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City of dragons, p.10
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       City of Dragons, p.10

         Part #3 of Rain Wild Chronicles series by Robin Hobb

  The wind swept away her words, and Rapskal made no reply. The dragon shifted again and half reared on her hind legs. She sniffed at Rapskal and then nudged him. The boy’s body gave to her push, but he made no indication that he was aware of her.

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  “Oh, no,” Leftrin groaned. “Please, Sa, no. Give the boy another chance. ” The captain released her arm and lurched into a run.

  The dragon threw back her head and whistled loudly. For a tense moment, Alise expected the creature to charge or spit acid at Leftrin. Instead, she nuzzled Rapskal again, with as little response. Then she dropped onto all fours again and stood staring at them. Her eyes whirled. She was plainly distressed about something, which did nothing to reassure Alise. A distressed dragon was a dangerous dragon.

  “Rapskal! Stop daydreaming and tend to Heeby! Rapskal!” Her shout fought the wind.

  The young keeper stood as still as the statue he touched, and the dwindling daylight glittered on the scarlet scaling on his bared hands and face. Heeby moved to block Leftrin, but the sailor dodged adroitly around her. “I’m going to help him, dragon. Stay out of my way. ”

  “Heeby, Heeby, it will be all right. Let him pass, let him pass!” Heedless of her own danger, Alise did her best to distract the anxious dragon as Leftrin set his palms to the chest-high pedestal and then vaulted up onto it. He seized Rapskal around the chest and then spun away from the statue, tearing the boy’s grip from the stone. As he did so, the keeper cried out wordlessly and suddenly went limp in the man’s arms. Leftrin staggered with his sudden weight, and both of them sank down to sit at the statue’s feet.

  Heeby shifted restlessly, swinging her head back and forth in agitation. She was the only dragon who had never spoken to Alise. Despite being the only dragon who could both fly and hunt capably now, she had never seemed especially bright, although she had always seemed to share her keeper’s sunny temperament. Now as Leftrin held the youngster in his arms and spoke worriedly to him, the dragon seemed more like an anxious dog than a powerful predator.

  Even so, Alise gave her a wide berth as she made her way to the dais. It took her considerably more effort to gain the top of it than it had Leftrin, but she managed. The captain knelt on the cold stone cradling Rapskal. “What’s wrong with him? What’s happened?”

  “He was drowning,” Leftrin said in a low voice full of dread.

  But as Rapskal’s face lolled toward her, she saw only his idiotically bemused grin and barely open eyes. She frowned. “Drowning? He looks more drunk than drowned! But where did he get spirits?”

  “He didn’t. ” Leftrin gave him another shake. “He’s not drunk. ” But his next actions seemed to belie his statement as he gave Rapskal another shake. “Come out of it, lad. Come back to your own life. There’s a dragon here that needs you, and night is coming on. Storm’s coming in, too. If we’re to get to the other side before it’s dark, we need you to wake up. ”

  He glanced at Alise and became Captain Leftrin dealing with an emergency.

  “Jump down and take his legs when I pass him down,” he commanded, and she obeyed. When had the lad got so tall? she wondered as Leftrin eased the limp Rapskal down into her arms. When she’d first met him, he’d seemed just past boyhood, made younger than his peers by his simplicity. Then he and his dragon had vanished, and all had believed them both dead. Since their return the dragon had proved her competence as a predator, and Rapskal had seemed both older and more ethereal, sometimes a mystical Elderling and sometimes a wondering boy. Like all the keepers, his close contact with his dragon was changing him. His ragged trousers exposed the heavy red scaling on his feet and calves. It reminded Alise of the tough orange skin on a chicken’s legs. And like a bird, he weighed less than she had expected as Leftrin let go of Rapskal and she took his full weight to keep him upright. His eyes were wide open.

  “Rapskal?” she said, but he folded laxly over her shoulder.

  With a thump and a grunt, Leftrin landed beside her. “Give him to me,” he said gruffly as Heeby pressed her nose against Rapskal’s back, sending Alise staggering back against the statue’s pedestal. “Dragon, stop that!” he commanded Heeby, but as the dragon’s eyes spun swiftly, he added more gently, “I’m trying to help him, Heeby. Give me some space. ”

  It wasn’t clear she understood him, but she did step back as Leftrin stretched Rapskal out on the cold stone. “Wake up, lad. Come back to us. ” He tapped his face with light slaps, then took him by the shoulders, sat him up, and shook him. Rapskal’s head snapped back on his neck, eyes wide, and then, as his head came forward again, life came back to his face. His affable smile, never long absent, blossomed as he looked up at them beatifically. “Dressed for the festival,” he said cheerily. “In a gown made of eel skin dyed pink to match her brow scaling. More delicate than a tiny lizard on an air-blossom, she was, and her lips softer than a rose’s petals. ”

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  “Rapskal!” Leftrin rebuked him severely. “Come back to us now. Here. We are cold and night is coming on, and this city has been dead for Sa knows how long. There is no festival and no woman wearing a gown such as you describe. Come back now!” He seized the youth’s face between his hands and forced the boy to meet his glowering stare.

  After a long moment, Rapskal abruptly pulled his knees up to his chest and began to shiver violently. “I’m so cold!” he complained. “We need to get back to the other side and warm ourselves at a fire. Heeby! Heeby, where are you? It’s getting dark! You need to carry us across to the other side!”

  At the sound of his voice, the dragon thrust her head into the midst of the huddled group, sending both Leftrin and Alise reeling back. She opened her mouth wide, tasting the air all around Rapskal as he exclaimed, “Of course I’m all right! I’m just cold. Why did we stay here so long? It’s nearly dark. ”

  “It is dark,” Leftrin retorted gruffly. “And we stayed here so long because you were careless. I can’t believe that you didn’t know better! But for now, we won’t talk about it. We just need to get back to our side of the river. ”

  The keeper was rapidly coming to his senses. Alise watched him sit up straight and then stagger to his feet, lurching toward his dragon. As soon as he could touch Heeby, they both seemed to calm. The dragon ceased her restless shifting. Rapskal drew a deeper breath and turned toward them. His face had relaxed into its handsome lines. He pushed his dark hair back and spoke almost accusingly. “Poor Heeby will be flying in the dark by the time she makes her third trip. We need to start now. ”

  Leftrin spoke. “Alise first. Then you. Then me. I want someone on the opposite shore waiting for you. And I don’t want you here alone in the dark, with no one watching you. ”

  “Watching me?”

  “You know what I’m talking about. We’ll discuss it when we’re safe on the other side by a fire. ”

  Rapskal shot him a wounded look but said only, “Alise goes first, then. ”

  It was not her first time to ride the dragon, but she thought she would never become accustomed to it. Alise knew that the other dragons did not approve of Heeby allowing mere humans to mount her back and ride her as if she were a beast of burden and dreaded that they might decide to confront her about it. Sintara, the largest female dragon, had been particularly outspoken in that regard. But that concern was the smallest part of the emotions that sent her heart hammering. There was no harness to cling to, not even a piece of twine. “What would you need it for?” Rapskal had asked her incredulously the first time he had asked Heeby to carry her across the river and she had inquired about something to hold on to. “She knows where she’s going. Just sit tight and she’ll get you there. ”

  Leftrin boosted her up and the dragon crouched considerately, but even so it was a scrabble up the smoothly scaled shoulder. Alise straddled Heeby just in front of where her wings attached to her body. It was not dignified. She had to lean forward and plac
e her hands flat on the sides of the dragon’s neck, since there was nothing to grip. Heeby had learned to fly by running and leaping into the air. It was how Rapskal had thought a dragon would launch, but the other dragons found fault with it, saying that she should simply leap clear of the ground and beat her way into the sky. Nonetheless, every flight began with Heeby’s lolloping run down the hill toward the river. Then came the lurch of the wild leap, the snap as she opened her wings, and then the heavy and uneven beating of her wide leathery wings. Alise was never absolutely certain that Heeby would gain the air, let alone remain there.

  But once aloft, the rhythm of her wings steadied. They ventured higher. The cold wind sliced past Alise, burning her cheeks and penetrating her tattered clothing. She leaned close, clasping sleek, scaled, muscular flesh. If she slipped, she would fall into the frigid river and die. No one could save her. Heeby had had a terror of the water since she had been swept helplessly away in the flood. She would never plunge into the icy water after a fallen rider. Alise pushed the disheartening thoughts from her mind. She wouldn’t fall. That was all.

  Through squinted eyes she stared at the small lights on the far side of the river and willed herself to be there soon. There were not many lights. The keepers and the ship’s crew had claimed the few cottages and dwellings that could be made habitable and done their best to make them warm and weatherproof. Even so, there were not enough souls there to form even a village. But more would come, Alise thought sadly, when the news of their discovery leaked out. More would come. And with them, perhaps, the end of Kelsingra.

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  Leftrin watched the scarlet dragon dwindle in darkness and distance. “Sa watch over her,” he prayed under his breath and then twisted his mouth in wry wonder at himself. He’d never been a praying man before Alise came into his life. Now he caught himself at it every time she insisted on taking chances. Exploring abandoned cities, attempting to hunt, riding on flying dragons . . . He shook his head as he watched Alise vanish into the darkness. As much as he feared for her, it was her adventurous nature that had first attracted him. That first time she’d appeared on the docks, in her hat and veil and flouncy skirts, he’d been dumbstruck. Such a fine lady to be chancing herself on the dangerous Rain Wild River and his barge.

  Now her hands were roughened and her hair bundled back, and the veils and ribbons long gone. But she was still the fine lady, as elegant as ever, in the same way a fine tool, no matter how battered, retained its integrity. She was one of a kind, his Alise. Tough as wizardwood and fine as lace.

  Now he could no longer see her or the dragon. The darkness had swallowed them. He stared anyway, willing that Heeby would make the flight safely, willing that Alise be safe on the other side.

  “They’re on the ground,” Rapskal said quietly.

  Leftrin turned to him in surprise. “You can see that far?”

  Rapskal grinned merrily. His eyes gleamed blue in the dimness. “My dragon told me. She’s on her way back to us already. ”

  “Of course,” Leftrin replied. He sighed to himself. Sometimes it was easy to forget Rapskal’s bond with the dragon. Easy to forget the boyish side of the young Elderling. Like all growing boys, Rapskal toyed with danger. He had been reckless tonight. Even his dragon had sensed that. He couldn’t be permitted to risk himself like that again.

  Leftrin cleared his throat. “What you were doing when we found you? There’s no excuse for that. You’re Rain Wild bred. Don’t tell me you didn’t know the danger. What were you thinking? Do you want to drown yourself in memories? To be lost to us forever?”

  Rapskal met his gaze squarely. His eyes gleamed blue in the darkness, as brightly as if he were an old man with years of change on him. His smile grew wider as he admitted cheerfully, “Yes, actually, I do. ”

  Leftrin stared at him. His words were shocking. But he did not speak them cheekily but with sincerity. “What are you saying? That you want to become a drooling idiot? Wander forever in Elderling memories while your body loses control of itself? Become a senile burden to everyone who loves you, or starve to death in your own filth when everyone abandons you to your selfishness? It will happen, you know. ”

  He painted the death of a man who drowned in memories as harshly as he could. The boy had to be dissuaded from engulfing his mind in the pleasure of a past that was not his. “Drowning in memories” was the Rain Wild euphemism for it. It was not as common a fate as it had been when the Elderling cities had first been discovered, but it still happened and most often to youngsters like Rapskal. The temptation to linger in contact with certain stone walls and statues was great. Life in the Rain Wilds was not as harsh as it once had been, but no Rain Wilder enjoyed the life of opulence and luxury that was recorded in the stones of the city. Once a lad had explored one of those memories, the temptation to return over and over to a dream of remembered feasts and music and romance and indulgences would prove too great for some to resist. Left to themselves, they literally drowned in the memories, forgetting their own lives and the needs of their real bodies to indulge in the pleasures of a city and a civilization that no longer existed.

  Leftrin understood the pull of it. Almost every adventurous Rain Wild lad had sampled memory diving at least once. The secrets of where the best and most intense memories were stored were passed on privately by generation after generation. His mind darted back to certain stone carvings in a little-used hallway of the Elderling city buried under Trehaug. With a touch of the hand, one could experience a lavish banquet followed by a lovely concert of Elderling music. There were rumors of another carving that had held records of one powerful Elderling’s sexual conquests. Years ago, the Rain Wild Traders’ Council had ordered it destroyed, saying that enough young men had perished due to its attraction. Yet the tales of it persisted.

  Looking at Rapskal now, Leftrin wondered what he had discovered when he had touched the statue. What sort of memories did it hold and how strong would its attraction be once the word spread to the other keepers? He imagined having to tell Alise it must be destroyed, and then considered the intense physical labor of breaking it to pieces. The Elderlings had built for the ages. Nothing they had created gave way easily to nature or man. Destroying the statue would take days, possibly weeks. And it would be hazardous work. To those who were vulnerable to it, memory stone was dangerous even to casual touch. Even breathing the dust could have serious consequences.

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  “What did you find in the statue, boy? Is it worth giving up your true life for it?”

  Rapskal’s grin flashed. “Captain, you needn’t worry so much. I know what I’m doing. And it’s what I’m supposed to do. What Elderlings have always done. It’s why the memories were stored. They won’t hurt me. They will make me what I’m supposed to be. ”

  Leftrin’s heart sank deeper with each of the boy’s confident assertions. Already, he sounded like a stranger, not like impetuous, random Rapskal at all. How could he have fallen so far so fast? Leftrin spoke sternly. “So it may seem to you now, keeper. So it has seemed to many others, and when they plunged deep and lost the way, it was too late for them to think again about it. I know the attraction, Rapskal. I was a lad, once. I’ve set my hand to a memory stone and been swept up in it. ”

  “Have you?” Rapskal tilted his head as he regarded Leftrin. In the tattering sunset, he could not read the look in the boy’s steady gaze. Was it skepticism? Even, perhaps, condescension? “Perhaps you have,” Rapskal went on in a gentler voice. “But it would not have meant the same thing to you at all. It would be like reading someone else’s diary. ” He lifted his eyes suddenly and smiled his generous smile. “And here she comes, my beauty, my darling, my scarlet wonder!”

  The red dragon, wings wide and flapping as she slowed herself, skittered to a halt a score of paces from them as she landed. Her gleaming eyes whirled with pleasure at the boy’s praise.

  “Your turn,” he
said to Leftrin, smiling.

  Leftrin didn’t return the smile. “No. You go. Send your dragon back for me. I don’t want to leave you here alone with the statue. ”

  Rapskal gazed at him for a long time and then shrugged one narrow shoulder. “As you wish, Captain. But, you know, I am less alone in this city than anywhere else I have ever been in my life. ” Arms wide as if to embrace her, he strode toward his dragon. The little scarlet queen reared up on her hind legs and then came down. She snaked her head toward him and made a sound between a snarl and a purr as he reached her and clambered up onto her shoulder.

  “I’ll send her back for you!” he promised, and then the dragon spun about on her hind legs and began her race down the hill.

  Day the 5th of the Change Moon

  Year the 7th of the Independent Alliance of Traders

  From Reyall, Acting Keeper of the Birds, Bingtown

  To Detozi, Keeper of the Birds, Trehaug

  Contents, a notice from Trader family Meldar and Trader family Kincarron, renewing the offer of a substantial reward for any information about the location and well-being of Sedric Meldar and Alise Kincarron Finbok, with the request that all posted notices be renewed in both Trehaug and Cassarick, and an announcement of the rewards be made at any convening of the Traders at either Trader concourse, all fees having been paid in advance for these services.

  Detozi, a small note appended here. Thank you for your advice and please thank Erek as well. With difficulty, I have held my tongue and made no complaint about Kim’s message to me. Now several complaints have been lodged about the condition of messages received from Cassarick. I will stand quietly, as befits my youth, and let others consider if the mails are being tampered with at that location.

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