The mad ship, p.87
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       The Mad Ship, p.87

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  As he hurried down the passage, he trailed the chalk along the wall just above the failed jidzin. Truly, the city was dying when he could not waken even a glow from it. Perhaps it was broken in too many pieces now to work anymore. He wondered mournfully if he had forever lost his chance to puzzle out how it had worked.

  He came to the chamber where they had secured the Satrap. It had been one of the most beautiful chambers they had ever discovered, but the Satrap and his Companion had wallowed in it as if it were a sty. Cosgo truly seemed to have no idea of how to care for himself. Reyn understood the need for servants. His family had hired help who cooked, cleaned and sewed. But a servant to put the shoes on your feet? A servant to comb your hair for you? What sort of a man needed another man to do that for him?

  Water was oozing slowly from beneath the door. Reyn tried to open it, but something heavy pressed against it from the other side. Probably a wall of earth and mud, he reflected grimly. Reyn pounded on the door and shouted, but got no response. He listened to the silence. He tried to feel sorry for how they had perished, but could only remember the look he had seen on the man's face as he looked down at Malta in his arms. Even the memory of it knotted the muscles in Reyn's shoulders. The mud and earth had given the Satrap a swifter death than Reyn would have worked on him, if he had ever looked at Malta like that again.

  He marked the door to let the diggers know he regarded it as hopeless. Let them rescue the living in the next few days. Recovering bodies could wait. He set his chalk to the wall and walked on.

  A dozen strides further and he stumbled over a body. He fell with an oath, then immediately groped his way back. Someone small, the body still warm. Alive. “Malta?” he dared to hope.

  “No. It's Selden,” replied a small miserable voice.

  He gathered the trembling boy in close to him. His body was chilled. Reyn sat on the floor and pulled him into his lap. He chafed his arms and legs as he asked him, “Where is Malta? Close by?”

  “I don't know. ” The boy's teeth began to chatter. Waves of shivering ran over him. “She went in. I was afraid. Then there was the quake. When she didn't come out, I made myself follow her. ” He peered up at Reyn in the darkness. “Are you Reyn?”

  Bit by bit, Reyn pieced the story together. He gave the lad water, and lit a candle to give him courage. In the flickering light it cast, Selden looked like a little gray old man. His face was smeared with dirt, his clothes heavy with it. His hair was caked to his skull. He could not tell Reyn where he had wandered in his searching. Only that he had called and called for her, and not finding her, he had pressed on. In his heart Reyn cursed both Wilee, for showing Selden how to sneak into the city, and himself, for not seeing that the abandoned tunnels were better secured against adventurous small boys. Two parts of Selden's account struck more fear into Reyn than he could explain. Malta had come here, deliberately seeking the dragon. Why? But as ominous as that was, when Selden mentioned the music she had heard, Reyn bit his lip. How could she have heard it? She was Bingtown born. Few even of Rain Wild stock could hear those elusive notes. Those who could were kept out of the tunnels. That was why he had never told his mother or his brother that he could hear it. Those who heard the music eventually drowned in the memories. So said all who worked the city. Even his father. His father had heard the music and worked the city anyway, until the day they found him sitting in the dark, surrounded by small cubes of black stone. He had drowned in the memories of the city, losing all remembrance of his own life. When they found him, he was sitting in the darkness, stacking blocks like a great babe.

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  “Selden,” he spoke softly. “I have to go on. I know the way to the chamber where the dragon is buried. I think Malta would have discovered the way there. Now. ” He took a breath. “You have to decide. You can wait here for the diggers. Perhaps Malta and I will be back before they get here. Or you can go on with me, to look for Malta. Do you understand why I can't take you back to the surface right now?”

  The boy scratched the caked dirt on his face. “Because she might be dead before you got back to her. ” He sighed heavily. “That's the same reason I didn't go back out and look for help, back when I knew the way out. I was afraid help would be too late. ”

  “You've a brave heart, Selden. That doesn't mean you should have let it lead you here, but it's a brave heart, none the less. ” He stood the boy on his feet, then stood up himself. He took Selden's hand. “Come on. Let's go find your sister. ”

  The boy clutched the candle as if it held his life. He was game, but exhausted. For a short way, Reyn slowed his pace to the boy's. Then, despite Selden's objections, he boosted the boy to his back. Selden held the candle aloft and Reyn trailed his chalk along the wall. They pressed on against the darkness.

  Even the wavering light of the candle was not kind. It showed Reyn all he had avoided knowing. His city was surrendering. The quakes of last night had pushed it beyond endurance. It would persist for a time as fragments of itself-disconnected wings and isolated chambers-but eventually all would crumble. The earth had swallowed it years ago. Now it would digest it. His dream of seeing the entire sprawling edifice unearthed and lit again with the light of day was a dream with no future.

  He strode resolutely along, humming to himself. The boy on his shoulders was silent. Had he not held the candle so unwaveringly, Reyn would have believed him asleep. His humming masked the other sounds he did not want to hear. Distant groans of overstressed timbers, dripping and trickling water, and the faint, pale echoes of ancient voices talking and laughing in a by-gone day. He had long ago learned to guard against being too aware of them. Today, as he mourned the passing of his city, its memories pressed against him, seeking to burn themselves into his mind. “Remember us, remember us,” they seemed to plead. If he had not had Malta to think of, he would have given in to them. Before Malta, the city had been his life. He would not have been able to contemplate surviving its death. But he did have Malta, he thought fiercely to himself. He did have her, and he would not surrender her, not to the city, not to the dragon. If all else he loved must perish, her he would preserve.

  The door to the Crowned Rooster Chamber hung ajar. No. A closer look revealed it had been forced out of its frame. He gazed briefly on the gaudy cockerel that had become his family's symbol. He slid Selden from his back to the floor. “Wait right here. This chamber is dangerous. ”

  Selden's eyes widened. It was the first time Reyn had spoken aloud of the danger. “Will it fall down on you?” he asked anxiously.

  “It crushed me a long time ago,” Reyn admitted. “Stay here. Keep the candle. ”

  If Malta were alive and conscious, she would have heard their voices. She would have called out. So. He would look for her body and hope the breath of life was in it yet. He knew she had come here. Without hope, he slapped the jidzin beside the entrance. A faint glow, lighting little more than itself, trickled like slow syrup away from his hand. He forced himself to stand patiently as it encircled the room.

  The damage was immense. The domed ceiling had given way in two places, dumping wet earth in mounds onto the floor. Roots dangled down beside the hanging fragments of crystal panes. He saw no sign of Malta. Hand trailing on the light bar, he made a slow circuit of the room. When he came to the first fallen panel with its mechanisms inside it, he felt ill. Here was what he had known must exist. He had searched for it so long, only to have the random violence of the quake reveal it. When he reached the second panel, he scowled. He lit another candle for himself, to confirm what he already knew. Human hands had dug out the packed earth from around these mechanisms. A few small muddy footprints could be clearly seen within the glow of the candle. She had been here.

  “Malta!” he called, but there was no reply.

  In the center of the room, the immense log of wizardwood was a contained silence. He longed to know what the dragon knew, but to touch the wood would be to give himself back
to her power. The leash she had had on him had been snapped. Soon the earth would collapse on her, burying her, and he would be free of her forever. She could not seize him if he did not touch the wood. She had only been able to reach Malta's mind through his.

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  “Malta!” he called again, far louder. His voice, which once would have rung in this chamber, was swallowed and damped by the wet earth.

  “Did you find her?” Selden called anxiously from the door.

  “Not yet. But I will. ”

  Dread was in the boy's voice as he called out, “There's water coming. From under the wall. It will run down the steps soon. ”

  Earth might press, but water devoured. With an angry roar, Reyn charged at the log of silent wood. He slammed his hands flat onto it. “Where is she?” he demanded. “Where is she?”

  The dragon laughed. Her laughter boomed through his mind, slamming him with familiar pain. She was back, back in his head. He was sickened by what he had done, but knew he had had no choice.

  “Where is Malta?”

  “Not here. ” Insufferable smugness.

  “I know that, damn you. Where is she? I know you are linked with her, I know that you know. ”

  She gave him a faint waft of Malta, like waving a bit of meat above a dog's nose. He sensed her through the dragon. He felt her exhaustion, and knew the leaden ache of her sleep.

  “This city cannot stand much longer. It is going to collapse. If you don't help me find her and get her out, she'll die. ”

  “How excited you are about that! Yet it never seemed to bother you that that was my eventual fate. ”

  “That's not true. Damn you, dragon, you know that is not true. I have agonized over your fate; I have begged and pleaded with my kind to help you. Through the years of my youth, I near worshipped you. There was not a day I did not come to you. I did not try to escape you until you turned against me. ”

  “Yet you were never willing to surrender to me. A pity. You could have learned all the secrets of the city in a single night. As Malta did. ”

  His heart stood still in him. “You drowned her,” he said flatly. “You drowned her in the city's memories. ”

  "She dove into them, most willingly. From the moment she entered the city, she was far more open to it than any other I have encountered. She dove and she swam. And she tried to save me. For your sake and the sake of her father.

  You were the price I was to pay, Reyn. I was to leave you in peace forever in exchange for her freeing me. A pity for you that she did not succeed. "

  “The water is coming faster, Reyn!” The boy's shrill voice broke into the dialogue in his mind. Reyn turned to look at him. The candle illuminated his small gray face. He stood on the steps, just inside the door. The water flowed past his feet in a sheet and cascaded silently down the broad shallow stairs. It reflected the light of the boy's candle with an eerie beauty. Death gleamed in the darkness.

  He smiled sickly at the little boy. “It will be all right,” he lied ruthlessly. “Come here, Selden. There is a last thing for us to do, you and I. Then we'll be finished here. ”

  He took the boy's gritty hand in his. Wherever Malta slept in the city, she slept her last sleep. The sheeting water told him all. It would all be over far more swiftly than he had ever feared.

  He turned his back on the wizardwood log. He led Selden to the first panel on the wall. He fixed the candle to the wall with a bit of wax, then smiled at the boy in the darkness. “There's a great big door here. All we have to do, you and I, is open it. A lot of dirt will come down with it, as it opens. Don't be afraid. Once we get these cranks to turn, we just have to keep turning them. No matter what. Can you do that?”

  “I guess so,” the boy replied dubiously. He could not seem to take his eyes off the water.

  “Let me try this one first. I'll let you have whichever one is easier to turn. ”

  Reyn set his hands to the crank. He bore down on it with all his weight. It did not move. Remorselessly, he took a claw tool from his belt. He struck the main shaft of the crank mechanism several times, then tried his strength against it again. It resisted for a moment, then slowly the wheel turned, grating past some coarseness in its works. It would turn, but it would be hard work for the boy. Reyn took a pry bar from his belt and shoved it through the spokes of the crank. “You work it like this. Stick it through a spoke, brace it against this thing and then pull down. Try it. ”

  Selden was able to move the wheel a notch. Reyn heard the thud of the counterweight inside the wall. He smiled with satisfaction. “Good. Now move the bar to the next spoke and get a fresh bight on it. That's right. ”

  When he was content that the boy had the knack of it, he left him there and moved to the other panel. He worked quickly to clear more of the soil away from the workings. He refused to think about the results of what he was doing. He focused instead on how he would accomplish it.

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  “What are you doing?” The dragon's voice was soft in his mind.

  He laughed aloud. “You know what I'm doing,” he muttered to her. “You know every thought in my head. Don't give me doubts now. ”

  “I don't know everything about you, Reyn Khuprus. I never foresaw that you might do this. Why?”

  He roared with laughter this time. He pitied Selden. The poor boy stared at him in wonder, but feared to ask what was wrong or even to whom he spoke. “I love you. I love the city, and for me you have always been the heart of the city. I love you and so I strive to save what I can of it. What might survive. ”

  “You believe you will die if you turn the crank. You and the boy both. ”

  He nodded to himself. “Yes. But it will be more quickly than if we wait and let the water eat out the walls and bring them down on us. ”

  “Can't you go back the way you came?”

  “Do you seek to dissuade me from what you have begged me to do for years?” he asked her in amusement. Then he answered her question. “The way back is already gone. The Satrap's chamber was oozing water. That door is only wood. It could not hold. I suspect it is the source of the water that flows in even now. I am done, dragon, and the boy with me. However, if we collapse the ceiling, some light may break through. If it does, then you may survive us. If not, then we will all be buried together. ”

  He waited in vain for her reply. When it came, it surprised him. She left him. There was no lingering aura of gratitude, not even a farewell. She was simply gone.

  He rapped the shaft sharply with his claw tool. He set his hands to the crank. He suspected that once the counterweights in the wall started moving, the momentum might take over. Or perhaps the wheel would turn no more than a notch or two. He would not think of that. Slow death alone he might be able to face. Slow death with a young boy at his side would be torture eternal. He shoved the claw tool through the spokes of the wheel and braced it. He looked at Selden. The whites of the boy's fearful eyes gleamed in the candlelight. “Now!” he told him.

  They leaned on the bars. The wheels turned grudgingly, but they turned. The door groaned warningly. Move the bar up a spoke, lean. Move the bar up a spoke, lean on it again. Reyn heard the counterweights shifting inside the wall. Surely by now something should suddenly take over the work of the task. He wondered how many barrows full of earth were pressed up against the door. It had settled solidly for years; how many, no one knew. How could he even imagine that he could open it, let alone that the earth would break in and light shine through? It was ridiculous. Move the bar up another spoke. Lean on it.

  Cruelly, the light bar suddenly sprang to life, illuminating the final destruction of the city. It lit up the spreading cracks across the murals and the gleaming water on the floor. For the first and last time in his life, Reyn got a fleeting glimpse of the true beauty of the room. He stared up in awe. As he looked, something cracked sharply, not in the door, but up overhead. Crystal shards of
one of the great windows of the dome fell like great icicles. They shattered to dust on the floor of the chamber. A trickling of soil followed them. Nothing more.

  “Keep going, lad,” Reyn encouraged Selden. In unison they moved their bars, and leaned on them. Another groaning notch.

  Suddenly, on Reyn's side of the door, there was a tremendous series of pops. Instinct sent him diving toward Selden as the door suddenly burst unevenly from its track. The edge of the door bowed in, a great vertical crack that reached from the floor to the top of the door. Suddenly the sagging and splitting spread from there. Like the shell of a dropped egg, the cracks spread out across the dome above. Crystal panes and plaster frescoes fell like rotten fruit from windswept trees. There was no place to escape the bombardment as the ceiling randomly surrendered to the weight of earth atop it.

  Reyn clutched the boy to him and hunched over him as if his paltry body could save him from the forces of the earth. The boy clung to him, too frightened to scream. One great intact panel of the ceiling fell with a crash. It landed against the wizardwood log and leaned there. Selden wriggled loose from his grip. “Under there. We should get under there!” Before he could clutch at him, the boy was racing across the chamber, dodging falling pieces of ceiling and heaps of debris on the floor. He scooted under the fallen ceiling piece.

  “The rising water will drown us there!” Reyn roared after him. Then he was following the boy's zigzag course, to scuttle into the dubious shelter of the leaning ceiling panel. The light bar failed. They plunged into darkness as the ceiling came down with a roar.

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  SHE WOKE UP BECAUSE SOMEONE WAS NUDGING HER IN THE BACK. “IT'S NOT funny, Selden! That hurts!” she snapped at him.

  She rolled over, fully intending to give him a good shaking. Suddenly the warmth and safety of her bedroom at home vanished. She was cold and stiff. Leaves crinkled under her cheek. The Satrap poked her again with his foot. “Get up!” he commanded her. “I see lights through the trees. ”

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