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Opening Negotiations

Who knew that a room this dismal could smell even worse than it looks? Redding observed with cheerless sarcasm.

Do be silent, Hest told him, and pushed past him into the small room. It swayed alarmingly under his tread as he entered. It was not an inn room: Cassarick had no proper inns, only brothels, taverns where one might pay extra to sleep on a bench for the night and accommodations like this, rooms the size of a bird cage rented out by working families as a secondary source of income. The woman who had taken their money was some sort of a tailor. She had assured them that they were most fortunate to find any lodgings this late in the day. Hest had tried not to snarl at her as she had taken the exorbitant sum and then sent her young son to escort them to the small, unlocked chamber that dangled in the wind several branches away from her own.

Redding had clung to the ridiculous piece of knotted line that pretended to be a handrail as they had negotiated the narrowing branch to their lodgings. Hest had not. He would far rather have plunged to his death in the forested depths below than make such a timid spectacle of himself. Redding, however, had no such reservations. He had whined and gibbered with tittering fear every step of the way along the rain-wet bridge until Hest had been sorely tempted to simply push him off the branch and move past him.

Now he looked around the room and then grunted. It would have to do. The bed was small, the pottery hearth unswept, and he doubted that the bedding had been laundered since the last guest had used the pallet in the corner. It mattered little to him. He had a fine traditional inn room waiting for him back in Trehaug. He intended to conclude the Chalcedeans business here as quickly as possible, and then he had no doubt he could bribe some river-man to give him passage back to Trehaug tonight. Once there, he could begin his own business, that of tracking down his errant wife. True, she had left from Cassarick, but he saw no reason not to conduct his search for her from a comfortable room in Trehaug. After all, that was what runners were for, to be sent to ask questions and take messages to unpleasant places.

He gritted his teeth as he abruptly realized that was how the Chalcedean was using him; he was his runner, sent to an unpleasant place to deliver a nasty message. Well. Get it over with. Only then could he get back to his own life.

He had sought a rented room only for the privacy it would afford him for his meeting. The Chalcedean villain back in Bingtown had emphasized, over and over, that he must be more than discreet in these meetings and that the message must be delivered in private. The process for setting up the meeting had certainly been ridiculous in the number of steps it required, for it had involved leaving a written message at an inn in Trehaug, waiting for a response and then obediently visiting a certain lift operator in the same city to ask for a recommendation for a room here in Cassarick. He had assumed the fellow would have had the sense to pick a decent place. Instead, he had been directed here. His only piece of good fortune had been that, by great coincidence, the impervious boat was also moving to Cassarick on the same day. He had not had to completely vacate his cabin there.

He set down his modest pack and watched Redding lower his larger case to the floor. His travelling companion straightened up with a martyred groan. Well. Here we are. Now what? Are you ready to share a bit more with me about this mysterious trading partner of yours and the reason for his need for absolute confidentiality?

It had not suited Hest to betray too much of his mission to Redding. He had explained their journey as a trading trip with the unfortunate extra mission of resolving the situation of his vanished wife. He had not mentioned Sedrics name; Redding was irrationally jealous of the man. There was no sense in provoking him with it right now; hed save it until such an outburst would be more amusing and to his advantage. Jealousy truly spurred Reddings efforts to be entertaining.

Of the Chalcedean blackguard, he had said nothing, and let Redding assume that all their furtive messages and odd contacts had to do with extremely valuable Elderling merchandise. The mystery had excited Redding and it had been enjoyable to thwart his efforts at questioning him. Nor had Hest mentioned the possibility that, if his mission succeeded perfectly, hed be establishing a rather large claim to Kelsingra. No sense in stimulating the little mans greed too much. Hed reveal all at the proper moment, creating a tale of Trader cleverness that Redding would bark and bray all over Bingtown.

Since Hest had arrived in the Rain Wilds every bit of news he had heard had convinced him that such a Kelsingra claim would mean wealth beyond imagining. Trehaug had been buzzing with second-hand rumours about Leftrins visit and precipitous departure. There were rumours that the expedition had formed an alliance with the Khuprus family; certainly the captain of the Tarman had freely relied on their credit to restock his ship. Leftrin had flung accusations of treason and broken contracts, and then fled Cassarick without his money. That made no sense. Unless, of course, there was so much money to be made from another trip up the river that his pay from the Council no longer mattered to him. Now there was a thought.

Most of the small vessels that had tried to follow the Tarman had since returned, but the one ship, twin to the one that Hest had travelled on, had not come back. Sunk in the river or still in pursuit, he wondered. If that ship could follow and survive the trip, then so could the vessel he had come on. He wondered how much it would cost him to hire it for a journey to Kelsingra. In Bingtown, the captain had been surly and secretive, as if he did not even want to sell Hest passage to Trehaug. Hest had had to bundle Redding aboard at the last minute when the captain was so eager to leave that Hest could push the issue of an extra passenger through. The captain might not be open to a trip farther up the river. But the captain of a ship was often not the owner. Perhaps the owners would be bold enough to speculate, perhaps to make the voyage for an offer of one tenth of whatever share in the city it ultimately gained for Hest?

So far he had not mentioned his possible claim to anyone. Only two Traders had dared to ask him if his visit to the Rain Wilds was in connection with his vanished wife. Hed stared them down. No sense in saying anything to anyone that might prompt them to come sniffing after the fortune that was rightfully his. Then he pushed that consideration from his mind. Much as he longed to distract himself from the business at hand, he knew he must finish it first before pursuing his own interest. Finish it and be done with the damned Chalcedean.

So, Now we wait, he announced, gingerly taking a seat in the only chair in the room, a contraption woven of dried vines. A rather flat cushion was the only protection for his bottom and the drape of canvas on the back added little or no comfort. But at least he could rest his legs after the interminable stairs. Redding looked around the room in vain and then, with a groan, squatted on the low bedstead, his knees jutting up uncomfortably. He crossed his arms on them and leaned forward, looking grumpy.

Wait for what?

Well, I should have said that I wait. Im afraid that my first meeting must be conducted in an extremely confidential manner. If all goes well, then soon I will receive a visit from a fellow responding to the note you left with Innkeeper Drost at the Frog and Oar Tavern in Trehaug. I will deliver certain items to him. In the meanwhile, you, dear fellow, should go out and amuse yourself for a time. When my business is concluded, Ill ask our landlady to send her boy for you.

Redding sat up straighter and glints of dismay came into his eyes. Amuse myself? In this monkey village? Where, I ask you? Its getting dark, these tree branches they call paths are becoming slippery, and you want me to go out and wander about on my own? How will you send a boy for me when you wont know where I am? Hest, really, this is too much! Weve come on this ridiculous journey together and up to now, Ive done it all your way, climbing through trees, dropping off secret notes in filthy taverns, and even toting that box for you as if I were some kind of treetop donkey! I am hungry, wet through, chilled to the bone, and you want me to go back out in this foul weather?

He lunged to his feet and attempted to pace the small room angrily. He looked more like a dog turning round and round before settling to sleep. His movements made the room sway. He halted, looking dizzy and angry. Hest watched his fury build to the popping point.

I dont think your business is confidential. I think you dont trust me. I am not going to be your lapdog the way Sedric was, dependent on you for everything, never making a move on my own! If you want my company, Hest, youll have to respect me. I came on this jaunt with the aim of acquiring Rain Wild goods, as an independent trader. I brought my own funds for that purpose. I had thought that as we had become such good friends, I could avail myself of some of your business contacts as well. Not to compete with you or bid against you for anything you wanted, but only to make small investments of my own, in items you found unworthy of your time. And now that I am here and have come all this way and served you like a runner-boy, you intend to dismiss me as if I were some sort of brainless lackey or servant. Well, it wont do, Hest Finbok. It wont do at all.

The chair was very uncomfortable. And he was as chilled and weary as Redding. Sedric would have had the good sense not to pick a quarrel with him at a time like this. Hest regarded the pink-cheeked man with his lower lip jutting like a petulant child, puffing away like a pug-nosed dog, and at that moment, seriously considered abandoning him there in Cassarick. Let him see just how well he managed as an independent trader.

Then a far more appealing plan occurred to him.

Youre right, Redding. At this concession, the man looked so startled that Hest was hard put to keep from laughing. But he put a serious expression on his face and continued, Let me show my confidence in you quite clearly. Im going to put you in charge of this meeting, and leave you to it. The men you will meet today represent some powerful trading interests. You may be a bit surprised to discover they are from Chalced

Chalcedean traders? Here in the Rain Wilds? Redding was, indeed, shocked.

Hest raised his brows. Well, certainly you know that Ive made trading trips to Chalced, so you must know Ive contacts there. And three Chalcedean trading houses have established offices in Bingtown since the end of our hostilities with them. Indeed, Ive heard several members of the Bingtown Traders Council say that they believed establishing trade relations with Chalced may be our best path to a lasting peace with them. When economic goals and benefits align, countries seldom go to war.

Hest spoke smoothly. Reddings brow was wrinkled but he was nodding. Hest made the leap, trusting that Redding would accept whatever he said now. So it should be no surprise to you that some Chalcedean trading concerns have been making efforts to establish connections here in the Rain Wilds. There are, of course, backward elements that frown on such things. That is our reason for keeping the negotiations absolutely confidential. One of the individuals, Begasti Cored, you may recognize. He had made several journeys to Bingtown, before transferring his operation here to Cassarick. The other fellow, Sinad Arich, I have not met before. But he comes to me, of course, with the best credentials and references. I that is, we have been entrusted with messages from home for both these gentlemen. Gifts, as it were, in the form of two small boxes inside the very case you have handled so conscientiously for me since we left Bingtown. Hest leaned forward and lowered his voice. These gifts and the message that accompany them come from someone very close to power in Chalced. Begasti Cored will be, perhaps, expecting me, though in the past Sedric was his contact. And the message we must deliver has to do with goods that Sedric promised to deliver to him. And has not, of course. So you see how delicate a position we are in, do you not? We must deliver the message and the gift, and encourage our Chalcedean counterparts to contact Sedric, if indeed they have any means of doing so, and impress on him the utmost importance of delivering his promised goods quickly.

Hest took in a deep breath through his nostrils and then confided to Redding, I fear Sedrics failure to keep his end of the bargain has reflected very badly on me. A large part of my willingness to undergo the rigours of this journey was due to my need to retrieve my reputation! One of the things I need to request from Begasti Cored is a signed statement that his agreement was solely with Sedric, and not with me. And if he has the original document, well, having him surrender that to us would be even better.

Hests thoughts were racing as he marvelled at the brilliance of his inspiration. Redding would do the dirty work for him. Having Redding ask Cored for such a statement might free Hest from the Chalcedeans attention. And if there were any repercussions from meeting with Chalcedeans in Rain Wild territory, they would fall on Redding, not him. If need be, he could disavow any knowledge of the transaction. After all, it had been Redding who had taken the message to the tavern. Let him finish the errand, and leave Hest well clear of any later accusations of treason.

Redding was still nodding, his eyes alight with interest. The unusual aspects of the transaction had seized his imagination. Hest took a long breath, trying to evaluate if his plan had any flaws. True, the Chalcedean had told him to deliver the message himself, but how would he know he had not? It would be all right. And it would serve Redding right for him to be the one who was there when the Chalcedeans opened their grim little tokens. Let him see just what demanding a share of Hests business would gain him.

He found a smile for Redding and leaned forward confidentially. I know that you compare yourself to Sedric and wonder if I am satisfied with you. Well, I will let you prove your worth to me now. Correct Sedrics errors in our dealings with these men, and you will clearly prove your superiority to him. I think you are worthy of this sort of trust, Redding. And having you demand it of me proves to me that you have the teeth to be a Trader and partner to me.

Reddings cheeks had grown pinker and pinker. Beads of sweat had started on his brow and he was breathing through his mouth now. The message for them? Is it with the boxes? He asked the questions eagerly.

Hest shook his head. No, it is to be delivered by you. This is what you are to say. He cleared his throat and the memorized words came easily. Your eldest sons send you greetings. They are prospering in the Dukes care. This is not something that every member of your families can say, but for your eldest sons, it is still true. For it to remain true, all you must do is complete your mission to prove your loyalty to the Duke. These tokens are sent to you to remind you that the promised shipment from you is still eagerly awaited. The Duke wishes you to do your utmost to see that it arrives swiftly.

Redding opened his eyes wide. Must I use those exact words?

Hest considered for a moment. Yes. You must. Have you paper and ink? Ill dictate them and you can read them if you cannot memorize them quickly.

Ive, well, not with me, no, but say it again. I can memorize it, or come close enough as will make no difference. The Duke? Sweet Sa, the Duke of Chalced! Oh, Hest, that is a high connection indeed! We do tread a fine line here, and now I understand all your calls for discretion. I wont fail you, my friend. I truly will not fail you in this! Oh, sweet Sa, my heart is pounding to think of it! But where will you be? Cannot you simply remain here and be the one to give the message?

Hest cocked his head at him. But Ive told you, the meeting was to be highly confidential. They are expecting one man to be here, not two. I will step out for a time, find a hot cup of tea for myself or some sort of amusement while you conduct this bit of business. He paused and then asked abruptly, Surely that was what you wanted?

Well, no, I never meant to drive you away from your own

No, none of that now, no! Hest interrupted Reddings apologetic stuttering. No regrets! Youve drawn a line with me, and I respect you for that. Ill just step out, and give you some time to try your wings with this. But before I go, Ill repeat the message one more time for you.

They spotted the first dragon when Leftrin knew they were still at least three days from Kelsingra. The ship had alerted him to it, not in any overt way, but as a sudden shivering that ran up Leftrins spine and ended in a prickling on his scalp. Hed scratched his head, turned his eyes skyward to see if Tarman were warning him of an approaching squall, and seen instead a tiny chip of sapphire floating against the grey cloud cover.

It vanished and for a moment he thought it had been an illusion. Then it appeared again, first as a pale-blue opal, winking at him through a haze of cloud, and then abruptly as a sparkling blue

Dragon! he shouted, startling everyone, as he pointed skyward.

Hennesey was suddenly beside him. All knew he was the keenest-eyed of the crew and he proved it when he asserted, Its Sintara! See the gold-and-white tracery on her wings? Shes learned to fly!

Im lucky I can make out its a dragon, Leftrin grumbled good-naturedly. He could not keep the grin from his face. So. The dragons were flying now, or at least one was. The elation he felt surprised him; he was as proud as a father watching a childs first steps. I wonder if the others are flying, too.

Hennesey had no chance to reply.

Can you call to her? Signal to her that we need her? Reyn shouted the question as he pounded down the deck to Leftrins side. Terrible hope lit his face.

No. Leftrin offered him no lies. And even if we could, theres no place along this stretch where she could alight. Still, its good to see her, Khuprus. Take heart from that. Were only a few days out from Kelsingra now. Soon, very soon, well be where there are dragons, and perhaps we can get the help your boy needs.

You are sure that Tarman can go no faster?

It was another familiar question, and much as the captain sympathized with the young man, he was tired of answering it. The ship has his heart in what hes doing. Neither of us can ask more of him than that.

Reyn looked as if he might say more, but was interrupted by faint shouts from downriver. Both men turned and looked aft.

The vessel from Bingtown still pursued them. Their lookout had just spotted the dragon, probably after wondering what the crew of the Tarman was pointing and shouting about. Leftrin sighed. He was tired of seeing the impervious ship off his stern. Time after time, Tarman had outdistanced them by travelling at night, only to have them catch up with them a day or so later. The speed the narrow vessel could maintain was uncanny. Leftrin suspected that the crew were risking their lives by rowing day and night to keep up with him. Someone had paid them very well indeed. Or perhaps they were treasure hunters, dreaming of making a fortune. That would account for their tireless efforts. He wished with all his heart that they would give up and go back. Now that theyd seen a dragon in flight, it was a forlorn hope.

If Sintara was aware of any of them, she gave no sign of it. She was hunting, ranging far to either side of the river in slow arcs. Leftrin made a mental note to add that to his growing collection of notes, charts and sketches of the river. If a dragon was hunting here, he suspected that it meant that there was solid ground back there some place. He could not imagine Sintara diving on anything that would require her crashing through layers of trees and ending in a swamp, nor that she would willingly dive on prey in the river. No. Back behind those layers of tall trees, there must be low meadows or perhaps even rolling foothills, precursors to the meadows and hills of Kelsingra. That would bear more exploring. Some day.

Is she coming? Was it Tintaglia?

Reyn looked down and away from the hope in Maltas blue eyes. He shook his head. Shes not our dragon. I think if she were, we could feel her. No, its one of the youngsters, a blue female called Sintara. Leftrin says that even if we could call out to her or signal her, there is nowhere she could land. But we are only a few days from Kelsingra at worst now. Well be there soon, dear. And Phron will be fine.

A few days, Malta said dejectedly. She looked down on their sleeping child. She did not utter the words they were both thinking. Perhaps their boy did not have a few days.

In his first few days on board Tarman, he had prospered. He had nursed and slept, wakened to stare at both of them intently with his deep-blue eyes, stretched and wiggled and grown. His legs and arms had fleshed out to plumpness, and his cheeks had become round. A healthy pink had suffused his body, making him appear much less lizard-like, and they had both dared to hope that the danger to the child had passed.

But after those first few days, his improvement had faded. His sleep had become fitful, interspersed with long wailing fits when nothing could comfort him. His skin became dry, his eyes gummy. Reyn had schooled himself to endurance, though holding the screaming child for hours so that Malta could isolate herself in their cabin and get a bit of sleep had been one of the most maddening experiences of his life. A wide variety of possible solutions had been offered and tried, from wrapping him more securely in his blankets to offering him a few drops of rum to settle his stomach. Phron had been walked, joggled, bathed in warm water, rocked, sung to, left to cry it out and wept over. None of it had affected his thin, incessant wailing. Reyn had felt hopeless and frustrated, and Malta had sunk into a deep sadness. Even when the child slept, someone kept watch over him. All feared the moment when he would exhale a breath and not draw in another.

Let him sleep by himself for just a few moments. Come with me. Stand and stretch a bit, and breathe the wind.

Malta unfolded herself reluctantly, leaving Phron asleep in his basket. Reyn put his arm around her to guide her out of the canvas shelter and onto the open deck. The wind was chill, laden with the promise of more rain to come, but not even it could put colour into Maltas cheeks. She was exhausted. Reyn took her hand, feeling the fine bones beneath the thin flesh. Her hair was dry, fraying out of the golden braids pinned to her head; he could not recall the last time he had seen her brush it. You need to eat more, he told her gently, and saw her wince as if he criticized her.

I have lots of milk for him, and he nurses well. But he does not seem to take any good from it.

That wasnt what I meant. I meant for your own sake. As well as his, of course. Reyn fumbled through his words, and then gave up. He pulled her to him, put his cloak around her to shelter her and looked out over her head. Captain Leftrin told me that the last time they made the upriver journey through this area, the water got so shallow that they wandered for days trying to find a channel to follow. Hard to believe, isnt it?

Malta looked out over the wide stretch of water and nodded. It seemed more lake than river here, reaching out in all directions. This section of the river moved more slowly, supporting more floating plant life. And the plants, at least, seemed to believe that spring was around the corner. New fronds twisted up from the water, waiting for warmer weather to unfurl into pads. Blackened strands of trailing weed showed green buds along their length.

Once, Elderlings built grand homes along this waterfront, with special places for dragons to enjoy themselves. Some of the houses were on pilings: this time of year, they would have been little islands. Others were farther back, on the shore. They offered all sorts of comforts to visiting dragons. Stone platforms that became warm at a dragons touch. Rooms with walls of glass and exotic plants where a dragon could sleep comfortably on a wild winter night. Or so the captain says the dragons told him. He gestured at a distant rise covered with naked birch trees. Pink had begun to suffuse the white trunks, a sure sign of spring. I think we shall build our mansion there, he told her grandly. White pillars, dont you think? And an immense roof garden. Rows and rows of decorative turnips. He looked into her face, hoping hed wakened a smile there.

His ploy to distract her with a daydream failed. Do you think the dragons will help our baby? she asked in a low voice.

He gave up his ruse. The same question had been torturing him. Why wouldnt they? He tried to sound surprised at her question.

Because they are dragons. She sounded weary and discouraged. Because they may be heartless. As Tintaglia was heartless. She left her own kind helpless and starving. She made my little brother her singer, enchanted him with her glamour and then sent him off into the unknown. She did not seem to care when Selden vanished. She changed us and left us and never cared what it did to our lives.

She is a dragon, Reyn conceded. But only one. Perhaps the others are different.

They were not different when I visited them at Cassarick. They were petty and selfish.

They were miserable and hungry and helpless. I dont think Ive ever met anyone who was miserable, hungry and helpless who was not also petty and selfish. The situation brings out the worst in everyone.

But what if the dragons wont help Phron? What will we do then?

He pulled her closer. Lets not borrow trouble from tomorrow. For right now, he lives and he sleeps. I think you should eat something and then you should sleep, too.

I think you should both eat something and then go sleep together in the cabin. Ill stay here with Phron.

Reyn lifted his eyes and smiled over Maltas head at his sister. Bless you, Tillamon. You truly dont mind?

Not at all. Her hair was loose around her shoulders and a gust of wind blew a stray lock across her face. She pushed it back and the simple gesture of baring her face caught his eye. There was colour in her cheeks and it suddenly came to Reyn that his sister looked younger and more alive than she had in years. He spoke without thinking, You look happy.

Her expression changed to stricken. No. No, Reyn, I fear just as much as you do for Phron!

Malta shook her head slowly. Her smile was sad but genuine. Sister, I know you do. You are always here to help us. But that doesnt mean you should not be happy with what you have found on this journey. Neither I nor Reyn resent that youve

Maltas voice tapered off as she glanced at him. Reyn knew that his face was frozen in confusion. Found what? he demanded.

Love, Tillamon said simply. She met her brothers stare directly.

Reyns thoughts raced as his mind rapidly reinterpreted snatches of overheard conversations and moments glimpsed between Tillamon and Hennesey? he asked, caught between amazement and dismay. Hennesey, the first mate? His tone conveyed all that his words did not say. His sister, a Trader-born woman, taking up with a common sailor? One with the air of a man used to womanizing?

Her mouth went flat and her eyes unreadable. Hennesey. And its none of your business, little brother. I came of age years ago. I make my own choices now.


I am so tired, Malta suddenly interjected, turning in his embrace. Please, Reyn. Lets take this chance Tillamon is giving us to share a bed and some rest. Its been days since Ive slept beside you, and I always rest better when you are near me. Come.

She tugged at his arm and he turned unwillingly to follow her. Getting her to rest was more important than quarrelling with his sister. Later, they could talk in private. In silence he followed her toward the chamber they would share. It was little more than a large cargo crate secured to the deck. Within was a pallet that had served them alternately as a bed. He did look forward to rest and to holding Malta as she slept. He had come to hate sleeping alone.

It was as if Malta could read his thoughts. Let her be, Reyn. Think of what we have and how it comforts us. How can we resent Tillamon seeking the same?

But Hennesey?

A man who works hard and loves what he does. A man who sees her and smiles at her rather than grinning mockingly or turning away. I think hes sincere, Reyn. And even if he is not, Tillamon is right. She is a woman grown and has been for years. It is not for us to say to whom she should entrust her heart.

He drew breath to voice objections then sighed it out as Malta lifted the latch on the door. The airless little compartment suddenly looked inviting and cosy. His need for rest and for holding her flooded up through his body.

Time enough later to worry. While we can sleep, we should.

He nodded his agreement to that and followed her in.

Day the 25th of the Fish Moon

Year the 7th of the Independent Alliance of Traders

From your friend in Cassarick to Trader Finbok, Bingtown

The need for caution has increased greatly and with it my expenses. I will expect my next payment to be double what the previous one was. It must all be in coin and delivered discreetly. Your last courier was an idiot, coming directly to where I work and delivering to me only a writ of credit rather than the cash payment we agreed upon.

For this reason, the information I send you today is but the bare bones of what I know. Pay me, and you will know what I know.

The traveller arrived, but not alone. His errand does not seem to be what you suggested it would be. Another stranger offered me substantial money for information about him. I was discreet, but information is what I sell. Or do not sell, if that is more profitable.

The news from upriver is scarce. It might interest you, but for me to deliver it to you, I would have to receive hard coin, taken to the inn in Trehaug that was mentioned to you before and given only to the woman with red hair and a tattoo of three roses on her cheek.

If any of this is done otherwise, our business will be over. You are not the only one who would like to know the inside secrets of Trader news before others do. And some of those others might be very interested to learn what I know of your business.

A word to the wise is sufficient.

CHAPTER THREE Hunters and Prey | Blood of Dragons | CHAPTER FIVE Taking the Leap