Chapter 1: Unwary

 

THE FIRST time Raif drowned in Aliann was almost an hour after he stepped off the ferry.

It had been a busy and rather expensive hour. First he had paid the ferry captain and then had to pay again to get their travel packs released from the hold. After that had come the quarantine doctor, which had just been a quick nod and coin for his traveling companion Esen, but had proven more complicated when Raif explained that he had come from Tiallat and even worse when he pointed out that he had already had the plague and recovered. Even arguing that he had spent three weeks on a ferry and would certainly be dead already if he were plague-ridden made no difference, and his certificate of health from the most experienced physician in the world was greeted with a little chuckle.

“Not an Aliannese physician, I see,” the chirurgeon remarked, peering over his spectacles with disdain.

“The dragon Halsarr—” Raif started.

“Ah, dragons,” the chirurgeon said, his eyes lighting up with what could have been interest—although Raif was pretty certain by now that it was greed. “Tell me, do you have a certificate of sanity? Whilst Aliann welcomes all travelers, there is a fee for—”

“There are dragons in the world,” Raif said, standing up. He had been in here long enough. He was increasingly aware that Esen was waiting outside with their packs, alone in a city bigger than either of them had ever seen. “Dragons who trust me to fight by their side and have sent me as their personal emissary to the north.”

He wasn’t proud of himself, but he made an effort to loom over the chirurgeon a little, closing his hand over the hilt of his sword. He was considerably taller than the man, and although he had almost recovered his full strength, the plague had left him gaunt. He knew he looked fiercer than he had ever felt, and he used it now to say softly, “I am fit to enter Aliann.”

The chirurgeon stared up at him, suddenly silenced. His hand tightened on the certificate of health, crumpling it slightly.

Raif waited.

Neither of them moved, and Raif felt a twitch of amusement. To hide it, he prompted the chirurgeon, “Now you need to declare it and sign the register.”

The chirurgeon breathed out, shoving the certificate back at his chest. “Yes, absolutely. You’re quite fit. You may enter the city.”

“Thank you,” Raif said politely. He made his escape before anyone else could demand money from him.

Outside, the noise and stink of the city hit him, and he stopped in shock. He had gotten a sense of the city from the ferry as it glided in along the Grand Canal, but he had been looking at the ornate faces of the buildings, the bridges, and the boats—little gondolas nipping between the taller sailing ships. He hadn’t realized how many people there were on the dock.

He had seen crowds this huge in his home city of Taila a few times, during festivals, markets, and when they had gathered to celebrate the end of the plague. Those had been Tiallatai crowds, though—veiled, grieving, still wary from years of tyranny. This crowd was loud, vibrant, varied—people dressed in every color and fashion shoving past each other or arguing loudly, people whose skin tones, hair, and frames were as varied as the clothes they wore. There were fat merchants with velvet hats slumping over their brows, swaggering sailors with their ships’ badges pinned to their caps, Myrtiline sisters striding through the crowd with their swords at their hips, hollow-cheeked girls with low-cut blouses calling promises to the sailors, porters carrying baskets of goods on their heads, teenage couriers leaping from boats to go skidding through the crowds, hollering to warn people out of their paths.

A brush against his hip made him look down in time to see a small hand working at the ties of his purse. Raif took a step back, bumping into someone behind him, and the would-be pickpocket, who couldn’t have been more than eight years old, looked up at him, squeaked when he saw Raif staring back, and bolted.

Raif retied his purse and looked around frantically for Esen. The sooner he found her, the sooner they could move away from this madness.

He eventually spotted her sitting on top of their packs by the edge of the canal, gazing out over the busy waters with her lips faintly parted and her eyes bright with wonder. Even from here, Raif could see how many looks she was getting, and he groaned and started to fight his way through the crowd. He’d promised her guardians he would look after her on the way north, and he had been naive enough to think it would be potential violence, pirates, and political enemies he would need to watch out for. He hadn’t anticipated just how much traveling with a pretty fifteen-year-old would damage his opinion of humanity as a species, and the male half of it in particular. Every port seemed to hold at least one predator.

There was yet another one moving out of the crowd—a tall, dapper man in black. He moved with a slow, lazy grace to lean against the post beside Esen. As Raif shoved his way out of the crowd, he began to point out landmarks, leaning in solicitously.

“Esen!” Raif said sharply.

She shifted around to face him with a sigh. “Raif.”

“Making friends?” he inquired, adopting a tone he’d copied from a very snide dragon.

“Which is part of the joy of travel,” she retorted. “You should try it.”

“I’m not traveling for fun.”

A soft sound of amusement pulled his attention back to the stranger, and he turned to scowl at him. “Still here?”

“Pol,” Esen said pointedly, “was telling me about the history of Aliann.”

“Was he?”

“Wrong pronoun,” the stranger—Pol—said cheerfully.

Raif looked again. The clothes matched what the men in the crowd were wearing, and the squared shoulders and stance all looked male. Pol’s face was beardless, though, with a jawline that was just soft enough to be feminine. Well, she wasn’t the first person Raif had met who had chosen to walk a different path from the one they’d been born on. Curtly, he said, “My apologies. Esen, we need to go.”

“There’s no need to be rude,” Esen said.

Behind Raif, the crowd was still moving too busily for comfort. He kept catching flickers of movement in the corners of his vision, and more than one passerby bumped against his back. He’d spent the last few years dodging assassins and plague carriers, and this place was starting to make him jittery. There were just so many people. Trying to hide his desperation, he said again, “Esen, we really need to leave now.”

“I thought he was your husband when he came stomping out of the crowd,” Pol said brightly to Esen, “but he acts more like a brother. You don’t look like blood kin, though.”

Who was this person, and why was she still talking?

“Maybe your mother was dishonest.”

As mildly as he could, Raif said, “Both our mothers are dead, and we are done with this conversation. Bid your new friend farewell, Esen, and we will leave her to her business.”

“Still the wrong pronoun,” Pol interjected and reached out to seize Raif’s sleeve. He almost hit her—him—them—before he managed to hold his strike back.

“Go on,” Pol urged. “Isn’t this the point where you call me an abomination?”

“Why would I?” Raif asked, glaring at Esen, who was still watching this as if it were the best entertainment she’d had in months. “There are many roads to God, and I can only choose my own path.” Which, right now, was as far from his god as he could possibly travel.

Pol’s hand was shaking on his sleeve. Once he noticed that, Raif spotted more. Pol looked afraid, eyes a little wide, shoulders tense, mouth tight at the corners. People had warned him that the big city would be full of liars and madmen, but there was something more here.

“Most Tiallatai getting off that boat would think my very existence was an insult to their god,” Pol said. “Many have told me so.”

“I apologize for my countrymen’s poor manners. God the Ever Watchful does not approve of rudeness.”

“He really doesn’t,” Esen said. “That’s why he loves Raif so much. Raif is too polite for his own good. Me, I’d have kicked you off the quay by now if you weren’t amusing, but Raif’s nice. Why are you trying to start a fight with strangers?” At Raif’s glance, she shrugged a little and said, “Please, Alagard does it all the time. I know it when I see it.”

Pol’s mouth fell open slightly, but then they released Raif’s sleeve and rubbed their forehead. “Shit. I wish I knew what I’d done to piss off Lady Luck lately. All I wanted was the first fanatic off the boat, and I got two… well, I don’t know what you two are, who talk of gods as if they were bosom friends.”

“Can I?” Esen said, perking up. “Please, Raif. You never let me.”

“No,” Raif said firmly.

She did it anyway. “We are emissaries from the hoard lords of the south. I am Esen, First Priestess of the Desert God, of the hoard of Dragon King Tarnamell, and this is Raif, who sat at the Dual God’s right hand and is the envoy of the dragon Halsarr.” She grinned. “Oh, that’s fun. I feel like I’m in a story.”

Raif snapped, “One where you get kidnapped for ransom, perhaps? I’m not paying it. I just spent all my cash on quarantine fees.”

“There’s no such thing as quarantine fees,” Pol said, patting his arm. “You got cheated, righteous man. These dragons—they are here, so far south of the mountains?”

“Yes,” Raif said. “They have found new hoards, in the desert and in God’s own country.”

There was a sudden outburst of noise farther down the dock, shouting and a crash of crates. As the crowd stilled, Raif saw the flash of sunlight off a blade and caught a glimpse of three men in what looked like uniforms, black with scarlet sashes.

“Duke’s guard,” Pol said. “Folks, it’s been a delight, and I’d love to talk longer, but sadly, I must be off. I am sorry, and please remember that I did try to find somebody genuinely despicable to do this to.”

“Do what?” Raif asked.

“This,” Pol said and pushed him into the canal.

Raif shouted in surprise, throwing his arms out, but Pol had pushed him hard enough that he couldn’t reach anything on firm ground. His fingertips brushed the slimy wood of a mooring post, and then he hit the water hard enough to knock the breath out of him. He just had time to see Esen rise to her feet, her hands flying up to cover her mouth, before the water closed over him.

It was dark water, thick with mud. He tried to push up, reaching for air, but unseen things, thick and slimy, tangled around his hands. The water stung his eyes and, as he turned and struggled against the tug of the tide, he lost any awareness of where the surface was. When his flailing hands touched silt, it was almost a relief, until he tried to tug them free and realized the mud was full of debris—nets, rags, wire.

His lungs were burning, his hands were trapped, and he could not see.

And there in the liquid darkness, he relaxed. Here it was, then. Death had been chasing him for so long. Now, at last, he was caught. Why fight any longer?

Then, very clearly, an irritated female voice said, “Not in my waters, boy.”