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City of dragons, p.8
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       City of Dragons, p.8

         Part #3 of Rain Wild Chronicles series by Robin Hobb

  “We need to go back and look for him,” she had insisted, and they had been splitting into search parties of three when he came in from the rising storm. Rain had plastered his hair to his skull, and his clothing was soaked. He was shaking with cold but grinning insanely.

  “I love this city!” he had exclaimed. “There’s so much to see and do here. This is where we belong. It’s where we’ve always belonged!” He had wanted them all to go with him, back into the night to explore more. He had been baffled by their refusal, but he had finally settled down next to Thymara.

  The voices of wind, rain, and the river’s constant roar had filled the night. From the distant hills had come wailing howls. “Wolves!” Nortel had whispered, and they had all shivered. Wolves were creatures of legend for them. Those sounds had almost drowned out the muttering voices. Almost. She had not slept well.

  They had left Kelsingra in the next dawn. The rain had been pouring, wind sweeping hard down the river. They had known they would battle most of the day to regain the other side. In the distance, Thymara could hear the roaring of hungry dragons. Sintara’s displeasure thundered in Thymara’s mind, and by the uneasy expression on the faces of the other keepers, she knew they were suffering similarly. They could stay in Kelsingra no longer that day. As they pulled away from the shore, Rapskal had gazed back regretfully. “I’ll be back,” he said as if he were promising the city itself. “I’ll be back every chance I get!”

  Thanks to Heeby’s powers of flight, he had kept that promise. But Thymara hadn’t been back since that first visit. Curiosity and wariness battled in her whenever she thought of returning to the city.

  “Please. I have to show you something there!”

  Rapskal’s words dragged her back to the present. “I can’t. I have to get meat for Sintara. ”

  “Please!” Rapskal cocked his head. His loose dark hair fell half across his eyes, and he stared at her appealingly.

  “Rapskal, I can’t. She’s hungry. ” Why were the words so hard to say?

  “Well . . . she should be flying and hunting. Maybe she’d try harder if you let her be hungry for a day or—”

  “Rapskal! Would you let Heeby just be hungry?”

  He kicked, half angrily, half shamed, at the thick layer of forest detritus. “No,” he admitted. “No, I couldn’t. Not my Heeby. But she’s sweet. Not like Sintara. ”

  That stung. “Sintara’s not so bad!” She was, really. But that was between her and her dragon. “I can’t go with you, Rapskal. I have to go hunting now. ”

  Rapskal flung up his hands, surrendering. “Oh, very well. ” He favored her with a smile. “Tomorrow, then. Maybe it will be less rainy. We could go early and spend the whole day in the city. ”

  “Rapskal, I can’t!” She longed to soar through the morning sky on a dragon’s back. Longed to feel what it was to fly, study just how the dragon did it. “I can’t be gone a whole day. I need to hunt for Sintara, every day. Until she’s fed, I can’t do anything else. Can’t patch the roof of our hut, can’t mend my trousers, can’t do anything. She nags me in her thoughts; I feel her hunger. Don’t you remember what that was like?”

  She studied his face as he knit his finely scaled brows. “I do,” he admitted at last. “Yes. Well. ” He sighed abruptly. “I’ll help you hunt today,” he offered.

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  “And I would thank you for that, and it would help today. ” She well knew that Tats had stalked off without her. There’d be no catching up with him. “But it won’t do a thing about Sintara being hungry tomorrow. ”

  He bit his upper lip and wriggled thoughtfully as if he were a child. “I see. Very well. I’ll help you hunt today to feed your lazy dragon. And tomorrow, I’ll think of something so that she can be fed without you spending the whole day on it. Then would you come with me to Kelsingra?”

  “I would. With my most hearty thanks!”

  “Oh, you will be more than thankful at what I wish to show you! And now, let’s hunt!”

  “Get up!”

  Selden came awake shaking and disoriented. Usually they let him sleep at this time of day, didn’t they? What time of day was it? The light from a lantern blinded him. He sat up slowly, his arm across his eyes to shelter them. “What do you want of me?” he asked. He knew they wouldn’t answer him. He spoke the words to remind himself that he was a man, not a dumb animal.

  But this man did speak to him. “Stand up. Turn around and let me take a look at you. ”

  Selden’s eyes had adjusted a bit. The tent was not completely dark. Daylight leaked in through the patches and seams, but the brightness of the lantern still made his eyes stream tears. Now he knew the man. Not one of those who tended him, who gave him stale bread and scummy water and half-rotted vegetables, nor the one who liked to poke him with a long stick for the amusement of the spectators. No. This was the man who believed he owned Selden. He was a small man with a large, bulbous nose, and he always carried his purse with him, a large bag that he carried over one shoulder as if he could never bear to be parted from his coin for long.

  Selden stood up slowly. He had not become any more naked than he had been, but the man’s appraising scrutiny made it feel as if he had. His visitors from earlier in the day were there also. Big Nose turned to a man dressed in the Chalcedean style. “There he is. That’s what you’d be buying. Seen enough?”

  “He looks thin. ” The man spoke hesitantly, as if he were trying to bargain but feared to anger the seller. “Sickly. ”

  Big Nose gave a harsh bark of laughter. “Well, this is the one I’ve got. If you can find a dragon man in better condition, you’d best go buy him instead. ”

  There was a moment of silence. The Chalcedean merchant tried again. “The man I represent will want proof that he is what you say he is. Give me something to send him, and I’ll advise him to meet your price. ”

  Big Nose mulled this over for a short time. “Like what?” he asked sullenly.

  “A finger. Or a toe. ” At the outrage on Big Nose’s face, the merchant amended, “Or just a joint off one of his fingers. A token. Of good faith in the bargaining. Your price is high. ”

  “Yes. It is. And I’m not cutting anything off him that won’t grow back! I cut him, he takes an infection and dies, I’ve lost my investment. And how do I know that one finger isn’t all you really need? No. You want a piece of him, you pay me for it, up front. ”

  Selden listened, and as the full implication of their words sunk into him, he reeled in sick horror. “You’re going to sell one of my fingers? This is madness! Look at me! Look me in the face! I’m a human!”

  Big Nose turned and glared at him. Their eyes met. “You don’t shut up, you’re going to be a bloody human. And you heard me tell him, I’m not cutting anything off you that won’t grow back. So you got nothing to complain about. ”

  Selden thought he had already experienced the depths of cruelty that these men were capable of. Two cities ago, one of his tenders had rented him for the evening to a curious customer. His mind veered from recalling that, and as Big Nose’s grinning assistant held up a black-handled knife, Selden heard a roaring in his ears.

  “It has to be something that proves he is what you say he is,” the buyer insisted. He crossed his arms on his chest. “I’ll pay you ten silvers for it. But then if my master is satisfied and wants to buy him, you have to take ten silvers off your price. ”

  Big Nose considered it. His assistant cleaned his nails with the tip of the knife.

  “Twenty silvers,” he countered. “Before we cut him. ”

  The Chalcedean chewed his lower lip. “For a piece of flesh, with scales on it, as big as the palm of my hand. ”

  “Stop!” Selden bellowed, but it came out as a shriek. “You can’t do this. You can’t!”

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  “As big as my two fingers,” Big Nose stipulated. “And the money here in my hand
before we begin. ”

  “Done,” said the buyer quickly.

  Big Nose spat into the straw and held out his hand. The coins chinked, one after another, into his palm.

  Selden backed away as far as his chains would allow him. “I’ll fight you!” he cried. “I’m not going to stand here and let you cut me. ”

  “As you wish,” Big Nose replied. He opened his purse and dropped the money in. “Give me the knife, Reever. You two get to sit on him while I take a piece off his shoulder. ”

  Day the 14th of the Hope Moon

  Year the 7th of the Independent Alliance of Traders

  From Kim, Keeper of the Birds, Cassarick

  To Trader Finbok, Bingtown

  Sent in a doubly sealed messenger tube, with plugs of green and then blue wax. If either seal is missing or damaged, notify me immediately!

  Greetings to Trader Finbok,

  As you requested, I have continued to inspect shipments from my station. You know the hazards this presents for me, and I think you ought to be more generous in rewarding my efforts. My gleanings have been a bit confusing, but we both know that where there is secrecy, there is profit to be made. While there is no direct word of your son’s wife or on the success or failure of the Tarman expedition, I think that tidings I have sent you may be valuable in ways we cannot yet evaluate. And I remind you that our agreement was that you would pay me for the risks I took as much as the information I gleaned. To put it plainly and at great risk to myself, if this message should fall into other hands, if my spying is discovered, I will lose my position as bird keeper. If that befalls me, all will want to know for whom I was spying. I think that my promise to keep that information private no matter what befalls me should be worth something to you. Think carefully before you rebuke me again for how paltry my tidings are. A man cannot catch fish when the river is empty.

  For this reason, you must speak to a certain bird seller in the city, a man called Sheerup on the street of the meat vendors. He can arrange for me to receive a shipment of birds that will return to him rather than to the Guild cages, ensuring the privacy of our communication. He will then pass on my messages to you. This will not be cheap, but opportunities always go to the man who makes them his.

  Convey my greetings to your wife, Sealia. I am sure her continued comfort and well-being as the wife of a wealthy Trader are important to both of you.


  Chapter Four


  She walked the deserted streets alone. A gleaming Elderling robe of coppery fabric sheathed her body. In strange contrast, her boots were worn, and her flapping cloak was mottled with long use. Her bare head was bent to the wind that tugged her hair free of its pinned braids. Alise squinted her eyes against the tearing chill of the moving air and trudged doggedly on. Her hands were nearly numb, but she clutched a floppy roll of bleached fabric in her hands. The doorway of a nearby house gaped open and empty, its wooden shutter long rotted away.

  When she stepped inside, she gave a shuddering sigh of gratitude. It was no warmer, but at least the wind no longer tore away her body’s heat. The Elderling robe that Leftrin had given her kept her body warm, but it could not protect her head and neck, nor her hands and feet. The susurrus that filled the moving air and tugged at her attention died away. She hugged herself, warming her hands under her arms as she gazed around the abandoned dwelling. There was little to be seen. Outlines on the tiled floor told of wooden furniture long rotted away to crumbly splinters. She scuffed a boot across the floor. The tiles beneath the dust were a rich dark red.

  A rectangular hole in the ceiling and a heap of ancient debris beneath it spoke of a stairway decayed to dust. The ceiling itself was sound. Long “beams” of cut stone supported a structure of interlocked blocks. Before she came to Kelsingra she’d never seen the like, but fitted stonework seemed to predominate here, even in the smallest homes.

  A hearth in the corner of the room had survived. It jutted out into the room and was adorned with tiles. Alise gathered the tail of her cloak and rubbed it across the smoothly tiled mantel and then exclaimed in delight. What she had thought was smeared dirt on the red tiles were actually black etchings. As she studied them, she recognized that they had a theme. Cooking and foods. Here was a fat fish on a platter, and next to it a bowl full of round roots with the leaves still attached. On another tile, she found a steaming pot of something, and a third showed a pig roasting on a spit. “So. Elderlings appear to have enjoyed the same foods we do. ”

  She spoke softly, almost as if she feared to wake someone. It was a feeling that had possessed her ever since Rapskal’s dragon had first brought her to visit the ruined city. It seemed empty, abandoned and dead. And yet she could not shake the feeling that around any corner, she might encounter the inhabitants in the midst of their lives. In the grander buildings built of black stones veined with silver she had been sure she had heard whisperings and, once, singing. But calling and searching had revealed no one; only deserted rooms and the remains of furniture and other possessions turning to dust. Her shouts did not send squirrels scurrying or send an invasion of pigeons to flight. Nothing prospered here, not a mouse, not an ant, and the scattered plant life she encountered looked unhealthy. Sometimes she felt as if she were the first visitor here in years.

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  A silly thought. Doubtless the winter winds had swept away all signs of previous passage, for wildlife was abundant, not only here but on the other side of the river. The rolling hills that surrounded the city were thickly forested, and Heeby’s easy success in hunting attested to the thriving animal population. Only yesterday, Heeby had found and routed a whole herd of some heavy-bodied hoofed creatures that she had no name for. The red dragon had terrorized them from above, stampeding them down the hill, willy-nilly through the forest and to the riverside, where all the dragons had fallen on them and feasted to temporary satiation. So the land on both sides of the river teemed with wildlife. But none of it ventured into the city.

  It was but one of the mysteries of Kelsingra. So much of it stood, perfectly intact, as if every inhabitant had simply vanished. The few instances of damage seemed random, with one exception. A huge cleft, as if someone had taken a titanic axe and chopped a wedge into the city, interrupted the streets. The river had flowed in to fill it. She’d stood on the edge of that deep blue gash and stared down into what appeared to be endless depths. Was this what had killed the city? Or had it happened years later? And why did buildings stand independently of one another in this Elderling settlement, while the buried structures of Trehaug and Cassarick had all been constructed as one continuous warren of city? There were no answers for her questions.

  She finished cleaning the hearth. One row of tiles was loose, sliding free in her hand. She caught one and gently set it on the floor. How many years had this homely hearth remained whole, to be undone by just her dusting? Well, she had seen it intact, and the image of what it had been would be recorded. It would not be completely lost as so much of Trehaug had been and Cassarick would be. There would at least be a record of this Elderling city.

  Alise knelt before the hearth and unrolled her fabric. Once it had been part of a white shirt. Washing it in river water had yellowed the fabric, and the seams of the garment had given way to the river’s acidity. So the remaining rag was serving as parchment. It wasn’t very satisfactory. The ink she possessed had already been diluted more than once, and when she tried to write on the fabric, the lines spread and blurred. But it was better than nothing, and when she had proper paper and ink again, she could transcribe all her notes. For now, she would not risk losing her first impressions of the place. She would record all she saw now, to confirm it properly later. Her survey of the untouched Elderling city would survive anything that might happen to her.

  Or to the city itself.

  Anxiety made her grit her teeth. Leftrin planned to leave tomorrow morning to make the long run b
ack to Cassarick and possibly Trehaug. In the treetop Rain Wild city, he’d collect the pay owed to all of them from the Rain Wild Council, and then he would buy supplies. Warm clothes and flour and sugar. Oil and coffee and tea. But in the course of it, he’d have to reveal that they’d rediscovered Kelsingra. She’d already discussed with him what that might mean. The Traders would be eager to explore yet another Elderling domain. They’d come, not to learn but to plunder, to find and take whatever remained of the magical Elderling artifacts and art. Looters and treasure hunters would arrive in droves. Nothing was sacred to them. All they thought of was profit. The hearth in this humble dwelling would be robbed of its tiles. The immense bas-reliefs on Kelsingra’s central tower would be cut free, crated, and shipped off. The treasure hunters would take the statuary from the fountains, the scraps of documents from what appeared to be a records hall, the decorative stone lintels, the mysterious tools, the stained-glass windows . . . and all of it would be jumbled together and carried off as mere merchandise.

  She thought of a place that she and Leftrin had discovered. Boards of ivory and ebony, dusty playing pieces still in place, had rested undisturbed on low marble tables. She had not recognized any of the games, nor the runes on the jade and amber chips that were scattered in the wide bowl of a scooped-out granite stand. “They gambled here,” she suggested to Leftrin.

  “Or prayed, perhaps. I’ve heard of priests in the Spice Isles who use rune stones to see if a man’s prayers will be answered. ”

  “That could be it, too,” she’d replied. So many riddles. The walkways between the tables were wide, and on the floor of the room, large rectangles in a different stone gleamed black. “Are those warming places for dragons? Did they come in here to watch the gambling, or the praying?”

  Leftrin’s reply had been a helpless shrug. She feared she would never know the answer to that question. The clues that could tell what Kelsingra had been would be torn away and sold, except for what she could document before the scavengers arrived.

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