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City of dragons, p.12
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       City of Dragons, p.12

         Part #3 of Rain Wild Chronicles series by Robin Hobb

  Awkwardly, Hest wrapped his injured hand. It was agony to put the cloth against the cut. Blood blossomed through the napkin. He drew a ragged breath and swiped his sleeve across his face, feigning that he wiped sweat, not tears, from his eyes. He could not show weakness. The foreigner was mad and capable of anything. His sleeve came away bloody and Hest suddenly realized, “You cut my nose! You cut my face. ”

  “A tiny jab, the smallest prick of the knife’s tip. Pay no mind to it. ” The Chalcedean poured steaming tea into a cup for himself, sniffed it thoughtfully, and then took a sip. “Boiled leaves. I do not understand it, but it does not taste so bad on a chilly day like this one. So. The merchandise. Now. ”

  Hest retreated on shaking legs. “Truly, sir, I’ve no idea what you are talking about. ”

  The Chalcedean followed him, teacup in one hand and knife in the other. He herded Hest away from the heavily draped windows and backed him into the corner. Hest’s heartbeat thundered in his ears. The man took a sip of tea and smiled.

  “I will listen,” he said conversationally. “For the time it takes me to drink this cup. Then you and my blade will tread the dance of truth. ”

  “I cannot tell you anything. I don’t know anything. ” Hest heard his own trembling voice and did not recognize it.

  “Then let us summon your slave Sedric. He was the one, was he not, who struck this bargain with Begasti Cored?”

  Hest’s mind raced. Begasti. A balding man with extremely bad breath. “I’ve had dealings with Begasti Cored, but those were in the past. And Sedric is not my slave, he’s my . . . assistant. And . . . ” The connection between the names formed in his mind, and suddenly he knew what it was all about. He spoke quickly, his eyes on the hovering knife. “And he betrayed me and ran off with some very valuable scrolls. To the Rain Wilds. He may have struck a bargain of his own with Begasti Cored. The little traitor probably did. I suspect he did a lot of business behind my back and without my knowledge. Sedric is the man you should be speaking to about this . . . merchandise. ” Dragon parts. That was what the man expected him to hand over. Dragon liver and dragon blood, bone and teeth and scales. Dragon parts to make medicines to cure the ancient, ailing, and quite probably mad Duke of Chalced. Impossible to obtain, highly illegal dragon parts. What had Sedric dragged him into?

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  The man drank the last of his tea. He held the empty cup for a moment, and then casually tossed it over his shoulder. It fell on the rug and rolled in a half circle without breaking. Hest’s ears rang, and the room seemed to grow dim. When the man gestured with the razor-sharp knife, Hest could not contain the small sound in his throat. The Chalcedean appeared not to notice. He cocked his head at Hest and smiled like a flirtatious snake. “You will sit now, there, at your desk, and we will tease out a bit more of the truth here. I see it hiding in your eyes. ”

  “I don’t know the truth. I have suspicions, nothing more. ” But the suspicions were rapidly weaving themselves into a logical pattern. Alise and her obsessive study of the dragons. Sedric’s sudden support for her ridiculous Rain Wild expedition to see the creatures. He’d even mentioned Begasti’s name, hadn’t he, in the midst of their last quarrel? Or the one before? Some foolishness about a fortune to be made . . . Hest made a disgusted noise in the back of his throat. For the past few years, Sedric had watched him maneuver his way through the trading world. He’d run Hest’s errands, fetched his tea, brushed his jackets, and, yes, warmed his bed. But obviously he’d thought himself better and more deserving than that. He’d thought he was clever enough to cut this little side trade on his own. If he’d only put himself and Alise at risk, Hest might have found it amusing. But as he crossed the room on rubbery legs and took a seat at his desk, blood dripping from his slashed face and his mutilated hand, all he could feel was fury at Sedric’s incompetence and betrayal.

  The Chalcedean took a perch on the corner of the desk and sat looking down on Hest. He smiled. “I see a bit of anger there, now. You are thinking, ‘his blood should be soaking this napkin, not mine. ’ I am right, am I not? So. Summon your slave and let us apply this pain where it belongs. ”

  Hest fought to keep his voice steady. “I told you. He ran off. He stole from me and he ran off. I have nothing to do with him now. Whatever bargain he struck with Begasti Cored, he negotiated on his own. It’s nothing to do with me. ” Sudden outrage that Sedric could have precipitated this disaster gave him courage. He leaned forward in his chair and shouted, “You, sir, have made a serious mistake!”

  The Chalcedean was unimpressed. He cocked his head and leaned closer, smiling a thin-lipped smile. But his amusement did not seem to reach his eyes. “Have I? But not as grave as yours. You are responsible and you will be held responsible. What a man’s slave does or does not do reflects on his master. You have let one of yours run off and make bargains and steal from you and done nothing to correct him. So you must pay, just as if your horse had run wild in a market or your dog bitten a child’s face. Do you not know the saying, ‘When a slave lies with your tongue, it is still your mouth it is cut from’? What your man did in your name, you must answer for. Perhaps with a finger, perhaps with your hand . . . perhaps with your life. It is not up to me to decide how heavily you must pay, but answer you will. ”

  “If he signed a contract with Begasti Cored, I have no knowledge of it. I am not legally bound by it. ” Hest fought to keep his voice steady.

  “In Chalced, we care very little for what is legal in Bingtown. Here is what we do care about. The Duke, a wise and august personage, suffers from ill health. We know that the proper ministration of medicines made from dragon parts would restore him to health. Begasti Cored is one of our foremost merchants in exotic wares, and he was one of those honored with the mission of obtaining the necessary parts. To see that his mind was free of all cares while he undertook this errand, the Duke took Cored’s entire family under his protection. It is, as you can imagine, a large honor as well as a responsibility to be entrusted with such an undertaking. Nonetheless, for some time, little progress was made, despite great encouragement from the Duke and his nobles. So it was with satisfaction that we received the news that Begasti Cored had finally recruited a Bingtown Trader who had such a solid reputation to aid him in obtaining the required merchandise. ” The Chalcedean and his knife came even closer as he added, “It was not just this Sedric who was mentioned to us, but you: Trader Hest Finbok. You are well known to so many of our merchants. You are, they all said, a versatile and resourceful merchant, one who drives a shrewd bargain but is able to obtain the finest-quality merchandise. So. Where is our merchandise?”

  I don’t know. Hest bit down on the words before he could say them, suspecting the Chalcedean would react strongly to hearing them again. He closed his eyes for a moment and tried to find a tactic that would extricate him from this situation. He fell back on an old Trader technique. Pretend to be able to meet the customer’s expectations. Later, one could make excuses. Or call the City Guard.

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  “This is what I do know,” he said carefully. He lifted his bandaged hand to dab at the blood at the end of his nose. A mistake. The clot came away on the napkin and it began to drip blood again. Firmly he set his hands on the desktop and tried to ignore it. “Sedric went to the Rain Wilds. He took with him a woman with great knowledge of dragons. I suspect he hopes to use her knowledge to win him close contact with the dragons. I had to leave on my own trading journey. When I returned, I found no messages from him. The news from the Rain Wilds is that he was part of a party that accompanied the dragons on an expedition up the Rain Wild River. No word has been received from the expedition. They and the dragons may have perished. ”

  “Pah! Old news is what you offer. When Begasti Cored sent him on his way, your Sedric was not our only emissary for this task. Our other spies have been more prompt in their reporting. We have bent ourselves to this task with every reso
urce at our disposal. Your Sedric was but one of many possible connections we cultivated. So put aside your lies. We already know many things. Do you think you can tell me old news and I will be content with it? Do you think to distract me from my task? Do you think that I do not have concerns of my own bound up with this undertaking? You are a fool, then. And you will find there is a high cost for thinking us fools as well. ”

  “Truly, I know no more than what I have told you!” Desperation broke through in his voice. To so betray himself ran counter to every rule of wise bargaining, to all he had ever been taught about dealing with Chalcedeans. Show no fear, no doubt, and no weakness. But the burning pain from his hand, the smell of his own dripping blood, and the complete foreignness of the experience had him literally trembling.

  “I believe you,” the Chalcedean said suddenly. He hopped off the corner of the desk and sauntered back to the window. He tested his blade on the drapery, shredding them in the process. He was staring out the window as he spoke. “I believe you because we have a similar problem. We are not certain where Begasti Cored is; we believe that he, too, has gone to the Rain Wilds. Perhaps that means he is close to obtaining the required merchandise. ”

  Hest eased himself silently out of the chair. The door was not so far away. The rugs were thick. Could he move slowly and quietly toward the door, unlatch it, and flee to safety before the man was aware he was escaping? He suspected that if he failed to get through the door, he might pay with his life. And if he got through the door, where would he flee? The Chalcedean would give chase, he was sure. His terror sickened him, dizzied him with weakness.

  “You know, of course, how difficult it is for a Chalcedean to obtain passage up the Rain Wild River. That Begasti managed such a feat speaks well of his resourcefulness. We suspect that he was aided by Sinad Arich. Perhaps they are both working toward fulfilling their tasks. But it does put them out of our reach. And that will not do. It will not do at all. ”

  Hest made one step toward the door. The man had his back to him. Another step. The Chalcedean drew the blade up and down the expensive draperies, almost as if he were whetting it on the fine fabric. Hest didn’t care. Whatever kept him busy was fine. He slid another step closer to the door. One more silent step and then he would spring for it, fling the latch back, open the door, and run like a scalded cat.

  “So we do what we must. We bring our messages to the one we can reach. And he, in turn, relays the message where we cannot go ourselves. Very swiftly he does this. ”

  The man turned. There was a sudden thud, as if someone had knocked once, heavily, upon the door. Hest turned, hoping Ched had come back. Instead, a short knife with a very gaudy handle quivered stiffly in the hard wood. For a moment, he made no sense of what he saw. The Chalcedean cleared his throat and Hest looked at him. Another little knife, its hilt a gay pattern of red and blue and green, sat balanced in the man’s hand.

  “Can you run as fast as a knife can fly? Shall we find out?”

  “No. Please, no. What do you want of me? Say it clearly and if I can give it to you, I will. Do you want money? Do you want—?”

  “Hush. ” A gentle word spoken harshly. Hest fell silent.

  “It is so simple. We want the merchandise that was promised. Dragon parts. Scales. Blood. Teeth. Liver. We do not care now who delivers it, as long as it arrives swiftly. When it does, you will see what a generous man the Duke of Chalced is. He who brings what is required will be richly rewarded with honors as well as coin! For generations, your house will be praised and respected by all who serve his lordship.

  “So. You will begin by finding Sinad Arich and Begasti Cored. There is a small box for each of them, there beside your fine desk. Each contains a gift that they will value above their lives from the Duke. Don’t lose either of them. They are irreplaceable. If they are lost, you will pay for them with your life. When you deliver them, you should remind each of them that their eldest son sends greetings to them and assure them that their heir-sons are prospering in the Duke’s care. This is not something that every member of their families can say, but for their eldest sons, it is still true. For it to remain true, all they must do is complete their missions. Suitably motivated, we are certain that these two will be eager to help you locate your runaway slave. And the merchandise that we have been promised. ”

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  Hest’s heart had sunk deeper into despair with every word the man uttered. He made a final effort. “It may not be possible to obtain dragon parts. The dragons have left Cassarick. They and their keepers are gone. All of them may be dead for all I know. ”

  “Well. You should hope that at least one of them is still alive. And that your slave is in a position to keep the bargain he made on your behalf. If it is otherwise . . . Well. I am sure neither of us desires to think of how that ends. And now I must be going. ”

  Abruptly, the man sheathed his gleaming blade. The tiny throwing knife vanished back to wherever it had come from. The relief Hest felt weakened his knees almost more than his terror had.

  “I will do what I can. ”

  It was easy to say the words, to make any promise as the Chalcedean moved toward the door. “I know you will,” the man replied. He paused, his fingers closing on the hilt of the knife he had thrown, and with a sudden jerk he freed it from the dark paneling. He examined it for a moment. “Your parents have a lovely home,” he observed. “And for her years, your mother is still quite an attractive woman. Plump and pretty. Unscarred. ” He smiled as he said the word and made the knife disappear.

  Then he worked the latch on the door, stepped through it, and was gone. Hest reached it in two bounds, slammed it shut, and latched it firmly. His legs gave out under him and he sank to the floor. He took deep, ragged breaths in an attempt to calm himself. “I’m safe now,” he said aloud. “I’m safe. ” But the words were hollow. The man’s threat to his family had been clear. If he thought Hest wasn’t obeying him, he’d kill Hest’s mother and probably his father. And then he’d come after Hest himself again.

  With difficulty he got to his feet and staggered to his chair, not yet daring to open the door and shout for Ched. The Chalcedean might still be lurking outside it. He poured himself a cup of the tea. It still steamed as it came out of the pot. Had it been such a short time ago that that idiot Ched had left the tea and abandoned Hest to a sadistic assassin? Was it possible it was still morning? It felt as if days had passed.

  He gripped the cup with two shaking hands and sipped the tea, letting the hot liquid steady him. His glance fell on the satchel the man had left beside his desk. It was in the Chalcedean style, an open-topped loosely woven bag. Inside it there were two boxes of wood with enamel insets. The sigil worked in gleaming scarlet and black was the Duke’s symbol, the grasping claw of a raptor. The edges of the box were studded with alternating pearls and small rubies. The boxes alone were worth a small fortune. What did they hold? Something irreplaceable. He turned one over and over in his hands, looking for a hidden catch. His napkin-wrapped hand leaked blood onto the pearls, making them rosy.

  Whatever was in them would be fair compensation for what he had gone through this morning. Someone owed him recompense for that. Anger was beginning to assert itself. He would go to the City Guard. The Bingtown Traders had small tolerance for Chalcedeans at the best of times. When they heard that an insane assassin was loose in the city, they’d hunt him down like a dog. And, Hest reflected, if word got out that it was the treachery of Sedric Meldar that had lured such a villain to Bingtown . . . well, Sedric and his family’s reputation were not Hest’s concern. He should have thought of those things before he stole from him.

  A sharp rap at the door jerked him from the chair. He stood trembling, the box forgotten in his hands. Then another sharp knock, and Ched’s voice.

  “Sir? Your guest is gone. I thought you’d like to know I found the scroll you wanted. The one in the glass-topped rosewood box? It had been sto
red in one of the cabinets, along with several others. Sir?”

  Hest staggered to the door. With his good hand, he lifted the latch. “Call a healer, you fool! You left me at the mercy of a madman! And fetch the City Guard, right away!”

  The man stood gaping at him, the precious scroll in its decorative box in his hands. The box that Hest held made a sudden small click; his unwary touch had released a hidden catch. The twin halves of the lid rose of their own accord. There was a smell, of spices and dirty salt. Hest looked inside.

  The hand inside the box was small but well preserved. A child’s hand, palm up, the fingers open as if pleading. The silver bracelet that bound the ragged stump of the wrist did not conceal the two arm bones that protruded. They were uneven, crushed as much as cut.

  “Sweet Sa, have mercy,” Ched gasped. He looked as if he might faint.

  Hest found breath to speak. “Just a healer, Ched. A discreet one. ”

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  “Not the City Guard, sir?” The servant looked baffled.

  “No. And not a word of this to anyone. ”

  Day the 12th of the Change Moon

  Year the 7th of the Independent Alliance of Traders

  From Detozi, Keeper of the Birds, Trehaug

  To Reyall, Acting Keeper of the Birds, Bingtown

  Reyall, I regret to inform you that we have now received a complaint of tampering. Malta Vestrit Khuprus entered a notice with the Trehaug bird keepers that her last two messages from her mother, Keffria Vestrit Haven of Bingtown, appear to have been opened, read, and resealed with inferior wax. While she reports that neither message contained any sensitive material, being only family news and a discussion of the disappearance of Selden Vestrit, both women are concerned that a pattern of damaged wax or oddly spindled messages is developing for all their correspondence by bird. The integrity of the bird keepers is at stake here. I do not need to remind you that keeping Trader business private and protecting confidential communication is the only foundation that protects our Guild from private competition. If the Traders lose faith in our integrity, all our livelihoods will be at risk. Although I am sure there will be formal discussions at all levels of the Guild, I beg you to keep all communication with Erek and me at a professional level and to keep your eyes open for any discrepancies. Log anything you notice faithfully, and please keep Erek and me informed of anything you notice about birds, message tubes, wax and lead seals, and conditions of messages received. We are gravely concerned.

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