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City of dragons, p.24
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       City of Dragons, p.24

         Part #3 of Rain Wild Chronicles series by Robin Hobb
 

  Leftrin spoke to her through the uproar of voices that followed her gesture. “If you have questions, I’ll be happy to speak to you. I’m tied up to the Cassarick docks. You can’t miss us. ”

  Malta inclined her head and said nothing. Reyn answered for them. “This Council has shamed us. I hope you know that we have full faith you have accomplished your goal. I’m certain we will come to see you as soon as we possibly can. But for now, my wife is weary and needs to go home to rest. ”

  “At your convenience,” Leftrin agreed. “I think it would be best if I clear out of here quick. ”

  “Captain Leftrin! Captain Leftrin, you cannot simply leave!” This from the curly-haired Trader.

  “Actually, I can,” he replied. He turned his back on them all and strode out of the room. Behind him, the roar of conversation rose to a din.

  Day the 26th of the Change Moon

  Year the 7th of the Independent Alliance of Traders

  Detozi, Keeper of the Birds, Trehaug

  Bird Log, Loft 4

  3 female swift birds dead this morning. Eggs gone cold in 2 nests. Salvaged 2 eggs from one nest and put under young female in Loft 6. Noted in breeding log. Moved all birds from Loft 4 to emptied and cleansed Loft 7. Loft 4 to be dismantled and burned as this is the third time infestation has recurred there.

  Chapter Ten

  KIDNAPPED

  “I’ll be fine,” she had insisted. “Go after Leftrin. Find out everything that happened. The scroll he gave us barely brushes the surface of what has befallen them. I’m so tired I can scarcely stand, but I won’t be able to rest until I know everything. ”

  Reyn had smiled worriedly as he looked down into her upturned face. The wet wind blew between them. “How can you be fine if you can scarcely stand? Darling, I’d best see you home first. Then I’ll find the Tarman and talk to the captain. I’ll beg him to come home with me and speak to you there. ”

  “Please, don’t be silly over me! I’m not some frail little creature. I’ll get back to our room just fine on my own. But you should go now before everyone else thinks of the same thing. This tiny note from Alise only taunts me. There are dozens of things I must know. Please,” she had added when he continued to frown at her in disapproval. They had lingered in the doorway of the Traders’ Concourse where Malta had done her best to pick sense out of Alise’s cramped writing on the scrap of paper Leftrin had given them. In the flickering light of the windblown lantern’s flame, she had scarcely been able to read any of it. She could not stand the suspense and had begged Reyn to take her to speak to the captain immediately. But now, halfway down the walk that led to a lift, she was too weary to go on. Her plan was that she would go back to their rented rooms, and Reyn would persuade Captain Leftrin to come there to talk to her.

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  Reyn had sighed. “Very well. As usual, Malta, you’ll get your own way! Don’t wait up for me. Go to bed and rest until I get there with Leftrin. I promise that as soon as I come in, I’ll wake you and then you can badger him with questions for as long as you like. ”

  “You had better,” she had warned him. “Don’t you stay to have a drink or two, or take him somewhere else to talk because you think I’ve fallen asleep! I’ll know if you do, Reyn Khuprus, and then woe betide you!”

  “I will,” he had promised again, smiling at her threats, and reached out to pull her hood up more snugly around her face. And then he had left her, just as she had commanded him.

  “Not some frail little creature,” she reminded herself now. When the spasm passed, she stood breathing for a few moments. Around her, the threatened storm had arrived. Darkness seemed to fall with the sheets of rain. She had been so sure she could find her way back to their rented rooms. Now dead twigs and bits of moss showered down with the rain, and wet leaves rode the wind. In the distances around her, she saw the lights of treetop homes bob and sway in the onslaught of the wind. If she had been in Bingtown, she could have fixed her eyes on a light and simply made her way toward it. But in a town like Cassarick, things were not so easy. The walkways made a spiderweb through the trees: there was never a straight path anywhere. A nearby light might bring her to the back of a home that faced a different branch, with a sheer drop to the forest floor between her and it.

  She looked back the way she had come, wondering how she had managed to take a wrong turn. To do so forced her to turn her face to the wind; she squinted against the driving rain but saw nothing familiar. Was there a man standing at the far end of the last bridge? The wind gusted more rain into her face, but the figure did not budge. No. Probably just an oddly shaped post. She turned her face away from it and looked at the dancing, taunting lights. She was cold, her clothing soaked through. And her nagging back pain had become something else now. When the next terrible contraction of muscle rippled through her body, she could not deny what it was. The baby was trying to be born. Here. On a tree branch in the rain. Of course.

  She clung to the railing, digging her nails into the tough and twisted wood, trying to think of anything except the terrible squeezing of her body. Focusing on her clenching hands, she gritted her teeth silently until the pain passed. Then she hunched over the railing, gulping air. Pride be damned. If their child was born here, on this walkway during this storm, what chance would he have? Would she let their baby die because she didn’t want to call out her need to strangers? She drew her breath and forced out a shout. “Help me! Please, anyone, help me!”

  The wind and the endless rustling of the leaves swept away her words. “Please!” she cried again, the words crushed out of her as another tearing cramp swept through her. She clutched the railing and set a hand to the top of her belly. She wasn’t imagining it. The child was lower than he had been; he was moving down inside her. She waited, caught her breath again, and shouted again. But the storm was building, not abating. No one else seemed to be out on the walkways tonight. She bared her teeth in an almost smile. Who could blame them?

  Blinking rain off her lashes, she lifted her head. There were fewer lights than there had been. People went to bed early in winter. Well, this path had to lead somewhere, to a house or a shop or a trunk walk. All she had to do was follow it. She glanced back the way she had come, hoping to see someone, anyone. Somewhere, back there, she’d taken a wrong path. She should go back. The wind gusted, twigs and leaves flew into her face, and she turned her back on it. It didn’t matter. She’d go where the wind was pushing her and bang on the first door she came to until they let her in. No one would turn away a woman in labor. She gripped the railing with both hands and edged doggedly along it. It would turn out all right. It had to.

  Reyn hurried down the walkway in pursuit of Captain Leftrin. He muttered angrily to himself as he slipped, recovered, and hurried on. He had taken too long arguing with Malta. Even now, he longed to turn back and see her safely home before he went down to the Tarman. She hadn’t insisted on going with him, and that was a frightening clue to how tired she was. He gave a futile glance over his shoulder, but in the rising wind that shook debris and water from the trees, he could scarcely see the bridge he had just crossed, let alone spot Malta on her lonely way back to their rooms. He lifted both hands to dash rain from his face and then forced himself to a run. The sooner he spoke to the captain, the sooner he could get back to his wife.

  The walkways swayed in the growing wind. He moved swiftly, traveling with the easy familiarity of the Rain Wild born, but worried again for Malta. She had adapted well to her new home in the trees, but the weight of the child had made her balance more uncertain in the last few weeks. She would be fine, he told himself sternly as he reached a trunk. There was a huddle of folk waiting for the lift. Impatiently, he moved to the inside of the platform and began a hasty descent down the long winding stairway that wrapped the tree’s immense trunk.

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  He was winded and soaked through long before he reached the leathe
r way on the ground at the foot of the pillar tree. He saw no one else in the area. The storm and the approaching night had driven everyone else inside. He hoped that it had discouraged all those who had been hurrying after Captain Leftrin as he left. He didn’t want to compete for the man’s attention. He had to persuade Leftrin to come back with him for a private audience and the chance to go over the long list of questions that Malta had scribbled down during the meeting. He knew his wife’s temperament well enough to know that she would not let Leftrin leave until he had answered every one of them!

  Reyn hurried through darkness, his way unevenly lit by lanterns along the platform road. The river was up; the floating docks had risen on their stout tethers until the pilings that anchored them were scarcely taller than Reyn was. The moored boats shifted and complained about the wind and rushing water as they rubbed and bumped against the dock and tugged at their lines. The Tarman was long and wide; he would be tied to the outside moorage. Most of the lamps that were supposed to illuminate the docks at night had surrendered to the wind and rain. Reyn had to go more slowly as he made his way along the dock and then onto the moorage gangways.

  Luck favored him. He arrived in time to see someone holding a hooded lantern as Captain Leftrin clambered from the dock onto his ship’s deck. “Captain Leftrin! Please, wait! You know me. I’m Reyn Khuprus. I need to talk to you. ” The wind snatched at his words, but Leftrin paused and glanced over his shoulder, then lifted his voice to shout, “Come along, then, and welcome aboard! Let’s get out of this storm. ”

  Reyn was only too willing to follow him. He clambered over the liveship’s railing and followed the captain across the deck. The ship’s galley was warm and snug. A long table dominated the room with benches to either side of it. At the end of the room, a fat iron stove pulsed heat out into the small room. String bags of onions and tubers hung from the rafters, adding their own aroma to a room that smelled of men working in close quarters. Hanging lanterns burned yellow, and the smell of a savory stew bubbled out with the steam from a great covered pot on the stove. The woman who had held the lantern for Leftrin took Reyn’s cloak and found it a hook where it dripped alongside the captain’s.

  “Hot tea!” Leftrin proclaimed, and despite Malta’s parting threat, Reyn nodded in appreciation. He was glad to see it was already brewed and waiting in a fat brown pot on the galley table. A mug was quickly set out for the captain, and one for Reyn joined it as the captain poured. Through an open door, Reyn could see the interior of the deckhouse. It was lined with tiered bunks. On one, a big, well-muscled man was scratching his chest and yawning. A smaller fellow lithed himself past the yawner and angled in through the door like a cat to slide into a seat at the table. He gave Reyn a curious glance but then fixed his attention on the captain. Without any ado, he began his report.

  “Council didn’t send us any coin, sir. But the one store delivered everything you ordered on credit. And we got most of the other supplies you told us to get the same way; the merchants here know us well and know that if they won’t advance what we need now, when we do have funds, we won’t be coming back to them. ”

  “Well done, Hennesey, and enough for now. We have a guest. ”

  Reyn knew that Leftrin was shutting down the crew’s chatter, effectively cutting him off from any knowledge they might want to share until Leftrin had evaluated him and what he wanted. He employed his own gambit. He glanced at Hennesey, obviously the mate, and then back at Leftrin as he said, “The Khuprus lines of credit are as good here in Cassarick as they are in Trehaug, cousin. I am sure that our family would be happy to flex a bit of influence since the Council here is not treating you fairly. ”

  Leftrin watched him for a long moment. “Surprised you remember me as a cousin. ”

  Reyn widened his eyes. “Oh, come, there weren’t that many of us annoying the men working on the wizardwood back in those days. You were good at the shaping. I recall there was some talk that your mother might persuade your father to let you follow that trade instead of taking over the Tarman. ”

  “Only talk. My heart was always with the ship; I actually feared that I’d wind up working wizardwood! And where would I be now if I had, I wonder? Whereas you, I recall, were always fascinated with the uncut logs. Always slipping away to go exploring. ”

  “I was. And always in trouble because of it. ”

  “It was feared you’d developed too much of a bond with the city. That you would drown yourself in it . . . ”

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  “As my father did,” Reyn filled in quietly.

  The silence in the galley grew charged. The woman had picked up the teapot to refill it. She stood still, just holding it and watching him. There was something here, and he’d best get to the bottom of it quickly. Speaking plainly now might buy him plain talk in return. Reyn nodded as if to himself. “But I didn’t drown. Because, for me, it wasn’t the stone and the memories it held. It was the dragon Tintaglia, trapped and aware in her wizardwood log. She drew me and held me and eventually I served her. As I still do, in many ways. The dragon is what brings me here tonight. I must know, Captain. What became of the dragons and their keepers?”

  Leftrin had seated himself near the stove. Now he lifted his mug of tea and took a cautious sip. Over the rim of the mug, he regarded Reyn thoughtfully. Reyn wondered how he saw him. To the liveship captain, was he a freak, a man too deeply touched and changed by the Rain Wilds? Or did he see him as an Elderling, one of the mystical and revered creatures who had first built the hidden ancient cities of the Rain Wilds? Or a shirttail cousin, vaguely remembered from what now seemed a distant childhood? Reyn sat straight now and let Leftrin stare at his scaled face and think what he would. He waited.

  A rangy orange cat with white socks suddenly floated up from the deck and landed on the table. He walked the length of it, undeterred by Hennesey’s shooing hand, to meet Reyn’s gaze with gleaming green eyes. He bumped his striped head against Reyn’s folded hands on the tabletop, demanded homage. Reyn lifted a hand to pet the creature and found his fur surprisingly soft.

  As if the man’s welcome of the cat’s attention had decided something for him, Leftrin spoke. “Where’s Malta? I know Alise would want her to know everything. That’s why she wrote her that letter and sent her that bit of tile. ”

  “Her pregnancy weighs heavily on her now. I sent her home to rest. She only went because I promised I’d come here and beg you to return to our rooms with me. She will give me no peace until she gets answers to her questions. ” Reyn took from his pocket the small scroll of scribbled questions that was covered in Malta’s tiny but looping handwriting. He squinted at it ruefully. “All of them,” he said, as much to himself as to Captain Leftrin, and was surprised when the man let loose a guffaw of laughter.

  “Women and their scribbling,” he commiserated. “Do they never get enough of finding things out and then writing them down? Wasn’t Alise’s letter enough for her?”

  Reyn smiled and suddenly relaxed. He picked up his mug of steaming tea and warmed his hands around it. “Malta has always had endless curiosity. She tried to read the note you gave her, but the writing was tiny and the light outside the concourse very bad. The questions she wrote here are just the ones that occurred to her as you were speaking to the Council. As for me, I had no chance even to look at Alise’s missive before Malta dispatched me here, to beg you to come and talk with her. ”

  Leftrin shifted in his seat and looked down at his hot tea. “Would tomorrow do?” he asked reluctantly. “I’ve been up since before dawn, and I’m soaked and chilled to the bone. And I need to get my crew’s report on the errands I sent them on. ”

  Reyn sat very still, trying to read the man. He had to bring him back to Malta tonight: if he didn’t, she would immediately start making plans on how soon she could get down to the boat and speak to him herself. Ever since the Tarman expedition had left Cassarick to herd the dragons upriver, Malta had been anx
ious about it. She had always been clever with sifting through gossip to find out things that were going to happen or might happen. In Trehaug, she could tell him which ships were going to arrive and what cargoes they were bringing days before they reached the city. And she had been certain that there was something else going on when the Cassarick Traders’ Council practically drove the dragons and their keepers out of town.

  “It wasn’t an expedition to seek haven for them,” she had told him, more than once. “And it wasn’t just an exile, though I believe there are several on the Council who were happy to be consigning them to just that. The dragons were expensive, and messy, and dangerous. And they were in the way of the ongoing excavation. But there was something more beneath the surface, Reyn, something sinister. Something nasty that involves a lot of money and possibly our dear, dear friends the Chalcedeans. ”

  “What did you hear to make you think that?” he had asked her.

  “Just bits of things. A rumor that one of the hunters for the expedition would do anything for money, that possibly he had murdered someone a few years ago to help someone else get an inheritance. And that perhaps someone now on the Council knew that and was either instrumental in getting that hunter on the ship or that the hunter used what he knew about the Council member to get the job on the ship. Oh, just gossip, Reyn, in little bits and pieces. And uneasy feelings about all of it. Selden has been gone far too long, with no real word from him. I know there was that last letter, but it didn’t seem right to me. And why, oh, why has Tintaglia not returned to see what became of the other dragons? Could she be that heartless about her kindred? That once she found a mate and the possibility of having her own offspring, she would abandon the others? Or has something terrible befallen her? Has the Duke sent hunters after her and her mate?”

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  “Don’t think the worst, dear. Selden’s a young man now, well able to take care of himself. For all we know, he may be with Tintaglia right now. As to why she hasn’t returned, well, maybe Tintaglia thought the young dragons would not need her. Maybe she thought we’d do better at keeping our promise to care for them. ” He’d meant the words to be comforting, but after he’d said them, he heard how sad they sounded. Why she was so fixated on the dragons, he was not sure. Tintaglia had saved both their lives and brought them together, that was true. But only after the dragon had repeatedly endangered and tormented them. Did they really owe the blue dragon anything? Sometimes, he would have been very content to simply settle with Malta, to leave behind the exultation and exaltation of being an “Elderling” and be just another Rain Wild couple expecting their first child.

 
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