UnderHill (Sample Pages)

Chapter 1

Ilin swam deep and let the currents take her where they would, careful only to keep away from the lairs of undersea predators. Her skin-gills puffed more as she drifted through an area of low oxygen, then settled as she raced for the surface. She burst into the air and crashed back down, then rolled upright. Her skin-gills fluttered with her laughter.

Water ran from her short hair and she shook it back, peering toward the shore. Her hands moved gently, spread to let the webs between her fingers taste the salt. When relaxed they looked much like a human's hand, but the fingers spread from the wrist rather than being bound by skin.

She hadn't drifted as far as she had thought. The big island hovered on the horizon, half a dozen smaller islands closer in. Closest to her and off to her left, the floating city that formed the administrative center of the Kamur islands.

A flag hung on a flagstaff on the floating "swimmers dock," a red flag with a blue circle and the single white dot at the center of the circle that was an administrative summons.

If there had been two dots it would have been urgent, and three meant that they required everyone's presence.
Ilin would have sighed if she could have, but her lungs were still closed off. Instead she carefully secured a breather across her mouth and nose. After such a long swim, it would look very strange if she came in without one.

She swam across the choppy surface and clung to the ladder attached to the dock. The flag snapped above her head and she pulled herself enough out of the water that she could begin to dry. Until her skin decided it was dry enough, the sphincter that closed off her lungs wouldn't reopen.

She watched a ship coming into dock, but this one flew a salvage flag. Unlikely that it had anything to do with her, but she noted the name of the ship in passing. Tiyam. No one on deck was familiar, but none looked like normal crew either.

Ilin stretched her neck, forcing the sphincter open, and climbed the rest of the way up onto the dock. Her skin-gills didn't want to subside in the damp air, but she rubbed them flat. To a human it would look like she was just rubbing her arms from the chill.

She walked to the flagstaff and plucked up the token left in its little cup. It was hers, so the summons was for her. She stared out at the ocean, wishing again that she'd stayed at home rather than coming to Heguel in spite of the death threats.

At least there she'd been able to take a rest once in a while. She'd been in Heguel as a special administrator for close to three years and not once had she been able to take all the leave she was entitled to. Certainly not enough to get her home and back, which was why she'd gone out to the islands instead.

Ilin plucked up the tiny scroll and unrolled it. Return at once, it said simply. Administrator Quel. Ilin grimaced and snatched up the clothes she'd left folded on the dock.

If the records showed that she went out to the islands on a ship but she returned without one, eventually someone would notice. If they noticed, she might easily end up dead. The Clans did not trust anything different.

Admin Quel knew Ilin was a shape-shifter, but not the rest. She assumed that Ilin used the shape of a fish for these trips, and Ilin had never corrected the assumption.

She walked quickly along the docks toward the admin section, looking for the red flag of an administrative courier.

* * *

"Lord d'Hire has petitioned the King to have our investigation stopped."

Most of the team traded glances and said nothing.

Ilin laughed. "I was called back for this?"

Administrator Quel shook her head at Ilin. "All it would take is one administrator whose loyalty to the Blod is greater than his loyalty to his oaths."

"He's tried before," Ilin pointed out. "It hasn't worked. But petitioning the King?" The King had no authority except as the Clans granted him that authority. In order to do anything he would have to work through the administrators, who would pat him on the head and tell him to go play with the rest of the children.

Her grin widened.

Admin Quel sat at the head of the table and the team mage, Uitanan, at the foot. Iana and Gita sat to either side of Ilin, leaving the other side of the table for Mir and Alsi—Mir could have filled the side all by himself, but he and Alsi were inseparable.

Mir was the largest person Ilin had ever met, and that included her adoptive father. His size precluded his use in undercover situations, but he had other skills that were useful for the team. Undercover was Ilin's job.

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