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City of dragons, p.14
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       City of Dragons, p.14

         Part #3 of Rain Wild Chronicles series by Robin Hobb

  “I will. I always do,” he replied, and neither he nor Malta seemed to take much notice of the door closing behind Jani. Nonetheless, as soon as he heard the latch set, Reyn leaned in over her belly to set his mouth softly on his wife’s lips. He held the kiss, as tender and passionate as if they were still newlywed, until she broke away and leaned her head on his chest. He stroked her gleaming golden hair, and then let his hand wander to her brow where his fingers caressed the scarlet crest that marked her as an Elderling. She trembled at his touch and, murmuring a soft rebuke, moved her head away from his hand.

  “I know. ” He sighed. “Not while we might hurt the baby or bring it too soon. I will wait. But I don’t want you to think I’m waiting too patiently!”

  She laughed quietly and stepped free of his embrace. “Then be patient now and let me finish choosing what I must take. ”

  “No time,” he told her. Stepping to the wardrobe, he considered its contents for a moment. Then he darted swiftly in, seized a fat armful of clothes, turned, and deposited them in the traveling trunk. As Malta voiced a hopeless protest, he tucked them ruthlessly down and shut the lid on them. “There! All done! And now I will whisk you away. We will be taking the lifts down rather than the trunk stairs, and you know how slow they can be. ”

  “I could still manage the stairs,” Malta insisted indignantly, but secretly she was glad of his thoughtfulness. She did not feel as agile as she usually did, and her feet were often swollen and tender.

  “Off we go, then. I’m sure I’ve put enough of everything in that trunk, and if not, there is the first one that was taken down to the boat this morning. ”

  “That was just the baby’s things. Just in case he surprises us in Cassarick. And Tillamon? Is she packed yet?”

  “My sister is waiting for us at the lift. ”

  Malta cast a longing eye at the other wardrobe, but Reyn seized her hand, tucked it firmly into the crook of his arm, and opened the door. From the set of his mouth, Malta decided it was time to pretend to be meek and wifely. She caught up only one extra cloak and swirled it around her shoulders as he led her out into the day.

  Not much sunlight reached the household level of the family tree even on a bright day. On gray winter days like this one, forest twilight was the rule. In the high treetops, a wind was battering the forest. She knew it only by the occasional flurries of leaves and needles that drifted down. Most of the trees that would shed their leaves for this season were already bared, but there were enough evergreen trees in this section of the Rain Wilds to shelter them from all but torrential rains.

  The lifts were a series of platforms with basket-weave sides that traveled vertically from canopy to earth, operated by stoutly muscled men working a system of lines and pulleys and counterweights. Malta did not enjoy using the lifts, but she no longer feared them as she once had. In truth, she had dreaded taking the long spiraling staircases that wound around the tree trunks and were the only alternate routes to the forest floor.

  Tillamon, cloaked and heavily veiled, awaited them. Malta wondered why but said nothing. Reyn, in his typically brotherly fashion, was not so discreet. “Why are you veiled as if for a trip to Bingtown?”

  Tillamon stared at him through a mask of lace. “To visit the lower levels now is almost like going to Bingtown. There are so many staring outsiders in the city now. And not all of us, little brother, are so fortunate as to have had our changes make us lovelier. ”

  Malta knew the rebuke was for Reyn, not her. Even so, she repressed a squirm. Of late she had become more aware that she possessed everything that Tillamon had ever longed for. She had a husband and a child on the way. And she was undeniably beautiful. The changes the Rain Wilds had wrought on her had all been kindly ones. The fine scaling on her face was supple, the colors flattering. She had grown taller than she had expected, and her long hands and fingers were graceful. When she contrasted that to Tillamon’s pebbly face and the multiple dangling growths that fringed her jaw and ears, it was hard not to feel guilty at her good fortune, though none of Reyn’s sisters had ever seemed to resent her for it.

  She followed Tillamon into the lift and waited for Reyn to join them. Reyn tugged the cord. High above them, a lift tender rang a bell in response and from below she heard his partner’s answering whistle. For a brief time they dangled, waiting. Then, with a small hitch and a lurch of Malta’s heart, they were descending.

  The lift dropped more swiftly than she liked, and she found herself clutching Reyn’s arm. She was grateful when they reached the bottom of the first lift’s run and stepped out and then into the next lift. “Slower, please,” Reyn warned the tender sternly, and the man bobbed his head in response. He was Tattooed, she noted, and watched how his eyes lingered curiously on Tillamon’s veil. Tillamon noticed also, for she turned away from him to gaze out into the forest. She spoke only after the lift was in motion. “Sometimes I feel that I am the stranger here, when they stare at me like that. ”

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  “He is ignorant. He will learn better,” Reyn said.

  “When?” Tillamon replied acerbically.

  “Perhaps when he has a child and it is born changed by the Rain Wilds,” Malta said quietly.

  Reyn turned startled eyes on her, but Tillamon gave a bitter laugh. “What will he learn then? To kill the children who can never be pretty? But I was born pretty. My changes came on me early, and now I walk in death. There will never be a marriage for me, never a child. He stares at me rudely, but my own people look away. Perhaps I should be grateful that at least someone sees me. ”

  “Tillamon! I see you. I love you. ” Reyn was aghast. He set a hand on her shoulder, but she did not turn into his embrace. Her voice was muffled by her veil.

  “You love me, little brother, but do you really see me? Do you see who I am becoming?”

  “I don’t know—” Reyn began, but the lift had arrived at its next stop, and Tillamon lifted a lace-gloved hand to silence him.

  Malta felt a wave of despair rise in her. She could think of nothing to say to Tillamon, but as they moved to the next lift, she quietly took her hand.

  As the lift lurched into motion, Reyn began, “Tillamon, I—” but his sister quickly said, “You know, we should not speak of troubling things now. While Malta is with child, she should think only calm and pleasant thoughts. ” Tillamon gave Malta’s hand a brief squeeze before releasing it.

  It was clear that Tillamon wished to change the direction of the conversation, and Malta was happy to help her. “Look. Down there, through the trees. Is that our boat?” It was a long, narrow craft manned by many rowers, designed to defeat the river’s current as it moved upstream. Aft, there was a small cabin for passengers. A long deck for freight ran down the middle of the ship. At the very back of the vessel, a brawny man leaned idly on the sweep that was also the tiller for the ship. He looked bored.

  “That’s the River Snake. And yes, she’s waiting for us. ” There was relief in Reyn’s voice. He, too, preferred to think of pleasant things. Perhaps, for a short time, she could allow him that.

  Tillamon asked, “Is that one of the new boats I’ve been hearing about? The Bingtown ones that can withstand the river water as well as a liveship?”

  “No, she’s Rain Wild made and crewed. But you may get a glimpse of one of the Bingtown ships before we return. I’d heard one was making a tour of the Rain Wild settlements, to show how impervious it is to the acid and also how swiftly it can move, even in shallower channels. That’s what the Jamaillian boat builder is calling them: impervious boats. That one is supposed to make a stop in Trehaug and then go up to Cassarick. You know that’s been a choke point in the movement of goods: the locks we built for helping the serpents reach Cassarick are mostly destroyed now; the winter floods took them out. And the deep draught liveships can’t navigate past that stretch of the river. A freight vessel that can run the shallows and doesn’t melt after half a do
zen trips would revolutionize how we trade up and down the river. ”

  “And they are made in Bingtown?”

  “Yes. That one, at any rate. A Pirate Isles fellow came up with the formula for the hull coating, so it will be a joint venture. Some Jamaillian boat builder is financing the undertaking, I’m told. ”

  “Oh. ” Tillamon’s voice went flat suddenly. “So once the ships start plying our waters, there will be more Bingtowners and Tattooed and Jamaillians than ever in the Rain Wilds. ”

  Reyn looked startled. “I . . . suppose there will. ”

  “Not an improvement,” Tillamon said decisively, and she stepped off the lift briskly as it halted on the landing platform.

  A final lift carried them all the way down to the ground and released them onto the wooden walkway. Walking on solid ground felt strange now, even if Malta was glad to be off the lift. Reyn took her arm, and Tillamon followed as they hurried toward the waiting boat. Malta heard a thud behind her and turned to see a faster freight lift arrive with her trunk on board. The servant who had brought it hefted it to his shoulder and followed them. “I hope they have saved room on the freight deck,” she said, and Reyn replied, “We are the only passengers today, and they didn’t have much of a load. There will be plenty of room. ”

  Stepping out of the forest’s eternal shadows and into full sunlight was almost as much of a shock as setting foot on earth had been. I’m truly becoming a Rain Wilder in all things, Malta thought. She glanced down at the finely scaled skin on the back of her hand. All things. The wind off the river struck her, and she wrapped her cloak more tightly.

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  The captain of the River Snake had freight to deliver and was eager to be on his way. Malta, Reyn, and Tillamon were scarcely in the passenger cabin before he was having his crew untie from the docks. In a matter of moments, the rowers had the long ship free and headed out into the river. Malta sat down gratefully on one of the padded benches that lined the walls of the cabin, but Tillamon stood at the aft window, looking out longingly. “It has been so long since I’ve been away from home to go anywhere. Ages since I felt full sunlight on my face. ”

  “You don’t need my permission,” Reyn commented.

  “No, and I never did. I just need to find my courage. That’s all. ”

  Malta followed her gaze. There was a small square of deck outside the cabin and then the tillerman’s area. The man was working the long sweep in a series of steady arcs, holding only when the captain called a course correction to him. There was a strange beauty in the man’s strength and sureness as he either guided or pushed the ship along. Somehow he became aware of their scrutiny and glanced back at the cabin. His face was pebbled so that his brow overhung his eyes; a string of growths that reminded Malta of a fish’s barbels lined his jaw. “I think I’ll go out,” Tillamon declared abruptly. She lifted her veil and discarded it with the hat that had secured it, then peeled off the long lacy gloves that had covered her hands and arms. Without another word, she set the garments on the bench beside Malta and opened the small aft door to step out on the deck. Chill wind gusted in; it didn’t deter her. She went immediately to lean on the railing, turning her face up to the sun that was peeping through a break in the overcast sky.

  Reyn moved aside his sister’s hat, veil, and gloves and sat down beside Malta. She leaned her head on his shoulder and for a moment was happy. Sunlight made a bright square on the floor of the cabin. The only sounds were that of the ship, of the creaking oars as they moved in rhythm, and occasionally the captain’s shout back to the tillerman. She yawned, suddenly sleepy.

  “What is it that I don’t see about my sister?” Reyn asked her plaintively. He lifted up the hat and the attached veil. “Is this so terrible? When I came to Bingtown to court you, I was as heavily veiled. It was tradition. ”

  “Tradition born out of discomfort,” Malta observed. “Rain Wilders were thought grotesque. They still are. I have lived among you and become one of you. But I know what Tillamon knows. If she were to go to Bingtown and walk unveiled, people would stare. Some, even some born in Bingtown, would say unkind things, mock her, or turn aside in horror. People want the treasures of the Rain Wilds but don’t want to see the price it exacts from those who provide them. ”

  “Did you think I was grotesque? When you first met me and I went veiled?”

  She laughed softly. “I was a silly little girl then, full of odd tales of the Rain Wilds. I was sure that my cruel mother had sold me off to some frightful creature. Then I discovered the frightful creature was incredibly wealthy, burdened with hundreds of little presents for me, and full of compliments that I could not wait to hear. So then you became mysterious. Unknowable. And dangerously desirable. ”

  She smiled and gave a little shiver as a thrill ran up her back.

  “What was that?” Reyn demanded. He set aside his sister’s hat and took her hand.

  Malta laughed aloud, mildly embarrassed. “I was thinking of the first time you kissed me. My mother had left the room and the only servants there were yours, all veiled and suitably busying themselves with tasks. You leaned in close to me and I thought you would tell me a secret. But then you kissed me. I felt your lips through the lace of the veil. And the tip of your tongue, I thought. It was . . . ” She paused and was surprised to realize she was blushing.

  “Very erotic,” Reyn finished quietly for her. A slow smile spread over his face, and his eyes gleamed with remembered pleasure. “I had only thought to steal a kiss while your mother was not looking. I had not realized that the barrier to our touch would only enhance the moment. ”

  “You were a wicked boy. You had no right to kiss me. ” Malta tried to sound affronted but failed. She shared his smile, with a touch of sadness for the foolish girl she had been.

  He held up his sister’s veil before his face. She could scarcely see his features through the multiple layers of dark lace. “And now I do. Should we try that again?”

  “Reyn!” she rebuked him, but he did not pause. He draped the veiling over his face and leaned in to kiss her.

  “It’s Tillamon’s best veil!” she objected. But then the lace brushed her face and she closed her eyes as he kissed her, a very chaste kiss that nonetheless swept her back into memories of their first passion.

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  When he drew back from her, he wondered in a husky voice, “Why does the forbidden always add that edge of sweetness?”

  “It’s true. But I don’t know why. ” She leaned her head on his chest and asked mischievously, “Does it mean that now that you have a right to me, I am less sweet?”

  He laughed. “No. ”

  For a time they were silent together and content. The boat rocked as the rowers battled the current. Malta gazed out the small window. Behind them, the river stretched gleaming, its gray turned to silver in the lingering sunlight. Tillamon leaned on the railing, lost in thought. The wind stirred her hair. From behind she could have been any young woman, lost in her dreams. But what did she dream of? What did the future offer her? What would it offer Malta’s child, if she or he were similarly changed?

  “You sigh. Again. Are you uncomfortable?” Reyn set a gentle hand on her belly. She put both her hands over his. This was the time, much as she dreaded it.

  “We have some hard questions to discuss, my love. Things I did not and do not want to talk about. But we must. ” She took a deep breath and then quickly, like tearing a bandage from a wound, told him of the midwife’s demands that they make decisions.

  He recoiled from her, his face full of horror. Anger swiftly replaced the horror. “How can she speak of such things to you? How dare she?”

  “Reyn!” The anger in his eyes was both reassuring and frightening. “She has to ask these questions. With my other pregnancies, well, they did not last long, did they? I think she knew they would come to nothing. But now we have felt the child move, and with e
ach passing day we are closer to a birth. And these are the decisions that all parents in the Rain Wilds or Bingtown must face. Harsh as they seem, they are decisions that have been faced by generations of Rain Wild folk. So. ” Malta took a steady breath. “What should I tell her?”

  Reyn was breathing as hard as if he faced a fight. “Tell her? Tell her that I care nothing for custom or decorum! Tell her that I will be by your bedside for every moment, and that the instant our child is born, he will be safe in my arms. Should Sa take his life from us, then I will mourn. But if anyone else threatens him, in any way, I will kill them. That is what you can tell her. No. That is what I will tell the meddling old hag!”

  He stood up abruptly and paced a quick turn around the small cabin before coming to a standstill, staring bleakly out the window at the passing trees. “Did you doubt that I would protect our child?” he asked her quietly. There was hurt in his eyes when he turned to her. “Or is this . . . ” He hesitated. “Is this not what you want? If our child is born changed, do you wish to, to set him aside? To . . . ” His words tapered away to silence.

  Malta was shocked. The silence grew longer, and the hurt on Reyn’s face grew deeper. “I did not think I had a choice,” she said at last. Tears filled her eyes but did not spill. “It is done, even in Bingtown. Seldom does anyone speak of it. When I was little, I would see a pregnant woman, and then she would be apart from us for a time, and sometimes she came back with a child and sometimes not. I don’t even remember when I first understood that some babies were not kept. It was just something all girls knew, growing up. When women do talk about it, most say it is for the best, that it happens quickly, before the mother can come to know the child and love it. But—” She set both hands to her belly and felt the child turn restlessly inside her, as if he knew they were deciding his fate. “But I already know this child. I already love him. Or her. I do not think I will care if he has a scaled brow when he is born, or if his nails are black. Or hers. ” She tried for a smile and failed as the tears suddenly spilled down her face. “Reyn, I have been so frightened. One night, I dreamed that when the pains came, I ran off into the forest alone to have our baby, to keep her safe. And when I woke, I wondered if I might not do just that. And I had to wonder what you would think of me if I did, if I brought back a changed child and refused to give it up. Or what your mother would think. ”

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