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City of dragons, p.40
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       City of Dragons, p.40

         Part #3 of Rain Wild Chronicles series by Robin Hobb
 

  “Give her to me,” Ellik suggested softly.

  “So you can kill her?”

  Ellik smiled. “Not immediately. I will wed her. ”

  “But you are already married. ”

  “My wife is dying. ” Ellik’s expression did not change as he shared his news. “I will soon be a widower, free to wed again. For my many years of faithful service, you will reward me with your daughter. It is appropriate. Cruel fate has widowed both of us. ” He drank from his own glass.

  “She is dangerous. I think she killed at least one of her previous husbands. ” The Duke admitted this reluctantly as he considered Ellik’s solution.

  “She killed all three,” Ellik replied. “I know it, and I know how she did it, thanks to my wife’s confession. Thus, I know how to pull the viper’s fangs, and she is small danger to me. ”

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  “Why do you want her?”

  “I will wed her, isolate her, and impregnate her. She will continue to write her scrolls of poetry, and they will leak out gradually from her new home. But they will prattle of her wedded bliss, the joys of an experienced lover, and the sweet anticipation of a babe to fill her arms. Her fangs will be drawn, her poison diluted to tea. And news of an heir will calm your nobles. ”

  The Duke was undeceived. “And you will reign after me. ”

  Ellik nodded and pointed out, “I would in any case. ” His gaze met the Duke’s steadily as he added, “This will simply make it clear to all that such is your wish, and any other plan would be opposed by both of us. ”

  The Duke closed his eyes, carefully delineating all the possibilities. In the end, it came down to one thing. He opened his eyes. “The sooner I die, the sooner you come to power. ”

  Again Ellik was unflinching. “That is also true. But coming to power ‘sooner’ is not always the best way. Nor what I wish, old comrade. ” He tipped his head slightly and smiled as he asked, “What reassurance are you asking of me? Consider what I have done. I have warned you of a threat, and I have protected you by warning you also not to take the most obvious solution to it. For years, as your health has waned, I have served you. Were I disloyal, I would have proved it years ago. Loyalty, however, is harder to prove. ”

  The Duke wheezed out a cough and leaned back on his cushions. “Because loyalty can change,” he pointed out when he could draw a breath. “It must be proven every day. ” He considered for a time. “If I give you my daughter, I have dealt you a powerful card. ”

  “And if you do not, a viper remains in your house, poised to strike. ”

  The Duke capitulated suddenly. “I will let it be known I have promised her to you. And I will put her in isolation that she may meditate upon becoming your bride. ”

  Ellik waited for a short time. Then he asked, “And?”

  The Duke smiled coldly. “And when you bring me dragon’s blood as her bride-price, then she will be yours. And my blessing on your marriage. ”

  “And declare me your heir. ”

  Ellik was pushing. The Duke did not like it, but he considered it carefully. Ellik had been a youngster when he came under the Duke’s tutelage. He had made the man as much or perhaps more than any son he had created with his seed. And when he was dead, would he care who reigned after him?

  “And I will designate you my heir. With preference given to any child that you might get on my daughter. ”

  “Done. And done soon. ” Ellik smiled. “You should command your servants to prepare the wedding feast. ”

  The Duke cocked his head at him. “What is it you know that I do not?”

  Ellik’s smile widened. “I’ve bought a prisoner, my lord. He is being shipped to me as we speak. He is not a dragon. But in his veins runs the blood of a dragon. And you shall have his blood. ”

  The Duke stared at him skeptically. Ellik’s smile grew broader. “A proof of my loyalty,” he said quietly. “Offered with no conditions attached. ” He rose as gracefully as a maiden and returned to the wine cupboard. This time he returned with a small paper packet tied with string. He squatted before the Duke and pulled the string from its knot. As he unfolded the oiled paper, a once-familiar smell rose to the Duke’s nostrils.

  “Jerky?” he asked, torn between incredulity and offense. “You offer me jerky? A foot soldier’s rations?”

  “The only way to preserve it for the journey was to salt and smoke it. ” Ellik held the opened paper like a blown blossom in the palm of his hand. In the center of it was a small square of blue scaled flesh, smoked to a dark red. “The meat of an Elderling. Not a dragon. I could not obtain that for you . . . yet. But I offer you what I am told is the smoked meat of a creature that is part dragon. In the hopes that it may restore you to health. ”

  The Duke looked at it silently for a time.

  Ellik spoke softly. “Command me to eat it, and I will. It is not poisoned. ”

  The thought had been in his mind. He thought of commanding his chancellor to divide it and eat his portion first. But it was not a large piece of meat, and his infirmities were many. If he ate it and it poisoned him, he would die. But if he commanded Ellik to eat half of it first, and then discovered that it had the efficacious power he hoped for, there might not be enough left to do him any good. He reached for the meat, his bony fingers trembling like the feelers of an ant. He lifted it up and sniffed it. Ellik’s gaze was steady on him.

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  He put the smoked flesh in his mouth. The flavor of the smoke and salt, the texture of the dried meat carried him back to his days as a young warrior. He closed his eyes. He had not been the Duke then. He had been Rolenbled the swordsman, the fourth son of the Duke of Chalced. With his sword he had proven himself to the enemies of Chalced and to his father. And when his elder brothers had risen against his father, plotting to kill him and divide the rule of Chalced among themselves, he had denounced them to his father and stood at his side as the Duke slew his other sons. In blood he had risen, on proven loyalty.

  He opened his eyes. The room seemed brighter than it had. He looked down at the crumpled paper clutched in his hand. Only paper, not the hilt of a sword. A trifling ability, being able to crumple paper into a wad with one hand. Also one that he had not had for some time. He took a deeper breath and sat a little straighter. Ellik was regarding him with a smile.

  “Bring me your dragon man, and you will have my daughter. ”

  Ellik took a deep breath and abruptly bowed low, touching his forehead to the floor.

  The Duke nodded to himself. The man was as good as a son to him. And like a son, if his loyalty proved false, he could kill him. His smile deepened.

  Epilogue

  HOMEWARD BOUND

  Icefyre liked hunting the rough hills that bordered the desert. He was adept at following the contours of the land in flight. He glided close to the ground, sometimes barely skimming the pungent gray-green brush that cloaked the rocky foothills. When his black wings moved, it was in deceptively lazy, powerful downstrokes. He was as silent as the shadow that floated over the uneven terrain below him.

  His was an excellent hunting technique. The two dragons had been here since spring, and the large game animals that had once had no fear of the sky had learned to keep a wary watch overhead now. Icefyre’s tactic carried him soundlessly over low rises. He fell on creatures basking in noon sunlight in the sheltered canyons before they knew he was there.

  It did not work as well for Tintaglia. She was smaller and still practicing the sort of flight skills that Icefyre had mastered hundreds of years ago. Even before he had been trapped in ice for an extended hibernation, he had been an old dragon. Now he was ancient beyond belief, the sole surviving creature who could recall the time of the Elderlings and the civilization the two races had built together. He recalled, too, the cataclysmic eruptions and the wild disorder that had ended those days. Humans and Elderlings had died or fled. He’d seen the sc
attered fragments of the dragon population dwindle and die off.

  To Tintaglia’s frustration, the black dragon spoke little of those days. She herself had only shadowy memories of her serpent-self creating a case before her metamorphosis into dragon. But she recalled too well how she had stirred to awareness inside her cocoon, trapped in a buried city, denied the sunlight she needed to hatch. Elderlings had put her there, she suspected. They had dragged her case and others of her generation into a solarium to shelter them from falling ash. That rescue attempt had become her doom when falling ash buried the city. She had no idea how long she had been imprisoned in her case in lonely darkness. When the humans had first discovered the room where she and her fellows were trapped, their only thought had been to salvage the dragon cases as “wizardwood” for the building of ships that would be impervious to the Rain Wild River’s acid floods. It was not until first Reyn and then Selden had come to her that she had been freed to light and life.

  Selden. She missed her little singer. How he could flatter and praise, his clear voice as pleasing as his tickling words that glorified her. But she had sent him away, impressing on him that he should travel in search of tidings of other dragon populations. At the time, she had been hopeful that the late hatch of elderly serpents could yield viable dragons. She had not been willing to believe that all dragons everywhere had died out. So she had sent Selden off, and he had gone with a willing heart, to do not just her bidding but to also seek allies for Bingtown in their never-ending war with Chalced.

  In the years since then her time with Icefyre had cured her of any optimism. They were the only true dragons left in the world, and thus he was her mate, no matter how unsuitable she found him. She wondered again what had become of Selden. Was he dead, or just beyond the reach of her thoughts? Not that it really mattered. Humans, even humans transformed by dragons into Elderlings, did not live all that long. It was scarcely worth the effort to befriend them.

  She caught a whiff of the antelope as Icefyre dived on them. They were a small herd, only five or six beasts, dozing in the trapped warmth of the winter sun. As Icefyre fell on them, they scattered. He crushed two beneath his outstretched talons, leaving Tintaglia to pursue the others.

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  It was harder than it should have been. The festering arrow just under her left wing made every flap of her wings a torment. The narrow arroyos of the rocky hillside offered the game beasts shelter in spaces too narrow for a dragon to navigate. But one foolish creature broke free of the others and fled uphill and onto the ridgeline. She pursued him and in a frantic dive knocked him to the earth before he could reach the next gully. Her front talons tore him as she seized him and clutched him to the keel of her chest. He struggled briefly, spattering her with his warm blood before going limp in her clutches. She did not delay but tore into the warm meat. It was her first kill of the day and she was famished.

  The antelope was not a large creature, and it was winter lean. Soon there was nothing left of it, not a skull or the hooves; only sticky blood on the rocky earth. It did not fill her, but nonetheless she felt herself sinking into somnolence as soon as she had finished eating.

  Tintaglia stretched out and closed her eyes. Then she shifted and tried a different position. It was worse. It was not the stony ground that discomforted her, but the broken shaft and the arrow head and the infection that surrounded it. She lifted her wing and craned her neck to sniff at it, then snorted. Bad. Rotting meat smell. The claws on her forepaws were too large to be of any use; clawing at it only made it hurt more. And the end of the broken arrow shaft was no longer even visible. She feared that instead of being pushed out of her body by the infection, the missile was actually digging in deeper.

  Icefyre landed nearby in a rush of dust from the braking beat of his wings. We should hunt more.

  I want to sleep.

  He lifted his head and snuffed the air. That arrow festers. You should pull it out.

  I’ve tried. I can’t.

  He leaned closer, snuffing at her injury, and she allowed it, but not graciously. Of old, sometimes humans used poisoned weapons against us. They would dip the heads of their lances in filth before they tried to stab us. They knew that they could seldom kill us outright but that a lingering infection might kill a dragon.

  She flinched away from his scrutiny and immediately craned her neck to inspect the wound. Do you think this arrow was poisoned?

  Impossible to tell. He seemed very calm about it. Do you wish to hunt again?

  What did they do, the dragons with poisoned injuries?

  They died. Some of them. Sometimes they went to the Elderling healers for aid. Little human hands can sometimes be useful in cleaning a wound. The silver water could cure many ills. I am going hunting. Are you coming?

  Do you think I should go back to the Rain Wilds and try to find my Elderlings? Malta and Reyn?

  The black dragon looked at her for a time. Whatever thoughts he had, he was not sharing with her. When he spoke, it was only to say, I do not think I could trust a human again. Even an Elderling.

  I might trust them. If I had to. Malta and Reyn have both served me before; they would serve me again, I think.

  Again, he was quiet. Then he said, The silver well of Kelsingra. It was a rare and wondrous thing and to drink from it brought dragons great strength. Sometimes it was used for healing. You could go there, to Kelsingra.

  I’ve been to Kelsingra. The well is no more. The city was empty and dead, with dust blowing through the streets. And when I went to the well, the windlass had fallen to ruin. Even if there had been Elderlings there at that moment, they could not have drawn the silver for me. She did not speak of how angry it had made her; of how she had trampled and broken what remained of the windlass and shoved it down the fruitless well.

  Kelsingra. Icefyre spoke the word regretfully. It was a place of wonder, once. If, as you say, it is abandoned and empty, then that is a loss. I recall it as a place of poets chanting my praises as Elderlings worked scented oil into my scale-beds. There were baths there. And sunning spots. Fat herds of all sorts of meat creatures: bullocks and sheep and swine. They made many memorials to us, statues and mosaics.

  He held his thoughts still, and Tintaglia’s mind wandered. She had her ancestors’ memories of Kelsingra, but they were faded and scentless. Her own perceptions of the abandoned city overlay them and dimmed them even more.

  I go to hunt! Icefyre announced abruptly. I hunger still.

  I am going to rest. She recognized suddenly a determination that had been forming in her for some days. And then I am going back to the Rain Wilds.

  Perhaps later we will go there. The feel of his thought was dismissive of her idea. Perhaps another time, I will go to see Kelsingra for myself. When I decide the time is right to go. He turned away from her and leaped into the air. The wind of his battering wings rushed past her, stirring her injury to a dull ache.

  Wearily she settled herself for sleep. It was difficult to find a position that did not irritate her wound. It was getting worse; she could smell it, and the spreading poison from the infection was a throbbing deep in her muscles. It was not healing and she could do nothing to better it. The longer she waited, the weaker she would be. But Icefyre cared nothing for that.

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  And abruptly she knew that when she awoke, she would not wait for him to return or for his decision. She needed the services of her Elderlings, Reyn with his strong hands and Malta’s clever little mind. It was time to go home.

  Back to the Rain Wilds.

 
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