DAYS DESERVED to be drowned at birth and everyone sent back to bed with a hot
brandy, a box of chocolates, and a warm, energetic companion. Today was without
question one of those days.
cutter lurched over the chop, shimmying from side to side in a stomach-twisting
quadrille. Rain pebbled the deck and sails. Water sheeted across the bow and
swirled around Lucy’s feet, too great a flood for the scuppers to handle. Her
socks were soaked and she could hardly feel her toes. She ought to have had her
boots majicked against the weather like her cloak, but that was a bit more
majick than she could take.
eeled deep inside Lucy. Her insides quaked with the penetrating chill and her
muscles clenched against it. She tightened her arms around her stomach, wishing
she’d eaten a better breakfast and thinking longingly of her forgotten flask of
few minutes later she heard a shouted "Heave to!” Sailors scrambled up the
shrouds to reef the handful of bellied sails. The men at the poles dug sharply
into the churning water as the cutter heeled to starboard.
ma’am! Weather’s too heavy. Can’t take you all the way in to shore. We’d be
swamped or bilged. Gotta put you ashore on the arm.”
mate didn’t wait for her response, which was just as well. She ground out a
string of epithets. She had plenty in store. She’d grown up on the docks among
people who lived too close to the edge of life to be bothered with hoity-toity
manners. Or any manners at all. She rubbed her cold fingers over her cheeks and
pressed them against her mouth to stop the torrent. She was on duty. She had
the reputation of the customs office to think about, not to mention her own.
She didn’t need witnesses to her fears, which were entirely irrational. Knowing
that did not settle her stomach or loosen the tension that shook her hands.
deck dropped and the cutter yawed sickeningly to the side. Lucy gasped and
grappled a bench for balance, her feet sliding. The sailors shouted and clung
desperately to the rigging. The boat rolled to the other side. She sucked in a
harsh breath, bracing against the wall, her legs spread wide. The wash of black
waves sounded hungry and loud above the rush of the wind. Clamping down on the
whimpers crowding her throat, she bit her lips together until she tasted blood.
She jeered silently at herself, hoping everybody was too busy to notice her
straightened with an effort, clinging to the back of the bench. The cutter
righted itself again and continued its lurching way. Lucy’s gaze flicked to the
strand of wards glimmering like green pearls beyond the mouth of the harbor.
The Pale. Their glow didn’t quiet her nausea. Just because in four hundred
years the fence of tide and storm wards had never failed to keep sylvethout of the harbor, it didn’t mean that today couldn’t be different. And Lucy
didn’t want to be in the water when it happened. Not that the cutter offered
safety against sylveth. Nothing did.
shivered and her throat jerked as she swallowed. She’d seen for herself what
raw sylveth could do. She closed her eyes against the memory. But she
couldn’t halt it any more than she could stop the storm.
day had been fine, the black sands sparkling in the sunlight, the air redolent
with spring. Ten-year-old Lucy and her family were on a picnic during one of
their few summer retreats. Robert had been teasing her again. She stalked off,
leaving all three of her brothers in peals of laughter. She didn’t know how far
she walked. She only remembered coming around a jut and stumbling over
something soft and sticky.
had stared at it for long moments, unable to decipher what it was she was
looking at. Then a hollow sound slowly filled her ears. Grains trickled past as
she stood, unable to tear herself away, recognition creeping over her with
was sylveth spawn, born of majick. Whether it had originally been human
or animal or something else entirely, there was no way to tell.
skin was cratered and spongy, its gray expanse dotted with weeping
protuberances. A ten-foot tentacle with orange suckers all along its length
protruded from one side of its jellied mass. On top was a turgid frill, fanning
across the surface like tree fungus. It smelled like rotting potatoes, burnt
fish and hot butter. The entire length of the creature jerked and twitched as
if something inside were trying to escape. More ghastly than anything Lucy
could have dreamed of—it was breathing. It might once have been a piece
of ship debris, a horse, or even something as prosaic as a laundry tub. Or a
sailor who’d fallen prey to a sylveth tide.
its raw, unaltered form, sylveth wormed through the Inland Sea in
silvery skeins of destructive majick. Whatever it touched it changed,and rarely for the good. The Pale was the only thing that kept Crosspointe safe
from its warping. But the sylveth sent regular reminders to wash up on
the beaches so that no one ever forgot the danger lurking in the sea.
she could convince her legs to respond, Lucy had run. Ever since that day, she
hated sylveth, even the worked sylveth that the majicars promised
was safe enough to handle. If it wasn’t, they said, the Pale would never let it
through. But there were centuries of gossip and rumor that argued otherwise.
About babies turning into giant insects and tearing apart a herd of cows, about
houses walking off with the families inside, about rugs transforming into rabid
flying creatures and hunting farmers in their fields. Fireside tales to
frighten children. Everybody knew it. Almost everybody. Lucy’s gut refused to believe
it. Not that what she thought made any difference. Worked sylveth was
the most valuable commodity Crosspointe had to export; it was one entire leg of
the three-legged stool making up Crosspointe’s economy. Being in customs
guaranteed she not only had to be near it but she had to handle it.
fingered the pendant hidden under her clothing. Even if she hadn’t been a
customs inspector, she was a Rampling—and loyal down to the toenails. Before
she was three minutes old, the crown majicars had put a sylveth cipher
around her neck. Every Rampling got one, made of the strongest protective
majick available. A shield, a badge, a brand, a collar—it couldn’t be removed,
not by anyone, not even her. The only thing worse than the pendant against her
skin was letting anyone else see it.
hand dropped to her side. In Crosspointe, it wasn’t the sylveth you had
to be afraid of; it was the spells that were attached to them. She eyed the
frothing waves. She hated sylveth. But somehow, unbelievably, stupidly,she still craved...
didn’t dare finish the thought.
CREW ROWED closer to the quay, singing a rhythmic chantey in time to their
strokes. The cutter bucked and pitched. Lucy watched as a seaman climbed nimbly
up on the rail. He stood swaying, a line caught in his fist. The prow swung
toward the quay and he tipped forward in a headlong fall. Lucy caught her
breath. But the fall turned into a graceful leap. He landed easily, spinning
about to snub the mooring line around a waiting bollard. As the rowers heaved
against the waves, the seaman hauled in the slack.
last the cutter jolted against the tarred hawser bumpers. The gate rail was
lifted away and a plank tossed down over the last few feet. Seamen lashed it
into place, though it bounced and slid loosely on the quayside. The tide was
going out, making it an uphill climb from the deck. Waves broke over the
gangplank and the cutter heaved away from the quay. Lucy considered the narrow
bridge skeptically. It might hold a half-grown child, but she was bigger than
that. Looking at the narrow bridge, she felt more like a well-grown horse.
Can’t hold here long!”
grimaced. She should have stayed in bed. The wind and rain slapped her face.
Beneath the slender bridge, the water churned like black ink. On the other
side, the seaman waited, holding out a blunt, rough hand. Two quick steps was
all she had to take.
took a firm hold on her satchel, refusing to look down. She cautiously slid her
foot out on the slick wood. As she did, the cutter yawed wide. She slipped,
falling hard to one knee. The captain caught her under the arm, helping her up.
get you a safety line!” he shouted.
mind!” Lucy hollered over the wind, shrugging him off. She lifted the strap of
her satchel over her shoulder and thrust herself onto the gangplank. It
shimmied and drooped. Her bruised knee buckled as fire flared up her thigh. She
flung herself upward at the seaman, snatching at his outstretched hand. He
caught her fingers, his callused grip powerful. For a moment Lucy’s feet
dangled over the water and then he swung her easily up to safety. Unmindful of
her dignity, she stumbled and grappled a piling, her body quivering.
didn’t wait for thanks, but released the mooring line and sprang back aboard.
The gangplank was hauled in and the cutter shoved off.
pushed herself upright, hunching into the wind and shuffling toward the harbor
terminal. Her cloak fluttered up and spume fountained across the walkway,
soaking her uniform surcoat and trousers. She swore again, thinking longingly
of her bed.
passed a host of vessels crowding the slips lining the quay. They were mostly
cutters, tugs, and lighters in the employ of the harbor or customs. They
pitched from side to side, the lanterns hanging from the riggings winking like
frenzied fireflies. A group of sailors trudged past Lucy, laughing and jostling
one another. They moved in that rolling gait so typical of seamen, hardly
seeming aware of the storm.
the anonymity of her hood, Lucy snarled at them for their calm indifference.
But then, sailors spent most of their lives beyond the Pale. What was a storm
compared to that?
stumbled, her throat closing. Fools.
worked her way up the quay to the harbormaster’s terminal. Stern-faced Hornets
in charcoal uniforms trimmed in saffron and emerald guarded the entry. Lucy
paused long enough to show her customs badge. They nodded and waved her on.
hesitated, turning to gaze out through the mouth of the harbor. Merstone Island
rose out of the ebony water like a sleepy ghost. Beyond were the vast black
waters of the Inland Sea. She had a lot of friends out there. Her chest
tightened. She did her best to avoid thinking about them, else she’d chew her
fingers to bits with constant worry. But in a gale like
she thought of Jordan. His ship ought to be coming in soon—she’d expected him
more than a sennight ago. She frowned, her jaw jutting out in defiance against
her sudden fear. He was an excellent captain. Few were better. He’d been sailing
since he was a boy. He was too careful, too cunning to be caught by sylvethor any of the other dangers the Inland Sea had to throw at the ships that dared
tried to make herself believe it. But even the most brilliant captain didn’t
have a chance when the sea unleashed its fury. Braken’s fury. Lightning
flashed, sending jagged spears of white light across the entire sky. Her eyes
closed against the knife-bright glare. Hard on its heels, thunder cracked.The air shook with the angry concussion. Lucy swallowed hard. And the sea god
she spun about and headed for the doors. Once she was submerged in work, she
wouldn’t be able to stew about Jordan or anything else. Besides, he was too
arrogant, stubborn, and obnoxious to permit himself to be changed by sylveth.She allowed herself to take comfort in the thought, but promised herself she
would strangle him if he let himself be hurt. He was, after all, her best
friend. She had a right to beat him up for letting himself get into trouble.
stepped into the vast wood and marble entry, the sounds of the wind dying as
the doors swung closed. Footmen stood ready inside, taking Lucy’s dripping
cloak and offering her a towel. She took it, her lips thinning as the burn of
majick closed around her like a cloak of nails and nettles. Her scalp prickled
and her mouth tasted like polished metal.
footmen watched her, curious at her immobility. She forced herself to walk
deeper inside. It wasn’t easy. The harbor terminal was thick with majick, far
more than most places in Sylmont. That was one of the reasons she avoided
coming here as much as possible. The biting pain did not fade, but every step
Lucy took was firmer as she adjusted to it. The hurt was all too familiar and
nothing she could not handle once the initial shock had passed.
footman trailed after her at a discreet distance, wiping up the watery trail
she left on the parquet floor. Marble pillars marched along the walls and rose
like a scattered forest throughout the entry in support of the ornately
plastered ceiling. Lucy shifted the strap of her satchel on her shoulder,
dabbing at her dripping forehead.
across the room she paused, her attention snagging on the dramatic sculpture
set on a pedestal shaped like a thirty-two-rayed compass. A larger image of the
compass was inlaid into the floor. The sculpture depicted the sea god Braken
carved in ebony. His fluid, muscular body lay prostrate at the silvery feet of
the Moonsinger, Meris. Black waves washed over her feet—like pleading hands,
like shackles. She stretched her hand down to her lover, but her eyes were
turned upward toward the featureless figure of Hurn, the Hunter, carved in
translucent green windstone. Meris’s face was a study of longing and pain and
violent passion. It was without a doubt the most moving rendition of the
terrible triangle Lucy had ever seen. She never passed by it without stopping,
caught by the threat of impending tragedy in the piece.
boomed again. Lucy eyed Braken’s prone form with foreboding. The sea god’s love
for Meris was furious and vengeful, not to mention desperate. The Moonsinger
could not seem to choose between him and the mysterious Hurn. Their jealous
arguments turned into vicious storms that scoured the world and churned the
black waters of the Inland Sea.
sort of passion was entirely alien to Lucy, though she liked men plenty, and
had had her share of lovers. But she never got so attached that she lost her
mind. Turning away, Lucy briskly walked away toward the sweep of green jasper
stairs on the opposite side of the room. She’d hardly gone two steps when the
thunder clapped again. She froze in place as the pillars bracing the roof
vibrated, making a guttural grating noise. Her gaze lifted uneasily to the
ceiling as dust filtered through the air. Silence fell like a shroud.
between one breath and the next, a skin-chilling siren ripped apart the
stillness. The sound galvanized Lucy. She gathered the length of her dripping
surcoat and pelted up the stairs, taking two at a time. Clerks and servants
joined her on the steps, their faces set and pale. They flowed upward to the
harbormaster’s office—in reality a gallery that took up the entire length of
the third floor. The seaward wall was constructed entirely of floor-to-ceiling
windows. On the interior wall stretched an enormous map of the harbor. All the
docks were carefully delineated—red, pink, and orange for government docks,
green for private, and blue for foreign ownership. Pinned into the occupied
slips were various bits of paper with the ship’s name, owner, and status. These
corresponded with files held in the banks of cabinets filling the vaults on the
second floor. Spiraling brass ladders led down into the vaults at intervals
along the gallery. Desks and tables crowded the rest of the space and an army
of clerks bustled about, shuffling papers, scratching with pens, and making
adjustments to the map. Or they would have been, if they weren’t all clustered
at the windows, staring out at the harbor.
pushed through the crowd, looking for Hammond Wexler, the recently appointed
harbormaster and yet another Rampling—a third or fourth cousin. The siren
continued to wail, its majickally enhanced tones echoing across the harbor and
through the streets of Sylmont. It drowned the buzz of voices and the pounding
thud of Lucy’s heart.
found her gray-haired cousin bent over a spyglass atop a tripod just inside the
window. He wore a closely-fitted dark blue uniform with parallel rows of gold
buttons rising up over his chest and circling around his shoulders. Gold piping
trimmed his back-turned sleeves and ran down his pants legs. He wore a pocket
watch and chain across his slender waist and a collar of office around his
neck. Like Lucy, his royal pendant was hidden beneath his clothing. As she
approached, he straightened, his craggy face bleak.
eyes,” he grated.
didn’t bother with any niceties. "What’s happened?”
gaze flicked to her and then back to the rain-streaked windows. There was
little enough to be seen. Though the morning had begun to brighten, the
pounding rain and gray mist obscured the southern headland across the harbor.
Merstone Island could no longer be seen at all.
A weir’s grown up in the channel. We’re corked tight as a wine bottle. Wind is
blowing straight at us—well above forty-five
knots. Ships will rip out their keels on the weir before they even know it’s
there.” He paused, the muscles of his jaw flexing. "You’re just in time,
cousin. You’re senior customs agent on site. Better open the sheds. Take
whatever you need from the terminal. I suggest you hurry.”
spun about and strode away, not waiting for her reply.
pressed her palm against the cold glass of the window, feeling heavy and
frozen. Ships were coming. This close to Chance, there could be dozens just out
of sight beyond the curve of the horizon. All of them were headed into the
deadly embrace of a knucklebone weir.
Meris, please don’t let Jordan be on one.”
THE URGENCY of the siren and Wexler’s orders, Lucy paused to look into the
spyglass. She adjusted the eyepiece, twisting a small dial along the side. She
caught her breath and recoiled as the knucklebone reeds reared up, seeming only
a handbreadth away from her face.
"Itis a spyglass, after all,” she muttered, bending to look again.
white stalks pricked from the water, their stems articulated like skeletal
fingers. Some were short, like wheat stubble. Others stretched up twenty feet
or higher. They seemed fluid and soft as seaweed as they fluttered and waved
beneath the might of the gale. But Lucy knew better; they were sharp-edged and
harder than iron. When ships ran up onto a weir, the reeds did not break; they
did not give at all. They tore apart ships like knives shredded linen. They
appeared and vanished wherever they pleased without rhyme or reason, making
them nearly impossible to avoid and causing more wrecks than anything else on
the Inland Sea.
slowly swung the spyglass from side to side. The weir ran along the edge of the
tide wards, blocking the entire mouth of the harbor. They filled Merstone
Strait to the shores of the majicars’ island on the north side and marched down
out of sight behind the southern headland. It was a disaster.
straightened blindly, then spun about with sudden purpose. She had work to do.
crowd of clerks pressing against the window was silent and tense. Lucy’s gaze
swept the room with sharp calculation. At last she lit on a clerk bending over
a large book, rapidly making inscriptions. His shirtsleeves were rolled up over
his elbows and ink stains blotted his fingers. Pinned to his collar was a
master clerk’s brooch. Beside it was a silver pin shaped like a compass rose
set on an obsidian disk and struck through by an anchor, the latter indicating
he was the harbormaster’s personal assistant.
strode across the room, stopping beside him. His hair stood on end like he’d
been running his fingers through it, and the corners of his mouth were drawn
down in deep grooves.
need some of your people,” she said, not waiting for him to acknowledge her. "A
dozen senior clerks, no one junior. I want your most trustworthy. I’ll need
carriages to take us to the salvage sheds. Customs will reimburse the costs.”
straightened, staring down at his hands clenched around his pen. When he spoke,
his voice was strained. "I shall arrange it. Is there anything else you
food. We’ll have everything else we need. How soon can you get it done?”
more than half a glass. If you like, I’ll have someone escort you downstairs.
You’ll want to eat.”
nothing you can do for now.”
was right. It would be wise to get something in her stomach. Once the salvage
began, she’d have precious little time to eat. And she certainly didn’t want to
wait at the window and watch helplessly.
followed a young apprentice to a small salon. The warning siren continued to
sing its eerie song, the sound muting only slightly as they descended into the
building. Her guide yanked the bellpull and ordered tea from the flustered
servant who answered the summons.
will be here in a moment, miss,” the apprentice said, twisting her fingers
together. The girl mumbled through lips that refused to open. Accustomed to
registering details, Lucy glimpsed pinkish teeth and a tongue the color of
garnets. There was also a black burn mark on her right index finger that was
not hidden by the ink stains. She smoked bloodweed, an addictive stimulant that
many apprentices leaned on to complete their work. However, its side effects
were both embarrassing and debilitating with long-term use—like wetting
oneself, for instance. Lucy sniffed. The girl did not stink. Nor did she
struggle with door handles. But the irony was that if she kept it up, she’d no
longer be able to do the work for which she’d started taking the drug in the
first place. Lucy gave a mental shrug. No one began taking bloodweed without
knowing the cost. And the girl had a right to be stupid. Everybody did.
subject of Lucy’s inspection hovered near the door in jittery silence until
Lucy couldn’t stand it any longer and dismissed her. The girl rushed out, no
doubt to return to the vulture watch at the great gallery windows.
tea arrived, served with cold pork sandwiches, sliced pears, an assortment of
hard cheeses, and a plate of nut cookies. She could hardly swallow, but knew
she had to. The next hours would be frenzied, with little opportunity to eat or
rest. This close to Chance, each day promised two or three dozen ships. Even
though some would see the warning beacons and veer away, too many would run up
on the weir. The potential devastation was enough to make Lucy’s throat hurt.
She picked at her food, counting each time she chewed and swallowed. She hardly
noticed when she burned her tongue on the steaming tea.
the warning siren changed to an emergency signal, she leaped to her feet,
nearly overturning the table. It pulsed in short, hard blasts, blaring like a
was out of time. With or without the clerks and carriages, she had to open the
THAT ISN’T Trilby and Sons—that’s Daily and Tripp. Check the box markings and
go slower if you have to. If they are loose goods or you can’t read the
markings, put them in E section and we’ll figure it out later.”
journeyman clerk nodded, his mouth pinching. Lucy watched him wiggle the barrel
back up onto the cart and go in search of the proper cargo stall.
his sheets. Sloppiness is a crime in customs. Make sure the salvagers are logged
and the cargo lots tagged solidly. The only reason we get salvage volunteers
and don’t lose goods to theft is because the reward is worth more than sitting
around watching or stealing,” she said to the woman trailing her. Rebecca Rae
was a master clerk. She towered above Lucy, with a narrow, beaklike nose and a
sharp chin. Her skin was pale, like grass hidden all summer beneath a rock. She
was extraordinarily competent, and Lucy made a mental note to recommend Rebecca
Rae for customs work.
the clerk to follow her orders, Lucy continued along the aisle, inspecting the
flurry of activity with a gimlet eye. Much of the wrecked tramper’s cargo had
washed through the weir and had been collected and deposited. Processing it was
slow and the harbormaster’s inexperienced clerks made a lot of mistakes. The
salvage was becoming chaotic as goods were piled up haphazardly and sloppily
documented and recorded. She hoped her own people arrived soon.
stopped short when the ship-in-trouble siren began its pulsing roar once again.Not again. Her lips tightened. Not the Firewind! Mother Moon,
not Jordan’s ship. She jerked about as Rebecca Rae joined her again.
That’s another one coming. I’ll have to open another shed and pray to Chayos
the gods come to their senses soon.”
take half the crew and get started. You’ll have to stay here until one of our
majicars shows up. Regulations require that every open shed have a customs
inspector on site—there’s too much danger of smuggling and theft otherwise. So
I want you to stay and keep an eye on things. Don’t leave until it is sealed.
ma’am,” Rebecca Rae said again, her face determined.
nodded. Good woman. No blathering on with stupid questions. Yes, when this was
over, she’d hire Rebecca Rae for her own team.
nearly forgotten about the gale. It was blowing as hard and wet as earlier in
the morning. Waves crashed against the tide wall, geysering high into the air.
The rain pecked and the wind roared. She’d not put on her cloak and by the time
she’d struggled to the second shed, she was drenched through. She grasped the
lock in one hand, groping for her seal with the other. A powerful gust shoved
at her. She staggered, clinging to the door handle for balance.
jumped when strong hands closed around her waist, a short, muscular body
bolstering hers from behind.
tie an anchor to your ankle or you’ll be kiting off to the Root.” Hig’s voice
about time you got here. Help me get this open,” she shouted.
bulled her forward, bracing her as she unlocked the door. Dozens of other
customs clerks clustered around them, helping to block the wind. When the lock
was sprung, Hig and Gridley shoved the doors open. Lucy took a towel from the
shelf inside the door, wiping her face as she rapidly fired off orders.
and Lester, stoke the furnace. Did you bring a majicar?”
at your service, ma’am.”
voice was cool and almost brusque. Lucy glanced up at him assessingly. Her eyes
fell on his illidre—a focus for majick made of sylveth. It hung
on a chain of gold, silver, and copper woven together like a serpent; the clasp
was a snake’s head biting its tail. The illidre was a smaller snake
coiled around the chain. It was dark blue with oranges and reds glinting from
within as they caught the light. Facets suggested scales and enhanced the fiery
glitter. Lucy eyed it distastefully. It wasn’t a cipher; it didn’t radiate
majick. For the moment. But as soon as he worked his first spell—it was like
being attacked by hordes of wasps. She shuddered, her lip curling
wrong?” the lanky majicar demanded.
tore her gaze from the illidre. Brithe was probably close to thirty-five
years old. He was skinny with straw blond hair, a narrow chin, and fish-belly
pale skin. His mouth was wide and compressed; his eyes a milky gray. It was an
arrogant face with little in it to like. At the moment, he looked distinctly
affronted. She swore silently at herself. Majicars hated their service terms
and more often than not had to be bullied into doing the duty they were legally
bound to do. What was she doing antagonizing him during a salvage?
she said, reaching out to give Brithe a perfunctory shake of the hand, seeing
the flash of startled humor in his eyes at her bluntness. "I’d appreciate it if
you’d overlook my rudeness. I’m usually better behaved,” she said.
examined her a long moment before nodding. "Today you’re entitled, I think. As
I said, I am at your service.”
you. And well met, sir. I’ll ask you to accompany Hig next door. Seal the shed
as soon as you can. We’ll work on sorting and inspecting its contents later.
Hig, send the rest of the crew over here. Master clerk Rebecca Rae is sweeping
up. She’s good.”
leered, rubbing his square, callused hands together. "Is she, now?”
senior customs clerk was shorter than Lucy by four inches, and Rebecca Rae was
taller than her by equally as much.
that Hig would be put off by the difference. Lucy rolled her eyes.
"Dotry to remember we are in the middle of an emergency. And since I’d like
to recruit Rebecca Rae to our team, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t entirely
put her off the prospect.”
be a pussycat,” he promised solemnly.
knew better. "One of these days I am going to hire a majicar to rot off your
favorite bits so I won’t have to worry about you tomcatting anymore.”
grinned and gave a little salute. "And deprive the women of Sylmont of my
affections? You’d have a riot. Now, if you don’t mind, sweet Rebecca Rae is
waiting for me.” He turned to leave and then paused, frowning, his voice
dropping low. "Was it wise, leaving the shed without certified customs
wasn’t any choice. Besides, Rebecca Rae is a bonded master clerk and has been
solid all night. Given the circumstances, it was the only thing to do.” Except
that it was entirely against policy and she could be suspended and fined for
it. Lucy gave a little shrug. It was done. She waved Hig and Brithe away,
concentrating on the business at hand.
day passed in a frenzy of activity. Four more ships cracked up on the
knucklebones before night fell. Salvagers hauled in recovered cargo from the
destroyed vessels. Some of it had survived inside casks and crates. Far more
were loose goods hauled in tumbled jumbles within duffels and makeshift sacks
of sailcloth and net.
teams continued to arrive throughout the day. The first wreck had been a
three-masted schooner; the next were deep-bellied four-masted clippers carrying
twice the freight. The salvage piled up quickly. Even with so many customs
teams, it was difficult to log the goods, much less keep them organized. Shed
after shed was filled and sealed to be cataloged later.
oversaw the salvage with unrelenting energy and zeal. She threw herself into
the work, ignoring her own worries and the increasingly vicious bite of majick.
It permeated the air, inhabiting the recovered cargoes in the shape of weak
ciphers and majicked commercial goods. Many of the sailors, stevedores, and lighters
carried traces of majick as well. But Lucy had learned to tolerate the pain and
refused to let it get in the way of her work.
gale began to subside as dusk fell, but still the salvage continued to flow in.
Lucy was completing a report to her supervisor, Alistair Crummel. She folded it
and pressed the circular tip of her seal against the paper. A jolt ran up her
fingers and the mark on the page shimmered with a green flame. It was shaped
like a crescent moon inside a triangle and ringed by a series of numbers and
letters in minuscule black script that identified the seal as hers. Only she
could activate it.
handed the report to Ellen Bagnot, a junior clerk. "Make sure Alistair gets
this tonight. He’ll be waiting for it.”
exactly what you were expecting on your last day, was it?”
so much, no, ma’am.”
smiled. "At least it’s been a memorable ending to your customs career. Though
it still escapes me how you could want to attach to a Chancery office in
Ospredale.” Lucy grimaced at the word Chancery.
a good position, ma’am,” Ellen said quickly. "Close to m’family. I haven’t seen
them in nigh on fifteen years since I apprenticed. Ye know I wouldn’t have
taken it else, and ye don’t need to worry none. I won’t be having nothing to do
with the crown case. I wouldn’t never hurt yer family that way,” she said
just do the job they ask of you and don’t worry about the Ramplings. Most of us
don’t remember not having to work to eat. We’ve been mired in this Chancery
suit for more than fifty years, and whatever you do or don’t do, we’ll be sunk
in it for another hundred, or until the family goes bankrupt. So don’t balk if
you’re told to work on the case. None of us will take it amiss.”
ma’am. I mean, no, ma’am.”
go and be sure you put that report into Alistair’s hands yourself.” She grasped
Ellen’s hand firmly. "We’ll miss you. I wish there was time to celebrate your
other woman flushed and bobbed her head before scurrying off. Lucy went in
search of Hig. She’d not gone more than a dozen feet when she was struck by an
agonizing sensation like toothy saw blades raking hard across her skin. She
staggered, letting out a soft moan before biting down on her lip, tasting
blood. Challenging the ripping pain was a spurt of eager hunger. A cipher. A truecipher.
forced herself to straighten, to appear as if nothing were wrong. She scanned
the shed. Near the opposite wall Hig and Peep had their heads together over a
stack of crates. Neither seemed aware of the overpowering majick that had
suddenly blossomed inside the shed. Of course they didn’t notice; nor did
swung around jerkily, seeking the source like a flower following the sun. It
felt like it was coming from the front right corner of the building.
steady stream of dockworkers, sailors, and lighters continued to trudge in,
loaded with the dripping remnants of the ships. Lucy ignored them, following
the flow of power upstream with slow, deliberate steps. The pain grew with
every stride. But it didn’t compare with the frantic hunger that had seized her
the moment she felt its enthralling touch. The inside of her mouth and the
bottoms of her feet started to itch mercilessly. Eagerness made her breath come
sharp between her lips. She’d never encountered any but true ciphers that did
that to her.
told herself to stop, to turn around, to ignore her gut-churning want. She
didn’t listen. She knew it was stupid. The cipher would likely kill her in a
long, painful ordeal. Or worse. Much, much worse. But she couldn’t help
hundred years ago, Errol Cipher had created the first ciphers. His—true
ciphers—were far more powerful than those produced by majicars today, even the
one she wore around her neck. He’d made most of them to torment those he hated.
True ciphers were usually things of innocuous appearance, like spoons or
hairpins or shoe buckles. Most people had no way to detect them until they
attached, and then there was no way to remove them until the spell ran its course,
or more likely, the victim died.
filtered through the throng of salvagers. They were dripping wet and exhausted.
They hauled in their heavy loads of flotsam with grim faces. She nodded to
those who caught her eye, but she didn’t stop.
was close now. She edged past the long tables of clerks registering and
recording the salvage. Drawn by the throbbing power of the cipher, Lucy circled
around the haphazard stacks of goods. She ran her fingers over wet bolts of
cloth, several bales of draggled furs and dripping hides, clay jars of spices
and delicacies, bundled lengths of unfinished wood, ruined shoes, bronze and
porcelain decorative ornaments, and dozens of casks of wine. The number and
variety of goods were endless—hidden in barrels, chests, and caskets, stacked
in crooked aisles fifteen feet high and ten feet across.
wandered deeper into this pillared forest, finally finding what she was looking
for in a collection of stacked bins where small, odd items went to keep them
from getting lost. She paced around to the left, stopping abruptly, catching
her breath sharply as cold cut deeply into her lungs. She tugged the top bin
aside, pulling until she’d opened a gap into the bin beneath it. She craned her
neck, peering inside, her heart pounding. Inside was a jewelry box carved from
windstone; a wet, floppy straw hat with long crumpled feathers attached; a
collection of ivory combs and brushes; a battered silver teapot with one cup;
and an assortment of decorative bead masks. At the bottom was a small wooden
box made of roughly finished pine held together with cheap brass tacks. A flat
band circled it with a customs tag identifying the date, the time of day the
box had been logged in, the salvager, and the customs official who’d accepted
gabble of loud voices made Lucy start. She jerked her head up, breathing a
silent sigh when the voices died and no one disturbed her. Woodenly, she turned
back to the box. Hot want demanded that she snatch it and smuggle it
home. Her stomach roiled. Absolutely not! She was a customs agent, not a
thief, not a smuggler. But then—what? Move it where she could keep an eye on it
until she could buy it? Her body twitched at waiting, at the thought of
possibly losing it. No, that wouldn’t do either.
aware of what she was doing, she reached into the bin, hesitating a finger’s
breadth away. As a rule, true ciphers were dangerous only once they touched
human skin. She’d be handling only the box. Even so, she hesitated, then chided
herself. Someone had clearly packed it inside the box without suffering harm.
brushed the top of the box. The wood was rough, a splinter piercing her index
finger. Oh, how she wanted to take it! But everything she was rebelled at the
idea. It was against the law. And she wouldn’t, couldn’t, break the
rules she lived her life by. A snide voice inside ridiculed her. She collected
true ciphers. That was against the law. Taking this one was no
she pulled back. She’d mark the box so that it could not be released without
her making a personal inspection. At least then she’d know to whom it belonged.
From there, she’d see about buying it. She stood a good chance, since no one
else would know its real nature, and given the rough packing, the cipher itself
probably looked like nothing valuable. She could get it legally if the thing
didn’t attach before she got a chance to buy it.
sighed and started to pull back. It was the best she could do short of stealing
warning the top of the box erupted, spattering Lucy’s arms with splinters. She
jerked back and froze. A chain thrust up out of the shattered wood like the
head of a cobra. It swayed in midair, inching upward above her head. Lucy
stared at it in blank shock. The chain was as long as her arm. It was made of sylvethdisks, each the size of a dralion, and hooked together by heavy silver links.
So much for being cheap. The disks were a dull gray, like rainwater, lacking
the usual telltale glimmer of sylveth. There was no clasp.
chain gave a wriggle.
gasped, her heart contracting. She bit her tongue, telling herself to get away.
Slowly she slid her left foot behind her.
chain wriggled again.
blistered through her veins. She flung herself backward. The chain darted like
a striking snake and snapped itself around her left wrist, spinning like an
anchor chain around a capstan and coiling up her arm to the elbow. The sylvethdisks flared incandescent white. Lucy turned her head away from the brilliance,
holding her arm extended.
Her skin went cold, like she’d dipped her arm in
snowmelt. The chill washed up her shoulder and around her neck. It swept over
her head and down to her ribs, thighs, and feet. For a moment, she felt encased
in an icy shroud. The cold sank through her skin into her muscles, into her
bones. She felt as if something were twisting tight inside her, the pressure
making her choke. She wanted to cry out, but a part of her recalled where she
was, that she dared not be discovered. She clamped her lips together and sealed
them with her teeth.
cold turned suddenly scorching. The heat erupted outward. For a moment. Lucy
thought she smelled cooking meat. Then suddenly it was gone, and with it the
crumpled to the floor, her breath huffing between her lips in short, wheezing
pants. She grasped at the shreds of her own equilibrium, examining herself. Her
skin wasn’t melting from her bones. Her legs weren’t turning into frog legs or
horse tails. She ran her fingers over her face and scraped her nails across her
scalp. She was still herself.
made her giddy and a sob lodged in her chest.
scuffle of feet and the sound of masculine voices made her realize how she must
look, sitting on the floor. She glanced down. The cipher encircled her left arm
from wrist to elbow. The sylveth disks now shimmered with the rainbow
light of soap bubbles. She pushed at it. It didn’t budge. She pushed harder,
scratching bloody rents in the skin between the links. Still it didn’t move.
no, no!” she muttered, continuing to scrabble at it, though she knew
nothing could get it off, short of amputation, and even then it would probably
just wrap her neck. Errol Cipher had created this trinket to never relinquish
its grip. Not until the spell had run its course. Not until she’d suffered the
torments and humiliation that the ancient majicar had woven into its length.
course, it might be one of the good ones.
harsh bark of laughter tore at her throat. And frogs could fly. Not all ciphers
were curses. A few, a very slim few, were gifts. To grow hair on a sterile
pate. To protect from harm. To give precious skills. The chance of this being
one of those was about the same as Lucy falling into a vat of molten gold. It
was stupid and wishful to hope so. About as stupid as digging for it in the
voices drew closer. Lucy glanced up and then frantically pulled at her rolled
sleeve. She yanked it down just as two men strolled between two of the pillared
stacks. Her mouth dropped open as relief rushed over her and she momentarily
forgot the death sentence circling her arm.
was home... He was safe.