Sharon E. Woods
from Black Gate 13, copyright © 2009 by New Epoch Press. All rights Reserved.
Laughter echoed across the dark waters of Issen’s harbor. Jas raised her head, her scaled tail uncurling and sliding aside as she rose to all fours. The sound tickled the air again, a faint whisper amidst the hollow thumps of water lapping against wood and stone, yet undeniably louder. Crawling backward, she slipped into the deeper darkness between two crates and crouched down against the dock’s filthy boards. Her domed eyes blinked, gaze fixed upon the gates of harbor, waiting.
She could see the Sentinels – two statues of tiger-veined brown glass crouched upon the pillars that flanked the gates. Wings outstretched, claws piercing the stone of their perches, their serpentine heads snarled at the world beneath black eyes. One surveyed the harbor, the other glared out to the bay and the outside world.
As she watched, light broke through the darkness from within their glass, and a glow of walnut amber spilled across moored boats and deserted piers, sending rats scurrying for cover.
Jas let her tail slide off the dock behind her, swishing it through the water silently as the Sentinels’ brown light intensified. Fitting, she thought, that the masters of Dule guard Issen with the very secrets they hoped to contain within it. For two weeks she had tried to outwit the Sentinels, swimming at the deepest depths of the channel, but the power infused in the dark glass never failed. Nothing escaped their gaze, whether it be a war galley or a piece of driftwood on a night choked with fog. If one wanted to enter or leave Issen, one did it under the monitoring of the Dule’s armies.
And so she had entered the conventional way – on a ferry with the other glass merchants. She glanced up at the robe that lay draped upon a crate, awaiting the return to her disguise. That had been easy. An act she had performed all her life. But to leave… with the prize… she glared back at the Sentinels. That required power beyond her capabilities.
Unless the claims of the one she meant to meet were true.
More laughter filtered through the air, accompanied by a thrum of voices, and the curved prow of a boat slid into view beneath the glows of the Sentinels. A pleasure barge, Jas noted with distaste, low and wide, driven by half a dozen servants poling against the floor of the channel. Lamps of jade and azure glass swayed as the craft glided through the gates, bringing smells of braised meats, olives and wine with it.
Jas’s claws dug into the wood of the dock as she watched brightly clad figures mill about the decks. Yet another boat of frivolous, drunk nobles, idling away the late hours on a pleasure cruise. She wondered if she was doomed to wait the whole night in the gritty shadows of the dock – all for naught.
Yet even as she began to brood over another time-wasting mistake, the edge of her vision caught sight of a shadow behind the barge.
She lifted her head, tilting her long snout to focus on the gates with one eye. The tinkle of glasses meeting in a toast sounded from the barge, and a discordant chorus rose up in song – sending echoes ricocheting across the shuttered windows of Issen. Behind the boat, the surface of the sea fluttered, the color of nutmeg milk under the Sentinels’ glow.
A metal clang sounded, and the song broke off as laughter roared. Jas glanced back at the barge. Several women in shining skirts were helping a figure back to his feet. The young man, florid and dark haired, swayed and laughed in their arms, the feather in his hat tipped askew.
Jas’s lips slid back from her curved teeth as she smiled. Yes, drink now, you fools, while you can still collect your exorbitant fees. Things will be changing soon. It felt good to relish the thought, even though she had nothing to do with the glass trade and the wealth it would bring Saria when her mission was done. No, she was going to be granted something far more valuable.
The nobles raised their glasses for another toast as the curved prow of the barge slipped into the darkness of a tunnel, and the glow of the Sentinels began to wane. By the time the tail of the pleasure boat slid from sight, leaving a trail of muffled laughter, the winged statues were only black shadows against the starlit sky.
Jas shifted her gaze back to the harbor, her breath hissing short as she spotted movement amidst the masts of the moored craft.
A black sailed the harbor waters, silent as death as the Sentinels lay dark and opaque beyond.
Jas’s heart thumped hard in her breast. The offer had not been a lie.
Pulling her tail from the water, she tensed, heat skittering across her skin. The damp air of the harbor pressed down, throwing a shiver across her as her scales dissolved into thin, fleshy skin and her claws shrank to delicate fingers. It was quick, as always. Pushing herself up to a crouch, she pulled the robe off the crate and shrugged into it as she stood, drawing the hood up over hair that glowed the same pearl as her polished nails. She stepped out of the shadows, a barefoot figure cloaked in gray.
Straight toward her the boat came, its single sail sliding down its mast as it drew close. Not a sound of flapping cloth disturbed the echoes of the deserted harbor as the black canvas settled. The sleek hull, as dark as the sail, turned and drifted to a stop by the dock.
The boat’s single occupant rose and stepped out, painter line in hand. Shorter than Jas, it was sexless under the folds of its hooded cloak. It said nothing – simply waited.
Jas hesitated. “Do you have to follow in the wake of another boat?” Her voice felt dry on her tongue, as it always did in human form.
“No.” A low voice, clear yet soft. Only the scents Jas drew into her nose allowed her to determine the speaker was female. Nothing of the woman’s face showed from the shadows of her cowl. “I wanted you to see it does not matter whether they are lit or not. I can make it through unseen.”
Which was more than Jas had ever accomplished, she admitted to herself. And the light of the Sentinels had faded when the barge had left their domain. But… She rubbed her fingers against her thumbs. This opportunity, it had all come so unexpectedly – so easily. Why had no one else done it before?
The dark figure waited, unmoving, her black craft bobbing silently on the waves behind her.
I have no more time, Jas thought. Already, she could feel the tightening about her neck. They were calling her back to Saria. Another few days, and she would have to go, whether she had the glassmaster with her or not.
Curling her hands into fists, she nodded. “Yes.”
The complete version of “Silk and Glass” appears in Black Gate 13.