Port of shadows, p.1
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       Port of Shadows, p.1
 

          
Port of Shadows


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  Copyright Page

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  PROLOGUE

  I was permitted to record the following but do not doubt that the pertinent Annals will disappear and be read by none forever whilst those of us who lived it forget every instant of love and horror.

  It started in humanity’s bleakest hour, as the Domination staggered toward its demise. I know these things only through a windfall blessing: Resurrectionist fugitives who fled from Honnoh early took the relevant documents with them, only to give them up in transit. Unable to decipher them myself, I passed them on to Charm.

  Some generous spirit there returned a translation copy, that was, for sure, edited, censored, and bowdlerized, but, even so, was one that offered a skeleton on which I could flesh out a pragmatic phantasm of the truth.

  1

  Once Upon a Time, in Dusk

  The night was silent but for the clop of hooves on wet cobblestones. A sliver of moon winked at the world from behind straggler wisps of cloud, silhouetting the grim spires of Grendirft. No light shone anywhere from that fortress.

  The air was still and nearly chill now that the rain had gone away. A hint of corrupting flesh tainted the air of imperial Dusk.

  It was not yet late enough in the season for many insects.

  The black coach stopped, its right side wheels a yard from an unguarded drop-off into a moatlike canal that existed to carry off wastes rather than to present a defensive barrier. A waste chute debouched into the canal just yards upstream from the coach.

  The driver tied off his reins. He climbed down. He assumed a stiff parade rest at the canal’s edge, but after a brief wait he turned, opened the coach door, and retrieved a boat hook. He now held that tool like it was a pole arm.

  A corpse made a small plop as it hit the water. Momentum brought it to the surface where the coachman waited. He did not have to use the boat hook.

  He pulled the girl from the canal carefully. She was slippery. The rain had freshened the water, so her brief immersion did not gift her with the sewer perfume she might have acquired on another night. She wore nothing. Any abuse she had suffered was not obvious. She was fifteen at the oldest. She did not weigh much. The coachman had no trouble getting her into his vehicle. He wrapped her in blankets and propped her in a corner. She looked like she was sick or drunk or asleep when he finished.

  “You down there! What are you doing?”

  That demand came down from eighty feet above.

  The coachman’s heart, thumping already, now hammered although he knew no one could get down from there in time to identify or stop him. He had gone through this in dry runs a half dozen times. This was the first time he had been noticed.

  He kept the coach moving sedately while departing the area. It was unlikely that anyone would check why a coach had been standing beside the waste canal, despite it being about the time when the Dominator’s henchmen disposed of the used-up virgin of the night.

  Dusk’s gates never closed. What fool would invade the capital of the Domination, especially when the dread lord of the empire was in residence? No one living owned that much audacity.

  The coachman was remarkable in having shown the daring he had.

  There was no cause for the guards at the Jade Gate to disrupt his departure. A small donative did, however, change hands. That was customary. In return the soldiers were entirely cursory in their inspection.

  The coachmen explained, “That’s my daughter. Fourteen and blind drunk, to my shame. But you can’t help loving them, whatever they do.”

  The younger soldier chuckled. “See what you got to look forward to, Jink?” he told his companion, then said, “Jink’s got him three daughters coming up.”

  Jink said, “They hit eleven, they go into a cage until I get them married. You probably ought to put yours on a chain,” he told the coachman. “Go on, now.”

  The coachman climbed back up, snapped his reins, heaved a sigh of relief, and got his team moving.

  He was racing time.

  The girl would not last long.

  2

  Long Ago and Far Away: Sometimes Called Bathdek

  Excitement began to stir inside Grendirft when the Lord Chamberlain discovered that tonight’s visitor to the Dominator had been disposed of as if she was a common used-up diversion instead of one of the Senjaks. The men responsible were new. They had not been trained before being put to work as replacements for predecessors who had descended the waste chute themselves because of their stupid actions.

  The Lord Chamberlain battled terror that had him on the verge of tossing up everything he had eaten all week. He maintained just enough control to report the disaster to the girl’s next-oldest sister, Bathdek.

  “Perhaps He became a little inappropriate. He has had some difficulty keeping hands off…” Shift blame as much as possible. He might not have long to live, otherwise, and the death he was likely to die would be neither gentle nor swift.

  Bathdek’s voice was chill. “I understand. It was sure to happen to one of us.” She had survived visits with the Dominator herself. The madman was less aggressive with her and her other sisters, who did not fit His preferences as well as Dorotea. “He killed her?” That might cost the mad emperor everything. “And He disposed of her as if she was one of His nameless night toys?” She was almost too outraged to be enraged. “That doesn’t seem like something He would do even when He was drunk on poppy milk.”

  The Lord Chamberlain promised, “I will recover her body.”

  “You most certainly will. We will need a body next time He demands her company. Else we could all become victims.” All predicated on the assumption that He was so far gone that He would not recall the killing.

  Her fear was like none that she had known before. If the mad emperor abandoned His compact with the Senjaks, the family might not survive. Nor would He, afterward. He might be the monster sorcerer of all time but He could not stand against the enmity of all the world without the support of the people who had brought Him to absolute and total dominion.

  Again the Lord Chamberlain promised, “I will find her. I will bring her back.” It should not be that difficult. The body would be in the waste canal.

  But her body was not in the waste canal.

  Several bodies were in the canal, human and otherwise, floating or not, but none were that of the youngest Senjak sister.

  The Lord Chamberlain’s panic level was historic. And it became contagious.

  3

  In Modern Times: Tides Elba

  We were playing tonk. One-Eye was in a foul mood. He was losing. Again. Situation normal, except nobody was trying to kill us.

  Elmo dealt. One-Eye squeaked. I peeked at my cards. “Another hand so damned bad it don’t quali
fy as a foot.”

  Otto said, “You’re full of shit, Croaker. You won six out of the last ten.”

  Elmo added, “And bitched about the deal every damned time.”

  “I was right whenever I dealt.” I was right again, too. I did not have a pair. I had no low cards and only one face card. The two in the same suit were the seven and knave of diamonds. I do not have years enough left to fill that straight. Anyway, we all knew One-Eye had a rare good hand.

  “Then we should make you full-time dealer.”

  I shoved my ante in. I drew, discarded, and threw my hand in when it came to me.

  One-Eye went down with ten. The highest card he had was a three. His leathery old black face ripped in a grin absent an adequate population of teeth. He raked in the pot.

  Elmo asked the air, “Was that legitimate?” The gallery numbered half a dozen. We had the Dark Horse to ourselves. The place had become the Company watering hole in Aloe. The owner, Markeg Zhorab, had mixed feelings. We were not the kinds of guys he wanted hanging around but because we did his business was outstanding.

  Nobody indicted One-Eye. Goblin, with his butt on the table next over, reminded Elmo, “You dealt.”

  “Yeah, there’s that.”

  One-Eye has been known to cheat. Hard to manage in a game as simpleminded as tonk, but there you go. He is who he is.

  “Lucky at cards, unlucky at love,” he said, which made no sense in context.

  Goblin cracked, “Hire yourself some bodyguards. Women will tear down doors to get to you.”

  A wisecrack from Goblin usually fires One-Eye up. He has a hair trigger. We waited for it. One-Eye just grinned. He told Otto, “Deal, loser. And make it a hand like the one Elmo gave me.”

  Goblin said something about Missus Hand being the only lucky lady in One-Eye’s life.

  One-Eye went on ignoring the bait.

  I began to worry.

  Otto’s deal did not help.

  One-Eye asked, “You know how we run into weird customs everywhere we go?”

  Elmo glared holes through his cards. He grunted. Otto arranged and rearranged his five, meaning he had a hand so bad he did not know how to play it. One-Eye did not squeak but kept on grinning. We were on the brink of a new age, one in which the black devil could win two in a row.

  Everybody checked Goblin. Goblin said, “Otto dealt.”

  Somebody in the gallery suggested, “Maybe he spelled the cards.”

  That rolled past One-Eye. “The weirdest custom they got here is, when a girl loses her cherry, from then on she’s got to keep all the hair off her body.”

  Otto rumbled, “There’s some grade-two bullshit if I ever heard any. We been here three months and I ain’t seen a bald-headed woman yet.”

  Everything stopped, including One-Eye stacking his winnings.

  “What?” Otto asked.

  There have always been questions about Otto.

  The rest of us occasionally invest a coin in a tumble with a professional comfort lady. The subject never came up before but I knew I had yet to see a single whisker below the neckline.

  “Do tell,” Elmo said. “And I thought it was the luck of the draw that I wasn’t seeing what ought to be there.”

  I said, “I figured it was how mine kept from getting the crabs.”

  “Nope. All tied into their weird religion.”

  Goblin muttered, “There’s an oxymoron.”

  One-Eye’s mood faltered.

  Goblin’s froglike face split in a vast grin. “I wasn’t talking about you, shrimp. You’re just a regular moron. I was talking about slapping the words ‘weird’ and ‘religion’ together.”

  “You guys are trying to hex my luck, aren’t you?”

  “Damned straight,” Elmo said. “Talking about pussy works every time. Tell me about these bald snatches.”

  One-Eye restacked his winnings. He was turning surly despite his success. He had come up with some great stuff, on a subject guys can kill weeks exploring, and nobody seemed to care.

  I shuffled, stacked, and dealt. One-Eye grew more glum as he picked up his cards.

  The last one got him. “Goddamn it, Croaker! You asshole! You son of a bitch!”

  Elmo and Otto kept straight faces because they did not know what was happening. Goblin tittered like a horny chickadee.

  One-Eye spread his hand. He had a trey of clubs. He had a six of diamonds. He had the nine of hearts and the ace of spades. And that last card was a knave of swords.

  I said, “How many times have you said you don’t have no two cards of the same suit? This time you won’t be lying.”

  Elmo and Otto got it. They laughed harder than me or Goblin. The gallery got a good chuckle, too.

  The Lieutenant stuck his head in through the front door. “Anybody seen Kingpin?” He did not sound happy. He sounded like an executive officer who had to work on his day off.

  “He skating again?” Elmo asked.

  “He is. He’s supposed to be on slops. He didn’t show. The cooks want to chop him up for soup bones.”

  “I’ll talk to him, sir.” Though Kingpin was not one of his men. Kingpin belonged to Kragler’s platoon.

  “Thank you, Sergeant.” Elmo does have a way of communicating with errant infantrymen. “Why are you people in here, in all this gloom and stench, when you could be outside sucking up fresh air and sunshine?”

  I said, “This is our natural habitat, sir.” But the truth was, it had not occurred to anybody to take the game outside.

  We gathered our cards and beer and shambled out to the streetside tables. One-Eye dealt. Talk dwelt on the hairstyles, or lack thereof, favored by Aloen ladies.

  * * *

  It was a grand day, cloudless, cool, air in motion but not brisk enough to disturb the game. The gallery settled in. Some just liked to watch. Some hoped a seat would open up. They joined the increasingly crude speculation, which slipped into the domain of one-upmanship.

  I interjected, “How long have we been playing with these cards?” Some were so ragged you should not need to turn them over to know what they were, but my memory kept tricking me.

  Everybody looked at me funny. “Here comes something off the wall,” One-Eye forecast. “Spit it out, Croaker, so we can get back to stuff that matters.”

  “I’m wondering if this deck hasn’t been around long enough to take on a life of its own.”

  One-Eye opened his mouth to mock me, then his eyes glazed over. He considered the possibility. Likewise, Goblin. The pallid, ugly little man said, “Well, screw me! Croaker, you aren’t half as dumb as you look. The cards have developed a mind of their own? That would explain so much.”

  Everybody eyeballed One-Eye, nodding like somebody was conducting. One-Eye had insisted that the cards hated him for as long as anyone could remember.

  He won again.

  Three wins at one sitting should have tipped me off. Hell was on the prowl. But my mouth was off on another adventure.

  “You know what? It’s been eighty-seven days since somebody tried to kill me.”

  Elmo said, “Don’t give up hope.”

  “Really. Think about it. We’re out in the street where anybody could take a crack but nobody is even eyeballing us. And none of us are looking over our shoulders and whining about our ulcers.”

  Play stopped. Seventeen eyes glared at me. Otto said, “Croaker, you jinx it, I’ll personally hold you down while somebody whittles on your favorite toy.”

  Goblin said, “He’s right. We’ve been here three months. The only trouble we’ve seen is guys getting drunk and starting fights.”

  With six hundred forty men, you know the Company has a few shitheads whose idea of a good time is to drink too much, then get in an ass-kicking contest.

  One-Eye opined, “What it is is, the Lady’s still got a boner for Croaker so she stashed him someplace safe. The rest of us just live in his shadow. Watch the sky. Some night there’ll be a carpet up there, Herself coming out to knock boots with her spe
cial guy.”

  “What’s her hairstyle like, Croaker?”

  Special treatment? Sure. We spent a year following Whisper from one blistering trouble spot to the next, fighting damned near every day.

  Special treatment? Yeah. The kind you get for being competent. Whatever your racket, you do a good job, the bosses pile more work on.

  “You’ll be the first to know when I get a look, Otto.” I did not plow on into the kind of crudities the others found entertaining. They took that to confirm my unabated interest in the wickedest woman in the world. The real story was, I was afraid that she might be listening.

  A kid named Corey said, “Speaking of hairstyles, there’s one I wouldn’t mind checking out.”

  Everybody turned to admire a young woman across the street. Pawnbroker congratulated Corey on his excellent taste.

  She was sneaking up on twenty. She had pale red hair cut shorter than any I’d seen around Aloe. It fell only to her collar in back and not that far angling up the sides. She had bangs in front. I did not notice what she wore. Nothing unusual. She radiated such an amazingly intense sensuality that nothing else mattered.

  Our sudden attention, heads wheeling like birds in a flock, startled her. She stared back briefly, trying for haughty, but failed to stick it. She took off speed-walking.

  One-Eye picked up his cards. “That one is bald everywhere that matters.”

  Corey asked, “You know her?” Like he had found new meaning to life. He had hope. He had a mission.

  “Not specifically. She’s a temple girl.”

  The cult of Occupoa engages in holy prostitution. I hear Occupoa has some dedicated and talented daughters.

  Goblin wanted to know how One-Eye could tell.

  “That’s the official hairstyle over there, runt.” From a guy smaller than Goblin.

  “And you know that because?”

  “Because I’ve decided to treat myself to the best of everything during my last few months.”

  We all stared. One-Eye is a notorious skinflint. And never has any money, anyway, because he is a lousy tonk player. Not to mention that he is next to immortal, having been with the Company over a hundred years.

 
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