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An old sailor once told Elysa the air was wet because of a river in the ocean. His hair had smelled like the breeze on the cliffs, a heady mix of sea musk and smoke. She had since lost all memory of his face, but could still see the purple scar that ran down from his elbow, wrapped around his forearm and ended just above the top of his hand. He boasted he had been cut by a thick line of tackle that went suddenly taut with the weight of a monstrous shark.
"Nearly took my arm off, he did."
They always tried to impress her and she wondered why.
A warm current from the south carried tropical air to Dure, he had explained, but the cold wind dropped from the mountains and the mines. The resulting fog roiled like smoke or steam. It was the ever-present ceiling of the city. Its mists made a scrim that diffused all light, washed all detail and left a film of moisture over everything. Rain fell almost every day.
The gray heaviness struck Elysa. She found herself near the western gate, having traced the northern wall of the city from the brothel district. It had been a long walk, but she had no memory of taking the steps. Her robe was soaked through and clung to her legs and arms. Strands of black, wet hair fell from beneath her hood and were pasted along her thin face.
"You know the law."
An officer approached wearing the heavy yellow coat of the Talarian constabulary. His wide hood was drawn, revealing a handsome, fatherly face framed by an open helmet. He eyed the muted red robes that marked her profession. One gloved hand sat atop the hilt of his sheathed broadsword. The other was flat to her face.
"I'm not working now."
"Working or not. You know-none of your kind are allowed on the docks."
"I'm shopping," she said, offering her empty basket as proof. "I'm shopping. Here. I even have a list."
The ink had blossomed on the wet paper. The officer smiled.
"Nothing to buy here," he said. "And these men have nothing to do with you until the sun goes down."
She wanted to ask, what sun? He was a captain, an educated officer and from Talar. Durians did not speak of a sun, but rather of a diffused glow that was daytime. Indoors, one found memories of milder climes. Warm reds and yellows of the ever-stoked flames danced upon soft, cured wooden beams and studs. What fog there was rose gently from pots of soup, fish and clams with potatoes. Life and comfort survived in shelter. But outside, the world was without color.
"Regardless," he continued, "what prostitute does not hear the news? You must know to stay in your brothel. What fool wanders about now?"
Shamhat had disappeared only a week ago. She was dark skinned, from the desert. Prized. There were others also missing from the brothels. Some said she had taken a man to her room. He had worn a hood and would not remove it. The two of them had vanished without any trace but his muddy footprints, which were said to have ended mysteriously just within her doorway.
"We're no safer in the brothels," she said.
But the captain had already lost his patience. "Turn around. The market is behind you, though I advise you to return to your room."
Elysa turned, walked slowly back toward the market and beyond it, the brothels. The guards laughed quietly to themselves. Some joked and one called out. He said he soon had a break coming. She should come back then. The Talarian captain gave him a swat.
"A Talarian Legionnaire musters more respect when he speaks to a lady! You will find yourself back in the militia!"
Elysa wondered if the captain were the type to visit the brothels. Such men spoke respectfully in the end, as men who know customers were not always right. Those who laughed and joked-they had never taken a whore.
Thunder rumbled across the sky, beginning far to the west over the sea and rolling in, splitting somewhere above the city. She turned to see activity breaking loose upon the ships. Giant stone causeways carried the road beyond the gate, connecting islands and sharp outcroppings in a gentle way winding toward the sea, to a pier just past the jutting stones. The ships moored there were cast in blue and gray at the close border between visible things and those lost to the mist. Not many ships, for most of Dure's commerce-metal from the smelters and forges, wood from the south-traveled the inland River, Cruen, on wide, flat barges.
A single ship from Eile hurriedly unloaded crates of wine for the Talarian elite. Another vessel, a lone and curiously unmarked sloop, bobbed lazily on the growing swells just beyond the Eilean freighter. Perhaps an emissary traveled aboard that sloop, or a rich merchant. A war frigate sat in protection over several smaller vessels, all flying triangular Talarian pennants. Men climbed into the masts. Sails rose quickly and ropes flew about like whips. The sky began to darken even further and, within minutes, looked as it did at night.
• • •
Rourke stood in the harbormaster's office, flexing the muscles of his legs and arms after days of travel in the cramped sloop. His bunk had been comfortable enough, but bad weather had kept them below deck. There had been little room to move, especially with Bug in the same cabin. Rourke was not prone to seasickness, but had been deprived of both light and fresh air and, as a result, suffered headaches and nausea. The sailors had offered little more than hardtack and water, despite the cost of the passage. The captain was an old friend, so Rourke refrained from complaining.
A large fire spat and popped in a metal stove in the center of the office. The winds fell upon the seaward wall. The wall facing the city, however, was open from the waist level up. Windows on the other walls viewed the docks. Men rushed to unload the last crates and tie down the ships before the storm arrived.
Rourke's cloak was as wet as if he had dropped it over the side of the sloop, but it had become soaked by the mist. He stared straight into a drop of water on the rim of his hood, waiting for it to fall. His eyes must have appeared crossed to the harbormaster.
"Welcome to Dure then and all of that." The harbormaster was a short, fat man, whose face bristled with thick gray hairs, like a brush. "Pull back that cowl, now, will you?"
Rourke complied. The hood fell upon his back. Another dark-haired Eilean, another traveler. Rourke hadn't wished to arrive with too much notice. A handsome, but not striking, man with sharp features common to the island folk and enough lines on the wiser, less frivolous parts of his face to show he was reaching middle age with an uncommon knowledge of the workings of the world.
"I was told only to present this," he said.
He flicked the water from his hand and removed a leather document pouch from the folds of his cloak. The pouch fell onto the counter with a soft, wet sound. The harbormaster rubbed the tips of his fingers together and then reached for the pouch, carefully removing a folded paper. He laid it flat on the counter and brought a pair of glasses to his eyes.
Copyright © 2004 J.P. Moore