Their shadows had grown longer by the time Zheng He’s ship came into view again. It appeared from behind the last ship like the sun breaking away from the silhouette of the moon after an eclipse. Rayna, ever enthusiastic, led the way, and the Swordsman followed behind, crunching loose sand underfoot with every step.
The closer they got to the colossal vessel, the more it began to dawn upon them that the admiral’s ship was much, much larger than it had looked from afar. When the size of the ship was first described to Rayna, she remembered asking if it was as big as a football field.
‘Yes, as big as a football field,’ Paps said in response, and that image had stuck. Now as she stepped towards it, she thought that two men could find themselves working on this very same boat for two years, and never see each other’s face, much less know each other’s name. “Big” would not even begin to describe the largeness of the ship: forget a football field, or even a block of houses; the deck, by Rayna’s estimation, was likely to be large enough to host a small town, buildings and all.
‘You’re seeing this, right? Stubs?’ she said breathily, gazing up at the massive seafarer.
Though the Swordsman offered nothing in response, he too shared her awe of the gargantuan ship. They continued to close in on the ship as they took in the sight of it, and the Swordsman only realized how close they had gotten when the shadow of the ship fell over him. His gaze dropped from the masts to the space before him, and alarm coursed through him when he saw Rayna already thirty paces ahead of him, heading deeper into the shadow and out of the protection of the sunlight.
‘Rayna!’ he called, his hands dropping to the sword at his hip. ‘Be wary!’
‘Chill out, mister,’ she waved without looking back at him, much to his chagrin; though it did offer him some marginal relief to see her pulling her dagger out of the sheath strapped to her thigh, the silver of the blade glinting in whatever light that remained.
The Swordsman held on tight to the hilt of his sword as they drew ever closer to the ship.
‘Can you believe how it managed to stay in one piece, after all these years?’ Rayna wondered out loud when she got near enough to touch the ancient wood. ‘I mean, being a sunken ship, you’d imagine that it’d look a lot more battered up than this.’
She was right. The ship was in remarkable condition, with only the weathering of time showing on the side that faced them. It looked as though the ship was built right here in the desert (though at that time this place would have been at the bottom of the sea), and the builders simply left it sitting there when the work was completed.
‘Well, after me, I guess,’ Rayna announced, then with her silver dagger dexterously held between her fingers, she reached up and began to climb on board Zheng He’s ship.
She was almost halfway up when the Swordsman parked his dust scooter next to where Rayna had left hers. He stepped over to face the blackened wood, and as he pressed a hand against it, thought that he felt a little tremor running through the material, as though the ship was alive with some form of energy.
His right hand found the rungs carved into the side of the ship, and his left hand reluctantly let go of the sheath that he might be able to pull himself up. He might have been about a quarter of the way up when he heard Rayna vault the last few steps and onto the deck above, the dull thump against the solid wood audible to his ears, though he could not feel it as he continued to climb.
While the Swordsman took his own sweet time to ascend, Rayna stood on the deck of the ship, the first living person to do so in a millennium. Through the maze of smaller masts ahead of her, she could see the low-hanging afternoon sun – not quite yellow yet, but at the same time not quite white either.
She drank in the view; and for a precious moment, the memories of the long years of difficult travel were forgotten; and even the invaluable jade that she had left in her vest was far from her mind. Right now, she was exactly where she needed to be, right at the place where everyone had worked so hard and so long to be. Behind her, the Swordsman lifted his weight up the final step and climbed onto the deck to join her, but she wasn’t paying any attention to that.
She took a step forward, walking across the wide open deck-
With a dry splintering sound, the ground beneath her suddenly gave way, and Rayna was only beginning to register the familiar sense of weightlessness that came with freefall when the light disappeared into darkness.
Her hand shot up, but only managed to cut itself bloody against the sharp edges that were left behind on the broken wood.
Without so much as a scream, Rayna dropped into the inky blackness below the deck of Zheng He’s ship.