The Drowning City - By Amanda Downum Page 0,1

vacation, at least, she could give herself.

He grinned and looked to his partner. “Do you know someplace decadent?”

Xinai’s lips curled as she turned away from the luggage. “The Silver Phoenix. It’s Selafaïn—it’ll be decadent enough for you.” Her head barely cleared her partner’s shoulder, though the black plumage-crest of her hair added the illusion of more height. She wore her wealth too—rings in her ears, a gold cuff on one wiry wrist, a silver hoop in her nostril. The blades at her hips and the scars on her wiry arms said she knew how to keep it.

Isyllt turned back to the city, scanning the ships at dock. She was surprised not to see more Imperial colors flying. After rumors of rebellion and worries of war, she’d expected Imperial warships, but there was no sign of the Emperor’s army—although that didn’t mean it wasn’t there.

Something was happening, though; a crowd gathered on the docks, and Isyllt caught flashes of red and green uniforms amid the blur of bodies. Shouts and angry voices carried over the water, but she couldn’t make out the words.

The customs skiff drew alongside the Mariah, lion crest gleaming on the red-and-green-striped banners—the flag of an Imperial territory, granted limited home-rule. The sailors threw down a rope ladder and three harbor officials climbed aboard, nimble against the rocking hull. The senior inspector was a short, neat woman, wearing a red sash over her sleek-lined coat. Isyllt fought the urge to fidget with her own travel-grimed clothes. Her hair was a salt-stiff tangle, barely contained by pins, and while she’d cleaned her face with oil before landfall, it was no substitute for a proper bath.

Isyllt waited, Adam and Xinai flanking her, while the inspector spoke to the captain. Whatever the customs woman told the captain, he didn’t like. He spat over the rail and made an angry gesture toward the shore. The Mariah wasn’t the only ship waiting to dock; Isyllt wondered if the gathering on the pier had something to do with the delay.

Finally the ship’s mate led two of the inspectors below, and the woman in the red sash turned to Isyllt, a wax tablet and stylus in her hand. A Sivahri, darker skinned than Xinai but with the same creaseless black eyes; elaborate henna designs covered her hands. Isyllt was relieved to be greeted in Assari—Xinai had tutored her in the native language during the voyage, but she was still far from fluent.

“Roshani.” The woman inclined her head politely. “You’re the only passengers?” She raised her stylus as Isyllt nodded. “Your names?”

“Isyllt Iskaldur, of Erisín.” She offered the oiled leather tube that held her travel papers. “This is Adam and Xinai, sayifarim hired in Erisín.”

The woman glanced curiously at Xinai; the mercenary gave no more response than a statue. The official opened the tube and unrolled the parchment, recorded something on her tablet. “And your business in Symir?”

Isyllt tugged off her left glove and held out her hand. “I’m here to visit the Kurun Tam.” The breeze chilled her sweaty palm. Since it was impossible to pass herself off as anything but a foreign mage, the local thaumaturgical facility was the best cover.

The woman’s eyes widened as she stared at the cabochon black diamond on Isyllt’s finger, but she didn’t ward herself or step out of reach. Ghostlight gleamed iridescent in the stone’s depths and a cold draft suffused the air. She nodded again, deeper this time. “Yes, meliket. Do you know where you’ll be staying?”

“Tonight we take rooms at the Silver Phoenix.”

“Very good.” She recorded the information, then glanced up. “I’m sorry, meliket, but we’re behind schedule. It will be a while yet before you can dock.”

“What’s going on?” Isyllt gestured toward the wharf. More soldiers had appeared around the crowd.

The woman’s expression grew pained. “A protest. They’ve been there an hour and we’re going to lose a day’s work.”

Isyllt raised her eyebrows. “What are they protesting?”

“New tariffs.” Her tone became one of rote response. “The Empire considers it expedient to raise revenues and has imposed taxes on foreign goods. Some of the local merchants”—she waved a hennaed hand at the quay—“are unhappy with the situation. But don’t worry, it’s nothing to bother the Kurun Tam.”

Of course not—Imperial mages would hardly be burdened with problems like taxes. It was much the same in the Arcanost in Erisín.

“Are these tariffs only in Sivahra?” she asked.

“Oh, no. All Imperial territories and colonies are subject.”

Not just sanctions against a rebellious population, then, but real money-raising. That left an

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