Authors: Blake Charlton
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To my father, Randolph Seville Charlton, M.D., for many books read aloud and lessons in survival
What would an ocean be without a monster lurking in the dark? It would be like sleep without dreams.
Where there is a monster, there is a miracle.
Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born.
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight.
To test a spell that predicts the future, try to murder the man selling it; if you can, it can't. That, at least, was Leandra's rationale for poisoning the smuggler's blackrice liqueur.
On a secluded beach, they knelt and faced each other across a seaworn bamboo table. Above, a clear night sky crowded with stars and two half-moons. To Leandra's left, a grove of slender palms, crosshatched moonshadows, short green grass. To her right, an expanse of dark seawater and lush limestone formations known as the Bay of Standing Islands.
Leandra's catamaran rocked between two such limestone formations that rose narrow from the bay but widened into craggy rock, vines, and ferny cycads. “Mountains on stilts,” her illustrious father had once called the standing islands.
Across the table, the smuggler cleared his throat. Leandra, using several intermediaries, had agreed to meet him on this beach east of Chandralu. Both parties had asked that names not be used; however, as was the way of such meetings, neither party had asked that homicidal duplicity not be used. So Leandra picked up the smuggler's porcelain bottle of blackrice liqueur. Calmly she poured the ambercolored spirit into his wooden cup.
He was watching her every action, but it was too late. She had already drawn a needle from her sleeve and held it against the bottle's neck so the liqueur poured over its poisoned point. Then she filled her own cup, knowing the toxin had washed off.
The smuggler was a handsome man of middle yearsâflawless black skin, black goatee chased with silver, wide nose, large eyes. He wore a blue lungi and loose white blouse as if he were of the Lotus People, but his posture was laxer, his speech quicker than was polite in Lotus culture.
Also notable, the smuggler had wrapped a cloth around his head to conceal the spell he was selling. In places, a crimson glow shone through the headwrap. Because Leandra perceived some divine languages as red light, the glow suggested that the man was what he claimed to beâwhich is to say the kind of man that filled Leandra with hatred so molten hot that it would transform any sensible woman into an eye-gouging, throat-biting whirl of violence. Fortunately, Leandra was not a sensible woman.
She lifted her cup with one hand and flicked the needle away with the other. The smuggler did not hear it strike sand. “To your future,” she said.
“To your future,” he echoed. Blank expression.
With one draft, Leandra downed her blackrice liqueur. It was a fragrant, gratuitously alcoholic substance. The Lotus People called it mandana and drank it when conducting religious ceremonies or business transactions. Having lived in the Ixonian Archipelago for thirteen years, Leandra had drunk gallons of the stuff without becoming accustomed to it. She wondered if anyone ever did.
The mandana traveled down her throat as liquid and up her sinuses as harsh, flavored vapor. Every inch from her stomach to nosetip burned as if scrubbed with astringent. Taste came last and started sweet like chewed sugarcane but then curdled into something that approximated honeyed monkey vomit.
Throughout the miniature alcoholic ordeal, Leandra kept her expression pleasant. Fortunate that she did; the smuggler was studying her. She wasn't much to see, short and frail, wearing a long-sleeved dress of pale yellow. A black silk headdress tied below her chin hid her dark hair and pale neck.
Leandra was unaccustomed to the gaze of strangers; in daylight, she wore a veil that concealed all but her eyes. Her disease required that she avoid sunlight.
A lover had once remarked that, in certain circumstances, her wide brown eyes seemed misleadingly innocent and vulnerable. Given the smuggler's scrutiny, Leandra hoped that these “certain circumstances” included those in which she was plotting murder.
The smuggler raised his cup to drink, but then his face tensed. He paused and looked past Leandra. Maybe ten feet away stood four-armed DhrunâLeandra's divine protector, brawler, erstwhile confidant.
“Oh, don't mind my bodyguard,” she said while turning to regard Dhrun, who presently was manifesting his youngest incarnation. “He couldn't harm a soul unless he's got something sharp to jam throughÂ â¦ ohÂ â¦ wellÂ â¦ he does seem to have two rather long swords, doesn't he?”
The smuggler stared at her flatly.
What Leandra had said wasn't strictly true; Dhrun was deadliest barehanded, but she had liked the way the quip sounded. So she broadened her smile and asked the smuggler, “Not one for levity?”
“Not at the moment.”
“Pity. But truly, don't mind my bodyguard. Your men hiding in the grove could reach us before he could.” She looked at the silhouettes scattered among the palms. An untrained eye would mistake them for stumps or rocks, but Leandra could see at least six figures. The closest crouched not six feet away and carried all the implements necessary to poke distressingly large holes in a body. She gave the camouflaged assassin a slight nod.
Leandra made sure that she had no bad habits, only full-blown addictionsâflirting with danger being one of her favorites.
The smuggler was still studying Dhrun. “He isn't human, is he?”
“What was your first clue, his third or fourth arm?”
The smuggler scowled. “It's hard to know what to expect in the league, especially on Ixos. Your islands are a menagerie of demigods or divinity complexes or whatever you call them. So, thisÂ â¦ bodyguardÂ â¦ is a god?”
“No, he is the complex of three souls: a god of wrestling named Dhrun; his avatar, a young human wrestler who took the name of Dhrunarman after winning last year's championship; and an ancient Cloud Culture goddess of victory named Nika. So a man, a god, and a goddess, not unusual for a divinity complex, some parts of him are divine, some parts are human; he just has to decide which parts.”
“What are his choices?”
“Male, female, some of the ports of call lying between the two, if you catch my drift.”
“I do not catch it.”
“No, I suppose you wouldn't.”
The smuggler looked at her catamaran. Its twin hulls and the decks that stretched between them shone in the moonlight.
Leandra's patience thinned. “As agreed, my crew remained aboard. You needn't worry about an attack.”
“Something is wrong.”
“What do you mean?”
He looked out at the Bay of Standing Islands. “No ship followed you here?”
“My captain and crew are Sea People; they know how to navigate the standing islands unseen.”
“But you've heard the rumors?”
“Rumors of what? That the Disjunction has come at last? That after thirty damn years of waiting around, Los and the demons of the Ancient Continent finally found their backsides with both hands and crossed the ocean?”
Thirty-four years ago, Nicodemus Weal and his wife, Francesca DeVega, had defeated the demon Typhon; however, a dragon known as the Savanna Walker had escaped to the Ancient Continent, which should have allowed the demons to cross the ocean to destroy all human language in the War of Disjunction. But the demons had not come. No one knew why. Now after three decades of anticipation, some doubted that the demons would ever come.
The smuggler snorted. “No, no, nothing about the Disjunction. These are rumors of another human war. Reports of crop failures have come from Verdant. Seems the Silent Blight is worsening in the empire, and perhaps Empress Vivian is eying Ixos's rice and taro fields. The shipyards of Abuja are frantic with construction. A new fleet of hierophantic airships flies above Trillinion.”
Leandra kept her face impassive.
He continued. “The league is reinforcing Lorn's northern border and sending ships to Ixos. Seems the peace between the empire and the league might spring another of its little leaks. The next year could see the Blockade of Ogun all over again. Or perhaps a second round of the Goldensward War. But you might know more about that?”
Leandra only stared.
The smuggler's full lips peeled back into a smile. White teeth, moonlight. “You're not one to hand out information. Good, good. Then consider how another human war might make our tradeÂ â¦ particularly lucrative.”