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City of dragons, p.34
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       City of Dragons, p.34

         Part #3 of Rain Wild Chronicles series by Robin Hobb

  Heeby moved off, ignoring the gathered keepers and the other dragons to go down to the river and drink, but Tats stood where he was, staring and numb, unmoving, as the other keepers swept forward to engulf the pair in questions.

  “What happened in the city last night?”

  “Was it a fire in the streets? We saw lights everywhere!”

  “Where is Sintara? Can she truly fly now?”

  “Why didn’t Sintara return?”

  “Where did you get those clothes?”

  The questions rained down on them, and Rapskal and Thymara were both talking at once. Tats watched Thymara open a bundle she had carried between them and began to pull out tunics and gowns and trousers and shoes. No one seemed to notice that the rain was getting harder and the wind was rising. Thymara was handing out the garments as swiftly as she could shake them out, and keepers were exclaiming in excitement and joy. All was exhilaration until Alise suddenly lifted her voice and shouted, “STOP! Stop tugging them about and handling them so roughly! Put them down this instant!” The excited gabble died away, and all eyes turned to the Bingtown woman as she abruptly advanced on the huddle of keepers. There were bright red spots of anger on her cheeks, and her voice shook with fury as she asked, “Thymara and Rapskal, what were you thinking to take things from the city? I must know exactly where you found them, and we have to measure them, and . . . ”

  “Alise. Please. ” Thymara’s voice was lower pitched and almost calm. “I know what the city means to you. I know you want to know its every secret, and that you think we must not disturb so much as the dust on the floors until you have written about it. I understand that—”

  “You can’t possibly understand. ” Alise’s voice was strained as she controlled herself. “You’re half a child still, with no experience of the world save the forest you grew up in. If you’d lived in Bingtown, if you had seen the stream of Elderling treasures and artifacts that passed through the market, to be scattered and lost in the wide world . . . Wondrous things, treated as novelties to be enjoyed only by the very wealthy and collectors. Half the time, the people who ended up owning those things cared nothing for where they came from, only that they could astonish others with a new possession. ”

  Thymara stood silent against the onslaught of words. Her face remained impervious. Tats saw that rattle Alise, heard a small shaking in her voice as she spoke on in the silence.

  “I’ve studied the Elderlings for years, working with the scattered bits that the ravagers and scavengers left for the scholars to try to interpret. Time after time, I’ve been frustrated with a few pages from a manuscript, a section of a long tapestry that obviously celebrated an important event, or a few tools that, if I had known where they were found, I might discover their purpose. We have a chance, and I fear it will be a very brief chance, before the hordes will descend on Kelsingra and reduce it to stripped stone and rubble. Will you start to destroy it before they even get here? Care you nothing for your heritage?”

  A silence followed her words. Tats felt empty. This is a day for things to break, he thought. My heart. The fellowship of the folk who had come here together. We all move apart from one another today.

  Alise spoke to the keepers from a shared history, one in which his people barely mattered. He had no Rain Wild ancestry to claim. That he was becoming as scaled as the rest of them and taking on the attributes of an Elderling body was due to the affection of his dragon. Alise’s words reminded him that he’d come to this expedition as an outsider, the sole keeper who had not been marked heavily by the Rain Wilds. He felt he had no right to speak, and then a new pang smote him as he wondered if that was why Thymara had chosen Rapskal over him. Was that shared background more important to her than their years of companionship?

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  “No one will destroy Kelsingra,” Rapskal said suddenly. He had been so silent that Tats had thought he was hiding from Alise’s disapproval by pushing Thymara to the fore. But now, when he spoke, he sounded so certain that even Alise was silenced by his words. “We won’t let them,” he added. “Because it is our heritage. Kelsingra is an Elderling city. Yes. But it isn’t a dead thing to be studied. Leaving the city as it is now would be as big a neglect as tearing it apart to try to discover its secrets. Alise, you only have to be open to the city to know that it does not want to keep secrets from you. Everything you want to know, it is willing to tell you. It wants to share itself with you. The city is alive and waiting for us to return to it. The presence of the dragons woke it. I do not know what Sintara did that Heeby had not done before; perhaps she recalls more of the city and how it is supposed to function than my Heeby does. Perhaps she recalled for the city what it needed to know to awaken. I cannot say for sure. But the city did awaken and it waits for us.

  “Let me tell you what we found there, Thymara and I. I want you to know every bit of it. Write it all down, if you will, even though there is no need. I want you all to know what we know now! And we know so much more than cold stone walls and broken tools can tell you! There is a building that was a bathhouse for dragons. Inside, the rooms are warm, and the beds are soft. We found clothing that seems to shape itself to our forms. Thymara and I may be hungry, but we are clean and warm right now, something I haven’t been for weeks. And when our dragons soaked in the hot water, they grew again, just as they did when they found the get-warm spot in the river on the way here. This morning, when Sintara awoke, she took flight and went off to hunt. She hunts for her own meat now, as a dragon should, and she flies, as a dragon should. ”

  It was not only the keepers drawing close in rapt silence to hear Rapskal. The eager listening of the dragons was almost palpable.

  Rapskal tried to make his voice gentler and did not completely succeed. “Alise, instead of trying to preserve a dead city, we must think of how to get the other dragons and all the keepers over to the other side of the river. We need to be there, if we are to become full Elderlings. And we need you to be there. Once we are settled there, you may study our living city as much as you wish. But you must not try to keep from us the things that we need to become Elderlings. What you should document and record is how we came to the city and woke it and brought it back to life. That should be your task now. ”

  It was hard for Tats to focus on the words and take the sense of them in. It was not that the concepts were difficult; jealousy and envy roared in his ears. He is my friend, he reminded himself. But it did little to calm his emotions. With Thymara at his side, Rapskal stood before all of them, dressed like a king and with a man’s calm bearing as he unfolded the future for them all. His words were bold. It was not just how Thymara looked at him, nor how Alise plainly gave deep consideration to what he had told them. If Sa himself had put a mantle of leadership on Rapskal’s shoulders, it could not be clearer. Rapskal had seen their future and meant to guide them to it. Everything that Tats had ever hoped to possess or to be, Rapskal had and was. Tats had come so far, hoping to finally feel that he belonged. But the place that he had hoped to occupy had been claimed by someone else.

  He felt Fente as a light touch on his thoughts. His green queen, among the smallest of the dragons, sent him consolation and her irritation with him. While you belong to me, you belong here, she assured him. Stop worrying about finding a mate. You will have years of your life to do that, decades, a long time by human reckoning. What I see is that both Heeby and Sintara have reached the city and that they can now fly and hunt, while I go hungry still. How will you get me to the city so that I can bathe and grow and fly? That should be the thought that fills your mind above all others.

  A wave of calm flowed through him. It was tinged with pleasure and excitement that his dragon deigned to speak with him. Intellectually, he knew it was glamour. Emotionally, he was glad to turn away from his aching pride and toward the purpose the dragon offered him. He did have a place in the world, and he was of value. Fente told him so. Let his human cares fall away. He had
a dragon to tend.

  Alise was still considering Rapskal’s words. The others awaited her response. Tats stepped into that gap, lifting his voice to speak for the dragons. “As keepers, we have an immediate task as well. We need to get the dragons to the city. That is plain. Some of our dragons are capable of short flights. Achieving flight that will let them cross the river must now be our primary task. ”

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  Mercor snorted. It was not a loud noise, but all turned toward the golden drake. “Keepers cannot teach a dragon to fly. Dragons must recall what we once knew. But Tats is right. It must be our sole focus, from dawn to dusk. Some of us have been trying. Others have been content to complain and sulk. Know now that those of us who master flight will leave you behind here, without regrets. Begin today. Become dragons or die here. ”

  The quiet that followed his words was somber. Of the dragons who had congregated, none spoke. When a short time had elapsed, Alise lifted her voice. “I’ve made a decision about the city,” she began.

  “It does not matter what you have decided. ” Mercor’s tone was gentle, almost kindly for a dragon. It was also relentless. “The decision is not yours. Rapskal has almost grasped the truth of it. The city lives and it awaits us. But it is not an Elderling city. They built it, and they lived alongside us. But Kelsingra was created for dragons. As soon as we can cross, Alise, we will revive the city. You are welcome to come with us. There have always been scribes, human and Elderling, who recorded our lives and thoughts. We have always elevated our poets and singers and those who celebrated our lives. You have a place among us. And honor. ”

  He swung his head, studying the keepers. “Dress as befits those who serve dragons. And go forth to the hunt today, all of you. Much meat will be needed, and giving strength to your dragon is now your primary goal. We will fly. When we cross to Kelsingra, you will all go with us, and the city will be ours again. ”

  Day the 2nd of the Fish 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

  Reyall, I am happy to once more have birds cleared to fly to you and to tell you that all our news is good for a change. Since Erek and I have smudged our coops, we have not lost a single bird to the red lice. I have said little of how poorly Erek was initially received here by the other keepers and the Trehaug Master of the Birds. Now I am delighted to say that all have expressed awe at his wisdom in solving this crisis and are treating him as befits his skill and knowledge of birds. I am so proud of your uncle.

  For that, of course, is my other good news. Despite many worries and the mishaps that plague any occasion, Erek and I are now wed. Our ceremony was held at the highest platform in the canopy, blessed by sun and a light wind fragrant with blossom and dancing butterflies. We would both have been content to speak our promise with considerably less formality, but as your grandparents had never expected me to wed, I think they felt a need to flaunt this wedding! And the beauty of that ceremony will be mine to keep for the rest of our lives.

  And now comes the time when I must consider well what to pack up to take with me to Bingtown. And even harder, I must choose what to leave here and bid farewell to my own birds. I caution you to have your uncle’s cotes and coops in perfect condition for when we arrive! All he can speak of is seeing his birds again. I dread the veils I must don for the journey to Bingtown, and it is hard for me to think of walking veiled in his city by the sea. But, of course, being with Erek is well worth these sacrifices.


  Chapter Fourteen


  “I really don’t see what you think I can do about it. Or why I should do anything at all. ”

  Hest spoke the words knowing the reaction it would get from his father. The man had been determined to be unpleasant to him since the day he was born. Some time in his teens, he had realized that he might as well enjoy provoking him, as Trader Finbok was going to behave like a pompous fool to him no matter how well Hest spoke to him. And after his recent scare, it felt good to be defiant without flinching. So he said the words and then quite deliberately leaned back in his chair as if perfectly relaxed.

  His father’s flushed face went a darker red, and his left eyelid twitched. He rattled in a breath through his red-veined nose. His features were more the product of his early years spent on the deck of a ship making trading trips to the north countries than his current fondness for dark wines. Not that he wasn’t drinking today. And an excellent vintage, too. While Hest waited for him to cobble a rebuke together, he sipped from his own glass. Yes. A very nice bouquet. Was that a touch of cherry? He held it to the winter afternoon light that was streaming through the windows. A lovely color. But the hand that held it was still bandaged, and the sight of it snatched away his pleasure in the wine. The cuts on his nose and chest had been fine and shallow; they had closed quickly and were easily concealed. But his hand was a daily reminder to him of the man who had terrorized and humiliated him. He set his teeth and then became aware his father was speaking.

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  “As to what you can do, you can go and fetch your wife home! As to why you should do it, for the sake of your family name. For your marriage. For the sake of getting an heir for your line. And to put an end to the gossip about all of it. ”

  “Gossip?” Hest lifted one sculpted eyebrow. “Is there gossip? I’ve heard nothing in my circles. My friends regard Alise’s abandonment of me as old news. Sad and dreary but totally unworthy of gossip. All the excitement was over months ago. By the time I returned from my trading trip to Jamaillia, well, the situation had settled. She was gone. I did my best with the woman, but she ran off. With my secretary. There was a bit of drama when it was presumed they’d been drowned in that flood, but now that we’ve heard that they are alive and fine, well, what more is there to say? She has left me, and quite frankly, her absence is a relief. I’m glad to let her go. ”

  Hest corrected the fall of lace from one of his cuffs. The shirt was a new one, in the latest style from Jamaillia City. He enjoyed how the lace held its shape in a half cup around his elegant hands even as he was privately annoyed with its scratchiness. Sometimes there was a price to pay for appearances. Rather like the price he’d had to pay to hire the ruffian who assured him he could track down and do away with the Chalcedean. The fellow he’d hired had an impeccable reputation for foul play. It had been rather exciting to meet him clandestinely in a filthy waterfront tavern. Garrod was a man a few years old than Hest, with ears so studded with tiny glittering earrings that they reminded him of abalone shells. “One for each man finished,” he’d told Hest.

  “And soon you’ll add another,” Hest had replied, sliding the packet of money across the table. Garrod had nodded, his teeth white, his eyes confident. The perfect man for the job. At another time, Hest might have found him attractive in quite a different way. He smiled at the memory as he lifted his eyes to his father’s furious gaze.

  Trader Finbok leaned forward and set his glass down on the table at his elbow. “Are you truly that stupid?” he demanded in disgust. “Just ‘let her go’? Walk away from the biggest opportunity that fate has ever tumbled into your lap?” He rose with a grunt to pace the room.

  It was a large room with good light in the winter. Hest looked forward to calling it his own one day. Of course, when he inherited it, he’d brighten it with color and style. The curtains were the same unimaginative brown ones that had hung at the windows for the last decade. Good quality to have lasted so long, of course, but there was a great deal to be said for keeping up with the times, if one were to appear truly prosperous. And among the Bingtown Traders, to appear prosperous, even in difficult times, was the key to being prosperous. No one wanted to trade with a man who was down on his luck. If you bought from him, you probably got the shoddy goods that were all he could
afford. And Sa forbid that you try to sell to such a man; he would do nothing but whine about the cost rather than trying to negotiate honestly and sharply. Yes, new draperies were the first thing that he’d do when this room was his.

  “Are you even listening?” his father barked and then went off in a coughing fit.

  “I beg your pardon, Father. The garden view distracted me. But I’m attending now. You were saying?”

  “I will not repeat myself,” his father replied haughtily and then immediately broke his word. “If you cannot see what you are throwing away, my words will not sway you. But perhaps my actions will. So let us be plain, son and heir. If you wish to retain both those titles, go to the Rain Wilds, find your wife, discover what made her unhappy with you, and change it. Do it with as little public noise as possible. If you act quickly, if you can bring her home a satisfied woman, perhaps it is not too late for the family to claim our rightful share of whatever it is they’ve found. ”

  “What?” Despite himself, Hest felt a sudden shock of both astonishment and interest.

  His father gave an exasperated sigh. “Your reputation as a shrewd trader is vastly exaggerated. I’ve known that for years. But can you truly have overlooked the fact that, with or without your consent, Alise signed on as a member of the Tarman expedition? That expedition has, according to rumor, discovered riches beyond imagining far up the Rain Wild River. Not just Elderling habitations and whatever artifacts and treasure they contain, but vast tracts of arable land. So the rumors fly. All know the liveship Tarman and Captain Leftrin returned briefly to Cassarick. What I have heard is that he quarreled with the Council and refused to give up his charts of the river. He accused them of putting a spy on his ship, and even insinuated that some of them were in league with Chalcedeans who were more interested in slaughtering the dragons than keeping our bargain with Tintaglia. ”

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