Even the Devil should be wary of the power behind his throne.
Chapter 1, scene 1, The Devil's Concubine
As QuiTai sauntered toward the marketplace in Levapur's town square, few of her Ponongese countrymen dared to look directly at her. Even those who met her gaze cringed away as she passed them, as if the hem of her bright green sarong bore a virulent poison.
The Devil was partially to blame for that. The shadowy leader of the island's crime syndicate was feared by native Ponongese and colonial Thampurians alike. As his concubine, QuiTai had the protection of his name - not that she needed it.
She flicked her long, black braid over her shoulder and slid a hand under her kebaya blouse to scratch the trickle of sweat lurching down her spine. A tornado of gnats swirled in her face as she passed the baskets of fish that had been brought up from the harbor. Her inner eyelids lowered and clouded her vision, plunging the bright colors of the marketplace into muted tones. After swatting the gnats out of her way, she willed her eyelids to rise, revealing vertical pupils surrounded by a thin band of bright yellow.
She wove her way past Ponongese women who balanced baskets of wares on their heads. The sing-song rhythm of their voices rose above the din in a familiar chorus of, "Mangos! Roasted jikal roots!"
The scent of hot oil wafting through the air made her stomach growl as she passed a tamtuk stand. Even though the Devil had summoned her over an hour ago, she bought a fried dough ball stuffed with spiced goat and rice. As she savored the comforting flavor, she strolled toward the Thampurian government building.
The Devil would be furious that she kept him waiting. While she knew she should have immediately followed his packmates Casmir and Ivitch back to his den, something at the back of her mind gave her pause. Something was off. This close to a full moon, she and the Devil normally wouldn't meet. That in itself wasn't enough to make her wary, but when added to all the other slightly off kilter facial expressions and odd tones of voice and stiffly acted lies that played out before her, it was reason enough for caution. Besides, the breeze off the Sea of Erykoli was too refreshing to leave while the humid remains of Typhoon DirAmat hung heavily in the air. If the Devil didn't like that excuse, she would remind him that if she didn't shop for him, he'd have to rely on his pack for supplies, and they both knew that would never happen.
After swallowing the last delicious morsel of the tamtuk, she went to the jellylantern merchant's stall. The jellylanterns in the Devil's den had grown so dim in the past few weeks that she could barely see inside, which was more of a blessing than a curse.
She lifted one of the jellylanterns to inspect the tiny bioluminescent medusozoa floating in the glass tube. She turned it to the light and gave the tube a gentle flick. A few dead ones settled to the bottom of the tube. The delicate, transparent bodies of the live ones glowed faint green.
Her focus went beyond the tube to scan the crowd. It seemed that Casmir and Ivitch hadn't grown impatient enough to come after her yet, leaving her precious time to think and enjoy the afternoon. Her contented grin disappeared the moment she glimpsed the Thampurian spy Kyam Zul standing between the wide, spreading limbs of the banyan tree across the town square. His broad shoulders and height set him a head higher than most Ponongese, and yet, he seemed to be trying to hide.
Of course Kyam had to ruin her afternoon. He was always the mosquito in the dark room.
As usual, he was between shaves, and his shiny straight black hair fell into his eyes. From the distance, his thigh length shewani jacket and tight trousers seemed impeccable, although she knew up close that she'd see frayed hems and missing buttons. None of that diminished his looks, something that only added to his ability to irritate her.
Kyam stopped a boy playing tag around the banyan tree and whispered urgently to the squirming child. His gaze met QuiTai's before he looked away.
The jellylantern merchant cleared his throat. She turned back to him.
"The price went up again?" she asked.
"It's typhoon season. Shipping rates always go up this time of year."
"Ridiculous, considering we raise the medusozoa right here on Ponong."
The merchant said nothing. He'd probably had this argument with too many customers. It wasn't his fault that the Thampurian government made it illegal to sell the harvest to anyone but the Thampurian-owned medusozoa monopoly. It wasn't his fault that half the harvest died on the long ocean voyage back to Thampur where the jellylanterns were manufactured, or that the people of Ponong had to pay shipping both to and from Thampur. It was the price they paid for being a colony. And paid. And paid. In land, in coin, in justice.
"How much for the blue light ones?"
He named a staggering price.
QuiTai carefully stacked tubes of expired jellylanterns on his counter with a rueful shake of her head. Yelling at the merchant wouldn't solve anything even if it would make her feel better. "What are you giving for the old ones?"
"Same as always."
She clenched her jaw. "At least give me the fresh one. There are too many sinkers in these."
If she would have been any other customer, he would have told her where she could take her business in florid language. Instead, he opened a crate in the back of his stall and put twelve strong green jellylanterns on the counter. Being the Devil's concubine had its perks. She counted out the coins and gently placed the jellylanterns into her basket.
A sweaty little hand pressed something scratchy into her palm then tugged on her sarong. She looked down into the yellow-ringed eyes of the boy she'd seen with Kyam.
"Piu, auntie?" His front teeth were almost too big for his mouth and he smelled of salted earth as if he'd been playing hard in the sun all day.
She folded her hands at her waist and adopted a prim expression, but too much mischief danced around her lips to scare him. "You're a brave one, little brother. Have you eaten?"
He nodded earnestly as he tried to match her formal mien. "And you, auntie QuiTai?"
She bent down to hand him a coin. "For your manners. Now run along before the Devil gets you!" Her hands darted out to tickle him.
He danced away, laughing, to show his friends his reward.
From across the square, Kyam nodded curtly to her then stepped behind the banyan tree.
The note was stiff in her palm. Only a Thampurian would use such fine stationary for a clandestine note.
She sauntered past the bank and cafés where the business district gave way to a residential neighborhood. The noise and scents of the marketplace grew fainter as the hush of wealth enveloped her. The limbs of tall trees formed a shady canopy over the dirt road while the tropical sun beat down on the low tile roofs of the houses surrounded by compound walls. She shook her head at the stupidity. Leave it to Thampurians to get things so entirely wrong. They seemed to think they still lived in their blustery capital back on the continent.
A few servants walked on the wide road between the compounds, but they were far ahead of her. She unfolded the note and read it. Mr. Zul asked that she meet him at the Red Happiness and hire him to paint her portrait. His words were amusingly polite given that he asked to meet her at a brothel instead of a café. If he thought she would be insulted by the implication that she was a whore though, he was wrong.
While at first glance it seemed a simple enough request, QuiTai existed in a world beneath the surface. To her the meaning was rather cryptic. The only clear part was that Kyam Zul needed her help. If he'd resorted to asking his biggest enemy in Levapur for a favor, he had to be desperate.
She tore the note into tiny pieces and dropped them one by one into murky puddles left behind from the monsoon rains. The corners of her lips curved into a devious smile.
Show me a great actor and I'll show you a lousy husband. Show me a great actress, and you've seen the devil. ~ W.C. Fields