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City of dragons, p.13
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       City of Dragons, p.13

         Part #3 of Rain Wild Chronicles series by Robin Hobb
 

  Detozi and Erek

  Chapter Six

  MARKED BY THE RAIN WILDS

  “You’re packing. ”

  Malta could tell that Jani was trying not to sound accusing. She set down her powder brush and replied easily, “Yes. I’m going to Cassarick with Reyn. ” She regarded Jani in the mirror before her. Only a soft tap at the door had warned her of her mother-in-law’s entrance. Malta tried not to frown. She’d been toying with her cosmetics, trying to disguise the deepening darkness under her eyes. The fine scaling on her face made the masquerade of powder and paint much more difficult than it had been when she was a smooth-faced young woman.

  “You don’t think he could attend to this on his own? It’s only a problem with the diggers, and Reyn knows more about excavation issues than any of us. ”

  “Of course he does. ” Malta had always taken pride in her husband’s competence in that difficult area. “But I want to go. There may be news of the Tarman expedition. Even if it’s only rumor. Cassarick is only a day’s journey up the river. And I don’t think we’ll stay more than two weeks. ”

  She took up the powder brush and gave one final quick swipe to the back of her neck. Her upswept hair bared the silvery-gray mark there, the peculiar scar a legacy of a very strange encounter years ago. It had left her flesh unnaturally sensitive. A kiss from Reyn there was almost as sensual as a touch to the Elderling crown that had developed on her brow. As Malta rose to return to her wardrobe and packing, Jani ventured into her chamber. She closed the door behind her, shutting out the rising wind of yet another winter storm.

  It was not unusual for her husband’s mother to drop in for a visit unannounced. Over the years of her marriage, Malta had become accustomed to it. Her room might be a completely separate structure, but it was still part of Reyn’s ancestral home. All the various rooms and chambers in this tree were a part of Jani Khuprus’s “house,” just as Malta’s bedchamber in her Bingtown family home was still a part of her mother’s house. To Jani, it was not a visit, but just a stroll down a corridor, even if that corridor was an airy pathway that followed the sweep of a vast tree limb.

  Generations ago, when the Satrap of Jamaillia had first exiled “criminals” to the Rain Wilds, Reyn’s ancestors had chosen this tree. The sturdy lower branches that had once held their first dwellings now supported their counting houses and places of commerce, the shops where Elderling artifacts were cleaned and examined for magical properties, the work areas where sawyers had once sliced sections of wizardwood logs into planks, and the warehouses where, to this day, merchandise was stored and displayed until buyers could be found for it. The next layer of branches supported the dwelling chambers of the family. There was a large formal dining hall, built of solid wood and surrounding the entire trunk of the tree. It was as sturdy as any Bingtown mansion. Beyond, in chambers radiating out from the central trunk, were studies and morning rooms, bedchambers and sewing rooms, rooms for guests and bathing chambers and gaming rooms. Each structure stood apart from the others. Some sat solidly upon a fan of adjacent branches; others swung like birdhouses, suspended where they might capture sunlight and gentle winds. They were connected by pathways that followed the supporting limbs of the trees or man-made bridges and trolleys.

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  As the years had passed and both family and tree put out branches and new limbs, the Khuprus family had added more and more chambers that ventured higher and higher into the family tree. Malta and Reyn lived in a fine set of sturdy rooms built close to the trunk and only one level above Jani’s own rooms. Even by Bingtown standards, the rooms were large and well appointed. The corridors between the different chambers of their dwelling might be the paths and bridges that followed the branches or stretched from limb to limb, but Malta had grown accustomed to that. It was home now, and even the casual visiting habits of Reyn’s relatives seemed normal now.

  Jani had raised an eyebrow at the overflowing travel trunk. “For a few days’ visit?”

  Malta laughed self-consciously. “I’ve never learned to travel light. I know it drives Reyn mad. But you just never know what sort of clothes you’ll need. Especially since we’ll be dealing with the Cassarick Traders’ Council. I may go to some of the meetings he must attend, and I must be whatever he needs me to be. I don’t know if I’ll need to look regal and daunting, or simple and unassuming. ”

  “Regal and daunting,” Jani decided for her. “There isn’t a one of them on that council who isn’t a self-important upstart. The Rain Wild Council was foolish to allow Cassarick to start a council of its own. It gave them a false sense of importance. If you accompany Reyn to any of the meetings, don’t let them cow you. Squash them from the beginning, and don’t let them dare to attempt to dictate to you. Take the power and keep it, from start to finish. ”

  “I fear you are right. They are so intent on making a profit they’ve forgotten that the Trader traditions value honesty and fairness. ”

  “Wear your flame gems. Flaunt them. And your Elderling cloak. Remind them that you come from one of the original Trader families of the Rain Wilds. Demand that they treat you both with respect. When it comes to digging, let them recall that we were among the first to risk our lives in the early excavation of Trehaug. We have paid our dues and have a right to what we claim. And if there is news of the Tarman expedition, demand all of it. Remind them of their original agreement with Tintaglia. And that someday the dragon queen may demand an accounting of all they did for her fellow dragons. ”

  “Or didn’t do. It worries me that we’ve had no news of the Tarman at all. I sent a message asking if they would not send another ship to find what had become of them. The response was that ‘at present, there is no suitable vessel to send. ’ ” Malta sighed heavily and subsided onto the bed. Reyn had raised the bed platform so that she was able to sit and stand from it more easily. She sat for a moment, catching her breath, while Jani watched her quietly. Malta smiled as she said, “Aren’t you going to remind me that I’m pregnant and ask me why on earth I’d choose to travel at such a time?”

  Jani returned the smile, her finely scaled face rippling as she did so. “I know your answers almost as well as you know what my questions are likely to be. The closer it comes to your time, the more you wish to be near Reyn. That you feel that way brings me only satisfaction. Yet we both know you are taking a risk. We both know what it is to miscarry, and more than once. We both know that miscarriages either happen or don’t. We’ve seen the women who take to their beds the very first month and keep as still as a cocoon, hoping to save what grows inside them. ” Jani sighed suddenly. “And we’ve seen them lose the child despite that. Or give birth to a child so weak or so changed by the Rain Wilds that it cannot be allowed to survive. You have choices as I did, to continue to lead a hearty life, to walk and work with no guarantees that your child will be robust. But I know from my own childbearing years that it is better to do that than to wait in stillness in a dim room and fill the long months with hoping and worrying. ”

  Jani stopped speaking, as if suddenly realizing that neither she nor Malta wanted to consider yet again the darker aspects of her pregnancy. She changed the topic abruptly. “So. You will go to Cassarick with Reyn. He told me that he wishes to speak with the Vargus family about how they are excavating our site. Reyn told me that he has heard rumors they move too fast and do not reinforce the tunnels as they should. He fears that they are placing quick profit above human lives. That was not our agreement when we entered into the partnership with them. ”

  “It’s worse,” Malta confirmed, grateful for the change in conversation. “Reyn says they are using Tattooed to dig. They pay them poorly and do not care as much for their safety as if they were Rain Wild bred. They receive no share of what they find, no matter how valuable it is, and no extra pay for the dangers they enter. They do not understand that an Elderling city has stranger and greater threats than cave-ins and flooding. The Vargus Trade
rs are sending them where only experienced diggers should go, ones wise both in excavation and in the other dangers of the city. ”

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  “I’ve heard the rumors,” Jani conceded uneasily. “They lead to theft and carelessness by the workers. When there is no personal reward for a chamber well excavated but only a day’s pay, why should they go cautiously and keep meticulous records? When the Vargus Traders treat them as little better than slaves, why should they behave any better?

  “But I’ve also heard what the Tattooed say. We promised them that we would welcome them and make them part of us. That they could work and have homes and vote on their fates. That they would not be lesser citizens here but could live among us, marry among us, and, we hoped, have healthy children to repopulate our cities. I made those promises to them. ” She shook her head bitterly. “Well, we’ve seen where that has taken us. Traders such as the Vargus family treat them poorly and disdain them for anything but physical labor. In retaliation, many of the Tattooed hold themselves apart. They keep to their own sections of the city and do not share in the upkeep of the public ways and bridges. They marry only their own kind and produce lots of children while our population continues to dwindle. They outlive us by decades. And they do not respect our ways. And that leads only to more resentment, as the established Rain Wild families fear they will be displaced by them. ” She sighed again more heavily and said, “It was my idea to bring them here. In the dark days of the war with Chalced, it seemed a brilliant idea, one that would benefit all of us. When I told them they could live among us where their tattooed faces would not be a badge of shame but only markings on their skin, I thought they would accept the changes that the Rain Wild causes in us. I thought they would know that those things were likewise skin-deep. ”

  “But it did not work that way, not entirely,” Malta agreed. She heard guilt in Jani’s voice. It was a familiar conversation as the older woman went over what she had negotiated and wondered how it had gone wrong. Malta reached over and picked up a pair of stockings. Slowly she rolled them into a ball. “Jani, it is not your fault. At the time, it seemed a brilliant solution, for them and for us. You bargained in good faith, and no one can fault you if it did not turn out as you planned. We cannot force them to join us. But we all know that eventually they will. Already the Rain Wilds have touched some of them, though not as heavily as it did the early settlers. Some of the Tattooed who came here as adults have begun to scale as they age, and their youngsters more so. Their children are being born with copper glints in their eyes and that sheen to the skin that speaks of pebbling later in life. Their children will be Rain Wilders whether they like it or not. ” Malta set her feet firmly on the floor and stood up. Her lower back protested, and without thinking, she set her hands to her belly, supporting her growing child.

  Jani smiled. “As will your child, Malta Vestrit Khuprus. ”

  Malta’s smile was more tenuous. She turned away hastily to drop the balled-up stockings in her case, then turned back to her wardrobe to look for a winter cloak to add to what she had packed. Tears stung her eyes, and she did not want Reyn’s mother to see them.

  Jani spoke quietly. “Sometimes, sharing a fear or sorrow can lessen it. ”

  “Oh,” Malta said, striving for a casual note in her voice and failing as her throat closed on the words. “It was just something the midwife said yesterday when I went to see her. ”

  “Koli is one of our best midwives. She has been helping with births for years. ”

  “I know. She is just so blunt sometimes. About our chances. About what she thinks of us for even trying for a child. ” Malta searched through the wardrobe and found the cloak she wanted. It was scarlet and lined with velvet, so soft against her skin. She held a fold of it to her cheek. “She said we can hope for the best, but we must plan for the worst. That we must choose now what we will do if the child is born breathing but so changed that survival is unlikely. ” She tried to steady her voice. “If I wish, she can smother or drown our baby in warm water before she is exposed for the animals to devour. She can let us see it dead and say farewell. Or we can leave it to the midwife to whisk it away, to make her decision, and never speak of it again. If I choose that, we don’t have to know if the baby ever drew a breath or was stillborn. ” Despite her resolution, her voice was trembling. “She said that only the mother has the right to make those choices. But I cannot, Jani. I cannot. Yet each time I see her, she presses me for answers. ” Malta clutched the cloak to her as if it were a child about to be torn from her arms. “But I cannot. ”

  “It’s her job,” Jani said softly. “Years of doing it have hardened her in some ways. Ignore her words. It’s her hands and her skills that we’ll be paying Koli for, not her opinions. ”

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  “I know. ” Malta barely breathed the word. She didn’t want to think about what else the pessimistic old woman had said. She might be a skilled midwife, but she was also a mean and bitter old woman with no living offspring of her own. There were words so harsh she would not inflict them on her husband or his mother. “No right to try for a baby; his brother Bendir already has an heir. What need do you have of a child? You know the baby will be a monster. All your miscarriages and stillbirths have been monsters. ” Such words were hard to ignore when the accusations were so true.

  Malta held back a sob. Stop being silly. Everyone said that being pregnant made a woman prey to her emotions. Focus on the task at hand. Packing. She forced herself to fold the cloak and set it in the trunk. She was going to go to Cassarick with her husband. And his sister Tillamon was coming along, to visit one of her girlhood friends who had moved. It would be a pleasant afternoon boat ride up the river. A nice day to enjoy getting out of the house for a time and having Reyn’s company for a full day. Choose a warm cloak; it will be windy and rainy on the river.

  Next to the red winter cloak’s hook hung another favorite, one that was black and embroidered with green and blue and red dragons in flight. It had been a gift from a weaver in Jamaillia in the days when she and Reyn had been guests of the Satrap of Jamaillia and honored by him as the “king” and “queen” of the Elderlings. Elderlings they might truly be; so Tintaglia the dragon had named them. But dragons were no more honest than humans and would say whatever pleased them at the moment. There were days when she doubted her Elderling status. Perhaps both she and Reyn and even Selden were simply changed by the Rain Wilds and merely more fortunate that in their cases the changes had imbued them with an exotic beauty. So Elderlings, perhaps. But never had they been king and queen of anything, save in the boyish Satrap’s fancy.

  After their “great adventure” in the Pirate Isles, after she had saved Satrap Cosgo’s sorry life more times than she could count, it had pleased him to present Reyn and her to his court as Elderling royalty. At the time, she had relished the attention and luxury he bestowed on them. Several harsh years of hardship had left her starved for pretty trinkets and lovely clothes and extravagant parties. But his honoring of them had gone far beyond that. The Jamaillian nobility had showered them with gifts and praise. Songs had been composed in their honor, tapestries and stained-glass windows were created to commemorate their visit, and exotic dishes of supposed Elderling delicacies were contrived. It had been a soap bubble illusion, a few months of everything she had ever imagined her life could ever be. Balls and dinners, jewelry and feasts, perfumes and performances . . . it still startled her that she and Reyn had both eventually tired of it and longed to go home to be wed and begin their life together. She drew the cloak out and folded it softly over her arm. The faded perfume of a long-ago ball rose from its soft folds, sweeping her back into a memory of a wild whirling dance, of looking up into the handsome face of the young man who would become her husband.

  The tears that had threatened her a moment ago were suddenly gone.

  “There’s that smile, the one that made my boy fall in love with y
ou,” Jani said fondly.

  “Oh, I feel so foolish. One moment, my eyes are full of tears and the next I am floating with joy. ”

  Jani laughed out loud. “You’re pregnant, my dear. That’s all. ”

  “That’s all?” Reyn’s voice was full of mock outrage as he swept into the room, pushed along by a gust of wind. He slammed the door against winter’s chill thrust. “That’s all, Mother? How can you say that when for years, all we’ve heard is ‘That is everything! Make another little Khuprus, Malta dear! Replenish the family coffers with an heir or two!’ ”

  “Oh, I am not that bad!” Jani Khuprus exclaimed.

  “You make me sound like a brood cow!” Malta exclaimed.

  “Ah, but such a pretty little cow! One that will make us all late if she doesn’t finish her packing right away and waddle down to the boat with me. ”

  “You, sir, are a beast!” Malta attempted outrage but spoiled it by laughing.

  “Mannerless boy,” his mother rebuked Reyn as she gave him a fond push. “Don’t you tease her! She has a fine baby belly, something to be proud of!”

  “And proud I am,” Reyn said, setting his hands gently to either side of the mound of Malta’s belly. His eyes gleamed with such tenderness that she felt a blush rise to her cheeks and his mother turned discreetly away as if what passed between them were too personal a thing for her to witness.

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  “I’ll find a man to take the trunks down. You watch over her, son, and not just on the way down to the boat. ”

 
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