Even as the branches of peace are being offered, there are some who still believe those who are not human should be used as chattel. And they are willing to go to great lengths to retain their power.
Newlywed siren Oriana Paredes has been appointed Ambassador to her home islands now that communication between Northern Portugual and the magical races has been restored. But convincing her people that the new Portuguese Prince’s intentions are honorable after years of persecution is difficult. And her husband, Duilio, faces his own obstacles among the sirens where males are a rare and valuable commodity with few rights.
In addition to their diplomatic mission, the two hope to uncover the truth behind Oriana's mother's death. Evidence suggests that Spain—a country that has been known to enslave magical beings—may have infiltrated the siren authority. Unable to leave their post, Oriana and Duilio must call on Inspector Joaquim Tavares to root out the truth.
But even his seer’s gift cannot prepare him for what he will discover.
About the Author
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PRAISE FOR THE NOVELS OF J. KATHLEEN CHENEY
BOOKS BY J. KATHLEEN CHENEY
WEDNESDAY, 15 APRIL 1903; THE GOLDEN CITY
Marina Arenias curled up in one of the upholstered chairs in the front sitting room of the Ferreira home, the room in the house with the best light even now, past sunset. She had no idea how long it would be before Joaquim returned to escort her back to her flat on Virtudes Street. After dinner, he’d retreated with her father to the Ferreira library, where they would probably debate history and philosophy long into the night. She hoped he didn’t forget about her.
The letter she held came from her sister, Oriana, the new Portuguese ambassador to the Ilhas das Sereias. Oriana and her husband had been there for almost three months now, and Marina missed her sister sorely. She wished she could go to Oriana for advice at times . . . although she would probably just ignore whatever Oriana recommended.
Smiling ruefully at that thought, Marina popped open the wax seal and settled her rump more firmly in the comfortable chair.
Dearest Marina, the letter began.
She imagined it in Oriana’s voice, which made her feel young and meek. Oriana had always been the bold one, always jumping to Marina’s defense. Marina had never had that sort of nerve.
Duilio and I will be leaving Quitos soon to visit Grandmother on Amado. I know you wish you could be here with us.
In some ways, Marina did wish she could be there. She’d spent her first twelve years in that house on the beach beyond the town of Porto Novo, and they’d been happy ones. Her mother, contrary to custom, had chosen to live with her mate’s family rather than the other way around. Her own family, the Paredes line, hadn’t approved of her choice of mate. Not only was Marina’s father educated, but he was also a practicing Christian, both qualities her mother’s traditional family deplored. It had been an unconventional relationship, yet her parents had seemed quite happy together.
Her mother died when Marina was eight, while away investigating something for the Ministry of Intelligence. The world had seemed bleak after that, but Marina had bounced back with the resilience of a child. She’d had her father and grandmother to console her, and Oriana looked out for her in their mother’s stead. Life went on. Marina hadn’t understood until years later what a toll the loss of their mother had taken on Oriana.
I will relay your affections to Grandmother, the letter continued, and will write once we’re there to tell you everything that’s changed. I’ll probably see some of your childhood friends while there, and will relay any messages they have for you.
Oriana didn’t mention her own childhood friends because she hadn’t had many. Not that she wasn’t friendly—she simply hadn’t had time for friends. After their mother’s death, Oriana had taken it on herself to make certain that Marina kept up with her schooling, even though Oriana had only been twelve. Because Marina was small and meek, other girls teased her, calling her webless and other names. Oriana had always come to her defense.
The true turning point in their lives had come when their mother’s eldest sister, Jovita Paredes, requested that the girls visit the main island of Quitos to get to know their mother’s family. Despite his misgivings, their father gave in, but once they were there, everything had gone wrong. Their father had been accused of sedition, jailed, and exiled without even a chance to speak with his daughters. Effectively orphaned, Marina and Oriana became wards of the state. They had to live with two of their aunts and their spoiled cousins, forbidden to return to their grandmother’s home on Amado.
Marina hated her life there. Her aunts found fault with everything she did. Worse, they forbade her to practice her religion; Christianity wasn’t allowed on Quitos. Oriana tried to protect her from her aunts’ venom and her cousins’ ridicule, but Oriana couldn’t always be there, particularly not after she took a job at a factory. She’d wanted to save money so that when Marina came of age they could move out of their aunts’ household, perhaps even back to Amado.
That was why Marina lived in Portugal now. By the time she was eighteen she’d grown so frustrated with her mother’s family that she decided to run away to find her exiled father. Marina had scraped together every last royal she had to cross to Amado on a ferry. She waited until Oriana was away, thinking her aunts wouldn’t hold Oriana at fault. Once on Amado she hadn’t contacted her grandmother for fear of getting her in trouble. Instead, Marina begged captains of the various human ships to take her to Portugal to find her father, offering to work for her passage. She hadn’t understood then what manner of trouble she could have found herself in. But God had been merciful, and an English captain felt moved by her obvious distress to let her work in his ship’s kitchen until the ship reached Portugal.
Marina sighed softly. The only daring thing I’ve ever done in my life.
It had all worked out for her. She liked Portugal. She fit in far better here than she ever had at home. Here she wasn’t expected to be a leader or politician or spy. She wasn’t sure what she did want to do with her life, but it wasn’t one of those professions—the careers considered acceptable for females from her family line. Here in Portugal she had choices.
Back on the islands she wouldn’t have been likely to attract a mate either. She didn’t have the money to support a male, nor did her lineage make a match advantageous for a male’s family. In Portugal, though, she’d found a male who very much suited her tastes—Joaquim Tavares. So no matter how much she’d missed her sister and grandmother, she was very happy to be in Portugal with her father.
She turned her eyes back to the letter. Oriana went on to tell an amusing story about visiting a street market in the capital city of Praia Norte with Duilio. Apparently the guards hadn’t noted the approach of an old woman who, curious about the human man in the marketplace, managed to snatch off his pareu, leaving Duilio wearing nothing more than a revolver strapped to his thigh.
Marina clapped her hand over her mouth to keep from giggling aloud.
She shouldn’t laugh. It would have been mortifying to Duilio, especially since etiquette forbade him to demand his garment back. Instead he’d had to wait for Oriana to retrieve the pareu from the old woman. The embassy guards should have prevented the incident, but they’d made the mistake of assuming a woman was harmless because she was elderly.
A soft cough sounded at the sitting room’s doorway, alerting Marina to Lady Ferreira’s return. The lady had gone down to the kitchens to discuss something with the cook—likely a flimsy excuse to allow Marina privacy to read her letter.
“Lady, did Oriana write to you about the . . . um . . . incident in the market?”
Lady Ferreira laughed merrily as she approached. “Certainly. An amusing tale, but not one that needs to be spread about here in the Golden City.”
The lady settled gracefully in the matching chair on the other side of the window, the deep brown fabric of her gown glistening in the lamplight. To ward off the chill coming off the window glass, she adjusted her ivory shawl around her shoulders. Marina reminded herself firmly not to covet the thing. It looked to be of silk and cashmere—or perhaps wool—with intricate embroidery all along the edges. It had likely cost more than all of Marina’s current garments combined. Marina’s father, with his successful business in the city, was well-to-do. Her father’s wife, Lady Alma Pereira de Santos, had managed to turn her own limited funds into a comfortable fortune. The Ferreiras were, by comparison, shockingly wealthy.
“Is your father still talking with Joaquim?” Lady Ferreira asked once she was comfortable.
“Yes, although I’ve no clue what they’re talking about,” Marina said, a hint of vexation creeping into her voice.
Lady Ferreira chuckled. “Perhaps they’re discussing you.”
Marina shook her head. “I’m sure it’s politics.”
Lady Ferreira gazed at her for a moment, her warm brown eyes sympathetic. “Young men have their passions,” she said.
Marina felt childish and petulant now. “I know. The referendum is very important to him, and I do understand why.”
Joaquim had a revolutionary streak. He believed in the equality of all peoples regardless of kind, religion, or birth. He regularly conferred with Prince Raimundo—they’d become unlikely friends over the past six months. Despite the prince’s station, Marina was sure that Joaquim treated him no differently than he would a fellow police officer, a beggar chance-met on the street, or a pagan sereia whose child had been murdered. That was one of the things she loved about him.
The upcoming referendum would determine whether the princedoms of Northern Portugal and Southern Portugal would once again be one country. Not only would reunification mean one monarchy, one government, and one military; it would also trigger the drafting of a new constitution, a chance for the new country to redefine itself, perhaps into a more republican mode. That was the outcome Joaquim prayed for. Unfortunately, Marina wouldn’t be voting in that referendum. No woman in the Portugals would.
As important as it was, Marina wanted Joaquim to spend less time worrying over the future of the government and more time thinking about their future. “I wish it was over so we could all move on with our lives.”
Lady Ferreira didn’t disagree with that. “Dear, Joaquim only acts when he is ready, you know. He was always the most stubborn of my boys.”
Marina blinked. Had she spoken her worries aloud? Too often they showed on her face, she knew. “But what about when I . . .”
She stopped herself. It was one of the truths of living in the human world, another thing that was different from her homeland. There, she would have been the one to court Joaquim. If she’d had her way, their courtship would have progressed much more quickly. Oriana had courted Duilio less than a week before taking him as her mate, while Joaquim had been courting Marina for six months now and had done nothing more forward than hold her hand. Engagements in Portugal sometimes lasted two or three years, she’d heard.
Lady Ferreira’s fingers touched her cheek. “Dear, give him time. Consider him a pearl of great value, one worth selling all you have to possess.”
What is wrong with wanting to possess the pearl now? Marina sighed. “I know, lady.”
Lady Ferreira waved one hand airily then. “He would be pleased that I even know that parable.”
Actually, Marina was a little surprised herself. Lady Ferreira’s adherence to the Church was nominal at best. Like Marina, the lady wasn’t human; she was a selkie. Unlike most of her kind, though, the lady had been raised among humans and must have been exposed to that parable in her childhood. She sometimes professed it a mystery how Joaquim had grown up so religious. Of all the boys from the Ferreira household, Joaquim was the only devout one.
Marina understood how different influences in life could affect one’s beliefs. Although her own grandmother and father were Christians, her older sister—Oriana—had chosen the religion of their mother. Since Oriana’s husband, Joaquim’s cousin Duilio, wasn’t terribly devout, he hadn’t minded taking a pagan to wife. Joaquim, on the other hand, wouldn’t have been able to accept that. Fortunately, Marina held to her father’s religion, despite pressure from her mother’s family to deny her chosen faith. She’d only learned later that the Christianity practiced on the islands was different than that of Portugal, shifted to better suit the culture of the sereia, with greater emphasis placed on the Virgin as the instrument of God and intercessor.
Marina folded up the letter. The rest of it could wait. “I will tell him we were discussing it,”
The lady turned in her chair to face Marina more directly then. “I confess I did come in here with an ulterior motive. I wanted to see whether you could influence Joaquim.”
Oh dear. “To what?” she asked cautiously.
“With Duilio and Oriana gone, when I marry, this house will stand empty. I would prefer that Joaquim move into the house, but I cannot get him to agree.”
“Will you and Joaquim’s father not move in here?” Marina had assumed that when Lady Ferreira married, she and Joaquim’s father would move into this house. The Tavares house was much smaller than the Ferreira one.
“He wants to stay closer to his business,” Lady Ferreira said, “and since I’ve never been particularly attached to this place, I don’t feel any need to stay. This was Alexandre’s house. Never mine.”
Alexandre Ferreira had been dead two years or so. Some members of society had been scandalized when Lady Ferreira suddenly dropped her mourning six months before. Still, it was considered appropriate for a woman to leave off her mourning if she intended to remarry. It hadn’t taken long before it became clear that Lady Ferreira planned to wed her first husband’s cousin—Joaquim’s father—who’d been a widower for decades.
Marina surveyed the elegant sitting room, its sofa and chairs in ivory and beige, the fine carpet under that, the silver-framed photographs on the mantel. “But you’ve worked so hard to make it beautiful.”
Lady Ferreira laughed shortly. “Things, dear. I purchased things. They are not my children.”
Marina licked her lips, trying to see this as Joaquim would. He might have lived in this house for eight years, but he was only a cousin of the Ferreira family. “I suspect Joaquim would feel like an interloper, like he has no business living here. The house should belong to Mr. Ferreira, shouldn’t it? Not a cousin.”
Lady Ferreira’s head tilted and she gazed inscrutably at Marina.
Marina swallowed, feeling as though she’d failed some test. She didn’t know what the lady had expected her to say, but her answer hadn’t been the correct one.
“Duilio will be away for a couple of years at a minimum. Joaquim could act as . . . a caretaker,” the lady suggested.
That was not what she’d originally meant, Marina was certain. Lady Ferreira had been saying that Joaquim should move into the house permanently. “I can talk to him, I suppose,” she said after a moment. “It would save him the cost of his rent if he did.”
She had only been to Joaquim’s flat once, in the company of Oriana and Duilio; Joaquim’s landlady would be scandalized if an unmarried woman went up there alone. It was a cozy place, nearly as shabby as her own, but full of Joaquim’s books and possessing a masculine feel she’d found quite charming. It was his place, and it would be difficult for Joaquim to give it up.
He doesn’t like change.
Masculine voices sounded in the hallway and, before Lady Ferreira could add more, Joaquim stood in the doorway, Marina’s father behind him.
Tall and lean, and with dark hair going gray at the temples, her father had a distinguished air. He looked very much the Portuguese gentleman in his elegant evening attire. Most people would never guess he wasn’t human. “Marina, darling,” he began, coming to kiss her cheek in farewell when she rose. “I’m sorry we didn’t get much of a chance to chat. Shall we talk in the morning?”
Since she worked for him in his office, it was a rhetorical question. “Yes, Father. Please tell your wife I hope she feels better in the morning.”
Lady Pereira de Santos had left the Ferreira house not long after dinner, claiming a need for rest. That had been a common occurrence lately; the lady was pregnant. It would be a strange thing to have a half brother or sister, particularly one so much younger than herself, but Marina enjoyed the prospect of watching her so-serious father chase after a toddler.
“I will do so,” her father promised, and then took his leave of Lady Ferreira before departing.
Joaquim came to Marina’s side then, holding out one arm for her to take. She’d thought him terribly handsome from the moment she met him. He was tall and strong, with straight dark hair and brown eyes that hinted at his mother’s Spanish blood, a square jaw that betokened firmness of purpose, and a wide brow that spoke of wisdom. Well, she hadn’t known all those things about him from her first glance, but it hadn’t taken long to learn his true character.
“Are you ready to go?” he asked. “Your father and I talked longer than I realized.”
A lock of Joaquim’s hair had fallen across his forehead, and Marina’s fingers itched to push it back into place. “No need to worry,” she assured him. “Lady Ferreira and I were chatting.”
Reminded of his foster mother’s presence in the room, Joaquim kissed the lady’s cheeks before bidding her good night, and Marina followed suit. Then they made their way out of the house, pausing at the entryway so Marina could wrap her plain black shawl about her shoulders to keep at bay the chill of the early spring evening.
“So, what were you discussing?” Joaquim asked once they were walking along the Street of Flowers. The traffic on the street slowed once the sun went down, so the walkways weren’t crowded, although the tram continued its circuit up toward the palace on its high hill.
Marina glanced at Joaquim’s face as they passed under one of the streetlights, trying to decide where to start with the issue of the house. “Pearls.”
She could use her call on him, her feeble version of sereia magic. Lady Ferreira knew that, and she wondered if that was what the lady expected—for Marina to convince Joaquim by influencing him magically. He would hate that I used my gift to sway him.
And he might never trust her again.
No, she decided. Joaquim would move into that house when he was ready. It would not be because Marina Arenias coerced him into it.
“Do you like pearls?” he asked as they paused at a corner to let a carriage rattle past.
So Marina walked on, one gloved hand on Joaquim’s dark sleeve, telling him all about her favorite pair of gold and pearl combs back on the islands, a pair her mother had once owned. She completely forgot to ask Joaquim about his conversation with her father.
THURSDAY, 16 APRIL 1903; ILHASDAS SEREIAS
The ferry belched out steam as it made its passage between the islands of Quitos and Amado. Judging by words stamped on the side of the hull, Duilio guessed it had come from England, brought here to the islands of the sereia through a series of arcane trades. Most of the newer machinery he’d seen on the islands was of English origin, where once it would have been predominantly Portuguese. Normally he would be the first one poking around and asking questions of the ship’s captain, but it wasn’t his place to do so. Not here.
Here it was the man’s place to be quiet. To be seen but not to do.
Oriana had warned him of that, as had her father, but Duilio hadn’t grasped how pervasive that attitude was until he’d been on the main island of Quitos for a couple of weeks. It was the most traditional of the islands of the sereia, and as a male he had almost no rights—a shocking change for a Portuguese gentleman of wealth and social standing.
They’d spent the last three months there, in the sereia capital of Praia Norte, persuading the local government to accept Oriana as the Portuguese ambassador. The islands hadn’t hosted an ambassador from either Northern or Southern Portugal for almost two decades, and most trade between the two peoples had died out. The embassy’s primary charge here was to resurrect that trade, a problematic mission given the lingering lack of trust between the two peoples.
Oriana currently stood with her back against the wall of the ferry’s cabin, the remainder of the ambassadorial entourage taking up the aft of the upper deck. She wore a pensive expression as she watched the island of Quitos grow more and more distant, her full lips pressed together and her arms folded over her chest. Her burgundy-highlighted hair had been pinned into a coronet of braids, but the two combs emerging from that crown were actually slender knives, a concession to the danger in which she’d stood since their arrival here. The tension in her shoulders had eased once they reached open waters, but hadn’t fled completely.
The four guards accompanying them kept anxious watch on the other travelers crowding the ferry’s upper deck, but the curious passengers seemed willing to keep their distance. Judging by their fine garb and glossy hair, Duilio guessed that most of the sereia he saw there traveled between the two largest islands for reasons of business. A few, like Oriana, wore a vest as well as the pareu, and one elderly woman had on a fine jacket with elaborate blue and yellow embroidery down the plackets. Even so, the majority of the passengers, all female save for a handful of children, only wore the pareu—little more than a length of fabric wrapped about their waists.
Fortunately, the embassy guards were well trained not to stare at the display of bared skin. Their Portuguese uniforms seemed extravagant by comparison to the local mode of dress. The brass-buttoned blue jackets with braid across the chest and lighter blue trousers with a red stripe down each side looked starchy and unapproachable—as did their rifles and sabers. But since they represented the governments of the two Portugals here, the standards of the army must be upheld, even when the locals dressed far less formally.
Duilio glanced down at his bare feet ruefully. His situation was different. He’d agreed to adopt native garb to show that the Portuguese took the customs of the sereia seriously. No one ever mistook him for a sereia male, of course. He lacked gill slits on his neck and webbing between his fingers, both traits that gave the sereia advantages in the water. And his feet were unmistakably human. The sereia had coloring on the lower halves of their bodies that mimicked the scales of a fish—a tuna, actually—so anyone looking downward would immediately know he wasn’t native to these islands.
He’d adapted quickly to wearing the pareu, though, a stark change for someone accustomed to the habitual multilayered dress of a Portuguese gentleman. Despite the afternoon sunshine, a chill came off the water today, so he also wore a black linen vest, the open front embroidered in gold along the edges. It covered most of the Paredes tattoo that ran from over his heart to his left shoulder, but enough of that could be seen to guarantee that any sereia would know he was claimed. Bangles clattered about his ankles, he wore bands of rose gold around his upper arms, and his hair hadn’t been properly cut in half a year now. It hung on his neck in curls. If his old valet, Marcellin, were here, the man would have had an apoplectic fit. It pleased Oriana, though, so Duilio put up with the peculiar attire and overlong hair.
Even so, there were times he honestly missed wearing trousers. He didn’t miss his valet frittering on about every wrinkle and speck of dust, but he missed trousers.
Oriana came around to the side of the ferry to join him. She touched his arm, her gold bangles clattering, and gestured toward the shores of Amado. “My grandmother’s house is on that beach.”
Duilio followed her finger. Amado was a volcanic island, reminding him greatly of Madeira, the only one of his people’s islands he’d visited. A ridge of mountains formed the island’s spine, covered in forest save for the jagged peaks. He could, however, see a narrow strip of sand where Oriana pointed, dotted with a handful of white-plastered houses. They didn’t look much different from houses on some of the beaches along the Portuguese coast.
Amado, the so-called Portuguese island, also offered him a respite from the social strains of living on Quitos. Of all the six islands of the sereia, Amado was the most liberal. On Amado males were allowed to be educated, speak out of turn on occasion, and even own property. He hoped their time here wouldn’t be as stressful as the last three months had been, either for him or their four remaining male guards.
Duilio shot a glance at Lieutenant Costa, who leaned against the ferry’s white-painted rail. He worried them the most. The young man removed his shako to run a hand through his short blond hair, but quickly replaced it, cheeks flushing, when he noted one of the ferry’s sailors looking his way with an appreciative smile. Costa was healthy and handsome and not terribly clever—the worst sort of guard for them to have brought to these islands. Here males were in short supply, and sereia females could use their call to seduce a human male they found interesting. Because of his selkie blood, Duilio had some immunity to that magic, but the young lieutenant didn’t. According to his captain, Costa hadn’t slept well for the last few weeks, besieged by dreams. Oriana feared that a sereia had gotten to him, although the young man denied it. Duilio only hoped they could get Costa back to human shores before he gave in to some unknown sereia’s seduction.
In truth, on Quitos they’d endured a constant barrage of calling, and not just attempts at seduction. It wasn’t unusual for a sereia to call in the course of the day, much as any human woman might sing to herself back in Portugal. Happiness, sorrow, and vexation all tore at the men’s senses, although usually with a touch light enough for them to recognize that the impulses weren’t their own. Most sereia strove for politeness near the grounds of the various embassies, strung together along one street. Even so, there were always those who didn’t care, or those who wanted to cause chaos.
But Amado was less populated, and that would minimize the calling to which the men were exposed. Duilio hoped the passengers of this ferry were representative of the population of the island. So far their fellow travelers had refrained from calling altogether, despite the novelty of having humans to practice on.
By that point the ferry had passed the small secluded beach and now headed for the island’s main harbor, where rough stone breakwaters limited the waves. They slid the last distance into the first pier and rocked against the wooden pilings. An intrepid young sailor in a white pareu and vest—the same one who’d been admiring Costa—jumped over the water to the planks and wrapped the mooring line around a bollard. Then she jogged back toward the aft of the ferry to catch a second line, her bangles jangling.
Oriana moved to the railing to peer along the wooden planks toward the beach. Duilio joined her, laying one hand on the back of her vest. “Do you see her?”
Oriana lifted her chin toward the shore. “Yes, she’s there with that open carriage.” She added the hand sign for relief, and turned to her guards. “We’ll debark last.”
By now the men knew not to look to Duilio to corroborate Oriana’s orders; he might be her deputy, but she was the ambassador. So they patiently watched until the last of the ferry’s passengers straggled off the gangplank and onto the pier. Then it was their turn, two guards going ahead and two behind. The guards’ presence was more than just posturing, for today they would enter the perilous phase of their tenure as ambassadors, taking on their secondary mission.
Today they began the hunt to learn who’d murdered Oriana’s mother.
Grandmother Monteiro waited for them at the head of the pier. It had been almost five years since Oriana had seen her, but she hadn’t changed much. She was a tall woman, her lean figure still straight and erect, and her dark eyes sharp. Like Oriana’s own, her nails were filed down to sharp points, curving over the ends of her fingers—as much a marker of wealth as the rose-gold bangles at her wrists and ankles. Her white hair was massed atop her head in neat braids. The blue jacket she wore over her yellow pareu matched the embroidery about the pareu’s hem. Oriana stopped an arm’s length away. The two guards in the lead moved off to one side of the pier, but Duilio stopped behind her and waited for them to acknowledge his presence.
Oriana inclined her head. “Honored Grandmother.”
Her grandmother’s lips curved in a smile. “My child. And who is this you bring to the house of Monteiro?”
Oriana swept her hand to one side, and Duilio obediently stepped up next to her. “Honored Grandmother, this is my mate, Duilio, of the house of Ferreira.”
And perfectly on cue, Duilio sank to his knees and bowed to the ground at her grandmother’s feet. After only a second, her grandmother reached down and touched the top of his head. “Welcome, child.”
Oriana let loose a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. What a relief. She hadn’t expected her grandmother would reject him, not for a moment. Even so, her grandmother’s ready acceptance of him was reassuring. Oriana knew she’d made foolish mistakes in her past, but Duilio wasn’t one of them.
And her grandmother’s warm welcome made a stark contrast to the complete lack of welcome she’d had from the Paredes family on Quitos. None of her three aunts and neither of her cousins had acknowledged Oriana’s arrival on the island in any way. Legally she was dead, and therefore they no longer had ties to her. Oriana was grateful that the Monteiro side of her family, as small as it was, was more understanding.
Duilio pushed back up to his knees and smoothly came to his feet, a smile on his face. This was the first time Oriana had asked him to perform the full obeisance, and he’d done it without flinching. Her grandmother reached up and put a finger on his chin, tilting his head down so that she could peer up into his face. He complied, his lips pressed together and warm brown eyes dancing with laughter.
She eyed him narrowly and then released him, a further sign of approval. “Come, children,” she said then, including the guards in that address. “I have a carriage waiting.”
The carriage’s driver wore the blue-and-white-patterned pareu of the Monteiro servants, along with a blue vest that hid her dorsal stripe. Sailors and dockworkers strolled past the carriage and along the harbor’s main street. White plastered buildings with dark wooden trim clustered across that street, mostly cafés and shops. Farther down, the street ran past the harbormaster’s offices and along the main docks for trading ships. The hub of all foreign trade on the islands, the harbor of Porto Novo always bustled with activity.
A venerated elder on this island, her grandmother had never feared being exposed. Oriana, on the other hand, found it unnerving. She’d become accustomed to closed coaches in the last three months, ones with shades drawn so that the guards could better protect them. She cast a glance at Duilio, who signed discreetly with one hand that his seer’s gift for sensing danger wasn’t triggered by this mode of transportation. So she climbed into the carriage and settled next to her grandmother. In the seat behind them, Duilio squeezed in with two guards, leaving the other pair to ride on the carriage’s tail. Once the driver was sure they were all settled, she shook the reins and the horses set off.
As they passed the docks, Oriana peered at the ships, trying to estimate the balance of trade. A handful of English ships were moored at the piers, along with two Spanish ships, one also flying the yellow and red streamers of Catalonia. And at the far end, two smallish Portuguese freighters flew their country’s blue and white flag—one from Northern Portugal and one from Southern Portugal. It was a welcome sight after all their efforts to reestablish trade. They would have to make a point of visiting with the Portuguese captains while they were here.
The docks swarmed with human men unloading their cargos, voices lifted to carry over the raucous calls of the seagulls. Just as boisterous, sereia shore crews in their short tucked-up pareus loaded that cargo onto wagons to cart it to the nearby warehouses. The docks of Amado were among the few places where human men and sereia females treated one another as equals. By the rules of old treaties, the sereia dockworkers swore not to entice any man off those ships, and not to call them in any way. In turn, the human captains knew to keep certain crew members aboard those ships. Any male who did stir up trouble on the docks—or any male who was particularly handsome—might never return. Despite the wide differences between human and sereia cultures, the harbor’s rules had held steady for generations. It was business.
As the carriage moved away from the docks, they passed older houses, sprawling affairs with plastered walls and tiled rooftops very unlike the granite buildings in the Golden City that rose three or more stories, crammed together like sardines in a tin. Here the houses were built up the mountainsides, too steep to run them close together.
Oriana glanced back at Duilio. He was watching those mountains with eager eyes. One of the advantages he’d gained from being half selkie was good lungs. He enjoyed climbing. She didn’t, but was willing to join him so long as they could go slowly enough for her. She suspected at least one extended hike was in their future, perhaps along one of the aqueducts that brought freshwater down from the mountain springs to the shores.
When they finally reached the edge of Porto Novo, Oriana made the gesture that told Duilio he could talk. “Honored Grandmother,” he said immediately, “Oriana pointed out the beach where you live. Is it far?”
The driver cast a glance over her shoulder, but didn’t comment on the male talking out of turn behind her. Here on Amado it wasn’t that unusual.
Oriana’s grandmother turned in her seat to glance back at the three men crowded onto the bench behind her. “There’s no need for such formality, child,” she said to him. “You’ve met the requirements of custom. You may simply call me Grandmother now.”
“I am honored,” Duilio said, inclining his head.
Her grandmother smiled and gestured toward Oriana. Pretty, her hands said—a reference to Duilio’s behavior rather than his appearance. Then she pointed at the next spine of the mountains that slid down to the sea ahead of them. “It’s just beyond that ridge. Not as far as it seems.”
“You don’t travel back and forth every day, do you?” Oriana asked. Her grandmother was nearing eighty, and rattling along these dirt and gravel roads had to be hard on her constitution.
“Not every day, child.” She patted Oriana’s knee and turned back to gaze at the men. “I imagine that the last few months have been difficult for all of you.”
The two guards glanced at each other as if startled to be addressed. Duilio just smiled secretively. “It has been challenging, Grandmother, although in different ways for each of us.”
“Duilio’s greatest challenge has been refraining from speaking,” Oriana informed her, making the sign for the chattering of seagulls with one hand. Duilio just grinned.
“I believe that males have as much right to be heard as their mates,” her grandmother said to him. “It’s a common belief here on Amado. Please don’t be afraid to ask questions.”
That was one of the great differences between Quitos and Amado. On Quitos, traditional ways held sway. Because of their comparative rarity, sereia males were seen as creatures to be protected. They were to be cared for, and weren’t to involve themselves in demanding activities like government or business. Once they had a mate, they cared for the children and stayed in the home. It was a near parallel to the role of women in Portugal, although not exact. In Portugal there wasn’t a dearth of women as there was of males here, so poor women there had no choice but to work.
Duilio leaned forward, eager to take advantage of the chance to ask questions. “Your son was educated, I understand. What percentage of males pursue that here?”
Her grandmother sighed. “Less than twenty percent, even now. The poorer the family, the less likely the sons will be educated. You attained a university degree, did you not?”
Oriana suspected her father had included a great deal about Duilio in his letters to her grandmother.
“Yes,” Duilio admitted. “I studied law and serve as Oriana’s legal advisor here.”
“And you’ve traveled abroad, my son told me,” her grandmother continued. “Most males here would be jealous.”
“I’m fortunate,” Duilio admitted. “My family is wealthy. Many human males would envy those opportunities just as much as sereia males.”
“True,” she countered. “My son was also born into a wealthy family, one with enough political consequence that I could afford to have an eccentric child.”
Oriana reined in her urge to laugh. Hearing her father described as an eccentric child would bring her secret amusement for years to come. The carriage passed over the ridge, finally giving them a view down into the bay. The surrounding slopes were steep and heavily wooded, but on the beach there were a handful of houses widely spaced apart—homes of some of the wealthiest families on Amado.
Even from this distance Oriana could see her grandmother’s house, the familiar outline of it with its two courtyards and terraces. She and Marina had slept out under the stars on those terraces many nights. It was the closest thing she had to a home.
* * *
The advance guard had arrived with the luggage on an earlier ferry, so their bags waited in a fine bedroom with a view of the sea. Oriana had warned Duilio that the furnishings would be minimal given their proximity to the water. A delicately carved bench in dark wood stood to one side of the doorway, and two matching chairs waited near the windows with a small table between them, but there was no bed. Only the elderly or the infirm used beds here. Instead, above a shallow indentation in the floor, the bedding hung neatly from hooks on the wall, meant to be laid out and picked up every day so that it could air properly. The room’s heavy wooden shutters each had a screened inner shutter that would let in a fresh breeze and sunlight, but not seagulls. Duilio threw those open and surveyed their luggage, deciding what to unpack first.
This was one of the rare times when he did miss his valet, who’d moved up in the world and was now valet to a prince. It would be nice to have someone unpack for him. But this was his duty here, to make sure Oriana had everything she needed.
She emerged from the bathing room and came to wrap her arms around him, setting her chin on his shoulder. Her sharp nails pricked his bare waist. “Leave it,” she urged. “We can sort it out after dinner.”
“I don’t want to make a poor impression,” he admitted, indicating his pareu, wrinkled during the ride from the harbor.
“Grandmother’s not overly critical,” Oriana whispered against his ear. She’d unbraided her hair and now wore it loosely tied back, a hint of informality. “You’ll be fine.”
So they went to dinner without changing. In the dining room, a fine linen tablecloth covered with whitework embroidery lay atop a wooden table surrounded by chairs whose backs bore intricate carvings of vines and leaves. Very different from the wicker furniture more common on Quitos. Duilio would definitely call the décor in this room, at least, Portuguese.
Grandmother Monteiro assessed Duilio, her dark eyes bypassing his rumpled pareu altogether, and then sat at the head of the table, directing them to sit to either side of her. She waited until the servants had brought in the first course, potato and kale soup, before asking, “So, now that we’re alone, is it true that you’re half selkie, young man?”
Duilio supposed that to a woman of her age, young man was an acceptable description for a man who’d recently turned thirty. “Yes, Grandmother.”
Her dark eyes narrowed. “You don’t seem uncivilized, but my son told me your mother was raised among humans.”
“That’s true.” The sereia commonly perceived selkies as savages, since they chose to live on the ocean. “Most people back home have no idea that my mother isn’t human.”
Grandmother Monteiro gestured, signing acceptance by touching her chin. It didn’t necessarily mean she believed him, but that she chose not to argue the point. Duilio inclined his head to grant her that. It had taken him a while to learn some of the finer points of sereia gestures. Their people used hand signals to communicate underwater, but those same signs were also used on land, an augmentation to their words that went beyond facial expressions. It added a second level to dialogue that often belied the words spoken aloud. Oriana had begun teaching him those long before they’d accepted the assignment as ambassadors to the Ilhas das Sereias, mostly so he could understand what her father was signing.
“My son speaks well of Lady Ferreira,” Grandmother Monteiro added. “He says your family has proven supportive, especially now that their marriage has been made public.”
Oriana’s father had been secretly married for almost eight years to a Portuguese noblewoman. But he’d recently accepted Portuguese citizenship, and the newspapers, fascinated by the dozens of New Portuguese—mostly sereia who’d lived secretly in the Golden City for years—had exposed his marriage. It was scandalous enough that a woman of the aristocracy would wed a commoner, her man of business, but when it became public that the man in question was also nonhuman, many of Lady Pereira de Santos’ friends had abandoned her. Fortunately, Duilio’s mother cared nothing about the opinions of society. “My mother finds them both charming company, as well as the lady’s daughter.”
“And speaking of daughters,” Grandmother Monteiro said, “I hope that I may have a great-granddaughter eventually?”
Oriana’s eyes met Duilio’s across the table and he winked at her, permission rather than any salacious commentary. Sereia tradition held that once a woman became pregnant, she would signal that to others by folding the tucked-in edge of her pareu differently. Oriana hadn’t done so yet, wanting to break the news to her family first. “Actually, Grandmother,” she admitted, “we are expecting our first child.”
Her grandmother pressed her webbed hands together, almost as if in prayer. “I am pleased, child, and I hope for nothing but health for you.” She turned to Duilio. “Are you good with children?”
Because she expects me to raise those children. “I had a much younger foster brother,” he said, “and I did well with him. I hope to care for our children well.”
And so the meal went on, a chance for Oriana’s grandmother to catch up not only on Oriana’s recent history but on that of her father and her sister, Marina, who also lived in the Golden City now. The conversation ranged from there to the nascent movement for women’s suffrage in Portugal and how it compared to the male suffrage movement on the islands, and then the views of the various countries in which Duilio had lived. It was normal dinner conversation, carefully avoiding the issue they’d come to this house to discuss. Oriana and her grandmother would likely handle that in a more private venue.
After the meal, Duilio excused himself to return to their room, but stopped first to determine how the guards were settling into their temporary posting. Lieutenant Benites had taken over one of the sitting rooms, transforming it into the guard contingent’s office and armory. She glanced up from her work and rose when she saw him standing there. The young lieutenant was quicker than Lieutenant Costa, who rose from his chair belatedly with a flush on his cheeks.
“Mr. Ferreira, is there anything you need?” Benites asked. A stocky young woman from a small town outside Lisboa, she had a perpetual half smile on her face. She did, however, approach her assignment with great seriousness.
In Duilio’s opinion, she also carried out her duties better than her male counterpart. And she’s considerably smarter than Costa. “No, Lieutenant. I only wanted to be sure you had everything in hand.”
The lieutenant nodded once. “Yes, sir. The layout the ambassador drew for us is quite accurate, so we’ll be able to proceed with the duty roster as planned. Having seen the house now, though, I would like our hostess’ permission to put a guard on the roof instead of the terrace.”
They’d only brought a dozen guards to Amado, so they would be stretched thin for the next month. That had been one of their concerns in coming here. While there had been little official notice of the arrival of the new Portuguese mission, someone certainly had noted Oriana’s return to her homeland. It hadn’t taken long before threats began to appear, usually sent via the mail, but a few delivered directly by members of the sereia government. They usually suggested that Oriana should return to Portugal for her own safety. Someone in the government found her presence threatening.
The embassy on Quitos was a solid building behind a wrought-iron fence, tidy and defensible, but this house was on an open beach. Surely they could spot anyone approaching either by land or water from the rooftop. The lieutenant’s idea was a good one, Duilio decided, provided the rooftops were accessible.
“I’ll inquire into that in the morning,” he promised. He could ask Grandmother Monteiro directly, but he would go through Oriana first.
Captain Vas Neves, the officer in charge of the embassy’s guards, entered their office then, nodding to him before striding past and setting her Kropatschek rifle among the others neatly lined up against one wall. Vas Neves was a hard-faced older woman, tall and lean, with gray hair scraped back into a tight bun at the nape of her neck. Duilio knew little of her background save that she’d grown up in the former colony of Portuguese East Africa, the daughter of a big-game hunter there. She rarely spoke of her past, but, given what he’d observed of the guards at their target practice, she’d inherited her father’s deadly aim with firearms.
It hadn’t been a popular decision to place a woman in charge, not within the upper ranks of the army, but grudging consent had finally been won. Women were far less vulnerable to the call of a sereia than men. That had prompted Prince Raimundo to argue for the creation of a contingent of female guards, a shocking suggestion back home. He’d further shocked his constituents by arguing that the women should wear uniforms identical to the men’s—with trousers, not skirts—granting them greater freedom of movement. The prince had finally won out over the army’s objections, but the obstacle of finding and training the women in the short months before they set sail remained. Thus the ambassadorial staff had arrived on Quitos with a guard contingent that still had a dozen male members. Those remaining male soldiers spent their time guarding Duilio rather than Oriana, but he would be relieved when they packed them back to Portugal. They were too much at risk here, and Duilio was perfectly willing to trust the female members of the guard with his safety.
He turned to the captain. “So, Captain, are your soldiers settled in?”
“We’ve had a couple of issues with the baggage and one dispute with a servant, but Lady Monteiro’s head of staff has sorted them out for us. Nothing serious,” Vas Neves said, one hand lying comfortably on her pistol. The guard’s main challenge had been to distinguish between what was an actual threat and what was normal behavior for a very different culture. They’d avoided triggering any incidents so far, but the past three months in Quitos had been nerve-racking. “Quarters are assigned,” the captain went on, “and Benites has the duty rosters well in hand. We’ve also sent word of the ambassador’s presence here to the Portuguese ships in harbor, and will let you know if the captains wish to arrange a visit.”
Obviously they had everything under control, so he wasn’t needed here. “Thank you, Captain. Let me know if there’s anything we can do to make this easier for your personnel. This is supposed to be a retreat for us all.”
The captain nodded and Duilio left the officers plotting their next few days. Duilio walked along the white hallways, nodding to sloe-eyed Corporal Almeida as he passed her duty station in the hall outside his and Oriana’s bedroom. Once inside, he crossed the room to unlatch the inner shutters, allowing the cool evening breeze in through the screens.
For a moment, he stood inhaling the sea air.
Oriana might joke about his frustration over not being allowed to speak, but in truth this was far more difficult. He was accustomed to doing, not to standing by while Oriana did all the work. The last three months had been an eye-opening experience. Oriana had done this often enough while she was in the Golden City, forced to wait while he’d gone off to investigate. He could do it too.
He sighed and turned his eyes to the bedding hanging from hooks on the wall. I have chores to do.
The library of the Monteiro beach house was on the second floor. The décor was simple; centuries of living with the sea had taught the sereia to choose furniture and bedding that was easy to move to higher ground or abandon. A much larger collection of books waited at her grandmother’s mountain house, a location safer from the whims of the sea gods.
Gold draperies hung on those walls not covered by book-laden shelves. The fabric shimmered in the lamplight, making the room look rich and reminding Oriana of the opulent libraries she’d seen back in Portugal. A braided rug in mixed blues warmed her bare feet. There was a large rosewood table for opening out the folio-sized texts and a high-backed bench under a pendant lamp meant for more casual reading.
Her grandmother gestured toward the leather-bound books on one of the shelves at eye level. “If you’ll pull out those, please, child.”
Oriana pulled down the volumes on that shelf and stacked them neatly on the table. When the shelf was empty, she could see a small hole cut in the paneling behind it. Her grandmother handed her a dowel and, following her instructions, Oriana inserted the dowel in the hole and used it to push the paneling aside. It slid back to reveal a shelf in the stone wall behind the paneling. On that shelf was a strongbox made of cast iron with heavy rivets along the seams.
Oriana shot a glance at her grandmother. “When did you put that in here?”
“The shelf was here long before you were born, child,” Grandmother said, laughter in her tone. “The strongbox came from America about ten years ago. There’s a good trade in them here. Many fear that the bank in Porto Novo would have no choice but to hand over our belongings should the government on Quitos demand it. I trust them with my money, but not this.”
Oriana peered at the strongbox. “Is it waterproof?”
“No, although it is supposed to be fireproof, should they ever try to burn this house down.”
What a horrible thought.
Her grandmother selected a key from her ring and used it to unlock the box. The door swung open to reveal a pile of papers and, atop that, a single book bound in leather, the spine sewn with red thread. Her grandmother plucked out the book and handed it over. Gooseflesh prickled along Oriana’s arms when it touched her hands.
“I haven’t read the thing,” her grandmother said. “Your father advised me not to. That way I can deny any knowledge of its contents.”
That was probably wise. As her grandmother locked the safe again, Oriana ran her fingers over the journal’s aged cover gingerly, not wanting to snag the delicate leather with her pointed nails. It smelled musty, like any other book one might find in a library. Given all the trouble this thing had caused, it should smell of blood and pain.
Her grandmother began replacing the books Oriana had removed. “I have the original letter that your father sent with it in there also. When I go back up to the mountains, I take the contents of that box with me, so the journal’s never been out of my possession all this time.”
Oriana swallowed, her throat tight. “I see.”
Her grandmother turned back to her, one book in her hand. “In case there’s a need to testify about whether it’s your mother’s or a fake,” she clarified. “Now it’s in your hands, child. I’ll leave you to decide what’s best to do with it.”
Her father had read part of this journal and reached the conclusion that his mate hadn’t died of food poisoning as he’d been told, but had been murdered. Lygia Paredes had worked for the Ministry of Intelligence, vetting new applicants, yet when Oriana’s father went to that body to beg them to investigate her death, he’d been arrested, falsely charged with sedition, and exiled from the islands—ample reason for her to believe the book held a secret worth killing for. “Has the Ministry of Intelligence searched your house for this?”
“No,” her grandmother said. “The ministry may suspect I have it, but if they had found it, it would be gone.”
A good point. Oriana stepped closer to the lamp on the wall and opened the journal, picking a spot randomly. She peered at the handwriting and smiled fondly; her mother’s hand had never been particularly neat. But what she read there seemed odd. She cast a quick glance back at her grandmother, who was setting the last volumes back onto their shelf, completely masking the sliding panel. “Father noticed there was something wrong with this?”
“Yes,” her grandmother said. “He never told me what, though.”
Her father hadn’t found this journal until four years after her mother’s unexpected death. All that time it had lain under the floorboards in the Paredes house on Quitos, waiting for him. Clearly, Lygia Paredes hadn’t trusted any of her sisters with the journal. She’d hidden it well, in a place where only her mate knew to look. Even so, Oriana doubted that her mother had foreseen the consequences of his discovery—his exile and her daughters being left without a parent.
Two of their Paredes aunts, Valeria and Vitoria, had taken Oriana and Marina in, saving them a state upbringing, at least. But they’d never been happy there. Their aunts were unfriendly, their two cousins spoiled, and Oriana had been pushed relentlessly to join the Ministry of Intelligence. Her aunts told her that it was her destiny to serve, not to take a mate and bear children. When Marina ran away years later, their aunts spun out a tale that convinced Oriana her younger sister was dead, murdered by sailors on a human ship. They’d even produced a body, although it had been in the sea long enough that it was unidentifiable. The dead girl, however, had been of the same petite build as Marina, so Oriana believed their fabrication. Heartbroken and craving revenge, she’d relented and joined the ministry, only to be given one insignificant assignment after another. None of her three aunts—neither Valerian or Vitoria, nor the eldest Paredes sister, Jovita—had done anything to advance Oriana’s career, despite holding high positions in the ministry themselves.
Oriana peered down at her mother’s scrawl and blinked back tears. The pages of this book must contain a terrible secret for it to be worth all that pain. She closed the journal, not sure she was ready to address that pain tonight.
“I loved your mother too,” her grandmother said softly. “She was very good to my son, and I would have been happy for them to live here forever.”
Oriana smiled, recalling better days in this house.
“Now, there’s another thing I need to discuss with you, child,” her grandmother added, settling on the high-backed bench. “And I’d prefer not to put it off.”
“Of course, Grandmother.” Oriana dutifully tucked the journal under one arm and went to join her.
* * *
Duilio had everything unpacked by the time Oriana returned with a slender book clutched in her hand. The bedding was laid out as Oriana liked, their clothing neatly organized on shelves in the dressing area, and the shutters closed to keep the chilly night air outside where it belonged. For the month that they planned to stay, it would be comfortable enough.
“Oh, thank you,” Oriana said absently as she took in the fruit of his labors.
He gestured toward the book, suspecting it had caused her melancholy tone. “Is that it?”
She licked her upper lip. “Yes.”
“Have you started reading it?”
She sank down on the carved bench near the door. “I read just a bit and . . . there’s something wrong.”
What does that mean? Duilio sat next to her. “Your father said there’s no name in that journal to reveal who killed your mother. Nothing specific.”
“That’s not what I meant.” She opened the journal to a page near the center and pointed to the words. Untidy printing in black ink filled the page, some letters capitalized, others not. “Look at this sentence,” she said. “Doesn’t it strike you as odd?”
Duilio stared down at words telling of Lygia Paredes’ fondness for food with mushrooms, fish and prawns, and cheese. Had Oriana’s mother pursued a secondary career as a food critic? “I thought this was about her suspicions regarding the spy within the ministry.”
Back in the Golden City, Oriana had been hounded by a woman from the Ministry of Intelligence who used the name Iria Serpa. The woman had ordered Oriana to leave the city, but the ship that should have taken her back to the islands instead left her chained out on a rocky island to die. Only later had they learned that Iria Serpa was not who she claimed. She was a Canary, from that branch of distant cousins of the sereia who served the Spanish crown—a foreign spy hidden within the ministry itself. They’d assumed the journal would show that Oriana’s mother had discovered that fact . . . not an interest in fine cuisine.
“That’s what I meant.” Oriana shook her head. “She rambles in places, talking about the most inane things. She didn’t even care for mushrooms. Too bland.”
He’d been known to ramble about inane things himself, but when he did, it was usually as a diversion. Duilio stared down at the words on the page, waiting for his brain to sort out what was out of place.
“I’m sure that’s what convinced my father something was wrong,” Oriana said, “but I can’t figure out why she did it.”
It was a good sign, to his mind. Oriana’s mother had been hiding information.
Duilio went to his traveling desk near the windows and sat down, the journal in his hand. Oriana came to gaze over his shoulder while he pulled a fountain pen out of one of the drawers. “Do you mind if I make some small marks in this?”
She shook her head, even though it bothered her to write in books. She set one curved nail against her lip, a gesture of anxiety.
Duilio placed a small dot underneath each capitalized letter in the awkward sentence about food. Most were the initial letters in the words, but in the middle of the word peixe, the letter I was capitalized. He took a blank sheet of stationery paper and transcribed the capitalized letters onto it. “Did your mother ever work with codes?”
Oriana leaned over him, setting her chin atop his head. The lily-of-the-valley scent of her perfume surrounded him. “I don’t know,” she said. “I was only twelve when she died.”
“Did she like puzzles?” he asked instead.
Oriana took a breath to speak, thought better of it, and after a moment said, “Mother used to make up puzzles for Marina to solve when she was a girl. I was never good at them, but Marina was. I wasn’t patient enough.”
He wasn’t going to dispute that claim, but Oriana did have patience when needed. “I’m having trouble imagining Marina besting you,” he said instead.
Oriana laughed ruefully. “Don’t let her guise of helplessness fool you. She lets people think she’s compliant because that’s often the easier path to getting her way, but she’s very clever, and tenacious as a crab when she wants something.”
He had to bow to her familiarity with her sister. “Well, I think this is a cipher, an encrypted message where one substitutes one letter for another. Figuring it out is primarily logic. If Cristiano were here he could break it in five minutes. It will take me considerably longer.” His young foster brother, Cristiano Tavares, had recently received his degree in mathematics from the university in Coimbra. He loved this type of challenge. “Given some time, you and I can work it out.”
“So it’s not just . . . rambling?”
“Absolutely not,” he reassured her. “I think she meant for someone to pull out all the capitalized letters and decipher the message.” He flipped through several pages each direction and saw that the odd pattern of capitalization continued throughout. “There’s quite a bit here. I’d need to figure out on which page she started this and work through to the end.”
Oriana went and sat down on the bench again, her shoulders slumping. “Thank the gods.”
He turned in his chair to face her. “Were you doubting your father’s claims?”
“Father didn’t believe there was anything specific in the journal,” she said, “but if Mother went to all this trouble, there must be. If we have her guidance, it will be easier to find out who feared being exposed and had her killed.”
Even better, the embedded cipher meant that the journal was more than a toothless threat. It could be used to blackmail the culprit or culprits in return for Oriana’s continued safety. Duilio hoped it didn’t come to that, but was relieved to know that possibility existed.
They’d discussed what to do with the journal once they had it in their hands. If it named a specific member of the ministry as Iria Serpa’s protector, they could advise the ministry that they had a collaborator in their midst. Unfortunately, they still weren’t sure whom to trust. Even Oriana’s aunts were suspect, since Lygia Paredes had hidden the journal from them.
Duilio closed the journal, slid the book inside his traveling desk, and locked it. Then he joined her on the bench. “Why don’t we start off in the morning?” he suggested. “We’ll go through it from the beginning and figure it out together.”
Oriana sighed and pressed her hands over her face.
Duilio slid one hand under her vest onto her bare back, her skin warm under his fingers. She didn’t want to dive into this puzzle right away. She’d wanted a few days without the worries that had plagued her for the last few months, days without decisions to be made. “We can put if off for a while.”
She dropped her hands to her lap, but didn’t reply.
He leaned forward, gazing at her downturned face. If this wasn’t about the journal, her grandmother must have said something in the library that she hadn’t wanted to hear. “What else is bothering you?”
Oriana turned partway toward him. “She wants to adopt me.”
Why would that upset her? “What does that mean?”
“She wants me to have this house, all her property. She wants me to live here.”
Despite being her granddaughter, Oriana couldn’t inherit anything. She was legally dead. In the eyes of the sereia government, the Oriana Paredes who’d come to Quitos to serve as Portugal’s ambassador was a completely different Oriana Paredes than the one who’d been left chained on an island to die for unstated crimes the previous fall.
“What of our term as ambassadors?” he asked.
Oriana shook her head. “I explained that we have the rest of our term to serve,” she said. “It’s after that time that she wants me to live here. Given her age, though, she wants to start the paperwork on the adoption right away.”
“Do you?” she asked, a line between her brows. “She wants us to live here, Duilio. I don’t know what to say to her.”
He suddenly grasped what was bothering her. He would have to live under the expectations of sereia society. So far he’d followed their rules assiduously. He’d been silent and dutiful, and that rankled. When a new ambassador replaced Oriana, he would have more freedom to do as he wished, although he’d still need to be cautious so as not to damage Oriana’s reputation. Living on Amado would, at least, be an improvement over living on the main island.
But it also meant being far from his family. “What is the chance of going back and forth between here and the Golden City?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “Would you hate me for that? Being trapped here?”
He ran his fingers through the burgundy-tinged curls that tumbled down her back. “I’m not trapped. I’m with you.”
“Don’t pretend it’s that easy, Duilio,” she said softly.
“It is that simple for me,” he said. “I will go where you go; I will live where you live.”
She sighed and then sniffed. “And what if I don’t want to be trapped here?”
Ah, she’s not sure how she feels about this. Oriana always needed more time to decide about anything. They had talked about traveling after her term ended, and possibly returning to the Golden City to live. Now all those plans were endangered. “Let’s take a few days and talk it over. Surely she can wait that long.”
“I think so.” Oriana leaned her head against his shoulder.
He slid one hand under the open front of her vest. “Forget about the journal and your grandmother for now.”
She let him push the vest off her shoulders. In a pareu and nothing more, her dorsal stripe showed above the edge of the black fabric. He traced one finger along the rippled line of brilliant blue that separated the glittering black of her stripe from the human-colored portion of her back. Below the waist of her pareu, that human coloration gave way to a perfect imitation of silver scales, a source of endless fascination for him. She shivered at his touch. “You’re not supposed to be demanding.”
The core truth of these islands: the woman should always have the upper hand. “No one’s here to see me,” he reminded her.
Oriana smiled. “Please me, then.”
FRIDAY, 17 APRIL 1903
Oriana awoke feeling uncharacteristically muzzy. The room dipped and dove as she breathed the chilly sea air streaming in through the shutters. She’d thought she was past the worst of the morning sickness. She remained still, hoping her stomach would settle into its proper place. The heady scent of lilies filled the room, odd this early in the year.
Duilio’s head lay on her breast, and she raised one hand to touch his hair. When she first told him how he would be expected to behave on the islands, she hadn’t believed his quick acceptance. Yet so far he’d done everything expected of a mate, including growing out his hair, which made it long enough that she could run the tips of her fingers through it, the webbing between her fingers snagging occasionally on his curls. He hadn’t even balked at being tattooed. She ran a finger along one line of his tattoo, only then noting an orange stain on her fingertips and webbing.
She lifted her hand away. What is that?
His hair bore a dusting of the yellow-orange substance as well. She pushed at his shoulder and he mumbled in his sleep.
“Duilio, wake up.” He didn’t have the excuse of pregnancy for his sleepiness. He never came awake quickly, not unless his limited seer’s gift perceived a threat. He did move his head to his own pillow, though, allowing her to ease up onto her elbows.
The blankets were heavily dusted with yellow-orange pollen.
Oriana tried to sit up without disturbing the blankets further. She ended up with her back flat against the wall, gazing down on her still-sleeping mate. “Captain Vas Neves! Captain, I need you!”
Startled into wakefulness, Duilio shook himself, but she laid a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t move,” she whispered. “It’s in your hair.”
Duilio blinked dazedly but obeyed, trusting her assessment of the situation. She could see the pollen now in her own curls, which meant a thorough washing was in order. Annoying. The bedroom door opened, but Lieutenant Benites peered inside rather than the captain. “The captain is off duty, Madam Ambassador.”
Oriana gazed up at the young woman. “Someone’s been in this room, Lieutenant, while we slept. There’s no other explanation for this pollen everywhere.”
The lieutenant’s hazel eyes swept across the rumpled blankets of their bedding, flicked toward the open shutter, and took in the bathing and dressing area. Then she closed the door again. Oriana could hear the lieutenant’s voice as she ordered another guard to fetch the captain. The door opened a second time and Benites stepped back inside. “Corporal Almeida’s gone for the captain, madam. What do you need me to do?”
“Oriana,” Duilio interrupted.
She held up one hand to forestall him. “We need to roll this blanket up without dislodging any of the pollen. If this is what I think it is—gornarva pollen—it induces sleep.”
“Oriana,” Duilio tried again. “Did you get up during the night at all?”
She spared him a glance. He was up on his elbows as she’d been a few moments ago, the yellow-dusted blanket still covering his chest. There was an orange blotch on the tip of his nose, matching his stained fingers. His eyes were fixed on a spot across the room near the door to the bathroom. “No,” she answered. “Did you?”
“No,” he said, his voice tight. “Look at my desk.”
Oh gods. We’ve been robbed. The desk’s lid was up, but Duilio had been careful to lock it the night before. She’d seen him do it. Her first impulse was to jump up and search for the journal, but they needed to clear this mess before a wind came in through the open shutters and disturbed the pollen, putting them all back to sleep. “Duilio, stay here.”
He didn’t argue, but his jaw clenched in frustration.
Oriana waved the lieutenant over and waited while the young woman carefully lifted the edge of the blankets so that Oriana could shimmy out from underneath them. Then she clambered to her feet and dashed into the dressing room. Unfortunately, the abrupt motion turned her stomach, and she had to stop at the basin to retch up its meager contents.
She quickly rinsed out her mouth and washed her hands. Then she grabbed one of her blue-embroidered pareus off the dressing room shelves and wrapped it around her waist. She snatched one of Duilio’s as well and returned to the bedroom.
“What exactly is gornava?” He eyed the orange-yellow dust warily.
She knelt next to him and began carefully rolling up the blanket. “A carnivorous plant whose pollen, in sufficient quantities, can stun its victims. Usually that’s limited to flying insects, but enough collected can induce sleep in a human or sereia.”
Her arms folded over her chest, Lieutenant Benites turned away to preserve Duilio’s limited modesty. “Someone walked in here and drugged you, madam?”
Oriana had rolled the blanket back enough that Duilio could slide out. He rose and glared down at the yellow-stained bedding. Then he spotted the black pareu she’d brought and donned it. “Everyone stand still. Let me look at things before you disturb them.”
Oriana crossed her arms, frustrated. She needed to find the journal, but Duilio was right. He knew what to look for in this sort of situation, things that could tell them who’d done this. She didn’t. So she stayed put, gesturing for Benites to remain where she was as well.
Skirting the pollen sprayed across the floor, Duilio crossed to the window and crouched down to peer at the shutter’s latch. “I think, Lieutenant, that the order is reversed. They drugged us and then walked in here. I latched these shutters before you returned last night, Oriana.”
Excerpted from "The Shores of Spain"
Copyright © 2015 J. Kathleen Cheney.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the novels of J. Kathleen Cheney
“Intriguing and fun, the mystery unfolds like a socially conscious tour through a cabinet of curiosities.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Those who enjoy alternate history, Edwardian- or Victorian-era historical fiction with a touch of magic and mythology, will be delighted with this story.” —Booklist
“[A] masterpiece of historical fantasy.”—Library Journal