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City of dragons, p.4
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       City of Dragons, p.4

         Part #3 of Rain Wild Chronicles series by Robin Hobb
 

  “Or you could take flight before they did,” Thymara suggested steadily.

  Sintara snapped her head around to stare at the girl. Sometimes she was able to overhear the dragon’s thoughts. Sometimes she was even impudent enough to answer them.

  “I’m tired of the rain. I want to go back under the trees. ”

  Thymara nodded, and as Sintara stalked off, she followed docilely. The dragon looked back only once.

  Down by the river, other keepers were stridently discussing which dragon had started the melee. Carson the hunter had his arms crossed and stood in stubborn confrontation with Kalo. The black dragon was dripping; he’d rinsed Mercor’s acid from this throat. Carson’s small silver dragon, Spit, was watching them sullenly from a distance. The man was stupid, Sintara thought. The big blue-black male was not fond of humans to start with: provoked, Kalo might simply snap Carson in two.

  Tats was helping Sylve examine the long injury down Mercor’s ribs while his own dragon, Fente, jealously clawed at the mud and muttered vague threats. Ranculos was holding one wing half opened for his keeper’s inspection. It was likely badly bruised at the very least. Sestican, covered in mud, was dispiritedly bellowing for his keeper, but Lecter was nowhere in sight. The squabble was over. For one moment, they had been dragons, vying for the attention of a female. Now they were back to behaving like large cattle. Sintara despised them, and she loathed herself. They weren’t worth her time to provoke. They only made her think of all they were not. All she was not.

  If only, she thought, and traced her misfortune back, happenstance after happenstance. If only the dragons had emerged from the metamorphosis fully formed and healthy. If only they had been in better condition when they cocooned to make the transition from sea serpent to dragon. If only they had migrated home decades ago. If only the Elderlings had not died off, if only the mountain had never erupted and put an end to the world they had once known. She should have been so much more than she was. Dragons were supposed to emerge from their cocoons capable of flight and take wing to make that first rejuvenating kill. But none of them had. She was like a bright chip of glass, fallen from a gorgeous mosaic of Elderlings and turreted cities and dragons on the wing, to lie in the dirt, broken away from all that had once been her destiny. She was meaningless without that world.

  She had tried to fly, more than once. Thymara need never know of her many private and humiliating failures. It was infuriating that dim-witted Heeby was able to take flight and hunt for herself. Every day, the red female grew larger and stronger, and her keeper, Rapskal, never tired of singing the praises of his “great, glorious girl” of a dragon. He’d made up a stupid song, more doggerel than poetry, and loudly sang it to her every morning as he groomed her. It made Sintara want to bite his head off. Heeby could preen all she liked when her keeper sang to her. She was still dumber than a cow.

  “The best vengeance might be to learn to fly,” Thymara suggested again, privy to the feeling rather than the thought.

  “Why don’t you try that yourself?” Sintara retorted bitterly.

  Thymara was silent, a silence that simmered.

  The idea came to Sintara slowly. She was startled. “What? You have, haven’t you? You’ve tried to fly?”

  Thymara kept her face turned away from the dragon as they trudged through the wild meadow and up toward the tree line. Scattered throughout the meadow were small stone cottages, some little more than broken walls and collapsed roofs while others had been restored by the dragon keepers. Once there had been a village here, a place for human artisans to live. They’d plied their trades here, the servant and merchant classes of the Elderlings who had lived in the gleaming city on the far side of the swift-flowing river. She wondered if Thymara knew that. Probably not.

  “You made these wings grow on me,” Thymara finally replied. “If I have to have them, if I have to put up with something that makes it impossible to wear an ordinary shirt, something that lifts my cloak up off my back so that every breeze chills me, then I might as well make them useful. Yes, I’ve tried to fly. Rapskal was helping me. He insists I’ll be able to, one day. But so far all I’ve done is skin my knees and scrape the palms of my hands when I fall. I’ve had no success. Does that please you?”

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  “It doesn’t surprise me. ” It did please her. No human should fly when dragons could not! Let her skin her knees and bruise herself a thousand times. If Thymara took flight before she did, the dragon would eat her! Her hunger stirred at the thought, and she became sensible. There was no sense in making the girl aware of that, at least not until she’d done her day’s hunting.

  “I’m going to keep trying,” Thymara said in a low voice. “And so should you. ”

  “Do as you please and I’ll do the same,” the dragon replied. “And what should please you right now is that you go hunting. I’m hungry. ” She gave the girl a mental push.

  Thymara narrowed her eyes, aware that the dragon had used her glamour on her. It didn’t matter. She would still be nagged with an urgent desire to go hunting. Being aware of the source of that suggestion would not make her immune to it.

  The winter rains had prompted an explosion of greenery. The tall wet grass slapped against her legs as they waded through it. They had climbed the slope of the meadow and now the open forest of the hillside beckoned. Beneath the trees, there would be some shelter from the rain, although many of the trees here had lost their foliage. The forest seemed both peculiar and familiar to Sintara. Her own life’s experience had been limited to the dense and impenetrable forest that bordered the Rain Wild River. Yet her ancestral memories echoed the familiarity of woods such as this. The names of the trees—oak and hickam and birch, alder and ash and goldleaf—came to her mind. Dragons had known these trees, this sort of forest and even this particular place. But they had seldom lingered here in the chill rains of winter. No. For this miserable season, dragons would have flown off to bask in the heat of the deserts. Or they would have taken shelter in the places that the Elderlings created for them, crystal domes with heated floors and pools of steaming water. She turned and looked across the river to fabled Kelsingra. They had come so far, and yet asylum remained out of reach. The swift-flowing river was deep and treacherous. No dragon could swim it. True flight was the only way home.

  The ancient Elderling city stood, mostly intact, just as her ancestral memories had recalled it. Even under the overcast sky, even through the gray onslaught of rain, the towering buildings of black and silver stone gleamed and beckoned. Once, lovely scaled Elderlings had resided there. Friends and servants of dragons, they had dressed in bright robes and adorned themselves with gold and silver and gleaming copper. The wide avenues of Kelsingra and the gracious buildings had all been constructed to welcome dragons as well as Elderlings. There had been a statuary plaza, where the flagstones radiated heat in the winter, though that area of the city appeared to have vanished into the giant chasm that now cleft its ancient roads and towers. There had been baths, steaming vats of hot water where Elderlings and dragons alike had taken refuge from foul weather. Her ancestors had soaked there, not just in hot water, but in copper vats of simmering oils that had sheened their scales and hardened their claws.

  And there had been . . . something else. Something she could not quite recall clearly. Water, she thought, but not water. Something delightful, something that even now sparkled and gleamed and called to her through her dim recollection of it.

  “What are you looking at?” Thymara asked her.

  Sintara hadn’t realized that she had halted to stare across the river. “Nothing. The city,” she said and resumed her walk.

  “If you could fly, you could get across the river to Kelsingra. ”

  “If you could think, you would know when to be quiet,” the dragon retorted. Did the stupid girl not realize how often she thought of that? Daily. Hourly. The Elderling magic of heated tiles might still work. Eve
n if it did not, the standing buildings would provide shelter from the incessant rain. Perhaps in Kelsingra she would feel like a real dragon again rather than a footed serpent.

  They reached the edge of the trees. A gust of wind rattled them, sending water spattering down through the sheltering branches. Sintara rumbled her displeasure. “Go hunt,” she told the girl, and she strengthened her mental push.

  Offended, her keeper turned away and trudged back down the hill. Sintara didn’t bother to watch her go. Thymara would obey. It was what keepers did. It was really all they were good for.

  “Carson!”

  The hunter held up a cautioning hand, palm open, toward Sedric. Carson stood his ground, staring up at the blue-black dragon. He was not speaking but had locked gazes with the creature. Carson was not a small man, but Kalo dwarfed him to the size of a toy. A toy the infuriated dragon could trample into the earth or melt to hollowed bones with a single blast of acid-laced venom. And Sedric would be able to do nothing about it. His heart hammered in his chest, and he felt he could not get his breath. He hugged himself, shivering with the chill day and with his fear. Why did Carson have to take such risks with himself?

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  I will protect you. Sedric’s own dragon, Relpda, nudged him with her blunt nose and her thoughts.

  He turned quickly to put a restraining hand on her neck as he tried to force calm on his own thoughts. The little copper female would not stand a chance if she challenged Kalo on Sedric’s behalf. And any challenge to Kalo right now would probably provoke an irrational and violent response. Sedric was not Kalo’s keeper, but he felt the dragon’s emotions. The waves of anger and frustration that radiated from the dragon would have affected anyone.

  “Let’s step back a bit,” he suggested to the copper and pushed on her. She didn’t budge. When he looked at her, her eyes seemed to spin, dark blue with an occasional thread of silver in them. She had decided Kalo was a danger to him. Oh, dear.

  Carson was speaking now, firmly, without anger. His muscled arms were crossed on his chest, offering no threat. His dark eyes under his heavy brows were almost kind. The wet wind tugged at his hair and left drops clinging to his trimmed ginger beard. The hunter ignored the wind and rain as he ignored the dragon’s superior strength. He seemed to have no fear of Kalo or the dragon’s suppressed fury. Carson’s voice was deep and calm, his words slow. “You need to calm down, Kalo. I’ve sent one of the others to find Davvie. Your own keeper will be here soon, to tend your hurts. If you wish, I will look at them now. But you have to stop threatening everyone. ”

  The blue-black dragon shifted, and scintillations of silver glittered over his scaling in the rain. The colors in his eyes melted and swirled to the green of copper ore; it looked as if his eyes were spinning. Sedric stared at them with fascination tinged with horror. Carson was too close. The creature looked no calmer to him, and if he chose to snap at Carson or spit acid at him, even the hunter’s agility would not be enough to save him from death. Sedric drew breath to plead with him to step back, and then gritted his teeth together. No. Carson knew what he was doing, and the last thing he needed now was a distraction from his lover.

  Sedric heard running feet behind him and turned to see Davvie pelting toward them as fast as he could. The young keeper’s cheeks were bright red with effort, and his hair bounced around his face and shoulders. Lecter trundled along in his wake through the soaked meadow grass, looking rather like a damp hedgehog. The spines on the back of his neck were becoming a mane down his back, twin to the ones on his dragon, Sestican. Lecter could no longer contain them in a shirt. They were blue, tipped with orange, and they bobbed as he tried to keep up with Davvie, panting loudly. Davvie dragged in a breath and shouted, “Kalo! Kalo, what’s wrong? I’m here, are you hurt? What happened?”

  Lecter veered off, headed toward Sestican. “Where were you?” his dragon trumpeted, angry and querulous. “Look, I am filthy and bruised. And you did not attend me. ”

  Davvie raced right up to his huge dragon with a fine disregard for how angry the beast was. From the moment the boy had appeared, Kalo’s attention had been fixed only on him. “Why weren’t you here to attend me?” the dragon bellowed accusingly. “See how I am burned! Your carelessness could have cost me my life!” The dragon flung up his head to expose the raw circle on his throat where Mercor’s acid had scored him. It was the size of a saucer.

  Sedric flinched at sight of the wound, but Davvie went pale as death.

  “Oh, Kalo, are you going to be all right? I’m so sorry! I was around the river bend, checking the fish trap, to see if we’d caught anything!”

  Sedric knew about the fish trap. He’d watched Davvie and Carson install it yesterday. The two baskets were fixed on the ends of arms that rotated like a wheel propelled by the current. The baskets were designed to scoop fish from the water and drop them down a chute into a woven holding pen. It had taken Davvie and Carson several days to build it. If it worked, they were going to build more to try to lessen the burden of constantly hunting for food for the dragons.

  “He wasn’t checking the fish trap,” Carson said in a low voice as he joined Sedric. Kalo had hunkered down, and Davvie was making worried sounds as he examined the dragon’s spread wings for any other injury. Lecter, looking guilty, was leading Sestican down to the river to wash him.

  Sedric watched the lad surreptitiously adjust his belt buckle. Carson was shaking his head in displeasure, but Sedric had to grin. “No. They weren’t,” he concluded.

  Carson shot him a look that faded the smile from his face.

  “What?” Sedric asked, confused by the severity of his expression.

  Carson spoke in a low voice. “We can’t condone it, Sedric. Both boys have to be more responsible. ”

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  “We can’t condone that they’re together? How can we condemn it without being hypocrites?” Sedric felt cut by Carson’s words. Did he expect the boys to conceal that they were infatuated with each other? Did he condemn their openness?

  “That’s not what I mean. ” The larger man put a hand on Sedric’s shoulder and turned him away from Kalo. He spoke quietly. “They’re just boys. They like each other, but it’s about physical discovery, not each other. Not like us. Their sort of games can wait until after their chores are done. ” The two men began to trudge up the hill through the soaking grass. Relpda followed them for a few steps and then abruptly turned and headed toward the riverbank.

  “Not like us. ” Sedric repeated the words softly. Carson looked sideways at him and nodded, a small smile curling the corners of his mouth and igniting flames in Sedric’s belly. Sedric hoped that Carson’s direction meant they were bound for their cottage. The small chill structure of bare stone with the flagged floor was little better than a cave, but at least the roof shed rain and the chimney drew well. If they built up a blazing fire in the hearth, it was almost comfortably warm. Almost. He thought of other ways to stay warm there.

  As if he could read Sedric’s mind, Carson said, “Some chores won’t wait. We should go up to the forest and see if we can find more dry deadfalls. That green wood you were trying to burn last night was all smoke and no heat. ” He glanced back at Davvie and Lecter. Kalo had crouched low and stretched out his neck so the boy could examine the acid scald on his neck. Under the boy’s touch, the great beast had calmed and seemed almost placid.

  “He’s a much better match for Kalo than Greft was,” Sedric observed.

  “He could be, if he tried a bit harder. ” It was always hard for Carson to praise the lad. He loved Davvie like a son and made a father’s effort to hold him to the highest standards. He looked away, shaking his head. “I understand he and Lecter are infatuated with each other, but that still doesn’t excuse either of them for neglecting their duties. A man tends to his responsibilities first and his pleasures later. And Davvie is old enough now that I expect him to act lik
e a man. The survival of this expedition is going to depend on each of us pulling his fair weight. When spring comes, or when we get fresh supplies, then Davvie can relax a bit and indulge himself. But not until then. Both of them have dragons to see to every day before they think of anything else. ”

  Carson intended no rebuke for him with the words, Sedric knew. Nonetheless, there were times when he felt more keenly his own lack of useful skills. As useless as teats on a bull, his father used to say of people like him. It’s not my fault, he assured himself. I’m just a fish out of water here. Were I to abruptly transport Carson to the sort of society I was accustomed to in Bingtown, he would be the one to feel useless and ill at ease. Was it truly a fault that Sedric would have been more competent at choosing a series of wines to complement a banquet or giving a tailor instructions on how a jacket was to be altered rather than swinging an axe to render a dead log into firewood or cutting an animal up into pieces that would fit in a pot? He didn’t think so. He was not a useless or incompetent person. He was simply out of his area of expertise. He looked around himself at the rainy hillside and the looming forest. Far out of his area of expertise.

  And weary of it. He thought of Bingtown with longing. The clatter and chatter of the marketplace, the city’s wide, flagged streets and well-kept manor houses, its friendly taverns and tea shops! The open circuit of the market, and the cool shade of the public gardens! What would Jefdin the tailor think to see his best customer in rags? He suddenly longed for mulled wine and spices in a nice warm mug. Oh, what wouldn’t he give for one meal that wasn’t cooked over a hearth fire? One glass of good wine, one piece of bread? Even a bowl of simple hot porridge with currants and honey. Anything that wasn’t game meat or fish or gathered greens. Anything that was the slightest bit sweet! He’d sacrifice anything for one well-prepared meal served on a plate at a table with a cloth!

  He glanced at Carson walking beside him. His cheeks were ruddy above his carefully trimmed beard, his dark eyes brimming with his concerns. A recent memory intruded. Carson sitting on a low stool, his eyes closed, his expression that of a stroked cat as Sedric used a small comb and tiny scissors to shape his beard to his face. He had been still and obedient, turning his head only as Sedric bade him, rapt as he basked in Sedric’s attention. To see the powerful man quiescent under his touch had filled Sedric with a sense of mastery. He had trimmed Carson’s wild mane as well, but not too much. Strange to admit that part of the hunter’s attraction for him was his untamed aspect. He smiled to himself, a small shiver of recalled pleasure standing up the hair on his neck and arms. Well, perhaps there was one thing Sedric would not be willing to sacrifice to return to Bingtown!

 
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