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City of dragons, p.25
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       City of Dragons, p.25

         Part #3 of Rain Wild Chronicles series by Robin Hobb

  Leftrin cleared his throat and Reyn started. He saw the weariness on the man’s face and felt churlish to be asking such a favor. But it was for Malta, and he had promised he would try. “Please,” he said, and for a moment the word hung alone in the silence.

  Someone coughed deliberately. Reyn turned his head to find a young woman looking at the captain. By her rough clothes she was a deckhand, and by the tracing of her features, she was somehow related to Leftrin. And thus, in all likelihood, some sort of cousin to Reyn as well. She didn’t flinch before her captain’s stare. “I could go in your place, if you’re too tired,” she offered. “I don’t know everything you do, but I’ll wager I could answer enough of the Elderling lady’s questions to content her. ”

  “Oh, would you?” Reyn asked, relieved at such a solution. But before she could respond, Leftrin gave a weary groan.

  “I’ll come. Let me find something dry to put on. Though doubtless I’ll be just as wet when I get there. ”

  “May I still come?” his deckhand asked hopefully.

  Leftrin glanced at Reyn. “Would your lady welcome two visitors so late at night?”

  “I’m sure she would,” Reyn replied gratefully. He smiled at the girl, who grinned back mischievously.

  “I’ll get my oilskin,” she announced happily and darted from the room.

  Malta had crossed the last quarter of the bridge on her hands and knees. The rising wind had set it to swaying dangerously and the guard ropes were slick. Once she reached the trunk platform that secured the end of the bridge, she crawled to the leeward side of the trunk and huddled there. She wanted to scream and she longed to collapse weeping and had neither the breath to do the one nor the luxury of time to do the other. “The baby is coming soon,” she told herself, as if speaking the words aloud would make her feel less alone. She drew her cloak tighter around herself and leaned against the tree as another pang moved through her. She was shaking with cold, not fear. There was nothing to fear. Women had babies all the time, and many of them delivered their own children alone. It was a perfectly normal and natural part of being a woman. She was fine. “I’m not scared. I’m just cold. ” She clenched her teeth against the sob that tried to force its way out. “I can do this. I have to do this and so I can do this. ”

  She pushed away the thought that what was normal and natural for another woman might not be so for her. The Elderling changes that had beset her body had had consequences that she had never foreseen. Weeping was uncomfortable now; it enflamed her eyes. She had heard tales of other women who had been heavily touched by the Rain Wilds, women who had died trying to push out a child. But surely that would not happen to her. Her changes had been caused by the dragon Tintaglia, not by chance exposure to the Rain Wilds. Surely her body would be equal to this task.

  She lifted her eyes and looked around hopelessly. Night had come, and most of the Rain Wilders had extinguished their lights and gone to bed. Some lights still shone, but in the blowing wind and darkness, she could not discern a path to any of them. Her hands were cold. She hitched up the loose white tunic she wore under her cloak. Her fingers fumbled at the fastening of her trousers as she tried to loosen them. “No dignity,” she complained to the wind. The loose trousers fell around her ankles and she managed to step free of them. She bundled them close to her and then stuffed them inside her tunic to keep them dry. If her baby was born right here, they would be what she would wrap him in.

  Another contraction passed through her, and this time she was sure she felt the baby move down with the press of her muscles. When at last her own body stopped squeezing her, she drew a deep breath and made one final effort. “Help me! Please! Someone help me!”

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  Then she gave a startled shriek as a figure detached itself from the shadows and stepped toward her. In the dim light from a distant lantern, she saw it was a man in a long cloak. She had not heard anyone approach. How long had he been there, watching her? She decided she didn’t care. “Please, please help me get to shelter. I’m about to . . . I’m having a baby. ”

  The man crouched down beside her. She could see nothing of his face inside his deep hood. “You are the Elderling woman, the dragon woman, yes?”

  He had an accent. Chalcedean? Possibly. Then he was probably one of the freed slaves who had come to the Rain Wilds during the war. Most of them had been from Jamaillia, but a few had been Chalcedeans. “Yes. Yes, I’m Malta, the Elderling. If you help me, you will be richly rewarded by my family. ”

  “Come, then. Come. ” With no regard for her travails, the man seized her upper arm and tried to haul her to her feet. She groaned and nearly fell and then managed to stand upright.

  “Wait. I can’t . . . ”

  “You come, then, come with me. There’s a safe place, not far from here. Come. ”

  It seemed horrid of him to expect her to walk, let alone tug her along by her arm, but he was the only help available. It didn’t matter if he were stupid or just thoughtless; he would help her get to shelter, and once there, perhaps she could ask him to run and get a woman to help her. She tried to lean on him, but he stepped away from her, keeping hold of her arm and tugging her along. Was it distaste for her, or his unwillingness to touch a woman in labor? Let it go. She followed him awkwardly, back across the swaying bridge she had just crossed, around a trunk, and then off across an even thinner bridge. “Where are we going?” she gasped.

  “To an inn. Come. Come now. ” He dragged at her forearm insistently.

  She jerked her arm free of him and sank to her knees as another pain took her. He stood over her, saying nothing. When she could speak, she gasped, “There aren’t any inns in Cassarick. Not . . . ”

  “Brothel, inn. A place to stay. I have a room, you will be safe, you make the baby there. Better than out in the rain. ”

  That was true. But despite the desperation of her situation, she liked this man less and less by the minute. A brothel. Well, at least there would be women there, and probably women experienced in dealing with her plight. She let him take her arm again and staggered to her feet. “How far?”

  “Two bridges,” he said, and she nodded. Two bridges. Two more than she could possibly manage.

  She drew her breath and firmed her jaw. “Lead me there. ”

  Leftrin was not a man to move quickly, Reyn had decided. Especially when he was feeling inconvenienced. Or possibly just exhausted. He had drunk his tea and then disappeared to change into dry clothing. When he finally emerged from his stateroom, he looked more ragged than when he had gone in. Reyn was beginning to understand exactly how much the expedition had endured. And while it stirred his sympathy for the man and his crew, he did not release him from his word. Leftrin’s niece and deckhand, Skelly, was already cloaked and booted and obviously ready for a late-night adventure on shore. But Leftrin drank yet another cup of tea and borrowed a knit hat and a waterproof from one of his crew before he finally stood and announced that he was ready to leave.

  Reyn had hurried them from the docks and to the lift, where he rang the bellpull half a dozen times before there was any indication that the tender was on his way down. The man scowled at him, obviously displeased to be called out on such a stormy night, until Reyn gave him a handful of coins that was as much bribe as payment and made him promise that when Leftrin and Skelly wanted to return, they would be able to find him awake when they knocked on the door.

  Reyn had never liked lifts. He’d always rather do the climb than endure the sickening lurch and sway and the unpredictable hitches and halts along the way. He clenched his teeth and hoped the man was good at minding his line and pulleys. Neither Leftrin nor Skelly said much. Leftrin was huddled in his borrowed waterproof, while Skelly grinned and peered out at the night as if fascinated by every detail. Suddenly, Reyn was glad she had come along. He suspected that Malta would get more out of interrogating the girl than quizzing the reticent captain.

Once the lift halted, he’d been eager to unlatch the safety net. “Along here,” he’d told them as they trooped out of the lift basket after him. “I’m sorry it’s so dark. There’s little to rent in Cassarick; the town is too young yet to offer the sort of inns and taverns that Trehaug has. We’ve had to take whatever temporary lodging we could get for this visit. Mind the guide ropes. They’re set lower than they should be. Across that bridge, a loop or two up the trunk steps, one more bridge, and we’ll be there. And I do thank you for coming. Very sincerely. ”

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  As they finally drew near to the rented cottage and Reyn saw the darkened windows, he scowled to himself. If Malta had decided she was too weary for this and gone to bed, he’d be embarrassed to have dragged these two so far through the storm. But the scowl was more for the worry he felt. If Malta had given up on them and gone to sleep, it meant that she was far wearier than she had indicated when they’d left the concourse.

  He pushed the flimsy door open and ventured into the darkened room. “Malta?” he said quietly into the darkness. “Malta, I’ve brought Captain Leftrin for you . . . ”

  His words tapered off as he felt the emptiness of the chambers. He could not have explained it to anyone. He simply knew that she was not there and had not been there since he had left. He stepped to the table and ran his fingertips lightly across a jidzin centerpiece there. The Elderling metal responded to his touch by bursting into life, giving off a ghost light, bluish but penetrating. He lifted it and it lit the room. Malta was not there. Cold flowed through him. He heard himself speak in a deceptively calm voice.

  “Something’s wrong. She isn’t here, and it doesn’t look as if she’s been here. ”

  The hearth for the small chambers was not much more than a clay platter. He found a few embers still burning and coaxed them back to life and lit the lamp again. The stronger light only confirmed what he already knew. She had not come back from the meeting. Everything was exactly as they had left it when they hurried out of the door.

  Leftrin and Skelly stood in the open door. He had no time to spend on courtesies. “I’m sorry. I have to go look for her. She was tired when I left her, but she promised she’d come straight back here. She . . . her back was hurting her. The baby . . . she is so heavy . . . ”

  The girl spoke. “We’ll go with you. Where did you last see her?”

  “Right outside the Traders’ Concourse. ”

  “Then that is where we’ll begin. ”

  He’d brought her to his room. A labor pain had taken her just as they’d reached the threshold of the brothel. She’d doubled over at the door, wanting only to crouch down and be still until it passed. Instead, he had seized her by the arm and dragged her through a small empty sitting room and into a very untidy bedchamber. It smelled of male sweat and old food. A chair was buried under a burden of discarded clothing. The bedding on the narrow bed was rucked up on a stained mattress. There was a chipped platter on the floor near the door. Ants clustered on the crust of bread on it and explored the overturned flagon and sticky cutlery next to it. The only light came from a nearly extinct fire on a pottery hearth. Several baskets huddled near the door held his personal possessions. She caught sight of a boot and a sock stiffened with damp. Then he pushed her again.

  Malta staggered, caught herself on the side of a low table, and sank down beside it. “Get a woman,” she told him fiercely. “Someone who knows about childbirth. NOW!”

  He stared at her. Then, “You’ll be safe here. I’ll be right back,” he said and left.

  When he shut the door, the room was plunged into dimness. Not far away, a woman laughed and a man gave a shout of drunken surprise.

  Malta sank to the floor, panting. Just as she caught her breath, another cramp seized her. She curled around her clenched belly, and a low moan escaped her. “It will be all right. ” She was not sure if she begged that of Sa or pleaded with the child inside her.

  Two more contractions seized her and passed before she heard the door open. Every time one passed, she promised herself she would stagger out the door and look for help as soon as she caught her breath. Each time, a new wave of pain seized her before she could. She could not guess how much time had passed. The pains made everything an endless now. “Help me,” she gasped and looked up to see that the useless fool had brought another man with him. She stared up at him. “A midwife,” she hissed. “I need a midwife. ”

  They ignored her. The man who had brought her crossed the small room, stepping around her, almost over her. He took up a cheap yellow candle in its holder, lit it from the hearth, and used it to light several more around the room. Then he stood back and gestured at her, well pleased. “You see, Begasti? I am right, am I not?”

  “It’s her,” the other man said. He stooped to peer at her, his breath thick with harsh spices. He was more richly dressed than the man who had dragged her here, and his words more heavily accented with Chalcedean. “But . . . what is wrong with her? Why have you brought her here? There will be trouble, Arich! Many of these Rain Wilders revere her. ”

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  “And as many despise her! They say she and her husband are too full of themselves, that family, power, and beauty have made her think herself truly a queen. ” He laughed. “She does not look so queenly now!”

  The words barely registered with Malta’s awareness. She was being torn open; she was sure of it. She managed a breath and commanded them, “Go find a woman to help me!”

  The one named Begasti shook his head. “Such a fuss to make over birthing. Do you think we should gag her? I have heard some women scream when they birth. It is bad enough that you and I are both here, in the same room. It’s dangerous. We shouldn’t be seen together; we should not want to draw attention to ourselves. ”

  The other one shrugged. “This is a noisy place at night, even without the storm. There are shrieks, shouting, and, yes, even screams. No one will come to investigate. ”

  Malta was panting and trying to think. This was so wrong. They were not going to help her; they were not listening to her at all. Why had the man pretended to be helpful, why had he brought her here?

  Another contraction snatched her attention away from them. She could not think while she was in its grip. And when it passed, she knew she had only a few moments to try to gather her thoughts, try to think of something. Something, there was something she knew, something that was obvious, but her mind would not focus. Their Chalcedean accents were too strong, and neither man had facial tattoos. If they had come here as part of the immigrant wave of freed slaves, then they should have borne the facial tattoos that marked such refugees. Then, as the pain clamped down on her again and the two men idly watched her struggle against it, the pieces of the puzzle tumbled into place for her. Such an obvious answer: these were the spies, the ones who Captain Leftrin had referred to. Chalced’s dirty fingers had reached into the Rain Wilds, to corrupt and tempt with money. These were the ones behind Jess the hunter and his plot to slaughter dragons for profit. Of course.

  And she was helpless and in their power. To what end? What would they want with a woman in labor?

  One of the men asked her question of the other.

  “Why did you take her, Arich? She is too well known and her appearance too unusual for you to take home as a slave. And we are not in a position to negotiate for a hostage payment! We agreed we would be invisible here, that we would get what we needed as quickly as we could, and then leave this godforsaken place!”

  Arich was grinning now. Malta thrashed and tried not to groan as her child fought to be born. Birth was among the most intimate moments in a woman’s life, and here she was, helpless on the filthy floor of a brothel, bereft of husband and midwife, sneered at by a couple of Chalcedean spies. Concealed by her skirts, she could feel her child was struggling to emerge, so close to being born and in such a terrible place. She wanted desperately to crawl away from th
e men, to seek the shelter of at least a corner of the room. She panted, trying to be silent, trying to conceal from them that her child was arriving now. Their voices pushed into her awareness.

  “Begasti, you look but you don’t see. She is scaled, just as you said, like a dragon. And the child that will come out will likely be just as heavily scaled. She was lost on the bridges tonight, begging for my help. No one knows I have her here, and no one except you and I will ever know what became of her. Scaled flesh is scaled flesh, my friend. And who is to say what a dragon torn from the egg looks like? Take off her head and hands and feet, remove anything on the baby that looks human and what do we have? Exactly what the Duke has said we must bring him! The flesh of a dragon, for his physicians to render into the cures that he requires!”

  “But . . . but . . . this is no dragon! They will make the medicines and they will not work! We will be executed if anyone discovers the deception. ”

  “No one will discover it, because no one will know of it except you and me! We will go home, we will deliver our goods, and our families will be released to us. And we will have at least a chance to escape while the physicians are fighting over who will make the elixirs that will prolong the Duke’s life. Do you think our families are faring well while we are here, struggling to find a way to slaughter dragons when we do not even know where they are? No. You know the Duke! For every tiny pang of pain he feels, he will find a way to take vengeance on our heirs. He is a desperate, dying old man who refuses to believe that his time has come. He will do any wretched or evil thing he must do to prolong his own life. ”

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