Excerpt: The Shores of Spain

TSOS300Thursday, 16 April 1903; Ilhas das Sereias

The ferry belched out steam as it made its passage between the islands of Quitos and Amado. Judging by words stamped on the side of the hull, Duilio guessed it had come from England, brought here to the islands of the sereia through a series of arcane trades. Most of the newer machinery he’d seen on the islands was of English origin, where once it would have been predominantly Portuguese. Normally he would be the first one poking around and asking questions of the ship’s captain, but it wasn’t his place to do so. Not here.

Here it was the man’s place to be quiet. To be seen but not to do.

Oriana had warned him of that, as had her father, but Duilio hadn’t grasped how pervasive that attitude was until he’d been on the main island of Quitos for a couple of weeks. It was the most traditional of the islands of the sereia, and as a male he had almost no rights—a shocking change for a Portuguese gentleman of wealth and social standing.

They’d spent the last three months there, in the sereia capital of Praia Norte, persuading the local government to accept Oriana as the Portuguese ambassador. The islands hadn’t hosted an ambassador from either Northern or Southern Portugal for almost two decades, and most trade between the two peoples had died out. The embassy’s primary charge here was to resurrect that trade, a problematic mission given the lingering lack of trust between the two peoples.

Oriana currently stood with her back against the wall of the ferry’s cabin, the remainder of the ambassadorial entourage taking up the aft of the upper deck. She wore a pensive expression as she watched the island of Quitos grow more and more distant, her full lips pressed together and her arms folded over her chest. Her burgundy-highlighted hair had been pinned into a coronet of braids, but the two combs emerging from that crown were actually slender knives, a concession to the danger in which she’d stood since their arrival here. The tension in her shoulders had eased once they reached open waters, but hadn’t fled completely.

The four guards accompanying them kept anxious watch on the other travelers crowding the ferry’s upper deck, but the curious passengers seemed willing to keep their distance. Judging by their fine garb and glossy hair, Duilio guessed that most of the sereia he saw there traveled between the two largest islands for reasons of business. A few, like Oriana, wore a vest as well as the pareu, and one elderly woman had on a fine jacket with elaborate blue and yellow embroidery down the plackets. Even so, the majority of the passengers, all female save for a handful of children, only wore the pareu—little more than a length of fabric wrapped about their waist.

Fortunately, the embassy guards were well trained not to stare at the display of bared skin. Their Portuguese uniforms seemed extravagant by comparison to the local mode of dress. The brass-buttoned blue jackets with braid across the chest and lighter blue trousers with a red stripe down each side looked starchy and unapproachable—as did their rifles and sabers. But since they represented the governments of the two Portugals here, the standards of the army must be upheld, even when the locals dressed far less formally.

Duilio glanced down at his bare feet ruefully. His situation was different. He’d agreed to adopt native garb to show that the Portuguese took the customs of the sereia seriously. No one ever mistook him for a sereia male, of course. He lacked gill slits on his neck and webbing between his fingers, both traits that gave the sereia advantages in the water. And his feet were unmistakably human. The sereia had coloring on the lower halves of their bodies that mimicked the scales of a fish—a tuna, actually—so anyone looking downward would immediately know he wasn’t native to these islands.

He’d adapted quickly to wearing the pareu, though, a stark change for someone accustomed to the habitual multilayered dress of a Portuguese gentleman. Despite the afternoon sunshine, a chill came off the water today, so he also wore a black linen vest, the open front embroidered in gold along the edges. It covered most of the Paredes tattoo that ran from over his heart to his left shoulder, but enough of that could be seen to guarantee that any sereia would know he was claimed. Bangles clattered about his ankles, he wore bands of rose gold around his upper arms, and his hair hadn’t been properly cut in half a year now. It hung on his neck in curls. If his old valet, Marcellin, were here, the man would have had an apoplectic fit. It pleased Oriana, though, so Duilio put up with the peculiar attire and overlong hair.

Even so, there were times he honestly missed wearing trousers. He didn’t miss his valet frittering on about every wrinkle and speck of dust, but he missed trousers.

Oriana came around to the side of the ferry to join him. She touched his arm, her gold bangles clattering, and gestured toward the shores of Amado. “My grandmother’s house is on that beach.”

Duilio followed her finger. Amado was a volcanic island, reminding him greatly of Madeira, the only one of his people’s islands he’d visited. A ridge of mountains formed the island’s spine, covered in forest save for the jagged peaks. He could, however, see a narrow strip of sand where Oriana pointed, dotted with a handful of white-plastered houses. They didn’t look much different from houses on some of the beaches along the Portuguese coast.

Amado, the so-called Portuguese island, also offered him a respite from the social strains of living on Quitos. Of all the six islands of the sereia, Amado was the most liberal. On Amado males were allowed to be educated, speak out of turn on occasion, and even own property. He hoped their time here wouldn’t be as stressful as the last three months had been, either for him or their four remaining male guards.

Duilio shot a glance at Lieutenant Costa, who leaned against the ferry’s white-painted rail. He worried them the most. The young man removed his shako to run a hand through his short blond hair, but quickly replaced it, cheeks flushing, when he noted one of the ferry’s sailors looking his way with an appreciative smile. Costa was healthy and handsome and not terribly clever—the worst sort of guard for them to have brought to these islands. Here males were in short supply, and sereia females could use their call to seduce a human male they found interesting. Because of his selkie blood, Duilio had some immunity to that magic, but the young lieutenant didn’t. According to his captain, Costa hadn’t slept well for the last few weeks, besieged by dreams. Oriana feared that a sereia had gotten to him, although the young man denied it. Duilio only hoped they could get Costa back to human shores before he gave in to some unknown sereia’s seduction.

In truth, on Quitos they’d endured a constant barrage of calling, and not just attempts at seduction. It wasn’t unusual for a sereia to call in the course of the day, much as any human woman might sing to herself back in Portugal. Happiness, sorrow, and vexation all tore at the men’s senses, although usually with a touch light enough for them to recognize that the impulses weren’t their own. Most sereia strove for politeness near the grounds of the various embassies, strung together along one street. Even so, there were always those who didn’t care, or those who wanted to cause chaos.

But Amado was less populated, and that would minimize the calling to which the men were exposed. Duilio hoped the passengers of this ferry were representative of the population of the island. So far their fellow travelers had refrained from calling altogether, despite the novelty of having humans to practice on.

By that point the ferry had passed the small secluded beach and now headed for the island’s main harbor, where rough stone breakwaters limited the waves. They slid the last distance into the first pier and rocked against the wooden pilings. An intrepid young sailor in a white pareu and vest—the same one who’d been admiring Costa—jumped over the water to the planks and wrapped the mooring line around a bollard. Then she jogged back toward the aft of the ferry to catch a second line, her bangles jangling.

Oriana moved to the railing to peer along the wooden planks toward the beach. Duilio joined her, laying one hand on the back of her vest. “Do you see her?”

Oriana lifted her chin toward the shore. “Yes, she’s there with that open carriage.” She added the hand sign for relief, and turned to her guards. “We’ll debark last.”

By now the men knew not to look to Duilio to corroborate Oriana’s orders; he might be her deputy, but she was the ambassador. So they patiently watched until the last of the ferry’s passengers straggled off the gangplank and onto the pier. Then it was their turn, two guards going ahead and two behind. The guards’ presence was more than just posturing, for today they would enter the perilous phase of their tenure as ambassadors, taking on their secondary mission.

Today they began the hunt to learn who’d murdered Oriana’s mother.

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Monday, 20 April 1903; the Golden City

Normally Joaquim Tavares would have gone directly to his office at the Massarelos Police Station, but this morning he’d gone to the Ferreira household. It wasn’t for the lovely pastry studded with almonds that the cook pressed on him, nor for the friendly chat with the butler. He’d come to see Lady Ferreira’s maid instead.

In the back of the house, the modest kitchen was always warm thanks to the large cast-iron stove from which the heavenly scent of baking bread currently drifted. The kitchen maid worked at the far end, preparing fish for luncheon, Joaquim guessed from the grating sound of a scaling knife. Mrs. Cardoza, a large and imposing woman with an equally large heart, rose from the oak servants’ table to supervise the girl, leaving Joaquim alone there. Not for long, though, as Miss Felis, Lady Ferreira’s elderly maid, came down the steps into the warm kitchen. Her thin frame was draped in black as always, the only hint of color about her being the pale peach threads in her finely embroidered white collar. Joaquim rose to embrace her, worrying over the frail feel of her shoulders. He didn’t dare say anything, though, because Felis believed she was made of steel and hated to be seen as infirm.

He and his brother, Cristiano, had moved into this house when Joaquim was only eight years old, taken in by Lady Ferreira when their mother died in childbirth. Lady Ferreira had suspected even then, Joaquim now knew, that he was actually her husband’s child, not the son of Joaquim Tavares, the man for whom he’d been named. Even so, she’d always treated him well, like one of her own sons. Felis, old enough to be Lady Ferreira’s mother, had become a surrogate grandmother to him. There wasn’t much in this household that Felis didn’t know.

After a few moments of pleasantries, she sat down at the servant’s table, her pack of well-worn cards in her equally well-worn hands. While he waited, she shuffled them and let him cut the deck. Once he’d handed it back, she held the deck out for him to select a card. She set that one facedown and then began laying the remaining cards in three neat piles.

Joaquim pressed his lips together. Normally he would have discussed his worries with Duilio or their cousin Rafael, but Duilio was far away and Rafael had gone to Lisboa to speak with the Jesuit brotherhood there. So he’d come here instead. Since childhood, Felis had been his last line of inquiry. If there was something bothering him, once normal inquiries and even prayer failed to provide guidance, he would turn to her. She was a gentle soul despite her gruff manner. And while there were those who considered reading cards sinful, he had yet to see harm come of anything Felis had done, so he waited patiently while she finished arranging the cards.

Her dark eyes peered up at him, then. “What do you need to know, Filho?”

His nickname within the family, Filho simply meant son. He’d been named for his father, or more accurately, the man who’d taken responsibility for him and raised him. And while the elder Joaquim Tavares might not have fathered him, he would always hold the place of father within Joaquim’s heart.

“I had a dream,” Joaquim said, “that Duilio needs my help.”

Mrs. Cardoza strolled back over to listen, dusting flour from her capable hands onto her apron.

Felis regarded him steadily. “Do you want to know if you should help him?”

Joaquim nearly laughed. That had never been in question. He’d always gone to Duilio’s aid when needed. “No, I’m going.”

Felis nodded sagely, as if she’d expected that answer. “Then what?”

Joaquim licked his lips. “Will Miss Arenias wait for me?”

“She would be a fool not to, Mr. Joaquim,” Mrs. Cardoza said, laying a floury hand on his shoulder to reassure him.

He’d have to remember to dust off the back of his jacket after he left. “Thank you,” he said, glancing up at the cook. “But I wouldn’t blame her. I don’t know how long this mission of Duilio’s will take.”

Felis lifted the solitary card and peered at it. She frowned and laid it back on the table, then picked up one of the piles and began redistributing the cards, flipping some over and leaving others facedown until she had nine cards lying faceup on the table. Her murmurs took on an angry tone.

That doesn’t sound good. Joaquim licked his lips. Duilio didn’t believe Felis was a true seer. He believed she merely provided a framework for the listener to organize what he already knew about the situation. Joaquim wasn’t so sure. She’d always seemed magical to him.

Felis glared at her cards, the corners of her thin lips drawn down in a mighty frown. “You’re going to go on a journey.”

Since I’ve already said I was going to help Duilio, that’s given.

The old woman fingered the one card he’d drawn, the ten of clubs. “You’re to go on a journey to visit a relative.” She pulled four of the upturned cards to sit next to it, laying the king of spades on the top of that batch. “These all say that you’ll be under a cloud, that there will be complications, and that you will come out of this journey changed.”

Again, he’d known that. As one of the Ferreira males, he’d inherited a seer’s gift. He’d been told his seer’s gift was buried under his inheritance from his mother, the gift of finding. That stronger gift served him well in his work for the police, where he usually spent his hours hunting missing people whom other officers couldn’t find. But when he slept or meditated, his seer’s talent would sometimes emerge, presenting him with dreams or visions of something ahead of him on the road of life. Both his half brother, Duilio, and his cousin Rafael Pinheiro—the bastard son of a bastard son of the Ferreira family—possessed the seer’s gift, although Rafael’s talent was by far the strongest and most reliable. Joaquim’s recent dreams had shown him over and over again traveling to the islands of the sereia and beyond. One thing those dreams carried was a promise of transformation, although of what kind, he didn’t know.

He’d never been fond of change.

Felis picked out two more cards, the jack of diamonds and the queen of clubs. “A man and a woman will come to your aid, but that woman will not be the woman you love.”

“I see. But will Miss Arenias wait for me?”

She pushed the six of clubs toward him. “Soon you will marry.”

What? Joaquim glanced up at her. “So Miss Arenias will wait for me to return?”

“No,” she said softly. “These cards are all tied to your journey, Filho. They say you will marry before you return home, while you are on this journey.”

His chest tight, Joaquim rose from the table, nearly backing into Mrs. Cardoza. He’d forgotten she was standing behind him. He’d always been sure that Marina Arenias was the one for him. But if Felis was correct, then he was the one who wouldn’t wait. How can that be?

He pinched his nose. He shouldn’t have done this. If the prediction Felis made was true, he would rather not have known. Even so, he had to believe that he made his own way in life. No matter what his gift told him about his future, his decisions were always his own. “Thank you for your time, Miss Felis. I have a lot of things to take care of before I go, so I may not see you again for a while.”

The old woman gathered her cards and slid them back into their tattered box, her mouth pursed in a worried scowl. Mrs. Cardoza hugged him and promised to bear his farewells on to Cardenas, the butler, and to Lady Ferreira. Then Joaquim took his leave, his nerves rattled.