Penric Three (I)
“Desdemona!” Penric breathed, awed. “Will you look at that _light_.” He leaned on the railing of the Adriac cargo ship coasting slowly up the narrowing Gulf of Patos, and stared eyes-wide at the rocky shores of Cedonia. The dry clarity of the air made the distant granite mountains seem as sharp-cut as glassmaker’s crystal. The angled sun of morning was the color of honey. He tilted back his head to take in the astonishing blue vault above, so deep it was dizzying; he felt he might dive up through it as into the sea, endlessly, and never drown. It was what he imagined enchantment should be, in some myth or legend of personified elements, _The Man Who Fell in Love with the Sky_. Mortals, he was reminded, did not usually come out well at the ends of those tales. “Yes, but by noon it will scorch that pale scholar’s skin of yours to blisters. Keep yourself covered. We’ll have to see about getting you a proper hat,” his demon returned, speaking through his mouth as prosaically as the bossy older sister he sometimes imagined her to be. But he thought she was not unmoved by the sight, shared through his eyes, of the light of the land of—could you call it her birth?—that she’d last departed, what, over a hundred years ago? “Longer than that,” she sighed. He pressed his finger to his lips, warning her not to speak aloud in company, and moved around to the prow, keeping clear of the crewmen shifting ropes and sails. Half a dozen other passengers clustered there to catch a first glimpse of the city that lent the gulf its name. The ship came about and tacked toward the farther shore, climbing a slight headwind. A tumbled slope drew aside like a stage curtain, revealing their goal. Spread across the wide amphitheater of the head of the gulf, Patos seemed built of the bones of this land: stone houses with red tile roofs, stone streets, arched and colonnaded; the familiar five-fold shape, high on one hill, of a stone temple. A broad stone fortress guarded stone quays reaching out into the clear blue waters, where a dozen other cargo ships crowded, offloading. The grove of cranes and masts made up for what seemed to Penric’s eyes a decided lack of trees, which was in part why his ship’s heavy lading of cut timber was expected to be welcomed trade. A bit slow, bulky, boring; a ship for ordinary men with ordinary purses to make passage in. Such as a Lodian lawyer’s young clerk, carrying a sheaf of unsigned merchants’ agreements and a hopeful marriage contract. All entirely bogus. He adjusted the strap on his shoulder and touched the leather case that held them, plus the second set of documents that was much less dull sewn inside its lining. Velka, a Cedonian mercantile agent with whom Penric had made friends, or at least friendly acquaintance, on what he had been assured was a remarkably smooth three-day sail from the Adriac city of Lodi, and on whom he’d been happy to practice his Cedonian, gave a little wave as Pen joined him on the forward deck. He smiled slightly. “Still excited for your first trip to Cedonia?” “Yes,” Pen admitted, grinning back, still inebriated by the morning light and not even bothering to be sheepish. “I expect you will find it full of surprises.” “I expect so, too.” Des passed no comment, even internally, but Pen felt she watched the harbor scene as keenly as he did. Two oarsmen in Cedonian Customs’ tabards rowed a green-painted boat out from the quay and swung alongside Pen’s ship. He picked up his single valise and followed Velka with the first batch of passengers to disembark, making his way over the side and down the rope net without mishap. When it had rid itself of its human freight, the ship would go on to another quay at the Imperial naval shipyard and arsenal to discharge its timber. Penric mused on the rationale, which rather escaped him, of one country selling essentials for shipbuilding to another country when they might, some future year, be at war or at least in chronic naval clashes with each other. Well, the puzzle did not fall within the ambit of this mission. Imperial Customs consisted of a long wooden shed housing tables, a few agents in official tunics, some bored guards, and a dull air of bureaucracy. The passengers shuffled into line and turned out their goods for inspection.