Ship of destiny, p.87
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       Ship of Destiny, p.87

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
 

  He smiled at her. “When you are ready, I will be honored to partner you. ”

  She spoke very softly as she added, “And I will have a dress to surpass that one. ”

  THE STARS GLITTERED COLD IN THE BLACK SKY OVERHEAD. BY CONTRAST, THE yellow lights of Jamaillia were warm and close. Their reflections snaked like serpent backs over the rippling water of the harbor. The sounds of merriment and music from the distant festivities wafted thin in the cold spring night. Across the dock from her, Ophelia shifted in the darkness. She was an old-fashioned liveship, a blowsy old cog. A moment later, she rattled a large dice box at Vivacia. “Do you game?” she asked invitingly.

  Vivacia found herself smiling at the matronly figurehead. She had not expected to find the company of another liveship so convivial, especially one who professed to have lost all dragon memories. Ophelia was not only good company but a veritable fount of Bingtown gossip.

  Even more important to Vivacia were her detailed accounts of all she had seen and heard in Trehaug. The cocooning banks were far upriver, beyond the reach of a ship of her draft, but Ophelia was an adept meddler and an avid listener. She had contrived to know not only every fact but every rumor about the serpents’ progress. The news she shared with Vivacia had been bad as well as good, but knowing the fate of her serpents was a kind of peace in itself. She served her kind best by remaining in Jamaillia for now, but the suspense had been difficult to endure. Ophelia had understood her thirst for information about the serpents. Since she had arrived in Jamaillia City, her detailed accounts had been a great comfort to Vivacia. Still, she shook her head at Ophelia’s dice box. “Althea seemed to believe that you cheated when she played with you,” she observed lightly.

  “Oh, well, that’s Althea. Nice girl, but a bit suspicious. Not the best judgment in the world, either. After all, she chose that renegade Trell when she could have had my Grag. ”

  Vivacia laughed softly. “I don’t think your Grag ever had much of a chance. I rather suspect ‘that renegade Trell’ was chosen for her by Ephron Vestrit a number of years ago. ” At Ophelia’s affronted expression, she added kindly, “But Grag doesn’t seem to have missed her for long. ”

  Ophelia nodded in satisfaction. “Humans have to be pragmatic about these things. They don’t live that many years, you know. Now his Ekke, she’s a fine girl, knows how to seize life and make something of it. Reminds me of my first captain. ‘Don’t expect me to stay ashore and have babies for you,’ she told him, right here on my foredeck. ‘My children are going to be born on this ship,’ she said to him. And you know what Grag said? ‘Yes, dear. ’ Meek as milk. I think he knows he’d better get to it if he’s going to have a family. Humans only have so much time, you know. ”

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  “That’s why we have to cram so much living into those years. ” This observation came from Jek. Her perfume wafted on the spring night. Despite the chill, she was barefoot, a long skirt swirling about her ankles. She came boldly to perch on Vivacia’s railing. “Evening, ladies,” she greeted them. She took a deep breath, sighed with contentment and sat swinging her feet.

  “You’ve been up at the dancing!” Ophelia enthused. “Tell us about it. Did you see the Satrap’s palace?”

  “From the outside. It was all lit up like a bawdy-house lantern, golden lamplight and music spilling from every window and door. The streets were full of fine carriages, and there was a great line of folk parading in, dressed fine as kings, every one of them. Some were content to stand about and gawk at their betters, but not I. The courtyard was fine with me. The music was gay, the men were handsome and the dancing lively. They were cooking whole pigs on spits, and keg after keg of beer did they broach. It was as good a feasting as I’ve ever seen in any town. Still and all, I’m ready to sail tomorrow. Jamaillia’s a dirty place, for all its fine houses. I’ll be glad to get out on the water again, and gladder still to see Divvytown. I knew it was my home port that first time I saw it. ”

  “The pirate town? Sa save us all. Does someone wait there for you, dearie?” Ophelia asked.

  Jek laughed aloud. “They all wait for me. They just don’t know it yet. ”

  Ophelia’s bawdy chuckle echoed hers. Then she noticed Vivacia’s silence. “Why so thoughtful, my dear? Do you miss your Wintrow? He’ll be back soon enough. ”

  Vivacia stirred from her reverie. “No. Not Wintrow. As you say, he will be back soon enough. Sometimes it is a pleasure to have no thoughts but my own. I was looking at the sky and recalling. The higher you fly, the more stars there are. There are stars up there that I will never see again. They didn’t matter to me when the heavens still belonged to me, but now I feel it as a loss. ”

  “You’re young. You’re going to find a lot of things like that in your life,” the old liveship replied complacently. “No sense dwelling on them. ”

  “My life,” Vivacia mused. “My life as a liveship. ” She turned to regard Ophelia with a sigh. “I almost envy you. You recall nothing, so you miss nothing. ”

  “I recall a lot, my dear. Just because my memories have sails instead of wings, don’t you discount them. ” She sniffed. “And my life is nothing for you to disdain, I might add. Nor your own. You could take a lesson from my Grag. Don’t go mooning after the stars, when the wide sea is all around you. It’s a sky of its own, you know. ”

  “And with just as many stars,” Jek observed. She hopped back onto the deck and stretched until her muscles crackled. “Good night, ladies. I’m for my bunk. The day starts early for sailors. ”

  “And for liveships. Sweet dreams, my dear,” Ophelia wished her. As Jek padded softly away, the liveship shook her head. “Mark my words. She’ll regret it if she doesn’t settle down soon. ”

  “Somehow I doubt it,” Vivacia replied, smiling. She looked back at the lights of the town. In the Satrap’s palace, Wintrow and Etta prepared humans to accept the return of her kind. She knew a sudden surge of pride in them. Astonishingly, she felt the same for herself. She smiled at Ophelia. “Jek is too busy living. She won’t waste time on regrets. And neither shall I. ”

  Liveship Traders 3 - Ship of Destiny

  CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE - Bingtown

  “COMPANION SERILLA is IN THE PARLOR. ” RONICA WALKED INTO THE CHAMBER and looked around curiously.

  “Are you certain?” Keffria heard the foolishness of her question as soon as she uttered it. She climbed down from the stool she had been standing on. She gave one critical look over her shoulder. “Oh dear,” she muttered to herself. The old draperies from Selden’s room, dyed, turned and pressed, still looked like the old draperies from Selden’s room. No matter what she did to her bedchamber, it would still be the room she had shared with Kyle. Jani Khuprus had sent Rain Wild furniture to her but the lovely stuff was airy and pale, like the ghosts of the heavy bedstead and massive chests that had once filled the room. She wondered if she should move into Malta’s room and keep this larger chamber for when Reyn and Malta visited.

  But perhaps that would be cruel. Would not this room remind Malta of her father as much as it reminded Keffria of her husband? She shook her head at the cruelty of fate. Poor Kyle, to die on the decks of the Paragon, battling Jamaillian sailors. For what? A matter of a day later, those who had killed him had become their allies. Althea had brought her the tidings, and delivered them with uncharacteristic sensitivity when they were alone.

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  She had been unable to cry. It had been hours before she had shared the news with anyone else. Blessedly, her mother had said nothing, but only bowed her head. It was still hard to grasp that the long suspension of her life was over.

  “Companion Serilla does not wait well,” Ronica reminded her.

  Keffria startled as if from a dream. There was so little time for herself anymore. When she did get involved in tasks for herself or personal thoughts, it was hard to tear herself away. “Whatever could bring her here
? And so early in the day?”

  “She said she had a message for you. ”

  Now she saw the anxiety in her mother’s eyes. Reyn, Malta and Wintrow were in Jamaillia. This was as likely to be bad news as good. Her stomach tightened inside her. “I suppose the only way to hear it is to speak with her. ”

  She hurried through the hall to the parlor, her mother following more slowly. The slow mercy of time had finally brought spring to Bingtown. The season had turned in the last few days. The pounding rains of winter had changed to gentler sprinkling. Brisk breezes replaced cutting winds. Yesterday, she had even glimpsed a child’s escaped kite fleeing, red against the bright blue day. Stalls in the market had reopened. People laughed and talked as they traded again.

  Spring alone could not solve all Bingtown’s problems. But the softer weather had speeded the departure of many disgruntled New Traders. With the Pirate Isles’ increased patrols against the Chalcedean ships and the absence of serpents, travel would normalize swiftly. New wharves and piers were nearly completed. Six Duchies ships, anxious to court this new market, were braving the dangers of the Chalcedean coast to bring trade goods south to Bingtown. As trade revived, so did the town.

  She glanced out at the atrium as she passed. In the righted pots, salvaged bulbs were beginning to sprout. Vines she had cut back as hopelessly dead were now putting out new leaves. Green nubs on the dry sticks of the clematis promised that the appearance of death was not death itself. Everywhere, life reasserted itself.

  Spring had brought a welcome change in diet as well. There were fresh greens from the garden to waken the tongue, and scallions to flavor chowders with something besides fish. The few bedraggled chickens that had survived theft, storm and scanty feed were now scratching for insects and sprouts and laying eggs again. One jealously guarded nest promised chicks to replenish the flock. The year was turning, and the luck of the Vestrit family with it. Perhaps.

  Despite Ronica’s words, Companion Serilla was sitting patiently in the parlor. She stared at nothing, her back to the brightness of the undraped window. She was sedately dressed, more warmly than the day warranted, as if Bingtown’s spring were her autumn. At the sound of Keffria’s footsteps, she turned her head slowly. She came to her feet as Keffria entered the room.

  “Trader Vestrit,” she greeted her in a subdued tone. Without waiting for Keffria’s greeting, she extended to her a tiny coil of paper. “I’ve tidings to share. The bird arrived this morning. ”

  “Companion Serilla, good morning. I have appreciated so much your sharing the services of your messenger-birds. But this is an unprecedented honor, that you bring us the message yourself. ”

  Serilla smiled stiffly but said no more. Keffria took the paper from her hand and crossed to the window where the light was best. Pigeons could not carry heavy burdens in flight. Of necessity, messages were brief and tightly written. Jamaillian scribes excelled at the tiny lettering. A cramped addendum in Grag Tenira’s hand was intended for Keffria as scribe of the Bingtown Council. She squinted to pick it out, then passed on the news to Ronica as she deciphered it.

  “Ophelia has arrived safely. Letters delivered. All are well. Vivacia to sail soon. ” She looked up at her mother with a smile. “Just our personal concerns here. How kind of Grag to arrange to let us know. ”

  “The official tidings concern you as well,” Serilla informed her. “Please. Read them. ”

  The tiny lettering in the scribe’s hand almost defied her eyes. She read it once, then again. She looked up in puzzlement from her mother to Serilla. Then she spoke softly. “Companion Serilla is dismissed from the Satrap’s service. He has no further need of her here, since Bingtown has been recognized as an independent city-state. The Satrap also specifically retracts any authority she has claimed for herself. The language is… quite harsh. ”

  Ronica and Keffria exchanged awkward glances. The Companion stood quite straight, a tiny formal smile on her composed features. Ronica ventured to say softly, “I do not see how the official tidings concern the Vestrit family. ”

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  Keffria took a breath. “Apparently Malta had negotiated with the Satrap. The Vestrit family will represent the interests of the Satrapy in Jamaillia. The annual fee for this service is substantial. Ten satrapes a month. ” The sum was princely. A humble household could be managed quite well on one.

  A heartbeat of silence followed her words. Then Keffria shook her head. “I cannot accept this, however generous. I have been suggested for head of the Bingtown Council. It is hard enough to trade honestly for the Vestrit family and still be evenhanded in all Bingtown concerns. Mother?”

  “My hands are full, with the smaller properties. I am not a young woman, Keffria, and the past few years have been hard on me. The money sounds wonderful. But what is the sense of devoting myself to another’s interests, to earn money that must immediately be spent to rectify my neglect of our own properties?”

  “Selden is far too young, and much too preoccupied with his own interests. Malta will be a wedded woman almost as soon as she returns. Besides, the dragon has already claimed her services. Wintrow has carved his own niche in the world. ” Keffria quickly eliminated her children. She looked at her mother with a question. “Althea?”

  “Oh, please,” her mother sighed. “If she cannot do it from the deck of the Paragon, it won’t get done. She has not even found the time away from the ship to be properly married. ”

  “Trell’s family is the problem. ” Keffria defended her sister. “Brashen insisted he would claim her hand in the Concourse, but they disputed his right. Disowned, he is not a Trader anymore. Or so they assert. ” Keffria shook her head at their pigheadedness. “It is his father. I think, given time, that his mother could bring him around. Young Cerwin was certainly willing enough to welcome him back to family and fold. There is gossip he is seeing a Tattooed girl, much to his parents’ dismay. Perhaps he would welcome an ally in breaking free from his father’s iron hand. Brashen and Althea had so little time in port; perhaps when they return, he can change his father’s mind. If his pride will let him try again. ”

  “Enough,” Ronica replied quietly. They would not discuss this before the Companion.

  “I am sure they will reach some solution,” Companion Serilla observed. “I must be going, I have so much-“

  “What will you do?” Keffria asked her in a low voice.

  Serilla did not answer immediately. Then she shrugged. “It will soon be public anyway. All will know what Keffria has been too kind to speak aloud. Cosgo has exiled me here. ” She took a breath. “He maintains that I was false to my vows, and perhaps involved with the conspiracy. ” She clenched her jaws. Then she said with an effort, “I know Cosgo. Someone must take the blame. I am the scapegoat. He must have one, and all others have negotiated forgiveness. ”

  “But you were never truly a part of it!” Keffria exclaimed, horrified.

  “In politics, appearance matters far more than truth. The Satrap’s authority was challenged and his life threatened. There is substantial evidence that I challenged his authority, for my own ends. ” An odd smile passed over her face. “In truth, I defied him. He cannot make me regret it. That is hard for him to stomach. This is his revenge. ”

  “What will you do now?” Ronica asked.

  “I have no real choice. He abandons me with neither funds nor authority. I stay on in Bingtown as a penniless exile. ” A spark of the old Serilla shone in her retort.

  A smile twisted Ronica’s lips. “All the best Bingtown families began just that way,” she pointed out. “You are an educated woman. Bingtown is on the mend. If you cannot make your own way in such a situation, then you deserve to be penniless. ”

  “Restart’s niece is turning me out of his house,” Serilla revealed abruptly.

  “You should have moved out of there long ago,” Ronica replied acerbically. “You never had the right to live there in th
e first place. ” With an effort, she turned aside from that old battle. It no longer mattered. “Have you found a place to live?”

  It was like springing a trap. “I came to you. ” She looked from one to the other. “I could help you in many ways. ”

  Ronica’s eyes widened, then narrowed suspiciously. “On what terms?” she demanded.

  Serilla’s stiffness fell away from her and Keffria felt she saw the real woman for the first time. The light of challenge shone in her eyes. “An exchange of knowledge and expertise. I came here, gambling that I would hear what you have just said. That you cannot honestly represent Jamaillia’s interests in Bingtown. ” She looked from Keffria to Ronica. “I can,” she asserted quietly. “And I can do it honestly. Yet profitably. ”

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  Keffria crossed her arms on her chest. Had she been maneuvered? “I’m listening,” she said quietly.

  “Delegate,” Serilla said quietly. “Pass the task to me, to administer in your name. For years, I studied Bingtown’s relationship to Jamaillia. Obviously, that knowledge encompasses Jamaillia’s relationship to Bingtown. I can fairly represent Jamaillia’s interests in Bingtown. ” Her eyes traveled again from Keffria to Ronica and back again. Was she trying to decide where the true power resided? “And at the money he has offered, you can well afford to hire me to do so. ”

  “Somehow I doubt that such an arrangement would please the Satrap. ”

  “And as Bingtown Traders, that has been a prime concern for you? Pleasing the Satrap?” Serilla asked acidly.

  “In these changing times, maintaining cordial relations will be more important,” Keffria replied thoughtfully. Her thoughts flew. If she refused this opportunity, who else would the Satrap appoint? Was this her opportunity to retain control of the situation? At least with Serilla, they were dealing with someone they knew. And respected, however grudgingly that respect had been won. She could not deny the woman’s expertise. She knew Bingtown’s history better than most of Bingtown did.

  “Must he know?” Serilla asked. An edge of desperation had crept into her voice. Then she suddenly stood straighter. “No,” she announced before Keffria or Ronica could speak. “That was a cowardly question. I will not hide from him. He has dismissed me as his Companion, abandoned me just as he did all the other women who loyally served his father as Companions. It is not a shameful distinction. That he has done so speaks of what he is, not what I am. ” She took a deep breath and waited.

 
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