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City of dragons, p.16
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       City of Dragons, p.16

         Part #3 of Rain Wild Chronicles series by Robin Hobb
 

  A second set of tall wooden doors beckoned her. She crossed the room to them and found them much better preserved than the exterior doors. She clasped a gleaming brass handle and turned it, pushing against the door. It swung almost easily, with only a tiny squeal of disuse.

  The revealed chamber had a sloping floor that descended gently to a grand stage in the center of a theater. It was an island surrounded by a space of empty floor, then by tiered benches and finally chairs bearing the dusty ghosts of cushions. When she lifted her eyes, she saw that curtained boxes looked grandly down on the stage. Light came from an overhead dome of thick glass. Decades of dust dimmed the light that shone in from the overcast day. It could not disperse the lurking shadows that stood frozen at the outermost edges of the room. The waiting figures, half glimpsed, seemed to have frozen at her sudden intrusion.

  Alise took a careful breath and lifted her hand to wipe raindrops from her lashes. She knew they would vanish. It was a trick of the black stone, she was coming to understand. Sometimes it whispered, sometimes it sang loudly, and sometimes, when she came around a corner quickly or happened to brush her hand against a wall, she would have a glimpse of people and horses and carts, of all the life that the city still remembered. She rubbed her eyes thoroughly, dropped her hands, and looked around again.

  They still stared at her from the shadows, every head turned toward her. The bright motley they wore proclaimed their profession: they were tumblers and acrobats, rope-climbers and jugglers, performers such as she might have seen in a troupe at a Summer Fest or performing solo for tossed coins at the edge of the Great Market in Bingtown. They were impossibly still, and even after she had fully realized that they were statues, she still ventured a wavering “Hello?”

  Her voice carried through the hall and bounced back to her. On the far side of the room, the curtains that draped a theater box suddenly gave way and fell with a whoosh to the floor in a cascade of thread, fluff, and dust. She jumped, startled, and then stood, clutching her own hands and watching the myriad motes of dust stir and dance in the thin sunlight. “Just statues,” she insisted aloud. “That’s all. ”

  She forced herself to turn and walk the aisle that circled the seating to reach the first of the figures.

  She had thought that up close they would be less unsettling. They weren’t. Each was exquisitely carved and painted. A juggler clad in blue and green had paused, two balls cupped in one hand and three in another, his head cocked quizzically, his copper-green eyes squinting in the beginning of a smile. Two steps beyond him, a tumbler had halted, one hand held out to his partner, chin tucked in to his chest as he stared curiously out at the empty seats. His partner was dressed in yellow-and-white stripes to match his motley, and her hair was an untidy tumble of black curls. Her lips were curved in a mischievous smile. Beyond the couple, a stilt walker had dismounted from his sticks and leaned them against his shoulder to regard the empty hall. He wore a bird-beak mask, and an elegant headdress mimicked a bird’s topknot of feathers.

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  On and on she walked; no two figures were alike. Here was a slender boy stepping up on an offered knee preparatory to mounting his partner’s shoulders. Here was a man with a flute set to his lips and three small carved black dogs at his feet, all on their hind legs and ready to dance to his tune. The next was a girl with her face and arms painted white, in a gown decorated with gilt to mimic golden thread. Gilded, too, was her crown of feathers and rooster heads, and in her hands a scepter that looked more like a feather duster. Beyond her were twin girls, as lithely muscled as ferrets and clad only in brief bright skirts and a twist of cloth that scarcely covered their breasts. The skin of their arms and bellies and legs was painted with extravagant curlicues of blue and red and gold. Alise paused before them, wondering if the designs had been tattooed on or if they had been painted afresh for each performance. She had no doubt that each carving represented a very real and individual member of an entertainment troupe that had once performed in this very theater.

  Completing her slow circuit of the theater, she stood once more looking down on the stage. How did one document this? Or explain it? Why bother? A year from now, or two, every one of the statues would be gone, separated from their company and carted off to Bingtown to be sold to the highest bidder. She shook her head but could not clear it of the dismal thought. “I’m sorry,” she told them softly. “I’m so sorry. ”

  As she turned to leave she noticed a gleam of something on the floor. She scuffed her rag-wrapped boot across it, baring a silver strip as wide as her hand. She knelt down, pulling off her worn glove, and used her hand to brush the dust from it. But at the touch of her hand, the silvery strip sprang to life. Light raced away from her touch in all directions, ribbons of it emanating from where she stood, outlining the aisles and racing up the walls to frame the distant overhead window in a complicated knot of silvery gleaming light.

  “Jidzin,” she said quietly, almost calmly. “I’ve seen this before, the metal that lights at a touch. There was a lot of it in Trehaug, once. ” But she doubted it had been like this. This was completely intact and functional. She remained stooped, touching the strip and looking up in wonder at how the silver light woke the ancient hall to gaiety. Almost she expected the music that would announce the pause before the beginning of a performance.

  Every hair stood up on her body as a ghostly music began to play. It was thin and distant but unmistakably cheery. A horn tootled merrily, and some string instrument pursued it, note for note. And then the statues began to move. Heads nodded in time to the music, the feather duster became a baton, the twin girls moved in unison, a step forward, a step back. Alise gave a sob of terror as they came to life. She tried to get to her feet and instead sat down flat. “No,” she whispered in an agony of fear.

  But the statues came no closer. The music played and they moved, nodding time, waving hands gently, lips smiling but eyes unseeing. As she watched, the music faltered, the statues’ gestures became more hesitant and sporadic, and then, as the music broke and wavered unevenly, the statues shuddered to a halt. The music ceased and the silvery shining of the jidzin slowly failed. In moments, the only light in the great hall came once more from the distant overhead glass dome, and the statues fell to stillness.

  Alise sat on the floor, rocking herself gently. “I saw it. It was real,” she assured herself. And knew as she spoke the words that she was the last person who would ever see this particular Elderling magic.

  Outside, the rain had ceased. The wind was cold, but it was pushing the clouds clear of the sun, and the additional light was very welcome. Alise pulled her damp cloak closer, but the wind found every tear in it and fingered its way in to touch her with chill hands. She hurried along, then turned down a side street to escape the direct push of the wind. She startled when a raven gave a sudden disapproving caw and lifted from the eaves of a building to sweep away in flight. Here, if she walked close to the front of the buildings, she was sheltered and the weak sunlight even held a trace of warmth. She pulled her gloves back on as she walked. When was the last time she had felt warm all the way through? The answer came quickly: the night before Leftrin had left to return to Cassarick. She wondered where he was on the river and how the storms were affecting his passage. He had assured her that the trip downriver would be much swifter than the one upriver had been, and that the shallows that had slowed their passage and confounded them for days would no longer exist.

  “All we’ll have to do is follow the strongest current downstream; there’s no trick to it. And if we have doubts, well, I’ll just let Tarman have his head, and he’ll find the way for us. Trust me. And if you cannot trust me, trust my ship! He has protected generation after generation of my family from this river. ”

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  And she did trust, both her captain and his liveship. But she wished Leftrin was here. She longed for his return as much as she dreaded it, f
or when he came back, the days of this untouched city would be numbered. A pang of guilt struck her. There was work to be done, a vast amount of work. The short winter day was passing swiftly, and she had to be back and waiting for the dragon before sunset.

  She walked quickly past two buildings that had fallen prey to time or earthquake or perhaps both. The façade of one had collapsed, leaving a heap of rubble that spilled out into the street, revealing its deserted interior. As she clambered over it, she marked how the building next to it leaned on the first. Cracks ran up through the black stone foundation. She hastened past them on the far side of the street.

  Shivering now, and hungry, Alise decided to find shelter in which to eat her noon meal. She had strips of dried smoked meat in a packet and a small bottle of water. Simple food, but her hunger made her mouth water at the thought of it. What wouldn’t she give, though, for a cup of steaming tea, spiced with cinnamon and sweetened with honey. And a few of those greasy sausage rolls that the street vendors sold in Bingtown! Tubes of flaky pastry, oily and brown edged, stuffed full of spiced sausage and onion and sage.

  Don’t think about such things. Don’t think about hot rich food, or new warm woolen stockings, or her heavy winter cloak with the fox fur collar and hood, folded uselessly on a shelf in Hest’s house. How she longed to feel its welcome weight on her shoulders.

  At the end of the street, an immense plaza, paved all in white stone, glittered in the sun dazzling her eyes. It seemed to have been created for giants. A huge dry fountain held a statue of a green dragon clawing his way into the sky, his gleaming wings half opened. Was it oversized, or could the creatures truly attain that size? She gaped at it, imagining a horse sliding down that throat in one gulp.

  Beyond the fountain a wide set of steps led up to an immense building. Gigantic white figures in bas-relief graced the outside of the black walls. A woman was plowing a field behind a team of oxen. She wore a crown of flowers, and her skillfully portrayed diaphanous robes appeared to billow behind her in the wind. Her slender feet were bare. The image made Alise smile as she imagined what the woman would look like at the end of a single furrow, let alone a whole plowed field. Someone had indulged a very artistic imagination in that image!

  She lifted her eyes to consider the tower that reared up from the massive building. At the very top was a dome made with curved glass panels. A glance around her assured her that she had come to the tallest structure on this hilltop, and perhaps the tallest in the city. As she dropped her eyes again, her gaze fell on the inscription chiseled above the entryway. The Elderling characters writhed and danced, enticingly familiar in their evasion of her understanding. Lions of stone guarded the entryway.

  Very well. She would go inside, eat her meal, and then see if the steps to the tower were still intact. If they were, she would take advantage of that viewpoint to create a grand sketch of the entire city, something she should probably have done when she first came here! She began the long climb to the entrance. The steps were broad and shallow. “What an annoying design,” she muttered, and then gave a snort of laughter. They were annoying to a human’s legs and strides. For a dragon, they would be perfect. She looked up to the looming black gap of the entrance. The great wooden doors to this chamber had long since collapsed. Bits of them littered the steps. She reached the doorway and stepped over the rubble of fallen wood and brass fasteners and into the interior.

  A surprising amount of light entered the interior chamber. Its vast marble floor was littered with the scattered remnants of furnishings. Desks or tables? Had this been a bench? Tapestries that had once graced the walls between the windows now hung as tattered remnants. She advanced into the room, fragments of desiccated wood from the door crunching under her feet.

  There were stone benches in the window alcoves, and Alise chose a likely one for her luncheon. She sat on the cold bench, pulled her knees up to her chest, and carefully tucked her damp cloak in close all around her, hoarding the warmth of her body. She thought of the Elderling robe that Leftrin had given her; if she had been wearing it now, she would have been warm. But despite the apparent sturdiness of the ancient fabric, she preferred not to wear it outdoors. It was as irreplaceable as any artifact from this city, and something to preserve and study rather than use as a common garment.

  She took her packet of smoked meat out of her bag and unslung the leather water bottle from her shoulder. Stripping her gloves from her hands, she unwrapped her meal. The twisted sticks of reddish meat were tough, but the alder smoke had made it flavorful. She chewed doggedly and followed each bite with a sip of water. The water was water. A simple meal and not a large one, it was soon over, but she reminded herself to be grateful for what she had. As she ate, she looked at the fading day through the broken door. Winter days were so brief. She would climb as high as she could, look out on the city, and sketch what she could before returning to the old docks to wait for Heeby.

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  Across the room from the fallen doors, wide stairs ascended into shadows. She stood up, slung her water bottle on her shoulder again, and crossed to them. A fair-sized orchard could have grown on the amount of ground she covered. As she left the doors behind, the very vastness of the room made her feel smaller and more vulnerable. The distant whispering of the shadow denizens of the city grew louder. The deeper she went into the building, the more pervasive the lingering presence of ancient Elderlings became. She thought she caught a whisk of movement from the corner of her eye, but when she looked, no one was there. She steeled herself and went on.

  It was useless to be afraid, she told herself. Afraid of what? Afraid of memories stored in stone? They couldn’t hurt her, not unless she allowed them to dominate her and draw her under their spell. And she wouldn’t. She simply wouldn’t. She had work to do. She increased the length of the stride and refused to look behind her as the whispers grew louder. The stairs were steeper than the outside steps; these, at least, had been structured for the convenience of humans. She set her hand to the banister as she ascended.

  And then a hubbub broke out all around her. Three young pages rushed past her, their youthful voices accusing one another of some fault that doubtless all had committed. Coming down the stairs, scowling at the wayward pages, were at least a dozen tall folk clad in yellow robes. Their eyes gleamed, copper and silver and gold, and when one woman gestured with a long-fingered hand, Alise flinched back from a ghostly touch that never reached her. She snatched her hand from the banister, and the room quieted. But once wakened to her senses, the ghosts seemed to have gained power. The murmur of their business ebbed around her ears. She might not see them as clearly as she ascended, her hands clasped together in front of her, but she could still sense them.

  Reaching a landing, Alise glanced out across a wide room. Ghosts of benches and desks stood above their own crumbled remains. She heard a bell rung impatiently and turned her head to almost see a page in a short pale yellow tunic and blue leggings dash to answer the summons. She turned back. Government business, she judged. Perhaps a hall of records, or a chamber for the establishing of laws.

  Up she went. The stairs were lit only by the wide windows at each landing. The panes were clouded with thick rain streaks. The first one had shown only the neighboring buildings. From the second, she glimpsed roofs. That was as far as the grand staircase went. She crossed a spacious room to find a smaller staircase for the next ascent. But at the next landing, her hopes of viewing the city were frustrated by an opulent stained-glass window. The daylight was too dim to do it justice, but she could make out an Elderling woman with black hair and dark eyes in intense conversation with a coppery dragon. The landing opened into a sort of gallery room, tall windows admitting more light than had been present on the lower floors. The walls between the windows were decorated with friezes of Elderlings plowing fields, reaping crops . . . and preparing for war?

  She stepped into the room to study them more closely. Yes. In on
e of the friezes, a powerfully muscled Elderling hammered sparks from a glowing blade. In another, a lithe green dragon reared on her hind legs beside a slender Elderling woman with red hair. The woman’s fists were set on her hips above her sword belt. Her rounded arms were muscled, her legs armored with what looked like flexible silver scaling. A blue dragon wore a spiked harness and glowered at Alise with scarlet eyes.

  She walked the room slowly, trying to commit each picture to memory. The Elderlings and dragons were individuals, she was sure. She could almost read the inscriptions that gleamed beneath each image. She paused long before a scene of a red-and-silver dragon. The Elderling beside him was red and silver as well, and their matching armor was studded with black spikes. The man clutched a peculiar bow, short and fitted with a pulley. The dragon’s harness bristled with spikes and quivers of additional arrows. A sort of throne with a tall back and dangling straps was fixed to the dragon’s back. There the warrior had ridden into battle with his dragon. So, despite how Sintara decried Heeby allowing Rapskal to ride her, ancient Elderlings had ridden on dragons. She wondered who their enemy had been. Men? Other Elderlings? Other dragons? Her long-held perceptions of that ancient time wavered and re-formed. She had thought the Elderlings peaceful and wise, too wise for warfare. She sighed.

  She lingered too long. The dimming images told her that the brief winter day was giving way to evening. Time to move on if she was to finish her tour of the building. The next stairway was a spiraling one, and she suspected she had finally come to the base of the tower she had glimpsed from outside. Her path followed the outside wall, and her way was lit by deep narrow windows that showed only tiny slices of view. She came to a door, but it was locked, as was the next, and the one after that. Surely no one would lock a door on an empty chamber? Whatever had called away the populace of this city, they must have left something behind these locked doors that had merited protection. She imagined racks of scrolls or shelves laden with books. Perhaps this was the treasure house of the city, and the doors concealed struck coins and other wealth.

 
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