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City of dragons, p.33
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       City of Dragons, p.33

         Part #3 of Rain Wild Chronicles series by Robin Hobb
 

  “Might be too late to do that quietly. ”

  Leftrin turned his head to follow Hennesey’s gaze. In many ways, Cassarick was still a young and raw settlement, and their constabulary reflected that. Becoming a City Guard was regarded as a temporary career, one taken up because there was no more profitable work available or because one lacked the skills or reputation to gain better employment. The guards moving unevenly down the docks reflected this. There were five of them, identifiable by their green trousers and tunics. Two looked very young and seemed agitated. One of the men was a graybeard with a bouncing belly and a pike in his hand. None of them looked happy about his current assignment, or particularly familiar with the moving docks and the traffic on them.

  “Get it loaded, and be ready to cast off at my word. Tarman, old friend, you be ready to help if we need it. ”

  Behind the guards came Trader Polsk and another Council member. Polsk carried a document case. She was puffing as she hurried along. Leftrin didn’t leave his deck but moved aft as far as he could to meet the oncoming delegation. They would probably stop to look up at him and talk, buying his crew a few more precious moments to get cargo aboard. As he passed Skelly, he asked in a low voice, “All crew and passengers aboard?”

  “Except for Big Eider. But he’s right on the dock there, helping to load, and can jump for the deck in an instant. ”

  “Good. Be ready. Warn our passengers. ”

  “Sir. ” She pattered away down the deck.

  Leftrin put a smile that he didn’t feel on his face and sauntered aft, his thumbs tucked into his belt. As he had hoped, the guards skittered to a halt at the sight of him and formed a rough semicircle to look up at him. He looked down at them, not speaking, his expression one of mild curiosity. When Trader Polsk hustled to join them, he transferred his gaze to her but did not speak, leaving the burden of setting the tone of this confrontation to her.

  She was out of breath and her words came out without much force. “Captain Leftrin, you have not responded to the missives that the Traders’ Council has sent you. ”

  He raised one eyebrow in puzzlement at her charge. “Well, no, I suppose I haven’t. But I’ve been rather busy today and thought I’d best make sure of my schedule before trying to arrange a meeting time with the Council. Seems like everyone is after a piece of my time. ” He cocked his head and appeared to make a mental reckoning. “Would an evening meeting six days hence work for the Council?” He leaned his forearms on the railing and looked down on them as he spoke. All reasonableness and affability.

  Polsk looked down the dock to where the loading was proceeding. “You appear to be making preparations for departure!”

  He glanced in the direction of her interest. “Just loading our supplies, Trader Polsk. Loading a ship takes time, you know; cargo has to be inventoried, and the ship has to be ballasted to adjust. It’s not a thing to rush. A riverman learns to make the best use of every free minute, you know. And between you and me, it’s a wise captain who keeps his crew occupied at all times. Otherwise you can’t know what sort of mischief they’ll be getting into. Tavern brawls, public drunkenness, and whatnot. You know how sailors are. ” He grinned at her conspiratorially and saw a shadow of uncertainty pass over her face. Had she been sent down here on a wild rumor? Had the Council overreacted and made her look foolish?

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  “Well, Captain Leftrin, perhaps it seems suspicious on our part, but we wanted to be sure that you knew our business with you was not completed. We don’t want you to leave until we have received a full report of the expedition’s findings from you. ”

  “Well, Trader Polsk, as the Council has refused to pay me my wages, I’m certainly not regarding our business as concluded! I do hope the Council wasn’t thinking they could insult me and then just send me and my crew on our way with no recompense for risking life and limb out there on the river! Fair is fair, you know, and we got a right to expect our pay! Now I’m willing to give the Council a day or three to consider the situation, but if that evening meeting is convenient to all involved, well, I’ll expect my coin to be on the table. There are two sides to every contract. The Council should be ready to fulfill its share. ”

  He saw her relax the set of her shoulders. This was bargaining, something every Trader understood. “Fair is fair indeed, Captain Leftrin, and no one knows that better than the Traders’ Council of Cassarick! We will be happy to discuss the settlement of your wages just as soon as you have delivered to us all that we expected from the completion of your last voyage. And I will state plainly that we expect to be allowed to view and copy your logbooks, as well as duplicate the river charts that you have undoubtedly created. You will remember that we hired a hunter for you, one Jess Torkef. He was to hunt meat for the expedition, but he was also to record events and keep charts for the Council. We are saddened to hear of his demise and shocked to hear your accusations that he was a traitor, but we also know that we have the right to demand those documents and his other personal effects be turned over to us. ”

  Leftrin darted a sideways glance down the dock. The last of the freight was swinging aboard. Big Eider would soon follow it. “Well, I can’t say as I share your sadness at his ‘demise. ’ And I wouldn’t know what private arrangements you might have made with him about notes and charts, though I’ll plainly say I believe he had other ‘private arrangements’ that had more to do with slaughtering dragons for profit and maybe striking up a deal with Chalced. In any case, he’s dead and gone, and the wave that went over my boat carried off everything that wasn’t tied down. So I’m afraid that even if I were obligated to satisfy his contract on his behalf, which of course I’m not, I couldn’t do it. I would suggest you take a real close look at whoever recommended that man to you. Jess Torkef was a traitor, and whoever put him on board my ship did so with evil intentions. ”

  He heard the thud of Eider landing on the deck. Leftrin turned his head and smiled at Skelly, who had appeared at his elbow. “Cast off,” he said in a conversational voice and then turned back to look at the delegation on the dock. “You might want to stand back,” he suggested affably. “We need to reposition the barge for further loading. Won’t take but a minute. ”

  “He’s leaving!” the Council member at Polsk’s side hissed, and then to the guard he shouted, “Don’t let them untie! Hold on to their mooring lines; don’t let them get away. ”

  “Abandon the lines if you have to,” Leftrin suggested without worry. The forward lines were already snaking aboard, and Swarge was at the tiller sweep. The guardsman with the pike had stepped up to guard the aft line. Big Eider shrugged, shaking his head at the waste, and stooped down to unfasten the moorage line from Tarman’s cleat. He tossed it overboard and Tarman floated free. “To your poles!” Swarge sang out, and the crew moved as if they had one mind.

  “Tarman?” Leftrin pleaded quietly, and the liveship responded with an unseen but powerful kick of his hidden hind legs. Leftrin was glad he was holding on to the railing. Big Eider gave a whoop of surprise and staggered sideways as the barge surged forward. The cries of amazement from the watching guardsmen were both satisfying and alarming. Leftrin took pride in his modified liveship’s abilities, but also usually took care to keep Tarman’s differences secret. Ever since the true origin of wizardwood had been acknowledged, any usage of it by humans had not only been frowned upon but forbidden by Tintaglia. That the dragons he had escorted up the river accepted Tarman was something that he had attributed to Mercor’s tolerance. He never wished to have it become common knowledge. “Enough, ship,” he suggested quietly, and though Tarman continued to paddle, he did so discreetly, only enough to make it appear that his crew was exceptionally rather than supernaturally talented.

  “We’ve got followers, Captain,” Hennesey called to him.

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  Leftrin turned to see and uttered a curse. The mate was right. Either the Council had
not believed their City Guard was sufficient to the task, or several small boat owners had decided that following the Tarman might lead them to a real prize. The way rumors spread in any Trader city, Leftrin was not surprised that lesser Traders might have heard that the Tarman expedition had found Kelsingra but refused to disclose the location. Doubtless they thought to follow him tenaciously until he betrayed his destination. And he was just as confident that they would fail. He grinned. “Keep your distance from them but there’s no need to—”

  He had not time to finish his words. Tarman took matters into his own keeping. This time it was not his feet but a strategic lash of his hidden tail that roiled the river’s surface and set the smaller boats to rocking wildly in his wake. For just an instant, his tail was visible as it moved just beneath the gray river water. Then the liveship shot forward as the smaller vessels struggled to avoid being swamped by the waves he had stirred. Some did not succeed at that, and Leftrin winced in sympathy. There’d be some scalded sailors when they scrambled out of the water.

  The surge of speed nearly knocked Tarman’s crew off their feet. He arrowed upriver, and the cries of amazement from all witnesses made Leftrin wince. There’d be little denying it now; some would work it out all too quickly. Just as well that he and Tarman did not expect to return to any of the Rain Wild cities before late spring. Perhaps by then, rumor and speculation would have died down.

  But as Tarman moved steadily against the current, the remnants of the flotilla of small boats still attempted to follow in his wake. Hennesey came to consult with him. “Think they’ll try to board us?”

  Leftrin shook his head. “It’s all they can do to keep pace with us now. And when darkness falls, they’ll be blinded. They’ll have to tie up for the night. We won’t. ”

  “You think Tarman can find his way up the river in the dark?”

  Leftrin grinned at him. “I have no doubt of it. ”

  “And so we’re away on another adventure,” Malta said. Her voice shook. She cleared her throat, pretending that it had been something else, but Reyn put his arm around her.

  “Perhaps we are, my dear. But this time, we are together. All three of us. ”

  Tillamon made a small sound as she lifted the canvas flap and angled under it to join them. “Four, if you’ll count me,” she said. She was smiling widely, and there was a light in her eyes that Malta could not understand.

  “You’re not frightened?” she asked her sister-in-law. “We’ve no idea where we are going or how far. Captain Leftrin says there will be hardship and cold in the days to come. We’re leaving our home behind for Sa knows how long. But you’re smiling?”

  Tillamon laughed out loud and tossed back her veil. When was the last time anyone had seen that smile? It made the row of dangling growths along her jawline jiggle. “Of course I’m frightened! And I’ve no idea what we are heading into. But Malta, I’m alive! I’m moving out into the world, on my own. And from what Reyn told me, I’m headed toward a city and a little colony of people where I’ll no longer have to wear a veil or hear muttered remarks as I pass. Leaving my home behind? Perhaps I’m leaving my mother, but I think she’ll understand. And I feel as if I’m headed toward my home rather than leaving it behind. ”

  She settled herself on the deck beside Ephron’s box-bed and tenderly smiled down on the waking baby as he stirred. “May I hold him?” she asked eagerly.

  The sun was hastening toward the hill line as Heeby carried them back across the river. The wind was pushing clouds to fill up the evening sky, and the damp breeze swished past Thymara’s face, but only her cheeks burned with cold. Even her feet and calves, clad in the scaly Elderling shoes, remained warm. And the fabric of her footwear seemed to help her cling more tightly to Heeby’s sleek sides. She held tight to the sides of Rapskal’s Elderling garment, their backpack of looted artifacts sandwiched between them. She bowed her head against the wind’s rough kiss, putting her brow against Rapskal’s back. She thrust her fear down and focused her eyes and her thoughts on the comforts that they were bringing to their fellows. She doubted that every keeper would find a gown or tunic or trousers to fit, but enough would benefit that their worn clothing could be shared generously with the ones who could not find Elderling garb to cover them. Tonight, everyone would be a bit more comfortable, thanks to her and Rapskal.

  As if he could read her mind, Rapskal called over his shoulder, “You know that Alise isn’t going to like this. She’s going to say that we should have left everything exactly as it was, for her to record before we moved it. She may even try to make us put it all back where it was. ”

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  “I’ll talk to her,” Thymara promised him confidently. Despite the difference in their ages, she and Alise were friends. She had felt awkward around the older woman at first, but Alise’s admiration for her hunting and fishing skills had won her over. Thymara was not sure how she would react to the pristine Elderling goods that they were bringing back now. She did not think Alise would agree that sharing them with the keepers would be the best use of them. But she herself wore an Elderling garment from the ruins of Trehaug. Surely she would not be hypocritical enough to forbid the same comfort to the keepers.

  “They’re waiting for us!” Rapskal spoke loudly over the wind. “Look!”

  She lifted her head and peered down through squinting eyes. Yes, keepers were gathering on the riverbank, and even a few of the dragons were strolling down. Golden Mercor was already there. His head was lifted and he peered up at them. “They must have been worried about us!” she called to Rapskal.

  “Silly of them. We can take care of ourselves,” he declared grandly. She felt a rippling of unease to hear him set them apart from the others. He seemed to think that something had changed, something important. Had it? Did he take last night as some sort of declaration from her that she had chosen him? Had she?

  No, she answered herself emphatically. She had mated with him, but that was all. It had been an impulsive thing she had done, not a commitment to him. Not a long-term decision.

  As they circled the gathered keepers and Heeby trumpeted triumphantly as she began a long glide to the ground, Thymara wondered if he understood that as clearly as she did.

  Tats stared up at the circling red dragon. The rain and wind tried to blind him, but he squinted his eyes and decided he had not been deceived. Something had changed about Heeby. Her wings seemed more proportional, her flying more sure. And she glittered and gleamed even in the low light of the overcast day. As they came closer, he could discern the two riders on her back. Relief vied with jealousy. Thymara was safe, but she was with Rapskal. Then a stray ray of sunlight struck them, and the riders glittered as brilliantly as the dragon they bestrode.

  “What is that they’re wearing?” he wondered aloud.

  “Where is Sintara? Why isn’t she returning with them?” Alise had joined him and the other watchers and answered his query with one of her own.

  “Sintara hunts. ” This statement came from Mercor. The golden dragon and his keeper, Sylve, looked up at the sky. “She has found her wings and her strength. Now that she can hunt for herself, she will not depend on Thymara so much. ”

  “Which means Thymara can help feed the rest of us,” blue-black Kalo commented sternly.

  “You have a keeper, and your keeper is a hunter. You should have no need for extra attention. ” Sestican angled himself into the group. He was not as large as Kalo, but he often seemed intent on provoking the larger male. Tats broke in before Kalo could respond, “We keepers all do the best we can to provide meat for all of you. ”

  “And yet we are always hungry. ” Kalo’s gaze did not leave the scarlet dragon. Heeby was closer now, circling lower before landing. Her landings were always exciting. Tats suspected they were more the product of trial and error than any clear ancestral memory of how a dragon should land. And this time was no exception. She looped low, flying into the wind t
o slow herself. She had chosen a long strip of open riverbank, and everyone well knew to stay out of her way. She opened her wings wide and leaned back. Her legs had been tucked so neatly against her body and in line with her tail; now she suddenly splayed them out. Her hind feet touched the ground, she ran a few staggering steps and then dropped down on her front feet and slid to a halt, her tail lashing for purchase. Rapskal took it all with aplomb, but Thymara clutched tight to him, her face hidden on his back. The moment that they were still, she began her slide down Heeby’s shoulder.

  With all his heart, Tats wanted to dash forward and catch her in his arms. But he did not. He was not sure that she would have welcomed such an action.

  “They’re wearing Elderling garb!” The words burst from Alise in wonder mingled with horror. As Rapskal slid down to join Thymara, Tats heard cries of wonder and a scattering of laughter from the other keepers. The bright colors were ludicrous on a man; that was Tats’s first scornful reaction. But then as Rapskal made a showy bow to all of them, they suddenly seemed not only appropriate to his tall and slender form, but elegant as well. They were clothes fit for an Elderling, as colorful as Rapskal himself had become. And had he become more scarlet since last Tats had seen him?

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  He transferred his gaze to Thymara and knew that his initial impression was correct. Overnight, she had changed, and it was not just the gown she wore. The bluish tone of the scaling on her face was now indigo traced with silver. She was looking around the circle of welcome, and when her gaze came to Tats, their eyes met. And he knew. She looked away from him.

  There was a roaring in his ears and a minute trembling ran through him. He felt that he swayed in the wind like a tree about to crash to the earth. He knew, and yet it did not seem possible that it could be true. She had given herself to Rapskal. All the years they had known each other, the accumulated closeness of friendship, and his desperate courtship of her in the last few months, it had all meant nothing to her. She had chosen Rapskal over him. He tried to veer his thoughts away from imagining their bodies tangled together. He did not want to wonder if she had kissed Rapskal first, did not want to imagine that they had been flung together in passion or, worse, come together in slow and delicious delays.

 
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