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Authors: Curt Benjamin

The Prince of Shadow

BOOK: The Prince of Shadow
Table of Contents
“The memory is buried deep.”
Without warning, Master Jaks reached back with his right hand and slipped a Thebin blade from a sheath at the back of his neck. He threw, his aim perfect and centered on Llesho's heart. Instinctively, Llesho adjusted his stance, and when the knife approached, he had turned his side to it and stepped out of its way. In the same motion, he plucked the knife out of the air and sent it spinning back at the thrower. Jaks was prepared for the move, but still the blade nicked him midway up his bicep before embedding itself in a wooden beam in the wall. If Jaks had not moved when he had, the knife would have pierced his heart, the same target he had aimed at himself.
Master Jaks clenched the fingers of his left hand over the wound in his right arm. “Den's been working with him,” he said, “But he came to us with that and other equally deadly moves for close work in his bag of tricks. As far as I can tell, with a knife he knows
how to kill.”
Don't miss any of the exciting books in Curt Benjamin's
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Copyright © 2001 by Curt Benjamin
All Rights Reserved.
DAW Book Collectors No. 1195.
DAW Books are distributed by Penguin Putnam Inc.
All characters in this book are fictitious.
Any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental.
First paperback printing, September 2002
eISBN : 978-1-101-15748-0
S. A.

Many thanks to the gang—
Barbara Wright, Tom and Cathy Ward, and
Leroy Dubeck, for the roving restaurant
brainstorming sessions. Llesho lives because of you.
Chapter One
“LLESHO! Has anyone seen Llesho!”
The healer Kwan-ti stuck her head out of the thatch-and-bamboo longhouse and scanned the slave compound. Waves of pale gold sand lapped the shed where the pearl washers worked to the pounded rhythm of their feet on the wood floor and some chantey song of lovers and pearls, but Llesho's voice was not among them. At the edge of the sandy clearing where the camp was raised, pearl sorters crouched under the broad fronds of palm trees, shaking their baskets in a steady circular motion, but Llesho did not sit among them. He was not abed in the longhouse, nor did she see him in line for his lunch with the cooks and their cauldrons.
No Llesho. Old Lleck lay dying on his pallet in the longhouse, calling for the boy in his fever, and Llesho was nowhere to be found. She rested her strained eyes on the distant but ever present cloud bank where sky met the bay, but the murky slate of the rain-drenched horizon offered no solutions. Lord Chin-shi didn't bother to shackle his slaves, which made him a better master than many, but sometimes she would have made an exception for Llesho, who could disappear faster than a magician when the rent was due.
Still, the boy couldn't have gone far. Pearl Island was not much more than a handful of palm trees and scrub that covered the gentle hill of crumbling coral at its center, but no slave had ever escaped it. The sea, dark and cruel, brooded just beyond the bay that cradled the wealth from which Pearl Island took its name. An arm of that great sea separated the island from the mainland to the West, the vast, unreachable sweep of the empire nothing more than a thin line of darker gray on the horizon at the farthest limit of a sailor's eye. Even a Thebin like Llesho would drown before he reached that shore. Kwan-ti knew that some desperate souls sought rest in the jaws of the great sea dragon, but Llesho, for all his difficult arrogance, would never choose the dark path of death and rebirth this early in his life. He had seen only fifteen summers, and cruelty still had the power to surprise him.
Figuring where Llesho was
didn't help find him, however, so Kwan-ti tucked a lock of faded hair back into its knot and stepped out into the drizzle. “Have you seen him, Tsu-tan?” she asked the man squatting under the protective shelter of a coconut palm with a pearl basket in front of him.
“He's tending the beds, old woman.” Tsu-tan didn't bother to look up from the flat basket in which he was sorting pearls by size. “You won't see Llesho on dry land until his quarter-shift is done.”
“That will be too late.” Kwan-ti smoothed her tapa printed skirts with worried hands. Although the pearl beds lay well beyond sight, Kwan-ti stared in their direction as if she could conjure them—and the boy, Llesho. Which perhaps she could, if she wanted to take a swim with an anvil chained to her neck. Chin-shi, the Lord of Pearl Island, frowned on conjuration, however, so no one knew for certain whether Kwan-ti had such powers or simply followed her mother's recipes for medicines like a good Islander.
“Always too late,” she muttered under her breath.
Tsu-tan, shaking his basket in gentle circles, paid close attention to Kwan-ti's muttering even though he pretended otherwise. He did not know what she meant, what other time Llesho had been too late, or if the old woman thought that she had come too late to call the boy, or to cure the old man's fever. Still, it was one more clue. He hid it away with the others in the puzzle box of his mind he reserved for witch-finding, which was his true calling.
Returning to the longhouse that served as slave quarters for the pearl fisheries, Kwan-ti made her way to the low pallet she had set up in the corner for the old man. The boy would be too late, of course. Already the old man's skin had grown ashen and powdery with the dry heat that burned him up inside. He picked fretfully at his blanket and his eyes, long glazed over with the hard white shells of cataracts, wandered in his head as if they could find the boy and see him one more time before he exchanged this life for his next on the wheel.
“Llesho?” Lleck's voice rattled in his throat. He gasped for breath, exhausted by the effort it took him to call for the boy. As soon as he was able, he called again, “Llesho! You must find them!”
“Who, Lleck?” Kwan-ti asked him softly. “Tell me who I must find.” Llesho's voice had not fully deepened yet; she hoped that the old man might mistake her own voice for the boy he called so piteously.
“Your brothers.” Lleck grasped her hand and pushed it away again, seeking the longer fingers and callused fingertips of the boy. “You must find your brothers.”
“I will, old friend.” Kwan-ti took his hand in a firm clasp and stilled its seeking, stroked the forehead burning with dry heat. “Rest easy. I will find them.”
“Goddess go with you.” With a last whispered breath, the old one cast aside the shell of his worn-out body, leaving Kwan-ti to wonder, what brothers had the boy Llesho, and what mischief might she unwittingly set in motion if she gave the boy his mentor's message?
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