The mad ship, p.5
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       The Mad Ship, p.5

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  Only familiarity guided her as she descended the shallow steps that led into the immense room. As she submerged herself in the vaster darkness of the Crowned Rooster Chamber, she scowled to herself. Reyn was not here after all. She had trotted all this way seeking her son for nothing.

  She paused by the wall at the bottom of the steps, looking around blindly. She started when he spoke to her from the blackness.

  “Have you ever tried to imagine to yourself how this chamber must have looked when it was new? Think of it, Mother. On a day like today, the spring sun would have shone down through the crystal dome to waken all the colors in the murals. What did they do here? From the deep gouges on the floor and the random ordering of the tables, I do not think the wizardwood logs were commonly stored here. No. I think they were brought here in haste, to shelter them from whatever disaster was burying the city. So. Prior to that time, what was the purpose of this huge room with its crystal dome and decorated walls? From the ancient pots of earth, we can surmise they grew plants in here. Was it merely a sheltered garden, where one could walk in comfort even in the stormiest weather? Or was it . . . ?”

  “Reyn. Enough,” his mother exclaimed in annoyance. Her questing fingers found the jidzin strip on the wall. She pressed on it firmly, and several decorative panels answered her dimly. She frowned to herself. In her girlhood, they had been much brighter; each petal of every flower had shone. Now they dimmed more with each passing day. She pushed aside her dismay at the thought of them dying. There was mild irritation in her voice as she demanded, “What are you doing down here in the dark? Why aren't you in the west corridor, supervising the workers? They have found another portal, concealed in a wall of the seventh chamber. Your intuition is needed there, to divine how to open it. ”

  “How to destroy it, you mean,” Reyn corrected her.

  “Oh, Reyn,” Jani wearily rebuked him. She was so tired of these discussions with her youngest son. Sometimes it seemed that he, who was most gifted at forcing the dwelling places of the Elderlings to give up their secrets, was also the most reluctant to employ his skills. “What would you have us do? Leave all buried and forgotten as we found it? Forsake the Rain Wilds and retreat to Bingtown to live with our kin there? That would be brief sanctuary. ”

  She heard the light scuff of his feet as he circled the last great log of wizardwood that remained in the Crowned Rooster Chamber. He moved like a sleepwalker as he rounded the end of it. Her heart sank as she marked how he walked, his fingers trailing along the massive trunk as he did so. He was cloaked and hooded against the damp and chill of the chamber. “No,” he said quietly. “I love the Rain Wilds as you do. I have no desire to live elsewhere. Neither do I think my people should continue to live in hiding and secrecy. Nor should we continue to plunder and destroy the ancient holdings of the Elderlings simply to pay for our own safety. I believe that instead we should restore and celebrate all we have discovered here. We should dig away the soil and ash that mask the city and reveal it once more to sunlight and moonlight. We should throw off the Satrap of Jamaillia as an overlord, deny his taxes and restrictions and trade freely wherever we wish. ” His voice died down as his mother glowered at him, but he was not silenced. “Let us display who we are without shame, and say we live where and as we do, not out of shame but by choice. That is what I think we should do. ”

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  Jani Khuprus sighed. “You are very young, Reyn,” she said simply.

  “If you mean stupid, say stupid,” he suggested without malice.

  “I do not mean stupid,” she replied gently. “Young I said, and young I meant. The burden of the Cursed Shores does not fall as heavily upon you and me as it does the other Rain Wild Traders. In some ways, that makes our lot harder, not easier. We visit Bingtown and from behind our veils we look about and say, 'But I am not so very different from the folk who live here. In time they would accept me, and I could move freely among them. ' Perhaps you forget just how hard it might be for Kys or Tillamon to stand unveiled before ignorant eyes. ”

  At the mention of his sisters' names, Reyn cast his eyes down. No one could say why the disfigurement that was the normal lot of Rain Wild children should have fallen so heavily upon them and so lightly upon Reyn. Here, among their own kind, it was not so immense a burden. Why should one blanch at a neighbor's face that sported the same pebbled skin or dangling growths as his own? In contrast, the thought of his small half-sister Kys unveiled, even on a Bingtown street, was a daunting one. As clearly as if written on a scroll, Jani watched the thoughts unfurl across her son's visage. His brow wrinkled at the unfairness of it all.

  Bitterness twisted his mouth when he spoke. “We are a wealthy folk. I am neither so young nor so stupid as not to know that we could buy acceptance. By all rights, we should be among the wealthiest in the world, were it not for the Satrap's foot on our neck and hands in our purse. Mark my words, Mother. Could we but throw off the burdens of his taxes and his restraints on our free trade, then we would not need to destroy the very discoveries that enrich us. We could restore and reveal this city, instead of stripping its treasures to sell elsewhere. Folk would come here, paying our ships to bring them up the river, and be glad to do it. They would look upon us and not turn aside their eyes, for folk can come to love whoever has wealth. We would have the leisure then to find the true keys to unlock the secrets that we now hammer and cut free. If we were truly a free folk, we could unearth the full wonder of this city. Sunlight would flood this chamber as it once did, and the Queen that lies trapped here-”

  “Reyn,” his mother spoke in a low voice. “Take your hand off the wizardwood log. ”

  “It's not a log,” he said as softly. “It's not a log and we both know it. ”

  “And we both know that the words you now speak are not solely your own. Reyn. It little matters what we call it. What we both know is that you have spent far too much time in contact with it, studying the murals and contemplating the glyphs on the pillars. It sways your thoughts and makes you its own. ”

  “No!” He denied it sharply. “That is not the truth of it, Mother. Yes, I have spent much time in this chamber, and studied the markings the Elderlings left here. I have studied, too, that which we tumbled from inside the other 'logs' that were once within the chamber. ” He shook his head, his coppery eyes flashing in the dimness. “Coffins. That was what you told me they were when I was young. But they are not. Cradles would be a truer name for them. Moreover, if knowing what I know now, I long to awaken and release the only one that is left, that does not mean I have fallen under her sway. It only means that I have come to see what would be right to do. ”

  “What is right to do is to remain loyal to one's own,” his mother retorted angrily. “Reyn, I tell you this plainly. You have spent so much time in the company of this wizardwood log that you do not know where your own thoughts leave off and its sly promptings begin. There is at least as much of a child's thwarted curiosity in your desire as there is righteousness. Look at your actions today. You know where you are needed. But where are you?”

  “Here. With one who needs me most, for she has no other advocate!”

  “She is most likely dead. ” His mother spoke bluntly. “Reyn. You tease your fancy with nursery tales. How long was that log there, even before we discovered this place? Whatever was within it has perished long ago, and left only the echoes of its longing for light and air. You know the properties of wizardwood. A log, broken free of its contents, becomes free to take on the memories and thoughts of those in daily contact with it. That does not mean the wood is alive. You put your hands on it, and you listen to the trapped memories of a dead creature from another time. That is all they are. ”

  “If you are so sure of that, why do not we test your theory? Let us expose this log to light and air. If no dragon queen hatches from within it, then I shall concede I was wrong. I will no longer oppose it being cut into timber to build a great ship for the Kh
uprus family. ”

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  Jani Khuprus heaved a great sigh. Then she spoke softly. “It makes no difference, Reyn, whether you oppose it or not. You are my youngest son, not my eldest. When the time comes, you will not be the one to decide what is done with the last wizardwood log. ” At her son's downcast face, she felt she might have spoken too harshly. As stubborn as he was, he was also oddly sensitive. That came from his father, she thought, and feared. She tried to make him see her reasoning. “To do what you propose would divert workmen and time from the tasks they must do if we are to keep money flowing into our household. The log is too big. The entrance they used to bring it here collapsed long ago. It is too long to wend it down the corridors to get it outside. The only alternative would be for workmen to clear the forest above us and then dig away the soil. We would have to break away the crystal dome and hoist it out with tripods and pulleys. It would be a monumental task. ”

  “If I am correct, it would be worth it. ”

  “Would it? Let us pretend you are correct, and we have exposed this log to light and something has hatched from it. Then what? What assurances do you have that such a creature will feel kindly toward us, or regard us at all? You have read more of the scrolls and tablets of the Elderkind than any other man alive has. You yourself say that the dragons that shared their cities were arrogant and aggressive creatures, prone to take whatever they desired. Would you free such a creature to walk among us? Worse, what if it resented us, or even hated us, for what we unknowingly did to her kin in the other logs? Look at the size of that log, Reyn. It would be a formidable enemy you had loosed upon your own kind, simply to satisfy your curiosity. ”

  “Curiosity!” Reyn sputtered. “It is not solely curiosity, Mother. I feel pity for the trapped creature. Yes, and I feel guilt for those others we so thoughtlessly destroyed over the years. Remorse and atonement can drive one as strongly as curiosity. ”

  Jani knotted her fists. “Reyn. I am not going to discuss this any further with you. If you want to speak of it to me again, then you must do so in my sitting room, not in this damp cave with that . . . thing swaying your every thought. And that is final. ”

  Reyn straightened slowly and crossed his arms on his chest. She could not see his face; she did not need to. She knew his mouth was set and his jaw clenched tight. Stubborn lad. Why did he have to be so stubborn?

  She did not look at him as she made her peace offering. “Son, after you have helped the work crew in the west corridor, I thought we might sit down and plan your trip to Bingtown. Although I have promised the Vestrits that you will not turn Malta's head with presents, it is still fitting that you take gifts for her mother and grandmother. Those must be selected, as well as garments for your journey. We have not yet discussed how you will present yourself. You have always dressed so soberly. Yet, a man who goes courting should have plumage like a peacock. You must, of course, remain veiled. But how heavily veiled I will leave up to you. ”

  Her gambit succeeded. His stance softened; she could sense his smile. “Veiled impenetrably, but not for the reason you think. I think Malta is a woman who enjoys mystery and intrigue. I think it is what first attracted her to me. ”

  Jani began to walk slowly toward the chamber entrance. As she had hoped, Reyn trailed after her. “Her mother and grandmother seemed to think her very much a child still, but you refer to her as a woman. ”

  “She is certainly a woman. ” Reyn's tone left no room for doubt. He took pride in his declaration. Jani found herself marveling at the change in her son. Never before had he expressed such an interest in a woman, though there had been no lack of them vying for his attention. Among the Rain Wild families, any of the Khuprus sons or daughters would be a good catch. Only once had they attempted to arrange a marriage on his behalf. His adamant refusal had been socially awkward. There had been a few alliance offers from Bingtown Trader families as well, but Reyn had disdained them. No, disdained was too strong a word for overtures he had scarcely acknowledged. Perhaps Malta Vestrit could save her son from this obsession of his. She smiled over her shoulder at Reyn as she led him from the room.

  “I confess, I am intrigued by this woman-child Malta. Her family speaks of her one way, and you quite another. . . . I look forward to meeting her. ”

  “I hope that shall happen soon. I plan to invite her and her kin to come for a visit, Mother. If that is all right with you, of course. ”

  “You know I have no objections. The Vestrit family is well thought of among the Rain Wild Traders, despite their decision to forbear trading with us. With the alliance of our families in marriage, that will surely end. They have the liveship that is needed to trade up the Rain Wild River . . . and they will own it free of encumbrances once the wedding is celebrated. You and Malta have the prospect of prosperity before you. ”

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  “Prosperity. ” Reyn said the word with an overtone of amusement. “Malta and I have far better prospects than mere prosperity. Of that, Mother, I assure you. ”

  They came to a divergence in the corridor. Jani paused there. “You will go to the west corridor and open the new door. ” Her tone stopped just short of making it a question.

  “I will,” Reyn replied, almost absently.

  “Good. When you are finished there, come to me in my drawing room. I will have a selection of appropriate gifts from which you may choose. Shall I have the tailors come and bring their newest cloths with them?”

  “Yes. Certainly. ” He frowned in distracted thought. “Mother, you promised I would not turn Malta's head with costly gifts. Am I permitted to bring the simple tokens that any young man may offer a maiden? Fruit and flowers and sweets?”

  “I cannot see how they could object to such things as those. ”

  “Good. ” He nodded to himself. “Could you have baskets prepared for me that I could offer each day of my visit?” He smiled to himself. “The baskets could be trimmed with ribbons and soft scarves in bright colors. And a bottle or two of excellent wine in each . . . I do not think that would be going too far. ”

  His mother smiled wryly to herself. “You may wish to proceed cautiously, my son. Ronica Vestrit will tell you plainly enough if you overstep the boundaries she has set. I do not think you should hasten to cross wills with her. ”

  Reyn was already walking away from her. He glanced back, a quick flash of copper eyes. “I shall not hasten to cross her, Mother. But neither shall I hasten to avoid it. ” He continued walking away from her as he spoke. “I'm going to marry Malta. The sooner they get used to me, the easier it will be for all of us. ”

  Behind him, in the darkness, Jani folded her arms. Obviously, he had never met Ronica Vestrit. A glint of amusement came into her eyes as she wondered if her son's stubbornness would not find its equal in that of the Bingtown Trader.

  Reyn paused. “Have you sent a bird to tell Sterb of my courtship?”

  Jani nodded, pleased that he had asked. Reyn did not always get along with his stepfather. “He wishes you well. Little Kys says you must not marry until winter, when they return to Trehaug. And Mando says you owe him a bottle of Durjan brandy. Something about a bet you made, long ago, that your brothers would marry before you. ”

  Reyn was already striding away. “A wager I am pleased to lose,” he called back over his shoulder.

  Jani smiled after him.


  BRIG'S HANDS RESTED ON THE SPOKES OF VIVACIA'S WHEEL, CASUALLY COMpetent. The pirate's face had the distant look of a man completely aware of the ship as his larger body. Wintrow paused a moment to size him up before approaching. He was a young man, no more than twenty-five. His chestnut hair was confined under a yellow kerchief marked with the Raven insignia. His eyes were gray, and the old slave tattoo on his face had been over-needled with a dark blue raven that almost obscured it. Despite his youth, Brig had a decisive air that made even older men jump to his o
rders. Kennit had chosen well in putting him in charge of the Vivacia until he recovered.

  Wintrow took a deep breath. He approached the older man with respect but dignity. He needed Brig to recognize him as a man. Wintrow waited until the man's eyes swung to meet his own. Brig looked at him silently. Wintrow spoke softly but clearly. “I need to ask you some questions. ”

  “Do you?” Brig challenged. His eyes flicked away, up to his lookout man.

  “I do,” Wintrow replied firmly. “Your captain's leg gets no better. How much longer will it take us to get to Bull Creek?”

  “Day and a half,” Brig told him, after brief consideration. “Maybe two. ” The expression on his face never seemed to change.

  Wintrow nodded to himself. “I think we can wait that long. There are supplies I'd like to have before I try to cut. I hope we can get them there. In the meantime, I could keep him stronger if I had better supplies. When the slaves rose up against the crew, they ransacked much of the ship. The medical chest has been missing since then. It would be very useful to me now. ”

  “No one's owned up to taking it?”

  Wintrow gave a small shrug. “I've asked but no one has answered. Many of the freed slaves are reluctant to talk to me. I think Sa'Adar is turning them against me. ” He hesitated. That sounded self-pitying. He would not gain Brig's respect by whining. He went on more judiciously. “Maybe they do not realize what they have. Or in the confusion of the storm and the uprising, someone may have taken it, discarded it, and it may have gone overboard. ” Wintrow took a breath and got back to his intent. “There were things in it that could make your captain more comfortable. ”

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  Brig tossed him a brief glance. He looked unconcerned, but he suddenly bellowed, “Caj!”

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