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Authors: Richard Lee Byers

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BOOK: Queen of the Depths
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She perceived that much in an instant but didn’t have the luxury of watching any more. She had to stay focused on the Talassan. Hurrying as quickly as she dared—it would do no good to botch the incantation—she commenced another spell. Had her opponent done the same, she likely would have finished first, but instead, he resorted to a different form of magic. He simply shook his spear at her, and suddenly he seemed huge, fearsome, more vivid and real than anything else in the world. The sheer, naked force of his anger made her want to turn and flee or grovel and beg for mercy.

She understood what was the matter. Most every priest possessed the ability to affright or command the undead, and some clerics exercised such powers against other sorts of beings as well. The Talassan apparently knew how to chasten creatures of the sea.

But mere comprehension didn’t negate the effect. She had to deny it. Push it out of her head. She snarled, “I am a waveservant!” and felt the compulsion crumble away.

By that time, though, the Talassan had reached the end of another conjuration. Distortion shimmered around his outstretched hand, and a shrill whine cut

through the air. He was attempting a sonic attack of his own, but to Tu’ala’keth’s surprise, his effort didn’t hammer and tear at her flesh. Instead, the silverweave shivered on her torso as if trying to shred itself to pieces. Her foe somehow recognized that if he destroyed it, she wouldn’t be able to breathe.

But the coral mesh held together. She chanted a prayer, and the few stray blades of grass pushing up between the flagstones at the human’s feet abruptly multiplied, thickened, and grew tall. For a split second, they undulated like eels then whipped around the human and yanked themselves tight, binding his limbs. They crawled higher still, seeking his head to gag, blind, and smother him.

The Talassan had no choice but to try to dissolve the effect. Otherwise, it would render him helpless. He started jabbering a counterspell, and Tu’ala’keth cried, “Silence!” The charge of magic infusing the word stole his voice only for an instant, but that was enough to spoil the rhythm of his conjuration.

Green strands coiled around his mouth then masked his face completely. He heaved and thrashed, lost his balance, and fell. Tu’ala’keth hefted her trident and ran at him.

“Enough!” Vurgrom bellowed.

Tu’ala’keth felt a pang of frustration and nearly defied the command. But to do so might hinder Umberlee’s cause, so she halted short of her target.

An instant later, the coils of grass burned away in a flash of fire. Even bound as he was, the Talassan had somehow managed to destroy them. He sprang to his feet, raised his spear over his head, and shouted rhyming words.

“I said, enough!” Vurgrom said. “The fight’s over, Kassur. The shalarin beat you, and her friend beat Chadrezzan.” The spectators cheered or groaned and swore, depending on their sympathies.

The man with the eye patch shuddered as if he found the words unbearable, as if the violence of his nature left him no choice but to ignore them. It made Tu’ala’keth feel an odd twinge of sympathy. They might be enemies, but they were also both priests of the Gods of Fury, and understood that by rights, a duel such as theirs should end in death.

But they were also trying to make their way among folk who lacked their sacred insights. So in the end, he broke off his conjuring and gave a curt, grudging nod, and she, too, forbore to strike at him again.

Several paces away, Chadrezzan lay on the ground with blood seeping from a torn lip, while Anton stood over him, cutlass poised to chop. But when the spy saw that the wizard intended to obey Vurgrom’s command, he grinned and reached to help him up. Chadrezzan spat, ignored the proffered hand, and rose on his own, moving in a slow, pained manner that suggested that, at some point during the fracas, Anton had kicked or kneed him in the crotch. The spy shrugged and sauntered back to Tu’ala’keth’s side.

“Good,” Vurgrom said. “Freebooters brawl, if they’re any good at their trade. It’s natural and gives the rest of us something to bet on. But I don’t see any point in letting you butcher one another when you could all be useful to the faction.”

“But in what roles?” asked the tattooed woman, her manner that of a protege seeking guidance of a mentor. “I’d like to bring all four of them aboard Shark’s Bliss, but I can’t lead a company that’s all officers and no common hands.”

The huge man chuckled. “It’s your ship and your decision, honey cake. I can only advise. Though I will say that I would never have taken all the prizes I have, nor won eternal fame, if I hadn’t favored men who’d already proved they knew how to win a fight.”

“Hmm.” “Honey cake” took a second, pretending

to deliberate, though it was plain to Tu’ala’keth that Vurgrom’s words had already decided for her. “Waveservant, Anton, my name is Shandri Clayhill. I’d like to bring you aboard Shark’s Bliss as ship’s priest and mage.”

“That’s outrageous!” Kassur exploded. “You already offered the positions to Chadrezzan and me, and he’s a master wizard, able to slay a dozen men or shatter a hull with a single spell. All you’ve seen this impostor do is cast a couple of petty charms.”

“He’s right, of course,” murmured Anton to Tu’ala’keth. “The mute’s a true magician, far more powerful than the likes of me. But I recognized him as an elementalist, and elemental magic isn’t dainty. It takes up space. So I hovered close to the crowd as I advanced on him, and he couldn’t throw his most potent spells at me for fear of hitting them as well. Vurgrom wouldn’t have stood for that.”

Captain Clayhill glanced at Vurgrom, evidently making sure KaBsur’s outburst hadn’t swayed him, then said, “My decision stands. But you and your comrade are welcome aboard the Bliss as well, on the understanding that, for the time being, anyway, you’ll serve as ordinary gentlemen of fortune, receiving one share each, not two.”

“We accept,” gritted Kassur, “for now.” He glared at Anton and Tu’ala’keth, and she answered with a sneer.

^ome of the folk in the boisterous crowd staggered or moved with exaggerated care. Others spoke too loudly or slurred their words. Despite the noise and the frequent jostling, a few snored, sprawling back in their chairs with limbs akimbo or with their heads cradled in their arms on wet, scarred tabletops.

Puzzled, Tu’ala’keth turned to Anton. “Is this a sick house?” she asked.

Anton grinned. “A tavern. Don’t you have taverns—and intoxicants, and drunks—in Seros?”

“We have intoxicants, but no establishments like this.”

“Well, now that you’re a pirate, you’d better get used to them.”

Captain Clayhill motioned to them, and

they followed her and the rest of her officers on through the press.

Toward the rear, the common area with its benches, hearth, and hard-packed bare-earth floor broke apart into hodgepodge of smaller rooms, niches, and closets fitted haphazardly together. The captain was evidently familiar with the layout, for she led her officers—save for Tu’ala’keth, a mix of humans and the stooped, brutish, gray-skinned race known as ores—straight to the private chamber she’d hired for the occasion.

Tu’ala’keth was grateful when the door shut out the noise and stink of the common room. Someone had already brought in pewter goblets and bottles of wine, and several of her companions made haste to pour themselves drinks, but she didn’t follow their example. No sea creature drank anything—or else, depending on how one looked at it, one drank constantly, simply by using one’s gills—but even if she had been susceptible to thirst, she would have been more interested in the map spread on the table, the curling corners weighted by extra cups.

She saw with relief that she could pick out the place Anton had specified when he’d sketched a far cruder chart in the sand. By her standards, she knew a fair amount about the shape of the world. She could have drawn a map of Seros in considerable detail. But she’d never had any reason to concern herself with what lay beyond its waters.

“Are you ready?” Captain Clayhill asked. Though still aglitter with jewels and frills, she was no longer the girlish sycophant taking her cues from Vurgrom. Away from him, she put on a harshness, a striding, shoving impatience, which had taken Tu’ala’keth by surprise.

“Yes,” the shalarin said.

“Then find us a worthy prize.”

“As you wish.” Tu’ala’keth seated herself, yet another action that felt clumsy in a medium as lacking in buoyancy as air. “It will be helpful if everyone stays quiet.”

The pirates settled to watch her. She gripped her skeletal pendant with one hand, poised the other over the chart, murmured words of praise to Umberlee, and pretended to slip into a trance.

It gave her a vague sense of shame. Her creed taught her to use every weapon and seize every advantage in the pursuit of her ends—to resort to subterfuge whenever she deemed it useful. Still she couldn’t help feeling it was one thing to lie about mundane matters, and something else, something akin to blasphemy, to claim she was employing her sacred gifts when, in fact, nothing of the sort was going on. Despite Anton’s assertions to the contrary, she had no more talent for divination than any other cleric.

But the spy insisted they needed to exploit her cachet as an exotic shalarin waveservant to further their mission. Since it was manifestly Umberlee’s will that the endeavor succeed, Tu’ala’keth swallowed her qualms as best she could.

She let the litany of praise fade into a wordless croon. She’d once known a genuine oracle who made sounds like that. When she felt the first phase of the charade had gone on long enough, she brought her index finger stabbing down.

Everyone leaned to see where she was pointing. “Saerloon,” Captain Clayhill said.

“I see docks,” droned Tu’ala’keth. The somnolent voice she’d adopted made her sound like the drunken men outside. “Buildings with a wall around them, an enclave accessible from land or sea. People bring bags and chests stuffed with gold to buy what the folk in the compound have to sell.”

“It all fitth tho far,” said Sealmid. He was the first mate, a human with a broken nose, many missing teeth and, in consequence, a lisp. “A good many rich traderth have a thetup like that. But which—”

Harl the helmsman, an ore whose garments of clashing colors were garish even by freebooters’ standards, shushed him.

“I see the men in charge,” Tu’ala’keth continued. “They carry staves and wands. They wear red.”

Everyone stared at her. Finally the helmsman said, “Are you talking about Thayans?”

“I do not know,” Tu’ala’keth said. She wanted them to believe that, as a gifted seer, she could perceive all matter of hidden things, but her instincts told her the ploy would be more convincing if her powers fell short of omniscience. “But Saerloon is not their homeland. They trade talismans and potions for heaps of yellow gold.”

“Thayanth,” Sealmid sighed. “All honor to the Bitch Queen, but thith doethn’t help uth.”

“Hear her out,” said Anton, his gaze fixed on Captain Clayhill. “Please.”

The pirate leader shrugged her tattoo-covered shoulders, where images of blossoms and butterflies mingled with skulls, snarling basilisks, and bloody swords. “I suppose we might as well.”

Tu’ala’keth rambled on, laying out the rest of the information in a disjointed sort of way, as if, in her daze, she failed to comprehend its meaning. She reckoned that too would make it seem as if she were plucking it from the spirit world as opposed to repeating facts and rumors Anton had gleaned during his years as a spy.

When she reached the end, she sat quietly for a moment then gave a little jerk as if waking from a doze. “What did I say?” she asked.

Harl gave her a yellow-fanged smile. “You told us

a lot, waveservant. Unfortunately, it was all about Thayans. Nobody raids Thayans. It’s bad luck.”

“The kind of bad luck where the Red Wizardth turn you into a worm or light you on fire like a candle when you try,” Sealmid said.

Tu’ala’keth scowled. “Umberlee has chosen these folk to be her prey, and ours. We will not fail.”

Captain Clayhill sat frowning, staring into the depths of her amber wine, then gave her head a shake. “If it worked, we’d make a fortune. But the risk is too great. I waited too long to command Shark’s Bliss to lose her now.”

According to Anton, in theory, pirate crews elected their captains, but the truth was more complex. On Dragon Isle, no one ascended to such a position without the approval of one of the several factions. Tu’ala’keth could readily believe Shandri Clayhill had spent a long, dreary time cultivating Vurgrom before he endorsed her aspirations.

“Try again,” the human continued. “Find us another target.”

Tu’ala’keth ostentatiously folded her arms. “No. The goddess has already spoken.”

Captain Clayhill glared. “I revere Umberlee, and I respect her clerics. But you’re one of my officers now, and you’ll follow orders.”

“Hold on,” Anton said. “Let’s at least discuss the Thayans before we give up all hope of robbing them. Tu’ala’keth has given us their secrets. That should enable us to discern their weaknesses and put together a plan to exploit them. What if….”

Pretending to devise it on the spot, he laid out his scheme. The notion was that she would prove herself a powerful seer and spellcaster, he would establish himself as a cunning strategist, and as a result, the pirates would come to hold them both in high regard.

After he finished, the reavers sat quietly for a heartbeat or two, pondering. Then Harl said, “It isn’t the stupidest plan I ever heard. I can halfway imagine it working.”

“Can you halfway imagine the part that cometh after?” Sealmid asked. “Thay we do escape with the loot. Then a bunch of the really powerful Red Wizardth get together and lay a curthe on uth.”

“They have an ugly reputation,” Anton said, “and deservedly so. But they’re not gods. They have their limits.”

“Whereas Umberlee is the greatest of gods,” said Tu’ala’keth. “Do her bidding, and she will protect you.”

“I believe you,” Captain Clayhill said. “I do. But to hazard Shark’s Bliss in the way Anton suggests— No. It would be too easy for things to go wrong.”

Tu’ala’keth stared into the captain’s eyes. “You say you believe, but in truth, you have no faith at all, neither in Umberlee nor in yourself. No faith and no courage. Perhaps you had them once, but as you toadied to Vurgrom—and surrendered yourself to his lusts—they withered inside you.”

BOOK: Queen of the Depths
10.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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