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City of dragons, p.30
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       City of Dragons, p.30

         Part #3 of Rain Wild Chronicles series by Robin Hobb

  Skelly spoke hesitantly. “Malta the Elderling didn’t do anything wrong! They were going to kill her and her baby. Why can’t we just go to the Council? Shouldn’t we warn them, shouldn’t we tell someone so they can go hunt down that other fellow?”

  He gave Skelly a warning look. Time for her to be quiet. “The Council is corrupt. ” Leftrin felt the certainty of that now. Someone was turning a blind eye to Chalcedeans in Cassarick. It was not that big a town. If they were moving about as Malta had said they were, coming and going, buying supplies, one of them living in a brothel, then people knew. And someone was shielding them, either for money or because they were being threatened.

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  “The whole Council?” Reyn sounded horrified.

  “Possibly. Maybe not. But we don’t know, and if we go to the wrong person, we may be running our heads into the snare. ”

  “And there’s no time,” Bellin observed heavily. “If there are Chalcedeans crawling all through this town and they’re not getting rid of them, they’re welcome to them. The ship spoke to all of us, plainer than he ever has. He can keep that baby alive for now, but the sooner we get the child to a dragon, the better. ”

  Leftrin swallowed his mouthful of coffee. “It bothers me that a newborn baby needs a dragon. ” He knew how the dragons had changed their keepers, giving each a few drops of blood or a scale to eat. But that was keeper business, and perhaps the secret was not his to reveal. Still, it was easier to talk about that puzzle than dwell on what it might mean to have the Council in league with Chalcedeans. How far had the Cassarick Traders fallen? Trafficking with Chalcedeans was forbidden. He’d known that when he’d felt forced to bring Arich up the river. Trafficking in dragon parts was worse; it was the breaking of a signed contract, an offense to the very core of Trader culture. That idea spoke of changes to Rain Wild society that seemed almost impossible to consider. Easier to ponder why a baby needed a dragon to live than to wonder what could persuade a man to betray his own people for money.

  Reyn was the one who attempted to answer his question. “I don’t understand it completely myself, Captain. ” He sighed. “Malta and I know that we changed, and her brother Selden changed, after exposure to the dragon Tintaglia. We’ve had years to think and talk about it. We think that being around dragons and the things of dragons, such as the artifacts from the Elderling cities, are what change people—even babies in the womb, if the mothers have been exposed. But with us, Tintaglia guided our changes and intensified them. So instead of deforming or killing us, the changes gave us grace and beauty. And possibly an extended life span, though that we can’t know as yet. ”

  He sighed again, more heavily. “It was, we thought, a blessing. Until now. I had assumed that our baby would inherit the same benefits we had received. Malta was more worried about the changes than I was. But her fears were justified. Our baby is born changed, and the changes are not for the better. Malta said that he was grayish and not even crying at first. She says that since she brought him to the ship, Tarman has helped him. And we know that a liveship’s wood comes from a dragon’s cocoon, so perhaps Tarman can adjust some of our child’s changes. But Malta says the ship has told her he cannot remedy all that is wrong with our baby. That it will take a dragon’s intervention to put his changes on a path that will, at the least, let him live to be an adult and perhaps transform him into an Elderling. ” Reyn stopped speaking and simply looked at Leftrin.

  Earlier in the day, he had seemed to Leftrin so grand and elevated, an Elderling of old, scion of a wealthy Trader family, dressed in his fine clothes and carrying himself as a man of importance. Now he looked dazed with misfortune and very young. Very human.

  The silence held in the galley. The sense of waiting was broken when Reyn made his request. “Please. Can you take us to Kelsingra and the dragons? As soon as possible?”

  It was his decision. He was the captain of the Tarman, and no one else could tell him what to do. The running of a ship was never a democracy. But as he lifted his sandy eyes and looked at his crew members crowded into the galley, their thoughts were plain. If he gave the word, Bellin and Swarge would cast off the lines this instant, and Skelly would help them. Hennesey was watching him, waiting for his words, leaving the decision up to him. Big Eider stood by, waiting as he always waited for his next order. He wore a clean new shirt: he’d been to see his mother, then. Grigsby, the ship’s ginger cat, floated up and settled on top of the galley table and then walked over to bump his head confidently against the Elderling’s folded hands. Reyn absently petted the cat, and Grigsby gave off his rattling purr.

  “You don’t want to tell the Council anything? Not about the Chalcedeans, not about what Malta had to do?”

  “I’m sure they’ll know soon enough, if they don’t already. ” Reyn’s voice was grim. “As soon as he’s found dead, someone will be reporting back to the Council about it. ”

  “That could be enlightening to watch. See who flinches, see who knows more than he should. ”

  “It could be dangerous, too. ” Reyn made a sound that was not a short laugh but something darker. “And I don’t really care anymore. Their dirty politics don’t matter to me. My son does. Malta does. ”

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  Leftrin nodded curtly to that. “I see your point. But we came back here for several reasons. The keepers and Alise wanted their families to know they were alive. I wanted to report that I’d fulfilled my contract. But the main reason was to get our pay and resupply the vessel. And we’re still held up on that. We need that money. The merchants let me use credit today and sent down enough to take care of my crew here. But that’s a drop in the bucket of what we need. We have what amounts to a small colony up the river there, with little to nothing in the way of supplies and winter right on top of us. Things are harsh up there. Food is what we can hunt; shelter is what we can contrive. The city isn’t ours yet, and even if it was, it’s a stark place. If we don’t get the money, if we don’t stay here long enough to load the ship with what we need, chances are some of us may not make it through the winter. ”

  Reyn was watching him intently, his face solemn. “Money is not a problem. Let them keep their blood money. ” He dismissed that concern with a disgusted flip of his hand, and added, “The Khuprus credit is good. I’ll stock your barge with all it can hold and count it a small payment for what I’m asking. My son’s life is what matters to me. I understand, I think, what we are going into. We will face harsh and dangerous conditions. But if we stay here, my son dies. ” His shoulders rose and fell in a tiny shrug. “So we go with you, if you’ll take us. ”

  The quiet in the room was pent breath, all waiting for the captain to speak. He thought of Alise, of what she would expect of him, and how she would react when he told her the tale. Make her proud.

  We share blood with this child. His mother already gave him to me. And I will take him to the dragons.

  It was seldom that his ship spoke to him in such a direct fashion. He looked at the others, wondering if they had heard Tarman as clearly, but they were all watching him. Alise had once asked him if liveships had the same sort of glamour as the dragons did. He had told her they did not, but now he wondered. But only for a moment. The impulse felt so much like his own that he spoke the words aloud.

  “Family is family. And blood is thicker than water, even the water of the Rain Wild River. We’ll try for a departure tomorrow afternoon. ” As Reyn’s eyes lit with relief and joy, Leftrin cautioned him, “A lot is going to depend on your being able to muster the credit to outfit the ship. And we’ll have to take what they have here, and what can be brought here quickly from Trehaug, and be glad of it. ” He shook his head, knowing there were things he could not obtain that quickly. “Damn,” he said, more to himself than Reyn. “I wanted to try to arrange for some stock. Animals. A few sheep, a couple of goats, some chickens. ”

  Reyn looked at him as if he we
re mad. “What for? Fresh meat on the trip upriver?”

  Leftrin shook his head, thinking of all that he hadn’t shared with the Council, all the things that no one knew yet. “To raise. To start flocks with. There’s land there, Reyn Khuprus. Meadows. Deep grass on dry ground. Hills and mountains in the distance. If we can get what we need, we’ll prosper. ”

  Reyn looked skeptical. “You’d have to order seed and livestock from Bingtown, and chances are you wouldn’t get them until spring. ”

  Leftrin nodded impatiently. “I knew that. But the sooner I order them, the sooner they come. I’ll make time to do it somehow. I’ll send a bird off to a fellow I know there, one who knows I pay my debts. He might arrange it for me. ” He was doubtful. No one wanted to traffic in live animals unless they could deliver them quickly and get away before they dropped dead.

  “No. ” Reyn shook his head decisively. “You forget that my wife’s family has a liveship, too. I’ll send a message to Trell and Althea. They’ll get you what you want and bring it when we say you want it. You name the date, and they’ll have it in Trehaug waiting for you. My word on it. Part of our passage inland. ”

  A slow smile crept over Leftrin’s face. “Young man, I like the way you do business. The deal’s done then, and if a handshake is good enough for you, it suffices for me. ”

  “Of course. ”

  Reyn spoke as he leaned across the table to grip hands with Leftrin. “I’ll set the wheels in motion tonight. I’ll wake the storekeepers and have goods moving down here when dawn breaks. ”

  Leftrin did not release his grip on the other man’s hand. “Not so fast. I’m thinking we don’t want to call too much attention to our departure. And that maybe it would be better if there were no connections made between you and your lady and my ship. Someone’s already tried to kill her and your child, and she took blood in return. We know there’s one more Chalcedean in the city, maybe more, and someone must be helping them. We don’t want them to know or even suspect where you two are. You two stay aboard and hidden. You disappear. ”

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  “Three. ” The woman at the corner of the galley table had been sitting so quietly that Leftrin had almost forgotten she was there. She was veiled, not unusual in the Rain Wilds, but not so common in Cassarick as it was in Trehaug. Now she lifted her veil and revealed her touched features, a signal of trust and acceptance. “I’m going with you. My name is Tillamon Khuprus. I’m Reyn’s sister. ”

  “Tillamon,” Leftrin acknowledged her with an abbreviated bow.

  “Going with us?” Reyn was astounded. “But . . . Tillamon, you need to think about this. Mother will be worried sick if we all disappear. I had thought I would send you back with word of all that has happened. And that perhaps you could be the one to accompany Captain Leftrin with a letter of credit from the Khuprus family, to be sure it was honored at the . . . ” His words died away slowly. She had begun shaking her head, and with every phrase he uttered, the motion only become more emphatic.

  “No, Reyn. I’m not going back to Trehaug. I hadn’t planned to, anyway. I’d thought that I’d find more freedom here in Cassarick. But I was wrong. Not even in the Rain Wilds can I avoid the stares and the comments from strangers. I know that mother thought she was doing good when she invited the Tattooed to come here and live among us and become part of our community. But they’ve brought outside intolerance with them! We’re told to care nothing that they were slaves, many of them criminals, and all of them marked as chattel. But they feel free to mock me and stare at me and make me a stranger in my own land. ”

  “Not all of them are like that,” Reyn pointed out wearily.

  Tillamon rounded on him. “You know something, Reyn? I don’t care. I don’t care what percentage of them are good people. I don’t care how many of them were unjustly enslaved, or how much anguish some of them feel over their tattooed faces. What I care about is that I had a life before they came here. And now I don’t feel like I do anymore. So I’m leaving. I’m going to Kelsingra, where there are no outsiders. I’ll help you in any way I can tomorrow; I’ll hire a small boat to make a very quick round trip to Trehaug, or I’ll send messages by bird. I’ll back up the family letter of credit with the merchants to see that we get what we need. I’ll say I’m the one investing in a new expedition and that my contract with Captain Leftrin is confidential. However I can help, I will. But you won’t leave me here in Cassarick. I’m going to Kelsingra. ”

  “Have things really become that bad in Trehaug?” Hennesey asked quietly.

  “Not all—” Reyn began, but “Yes!” His sister cut him off with a word. She met Hennesey’s gaze squarely as if challenging him to meet her eyes. “If you are only lightly marked, little is said. But those of us who are heavily changed hear the comments and feel the shunning. As if we were dirty or contagious! As if we were disgusting. I can’t live like that. Not any longer. ” She swung her gaze to Captain Leftrin. “You said you have a small colony up there? Well, if you want to gain new citizens for it, you will have no trouble at all populating it if you let it be known that Kelsingra will be a city where those changed by the Rain Wilds can live in peace. ”

  “More than peace,” Hennesey observed. He grinned and looked directly at her. “When you see the keepers, you’ll know what I mean. Their changes are just as far along as any Elderling’s. That’s what they say they are becoming. More Elderlings. ” He pushed his sleeve up to reveal the extent of the scaling on his arms. “Not just the keepers. All of us changed more as we spent time among the dragons. ”

  “More Elderlings?” Reyn looked stunned.

  “An Elderling colony? A place where to be changed is normal?” Tillamon’s eyes lit with hope.

  Leftrin looked around the galley. Abruptly, he was exhausted. “I’m going to bed,” he announced. “I need my sleep. And I suggest that you all get some rest while you can. If you can’t sleep”—and here he glanced at Reyn and Tillamon—“then I suggest you get done what paperwork we might need to buy our supplies or send messages to family. Hennesey, give some thought to what you’ll need to rig a better shelter on the foredeck. Skelly, show Reyn and Tillamon to the little deck cabins we made for Alise and Sedric. They’re mostly empty now. They can use them for our trip upriver. ” He yawned suddenly, surprising himself. His last order was for Swarge.

  “Set a watch on our deck and on the dock. I don’t want any visitors taking us by surprise. ”

  As Leftrin walked toward his cabin, he wondered what he had got himself into. And if there was even a chance of his own involvement with Arich remaining unknown.

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  Cold woke Alise before dawn. She got up and built up the fire and then sat close to it rather than go back to her empty bed. Empty bed. Now there was an idea. In all her years of marriage to Hest, she’d never missed him in her bed, save for that one fateful wedding night that he had largely failed to attend. But Leftrin, whom she had loved for less than a year, him she missed. His absence made her bed empty even when she was in it. She missed the warmth of his bulky body, she missed his gentle breathing. If ever she woke in the night and touched him, he always responded by awakening enough to gather her into his arms and hold her close.

  And sometimes closer. She recalled that part with lust, and her body responded with a pang more poignant than any hunger pain she had ever felt. She wanted that back, as soon as possible. Sex with Hest had never been good; with Leftrin, it had never been bad.

  She pulled the blankets tighter around her shoulders and huddled closer to the fire. Then she gave in and rose to go to her makeshift drying rack. Her Elderling gown was there, just as lovely as when Leftrin had first given it to her. She had washed it last night, not because it showed any dirt, but because it was something she did every week. Now as she poked her head out of the neck hole, it slid down and over her body, contouring to it and enveloping her in comfort. Very quickly it trapped
the warmth of her body and returned it to her. She sighed with relief and momentarily grumbled to herself that it did not cover her feet as well. Ingrate, she chided herself. She was fortunate to have such a wonderful garment. She tried not to wear it when doing heavy or dirty work. Even though it had never torn despite all she had put it through, she did not want to take risks with it.

  There was smoked fish for breakfast. Again. She was so tired of it. She fantasized about toast and eggs, a bit of jam and a pot of real tea. Such simple things to long for! Leftrin would do the best he could with bringing back supplies, but there was no predicting when he would return. He had assured her that the trip downriver would go much more swiftly than the one upriver had gone since the ship now knew the way to Kelsingra. But she did not discount all that Tarman might experience on his journey and refused to count the days. Every morning she wondered if this would be the day her captain returned, and every morning she resolved to busy herself and not think about the event until it happened.

  Well, today that would not be a challenge! She filled a pot with water, to brew a tea made from local herbs. It was palatable, and a hot drink in the morning was welcome, but it wasn’t “tea” as she desired it. A small slab of smoked fish accompanied it. There was the benefit, she supposed, that there was no lingering over meals anymore. There wasn’t enough of a meal to linger over!

  Breakfast finished, she splashed her face and hands, wrapped her feet and put her holey boots on, then slung her worn cloak around her shoulders before stepping outside. The night storm had blown and rained itself out. Thin sunshine sparkled on the wet grasses of the hillside. She looked over and beyond it, across the wide river to the distant city.

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