Today's Reading

For now, the harbor hardly seemed to merit so much attention. It was just another deep, placid mooring place perfect for submersibles and cluttered with the usual underwater craft. Flattened iron "turtles" with rear propellers skulked next to slim "barracudas" with black iron fins. Diving bells glinted with steel and glass beside small, old-fashioned timber-and-leather "skimmer" subs.

Today, however, all of these vessels were moored at the edges of the harbor. A far bigger submarine would be returning soon, and the way needed to be left clear for it. When it appeared, every eye would be fixed on it, to see what—and whom—it brought back.

"It looks like everyone on the island has turned out to watch!" exclaimed the merchant.

"The Hidden Lady was our god," Hark pointed out. "Lady's Crave is even named after her. You might say she's . . . coming home."

Actually, the Hidden Lady had kept several islands in her thrall, not just one, but Hark allowed himself some poetic licence. What did it matter? She had lived long ago, before Hark was born. The gods belonged to the world of stories now, and you could tell stories any way you liked.

So far, the day was clear, but the distant islands on the horizon were already softening and dimming in a haze that promised rain. Hark smelled roasting crab from the braziers on the waterfront and suddenly felt drunk with love for his own island. All of his fourteen years had been spent on the ragged shores of Lady's Crave, but its lessons were all he needed. After all, everyone and everything came to his island sooner or later. Often they turned up broken or lost, but that didn't matter. He loved the island's jumble of accents, the coming and going of the great ships, and the stealthy sale of almost everything. He loved its cunning and its hunger.

Jelt should be here to see this. The thought ambushed him, and a host of worries hurried in behind him. Where the scourge is Jelt?

Jelt had asked Hark to meet him by the bellows house earlier that morning to discuss a "job" someone wanted doing. Hark had waited there for him for two hours before giving up. That was typical of Jelt. He was there for you when it mattered, but the rest of the time he came and went like a cat, without explanation or apology.

Hark knew that Jelt had probably just gotten distracted. Nonetheless, a queasy little tapeworm of anxiety gnawed at Hark's stomach as each hour passed without word from his best friend. Jelt had enemies and the sort of past that sometimes came back to bite.

"How will we recognize the Abysmal Child?" The merchant was squinting through a spyglass at the harbor.

"Oh, you'll know her!" Like most Lady's Cravers, Hark felt a vicarious pride in the Abysmal Child. "She's as long as a schooner—a real Undersea delver. Thirty oars, hull of black withersteel, ten grabs and three rear propellers. The best and biggest salvage submarine yet. The crowd will go mad as soon as they see her."

Usually no boats were permitted in the submersible harbor except a few customs vessels, diver dinghies, and cargo haulers. Today, however, three luxurious-looking barges were moored by the wharf, allowing an elite few a better view of the Abysmal Child's return.

"There's the governor's boat!" Hark pointed out the simple green and white flag on its single mast. "That's where all the investors will be—all the rich folks who paid for the Abysmal Child expedition." He could imagine them, brimful of expensive wine and hope, scanning the waters with the fervor of gamblers. "This day'll make their fortunes—or ruin them," he added.

"Ruin them?" asked the merchant. "Does that happen often?"

"Sometimes." Hark sensed ghoulish curiosity and hastened to feed it. "One great submarine called the Wish For Naught got attacked by a giant squid in the deeps and limped back to port with nothing. As it came up, and everybody saw its empty nets, half the investors jumped straight into the water in despair. The governor's guards pulled out most of them, but a few were wearing heavy chains of office and metal armor under their clothes." Hark mimed a downward plunge with one hand, and shook his head in mock mourning.

The merchant perked up at the thought. It is always a consolation to imagine outrageously rich people miserable and drowning. Of course, from Hark's point of view, the merchant himself was very rich. Thus it was hard to feel too guilty about the prospect of making him somewhat less rich. Hark was hoping to do exactly that before the day was out.

"Giant squid?" asked the merchant in tones of hushed fascination. "So there are still sea monsters in these waters?"

"Oh, there are all kinds of perils down there!" Hark assured him enthusiastically. "Razor-toothed fish with white eyes and bullwhip tails with yellow lights on them! Cold surges and whirlpools! Suck-currents that pull you down to the Undersea! Jagged towers of black rock, and great cracks full of redjaws! Sea-urchin spikes as long as your arm! Tides full of yellow jellyfish so poisonous, a single touch would kill a whale!"
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