Ship of Destiny
The Rain Wilds
Malta dug her makeshift paddle into the gleaming water and pushed hard. The little boat edged forward through the water. Swiftly she transferred the cedar plank to the other side of the craft, frowning at the beads of water that dripped from it into the boat when she did so. It couldn’t be helped. The plank was all she had for an oar, and rowing on one side of the boat would only spin them in circles. She refused to imagine that the acid drops were even now eating into the planking underfoot. Surely, a tiny bit of Rain Wild River water could not do much damage. She trusted that the powdery white metal on the outside of the boat would keep the river from devouring it, but there was no guarantee of that, either. She pushed the thought from her mind. They had not far to go.
She ached in every limb. She had worked the night through, trying to make their way back to Trehaug. Her exhausted muscles trembled with every effort she demanded of them. Not far to go, she told herself yet again. Their progress had been agonizingly slow. Her head ached abominably but worst was the itching of the healing injury on her forehead. Why must it always itch the worst when she could not spare a hand to scratch?
She maneuvered the tiny rowboat among the immense trunks and spidering roots of the trees that banked the Rain Wild River. Here, beneath the canopy of rain forest, the night sky and its stars were a myth rarely glimpsed; yet a fitful twinkling beckoned her in between the trunks and branches. The lights of the tree-borne city of Trehaug guided her to warmth, safety, and most of all, rest. Shadows were still thick all around her, yet the calls of birds in the high treetops told her that in the east, dawn was lightening the sky. Sunlight would not pierce the thick canopy until later, and when it came, it would be as shafts of light amidst a watery green mockery of sunshine. Where the river sliced a path through the thick trees, day would glitter silver on the milky water of the wide channel.
The nose of the rowboat snagged suddenly on top of a hidden root. Again. Malta bit her tongue to keep from screaming her frustration. Making her way through the forested shallows was like threading the craft through a sunken maze. Time and time again, drifts of debris or concealed roots had turned her aside from her intended path. The fading lights ahead seemed little closer than when they had set out. Malta shifted her weight and leaned over the side to probe the offending obstacle with her plank. With a grunt, she pushed the boat free. She dipped her paddle again and the boat moved around the hidden barrier.
“Why don’t you paddle us over there, where the trees are thinner?” demanded the Satrap. The erstwhile ruler of all Jamaillia sat in the stern, his knees drawn nearly to his chin, while his Companion Kekki huddled fearfully in the bow. Malta didn’t turn her head. She spoke in a cold voice. “When you’re willing to pick up a plank and help with the paddling or steering, you can have a say in where we go. Until then, shut up.” She was sick of the boy-Satrap’s imperious posturing and total uselessness for any practical task.
“Any fool can see that there are fewer obstacles there. We could go much faster.”
“Oh, much faster,” Malta agreed sarcastically. “Especially if the current catches us and sweeps us out into the main part of the river.”
The Satrap took an exasperated breath. “As we are upriver of the city, it seems to me that the current is with us. We could take advantage of it and let it carry us where I want to go, and arrive much more swiftly.”
“We could also lose control of the boat completely, and shoot right past the city.”
“Is it much farther?” Kekki whined pathetically.
“You can see as well as I can,” Malta retorted. A drop of the river water fell on her knee as she shifted the paddle to the other side. It tickled, then itched and stung. She took a moment to dab at it with the ragged hem of her robe. The fabric left grit in its wake. It was filthy from her long struggle through the halls and corridors of the buried Elderling city the previous night. So much had happened since then, it seemed more like a thousand nights. When she tried to recall it, the events jumbled in her mind. She had gone into the tunnels to confront the dragon, to make her leave Reyn in peace. But there had been the earthquake, and then when she had found the dragon ... The threads of her recall snarled hopelessly at that point. The cocooned dragon had opened Malta’s mind to all the memories stored in that chamber of the city. She had been inundated with the lives of those who had dwelt there, drowned in their recollections. From that point until the time when she had led the Satrap and his Companion out of the buried labyrinth, all was misty and dreamlike. Only now was she piecing together that the Rain Wild Traders had hid the Satrap and Kekki away for their own protection.
Or had they? Her gaze flicked briefly to Kekki cowering in the bow. Had they been protected guests, or hostages? Perhaps a little of both. She found that her own sympathies were entirely with the Rain Wilders. The sooner she returned Satrap Cosgo and Kekki to their custody, the better. They were valuable commodities, to be employed against the Jamaillian nobles, the New Traders and the Chalcedeans. When she had first met the Satrap at the ball, she had been briefly dazzled by the illusion of his power. Now she knew his elegant garb and aristocratic manners were only a veneer over a useless, venal boy. The sooner she was rid of him, the better.
She focused her eyes on the lights ahead. When she had led the Satrap and his Companion out of the buried Elderling city, they had found themselves far from where Malta had originally entered the underground ruins. A large stretch of quagmire and marshy river shallows separated them from the city. Malta had waited for dark and the guiding lights of the city before they set out in their ancient salvaged boat. Now dawn threatened and she still poled toward the beckoning lanterns of Trehaug. She fervently hoped that her ill-conceived adventure was close to an end.
The city of Trehaug was located amongst the branches of the huge-bold trees. Smaller chambers dangled and swung in the uppermost branches, while the grander family halls spanned trunk to trunk. Great staircases wound up the trunks, and their landings provided space for merchants, minstrels and beggars. The earth beneath the city was doubly cursed with marshiness and the instability of this quake-prone region. The few completely dry pieces of land were mostly small islands around the bases of trees.
Steering her little boat amongst the towering trees toward the city was like maneuvering around the immense columns in a forgotten god’s temple. The boat again fetched up against something and lodged. Water lapped against it. It did not feel like a root. “What are we snagged against?” Malta asked, peering forward.
Kekki did not even turn to look, but remained hunched over her folded knees. She seemed afraid to put her feet on the boat’s floorboards. Malta sighed. She was beginning to think something was wrong with the Companion’s mind. Either the experiences of the past day had turned her senses or, Malta reflected wryly, she had always been stupid and it took only adversity to manifest it. Malta set her plank down and, crouching low, moved forward in the boat. The rocking this created caused both the Satrap and Kekki to cry out in alarm. She ignored them. At close range, she was able to see that the boat had nosed into a dense mat of twigs, branches and other river debris, but in the gloom, it was hard to see the extent of it. She supposed some trick of the current had carried it here and packed it into this floating morass. It was too thick to force the small boat through it. “We’ll have to go around it,” she announced to the others. She bit her lip. That meant venturing closer to the main flow of the river. Well, as the Satrap had said, any current they encountered would carry them downriver to Trehaug, not away from it. It might even make her thankless task easier. She pushed aside her fears. Awkwardly she turned their rowboat away from the raft of debris and toward the main channel.
“This is intolerable!” Satrap Cosgo suddenly exclaimed. “I am dirty, bitten by insects, hungry and thirsty. And it is all the fault of these miserable Rain Wild settlers. They pretended that they brought me here to protect me. But since they have had me in their power, I have suffered nothing but abuse. They have affronted my dignity, compromised my health, and endangered my very life. No doubt they intend to break me, but I shall not give way to their mistreatment of me. The full weight of my wrath will descend upon these Rain Wild Traders. Who, it occurs to me, have settled here with no official recognition of their status at all! They have no legal claims to the treasures they have been digging up and selling. They are no better than the pirates that infest the Inside Passage and should be dealt with accordingly.”
Malta found breath to snort derisively. “You are scarcely in a position to bark at anyone. In reality, you are relying on their goodwill far more than they are relying on yours. How easy it would be for them to sell you off to the highest bidder, regardless of whether the buyer would assassinate you, hold you hostage or restore you to your throne! As for their claim to these lands, that came directly from the hand of Satrap Esclepius, your ancestor. The original charter for the Bingtown Traders specified only how many leffers of land each settler could claim, not where. The Rain Wild Traders staked their claims here; the Bingtown Traders took theirs by Bingtown Bay. Their claims are both ancient and honorable, and well documented under Jamaillian law. Unlike those of the New Traders you have foisted off on us.”
For a moment, shocked silence greeted her words. Then the Satrap forced a brittle laugh. “How amusing to hear you defend them! Such a benighted little bumpkin you are. Look at yourself, dressed in rags and covered with filth, your face forever disfigured by these renegades! Yet you defend them. Why? Ah, let me guess. It is because you know that no whole man would ever want you now. Your only hope is to marry into a family in which your kin are as misshapen as yourself, where you can hide behind a veil and no one will stare at your frightfulness. Pathetic! But for the actions of these rebels, I might have chosen you as a Companion. Davad Restart had spoken out on your behalf, and I found your clumsy attempts at dancing and conversation endearingly provincial. But now? Faugh!” The boat rocked minutely with the disdainful flip of his hand. “There is nothing more freakish than a beautiful woman whose face has been spoiled. The finer families of Jamaillia would not even take you as a household slave. Such disharmony has no place in an aristocratic household.”
Malta refused to look back at him, but she could imagine how his lips curled with contempt. She tried to be angry at his arrogance; she told herself he was an ignorant prig of a boy. But she had not seen her own face since the night she had nearly been killed in the overturning coach. When she had been convalescing in Trehaug, they had not permitted her a mirror. Her mother and even Reyn had seemed to dismiss the injuries to her face. But they would, her traitor heart told her. They would have to, her mother because she was her mother, and Reyn because he felt responsible for the coach accident. How bad was the scar? The cut down her forehead had felt long and jagged to her questing fingers. Now she wondered: did it pucker, did it pull her face to one side? She gripped the plank tightly in both her hands as she dug into the water with it. She would not set it down; she would not give him the satisfaction of seeing her fingers grope over her scar. She set her teeth grimly and paddled on.
A dozen more strokes and suddenly the little vessel picked up speed. It gave a small sideways lurch in the water, and then spun once as Malta dug her plank into the water in a desperate effort to steer back into the shallows. She shipped her makeshift oar, and seized the extra plank from the bottom of the rowboat. “You’ll have to steer while I paddle,” she told the Satrap breathlessly. “Otherwise we’ll be swept out into the middle of the river.”
He looked at the plank she thrust toward him. “Steer?” he asked her, taking the board reluctantly.
Malta tried to keep her voice calm. “Stick that plank into the water behind us. Hold onto one end of it and use it as a drag to turn us back toward the shallows while I paddle in that direction.”
The Satrap held the board in his fine-boned hands as if he had never seen a piece of wood before. Malta seized her own plank, thrust it back into the water, and was amazed at the sudden strength of the current. She clutched the end awkwardly as she tried to oppose the flow of water that was sweeping them away from the shore. Morning light touched them as they emerged from the shelter of the overhanging trees. Suddenly the sunlight illuminated the water, making it unbearably bright after the dimness. Behind her, an annoyed exclamation coincided with a splash. She swiveled her head to see what had happened. The Satrap was empty-handed.
“The river snatched it right out of my hands!” he complained.
“You fool!” Malta cried out. “How can we steer now?”
The Satrap’s face darkened with fury. “How dare you speak to me so! You are the fool, to think it could have done us any good in the first place. It wasn’t even shaped like an oar. Besides, even if it would have worked, we do not need it. Use your eyes, wench. We’ve nothing to fear. There’s the city now! The river will carry us right to it.”