“This is where the second sun died,” Teneka said. She gestured with one hand toward the wide expanse of glittering lagoon.
“Right here in the necropolis?” Irion asked. He grinned. “No,” Teneka said. “Of course not.” She was weary of the two foreigners, and especially weary of Irion, whose mocking grin seemed to have been painted on his face.
Yenef, Teneka’s employer, had asked her to spend the morning showing the two visiting northerners sights of interest around the city. He often asked her to do this for foreign merchants who came to the city to transact business with him, Teneka’s magical gift for languages making her an obvious choice. But north and south were on the verge of war. Alaharef, like the rest of the Nine Cities, was caught in the middle but likely to side with the south. So why was Yenef treating these two as honored guests?
“Please forgive my companion,” Daronen said. “Irion intends no disrespect.”
Daronen was Ayaf, not human. He was courteous enough, but Teneka knew that his kind could not be trusted. Long ago, when Ayaf had been permitted to build their own cities throughout these lands, sorcerers among them would steal human children and make talismans out of their blood and bones.
“Daronen is right,” Irion said. “I didn’t mean to be rude. I just didn’t understand what you meant. I’ve never heard of there being a second sun.” He tilted back his head to give the one sun high overhead an ironic nod, holding his wide-brimmed straw hat in place with both hands. With skin as pink as a sow’s rump, he needed something to shield himself from the sun’s fierce gaze.
“Will you tell us the story of how this second sun died?” Daronen asked. His face and hands were also unnaturally pale, but the sun did not seem to burn them. His skin made Teneka think of glistening white maggots squirming over unembalmed corpses.
“Once there were two suns,” she said. She was aware of the eyes of the servants and guards, watching her speak a language none of them understood, with two despised foreigners. The looks they gave her angered Teneka as much as the northerners did. It had not been her idea to spend the morning shepherding them around. “Sulanetsaf ruled the day and his brother ruled the night, and there was no darkness. This displeased Meyesyetra, goddess of the moon’s dark face. Her sister is the goddess of the bright moon, but since the night sun shone every night, no one could appreciate how beautiful her sister was. So Meyesyetra chased the second sun through the heavens, and shot two arrows into his heart. He fell into the bay, burning as he fell, between the islands here and the headlands there.”
Teneka pointed to the western headlands that jutted out from the coastline to their right, lest Irion claim once again that he did not understand where the night sun had fallen.
“Sulanetsaf the day sun wept,” Teneka continued. “He still weeps, every night and morning, tears of crimson and gold and sea green for his lost brother.”
The two northerners exchanged glances. “And that is why the sky changes color at dawn and dusk?” Daronen asked.
“Yes.” Their scrutiny was making her uncomfortable. She turned away, gazing at the barrier islands in the distance. Out here on the minor islands, sounds of the city were a distant vibration in the air, barely discernible beneath the splash of waves against the sea wall, the clink of bells and the flapping of remembrance flags hung from the outer walls of the crypts behind them.
“That is also why Alaharef is called the City of the Dying Sun, is it not?” Daronen said.
Teneka narrowed her eyes. Had Daronen already known the story, and only asked to hear it for Irion’s benefit? Ayaf were long-lived. To look at Daronen, one would guess that he was between twenty-five and thirty, a few years older than her, but Yenef’s grandfather had dealt with Daronen long before Yenef was born, and Yenef was not a young man.
“Wait a minute!” Irion exclaimed. “I thought it was called the City of the Dying Sun because the god of the dead is the chief god here. Zamalof or something like that.” He gestured at the massive edifice of black marble in the center of the necropolis. “That’s one of his temples, right? Among the crypts. That’s why I thought you were going to say that the dark sun died here on this island.”
“Zemelotsef,” Teneka said. When Irion only gave her a blank look, she said again, her voice rising, “Zemelotsef. The god of the dead is Zemelotsef.”
Irion made a dismissive gesture. “All these gods. Who can remember them all?” Again, the glint of amusement in his strange ocean-blue eyes that said he didn’t take anything too seriously.
Teneka ignored his comment. Northerners were infidels. They neither knew nor feared the gods, and magicians among them served their own interests rather than devoting their special gifts to the gods who had granted them.
She ignored Daronen, too, when he said, “Remember your manners, Irion.” Daronen did not seem amused, but Teneka could not read any of the expressions on his alien face, with its unnaturally high cheekbones, tilted eyes and thin, pale lips.
She ignored both of them, and said, “And there’s no such thing as a chief god. Gods don’t rule over one another, they’re not like humans.”
“I’m sorry –” Irion began.
“Look over there,” Daronen interrupted, pointing.
A crowd of men was making its ponderous way toward them, most robed in black with the occasional flash of gold, the colors of Zemelotsef. Except for two of them on the leading edge of the procession. One wore the bright colors of a general from the distant south, his shaven head gleaming black in the intense sunlight. The other was garbed all in white, his long dark hair and beard tangled and unkempt.
“One of the southern priests,” Irion said. Teneka felt a sudden tingling as he cast a thread of magic toward the southerners, testing. She saw a breeze that did not come from the ocean ruffle the southern priest’s hair.
The black-robed priests of Zemelotsef stopped and looked toward Teneka and the northerners. But neither of the southerners reacted to Irion’s questing touch.
“I assume you had a reason to identify yourself as a wizard,” Daronen said.
“I wanted to know if the southerners are magicians.”
“And you’ve learned nothing,” Daronen said. It was not possible to identify those with magical gifts unless they used them.
“The southerners didn’t react,” Irion said.
One of Zemelotsef’s priests spoke to the southerners, and the entire group resumed their deliberate pace toward Teneka and her companions.
“The local priests reacted,” Daronen pointed out.
“We already know that all the local priests are magicians,” Irion said. “And priestesses,” he added, with a nod to Teneka. She did not return the nod.
“And now the local priests know that the simple northern merchant accompanying the mysterious Ayaf is also a magician,” Daronen said. “‘Hmm,’ they will say to themselves. ‘Perhaps he is more than a merchant. Perhaps the northern High King knows something of his journey here.'”
Teneka could not resist a furtive glance at Irion, whose expression was now somewhat stricken. She had already suspected the two northerners of being spies, but was surprised to hear Daronen admit it.
“Good day to you, sister.” The tall priest of Zemelotsef who addressed Teneka spoke politely, but Teneka thought she heard an underlying note of disapproval. And perhaps of condescension. He was one of the most influential priests in his order, Alaharef-born and of noble family, and always made her more conscious than ever of her rustic background.
“Good day, brother,” Teneka said. “It is a pleasure to see you.” Her language-gift made the correct words roll off her tongue without accent, but she felt awkward.
The priest’s eyes flickered to the two northerners behind her. “I see you have brought visitors to the holy ground of our god.” They spoke the language of the Nine Cities, which Teneka did not think the northerners understood.
“Yes,” Teneka said. “I thought they would like to see the outer islands.”
The southern priest, the one clothed in white, spoke up. “Who is she?” He spoke the Nine Cities tongue, but roughly.
Teneka would have liked to know the same about him. She did not know of any official embassy from the south to Alaharef’s king, but there seemed to be a steady flow of informal delegations of late.
“This is a priestess of one of the other orders,” the priest of Zemelotsef said. Teneka’s long, unbound hair, uncovered by scarf or veil, marked her as a priestess; the unrelieved black of her robes indicated that she served Meyesyetra, goddess of the dark moon. “She is also employed by one of our chief merchants, translating for his foreign guests.” There, the disapproval was unmistakable. Priests of Zemelotsef had resisted the recent trend to seek employment with private citizens. “She has the language-gift.”
The southern priest reacted with surprise, as well he might. The ability to speak and understand any language upon first hearing it was rare.
“And these?” he asked, gesturing at the northerners behind her. “These are her friends?”
To Teneka’s surprise, Daronen spoke. “My companion and I are merchants. We have business with the blessed priestess’ employer, the honorable Yenef.” He spoke the Nine Cities tongue with no trace of an accent, even using the correct honorifics.
The southern priest was as surprised as Teneka to learn that Daronen understood the Nine Cities tongue. “You have business, you say? Buying and selling business? Good things from Nine Cities?” Daronen offered a cautious nod. “Ha! Why don’t you send your pet Sevrina to take them from merchant’s ships at sea?”
“The Sevrina are not under my control,” Daronen said. Like Ayaf, Sevrina were another non-human race living freely among humans in the north. They inhabited islands and coastlines, and their women spelled sailors out of alertness by singing to them from the rocks, while their men swam alongside the vessel with axes and breached the hull. Countless Nine Cities ships had been lost, and countless southern ships as well.
“Ha!” the southerner exclaimed. “That is what your High King in the north says. Sevrina are not under his control. Sevrina seem to be under control of no one.” His dark eyes gleamed. “Perhaps we will put Sevrina under our control.”
“That would be inadvisable,” Daronen said. “The armies of the north are not yet toothless.”
“We have teeth in the south,” the southern priest said, showing his. “Big teeth. Sharp like swords.”
Irion was at Teneka’s shoulder. “What are they saying?” he asked, in the northerners’ tongue. “I don’t understand.” Teneka ignored him.
“Yes,” Daronen replied to the southerner. “Teeth belonging to other kingdoms, kingdoms you have enslaved through lies and false promises.” His pale eyes swept over the cluster of black-robed priests, dismissing them all with scorn. “Lies, false promises, and the collusion of short-sighted men.”
Teneka caught her breath, staggered by the Ayaf’s impertinence. Was he trying to provoke the priests of Zemelotsef? He knew that all Nine Cities priests were magicians, and there was no way he and Irion alone could defend themselves against such a large group, even if they were correct in assuming that the southern priest did not share their gifts. Surely they did not expect Teneka to side with them!
But the tall priest of Zemelotsef ended the confrontation before it could escalate. “I would advise you and your countryman not to prolong your visit here, Ayaf. You northerners may find our climate uncomfortable.” He nodded to Teneka. “A pleasant day to you, little sister.”
The priest of Zemelotsef led the others away, and most followed without a backward glance. But the southern priest kept pausing to look over his shoulder at Teneka’s charges, and Teneka could not be certain that the malice in his eyes was for them alone.
“Why did you ask me to show them around the city?” Teneka asked. Irion and Daronen had been sent back to the Northerners’ Quarter in the larger boat with the bodyguards Yenef had assigned them, their business with Yenef concluded for the day.
“You didn’t enjoy their company?” Yenef asked. His eyes narrowed in amusement. He slipped an orange segment into his mouth. Yenef and his secretary Jeshi reclined among the pillows on the carpeted floor, while Teneka, cross-legged, leaned against one of the central pillars. Four barefoot servant boys in loincloths used enormous fans to try to wrestle the hot, humid air from the windows at one end of the room to the open balcony at the other. The air was winning. “Men of the Ayaf are said to possess such beauty that no human woman can look upon one and not be driven mad with desire.”
Jeshi snorted, but Teneka noticed where his eyes rested, and she tugged on the hem of her black robe so that it covered more of her ankles.
“I didn’t find it so,” Teneka said. In fact, she found the strangeness of Daronen’s appearance off-putting. “Did you know that they’re spies, on some mission here for the northern High King? They as much as admitted it to me.”
Yenef frowned. “That is unfortunate.”
“Why would they tell you?” Jeshi demanded. Jeshi hated northerners even more than most Alaharef folk did.
“How should I know?” Teneka retorted. She had grown fond of Jeshi in the six years she had worked for Yenef, but sometimes it was difficult not to be sharp with him. She tried to remind herself that, no matter how much Yenef relied on him, Jeshi was servant-born, and felt defensive about how his status was so much lower than hers. She wondered if that lay at the heart of his distaste for northerners; he could join others in feeling superior to them.
“Perhaps Daronen and Irion felt some kinship with you, because of your magical gifts,” Yenef suggested, “and believed they could trust you with their secret.” He shrugged. “It isn’t so surprising. How many wizard merchants do you imagine are not in the pay of their king?”
“You don’t seem very concerned,” Jeshi said.
Yenef turned a cold eye on his secretary. “Why should I be concerned? What state secrets do you believe they are going to unearth? I intend no disrespect to our lovely associate,” and here he nodded to Teneka, “but she is hardly privy to the counsels of the king and princes. Or do you imagine that I plan to tell them what we speak about behind closed doors?” Yenef was privy to the counsels of the princes. As one of Alaharef’s leading citizens, and a member of the Succession Council, he would help to choose the next king.
“No.” Jeshi’s voice was sullen. Teneka suspected that there was more behind his resentful tone than either man would speak of in front of her. Two months ago, one of Alaharef’s resident northerners had been found in an alley with his hands and feet lopped off and one hand forced down his throat to choke him. Yenef never mentioned the incident in Teneka’s presence, but she knew that he had Jeshi whipped after learning of it, whether on suspicion or certain knowledge of his involvement, Teneka could not say.
In truth, the southerners made her almost as uneasy as the northerners did. Gods of the south had an insatiable hunger for bloody human sacrifice, a hunger that seemed to be fueling the expansion of the great southern empire.
“What about your ships?” Jeshi asked Yenef. “They should have returned from the Sunset Isles by now.” Jeshi was the one who kept track of when the trading ships were expected, and how the winds turned season to season. “I expected them no later than a fortnight ago, even if delayed by rough seas.” He cast a brooding look at Teneka. “Maybe it’s not seas we should blame, but Sevrina.”
“I doubt that,” Yenef said. “Sevrina have not taken a ship in three years, and when they took one three years ago, those responsible were punished.”
“The northerners said they were punished.”
The corners of Yenef’s mouth curled up. “I recall that our king was sent severed heads on pikes.”
“How do we know they were the heads of the ones responsible? They could have been the heads of Sevrina who had offended the northern High King for some other reason. They could have been the heads of Sevrina who died in their beds.” Jeshi tossed his tea down his throat in a single draught. “They should have sent living prisoners, so we could have had the truth from them before they died.”
Teneka did not say anything, because whenever she voiced agreement with Jeshi on any subject, he interpreted it as a hint that she was that much closer to inviting him into her bed. But she could not help agreeing with him silently. Despite her misgivings about southerners, northerners were far worse. And not only because of the Sevrina. Northern bandits made frequent incursions into the plains-country, harassing the tribes who made their homes there, desecrating shrines and stealing children. The northern council of Arch-Mages, the not-so-secret power behind the throne of their High King, interfered constantly in the affairs of the Nine Cities, assassinating priests and princes as they wished.
“And if we learned that the ship was taken with the support and foreknowledge of the Sevrina king, or even the human High King, what then?” Yenef asked. Teneka was surprised. Yenef did not often speak so plainly. “In over a thousand years, no kingdom or principality has won a war against the northerners.”
“Not on their own, no,” Jeshi said. “That’s where the southerners come in.”
Yenef stared away into the distance between Teneka and Jeshi, as if looking at something neither of them could see.
“Yes,” he acknowledged. “That is where the southerners come in, isn’t it?” After a moment, in a quieter voice, he added, “But where do they go out?”
Teneka continued to translate when the northerners met with Yenef to discuss the exchange of goods. Daronen owned three ships that had sailed to Alaharef laden with northern goods: amber and topazes, finely worked weapons and jewelry, delicate blown glass vessels and ornaments, brilliant woolen carpets and casks of mysterious distilled spirits. Resentment of northerners did not make Nine Cities princes and merchants any less eager for northern luxuries. In return, Daronen planned to take back bales of tea and silk from the middle countries, spices and jewels from the south, tobacco and cacao from the distant Sunset Isles, all of which Yenef had gathered into his warehouses through his fleet of ships.
Jeshi avoided these meetings — probably so he and his gang of upper servants and impoverished young noblemen could prowl the streets leading to and from the Northerners’ Quarter, looking for unescorted foreigners to harass. Teneka was relieved by his absence, because he surely would have had something to say about Irion’s behavior. Whenever Teneka was not actively translating between Yenef and Daronen, Irion talked to her. When they paused for a mid-morning snack, he sat next to her. If he saw anything of particular interest, he pointed it out to her first.
His attention did make Teneka uncomfortable. He was a good-looking man, once one got over the shock of his pale, pale skin and blue eyes. But Teneka could take no man as her lover, so long as she served the virgin goddess of the dark moon. And Irion annoyed more often than he entertained. He was forever comparing Alaharef customs to those of his northern homeland, always unfavorably, and he chattered like a girl of twelve. Teneka had to keep reminding herself that she was the only person around, besides Daronen, with whom he could communicate, and sometimes that helped her to be less irritated with him.
Jeshi would still have been furious. In the afternoons, after the two foreigners had returned to the Northerners’ Quarter, he would taunt her about her “friends”.
“I hear that the Ayaf speaks our language like he was born here,” Jeshi said. “Why do they need you?”
Teneka wondered that herself. But Yenef kept asking her to help, so she kept pretending it was required. Yenef paid gold into the coffers of Teneka’s goddess for her to translate, not to ask questions.
On the last day of negotiations, they finished before mid-morning, earlier than expected. As they drank celebratory cups of rice wine together, Teneka felt something brush against her wrist. She shook her arm, and a slip of paper fell from the wide sleeve of her robe into her hand.
Daronen, who was sitting on that side of her, did not return her curious gaze. When the northerners left, she excused herself from Yenef’s presence and ducked into a quiet corner to read the note.
We have not yet seen the Necropolis of Ships, one of Alaharef’s Nine Famous Views. Would you be willing to show it to us this afternoon?
She hastily crumpled the note as she glanced up, half afraid that Jeshi would come around the corner.
Her first impulse was to ignore the message. But something made her change her mind. After the midday meal she hired a boatman to pole her to the landing closest to the Necropolis of Ships. Daronen and Irion were waiting.
“Daronen told me you would come,” Irion said, as the boat slipped away around a bend in the canal. “But I didn’t believe him.” Despite the heat, both men wore hooded cloaks to hide their pale faces from casual observers, but the unusual garb only made them stand out more. Daronen especially, who stood over seven feet tall, had attracted lingering stares from the boatman.
Once again, Teneka was reminded of why she found Irion so irritating. But she could not summon up the contempt she had felt upon their first meeting.
“You should take off those cloaks,” she said. “They make you look like northern wizards.”
The Necropolis of Ships was enclosed by a high white wall of plastered stone, but the entrance was open and unguarded. The necropolis had no treasure to attract looters, only the rotting hulls of wrecked vessels.
“It seems pretty unpopular for one of the Nine Famous Views,” Irion commented, as they walked between two rows of ships. Each was held off the ground by a wooden frame, and there was no particular order to the way they had been arranged. Tiny vessels for fishing in sheltered bays close to shore stood next to massive oceangoing hulks. Some looked almost new, while others had decayed into piles of moldering timber.
“It’s not so famous,” Teneka said. “I don’t know why people always say that about it.” She had made the mistake of visiting the ship graveyard soon after coming to Alaharef from her home village, and been disappointed.
“Because it showcases two of Alaharef’s greatest obsessions,” Daronen said. “Death, and the sea. The sea brings death here as often as life. Shipwreck, and storm surge, and diseases spread by foul water lying stagnant in the canals. Even in the story of the dying sun, in the version told here in Alaharef, the sun falls into the sea as he dies, because a death that occurs without some connection to the sea is unimaginable.”
Uncomfortable with such talk, Teneka pointed out a ship they were passing on the right. “That ship was taken by Sevrina twelve years ago,” she said. “The crew and all the cargo were lost, and the hull washed up on the rocks about sixty miles west of here.” An enormous wooden frame held the hulk upright, the bottom of the keel inches above the ground. Most of the paint had worn off, and moss had begun to colonize the sheltered side.
Daronen walked around the end of the bow, inspecting the hull. “Irion, come over here and take a look.”
“What?” Irion asked. “Did you find evidence that the ship wasn’t wrecked by Sevrina after all?”
Before Teneka could protest, Daronen said, “It was Sevrina. Look.” On his side of the ship, two long planks had been sheared off almost all the way back amidship, ending in jagged splinters. Near the bow, however, the cut was smooth. “Sevrina always cut into the ship just behind the bow, at or below the waterline. They use the forward momentum of the vessel to tear the hull open.” He pointed a bit farther down toward the stern. “You can see smaller axe cuts and holes for about a third the length of the hull, and if you look at the angle that the axe takes into the plank, all the strikes are from a forward position.”
“Why do you know so much about how Sevrina take ships?” Teneka asked.
“We Ayaf have our own difficulties with Sevrina,” Daronen said.
Teneka was surprised. Didn’t all eight races get along with one another in the north?
As if he could tell what she was thinking, Irion said, “It isn’t always easy. Between our people.”
“No,” Daronen said. “It isn’t.” Then, abruptly: “Did you know that the southerners are bribing the priests of Zemelotsef? To claim that Zemelotsef favors war with the north. And to endorse the candidate preferred by the southerners, when the Succession Council meets.”
“The southern emperor has his eyes on the Nine Cities,” Irion said. “Ostensibly as free and independent allies. But we know how that goes. They said the same to all those other kingdoms they eventually took over.”
Was this why the northerners had wanted to meet her here, where no one was likely to overhear them? “Why are you telling me this?”
“Don’t you care that a foreign power is trying to influence the Succession Council’s choice of the next king?” Irion asked. “That they’re trying to manipulate your people into joining them when they go to war against us?”
“Why should I believe you?” Teneka demanded. “And anyway, the southerners are not the only foreigners to manipulate my people. What about your Council of Arch-Mages?” Officially, the northerners were ruled by eight kings, one from each race, with a human High King over all the others. But in truth, they were ruled by wizards. “What about Lahar?”
Irion looked guilty. “Lahar had an Arch-Mage king,” he said. “Arch-Mages can’t be allowed to rule.”
Never mind that the northern High King jumped when his Council of Arch-Mages whistled. “So instead of speaking openly against Lahar’s Arch-Mage king, your own Arch-Mages used magic to assassinate leaders in all the neighboring cities, made the evidence point to him, and then sat back while we destroyed Lahar. Was that fair?” It had all happened before Teneka was born, but leading men in Alaharef still spoke bitterly of it, now that they knew the truth.
“My race was led by Arch-Mages once,” Daronen said. “More years ago than you can imagine. With no council to censure them, no laws to guide their conduct … those are times best forgotten. And best never repeated.”
“Yes,” Teneka said. “Best never repeated. Just what we say about when the Ayaf and their allies ruled over us. Just what the southerners say.”
Irion cleared his throat. “Lahar was a mistake. It’s bad policy to ward off threats of future sorcerous deceit by practicing it.”
“You believe that because you are young,” Daronen said, “and a fool.”
“Why are the two of you here?” Teneka asked. “In Alaharef. I might believe that Daronen is really a merchant, but not Irion. You’re not fooling Yenef, either.”
The two men remained silent.
“You’re spies, aren’t you? What are you trying to find out?” A part of her realized that this was madness. If they wanted to silence her, who could come to her aid?
“Nothing that could harm Alaharef, or any of the Nine Cities,” Daronen said at last. “Your accusation is not unfounded. I am a merchant. But when I travel, I do report what I see and hear.”
“And what will you report?” Teneka demanded. “That your king should send an army to invade us before we join with the southerners?”
“No,” Daronen said. He looked surprised.
“The north has no interest in invading anyone,” Irion said. “And all Daronen and I are interested in right now is getting out of this city as soon as we can, and advising the northerners living here to do the same. Before it’s too late.”
“If the weather holds,” Daronen said, “the two of us leave with the tide two days hence.”
She would probably never see them again. To her surprise, Teneka felt a pang of regret.
They walked all the way to Yenef’s trading compound on the other side of the city without finding a boat that would carry them. It took three times as long as traveling on the canals would have. “You’d be able to find a boat if you weren’t with us,” Irion said. He had given up on the cloak, and carried it bundled underneath one arm, his pale skin exposed for all to see. They walked through a sea of hostile stares, but Irion’s broad smile never wavered. Teneka felt a grudging admiration for him. It took courage to hold his head high in a crowd of people who hated him on sight, just because of how he looked. She wasn’t sure she could have done the same.
She didn’t know if she believed their assertion about the priests of Zemelotsef. To claim that a god had spoken when he had not … how could anyone who believed in the god’s power dare such a thing?
A crowd of Yenef’s servants and guards, and several bystanders, milled outside the gates to Yenef’s compound. Everyone was jabbering in raised voices. One of the older guards noticed Teneka.
“Blessed one!” he exclaimed. “They’re down on the docks. The master, and Jeshi, and all the clerks and scribes.”
“Why?” Teneka asked. “Have the ships come in?” There would be coins all around when that happened, and the servants would stay up all night in the courtyard roasting fowl and drinking cheap rice wine. It was great fun, and for a moment she hoped that Daronen and Irion would come to share in the excitement.
“Aye,” the guard said, his mouth contorting into a scowl. He spat. “They’ve come in all right. A bit lighter than we expected. Thanks to the northerners’ Sevrina.” He looked Daronen and Irion up and down, as if considering whether he might get away with cutting their throats.
Teneka turned to the northerners.
“I know,” Daronen said, in the northern tongue. “We’ll be on our way.”
“Home?” Irion asked. He looked confused. But of course, he hadn’t understood anything between Teneka and the guard.
“Back to the Northerners’ Quarter,” Daronen said. “At least for now.”
Teneka nodded. “I have to go down to the docks. Do you want an escort? Maybe it’s not safe for you to be out on your own…”
Daronen glanced at the guards, several of whom had been members of their escort only that morning.
“Thank you, but no. Not now.”
Irion grinned. Suddenly, he twisted his hands, and fire sprang out between them, yellow-hot like the sun. Teneka could have done the same, but still the men around the gates murmured and muttered. Irion gestured, and fire leaped to the ground where the guard had spit, flaring briefly as it consumed the spot of moisture.
“We’re not defenseless,” he said. No one moved to follow him and Daronen as they walked away.
The canals were crowded and the going slow. No one seemed to know what had happened. The ships had been found washed up on the rocks miles away. Or they had drifted into the harbor, mastless and battered. Or they had broken up entirely and only a few planks had been recovered. Two things were certain. That Yenef’s crew and goods were gone. And that Sevrina were responsible.
About half a mile from the docks, Teneka had the boatman pole the craft over to the edge of the canal so she could climb out and walk the rest of the way. But the streets and alleys were almost as congested as the canals, and she had to jostle and elbow her way along.
The mood was ugly. She wondered if Daronen and Irion were safe in the Northerners’ Quarter yet.
A week ago, she might not have cared whether they were safe. But they weren’t Sevrina. And it wasn’t right to hold them responsible for what Sevrina had done, just because they were countrymen.
No more than it had been right for the Arch-Mages of the north to plot against the king of Lahar.
She found Yenef at the dry docks, with several of his chief servants, a handful of prominent merchants, and two black-robed priests of Zemelotsef. Yenef’s face was grim.
“Where did they find it?” Teneka asked, gazing up at the vessel in its braces. The bow was scraped and gouged, draped with seaweed. It had not been long out of the sea. Water still dripped from the bottom of the hull to the ground, white salt crystals collecting where it fell.
“On the rocks,” Yenef said. “Between here and the western headlands. Two ships from the Sunset Isles fleet washed up there. The other three are still missing.” It was a serious loss if they were all gone, almost a third of Yenef’s trading ships.
One of Zemelotsef’s priests spoke up. “The Sevrina damaged the ship and let it founder on the rocks, after murdering the crew and plundering the cargo.” It was the same tall, muscular priest whom Teneka and the northerners had met on the island necropolis, the one who had been hosting the southerners.
“How do we know it was Sevrina?” Teneka asked. She could not help noticing how richly dressed the priest was, he and his companion, in robes of patterned black silk and cloth-of-gold sashes.
“Who else would it be?” Scorn edged the priest’s voice. Who was she, ignorant village girl, to question his conclusions? “This is how Sevrina always take our ships.”
Teneka started walking around to the side of the vessel, backing up so that she could see more of it at once. The worst damage seemed to be on the sternward end of the hull. The bow had some superficial damage from scraping against rocks, but nothing that went all the way through the planking. Closer to the stern, it looked as if several large angular holes had been hacked into the hull with axes.
Closer to the stern. Teneka moved in until she could have reached up and touched one of the gouges.
“What are you doing?” the priest demanded, back with Yenef. “It’s beyond your skill to patch it!” Laughter answered his insult, though not from Yenef.
“I don’t think the Sevrina had anything to do with this,” Teneka said.
“What?” More laughter from those gathered, although this time, the priest did not laugh either. “Come over here so we can hear you properly.”
Teneka returned to where the others were standing. She realized suddenly that Jeshi was missing. Strange; he was Yenef’s most trusted servant, and must have known that the ships were found.
“I said that the Sevrina had nothing to do with this,” Teneka repeated. “This isn’t how Sevrina take ships.”
“You’re a scholar in the ways of Sevrina, are you?” The priest glowered, and so did his fellow priest. Yenef looked uncomfortable. “I thought it was only northern humans and Ayaf you had fallen in with.”
“Anyone can see how Sevrina capture vessels by going to the Necropolis of Ships,” Teneka said. Her voice shook, but not as much as she had feared. She was a priestess of Meyesyetra, who alone among her brothers and sisters had dared to kill a fellow god. She told herself to stand firm. “Sevrina always attack from the front of the ship.” She pointed. “All the damage from axes on this ship is close to the stern. And it doesn’t look like it was inflicted on a moving vessel, under sail.” She lowered her arm. “It looks like it was inflicted on a ship that was half out of the water, sitting still.”
Consternation passed across the priest’s face, and was gone just as quickly. “Then if not Sevrina,” the priest said, “who do you suggest bears the responsibility?”
Stand firm, Teneka told herself, once again. “I’m sure you would know better than I.”
He stared at her for a moment. Then he laughed. “Come!” he said to his companion. “Little sister’s wild theories have worn me out. Next she will be looking for axes in the temples of Zemelotsef.”
One by one, the merchants also took their leave. Each had words of sympathy for Yenef’s loss. But Teneka could see the gleam of speculation in their eyes. Would Yenef still count as a force to be reckoned with in Alaharef, after the loss of a third of his fleet? Who would take his place in the counsels of the king and princes, where status depended on wealth as much as on birthright?
“Where’s Jeshi?” Teneka asked, once the last of the well-wishers had gone. “Shouldn’t he be here?”
The look Yenef gave her was a strange one. “Perhaps I know better now than to inquire too strongly after where Jeshi goes or what he does.” He turned away to speak to one of his scribes, who opened up the writing tray slung around his neck and began to prepare his paper and brush.
Teneka wondered at what he had said — Jeshi was Yenef’s servant, not the other way around. Where did Jeshi go that Yenef might not approve of?
Drinking with his friends. Stalking the streets of Alaharef when night came, causing trouble for northerners.
Teneka looked up. The sun was slipping into the ocean’s embrace, weeping bright tears that stained the sky red. Soon it would be dark.
Teneka remembered the way Yenef’s guardsmen had eyed Daronen and Irion. As if they would like nothing more than to take vengeance for the loss their master had suffered at the hands of the Sevrina, allies of these two northerners. It hadn’t been Sevrina, of course, but how many people would believe that, even if Teneka were to shout it in the marketplace?
The city posted guards at the gates to the Northerners’ Quarter. But would those guards feel any differently than Yenef’s?
Without another word, Teneka walked away into the twilight.
The gate to the Northerners’ Quarter yawned open, a toothless maw, abandoned by the guards. From within, the night breeze brought the reek of smoke.
Night had fallen in the time taken to walk here from the harbor. There was no moon. With her deeper senses, the ones that came from the gods, Teneka could see well enough to make her way, even though with her eyes she could make out only indistinct outlines of the wall and gates. Still. Magic sight was inferior to sunlight or moonlight, and Teneka was not accustomed to relying on it. She felt unsteady, as if she had drunk too much rice wine.
She crept through the gates. There were some people lying in the street a few feet away, and at first she relaxed, thinking they were sleeping beggars. Then she realized that they were dead.
She almost turned and fled. Back to Yenef’s compound, to cool drinks and commiseration over the loss of the ships. Or to the temple she slept in and helped to maintain with the gold Yenef paid her. This was the Northerners’ Quarter, enemy territory. She didn’t care about northerners, and she didn’t want them in her city.
But it wasn’t about northerners. It was about Irion and Daronen. Guests with whom she had shared rice and salt. And it was about unfairness. Yenef’s ships hadn’t fallen prey to Sevrina. The thought that northerners were being blamed for it, no matter what else they might really be guilty of, infuriated her.
Carefully, Teneka moved forward. She had never been in the Northerners’ Quarter, but it didn’t look any different from other districts in Alaharef. The same crowded buildings of white plastered brick lined the streets and canals, with flat roofs and dark rectangles for windows. The buildings on either side of her were silent, the windows black and empty. One door stood ajar; another had been torn from its hinges and left in the street. The air smelled of death.
She had a general idea where Irion and Daronen’s inn was located, from having listened to Yenef give directions to the northerners’ escort. Down the dark street, left at the dead end, then a quick turn to the right–and suddenly she was blinded by the orange light of two dozen torches. She stood on the edge of a small plaza filled with men. Many carried cudgels or rocks. A few brandished knives, naked iron glinting in the torchlight. She didn’t know what was going on at the far end of the square, against the wall of the building, where the crowd seemed thickest. She didn’t want to know.
As she stood frozen in place, trying to figure out how to detour around the plaza, something caught her attention. She couldn’t keep from raising her head and looking around, even though she knew it was nothing she would be able to see with her eyes. Someone was using magic, someone not far away, perhaps three or four streets.
She closed her eyes to shut out distractions, trying to focus, to use the magic as a beacon. One person … no, two….
Her heart started to beat faster. Two people were using magic. One was Irion. She remembered the feel of his magic from when he had tried to test the southerners.
She moved away from the square. More torches, more crowds. She flew past them. There were bodies everywhere, and smoke billowed from many of the buildings. No one tried to stop her. A few people called out to her, but when they recognized her black priestess’ robes, they left her alone.
She finally stumbled to a halt in front of the building that the magic was coming from. There was no one else around. No one alive. A Nine Cities man (the innkeeper?) had been hung upside down by ropes tied to a spike driven into the wall beside the door. He had been stripped naked, his belly slit open and his entrails pulled down to hang over his face. Teneka choked back the urge to vomit.
Inside was worse. The bodies of two Ayaf and one human lay sprawled on the floor of the common room. Several creatures of other races had been flayed and butchered on a huge trestle table, like beasts. The smell of blood and entrails was overwhelming.
A loud thump echoed from overhead, upstairs. A groan. The magic she had followed continued.
Teneka crept into the rear hallway. It was deserted, except for more bodies.
She tripped over one on her way to the stairs, and fell. She landed with one hand and one knee on the corpse’s back. When she snatched the hand back, it came up sticky with blood.
She pushed herself up. Disgusted, she tried to wipe off the congealing blood on the side of the corpse’s robe.
Her hand touched something hard. The hilt of a knife.
Teneka thought for a second, then freed the knife from its sheath and continued down the hallway.
At the base of the stairs, she looked up. It was dark, but every few seconds light would flare, casting the figure at the top in silhouette.
She could feel magic erupting in bursts and starts. One of those using it was the figure on the landing at the head of the stairs. The other was Irion.
Teneka went up the stairs on the balls of her feet. She clutched the knife in one hand.
Her foot hit the landing.
The figure’s head jerked up. She must have crossed a ward.
Teneka rushed forward and slammed the point of the knife between his shoulders before he could finish turning.
The blade bounced off. Teneka lost her grip on the handle. It flew out of her hand. The man grunted.
A flash of orange light lit up the landing and the room beyond. The man slumped backwards and fell heavily against Teneka. The sudden reek of burned flesh filled her nostrils.
A second firebolt struck the man, low in the belly. Then a third blasted his face.
“Stop it!” Teneka screamed. Flames had leaped onto her clothes. She batted at them, panicked, and staggered back into another door.
The man’s dead weight finally fell free of her, just as the stray flames on her robe went out.
“Are you all right?” Irion’s voice, anxious, coming from a second dark shape now outlined in the doorway of the room.
Relief washed over her. “Yes. You?”
He made light radiate from his head and shoulders, like a crown of fire, like the sun. “Daronen is hurt. Come.”
The floor of the small room was covered with bodies. Daronen was on the bed. He wasn’t moving, but when Teneka got closer she saw the slow rise and fall of his chest. The left side of his face was black and blistered, his left hand looked like it had been crushed, and his robe was stiff with blood.
“All five of them came at us at once,” Irion said. “We didn’t even hear them coming up the stairs. Daronen dealt with the first three before I knew what was going on, but one of them hit him with something before falling, and then the other two concentrated on him before turning to deal with me.” He was on the bed, one hand on the other side of Daronen’s head. He lowered his own head, murmuring something in the Ayaf’s undamaged ear.
“You were fighting them alone for a long time,” Teneka said.
“I only had one left by the time Daronen was out of the fight, and he was the weakest of the five. If you hadn’t distracted him when you did, he would have worn me down.” Teneka felt Irion direct a flare of power toward Daronen’s head, and another at his side. The Ayaf twitched, and cried out.
Another flare. Teneka had no idea what he was doing. She didn’t know how to use her own power that way. Meyesyetra was not a goddess of healing.
Daronen’s eyes opened. He clutched Irion’s sleeve. “My face,” he croaked.
Irion started laughing hysterically. “It will heal. It will be all right. You’re going to be all right.” He was crying. Teneka felt embarrassed for intruding. “Can you walk?”
He could, with Irion’s help. Teneka led the way, but when they reached the landing outside the door to the room, she stopped, seeing for the first time the face of the man she had stabbed. His skin was blistered and raw, half of his ragged beard singed away, and the once-white robes were blackened with char and wet with blood. But she recognized him. It was the southern priest, the one they had met on the island necropolis with the priests of Zemelotsef. So he was a magician after all, despite not having reacted to Irion’s test.
“What is it?” Irion asked.
“Nothing,” Teneka said. Irion didn’t seem to have recognized the southerner. And they didn’t have time for her to explain what his presence signified.
Teneka herself wasn’t certain, but she had some theories. And she didn’t like any of them.
She started down the stairs.
Irion and Daronen slowed as they passed through the common room, taking in the carnage. They had probably eaten and drunk with some of those whose bodies had been gruesomely stretched out on the huge table. Teneka imagined seeing Yenef or Jeshi like that, or even one of Yenef’s guardsmen. The horror of that thought turned her stomach even more than the real slaughter that had taken place.
Daronen croaked something unintelligible through swollen lips.
“There’s nothing we could have done,” Irion said. But he didn’t sound as if he believed it.
The street outside was almost deserted. There were two hunched figures too far away to identify, but when they caught sight of Teneka and the two northerners emerging from the inn, they turned and ran down the nearest alley, stumbling in their haste.
Teneka hesitated, wondering how safe it would be to leave the Northerners’ Quarter by the main gates.
“This way,” Irion said, starting off in a different direction.
They stumbled over too many corpses to count. Most were northerners, but Nine Cities men and women also lay sprawled among the dead. The result of northern victims trying to defend themselves, or punishment meted out to Nine Cities folk who made their living serving the foreigners?
They were stopped briefly by two burning buildings that stood in the way Irion aimed to take. Breathing hard, he dampened the fire enough to make a safe path along the alley between them. Teneka almost chimed in with her own magic to help. But she stopped herself. Each person’s magic had a particular flavor. Not only was it possible to identify the magician who was using power while she used it, if Teneka used her gifts actively — beyond the heightened senses and language-gift that came without trying — anyone who knew what her magic felt like would know that she had been in the Northerners’ Quarter, and what she had done.
Rescuing northerners was one thing. Having every priest of Zemelotsef know that she had done so was another.
Daronen fought to stay back when Irion tried to haul him into the smoke-filled alley. At first, Teneka thought he was afraid of the fire. But then she made out what he was trying to say.
“…running, like cowards … can’t leave them….”
Irion shook him.
“What are we going to do?” he hissed. “You can barely walk. What if there are other sorcerers hidden among the crowds?”
“Teneka!” a new voice cried out, behind them.
They all turned. Teneka took a step toward the figure that had called her name.
“Go back, Jeshi,” she said. “Go home.”
Jeshi laughed. One hand held a flaming torch high above his head. The other clutched a long, bloody knife.
“I knew it!” he said. His tunic and sandals were also splashed with blood, and it was drying to a crust on his bare legs and arms, even on his face. “Which one have you been sleeping with? Or is it both?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Teneka said.
The torch’s smoky light seemed to cast a halo around Jeshi’s head. “It’s because I’m a servant, isn’t it? That’s why you don’t want me.” He lurched forward.
“Be careful, Jeshi,” Teneka said.
“I’m not afraid of their northern sorcery,” he said. But he stayed where he was, eyeing the two northerners. “The priests were supposed to finish them. I told where they were staying.”
“Then the deaths of all the innocents at our inn are on your head,” Irion said.
“Innocents?” Jeshi retorted. “None of you northerners are innocent. What about the innocent sailors your Sevrina have drowned or speared? Or the plainsmen? Or Lahar?”
“Which priests were supposed to finish them, Jeshi?” Teneka demanded. The threads were coming together, twining into a recognizable pattern. “Just southerners, or priests of Zemelotsef too?” Her voice shook. Jeshi had betrayed Irion and Daronen. He had told their enemies where to find them. But she had betrayed the northerners to Jeshi. She was the one who told Jeshi they were spies.
“Does it matter?” Jeshi asked. He laughed again. But it sounded like he wanted to cry. “It was both. They’re in it together.”
The southerners were bribing the priests of Zemelotsef.
Yenef had punished Jeshi for murdering a northerner.
Yenef’s ships were destroyed, and northerners blamed.
The wind picked up, bringing shouts and cries along with it.
“Enough!” Irion started down the alley, pulling a feebly resisting Daronen along.
“We’re going, Jeshi,” Teneka said. “Don’t follow us.”
Jeshi uttered a wordless cry of rage, and maybe of something else too, some emotion that Teneka had seen glimpses of in others but never quite known herself. He rushed forward, brandishing the knife.
Teneka didn’t know how to heal anyone. But she did know how to manipulate fire.
The smoldering flame of Jeshi’s torch exploded with a roar, rushing down to envelop his arm, his side, half his leg to the knee.
He screamed. The knife clattered across the cobblestones. It landed with a splash in the canal.
Jeshi flailed like a broken puppet. He batted at the flames with his free hand, shrieking. He backed away.
Teneka watched, frozen, as Jeshi took one step too many. She watched him teeter on the edge of the canal, and she watched him fall, like a blazing star. Like the sun, with the arrows of the dark goddess piercing his heart.
Perhaps he hit his head on the way down. The screaming stopped, and there were no sounds of struggling or splashing after the initial fall, only the hiss of flame meeting water.
The shouting in the distance was closer. Teneka fled down the alley after the northerners.
The alley led to a wooden gate on the right, still smoldering. Teneka arrived as Irion was kicking it open. He stopped to give her a look, maybe of sympathy, but the expression on her face must have stopped him from saying anything, and he turned away to pull Daronen into the deserted courtyard past the gate. She tumbled after them, trying to forget Jeshi’s cries, into the darkened hallway of a house that opened onto the courtyard, down a steep flight of stone steps. In passing, she recognized with a shock that Yenef’s lineage block was engraved into the walls.
“This house –” she tried to ask.
“Your employer’s,” Irion said. “Daronen made me learn the way here in case we ever needed a way out of the Quarter. He knew of it from Yenef’s grandfather.”
At the base of the stairs, they splashed through a chamber flooded by a span and a half of reeking water, then up a much shorter flight of stairs and down a dank stone-lined corridor that even Teneka had to stoop to pass through. A flight of marble steps, pitted and worn, rose to a narrow slit in a wall, and suddenly they were outside, standing on a narrow quay over one of the canals. Two small boats stood moored to the quay.
Wherever they were, it was not the Northerners’ Quarter. It was quiet, blessedly quiet, and the only smoke Teneka smelled was that of charcoal and dung fires burning on nearby hearths and in the carts of street vendors. A boat passed by along the canal, but its occupants did not spare Teneka and the northerners more than a disinterested glance.
Irion turned to Teneka.
“Good bye,” she said, anticipating him. “The gods be with you.”
“Come with us,” he said.
“What?” She must not have heard him correctly. “To the north?”
“Are you going to be able to go back to working for Yenef after you killed his secretary?”
“Don’t!” Teneka cried. She squeezed her eyes shut. Jeshi had tried to kill her, it was true, she had no illusions about that. But she had never killed anyone before, and for the first to have been Jeshi… She tried to tell herself that he might not be dead, perhaps the water had quenched the flames and someone had come along to pull him out of the canal before he drowned. But she couldn’t believe it.
When she opened her eyes, she was staring into Irion’s. It was too dark to see their color, but she could imagine it, a blue so deep you might drown there.
“Why did you save us?” he asked.
She hesitated, not knowing what to say. Why had she saved them? Why had she sided with them, and not with Jeshi, or the priests of Zemelotsef?
“Lahar,” she said. “It’s because of what you said about Lahar.” His face showed that he didn’t understand. And she wasn’t sure she understood either. She was trying to explain it to herself as well as to him. “The southerners and the priests of Zemelotsef are trying to do the same thing to you that your Arch-Mages did to Lahar. It’s wrong. No matter who does it.”
She wasn’t sure that was the entire truth. But she wasn’t sure she could have spoken the entire truth, even to herself.
Teneka stood on the quay, watching where the boat had gone, long after it rounded a bend in the canal and disappeared from view, into the dark, moonless night.
|Kristin Janz’s stories have appeared in several other publications, including Prairie Fire, On Spec, and Futurismic. She is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and lives in the Boston area with her husband, writer Donald S. Crankshaw. Visit her at kristinjanz.com for occasional blog posts about writing and (more often) how to procrastinate from it.|