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City of dragons, p.20
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       City of Dragons, p.20

         Part #3 of Rain Wild Chronicles series by Robin Hobb
 

  All thoughts of vengeance on Heeby, all fear of the river was suddenly cast out by her overwhelming hunger. She needed food, needed fresh bloody meat now, at any cost. The urgency of her hunger steadied her. Hunt and feed or die, her body told her. It had no patience with her vanity or fear. Hunt and feed. She poured all her effort into the beating of her wings and circled wider, taking her flight over the keepers’ pathetic settlement and beyond, back into the hills and valleys. She opened all her senses to the need for sustenance.

  And then she glimpsed them, a small group of horned creatures making its way along a stony ridge. The animals were in clear view, but soon they would vanish into the trees . . .

  They became aware of her almost as soon as she spotted them. Two broke from the group, galloping wildly toward the trees, but the other four craned their necks and stared stupidly up at her as she dived on them.

  Sintara’s weaker wing buckled just before she hit them, sending her slewing to one side. But her wide reaching claws still laid one open, shoulder to woolly hip, and she landed on top of another. It bleated once as they tumbled together, a most ungainly and bruising landing for a dragon. Then Sintara clutched it to her breast, snaked her head down, and seized it in her jaws. Her mouth enveloped its bony head as her forelegs squeezed its ribs. It was dead before she and the creature skidded to a halt on the steep and rocky hillside. Dead but only just as she tore at it frantically, heedless of bone and horn and hoof as she ripped it into chunks she could gulp down whole.

  Feeding in such a way was painful. She swallowed convulsively, not pausing to enjoy any part of it. When it was gone, she hunched, head down, simply breathing past the burden of the food moving through her gullet. There was no sense of satiation, only discomfort.

  There was a bleat, and Sintara lifted her head. Another creature! The one she had scored in passing! It was down, kicking all four legs in a way that said it would soon be dead. Sintara clawed her way up the steep hillside, feeling rocks displaced by her feet tear free and bound down the hill behind her. She didn’t care. She gained ground and then literally fell upon her prey. She clutched it to her, feeling the precious warmth of fresh blood and, almost tenderly, closed her jaws on it, squeezing the breath out of it. Moments later, it shuddered and was still. Only then did she drop it.

  This animal she ate in a more leisurely fashion, clawing its belly open and eating the tender, steaming entrails before shearing off satisfyingly large pieces of meat with her ranks of sharp teeth. When she had swallowed the last bite, she sank down slowly on the bloody site of her kill, sighed out a deep breath, and sank into a stupefied sleep.

  She was in love with him as she had never loved any of the other men in her life. Their courtship had been slow and delicious, a delicate dance of shyness and uncertainty, followed by the warlike strategies that her jealous nature and his charming ways were bound to provoke. All of their friends had cautioned both of them against taking the relationship too seriously. She knew how his friends had warned him of her, knew that they thought her jealous and possessive. Well, she was. And she was determined to have him, for herself alone, forever. Never had she felt that way about any other men she had taken to her bed.

  Her own companions had warned her she could not hold him. Tellator was too handsome for her, too clever and charming. “Be content with Ramose,” they had urged her. “Go back to him; he’ll take you back and with him you will always be comfortable and safe. Tellator is a warrior, always going into danger, called away at a moment’s notice. He will always put his duty ahead of whatever he feels for you. Ramose is an artist, like you. He will understand your moods. He will grow old with you. Tellator may be handsome and strong, but can you ever be sure he will come home at night?”

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  But she had lived too long in comfort and safety; that was no longer what she wanted. And she could not ignore Ramose’s infidelities. If all of her was not enough for him, then let him have none of her and seek what he needed elsewhere. As she, Amarinda, had sought and found Tellator.

  She awaited Tellator in the garden court outside a little gaming parlor, a venue so discreet and select that it did not even hang a blue lantern by its door to attract its clientele. She had left Tellator throwing the bones of chance with a tubby little merchant newly come to Kelsingra, and she walked through the open doors and out into the summer evening. The music of trickling water in one fountain vied with the leaping flames of a dragon fount in the center of the garden. Evening-blooming jasmine trailed from hanging pots, scenting the air. She found a bench in a very private corner of the grounds and took a seat there. A serving girl, a pretty barefoot child clothed in the shimmering colors of the gaming parlor, followed her and asked if she wished refreshments. After a short time, the girl returned with apricot biscuits and a gentle spring wine. She dismissed the girl, assuring her that she need not return.

  Amarinda sipped her wine. And waited.

  She knew the risk she took. She was making him choose. He had lifted his eyes briefly as she departed. He could remain where he was, in the light and glitter and sparkle of the gaming parlor with his friends. There was music there and sweet smoke and rare cinnamon wine from the South Islands. And one of the players at the gaming table was a slender Elderling minstrel, newly arrived in Kelsingra from a city in the north, her scaling gold and cobalt around her eyes and the rumors of her amorous skills as exotic and varied as the notes she plucked from her harp. Tellator had looked at her and smiled. Amarinda had smiled, too, as she departed the gathering and left him there to choose, knowing that it was really to herself that she was giving the ultimatum. If she did not win him this night, if he did not forsake all other pleasures to come to her, then she would never give him another chance.

  Because the risk to her own heart was too great. She had come to care for him too deeply. If he did not reciprocate fully, then her only choice was to turn aside. She had loved like that once before and vowed never to do so again.

  The chained moments of the evening slipped by. The night grew cooler, and so did her heart. The dark jewels set in the walls of the garden awoke, and their soft glow gave back to the night the light they had stolen from the day. There were caged crickets in the garden. They sang for a time, and then stopped as the night deepened. Her heart grew emptier by the moment. Finally, she rose to go. Leaning forward over the small table, she pinched out the flame of the rose-scented candle as if she were pinching a dead blossom from a flowering plant.

  She straightened and sighed and as she turned, she walked straight into his arms. In the dimness of the garden, he dared to enclose her in his embrace. “Here you are!” He spoke softly, his voice muffled by her hair. “Someone said you had left. I’ve been all the way to your home, where I made a complete fool of myself with your servants before I came back here. I even sought you at your shop, but the door was locked and windows dark. Coming back here was my final resort. They didn’t want to let me back into the parlor; they are trying to close for the night. ”

  In her surprise at the encounter, she had raised both her hands. They rested now, flat against the starched lace of his shirt front. The solid muscles of his chest were warm beneath her hands. She should just push him away. Or should she? Were his words true, or an excuse for coming to her only after he had dallied at his game and flirtation? Indecision held her motionless in his arms. She breathed in his smells as if he, too, were a night-blooming plant. The cinnamon wine spiced his breath. His skin smelled of sandalwood.

  And nothing else, she realized. Her rival had reeked of patchouli, as if she had bathed in it, drunk it, and then drenched her clothes in it. But Tellator did not. She let her hands slip around him, finding no words to say. A seed of doubt had been planted in her heart and nourished by the delay, a delay created by her own foolish plan to test him. Had he mastered her challenge?

  “Amarinda,” he said, his voice gone suddenly husky. He pulled her firmly to him, pressed
the length of his body against hers so that she could feel how much he desired her. She lifted her face to counsel him to restraint, but his head darted down and his mouth seized hers in a kiss. She tried to turn her head aside, but he would not let her. Instead he held the kiss and deepened it, pushing her back and then astonishing her when he lifted her onto the table. “Here,” he said, and, “Now,” he demanded. He pushed the panels of her skirts aside and set his warm hands on her knees to open her legs.

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  “We cannot! Tellator, not here, not like this!” She was horrified, not only by his assumption that she would agree but also by her body’s hungry response to him.

  “Oh, but we can. And I must. I cannot wait, not another moment. Not another breath. ”

  Something. Distress. Danger.

  Thymara pried her eyes open. She was sitting, not on a table in a garden on a warm summer evening but on the hard stone steps with a chill winter day dying around her. Yet she was not cold. She was panting still with the passion she had shared, and Amarinda’s heat and desire still warmed her. She cleared her throat, coughed, and then was suddenly aware that she held his hand. Tellator looked at her from Rapskal’s eyes. “Here,” he said quietly. “And now. There is no better time than this. ”

  He set his long, scaled hand to the line of her jaw and lowered his face to hers. Rapskal kissed her knowingly, his mouth moving gently on hers. She was paralyzed with desire and wonder. Where did they stop, where did they begin? It was all one. The man who knelt suddenly on the steps before her, opening her worn blouse to his greedy kisses was not a clumsy boy but a skilled lover. Her own skilled lover, long schooled to what would most stir her. There was nothing new in how he touched her or what she longed to do with him. She gasped at the touch of his teeth and put her hand on the back of his head. Her fingers tangled in his dark hair, and she guided his mouth against her. She sighed his name and he laughed softly, his mouth still against her skin. “Rapskal,” he corrected her. “But you can call me Tellator. Just as I can call you Amarinda. ” He lifted his face to smile deep into her eyes. “Do you see now, Thymara? Do you understand? Everything we need to know about being Elderlings, we can learn here. Even this. And you won’t fear it anymore, because you’ve already done it. And you know how good it will be between us. ”

  She didn’t want him to talk. She didn’t want him to pause, didn’t want to think about what she was going to do. He was right. She didn’t need to. Others had made all the decisions for them, all those years ago. She leaned back, letting him do as he knew she wished.

  “I didn’t fear this,” she told him breathlessly. “It was just . . . ” She lost her words and her thought in his touch. Why had she been so reluctant?

  “I didn’t think you did, really. ” His voice was deep with pleasure as he fumbled at his clothing. “I knew Jerd was wrong when she said that you were afraid, that watching was as much as you’d ever want to do. ”

  Jerd? The name was like a bucket of cold water dashed against her. Thymara jerked back from Rapskal and then hitched away from him, pulling her shirt closed over her breasts. “Jerd?” she demanded of him, incensed. “Jerd! You discussed my doing this with Jerd? You took her advice on how best to accomplish what you wanted?” Fury washed through her, drowning desire. Jerd. She could just imagine her laughing, mocking, making lewd suggestions to Rapskal as to just how he could persuade her to mate with him. Jerd!

  She shot to her feet, her arousal vanished. Her fingers flew as she refastened her clothing. She sought for furious words and couldn’t find any sharp enough to fling at him. Turning away from him, she stared at the wall feeling dizzied, almost ill. It had all changed too swiftly. She had been Amarinda and so infatuated with Tellator. Then she had entered that odd middle ground in which she had felt as if she possessed two lives and had absolutely no qualms about sharing herself with him. Now she didn’t even want to look at him.

  I’ll have to hold on to him when I fly back on Heeby. That intrusive thought only intensified her anger. Right now, all she wanted was to walk away from him and never speak to him again. Jerd. He’d gossiped about her with Jerd! Believed that Jerd knew what she was talking about.

  “Thymara! It wasn’t like that!” Rapskal stumbled to his feet, stuffing himself back inside his trousers and tying up the ragged drawstring. “I was just there, and Jerd was talking to some of the others. It wasn’t that I asked her advice. Some of us were just sitting around a fire a few nights ago, talking, and someone said something about Greft and missing him despite all he had done. And she agreed, and talked about him a bit, and then she told how sometimes you’d follow them and watch them when they were mating. And she was the one making mock and saying it was probably as much as you’d ever do. Saying you were pretending that you were saving your virginity or didn’t want to get pregnant, but actually you were just afraid of doing it. ”

  Thymara spun back to stare at him in horror. “She talked like that about me in front of everyone? In front of who? Who was she talking to? Who heard all this?”

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  “I don’t know . . . some of us. We just get together in the evenings, to sit around a fire like we used to. Um, I was there, but Jerd wasn’t really talking to me. She was talking to Harrikin. Kase and Boxter were there, I think. And maybe Lecter. And I just, I just listened. That was all. I didn’t say anything. ”

  “So no one defended me? Everyone just sat there and let her talk about me like that?”

  Rapskal cocked his head at her. “Then it’s not true that you used to watch them?”

  “Yes. No! I watched them once. By accident. Sintara said they were hunting and that I should go join them. So I went to where they were and I saw what they were doing. That was all. ” Well, not quite all, but as much as she would admit to. She’d been trapped in horrified fascination and she had neither left nor taken pains to let them know she was there. It was only fair, she told herself. If Jerd could wildly exaggerate what she had done, then she could cut it back in her own telling.

  “Then it’s not because you’re afraid? I mean, that you’re still a virgin. ”

  She knew what he meant. “No. I’m not afraid. Not afraid of mating, but yes, I’m afraid of getting pregnant. Look what happened to Jerd. She had a miscarriage. But what if she’d carried the baby to term and then it needed all sorts of things we didn’t have? Or if she had the baby, and then she died and we all had to take care of it? No. Now is not the time for me to be taking that kind of a chance. Or for Jerd to be doing it with everyone. She’s just selfish, Rapskal. Look how she behaved when she was pregnant, expecting everyone to care for her dragon and to do her share of the chores and give her more than her share of the food. She liked everyone scrambling around to make her life easy. ” Thymara pulled her cloak closer around her. She was cold now, she realized. How long had they been here in the city, standing still in the chill winter day? All the warmth she had recalled had fled. The tips of her ears and the tops of her cheeks burned with chill. “I want to go back now. ” She spoke the words sullenly.

  Rapskal’s response came slowly. “Not quite yet, we can’t. Heeby made a kill and ate a lot. She’s still sleeping. ”

  She folded her arms tightly around her. “I’m going inside somewhere. Out of the wind. Call me when we can leave. ”

  “Thymara, please. Wait. There’s something important you should know. ”

  She ignored him, walking away. She didn’t want to go into Amarinda’s house. She knew what she would see there. Oh, doubtless the rich wooden furniture and the embroidered tapestries and thick woolen carpets were gone. But the frescoed walls of her Bird Room and the deep marble tubs of her bath would still be there. And she didn’t want to see them and remember more things. Didn’t want to recall making love with Tellator in the deep warm waters of that bath, his muscled soldier’s body filling her arms.

  The thought tugged at her, and she nearly t
urned around. She did want more of it, did want to experience all their amorous adventures together. She was tired of being cold, and now that she was all the way back in her own body, she was hungry, too. It would be so easy to go back into that house and become Amarinda again.

  Being Thymara had never been all that much fun. And it did not seem as if it was going to become more enjoyable any time soon.

  Abruptly, she felt icy cold all over, and she strangled as if she could not take a breath of air. The cold was so sharp it was like being stabbed by knives. It tumbled her, and she felt disoriented. She coughed and drew in a breath.

  “Thymara?” There was alarm in Rapskal’s voice. “Are you all right?”

  “Sintara!” She shrieked her dragon’s name as she jerked her head up straight and stared all around, as if to see what she was feeling so palpably. “She’s drowning! She’s fallen in the river and she’s drowning!”

  Day the 25th of the Change Moon

  Year the 7th of the Independent Alliance of Traders

  To Kim, Keeper of the Birds, Cassarick

  From Detozi, Keeper of the Birds, Trehaug

  Kim, you are a fool. All cotes and lofts, public and private, are being inspected. No one has reported you or singled you out. As you yourself noted, most likely this plague of deadly lice began in the Wilds and is afflicting us all.

  My first temptation was to turn your most recent note over to the Guild, as it contains not only an insult but a threat. You may thank Erek that I have restrained myself, for he pointed out that at this time the Guild must focus itself on saving our remaining birds. Bear in mind that I shall save your correspondence, and if any mishaps befall my cotes, lofts, or birds, I will not hesitate to present it to the Guild.

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