Today's Reading

There was Jelt, standing on the wharf. It was strange looking down on him like that. He was two years older than Hark and had always been taller, but over the last three years, life had grabbed him by the ankles and head and stretched him. It had left Jelt lean, raw, and angry about it. Even when he was motionless or calm, you could sense that anger snaking off him. As usual, his expression was distracted but intense, as if listening to the world whisper something that riled him. You always had the feeling that there was a problem, and maybe you weren't it, but you might become it if you didn't tread carefully.

Jelt raised his hand and gave a quick, fierce beckon.

Hark hesitated a moment, conflicted, then gave the merchant an uneasy smile, and waved at Jelt.

"Good to see you!" he called down to his friend. "I'll talk to you later, all right?" He gave a brief, meaningful glance in the
direction of the merchant. Not now, Jelt. I've got a prospect here.

Jelt shook his head.

"You need to come right now."

"You're joking!" hissed Hark.

"Come on!" Jelt slammed his hand into the wood of the tower again. "We need to hurry!"

There were protests from the other people perched on the tower. Hark gritted his teeth and apologized to the merchant, promising to find him later, then scrambled down the ladder. A moment later, he was shoving his way through the crowd, in his friend's wake. Somehow Hark always found himself neck-deep in Jelt's latest plan. It was as though he'd signed up for it in his sleep.

"I had that continenter hooked!" protested Hark as the two of them hurried up the stone steps of a priest-track to one of the beacon cliffs. "Why couldn't this wait until I'd reeled him in?"

Jelt gave a snort of mirth.

"You're just angry because I dragged you away from your girlfriend!" he said. It was an old joke of his that Hark had a crush on the idea of the Hidden Lady. "Such a romantic. Oh, don't sulk. I told you we were doing another job today!"

"Where were you this morning, then?" demanded Hark. "I waited for hours!"

"Staying out of someone's way," Jelt answered curtly.

Jelt was much in demand these days. Cold-eyed people came looking for him—and not to shake his hand. Sometimes it was the governor's men, sometimes other people who didn't give their names. It had been happening ever since that night on the mudflats, the night Hark and Jelt never talked about. Hark sensed that Jelt was almost daring him to ask about it now. He did not take the bait.

"You lost them?" he asked instead.

"Yeah," said Jelt, no longer in a humorous mood. "Hurry it up, will you?"

Events had a current, and Hark didn't believe in fighting currents. Using them, playing with them, letting them push you slantwise to somewhere that might serve your turn, yes. Fighting them flat out, no. The current that was Jelt pulled him along more than any other. Somehow Hark couldn't slip or slide or shoot off sideways and still pretend he was doing what Jelt wanted, the way he could with anybody else.

I don't want to anyway, he told himself firmly. Jelt is family.

He knew better than to trust anything he told himself, though.

There were four figures waiting near the top of the hill, in the shelter of one of the lookout towers. Hark's heart lurched as he recognized their leader, a woman in her late thirties, with a bitter, thoughtful mouth and a thick mottling of freckles that covered her face and arms, and even the scalp beneath her close-cropped hair. Dotta Rigg's reckless, cutthroat smuggling runs filled Lady's Cravers with both alarm and an odd pride.

Her five children, even the younger ones, could get free drinks anywhere on the island, and only partly because people were afraid of them.

Hark had heard older hands talking of Rigg with trepidation and contempt, combined with bafflement at her success. She's heading for a fall. Too chancy, doesn't listen to anyone. Who the abyss wants to be a famous smuggler?

"Captain Rigg," said Hark, hoping to sound confident but respectful. Whatever madness Jelt had gotten them into, he had better act as if he could handle it.

He noticed the steel and scrimshaw ear-studs worn proudly by a couple of Rigg's companions to signal that they were "sea-kissed." People who spent a lot of their time diving or trusting their lives to submarines often ended up losing some or all of their hearing. It was the mark of a seasoned aquanaut, and generally respected.

Sign? he asked them quickly in sign language, and received a nod. Many sea-kissed could lip-read or retained some of their hearing, so it was always polite to ask whether they preferred speech or sign language.

You wanted to see us? Hark asked Rigg in Myriad sign language. Since there were so many sea-kissed across the Myriad, virtually all islanders knew some sign language, though the signs varied slightly from one island to the next. Hark could manage the basics of the Lady's Crave variant but always felt a bit clumsy with it, compared with the grace of those who used it more often.

Yes, though I'm going off the idea, Rigg signed sharply with a scowl. We've been waiting nearly an hour! You better not be late tonight. She beckoned Hark and Jelt closer, and the six of them reflexively formed a huddle so that their signs could not easily be read from a distance.

Tonight? Things were moving even faster than Hark had feared.


This excerpt ends on page 15 of the hardcover edition.

Monday we begin the book Take Me With You by Tara Altebrando.
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