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City of dragons, p.28
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       City of Dragons, p.28

         Part #3 of Rain Wild Chronicles series by Robin Hobb

  Thymara leaped out of the water with a splash and snatched up her tunic, turning her back on him to pull it over her head. It got caught on her wings and she struggled with it endlessly before she was covered. “What are you doing here?” she demanded over her shoulder, realizing how ridiculous a question it was even as she asked it.

  “Looking for you and Sintara! To help you, remember? You said she was drowning, but she doesn’t look too worried right now. How did you do all this? Seems like half the city is lit up! I bet they’re boiling with curiosity across the river! And look at all the water. Where’s it coming from? Heeby! Heeby, wait, darling, what are you doing? How did you do that?”

  For the red dragon had proceeded to enter a bath trough. The hot, scented water had already begun to flow into it. Heeby was settling into it with a happy wriggle when Rapskal shouted, “Hey, wait for me!” and began to strip.

  “You can’t do that in front of me!” Thymara exclaimed, offended, but he only turned and grinned at her.

  “You did it first. And I’m cold to the bone. ” He dropped his clothes to the floor and jumped directly into the water. “Oh, yowtch, that’s hot! How do you stand it?” He’d lifted himself on the side and was staring at her over the edge.

  “Go in slowly,” she suggested and turned away from him.

  Sintara had opened her eyes and was regarding them all with annoyance. Rapskal stayed as he was, letting the slowly rising water come up on him. He moved to the end of the dragon bath to be closer to Thymara and hung on the edge of it, cheeks red and dark hair dripping.

  “So, hey, Sintara. Hey, big girl? Look over here at me, princess! How’d you do it? How did you light up the city? Heeby and I been here before, lots of times. It never lit up or made a bath for us. At least, not until now. ”

  Sintara swiveled her head on her chin rest to regard them. Thymara was shocked at how he had addressed her dragon but sensed, too, that Sintara did not mind being called “princess. ” Perhaps he could not tell how much his words had pleased the dragon, but Thymara could. She, Sintara, had wakened the city when Heeby had not. Perhaps that was why she deigned to answer him.

  “Perhaps the city was awaiting the return of a real dragon. I simply told the city what I wanted. It’s how Kelsingra works. All the Elderling cities worked this way. These cities were built for the convenience of dragons. To lure us to come and spend time among the Elderlings. If they did not please us, why would we have bothered?” Her eyes spun in lazy pleasure and slowly she lidded them, leaving them all to think about that.

  “Look at your wings!” Thymara exclaimed suddenly and walked over to gaze down on her dragon.

  “One is weaker. It will grow. ” Sintara sounded annoyed to be reminded of the flaw.

  “They are growing now. Like the dragons all grew when they stayed the one night on the warm place on our journey here. They are . . . extraordinary! The webbing, the veins . . . I don’t know what to call it, but it is thicker already and the colors are richer. I can almost see them grow like vines overtaking a tree. All your colors are brighter, everywhere, but your wings are incredible! If one is weaker, I cannot see it. ”

  “The weakness was very small. Probably apparent only to me. ”

  Sintara stood suddenly and opened her wings. She flexed them once, showering the room with droplets of water. “Yes. They are stronger!” The dragon sounded very pleased. She sank down into the water again and this time she left her wings half opened as if to soak them better. “This was what I needed. ”

  “I wonder if it is what all the dragons need?” Thymara ventured. She had glanced over at Heeby. Rapskal’s scarlet dragon was smaller and rounder than Sintara and always had been. Her legs had always seemed stumpy to Thymara, and her tail shorter than it should have been. Sintara’s body was lizardlike while Heeby had always seemed square as a toad to Thymara. But now, as the little dragon stretched and lolled in the steaming water, her transformation was almost as stunning as Sintara’s. The web of veins in her red wings gleamed gold and shining black. It did not seem possible that her tail and legs had grown, but already she looked longer and more proportionate. Thymara spoke softly. “Is Heeby changing, too?”

  “Oh, yes. ” Rapskal seemed blasé about it. “Remember, we found one of those get-warm places when we were separated from the rest of you. She spent a lot of time in it. I think that’s why she got to fly before anyone else. Dragons like heat. Makes them grow. ” He suddenly grabbed the edge of the pool and levered himself half out of it. “They’re not the only things that grow in hot water!”

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  “You’re so rude! Cover yourself!”

  Rapskal glanced down, snickered, but obediently picked up his shirt and draped it around his waist, clutching it one-handed at his hip. “That’s not what I’m talking about. Your wings, Thymara! If you think Sintara’s wings changed in the hot water, well, you should see your own. Open them up, butterfly girl. Let’s see them all the way. ”

  Water was streaming down his chest and bare legs. Scales delineated the muscles of his chest and belly, but he seemed to have grown a lot of black hair as well. It was shocking to see him this way, but worse was that her memories of coupling with him shot suddenly through her, filling her body with a different sort of warmth. No. Not him, she reminded herself sternly. I didn’t couple with him. I’ve never mated with anyone! Yet the thought could not negate her knowledge of it, nor cool the lust in her belly. She backed away from him, only a step, but he halted where he stood and his grin grew wider.

  “I won’t touch you,” he promised. “I just want to see your wings. ”

  She turned, her face burning.

  “Open them up, then,” he commanded, and she did. Water droplets had been trapped in their folds and slid down when she opened them. They tickled and she shivered. Rapskal laughed. “That’s amazing. The colors flickered. Oh, Thymara. So beautiful. I wish you could see them for yourself. You would never feel shy of them again, never cover them again. Move them, just a little, would you?”

  She was tantalizingly aware of him standing behind her. She distracted herself by fanning her wings slightly and was startled at what she felt. Strength. And increased size, as if they had only been waiting to unfold. She fanned them again. Flight. Was it possible now? She stifled the thought. Sintara had told her she would never fly. Why did she torment herself?

  Rapskal had come closer. She felt his breath on her back, sensed his closeness. “Please,” he said quietly. “I know I said I wouldn’t touch, but can I please just touch your wings?”

  Her wings. What was the harm? “Very well,” she said quietly.

  “Open them wide, please. ”

  She spread them and felt him take hold of the ribbed end of one. It was oddly like holding his hand; the sensation was rather like her fingers. He spoke softly. “I wish you could see this. This line here is all gold. ” He traced a line with his finger, and she shivered at the touch. “And behind it is a blue like the sky right before it gives way to night. Here, there is white that gleams almost silver. ” He stretched her wing wider and very lightly drew his finger from her shoulder to the very tip. She shivered again, but with heat, not chill.

  An odd thought intruded. He was using both hands.

  She snapped her wings shut and spun around. His shirt was on the floor. “Oops. ” He grinned.

  “Not funny!” she objected.

  His grin grew wider, and as she turned away, she could not keep an answering smile from her face. It was funny. Rude, but funny. So very Rapskal. But it also made her uncomfortable. She walked away from him.

  “Where are you going?”

  She didn’t know. “Upstairs. I want to see what else is here. ”

  “Wait for me!”

  “You should stay with the dragons. ”

  “No reason to. They’re both asleep. ”

  “At least put on your trousers. ”

sp; He laughed again, but she refused to look at him. She didn’t wait but returned to the first chamber they had entered and walked over to the stairs. It was cooler in this room compared to the bathing chamber, and goose bumps popped up on her back under her damp tunic. She was still hungry. She pushed that thought from her mind. Nothing she could do about it tonight.

  The stairs wound around a pillar and led to an upper chamber that was sized to humans and not as elaborately decorated. There was a main room with a scatter of collapsed and unidentifiable furniture remains in it. The ceiling glowed softly, illuminating the room evenly. A single window looked out over the Square of the Dragons. Thymara lost a few moments staring out of it. Rapskal was right. Whatever Sintara had done to light this building had spread. The windows of the adjacent buildings gleamed with light, and throughout the city, other random structures seemed to have wakened. Some were outlined with lights even though their windows were dark. Had the Elderlings used light to decorate as some cities used paint or carving? Random buildings had awakened even in the distance, even as far back as the cliffs at the far edge of the city. Lights burned as if there were people there. It was a sight both cheering and unnerving.

  “I told you so. This city isn’t dead. It’s waiting for us, for dragons and Elderlings, to wake it and bring it back to life. ” He had come up the stairs quietly and stood behind her.

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  “Maybe,” she conceded and turned to follow Rapskal as he explored. He came to a tall door. It was wood, but it had been decorated with panels of metal with shapes beaten into it. Perhaps that was why it had survived. He opened it and wondered aloud, “Where does this go?”

  Thymara followed him as he entered a wide corridor. More doors, similar to the one he had just opened, lined the walls. “Are they locked?” Rapskal wondered and pushed on one. It swung open silently and he hesitated on the threshold.

  “What’s in there?” she asked, hurrying to join him.

  “Someone’s room,” he said, but still he did not enter.

  Thymara stood on tiptoe to peer over his shoulder. Someone’s room indeed. So many of the houses she had seen were empty, as if the inhabitants had packed and left, while others held only splinters and shards of furniture. This was different. There was a desk and a chair, of dark wood, but coated with something very shiny and inset with colors. She had once seen a very small and expensive box from Trehaug that was finished like that. A tall shelf in the corner matched the desk, and on the shelves there were containers of glass and pottery, most of them blue but a few orange and silver ones for contrast.

  “Look. A bed made of stone. Who would want a bed made of stone?” Rapskal walked boldly into the room, and Thymara followed shyly. She felt like an intruder here, as if the narrow door in the opposite wall might open at any time and the room’s inhabitant emerge to demand what they were doing here. She moved to the shelf and found a comb and a brush, seemingly made of glass. The bristles of the brush were stiff when she poked at them.

  “I’m taking this!” she heard herself say and was shocked at the greed in her voice. But she had not had a proper hairbrush since hers had been lost months ago. A flat object on the desk looked rather like a book, but when she opened it, it unfolded into three hinged mirror panels. She looked at herself and then could not look away. Was that her? Had Sintara changed her so much?

  Gone was the girl who had been “marked by the Rain Wilds. ” An Elderling, narrow of face, her features traced in fine blue scales, looked out at her. Her wet hair, sleek and black, revealed fine blue scaling in the parting. She lifted her hand to touch her face, to prove the reflection was her own, and was struck by the deep cobalt of her claws and the tracery of silver, like a vine, that now ran from each fingertip up the back of her hands to her elbows. She was sure it had not been there before the bath.

  She was still staring when Rapskal interrupted her. “You’re going to like what’s in here even better. Girl clothes. Elderling stuff, like that gown Alise has. Pretty stuff. Silver and blue and green, your colors. And slippers of the same stuff, only heavier. ”

  “Let me see!” she demanded.

  He turned from the set of shelves behind the narrow door, holding up a shimmering garment of green and blue. Thymara’s heart leaped.

  Rapskal was grinning at her. “There’s a lot of them in here. You could share. If they fit anyone. ”

  She pushed past him, her fingers running over the stacked folds. Silver like the running river, green that was greener than Fente. Blue like Sintara. She was breathless with excitement.

  “Hey. Look over your shoulder,” Rapskal commanded her.

  She did and found he was holding the unfolded mirror up for her. “How do you like your wings?” he demanded, and then he fell silent at the stunned look on her face. Tears welled up in her eyes, and she felt her lips trembling. She couldn’t speak.

  “You don’t like them?” he asked, shocked.

  She was even more shocked. “Rapskal. I’m beautiful. ”

  “Well, I’ve been telling you that!” Now he sounded disgusted that she had doubted him. He wandered back to the desk and set the mirror on it. He glanced at her and then away, as if suddenly uncomfortable with her. Instead he went to the stone bed. “Weird,” he said and sat down on it. Then he gasped and sprang up. “It grabbed me!” he exclaimed.

  They both stared at the fading impression of his bottom on the bed. As they watched, it returned to a smooth, blank surface. Cautiously he set his hand to it and pushed down. His hand sank slightly into it. “Looks like stone, but it gets soft when you push on it. And it’s warm. ” He sat down and then lay back on it. “Oh, sweet Sa! I’ve never slept on anything like this. Come feel it. ”

  She pressed it first with a hand, then gingerly sat down. It obligingly shaped itself to her.

  “Lie down. You have to feel this,” he told her, moving back to make room for her. She did, and for a moment rested on her back, looking up at the gently glowing ceiling. She sighed suddenly. “It makes room for my wings. It has been so long since I’ve been able to lie flat on my back. And it’s warm. ”

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  “Let’s sleep here. ”

  She rolled her head to look at him. His face was very close, his breath brushing her lips. The warm water of the dragon bath had brought out his colors as well, she thought. Gleaming scarlet Rapskal. He was beautiful. And so was she. It was the first time in her life that she had felt beautiful. His eyes were on her face, and she could suddenly believe what she saw in them. It was heady to know she was attractive, to see that mirrored in his eyes. Intoxicating like nothing else she had ever felt. She tried her smile on him. His eyes widened and she heard him swallow.

  She met his mouth and accepted his deep kiss. It was both familiar and strange. He shifted closer. “I just want you,” he said softly. “I’ve wanted you since I first saw you, even when I was too stupid to know what I wanted. Just you, Thymara. Please. ”

  She didn’t answer with words, didn’t even let herself think about an answer. She opened her mouth to his kiss and did not flinch from his exploring hands. She took his weight, and the Elderling bed cradled them both and returned their warmth. A moment came when she expected pain, but there was only sweet pleasure. I was ready, she thought, and then thought no more about anything.

  “I just want to leave here. ”

  Water was still running down his face, and he had scarcely caught his breath from running back to the ship. Reyn had been the first to reach the Tarman; he supposed it was luck that Hennesey had found him first and told him that Malta and the baby were safe aboard the liveship. The mate had told Reyn to get to her, that he would find Captain Leftrin and Skelly. His sister Tillamon was out there, too, hurrying along with Skelly, looking in all the places that Malta might have gone to ask for help. He looked at his wife, wrapped in a rough ship’s blanket, standing by the galley stove, and blink
ed rain from his lashes, trying to comprehend what was going on. At last, he found a question. “Where’s the baby? Hennesey said you had the baby. ”

  Malta stared at him, and if it were possible, her face went paler. It made the scaling stand out more sharply. She looked as if she were carved of ivory and embellished with jewels. “On the foredeck,” she said quietly. “Tarman needed him to be there. So he could help him. I was so hungry and thirsty that I came to the galley. I wanted to bring the baby with me, but the ship said no. He needs to be where he is. ” She paused, biting her lip. Then she added hoarsely, “But Tarman says that there is only so much he can do, that if we want him to live, we need to find a dragon that will help him. And Reyn, I killed someone tonight, a Chalcedean. ” She said the words and then met his gaze, and his disbelief that she could do such a thing was mirrored in her eyes. Her forehead furrowed as she added, “I think he was the spy who was trying to have the dragons killed and the parts sent back to Chalced for medicine. But there’s another one and he’s still out there. Reyn, he was going to kill me and the baby and chop us up and take our body parts back to Chalced. To try to pass our flesh off as dragon flesh. To make medicine to cure the Duke of Chalced. ”

  He stared at her. “Sit down, dear. Drink your tea. None of what you just said makes any sense. But before you try to talk about it, I want to see our child. ”

  “Of course. Bellin is with him. I only left him for a moment, to clean myself and have something hot to eat. ” She looked down at her scrubbed hands and then up at him. “I wouldn’t abandon him. You know that. ”

  “I never thought you would. Darling, you are not making sense. I don’t think you’re all right, but before we talk about that, I’m going to see our baby. You rest and I’ll be right back. ”

  “No, I’m coming with you. This way. ” She lifted her mug from the table and walked slowly.

  He followed her numbly, back out into the rain and along the side of the deckhouse, moving forward through wind and dark. Tarman was not like any other liveship that Reyn had been aboard. He had no figurehead, no mouth with which to speak. Nonetheless, Reyn could sense his presence plainly, even before he had stepped aboard the wizardwood ship. Awareness permeated the liveship. There was a dim glow from the foredeck, where a canvas shelter had been rigged. Reyn ducked under the hanging flap and saw a large woman sitting beside a hooded lantern and a very small baby on the wooden deck beside her. He stared wordlessly.

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