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City of dragons, p.21
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       City of Dragons, p.21

         Part #3 of Rain Wild Chronicles series by Robin Hobb
 
I suggest you look to the health of your birds, including this bluewing I’m sending back to you. I have cleaned him of all lice but have noted how poorly nourished he was in my log books. His cross beak is an indication of inbreeding; are you not minding your breeding records? I suggest you be sure that the peas and grain the Guild supplies for your birds is going into their mouths and not your own.

  Chapter Nine

  RETURN TO CASSARICK

  Word of their return had preceded him. As the barge approached the city dock, he saw the waiting runner push his wet hair back from his eyes and give a quick nod to himself before darting off among the trees. Captain Leftrin had expected something of the sort. Tarman had encountered some little fishing boats upriver of Cassarick, and two had immediately shot downstream to the treetop city to spread the news: the liveship Tarman was returning from its expedition upriver. The big news would be that no dragons accompanied it.

  Leftrin had not given any details of the expedition to the fishermen. To their shouted queries, he’d responded only that he’d tie up in Cassarick soon enough and he’d report everything to the Cassarick Traders’ Council then. Knowledge was power, and he had no intent of sharing that power until he’d used it to his utmost. Let them wait a bit and wonder what had become of the malformed dragons and their keepers. Suspense was an excellent tool for keeping powerful people off balance. It gave one bargaining power. Bargaining power he suspected he was going to need.

  A winter rain was falling, shushing the river with a million tiny splashes. Water ran off the decks and back into the gray waters of the wide Rain Wild River. To either side of the river, tall dense forest loomed. The rain pattered on an infinity of leaves there, working its way down from the canopy of the trees through the layers of life and greenery, past all the strata of cottages and mansions built in the mighty tree limbs until at last it fell to the permanently sodden forest floor. It was both very familiar and suddenly strange to come back to the towering trees that lined the river. Kelsingra had shown him a terrain far out of his experience. Dry firm land and rolling hills were nice, but Leftrin suspected this would always be home for him.

  He squinted through the rain as they approached the docks. There was a strange vessel tied up there, and he scowled at the look of it. It was long and narrow, of shallow draught, fitted for both sails and oars. Bright blue paint and gold trim on the deckhouse gleamed even through the misty rain. Competition for Tarman? Perhaps the owners might think so, but he doubted it. No other vessel had ever excelled his in navigating the shallower waters of the Rain Wild River. Impervious One he read on her bow. Well, time would tell if that were true. Over his years on the river, he’d seen all sorts of boats that were supposed to be immune to the acid waters of the river. And he’d seen them all sink, eventually. Wizardwood was the only stuff that lasted.

  The driving rain made miserable work for Swarge on the barge’s tiller and was scarcely better for the rest of the crew as they maintained their façade of manning their poles and guiding the barge into the dock. They nudged past the Impervious One and found a place to tie up. Leftrin gripped the bow rail, squinting through the downpour. Through the wizardwood railing under his hands, he was aware of his ship. Tarman was grateful for the crew’s show; the rains had swelled the Rain Wild River to near flood stage; it was difficult for the liveship to keep his grip on the bottom. His hidden feet, the secret of his ability to maneuver rapidly through areas where other ships went aground, clawed at the mud, caught, lost touch, and then scrabbled again. With a lurch, Tarman brought himself alongside the docks, and Skelly leaped over the side, clutching the thick mooring line and scampering toward a heavy cleat. She secured it there and then raced aft, to catch the second line that Hennesey tossed to her. In a trice, they were safely fastened to the dock. Tarman and his captain relaxed as the crew moved through the routines of adjusting the moorage lines.

  Captain Leftrin had thought the driving rain might keep the Council members safe and dry indoors today. It had. But as the crew brought Tarman in to Cassarick’s floating dock, the drenched young runner had pelted off through the rain to the nearest stair and scampered up the steps like a tree monkey scaling a trunk. Leftrin smiled to see him go. “Well. Soon enough they’ll get word that we’ve docked. And then we’ll see how well we can play the cards we’ve been dealt. Skelly!”

  At his bark, his niece jumped nimbly from the dock to the barge and then hurried up to stand at his elbow. “Sir?”

  “You’ll stay aboard. I know your folks will be wanting to see you, and we both have some serious news to share with them. I’d like it if we were together when we let them know that your fortune has changed. That all right with you?”

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  She blinked rain from her lashes and grinned. Her family had expected that Skelly would be his heir. On the strength of that expectation, they had negotiated a profitable betrothal for her, one that she was most anxious to break now that she had met Alum and become infatuated with the quiet dragon keeper. Leftrin did not know if he and Alise would ever have a child to take over ownership of Tarman, but even if they did not, the possibility of an heir displacing her changed Skelly’s fortune completely. She was hoping the boy’s family would decline the betrothal now that her future was uncertain. Leftrin doubted that her parents would be as pleased at the prospect as she was. He didn’t want her to break the news to them alone. That he would speak for her obviously pleased her as she asked, “Is my uncle offering that service or my captain?”

  “Don’t get sassy with me, sailor!”

  “Sir, yes, regardless of who’s asking. ” She grinned insouciantly at him. “I’d like that best myself, if we did it together. And they’d expect me to stay aboard until you reported to the Council. If any of them drop by to visit me here before you get back, I’ll say nothing and tell them the story has to come from you. ”

  “Good, lass! Now I want no one else to come aboard Tarman while I’m gone. Crew family, that’s okay. Tell them little, and bid them keep what they do hear to themselves. They’ll understand. But no merchants, no Council members, and I’ll tell Hennesey no whores. He can leave the ship for that if he must, but he can’t bring any guests back with him. Not right now. ” Leftrin scratched at his wet cheek. His scaling had increased lately, and it itched constantly. Damn dragons. Probably their fault. “I’ll be giving the rest of the crew shore time, but either Swarge or Hennesey must be on board at all times. Bellin, I’ll take your list to the ship’s chandlery and have it filled and sent down. As soon as I’ve wrung our wages out of the Council, I’ll pay off the merchants and send the rest of the money here. Big Eider will go see his mother, as he always does. And you’ll stay aboard and wait until I have time to take you to visit your parents. ”

  “Yes, sir. ”

  The rest of his crew, their docking tasks completed, had drifted closer to them. They were weary and haggard, rain drenched and triumphant. He raised his voice to be heard over the rattling of the rain on Tarman’s decks. “I’m counting on all of you to trust me to strike our best deal. Mum’s the word on where we’ve been and what we’ve seen until after I finish our negotiation. Got that?”

  Swarge ran a big hand through his hair, pushing the lank strands back from his face. “It’s all agreed to, Cap. You told us before and we haven’t forgotten. Nothing for you to worry about here. Good luck. ”

  “Squeeze those bastards dry,” Hennesey suggested, and Big Eider’s broad face cracked wide in a grin of agreement.

  The others were nodding. Leftrin nodded back, and he felt their confidence in him as both armor and liability. There was a lot depending on him this time, much more than merely getting their pay for a journey accomplished. The councils were notoriously tightfisted, he thought as he returned to his stateroom. His grin looked like a snarl; he’d always wrung his contract money out of them before, and he’d do it this time, too. The signed document that had sent him and his ship on the expedition up
the river was already snugly stowed in a waterproofed tube. He hefted it approvingly. They’d live up to their terms of the bargain; they wouldn’t like it, but he’d hold them to their written words, and they’d pay out the coin they’d never expected to spend.

  Malta Khuprus sat before her mirror, drawing her comb through the gleaming gold streaks in her softly curling hair. Then she twisted it and slowly began to pin it into place. As her hands worked, almost by themselves, she stared at her reflection in the glass. When would the changes stop? Ever since she’d first come to the Rain Wilds, her body had been changing. Now the gold in her hair was literally gold, not the glossy blond that some folks called gold. The nails of her fingers were crimson. The rosy skin of her face was as finely scaled as a little tree lizard’s belly and as soft. The scarlet “crown” above her brow gleamed.

  Her scaling was edged in red; the creamy skin of her childhood still shone through the nearly translucent scales on her cheeks, but her brows were layered rows of ruby scales now. She turned her head, watching the light move over her face, and then sighed.

  “Are you well?” Reyn crossed the small room they had rented, covering the distance between them in two strides. He laid his hands on her shoulders and stooped to look at her.

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  “I’m fine. A bit tired, that’s all. ” She set her hands to the small of her back and pressed on her spine. Her back ached abominably, as it had all day. The pull of the weight in her belly could no longer be eased, not by sitting or standing. Yesterday at the negotiation table with the Tattooed diggers had been a day of torment. She’d come back to their rented room hoping to sleep.

  A wasted hope. Reclining was the most uncomfortable position of all. She’d let Reyn have the bed and slept propped up with cushions. Now she gave a small grunt of pain as she pressed on her back, and a frown of concern rippled Reyn’s brow. She pushed a smile onto her face and looked up at him in her mirror. “I’m fine,” she repeated and then took a moment to gaze at her husband. His changes were as marked as her own. His eyes gleamed a warm copper. His skin beneath the bronze highlights of his scaling was blue, as blue as the dragon Tintaglia. He smiled at her with sapphire lips. His dark curling hair had taken on steel-blue glints. Her husband. The man who had risked so much to find and claim her. “You are so beautiful,” she said, the compliment escaping her lips easily.

  Reyn’s deep eyes danced. “What prompts such wild flattery?” He cocked his head at her, his expression becoming mischievous. “Now what trinket does my lady desire? A necklace of sapphires? Or is it yet another food craving? Do you desire a platter of steamed hummingbird tongues?”

  “Ew!” Malta turned, laughing, to put an arm around her husband’s narrow hips and drew him close to her. Reyn bent to kiss lightly her scarlet crown. She shivered at the touch and tilted her head to look up at him. “Can’t I simply say something nice to you without you reminding me of what a spoiled child I was when we first met?”

  “Of course not. I’ll never miss a chance to remind you of what a brat you were. A gloriously beautiful and very spoiled brat. I was utterly charmed by your complete self-absorption. It was rather like courting a cat. ”

  “You!” she rebuked him fondly and turned back to her mirror. She set a hand on the marked swell of her belly. “And now that you’ve made me fat as a pig with your baby, I suppose I’m not as ‘gloriously beautiful’ to you. ”

  “And now she fishes for compliments! And comes up with a net full. My darling, it only makes you the more lovely to me. You glow, you gleam, you scintillate with your pregnancy. ”

  She could not control the smile that wreathed her face. “Oh, and you accuse me of flattery! Here I waddle about like a fat old duck and you try to tell me I’m lovely. ”

  “I am not the only one who says so. My mother, my sisters, even my cousins stare at you!”

  “That’s the envy that every Rain Wild woman has for a pregnant woman. It doesn’t mean they think I’m beautiful. ” She put her hands on the vanity table and pushed herself to her feet. As always, the sight of her belly in a mirror startled her. She set her narrow, long-fingered hands on the bulge and stared. Becoming an Elderling had elongated so many of her body parts; her hands, her fingers, the long bones of her arms and legs—now this round bump in the middle of her frame seemed startling. “I look as if I swallowed a melon,” she said to herself.

  Reyn looked over her shoulder into the mirror. “No. You look as if you carry our child within you. ” He slid his hands down to just beneath the curve of their child and cradled it. The nails of his hands were a midnight blue, contrasting sharply with the soft white tunic she wore. He kissed the side of her face. “There are times when I still cannot believe in my good fortune. All we went through, all the times we nearly lost each other, and now, soon, we will have—”

  “Hush!” she cautioned him. “Don’t speak it aloud. Not yet. We have been disappointed too many times. ”

  “But this time, I’m sure, all will be well. Never before have you managed to carry a child this long. You’ve felt him move, I’ve seen him move! He’s alive. And soon he will be where we can see him. ”

  “And if ‘he’ is a girl?”

  “I promise you, I will be just as content. ”

  They felt the branch that supported the small house give to someone’s tread. There came a tap at the door. They moved apart reluctantly, Malta resuming her seat before her mirror and Reyn moving swiftly to the door. “Yes?”

  “Please, sir, I’ve news!” a breathless and boyish voice responded.

  “News of what?” Reyn opened the door wider. The lad on the doorstep was no runner. His clothes were ragged and he was thin. He looked up at Reyn hopefully. Tattoos marred both his cheeks.

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  “Please, sir, I heard at the trunk market that someone named Malta Elderling would want to know about the ship what’s come in. That she might pay a penny for such news. ”

  “What news? What ship?”

  The boy hesitated until Reyn groped in his belt purse and held up a coin.

  “Tarman, sir. That boat what went out with the dragons. It’s back. ”

  Malta lurched to her feet as Reyn slid the flimsy door open. Rain from high above pattered down in stray droplets, but the runner who still stood outside was soaked with it. “Come in,” Reyn invited him, and he stepped gratefully into the chamber and over to the firepot on its baked-clay hearth. He warmed his hands, his clothes dripping water onto the rough plank floor.

  “What of the dragons?” Malta demanded.

  The lad lifted gleaming blue eyes to meet her gaze. “I saw no dragons when I went down to look. I didn’t wait to ask, lady, but only came to tell you the barge has docked. I was not the first to know, but I wished to be the first to give my news. To earn a penny, as I understood it. ” The lad looked worried.

  But Reyn was now offering him a handful of coins, and Malta nodded. “You’ve done well. Only tell me what you saw. There were no dragons with the vessel? Did you see any of the young keepers? Did the barge look battered or in good condition?”

  The runner wiped a hand over his wet face. “There weren’t any dragons. I saw only the barge and the crew working it. It didn’t look battered, but the crew looked tired. Tired and skinny and more on the ragged side than you’d expect. ”

  “You did well. Thank you. Reyn, where is my cloak?”

  Her husband saw the boy to the door before turning to look at her. “Your cloak is on the back of your chair, where you last left it. But you cannot be thinking of going out in this downpour?”

  “I must. You know I must, and you must come with me. ” She glanced around the room but saw nothing more she needed. “Fortune has favored us to be here in Cassarick! I will not lose this chance. I need to be there when Captain Leftrin reports to the Council. All they will care about is that they are rid of the dragons. I need to know how they far
ed, how many survived, where he left them, if he found Kelsingra at all . . . oh. ” She stopped abruptly and caught her breath.

  “Malta? Are you all right?”

  “I’m fine. He just kicked me, hard, right in my lungs. Took my breath away for a moment. ” She grinned. “You win, Reyn. He must be a boy. It seems that whenever I get excited about something, he must dance a jig inside me. No well-mannered little girl would do that to her mother. ”

  Reyn snorted. “As if I would expect any daughter of yours to be a ‘well-mannered little girl. ’ Darling. Why don’t you stay here and let me go in your place? I promise I will come back immediately and give you word of all I heard and saw. ”

  “No. No, dear. ” Malta was putting her cloak on. “I have to be there. If you went for me, I’d only ask you a hundred questions you hadn’t thought to ask and then be frustrated when you did not know the answers. We’ll leave a note for Tillamon so that she doesn’t worry about me if she comes by this evening. ”

  “Very well,” Reyn agreed reluctantly. He found his own cloak, still wet from an earlier outing, shook it out, and slung it around his shoulders. “I wish Selden were here. He is the one who should be handling this. ”

  “I just wish I knew where he was. It has been months now since we’ve heard from him. That last letter he sent didn’t sound like him, and it didn’t look like his hand to me. I fear something has befallen him. Yet even if my brother were here, I’d still have to go, Reyn. ”

  “I know that, my dear. We were raised in the old ways of the Traders, you and I. But even I wonder if we keep faith with a dead dragon. No one has seen her or heard rumor of her for years, now. Is she is dead and our agreements dead with her?”

  Malta shook her head stubbornly as she lifted the large hood of her cloak and set it carefully on her pinned hair. “Contracts are written on paper, not air, and signed with ink, not breath. It does not matter to me if she is dead. Regardless of what others may do, we remain bound by our signed words. ”

  Reyn sighed. “Actually, we said only that we would help the serpents and protect the serpents’ cases until the dragons hatched from them. In which case, our part of the bargain is done. ” He grimaced as he pulled up the wet hood of his cloak.

 
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