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The Drowning City
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The Drowning City

Cover art by Larry Rostant

Chapter 3

Isyllt and Adam found a tavern in Saltlace that night, an expensive one overlooking a broad canal. The sort of place where a bored traveler might come to waste time and money--Isyllt thought she could manage that ruse. She lifted her chin as she crossed the threshold, letting her hips roll. Midnight blue silk swirled around her ankles and a corset cinched her waist and kept her back straight. They drew glances like gnats to the paper lanterns as they crossed the room. Whether it was her bare white arms or Adam glowering at her back she couldn't say.

They weren't the only foreigners. Symir had a reputation as a haven for expatriates--separated from Assar and the northlands, it was a place to escape local trouble and live in exotic decadence. If you had the money for it.

They claimed a table on the balcony and Isyllt let the waiter recommend food and wine. Skiffs paddled in the canal below and evening crowds drifted across bridges and along the sidewalks. Xinai was out in the city somewhere--hopefully the mercenary would have better luck finding insurgents.

Their food arrived and inside the tavern musicians began to play, deep drums and a woman's ululating voice. Blue lantern-light glittered on the cutlery and washed Adam's face cold and grey.

"How did you meet Kiril?" Isyllt finally asked, picking at the arrangement of rice and fish on her plate. She should have asked sooner, but she'd spent too much time during the voyage hiding in her cabin. He studied her for a moment, head tilted. She found herself mimicking the gesture and distracted herself with a rice ball.

"I came to Erisín when I was young," he said. "Just a stupid orphan brat--I though I could make a living picking pockets, become as good a thief as Magpie Mai, or some nonsense like that." He snorted and sipped his wine.

"I was damned lucky Kiril found me, or I'd have wound up in a cell, or the bottom of the Dis. He helped me find work I was better suited for." He touched the hilt of his sword. "So I owe him."

Isyllt's mouth twisted. "He always did like taking in strays." She glanced down and found her goblet empty. Condensation glistened on the curve of the flagon--chilled, but the wine burned going down and kindled a pleasant warmth in the stomach. She refilled her cup, let the sweet plum vintage ease the bitter taste in her mouth. Adam watched her, waiting.

The next cup emptied the pitcher and the waiter appeared to replace it. When he was gone, her bitterness began to leak.

"He found me when I was fifteen. Not thieving, but bad enough. Selling charms to pay for a tenement room with three other girls. I was too stubborn to ask the temple of Erishal to take me in." She shook her head at half-forgotten pride. "But Kiril found me, offered me training without the temple vows. I've studied with him for twelve years." She drained the last of her cup in a single swallow. It was enough of an answer, but she couldn't stop the rest from spilling out.

"I don't think he ever imagined I'd fall in love with him. Neither of us did."

Adam blinked. "What happened?"

Her laugh was soft and ugly. But she might as well finish it now. "Three years ago I finally said something, when he realized I wasn't a child anymore." Though perhaps she'd been wrong about that. "And it worked. We were happy."

Adam sipped more wine and speared a twisted creation of raw fish and seaweed, finishing it in two bites. "But not anymore?"

The quiet curiosity of the question nearly undid her. She'd grown used to the feigned grief and relentless probing of the court gossips, and her friends had learned not to ask. She glanced aside, stared at the canal lapping gently below them.

"Did he tell you what happened last summer?" she asked. Her cheeks were flushed, from wine or embarrassment she wasn't sure. At least she wasn't going to cry.

Adam shook his head. "I heard of the plague, but I was in the north that season. Kiril didn't say anything about it."

"The plague, yes." Such a small word to hold so much horror and grief. "The bronze fever. It tore through the city, all the way to the palace. The queen fell sick. The king begged Kiril to save her, and he tried." Her voice felt cold and dead in her mouth. "He tried until his heart gave out, but she died all the same. I thought he was dead too--"

Lanterns swayed in the breeze, rippling blue and violet light across the balcony. Isyllt swallowed against the tightness in her throat, concentrated on the press of corset stays as she breathed. She hadn't told this story before, not in so much detail.

"He recovered, but he wasn't the same. We waded through death to the knees every day, but it finally came too close. And he said... He said I was too young to nurse an old man to his grave. I argued, but he put me aside. We fought for a year. And now he's sent me away, far enough that I can't play the termagant."

She smiled, bright and bitter, and shook her head. "And that's the whole of it, mawkish as a bad play."

They sat in silence for a time, music and laughter and water swirling around them. "I'm sorry," Isyllt said at last. "You didn't need to hear all that. But as I said, I know what we're here to do and my feelings won't interfere."

Adam only nodded.

She glanced at the nearly empty flagon and blinked. "Black Mother. Lucky I haven't made more of a fool of myself than I have."

"Eat some more," Adam said, nudging the plate toward her. "Then we can walk it off."

*

Isyllt shivered in spite of the heat as they left the tavern, wrapping her silk shawl over bare shoulders. Wine burned in her blood, stung her cheeks. Corset stays pressed against her ribs, and she wasn't sure more food had been a good idea.

Moonlight shimmered on rooftops, glittered on the water. The city was full of spirits tonight. Or maybe it always was, and she only now heard them. Not ghosts, but water creatures, jungle creatures, flitting and whispering in voices she couldn't understand. She paused, eyes closed, and let the strange sounds wash over her. The ground spun beneath her.

Adam's hand closed on her arm and she opened her eyes. "Are you all right?" he asked. His callused fingers were warm against her clammy skin and she fought not to sway on her feet.

Very lucky not to have made more of a fool of herself.

"Can you feel them?"

His smile stretched lopsided. "Some of them. Not like you do. I hear them sometimes, the louder ones."

She cocked her head, studied the play of shadows over his face. "Are you a witch?" she asked, even though she caught no hint of power under his skin. But the way he moved, alert as a mage...

"Not even a little. Charms are Xin's job. I just kill things."

She looked down at his hand, let her vision unfocus. Colors blossomed around him, deep forest greens and greys, swirled red and black around his hands and sword. "You're good at it."

"I am." For an instant his eyes gleamed green-gold like an animal's and a sharp-toothed shadow hung over his.

"What are you?" she whispered. "Not just an orphan brat."

He smiled a wolf's smile. "Tier Danaan. Halfbreed, at least."

Isyllt blinked, colors fading. Adam was just a man again--a man she was leaning on drunkenly in the middle of the street. She straightened and took a step back. "I've never met one before."

"People in civilized places usually haven't." He started walking and she fell in beside him. "I wasn't raised among the Tier." The careful flatness in his voice warned her away from the subject.

They crossed an arching bridge over one of the broad canals that bordered the districts; someone sang from a passing skiff below. The breeze tugged strands of Isyllt's hair free of their pins, stuck them to her sweat-damp shoulders. And they called this the dry season.

Descending the bridge steps, Isyllt tripped on an uneven stone. Adam caught her before she fell. The street lamp's glow revealed a crack in the rock, several inches deep.

"The street is sinking," Adam said, pointing down the side of the canal where the stone sloped sharply toward the water.

"Lovely. Let's hope it doesn't finish the job tonight."

The streets in Straylight were narrow and cracked and the houses tilted drunkenly, some leaning so close their gardens grew together. Wards dripped from shop signs, shimmered in windows and doorways. Many lamps were out, only a few puddles of orange-gold glow marking their way. Someone stirred in the blackness of an alley, racked with a consumptive's cough. Isyllt heard death waiting in that wet rattle.

A trio of young men passed them, armed and swaggering. Isyllt felt their angry stares and her fingers twitched. Adam's hand settled lightly on his sword hilt. "I think we've outstayed our welcome," she whispered. She traced a careful charm in the air--not worth it. The men kept walking.

She and Adam turned a corner onto another well-spelled lane. The street marker had been broken off its post, an octagonal wooden sign nailed in its place. A lantern swayed above it, rippling light and shadow over Sivahran letters.

"What does that say?" Isyllt asked.

"Salt Street. I'd guess it also translates to No Assari welcome."

"Or any other foreigners."

The spirits were quiet here. Warded away, or frightened. Isyllt heard human voices instead, raised in emotion. A woman stood in the street, arguing in Sivahran with an older woman framed in a shop door. The old woman spat in the gutter and slammed the door as they approached.

"That," Adam murmured in Isyllt's ear, "was nothing polite."

The woman in the street sobbed angrily, shoulders slumping. She turned toward them and light fell over her face--the customs inspector from the Mariah.

"Miss Xian-Mar?" Isyllt stepped closer; the woman's eyes were swollen and shining, but she wasn't crying now.

She blinked, dragged a hennaed hand through her unbound hair. "Lady Iskaldur." She straightened, tugging at her coat.

"Are you all right?" Impossible not to feel the black worry that hung over the woman like a pall.

"My niece is ill. She needs help, but that jhanda-- Forgive me. The witches won't help me."

"Is there no physician you can go to?"

"It's no longer an ailment for medicine." Her voice was calm now, but her face was ashen and her hands twisted together.

Isyllt paused for several heartbeats. "Can I be of some assistance?"

Anhai's eyes flickered toward Isyllt's left hand. "Lady, I couldn't impose on you for a family problem." Her voice cracked.

"What's wrong with your niece?"

Anhai stopped arguing and started walking, Isyllt and Adam trailing along. "It started as a simple fever. A common childhood complaint, rarely serious... I was taking care of her while her mother was away." She shook her head, a wealth of anger and fear in that gesture.

"And it's beyond the physicians now?" Isyllt shivered. "I'm a mage, but I have no miracles for you." Kiril had tried that, and she'd seen the good it did.

"Not beyond--outside. A ghost found her, slipped through my wards, and now I can't cast it out again."

Isyllt smiled. "Ghosts I can handle."

*

Anhai's house sat on the far side of Jadewater, in a quiet, well-kept neighborhood past the temple spires. Isyllt recognized it even before the woman led them up the steps--it reeked of illness and anger and death. She felt the ghost as they crossed the threshold, felt strength and madness. A shudder crawled down her back and her blood quickened.

An old woman opened the door for them, grey hair tousled beneath her scarf. She stared at Isyllt and Adam.

"How is she?" Anhai asked.

"No better. Her mother is with her now."

Adam caught Isyllt's arm, pulled her close. "How dangerous is this?"

She shrugged and tugged free of his grip. At least the hall wasn't spinning. "Take me to her," she said to Anhai.

The girl lay on a narrow bed, curtains and blankets pulled back. A pleasant cluttered room--toys piled on shelves and books and quills scattered across the low desk, but the specter's presence filled the room like rank fog, drained it of warmth and color. Salt lined the windows and door, but it was too little too late. Another woman sat beside the bed, grey and drawn, henna-streaked hair in tangles around her face.

"What's her name?" Isyllt asked, leaning over the bed. The girl looked no more than ten or eleven, darker skinned than the other women but ashen now. Sweat-damp curls clung to her face, sprawled across the pillow. Bruise-shadowed eyes were closed and her narrow chest rose and fell too fast.

"Lilani." The other woman looked up, eyes widening as she saw Isyllt. "Who are you?"

"A mage." She crouched beside the girl, brushed a hand against her fevered brow. The child twitched, but didn't wake. "You're her mother?"

She nodded. "Vienh Xian-Lhun. Please, Lady, if you can help-- The ghost is inside her now. She's fighting, but..."

Isyllt nodded. It lay like a seething shadow below the girl's skin. "Do you know who it is?"

Silence filled the room, save for Lilani's labored breath.

"My grandmother," Vienh said at last. "Deilin Xian." She licked cracked lips. "We knew she hadn't had the proper rites--her body was lost--but I never imagined..." She shook her head angrily. "The house was warded, rot it! The whole damned city is supposed to be warded."

"Do you have more salt?" Isyllt asked Anhai. The woman nodded and darted down the hall. "Brush those seals away," she told Vienh, jerking her head toward the window and door. "They're worthless now."

The woman did it, fast and efficient, while Isyllt leaned over Lilani again. The girl's skin burned dangerously hot, and they had no time for ice and cold compresses. Ghostlight flickered in the black diamond and a chill washed through the room. Lilani sighed, hair scratching on the pillow as she turned her head. Her eyes flickered, showing Isyllt blood-shot whites and amber irises.

She let out a breath she hadn't realized she held. Just a fever. Not the plague. The room swam as urgency warred with wine in her blood. She'd never tried an exorcism drunk before.

Anhai returned with a jar of salt. Isyllt ran white crystals through her fingers, letting their clean strength reassure her. "Shakera. Anhai, Vienh, leave the room. Please," she added as Anhai's eyebrows climbed toward her hair.

"Why?" Vienh crossed wiry arms, dark eyes narrowing.

"Because you're both the ghost's blood, yes?" They nodded. "And when I draw her out of Lilani, she may try this with either of you. And I don't want to do this three times in a row."

They relented, retreating into the hall. "Adam, come here." He came, warily. "Have you ever been part of an exorcism before?"

"Yes. I didn't enjoy it."

"I doubt this will be any more pleasant. Help me move the bed."

They dragged the heavy wooden frame away from the wall, until Isyllt had enough room to trace a circle of salt around bed and child. "Sit with her," she told Adam.

He propped Lilani up in his lap, leaning her head against his chest and stroking her hair when she moaned. He knew what he was doing, thank all the powers. Isyllt swallowed, her stomach clenching.

She pulled a leather pouch from a pocket in her skirts. Inside the silk-lined wallet lay a narrow surgeon's blade, a palm-sized mirror, a sack of salt, incense, and a silver chain. An exorcist's kit--years of habit had trained her to carry it always. They were past the stage for incense and cajoling. Instead she removed the knife.

The blade was well-honed. She didn't feel the cut until blood pooled in her left hand, feathering across the fine lines of her palm. The pain came a moment later, hot and sharp.

Isyllt crouched at the foot of the bed and stretched out her bleeding hand. "Deilin. Come out and talk to me."

Lilani tossed; Adam's hands tightened on her shoulders.

"What do you want with this child?"

The darkness surged inside the girl, drowning Lilani's own colors. Isyllt blew across her hand, stinging the wound and wafting the smell of fresh blood into the girl's face. Lilani moaned and licked her lips.

"Deilin Xian!"

Isyllt's voice cracked like a lash, and the child stiffened. Chapped lips parted and a rough hollow voice let loose a stream of angry Sivahran.

"Let me guess," Isyllt muttered, "none of that is polite either?"

Adam chuckled. "Kaixe means 'bitch', if that gives you an idea."

"Charming woman." She met Lilani's eyes, and the wraith's lightless gaze behind them. Deilin's control was strong if blood wouldn't tempt her out. "Leave the child alone, Deilin. It won't work."

More cursing. Lilani twitched and writhed, but Adam held her fast.

Isyllt rolled her eyes. "Fine. Don't say I didn't give you a chance." She reached out, pressed her bloody hand against Lilani's chest. Flesh stopped flesh, but cold otherwise fingers stretched further, clenched in tangling souls.

"Lilani," she whispered, praying the girl could hear her over the ghost's invective, "hold on."

And she wrenched the ghost free.

Lilani screamed. Someone in the hallway screamed. Deilin lunged against Isyllt, icy dead fingers clawing for her throat. Just a pale shadow to Isyllt's blurring eyes, but strong with anger and desperation. The ghost fell against her, nearly as solid as flesh, and both women tumbled off the end of the bed.

The salt circle caught them like a wall of fire and Isyllt twisted in time to keep from breaking it. Her arm was numb, breath a shuddering plume in the frosty air.

Deilin was strong, but Isyllt was a trained necromancer, student of the finest sorcerer in Erisín. She drew a breath, focused, and pinned the ghost flat to the floor. Her ring spat opalescent fire, burning with the presence of death.

Anhai trembled at the threshold, held back by her sister's arm.

"I can make sure she never does this again, to anyone." Isyllt's voice rasped through her frozen throat. "Will you give me leave?"

Anhai gasped, pressed a hand over her mouth. Vienh's eyes widened, then narrowed. "Do it," she spat. Anhai made a choked sound and turned her face away.

Isyllt stood, the ghost twisting in her grip like a cat made of gossamer ice.

"Deilin Xian." The spirit trembled, eyes wide now with fear, the madness leaving her. Too late. "By your name and your soul, you are mine."

The diamond blazed, bright enough to bring tears to Isyllt's eyes. Deilin screamed and screamed as the fire burned her, froze her, swallowed her whole. Then she was gone and the lack of sound echoed through the room. The screams lingered in Isyllt's head as the ghost pounded against the flawless adamant curves of her new home. Then the other ghosts who dwelled in the diamond found her, and there was only silence.

Lilani sobbed, clinging to Adam. At Isyllt's nod of invitation Anhai and Vienh rushed into the room, breaking the circle and snatching the child into their arms.

Isyllt leaned against a bedpost as the room spiraled queasily around her. Lamplight lanced through her head, sharp as a blade, and as the numbness receded pain rushed up her arm. Sweat and sickness clogged her nose and her stomach lurched as she stumbled into the hall. Adam caught up with her in a few strides, holding her against him when she would have fallen.

She barely pulled free in time to vomit.

*

Isyllt accepted Anhai's tearful offer of tea, if only because she feared Adam would have to carry her back to the Silver Phoenix otherwise. The old serving woman boiled water while Anhai found bandages for Isyllt's hand. Afterward, she sat on a low couch, dignity and corset stays keeping her upright when she wanted to melt, and let hot spices wash away the taste of bile and wine and ease the lingering chill in her bones.

Anhai picked up her cup, but her hands trembled so badly she set it down again. "That you had to save my niece from her own blood..." She shook her head. "My family is in your debt, Lady Iskaldur, more than I can say."

"Isyllt, please."

"Then you must call me Anhai--"

"Iskaldur?" Vienh interrupted, coming into the room. "Isyllt Iskaldur?" Her eyes narrowed as she stared at Isyllt.

"That's right."

"Mother's bones!" The woman shook her head, undoing the hasty knot that held up her hair. "I'm first mate on the Rain Dog. I'll see that Izzy gives your money back."

Isyllt swallowed a chuckle, glanced at Anhai. The woman caught the look and smiled.

"Don't worry. I'm well aware of what my sister does on that boat of hers. But silence is the very least you may ask of me, La--Isyllt. After what you did for Lia, I would help you load a smuggling ship myself."

Isyllt nodded thanks. "Keep the money," she said to Vienh. "Just don't let him sail off in the night."

Vienh grinned wearily. "I'll flense him myself if he tries."

"Do you know why your grandmother was so angry? More than a lack of proper funeral rites, surely."

The sisters exchanged a glance, kinship plain in otherwise dissimilar faces. Vienh broke the silence first. "The rites would be bad enough for many Sivahri, but Grandmother-- In her generation the Xians were rebels, fighting the Assari however they could. Deilin died in an ambush gone wrong--the Empire's soldiers got the upper hand. They left the bodies in the jungle for beasts."

"Things were less bloody by our time," Anhai said. "But for Grandmother, trapped in death, watching... The witch on the Street of Salt called me a filthy collaborator dog, and that is--was--Deilin's opinion as well." She pushed her hair back. "That a foreigner came to our aid when our own people would not is a shameful thing for Sivahra."

Silence welled in the room, until Isyllt heard the creak of leather as Adam shifted his weight behind her. Fatigue lapped over her, forcing out a yawn that she barely caught with the back of her hand. "Forgive me." Sivahri politeness must be contagious. Adam pressed a surreptitious hand against her shoulder, keeping her upright. "Thank you for the tea, but we should be going."

"Of course." Anhai rose, graceful in spite of her tangled hair and wrinkled clothes. "You have our blessings."

"Find a physician for Lilani, to be safe. Possession will drain her worse than any fever."

Anhai nodded and escorted Isyllt and Adam to the door. "If you need anything in Symir, anything at all..."

"Thank you."

The door closed, cutting off the light, and a lock clicked. Adam's hand lingered on her arm and Isyllt allowed herself to lean on him for a weary instant.

"You're not going to be sick again, are you?"

She snorted and pulled away. "I hope not." She rubbed her hands against her arms--her scarf must be somewhere in Lilani's bedroom. "Thank you for helping in there."

He shrugged it aside. "That was good work. The old man taught you well enough."

She was too tired for the thought to even ache. "He did."

They returned to the Phoenix in silence. By the time they reached the inn, the night had dissolved into a blur of shadows and lamplight and Isyllt's blood echoed in her ears. The wind gusted and Adam stiffened, raising his face.

Isyllt wrinkled her nose. "Smoke?"

"In the north. Something big is burning."

"Should we see--" But a yawn caught her mid-question, popping her jaw with its force. Adam chuckled.

"In the morning. I'll wake you if the city burns down."

The last thing she remembered before darkness took her was Adam catching her as she stumbled and carrying her to bed.

*

Xinai slipped in long after the midnight bells had sounded; the door squeaked as she closed it and Adam stirred. By the dim light through the window she saw him grope for his sword and fall back when he recognized her.

She kicked off her boots and unbuckled her belt. The smell of alcohol mingled with his sweat was familiar, but as she moved closer to the bed she caught another scent and frowned. Magic, cold and dark.

"You smell like death," she said, standing at the foot of the bed. He'd fallen asleep still dressed. Waiting for her--it made her smile, even after so many years. "Death and wine."

"The wine came before the death," he muttered, kicking off his boots.

"It usually does." The bed creaked under her weight. She leaned over him, wrinkled her nose at a trace of bittersweet perfume. "You smell like the witch, too." She arched an eyebrow, though he probably couldn't see it. "I didn't know she was your type."

He chuckled and laid his hands on her waist. "If her magic didn't kill me, her hipbones would. No, we had an adventure."

Better than spending hour after hour in smoky bars, listening to disgruntled laborers mutter into their beer. Liquor might stir their tongues against the Empire, but in the morning they'd curse their hangovers and go about their lives without a thought of doing anything more. Even those who'd gathered to protest at the docks yesterday weren't likely to do more than shout. She needed warriors, not angry tradesmen and merchants. The stink of beer and smoke and other people's sweat still clung to her skin and she had only a handful of names that might be of use. At least the fire in the dockyard had been a pretty distraction.

She forced her disappointment aside. "A story," she said, straddling Adam's hips and helping him undo his belt and shirt laces. "Tell me."

He pulled her down beside him, leaning his head on her shoulder as he recounted the trip to Straylight. A hollow feeling grew in Xinai's stomach as he told of the exorcism and the binding of the Xian ghost.

"How horrible," she whispered when he finished. "To die like that, unburned. To watch your family become collaborators." She might have died a hundred times in the north and no one would have known the rites and songs. It had never worried her much then, when she thought she'd never see home again. Now the thought tightened her stomach with queasy dread.

Adam snorted softly and she stiffened. But it wasn't his fault. He couldn't know.

"Trying to steal your great-granddaughter's body is still a bit much."

"Yes." Just a child. A warrior's body would be more use. They lay in silence for a while and she felt Adam start to drowse. "I wonder how many of them are left," she mused aloud. "The rebel ghosts."

"We're only concerned with the live ones." He slid his arm around her waist and pressed his face against the crook of her neck. "Do you have any stories to tell? I smelled a fire."

"Yes, a warehouse by the docks." His breathing had already begun to roughen and she kissed his forehead, soothing a hand over his tangled hair. "I'll tell you in the morning. Rest."

A moment later he was snoring softly, but a long time passed before Xinai followed him into the dark.

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

© 2006 - 2014 Amanda Downum. Brushes by Annika von Holdt.