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City of dragons, p.26
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       City of Dragons, p.26

         Part #3 of Rain Wild Chronicles series by Robin Hobb

  Her baby, her newborn child, lay between her legs now. He or she was warm and wet with fluids. And still, terribly still and silent. Malta remained motionless, breathing shallowly. The men were shouting at each other and she did not care. She had to be still and betray nothing, not that her child was here and vulnerable, not that he might be stillborn. She knew that she must somehow save both of them; no one else would come to their aid. Her long loose tunic draped her knees, concealing her child. So she must wait, in stillness, while she wondered if her child lived, until the afterbirth emerged from her body. Once she was uncoupled from the child, then she must find both the strength and a strategy to attack these men and rescue her baby from them. Her baby was so quiet; not a mewl, not a wail. Was he all right? She could not look at him even; not yet. She lay, suddenly shivering with cold after her long exertion, and their words once more intruded into her awareness.

  Page 95


  “You speak treason!” Begasti was aghast, looking wildly about as if some witness might leap from the walls to condemn him. “You would risk the lives of my family with this crazy scheme!”

  “Not a risk, old fool! Our only chance. The dragons are gone, far out of our reach now! Do you think the Duke will care that we did as best we could? Do you think he will forgive a failure? No! All will pay with pain and death. He has left us only one route. We deceive him, and possibly we and our heirs escape. If we do not, well, what we will suffer then will be no worse than what we would suffer if we went home now, with nothing! It is our only choice. Luck has put her in our hands! We cannot lose our only chance. ”

  Abruptly, they were both looking at her. She curled forward over her aching belly and gave a long drawn-out yowl. “Get a midwife!” she panted. “Go. Go now! Bring a woman here to help me, or I will die!” She thrashed and felt the small warmth of her baby’s body against her thighs. Warm, he was warm. He must be alive! But why so still and silent? She dared not look at him, not while these men were watching her. If they knew he was already here, they would snatch him from her. And kill him, if he were not already dead.

  Begasti shrugged. “We need something to preserve the flesh and something to transport it. Vinegar, I think, and salt. Pickling will preserve it and perhaps make it look more convincing. I think a little keg would serve our purposes best, something that hides what is inside. ”

  “Tomorrow, I will . . . ”

  Begasti shook his head. “No. Not tomorrow. We need to be done with this tonight, and take ship tomorrow morning. Can you imagine that no one has missed her? By tomorrow, the search will be intense. We must do this thing, dispose of whatever is left and be gone. ”

  “Be reasonable! Where will I find such things at this hour? All shops were closed hours ago!”

  Begasti gave him a flat and ugly look. He turned his back on Arich and began to dig in one of the baskets near the door. “And you will wait until the shops are open and go in to make your little purchase and then come back here for what must be done? Don’t be a fool. Go and get what we need, however you must. Then pay a visit to our dear friend Trader Candral. Tell him he is to arrange transport for you, on a swift ship bound downriver, one with an enclosed cabin we can share. Do not tell him I am leaving with you. Let him think that I remain here in Cassarick and that the threat still dangles over him. By the time he realizes we are both gone, it will be too late for him to betray us. ”

  Arich shook his head angrily. “And while I am doing all these dangerous things, what will you be doing?”

  Through slitted eyes, Malta saw Begasti tilt his head toward her. “Preparing the shipment,” he said flatly, and Arich had the small decency to pale.

  “I am gone,” Arich announced and reached for the door.

  “You have the stomach of a rabbit,” Begasti announced disdainfully. “See that you do your part and quickly. We have many tasks to do before the sun rises. ”

  Child and afterbirth were now clear of her body and still the baby had not made a sound. Malta tented her knees protectively over him and moaned and panted wildly as if still in the throes of labor. The men ignored her as Arich angrily arranged his hooded cloak and then left. Her scrabbling fingers had gradually drawn the hem of her tunic from under her motionless child so that when she got to her feet she would not tumble him to the floor. She tried not to think of her precious newborn, still birth-wet, lying on the filthy floor of a brothel. Rolling her head to one side, she moaned and gauged the distance to the dirty knife that rested by the plate and spilled flagon.

  She’d waited too long. “Time to be quieter,” Begasti said. The coldness of his words snapped her gaze up. He loomed over her, a loop of fine line in his hands. A bootlace? She met his eyes and saw in them both determination and disgust for what he had to do.

  Malta lifted her feet from the floor and shot them out at him, catching him in the midriff. He oofed out air and staggered back. She rolled away from her baby, crying out with the effort, and grabbed the knife with one hand and the sticky flagon with the other. The Chalcedean was already back on his feet and coming at her. She swung the flagon in a wide arc and it cracked against his jaw. She followed it with a wild thrust of the knife.

  It was not a weapon for killing, only a short-bladed kitchen knife for cutting cooked meat and not a very sharp one at that. It skittered on his vest, not penetrating. She set her body weight behind it and just as he grabbed her wrist, cursing her, the skating tip of her blade found his unprotected throat and sank in. She joggled the knife back and forth wildly, horrified at how it felt as the greasy warm blood hit her fingers and yet wishing nothing more than to cut his head completely off.

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  He flailed at her, his curses suddenly gurgled threats. One of his desperate blows caught the side of her head and sent her crashing into the wall. His hands found the knife she’d left stuck in his neck and pulled it out. It clattered to the floor. Blood followed it, leaping out in pulsing gouts.

  Malta screamed in horror and staggered back. The next instant, she sprang forward to catch her babe and snatch him to safety as Begasti staggered in a circle in the room. The Chalcedean crashed to his knees, both his hands at his throat, trying to hold in the blood that sprayed out between his thick fingers. He stared up at her, his eyes and mouth wide open. He grunted at her, blood coming out with the sound, spilling from his lips and over his bearded chin. Slowly he toppled over on his side. His hands still clutched his throat, and his legs kicked. She retreated from him, her baby clutched to her chest, the umbilical cord spilling over her wrists to the connected and dangling afterbirth.

  She looked down, finally, for the first time, at her child. A son. She had a son. But as she regarded him, a low cry of dismay escaped her.

  Her dream of someone handing her a chubby infant wrapped in a clean swaddling cloth had come to this. Birthed in a brothel. Dirt from the floor clung to his wet cheek. He was thin. He stirred faintly in her arms. His tiny hands were bony, not chubby, and the nails were greenish. He was already scaled, on his skull and down the back of his neck to the nape. Reyn’s eyes, but deep blue, looked up at her. His mouth was open, but she was not certain at first that he breathed. “Oh, baby!” she cried out in a low voice that was both apology and fear. Her knees folded and she sank to the floor, the child on her lap. “I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know what I’m doing,” she sobbed.

  The knife was on the floor near her knee, but it was covered in the Chalcedean’s blood. She could not bear to touch it, let alone cut the birth cord with it. She remembered her trousers, still shoved into the front of her tunic, and pulled them out. She set her child on them, and bundled the legs around him, wrapping the cord and the afterbirth with him. “It’s all wrong, so wrong,” she apologized to him. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this, baby. I’m so sorry!”

  He gave a sudden thin wail as if to agree that this was not how life should treat him. It was a terrible sound, lon
ely and weak, but Malta laughed aloud that he could make even such a noise as this. She could not recall that she had taken off her cloak, but there it was, on the floor where she had labored, wet with two kinds of blood. Her beautiful Elderling cloak. It would have to do.

  Begasti gave a low, drawn-out moan that sent her staggering away from him until she cowered by the wall. Then he was still. No time. No time to think about anything. The other man would come back, and he must not find her here. It was hard to get her cloak around her and fastened without setting the child down, but she would not let him be out of her arms. She opened the door and tottered out into the small common room she had passed through earlier. Night was deep and the room empty. She heard no sounds from the whores or their customers. She was exhausted and every muscle in the center of her body felt overused. Blood was trickling slowly down her legs. How far could she get like this?

  Bang on the doors of the brothel chambers? Demand help? No. She could trust no one who would knowingly shelter Chalcedeans in the Rain Wilds. Even if they were sympathetic to a woman in such a desperate situation, when Arich returned, they would likely give way, out of fear or in response to bribery.

  She crossed the room and carried her newborn son out into the storm and the night.

  Day the 26th of the Change Moon

  Year the 7th of the Independent Alliance of Traders

  From Reyall, Acting Keeper of the Birds, Bingtown

  To Detozi, Keeper of the Birds, Trehaug

  Dear Detozi and Erek,

  How peculiar to send you this post by boat instead of bird, but the Guild has grounded almost all birds until the contagion can be contained. Those that can fly are reserved for the most urgent messages. I have heard a rumor that they have ordered more birds from Jamaillia, but even if they arrive, it will take months to establish breeding pairs and imprint on them that they are to fly home here rather than return to Jamaillia. Nor do I think that the quality of birds we import can match what we have been breeding here, thanks to the program that Erek began. I am heartsick at the loss of birds, not just as breeding stock but as small flighted friends. I have only two pairs of swift birds left in the cotes assigned to my management. I have isolated them as pairs and allow no other keeper to bring feed or water in or to clean their cote. As soon as they hatch the eggs they are setting and the youngsters fledge out, I will remove them and hand-feed them in the hopes of preserving as many swift birds as I can from the contagion. I hope you have been able to preserve some of this stock, as I wish to be very cautious of breeding them.

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  They tell me this letter will travel rapidly on their so-called impervious ship. I have to laugh. They do not know the meaning of swift transit! Nothing will ever replace our birds.

  By the time you receive this, I imagine the wedding will be over. How I wish I could have been there!


  Chapter Eleven


  How could life go from being so right to being so wrong, so very quickly? The dragon had flown, she had hunted and killed, and then slept so deeply, slept with a full belly for the first time in days. She had wakened, chilled after her sleep and already thinking of hunting and killing again. Sintara had stood and stretched and felt, for the first time in this life, that she was not only a queen dragon but a true Lord of the Three Realms of earth, sea, and sky.

  She had snuffed carefully all about her kill site to be sure she had not missed a single morsel. She hadn’t. Striding to the steepest edge of the stony ridge, she had looked down. It was a long drop. Doubt tried to uncurl inside her, but she crushed it. She had flown to get here, and she would fly to get back. Back? Why would she go back, she wondered suddenly? Back to the other dragons in their pitiful earthbound huddle? Back to an inadequate shelter and a keeper who could barely sustain her most basic needs? No. There was no reason for her to go back to any of that. She could fly now, and she could kill for herself. It was time to leave this cold place and fly to the heat-soaked sands she had dreamed of ever since she had emerged from her cocoon. Time to live as a dragon.

  She had launched, springing out wildly from the ridge. With powerful beats of her wings, she had risen to where she could catch the currents of air that flowed with the river far below her. She caught the wind, her wings cupped wide, and she let it lift her higher and higher. The altitude and the freedom intoxicated her. Drawing a breath, she trumpeted a wild challenge to the gathering evening. Sintara! she roared, and she took pleasure in the fact that she heard no reply.

  She circled wide over the river, tasting and smelling all the information that the wind carried to her. The first stars were starting to show in the darkening sky; the sight of them sobered her.

  Dragons were creatures of light and day. They did not, by choice, fly at night. She needed to find a place to land, somewhere that offered her shelter against the night’s cold and the threat of rain. And, she realized, she should choose a place that offered an excellent launching spot. Taking flight from the ridge had been far easier than trying to lift herself from the riverside.

  She had banked, intending to circle widely. But with the coming of evening, the day had cooled and the winds had risen. A current of air caught her and sent her out in a much wider spiral. Relentlessly, it had swept her out over the depth of the rushing river.

  No panic, she told herself sternly. She could fly. Being over the river did not mean she was in any danger. She had pushed away her memories of battling for her life against a flash flood. She had survived and beaten the river. No fears now. She beat her wings and rose. It was not raining, and for that she was grateful, but the clear skies had brought cold with them. As the sun sank, the day was chilling and she suddenly felt the full weariness of her long day. This was her first day of flight, and bereft of the excitement of her first launch, she now felt how tired she was. Not just her wings but also her spine ached from her labors. She was aware of the effort of holding her hind legs in flight alignment with her body. Her joints ached. And then she noticed how far she was from either shore.

  She turned again in another circle, and again felt the cheating wind pull her out, away from the shore and toward the river’s center. She scanned her horizons, seeking for a place to land, any elevated piece of terrain. The river spread wide below her, either shore a daunting distance away. As she circled yet again, determination flared in her. She fixed her gaze on Kelsingra and beat her wings, making straight for the city.

  Almost straight. She had not allowed for her weaker wing or for her weariness. The wind pushed her; she tipped and lost altitude before she could correct. The moving air over the river seemed to suck at her now, trying to pull her ever lower. She fought it but could not maintain her course. Then, as if fate had decided to offer her a small measure of mercy, something tall loomed up from the river. It was a darker shape against the dimming landscape, and she could make no sense of it. What was it? Once, some ancestor told her, there had been a bridge there, but . . . And then she realized what it was. The jutting mass was what remained of the bridge approach. It reached partially out into the river and it would do for a landing place. She fixed her gaze on it and willed herself there.

  But she was tired. No matter how strongly she beat her wings, she sank lower and lower. And her shorter wing turned her, despite her best efforts to compensate. Just short of her destination, a sudden gust of wind slammed into her. It tipped her and she did not have sufficient altitude to correct her attitude. Sintara fought to rise into the air again, but the tip of one wing brushed the river and the moving water snatched it. She cartwheeled around her wingtip and slammed into the river. The surface slapped her, and then, as if suddenly admitting it was liquid, it welcomed her in. The dragon sank into the cold and the wet and the darkness. Down she went, felt her claws touch the rocky bottom of the river for a single instant, and then she was dragged along by the current. She fought to close her wings, to streamline her body so
she could resist the water’s relentless drag. Her nostrils reflexively closed the instant the water touched them. Her eyes had remained open, but she saw only darkness. Kicking, clawing, lashing her tail, she fought the water.

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  Her head broke clear and she had a brief view of the bank. It was not far away, but it was steep and tall. The river claimed her again, resisting her effort to fight her way to the surface. She kicked steadily, trying to swim against the swift current.

  “Sintara!” Thymara’s cry of anguish echoed only in her mind. Water drowned the dragon’s hearing. Somewhere, the girl was racing through the streets of Kelsingra, heading toward the river and her dragon. To do what? Save her from drowning? Ridiculous human! Yet despite her disdain for the girl’s foolishness, the act warmed her ego. She lashed her tail and was pleased when it helped push her toward the shore. Her front claws touched gravel. She snatched and scrabbled at it, and after an eternity, her hind feet found purchase, too. Another eternity passed before she fought her way to the river’s edge, and it took even longer for her to claw her way up the steep and rocky bank.

  Sintara dragged herself out of the water’s reach and collapsed, cold and exhausted. She felt sluggish with the cold, two of her claws were torn bloody, and every muscle in her body throbbed.

  But she was alive. And in Kelsingra. She had flown, hunted, and killed. She was a dragon again. She lifted her head and snorted water from her nostrils. When she could, she drew a deep breath and trumpeted. “Thymara! I am here. Come to me!”

  Malta clasped her bundled baby to her chest as she fled. Few lights showed in Cassarick this late at night. Rain was falling again, the narrow trunkways here were slick, and terror and exhaustion had taken their tolls on her. She could feel blood trickling down her thighs, and though she knew that bleeding after birth was not unusual, every terrible tale she had heard of new mothers bleeding to death came to torment her. If she died now, if she collapsed in the dark and rain, her baby would die with her. He did not seem strong; he did not cry loudly but only wailed weakly, protesting that his life must begin in such a rough way.

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