Cape Times

Extract: ‘Voyage of the Damned’ a murder mystery


DAY ONE – Feast of the Dragon Early evening

My father always says: “You can't run from your responsibi­lities,” but he lacks imaginatio­n. Besides, I'm not running. I'm sidesteppi­ng. Crossing the road so me and my responsibi­lities don't make eye contact and aren't forced into awkward small talk both of us know isn't going anywhere.

Those cute twins by the toffee apple stall, however, are worth a second look. I throw the boy a wink and he returns a heart-wrenchingl­y shy smile. Blessed hells, he has flowers in his hair. His sister looks as though she wants to beat the crap out of me. When I shoot her the finger guns, she clutches her hotdog so hard the sausage shoots out of the bun.

Resistance. Strength, Dee. You do not need that hotdog-wielding temptress or her petal-soft brother. Not tonight. You're here for a higher purpose.

That purpose is everywhere.

It's beneath my feet, in the chalk animals dancing across cobbleston­es. It's overhead, in the red waves of paper kites rising into the black night. And when a man slams into me, upending his drink, it's down my shirt and a little in my mouth. The Festival of the Blessing. The twelve-day celebratio­n marking the end of one era, and the beginning of a new one. Twelve days for the twelve provinces of the Empire of Concordia. Twelve days to celebrate the many things which make us different, and the few things which unite us.

The perfect opportunit­y to make headway on a simple ambition: consume every food in Concordia before I expire from presumed heart failure.

Merchants from all over Concordia have travelled to Dragon Province to sell every conceivabl­e export. Gilded masks inlaid with Spider Province jewels sit alongside luminescen­t flowers plucked from Crow Province. Winged Grasshoppe­r Province costumes flutter alongside Fish Province toy windmills. The stalls weave through the streets like a parade from a drug-induced fever dream. Of course the festival is held in Dragon Province – Concordia's crowning jewel and seat of Emperor Eugenios.

The capital is a haven of possibilit­ies, an eclectic hybrid of every province. The blood of the twelve is so mixed here that Dragon citizens (Dragons, for short) no longer possess the traditiona­l green hair of their province. Their skin is a ruddy brown, and their hair a greyish-brown mix of every hue in existence. The great melting pot of the empire.

Dragons live in this dreamlike world where unity isn't a word said in legends, but reality. Dragons are really f***ing naive. Today the hecticness of the capital is to my advantage. It's the only place I can slip silently out of view. Where I can dash down a narrow street into the city's eager arms and vanish forever.

Those pesky responsibi­lities have my scent – Dragon Province guards in their mint-green uniforms weave through the crowd, searching the thousands of heads for the one who does not belong. Me.

I just need to evade them for a little longer: meld into the crowd and stuff myself with food for a couple of hours; then they can drag me back if they really must. But by then it will be too late. My ship will have sailed. Quite literally.

I duck behind a stall. They're easy to track. Green is the Goddess's colour, to be wielded by the emperor and his forces alone. “Dumplings! Dumplings!”

I spy the plump delicacies, huddled together in their reed baskets. While the vendor is distracted by the crowd, I swipe a handful.

I chew the soft squishy dough, pushing through the damp heat of bodies.

Ten different bands are playing, attacking all my senses at once. A banjo mated with a drum mated with a marimba. The “music” sounds like how a firework would taste, fired directly into your mouth.

Cute girls kneel before goldfish stalls, fishing for coloured balls. I slip behind them and snatch a candied pumpkin. It melts in my mouth like sticky sweet nectar.

Crap. More guards, blocking my path to the culinary delights beyond.

Voyage of the Damned by Frances White, published by Penguin Random House is available at www.

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