“I’M IN.” RED LEANED back against the wooden bar, a nice buzz ringing in his head from the spiced mead served by the locals. He wiped a bit of foam from his neatly trimmed beard.
Lucas gave him a pleased, lopsided grin.
“Okay, just so we perfectly understand each other—the stake is twenty slivers.”
Red nodded, his gaze following a yellow vein in the red sandstone walls around them. This was the first time he’d been in a tavern made from a hole in a cliff. The crudely formed wooden tables and benches, pitted and cut by the waves of mostly foreign customers over time, however, were like any he might have run across in Mulatian ports. The smell of sweat and watered ale were the same as well, even if the over-spiced scent of the cheap food curled his nose hairs.
But the walls, the ceiling…
He took a slow sip from his mug.
As amazed as he’d been when he’d gazed at the port through the spyglass, he’d been more so when one of the men at the embassy told them this port was the only point of contact with outsiders for the small country of Wasef. He didn’t know enough yet about the place to guess if it was in order to protect their way of life or some hidden reason.
“You’ll have a count of a thousand to make your move.” Lucas leaned in close, his curls circling his handsome tanned face. “Only a thousand. And the time starts the moment you open your mouth.”
Red waved the stipulation away as inconsequential. He slid Lucas a questioning glance.
This was a game the two of them played often. It was yet to be seen whether it was a boon or disaster that he’d drawn first round in this new, unknown place. The possibility of danger and adventure, however, gave it points to the positive.
“Oh, I think things will be difficult enough as they stand, my friend.” Lucas winked, not entirely steady on his feet. “The first one through the doorway should do.”
As if summoned by his words, the strings of beads over the entrance parted as a cowled figure came inside. When the person hesitated,Red stood up straighter and tugged down on his vest. Even though the newcomer was covered in brownish-red cloth from head to foot, it was hard to disguise the unique gait of a woman, if you knew what to look for.
She ventured farther into the room, turning her head as her hidden gaze traveled over the different groups of foreigners currently taking their leisure there. Three Almirians sat sourly at a corner table, ignoring everyone else, their orange-stained skin clashing with the natural color of the sandstone. Four Boldovians in steel and furs were taking turns arm-wrestling anyone who came near. A loud clump of laughing and drinking Trillian workers, turbans and loincloths wrapped in intricate patterns over their bodies, took up the left wall.
Red waited until she looked in his direction and gave her his most elaborate bow. Watching Lucas and his efforts to woo all the women in the land did have advantages.
“Madam, I am new to these waters, and you seem a kindly soul. Might I buy you some refreshment in exchange for a few moments of your time?”
The woman’s head tilted at his words, and he felt her gaze roam over him. It occurred to him she might not have understood him. Perhaps his smile would do what his words had not. He sauntered closer. He wasn’t sure if it was the strong mead, the unfamiliar atmosphere, or the fact this was the first woman he’d ever approached not belonging to the Thirteen Kingdoms; but it was like advancing on a bastion of power, he a mere horseman faced with the immensity of a closed keep. Then the feeling was gone. She looked up at him, and his green eyes met dark-brown ones.
“From my spirit to yours.”
She made a sweeping gesture with her hand from her chest toward his. Red had seen the sign before and knew it for a greeting but hadn’t heard it spoken in his language before. He had no idea how to respond.
“Uhm, yes, you as well.”
“Your hair is quite unusual. What is your name?” Her voice was deep and rich.
“Red. Everyone calls me Red.”
Her intense gaze rested on his shoulder-length hair for a moment.
“Would you be surprised to hear that I was led to you?”
His brow rose, as he wondered if perhaps she’d had more to drink than he. A bet was a bet, though, and no way would Lucas accept excuses. Plus, Red hated to lose.
“My hair does make me rather hard to miss.”
“Yes, red is a good portent when taken as representing fire. Fire burns, cleans, exposes. It is an excellent omen.” She looked pleased. “The elements have guided me wisely.”
Was it going to be this easy? She sounded like a nutter, but a lay was a lay, and a bet was a bet. It didn’t hurt that his toes tingled at the possibility of things unexpected.
His hair color was rather uncommon, especially in the southern portions of Mulatia. It had previously given him an edge here and there with the women—and against Lucas’s oozing charm he needed all the assistance he could get—but never this much. It would be a new record. He guessed his kind were even rarer out in the world than he imagined. Or she was truly drunk.
“I have a skiff tied outside. Shall we go?”
Choking sounds and the clatter of a dropped mug echoed from behind him. Red threw his friend a quick look over his shoulder and grinned.
“Sounds good.” He slipped the woman’s arm through his. “What should I call you?”
She leaned in close, using her cowl to conceal her lips as she spoke only loudly enough for him to hear.
“Ylis. My name is Ylis.”
He thought the whole process rather odd, as no one was looking their way, but made no comment. He didn’t know the customs of this city. It was half of what made this game better than ever before.
The scents of river and sea swirled around them as they stepped outside. The sun was already below the horizon, and most of the light had fled the sky, leaving a field of purple and black. The noise at this, the lowest level of the cliff face, was now but a murmur compared to what it’d been during daylight.
A lamp outside the bar lit the path cut into the cliff, the same as the businesses. It revealed a covered skiff on the far side, tied to one of the narrow floating docks that extended up and down the waterway. A small lantern hung suspended from the sweeping neck at the front of the skiff, imitating the other boats parked or moving along the Tanu River. The mass of them gave the impression of a multitude of fireflies buzzing over the water.
Red hopped down to the dock and extended a hand to help his companion. He spotted a fleeting smile as she ignored this and, with incredibly light feet, bounced down to the dock and then the boat without hardly disturbing either. He had the sudden feeling she might end up being a handful. He was rather looking forward to it.
As he climbed onto the skiff, Ylis signaled to a brown-skinned man at the stern then lifted the flap of the covered area in the middle and slipped inside. Red made sure there was no one else within first then followed.
He felt the boat separate from the dock and slide upriver. He frowned at the last as he sat down on a bench across his companion, trying to remember if the current of the river had seemed fast or slow when he’d looked at it before. A delicate wrought iron lamp hung from the arch of the covering but didn’t flicker like a normal flame would. Beneath it, on what would be the center of the boat, was embedded a round piece of lapis lazuli. Winding carvings colored in blue extended forward and aft on the spine of the boat.
Ylis noticed what he was looking at.
“Though I have heard it is different in other lands, here we follow the Wisdom of the All. Fire, earth, water, air, spirit—each with its strengths and weaknesses, each made more by the others and ourselves.
“The boat is tied to the water with these, and also to its owner. Together, they overcome the usual limitations and flow upstream.”
Red stared. She was talking about magic! He’d encountered it here and there in the different kingdoms in Mulatia, some fake, some real, but theirs came from the gods not the elements. And to have it being used on a skiff, of all things! Might be something worth investigating for the Sea Dragon. Being able to move against a current would be an awesome feat, indeed.
Ylis pulled her cowl back allowing Red to see her face fully for the first time. Her features were plain, thin lips and a wide nose on tan skin not making her particularly comely. Yet he still found himselfstrangely excited, for this woman was like none he’d seen. She wore no paints, no enhancements, and she had no hair. Her head was totally bald.
Although he’d been in port a few hours, he’d seen no one who looked like her before. Hairstyles for the women here seemed to vary by age, the young wearing it loose to their shoulders, those a little older in a multitude of braids and coiled into loops. The few wizened women he’d come across wore but one braid in a graying loop. None had been hairless. What did that make her?
On the right side of her face, swirling black tattoos covered her cheek and ear. A sense of presence surrounded her, which felt more intense in the enclosed space. There would definitely be stories to tell once this dalliance was over.
“Where are we going?”
“Not far.” Ylis rolled back one of her dark sleeves. “I thought we should have some privacy for our business.”
Red’s evaluating gaze noticed her arm wasn’t bare but rather sported runes in varied colors that continued to the unseen skin beneath her sleeve. He couldn’t tell if they were tattoos or only paint. Just what other enticing secrets lay hidden beneath the folds of her robe?
“This is your first time in Syrras, is it not?” She brought out a small box from beneath her bench and set it beside her.
“It is. We just arrived today. Haven’t really had a chance to look around much.”
“Truly? The One Spirit is generous indeed this night.”
She opened the box, and nestled within were bottles full of colors. She took out a small brush and removed the tops from three of the paints.
“Why is that?” Red never minded some conversation, but this one seemed a little odd. Maybe he should have learned more about the culture before just diving into this. But the thrill would have been less.
There was always a chance she might be part of a press gang and planned to kidnap him, although with her plain face, it seemed unlikely, despite how desperate for female companionship they might believe men who’d just come into port might be. He had his knife and his wits, and had seen and tussled with enough bandits in his home ports to know the signs. He was getting nothing like that fromher so far, although she was definitely a strange one. He’d have tales to take back and share with the others.
Ylis smiled, but her gaze never left the brush as she dipped it with great care into the reddest red he’d ever seen.
“All will be new to you. You won’t already have preconceptions to cloud your judgment.”
Red frowned. “Cloud my judgment on what?”
Were women like her taboo, perhaps? Or would there be some stigma attached to him for going with her he didn’t know about?
The brush tip touched the end of the strange runes and figures on her exposed arm. The paint seemed to glow for a moment then totally vanished from the brush as if it had never been there. She then dipped the tip into a deep brown color with odd sparkles of light. Red found his gaze trapped by it.
“Why are you here, Red?” Her voice had deepened, but it was hard to tell if it was from rising desire, concentration, or something else entirely.
“Here in this city, or here as in ‘with you’?” He was feeling more sober by the minute.
Additional swirls and runes formed on her wrist. New colors joined the first two.
“It’s what I do. The sea is my life.” He shrugged, his gaze still locked on her arm. “Coming here was a great opportunity, a chance to see new places, new people. And after weeks at sea, like any other man, I crave a little entertainment.”
“Forthright as well. Most interesting…” The runes extended over her palm.
Red forced his gaze away from it.
“What’s this about? Obviously, you have something different in mind than I do. A shame, really…” If this was some strange ruse to rob him, they’d be disappointed. He’d not been paid for this part of the voyage yet.
He felt behind him for the knife tucked in his belt against his back. It did seem like a lot of trouble for just one lone sailor, though, for either a press gang or thievery. He should have definitely paid more attention to the rumors and gossip about this place while at the embassy, even if it would have curbed some of the excitement.
“Indulge me a moment longer, if you would. Everything will become clear presently.” Ylis sounded distracted.
The enclosed space suddenly seemed too pressing. With a glance behind him, Red estimated how far he would have to roll backward to win clear of the covering. Then it would only be a short hop to dive into the water and be free of this strangeness.
With a satisfied sigh, Ylis placed the brush back inside the box and closed the lid. She shifted slightly and turned to look up at him. Her gaze met his, and Red got the uncomfortable feeling she knew his thoughts. Just what had he gotten himself into?
“Look.” She moved her hand so the palm faced in his direction. “It is complete.”
Despite his growing misgivings, he did as she asked. Swirls of blue and gold surrounded a ring of silver. Inside it, centered on her palm, was an eye.
Cold chills rushed to cover his arms with gooseflesh; he hadn’t the faintest idea how a drawing could do such a thing.
“By the Kings, what is…”
Ylis leaned forward, her palm lashing out. It struck him dead in the center of the chest. Red fell off the bench onto his back but barely noticed. His chest burned with cold and fire where she’d touched him, and faster than the ripples of water that formed from a thrown rock, the sensation spread through his whole body. He tried to move, to scream, but all was denied him. He could feel things within and without shifting—his bones, his muscles, his skin—as if his body had become self-aware and decided to change.
Then, all at once, it stopped.
“It is done.”
Feeling that his body was his again, Red tried to squirm away from her.
“What is done? What did you do?”
Something wasn’t right here. His voice sounded strange. The pitch was too high. His back smacked against the middle pole holding up the entryway. Using it for leverage, he stumbled to his feet. His right hand reached for his knife; the weapon seemed heavier than it should. He felt shaky and weak.
Fear grew in a tight kernel in his belly, although he wasn’t yet sure what was going on.
“Tell me what you did! Why do I feel like this?”
“You are what you could have been had your fate been different. Look.” Ylis didn’t hold her palm up like before but instead nodded toward him. Red glanced at her hand anyway and saw that all the paint and runes were gone. More magic!
He brought the knife up higher. It was then he noticed his hand. The blade looked larger than it should have in comparison. Then he realized the knife was not the problem, it was the hand. It wasn’t his!
Staring down at himself, he realized he was shorter, that his clothes hung on him loosely. Instead of the chest with the soft coating of red hair women enjoyed running their fingers through, beneath his sagging shirt he was hairless and sported a set of small, perky breasts.
He swallowed hard, a part of his mind screaming in denial. His breath came in short shallow gasps as he tried to make sense of what he was seeing. His eyes lost focus, his brain numbed as it fought to understand the impossible.
The interior of the skiff spun around him. A bone-deep weariness abruptly swept through him, as if he’d spent days swabbing the deck and fighting pirates. Blackness crowded the edges of his vision then swooped in, and although he fought internally to remain conscious, that, too, was soon denied him.