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City of dragons, p.37
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       City of Dragons, p.37

         Part #3 of Rain Wild Chronicles series by Robin Hobb
 

  They visited a new cheese market she had heard of, and this time both of them made purchases to be sent to their homes. His mother then insisted that they go shopping for “gifts for that fickle woman you married” and demonstrated her disdain of Alise in her choice of gaudy scarves; cheap, sparkly jewelry; and hats more suited for a dowager than a woman of Alise’s years. Again, Hest gave way to her in all things. He had no intention of taking the trove of trinkets with him. Alise did not deserve any gifts. He would go to the Rain Wilds, assert his rights to her, and be damned to anyone or anything that stood in his way. He had an absolutely legal claim to her. She was his wife, and he intended to assert the marriage contract that they had both signed. He’d put an end to her foolish declaration of freedom and regain his right to share in whatever claim she’d made to the city. That was all there was to it.

  “Don’t grind your teeth, dear. It’s a most unsettling noise,” his mother observed.

  “I suppose I’m just a bit weary. Shall we go home, then?”

  She had her carriage drop him at his own door. He went in to discover that some of his purchases had already been delivered. He sent the tea and the cheese off to the kitchen, with a message that he wished a pot of hot tea prepared for him immediately. He went to his study, composed a list of the various changes for each tailor, and called one of his servants to deliver those. Annoying to do all these small organizational tasks himself, but Redding was hopeless at them and Ched would have stood at attention, asking questions about each detail. Not like Sedric, who had often known his mind before Hest knew it himself. Stupid Ched.

  A tap at the door was Ched with the tray of tea and some sweet biscuits. “And I should like to remind you, sir, that the healer will be dropping by later today to see how your hand is. ”

  “Fine. Leave me. ”

  The brief winter day was ending, and the rain that had threatened all afternoon began to fall. He poured himself a cup of the new tea and took it to the window to look out on the garden. Draggled, brown, and depressing: he pulled a cord and the curtains fell. He sought his favorite chair by the fire and sipped the tea. The flavor was good but not as excellent as it had been in the market. There was an undertone to it, a sweetness that was not altogether pleasant. He sipped more and then shook his head. The idiot cook had spoiled it, added honey or something. He lifted the lid on the pot and smelled it; yes, there was something else there. Suddenly, he had a foul taste in the back of his throat.

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  He was scowling when there was yet another rap on the door.

  “Enter!” he cried, and when he saw it was Ched, he ordered immediately, “And take this back to the kitchen and let the cook know that the cost of the tea he has spoiled will be taken out of his wages. Have him brew it again, in a clean pot, and add nothing but the tea I purchased. ”

  “Of course, sir. ” Ched bowed and set a small parcel on the edge of the desk as he took up the tray. “This just arrived for you, and the courier said he was told it was most urgent that you open it immediately. Something about it spoiling. Oh. And here’s a package from the tea vendor as well. ”

  Ched was already moving toward the door. Hest scowled. The new package was probably the rest of the cheese he had ordered. He should make him take it directly to the kitchen. And more tea? Had they doubled his order by mistake? His stomach gave an unhappy rumble as the door closed behind Ched.

  Hest picked up the small unmarked package that Ched had said was so urgent. Far too tiny to be cheese; crumpled paper was wrapped carelessly about something small and tied with string. As he fought with the knots on the string, he glanced at the additional tea. It was wrapped nicely in a lovely blue paper, and the wax seal bore the merchant’s stamp. Not at all like the earlier package of tea . . .

  An ear tumbled out of its wrappings. Hest gave a cry of mingled horror and disgust and stepped back from his desk. Then a terrible fascination pulled him in for a closer look. It was bare of earrings, but the multiple piercings remained. Only one man this ear could have belonged to. Reflexively, he dropped the crumpled paper in his hand. Spidery writing marred the inside of it, he saw. He forced himself to flatten it and read the missive there.

  You’d best find your slave and my merchandise. Don’t think your ears or your life are any safer than your hireling’s were. Did you enjoy your tea? At any time, I can kill you. Take this as a foreshadowing of what will become of you if you continue to defy me.

  A terrible cramping tore at his belly, and he fell to his knees, retching. The room spun. “Poisoned,” he gasped. “Poisoned. ”

  But there was no one to hear.

  Day the 7th of the Fish Moon

  Year the 7th of the Independent Alliance of Traders

  From Erek, Trehaug

  To Reyall, Acting Keeper of the Birds, Bingtown

  A private note to you, nephew. How strange to call you that!

  The Master of the Birds here seems to have finally recognized that perhaps I know a thing or two about the care and feeding of pigeons. Yesterday, he offered to allow my keeper rating to be transferred here to Trehaug. I am quietly thinking of accepting his offer. Although Detozi puts on a brave face about it, I know she has been dreading the move to Bingtown. And I will admit I find this birdhouse city far more charming and interesting than I expected to!

  But if I accept this position here, then we must recognize that it will leave my spot in Bingtown empty. And I have the right to nominate a journeyman who should step up to care for my birds.

  That would be you, of course.

  Send me a private message to let me know what you think of this. If you accept the post, you would be expected to stay there in Bingtown indefinitely.

  Remember, none of this is settled yet, so not a word to anyone. And think well before you let your answer fly to me.

  Your uncle, Erek

  Chapter Fifteen

  STRANGE BEDFELLOWS

  “I’m here and ready to listen. ” Leftrin folded his hands on top of the galley’s scarred tabletop. He tried to remember if Bellin had ever before asked to speak to him privately. He didn’t think so. He tried to be calm but feared what she might tell him. Was she ill? Was Swarge ailing and trying to keep it to himself? Both were sturdy folk. The thought that one of them might be threatened alarmed him, not just for his friends but for his ship. The crew of a liveship tended to stay aboard for a lifetime. Losing any one of his crew would unsettle Tarman badly. Leftrin tried not to jump to the worst conclusion, but when Bellin quietly latched both the doors to the galley and brought mugs of coffee to the table, dread roiled in his belly.

  “I’ve got two things to tell you,” she said without preamble. “Neither is any of my business, and maybe one of them isn’t your business, either. But what happens on Tarman’s deck affects all of us, and as a member of the crew, I feel I’ve a right to speak out. Maybe a duty to speak out. ”

  Fear lurched through his bones. “Is someone sick?” he demanded.

  “Ha!” The laugh burst out of her. For an instant, she grinned, and she kept her smile as she said, “Some call it that, and as I’ve felt it myself, I won’t disagree. Seen you catch that sickness, too, not so long ago. ”

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  “Bellin,” he warned her, and she dropped her smile.

  “Captain, Hennesey is in love. With Tillamon Khuprus, a woman far, far above him. Thought you needed to know that, as captain. I don’t know what Reyn Khuprus might think of his sister dallying with a common riverman. We’re a tight crew here, and even in the hard times, we’ve all pulled together. So when trouble tries to come on board, well, I think we all need to shove him off before he sets foot on the deck. ”

  Leftrin stared at her and then transferred his gaze to the black surface of his coffee. He tried to think. This was the last piece of news he’d ever expected to receive. Hennesey in love? That was bad enough. Hennesey sniffing afte
r a woman, a passenger on his ship, was even worse. Especially a well-born woman of a house that had just financed their resupply.

  He took a breath and spoke heavily. “I’ll take care of it. ” It was his task and he knew it. He just wished he knew how to approach it, what tack to take. First, he’d sound Hennesey out, he supposed. If it was just his pecker leading the way, that would be one thing, something that Leftrin wouldn’t hesitate to crush. But if Hennesey was losing his heart . . . He thought of how Alise had made him feel, and he recalled too how sternly Sedric had spoken to him, forbidding him from loving her. It hadn’t stopped him.

  “There’s something else to consider, Captain. She likes him back. Really likes him. I saw her sitting with Skelly on the deck late last evening. They both looked of an age in that light, and when I came up to join them, they sounded of an age. Talking about boys. ” Bellin shook her head and smiled fondly. Then, with a sigh, she added, “And that brings me to my second thing we got to talk about. Skelly. ”

  Leftrin made as if to speak, but Bellin held up a hand. “Captain, you promised to hear me out. I know she’s your family. She’s my family, too. It doesn’t look like Swarge and I will ever get a baby of our own. That girl, she’s in both our hearts. And we’ve been talking about her of a night, more than once, and we don’t see this going anywhere good for her. We know what she hopes. She wants that Trehaug family to break her engagement now that maybe she won’t be your heir. But if that happens, and she flies off to that Alum boy, well, that’s not going to end good. To put it plainly, he’s an Elderling now, and she isn’t. He isn’t going to come aboard and learn this ship and work it. He has to stay with his dragon. And she might think she could walk off Tarman’s decks and be happy ashore, but she won’t. For a month or two, she might. But in the long run—”

  “I know,” Leftrin said, cutting in abruptly. He lifted weary eyes. “Do you think I haven’t thought of all that, Bellin? I have. I was hoping she’d have a chance to see her fiancé when we were in Cassarick, that perhaps that spark might kindle. She’s young. It may be that what she feels for Alum is just an infatuation. We’ll see. But that, too, I’ll take care of. ”

  She tipped her head and appeared to be on the cusp of saying something more. Then she gave him a curt nod. “I know you will, Cap. You take good care of all of us, and Tarman, too. I don’t envy you right now. But I know you’ll do whatever has to be done. Or said. ”

  Bellin got up heavily, drank the last of her coffee, and hung her mug on the rack. She unlatched the door to the crew quarters, and then the one to the deck, and left him there. The wind banged the door shut behind her.

  Leftrin sat for a time longer, his mug cradled in his hands. He heard a woman’s voice out on the deck. Tillamon. He leaned to look out the small window and saw her smiling. She was unveiled and her hair was free to the wind. Today there was a break in the rain, and sun actually shone on the decks. “But how do you know where it’s deep enough for him and where it’s too deep?” she was demanding of someone.

  “Well, you just look at the river’s face, and you know. ” Hennesey. With a lilt in his voice that Leftrin had never heard before. “When you’ve been doing this as long as I have, you can tell just by looking. ”

  Leftrin stepped to where he could see Hennesey’s face. Yes. There were some times when you could tell the depth of something just by looking. “Oh, Hennesey,” he said under his breath. “Best I tell you to talk to Reyn. Better you ask permission to court now than later. ”

  He wondered what the Elderling would say to his first mate.

  A knock sounded at the cabin door. Hest sighed and rolled over on the narrow bed. “What is it?” he snapped.

  “It’s just me!” Redding replied cheerily. The door opened and he entered, walking carefully, a tea tray in his hands. He caught the door with his heel and tried to flip it shut, stumbled, and barely managed to land the tray on the small table as he caught his balance. Remaining slightly hunched, he braced his hands on the table. “We’re nearing Trehaug, and I still haven’t got my sea legs,” he announced with a wan smile.

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  “We’re on a river, man. The ship scarcely rocks at all. It’s not as if we’re contending with waves. ” Hest rolled onto his back to stare at the low ceiling. These new ships might be impervious to the river’s acid, but the shipwright had given far too little thought to passenger comfort, despite being Jamaillian. The captain had explained to him that they were intended for the swift transport of freight, but even so! It vexed him to know that the captain and the first and second mates on the New Glory had more luxurious accommodations than he did. Doubtless they cared not at all how he suffered. There wasn’t even a common area for sharing meals or a friendly game of chance. He and Redding had been forced to take their meals in their tiny room. For entertainment, one could stroll a bit on the deck, and that was it. Much of the ship was off-limits to passengers. They’d have to change that if they wished to build a brisk passenger trade in the future!

  “No. I mean, yes, you’re right. I’m just not accustomed to the floor moving at all. ” Redding waited for a response, and when Hest gave none, he smiled too brightly and said, “Well, I suppose this will be our final meal on this part of our adventure. We should dock before nightfall. I’m quite looking forward to seeing Trehaug. I hope the weather clears a bit, and we finally get a chance to socialize. This is my first visit to the Rain Wilds, you know. ”

  “Don’t anticipate great things and you won’t be disappointed,” Hest observed sourly. He swung his long legs off the bed and stood up carefully. “Don’t expect the weather to clear. It’s rained for days, and I expect it will continue to rain. As for touring Trehaug—hah! Rain Wild cities are scarcely worthy of the name. There are a few buildings of substance on the big low branches and then residences that are strung about in the trees like random fruit, but there is little of the conveniences of civilization. They look down on the folk of the Six Duchies and the other northern countries, but in truth, the Rain Wilders are just as backward and provincial. The only reason to come here is to buy Elderling artifacts and magical goods. It’s the only thing that keeps these cities alive. ”

  Hest wandered over to the small table and perched on a chair. As soon as he was seated, Redding plopped into his own chair and took up his napkin. Plainly he was famished, as he was at every meal. He licked his lips and gave an anticipatory wriggle as he eyed the covered dishes. The man wallowed in his pleasures with no pretense of disciplining his appetites. His blatant greed and venality had initially intrigued Hest after years of Sedric’s careful manners and public restraint, but of late, Redding’s obsequiousness and unsubtle pleas for gifts and bribes had begun to chafe. The man had absolutely no shame. As a result, he was actually more difficult to manipulate than Sedric had been. Implied threats of pain seemed to motivate him best. But even that amusement was beginning to pall. The man had proven a poor replacement for Sedric. Bringing him along had been merely a matter of realizing that there was no one else available at such short notice and knowing how much it would irritate his father when he saw Redding’s passage billed to his account.

  Hest poured himself some tea and lifted the lid on a dish. He shook his head. Why did they even bother to cover the food? It wasn’t hot, and it was exactly the same thing they had offered him every day of his journey. A loaf of brown bread sweetened with molasses had been sliced and buttered. The other dish on the tray held slices of smoked ham, a wedge of indifferent cheese, and half a dozen little sausages. He didn’t uncover the third dish. It would be boiled potatoes. He was so bored with the food he could scarcely bring himself to put it on his plate, but Redding seemed to have no such problem. He served himself quickly, as if fearful that Hest would eat more than his share, and then immediately filled his mouth. Hest sipped his tea. Warm, but not hot. And useless to complain about it.

  Well, they would dock in a few hours and he would find a dec
ent lodging in Trehaug. One more day to be finished with all this horrid mess that Sedric had left him. In Trehaug, he’d have a good meal and a proper sleep, and then finally he’d take on his unwelcome errand from the nameless Chalcedean assassin. His gut tightened whenever he thought of the man. The pain, the ignominy, the humiliation . . .

  The poison had dropped Hest. Ched had not come, despite his feeble cries for help. But someone else had. The Chalcedean had entered the room as if he owned it and stood over Hest with a smile. “I’ve come to watch you die,” he’d said and pulled one of Hest’s armchairs around to where he might sit in it and watch Hest squirm on the floor. After that, he had said not a word. He’d watched Hest vomit until it seemed there was not a drop of bile or even moisture left in his body. He’d witnessed Hest begging for help until he could no longer form words.

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  Only then had he stood and produced, from his waistcoat pocket, a tiny glass flask with a bluish liquid in the bottom. “It’s not too late,” the Chalcedean had told him. He swirled the pale liquid in the tiny flask. “Not quite. But nearly. I could bring you back from the brink. If I thought you’d stop being stupid. Which I don’t. Think hard, Bingtown Trader. What could you do, right now, that might make me think I should save you?”

  Hest was curled around his belly. Fiery knives were trapped inside it and trying to slash their way out. He had soiled himself and ruined the rug; he stank and he was dying and it hurt. He could think of nothing he could do, though he would have been willing to do anything to stop the pain he was enduring.

 
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