The mad ship, p.83
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       The Mad Ship, p.83

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
 
There was a rope railing, but it was slack and right at the edge of the walkway. She preferred to stay to the middle of the span as she walked along carefully. She placed each of her feet carefully, to keep from making the bridge sway any more than it already was. She kept her arms crossed tightly on her chest, hugging herself. The spaced lanterns on the railing doubled and tripled her shadow, making her recall the fuzzy visions from her injury. She felt queasy.

  She heard a wild clattering of feet and Selden came racing up to her. She dropped to her hands and knees, and clutched at the planks of the bridge.

  “What are you doing?” the boy demanded. “Come on, Malta, hurry up or we'll never get there. There's only three more bridges, and one trolley span. ”

  “Trolley span?” she asked weakly.

  “You sit in a little box and yank yourself along on a pulley sort of thing. It's fun. You can go really fast. ”

  “Can you go really slow, too?”

  “I don't know. I never tried that. ”

  “We'll try it tonight,” she said firmly. She took a shuddering breath and came to her feet. “Selden. I'm not used to the bridges yet. Could you go more slowly and not make them swing so much?”

  “Why?”

  “So your sister doesn't knock your head off,” she suggested.

  “You don't mean that,” he informed her. “Besides, you'd never catch me. Here. Take my hand and don't think about it so much. Come on. ”

  His hand felt dirty and damp in hers. She held it tightly and followed him, her heart in her throat.

  “Why do you want to go into the city, anyway?”

  “I'm curious. I'd like to see it. ”

  “Why didn't Reyn take you?”

  “He didn't have time today. ”

  “Couldn't he make time to take you tomorrow?”

  “Could we just walk and not talk?”

  “If you want. ” He was silent for three breaths. “You don't want him to know you're doing this, do you?”

  Malta hurried after him, trying to ignore the sickening sway of the bridge. Selden seemed to have the trick of timing his stride to it. She felt that that if she stumbled, she might go right over the edge. “Selden,” she asked quietly, “do you want Mama to know about you and the thick boats?”

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  He didn't reply. This bargain didn't need to be formalized.

  The only thing worse than the bridges was the trolley span. The trolley box was made of basketwork. Selden stood up in it to work it while she sat in the saggy bottom and wondered if it were going to give way any second. She gripped the edge of the basket tightly and tried not to think what would happen if the rope gave way.

  The trolley span ended in the limbs of a great tree. A walkway spiraled around its trunk to the ground. By the time they reached the solid earth, her legs were like jelly, not just from nervousness but from the unaccustomed exercise. She looked around in the darkness, baffled. “This is the city?”

  “Not really. Most of these are buildings the Rain Wilders put up to work in. We're on top of the old city. Come on. Follow me. I'll show you one of the ways in. ”

  The log buildings were set cheek by jowl. Selden led her through them as if they were a garden maze. Once they crossed a wider road set with torches. She concluded that there were probably more prosaic ways of reaching the buried city. They had come by the path that the children. used. Selden glanced back at her as he led her on. She caught the flash of excitement in his eyes. He led her eventually to a heavy door made of logs. It was set flat to the ground like a trap door. “Help me,” he hissed.

  She shook her head. “It's chained shut. ”

  “It only looks like it is. The grown-ups don't use this way anymore, because part of the tunnel caved in. But there's room to get through, if you aren't too big. Like us. ”

  She crouched down beside him. The door was slippery with mold. Her fingernails slid on it, filling them with dirt. But it opened, revealing a square of deeper night. With small hope she asked Selden, “Are there torches down there, or candles?”

  “No. You don't need them. I'll show you. You just touch this stuff and it lights up a little bit, but only while you're touching it. It's not much, but it's enough to go by. ”

  He clambered down into the darkness. An instant later, she saw a dim glow around his fingers. It was enough to outline his hand on the wall. “Come on. Hurry up. ”

  He didn't say she had to shut the door and she was glad not to. She groped her way down into the darkness. It smelled of damp and stagnant water. What was she doing? What was she thinking? She gritted her teeth and set her hand beside Selden's. The result was astonishing. A sudden bar of light shot out from beneath her fingers. It ran the length of the tunnel before them before vanishing around a curve. Along the way, it arched over doorways. In some places, runes shone on it. She froze in astonishment.

  For a time, Selden was silent. Then he said doubtfully, “Reyn showed you how to do that, didn't he?”

  “No. I didn't do anything except touch it. It's jidzin. ” She cocked her head. Strains of music reached her ears from far down the hall. It was strange. She could not identify the instruments, but it was oddly familiar.

  Selden's eyes were very wide. “Wilee told me that Reyn could make it do that, sometimes. I didn't believe him. ”

  “Maybe it just happens sometimes. ”

  “Maybe,” he agreed doubtfully.

  “What is that tune? Do you know it?”

  He frowned at her. “What tune?”

  “That music. Very far away. Don't you hear it?”

  Silence held for a long time. “No. I just hear water dripping. ”

  After a moment, she asked, “Are we going to go on?”

  “Of course,” he said doubtfully. He walked more slowly now, trailing his fingers along the strip of jidzin. She followed him, copying him. “Where did you want to go?” he asked after a minute.

  “I want to go to where the dragon is buried. Do you know where that is?”

  He turned and looked at her with a furrowed brow. “A buried dragon?”

  “That's what I heard. Do you know where that is?”

  “No. ” He scratched his cheek with dirty fingers, leaving brown stripes. “I never heard of that. ” He looked at his feet. “Actually, I didn't go much past the caved-in part. ”

  “Then take me there. ”

  They moved in silence now. Some of the doors they passed had been broken open. Malta peered in hopefully as they passed. Most led only to collapsed chambers full of earth and roots. Two had been cleared of debris, but held nothing of interest. Thick glass windows looked out on walls of earth. They went on. Sometimes the music seemed clearer, sometimes it faded. A trick of the tunnels, she decided.

  They came to a place where the ceiling and one wall had given way. Earth had cascaded across the stone floor. With his free hand, Selden pointed up the pile of debris toward the ceiling. He whispered, “You have to climb up there and squeeze through. Wilee said it's tight going for a short way, and then you come out again. ”

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  She looked up at it doubtfully. “Did you fit through there?”

  Selden looked down and shook his head. “I don't like small places. I don't even really like to be in here. The bridges and trolleys are more fun. Last time we were in here, there was that shake. Wilee and all of us just ran like rabbits to get out. ” He seemed humiliated to admit it.

  “I'd run, too,” she assured him.

  “Let's go back now. ”

  “I'm going to go just a bit further, just to see if I can. Will you wait here for me?”

  “I suppose so. ”

  “You could wait for me by the door if you want. Keep watch there?”

  “I suppose so. You know, Malta, if we get caught down here, by ourselves, like this . . . well, it seems somewhat rude. Different from Wilee bringing me down here
. Like we're spying on our hosts. ”

  “I know what I'm doing,” she assured him. “I won't be gone long. ”

  “I hope so,” he murmured as she left him.

  For the first part, it was not so hard. She waded through the damp earth, keeping her hand on the light strip. Soon she had to crouch. Then the level of the debris covered the jidzin. Reluctantly she lifted her fingers from it. The light dimmed behind her. She set her teeth and groped her way forward on her hands and knees. She kept being tangled in her skirts until she got the knack of it. When she bumped her head on the ceiling, she stopped. Her hands were cold and the fabric of her skirt was thick and heavy with mud. How was she going to explain that? She pushed the worry aside. Too late, anyway. A little further, she told herself. She crouched lower and crawled on. Soon she was on her elbows and pushing herself along on her knees. The only sounds she could hear were her own breathing and distant dripping. She halted to catch her breath. The darkness pressed against her eyes. Suddenly the whole weight of the hill above seemed to be pressing down on her. This was ridiculous. She was going back.

  She tried to back up. Her skirt started to crawl up around her waist, and her bare knees met the cold earth. She felt like she was wallowing on her belly in mud. She halted. “Selden?”

  There was no answer. He'd probably gone back to the door as soon as she was out of sight. She set her head down on her arms and closed her eyes. Dizziness rocked her for a moment. She shouldn't have tried this. The whole idea was stupid. What had made her think she could succeed where Reyn had failed?

  CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX - Dragon and Satrap

  MALTA WAS GETTING COLD. THE DAMP EARTH BENEATH HER, MORE MUD than soil, had saturated her clothing. The longer she was still, the more her body ached. She had to do something, go on or go back. Both options seemed too much trouble. Maybe she could just lie here until somebody else did something about it.

  As her breathing calmed, the distant music swelled. When she gave it her attention, it seemed clearer. She knew that tune. Surely, she had danced to it, a long time ago. She heard herself humming softly with it. She opened her eyes and lifted her head. Was there light ahead, or was it a trick of her mind? The pastel lights shifted when she moved her eyes. She crawled on, towards the light and the music.

  With a suddenness that surprised her, she was going downhill. She lifted her head and found there was space above her now. She started to get to her hands and knees, and abruptly slid. She went down the muddy slope on her belly like an otter. She cried out and tried to put her hands over her face. It was too reminiscent of the wildly tumbling coach. But she slid to a stop without hitting any obstacles. Her outstretched hands found shallow mud, and then cold stone. The floor of the corridor. She was past the cave-in.

  Malta was still afraid to stand. She crept, feeling before her, until she found the wall. She moved her hands up cautiously as she crouched and then stood. Suddenly her muddy fingers found the jidzin strip. As soon as she touched it, the corridor blazed with light. She squeezed her eyes shut then opened them slowly. She stared down the corridor with wondering eyes.

  Back at the entrance, the walls had been deteriorated, the friezes faded and worn. Here the light emanated not only from the strip, but also from decorative swirls in the wall. Gleaming black tiles shone on the floor. The music was louder, and she heard a woman's peal of sudden laughter.

  She looked down at her muddy and drenched clothing. She hadn't expected anything like this. She had thought the city would be deserted. If she ran into anyone in her bedraggled condition, what would she do? Malta smiled foolishly; she supposed she could always plead her head injury and pretend her mind was wandering. Considering her actions this evening, perhaps she was out of her mind. Her wet skirts slapped against her legs as she tiptoed down the corridor. There were doors to pass, but most of them were blessedly shut. The few open ones revealed opulent rooms, with thick rugs on the floors and startling art on the walls. She had never seen such furniture: couches that were tasseled and draped with rich fabrics, chairs she could have curled up and slept in, tables that were more like pedestals. This must be the legendary wealth of the Rain Wilds. Yet she had been told no one lived in the city. She shrugged. Perhaps that meant they did not eat or sleep here. She pressed on. At some point, she decided she was not going back the way she had come, no matter what befell her. She could not force herself through that wet, muddy tunnel again. She'd find another way out.

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  The music died away for a moment, then swirled back. This was another tune, but she knew it as well. She hummed with it a moment to prove she did, then a sudden chill shivered up her back. She recalled where she had heard this music before; it had been in the first dream that she had ever shared with Reyn. In the dream, she had walked with him in a silent city. Then he had brought her to a place where there was music, and light, and people talking. The music was the same; that was how she knew it.

  Still, it seemed odd she knew it so well. She felt a distant grinding through her feet, and then the floor stepped sideways underneath her. She clutched at the wall desperately. It trembled under her hand. Would the quake continue? Would the whole city fall down on top of her? Her heart hammered and her head spun. The hallway was suddenly full of people. Tall elegant women with golden skin and improbable hair swept past her, chattering gaily to one another in a language she had once known. They didn't so much as glance at her. Their sleek skirts swept the floor yet were split to the waist. Golden legs flashed scandalously as they walked. Their perfumes were heavy and sweet.

  She swayed, blinked and was blind. She had lost the wall. She gave a soft shriek at the sudden blackness, the smell of mold and damp and the silence. There was a pebbly, sliding sound in the distance. She tottered toward the wall, caught herself against it, and the light suddenly sprang back into being. The corridor was empty in both directions. She had imagined it all. She lifted her free hand to her forehead and touched the injury there. She should not have tried this. It was too much for her. Best to find a way out, and go back to her chamber and bed. If she met anyone, she wouldn't have to pretend that her mind was wandering. She was now seriously afraid that it was.

  She stepped out resolutely, trailing her fingers on the strip. She no longer hesitated at corners or peered into rooms. She hurried through the labyrinth of corridors, turning down those that looked largest and most used. The music grew loud at one point, but then a wrong turning led her astray from it. She came at length to a broad corridor, well lit. An odd pattern that suggested winged creatures in flight decorated the walls.

  The wide corridor culminated in a tall arched door of embossed metal. Malta halted and stared at it. She knew the insignia on it. It matched the one on the Khuprus coach door. It was a big chicken with a crown, looking as if it wanted to fight. For such a silly motif, it looked both haughty and threatening. She almost admired it.

  From beyond the door came the sounds of a party in progress. People were talking and laughing. Music was playing merrily and she heard the lively slap of the dancers' feet against the door. She looked down at her dress once more. Well, there was no help for it. She just wanted to get out of this place and go back. She should be accustomed to humiliation by now. She set one hand to her brow as if she felt faint. She put her other hand on the great door and pushed.

  She was plunged into sudden blackness, stumbling forward as the big door gave swiftly and easily at her touch. The cold and the damp rose up all around her. She trod in a deep puddle of cold water. “Help!” she cried out foolishly. But the music and the voices were stilled. The room smelled like a stagnant pond. Either she was blind, or the darkness was absolute.

  “Hello?” she called again. Hands held out before her, she edged forward. But there were steps, going down, and before she could help herself, she toppled. Touch told her the steps were broad and shallow. She did not fall far. She did not stand again, but felt her way with her hands as
she crawled down them. At the bottom of the steps, she crawled a short way. Then she stood and went even more slowly, feeling her way in front of her through the dark. “Hello?” she called again. Her voice bounced in the room. It must be immense.

  Her groping hands suddenly encountered a rough wooden barrier.

  “Hello, Malta Vestrit,” the dragon said to her. “So we meet at last. I knew you'd come to me. ”

  “DON'T SPEAK LIKE THAT ABOUT YOUR BROTHER!” JANI KHUPRUS SNAPPED. She slapped her needlework down onto the table beside her.

  Bendir sighed. “I'm only telling you what other people are saying. Not what I'm saying. If someone poisons him, it won't be me. ” He tried for a grin.

  Jani clutched at her chest. “That isn't even remotely funny. Oh, Sa, why did not we get that log cut up before he came back?”

  “He planned to stay in Bingtown for several weeks, not one night. I thought I had time. That log is bigger and harder than any other wizardwood we've ever cut. Once the pigeons carried us the Bingtown news, I knew we had other things to worry about. ”

  “I know, I know. ” His mother dismissed all his excuses with a flap of her hand. “Where is he now?”

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  “Where he is every night. He's in his room, drinking by himself. And talking to himself. Wild words about dragons and Malta. And killing himself. ”

  “What?” She stared at him. His words destroyed the small island of evening peace in her sitting room.

  “That's what Geni heard through the door; it was why she ran to tell me. He keeps saying she'll kill him at his own hands. That Malta will die, too,” he added unwillingly.

  “Malta? He's angry with Malta? But I thought they made up today. I heard . . . ” Jani's voice faltered reluctantly.

  Bendir picked up her words. “We all heard. Reyn was in her bedchamber, holding her on his lap and fondling her. Given his other behavior lately, a common scandal like simple lust was almost a relief. ”

  “They've been through a lot. He thought she would die, and blamed himself. It's natural for him to cling to her now. ” It was a feeble excuse and Jani knew it. She wondered if Keffria had heard of it yet. Would it change her plans? Why did Reyn have to behave so strangely just now, when there were so many other crises to deal with?

 
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