The mad ship, p.89
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       The Mad Ship, p.89

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
 

  Althea suspected it was not easy for Amber to accede to Brashen's authority. She rose to his command, not resentfully, as Lavoy had, but stiffly, as if it offended her sense of self. Althea rose to follow her out, but Brashen's voice stopped her at the door. “A last word with you, Althea. ”

  She turned back to him. He glanced at the door standing ajar. She shut it quietly. He took a deep breath. “A favor. I've put Amber in a bad position with Lavoy. Watch over her-no, that's not what I mean. She's as dangerous to him as he is to her. He just doesn't know that yet. Watch the situation. If it looks as if they will clash, warn me. Lavoy is bound to have resentments, but I won't permit him to take them too far. ”

  She nodded, then spoke the words. “Yes, sir. ”

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  “One other thing. ” He hesitated. “You're all right? Your hands, I mean?”

  “I think so. ” She flexed her fingers for him. She waited.

  It took a time before he spoke. “I want you to know-” His voice went quiet. “I wanted to kill Artu. I still do. You know that. ”

  She smiled crookedly. “So did I. I tried. ” She pondered an instant. “But it was better as it came out. I beat him. He knows it. The crew knows it. If you had jumped in, I'd still be trying to prove myself to them. But it would be worse now. ” She suddenly knew what he had to hear from her. “You did the right thing, Captain Trell. ”

  His real smile broke through briefly. “I did, didn't I?” There was real satisfaction in his voice.

  She crossed her arms and held them tightly against her chest to keep from going to him. “The crew respects your command. So do I. ”

  He sat a bit straighter. He didn't thank her. It wouldn't have been appropriate. She walked quietly from the room. She didn't look back at him as she quietly closed the door between them.

  AS SHE CLOSED THE DOOR, BRASHEN SHUT HIS EYES. HE D MADE THE RIGHT decision. And they had made the right decision. They both knew it. They had agreed that it was better this way. Better. He wondered when it was going to get easier.

  Then he wondered if it would ever get easier.

  “THERE'S TWO OF us. ” PARAGON DIVULGED THE SECRET TO HER AS HE HELD her in his hands. She weighed so little. She was like a doll stuffed with millet.

  “So there is,” Amber agreed. “You and I. ” The rasp moved carefully over his chest. It reminded him of a cat's tongue. No, he corrected himself. It would have reminded Kerr Ludluck of a cat's tongue. That long-dead boy had liked cats and kittens. Paragon had never had one.

  Paragon. Now there was a name for him. If only they knew. The secret he held slipped from him again. “Not you and I. Me and me. There's two of us. ”

  “Sometimes I feel that way myself,” Amber replied easily. Sometimes, when she was working, he felt like she went somewhere else.

  “Who is your other me?” he demanded.

  “Oh. Well. A friend I had. We used to talk a lot. Sometimes I hear myself still talking to him, and I know how he would answer. ”

  “I'm not like that. There has always been two of me. ”

  She returned the rasp to the tool sling. He could feel her do it, and felt the shift of her weight as she searched for something else. “I'm going to use sandpaper now. Are you ready?”

  “Yes. ”

  She went on as if she had not interrupted the conversation. “If there are two of you, I like both. Keep still now. ” The sandpaper worked back and forth against his chest. The friction made heat. He smiled to her words because they were true, even if she didn't know it.

  “Amber? Have you always known who you were?” he asked curiously.

  The sandpaper stopped. In a guarded voice, she replied, “Not always. , But I always suspected. ” She added in her normal voice, “That's a very odd question to ask. ”

  “You're a very odd person,” he teased, and grinned.

  The sandpaper moved against him slowly. “You are one spooky ship,” she said quietly.

  “I haven't always known who I was,” he admitted. “But now I do, and that makes it all easier. ”

  She set aside the sandpaper. He heard the clink of tools as she rummaged for something else. “I have no idea what you mean by that, but I'm happy for you. ” She was distracted again. “This is an oil pressed from seeds. On ordinary wood, it swells the fibers and can erase a scratch. I have no idea what it will do on wizardwood. Shall we try a little and see?”

  “Why not?”

  “A moment. ” Amber leaned back in his arms. Her feet were braced against his belly. She wore a safety line, but he knew she trusted more to him. “Althea?” Amber called up to the deck. “Have you ever used oil on wizardwood? For maintenance?”

  He felt Althea stand. She had been lying flat on her belly, drawing something. She came to the railing and leaned over. “Of course. But not on painted surfaces like the figurehead. ”

  “But he's not really painted. The color is just . . . there. All through the wood. ”

  “Then why is the chopped part of his face gray?”

  “I don't know. Paragon, do you know why?”

  “Because it is. ” It was odd. When he tried to tell them something about himself, they didn't listen. Then they pried into things that were not their business. He tried again. “Althea. There are two of me. ”

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  “Go ahead and use the oil. It can't hurt. It will either sink in and swell the wood, or it will stay on top and we can wipe it off. ”

  “What if it stains?”

  “It shouldn't. Try a little bit and see. ”

  “I'm not just what the Ludlucks made of me!” he burst out suddenly. “There is a me I was before, just as much a part of me. I don't have to be whom they made me. I can be who I was. Before. ”

  A shocked silence greeted his words. Amber was still in his hands. It shocked him when she reached out and set her gloved hands on either side of his face. “Paragon,” she said quietly. “Perhaps the greatest thing one can discover is that you can decide who you are. You don't have to be whom the Ludlucks made you. You don't even have to be who you were before that. You can choose. We are all creatures of our own devising. ” Her hands traveled over the high bones of his cheeks. When her hands came to where his beard began, she tugged it playfully, on either side. It could not have been a stronger reminder of the human elements in his makeup. Yet it was as she had just said.

  “I don't have to be what you want me to be, either,” he reminded them both. His hands closed around Amber. Such a trifling toy she was, a creature made mostly of water enclosed in a bag of thin skin. If humans ever grasped completely how fragile they were, they would not be so cocky. With one hand, he casually snapped her safety line.

  “I want to be alone now,” he told her. “I have something I want to think about. ” He lifted her over his head and he felt her stiffen in his hands. Her sudden realization that he could dash her down into the water brought a smile to his lips. She knew now what he had finally discovered. “I have choices to consider,” he told her. He swung her over his head and held her steady until she grasped the railing. When he knew she was secure, he let go of her. Althea was there, grabbing hold of her and pulling her onto the deck. He heard Althea's low question, “Are you all right?”

  “I'm fine,” Amber said softly. “Just fine. And I think Paragon is going to be just fine also. ”

  CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE - Dragon Rising

  DAWN AND DAYLIGHT WERE ALWAYS TWO DIFFERENT THINGS IN THE RAIN Wilds. The rising of the sun meant little until it was high enough to clear the lush canopy of the Rain Wild forest. Reyn Khuprus watched the first thin trickling of light through a gap between mud and crystal. The wizardwood log at his back, the fallen section of thick crystal dome that had sheltered them and the mud that surrounded them now bordered his world. He half-crouched and half-leaned against the wizardwood block. The fallen arch of ceiling dome overhead had protecte
d them from the falling debris, but the rising muck and water had found them. The fallen section had acted as a partial dam. In its shelter, the thick mud had only flowed in thigh-deep on him, with a layer of chill water on top of it. He held Selden in his arms, sharing his scant body warmth. Despite all, the boy was asleep. Exhaustion and despair had claimed him.

  Reyn did not wake him now. The pale light was a false hope. It came from a small crack far overhead. Although much of the building's constructed dome and ceiling had fallen in, the thick layer of roots woven through the soil still supported the earth above them. Only one small, root-fringed crevice admitted the daylight. Even if he had been able to claw clear of the muck and debris that surrounded them, they could never reach the tiny hole to escape.

  As he watched the light gain strength, he knew with despair that they would try. The boy in his arms would wake. They would dig their way out and stand on top of the wizardwood log and call for help. But no one would hear them. They would die here, and it would not be swift.

  He hoped Malta's end had been faster.

  Selden stirred, lifting his head from Reyn's shoulder. The shift in his weight woke new pain in Reyn's back. Selden made a questioning sound. Then he set his head back down on Reyn's shoulder. Helpless, silent sobs shook the boy. Reyn patted him with a muddy hand and said the useless, inevitable words. “Well. I suppose we should try to get out of here. ”

  “How?” Selden asked.

  “We'll have to dig this gap bigger and shove you out of it. Then you'll climb up on top of the log. ” He shrugged. “From there, we'll have to figure out what to do next. Call for help, I suppose. ”

  “What about you? You're stuck in pretty deep. ”

  Reyn tried to shift his feet. The boy was right. The flowing muck that had flooded the chamber last night was settling. From his thighs down, he was engulfed in a thick porridge of earth and water. It gripped his legs heavily. “Once I've got you up there, I'll be able to dig myself out. Then I'll join you on the log. ” The lie came easily.

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  Selden shook his head. “It won't work. Not for either of us. Look. It's melting. ”

  He lifted one grubby hand free from its clutch around Reyn's neck and pointed.

  The thin slice of sunlight shafted down through the dim chamber. Motes danced in it like dust. But these motes twisted and turned in an odd updraft of steam. There was a distinctive unpleasant scent in the air. “Smells like your hands after you've played with garter snakes,” Selden observed. “But stinkier. ”

  “Hold tight to me. I need both my hands free,” Reyn replied.

  It was not the hope of escape that made him dig like a dog. He only wanted to see what was happening. The thick crystal of the dome piece that sheltered them admitted light but was too dirty to see through. He wanted a clear view. He had wondered too long not to take this last chance to know. So he pulled handfuls of muck into their sheltered burrow, heedless that he buried himself deeper. He enlarged fractionally the opening they could see through, and then stared.

  Sunlight rested on the upper corner of the wizardwood log nearest to him. It bubbled wetly and then melted down, like sea foam left on the beach by a retreating tide. It made no sense. Sunlight had never affected the wizardwood planks they had hauled out of the city. Liveships did not melt in the sun.

  “Because liveships are dead,” a voice whispered in his mind. “But I am not. I live. ”

  It was not a swift process. As the sun rose higher, the shaft of light traveled over the wizardwood. It left bubbling goo in its wake. When the sun was overhead and strongest, the reaction quickened. The wood simmered like steaming porridge. The stench of reptile grew stronger.

  The boy grew bored with watching the phenomenon. He was hungry, thirsty, tired and cold. So was Reyn, but somehow his own discomfort did not matter. Malta's death had numbed his instinct for self-preservation. He saw little chance for their survival. It was hard to press himself to act, but the melting of the wizardwood finally forced him. As the immense log bubbled and collapsed in on itself, the heavy crystal section of ceiling propped against it and cupped over them began to lean lower. As he and Selden were beneath it, they had to move or face immediate drowning.

  He lifted the boy higher and Selden twisted in his arms, so that he was on his back as Reyn thrust him out of the closing gap. Reaching up, Selden caught the broken lip of the ceiling piece. He dragged himself out from under it. Twisting onto his belly, he wallowed through the muck and finally clambered onto the crystal section. Now it was Reyn's turn. He had to move fast, for the boy's weight on top was pushing the ceiling piece deeper into the mire. He dug with his hands and arms in the muck, like a sea turtle thrashing out a nest in the sand. He felt his feet come out of his boots. He thrust his hands into the muck to unbuckle his belt of tools and wiggle free of it. Flopping and wallowing, he crabbed out from under the curved edge of the crystal section. He had to put his face in the mud to wriggle through, but he managed it. Once he had emerged from beneath the cupping crystal, he had to turn and flounder his way back to it. Wallowing to stay on top of the muck, he struggled to haul himself out onto the smooth curved surface of the crystal. Selden helped as much as he was able, clutching at Reyn's wrists and tugging mightily. With a final heave, he flopped his way onto the ceiling fragment.

  For a moment, he lay belly down and panting. Then the ceiling section gave a short lurch and began sinking beneath him. He hoped the bubble of air trapped beneath it would slow the process. He opened his eyes and lifted his head. Selden, wordless with wonder, clutched at him.

  Beside them, the melting wizardwood log was not dribbling away into the muck. It was liquefying and being absorbed. Revealed now was the curled and emaciated form of a dragon embedded in it. As the wizardwood around her melted, it flowed toward her. The shaft of sunlight illuminated a miracle. Her skin absorbed the liquid, and her body swelled with it. She changed from black to deep blue. The bones and withered muscle and skin plumped with life and took on flesh. She stirred feebly in the collapsing remnants of her chrysalis. She twisted, and Reyn got his first glimpse of her wings. They were folded tight against her back. They looked like sticks and wet paper. She made an effort to unfurl one. It was insubstantial, a thin flap of transparent hide stretched over thin bone or white cartilage. She lifted her snout, snorted, and then abruptly opened one new wing. It was immense. It slapped against the melting remains of the wizardwood and the surrounding muck. Awkwardly she rolled from side to side, trying to get her feet under her. She leaned on her untried wings like crutches, splatting mud with them as she struggled to right herself. She unlimbered a long neck, lifting her head blindly toward the sunlight, and opened her mouth as if she could drink the light. Thick white lids covered her eyes. Her head swayed on her neck as she yearned toward the light.

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  She shifted again, to reveal a long tail bunched beneath her. The remains of the wizardwood were vanishing rapidly. The heavy mud was already lapping in to replace it. Reyn watched helplessly. She would be engulfed before she had ever flown.

  Then, with a sound like wet canvas unfurling, she raised her wings. Mud smeared them. She flopped them awkwardly, and a heavy reptilian odor wafted over Reyn and the boy. Pulsing veins were outlined briefly in the stretched membrane of her wings. Then, like dye spilled in water, color flowed through them. Her wings went from transparent to translucent to a rich sparkling blue. As she waved them slowly and unevenly, Reyn could see the strength building in them. She unlidded her eyes suddenly; they glinted silver. She looked at herself. “Blue. Not silver, as I dreamed. Blue. ”

  “You're beautiful,” Reyn breathed.

  She startled at his voice. She coiled her neck to stare intently at Reyn and Selden. Selden scuttled into the shelter of Reyn's body. “It's going to eat us!” he wailed.

  “I don't think so,” Reyn breathed. “But lie still. Don't move. ” The
boy remained plastered against his side. Reyn slowly put an arm over Selden to reassure him. He kept his own eyes fixed on the dragon. Her tail uncoiled, slicing a path over the surface of the engulfing mud. She suddenly threw back her head and trumpeted. It rang in Reyn's ears as much as his mind. Triumph and defiance were in that cry. It crashed against the confines of the chamber.

  She reared back abruptly on her hind legs, balancing herself against the thick portion of her serpentine tail. He saw her crouch, and clutched Selden more tightly. Wings half spread, she sprang suddenly toward the crack in the ceiling. Her head crashed against the remnants of the dome, and she fell back. But her forepaws had clutched and scrabbled briefly against the overhead crack. As she dropped, a ragged section of earth and roots came with her. The wind of her battering wings and the fall of earth buffeted Reyn and Selden. Her sprawling displacement of the mud made their island tilt toward her. Reyn clutched frantically at the smooth surface as it threatened to spill them into the mud under her great churning feet.

  She gathered herself for another try. Reyn clutched Selden and tried to stay on top of the debris. She sprang again. This time her head went through the hole overhead. Her clutching forelegs seized the edge of the opening. Her huge body dangled momentarily. Her hind legs kicked and her tail lashed past them, missing them but not by much. Her wings bunched against the ceiling and held her back as she tried to crawl out. With a rending sound, more of the ceiling overhead gave way. She came down in an avalanche of ceiling bits and dirt. A slide of earth followed, collapsing in with her, including an entire tree that came to rest leaning drunkenly against the opening. The dragon landed heavily on her side in the muck.

  Selden struggled against Reyn's grip on him. “If we can get to that tree, we can climb out!” he cried. He pointed at the leaning trunk and limbs that bridged a path to the surface.

  “Not while she's thrashing around. We'll be trampled into the muck. ”

  “If we stay here, she'll trample us anyway,” Selden shouted. “We have to try!”

  “Stay down!” Reyn ordered him, and enforced it with his weight. The boy whimpered under his chest as the crystal tilted more sharply.

  She sprang again. She clawed the tree out of her way, and gained the edge of the enlarged hole. All light was blocked as she clung there, kicking and scrabbling. Reyn felt the swift brush of her tail tip. It tore the coarse fabric of his trousers and scoured the skin from his calf in passing. He roared with pain, but kept his grip on Selden. Clumps of earth, straggles of root and pieces of ceiling rained down around them as the wedged dragon fought to emerge from her tomb. Some light broke through to them. It outlined her struggling body above them. The tail swept again, and this time it slapped them both solidly. Reyn and Selden were flung from their crystal island into the mire. They splatted in the thin layer of water and then felt the swift suck of the mud. “Spread your weight!” Reyn ordered the boy. He splayed his limbs out over the mire, hoping to float atop it a little longer.

 
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