For an audio version: Audible
“Francis has crafted an original world, real people, and high-stakes intrigue and adventure. Great fun.”
—New York Times Bestselling Author Patricia Briggs
THE CIPHER a transcendent story reminiscent of Joshua Palmatier’s “Skewed Throne,” is a new fantasy that doesn’t rely on overused themes. Original, engrossing, filled with witty banter and lively characters, “Cipher” is an intellectual treat as well as a gripping drama. Hardcore and casual fantasy fans will both enjoy this series opener.”
—Press & Sun-Bulletin, Greater Binghamton, NY
A member of the royal Rampling family, Lucy Trenton possesses a most unique talent: the ability to detect majick and those who wield it. She has kept her ability a secret all her life to avoid bringing scandal to her family, but lately Lucy has grown careless. When she recklessly uses her gift to locate a valuable and treacherous majickal artifact, she finds herself embroiled in a dangerous intrigue that threatens her life—and the life of every person in Crosspointe.
Making her troubles worse, she’s being pursued by the dashing and mysterious ship captain Marten Thorpe—a man with an unsavory history. But now she desperately needs his help. The problem is, she doesn’t know if she can trust him…
Read an Excerpt
There were some days that deserved to be drowned at birth and everyone sent back to bed with a hot brandy, a box of chocolates and a warm, energetic companion. Today was without question one of those days.
The cutter lurched over the chop, shimmying from side to side in a stomach-twisting quadrille. Rain pebbled the deck and sails. Water sheeted across the bow and swirled around Lucy’s feet, too great a flood for the scuttles to handle. Her socks were soaked and she could hardly feel her toes. She ought to have had her boots majicked against the weather like her cloak. But it was a bit more majick than she could take.
Cold eeled deep inside Lucy. Her insides quaked with the penetrating chill and her muscles clenched against it. She tightened her arms around her stomach, wishing she’d eaten a better breakfast and thinking longingly of her forgotten flask of tea.
A few minutes later she heard a shouted “heave to!” Sailors scrambled up the shrouds to reef the handful of bellied sails. The men at the poles dug sharply into the churning water as the cutter heeled to starboard.
“Sorry, ma’am! Weather’s too heavy. Can’t take you all the way in to shore. We’d be swamped or bilged. Gotta put you ashore on the arm.”
The mate didn’t wait for her response, which was just as well. She ground out a string of epithets. She had plenty in store. She’d grown up on the docks among people who lived too close to the edge of life to be bothered with hoity-toity manners. Or any manners at all. She rubbed her cold fingers over her cheeks and pressed them against her mouth to stop the torrent. She was on duty. She had the reputation of the customs office to think about. Not to mention her own. She didn’t need witnesses to her fears. Which were entirely irrational. But knowing that did not settle her stomach or loosen the tension that shook her hands.
The deck dropped and the cutter yawed sickeningly to the side. Lucy gasped and grappled a bench for balance, her feet sliding. The sailors shouted and clung desperately to the rigging. The boat rolled to the other side. She sucked in a harsh breath, bracing against the wall, her legs spread wide. The wash of black waves sounded hungry and loud above the rush of the wind. She clamped down on the whimpers crowding her throat, biting her lips together so that she tasted blood. She jeered silently at herself, hoping everybody was too busy to notice.
She straightened with an effort, clinging to the back of the bench. The cutter righted itself again and continued its lurching way. Lucy’s gaze flicked to the strand of wards glimmering like green pearls beyond the mouth of the harbor. The Pale. Their glow didn’t quiet her nausea. Just because in four hundred years the fence of tide and storm wards had never failed to keep sylveth out of the harbor, it didn’t mean that today couldn’t be different. And Lucy didn’t want to be in the water when it happened. Not that the cutter offered safety against sylveth. Nothing did.
She shivered and her throat jerked as she swallowed. She’d seen for herself what raw sylveth could do. She closed her eyes against the memory. But she couldn’t halt it anymore than she could stop the storm.
The day had been fine, the black sands sparkling in the sunlight, the air redolent with spring. Ten-year-old Lucy and her family were on a picnic during one of their few summer retreats. Robert had been teasing her again. She stalked off, leaving all three of her brothers in peals of laughter. She didn’t know how far she walked. She only remembered coming around a jut and stumbling over something soft and sticky.
She had stared at it for long moments, unable to decipher what it was she was looking at. Then a hollow sound slowly filled her ears. Grains trickled past as she stood, unable to tear herself away, recognition creeping over her with insect feet.
It was sylveth spawn, born of majick and flesh, though whether it had originally been human or animal, there was no way to tell.
Its skin was cratered and spongy, its gray expanse dotted over with weeping protuberances. A ten foot tentacle with orange suckers all along its length erupted from one side of its jellied mass. On top was a turgid frill, fanning across the surface like tree fungus. It smelled like rotting potatoes, burnt fish and hot butter. The entire length of the creature jerked and twitched as if something inside was trying to escape. More ghastly than anything Lucy could have dreamed of—it was breathing. It might once have been a piece of ship debris, a horse, or even something as prosaic as a laundry tub. Or a sailor who’d fallen prey to a sylveth tide.
In its raw, unaltered form, sylveth wormed through the Inland Sea in silvery skeins of destructive majick. Whatever it touched it changed, and rarely for the good. The Pale was the only thing that kept Crosspointe safe from its warping. But the sylveth sent regular reminders to wash up on the beaches so that no one ever forgot the danger lurking in the sea.
When she could convince her legs to respond, Lucy had run. Ever since that day, she hated sylveth, even worked sylveth that the majicars promised was safe enough to handle. If it wasn’t, they said, the Pale would never let it through. But there were centuries of gossip and rumor that argued otherwise. About babies turning into giant insects and tearing apart a herd of cows, about houses walking off with the families inside, about rugs transforming into rabid flying creatures and hunting farmers in their fields. Fireside tales to frighten children. Everybody knew it. Almost everybody. Lucy’s gut refused to believe it. Not that what she thought made any difference. Worked sylveth was the most valuable commodity Crosspointe had to export; it was one entire leg of the three-legged stool making up Crosspointe’s economy. Being in customs guaranteed she not only had to be near it, she had to handle it.
Lucy fingered the pendant hidden under her clothing. Even if she hadn’t been a customs inspector, she was a Rampling. Before she was three minutes old, the crown majicars had put a sylveth cipher around her neck. Every Rampling got one, made of the strongest protective majick available. A shield, a badge, a brand, a collar—it couldn’t be removed, not by anyone, not even her. The only thing worse than the pendant against her skin was letting anyone else see it.
Her hand dropped to her side. In Crosspointe, it wasn’t the sylveth you had to be afraid of; it was the spells that were attached to them. She eyed the frothing waves. She hated sylveth. But somehow, unbelievably, stupidly, she still craved…
She didn’t dare finish the thought.
The crew rowed closer to the quay, singing a rhythmic chanty in time to each stroke. The cutter bucked and pitched. She watched as a seaman climbed nimbly up on the rail. He stood swaying, a line caught in his fist. The prow swung toward the quay and he tipped forward in a headlong fall. Lucy caught her breath. But the fall turned into a graceful leap. He landed easily, spinning about to snub the mooring line around a waiting bollard. As the rowers heaved against the waves, the seaman hauled in the slack.
At last the cutter jolted against the tarred-hawser bumpers. The gate rail was lifted away and a plank tossed down over the last few feet. Seamen lashed it into place, though it bounced and slid loosely on the quayside. The tide was going out, making it an uphill climb from the deck. Waves broke over the gangplank and the cutter heaved away from the quay. Lucy considered the narrow bridge skeptically. It might hold a half-grown child, but she was bigger than that—more like a well-grown horse.
“Hurry! Can’t hold here long!”
Lucy grimaced. She should have stayed in bed. The wind and rain slapped her face as she hesitated. Beneath the slender bridge, the water churned like black ink. On the other side, the seaman waited, holding out a blunt, rough hand. Two quick steps, was all.
She took a firm hold on her satchel, refusing to look down. She slid her foot cautiously out on the slick wood. As she did, the cutter yawed wide. She slipped, falling hard to one knee. The captain caught her under the arm, helping her up.
“We’ll get you a safety line!” he shouted.
“Nevermind!” Lucy hollered over the wind, shrugging him off. She lifted the strap of her satchel over her shoulder and thrust herself onto the gangplank. It shimmied and dropped. Her bruised knee buckled as fire flared up her thigh. She flung herself upward at the seaman, snatching at his outstretched hand. He caught her fingers, his callused grip powerful. For a moment Lucy’s feet dangled over the water and then he swung her easily up onto the quay. Unmindful of her dignity, she stumbled and grabed a piling, her body quivering.
He didn’t wait for thanks, but released the mooring line and sprang back aboard. The gangplank was hauled in and the cutter shoved off.
Lucy pushed herself upright, hunching into the wind and shuffling toward the harbor terminal. Her cloak fluttered up and spume fountained across the walkway, soaking her uniform surcoat and trousers. She swore again, thinking longingly of her bed.
She passed a host of vessels filling the slips lining the quay. They were mostly cutters, tugs and lighters in the employ of the harbor or customs. They pitched from side to side, lanterns hanging from the riggings winking like frenzied fireflies. A group of sailors trudged past Lucy, laughing and jostling one another. They moved in that rolling gait so typical of seamen, hardly seeming aware of the storm.
Lucy worked her way up the quay to the harbormaster’s terminal. Stern-faced Hornets in charcoal uniforms trimmed in saffron and emerald guarded the entry. Lucy paused long enough to show her customs badge. They nodded and waved her on.
She hesitated, turning to gaze out through the mouth of the harbor. Merstone Island lumped rose mistily out of the ebony water like a sleepy ghost. Beyond was the vast black waters of the Inland Sea. She had a lot of friends out there. Her chest tightened. She did her best to avoid thinking about them. Else she’d chew her fingers to bits with constant worry. But in a gale like this—
Unwillingly, she thought of Jordan. His ship ought to be coming in soon–she’d expected him more than a sennight ago. She frowned, her jaw jutting out in defiance against the sudden fear. He was an excellent captain. Few were better. He’d been sailing since he was a boy. He was too careful, too cunning to be caught by sylveth or any of the other dangers the Inland Sea had to throw at the ships that dared its depths.
She tried to make herself believe it. But even the most brilliant captain didn’t have a chance when the sea unleashed its fury. Braken’s fury. Lighting flashed, sending jagged spears of white light across the entire sky. Her eyes closed against the knife-bright glare. Hard on its heels, thunder cracked. The air shook with the angry concussion. Lucy swallowed hard. And the sea god was pissed.
Abruptly she spun about and headed for the doors. Once she was submerged in work, she wouldn’t be able to stew about Jordan or anything else. Besides, he was too arrogant, stubborn and obnoxious to allow himself to be changed by sylveth. She allowed herself to take comfort in the thought, but promised herself she could strangle him if he let himself be hurt. He was, after all, her best friend. She had a right to beat him up for letting himself get into trouble.
She stepped into the vast maple and marble entry, the sounds of the wind dying as the doors swung closed. Footmen stood ready inside, taking Lucy’s dripping cloak and offering her a towel. She took it, her lips thinning as the burn of majick closed around her like a cloak of nails and nettles. Her scalp prickled and her mouth tasted like polished metal.
The footmen watched her, curious at her immobility. She forced herself to walk deeper inside. It wasn’t easy. The harbor terminal was thick with majick, far more than most places in Sylmont. That was one of the reasons she avoided coming here as much as possible. The biting pain did not fade, but every step Lucy took was firmer as she adjusted to it. The hurt was all too familiar and nothing she could not handle once the initial shock had passed.
A footman trailed after her at a discreet distance, wiping up the watery trail she left on the parquet floor. Marble pillars marched along the walls and rose like a scattered forest throughout the entry in support of the ornately plastered ceiling. Lucy shifted the strap of her satchel on her shoulder, dabbing at her dripping forehead with the towel.
Halfway across the room she paused, her attention snagging on the dramatic sculpture set up on a pedestal shaped like a thirty-two rayed compass. A larger image of the compass was inlaid into the floor. The sculpture depicted the sea god Braken carved in ebony. His fluid, muscular body lay prostrate at the silvery feet of the Moonsinger, Meris. Black waves washed over her feet—like pleading hands, like shackles. She stretched her hand down to her lover, but her eyes were turned upward toward the featureless figure of Hurn, the Hunter, carved in translucent green windstone. Meris’s face was a study of longing and pain and violent passion. It was without a doubt the most moving rendition of the terrible triangle Lucy had ever seen. She never passed by without stopping, caught by the threat of impending tragedy in the piece.
Thunder boomed again. Lucy eyed Braken’s prone form with foreboding. The sea god’s love for Meris was furious and vengeful, not to mention desperate. The Moonsinger could not seem to choose between him and the mysterious Hurn. Their jealous arguments turned into vicious storms that scoured the world and churned the black waters of the Inland Sea.
That sort of passion was entirely alien to Lucy, though she liked men plenty, and had had her share of lovers. Turning away, Lucy walked briskly away toward the sweep of green jasper stairs on the opposite side of the room. But she’d hardly gone two steps when the thunder clapped again. She froze in place as the pillars bracing the roof vibrated, making a guttural grating noise. Her gaze lifted uneasily to the ceiling as dust filtered through the air. Silence fell.
Then between one breath and the next, a skin-chilling siren ripped apart the stillness. The sound galvanized Lucy. She gathered the length of her dripping surcoat and pelted up the stairs, taking two at a time. Clerks and servants joined her on the steps, their faces set and pale. They flowed upward to the harbormaster’s office—in reality a gallery that took up the entire length of the third floor. The seaward wall was constructed entirely of floor-to-ceiling windows. On the interior wall stretched an enormous map of the harbor. All the docks were carefully delineated—red, pink and orange for government docks, green for private, and blue for foreign ownership. Pinned into the occupied slips were various bits of paper with the ship’s name, owner and status. These corresponded with files held in the banks of cabinets filling the vaults on the second floor. Spiraling brass ladders led down into the vaults at intervals along the gallery. Desks and tables crowded the rest of the space and an army of clerks bustled about, shuffling papers, scratching with pens and making adjustments to the map. Or they would have been, if they weren’t all clustered at the windows, staring out at the harbor.
Lucy pushed through the crowd, looking for Hammond Wexler, the recently appointed harbormaster and yet another Rampling—a third or fourth cousin. The siren continued to wail, its majickally-enhanced tones echoing across the harbor and through the streets of Sylmont. It drowned the buzz of voices and the pounding thud of Lucy’s heart.
She found her gray-haired cousin bent over a spyglass atop a tripod just inside the window. He wore a closely-fit dark blue uniform with parallel rows of gold buttons rising up over his chest and circling around his shoulders. Gold piping circled his back-turned sleeves and ran down his pants legs. He wore a pocket watch and chain across his slender waist and a collar of office around his neck. Like Lucy, his royal pendant was hidden beneath his clothing. As she approached, he straightened, his craggy face bleak.
“Braken’s eyes,” he grated.
She didn’t bother with any niceties. “What’s happened?”
His gaze flicked to her and then back to the rain-streaked windows. There was little enough to be seen. Though the morning had begun to brighten, the pounding rain and gray mist obscured the southern headland across the harbor. Merstone Island could no longer be seen at all.
“Knucklebones. A weir’s grown up in the channel. We’re corked tight as a wine bottle. Wind is blowing straight at us. Well above forty-five knots. Ships will rip out their keels on the weir before they even know it’s there.” He paused, the muscles of his jaws flexing. “You’re just in time, cousin. You’re senior customer on site. Better open the sheds. Take whatever you need from the terminal. I suggest you hurry.”
He spun about and strode away, not waiting for her reply.
Lucy pressed her palm against the cold glass of the window, feeling heavy and frozen, helpless. Ships were coming. This close to Chance, there could be dozens just out of sight beyond the curve of the horizon.
“Sweet Meris, please don’t let Jordan be on one.”
Despite the urgency of the siren and Wexler’s orders, Lucy paused to look into the spyglass. She adjusted the eyepiece, twisting a small dial along the side. She caught her breath and recoiled as the knucklebone reeds reared up, seeming only a handsbreadth away from her face.
“It is a spyglass, after all,” she muttered, bending to look again.
The white stalks pricked from the water, their stems articulated like skeletal fingers. Some were short, like wheat stubble. Others stretched up twenty feet or higher. They seemed fluid and soft as seaweed as they fluttered and waved beneath the might of the gale. But Lucy knew better; they were sharp-edged and harder than iron. When ships ran up onto a weir, the reeds did not break, they did not give at all. They appeared and vanished wherever they pleased without rhyme or reason, making them nearly impossible to avoid and causing more wrecks than anything else on the Inland Sea.
Lucy slowly swung the spyglass from side to side. The weir ran along the edge of the tide wards, blocking the entire mouth of the harbor. They filled Merstone Strait to the shores of the majicar’s island on the north side and marched down out of sight behind the southern headland. It was a disaster.
Lucy straightened. She had work to do.
The crowd of clerks pressing against the window was silent and tense. Lucy’s gaze swept the room with sharp calculation. At last she lit on a clerk bending over a large book making rapid inscriptions. His shirtsleeves were rolled up over his elbows and ink-stains blotted his fingers. Pinned to his collar was a master clerk’s broach. Beside it was a silver pin shaped like a compass rose set on an obsidian disk and struck through by an anchor, the latter indicating he was the harbormaster’s personal assistant.
Lucy strode across the room, stopping beside him. His hair stood on end like he’d been running his fingers through it, and the corners of his mouth were drawn down in deep grooves.
“I need to borrow some of your people,” she said, not waiting for him to acknowledge her. “A dozen senior clerks, no one junior. I want your most trustworthy. I’ll need carriages to take us to the salvage sheds. Customs will reimburse the costs.”
He straightened, staring down at his hands clenched around his pen. When he spoke, his voice was strained. “I shall arrange it. Is there anything else you require?”
“Hot food. We’ll have everything else we need. How soon can you get it done?”
“No more than half a glass. If you like, I’ll have someone escort you downstairs. You’ll want to eat.”
“There’s nothing you can do for now.”
He was right. It would be wise to get something in her stomach. Once the salvage began, she’d have precious little time to eat. And she certainly didn’t want to wait at the window and watch helplessly.
She followed a young apprentice to a small salon. The warning siren continued to sing its eerie song, the sound muting only slightly as they descended into the building. Her guide yanked the bell pull and ordered tea from the flustered servant who answered the summons.
“It will be here in a moment, miss,” the apprentice said, twisting her fingers together. The girl mumbled through lips that refused to open. Accustomed to registering details, Lucy glimpsed pinkish teeth and a tongue the color of garnets. There was also a black burn mark on her right index finger that was not hidden by the inkstains. She smoked bloodweed, an addictive stimulant that many apprentices leaned on to complete their work. However, its side effects were both embarrassing and debilitating with long term use-like wetting oneself, for instance. Lucy sniffed. The girl did not stink. Nor did she struggle with doorhandles. But the irony was that if she kept it up, she’d no longer be able to do the work for which she’d started taking the drug in the first place. Lucy gave a mental shrug. No one began taking bloodweed without knowing the cost. And the girl had a right to be stupid. Everybody did.
The subject of Lucy’s inspection hovered near the door in jittery silence until Lucy couldn’t stand it any longer and dismissed her. The girl rushed out, no doubt to return to the vulture watch at the great gallery windows.
Lucy’s tea arrived, served with cold pork sandwiches, sliced pears, an assortment of hard cheeses, and a plate of nut cookies. She could hardly swallow, but knew she had to. The next hours would be frenzied, with little opportunity to eat or sleep. This close to Chance, each day promised two or three dozen ships. Even though some would see the warning beacons and veer away, too many would run up on the weir. The potential devastation was enough to make Lucy throat hurt. She picked at her food, counting each time she chewed and swallowed. She hardly noticed when she burned her tongue on the steaming tea.
When the warning siren changed to an emergency claxon, she leaped to her feet, nearly overturning the table. It pulsed in short, hard blasts, blaring like a donkey’s bray.
She was out of time. With or without the clerks and carriages, she had to open the salvage shed.
“No! That isn’t Trilby and Sons, that’s Daily and Tripp. Check the box markings and go slower if you have to. If they are loose goods or you can’t read the markings, put them in E section and we’ll figure it out later.”
The journeyman clerk nodded, his mouth pinching. Lucy watched him wiggle the barrel back up onto the cart and go in search of the proper cargo stall.
“Check his sheets. Sloppiness is a crime in customs. Make sure the salvagers are logged and the cargo lots tagged solidly. The only reason we get salvage volunteers and don’t lose goods to theft is because the reward is worth more than sitting around watching or stealing,” she said to the woman trailing her. Rebecca Rae was a master clerk. She towered above Lucy, with a narrow, beaky nose and a sharp chin. Her skin was pale, like grass hidden all summer beneath a rock. She was extraordinarily competent, and Lucy made a mental note to recommend Rebecca Rae for customs work.
Leaving the clerk to follow her orders, Lucy continued along the aisle, inspecting the flurry of activity with a gimlet eye. Much of the wrecked tramper’s cargo had washed through the weir and had been collected and deposited. Processing it was slow and the harbormaster’s inexperienced clerks made a lot of mistakes. The salvage was becoming chaotic as goods were piled up haphazardly and sloppily documented and recorded. She hoped her own people arrived soon.
She stopped short when the ship-in-trouble claxon began its pulsing roar once again. Not again. Her lips tightened. Not the Firewind! Mother Moon, not Jordan’s ship. She jerked about as Rebecca Rae joined her again.
“Damn. That’s another one coming. I’ll have to open another shed and pray to Chayos the gods come to their senses soon.”
“I’ll take half the crew and get started. You’ll have to stay here until one of our majicars shows up. Regulations require that every open shed have a customs inspector on site—there’s too much danger of smuggling and theft otherwise. So I want you to stay and keep an eye on things. Don’t leave until it is sealed. Got it?”
Lucy nodded. Good woman. No blathering on with stupid questions. Yes, when this was over, she’d hire Rebecca Rae for her own team.
She’d nearly forgotten about the gale. It was blowing as hard and wet as earlier in the morning. Waves crashed against the tidewall, geysering high into the air. The rain pecked and the wind roared. She’d not put on her cloak and by the time she’d struggled to the second shed, she was drenched through. She grasped the lock in one hand, groping for her seal with the other. A powerful gust shoved at her. She staggered, clinging to the door handle for balance.
She jumped when strong hands closed around her waist, a short, muscular body bolstering hers from behind.
“Better tie an anchor to your ankle or you’ll be kiting off to the Root.” Hig’s voice was welcome.
“It’s about time you got here. Help me get this open,” she shouted.
Hig bulled her forward, bracing her as she unlocked the door. Dozens of other customs clerks clustered around them, helping to block the wind. When the lock was sprung, Hig and Gridley shoved the doors open. Lucy took a towel from the shelf inside the door, wiping her face as she fired off rapid orders.
“Peep and Lester, stoke the furnace. Did you bring a majicar?”
“Brithe, at your service, ma’am.”
His voice was cool and almost brusque. Lucy glanced up at him assessingly. He wore an illidre—a focus for majick made of sylveth. It hung on a chain of gold, silver, and copper woven together like a serpent; the clasp was a snake’s head biting its tail. The illidre was a smaller snake coiled around the chain. It was dark blue with oranges and reds glinting from within as they caught the light. Facets suggested scales and enhanced the fiery glitter. Lucy eyed it distastefully. It wasn’t a cipher; it didn’t radiate majick. For the moment. But as soon as he worked his first spell—it was like being attacked by hordes of wasps. She shuddered, her lip curling involuntarily.
“Something wrong?” the lanky majicar demanded.
Lucy tore her gaze from the illidre. Brithe was probably close to thirty-five years old. He was skinny with straw blond hair, a narrow chin and fish-belly pale skin. His mouth was wide and compressed, his eyes a milky gray. It was an arrogant face with little in it to like. At the moment, he looked distinctly infuriated. She swore silently at herself. Majicars hated their service terms and more often than not had to be bullied into doing the duty they were legally bound to do. What was she doing antagonizing him during a salvage?
“Yes,” she said, reaching out to give Brithe a perfunctory shake of the hand, seeing the flash of humor in his eyes at her bluntness. “I’d appreciate it if you’d overlook my rudeness. I’m usually better behaved,” she said.
Brithe examined her a long moment before nodding. “Today, you’re entitled, I think. As I said, I am at your service.”
“Thank you. And well met, sir. I’ll ask you to accompany Hig next door. Seal the shed as soon as you can. We’ll work on sorting and inspecting its contents later. Hig, send the rest of the crew over here. Master clerk Rebecca Rae is sweeping up. She’s good.”
Hig leered, rubbing his square, callused hands together. “Is she now?”
Her senior customs clerk was shorter than Lucy’s five feet five inches by a hand. And Rebecca Rae was taller by equally as much. Not that Hig would be put off by the difference. Lucy rolled her eyes.
“Do try to remember we are in the middle of an emergency. And since I’d like to recruit Rebecca Rae to our team, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t entirely put her off the prospect.”
“I’ll be a pussycat,” he promised solemnly.
Lucy knew better. “One of these days I am going to hire a majicar to rot off your favorite bits so I won’t have to worry about you tomcatting any more.”
He grinned and gave a little salute. “And deprive the women of Sylmont of my affections? You’d have a riot. Now if you don’t mind, sweet Rebecca Rae is waiting for me.” He turned to leave and then paused, frowning, his voice dropping low. “Was it wise, leaving the shed without certified customs supervision?”
“There wasn’t any choice. Besides, Rebecca Rae is a bonded master clerk and has been solid all night. Given the circumstances, it was the only thing to do.” Except that it was entirely against policy and she could be suspended and fined for it. Lucy gave a little shrug. It was done. She waved Hig and Brithe away, concentrating on the business at hand.
The day passed in a frenzy of activity. Four more ships cracked up on the knucklebones before night fell. Salvagers hauled in recovered cargo from the destroyed vessels. Some of it had survived inside casks and crates. Far more were loose goods hauled in tumbled jumbles inside duffels and makeshift sacks of sailcloth and net.
Customs teams continued to arrive throughout the day. The first wreck had been a three-masted schooner; the next were deep-bellied four-masted clippers carrying twice the freight. The salvage piled up quickly. Even with so many customs teams, it was difficult to log the goods, much less keep them organized. Shed after shed was filled and sealed.
Lucy oversaw the salvage with unrelenting energy and zeal. She threw herself into the work, ignoring her own worries and the increasingly vicious bite of majick. It permeated the air, inhabiting the recovered cargoes in the shape of weak ciphers and majicked commercial goods. Many of the sailors, stevedores, and lighters carried traces of majick as well. But Lucy had learned to tolerate the pain and refused to let it get in the way of her work.
The gale began to subside as dusk fell. But still the salvage continued to flow in. Lucy was completing a report to her supervisor Alistair Crummel. She folded it and pressed the circular tip of her seal against the paper. A jolt ran up her fingers and the mark on the page shimmered with a green flame. It was shaped like a new moon inside a triangle and ringed by a series of numbers and letters in miniscule black script that identified the seal as hers. Only she could activate it.
She handed the report to Ellen Bagnot, her junior clerk. “Make Alistair gets this tonight. He’ll be waiting for it.”
“As ye wish.”
“Not exactly what you were expecting on your last day, was it?”
“Not so much, no ma’am.”
Lucy smiled. “At least it’s been a memorable ending to your customs career. Though it still escapes me how you could want to attach to a Chancery office in Ospredale.” Lucy grimaced at the word ‘Chancery.’
“‘Tis a good position, ma’am,” Ellen said quickly. “Close to m’family. I haven’t seen them in nigh on fifteen years since I apprenticed. Ye know I wouldn’t of taken it else and ye don’t need to worry none. I won’t be having nothing to do with the crown case. I wouldn’t never hurt yer family that way,” she said fervently.
“You just do the job they ask of you and don’t worry about the Ramplings. Most of us don’t remember not having to work to eat. We’ve been mired in this Chancery suit for more than fifty years, and whatever you do or don’t do, we’ll be sunk in it another hundred, or until the family goes bankrupt. So don’t balk if you’re told to work on the case. None of us will take it amiss.”
“Yes ma’am. I mean, no ma’am.”
“Now go and be sure you put that report into Alistair’s hands yourself.” She grasped Ellen’s hand firmly. “We’ll miss you. I wish there was time to celebrate your leaving properly.”
The other woman flushed and bobbed her head before scurrying off. Lucy went in search of Hig. She’d not gone more a dozen feet when she was struck by an agonizing sensation like toothy saw blades raking hard across her skin. She staggered, letting out a soft moan before biting down on her lip, tasting blood.
But challenging the ripping pain was a spurt of eager hunger. A cipher. A true cipher.
She forced herself to straighten, to appear as if nothing was wrong. She scanned the shed. Near the opposite wall Hig and Peep had their heads together over a stack of crates. Neither seemed aware of the overpowering majick that had suddenly blossomed inside the shed. Of course they wouldn’t be. Nor was Brithe.
Lucy swung around jerkily, seeking the source like a flower following the sun. It felt like it was coming from the front right corner of the building. A steady stream of dockworkers, sailors and lighters continued to trudge in, loaded with the dripping remnants of the ships. Lucy ignored them, following the flow of power upstream with slow, deliberate steps. The pain grew with every stride. But it didn’t compare to the frantic hunger that had seized her the moment she felt its enthralling touch. The inside of her mouth and the bottoms of her feet started to itch mercilessly. Eagerness made her breath come sharp between her lips. She’d never encountered any but true ciphers that did that to her.
She told herself to stop, to turn around, to ignore her gut-churning want. She didn’t listen. She knew it was stupid. The cipher would likely kill her in a long, painful ordeal. Or worse. Much, much worse. But she couldn’t help herself.
Four hundred years ago, Errol Cipher had created the first ciphers. His—true ciphers—were far more powerful than those produced by majicars today, even the one she wore around her neck. He’d made most of them to torment those he hated. True ciphers were usually things of innocuous appearance, like spoons or hairpins or shoebuckles. Most people had no way to detect them until they attached, and then there was no way to remove them until the spell ran its course. Or the wearer died.
Lucy filtered through the throng of salvagers. They were dripping wet and exhausted. They hauled in their heavy loads of flotsam with grim faces. She nodded to those who caught her eye, but she didn’t stop.
She was close now. She edged past the long tables of clerks registering and recording the salvage. Drawn by the throbbing power of the cipher, Lucy circled around the haphazard stacks of goods. She ran her fingers over wet bolts of cloth; several bales of draggled furs and dripping hides; clay jars of spices and delicacies; bundled lengths of unfinished wood; ruined shoes; bronze and porcelain decorative ornaments; and dozens of casks of wine. The number and variety of goods were endless, hidden in barrels, chests and caskets, stacked in crooked aisles fifteen feet high and ten feet across.
Lucy wandered deeper into this pillared forest, finally finding what she was looking for in a collection of stacked bins where small, odd items went to keep them from getting lost. She paced around to the left, stopping abruptly, catching her breath sharply as cold cut deeply into lungs. She tugged the top bin aside, pulling until she’d opened a gap into the bin beneath it. She craned her neck, peering inside. There was a jewelry box carved from windstone, a wet, floppy straw hat with long crumpled feathers attached, a collection of ivory combs and brushes, a battered silver teapot with one cup, and an assortment of decorative bead masks. And there was one small wooden box made of roughly finished pine held together with cheap brass tacks. A flat band circled it with a customs tag identifying date, the time of day the box had been logged in, the salvager, and the customs official who’d accepted it.
A gabble of loud voices made Lucy start. She jerked her head up, breathing a silent sigh when the voices died and no one disturbed her. Woodenly, she turned back to the box. Hot want demanded that she snatch it and smuggle it home. Her stomach roiled. Absolutely not! She was a customs agent, not a thief, not a smuggler. But then—what? Move it where she could keep an eye on it until she could buy it? Her body twitched at waiting, at the thought of possibly losing it. No, that wouldn’t do either.
Hardly aware of what she was doing, she reached into the bin, hesitating a finger’s breadth away. As a rule, true ciphers were only dangerous once they touched human skin. She’d only be handling the box. Even so she hesitated, then chided herself. Someone had clearly packed it inside the box without suffering harm.
Lucy brushed the top of the box. The wood was rough, a splinter piercing her index finger. Oh how she wanted to take it! But everything she was rebelled at the idea. It was against the law. And she wouldn’t, couldn’t, break the rules she lived her life by. But a snide voice inside ridiculed her. She collected true ciphers. That was against the law. Taking this one was no different. But it was.
Reluctantly she pulled back. She’d mark the box so that it could not be released without her making a personal inspection. Then at least she’d know who it belonged to. From there, she’d see about buying it. No one else would know its real nature, and given the rough packing, the cipher was probably nothing valuable. It was the best she could do without stealing it.
Suddenly the top of the box errupted, spattering Lucy’s arms with splinters. A chain thrust up like the head of a cobra. It swayed in midair, inching upwards above her head. Lucy stared at it in blank shock, fear freezing her in place. The chain was as long as her arm. It was made of sylveth disks, each the size of a dralion, and hooked together by heavy silver links. The disks were a dull gray, like rainwater, lacking the usual tale-tell glimmer. There was no clasp.
The chain gave a wriggle.
Lucy gasped, her heart contracting. She bit her tongue, telling herself to get away. Slowly she slid her left foot behind her.
The chain wriggled again.
Panic blistered through her veins. She flung herself backwards. Too late. The chain darted like a striking snake and snapped itself around her left wrist, spinning like an anchor chain around a capstan and coiling up her arm to the elbow. The sylveth discs flared incandescent white. Lucy turned her head away from the brilliance, holding her arm extended.
Her skin went cold, like she’d dipped her arm in snowmelt. The chill washed up her shoulder and around her neck. It swept over her head and down to her ribs, thighs and feet. For a moment, she felt encased in an icy shroud. The cold sank through her skin into her muscles, into her bones. She felt as if something was twisting tight inside her, the pressure making her choke. She wanted to cry out, but a part of her recalled where she was, that she dared not be discovered. She clamped her lips together and sealed them with her teeth.
The cold turned suddenly scorching. The heat erupted outward. For a moment, Lucy thought she smelled cooking meat. Then suddenly it was gone, and with it the bright light.
She crumpled to the floor, her breath huffing between her lips in short, wheezing pants. She grasped at the shreds of her own equilibrium, examining herself. Her skin wasn’t melting from her bones. Her legs weren’t turning into froglegs or horsetails. She ran her fingers over her face and scraped her nails across her scalp. She was still herself.
Relief made her giddy.
The scuffle of feet and masculine voices made her realize how she must look, sitting on the floor. She glanced down. The cipher encircled her left arm from wrist to elbow. The sylveth discs now shimmered with the rainbow light of soap bubbles. She pushed at it. It didn’t budge. She pushed hard, scratching bloody rents in the skin between the links. Still it didn’t move.
“No, no, no!” she muttered, continuing to scrabble at it though she knew it wouldn’t come off. Errol Cipher had created this trinket to never relinquish its grip. Not until the spell had run its course. Not until she’d suffered the torments and humiliation that the ancient majicar had woven into its length.
Of course, it might be one of the good ones.
A harsh bark of laughter tore at her throat. Not all of them were curses. A few, a very slim few, were gifts. To grow hair on a sterile pate. To protect from harm. To give precious skills. But this was not one of those. It was stupid and wishful to think so. About as stupid as digging for it in the first place.
The voices drew closer. Lucy glanced up and then frantically pulled at her rolled sleeve. She yanked it down just as two men strolled between two of the pillared stacks. Her mouth dropped open as relief rushed over her.
He was home…he was safe.
What the Reviews say
The setting in this new fantasy is so well described that readers will believe they’re in the midst of the storm that opens the book. The heroine, whose magical talents get her into a world of trouble, is both tough and vulnerable. Secondary characters are realistic, the dialogue is believable and the worldbuilding is solid. Intrigue, action and a bit of romance make for a highly satisfying story.— Romantic Times
The first novel in Francis’ new trilogy is action packed and quite innovative.— Booklist
Francis has crafted an original world, real people, and high-stakes intrigue and adventure. Great fun.—
Francis grabbed me with her very first sentence and didn’t let go. Her world is vivid and fresh, and her heroine, Lucy, as engaging a character as I’ve met in a long time. Highly recommended!—
THE CIPHER is the first in a fascinating new series by Diana Pharoah Francis, and so far, it’s shaping up to be a remarkably intriguing twist on the usual fantasy setting.— Green Man Reviews
THE CIPHER, a transcendent story reminiscent of Joshua Palmatier’s “Skewed Throne,” is a new fantasy that doesn’t rely on overused themes. Original, engrossing, filled with witty banter and lively characters, CIPHER is an intellectual treat as well as a gripping drama. Hardcore and casual fantasy fans will both enjoy this series opener.— Press & Sun- Bulletin, Greater Binghamton, NY