it is that important to you, it is important to me as well. ” Tomorrow, as he had told her, would have to take care of itself. He would deal with the consequences then. He watched the single ship separate itself from the Jamaillian fleet and come toward him. Soon it would be within hailing distance.

  “CAN YOU SEE ANYTHING?” JEK ASKED.

  Althea, her forehead pressed to the porthole, did not answer. This tiny, expensive window had been a major indulgence from her father. The rest of her room had changed, but she could not touch this without thinking of him. What would her father think of her now? She burned with shame. This was her family’s ship, and here she was, hiding belowdecks while a pirate negotiated from her deck. “What is going on out there?” she wondered aloud. “What is he saying to them?”

  The door opened and Wintrow entered, cheeks red from the wind. He began speaking immediately. “The Jamaillians challenged our passage. Kennit called himself King of the Pirate Isles and demanded they give way. They refused. He returned that he had the Satrap aboard and that the Satrapy had recognized him as the legitimate King of the Pirate Isles. They scoffed at him, saying the Satrap was dead. Kennit replied that the Satrap was very much alive, and that he was taking him to Jamaillia to restore him to his throne. They demanded proof. He shouted back that the proof they would get, they would not like. Then they offered to let him leave if he first surrendered the Satrap to them. He replied he was not a fool.

  “Now the Jamaillian negotiating ship has pulled back. Kennit has said they may have time to think, but warns them to stand where they are. All wait to see who will make the next move. ”

  “Waiting. More waiting,” Althea ground out the word. “Surely he won’t sit still and wait while they surround us. The only logical course is to flee. ” Then she stare
d at the Satrap. “This is true, what Kennit says? You have recognized him as king? How could you be so stupid?”

  “It’s complicated,” Malta flung back at her while the indignant Satrap glared. “He would have been more stupid to refuse. ” In a lower voice, she added, “We took our only chance at survival. But I don’t expect you to understand that. ”

  “How could I?” Althea retorted. “I still don’t know how you even came to be here, let alone with the Satrap of Jamaillia. ” She took a breath. She evened her tone. “As long as we are stuck here and must wait, why don’t you tell me how you came to be here. How did you leave Bingtown at all?”

  MALTA DID NOT WANT TO SPEAK FIRST. A TINY MOTION OF HER EYES TOWARD the Satrap cued Wintrow to her reluctance. Althea did not notice it. Her aunt had never been one for subtleties. She scowled at Malta’s reticence, and Malta was relieved when Wintrow interfered. “I was the first to leave Bingtown. Althea knows a bit of what I’ve been through, but Malta knows nothing. Althea is right. As we must wait, let’s use the time wisely. I’ll tell my travels first. ” His eyes were both sympathetic and shamed as he added, “I know you are anxious for news of our father. I wish I had more to tell. ”

  He launched into an honest but brief account of all that had passed. Malta felt incredulous when he spoke of being tattooed as a slave at her father’s command. What had become of the tattoo, then? She bit her tongue to keep from calling him a liar. His tale of their father’s disappearance was as incredible as the story of rescuing a serpent. When he told of how the ship had cured him and erased the scar, she was skeptical but kept silent.

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  Althea’s face betrayed that she had not heard a full accounting of Wintrow’s journey. She, at least, looked perfectly willing to believe that Kyle Haven was capable of anything. When Wintrow spoke of his father’s disappearance at Kennit’s hands, she only shook her head. Jek, the hulking Six Duchies woman, listened attentively, as if she appreciated a good yarn. Meanwhile, beside Malta, the Satrap ate and drank, with no concern for the others. Before Wintrow had finished speaking, the Satrap had claimed the bunk and turned to face the wall.

 
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