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City of dragons, p.39
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       City of Dragons, p.39

         Part #3 of Rain Wild Chronicles series by Robin Hobb
 
Page 144

 

  They would not. What good would it do to keep the seed of failed men alive, to let them inherit their fathers’ lands and possessions? They would only breed more weaklings to disappoint in the future. Better to cleanse the ranks of his nobles and soldiers of weakness before it could spread through them and undermine the ancestral might of Chalced. His chancellor was looking at him, waiting. The Duke looked once more at the sprawling dismembered bodies. “Clean the room. And clean their houses,” he gave the order.

  The chancellor bowed deeply, turned, and relayed the command. At the rear of the hall, six commanders turned to their chosen squads of men. Sixty spears thumped the floor in unison, the heavy wooden doors swung open, and the troops departed. Once the soldiers had exited, a very different squad entered. Crawling on their bellies, dragging their sacks, a ragged swarm of death-men scrabbled into the chamber and advanced on the bodies. No one looked at them. They were disgusting, born to wallow in filth and carrion, forever beneath notice of real men. But they had their place in Chalcedean society. They would carry off the body parts, scouring the floor with their rags before they departed. Whatever valuable items remained on the bodies became their possessions, as did the clothing of the dead and the meat from their bones. There would be little that was worth anything. These men had all known they were going to die; doubtless they had rid themselves of anything of value before they came, selling off rings and armbands to pay for one final visit to the whores, one final meal in the bazaar.

  The smell of the spilled blood was thick and unpleasant and the scuttling of the supine men disgusting. He looked at his chancellor. “I wish to be in the Sheltered Garden. Chilled wine should await me there. ”

  “Of course, my lord. I am certain that you will find it is so. Let us go. ” The chancellor turned and signaled the bearers to approach the throne with the palanquin. The Duke studied their careful pace; they were allowing time for his order to precede him so that when he arrived in the Sheltered Garden, chilled wine and a freshly blanketed and cushioned divan would await him. There were days when the pain and the shortness of breath made him so foul tempered that he would deliberately order the men to move more quickly. Then he would lash out at them for jostling him, and when he arrived at the garden before it had been prepared for his every whim, he could berate the chancellor and send all the servants off for punishment. Yes. There were times when the pain prompted him to such pettiness.

  But not today.

  They transferred him gently from his throne to the palanquin. He gritted his teeth against a moan. So little flesh remained to cushion his bones. His joints ground against one another when he moved his limbs. Sores afflicted his body from his long periods of stillness, growing deep over the jut of bone. In his pole chair, he sat curled and hunched, a humped caterpillar of a man. When the curtains closed around him, he was glad to be able to grimace privately and try to shift away from the worst of his bedsores.

  Trouble was brewing. He smelled it and tasted it. He was no fool. He saw how the eyes of the men shifted, how they conferred silently with one another before obeying his commands. Chalced was slipping from his grip. Once he had been a powerful warrior, a man mighty of body as well as lineage. Once he had been like a crouching tiger, ready to leap from his throne and slash to ribbons any who doubted his authority. Those days were gone. He could no longer cow men with his physical presence.

  But he was not a fool. And never had been one. He had never thought that his physical strength alone would let him hold his power. If he had been a fool, he would not have survived for so many years among the shifting dunes of political power in Chalced. As a young man, he had been ruthless in acquiring power and keeping it. His dearth of living sons demonstrated that. He had no illusions about the men who surrounded him or the greedy heirs anxious to supplant him. Others would be just as ruthless as he had been in securing their share of the spoils once he died. And some would not wait for it to happen naturally.

  The pole chair swayed as the bearers paced through the hallways of his palace. He counted his friends and his enemies and knew that some he counted belonged on both lists. His dear, loyal chancellor was one. And his loving, viperous vixen of a daughter was another. Thrice he had married Chassim off, hoping to be rid of her. Her first husband had left her a widow at fourteen. Barely three weeks after the sumptuous wedding, the man had slipped coming out of his bath and broken his neck. Or so all surmised at the time. There had been no witnesses to the accident. And his young widow, sallow-faced and hollow-eyed, had seemed appropriately mournful when his family had returned her to her father’s home.

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  Her next husband had been a much younger man, scarcely thirty years older than his bride. He had lasted six months, succumbing to a stomach ailment that gave him debilitating cramps and bloody bowels. Again, the girl had been returned to the palace, and he had seen her silent and seething at her fate.

  Her most recent spouse had died three years ago. The worthy old man had publicly slapped her over some lapse of manners. He had died before the day was out, subsiding in a frothy fit at the feast table among his warriors. Again, Chassim had been returned to him. This time, he had asked her directly. “Daughter, do you mourn your husband?”

  To which she had replied, “I mourn how suddenly and swiftly death found him. ”

  The Duke had made space for her among his own women, and she had made her own choice never to emerge from those chambers and their secluded gardens and baths. He knew of her life mostly from his concubines. She tended the herb gardens assiduously, read avariciously, mostly history and healing lore, wrote poetry, and practiced for an hour every day with her bow. She had expressed an ardent desire to never wed again.

  Her wish had been granted, not by her father’s inclination, but by the reluctance of any noble male to make an offer for her. As the eldest of his legitimate daughters, she commanded a high bride-price despite her widowhood and advancing years. But he doubted the cost was what made suitors quail. Any woman thrice widowed might be suspected of witchery, even if no one dared broach such an accusation.

  The Duke kept his own counsel on the matter. But he would not suffer her to come near him when he visited the women’s quarters, not that she had ever seemed so inclined. Nor did he eat anything that might have passed through her hands. There was no sense in taking chances. But now, as his chair swayed to the measured pacing of his bearers, he forced himself to consider her as an option.

  By the oldest law of Chalced, a favored daughter might inherit, if a father so wished. He did not. But by those same old laws, if he died with no heir-son, his eldest daughter and her husband could rule until her first son came of age. If unwed, the daughter could rule until she found a worthy mate. He did not think Chassim would look very hard, if she were to inherit. In any case, her succession depended on his own death, something he was determined to avoid.

  He did not think he could blame her for his prolonged illness. He had been far too careful for that. The greatest caution of all, of course, prescribed that he kill her. But a duchy with no heir at all was more prone to civil unrest than a duchy with an inappropriate one. How many of his nobles, he wondered, hoped that he would live simply to avoid the possibility of Duchess Chassim coming to power over them?

  Besides, it was the worst sort of bad luck to kill a witch, even more so if she was his daughter.

  He had closed his eyes to the swaying of his palanquin. He opened them now as his bearers’ pace slowed. The curtains remained closed as his pole chair was lowered onto a set of rests. He listened to the soft scuff of their boots as his bearers departed. But what he did not hear was what alarmed him: no play of waters in a multitude of fountains, no chirping of caged songbirds. He smelled no waft of flowers. The sound of his own heartbeat began to fill his ears. With bony fingers, he groped inside one of his cushions to find the sheathed dagger it concealed. He pulled it out and silently ba
red it. It weighed heavy in his hand. He wondered if he would have the strength to wield it effectively. He did not wish to die with an unbloodied blade in his hand.

  “Most gracious Duke. ”

  It was Chancellor Ellik’s voice. Of course. He would be the traitor. His most intimate and trusted adviser was the man in the best position to murder him and seize the reins of power. The Duke was only surprised that he had not acted years ago, when he had first fallen ill. He did not respond to the man’s voice. Let him believe his lord had dozed off. Let him come close enough to open the curtains and meet his blade.

  As if he could see through the curtains to the heart of the Duke’s intent, the chancellor spoke again. “My lord, this is not treachery. I have but stolen this moment to speak to you privately. I approach to open your curtains. Please, do not slay me. ”

  “Flattery. ” The Duke spoke the word flatly but held the dagger in both hands before his chest. If he glimpsed treachery, he would do his best to plunge it into the man’s heart.

  But the chancellor was on his knees and empty-handed as he carefully drew the cloaking curtains back. The Duke surveyed him as he knelt, neck bent and bare, before the parted curtains. If he had wished to do so, he could have planted his dagger in that vulnerable neck. He did not.

  “Why privately?” he demanded. “You have always had my ear. Why here and now?” He looked suspiciously about the chancellor’s own comfortable chambers.

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  “You do, indeed, my gracious one, always grant me your ear. But where you listen, others listen as well. And I would warn you of treachery and have only you hear my warning. ”

  “Treachery?” The word was dry on his tongue. The pounding of his heart was becoming painful. Too many threats in too short a time; courage alone could not sustain a weakened body. He looked down at the man still kneeling before him. “Get up, Ellik. I need water. Please. ”

  The chancellor lifted his eyes and then his head. “Of course. ” Without ceremony, he stood and walked across the chamber. It was a man’s room, hung with weaponry and tapestries that recalled famous battles. The work-scarred table in the center of the room held a large ledger, a pot of ink, and a scatter of pens. The Duke had not been in the chancellor’s study for years, but it had changed little in that time. Beyond the table was a cupboard. Ellik took a bottle of wine and glasses from it. “This will do you better than water,” he informed the Duke. With adroit efficiency, he pulled the cork and filled the glasses. As he returned, he walked as a warrior would and presented the glass without formality.

  The Duke took it in withered hands and drained off the wine. He felt welcome warmth course through his body. Without asking, Ellik refilled the glass from the bottle he still held. Then he sat down cross-legged on the floor by the pole chair as easily as if he were a young man settling down by a campfire. “Hello,” he said, as if they were old two friends come together in a chance meeting. And perhaps they were. Ellik watched the Duke steadily until he spoke.

  “You know why it’s necessary. The bowing, the formality, the harsh order. It’s not to demean you, Ellik. It’s to enforce discipline and maintain distance. ”

  “So they only think of you as the Duke,” Ellik said.

  “Yes. ”

  “Because if they thought of you as a man among them, you are not the man they would choose to follow now. ”

  The Duke hesitated. “Yes,” he admitted finally. “A harsh evaluation, but an accurate one. ”

  “And it works,” Ellik conceded. “For most of them. For those young enough not to question the order. It works not so well for your old comrades who warriored beside you in the early days when you were coming to power. ”

  “But not many of them are left,” the Duke pointed out.

  “That is true, but a few of us remain. ”

  The Duke nodded gravely.

  “And a few of us remain loyal to the man you were, as well as to the present Duke of Chalced. And so I have come to warn you of treachery, though the nature of the warning may cost me my life. ”

  “And so I listen to you, Ellik, man to man, warrior to warrior, knowing what you risk to serve me. Be brief. What treachery threatens me?”

  Ellik tossed his wine back, considered a moment longer, and then replied, “Your daughter Chassim. She wants your throne. ”

  “Chassim?” The Duke shook his weary head, annoyed that the man had discomforted him just for this. “She is discontented, widowed thrice, a woman unfulfilled. I have known this for years. I have no fear that she has any ambitions of her own. ”

  “You should. ” Ellik spoke brusquely. “Have you read her poetry?”

  “Her poetry?” Now he felt insulted. “No. Girlish yearning for a handsome man to grovel before her charms, I suppose, or musings on a hummingbird hovering by a flower. Ponderings on love and daisies, all done in blue brushstrokes and ornamented with posies and ivy. I haven’t time for such things. ”

  “No. Her poetry is more like a trumpet call to arms. A rallying of women to rise up in Chalced, to help her inherit your throne so that she can lift other women to the status they once held. It’s fiery stuff, my lord, more fit to a fanatic in the market than a woman living a quiet, cloistered life. ”

  For some time, the Duke regarded the other man in silence. But his chancellor’s face remained grave. He was in earnest.

  “Women rising up . . . nonsense! You know this how? When would you have had cause to encounter my daughter’s poems?”

  “In my wife’s chambers. Two days ago. ”

  The Duke waited.

  “I entered without warning, in midmorning, an unusual time for me to call on her. She quickly tried to conceal a handful of scrolls she had been reading. So, of course, I wrested one from her to know what secret a woman sought to keep from her husband. ” He scowled. “The scroll was tatter edged, well worn from being passed hand to hand, with many additions on the bottom and back of it. To the casual eye, it was a girlish poem just as you have described, ornamented with flowers and butterflies. But only for the first two verses. Then the words became scholarly and martial, citing historical references to times when the women of Chalced’s noble houses ruled alongside the men and governed their own affairs and properties and chose their own husbands. The little vines and flowers framed nothing less than a call to revolution.

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  “I rebuked her sternly for reading such treason, but she was unrepentant. And fearless, in that way of a fit that sometimes seizes dried-up old women. She mocked me, asking me what I feared. Did I dare deny that such a past existed? That my own family’s fortune had been founded by a woman, not a man?

  “I slapped her for her insolence. She stood up and invoked some northern goddess, some Eda, praying her to withhold earth’s blessings from me. So I struck her again for daring to curse me. ”

  Ellik paused. Sweat beaded his brow, and for a time he was caught in the memory. His fingers tugged at his lips, and he shook his head in denial. “Can any man ever know a woman’s mind? I had to beat her, my lord, as I’ve not had to for years, and still she held out longer than many a young soldier I’ve chastised. But in the end, I had the rest of her cache of scrolls, and the source of them, and then the author’s name. Your daughter, my lord, as is plain from what she proposes. ”

  The Duke sat in silence, hoping nothing of what he thought showed on his face. But Ellik was merciless.

  “It is not just your daughter. The other women of your household are involved. Chassim writes the words, but your women make copies and ornament the scrolls and tie them with little bindings of lace and ribbons and scent them with perfume. And out they go, to the markets and the laundries and the weavers’ halls, the banyas and the gaming parlors, like a pretty spreading poison. ”

  The Duke was silent. He was astonished. And he was not. Truly, Chassim was his daughter. A thorny pride in her sprouted in him. If o
nly she had been male, he might have found good use for her. As it was, “I will have her killed. ” A poor solution, but his only choice. He wondered how many of his women he would have to eliminate. He folded his lips. Well, he had little use for them now, and when he was cured, he would want fresh women anyway. They could all go. He shifted uncomfortably, ready to be on his way to the Sheltered Garden. He wanted to rest.

  “No,” Ellik dared to say. “Do not fall into her trap. I read all the scrolls that my wife possessed, and every one makes mention that she expects to die at your hands. She says it will prove how much you fear and hate her and all women. She claims that you hate her so much that you gave her over to a monster to tear open when she was barely a woman. ”

  “Hate her?” The Duke was incredulous. “Would I waste my time? I barely know her. Old Karax was a coarse old man; all knew that. But he was my strongest ally at the time. That was what her wedding was about. Securing the alliance. ” Hate her? As if he would have emotions about a girl-child, let alone consider her in a matter of political maneuvering. Truly, she attached far too much importance to herself.

  “Nonetheless,” Ellik asserted. “My lord, if you kill her, you will trigger an uprising in the female populace. Her followers have promised poisonings, infanticides, arson, abortions, and, yes, outright violence. The scrolls I read were well handled, and such were the pledges appended to them by the various women who had read them. Women of all stations have read these things and added their vows to avenge her if she dies on their behalf. I think they inflame one another, competing to outdo one another in their vows of loyalty and ruthlessness should she be ‘murdered’ by you. ”

  “This is intolerable!” The Duke shouted the words and then went off into a fit of coughing. Ellik poured him more wine and steadied the glass to his lips that he might drink. The glass chattered against his teeth, and he spilled wine down his chest. Intolerable, indeed, all of it. He seized the glass and waved Ellik off. He managed a sip, coughed, and then calmed his breathing until he could take a long draught. When he could speak, he asked Ellik, “What other remedy is there for a treacherous witch like Chassim?”

 
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