The mad ship, p.82
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       The Mad Ship, p.82

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
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  “I'll see to it myself,” Reyn announced calmly, as if he had a perfect right to be alone with her in her chamber holding her in his arms. Malta looked down at her hands clasped in her lap. She could not control the blush that heated her cheeks.

  “I . . . that is . . . ”

  “You may tell the healer I've seen to it,” he instructed her firmly. As the woman darted away, leaving the door ajar, he added in an undertone, “And my mother. And my brother. And anyone else you meet on the way to tattle on me. ” He shook his head and the fabric of his veil whispered against her hair. “I shall hear about this. For hours. ” His arms tightened briefly around her, then released her. “Come. At least don't make me a liar as well as a sneak. Get up and walk with me. ” He lifted her off his lap. She stood, and handed him her coverlet. She wore a house-robe, a modest enough garment, but not one in which a young lady should be seen by those outside her household. She lifted a hand to her hair. As she pushed it back from her forehead, her fingers grazed the scar there. She winced.

  “Does it still hurt?” Reyn asked immediately.

  “Not much. It still surprises me that it is there. I must look a fright. I haven't combed my hair today. . . . Reyn, they won't give me a looking-glass. Is it bad?”

  He tilted his head to look at her. “You would say yes. I say no. It is livid now, and swollen, but time will fade it. ” He shook his veiled face. “But it will never fade from my memory that I put it there. . . . ”

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  “Reyn. Don't,” Malta begged him.

  He took a breath. “You don't look a fright. You look like a tousled kitten. ” His gloved hand thumbed a last tear from her face.

  She walked stiffly to a little table where her toiletries were. The hairbrush on it was unfamiliar. No doubt, Reyn's family had provided it, as they did the room where she slept and the food she ate and the clothes she wore. Her family had come away from Bingtown with nothing. Nothing. They had lived on charity since they arrived here.

  “Let me,” Reyn begged. He took the brush from her hand. She stared out the window as he drew it gently through her hair. “It's so thick. Like strands of heavy silk, and so black. How do you manage it? My mother always complained of my hair when I was a boy, yet I think long straight hair would be harder to manage than curls. ”

  “You have curly hair?” Malta asked him idly.

  “Like fraying knots, my older sister tells me. When Tillamon had to comb it for me when I was little, I swear she ripped out as much as she left on my head. ”

  She turned to him abruptly. “Let me see you. ”

  He went down suddenly on one knee before her, hairbrush in hand. “Malta Vestrit, will you marry me?”

  It shocked her. “Do I have a choice?” she demanded.

  “Of course. ” He didn't move from where he knelt.

  She took a breath. “I can't, Reyn. Not yet. ”

  He stood easily. Taking her by the shoulders, he turned her away from him. He drew the brush smoothly through her hair again. If she had hurt him, it didn't sound in his voice. “Then you can't see my face. ”

  “Is that a Rain Wild custom?”

  “No. It's Reyn Khuprus' custom regarding Malta Vestrit. You can see me when you say you'll marry me. ”

  “That's ridiculous,” she protested.

  “No. It's crazy. Just ask my mother or my brother. They'll tell you I'm crazy. ”

  “Too late. That was more news my little brother brought me. Reyn Khuprus is crazy from spending too much time in the city. You drowned in memories. ”

  She had spoken the words lightly, as a jest. It shocked her when he dropped the hairbrush and stood stock-still. After a moment, he asked in hushed horror, “Do they really say that of me?”

  “Reyn, I jested. ” She turned to face him, but he walked swiftly away from her to stare out the window.

  “Drowned in memories. You can't have made that up, Malta Vestrit. It's a Rain Wild phrase. They do say that of me, don't they?”

  “One little boy speaking to another . . . you know how children tell tales to impress one another, how they exaggerate-”

  “How they repeat what they've heard their elders say,” he finished dully.

  “I thought it was just a . . . Is it truly that serious? To drown in memories?”

  “Yes,” he said dully. “Yes it is. When you become dangerous, they generally give you a very gentle poison. You die in your sleep. If you are still able to sleep. Sometimes, I can still sleep. Not often, and not for long, but it makes true sleep all the sweeter. ”

  “The dragon,” Malta confirmed softly.

  He started as if stabbed and turned to stare at her.

  “From our dream,” she went on softly. How long ago that seemed.

  “She threatened she would go after you, but I thought it was an idle boast. ” He sounded ill.

  “She-” Malta started to tell how the dragon had tormented her. Then she stopped. “She hasn't bothered me since I was hurt. She's gone. ”

  He was silent for a time. “I suppose when you were unconscious, she lost her link with you. ”

  “Can that happen?”

  “I don't know. I know very little about her. Except that no one else believes in her. They all think I'm crazy. ” He laughed tremulously.

  She held out her hand. “Come. Let's walk. You promised me once to show me your city. ”

  He shook his head slowly. “I'm not supposed to go there anymore. Not unless my brother or mother deems it necessary. I promised. ” There was deep loss in his voice.

  “Why? Whatever for?”

  He choked on a small laugh. “For you, my dear. I bargained away my city for you. They promised that if I stayed away from it, save by their leave, that if I surrendered all hope of ever freeing the dragon, they would forgive the liveship debt, and give me a man's allowance to spend as I wanted, and allow me to visit you whenever I wished. ”

  If she had not shared dreams with him, she would not have understood what he had given up for her. But she did know. The city was his heart. Plumbing its secrets, walking its whispering streets, coaxing its mysteries to unfold for him was his essence. He had given up the core of his being, for her.

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  He continued quietly. "So, you see. The contract is already settled.

  You don't have to marry me to discharge it. " His gloved hands tangled desperately against each other.

  “And the dragon?” Malta asked breathlessly.

  “She hates me now. I suppose that if she can drown me in her memories, she will. She tries to get me to come to her. But I resist. ”

  “How?”

  He sighed. With a twinge of humor, he confessed, “When it gets really bad, I get so drunk I can't even crawl. Then I pass out. ”

  “Oh, Reyn. ” She shook her head in sympathy. And she has him to herself then, Malta conjectured. To torment as she wishes, in her world, with no escape for him. She took a breath. “What if I married you as part of the contract? If I said I preferred to pay it off that way, rather than have your family forgive it? Would that free you from your bargain?”

  He shook his head slowly. “It wouldn't release me from my contract. ” He cocked his head at her. “Would you really do that?”

  She didn't know. She could not decide. He had made such a terrible bargain, just to be with her. But she could still not say, easily, that she wished to marry him. She knew so little about him. How could he have doubted her, and yet still have given his city up for her? It made no sense. Men were not at all what she had believed they were.

  She held out her hand to him. “Take me for a walk. ” Without a word, he took her hand. He led her out of the small chamber, to take her strolling on the walkway that spiraled up the trunk of the immense tree. She held his hand and did not look down nor back.

  “I FAIL TO SEE WHAT GOOD IT DOES FOR US TO KEEP HIM. IT
LOOKS LIKE we've kidnapped him. ” The lean Rain Wild Trader flung himself irritably back in his chair.

  “Trader Polsk, you are thick-witted. The advantage is obvious. If we have the Satrap, he himself can speak out for us. He can say he was not kidnapped, but rescued by us from the New Traders' assassination plot. ” Trader Freye, the woman who criticized Trader Polsk so roughly, sat next to him. Keffria decided they were either friends, or related.

  “Have we completely convinced him that that is the truth of the matter? The last time I heard him speak, he seemed to feel he had been snatched from an affable host and spirited away. He didn't use the word kidnapped, but I don't think it was far from his tongue,” Trader Polsk replied.

  “We should put him in different chambers. He cannot help but feel a prisoner, held in such a place. ” This from Trader Kewin. His veil was sewn so thickly with pearls that it rattled when he spoke.

  “He is safest where he is. We all agreed to that hours ago. Please, Traders, let us not re-tread ground we have already packed into bricks. We need to move past why we hold him or where we hold him to what we plan to do with him. ” Jani Khuprus sounded both weary and annoyed. Keffria sympathized.

  There were moments when Keffria looked around herself and wondered where her life had gone. Here she was, sitting in a large chair at an imposing table, flanked by the most powerful Traders of the Rain Wild folk. The plans they discussed amounted to treason against the Jamaillian Satrapy. Yet, what surrounded her was not as strange as what was missing. Everything. Husband, son, mother, wealth and home had all vanished from her life. She looked around at the lightly veiled faces and wondered why they tolerated her here. What could she contribute to their Council? She spoke up anyway.

  “Trader Khuprus is right. The sooner we can take action, the more lives we will save. We must get word to Jamaillia that he is alive and well. We must emphasize that we mean no harm to him, and that we hold him only for his own safety. Furthermore, I think we need to separate that message from any other negotiations. If we mention land grants or slavery or tariffs in the same missive, they will assume we are bartering the Satrap's life for what we desire. ”

  “And why shouldn't we?” Trader Lorek spoke up suddenly. She was a massive woman. A muscled fist smacked the table. “Answer me that, first. Why are we holding that spoiled adolescent in a fine chamber that he treats like a pig-sty and feeding him our best foods and wines when he has treated us as both loathesome and honorless? I say, bring him out here and make him look at us. Give him a dip or two in the Rain Wild River, and a month of hard work, and see if he doesn't gain a bit of respect for our ways. Then trade his life for what we want. ”

  Silence followed this outburst. Then Trader Kewin replied to Keffria's comments. Most of the Council seemed to ignore Trader Lorek's little outbursts, Keffria noted. “To whom do we send such a message? Companion Serilla suspected that the conspiracy extends through many of the Jamaillian noble houses. They may be angered that we have preserved his life. Before we brag that we have foiled the plot, perhaps we should find out who was behind it. ”

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  Trader Polsk leaned his chair back. “Let a thick-witted old man boil. it down for you. Get rid of him. Ship the kid back where he came from. Let them deal with him. They can kill him there, if they're so set on it. And each other, for all I care. Tie a note around his neck that we're done with him and we're done with Jamaillia, and we're going to do things our own way now. While we're at it, let's clean the Chalcedeans out of our bays and waterways, and make that stick this time, too. ”

  Several Traders nodded but Jani Khuprus sighed. "Trader Polsk, you do cut to the heart of it. Many of us wish it were that simple. But it isn't.

  We cannot risk war with Chalced and Jamaillia at the same time. If we must placate one, let it be Jamaillia. "

  Trader Kewin shook his head violently. “Let us not ally with anyone until we know who supports whom. We need to know what is going on in Jamaillia. I fear we must make the Satrap more comfortable and keep him, while we send a ship of delegates to Jamaillia, under a truce flag, to find out how things lie there. ”

  “Would they respect a truce flag?” one demanded, while another Trader cut in with, “Past pirates and Chalcedean mercenaries, and back again? Do you know how long that trip could take? There may be nothing left of Bingtown by then. ”

  Perhaps it was the mention of her home, but suddenly things seemed icily clear to Keffria. She knew what it was that she brought to this meeting. It was the same thing her ancestors had brought when they first came to the Cursed Shores to carve homes from hostile territory. She had herself: her courage, and her wits. It was all she had left to offer anyone. “We don't need to go to Jamaillia to discover that,” she said quietly. All the veiled faces at the table turned abruptly to her. “The answers we need are in Bingtown. There are traitors there who were willing to let a boy be killed for the sake of snatching more of our land and making it over in Chalced's image. Traders, we do not need to go to Jamaillia to discover who our friends are. We need only go so far as Bingtown to find who our enemies are, both there and in Jamaillia. ”

  Trader Lorek slammed the table again. “How are we to do that, Trader Vestrit? Ask them nicely? Or do you suggest we take a few captives and wring it out of them?”

  “Neither,” Keffria said quietly. She looked around the table at the veiled faces. From their rapt silence, they appeared to be listening. She took a breath. “I could flee to them and throw myself upon their sympathies. ” She took a breath. “Look at me. Pirates have taken my Chalcedean husband. I've been driven from my home, my daughter and son 'killed' in the kidnapping of the Satrap, to say nothing of my old friend Davad Restart. I could persuade them that my sympathies are with them. And somehow, I could get word back to you of what I discover about them. ”

  “Too dangerous. ” Polsk condemned the idea quickly.

  “You don't have enough to offer them,” Trader Freye said quietly. “You'd need more to bargain with. Information about us or the river. Something. ”

  Keffria thought for a moment. “A note from the Satrap, in his own hand, saying he is alive and imploring aid of his nobles. I could offer to betray him. ”

  “That's not quite it. ” Freye shook her head.

  Keffria suddenly knew. “My liveship,” she said quietly. “I could offer them a bargain. Ask them to rescue my family ship and husband. In return, I'd use the Vivacia to bring them up the river to where they could attack you and recapture the Satrap. ”

  “That would work,” Jani Khuprus agreed reluctantly. “They'd be suspicious of you if you came just to gift them with a betrayal. But if you come asking a favor or seeking a bargain, they'll accept your motives. ”

  Polsk snorted. “It falls apart too easily. What if someone has talked to your mother? How would you come by such a note from the Satrap? All know Malta was promised to Reyn. They would not believe your sudden animosity. ”

  “I believe my mother fled the city the same day I did. And I spoke to no one after the ball; we all simply vanished. I could say that we were kidnapped along with the Satrap, that my children died from their injuries, but I was held with him. I gained his trust, he wrote the note, I escaped, but I decided to betray him because I blamed him. ”

  Keffria paused as her inventiveness ran out. What was she thinking? It was all too thin a weaving; any fool could see through it. The other Traders would know that, and dissuade her from going. She herself knew that she could not do it. Her sister Althea could have, even her daughter Malta had the spirit and courage. But she was only a quiet mouse of a woman, sheltered and naive. They could all see that about her. They would never let her do it. She suddenly felt foolish for even suggesting such a laughable plan.

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  Trader Polsk steepled his lean fingers on the table before him. “Very well. You're right. Nonetheless, I insist that Trader Vestrit take a nigh
t to think this over before she commits to it. She has been through a great ordeal. Her children would be safe here, but we would be sending her into great danger, with few resources. ”

  “The Kendry sails tomorrow. Could she be ready by then?” Trader Lorek pushed.

  “We still have links with slaves in some of the New Trader households. They could pass information to us. I'll get you a list of names to commit to memory,” Trader Freye offered. She looked around the table. “We all accept, of course, that this plan must not leave this room. ”

  “Of course not. I myself will speak of it only to the Kendry's captain, to suggest that there may be a stowaway on his ship. One he should not ferret out. He can keep his crew clear of her. ”

  “You will need supplies, and yet we cannot outfit you too efficiently, or your story will not ring true,” Jani worried aloud.

  “We should prepare her a bracelet. Gold, painted to look like cheap enamel. If she is threatened, she may be able to buy her life with it,” Freye added. .

  Keffria listened as the plan she had suggested took shape around her. She wondered if she were the fish caught in the net, or the fisherman who had thrown it. The dread she felt was a familiar sensation; the lifting elation that accompanied it was not. What was she becoming?

  “I insist we allow her at least one night to consider this well,” Polsk repeated.

  “I will sail with the Kendry,” Keffria asserted quietly. “I leave my children in your care. I will tell them I am returning to Bingtown to persuade their grandmother to join us here. I beg you to tell them no more than that. ”

  Veiled heads all around the table nodded. Jani Khuprus spoke quietly. “I only pray that we still hold Bingtown Harbor when you get there. Otherwise, this whole plan is for naught. ”

  IT WAS A BLACK AND SILVER NIGHT. SHE SUPPOSED IT WAS BEAUTIFUL, IN ITS own way, but Malta had no time for considering beauty in her life. Not anymore. The gleaming moon above, the rush of the deadly river below, and in between fog drifting and a light breeze blowing were all things to ignore as she focused on the gentle swaying of the bridge beneath her feet.

  It was sickening.

 
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