The mad ship, p.55
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       The Mad Ship, p.55

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
Page 204


  Every rest period, they pondered the future. Maulkin's answers seldom satisfied them. He spoke as plainly as he could, and yet the words were confusing. Shreever could sense his own bewilderment behind his prophecies; her hearts went out to him. Sometimes she feared that the others might turn on him out of frustration. She almost longed for the days when it was only herself and Sessurea and Maulkin, seeking for those answers. When she whispered as much to Maulkin one evening, he rebuked her. “Our folk have dwindled. Confusion besets us from all sides. If any of us are to survive, we must gather as many as we can. It is the simplest law of the Plenty. A multitude must be born for a few to survive. ”

  “Born,” she said, the question unspoken.

  “The recombination of old lives into new lives. It is what we all hear summoning us. Our time to be serpents is over. We must find She Who Remembers. That one will guide us, to where we can seek rebirth as new creatures. ”

  His words made her shudder her whole length, but with dread or anticipation, she could not say. Others had drawn close to hear his words. Their questions swarmed thick as capelin on a moonlit tide.

  “What sort of new creatures?”

  “How can we be reborn?”

  “Why is our time over?”

  “Who will remember for us?”

  Maulkin's great copper eyes spun slowly. Color rippled his length. He struggled. She could sense it, and wondered if the others did as well. He strained to reach beyond himself, grasping at knowledge and bringing back only disconnected fragments. It drained him more than a full day of traveling. She also sensed that he was as discontented with his fragmentary answers as the others were.

  “We will be as we once were. The memories you cannot understand, the dreams that frighten, come from that time. When they come to you, do not chase them away. Ponder them. Pursue them into the open and share them. ” He paused, and when he spoke again, it was more slowly and with less certainty. “We are long past due to change, so long past due that I fear something has gone terribly wrong. Someone will remember for us. Others will come to protect us and guide us. We will know them. They will know us. ”

  “The silver provider,” Sessurea asked quietly. “We followed, but she knew us not. ”

  Sylic twined uneasily through the heart of the resting tangle. “Silver. Silver-gray,” he hissed. “Do you remember, Kelaro? Xecres found the great silver-gray creature and called us to follow it. ”

  “I do not recall that,” Kelaro trumpeted softly. He opened and closed his huge silver eyes. They spun with shifting color. “Except, perhaps, as a dream. A bad dream. ”

  “It attacked us when we gathered close around it. It threw long teeth at us. ” Sylic turned a slow knot through his length, pausing when he came to a scar gouged deep. The scales that had grown over it were thick and uneven. “It bit me here,” the scarlet whispered hoarsely. “It bit me but it did not devour me. ” He turned to look deep into Kelaro's eyes, as if seeking confirmation. “You tore its tooth from my flesh for me. It had pierced me and it stayed in me, festering. ”

  Kelaro lidded his gaze. “I do not recall,” he replied regretfully.

  A rippling ran the length of Maulkin's body. His false-eyes shone brighter than they had in a very long time. “The silver being attacked you?” he asked incredulously. “He attacked you!” Anger was a rip tide in his voice. “How could it be that one who gives off the smell of memories turns on those who come to him for help?” He lashed his great head back and forth, his mane coming erect with toxins. “I do not understand!” he suddenly bellowed out. “There are no memories of this, not even the taste of a memory! How can it be that these things happen? Where is She Who Remembers?”

  “Perhaps they forgot,” Tellur said with black humor. The slender green minstrel had not gained much strength since he had recalled his own name. The effort of maintaining his identity seemed to consume all his energy. How he had been before he had forgotten himself, no one could say. Now he was a dour-humored, sharp-tongued whip. Despite recalling who he had been, he could seldom bring himself to sing.

  Maulkin whipped about suddenly to face him. His mane was full standing, his colors rippling. “They forgot?” he roared in outraged astonishment. “Have you seen this in a memory or dream? Do you recall a song that speaks of a time when all forget?”

  Tellur sleeked his mane to his throat, making himself smaller and less significant. “It was a jest, great one. An evil jest from a sour minstrel. I beg pardon for it. ”

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  “A jest with perhaps a grain of truth in it. Many of us have forgotten. Could the ones who remember, the memory keepers of us all, have likewise failed in their tasks?”

  A despondent silence greeted his question. If it was so, it meant they were abandoned. They had no future save to wander, until one by one their minds failed and grew dark. The serpents gripped one another tighter, holding fast to what little future might remain to them. Maulkin abruptly tugged free of them all. He turned an immense circle and then began a series of slow looping turns. “Think with me!” he invited them all. “Let us consider if this could be true. It could account for much. Sessurea, Shreever and I saw a silver being, one that smelled like She Who Remembers. She ignored us. Kelaro and Sylic saw a silver-gray creature. When Xecres, the leader of their tangle, sought memories of him, he attacked them. ” He whipped his body about suddenly to confront the others. “Is that so different from how you all behaved, as you lost your memories? Did not you ignore one another, not replying to my questions? Did not you even attack your fellows as you vied for food?” He arched backwards, revealing his white underbelly as he flashed past them. “It is so clear!” he trumpeted. “The minstrel has seen through to the heart of it. They have forgotten! We must force them to remember us!”

  The tangle was silent, awe-stricken. Even the mindless serpents who gathered in random tangles of their own at rest times had disengaged to watch Maulkin's jubilant dance. The wonder that shone in so many eyes shamed Shreever, but her doubt was too strong. She voiced it. “How? How can we make them recall us?”

  Maulkin suddenly darted at her. He looped her, wrapped her, and drew her forth from the tangle to join in his sensual weaving. She tasted his toxins as she moved beside him. They were besotted with joy, intoxicatingly free. “Just as we have reawakened the others. We shall seek one, confront one, and demand that that one name its name. ”

  As she had danced with him, entwined and intoxicated, it had been so easy to believe it was possible. They would seek out one of the silver creatures who smelled like memories, force it to remember its purpose and to share its memories with them. And then . . . then they would all be saved. Somehow.

  Now, as she looked up at the shape passing between them and the light, she wondered. They had been days seeking a silver. Once they had caught the scent of one, Maulkin had allowed them only brief pauses for rest. Their purposeful pursuit had near exhausted some of them. Slender Tellur had lost color and bulk. Many of the feral serpents had dropped behind as Maulkin sustained the pace. Perhaps they would catch up with them later; perhaps they would never see them again. For now, Shreever had thoughts only for the bulky creature that moved purposefully above them.

  The tangle ghosted along in his shadow. Now that they had actually caught up with him, even Maulkin seemed daunted by their task. In bulk, the silver creature far surpassed any of the serpents. In length, he was the equal of even Kelaro.

  “What will we do now?” Tellur asked bluntly. “We cannot wrap such a creature and drag it down. It would be like wrestling a whale!”

  “Actually, that would not be an impossible task,” Kelaro observed with the confidence of his size. He brought his mane up aggressively. “It would be a battle, but there are many of us. We would prevail. ”

  “We shall not begin with force,” Maulkin informed him. Shreever watched him gather his strength. Sometimes it seemed to her
that the spark of his vitality burned as brightly as ever, but that his physical being dwindled as it burned. She wished she could convince him to conserve himself, but that unending argument was best not begun. The prophet-seer stretched himself to his full length. A swift ripple undulated his whole body, waking his false-eyes to bright gold. Slowly his ruff blossomed about his throat, until every spine of his mane stood stiff and welling venom. His great copper eyes spun with purpose. “Await my call,” he directed them.

  They obeyed as he left them and swam up toward the great silver shape.

  This one was not a provider. He had not the taint of old blood and waste to him that was the hallmark of the hulks who bestowed flesh upon them. This creature moved more swiftly, though he had neither fins nor flippers that Shreever could discern. He had a single flipper-like appendage at the back of his rounded belly, but he did not appear to use it to move. Rather he slid through the Plenty effortlessly, with his upper body basking in the Lack. Maulkin matched his pace. He did not seem to have gills, eyes or a mane, but Maulkin hailed him anyway. “Maulkin's tangle gives you greeting. We have traveled far, in search of One Who Remembers. Are not you such a one?”

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  He gave no sign of hearing Maulkin. His speed did not slow nor vary. His scent did not change. It was as if he were completely unaware of the serpent. For a time, Maulkin kept pace with him, waiting patiently. He hailed him again, but again there was no response. He suddenly lashed himself to greater speed, to place himself ahead of the silver one. Then, with a shuddering shake of his mane, he released a stunning cloud of toxin.

  The creature passed through it without even slowing. He seemed unfazed by the toxins. It was only after he had passed that Shreever sensed something from him; a thin shivering from the silvery body, a faint scent of uneasiness. It was so slight a reaction, scarcely a response at all, but still she took courage from it. He might pretend to ignore them, but he was aware of them all the same.

  Maulkin felt the same, for he suddenly whipped his body in front of the creature, where he must pause or collide with him. “I am Maulkin of Maulkin's tangle! I do demand your name!”

  He struck Maulkin. He ran him down as if he were kelp. But Maulkin was not kelp, to be brushed aside. “I demand your name!” he bellowed. He flung his full length against the silver creature. His tangle followed him. They could not wrap the silver one, though they tried. They could nudge and bump him. Cobalt Kelaro even rammed him, striking a blow that near stunned the serpent, while Sessurea battered the creature's single flipper. Every member of the tangle released their most potent toxins, so that they passed through cloud after cloud of their own poisons. Their attack slowed and baffled the great creature. He hesitated in his course. Shreever heard shrill keening. Did he sing into the Lack, even under the full light of the sun? Disoriented and gasping in the wild array of toxins, she rose to lift her head out into the Lack.

  It was there she found his face and flippers, unlike any she had ever beheld. He had no mane, but spread great white wings above him, like a gull coming to rest on the face of the Plenty. Parasites infested his body. They hopped and clung to his upper body and wings, making shrill cries. At the sight of her, their agitation increased. Emboldened, she lifted as much of her length up as she could. She flung herself into the gray one's face. “Who are you?” she trumpeted. She shook her own small mane, lashing him with her stinging cells, spattering him with her toxins. “Say your name! Shreever of Maulkin's tangle demands that you remember for her!”

  He cried out as her toxins struck him. He lifted his flippers to his face and pawed at himself. The parasites scampered madly over his back, trumpeting in their tiny voices. The silver one suddenly leaned far over. Shreever thought he would dive to escape her; then she saw that it was not by his own will that this was done. Maulkin had united his tangle's efforts. Their combined force pushed upon him, making him wallow far to one side. His white wing clipped the water. A parasite fell, buzzing shrilly, into the Plenty. One of the feral serpents surged forward to snatch it up.

  They had only to be shown once. The entire school of them then converged on the silver one. With a violence that surely Maulkin had never intended, they battered and rocked the creature. He cried out wildly and swung his flippers about in frantic efforts to strike his attackers. This only enraged the feral serpents more. They added their undisciplined toxins to those already clouding the Plenty. Fish stun and shark repellent battered her senses. The feral serpents were doing most of the work now, while Maulkin and his tangle circled the embattled creature, repeating over and over their demands for his name. More and more of the parasites plummeted into the water. The creature's great white wings flapped wildly as they dipped into the Plenty, first on one side and then the other. Finally, when the creature was laid over almost completely on his side, Kelaro flung his great length out of the Plenty. He crashed down on the creature's unprotected flank. Swiftly other serpents joined him, both sentient and feral. Some leaped up to seize his stiff limbs and fluttering wings. The silver creature tried to roll back, but there were too many of them. He could not overcome them. Their weight overwhelmed him and drew him under, away from the Lack and deeper into the Plenty. As they pulled him down, the parasites tried to leap free of him, but snapping jaws awaited every one of them.

  “Your name!” Maulkin insisted as they bore him down. “Tell us your name!”

  The creature bellowed and gesticulated wildly, but gave them no words. Maulkin darted at him, wrapping his length around the creature's forepart. He shook his mane right in the creature's face, discharging toxins in a thick cloud. “Speak!” he commanded him. “Remember for us. Give us your name! What was your name?”

  He struggled, his tiny head and forelimbs convulsing in Maulkin's grip while the disproportionate bulk of his body remained stiff and unyielding. Some of his smaller brittle limbs broke away while his wings grew wet and heavy. Still, he struggled to rise to the top of the Plenty. They could not drag him completely down, though the tangle managed to hold him below the Lack.

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  “Speak to us!” Maulkin commanded him. “Just one word. Just your name and we will let you go. Reach for it, reach back for it. You have it. We know you do. We can smell the thickness of your memories. ”

  He battered wildly at the prophet. His mouth gaped and stretched with his sounds, but no sense came out of him. Then he suddenly went still. His eyes, small and brown, went wide. His mouth gaped once, twice. Then he suddenly relaxed in Maulkin's grasp. Shreever lidded her eyes. The silver-gray creature was dead. They had killed him, to no good end.

  Then he suddenly spoke. Shreever's attention snapped back to him. His voice was thin, almost bodiless. His puny forelimbs tried to encircle Maulkin's thick body in an embrace. “I was Draquius. I am no more. I am a dead thing, speaking with the mouth of memories. ” His trumpet was shrill and weak, barely audible.

  The tangle grew still, gathering closer in awe. Draquius spoke on. “It was the time of the change. We had swum far up the river, to where the memory silt was fine and thick. We had spun our cocoons, encasing ourselves in thread woven of memory. Our parents laved us with the silt of memories, gave us our names and their memories to share. They watched us, our old friends. They celebrated our time of change, under the blue skies. They cheered as we wallowed from the river to the sunny banks, to let the light and the heat dry our cases while we transformed ourselves. Layer upon layer of memories and silt they wrapped us in. It was a season of joy. Our parents filled the skies with their colors and songs. We would rest through the time of cold, to awaken and emerge when the days turned hot and long. ” He closed his small eyes, as if pained. He clung to Maulkin as if he were part of his own tangle.

  “Then the whole world went wrong. The earth shook and split. The very mountains were shattered and oozed hot red blood. The sun dimmed; even within our cases, we felt it fade. Hot winds blew over us, a
nd we heard the cries of our friends as it snatched the breath from their lungs. Yet even as they fell, gasping, they did not forsake us. They dragged us into shelter, many lives ago. They could not save many of us, but they tried. I give them that, they tried. It was only for a time, they promised. Only until the dust stopped raining down, only until the skies shone blue again. Only until the earth stopped quaking. But it did not stop. The earth trembled daily and the mountains burst into fire. The forest burned and the ash fell down over all, stifling everything. The river flowed thicker than blood with it. The air was choked with it, and where it settled, it covered all life in a layer of ash. We called out to them from inside our cocoons, but after a time, they did not answer. Without the sun, we could not hatch. We lay in the deep darkness, wrapped in our memories, and waited. ”

  The tangle and its followers were silent. They remained as they were, draped on his stiff limbs and wings, wrapped over his bulky body. Maulkin breathed out a thin cloud of toxin in his face. “Speak on,” he commanded him gently. “We do not understand, but we listen. ”

  “You do not understand?” He laughed thinly. “I do not understand. After a very long time, another people came. They were like and not like those who had sought to save us. We called out to them joyously, sure they had come at last to deliver us from the darkness. But they would not hear us. They brushed our airy voices away, dismissing us as less than dreams. Then they killed us. ”

  Shreever felt hope grow tiny within her.

  “I heard the screams of Tereea. I could not grasp what was happening. She was with us; then she was gone. A time passed. Then they attacked me. Tools bit into my cocoon, splitting it open while it was still thick and heavy, strong with my memories. Then . . . ” He became perplexed. “They threw my soul out onto the cold stone. It died there. But the memories remained, trapped in the layers of the cocoon. They sawed me into planks and from them created a new body. They made me anew in their own image, gouging away until they had shaped me a face and head and body such as they wear. And they drenched me in their own memories, until one day I awoke as someone else. Ringsgold they named me, and so I became. A liveship. A slave. ”

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