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?"
"Ullus's coin," Ehren said. "And a like amount upon return to Alera."
"Double the amount on return," Demos said. "Cash, no vouchers or letters of marque. You're buying passage, not command of my vessel. And I'll have your word not to go out of my sight until paid in full."
Ehren tilted his head. "My word? Would you trust it?"
"Break it," Demos said, "and the Cursors will hunt you down for sullying their business reputation."
"True enough," Ehren said, "if I worked for them. Done."
Demos jerked his head in a nod. "Done. What do I call you?"
"Take me to the coin, scribe." He turned to one of his men. "We set sail at once. Get a slave detail and take any women or children you can see on the way back."
The men nodded and started back to the harbor. Demos turned to find Ehren frowning at him. "We'd best move."
Ehren jerked a nod at him and led him to the back of the bungalow, where Ullus thought he'd built a clever hiding place into the woodpile. Ehren recovered the entirety of Ullus's cash fortune in a leather sack and tossed it to Demos.
The captain opened the sack and dumped some of its contents onto his palm. They were a mix of coins of all sorts, mainly copper rams and silver bulls, but with the occasional gold crown mixed in. Demos nodded and headed back for the ship. Ehren followed, walking on the man's left, a stride away, where he would have time and room to dodge should the pirate draw his sword.
Demos seemed briefly amused. "If I wished to be rid of you, scribe, I wouldn't need to kill you. I'd leave you here."
"Call it a professional courtesy," Ehren said. "You aren't a smuggler or a pirate."
"I am today," Demos said.
Armed members of the Slives crew rushed past. Behind them, Ehren heard screams as the men began seizing women and children and shackling them.
"And a slaver, too," Ehren said, trying to keep his tone calm. "Why?"
"This most recent enterprise has ended in a less-than-satisfactory fashion. I'll sell them when we reach the mainland and defray some of my expenses," Demos said. He glanced out to the west, as they headed down the quay, his eyes on the rising blackness of the storm there.
After that, Demos fell silent until they boarded the Slive. Then he began to give orders immediately, and Ehren hastened to stand out of the way. The slave patrol brought in a score of chained prisoners, while several other men fought a brief, ugly brawl with inhabitants of Westmiston who objected. A pirate was slain, the townsfolk beaten back with half a dozen dead. The women and children passed within a step of Ehren when the slavers hurried them into the hold, and he felt nauseated at their distress, their sobs, their cries of protest.
Perhaps he could find some way to help them when they returned to Alera. He folded his arms, closed his eyes, and tried not to think on it, while Demos and his crew rigged the ship and headed for the harbor, tacking against the strong wind while men strained at the oars to give the ship all possible speed while the darkness of the storm grew and grew, until it looked like nothing so much as great mountains looming up on the horizon. It was unnerving, as every sailor aboard the Slive threw his strength into driving the ship directly at that glowering, ominous tide of shadow, until they could clear the harbor and round the island.
They had just broken into the open sea when Ehren saw what his instincts had warned him about.
Hundreds of ships.
Hundreds of enormous ships, broad and low-beamed, sailing in formation, their vast, black sails stretched tight and full by the gale sweeping along behind them. The horizon, from one end to the other, was filled with black sails.
"The Canim," Ehren whispered.
The Canim were coming in numbers more enormous than any in Alera's history.
Ehren felt his legs turn weak, and he leaned against the Slive's railing for support, staring out at the armada plunging toward them. Distantly, in Westmiston, he could hear the storm chimes ringing in panic. He turned to see the drunken, disorganized crew of the other ship rushing down to the docks-but at the speed the Canim fleet was moving, they would never escape the harbor before they were cut off by black sails.
The Slive rounded the northernmost point of the island of Westmiston, and her crew adjusted the rigging for running before the wind instead of into it. Within minutes, the Aleran vessel's grey canvas sails boomed and stretched tight before the dark storm's windy vanguard, and the Slive leapt into the open sea.
Ehren paced slowly aftward, until he stood staring off the Slives stern. Ships detached themselves from the Canim fleet and fell upon Westmiston, wolves to the fold.
Ehren looked up to find Demos standing beside him.
"The women and children," Ehren said quietly.
"As many as we could carry," Demos said.
Smoke began to rise from Westmiston.
"Why?" Ehren asked.
Demos regarded the Canim fleet with dispassionate calculation. "Why let them go to waste? They'll fetch a fair price."
The man's lack of expression, whether in word, movement, or deed, was appalling. Ehren folded his arms to hide a shiver. "Will they catch us?"
Demos shook his head. "Not my ship." He lifted a hand abruptly and pointed out to sea.
Ehren peered. There, between the Slive and the oncoming armada, a sudden wave rose directly up from the sea, against the flow of the others. Ehren could hardly believe what he was seeing, until water began to break around the massive shape that had risen from the sea. He could see few details, from this distance, but the black, enormous shape that stirred the surface would have stood taller than the Slives sails.
"Leviathan," he breathed. "That's a leviathan."
"Little bit shy of medium size," Demos agreed. "They're territorial. Those Canim ships have been stirring them up as they passed for the last ten days."
A deep, booming thrum ran through the water, so powerful that the surface of the tossing sea vibrated with it, tossing up fine spray. The ship shook around them, and Ehren clearly heard a plank give way and snap somewhere below them.
"Damage party, starboard aft!" Demos bellowed.
"What was that?" Ehren breathed. The soles of his feet felt odd, aftershocks of the vibration still buzzing against them.
"Leviathan complaining," Demos said. He glanced at Ehren, and one corner of his mouth might have twitched for a second. "Relax, scribe. I've two witchmen below. They'll keep us from bothering the leviathans."
"And the Canim?"
"We've seen four ships smashed, but it hasn't slowed them down. There, look."
The vast shape in the water moved for a moment, toward the armada, but then descended, water crashing into its wake, swirling in a vortex for a time even after the leviathan dived. By the time the first Canim ship reached the spot, there was nothing but a restless remnant of the enormous beast's presence, a rough-stirred sea. The Canim ship broached it, spray flying, and held its course.
"Say this much. Those dogs don't have a yellow bone in them," Demos murmured, eyes distant. "All but the biggest leviathans get out of the way of that storm coming behind the Canim. They'll take a few more losses on the way over, but they'll get through."
"You were carrying a message to them?" Ehren asked.
"That's no business of yours," Demos said.
"It is if you're complicit with them, Captain. Did they simply let you escape them?"
"Didn't let me," Demos said. "But then I didn't give them much choice in the matter. They weren't as sneaky as they thought they were. Crows'll go hungry before I let some mangy dog-priest stick a knife in my spine."
"Priest?" Ehren asked.
Demos grunted. "Robes, books, scrolls. Talks a lot of nonsense. Name was Sari."
Sari. Formerly the chamberlain to Ambassador Varg at the capital-and the creature who had plotted with the vord to strike down the First Lord. Sari, who had escaped from Alera, despite all the efforts of the Legions and lords to find and stop him. Sari, who, Ehren was now sure, must have had help inside of Alera.
"Kalarus," Ehren murmured.
Demos sent Ehren's earlier words back at him, imitating the scribe's inflection. "I don't know what you mean, sir."
Ehren studied the man for a moment, sure that the overt denial held covert confirmation. If so, then Demos had been hired by Kalarus to take a message to the Canim-who had promptly attempted to kill him before he could escape. Obviously, Demos had no intentions of participating with the authorities by way of retribution-that kind of criminal seldom found others willing to do business with them down the line. But he must have been angered by the betrayal, enough to let Ehren obliquely learn who had hired him and what was happening.
"You know what this means," Ehren said, shaking his head. "A messenger. This armada. It's war, Captain. And you are not the only one who has been betrayed."
Demos stared aft and said nothing. The darkness that was the storm driving the Canim armada swallowed the island of Westmiston entirely.
Ehren turned to face Demos. "I'll triple the amount of your pay if you get us back to Alera in time enough to warn the Legions. No questions asked."
The mercenary glanced at him, silent for a long moment. Then his teeth showed again, and he nodded, very slightly, to Ehren. "Bosun!"
"Reinforce the mainmast, hang out all the laundry, and warn the witchmen! Let's make the old bitch fly!"