City of Dragons, p.2Part #3 of Rain Wild Chronicles series by Robin Hobb
“I am grieved that you had to be subjected to such an unsatisfactory message. ”
Silence held in the audience chamber. It was a large room with walls of rough stone that reminded all who entered that once it had been part of a fortress. The arched ceiling overhead had been painted a midnight blue with the stars of a midsummer night frozen forever there. Tall slits of windows looked out over a vista of sprawling city.
No point in this city was taller than the Duke’s hilltop citadel. Once the fortress had stood upon this peak, and within its walls a circle of black standing stones under the open sky had been a place of great magic. Tales told of how those stones had been toppled, their evil magic vanquished. Those same stones, the ancient runes on them obscured and defaced, now lay splayed out in a circle around his throne, flush to the gray flagged floor that had been laid around them. The black stones pointed to the five corners of the known world. It was said that beneath each stone there was a square pit into which the sorcerous enemies of ancient Chalced had been confined to die. The throne in the center reminded all that he sat where, of old, all had feared to tread.
The Duke moved his lips, and a page sprang to his feet and darted forward, a bowl of cool water in his hands. The boy knelt and offered it to the chancellor. The chancellor, in turn, advanced on his knees, to lift the bowl to the Duke’s lips.
He tipped his head and drank. When he lifted his face another attendant had appeared, offering the chancellor a soft cloth that he might dry the Duke’s face and chin.
Afterward, he allowed the chancellor to retreat. Thirst sated, he spoke.
“There is no other word from our emissaries in the Rain Wilds?”
The chancellor hunched lower. His robes of heavy maroon silk puddled around him. His scalp showed through his thinning hair. “No, most illustrious one. I am shamed and saddened to tell you that they have not sent us any fresh tidings. ”
“There is no shipment of dragon flesh on its way?” He knew the answers but forced Ellik to speak them aloud.
The chancellor’s face nearly touched the floor. “Radiant lord, we have no word of any shipment. I am humiliated and abashed to tell you. ”
The Duke considered the situation. It was too great an effort to open his eyes all the way. Hard to speak loud enough to make his voice carry. His rich rings of heavy gold set with massive jewels hung loose on his bony fingers and weighted down his hands. The lush robes of his majesty could not cloak his gauntness. He was wasting away, dying even as they stared at him, waiting. He must give a response. He must not be seen as weak.
He spoke softly. “Motivate them. Send more emissaries to every possible contact we have. Send them special gifts. Encourage them to be ruthless. ” With an effort he lifted his head and his voice. “Need I remind you, any of you, that if I die you will be buried with me?”
His words should have rung against the stones. Instead, he heard what his followers heard: the shrill outrage of a dying old man. Intolerable that one such as he might die without an heir-son! He should not have to speak for himself; his heir-son should be standing before him, shouting at the nobles and forcing them to swift obedience. Instead he had to whisper threats at them, hissing like a toothless old snake.
How had it come to this? He had always had sons, and to spare. Too many sons, but some had been too ambitious for his liking. Some he had sent to war, and some he had sent to the torture chamber for insolence. A few he had poisoned discreetly. If he had known that a disease would sweep away not only his chosen heir but his last three sons, he might have kept a few in reserve. But he had not. And now he was down to one useless daughter, a woman of near thirty with no children of her own and a mannish way of thinking and moving. A thrice-widowed woman with the ill luck never to have borne a child. A woman who read books and wrote poetry. Useless to him, if not dangerous as a witch. And he had no vigor left in his body to get a woman with child.
Intolerable. He could not die sonless, his name to become dust in the world’s mouth. The dragon cure must be brought to him, the rich dragon blood that would restore his youth and manhood. Then he would get himself a dozen heirs and keep them safely locked away from all mishap.
Dragon’s blood. So simple a cure, and yet none seemed able to supply it to him.
“Should my lord die, my sorrow would be so great that only interment with you would bring me any peace, most gracious one. ” The chancellor’s ingratiating words suddenly seemed a cruel mockery.
“Oh, be silent. Your flattery annoys me. What good is your empty loyalty? Where are the dragon parts that would save me? Bring me those and not your idle praise. Does no man here serve me willingly?” It demanded strength he could not spare, but this time his shout rang out. As his gaze swept them, not a one dared to meet his eyes. They cowered, and for a time, he let them recall their hostage sons, not glimpsed by any of them for many months. He let them wonder for several long moments if their heirs survived before he asked in a conversational tone, “Is there any word from the other force we sent, to follow the rumors that dragons were seen in the desert?”
The chancellor remained as he was, trapped in a frozen agony of conflicting orders.
Do you seethe within, Ellik? he wondered. Do you remember that once you rode at my stirrup as we charged into battle? Look at what the warlord and his sword arm have become: the doddering old man and the cringing servant. If you would but bring me what I need, all would be as it once was. Why do you fail me? Do you have ambitions of your own? Must I kill you?
He stared at his chancellor, but Ellik’s eyes remained cast down. When he judged that the man was close to breaking, he snapped at him, “Answer!”
Ellik lifted his eyes, and the Duke saw the fury contained behind his subservient gray gaze. They had ridden together too long, fought side by side too often for them to be completely successful at concealing their thoughts from each other. Ellik knew the Duke’s every ploy. Once he had played to them. But now his sword hand was becoming weary of these games. The chancellor took a deep breath. “As of yet, there has been no word, my lord. But the visits of the dragons to the water have been irregular, and we have ordered our force to remain where they are until they are successful. ”
“Well. At least we have not had word of their failure, yet. ”
“No, glorious one. There is still hope. ”
“Hope. You, perhaps, hope. I demand. Chancellor, do you hope that your name will survive you?”
A terrible stillness seized the man. His Duke knew his most vulnerable spot. “Yes, lord. ” His words were a whisper.
“And you, you have not only an heir-son but a second son as well?”
The Duke was gratified when the man’s voice shook. “I am so blessed, yes, gracious one. ”
“Mmm. ” The Duke of Chalced tried to clear his throat but coughed instead, the sound triggering a scuttling of servants. A fresh bowl of chilled water was offered, as was a steaming cup of tea. A clean white cloth awaited in the hands of another knee-walking servant, while yet another offered a glass of wine.
A tiny flick of his hand dismissed them all. He drew a rasping breath.
“Two sons, Chancellor. And so you hope. But I have no son. And my health fails for lack of one small thing. A simple remedy of dragon’s blood is all I have asked. Yet it has not been brought to me. I wonder: Is it right that you have so much hope that your name will remain loud in the world’s ear, while mine will be silenced for that lack? Surely not. ”
Slowly the man grew smaller. Before his lord’s stare, he collapsed in on himself, his head falling to his bent knees, and then his whole body sinking down, conveying physically his wish to be beneath his duke’s notice.
The Duke of Chalced moved his mouth, a memory of a smile.
“For today, you may keep both your sons. Tomorrow? Tomorrow, we both hope for good news. ”
Someone lifted the heavy flap of canvas that served as a door. A slice of light stabbed into the gloom but as swiftly vanished, to be replaced by yellow lamplight. The two-headed dog in the stall next to his whined and shifted. Selden wondered when the poor beast had last seen daylight, real daylight. The crippled creature had already been in residence when Selden had been acquired. For him, it had been months, perhaps as long as a year, since he had felt the sun’s touch. Daylight was the enemy of mystery. Daylight could reveal that half of the wonders and legends displayed in the tented bazaar’s shoddy stalls were either freaks or fakes. And daylight could reveal that even those with some claim to being genuine were in poor health.
The lantern light came closer, the yellow glare making his eyes water. He turned his face away from it and closed his eyes. He didn’t get up. He knew the exact length of the chains attached to his ankles, and he had tried his strength against theirs when they had first brought him here. They had grown no weaker, but he had. He lay as he was and waited for the visitors to pass. But they halted in front of his stall.
“That’s him? I thought he would be big! He’s no bigger than an ordinary man. ”
“He’s tall. You don’t notice it so much when he’s curled up like that. ”
“I can hardly see him, back in that corner. Can we go in?”
“You don’t want to go inside the reach of his chain. ”
Silence fell, and then the men spoke in low voices. Selden didn’t move. That they were discussing him didn’t interest him in the least. He’d lost the ability to feel embarrassed or even humiliated. He still missed clothing, badly, but mainly because he was cold. Sometimes, between shows, they would toss him a blanket, but as often as not they forgot. Few of those who tended him spoke his language, so begging for one did him no good. Slowly it came to his feverish brain that it was unusual that the two men discussing him were speaking a language he knew. Chalcedean. His father’s tongue, learned in a failed effort to impress his father. He did not move or give them any sign that he was aware of them, but began to listen more closely.
“Hey! Hey, you. Dragon boy! Stand up. Give the man a look at you. ”
He could ignore them. Then, like as not, they would throw something at him to make him move. Or they would begin to turn the winch that tightened the chain on his ankle. He’d either have to walk to the back wall or be dragged there. His captors feared him and ignored his claims to be human. They always tightened his chain when they came in to rake out the straw that covered the floor of his stall. He sighed and uncoiled his body and came slowly to his feet.
One of the men gasped. “He is tall! Look at the length of his legs! Does he have a tail?”
“No. No tail. But he’s scaled all over. Glitters like diamonds if you take him out in the daylight. ”
“So bring him out. Let me see him in the light. ”
“No. He doesn’t like it. ”
“Liar. ” Selden spoke clearly. The lantern was blinding him, but he spoke to the second of the two shapes he could discern. “He doesn’t want you to see that I’m sick. He doesn’t want you to see that I’m breaking out in sores, that my ankle is ulcerated from this chain. Most of all, he doesn’t want you to see that I’m just as human as you are. ”
“He talks!” The man sounded more impressed than dismayed.
“That he does. But you are wiser not to listen to anything he says. He is part dragon, and all know that a dragon can make a man believe anything. ”
“I am not part dragon! I am a man, like you, changed by the favor of a dragon. ” Selden tried to put force behind his shout, but he had no strength.
“You see how he lies. We do not answer him. To let him engage you in conversation is to fall to his wiles. Doubtless that was how his mother was seduced by a dragon. ” The man cleared his throat. “So. You have seen him. My master is reluctant to sell him but says he will listen to your offer, since you have come so far. ”
“My mother . . . ? That is preposterous! A wild tale not even a child would believe. And you can’t sell me. You don’t own me!” Selden lifted a hand and tried to shield his eyes to see the man. It didn’t help. And his words didn’t even provoke a response. Abruptly, he felt foolish. None of this had ever been about the language barrier. It had always been about their unwillingness to see him as anything other than a valuable freak.
They continued their conversation as if he had never spoken.
“Well, you know I’m only acting as a go-between. I’m not buying him for myself. Your master asks a very high price. The man I represent is wealthy, but the wealthy are stingier than the poor, as the saying goes. If I spend his coin and the dragon man disappoints him, coin is not all he will demand of me. ”
They were silhouettes before his watering eyes. Two men he didn’t know at all, arguing over how much his life was worth. He took a step toward them, dragging his chain through the musty straw. “I’m sick! Can’t you see that? Haven’t you got any decency at all? You keep me chained here, you feed me half-rotted meat and stale bread, I never see daylight . . . You’re killing me. You’re murdering me!”
“The man I’m representing needs proof before he will spend that much gold. Let me tell you plainly. For the price you are asking, you must let me send him something as a sign of good faith. If he is what you say he is, then your master will get the price he’s asking. And both our masters will be well pleased with us. ”
There was a long pause. “I will take this matter to my master. Come. Share a drink with us. Bargaining is thirsty work. ”
The men were turning. The lantern was swinging as they walked away. Selden took two more steps and found the end of his chain. “I have a family!” he shouted at them. “I have a mother! I have a sister and a brother. I want to go home! Please, let me go home before I die here!”
A brief flash of daylight was his only answer. They were gone.
He coughed, clutching at his ribs as he did so, trying to hold himself tight against the hurt. Phlegm came up and he spat it onto the dirty straw. He wondered if there was blood in it. Not enough light to tell. The cough was getting worse, he knew that.
He tottered unsteadily back to the heap of straw where he bedded. He knelt and then lay down on his side. Every joint in his body ached. He rubbed at his gummy eyes and closed them again. Why had he let them bait him into standing up? Why couldn’t he just give up and be still until he died?
“Tintaglia,” he said softly. He reached for the dragon with his thoughts. There had been a time when she was aware of him when he sought for her, a time when she had let her thoughts touch his. Then she had found her mate, and since then he had felt nothing from her. He had near worshipped her, had basked in her dragon glory and reflected it back to her in his songs.
Songs. How long had it been since he had sung for her, since he had sung anything at all? He had loved her and believed she had loved him. Everyone had warned him. They’d spoken of the glamour of dragons, of the spell of entrancement they used to ensnare humans, but he hadn’t believed them. He had lived to serve her. Worse was that, even as he lay on the dirty straw like a forgotten pet, he knew that if she ever found him again and so much as glanced at him, he’d once more serve her faithfully.
“It’s what I am now. It’s what she made me,” he said softly to the darkness.
In the next stall, the two-headed dog whined.
Day the 7th of the Hope Moon
Year the 7th of the Independent Alliance of Traders
From Kim, Keeper of the Birds, Cassarick
To Reyall, Acting Keeper of the Birds, Bingtown
Please convey to your masters that I find it extremely distasteful that an underling such as yourself has been given the assignment of conveying these disgusting allegations against me. I believe that being allowed to a
I decline to contact Trader Candral regarding this matter. He has lodged no grievance with our offices, and I am certain that if these complaints were genuine, he would have come to us in person to make his protest. I suspect the fault is not with his wax or seal but with careless handling of the confidential message cylinders within the Bingtown aviary by those assigned to manage the birds from Trehaug and Cassarick. I believe that would be you, journeyman.
If the Bingtown Bird Keepers’ Guild has a grievance with how official messages are handled in Cassarick, I suggest it send a formal complaint to the Cassarick Traders’ Council and request an investigation. I believe you will find the Council has every confidence in the Cassarick bird keepers and that it will decline to pursue such a scurrilous charge against us.
Kim, Keeper of the Birds, Cassarick
The sun had broken through the clouds. The mist that cloaked the hillside meadow by the swift-flowing river was beginning to burn off. Sintara lifted her head to stare at the distant burning orb. Light fell on her scaled hide, but little warmth came with it. As the mist rose in trailing tendrils and vanished at the sun’s touch, the cruel wind was driving in thick gray clouds from the west. It would be another day of rain. In distant lands, the delightfully coarse sand would be baking under a hot sun. An ancestral memory of wallowing in that sand and scouring one’s scales until they shone intruded into her mind. She and her fellow dragons should have migrated. They should have risen in a glittering storm of flashing wings and lashing tails and flown to the far southern deserts months ago. Hunting in the rocky uplands that walled the desert was always good. If they were there now, it would be a time to hunt, to eat to satiation, to sleep long in the heat-soaked afternoon and then to rise into the bright blue sky, coasting on the hot air currents. Given the right winds, a dragon could hang effortlessly above the land. A queen might do that, might shift her wings and glide and watch the heavier males do battle in the air below her. She imagined herself there, looking down on them as they clashed and spat, as they soared and collided and gripped talons with one another.
City of Dragons by Robin Hobb / Fantasy have rating 2.3 out of 5 / Based on35 votes