The mad ship, p.36
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       The Mad Ship, p.36

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  “If you were truly my friend as you claim to be, you'd dig me out and free me. Please. I need to be free. Not just for my own sake, but for the sake of all my kind. ”

  Reyn shifted in his bed, rucking up the covers. He felt he was not truly asleep, nor was he dreaming; yet he was not awake either. The dragon vision had become an almost nightly torment now. When he slept, the dragon looked into him, at him, and through him with great copper eyes the size of cartwheels. Her eyes spun, the colors whirling all about the great elliptical pupils. He could not look away from them, nor could he break free of the dream and wake up. She was imprisoned in her wizardwood cocoon, and he was imprisoned in her.

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  “You don't understand,” he moaned in his sleep. “The shutters are buried, the dome is buried. Sun will never shine into that chamber again. ”

  “Then open the great doors and drag me out. Put rollers beneath if you have to, and use teams of horses. Drag me out, I don't care how. Just deliver me to the sunlight. ”

  He could not make her understand anything. “I can't. You are too big for one man to move alone, and no one would aid me. Even if I had many workers and teams of horses, it would do no good. That door will never open again. No one even knows how it originally opened. Besides, it is buried. Before we could open it, it would take scores of men working for months to move the dirt. Even then, I don't think the door could be opened. The structure is cracked and weakened. If the door was moved, I think the whole dome would give way. You would be buried more deeply than you are now. ”

  “I do not care! Take the chance, open the door. I could help you discover how to do it. ” Her voice became seductive. “I could give you all the secrets of the city. All you would have to promise is that you would open the door. ”

  Somewhere, his head moved against his sweat-dampened pillow in denial. “No. You would drown me in memories. It would do neither of us any good. That way lies madness for my kind. Do not even tempt me. ”

  “Attack the door, then. Axes and hammers must make it give way. Let it fall on me if it must. Even if it collapsed and killed me, that would be more freedom than this. Reyn, Reyn, why don't you free me? If you were truly my friend, you would free me. ”

  He writhed before her heart-stricken words. “I am your friend. I am. I long to free you, but I cannot do it alone. I must win others to my cause, first. Then we will find a way. Be patient, I pray you. Be patient. ”

  “Starvation does not know patience. Madness does not know patience. They are inexorable. Reyn, Reyn. Why can't I make you understand what you are doing with your cruelty? You are killing us all, for all time. Let me out! Let me out!”

  “I can't!” he roared. He opened his eyes to his darkened bedchamber.

  He sat up in bed, breathing like a wrestler. The sweaty bedding twisted about him, binding him like a shroud. He writhed out of it and walked naked to the center of the room. The window was open and the night air cooled his overheated body. He ran his hands through his thick curly hair, standing it up to let it dry. He scratched at the newest growth on his scalp, then resolutely dropped his hands. He walked to the window and looked up.

  The Rain Wild settlement of Trehaug was suspended in the trees along the banks of the Rain Wild River. From one side of his home, he could look down on the rushing river. From the other, he could look up through the trees to the Old City. A few lights still burned up there. The work on the excavation and exploration never really ceased. When one was working in the deepest chambers, it made little difference if it was day or night outside. It was eternal darkness within the hill. Just as it was forever black inside the wizardwood coffin in the Crowned Rooster chamber.

  He once more considered telling his mother of these nightmares but he knew how she would react. She would order the last wizardwood log to be split. The immense soft body inside would be tumbled out onto the cold stone floor, and the precious wizardwood “log” would be reduced to planks and timbers for a ship. It was the only substance the Rain Wilders had ever discovered that seemed impervious to the acid water of the river. Even the trees and bushes that lined the river survived only so long as their bark was intact. The moment anything scored them, the river began to devour them. As for the long-legged silver birds that fed in the shallows, Reyn had seen even those with knotted sores on their legs. Only wizardwood seemed to impart protection against the milky water of the Rain Wild River. And the Khuprus family possessed the last and greatest log.

  If he had his way, he would find a way to expose it to sunlight and see what emerged from it. The log would likely be destroyed in the process. One rotting old tapestry seemed to show such a hatching. A flabby white creature reared its head from a soggy wreckage of wizardwood. It gripped fragments in its jaws as if devouring the remnants of its prison. Its eyes were savage, and the almost-human creatures witnessing it seemed to be stricken with awe or fear. Sometimes, when he looked at it, he knew his idea was madness. Why take a chance on freeing such a frightful being?

  But it was the last one of its kind. The last real dragon.

  He went back to his bed. He lay down and tried to find some thought that would let him rest but not sleep. If he slept, the dragon dream would seize him and pull him down once more. Wearily, he considered Malta. Sometimes when he thought of her, delight and anticipation filled him. She was so lovely, so spirited and so fresh. In her willfulness, he saw strength unrealized. He knew what her family thought of her. It was not without reason. She was stubborn and selfish and not a little spoiled. She was the kind of woman who would fiercely defend herself. Whatever she desired, she would pursue single-mindedly. If he could win her loyalty to himself, then she would be perfect. Like his mother, she would protect and guide her children, holding fast to wealth and power for them, long after Reyn himself was in his grave. Others would say his wife was ruthless and amoral in defense of her family. But they would say it with envy.

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  If he could win her over to him. There was the rub. When he had left Bingtown, he had been certain of his victory. But she had not used the dream-box to contact him. He had had one correctly worded note since he'd last seen her. That was all. He rolled over disconsolately and closed his eyes. He drifted down to sleep and a dream.

  “Reyn. Reyn, you have to help me. ”

  “I can't,” he groaned.

  The darkness parted and Malta came toward him. She was ethereally beautiful. Her white nightdress blew in an otherworldly wind. Her dark hair flowed with the night, and her eyes were full of its mystery. She walked alone in the perfect blackness. He knew what that meant. She had come seeking him. She had set no stage, composed no fantasy. She had lain down to dream, thinking only of him.

  “Reyn?” She called again. “Where are you? I need you. ”

  He composed himself, then entered the dream. “I'm here,” he said softly, not wishing to startle her. She turned to him and her eyes swept up and down his dream self.

  “You were not veiled, last time,” she protested.

  He smiled to himself. He had chosen a realistic representation of himself, soberly clothed, veiled and gloved. He suspected that the nightgown she wore was what she truly had on tonight. He reminded himself of how young she was. He would not take advantage of her. Perhaps she did not completely understand the power of the dream-box. “Last time, you brought many ideas to our dream. As did I. We let them mingle and lived what followed. Tonight, we bring only ourselves. And whatever else we wish. ”

  He lifted an arm, and swept it across the darkness. A landscape unfurled in its wake. It was one of his favorite ancient tapestries. Starkly black leafless trees offered globes of gleaming yellow fruit. A silver path wound between the trees, then ran off to a fortress in the distance. The floor of the forest was thickly mossed. A fox with a rabbit in his jaws peered at them from a bramble. A couple, too tall to be completely human, he with copper hair, she with gold, emb
raced in the foreground. His body pressed hers against the black bole of a tree. Reyn had visualized them as frozen in time, but the woman suddenly took a sighing breath and turned her head to accept the man's kiss more deeply. He smiled to himself. She learned to play so quickly, this Malta.

  Or did she even know she had done it? She broke her eyes away from the ardent couple. She stepped closer to him and lowered her voice as if fearful of disturbing the phantoms. “Reyn, I need your help. ”

  He had thought that distressed plea had been a shadow of his earlier dragon dream. “What is wrong?”

  She glanced over her shoulder at the ardent couple. The man's hand moved slowly to the throat of the woman's robe. Malta snatched her eyes away. He could feel her focus herself on him. “Everything that could be wrong is wrong. Pirates have captured our family ship. The pirate who has the ship has a reputation of killing all crew members on the prizes he takes. If my father still lives, we hope to ransom him. But we have little enough money as it is. If our creditors discover we have lost our liveship, they will not lend us more. More likely they will demand swifter repayment of what we already owe. ” Her eyes wandered unwillingly back to the man and woman. Their love play was becoming more intimate. It seemed to distract and agitate her.

  Congratulating himself on his self-control, Reyn took her unresisting hand. He willed another path through the forest. They walked slowly along it as he led her away from the amorous duo. “What do you want me to do?”

  “Kiss me. ” The voice was commanding.

  The words were not Malta's. They had come upon another couple, beneath another tree. The young man gripped the woman by her shoulders masterfully. He looked down into her proud, upturned face. She gave him a look of icy disdain, but he lowered his mouth to hers. Against his will, Reyn's blood stirred. The woman struggled briefly, then clasped the back of the man's head to hold his mouth against hers. Reyn looked away, disturbed by the force of it. He tugged Malta's hand and they walked on.

  “What can you do?” Malta asked.

  He considered. He did not think that this was the sort of thing usually discussed in shared dreams. “Your mother should write to my mother. They are the ones who should discuss this, not us. ”

  He wondered what his mother's reaction would be. In coming to him for help, Malta seemed to have forgotten that the Khuprus family now held the note on the liveship. Not only were they one of the creditors that Malta now feared, but the pirated ship had secured that debt. It was a tangled situation. The magic of the liveships was to be carefully guarded, guaranteed by the purchaser never to fall into the hands of outsiders. When he had persuaded his mother to buy the Vestrit note on the ship, her long-range view was that the ship would be given as a bridal gift to the Vestrit family. He had expected his own children would eventually inherit it. The complete loss of the ship would be a substantial financial blow to anyone. He was sure his mother would be spurred to action, but he was not sure what action. He had never been interested in the financial business of the family. His mother, eldest brother and stepfather handled all that. He was the explorer and scholar. He mined out the discoveries that they turned into coin. What they did with that coin had not concerned him. Now he wondered if he had any say in it.

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  Malta was outraged instantly. “Reyn, we are talking about my father. I cannot wait for my mother to talk to your mother. If he is to be rescued, we must act now. ”

  He felt emasculated. “Malta. I have no power to help you directly. I am a younger son, with three older siblings. ”

  She stamped her foot angrily. “I don't believe you. If you care for me at all, you will help me. ”

  She sounded just like the dragon, he thought in sudden dismay.

  It was a dangerous thought to have in a dream-box setting. The earth suddenly trembled under their feet. A second, harder shudder followed the first. Malta clutched at a tree to keep from falling. “What was that?” she demanded.

  “An earthquake,” he replied calmly. They were common enough in Trehaug. The suspended city swayed with the living trees that supported it and took little harm. The quakes, however, often did great damage to the excavation work. He wondered if this were a real earthquake pushing its way into the dream, or an imagined one.

  “I know what a quake is. ” Malta sounded annoyed with him. “The whole Cursed Shore is prey to them. I meant that sound. ”

  “Sound?” he asked uneasily.

  “Like scrabbling and scratching. Don't you hear it?”

  He heard it all the time. Waking and sleeping, the sound of the dragon's claws working feebly against its tomb haunted him. “You can hear it, too?” He was astounded. He had learned to ignore what he had always been told was his imagination.

  Before he could reply, everything began to change. The colors of the forest suddenly grew bright and new. There was a strong fragrance of ripening fruit on the warm breeze. The texture of the mosses underfoot became coarser, while the path suddenly sparkled in sunlight. The blue of the sky deepened. This was no longer Reyn's memory of a tapestry. Someone else was adding to the dream-box vision, and he did not think it was Malta.

  When thunderclouds began to boil up along the horizon, he was certain of it. He glanced up fearfully as the rising winds sent ripe fruit plummeting from the trees. One spattered into seeds and pulp right by Malta's feet. The rich smell of its spilled nectar was decadent.

  “Malta. We should part now. Tell your mother that . . . ”

  Lightning cracked the sky overhead. Thunder followed instantaneously. Reyn felt his hair stand on end and a peculiar smell rode the wind. Malta cowered low and pointed wordlessly up at the sky. The erratic winds lashed her hair wildly and pressed her nightdress up against her body.

  A dragon hovered above the trees. The powerful beat of her wings spurred the winds. Even the cloud-dimmed light of the sun could not diminish her glory. She was iridescent. Colors chased one another over her silver body and wings. Her eyes were copper. “I have the power,” she declared. Her voice split the sky. The branch of a nearby tree cracked and fell heavily to the earth. “Free me and I will aid you. I promise you this. ” Her wings lifted her to the sky where she turned a slow, dazzling loop. Her long serpentine tail lashed the sky behind her.

  Rain began suddenly to fall, a torrent that drenched the humans. Malta fled shivering to the shelter of Reyn's arms and cloak. He put his arm around her. Even in the shadow of the hovering dragon, he was aware of the warmth of her skin through the damp cloth of her nightdress. From beneath his cloak, Malta squinted up at the beast. “Who are you?” she cried loudly. “What do you want?”

  The dragon threw back her head and roared her laughter. She swept past them and rose again into the sky. “Who am I? Do I look so foolish as to gift you with my name? No. You will not come to control me that way. As to what I want . . . a trade. My freedom, in exchange for this ship you mention, and if your father is still aboard it, his life. What say you? An easy trade, is it not? A life for a life?”

  Malta looked to Reyn. “Is she real? Can she help us?”

  Reyn stared up at the dragon above them. She beat her wings heavily as she rose into the storm-torn sky. Up and up she rose, growing smaller with distance. She shone like a star against the dark gray clouds. “She's real. But she can't help us. ”

  “Why not? She is immense! She can fly! Couldn't she just go to where the ship is and . . . ”

  “And what? Destroy the ship to kill the pirates? Possibly, if you truly thought that was wise. Possibly, if she were truly free and flying. But she isn't. She is only showing herself to us, in this dream, as she imagines herself to be. ”

  “How is she really?”

  Reyn abruptly realized how close he had come to a very dangerous topic. “She's trapped, far beneath the earth, where no one can free her. ” He took her arm and hurried her down the path, to where he had willed a sturdy little cottage into existence
. He opened the door and Malta darted inside gratefully. He followed her, shutting the door behind them. A small fire illuminated the simple little room. Malta gathered up her hair in a bundle and squeezed the water from it. She turned back to him, raindrops still glistening on her face. The firelight danced in her eyes.

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  “How is she trapped?” Malta demanded. “What would we have to do to free her?”

  He decided to tell her enough to be honest. “A long time ago, something happened. We're not sure what. Somehow, an entire city was buried under a heavy layer of earth. It was so long ago that trees have grown in the earth above it. The dragon is in a chamber deep within the buried city. There is no way to free her. ” He put all the finality he could muster into his words. Malta looked stubbornly unconvinced. He shook his head at her. “This is not the dream I imagined we would share. ”

  “Couldn't she be dug out? How can she be alive, buried so deeply?” Malta cocked her head at him and narrowed her eyes. “How do you even know she is there? Reyn. There is something you are not telling me,” she accused him.

  He straightened his back and stood his ground. “Malta, there are many things I cannot tell you. I would not ask you to betray the secrets of the Bingtown Traders. You must trust me that I have told you all I honorably can. ” He crossed his arms on his chest.

  She stared at him for a time. Then she lowered her eyes. After a moment, in a lowered voice she said, “Please do not think ill of me. I did not realize what I was asking of you. ” Her voice grew throaty as she added, “I look forward to a time when there will be no secrets between us. ”

  A blast of wind buffeted the cottage walls. Reyn suspected it was the dragon flying over them. “Free me!” Her long wild call slid down the sky to them. “Free me!”

  At the sound of the dragon's voice, Malta's eyes grew wide. A second wave of wind hit the cottage, rattling the shutters, and she was suddenly in his arms. He held her close and felt her trembling. The top of her head came only to his chin. Her hair was damp under his touch when he stroked it. When she turned her face up to his, he fell into the bottomless gaze of her eyes. “It's only a dream,” he assured her. “Nothing here can hurt you. Nothing here is quite real. ”

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