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City of dragons, p.7
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       City of Dragons, p.7

         Part #3 of Rain Wild Chronicles series by Robin Hobb
 

  Tats’s next words answered her question and her thoughts.

  “I’m not her slave because I don’t do those things the way a slave would do them. At first it seemed almost like she was my child or something. I took pride in making her happy and seeing how pretty I could make her. It was really satisfying to put meat or a big fish in front of her and feel how good it made her feel to eat. ”

  “Glamour,” Thymara said bitterly. “We all know about dragon glamour. Sintara has used it on me more than once. I find myself doing something because I think I really want to do it. Then, when I’ve finished, I realize that it wasn’t my desire at all. It was just Sintara pushing me, making me want to do whatever she wants me to do. ” Just the thought of how the big blue queen could manipulate her made her want to grind her teeth.

  “I know Sintara does that to you. I’ve seen it happen a few times. We’ll be in the middle of talking about something, something important, and suddenly you stop even looking at me and say that you have to go hunting right away. ”

  Thymara kept a guilty silence. She didn’t want to tell him he was mistaken, that going hunting was her best excuse for avoiding him whenever their conversations became too intense.

  Tats seemed unaware of her lack of assent. “But Fente doesn’t do that to me. Well, hardly ever. I think she loves me, Thymara. The way she’s changing me, being so careful about it. And after I’ve fed her and groomed her, sometimes she just wants me to stay right there with her and keep her company. Because she enjoys my company. That’s something I’ve never had before. My mom was always asking the neighbors to watch me when I was little. And when she killed that man, she just took off. I still think it was an accident, that she only meant to rob him. Maybe she thought she’d just have to hide for a short time. Maybe she meant to come back for me. She never did. When she knew she was in trouble, she just ran away and left me to whatever might happen to me. But Fente wants me to be with her. Maybe she doesn’t really ‘love’ me, but she sure wants me around. ” He gave a half shrug as he walked, as if she would think him sentimental. “The only other one who ever seemed to like me was your father, and even he always kept a little distance between us. I know he didn’t like me spending so much time with you. ”

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  “He was afraid of what our neighbors might think. Or my mother. The rules were strict, Tats. I wasn’t supposed to let anyone court me. Because it was forbidden for me to get married. Or to have any child. Or to even take a lover. ”

  Tats gestured in wonder at the antler scores on a tree they passed. The deer that had done it must have been just as immense as the one Heeby had just killed. She touched them with a finger. Antler scores? Or claw marks? No, she couldn’t even imagine a tree cat that large.

  “I knew his rules for you. And for a long time, I didn’t even think of you that way. I wasn’t that interested in girls then. I just envied what you had, a home and parents and a regular job and regular meals. I wished I could have it, too. ”

  He paused at a split in the game trail and raised an eyebrow at her.

  “Go left. It looks more traveled. Tats, my home was not as wonderful as you thought it was. My mother hated me. I shamed her. ”

  “I think . . . well, I’m not sure she hated you. I think maybe the neighbors made her ashamed of wanting to love you. But even if she did hate you, she never left you. Or threw you out. ” He sounded almost stubborn in his insistence.

  “Except that first time when she gave me to the midwife to expose,” Thymara pointed out bitterly. “My father was the one who brought me back and said he was going to give me a chance. He forced me on her. ”

  Tats was unconvinced. “And I think that’s what really shamed her. Not what you were but that she hadn’t stood up to the midwife and said she was keeping you, claws and all. ”

  “Maybe,” Thymara replied. She didn’t want to think about it. Useless to think about it now, so far away from it in both time and place. It wasn’t as if she could go and ask her mother what she had felt. She knew her father had loved her, and she’d always hold that knowledge close. But she also knew he had agreed with the rules that said she must never have a lover or a husband, never produce a child. Every time she thought of crossing that boundary, she felt she was betraying him and what he had taught her. He had loved her. He’d given her rules to keep her safe. Could she be wiser than he was in this matter?

  It seemed as if it should be her decision. Actually, yes, it was her decision. But if she decided her father was wrong, if she decided she was free to take a mate, did that somehow damage her love for him? His love for her? She knew, without doubt, that he would disapprove of her even considering such a thing.

  And even at this distance, his disapproval stung. Perhaps more so because she was so far from home and alone. What would he expect of her? Would he be disappointed if he knew how much kissing and touching she’d indulged in with Tats?

  He would. She shook her head, and Tats glanced back at her. “What is it?”

  “Nothing. Just thinking. ”

  But as she said it, she became aware of a rhythmic pounding. Something was running, with no effort at stealth, coming up the trail behind them.

  “What is that?” Tats asked and then glanced at the trees nearby. She knew what he was thinking. If they had to take refuge, climbing a tree might be their best hope.

  “Two legs,” she said abruptly, surprising even herself that she had deduced that from the sounds.

  An instant later, Rapskal came into view. “There you are!” he shouted merrily. “Heeby said you were nearby. ”

  He was grinning, full of joy at finding them. Full of pleasure in life itself, as he always was. Thymara could seldom look at Rapskal without returning that smile. He’d changed a great deal since they had left Trehaug. The boyishness of his face had been planed away by hardship and the approach of manhood. He’d shot up, taller than anyone should grow in a matter of months. Like her, he had been born marked by the Rain Wilds. But since their expedition had begun, he’d grown lean and lithe. His scaling was unmistakably scarlet now to complement Heeby’s hide. His eyes had always been unusual, a very pale blue. But now the lambent blue glow that some Rain Wilders acquired with age gleamed constantly in them, and the soft blue sometimes had the hard silver bite of steel. Instead of becoming more dragonlike, the features of his face were chiseled to classical humanity: he had a straight nose and flat cheeks, and his jaw had asserted itself in the last couple of months.

  He met her gaze, pleased at her stare. She dropped her eyes. When had his face become so compelling?

  “We were trying to hunt,” Tats responded irritably to Rapskal’s greeting. “But between you and your dragon, I suspect anything edible will have been scared out of the area. ”

  The smile faded slightly from Rapskal’s face. “I’m sorry,” he responded sincerely. “I just wasn’t thinking. Heeby was so glad to find so much food, and it feels so good when she’s happy and has a full belly. It made me want to be with my friends. ”

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  “Yes, well, Fente isn’t so fortunate. Nor Sintara. We’ve got to hunt to feed our dragons. And if Thymara had brought down that deer, instead of Heeby crashing on it, we would have had enough to give both of them a decent meal. ”

  Rapskal set his jaw and sounded defensive as he insisted, “Heeby didn’t know you were nearby until after she’d killed her meat. She wasn’t trying to take it from you. ”

  “I know,” Tats replied grumpily. “But all the same, between the two of you we’ve wasted half the day. ”

  “I’m sorry. ” Rapskal’s voice had gone stiff. “I said that already. ”

  “It’s all right,” Thymara said hastily. It was unlike Rapskal to become prickly. “I know that you and Heeby didn’t mean to spoil our hunt. ” She gave Tats a rebuking look. Fente was just as willful as Sintara. He should know that there would not have been
anything Rapskal could have done to stop Heeby from taking the deer, even if he’d known they were stalking the same prey. The lost meat was not the main source of Tats’s irritation.

  “Well, there’s a way that you can make it up,” Tats declared. “When Heeby’s finished, maybe she can make a second kill. One for our dragons. ”

  Rapskal stared at him. “When Heeby has eaten, she’ll need to sleep. And then finish off whatever is left of the meat. And, well, dragons don’t hunt or make kills for other dragons. It’s just not . . . just not something she’d ever do. ” At the stern look on Tats’s face, he added, “You know, the real problem is that your dragons don’t fly. If they would fly, they could make their own kills and I’m sure they’d love it as much as Heeby does. You need to teach them to fly. ”

  Tats stared at him. Sparks of anger lit his eyes. “Thanks for telling me the obvious, Rapskal. My dragon can’t fly. ” He rolled his eyes in exasperation. “That’s a real insight into the problem. So useful to know. Now, I need to go hunting. ” He turned abruptly and stalked off.

  Thymara watched him go, openmouthed. “Tats!” she called. “Wait! You know we aren’t supposed to hunt alone!” Then she turned back to Rapskal. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what made him so angry. ”

  “Yes, you do,” he cheerily called her on her lie. He caught up her hand and held it as he spoke on. “And so do I. But it doesn’t matter. You were the one I wanted to talk to anyway. Thymara, when Heeby wakes up from her gorge, do you want to go to Kelsingra? There’s something there I want to show you. Something amazing. ”

  “What?”

  He shook his head, his face full of mischief. “It’s us. That’s all I’m going to tell you. It’s us. You and me. And I can’t explain it; I just have to take you there. Please?” He was bouncing on his toes as he spoke, incredibly pleased with himself. His grin was wide, and she had to return his smile even as she reluctantly shook her head.

  Kelsingra. Temptation burned hot. He would have to ask Heeby to fly her over. Riding on a dragon! Up in the air over the river. It was a terrifying yet fascinating thought.

  But Kelsingra? She was not as certain about that part.

  She’d been to the Elderling city exactly once and only for a few hours. The problem had been the river crossing. The river was rain-full now, swift and deep. It wandered in its wide riverbed during the summer, but now it filled it from bank to bank. A wide curve in the river meant that the current swept most swiftly and deeply right past the broken docks of ancient Kelsingra. Since they’d arrived the Tarman had made two forays for the far shore. Each time, the current had swept the barge swiftly past the city and downriver. Each time, the liveship and his crew had battled their way back to the other side of the river and then back to the village. It had been horribly frustrating for all of them, to have come so far seeking the legendary city and then not be able to dock there. Captain Leftrin had promised that when he returned from Cassarick he’d bring sturdy line and spikes and all else needed to create a temporary dock at Kelsingra.

  But the young keepers had been unable to wait that long. Thymara and a handful of the other keepers had made the crossing once in two of the ship’s boats. It had demanded a full morning of strenuous rowing to cross the river. Even so, they had been pushed far downstream of the city’s broken stone docks and had to make their tedious way back. They’d arrived in late afternoon with only a few hours of rainy daylight left in which to explore the massive city of wide streets and tall buildings.

  Thymara had always lived in a forest. That had been a strange thing to realize. She’d always thought of Trehaug as a city, a grand city at that, the largest in the Rain Wilds. But it wasn’t.

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  Kelsingra was a real city. The hike from the outskirts to the old city dock, portaging their boats, had proved that to her. They had left their small boats stacked there and ventured into the city. The streets were paved with stone and were incredibly wide and empty of life. The buildings were made of immense blocks of black stone, much of it veined with silver. The blocks were huge and she could not imagine how they had been cut, let alone transported and lifted into place. The buildings had towered tall, not as tall as the trees of the Rain Wilds but taller than any human-created thing had a right to be. The structures were straight sided, uncompromisingly man-made. Windows gaped above them, dark and empty. And it had been silent. The wind had whispered as it crept through the city as if fearful of waking it to life. The keepers who had made the crossing had kept to their huddle as they trudged through the streets, and their voices had been muted and swallowed by that silence. Even Tats had been subdued. Davvie and Lecter had gripped hands as they walked. Harrikin had peered about as if trying to wake from a peculiar dream.

  Sylve had slipped close to Thymara. “Do you hear that?”

  “What?”

  “Whispering. People talking. ”

  Thymara had listened. “It’s just the wind,” she had said, and Tats had nodded. But Harrikin had stepped back and taken Sylve’s hand. “It’s not just the wind,” he had asserted, and then they hadn’t spoken of it again.

  They’d explored the portion of the city closest to the old docks and ventured into a few of the buildings. The structures were on a scale more suited to dragons than humans. Thymara, who had grown up in the tiny chambers of a tree-house home, had felt like an insect. The ceilings had been dim and distant in the fading afternoon light, the windows set high in the walls. Inside, there lingered the remnants of furnishings. In some, that had been no more than heaps of long-rotted wood on the floor, or a tapestry that crumbled into dangling, dusty threads at a touch. Light shone in colors through the streaked stained-glass windows, casting faded images of dragons and Elderlings on the stone floors.

  In a few places, the magic of the Elderlings lingered. In one building, an interior room sprang to light when a keeper ventured into the chamber. Music, faint and uncertain, began to play, and a dusty perfume ventured out into the still air. A sound like distant laughter had twittered and then abruptly faded with the music. The group of keepers had fled back to the open air.

  Tats had taken Thymara’s hand, and she had been glad of that warm clasp. He had asked her quietly, “Do you think there’s even a chance that some Elderlings survived here? That we might meet them, or that they might be hiding and watching us?”

  She’d given him a shaky smile. “You’re teasing me, aren’t you? To try to frighten me. ”

  His dark eyes had been solemn, even apprehensive. “No. I’m not. ” Looking around them, he had added, “I’m already uneasy and I’ve been trying not to think about it. I’m asking you because I’m genuinely wondering. ”

  She replied quickly to his unlucky words, “I don’t think they’re here still. At least, not in the flesh. ”

  His laugh had been brief. “And that is supposed to reassure me?”

  “No. It’s not. ” She felt decidedly nervous. “Where’s Rapskal?” she had asked suddenly.

  Tats had halted and looked around. The others had ranged ahead of them.

  Thymara had raised her voice. “Where’s Rapskal?”

  “I think he went ahead,” Alum called back to them.

  Tats kept hold of her hand. “He’ll be fine. Come on. Let’s look around a bit more. ”

  They had wandered on. The emptiness of the broad plazas had been uncanny. It had seemed to her that after years of abandonment, life should have ventured back into this place. Grasses should have grown in the cracks in the paving stones. There should have been frogs in the green-slimed fountains, bird nests on building ledges, and vines twining through windows. But there weren’t. Oh, there had been tiny footholds of vegetation here and there, yellow lichen caught between the fingers of a statue, moss in the cracked base of a fountain—but not what there should have been. The city was too aggressively a city still, a place for Elderlings, dragons, and humans, even after all these years. The w
ilderness, the trees and vines and tangled vegetation that had formed the backdrop of Thymara’s life, had been able to gain no foothold there. That made her feel an outsider as well.

  Statues in dry fountains had stared down at them, and Thymara had felt no sense of welcome. More than once as she stared up at the carved images of Elderling women, she had wondered how her own appearance might change. They were tall and graceful creatures, with eyes of silver and copper and purple, their faces smoothly scaled. Some of their heads were crested with fleshy crowns. Elegant enamel gowns draped them, and their long slender fingers were adorned with jeweled rings. Would it be so terrible, she wondered, to become one of them? She considered Tats: his changes were not unattractive.

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  In one building, rows of tiered stone benches looked down at a dais. Bas-reliefs of dragons and Elderlings, their mosaic colors still bright after all the years, cavorted on the walls. In that room, she had finally heard what the others were whispering about. Low, conversational voices, rising and falling. The cadence of the language was unfamiliar, and yet the meaning of the words had pushed at the edges of her mind.

  “Tats,” she had said, more to hear her own voice than to call his name.

  He had nodded abruptly. “Let’s go back outside. ”

  She had been glad to keep pace with his brisk stride as they hurried out into the fading daylight.

  Some of the others had soon joined them and made a silent but mutual decision to return to the river’s edge and spend the night in a small stone hut there. It was made of ordinary river stone, and the hard-packed silt in the corners spoke of ancient floods that had inundated it. Doors and windows had long ago crumbled into dust. They had built a smoldering fire of wet driftwood in the ancient hearth and huddled close to its warmth. It was only when the rest of their party joined them that Rapskal’s absence had become obvious.

 
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