The Drowning City, Chapter 1
Updated: Aug 13, 2019
Drowning is not so pitiful As the attempt to rise.
Hope lies in the smoldering rubble of empires.
Rage Against The Machine - "Calm Like a Bomb"
1229 Sal Emperaturi
Symir. The Drowning City.
An exile, perhaps, but at least it was an interesting one.
Isyllt's gloved hands tightened on the railing as the Black Mariah cleared the last of the Dragon Stones and turned toward the docks, dark estuarine water slopping against her hull. Fishing boats dotted Ka Liang Bay, glass buoys flashing in the sun. Cormorants dove around them, scattering ripples as they snatched fish from hooks and nets.
The west wind died, broken on the Dragons' sharp peaks, and the jungle's hot breath wafted from the shore. Rank with brine and bilge, sewers draining into the sea, but under the port-reek the air smelled of spices and the green tang of Sivahra's forests rising beyond the marshy delta of the Mir. Mountains flanked the capital city Symir, uneven green sentinels on either side of the river. So unlike the harsh and rocky shores of Selafai they had left behind two and a half decads ago.
Only twenty five days at sea--a short voyage, though it didn't feel that way to Isyllt. The ship had made good time, laden only with olive oil and wheat flour from the north.
And northern spies. But those weren't recorded on the cargo manifest.
Isyllt shook her head, collected herself. This might be an exile, but it was a working one. She had a revolution to foment, a country to throw into chaos, and an emperor to undermine with it. Sivahra's jungles and mines--and Symir's bustling port--provided great wealth to the Assari Empire. Enough to fund a war of conquest, and the eyes of the expansionist Emperor roved slowly north. Isyllt and her master meant to prevent that.
If their intelligence was good, Sivahra was crawling with insurgent groups, natives desperate to overthrow their Imperial conquerors. Selafai's backing might help them succeed. Or at least distract the Empire. Trade one war for another. After that, maybe she could have a real vacation.
The Mariah dropped anchor before they docked and the crew bustled to prepare for the port authority's inspection; already a skiff rowed to meet them. The clang of harbor bells carried across the water.
Adam, her co-conspirator and ostensible bodyguard, leaned against the rail beside her while his partner finished checking over their bags. Isyllt's bags, mostly; the mercenaries traveled light, but she had a pretense of pampered nobility to maintain. Maybe not such a pretense--she might have murdered for a hot bath and proper bed. Sweat stuck her shirt to her arms and back, itched behind her knees. She envied the sailors their vests and short trousers, but her skin was too pale to offer to the summer sun.
"Do we go straight to the Kurun Tam tonight?" Adam asked. The westering sun flashed on gold and silver earrings, mercenary gaud. He wore his sword again for the first time since they'd boarded the Mariah. He'd taken to sailor fashions--his vest hung open over his scarred chest, revealing charm bags around his neck and the pistol tucked into his belt. His skin was three shades darker than it had been when they sailed, bronze now instead of olive.
Isyllt's mouth twisted. "No," she said after a moment. "Let's find an extravagantly expensive hotel tonight. I feel like spending the Crown's money. We can work tomorrow." One night of vacation, at least, she could give herself.
He grinned and looked to his partner. "Do you know someplace decadent?"
Xinai's lips curled as she turned away from the luggage. "The Silver Phoenix. It's Selafaïn--it'll be decadent enough for you." Her head barely cleared her partner's shoulder, though the black plumage-crest of her hair added the illusion of more height. She wore her wealth, too--rings in her ears, a gold cuff on one wiry wrist, a silver hoop in her nostril. The blades at her hips and the scars on her wiry arms said she knew how to keep it.
Isyllt turned back to the city, scanning the ships at dock. She was surprised not to see more I
Imperial colors flying. After rumors of rebellion and worries of war, she'd expected Imperial warships, but there was no sign of the Emperor's army--although that didn't mean it wasn't there.
Something was happening, though; a crowd gathered on the docks, and Isyllt caught flashes of red and green uniforms amid the blur of bodies. Shouts and angry voices carried over the water, but she couldn't make out the words.
The customs skiff drew alongside the Mariah, lion crest gleaming on the red-and-green-striped banners--the flag of an Imperial Territory, granted limited home-rule. The sailors threw down a rope ladder and three harbor officials climbed aboard, nimble against the rocking hull. The senior inspector was a short neat woman, wearing a red sash over her sleek-lined coat. Isyllt fought the urge to fidget with her own travel-grimed clothes. Her hair was a salt-stiff tangle, barely contained by pins, and while she'd cleaned her face with oil before landfall, it was no substitute for a proper bath.
Isyllt waited, Adam and Xinai flanking her, while the inspector spoke to the captain. Whatever the customs woman told the captain, he didn't like. He spat over the rail and made an angry gesture toward the shore. The Mariah wasn't the only ship waiting to dock; Isyllt wondered if the gathering on the pier had something to do with the delay.
Finally the ship's mate led two of the inspectors below, and the woman in the red sash turned to Isyllt, a wax tablet and stylus in her hand. A Sivahri, darker skinned than Xinai but with the same creaseless black eyes; elaborate henna designs covered her hands. Isyllt was relieved to be greeted in Assari--Xinai had tutored her in the native language during the voyage, but she was still far from fluent.
"Roshani." The woman inclined her head politely. "You're the only passengers?" She raised her stylus as Isyllt nodded. "Your names?"
"Isyllt Iskaldur, of Erisín." She offered the oiled leather tube that held her travel papers. "This is Adam and Xinai, sayifarim hired in Erisín."
The woman glanced curiously at Xinai; the mercenary gave no more response than a statue. The official opened the tube and unrolled the parchment, recorded something on her tablet. "And your business in Symir?"
Isyllt tugged off her left glove and held out her hand. "I'm here to visit the Kurun Tam." The breeze chilled her sweaty palm. Since it was impossible to pass herself off as anything but a foreign mage, the local thaumaturgical facility was the best cover.
The woman's eyes widened as she stared at the cabochon black diamond on Isyllt's finger, but she didn't ward herself or step out of reach. Ghostlight gleamed iridescent in the stone's depths and a cold draft suffused the air. She nodded again, deeper this time. "Yes, meliket. Do you know where you'll be staying?"
"Tonight we take rooms at the Silver Phoenix."
"Very good." She recorded the information, then glanced up. "I'm sorry, meliket, but we're behind schedule. It will be a while yet before you can dock."
"What's going on?" Isyllt gestured toward the wharf. More soldiers had appeared around the crowd.
The woman's expression grew pained. "A protest. They've been there an hour and we're going to lose a day's work."
Isyllt raised her eyebrows. "What are they protesting?"
"New tariffs." Her tone became one of rote response. "The Empire considers it expedient to raise revenues and has imposed taxes on foreign goods. Some of the local merchants--" she waved a hennaed hand at the quay "--are unhappy with the situation. But don't worry, it's nothing to bother the Kurun Tam."
Of course not--Imperial mages would hardly be burdened with problems like taxes. It was much the same in the Arcanost in Erisín.
"Are these tariffs only in Sivahra?" she asked.
"Oh, no. All Imperial territories and colonies are subject."
Not just sanctions against a rebellious population, then, but real money-raising. That left an unpleasant taste in the back of her mouth. Twenty-five days with no news was chancy where politics were concerned.
The other officials emerged from the cargo hold a few moments later and the captain grudgingly paid their fees. The woman turned back to Isyllt, her expression brightening. "If you like, meliket, I can take you to the Silver Phoenix myself. It will be a much shorter route than getting there from the docks."
Isyllt smiled. "That would be lovely. Shakera."
Adam cocked an eyebrow as he hoisted bags. Isyllt's lips curled. "It never pays to annoy foreign guests," she murmured in Selafaïn. "Especially ones who can steal your soul."
She tried to watch the commotion on the docks, but the skiff moved swiftly and they were soon out of sight. A cloud of midges trailed behind the craft; the drone of wings carried unpleasant memories of the plague, but the natives seemed unconcerned. Isyllt waved the biting insects away, though she was immune to whatever exotic diseases they might carry. As they rowed beneath a raised water-gate, a sharp minty smell filled the air and the midges thinned.
The inspector--who introduced herself as Anhai Xian-Mar--talked as they went, her voice counterpoint to the rhythmic splash of oars as she explained the myriad delta islands on which the city was built, the web of canals that took the place of stone streets. Xinai's mask slipped for an instant and Isyllt saw the cold disdain in her eyes. The mercenary had little love for countrymen who served their Assari conquerors.
Sunlight spilled like honey over their shoulders, gilding the water and gleaming on domes and tilting spires. Buildings crowded together, walls of cream and ochre stone, pale blues and dusty pinks, balconies nearly touching over narrow alleys and waterways. Bronze chimes flashed from eaves and lintels. Vines trailed from rooftop gardens, dripping leaves and orange blossoms onto the water. Birds perched in potted trees and on steep green- and grey-tiled roofs.
Invaders the Assari might be, but they had built a beautiful city. Isyllt tried to imagine the sky dark with smoke, the water running red. The city would be less lovely if her mission succeeded.
She'd heard stories from other agents of how the job crept into everything, reduced buildings and cities to exits and escape routes, defenses and weaknesses to be exploited. Till you couldn't look at anything--or anyone--without imagining how to infiltrate or corrupt or overthrow. She wondered how long it would take before it happened to her. If she would even notice when it did.
Anhai followed Isyllt's gaze to the water level--slime crusted the stone several feet above the surface of the canal. "The rains will come soon and the river will rise. You're in time for the Dance of Masks."
The skiff drew up against a set of stairs and the oarsmen secured the boat and helped Adam and Xinai unload the luggage. A tall building rose above them, decorated with Selafaïn pillars. A carven phoenix spread its wings over the doors and polished horn panes gleamed ruddy in the dying light.
Anhai bowed farewell. "If you need anything at all, meliket, you can find me at the Port Authority office."
"Shakera." Isyllt offered her hand, and the silver griffin she held. She never saw where Anhai tucked the coin.
Then she stepped from the skiff to the slime-slick stairs and set foot in the Drowning City.
The Phoenix was as decadent as Xinai had promised. Isyllt floated in the wide tub, her hair drifting around her in a black cloud. Oils shimmered on the water, filled the room with poppy and myrrh. Lamplight gleamed on blue and green tiles and rippled over the cool marble arch of the ceiling. She was nearly dozing when someone knocked lightly on the chamber door.
"Don't drown," Adam said, his voice muffled by wood.
"Not yet. What is it?"
Her stomach growled in response and she shivered in water grown uncomfortably cold. She stood, hair clinging to her arms and back like sea wrack, and reached for a towel and robe.
The bedroom smelled of wine and curry and her stomach rumbled louder. The Mariah's mess had been good enough, as sea rations went, but she was happy to reacquaint herself with real food.
Adam lit one of the scented oil lamps and sneezed as the smell of eucalyptus filled the room. The city stank of it at night--like mint, but harsher, rawer. Linen mesh curtained the windows and tented the bed. The furniture and colorful rugs were Assari, but black silk covered the mirror, true Selafaïn fashion.
Adam sat, keeping the windows and doors in sight as he helped himself to food from the platter on the table. He'd traded his ship's clothes for sleek black and the shadows in the corner swallowed him.
"Where's Xinai?" Isyllt asked, glancing at the door that led to the adjoining room.
"Scouting. Seeing how things have changed. The curry's good."
She tightened the towel around her hair and sat across from him. The bowls smelled of garlic and ginger and other spices she couldn't name. Curries and yogurt, served with rice instead of flat bread, and a bowl of sliced fruit.
"We should find our captain tonight." She stirred rice into a green sauce. "The Kurun Tam may take all day tomorrow."
The Black Mariah's legitimate business would keep her in port at least half a decad, but Isyllt wanted to make sure their alternate transportation was resolved before anything unexpected arose. She scooped up a mouthful of curry and nearly gasped at the sweet green fire. A pepper burst between her teeth, igniting her nose and throat.
The sounds of the city drifted through the window, lapping water and distant harbor bells. Night-birds sang and cats called to one another from nearby roofs. Footsteps and voices, but no hooves or rattling carriage wheels--the city's narrow streets left no room for horses or oxen.
"You don't want to be here, do you?" Adam asked after a moment. Shadows hid his face, but she felt the weight of his regard, those eerie green eyes.
She sipped iced-and-honeyed lassi. "It isn't that, exactly."
"You're angry with the old man."
She kept her face still. She hadn't cried since the first night at sea, but emotions still threatened to surface when she wasn't careful. "I know the job. My problems with Kiril won't interfere." Her voice didn't catch on his name, to her great relief.
"I hope not. He'll skin me if I don't keep you safe."
Isyllt paused, cup half raised. "He said that?"
Adam chuckled. "He left little room for doubt."
Wood clacked as she set the drink down. "If he's so bloody concerned, he could have sent someone else." She bit her tongue, cursed the petulant tone that crept into the words. The side door opened with a squeak, saving her from embarrassing herself further.
Xinai slipped in, feet silent on marble. "I found Teoma. He frequents a tavern on the wharf called the Storm God's Bride." Izachar Teoma had made most of his wealth and notoriety smuggling along Imperial shores, but sailed north often enough to have encountered Kiril's web of agents before. A ship quick and clever enough to escape harbor patrols would be useful if they had to flee the city.
Xinai tossed a stack of cheap pulp paper onto the table. "News-scrawls, from the past decad or so. The criers will have stopped spreading those stories by now."
"Thanks." Isyllt flipped through the stack--wrinkled and water-spotted, and the ink left grey smears on her fingers, but the looping Assari script was legible. The latest was three days old. She took a moment to adjust to the Assari calendar; today was Sekhmet seventh, not the twelfth of Janus. 1229 Sal Emperaturi, not 497 Ab Urbe Condita.
She often found the pride of nations silly. Trade and treaties between Assar and Selafai had to be twice dated, because the founders of Selafai had abandoned all things Imperial when they fled north across the sea five hundred years ago. But if not for the pride of nations, she'd be out of a job.
She sipped her drink again, watery now as the ice melted. Moisture slicked the curve of the cup. "Did you hear anything about the protest we saw?"
"Not much. The guards ran them off not long after we arrived, it sounds like. There were arrests, but no real violence." From Xinai's tone, Isyllt couldn't tell if she was disappointed in that or not.
Adam rose, taking a slice of mango with him. "Finish your dinner, Lady Iskaldur." The title dripped mocking off his tongue. "We'll leave when you're ready."
Night draped the city like damp silk. Heat leaked from the stones, trapped between close walls; sweat prickled the back of Isyllt's neck. The end of the dry season in Symir, but the Drowning City would never be truly dry. Insects droned overhead, avoiding the pungent lamp-smoke, and rats and roaches scuttled in the shadows. Charms hummed around them, soft shivers from doors and windows. Safe, some murmured, home. Others pulsed warnings--stay back, move on, look away.
Shadows pooled between buildings, leaked from narrow alleys; the glow of streetlamps drowned the stars. Voices drifted from taverns, floated up from the canals as skiffs passed. Water lup-lup-lupped against stone and wind sighed over high bridges, rattling the chimes that hung on nearly all the buildings. Hollow tubes and octagonal bronze mirrors flashed and clattered--in Erisín, Selafai's capital, no one left mirrors uncovered and even still puddles were avoided, but here it seemed they were lucky.
The crowds had thinned after dusk, stores closed and shuttered, the last clerks and shopkeepers hurrying home. More than once they passed guard patrols, green uniforms edged with Imperial red--a whispered word kept the soldiers' eyes off them.
A cool draft wafted past Isyllt, and a whisper light and hollow as reeds. Her bare arms prickled and the diamond chilled on her finger. She smiled--the touch of death was comforting, made the city feel less foreign.
She studied Adam's easy stride, the roll of Xinai's hips as she kept pace with him, the dangerous grace with which they moved. At home she worked alone more often than not--probably more often than she ought--but Kiril had insisted she bring backup this time. She could have brought someone familiar, but it was better this way. Too many people in Erisín knew her bitter history with Kiril, offered her sympathy and sad glances. She preferred the quiet solace of strangers. And, she admitted to herself, in this strange place she was glad of their presence.
They crossed a wide canal into the dock district--Merrowgate, the map named it. The Phoenix lay in Saltlace, the tourist and market quarter. The night grew louder as they neared the docks, bare and sandaled feet slapping the stones, laughter and music echoing from taverns, bells tolling to guide ships in the dark. The cloying spice-sweetness of opium drifted out of an alley mouth.
As they passed a narrow walkway along the water Isyllt heard a soft cry, like a child's muffled sob. She paused, searching for the source. It sounded like it came from the water.
Xinai laid a hand on her arm as she leaned toward the black offal-reek of the canal. "Don't. It's a nakh."
"A water spirit. Like your sirens in the north. They mimic children to lure people close to the water, then pull them in."
Isyllt frowned down at the black water. "Then what?"
Xinai shrugged. "Eat you. Drown you. I don't know. I doubt you'd care once you were at the bottom of the bay. The inner canals are warded, but they slip in around the edges of the city sometimes." She leaned over the railing and called out in Sivahran; the word shivered with a weight of magic. Something below them croaked, then splashed and was still. Xinai turned away and Adam and Isyllt fell in behind her.
The Storm God's Bride lay on the far side of the district, nestled between storehouses, with cheap rented rooms stacked above it like a child's precarious block tower. The sound of flutes and drums drifted through the door and firelight fell from the windows in oily-gold streaks.
Isyllt was glad to find the Bride little different from the disreputable dock taverns at home. Smoke and sweat and spilled beer thickened the air, and the tiles were cracked and sticky. Dried plants hung from warped rafters, wards or decoration or something else entirely.
Xinai twisted through the crowd in search of the captain; Isyllt stayed close to Adam, careful not to foul his sword-arm. She ran a surreptitious hand over the hilt of her own knife, though the mood in the room seemed pleasant enough.
Musicians played on a low wooden platform against the far wall, mostly ignored by the custom. Sailors and dockworkers, Isyllt guessed, watching the people slouched on low benches, or gathered loudly around the gaming tables. Wiry men and women, scarred and wind-scoured and plainly dressed, bronze skin and ochre, shades of black and brown. Ninayans and Sivahri and Assari alike laughed and gambled and drank bowls of beer, and none seemed less welcome than the others. She even saw a few fairer heads, from Hallach or lands farther north.
Xinai reappeared soon and led them across the room, toward a door beside the stage. As they moved down a narrow corridor, Isyllt heard the rattle of dice. They entered a cluttered storeroom and found a man sitting alone, rolling bones across a scarred table.
She'd known Teoma was a dwarf, but the leather cuff that capped his missing left forearm was a surprise. Dark eyes gleamed under heavy black brows as he glanced up at them.
"Good evening. Here for a game of chance?"
Adam's lips curled. "Since when is there chance in your games, Izzy?"
The dwarf's grin rearranged his creased face; lamplight winked off two gold teeth. "It's dangerous to accuse a man of cheating." He nodded toward his maimed arm. "Look what happened to me."
He turned his eyes to Isyllt. "But if you haven't come for the bones, what can I do for you?"
Isyllt twisted a red gold ring off her finger and held it out. "Among blind men--" She gave the first half of the code in Selafaïn.
"The one-eyed reigns," he finished. He reached out to clasp her hand and palm the ring in one smooth gesture.
As his callused fingers touched hers, a shiver ran up her arm. Isyllt barely managed to keep her face still; no one had mentioned the man was a sorcerer. The sensation vanished so quickly she almost doubted her instinct, but his eyes narrowed as he studied her.
"Well met, I hope. I'm Izachar Teoma."
His eyes flicked briefly toward her left hand. "What is it you wish of me, Lady?"
"I want to hire your ship."
"The Rain Dog can take you anywhere you need to go."
"Actually, I want you to stay in port. We'll be in Symir for perhaps a month--hopefully it will be a peaceful visit and we'll leave quietly. But it may come to pass that we'll need to leave the city very quickly, and we'll need a fast ship we can trust."
"Ah." Izachar ran a hand over his curling beard. His chair creaked as he leaned back. "I understand. But a month... My crew have families to feed, and I'll lose business." A gold tooth gleamed with his smile. "And with the new import taxes, my business is booming."
"We're prepared to compensate you."
Adam slid a purse across the table. Izachar hefted it, listened to the clatter of metal and stones. He loosened the ties and pulled out a coin. Silver gleamed smooth, unstamped.
"I'll keep the Dog in port for a decad," he said at last. "My first mate's daughter is sick, anyway, and she'd like to spend some time with the child. After ten days, find me again and we'll negotiate further."
Isyllt nodded. She'd expected no better. "A pleasure doing business with you, Captain."
"The pleasure's mine, Lady." The money vanished off the table.
The door swung open and a dark scar-faced man leaned in. "Time to go," he said. His hand moved against his thigh, a sign Isyllt didn't recognize. Then he was gone.
Izachar cursed softly. "A raid's coming. Business is booming a little too well." He pushed off his chair and crossed the room, quick enough for his short legs. "We'll use the back door," he said, motioning them on. "It'll be clear for a few more minutes--Desh pays his bribes on time."
Isyllt and Adam exchanged a quick glance and followed the dwarf down the hall. From the main room she heard a door slam, then a flurry of curses and shouting and the clatter of an overturned table. They stepped outside into a dark alley, as empty as Izachar had promised; the last light caught his grin before the door shut behind them.
"Welcome to Symir," he called after them as they escaped into the sticky night.
Xinai moved through her exercises by the light of one guttering lamp. The flame gleamed on her knives, shattered on their razored edges. Her breath hissed through clenched teeth as she thrust and spun and stretched. Normally she flowed like water from one stance to the next, but tonight tension trembled her limbs, made her movements too quick and jerky.
The smell of the canals breathed across the casement: water and waste, eucalyptus and brine and citrus-sweet champa flowers. Beneath it her own sour salt sweat clogged her nose.
She'd thought she could do it. She'd thought she could come home after twelve years gone. On the voyage she'd told herself that the city would have changed, that time would have made her memories bearable.
She'd almost believed it.
The exercise wasn't calming her. She stopped, stretched, and put her blades away. Adam watched her from the shadows of the bed as she stripped off her vest and trousers. He'd asked if she could take the job, one of the rare times he acknowledged all the things she'd never told him about her past. In Erisín, spending the wizard's money on food and wine, she'd said yes. Even the necromancer hadn't deterred her, for all the woman's magic made her skin crawl.
She could do this. She didn't have a choice.
She threw herself down beside Adam and buried her face in a cushion. His familiar scent was a comfort--oil and leather, musk and iron. Nothing that reminded her of home.
He propped himself up on one elbow. "Is it so bad?"
"It's--" Pillows muffled her sigh. "It's the same. Things have changed, but it's still the same."
He knelt over her, running his hands over her shoulders. She grunted softly as he pressed against knotted muscles.
"They think they're lions," she muttered, thinking of the customs inspector with her expensive coat and hennaed hands, her perfect Assari. The Sivahri soldiers in their red-trimmed uniforms. "Only dogs licking their masters' boots." She gasped as Adam dug his thumbs into her back.
He worked down, callused hands strong and steady. She forced herself not to stiffen as he brushed the scars on her back. It had been a long time, even after they were lovers, before she let him touch them. Not until the nightmares faded and she didn't wake up gasping, expecting to find her skin slick with blood.
Years of partnership had left his touch as familiar as her own. By the time he reached the small of her back she could breathe easily again, the angry stiffness gone from her limbs.
"It's only a job." He leaned down to kiss her shoulder. "When it's over we'll go somewhere else. Anywhere you like." He caressed the unmarked skin on her sides and she shivered. "You want to be a pirate?"
She chuckled and rolled over, stretching out the last of her tension. "You might be able to talk me into it." But she pulled him down and kissed him before he could try.