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City of dragons, p.9
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       City of Dragons, p.9

         Part #3 of Rain Wild Chronicles series by Robin Hobb
 
Page 31

 

  The plundering of Kelsingra was inevitable. Ever since she’d realized that, Alise had begged passage to the city every day on which it was clear enough for Heeby to fly. She had spent every daylight hour visiting and recording her impression of every structure, rather than rushing from building to building. Better to have a detailed and accurate recording of part of the ancient city than a haphazard sampling of all of it, she’d decided.

  Now she heard footsteps on the pavement outside and went to the door. Leftrin was striding through the empty streets, his hands stuffed under his crossed arms for warmth and his chin tucked into his chest. His gray eyes were narrowed against the sharp breeze. The cold had reddened his cheeks above his dark beard, and the wind had mussed his always-unruly hair. Even so, her heart warmed at the sight of him. The blocky ship’s captain in his worn jacket and trousers would not have merited a second glance from her during her days as a respectable Bingtown Trader’s daughter. But in the months of their companionship on board the Tarman, she’d discovered his true worth. She loved him. Loved him far more than she’d ever loved her cruel husband, Hest, even in the first heady days of her infatuation with the handsome fellow. Leftrin was rough-spoken and scarcely educated in any of the finer things of life. But he was honest and capable and strong. And he loved her, openly and wholeheartedly.

  “I’m here!” she called to him, and he turned his steps her way and hurried to join her.

  “It’s getting colder out there,” he greeted her as he stepped into the small shelter of the house. “The wind is kicking up and promising rain. Or maybe sleet. ”

  She stepped into his embrace. His outer clothes were chill against her, but as they held each other, they warmed. She stepped back slightly to capture his rough hands and hold them between her own, chafing them. “You need gloves,” she told him, uselessly.

  “We all need gloves. And every other kind of warm clothing. And replacements for all the gear, tools, and food supplies we lost in that flood wave. I fear Cassarick is our only source. ”

  “Carson said he could—”

  Leftrin shook his head. “Carson’s bringing down lots of meat, and the keepers are getting better at hunting in this new kind of terrain. We’re all staying fed, but it’s only meat; and the dragons are never full. And Carson’s tanning the skin off every creature, but it takes time, and we don’t have the proper tools. He can make stiff hides that work as floor coverings or to cover windows. But to make serviceable bed furs or leather to wear requires time and equipment we don’t have. I have to go to Cassarick, my dear. I can’t put it off any longer. And I want you to go with me. ”

  She leaned her forehead on his shoulder and shook her head. “I can’t. ” Her words were muffled in his embrace. “I have to stay here. There is so much to document, and I have to get it done before it’s spoiled. ” She lifted her face and spoke before he could launch into the familiar reassurances. Useless to talk about it. “How did your work go?” she asked, changing the subject.

  “Slowly. ” He shook his head. He had taken on the task of designing a new landing for the city. “Really, all I can do is plan and make a list of what I need to buy. The river sweeps past the front of the city; the drop-off is immediate, the water is deep, and the current is swift. There’s no place to put Tarman aground and nothing I trust to tie up to. Even with every sweep manned, we were carried right past the city and downriver. I don’t know if it has always been that way, but I think not. I suspect the depth of the water varies seasonally and that when summer comes the water will recede a bit. If so, summer will be our time to build.

  “I’ve tested the old pilings that are left. The wooden ones are only shells, but the stone ones seem sturdy. We can go upriver on the other side, cut timber there, and then raft it downriver to the city. Landing the logs here will be the challenge. But it would be a waste of time to attempt it right now. We don’t have tools and fasteners to build the sort of dock we’d need before a large ship could safely tie up here. And the only place to get those is—”

  “Trehaug,” she finished for him.

  “Trehaug. Possibly Cassarick. A long journey either way. I stocked the ship for an expedition, not to found a settlement. And the keepers lost so much of their basic equipment and extra clothes and blankets in that flash flood that, well, there just isn’t enough to go around. It’s going to be a hard winter here until I return with fresh supplies. ”

  “I don’t want to be separated from you, Leftrin. But I’m going to stay here and keep working. I want to learn as much about the city as I can before the Traders descend on it and tear it apart. ”

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  Leftrin sighed and pulled her in close. “My dear, I have told you a hundred times. We’ll protect this place. No one else knows the way here, and I don’t plan to pass my charts around. If they try to follow us back here, well, they’ll discover that Tarman can move by night as well as by day. Even if they manage to follow us this far, they’ll have the same problem docking a ship here that we do. I’ll hold them off as long as I can, Alise. ”

  “I know. ”

  “So. Can we talk about the real reason you don’t want to go back to Trehaug?”

  She shook her head, her face against his shoulder, but then admitted, “I don’t want to go anywhere that I have to remember that I was Alise Finbok. I don’t want to touch any part of that old life. I just want my life to be here and now, with you. ”

  “And it is, my lady, my darling. I’m not going to let anyone steal you from me. ”

  She pulled back and looked up into his eyes. “I had an idea today, while I was working. What if you reported my death when you went back? You could send a bird to Hest and one to my parents, saying I’d fallen overboard and drowned. As clumsy and foolish as they think me, they’d surely believe it. ”

  “Alise!” He was horrified. “I never want to speak such words aloud, not even as a lie! And your poor family! You couldn’t do that to them!”

  “I think they’d be relieved,” she muttered but knew that they still would weep for her.

  “And there is your work to think of. You can’t be dead and do your work!”

  “What?”

  He let go of her and stepped back. “Your work. Your studies of the dragons and the Elderlings. You’ve worked too long on all that just to let it go. You need to finish it, if it’s a thing that can be finished. Keep your logs, make your drawings. Meet with Malta and Reyn the Elderlings and tell them what you’ve found. Share your findings with the world. If you claim to be dead, you can’t very well take credit for what you’ve discovered. Let alone protect it. ”

  She had no name for the emotion that flooded her. It was hard to believe that anyone would say such words to her. “You . . . you understand what that means to me?” She looked away, suddenly embarrassed. “My writings and my silly little sketches, my attempts at translations, my—”

  “Enough!” There was shocked rebuke in his voice. “Alise, there is nothing ‘silly’ about what you are doing, any more than my charting the Rain Wild River is ‘silly. ’ Don’t you belittle our work! And don’t ever speak poorly of yourself, especially to me! I fell in love with that earnest woman with her sketchbooks and journals. I felt flattered that such an educated lady would even spend time explaining it all to me. What you are doing is important! For Rain Wilders, for dragons, for history! We are here, seeing something happen with these dragons and their keepers. Those youngsters are changing into Elderlings. First dragons and now Elderlings are coming back into our world. For now, it’s just here. But can you look at the dragons and the keepers and doubt what must follow? Heeby gets stronger every day. Most of the other dragons have managed short flights, even if some ended by crashing into the river or the trees. By winter’s end, I think most of them will be able to hunt and fly at least a little. And none of the keepers have spoken about returning to Trehaug or Cassarick. They’re staying her
e and some of them are pairing up. Sa help us all! This is the start of something, Alise, and you’re already a part of it. Too late to back out now. Too late to hide. ”

  “I don’t really want to hide. ” She walked slowly to the hearth and knelt down. Reluctantly, she picked up one of the decorated tiles from the floor. “I made a promise to Malta. I intend to keep that. ” She studied the tile. Delicate brushstrokes had delineated a bubbling kettle of soup. A wreath of herbs framed it. “I’ll send this with you for her, when you go. With a message from me, to let her know that we really have found Kelsingra. That there is still a place for dragons and Elderlings in this world. ”

  “You could go with me. Tell her yourself. ”

  Alise shook her head, almost vehemently. “No, Leftrin. I’m not ready to face that world yet. I’ll give you messages to send to my family, to let them know I’m alive and fine. But no more than that. Not yet. ”

  When she glanced over her shoulder at him, he was looking at the floor. His mouth was flat with disappointment. She rose and went to him.

  “Don’t think that I’m not going to confront what I must do. I’m going to cut myself free of Hest. I want to stand freely by your side, not as his runaway wife, but as a woman free to choose her own life. Hest broke our marriage contract. I know I’m no longer bound to him. ”

  Page 33

 

  “Then send word of that to the Bingtown Council. Renounce him. He broke his promises to you. The contract is void. ”

  She sighed. This was another conversation they’d had before. “You just chided me for wanting to pretend I was dead, saying it would hurt my family. Well, I don’t see a way to force Hest to release me without hurting an even wider circle of people. I can say he was unfaithful, but I don’t have witnesses who will stand up and confirm that. I can’t ask Sedric to come forward, not with the shame it would bring on his family! He is building something new here, just as I am. I don’t want to drag him away from Carson and back to Bingtown, to make him a source of scandal and cruel jokes. Hest would simply call him a liar, and I know that he could find plenty of his friends who would swear he spoke the truth, no matter what he said. ”

  She took a breath and added, “It would ruin my family socially. Not that we have much stature in Bingtown. And I would have to stand before the Bingtown Council and admit that I had been a fool, not just in marrying Hest but in staying with him all those wasted years . . . ”

  Her voice trailed away. Sick shame rose up and engulfed her. Every time she thought she had set it all behind her, the issue of how Hest still bound her would bring this back. For years she had wondered why he treated her so poorly. She had humiliated herself trying to gain his attention. All she had won was his contempt for her efforts. It was only when she had left Bingtown to pursue a brief interlude of study of her beloved dragons in the Rain Wilds that she had discovered the truth about her husband. He had never cared for her at all. The marriage had been a ruse to mask his true preferences. Sedric, her childhood friend and her husband’s assistant, had been far more than a secretary and valet to him.

  And all Hest’s friends had known.

  Her guts tightened and her throat closed up. How could she have been so blind, so stupid? So ignorant, so blissfully naive? How could she have gone for years without questioning his odd behavior in the marital bed, lived with his sharp little gibes and social neglect? She had no answers for those questions except that she had been stupid. Stupid, stupid, stu—

  “Stop that!” Leftrin took her arm and gently shook it. He shook his head at her as well. “I hate to see you go off like that. Your eyes narrow and you grit your teeth, and I know just what is running through that head of yours. Stop blaming yourself. Someone deceived you and hurt you. You don’t need to take on the burden of that. That man who committed the offense is at fault, not the person he wronged. ”

  She sighed, but the weight inside her remained. “You know what they say, Leftrin. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Well, he fooled me a thousand times, and I don’t doubt that many in his audience enjoyed it. I don’t ever want to go back to Bingtown. Never. I never want to look at anyone I knew there and wonder who knew I was a fool and didn’t tell me. ”

  “Enough,” Leftrin said abruptly, but his voice was gentle. “The light is going out of the day. And I feel a more serious storm rising. It’s time we went back to our side of the river. ”

  Alise glanced outside. “I don’t want to be caught on this side after dark,” she agreed. She looked at him directly and waited for him to add something, but he was silent. She said no more. There were times when she realized that as close as they were, he was still a Rain Wilder while she had grown up in Bingtown. There were some things he didn’t talk about. But this was something, she abruptly decided, that could not remain undiscussed. She cleared her throat and said, “The voices seem to get louder as we get closer to night. ”

  Leftrin met her gaze. “They do. ” He went to the door and looked out as if scouting for danger. That simple measure sent a chill up her back. Had he expected to see something? Someone? He spoke quietly. “It’s the same in some parts of Trehaug and Cassarick. The buried ruins, I mean, not the treetop cities. But it’s not the dark that brings them out. I think it’s when you’re alone or feel alone. One becomes more susceptible. It’s stronger in Kelsingra than I’ve ever before sensed it. But it’s not as bad in this part of town where simple folk lived. In the parts of the city where the buildings are grand and the streets so wide, I hear the whispers almost all the time. Not loud, but constant. The best thing to do is ignore them. Don’t let your mind focus on them. ”

  He looked back over his shoulder at her, and she had the feeling she had learned as much as she wanted to know, for now. There was more he could tell her; she sensed that, but she would save her questions for when they were warming themselves by a cozy fire in a well-lit room. Not here, in a cold city with the shadows gathering.

  Page 34

 

  She gathered her things, including the loose tile from the hearth. She studied the picture again and then handed it to Leftrin. He took a well-worn kerchief from his pocket and wrapped the precious thing. “I’ll take good care of it,” he promised before she could ask. Arm in arm, they left the cottage.

  Outside, the overcast day had darkened as the clouds thickened and the sun sank behind the gentle hills and the steeper cliffs that backed them. The shadows of the houses loomed over the winding streets. Alise and Leftrin hurried, the chill wind pushing them along. As they left behind the modest houses Alise had been investigating and entered the main part of the city, the whispers grew stronger. She didn’t hear them with her ears and she could not pick out any individual voice or stream of words: rather, it was a press of thoughts against her mind. She shook her head, refusing them, and hurried on.

  She’d never been in a city like this one. Bingtown was a large and grand city, a city built for show, but Kelsingra had been built to a scale that dwarfed humans. The passageways in this part of Kelsingra were wide, wide enough for dragons to pass one another in the streets. The gleaming black buildings, too, were sized to admit dragons. The roofs were higher, and the doorways both wide and tall. Whenever they came to steps, the central sections were always wide and shallow, not sized for a human’s stride at all. Two steps to cross each step and then the hop down. At the edges, flights scaled for humans paralleled the course.

  She passed a dry fountain. In the middle, a life-sized dragon reared on his hind legs, clasping a struggling stag in his jaws and forepaws. Around the next corner, she encountered a memorial to an Elderling statesman carrying a scroll in one long slender hand while he pointed aloft with his other. It had been crafted from the same black stone threaded with fine silver lines. It was plain that Elderlings and dragons had both dwelt here, side by side and possibly sharing abodes. She thought of the keepers, and how their dragons were changing them, and wondered if someday
this city would shelter such a population again.

  They turned onto a wide boulevard, and the wind roared with renewed strength. Alise clutched her poor cloak closer about her and bent her head to the wind’s buffeting. This street led straight down to the river port and the remains of the docks that had once awaited ships there. A few remnant stone pilings jutted from the water. She lifted her gaze and through streaming eyes beheld the gleaming black surface of the river. On the horizon, the sun was foundering behind the wooded hills. “Where is Rapskal?” She half shouted the words to push them through the wind. “He said he’d bring Heeby to the water’s edge at sunset. ”

  “He’ll be there. The lad may be a bit strange, but in some ways he’s the most responsible keeper when it comes to keeping his word. Over there. There they are. ”

  She followed Leftrin’s pointing hand and saw them. The dragon lingered at the edge of an elevated stone dais that overlooked the water. The dais adjoined a crumbled ramp. Alise knew from the bas-reliefs that decorated it that once it would have led to a launching platform for dragons. She surmised that perhaps older and heavier dragons needed a height advantage to get their bulk off the ground. Before the blocks of the ramp had given way to decades of winter river floods, it had probably been very high. Now it terminated just beyond the statue’s dais.

  Heeby’s keeper had clambered up onto the dais and stood at the base of a many-times-larger-than-life statue of an Elderling couple. The man gestured wide with an outflung arm, while the woman’s pointing finger and gracefully tilted head indicated that her gaze followed something, possibly a dragon in flight. Rapskal’s head was tipped back, and he had stretched up one hand to touch the hip of one Elderling. He stood, staring up at the tall, handsome creature as if entranced.

  Heeby, his dragon, shifted restlessly as she waited for him. She was probably hungry again already. All she did of late was hunt and feed and hunt again. The red dragon was twice the size she had been when Alise had first met her. She was no longer the stumpy, blocky creature she used to be: her body and tail had lengthened, and her hide and half-folded wings gleamed crimson, catching the red rays of the setting sun and throwing them back. Muscle rippled in her sinuous neck as she turned to watch their approach. She lowered her head suddenly and hissed low, a warning. Alise halted in her tracks. “Is something wrong?” she called.

 
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