RED SAT UP, A scream scratching at his throat. Cold sweat beaded his brow; his body shaking from effect of the unbelievable nightmare. No more spiced foreign mead for him—never again. It wasn’t worth this.
His gaze focused, and he realized he didn’t know where he was. There was no scent of salt, or the sound of lapping waves against the hull. Instead of a berth and wooden walls, he found himself in a narrow room made of sandstone. Light trickled in through the rough doorway and showed him he was sitting on a woven mat covered by a thin blanket.
He gasped as the realization the nightmare might be real splashed over him. Not wanting to, yet finding he possessed no other choice, Red looked down at himself. The body he saw was not his own.
Everything was smaller, more delicate. He wasn’t even a man anymore— a quick, awkward check of his attributes brought home that fact like an anchor dropping at port. The only thing that felt normal was his hair, which was still as red and thick as ever. He also still had his hard-earned tan, the pale skin he’d been born with tending to burn and its current state a work of long years. His arms and legs were well defined from doing heavy work but still seemed different because of the packaging.
It was as if his mother had given birth to a girl instead of a boy.
The woman Ylis’s final words echoed once more in his head—You are what you could have been had your fate been different. His mind revolted against such a thing being possible. Panic gathered at the corners of his soul. His breathing grew labored, and the room started to spin.
“No!” Red smashed his small fist against his thigh. He focused on the pain, glad he could feel it, knowing fainting would gain him nothing. But what was he going to do about this madness?
A shadow filled the doorway.
“Ah, I see you’re awake.”
Red shot to his feet, recognizing the figure only too well—it was Ylis. The thin blanket covering him fell forgotten to the floor.
“You witch! Why have you done this to me? Change me back right now!”
Totally ignoring his outburst, she inspected his naked form from top to toe.
“The transformation was a total success. You feel healthy, yes? Nothing hurts?”
Red took a step toward her, his bare feet slapping against the cool stone floor.
“None of that matters. Change me back this instant!”
Ylis stared him dead in the face, her expression calm. “I will not.”
Heat flushed through Red as his anger flamed to rage.
“You will!” Despite his nakedness and the fact he had no weapon, he threw himself at her. His center of gravity wasn’t quite right, but this was only a fleeting thought in the far reaches of his mind. He wanted his life back, his body back, and this woman was denying it to him.
Ylis flowed forward, her sleeves flaring as she expertly intercepted him in mid-leap, flipped him, and thumped him down hard, one hand behind his head to keep it from hitting the floor.
Although his back and buttocks stung from smacking the stone, Red heaved with all his might to get back up. Ylis’s open palm smashed into his midriff, driving out all of his air.
“Calm yourself. Violence will gain you nothing.”
Red was in no shape to comment. He struggled to regain his breath, glaring his displeasure at her, since he could do little else.
“Your new condition will not be permanent.” She stared at him, concern clearly showing on her face. “Please listen to what I have to say. You’ll then understand why things have come to be as they are.”
She let him go and backed away then sat down cross-legged in the doorway. Still wheezing, Red turned on his side and slowly sat up. His new body was weak. He wasn’t sure just exactly what kind of fighting style the woman had used, but it shouldn’t have been that easy for her to overpower him. If he’d had his real body, it wouldn’t have been. Or so he told himself.
The situation only got worse by the moment.
“Say whatever it is you have to say, witch. But it’ll change nothing.”
Ylis nodded in his direction and tucked her hands into her sleeves, as if trying to reassure him.
Red reached over for the discarded blanket and wrapped it about his lower half to keep his skin from the chilly floor.
“Just get on with it.”
If she got distracted enough telling her tale, perhaps he’d get an opportunity to have at her again. His shape might be different, but he still knew how to hurt people. She’d caught him by surprise before.
Ylis nodded again then seemed to take a moment to gather her thoughts before beginning.
“A very delicate situation has arisen in Syrras recently. A tragedy has occurred, one which should never have happened. Which I should not have allowed to happen.” She paused for a moment, a fleeting look of pain crossing her face. “I am Grand Magister Ylis. I serve He Who is Most Honored by the Gods, Orthos Cloaustrain Lorraxia Tumil.”
The string of names meant absolutely nothing to him.
The magister’s brows gathered for a moment.
“I believe his position would be equivalent to your term of king.”
Red barked a laugh, surprised by the answer.
“And servants of the king just go around kidnapping foreign sailors and turning them into girls? For what? His Royal Pleasure?”
Ylis’s face lost all expression. Her voice turned cold.
“His Magnificence is dead. Including you, there are only four people in this world who are aware of that grievous fact.”
This brought Red up short, all thoughts of violence momentarily forgotten.
“You’re not making any sense. What does that have to do with me? And with this?” He pointed at his changed body, suppressing a shudder as he was forced to acknowledge the changes yet again.
Ylis raised a hand to forestall any further questions. Red was glad to note there were no drawings on her palm, especially of creepy blinking eyes.
“The Highest of the High died in his sleep less than one of your weeks ago. She Who Sits on the Most Honored’s Right, Lyara Orthos Tumil, discovered him thus before the servants arrived to awaken him. She contacted me immediately, and I was able to ascertain the Most High didn’t die of natural causes, though it very much appeared so. I am still working to identify the exact poison used to arrange his demise.”
Red shook his head, his face twisting with distaste. Poison was a coward’s weapon. He’d once seen the effects of bane’s blood on a fellow sailor who’d boasted a little too much about his conquests to the wrong ears. White foam had filled his mouth and fallen from his lips as blood blossoms formed all over his face and arms. He’d fallen twitching to the floor and within minutes breathed no more. It was a ghastly way to go.
“If it left no external trace on the body, how do you know it was poison?”
Ylis’s brow rose.
“I am a magister,” she said, as if this were the only explanation required.
“I see…” He changed positions, finding the hard stone quite uncomfortable. Ylis never moved, appearing to be able to maintain the same pose till the end of time. It annoyed him. “I still don’t see how this has anything to do with me.”
“The death of His Magnificence must be kept secret for the time being. However, those involved in the original poisoning will realize something hasn’t gone as planned as all they continue to hear is that the Most High has taken ill. They will surely attempt something else, so there is very little time to find the truth.
“At the moment, the Most Blessed is doing her utmost to keep things balanced and the Most High’s true condition secret. Yet the Most Blessed needs to be kept safe, and the culprits need to be found. The majority of my energies, however, are diverted elsewhere, so alternate means to do this had to be found. This is why you’re involved.”
Red could say nothing for several seconds, totally stunned.
“What? Are you saying you did this to me because you need a lousy watchdog to sniff out the killer and protect the queen? What about the royal guards? You must have plenty of people who work for you that are more than capable of solving the crime!”
Ylis shook her head.
“It is not as simple as that. Please understand, we have no idea how the Highest was poisoned. He was surrounded by his most trusted people at all times, yet it was done. It was even likely committed by one of them.” Her gaze locked with his. “Too much is at stake due to matters I don’t have time to speak of now. As things stand, we can afford to trust no one. Only to a person such as yourself, who has never been here, who has little to no knowledge of our people or our city, someone who is not involved, dare we risk giving our confidence.”
“If a stranger is all you needed, then why all this? Why change me?”
The left corner of Ylis’s lips curved up.
“This has not been left to mere chance. Through the use of meditation and spells, the All guided me to you. And who would believe someone who looks like you do now capable of much of anything? It is to our advantage.”
Red stood up, holding his blanket tighter about him, humiliated by her words despite the fact this new body wasn’t his.
She nodded, conceding the fact.
“The change is also something that can be held over you, to force you to cooperate. Trust can always be bought away, but not if there is something the person needs, something the other side cannot possibly provide.” She stared at him intently, obviously interested in how he would react to this.
Red felt his anger returning.
“Kidnapping, extortion—you think these tactics are going to make me want to help you?”
She shocked him by bowing to the floor.
“I endanger everything by telling you what I have, for though it may seem as if I have the upper hand, the wrongs I’ve done you will only restrain you so far. Once we leave here, it would be nothing for you to spill our secret and bring us all to ruin before I could stop you.”
He stared at her bowed head in surprise, already having decided he would do whatever he could to get away from her. Screaming what she’d told him out at the top of his lungs had definitely been an option. Someone out there would understand him. And she was aware of it, yet had taken the risk anyway. It only served to make all this even more confusing.
“We are desperate, or we wouldn’t be doing as we are. There is much you do not know or understand, and as I’ve said, I have no time to explain. The longer we remain here, the longer she is alone and the greater chance there is our charade will be discovered.”
“Change me back and I might consider helping you. I might even keep silent about the things you’ve told me.” He knew he had no real leverage to make her do anything, but he hated having his hands tied. This whole thing was ludicrous. It made no sense they had to go to extremes like this.
Ylis straightened back up and slowly shook her head.
“I cannot. The energy and preparation for what was done to you took days to put together. The divinations to uselessly try to determine who did the deed and then to find you have drained me even more. I am at my limit.”
She stood up. For the first time, Red noticed the faint dark circles under her eyes, the lines of strain on her face.
“All I can give is being diverted elsewhere.” She lifted her robe off her right leg, where an incredibly complex set of drawings wound up her flesh, continuing past the raised hem. What that spell was for, he had no idea.
“Only once the current trouble has been averted will I be able to change you back.”
Red frowned, not sure if he should believe her. Aside from being vague, her explanations sounded contrived and convenient.
“I swear by the One Spirit and the All you shall be as you were once the threat is past.” Her gaze locked with his again. “But that will only happen if you help us.”
None of it made sense. Even as she denied him, she begged for his trust and aid. Was the situation worse than she’d said so they couldn’t risk trusting anyone without strings? He’d seen enough backstabbing in the merchant business to know words only bound most men as long as it was convenient.
His mouth turned further down. He liked this less and less.
“Your gods mean nothing to me, but hear me and hear me well. I will help you, and if, by the heavens and earth and all the gods and people in between, you don’t come through on your word, there is no place in this world or the next where you will be safe from me.”
And if, in the meantime, he found a way to get out of this without having to wait for her, so much the better.