It was the first break in the weather. The cargo ship had stood off from Donner for days; no barges had been able to cross the shallows to unload her, and the seas beyond had been high, and wild with wind. Early snow obscured the distance, and Graceful Days had been a glimpse, a guess, a dancing ghost behind curtains of spray and snow, until this morning.
Fortunate that she carried so few passengers. Only three, and two were ill: a large man and a small woman, now sitting huddled together in the center of the transfer barge, with an air of surrender and exhaustion that spoke of days of continual seasickness.
The starboardside bargeman grimaced sympathy, and attempted to pole more smoothly. The change only confused his partner, who tootled the whistle she held clenched in her teeth, admonishing him to work in proper rhythm.
The third passenger sat by the gunwale among a handful of the ships crew members. The bargeman had thought her a sailor herself, at first; she was that easy on the water. But the captain of Graceful Days, sitting across from her, seemed to treat her as an equal, conversing in respectful tones, at one point angling himself to block the splashes raised by a set of small waves so that the map the woman held in her lap would not get wet.
The bargeman spared another glance from his work, to see what so interested her. He could not read; but the spread of streets, the jut of wharves, and the curve of a broad river identified Donner itself. The woman seemed to sense his gaze, and looked up.
She was not seasick, but she had been ill, in some other way, and not long ago. The clear gray eyes were too large in a face that showed its bones too well. Her short hair, brittle even in the damp air, was both dark and light: the color of wet sand, but tipped with remnants of sun-bleached yellow. She looked like a woman burned by years of light, paled by recent months of darkness.
He realized that he had been staring, and shied his glance away, putting his back into his work; but when he looked again, he found her studying him just as closely. “How old are you?” she asked abruptly.
The question took him aback; another toot from his partner reminded him where his attention should be. He poled once, twice, and could see neither why the passenger would ask such a question, nor why he should answer.
But there was no reason not to. “Thirty-one,” he replied. A woman with a map—and, he now saw, a pack stowed behind her, with a map case whose end jutted from the top: a steerswoman? She did wear a thin gold chain, such as the Steerswomen wore, but showed no silver ring on her left hand, only a remarkable collection of small, old scars.
Still: “Thank you,” she said, as if it were habit, as if she had the right to ask, ask any question at all. And with her question answered, she seemed to dismiss him, returning to her conversation with Gregori, the captain.
Gregori leaned over the city map, indicated. “There, about—Tilemakers Street. Whole row of shops, and the jewelers among them.”
The crew member seated behind him spoke up. “Excuse me, sir, and lady,” she put in, “but Ive dealt with them; more dear than they need to be. Theres another jewelers, off near the tea shop. Found a pretty pin for my sweetheart, not so fancy, maybe, but half the price the other asked.”
“Now, no one will charge Rowan—or they ought not, properly,” the captain said.
“Properly,” Rowan put in, “they have every right to charge me, if they insist. The rule only states that one must answer a steerswomans questions; indulging a steerswomans personal needs is entirely optional. If I find I must pay after all, the cheaper establishment will do.” She rolled her map and leaned back to slide it in among the others in the map case.
The barge approached Tylers Gully, a hidden trench in the bed of the shallows, and the barge tenders doubled their efforts to acquire the speed needed to coast past it. The change in motion distressed one of the other passengers, who suddenly clambered wildly over crates and bales of raw silk in order to be sick over the side. Wry comments from the sailors, and in one case, applause, but she took the jibes with remarkable good humor, and sensibly remained by the portside gunwale for the rest of the trip.
When the barge slid up to the wharf, Rowan leaned back to let the others disembark first, then accepted an assist from the captain. “Hup!” His hands on her waist, he lifted her bodily from the barge onto the wharf, a move that first startled, then amused her.
“Its been a while since last someone did that for me,” Rowan said.
“Light as a feather. And are you all right with that pack? Seems a bit large.”
“Its what I need. Ill get used to it again, soon enough.” By way of demonstration she swung it up, neatly and smoothly, slipping her left arm, then her right, into the straps. A familiar movement, and a familiar, welcome weight.
Gregori stood back to admire her: pack, cloak, and grin. “Well. There you go, then.” He clasped her hand. “And whichever one of us sees Zenna again first, will give the others love to her.”
“I believe that will be you.”
“Youre probably right. The seas a wide road, and youre heading for narrow ones.” He glanced about; no one else was nearby. He leaned closer, spoke more quietly. “And I hope your work here goes well.”
He released her hand and turned away, calling instructions to the stevedores; and the steerswoman made her way down the long wharf.
Donner was built on flat land, and as soon as Rowan left the openness of the harborside, all sense of space vanished. The street before her seemed merely a corridor, the shops and homes to either side its rooms, an effect completed by the heavy white sky hanging close above like a low ceiling. Donner, despite being a city, felt today as if it existed within arms reach only.
But when Rowan looked up, the low tower of the harbormasters office was visible above, dimmed gray by the damp-laden air. Yet even that seemed two-dimensional, like a sketch of a tower, vague outline and shadow.
The office on the first floor was deserted. Rowan passed through to the back, and discovered a set of stairs leading above. She considered the steep ascent, winced, sighed. Leaving her pack below, she climbed.
At the top: a square room, occupying the entire top floor, with broad windows open all around. Rowan leaned back against the railing of the stairwell, nursing an ache in her left leg, and studied the view.
The southeast window looked out squarely on the harbor, where the barge was now plying its way back across the water, dimming as it neared Graceful Days, the ship itself a mere shadow. Northeast, low buildings spread to the rivers edge, thinning to the north as they approached the mud flats, where a portion of Greyrivers broad expanse was visible, seeming to curl back around the city like a broad, protecting arm. Northwest, ornate residences crowded, then spaced themselves, and finally stood smugly solitary up against the edge of a grove of cultivated fruit trees that vanished into mist.
Southwest: the heart of the city, with a sweep of low and high rooftops, continuous, but for a sudden gap, large enough that a portion of the bare ground was visible. There, a crew of about a dozen people was at work, laying yellowish paving stones.
Inside the room, shelves ran along the walls beneath each window. Rowan limped over to check the contents, hoping that she would not find the package she herself had sent some months ago. Quite possibly it had never made its way past Donner at all, and the Prime still remained entirely unaware of Rowans discoveries in the Demon Lands.
The package was not present, but Rowan was in no way reassured: seated in a wooden chair, its front legs tilted off the floor and his feet comfortably propped on an old crate, was the watcher on duty. He was fast asleep.
He had stirred not at all during Rowans investigations, and she had not been quiet. Any passing thief or vagrant could easily have wandered in and made off with any of the various items. She resisted the impulse to kick the chair legs out from under the man.
She did, however, achieve a measure of satisfaction by standing behind him when she tapped his shoulder. He came awake with a start, dropped the chair forward with a thump and an outfling of arms and legs. “Oof!”
Rowan remained patiently in place while he looked about in confusion, left and right, and finally found her. He stood and shook down his skewed clothing, then stepped forward. “Well, whats your business?” he asked, now all brisk efficiency.
“I sent a package through here some months ago. I was wondering if it managed to get past Donner at all?”
The insult was lost on him. “From and to?” he asked, scanning the shelves as if whatever system organized them were invisible only to Rowan.
“From Rowan, Steerswoman, Alemeth. To Henra, Prime, the Steerswomens Archives, north of Wulfshaven.” And because his chair was now empty, and her left leg was protesting vigorously, she sat.
“A steerswoman, is it?” He studied her with new respect, which faltered when his glance reached her left hand. “Youve got no ring . . .”
“No. I removed it in the course of a demonstration, and later found that it had been pilfered.”
“Stealing from a steerswoman; some people have no shame! But that package, I do remember it now. We sent that out on the Windworthy, about five months ago. They were heading to The Crags”—he put up a hand to forestall Rowans protest—“but they were planning to stop and stand off High Island on the way, and get met by a fishing boat, I forget why. We figured they could give it to the fishers and just have them pass it up-Islands to Wulfshaven.”
Rowans mouth twisted. “An attractive theory. I wonder if it actually worked?” There was intercourse among the Islands, often enough, but just as often the fisherfolk found excuse for disputes and occasional furtive vendettas. But with luck, her package might now be safe at the Archives.
“Here.” Rowan removed a fat letter from inside her vest and, with a degree of reluctance, entrusted it to the watchers care.