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City of dragons, p.35
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       City of Dragons, p.35

         Part #3 of Rain Wild Chronicles series by Robin Hobb
 
Page 129

 

  “Chalcedeans. ” The word was lead as it dropped from his tongue, and a wave of dread engulfed him.

  “Well, it was ridiculous! The notion that any Trader would conspire with Chalcedeans, let alone back out on an honorable contract! So the Council righteously refused to pay him. Nonetheless, the very next day, he outfitted his ship extensively, drawing on a credit line from the Khuprus family. I don’t need to remind you that the Khuprus family controlled the lion’s share of wizardwood from Trehaug for years. With that trade taken from them, Jani Khuprus has probably been looking for a new investment for her family. She’s no fool. My suspicion is that they have struck a deal of their own with this Leftrin and are making a grab for a fresh find.

  “In addition, it has come to my attention that Captain Leftrin sent birds to Bingtown to put in orders for livestock! Breeding animals. Sheep, goats, and chickens. And seed grain and other seeds. Vine stock and two dozen young fruit trees. Put that together with certain hints dropped by crew members, and you have arable land. It’s very possible they’ve made the most substantial discovery since Trehaug was first uncovered. ”

  Hest was numbed into silence. He knew his father had spies, people who were prone to reading their masters’ messages, people in Trehaug and Cassarick who would send off a bird at the merest rumor of a good bargain. But this was beyond any rumor of wealth that his father had ever gambled on.

  “Well. I see by your open mouth that you are finally listening to me! So let me put the rest of it together for you: Alise, as a member of that expedition, has a rightful share to what they’ve discovered. Because the Tarman expedition is claiming ownership of not just knowledge of the route but the discovery itself. The Trehaug and Cassarick Councils are disputing it, saying that as they hired the ship and hunters, whatever was discovered is theirs. The Tarman expedition captain and the keepers who went off with the dragons are disputing that, of course . . . Look at you, gaping like a fish! You’ve paid no attention to any of this, have you? All you cared about was that your wife was gone and you and your bachelor friends could sprawl and drink and carouse as you pleased in her home!”

  That nettled Hest. Bad enough that his father had considered that angle thoroughly and it had not even occurred to him, without the further insult of his father’s mockery of his surprise. “Her home? It happens to be my home, and surely I am free to do as I wish there and entertain whom and how I please. ”

  “Certainly you’ve done plenty of that over the years,” his father complained. “I know the sort of entertaining you indulge in. And I suspect that it may be why your wife prefers the company of your secretary over yours. ”

  Hest commanded his face to stillness. A sip of wine to gain time to recover his aplomb. Do not allow the conversation to go in that direction. Do not confirm, do not deny, do not confront.

  “I’m not sure, truthfully, that Sedric was the object of her attention or even that he has anything to do with her absence. True, his failure to return home with or without her is decidedly odd and very unlike Sedric. But she did not ‘run off with him’ as some imply, for I was the one who chose that he would accompany her. He was not at all pleased with the idea of a Rain Wild journey. ” Another sip of wine, and then he rose and strolled casually to the window. “We’ve had too much rain this year. I fear the roses will suffer from the sodden ground and the quick cycle of thaws and freezes. ”

  He waited until he heard his father draw breath to speak and then quickly interrupted him. “You know that I’ve been back in Bingtown less than twelve days from my last trading trip. The first three days were spent disposing of the trade items I’d bought and then in catching up on my sleep and recovering from my travels. I’ve not had much time to do more than that. And I told you of the dreadful accident to my hand; it’s been very painful and I haven’t been able to tend to business as I usually do. So perhaps you should give me the full benefit of what you’ve heard about the so-called Tarman expedition. The messenger birds you sent were helpful, but one can scarcely get full information from a tiny roll of paper. ”

  His ruse worked, as it almost always did. Cede his father a bit of authority, stroke his vanity with the thought that he was the expert in a situation, and he immediately calmed. Hest returned to his chair and sat in it, leaning forward expectantly, hoping he would be able to sort the facts he needed from his father’s tendency to overexplain. His expectation that his father would first begin by criticizing him was well founded.

  “Well, why you let Alise go off to the Rain Wilds alone, I will never understand, but that I suppose is where we must begin. ”

  Page 130

 

  Hest dared to interrupt. “I could not prevent her, Father. It was in the terms of our marriage contract—that if and when she wished to do so, I’d permit her to travel to the Rain Wilds to continue her study of the Elderlings and dragons. At the time I thought it was just an eccentricity of hers, a leftover dream from her lonely life as an unwed woman. I thought she’d forget such ambitions once she was married with a household of her own to manage. And for years, she did. But when she insisted last spring that she would go, I could not refuse her. Nor could I cancel my trading trip to the Spice Islands. So I did what I thought best and put her in the care of Sedric Meldar. He’s been my right-hand man for years now and had been a childhood friend of Alise. They’ve always gotten along well. I trusted Sedric to be the sensible one of the pair. I thought she’d make the journey, discover how uncomfortable and provincial Trehaug is, and immediately come back to Bingtown. Truthfully, Father, I expected them to be home long before I returned to Bingtown. ”

  “If you are finished,” his father said severely when Hest paused for breath, “I’ll continue what I was trying to tell you. ”

  Hest hated his father’s paternalism, his assumption that he was far shrewder and much wiser than his son would ever be. But in this instance, he had information that Hest had not yet acquired. Keep silent. Nod.

  “Alise and Sedric were in Cassarick when the Tarman expedition was forming up. Now, as I read the contracts, for I’ve been able to get copies of them, the Rain Wild Traders’ Councils at both Cassarick and Trehaug hired a dozen or so heavily changed youngsters to accompany the dragons as keepers and tenders. They also hired two hunters and chartered the barge Tarman, the oldest liveship that exists by the way, to accompany the expedition and provide support for them. The Councils paid for the supplies that were loaded onto the ship. Keepers, hunters, and the shipowner were given half their pay as an advance, with the rest to be collectible when they returned to Cassarick after settling the dragons elsewhere. ” His father laughed, a brief, dismissive sound. “I’ll wager they never expected to have to pay out much of that second half!”

  “How did Alise get involved? That’s what I don’t understand. ” Hest spoke earnestly, hoping to nudge his father beyond the obvious.

  “I’ll get to that. What is important for us to see here is that the contract does not mention Kelsingra by name, nor is there any specific language about searching for an Elderling city. It says only that the keepers are to find a place that is safe for the dragons to settle. And that if the dragons die before they do so, the Council will regard the contract as fulfilled. Not voided, mind you. Fulfilled. ”

  “And that is significant because?”

  Trader Finbok’s eyes, always heavy lidded, narrowed even more as he looked at his son with disgust. “I should think it would be obvious. If the contract stated only that the purpose of the expedition was to resettle the dragons, then the keepers and the hunters and the ship’s crew have fulfilled their contract. Once the Councils pay them, their mutual obligations are finished. Neither Council has any claim on anything else that may have been found, such as arable land, or a deserted city, or information that the expedition gathered, such as charts of the waterways.

  “Now”—and his father held up a restraining hand when Hest tried to speak
“the Councils are attempting to introduce the idea that since the existence of Kelsingra was verbally discussed at the negotiation session, and that the lone dissenting vote, that of Malta Khuprus, was swayed by the arguments of one Alise Kincarron Finbok, then it was implied to all parties that the rediscovery of Kelsingra was part of the expedition’s mission and therefore the Councils have a claim to the captain’s charts, the city, and all it holds. ”

  “That does seem reasonable to me,” Hest interjected.

  His father glared at him. “No, stupid. We wish the judgment to fall in the other direction. We must say that Alise was hired solely as an expert on dragons, to help in caring for them on the journey. We want it to be decided that the contract was only for the resettlement of the dragons. Because if it is decided that way, then Alise has as much a right to a share of the city and whatever it holds as any other keeper, hunter, or sailor on the ship. Now I don’t know the exact number of people in the expedition, or if those youngsters will be counted as having a valid claim. But I estimate that fewer than thirty people set out on that day. Therefore, Alise might own as much as one-thirtieth of Kelsingra and all it contains. AND . . . ”—again the forbidding hand was raised as Hest sought to inject a question—“AND, as Sedric was obviously in your employ at the time, paid by you and doing your bidding, it is only right that whatever interest he has in the city is actually your interest, as you were his employer at the time. Still are his employer and therefore have the right to the fruits of all his labors while you pay his salary. Which means that the Finbok Traders may very well control two-thirtieths or one-fifteenth of the wealth of an Elderling city. A substantial fortune if Kelsingra is anything like Trehaug or even Cassarick. ”

  Page 131

 

  Hest’s mind was racing. Despite his acuity as a Trader, he’d never considered the matter in that light. He’d been too infuriated over the humiliation that Alise and Sedric had heaped on him. One-fifteenth of a newly discovered Elderling city, under his control to exploit? The thought took his breath away, even as another idea soured his belly and made his heart hammer. He obviously had a piece of information his father did not. When he’d heard that Alise had apparently abandoned him and run off with Sedric, he suspected the first part was true and that the second part was gossip. Nonetheless, he had entrusted her to Sedric’s management. That his paramour “secretary” had not shepherded his wife back home to him was both Sedric’s failure and his insult to Hest.

  Hest had sent a messenger bird of his own, one that announced he would not be responsible for any debts they incurred on their expedition and that he would not allow his credit to be used to advance them any funds. Did that mean he had severed Sedric as an employee? Could Sedric then claim a share of the city in his own right?

  A few moments ago, he had not even considered that he might have a claim to Kelsingra. Now to think that it might be only half as large as it could have been, due to a moment of temper on his part, made him blanch. His father would be furious with him. But only if he found out about it. If he got to Sedric first, he was sure he could bring him back to heel and restore him to his previously doting status. He had been infatuated with Hest since he was a youngster. An assurance that Hest would not turn him out was probably all that was needed to have him dangling after him again.

  As for Alise . . . well, a marriage contract was, first and foremost, a contract. What she “felt” about the situation mattered not at all. She was bound by her word and signature as a Bingtown Trader’s daughter. He would hold her to it. That was all. She could come willingly, and he’d put her back in his home, with her scrolls and books and papers. Or she could fight him and come back to find herself little better than a servant. He’d done her a great social favor by marrying her. Her family would have to be fools not to urge her to return to her proper place. And that would be the lever he could use against her: if she fought him at all, he could threaten her family’s dignity and fortune. Then she would do as she was bid.

  “Are you listening?” his father demanded abruptly.

  “Of course I am!” Hest lied indignantly.

  “Well, then, which ship and which departure date do you prefer? News of this new city has increased interest in the Rain Wilds to a fever pitch. Everyone with a cousin in Trehaug or Cassarick will be trying to book passage, to see if there is a way to make some money from this. If you want a berth on one of the ships going up the river, you’d best buy your passage today. ”

  “Have your man do it for me, would you? With Sedric off gallivanting, I’m afraid I’ve had to do all my own secretarial work—”

  “Go to the docks. Book yourself a passage. ” His father spoke in an adamant voice tinged with all the disgust of a man who did things for himself and found it inconceivable that his son would delegate those tasks to underlings.

  Hest kept his expression bland. Once, years ago, he’d tried to explain to his father that he was a man of some importance in Bingtown, a Trader with a substantial fortune and ships of his own and that men like that did not go tramping off to arrange their own travel or choose their own ham from some merchant’s smoking rack. The argument that followed had been long and tedious as his father had asserted that that was how he had risen to importance and he would not consign the details of his life to someone else. Hest was braced for just such a lecture again when his mother made her entrance into his father’s study.

  His mother never just walked into a room. Sealia Finbok entered like a ship in full sail. Her luxuriant black hair was pinned up and topped with a flower arrangement that Hest privately thought more suitable to a table than a woman’s head. She had always been buxom, and age had only increased her abundance. She wore, as she almost always did, a garment modeled on an old-fashioned robe in their Trader’s color, a rich purple. He suspected that she thought it reminded everyone she might encounter of their status. Also it was less confining than a more modern gown would have been. The simplicity of her attire was negated by the costly fabric she had chosen for it. She advanced, arms already gaping wide to engulf him.

  “My poor dear boy! How can he expect you to manage anything when your heart must be aching so! Who would have thought it of Alise? She seemed such a mouse of a woman, so content to simply stay in her own home. I am convinced that when the full tale is told, there will be much more to the story. No woman in her right mind would ever forsake you! What other man could compare to you! And Sedric has been your friend for so long; however could he betray you so? My dear, dear boy! No. Something has befallen them in that foul place, some sort of dark Rain Wild magic. ”

  Page 132

 

  She moved and gestured as she spoke, almost dancing as if she were still the graceful dark-haired woman who smiled sweetly from her wedding portrait on the wall behind his father’s desk. His father was smiling at her, as he always did when she swept into his study, but a slight narrowing of his eyes indicated that, also as always, he did not approve of her melodramatic sympathy for Hest.

  Hest did. It had always played to his favor. Three sons had died before him, carried away by the Blood Plague, leaving him to step into the role of eldest son and heir. There had always been speculation that the Blood Plague came from the Rain Wilds, either as a curse or as an infection caused by the handling of Elderling artifacts. His mother believed that and had never forgiven the Rain Wilds for the deaths of her three little sons. Sealia was perfectly ready to blame it now for the collapse of her son’s marriage and the defection of his “best friend. ” And he was perfectly willing to let her. He fixed her with a soulful gaze and saw her brim with sympathy. “Would it were so, Mother. ” He spoke softly. “But I fear that someone else has claimed her heart. ”

  “Then claim it back!” she exhorted him, her voice rising in the challenge. “Go to her. Show yourself side by side with him. Remind her of all you have done for her: the beautiful home, her own little study, the priceless scrolls, and the evenings you have
had to spend alone while she fussed and stared at them. She owes you her loyalty. Remind her of the oaths of your marriage contract. ” His mother’s voice deepened and slowed as she added, “And remind her of the costs, both social and financial, of breaking those oaths. ”

  His father steamed out a breath through his nostrils. “My dear, do you not fear that Alise may in her turn remind Hest of all the weeks she has spent alone while he was off on his trading voyages? All the evenings when he has chosen to entertain his friends at places other than his home. And the lack of a babe to cherish . . . ”

  “How dare you place that blame on our son?” His mother sprang to his defense before Hest could say a word. “It may well be that she is the barren one! And if she is, well, then perhaps he is the one who is doubly wronged! And if she has been faithless in the hopes of proving that the fault is in him, then let her bring the little bastard up on her own! The Finbok family is not so destitute of honor that we must put up with that sort of thing. Her running off has given Hest ample reason to set her aside if he chooses; surely such a long absence violates her marriage contract. And it isn’t as if Bingtown is lacking in lovely, eligible, well-brought-up young ladies who would be delighted to have him as a spouse. Why, when we announced he would wed, all I heard from every quarter were cries of dismay! Every one of my dearest friends had a young woman in mind who they had hoped to present to Hest! If I’d only known that he had decided he was ready to settle down, I could have presented him with a dozen, no, a score of eligible women! And of better houses and fortunes, I might add!”

  She crossed her arms on her chest as if she had just proven something. And perhaps she had. Hest had not stopped to consider that a runaway wife might offer his mother a chance not only to saddle him with another inconvenient spouse but one who might not be as easily dominated as the missing Alise. Having rid himself of one wife, he had no desire to acquire another. In truth, he had no desire at all to regain Alise . . . unless, of course, she came with a fifteenth of an unlooted Elderling city attached.

  His father looked both weary and stubborn; his mother, determined. It was a familiar stance for both of them. When, as a youngster, Hest had broken or lost a toy, his father had always expected him to deal with it, while his mother’s strategy had always been to replace it quickly with something more expensive or interesting. He thought of that applied to a wife and felt a wave of dread. Time to stop her, time to divert her. If his father challenged her will on this, she’d never give in!

 
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