Yonie Watereye lives in the bayou. The water there is full of guile, a power that changes people and objects. Yonie, 16, makes a living investigating objects affected by guile, but in fact it’s her talking cat, LaRue, who has the power to see guile.
Yonie becomes aware that someone is sending harmful guile-changed objects to certain people, including herself. Her investigation becomes entwined with her hunt for the secrets of her mother’s past and leads her to discover dangers hidden within her own family.
In the suspenseful adventure that follows, Yonie and her feline companion face challenges that could end their adventuring forever.
* A Junior Library Guild Selection *
“The setting is a blend of Venice’s canals and Louisiana’s bogs; the plot is an almost cozy mystery with red herrings aplenty; the heroine is as plucky as her sidekick is prickly. Add just a dash of romance and you’ve got yourself a fine gumbo of a book that, while satisfying in one gulp, may also have readers returning for second helpings.”—Bulletin
“The plot is invigorating and exciting . . . Unexpected twists leave readers both on edge and fulfilled.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Memorable, well-drawn characters . . . Those who like unusual fantasies will enjoy this and will identify with the appealing Yonie as she searches for her roots and a place to belong.”—Booklist
About the Author
Constance Cooper’s award-winning poetry and her short science fiction and fantasy stories have been published in periodicals and anthologies. After working as a software engineer and as a web designer, she now divides her time between writing and taking care of her family. She lives with her husband and children in northern California.
Read an Excerpt
YONIE WATEREYE lived under false pretenses in a stuffy garret overhanging the Petty Canal, in one of the cheaper districts of Wicked Ford. Dry land never showed there, even in the midst of summer, and the rickety buildings roosted up on wooden stilts that would have long since rotted away if not for the water’s high concentration of guile.
Yonie’s garret was a narrow, slope-shouldered room in which anyone of adult height could stand only immediately below the spine of the roof. As of late, that had included Yonie. In one of its two vertical walls, the garret had a stingy window that might once have been a vent. It provided a view of the canal through gum tree leaves and, on hot days, a swampy canal odor like an army’s dirty laundry. The opposite wall held another window-vent and a door that opened to a tacked-on balcony barely strong enough to hold the weight of the rain barrel at one end. Shaky steps led down through several switchbacks to the boat slips and floating trash behind the building.
Unlike most lodgings in that neighborhood, Yonie’s had a collection of books. She stood them in the space where the roof angled into the floor, and in her two years there had filled almost one long side of the room. They ranged from treatises about ancient history (mainly dull, with a few useful nuggets) from the cut-price boxes at the water market, to collections of travelers’ tales (mostly lurid) splurged on when business was good, to The Unlucky Prince (the only one of her childhood favorites to survive, since she had had it with her in the canoe that night).
Other than that, Yonie’s furnishings were ordinary—a small table, two mismatched chairs, a meager stove, a bed of reed matting behind a curtain. Cheap pans and crockery stood at attention on homemade shelves, and a chamber pot crouched discreetly out of sight. The only thing a visitor might remark upon would be the profusion of pillows, and perhaps the way a shingle had been loosened and propped open, like a miniature trapdoor, in the roof above.
On that particular July afternoon, the air was humid and still, caged in by the closed door and shuttered windows. Yonie’s hair was crawling with sweat underneath her kerchief. She imagined it soaking all the way down her long brown braid, past the wooden luck-beads tied at the end, and dripping off the point like paint off a wet brush. She longed to strip off the kerchief and throw open the windows and the door to catch what breeze there was.
But instead she sat sedately in her chair, sweltering, because she had a customer. The kerchief made her look older, according to LaRue, and she needed every bit of age she could claim. Although at sixteen she’d already grown to a remarkable height, it still took the right clothing and dim lighting and her most imperious High Town accent for her to successfully impersonate a grown woman.
Even then she might not pass as a pearly. Not all pearlies had really been pearl divers, true, but most were old. Normally it took a lifetime of soaking in swamp water to acquire that much guile. But there were exceptions, and most of her customers came to her by referral, already assured of her competence. Certainly the man across the table was showing her due respect.
He’d given his name as Andry Gerard from Damnable Swamp, an outlying fishing village Yonie had heard of but never needed to visit. Gerard had an angular, stubbled face and hunched shoulders under his faded shirt. He kept his fingers pinched tight around the drawstring of a canvas carry-bag.
“It came to me in a fish,” he said. His eyes flicked away from hers as he set the bag down on the table. “A Fish o’ Fate, ma’am—you know?”
“Indeed?” Around Wicked Ford, finding an odd object inside a fish’s belly was normally no fairy-tale event. As in most parts of the Bad Bayous, cemeteries flooded often. Finds ranged from the prosaic (turtle-shell buttons, clay bottle stoppers) to the faintly interesting (old pennies, keys) to the downright disgusting (finger bones, yellowed human teeth). The local fish weren’t fussy.
There were always stories, of course, about fish who swallowed richer fare—rings for the finger or the ear, gold coins, ivory combs, jeweled silver belt buckles. These Fish of Fate then sacrificed their treasure to the gutting knife of a deserving fisherman or on the dinner plate of a poor widow. Yonie enjoyed such tales, although LaRue always pointed out that firsthand accounts were rarer than dry feet in Deadfish Marsh.
“It must have been quite a large fish, sir,” she said in what she hoped was a cool, professional voice. “Did you catch it yourself?”
Yonie tried not to stare too obviously at the carry-bag on the table. It was heavy canvas, too stiff to reveal the shape of its contents, with a little blue-glass wily charm at the end of the drawstring. Yonie’s father had had one like it, to keep his lunch dry when he took the fishing boat out on rainy days.
Yonie hated handling business by herself, but LaRue had gone out hunting, and there was no knowing when she’d be back. It was too bad—Yonie felt much more confident with her there, even though LaRue couldn’t take part in the conversation. Also, LaRue had promised to bring her something, and Yonie hadn’t eaten since dinner last night.
“Have you had a Seeing done before, sir? No? Well, I charge one gallon to examine an object. I can tell you if it’s guileful, and in most cases I can determine the nature of its wiles. Or, er, half a gallon for an especially interesting object,” she backpedaled, seeing Gerard’s stricken look. “I also take payment in kind. A chicken, for instance, or a string of trout.”
“Got a couple o’ sand crabs we been feeding up on the kitchen scraps. My wife’ll cook ’em up for you if she’s feeling better. She’s been ’ere nine years now, but she still knows ’er Northern spices.”
Yonie’s stomach scraped loudly. She moved her chair to cover the noise.
Gerard pulled the bag open and lifted out a bulky item shrouded in a cloth. He flipped back the covering to reveal the ugliest ornament Yonie had ever seen. Two black and white steer horns had been varnished and inset in a platform of polished bone. They curved up and together to form a steep arch not found on any cattle skull in nature. Suspended from their points by corroded chains was a disc of tarnished brassy metal the size of a dinner plate, indented in a spiral pattern like the cinnamon buns they sold at the Blackmire Inn.
“I’ll need some time alone to look at this, M’sir Gerard. Could I ask you to return at, say, the eighth hour tonight?” LaRue should be back by then. She would have to be.
Gerard looked up in alarm. “Eighth? I was ’oping for sooner, ma’am.” His big callused hands kneaded the edge of the carry-bag. “It’s my wife, see. When I brought this ’ome today, I thought she’d be pleased, but instead she took all over queer.”
“She’s not ill, is she?”
“Nay, ma’am, not ill, but not ’appy with me, either, seems like. Well, never you mind. I’m going ’ome to ’er now, but I’ll be back tonight with those sand crabs, and ’oping you can tell me what this thing’s about.”
Yonie watched out the window as Gerard unhitched his boat at the canal side below and rowed hastily away. Most pearlies would have done the Seeing while the customer watched, or at least while he waited, but she could not offer that service. Yonie frowned, then turned and lifted the brown jug off the shelf. LaRue would need water for the Seeing.
Skirting the rain barrel on the balcony, Yonie headed down the stairs. The canal inlet that served as a docking area between her building and the one behind was stagnant with floating green scum and, like every body of water in the Bad Bayous, thick with guile.
Some argued that Wicked Ford proper was less wily than its outlying areas, but these were mostly city innkeepers eager for trade. The truth was that guile was widespread throughout the whole region that the High Town folk called the Delta and the villagers called the Devil’s Foot.
In the far north, the rushing waters of the River Stride were pure. Even after they joined with the dubious River Skulk, which trickled from the Shunned Lands, the waters upstream of the Delta contained only trace amounts of guile. But where the Skulk started to slow and wander, where it widened and divided into the maze of marshes and shallow passages known as the Bad Bayous, the water was clotted with it.
The dock behind Yonie’s building reared high out of the water, its legs dark with crackly dead algae. Yonie gathered up her skirt with her free hand and stepped down into the bow of the Dragonfly. From inside her canoe, she leaned down to scoop up the greenest, murkiest water she could find.
Back in her attic room, Yonie stood Gerard’s knickknack in a dented tin dish. The movement set the round of brass swinging between the horns, and now she saw that it was a sort of gong, like the one outside the Palace of Justice, except small and ugly. Carefully she poured the cloudy water around its base.
By the time LaRue came in, Yonie had already shut the door and fastened the mosquito cloths over the windows. She had lit a candle and was sitting at the table paging through Everyday Life in the Old Delta. It was a fat, water-stained volume with only a few torn-out pages, and since those were in the chapter about hats, this had not been a serious inconvenience.
LaRue nosed through under the loose shingle and dropped lightly to the top of the shelf. It always amazed Yonie that the cat could fit through such a small space, but her body was far smaller than her fur implied. LaRue was carrying something brown and furry in her mouth, which she set down on a plate as elegantly as a waitress in a Grand Canal café.
“Oh, LaRue, not another rat?”
“Not at all, my dear—it’s a bat! My first. I know you asked for a bird, but this seemed much the same.”
Yonie eyed the bony, folded shape lying limp on the plate. “Thank you, LaRue. It was very kind.”
LaRue swept her fluffy tail around herself like a full orange skirt. “Every bit of it’s for you, Yonie. I’ve already eaten.”
“Well, I hope you saved room for more. A man’s coming back later with a sand crab for each of us. He left us this thing to do a Seeing on—isn’t it funny? He said he found it in a fish he caught.”
LaRue sprang up to the tabletop and settled down to study the gong, ginger fur lapping around her like petticoats.
“Hmf. I must say I’m skeptical. To fit that thing in its belly, a fish would have to be as big around as a hunting dog. Did this man boast about his catch, or even hold up his hands to show the length?”
“That doesn’t sound like any fisherman I’ve known.”
Yonie stared at the varnished horns and the dangling dish of brass. “But people do find treasures in fish sometimes, don’t they? There’s talk about that brooch of M’dam Orley’s—”
“My dear sweet Yonie, what an innocent you are! M’dam Orley’s husband may need to believe she got that from a fish, but you do not.”
“So M’sir Gerard was lying?”
“Oh, I doubt he expected you to really believe that story. It was a courtesy, no more. Doubtless this is stolen goods, or grave plunder, or something else unsavory, and this Gerard needs to know its properties before he sells it.”
LaRue leapt down into Yonie’s lap. “Now, now, don’t wrinkle up your face like that. If he’s honest enough to pay us, that’s all I care about. Even thieves and fences sometimes need a Seeing done.” She stroked Yonie’s arm with one furry cheek. “I’m sure you did a fine job. He wouldn’t have left his treasure here, such as it is, if he didn’t think you were wily. Word is getting round. Soon we’ll have customers coming in from all over the Delta. We’ll have chicken and cream and silk pillows.”
“I just hate lying to them.”
“I know you do, but what choice do we have? I can’t exactly set up in business for myself. Every fool in the Bayous would be after me with a hatchet.”
Guileful animals, or slybeasts as they were called, were far from common even in the Delta. There were tales of water-dwelling creatures that, upon attaining a sufficient age, gained unusual abilities: alligators that could counterfeit a floating log down to the leafy twigs sprouting from its back, and swamp turtles that could stay underwater for days at a time, withdraw into an invulnerable rock-hard shell, or bite clean through a steel-sheathed oar. But as with humans, it normally took prolonged exposure to the water before the body accumulated a noticeable amount of guile. Animals with shorter lifespans seldom became cunning—and if they did, they risked extermination unless they could keep it to themselves.
Even pearlies—less politely known as slyfolk—were not exactly popular. Veteran divers or canal dredgers who developed webs between their fingers and toes tended to wear shoes and keep their hands closed in public to avoid cold looks. Those who grew gills or scales wore high collars and avoided daylight when they could. Members of upper-crust society, who generally received their guile concentrated in shellfish or caviar, ignored such differences with punctilious silence. Even folk who showed no outward signs of wiliness, but possessed a sensitivity to guile, didn’t talk about their skills in polite society.
LaRue put her paws up on Yonie’s shoulder. “Don’t fret, love. So long as the work gets done, our customers have nothing to complain about.”
The queenly orange cat settled herself on the table before the dish of water, nose almost touching the surface, and peered at the swirls of silt and grains of swamp life that stirred under her breath. She sat sphinx-like long after Yonie had returned to her book, while the candle burned down and insects bumped angrily against the window-cloths.
“It has wiles and to spare,” LaRue said finally, rising and stretching each leg in turn. “It may not have come from a fish, but it’s been steeping in swamp juice for years over years. I couldn’t quite see the direction of its guile, but I know now what it is. It’s a boat-gong.”
“Yes, I just found that out myself.” Yonie held up her book. “It says people in those times kept bells or gongs on the sterns of their boats to use on foggy days, to keep other boats at a distance so they could get home safe.”
“How clever of you, Yonie. I’m afraid I didn’t find out much more. All I got from it was a lonely feeling, as if it’s brooding about something.”
Yonie stared at the gong. She reached forward to touch it, and LaRue’s paw lashed out, swatting her hand away.
“You used claws!” Yonie sucked on her scratches indignantly.
“I do apologize.” LaRue sounded shaken. “But I can’t help my reflexes. From what little I’ve learned, we would be wise not to strike this gong without knowing more about it. In fact, I’d like you to wrap it back up. That’s right, get it good and muffled. Even a mosquito hitting it might be enough to stir it. I’ll be glad to see it returned to M’sir Gerard. When did he say he’d be back?”
Yonie glanced at the window-cloth, which no longer glowed with even the embers of sunset light. “Hours ago.” She felt a ripple of unease, like the trace a water moccasin might leave in a still pond.