NINE YEARS AFTER THE SACK OF HOLIKAN
Demir Grappo stood in the back row of an amphitheater, a small cudgeling arena in the provincial city of Ereptia. Even by provincial standards Ereptia was a backwater; a little city in the heart of wine-making country with less than ten thousand people, most of them employed as laborers on the vast vineyards owned by distant wealthy Ossan guild-families. The only arena in Ereptia sat a few hundred people, and just a third of the seats were full for an afternoon exhibition match.
Cudgeling was the national sport of the Empire—bigger and more popular than horse racing, cockfighting, hunting, and boxing combined. The two contestants in the arena wore powerful forgeglass earrings to make them stronger and faster, and then beat the shit out of each other with weighted sticks until one of them forfeited.
It was a visceral sport, and Demir felt that it defined the entire Ossan experience wonderfully—the way contestants broke their bodies for the chance at glory while everyone else cheered them on. Someday he would write a philosophical treatise on the subject.
He clutched a bookie’s receipt in one hand, watching the two fighters go back and forth across the arena as the sparse crowd shouted curses and encouragement. The woman was named Slatina. She had the milk-white complexion of a Purnian with short blond hair, and was six feet of solid muscle. The man’s name was Overin, and he was shorter but faster, with a bald head, bushy black beard, and the light olive skin of an eastern provincial.
They were well-matched—brawn versus speed—and the crowd was absolutely loving it as strikes fell, skin cracked, and blood spattered the sandy floor of the arena. Demir himself was paying close attention to how they fought, rather than who was actually winning. It needed to be a good match, with little doubt that the two fighters wanted nothing more than to kill each other.
By the time Overin fell to the ground beneath Slatina’s cudgel, weakly raising a hand to forfeit before she could administer a final blow, Demir knew that everyone had bought it: neither the judges, the audience, nor the bookies had any idea that the pair were well-paid for the inevitable conclusion.
Demir loitered until the last of the audience trickled out of the arena and the cudgelists themselves had long since been given cureglass and escorted away. He watched and listened, making sure that no one so much as suspected that the fight was fixed. When he was certain that their performance had been accepted, he sauntered down the steps, out the front of the arena, and across the street, where a slummy little cantina held one of Ereptia’s many bookies. Demir slid onto a stool at the bar, set down his betting receipt, and gave it a tap with one finger.
“I need a new piece of skyglass,” Demir said, adjusting the gloves that hid his dual silic sigils.
The bartender and bookie was a middle-aged man named Morlius. He had a harried look in his eyes but moved slowly as he rinsed out mugs in a barrel of water underneath the bar. Demir wouldn’t normally order godglass at a bar, but this far out in the provinces it was the only place a stranger could get their hands on a luxury commodity.
Morlius barely glanced at him. “Can’t get skyglass at all right now,” he said.
“Not even the cheap stuff?”
“Not even the cheap stuff. No idea why. Supply just isn’t coming in from Ossa and what little I could get last month was bought up by the vineyard managers.”
“Shit.” The calming sorcery of skyglass wasn’t going to save Demir’s life, but it certainly would make it easier. His last piece had run out of resonance three nights ago, and he’d had a hard time sleeping without it since Holikan. He rubbed at his temples. “Dazeglass?”
Morlius shook his head.
“Fine. Give me a half pint of Ereptia’s best, and put it on this tab.” He tapped the bookie’s receipt once more.
“You won, huh?” Morlius asked, gazing at him sullenly.
“Sure did.” Demir gave him his most charming smile. “Lucky afternoon.” He pushed the receipt across the bar. “Drink?”
Morlius did not reach for a wineglass. “You won yesterday, too. And the day before that.”
“And I lost the three days prior,” Demir replied, keeping that smile fixed on his face. “Good luck follows bad, I suppose.”
“I don’t think there’s any luck in it.”
Demir let his smile fade into faux confusion, cursing himself silently. He was very careful about losing almost as much as he won. Had he made a mistake? Or was Morlius tipped off? “I’m not sure what you’re implying,” Demir said, huffing loudly. Morlius did not have a pleasant reputation. Rumor had it he was in the business of drugging cudgelists before fights to get the result he wanted. He didn’t do it often—not enough to attract official attention—but the reputation was well-earned enough that cudgelists in the know avoided his cantina.
Demir didn’t begrudge the foul play. That would be hypocritical, after all. He did begrudge the treatment of the cudgelists. His fighters always got a cut. That was the rule.
One of Morlius’s goons appeared from the cellar carrying a new wine cask. Morlius not-so-subtly jerked his head at Demir. The goon set down the cask and closed the cantina door, then moved to stand behind Demir. Morlius reached under the bar and produced a cudgel of his own. “Heard a story about a man of your description over in Wallach. Got caught fixing fights and then skipped town before they could string him up. Ripped off my cousin for thousands.”
Demir sighed and glanced over his shoulder. The goon behind him was well over six feet tall, thick and powerful and with the oft-broken fingers and battered face of a retired cudgelist. The goon drew a long knife from his belt.
“You’re pulling a knife on a patron because of a vague description of a grifter from three towns over?” Demir scoffed. He wasn’t quite ready to move on from Ereptia yet. Slatina, other than being a talented cudgelist and quite a good actress, had invited him to meet her parents next weekend. Demir loved meeting people’s parents. It was like looking into the future to see what they’d be like in thirty years. “Don’t be dumb, Morlius. It’s not even a big bet. If you can’t pay out today, I’ll take it against my future tab.”
If Morlius were smart, he would pleasantly drug Demir, rob him blind, and leave him in an alley on the other side of town. But Morlius was not smart. He didn’t know when to rein in his greed. Demir turned on his stool so that one shoulder was pointed at Morlius and the bar, and the other at the goon. He glanced over the goon’s shoulder, out a window into the street, where he saw something that hadn’t been there before: a very nice carriage with sky-blue curtains, six bodyguards on the running boards, and the silic symbol of the Vorcien guild-family etched on the door.
Demir’s thoughts were instantly knocked awry. What was a Vorcien doing way out here in the provinces?
Morlius suddenly lurched forward, grabbing Demir’s wrist and raising his cudgel. “I think you match the description too well.”
Demir’s heart fell. No getting that payout, then. Or meeting Slatina for dinner tonight. He would have to move on to the next town, interrupting his life and abandoning his friends and lovers like he’d done dozens of times over the last nine years. The very thought of it made him tired, but it also made him mad. He cast his mental net outward, using his glassdancer sorcery to make note of every windowpane and wine bottle in the cantina.
“Let go of my hand,” Demir said flatly.
“Or?” Morlius grinned at him.
Demir applied a small amount of sorcerous pressure. A wine bottle behind Morlius shattered, causing him to jump. A second shattered, then a third. Morlius whirled toward the rack of wine bottles, yelling wordlessly, reaching toward the bottles without touching them. Demir shattered two more before slowly and deliberately removing his left glove and laying his hand flat on the bar. When Morlius turned back toward him, the glassdancer sigil was on full display.
Morlius’s eyes widened, filling with that familiar look of terror that had gazed back at Demir from so many sets of eyes since he got his tattoo at the age of eighteen. It made his stomach twist into knots, but he kept that from his own expression. Morlius was not a friend. Morlius had just unwittingly destroyed Demir’s life in Ereptia, and he could damn well rot in his fear.
“I’m … I’m … I’m…” Morlius stuttered.
Demir leaned on the bar, channeling his disgust. “Take your time,” he said. The goon behind him fled back into the cellar, slamming the thick wooden door behind him. Smart man. “I have all day.” Demir burst another wine bottle, enjoying the way Morlius flinched. Demir knew that Morlius would do nothing. Who would, with a glassdancer right in front of them? If he so desired, Demir could get away with anything at this moment.
Demir drew in a deep, ragged breath. He was being petulant now. He’d made his point, but it still took a force of will to keep himself from destroying every piece of glass in the bar and then throwing it all into Morlius’s face. That wasn’t who he was. Demir touched the bookie’s receipt with one finger and pushed it toward Morlius again. The bookie stared at it for several moments before realization dawned in his eyes. He pulled the purse from his belt and set it on the bar.
“Take it. Please.” He was begging now. What a damned reversal.
“I’m not robbing you,” Demir said softly, “I’m just a customer getting a payout.”
Somehow, this seemed even more painful for the bookie. His hands trembled fiercely as he opened the purse and began to count out heavy imperial coins. He scattered the stack twice with those trembling hands, checking the receipt three times, before nodding at Demir.
Most of the glassdancers Demir had ever met lived up to their reputations, in some way or another. They enjoyed using the threat of their power to lord over others. They stole and they threatened and they seduced without thought of consequence. Such displays had never brought Demir pleasure. Occasional satisfaction, like putting Morlius in his place? Sure. But never pleasure.
He swept the coins into his hand and deposited them in his pocket. “I’ll have you know that I left Wallach on very good terms. All the judges and fighters got rich with my fixed fights. The only person who didn’t like me was the bookie stupid enough to make bets with his clients’ money—I’m guessing he’s your cousin. Be smarter than your cousin, Morlius. I left him alive, but I also left him very poor.”
“R … r … right.”
“If you say one word about this, or if I find out you’ve drugged any of my fighters…” Demir nodded at the shelf of destroyed wine bottles. “I’ll actually do something with all that glass.” He slapped the bar. “Have a good day, Morlius.”
Demir turned away before his frustration could truly start to show. Another lost life, another town he had to leave before anyone figured out who he really was. Another crack in his identity’s facade, held back by nothing more than a threat. Should he say goodbye to Slatina? She would—rightfully—want an explanation. She didn’t even know his real name. Best to just disappear. He was suddenly exhausted by it all, wishing he had some semblance of normalcy in his life.
He’d forgotten all about the Vorcien carriage out front, so it came as quite a shock when he opened the door to the bar and found a familiar face staring back at him. It had been nine years since Demir had last seen Capric Vorcien. Capric was thinner, more statesman-like, with features that had grown almost hawkish as he crept into his thirties. He was wearing a very expensive jacket and tunic, clutching a black cane with one hand. A pair of bodyguards stood in the street behind him.
“Demir?” he asked in surprise.
Demir peered hard at Capric for several moments, shook his head in confusion, then peered again. Sure enough, this was Capric Vorcien in the flesh. “Glassdamn. Capric? What the piss are you doing here?”
“Looking for you. Are you okay? You look miserable. Did you already hear the news?”
Demir felt his blood run cold. He’d gone to great lengths to make himself hard to find. If Capric was here with bad news, it must be very bad. He offered his hand, which Capric shook. “I haven’t. What brings you out to my corner of the provinces?”
“You have a corner? Talking with Breenen, you haven’t lived in the same spot for more than six months since you fled Holikan.” Demir felt his eye twitch at the mention of Holikan, and Capric immediately hurried on. “Forgive me, I just … It sounds like you’ve been moving around a lot.”
“I have,” Demir confirmed. “Stay too long in one place and people start to wonder why you wear gloves all the time. What’s Breenen doing blabbing about my movements? Did Mother send you out here to try and fetch me back?”
Capric looked around and said, “Can we speak in private? My carriage is just outside.”
Under normal circumstances, Demir would refuse. Speaking in a private carriage stamped with a guild-family silic symbol would bring up a lot of questions for Demir’s friends in this little provincial town, but that run-in with Morlius just now had already ended Demir’s stint. Besides, it was best to find out bad news quickly. “Lead on.”
He followed Capric out to the carriage. Local kids were running around it, alternately shouting barbs at and begging from the bodyguards. The bodyguards shooed them off as Demir and Capric approached, and they were soon inside, where Capric immediately pulled out a bottle of sherry and poured them each a glass on a fold-down side table. Demir was studying his old friend closely now, trying to get a read on this entire visit. He took a sip, set the glass back on the side table, and said, “What’s going on, Capric? How did you find me and what are you here for?”
Capric gulped his glass, poured himself a second, and sipped half of it before answering. “I’m sorry, Demir.”
“Your mother is dead.”
Demir felt the blood drain from his face. “Is this a joke?”
“I wish it was. Breenen told me where to find you, and I rushed out here at speed to reach you before you had to read it in the newspapers.”
Demir examined Capric’s tired, earnest expression for several moments to see the truth of things, then opened the door and vomited out his breakfast on the cobbles. He felt a gentle hand on his back while he spat out bile, then wiped his mouth on an offered handkerchief.
A million thoughts flashed through his mind: regrets, plans, recriminations. He might have seen his mother only a few times in the last decade, but she’d always been a reassuring candle burning in a distant window. Now that she’d been snuffed out he cursed himself for not visiting more—and for failing to live up to her expectations for a child prodigy. He searched his pockets for skyglass before remembering that he didn’t have any left. When he next looked up, Capric was holding out a light blue piece for him.
Demir took it gratefully and threaded the hooked end through one of his piercings. His racing heart and mind immediately began to slow, giving him time to take a deep breath and compose himself.
“What happened?” he asked.
“It’s unpleasant,” Capric warned.
“Death always is,” Demir replied, steeling himself.
“She was beaten to death on the steps of the Assembly.”
Demir let out an involuntary sound that was halfway between a laugh and a sob. Adriana Grappo was a reformer: one of the few Assembly members who dedicated their lives to helping the masses, rather than enriching themselves. Reformers in Ossa had a long and glorious tradition of dying publicly, killed by their peers for pushing societal reforms too strongly.
“Who did it?”
Capric shook his head. “We don’t know yet. There were six masked figures that descended on her quickly, finished the job, and fled in all directions before guards could be called. And before you reply, I know what you’re thinking: she wasn’t killed because of her reforms. Sure, her proposed taxes annoyed the elite, but everyone loved your mother. The Assembly is furious and I will be shocked if they haven’t caught the culprits by the time I return.”
Demir pulled himself out of a spiral of suspicions and tried to focus on the calming hum of the skyglass in his ear. Capric was right. Adriana had always walked a cool line between radical reformer and harmless politician. She always knew when to push and when to back off. “So it wasn’t her fellow Assemblymen?”
“I can’t imagine,” Capric said.
Demir leaned his head against the wall of the carriage. Who did it, then? What enemies had she made in the years that Demir had been gone? “An investigation has been launched?”
“A very serious one.”
“Has Uncle Tadeas been told?”
Copyright © 2022 by Brian McClellan