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“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
I was gripped by the world & characters from the start – and then the plot was equally awesome. Lucy’s being blackmailed and you just know shit’s going to hit the fan. Except your really hope it won’t. And the beautiful agony of waiting to see what would happen and never being able to know just how far Diana Pharaoh Francis is going to torture these poor people just kept me glued to The Cipher. –Fantasy is More Fun
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
SOME DAYS 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 scuppers 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 that 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. 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. Clamping down on the whimpers crowding her throat, she bit her lips together until she tasted blood. She jeered silently at herself, hoping everybody was too busy to notice her landlubber fear.
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 any more 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. Whether it had originally been human or animal or something else entirely, there was no way to tell.
Its skin was cratered and spongy, its gray expanse dotted with weeping protuberances. A ten-foot tentacle with orange suckers all along its length protruded 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 were 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 the 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 but 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—and loyal down to the toenails. 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 chantey in time to their strokes. The cutter bucked and pitched. Lucy 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. Looking at the narrow bridge, she felt 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. 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 had to take.
She took a firm hold on her satchel, refusing to look down. She cautiously slid her foot 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.
“Never mind!” 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 drooped. 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 to safety. Unmindful of her dignity, she stumbled and grappled 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 crowding 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, the 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.
Inside the anonymity of her hood, Lucy snarled at them for their calm indifference. But then, sailors spent most of their lives beyond the Pale. What was a storm compared to that?
Lucy stumbled, her throat closing. Fools.
She 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 rose out of the ebony water like a sleepy ghost. Beyond were 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 her 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. Lightning 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 permit himself to be changed by sylveth. She allowed herself to take comfort in the thought, but promised herself she would 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 wood 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.
Halfway across the room she paused, her attention snagging on the dramatic sculpture set 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 it 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. But she never got so attached that she lost her mind. Turning away, Lucy briskly walked away toward the sweep of green jasper stairs on the opposite side of the room. 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 like a shroud.
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-fitted dark blue uniform with parallel rows of gold buttons rising up over his chest and circling around his shoulders. Gold piping trimmed 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 jaw flexing. “You’re just in time, cousin. You’re senior customs agent 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. Ships were coming. This close to Chance, there could be dozens just out of sight beyond the curve of the horizon. All of them were headed into the deadly embrace of a knucklebone weir.
“Sweet Meris, please don’t let Jordan be on one.”
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