Ship of destiny, p.41
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       Ship of Destiny, p.41
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         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  Then, through the turmoil and screams, through the crackling of flames and the singing of wind, a lone, clear voice caught her attention. She swiveled her head to separate the sound from all others. A voice sang, a lad’s voice, high but not shrill. Sweet and true, it rang the word. “Tintaglia, Tintaglia! Blue queen of winds and sky! Tintaglia, glorious one, terrible in your beauty, lovely in your wrath! Tintaglia, Tintaglia!”

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  Her keen eyes found the small figure. He stood alone, atop a mound of rubble, heedless that his silhouetted body made a perfect arrow target. He stood straight, joyous, his arms lifted, and he sang to her with the tongue of an Elderling. His flattery spelled her, and he wove her name into his song, uttering it with ineffable sweetness.

  Her wings gathered the wind beneath them. She banked and turned in graceful spirals, leaning against the air currents. His song spiraled with her, wrapping her in ensorcelling praise. She could not resist him. She dropped lower and lower to hear his adoring words. Battered ships fled the harbor. She no longer cared. Let them go.

  This city was poorly built to welcome a dragon. Nonetheless, not too far from her charming suitor there was a plaza that would suffice for a landing spot. As she beat her wings to slow her descent, many humans scuttled away, taking flimsy shelter behind ruined buildings. She paid them no mind. Once on the ground, she shook out her great wings and then folded them. Her head swayed with the rhythm of her minstrel’s words.

  “Tintaglia, Tintaglia, who outshines both moon and sun. Tintaglia, bluer than a rainbow’s arc, gleaming brighter than silver. Tintaglia, swift-winged, sharp-clawed, breathing death to the unworthy. Tintaglia, Tintaglia. ”

  Her eyes spun with pleasure. How long had it been since a dragon’s praises had been sung? She looked on the boy, and saw he was enraptured with her. His eyes gleamed with her beauty reflected. She recalled that she had touched this one, once before. He had been with Reyn when she rescued him. That solved the mystery, then. It happened, sometimes, that a mortal was enraptured by a dragon’s touch. Young ones were especially vulnerable to such a linking. She looked on the small creature fondly. Such a butterfly, doomed to a brevity of days, and yet he stood before her, fearless in his worship.

  She opened wide her wings in token of her approval. It was the highest accolade a dragon could afford a mortal, though his juvenile song scarcely deserved it: sweet as his words were, he was scarcely a learned minstrel. She shivered her wings so that their blue and silver rippled in the winter sunlight. He was dazzled into silence.

  With amusement, she became aware of the other humans. They hung back, peering at her from behind trees and over walls. They clutched their weapons and trembled with fear of her. She arched her long neck and preened herself to let them see the ripple of her muscle. She stretched her claws, scoring the paving stones of the street. Casually, she cocked her head and looked down on her little admirer. She deliberately spun her eyes, drawing his soul into them, until she could feel how painfully his heart leapt in his chest. As she released him, he took breath after panting breath, yet somehow remained standing. Truly, small as he was, he was yet worthy to sing a dragon’s praises.

  “Well, minstrel,” she purred with amusement. “Do you seek a boon in exchange for your song?”

  “I sing for the joy of your existence,” he answered boldly.

  “That is well,” she replied. The other, hidden humans behind Selden ventured fractionally closer to her, weapons at the ready. Fools. She clashed her tail against the cobblestones, which sent them leaping back to shelter. She laughed aloud. Yet here came one other who refused to fear her, stepping boldly out to confront her. Reyn carried a sword, but he allowed it to hang, point down, from his hand.

  “So you have returned,” Reyn spoke quietly. “Why?”

  She snorted at him. “Why? Why not? I go where I will, human. It is not for you to question a Lord of the Three Realms. The little one has chosen a better role. You were wiser to emulate him. ”

  Reyn set the bloodied tip of his blade to the street. She smelled blood on him and the sweat and smoke of battle. He dared frown at her. “You clear our harbor of a few enemy vessels and expect us to grovel with gratitude?”

  “You imagine a significance to yourself that does not exist, Reyn Khuprus. I care nothing for your enemies, only my own. They challenged me with arrows. They met a fitting end, as will all who defy me. ”

  The dark-haired Rain Wilder drew closer. He leaned on his sword, she saw now. He was wearier than she had thought. Blood had dried in a thin line down his left arm. When he lifted his face to look up at her, the thin winter sunlight glinted across his scaled brow. She quirked her ears in amusement. He wore her mark, and did not even know it. He was hers, and yet he thought he could match wills with her. The boy’s attitude was more fitting. He stood as straight and tall as he could. Although he also looked up at the dragon, his eyes were worshipful, not defiant. The boy had potential.

  Unfortunately, the potential would take time to develop, time she did not have just now. If the remaining serpents were to be rescued, the humans must work swiftly. She fixed her gaze on Reyn. She had enough experience of humans to know that the others would listen to him before they would listen to a boy. She would speak through him. “I have a task for you, Reyn Khuprus.

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  It is of the utmost importance. You and your fellows must set aside all else to attend to it, and until it is completed, you must think of nothing else. ”

  He stared up at her incredulously. Other humans drifted in from the rubble. They did not come too close but stood where they could hear her speak to Reyn without attracting undue attention to themselves. They regarded her with wide eyes, as ready to flee as to cheer her. Champion or foe, they wondered. She let them wonder, concentrating her will on Reyn. But he defied her. “Now you imagine a significance to yourself that does not exist,” he told her coldly. “I have no interest in performing any task for you, dragon. ”

  His words did not surprise her. She shifted back onto her hindquarters, towering over him. She opened out her wings, to emphasize further her size. “You have no interest in living, then, Reyn Khuprus,” she informed him.

  He should have quailed before her. He did not. He laughed. “There you are right, worm Tintaglia. I have no interest in living, and that is your doing already. When you allowed Malta to go to her death, you killed any regard I ever held for you. And with Malta died my interest in living. So do your worst to me, dragon. But I shall never again bend my neck to your yoke. I regret that I attempted to free you. Better you had perished in the dark before you drew my love to her death. ”

  His words shocked her. It was not just that he was insufferably rude to her; he truly had lost all awe of her. This pathetic little two-legs, creature of a few breaths, was willing to die this very instant, because-she turned her head and regarded him closely. Ah! Because he believed she had allowed his mate to die. Malta.

  “Malta is not dead,” she exclaimed in disgust. “You waste your emotion and grandiose words on something you have imagined. Set aside such foolishness, Reyn Khuprus. The task you must perform is vastly more important than one human’s mating. I honor you with an undertaking that may well save the whole of my race. ”

  THE DRAGON LIED. HIS CONTEMPT KNEW NO BOUNDS. HE HIMSELF HAD BEEN up and down the river in the Kendry, and found not a trace of his beloved. Malta was dead, and this dragon would lie to bend him to her will. He gazed past her disdainfully. Let her strike him where he stood. He would not give her another word. He lifted his chin, set his jaw and waited to die.

  Even so, what he saw now widened his eyes. As he stared past Tintaglia, he glimpsed furtive shadows stalking through the ruins toward her. They moved, they paused, they moved, and each time they got closer to the dragon. Their leather armor and tails of hair marked them as Chalcedeans. They had rallied, despite the shattered ships in the harbor, despi
te their many dead, and now, swords and pikes in hand, battle-axes at the ready, they were converging on the dragon. A grim smile twisted Reyn’s lips. This turn of events suited him well. Let his enemies battle one another. When they were finished, he would take on any survivors. He watched them come and said nothing, but wished them well.

  But Grag Tenira sprang forward, crying, “Dragon, ‘ware your back! To me, Bingtown, to me!” And then the fool charged the Chalcedeans, leading no more than a bloodied handful of his householders in an attack to defend the dragon.

  Swift as a striking serpent, the dragon turned to confront her attackers. She bellowed her fury and beat her great wings, heedless that she sent several of her defenders rolling. She sprang toward the Chalcedeans, her jaws gaping wide. She breathed on them. No more than that could Reyn see, and yet the results were horrifying. The hardened warriors recoiled from her, shrieking like children. In an instant, every face ran blood. A moment later, clothing and leather armor fell in tatters from their red-streaming bodies. Some tried to run, but got no more than a few steps before they stumbled. Some of the bodies fell in pieces as they collapsed. Those farthest away from the dragon managed a staggering retreat before they collapsed screaming on the ground. Even the screams did not last long. The silence that followed their fading gurgles was deafening. Grag and his men halted where they stood, fearing to approach the bloody bodies.

  Reyn felt his guts heave. The Chalcedeans were enemies, lower than dogs and deserving of no mercy. But to see any creature die as those men had died was wrenching. Even now, the bodies continued to degrade, losing shape as they deliquesced. A head rolled free of its spine, settling on its side as flesh flowed from the collapsing skull. Tintaglia swiveled her great head back to stare at him. Her eyes spun; was she amused at his horror? An instant ago, he had told her that he no longer valued his life. That had not changed, but he also knew that any other death was preferable to the one he had just witnessed. He braced himself, determined to die silently.

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  Where Grag Tenira found his courage, Reyn could not say. He strode boldly between the Rain Wilder and the dragon. He lifted his sword high, and Tintaglia bridled in affront. Then the Bingtown Trader bowed low and set the blade at her feet.

  “I will serve you,” he offered Tintaglia. “Only free our harbor of these vermin, and I will set myself to any task you propose. ” He glanced about; his look plainly invited others to join him. Some few crept closer, but most kept their distance. Selden alone advanced confidently to stand beside Grag. The shining eyes the boy turned up to the dragon made Reyn feel ill. Selden was so young, and so deceived by the creature. He wondered if that was how his mother and brother had seen him when he was advocating so strongly on the dragon’s behalf. He winced at the memory. He had turned this creature loose on the world, and his price for that folly had been Malta.

  Tintaglia’s eyes flashed as she considered Grag. “Do you think I am a servant to be bought with wages? Dragons have not been gone that long from this world, surely? The will of a dragon takes precedent over any feeble goals of humans. You will cease this conflict, and turn your attention to my wishes. ”

  Selden spoke before Grag could reply. “Having seen the marvel of your wrath, mighty one, how could we wish to do otherwise? It is those others, the invaders, who dispute your will. See how they sought to attack you, before they even knew your bidding. Smite them and drive them from our shores, wide-winged queen of the skies. Free our minds from considering them, that we may turn willingly to your loftier goals. ”

  Reyn stared at the lad. Where did he find such language? And did he think a dragon could be so easily maneuvered? With amazement, he watched Tintaglia’s great head dip down until her nostrils were on a level with Selden’s belt. She gave the boy a tiny nudge that sent him staggering.

  “Honey-tongue, do you think you can deceive me? Do you think pretty words will convince me to labor like a beast for your ends?” There was both affection and sarcasm in her voice.

  Selden’s boyish voice rang out clear and true. “No, mistress of the wind, I do not hope to deceive you. Nor do I try to bargain with you. I beg this boon of you, mighty one, that we might more fully concentrate on your task for us. ” He took a breath. “We are but small creatures, of short lives. We must grovel before you, for that is how we are made. And our small minds are made likewise, filled with our own brief concerns. Help us, gleaming queen, to put our fears to rest. Drive the invaders from our shore, that we may heed you with uncluttered minds. ”

  Tintaglia threw back her head and roared her delight. “I see you are mine. I suppose it had to be, as young as you were, and so close to my wings’ first unfurling. May the memories of a hundred Elderling minstrels be yours, small one, that you may serve me well. And now I go, not to do your bidding, but to demonstrate my might. ”

  She reared, taller than a building, and pivoted on her hind legs like a war stallion. Reyn saw her mighty haunches bunch, and threw himself to the ground. An instant later, a blast of air and driven dust lashed him. He remained down as the beating of her silver-blue wings lifted her skyward. He rose and gaped at the suddenly tiny figure overhead. His ears felt stuffed with cotton. As he stared, Grag suddenly gripped his arm. “What were you thinking, to defy her like that?” the Trader demanded. He lifted his gaze in awe. “She’s magnificent. And she’s our only chance. ” He grinned at Selden. “You were right, lad. Dragons change everything. ”

  “So I believed once, also,” Reyn said sourly. “Push aside her glamour. She is as deceptive as she is magnificent, and her heart has room only for her own interests. If we bow to her will, she will enslave us as surely as the Chalcedeans would. ”

  “You are wrong. ” Small and slight as Selden was, he seemed to tower with satisfaction. “The dragons did not enslave the Elderlings, and they will not enslave us. There are many ways for different folk to live alongside each other, Reyn Khuprus. ”

  Reyn looked down on the boy and shook his head. “Where do you get such ideas, boy? And such words as could charm a dragon into letting us live?”

  “I dream them,” the boy said ingenuously. “When I dream that I fly with her, I know how she speaks to herself. Queen of the sky, rider of the morning, magnificent one. I speak to her as she speaks to herself. It is the only way to converse with a dragon. ” He crossed his thin arms on his narrow chest. “It is my courtship of her. Is it so different from how you spoke to my sister?”

  The sudden reminder of Malta and how he had used to flatter and cajole her was like a knife in his heart. He started to turn aside from the boy who smiled so unbearably. But Selden reached out and gripped his arm. “Tintaglia does not lie,” he said in a low voice. His eyes met Reyn’s and commanded his loyalty. “She considers us too trivial to deceive. Trust me in this. If she says Malta is alive, then she lives. My sister will return to us. But to get this, you must let me guide you, as I let my dreams guide me. ”

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  Screams rose from the vicinity of the harbor. All around them, men scrabbled for vantage points. Reyn had no desire to do so. Chalcedeans or not, they were his own kind that the dragon was slaying. He heard the crack of massive timbers giving way. Another ship dismasted, no doubt.

  “Too late for those bastards to flee now!” a nearby warrior exulted savagely.

  Close by, others took up his spirit. “Look at her soar. Truly, she is queen of the skies!”

  “She will cleanse our shores of those foul Chalcedeans!”

  “Ah! She has smashed the hull with one swipe of her tail!”

  Beside him, Grag suddenly lifted his sword. His weariness seemed to have left him. “To me, Bingtown! Let us see that any who reach the beach alive do not long remain so. ” He set off at a jogging run, and the men who had earlier cowered in the ruins hastened after him, until Reyn and Selden alone remained standing in the ruined plaza.

  Selden sighed. “You s
hould go quickly, to gather folk from all of Bingtown’s groups. It is best that when we treat with the dragon, we speak with one voice. ”

  “I imagine you are right,” Reyn replied distractedly. He was remembering the strange dreams of his own youth. He had dreamed the buried city, alive with light and music and folk, and the dragon had spoken to him. Such dreams came, sometimes, to those who spent too much time down there. But surely, such dreams were the province of the Rain Wild Traders only.

  Wistfully, Reyn reached down to rub a thumb across the boy’s dust-smeared cheek. Then he stared, wordless, at the fan of silver scaling he had revealed on Selden’s cheekbone.

  Liveship Traders 3 - Ship of Destiny

  CHAPTER SEVENTEEN - Bingtown Negotiations

  THE ROOF ON THE TRADERS’ CONCOURSE WAS GONE. THE CHALCEDEANS HAD finished what the New Traders had begun. Ronica picked her way past the sooty remains of the roof that had collapsed on the Concourse floor. It had continued to burn after it fell, streaking the stone walls with soot and smoke. Tapestries and banners that had once decorated the hall hung in charred fragments. Above, a few beams remained, burned to black points. The afternoon sky threatened rain as it looked grayly down on the gathering inside the roofless building, yet the Bingtown Traders had stubbornly insisted on meeting in a structure that could no longer shelter them. That, Ronica thought, spoke volumes about the legendary tenacity of the Traders.

  The fallen timbers had been pushed to one side. Folk stepped over and through the rest of the rubble. Cinders crunched underfoot and the smell of damp ash rose as the crowd milled. The fire that had taken the roof had claimed most of the tables and benches as well. Some scorched chairs remained, but Ronica did not trust any of them enough to sit on them.

  And there was a strange equality to standing shoulder to shoulder with the others gathered here. Bingtown Traders, New Traders, tattooed slaves and brawny fisherfolk, tradesmen and servants all stood with their friends and kin.

  They filled the hall. Outside, the overflow sat on the steps and clustered in groups on the grounds. Despite their differing origins, there was an odd sameness to the folk. All faces bore the shock and grief of the Chalcedean invasion and the havoc it had wrought. Battle and fire had treated them equally, from wealthy Bingtown Trader to humble kitchen slave. Their clothes were stained with soot or blood and sometimes both. Most looked unkempt. Children huddled near parents or neighbors. Weapons were carried openly. The talk was muttered and low, and most had to do with the dragon.

 
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