Ship of destiny, p.86
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       Ship of Destiny, p.86
 

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  At the foot of the stairs, the pirate Queen paused a moment. Malta watched her take a breath as if she steeled herself. Then she set her fingers atop Wintrow’s proffered arm and lifted her chin. As she glided away on Wintrow’s arm, Malta pursed her lips and frowned.

  “Something troubles you?” Reyn asked. He took her hand and set it firmly atop his forearm. The warmth of his hand secured her clasp there.

  “I hope my brother grows taller,” she murmured.

  “Malta!” he rebuked her, but then smiled. She had to look up at him, and she loved that she did. The Jamaillian styles suited Reyn very well indeed. His close-fitted indigo jacket only emphasized the width of his shoulders. The white of his cuffs and collar contrasted well with his weather-bronzed skin. White trousers and black knee boots completed him. He wore small gold hoops in his ears, which shone against the glossy black curl of his hair. She smiled sympathetically for whoever had worried it into order tonight. He had no patience with body servants. He turned his head, and the light ran along his scaling, breaking blue highlights from it. Dark as his eyes were, she could see the secret blue in their copper depths.

  “Well?” he asked her. There was a faint flush on his face and she realized she had stood long simply looking at him.

  She nodded her assent, and they crossed the floor together. The hall opened out around them, its lofty ceiling supported by marble pillars. They walked beneath an arch into the grand ballroom. At one end of the room, musicians played softly, a prelude to the dancing. At the other end, the Satrap presided over the festivities from an elevated throne. Three of his Companions sat in chairs ranged before his dais. A servant tended two censers set to either side of the Satrap. The yellow smoke from the herbs wreathed him. He smiled and nodded benignly on his guests. A separate dais held a slightly less ornate throne for Queen Etta. She was ascending the steps as if they were a gallows. A lower seat beside hers waited for Wintrow.

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  Seating arrangements for her and Reyn had been more politically perplexing. Satrap Cosgo had, grudgingly, granted that Queen Etta as the reigning monarch of a separate kingdom had, perhaps, stature equal to his own. Malta and Reyn, however, made no royal claims for themselves. Malta repeatedly but quietly asserted that Bingtown was an independent city-state, yet she did not claim to be its representative. Reyn also refused to acknowledge that Jamaillia had any authority over the Rain Wilds, but he was not their ambassador to the Satrap. Rather, they represented the interests of the Dragon Tintaglia and her kind. They were obviously not the King and the Queen of the Dragons nor nobles from afar and hence not entitled to thrones or elevation of any kind. That Cosgo had ensconced them on elevated chairs on a garlanded dais had as much to do with his desire to display these exotic new allies as a wish to honor them. That rankled Reyn more than it did Malta. Her pragmatism had prevailed over his distaste for exhibition. It did not matter to her why he granted her this distinction; she cared only that in the mind of every noble who beheld them, it conveyed their elevated status. It could only increase their bargaining power.

  She had used that leverage in every capacity. With the Satrap’s strangling monopoly on Bingtown’s exports broken, there were many merchants anxious to establish new ties with the Trader cities. The current fashion favor for their exotic appearances had even motivated a stream of inquiries about trade and settlement possibilities in the Rain Wilds. Reyn had replied conservatively to these, reminding them that he could not speak for the Rain Wild Council. A number of entrepreneurs and adventure seekers had offered to pay high prices to book passage on the Vivacia for her journey homeward. Wintrow had dealt with that, pointing out that Vivacia was the flagship of the Pirate Isles, not the Rain Wilds. While he would be furnishing transport for the Elderlings’ return, Vivacia was not available for hire. He suggested they seek out other ships that were Bingtown bound.

  With the serpents no longer a threat, and the Chalcedean menace greatly reduced, they all foresaw increased shipping and travel between their cities. Malta had spent one long afternoon totting figures with Lord Ferdio. The outcome suggested to both of them that the Satrap’s coffers would actually profit more from this new arrangement than he had from his throttlehold on Bingtown. The increased flow of ships through the Inside Passage, open trade with the Pirate Isles and an increase in Jamaillian sailing ships profiting from trade with Bingtown and points beyond might shock the city out of its downward spiral of stagnation. That was before Ferdio had begun reckoning the possible profits from freely marketing goods from the South Islands to the various northern markets. They had presented their findings to Cosgo, who had smiled and nodded for a brief time before succumbing into boredom.

  Satrap Cosgo had changed, Malta thought to herself as they approached his throne, but not enough to impress her with his sincerity. Restored to wealth and comfort, women and intoxicants, he had resumed all the mannerisms of the effete youth she had first met at the Bingtown Traders’ Concourse. Yet, she was willing to take the word of those who had known him for years that his transformation was truly remarkable. As she made her curtsey and Reyn his bow, the Satrap gravely inclined his head in acknowledgment. He spoke down to them.

  “So. This is to be our last evening together, my friends. ”

  “One dares to hope otherwise,” Malta replied smoothly. “Surely, in days to come, we shall return to the wonders of Jamaillia City. Perhaps the Lord High Magnadon Satrap will someday undertake another journey to Bingtown or Trehaug. ”

  “Ah, Sa forfend it! Still, if duty demands that I do so, I shall. Let it not be said that Satrap Cosgo feared the rigors of travel. ” He leaned forward slightly. He made a slight gesture of annoyance at the servant, and the man immediately replenished the smoldering concoction on the brass holders. The tendrils of smoke flowed thick once more. “You are determined to depart tomorrow, still. ”

  Reyn spoke. “Determined? Magnadon Satrap, say rather obligated. As you well know, our wedding arrangements have been postponed once already. We can scarcely disappoint our families again. ”

  “They needn’t be disappointed. You could be wed tomorrow, if you wished it, in the Satrap’s own Temple of Sa. I shall command a hundred priests to preside, and a procession shall carry you through the streets. This I could arrange for you. Now, if you wish. ”

  “It is a most gracious offer, Lord High Magnadon. Yet I fear we must decline. Trader ways demand that we be wed among our own folk, with our own customs. A man of your learning, culture and travel undoubtedly understands that such traditions are broken only at grave risk to one’s stature. Of great importance also are the many messages you have charged us with for Traders in both Bingtown and Trehaug. Those must be delivered without more delay. Nor have we forgotten the message birds you have furnished, that communication between the Trader cities, the Pirate Isles and Jamaillia City may be improved. ”

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  Malta bit the inside of her cheek to keep from smiling. It was good that the Satrap did not know Wintrow’s opinion of the “smelly befouling creatures” he had reluctantly welcomed aboard Vivacia. Jola had proposed pigeon pie as variety in their usual menu, but Malta was confident that the birds would live to serve as messengers.

  A shadow of petulance crossed his face. “You gained what you desired: independence for Bingtown and the Rain Wilds. I no sooner signed the scrolls than you made plans to leave. ”

  “Of course, Lord High Magnadon. For did not you also command that the Vestrit family represent Jamaillia’s interests there? It is a duty I take most seriously. ”

  “No doubt, you will take it most profitably as well,” he pointed out caustically. He inclined his head to inhale his smoke more deeply. “Ah, well, if part we must, then I hope it will lead to good fortune for all of us. ” The Satrap leaned back, eyes half-closed. Malta interpreted this, gratefully, as dismissal.

  She and Reyn sought their own seats. She looked aroun
d the spectacle of the ballroom and realized that she would not miss it. Well, not immediately.

  She had finally been surfeited with parties, dancing and elegance. She longed for the simplicity of unscheduled days and privacy. Reyn, for his part, chafed to be at the site of the Elderling city.

  Ophelia had recently arrived in Jamaillia City with letters for all of them. The news from Bingtown was both heartening and tantalizing. The flow of foodstuffs through Bingtown and up the river was steady and sufficient. The young priest Wintrow had recommended as an engineer had an almost mystical knack for simple yet elegant solutions. As soon as the temporary locks that permitted the serpents to ladder up the river had been completed, Reyn’s brother had turned his attention to searching for the remains of the city. In this, Selden had been most helpful to Bendir. As yet, they had not discovered any intact chambers, but Reyn was certain that was due only to his absence. The fervor of his ambition to begin the search amazed Malta.

  He gave a small sigh in reply to her mood. “I, too, long to be home again,” he confided to her. The music had begun to swell. The first dance would be a set piece for the Companions of the Satrap only. They danced together, in his honor, with him as their absent partner while he watched from the dais. She watched the elaborately dressed women move through the sedate measures. At intervals, the Satrap inclined his head, symbolizing his bows to his Companions. It struck Malta as a singularly foolish custom and a waste of good music. She stilled the tapping of her foot. Reyn leaned closer to be sure she heard him. “I secured two more stonecutters. They will follow us on Ophelia. Wintrow says there are several islands in the Pirate Isles that may furnish stone for us, at a reasonable cost. If we replace the log walls of the locks with stone, the workers who must constantly maintain the wood because the river eats it will be free, and we can create a way for large ships to come to dock there. We could then transfer those workers to the excavation of the city-“

  “Before or after our wedding?” she asked him gravely.

  “Oh, after,” he replied fervently. He took her hand. His thumb swept the palm of her hand caressingly. “Do you suppose our mothers would let it be any other way? I personally doubt we shall be allowed to eat or sleep until we have endured the wedding. ”

  “Endured?” she asked him with raised brows.

  “Most definitely,” he replied with a sigh. “My sisters have been in paroxysms of delight. They will meet the Queen of the Pirate Isles and your dashing brother Wintrow. Tintaglia has announced she will be there, to ‘receive’ us afterward, I am told. My sisters are insisting I be veiled for the wedding. They say that it matters not how I display myself in Jamaillia; I must be properly modest for the traditional Rain Wild ceremony. ”

  “Your modesty has nothing to do with the tradition,” Malta retorted. He was not telling her anything she had not already heard. When Ophelia had docked, she had brought thick letters for all of them. Keffria’s letter had been likewise full of wedding plans. “I will be veiled as well. It is our blind acceptance of one another that they celebrate. ” A question tugged at her. “You were closeted long with Grag Tenira. My mother wrote that he courts a Three Ships girl. Is that true?”

  “He and Sparse Kelter’s daughter are moving in that direction. ”

  “Oh. A shame. I suppose that means that Aunt Althea has burned her bridges and will have to be content with Brashen Trell. ”

  “They looked more than content, the last time I saw them. ”

  “Grag Tenira would have been a more fitting match for her. ”

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  “Perhaps. From the way she looked at me, I suspected she thought you could do better, also. ”

  “She looks at everyone that way. ” Malta dismissed her aunt’s reservations.

  “More interesting to me were the changes in Ophelia. Or the lack of them, rather. She is the same ship she has always been. Grag claims she has no memories of being a dragon. That for her, life began as Ophelia. The same is true for Goldendown. ”

  “Do you suppose they will recall it later?”

  “I do not know. ” Reluctantly, he added, “My suspicion is that some of the dragons in the wizardwood logs had perished before we used them. Ophelia and Goldendown, perhaps, have no dragon memories because the creatures inside had died and taken their memories with them. They may remain as they always have been. ” He paused. “Grag, at least, is grateful. He says that Kendry has become well nigh unmanageable. He is a bitter creature and sails only at Tintaglia’s behest. ”

  A silence fell between them. Malta made a valiant effort at distracting him. “I had a note from Selden as well. His handwriting is awful. He loves the Rain Wilds. Cassarick is a torment to him, however. He wants to dig immediately, and your brother will not let him. ”

  Reyn smiled wryly. “I remember being like that. ”

  His face was still too pensive to suit her.

  “He spends much time with Tintaglia, ‘guarding’ the cocoons. ” She shook her head. “Tintaglia says that only fifty-three appear to be developing. He does not say how she knows. Poor creature. She struggled so hard to lead them home, and so many perished along the way. She worries that not all fifty-three will hatch. They should have spent the whole winter cocooned, and hatched in high summer. ”

  “Perhaps they will hatch in late summer to make up for their late start. ”

  “Perhaps. Oh. ” She tugged at his hand. “The Companions are finished. Now the real dancing will begin. ”

  “Do not you wish for the music to begin?” he teased her, feigning reluctance to rise.

  She widened her eyes at him warningly. He came to his feet.

  “You only want to show off your dress,” he accused her gravely.

  “Worse. I wish to flaunt my elegant partner before all of these grand ladies, before I snatch him away to immure him as mine in the distant Rain Wilds. ”

  As always, her extravagant compliments brought a blush to his cheeks.

  Wordlessly, he led her to the floor. The musicians struck up, Jamaillian stone-drums setting the time until the other instruments swept in. Reyn took her hand and set his other hand to the small of her back, Jamaillian style. She had explained to Wintrow that it was the only proper way to tread this step, but she knew he would be frowning at Reyn’s boldness. They stepped sedately to the sound of the drums until the wind instruments skirled in to bid them spin together. The dizziness was lovely, for Reyn caught her at the end, and again they stepped to the drum, the tempo building.

  He spun her the second time, faster and closer to his body. “Do you not regret waiting?” she asked him daringly in the privacy of the dance.

  “I would regret more risking the legitimacy of my heir,” he chided her seriously.

  She rolled her eyes at him, and he pretended a scowl at her prurience.

  “Does a hungry man resent the preparation of the feast?” he asked her the next time they closed in a spin. They whirled so close she felt his breath on her crest. It brought the now familiar flush of warmth through her. She became aware that it had happened again. The floor was cleared in a great circle around them as other couples paused to watch the Elderlings dance. He spun her again, faster, so close that her breasts nearly brushed his chest. “They say that hunger is what makes the meal so savory,” he added by her ear. “I warn you. By the time we reach Bingtown, I shall be as a starving man. ”

  The murmur of the crowd told her that they were spinning so fast on these steps that her gown was now flashing its scarlet insets. She closed her eyes, trusting him to hold her in his orbit, and wondered what could ever surpass this glorious moment. Then she smiled, knowing the answer.

  Telling Delo about it.

  “THEY ARE BEAUTIFUL TOGETHER,” ETTA MURMURED.

  Wintrow risked a sidelong glance at her. She watched the dancers with a strange hunger in her eyes. He supposed she was imagining herself in Kennit’s arms, skimming the flo
or as gracefully as Reyn and Malta. But not as abandonedly, he decided. Even pirates had more decorum than his wayward sister did. “It is good they’re getting married soon,” he observed stiffly.

  “Oh. Do you think that will put a stop to their dancing?” Etta asked him sarcastically.

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  He gave her a humbled smile. Every now and then, a spark of the old Etta showed through, like coals gleaming in a banked fire. “Probably not,” he conceded. “Malta was born dancing, I believe. ” Watching the ecstasy on her face as Reyn spun her in the dance, he added, “I suspect that a dozen children from now, she will still display her feelings as plainly. ”

  “What a shame,” Etta consoled him dryly. She was silent as the couple spun again, then asked, “Do all in Bingtown disdain dancing as you do?”

  “I do not disdain dancing,” he answered with surprise. “I was learning the basic steps, and accounted graceful enough, before I was sent off to be a priest. ” He watched Reyn and Malta a few moments. “What they are doing is not that impressive. It is just that they are able to do it both swiftly and gracefully. And that they are a well-matched couple. ” He frowned a moment, then admitted, “And that incredible dress she’s wearing. ”

  “Do you think you could dance like that?”

  “With practice, perhaps. ” A sudden thought came to him. He coupled it to the discovery of how stupid he still could be. He leaned toward her. “Etta. Would you care to dance?”

  He held his open hand out toward her. She looked at it for a moment, then looked aside. “I do not know how,” she replied stiffly.

  “I could teach you. ”

  “I would not be good at it. I would only humiliate myself, and my partner. ”

  He leaned back in his chair and spoke softly, forcing her to listen carefully. “When you fear to fail, you fear something that has not happened yet. Dancing is far less difficult than reading, especially for a woman who can run the rigging and never miss a step. ” He waited.

  “I… not now. Not in so public a place. ” She built up to admitting it, as admitting any desire was difficult for her. “But someday, I would like to learn to dance. ”

 
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