Today's Reading

CHAPTER 1

A THIEF IN THE GARDEN

Florencia DuMont spit on the ground and cursed.

"There is a chance." From the rolling cadence of her accent, the weather mage was Ivanian, though that wasn't such a leap of logic. Most weather mages were. The woman touched her shoulder, a quick press of warmth, as her fellow mages looked on in sympathy. Or pity. Did it matter? "There is always a chance. Seek the harbormaster—surely they can aid you?"

"My goods were not insured," Florencia said smoothly. She looked down, feigning shame, letting the mage think she was either too poor to pay the dues or too foolish. Both reasons grated, but both were legal. Her cargo was not. Oh, she could petition on behalf of her legitimate goods, but they were cheap baubles and not worth the time and paperwork. Florencia kicked mud off her boot. The salty tang of the breeze off the ocean usually invigorated her. The swarm of humanity on the pier was colorful, bright, and a feast to the eyes, as well as to the pockets if your fingers were deft enough or your tale convincing.

But not today. Today she smelled only salt and dead fish. Everyone's ship had come in.

Hers had not.

"Squalls from the northeast hit the Tirada coast hard," the mage said. "There was nothing to be done." The blue swirl of tattoos on her cheeks, temples, and neck eddied like the wind across her brown skin. Since mages only got tattoos when they reached master status, Florencia had to accept that the harbor mage knew what she was talking about, even if she didn't like the news itself. Her goods were at the bottom of the sea with the fish, and it was impossible to swindle fish.

Florencia thanked the mage, hiding her irritation as she handed over a few small coppers for her to share with the mages behind her. She would get another ship. It never occurred to her to doubt it. Florencia left the docks, absently dodging people and crates of something with wings that hissed as she walked by. Normally she would have taken a peek—who was stupid enough to trade in creatures from the Enchanted Forest?—but her mind was already moving three steps ahead, creating and discarding plans to correct her fortunes.

Florencia fetched her wagon. There would be no staying at an inn tonight. Without the ships, they would need the money to keep their creditors at bay. She could sell the wagon, fattening her purse as best she could. Florencia would keep her horse—it was important to project the image of wealth. No one would do business with a beggar. This was only a momentary upset in their fortunes. They would be back on top again. Florencia clucked at her horse, heading to a nearby inn. The closest one would have a place where she could sit, order a drink, and find a patsy to sell her wagon to.

The Salty Siren was a bare-bones establishment. It wasn't the kind of place one actually wanted to rent a room from, unless a body loved the company of fleas. The dining room, however, was passably clean, the mediocre ale watered down but cheap, and the clientele diverse. Rich patrons didn't sleep here, but they did come here for business. It was the best place to hire a crew for your ship or to unload your cargo.

Florencia didn't bother cleaning her boots—the boot brush was already stiff with mud, so any effort would have been in vain. She sauntered in, her shoulders back, the tilt of her chin regal. People saw what you showed them, and Florencia DuMont had the look of a vengeful goddess made mortal. The haze of cigar smoke was thin, the windows open to catch a late spring breeze. She had to alter her course quickly to avoid kicking over a brimming spittoon resting on the floor next to the bar. With a sneer, she decided that her earlier assessment of "passably clean" had been overly generous. Florencia traded two much-needed coppers for a pint that she wouldn't give to a pig and took a seat at a small round table in the back of the dining room. Now she simply had to wait.

Like any good swindler, Florencia DuMont knew her assets well and traded on them heavily. She knew eyes had followed her confident swagger through the room—tight breeches, expensive boots, and a face wrought of temptation guaranteed it. The Salty Siren was full of hungry patrons, and she was a four-course meal. She sipped and waited and dangled as bait. If she made it to the halfway point of her pint, she'd undo her braids. She usually didn't have to—Florencia was an exceedingly handsome woman—but sometimes people needed a push, and her chestnut locks would do the trick.
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