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City of dragons, p.19
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       City of Dragons, p.19

         Part #3 of Rain Wild Chronicles series by Robin Hobb

  “Tell me about the magic, Rapskal. Will we really learn it? Is it written down, like spells we could memorize, like in the old magic tales from Jamaillia? Is it in a book or a scroll? Do we have to gather magic things, the liver of a toad and . . . Rapskal, this isn’t about using dragon parts, is it? Eating part of a dragon’s tongue to be able to speak to animals and things like that?”

  “No! Thymara, that stuff isn’t real. Those are just stories for children. ” He was incredulous that she would even ask such a thing.

  “I knew that,” she said stiffly. “But you were the one who said we would have Elderling magic. ”

  “Yes. But I mean the real magic. ” He spoke as if he had just explained everything. He tried to take her hand again, and when she allowed him to do so, he tugged on it, trying to get her moving. She didn’t budge.

  “What is the real magic, then? If it’s not spells and potions?”

  He shook his head helplessly. “It’s just the magic we’ll be able to do because we’re Elderlings. Once we remember how. I don’t know that part yet. I think it’s one of the things we have to remember. I’m trying to take you to what I want you to try, but you keep stopping. Thymara, if I could just tell you about it and you’d understand, don’t you think I’d have done that? You have to come with me. That’s why I brought you here. ”

  She looked into his eyes. He met her gaze squarely. There were times when Rapskal still seemed to be the slightly daft boy she had met on the day that she left Trehaug. Times when he rattled on endlessly, chattering about nothing, seemingly fascinated by the most trivial of oddities. Then there were times when she looked at him and saw how much he had grown and changed, not just as a youth who had suddenly attained the beginnings of manhood, but as a human who had crossed a line and was now an Elderling. He was red now, as scarlet as his dragon. His eyes had a gleam in them, a lambent light that was visible almost all the time now. She looked down at the hand she clasped and saw how her blue-scaled hand fit into his scarlet one. “Show me, then,” she said quietly, and this time, when he broke into a jog and pulled her along, she ran to keep pace with him.

  He spoke as he trotted, his words broken with breathlessness. “There are a lot of memory places. Some, like some of the statues, they have just memories from one Elderling. And it’s like being that one Elderling for the time that you touch them. Those are the best kind, I think. There are other places that are all about everything. And some that are just telling the laws or who lives in a house or who a business belongs to. There are some that are poems and music. And then there are some on the avenues that are, well, everything that has ever happened there. I think you could just stand there, day after day, and see everyone who ever passed by and hear what they said and smell what they ate and everything. I didn’t see much use in that myself. ”

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  He turned from the main avenue, away from the towering buildings, down a more modest street. These structures were homes, she found she knew. She tried to imagine a family requiring more than one door, and sometimes a second or even third story. There were balconies on some of them, and some had flat roofs with railings around the edges. Thymara had grown up in tiny structures built high in trees. If she stood and stretched out her arms in her bedchamber in her father’s house in Trehaug, she could touch both walls. And the ceiling. How could people need or use so much space?

  Rapskal turned a corner, and she hastened beside him as he followed an uphill boulevard. The paved road was wide; she had never seen such a wide path. The houses here were staggered, looking out over one another toward the river. Gigantic pots held the skeletons of long-dead trees. Troughs of earth by doorways had once been small gardens. Dry bowls had cupped fountains.

  She knew these things. Knew them as if someone had whispered them into her ear the moment she wondered. The gleaming stone, black with sparkling veins or sometimes gleaming white threaded with silver, spoke to her. They tugged at her with memories. She shook her head and focused herself on what Rapskal was saying to her.

  “But then I found these two, and I listened to him for a while and I thought, Yes, that’s what I want to know and who I want to be. And she was right there next to him, and he told me all about her and I thought, Well, that’s almost like Thymara, and she could be her. And once we both take all that, then we’ll know more, to make the city work and maybe help the dragons. ”

  She was losing her breath as she trotted alongside him. “I still don’t understand, Rapskal. ”

  “We’re here. They can explain a lot better than I can. See? What do you think?”

  She stared where he pointed and saw nothing unusual. The street ended in a cul-de-sac on the top of the hill. The entrance to the house at the top was framed by a series of open arches supported by stone pillars that glistened black and silver in the winter sunlight, marching in pairs toward the entry. To the left, they were marked with smiling suns. Those on the right each bore a gleaming silver medallion of a full moon smiling with a woman’s features.

  “Let me show you. It’s so much easier than talking about it. ” Rapskal pulled her forward. When they reached the first arch, he halted.

  Thymara looked around. There were urns full of earth by each arch. “Vines,” she said, and abruptly she remembered them, the glossy dark leaves and the multitudes of tiny white flowers in clusters. They had bloomed in the heat of summer every year, and their sweet fragrance had scented every room in the house. There had been a fruit that followed, tiny clusters of bright orange berries that had no name in her language but were “gillary,” and every autumn, they had made a wine from them, one that kept the orange hue of the berries. It had been potent and sweet.

  She swayed a little on her feet as she blinked her way back into her own life. She tried to take a few steps backward, but Rapskal tightened his grip on her hand. “Not like that,” he told her. “Well, you can, but then it’s all in pieces. Like coming up to a storyteller at a trunk market when he’s in the middle of telling the tale and only getting a part of the story. That’s not how they saved it for us. It’s all here, in order, in the pillars. We should start with the first ones. The moon ones are for you. ”

  “How do you know?” She still felt disoriented. For a time, long or short, she could not tell, she had been in another time. More than that, she realized. She had been another person. She pulled her hand free of his and took two steps back. “Drowning in memories! That’s what they meant. Rapskal, this is dangerous. My father warned me about stones like this! They pull you in and fill your mind with stories and you forget how to come back and be yourself. After a while, you’re just lost, not in that life and not in this one. How can you even think of doing this? You’re a Rain Wilder! You know better than this. What is the matter with you?”

  She was horrified. It was bad enough that he would indulge in such a dangerous pastime. And monstrous that he had tried to drag her into it.

  “No,” he said. “It’s not like that. ”

  She turned away from him.

  “Thymara, please, just listen to me. Everything you know about memory stone and drowning in it is wrong. Because the people you learned it from, well, this wasn’t for them. It’s for us, for Elderlings. Look around the city and see how much there is of it. You’ve heard the whispers; I know you have. Would they have put this stone everywhere if it was so dangerous? No. They put it here because, to Elderlings, it’s not dangerous. It’s important. We need these stones. We need to use them to become who we are meant to be. ”

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  “I don’t need them. I have my own life, and I won’t lose it to something stored in stone. ”

  “Exactly!” He looked delighted at her assertion. “You don’t lose it. You find it. Think about the dragons, Thymara. They have memories that go way back, to their mothers and great-great-grandfathers. But they don’t lose their lives. They just have what they need to know how to be dragon
s. Elderlings needed the same thing, but they weren’t born with it like dragons. To be companions to dragons, they needed to remember a lot more than just one human lifetime. So this is how they did it. They stored it. They stored their lives so that other Elderlings could have their memories. ” He shook his head, his eyes wide and his thoughts far away. “The special stone can hold so much, do so much. I don’t understand it all, yet. But I’m learning a lot, every time I come here. And one thing I do know is that because I’m an Elderling, I’ll likely live a long time, so I have time to learn things. The stone tells you things fast, like a minstrel singing the whole song of a hero’s life in just a few hours. ” He shifted his pale gaze back to her, and his whole face was lit with excitement.

  “Here’s the thing, Thymara. I’ve done things in these stones that I’ve never done in this life. I’ve been places, faraway places where their sailing ships used to go. I’ve hunted for big deer and killed one all by myself. I’ve been over those mountains, trading with the people who used to live on the far side of them. I’ve been a warrior and a leader of other warriors. I live in their memories, and they live in me. ”

  She had been caught up in his words, tempted wildly right up until he said that. “They live in you,” she said slowly.

  “A little bit,” he dismissed it. “Sometimes, in the middle of something else, one of their memories will pop up in my mind. It doesn’t hurt anything; it’s just something extra for me to know. Or maybe I want to sing a song he knew, or cook some meat a certain way. Thymara”—he cut in hastily as she tried to ask more questions—“we don’t have that much time here. Just try it with me. Just one try, and if you don’t like it, I’ll never ask you to do it again. You can’t drown in memories if you only do it once. Everyone knows that! And because you’re an Elderling, I don’t think you can drown at all, even if you do it a thousand times. Because we’re supposed to. That’s what the memory stone in the city is all about. Just try it. ” He looked deep into her eyes. “Please. ”

  His gaze trapped her. It was so earnest. So loving. She felt her breath catch. “What do we do?” She could scarcely believe she was asking the question.

  “Only what you’ve already done. Only with purpose. Here. Give me your hand,” and he took her black-clawed hand into his narrow, sleekly scarlet fingers. His scaling whispered against her skin. “I’m going with you. I’ll be right here beside you. You hold my hand, and you set your hand to that pillar, because it was hers. And I’ll put my hand on this one, because it was his. These first pillars, this is where they begin. ”

  His scaled hand was warm and dry in hers. The stone pillar was smooth and chill under her touch.

  Sintara was hungry. It was Thymara’s fault. The stupid girl had brought her only a couple of fish in the very early morning. She had promised her more food later. Promised that she would be back before evening and that before dark she would bring her meat. Promised her.

  The dragon lashed her tail angrily. The promise of a human. What was that worth? She shifted unhappily, feeling as if emptiness had filled her belly and was now climbing up her throat. She was hungry, not again, but still. She tried to remember the last time she had felt full. Days ago, when Heeby had driven the hoofed herd over the cliffs to their deaths. All the dragons had descended on the riverbank for that glorious feed. Hot meat, running blood . . . the memory was a torment to her now. That was what she needed. Not a couple of cold fish that did not even fill her mouth, let alone her belly.

  Sintara lifted her head and then reared onto her back legs, sniffing the air. Her tongue forked out, tasting for scents. All she scented were the other dragons and their keepers. The riverbank and the open meadow and the deciduous forest that backed it were not as confining as the hatching beach at Cassarick, but they were rapidly becoming as trodden and smelly. Dragons were not creatures to be corralled like cattle, doomed to wander through their own droppings and trampled paths. Yet even without fences or thick rain forest, they were confined here.

  Only Heeby was truly free. She flew and hunted and fed. She came back to this place only out of affection for her half-wit keeper. Sintara dropped back onto all fours. And Thymara had gone off with Heeby and Rapskal that morning. Was that what her keeper expected of her? That she should learn to fly so that she could be a mount for Thymara and her friends?

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  She’d sooner eat them.

  Her stomach clenched again. Where was the girl?

  Reluctantly, because it was not fitting that a dragon seek a human, let alone admit that she needed her aid, she reached out to touch minds with Thymara.

  And could not find her. She was gone.

  What shocked her was not just that the girl was gone but the depth of her own dismay. Gone. Thymara was gone. Gone most likely meant dead, because it was unlikely that her keeper could have moved so far physically as to make contact difficult, or so quickly learned sufficient control of her thoughts that she could block the dragon from touching her. So her keeper was dead. Her supplier of easy meat and fish was gone. Sintara’s mind leaped to the next step. She’d have to have another keeper. But all of them were taken, unless she focused on Alise again, and Alise was hopeless as a hunter. Amusing to taunt, and excellent at flattery, but useless when one was hungry.

  Taking another dragon’s keeper would likely mean a fight. She was not the only dragon who was still painfully dependent on her keeper. And the sad truth was that Thymara had been the best of the lot. Not only could she hunt, she had a mind and some spirit that added spice to their frequent clashes. Her only real alternatives to Thymara were Carson and Tats. The hunter belonged to Spit, and she had no wish to do battle with the nasty little silver. He was potently venomous now and malevolently clever. Besides, Carson was not someone she could bully. Spit had been loud all day long in his complaints that his keeper was starving him in an attempt to force him to fly. She had no desire to accept such an iron-willed keeper.

  Tats belonged to Fente, and for a moment, Sintara relished the idea of ripping apart the nasty little green queen. Except that if she struck out at any female, all the males would intervene, especially Mercor. Outnumbered as the males were, they viewed a threat to any of the females as a danger to the possibility that they might someday mate. Not that any of them had much chance of that.

  Sintara huffed in anger and felt the poison sacs swell in her throat. The entire situation was completely unacceptable. How had her foolish keeper managed to kill herself in such a way that Sintara had not even noticed? The previous times that Thymara had encountered danger, Sintara’s head had been full of her shrill squeaking and squealing. So what had happened to her?

  The answer came to her instantly. Heeby. It was the red dragon’s fault. She’d probably dropped her in the river, to sink like a stone. Or in her dimness, she’d forgotten the girl was Sintara’s keeper and had eaten her. The mere thought that the half-wit red dragon had dared to eat her keeper filled Sintara with fury. She reared onto her hind legs and then came down with a crash, whipping her head on her serpentine neck, stimulating her poison glands to full action. Where was the damned little red newt? She flung her consciousness wide and touched her, and her fury roared to fresh flames. Heeby was asleep! Fat and full-bellied, she sprawled asleep beside her third kill of the day. She hadn’t even eaten it all: Sintara could sense how Heeby smelled the pleasing odor of bloody flesh as she slept.

  It was too much, insult upon injury. The little scarlet queen would pay, and Sintara did not care how much Mercor or anyone else objected.

  Tail lashing, she strode through the scattered trees and out onto the open hillside that fronted the riverbank. She would find Heeby and she would kill her. She could feel her eyes growing scarlet with blood, feel how their colors spun and how her blue wings flushed with blood and color as she unfolded them and shook them out. They were strong, stronger than they had been when she’d hatched, stronger than they had been the time she’d
managed that first long glide that had ended so ignominiously in the river. She could fly. The only thing that had been holding her back was foolish caution, her unwillingness to fail before the others or to risk it all in a long glide out over the river. But those fears and cautions were gone, burned away by her fury. Heeby had killed her keeper, and Sintara would not tolerate that insult. The red queen would pay!

  She looked at the wide open hillside before her and at the swift cold river at the bottom of it. So be it. She opened her wings and sprang into the air. Beat, beat, touch the ground, beat, beat, beat, touch the ground but more lightly, beat, beat, beat, beat . . .

  And suddenly there was a gust of wind off the water and she caught it under her wings and lifted on it. She stroked her wings more strongly, tucking her forelegs to her chest and stretching her back legs into alignment with her tail, until she offered only smoothness and no resistance to the air. Her wings propelled her forward as her head cleaved the wind. Flying. Her body reached for memories of how to do this and she allowed it, refusing to let her mind interfere. Flying was like breathing, not a thing to ponder but a thing to do.

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  She caught another updraft and rose on it, and caught, too, the trumpeting of dragons from far below. She beat her wings more strongly. Let them look at her, let them see that she, the blue queen Sintara, had achieved full flight before any of them! She tipped her wings to circle wide over them, filled her lungs, and trumpeted her triumph to the skies. Flying! A dragon was flying! Let all look up in awe!

  She glanced down—and saw nothing but moving water below her and felt a lurch of terror. Memories of being trapped and tumbled in the icy flow for a moment overwhelmed her unthinking flight. For a terrifying instant, she forgot how to fly, forgot everything except the danger of the river. Her forelegs twitched reflexively in a swimming motion, and she lashed her tail. Falling. She was falling, not flying, and then as full panic set in and she beat her wings frantically, she rose again. But the smooth effortlessness of flight was broken. She felt too clearly the uneven musculature of her wings; sudden weariness made her wings feel heavy. Flight was work, hard work, and she had had almost nothing to eat today, and not much more the day before.

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