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City of dragons, p.18
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       City of Dragons, p.18

         Part #3 of Rain Wild Chronicles series by Robin Hobb

  Not liking Carson.

  But we know it’s true, Relpda. You’re too big for me to keep you fed. I know how hungry you get. I bring you food, but it’s never enough. It’s never going to be enough until you can fly and make your own kills. We both know that.

  Falling hurts.

  Being hungry hurts, too. All the time. Being hurt from falling will stop once you learn to fly. But if you don’t learn to fly, the hurt of being hungry will go on always. You have to try. Carson is right. You have to try harder, and you have to try every day.

  Not liking YOU, now.

  Sedric tried to mask how much that hurt his feelings. I’m not trying to hurt you, Relpda. I’m trying to get you to do what you have to do in order to, well, to be a full dragon.

  I AM a dragon! The force of her incensed thought nearly drove him to his knees. I am a dragon, and you are my keeper. Bring me food!

  In a while. He hoped she could not sense that he was deliberately making her wait. His own stomach rumbled in protest.

  Carson gave him a sideways glance. “You should eat something. ”

  “I’d feel guilty to eat while she goes hungry. ”

  Carson sighed. “It’s not going to be easy. But I’ve been thinking about it for some days now. Left to themselves, the dragons are just not trying that hard to learn. Right now we can get enough fish in our traps to keep them from starving. And we’ve had a few windfalls, such as Heeby being willing to drive game for them. But we can’t count on things like that. The fish run could dwindle or end any day. And the more we hunt locally and Heeby hunts close to our camp, the less game there will be. These are big predators with large appetites. They need to expand their hunting territory and they need to be able to feed themselves. Otherwise, this area will simply turn into a second Cassarick for them. We didn’t come all this way to allow that to happen. ”

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  Sedric listened in chilled dismay. Now that Carson laid it out so clearly, he wondered how he could not have seen it for himself. Because I’ve been like the dragons, he thought. I thought it would just go on as it had before, with the keepers finding meat for them all, no matter what.

  His stomach growled again and Carson laughed, sounding almost like himself. “Go eat something. The smoked fish should be done enough. And take something to Relpda. ”

  “Are you going to take something to Spit?”

  Carson shook his head, not in denial, but at himself. “Yes. Eventually. But not until I’ve shown him that he can’t push me around. He has a different temperament from Relpda. That little silver has a streak of mean and resentment that your copper doesn’t have. It’s not just toward the other dragons. It’s for all the keepers, too. It’s for anyone who is whole and functioning when he isn’t. ”

  “I thought she could only carry one rider at a time. ” Thymara was still uncertain about this whole venture.

  Rapskal looked down at her from Heeby’s shoulders. “She has been growing. Bigger and stronger. And her wings keep growing most of all. She says she can do this. Come on up. ” He bent at the waist and leaned down to stretch his hand out toward her. He was grinning at her in a way that was obviously a challenge. She couldn’t back down now. She reached up to grip his wrist as he seized hers. There was nothing else to hold on to. All of Heeby was gleaming and overlapping crimson scales, smoother than polished stone. She scrabbled up the dragon’s shoulder, worried that she was offending her with such an ungainly climb onto her back. Once she was behind Rapskal, sitting spraddle-legged behind him on the dragon’s wide back, she asked, “What do I hold on to?”

  He looked back over his shoulder at her. “Me!” he replied, and then, leaning forward, he said quietly to his dragon, “We’re ready. ”

  “No, I’m not!” Thymara protested, but it was too late. Too late to decide she didn’t want to risk her life riding a dragon across a river, too late even to find time to tuck her cloak more tightly around her or be sure of her seat. The dragon lurched into motion, running down the grassy hillside. Thymara was uncomfortably aware for a moment that the other keepers were watching them take flight together. But in the next instant, as Heeby made a wild leap, landed hard, and then leaped again, abruptly snapping her wings wide open, she could think only of holding tight to Rapskal’s tattered coat. She tried not to worry about what he was holding on to. She hugged herself to his back, turning her head sideways and closing her eyes as the flapping of the dragon’s wings drove the cold air against her face. She was too aware of the dragon’s muscles moving beneath her, straining mightily; and then suddenly the lurching stride was gone and they were rising, the rhythm of Heeby’s wings gone from the frantic fluttering of a sparrow to the steady strokes of a big bird of prey.

  Thymara risked a peek. At first all she saw was Rapskal’s neck. Then, as she dared to turn her head, she saw the panorama of the river spread out below her. She tipped her head slightly and tried to look down, but she was too cautious to lean out. All she could see was the side of her own body and then the side of the dragon’s wide chest.

  “Loosen your arms. I can barely breathe!” Rapskal complained, shouting the words at her through the flow of air.

  Thymara tried to obey him and found she couldn’t. She might will her grip to loosen, but her arms were reluctant to obey her. She compromised by shifting her grip slightly. Her hands still clutched his shirt tightly. Now she really regretted agreeing to this. What had she been thinking? One slip from Heeby’s back meant certain death in the swift cold water below. Why had it seemed like an invitation to an exciting and daring adventure rather than an irrational opportunity to risk her life? Surely they must nearly be to the other side by now! Then, as she realized that landing there meant that she would have to brave another flight back, her courage departed completely and she was gripped by sheer fear. This wasn’t fun, or adventure. It was a stupid jaunt into danger.

  She tried to get her panic under control. What was wrong with her? She wasn’t a person who got scared easily. She was competent and strong. She could take care of herself.

  But not in a situation like this, a situation in which her skills meant nothing and she had no control over the risks involved. That, she realized abruptly, was what she disliked. The risks were wildly out of her control. She was in a situation where she depended entirely on Rapskal’s good sense and Heeby’s flight skills to keep her safe. And she was not truly confident of either of those things. She leaned forward to speak right by his ear.

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  “Rapskal! I want to go back. Right now!”

  “But we haven’t reached Kelsingra. I haven’t shown you the city. ” He was clearly startled by the request.

  “I’ll wait. I’ll see it when the others do, when we get the docks repaired so that Tarman can tie up to them. ”

  “No. There’s no reason to wait. This is too important! There’s something I have to show to you now, today. You’re the only one who will understand it right away. I know that Alise Finbok doesn’t. She thinks the city is some big dead thing that we have to keep just the way it is. But it’s not. And Kelsingra is not for her, anyway. It’s for us. It’s waiting for us. ”

  Rapskal’s words distracted her from her terror. “The city isn’t for Alise? That’s crazy. She came so far just to help find it, and she already knows so much about it. She loves Kelsingra. And she wants to protect it. That’s why she was angry at you for breaking a window. She said that you must have more respect for the ruins, that we have to keep everything safe and exactly as it is until we’ve learned everything we can from them. ”

  “The city isn’t meant to be kept safe. It’s meant to be used. ”

  A new uneasiness stirred in Thymara. “Is that what this trip is about? Using the city?”

  “Yes. But it doesn’t hurt it. And I didn’t break any window! I told her that. Yes, I went up in that tower; I’ve been into just about all the big bui
ldings. But I didn’t break anything. That panel was broken when I got there. If you want, I’ll take you there and show you what she was so upset about. It’s pretty amazing up there; you can see almost as much from that tower as you can see from Heeby’s back. And there’s this sort of map thing that shows what the city used to look like. But that’s not the most important thing. It isn’t what I want to show you first. ”

  “I can see it all later. Please, Rapskal. I don’t like this. ” She forced the words past her teeth. “Look. I’m scared. I want to go back. ”

  “We’re more than halfway. Look around, Thymara. You’re flying! When your own wings get big and strong enough, you’ll be able to do this on your own. You can’t be afraid of it now!”

  She had never, she suddenly knew, believed that she was going to be able to fly. She’d never truly realized what flying would be, how high above everything she would be. How swiftly the wind would pass her. Tears flowed from the corner of her slitted eyes as she tried to take his advice and look around. Open air around them and the mountains in the distance. She tipped her head slightly so she could look down. There was the city, spread wide before them. She had not realized it was so big! It sprawled on a flat stretch of land between the riverbank and the mountains. From here, the damage to Kelsingra was far more evident. Trees and brush cloaked an ancient landslide that had buried part of the city. And a great cleft reached into the city from the river, damaging the buildings there. She blinked, turned her head, and looked far upriver. Her breath caught as she glimpsed the beginning of a bridge’s arch. It ended abruptly, and the river rippled over the fallen remnants of stone at the water’s edge. It was hard for her to conceive that anyone had ever thought they could span such a river with a bridge, let alone that once the bridge had existed.

  “Hold tight to me. Sometimes she stumbles a bit when she lands, still. ”

  He didn’t need to repeat the advice. Thymara clung to him like a limpet on a rock as the dragon dipped down toward the city. Lower and lower Heeby went, and the chill and deadly river grew larger and wider beneath them. She slowed the beat of her wings, and Thymara felt as if they were dropping far too fast. She clenched her teeth, willing herself not to scream. Then the wide streets of the city were right in front of them, rushing up at them as Heeby suddenly beat her wings frantically. The wind of that motion plucked at Thymara, trying to tear her free of her frantic grip on Rapskal. Then the dragon landed, feet braced and claws skittering on the pavement stones. Thymara slewed wildly on the creature’s back, gripping Rapskal’s shirt for dear life. Her head snapped forward, her forehead banging into his back, and then whipped back. It was too much. Before Rapskal could utter a syllable, she let go of his shirt, slid sideways off Heeby’s back, and landed sprawling on hard, solid stone. For a moment she didn’t move, only savored the sensation of stillness. Safe. Safe on the ground again.

  Rapskal tugged at her. “Hey? Are you all right? Get up, Thymara. Are you hurt?”

  She took another deep breath and wiped her face against her shoulder. Those tears were from the wind in her eyes, not from terror, or gratitude to be on the ground again! She pushed Rapskal’s hands away and got to her feet. The knee of her trousers had torn a bit more, and she’d skinned both her knees from her abrupt dismount. But, “I’m fine, Rapskal. I just landed wrong. ” She lifted her head to look around and stopped breathing as she took in her first view of Kelsingra in full daylight.

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  City. So this was what that word really meant. It wasn’t like the tree city of Trehaug where she had been born. This was a city built on solid earth. As far as she could see, in all directions, there were no trees. No open meadows; virtually no plant life at all. Here, all was worked stone. Straight lines and hard surfaces, broken by the occasional arch or dome, but even those were precisely shaped geometric figures. All around her loomed the work of human hands.

  “Go hunt, Heeby. That’s my pretty girl. Go kill something big and have a nice meal. But don’t sleep too long afterward! Come back for us, my lovely red darling! We’ll be waiting for you down by the river like always. ”

  Dimly she was aware of the scarlet dragon lurching into a run down the street toward the river. In moments, she heard the slapping of her wings and then the sound faded. She didn’t turn to watch the dragon go. The city held her enthralled. All of this was made. None of it had grown. The huge buildings. The immense blocks that fit so squarely, one atop another, without a gap or a variation from perfectly straight lines. The interlocking stones that paved the street. All created by hands, all flawlessly shaped. But who could ever cut such large stones, let alone lift them into place?

  She turned her head slowly, trying to take it all in. Statues in fountains. Carved stone decorating building fronts. All precise. Even the statues were perfect images of perfect creatures, caught and frozen in the stone. I don’t belong here, she thought. She was not perfect like these carvings, not precisely formed like the fitted paving stones and squared doors. She was lesser, deformed, unfit. As she had always been.

  “Don’t be stupid. Of course you belong here!” Rapskal sounded impatient.

  Had she spoken the words out loud?

  “This is an Elderling city, built by Elderlings, especially for Elderlings. Just as Trehaug and Cassarick were . . . well, the true Elderling parts, the buried parts, were. That’s what I’ve discovered in my time here. And I want to show it to you because I think you can explain it to Alise. And make the others understand it, too. We, all of us, dragons and keepers, need to get across to this side of the river. That side over there, all those huts and things, those were built for the humans. The ones who didn’t want to change or couldn’t change. This side, all of this, this is for us. It’s what we need. And so we all need to get over here and make the city work. Because once we get the city working, then the dragons will be better, too. ”

  She stared at him, and then back to the city again. Dead and lifeless. Nothing to eat, no game, no growing food. “I don’t understand, Rapskal. Why would we want to be here? We’d have to go so far to get firewood or meat that we’d be exhausted just by those tasks. And the dragons? What is here for the dragons?”

  “Everything!” he said urgently. “It’s all here, everything we need to know about being Elderlings. Because being an Elderling is a lot like being a dragon. And once we know more about being Elderlings, I think we can help the dragons. There was some special . . . ” He knit his brow as if trying to recall something. “Maybe. Well, I haven’t found anything yet that would help with dragons who can’t fly, but there might be something here, and it would be a lot easier to find if I weren’t the only one looking for it, and if Alise wasn’t telling us all that we shouldn’t bother the city, we should just let it sleep. We only just started being Elderlings, so we don’t have the memories we need to make all the magic work. But the memories are here, stored in the city, waiting for us. We just need to come here and get them and start being Elderlings. Then we can make the city work again. Then everything will get better. Once we have the magic, I mean. ”

  The cold wind swept through the silent city, and she stared at him for a long time.

  “Thymara!” he exclaimed at last in annoyance. “Stop making that face at me. You said we didn’t have much time, that you’d have to get back before dark to feed Sintara again. So we can’t just stand around like this. ”

  She gave her head a quick shake. Tried to find sense in his words, tried to make them apply to her. Elderlings. Yes, she had known that’s what their changes meant. The dragons had said so, and there was no reason to assume they would lie. Well, Sintara might lie to her, but she doubted that all the dragons would lie to their keepers. Not about something like that. And she knew that some of them had begun to resemble the images of Elderlings that she had seen in Trehaug. Not that she had seen many of them. Most of the tapestries and scrolls that had survived were things of great value, sold off through Bingtown g
enerations before she had been born. But she knew what people said, that Elderlings were tall and slender, and that their eyes were unusual colors, and that the portrayals of them seemed to indicate their skins had been different also. So she had known, yes, that she was becoming an Elderling.

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  But a real Elderling, with magic? The magic they had used to build these magnificent cities and to create their wondrous artifacts? That was to be given to the keepers also?

  To her?

  “Come on!” Rapskal commanded her imperiously. He took her arm, and she let him guide her and tried to listen to his rambling comments about the city. It was hard to keep her mind on his words. He had become inured to what surrounded them, or perhaps it had never stunned him with its strangeness and beauty as it did her. Rapskal tended simply to accept things as they came. Dragons. Becoming an Elderling. An ancient city that offered its magic to him.

  “And I think that one was just for taking baths. Can you imagine that? A whole building, just for getting clean? And that one? A place for growing things. You go inside and there’s this big room with all these pots of earth. And pictures made out of little bits of rock, um, mosaics, that was what Alise called them. Pictures of water and flowers and dragons in water and people in water and fish. Then you go into another room, and there are these really, really big tanks that used to have water in them. But they don’t now. But I learned from the stones that they used to have water in them and one was really hot and one was only warm and another was cool and then one was cold as river water. But here’s the thing. There are tanks for humans, and then, on the other side of this building, there’s an entrance for dragons, and there are tanks in there with sloping bottoms that dragons would wade right into to soak in hot water. And the roof on the other side is sloped and it’s all glass. Can you believe it, that much glass? Do you want to come inside with me and look? We could look, just for a minute, if you want. ”

  “I believe you,” she said faintly. And she did. It was easier to believe that a building that size had a sloping roof made of glass than it was for her to believe that Elderling magic could be hers. Or anyone’s. Could any of the keepers gain it? She thought of Jerd possessing Elderling magic and repressed a shudder. She halted suddenly, and Rapskal stopped, too, with an exasperated sigh.

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