Ship of destiny, p.43
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       Ship of Destiny, p.43

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  “Ah. I see. ” The dragon lifted her head, the better to observe all the folk. There was a general cowering, an unintended genuflection before her. “You did not, then, gather to plot against me?”

  “No one has seriously considered such a thing!” Selden lied valiantly. “Perhaps we are merely humans, but we are not stupid. Who among us could think to defy your scaled mightiness? Many tales have we told one another of your valiant deeds today. All have heard of your fearsome breath, of the wind of your wings and the strength of your tail. All recognize that without your glorious might, our enemies would have overrun us. Think how sorrowful this day could have been for us, for they would have had the honor of serving you instead of us. ”

  Whom, Ronica wondered, did Selden address? Did he flatter the dragon, or were his words to remind the gathered folk that other humans could serve her just as well? The people of Bingtown could be replaced. Perhaps the only way to survive was to claim to serve her willingly.

  Tintaglia’s great silver eyes spun warmly at Selden’s flattery. Ronica gazed into their swirling depths and felt herself drawn to the creature. She was truly magnificent. The lapping of the scales on her face reminded Ronica of the flexible links of fine jewelry chain. As Tintaglia considered the gathered folk, her head swayed gently from side to side. Ronica felt caught in that motion, unable to tear her attention away. The dragon was both silver and blue; every movement called forth both colors from her scales. The grace of her bent neck was like a swan’s. Ronica was seized with a desire to touch the dragon, to discover for herself if the smoothly undulating hide were warm or cool. All around her, people edged toward the dragon, entranced with her loveliness. Ronica felt the tension ebb away from her. She felt weary still, but it was a good weariness, like the soft ache of muscles at the end of a useful day.

  “What I require of you is simple,” the dragon said softly. “Humans have always been builders and diggers. It is in your nature to shape nature to your own ends. This time, you will shape the world to my needs. There is a place in the Rain Wild River where the waters flow shallow. I wish you to go there and make it deeper, deep enough for a sea serpent to pass. That is all. Do you understand?”

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  The asking of the question seemed to loosen their silence. People murmured amongst themselves in gentle surprise. This was all she asked, this simple thing?

  Then back in the crowd a man shouted a question. “Why? Why do you want serpents to be able to go up the Rain Wild River?”

  “They are the young of dragons,” Tintaglia told him calmly. “They must go up the river, to a special place, to cocoon so that they may become full dragons. Once, there was a hauling-out place near the Rain Wild city of Trehaug, but the swamps have swallowed those warm and sandy banks. Upriver, there is still a site that may serve. If the serpents can reach it. ”

  Her eyes spun pensively for a moment. “They will require guards while they are cocooned. You will have to protect them from predators during the winter months while they are changing. This was a task, long ago, that dragons and Elderlings shared. The Elderlings built their cities not far from our hatching grounds, the better to be able to guard our cocoons until spring brought the bright sunlight needed for us to hatch. If not for the Elderling city near the lower hatching ground, I would not have been saved. You can build where the Elderlings once lived. ”

  “In the Rain Wilds?” someone asked in incredulous horror. “The water is acid; only the rain is drinkable. The land trembles constantly. Folk who live in the Rain Wilds for too long go mad. Their children are born dead or deformed, and as they age, their bodies become monstrous. All know that. ”

  The dragon made an odd sound in her throat. Every muscle in Ronica’s body tightened, until she realized what it was. Laughter. “Folk can live by the Rain Wild River. Trehaug is proof of that. But before Trehaug, long before, there were wondrous cities on the banks of the Rain Wild River. There can be again. I will show you how the water may be made drinkable. The land has subsided; you must live in the trees, as they do in Trehaug; there is no help for that. ”

  Ronica felt an odd prickling sensation in her mind. She blinked her eyes rapidly. Something… ah. That was what had changed. The dragon had shifted her gaze to a different part of the gathering. Ronica felt more alert again. She resolved to be more wary of the dragon’s spinning glance.

  Jani Khuprus spoke from the dais. Her voice shook as she dared to address the dragon, but iron determination ran through her words. “Indeed, folk can live in the Rain Wilds. But not without cost and not without skill. We are proof of that. The Rain Wilds are the province of the Rain Wild Traders. We will not allow them to be taken from us. ” She paused, and took a shaky breath. “No others know how to subsist beside the river, how to build in the trees or how to withstand the madness seasons. The buried city we once mined for trade goods is lost to us now. We must find other ways to survive there. Nevertheless, the Rain Wilds are our home. We will not surrender them. ”

  “Then you must be the one to do the winter guarding,” the dragon told her smoothly. She cocked her head. “You are more suited to this task than you know. ”

  Jani visibly gathered her determination. “That, perhaps, we can do. If certain conditions are met. ” She glanced out over the gathered people. With fresh confidence she directed, “Let torches be kindled. The settling of the details may take some time. ”

  “But surely not long,” the dragon intoned warningly.

  Jani was not daunted. “This is not a task for a handful of men with shovels. Engineers and workers from Bingtown will have to help us deepen the river channel for you. It will take planning and many workers. The population of Trehaug may not be great enough to support such a venture on its own. ”

  Jani’s voice became more certain, and took on the cadence of a bargainer. This was something she knew how to do well. “There will be difficulties to surmount, of course, but the Rain Wild Traders are accustomed to the hardships of the Rain Wild. Workers will have to be fed and sheltered. Food supplies would have to be brought in, and that requires our liveships, such as the Kendry, who was taken from us. You will, of course, aid us in recovering him? And in keeping the river mouth free of Chalcedeans, so that supplies can flow freely?”

  The dragon’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Of course,” she said a bit stiffly. “Surely that will content you. ”

  Throughout the roofless concourse, torches were being kindled. Their brightness seemed only to make the night sky darker. Cold was settling over the gathered folk. Breath showed in the light of the torches and people moved closer to one another, taking comfort in body warmth. The night sky began to draw the warmth of the brief day away, but no one thought of leaving. Bargaining was the blood of Bingtown, and this was far too important a deal not to witness its birth. Outside, a man’s raised voice was conveying the negotiations to the folk waiting there.

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  Jani knit her scaled brows. “We shall have to build a second city, near this ‘upper hatching ground’ you speak of. That will take time. ”

  “Time we do not have,” the dragon declared impatiently. “It is of the essence that this work begin as soon as possible, before other serpents perish. ”

  Jani shrugged helplessly. “If haste is necessary, then even more workers will be needed. We may need to bring them from as far as Jamaillia. They must be paid. Where is the money to come from?”

  “Money? Paid?” the dragon demanded, becoming incensed.

  Dujia suddenly claimed the floor. She stepped to the edge of the dais, to stand beside Jani. “There is no need to go to Jamaillia for workers. My people are here. The Tattooed were brought here to work, and paid nothing at all. Some of us will be willing to go up the river and do this work, not for money, but for a chance. A chance for homes and futures of our own. Give us, to begin with, food and shelter. We will work to make our own fortunes. ”

Jani turned to confront her. A terrible hope gleamed in the Rain Wild woman’s face. She spoke clearly and slowly, laying out the terms of a bargain. “To come to the Rain Wild, you must become of the Rain Wild. You cannot hold yourselves back from us. ” She stared deep into Dujia’s eyes, but the Tattooed woman did not glance away from Jani’s Rain Wild scales and gently glowing eyes. Jani smiled at her. Then her eyes suddenly roved over the assembled people. She seemed to see the Tattooed in a new way. “Your children would have to take husbands and wives among us. Your grandchildren would be Rain Wilders. There is no leaving, once you have come to the Rain Wilds. You cannot remain a separate people, with separate ways. It is not an easy life. Many will die. Do you understand what you are offering?”

  Dujia cleared her throat. When Jani glanced back at her, she met her look squarely. “You say we must become of the Rain Wild. Rain Wild Traders are what you call yourselves. That is what we would become? Traders? With the rights of Traders?”

  “Those who marry Rain Wild Traders always become Rain Wild Traders. Mingle your families with ours, and yours become ours. ”

  “Our homes would be our own? Whatever we acquired, it would be ours?”

  “Of course. ”

  Dujia looked out over the assembled folk. Her eyes sought out the Tattooed groups. “This is what you told me you wanted. Homes and possessions that you could pass on to your children. To be on an equal footing with your neighbors. The Rain Wilders offer us this. They warn us fairly of hardships to come. I have spoken for you, but each of you must decide. ”

  From somewhere amongst the Tattooed, a voice called a question. “And if we don’t want to go to the Rain Wilds? What then?”

  Serilla stepped forward.

  “I speak with the authority of the Satrapy. Henceforth, there shall be no slaves in Bingtown. Tattooed are Tattooed: no more nor less than that. It would violate the original charter of the Bingtown Traders for me to elevate the Tattooed to an equal standing with the Traders. I cannot do that. But I can decree that henceforth, in conformity with the original laws of Bingtown, the Satrapy of Jamaillia will not recognize slavery or the claims of slave owners in Bingtown. ” She let her voice drop dramatically. “Tattooed ones, you are free. ”

  “We always were!” someone called out from the crowd, spoiling the moment for the Companion.

  Mingsley made a final bid to save his people’s labor force. “But indentured servants, surely, are another matter-“

  He was shouted down, not just by the crowd but by a roar from the dragon. “Enough. Solve these petty issues on your own time. I care not how you color your skins or name yourselves, so long as the work is done. ” She looked at Jani Khuprus. “You can draw on Bingtown for engineers and planners. You have a labor force. I myself will soar forth tomorrow, to free the Kendry and find the other liveships and send them to you. I pledge I will keep the waters between Trehaug and Bingtown cleared of enemy ships while you do this work. Surely, all is now in agreement. ”

  The sky was black. The dragon was a gleaming entity of silver and blue. Her head swayed gently over them as she awaited their assent. The flickering torchlight caressed her wondrous form. Ronica felt as if she were in a tale of enchantment, witness to a great miracle. The petty problems that remained suddenly seemed unworthy of discussion. Had not Tintaglia pointed out that they were creatures of brief life? Surely, it could matter little what happened in such a tiny flicker of time as they occupied. Serving Tintaglia in restoring dragons to the world would be a way to ensure their lives had some impact on the greater world.

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  A sigh of agreement ran through the crowd. Ronica moved her own head in a slow nod.

  “Malta,” Keffria said quietly beside her. The word disturbed Ronica. It had grown so quiet within the Concourse that the sound was like a pebble dropped in a still pool. A few heads turned toward them. Her daughter took a deep breath and spoke the name louder. “Malta. ”

  The dragon turned to regard them, and her eyes were not pleased. “What is it?” she demanded.

  Keffria stepped toward the dragon, aggression in her stride. “Malta!” she shouted the name. “Malta was my daughter. I am told you lured her to her death. And now, by some wicked magery, my son, my last child, stands before you and praises you. All my people murmur and smile at sight of you, like babies entranced with a shiny dangle. ”

  As Keffria spoke, Ronica felt a strange agitation. How dare she speak so to this glorious and benevolent creature, the creature who had rescued all of Bingtown-the creature responsible for Malta’s death? Ronica felt an instant of disorientation as if she woke from a deep sleep.

  “BUT MOTHER-” SELDEN BEGAN PLEADINGLY, TAKING HER ARM. KEFFRIA SET her son firmly aside, out of harm’s way, and spoke on. Her rising anger at how the dragon manipulated the crowd had cracked her frozen heart. Fury poured out with her pain.

  “I do not succumb to your glamour. I do contemplate how I could take revenge on you. If it is so unthinkable that I will not worship the one who let my daughter die, then you had best slay me now. Breathe on me and melt the flesh from my bones. It will be worth it if it opens my son’s eyes to you, and the eyes of those others willing to grovel before you. ” She spat her final words. Her eyes swept the gathered folk. “You refused to heed the words of Reyn Khuprus. Watch now, and see what this creature truly is. ”

  The dragon drew back her head. The faint luminescence of the creature’s silver eyes made them pale stars. Her great jaws opened wide, but Keffria had finally found her courage. Selden stood, stricken by horror, eyes darting from his mother to the dragon. It cut her that he seemed unable to choose, but she stood her ground. All the other folk crowded back and away from Keffria as the dragon drew breath. Then, pushing her way forward, her mother stepped to her side. Ronica took her arm. Together they stared defiantly up at the creature that had taken Malta’s life and Selden’s heart. Keffria found her voice again. “Give me back my children! Or give me my death!”

  From somewhere, Reyn Khuprus hurtled into them, jostling them all aside. Keffria staggered to her knees and Ronica went down beside her. She heard Jani Khuprus’ cry of horror from the dais. The young Rain Wilder stood alone where they had been. “Run!” he ordered them, then spun to face the dragon, his scaled face contorted with fury. “Tintaglia!” he roared. “Stop!” A sword was bared in his hand.

  For a wonder, the dragon froze. Her jaws still gaped. A single drop of liquid formed on one of her myriad teeth. When it dripped to the stone floor of the Concourse, the stone sizzled and gave way to it.

  But Reyn had not stopped her. Selden had. He had stepped quietly forward, to crane his neck up at Tintaglia. His words and manner healed Keffria’s heart. “Please, don’t hurt them!” the boy begged shrilly, his courtier’s manners fled. “Please, dragon, they are my family, as dear to me as yours are to you. All we want is to have my sister back. Mighty as you are, can’t you give that to us? Can’t you bring her back?”

  Reyn seized Selden by his shoulders, thrust him toward his mother. Keffria caught hold of him in numbed silence. Her son, truly hers still, no matter how scales lined his face. She held him tight to her, and felt her mother’s grip on her arm tighten. The Vestrits stood together, no matter what else might come.

  “No one can bring back the dead, Selden,” Reyn said flatly. “It is useless to ask that of her. Malta is dead. ” As he flung back his head to confront the dragon, a trick of the torches sent light dancing along his scaled face, making Reyn appear as dragonlike as Tintaglia. “Keffria is right. I will not be seduced. No matter what you can do for Bingtown, you should be revealed for what you are, to keep others from falling to your wiles. ” He turned to the gathered folk and opened wide his arms. “Hear me, people of Bingtown! She has entranced you with her glamour. You cannot believe or trust this creature. She will not keep her word. When the time suits her, she will throw aside all bargains, and claim one so great as herself ca
nnot be bound in agreement by beings as insignificant as we are. Aid her, and you restore to life a race of tyrants! Oppose her now, while there is only one to fight. ”

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  Tintaglia flung her head back and gave a roar of frustration that surely must have shaken the stars in their sockets. Keffria shrank back, but they did not run. The dragon lifted her front feet from the wall’s edge and slammed them down again. A great jagged crack raced through the stone wall at the impact. “You tire me!” she hissed at Reyn. “I lie, you say. You poison minds against me with your venomous words. I lie? I break my word? You lie! Look into my eyes, human, and know the truth. ”

  She thrust her great head at him, but Reyn held his ground. Ronica, gripping Keffria’s shoulders, tried to drag her back, but she would not budge. She grasped Selden as he strained toward the dragon. Their tableau held, a frozen statue of fear and longing. Then Keffria heard Reyn gasp out his breath, and not take another. He was transfixed by the swift silver spinning of the dragon’s eyes. The creature did not touch Reyn, but the Rain Wilder leaned toward her, his muscles standing out as if he resisted a great force. Keffria reached to restrain him, but beneath her hand, his flesh was set like stone. Reyn’s lips moved, but he uttered no sound.

  Abruptly, the dragon’s eyes stopped their silver swirling. Reyn dropped at their feet like a puppet with severed strings. He sprawled motionless on the cold stone floor.

  REYN HAD NOT KNOWN SHE COULD REACH OUT AND TOUCH HIS MIND SO effortlessly. As he stared into her eyes, he felt and heard her within his thoughts. “Faithless little man,” she said scathingly. “You measure me by your own actions. I have not betrayed you. You blame me because you could not find your female, but I had already kept my word to you. I could not rescue your Malta. I did all I could and then I left you to solve your problem. You failed. That was not my fault, and I do not deserve to be reviled for it. The failure is yours, little male. Nor did I lie. Open yourself. Touch me and know that I spoke true. Malta lives. ”

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