When the stars burned red, the inhabitants of Westmiston did not panic so much as freeze in place, like a hare who senses a predator nearby.
Ullus had shaken Ehren from his sleep without a word, and they had gone out of the bungalow to stare up in total silence. The other folk of Westmiston did the same. No one carried a light, as though afraid to be noticed by something looking down on them.
No one spoke.
Waves broke on the shore.
Wind stirred fitfully, restlessly.
The sullen light of the stars illuminated nothing. The shadows grew, their edges indistinct, and within the light all movement was veiled, blurred, making it difficult to tell the difference between stationary objects, living things, and the shadows themselves.
The sun rose the next morning, pure and golden for a few moments-but then it took on a sullen, sanguine hue. The colors of sunset looked bizarre with the light coming down from overhead, strong and bright. It was unsettling. Few folk moved about Westmiston. Those who did sought wine, rum, and ale. The captain of the only ship currently in the harbor was murdered in the street at noon, cut down by his own crew when he ordered them down to the harbor to set sail. The body lay untouched where it fell.
Sailors stared fearfully up at the sky, muttering darkly under their breaths and making superstitious gestures of warding and protection. Then they drank as much alcohol as possible, walking over their former captain's remains to enter the wine house.
Ullus stepped out of his bungalow to squint up at the sky, fists on his hips. "Bloody crows," he complained, his tone personally offended. "Everyone in the whole crowbegotten town is staying indoors. This could be bad for business."
Ehren set his pen down for a moment and rested his forehead on the edge of his desk. He bit back a dozen insulting replies and settled for a sigh before he went back to his writing, and said, "You may be right."
Someone began ringing the town's storm bell.
Ullus shook his head with disgust, stalked over to a cabinet, and jerked out a large bottle of cheap rum. "Go see what that fool of a watchman is on about now."
"Yes, sir," Ehren said, glad to be able to move. Like everyone else, except possibly Ullus, Ehren was worried about the portents in the sky, the haze of blood over sun and stars. Unlike everyone else, Ehren knew about the vast storms that the Canim had hurled at the western shores of Alera only a few years ago. Ehren knew that their ritualists were capable of great feats of power rivaling or surpassing the furycraft of the Realm.
And Ehren knew that an unscrupulous captain with no time to spare and a suspiciously large load of goods to sell had, three weeks and one day ago, sailed from Westmiston for the Canim homeland.
The bloody-hued sky was surely no natural event. If, as he suspected, it meant that the Canim were exerting their power again, and this time on a scale no one had dreamed they could manage, then business was going to be very bad in Westmiston-and anywhere else within sailing range of Canim raiders.
He finished the line he was working on-his notes, encoded in a cipher known only to the Cursors, rather than the books Ullus assumed he was balancing. He'd already prepared a summary of all that he had learned in the past months, and only the last several days' worth of observations needed to be added to the small, waterproof case at Ehren's belt.
He did so, then left the bungalow, jogging down toward the harbor at an easy pace. His footsteps sounded loud in the unusual silence of the islands. It did not take him long to see why the watchman had begun ringing the chimes-a ship had arrived in the harbor. It took him a moment to be sure, but when he saw Captain Demos on deck, he recognized the vessel as the Slive. She had come in under a strong wind and full sail, and her crewmen moved with the jerking haste of tired men with no time to spare.
A sudden gust of cold wind pushed at Ehren, and he peered out at the western horizon. There, far out over the sea, he could see a long line of darkness on the horizon. Storm clouds.
The Slive spent its incoming momentum on a sudden turn, and her timbers shook and groaned. A bow wave pressed out ahead of the vessel, high enough to send a sheet of seawater over the quay, before the ship itself bellied up to the quay, already facing back to the west, toward the mouth of the harbor, ready to run for open water.
Ehren was suddenly very sure that he wanted off the island.
He headed on down to the harbor and went out along the rickety old quay to the Slive.
Two men loitering on deck with bows in hand took note of him as he did. Ehren slowed his steps cautiously as he approached the ship, and he stood well back from the gangplank as it was cast down.
Captain Demos was the first man onto the plank, and he gave Ehren a flat stare with nothing human in it but for an instant of recognition. He nodded, and said, "The fence's scribe."
"Yes, Captain," Ehren said with a bow of his head. "How may I serve you?"
"Take me to your master, and be quick." He whistled sharply without using his fingers, and half a dozen men dropped what they were doing and came down the gangplank after him. Each of the men, Ehren noted, was large, armed, and looked unfriendly. In point of fact, every single man aboard was armed, even as they readied the ship to depart again. There were even a few pieces of armor in evidence-mostly abbreviated chain shirts and sections of boiled leather.
That was hardly the normal state of affairs, even on a pirate vessel. Weaponry presented nothing but a hindrance to a sailor in the rigging. Wearing even light armor on a ship was all but a death sentence should one fall into the sea. No sailor, pirate or otherwise, would don such gear without a compelling reason.
Ehren found Captain Demos staring at him with an unnerving amount of intensity and no expression on his face. His hand rested negligently on the hilt of his sword. "Question, scribe?"
Ehren looked up at Demos, sensing that he was in immediate danger. He bowed his head carefully, and said, "No, sir. It is no business of mine."
Demos nodded, and lifted his hand from his sword to gesture for Ehren to precede them. "Remember it."
'Yes, Captain. This way, sir."
Ehren led Demos and his men up to Ullus's bungalow. The fence came out to meet them, wearing a rusted old gladius through his belt, his face set in a scowl made fearless by drink. "Good day, Captain."
"Fence," Demos said, his tone flat. "I am here for my money."
"Ah," Ullus said. He looked at Demos's armed escort and narrowed his eyes. "Well as I said, sir, three weeks was hardly time enough in which to liquidate your articles."
"And as I said. You will pay me in cash for anything not sold."
"I wish I had enough to afford it," Ullus said. "But I don't have access to such a great amount of coin in this season. If you come back to me in the autumn, I should have more available."
Demos was silent for a moment. Then he said, "I regret it when business deals do not work out-but I made my position clear, fence. And whatever kind of snake you may be, my word is good." He turned his head to his men, and said, "Cut his throat."
Ullus's sword came to his hand readily enough, out before any of Demos's armsmen drew. "That might not be as easy as you think," he said. "And it will profit you nothing. My coin is hidden. Kill me, and you will not see a copper ram of it."
Demos lifted a hand, and his men stopped in their tracks. He stared at Ullus for a second, then said, "Bloody crows, man. You really are that stupid. I thought it was an act."
"Stupid?" Ullus said. "Not so stupid that I'd let you run roughshod over me on my own island."
Ehren remained very still, over to one side, where he might duck behind the bungalow should weaponplay commence. He felt the wind change quite suddenly. The fitful, restless breeze that had danced idly around the island for all of that day vanished. Something like the breath of some single, enormous beast rushed across the island in a single, enormous moan. The wind rose so suddenly that the pennons on the banner poles on the harbor snapped, their tips cracking like whips as the wind, hot and damp, sent the banners streaming to the horizon.
Demos's attention flicked to the wind banners, and his eyes narrowed.
Some instinct cried out to him, and Ehren turned to Demos. "Captain," he said. "In the interests of saving time, I have an offer for you."
"Shut up, slave," growled Ullus.
Demos glanced aside at Ehren, his eyes flat.
"I know where his coin is hidden," Ehren said. "Grant me passage to the mainland, and I'll show you where it is."
Ullus whirled on Ehren in a fury. "Who do you think you are, you greasy little tosspot? Hold your tongue." He brandished the rusty sword. "Or I will."
"Captain?" Ehren pressed. "Have we a bargain?"
Ullus let out a cry of pure rage and rushed at Ehren, sword rising.
Ehren's small knife appeared from its hiding place in his tunic's roomy sleeve. He waited until the last moment for Ullus's strike, and then slipped aside from it by the width of a hair. His knife struck out, a single stroke that left a cut two inches long and almost as deep.
Ullus's throat sprayed blood. The ragged fence collapsed to the ground like a groggy drunk abruptly sure that it was time for a nap.
Ehren stared down at the man for a moment, regret sharp in him. Ullus was a fool, a liar, a criminal, and Jie'd doubtless done more than his share of despicable deeds in his time-but even so, Ehren had not wanted to kill him. But if Ehren's instincts were correct, he'd had little choice. It was imperative that he leave the island, and Demos was his only way out.
He turned to Demos and leaned down to wipe the blade of his little knife clean on the back of Ullus's tunic. "It would seem that your own arrangement with Ullus has been resolved in accordance with your terms. Have we a new bargain, Captain?"
Demos stared at Ehren, with neither more nor less expression on his face than before. He looked briefly at Ullus's body. "It would seem I have little choice if I am to collect my coin."
"That's true enough," Ehren agreed. "Captain, please. I have a sense that we do not wish to stand around talking about this all day."
Demos's teeth showed in an expression that was not a smile. "Your technique is sound, Cursor. "
"I don't know what you mean, sir."
Demos grunted. "They never do. Passage is one thing. Involving myself in more politics is another."
"And more expensive?" Ehren asked.
"Commensurate with the risk. Dead men spend no coin."
Ehren nodded once, sharply. "And your own loyalties, sir?"