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City of dragons, p.32
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       City of Dragons, p.32

         Part #3 of Rain Wild Chronicles series by Robin Hobb

  When had he put his arm around her? He gathered her in tenderly, tucking her head under his chin. “No,” he said, in a voice more serious than she had ever heard him use. “I don’t have to wonder. I know that my whole world changed last night. ” He pressed a kiss onto the top of her brow.

  “I feel so useless. ” Reyn sat down cross-legged on the deck beside Malta. Despite the darkness of his words and tone, he was smiling at her, captivated by the sight of his beautiful wife nursing his son.

  She looked at him. “At least you can move about freely. ”

  “It’s safest for both of you if you stay here. And Leftrin doesn’t want me coming and going from the boat any more than is absolutely necessary. And he wants you and the baby to remain invisible. ” He’d said the words before and he didn’t doubt that he’d say them again before they managed to depart. Logic did not always have a great deal of influence on Malta, especially when it did not agree with her preferences. “The other Chalcedean may very well be looking for you. And even if he isn’t, the word is out that a man was murdered in a bagnio last night. They are looking for his killer. ”

  “Do the reports say that he was a Chalcedean and here illegally?”

  Reyn gave a small sigh. “I’ve done my best to feign great lack of interest in the tidings. Instead, I’ve been doing all I can to help Leftrin beg, borrow, and almost steal every sort of supply we can load on this ship. Tillamon insisted that we had to send a bird to my mother, to let her know what has happened so she will not worry about us. As if such tidings could make her not worry! We have begged her to do nothing until we are safely under way, but I do not know if she will listen to that advice. ”

  “Did you get extra messenger birds for us to take with us?”

  “Oh, as if that were easy! Good messenger birds are highly prized and valuable. And the Guild is very fussy about who flies birds. I still managed to strike a bargain with the bird keeper here. He told me he cannot sell Guild birds, but he had some of his own that he said he was actually raising for meat. Evidently they grow very large and are not as swift on the wing. They looked like sad creatures to me, but he says they are just in a molt stage and will be very handsome when their new feathers grow. He sold me a few and said no matter where we release them, they will fly back here to him. He gave me message capsules also, and the scrolls that go in them, but swore me to absolute secrecy about all of it. So. When we arrive in Kelsingra, we can at least tell my mother that we are there, and she can pass the news on to Keffria and Ronica. And that, my dear, was the very best I could do about that. ”

  Malta nodded, then gave all her attention to their baby. He had fallen asleep at her breast. She wrapped him and set him in a little wooden biscuit box, well cushioned with a rough ship’s blanket. As she covered herself, she said, “I had packed a supply of things for him when we came here, just in case he arrived early. Can you . . . ”

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  “Tillamon is taking care of all that. She has gone back to our rooms and will repack as much as she can into a couple of cargo boxes and then have them carried down to the boat. ”

  “Why is everything taking so long? I will not know a moment’s peace until we get him to a dragon that can help him. ”

  “He looks much better to me already. The ship is doing all he can. ”

  “I know. ” She set her hand to the wooden deck and hoped Tarman could sense her gratitude and would not take her words amiss. “But I can feel what he is doing and it frightens me. Reyn, he reminds our baby to breathe. He listens to his heart beating. ” She reached over and set her hand on her baby’s chest, as if to be certain for herself.

  Reyn was silent, and then asked the question that he must. “And if Tarman did not remind him?”

  “I think he would just stop,” Malta said.

  Reyn slid across the deck to gather her into his arms. “It won’t be long now,” he told her and prayed he was not lying. “As soon as we are loaded, we’ll depart. Captain Leftrin promised us this. ”

  He sat still, listening to the busy sounds of freight coming aboard the ship. There was a bed in the tiny boxlike cabin that Leftrin had provided for him, and part of him longed to be there. But the baby needed to stay here on the foredeck where Tarman’s wizardwood was thickest in order to remain in contact with the liveship. Malta, he reminded himself, had been here all night. “Would you like to go to the cabin and sleep for a bit? I’ll stay here with our son. ”

  She shook her head. “Maybe once we are out on the water and I know we are on our way, maybe then I can relax. But not yet. ” Then she smiled. “Our son. How strange and wonderful it sounds to say it aloud. But he needs a name of his own, Reyn. ” She looked down at the sleeping infant. “Something strong. A tough name to carry him through. ”

  “Ephron,” Reyn suggested promptly.

  Malta’s eyes widened. “Name him after my grandfather?”

  “I always heard good things about him. And for a second name?”

  “Bendir,” she suggested.

  “My brother’s name? My elder brother, who has spent his entire life bossing me around, sitting on me when we were children, even mocking me for falling in love with you!”

  “I like Bendir,” she admitted, grinning, and for the sake of that smile, so unexpected on her weary face, he nodded. “Ephron Bendir Khuprus. A large name for a small boy. ”

  “He will be Phron until he grows into it. It was what my father was called as a boy. ”

  “Phron Khuprus, then,” Reyn said and touched the sleeping child’s pate. “You have a big name to live up to, little one. ”

  Malta covered her husband’s hand with her own and smiled at her son’s small face. Then she gave a brief, choked laugh.

  “What’s funny?” Reyn demanded.

  “I was remembering Selden when he was a baby. He was the only one in the family younger than me, so he was the only baby I really knew. ”

  “Did you love him from the moment you saw him?”

  Her smile grew wider as she shook her head. “No. Not at all. My mother was horrified the day I carried him into the kitchen and showed her that he would fit exactly in a baking dish. ”


  “Yes. I did it. At least, so I’ve been told repeatedly. I don’t remember it myself. I do remember when Wintrow was sent off to be a priest. Because I asked if Selden couldn’t go with him. ”

  Reyn shook his head. “A bit jealous, were you?”

  “More than a bit,” Malta admitted. Her smile faded a little. “And now I would give anything to know where my little brother is. Or to at least know that he is safe. ”

  Reyn put his arm around her and pulled her closer. He kissed her forehead. “Selden is tough. He’s been through a lot. He was just a little boy when we watched Tintaglia hatch. Any other child would have been terrified and weeping at our dilemma. Selden just kept on trying to work out how we could get out of it. And now he’s a man. He can take care of himself, dear. I have a lot of faith in Selden. ”

  Lantern light woke him. Selden half opened his eyes. They were gummy, and the figure before him was a blur. He pulled one hand from under the coarse blanket to rub at his eyes. They stung. He coughed abruptly, and then coughed more. He leaned as far from his bedding as he could before spitting out the mouthful of phlegm. The person watching him made a disgusted sound.

  Selden spoke hoarsely. “You don’t like what you see, go away. Or treat me decently so I have a chance to get better. ”

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  “Told you he could talk. ”

  “That doesn’t mean he’s really human,” said another voice, and Selden realized there were two of them staring at him. Young voices. He pulled his legs tighter under his bedding, and the chain around his ankle rattled on the deck as he did so. The blanket had stuck to the oozing wound on his shoulder, the one that had won him this trip aboard a ship.

I’m human,” he asserted hoarsely. “I’m human and I’m really sick. ”

  “He’s a dragon man. See that scaling. So I was right and you owe me the bet. ”

  “Do not! He says he’s human. ”

  “Boys!” Selden spoke sharply, trying to bring their attention back to him. “I’m sick. I need help. Hot food or at least something hot to drink. Another blanket. A chance to get up on deck and get some—”

  “I’m getting out of here,” one of the boys announced. “We’re going to be in trouble if anyone finds out we were down here talking to that thing. ”

  “Please, don’t go!” Selden cried, but one of the boys had fled already, his bare feet pattering away into the darkness of the hold. Another coughing fit took Selden. He curled around the stabbing pain in his lungs. When it finally calmed and he wiped the tears away, he was surprised to see that one of the youngsters was still standing there. He rubbed his eyes, but the brightness of the lantern and the stickiness of the discharge made the boy’s form a blur still. “What’s your name?” he asked.

  The boy cocked his head, his pale hair falling in a ragged sheaf across his eyes. “Uh . . . not telling you. You could be a demon. That’s what the other fellows said. You should never tell a demon your name. ”

  “I’m not a demon,” Selden said wearily. “I’m a human. Just like you. Look. Can you help me at all? Can you at least tell me where we are, where I’m being taken?”

  “You’re on the Windgirl. And we’re making for Chalced. The city Chalced what’s the capital of Chalced. That’s where you get off. Your new owner paid a lot for us to head straight there, no stops on the way. ”

  “I’m not a slave. I don’t have an owner. I don’t believe in slavery. ”

  The boy made a skeptical noise. “But there you are, chained to a deck staple. Seems like what you believe doesn’t matter much. ” He paused and thought about this for a moment, perhaps considering his own plight. Then, “Hey. Hey. If you’re a human, how come you look like you do? How come you got all those scales?”

  Selden pulled his blanket in closer. He’d taken the cleanest straw from the floor and scraped it into a heap before he lay down on it and put the blanket over himself. For a time, it had cushioned his aching body from the rough timbers of the deck. But it had packed down and shifted under him in his restless sleep. He could feel the cold, splintery deck below him. A blanket over him was small use when the cold planks under him sucked away the warmth of his own blood. He needed the boy’s help. He spoke quietly. “A dragon made me her friend. Her name is Tintaglia. She changed me, as you see. To make me special to her. ”

  “If you got a dragon for a friend, how come you got taken to be a slave? Why didn’t your dragon save you?”

  The boy had come a few steps closer. By his worn clothing and shaggy hair, Selden judged him to be on the lowest rung of sailorhood. Probably a street boy, taken on in the last port, to see if he could be hammered into use as a deckhand.

  “The dragon sent me out. She feared she was the last of her kind, for the other dragons she had seen hatch were weak and sickly things. So I set out from Bingtown with a group of people I thought were my friends. Tintaglia asked me to travel afar and ask for news of other dragons. And for a time, that’s what I did. I went to a lot of places. Things went well, and people listened to me and my tales of my dragon. But I didn’t hear of any other dragons. Then my supply of money began to run low. And my friends proved to be false. ”

  He saw that the boy was hanging on the tale. He paused. “Bring me something hot to drink, and I’ll tell you the whole story,” he offered. Not that he wanted to remember it himself. They’d drugged him in a tavern, probably something dropped into his ale. He’d awakened in a wagon with a canvas tossed over him, his wrists bound behind his back. A few days later, he’d been put on display as the “Dragon Man. ” How many months ago had that been? A year? More than a year? For a time, he’d tried to keep a tally of his days. He’d lost count of them during his first bout of fever and realized the uselessness of it since.

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  The boy shifted restlessly and glanced away into the darkness. “I’ll get a beating if anyone finds out I was down here looking at you. I bring you anything, I’ll get a double beating. Besides, I couldn’t even get a hot drink for myself, let alone take it out of the galley. Me and the other deck boys, we aren’t allowed in the galley to eat. ” The boy scratched his dirty cheek. He turned away from Selden. “Sorry,” he added, almost as an afterthought. The lantern swung and cast stretched shadows as he walked away.

  “Please,” Selden said, and then “PLEASE!” he shouted. At his cry, the boy took flight, the lantern jogging wildly as he ran. The darkness around him deepened and then was absolute again. The boy was gone. With him went all hope. He wouldn’t be back. The threat of a beating was stronger than the lure of a tale. “I should have said I was a demon,” he muttered to himself. “I should have threatened to curse him if he didn’t bring me a blanket and hot food. ”

  Curses and threats. That was what worked in the world.

  Nothing was going well for Leftrin. People were too curious, asking him too many questions at every turn. Merchants wanted to know why he was using the Khuprus line of credit so freely. He’d replied that they were advancing into a partnership, one he could not yet divulge. He didn’t even want to say that much, but he needed it to be plausible for Reyn and his sister to have signed off on such massive purchases of supplies. Tillamon was bearing the brunt of the gossip seekers and coping well with it. She put her veil to its maximum use, ignoring people as she chose. The Khuprus interest in the mysterious “expedition” had fueled no less than three other offers of financial backing from young Traders. Leftrin had feigned great reluctance as he turned them down, saying that Tillamon had specified that their arrangement was to be both exclusive and private. He regretted that now, for it seemed to have ignited curiosity to a feverish pitch. Two Traders had come in hastily from Trehaug and urgently requested meetings with him. He had scheduled them for a date three days hence, knowing full well he planned to be gone by then.

  Worse were the messages from the Council. They had begun to arrive as soon as the winter light filtered down and proclaimed day on the Rain Wild River. The first one had suggested a meeting to discuss “unclear” language in the original contract and the “clear and true intent” of the contract as “revealed by its general purpose. ” He knew what that meant. Given a chance, they’d reinterpret the contract to their great benefit and try to frighten him into complying. They wanted his charts of the river, and they wanted to know what he had found up there. They’d get neither from him.

  As the day crept by and he continued to load the ship, more queries and demands were piling up. Why was he in such a hurry for these goods? In some cases, he’d paid double to have goods ordered by other customers diverted to his ship. It was exciting animosity as well as curiosity. His own relatives were pestering him with queries, especially his brother. Why hadn’t he come to visit? Why hadn’t Skelly come to spend time with her parents? She should visit her fiancé, too. She was getting close to an age at which Leftrin would have to give her up as a deckhand for a time so that she could be married, and then, after a year or so, she and her new husband would be expected to move aboard Tarman and begin to learn its routines, so that when Skelly inherited the liveship, her husband would be competent enough to help her run it. He hadn’t replied to that one. A letter was no way to tell his brother that once Alise could free herself from Hest, he intended to marry her and possibly get his own heir. Even less did he want to tell his brother and his sister-in-law that their daughter was currently very infatuated with a dragon keeper who was rapidly turning into an Elderling, and that she had spoken of her hopes that her fiancé would break off their marriage agreement when he learned that she was no longer the first heir to the ship, because then she would be free to marry Alum. When he asked her, of course.

  Just thinking of that whole tangle made Leftrin’s head ache. And freight was coming aboard too fast, making Hennesey and Swarge quarrelsome about the best way to stow it. When consecutive notices arrived from the Council commanding that he come to meet with them, and then one forbidding him from departing without the Council’s consent as he “may have in his possession documents and charts that are the rightful possessions of the Cassarick Traders’ Council,” he once again set his teeth and dismissed the courier with no reply. When yet another letter arrived for him, this one from the Trehaug Council, asserting that he had no right to turn any documents over to the Cassarick Council until a representative from Trehaug was there to be sure that its interests would be fairly considered, he tipped the courier heavily, tossed the missive over the side, and went to Hennesey.

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  “Is that load there on the dock all we have coming?”

  Hennesey all but snarled at being interrupted at his tasks, but he pulled a rolled manifest from a leather tube at his belt and unfurled it. He ran his eyes down it quickly. “The crates that Tillamon Khuprus sent down were just loaded, and she came aboard herself right after them. Looks to me like two merchants haven’t delivered yet. No, one, here comes the shipment from Lowson now, and I’m glad to see it. Lamp oil should be in that one, and six folds of heavy canvas, not to mention spare oars. ”

  “What else is still to be delivered?”

  “Oh, it’s a mix, from Contority’s River Supplies. ”

  “Anything we can’t live without?”

  Hennesey raised an eyebrow and then scanned the manifest more closely. “Well, Bellin won’t be pleased to leave anything behind. Let’s see. More tea. We have some, but Bellin said we needed more. Fish hooks. More blankets. Two bows and several dozen arrows. More tobacco and coffee. No one would be happy to leave without those. And—”

  “If they get here before you’ve finished loading the stuff from Lowson, then go ahead and take it aboard. If it isn’t here, forget it. We managed this long, and we’ll have to manage for the rest of winter. As soon as that dock is empty of cargo, we’re leaving. ”

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