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City of dragons, p.3
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       City of Dragons, p.3

         Part #3 of Rain Wild Chronicles series by Robin Hobb
 

  At the end of such a battle, a single drake would prevail. His vanquished rivals would return to the sands to bask and sulk, or perhaps flee to the game-rich hills to take out their frustration in a wild killing spree. The lone drake would rise, beating his wings to achieve an altitude equal to the circling, watching females, and single out the one he sought to court. Then a different sort of a battle would begin.

  Sintara’s gleaming copper eyes were half lidded, her head lifted on her long and powerful neck, her face turned to the distant sun. A reflex opened her useless blue wings. There were stirrings of longing in her. She felt the mating flush warm the scales of her belly and throat and smelled the scent of her own desire wafting from the glands under her wings. She opened her eyes and lowered her head, feeling almost shame. A true queen worthy of mating would have powerful wings that could lift her above the clouds that now threatened to drench her. Her flight would spread the scent of her musk and inflame every drake for miles with lust. But a true dragon queen would not be marooned here on this sodden riverbank, companioned only by inept flightless males and even more useless human keepers.

  She pushed dreams of glorious battles and mating flights away from her. A low rumble of displeasure vibrated her flanks. She was hungry. Where was Thymara, her keeper? She was supposed to hunt for her, to bring her freshly killed game. Where was the useless girl?

  She felt a sudden violent stir of wind and caught a powerful whiff of drake. Just in time, she closed her half-opened wings.

  His clawed feet met the earth and he slid wildly toward her, stopping just short of crashing into her. Sintara reared onto her hind legs and arched her glistening blue neck, straining to her full height. Even so, Kalo still towered over her. She saw his whirling eyes light with pleasure as he realized her disadvantage. The big male had grown and gained muscle and strength since they’d arrived at Kelsingra. “My longest flight yet,” he told her as he shook his wide dark-blue wings, freeing them of rain and spattering her in the process, then carefully folded and groomed them to his back. “My wings grow longer and stronger every day. Soon I shall again be a lord of the skies. What of you, queen? When will you take to the air?”

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  “When I please,” she retorted and turned away. He reeked of lust; the wild freedom of flight was not his focus, but what might occur during a flight. She would not even consider it. “And I do not call that flight. You ran down the hill and leaped into the air. Gliding is not flying. ” Her criticism was not strictly fair. Kalo had been aloft for five wing beats before he had landed. Shame vied with fury as she recalled her first flight effort: the keepers had cheered as she leaped and glided. But her wings had lacked the strength to lift her; she had gone down, crashing into the river. She had been tumbled and battered in the current and emerged streaming muddy water and covered with bruises. Don’t recall that ignominy. But never let anyone see you fail again.

  A fresh gust of wind brought the rain down. She had come down to the river only to drink; she would return to the feeble shelter of the trees now.

  But as she started away from him, Kalo’s head shot out. He clamped his jaws firmly on her neck, just behind her head, where she could not turn to bite him or to spit acid at him. She lifted a front foot to claw at him, but his neck was longer and more powerful than hers. He held her away from his body; her claws slashed fruitlessly at empty air. She trumpeted her fury and he released her, springing back so that her second attack was as useless as her first.

  Kalo lifted his wings and opened them wide, ready to bat her aside if she charged at him. His eyes, silver with tendrils of green, whirled with infuriating amusement.

  “You should be trying to fly, Sintara! You need to become a true queen again, ruler of sea and land and sky. Leave these earthbound worms behind and soar with me. We will hunt and kill and fly far away from this cold rain and deep meadows, to the far deserts of the south. Touch your ancestral memories and remember what we are to become!”

  Her neck stung where his teeth had scored her flesh, but her pride stung more sharply. Heedless of the danger, she charged at him again, mouth wide and poison sacs working, but with a roar of delight at her response, he leaped over her. As she spun to confront him, she became aware of scarlet Ranculos and azure Sestican lumbering toward them. Dragons were not meant for ground travel. They lolloped along like fat cattle. Sestican’s orange-filigreed mane stood out on the back of his neck. As Ranculos raced toward them, gleaming wings half spread, he bellowed aggressively. “Leave her be, Kalo!”

  “I don’t need your help,” she trumpeted back as she turned and stalked away from the converging males. Satisfaction that they would fight over her warred with a sense of humiliation that she was not worth their battle. She could not take to the skies in a show of grace and speed; she could not challenge whoever won this foolish brawl with her own agility and fearlessness. A thousand ancestral memories of other courtship battles and mating flights hovered at the edge of her thoughts. She pushed them away. She did not look back at the roars and the sound of furiously slapping wings. “I have no need to fly,” she called disdainfully over her shoulder. “There is no drake here worth a mating flight. ”

  A roar of pain and fury from Ranculos was the only response. All around her, the rainy afternoon erupted into shouts of dismay and shrieked questions from running humans as the dragon keepers poured from their scattered cottages and converged on the battling males. Idiots. They’d be trampled, or worse, if they interfered. These were not matters for humans to intervene in. It galled her when the keepers treated them as if they were cattle to be managed rather than dragons to be served. Her own keeper, trying to hold a ragged cloak closed around her lumpy back and shoulders, ran toward her shouting, “Sintara, are you all right? Are you hurt?”

  She tossed her head high and half opened her wings. “Do you think I cannot defend myself?” she demanded of Thymara. “Do you think that I am weak and —”

  “Get clear!” A human shouted the warning, and Thymara obeyed it, hunching down and covering the back of her head with her hands.

  Sintara snorted in amusement as golden Mercor hurtled past them, wings spread wide, clawed feet throwing up tufts of muddy grass as he barely skimmed the earth. Thymara’s hands could not have protected her if the dragon’s barbed wing had so much as brushed her. The mere wind of his passage knocked Thymara to the ground and sent her rolling through the wet meadow grass.

  Human shrieks and dragon roars culminated in a full-throated trumpeting from Mercor as he crashed into the knot of struggling males.

  Sestican went down, bowled over by the impact. His spread wing bent dangerously as he rolled on it, and she heard his huff of pain and dismay. Ranculos was trapped under the flailing Kalo. Kalo attempted to roll and meet Mercor with the longer claws of his powerful hind legs. But Mercor had reared onto his hind legs on top of the heap of struggling dragons. Suddenly he leaped forward and pinned Kalo’s widespread wings to the ground with his hind legs. A wild slash from the trapped dragon’s talons scored a gash down Mercor’s ribs, but before he could add another stripe of injury, Mercor shifted his stance higher. Kalo’s head and long neck lashed like a whip, but Mercor clearly had the advantage. Trapped beneath the two larger dragons, Sestican roared in helpless fury. A thick stench of male dragon musk rose from the struggle.

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  A horde of frightened and angry keepers ringed the struggling dragons, shrieking and shouting the names of the combatants or attempting to keep other gawking dragons from joining the fray. The smaller females, Fente and Veras, had arrived and were craning their necks and ignoring their keepers as they ventured dangerously close. Baliper, scarlet tail lashing, prowled the outer edges of the conflict, sending keepers darting for safety, squeaking indignantly at the danger he presented.

  The struggle ended almost as abruptly as it had begun. Mercor flung back his golden head and then snapped it forward
, jaws wide. Screams from the keepers and startled roars from the watching dragons predicted Kalo’s death by acid spray. Instead, at the last moment, Mercor snapped his jaws shut. He darted his head down and spat, not a mist or a stream, but only a single blot of acid onto Kalo’s vulnerable throat. The blue-black dragon screamed in agony and fury. With three powerful beats of his wings, Mercor lifted off him and alighted a ship’s length away. Blood was running freely from the long gash on his ribs, sheeting down his gold-scaled side. He was breathing heavily, his nostrils flared wide. Color rippled through his scales, and the protective crests around his eyes stood tall. He lashed his tail, and the smell of his challenge filled the air.

  The moment Mercor had lifted his weight off him, Kalo had rolled to his feet. Snarling his frustration and humiliation, he headed immediately toward the river to wash the acid from his flesh before it could eat any deeper. Carson, Spit’s keeper, ran beside Kalo, shouting at him to stop and let him look at the injury. The black dragon ignored him. Bruised and shaken but not much injured, Ranculos scrambled to his feet and staggered upright. He shook his wings out and then folded them slowly as if they were painful. Then, with what dignity he could muster, he limped away from the trampled earth of the combat site.

  Mercor roared after the retreating Kalo. “Don’t forget that I could have killed you! Don’t ever forget it, Kalo!”

  “Lizard spawn!” the dark dragon roared back at him but did not slow his retreat toward the icy waters of the river.

  Sintara turned away from them. It was over. She was surprised it had lasted as long as it had. Battle, like mating, was something that dragons did on the wing. Had the males been able to take flight, the contest might have gone on for hours, perhaps the entire day, and left all of them acid seared and bloodied. For a moment, her ancestral memories of such trials seized her mind, and she felt her heart race with excitement. The males would have battled for her regard, and in the end, when only one was the victor, still he would have had to match her in flight and meet her challenge before he could claim the right to mate with her. They would have soared through air, going higher and higher as the drake sought to match her loops and dives and powerful climbs. And if he had succeeded, if he had managed to come close enough to match her flight, he would have locked his body to hers, and as their wings synchronized . . .

  “SINTARA!”

  Mercor’s bellow startled her out of her reflection. She was not the only one who turned to see what the gold drake wanted of her. Every dragon and keeper on the meadow was staring at him. And at her.

  The great golden dragon lifted his head and then snapped opened his wings with an audible crack. A fresh wave of his scent went out on the wind. “You should not provoke what you cannot complete,” he rebuked her.

  She stared at him, feeling anger flush her colors brighter. “It had nothing to do with you, Mercor. Perhaps you should not intrude into things that do not concern you. ”

  He spread his wings wider still and lifted his body tall on his powerful hind legs. “I will fly. ” He did not roar the words, but even so they still carried clearly through the wind and rain. “As will you. And when the time comes for mating battles, I will win. And I will mate you. ”

  She stared at him, more shocked than she had thought she could be. Unthinkable for a male to make such a blatant claim. She tried not to be flattered that he had said she would fly. When the silence grew too long, when she became aware that everyone was watching her, expecting a response, she felt anger. “So say you,” she retorted lamely. She did not need to hear Fente’s snort of disdain to know that her feeble response had impressed no one.

  Turning away from them all, she began stalking back to the forest and the thin shelter of the trees. She didn’t care. She didn’t care what Mercor had said nor that Fente had mocked her. There was none among them worth impressing. “Scarcely a proper battle at all,” she sneered quietly.

  “Was a ‘proper battle’ what you were trying to provoke?” Her snippy little keeper, Thymara, was abruptly beside her, trotting to keep up. Her black hair hung in fuzzy, tattered braids, a few still adorned with wooden charms. Her roll down the hill had coated her ragged cloak with dead grass. Her feet were bound up in mismatched rags, the makeshift shoes soled with crudely tanned deerskin. She had grown thinner of late, and taller. The bones of her face stood out more. The wings that Sintara had gifted her with bounced lightly beneath her cloak as she jogged. Despite the rudeness of her first query, Thymara sounded concerned as she added, “Stop a moment. Crouch down. Let me see your neck where he bit you. ”

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  “He didn’t draw blood. ” Sintara could scarcely believe she was answering such an impudent demand from a mere human.

  “I want to look at it. It looks as if several scales are loosened. ”

  “I did nothing to provoke that silly squabble. ” Sintara halted abruptly and lowered her head so that Thymara could inspect her neck. She resented doing it, feeling that she had somehow given way to the human’s domineering manner. Anger simmered in her. Briefly she considered “accidentally” knocking Thymara off her feet with a swipe of her head. But as she felt the girl’s strong hands gently easing her misaligned neck scales back into smoothness, she relented. Her keeper and her clever hands had their uses.

  “None of the scales are torn all the way free, though you may shed some of them sooner rather than later. ”

  Sintara sensed her keeper’s annoyance as she set her scales to rights. Despite Thymara’s frequent rudeness to Sintara, the dragon knew the girl took pride in her health and appearance. Any insult to Sintara rankled Thymara as well. And she would be aware of her dragon’s mood, too.

  As she focused more on the girl, she knew that they shared more than annoyance. The frustration was there as well. “Males!” the girl exclaimed suddenly. “I suppose it takes no more to provoke a male dragon to stupidity than it does a human male. ”

  Sintara’s curiosity was stirred by the comment, though she would not let Thymara know that. She reviewed what she knew of Thymara’s most recent upsets and divined the source of her sour mood. “The decision is yours, not theirs. How foolishly you are behaving! Just mate with both of them. Or neither. Show them that you are a queen, not a cow to be bred at the bull’s rutting. ”

  “I chose neither,” Thymara told her, answering the question that the dragon hadn’t asked.

  Her scales smoothed, Sintara lifted her head and resumed her trek to the forest’s edge. Thymara hurried to stay beside her, musing as she jogged. “I just want to let it alone, to leave things as they’ve always been. But neither of them seems willing to let that happen. ” She shook her head, her braids flying with the motion. “Tats is my oldest friend. I knew him back in Trehaug, before we became dragon keepers. He’s part of my past, part of home. But when he pushes me to bed with him, I don’t know if it’s because he loves me or simply because I’ve refused him. I worry that if we become lovers and it doesn’t work out, I’ll lose him completely. ”

  “Then bed Rapskal and be done with it,” the dragon suggested. Thymara was boring her. How could humans seriously believe that a dragon could be interested in the details of their lives? As well worry about a moth or a fish.

  The keeper took the dragon’s comment as an excuse to keep talking. “Rapskal? I can’t. If I take him as a mate, I know that would ruin my friendship with Tats. Rapskal is handsome and funny . . . and a bit strange. But it’s a sort of strange that I like. And I think he truly cares about me, that when he pushes me to sleep with him, it’s not just for the pleasure. ” She shook her head. “But I don’t want it, with either of them. Well, I do. If I could just have the physical part of it and not have it make everything else complicated. But I don’t want to take the chance of catching a child, and I don’t really want to have to make some momentous decision. If I choose one, have I lost the other? I don’t know what—”

  “You’re boring me,
Sintara warned her. “And there are more important things you should be doing right now. Have you hunted for me today? Do you have meat to bring me?”

  Thymara bridled at the sudden change of topic. She replied grudgingly, “Not yet. When the rain lets up, I’ll go. There’s no game moving right now. ” A pause, and then she broached another dangerous subject. “Mercor said you would fly. Were you trying? Have you exercised your wings today, Sintara? Working on the muscles is the only way that you will ever—”

  “I have no desire to flap around on the beach like a gull with a broken wing. No desire to make myself an object of mockery. ” Even less desire to fail and fall into the icy, swift-flowing river and drown. Or overestimate her skills and plummet into the trees as Baliper had done. His wings were so swollen that he could not close them, and he’d torn a claw from his left front foot.

  “No one mocks you! Exercising your wings is a necessity, Sintara. You must learn to fly; all of the dragons must. You all have grown since we left Cassarick, and it is becoming impossible for me to kill enough game to keep you well fed, even with the larger game that we’ve found here. You will have to hunt for your own food, and to do that, you must be able to fly. Would not you rather be one of the first dragons to leave the ground than one of the last ones?”

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  That thought stung. The idea that the smaller females such as Veras or Fente might gain the air before she did was intolerable. It might actually be easier for such stunted and scrawny creatures to fly. Anger warmed her blood, and she knew the liquid copper of her eyes would be swirling with emotion. She’d have to kill them, that was all. Kill them before either one could humiliate her.

 
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