Most people don't panic when paid a lot of money for a simple job. I didn't use to panic either. That was before Jake disappeared, taking with him my mind-skill to understand and influence animals' thoughts, and taking my livelihood along with it.
Before Jake disappeared, I'd been paid a lot of money quite often. I'd tamed unicorns for wealthy women to ride, captured snow tigers and griffins and black swans for menageries, saved the last herd of star deer in the world from destruction. Once I'd persuaded a basilisk to move its nesting ground a mile to the east--away from the only mountain pass in a hundred miles. I'd been sought after by kings.
And then Jake had disappeared. Not that he'd ever been visible in the first place.
I stood on my front porch in the gray, rainy dawn and read the letter again. It addressed me by my full, formal name: Miss Maylia Ammerstrom, and was signed King Darius I in an ornate signature. The heavy paper was embossed at the top with a stylized dragon wearing a crown around its neck like a collar. I didn't know what country Darius was king of, but I knew that he had paid me a thousand ducats in advance. He'd also told me his agent would arrive soon to discuss travel plans and further fees.
I'd been retired for two years. I'd changed my name to May Armstrong, bought a modest house in Waverly, and found work as a clerk in a shipping office. No one was supposed to know where I was or who I was--much less which bank I used. I felt I had a right to panic.
I hooked my hair behind my ears. King Darius must have a good wizard or clever agents, which meant I couldn't run away. He'd just find me again. His letter didn't say much about what he wanted me to do. I ought to meet with the king's agent and hear him out at least, and then I could refuse the job politely and return his money. I stuffed the letter in my pocket.
I locked the house and walked down to the docks--just a ten-minute walk, no need to take a cab. The harbor waters were a little choppy, and beyond the huge statue of Hennon the Bull that guarded the harbor entrance the ocean swelled gray and sullen. The eastern sky glowed an angry red. A storm was moving in.
The docks were crowded with workers, as usual this time of morning. There seemed to be more ships anchored in the harbor than on an ordinary day. No doubt the impending storm had something to do with that.
I took a moment to stare out over the harbor, past the shouting dockworkers loading and unloading cargo, past the ships with their sails neatly furled, past the harbor's encompassing arms in the distance, green with trees. I wasn't looking for anything in particular. I whispered, "Jake?"
I felt no answer, as I hadn't felt Jake's presence for two years now. I tried every morning, and every morning I was disappointed.
The breeze fluttered at my hair. Spring storms in Waverly were the worst of the year, savage and fast-moving. Above the salt tang in the air, I smelled rain and lightning.
I hurried along the docks to my office building. Unlike some of the grand shipping offices nearby Petersen's was humble and weather-beaten, a wooden building with only two rooms. It was perched on the hillside halfway down one of the many stairways connecting the upper docks to the lower. I let myself in and lit the lamp.
Petersen's had very little trade. I was the only office employee and the job suited me, mostly because I had almost nothing to do. I had strict instructions to refuse all business without exception, to explain that our ships were all booked up for the foreseeable future. William Petersen himself stopped by frequently--he owned four ships and captained one of them--to bring me his paperwork to stamp, file, and report to the official shipping clerk.
I was pretty sure Petersen was a pirate. I hadn't asked him.
Most days I spent reading, knitting, or drawing fanciful landscapes on the backs of old shipping orders. When it was sunny I took my chair outside and knitted while I watched people pass. I never read outside, since a woman who had time to read was considered lazy. Never mind that I had no one to knit for except myself, and was a terrible knitter besides. I could only manage scarves.
Today was not a day to knit outside, not with the storm blowing in. I'd collected a small library of cheaply printed books that I kept under the counter. I chose my favorite and settled down to read for a few hours.
Instead, my thoughts kept going to the letter in my pocket. Every time I thought of the letter I remembered the money in my account, and remembered the agent who was going to expect me to agree to whatever his king wanted. Then I started to panic again.
I gave up on the book eventually and just stared out the window. I had a good view of the stairs from one window and I liked to watch people hurrying up and down. From the other window I could see a slice of the harbor, although mostly I could see the back of the Seagull's Roost, the biggest inn on the docks.
The sky darkened and wind whipped foam off the harbor's waves. The little building shuddered in the gusts. Rain drummed against the windows like lead shot, and then the storm was on us.
Thunder almost drowned the creaking of wood and the whine of wind findings its way into the office. Except that it wasn't tossing on the waves, the building always felt like a ship to me during storms. One day I expected the wind to lift it up and dump it into the harbor.
For a little while, the rain was too heavy for me to see anything outside except sheets of gray coming down almost sideways. The roof began to leak in the corner as usual, plunking into the bucket I kept underneath it. I thought about ducking down behind the counter, just in case, but I was too interested in watching the storm.
When the rain slacked up and the thunder moved off to frighten small children and dogs on the far side of Waverly, I was a little disappointed. It had been a good storm, but it hadn't lasted long.
I looked out over the harbor where the water was still a stormy green-gray webbed with foam. One ship hadn't quite made it into the harbor. The storm had driven it into the shore, where it was stuck and listing hard to starboard. I winced in sympathy.
I watched the rescue boats for a while, but the wreck was too far away to see any details. For once I wished I had something to do that would keep me busy enough that I couldn't worry.
I went through the two filing cabinets behind the counter, making sure everything was filed correctly. That was so boring I wanted to quit after two minutes. I kept at it and was rewarded by finding a single sheet of paper that was filed in the wrong place. I moved it and slammed the cabinet drawer shut. I'd have to find something else to do.
The office door opened, startling me. I turned around to see a young man enter. He wore the usual sailor's outfit of trousers, loose cotton shirt, and rain slicker; the slicker hadn't helped him much. He'd either been drenched by the storm or by a wave. His reddish hair was plastered to his scalp.
He looked frantically worried, too. "May Petersen?" he said. "Your husband's ship has foundered. He's injured and asking for you. Come quick."