Abyss & Apex : First Quarter 2011: Of Ambergris, Blood, and Brandy

“Of Ambergris, Blood, and Brandy”

By J. Kathleen Cheney


The skin of the submersible groaned, an eerie sound to hear while trapped inside its metal body. Oriana pressed closer to the viewing window. She would rather be out there, in the water.

Set every few feet along the walls of the submersible’s viewing room, the white-painted casings of small round windows dripped water onto the fine teak decking, whether from leakage or condensation Oriana didn’t know. Even so, almost two dozen finely-dressed citizens of the Golden City pressed against those windows, straining to catch a glimpse of that great work of art, The City Under the Sea.

The man sharing her window, a gentleman she’d seen only at a distance before, craned his neck to look up toward the surface far above them. Anchored to the seabed by mighty chains, two dozen houses floated upside down so that the shimmering surface of the water appeared to be a silvery street on which they rested. They made a scale replica of the Street of Flowers, each mansion faithfully imitated at a fraction of its true size, lined up in file–art that only those who swam could appreciate. Or those who observed from vehicles such as this, chugging and whirring through the calm waters of the bay.

Looking upward, Oriana spotted the replica of the Amaral household, its stately columns rendered in pale wood rather than white marble. On either side, the Pereira de Santos home and the Rocha mansion.

“Have you ever seen anything so magnificent?” her companion asked. The light musky scent of ambergris floated with him when he leaned nearer.

Oriana shuddered, thinking of that columned house and the sitting room where Isabel waited still. She drew back from the window and, without answering, returned to the gilt chairs bolted to the observation deck.

Gabriel Espinoza, the Artist who’d chained those houses to the seabed, had disappeared from society not long after beginning his great work. The newspapers had hounded the man mercilessly, wanting to know when he would place this house in the bay, and when the next. Most supposed that had caused Espinoza to go into hiding. Oriana didn’t care why he’d vanished. She was going to find him and put an end to his work. She’d forced herself to come see The City Under the Sea again, thinking the sight would strengthen her determination.

Now that she’d seen it, she only wanted to escape this place.

They were coming about to head back to the dock, the captain announced, and requested that all his guests return to their seats. Oriana drew up the hem of her full skirts a bare inch–just enough to keep them from the water that flowed across the observation deck as the submersible canted at an angle. Ambergris Gentleman settled next to her. She clutched her empty purse with lace-mittened hands and favored him with a weak smile, not wanting him to tell others that she had no stomach for Great Art.

“They say the Artist will do the entire city eventually,” Ambergris Gentleman said, speaking of Espinoza.

“There would be no room for the fish,” Oriana returned without much enthusiasm.

“Ah, yes, the fish. I suppose we must consider the sea folk as well, and not encroach too much upon their waters.”

Oriana lifted a lace-covered hand and tugged at the high neck of her cambric blouse. Usually her hair could be counted on to cover her neck completely, but the humidity inside the vehicle caused her normally curling locks to lie lank upon her shoulders.

Ambergris Gentleman was named Duilio, she recalled then, a nephew or son of one of the adventurers who’d served the Prince’s father in days past. He had limpid brown eyes and a pleasing manner which made Oriana believe he might be harmless. Hoping to evade further conversation, she settled for repeating a claim she’d read in one of the newspapers. “I imagine an entire city suspended from the bottom of the bay would pose a navigation hazard.”

Duilio laughed, his head thrown back, displaying blunt-edged human teeth. “I had no idea you were a wit.”

Oriana shifted uncomfortably on the delicate chair. She couldn’t tell whether he meant that as a compliment or an insult. Even after two years of living among humans, she still misunderstood at times. Certain he expected a response, she ventured, “I am generally considered quite dull.”

Dull in many ways, she knew. On land her hair appeared a mousy brown with a mauve cast. Her cheeks had no roses in them, and her dark eyes seemed overlarge in her fine-boned face.

“I do wonder if people are mistaken about you.” Duilio fidgeted with the fine silk scarf that hung about his neck, old gold against the somber gray of his frock coat. “May I ask, are you not Miss Paredes, companion to Lady Isabel Amaral?”

She would have preferred that Duilio-who-smelled-of-Ambergris didn’t remember her. “I was.”

He nodded, his eyes going serious. “I hear she’s gone abroad. Do you know when she’ll return?”

That sounded like an innocent question. Marianus Efisio had left town abruptly, and Isabel’s parents believed their daughter had eloped with him. The two had indeed planned so, but everything had gone awry. And Oriana couldn’t tell the Amaral family the truth; they would place the blame on her and put her under scrutiny she could ill afford.

“I’m no longer employed in the Amaral household,” she said. “I’m afraid I’m not privy to their plans.”

All true, but Isabel with her midnight-black hair and alabaster cheeks would never return to the Golden City, for now she dwelled in The City Under the Sea. For a moment, Oriana’s mind brought forth that image of Isabel’s face, hair streaming about her in the water, her expression frozen between terror and resignation. Oriana opened her eyes and shook her head to drive the memory away.

“My mother has been searching for one for some time,” Duilio was saying.

Oriana blinked, uncertain where his incessant words had taken him while her memories held her captive. She glanced up and found herself looking directly into his eyes. They were like a seal’s, she decided–clear and guileless. “I beg your pardon?”

He patted the inside pocket of his frock coat and drew out a calling card. “Come by for tea tomorrow and meet her. She’ll be expecting you.”

“And what should I tell her?” a baffled Oriana asked, allowing him to lay the card on her mittened palm.

He smiled slyly, as if aware she hadn’t been listening. “That you would like to be her new companion, of course.”

Oriana glanced at the calling card as she tucked it into her bag. Duilio Ferreira, it said, supplying a surname at least. She made an effort to listen attentively for the remainder of the excursion, aware that his offer might be the only thing that would allow her to stay in the city. She was relieved, though, when he left her side once they emerged from the submersible onto the pier.

She had no reason to trust the man. She could remember little of his reputation save that he moved on the edges of society rather than the center of it as Isabel had. Certainly Duilio Ferreira’s name had never figured in anything she’d reported to her master.

Her assignment had merely been to monitor the opinions of the nobility toward the sea folk and other waterfolk–a novice’s placement, no more. She’d spent her first year working in a dressmaker’s shop but then Lady Isabel had befriended her, drawn by the novelty of helping the sea folk’s cause–the right of return to a city they’d once shared. So Oriana had spent the last year ensconced in the Amaral household, listening to gossip and reporting it faithfully, although she found little worth hearing there.

And while Isabel might have been capricious and self-absorbed, she had become a friend. For that reason Oriana defied her master, staying in the Golden City when he ordered her back out to the islands her people now called home. She would find Isabel’s killer–but her minimal funds were almost gone, and she would soon be on the street.

Therefore, the next day she dressed neatly and left her tiny rented room in hopes of securing that position. The Ferreira family lived near the end of the Street of Flowers, so she headed that way carrying her single bag, her heels clicking along the cobbled edge of the road. The autumn wind tried to pluck away her plain straw hat, so she unpinned it and tucked it under one arm as she walked.

The Ferreira mansion was a stately house, dark stone with an aged appearance, as if it had been there as long as the city itself. Oriana pulled the bell chain and then obediently followed an elderly butler through to the front parlor.

Lady Ferreira sat alone there, a wistful expression on her face as she stared out the window in the direction of the sea. Nearing fifty, Oriana guessed, the woman had her son’s dark, clear eyes and brown hair. A great beauty, but if Oriana had ever seen her in society before, she couldn’t recall it.

“My son told me you would come by,” the lady said once Oriana had introduced herself. “I’ve not had a companion for a long time. It will be nice to have someone to talk to.”

Oriana nodded, surprised that it seemed decided already. The lady’s eyes drifted back toward the window, a yearning in them Oriana understood all too well. Their conversation continued in curious fits and starts, as if Lady Ferreira struggled to keep her attention on her visitor. After a time, she rose in a cascade of brown silk and went to stare out the window.

The gray-haired butler came and touched Oriana’s elbow. He bowed and softly said, “Miss, I’ve been instructed to show you to your rooms.”

Oriana curtsied and retrieved her bag and hat from the table next to the doorway. Lady Ferreira never seemed to note their departure

Duilio Ferreira knocked on the bedroom door again and listened carefully for any movement within. The sounds of the house’s pipes told him that his mother’s new companion had run a bath, so he unlocked the bedroom door and slipped inside. He had questions that needed answering.

It was Alessio’s old room–too masculine for a lady’s companion, perhaps, but there hadn’t been time to make changes. It had a private bath, as did none of the other empty rooms; if he was right about her, she would appreciate that. He strode across the brown figured rug and pressed one ear against the door to the bathing room, but didn’t hear anything within.

He flipped through his ring of keys, located the appropriate one, and unlocked the door. Once inside, he gazed down into the oversized porcelain tub. The jangling of the keys must have been muffled by the water, because Oriana Paredes still lay under the surface, her eyes closed.

For a moment, Duilio stared down at her, surprised by her water-changed beauty. Her hair spread about her head, the faint mauve cast transmuted to a burgundy glow. Her skin looked different through the water as well, the paleness of her face become an opal-like iridescence. Her thighs and belly glittered a shimmering silver. He had no doubt then why sailors believed the sea folk to have fish tails.

Her hands moved slowly through the water, no longer obscured by lace mittens. Translucent webbing showed between her long fingers–gloves would not be possible for her. Duilio heard faint humming as if she sang to herself, the notes muted by the water. On each side of her neck, pink-edged gills vibrated with the sound.

That song could entrap him if she raised her head above the surface–it was said that men would throw themselves into the sea on hearing such a call. As the last thing he needed was to be enslaved to her, he discreetly tapped on the side of the tub with one booted foot.

Still underwater, her dark eyes opened wide.

She sat up in a rush, setting the water sloshing about, and then scooted back against the edge of the tub. She pressed her hands over her neck to hide her gills. “I locked the door,” she said, her shaky voice betraying alarm. “How did you get in here?”

“I have the keys, of course.” Duilio spotted a towel on the table near the vanity stand and retrieved it, determined not to blush. His half-brother Erdano’s people expressed no discomfiture about appearing nude in front of others, which had made him suspect Oriana Paredes wouldn’t either. Her choice of covering her gills–rather than anything else–reinforced that suspicion. That didn’t mean her nakedness didn’t affect him. He resolutely kept his eyes on her face.

“What are you doing in here?” she asked when he held out the towel. She rose from the water, giving him a glimpse of golden stippling running down the outside of her thighs before she wrapped the towel about her pale body.

Duilio leaned back against the vanity stand and crossed one ankle over the other. “I suspected you were one of the sea folk. I needed to be certain.”

“You could have asked,” she said in a calmer voice.

Her teeth barely showed when she spoke. Even though they looked like a human’s, he understood they were razor sharp. “And you would have lied.”

She didn’t respond to that comment. “It is unacceptable to take advantage of someone in your employ, sir,” she tried instead.

“I haven’t taken advantage of you,” he pointed out, “nor do I have any intention of doing so. But we need to talk, and we can speak privately here without being interrupted.”

“And I expected that I could bathe privately here, sir,” she snapped. “Without being interrupted.”

Duilio found himself admiring her nerve. He doubted he would have maintained such composure if their positions were reversed. “If you’re caught here,” he began, “the Prince will have you killed.”

The Prince harbored an irrational fear of the various waterfolk–the sea folk, the seal people, the otter folk–and years before had declared they were no longer allowed in his city. A shame, Duilio thought. The Golden City had, for centuries, been a place where all were welcome.

“I am aware of that,” she said. “How did you know about me?”

He gave her a direct look. “I’ve watched you for some time. Your skin has a certain iridescence to it, your eyes are large, the color of your hair is…unusual. And you always hide your hands.”

He’d thought the current style for lace mittens a bizarre one, although honestly not all that more so than ladies’ other fashion whims. Isabel Amaral had started that trend, and now he knew why. She’d known exactly what she harbored in her home.

Oriana Paredes regarded him warily. “I see. So what do you want of me?”

“Why did the Prince’s seer pull you out of the bay six nights ago?”

That question seemed to take her aback. “I’m not sure,” she said. “He told me he’d foreseen that I would be there. He said I must find the Artist, Espinoza–the one who is crafting The City Under the Sea.”

Duilio regarded her with a frown, unable to fathom why the Seer had given her such a quest. It disturbed him that the two worries in his life, the Seer and Espinoza, had come together–and had somehow involved the woman before him.

She sat down on the edge of the tub and tucked her bare feet behind its leg. “He did not save my life,” she added with a lift of her chin. “I was never in danger of drowning. But I intend to find the Artist anyway.”

“Why? What do you know about The City Under the Sea that would make you want to hunt Espinoza?”

She gazed up at him for a moment, apparently weighing whether she would tell him the truth. He could understand that; he worked hard to maintain a frivolous image in society, not one that would inspire confidence. He waited anyway, hoping she would choose to trust him.

“Isabel Amaral died there,” she finally said. “We left her home disguised as housemaids, going to meet with Marianus Efisio, but we were apprehended in the street. We were drugged. When I awoke, I was tied to a chair, upside down, inside a tiny room. Isabel was across from me, bound the same. It was the copy of the Amaral house–the front sitting room, complete down to the papering on the wall and the tea service, only far too small.”

He nodded grimly. “And then it was dropped into the sea.”

She recounted a story of horror as water seeped into the house–welcome to her, but death for Isabel. The house had filled quickly, and it had taken Oriana too long to escape the ropes that bound her. “Isabel was dead before I could get even my arms free.”

Duilio listened to her account of the events of that night. Unfortunately, he wasn’t surprised.

“You knew,” she said when she’d come to the end of her recitation.

“It took the police some time to see the pattern,” he said. “One or two servants would disappear from a household, and the next morning that corresponding replica would be found in the bay. Because the houses are not being placed there in an obvious order, the pattern was more difficult to discern.”

“Espinoza has taken someone from each household?”

“The first few houses, no, but after the fifth, yes. As none of the Amaral servants disappeared, I began to question Isabel’s reported elopement.”

Her dark eyes narrowed. “You work for the police?”

Duilio couldn’t help but smile at her suspicious tone. “Surely you wouldn’t be so crass as to suggest a gentleman might work for money?”

“Do you?” she persisted.

“No,” he said. “I consult for them.”

“In what capacity?”

“I have access to the higher levels of society, where the police are not welcome. I was already making inquiries into Isabel’s elopement when I heard of the Seer’s interference with you.”

Her hair had ceased dripping, beginning to twist into curls again. “So you’ve been following me.”

“No.” Duilio glanced down at his patent boots. “I simply knew you would be on that submersible.”

“How?” she asked.

“It’s unimportant.” He didn’t think he could explain it well anyway, his rare scraps of foresight. “We are however, working toward the same goal at the moment. We both want to stop Espinoza, so it might be helpful to work together.”

“If the police are trying…”

He shook his head. “The commissioner took his concerns to the Prince, who ordered him not to investigate further. In his view, the lives of a few servants are nothing when compared to the value of Great Art.”

She closed her eyes. Duilio suspected it hadn’t felt like Great Art as she’d watched Isabel drown. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but the Seer involved you. That alone gives me cause to want to keep an eye on you, spy or not.”

She didn’t debate the title ‘spy.’ “And when we have found Espinoza, will you turn me in?”

“No. Unlike many in the city, I have never found it reasonable to fear any of the waterfolk. I do not intend to reinforce the Prince’s fears in any way. Certainly not by proving to him that your people do have spies here.” When she nodded, he asked, “I assume you have a master to whom you report. Do you need to do so?”

She shook her head. “He told me to go home when he learned what happened to Isabel, as I had lost my access to society here. I am delinquent.”

She was surely risking her career, if not more. “You stayed to pursue Isabel’s killer?”

“Yes,” she said, her chin lifting. “So I will do whatever you need of me if it will help find him.”

That put the responsibility on his shoulders. “Well, to start, try to entertain my mother a little, which will be harder than you expect. Otherwise, you’ll have to wait. A lady’s companion doesn’t have much call to be out investigating. But I will tell you if I make any progress, or if there is aught else that needs to be done.” She didn’t look especially pleased by that plan, but didn’t argue either. “My uncle, no doubt, has plans for you. I suggest we wait and see what he intends.”

“Your uncle?” she asked, brows pinching together.

“Did I not say? The Prince’s seer is my father’s half-brother, Paolo Silva. Illegitimate, so he has no claim to the Ferreira name.”

Duilio could see that piece of information had set her mind working. He would have to watch his tongue around her–she was clever. “He’s a dangerous man,” he told her, “and lives to toy with others, to wield power over them. If he has noticed you, then you can be certain he intends to use you in some way.”

“And you suspect he intends to use me against you?”

“Yes. I simply have no idea how.” He gave her an ironic bow and pressed two brass keys into her webbed hand. “The butler’s copy, as well, so you can have some privacy. And one of these tins,” he added, gesturing toward the jumble of gilt boxes on the vanity table, “has sea salt in it.”

Her eyes lit appreciatively, and he let himself out of the bathing room. He heard the door lock behind him.

Despite the fact that she’d spent the last year dealing with Isabel’s fits and starts, entertaining Lady Ferreira did turn out to be more difficult than Oriana expected, just as Duilio had promised. As soon as a few sentences had been exchanged, the lady’s attention would wander back to the windows. Oriana finally hit on the idea of asking if she wished to go out onto the second-floor balcony that looked out toward the bay.

Lady Ferreira settled an old-fashioned lace mantilla over her neatly twisted brown hair and accompanied Oriana up to the gallery that led out onto the balcony. She pushed open the door, and Oriana took a deep breath of the seaside air. The sounds of traffic on the Street of Flowers and birds squabbling near the shore touched her ears, but neither was as seductive as the distant rush of the waves.

Oriana sighed, wishing life were simpler.

She didn’t know what manner of reception she would receive when she returned to the islands her people inhabited. At the least, she must face punishment for her refusal to leave when ordered. Her master–in the guise of a simple fisherman, his boat docked in the bay–had warned her that the consequences might be great. It might be better, he’d warned, never to go back. There were those of her kind who lived in the Golden City in secret, but she didn’t know if she could be happy that way, always hiding what she was.

The lady’s eyes had stayed on the water, gray under overcast skies. “My sons worry if I come out here alone,” she said after a time.

Oriana wondered at that odd statement. She’d already discovered whose rooms she’d been given: Alessio, the elder son who’d died over a year ago. His death had caused a scandal, but she hadn’t been able to pry any details out of the maid she’d discreetly plied with questions. She supposed that Alessio must remain alive in his mother’s mind. “Are they concerned you’ll take ill?”

“No.” Lady Ferreira hugged her arms about herself, and cast a wistful smile at Oriana. “I miss the sea.”

She understood that. “Can you not go down to the water?”

“Here in this house, Duilio can keep me safe,” the lady said in a firm voice, almost a mantra.

“From your husband’s brother?” Oriana asked cautiously.

Lady Ferreira shuddered. “Paolo is a monster. He would see my son dead just to amuse himself.”

The lady’s conviction, Oriana reflected, could simply be a repetition of words Duilio had spoken to her. The son might have a motive for poisoning his mother’s mind against his uncle. But she found herself more inclined to believe Duilio than trust the Seer. “And what of your other son? Does Silva seek to kill him also?”

Lady Ferreira laid a slender hand on Oriana’s arm, her seal-brown eyes wide and shining.

“Paolo mustn’t know about Erdano. That’s why I can’t go back to Braga Bay. He might follow me to Erdano, and then Erdano would die, too.”

Erdano? Oriana hadn’t heard that name before. “I won’t tell anyone, I promise.”

Lady Ferreira wiped one eye with the edge of her veil. “He took Alessio. He took Duilio’s father and Erdano’s father. I only have my two sons left now. I will do what I must to protect them, even if it means never going near the water again.”

Erdano clearly wasn’t another name for the dead Alessio, Oriana noted. He must be yet another son, which made her wonder why the lady would go to Braga Bay to see him. There was no settlement at that secluded bay north of the city. Only the seal people lived on that narrow strip of sandy beach.

The lady stood at the cast-iron railing, her slender hands braced there. Unlike Oriana’s people, the seals could take human form–a completely human form–when they shed their pelts. Oriana gazed at Lady Ferreira’s worried face, her delicate pointed features and large dark eyes, and asked herself if the lady was truly human at all.

Erdano sprawled on the bench at the tavern, watching one of the waitresses. In human form he made a very large man, taller than Duilio by a hand and half again as broad. They didn’t resemble each other much, save about the eyes. “So were you right?” Erdano asked in a distracted voice.

Duilio glanced at the waitress his half-brother watched so avidly, a petite but buxom girl. Erdano didn’t seem to prefer a specific type of woman; they all interested him. “Yes,” Duilio said. “She was the one I suspected. And it was my uncle who pulled her out of the water. Tell your girls I appreciate their acuity, please.”

Erdano cast him a perplexed look.

“I appreciate that they were paying such close attention,” Duilio clarified. When Erdano had brought him the news that his uncle had been seen out in the bay at night, he’d known it was important, one of those rare flashes of insight that could almost label him a seer. When told that his uncle had pulled a woman out of the water, he hadn’t even been surprised that Erdano’s girls had noted the woman’s webbed hands. Duilio had known–simply known–that they’d seen Oriana Paredes. “Mother has taken her on as a companion so I can keep an eye on her.”

Erdano took another drink of vinho verde and licked his lips. “Is she pretty?”

Duilio pressed his lips together. Conversations with Erdano always followed this course. His brother had numerous females in his harem, but was always eager to add more. “Yes, she’s pretty.”

“What are her markings like?”

“I didn’t see her dorsal markings. I assume they’re the same as most of the other local sea folk’s.”

Erdano regarded him with a surprised expression. “You haven’t bedded her yet?”

Given Oriana’s sudden introduction into the household, most of the servants apparently assumed that motivation on his part as well. According to his valet, the fact that he’d chosen Alessio’s bedroom for her only fueled that speculation. “She’s a spy, Erdano.”

Erdano craned his neck to get a better view of the waitress. “No, then?”

“Just keep your hands off her,” Duilio said. “I still don’t know why my uncle pulled her out of the water. He spun some tale about wanting her to find Espinoza.” When Erdano cast another perplexed look in his direction, Duilio added, “The man who’s putting all those wooden houses in the bay.”

Erdano frowned. “Why would your uncle want to find him?”

“That’s my point. I don’t know yet what part he intends her to play. She will be my death, or my life. I have no idea which.”

Erdano’s thick brows drew together. “Is that one of those things you just know?”

Duilio hadn’t realized he was going to say that until it came out of his mouth, the random sort of pronouncement he’d long since learned bore importance. “Yes, I think so.”

“You should go ahead and bed her then,” Erdano said. “If she’s going to kill you, you might as well enjoy her company until she does.”

Duilio suppressed a smile. “That’s why you’re going to end up with a kitchen knife in your back someday, Erdano.”

His half-brother laughed. “No woman would ever hurt me.”

“Her husband, then.” To be truthful, Erdano seemed to have a talent for finding women who didn’t seem to mind sharing him, or whose husbands apparently didn’t mind sharing them. “I’ll keep my distance,” Duilio said firmly.

“Your loss.” Erdano grinned at the waitress, who returned a saucy wink.

Duilio dropped a handful of mil-réis on the table to cover the tab, and slid off the bench.

With a heavy sigh, Erdano joined him and headed toward the door. “I’ll have to come back later, I guess.”

“Mother would like to see you.” Duilio waited on the threshold as Erdano mouthed something at the pretty girl, to which she nodded.

And then a twinge hit him, a brief instant of foreboding. He shoved Erdano out of the way. A gunshot rang through the crowded room. Fragments of wood sprayed in all directions when a bullet hit the doorpost where he’d stood.

Amid the screams of the patrons, Duilio landed atop Erdano on the tavern floor. He scrambled to get back to his feet, but had only risen to his knees when a searing pain burned through the back of his left shoulder–a knife. Duilio twisted away onto his back, drawing his revolver as he did so.

The sight of the gun was enough to forestall his assailant, a burly dark-haired man in workman’s garb. After a split-second of indecision, the man bolted out the tavern door and into the night.

For a moment, Duilio lay on the wooden floor trying to decide how bad his injury was. The tavern’s owner urged his patrons to remain calm, likely hoping they wouldn’t flee without paying. Erdano stared down at Duilio.

“You’re bleeding on the floor,” Erdano said helpfully and offered him a hand up.

Once on his feet, Duilio raised his right hand to his stinging shoulder. It came away bloody, but he doubted the wound was deep. “I suspect you shouldn’t go back to the house with me,” he told Erdano. They could be followed, and Duilio didn’t know if his uncle was aware of Erdano’s connection to the family. “I’ll send word when it’s safe.”

Which apparently fitted in with Erdano’s plans for the night anyway.

As Duilio had told her the night before, a lady’s companion didn’t have much call to be out hunting Espinoza. It was an irritating truth about society in the Golden City, an unmarried woman had little freedom. Oriana could do little more than wait on him.

That little, however, could include unraveling the mystery of her employer’s family. The Ferreira home’s library proved a useful resource. After Lady Ferreira took herself off to bed that evening, Oriana slipped inside. The library had the same elegance as the rest of the house. Candles glowed in a chandelier made from white coral, likely too delicate to be refitted for gas lighting. A collection of giant clam shells, bleached almost to whiteness, sat atop a highly polished table in the center of the room. Well-dusted bookshelves lined the walls, save for a cabinet that held an assortment of bottles and a niche with a kneeler for prayer.

That niche held her quarry, the Ferreira family’s Bible. Oriana flipped through the first few pages and found the information she sought. Among the births and deaths, Lady Ferreira showed only two sons: Duilio who would be twenty-nine, and Alessio who had died before his thirtieth birthday. No Erdano at all. Oriana heard footsteps in the hall then and ducked into the shadows on one side of the liquor cabinet.

Duilio strode into the library, dressed as if he’d been out. He closed the door and leaned on the table for a moment, one hand on its polished surface. Then he sighed, withdrew a revolver from the waist of his trousers and laid it on the table. He shrugged off his frock coat, revealing a bloodied shirt-sleeve. Once he’d tossed the coat over one of the chairs, he proceeded to remove another gun from an ankle holster and a knife from a sheath at his wrist. He pulled down his braces and unbuttoned his shirt, tugged it off, and laid it atop the coat.

He was a well-made man–athletic, but not as muscular as one of the seal-men would be. A narrow cut crossed the side and back of his left shoulder, the knife work of a right-handed man–or a left-handed one who attacked from behind.

Duilio tried to inspect the wound, pulling his arm forward and craning his neck around to do so. Then he turned toward the liquor cabinet and saw her there. He started, cursing under his breath.

Oriana felt a touch of gratification. While it hadn’t embarrassed her to be caught nude as it would have Isabel, it had embarrassed her to be caught at all. Now she had the upper hand.

“A knife wound?”

His cool manner restored, he attempted to survey the slash again. “Yes, but not deep.”

She opened the liquor cabinet, selected the brandy decanter, and brought it over to the table. She picked up his bloodied shirt and, once she’d poured some brandy on it, lifted it to his shoulder. “Who did this?”

He hissed when the fabric touched his skin. “It’s not important.”

“Was your uncle responsible?”

“If he were responsible, his involvement would not be traceable.”

“I see.” She pulled the shirt away. The cut was shallow, so she decided it didn’t need to be sewn. “Do you have something to bind this?”

“I was going to use the shirt,” he said with a chuckle. “And I was planning on drinking the brandy.”

Oriana handed him the sodden shirt and went back to the liquor cabinet to fetch a couple of glasses. Brandy burned her throat and gills, but Isabel had taught her to stomach it. She pulled out one of the chairs and sat. “Who is Erdano?”

Duilio leaned back on the edge of the polished table and regarded her with narrowed eyes. “What did my mother tell you?”

“I gather he’s your half-brother. She said he lives at Braga Bay, but only the seal people live there.” Oriana watched him swirl his brandy around the glass to warm it with his hand before taking a drink.

“If my mother were handed over to the Prince’s men,” Duilio said, his seal-brown eyes downcast, “it would mean her life. My uncle held that threat over my father’s head, and now mine.”

“She’s human in this form,” Oriana pointed out.

He didn’t deny the implication that his mother was, indeed, one of the seal people–a selkie. That shed new light on his willingness to harbor one of the sea folk in his household. “We think Silva has her pelt,” Duilio said, “which would be ample evidence. It disappeared three years ago, and since then she’s been trapped in human form.”

No wonder then that the woman stared out at the sea; she couldn’t go back. In human form, Lady Ferreira was as vulnerable to the water as Isabel had been. “She said he’d taken away your brother, your father, and Erdano’s father. Did he kill them?”

He downed the remainder of his brandy. “About a year and a half ago, Alessio fought a duel over some lover or another. Despite the fact that the other man fired into the air–and there were witnesses to that–Alessio was shot through the heart.” He regarded the empty glass and poured another. “I was abroad. When my father’s letter caught up with me, I started home but a few days before I arrived, my father and Erdano’s were found together in the bay, both drowned. We still don’t know how that happened.”

“One of the seals drowned? Was he in human form?”

“Yes, but both men swam well,” Duilio said. “And although my father wooed Mother away from Erdano’s father, they got along, so I can’t believe they would attack each other.”

Oriana suspected that was an interesting story in itself. “So nothing can be proven, then?”

“No,” he said. “The police called the first a duel and the second an accidental death.”

“And what happened to you tonight?”

“Erdano and I met at a tavern,” he said. “We were set upon as we left.”

“Does that happen to you often?”

He nodded slowly. “Fourteen times in the last year.”

That explained why he went about so heavily armed. “Does your uncle know that Erdano is your mother’s son?”

“I didn’t think so before, but tonight’s incident suggests otherwise.”

“Too many coincidences,” she said.

“My thoughts exactly.” He tossed back the remainder of his brandy, and said, “My uncle has a gift but uses it only to manipulate people–to put them in untenable positions, and watch them squirm. When he tires of them, they die. It’s a game. I’m currently his favorite quarry since I keep surviving his little feints. Eventually I’ll get careless–or he’ll find something or someone more interesting–and I’ll end up dead.”

Oriana wondered if she might be the next ‘interesting’ person on the Seer’s list. Duilio rose and offered her a hand up. She hadn’t worn her mittens. She placed her bare hand in his anyway and let him draw her to her feet. That close, he smelled of ambergris and blood and brandy.

“I think I should go to bed,” he said softly, “before the brandy goes to my head. Good night, Miss Paredes.” He gathered up his coat, torn shirt, and assortment of weapons. He moved toward the door, but stopped only a couple of steps away and glanced back over his shoulder. “If you sleep in the bathtub, you might contrive to rumple your bedclothes anyway. I was already asked by my valet, who had it from the butler, who was told by a maid that you didn’t sleep in your own bed last night. Their assumption being, of course…”

“That I was in your bed,” she finished. “I’ll keep that in mind, sir.”

He nodded, and then was gone.

The arm ached, but Duilio wasn’t going to give his uncle the satisfaction of being seen favoring it.

Once dressed, he found his mother and Oriana eating breakfast in the dining room. His mother looked happier than she had in some time. Having a companion might suit her after all. For her part, Oriana had regained that glow Duilio recalled noticing once from across a ballroom. Being able to spend the night in saltwater likely helped; surely it wasn’t natural for her kind to remain so long out of it.

She held a folded newspaper in her mittened hands, studiously not noticing his regard. The butler brought the morning mail, not the normal handful of invitations, only a single letter on a silver salver. Duilio picked it up gingerly–the slanting hand looked familiar. Sighing, he held it out to Oriana.

She glanced at him doubtfully, but took the letter. She removed one of her mittens to open it and read the missive with a troubled look on her face. When she passed it back to him, she held her hand carefully folded so the webbing didn’t show.

Duilio scanned the note. You should attend the Carvalho ball on Thursday night. “So, Miss Paredes,” he asked, “would you like to attend a ball?”

“Not at his request,” she said tartly, slipping her mitten back on. “I wonder how he knows I’m here.”

“He is a seer,” Duilio reminded her.

She cast him a caustic look for that comment. “I can’t go anyway. I’m not invited.”

“My mother is.” They’d gotten that invitation weeks ago. Duilio turned to his mother. “Would you be willing to put up with a ball, Mother? I promise I won’t let him come near you.”

Lady Ferreira sighed. “I suppose we will both need new gowns. How dreadful. But we will manage, Duilinho,” she said, calling him by his childhood name.

Despite being made to feel about eight years old, Duilio couldn’t help smiling at her long-suffering tone. His mother had never enjoyed the fripperies and gossip of the social set.

He turned to Oriana and explained, “I would rather know what my uncle plans for me, so I may see the knife coming at me.”

“I do not want to be his knife,” she said.

That was his concern as well. “I would rather you not be, either.”

The arrangements Duilio made for his mother’s safety were extensive. That relieved Oriana, for she’d grown attached to Lady Ferreira over the last few days.

Once at the elegant Carvalho house, Oriana sat among the older women at Lady Ferreira’s side as the young folk danced to the reedy music of a quartet. She wore her new dress, a severe gown in a dark blue suitable for a lady’s companion. It wouldn’t distract in any way from Lady Ferreira’s mournful beauty. Clutching her crocheted shawl about her shoulders, Oriana watched the swirl of color and wondered how many of Isabel’s friends had seen her sitting there, but chose not to speak to her because of her new attachment to the less-influential Ferreira family.

Duilio was, she understood now, engaged in spying upon the very same people she’d been observing for the last year. She watched him flit about the edge of the dance floor like a slightly desperate remora. He would attach himself to one cluster of guests and then another, never quite one of them despite his birth. The twin scandals of his father’s mysterious death and his brother’s inglorious demise made him unacceptable to the upper crust. Society in the Golden City was unforgiving.

After a year as the lofty Lady Isabel’s companion, Oriana found it jarring. Others had begged for Isabel’s attention, her merest smile, seeking her family’s approval. Yet over the last few days Oriana had come to believe that Duilio Ferreira was worth a dozen of Isabel’s friends.

She saw him approaching them then. He smiled fondly at his mother, his eyes only flicking briefly toward her. “Mother, would you care to walk along the veranda?”

Oriana rose with Lady Ferreira, but Duilio caught her lace-covered hand. “Wait,” he whispered. “He’s here.”

Oriana returned to her chair, feeling oddly exposed. The dancing went on, one set ending and another beginning. This was why they had come, so even though she had no desire to speak to the man, she waited.

“What an odd circumstance you’ve landed in,” Paolo Silva’s voice said in her ear.

Oriana started, but managed to cover her reaction by pretending to adjust her shawl. Rather than sitting in the empty chair next to her, the Seer stood against the wall behind her chair. He must not want to be associated with her by the gossips among the throng. Since Isabel hadn’t known of his relationship to the Ferreira family, Oriana guessed others would not either.

“What do you mean?” she asked, grateful that no one else stood near.

“How did you end up in the Ferreira household?”

“Did you not foresee that?” She would have expected a seer to know. Isabel had observed once to her friends that the man was wrong more often than even the Prince’s astrologers. Even so, he’d known Oriana would be in the water that night, which left her questioning if he might truly be as all-knowing as he claimed. “I ran into the lady’s son in the city,” she explained. “He’d heard of Isabel’s absence, and suggested I apply to his mother for the position.”

“I told you to do nothing until you heard from me,” the Seer said.

“I have to eat,” she snapped. “It was kind of him to offer me the post.”

His voice sounded amused when he said, “Interfering puppy. He’ll not be any help to you.”

“I do not need his help,” she said. “Especially not if I am to do nothing.”

“Well now the time for waiting is over.” He sounded closer, as if he’d leaned down to hiss in her ear. “You must act quickly. Espinoza will take out another piece in the early morning, after the moon sets. More innocents will die if you cannot trace him to his lair.”

His insistence that she find the Artist rankled, even though she’d sworn she would do so. “I don’t work for you.”

“No, but I know for whom you do work. Remember that.”

“Why not call the police? Surely they can stop Espinoza?”

“The police know nothing of the deaths. They only see Espinoza’s works and look up to him,” the Seer said, admiration creeping into his voice. Then his hand touched her shoulder, cold even through her dress and shawl. “You are the only one who can stop him. Follow him tonight, and tell me where he goes. I’ll wait for you on the beach at dawn. Otherwise the Prince’s men will know where to look for you.”

Oriana heard his feet move away and half-turned to peer after him. She only caught sight of his hair, his distinguished gray head, as he left the ballroom. Suddenly chilled, she wrapped her shawl about her shoulders and made her way around the edge of the dancers. She stepped out onto the veranda and leaned against the wrought-iron railing.

“Are you all right?” Duilio’s voice came at her elbow, startling her again.

“Yes,” Oriana said, not wishing to elaborate where they might be overheard.

“My mother is waiting in the coach,” he said. “Are you ready to leave?”

“More than ready.”

Once her mistress had gone to bed, Oriana joined Duilio in the library.

“What did he say?” Duilio asked before she’d even settled in a chair. He poured a second glass of brandy and set it before her.

“That another house will be sunk in the early hours of the morning. I am to follow the ship back to its dock, and then inform him where it has gone.”

Duilio regarded her with brows drawn together. “You should follow? Did he say why he cannot do so himself?”

“No,” she said shortly. “But he threatened me with exposure should I not obey.”

“He always has a spare threat in his pocket,” Duilio said. “Did he tell you what time?”

“No, ‘after the moon sets’ was all.” She put down her glass. “He also claimed that the police knew nothing of the deaths.”

Duilio’s jaw clenched. “So now you must ask yourself if he’s right, and I’m lying to you.”

Oriana had been weighing the Seer’s statement since the ball. “I’ve decided I prefer to trust you.”

“Thank you,” Duilio said softly. “Will you let me come with you?”

“Do you intend to swim?”

“I do own a boat or two,” he said with a wry smile. “Tell me, can you handle a gun?”

She held up one hand, fingers wide, displaying the webbing. While she could hold a gun, pulling a trigger would be problematic. “If you have a spare knife, though, I wouldn’t mind having that.”

In the darkness, the small boat rocked on the water. Duilio had set anchor not far from where the houses were buried. The anchor didn’t quite touch the bottom of the bay, and he had to row closer from time to time. Huddled into one of Duilio’s overcoats, Oriana kept one hand in the water, feeling the currents in her webbing. She’d decided to save her energy and so sat in the boat, although she would have been warmer back in the water.

With the pitch blackness about them, she didn’t see the ship approach, but she could feel its motion and hear the ripple of its wake. She touched Duilio’s hand to get his attention, aware that he could see even less in the darkness than she. “It’s in that direction. No lights.”

That explained why the ship had never been seen at its work before. But without lights, Oriana wasn’t certain how it could find the houses previously dropped in the bay and position the new one. She had felt the houses’ movement in the water, tasted the wood and corruption in her gills. Yet without that guidance, the ship had come directly to the spot. Either the navigator must be extraordinarily skilled, or someone must be aiding him.

Then she heard the rattling of chains. She dropped Duilio’s coat and slid into the water, naked save for the knife strapped to her ankle.

“Be careful,” he called after her.

She submerged in time to feel the house drop into the water, its anchor dragging it down. She swam in that direction, following the plan they’d agreed on. Instead of obeying the Seer’s demand that she pursue the ship, she went to save the people trapped in the sinking house.

At first the air inside buoyed the wooden structure, but the water was inexorable. It was only a matter of time before the house filled and the weight of the chain dragged it to its final position, a delicate balance of gravity and buoyancy.

Her large eyes might take in more light than a human’s, but in the moonless dark, the house was little more than a blur. When Oriana reached the shrunken house, she felt along wooden columns, trying to locate the front doors. She’d set her hand on a miniature knob when the last bubble of air was forced out, and the house began to sink in earnest. Oriana jerked at the knob, but it came off in her hand.

Growing desperate, she tore loose her knife and tried to pry open the door–only to have the knife’s blade snap. She threw that away, hooked one arm around a column to keep her with the movement of the house, and kicked at the door. It didn’t give.

She’d escaped the replica of the Amaral house by forcing a hole in the roof, but she didn’t have time for that now. She felt movement–the ship chugging away from the site–and tasted seals in the water.

It was too late for the people trapped in that house.

Frustrated, Oriana headed back to give chase. She surfaced, took a deep breath of air and searched for Duilio’s boat. It was gone. He’d dropped an anchor there and shouldn’t have drifted too far away, but she saw only darkness. Then she comprehended the pattern of disturbance in the water. A wake forced everything away from that spot, as if the ship had just passed by.

Fragments of white-painted wood floated on the surface. The boat, she realized, and Duilio nowhere among the wreckage. Oriana took a deep breath and dove straight down.

She saw a flash of whiteness far below–his tie. She pushed herself downward until she reached him, and saw his arm trapped in the bitter end of the anchor rope. The current was pulling the anchor out to sea, dragging him lower each second.

Oriana didn’t know how long he could hold his breath. She wrapped her arms about him and pressed her lips to his, giving him the mouthful of air she held. It wouldn’t be enough. He would lose consciousness and, when he did, his lungs would fill with water. She had to get him loose.

She found the rope tangled about him, twisted into the wool of his frock coat. It must be crushing his arm, the weight of the anchor and undertow pitted against his will to survive. She patted his shoulder to reassure him and, with her knife gone, set to the rope with her teeth.

The tautness made it easier. The aged rope splintered under her sharp teeth. After a moment only a thread was left, and then that thread snapped. Unanchored, Duilio began to drift upward through the dark water. Oriana wrapped her arms about him and kicked hard.

When they broke the surface, Duilio gave a ragged gasp. He choked and coughed while she supported him. “Be still,” she said, “let the water hold you.”

His eyes met hers in the darkness, panic in his expression. “Where are we?”

He couldn’t see the unlit nearer shore, she realized, and had no innate sense of which direction to go. “I know where the land is,” she told him. “Let me get this coat off you.”

She could tell he was fighting to keep calm. She worked the buttons of his coat, the wool swollen with sea-water and stubborn. Once she finally had it undone, she pushed it off his shoulders. Freed from its weight, Duilio seemed better able to keep afloat.

“I’m going to tow you to shore,” she said in his ear. “Don’t fight me.”

He coughed again, but nodded, so she wrapped one arm about his chest and began hauling him toward land.

Duilio found footing in a spot of sand. Oriana half-dragged him out onto the beach, but then stumbled to her knees as if she hadn’t any strength left. The tide was on its way out at that hour, so Duilio simply collapsed on the sand next to her, his weight caught in her arms. They were safe. Exhausted, he drifted into a fitful sleep.

He woke when water touched his face, the tide coming back in. The sun had begun to rise. Birds screeched in the cliffs above them, barely visible in the fog the blanketed the shore.

He coughed and rolled over, and yelped when his arm hit the sand. He peeled back his shirt sleeve and saw blue and purple bruises wrapping his left forearm where the rope had been.

Oriana rose onto her knees next to him. “Is it broken?”

Duilio felt his face go warm. Her hair had dried in salt-encrusted tangles, having escaped the sensible braid she’d worn the night before. A rope burn marred her cheek and full lips, and her eyes seemed deeper set with exhaustion. Despite that, he found himself reacting to her nakedness as he hadn’t the first time he’d seen her so. He looked away and took a calming breath. “I don’t think so.”

She insisted on running her fingers along the bones to be certain. “What happened?”

“The ship hit my boat,” he said. “No lights, so I couldn’t tell where it was approaching until too late. I had my arm across the anchor rope when it hit. It caught my sleeve and dragged me under.” If his body had ever been found, his drowning would surely be considered a freak accident.

She cast him a troubled look. “Could the Seer have known that would happen?”

“I can’t be certain,” he admitted. “Perhaps he foresaw it and knew I would find myself in the bay at the same time as that ship.” He could never be certain what his uncle had foreseen, not unless he asked the man. Paolo Silva would surely lie if he ever did. But if the man had meant for Oriana to entice him out onto the water to be killed, she had ruined his plan. Silva would have to come up with a new trap now.

Duilio had himself under control by then, and rose. He must have swayed when he did so, because she asked, “Can you get back to your house?”

“I’m fine,” he said. She could hardly walk through the streets naked, though. “Wait here. I’ll come back with something.”

Oriana crouched down. “I’ll stay in the water.”

He began walking toward the stair fixed to the rocks that would lead up to street level, then slowed and turned back. He hadn’t thanked her for saving his life. But she was under the water before he had a chance to speak.

Oriana curled up among the rocks near the shore, resting and letting the salty water flow through her gills. She’d never pulled someone that far, and was surprised how exhausted she was. Abraded by the aged rope, her lips were torn, and her jaw ached as well. If she hadn’t promised to wait for Duilio, she would have sunk herself deep in safer waters, searching for a pod of dolphins to hide among.

She closed her eyes, listening to the sounds from the shore muted by the water. Sea birds fled the cliff with a rush of wings, crying alarm onto the air, and Oriana rose halfway out of the water, trying to spot Duilio through the fog.

His uncle waited there, instead. Oriana tried to dive back into the water, but the Seer caught her by the arm. He dragged her toward the sand, and asked, “He’s drowned, isn’t he?”

He sounded pleased, as if Duilio’s death would be a victory. Oriana suddenly realized that Lady Ferreira was right; Paolo Silva was a monster. He showed no remorse over the possible death of his nephew, as if Duilio were no more than a doll to be broken on a whim. Appalled, Oriana tried to pull out of his grasp. “Let go of me.”

A smirk crossed his face. His grip tightened. “Ah, no. You’ve served your purpose now. The Prince will reward me well for turning over a spy.”

Oriana felt ill. If the man had no remorse over seeing his nephew dead, then neither would her execution pain him. He would turn her over to the Prince’s men, simply because he could. Her eyes narrowed as a new revelation swept over her. “Was it you who set the idea in the Prince’s mind that we’re dangerous?”

“It can be quite useful, having control over what a powerful man fears.” He’d reached the beach by then, and shoved her to the sand. Before she could get back up, he dropped to one knee and clamped a hand over her mouth. His eyes raked over her naked body. “Since I no longer need your cooperation, I think…”

Oriana bit down, hard.

He yanked his bleeding hand away and punched her. The blow slammed her head back into the sand. Pain flared through her jaw, but she managed to draw up her legs. She kicked out, striking his shoulder with enough force to throw him backwards into the water.

And then Duilio was there. He set his hands under Oriana’s arms and dragged her farther up onto the sand, away from her tormentor. He let her go, yanked a small pistol from his trousers’ waistband, and leveled it at his uncle. “Stay back.”

From her supine position, Oriana saw Paolo Silva rise from the water. He held his dripping arms wide, a smirk on his face. “So you are alive, puppy. How gratifying.”

Duilio pulled back the pistol’s hammer. “Touch her again, and you’ll find out what it was like for Alessio.”

Oriana caught that reference to his brother’s murder–as did the Seer, evidently.

“We’ll play this game another day, then.” Silva turned and waded away, apparently certain his nephew wouldn’t shoot.

And Duilio simply watched him go, his jaw clenched and the edges of his nostrils white.

Oriana got to her feet. “You should have shot him.”

Duilio cast a rueful glance in her direction and pulled the trigger. It clicked, but nothing more happened. “It’s from my ankle holster.”

And the powder would have been ruined in the bay. She understood that much of guns, at least. She wrapped her arms about her chest to ward off the cold.

Duilio slid the gun back into his waistband and fetched a blanket he’d dropped several feet away. He wrapped it about her shoulders. “Did he hurt you?”

She gazed past him to where his uncle had swum out to a dory anchored just off the shore. “You were right. This was never about my finding Espinoza, only about killing you.”

Duilio bent his head to meet her gaze. He touched the side of her jaw with careful fingers. “Did he hurt you?”

“He lied to me,” she whispered, feeling rage swell. “Damn him.”

Duilio shook his head. “Did you even notice he seemed prepared to rape or strangle you? Possibly both?”

His anger diffused hers. “It’s the lot of a spy, Duilio, death and rape. I think I could live with that. But not with what nearly happened to you.”

Duilio set his hands on her shoulders. “At this moment I’m extremely displeased with whoever sent you here. You value yourself too cheaply.”

Oriana drew the blanket closer, surprised by his concern for her. She caught the scent of his skin briefly, that hint of ambergris. “Why should you care?”

He sighed, his eyes on hers. “It does seem to get more complicated every hour, doesn’t it?”

And even though he’d not answered her question, she understood exactly what he meant. “So what do we do now?”

He looked in the direction his uncle had gone. “It will take my uncle a couple of days to come up with a new plot, I expect. Until then, we’ll hunt for Espinoza.”

“There’s no telling where that ship went,” she said. “Not once it left the bay.”

Duilio smiled slyly. “Do you think we were the only ones out in the water last night? Come on. I have a cab waiting at the top of the stair. At least, I hope it’s still there.”

Dressed in her plainest skirt and blouse, Oriana waited in the library, casting tired eyes over the bleached clamshells on the table. Duilio entered and closed the door behind him.

He settled in one of the chairs, holding his left arm close. “I forgot to thank you.”

Oriana shrugged. “You would have managed to get loose anyway, I think.”

“And drowned before I got to shore. I was disoriented, so I do owe you my life.” He reached over and touched gentle fingers to her abraded and bruised cheek. “I’m sorry about this.”

“Next time I’ll take two of your spare knives,” she said. “Did you tell your mother what happened?”

He backed away with a brisk shake of his head. “No, I’d prefer she not worry. She’s dealt with enough of my uncle’s games.”

“She called him a monster,” Oriana said.

“When I was abroad,” Duilio said in a musing tone, “I spent my days observing investigative forces across the continent. Trying to understand, among other things, why some men act as my uncle does–without conscience, without remorse–playing a game where they were the only ones who knew the rules, and could change those rules whenever it suited them. I suspect monster might be the closest word we have to describe men like that.”

“Without conscience,” she repeated. “Do you suppose the Artist has one?”

“All artists are mad, aren’t they?” he asked.

A rhetorical question. Oriana hated to voice her next words, but thought she must. “There were seals in the water. I could taste their passage nearby. I have to wonder if some of them were helping the ship to navigate the bay in the dark.”

Duilio didn’t seem surprised. “I knew the ship had to be coming in under moonless conditions,” he said, “which meant being led by someone who could see in the darkness. That left your people and the seal people.”

“But The City Under the Sea is a hazard for us,” she said. “I can’t see why any of the sea folk would help Espinoza.”

“I asked Erdano that a couple of days ago,” Duilio admitted. “He suspects a young male named Keridan might be involved. He’s a newcomer to the coast who’s been poaching Erdano’s females.”

Oriana let loose a pent breath, relieved he’d considered it already. “Then Espinoza must have found some way to convince him to help.”

“Keridan must believe he’ll enlarge his harem through helping.” Duilio shrugged and added, “To be honest, seal-men aren’t interested in much beyond the next female.”

Oriana smiled. “Is Erdano like that?”

“Yes,” Duilio said firmly. “And as you’re about to meet him, you should take that as a warning.”

The motor on the boat whirred and choked, burning kerosene with a nasty smell. Seated in the back, Oriana watched its man-sized paddlewheel turn, contemplating the thing’s clever design.

Braga Bay was surrounded by cliffs, the narrow strip of sands melding into rock. The water was calm and crystal clear, but the shore unfriendly to large boats, which made it an ideal spot for seals to bask in the sun.

Duilio drew the paddleboat up onto the shore and helped her out. He grabbed up a chart and directed her toward the center of the narrow beach. Seals grunted in surprise at their approach until the largest rose on its flippers and began to strip off his pelt. He cast it aside onto the sand and two of the females went to guard it where it lay.

The seal-man waited for them to approach, eyeing Oriana as they came. He was nude, his people having much the same view of such things as her own–clothing and seawater made a poor combination. She saw little resemblance to Duilio, save about the eyes. Erdano was larger and taller, and his wet hair curled against his neck and shoulders, where Duilio wore his cropped short in the current fashion.

When they’d gotten close enough, the man said, “Little brother.”

Duilio inclined his head and drew her forward. “Erdano, this is Oriana.”

“You’re much prettier than I expected,” Erdano told her.

“I’m not interested in being part of your harem,” Oriana said, hoping to discourage him.

He cast a sly smile at her, one much like his brother’s. “Only being friendly. What was it you said, little brother? That she would be your life or your death? Have you decided which she is, yet?”

“That remains to be seen,” Duilio said. “Were you able…”

Oriana set a hand on his good arm. “What did he mean?”

Duilio looked as if he were gathering widely-scattered thoughts, for once at a loss for words.

“He doesn’t know which you are,” Erdano inserted blithely. “He knows you’re important. He just doesn’t know why.” That didn’t go very far in explaining his earlier words. Her confusion must have shown, because the seal-man added, “Sometimes he knows things. Not like his uncle, but bits and pieces. What will be important and what won’t.”

“You’re a seer?” she asked Duilio.

He sighed heavily, and she decided he hadn’t wanted her to know. “All the men of my family are, to some extent. But I’m not like my uncle,” he told her. “It’s as Erdano says, only bits and pieces.”

“And you think I might be your death?”

His eyes met hers. “Did you not prove last night that you aren’t?”

But that had been last night, she reckoned.

Duilio turned back to his brother. “Were you able to follow the ship?”

Erdano nodded. “It went far down the coast to the green stone cove.”

“Which one is that?” Duilio asked, unfolding the chart.

His brother crossed muscular arms over his bulky chest. “On that? I can’t tell you.”

“The one with the hooked cliff, right?” Oriana asked Erdano. When he nodded, she pointed it out on the chart.

Duilio’s expression went pensive. “This map doesn’t show any buildings there.”

“Well, there is one now,” Erdano said. “I can show you exactly where.”

Half an hour later, Erdano sat at the paddleboat’s fore, dressed in human clothes. After another conference with his brother, Duilio came back and settled next to Oriana.

Night would come over them before long, and she couldn’t help but wonder if Duilio regretted coming out on the water again after the previous night’s near-drowning. “Why did you not want me to know that you’re a seer?” she asked.

Duilio sighed and said, “I worried you would think that I, like my uncle, was toying with you.”

“Ah,” she said. “Is that how you keep escaping your uncle’s traps?”

Duilio nodded. “I get a…twinge right before something bad happens. It keeps me one step ahead. That’s probably why he enjoys me so much. My brother and father were the same, but clearly they weren’t fast enough.”

And because of that trait, Oriana decided, Paolo Silva saw his own family as superior prey–more challenging. She rubbed her temples. “Is that why you consult for the police? Because you know things?”

“It’s a responsibility,” he said.

Too many people among the city’s upper crust had no concept of responsibility to others. She’d seen that in her year with Isabel. His uncle didn’t seem to share that view, either.

“Why do you serve your people as you do?” Duilio asked in turn.

“My family has always served,” she admitted. “Most of our people cannot hide what they are. Their skin is too silvery or their feet too wide, but my line can still pass for human.”

He cast an unsubtle look at her skirt’s damp and clinging hem, the corners of his eyes wrinkling. “I hadn’t actually noted your feet. Are they large?”

“Not overly so, although definitely too big for fashion.” She lifted her skirt enough for him to see her shoes, amused by the turn their once-serious conversation had taken.

“They seem to be perfectly serviceable feet.”

“Well, the shoes pinch,” she admitted.

“If you come back to the house,” he said quietly, “no one would comment if you went about unshod. Or without the mittens, for that matter. Our servants are very discreet, you know, and absolutely loyal. They’re accustomed to Erdano visiting.”

It was a jarring thought. Not that she might go without shoes or mittens there, but rather that she might go back to the Ferreira house at all. She’d assumed that once Espinoza was found and exposed, their connection would end. But she might get Duilio killed in the next few hours, or be killed herself. And she must still return to her master and report what had happened. She couldn’t plan beyond that.

Duilio had been watching his brother meanwhile, and leaned closer to add, “Actually, Erdano’s seduced a few of the maids, so ‘accustomed’ is probably too weak a word. They pine for him to visit.”

Oriana laughed at his long-suffering tone, and Duilio rolled his eyes.

Erdano pointed at the cliffs. “There. That’s where the ship went in.”

So Duilio rose and manned the tiller, leaving her to think.

They shut off the motor as they approached. Duilio and Erdano each took an oar and rowed, and the paddleboat slipped silently into the cove in the twilight.

“There it is.” Erdano pointed to a large yacht moored next to the wide pier that extended into the water. “I remember the strange arm.”

A crane took up most of the ship’s deck, at the moment unencumbered. Now Duilio knew how the replicas were suspended over water before being dropped. “Pull up next to it.”

They guided the small boat into the larger one’s shadow where none on the shore would see it. Duilio slipped off his frock coat. He laid it atop the quiescent motor’s housing, then climbed on that and jumped to catch the ship’s railing. He pulled himself up enough to scan the yacht’s deck, and turned back. “I’m going to see if anyone’s aboard.”

Oriana had her mouth open to protest, but he’d already swung one leg over the rail and climbed up. He signaled for her to stay in the paddleboat and slipped over to the side of the main cabin. When he didn’t hear any movement, he climbed the ladder into the steering compartment of the ship.

The light had begun to fail, but he spotted a chart on a low table–a map of The City Under the Sea. Duilio frowned at it, trying to sort out the pattern he saw there. In a spidery hand, someone had marked the names of the first five houses sunk in the bay, along with dates that seemed to tally with what he recalled. The later houses were drawn in as well, but in a strong slanted hand that looked familiar. It had to be his uncle’s writing.

Duilio rolled up the chart and tucked it under his arm. Then he headed for the steps that would lead down to the captain’s cabin. The cabin was dark, but on a fine table near the door, he spotted a box of matches and struck one. In the sudden flare of light, he could make out the entire room. On the wall above the captain’s bed, a seal’s pelt hung.

Oriana stepped into the center of the paddleboat. She’d spotted a dory hung from a winch on the side of the ship, meant for escape or some other pursuit. It had a crumpled spot on its prow, for some reason familiar to her.

Erdano came to stand next to her. His hand touched her shoulder and then slid down to the small of her back. He turned his warm eyes on her and said, “I’ve never had one of your women before, but I hear you’re not as cold as you appear.”

Oriana gave him a hard look. “I have very sharp teeth.”

He smiled down at her, apparently undeterred. “Perhaps later, then.”

“I wouldn’t make any plans.”

Duilio slipped over the yacht’s rail and dropped to the paddleboat’s decking, a bundle tucked under one arm. “Plans for what?”

“It doesn’t matter.” She looked pointedly at the bundle.

Duilio turned to his half-brother with a disgusted expression. “Erdano, keep your hands off her.”

“She’s too pretty not to have a man. I had to try,” his brother said.

“No, you didn’t,” Duilio snapped.

“Don’t worry over me,” she said. “He would be no more successful than your uncle was–only I wouldn’t start with biting his hand.”

Duilio inclined his head as if to acknowledge her ability to take care of herself. He set a rolled-up chart atop the boat’s engine housing and shook out the dusty bundle he held–a pelt. “Erdano, is this what I think it is?”

Erdano sniffed the pelt almost reverently. “It’s Mother’s.”

Duilio nodded jerkily. “There are nail holes in it.”

“They’ll heal,” Erdano said, stroking the recovered item. “They’ll be painful, but in time they’ll heal.”

Grimly, Duilio turned back to Oriana and opened out the chart. “The first few houses are marked on here by Espinoza, I assume. But after that, they’re in my uncle’s hand.”

Oriana felt pieces coming together in her mind. She looked up at him as he tugged his coat back on. “The dory.” She pointed to the small boat. “It looks like the one your uncle pulled me into that night. He could have set down to wait for me and sent the ship back here.”

Duilio nodded. “He’s taken over this yacht. Everything in the captain’s cabin looked to be his. He must have disposed of Espinoza and continued his work…only with a few added details.”

“You did say there weren’t any bodies in the first five houses.” It seemed that Paolo Silva had, as Duilio predicted, found a new source of amusement–which meant that his nephew had truly become expendable to him. A sudden thought occurred to her. “Isabel’s death. He chose her to involve me in this.”

Duilio folded up the chart, shaking his head. “Don’t try to figure out his web. You’d be wasting your time. We can never know what he foreknew.” He sighed, and added, “This is circumstantial evidence at best. Not enough for the police to defy the Prince’s order. We need more.”

Erdano pointed toward the beach. “Well, there’s that building. I saw it when I came here last night, all lit up. We’ll have to go inland, though.”

They rowed the paddleboat to the shore and tied it in the brush at the edge of the cove. After they’d secured the pelt and the chart within, Oriana climbed from the boat and fell into step next to Duilio. “Next time, I go with you.”

He cast an annoyed glance back at Erdano. “I apologize. I didn’t think he would attempt a seduction.”

“This has nothing to do with him,” she said. “You shouldn’t go alone. This could be a trap.”

“Oh, I’m sure it is,” Duilio said. “It’s just a matter of how well we handle it.”

From the cliffs overlooking the cove, Oriana could see the building not far inland. They sat in the brush for some time, watching for activity with a spyglass. The building appeared to be a workshop. There were lights within, visible through the arched openings.

Duilio handed Oriana the glass. “Look inside. Do you see what I see?”

She held it to one eye and squinted. Through the arches, she could see houses, more than a dozen, already completed. Espinoza must have built them, but hadn’t had the opportunity to place them in the bay. Silva evidently had use for them, though. “Why is he waiting to sink them?”

“I don’t know,” Duilio said. “Perhaps to cover his tracks, to make certain he has alibis?”

“Or to capture someone from the appropriate house?” She raised the glass to her eye again and saw movement in the shadows of the workshop, and then two men came forward into the light. One looked to be Duilio’s age, dark and carelessly dressed. And the other…

“Your uncle,” she said, pointing Silva out with one hand.

Erdano shifted closer, the heavy scent of seal-musk about him tickling Oriana’s nose. “He’s there? Let’s get him.”

“Don’t jump ahead,” Duilio warned. “Take a look, Erdano, and see if that’s your rival.”

Erdano took the glass and gave it a doubtful look. Duilio mimicked holding it to one eye, and Erdano did so. “Ah,” he said. “Keridan it is, there. So what do we do?”

“Well, we could set fire to the place,” Duilio suggested. “And the ship. That would keep them from placing any more of those houses in the…”

He reached over abruptly and snatched the glass back from his brother. After adjusting it, he cursed under his breath.

“What is it?” Oriana’s eyes couldn’t see as far on land.

He handed the glass back to her, and pointed. “See there, in the shadows. A couple of men are rolling out one of the houses.”

Squinting through the glass, Oriana caught sight of a pair of white-smocked men pushing a large cart toward the dock. On it was the replica of a dark house, shrunk down to a size no larger than a coach, one side still open to view. The exterior wood had been carved to look like stone and stained dark. It was, Oriana realized with a sinking feeling, the Ferreira house.

She set a hand on Duilio’s arm. “Who would they have?”

“I don’t know,” he murmured. “I wonder if they’re counting on having us.”

A trap, as he’d feared. Oriana watched the men moving the cart closer, onto the sand and from there onto the wide pier where the ship waited. She was not going to be tied inside that house to watch Duilio die.

A coach emerged from the trees behind the workshop and stopped up near the pier, visible to them without the glass. The driver stepped down and went around to the far side of it. A moment later he and another man headed toward the yacht carrying between them the limp body of a woman in a brown dress.

Duilio dropped the glass. He jumped to his feet, and ran downhill past Oriana toward lower ground and the dock. Oriana turned and saw Erdano gone as well; he’d dived from the cliff into the water below. She grabbed up the glass, but didn’t bother to look. She didn’t need to see to know that those men carried Lady Ferreira–and now her two sons were both headed into the very trap they’d feared.

Oriana climbed to the top of the cliff to get a better vantage. The two workmen and the coach’s drivers stood on the dock with the Seer and Keridan. Duilio ran along the sand, cutting toward the dock. Oriana spotted Erdano’s dark head in the water. Unfortunately, so had the Seer. With a bandaged hand, he pointed out Erdano to his accomplice. Then Silva raised his other hand, something dark glinting in it. He aimed it at Duilio.

Seeing that, Oriana chose the only weapon she had–she sang.

Duilio felt his feet slow, an ethereal sound tearing his attention away from the scene before him. He stopped on the sands and tried to quiet his harsh breathing so he could hear it better. He needed to find the source.

He scanned the wooded cliff with desperate eyes. Then he realized what he was hearing. He ground his teeth together and jammed fingers into his ears.

His head buzzed as if a fly were trapped inside. He wanted nothing more than to remove the fingers jammed into his ears and let it out, but if he did he would find himself swimming toward that cliff, unable to help answering Oriana’s call. And with his hands occupied in shutting off his hearing, he was next to useless.

He turned back to the dock where his mother lay forgotten. One of the two men who’d carried her had jumped off the dock into the water and swam toward the cliffs. The second stood on the edge of the planks. After a moment, he too jumped.

Duilio ran toward his mother’s side, keeping his eyes on the men who’d gone in pursuit of Oriana’s call. As the first approached the cove’s far shore, Duilio saw that the second would never do so. The man clearly didn’t know how to swim. The two shop workers had apparently gone into the water also, neither faring well.

His uncle and Erdano’s rival stood on the dock near the replica of the house, gazing at that cliff. Oriana’s call wouldn’t affect the seal-man the same way it would a human, but Silva seemed mesmerized.

Duilio knelt next to his mother’s limp form. She was still breathing. He closed his eyes for a second and said a grateful prayer.

Then he turned his eyes on his uncle. The man held a pistol in his unbandaged hand, lax now but a threat anyway. As Duilio watched, Erdano rose out of the water next to the pier where the villains stood, wrapped a hand about his rival’s ankle, and yanked him off the planks. The younger seal-man fell backwards and then tumbled into the water.

Duilio ran down the dock toward his uncle. Despite his blocked ears, he knew exactly when Oriana stopped singing. He dropped his hands, looked to where she’d stood on the cliff and saw that the first swimmer had almost reached her vantage point. At some point she’d stripped off her blouse and skirt. She dove, the last light of the sunset flashing off her iridescent skin. The motion carried her out past the reaching hands of her pursuer and into the water of the cove below.

He’d been holding his breath, Duilio realized.

His gift warned him then–a heart-stopping twinge–and he dropped to the planks. He heard the report of a gun and a bullet burned past his shoulder. Hissing, he slapped a hand over the wound and hoped his uncle was old-fashioned enough to carry a single-shot weapon. A delay told him he’d gotten lucky. He drew his own revolver.

“You missed,” he yelled in his uncle’s direction. Not strictly the truth, but the stinging wound on his shoulder was only a graze.

“This time,” his uncle called back from behind the shelter of the house’s replica. “But your mother–she’s lying right where I can see her.”

Duilio rose slowly, gauging where he’d heard that voice. He moved between his uncle and mother and spread his hands wide. Then he slowly bent down and laid his revolver on the pier. “You have the advantage, Uncle.”

A smirk on his face, Paolo Silva stepped from behind the replica, his pistol trained on Duilio’s chest. “She has always been your greatest weakness, boy. At least you can go together.”

Duilio refused to shut his eyes. If his uncle intended to shoot him in cold blood, he would have to do it face to face. The man stepped closer, seeming to relish his victory.

Then he cried out. The point of a knife emerged through the top of his boot, shoved up from between the planks. Silva jerked back and shot downward at the dock itself. A flash of silver sped away under the clear water.

Duilio charged him. He slammed his uncle down to the pier. The pistol skittered away and fell off into the water below. Duilio set his arm across his neck.

“You can’t kill me,” his uncle gasped. “Don’t you want to know how your father died?”

Furious, Duilio shoved himself away. He rose and stared down at his uncle. That the man would try to manipulate him with his last breath sickened him.

But now that his chance had come, Duilio didn’t think he could kill Paolo Silva in cold blood.

He stood there for a moment, breathing hard, thinking fast. “You can tell the police,” he finally said, “when I take you in.”

Paolo Silva laughed, a dry sound. “And I’ll tell them what they can find in your household–your mother, your pretty fishling lover. Come on, boy, you can’t win that way.”

The report of a gunshot echoed off the cliffs, and Paolo Silva’s body jerked. His eyes went wide.

Duilio turned and saw his mother only a dozen feet behind him, his revolver gripped tightly in her shaking hands. She pulled back the hammer, a grimace on her face, and fired again…and again.

Oriana stood farther away on the pier, her expression grim.

“Mother, stop,” Duilio said softly.

She dropped her hands, and the revolver fell to the wooden planks. “Monster,” she said. “He was a monster.” She began to cry, repeating that over and over.

Duilio helped her to sit down on the edge of the wide pier. He stripped off his frock coat and handed it to Oriana, who slipped it on without a word of protest. She wiped her knife on the inside lining. He felt an urge to go and wrap his arms about her, to keep her close, a response he didn’t think stemmed from having heard her call.

“Thank you,” he told her again as he sat down next his mother.

“I really hated that man,” his mother said softly.

“So did I,” Oriana assured her.

Duilio didn’t see the need to add his redundant feelings. He looked about, trying to decide what should be done. Only one of the four men who’d jumped into the bay seemed to have survived. That one stumbled along the beach, clutching his head.

Erdano pulled himself up on the pier. Blood seeped from a shallow gash across his forehead.

“What happened to you?” Duilio asked.

“Keridan won’t be coming back into my territory for a few years.” Erdano glanced up Oriana as he said it, as if to inquire whether she was impressed by that fact. She simply stared down at him impassively, so he turned back to Duilio and asked, “Did you tell Mother what you found?”

“We’ll do that later,” he said, reckoning that she needed to rest before dealing with the pain the nail holes would bring.

Erdano sighed, sounding exasperated. “Well, weren’t we going to burn things?”

The police wouldn’t want to touch this mess, especially not with the Prince’s pet seer dead.

Duilio glanced at the body of his uncle, then at the replica of his own home sitting on the dock. Inside he could make out two wooden chairs, a small tea-tray settled between, with pieces of china likely purloined from his own kitchen. “I think that can still be arranged.”

Duilio’s mother finally succumbed to sleep, clutching the retrieved pelt tightly to her chest. Oriana left her and found Duilio sitting in the library, drinking brandy and ignoring his injured arm. Blood had dried on his ruined sleeve, but she could smell it, along with the brandy and the scent of ambergris.

“You should be putting that brandy on your wound,” she chided him.

Duilio chuckled and swirled the liquor in his glass before glancing up at her. “Did you talk to your master?”

“Yes.” Eventually, when the houses broke loose of their chains and drifted ashore, there would be horror and dismay once the bodies inside were discovered. The police would have evidence then that the Prince could not suppress. Oriana had done what she could, but she doubted anyone would recognize Isabel’s ruined face. Her family would never know the truth.

“And what will happen to you?” Duilio rose to face her, his seal-brown eyes concerned.

“I’ll have to explain to my master’s superiors why I didn’t return when he ordered,” she said. “I can only hope they are forgiving.”

“Must you go?” he asked.

A question she had asked herself a hundred times in the last few days. She sighed. “I must. It’s my duty.”

“I’ll pray they understand, then.” When she said nothing, he added, “Any time you need a safe haven, our house will be open to you.”

It was a generous offer, one she hoped she might be able to accept someday. “My master expected me to be on my way by dawn,” she told him, “so I need to leave now.”

Duilio pressed his lips together as if he wished to say more, but finally settled on, “I’ll walk you to the shore.”


J. Kathleen Cheney is a former teacher and has taught mathematics ranging from 7th grade to Calculus, with a brief stint as a Gifted and Talented Specialist.  She is a member of SFWA, RWA, and Broad Universe.  Her works have been published in Jim Baen’s Universe, Writers of the Future XXIV, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Fantasy Magazine, among others.  Her website can be found at www.jkathleencheney.com. 

This story was later expanded to a series available from Ace Books.

This entry was posted in Fiction, Past. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Abyss & Apex : First Quarter 2011: Of Ambergris, Blood, and Brandy

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Of Ambergris, Blood, and Brandy | Abyss & Apex -- Topsy.com

  2. Pingback: 1Q 2011 Small Press Book Reviews | Abyss & Apex

  3. Pingback: Of Ambergris, Blood, and Brandy | J. Kathleen Cheney

  4. Pingback: Snow Day Reading : Escape Pod

  5. Pingback: Snow Day Reading Science Fiction MashUp

  6. Pingback: Recent Online Reading: Short Notes about Short Stories | The World Remains Mysterious

  7. Pingback: GENRE « FictionDaily

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *