Encrypted [Preview Chapters]
Tikaya Komitopis slid one finger down the encrypted message while she translated the plain text letters onto a fresh page. She smiled. Her new key was working.
As she revealed more lines, giddiness stirred in her belly. She forced herself not to rush, not to get ahead of herself. Finish translating the message, then read it.
Tikaya tuned out the susurrus of voices in the war room. She ignored the sweat moistening her freckled hands and the mugginess of the salty air that failed to stir the leaves in the palm trees outside the window. A wisp of blonde hair escaped her long braid and dangled before her spectacles, but she ignored it too.
Only after she copied the Turgonian admiral’s signature did she grab the paper with both hands, devouring the message.
Tikaya shoved her bamboo chair back so quickly it toppled to the floor. She glanced about the desk-filled room. Everyone had stopped work to watch the door where her supervisor stood with the president. Their graying heads tilted toward each other, some discussion on their lips.
She blinked. When had the president arrived?
Then elation sent her racing across the room, sandals slapping the wood floor. Perfect. He should know first.
“Mr. President?” she called, though he was already looking her way. “I have—”
Her hip rammed the corner of a desk. She flailed for balance, tripped over her own feet, and pitched forward. The president caught her in an awkward embrace. Mortified, she lurched backward and found her feet as heat swarmed her cheeks.
“Professor Komitopis,” he said gently, amusement in his blue eyes. “Do you surf?”
Tikaya stared at him in bewilderment, then over his head and out the open door. In the bay, a steamer rumbled toward the docks while a few students straddled surfboards near the beach.
“No, sir,” she said, letting puzzlement into her tone.
“Don’t start,” the president said.
Her supervisor snickered. Oh. She was being teased for her clumsiness. The men’s eyes held no spite, but that did little to abate the heat plaguing her cheeks. It was bad enough she stood two inches taller than either man; she had to stumble around like a drunken sea lion in front of them too?
“You have a message?” the president asked.
The importance of the note flooded back to her. “Yes, yes. The war, sir. It’s over.”
The president’s eyes widened.
“Or it will be in a couple weeks,” Tikaya said. “Listen: ‘Admiral Dufakt, by his Ancestrally Ordained Imperial Highness Emperor Raumesys’s order’—I love it when they use that long title in their encrypted communications. You don’t even need frequency analysis when you’ve got such an obvious key phrase. Every time they—”
“Tikaya,” her supervisor whispered. “The message.”
“Oh, pardon, sirs. The Turgonian emperor says, ‘warships are to stand ready to facilitate troop removal and diplomat transportation for treaty negotiations.’” She tapped the page. “That’s the official part that went out fleet wide, and this second paragraph came on another page. I believe it’s a personal message between admirals.
“’That’s it Dufakt. With Fleet Admiral Starcrest’s death, we’ve gone from dominating the Nurian forces to scrambling to survive encounters with those ancestors-cursed wizard ships. Having the Kyattese cryptanalyst hand over so many of our decrypted missives to the Nurian government exacerbated our problems. How an island full of scientists managed to steal so many of our correspondences, I’ll never know, but I do wish Starcrest had lived to punish them, especially since taking over their piddling nation was his idea. We’ll recoup and get the Nurians next time. Send along your recommendations for promotions. Signed Acting Fleet Admiral Mourncrest.’”
“Good news, yes, indeed,” the president said.
His head tilted to the side, eyes far away for a moment, and Tikaya recalled he was a telepath. He must be getting a message from some aide back in his office. Or maybe his wife wanted him to stop for groceries on the way home. Tikaya had never studied the mental sciences and did not know how likely that was, but she smirked at the thought of the president popping into the market for sugar and bananas.
When his eyes focused on Tikaya again, concern hooded them, and her amusement evaporated. His tone turned grim when he spoke: “Step outside with me, please, Professor.”
Tikaya handed the note to her supervisor, and an uneasy flutter vexed her stomach as she trailed the president.
A breeze wafted in from the ocean, making it feel cooler outside despite the sun radiating off the sidewalk. Seagulls squawked in response to a steam horn blasting in the bay. The president stopped in the shade of a jackfruit tree.
“The work you’ve done for us this last two years has been phenomenal, Tikaya. I’m grateful, and if our nation knew about it they would be too.”
She shrugged, embarrassed by the praise, and prodded a fallen jackfruit with her toe. “Thank you, sir, but I’ve just been hunkered in a room, playing with symbols. It was different from my regular work but similar. A fun challenge.” The president’s eyebrows twitched, and she winced. She should not call anything related to the war fun. Too many had died. “The men and women who risked their lives to obtain the missives are the heroes.”
“I’m grateful to them, too, but their names aren’t the ones starting to show up in Turgonian naval orders.”
“My name isn’t…” She froze. The Kyattese cryptanalyst. That had been in the message, not for the first time. The Turgonians seemed to believe a single person responsible. Her. The humid air did nothing to stifle the chill that raised the hair on the back of her neck.
“If they find out who you are,” the president said, “your life will be in danger.”
“They won’t figure it out,” she croaked, mouth dry. “They won’t. They’ll be looking for a cryptanalyst, not a philology professor buried in a back room at the Polytechnic, deciphering dead languages on dusty scrolls and tablets.” Why did she sound like she was trying to convince herself? “We don’t even study cryptography on the islands; surely they’ll think it was some Nurian who worked with us.”
“I hope that’s true, but…I hear you’re good with a bow.”
For a moment, the topic shift befuddled her. Then realization dawned and made her shake her head. “In the field in the back of my parents’ house, yes, sir. But I couldn’t shoot anyone.”
“I suggest you keep up your practice in the months ahead.”
Tikaya closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath. She did not even like hunting. That had always been her brother and her father’s domain. She shot because she found the repetitive, mechanical task conducive to thinking, to problem solving. She had worked out many language puzzles while plunking arrows into the straw targets on her parents’ plantation.
“I hope you understand that I cannot regret bringing you into this,” the president said, “not when you’ve been so pivotal to our people retaining their freedom. But I do…owe you a great debt. I will do everything possible to deflect foreign questions about your involvement, and I will pray for your safety in the months and years ahead.”
“I understand, sir. If anything does happen, I don’t hold you responsible. I had to do this. I wouldn’t enjoy living under imperial rule.” She sensed his grimness and wanted to reassure him. “Those warmongers probably make their professors wear swords to class, and, given how easily I can trip over my own feet, that’d be a death sentence for sure.”
The president smiled, but it did not reach his eyes.
“Something else, sir?” she asked.
He sighed, gaze toward the sea. “Yes, the reason I called you out here… I just learned the bad news. It’s about your fiancé.”
Fear tightened Tikaya’s chest. “Parkonis?”
“I’m sorry. The Turgonians sank the Eagle’s Spirit off the coast of the northern island. There were no survivors.”
“They sank—” Her voice cracked. “No, they wouldn’t have… The Spirit is an archaeology vessel! It doesn’t even have a cannon.” She gripped the tree for support.
The president placed a hand on her shoulder. “I know.”
Tikaya sank to the grass and buried her face in her lap. She did not want to believe Parkonis was dead, but hot tears streaked down her cheeks and dampened her dress.
The war was over, but she had nothing to celebrate.
Moisture slicked the handle of Tikaya’s machete, and sweat saturated her hemp dress. Her blade rang as she scraped leaves free from a stalk of sugar cane.
Sunset approached, and she had yet to cut a hand, leg, or other notable appendage. Maybe she was finally growing competent with the machete. The hilt slipped in her damp palm, and she nicked her thumb. Maybe not.
She lifted her spectacles to wipe moisture out of her eyes. A reflection in the glass made her jump.
Machete in hand, she whirled toward the cleared area behind her. A man towered a few paces away, a dagger and cutlass at his belt, and a muzzle-loading rifle crooked in his arms. His bronze skin and dark hair would have marked him a foreigner even if the black military uniform with its fine factory weave did not. It was a uniform she had not seen in a year, not since the war ended, but she had not forgotten its significance: Turgonian marine.
Several paces lay between her and the wagon where her bow rested on the driver’s seat. She had kept it within reach the first couple months after the treaty signing, but time had dulled her vigilance. Swallowing, she shifted her gaze left and right, hoping to spot a couple of the seasonal laborers her father hired to harvest the cane. But the day grew late, and she had worked herself into a private corner of the field. The house stood hundreds of meters away. No one would hear her yell.
The marine said nothing, though his dark eyes followed her darting gaze. Running would confirm she had a reason to hide; maybe she could trick him into thinking she was no one of consequence. Not that being an innocent would necessarily make her safe from a Turgonian.
“If you’re looking for rum,” she said, his language sliding off her tongue automatically, “my brother’s working in the distillery. He can sell you enough for your entire ship at a fair price.”
The marine’s eyes widened, and a satisfied—no, triumphant—smile stretched across his face.
Dread curled through her belly. They knew who she was, what her role had been in the war. Addressing him in his language had been a mistake, a confirmation that they had found the right person. She eyed the rifle, noticed it was loaded and cocked. A huge mistake.
“I’m not here for rum,” the marine said. “I seek the cryptomancer, and I believe you are she.”
Tikaya did not have to feign surprise. “The what?”
“The one who broke our codes during the war. The one who thwarted our best cryptographers. The one who—” his jaw tightened and a muscle in his cheek jumped, “—gave our decrypted messages to the Nurians. That meddling cost us a dozen ironclads and thousands of men.”
“Your people tried to take over our islands to serve as a strategic outpost.” Her hand flexed on the machete. “You sank more than a dozen of our ships, including a peaceful archaeology vessel with my—” She stopped herself. She might have every right to condemn this man, but it was stupid to do so when he stood across from her holding a rifle. “We wanted no part of your war. We did what we had to do to protect our freedom. I don’t know who your cryptomancer is, but I am certainly not that person. I am a simple plantation worker, helping my family grow sugar cane and make rum.”
“A simple plantation worker who speaks flawless Turgonian,” the marine said.
She stifled a grimace. If those thoughtless first moments were her undoing… “The Kyatt Islands are in the middle of many nations’ trade routes. Our children study several languages in school, and many of our people are polyglots. You’ll find the true experts working at the Polytechnic.” A place and job she had not returned to since losing Parkonis.
For the first time, a hint of uncertainty lurked in the marine’s dark eyes. She held her breath, willing him to believe her.
He eyed her up and down, and she shifted her weight, abruptly aware how the dampness of her dress pronounced her curves. There were more things to fear from a strange man than being shot. She tried to ease backward, but dense cane blocked her.
The marine reached for his belt, and she crouched, brandishing the machete in both hands.
“If you touch me, I’ll cut off your…” Tikaya knew the Turgonian word for penis, but some cursed ancestor with a sense of humor momentarily sucked it from her mind. “Man part,” she finished feebly.
The marine’s eyebrows lifted. His hand had unclasped not his belt buckle but an ammo pouch, and he pulled out a scrap of paper. “You’re not my type, and if that’s what you people call a fighting stance, it’s amazing you can even defeat the sugar cane.”
She should have felt nothing but relief, but embarrassment flushed her cheeks. The marine approached, the paper extended. Though he did not act as threatening as he might, her muscles tensed. The Turgonians had slain hundreds of her people, including the one who mattered most.
Tikaya wanted to tell him to take his note and leave, but curiosity kept her silent. What could he possibly have come all this way to show her?
He stopped a pace away from her, holding out the paper. Reluctant to close the final distance, she did not move for a long moment. He waited. Mosquitoes whined, reminding her that darkness approached. Tikaya lowered the machete and accepted the note. Even with her suntanned skin, his fingers were dark next to hers.
Though he did not try to touch her, she sidled away to study the paper. It was not a note at all but a page of symbols. Someone had painstakingly copied complex symmetrical markings interlinked in small groupings. Her teeth caught her lip. She had seen many languages, but she had never seen this one, if it even was a language. It could be anything.
“Where did you get this?” she asked, gaze stuck to the paper. After a moment, she realized she had asked in her own tongue instead of his and switched, repeating the question.
“My commanding officer.”
“No, I mean…”
“My commanding officer,” he said again.
Tikaya snorted. “Is it a language or…” She stopped herself from saying substitution cipher. If she hoped to plead ignorance of this cryptomancer, she had best not say anything related to cryptography.
“You tell me.”
“I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’ve seen—” She caught herself again, this time short of admitting she had studied dozens of languages, living and dead. “We see a number of languages here on the island.”
Tikaya tried to watch him, to gauge his reaction, but the symbols kept drawing her eyes back, demanding her attention. What if it was a previously undiscovered language? Something from ruins the Turgonians had dug up on their continent? They were not a people known for archaeology, nor sharing secrets. If she were to translate a new language and bring awareness of it to the global scientific community, it would assure her a place in the history books. A tempting thought, that.
“Does it mean anything to you?” the marine asked.
“No, I don’t even know if this is logographic or syllabic or alpha…” Great Grandmother’s eyeteeth, she was saying too much again.
Indeed, the soldier watched her through narrowed eyes. Time to end this conversation and get out of these fields before darkness fell and he changed his mind about her being his type.
Tikaya held the paper out for him. “I don’t recognize it. I can’t help you. You should try at the Polytechnic.”
He stared at her, face unreadable. Cicadas began droning, and a bead of sweat slithered down her spine. Then he took the paper, returned it to his pouch, and walked away.
* * * * *
A pair of whale-oil lamps burned on either side of double doors marking the front of a large grassy mound. The earthen-walled structure held her family’s distillery and processing equipment, and the clank-thunk of machinery echoed from within. Tikaya paused to prop her bow against the door frame as she entered the chamber. Cool, dry air offered a reprieve from the muggy evening heat, and her steaming body welcomed it after the run from the fields.
She almost tripped over a passel of laughing, sandy-haired toddlers throwing wads of bagasse at each other. Running into her nephews and nieces usually made her smile, but now she froze, mid-step, thinking of the marine. His presence represented a threat not only to her, but to her whole family, a family big enough that they joked how it was impossible to be lonely any place on the plantation. That was why she had returned this past year. The flat she shared with Parkonis near the Polytechnic had been too empty after his death, but now she feared she had endangered them all.
“Tikaya,” her brother, Kytaer, called. He stood before a press, feeding sugar cane into the rollers. The long stalks cracked and flattened, and juice flowed into a collection bin below. “Glad you stopped by so I could warn you.”
She tore her gaze from the tussling children. Warn her? Had the Turgonian already been here?
“Professor Meilika is in the house,” Ky said. “She’s joining us for dinner. She and Mother have been conspiring all afternoon. About you. How to get you back deciphering runes on broken tablets and potsherds and all that.”
Tikaya exhaled slowly. Nothing new. Good. That meant the marine had not been by. She still had time to warn everyone and figure out what to do. No, she knew what she had to do. She had to pack. She could not stay here. If any of her family came to harm because of the role she accepted during the war, the guilt would torment her forever.
One of her nephews bumped into her leg and fell on his bottom. She picked him up before he could decide if the tumble was a big enough calamity to cry over. She swiped bagasse off his dusty trousers and directed him back into the game with a playful swat on the backside. A lump sprang into her throat at the idea of leaving them indefinitely. But for fate, she might have had little ones of her own by now.
“Children, time to wash up for dinner!” That was Ky’s wife, calling from the path, somewhere between the house and the processing plant.
The youngsters trundled out, voicing mutters of “aw” and “do we have to?”
“You’re looking particularly glum and thoughtful,” Ky said when he and Tikaya were alone. “Did Mother and Father already talk to you?”
Tikaya had seen neither of her parents since early morning, so she arched her eyebrows and joined him at the press. Like their father, Ky shared her uncommon height. For him, though, it had always been an advantage, making him a boyhood star at swimming and running. For her… Well, at least she could reach the high book shelves in the library without a ladder.
“I heard them talking,” Ky explained. “You’re getting the wasting-the-talent-Akahe-gave-you lecture again soon. I know Father appreciates an extra hand during the harvest, but he’s worried you’ve been here moping too long. And Mother…wants you living in town again where you can find a ‘nice young man to make babies with.’”
Tikaya winced at the familiar words. Ky patted her on the shoulder.
“Sorry,” he said. “Are you all right? You look preoccupied. If you were puzzling over some ancient runes, I’d know why, but I can’t imagine the mysteries of the cane fields are putting those thoughtful creases between your eyebrows.”
“I ran into a Turgonian marine,” Tikaya said to hush her brother’s garrulousness. She usually found it endearing, but tonight his chatter grated.
Her words did the job. He gaped for a long moment before saying, “Where? When? You haven’t been to town for—”
“Here. Just now. In the north field.”
Still staring at her, Ky shoved the lever that turned off the press, and the clank-thunks faded.
“He was looking for the cryptanalyst from the war,” Tikaya went on, voice sounding loud in the new silence. She lowered it. “I think I persuaded him I wasn’t that person, but I’d be surprised if their research doesn’t lead them back to me again. Tomorrow morning—”
A clank sounded near the entrance, and a metallic canister rolled across the cement floor. Smoke billowed, and acrid fumes stung Tikaya’s eyes. Oh, Akahe, she did not have until tomorrow morning.
“What is—” Ky started.
She grabbed his arm and yanked him deeper into the distillery even as another canister clinked through the doorway. Smoke hazed the entrance, but she glimpsed men slipping inside. They did not know the layout of the distillery; that ought to be an advantage.
She led her brother past the press and around two massive molasses vats.
Ky gripped her shoulder and whispered, “Turgonians?”
“I assume so.” Tikaya tugged to keep him moving. The earthen back doors had grass growing on them; she hoped the soldiers had not recognized them as an entrance and posted guards.
They eased past copper pipes and the towering stills, and she crooked her toes to keep her sandals from slapping against the hard floor. Smoke curled into her nostrils and tickled her throat. She dared not cough.
She thought of her bow, still propped by the front door. Blighted banyan sprites, why had she even bothered carrying the thing around the last year?
In the back, rows of rum barrels lined the walls, and the double doors came into sight. She froze. They already stood open. Beyond them, in the fading light, grass swayed under a soft breeze.
“I didn’t leave the doors open,” Ky whispered.
If men waited outside, Tikaya could not see them, but that meant little. Perhaps they were crouched beside the doors, ready to pounce. Maybe they were already in the house, threatening her family. Or worse. If anything happened to her kin, it was her fault. She swallowed. She had to make sure the soldiers focused on her.
“I’ll run,” she whispered. “They should only want me.”
Even as she put a hand down to push herself to her feet, Ky grabbed her arm. “No.”
A shadow moved behind him. She opened her mouth to yell a warning, but she was too late. The butt of a rifle thudded against his head, and he slumped to the floor.
Tikaya turned to run and crashed into a broad chest. Hands clasped her arms. She twisted, trying to free herself, but the steel grip held her fast.
She screamed. A hand clapped across her mouth. She tried to bite it, but the grip smothered her with its power.
A damp rag pressed over her nose. Terror roiled in her belly. She sucked in a deep breath, thinking they meant to suffocate her, but a sweet insidious odor flooded her nostrils.
Fuzziness encroached on her mind, and her thoughts scattered. Blackness tunneled her vision, and a moment later, the world faded away.
* * * * *