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City of dragons, p.15
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       City of Dragons, p.15

         Part #3 of Rain Wild Chronicles series by Robin Hobb
 

  She sniffed, and Reyn was at her side. She found a handkerchief and wiped at her wet eyes. “I saw some of the dragon keepers. They were just children. And almost every one of them was marked so heavily that I knew they must have been born changed. Their parents kept them. They grew, they lived. Perhaps they could not marry or have children of their own, but I looked at them and thought, ‘Their lives are not useless. Their parents were right to keep them, no matter what their neighbors may have said. ’ But now I look at how unhappy Tillamon is. I see how she is stared at, and I know that sometimes ignorant people say things aloud to her. She stays at home almost always now, not even venturing down to the markets. She seldom visits her friends. She was not born changed. And she has never done anything to deserve a punishment. But punished she is. ”

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  A silence fell. Both of them looked out at Reyn’s sister. The clouds were closing over the sun, and the day abruptly went from sunny to dim, but Tillamon pulled her cloak more closely around her and turned her face to the wind as if drinking it in.

  “Perhaps our child will be born untouched. Or perhaps, as we are Elderling now, so the child will be, with changes that are . . . ”

  “Beautiful,” Malta filled in when he hesitated. “Beautiful and exotic, as we are. By our good fortune, we are changed in a way that makes people smile when they see us. Or used to. Now, as often, I see something else in their faces. Resentment. I hear rumors that they say we give ourselves airs, pretend to be better than our fellows, simply because a dragon chose to gift us with good looks. It isn’t the Trader way, Reyn, for any person to be set above another. Oh, Traders will always think themselves better than the Tattooed or the Three Ships folk in Bingtown, far better than any brutish Chalcedean or barbarian Six Duchies man. But there were many who were angered that the Satrap chose to call us ‘king’ and ‘queen. ’ They were angry then, saying that we made decisions for the Traders that we had no right to make, even if the Council later ratified those decisions. There are some who are offended by us, Reyn. And others who would use us. You know that. ”

  “I do. ” He put his arm around her and pulled her close again. “I suppose I have not thought about how it would affect our child. If he is born changed and we insist on keeping him, it may cause ill feeling for the Khuprus family. And he may find few playmates. But I cannot imagine letting anyone take him from us. Or drowning him ourselves. ”

  At those words, Malta choked back a sob.

  Reyn leaned his head over hers. “Don’t be afraid, my dear. Whatever comes, we will face it together. I will not give up this child to tradition. If Sa grants that he draws breath on his own, then breathe he shall, and no one shall stop that breath save Sa alone. This I promise you. ”

  Malta swallowed back her tears. “And this I promise you, as well,” she told him. And closed her eyes in a silent prayer that she would be able to keep that promise.

  Day the 20th 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

  Red quarantine capsule

  I am sending this bird as a solo, to minimize the risk. The cold rainy weather has been harsher than usual, and birds here are sickening at an alarming rate. Please enact quarantine measures immediately for all birds arriving at your cotes, as we have already done so here. I have selected an apparently healthy bird to carry this message. Some of the sickened birds appear to be afflicted with an unusual form of red lice. Please watch for them on any of your birds and isolate immediately.

  Will this foul weather never end?

  Erek is in an agony of frustration that this is happening while he is here in Trehaug and trapped here for our wedding preparations. I am completely in sympathy with him. Please do all you can to keep his cotes and birds in good condition until he returns. For that is our thought now, that we will settle in Bingtown, though I have many misgivings as to how I will be accepted there. Erek sees none of my flaws nor how heavily touched I am by the Rain Wilds. Such a man!

  Chapter Seven

  DRAGON DREAMS

  Flight was effortless. Sintara’s scarlet wings caught the rising heat from the wide grain fields below her and lifted her. She lofted through the skies. Below her, fat white sheep cropped the grass in a green pasture. As her shadow passed over the grass, they scattered in fright. Foolish creatures. She wanted nothing of their sticky wool in her mouth. Few of the dragons enjoyed eating them except when hunting did not appeal to them. Privately, she suspected that was why the humans kept so many of them. Cattle were far more appetizing to dragons. But to a true hunter such as herself, diving on a penned beast offered little satisfaction. She would far rather hunt for her meal, seek out some large, horned creature that offered a bit of a challenge and perhaps even a battle before she won its meat.

  But not today. She had fed heavily yesterday and slept long, an afternoon and a night, after her gorging. Now it was thirst she sought to slake, and not a thirst for blood or for thin river water. She banked her wings and drifted back over Kelsingra. The Silver Plaza was empty at last of other dragons. She would alight there and not have to wait a turn for the Elderlings to . . . to do what? Something she wanted. Something she wanted very badly that eluded her memory. Something that was secret. She stirred restlessly.

  She was not Sintara. Deep in her sleep, she hid from her growling hunger and chilled flesh in a memory of another time and place. Some scarlet ancestor of hers had flown over Kelsingra in that abundant time, on that sunny day. She had known not only the freedom of flight but also the pleasure of the friendship of Elderlings in a time when they had lived in symbiosis with the dragons. It had been a good time for both races. She did not know with certainty what had ended it. In her dreams, she both escaped an unsatisfactory present and explored the past for hints as to what she might do to restore the future to what it should have been.

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  A sudden gust of wind-driven rain spattered against her face and scattered her dream memories. Sintara opened her eyes to night and storm. The shelter Thymara had built for her was a flimsy thing, a lean-to of logs thatched with branches. Her bed was a thick layer of pine boughs that kept her from the ground, but not by much. She had grown since Thymara had built it, and now she was cramped when she curled herself within its confines. The girl should have built it larger, with thicker walls, perhaps covered in mud, and thatched it more tightly. Sintara had told her so. And her keeper had responded irritably, asking her how long she wished to go without food while Thymara spent her time building her a shelter. The thought of the girl’s answer renewed her annoyance with her. She did nothing well. The dragon must shiver in a poorly built shelter even as her hunger clawed at her guts. She had no satisfaction anywhere in her life. Only hunger, discomfort, and frustrating dreams.

  Sintara slithered from the low-roofed shelter on her belly. It was raining. It seemed always to be raining. The clouds covered the moon and the stars, but she widened her eyes and saw without effort. Here in the open forest of scattered trees and brush, the keepers had built a village of shelters for the dragons. As if they were humans who always had to cluster close to one another! None of the sheds was sturdy or intended to be permanent. Hers was no worse than any of the others and better than most. It still stirred vague ancestral memories of stables and kennels. They were shelters for animals, not housing fit for the Lords of the Three Realms.

  True, the keepers had little better for themselves. They had moved into the remnants of the shepherds’ and farmers’ homes that had been built on this side of the river in ancient times. Some were little more than standing walls, but they had made them somewhat habitable. She’d heard their talk and thoughts. They believed that they would be far more comfortable if only they could get across the river to where grand Kelsingra had withstood the depredations of t
ime and weather. They could have gone, one at a time, ferried across by foolish Heeby who seemed to think herself more carthorse than dragon. But they would have had to abandon the dragons to do so.

  And they had not.

  She resented the tiny trickle of gratitude she felt for that. Gratitude as an emotion was both unfamiliar and uncomfortable, something inappropriate for a dragon to feel, especially toward a human. Gratitude implied a debt: But how could a dragon be indebted to a human? As well be indebted to a pigeon. Or to a piece of meat.

  Sintara sheathed her eyes against the falling rain and shook the thought from her mind with the raindrops that she shivered from her wings. It was time. The wind had died down, it was dark, and everyone else slept. She moved quietly over the carpet of wet leaves and forest debris as she left the shelters behind and ventured down the hillside toward an open meadow that faced the river.

  She halted when she reached the meadow, staring about her with eyes that opened the night to her vision. No one and nothing stirred. Game of any useful size had fled this area weeks ago, when they had first arrived here. Creatures that had looked at dragons in wonder when they first arrived had quickly learned that fear was the proper response. She had the meadow to herself. Far below, the river flowed swiftly, rich from all the rain, and even here, the sound of it filled the night. It was wide and dark and cold and deep, and strong enough to pull a dragon under and hold her there until she drowned. She had ancient memories of actually landing in this river, when the shock of the cold water on her sun-warmed body had been almost welcoming. Memories of letting the water cushion her impact, of letting her body sink down, her wings clasped tight, until she felt sand and gravel beneath her claws, and then, nostrils shut tight against the water, fighting the current to wade up and out of the shallows and onto the riverbank with water streaming from every glistening scale.

  But those memories were old ones. Now, from what the keepers told her, there was no sandy sloping riverbank, only a hungry drop-off to deep water at the edge of the city. If she attempted flight and accidentally landed in the river, chances were that it would tumble her in its rough current and she would never emerge again. She looked all around herself. Only the river, the wind, and the rain spoke. She was alone. No witnesses to mock a failure.

  She opened her wings wide and shook them; they made a sound like wet canvas sails slapping in a breeze. She paused only for an instant to wonder how she knew that, and then dismissed it as a useless tidbit of information. Not all memories were worth saving, and yet she had them. She moved her wings slowly, stretching them out, trying each claw-tipped vane, then lifting them to feel the wind against them. The right wing was still smaller than the left. Weaker, too. How could a dragon fly when one wing was less able than the other?

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  Compensate. Build the muscle. Pretend that it was an injury taken in battle or the hunt rather than a flaw since her emergence from her cocoon.

  She opened and shut her wings a dozen times, and then, wings wide, beat them as strongly as she could without battering them against the ground. She wished there were a cliff to launch from, or at least an open hilltop. This sloping meadow with its tall wet grass would have to do. She opened her wings wide, discerned the direction of the wind, and then began a clumsy downhill gallop.

  This was no way for a dragon to learn to fly! If she had hatched healthy and whole, her first flight would have been made then, while her body was light and lean and her wings outsized for her. Instead, she lumbered like a runaway cow, her body heavy and muscled for walking, not flight, her wings scarcely developed to lift her bulk. When the wind gusted, she sprang into the air and beat her wings hard. She did not have enough altitude. The tip of her left wing caught in the tall wet grass and spun her to one side. Frantically, she tried to correct and instead slammed to the earth. She landed on her feet, jolted and frustrated.

  And angry.

  She turned and trudged up the hillside again. She would try again. And again. Until dawn grayed the sky and it was time to slink back to her stable. She had no choice.

  Somewhere, Alise thought, there is blue sky. And a warm breeze. She pulled her worn cloak more snugly around her as she watched Heeby turn away from her and charge down the wide street before leaping into the air. Her wide scarlet wings seemed to battle the morning rain as they lifted her. The dragon was becoming more graceful, Alise decided. More competent at getting into the air. And she seemed to grow every day and, with that growth, become more difficult to bestride. She was going to have to convince Rapskal that his dragon needed a harness of some sort. Or she would soon have to give up riding on Heeby to reach Kelsingra.

  A sweep of wind pushed her, bringing a stronger shower of rain with it. Rain, rain, rain. Sometimes summer and dry warm days seemed like something she had imagined. Well, standing here and staring after the dwindling dragon would neither warm her nor get her day’s work accomplished. She turned her back on the river and looked up at her city.

  She had expected to feel the lift of heart that the sight of it usually brought her. Most days when Heeby brought her here and she looked up at Kelsingra spread out before her, she felt a surge of anticipation for the day’s work. Today, she always told herself. Today might be the day that she made some key discovery, unearthed some find that gave her fresh perspective on the ancient Elderlings. But today, anticipation failed her. She looked up the wide avenue before her, and then lifted her eyes higher, to see the full panorama of the city. Today, instead of lingering on the standing buildings, her eyes seemed to snag on the cracked domes and fallen walls. It was vast, this ancient place. And the task she had taken on and pursued in such an orderly fashion was a hopeless one. She could not complete it even in a dozen years. And she did not have a dozen years.

  Even now, Tarman and Captain Leftrin were drawing closer to Cassarick. Once he reported there, once word of their discovery was noised from the Rain Wilds to Bingtown, the stampede would begin. Treasure hunters and younger sons, the rich seeking to get richer and the poor hoping for a chance at fortune would all follow him back. There would be no stopping that flood, and from the moment they set foot on the shore, the city would begin to disappear. A wave of despair swept over her as she imagined them, picks and crowbars on their shoulders, barrels and crates to hold their troves stacked on the shores. When they came, the old city would come to life again. The push to plunder would bring the money to rebuild the docks and bring ships and trade. A mockery of life would precede its destruction.

  She took a deep breath and sighed it out. She couldn’t save the city. All she could do was try to document it as it had been when they discovered it.

  Suddenly she missed Leftrin with a terrible hollowness that was emptier than hunger. He had been gone for more than a month, and there was no knowing when he would return. It was not that he could change the outcome of what must happen but that he had been here with her for a time, witnessed the amazing stillness of the place, walked with her where no other feet had trod since the time of the Elderlings. His presence had made it all more real; since he had left the things she had seen and found and documented felt less substantial. Unconfirmed by his interest.

  Alise started to turn left, to follow a narrower road that would let her resume her careful mapping and exploration in her usual rote way. Then she halted. No. If she kept on the way she was going, she’d never even get to enter the grander buildings before they were plundered. So a change of plan today. It would not be a day of documenting and drawing and note taking. Today she would simply explore, walking wherever she felt drawn.

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  She turned back to the broad avenue that led straight up from the river toward the distant mountains. The wind was at her back, and her eyes squinted against the falling rain. She looked from side to side as she walked, pausing at each divergence of the road. There was so much here to explore and catalog and record. She reached the top o
f a gentle hill and after a moment of consideration turned right.

  Along this wide street the buildings were grander by far than the humble homes and small stores she had been visiting closer to the waterfront. The black stone that made up so much of these buildings shone with the wet of the rain and glittered where threads of silver ran through it. Many of the lintels and columns of the structures were decorated. Here were pillars carved with twining vines and animals peering from behind them. There, an entry was shielded with stone that had been artfully carved into the shape of a trellis and vine.

  On the next structure, there was a portico under which she took refuge from the increasing violence of the downpour. The columns were carved in the shape of acrobats supporting one another, feet on shoulders and then hands upholding the ceiling. Tall doors of silvery and splintering wood barred her from entering. She pushed gently at one, wondering if some ancient latch still held it closed. Her hand sank through the disintegrating wood. Startled, she pulled her hand back and then stooped to peer through the fist-sized hole. She could see an antechamber and then another set of doors. She took hold of the door handle and tugged on it, only to have it pull partially free. Appalled at the damage she was doing, she let go, only to have the heavy brass knob tear free and fall at her feet with a clang. Oh, well done, Alise, she scolded herself sourly.

  And then, with the wind and rain howling past, she stooped down to pull handful after handful of wood away until she had an opening big enough to wriggle through. On the other side, she stood up and looked all around. She could no longer hear the patter of the rain, and the wind was hushed and distant. Light fell in soft-edged rectangles on the floor from the high windows. A carpet disintegrated under her feet as she walked into the middle of the room. She looked up: the ceiling was painted with a swarm of dragons. Some carried beribboned baskets in their claws, and in the baskets and dangling from them were brightly garbed figures.

 
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