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City of dragons, p.36
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       City of Dragons, p.36

         Part #3 of Rain Wild Chronicles series by Robin Hobb
 

  “I chose Alise,” he said heavily as his mother opened her lips to speak. “I chose her, Mother, and I married her. I signed a contract. And perhaps my father is right. I might be wisest to first make peace with the wife I chose before shopping around for a new one. I have spent many nights away from her, in my ambition to improve our fortune. I meant it to be for her benefit, but perhaps she did not understand that and felt neglected. And while our efforts to have a child have not proven fruitful yet, well, I am not so hard-hearted a man as to blame that on her. Perhaps, as you have said, she is barren. But is she to be blamed for that? Poor thing. Perhaps she feels shame on that account, and that is what has led her to flee our home. First, I shall take Father’s advice and see if I cannot win her back. Later, if that does not avail me, when my heart has healed, we can think of other courses. ”

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  His mother melted. “Hest, Hest, you were ever the tenderhearted one. ” A smile of gentle resignation claimed her face.

  His father leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms on his chest. Dour amusement dominated his features. With the wisdom of years of managing his wife, he held his silence.

  Sealia Finbok clasped her ringed fingers together and tilted her head at him. “Well, even if I do not think she is worthy of this effort, I cannot deny the nobility of your intention. And I will defer my own judgment and put all my efforts to furthering yours. Now you wait here. I just need to change into something more appropriate for the day and have Bates tell the stableman to harness up and be ready. We are going to the market, my dear. And not just to find gifts suitable to wooing back your wayward bride. Oh, no. We are going to deck you in such fine feathers as she has never seen. Let her see you with fresh eyes; let her see that you have made an effort to gain her attention again. She will be unable to resist you! No, no, don’t roll your eyes and look at your father. In this you must trust me, darling. I am a woman, and I know what will sway her woman’s heart! And if it costs a pretty penny, then so be it. Your dear, loyal heart deserves no less than that. ”

  She brought her clasped hands up under her plump little chin, shook her head in merry denial of his supposed protests, and then swept from the study, already calling for her serving man Bates.

  Trader Finbok heaved himself from his chair, crossed the room, and shut the door firmly behind her. “And a partial share of an unexplored Elderling city may well be worth the nuisance of putting up with a wayward woman. That I understand. But the matter of an heir, Hest, is one that we cannot ignore much longer. It pains me to bring it up yet again, but . . . ”

  “But until I have brought Alise back to Bingtown and into my bed again, there is absolutely no sense in our discussing it. I know of no man who could impregnate his wife at such a distance, regardless of his eagerness to do so. Not even your son is that well hung. ”

  Hest had gauged it exactly. Despite his father’s exasperation, the crude jest brought a smile to his face. Trader Finbok shook his head and let the matter drop. “You need to hear the rest of what I’ve learned about the Tarman. The ship is a liveship, and as I’ve told you, one of the first ones built, if not the first one. Never quickened is what everyone believed, as it was built as a barge, with no figurehead. But when the Tarman decided to depart Cassarick without giving the Councils an opportunity to challenge Leftrin’s interpretation of the contract, there was an attempt to restrain the ship by force. The crew of the Tarman fought back, throwing a number of people into the river with no regard for their safety. Then, as the ship moved off, and smaller boats followed in hopes of tracking them back to their find, there was a strange disturbance on the river. Rumor says it was as if the barge itself had legs, or a tail, and struck out at the craft following it, causing many of them to capsize. Others followed at a distance of course. But when night fell and all was dark, the Tarman quenched all lanterns and continued up the river, as if the ship itself were choosing the course. Most of those who followed quickly lost sight of the barge, and by morning it was well away of them. Some gave pursuit, including one of those new vessels, but so far there is no word of any of them sighting the Tarman again. So it seems likely to me that here we have Elderling magic at work. It’s more evidence they’ve found something. ”

  “And whatever it is, one-fifteenth of it belongs to me. ”

  “To your family, Hest. Through your wife. She is key to all this. So go book your passage. Make it part of your shopping trip with your mother. And do your best not to beggar the family this afternoon. Until you bring Alise back, the prospect of owning a share of Kelsingra is only a dream. ”

  “I’ll give priority to booking passage to Trehaug for Redding and me. ”

  He was halfway to the door when his father spoke quietly but severely. “Book passage for yourself, son. Not for Redding. When a man goes after his runaway wife, he goes alone. He doesn’t take a secretary. Or assistant. Or however you are referring to Redding these days. ”

  Hest didn’t pause. There were times when he suspected that his father knew much more than he let on. This was such a moment, but if his father only suspected, he would not give himself away. “As you suggest,” he replied in an offhand tone.

  He left his father’s study and shut the door firmly behind him. Then he paused to straighten the lace of his cuffs, thinking of a certain wine-red fabric that he had seen at the tailor’s only a day ago, and wondered if he could persuade his mother that a jacket of that fine stuff might win him Alise’s heart. Then the lace of the cuff snagged on his bandage, and a too-familiar welling of anger and fear engulfed him. For an instant, he literally choked on the sensation.

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  Glancing around, he realized he was looking for Sedric, and he hissed out a breath in disgust with himself. That vicious Chalcedean had brought his former companion back to mind just when Hest had succeeded in banishing him from his thoughts. It would have been a comfort, a great comfort, to have Sedric at his side, he thought, and then amended that to, Sedric as he once was. Not the Sedric who had argued and defied him, to the point of provoking his temper and making Hest send him off on that stupid voyage. The tractable and doting Sedric, the Sedric who was always at his disposal, competent, calm, clever even. Something very like a twinge of regret passed through Hest, and he very nearly blamed himself for how Sedric had changed. He had pushed him too far.

  Then he shook his head, and a smile of remembered pleasure twisted his mouth. Sedric had enjoyed being pushed; Hest had, perhaps, erred in how far he had pushed the man, but Sedric had been a party to it. Not Hest’s fault. Everything had an end, and they had simply found theirs. Hest could have accepted it with equanimity if only the man had not run off with his wife, caused a scandal, and perhaps endangered his claim to one-fifteenth of an undiscovered, unlooted Elderling city.

  “Shall we go?” his mother proposed.

  He turned to look at her. He had not expected her to be ready so promptly. How swiftly she had changed into more stylish dress suggested that she was extremely bored and pleased for the excuse for an outing. And a bored mother was often a generous mother. Clearly there would be a luncheon involved in this outing, perhaps at one of the better places in Bingtown. He would encourage her to treat herself well and flatter her in her purchases. He knew that he could expect full reciprocation from her in that regard. He smiled. “Yes. Let’s. ”

  Bates had operated with his usual efficiency. The smaller family carriage with his mother’s favorite team of white horses was at the front door. Hest handed her up into the upholstered interior and then followed her in. They did not have far to go, and the weather was not so terrible, but his mother enjoyed being seen descending from her carriage into the busy market. The coachman would wait for them, letting all know that Trader Finbok’s wife was at the market.

  As soon as the carriage was in motion, Hest cleared his throat. “Father suggested that we first book my passage to the Rain Wilds, before
we do anything else. ”

  She frowned. He had known that such a stop would not please her. It would take them down to the ships docks, and she would have a long boring wait as he exchanged pleasantries, found out which liveships were going up the Rain Wild River, and when, and then decided which to take passage on. Not all carried passengers. Most of their valuable cargo space was devoted to the goods they carried. Upriver went all the necessities of life that the Rain Wilders could not create or harvest for themselves. And that was almost everything. Downriver came the rare and the unusual, the magical artifacts of the ancient Elderling cities that the Rain Wild Traders had been plundering for generations. The long-buried cities were difficult to mine, and dangerous, but the value of the goods that came out of them was what had created Bingtown’s reputation as a town where “if a man could imagine it, he could buy it in Bingtown. ” Was Trehaug almost mined out? There had been rumors that the supply of wonders would soon come to an end. The discovery of more buried ruins at Cassarick had been heralded as a renewal of the fountain of Elderling goods, but Hest knew what few cared to talk about: Cassarick had been a much smaller city and did not seem to have withstood the ravages of time and damp as Trehaug had. Which made the theoretical discovery of Kelsingra all the more tempting.

  “No. That’s foolish. ”

  He had almost forgotten what had begun the conversation in his wandering thoughts. “Foolish?” he asked.

  “How can you book passage when you don’t know when your new wardrobe will be ready? Or when you will find the perfect gifts to turn her silly head back to you? No, Hest, we will visit the Great Market first and lay all the groundwork for your renewed courtship. Later, when we know when the tailors will be finished, then you can go on your own to book your passage. That is a much more practical plan. ”

  “As you wish, Mother. I only hope Father agrees with you. ” He sounded appropriately dubious about crossing his father.

  “Oh, let me worry about that. I’ll ask him if it would have been better for you to buy a ticket and then not be able to sail on that date. He rushes into things too much, your father does. He always has. And he does not listen to me at all. If he had, he would know that there are swifter ways to travel up the Rain Wild River now. There are these new boats, Jamaillian made, and their hulls are specially treated to withstand the river’s acid. And they are not big sailing ships like our liveships, but narrow river craft, shallow draught, designed to be swift when rowed against a current yet have room for cargoes and passengers. What is it they’re calling them . . . Impervious. Because of the hulls. Your father thinks them a bad idea; he says that our Bingtown liveships must keep a monopoly on trade on the river if Bingtown is to survive. Luckily there are other Traders who are more forward looking. And you shall be among them, when you book passage up the river on one.

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  “So. That’s settled. Now. Here’s our day. We’ll do a bit of shopping and then stop for a cup of tea. There’s a new place that I’ve heard is marvelous. Teas from beyond the Pirate Isles! They grind their spices right at your table, and pour the boiling water right into little pots, just the right size to hold two cups of tea. Trader Morno told me all about it, and I simply must see it for myself. Then we can visit your tailor. ”

  “As you wish,” he complied contentedly. The prospect of being among the first to try the new transport was appealing. And he had no wish to book passage until he had conferred with his own rumormongers. His first question of them would be, why had his father heard these things before he had?

  Because Sedric hadn’t been there to bid him pay attention and prattle endlessly at breakfast about what he thought was most important for Hest to know. With a scowl, he banished that thought.

  The Great Market of Bingtown had been built, not on a square, but on an immense circular plaza. It had changed a great deal since the Chalcedeans had made a very enthusiastic effort to invade and destroy the city all on one night. Hest liked some of the improvements. The tall, old-fashioned warehouses on the waterfront had blocked the view of the sea. Many of those had burned in the attack, and the Council had seen fit to decree that the newer warehouses be built with a lower profile. Now the Great Market had a wonderful view of the harbor. Many of the shops and businesses that had been destroyed or damaged in the battle had rebuilt since then, and the last few years of recovering prosperity had meant that the Great Market now had a fresh new look.

  Hest had been born in Bingtown. As he stepped out of the carriage and looked around the market prior to helping his mother down the steps, he reflected that in his childhood and youth, he had taken the town for granted. It was only when he was a young man and old enough to travel that foreign cities had shown him the superiority of his home.

  “This way,” his mother announced decisively, and he was content to follow her through the thronged marketplace. He smiled. Bingtown was a place where the entire world came to trade, for only in Bingtown could one find the magical and wondrous artifacts of the Elderlings. Merchants who came to Bingtown to trade knew to bring their very best trading items if they wished to acquire Elderling magical items. As a result, the stocks in the stores of Bingtown were varied and rich, and the Bingtown Traders enjoyed a lifestyle that was unrivaled in the known world. That suited Hest admirably.

  He enjoyed travel and the exotic pleasures that foreign cities might offer, but he had always been glad to return to Bingtown and its comforts. It was by far the most civilized city, for here trade was of the utmost importance, and a bargain was a bargain, forevermore. He was born of one of the old Trader families and expected to inherit his family’s wealth and their vote on the Traders’ Council. The best goods of the world made their way to his door, and he had the fortune to buy what he chose, hampered only by his father’s tightfisted ways. But his father would not live forever. One day he would own it all, and the wealth would be at his disposal. He would inherit it all . . . as long as he provided an heir to satisfy his father’s concern that there be yet another Finbok after Hest.

  “Did you say something?” His mother looked over his shoulder at him. She had paused at one of the tiny market stalls that crowded the alleys between the proper shops.

  “Just a slight cough. ” He smiled at her and then, with an effort, kept the expression on his face. Just past her shoulder, his Chalcedean assailant mingled with the crowd. He was not looking their way; he appeared to be considering the purchase of some freshly fried fish, but the man’s profile was unmistakable. Also unmistakable was that the fellow was alive and apparently well. And he should have been neither. Hest had hired the best to deal with him and paid him well. Annoyance at being cheated of his money was a distant second to the rising fear in his heart.

  He took his mother’s arm firmly. “What about that tea shop?” he asked her and tugged at her as he had not since he was a child. “Please, let’s visit it first, and then ramble through the stores. ”

  “Oh, you are such a boy, still!” She turned to smile at him, obviously delighted at his demand. “We’ll go then. Come. The tea shop I want to try is this way, right near the intersection of Prime with Rain Wild Street. ”

  Hest quickened his pace. He longed to look back, to see if the man had seen him and was following. But he didn’t dare. That glance back might be just the motion that would call the assassin’s attention to him. His smile was getting stiff. “You know, I haven’t been on Rain Wild Street in a while. Let’s shop there a bit, before we have our tea. ”

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  “Well, aren’t you a weathervane today? But we can begin on Rain Wild Street, if you wish,” she agreed easily.

  He wanted only to leave the Great Market and put some distance between himself and the Chalcedean. It had come to him suddenly that the warren of small and elegant shops that lined Rain Wild Street was the ideal place for them to disappear. They entered Rain Wild Street and as he let his mother slow to a saunter to
consider the various shops and wares, he glanced back the way they had come. No sign of the man. Excellent. But he’d still have words for his so-called assassin. The man had promised him a quick quiet job. He’d want a bit of his money back for that failure. It was a good thing Hest himself had a keen eye and was quick thinking enough to get himself out of danger.

  His nemesis evaded, he let the magical merchandise of the Rain Wild Street shops distract him. This was the street that Bingtown’s fame was founded upon. Here was where one came to buy goods from the Rain Wilds: perfume gems with their eternal fragrances; wind chimes that played endless, never-repeating melodies; objects made of gleaming jidzin; and hundreds of other magical items. Here, too, one might find the one-of-a-kind discoveries, often at one-of-a-kind prices. Containers that heated or chilled whatever was put into them. A statue that awoke as a babe every day, aged through the day, and “died” at night as an old man, only to be reborn with the dawn. Summer tapestries that smelled of flowers and brought warmth to the room when hung. Items that existed nowhere else in the world and were impossible to duplicate.

  And scrolls and books, of course. He’d lost count of how many he’d had to pay for when Alise had found them here. That damned woman and her obsession with dragons and Elderlings! Look at all the trouble she had caused him. But, if she truly had made a claim on the new city, well, perhaps she would have been worth all the nuisance she had put him through.

  Hest and his mother wandered the street of shops, exchanging comments on the merchandise. His mother bought a ring that changed with the phases of the moon and a scarf that had a cool side and a warm side. Hest quailed at the prices she paid, but he did nothing to dissuade her. Eventually, they found her tea shop and enjoyed an excellent repast together. The tea was as good as she had said it would be, and Hest arranged that a supply of several varieties be delivered to his home. Refreshed, they began to shop in earnest. They visited several tailor shops, and Hest allowed his mother to make all decisions about what was purchased for him. In each case, the tailor knew from past experience to wait to hear from Hest as to changed fabrics, colors, and cuts. He was most particular about his clothes, and as he did not often spend much time in his mother’s company, she never expected to see him wearing the clothing she had selected.

 
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