Read Darkening Skies (The Hadrumal Crisis) Online

Authors: McKenna Juliet E.

Tags: #Fantasy

Darkening Skies (The Hadrumal Crisis) (39 page)

A subtle swirl of enchanted air brought the voices to them, louder and more clearly. Tanilo was bemused.

‘They have been sold to Khusro Rina’s wives. But if they serve satisfactorily, they will be given their freedom and returned the mainland with as much silver coin as they can hold in their cupped hands.’

Nolyen cleared his throat. ‘It is widely rumoured that Aldabreshin warlords’ wives purchase mainland slaves to stand at stud.’

‘Widely rumoured but with little evidence.’ Tanilo shook his head, adamant.

Jilseth studied the contingent of slaves. In her frank opinion, few women in Hadrumal, mage- or mundane born, would give any of them a come-hither glance. Would an Aldabreshin warlord’s wife, with all the riches of the Archipelago to buy the equivalent of a purebred stallion, opt for a wagoneer’s whip-spoiled cast-offs?

‘How many wives does Khusro Rina have?’

‘Four,’ Tanilo answered promptly. ‘Debis Khusro, Katel Khusro, Patri Khusro and Quilar Khusro. They were born—’

‘Never mind.’ Jilseth had no need to know these women’s origins. She tallied the heads of the slaves. Three score, near enough.

No, she refused to believe that any woman with the most prodigious appetite for bed sport would spread her legs for a triple handful of men risking every lover’s disease from the Scald to the Itch. She couldn’t believe it of one woman, let alone four together.

‘Someone is lying,’ she concluded.

‘Can you find out which slave trader they came from?’ Nolyen asked Tanilo.

The coachman nodded. ‘When I’ve taken Madam Esterlin to the Magistracy.’

Jilseth noted that some of those bystanders who had been gawping at the chained slaves by the fountain were beginning to take an interest in this stationary carriage and the three of them standing beside it.

‘We’ve lingered long enough.’

‘Indeed.’ With a brief nod to Tanilo, Nolyen began walking seawards.

To Jilseth’s relief, the slave contingent was driven off down a different road, an incongruous spring in their step for all the chains hampering their feet.

She and Nolyen emerged on the dockside close by the eastern breakwater. Fewer than half the moorings around the curving harbour were occupied.

‘There are different ships here today.’ Jilseth noted the coloured pennants at their mast heads marked with the broad black strokes of an unknown script.

‘The great galleys have all left.’ Nolyen observed low-voiced as they strolled along the thoroughfare towards the swathe of quayside now gleaming starkly white. ‘There are far more triremes.’

Each warship was tied up beside a smaller, swifter galley bearing the same domain’s pennant. No rope ladders dangled from any trireme’s stern and swordsmen stood guard at top and bottom of each galley’s wooden steps. They had all lowered their round helms’ sliding nasal bars and fastened the fine chainmail veils that protected face and neck. These warriors were ready for trouble.

More armed and armoured men stood watch in front of their warlords’ storehouses. There were no families on the balconies today. As men and women arriving, all with armed escorts, were admitted through the doors, Jilseth could hear bars and bolts withdrawn and then quickly replaced.

Helmets shadowed the sentries’ eyes, hiding any hint where they were looking. Regardless, Jilseth had no doubt that she and Nolyen were closely watched as they approached the scene of the slaughter.

‘You’d never know what had happened here.’ Nolyen was right insofar as there was no visible trace of blood. The unnatural cleanliness of this stretch of quayside suggested something awry however.

What might remain unseen? Jilseth allowed the merest trifle of her mage sense to brush across the tightly-fitted stones as she refined her earth affinity to the precise demands of necromancy.

Some blood lingered in the deepest cracks but the Aldabreshi hadn’t only used salt and scalding water to clean these stones. She could sense some alchemical substance, somehow akin to rock oil and to bitumen. Something harsh and acidic, degrading whatever hidden blood it touched. Jilseth wondered how that unfortunate slave had really died.

The scoured whiteness extended from the waterside more than half way across the thoroughfare. Regardless, no Aldabreshi was walking across the pallid stones. The swordsmen outside the storehouses overlooking the bleached expanse were stepping back to allow Aldabreshi and Relshazri alike to encroach on paving safely soiled by ordinary occurrences.

Nolyen raised a hand as though to scratch his nose. Elemental air carried his muttered words to Jilseth’s ear. ‘How are we to get close to the water without drawing every eye to us?’

‘Come on.’ Jilseth slid her arm through his elbow.

Nolyen obediently escorted her around the curve of the harbour. When Jilseth calculated they had gone far enough, she released his arm to sit on a bollard conveniently free of any ship’s rope.

She pressed the back of one hand to her forehead, as though fighting a swoon. Nolyen dropped into a crouch before her. His hands clasped her other hand, his expression all concern.

Jilseth looked at him through her fingers. ‘Can you see down to the seabed yonder? Is there anything I can use?’

Nolyen edged sideways, taking care to seem intent on Jilseth as he looked across the arc of the harbour.

‘They’ve scrubbed those stones down to the low waterline.’ His gaze dropped, the opaque water no hindrance to his wizard eye. ‘I can see a hand, several heads—’

‘No heads.’ Working necromancy with a dead person’s face before her invariably disturbed Jilseth’s sleep for days after.

Nolyen searched the unseen seabed. ‘I see three hands and one foot. How shall we set about this?’

‘Find a hand with shackle galls or similar Aldabreshin scars and raise it up to float just below the surface. I will take it from there while you make sure no splashes betray us.’ Jilseth slid around on the bollard as though turning her face into the refreshing salt breeze.

She narrowed her eyes, focusing on the faint trace of his magelight arrowing across the water to the stark whiteness splashed like paint down the quay front.

This was a magelight only visible to another wizard. But the water seemed unduly hostile to Jilseth’s affinity. She sent her own mage sense scurrying faster as Nolyen’s wizardry vanished beneath a scum of nameless fragments caught between a moored ship’s stern and the dockside.

Reaching the bleached quayside, she followed Nolyen’s lead down into the depths. Before her mage sight reached the silt, a hand came groping upwards towards her. Obedient to Nolyen’s magic, the water was resolutely rejecting this sad remnant of a lost life.

Crabs had nibbled at the fingertips. As the hand came closer, a fish tugged at a hanging fingernail before vanishing into the murk with its prize. Close to the choppy surface, the hand tumbled over to expose the clean cut through the wrist. Jilseth could see the remaining small bones of the wrist glowing golden amid the dull sea-sodden flesh.

‘What are you doing?’ Nolyen rasped, alarmed.

‘Sorry.’ Jilseth hastily thrust away both the earth magic and her necromancy. Too hard. The hand sank like a stone. Only Nolyen’s command of the water caught it.

‘Bring it right to the surface.’ But as Jilseth spoke, she realised something was wrong. Granted air had always been the element most unreceptive to her magecraft. Now it was more elusive than ever. She struggled to weave a simple invisibility, never mind interleave the spell with a shield to contain the rank smell of the carrion.

Nolyen subjected her to a searching stare. ‘Are you ready?’

‘I am.’ Jilseth thrust away all doubts.

Her shielding spell meshed with the invisibility and the dead hand rose, fish-belly pale. Lifting it free of the water, she saw Nolyen instantly smooth away the ripples where it had breached the surface. Falling drops of water dissolved into mist blown away on the breeze.

The hand weighed shockingly heavy on her affinity. All her earthly mage senses longed to explore the dead flesh and bone, to focus on the necromancy she intended.

No, she couldn’t allow that. Jilseth drew on all her years of perfecting her wizard skills to bring the pathetic remnant scudding across the water towards them. She rose slowly to her feet, eyes fixed on the unseen hand.

Nolyen gripped her forearm with insistent fingers. ‘Don’t move.’

She dared not speak, still less look to see what had alarmed him until the murdered corsair’s hand reached the stones where they stood.

Jilseth set it on the dock, swathed in magic. Now she could follow Nolyen’s gaze. She saw what prompted such taut unease as he stood beside her.

Armed men had appeared, emerging from the broad road arriving at the waterfront half way between the east and western breakwaters. The sentries outside the substantial storehouses flanking the highway were ready, hands quick to their sword hilts. They stepped back, acknowledging these arrivals with measured courtesy.

‘More slaves.’ Jilseth saw that the marching Aldabreshin swordsmen flanked a double line of captives.

Once again, these men looked uncommonly cheerful for those condemned to the living death among the southern barbarians. By contrast, their captors looked like men facing the gallows. But men who would kick and spit and struggle up to the instant the noose tightened around their necks.

‘Mellitha will want to know what ships these men are taken to.’ Jilseth sank down to sit on the bollard again.

Cupping her hands over her face, as though once again overcome, she watched the column heading westwards around the harbour. They halted where two swift galleys flanked a predatory trireme. All three vessels flew the same pennant at their mastheads. Jilseth committed the angular symbol to memory.

As soon as the last stragglers of the slave column were being urged aboard, Nolyen’s hand beneath her elbow forced Jilseth to her feet. ‘Come on.’

She had no quarrel with his urgency. ‘That way.’

Nolyen enchanted a swirl of air to carry the dead corsair’s salvaged hand ahead of them as he took the closest route off the dockside. Jilseth looked steadily at it, making quite certain that no charnel stink escaped her tightly woven spell.

Nolyen ignored the yards on either side of the alley heading back towards the heart of the city. Longer, lower buildings framed these fenced enclosures. Some of these warehouses had narrow doors guarded by sharp-eyed Relshazri and windows criss-crossed with bars.

Elsewhere open-fronted barns sheltered tethered mules awaiting harness. From the grave faces of the men standing disconsolate around stacked packsaddles, the beasts’ respite from burdens was likely to continue.

One of the city’s narrow canals arrived in a blunt-ended basin and Jilseth saw the watermen were similarly idle. They should be poling their flat-bottomed boats away from these docks loaded with Aldabreshin luxuries destined for the riverside wharves and the merchants trading onwards up the Rel to Caladhria, Lescar and Ensaimin.

‘In here.’ Nolyen dragged her into a lean-to hovel piled high with mouldy fodder. ‘Take command of all the spells.’

Before she could object, his magic swept the dead man’s fingers into her cringing grasp. The touch of a wizardly mentor’s magecraft guiding an apprentice might be likened to a gentle hand as a child shaped letters with pencil and slate. This was akin to a slap in the face.

Jilseth gasped but before she could protest, Nolyen’s magic wrapped her in smothering light. She landed with a thud that shook her from ankles to shoulders and sent her staggering across Mellitha’s lawn.

Far too much of Nolyen’s innate water affinity had mingled with the air and fire underpinning the translocation spell. Jilseth’s lungs felt full of Hadrumal’s thickest winter fog. As a coughing fit wracked her, it was scant consolation to see Nol struggling as desperately for breath.

Wiping tears from her eyes, Jilseth was relieved to see the dead corsair’s hand lying at the edge of the lawn. However her magic veiling the noisome thing had unravelled in the shock inflicted by Nolyen’s spell. The first blue backed flies were already converging from all directions. One more reason to be thankful for the high walls shielding Mellitha’s elegant house from curious eyes.

Blinking Jilseth saw one of the household lackeys waiting by the open door. He looked unperturbed, either by their sudden appearance or their ghastly trophy.

Drawing a cautious breath so as not to start coughing again, she walked towards him. ‘Could you find a lidded dish, to keep that from getting flyblown?’

She knew from gruesome experience that a single maggot’s wriggling presence wreaked havoc with necromancy. She really did not want to have to go over the stinking thing with a darning needle heated in a candle flame before she could work her spells.

‘Of course, madam mage.’

Jilseth wondered what the handsome lad had seen in Mellitha’s service. What would it take to startle these servants?

Any impulse to smile died on her lips as a vivid sweep of sapphire magic propelled the courtyard gates open. Mellitha’s carriage bowled through, the horse wide-eyed and lathered with sweat. Tanilo hauled the beast to a halt as mercilessly as he had driven him on. The coachman’s fawn cotton jerkin was splashed with crimson blood.

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