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City of dragons, p.27
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       City of Dragons, p.27

         Part #3 of Rain Wild Chronicles series by Robin Hobb

  She put distance between herself and the brothel and the man she had killed. She stared all about in the dark as she went, wondering where Arich had gone and if he was even now returning. If she encountered him, he would not drag her back to that place. He’d kill her and her child and then take her body back. She could not hope to fight him; she had no weapon, and she was exhausted and encumbered with her tiny son.

  Down, she suddenly decided. She was completely lost, but one thing that was always true was that down led to the river and the docks. And the Tarman. Perhaps Reyn was still there, trying to persuade Leftrin to come to their rented room. It did not seem likely. She could not decide how much time had passed since they had parted, but surely it had been hours. Perhaps even now, Reyn was looking for her, alarmed not to find her in their room. Well, she did not know the way back to their room, but she did know that down led to the river.

  At the next bridge she crossed, she chose the larger way and when she reached the trunk, followed the rough, steep stairway that spiraled down around it. The city seemed deserted, friendly house lights extinguished for the night. When the stairway stopped on a broad landing, she crossed on the largest bridge attached to it, and again followed a thickening branch-way until she reached a trunk with another spiraling stair. And down she went.

  The baby, so distressingly small when she had first beheld him, had become a burden to her weary arms. She was thirsty and shaking with cold. The man’s blood was still sticky on her hands, on the hands that held her baby, and the memories of it kept blossoming into her mind. It was not regret but the horror of the act that assailed her.

  When her feet found packed earth at the end of a stairway, it startled her. She was on the ground. The smell of the river welcomed her as she turned toward it. The trees thinned enough to allow her to see the flickering of the torches that always burned on the river docks. The path at her feet was submerged in shadow, but as long as she stumbled toward the lights, she would reach the dock. And the Tarman. The old liveship suddenly seemed the only safe place in the world, the only place where she knew she would be believed if she told her outlandish story of kidnappers who wanted to cut her up and sell her scaled flesh as false dragon meat. Almost she felt the ship calling to her.

  The ground grew softer as she approached the river, and then she was wading through mud. She stumbled suddenly and went to her knees, catching herself on one hand. The other clutched her babe to her breast. Her cry was equal parts pain and joy, for her hand had slapped onto the hard wood of a walkway. Knees burning with fresh scrapes, she crawled onto it, stumbled to her feet, and followed the path. It led to the docks. All the tears that she had forced herself to hold back poured down her cheeks. She staggered, passing small open boats tied up for the night and larger cargo vessels with darkened windows. When she saw a wizardwood barge with the cabin lights ablaze in it, she knew she had reached safety.

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  “TARMAN!” She shouted in a shuddering voice. “Captain Leftrin! Tarman, help me!”

  She reached for the railing of the liveship and tried to drag herself aboard. But the ship was riding high on the water. Clinging to his railing with one bloodied hand, she fought to find the strength to pull herself and her child to safety. “Help me!” she cried out again, her voice weakening. “Please. Tarman, help me, help my baby!”

  A voice queried another inside the ship’s cabin. Had they heard her? No door opened, no voice answered her.

  “Please, help me,” she begged hopelessly. Then a surge of awareness from the vessel washed warmly through her. Daughter of a Trader family and familiar with the way of liveships, she knew what it was. And knew also that it was a touch that was usually reserved for kin. It was welcome and carried strength with it.

  I will help you. He is a child of my family. Give the baby to me.

  The thought pulsed through her, as clear as if the words had been spoken aloud. “Please,” she said. “Take him. ” Her bundled child became an offering of trust and kinship as she slid him over the railing and lowered him gently onto Tarman’s deck. Her baby was out of her sight now, and out of her reach, and yet for the first time since she had birthed him, she felt he was also out of danger. The ship’s strength flowed through her. She drew a deeper breath.

  “Help me! Please, help me!”

  The ship’s awareness seemed to echo her cry, a demand that the crew must obey. And from the deck, from a baby she could not see, a sudden angry crying rose, far stronger than any she had yet heard from him.

  “It’s a baby!” a woman’s voice suddenly cried out. “A baby, a newborn, on Tarman’s deck!”

  “Help me!” Malta cried again, and suddenly a very large man leaped down from the deck to land on the dock beside her.

  “I got you,” he said, his voice deep and his words simple. “Don’t you be afraid, lady. Big Eider’s got you now. ”

  Thymara ran through the darkening streets of the city. Rapskal had left her, with a cry of “Heeby’s here! I’ll get her to help us. ” He had run off into the darkness while she had set off on a different course through the city, following not a memory of how they had come but the pull of her heart.

  Anger fueled her. She was furious with the dragon for putting herself in danger. The anger was much easier to feel than her underlying fear. It was not just her terror that Sintara was drowning but her general fear of the city and its ghostly denizens. Some of the streets she ran through were dark and deserted. But then she would turn a corner and suddenly be confronted with torchlight and merrymakers, a city in the midst of some sort of holiday. She had shrieked the first time, and then she recognized them for what they were. Ghosts and phantoms, Elderling memories stored in the stone of the buildings she passed. Despite her knowledge she ran jaggedly through them, dodging vendors’ carts and amorous couples and small boys selling skewers of smoked and spicy meats. Their huckstering cries filled her ears, and the smells taunted her with memories of the delicious tidbits they offered. Hunger assailed her and, as the running dried her mouth, thirst as well.

  Her experience with the memory stone had opened her to these ghosts. She no longer needed to touch anything to stir them to wakefulness. All she had to do was pass one of the black stone walls, and the memories of the city flooded out and engulfed her. She entered a plaza dominated by a recently erected wooden dais. There were musicians up there, playing horns of shining silver and striking immense drums and cymbals. She put her hands over her ears but could not block the ghost music. She crossed the plaza at a run, giving a small shriek as she inadvertently dashed right through a young man bearing a platter full of foaming mugs over his head.

  “Sintara!” she shouted as she reached the edge of the plaza. She halted, looking wildly about her. There, she saw a dark and empty street fronted by silent buildings. One street away, a pale-faced street performer dressed in white and silver was juggling objects the size of apples that sparkled like jewels. She tossed one high and it burst in a sudden shower of sparks and scintillant dust, and the crowd oohed and shrieked. Thymara was breathing hard and realized her legs were shaking. She pulled her cloak tighter over her wings. She had lost her bearings and had no idea where she was in the city. Worse, her awareness of the dragon had faded. Was she drowning? Dead?

  Here. Come here.

  Thymara did not hesitate. Down the darkened street she went, picking her way over uneven cobbles and fallen masonry. Then, after one more turn, she suddenly smelled and saw the river, gleaming silver under the moonlight. And there, on the broken pavement at the very brink of the river, sprawled her beloved dragon. As she ran toward her, she suddenly shared how cold and weary Sintara was. And also how . . . proud? The dragon was pleased with herself?

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  “I thought you were drowning!”

  “I was. ” Sintara heaved herself to her feet. Her wings she held half open and dripping still. Water sheened off her scal
es to make mirrors for the starlight on the broken paving stones. Sintara snorted, and sneezed suddenly, surprising them both. “I flew,” she said, and the force of the thought behind the words eclipsed her dip in the river. “I flew, I hunted, I killed. I am SINTARA!”

  She roared the last word, and Thymara felt it as sound, wind, and thought. The dragon’s elation lifted her own spirits. For one moment, all fear and anger were gone, replaced by mutual triumph.

  “You are indeed,” the girl affirmed with a grin.

  “Build a fire,” the dragon commanded her. “I need to warm myself. ”

  Thymara glanced about hopelessly. “There is nothing here that will burn. The driftwood that does wash up is wet. This city is all cold stone. Most of the wood left is rotted to splinters and dust. ” As her words dashed the dragon’s hopes of warmth, the girl shared again just how cold Sintara was. Colder than she’d ever been, and hearing the slowing thumps of her heart as her body reacted to that cold.

  “Can you walk? We can at least get you inside of a building. It might be a little warmer there. ”

  “I can walk,” the dragon asserted but not strongly. She lifted her head. “I almost, no, I can, I do remember this place. The bridge is gone. And the river has eaten more than two streets and half of a third. There used to be warehouses along here. And docks for the smaller boats. And up the hill from them were the Grand Promenade and then the Plaza of Dreams. And past that, two streets past that, there was the . . . ”

  “The Square of the Dragons. ” Thymara spoke the name quietly into the gap left by Sintara’s pause. She did not know where the knowledge came from, not clearly. Ancestral memory. Was this what Rapskal had been trying to explain to her? That once she had dreamed deeply enough with the stones, she could remember the city for herself?

  “And a grooming hall fronted it. I remember it well. ”

  Sintara stepped up her pace, and Thymara hurried to keep up with her. The dragon lurched as she walked. “Are you injured?” the girl demanded.

  “Some cracked claws on my right front foot. They are painful, but they will heal. Once, the grooming hall was where a dragon might go for such an injury. Elderlings would cut away the cracked claw and bind the nail with linen and then varnish to protect it until it grew again. They stitched gashes from mating battles, too. And removed parasites and scale lice and such. ”

  “Would that they were there now to help you,” Thymara said softly.

  The dragon did not seem to hear her. “And there were soaking pools, some just of hot water and others with a layer of oil on top. Oh, to soak in steaming water again. And then emerge to wallow in a sand basin, and then to have servants groom the sand away and leave my scales gleaming . . . ”

  “There is nothing like that left intact,” Thymara said quietly. “But at least we can get out of the wind there. ”

  The dragon soldiered on, walking silently now, and Thymara matched her pace. They turned a corner into a street brightly lit with memories, but if Sintara were aware of them, she made no sign. She strode through the night bazaar of incense and freshly cooked meats and breads, and Thymara followed her.

  The reality of the dragon made the ghosts seem paler in comparison. Their gaiety seemed frail and false, an echo of a past that had never lasted into a future. Whatever they celebrated, they did so with futility. Their world had not lasted, and their windblown laughter seemed to mock them.

  “Here,” Sintara said, and she turned to mount a long flight of shallow stairs.

  Thymara ascended beside her in silence. Then, when they were within two steps of the top, the entire frame of the doorway suddenly burst into golden light. A welcome of music and fragrance swelled out as the remnants of the doors creaked back on their hinges. Thymara thought it a part of the stone’s illusion, but the dragon halted and looked about in wonder.

  “It remembers!” she said suddenly. “The city remembers me. Kelsingra remembers the dragons!” She lifted her head high and suddenly bugled a clear call. The sound echoed in the chamber before her, and in response, light flooded it.

  Thymara was transfixed by wonder. It was light, real light, not a memory of bygone times, and as she watched in awe, the second and then the third story of the buildings lit, and golden light flowed like beacons from the windows. As if they were twigs catching a flame, the buildings to either side suddenly responded as well. Light flooded and filled the Square of the Dragons. Thymara turned to look back on it. The statues that edged the square flushed with color, and for the first time she realized that the colored tiles that had seemed random when she walked over them were actually a mosaic of a great black dragon.

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  In the distance, Thymara heard a dragon trumpet. Heeby, it would be Heeby in flight with Rapskal on her back, looking for them. Well, they would definitely know where Sintara was, she decided. No need to wait outside in the wind. She followed her dragon into the welcoming chamber.

  Wonder upon wonder. The mosaics on the walls, a vista of rolling plains, glowed with light and warmth. Thymara stared all around at a room that had obviously been built to host not a single dragon but a score of them. The ceiling soared overhead, a permanently blue sky with a dazzling yellow sun in the center. The pillars that supported the distant ceiling were textured like the trunks of trees. The floor beneath their feet was dusty, but it, too, gave off warmth that Thymara could feel through the broken soles of her boots. The fragrance grew stronger as they progressed into the room, but pleasantly so. In the far corner, a human-sized staircase led upward to other chambers. The music beckoned, a sound like water over a pebbly streambed, luring them into the next room.

  “Sweet Sa,” she exclaimed as she entered. The air of the room was warming, and the humidity was increasing. A row of a dozen immense troughs interrupted the floor of the chamber, each with a slanting ramp leading down into it. And one was filling slowly with steaming water . . .

  Sintara did not hesitate but walked straight down into the rising water and arranged herself with her chin propped on a stone pillar set at precisely the correct height to cradle her head above the water that already lapped around her knees. She gave an immense sigh. “Warm,” she said and sank into it and closed her eyes.

  Thymara watched, caught between wonder and envy as the water filled the basin until it lapped over the dragon’s back. “Sintara?” she queried cautiously, but the dragon gave no indication of being aware of her. She desperately wanted to ask permission to join the dragon. In all her life, she had never seen such a quantity of clean, heated water. In her home in Trehaug, they had had a bath hammock, a tightly woven “tub” that in the summer was filled with rainwater and warmed by the sun. But she had never seen or even imagined anything like this bath for a dragon. There seemed to be plenty of room in it, and as she studied it, she noticed that a set of human-sized steps led down into it from the far corner. Oh. Now she “remembered” it: there had been a force of Elderlings who had lived on the premises and provided scrubbing and grooming services to dragons who required it. Once, there would have been a stock of brushes and oils and other grooming tools in the collapsed wooden cupboards along the wall.

  Thymara looked down at her well-worn clothing. Well, more dirty than just well worn, she admitted. When one was reduced to little more than one set of clothes, washing them and having them dry before they were required again was a bit difficult, especially in winter. But in this large warm room, they would probably dry quickly. The temptation was suddenly too much to resist.

  She walked swiftly to the steps, set her boots to one side, and dropped her cloak beside them. Her “stockings” were no more than rags to wrap her feet. She removed them carefully. They were much better than nothing. She pulled her long tunic off carefully, working her wings through the opening cut in the back. The tunic joined her trousers in a pile. She sat on the edge of the warm tiles and put her feet into the water.

  And swiftly snatched t
hem back. The water was hot, far hotter than any she’d ever bathed in. She looked at the comatose dragon. Sintara seemed to be enjoying it. Thymara ventured her foot into the water again. Yes, hot, surprisingly hot, but not unbearably so. She eased her feet down one step and slowly entered the water. It took time but eventually she was immersed up to her chin. She opened her wings and felt the heat of the water touch them. And ease them. Thymara had always accepted that they ached slightly, all the time, as her hands and feet ached when they were cold. The cessation of that constant pain was a blessing. She leaned back then, wetting her hair, and then reaching up to loosen it in the water. It felt so good. She ducked her head under and rubbed her face, and then repeated it until her skin squeaked under her fingers. Clean. Clean was such a miracle of simple pleasure. She rubbed her hands together, digging the dirt out from under her nails. Then she leaned back with only her face out of the water. Paradise.

  The hot water was rapidly sucking all ambition out of her. She just wanted to rest her head on the edge of the pool and relax in the warmth. It had been so long since she had felt completely warm. She forced herself to think about putting on filthy clothes over her clean body in the morning; that roused her to activity. She pulled her garments in, soaking them and then pummeling them in the hot water. A brown cloud of dirt tinged the clean water around them, and she glanced fearfully toward Sintara. She had not known her clothes were that dirty! Would the dragon be offended? But Sintara seemed beyond feeling anything, so Thymara hastily finished her laundering. She squeezed as much water as she could out of the clothes, wiped an area of the heated floor clean of dust with her foot wraps, washed them out again, and then spread all her clothes out flat on the warm tiles. She had just finished arranging them and was slipping back into the hot water when she heard a sound. Her heart skipped a beat before she decided it was the intrusion of memory into her mind.

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  She was halfway back into the hot water when Rapskal exclaimed happily, “You’re naked!”

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