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The Colors of Money


The Colors of Money

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Original Fiction Alternate History

The Colors of Money

Set after the events of Everfair, espionage, betrayal, and political intrigue follow, when the estranged son of a founding member of Everfair visits his sister in Zanzibar . . .

Illustrated by Jabari Weathers

Edited by


Published on June 26, 2024

An illustration of two cloaked women walking in the rain, while a man in a pith helmet hurries after them.

Though the sun grinned fiercely down, September’s steadily blowing kaskazi kept Rosalie cool enough as she walked out from under the shadow of the recently arrived aircanoe. Moored to the new mast built atop the Old Fort wall in 1918, Tippu Tib bobbed ever so slightly as the last dozen of its passengers disembarked. Beside her Laurie Jr., Rosalie’s long-estranged brother, blinked in the brilliant afternoon light. “Kind of you to meet me here,” he said. That was the sort of automatic politeness she’d come to expect of him during her year in Britain. The sort of surface-borne emotions he seemed to feel for her. Nothing deep. Nothing that would justify his visit now, mere months after her return to Africa.

What did he want? What did he really want? She watched his eyes rove nervously over the heat-thinned crowds of the fruit market. On her first trips to Zanzibar at the age of eighteen, soon after Leopold’s defeat, the inhabitants of Stone Town had seemed strange, their billowing, quasi-Arab robes so different from Everfair’s mix of nudity and tropics-adapted European styles.

“Is it far to where we’re to stay?”

“No.” They reached the intersection. She turned. “This is Hurumzi Street. That means ‘free man’ in Kee-Swah-Hee-Lee. That building up there—we’ll soon pass it—that’s Zanzibar’s old Office of Manumission.” She remembered Laurie liked being told such things. “From there Emerson House is only a few yards on.

“How was your trip?” She should probably have asked sooner, but he seemed gratified nonetheless.

“A bit of fuss over my transfer to Tibbu from the cruiser. Customs officials talked some rot about detaining me in Alexandria since I wasn’t boarding the train to Cairo. But I had arranged this little detour with the company’s full knowledge. It all worked out with a touch of lubricant.” He rubbed his thumb and fingers together in a gesture she understood to mean money.

Laurie’s “little detour” here had taken him as many miles from Alexandria as his original itinerary had taken him from London. Rosalie supposed that once he’d left “civilization” behind the rest of the world was a featureless blur to be passed through as quickly as possible. All the rest of the world except their mother’s home, where he refused to go.

In mere seconds, clouds covered the sun. Rosalie raised her hood and gathered her cream-colored Omani duster close about her. Her brother’s Foreign Office helmet, made from the pith of the sola tree, would shield him from rain as well as the heat of the sun. But they arrived at the guesthouse before the shower burst.

Imran waited in front to open the door and usher them to the table behind which his mother sat in stiff watchfulness. A nod, a swiftly made notation to the page of the registry book opened before her, and her gnarled hands removed an iron key from the bunch at her waist. Imran took the key and went ahead of them to the stairs.

After the fourth flight Laurie flagged. He pretended to be astonished by the view between the bars covering the landing’s tiny window. “Very nice!” he declared. “That’s the mooring tower, I take it?”

Rosalie didn’t bother looking to where he pointed. She already knew the tower was visible. “Yes.”

Laurie’s stoutness stemmed not from greed or laziness. She no longer laughed, even internally, when his fatness discommoded him. She mounted the next set of steps more slowly. “The view from the rooftop garden is most astonishing. Imran, you will bring us tea there, please.”

“Just the ticket.” Breathing heavily, but still through his nose, Laurie followed her up the penultimate flight.

“Miss’s room is to the west,” said Imran in his accentless English. “Yours is opposite. Do you wish to see—”

“No, no, I’m sure it’s fine. Will my valet be able to obtain entry? My luggage, when it’s brought, will that be properly taken care of?”

“Most assuredly. I will see to it.”

“Then let us proceed to the roof for our refreshment.” Stubbornness was a family trait.

Exiting the shed at the top of the last of the stairs, Rosalie felt without surprise the gentle patter of rain on her light curls. She made an apologetic face at her brother as he emerged behind her. “It won’t last long. Do you mind? There’s a pavilion where we can shelter till it stops.”

Laurie removed his hat and swiped off the moisture collected on his forehead—probably a greater percentage of perspiration than precipitation. “Capital. Cooling, isn’t it?”

Imran assisted them in seating themselves, bestowing embroidered cushions so strategically that her brother actually looked at ease on the low benches. At Laurie’s nod of satisfaction he disappeared down the steps without waiting for further instruction.

“Kind of you to meet me here,” Laurie said again. He wanted her response so he could continue the conversation in a certain direction.

“I had business on Pemba anyway,” she said, “with my coral suppliers and the family who collects shells for me. A trip thirty miles south was on the way.”

“Nonetheless. I didn’t dare write to tell you why I wished to meet you here, in case some spy found me out. And I realize full well that leaving Everfair so soon after your return, with the government in an uproar, must have upset Mrs. Albin—”

“Do you mean Maman, or George’s wife?”

Your mother—as you insist.” From the age of three Laurie had been raised by their father’s second wife, Ellen, in England; because of that and because Ellen had actually given birth to him and to Rosalie, he refused to acknowledge Daisy Albin’s maternal rights. “I imagine she was unhappy to see you go.”

“She understood.” Besides, there was the commission Maman’s wife Mam’selle had given Rosalie—and the contradictory one from Princess Mwadi.

“Did she.” Laurie heaved himself up for a better sightline over the garden pavilion’s short wall. “Will that boy be back up again with our tea soon? I have something to say. I don’t wish it overheard by servants.”

“Mr. Imran and his mother own this house.”

“Or by anyone, if it comes to that.”

Secrets. Rosalie had them, too.

To pass the awkward interval till Imran returned, she showed her brother the necklace she kept tucked beneath her smock top. It hung from a leather cord strung with carefully matched treasures: heavy silver beads from the braids of desert wanderers; two-sided rounds of shell, black and moon-bright; segments of blue-dyed coral, unpolished, their rough surfaces intricate with the patterns of growth. And suspended by a filigree finding the size of a baby’s hand, the medallion she’d made from the remains of the little oil-slicked Pemba Island tortoise she tried to save.

“Pretty,” said Laurie, setting it on the lacquered table before them. What had she expected? Not even Maman, sympathetic and familiar with Rosalie’s work from years of intimacy, thought it important. Wordlessly she slipped the necklace back on. Thank heaven she’d met Amrita. Amrita understood.

“Jolly prospect up here,” Laurie remarked. Streams of water poured off of the pavilion’s canopy. Further away the individual chains of raindrops blended into greyness and obscurity.

The door to the stairway down opened, a subtle change in the sound of the monsoon’s drumming, an almost-echo. A man and woman appeared, the woman carrying a tea tray and the man hovering over her, carrying an umbrella. The man of the pair was Imran, as expected, but they hadn’t taken a step in Rosalie’s direction before she recognized that the woman was Amrita. Who ought to have been thirty, forty, fifty miles away, safely hidden among Pemba’s green hills.

Amrita smiled as she lowered the tray. “Miss will like to prepare the drink herself?”

Rosalie was momentarily too outraged to speak.

“That’s right,” Laurie said. “And is there any milk?” He began lifting the covers of the various bowls and ewers. “Ah, good! And what’s this?” He indicated a pink-and-white cube on an enameled saucer.

“A confection of rosewater, a Shirazan delicacy my mother thought you might enjoy,” said Imran. He bowed and turned to leave. Amrita did the same.

“Pardon me for just a moment, Laurie.” Rosalie leapt up and chased her friends across the garden. She caught up as Imran grasped the handle of the still-open door.

“What are you doing here?” She realized she clutched Amrita’s gold-trimmed sleeve. She made herself release it.

Amrita’s flower-like face lost a bit of bloom. “Let us get out of the rain and your brother’s regard and I’ll tell you. Inside.” She took Rosalie by her elbow and guided her to the stairs and a few steps down. Imran stayed with them.

Impatiently she asked again, “What are you doing?”

“I’m spying on your brother.”

Her brother needed to be spied upon? “No, I’m the one doing that! You are simply interfering in what is none of your concern!”

A pitying look. “Imran, tell her.”

“Yes, tell me.” She rounded on her host. “Am I not intelligent enough for this work? Am I judged incapacitated by emotional attachment to our target? Am I to be withdrawn? Replaced?”

Imran raised his hands, tan palms outward. “No. Please, calm yourself, miss.” He called her “miss” at all times to avoid addressing her erroneously in front of those who mustn’t know of their true relationship: equals.

The kaskazi entered as the door behind her opened. Her brother stood without, his expression annoyed. “Is the help proving recalcitrant about something, Rosalie? Do you need any assistance?”

“All is well,” Imran assured him. “Your sister merely inquired whether little Rita will assume the duties of her personal attendant now she is promoted from the kitchen.”

“Doesn’t seem so urgent you need to leave the tea to stew, Rosie.”

How Rosalie abhorred that diminutive. “As you say.” She forced hauteur into her voice. “Girl, you may bathe and dress me for dinner. Come to my room betimes.” She went back to the pavilion with Laurie.

Already the rain tapered gently off. Drops fell more slowly from the new leaves of Imran’s beloved stripling oil palms, or hung motionless till she brushed against them as she passed. In the wet distance, other rooftops shimmered as the sun broke cover.

The tea was passable. Perhaps Rosalie had been spoiled by the freshness of the produce of Maman’s plantation. Laurie stirred a spoon of honey into his cup in lieu of sugar. “I believe I will try a morsel of this as well,” he said, using a butter knife to slice a sliver from one side of the Shirazan rosewater preparation.

“Now. You know I have been tasked with representing certain British interests in the cause of exploiting oil and mineral rights in the Levant.”

Rosalie nodded. He had admitted as much over Christmas of last year, when she reasoned with him for the last time about his avoidance of Everfair. Attending to his work, as he explained it then, prohibited long visits such as she wanted him to make.

“In the brief months since we parted the assignment has expanded. Word reached my employers of oil deposits here, in their newly won possessions.”


“Nearby. This very archipelago; in fact, Pemba.” His face took on a look of self-congratulation. “So you see why I suggested that we make this place our rendezvous.”

How had the far-off English discovered this? Who had told them? Was there a traitor at court among the Sheikhas? They wanted the oil developed to fund humanitarian projects. Unlike the sultan. Or could Laurie’s source of information live in one of the fishing villages, among partisans of the oil palm? Somehow the fiction of a bombed and sunken freighter full of crude had obviously been pierced. She must get away, must warn—was there anyone trustworthy?

Like an automaton, Rosalie lifted the teapot to Laurie’s raised cup. “What will you have to do? Is there any way for me to assist you?” Hinder you, she meant.

“Well, I’ll want to inspect the site and map out its boundaries. . . .”

She relaxed a tiny bit. He knew there was oil, but not exactly where. Her side could still make their claim.

“And then I’ll need to approach the owner—”

“If there is one.”

“How not? Oh, you mean that the deposits may lie within lands owned directly by Sheikh Khalifa.”

“And his dependents.”

“Yes. You have contacts there, I take it, because of your—” He waved his hand as if at a negligible object. “—hobbyhorse, that crafting of jewelry you care so much about. Fellow riders, eh? Nothing but time on their hands in that harem.” A suggestive leer was banished as he remembered she was a lady—at least in his estimate.

The rest of their conversation consisted of plans for an excursion to Pemba. Rosalie suggested chartering a private boat, an idea her brother seized upon as if it had been his own. She would count on Imran to make the arrangements, and to make sure that whatever they were they fell through till a means of dealing with Laurie had been found.

An hour of this, and then she was able to escape to her rooms. Ostensibly to nap. She took a chance on Laurie overhearing and rang the bell.

Amrita answered it, opening the suite’s door and bowing gracefully as she shut it, as if she’d been in service all her days. “Miss.”

Rosalie jerked her head toward the balcony. When Amrita joined her there she related her findings.

“So.” Amrita, like Imran and much of Pemba’s population itself, favored investing in oil palm production and leaving whatever petroleum deposits they sat on unexploited. “If your brother has his way, you’ll be happy.”

“No! The money ought to benefit us! Everfair and Zanzibar!”

“Then I suppose you’d better inform the Sheikhas that their charity fund is about to be plundered. And soon.”

Next day, under the flimsy pretense of obtaining permission to access the ruins of a temple of no real interest, Rosalie was able to present herself at the palace.

Amrita accompanied her. Laurie, to his chagrin, did not.

“There will be a very special reception given in your honor on a fortuitous date,” she consoled him. “Till then, it’s best if you allow the court to act as if you haven’t yet arrived. Officially, you know, you haven’t.”

In Rosalie’s own case, all ceremony had long since been set aside. She went to the palace on foot, accompanied only by Amrita and one of Imran’s kitchen boys, Kafeel. The boy was big enough to serve as an escort across the city but young enough that the guards admitted him to the harem’s outer chamber with only a little hesitation. He awaited their return seated in apparent contentment on one of the narrow room’s many benches.

Traversing polished marble floors to the source of an enticing scent of lemons, Rosalie and Amrita entered the harem’s main courtyard. In patterns like a zebra’s, palm shadows fell on white stone. The aroma of lemons intensified so that Rosalie could almost taste their cooling fragrance. Flowers and fruit together thronged the branches of the grove of trees sheltering Sheikha Ghuza and her four sisters.

At Ghuza’s nod Rosalie and Amrita knelt to sit on the cushions provided. She made a gift of her tortoise pendant, but didn’t follow it up with any Pemba-related conversational gambit as she’d half thought to do. Indeed, the discussion was pointedly desultory till a pitcher of sherbet had been poured and sampled. Then the youngest, named Salme, picked up a guitar and began to strum noisily to prevent them being overheard, and they talked more seriously.

Ghuza at least seemed unperturbed by Rosalie’s description of Laurie’s mission. “Perhaps it’s best we fund our efforts another way. Fortune checks us in this scheme; it may be we should heed her guidance and forsake what we took to be the easiest path.”

Blind Matuka, sightless eyes covered in a silken scarf, wondered whether they ought to wait a season—or two—or more—to ensure needed equipment and systems were installed, then force the interests Laurie represented to sell their stake in the business.

Rosalie struggled to conceal the impatience the Sheikhas’ mysticism and indecision caused her. “But we are ready to help you now! And if you let the English in, they’ll bring more than mining equipment! There will be military conflicts—which you may well lose!” She must find a way forward.

Amrita understood. “Is there any way to learn what Fate intends? At home we divide piles of rice grains or listen to crows singing.”

“Yes.” Ghuza consulted Matuka and her other sisters in Arabic too swift to follow. Then she declared, in Kee-Swah-Hee-Lee: “I will journey to the Green Island to perform geomancy on this matter upon its sands. You may join us. Let this be done tomorrow.”

Fortunately, the foundations of Imran’s gambit to thwart Laurie in his mission had by now been laid. He and his mother packed several hampers full of provisions and sent them to the royal dock in the care of Kafeel and two of his small cousins. Chattering happily, the young boys led a procession comprised of Rosalie, Amrita (again in the guise of a servant), and a grumbling Laurie.

“Pesky valet had no cause to fall ill like that,” he complained. Rosalie thought he had rather sufficient cause: Imran’s mother had poisoned him. Only mildly, of course; only enough to put him hors de combat so that Kafeel rendered services in his place. Despite Kafeel’s tender years—twelve—the kitchen boy was a member in good standing of his employer’s conspiracy.

They paraded down the rising and falling dock, their hollow footsteps echoing off the steel plates of the vessel moored beside it. Nyanza was a converted paddlewheeler, a steamer purchased by the previous sultan and devolving, when time and accident reduced its value, to the harem, as did so many things.

Up the gangway. Folding chairs had been arranged for them toward the yacht’s bow. Once they cleared Prison Island the wisdom of this was obvious. Though she was equipped with sails, these were next to useless when heading northeast this time of year. Nyanza’s engines vented smoke and cinders as they pushed her almost directly into the kaskazi. The stern would be more sheltered, but the air there would be full of dirt.

Kafeel procured a blanket for Laurie and tucked it around him, then positioned a parasol above his head for shade. Amrita held Rosalie’s parasol so that it protected them both. Her skin was not much darker than Rosalie’s own. Another variety of shell. One of Amrita’s plump hands fussed unnecessarily with Rosalie’s hair ribbon. She shut her eyes against the glare of the waves. The hand moved lower, to her neck and shoulders, to separate the chain of the locket Lily had bequeathed her from the elephant hair braid she wore because of Mr. Mkoi.

About to ask for—no, to order—this fiddling to stop, Rosalie opened her eyes on the unexpected sight of a harem servant throwing herself face-first on the deck.

A long moment passed before she remembered she must give the poor girl permission to do anything more. “Rise to your feet and speak,” she commanded.

“Her Most Serene Highness Sheikha Ghuza wishes to welcome you into her private accommodations for the duration of her voyage.” Rosalie stood, warning Laurie to keep his seat with a frown and a shake of her head. He subsided, muttering.

The servant led her below, Amrita following, to a spacious cabin, its walls swathed in some heavy cloth winking with tiny mirrors. On a bed or divan covered in more comfortable-looking fabrics sat their hostess. Beside her sat her sister Matuka, eyes unbound.

Terrible scars twisted outward from the eyes’ ends like frozen lightning bolts. Like storm clouds they were swollen, black, their lashless lids thick with bumps and ridges and—

Rosalie looked away. Then forced herself to look back.

Whatever damage had been done, it had healed a good while since. No blood. No—matter. The blackness was that of the too-wide pupils.

She felt again the touch of Amrita’s hand. Now it squeezed hers tight. “I’m so sorry,” said Rosalie’s friend.

“Yes. But of course this is the fault of neither of you, nor of anyone with whom you’re associated.”

“It was our father who did this to me,” Matuka explained. “Seeking to cure me. He subjected me to dozens of operations meant to rid me of the deficiency which makes me unmarriageable.”

“As for my singleness,” Ghuza said, “it’s mostly the result of the timing of attractive offers. Either there have been too many at once, making the decision of how to bestow me difficult or, lately, as I age, none at all.”

“Our younger sisters,” Matuka added, “continue to face these choices. Rumors of chronic illness, a squint assumed at critical interviews; such are their defenses should they want them.”

“Why—why do you tell us these things?” Rosalie asked

“Ah. Perhaps we attempted an earlier divination?” Matuka asked in reply.  “Our results indicated a need to become better acquainted with our allies, and to listen as well as share with them the bases of our daily lives. And also to invite—persuasion? At the very least, explication of your viewpoints.

“You will sit.” Matuka’s gesture indicated the cushioned stools before them, though her bottomless pupils stayed fixed on nothing that could be seen.

Slowly, over the two hours that remained of their voyage, they accomplished what the Sheikhas wished. They discussed mundane personal affairs: their monthly courses, caring for their teeth and gums. They exchanged information about politics; the princesses knew much more than Rosalie would have expected concerning the doings of foreign nations. They discussed the relative merits of oil palms and petroleum fields: the palms could be planted and raised generation after generation, but needed more processing for a less potent yield. And so on.

It was agreed that Imran’s plot was the best way to render Laurie harmless.

Finally, the Sheikhas tried to explain the coming ceremony of divination.

“This method is called the science of the sand,” said Ghuza. “So we want to lay out the squares on the beach above Chake Chake Bay.” The Mothers, the figures filling the four initial squares, were divided into four parts: Head, Heart, Belly, Feet. From them would derive four more figures, called Daughters, and from the Daughters Nieces, and from them Judges and Witnesses, on whom depended the querent’s ultimate answer. To Rosalie it seemed unnecessarily involved. Why not simply decide based on the known facts?

“But how do you arrive at the Mothers?” asked Amrita, cutting through to the root of the confusion as Rosalie had come to anticipate of her.

“We toss a coin. Or roll a die.” Matuka took from her sash an ivory cube marked with ebony dots. “By whatever means available we generate a random number so as to allow the influence of Chance.”

So much for facts.

One last effort to plead for rational thought processes. “Will it help at all to acquire what you need using your own resources?” Ghuza’s eyes were as void of expression as her sister’s. More plainly this time, Rosalie asked, “Can you not buy the food and building materials needed with your own funds?”

“Secretly? No. And the sultan will not be made to look as if he cares less than anyone for his subjects.”

“We live on an island,” Matuka said, as if the implications should be obvious. “And on that island we live within a closely watched compound.”

“But via agents?” Amrita’s question was once more to the point.

“Any we could employ are also closely watched—at least as to their business transactions,” Ghuza answered.

“Does the sultan watch us as well?” Rosalie asked.

Ghuza’s plucked brows arched with surprise. “But of course! However, he considers you not much of a threat to his European masters. If he knew—if he could conceive how many varying classes of people are united in their dislike—”

A long, loud, two-noted hoot drowned out the Sheikha’s voice. It repeated three times.

“According to this signal we arrive shortly,” Matuka announced in the sudden silence following. Now Rosalie realized what the sound had been: a steam whistle such as blew back home in Kisangani at the start of each work shift.

“Yes.” Ghuza lifted one wide-sleeved arm as if she spread a wing. “Have your party gather by the boats. You may disembark with us in the first group to leave for shore.”

The damp sand felt cool to Rosalie’s bare soles. Golden, with a glint like diamond dust, the long strand lay before her in shining splendor, reflecting the sky where wetted by the sea. Behind her and inland lay the stubby ruins of the ancient Arab settlement of Qanbalu; between those broken walls and the shore the Sheikhas’ servants labored to complete the erection of their pavilion, an edifice of saffron-tinted silk embroidered in scarlet and blue. Also behind Rosalie but anchored in the bay to the south floated Nyanza, kept from coming nearer by Pemba’s thick girdle of reefs.

Freeing one hand from the handle of the parasol she wielded in the role of Rosalie’s maid, Amrita lifted a pair of field glasses to her eyes and turned them Nyanza-ward. “Your brother is in the boat now being lowered.”

“Good.” The sooner Laurie was removed from the picture the better. She reached for the glasses to watch him being rowed off herself, but Amrita wouldn’t relinquish them.

“Wait. It seems—” Amrita frowned. “—it seems they make for us, not the lagoon and the road.” At last she let loose her hold and Rosalie was able to take possession of the glasses. Amrita was right! Though foreshortened and distorted by the magnifying lenses, the newly lowered boat did appear to be headed directly toward them. Up from its center protruded Laurie’s head, unmistakable in his unfortunately ostentatious white Foreign Service helmet.

Why? Was this change of course at his direction? Or was it dictated by those who gave the Nyanza’s sailors their orders?

The pavilion stood. The servants who had protected the two Sheikhas from the sun furled their oversized parasols outside its awninged entrance; their mistresses must be within. Too bad. There would have been less difficulty in approaching to consult them out here. “Shall I request an audience?” Amrita asked. Rosalie assented.

But the big women on either side of the awning shook their heads in refusal and said something to Amrita that was impossible for Rosalie to hear. Not that she needed their exact words.

Amrita came back to her side. “The ritual has already begun. Their Highnesses are not to be disturbed.”

No one else was within earshot. “What do you suggest?” Rosalie asked. It was a most unmistresslike question.

“Let’s assume, since they said nothing of revising the kidnapping plan, that your brother has instigated this side trip. What does he want of us? Can you guess?”

“At a hazard, our escort and guidance. Or perhaps an introduction to the Sheikhas? The separation on board Nyanza wasn’t at all to his liking.”

“If we can keep him from causing an incident with the Sheikhas, what do we care if we’re with him when he springs the trap?”

“Yes.” Rosalie made a show of ordering Amrita to follow her to the spot on the beach where Nyanza’s second boat looked likely to land. There they drew the backs of their robes forward between their legs and tucked the hems in their sashes, making them into a sort of pantaloons. They splashed out through the low surf together.

Nine men sat in the boat. Or eight if you counted Kafeel not a man but a boy. All the passengers but Laurie were brown-skinned, the two who rowed verging on black. Her brother gave an embarrassed laugh. “Have you always behaved like such a guy, Rosie? Why not wait for one of these strong fellows to carry you safely to me?”

The rowers had stopped and shipped their oars. “To you?” The question confirmed for her that the Sheikhas were neither this boat’s controllers nor Laurie’s goal. Kafeel grasped Rosalie by her left arm and pulled; she gave her right to the idle rower on her side of the boat. As they hauled her aboard Amrita underwent a similar process on the other side.

“Where are we going?”

“Oh, nowhere we haven’t been invited.” Laurie grimaced. “Don’t worry. Your country’s precious diplomatic relations aren’t being compromised.” Her country was Everfair. Not, therefore, his.

“Though I don’t see why we couldn’t have simply anchored at Whatsit Bay instead of here.”

“You mean Mkoan?”

“Whatever you may call it—where that fuel carrier’s supposed to have had those spills. Where there’s every indication we’ll find what we’re looking for.”

Amrita busied herself straightening Rosalie’s attire.

“So to the lagoon, then?”

“There’s transport there, right?” Laurie nodded to Kafeel, who spoke in Kee-Swah-Hee-Lee to the men crouched in front of the rowers. They switched positions. Then the new rowers brought the boat quickly about and sped them off on their new vector.

Herons and heavy-beaked pelicans flew in tight circles above the lagoon’s opening. The tide was falling; bleached coral and rocks covered in strange growths thrust upward, several times breaking the sea’s surface. One of the former rowers had moved to the boat’s prow, whence he called directions to his replacements. Rosalie leaned over the stern, longing to trail her fingers in the cool water. Once they were within the lagoon’s stillness, the bottom appeared close enough to touch.

And then it was. It must be: the boat’s keel scraped over the rippling sand; the man at the prow and three others jumped into the shallow water and hauled the vessel, now lighter, a few feet farther in. Kafeel leapt also, laughing when he fell short of a dry landing.

“Miss?” The second set of rowers had also left the boat. They’d formed a chair of their arms and waited for Rosalie to seat herself on them. She clambered into their embrace. Still facing the boat as they faced the way they waded, toward the shore, she watched the remaining sailor help Laurie seat himself on a sturdier piece of human furniture composed of the arms of four men. That last sailor swung himself over the side also as Rosalie was deposited on the beach, and carried Amrita pickaback to her side.

Atop a steep rise, Kafeel waved his arms to signal that he’d reached the road. Rosalie heard Laurie swear below his breath as they followed Nyanza’s sailors up the trail. At first its loose sand slipped beneath her feet. As it climbed it became packed dirt. When they reached the patchy hillside jungle, she stopped to retrieve her shoes from Amrita and tied them on, mindful of poisonous insects and snakes. Her brother seemed glad of the halt. As she stood from stooping to her laces he beckoned her to the boulder where he sat.

“Will we need to camp here overnight?” he asked, after inquiring how she did.


“Not right here. On the island.” A nearby bird screeched. He flinched.

“There are villages,” she replied as coolly as she could. “I’m sure some merchant or diver would put us up.” At his glum face she relented. “And there’s an inn in Mkoan proper—but I believe Nyanza will sail to meet us there this evening.” No need to start his suffering yet.

The road stank of oil. Rosalie hadn’t thought of that. Twice a year since the discovery, Pemba’s road crews applied what they’d collected to keep down the dust. Later in the season the smell would dissipate, but now?

Laurie noticed it. Rosalie tried to explain away the oil as salt water-tainted salvage from drums that had floated ashore after the disaster. He wasn’t stupid, though. His pale eyes darkened with suspicion.

His suspicions were probably increased by the arrival of the promised transport: three of the steam bicycle-and-cart combinations typical of Everfair’s capital, Kisangani. She’d expected that because of their coal-fueled boilers he’d take them as proof that the existence of oilfields on the island was nothing but a rumor. Instead he made the connection: machines from Everfair at the disposal of a woman from Everfair. A woman with better access to the royal house than he had yet to gain.

“How shall we split ourselves up?” she asked, hoping that if Laurie were allowed to decide their seating arrangements he’d relax his guard a little and go along with the itinerary.

It worked. At the sacrifice of Amrita’s companionship. Rosalie wound up alone with her brother in the cart he decided was most comfortable; the others had to cram into the rest of the fleet with, he insisted, the food hampers Imran and his mother had provided. These he demanded to have placed inside—not strapped to the carts’ exteriors. “Keep off the flies,” he declared, easing onto the cushioned seat opposite Rosalie.

“Sure you don’t mind riding backward?” he asked anxiously.

She didn’t. It shouldn’t be for long.

But her small store of patience was tried sorely. Mile upon mile they jogged through Pemba’s high hills. Laurie interrogated her sharply when they passed the land being cleared for aircanoe operations. She didn’t conceal anything; this part of Everfair’s aid to Zanzibar was common knowledge. About the clove plantations surrounding the road after that she had little to say. The sapling palms set out for the season in the trees’ shelter were better not mentioned. Laurie filled the resulting silence with a monologue, droning on for what seemed hours about his fiancée, Theresa: what Ellen—“Mother”—thought of her; how delicate her complexion and sensibilities alike; how familiar she was to him because of the generations of friendship between their families, yet how mysterious because so essentially feminine . . . all the clichés and platitudes she’d been able to avoid when his guest in England by the simple expedient of withdrawing to her room.

At last came the descent into the valley before Limani. As planned, both the cart’s and the bicycle’s brakes failed. Holding firmly to the cart’s door handle as they jounced ever faster down the rutted road, Rosalie wondered if this was when she would finally become religious. Or at least pray and pretend to be.

Their cart was first in the convoy. The others were far behind, out of sight when at last they crashed into a glossy-leaved bush.

Rosalie checked herself over and found no obvious injuries. Laurie was another matter. His silly helmet—which he’d worn, contra etiquette, in her presence inside the cart—had prevented any serious damage to his head. The same with the fat padding his figure overall, but the two last fingers on his right hand stuck out at a very curious angle, and the thumb on his left was bent back parallel with his wrist. Maman’s wife would know how to splint those injuries.

Her brother’s eyes blinked at her, dazed. In a moment he’d begin to feel his pain. Rosalie still held the door’s handle. She opened it and climbed out, which took only a slight effort. The cart was canted off its front wheels and rested more on its far side than on this one—but not much more. Shaking her robes back into order, Rosalie looked around for the bicycle driver. Gone. As instructed. Excellent. Now to improvise, as Mam’selle would say.

“Help! Help!” She let her voice wobble as if in fear—easier than exiting the cart had been. “We’re hurt! Someone, please!” That should be enough to let Imran know she was here with Laurie.

There he came, muffled in scarves like an old woman. “Shut up!” he commanded in Kee-Swah-Hee-Lee, sounding much gruffer than usual. No, he would not be recognized.

“It’s all right,” she replied in the same language. She attempted to whine pitifully. “My brother made all the others ride in the later carts. No one’s around to understand.”

“Hah! But I’d better stay in disguise just the same, hadn’t I.”

White-faced and shivering, Laurie poked his helmeted head above the cart’s doorway. More overwrapped men appeared out of the forest, waving shonguns. A wince contorted his features and his shoulders heaved; he must be trying to pull something out of a pocket—a weapon perhaps?

They needed to remove Laurie from the road before the rest of the party arrived. But when a pair of them approached to take him out of the cart he ducked down below the doorway. “Rosie!” he called. “Get back in here! I’ve got a pistol in my jacket. You needn’t even fire it, just point—”

Rosalie shrieked and threw herself at Imran. Quick of mind, he caught and held her before Laurie’s head was up again. His knife’s edge grazed her throat, drawing real blood. But not much. “Perhaps we’ll have to drag the cart into the jungle and dislodge him there,” she growled defiantly.

To her brother’s sincere-sounding cries of distress she answered, in English, that the black devils said they would kill her unless he, too, surrendered.

A true gentleman, Laurie stood when he heard that.

“Mind his hands,” Rosalie warned the men extracting him from the cart. “And see if you can find his pistol.” She hoped her Kee-Swah-Hee-Lee instructions sounded like terrified pleas. She hoped her pretended scuffling with Imran looked like she fought in ineffectual earnest to block their departure into the forest.

When they’d gone far enough off the road that Laurie’s shouts shouldn’t be heard by anyone investigating the crash, they came to a little house, temporary, woven of boards and covered in palm leaves. But they didn’t go inside it; rather, their supposed captors shoved them to the ground near the house’s firepit. Then they stood over them, shonguns at the ready.

“You managing, my girl?” Laurie asked.

Rosalie shrugged. “I’m frightened is all.”

“What do they want?”

“Money, I gather. Ransom.”

“Well they won’t get it!” Despite his words, Laurie looked unsure of that. Rosalie hoped he was right. Her brother’s release played no part in this scheme.

Imran’s mother emerged from the house. Bizarre designs in red and white paint covered her face. They served no purpose except to transform her into a stranger—though Laurie had probably not noticed her at the guesthouse anyway. She had to be surprised to see Rosalie there, but no one could have told by looking.

In Kee-Swah-Hee-Lee the old woman asked Rosalie, “How did this happen? Don’t you want to go home?”

Imran made angry-looking gestures. “At the worst we expected one of the sailors!” he snapped. “They could have been explained. We’ll have a hard time making your brother believe you’ve betrayed him despite the fact that you did.”

“What’s he saying?” Laurie twisted his head to watch Imran pace between the empty fire ring and the house.

“They’re arguing about how much we’re worth.”


“Then we’re dead.” To Imran: “I think he’s going to try to escape. Can you tie him up?”

“I’ll get something.” Imran’s mother walked into the hut.

“We’ll run for it!” Laurie staggered to his feet. “Opposite directions!” A heavily built man knocked him to his knees with one hand and raised his shongun threateningly with the other.

Imran’s mother returned, several scarves draped over her forearm. “Perhaps that’s an idea. You, at least, could magically get away.

“Make him hold his wrists together.”

“She—she wants to bind you,” Rosalie told Laurie. “Perhaps if you cooperate they’ll treat us more humanely?”

While the son and mother trussed Laurie tight at every joint they discussed how to handle setting Rosalie free. At the last it was decided simply to put him in the house where he couldn’t see her leave.

“Tell them they can’t separate us! It’s my duty to protect you,” Laurie insisted as he was carried away.

“They say it’s their religion!” Rosalie lied. “I can’t talk them out of it!”

With her brother safely disposed of she followed the man who had subdued him to the road. The embers in the steam bicycle’s fire box needed hardly any coaxing. By nightfall she was in Mkoan, once more with Amrita; by moonrise they were in a boat being winched back aboard Nyanza.

Nyanza’s return to Unguja, the Zanzibar archipelago’s largest island, went much more quietly than her journey out. The persistent kaskazi filled her sails.

As courtesy dictated, Amrita and Rosalie came to the Sheikhas’ cabin when again invited. Late and cool as the hour was they sipped warm chocolate seasoned with rare cubeb rather than partaking of the customary sherbet.

Amrita accepted a second cup. “What was the result of your divination, if I may inquire?” she asked. Her empty hand fell with seeming casualness on Rosalie’s white-robed thigh. Rosalie let it lie there. It did her no harm.

“You most certainly may, for we obtained our results using your friend’s gift.” Ghuza pulled the tortoise pendant from the folds of her embroidered tunic. “We are to seek the will of the people.” Which Rosalie knew, on Pemba, was in favor of palms over petroleum.

With a sigh she resigned herself. As Laurie had unintentionally demonstrated, things might have gone much, much worse.

Amrita was standing, tugging at Rosalie’s sleeve, so she stood with her. Together they retired to the deck. The brisk breeze gave Amrita an excuse to tuck a shoulder under Rosalie’s arm. For now this appeared to content her. As the silver moon slipped into the sea they passed Prison Island, Laurie’s ultimate destiny. One day she would have to take Maman there for a visit.

Buy the Book

The Colors of Money
The Colors of Money

The Colors of Money

Nisi Shawl

About the Author

Nisi Shawl


Nisi Shawl (they/them) is a writer of science fiction, fantasy, and horror short stories and a teacher. They are the co-author (with Cynthia Ward) of Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction. Their short stories have appeared in Asimov's, Strange Horizons, and numerous other magazines and anthologies.
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