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Chapt. 27: One and Many

By Michael Jesse

"Where the hell is my bloody ship?" MacWilde bellowed loudly enough to be heard over the din of the duels. His outburst prompted Procktor to appear from the Arena offices behind the stage.

"Captain, please speak quietly. I apologize for the late notification, but I've taken the liberty of moving your ship farther up river until our financial dealings are stabilized."

"What on earth for?"

"It's a third the cost of docking in the middle of the city. I was merely looking out for your financial interests. We have quite a lot invested already and you are rather overextended on your credit."

"That ship belongs to me."

"Not at the moment, I'm afraid," Procktor whispered hurriedly. "A few hours ago your debt increased rather significantly due to your insurance obligations relative to the current performance. This activated the standard collateral clause of your contract, requiring Capital Ventures to absorb your assets — but only on a contingency basis I assure you."

"Damn you and your clauses. I want it brought back now!"

The clamor from the stage below suddenly came to an end and the audience applauded enthusiastically.

"My dear Olaf, as your friend I beg of you to be patient. I assure you, after this evening's proceeds are settled you shall have more than sufficient means to settle all of your obligations and reclaim your ship. In fact, I have it on good authority that Lord Weldy's purchase has so piqued the interest of his peers in the investing class that by this time tomorrow I predict we shall have sold the entire stock with no need to invest any further in these public exhibitions. Now please, you must introduce the next performance."

The applause subsided and the audience began to murmur.

Riona had seen for herself that MacWilde's ship was no longer at the dock and Jack quickly translated for her Procktor's words.

"I need to warn the others," she said sadly while MacWilde scowled at the horizon looking beaten.

Riona began to play. It was not the ballad she had practiced, though no one could tell the difference except Jack. It was up to her to tell the ruah down below, who still thought they were about to be free.

"Children, you must listen" she called, "Something has gone wrong. There is no ship for us to run to. Nowhere for us to go."

An angry clamor of horns came in response, which seemed part of the act.

Riona stopped playing. There was nothing else to be said and she saw no reason to perform. The audience was expecting a much longer song and began to get restless. Procktor had started back to the office doorway but now looked back impatiently and gestured to Jack to make her do something.

"They want you to play more," Jack said quietly.

Riona stared back at him with empty eyes, but then her expression changed. Her eyes narrowed and she leaned her forehead again into Verdu's horns and began to play. Jack recognized the song on the first note, as did MacWilde and even Procktor. It was The Call. Riona didn't have her husband's powerful lungs, but his horns were pointed into the great megaphone and every note was amplified, echoing up the canyon to be heard by all the city. She played louder and people in the audience began to squirm and cover their ears. Jack watched Riona's eyes and saw in them her determination that this was what Verdu would want her to do. Exactly this. If they could not escape, if this was their fate, then what better moment could there be for a ruah to play The Call?

Below them, Thaland and the others joined in, playing to make Verdu proud, whatever might happen next. Jack lifted his flute to his lips and played as well, though he could not hear his own notes.

Jack saw Procktor beside MacWilde, frantically gesturing in pantomime for them to stop her or to pull her away from the stand, but MacWilde stood in his way. Guards came running up the stairwell but MacWilde slammed the door and threw the latch, keeping them out.

"Captain, this is intolerable," Procktor screamed. "By authority of contract I order you to step aside."

MacWilde's eyes narrowed. "Maybe I should have a look at that contract you keep talking about. Which of these pockets is it in?" MacWilde's big fists closed on Procktor's front pockets and ripped them from his coat, spilling important-looking papers in all directions where they were picked up by the breeze.

Procktor squealed in horror and ran around the platform grabbing at all the papers he could save.

The final note of The Call echoed up the canyon, but Riona did not have the breath to carry it and Verdu's voice came to an end. For a moment there was complete silence as if all were waiting for something. But nothing followed except angry shouts from the audience and the footsteps of the guards who had gone around to another entrance and now burst onto the platform.

Procktor was red-faced with fury, clutching an armload of wadded papers against his chest.

"Captain MacWilde," he panted as the guards surrounded them. "Although I can accept that you may have some grievance against Capital Ventures or myself, I cannot fathom what perverse rationale could possibly justify such cruelty and disregard to these innocent people in our midst. I must therefore petition these officers to . . . to . . ."

Procktor voice was gradually being overtaken by another sound coming from far up the canyon. It was a rumble like thunder, though the sliver of sky far above was still blue and bright. The roar washed through the canyon like a wave and the platform of the Speaker's Stand swayed with it. Panic swept the audience as rocks began to fall around them — sections of carved balcony or stairway from far above that crashed into others below them and slid down the sides of the mountains.

Most of the people in the Arena audience were far enough away from the mountain face and most people watching from their homes had just enough warning to leap back into their doorways as the stone ledges began to give way below their feet. But the Arena stage and the Speaker's Stand were directly in the path of the falling stone.

Jack stood frozen, unable to make himself move though chunks of stone twice his size landed within feet of where he stood. He looked up and watched as if he were a distant spectator as part of a stairway slid down the side of the mountain. He comprehended only later that it would have crushed him had MacWilde not swept him up and carried him away from the wall.

Riona was still at Verdu's horns, trying to pull them free from the wooden braces that held them up. MacWilde rushed to her, carrying Jack, and set him down next to her as he yanked the metal clasps open to free the horns. They were out of the direct path of falling debris, but the platform itself swayed dangerously and was near collapse.

"We have to get to that doorway," MacWilde instructed. "Jack, tell Riona that I'm going to . . . what the devil is that?"

He was looking out across the Arena wall to the dock where his own ship had been — and towards which a different ship was now sailing up the river from the sea. It was a crudely built vessel to be sure, more of a large raft with a small enclosed cabin and a single sail. The crew were all ruah except for a girl in a tattered white dress.

"Laura!" Jack screamed. "Captain it's Laura! It's Laura!"

MacWilde was holding Verdu's horns in his arms as he stared at the ship but Riona quickly leaned her head into them and piped the news to the ruah below.

"We have a ship!" she called. "Everyone head for the dock as planned. We'll meet you there."

But as they turned to go the platform fell away beneath them, dropping several feet and hanging precariously at an angle, swaying. They had to climb uphill to the stone ledge where the platform had been braced. The guards had all fled but one other person remained out on the teetering platform. It was Procktor, still gathering stray pages of his documents.

MacWilde pushed Jack and Riona through the stone doorway where he quickly lay Verdu's horns, and then went back out onto the platform.

"Elias!" he yelled. "Let those papers go. They're not worth it."

The little man snatched another loose document and stuffed it under his arm with the rest. MacWilde edged out towards him and held out his hand across a gap in the floor. Procktor made his way awkwardly up the sloping floor, having only one hand free.

"Just drop the damn papers!" MacWilde yelled but Procktor shook his head determinedly. He was at the edge of the gap between the floor and the ledge, just a few feet from MacWilde, who held on to a grip in the stone wall with one hand and leaned out to reach with the other. Their hands were only inches apart when the platform gave away and dropped out of sight into a dust cloud of debris.

"Damn you, Elias!" MacWilde shouted, tears in his eyes, as he edged his way along the crumbing ledge and into the stairway.

The avalanche had largely subsided but the Arena itself was now unsafe because so much of its structure had been damaged. Below them somewhere they could hear wails of grief and pain mixed with angry shouts — and among the voices the tones of ruah pipes.

MacWilde led Jack and Riona carefully down the wooden stairs that creaked and swayed with their movements. When they were a few feet from the bottom the remaining beam holding up the stairs gave way and it all crashed behind them as they leaped to the ground.

"There's the door!" Jack shouted. Light came through the gap beneath it and along the side except next to the handle where a heavy iron bolt held the door firmly in its lock. MacWilde threw his shoulder against the wood again and again but succeeded only in shaking more crumbling dust from the wall above them. There was no other way out, not even back the way they'd come because now the stairs were gone.

"Captain!" came a boy's voice from the floor above them. It was Liam, peering through a gap in the wall and waving his ring of keys that glinted in the haze of dusty light. "The big silver one should go to that door. Catch!"

Liam tossed the keys and MacWilde snatched them from the air and handed them to Jack, but didn't move from where he stood under the ruined stairwell.

"You'd better jump, lad. Don't worry, I'll catch you."

Liam looked doubtful but another crash somewhere nearby convinced him and he closed his eyes and stepped off the ledge. MacWilde caught him as if he were no more than a sack of potatoes. Meanwhile, Jack had gotten the lock to turn and together they pushed open the heavy, stubborn door. Margaid was a city of shadows even on the clearest day and now the narrow strip of sky was shrouded with dust, yet Jack had never seen such welcome sunlight.

At last they could see what was happening at ground level. Piles of stone were everywhere. Most of the people had fled to the plaza along the river to get as far as possible from the falling rocks. The injured were being tended to by those who were unhurt, but not all had been so fortunate. MacWilde held his hand over Jack's face as they passed the bloodied bodies of three or four guards who had been crushed to death by falling boulders.

They could see the ruah ship waiting at the dock. The others had made it from the Arena to the dock, but a fight was going on with a ragged mob of angry Margaideans who blamed MacWilde and his creatures for bringing destruction upon their city.

The dock was not far, but they had to pass through a narrow alleyway along the side of the Arena normally used only by supply carts. They could not run because the path was covered with rocks and the footing was treacherous. Riona led the way, followed by Jack and then MacWilde carrying Verdu's horns. As they cleared the alley and reached smooth ground Jack began to run, but the ground beneath his feet shook as part of the Arena wall collapsed just behind him. He fell hard on his hands and knees, a cloud of white dust enveloping him.

He struggled to his feet, coughing. MacWilde had been right behind him, but as the dust began to clear Jack saw only a massive pile of stones and at his feet a few shattered remnants of Verdu's horns. In horror he picked up two of the larger pieces no bigger than his own flute and cradled them to his chest as he searched for any sign of the captain.

Laura was calling for him and he wanted to run to her, but he could not leave, expecting at any moment to see the boulders pushed aside from below and MacWilde, smiling and unhurt, pulling himself out of the rubble with another story to tell. Jack tried moving the rocks himself but could not budge even the smallest of them. He felt Riona's teeth grab him by the back of his shirt and pull him away and towards the dock. Thaland and the others had made it also and no one tried to stop them as they climbed aboard the ship, which filled its sail and moved down the river, escaping the ruined city.

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