Ship of destiny, p.9
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       Ship of Destiny, p.9

         Part #3 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  He felt another tiny quake. It was followed by a splattering sound as loose earth cascaded from the opening above them to splash into the muck. Perhaps the whole ceiling would cave in; that would furnish him a quick end.

  Cool air wafted past his face, heavy with the scent of reptile. He opened his eyes, to find Tintaglia’s pony-sized head thrust down into the chamber. “Still alive?” she greeted him.

  “You came back?” He was incredulous.

  She didn’t reply. She had pulled her head out and her taloned forepaws were tearing at the earth around the opening. Rocks, dirt and bits of ceiling rained down within the chamber. Selden awoke with a cry and cowered against Reyn. “No, it’s all right. I think she’s trying to rescue us. ” Reyn tried to sound reassuring as he sheltered the boy from the falling debris.

  Earth and stone trickled down and the hole overhead grew larger. More light found its way into the chamber. “Climb onto this,” Tintaglia suddenly commanded them. A moment later her head entered the chamber, a stout section of tree trunk gripped firmly in her jaws as if she were a terrier who had fetched a stick. The breath from her nostrils steamed in the cool chamber and the stench of reptile was overpowering. Reyn summoned his last strength to stand up and lift Selden so he could scrabble up onto the log. Reyn caught hold of the other end. As soon as he gripped it, she lifted them. They snagged for a moment in the opening, but she tore the log free with a fine disregard for how weakly they clung to it.

  An instant later, she had set them down on mossy earth. They sprawled upon an isolated hummock of land amidst the swampy forest, the long-buried dome beneath them. Selden staggered away from the log and then collapsed, crying in relief. Reyn tottered, but found he could stand. “Thank you,” he managed.

  “You are not obliged to thank me. I’ve done as I said I would. ” She flared her nostrils and a blast of steamy breath briefly warmed him. “You’ll live now?” It was as much statement as question.

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  His legs began to shake and he dropped down to his knees to keep from collapsing. “If we can get back to Trehaug soon. We need food. And warmth. ”

  “I suppose I can take you there,” she conceded unwillingly.

  “Thank Sa,” Reyn breathed as fervent a prayer as he had ever uttered. He drove himself to his feet and lurched over to Selden. He bent over and seized the boy, intending to lift him, found that his strength was not enough and managed only to pull Selden to his feet. Half-dragging the boy, he lurched toward Tintaglia.

  “I’m exhausted,” Reyn told her. “You will have to crouch down for us to climb onto your back. ”

  The dragon’s eyes spun in silver disdain. “Crouch?” she demanded. “You upon my back? I think not, human. ”

  “But… you said you would take us to Trehaug. ”

  “I shall. However, no creature will ever bestride me, least of all a human. I shall carry you in my talons. Stand before me, together. I shall gather you up and carry you home. ”

  Reyn looked dubiously at her scaled forefeet. Her claws were silver, gleaming and sharp. He did not see how she could clutch them tightly enough to carry them without impaling them. He glanced down at Selden, to find the boy’s upturned face mirroring his doubts. “Are you afraid?” he asked him quietly.

  Selden considered for a moment. “I’m more hungry than I am afraid,” he decided. He straightened himself. His eyes roved over the dragon. When his gaze returned to Reyn, his face shone. He shook his head in wonder. “Legends. Tapestries and paintings. They are all so feeble compared to how she shines. She is too amazing for distrust or fear. Even if she killed me right now, I’d still die in her glory. ” The boy’s extravagant words shocked Reyn. Selden summoned all his remaining strength with a deep breath. Reyn knew what it cost him to stand erect and declare, “I’ll let her carry me. ”

  “Oh? Will you?” the dragon teased him wickedly. Her eyes glittered with both amusement and pleasure at the boy’s flattery.

  “We will,” Reyn declared firmly. Selden was silent beside him, but gasped as the dragon reared suddenly onto her hind legs. She towered above them. It was as difficult a thing as Reyn had ever done to stand still as she reached for them with taloned forepaws. He held Selden at his side and did not move as the dragon closed her clawed hands around them. The tips of the claws walked over him, measuring him before her digits wrapped around him. The sharp ends of two talons rested against his back uncomfortably, but they did not pierce him. She clutched them both to her breast as a squirrel treasures a nut it has found. Selden gave an involuntary cry as she crouched on those tremendous hind legs, and she bounded skyward.

  Her blue wings beat and they rose steadily. The trees closed below them. Reyn twisted his neck and got a dizzying view of treetops below him. His stomach lurched, but in the next instant his heart swelled with wonder. He almost forgot his fear in this perilous new aspect of the world. Green and swelling, the rain forest valley unfurled itself far below them. Up and up the dragon carried them in a widening gyre that afforded him glimpses of the open river winding through the lush growth. The river, he saw, was a paler gray than usual. Sometimes, after large quakes, it ran white and acid for days and anyone out in a boat had best be mindful of his craft. When the river ran white, it ate wood swiftly. The dragon tipped her wings and they swung inland and upriver. Then he caught both sight and scent of Trehaug. Seen from above, the city hung throughout the tree branches like decorative lanterns. The smoke of cookfires rose in the still air.

  “That’s it!” He cried the words aloud to the dragon’s unspoken question, and then realized he needn’t have vocalized it at all. Held this close to her, their old bond had reasserted itself. He felt a chill moment of foreboding, but then sensed her sardonic reply: he needn’t worry. Further involvement with humans held no place in her plans.

  He was almost grateful for his empty stomach as they descended in dizzying spirals. He caught whirling glimpses of city and river as they came down, including a brief sighting of pointing and shouting figures that scattered before them. He sensed her disgust that there was no wide, flat space prepared for a dragon to land. What sort of a city was this?

  They landed jokingly on the city docks. The platforms, free to rise and fall with the changing flow of the river, gave way to the impact. White spray flew up from the edges of the wharf, causing the nearby Kendry to rock alarmingly. The liveship roared his bewilderment. As the dock rose, rocking under the dragon’s weight, Tintaglia opened her claws. Reyn and Selden fell at her feet. She swiveled aside from them to let her forepaws drop to the wood beside them. “Now you will live,” she asserted.

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  “Now… we will… live,” Reyn panted. Selden lay like a stunned rabbit.

  Reyn became aware of the thundering of footsteps and the excited susurrus of hushed conversation. He lifted his gaze. A veritable tide of people was flooding onto the piers. Many were begrimed with the mud of long digging. All looked weary despite the amazement on their faces. Some few gripped excavating tools as if they were weapons. All halted at the end of the dock. The incredulous shouts rose to a confused roar as folk gawked and pointed at Tintaglia. Reyn glimpsed his mother elbowing her way through the crowd. When she reached the front row of awed onlookers, she alone stepped free of the crowd and advanced cautiously toward the dragon. Then she saw him, and lost all interest in the towering beast.

  “Reyn?” she asked incredulously. “Reyn!” Her voice broke on his name. “And you are alive? Praise Sa!” She ran to him and knelt by him.

  He reached up to grip her hand. “She lives,” he said. “I was right. The dragon is alive. ”

  Before she could speak, a long wail interrupted them. Reyn saw Keffria break free of the clustered onlookers and race along the wharf to Selden. She knelt by him, and then gathered her boy up in her arms. “Oh, thank Sa, he lives. But what of Malta? Where is Malta, where is my daughter?”

/>   Reyn spoke the difficult words. “I did not find her. I fear she perished in the city. ”

  Like a rising wind, the cry rose from Keffria’s throat until it was a piercing scream of denial. “No, no, no!” she wailed. Selden paled in her grip. The features of the tough little boy who had been Reyn’s companion during their ordeal suddenly quivered into a child’s face again. He added his sobs to her wailing.

  “Mama, Mama, don’t cry, don’t cry!” He tugged at her but could not gain her attention.

  “The one you call Malta isn’t dead,” the dragon interrupted sharply. “Stop this caterwauling and cease your emotional wallowing. ”

  “Not dead?” Reyn exclaimed.

  His words were echoed by Selden. He seized his wailing mother and shook her. “Mama, listen, didn’t you hear what the dragon said? She said Malta is not dead. Stop crying, Malta isn’t dead. ” He turned a shining gaze on Tintaglia. “You can trust the dragon. When she carried me, I could feel her wisdom right through my skin!”

  Behind them on the docks, a rising chorus of talk drowned out Selden’s words. Some folk were exclaiming in wonder. “She spoke!”

  “The dragon spoke!”

  “Did you hear that?” Some nodded in surprised agreement, while others demanded to know what their friends meant. “I heard nothing. ”

  “It snorted, that was all. ”

  Tintaglia’s silver eyes grayed with disgust. “Their minds are too small even to speak to mine. Humans!” She limbered her long neck. “Stand clear, Reyn Khuprus. I am done with you and your kind now. My bond is fulfilled. ”

  “No! Wait!” Reyn jerked free of his mother’s clutch on his arm. Boldly he gripped the clawed tip of Tintaglia’s gleaming wing. “You cannot go yet. You said Malta still lives. But where is she? How do you know she lives? Is she safe?”

  Tintaglia twitched her wing tip effortlessly free of him. “We were linked for a time, as well you know, Reyn Khuprus. Therefore, I retain some small awareness of her. As to where she is, I know not, save that she floats on water. On the river, I surmise, from the fear she feels. She is hungry and thirsty, but not otherwise injured that I can tell. ”

  Reyn fell to his knees before the dragon. “Take me to her. I beg you. I will be forever in your debt if you will but do this one thing for me. ”

  Amusement flickered over the dragon’s face. He knew it in the swift swirling of her eye colors, and the small flaring of her nostrils. “I have no need of your service, human. And your company bores me. Farewell. ” She lifted her wings and began to open them. “Stand clear of me, if you would not be knocked down. ”

  Instead, Reyn sprang toward her. Her sleekly scaled body afforded no purchase to his scrabbling hands. He flung himself at her foreleg and wrapped his arms around it as if he were a child clinging to his mother. But his words were full offeree and fury. “You cannot go, Tintaglia Dragon! Not and leave Malta to die. You know she did as much to free you as I did. She opened herself to the memories of the city. She discovered the secret catches that would open the great wall. But for her seeking you out, I would not have come into the city amidst the quakes. You would be buried even now! You cannot turn your back on such a debt! You cannot. ”

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  Behind him, he was aware of garbled questions and conversation among his mother and Selden and Keffria. He didn’t care what they overheard; he didn’t care what the boy told them. Right now, all he could think of was Malta. “The river runs white,” he went on to the dragon. “White water eats boats. If she is on the river on a log or raft, the water will devour it and then her. She will die, because she ventured into the city to try to save you. ”

  The dragon’s eyes spun silver flecked with scarlet, so great was her anger. She snorted a hot blast of breath that nearly knocked him down. Then with a single forepaw she snatched him up as if he were a doll stuffed with sawdust. Her talons closed painfully around his chest. He could barely take a breath.

  “Very well, insect!” she hissed. “I will help you find her. But after that, I have finished with you and yours. For whatever good you and she may have done me, your kin have committed great wrongs against all my kind. ” She lifted him and thrust him toward the liveship. Kendry stared at them, and his face was that of a dying man. “Do not think I do not know! Pray that I forget! Pray that after this day, you never see me again!”

  He could not take a breath to reply, nor did she wait for words from him. With a mighty leap, she sprang upward. The sudden lurch of the dock knocked down those who had ventured onto it. Reyn heard his mother’s shriek of horror as the dragon bore him away. Then all sound was driven from his ears by the swift wind of their ascent.

  He had not known, before this, what care Tintaglia had taken for him and Selden on that earlier flight. Now she rose so swiftly that the blood pounded in his face and his ears popped. His stomach was surely left far below them. He could sense the fury seething through her. He had shamed her, before humans, using her own name. He had revealed her name to those others, who had no right to it.

  He caught a breath but could not decide on words. To apologize might be as great an error as to tell her she owed this to Malta. He stilled his tongue and clutched her talons, trying to ease their grip around his ribs.

  “Do you want me to loosen them, Reyn Khuprus?” the dragon mocked him. She opened her claws, but before he could slip through them to his death, she clamped them shut again. Even as he gasped in terror, she arrested their ascent, tipping her body and sending them in a wide spiral above the river. They were too high to see anything. The forested land below them was an undulating carpet of moss, the river no more than a white ribbon. She spoke to his thought.

  “The eyes of a dragon are not like the eyes of a prey beast, small meat creature. I see as much as I need to see from here. She is not in sight. She must have been swept down the river. ”

  Reyn’s heart turned over in his chest. “We’ll find her,” the dragon comforted him grudgingly. Her great wings began to sweep steadily, driving them down the course of the river.

  “Go lower,” he begged her. “Let me search for her with my own eyes. If she is in the shallows, she may be hidden by the trees. Please. ”

  She made no reply, but took him down so swiftly that he saw darkness at the edges of his vision. She flew with him down the river. He clutched at her talons with both his hands and endeavored to watch all of the broad face of the river and both banks. Her flight was too swift. He tried to believe that the dragon’s keener senses would find Malta even if he missed her, but after a time, despair took root in him. They had gone too far. If they had not found her yet, it was because she was no more.

  “There!” Tintaglia exclaimed suddenly.

  He looked, but saw nothing. She banked and turned as adroitly as a swallow, and brought him back over the same stretch of river. “There. In that little boat, with two others. Close to the center of the river. See her now?”

  “I do!” Joy leaped in him, followed as quickly by horror. They had found her, and as Tintaglia bore him ever closer, he saw that the Satrap and his Companion were with her. But seeing her was not the same as rescuing her. “Can you lift her up from the boat?” he asked the dragon.

  “Perhaps. If I drop you and swamp the boat in the process. There is a chance I could snatch her up without doing more than breaking her ribs. Is that what you wish?”

  “No!” He thought frantically. “Can dragons swim? Could you land near her on the river?”

  “I am not a duck!” Her disgust was manifest. “If dragons choose to come down on a body of water, we do not stop on the surface, but plunge down to the bottom, and then walk out from there. I don’t think you would enjoy the experience. ”

  He grasped at straws. “Can you drop me into the boat?”

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  “To do what? Drown with her? Do not be foolish. The wind off my wings would swamp the boat long bef
ore I was close enough to drop you right through the bottom of it. Human, I have done my part. I have found her for you. Now you know where she is, it is up to you and the other humans to save her. My part in her life is over. ”

  It was no comfort. He had seen Malta’s face turn up to them as they swept over her. He almost imagined he had heard her cry out to him, begging for rescue. Yet, the dragon was right. They could do nothing for Malta without putting all of them in greater danger.

  “Take me back to Trehaug, swiftly,” he begged her. “If the Kendry sets out after her now, with every thread of sail he can muster, we may yet overtake the boat before the river devours it. ”

  “A wise plan!” the dragon rumbled sarcastically. “You would have been wiser still to have set out on the ship immediately instead of demanding this of me. I told you that she was on the river. ”

  The dragon’s cold logic was disheartening. Reyn could think of nothing to say. Once more, her wings worked powerfully, taking them high above the multicanopied forest. The land passed swiftly away beneath them as she carried him back toward Trehaug.

  “Is there no way you can aid me?” he asked pitifully as she circled above the city. At the sight of her, all the folk on the dock ran for the shore. The winds off her great wings as she beat them to slow their descent buffeted the Kendry. Once more her heavy hindquarters absorbed the impact of their landing as the wharf plunged and bucked under them. She lifted him in her claws, craning her neck and turning her head to focus one huge silver eye on him.

  “Little human, I am a dragon. I am the last Lord of the Three Realms. If any of my kind remain anywhere, I must seek them out and aid them. I cannot be concerned with a brief little spark like you. So. Fare as well as you can, on your own. I leave. I doubt we shall ever meet again. ”

  She set him on his feet. If she meant to be gentle, she failed. As he staggered away, he felt a sudden shock, more of mind than body. He was suddenly desperately afraid that he had forgotten something of vast importance. Then he realized that what was gone was his mental link with the dragon. Tintaglia had separated herself from him. The loss dizzied him. He seemed to have been taking some vitality from the link, for he was suddenly aware of hunger, thirst and extreme weariness. He managed to take a few steps before he went to his knees. It was as well that he was down, for otherwise he would have fallen as the dragon jolted the dock with her leap into the sky. A final time the beat of her wings wafted her reptilian stink over him. For no reason that he could understand, tears of loss stung his eyes.

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