The mad ship, p.86
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       The Mad Ship, p.86

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
 

  Easier to explain than to argue. “Every theatre must have a way for the actors to come and go. The Elderlings preferred that they remain unseen, to better preserve the illusion of the play. Behind the stage, which yet stands, there are apartments and a means of egress. Often have I come and gone that way. Come. Follow me with trust and you may yet be saved. ”

  Kekki looked affronted. “Don't give yourself airs with me, little maid. You forget yourself. ”

  Malta was silent for a moment. “More than you know,” she agreed in a stranger's voice. Whose words had those been, whose diction? She did not know and there was no time to trace a single memory. She led them to the stage, up and across it and then down behind it. Some debris blocked the hidden door, but most of it was wood rather than stone. No one had been this way in a long, long time. Perhaps the Rain Wild folk had never even discovered this door. She put the lantern down and set to work clearing it while the Satrap and his Companion watched. She worked the latch by tracing the sign of the actors' guild upon the light panel. When that did not work, she kicked the door. It swung slowly into darkness. The lintel above groaned threateningly, but held.

  She prayed the corridor would be clear. She set her hand to the light strip in the wall, and the narrow hall suddenly glowed into life. Clear and straight, it ran off ahead of her, beckoning them to freedom. “This way,” Malta announced. Kekki caught up the lantern, but Malta was ready to trust to the light strip now. Her fingers rode it lightly as she walked the hall. Echoes of someone else's anticipation rustled in her heart. That door led to the wardrobe, those to the chambers where the dancers might change and loosen their limbs. It had been a great theatre, the finest in any of the Elderlings' cities. The back door, she recalled, opened onto a wonderful verandah and a boathouse that overlooked the river. Some of the actors and singers had kept their own small vessels stored there, for moonlit trysts on the river.

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  With a shake of her head, Malta rattled it free of dreams. A door out, she told herself. That was all she sought, a door out of the buried city.

  The corridor ran on and on, past practice rooms and past the small shops of those who supported the artists of the theatre. That had been a costumer's shop, and this door had gone to a fine little drug den. Here was the wigmaker, and there was the paint - and - paste artist's shop. Gone, all gone, still and dead. This had been the beating heart of the city, for what art is greater than art that imitates life itself? Malta hurried past them, but inside her heart, the memories of a hundred artists mourned their own demise.

  When she did see daylight ahead, it was so pale and gray, it seemed a cheat. The final stretch of the corridor was damaged. The light strip was gone, and their lantern failing. They would have to hurry now. The blocks that made up the walls had lost their plaster and frescoes. They bowed in, and gleams of water edged down them. Stains on the wall showed Malta that this corridor had been flooded, and more than once. Whenever the river was swollen with the rains, it probably filled these tunnels. It was only good fortune that the way was clear now. Even so, they waded through soft muck. Malta had long ago given up any care for her clothes, but both the Satrap and his Companion made dismayed noises as they squelched along behind her.

  The verandah and boathouse that had once been the terminus of this corridor were now tumbled wreckage. There was no clear pathway. Malta ignored the protests of the others, and picked her way through, moving always toward the gray daylight ahead. Rains had washed dirt and leaves into what remained of the corridor. Some quake long ago had cleft both earth and corridor. “We're out!” Malta called back to them. She climbed over the remains of stacked boats, wriggled through the muddy cleft and suddenly stumbled out into early morning light. She drew breath after breath of the fresh air, rejoicing simply in the open space around her. She had not realized how being surrounded by dark and earth had oppressed her spirits until she stood clear of it. She stood clear, also, of all the whispering spirits. It was like wakening from a long and confusing dream. She started to rub her face, then stopped. Her hands were smeared and gritty. The few fingernails she had left were packed with mud. Her clothing clung to her in muddy rags. She discovered she had but one shoe on. Where and who had she been?

  She was still blinking as the Satrap and his Companion emerged. They were a bit muddy, but not near as bedraggled as Malta. She turned to smile at them, expecting thanks. Instead, Magnadon Satrap Cosgo demanded, “Where is the city? What is the use of bringing us out of the wreckage to this forsaken spot?”

  Malta gazed all around her. Trees. Sluggish gray water around the bases of the trees. She stood on a hump of tussocky ground in the middle of a swamp. She had lost all her bearings in her time underground. She oriented herself by the rising sun and looked for Trehaug. The forest blocked her view. She shrugged. “We're either upriver or downriver of it,” she hazarded to herself.

  “As we seem to be on a tiny island, that seems a very safe thing to say,” the Satrap opined.

  Malta climbed to higher ground for a better view, but it only confirmed his sour guess. It was not so much an island as a hummock in a swamp. She could not be sure which direction was the river channel and which led to swamp. The immense gray columns of the river trees extended as far as she could see in every direction.

  “We'll have to go back,” she concluded, her heart sinking. She did not know if she could face those ranked ghosts again.

  “No!” Kekki uttered the word with a little shriek, then sat flat on the ground. She began sobbing hopelessly. “I cannot. I will not go back into the dark. I won't. ”

  “Obviously we don't have to,” the Satrap observed impatiently. “We climbed over a number of little boats getting out. Maid, go back in and find the best one. Drag it out here, and row us back to the city. ” He looked about in disgust, then drew a kerchief out of his pocket and spread it on the ground. He sat down on it. “I shall rest here. ” He shook his head. “This is a poor way for these Traders to treat their rightful leader. They will regret their careless misuse of me. ”

  “Possibly. But not as much as we regret how we have allowed you to misuse us,” Malta heard herself say. She was suddenly angry with these ungrateful wretches. She had toiled through the night to guide them out of the tunnels, and this was her thanks? To be ordered to fetch a boat and row them to Trehaug? She shook out her ragged skirts and mocked a curtsey at the Satrap. “Malta Vestrit, of the Bingtown Traders, bids Magnadon Satrap Cosgo and his Companion Kekki farewell. I am not your servant to be put to your bidding. Nor do I consider myself your subject anymore. Good-bye. ”

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  She pushed her hair back from her face and turned toward the muddy crack in the earth. She took a deep breath. She could do this. She had to do this. Once she got back to Trehaug, they could send a rescue party after the Satrap. Perhaps a time sitting marooned on this hummock of land would teach him a little humility.

  “Wait!” he commanded. “Malta Vestrit? The girl from the Summer Ball?”

  She looked over her shoulder. She acknowledged the connection with a nod.

  “Leave me here, and I will never send my ships to rescue your father!” he informed her grandiosely.

  “Your ships?” She laughed, a bit wildly. “What ships? You never intended to help me. I am surprised you can even remember that you said you would. ”

  “Fetch the boat and row us to safety. Then you shall see how a Satrap of Jamaillia keeps his promises. ”

  “Probably much the same way as he honors the charters of his ancestors,” Malta scoffed. She turned her back and began to climb back down into the dark. Far down the corridor, she heard sounds like distant but thunderous applause. Dread rose in her. Drowned in memories. She knew what it meant now. Could she traverse the city again and remain herself? She forced herself to keep going. Once more, she scrabbled over the boats, noting in passing that they were not as dilapidated as she had th
ought. Some sort of hammered metal had been applied to the hulls. As she clambered over them, her hands came away powdered white where she had touched them. Far down the corridor, there was another roar of applause. She walked slowly toward it, but suddenly a cloud of dust wafted into her face. She coughed and choked for a moment. When she blinked her eyes clear of grit and looked down the corridor, she could see a mist of dust hanging in the air. She stared a moment longer, refusing to recognize what she instinctively knew. The corridor had caved in. There was no going back that way.

  She swayed with weariness, then stiffened her back and stood straight. When it was all over, then she could rest. She walked back slowly to the stacked rowboats. She eyed them skeptically. The top one had broken seats. She picked at a splinter of it, then recognized the wood. Cedar. Her father called it eternity wood. She began to work the top boat loose from the others, to see if the one below it might be better.

  REYN? REYN, DEAR, WE NEED YOU. YOU HAVE TO WAKE UP NOW. "

  He rolled away from the gentle voice and the hands that plucked at him. “Go away,” he said distinctly, and dragged the pillow over his head. Dimly he wondered why he was sleeping in his clothes and shoes.

  Bendir had always been more direct. He seized his younger brother's ankles. Reyn came all the way awake as he thudded onto the floor. He was instantly furious.

  “Bendir!” Mother rebuked him, but his brother was unrepentant.

  “We don't have time to talk nicely. He should have come as soon as the bell rang. I don't care how lovesick he is, or how hungover. ”

  The words penetrated both his anger and sleepiness. “The bell? A cave-in?”

  “Half the damn city has fallen in,” Bendir explained tersely. “While you were drunk enough to walk on your lips, we had two quakes last night. Sharp shocks. We have crews digging in and shoring up as we go, but it's taking a long time. You know the structure of the city better than anyone does. We need you. ”

  “Malta? Is Malta all right?” Reyn asked anxiously. She had been in the dragon chamber. Had they got her out in time?

  “Forget Malta!” his brother ordered him roughly. “If you want to worry about someone, the Satrap and his woman are blocked in down there, unless they're already dead. That would be a fine irony, for us to bring him up the river to protect him only to have him die in the city. ”

  Reyn staggered upright. He was already dressed, down to his boots. He pushed his wild curls back from his face. “Let's go. You got Malta out all right, last night?”

  The question was no more than a formality. His brother and mother would not be so calm if she were trapped down there.

  “That was just a dream you had,” Bendir said roughly.

  Reyn halted where he stood. “No,” he said flatly. “It wasn't. She went into the city, to the Crowned Rooster Chamber. I told you that. I know I did. I told you that you had to get her out of there. Didn't you do it?”

  “She's sick in bed, not down in the city,” Bendir exclaimed in annoyance.

  His mother had gone pale. She set her hand to the doorframe and clutched it. Breathlessly she said, “Keffria came to me at dawn. Malta was not in her bed. She thought-” she shook her head at both of them. “She thought her daughter might be with Reyn. We came here, and of course, she was not. Then, the bell rang and. . . ” Her voice trailed off. More determinedly, she added, “But how could Malta have reached the city, let alone gone into it? She has scarcely left her bed since she got here. She would not know the way, let alone how to reach the Crowned Rooster Chamber. ”

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  “Selden,” Reyn said harshly. “Her little brother. He's been all over Trehaug with Wilee Crane. Sa knows I've chased Wilee out of the city a score of times. Her brother would know the way in by now, if he has been playing with Wilee. Where's Selden?”

  “I don't know,” his mother admitted it with dread.

  Bendir broke in without apology. “There are people who are definitely buried in the city, Reyn. The Satrap and his Companion, not to mention the Vintagli family's digging crew. They had just begun excavating a chamber near the one where they found the butterfly murals. At least two other families had night crews at work down there. We don't have time to worry about those who might be down there. We need to concentrate on the ones we know are down there. ”

  “I know Malta is down there,” Reyn said bitterly. “And I know where. The Crowned Rooster Chamber. I told you that last night. I'm going after her first. ”

  “You can't!” Bendir barked, but Jani cut him off.

  “Don't argue. Reyn, come and dig. The main tunnel leads toward both the Crowned Rooster Chamber and the apartments we allotted to the Satrap. Work together and you can get access to both. ”

  Reyn gave his brother a betrayed look. “If only you'd listened to me last night,” he said accusingly.

  “If only you'd been sober last night,” Bendir retorted. He turned on his heel and left the room. Jani and Reyn hastened after him.

  UNSTACKING THE BOATS TO FIND THE BEST ONE WAS A DIFFICULT TASK IN the tight space of the collapsed boathouse. After she had chosen the best one, getting it outside proved even more of a task. Kekki was virtually useless. When her weeping finally stilled, it was because she had fallen asleep. The Satrap made an effort, but it was like being assisted by a large child. He had no concept of physical work. She tried to keep her temper with him, even reminding herself that last year she had been just as ignorant.

  He was afraid of the work. He would not grip the wood, let alone put real muscle into dragging the boat out. With an effort, Malta held her tongue. By the time they had managed to get the boat out of the cleft and onto the leaf-strewn ground outside, she was completely exhausted. The Satrap brushed his hands and beamed down on the boat as if he had brought it out himself. “Well,” he declared with satisfaction. “That's done it. Fetch some oars and we're off. ”

  Malta had sunk down to the ground and leaned back against a tree. “Don't you think,” she asked, fighting to hold back the sarcasm, “that we should see if it still floats first?”

  “Why shouldn't she?” He put a foot on the boat's prow possessively. “She looks fine to me. ”

  “Wood shrinks when it's out of water. We should put it in shallow water, and let the wood swell up a bit and see how much water it ships. If you have never heard before, I'll tell you now. The water of the Rain Wild River eats wood. And flesh. If it doesn't float high and dry, we'll need to put something in the bottom to rest our feet on. Besides, I'm too exhausted to row anywhere just now, and we aren't sure where we are. If we wait until dusk, we may be able to see the lights of Trehaug through the trees. That would save us a lot of time and effort. ”

  He stood, looking down at her, balanced between offense and consternation. “Are you refusing to obey me?”

  She met his gaze unflinchingly. “Do you want to die on the river?” she asked.

  He bridled at that. “Do not dare to speak to me as if you were a Companion!”

  “Perish the thought,” Malta agreed with him. She wondered if anyone else had ever dared to disagree with him before. With a groan, she got to her feet. “Help me,” she said, and began to shove the boat toward the swamp. His help consisted in taking his foot off the prow. She ignored that. She put the boat in shallow standing water. There was no line to tie it up, but there was no current to draw it away either. She hoped it would stay there, and was suddenly too weary to worry any more about it.

  She looked at the Satrap, who was still glaring at her. “If you're going to stay awake, maybe you could find some oars. And you might keep an eye on the boat so it does not float away. It's the best of the lot that was down there, and none too good at that. ” She wondered at her tone, and then as she lay down on the earth and closed her eyes, she identified it. That was how her grandmother had always spoken to her. She understood why, now. She ached all over, and the ground was hard. She slept.

 
; REYN HAD NOT CONVINCED THEM; HE HAD SIMPLY GONE ON. IF HE HAD waited for them to completely clear and shore up the main passage before advancing along it, Malta would certainly be dead before he got to her. He had wormed his way past two blocking falls and finally reached a portion of the main passage that was still intact when he came to the end of the thin line he had been paying out. He set a large chunk of fallen rock atop it. He had paused to mark his sign on the wall with star-chalk. The stuff would show well in even the faintest light. They would know he had been there and gone on. He had marked his passage through the falls, indicating the best places to start the re-excavation. He had an instinct for these things.

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  The scene with Malta's mother had been awful. He had found her helping to barrow out rubble from the tunnel. The bandages on her damaged hand were smudged with dirt. When he asked her if she had seen Malta, the worry she had contained had broken forth on her face. “No,” she said hoarsely. “Nor Selden. But, of course, they could not be down there. ”

  “Of course not,” he lied, feeling ill. “I'm sure they'll turn up. They probably went walking in Trehaug together. No doubt they are wondering where everyone else has gone. ” He tried to put some of his own belief in his tale, but could not find it. She read the horror in his eyes. A sob caught in her throat. He could not face her. He headed down into the buried city. He did not promise her that he would bring her children back to her. He had already lied to her once.

  Despite the fresh falls, he had moved with confidence through his city. He knew the strengths and weaknesses of it as he knew his own body. He diverted the diggers from one tunnel that he was certain was a loss, and moved them to another fall that they swiftly cleared. Bendir wanted him to go from site to site, carrying a lantern and map and passing out advice. He had flatly refused. “I'm working with those who are tunneling toward the Crowned Rooster Chamber. Once we reach there and rescue Malta, I'll work wherever else you put me. But that is my priority. ”

  There had nearly been a confrontation, but Mother had reminded Bendir again that the trapped Satrap and his Companion were along that route as well. Bendir grudgingly nodded. Reyn picked up his supplies and set out. He carried water, chalk, line, candles and a tinderbox in a bag slung over his shoulder. Digging and prying tools clanked at his belt. He did not bother with a lantern. The other men might need light to work by, but not him.

 
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