The mad ship, p.85
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       The Mad Ship, p.85
 

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  But she was the only one here. She put her weight on it and dragged down. Miraculously, it turned, but not far. Far up the wall, something shifted. She left this crank and walked back to the other one. At least this one was not packed with earth. She seized the handle and turned it. It moved more smoothly than its partner, but not much farther. She walked back to the first crank. It turned a notch. She went back to the other crank, and turned it. As she turned it, she could hear something moving in the wall. There was a tiny shifting. The door itself moved fractionally. She leaned on the crank and it moved again. Odd sounds whispered through the wall and door. Ancient chains moved on pulleys, her memories whispered. Counterweights began their descent. That was how she had designed it, remember? Remember. Remember how it was designed. Remember how the whole dome was designed.

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  She suddenly saw the whole wall and door and their mechanisms differently. The memory of how it should have been contrasted too strongly with what her hands told her. She felt the dirt and wet earth with her hands, shutting her eyes to block out the memory of how it had been. She groped her way across the door, feeling the bulges in its structure, the cracks that crossed it. She spun suddenly. “This whole side of the structure will give way if the door is moved. Only chance has kept it intact this long. ”

  -“It will give way, the earth will fall away from it, and the light will shine in,” the dragon predicted. “Continue. ”

  “If you are wrong, you will be buried here, and I along with you. ”

  “I prefer that than to continue as I am. Turn the cranks, Malta. You promised. ”

  So potent a thing is a name. She snapped back to herself, a young woman in muddy clothes in the darkness. The proud young builder was gone, not even a memory, as dreams wisp away when the awakened one clutches at them. She took the crank in her hand and turned it another notch.

  It was the last motion either crank would make. From one to the other she went, back and forth, tugging and cursing. It was as far as the ancient mechanism would move. The wall muttered uneasily to itself, but the door would not move.

  “It's jammed. I can't do it. I tried. I'm sorry. ”

  For a long instant, the dragon was silent. Then she commanded, “Get help. Your brother . . . I see him. You dominate him easily. Fetch him, and two rods to use as levers. Go now. Now. ”

  There were good and sound reasons to resist this command, but Malta could not recall what they were. She could barely recall this brother the dragon spoke of. The door and the means to open it were all she clearly knew. The rods were a good idea. Shoved through the spokes of the wheel, she could use them as levers to force the cranks to turn.

  She walked in light remembered from another time. She dragged her weary steps up the broad stair and out the north door. As she walked, her fingers found the jidzin strip and trailed along it. The corridor illuminated itself to guide her. A blink of her tired eyes, and it thronged with life. Nobles swept past her, their gangly pages in attendance on them. A seamstress and her two young apprentices backed, bowing, out of a door, rich fabrics draped over their arms. A nursemaid with a chubby-kneed child wailing in her arms hastened toward her and then through her. The nurse called a cheery greeting to a young man in a beribboned cap, and he whistled in reply. Malta was the unseen ghost here, not they. The city was theirs.

  She stumbled suddenly on fallen stone. She lost her touch on the wall and was plunged once more into darkness. This was her time, her life, and it was dark and dank and riddled with collapsed corridors and jammed doors. This fall of earth, her groping hands told her, completely blocked the corridor. She could not go that way.

  She touched the wall to get her bearings and instantly knew a better route that led to a closer exit. She turned her steps that way and hurried along. She no longer listened to the exhausted complaints of her body. She lived now in a thousand different moments; why focus on the one where she was in pain? She trotted along, her bedraggled skirts alternately slapping or clinging to her legs.

  She slammed to the floor. “A quake,” she said dully, aloud, after it had passed. She lay still on the stone for a time afterwards, waiting for the echo-shake that often followed. Nothing happened. There were sounds, shifting and grating sounds. None of them seemed to come from nearby. Cautiously she came to her feet. She touched the light strip. Light flickered along it, but dimly. Malta had to reach for memories of how the corridor should be before she went on.

  There were screams in the distance. She ignored them as she ignored the chatter of strolling couples and the barking of a small dog that brushed past her unfelt. Ghosts and memories. She had a door to open.

  She turned down a side corridor that would lead her out. The screaming was close here. A woman's voice cried out, “Please, please, the door is stuck. Get us out of here. Get us out before we die!” As Malta's hands trailed past the door, she felt the vibration of the woman's pounding. More in curiosity than in answer to the plea, she set her shoulder to the door. “Pull!” she shouted as she pushed on it. The jammed door suddenly flew open. A woman rushed out of it as soon as it did. She collided with Malta, sending them both to the floor. A pale man stood behind her. Real yellow lanternlight spilled out of the room behind them, near blinding Malta. The woman trampled Malta as she scrambled to her feet. “Get up!” she shrieked at her. “Take us out of here. The wall has cracked and mud is leaking in!”

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  Malta sat up and looked past her into a well-appointed chamber. The carpeted floor was being engulfed by a slow wave of mud. A crack in the wall was the source of it. Even as Malta stared at it, a little water suddenly bubbled through it. The mud began to flow faster, thinned by the water. Its passage ate at the wall. “The whole wall will give way soon,” she observed with certainty.

  The pale young man glanced at it over his shoulder. “You are probably right. ” He looked down on her. “Your masters assured us we would be safe here. That no one and nothing could find me here. What is the good of my hiding from assassins, only to be drowned in stinking mud?” Malta blinked. The Elder phantasms faded. The Satrap of Jamaillia scowled down at her. “Well, don't just lie there. Get up and take us to your masters. They will feel my wrath. ”

  Companion Kekki had gone back into the chamber to snatch up a lantern. “She is useless,” she declared to the Satrap. “Follow me. I think I know the way. ”

  Malta lay on the floor, watching them go. This was very significant, she told herself dazedly. The Satrap of Jamaillia had been brought to Trehaug, for his own safety. She had not known that. Someone should have told her about it. Didn't he trust her? She closed her eyes to try to think about it more clearly. She thought of going to sleep.

  The floor bucked under her, slapping her cheek. Down the hall from where she sprawled, Kekki and the Satrap screamed. The shrill sound did not scare Malta half so much as the deep rumbling from the chamber they had vacated. She scrabbled to her feet as the floor was still trembling. She seized the door and dragged it scraping shut. Could a door hold back a collapsing hillside?

  She clutched at her head suddenly. Take control. She chose the moment and brought it to life around her. Chaos swirled past her. It might save them.

  She turned and ran. Ahead of her, she saw the jouncing lantern the Companion carried. She caught up with the Satrap and his woman. “You're going the wrong way,” she informed them tersely. “Follow me. ” She snatched the lantern from Kekki's hand. “This way,” she ordered them, and set off. They followed on her heels. Around them, phantoms shrieked thinly as they fled. Malta followed the flight of the Elderlings. If they had escaped their final cataclysm, perhaps she would as well.

  CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN - Death of the City

  THE QUAKE IN THE HOURS BEFORE THE SUMMER DAWN DID NOT WAKE Keffria. She hadn't been able to sleep. There had been a little bump in the night that she had ignored. This one was different. It started out as a sha
rp jolt, but it was the long shivering that followed that got her to her feet. Her Rain Wild hosts had warned her that the motion of the trees exaggerated the shifting of the earth below them. Nevertheless, she held onto the post of her bed as she hastily donned her clothes. Selden would think this was great fun, but Malta might be alarmed by it. She would go to her right away. And once there, she would force herself to tell Malta she was returning to Bingtown. She dreaded that. She had gone to see Malta yesterday evening, but found her sleeping. She hadn't had the heart to disturb her. The swelling had gone down from her head injury, but both her eyes were still deeply blackened. Knowing sleep was the best healer, Keffria had tiptoed away.

  The healer had insisted that Malta be put in a sunny chamber, far up the tree from Keffria's room. Her path would take her over several bridges and then up a winding stair. She still wasn't accustomed to the gently swaying footpaths. Selden ran back and forth on them all day, but they still made Keffria nervous. She wished there was more light, but it would be a while until the sun penetrated the foliage all around her. She crossed her arms over her chest and kept to the direct middle of the path. She would not think of how the bridge would sway if there were another quake while she was crossing it. She put all such thoughts out of her mind. She realized she was walking with tiny, mincing steps and deliberately tried to normalize her stride. She was glad to reach the winding staircase that twined up the tree's trunk.

  She rehearsed ways of telling Malta she was leaving her here. It would be hard. When Keffria left, Malta would be very alone, save for Selden. She had refused to see Reyn at all. She still blamed him. Keffria herself had forgiven him on the Kendry during their upriver journey. She believed the men who had accosted the carriage had gone far beyond their orders to seize the Satrap. The guilt and remorse of the young Rain Wilder as he kept vigil outside Malta's stateroom door had convinced Keffria that he had never intended harm to his beloved. Perhaps in time Malta would see as much, but in the meantime, Keffria would be leaving her children to depend only on one another. The doubts that had assailed her all night returned. She ventured out on the limb that led to Malta's room.

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  She nodded a brief greeting to a woman who had come to the door of a nearby chamber. The skin of her face was heavily pebbled. Growths wattled her throat and chin. Tillamon, Reyn's older sister, smiled brightly at her. “Quite a bump we had,” Keffria observed inanely.

  “I hope everyone is all right. Last month, we lost two bridges in a quake like that one,” Tillamon observed cheerily.

  “Oh, dear,” Keffria heard herself reply. She hastened on.

  She tapped at the door and waited. There was no reply. “Malta, dear, it is me,” she announced and went in. The relief she felt at being off the catwalk evaporated as she stared at Malta's empty bed. “Malta?” Stupidly she went to stir the empty blankets as if they could somehow conceal her daughter. She went back to the door and leaned out it. “Malta?” she called questioningly.

  Reyn's sister was still in her doorway. “Did the healer take Malta somewhere?” Keffria called to her.

  Tillamon shook her head.

  Keffria tried not to be frightened. “It's just so strange. She's gone. She's too ill to be out of her bed yet. And she is never an early riser, even when she feels well. ” She would not look at the railings by the walk. She would not wonder if a dizzy girl could stagger up from her sick bed and . . .

  The woman cocked her head. “She was out walking with Reynie yesterday,” she volunteered. A small smile came and went from her face. “I heard they had made up,” she offered apologetically.

  “But that doesn't explain why she isn't in her bed . . . oh. ” Keffria stared at her.

  “Oh, no. I didn't mean it like that. Reynie would never . . . he's not like that. ” She was falling over her own words. “I had better fetch my mother,” she proposed awkwardly.

  There was something going on here, Keffria decided. Something she should have known about. “I think I had best go with you,” she replied with a sinking heart.

  It took more than tapping to waken Jani Khuprus. When she came to the door in her house-robe, her eyes were both weary and anxious. For an instant, Keffria almost pitied her. But Malta was at stake here. She met Jani's gaze squarely as she said, “Malta is not in her bed. Do you know where she might be?”

  The fear that ghosted across Jani's face told Keffria all. She looked at her daughter. “Tillamon. Return to your chamber. This is only for Keffria and me. ”

  “But, Mother,” her daughter began, trailing off at the look her mother gave her. She shook her head, but turned and left. Jani's eyes came back to Keffria. The fine lines on her Rain Wild face suddenly stood out more clearly. She looked ill. She took a deep breath. “It is possible she is with Reyn somewhere. Late last night, he became . . . very worried about her. He might have gone to her. . . . This is not like Reyn, but he has not been himself, lately. ” She sighed. “Come with me. ”

  Jani led the way swiftly. She had not paused to dress properly or veil herself. Even powered by anger and fear, Keffria could barely keep up with her.

  As they neared Reyn's chamber, misgivings assailed Keffria. If Malta and Reyn had settled their differences, they might . . . She wanted suddenly to stop and think things through more carefully. “Jani,” she began as the other woman lifted her hand to knock. But she didn't knock. She simply pushed the door of Reyn's room open.

  A heavy smell of brandy and sweat hung in the air. Jani peered in, then stepped aside to allow Keffria the view. Reyn sprawled facedown on his bed. His arm hung over the side, the back of his wrist against the floor. His breathing was hoarse and heavy. He slept as one exhausted, and he slept alone.

  Jani's fingers were on her lips as she pulled the door shut. Keffria held her apology in until they were well away from his chamber.

  “Jani, I am so-” she began, but the other woman turned to her quickly with a twisted smile.

  “We both well know that we have cause to worry with those two. Reyn has come to this passion late in his life. Malta has been distant with him since she arrived, yet I do not believe her heart is cold toward him. The sooner they come to an understanding, the easier it will be for all of us. ”

  Keffria nodded wearily, grateful for her understanding. “But where could she be? She is too ill to be out and about alone. ”

  “I share your concern. Let me send out some runners to see if anyone has seen her. Could she have gone off with Selden, perhaps?”

  “Perhaps. The last few weeks have brought them closer. I know he has been longing to show her the city. ” Keffria lifted her splinted hand to her forehead. “This behavior makes me wonder if I am wise to leave them here. I thought Malta was maturing, but for her to go off like this, with no word at all. . . . ”

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  Jani halted on the narrow walk and took Keffria's arm. Her eyes, still unveiled in the morning's haste, met Keffria's squarely. “I promise I shall care for them as my own. There is no need to foster Selden anywhere else but with us. It will do Reyn good to have the care of a young boy, before he has sons of his own. ” Jani smiled and the hope on her face took away much of the Rain Wild strangeness. Then an almost pleading look replaced it. “What you offered to do for us yesterday is incredibly brave. I feel selfish to urge you toward it. Yet, you are the only one so uniquely suited to spy for us. ”

  “Spy. ” The word sat oddly on her tongue. “I suppose-” Keffria began, but her words were broken by the bronze tones of a great bell. “What is that?” she asked, but Jani was staring, stricken, toward the ancient city.

  “It means that there has been a collapse, and folk may be trapped. That is the only time the bell is rung. All who can work, must. I have to go, Keffria. ” Without another word, the Rain Wild Trader turned and sprinted away, leaving Keffria gaping after her. Slowly she turned her eyes toward the buried city. She could
not see much of it through the trees, but the panorama of Trehaug was spread out in levels before her. People were calling to one another, men dragging on shirts as they crossed catwalks, while women came after them carrying tools and water jugs. Keffria resolved she would find Malta and Selden. They would go together, to help wherever they could, if Malta was up to it. It might provide an opportunity for her to tell them she was returning to Bingtown as soon as the Kendry sailed.

  MALTA HAD LOST TRACK OF HOW MANY DEAD ENDS THEY HAD DISCOVERED.

  It was maddening to watch the phantom inhabitants of the dead city vanish down the collapsed tunnels. The apparitions simply disappeared into the cascades of earth and stone. Each time she fetched up against a barrier of damp earth, the Satrap and his Companion became more distressed.

  “You said you knew the way!” he accused her.

  “I do know the way. I know all the ways. All we have to do is find one that is not blocked. ”

  She had concluded long ago that he did not recognize her as the girl from the dance and the coach ride. He treated her as a rather stupid servant. She did not blame him. She was having a hard time holding on to that Malta, too. Her memories of the ball and the accident seemed hazier and more distant than the memories of the city around her. Her life as Malta seemed the tale of a frivolous and spoiled girl. Even now, escape and survival did not drive her as hard as her need to find her brother and return with rods so they might free the dragon. She had to find a way out. Helping them was incidental.

  She passed the theatre, then abruptly turned back to the entrance to that vast chamber. The door gaped blackly in the wall. She held the wavering lantern high to see how it had fared. The once-magnificent chamber had partially collapsed. Efforts had been made to remove the earth, but the great blocks of stone that had once supported the lofty ceiling had thwarted the diggers. She peered hopefully and decided it was worth a chance. “This way,” she said to those following her.

  Kekki wailed, “Oh, that is foolish. It has already mostly fallen down. We need to find a way out, not go deeper into ruin. ”

 
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