YONIE WATEREYE lived under false pretenses in a stuffy garret overhanging the Petty Canal, in one of the cheaper districts of Wicked Ford. Dry land never showed there, even in the midst of summer, and the rickety buildings roosted up on wooden stilts that would have long since rotted away if not for the water’s high concentration of guile.
Yonie’s garret was a narrow, slope-shouldered room in which anyone of adult height could stand only immediately below the spine of the roof. As of late, that had included Yonie. In one of its two vertical walls, the garret had a stingy window that might once have been a vent. It provided a view of the canal through gum tree leaves and, on hot days, a swampy canal odor like an army’s dirty laundry. The opposite wall held another window-vent and a door that opened to a tacked-on balcony barely strong enough to hold the weight of the rain barrel at one end. Shaky steps led down through several switchbacks to the boat slips and floating trash behind the building.
Unlike most lodgings in that neighborhood, Yonie’s had a collection of books. She stood them in the space where the roof angled into the floor, and in her two years there had filled almost one long side of the room. They ranged from treatises about ancient history (mainly dull, with a few useful nuggets) from the cut-price boxes at the water market, to collections of travelers’ tales (mostly lurid) splurged on when business was good, to The Unlucky Prince (the only one of her childhood favorites to survive, since she had had it with her in the canoe that night).
Other than that, Yonie’s furnishings were ordinary—a small table, two mismatched chairs, a meager stove, a bed of reed matting behind a curtain. Cheap pans and crockery stood at attention on homemade shelves, and a chamber pot crouched discreetly out of sight. The only thing a visitor might remark upon would be the profusion of pillows, and perhaps the way a shingle had been loosened and propped open, like a miniature trapdoor, in the roof above.
On that particular July afternoon, the air was humid and still, caged in by the closed door and shuttered windows. Yonie’s hair was crawling with sweat underneath her kerchief. She imagined it soaking all the way down her long brown braid, past the wooden luck-beads tied at the end, and dripping off the point like paint off a wet brush. She longed to strip off the kerchief and throw open the windows and the door to catch what breeze there was.
But instead she sat sedately in her chair, sweltering, because she had a customer. The kerchief made her look older, according to LaRue, and she needed every bit of age she could claim. Although at sixteen she’d already grown to a remarkable height, it still took the right clothing and dim lighting and her most imperious High Town accent for her to successfully impersonate a grown woman.
Even then she might not pass as a pearly. Not all pearlies had really been pearl divers, true, but most were old. Normally it took a lifetime of soaking in swamp water to acquire that much guile. But there were exceptions, and most of her customers came to her by referral, already assured of her competence. Certainly the man across the table was showing her due respect.
He’d given his name as Andry Gerard from Damnable Swamp, an outlying fishing village Yonie had heard of but never needed to visit. Gerard had an angular, stubbled face and hunched shoulders under his faded shirt. He kept his fingers pinched tight around the drawstring of a canvas carry-bag.
“It came to me in a fish,” he said. His eyes flicked away from hers as he set the bag down on the table. “A Fish o’ Fate, ma’am—you know?”
“Indeed?” Around Wicked Ford, finding an odd object inside a fish’s belly was normally no fairy-tale event. As in most parts of the Bad Bayous, cemeteries flooded often. Finds ranged from the prosaic (turtle-shell buttons, clay bottle stoppers) to the faintly interesting (old pennies, keys) to the downright disgusting (finger bones, yellowed human teeth). The local fish weren’t fussy.
There were always stories, of course, about fish who swallowed richer fare—rings for the finger or the ear, gold coins, ivory combs, jeweled silver belt buckles. These Fish of Fate then sacrificed their treasure to the gutting knife of a deserving fisherman or on the dinner plate of a poor widow. Yonie enjoyed such tales, although LaRue always pointed out that firsthand accounts were rarer than dry feet in Deadfish Marsh.
“It must have been quite a large fish, sir,” she said in what she hoped was a cool, professional voice. “Did you catch it yourself?”
Yonie tried not to stare too obviously at the carry-bag on the table. It was heavy canvas, too stiff to reveal the shape of its contents, with a little blue-glass wily charm at the end of the drawstring. Yonie’s father had had one like it, to keep his lunch dry when he took the fishing boat out on rainy days.
Yonie hated handling business by herself, but LaRue had gone out hunting, and there was no knowing when she’d be back. It was too bad—Yonie felt much more confident with her there, even though LaRue couldn’t take part in the conversation. Also, LaRue had promised to bring her something, and Yonie hadn’t eaten since dinner last night.
“Have you had a Seeing done before, sir? No? Well, I charge one gallon to examine an object. I can tell you if it’s guileful, and in most cases I can determine the nature of its wiles. Or, er, half a gallon for an especially interesting object,” she backpedaled, seeing Gerard’s stricken look. “I also take payment in kind. A chicken, for instance, or a string of trout.”
“Got a couple o’ sand crabs we been feeding up on the kitchen scraps. My wife’ll cook ’em up for you if she’s feeling better. She’s been ’ere nine years now, but she still knows ’er Northern spices.”
Yonie’s stomach scraped loudly. She moved her chair to cover the noise.
Gerard pulled the bag open and lifted out a bulky item shrouded in a cloth. He flipped back the covering to reveal the ugliest ornament Yonie had ever seen. Two black and white steer horns had been varnished and inset in a platform of polished bone. They curved up and together to form a steep arch not found on any cattle skull in nature. Suspended from their points by corroded chains was a disc of tarnished brassy metal the size of a dinner plate, indented in a spiral pattern like the cinnamon buns they sold at the Blackmire Inn.
“I’ll need some time alone to look at this, M’sir Gerard. Could I ask you to return at, say, the eighth hour tonight?” LaRue should be back by then. She would have to be.
Gerard looked up in alarm. “Eighth? I was ’oping for sooner, ma’am.” His big callused hands kneaded the edge of the carry-bag. “It’s my wi...