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City of dragons, p.17
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       City of Dragons, p.17

         Part #3 of Rain Wild Chronicles series by Robin Hobb
Page 61


  As Alise continued to climb the winding stair she encountered more locked doors, one at each brief landing. She tried every door, bracing herself whenever she touched the metal handles with the small insets of black stone. Each time, it was like a strike of lightning that briefly burned an image of activity and life into her eyes before she snatched her hand back and restored the tower to silence and gloom. At each landing, the stairs grew narrower and steeper.

  Then abruptly she climbed up and into a much larger chamber than she had expected. The top of the tower was like the cap of a mushroom on a stem and domed with a thick glass ceiling. It had begun to rain again, and the rain ran down the grimy glass in tiny rivulets as if she looked up at the bellies of snakes. The walls of this domed chamber were made of alternating panels of glass and stone. One, she saw to her shock, was broken. She walked hesitantly around a collapsed table in the middle of the room. As she drew closer, she scowled. Someone had started a fire in the room! And the window had been broken deliberately: the glass shards were both on the floor and also on the parapet that ran around the outer edges of the tower. There was a clear handprint in the soot on the wall beside the window.

  Outrage flooded her. What had Rapskal been thinking? For he was the most likely culprit. He had spent more time in the city than anyone, had been the most curious to explore it, and was the only keeper she could think of who would be so impulsive as to do such a thing simply so he could lean out and have an unimpeded view of the city.

  It was the same temptation that called her now. She leaned out briefly to confirm what she already knew. The sun was going down, and the rain had returned. Then, her heart in her mouth, she ventured out past the jagged shards that still clung in the framework and onto the parapet. A chill wind tugged at her, and broken glass gritted under her feet. The walkway that encircled the tower was narrow, and the railing that edged it was ridiculously low.

  She kept close to the wall as she circled the tower cautiously, peering through the rain at the city and its surroundings. Mist and oncoming darkness frustrated her. The outflung city was a huddle of buildings against the dim land. Across the shining black river, she could see sparks of light from the keepers’ settlement, but grand Kelsingra slept in darkness. She had almost completed her circuit when she saw the narrow gate set in the railing. Heart in her mouth, she forced herself to step to the edge and look down. Yes. The gate gave onto a ladder that descended to another encircling balcony. She divined their purpose at once. Access for cleaning the windows. She gripped the railing in both hands and leaned out. The ladder went down several stories; the locked chambers that she had passed on her climb had windows. If it had been a dry bright day, she would have risked going down to see if she could enter the locked rooms that way. But alone and in the wet wind and with the light fleeing was not the time for her to risk a fall. She squeezed back into the tower room and stood blinking raindrops off her lashes.

  The pile of rubble in the middle of the room claimed her attention. She crouched down to peer at it. There had been a large round table, and it had collapsed. But there had been something on the table. She stared at it for a time before she made out what it was. It was a model of a city, of this city! Here was the river harbor and here the docks, a bit degraded where the rain had driven in through the broken pane. But the rest of the model was remarkably intact. The tower she was in seemed to also be in the center of the city as it was portrayed, making the panels of glass the corresponding viewpoints to the map itself.

  If only she had a torch! The light was going too quickly. She would have to come back here first thing tomorrow and bring something to draw on. And this wondrous map of the city had to be preserved somehow! Rapskal’s careless vandalism had put this precious artifact in danger. She’d have to speak to him tonight, to be sure he understood the damage he had done. She only hoped he hadn’t been so destructive elsewhere. Whatever had he been thinking?

  She rose with a heartfelt sigh, reluctant to leave the wondrous map but equally reluctant to face finding her way back down the stairs in the gathering darkness. A final glance at the map as she left the room made her halt. Her breath caught in her throat. A bridge? There was a bridge over the river? But there couldn’t be! No one could construct a bridge that long over such a raging torrent. Yet there it was, a tiny model of a black bridge spanning the wide river. She oriented herself and once more ventured out onto the rain-slippery parapet. She peered through mist and rain and saw nothing. Likely it had disintegrated long ago.

  She returned to the tower room and began her long descent of the steps. Going down the stairs now was like descending into a well. She managed the first flight before the darkness defeated her and she was forced to let her hand trail the black wall beside her. To her astonishment, instead of the mere support she had sought, her touch woke the tower to light, for her fingers had found a jidzin strip set into the wall just above the banister. The light raced ahead of her, not bright but certainly preferable to the darkness and enough to guide her feet. There were fewer Elderling memory-ghosts on the stairs, and those she saw carried brooms and dusters. Once, she saw a yellow-robed official with some sort of shoulder decorations to indicate his importance emerge from one of the locked doors. He carried an armful of scrolls and moved ponderously as he trudged down the stairs. It took her two flights of steps before she had the courage to push through the insubstantial vision and hurry past him. She glanced back up at him, and his preoccupied scowl ignored her as if she were the ghost.

  Page 62


  Crossing the darkened rooms was a challenge. When finally she reached the ground floor and saw gray evening through the fallen doors, she burst into a run to be out of the building. Her footsteps echoed on the floor, and the terror she had not allowed herself to feel till now suddenly gained control of her and she fled as fast as she could from the Elderling tower, out into the streets and down to where Heeby would be waiting for her.

  Day the 25th of the Change Moon

  Year the 7th of the Independent Alliance of Traders

  From Kim, Keeper of the Birds, Cassarick

  To Detozi, Keeper of the Birds, Trehaug

  How dare you imply that I am the source of the lice problem! It is just as likely the birds could have picked up these pests when they overnighted in the forest during one of their flights. You may hide yourself behind the Guild inspectors, but I know who lodged this complaint and provoked these unjustified and inconvenient inspections of my lofts and cotes! You and your family have never forgiven the fact that a Tattooed came among you and rose by diligence and hard work to be a bird keeper. This is how you people welcome us to the Rain Wilds and “equality,” with lies and sneaking accusations! You scale-faced, boy-chested lizard-bitch! I will be bringing grievances of my own to the Council, beginning with how you and Erek and your nephew have conspired against me and slandered me ever since I assumed this post! You may think you can end this vendetta now, but I will not be finished with you until your cotes are emptied and your bird keeper papers retracted!

  Chapter Eight


  It was their second day without rain. Sedric would have felt more blessed if the day had warmed a bit, too. Cold rain chilled them almost every day now. He had wondered aloud once, “Why on earth did Elderlings settle here? Why build a city in such a rainy place instead of choosing a beach by a warm sea? Dragons love sun. Why did the Elderlings settle here?”

  Carson had given him a piercing look. “A very good question. Sometimes, when Spit is dreaming and his thoughts push into my mind, I feel like I’m on the edge of knowing why. There was definitely a reason and an important one for Kelsingra to be built where it is. I feel it in his memories. Dragons coming to this city were filled with fierce anticipation. I share it in his dreams and I almost know why. Then the knowledge flits away from me. But I’ve wondered the same thing myself. ”

  Small comfort. Well, at least
today there was no rain. Sedric reminded himself of that and tried to find some gratitude in his heart. It was hard. On days when it didn’t rain, Carson rose even earlier to take advantage of the better weather. Sedric had awakened that morning to the sounds of a hammer tapping gently on the outside of the cottage, right by the bed. He glanced up at the framed opening in the wall above their bed. The sound came from there.

  At one time there had been glass in the windows of the cottage, and perhaps even shutters. The stone walls were well made, as was the stone hearth. The roof had been long gone when they’d chosen the cottage. Carson had rebuilt it, with rough-hewn timbers to support it and branches and grass bundles from the meadow as thatch. When they had first moved in to the cottage, they had curtained the empty window frames with extra ship’s blankets. But as the days and nights grew colder, they had reclaimed the blankets for their bed and Carson had pegged hides up instead, which not only had blocked the rain and wind but also kept out daylight. The crudely tanned leather had contributed to the endless smell of dead animal that permeated Sedric’s life. Carson had promised, several times, to try to find a better solution. The stiff hide was now moving in gusts to the rhythm of the tapping hammer. Why Carson had to do this at the crack of dawn, Sedric didn’t know.

  He rolled from the crude pallet they shared and wandered over to the hearth. The fire had burned low. He added a couple of logs even though he knew it meant that he’d have the task of hauling more firewood in. Then he felt the garments they had washed out and hung up not last night, but the night before. The shirts were dried, but the seams and waistbands of the trousers were still damp. It was almost impossible to get anything completely dry during the days of constant rain. With a sigh, he pulled on the driest clothes he could find and then rearranged the rest of the laundry in the hope that it would dry by nightfall. He longed to be able to fold it and put it away. Living in a small cottage that smelled like hides and required him to dodge dangling socks at every step was severely affecting his spirits. He longed for cleanliness and tidiness: it was hard to find peace in the middle of disorder. He had always felt this way. He’d always had to tidy his workroom before he could settle to his tasks. The tapping outside the window had continued and was becoming more urgent.

  Page 63


  Hungry. His dragon pushed her complaint into his mind, driving away every other thought.

  I know you are, my beauty. I’ll remedy that as soon as I can. Let me wake up a bit first.

  Hungry all night. Hungry today. You sleep too much.

  You are right, little queen. I will do better. Sometimes it was just easier to agree with Relpda than to argue with her. The little copper dragon was demanding, imperious, and as thoughtless as a child of anyone else’s needs.

  She also worshipped him and depended on him as no creature ever had before. And he had fallen in love with the jealous, selfish, and spiteful little creature. “Little,” he said aloud as he buttoned his shirt and laughed at himself. Little only in comparison to the other dragons. Feeding her was becoming next to impossible. He was fortunate that Carson’s fish trap continued to supply a steady stream of fish. Without a daily morning ration of that, he knew that Relpda would have made his life miserable. As it was, he was feeling not just his own hunger pangs but hers, too.

  He looked at the hearth. Hanging in the chimney, above the flames and in the smoke, were several sides of bright-red fish. The smoke both cooked and preserved the meat. It also added its own aromatic note to the various smells in the cottage. He was so tired of smelling things. He took his worn cloak from the hook by the door and gave it a shake before swinging it around his shoulders. Time to get the day started. Things to do. Haul water for washing and cooking. Feed his dragon, feed himself. But first he’d find out what it was that Carson was attempting to do. The tapping had become an uneven pounding.

  He walked around the corner of the house to find Carson wrestling with a rough wooden frame. He had stretched a piece of leather over it, hooking it over pegs tapped into the sides. This “window” was what he was trying to force into the opening. As Sedric approached, the brittle leather split. “Damn the luck!” Carson cursed, and he threw frame and leather to one side.

  Sedric stared at his partner as he directed a kick at the unsatisfactory construction. “Carson?” he asked hesitantly.

  The word jerked the hunter’s attention to Sedric. A sudden flush suffused his face. “Not now, Sedric! Not now. ” He turned and stalked off, leaving Sedric staring after him in astonishment. He’d never seen Carson so out of temper, let alone expressing it in such a childish way. It summoned unwanted memories of Hest. Except that Hest would have turned his anger on me, not stalked off to brood, he thought. Hest would have made it all my fault, for speaking to him.

  He walked over to Carson’s abandoned project, picked up the frame, which was not much damaged by the kick, and regarded the stretched leather thoughtfully. He felt a pang of guilt as he recognized what it was. Leather scraped so thin that it still allowed light in but kept out wind and rain. Leather scraped of all hair and dried hard, so it would not smell as strongly. This was Carson’s response to Sedric’s complaint about the window coverings. Sedric scratched his stubbled chin, considering. He’d complained, with no thought that Carson would take the complaint as a criticism, or put so much thought and effort into trying to remedy things.

  He was still holding the frame when he heard footsteps behind him. Carson took the window out of Sedric’s hands, saying gruffly, “It was supposed to just slide into place, so you’d wake up to light. But the opening is too far out of square. I wanted it to be a surprise for you, but it’s not going to work. I know how to do it, but I don’t have the right tools. I’m sorry. ”

  “No. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to complain so much. ”

  “You’re used to better. A lot better than this. ”

  There was no arguing with that statement. “But that’s not your fault, Carson. And when I complain, well, I’m just complaining. I don’t mean that it’s up to you to make things better. It’s just . . . ”

  “You’re not comfortable here. I know that. You’re used to better, Sedric. You deserve better, but I don’t know what I can do about that. ”

  Sedric choked back a laugh. “Carson, it’s not as if anyone else has an easier life than we do. When the boat comes in, things will be better. ”

  “Only a little bit. Sedric, I watch you. I see how tired you are of all this. And it worries me. ”


  Carson gave him an odd look. “Perhaps because I was there when you made a very sincere effort to take your own life. Perhaps because I worry that the next time you try it, I might not be there. And you might succeed. ”

  Sedric was shocked. “I’m a different person now! I’m stronger than that,” he objected. Carson’s words had stung him, yet he could not have said why. An instant later, he knew. “You think I’m weak,” he accused the hunter before he had known he would say the words.

  Page 64


  Carson lowered his eyes and shook his shaggy head. His response was reluctant. “Not weak, Sedric. Just . . . not tough. Not in the way that deals with hardship that just goes on and on and on. It doesn’t make you a bad person, just—”

  “Weak. ” Sedric chose the word for him. He hated that Carson’s comments hurt so badly, hated worse the sting of tears in his eyes. No. He wasn’t going to weep over this. That would only prove him right. He cleared his throat. “I have to go to the fish trap and get something for Relpda. She’s hungry. ”

  “I know. So is Spit. ” Carson shook his head as if tormented by gnats. “I think that’s part of why I’m out of temper today. It’s not you, Sedric. You know that. ” He spoke the words almost pleadingly. He shook his head again. “That damn Spit. He knows he can make me feel his hunger. He pushes it at me. It puts me on edge all the time. It makes it hard to think and harder to be patient,
even with a simple task. ” Carson jerked his head up and met Sedric’s stare. There was determination in his eyes. “But I’m not going to take him food. Not yet. I’ve got to let him be hungry, hungry enough to try to do something about it. He’s a lazy little bastard. He should be trying harder to learn how to fly. But as long as I’m around to feed him every time he gets a hunger pang, he isn’t going to put any real effort into it. I’ve got to let him suffer a bit or he’ll never learn to take care of himself. ”

  Sedric pondered his words. “Do you think I should do the same with Relpda? Let her be hungry?” Even as he spoke the words aloud, he felt his dragon become aware of the thought.

  No! I don’t like to be hungry. Don’t be mean to me!

  “I know it seems harsh,” Carson said, almost as if he, too, had shared Relpda’s thought. “But we have to do something, Sedric. It can’t go on this way. Even if I hunted morning until night every day and was successful in every hunt, it wouldn’t be enough to feed them all. All of them are hungry, all the time, some more than others. But there’s a limit to what we keepers can do. The dragons need to make the effort to fly and to feed themselves. And they need to do it now, before it’s too late. ”

  “Too late?”

  Carson looked grim. “Look at them, Sedric. They should be creatures of the air, but they are living like ground animals. They aren’t growing properly. Their wings are weak, and on some they’re simply too small. Rapskal had the right of it. From the time he first took charge of Heeby, he made her try to fly, every day. Look at her some time and compare the lines of her body to those of the other dragons. Look where the muscle is developed and where it’s not. ” He shook his head. “Trying to get Spit to exercise his wings is difficult. He’s willful, and he knows full well that he’s bigger and stronger than I am. My only handle on him is food. He knows my rule. He tries to fly. And then I feed him. He has to try every day. And that’s what the other dragons have to do. But I don’t think they will until they’re forced to it. ”

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