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City of dragons, p.22
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       City of Dragons, p.22

         Part #3 of Rain Wild Chronicles series by Robin Hobb
 

  “I was raised to keep the spirit of an agreement, not just the letter of it,” Malta responded tartly. Then, as she realized it was her aching back that was driving her to quarrel with him over their old disagreement, she changed the subject slightly. “I wonder if that woman has returned safely, that Alise Finbok. She gave me such comfort and heart on the day she said she would go with them. She spoke so confidently and learnedly about Kelsingra. ”

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  Malta turned to look at her husband. His eyes were a lambent blue within his hood’s shadows. He spoke reluctantly. “I’ve heard rumors that she was actually fleeing her husband and running off with his servant. There was some talk that her husband had disowned her, but that her father and the servant’s family were seeking news of them, even offering a reward for any word. ”

  Malta felt a pang of deep dismay. She pushed it aside. “I don’t care about any of that. She spoke like someone well versed in ancient things. The way she described the city, it was as if she had already walked there. She might have been fleeing her husband; she would not be the first wife to do so. But I think she was also bound toward something. So. Let’s go out into the rain and down to the Council Hall. We’ll learn no more about the expedition standing here. ”

  “Take my arm, then. The walkways may be slippery. I know better than to try to talk you out of this, but at least I shall beg you to be cautious. ”

  “I won’t fall. ” She took his arm nonetheless and was glad of it when he opened the door. A wind curled into the room, full of damp and chill. “If it’s blowing like this under the trees, what is it like out on the river?” she wondered aloud.

  “Worse,” Reyn replied succinctly as he closed the flimsy door behind them. “And no, you won’t fall, because I won’t let you. But be cautious in more than that. Please, do not let the Council excite or upset you. ”

  “If anyone becomes excited or upset, I’ll wager it will be them,” Malta replied sanguinely.

  It was early afternoon, but it was winter and perpetually dim this far under the canopy of the great trees. Reyn held her arm tightly as they ventured along the narrow path from their tree branch to the main branch. When it joined a wider way on a thicker tree limb, she felt him relax. He was native to the Rain Wilds and its tree-built communities. She had come here when she was almost grown and felt she had adapted to it well. Usually she moved confidently even on the narrowest paths and when crossing the swaying bridges that connected the neighborhoods of the tree cities. But in these last few months, the burgeoning child in her belly had unbalanced her normally slight body. She held Reyn’s arm firmly, unabashedly claiming his aid and protection. They’d suffered four miscarriages since they were wed; she would take no foolish misstep out of pride now!

  The tree-house city, typical of all Rain Wild settlements, spread out in every direction around her. Above her in the higher branches dangled the smaller, flimsier houses of the poor; deep in the shadowy depths below her where the tree limbs were thick and sturdy, she looked down on mansions, warehouses, and the sturdy walls and windows of the Rain Wild Traders’ Hall. Yellow lamplight lit those windows from within.

  The Cassarick Rain Wild Traders’ Hall was the newest Trader Hall to be built, and there was still some grumbling among the Rain Wilders about its independent stance from Trehaug. For years, there had been only one Rain Wild Traders’ Hall, and that had been the one in Trehaug. The Rain Wild Traders and the Bingtown Traders had been two halves of a whole, united by a shared history of hardship. With the opening of the new Trader Hall in Cassarick, younger sons and lesser Trader families had come suddenly into more power than they’d ever had before. The politics were still settling. Greed and the need to be decisive had put a sharper edge on their Traders’ Council. Malta did not entirely trust them to hold to the old Trader standards of equality and the absolute enforcement of signed agreements.

  She saw that she and Reyn were not the only folk bound for the hall, and by this Malta judged that the word had spread of the Tarman’s arrival. Other Rain Wilders were emerging from their homes and onto the walkways that led to the Council Hall. Robed Traders hastened down the winding staircases that necklaced the immense tree trunks. The tidings that would await them there would affect everyone. Still, she did not hurry to get a good seat. She was Malta Khuprus, not only an Elderling but wife to Reyn Khuprus, second son of a powerful Rain Wild Trader family. His older brother Bendir might control the family vote, but he relied on the information Reyn brought him in deciding how to cast that vote. Neither she nor Reyn could claim an official seat at the Council table, but she would be heard. On that she was resolved.

  Wind gusted against them, flapping her cloak and tearing leaves from the surrounding trees. Sturdy railings of woven vines edged the path they traveled. Beyond their safety, she saw only thick branches, dense greenery, and small houses dancing in the wind as they dangled from the trees’ great branches like peculiar fruit. The unseen marshy ground was a long fall below them. She gripped Reyn’s arm and let him lead.

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  Leftrin had deliberately taken his time. He’d gone to the bird handlers first, and there sent off the messages that had been entrusted to him before he’d left Kelsingra. It had cost him more than he’d expected. Some sort of bird sickness had put message service at a premium. Some of the birds would have a short flight. Several of the keepers had chosen to send messages back to Trehaug to let their families know they were safe. There had been two death notices to send as well. Greft’s and Warken’s families needed to know what had become of their sons. Greft had been a trial to the captain, but his death was still a tragedy and his family deserved to be first to know of it. Last, he had posted Sedric’s and Alise’s missives to their families in Bingtown. All the way downriver to Cassarick he’d agonized over the wisdom of sending those. He’d urged all of them to be circumspect in what they told people about Kelsingra and how they had arrived there, but he had not read any of the messages. By the time this day was over, people in Cassarick would know as much as he intended to tell them, and message birds would be flying in all directions. Best to see that the messages from his friends had a chance of reaching their families first.

  By the time he reached the ship’s supply store, he’d acquired several followers. Two small boys tagged at his heels, loudly announcing to anyone they encountered that this was Captain Leftrin, back from his expedition. This led to handshakes and questions that he courteously refused to answer. One young man, probably a gossipmonger, had trailed him for some way, peppering him with a score of questions, only to be frustrated by Leftrin’s insistence that he would report first to the Council. One other, a man wearing a long, hooded gray cape, had hung back and not spoken to him at all but followed at a more than discreet distance. Once Leftrin was aware of him, he took care to remain so. The man was a stranger, and in the brief glimpses the captain had had of him, he did not move with the easy familiarity of the treetop born. He was no Rain Wilder. Dread uncoiled in Leftrin’s chest as he speculated about just who the man might serve.

  At the ship’s supply, Leftrin ordered the preserved foods and basic necessities that would restock his ship’s larder. Oil, flour, sugar, coffee, salt, ship’s biscuit . . . Bellin’s list seemed endless. He also bought every sheet of paper and bottle of ink that the store possessed, as well as a stock of new quills. He smiled as he did so, imagining Alise’s pleasure at this trove. He asked that all the supplies be sent immediately down to the Tarman. He’d traded there for years, ever since the store had opened, and it did not take much to persuade the owner to accept his signature in lieu of coin. “Council pays me, I pay you within the hour,” Leftrin promised the nodding man, and that was that.

  By the time he left the store, his legs ached. Walking the deck of his ship and even hiking the meadows around Kelsingra did not prepare a man for the many vertical climbs of a Rain Wild city. He took a lift down to the Coun
cil Hall level, paying the tender with his last coin as the man’s basket passed his own in transit. As he drew near to the Council door, he recalled that the last time he’d come here, Alise Finbok had been on his arm. It had been in the early days of their acquaintance, when his infatuation with her was dizzyingly new. He thought of her shiny little boots and her lacy skirts and smiled a bit sadly. Her finery had dazzled him as much as her ladylike ways. Well, her lace had gone to tatters and her boots were scuffed and worn now, but the gracious lady inside them prevailed as if wrought from iron. He suddenly missed her with a pang more powerful than hunger or fear. He shook his head at himself. Was he a mooning adolescent, to be so thoroughly engrossed with her? He smiled. Perhaps he was. The sensations she woke in him were wilder and sweeter than any other experience in his life. And once he was paid, he anticipated buying little luxuries and dainties to take back to her. The thought put a wider smile on his face.

  When he pushed open the door to the Traders’ Hall, he was greeted with light and the murmur of voices and warmth. Braziers burned in scattered locations throughout the room, contributing heat and the sweet smell of burning jalawood. Light came from another source, the tethered globes that floated within the hall. Elderling artifacts unearthed from the buried ruins at the foot of Cassarick now illuminated the meeting place of the humans in a flagrant display of wealth. For a moment, he imagined the surge of greed that would be stirred if he spoke of an Elderling city that stood intact and virtually untouched. His eyes went to the tapestry of Kelsingra that hung on the wall behind the Council dais. Alise had once used that tapestry to prove to them that their destination had existed. And when he told the Council that its gleaming walls still sparkled in the sunlight? His smile tightened.

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  Tiers of benches surrounded an elevated dais. Several dozen people had claimed seats; it was not exactly a packed gallery, but it was a lot of people to have gathered spontaneously for an unannounced meeting, and more were arriving behind him. All the seats at the Council table on the dais were already occupied except for one. Selden Vestrit’s seat was empty, as it had been the last time he’d been here.

  But Malta the Elderling had taken her place at one end of the front row of audience seats. Her husband, Reyn Khuprus, sat beside her. All around the Elderlings, seats had been left empty. Leftrin wondered if it were out of respect or avoidance. Reyn and Malta were not dressed glamorously, but their simple clothing was well tailored to them and in colors that glorified their scaling. Reyn wore a long jacket of dark blue buttoned with gleaming silver buttons over gray trousers and soft black boots. Malta wore a choker of flame jewels that gleamed yellow against the delicate scaling of her throat. Her soft white overtunic was long, to her knees, and her brown-gold trousers were cut full and loose, and by that he judged that she still carried her child. Good. Gossip said she’d had several miscarriages, and some had begun to doubt that the couple would ever produce a child. But she could not be far from birth now. Her husband beside her had a protective air. He looked at them and realized that they showed him what his keeper youths would become. Full Elderlings.

  As he entered the chamber, both of them looked directly at him. He fought an impulse to straighten his ragged shirt. Instead, he stiffened his spine and returned their gazes. It had been a hard trip; let them look at him and see what his expedition had cost. Then he nodded to them gravely and received their answering nods. He did not approach them. Not yet. Alise’s message for Malta was safe in his bag. He would give it to her privately.

  Leftrin’s gaze roamed the chamber briefly, confirming that the fellow who had been following him had ghosted into the Traders’ Hall behind him. He did not look at him directly; he didn’t need to, for the man was no stranger to Leftrin. It was the Chalcedean “merchant,” Sinad Arich. He kept his wet cloak and hood drawn close about him as if he were still cold, but Leftrin recognized his eyes. The man had threatened him with blackmail once before over his liveship, forcing Leftrin to give him passage up the river. How he regretted it now. He should have followed his first impulse and killed the man and dropped him overboard. It chilled Leftrin to know the Chalcedean merchant was still in the Rain Wilds. It meant he had not given up on his mission.

  Why was he here tonight? Leftrin was virtually certain that Arich had been involved in planting that traitor in the expedition, but he was also convinced that the man could not have acted alone. The Council had hired Jess Torkef and sent him to Leftrin as a hunter to provide for the dragons. Possibly he was hoping that Jess had returned on the Tarman, bringing parts of slaughtered dragons with him. A grim smile twisted Leftrin’s mouth. He was going to be disappointed. And desperate enough to try something else. Arich had no real choice. His monarch, the Duke of Chalced, held his family hostage; unless the merchant could provide him with dragon parts for the cures the Duke supposed would heal him, their lives would be forfeit. Arich had deceived, threatened, or bribed someone on the Council to put a traitor on the Tarman. Someone, or perhaps several someones.

  Leftrin descended the steps slowly until he stood before the Council table. He cleared his throat, but there was really no need to draw their attention. All the Council members had straightened in their chairs and were staring at him. Silence spread behind him: he heard the small sounds of people rushing to take seats, shushing one another as they did so. He raised his voice. “Captain Leftrin of the liveship Tarman requests permission to address the Council. ”

  “The Council is pleased to see you have safely returned to us, Captain Leftrin. We cede you the floor. ” This husky pronouncement came from Trader Polsk. Her brush of gray hair had been groomed back from her face but was slowly resuming its usual unruly stance.

  “And I am pleased to see you in good health, Trader Polsk. I return to announce that our expedition was successful. The dragons are safely settled. I am pleased to report that every dragon survived the move. I am saddened to say that two of our keepers lost their lives. One of the hunters assigned to our expedition died also. The rest of our party was alive and well when I left them. ” He used his right hand to scratch his left shoulder, contriving to turn toward the doors as he did so. Gray-cloaked Arich was just slipping out. Well. That was interesting and very unexpected. Had he already heard enough? He longed to follow the Chalcedean, but it was impossible right now. He turned back to the Council. All eyes were focused on him.

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  “I bear written authorizations from the dragon keepers and the hunters Carson and Davvie to collect the second half of their wages, as was agreed would be paid upon the successful completion of their task. I also request that the rest of the contract money for the liveship Tarman and his crew be paid in full this day. ” He opened his shoulder satchel as he spoke. The authorizations were all on a single sheet of Alise’s precious paper, rolled and tied with a string. He pulled the string free, extracted the keepers’ contracts, and stepped forward to set them on the Council table.

  Trader Polsk and several of the other Council members had been nodding. She ran her eyes over the papers and then slid them down the table. As the papers moved from member to member, they kept nodding. But when they reached the last member of the Council, and Leftrin did not resume speaking, the agreeable bobs slowed and then stopped. Trader Polsk glanced at her committee members and then fixed him with a gaze. “And the rest of your report, Captain Leftrin?”

  “Report?” He raised one eyebrow at her.

  “Well, of course. What did you find? Where did you leave the dragons and their keepers? Did you indeed locate Kelsingra? How far from here, and what are the river conditions along the way? What are the salvage possibilities? We’ve many questions that need answering. ”

  He was silent for a moment, framing his reply carefully. No sense in angering them too soon. How best to approach this? Directly.

  “I’d prefer to settle this contract before we move on to casual conversation. Perhaps we
can discuss my sharing the expedition’s findings after we’ve received our pay, Trader Polsk. ” And perhaps not, he thought.

  She straightened in her seat. “That seems highly unusual, Captain. ”

  He shook his head slowly. “Not at all. I prefer to finish with one contract before negotiating another. ”

  Her voice was acerbic. “I am sure the Council agrees with me that hearing your report is an important part of ‘finishing’ this contract. I do not believe we have discussed the possibility of another contract. ”

  Alise had helped him prepare for just this moment. He opened the shoulder bag again and extracted his copy of their original contract. He unrolled it and feigned reading through it, his brow wrinkled as if puzzled. Then he looked at Trader Polsk over the document. He made his voice almost apologetic. “Nothing in our contract specified that a report was due to the Council on our return. ”

  There. As if on cue, a man at the end of the table drew a sheaf of papers toward him and began to leaf through them. Leftrin tried to save him the trouble. “If you read the contract, Trader Polsk, you’ll find that my crew and I, and the keepers and the hunters you hired, have all fulfilled each designated task as negotiated. The dragons were removed from the area. The creatures were fed and tended on the journey. We found an appropriate area for their resettlement, and there they are settled. ” He cleared his throat. “We’ve fulfilled our end of the bargain. Now it’s your turn. The final payments are due. ” He shrugged his heavy shoulders. “That’s all. ”

  “It can scarcely be all!” This came not from Trader Polsk but from a younger man seated at the far end of the table. When he turned his face, the light of the hanging globes danced along a fine line of orange scaling on his brows. “This is no sort of a report at all! How can we be sure of a thing you’ve said? Where is the hunter Jess Torkef who was to accompany your expedition and represent the Councils’ best interest? He was to take notes and make charts as the expedition advanced. Why hasn’t he accompanied you here today?”

 
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