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City of dragons, p.38
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       City of Dragons, p.38

         Part #3 of Rain Wild Chronicles series by Robin Hobb

  The Chalcedean nudged him with his boot. “I know you, Trader. Such a fine fellow, such a fancy fellow. I know the people you visit, and I know how you amuse yourself. I do not understand why you find it amusing, but that doesn’t really matter, does it? You like to think yourself the master, don’t you?” He’d stooped down then, seized the hair on top of Hest’s head, and twisted it to force Hest to look up at him. “It arouses you, doesn’t it?” the Chalcedean had asked him knowingly. “To think you are in charge. To make others grovel before you take your pleasure from them. But now I am showing you an important thing, aren’t I?”

  The Chalcedean had crouched down even lower to put his face close to Hest’s. He was smiling as he whispered, “You aren’t the master. You pretend. The people who you play with, they are pretending, too, my little friend. They, like me, know that you are not really the master. I am the master. You are just a dog, like them. A shit-sniffing, boot-licking dog. ”

  He had released his grip on Hest’s hair, let his head thump back onto the soiled rug, then had walked three paces away and suggested softly, “Why don’t you show me that you know what you are, Trader Hest?

  Hest hated recalling what came after that. Despite the stabbing pain in his belly, despite his shrieking pride, he had wanted to live. He had dragged himself through his own vomit to where the assassin stood, smiling slightly. He had licked the man’s boot. Not once or twice, but like a dog, lapping at it over and over until the Chalcedean had stepped away. He had pulled an embroidered cloth from Hest’s lamp stand and used it to wipe Hest’s spittle from his boot before tossing it disdainfully aside.

  “You may live,” he pronounced at last and threw the little vial to Hest. But as it fell, the stopper came free. The precious liquid spattered out as the vial struck the rug and rolled away. With feeble twitching hands, Hest had grasped at it, spilling still more, so that when he finally held it to his parched lips, only drops remained. He sucked at them, and when the Chalcedean laughed aloud, he knew he had been cheated. But he would not be cheated, he would not die! He scrabbled onto his belly and sucked at the drops that had fallen to the rug while the Chalcedean laughed even louder. He tasted dirt and the fiber of the carpet and only the barest trace of moisture. He had rolled away from it, feeling grit and filth on his lips. Tears had begun in his eyes.

  As they slid down his cheeks, the Chalcedean had spoken. “Water. Water with a touch of dye in it. That’s all my ‘antidote’ was. You aren’t dying. You never were dying. You will suffer for a few more hours. You will feel ill for a day after that, but you will go out anyway, to book your passage to Trehaug on a ship called New Glory. It’s not a liveship; it’s a new sort of ship, out of Jamaillia. That is the one you will choose. You will hear from me one more time before you depart. There will be messages for you to deliver. And when I return, you will remember that you are not only stupid but my dog, and that I am your master. ”

  He’d walked over to Hest and set his boot on his belly. The pressure was an agony, and Hest had nodded numbly. Helpless fury had seethed inside him, but he had nodded.

  And he had obeyed.

  The nasty trophies in the pretty boxes were well wrapped in Redding’s luggage. Hest didn’t want to take the chance of any smell permeating his clothes. Redding had no idea of the contents.

  The Chalcedean had kept his word. In the dark of night, he had materialized in Hest’s bedchamber and forced him to kneel while memorizing a list of contact names in Trehaug and Cassarick. When Hest had attempted to write the information down, the Chalcedean had threatened to carve the names into his thighs so he could consult them there without risk of dropping an incriminating list. Hest had chosen to memorize the names.

  When he had tried to ask questions, to discover more of his task, the Chalcedean had slapped him. Hard. “A dog does not need to know his master’s mind. He sits. He fetches. He brings to his master’s feet the bloody, dead game. And that is as much as he needs to know. He will be told what he is to do when he is to do it. ”

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  The lack of knowledge ate at Hest like a canker. Who were the men he must contact and what would they demand of him in return? Only one name was familiar. Begasti Cored. Sedric’s Chalcedean trader. He clung to that bit of knowledge with every speck of anger in his heart. The Chalcedean trader would lead him to Sedric.

  He looked forward to that. He looked forward to humiliating Sedric as he had been humbled, to threatening him as he had been threatened. Whenever he thought of it, his heart beat faster and the muscles in his belly tightened. There was, he decided, only one way to purge himself of the terror and humiliation that the Chalcedean had forced on him.

  He would pass them on to Sedric.

  Hest had no doubt that once he found Sedric, he would discover Alise as well. With or without dragon parts, he intended to herd them both back to Bingtown, reinstall Alise as his lawful and dutiful wife, and then formalize his family claim to a substantial percentage of the newly found Elderling city. It was the only part of his mission that he actually anticipated with pleasure.

  Bringing Alise home was the only mission that Redding knew about; Hest had not confided to him that once Sedric had been made tractable, he would probably displace Redding. Several times on the journey up the river, Hest had toyed with the idea of abandoning Redding to his own devices in Trehaug or Cassarick. It would give him a great deal of satisfaction to leave the greedy little man penniless in a strange city, and make for a wonderful tale for his inner circle when he returned to Bingtown. Unlike Sedric, Redding had not found much favor with Hest’s intimates. They’d be glad to see him gone. As would Hest. Except for a few small things. As Hest watched him patting his pursed lips with his napkin, he felt a minor stirring of interest. Sedric was classically handsome, but Redding was far more imaginative in some ways.

  The little man became aware of Hest’s gaze. A smile bowed his lips and he licked them thoughtfully. “Before that,” he said coyly, “I’ve something else that may interest you. Something I learned on the deck. ”

  Hest leaned forward on the table, intrigued. “On the deck? Redding, have you found a new playmate for us?”

  Redding chortled. “My dear fellow, restrain yourself. I’m speaking of gossip, not a new bed game! I went out on the deck to get a bit of air, and there were two fellows out there already, chatting and smoking. I hadn’t seen either one of them before, so I held back a bit, and yes, I eavesdropped a bit. One of them was speaking of his cousin in Chalced. He was saying that his cousin had seen two dragons in the sky. A large blue one and an even larger black one. And I thought to myself, this is most likely Tintaglia and her mate. ” He paused and wriggled his eyebrows at Hest, waiting to hear how clever he was.

  Hest had no time for such niceties. “Over Chalced?”

  “So I would assume,” Redding replied merrily. “So I thought to myself, if Tintaglia returns to Trehaug and asks what has become of the hatched dragons, well! That could lead to some very interesting times for the Rain Wilders, couldn’t it?”

  “Indeed. ”

  What would it mean? The fury of a dragon unleashed on a treetop city? Perhaps. While he was in the city? Hest’s focus changed suddenly. He had seen the aftermath of a dragon’s fury, had seen stone furrowed from the acid spray of venom, seen men’s bodies reduced to liquefied flesh inside pitted armor. At that time, Tintaglia had been incensed with the Chalcedean fleet and invaders. But if she turned on Trehaug, there was nowhere to flee, no structure sturdy enough to provide shelter.

  “Redding. How long ago was Tintaglia seen? And in which direction was she flying?”

  And might the Duke of Chalced find a way to get his dragon parts closer to home?

  “Oh, well!” Redding shook his head in mock dismay. “So much you want me to glean from an overheard sentence or two. I tried to get a bit more out of them. I bid them good day and said, ‘I couldn’t help but overhear that your cousi
n had seen a dragon. ’ And before I could ask anything more, they turned and went back into their cabin. So rude! But I think we’ve little to fear. Think how long it would take for the news to travel to reach this fellow; much slower than a dragon could fly. So I’m sure if she were coming directly here, she’d be here by now. If she’s coming at all. ”

  “All the speculation I’d heard was that she was dead. It’s been so long since either dragon was seen, and she seemed to have simply abandoned the younger dragons. ”

  “So the rumors of her death were wrong, weren’t they?” Redding speared one of the little sausages. “At least, if this fellow’s cousin was telling the truth. Dear Hest, it was only a snippet of gossip. Don’t let it trouble you when there are other, more urgent matters to consider. ” Redding smiled at him and with the tip of his tongue licked the sausage suggestively.

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  “How many more days to Kelsingra?”

  Reyn’s question was urgent. But it had been urgent the first time he had asked it, and every time since, and Leftrin was becoming weary of trying to answer it. He forced himself to keep his voice reasonable. “I can’t give you a specific answer. I’ve told you that. We’re traveling against the current now. It’s hard work, especially with all the rain we’ve had. It swells the river, puts more debris in the water, and makes it harder for us to stay to the shallows where the current is calmer. ”

  “But Tarman—” Reyn began stubbornly.

  Leftrin cut him off. “Is a liveship. With some special abilities. That doesn’t mean that traveling upriver in winter is effortless, or that we can push on day and night. When the rains are relentless and the water rises, it’s harder for us to move upriver. So I can’t tell you when we’re going to get there. ”

  “And the boats that are following us?”

  Leftrin gave a small shrug. “Nothing I can do about them, friend. The river doesn’t belong to me. All rivermen are free to go where they will. ”

  “But if they follow us to Kelsingra?”

  “Then they do. What would you have me do, Reyn? Attack them?”

  “No! But we can travel by night and they cannot. Cannot we outdistance them that way?”

  “Tarman is strong, but even he must rest sometimes. ” Leftrin spoke plainly now, more plainly than he liked. “Someone is paying those men well to track us. They were upriver and waiting. I suspect that when we were first sighted coming back down the river, someone let a bird fly. Those little boats were lying in wait for us, and even though it’s hazardous for them to travel by night, they can, especially for the kind of money they are being offered. All we can hope is that they weary before we reach Kelsingra. But even if they lose sight of us, there will remain signs that some could follow. Every time we tie up for the night, we leave traces of our presence, and on our first passage when we had the dragons with us, we left lots of evidence of where we stopped. Most of it was obscured by the flood. But not all. If they are as desperate to find us as we are to get your son to the dragons, then follow us they will. Unless you think we have time to play games with them, lead them astray or whatever. ”

  “No. ” Reyn answered quickly as Leftrin had known he would. “We have no time for delays. But after what Malta told us, I fear for what their intentions are. Someone was willing to kill her and our baby just to pass their flesh off as dragon meat. If they are that desperate, who knows what else they are capable of doing?” He looked back at the small boats. “We may not have the time or the inclination to attack them. But that may be their purpose in following us. ”

  “Well. ” Leftrin walked to the railing and looked back the way they had come. An arm’s length away from him, Swarge was on the tiller, studiously ignoring his captain’s conversation as he guided Tarman with slow sweeps. Past Swarge, Leftrin glimpsed three small boats, all keeping a distance from the Tarman and one another as they rounded the last bend of the river. The men in them were paddling diligently. Leftrin felt a bit sorry for them. Their vessels were little more than open boats, vulnerable to the elements, offering no comfort or safety for the men who manned them. They could move more swiftly than his ponderous barge, and even when Tarman had pressed on all night, the spy boats had caught up with them before noon of the next day.

  “They handle their craft like experienced rivermen. Maybe they don’t have anything to do with Chalcedeans and slaughtering dragons for meat and blood. Maybe they’re just paid by some other Traders who think they can make a quick grab for whatever we’ve found before the Council sends out its own expedition. ”

  Reyn turned to him. For an instant, he looked startled, then the look faded. “Yes. Of course. It’s more likely they are seeking treasure than hunting my wife and child. The Council will smell profit and send out its own ship as soon as it can. And it’s very possible that those who follow are employed by other Traders. The rumor that Kelsingra had been uncovered swept through the city like a fire. ”

  “Uncovered,” Leftrin said with amusement. “They’re expecting a city to dig out of the mud. They think they’ll be excavating. Wait until they see it. They won’t be able to grasp it. Nor will they be able to get to it, unless they risk their lives to do so. Even if they are able to follow us all the way there, they’ll be short or out of provisions before we get there. And if they are bold enough to cross the river to the city side, they’ll find much to fill their eyes but nothing to fill their bellies. So let them exhaust themselves following us. Either they’ll give up and turn back, or tough it out and have to turn to us for help once they arrive. ”

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  While he had being speaking, a fine rain had begun to fall. He turned to Reyn with a grin. “I don’t see the need to deal with them until I have to. Especially when the Rain Wilds just may solve them for me. ”

  Reyn followed Leftrin’s gaze, but he didn’t smile. Instead, he pointed. “What’s that? I haven’t seen that vessel before. ”

  Leftrin peered through the thickening rain. The falling drops mottled the river’s face with rings and made a shushing sound. It also acted as a curtain between him and the vessel that had just rounded the bend behind them. He peered at it in disbelief. It was a larger craft, narrow and low-roofed. The hull was black, the house bright blue with gold trim. Banks of oars rose and fell in unison. It looked to be shallow draught and to be making better speed than the smaller boats. As he watched, it passed the last boat and moved up on the second one. “Can’t be!” he exclaimed.

  “What is it?” Reyn leaned over the side to stare back.

  “It’s that damn impervious ship. ” Swarge answered his question. “She was tied up to the dock when we got to Cassarick. ”

  “We’ve heard the rumors for months now,” Reyn agreed grimly. “None of the liveship families like it. A Jamaillian has developed a new coating for boats, one that he claimed will withstand the acids of the Rain Wild River. He offered to send several of the new ships up the river, to prove that their hulls were impervious and to demonstrate the sort of speed they could make with cargo or passengers. A consortium of Bingtown Traders was said to be interested investors, but there were darker rumors that the Jamaillian didn’t care who he sold to as long as they could meet his price. I’d heard one was due to visit Trehaug, but I didn’t pay much attention. Too much else on my mind. ” He looked at Swarge for confirmation. “She was tied up at Cassarick when we were there?”

  The tillerman shrugged a big shoulder. “When we first arrived. Then she left for Trehaug, and I thought she’d go all the way back to Bingtown. Looks like someone sent a bird and hired her to follow us. ”

  Leftrin eyed the boat with dismay. She had good lines for a river barge, and her crew appeared strong and disciplined. “And there might be more of them?”

  “Almost certainly. There are some, even among the Traders, who say that liveships have strangled trade on the river. The Bingtown and Rain Wild Councils gave permission for the imper
vious boats to make the attempt. The owners are aggressive, and they will be hungry to find a way to pay back their investment. If they were in Trehaug when we left . . . ”

  “There would have been plenty of folk willing to hire them to try to follow us. ”

  “There would have been plenty of money, too,” Reyn added sourly.

  Leftrin stared aft, thinking of what all such ships would mean, not just to Kelsingra, but to trade on the river and its settlements if river traffic became heavier and more affordable. He wondered if the Traders who were backing the venture knew that they would be ending a way of life.

  As he watched, the blue ship began to close the gap between them. “They’ll keep pace with us easily. Our only hope to lose them will be to travel more by night. ” He shook his head and glanced at his tillerman. Swarge, with a determined look on his face, nodded.

  “And you think we can lose them?” Reyn sounded anxious.

  “I think we can try. Maybe put more distance between us. We can at least hope to reach Kelsingra before they do rather than at the same time,” Leftrin replied grimly.

  Reyn nodded. The downpour suddenly became a deluge, the rain hissing like quenched iron as it struck the water. It curtained their pursuers from sight. Reyn spoke quietly. “You know that eventually, they will come, Captain. In large enough numbers that they’ll get what they came for. You know that. ”

  “I know they’ll come,” Leftrin agreed. He turned to meet Reyn’s eyes and a wolfish smile came over his face. “But they think all they’ll face is a band of half-grown kids and some crippled dragons. But when they reach Kelsingra, what they’ll get may not be at all what they were expecting. ”

  Five bodies lay on the floor of the Stone Way Chamber. The Duke of Chalced looked down on them with annoyance. It had been an exhausting morning. Each man had insisted on his right to tell his story to the fullest before judgment fell upon him. Each had endeavored to spin out his life’s thread a bit longer. What fools they were. They had failed and they knew it, and they knew they would die for it. They had only come back to report in the foolish hope that perhaps their families would be spared.

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