It was still technically summer in Birmisia. Fall wouldn’t arrive for another two weeks, but apparently nobody had alerted the weather. Thick dark clouds hung over the city of Port Dechantagne. Though they couldn’t seem to make up their minds whether they wanted to drop rain or snow, they certainly pushed down the mercury in the thermometers. People who had started out their day in sweaters or shawls found themselves shivering as they hurried about their business. It grew dark enough that by 4:00 PM, the city sent the lamplighters out early on their rounds.
At the city’s bustling shipyard, it was business as usual. The dockworkers fell into two groups. The first were the human workers, rough and hard men for the most part, used to working under harsh conditions. Few of them were idle enough to notice the cold. The other group consisted of the lizzies, the aboriginal inhabitants of Birmisia Colony and the rest of the vast continent of Mallon. Looking like a cross between an upright alligator and an iguana, with skin ranging in color from a mottled olive to a deep forest green, the lizzies stood from six to seven feet tall and each weighed as much as two large men. They moved more slowly as the air grew colder, causing their human foremen to shout at them.
On this particular day, both groups of workers were hustling faster than usual. Three ships were lined up along the docks, and two more waited in Crescent Bay for access. One of those at the dock, a rusting hulk called The Mona, had been scheduled to depart that morning, but the outgoing cargo was still being loaded, a task that had been slowed by the untimely mechanical failure of one of the port’s two cranes.
Across from all the activity, sitting on a wooden bench, was the sorceress Senta Bly. In a society where women’s fashion had only just decided that a dress without a bustle might be acceptable, and where a bare ankle still could cause a stir, Miss Bly’s attire went beyond the bounds of decency. She was clad in a black leather bustier, with nothing over it, and a black pleated skirt short enough that it left fourteen inches of exposed thigh between it and the tops of her leather knee high boots. Her only other article of clothing was a black top hat perched upon her blond hair. Yet, no one chided her for her immodesty. No one spoke to her at all. Every person that passed by struggled not to even look at her, though the sheer amount of skin on display occasionally proved too much for a young dockworker. Even he wouldn’t let his eyes linger long enough to make out all the details of the sigils, magical tattoos that covered most of that skin—stars on her chest, dragon designs on her shoulder blades and around both thighs. She yawned and then took a bite of the sausage on a stick she had purchased from the food cart a few minutes earlier. Despite her lack of warm clothing, she was immune to the change in temperature.
She blinked when someone sat down next to her. It was a man clothed as a dock foreman. Muscular and handsome, his thick black hair was shaved close around his ears. He was a few inches shorter than her six-foot height, though it was impossible to tell with both sitting, and they were nearly the same age, though Senta had just celebrated her thirty-fourth birthday and she knew that he hadn’t yet had his.
“Hello, Hertzel,” she said.
He smiled and nodded. Then, producing his own sausage on a stick, he took a bite. Senta took another bite of hers.
Hertzel Hertling was one of the sorceress’s oldest friends. They had met when they were both nine years of age, and along with Hertzel’s sister Hero, and their friend Graham, they had spent countless hours playing and exploring their world. Now Hertzel was a married man with children of his own. And in the entire time that Senta had known him, Hertzel had never uttered a single word. This seemed to be a result of seeing his parents murdered in front of him, as he had been a completely normal little boy prior to that, but nobody knew for sure, and he didn’t offer an explanation.
Taking another bite of his sausage, he looked her over and then raised an eyebrow.
“What?” she demanded.
He nodded his head toward her.
“I never thought you were a prude.” She stuck the last bit of her sausage in her mouth and held it as she pulled the stick out. She then held up the stick between two fingers while she chewed and watched it burst into flame and then disappear.
He glanced down at her thighs.
“You can’t see my unders,” she told him. “I’m not wearing any.”
Hertzel shook his head in exasperation.
“How’s your wife?”
He nodded again.
“Did you ever wonder why we never got together, you and me?” she asked. “I mean, you’re a pretty handsome guy and I’m just flat out dishy.”
He shook his head.
“No, I guess we’d ruin our friendship. I did that already with you-know-who. It’s just that I haven’t had a good shagging in months.”
Hertzel’s face turned bright red, as he stood up and headed across the dockyard.
“Sorry!” Senta called after him.
She sighed and then spotted another dockworker, this one pushing a stack of boxes with a dolly. He glanced at her for a split second, and then hurried onward.
“Oi! You! Get over here!” she called. He tried to hurry away. “I know you can hear me! Get over here before you end up as a toad!”
The man set the boxes down by letting go of the dolly. With his head hanging low, he walked toward the sorceress only slightly slower than most men would walk toward the gallows. He did his best not to look at her by staring at her boots.
“You work here, don’t you?”
He nodded, but then added. “Yes, ma’am… uh, miss.”
“When are they going to get that small ship in? I’ve been waiting all day.”