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Unlike the rest of the ferry passengers, Lahlil didn’t lift her boots when the water sloshed to their side of the boat. She was too busy reminding herself that ordinary people did not threaten to impale ferrymen when they wanted them to pick up the pace.
The woman with the tousled hair sighed and wriggled out of her jacket, revealing a patched chemise and delicate shoulders. The rest of the passengers had already stripped down as far as conventional modesty would allow, but Lahlil didn’t want to expose her mismatched eyes or her scarred forearm, so she had to content herself with tugging her collar away from her neck.
“Last winter ’twas warm, but it ain’t ever been this warm afore the harbor fes’val,” said the woman, fanning herself with her hat.
“We usually have snow up in the hills long before now,” said the young man with the wolfish smile. The way he kept touching the heavy purse around his waist, it might as well have had the words “Steal Me” stitched on the front.
The mother paused picking at a knot in the collar string of her little boy’s shirt to wave her hand at the water. “It’s the fog I don’t like: day and night, it’s been. Look out there. We should be able to see the watchtower at Bodun by now. Daybreak, but you’d never know it.”
Daybreak. Once again the sunrise had come without Lahlil knowing. More than a decade of blood-boiling pain had given way not to peace, but to emptiness. The Nomas sun god Shof and the moon goddess Amai had finally stopped squabbling over their claim, so either Jachad had brokered an accord on her behalf, or they’d realized the treasure they’d been fighting over had been nothing but dross all along. She wouldn’t know until she found him again.
“’Tis unnatural, that’s what’is,” said the old man to Lahlil’s right, the elided cadence of the outer islands making his words a drawl. His grown daughter lifted her hand from the basket of limp vegetables to wipe the sweat from her forehead. “This plague out’a Norland—all o’ them soldiers cut loose, makin’ trouble: the signs’r’all there, for them who c’n read’m. S’goin’ t’get worse afore’t gets better.”
The mother shot father and daughter a dark glance as the child, a tiny thing with a mane of ginger curls, pressed back against her knees.
“It’s like you was saying, Clare,” the girl at the far end of the bench broke in. She and her friend were both decked out in enough cheap finery to pass for idols in the market square. “About the plague—you said it all along, din’t you? Something unnatural allus comes out’a the empire. Remember?”
“You look like you came from up north,” said Clare, turning around to face Lahlil. Her eyes, dark and challenging, rested on the silver triffons on the hilt of Lahlil’s sword.
“A while back,” she muttered, speaking Iratian with the blunt accent of the mercenaries she had known from that region. “Afore the quarantine.”
“Well, o’ course,” said Clare. “I couldn’t’ve meant after, could I?”
“You could’ve,” put in her friend. “They let in those with coin, I bet. Like with errything. Coin buys errything these days.”
“Tain’t right,” the old man declared, stomping his foot and splashing salt water over all of their feet as the other passengers voiced their agreement.
“So, did’y’see it? The plague?” asked Clare. She dropped her voice to a dramatic whisper mid-sentence when the mother made a sharp clicking sound in her direction.
“You sure?” Clare pressed. Her face was taut with the thrill of someone who had never experienced real danger. “I hear it sends you mad afore you die, sets you tearin’ at erryone. Like a beast, I hear. And then blood comes out’a your eyes and you fall down dead—just like that!”
“Clare!” hissed her friend.
“Oh hush, Nav. I’m not sayin’ ennything people don’t know already.”
Lahlil had seen plague victims dripping silver pus from their eyes and mouths. She’d packed snow into their wounds until the cold killed the infection. Those people she’d managed to cure, but these, sweating through their light clothes, would have no chance if her brother Eofar’s quarantine failed to stop the plague from spreading past Norland’s borders. Just one splinter or scrape would turn that woman with the tousled hair, the old man, the little boy, into monsters. She knew exactly how they would look as they screamed in pain, how their limbs would twist as they clawed at themselves and each other, spreading the infection …
<Please tell me we’re almost there,> said Rho Arregador. <Or kill me. I’ll leave the choice to you. Oh, and never, ever let me eat again.> A few of the other passengers glanced up. She’d warned Rho not to assume the islanders wouldn’t be able to hear him speaking Norlander, but as usual he hadn’t listened. He shifted a little in his corner; from the greenish hue of his skin, he was going to be sick—again—and she really didn’t want a second look at the sausages they’d eaten on the last quay.
<Breathe through your nose.>
<Good idea. Because the smell of fish is what I need right now,> he snapped, but he was too much on edge for his sarcasm to bite. It was always like this when they approached the next new place, bracing themselves for news neither one of them, even on their best days, expected to be good. Every creaking boat, jolting cart and muddy trudge brought them a little closer, but she could feel time sputtering like a lamp sucking up the last few drops of oil, with no way of knowing when the light would snuff out for good.
“Fog’s getting thicker,” the ferryman grumbled.
The boat crawled down the inlet to the west side of the island, vying for space with the other small crafts trying to navigate through the increasing murk. The ramshackle pier gradually took shape, followed by the usual boxy silhouettes of taverns, brothels, moneylenders and jails. Five ships bobbed in the deep bay. The wind wasn’t strong enough to lift their flags, but one look was enough to tell her that the Argent wasn’t there. Lahlil could taste the sourness of Rho’s disappointment as strongly as her own.
“Papers,” an official bellowed as he settled his bulk at the top of the gangway, scratching his beard. The ferryman held out a tattered card; the official grunted and gestured the passengers out. “Come on, come on, let’s be ’aving you.”
Lahlil followed the two girls up the gangway. The inspector’s glance dipped under her wide-brimmed hat without interest but lingered on the heavily tarnished hilt of Strife’s Bane. She hunched her shoulders a little and sulked while she waited: another cheap mercenary washing up like garbage in these backwater islands. Finally he waved her up the slimy gangplank. The old man and his daughter came behind, followed by the wolfish man, the mother and son and finally the woman in the chemise.
“You! Norlander! You stay there.”
Rho. Of course. Every time.
“No Norlanders get in without a pass. You got a pass or not?”
<He wants to see your quarantine pass,> she translated for Rho, in case he hadn’t understood. She made sure to keep her shoulders at the same indolent angle and crossed her arms in front of her as if her sword was the last thing on her mind.
“You two together, then?” the inspector asked her.
A jerk of her shoulder, noncommittal. “Headed in the same direction.”
“Yeah, and where’s that?”
“So you ain’t staying here?” the official asked, producing a little cheat-glass to take a closer look at the stamp on the damp paper Rho took from his pocket. Clare’s friend was right about one thing: a fistful of coin could get you just about anything, including a forged stamp saying you were already in the islands before Norland closed its ports. “Hm.”
Kill the inspector first, then the ferryman: two quick strokes, no noise; kick the bodies overboard. Someone sees from another boat, calls out, gets the attention of the people on the dock, so then you make a run for it, tell Rho to go a different direction, divide the pursuers. You’ll be surrounded before you get to the end of the pier. Fling off your hat and jacket, let everyone see your scars; someone shouts “It’s the Mongrel!” Good. Now they’re afraid. They’ll stay back. Then they haul Rho across the deck toward you. They’ve already started beating him bloody and they’re holding a knife to his throat, telling you to give yourself up.
“You look like a soldier,” said the inspector, handing the pass back to Rho. “You a deserter? Someone coming to haul you back? We still have the garrison here. Don’t want that kind of trouble at my port.”
“His garrison disbanded,” Lahlil supplied. “They closed the border before he made it back.”
“He can answer for himself, can’t he?”
“He can also spew all over you,” she warned. “Better you than me, Worthy.”
The islander curled a protective hand over his beard and stepped back out of the way.
Rho picked up his cloak and wobbled to the gangplank, bruising his shins on the benches as he went.
<Come on. We’ve lost enough time already,> said Lahlil. She picked out the filthiest tavern within sight and started toward it, weaving around the crates, boxes, barrels and nets piled up on the jetty. In the center of a pier stood a statue of a local goddess with a fish’s head and an impractical arrangement of tentacles. The locals had hung tributes of little bits of colored glass from her appendages.
<You didn’t need to interfere,> Rho told her, walking so close behind her he would likely bowl her over if she stopped suddenly. <I had the situation in hand.>
<Was that your plan if he figured out the pass was a fake? Vomit on him?>
<We all have our talents,> he said magnanimously, draping his cloak across his arm with a flourish. <I’m sure yours will come in handy someday.>
They stopped to let a man trundle by with a wheelbarrow full of coal. <You should have been quicker getting off the boat.>
<He would have stopped me anyway.> Rho stalked ahead as soon as their path was clear. Two fishmongers gaped at him, their expressions the same as the fish in their baskets, and a stevedore failed to notice he was about to tip over a stack of crates until one of his comrades cursed at him. She hadn’t wanted Rho tagging along; it was Eofar who had pointed out how much more damage he could do blundering around on his own. Not that she’d admit it, but the qualities that made Rho a lodestone for trouble meant very few people noticed her, which was just how she wanted it. <Besides, someone like that isn’t going to spot the forged seals—not unless his beard has some magical powers other than retaining the stink of last week’s stew.>
<I’m saying we don’t have time for games.>
Rho stopped in his tracks in front of the tavern door. Even if she hadn’t felt his emotions turn to a flat, hard white she would have noticed the blue flush on his throat. <Games?>
<Later,> she warned him. <Someone will notice us standing out here.>
Rho’s back remained rigid but he went up to the tavern and pulled open the door, holding it for her with mock civility. <By all means, let’s get a drink first and figure out how soon we can get off this shit-heap of an island, since we’ve obviously missed the Argent. Again.>
The Black Whale looked like every other dockside tavern she had ever been in, right down to the pair of old-timers blinking through a fog of bitter cigar smoke. Three drunken Iratian sailors slumped over a table, rolling a set of dice, while behind the square bar in the center of the room, a barmaid with a deformed ear drummed her fingers on the counter.
“Beds upstairs, communal only, no baths and you slop for yourself,” the barmaid recited like a bored priestess. “Chops at midday, roast in’t evening, less it’s a feast-day, which it ain’t. Sausages anytime but I wouldn’t if I was you, Worthies.”
“Just a drink,” said Lahlil, fishing out a coin and noting the need to obtain more money soon. Their plan to sail straight to Prol Irat had fallen apart when their Gemanese ship had been held for quarantine at the first port in the Broken Islands. Bribing their way island by island had ripped a sizeable hole in their purse.
“So whatch’as want?” The barmaid yawned into the back of one hand and waved at a collection of brown glass jugs with the other. “Got jackwater here’ll burn your eyes right out’a your head.”
<Ask if they have Norlander wine,> said Rho.
“Does this look like the fecking Triumverate’s palace?” the barmaid answered straight back, scowling at Rho and pulling at her bad ear. “You’ll get the local stuff and like it. Or not. Feck if I care.”
“He’ll take it.”
The girl snagged a mug and a flagon, set them under different casks and flipped the taps, then swung both filled vessels onto the counter without spilling a drop. <What’s wrong with you, then, Handsome Jake?> she asked Rho in Norlander. Her hungry leer revealed sharp little teeth and looked surprisingly good on her. <Too busy being pretty to talk to me?>
<No,> Rho answered, lounging against the bar like a regular, <only I haven’t completely recovered from my ferry-ride yet.>
<Aw, is it like that? Poor lad,> said the girl, sliding the flagon toward him. <Tell Auntie Didi all about it.>
<Didi, from what I’ve seen of this establishment, I’m sure you know all there is to know about vomiting.>
The girl shrieked with laughter and Lahlil’s fingers tightened around the handle of the mug. <You’re right there, Worthy, and that’s the truth. What you need is the sea air, a little cool wind on that pretty face, not being shut up in this fecking place. Come out back with me and I’ll show you—Aw, feck me. Don’t you go nowhere, eh? Next one’s on me.> This last as the door opened and half a dozen well-armed mercenaries came roaring into the tavern, laughing and hailing the barmaid by name as they tipped money on to the counter. They’d cleaned off the blood and grime but Lahlil saw the fresh cuts and bruises and recognized the post-mission joviality.
Rho had already taken their drinks over to a table, leaving her the corner seat because he knew she would demand it anyway. <Finally, a floor that doesn’t rock,> he groaned, sinking down onto a stool with a pleasure that was almost obscene.
<Don’t get too comfortable.>
<Meaning?> He flipped the single word at her like a stone.
<You’ve got to talk to the barmaid again.>
<That’s not what you meant,> said Rho. <You think it’s my fault we missed them again, don’t you? You think I’m slowing you down.>
Lahlil’s first mouthful of ale slid over her tongue and down her throat. <That’s not what I said.>
<What you said is that we don’t have time for games. Do you think this is a game to me? That I came along with you, why—for my love of sea travel? That old woman tried to make Dramash—a little boy—murder hundreds of people. She put some kind of spell on Isa that made her turn on all her friends and now she’s sweet-talked her way onto the Argent and is heading for the Shadar to do who knows what to it. I left behind the only family and friends I have in Norland to stop her. I even left Dramash behind. There is nothing more important to me than getting to that ship and killing Ani before she hurts anyone else. I’m going to make sure Dramash has a home to go back to some day. So I’d appreciate it if you didn’t treat me like a toddler pulling at your sleeve.>
<Finished?> Lahlil asked when he stopped talking. She leaned across the table and pushed his flagon toward him. <I apologize. Now drink your wine and calm down.>
He was right, and he wasn’t the one playing games. That would be the game of hide-and-seek she was playing with Jachad—the one he was winning.
Rho tipped his head back to get the last few drops from the flagon and then set it down. <Am I slowing you down?>
<No. We’ve been unlucky, that’s all.>
<Be honest, Lahlil. This partnership was your brother’s idea, not mine. If you believe you have a better chance on your own, then you should go on without me. Only swear you’ll kill Ani when you find her.>
<Drop it, Rho,> she warned him. <We’re staying together. For now.>
The door banged open as a man in a thick jumper with a cap pulled down low over his eyes burst in. Lahlil’s hand reached for her sword but his gaze swept past her and Rho and landed on a man drowsing at a table near the back. “Arno! Get off your ass and out the boat!”
“Whassit?” the man grumbled, opening one eye.
“Salvage, ya drunk bastard!” barked the man in the cap. “Spotted her soon as the fog lifted. She’s loose out past the harbor and not a soul on deck. Whoever gets to her first’ll have the claim of her.”
Arno flailed to his feet and sped from the tavern as if it was on fire. The other patrons had taken note as well; Didi’s high-pitched voice was cutting over the general noise but Lahlil couldn’t make out much over the throb of her own pulse until icy fingers dug into her wrists and Rho’s silver eyes locked with hers. His fears twisted up with her own, two ribbons of the same bloody hue.
Rho had already disappeared into the street, but Lahlil stopped to hook her fingers through the handle of one of the jackwater jugs and ignored Didi’s threats as she hurdled the step. She followed the growing crowd until her footsteps went hollow on the pier.
As she crowded up to the railing beside Rho he told her, <It’s not the Argent.>
The prow of the vessel slid through the calm water, drifting with no sign of anyone at the wheel. It was a small, single-masted short-range merchant ship, moving parallel to the shore and too close for comfort to those already at anchor. Lahlil thought the sails were furled until she saw the bits of cloth flapping from the yards. She couldn’t see much of the main deck over the high rails and the upper decks were all deserted. One of the launches was missing, but the other was still there.
Water splashed down below them and several vessels of various sizes raced away from the pier, their oars slapping madly while the crowd cheered them on. Two boats collided and their occupants instantly began trying to wrestle each other overboard. She spotted Arno and his friend making headway, two sets of oars pumping like mad.
A triffon swung by low overhead: as Lahlil had expected, the commotion had attracted the attention of the Norlander garrison still deployed on the islands.
“Salvage! It’s salvage!” a woman behind Lahlil screamed up to the rider. “You can’t touch her! That’s the law!”
Lahlil grabbed Rho by the crook of the elbow and hauled him back from the railing, keeping one eye on the triffon all the time. <Come on,> she said as the animal tilted into a tight circle over the ship and then headed back again. She let go of him and, anticipating where the triffon would land given its current trajectory, broke into a run.
<Why are we running? It’s not the Argent,> Rho said.
<Grab that man’s cigar. And don’t let it go out.>
<What? Why?> asked Rho, but he did snatch the thing from the startled old man shambling along in their path.
<There’s no damage to that ship. Her crew didn’t abandon her; they’re still aboard. Most of them, anyway.>
He stuttered a little as he put the facts together. <Why—No. You think it’s the plague?>
The triffon dropped to the ground up ahead, its bulk shaking the decking hard enough to make her trip into Rho’s side. The lone Norlander rider grappled with her harness and as soon as she was free, disappeared on the opposite side. Not even all the shouting behind them could block out the sound of her retching.
<You fly. And give me the cigar,> Lahlil ordered Rho, grasping the jackwater jug more securely as she swung herself up into the saddle. She jammed her feet in the stirrups and looped one arm through the harness but didn’t bother with the rest. <Go. We can’t let anyone get aboard.>
<You’re not strapped—>
He obeyed, overcoming the triffon’s reluctance to head back out toward the rogue vessel with a firm kick to her sides. Swooping low, they could see their tavern companions had overtaken the other scavengers. Arno was standing in the prow of his little boat and had already stripped down to his undergarments. As they watched, he flexed his ropy muscles and dived into the water.
<Faster,> Lahlil urged Rho as the man swam toward the ship with steady, powerful strokes. Clenching the jug between her thighs, she got out her knife and sliced a swatch from the tail of Rho’s shirt.
<What are you doing back there? Oh, no—>
Arno scrambled up the netting on the side of the ship and flopped over the rail onto the deck with a cry of triumph. They could see him rubbing the water out of his eyes as they closed in—then he threw himself back up against the rail and grabbed it with both hands, as if he feared being swept overboard.
The sailors, their bodies now twisted and rotting, had obviously torn each other apart while in the grip of the plague’s madness. Blood mottled the deck in rust-colored patches and her hatches had been left open to the rain and sea. And beneath the shadow of the heavy clouds, the silver plague shimmered like a billion stars as it continued to feast on the death it had created.
Arno tried to throw himself over the side but got tangled up in the ropes. He flailed there, unable to climb up or down, as if terror had sapped his ability to reason.
Lahlil uncorked the jug and stuffed the piece of fine cotton lawn into the opening. One whiff of the contents was enough to tell her many a sailor must have wandered home blind after a visit to Didi’s tavern. <When I tell you, make a pass across her bow, as low as you can.>
Rho tugged on the reins and whistled, getting the triffon into position for the dive. Lahlil drew on the cigar a few times until the tip glowed bright red. She spat out as much of the bitter smoke as possible, then held her improvised slow-match to the fuse, blowing on it until the damp fabric caught.
The horizon tilted up as the triffon pulled in its wings like it would in battle so they wouldn’t scrape the mast. Lahlil finally remembered she wasn’t actually strapped in and jammed her feet down into the stirrups, tightening her legs against the saddle. They rushed toward the silver-streaked deck with her sheltering the smoldering cloth from the wind, and the moment they bottomed out of the dive, she hurled the jug. The jackwater splashed out over the wooden planking and ignited in a rush of flame, licking up the wood and torn sails, even the tattered clothing on the bodies.
<Turn us around. Make another pass,> she commanded. As soon as they veered around she could see that the fire had taken hold. No one else would be able to get aboard now.
Arno had finally managed to disentangle himself from the rope netting and had jumped off the ship. When he surfaced, he began swimming frantically for the dock, but Lahlil didn’t need to tell Rho what she needed; he was already bringing the triffon around in pursuit, so low the water splashed up over its tail. As soon as they flew past Arno, Lahlil twisted around and threw her knife, hitting him cleanly in the chest. He managed a single cry before the water poured into his mouth.
Rho turned the triffon again, this time heading south along the coast; heading for the next port—the next failure.
<They might pull the body out of the water,> he said eventually.
<They won’t. They know it’s plague now.>
<I keep thinking about that missing launch.>
<Anyone who left that ship died before they reached land.>
Rho thought about that for a moment. <Still.>
Lahlil finally strapped herself into the harness, but not before sparing a look back over her shoulder for the burning ship. Those flames were the massacres of her own making: villages she’d set alight to keep the opposing army from supplying itself; besieged castles she’d attacked with fire until the thatched roofs caught and drove the inhabitants out like rats. The bodies turning black on the deck of the doomed ship were the dead of a hundred different armies she’d destroyed for coin and for the pleasure of it; the flames were the pyres raised when the corpses were too numerous to bury and the air burned with the stench of her victory. They wore the faces of people she had known: Frea, Isa, Eofar; her father and mother, Aunt Meena and Uncle Shairav; Nevie, Dredge and Allack and the rest of her crew; Nisha, Callia, Mairi and the rest of the Nomas; Cyrrin and Trey. Jachad.
She waited until the burning ship had shrunk to a fist-sized ball of flame before she turned back around.
Copyright © 2018 by Evie Manieri