The mad ship, p.84
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       The Mad Ship, p.84

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
 

  “Well, I certainly wish he was 'clinging' to her now, instead of ranting and raving in his room,” Bendir observed coldly.

  Jani Khuprus stood abruptly. “This isn't good for any of us. I can't talk sense to him tonight, if he's drunk, but we'll take the brandy away and insist he sleep. Tomorrow, I'll demand he mend his behavior. You should find some work for him. ”

  Bendir's eyes lit. “I'd like to send him back into the city. Rewo found a mound, further back in the swamp. He thinks it might be the upper story of another building. I'd like to put Reyn on it. ”

  “I don't think that's wise. I don't think he should get anywhere near the city. ”

  “It's the only thing he's good at,” Bendir began, then clamped his lips at his mother's glare. He led the way and Jani followed him out into the night. They were still two catwalks away from Reyn's chamber when she began to hear his voice. It was slurred. Another level, and every word of his drunken rambling was plain. It was worse than she had feared. Her heart sank. He couldn't go as his father had gone, talking only to himself. Please, Sa, mother of all, do not be so unfair.

  Reyn's voice rose in a sudden shout. Bendir broke into a run. Jani hurried after him. The door of Reyn's chamber was suddenly flung open. Golden lamplight flooded the night. Her son lurched into view, and then halted, clutching at the doorframe. It was obvious he couldn't stand by himself. “Malta!” he bellowed into the night. “NO! Malta, no!” He staggered out, his arms flailing wildly as he reached for a railing and missed.

  Bendir's shoulder hit Reyn in the chest. He strong-armed his brother back into the room and onto the floor. Reyn seemed incapable of putting up any real resistance. He thrashed his arms, but went down flat on his back, groaning loudly as the air was driven out of him. Then Reyn shut his eyes and was still. He had passed out. Jani hastily shut the door behind her. “Let's get him up onto his bed,” she said with weary relief.

  Then Reyn rolled his head to one side. He opened his eyes and tears flowed down his cheeks. “No!” he wailed. “Let me up. I have to get to Malta. The dragon has her. She'll take her. I have to rescue Malta. ”

  “Don't be ridiculous,” Jani snapped at her son. “It's late at night, and you're in no condition to see or be seen by anyone. Bendir is going to help you to bed and that's as far as you are going. ”

  His older brother stood over him, then bent and grasped him by the shirtfront. He dragged him half off the floor, two steps to the bed, and dumped him mostly on it. He straightened, and brushed his hands together. “Done,” he panted. “Take the brandy, and put out the lantern. Reyn, stay here and sleep it off. No more shouting. ” His voice brooked no nonsense.

  “Malta,” Reyn drawled again in misery.

  “You're drunk,” Bendir retorted.

  “Not that drunk. ” Reyn tried to sit up, but Bendir pushed him back. The younger man made fists, but then suddenly turned to his mother. “The dragon has Malta. She's there for me. She's going to take her. ”

  “Malta is going to take the dragon?” Jani frowned at his words.

  “NO!” he roared in his frustration. He tried to get up, but Bendir shoved him back, more roughly this time. Reyn swung at his older brother, who easily evaded the roundhouse punch, and warned him fiercely, “Don't try that. I'll knock you silly. ”

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  “Mama!” The wail sounded ridiculous coming from a grown man. “Malta went to the dragon. ” He drew a deep breath, then spoke slowly and carefully. “The dragon has Malta now, instead of me. ” He lifted both hands and patted at his head. “The dragon is gone. I don't feel her anymore. Malta made her leave me alone. ”

  “That's good, Reyn. ” Jani tried to be comforting. “The dragon, is gone. All gone now. Go to sleep. In the morning, I want you to tell me all about it. I have some things to tell you, too. ” She ignored her elder son's disgusted snort.

  Reyn took a huge breath, and sighed it out. “You aren't listening. You don't understand. I'm so tired. All I want to do is sleep. But I have to go to her. I have to take the dragon back and make Malta go. She'll die and it's all my fault. ”

  “Reyn. ” Jani sat down on the edge of her son's bed. She tugged a blanket over him. “You're drunk and you're tired and you're not making sense. There is no dragon. Only an old log. Malta is not in danger. Her injury was an accident, not truly your fault. She grows stronger every day. Soon she'll be up and about again. Now go to sleep. ”

  “Never try to reason with a drunk,” Bendir suggested, as if to himself.

  Reyn groaned. “Mother. ” He took a deep breath, as if to speak. Instead, he sighed. “I'm so tired. I haven't slept in so long. But listen. Listen. Malta went to the city, to the Rooster Crown Chamber. Go get her. That's all. Please. Please do that. ”

  “Of course. You go to sleep now. Bendir and I will take care of it. ” She patted his hand and brushed his curly hair back from his pebbled brow.

  Bendir made a disgusted noise. “You treat him like a baby!” He gathered up the bottles from the table and went to the door. One by one, he heaved them out into the swamp. Jani ignored his display of temper. She sat by Reyn, watching his eyes slowly droop and then close. Drowned in the memories. No. He wasn't, not her son. This was just the rambling of a drunken man. He was still himself. He saw her, he saw his brother. He didn't talk to ghosts. He was in love with a real live girl. He hadn't drowned, and he wouldn't.

  Bendir came back into the chamber. He picked up the lantern from the table. “Coming?” he asked her.

  She nodded, and followed her eldest son. As she shut the door, Reyn was breathing deeply and evenly.

  “AND YOU WILL LEAVE HIM ALONE, FOREVER,” MALTA STIPULATED BRAVELY.

  The dragon laughed. “Once I am free, little one, why should I be interested in your brief little lives? I will fly away to seek my own kind. Of course, I will leave him alone. Now. Let me show you. ”

  Malta stood in the black chamber. Both her hands and her aching forehead rested against the block of wood. She took a breath. “And you will go and rescue my father. ”

  “Certainly,” the dragon purred. “I already told you I would. Now release me. ”

  “But how will I know you will keep your word?” Malta cried out in agony. More decisively, she added, “You have to give me something, some sort of a sign. ”

  “I give you my word. ” The dragon was getting impatient.

  “I need more than that. ” Malta pondered. There was something, if she could just remember it. Then she had it. “Tell me your name. ”

  “No. ” The dragon was adamant. “But once I am free, I will bring you treasure such as you have never dreamed existed. Diamonds as big as pigeon's eggs. I will fly to the south and bring you back the flowers that never fade, the blossoms that cure your kind of any ill just by breathing their scent. I will fly to the north and bring you back the ice that is harder than any metal and never melts. I will show you how to make blades from it that can cut even stone. I will fly to the east and bring you back-”

  “No tales!” Malta protested. “No treasures. I ask only that you will leave Reyn alone, and that you will rescue my father. The name of the ship is Vivacia. You have to remember that. You must find the ship, kill the pirates and rescue him. ”

  “Yes, yes. Just . . . ”

  “No. Swear it by your name. Say that by your name you swear to rescue Kyle Haven and to leave Reyn Khuprus in peace. Say that, and I'll do as you say. ”

  She felt the blast of the dragon's anger like a slap against her whole body. “You dare to dictate to me? I have you now, little bug. Deny me, and I'll ride your soul to the end of your days. I will rule you. I will tell you to pull the nails from your own hands, and you will do it. I will demand you smother your babies, and you will obey. I will make of you a monster that even your own folk will-”

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  A little tremor shivered the chamber, breaking into the dragon's threats. Malt
a pressed her lips together to keep from crying out.

  “You see, you anger the gods with your demands on me! Do as I tell you, or they will make the whole hill fall on you. ”

  “And on you, also,” Malta pointed out relentlessly. “I care not what you threaten me with. If you could do such things, you would have forced Reyn to obey you long ago. Say your name! Say your name or I do nothing for you. Nothing!”

  The dragon was silent. Malta waited. She was so cold. She had gone beyond shivering to a bone-jolting shaking that made her head pound and her spine hurt. Her feet felt numb. She thought she was standing in a puddle but could no longer be sure. She had come to the city, she had found the dragon, but she was still going to fail. She couldn't save anybody, not her father, not the man who had given up his city for her. This was all she was, a helpless woman with no power in the world. She dropped her hands from the wood and turned away from it. She began to grope her way across the room. She hoped she was going in the right direction.

  The dragon's voice rang suddenly in the stillness. “Tintaglia. My name is Tintaglia. ”

  “And?” Malta halted where she stood, breathless with hope.

  “And if you free me, I promise I will leave Reyn Khuprus in peace and I will rescue your father, Kyle Haven. ”

  Malta took a deep breath. She lifted her hands and walked boldly across the chamber. When her hands rested on the wood, she bowed her head. She sighed out all resistance. “Tell me how to free you. ”

  The dragon spoke quickly, eagerly. “There is a great door in the south wall. The Elderlings created art here, in this chamber. They made living sculptures of my kind, from the memory stone. Old men would carve them in this chamber, safe from wind and weather. Then they would die into them and the sculptures would briefly take on their lives. The door would open, the simulacra would emerge into sunlight and fly over the city. They would live a brief time, and then their memories and false life would fade. There was a graveyard of them, back in the mountains. The Elderlings thought of it as art. We found it amusing to see ourselves copied in stone. So we tolerated it. ”

  “None of that means anything to me,” Malta chided her. The cold was creeping up her legs. Her knees ached with it. She was tired of talking. Let her do whatever she must do and be done with it.

  “There are panels in the wall that conceal the levers and cranks that open the great door. Find them, and use them. When the sun rises tomorrow and touches my cradle, I will be freed. ”

  Malta frowned. “If it's so easy, why didn't Reyn do it?”

  “He wanted to, but he was afraid. Males are timorous creatures at best. They think only to feed and breed. But you and I, young queen, we know there is more. Females must be ruthless, to shelter their young and continue the race. Chances must be taken. Males will quiver in the shadow, fearing their own deaths. We know that the only thing to be feared is the end of the race. ”

  The words rang oddly in Malta's soul. Almost true, she whispered to herself. But she could not sort out the part of it that was false.

  “Where are the panels?” she asked wearily. “Let us just do this. ”

  “I don't know,” the dragon admitted. “I was never in this chamber. What I know, I know from the lives of others. You must find them. ”

  “How?”

  “You must learn from those who knew. Come to me, and let down your walls, Malta Vestrit. Let me open the memories of the city to you, and you will know all. ”

  “The memories of the city?”

  “It was their conceit, to store their memories in the bones of their city. They brush your kind, but you cannot master them at will. I can help you find them. Let me. ”

  All the pieces tumbled into place for her. She suddenly grasped what her part of the bargain must be. She took a deep breath. Then she leaned on the wood, pressing her hands, her arms, her breast, her cheek to it. Another breath, as if she poised for a dive. She forbade herself to fear or resist. She spoke with a dry mouth.

  “Drown me in the memories. ”

  The dragon did not wait to hear more.

  The chamber sprang to life. Malta Vestrit vanished like an apparition. A hundred other lives blossomed around her. Tall people, with eyes of copper and violet and skin like honey, filled the room. They danced, they talked, they drank while stars shone above through the impossibly clear dome roof of the building. Then, in the wink of an eye, it was dawn. The early light crept in, to shine on the exotic plants that bloomed in tubs throughout the room. In one corner of the immense room, a tiered fountain leaped and fish darted in its water. It was noon and doors were opened to allow the breeze to cool the chamber. Then it was evening, and the doors were closed and the Elderfolk gathered again to talk and laugh and dance to music. Another blink and the sun returned. A door opened, and an immense block of black stone veined with silver was dragged into the room on rollers. Days passed like petals falling from apple blossoms. A group of old men moved around the stone with hammers and chisels. A dragon emerged. The old men leaned on it, faded into it. The doors opened. The dragon stirred and then strode forth to the cheers and tears of the well-wishers. It launched and flew away. Folk gathered to drink and dance and talk. Another block of stone was dragged in. Days and nights dripped by like black and white beads coming unstrung. Malta stood rooted in time and the days flowed around her. She watched and waited, and soon no longer knew that she did that. The memories filled the chamber slowly, like thick honey. She soaked in them and understood all, far more than her mind could hold. The memories had been stored here, for that had been a pleasure they cultivated, the sampling of one another's memories. But not like this, Malta wailed, not in a flood that spared no detail, glossed over no emotion. It was too much, too much. She was neither Elderling nor dragon. She was not meant to hold this much. She could not hold this much. It bled out of her; she forgot as much as she held. She groped after the one important detail she must find and hold. The panels. The levers and wheels. That was the only important memory. She let go of all else.

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  Her body sprawled in the cold puddle. Cold rose through her flesh and into her bones, but the months and the years turned cartwheels around her, impressing every swift second upon her burning memory. She knew enough and then she knew more. The days wheeled out both before and behind her, time moving in both directions. She saw the blocks of the walls being set in place, and she saw the workmen desperately bringing in the dragon cradles. They pulled them on ropes, trundling them along on rollers, for outside the sky had blackened and the earth was shaking and ash rained from the sky swift and thick as a black snowfall. Suddenly it all stopped. She had reached the setting of the first brick in one direction, and in the other the folk had fled or lay dying. She knew it all, and she knew nothing.

  Malta. Get up.

  Which one was she? Why should she matter more than any other should? They all were, in the end, interchangeable. Weren't they?

  Malta Vestrit. Do you remember? Do you remember how to open the door?

  Move the body. Sit up in it. Such a short, ungainly body. Such a short life it had led. How stupid she was. Blink the eyes. The chamber is dark, but it is so simple to recall the chamber as it once was, full of light. The sun shone overhead, and rainbowed down through the crystal panels. There. Now. To work. The doors.

  There were two doors in the chamber. She had entered by the north door. It was too small for the dragon to pass through. The cradle had been brought in through the south door. She could recall little else of who she was or why she was here, but she recalled the opening of the door. Ordinarily, it would have been done by four strong men. She would have to do it alone. She went to the first panel beside the south door and found the catch. Her fingernails bent against it, and still the decorative door would not open. She had no tools. She pounded on it with her fist. Something snicked inside it. She tugged again at the catch. This time it reluctantly swung open. With a crash, th
e panel broke off its ancient hinges and fell to the floor. No matter.

  Again, the chamber's memory and her touch were at odds. The well-oiled crank that should have been there was draped in cobwebs and pitted with corrosion. She found the handle and strove to turn it anyway. It would not budge. Oh. The lever. Pull the lever first. She groped for it and found it. The polished wooden handle was gone. Bare metal met her grasp. She seized it in both hands and pulled. It did not move.

  When she finally braced both her feet against the wall and dragged down on it, the lever gave. It moved fractionally then suddenly surrendered to her weight. There was a terrible rending sound from within the wall as she fell to the stone floor. For a moment, she was half stunned. A groaning shivered behind the panel. She clambered to her feet again. Now. The crank. No, no, that would not work. The other lever first. The door must be released on both sides before the cranks could lift it.

  She no longer cared about her torn nails and bleeding hands. She wrenched the second panel open. As she did so, damp earth cascaded into the room from the compartment. The wall was breached here. She didn't care. With her hands, she dug away around the lever until she could wrap both her hands around it. She seized it and pulled violently at it. It traveled a short way, and then stopped. This time she clambered up the decorative scrollwork on the wall, to stand atop the lever. Bouncing her weight on it moved it down another notch. Far overhead, something groaned. Malta braced her entire body and shoved down with her feet. The lever gave, then suddenly broke off under her. She fell past it, tearing her skirts on the jagged metal. Her knee smacked sharply against the stone floor and for a time, all she knew was pain.

  Malta. Get up.

  “I know. I will. ” Her own voice sounded thin and odd to her. She got to her feet and limped back to the panel. The crank handle was mounted on a spoked wheel the size of a carriage wheel. It was made of metal. Damp earth was packed solidly around it. For an eternity, she dug at it. The soil was cold and wet and abrasive. It packed under her nails and sanded into her skin.

  Just try it.

  Obediently, she set both hands to the handle on the wheel. Her memory told her that two men should be on this crank and two on its partner. They would all have worked in synchronicity to turn them.

 
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