Ship of destiny, p.2
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       Ship of Destiny, p.2

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  Or had they? Her gaze flicked briefly to Kekki cowering in the bow. Had they been protected guests, or hostages? Perhaps a little of both. She found that her own sympathies were entirely with the Rain Wilders. The sooner she returned Satrap Cosgo and Kekki to their custody, the better. They were valuable commodities, to be employed against the Jamaillian nobles, the New Traders and the Chalcedeans. When she had first met the Satrap at the ball, she had been briefly dazzled by the illusion of his power. Now she knew his elegant garb and aristocratic manners were only a veneer over a useless, venal boy. The sooner she was rid of him, the better.

  She focused her eyes on the lights ahead. When she had led the Satrap and his Companion out of the buried Elderling city, they had found themselves far from where Malta had originally entered the underground ruins. A large stretch of quagmire and marshy river shallows separated them from the city. Malta had waited for dark and the guiding lights of the city before they set out in their ancient salvaged boat. Now dawn threatened and she still poled toward the beckoning lanterns of Trehaug. She fervently hoped that her ill-conceived adventure was close to an end.

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  The city of Trehaug was located amongst the branches of the huge-boled trees. Smaller chambers dangled and swung in the uppermost branches, while the grander family halls spanned trunk to trunk. Great staircases wound up the trunks, and their landings provided space for merchants, minstrels and beggars. The earth beneath the city was doubly cursed with marshiness and the instability of this quake-prone region. The few completely dry pieces of land were mostly small islands around the bases of trees.

  Steering her little boat amongst the towering trees toward the city was like maneuvering around the immense columns in a forgotten god’s temple. The boat again fetched up against something and lodged. Water lapped against it. It did not feel like a root. “What are we snagged against?” Malta asked, peering forward.

  Kekki did not even turn to look, but remained hunched over her folded knees. She seemed afraid to put her feet on the boat’s floorboards. Malta sighed. She was beginning to think something was wrong with the Companion’s mind. Either the experiences of the past day had turned her senses or, Malta reflected wryly, she had always been stupid and it took only adversity to manifest it. Malta set her plank down and, crouching low, moved forward in the boat. The rocking this created caused both the Satrap and Kekki to cry out in alarm. She ignored them. At close range, she was able to see that the boat had nosed into a dense mat of twigs, branches and other river debris, but in the gloom, it was hard to see the extent of it. She supposed some trick of the current had carried it here and packed it into this floating morass. It was too thick to force the small boat through it. “We’ll have to go around it,” she announced to the others. She bit her lip. That meant venturing closer to the main flow of the river. Well, as the Satrap had said, any current they encountered would carry them downriver to Trehaug, not away from it. It might even make her thankless task easier. She pushed aside her fears. Awkwardly she turned their rowboat away from the raft of debris and toward the main channel.

  “This is intolerable!” Satrap Cosgo suddenly exclaimed. “I am dirty, bitten by insects, hungry and thirsty. And it is all the fault of these miserable Rain Wild settlers. They pretended that they brought me here to protect me. But since they have had me in their power, I have suffered nothing but abuse. They have affronted my dignity, compromised my health, and endangered my very life. No doubt they intend to break me, but I shall not give way to their mistreatment of me. The full weight of my wrath will descend upon these Rain Wild Traders. Who, it occurs to me, have settled here with no official recognition of their status at all! They have no legal claims to the treasures they have been digging up and selling. They are no better than the pirates that infest the Inside Passage and should be dealt with accordingly. ”

  Malta found breath to snort derisively. “You are scarcely in a position to bark at anyone. In reality, you are relying on their goodwill far more than they are relying on yours. How easy it would be for them to sell you off to the highest bidder, regardless of whether the buyer would assassinate you, hold you hostage or restore you to your throne! As for their claim to these lands, that came directly from the hand of Satrap Esclepius, your ancestor. The original charter for the Bingtown Traders specified only how many leffers of land each settler could claim, not where. The Rain Wild Traders staked their claims here; the Bingtown Traders took theirs by Bingtown Bay. Their claims are both ancient and honorable, and well documented under Jamaillian law. Unlike those of the New Traders you have foisted off on us. ”

  For a moment, shocked silence greeted her words. Then the Satrap forced a brittle laugh. “How amusing to hear you defend them! Such a benighted little bumpkin you are. Look at yourself, dressed in rags and covered with filth, your face forever disfigured by these renegades! Yet you defend them. Why? Ah, let me guess. It is because you know that no whole man would ever want you now. Your only hope is to marry into a family in which your kin are as mis-shapen as yourself, where you can hide behind a veil and no one will stare at your frightfulness. Pathetic! But for the actions of these rebels, I might have chosen you as a Companion. Davad Restart had spoken out on your behalf, and I found your clumsy attempts at dancing and conversation endearingly provincial. But now? Faugh!” The boat rocked minutely with the disdainful flip of his hand. “There is nothing more freakish than a beautiful woman whose face has been spoiled. The finer families of Jamaillia would not even take you as a household slave. Such disharmony has no place in an aristocratic household. ”

  Malta refused to look back at him, but she could imagine how his lips curled with contempt. She tried to be angry at his arrogance; she told herself he was an ignorant prig of a boy. But she had not seen her own face since the night she had nearly been killed in the overturning coach. When she had been convalescing in Trehaug, they had not permitted her a mirror. Her mother and even Reyn had seemed to dismiss the injuries to her face. But they would, her traitor heart told her. They would have to, her mother because she was her mother, and Reyn because he felt responsible for the coach accident. How bad was the scar? The cut down her forehead had felt long and jagged to her questing fingers. Now she wondered: did it pucker, did it pull her face to one side? She gripped the plank tightly in both her hands as she dug into the water with it. She would not set it down; she would not give him the satisfaction of seeing her fingers grope over her scar. She set her teeth grimly and paddled on.

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  A dozen more strokes and suddenly the little vessel picked up speed. It gave a small sideways lurch in the water, and then spun once as Malta dug her plank into the water in a desperate effort to steer back into the shallows. She shipped her makeshift oar, and seized the extra plank from the bottom of the rowboat. “You’ll have to steer while I paddle,” she told the Satrap breathlessly. “Otherwise we’ll be swept out into the middle of the river. ”

  He looked at the plank she thrust toward him. “Steer?” he asked her, taking the board reluctantly.

  Malta tried to keep her voice calm. “Stick that plank into the water behind us. Hold onto one end of it and use it as a drag to turn us back toward the shallows while I paddle in that direction. ”

  The Satrap held the board in his fine-boned hands as if he had never seen a piece of wood before. Malta seized her own plank, thrust it back into the water, and was amazed at the sudden strength of the current. She clutched the end awkwardly as she tried to oppose the flow of water that was sweeping them away from the shore. Morning light touched them as they emerged from the shelter of the overhanging trees. Suddenly the sunlight illuminated the water, making it unbearably bright after the dimness. Behind her, an annoyed exclamation coincided with a splash. She swiveled her head to see what had happened. The Satrap was empty-handed.

  “The river snatched it right out of my hands!” he complained.

  “You fool
!” Malta cried out. “How can we steer now?”

  The Satrap’s face darkened with fury. “How dare you speak to me so! You are the fool, to think it could have done us any good in the first place. It wasn’t even shaped like an oar. Besides, even if it would have worked, we do not need it. Use your eyes, wench. We’ve nothing to fear. There’s the city now! The river will carry us right to it. ”

  “Or past it!” Malta spat at him. She turned from him in disgust, to focus all her strength and thoughts on her single-handed battle with the river. She lifted her eyes briefly to the impressive site of Trehaug. Seen from below, the city floated in the great trees like a many-turreted castle. On the water level, a long dock was tethered to a succession of trees. The Kendry was tied up there, but the liveship’s bow was turned away from them. She could not even see the sentient figurehead. She paddled frantically.

  “When we get closer,” she panted between strokes, “call out for help. The ship may hear us, or people on the docks. Even if we are swept past, they can send rescue after us. ”

  “I see no one on the docks,” the Satrap informed her snidely. “In fact, I see no one anywhere. A lazy folk, to be still abed. ”

  “No one?” Malta gasped the question. She simply had no strength left for this final effort. The board she wielded skipped and jumped across the top of the water. With every passing moment, they were carried farther out into the river. She lifted her eyes to the city. It was close, much closer than it had been a moment ago. And the Satrap was right. Smoke rose from a few chimneys, but other than that, Trehaug looked deserted. A profound sense of wrongness welled up in her. Where was everyone? What had become of the normal lively bustle along the catwalks and on the stairways?

  “Kendry!” she cried out, but her breathless call was thin. The rushing water carried her voice away with it.

  Companion Kekki seemed suddenly to understand what was happening. “Help! Help!” she cried in a childish shriek. She stood up recklessly in the small boat, waving her hands. “Help us! Save me!” The Satrap swore as the boat rocked wildly. Malta lunged at the woman and pulled her down into the boat again, nearly losing her plank in the process. A glance around her showed her that the plank was of no real use now. The little boat was well and truly into the river’s current and rapidly being swept past Trehaug.

  “Kendry! Help! Help us! Out here, in the river! Send rescue! Kendry! Kendry!” Her shouts trailed away as hopelessness dragged at her.

  The liveship gave no sign of hearing. Another moment, and Malta was looking back at him. Apparently lost in deep thought, the figurehead was turned toward the city. Malta saw a lone figure on one of the catwalks, but he was hurrying somewhere and never turned his head. “Help! Help!” She continued to shout and wave her plank while she could see the city, but it was not for long. The trees that leaned out over the river soon curtained it from her eyes. The current rushed them on. She sat still and defeated.

  Malta took in her surroundings. Here, the Rain Wild River was wide and deep, the opposite shore near lost in permanent mist. The water was gray and chalky when she looked over the side. Overhead the sky was blue, bordered on both sides by the towering rain forest. There was nothing else to be seen, no other vessels on the water, no signs of human habitation along the banks. As the clutching current bore them inexorably away from the marshy shores, hopes of rescue receded. Even if she succeeded in steering their little boat to the shore, they would be hopelessly lost downriver of the city. The shores of the Rain Wild River were swamp and morass. Traveling overland back to Trehaug was impossible. Her nerveless fingers dropped the plank into the bottom of the boat. “I think we’re going to die,” she told the others quietly.

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  KEFFRIA’S HAND ACHED ABOMINABLY. SHE GRITTED HER TEETH AND FORCED herself to seize again the handles of the barrow the diggers had just finished loading. When she lifted the handles and began to trundle her load up the corridor, the pain in her healing fingers doubled. She welcomed it. She deserved it. The bright edges of it could almost distract her from the burning in her heart. She had lost them, both her younger children gone in one night. She was as completely alone in the world as she had ever been.

  She had clung to doubt for as long as she could. Malta and Selden were not in Trehaug. No one had seen them since yesterday. A tearful playmate of Selden had sobbingly admitted that he had shown the boy a way into the ancient city, a way the grown-ups had thought securely locked. Jani Khuprus had not minced words with Keffria. White-faced, lips pinched, she had told Keffria that the particular passage had been abandoned because Reyn himself had judged it dangerously unstable. If Selden had gone into the buried corridors, if he had taken Malta with him, then they had gone into the area most likely to collapse in an earthquake. There had been at least two large tremors since dawn. Keffria had lost track of how many lesser tremblings she had felt. When she had begged that diggers be sent that way, they had found the entire corridor collapsed just a few steps inside the entry. She could only pray to Sa that her children had reached some stronger section of the buried city before the quake, that somewhere they huddled together awaiting rescue.

  Reyn Khuprus had not returned. Before noon, he had left the diggers, refusing to wait until the corridors could be cleared and shored up. He had gone ahead of the work crews, wriggling off through a mostly collapsed tunnel and disappearing. Not long ago, the work crews had reached the end of the line he had left to mark his way. They had found several chalk marks, including the notation he had left on the door of the Satrap’s chamber. Hopeless, Reyn had marked. Thick muck oozed from under the blocked door; most likely the entire room had filled with it. Not far past that door, the corridor had collapsed completely. If Reyn had passed that way, he either had been crushed in the downfall, or was trapped beyond it.

  Keffria started when she felt a touch on her arm. She turned to face a haggard Jani Khuprus. “Have you found anything?” Keffria asked reflexively.

  “No. ” Jani spoke the terrible word softly. Her fear that her son was dead lived in her eyes. “The corridor is mucking in as fast as we try to clear it. We’ve decided to abandon it. The Elder ones did not build this city as we build ours, with houses standing apart from each other. The ancients built their city like one great hive. It is a labyrinth of intersecting corridors. We will try to come at that section of corridor from a different approach. The crews are already being shifted. ”

  Keffria looked at her laden barrow, then back down the excavated corridor. Work had stopped. The laborers were returning to the surface. As Keffria stared, a flow of dirty and tired men and women parted to go around her. Their faces were gray with dirt and discouragement, their footsteps dragged. The lanterns and torches they carried guttered and smoked. Behind them, the excavation had gone dark. Had all of this work been useless, then? She took a breath. “Where shall we dig now?” she asked quietly.

  Jani gave her a haunted look. “It has been decided we should rest for a few hours. Hot food and a few hours of sleep will do us all good. ”

  Keffria looked at her incredulously. “Eat? Sleep? How can we do either when our children are missing still?”

  The Rain Wild woman matter-of-factly took Keffria’s place between the barrow handles. She lifted it and began to push it forward. Keffria trailed reluctantly after her. She did not answer Keffria’s question, except to say, “We sent birds out to some of the closer settlements. The foragers and harvesters of the Rain Wilds will send workers to aid us. They are on their way, but it will take some time for them to arrive. Fresh workers will shore up our spirits. ” Over her shoulder, she added, “We have had word from some of the other digging crews, also. They have had more luck. Fourteen people were rescued from an area we call the Tapestry Works, and three more were discovered in the Flame Jewel corridors. Their work has progressed more swiftly. We may be able to gain access to this area of the city from one of those locations. Bendir is already consulting with those
who know the city best. ”

  “I thought Reyn knew the old city better than anyone,” Keffria said cruelly.

  “He did. He does. That is why I cling to the hope that he may be alive. ” The Rain Wild Trader glanced at her Bingtown counterpart. “It is why I believe that if anyone could find Malta and Selden, it is Reyn. If he found them, he would not try to come back this way, but would make for the more stable parts of the city. With every breath I take, I pray that soon someone will come running to give us the tidings that they have emerged on their own. ”

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  They had reached a large chamber that looked like an amphitheater. The work crews had been dumping the tailings of their work here. Jani tipped the barrow and let the load of earth and rocks increase the untidy pile in the middle of the formerly grand room. Their wheelbarrow joined a row of others. Muddy shovels and picks had been tumbled in a heap nearby. Keffria suddenly smelled soup, coffee and hot morning bread. The hunger she had been denying woke with a roar. The sudden clamoring of her body made her recall that she had eaten nothing all night. “Is it dawn?” she asked Jani suddenly. How much time had passed?

  “Well past dawn, I fear,” Jani replied. “Time always seems fleetest when I most long for it to move slowly. ”

  At the far end of the hall, trestle tables and benches had been set out. The very old and the very young worked there, ladling soup into dishes, tending small braziers under bubbling pots, setting out and clearing away plates and cups. The immense chamber swallowed the discouraged mutter of talk. A child of about eight hurried up with a basin of steaming water. A towel was slung over her arm. “Wash?” she offered them.

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