I paused halfway out the door onto Division Street and looked over my shoulder. Tanjural, my son-in-law, was hurrying toward me. I admit, I sighed a little. The two of us usually ate our lunch together, heading home at about fifth bell for some of my housekeeper Margat’s excellent cooking. Even though I had come to accept that Tanjural had had nothing to do with the death of my daughter, Kalibriona, and I had even invited him into my house, occasionally I just wanted a little time to myself. The Dusty Reef out on the docks made a fish-cake that Margat just couldn’t duplicate. Then again, perhaps it was just the carefree, dockside atmosphere of the place that made those cakes and ale taste so good.
Tanj caught up to me and surprised me by saying, “Percantlin, we have a problem that’s come in with the cargo off the Island Winds. I thought you should be the one to handle it.” Tanj had earned his way in the past month to be my second-in-command, handling the organizational duties of the warehouses of the Fifth I Merchants, the company I ran. I knew that he was competent to handle anything routine, and very likely many things that were not. Intrigued, I nodded and followed as he set off.
The Island Winds had arrived that morning, returning from a six-month journey to far shores. We regularly handled their cargo, buying the goods we had a use for and brokering their more unique wares to others. Long haul ships always had a great assortment of freight from the exotic places they sailed, and the arrival of one was an occasion of much excitement.
Still, it wasn’t likely that Tanj would fetch me just to look at some strange merchandise or outlandish trinket, at least not in that tone. We walked briskly across the inner courtyard that the warehouses faced and came to the loading house, which had doors at both dock and courtyard ends. The large, long building was well lit from the late morning light streaming in through both doors, and orderly piles of goods lined the walls. Nearer the dock end were the stacks of cargo from the Island Winds. Tanjural led me to one small crate that was situated by itself a short way from the other freight.
The square box was no more than half-a-man tall and made from sheets of wood, rather than the more usual planking. The edges were all covered with a black substance that I confirmed was tar as I got close enough to smell it. The only marking that I could see was a strange rune charred into the top. It looked like a circle only three-quarters complete with a chevron in the center of it, crossed by a horizontal line with a circle on each end.
The mark was unfamiliar, though it seemed in its isolation to be some kind of identification, perhaps of the crate’s owner. I turned to Tanjural, and he answered my unasked question.
“This box was found stowed among the crates and barrels belonging to Frinwalsh and Sons, but it is not listed on their manifest. Nor is it on any of the cargo manifests the Island Winds took on. No one knows how the thing got on board, nor do they recognize that mark. I even checked with the harbormaster, and he has no record of the mark, either.
“But that’s not all. Come, look,” Tanj said, walking around to the other side of the box. I followed, and saw that there was a dark spot on the side of the box. I crouched down and touched the spot, finding that it was a slightly wet dent in the wood.
I looked up and asked, “How did it get wet?”
Tanj said, “I think that the water is seeping from inside. It’s been dried off several times, but the damp keeps coming back.”
I returned my gaze to the crate. “That might explain the tar seal.
But who ships water in a box, when a barrel is designed for the job?”
“And who does the box belong to?” asked Tanj.
I stood up, my knees protesting only slightly. “Well, we don’t know that, do we? If no one recognizes the box, and no one knows to whom it belongs, then I say that the box belongs to us. And for all we know, there might be something alive within, kept so by the briny water that is seeping out of it. We need to open it up. Perhaps that will tell us who our mysterious owner is.”
Tanjural gestured, and some of the workers laboring at the rest of the Island Winds’ cargo hurried over, pry bars in their hands. They set to work levering the tar around the top of the box away, and when the joint was clear, one set the flat end of her tool to it and shoved with practiced ease.
A booming voice cried out, “No!” as the tool sank in, opening a gap between the top and side of the box. I looked up to see who had cried out, and saw a large man standing in the dockside doorway, his face handsome and weathered and scowling, his wild, long hair streaming black down his back. I wondered who he might be as he took a step forward, then glanced back at the box. Suddenly, there was a loud whooshing sound, and the box blew apart. I thought I saw a geyser of water blow the lid straight up, and then the sides flattened out. I felt a brief blast of salty water, and instinctively closed my eyes against it. When I opened them again, the six planes of wood that had made up the box lay in disarray on the floor, bone dry every one. I felt my tunic, but it too was dry. I looked around at the others, but they seemed equally confused. What had just happened? I wondered whether the strange man knew, but when I looked, he was no longer standing in the doorway.
Two bells later, I was back in my office with an unsolved puzzle on my mind and no lunch in my belly. I had helped search the loading house for anything out of the ordinary, but none of us had found anything. The six squares of wood, one rune-marked and another dented, all dry, were all that was left of the box and whatever strangeness had been sealed inside. No one present had seen anything more definitive than I had, and no one had any idea what the box had contained.
The search hadn’t taken the whole two bells, of course. Interruptions had been constant; questions put to me because I was there, not because I was the only one who could answer them, and the other little daily emergencies that always crop up. Before I knew it, fifth bell had come and gone, and it was after sixth bell by the time I had regained my office. I debated whether I should save my appetite for the evening meal or grab something quick from the Dusty Reef as I shuffled ledgers on my desk. I finally stood up, decision made, when Heerans, my assistant, walked in.
“Another emergency in the loading house, Percantlin,” he said. Frowning, I followed him out.
There was a buzz of activity in one corner of the loading house, behind a pallet of crates, and it drew Heerans and I across the building. The huddle of Island Winds crew and my own staff parted as we approached, and I saw that the body of a young man lying on the floor had been the focus of their attention.
He was sprawled on his back with a slightly sad look on his face, and he was soaking wet. I bent down next to him, and could smell the sea, but it was clear from the lack of water on the floor that he hadn’t just dragged himself in here after nearly drowning. There was no sign of a struggle, either in his splayed limbs, his expression, or the crates and wall next to him. Was this a new mystery, or did the water link it to the previous puzzle?
I stood up, and said, “Does anyone know what happened here?”
Sardyee, the supervisor of the loading house, walked over. “No one knows, Master Percantlin,” he said in his mild voice. “Jassin there was working away one moment, and the next he went missing. We called, then looked, and finally found him. Don’t know how he got that way, though.”
There were mutters and whispers as the others who had gathered went back to work now that the boss was there. Soon it was just Sardyee and me beside the corpse. I tried to make sense of the situation, and the only possibility was some kind of complicated murder designed to scare the workers. I thought I had heard the word “nisheg” among the mutters, but I honestly didn’t believe in water spirits. Along with that, we were too far from the ocean, even with the docks just through the door, for any kind of nisheg I’d ever heard about to take up residence here.
“So, Sardyee,” I said, “did Jassin have any enemies?”
“What? Why? Ah, well … that is, I don’t think so, Percantlin.”
“Fine, fine. Have you, perhaps, heard any rumors of discontent among the workers? Someone with a grudge, someone with a reason to try to disrupt the loading house today?”
Sardyee was silent for a moment, and I could see understanding come to his plain face. His eyes narrowed in concentration, and then he sighed. “No, sir, nothing like that has come to my ears. No gripes, no grudges, no reason that I can fathom for anyone to kill someone like this, much less Jassin.”
I sighed in turn. Sardyee worked closely with everyone in the loading house, and if there was anything to know, he’d know it. Then I remembered something.
“Just before the box exploded, there was a large, dark-haired man at the dockside door. He shouted ‘no’, but I didn’t see him afterwards.
Did you happen to notice him, or know who he might be?”
“Didn’t see him, Percantlin, and haven’t seen anyone like that since. Should I ask around?”
“Please do,” I said. “If he was shouting about the box, then he might know who it belonged to or what was in it. In the meantime, take care of Jassin discreetly, and then keep a close watch on things. The Island Winds doesn’t sail until the tide turns late tonight, but we will still need all of the time between now and then to get her loaded and ready to sail.”
I walked slowly back to my office, contemplating ways to uncover the secret of Jassin’s death. I could have nosed around and asked questions on my own, but I was worried that my interest would only make everyone even more nervous. In the end, I decided that it was just one incident. My workers wouldn’t let it stop them from earning their daily wage.
My attention was diverted from the dual mysteries of the day by the mundane details of running the Fifth I for the next bell or so. And then, just as I was beginning to think that the rest of the day would be uneventful, I was summoned back to the loading house.
The large building looked like a sinking ship with the rats streaming away from it as I approached: both my own workers and the crew of the Island Winds were pouring out the doors, crazed looks on their faces. This time “nisheg” wasn’t whispered, but uttered clearly and fearfully.
Inside, not one, but two bodies awaited me. The scenes were much like Jassin’s had been: each in a secluded section of the building, each body looking relatively peaceful in death, with a sad, or perhaps wistful, look on their faces, each soaking wet in the middle of perfectly dry surroundings. Sardyee met me at the door and led me to each corpse, relating much the same story as with the first. Both Arland and Yorssa had wandered away from their work, and then been found sopping and dead.
“It was one of the Island Winds crew,” Sardyee said, “that first said nisheg out loud, just after Arland was found. No one believed her.
But once poor Yorssa’s body turned up, there was no stopping ‘em. They bolted, just ‘fore you got here. She was so well liked; it’s a shame.”
“I’m sure it was just shock,” I said. “Sailors are a superstitious lot, but us landlubbers are more hardheaded. Nisheg are nothing more than myth, straight? Nothing more than myth.”
I paused for a moment, then said, “Sardyee, go round up our folks and get them back to work. We need to get this cargo sorted and stowed, rumors and myths notwithstanding. Tell everyone to pair up and stay together. So far, the three casualties were alone. That should make them feel safer. I doubt that you’ll get the ship’s crew back in here, so offer a bonus for anyone who stays over shift.”
I turned to Heerans and said, “Send a runner to the wizard Cefn; see if he can come and help. I don’t believe that we’re dealing with something magical, and perhaps Cefn can convince everyone else of that, while exposing the real culprit.”
As Sardyee coaxed our workers back into the loading house in twos and threes and larger groups, I started back toward my office. It wasn’t surprising, I suppose, that sailors, and even dock workers, were frightened of nisheg. I expect everyone knows at least a story or two about the mysterious, often alluring, and usually fatal water spirits, but for those who work on and around water, they probably hold a special significance.
Nisheg is a general name for a seemingly infinite variety of strange aquatic phenomenon. Most of the stories detail individual creatures, rather than types of creatures, with each lake, stream, pond, rivulet, and even well having its own resident, jealously guarding their habitats from both despoilers and casual wanderers. There were horse-like spirits, and monsters of varying descriptions, but most often the tales concerned women, or female-shaped beings, luring folk into the depths with false promises. From the fish-tailed mermaids and fair-songed sirens of the sea, to the lantern-bearing maidens in fenlands, none of these beings ever had a helpful role in any of the stories I’d heard. It made me wonder what was so inherently frightening about water that started all of these strange tales.
It was nearing eighth bell when Ront, the messenger that Heerans had sent for Cefn, entered my office. “I couldn’t find the wizard, Master Percantlin,” he said. “No one answered his door. A neighbor said he’d gone out early yesterday morning, maybe second bell, and no one’s seen him since.”
My door opened again before I could thank Ront, and Sardyee entered. “Percantlin, sir, I’ve found out who that man is you were asking about. Seems as though it was Captain Lar, master of the Island Winds hisself. Since the second set of deaths, he’s recalled all of his crew and posted guards on the gangplank. Our folk have to hand over the cargo there; no one but crew gets on the ship.”
I was just about to reply to the news of Captain Lar’s strange behavior when the office door opened again. This time, Heerans poked his head in and said, “Two more dead, Percantlin, and they were together. No one wants to go back inside the loading house now.”
I stood abruptly and said, “Well, it looks like we have a problem and we are going to have to solve it ourselves. First, we need to know more about what might be going on. Heerans, Sardyee, gather as many people together as you can in the main courtyard. Anyone and everyone who knows a fable or anecdote about any kind of nisheg is invited; pass the word up and down the docks. If this is a water-sprite problem, we need to learn as much about them as we can, and as quickly as possible.
“Meanwhile, I will go talk to Captain Lar and see if his strange behavior this morning means that he knows something relevant about our problem. Let’s go.”
We all hurried out of my office, and I headed down the stairs and out the front door. I turned right toward Commercial Street and the docks. I had to walk for several blocks along the ocean because the piers at the Coldwell end of Commercial Street had burned four or so years ago during the Beinisonian War and had yet to be rebuilt. I was constantly lobbying for returning the docks to their original purpose, but it looked like my business was going to have to continue to haul cargo by wagon to the functioning wharves because the news was that someone was building a bathhouse across from my warehouses.
I reached the Island Winds’ berth and looked her over. The ship was large, with tall masts bearing furled sails, and sheets crisscrossing what looked like every open space, forming a webwork cats-cradle above the decks. She looked big and strong and capable, and even so I had no desire to experience a moment of time aboard her while she was at sea.
The gangplank was lined with sailors, and they were passing the last few crates hand-over-hand up to the deck. They then took up guard-like poses, and I could tell that Sardyee had been right: I wasn’t getting aboard. Instead, I said, “I’d like to speak to the captain, please.”
My request was relayed up the gangplank just as the crates had been. A few moments later, the large man with black hair that I had seen earlier strode up to the rail of his ship. “I’m Captain Lar,” he said in his booming voice. “What can I do for you, Master Percantlin?”
“I would like to apologize for the temporary labor problems we’re experiencing, captain. I am working on a solution at this very moment, and I’m confident that we will be able to resume cargo transfer very soon.”
The captain frowned and said, “Be sure that you do, good sir. The Island Winds sails with the turn of the tide, and you’ll pay the forfeiture on the contracts if the goods aren’t on board.”
I knew the penalties involved, and I thought it a little crude of Captain Lar to state them so confrontationally. Which only made it easier for me to ask, “You wouldn’t know anything about the circumstances surrounding the problems in the loading house, would you, captain?”
Lar drew himself up, a look of offended pride on his face. “Of course not! And I don’t have time to stand around trading insults with you, sir merchant. You have until the sixth bell of the night to complete your cargo transfer, so perhaps you should go see to it!” With that, he turned and stomped off.
I turned away too, and as I walked back to the warehouses, I was sure that Captain Lar’s reaction had been a bit too forceful and outraged to be real.
By the time I got back, the courtyard of the Fifth I warehouses was crowded with people, more than half of whom were not even employees. I was glad of their generosity in spending their time to help out.
I climbed into the bed of a wagon that had been set aside as a makeshift podium and looked out over courtyard. As the noise of idle chatter died away, I glanced around me to see that the scribes whom Heerans had assembled were ready with their lapdesks, parchment, ink, and quills. I raised my hand, and the last few murmurs fell silent.
“Thank you all for coming,” I said. “As you’ve been told, I need the benefit of your knowledge. I want to know everything you know about nisheg.”
I should probably have expected what happened next, which was a wave of unintelligible noise as everyone began to speak at once. I smiled ruefully, and held up my hand again. Gradually, the wave subsided into silence again.
“Perhaps we need to find a better way of doing this,” I said. “The person I point to will tell what they know. If anyone else has anything to add to that, they can then speak. Please keep your comments brief; there are a lot of you and I would like to hear from everyone.”
The tale-telling lasted for well over a bell, and I learned a great deal about nisheg. At first, I thought the cause was hopeless, as every story was as individual as the person telling it. Gradually, though, certain similarities began to emerge, sorting the stories into broad categories. Some nisheg were bound to their bodies of water, while some could venture away by anything from a few steps to several paces, and others were bound by nothing. There were water sprites who guarded their haunts against any and all who came near, while others only bothered trespassers.
Certain nisheg were merely tricksters, causing mischief and mayhem but seldom death; some used lethal force to protect that which they guarded; yet more killed for sport or perhaps livelihood. They were variously limited to appearing only in the day, or only in the absence of sunlight; others could only be found at certain times of the year, or even in specific weather conditions.
In terms of appearance, some resembled horses, some people, some floating rain clouds or ambulatory rivulets, and many other shapes as well. Various sorts routinely hid their visage behind illusions, and some used those illusions as lures for their prey. There existed types that could be caught or tamed through special means or trickery, though most were best avoided altogether.
There were few mentions of ways to kill nisheg, but usually the operative element was something that was inimical to water. One particularly detailed legend related how a certain group of people would put together large hunting groups composed of both adults and children, and it was always the children who were able to fire their arrows and kill the object of the hunt while it was distracted by the adults in the band.
As the stories continued to flow, the courtyard slowly emptied out, those who had given their information wandering away or returning to their jobs. I believe that every single person who had gathered contributed something. Finally, the last person remaining stepped over to the wagon I was standing on. He was a young man, or perhaps an older boy, dressed in the brief vest and short pants of a cabin boy. His skin was naturally bronzed, his nose very broad across his face, and his earlobes were startlingly pendulous.
“I want say,” the boy said in a strangely accented, high voice, “box with broke circle belong to master Captain Lar.” He paused, looked around furtively, then continued, “He meet in secret with ghost-man in dark cloak. I hear some of deal. Ghost-man mean to get box this morning before docking, but not happen.” He stopped speaking again, looking at his bare feet for a few moments before raising his gaze again. “Master very angry when box leave Winds. More angry when he come back without it, yell about lost money. I come help against master’s order. Wish you luck.”
The boy turned and dashed away before I could say anything. I thought I recognized the high voice and strange accent as the reciter of some of the stories, though I didn’t remember exactly which ones. Maybe he had helped.
As far as Captain Lar’s complicity, it was nice to have it confirmed, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. I had no real proof, and I was sure that the boy wasn’t going to go with me to the authorities, even if I could contact him again. Lar was completely safe aboard his ship, and there was nothing I could do to punish him for whatever damage he had caused.
Back in my office, I went over the sheets of parchment the scribes had produced, supplementing my memory of the stories that had been gathered. My next step was to try to extract enough information from them to produce a solution to the problem in the loading house. The only thing that bothered me about the task ahead was that I had no idea whether that solution could, in fact, be gleaned from what we had collected.
I did the only thing I could: I began making assumptions. The way the five victims had died — no struggle, no fright on their faces — suggested that the nisheg used an illusory lure to snare its victim. It was a pretty good distance from the water, which meant that it was probably made of liquid, a supposition which was supported by the way its victims had been soaked. That suggested that it was killable, probably by something that was inimical to water. My first thought on that score was a drying agent like we often used when packing items that could be ruined by damp. Temkah was the strongest one I knew of; when we used it, we cut it one to five with corn starch.
Lastly, I wondered how we were going to hunt the thing. I decided that we needed as many people as we could convince to go back into the loading house. There were two reasons for that. First, we had already searched the place several times, but had never seen the water spirit. I figured what would work would be a sweep search, which would be all the easier with more people. Second, I was worried about the illusion lure. The last pair of deaths had happened together, so there was no requirement that the victim be alone. I could only hope that there was some kind of limit, and that we could involve enough people to exceed that limit.
So that was the plan: a sweep search of the loading house with as many people as I could get, each armed with an arrow coated with uncut temkah. I hoped that it worked better than it sounded.
I had only been able to convince nine other people to participate in the hunt, and the ten of us stood in the lengthening shadows of the last bell of the day in front of the courtyard entrance of the loading house. All of us were armed with temkah-coated arrows and were ready to go.
The ten of us, including Tanj, Heerans, Sardyee, and six other workers, entered the loading house. We searched methodically, making as much noise as possible, trying to drive the nisheg ahead of us. It was nerve-wracking, stalking through the piles of crates, barrels, and bags, trying to keep an eye on everyone else to keep them from wandering away, trying not to let the thing we hunted slip past us, not wanting to actually set eyes on it and face the implied lure.
We finally came to the far corner of the dock end of the loading house without seeing the water sprite. Unless it had slipped past us, it had to be behind that last pile of crates. We lined up on one side of the pile and advanced, calling out and stamping our feet on the wooden floor. We split to go around the pile, moving as quickly as we could, and suddenly, with a flash of movement into the corner itself, we saw it.
Saw her, I should say, because standing there, cowering slightly, was Giesele, my wife. She was as beautiful as I remembered: tall, graceful, with long blond hair and the sweetest lips I had ever tasted. This was Giesele before the Red Plague, smiling, beckoning to me, her sea-green eyes filled with longing: longing for my touch, my kiss, my love.
As I looked into those deep, green eyes, I could hear voices around me saying names even as I whispered, “Giesele.” Tanj on my left said, “Bronna,” and Heerans on my right said, “Dan.” The bow was forgotten in my hands, and I wanted to cross that empty space between us and fall into her arms. Despite the way she looked at me, I knew that she wasn’t ready for me to approach, and I awaited that call eagerly.
There was a cry like waves crashing on a shore, like screegulls calling, like a storm passing, and suddenly Giesele was gone. The image of her standing before me vanished, and as the longing, the pull, also disappeared, I caught a glimpse as I turned away of something shriveled and not at all human-seeming where she had been.
I looked around. I saw that everyone had turned away, and some were also looking around. I counted nine arrows in nine bows, and I looked to see who was holding the tenth, arrowless bow. Sardyee was the one who had saved us!
We all congratulated Sardyee on his heroics, but I could see that he was very confused by the accolades. I drew him aside and said, “Who did you see? And how did you manage to fire?”
He looked confused, and replied, “What do you mean? All I saw was a strange, fishy woman-like thing. I took aim, expecting to be shooting right along with everyone else. When my arrow was the only one loosed, I was shocked.”
“You didn’t see a past love?” I asked.
He just shook his head. “You did?”
“I saw my wife. I heard Tanjural mention my daughter, his wife. But you …”
His eyes got sad, and he turned away. I wanted to reach out to him as he walked away, but I had no idea what to say. Heerans came up beside me and said, “Where’s he going? We wanted to invite him out for a drink in thanks.”
I said, “Let him go. You can thank him later.” I didn’t really think that Sardyee would appreciate being thanked for never having known love.
I ordered the workers to bundle up the body of the nisheg, thinking that someone might have a use for it. As I was walking out of the loading house to get all of the workers back on the job to get the Island Winds’ cargo loaded, I remembered something. Giesele’s eyes had been brown. Not the green of the sea.