The mad ship, p.81
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       The Mad Ship, p.81

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  “Well. You look much better today. ” The healer was chronically optimistic.

  “Thank you. ” Malta didn't open her eyes. The woman didn't wear a veil. Her face had the pebbled texture of a muffin. The skin of her hands was as rough as the pads of a dog's feet. It made Malta's flesh crawl when the woman touched her. “I feel sure that all I need is more rest,” Malta added in the hopes of being left alone.

  “To lie still is actually the worst thing for you right now. Your vision has returned to normal, you told me. You no longer see two of everything?”

  “My vision seems fine,” Malta assured her.

  “You are eating well, and your food agrees with you?”

  “Yes. ”

  “Your dizziness has gone?”

  “It only bothers me if I move suddenly. ”

  “Then you should be up and about. ” The woman cleared her throat, a wet sound. Malta tried not to flinch. The healer snorted loudly, as if catching her breath, then went on, “You've no broken bones that we can find. You need to get up and move about, to remind your limbs of how to work. If you lie still too long, the body forgets. You may cripple yourself. ” A sour reply would only make the woman more insistent. “Perhaps I shall feel up to it this afternoon. ”

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  “Sooner than that. I will send someone to walk you. It is what you need, in order to heal. I have done my part. Now you must do yours. ”

  “Thank you,” Malta said distantly. The healer was singularly unsympathetic for one of her profession. Malta would be asleep when the healer's assistant arrived. She doubted anyone would disturb her. That had been her injury's sole benefit; since then, she had been able to sleep free of dreams. Sleep was escape once more. In sleep, she could forget Reyn's distrust of her, her father's captivity or death, even the smell of Bingtown burning. She could forget that she and her family were paupers now, herself forfeit to a bargain made before she was born. She could hide from her failures.

  She listened to the scuff of the healer's retreating footsteps. She tried to will herself down into sleep, but her peace had been broken too thoroughly. First, her mother had come this morning, heavy with grief and worry, but acting as if Malta were her only concern. Then Selden and then the healer. Sleep had fled.

  She gave in and opened her eyes. She stared at the domed ceiling. The wickerwork reminded her of a basket. Trehaug was certainly not what she had expected. She had envisioned a grand marble mansion for the Khuprus family in a city of fine buildings and wide roads. She had expected ornate chambers decorated with dark wood and stone, lofty ballrooms and long galleries. Instead, it was just what Selden had said it was: a tree-house city. Airy little chambers balanced in the upper limbs of the great trees along the river. Swaying bridges connected them. Everything in the sunny upper reaches of the trees was built as lightly as possible. Some of the smaller chambers were little more than very large wickerwork baskets that swung like birdcages when the wind blew. Children slept in hammocks and sat in slings. Anything that could be woven of grass or sticks was. The upper reaches of the city were insubstantial, a ghost of the ancient city they plundered.

  As one descended into the depths of Trehaug, that image changed. Or so Selden told her. Malta had not ventured from her chamber since she had awakened here. Sunny chambers like hers were high in the treetops, while close to the base of the trees, workshops, taverns, warehouses and shops existed in a perpetually shady twilight. In between were the more substantial rooms of the Rain Wild Traders' homes, the dining rooms, kitchens and gathering halls. These were built of plank and beam. Keffria had told her that they were palatial rooms, some spanning several trees, and as fine as any grand Bingtown mansion could have offered. Here the wealth of the Rain Wild Traders was showcased, not only in the old city's treasures but in all the luxuries that their exotic trade had bought them. Keffria had tried to lure Malta from her bed with tales of the art and beauty to be seen there. Malta had not been tempted. Having lost all, she had no wish to admire the wealth of others.

  Trehaug swung and hung over the banks of the Rain Wild River, adjacent to the open channel. But the river had no true shores. Swamp, muck and shifting bogs extended back from the open river far under the trees. The corrosive waters of the river ruled the world, and flowed where they wished. A patch of ground that was solid for a week could suddenly begin to bubble and then sink away into muck. No one trusted the ground underfoot. Pilings driven into it were either eaten away or slowly toppled over. Only the far-reaching roots of the Rain Wild trees seemed able to grip some stability there. Never had Malta seen or imagined such trees. The one time she had ventured to her window and peered down, she could not see the ground. Foliage and bridges obscured the view. Her chamber perched in the forked branch of a tree. A walkway over the limb protected its bark from foot traffic. The branch was wide enough for two men to walk abreast on it, and it led to a spiraling staircase that wound down the trunk. The staircase reminded Malta of a busy street, even to the vendors who frequented the landings.

  At night, watchmen patrolled, keeping the lanterns on the staircases and bridges filled and alight. Night brought a festive air, as the city bloomed in necklaces of light. The Rain Wild folk gardened in hammocks and troughs of earth suspended in the trees. Foragers had their own pathways through the trees and over the swamplands. They harvested the exotic fruits, flowers and gamebirds of the Rain Wild jungle. Water came from the sprawling system of rain catchers, for no one could drink much of the river water and hope to live. The thick boats, hollowed out from green tree trunks, were pulled out of the river each night and hammocked in the trees. They were the temporary transportation between the “houses,” supplements to the swaying bridges and pulley carts that linked the trees. The trees supported the whole city. A quake that caused the wet ground below to bubble and gape did no more than make the great trees sway gently.

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  Below, on the true ground, there was the ancient city, of course, but from Selden's description, it was little more than a lump in the swampland. The little bit of solid ground around it was devoted to the workshops for salvage and exploration of the city. No one lived there. When she had asked Selden why, he had shrugged. “You go crazy if you spend too much time in the city. ” Then he had cocked his head and added, “Wilee says that Reyn might be crazy already. Before he started liking you, he spent more time down there than anyone else ever had. He nearly got the ghost disease. ” He had glanced about. “That's what killed his father, you know,” he'd added in a hoarse whisper.

  “What's the ghost disease?” she had asked him, intrigued in spite of herself.

  “I don't know. Not exactly. You drown in memories. That's what Wilee said. What's that mean?”

  “I don't know. ” His newly discovered ability to ask questions was almost worse than his former long silences had been.

  She stretched where she lay on the divan, then curled back into her coverlet. The ghost disease. Drowning in memories. She shook her head and closed her eyes.

  Another scratch came at the door. She did not reply. She kept still and made her breathing deep and slow. She heard the door rasp open. Someone came into her room. Someone came close to the bed and looked down on her. The person just stood over her, watching her feign sleep. Malta kept her pretense and waited for the intruder to leave.

  Instead, a gloved hand touched her face.

  Her eyes flew open. A veiled man stood by her. He was dressed completely in dull black.

  “Who are you? What do you want?” She shrank back from his touch, clutching the coverlet.

  “It's me. Reyn. I had to see you. ” He dared to sit down on the divan's edge.

  She drew her feet up to avoid any contact with him. “You know I don't want to see you. ”

  “I know that,” he admitted reluctantly. “But we don't always get what we want, do we?”

  “You seem to,” she resp
onded bitterly.

  He stood up with a sigh. “I have told you. And I have written it to you, in all the letters you've returned to me. I spoke in desperation that day. I would have said anything to get you to go with me. Nevertheless, I do not intend to enforce the liveship contract between our families. I will not take you as payment for a debt, Malta Haven. I would not have you against your will. ”

  “Yet here I am,” she pointed out tartly.

  “Alive,” he added.

  “Small thanks to the men you sent after the Satrap,” she pointed out acidly. “They left me to die. ”

  “I didn't know you'd be in the coach. ” His voice was stiff as he offered the excuse.

  “If you had trusted me enough to tell me the truth at the ball, I wouldn't have been. Nor my mother, grandmother or brother. Your distrust of me nearly killed us all. It did kill Davad Restart, who was guilty of no more than being greedy and stupid. If I had died, you would have been the one guilty of my death. Perhaps you saved my life, but it was only after you had nearly taken it from me. Because you didn't trust me. ” These were the words she had longed to fling at him since she had pieced that last evening together. This was the knowledge that had turned her soul to stone. She had rehearsed the words so often, yet never truly known how deep her hurt was until she uttered them aloud. She could scarcely get them past the lump in her throat. He was silent, standing over her still. She watched the impassive drapery across his face and wondered if he felt anything at all.

  She heard him catch his breath. Silence. Again the ragged intake of air. Slowly he sank down to his knees. She watched without comprehension as he knelt on the floor by her bed. His voice was so choked she could scarcely understand him. The words flooded out of him. “I know that it's my fault. I knew it through all the nights when you lay here, unstirring. It ate at me like river water cuts into a dying tree. I nearly killed you. The thought of you, lying there, bleeding and alone . . . I'd give anything to undo it. I was stupid and I was wrong. I have no right to ask it, but I beg it of you. Please forgive me. Please. ” His voice broke on an audible sob. His hands came up to clench into fists against his veil.

  Both her hands flew up to cover her mouth. In shock, she watched his shoulders shake. He was weeping. She spoke her astonished thought aloud. “I never heard a man say such words. I didn't think one could. ” In one shattering instant, her basic concept of men was re-ordered. She didn't have to hammer Reyn with words or break him with unflinching accusations. He could admit he was wrong. Not like my father, the traitor thought whispered. She refused to follow it.

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  “Malta?” His voice was thick with tears. He still knelt before her.

  “Oh, Reyn. Please get up. ” It was too unsettling to see him this way.


  She astonished herself. “I forgive you. It was a mistake. ” She had never known those words could be so easy to say. She didn't have to hold it back. She could let it go. She didn't have to save his guilt up to club him with later, when she wanted something from him. Maybe they would never do that to each other. Maybe it wouldn't be about who was wrong or right, or who controlled whom.

  So what would it be about, between them?

  He came to his feet shakily. He turned his back to her, lifted his veil and dragged his sleeve across his eyes like a child, before finding his handkerchief. He wiped his eyes. She heard him take a deep breath.

  Quietly, she tested this new idea. “You would not stop me if I chose to return to Bingtown today?”

  He shrugged, still not facing her. “I would not have to. The Kendry doesn't sail until tomorrow night. ” His effort at levity failed him. He added miserably as he turned back to her, “You could go then, if you insisted. It's the only way back to Bingtown, or what's left of it. ”

  She sat up slowly. The question broke from her. “Have you had news of Bingtown? Of my home and grandmother?”

  He shook his head as he sat down beside her. “I'm sorry. No. There are not many message birds, and all are used for news of the war. ” Reluctantly, he added, “There are many stories of pillaging. The New Traders rose up. Some of their slaves fight beside them. Others have crossed over to side with the Bingtown Traders. It is neighbor against neighbor in Bingtown, the ugliest kind of fighting, for they know one another's weaknesses best. In such battles, there are always some who take no side, but loot and plunder whoever is weakest. Your mother hopes that your grandmother fled to her little farm as she had intended. She would be safer there. The Old Trader estates are-”

  “Stop. I don't want to hear of it, I don't want to think of it. ” She clapped her hands over her ears and huddled into a ball, her eyes tight shut. Home had to exist. Somewhere there had to be a place with solid walls and safe routine. Her breath came fast and hard. She recalled little of her flight from Bingtown. Everything had hurt so much, and when she had tried to see, images were doubled and tripled atop one another. The horse had been rough-paced, and Reyn had held her in front of him. They had ridden too fast, too hard. The thick smoke in the air, and the distant screams and shouts. Some of the roads had been blocked by fallen debris from burning buildings. All the docks in the harbor had been charred and smoking wreckage. Reyn had found a leaky boat. Selden had held her upright so she did not fall over into the dirty bilge while Reyn and her mother plied the worm-eaten oars to get them out to the Kendry. . . .

  She found she was in his lap, still huddled in a ball. He sat on the bed, holding her and rocking her as he patted her back slowly. He had tucked her head under his chin. “Hush, hush, it's all done, it's all over,” he kept saying. His arms were strong around her. Home was gone. This was the only safe place left, but his words were too true to comfort her. It was all done, it was all over, it was all ruined. Too late to try harder, too late to even weep over it. Too late for everything. She curled tighter into him and put her arms around him. She held him tightly.

  “I don't want to think anymore. I don't want to talk anymore. ”

  “Me, neither. ” Her head was against his chest. His words thrummed deep inside him.

  She sniffed, then sighed heavily. She almost wiped her eyes on her sleeve, then remembered herself. She groped for her handkerchief. Instead, he pressed his into her hands. It was damp from his tears. She wiped her own eyes on it. “Where is my mother?” she asked wearily.

  “With my mother. And some of our Council. They are talking about what is to be done. ”

  “My mother?”

  “Trader Vestrit of the Bingtown Traders has as much a right to speak as any other Trader. And she has some brilliant ideas. She suggested thick, greenwood buckets of Rain Wild River water might be employed as a weapon against the galleys. Load them in catapults to break apart on their decks. The damage might not be immediate, but over time their ships would start to weaken and come apart, not to mention scalding their rowers. ”

  “Unless they knew to piss on the decks,” she muttered.

  Reyn gave an involuntary laugh. His arms tightened around her. “Malta Vestrit, the things you know astonish me. How did you learn that secret?”

  “Selden told me. Children can spy out anything. ”

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  “That is true,” he replied thoughtfully. “Children and servants are near invisible. Much of our information before the riots came from Amber's net of slaves. ”

  She leaned her head on his shoulder. He put both his arms around her and held her. It wasn't romantic. Nothing was romantic anymore. Only tired. “Amber? The bead-maker?” she asked. “What had she to do with the slaves?”

  “She talked to them. A lot. I gather that she marked her face and masqueraded as a slave at the water well, and the washing fountains and places where slaves gathered to do their work. At first, she gathered knowledge just from their gossip, but eventually she enlisted some of the slaves themselves to help her. She opened that net to the Tenira fa
mily. Crag and his father made good use of it. ”

  “What kind of knowledge?” she asked dully. She didn't know why she cared. It all came down to one thing. War. People killing each other and destroying things.

  “The latest gossip from Jamaillia. Which nobles are allied with each other, which ones have substantial interests in Chalced. It was all information that we needed, to make our case in Jamaillia. We are not a rebel province, not really. What we do is in the interest of the Satrapy. There is a group of Jamaillian nobles who would overthrow the Satrap and seize his power for themselves. They encouraged him to come to Bingtown, in the hopes of exactly what happened. Riots. Attempts on the Satrap's life. ” Almost reluctantly, he admitted, “Trader Restart was not a traitor. His pushiness when the Chalcedean fleet arrived actually put the traitors' plans awry, for the Satrap ended up at his home instead of in their power. But for his intervention, the assault on Bingtown would have begun much sooner. ”

  “Why is any of that important?” she asked dully.

  “It's a complicated situation. Essentially, it is Jamaillia's civil war, not ours. They've just decided to hold it in our territories. Some of the Jamaillian nobles are willing to give Bingtown over to Chalced, in return for favorable trading treaties, a chunk of what the Satrap has always claimed for himself and more power for themselves in Jamaillia. They've gone to great lengths to establish their families and claims in Bingtown. Now they've made it look like the Bingtown Traders have rebelled against the Satrapy. But it's all a mask for their own plots to overthrow an incompetent Satrap and steal the throne's power for themselves. Do you understand?”

  “No. And I don't care. Reyn, I just want my father back. I want to go home. I want it all to be like it was before. ”

  He dropped his head forward so that his forehead rested on her shoulder. “Someday,” he said in a muffled voice, “you will want something I can give you. At least, so I pray to Sa. ”

  For a time, they just sat together in silence. A scratch came at the door. Reyn jumped, but he couldn't very well dump her out of his arms. The door opened and the Rain Wild woman framed in it looked completely scandalized. Her mouth actually hung open. She took a gasp of air, then blurted, “I came to assist Malta Vestrit. The healer advised she should get up and do some walking. ”

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