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The Drowning City

Cover art by Larry Rostant

Vienh's scenes

Chapter 5

The Bride was quiet in the afternoons, the lull between lunch hours and the end of dayshifts. Too quiet, today. Vienh paced the back room restlessly, wandered in and out of the front till Desh glared at her from behind the bar; the rest of the custom ignored her. Her eyes ached from lack of sleep, but she couldn't sit still long enough to rest.

She should be at the house, but with Izzy off carousing someone had to take care of business--even when there wasn't any to be had. She wouldn't ask Darius to take any responsibility from her if she could help it. The second mate's ambition was an open secret on the Dog--any more open and she'd have to do something about it. Baruch would cover for her and not make a fuss, but it would still look bad.

And, though it shamed her, she didn't want to sit at home. Especially after last night. Storms and pirates and imperial inspections she could handle, but sickbeds left her helpless and fretful. She hadn't been helpless--or useless--since before she was Lia's age, and it made her nauseous. Almost as nauseous as the knowledge that if the ghost had struck a week earlier, her daughter might have died and Vienh wouldn't have known.

The door opened as she completed another restive circuit, and she paused in the hall. The man from last night, the witch's companion. He blinked against the shadows, scanning the room. A few patrons glanced up and looked away just as quickly. The Bride's regulars were good at minding their own business.

The man--Adam--frowned and turned to the bar, maneuvering his sword out of the way as he leaned his hip on a stool. The bartender ignored him for a moment, finally giving him a hard glance--no one came to the Bride for the service, at least not during the day.

"What do you want?"

"What's good?"

Adam tensed and turned at Vienh's approach. Good ears--she knew how softly she'd been walking.

"Two Mirs," she told Desh, hopping onto a stool. "On my tab." His scowl eased and he turned toward the rack of bottles. Spending money would be worth it, if it eased her fretful boredom.

"Thanks," Adam said.

She waved it aside. "I owe you more than a drink."

"I didn't do much."

"You helped."

He nodded, giving her a casual once-over. She must have looked like cold death last night, and not much livelier today. She couldn't place his features. Not Ninayan, never mind his name. Lean and lantern-jawed, nose broken at least once. Not as pinkish-pale as some northerners, but not southron-dark either. A mongrel, most likely. His eyes were a striking green-gold.

"How's your daughter?"

"Better." She smiled and nearly shook her head. "She's tough." And a good reminder of what happened when you let yourself get distracted by pretty eyes.

Desh set two drinks in front of them. Real glass, though bubbled and warped; her credit was good. The contents looked enough like river water to warrant the name, murky green with dark silt settled at the bottom.

"Sugar," Vienh said, catching Adam's skeptical look.

It smelled of mint and anise and other spices, and burned like hot lamp oil. Vienh was used to the fire and didn't gasp as heat rushed through her nose and throat, though it felt like her skull might melt. Adam sucked in a breath and drained his glass.

"Not bad," he said, blinking back tears.

Vienh grinned. "It's called verdigris. They say if you drink enough of it your guts turn green." She finished hers with another swallow, sugar crunching grit-sweet between her teeth.

"Are you just here to drink," she asked, signaling for another round, "or are you looking for someone?"

"I was looking for Izzy."

"He's off spending your money. If it's about the Dog, though, I can help." Maybe the day wouldn't be a complete loss, business-wise.

"It's not, but maybe you can help anyway." He took a cautious sip of the fresh drink, breathed in the fumes. "I'm looking for information."

She cocked an eyebrow, nodded for him to continue.

"About the city. Politics, rumors--like that."

Of course. She'd forgotten last night what it was his witch had hired the Dog for. Spies were dangerous--at least pirates were honest when they left you with your guts spilling across a deck. "Any in particular?"

He shrugged, too casual. "The Khas Maram, and their opposition."

She might not be in port often, but some rumors she knew all too well. "The Jade Tigers, you mean, or the Dai Tranh--the extremists?" They were all crazy, as far as she was concerned. Just because land stayed still longer than sea, people thought they could own it. All it ever seemed to bring was misery.

"Whichever--" The door swung in, violent enough to interrupt him. A boy stood silhouetted in the spill of daylight, one of the docks' news-criers.

"Fire," he shouted, "in the market!"

Vienh's glass rattled against the bar, green liquor slopping over the side and evaporating from her fingers. Not again. "Lilani went to the market today."

Adam followed her as she bolted. Her breath burned in her lungs, their boots echoing on the stones. People trickled into the street all around them, voices raised in concern and curiosity. Vienh dodged and elbowed past them. Smoke plumed the sky ahead, dark and ugly.

They raced across a narrow bridge, straight into a knot of panicked crowd. The air stank of smoke and fear-sweat, chaotic as a battle. Adam caught up with her, steadied her in the middle of the stampede.

"We can't get through this," he shouted, pulling her back from flailing limbs. Shouts echoed between narrow walls, drowned the rhythm of her speeding heart.

She bit back a curse, scanning the street. "We can get over it." She pushed toward the nearest wall, and the crates and barrels stacked against it.

No worse than rigging--she scrambled up the stack and leapt for a second-story balcony, muscles burning as she pulled herself over the rail. Adam followed, quick and agile, though the iron groaned under his weight. A wide-eyed face drew back from inside the window.

Beyond the crowd flames licked up the side of a building, smoke pouring from a shattered wall. More than just a fire. Bodies lay in the street. Please, she prayed, not Lilani. Not like this. Though what sort of death might have been tolerable, she didn't know.

Relief filled her in a tingling rush when she spotted them. "There!" She pointed for Adam, to where Kaeru shielded Lia from the press of the mob.

Adam caught her shoulder before she could leap down. "They're all right--let the crowd thin." She swore, but it was only sense. The stench of slaughter made her nerves sing, and he felt it too--his nostrils flared, lips peeling back from his teeth, and his hand lingered on his sword hilt. She recognized battle-lust. At least he kept it under control.

Finally the worst of the press eased and Vienh shrugged off his hand. She vaulted the railing, catching the next shop's canvas awning to break her fall. Adam missed the flapping cloth, landed hard in a staggering crouch and came up limping. A man nearly knocked them both down, but Adam elbowed him in the face.

Then they were out of it, and Vienh scooped Lilani into her arms with a gasp. Kaeru stepped aside, steel glinting as she sheathed a blade. Vienh thanked her ancestors for her daughter's safety and competent help before remembering that their ancestors weren't the most helpful of the dead.

"Are you hurt?" She set Lilani down, running careful hands over her face and arms. No harm that she could see, though the girl was ashen and wide-eyed.

"No. Kaeru kept me out of the way." Her composure nearly broke Vienh's heart--then it slipped, and Lia flung her arms around her waist. "People are hurt, Mama. In the shop, in the street."

And the heartbreak turned to rage, fierce and searing. She couldn't speak, only stroked Lilani's curls and ground her teeth to hold back oaths and invective.

"Soldiers are coming," Kaeru said. "We should leave." Wariness of things Imperial ran deep in her generation; Vienh wasn't inclined to argue.

She nodded, glancing toward the burning shop again, and the people sprawled motionless on the street. Still holding her daughter, she turned to Adam. Her voice, when she found it, was cold and ugly.

"This is all you need to know about the Dai Tranh."

Chapter 10

Vienh's stomach was cold when they reached the house, her hands clenched to stop them shaking. The distant shouts and clamor might have been just another festival night.

She hated not knowing what had happened, but maybe it was better. Alone she would have investigated, but when the screaming started her only thought had been to get Anhai and Lia out of the way. If they'd left the house any earlier, they would have been at the Floating Garden when it happened. Whatever it was.

Useless to dwell on it now. The fire alarms weren't ringing--she could learn the truth in the morning. She tried to ignore the sick knot of anger and fear that weighed in her stomach. She was supposed to be the one in danger, not her family.

Anhai opened the door, and Vienh pretended not to notice how many tries it took her sister to fit the key in the lock. The house was dark and silent; even clanless servants had festival nights free. Anhai struck a match and lit the hall lamp while Vienh headed for the kitchen. She didn't take off her boots--time enough for manners after a drink. Or three. Beads and bangles rattled as she moved--she could be rid of this silly costume after a drink, too.

Her nape prickled as she entered the dark kitchen. Something was wrong--

"We need to talk."

Her blade was in her hand by the third word. Too damned slow. A heartbeat later she recognized the rough voice, the accent. Adam. Sitting at the table with his legs outstretched, a blacker shadow in the dark.

"Vienh?" Anhai called from the corridor. The lamplight wavered, brightened, and Adam's eyes gleamed copper-gold like an animal's.

"You and your sister," he said, soft and lazy. "Talk with me."

"Put Lilani to bed," Vienh called back. "We have company." Her heart began to slow, nerves dulling with annoyance. Footsteps moved up the stairs, across the floor overhead. Never taking her eyes off Adam, Vienh found the matches and kindled a lamp. The flame shimmered against her knife, draped his face with shadows.

"What is this?"

He didn't answer, but his mouth twitched as he looked at her. Her costume was a ridiculous theatre idea of a pirate--loose scarlet trousers tucked into her boots and belted with a fringed scarf, a vest that left her stomach bare, and the damned bangles that clattered and flashed as she moved. Lia's idea, but she stopped herself before she told him so. Instead she matched him silence for silence until her sister joined them.

"What's going on?" A creased formed between Anhai's brows as she looked from Adam to Vienh and back again.

"Sit," Adam said, gesturing to the other chairs. Vienh had to admire his nerve.

Anhai stood her ground, arms tightly crossed. "How did you get in?" Even her endless politeness was strained.

He smiled. "You need a better lock on the back door."

Vienh snorted and put her back against a cabinet, matching his deceptive languor.

"Where's Kaeru?" he asked.

Anhai's frown deepened. "She has the night off. Debt or no, what are you doing here?"

"Isyllt was wearing a scarf when she came here--blue silk. She didn't have it when we left. Do you remember?"

Vienh's eyes narrowed as Anhai shook her head. "We were a little distracted that night. What exactly are you accusing us of?"

"We found the scarf tonight, wrapped around a Kurun Tam mage's throat. A dead mage, after that."

She leaned forward, curiosity drowning annoyance. "Who?"

"His name was Vasilios Medeion. We were his guests. Not five minutes after we found him, the Emperor's watchdog and Khas soldiers showed up. Convenient timing, don't you think?"

"Blood and brine." Her eyebrows rose. "And you think we did it?"

"Convince me you didn't and we'll all be happier."

"Your witch saved my daughter's life, rot you. You think we'd betray her that way?" She wondered if she could take him; he had the longer reach, the longer blade--

He shrugged. "I don't know your loyalties."

A shadow rippled across the floor and Vienh tensed, but Adam smiled. "Why don't you join us?" he called.

Vienh risked a glance over her shoulder, let out a tight breath as Lilani stepped through the doorway. She sheathed her knife before Lia saw it.

"How did you know?" the girl asked, frowning. "I was quiet."

"Lia!" Anhai started toward her, then stopped. With a sigh she pulled out a chair at the far end of the table and sank into it. "You should be in bed." Lia just rolled her eyes.

"Never put a light behind you," Adam said. "I saw your shadow."

Lia glanced back at the lamp in the hall and nodded slowly. "I saw the sorceress's scarf," she said, turning back. "It was in my room after she caught the ghost."

"What happened to it?"

"Kaeru took it. She said she'd return it after she did the washing."

Vienh and Anhai glanced at each other, both frowning. "No," Anhai whispered. "She wouldn't."

Vienh remembered the knife in the old woman's hand during the riot, her grim unfrightened face. Would or no, she'd wager the woman could.

"She's clanless," Anhai went on. "We took her in...."

"How did she become clanless?" Adam asked. "A whole generation whose families were killed by the Empire? And you think she doesn't think you're a filthy collaborator dog?"

Her sister's mouth opened and closed again.

"Maelstrom," Vienh swore softly. "If it was Kaeru, we had nothing to do with it." She met Adam's eyes. "Will you believe that?"

He stared back, his green-gold gaze even eerier by lamplight. "For now."

"What will you do?"

"Find out what happened. And what's happening to Isyllt now--last I saw her, she was being taken to the Khas."

"Is the Khas after you?" She fought the urge to glance at the front door, to peer into the garden as if red-clad soldiers might be lurking there.

"I don't know. But Asheris knows I'm with her, so probably."

Vienh pushed away from the counter, checking the hang of her knife. "Then you're not staying here. My sister's had enough grief in her house. Come with me."

He raised a skeptical brow and she rolled her eyes. "You're paying me, remember, and this is my family's honor now. Damn it, trust me."

He frowned, but nodded slowly, almost as if he believed her. "Where are we going?"

"To a safe place for the night. Tomorrow I'll help you find out what happened to your witch."

She watched him weigh the offer. She wouldn't have trusted a stranger either, but sometimes you didn't have much choice.

"All right," he said, rising. "Let's go."

Chapter 11

Vienh woke to a sore neck and the taste of beer sour in her mouth. She'd fallen asleep at the table in her room at the Bride, a half-finished mug of beer--warm and flat now--at her elbow. Wan morning light fell in stripes through the shutters and the still-made bed mocked her from across the room.

She rolled her neck with a wince and scrubbed a hand across her mouth. Waking up sore and muddled after a festival was all well and good, but she preferred to do so in her own bed or berth, and to have had enough fun the night before to warrant the soreness. Groaning and stretching, she made her way to the water closet. When she'd scrubbed her face and rinsed her mouth, she went to retrieve her guest.

Her safe place was a smuggler's cache on the third floor of the Bride, a cramped space between the walls whose door opened on a hidden latch. She'd never heard anyone speak highly of its comfort, but she'd never seen it raided by customs, either.

A stair creaked as she neared the top of the flight, a warning for anyone who might be hiding. The wall was smooth, nothing but the usual nicks and dents and plank seams. She had to count the ceiling beams to be sure she was in the right place. The hall was dim--Desh wasn't one to waste lamp oil during the day, even for nooks and corridors the sun had no chance of reaching.

The wall swung open a heartbeat after she knocked; the noisy step was warning enough, or Adam had been waiting for her. His eyes flashed as a slice of light fell over his face. Vienh wrinkled her nose at the air that wafted out. Hot and stale, and the last occupant must have been very fond of opium and less fond of bathing.

"You can come down for breakfast," she said. "The Bride isn't open yet."

He slipped out, easing the door shut behind him. It closed with barely a click, vanishing back into the wall. "What time is it?" He dragged a hand through tangled hair, and Vienh winced as a strand snapped.

"Mid-morning. You should braid your hair when you sleep--it'll break less."

He gave a wry smile. "That's not usually what I'm worried about at night."

"Enemy blades at your throat?" She smiled back. "That's why I prefer to sleep at sea."

Downstairs was empty, wooden blinds lowered across the windows. Rain hissed down outside, gurgling through the gutters. Desh didn't look up from the bar as they ducked down the narrow hall past the kitchens. The air smelled of fish and spices, and she heard Adam's stomach growl.

Izzy had started without them and they wasted no time on pleasantries. Breakfast was last night's soup reheated, but Vienh wasn't about to complain. Shrimp and mushrooms and peppers floated in a golden broth, the smell alone spicy enough to prickle the bridge of her nose. Rice and slices of mango drizzled in pepper sauce completed the meal, and cold hibiscus tea.

"Your witch is in the Khas," Izzy told Adam, swallowing a mouthful. "She wasn't arrested as far as I can tell--it's all very friendly--but I doubt al Seth will let her out of his sight any time soon."

"I need to talk to her."

The dwarf shrugged. "I can find eyes or ears nearly anywhere, but I can't simply walk into the palace and ask an audience. Not if I wanted to come out again. But you might have a chance, if you're willing to risk it. The Khas hosts a ball at the start of the rains. It's scheduled for tonight. But after last night, I doubt they'll let many strangers in off the streets.

Adam frowned, swirled blood-red tea lightly around his cup before he swallowed. "I'll think of something."

"Good luck," Izzy said. "Just try to give me some warning if I have to sail you out of here with Imperial ships on my tail."

*

After breakfast, Vienh lingered in the common room with a pot of strong tea while Adam cleaned up. Halfway through the first cup, she heard the kitchen door open. A moment later Lilani came in carrying a sweet roll half the size of her head.

"Desh spoils you," Vienh said with a smile. "And shouldn't you be in school?"

Lia set her prize down, absently licking sugar off her thumb. Despite the giant sweet, she was frowning. "Soldiers came to the house this morning."

Vienh swallowed a too-hot mouthful; it hit her stomach like a stone. "What?"

"They searched everywhere, and asked Anhai lots of questions about the Xians and the Dai Tranh and rebels."

Her mug thumped against the table. "What about the witch, or any foreigners?"

Lia shook her head. "No. They were only worried about the rebels. They asked about you, but Anhai she didn't know, pretended like she was angry with you." Her nutmeg-colored brow creased. "She was just pretending, right?"

Vienh chuckled, keeping her curses to herself. "I think so. Has Kaeru come back yet?"

"No."

Vienh glanced up as Adam returned. "Have Desh give you some tea and eat this at the bar, sweetheart. I'll think of something for you to do."

"What's wrong?" Adam asked as he sat. His collar was wet, damp hair pulled back in a leather cord.

"Soldiers came to my sister's house this morning."

He stilled. "Looking for me?"

"No, for Xian rebels." Her lip curled in a bitter mockery of a smile. "They must not have heard that we're collaborator dogs." She poured another cup of tea and passed it to him. "Maybe I should convince Anhai to leave--she could find work in Ta'ashlan or Sherezad, and Lilani could attend the Imperial University."

He glanced at Lia where she sat at the bar, heels drumming against the rung of her stool. "You want her to be respectable when she grows up?"

Vienh chuckled. "Educated criminals have more opportunities. There's more to life than smuggling and piracy, or so my sister tells me. Maybe I'd even find her father again."

One eyebrow twitched. "What happened to him?"

"I don't know. I met him in Sherezad--he crewed on a ship called the Lady Asilran. I didn't realize I was pregnant till we'd set sail, and our paths never crossed again." She shrugged. "He might be dead by now. But I did like him."

She looked at Adam again and shook her head. "You hair will look like a rat's nest if you don't comb it." She found her comb in her purse and rose. Adam snorted as she pulled out the cord and began to work on the tangles, but didn't protest.

"What are you going to do?" she asked. "About your witch."

"I need to get a message to her, find out if we have to arrange a daring rescue."

"How are you going to do that? Walk up to the Khas's gate?"

"Not me, but I know someone who can. But I have to get a message to her, first--Khas soldiers escorted her home last night, and I doubt al Seth left her unwatched."

Lia hopped off her stool. When had she grown so tall? How much more would she grow while Vienh was away?

"What should I do now?" the girl asked. "I've already missed most of the day's lessons."

"Of course you have. You can stay here, or go home and distract your aunt. But you should make yourself useful, if you aren't learning anything."

Lia rolled her eyes.

"If you want to be useful," Adam said, "you could do me a favor. I need a message delivered."

Vienh's fingers tightened in his hair. "You are not sending my daughter to the Khas--"

"No," he said, even as Lilani's eyes brightened. "Just to Heronmark."

She eased the pressure on his scalp a fraction. "Who's in Heronmark?"

"A Kurun Tam apprentice named Zhirin Laii. She can get a message to Isyllt, I think, or will know someone who can. But the Khas may be watching her, so any word I send needs to look innocent." He tilted his head back and rolled his eyes toward Vienh. "Do you have pen and paper? And a fair hand in Assari?"

"I'm no scribe, but I can manage. Or better yet, have Desh write it. He'll only charge half a heron."

Half an hour later, when Lia was out the door with her note and a three-jackal tip--twice what the average dock-crawler would expect for running messages--Vienh picked up where she'd left off with Adam's hair.

"That wasn't the sort of opportunities I was talking about," she said dryly. "How much money do you have, anyway?"

"Enough to be comfortable for a decad, maybe, if I don't have to bribe too many people or send your daughter on more errands."

Stray stands floated around his face as she worked out the last of the snarls. She envied the glossy darkness, so black it shone blue. "Here." She twisted locks of hair and began to plait them. "Let me fix this for you--"

He reached back and caught her hand, callused fingers tight around hers. She started, but didn't jerk away.

"What is it?"

He twisted in the chair. "Sorry. It's...." He shook his head. "In the north, in Vallorn, a woman plaits a man's hair before he goes into battle. It's a promise that she'll be there when he comes back. If he comes back."

"Ah." She eased her hand from his. The pretty ones always had to be complicated. "And you have someone waiting for you?"

"Not anymore."

She nodded, lips twisting, and tucked her comb away. She didn't need the distraction anyway. "I should find Izzy. If you need us, we're moored at the twelfth berth on dockside-north. Try not to get into too much trouble."

Chapter 12

On the second night of rain, Vienh should have been drinking and dancing, looking for a pretty distraction amid the river of masks. Instead she crouched in the shadowed alcove of a Lioncourt shopfront watching the Khas, with Adam leaning against a column beside her. Rain dripped from the awning and puddled around their boots. Her right leg had fallen asleep twice already; she'd never realized spying was such boring work.

Across the canal passengers stepped out of canopied skiffs at the steps of the Khas, met by servants with umbrellas. Walls blocked her view of the palace, but now and then she caught strains of music on the damp breeze.

It was a lousy vantage point, but the best they could do without scaling the walls or climbing a roof. Too many guards patrolled the palace, and stone and tile were slicker than she or Adam wanted to risk. Adam's contact--just a girl, Vienh thought, from her quick glimpse--had vanished into the palace an hour ago. Now they had to wait.

Adam was good at waiting; if not for the line of warmth down her side, she'd have forgotten he was there at all. Vienh might have matched his stillness, but too many worries gnawed at her. Every so often she drew breath to voice one, then thought better of it. If Adam heard, he gave no sign.

"Izzy's getting restless," she said at last. Of all her concerns, this was the one that effected Adam and his witch. "Even money and my debt won't hold him here much longer. All this chaos makes him nervous."

"Will you go with him?"

She shifted her weight, wincing as pins and needles danced in her leg. "The second mate will try to take my place if I don't. But I don't like leaving Anhai and Lia here, not with the city like this. I don't suppose we can break your witch free and get the hell out of here?

Adam snorted softly. "That would be nice, wouldn't it?"

He broke off as someone left the Khas. A woman alone, a servant by her clothes. She bid the guards goodnight and waved aside an offered ride from a boatman, turning the corner and taking the sidewalk along the canal. Vienh kept quiet as she passed.

But as soon as the woman was out of sight of the guards, her manner changed; steps softened, quickened, and she glanced around as if she feared--or expected--pursuit.

Vienh felt Adam tense and echoed it. Not the nervousness of a young woman out alone at night. She had a purpose and didn't want to be noticed. Vienh squinted through the dark and haze--something familiar about the woman's profile, about her walk. She'd seen her somewhere before, near Anhai's house. Talking to Kaeru?

She looked up, cocked her head questioningly. Adam nodded, and she uncoiled from her crouch. They had nothing better to do.

They hugged the wall, keeping to shadows and letting the woman stay well ahead. She glanced around, but gave no sign she saw them. If she was doing something criminal, she needed practice. She crossed the first bridge south and kept going straight, making no effort to throw pursuers off her trail.

Maybe she was just going home, and nervous. But they might as well see it through. At least this kept Vienh's legs from falling asleep.

The woman crossed the Patchwork Bridge--whose reality was no more reassuring than its name--into Straylight, and Vienh almost hesitated. This wasn't a neighborhood to prowl at night without reason.

Shadows moved, and she and Adam flattened against a wall as four men stepped out of the darkness. A pride, all swagger and sharp steel. They intercepted the woman and Vienh tensed for violence. But instead they fell into step around her.

Vienh's eyebrows rose. What sort of palace servant earned an honor guard from Straylight gangs?

One worth following.

They fell farther behind now--the pride looked like they knew their business, and more people walked the streets here. Adam's nostrils flared as if he followed a scent; all Vienh smelled was wet stone and mildew, garbage and alley fires. Remnants of garlands still dangled from doorways and lampposts, petals crushed against the sidewalks. Half the streetlamps were out, less eucalyptus to cover the city-stink. More charms hung here than in other neighborhoods--if you couldn't count on the police, you took whatever protection you could get.

Vienh wondered if they worked.

They reached the far side of Straylight before the woman and her escort turned into a noodle shop, a tiny place tucked into the bottom corner of a leaning tenement. The windows were open to the breeze, and smells of oil and spices and meat wafted out. An aproned man leaned against the counter sharpening knives, and an old woman sat at a table drinking tea.

Vienh's fingers closed on Adam's arm, her jaw tightening. Kaeru had replaced her grey scarf for a brown one, her house-servant's clothes for a laborer's smock.

We took her in--

Kaeru rose as the newcomers slipped inside and the six of them vanished through a back door. The man at the counter glanced toward the street and Adam ducked aside, dragging Vienh into an alley. A moment later light flickered in a window.

Bars caged the high opening and plant pots crowded the sill. The shutters were closed; standing on her toes to peer through the chinks, she saw the back of a kitchen. If anyone else was in the room, she couldn't tell. Adam leaned against the damp bricks on the other side and listened. At least the rain had slacked.

"The executions are scheduled for the day after tomorrow, in the Blood Court." A woman's voice, young and Assari-accented.

"How many of them?" one of the men asked.

"Three--Yuen, Bai, and Thuan."

A sharp hiss of indrawn breath. "Ancestors. Do you think we can rescue them?"

"That depends on timing." She could practically hear the woman shrug. "It will be hard, and dangerous. But at least we'll spill blood for blood."

"How are we supposed to get inside?" said another man, sharp-voiced. "Disguise ourselves as councilors?"

"We'll go in through the supply dock. Deliveries come every day--some of our people will be in the boat, the rest can swim under the gate."

"And the foreign witch?" said Kaeru. Vienh clenched her teeth, cheeks prickling.

"She's there. At first I thought al Seth arrested her, but they seem quite friendly. I don't know what he plans to do with her."

"He had his chance. You know what I need?"

"Yes."

A footstep scraped on stone and Vienh spun. Steel flashed as a man stepped into the alley and shouted.

Adam grabbed for her, but she was one step ahead of him, bolting down the alley. They were nearly clear when a door swung open and a pair of men emerged. Vienh didn't slow, dodging an out-flung hand as she reached for a blade. Metal snagged on cloth and flesh and the man fell back with a cry. Adam shouldered past the second man, slamming his knife-hand into the wall.

The alley ended at a narrow canal, nearly flooding its banks. A pistol shot echoed between the buildings and Vienh ducked. Not that it would help--most cheap guns were so inaccurate you were likelier to throw yourself into the bullet than away from it. Behind them, someone cursed.

"Jump!" she called to Adam, and dove off the bank.

Another shot cracked a heartbeat before she hit the water. The current ran cold and fast, stealing her warmth as it seized her. An instant later a clumsy splash echoed and Adam thrashed to the surface.

Grit stung her eyes and she raked her hair out of her face. Boots and clothing dragged at her limbs. She paused on her way to the far side, letting Adam catch up. He moved awkwardly and she wondered if he was hurt or just a bad swimmer. Buildings slid by as the current pulled them on. She couldn't tell if they were pursued.

"There's a stair past that bridge," she shouted, jerking her head toward an oncoming stone arch. "Make for the side."

He kicked after her, slipped under, struggled up again. The bridge cast a darker shadow against black water. Vienh pulled herself up the steps of a skiff landing, turned and reached for Adam. She grabbed his hand for an instant, but the water dragged them apart.

Cursing, she stumbled up and jogged along the canal. They were almost to the bay. At least the gate would keep him from being washed out to sea.

She shouted a warning as he closed on the grate, but doubted he heard. He hit the bars hard, scrabbling for a hold on the rusty slime-crusted metal. Something large and sinuous moved on the other side and she hissed--an eel-shark. Leaves and weeds tangled the bars; as Adam splashed into them, light blossomed amid the fronds, a pale blue-green glow that flared and vanished through the grate.

Vienh scrambled down the steps, closed a hand on Adam's shirt as he began to choke. For a heartbeat she took all his weight and wondered if they'd both go under again, but then he kicked and grabbed her wrist. He got his feet under him on the stairs and stumbled to the sidewalk before staggering to one knee. He coughed so hard her own lungs ached.

"Useful thing," he gasped, nodding toward the gate.

"It keeps the corpses in and the sea monsters out. Are you all right?"

"Something stung me." He held out his arm and even in the poor light she could see welts rising.

"A leaf-dragon. It won't kill you, but it'll hurt like hell. Vinegar helps." She frowned and peered at his other arm. "You're bleeding."

"The second shot caught me." He flexed the arm and winced.

"That'll go septic if we don't treat it. Can you walk?"

He stood with a sodden squelch, water oozing from the tops of his boots; she was just as soggy. "My legs are fine."

She snorted at his bravado. "Come on, then. That's enough spy-games for one night."

Chapter 18

An hour and half a bottle of rum later, the Rain Dog had cleared the Dragons and the ship's surgeon had dug the bullet out of Vienh's arm. Sadly, more of the liquor went over the wound than down her throat.

"Dare I hope that shot knocked your wits back into you?" Izzy asked, watching from across the cabin as the surgeon tied off the bandages.

"Which would you prefer me to be--witless or forsworn?"

"Maelstrom take it, Vee, I'm not telling you to be a backstabbing wretch. The witch helped you, and you've helped her plenty. The books balance, as far as I can see."

Imathin finished the bindings, and Vienh nodded thanks and offered the woman the bottle of rum. She shook her head with a smile and ducked out of the cabin, leaving captain and first mate to their argument.

"She saved my daughter's life. Isn't Lia worth more than a little petty smuggling?"

"If she is, then why are you here and not with her?" He raised a hand as Vienh rose, stopping her angry response. "You know I won't tell you how to raise your child, but you need to stop letting it rip you up. Short of feeding her to sharks or selling her to a brothel, there's not much I'll argue against. I've offered her a place on the Dog before, and it still stands."

She sank back to her bunk and ran her good hand over her face. "It's too dangerous for a child out here."

"And it's not back there?" He gestured vaguely east with his good arm. "The worst things that ever happened to me happened on land."

"Leave it, Izzy, please. At least for now. I don't hear you complaining about this part of the job."

He snorted, pushing himself off her sea chest. "Raiding a merchant ship working for the Emperor? This is the stupidest part of all. But it's a fun sort of stupidity."

*

The Yhan Ti was an hour ahead of them, small with distance, but close enough to make out her square-rigged outline. Izzy let her keep her lead. The journey across the Khebari Strait could take half a decad, though the closer they came to Assar the greater the chance of being running across Imperial patrols. In a well-trafficked shipping channel, the Dog following shouldn't seem unusual. Although if the Yhan Ti's captain knew what they were running she might be paranoid; Vienh knew she would be.

Adam joined her at the rail as the sun climbed past noon. He and Siddir had kept out of the way all morning, like sensible passengers.

"You all right?"

She flexed her bandaged shoulder, only wincing a little. "Not too bad."

He stroked the rail thoughtfully, tapping a nail against a gouge in the varnish. Ninayan juniper, an orange-red rich as spices and as costly.

"This is as far as I go," she said after a moment. "Back to port, I mean. Then I'm done, debt paid." She hadn't realized she'd made up her mind until she said it. "I can save you a berth if your witch is ready to leave, but Izzy won't stay in Symir longer than it'll take to resupply."

Adam nodded.

"You could stay with us." She hadn't known she was going to say that either. "Even if you don't know one end of the ship from another, a skilled sword is always handy."

He blinked once, then chuckled. "I was joking about that, actually, not so long ago." Mirth fell away and he shook his head; his hair was tangling again, snarling free of its cord. "But I have to see Isyllt back to Erisín."

"What if she's already dead?"

"I don't know." He brushed a stray lock out of his eyes and Vienh's hand itched for a comb. "After all this, after Xin--"

She'd figured out enough of that story already. I'm offering you a berth, not my bed, she nearly said, but realized it would be a lie. "I understand. You'll have a couple days to think it over, at least."

He gave her a lopsided smile. "What next?" he asked, turning his gaze back toward the tattered canopy of clouds and the grey-green stretch of sea.

"First we wait for open water. Then you can sit back and watch some daring piracy."

*

Dawn came red, gleaming bloody on the Dog's varnished boards. With it came a lowering sky and wind bitter with approaching rain. Vienh grinned as she turned her face toward it; red sky at morning, Storm God's warning. But this wasn't a god's work, only Izzy's. And that meant he took this job seriously, despite all his complaints.

They'd gained on the Yhan Ti in the night. From the forecastle Vienh could see the crew moving, tiny as insects. Once or twice she caught a flash of light--someone at the spyglass. Trying to figure out if they were pirates, most like, or some other entanglement.

Izzy had relieved her of her watch, which galled. Because of her wounded arm, he said, and it was probably at least half the truth. But she read the rest of the message clear enough--they might be friends, but she wasn't indispensable on the ship. Or irreplaceable.

So she prowled a tight circuit near the helm, ignoring Darius's barbed glances. As long as Izzy didn't think he could keep her out of the fight, they'd work it out. The crew hustled on deck, securing hatches and cargo, preparing to lower sails--cutting it close, to keep the Yhan Ti from catching on.

The storm rose quickly, tarnishing the sky and churning the clouds. Thunder growled a warning just before the wind picked up and the rain came down in a stinging wall. Vienh risked a look through her glass, blinking against the water sluicing down her face--the Yhan Ti hadn't prepared for the sudden weather in time. They scurried now, but the sails were already straining under the force of the wind.

She lowered the glass as Adam and Bashari staggered across the tilting deck to join her. Neither had bad balance for a landsman, but the spy's rolling stride was graceful enough she guessed he'd sailed often before. Adam's knuckles whitened as he gripped the rail. His hood had slipped and tendrils of wet hair clung to his cheeks and writhed in front of his eyes.

"What's happening?" he asked, shouting over the roar of the storm.

Vienh grinned, licking salt off her lips. "We're letting the weather work for us."

His eyes rose to the rigging, creaking and groaning in the wind. "This is working for us?"

"It's going worse for them." She pointed to the Yhan Ti, a ghost now through the grey. "The storm will drive them toward the Splinters. If they run aground they're ours for the looting."

His eyes narrowed in understanding. "You have a weather-witch."

She winked. A valuable commodity and much sought-after, if a captain was willing to wade through the host of frauds that crowded dockside taverns. She'd never seen how the risk was worth it--as soon as the crew figured out they'd been had, the would-be-witch found themselves overboard. Worse than a con, though, was a real witch who couldn't control it--those unlucky ships ended up sunk in a storm or becalmed till they died of thirst.

But not many captains did their own witching. Izzy was at the wheel now, shouting over the rising wind. If she hadn't know what to look for, she might not have caught the strain at the corners of his eyes, the color missing from his sun-burnished face.

Bashari gestured to her glass. "May I?" He frowned as he watched the Yhan Ti. In his oil-coat and rough trousers, stubble shadowing his jaw, he hardly looked like the pretty dignitary who'd come aboard yesterday. She wondered how many other faces he kept in his pocket.

"She's going to broach if they're not lucky." He collapsed the frame and passed it back. "That cargo's no good to me at the bottom of the strait."

"Better sunk than sold." She clenched her fist against a superstitious gesture. "But don't worry--Izzy knows what he's doing."

Thunder spoke, closer now, and a blue-white crackle of lightning danced from sky to sea. Spray drenched them as they plowed through a trough and crested the swell. The crew scrambled to adjust the sails, tacking into the storm and picking up speed to crest the next wave. The Yhan Ti was trying to do the same, but her square rig was clumsier, easier for the wind to get her in irons, or broach her. Not that the Dog wasn't in danger too--the Splinters were deadly for the unwary or unlucky and the waters around them usually teemed with eel-sharks and even dragons after a storm.

"It's going to get worse from here," Vienh said. She glanced at Adam. "You don't get seasick, do you?"

"Haven't yet, but there's a first time for everything."

"Plenty of buckets below for you to make friends with."

"I think I'll stay here."

She wasn't sure if it was bravado or the desire not to cross the pitching deck again. "Then strap yourselves in," she said, pointing to the jacklines. "And if you have to puke, try not to do it into the wind."

*

Izzy took them through the storm with nothing but a drenching and a few bruises and rope burns. When the wind died and the sun unfurled its backstays through the clouds, he brought them about to check on the Yhan Ti.

The storm had done its work just as they'd hoped. The merchant brig had run aground on the rocky shoals of the Splinters. Her fore mast had cracked and leaned against the main in a sad tangle of line and canvas. As soon as her crew spied the Dog, their signal mirror began flashing.

The crew began readying longboats and arming themselves. Vienh already wore her blades; she trusted them far more than pistols.

"How are we doing this?" she asked Izzy.

He cocked an eyebrow, but didn't argue at her inclusion. "I hate to kill the crew if we don't have to. Do you imagine they know what they're running?"

"I wouldn't have told them. Would you?"

"No." He rubbed his hand over his beard. "Perhaps a conversation with the captain is in order."

They sailed as close to the rocks as they dared, and between mirrors and shouting managed to arrange a parley between the captains. The Yhan Ti lowered a longboat and the captain and two crewmen rowed to the Dog.

The merchant captain was a middle-aged woman with short grey-streaked hair and stiff dignity. Vienh could sympathize--even without the stones, this was a position no captain wanted to find their ship in.

"I'm Haneul Laii," she said, offering a hand, "captain of the Yhan Ti." She kept her eyes on Izzy, ignoring the armed sailors surrounding them. "And since you're not already boarding us, I assume you want to negotiate a rescue fee." Usually a tenth of the stranded ship's cargo, unless the rescuing captain was generous, or a prick.

"Something of the sort." He led her away from the others. Vienh followed quietly, ignoring Darius's barbed glance. Bashari joined them as well, his face nearly lost in the shadow of his hood.

"I know what you're carrying," Izzy said when they were out of earshot.

Her seamed face stayed flat. "Wood, spices, silk--"

"Stones."

Vienh thought she lost color then, though it hard to tell in the rain and grey.

"Yes," Haneul said slowly. "I have a shipment of rubies."

"The diamonds, Captain Laii," Bashari said softly. Izzy glared at him.

Her lips tightened, throat working. Her frown carved the lines deeper into her face. "Ancestors. I knew this was a bad idea."

Izzy shrugged. "It was a gamble. You lost. It happens. Do any of your crew know about them?"

She shook her head sharply. "No. Only me."

"We want the stones. And a modest rescue fee to carry your crew to Khejuan. I'm sure you can think of several reasons to swear your silence on this."

Her lips were a bloodless line. "Yes, damn it. And you swear you'll get my crew to safety?"

"I'm not a pirate, or much of a murderer. The stones and your silence for their lives. We've even got room in our hold for your cargo."

She looked as if she wanted to spit; instead she extended her hand again and they shook on it.

The Dog sent two longboats of crew back with Haneul--all armed in case she changed her mind. From the second boat Vienh kept her eyes on the other woman, but didn't see any signals passed.

The Yhan Ti's crew waited on deck. A few of them glowered with bruised pride, but none looked ready to fight.

"Get whatever gear you can carry," Haneul told them, "and help shift the cargo. We have a ride to Khejuan." Mutters circled the crowd--some bitter, some relieved. She glanced over the assembled faces. "Where's Yoon?"

A man shook his head. "Haven't seen her since you went over." He jerked his head toward the Dog.

"I think she went below," someone else offered.

"First the stones," Izzy said softly.

Haneul nodded. "They're in my cabin, not with the cargo." She turned aft toward the great cabin, but they'd only taken a few steps when the door opened and a woman came out, a metal box clutched against her chest. When she saw the crews, she moved toward the port rail.

"Yoon--"

"No closer!" the woman shouted. "You should have known better, Han."

"Damn it, Yoon, put that down!" The captain took a step closer, pausing as Yoon moved closer to the rail. "They're going to take us to Khejuan. We'll be fine. But put that cursed chest down."

"Cursed is right. Look what happened to the Yhan Ti. And the Heron Bride before us--you thought I wouldn't figure that out? These stones are cursed. You think the next ship to take them aboard will do any better?"

Movement at the corner of Vienh's eye--Bashari had drawn a pistol. She bit her tongue against an oath, eased her hand toward her knife-hilt.

"Don't be an idiot. If you want to stay here and wait to be picked up, I don't care, but give me the damned box."

Haneul eased forward; Yoon's back was to the rail, her arms trembling around the chest. From the confusion on the faces of the crew, Vienh could believe that they, at least, knew nothing.

"Give us the box," Bashari said, his voice gentle, "and no other ship will ever be lost for these stones."

Yoon twitched, her eyes wide and black as she turned toward him. "Who are you to promise something like that?"

"Someone who can promise it." He held out his empty hand, the pistol half-hidden against his thigh. "Trust me."

"Trust you." She laughed, sharp and brittle. "Funny, that's what you said, Han. And I suppose that's what Fei Minh said to you. Do you think someone said the same thing to Zhang?"

"Damn it, Yoon, show some sense--" Another step. Only a few yards of deck between them. Rain dripped from the broken sails and threaded through Vienh's hair, warm as it trickled down her neck.

"No." Yoon put one hand on the rail, the other straining with the coffer's weight. "No more of your sense. No more Assari promises. No more lost ships."

She turned, hoisting herself onto the rail. Haneul lunged with a shout. A gunshot cracked and Vienh flinched.

Yoon slumped across the railing and the chest slipped from her hand. The splash was lost under the echo of the gun.

"No!" Haneul cried, a heartbeat too late. She and Bashari rushed across the deck, water spraying beneath their boots. Vienh and Izzy followed, while the Dog's troublecrew moved between them and the Yhan Ti's people.

"Rot take you," Haneul whispered, laying a hand on Yoon's shoulder. Her fingers came away red.

"You lied to us, Captain," Izzy said.

Bashari pulled himself onto the rail and Vienh joined him. Water churned grey against the hull. Below the waves lay the darker shadow of the reef, and amid them other shadows moved. The spy tensed as if he might jump and she caught his arm.

"I wouldn't. Those are eel-sharks."

A breath hissed through clenched teeth. He jumped back to the deck, boots loud on the boards. Vienh turned to step down, caught the flash of metal in a sailor's hand, and lunged at Bashari instead. She landed on his back and they both fell hard as a bullet splintered the railing where she'd just been.

Her shoulder blazed with pain, doubled as Bashari elbowed her ribs and pushed her off. He paused, hand frozen mid-way to her throat, and looked up at the rail and then at the man the Dog's troublecrew had wrestled to the deck.

"Sorry," he said, a sheepish smile flickering across his face. "Habit. Thank you."

She wheezed in reply and let him help her up. Haneul was shouting at the shooter, trying desperately to defuse the threatening fight.

"You all right?" Izzy asked, sparing them a glance. Asked her, at least, and not Bashari. Given the scowl creasing his face, she was glad he cared.

"Only bruised." Bruised and lucky--the gunman might have been aiming at Bashari, but she'd have been the one hit. She fought down the urge to cross the deck and kick his teeth in.

Now Izzy turned to the spy, his eyes narrowing to angry sparks beneath his brows. "What now, Bashari? Do we slaughter the lot for hearing things they shouldn't?"

Bashari sighed, running a hand over his face. His hood had fallen back, baring frizzing damp curls and the tea-dark shadows beneath his eyes. The grey light left him a sickly mustard color. "We should, shouldn't we?" He glanced at Yoon's limp corpse, her blood dripping down the rail and dissolving in the rain. "But sand and saints, I've no taste for it. Unless you mean to take the cargo and scuttle the ship."

Izzy snarled, baring a gold tooth. Then he spat. "And I should, to have something for all this trouble. But as I told Laii, I'm not a pirate. And for all I know this rotted ship is cursed. I want nothing from it."

He turned on his heel, Vienh falling in as if pulled by his momentum. Haneul watched from behind a fence of troublecrew blades.

"Now what, Captain?" she asked. By the brittle angle of her jaw, she expected the worst.

"Keep you rescue fee," Izzy said. "Someone else will be by to claim it before you starve, I think. And next time choose a mate with more wits than a rotted spar and maybe you'll have better luck." He shot a glare at Vienh as he said it and she stiffened.

But as she began to descend the ladder he brushed a callused hand against her arm. She knew the conversation wasn't over, but the unhappy knot in her stomach eased just the same.

Chapter 20

Thunder followed the dawn-watch bells, rousing Vienh from fitful sleep. The alarms started a moment later. She hurried above-deck expecting to find the storm returned, but the night was clear save for low tattered clouds. The western sky still glittered with stars. The crew stumbled out of their bunks and hammocks, looking wildly around for fire, pirates, sea monsters.

"East!" shouted the man at crow's watch, pointing toward the Sivahri coast.

They rushed to the bow--they were nearly to the Dragons and beyond that the sky was just starting to grey, thick with clouds.

No, Vienh realized an instant later. Not clouds. Smoke. A great ashen plume, taller than a waterspout, drifting slowly south.

"Father of Storms," she whispered.

"What is it?" someone beside her asked.

"The mountain," she answered, her mouth gone dry. "Haroun woke up."

The west wind had filled their sails, but now it gusted from the east, hot and stinking. Vienh wrinkled her nose, shook her head against the acrid smell of smoke. The ship began to heave and sway as the water roughened.

Adam appeared beside her; lantern-light painted his face in gold and shadow, deepened the lines his frown carved on his brow. His hand rested on his sword-hilt and tension stiffened his shoulders.

Izzy burst out of his cabin, wild-haired and scowling, and Vienh scrambled to catch him before he could give an order. The Kissing Dragons were almost on them--they only had minutes to begin turning if they wanted to change course. Beacons shone on the rocky slopes, dimming as the haze thickened in the air.

"We have to turn," Darius shouted. "The mountain's blown."

"Maelstrom," Izzy muttered, his hand twitching in a warding gesture.

"We can't!" Vienh's voice broke and she coughed against the taste of ash. "Damn it, Izzy, we have to go on."

He stared at her, eyes narrowing to slits. "The city might already be gone. And if we sail in there we'll be gone too."

"We don't know that. My family's in there, Izzy."

"And what are we?"

Her vision greyed--an instant later she realized it was ash drifting on the breeze. A flake clung to Izzy's cheek, dissolving in sweat. Vienh coughed again and spat.

"Izzy--" He was right, though. The city could already be gone, and the Dog might not make it out if they sailed in. "Then give me a longboat," she said, jaw lifting. "I'll go myself. I can't leave Lia in there."

Izzy scowled, flashing a gold tooth. "You're mad too--it's in the air today." He glanced at Adam. "What about you?"

"I'm going in. I'll row with Vienh or I'll swim."

"Maelstrom take you all."

"You can't be considering this," Darius said incredulously.

Izzy's scowl deepened and it was all Vienh could do not to grin. "Oh, can't I?"

"You'll kill us all!"

The dwarf's brows rose. "Are you going to mutiny, then?" He turned to face the second mate, leaving Vienh and Adam flanking him. Darius paled at the change of dynamic.

Izzy spun away, striding to the center of the deck in a swirl of ash. "We're going in," he shouted to the crew. "It's stupid and suicidal, and if any of you don't have the nerve you can take the longboat and wait for us here or row for Khejuan." He waited a few heartbeats for a response, but none came. "Then all hands fall in, and let's find out how crazy we really are."

© 2006 - 2010 Amanda Downum. Brushes by Annika von Holdt.