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City of dragons, p.31
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       City of Dragons, p.31

         Part #3 of Rain Wild Chronicles series by Robin Hobb

  She could not tell, at this distance, if lights still burned in any of the windows. The coming of night would tell her that. But she suspected the phenomenon would be short-lived. The Elderling magic seemed to have lingered for many decades, but most often it exhausted itself with a final brief display of wonder. It galled her that it had happened when she was not there to witness it personally. She had already written down her experience of what she had seen. With great regret, she had entered it completely out of chronological order, for she had had to resort to writing on the back of a sketch of an Elderling tapestry, one that she had created when she still resided in Bingtown. Faced with an extreme lack of paper for her documentation, she had recently begun to look through her earlier transcriptions to see which ones had wide margins or blank spaces at the bottom. She hated doing it, but last night she had become resigned to it. She could not suspend her exploration of the city until Leftrin returned.

  She already burned with impatience to return to her work. As soon as Heeby brought Rapskal back, she intended to confront him and demand a full accounting of his activities. She hoped he had done no lasting damage to the fragile remains, but in her heart, she was braced to hear of foolishness and destruction. She feared Leftrin was right. The boy was soaking himself in memories from the stone; if he kept it up, he’d soon be a dreamy-eyed shadow of himself, completely lost to this world and today. He’d lose his life in sharing the dream life of Elderlings who had lived centuries ago.

  As if her dreams had summoned the dragon, she saw the scarlet dragon in flight over the river. For a moment, her anger faded and she stood transfixed by the sight. Wisps of fog wreathed and then revealed the creature. Heeby seemed to fly more strongly than ever: hunting for herself seemed to agree with her. Then, as the dragon banked and turned back to the far shore, another dot of motion in the sky caught her eye.

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  Alise peered, rubbed her eyes with both fists, and then peered again. Was it a blue bird over the river? No. Her eyes were not tricking her. Something else was flying over the city. As it banked, wings wide, the distant silhouette became a blue dragon in flight, and unmistakably Sintara!

  Shock at the dragon’s newfound ability vied with awe at her beauty. She gleamed like sapphires set in silver in the sunlight. “Oh, queen of the sky, blue, blue, and beyond blue,” Alise said breathlessly.

  And felt, with a tingle of pleasure, the distant dragon’s acknowledgment of her heartfelt praise.

  Day the 27th of the Change Moon

  Year the 7th of the Independent Alliance of Traders

  From Detozi, Keeper of the Birds, Trehaug

  To Reyall, Acting Keeper of the Birds, Bingtown

  I have won the permission of the Master Keeper here to send you this pigeon with this news. Erek and I have devised a smudge that kills the red lice inside the coops. Begin with a good quantity of cedar boughs, the fresher the better, chopped into small bits. Add to that bitter wort vine; if you do not have it there, let us know, for the trees here are now heavy with it and it is no effort to send you a good supply. Bind the mixture with any oil, until a handful of it squeezed together will hold its shape. Use a good charcoal at the base and be sure there is enough to burn through the night.

  The birds must be removed before the smudge fire is made in a pot and left in the coop to smolder all night. Then the coop must be swept, and all nesting materials removed. We have been washing the walls down with lye water as well, but I think it is the smudge that did the work, for we have found such a quantity of the red lice dead on the floors of the coop in the morning, far more than we could imagine had been hiding in the cracks of the wood.

  I am sure I need not tell you that all birds returned to the cleaned coop must be absolutely free of red lice or nits, or you will still have dying birds and the smudging to do all over again.

  We are receiving reports of non-Guild messenger birds seen flying. The pressure for us to break the quarantine has been intense, but the Master Keeper here intends to keep us caged until a full day has passed with no more dead birds. I myself would make it three days.

  A small bit of news. The Tarman has returned, but neither the Meldar son nor that runaway wife was on board. The captain claims they wished to remain in the city they found upriver. So the gossip goes, but it is not enough information to claim the reward money, I am sure! Some suspect the captain of foul play. Others froth that he will not tell them all, and they make noisy plans to follow him when next he goes upriver. They will need far more than good luck to succeed at that!

  Remember, the smudge must burn all night for it to work. I look forward to our birds flying again!

  And tomorrow I must set aside all my concerns as a bird keeper and take on the worries of a bride!


  Chapter Thirteen


  Thymara awoke with Rapskal’s arm and one leg thrown across her body. He awakened at the same moment and tried to embrace her. “No,” she said, not harshly, and moved apart from him. He made a wry face but let her go. Trepidation had chilled her ardor. Was it guilt for breaking her father’s rules for her or fear of pregnancy? Gray dawn had invaded the room and in its light, everything seemed to take on a different perspective. She could recall only too clearly what she had done last night; what she could not fathom was why she had done it. She remembered how she had felt, beautiful and desirable, and oddly powerful because of that. But how could that have overridden every scrap of her common sense?

  The room was comfortably warm, even in her bare skin, but she didn’t feel comfortable parading around naked. Her worn tunic looked less appealing than it ever had. Feeling like a spy and a thief, she made her way to the closet and selected one of the folded Elderling robes. It was silver and blue when she shook it out, shimmering between the two colors. She slipped it over her head and thrust her arms out of the sleeves. It had been made for someone larger than she was, and that was good in at least one aspect. There was plenty of room for her folded wings. She turned back the cuffs of the sleeves and then hiked up the length. Looking hopefully in the closet, she found sashes or scarves on a row of hooks. She took one and belted up the robe so that she could walk. When she rolled her shoulders, the fabric adjusted easily to the bulk of her wings.

  “There are shoes, too,” Rapskal reminded her.

  Thymara looked over her shoulder. He was propped up on one elbow, unabashedly watching her dress. She looked away from the admiration in his eyes. A blush warmed her face. Embarrassment, or pride that he would like looking at her? She could not say. Stooping down, she found the footwear. She chose a blue pair and pulled them on over her feet, wondering if they would fit. The scaly fabric adjusted, finding her heel and taking the shape of her foot. When she smoothed them around her ankles and lower calves, they hugged her legs and stayed in place. Clothing that fit her changing body, clean warm clothing. Such a simple thing, and so miraculous.

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  “Choose one for me,” Rapskal suggested.

  “A woman’s robe?”

  He shrugged his bare shoulders. “In my time in the dream stone, I saw Elderling workers all wearing these sorts of robes. Men and women. Some of the robes were shorter, with trousers underneath. My clothes are in rags, and I really don’t care who wore those robes last. ”

  The folded garments were stacked on the shelves. Her fingers traveled down the pile until she found one that was gold and brown. “Try this,” she suggested as she drew it out.

  “Not red?” he asked, and she shook her head.

  “Very well,” he said and embarrassed her by standing up and walking toward her. She tried to pull her eyes away from his dangling genitals and could not until she heard his pleased chuckle.

  “Cover yourself,” she suggested sternly, tossing the garment to him.

  “You’re sure that’s what you want?”

  “Yes,” she re
plied emphatically and wondered if she spoke truth. The sight of him had stirred her to warmth. She was torn between crushing her reaction and allowing herself to indulge it. She watched him draw the gown over his head and shrug his shoulders into it. The Elderling garments were sleek and long, designed to be ankle length. The skirt of the robe was loose enough to accommodate a full stride, but the top clung nicely to his shoulders and chest. Once donned, there was nothing feminine about the garment on Rapskal. He chose a bright red sash to tie it, and green footwear. The colors rioted gloriously, and she found herself smiling. It was so Rapskal of him to deck himself out so. He hastened to admire himself in the mirror, and then he turned to her, saying, “It feels so good to be dressed so finely, doesn’t it? If only we had something to eat right now, I’d say there wasn’t a thing in the world left for me to wish for. ”

  The moment he mentioned being hungry, Thymara’s appetite awoke with a roar. She had nothing left in her bag; she had thought they would only be in the city for an afternoon. “Do you have any food?” she asked hopefully.

  “Not a scrap!” he replied cheerfully. “Shall we explore a bit more before we go back?” He cocked his head, and his eyes went distant. “Heeby woke up early. She’s already gone to hunt. So she may kill and sleep before she comes back for us. Unless Sintara would carry us back?”

  “Not a chance,” she admitted. She knew that without asking. She tried to copy what he had done, reaching out to her dragon, but felt only her presence, with no awareness of where she was or what she was doing. Well, that was Sintara. If she wanted Thymara to know anything about her, she’d tell her. For her trouble, she sensed the dragon’s agreement. That was all.

  Rapskal shrugged at her. “Well, no dragon to ride, no food to eat . . . We may as well finish exploring here. Come on. ” He held out a hand to her and, without thinking, she took it. His hand was warm and dry in hers, the fine scales sleek under her thumb. He showed no sign of sharing her distraction at their touch. Instead, he led her out of the room and into the corridor.

  The first door they tried was locked and did not yield to Rapskal’s thumping and kicking at it. In a hallway of a dozen doors, they found only two others that were open. Both rooms were similar to the one where they had slept. In one, only the large furniture items remained, as if the owner had packed possessions and left. In the other, the wardrobe held a similar supply of robes, shoes, and, in addition, leggings. Thymara decided it had belonged to a male Elderling, but as she helped herself to a set of leggings she found she didn’t care.

  The clothing was pushed helter-skelter onto the shelves, and every horizontal surface in the room was littered with small items. A handful of peculiar stones were stamped with images of flowers and trees.

  Rapskal came over to glance at them, shrugged, and said, “Money is my guess. Useless. But look. He’s left me a comb and some funny little brushes. Two necklaces, wait, no, one is broken. This is just some old string, all rotted away. Empty little pots, perhaps for salve or ink or something. Whatever was in there has dried away to dust. Here’s a nice little knife, but the sheath is all rotted. What are these?”

  “No idea. ” The objects were made of metal, hinged together, and had catches to add more links. “A belt?”

  Rapskal hefted the heavy metal items. “Not one I’d wear! Maybe something for a dragon. ”

  “Maybe,” Thymara agreed dubiously. Her stomach growled loudly. “I need food,” she observed and heard the irritability in her voice.

  “Me, too. Let’s take the stuff we found and walk down to the river. Maybe we can find some edible plants to chew on or a fish or something. ”

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  “Not likely,” she replied, but she had no better plan.

  She felt like a thief as she used an Elderling gown for a sack and bundled the rest of their loot into it. She paused to pull on the leggings, and Rapskal chose a pair and did the same. All the others would be glad of any new garments, and she suspected that they’d be especially pleased with items as bright and sturdy as these. Dutifully, she gathered up her worn-out clothing and stuffed them in as well. All the keepers had learned not to throw anything away. Their resources were so few that any item that could be reused in any way was valued.

  The dragon baths were empty of both dragons and water. The room remained warm and gently lit. It was a comfortable place. Thymara dreaded going back outside. But there was no help for it. They shouldered their burdens and walked out into the wintry day. The sky was clear and blue, the air cold on her face. The rest of her stayed warm. Light blessed them, and for a time they walked in silence. The Elderling shoes were like nothing she had ever worn. She looked down at them, wondering if she should have tried to put her old boots on over them. Her feet were warm and it was almost as if she were walking barefoot. She hoped she wouldn’t ruin them.

  “It’s so good to have warm clothes,” Rapskal observed. Then he added pensively, “City feels different, doesn’t it? Awake. ”

  “It does,” she agreed and said no more because she could not precisely say what had changed. If she had not been so hungry, she would have wanted to do more exploring. But all she could think of right now was food, and their best opportunity for that was along the river’s edge.

  “Things will be different for you now that Sintara can fly,” Rapskal offered.

  She glanced at him in surprise and then followed his gaze. Blue wings in the distance over the foothills behind the city. Her dragon. In flight and hunting. She was silent, considering it, but Rapskal was not.

  “She’ll be able to feed herself now, and that will get her growing, too. Heeby grew so much so fast when she could finally hunt all she wanted and eat all she wanted. And I think it was all the exercise, too. And now that they both know how to get to that hot water, well! She’s not going to be the same dragon at all. And you’re going to have a lot more time to do whatever you want to do. ”

  She tried to fit that idea into her mind. “It won’t be so different,” she suggested. “I’ll still hunt to help feed the other dragons and the keepers. ”

  “But Sintara’s not going to need you as much,” he pointed out. She glanced at him: How could such a casual observation seem so cruel?

  “Probably,” she agreed morosely. Suddenly, it seemed an opportunity lost. The dragon had needed her, and Thymara had had months in which to win her over. Instead they had quarreled and chafed, ignored and snubbed and then insulted each other. And now Sintara had, in the space of one night, finally mastered flight and no longer needed her. They had never bonded, dragon and keeper, as some of the others had. And now they never would.

  “Up! There goes Heeby. She’s diving on something. So she’ll kill it, eat it, and probably sleep for a bit before she comes back for us. ”

  Thymara watched the distant red silhouette dive, looked over her shoulder for Sintara’s blue wings, and saw nothing. So perhaps she had already killed and was eating. And she didn’t even have enough of a bond with her dragon to know.

  They’d reached the riverside now. It could be a hazardous place. In its latest incarnation, the river had swung in close to the city, eating away at the old docks. Downstream, streets and buildings were undercut and eroding into the water. There were no shallows, and Thymara was leery of standing too close to the edge, for she could not tell what was sound and what was undercut. She followed Rapskal, and he led the way with comfortable familiarity. They reached a place where old pilings jutted out of the water. Here, the stone edge of the city had already collapsed into the icy water, creating a steep and rocky shore. “Wait here,” Rapskal instructed her, and she hunkered down to watch him. He clambered down and then moved carefully from outcropping to outcropping, sometimes pausing to gather something from the water’s edge into a sling of his sash. He glanced back at her once. “See if you can find some driftwood and build a fire,” he suggested.

  She rose with a groan, doubting she’d have any
luck. But by the time he came skipping back to shore, she’d piled up one decent log and an armload of twigs and branches. Rapskal had his fire-starting materials in his pouch around his neck and was only too happy to demonstrate his expertise. While he got the fire going, she poked through his catch. He’d gathered freshwater limpets and streamers of water weed and some bivalves she didn’t recognize. “Are you sure we can eat these?” she asked.

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  He shrugged. “I’ve eaten them before. I’m still alive. ”

  They steamed them on the heated paving stones right beside the fire and ate them as they opened. They were not delicious, but they were edible and that was all she required at this point. It was not a large meal, but it took the edge off her hunger. Afterward, they sat side by side next to the fire and watched the river. The Elderling gown kept her comfortably warm, and the sun sparkling on the water dazzled her eyes. Without quite meaning to, she was leaning up against Rapskal’s shoulder when he asked her, “What are you thinking about so quietly?”

  And then the words popped out of her mouth. “What if I’m pregnant?”

  He spoke confidently. “Girls don’t get pregnant the first time. Everyone knows that. ”

  “Girls DO get pregnant the first time, and only boys say that stupid thing about how it can’t happen the first time. Besides, what about the second, third, and fourth time last night?”

  Despite the seriousness of her question, a smile threatened her face.

  “Well. ” He appeared to consider her words carefully. “If you are pregnant, then a fifth and a sixth time would do no harm. And if you aren’t, well, then you probably aren’t ripe right now, and a fifth and a sixth time wouldn’t get you with child. ” He turned toward her, his eyes both merry and inviting.

  She shook her head at him. How could he be so tempting and so annoying in the very same instant? “You can talk like that and make jokes about it,” she told him sourly. “You don’t have to wonder if something you did in a few minutes last night will change the entire course of your life. Change your whole world. ”

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