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Thief of Shadows
“You know who I am?”
“Sir, I do,” I said. “You are Master Astolfo. Everyone knows.”
“You know then something of my station?”
I had to think quickly. An ill-chosen word might be an insult. An insult could well be fatal. “You are the Maestro Astolfo of the shadow trade, the most highly respected dealer and most knowledgeable appraiser of shadows in the city of Tardocco, in the province of Tlemia.”
“You have me at a disadvantage,” he said, “for I know nothing of you.”
I could not see what advantage I might have, backed against the wall of a dim corridor of his great manse, with the point of his sword at my throat and a hulking, silent hireling at his side. Astolfo seemed no murderous sort; he was a stocky, almost pudgy, man with an air of deliberate nonchalance and a relaxed gaze that betrayed no particular animosity. Yet his blade had come to my guzzle with swift efficiency when the bulky one had led me to him from his garden.
“My name is Falco,” I said. “I am of an honorable family in the southern provinces.”
“You are most likely from Caderia or thereabouts, as I judge your accent. That is a country of small, muddy farms. It is not long since you left off trudging a furrow behind the nether end of a mule. Hay wisps protrude from your ears.”
I made no reply to these calmly spoken truths. I was not surprised. Astolfo’s reputation was that no one knew more of the world than he and that few were wiser in the usage of that knowledge. These were reasons sufficient to make his acquaintance, I thought.
“Furthermore, Falco is a name you have bestowed upon yourself. ‘Clodpoll’ or some other clownish appellation is your true name. You are a bumpkin trying on the airs of a town bravo and you have stolen over my garden wall in the dark of night, intending to do me grievous harm and to take property that is mine.”
“Not so, sir,” I said. “I came a-purpose to meet you and to talk with you.”
“Why could you not come by the light o’ the sun and knock at the gate and make yourself known in honorable fashion? This midnight sneakery must harvest ill.”
“I tried the honorable practice,” I replied, “and your man here turned me away like a louse-ridden beggar without a word. I believed I would gain more careful attention entering by stealth. I believed you would apprehend me and be curious.”
He lowered the point, but did not scabbard his blade. “So you formed a plan and it has worked as you hoped. You must feel proud of your cunning.”
“Do I look proud to you?”
He surveyed me with a glance almost desultory. “Well, let us see. Pied hose you wear and a greasy leather doublet that I judge a hand-me-down, and black harness-leather shoes with the out-of-fashion square toes. You very wisely chose to enter here unarmed, but the two steel rings at your belt show that you habitually wear a broadsword or a long sword which is now doubtless in the hands of a tavern keeper who holds it to secure a gaming or wenching or toping debt. In fine, you are a hot-blood lazybones who has run away from a dull farm and a phlegmatic, thick-handed father. You are one of scores who seek each year the streets of Tardocco to hinder the foot traffic of the honest citizenry and to play mischief when the moon is risen. This is you, Master Rustic Lumpfart, and a hundred like you.”
This pretty speech succeeded in its purpose of angering me and it was well that I had not carried my sword hither. If I had drawn upon him, Astolfo would have skewered me like a piglet on a spit. “If all you say is true, then I must acquire more urbane ways,” I said. “And that is why I have sought you out.”
“You think me to be a mincing dancing master, some type of finger-kissing courtier?” He cocked his head to his left side. “No. You believe me to be a great thief, a felon who steals the shadows of the gentry to make himself wealthy thereby. You believe I have acquired all the arts and skills of shadow-taking and you hope I will impart them to you so that you may go abroad and plunder and pilfer and ruin my trade and pile up riches for yourself. You would pay me to make you my prentice, though all you possess in the way of fortune is but one eagle, four coppers, and a pair of dice.”
I was so startled that I patted the waist of my doublet to confirm the absence of the pouch I saw in his hand. His name as a pickpurse was legend, but how had he done the trick? I had kept my eyes upon him the whole time. I felt now more strongly than ever that I should acquire his tutelage. “I will admit that I formed some such fancy. You find me naive, I expect.”
“I find you backward,” he said, “and probably incurably so. Here is your purse.”
He tossed the pouch toward me, but when I reached, it was not there. It had returned to his hand.
“That is a childish trick.”
“Its purpose was only to demonstrate how very backward you are, and it has succeeded. Now how shall you argue your case?”
Racking my brains for a stratagem, I concluded that only the truth would deliver me; there was no point in trying to deceive or cozen or blind-bag this man. I would tell him all, not omitting how I had rapped my older brother Osbro on the noggin with a spade and robbed his pockets and stole a candelabrum from a priest-house and arrived at Tardocco hidden in a manure cart headed to the municipal gardens. Perhaps by amusing this Maestro Astolfo I could bring him round. Whatever was shaming to me would be risible to him.
So I told him the whole of it, even the part where a scullery maid named Hana thwacked me in the cullions with a skillet for placing my hand where she had given no warrant while at the same time I was attempting to steal a wheaten loaf from the windowsill. And he, Master Astolfo, nodded gravely, as if he had forethought everything I said and found it banal.
But then when he gave me a straight look in the eyes, piercing and unblinking, the question he asked surprised me. He gestured at his manservant and said, “What color are Mutano’s shoes?” And added: “Do not look.”
I responded immediately. “A purplish black with gilt buckles.”
“Clean or soiled?”
“A little mud on the edges of the soles.”
“From what source?”
“I know not. How should I know such a thing?”
“By observing. Do you not think it important to know?”
“If you had noticed that your own footwear bore a trace of that same mud, what might you think?”
“That we had been sometime in the same place and I might have seen him there but did not recognize him here.”
“That he saw me and remembers me.”
He looked me over again, bottom to top and back, and nodded. He hummed a snatch of music. “Tell me what you think: Is he to be pitched on a dung heap or can some use be made of an imbecile?”
“If the imbecile be a willing and faithful fellow, he can be of great use,” I replied.
“And the lunatic, what of his case?”
“If his lunacy can be kept in a narrow space and brought to purpose, he could be of use.”
“And if this person were both lunatic and imbecile together?”
“Then,” I said, “I would have not one but two handsome chances to stand improvement.”
“Perhaps, but only if you are the sort to follow orders without question and without delay.” He hummed again that snatch of song and returned his sword to its sheath.
It was this gesture that decided me once and for all that I had come to the right place, to the right master. He slid his blade into his sheath, which hung loose in ordinary fashion, without looking, without fumbling, in one smooth motion. I had seen swordsmen of tall repute, duelists and fencing masters, triumph in match upon hard-fought match, and with all of them, even the most expert, there was always that moment of awkwardness when they fitted the sword back into the sheath, just a minor gracelessness of no importance, yet minutely out of character. Nor did Astolfo guide the blade with the thumb-web of his left hand, as stage actors learn to do. Without glancing down, without hesitating, he slid the weapon home, and thus, so far as I was concerned, our pact was sealed.
Master Astolfo, I thought, you do not know it yet, but you have gained the best, most ardent pupil of your arts that you shall ever have instructed.
* * *
Well, that was a time ago, and the ordeal of my training was every bit as difficult as I had imagined it would be.
The first task was to persuade him to accept me. I made so many promises, told so many overripe lies, pleaded, begged, and groveled so assiduously that I blush to recall the episodes and will not retail them now. After that, it was drill after drill: plunging my hand into a small velvet bag prickly inside with fishhooks to bring forth the piddling coin he had placed there; boxing with the voiceless Mutano who always thumped me soundly; learning the use of the quasilune knife to cleave shadows from their casters (iron posts in the beginning, cats at the latter stages); blindfolded to feel cloth of every texture; tasting lush wines I was not allowed to swallow.
Always and ever, I was set to practice with various swords, the usual broadsword, the rapier, the saber and scimitar and the others, but most often and most carefully with that swift, slender graduated crescent blade Astolfo called the Deliverer which can sever from even the most agile of performers his or her fleet shadow.
If you are one of the curious, make this experiment: Choose a bright, windy day in springtime, attach to a head-high pole a banner of flimsiest blue silk to flap in the breeze, and slice it in two with your shiny Deliverer. Do not mangle it. The cut must be as clean and straight as if sheared by a keen-eyed tailor perched cross-legged on his cushion. This you must learn to do if your desire is to heap wealth by being a thief of shadows.
Of course, Astolfo denied that he was a shadow thief at all, much less the acknowledged master of the art. “I deal in shadows,” he explained. “Clients come to me. I do not seek them out. Let others purloin as they will—I traffic only in commodities.”
And it is true that I never saw him take a shadow by stealth except in the process of a training exercise. His thieving days were behind him. Yet they left a long trail of legend which was vital to his legitimate enterprises. If he were not the hero of scores of tavern-tales and beggars’ gossip, he would have attracted fewer clients. To traffic within his sphere was to gain a warrant of security for any risky venture at hand.
Most tedious of all the parts of my training were the mathematics and the treatises of theory. I am no lover of brain-toys, and to spend a long rainy day poring over Teteles’s Primeval Shadow Theory or the Liber Umbrae Antiquitae of Carnesius is not my ideal of entertainment. I disliked geometry too, though I could see the sense of it. If you plan to cut away a shadow where it is splayed across a wall nook with three irregular corners, you will be glad to know of angles and arcs and degrees. But if you find any use at all in the worm-gnawed pages of the anonymously written Speculum Mundus Umbrae, you are a scholar far superior to Falco.
The training seemed never to leave off; it was continual, and part of the discipline lay in his deceiving me as to what was an actual theft and what was only an exercise.
Consider the most recent matter, for example. Here we stood at the side entrance of a gloomy harbor warehouse. Astolfo gave the weathered, strap-hinged door a coded knock, two-one-two, and we were admitted by as large a pair of dusky ruffians as you would ever care to accost in the greasy alley called Rattlebone. One of them led the way through the mazy corridors to a small door with no window. The other followed us. At the moment Astolfo rapped upon this door, I felt the unmistakable prick of a sword point between my shoulder blades.
In such circumstances, the apprehensive body allows no rational thought. I dropped to the floor while snatching my dagger from my small-boot, curled like an ingratiating cat around the feet of the large fellow, and clipped in two his heel tendon above his pretty yellow shoe. He howled in a tone surprisingly high-pitched for one so hirsute about the chops, dropped his cutlass, and staggered against the wall. I sprang to my feet and swept out my sword, ready to defend myself and Astolfo. I assumed that we had been led into a trap. Astolfo’s wealth was fabled and attempts upon it—and upon his life—were not infrequent.
With a gesture he calmed me. “Hist’ou!” he said. “What are you doing?”
“The fellow threatened my life,” I said. “His point was in my back.”
The door opened and a wizened, yellow-faced old man peered out and took in the scene with a single glance. “What, Astolfo? Have you brought some assassin upon me?” His voice was that of an elderly man accustomed to the use of authority.
“Look to your man there, Pecunio. He attacked Falco from behind. He is fortunate to escape with a gizzard complete. Why does he draw steel upon an invited guest?”
The old man gave Astolfo a searching look before nodding assent. He signaled to the other lummox of a servant, who helped his companion to stand and supported him as he limped away into the dimness. I watched them go, thinking it would require some space of time before the one who had so rudely poked me would be leading the dancing floor in a quadrille.
“These are perilous days, Astolfo,” Pecunio said. “I have made it a practice to hold strangers at blade point when they enter my little counting room.”
“Anyone with me is no stranger. You have long had my surety upon that.”
Pecunio nodded. “My man Dolo is large, but he is not a giant of the intellect. Let the matter rest and come in.”
When we entered I saw by the light of a dozen candles that our host was smaller than I had thought and that he carried a hunchback. He was dressed in black, tunic and hose and footwear, with white laceless linen at throat and wrists. He took his own good time looking me over, and his expression gave nothing away. Then he turned to a tall cabinet, brought forth a decanter and three small gilt-rimmed glasses, and poured a measure for each of us.
I followed Astolfo’s lead, raising my glass in salute and draining it in one swallow. It was fiery, and cloyingly sweet, and I knew it too costly for my purse and too genteel for my taste.
“It is good to see you again, Pecunio,” Astolfo said. “I hope to be able to do you better service than chopping off the feet of your servants, as my hasty prentice is so eager to do.”
“We will come to terms about that when you name a price,” Pecunio said, “for the service I have in mind is but a modest one. I only desire your opinion about a certain piece of property.”
“Call it so. I have come into possession of a shadow. It has been represented to me as a curious and valuable object. And so might it be, if it is genuine.”
“What is its provenance? Can you not trace down the owner?”
“I dare not come anywhere near him, if the provenance is as reported,” Pecunio said. “Perhaps you too, even the adroit Astolfo, would think twice upon the matter.”
“Perhaps. Just what is this marvelous shade supposed to be?”
“Let us have a look.” Pecunio crossed the room to a huge oaken closet with a heavy door that reached to the beamed ceiling. With a small silver key he clicked one well-oiled lock and then another and then finally swung open the silent door. He gestured to Astolfo.
The plumpish shadow master slid his arm carefully into the recess and brought out one of the most opulent umbrae I have ever seen. Midnight its color was, the midnight of a deep forest, with the wind brushing the leafy boughs overhead so that starlight arrowed through in bright streaks. There were colors in its deep blackness, a quick threading of silver here, of scarlet there, and now and again a dull mauve glow hard to distinguish pulsed in the general texture. If ’twere cloth, it would be heavy velvet, but it was shadow and had no weight—mass, of course, but no weight. I will forbear to cite at length the Testamentae gloriae umbrae and all the other beetle-nibbled volumes on this point. Anyone who has seen shadows bought and sold knows all that is necessary.
Astolfo’s touch with the stuff was so light, he might not have been holding it at all but only allowing it to drape about his half-opened hands. That is the proper way to handle shadows, but skillful experience alone makes it possible. At that time I had yet to attain to that level of skill.
He gestured slowly, turning his hands over as if warming them by a brazier. “This is excellent material,” he said. He put his face near and inhaled gently. “A complex aroma, but with pronounced salt. This is the shade of a quondam seaman, perhaps of someone who no longer follows the sail.” He closed his eyes and considered. “If he be such, he has fought many a battle and sent many a poor tar to swirl in the deepest currents.” He put his tongue out briefly, tasting the air like a serpent. “I should not like to have the owner of this shadow as my enemy.”
“You believe that the caster of this shadow is still alive?” Pecunio asked.
“I know men now standing in their flesh less lively than this shade. Whoever stole it from its caster had best beware.”
Pecunio replied quickly, his tone apprehensive. “I did not take it and I do not know who the thief might be. I bought it only for its fine qualities. How it came to the seller I do not care to know.”
“Very well,” Astolfo said. “But in that case, I fail to see how I might be of service.”
“It was represented to me as the shadow of Morbruzzo,” Pecunio said.
“The pirate?” Astolfo asked. There was an unaccustomed hint of surprise in his voice. “The sea raider infamous in broadside and ballad? The villain who razed the port of Lamia and ravished the queen of the Dimiani clan? If this be his, it is a rare treasure, but its price may be higher than you are willing to pay.”
“I have already parted with a smallish treasury for it.”
“I do not speak of gold.”
“My life, you mean?”
“He is no squeamish breed of pirate, by all account.”
“What if it is not Morbruzzo but only some other felon?”
“Then the value of the object decreases, yet you are still in danger.”
“Can you determine for me the lay of the situation?”
“Let us be clear,” Astolfo said. “You would have me first affirm whether this shadow really is that of the man-slaughtering Morbruzzo; then I am to find out if he has sent or is sending agents against you; and then I am to advise you whether you may guard yourself or if you should rid you of the property as soon as may be.”
Pecunio hesitated, then nodded.
“If I undertook this commission, I should put myself in mortal danger.”
“To which you are no newcomer.”
“In fact, you have already exposed me to such by inviting me here.”
“There are already those with designs upon your life by day and by night.”
“If I accepted this little chore, my fee would be a tall one.”
“Your fees are always exorbitant.”
“You shall have answer two days hence. I know that Falco and I will be followed when we leave here today, but I shall take pains to ensure we will not be followed when we return. Now if you will bid a servant guide us out of this labyrinthine storehouse, I will make certain that rash Falco here will refrain from puncturing him.”
Pecunio smiled. “Of course.”
Astolfo placed the shadow back in the great dark closet and Pecunio turned home the locks upon it. Then he crossed to the table and raised the decanter in invitation. “Shall we seal our compact with another sip?”
“I have not yet agreed,” said Astolfo. “But when our business is concluded, a glass would be welcome.”
“I understand.” Pecunio reached to a shelf above, took down a hand-sized copper bell, and rang it. Almost immediately the door opened and a serving man stood there, a slender, yellow-haired fellow who wore incongruous high boots. He was fair of countenance, and his person might well have been thought attractive by helmsmen as well as seamstresses. His feet, to judge by the boots, were outsized, even larger than my own.
“Be so good, Flornoy,” Pecunio said, “as to show our guests the way out.”
As we followed this figure through the corridors, I was surprised by the aggressive way he stepped along, but Astolfo seemed to take no notice, peering in one direction and another along the clammy walls.
* * *
When the warehouse door eased to behind us and we were alone in the malodorous alley, I started to ask one of the hundred questions that bubbled in my head.
“Not yet,” Astolfo said. “We shall be followed, and we must discover by whom. At the corner next, we shall part. I shall cross the cobbles to the tavern opposite. You turn to the right toward the wharf, then cut back through the little passage there and come round behind our pursuer. Find out everything you can, and we shall rejoin at the manse.”
I followed his orders and took advantage of the occasion to gain some knowledge of this port of Tardocco upon which the well-being of the city depended. The bay was one of the most tranquil, protected from the wild storms of the Rodantic Sea by two peninsulas that curved round like the claws of a crab to form an inlet. The harbor that lay within was extremely deep, unfathomed at its centermost, so that its waters were more black than blue, so black as to give credence to old wives’ tales of a sea dragon that dwelt below. It was called the Mardrake, this dragon. The old fable with its monster was a favorite among the gentry and nobility, who recalled the legend as a handy terror with which to correct mischievous children. “The Mardrake adores to gobble up wicked little boys like Ricardino.” There were Mardrake toys of various shapes and forms to amuse children.
The hoary legend was no hindrance to trade. Tardocco was a busy and prosperous port but not well guarded by civil or military arms. The possibility of pirate attack was a source of continuous concern. Part of the lore of the Mardrake was that it was guardian during the direst circumstances. When the enemy came, it would rise from unsounded depths to fall upon their vessels and tear them to flinders. It was a jolly tale, but it did not serve so well as would a warship.
I wandered about for a space, trying to appear to be aimlessly idle as I kept my eye out for any figure that might be following me. At last I turned my steps toward Astolfo’s town villa, which was now my home.
* * *
When I got back there Astolfo had not yet arrived. Mutano, his dumb but not at all deaf servant, allowed me the largess of the pantry, including a hunk of buttery cheese, a handful of black bread, and a tankard of ale to obliterate the taste of Pecunio’s sickly-sweet wine. While I was making good use of these eatables, Mutano signaled to me that Astolfo had returned and now awaited me in his library—the small one with the fire grate, not the great glum one with all the musty books and their eye-murdering tiny print.
Seated in his leather armchair, Astolfo motioned me to the splint-bottom across. “Who was’t dogged us, think you?”
“I saw no one,” I said.
He thought. “That means there were not two hounds on our trace. You would have spotted two. You might well have spotted one who was inept. So either there is none or there is one who is sharp in his craft. We shall of course proceed on the latter assumption.”
“Proceed to what end?”
“Why, to preserve our skins and to plate them with gold; that is, to stay alive and make a profit. Here lies the shape of things as I surmise. Pecunio did not come by this shadow in the way of ordinary trade. It was offered to him by someone close enough to Morbruzzo, or whoever the shadow’s owner is, to be in the confidence of the robbery victim so that he could betray him. This would be someone well skilled, with an expensive price on his head. His first thought might have been to sell the shadow back to its caster for a goodly sum and then to renege on the bargain and afterward sell it to Pecunio. In this way, he could make two profits at once. But there may be other motives involved.”
“Who is this overly sly one?”
“He has to be an artful shadow thief. Three well-known adepts have lately dropped from sight. The red-haired Ruggiero with the scarred right hand has not been seen in a fortnight. Perhaps he visits his sullen uncle Pedrono, from whom he hopes an inheritance. The canny, silvery woman Fleuraye and her carefree lover Belarmo have made off with many a prominent shadow over the last few years. Their latest theft, of the Countess Tessania’s shade, has made them conspicuous. Rumor hath it that they now lie low in the neighborhood of the western marshes. Those are three possibles for Pecunio’s seller. And there are others, but there has been some delay. For some reason, Pecunio has kept the shadow too long by him. He feels dangers mounting.”
“Pecunio must have had in hand a second buyer with a heavy purse, or he would not have undertaken so perilous a prospect in the first place. He was to turn it over as soon as he got hold of it; the price would be paid; his buyer would have departed for his distant home place, leaving no track. Those who came sniffing around Pecunio would find nothing. But once he had it in his store he was loath to let it go. He kept putting off his buyer. And now this buyer has become fearful and has wisely absented himself. The longer the shadow stays in one place, the easier it is to find.”
“Whatever could Pecunio want with the thing, if not to reap profit as the middleman?”
“Let us consider,” Astolfo said. “What are your thoughts?”
“Well, he is no footpad to use the shadow to lurk for prey at night. He is no diplomat to veil with it the intentions of his words. Nor is he sculptor, painter, or composer to use it to tinct his compositions, adding nuance and subtlety. He is no—”
“We shall both molder in our tombs before you list all the things he is not,” Astolfo declared. “What was his own shadow like when you saw it in his place?”
“The room was dim,” I said, “but meseemeth his own was but paltry, thin, and malformed and palsied when the candles flickered. Just such a shadow as I’d expect to find companion with a miserly merchant.”
“Do you think he would describe his shadow in these terms?”
“You have told me that people rarely form true pictures of their own shadows, but he must have some notion that his is not the handsomest.”
“His temptation, then?”
I thought for a while. “To try it on.”
“To cloak himself in the shadow of one who has faced a hundred dangers in the heaving waters, who has peered laughing into the noose’s mouth, who has crossed sabers with four opponents at once, who has abducted princesses and caused them to adore him—would not that be a seductive temptation?”
“For a daydreaming schoolboy. But Pecunio is elderly.”
“Old, and with little opportunity remaining for a life not bound to the counting house, the tax summons, and the accompt ledger. With the shadow folded about him, he feels the vibrancy of that other life; the sounds and smells of mortal conflict thrill his sluggish blood; the swathe of the shadow around his thighs is like the caress of a woman.”
“So he shall keep it as a plaything?”
“It is too lively. The emanations will give it—and him—away. But his one foolhardy prospective buyer has deserted. Pecunio now believes he has but a single choice left.”
“He is holding it for ransom? Is not that the most foolish of choices?”
“It is. But he can try to misdirect those who would corpsify him to retrieve the shadow.”
I dreaded to ask. “How shall he misdirect his pursuers?”
“By employing us. We shall have been seen visiting Pecunio. His goings and comings are watched every hour. Those who have seen us will take us for middlemen arranging a sale on his behalf. We shall be watched even more closely than he is. They expect that sooner or later we must transport this shadow to the buyer with whom we have made arrangements. At that point, they will attack. They will slash our throats, thrust pikes into our tender guts, and chatter like jovial monkeys as they bear away the prize.”
“We are but decoys in the old man’s plan,” I said. “Let us go now to his rat-ridden warehouse and remove his liver and spleen and feed them to the alley curs. I do not like being made a dupe.”
“We shall be revenged on his insolence.”
“Revenge will not make weightier our purses.”
“We shall have the shadow.”
“And along with it those who will kill us for it. Are you satisfied that it truly is the shade of Morbruzzo the infamous pirate?”
“You described it as the companion of a daring privateer.”
“Yet I think if it belongs to Morbruzzo we would see lying at the mouth of the bay two of his three-masters and his attendant sloop cruising the harbor. He would not scruple to torch this city of Tardocco if he thought he would regain his shade by doing so.”
“If it is not Morbruzzo’s, then—”
“Then we must think upon the matter dispassionately. We must meanwhile guard ourselves closely. Mutano and you and I had better stand four-hour watches until we more clearly comprehend the situation. I will stand first; Mutano will wake you for the third.”
* * *
In the bare little room of the manse Astolfo had allotted me I sat for a while musing at the wall. I stared at the rhymes he had ordered me to carve into the thick headboard of my bed—Bumpkin lad, Protect thy shade; As in this life I come and go, The hardest task myself to know—but they were too familiar to have force upon my mind.
Was I really so bloodthirsty as I boasted? Would I kill an old man in cool revenge? I had never killed anyone, though I had broken pates and cracked bones in rough combat and left a few ostentatious scars on the hides of the unmannerly. But I had never felt an urge to draw blood for the sake of it, even to revenge myself.
Then I realized why my temper had grown so short. I was unsure whether this affair of the pirate’s shadow was an actual piece of business or only another training exercise. Astolfo had set me upon several ventures before, escapades involving intrigues, espials, petty thievery, forgery of sale documents, and so forth. Then, when things were just coming to full boil, he’d stopped me off, saying, “You have done none so ill. But when the actual business is afoot, you must not talk so freely or so loudly, you must not be so hasty to unsheathe, you must listen to the words and even more carefully to the music of the words.” And so forth. I had felt duped as a child is duped, and if this affair with Pecunio was but another lesson in the trade, it seemed a vain waste indeed.
Sometimes I fancied I could see my sweet and zesty youth disappearing like a gourd of water poured on desert sands, and I would wonder if learning the craft of shadows was worth the toil. How had I ever thought of doing it?
In part, my brother Osbro had helped me to decide. He thought himself the clever son, the one quick with ciphering and plans. Claiming to be a reader, he loved to lord over me by quoting some cloud-minded poet or graybeard sage and then asking with an expression of cool mockery, “Now what do you think about that?” And my reply would be a shrug, for I never comprehended a word of what he had said.
At Astolfo’s direction, I have read shelf upon shelf of antique tomes to learn the lore of shadows and the history of that lore. This newly gained knowledge led me to suspect that all those wise saws and pithy remarks Osbro uttered were actually senseless strings of words he linked together himself and that he could not read even one written sentence. That his pretense of ability masked a keen yearning to be a lettered man.
Me he regarded as a backward mud-wit, and his superior airs grew so intolerable that I determined to make my way in life by the use of my mind. I had heard much of those who dealt in shadows, men who stole them and sold them to artists and criminals and politicians and suchlike, men who bought shadows and fashioned them to the taste of pampered women and subtle nobility, men who kidnapped shadows and held them until their proper casters crossed their palms with currency. Such a craft seemed a sort of magic—to transmute a thing so filmy and unsubstantial as a shadow, something almost not there, a thing that was barely a thing, into gold and silver, into acres and houses, carriages and servants. If I could do that, it would be proof that I was not the stone-brain Osbro made me out. Let him poke holes in the dirt and set in his turnips and chop at weeds and counterfeit false sagacities; let him grub out the rest of his days under the rheumy gaze of our taciturn father. With subtle and daring schemes, with swift and nimble fingers, I would amass out of the air itself a fortune as solid as a mountain.
* * *
After Mutano with no gentle hand had shaken me awake, I found myself patrolling the winding, silent corridors of the manse, listening to my own footfalls over the slate floors, seeing naught but the moonlight rubbing through the horizontal slits below the ceilings. No rodent, no death-watch beetle, was stirring; no nightjar sang outside.
I searched the cellars with their huge wine casks and stone jugs of oil and bins of grain and meal. All was in order, so I stepped through a small door and sidled up the steps into the south garden. The moon was beginning to set and shadows were long and still. The breezeless, warm hour left the trees motionless.
Nonetheless, there was another presence here, I thought, and in mid-thought saw a heavy form bulk over the top of the garden wall, squeeze carefully around the spearheads mounted there, and begin its descent. This encounter was too easy, and one of Astolfo’s sayings muttered in my head: Where one is seen with ease, Two will be in place.
I slipped off the flagstone path into the dark shelter of an arching willow. My presence would have been spotted by the thief on the wall; he had the advantage of height. But maybe his confederate had not discerned me and would come from hiding to join the other if I stayed still.
No such luck. He was here among the swarm of the drooping withies with me, and when I heard the whisper of leaves against leather behind me, I grasped a handful of the stringy branches and swished them about. By this means I located my man, and I had my dirk in my left hand on the instant; no space for sword-use in this tangle of greenery.
The skulker grunted in surprise and, since the sound would bring his colleague, I thought I might set them upon each other. Shaking the bunched withies as hard as I could to cause confusion, I uttered a doleful, loud groan, as if I had been thrust through. This noise brought the other swiftly into the swirl of branches, and as he came blundering through on my left-hand side, I kicked with all my might the place where one or the other of his knees ought to have been.
He crashed through the willow leaves, falling directly into his comrade’s chest, and this other, finding himself so rudely attacked, choked out a curse and buried his fist in the clumsy one’s face. If his sword had not been so entangled in the willow, he would have taken the life of his friend. But he only laid him cold at his feet.
He leaned over him now with his blade freed and prepared to do him in.
It came to me to say what I imagined Astolfo might say: “There is little sport, Mister Thief, in dueling a fallen man.”
He spun round and thought to bring his sword up, but my point was already set upon his heart-spot.
“Too late for that,” I murmured. “Best let it drop to the ground.”
He did so.
“Let us go speak to the master of the house,” I said. When he gestured to the form prone on the ground, I added, “Leave him as is. The gardener may desire to manure the roses with him.”
I prodded him round to the back entrance and we entered the antechamber there, where Mutano awaited us. He ran his fingers over the big man’s tunic and sleeves and belt and, finding him weaponless, led us into the kitchen, where Astolfo was perched on the heavy butcher’s block, swinging his legs like a farm boy sitting on a stone bridge with a fishing pole. There was a low stool in the space between the brick oven and the long counter and Mutano thrust our guest roughly down upon it.
Astolfo looked him over. He closed his eyes for a moment. Then he said: “A cousin, I think, and not a brother. There is some small resemblance to the one whose heel you nipped with your little blade, Falco. See what nuisance you have brought us. This one came to avenge us on your trick of rolling on the floor like a dog in excrement.… Is that not so, intruder? I see you are a Fog Islander like the other, so there must be some bond between you. The only question of moment is whether Pecunio set you upon us. Did he do so or is this invasion a notion of your own?”
The man stared at the oaken floor. Then Mutano pulled his head back by the tangle of crisp black locks so that he must look into Astolfo’s face. His expression was impassive.
“The hour is late,” Astolfo said. “The morning slides up the eastward and I have missed my proper sleep.”
He nodded at Mutano, who pried the man’s left hand loose from the seat of the stool and broke the little finger.
The fellow did not cry out, but his eyes bulged wide, sweat suffused his forehead, and his complexion went from blue-black to dullish ebony. “I am Blebono,” he croaked, “Dolo’s cousin. My cousin is injured in his leg and will lose much wage by the knife of that man there. I come to get money for lost wage. Dolo has children, much to feed.”
“Falco is young and somdel rash,” Astolfo said. “He has a deal to learn.… For one thing”—he gave me a straight look—“if he ever tries out that rolling-in-the-dirt device on a seasoned bladesman, he shall be pinned like a serpent and left to wriggle his life away.”
I started to speak but thought the better of it.
“You came by your own advisement? Pecunio is faultless?”
Blebono snuffled and nodded.
“Tell us a little about the old goldbags. Are there any new folk in his employ? What visitors has he lately entertained?”
The islander shrugged.
“Well,” said Astolfo, “I must think of more questions. I have only three or four in mind and you have fingers yet unbroken.… Tell us about the visitors.”
When Mutano took up the man’s hand again and grasped the thumb, he said, “I work for the old man, no. Only my cousin, he do work for him.”
“Even so, he will babble and gossip all the secrets of the miser’s house. Tell us of his guests.”
“Dolo told of one to me. Young fellow—skinny, secret fellow. Talked not much.”
“Did he bring a shadow to sell to Pecunio?”
“Bring, no. Talked some about shadow. He talked big. Said he had good shadow, very fine shadow.”
“Tell me about the feet of this shadow-seller.”
Blebono stared at Astolfo in pure incomprehension. Sweat dripped from his nose. He shook his head.
“Big feet? Big feet on a small man?”
“Boots, Dolo said. My cousin Dolo, he laughed. Big boots up to the thigh of quiet fellow.”
Astolfo rocked back and forth; he seemed to be thinking of many things at once. Then he slipped nimbly down to the floor. He said to Mutano, “Bind the broken finger of this imbecile. Give him a copper coin and ale to drink. Make certain he knows never to come again where I can lay eyes on him. Toss his comrade into a barrow and wheel it down toward the wharf and dump him in an alley. Fetch me mutton and bread and a flagon in the small library in the late afternoon. Hold the house quiet until then. Falco is to sleep and afterward read through three swordplay manuals in the large library. When he finishes those, take him to the courtyard and practice him with wooden swords. If he begins to squirm around in the dirt, stamp him like a blindworm. Signal unto him that big boots may disguise delicate feet.”
At this penultimate command, Mutano nodded and grinned. He enjoyed nothing more than to drub me with dummy weapons until my flesh swelled like bread dough.
* * *
I rose next morning late and sore-ribbed and broke my fast on wheaten bread and fruit and a mild white wine I recognized of old. The vintage came from near my farm home and the taste reminded me how different my life had become. It had been long and long since I had seen an honest dung heap or one of the ungainly stone barns so common in the south. Yet the wine did not rouse in me any desire to return to the ducks and geese, the cattle and asses.
Only our sour-visaged cook Iratus and the other under-servants were about. Mutano and Astolfo had departed, though a folded note in Astolfo’s precise hand told me to ready myself for another call upon Pecunio. I used the unexpected dutyless time to lounge in the sun and think about a certain wench in a tavern in the Hamaria district. Maiden’s Sorrow this tavern was called, a pleasant place for a twilight tipple and a midnight tumble, if ever again I got my hands on a silver eagle.…
Then I began to muse more seriously, berating myself as a fool to squander hours and silver upon sweetmeats when I should be developing my martial skills, studying the biographies of famous shadows and their casters, training my eyesight to discern outlines in deep haze, and testing my patience with mathematical puzzles. It seemed unlikely that Astolfo had wasted his youth and money in idle pursuits. I had never considered that the rigors of thievery would so closely resemble those I had heard about in the priestly vocation—for which I considered myself supremely unfitted.
* * *
This my second meeting with the ancient rich merchant was to be different. We had spoken about it beforehand and Astolfo had given me a few brief instructions. He wanted me to be very particular in observing Pecunio’s physique, to see if I could discern differences from the way he was two days before. I was to watch most closely his shadow.
Now when we were ushered into his dim little office, it was by no lumbering, dark-skinned Fog Islander but by the slender slip of a lad who had shown us out before. For some reason he had now painted his face to resemble the fleering Jester of the fair-day comedies, Bennio. He was so vividly made up that his personal features were hard to discern. Most distinctive was his gait in the tall, black boots.
He strode in an exaggerated, aggressive fashion, as if to convince the timorous that he was a daring young bravo indeed. Yet he wore no sword—an oddity. His manner seemed risible to me, the more so because it was not so long since that I carried myself in much the same fashion, probably for the same reasons.
When he brought us into the room, he bowed and departed, backing through the door in an unwontedly servile way. I looked to Astolfo to gauge his reaction to this strange creature, but he seemed scarcely to take note of him.
Pecunio offered us wine as before. I started to decline the syrupy stuff, but the raised eyebrow of Astolfo caused me to accept. He was also correct in surmising that the old man might have changed in appearance. He had been no tower of brawn at our first meeting, but now he was frailer, much shrunken upon himself, I thought, and the palsy of his years was more pronounced, as was his hunchback. His hand trembled the decanter almost violently, and not trusting himself with the tiny glasses, he allowed us to take them ourselves from the yellow lacquer tray.
“Now, Master Astolfo,” he asked, “have you made any conclusion about the shadow of Morbruzzo?” He rubbed his hands together as if to warm them.
“Not all my conclusions are firm ones,” Astolfo replied, “so I thought we had best make the conditions clear.”
“If I see fit to affirm that the property is genuinely that of the pirate, my fee will be seventy eagles. If I decide to find that it is not genuine, the fee shall rise to three hundred.”
“I do not follow.”
“You may discover that you prefer to pay the higher fee. But before the bargain is struck, I must gather some information. The more you tell me, the more you will have to pay and the better you will like it.”
A thin, wry smile stretched Pecunio’s wrinkled face. “You are well known for your games, Master Astolfo.”
“My best games are in earnest. What I surmise is this: that you were offered this shadow of Morbruzzo by someone who claimed to have been in his employ, one of his murderous crew, an officer perhaps. First mate? I see by your expression that I have hit it. This person told you that Morbruzzo had done grave injury upon this person’s dignity or honor or purse or corpus—an insulting slap or sneaking blow or deceit at the gaming table, or in the division of booty. The latter? I see.”
“How do you know what was said to me? Even if you had spies in my household, you could not know, for we were alone.”
“Now this person assures you that he is not a follower of the art, that he is no thief of shadows but only an ill-fed seaman who this one time, to assuage his wounded pride, undertook to steal the shadow and purports to sell it to you for less than a fraction of its true value. He wants to be rid of it, not to be held responsible. He has said he fears Mrobruzzo will come for it and, having got it, will depart, leaving a lagoon of blood behind him.”
“That too is just what was said.”
“Let us make examination of the property again.”
Pecunio went to the armoire and after fussing with the locks opened the tall door and drew forth the shadow.
“Yes, bring it to the middle of the room, please,” Astolfo said. “My man Falco will arrange the candles in the way I have taught him is best to appraise shadows.”
At this signal I went about the room, collecting the candles from their niches, and arranged the twelve together at the corner of the table where the decanter sat. Astolfo watched me carefully, then took the shadow gracefully in his hands.
I had disposed the candles so that the light fell full upon the figure of Pecunio, and now I looked at the shadow he cast on the floor. At first I could not find it and supposed that I had placed a candle wrong so that something stood between. But then I managed to make it out, woefully changed from what it had been. It was a mere wisp of shade now, wavering, and crooked as a twig from a crab apple tree. It was so thin and tenuous it was nigh invisible, and it seemed barely to cling to the old man’s heel. It looked as if it might blow away like the last leaf on a winter oak.
“Let us look closely at the selvage,” said Astolfo. He brought it close to the light and I saw that it too had changed. The mauvish-greenish glow that had smoldered within it now pulsed, throbbing like the heart of a speeding runner. The whole seemed to have gained bulk and the thin streaks of silver that hovered there before had broadened and vivified. I could feel on the skin of my face that an extraordinary power emanated from it.
“See this edge?” Astolfo ran the tip of his finger through the space surrounding the shadow’s margin. “That is skillful cutting indeed. Falco, have a look. What implement would make such a cut, think you?”
I examined it closely and found no sign of raggedness, no tearing, no place where it might begin to ravel. “I would say a quasilune.”
“One such as this?” From an inside pocket of his broad belt with its leopard’s-head buckle, Astolfo produced a small, shiny, quarter-moon blade. “Of silver, honed and polished in a workshop of Grevaie?”
“If so you say.”
“Friend Pecunio,” Astolfo said, “your excellent sweet wine of the south has brought a thirst upon me. Could you prevail upon your servant who at this moment stands without the door there spying upon us to fetch a flask of water?”
Startled, Pecunio crossed to the door and swung it suddenly open. There stood the slender fellow with the large feet and tall boots. Though plainly revealed at his transgression, he did not lose composure. He gave a slight smile, bowed, and said, “I shall bring water.”
“It would be welcome,” Astolfo replied, and when the fellow had hurried away turned to Pecunio. “The instrument that took the shadow you have purchased is of use only to those who traffic in shadows as a profession. It is a special favorite of thieves. Your servant is better acquainted with cutlery than you have been led to suppose. He was wearing no sword when he left us just now, but when he returns he shall be armed.”
The old one frowned. “What is taking place?”
“Don’t fret. This may be the first opportunity we have to see how our Falco handles himself against artful swordplay. He is entrusted with protecting us from your counterfeit servant. If you had told me at first that he was the purveyor of the shadow, I could have saved you time and coin. But now we must see the affair through in a less efficient manner.”
When the servant returned with a flask and clay tumblers, we three watched in silence as he poured the water. He was now wearing, as Astolfo had predicted, a sword, the short, broad-bladed cutlass favored by naval warriors.
“Before you return to your duties, I should like to ask a question or two. Curiosity is a dire fault in me,” Astolfo said to him.
The fellow stood at his ease, the slight smile still playing upon his lips.
“By what method did you poison the shadow you sold to Pecunio? There are several ways of doing so, some which ruin the property forever, others from which it can be restored to some fairly useful measure. We must needs know—Falco!”
His warning was timely, for though I had seen the fellow’s fingers twitch toward his hilt, I was surprised at the celerity with which his sword was out and ready. But I was ready too and leapt between and warded off the thrust that was intended for Astolfo’s belly. Then there we stood pressed against each other, hiltguard upon hiltguard. With my left forearm I pushed him back and then gave a quick shove. He was light-framed and I figured I would have good advantage of strength.
But he was nimble as a dragonfly. He slipped backward easily without losing his balance and fronted me with an insolent grin.
Then we were at it in earnest, thrust and parry, slash and sidestep, overhand and underhand and backhand. It was warmer work than I had anticipated. I struck the harder blows, but my opponent’s forte was the art of evasion and I spent much strength upon empty air. He had a smooth, swift, sidelong motion that a stoat might envy, and by the time he began to breathe a little more quickly I was panting heavily. Finally he made a quick, twisting thrust aimed at my shoulder and in avoiding it I tangled with a table leg and went down on my back, my sword clattering away into a far corner.
I thought my hour had come as I lay helpless, seeing his sword point descending toward my nose, when he disappeared from my view. Where he had been there stood now a dark mist. I could see nothing inside this dimness. But I heard a sharp, high-pitched cry of distress.
And then Astolfo’s voice, jovial and mocking, sounded: “Falco, this dueling tactic you cling to—falling down prone—will never be praised in the arms manuals. Why you persist in following it I shall never learn.”
I got up quickly. I did not want to look at Astolfo. Instead, I watched the cloudy mass that had appeared above me. From this angle I saw it was the shadow of Morbruzzo. It roiled and heaved like steam that might rise a little above the mouth of a pot and hang there, working furiously within itself. Out of the mass of this shadow came little gibbers and yips, as of someone being nipped by a pack of terriers.
Then with a broad, gently sweeping gesture Astolfo removed the shadow.
The art of shadow-flinging is a familiar conversational subject of those who trade in the commodity, of thieves of every sort, of warriors, of courtiers, of tavern-sitters, of priests, and of scribblers. I had read many an account in many a dusty page, but I had never witnessed it before. Even in the observing I was not sure what I saw, only that the roundish, shortish, baldish master of shadows held his body at a certain angle, extended his right arm and drew it in a wide semicircle, and held his hand relaxed with the fingers bent slightly inward. I could see that if I were to try such a maneuver, my hand would tear through the fabric of the shade and I would be holding nothing.
But Astolfo brought it away to reveal Pecunio’s servant standing there in a vastly altered condition than formerly. In the first place, this was no man. Her blonde hair was cropped, and most of her clothing was in scattered rags and giblets, as if eaten away by acids. The tall boots remained intact, but the thighs that emerged from them were fair and smooth, not mannish in the least. Her figure was lissome and small-breasted but undeniably female and her face, now that the greasepaint was mostly removed, was that of a piquantly attractive woman.
She struggled to speak but could not. Her eyes were filled with confusion and fear.
Astolfo spoke to Pecunio: “If you had but told me you had taken this woman into your household, you would have saved yourself much grief.”
The old man hung his head and shook it regretfully. “I thought it wise to keep her secret and all for myself. I am not the man that once I was.”
“Your vanity and venality have cost you dearly, not only in gold but in the matter of your health. Did you not know that she is one of a famous pair of shadow thieves? This is the notorious Fleuraye.”
Pecunio was visibly startled. He looked again at the woman with his mouth amazedly open. “I did not know that.”
“She and her consort, the silken-mannered privateer Belarmo, have been partners in many a merry escapade. They have cozened and cheated and robbed and stolen with profitable success for some few years now. Much of their success may be credited to the fact that she is most pleasurable to look upon. Is this not so, Falco?”
“Umm … Yes. That is true,” I said, and at last tore my gaze away from her true blonde charms and her large gray eyes, which were now filling wetly.
“Pay no mind to her tears,” said Astolfo. “She can pour them out at will, as if from a canister.”
At once the welling stopped and she gave Astolfo a stare of scarlet enmity.
“We have crossed paths before, a few seasons ago, and Fleuraye saved her Belarmo from the fate I designed for him by means of a diverting ploy I may sometime whisper to you. But I believe they must have fallen out with each other now. In fact, I am certain that the shadow you purchased from her is that of her consort.”
“It does not belong to Morbruzzo?”
“That savage pirate would have retrieved it by now, wherever it was hidden and whatever the cost to him. No, this is the shadow of Belarmo.” He held it at shoulder height before him. “And you see what decadent state it is in. Fleuraye has worked upon it so as to make it a poison thing. This you can observe in its colors, the nauseous tints and tinges of corruption.”
“Poison…” Pecunio’s weak murmur sounded like an echo of itself.
“Did she not implore you to cloak yourself in it? Did she not tell you how brave and stalwart it made you appear when she came to your bedchamber? And yet the anger and jealousy that rages within it fed upon your manhood and shriveled all your virility. Is not this true?”
“True as the summer sky,” Pecunio said. “And now, if you will but hand me her sword where she dropped it from within the shadow—”
“No no,” Astolfo commanded. “Nothing of that. I have saved your life and you are indebted to me in the amount of three hundred gold eagles. I shall collect another three hundred from Belarmo when we rescue him from whatever grim place it is where he is being tortured.”
“He is yet alive?”
“If he were dead, if his lover had dispatched him, his shadow would be a poor, pallid thing almost lifeless. But it stands in strong sympathy with him. As its condition is, so then is his. I suppose that this all fell out as it did from the beginning because of a lovers’ quarrel. Jealousy will be in play.”
Flueraye spat her words. “A low tavern wench. A slattern with teats like harbor buoys. An arse like a refuse barrow.”
He spoke to her. “And so you suborned some of his men with gold and they turned on him and you are exacting your revenge. At the same time, you thought to acquire a coin or two and increase the humiliation of Belarmo and of my friend Pecunio here.”
“I am not of a mood these days to coddle the coxcomb sex,” she said.
“Yet your only hope to escape the gallows is to tell us where to find your lover. Rescuing him, you rescue yourself. For your other crimes a prison ship bound for the sultry latitudes may suit. But now is the moment to tell us, for he is after all little more than a pirate himself and his life may not weigh greatly in your favor. Yet if he die, that fact will weigh large against you. And I think you would not long be able to endure being cloaked again in Belarmo’s shadow. The rage within his spirit as he lies bound and tortured makes his shade a cruel garment to don, does it not? I am of temper to fling it about you on this instant.”
And so she told where Belarmo lay in the cellar of a warehouse near Rattlebone Alley and gave clear directions how to reach him. Then she added, with the most baleful of looks, “I daresay we shall encounter again, Astolfo. Perhaps next time you shall not fare so lucky.”
“Perhaps by next time Falco shall have learned the proper use of a sword.”
So Pecunio was rewarded with his life and some restoration of his health; Astolfo was the richer by hundreds of eagles; Belarmo was to be rescued from his agonies. My reward was to undergo more practice bouts with Mutano, my bruises black as onyx and purple as sunset. This discipline for the craft of shadow-taking is a harsh one and I do not lightly recommend it to anyone whether or not you may have thought of taking up the trade and art of shadows.
But if you are attracted to this occlusive way of life, you will find the demanding disciplines salutary. Some individuals come to attach to them for the challenges they present. If I had relied upon my previous martial skills, I might have been slain a dozen times. If I had not turned over so many musty pages, I should never have known of the hidden associations that shadows share with echoes, with cats, and with certain types of jewels, such as the one belonging to the eccentric Countess Triana.
Copyright © 2016 by Fred Chappell