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City of dragons, p.5
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       City of Dragons, p.5

         Part #3 of Rain Wild Chronicles series by Robin Hobb
 
Page 16

 

  He contrived to brush shoulders with Carson as they walked. The hunter grinned and immediately threw his arm around Sedric. No hesitation. Sedric’s heart gave a bump. Hest would never have shown him such casual affection in public. Nor in private, if he was truthful. Carson tightened his hug, and Sedric leaned into his embrace as they walked. The hunter was solid and muscular; it was like leaning on an oak. Sedric smiled to realize that he thought of his lover in such terms. Maybe he was becoming accustomed to living here in the wilds. Carson’s coarse cloak and his bound hair smelled of wood smoke and man. Silvery glints of scaling were starting to show at the corners of his eyes. His dragon was changing him. Sedric liked the way it looked.

  Carson rubbed his upper arm. “You’re cold. Why don’t you have your cloak on?”

  Sedric’s original cloak was long gone, eaten by the acid waters of the Rain Wild River. The garment Carson was referring to was a roughly tanned deer hide with the hair still on it. Carson himself had skinned it off the animal, tanned it, and cut it to shape. It tied around Sedric’s neck with leather thongs Carson had sewn onto it. Sedric was accustomed to furs that were soft and lined with fabric. This cloak was slightly stiff, the skin side of it a creamy color. It crackled when he walked. Deer hair was not fur: it was stiff and bristly. “It’s so heavy,” Sedric replied guiltily. He would not mention that it smelled like, well, like a deer hide.

  “Indeed it is. But it would shed the rain and keep you warmer. ”

  “It’s too far to go back for it now. ”

  “Yes. But gathering firewood will warm both of us. ”

  Sedric didn’t reply that he could think of better ways to warm them both. He was not a lazy man, but he had an aversion to the hard physical labor that Carson routinely accepted as his life. Before Alise had kidnapped him on her crazed adventure up the Rain Wild River, Sedric had always lived as befitted a young Bingtown Trader, even if his family had not been all that well-to-do. He’d worked hard, but with his mind, not his back! He’d kept accounts, both for the household and for the many business contracts that Hest negotiated for his family. He had minded Hest’s wardrobe and overseen his social appointments. He had passed Hest’s instructions on to the household staff and dealt with their complaints and questions. He’d kept track of the arrival and departure dates of the ships in the harbor, making sure that Hest had the pick of incoming cargos and that he was the first to contact new merchants. He had been essential to the smooth running of Hest’s household and business. Essential. Valued.

  Then a memory of Hest’s mocking smile confronted and scattered his warm memories of that time. Had any of his life truly been the way he thought it was? he wondered bitterly. Had Hest valued him for his social and organizational skills? Or had he simply enjoyed the use of Sedric’s body, and how well he endured the humiliations that Hest heaped on him? He narrowed his eyes against the sting of the lancing rain. Had his father been right about him? Was he a useless fop, fit only to fill the fine clothes that his employer paid for?

  “Hey. Come back. ” Carson shook his shoulder gently. “When you get that look on your face, it bodes no good for either of us. It’s done, Sedric. A long time over and gone. Whatever it was. Let it go and stop tormenting yourself. ”

  “I was such a fool. ” Sedric shook his head. “I deserve to be tormented. ”

  Carson shook his head, and a touch of impatience came into his voice. “Well, then stop tormenting me. When I see that look on your face, I know you’re thinking about Hest. ” He paused suddenly, as if he’d been on the verge of saying something and then changed his mind. After a moment, he said with forced cheer, “So. What brought him to mind this time?”

  “I’m not missing him, Carson, if that’s what you think. I’ve no desire to return to him. I’m more than content with you. I’m happy. ”

  Carson squeezed his shoulder again. “But not so happy that you can stop thinking of Hest. ” He tipped his head and looked at him quizzically. “I don’t think he treated you well. I don’t understand his hold on you. ”

  Sedric shook his head as if he could shake all memories of Hest out of his mind. “It’s hard to explain him. He’s very charismatic. He gets what he wants because he truly believes he deserves it. When something goes wrong, he never takes the blame as his own. He puts it on someone else, and then just steps away from whatever the disaster was. It always seemed to me that Hest could just step away from anything terrible that happened, even if he caused it. Whenever it seemed that he would finally have to face the consequences of what he did, some other passage would suddenly open for him. ” His voice ran down. Carson’s dark eyes were on him, trying to understand.

  Page 17

 

  “And that fascinates you still?”

  “No! At the time, it always seemed as if he had extraordinary luck. Now, when I look back, I see him as being very good at shifting the blame. And I let him. Often. So I’m not really thinking of Hest. I’m thinking about my life back in Bingtown, about who he made me . . . or rather who I let myself become. ” Sedric shrugged. “I’m not proud of who I became when I was with Hest. Not proud of things I planned to do, or the ones I did. But in some ways, I’m still that person. And I don’t know how to change. ”

  Carson gave him a sideways glance, his smile broad. “Oh, you’ve changed. Trust me on that, laddie. You’ve changed quite a bit. ”

  They’d reached the eaves of the forest. The bare-leaved trees at the outer edges did little to break the incessant rain. There were evergreens a bit higher up the hill, offering more shelter, but there were more dead and fallen branches for firewood here.

  Carson halted near a grove of ash trees. He produced two long leather straps, each with a loop at the end. Sedric took his, muffling a sigh. He reminded himself of two things: when he worked, he did stay warmer, and when he kept pace with Carson, he gained more respect for himself. Be a man, he told himself, and he shook the strap out into a loop on the ground as Carson had taught him. Carson had already begun to gather faggots and place them on the strap. The big man sometimes cracked a branch over his thigh to break it down to a manageable size. Sedric had tried that; it left remarkable bruises on him, ones that made Carson wince just to look at. He hadn’t attempted it since then.

  “I need to come back with the axe and take down a couple of those fir trees. Big ones. We can fell them and let them dry for a season, and next year we’ll chop them up and have some good long-burning logs. Something more substantial than these, something that will burn all night. ”

  “That would be good,” Sedric agreed without enthusiasm. More backbreaking work. And thinking about firewood for next year made him realize that next year he’d probably still be here. Still living in a cottage, eating meat cooked over a fire, and wearing Sa knew what for clothes. And the year after. And the year after. Would he spend his life here, grow old here? Some of the other keepers had said that the changes the dragons were putting them through would make them into Elderlings, with vastly extended life spans. He glanced at the fish-fine scaling on the back of his wrists. One hundred years here? Living in a little cottage and caring for his eccentric dragon. Would that be his life? Once Elderlings had been legendary creatures to him, elegant and lovely beings who lived in wondrous cities full of magic. The Elderling artifacts that the Rain Wilders had discovered as they dug up the buried cities had been mystical: jewels that gleamed with their own light, and perfume gems, each with its own sweet scent. Carafes that chilled whatever was put into them. Jidzin, the magical metal that woke to light at a touch. Wonderful wind chimes that played endlessly varying harmonies and tunes. Stone that held memories that one could share by touching . . . so many amazing things had belonged to the Elderlings. But they were long gone from the world. And if Sedric and the other keepers were to be their heirs, they would indeed be the poor branch of the family, allied with dragons who could scarcely fly and bereft of Elderling magic. Like the cri
ppled dragons of this generation, the Elderlings they created would be poor and stunted things, eking out an existence in primitive surroundings.

  A gust of wind shook down a shower of drops from the naked tree branches above him. He brushed them off his trousers with a sigh. The cloth had worn thin, and the cuffs were frayed to dangling threads. “I need new trousers. ”

  Carson reached out a calloused hand to rumple his wet hair. “You need a hat, too,” he observed casually.

  “And what shall we make that out of? Leaves?” Sedric tried to sound amused rather than bitter. Carson. He did have Carson. And would not he rather live in a primitive world with Carson than in a Bingtown mansion without him?

  “No. Bark. ” Carson sounded pragmatic. “If we can find the right sort of tree. There was one merchant in Trehaug who used to beat tree bark into fibers and then weave them. She treated some of them with pitch to make them waterproof. She made hats and I think cloaks. I never bought one, but given our circumstances now, I’m ready to try anything. I don’t think I’ve a whole shirt or pair of trousers left to my name. ”

  “Bark,” Sedric echoed gloomily. He tried to imagine what such a hat would look like and decided he’d rather go bareheaded. “Maybe Captain Leftrin can bring fabric back from Cassarick. I think I can manage with what I’ve got until then. ”

  Page 18

 

  “Well, we’ll have to, so it’s good that you think we can. ” Such a remark from Hest would have been scathing sarcasm. From Carson, it was shared amusement at the hardships they would endure together.

  For a moment they both fell silent, musing. Carson had amassed a substantial bundle of wood. He pulled the strap tight around the sticks and hefted it experimentally. Sedric added a few more sticks to his and regarded the pile with dread. The bundle was going to be heavy, and the sticks would poke him and his back would ache tonight. Again. And here came Carson with more sticks, helpfully increasing the size of his pile. Sedric tried to think of something positive. “But when Leftrin returns from Cassarick, won’t he be bringing us more clothing in his supplies?”

  Carson added the sticks he’d brought to the stack and wrapped the strap around it. He spoke as he tightened it. “A lot will depend on if the Council members give him all the money they owe him. I expect they’ll drag their feet. Even if they pay him, what he can bring back is going to be limited to what he can buy in Cassarick and maybe in Trehaug. Food will come first, I think. Then supplies like tar and lamp oil and candles and knives and hunting arrows. All the things that help us survive on our own. Blankets and fabric and suchlike will come last. Woven goods are always dear in Cassarick. No grazing lands in the swamps, so no sheep for wool. These meadows are one reason Leftrin was so excited about putting in an order for livestock from Bingtown. But we can expect livestock to take months to arrive, and Tarman will have to make a return trip for them. ”

  Captain Leftrin had gathered them for a meeting on the Tarman a few nights previously. He’d announced that he’d be making a run back down the river to Cassarick and Trehaug to buy as many supplies as they could afford. He’d report to the Rain Wild Traders’ Council that they had accomplished their undertaking and he’d collect the monies owed them. If keepers wanted anything special from Cassarick, they could let him know and he’d try to get it for them. Two of the keepers had promptly said that their earnings should be sent to their families. Others wanted to send messages to kin. Rapskal had announced that he wished to spend all his money on sweets, sweets of any kind.

  The laughter hadn’t died down until Leftrin had asked if anyone wanted to be taken back to Trehaug. There had been a brief silence then as the dragon keepers had exchanged puzzled glances. Go back to Trehaug? Abandon the dragons they had bonded with and return to their lives as outcasts among their own people? If they had been shunned for their appearances when they left Trehaug, what would the other Rain Wilders think of them now? Their time among the dragons had not lessened their strangeness. Quite the opposite: they had grown more scales, more spines, and in the case of young Thymara, a set of gauzy wings. The dragons seemed to be guiding their changes now so that they were more aesthetically pleasing. Even so, most of the keepers had clearly left humanity behind. None of them could return to the lives they had known.

  Alise had not bonded to a dragon and remained very human in appearance, but Sedric knew she would not return. There was nothing for her in Bingtown but disgrace. Even if Hest were willing to take her back, she would not return to that loveless sham of a marriage. Ever since he had confessed his own relationship with Hest to her, she had regarded her marriage contract with the wealthy Trader as void. She’d stay here in Kelsingra and wait for her grubby river captain to return. And even if Sedric could not understand what attracted her to the man, he was willing to admit that she seemed happier living in a stone hut with Leftrin than she had ever been in Hest’s mansion.

  And for himself?

  He glanced over at Carson and for a moment just looked at him. The hunter was a big, bluff man, well kept in his own rough way. Stronger than Hest could ever be. Gentler than Hest would ever be.

  When he thought about it, he too was happier living in a stone hut with Carson than he had ever been in Hest’s mansion. No deceit left in his life. No pretense. And a little copper dragon who loved him. His longing for Bingtown faded.

  “What are you smiling about?”

  Sedric shook his head. Then he answered truthfully. “Carson, I’m happy with you. ”

  The smile that lit the hunter’s face at the simple words was honest joy. “And I’m happy with you, Bingtown boy. And we’ll both be happier tonight if we have this firewood stacked and ready. ” Carson stooped, seized the strap of his bundle, and heaved it up onto his shoulder. He came back to his feet easily and waited for Sedric to do the same.

  Sedric copied him, grunting as he hefted his own bundle onto his shoulder. He managed to remain upright only after taking two staggering steps to catch his balance. “Sa’s breath, it’s heavy!”

  Page 19

 

  “Yes, it is. ” Carson grinned at him. “It’s twice what you could carry a month ago. Proud of you. Let’s go. ”

  Proud of him.

  “I’m proud of myself,” Sedric muttered and fell into step behind him.

  Day the 7th of the Hope Moon

  Year the 7th of the Independent Alliance of Traders

  From Detozi, Keeper of the Birds, Trehaug

  To Reyall, Acting Keeper of the Birds, Bingtown

  Dear nephew, greetings and good wishes to you.

  Erek and I both counsel you to keep your temper in this matter. Do not let Kim provoke you to anger or to accusations we cannot prove. This is not the first time we have had unpleasant correspondence with him. I still believe that he rose to his post by bribery but as that would indicate he has friends on the Cassarick Council who confirmed his promotion, taking a complaint there may get us no results.

  I still know a number of his journeymen, for they began their apprenticeships here with me in Trehaug. I will make a few quiet inquiries among them. In the meantime, you have been wise to pass the message on to your masters and defer the handling of it to them. Until your master status is confirmed, it is difficult for you to speak to Kim as an equal. Both Erek and I question the wisdom that assigned this difficult task to you.

  For now, you have done all that can be expected of you in your position. Erek and I continue to have the highest confidence in your bird-handling abilities.

  In kinder news, the two speckled swift birds that you sent to us as a wedding gift have selected mates here and begun to breed. I look forward to shipping some of their youngsters to you soon so that we may time their return flights. I have great enthusiasm for this project.

  Erek and I are still discussing which of us will relocate permanently; it is a difficult question for us. At our ages, we desire to be wed quickly and quietly, but neither
of our families seems so inclined. Pity us!

  With affection and respect,

  Aunt Detozi

  Chapter Three

  PATHWAYS

  Thymara had lived all her life in the Rain Wilds, but she had never experienced rain like this. In her childhood in Trehaug and Cassarick, the immense trees that populated the banks of the Rain Wild River had spread their many layers of canopy and shade over those tree-house cities. The driving rains of winter had been thwarted and diverted by the infinitude of leaves between her and the sky. Of course, they had blocked the direct sunlight as well, but Thymara had felt differently about that. If she wanted sunlight, she could climb for it. She could not recall that she had ever wished to feel the full onslaught of a rainstorm.

  Here, she had no choice. The meadow that edged the river was not like the shadowy undergrowth of the Rain Wilds. Thick grasses grew hip- to shoulder-deep. Rather than being swampy, the earth was firm under her feet and salted with rocks, a bewildering array of hard chunks of different textures and colors. She often wondered where they all came from and how they had come to be here. Today the wind swept across the naked lands and slapped the unimpeded rain into her face and down her collar. Her worn clothes, weakened by too-frequent contact with the acidic waters of the Rain Wild River, were no protection. Limp and soaked, they clung to her skin. And she could look forward to being cold and wet all day. She rubbed her red, chilled hands together. It was hard enough to hunt well with the battered assortment of gear she had left. Numbed hands only made it harder.

 
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