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City of dragons, p.11
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       City of Dragons, p.11

         Part #3 of Rain Wild Chronicles series by Robin Hobb
Chapter Five


  The door swung open into dimness. Hest advanced into the room cautiously, wrinkling his nose at the smell of faded perfume and disuse. Whoever had tidied the room last had done a poor job. The cinders of a long-dead fire lay in the small hearth, contributing a stink of old ashes. Several strides of his long legs carried him to the window. He pushed the curtains back, letting thin gray winter light into the room. Unlatching the window, he let it swing wide to the wintry day.

  This small chamber had been intended to be Alise’s sewing room. His mother had taken a great deal of pleasure in arranging it for his bride-to-be; she had selected the chairs by the hearth, the little tables, the deep blue draperies, and the rug with the floral pattern. But his inconvenient wife had no interest in sewing or embroidery. Not Alise, oh no. While other men’s wives were happily occupied with decorating new hats for themselves or stitching mottoes, his woman was out wandering the markets, finding old scrolls at exorbitant prices to buy and drag home. The shelves of the room, painted gilt and white and intended for trinkets, sagged under their burdens of scrolls and books and stacks of notes. The top of the large wooden desk that had replaced the dainty sewing table was bare; he’d give Alise that: at least she’d tidied away her mess before she went.

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  Then he realized that her desk was completely bare. NO! She couldn’t have taken it with her! Not even Alise was so obsessed as to risk the Elderling scroll he’d given her as an engagement gift. It had been ridiculously expensive. Knowing its value and fragility, she’d put the damned thing in a special case to preserve it from dust and curious touches. Alise would not take such a rare, such an irreplaceable, such an exceedingly valuable item on a boat ride up the Rain Wild River. Would she?

  Sedric had been the one to track the scroll down for him, back in the days when Hest had been courting Alise. It was one of only a handful of intact Elderling documents recovered from Cassarick. Sedric had assured him that it was priceless and that even the exorbitant sum he was paying for it was a bargain. Not only would he acquire a unique Elderling artifact, but in the process, he’d win Alise’s marriage consent. It was a Trader’s dream, a consummate bargain in which he gave something away, only to immediately regain it and the woman as well. They had laughed about it the evening before he had gone to present it to the dowdy little creature.

  Hest scowled disdainfully as he recalled that night. Well, he had laughed about the bargain. Sedric had sat quiet, biting his lip and then dared to ask him, “Are you sure you want to go through with this? It’s the perfect gift. I’m sure that this, if nothing else, will win Alise’s regard for you. It will open the door for you to court her and make her your wife. But are you sure, really sure, that’s what you want?”

  “Well, of course it isn’t!” They’d been drinking in Hest’s study, comfortably watching a gnarled apple wood log burn down to ash. The house had been quiet and calm, the curtains drawn to close out the night. The war with Chalced was over, trade was resuming, and the world was coming back to normality. Good wine and fine brandy, song and entertainment had returned to Bingtown. Inns and taverns and playhouses were being rebuilt, rising from the ashes to even greater splendor than old Bingtown had possessed before it was burned and pillaged. There were fortunes to be made. It was a wonderful time to be young and unattached and wealthy.

  Then Hest’s misguided father had to ruin it all by insisting that Hest must get a wife and make an heir for the family or forfeit his right to be the sole inheritor of the Finbok family fortune. “If it were left to me, I’d live my life exactly as I am. I have my friends and my occupations, my business affairs prosper, and I have you in my bed when I want you. The last thing I need is a busy little woman cluttering up my house and demanding my time and attention. Even less do I desire squalling babies and messy little children. ”

  “But while your father lives and wears the Trader robe and controls not only the vote but the purse strings of the estates, you’ll have to do what pleases him. ”

  Sedric’s words had made him scowl, then and now. “Wrong. I’ll have to appear to do what pleases him. I have no intention of ceasing my ongoing efforts to please myself. ”

  “Well, then. ” Sedric had pointed, a bit drunkenly, at the scroll in its ancient decorated case. “Then that’s exactly the item you want, Hest. I’ve known Alise for years. Her fascination with the ancient Elderlings and dragons consumes her. A gift such as that will win her to your side. ”

  And it had. At the time, the ridiculous price that he’d paid for the damn thing had seemed worth it. She’d agreed to marry him. After that, his courtship of her had simply followed the customs of Bingtown, as easily as following a road on a map. They’d married, his family had provided a comfortable new home and a larger allowance to him, and they’d settled in. Oh, from time to time, his father or mother would moan or complain that Alise’s belly didn’t swell with a child, but that was scarcely Hest’s fault. Even if women had appealed to him, he doubted he would have chosen one who looked like Alise. Unruly red hair, freckles thick as pox marks on her face and forearms and shoulders. She was a sturdy little woman who should have conceived easily and given him a brat right away. But she hadn’t even done that right.

  And then, years after he thought she’d settled in her place, she’d had the wild impulse to take herself off to the Rain Wilds to study dragons. And damned if Sedric hadn’t supported her in the idea. They’d both had the gall to remind him that he’d agreed to such a journey as one of the terms of the marriage contract. Perhaps he had, but no proper wife would ever have insisted on such a ridiculous thing. Thoroughly incensed with both of them, he’d sent them off together. Let Sedric see just how much he’d enjoy his “old friend’s” endless whining and wearisome ways. Let Sedric remember what it was like to live peasant-poor on a smelly ship on a reeking river. The ungrateful wretch. Both of them were ungrateful, stupid, selfish, common idiots. And now to find that they’d stolen from him, that they’d taken the most valuable scroll in the whole expensive collection that the stupid red cow had assembled, was more than any man could tolerate.

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  He strode back to the door of the chamber and thrust his head out. “Ched! Ched, attend me this moment. ”

  “Coming, sir!” The voice of his steward was distant, perhaps from the wine cellar. Lazy bastard. He was never to hand when Hest wanted him.

  Hest paced impatiently around the room, seeking but not finding the scroll. The bitch had stolen it! He clenched his fists. Well, she’d find out soon enough that he’d cut her off without a copper shard. And faithless Sedric as well! When he had returned from his own trading voyage to discover that neither his wife nor his secretary had returned from their ill-advised trip to the Rain Wilds, he’d been furious. Even so, he’d held back his hand until the ugly rumors that they had run off together had begun to poison his social standing. The inner circle of his friends knew that it couldn’t be true, since Sedric would no more run off with a woman than he’d develop a spine and assert himself. But there had been others in Bingtown society who had believed it and had dared to pity Hest, dared to see him as the cuckolded husband. They sympathized with him and, believing his heart was broken, had dared to advise him on how best to win her back if she did return. Worse had been the ambitious matrons who had privately encouraged him to evoke the dissolution clause in his marriage contract and find a “more suitable, fertile wife”; inevitably, they had a daughter, niece, or granddaughter who would fill the bill admirably. One widow had even dared to offer herself. Such importunings were humiliating, but the pity others offered was the worst. They seemed to think his lack of reaction to Alise’s absence indicated that he was pining mournfully for his red cow!

  That was when he had sent the notices to be published in every significant town on the Rain Wild River. He’d made it known clear and plain that anyone so foolish as to extend
credit to the runaways had best not expect to be paid back out of Hest’s pockets. Alise and Sedric wanted to be away from him? Fine! Let them see how well they could manage when cut off from his fortune. And it was a plain signal to all of just how little he cared what became of either of them.

  Where was his damn steward? He leaned out of the door again. “Ched!” he bellowed, furious this time, and his anger was not soothed when the man startled him by saying, “I’m here, sir,” from the corridor behind him.

  “Where were you? When I call you, it means I need you immediately. ”

  “Sir, I’m sorry, but I was admitting a guest and settling him in your visiting room. He came very finely dressed, sir, with a hired carriage and team of the finest quality. He says he has come all the way from Chalced on a ship that arrived just this morning and that you were expecting him. ”

  “What’s his name?” Hest demanded. He racked his brain but could recall no scheduled meetings

  “He was most adamant, sir, that he would not share his name. He said it was a matter of great delicacy and that he bore gifts and messages not only for you but for someone named Begasti Cored. And he spoke of Sedric Meldar as having arranged all this months ago, and how expected shipments had not arrived and someone must pay for the delay . . . ”

  “Enough!” Damned Sedric again! He was tired of thinking of the man. Had Sedric run off and left the threads of a business agreement to unravel? That was unlike him. He was keener on details and arrangements than anyone Hest had ever known. But then it was also unlike the sucking little tick to stay away so long from comfort and wealth. Unless this was part of some other, unknown plot against Hest. That was a very disturbing thought. Sedric and Alise had been friends since childhood. Had the two of them collaborated in some plot to steal trade business from Hest? Was that why they had vanished and not returned? What could the two trade in? Abruptly he recalled why he had summoned Ched. “Turn your mind to this. There was a scroll on that table, a very valuable one, in a wooden case with a glass lid. It was there, and now it’s gone. I want it found. ”

  “I don’t know . . . ” the incompetent fool began.

  “Find it!” Hest snapped at him. “Find it now, or face charges of theft!”

  “Sir!” the steward objected, aghast. “I know nothing about the contents of this room. When I first arrived, you said it was the province of the lady’s maids. Then, after you ordered the lady’s maids let go, I did not take up its care as you didn’t tell me that—”

  “Find the scroll!” Hest bellowed the words. He turned his back on the man and strode off toward the visiting room. “And have refreshments sent to me while I find out what other arrangements you have bungled. ”

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  There was satisfaction in shouting, a small relief in his tension that he could leave the steward pale and shaken, in fear for his livelihood. It would have been much better if the man had immediately produced the missing scroll, but he would eventually.

  Unless Alise and Sedric had stolen it. And what of the other extremely expensive scrolls that the graceless little woman and his lackey had been acquiring for years? He halted midstride, thinking back to how assiduously Sedric had searched out costly and ancient writings for her, and how relentlessly he had encouraged Hest to purchase them, saying that it was only to keep Alise occupied. Toward the end of their time together, Sedric had even dared to assert that she “deserved” such gifts, as recompense for a marriage of convenience! Hest had countered that she had known what she was getting into when she signed their marriage contract. He’d made it plain to her from the beginning that it was about appearances, convenience, and an heir. Now he wondered starkly just how much of his fortune she’d spent on her tattered bits of cowhide and musty books. There would be an accounting somewhere, some sort of an inventory of them. Sedric was fastidious in his record keeping. But where? Or had they taken that along with the precious artifacts with them when they’d run off together?

  Damn them! Of course they had. It all made sense now. Sedric’s insistence that Alise be allowed to make her useless journey to the Rain Wilds. His foolish quarreling with Hest that had led to Hest ordering him to go with her. Of course. He ground his teeth in fury. They’d collaborated against him, made him a fool in his own home, with his own money. Well, they’d see that he was not to be trifled with. He’d track them down and get his own back, leave them penniless and shamed!

  His breath was coming fast, his heart hammering high in his chest. He forced himself to stand still, took deep calming breaths, and then paused a few moments to tug his jacket straight and arrange his collar and cuffs. He didn’t know who the Chalcedean in his visiting chamber might be, but it was possible he was a loose end in Sedric’s plot against him. And if so, Hest intended to get every bit of information out of the man that he could. Then he’d have Ched throw him out of the house.

  Calm and composed, at least on the surface, he entered the chamber, a blandly polite smile on his face. The Chalcedean man who awaited him was young and muscular. He wore a brocaded vest over a loose white shirt. His flowing trousers were quilted silk, his short boots of gleaming black leather. The blade that rode at his hip was neither sword nor knife but something curved and nasty between the two. The hilt was black, wrapped in leather. Not decorative but very functional. On the floor beside him was a satchel bearing the device of the Duke of Chalced. The man looked up from ransacking the drawers of Hest’s desk. His close-cropped dark hair and trimmed beard did nothing to hide the scarlet scar that ran from the corner of his left eye down across his cheek and over his mouth and chin. It appeared to be a recent injury, and his lips had not healed well. The edges of the scar were rubbery and bulging and, when he spoke, caused his words to be badly formed.

  “Where is the promised merchandise? You will not get another chance simply to deliver it. Every day that it is delayed will cost you. ”

  Hest’s outrage at finding someone pawing through his desk abruptly shifted to fear as the man’s hand settled on the hilt of his weapon. Neither he nor Hest spoke for a long moment. When Hest found his voice, the words had no force behind them. “I don’t know what you are talking about. Get out of my house or I’ll summon the City Guard. ”

  The man looked at him, his gray eyes flat and considering. No fear, no anger. Only evaluation. It was chilling.

  “Get out!”

  The Chalcedean wheeled away from the desk and its disarrayed contents. As the man started past him, Hest pointed a disdainful hand at the door that still stood ajar. In one fluid and continuous motion, the man seized Hest’s wrist with his left hand as his right drew his blade and cut the captive hand, a long shallow slice from Hest’s palm to the tip of his index finger. Then the stranger released his wrist and sprang back.

  Blood sheeted from the long gash and the pain was exquisite. Hest bent over his hand, roaring with pain as the Chalcedean walked over to the window and casually wiped his blade on the curtain. He spoke over his shoulder, unconcerned how Hest might be reacting. “A little reminder not to lie. The reminder not to be late on promised merchandise would be much more severe. More on the scale of the reminder that the Duke’s swordsman gave to me when I was forced to report that I had not received any recent word from either Begasti Cored or Sedric of Bingtown. ”

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  Hest had a tight grip on his wrist, trying to throttle the searing pain that was shooting up into his arm. Blood was pouring from his hand, dribbling off his fingers onto the expensive carpets in the study. He took a breath. “Ched!” he shouted. “Ched! I need help! Ched!”

  The door began to swing open, but with a catlike spring the Chalcedean was there, stopping the door before it could open fully. He wedged his body into the opening. “Tea and biscuits! How thoughtful. I’ll take them, and please see we are not disturbed. This is an extremely confidential matter that your master and I are discussing. ”

Ched’s querulous tone infuriated Hest.

  “Save me!” he shouted as the Chalcedean whirled, his hands full with a tea tray. Without spilling a drop, the man set the tray at his feet and then spun back to shut and bolt the door.

  “Sir? Are you all right?” Ched’s confused voice barely reached through the heavy doors.

  “No! He’s mad, get help!”


  Before Hest could draw breath, the Chalcedean was standing before him. This time the drawn knife was at his throat. The Chalcedean smiled, stretching his scars. Blood broke out on his lower lip, the injuries were so recent. He spoke in a soft, rational voice. “Tell your slave that you are fine, that we must have quiet and he is to go away. Tell him now. ” The knife flicked and Hest’s collar was suddenly loose. The sting of sliced skin and flow of warm blood followed a heartbeat later.

  Hest gasped and drew breath to scream. The man slapped him abruptly, an open-handed blow to his cheek.

  The doorknob rattled uselessly. “Sir? Should I fetch help, sir?”

  The Chalcedean was smiling, and the knife was back, weaving a pattern before Hest’s eyes. The man was damnably fast. “No!” Hest shouted as the knife dabbed at the end of his nose, and then, as it went back to the hollow of his throat, “NO, Ched, no! You misunderstood me! Leave us! No disturbance. Leave us!”

  The door handle stopped its jiggling dance. “Sir? Are you certain, sir?”

  “Leave us!” Hest bellowed as the knife blade traced a line up his throat. “Go away!”

  “As you wish, sir. ”

  And then silence. But still the knife tip rested under Hest’s chin, lifting him up onto his toes, and still his hand burned and throbbed and the blood dripped from his fingers. An eternity passed in that motionless torment, before the Chalcedean abruptly swept his knife to one side. In two swift strides, he was at the door again and hope leaped in Hest that he was going to leave, his mad rampage over. Instead the man stooped and lifted the tea tray. He brought it to Hest’s desk, stepping over his satchel and carelessly sweeping papers from the desktop to set it down. He watched Hest with his cold gray eyes as he flicked up a clean white napkin and wiped his knife on it. It left a scarlet stripe on the linen. He snapped it toward Hest. “Bind your hand. And then it will be time for you to deliver the promised merchandise. ”

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