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City of dragons, p.23
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       City of Dragons, p.23

         Part #3 of Rain Wild Chronicles series by Robin Hobb

  Exactly the question Leftrin had been waiting to hear. “Jess Torkef is dead. ” Leftrin delivered the news without regret but took close interest in the expressions it startled from the various Council members. As Alise had told him to expect, a woman Trader in a dark-green robe looked stricken; she attempted to exchange a look with the orange-scaled fellow, but he was staring at Leftrin in horror. He paled as Leftrin added, “I cannot be responsible for anything that Torkef agreed to; his contract is voided by his death. ” He paused only a moment before revealing, “One distressing thing I will disclose. Jess Torkef died trying to kill a dragon. He intended to butcher her and sell the parts of her body. To the Chalcedeans. ”

  He heard a gasp from Malta, but he did not turn to look at her. He needed to watch the reaction of the Council members. When no one spoke, he pointed out the obvious. “Either Jess Torkef was a traitor to this Council that hired him, or the ‘best interests’ of the Council were different from what I was led to believe and did not coincide with those of the dragons and their keepers. ” He looked at each Council member in turn. The Trader in green gripped the edge of the Council table before her. Horrified fury was building on Trader Polsk’s face. Leftrin spoke to their silence. “Until I know for certain which supposition is true, I’ll be withholding any sort of a report to this Council. And I’ll remind the Council that while my contract stipulated I would keep a log of our journey and make note of any extraordinary discoveries, there was nothing in the contract that said that information had to be shared with the Council on my return. Only that I must gather it. ”

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  Alise had pointed out that detail to him on their last night together in Kelsingra. She’d shaken her head over the sloppy wording of the document. “You are right, my dear. The Cassarick Traders’ Council was in such a hurry to see us out of town that they truly were not thinking of anything more than being rid of the dragons and their keepers. Some, obviously, dreamed of another Elderling city to plunder, but they dared not write of it too clearly, for they feared others might wake to the possibility. They did not want to share.

  “And some, perhaps, were imagining that the dragons would be rendered into very rare trade goods long before anyone found a place to settle them. Nothing in this contract dictates that we must share our discoveries with them. But I’ll wager that when you return, if you speak of what we’ve found, they’ll try to find a way to take it away from us. ”

  They’d been sitting together in the small shepherd’s hut they had claimed as their own. A fire burned on the hearth, its red flames waking echoing red lights in Alise’s curling hair. They’d raided blankets and other furnishings from his stateroom on Tarman to try to make their new lodgings as comfortable as they could, and Tarman had been surprisingly tolerant of his absence. Alise had relished their newfound privacy even if it was much less comfortable than living aboard the ship. Leftrin had cobbled together a roped bedstead for them, as well as a crude table and a bench for seating. But it was still a rough and bare retreat, and outside, the days of winter were growing colder and wetter. They’d been sitting side by side on the floor, close to the firelight, going over the pages of the contract they’d signed with the Cassarick Traders’ Council. Alise had leafed through it carefully, chalking notes to herself onto the hearth stones with the burned end of a stick. He’d been content to sit and savor watching her. He’d known then that soon he’d have to leave her, and while he didn’t expect it would be for long, he still dreaded any time apart from her.

  When she had finally looked up from her study of the documents, her fingertips were black with soot and there was a stripe of it down her nose. He smiled. It made her look like a little striped ginger cat. She’d frowned at him in return and then tapped the contract with a businesslike finger. “There’s nothing here for us to fear. Nothing that we agreed and signed, and I looked over Warken’s keeper contract earlier. None of the keepers signed anything away; their contracts were all about how they must care for the dragons or forfeit their pay. There is no mention of them having to share anything they might find. Even your contract only stipulates that you are to keep a log; it doesn’t say that your notes on exploring the waterways will belong to the Council, or give them rights to anything we discovered. Including Kelsingra. No. They were in such a rush to be rid of the dragons that that was all they focused on. They wrote in penalties for you if you returned with the dragons and keepers, and they stipulated how much money they’d have to pay each keeper ‘with his or her dragon(s) safely settled and content. ’ But nowhere did they provide for what they would ask of us if we were successful in finding Kelsingra. It’s odd. That omission didn’t seem so obvious or so dark when I was first reading it and signing it. But now it’s as plain as the ink on the page; they didn’t expect the keepers or the dragons to survive, and they never really expected us to find Kelsingra. At least, the official Council didn’t. I still think there were some who imagined riches to be discovered, and at least two Council members who were dismayed when I said I would come along and speak for the best interest of the dragons. ”

  “Well, there was one barge captain who was so thrilled at the thought that he didn’t notice if anyone else was opposing it. ”

  She’d pushed away his fingers that were curling her wayward hair into spirals, but her rejection was reluctant. “My love, we need to finish this tonight. I had only one piece of good paper left. I used half to write what I needed to tell Malta the Elderling. Do not let anyone else see it. I had to write in such tiny letters, I hope her eyesight is good! The other half sheet I used to make a document that authorizes you to collect the keepers’ pay for them. They’ve all signed. And so, on this scrap of hide, we will write out what we must try to bargain for and what we are willing to concede in return. ” Her voice faltered a bit, and she cast her eyes down.

  He had lifted her chin with his two fingers. “Never fear. I will not barter Kelsingra away. Little enough have we found on this side of the river that would interest the Traders, but I know your fears: that once they see the city, they will strip it to the paving stones. ”

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  She nodded grimly. “As was done to the first Elderling cities that were discovered. So many mysteries would probably have been solved if all the pieces had been left in one place. Now the artifacts of Cassarick and Trehaug are scattered all over the world, in the hands of rich families and crafty merchants. But Kelsingra, the real Kelsingra on the other side of the river, gives us a new chance to discover who the Elderlings were, to understand and perhaps master the magic they used so freely—”

  “I know. ” He interrupted her gently. “I know, my dear. I know what it means to you, even if some of the youngsters do not understand. I’ll protect it for you. ”

  The buzz of confused conversation in the Council chamber drew his mind back to the present. The din did not die down but increased as the onlookers conversed with their neighbors and voices were raised to be heard over the rising hubbub. Trader Polsk stood and shouted for order; no one paid attention. Then, abruptly, the room was plunged into dimness. The suspended globes of light winked out, and only the red glow of the hearth fires lit the place. Every voice was stilled in shock.

  Malta Khuprus’s words rang out in the darkness. “It is time for silence. Time for us to listen to Captain Leftrin rather than asking each other questions we cannot answer. Let us be orderly and hear him out as Traders should. The man speaks of a contract fulfilled, a just debt to be paid, and a possible threat to not only the dragons but a threat to all Rain Wilders as well. A Chalcedean plot carried out in the midst of the Rain Wilds? Let us hear him out. ”

  “Agreed!” shouted Trader Polsk when Malta paused, and a chorus of affirming voices answered hers. Whatever restorative magic Malta worked on the floating Elderling globes was successful. They brightened slowly to a warm glow that filled the chamber with a pleasant rosy light. Malta had left her seat in the
darkness and now stood at the end of the Council table. Her pregnancy was obvious when she stood: her ripening belly interrupted the long, lean lines of her body. Leftrin felt she deliberately called attention to herself. A pregnant woman was not a rare sight in the Rain Wilds, but neither was it a common one. He knew that more than one person looked on her fecundity with envy. She let them.

  “Captain Leftrin. ” Trader Polsk’s tone demanded that he focus on the business at hand. “You’ve made a serious accusation. Have you evidence to offer?”

  He took a breath. “Not as would satisfy the Council. I can repeat the words of the keeper Greft and tell you what Jess Torkef admitted to Sedric Meldar of Bingtown before he died. Torkef plainly said he had come in the hopes of killing dragons and selling off their parts, and he tried to persuade Sedric to join him in those plans. Keeper Greft was equally plain in telling us that Jess Torkef had tried to recruit him. I suggest that whoever hired the man and put him aboard my ship may have known that hunting meat to keep the dragons well fed was not the task closest to his heart. Before my barge even left, I received a threatening note, unsigned, but one that directed me to do all I could to aid him. ”

  “Do you have this note?” Polsk immediately demanded.

  “No. It was destroyed. ”

  “How exactly were you threatened, Captain?” This from the young, orange-scaled Trader at the Council table. A small smile played across his face.

  “I’m afraid I don’t recall your name, Trader,” Leftrin observed.

  “Trader Candral. ” Trader Polsk seized control of the discussion. “Please do not destroy the order of this Council by speaking out of turn. Do you have a question you wish to ask Captain Leftrin?”

  Trader Candral was not pleased to be rebuked. Or perhaps he did not like being named to Leftrin. In either case, he leaned back in his chair and replied insolently, “I did have a question, and I’ve asked it. How was our captain threatened? And if the threat arrived before he sailed, why didn’t he report it before his departure?”

  Trader Polsk narrowed her eyes but nodded permission to Leftrin to speak. He kept his eyes on her face as he replied. “It was blackmail. The note threatened to reveal certain pieces of personal information. I didn’t report it because I felt I could handle it, and the Council was already urging a more than speedy departure for us. Immediate, if I recall correctly. ”

  “The dragons were dangerous! They had to go!” This from a man in a heavy canvas jacket and trousers, standing to be heard. “Me and my boy, we ended up running for our lives, right into the excavations, and that little green dragon followed us, knocking out the supports as it came. It wanted our supper, even though it was just bread and cheese in a sack. It ate it sack and all, and might have eaten my boy next, except that we ran while it was eating! I’m here to say, if the dragons are gone, then good riddance. And if there’s any talk of them being brought back, then me and the other diggers will put our shovels down. ” He crossed his heavy arms on his chest and scowled fiercely all around.

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  “No more outbursts!” Trader Polsk spoke severely to the man who had shouted out his tale. He sat down with an exasperated grunt, but the people around him were nodding in agreement.

  “They’d have killed somebody if they hadn’t been lured away. They were always a poor bargain,” he added, not as loudly but still getting a glare from the Council leader.

  Leftrin took advantage of the prevailing mood of the audience. “Today, good Council and Trader folk, I’m just here to get our rightful pay. The dragons are settled; I’ll never bring them back. So give us our pay, mine and my crew’s, and the keepers’ and the hunters’. I’ve their authorizations with me, all signed with permission for me to get their coin. Some want part sent to their families, one wants all to go to her family, and the rest have authorized me to pick up their full pay. ”

  “Prove it!” Trader Candral abruptly demanded, and the Trader in green nodded in emphatic agreement.

  Leftrin looked at him for a moment in silence. Then he again unslung the leather bag on his shoulder and opened it slowly. As he removed the rolled paper, he observed quietly, “Some men would be insulted by how that request was made. Another man might demand satisfaction of a pup that so insulted his honor. But”—he stepped forward to set the documents on the table and looked directly at Trader Candral—“I think I’ll consider the source. ” He did not wait for the man’s response but went on as if his reaction were of no consequence, setting the paper before Trader Polsk. “Every signature is there, for every hunter and keeper and crewman, and Alise’s and Sedric’s as well. Except Warken’s. We lost him to the river. I brought his contract back with me. I think his pay ought to go to his family. He spoke kindly of them. Greft didn’t say much about his folks, and I don’t know if he had any. You can keep his coin, if that’s what you think fair. As for Jess Torkef’s wages, do whatever you want with them. It’s dirty money, and personally, I wouldn’t touch it. ”

  Candral was pressed back in his chair. “If all those keepers survived, why aren’t any of them here? How do we know they aren’t all dead, and you just come back to claim their wages?”

  Leftrin’s face reddened at the foul accusation. He took a deep breath.

  “Trader Candral, you speak with no authority from the Council. Captain Leftrin!” Trader Polsk spoke sharply. “Please step back from the table. The Council will look over the documents. We’ve never had any cause to complain of our dealings with you in the past. And we will want to discuss your suggestion that there were improprieties in how Hunter Torkef was hired. ” She shot Candral a speculative look.

  Leftrin didn’t move. He shifted his stare from Trader Candral to Trader Polsk. “I’ll ignore the insult. This time. But when the Council is looking for improprieties, it might consider that liars are often suspicious of honest men. I’ll even answer the question. The keepers chose to remain with their dragons. Two keepers died, and I suppose if I were the sort of man who’d profit from the dead, I would have told you that everyone was alive and well and then taken their wages as well. And now I’ll step back, just as soon as I’ve received the pay for myself, my ship, and my crew. As agreed upon and signed by the entire Council. ”

  “I don’t think any of us would have an issue with that,” Polsk warned Candral, who opened his mouth to speak and then shut it again. Trader Polsk motioned to a page for ink and paper. But the woman on Polsk’s left abruptly asked, “What of the Bingtown Trader, what of Alise Finbok? Where is she? And the man who accompanied her, Sedric Meldar? Surely they didn’t choose to stay with dragons?”

  “Trader Sverdin, those questions should be presented to the Council, to be asked in an appropriate way!” Trader Polsk’s rebuke was unmistakable. Her cheeks were red, and she ran her hand through her hair in exasperation, standing it up in a gray brush.

  Leftrin didn’t look at her. He stared at Trader Sverdin directly. “Alise Kincarron chose to stay with the dragons. She gave me letters to send to her family. They’ve already been dispatched. As for Sedric, well, seeing as how he didn’t sign anything with the Council, it’s scarcely your business what’s become of him. But I left him alive and well, and I expect he’s still that way. ”

  Trader Sverdin was undaunted. She leaned back in her chair and lifted her pointed chin as she spoke to Trader Polsk. “We have no evidence that any of the keepers survived. We don’t truly know what became of the dragons. I think we should withhold payment on our contract with this man until he can prove he has fulfilled its terms. ”

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  “That would seem to be the most intelligent route,” Trader Candral swiftly agreed.

  Leftrin looked at each Council member in turn, letting his gaze linger. Candral busied himself looking at his nails while Trader Sverdin flushed red and rolled a small scroll back and forth on the table. Trader Polsk looked embarrassed.

  “Captain Lef
trin, I have confidence in the services you have provided and in your honesty. But with two members of the Council dissenting, I cannot release your funds until we have clear evidence that you fulfilled your contract. ”

  Leftrin was silent, refusing to let his anger show in his face. Negotiations were best done coldly. Was it safe to leave his papers with the Council? He met Polsk’s apologetic gaze. “I’m entrusting these documents specifically to you, Trader Polsk. They should not leave your possession. Examine the signatures and the dates on the requests the keepers have added. Do what you think is proper with the monies owed to Greft and Warken. I don’t think you owe Jess a penny; he didn’t live up to his contract at all and plotted to kill both dragons and keepers. I suggest you look hard at who selected him. If you read my contract, you’ll see that you clearly owe me my money. You know where I’m tied up. When you choose to send my pay, send it there. And if you don’t choose to send me my pay, then you’ll wait a long time to hear any more details about where the dragons are and what we discovered. ”

  He turned his back on the Council and pretended to notice Malta Khuprus for the first time. He bowed to her. “Elderling lady, I have a letter for you from Alise Kincarron. And a small token from the city of Kelsingra. ”

  “You found it? You found the Elderling city?” This in a shout from a Council member who had not spoken before, a jowly man with curling dark hair.

  Leftrin glanced at him and then at the rest of the Council. “We did. But before you ask me for details, perhaps you and the rest of the Council should decide if you can believe what I say. I don’t want to waste your time or mine if you think I’m just spinning sailor yarns. ”

  He turned back to the Elderlings. Malta had stood. Reyn was at her side, not touching her but clearly supporting her. Her face was alight with joy though her mouth was set in a firm line. He offered her a small scroll and a little cloth bag. She accepted it with long, elegant hands. The scarlet scaling on them looked like gloves of the finest reptilian leather. Malta opened the bag slowly and removed from it the hearth tile. She smiled as she looked at it. Then she lifted it high to display it, for only a moment, before returning it to the bag.

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