The mad ship, p.73
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       The Mad Ship, p.73

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  “If I were you, I would not be positive that there were not such folk among the Bingtown Old Traders as well,” she pointed out quietly.

  A trickle of cold suspicion ran through him. Davad Restart. Of course. “If you knew of this plot, why did you come to Bingtown?” he demanded of her.

  “Obviously, if I had known, I would not have come,” she retorted. “I have only this evening gathered enough of the pieces to grasp the whole picture. I am telling you this not only because I do not wish to die, but because I do not wish to see Bingtown fall. All my life, Bingtown has been the center of my studies. I have always wanted to come here: it is the city of my dreams. So I connived and begged to get the Satrap to allow me to come. Now that I am here, I do not want to be a witness to its death throes, any more than I want to die here before I have fully comprehended its wonders. ”

  “What do you suggest we do?”

  “Act before they do. Take the Satrap and his Companions hostage, yes, but keep us safe. Alive, he is a bargaining chip. Dead, he is the spark that ignites the fire of war. Not all the Jamaillian nobles can be involved in this. Send a message out somehow, to alert those who are loyal to the Satrapy. Tell them what is transpiring here. They will mount an effort to aid you, if you promise to return Cosgo unharmed. There will be war with Chalced, but eventually, there is always war with Chalced. Take the time I have given you by this warning, and secure the town as best you can. Gather supplies; hide your children and families. Get word to the folk up the Rain Wild River. ”

  He was incredulous. “But you say it is most likely that they will act tonight. There is no time for any of that!”

  “You are wasting time dancing with me now,” she pointed out acidly. “You should be getting the word out right now. I suspect there will be incidents in the streets tonight. Fires, brawls, whatever it will take to ignite riots in the city. It will spread out to the ships in the harbor. Someone, intentionally or by accident, will give the Chalcedeans an excuse to attack. Perhaps they will simply receive a message that the Satrap has been killed. ” She looked unerringly into his veiled eyes. “By morning light, Bingtown will be burning. ”

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  The music was ending. As he and his partner slowed and then stopped, it seemed prophetic. He stood a moment in the silence, her hand still in his. Then he stepped away from her with a bow. “The others are gathering outside, in the gardens. We should join them,” he suggested. He gestured to the door.

  As if someone had literally tugged his heartstrings, he turned and looked across the room. Malta. Walking away with her hand on Cerwin Trell's arm. He could not simply leave the gathering like this, not without a word. He turned back to Companion Serilla. “Just outside the doorway, there is a pathway that goes to the east. It isn't far and the lanterns will all be lit tonight. Will you be comfortable, walking alone? I shall join you as quickly as I can. ”

  Her look said it was unforgivably rude. But she said, “I am sure I shall be fine. Do you think you will be long?”

  “I hope not,” he assured her. He did not wait to see what she would think of such a vague answer. He bowed again and left her by the door. The music was starting again, but he cut swiftly across the dance floor, narrowly avoiding the whirling couples. He found Malta sitting alone. When he stood before her, she looked up quickly. The sudden light of hope in her eyes could not quench the fear that was there. “Reyn-” she began, but he cut her off before she could apologize.

  “I have to go somewhere. It's very important. I may not be back this evening. You'll have to understand. ”

  “Not be back . . . where? Where are you going? What is so important?”

  “I can't tell you. You'll have to trust me, just now. ” He paused. “I'd like you to go home as soon as possible. Would you do that for me?”

  “Go home? Just leave my presentation ball and go home while you go and do 'something more important'? Reyn, this is impossible. The meal has not been shared, the gifts of our kinship have not been offered-Reyn, we've only shared one dance! How can you do this to me? I've looked forward to this all my life, and now you say I should hurry home, because you've found something more important to do?”

  “Malta, please understand! This isn't something I chose. Fate doesn't respect our wishes. Now . . . I have to go. I'm sorry, but I have to go. ” He longed to tell her. It wasn't that he didn't trust her. It was her family's connection to Davad Restart that worried him. If Davad was a traitor, it was important that he believe their plot was still secret. What Malta did not know, she could not accidentally betray.

  She looked up at him and her eyes flashed darkly. “I think I know exactly what it is that is more important to you than I am. I wish you joy of it. ” She looked aside from him. “Good evening, Reyn Khuprus. ”

  She was dismissing him, as if he were a recalcitrant servant. He doubted she would heed his advice to go home. He stood still in an agony of indecision.

  “Excuse me. ”

  The jostle was deliberate. Reyn turned. Cerwin Trell glowered at him. He held two glasses of wine. For a moment, Reyn's control teetered in the balance. Then something like despair clutched his heart. There wasn't time. He could stay and pursue this squabble now, but it could not be resolved. If he stayed, by morning they might all be dead.

  The hardest part of turning and walking away was knowing that by morning they might all be dead, no matter what he did. He did not look back at all. If Malta had looked stricken, he would have had to return to her. If she had been simpering at Trell, he would have had to kill the boy. No time. Never any time to live his own life. He left the Traders' Concourse and plunged into the torch-tattered darkness outside.

  MALTA DANCED THREE MORE TIMES WITH CERWIN. HE SEEMED BLITHELY unaware of how her feet dragged through the steps. After her effortless grace in Reyn's arms, dancing with Cerwin seemed an awkward physical effort. She could not quite match his step or the beat of the music. The adoring compliments he showered upon her rattled against her nerves like hailstones. She could hardly stand to look into his earnest, boyish face. All the life and beauty had gone out of the ball. The whole gathering seemed diminished by Reyn's departure. It suddenly seemed there were fewer couples on the dance floor, less laughter and talk in the room.

  Bleakness welled up from the bottom of her soul, inundating her again. She could recall that she had been briefly happy earlier today, but the memory seemed shallow and false. As the music faded, it was a relief to see her mother at the edge of the dance floor, gesturing unobtrusively for Malta to come to her.

  “My mother summons me. I'm afraid I have to go. ”

  Cerwin stepped back from her, but caught both her hands in his. “Then I shall let you go, but only because I must, and I pray you, only for a brief time. ” He bowed to her gravely.

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  “Cerwin Trell,” she acknowledged him, and then turned and left him.

  Keffria's face was solemn as her daughter approached her. The concern in her eyes didn't change, but she managed a smile as she asked, “Have you had a good time, Malta?”

  How to answer that? “It has not been what I expected,” she replied truthfully.

  “I don't think anyone's presentation ball is quite what one expects. ” She reached for Malta's hand. “I hate to ask this of you, but I think we should leave soon. ”

  “Leave?” Malta asked in confusion. “But why? There is still the shared meal, the presentation of the gifts-”

  “Hush,” Keffria bid her. “Malta, look around you. Tell me what you see. ”

  She glanced about herself hastily, then perused the room more carefully. In a low voice she asked, “Where have all the Rain Wild Traders gone?”

  “I don't know. A number of Bingtown Traders have vanished as well, without any explanation or any farewell. Grandmother and I fear there is some trouble afoot. I went outside for a breath of air, and I smelled smoke. The blockade o
f the harbor has increased tension in the city. We fear a riot or outbreak of some kind. ” Keffria looked slowly about the room. She kept the calm smile on her face as if she discussed the ball with Malta. “We feel we would all be safer at home. ”

  “But,” Malta began and then fell silent. It was hopeless. All joy and light had gone out of the evening anyway. To stay here would just extend the death throes of her dream. “I shall do as you think best,” she abruptly conceded. “I suppose I should tell Delo farewell. ”

  “I think her mother already took her home. I saw Trader Trell speaking to his son just a moment ago, and now I do not see Cerwin either. They'll understand. ”

  “Well, I don't,” Malta replied sourly.

  Her mother shook her head. “I am sorry for you. It is hard to see you come of age in such troubled times. I feel you are being cheated of all the things we dreamed you would do. But there is nothing I can do to change it. ”

  “I know that feeling,” Malta said, more to herself than to her mother. “Sometimes I feel completely helpless. As if there is nothing I can do to change any of the bad things. Other times, I fear I am simply too cowardly to try. ”

  Keffria smiled a genuine smile. “Cowardly is the last word I would use to describe you,” she said fondly.

  “How will we get home? The hired coach will not be back for hours. ”

  “Grandmother is talking to Davad Restart. She will ask if his coach could take us home. It would not take long. It would be back long before the ball is scheduled to end. ”

  Grandmother came hastening up to them. “Davad is reluctant to see us leave, but he has agreed to loan us the use of his coach. ” She scowled suddenly. “But there is a condition on it. He demands that Malta come and bid the Satrap farewell before she leaves. I told him I thought that improper and putting herself forward, but he insists on it. I feel we have no time to argue. The sooner we are home, the safer we shall be. Now, where has Selden got off to?”

  “He was with the Daw boys a moment ago. I'll find him. ” Keffria abruptly sounded both weary and harassed. “Malta, do you mind? Grandmother will be with you, so you needn't be afraid. ”

  Malta suddenly wondered how much they had deduced about her earlier encounter with the Satrap. “I'm not afraid,” she retorted. “Shall we meet you outside?”

  “I suppose that will work. I'll go and find Selden. ”

  As she and her grandmother crossed the floor, Ronica Vestrit spoke. “I think we shall host a tea ten days from now. The group of women presented this year is not large. Shall we invite them all?”

  Malta was startled. “A tea? At our home?”

  “In the garden, I think. We should be able to trim it up decently. Now that the berries are ripening, we could make little tarts to serve. In my day, such little tea parties often had a theme. ” Grandmother smiled to herself. “My mother held one for me, in which everything was lavender or violet. We ate tiny candied violets, and sugar cakes tinted purple with blueberry juice and the tea was flavored with lavender. I thought it tasted dreadful, but the idea of it was so lovely I didn't mind. ” She chuckled aloud.

  Grandmother was trying to make her feel better. “Our lavender is blooming very well this year,” Malta pointed out with an effort. “If we are deliberately old-fashioned, then no one will remark if we use the old lace tablecloths and doilies. And the old china, perhaps. ” She tried to smile.

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  “Oh, Malta, this has all been so unfair to you,” Grandmother began. Then, “Chin up; cheery smile. Here comes Davad. ”

  He bore down on them like a big gander in a poultry yard. “Well, I do think it is tragic, just tragic, to hurry this sweet girl home like this. Is her headache truly that bad?”

  “Devastating,” Malta replied quickly. So that had been her grandmother's ruse. “I am not accustomed to such late hours, you know,” she added sweetly. “I told Grandmother I only wished to bid you good night and thank you for your kind offer of your coach. Then we shall be on our way. ”

  “Oh, my poor little sugarplum! Surely, you will at least bid the Satrap good evening. After all, I have already told him you must leave, and I've come to escort you while you say good-bye. ”

  That sealed her doom. No gracious way out. “I suppose I could manage it,” Malta said faintly. She set her hand on Davad's arm, and he hastened her across the room to the high dais, with Ronica Vestrit hurrying after them.

  “Here she is, Magnadon Satrap,” Davad announced grandly before Malta had even caught her breath. He did not seem to notice that he had interrupted a conversation Trader Daw was having with the Satrap.

  The Satrap turned a languorous glance on Malta. “So I see,” he said slowly. His eyes moved over her casually. “Such a shame you must leave so soon. We have had only the briefest of conversations, and on such an important topic. ”

  Malta could think of nothing to say. She had sunk into a deep curtsey the moment the Satrap deigned to notice her. Now Davad rather ungracefully took her arm and hauled her to her feet again. The act made her appear clumsy; she felt the blood rush to her face. “Aren't you going to tell him good night?” Davad prompted her as if she were a backward child.

  “I wish you a good evening, Magnadon Satrap. I thank you for the honor of your dance. ” There. That was dutiful and correct. Then, before she could forbid herself the hope, she added, “And I pray you will soon act on your offer to send rescue for my father. ”

  “I fear I may not be able to, sweet child. Trader Daw tells me there is some unrest down in the harbor tonight. Surely my patrol vessels must stay in Bingtown until it is subdued. ”

  Before Malta could decide if he expected an answer to that, he was turning to Davad. “Trader Restart, would you have your coach summoned? Trader Daw feels it might be safest for myself to leave the ball early. I shall be sorry not to witness all of your quaint festival, of course, but I see I am not the only one to prefer caution over entertainment. ” His languid arm swept the ballroom. Malta glanced around reflexively. The crowd had thinned substantially, and many of those who remained were gathered in small anxious groups and talking. Only a few young couples still moved across the dance floor in apparently blissful ignorance.

  Davad looked uncomfortable. “I beg your pardon, Magnadon Satrap. I had just promised Trader Vestrit and her family the use of my coach to get her safely home. But it will return quite swiftly, I promise you. ”

  The Satrap rose, stretching like a cat. “It will not need to, Trader Restart. Surely, you cannot have intended to send these women off by themselves? I shall accompany them to their home, to see them safely there. Perhaps young Malta and I shall have a chance this evening to continue our interrupted conversation. ” The smile he gave her was a lazy one.

  Her grandmother swept forward in a rustle of gown. She curtseyed low, near demanding that the Satrap recognize her. After a moment, he nodded at her irritably. “Lady,” he acknowledged in a flat voice.

  She rose. “Magnadon Satrap, I am Malta's grandmother, Ronica Vestrit. We would, of course, be honored to have you call upon us, but I fear our household is a very humble one. We could scarcely accommodate your visit tonight; at least, not in the manner in which you are no doubt accustomed to being welcomed. We would, of course-”

  “My dear lady, the whole purpose of travel is to experience that which one is not accustomed to. I am sure I shall find your household accommodating. Davad, you will see to sending my personal servants over tonight, will you not? And my trunks and baggage. ”

  The way he spoke, it was not a request. Davad bobbed an acquiescent bow. “Certainly, my lord Magnadon. And-”

  “Your coach is outside by now, surely. Let us take our leave. Trader Daw, bring Companion Kekki's wrap and my cloak. ”

  Davad Restart made a last brave attempt. “Magnadon Satrap, I fear we shall be very crowded in the coach-”

  “Not if you ride on top with the driver. Compani
on Serilla seems to have vanished. Be it upon her own head. If she will not attend me as she should, then she must bear the consequences. Let us leave. ”

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  So saying, he rose from his seat on the dais, descended to the floor and set off for the main door. Davad hurried after him like a leaf caught in a ship's wake. Malta exchanged a look with her grandmother and then they both followed. “What are we to do?” Malta whispered worriedly to her.

  “We shall be courteous,” her grandmother assured her. “And no more than that,” she added in a dangerously low voice.

  Outside, the night was mild and pleasant, save for a distinct odor of smoke on the breeze. The Concourse had no view of Bingtown proper. There was no way to tell what was on fire, or where, but just the smell of it put shivers up Malta's back. Cloaks and wraps were brought hastily and the coach came around. Ignoring his own Companion, the Satrap took Malta's arm and assisted her into the coach first. He followed her and sat down by her on the ample seat. He gave Davad a look. “You will have to ride up top with the driver, Trader Restart. Otherwise, we shall be unforgivably crowded. Ah, yes, Kekki, you shall sit here, on the other side of me. ”

  That left the opposite seat for her grandmother, mother and Selden. Malta felt wedged in the corner, for the Satrap sat uncomfortably close to her, his thigh nearly brushing hers. She tried not to look alarmed, but folded her hands modestly in her lap and gazed out the window. She was suddenly exhausted. She desired nothing so much as to be alone. The coach rocked as Davad climbed up awkwardly to take a seat next to the coachman. It took a while for him to settle and then the driver spoke to the horses. The coach moved out smoothly, leaving behind the lights and the music. As the darkness closed around them and the sound of the ball dwindled, the driver kept the horses to a sedate pace. No one spoke inside the coach. It seemed to fill with the night. The overloaded coach creaked companionably as its wheels rumbled over the cobbled road. It was not peace but numbness that settled over Malta. All the merriment and life had been left far behind them now. She feared she might doze off.

  Companion Kekki broke the silence. “This summer celebration was very interesting to me. I am so pleased that I could witness it. ”

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