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YEAR 987 OF THE NEW MILLENNIUM: SPRING QUARTER
The Shadow Lord’s face gleamed bronze in the lamplight, serene in his strength. Such demeanor befit a man whose quiet word could fulfill a petitioner’s deepest wishes or leave his gutted carcass hanging on Cantagna’s gates.
We have no kings in the lands of the Costa Drago. Our nine great independencies are ruled by men or women whose power stems from family wealth, strength of arms, or brutish arousal of the rabble. Not one of those men or women could match the ruthless wisdom of Alessandro di Gallanos, known as il Padroné—the Master—Cantagna’s Shadow Lord.
Peering through slits in the painted screen, I observed the Shadow Lord’s first petitioner of the day. Boscetti, the antiquities merchant, leaned earnestly across the table between them.
“Padroné,” he said, “my son has taken over my trading partnership with Argento, as you in your wisdom suggested. But bandits have looted his caravans three times in a month because Captain di Lucci’s condottieri refuse to honor their contract with me. If you could just speak to di Lucci…”
As the merchant wisely ignored the cup of good wine on the table and answered a few incisive questions from the man seated across from him, I watched and listened carefully, as always. I relished my privilege to sit hidden behind the painted screen, laughing at the fools folk could make of themselves when confronting true power, while at the same time adding the minutiae of names, family connections, desires, loyalties, and vanities to my treasury of such matters. The man others addressed as il Padroné and I called Sandro took pleasure in discussing the complexities of his world with a companion who could comprehend them. Even better, so he’d told me, that I could offer observations and ideas of my own.
My education had been extensive—history, music, languages. Dancing and logic. Enough blade-work to defend my owner or myself. Even now, I pursued art and philosophy, the divine study. Sandro called me his chimera—the impossible made flesh—a fantastical creature who mirrored every part of his own soul.
The two voices beyond the screen changed tenor. The conversation had become negotiation. The merchant desired il Padroné to force the mercenary captain, di Lucci, to honor their old contract, since the new owner of his trade route was a member of the merchant’s own family.
Boscetti was a fool. Sandro was too wise to squeeze condottieri for a merchant’s favor. Besides the ever-present threat from old enemies like the southern independency of Mercediare, a stirring discontent among Cantagna’s older families had him worried. These families had been staunch allies of Sandro’s father and grandfather. But their resentment of House Gallanos’s stranglehold on power, most especially Sandro’s determination to spend the city’s wealth on public works instead of channeling it into their own purses, lurked amid the present peace like deadly nightshade in a garden.
One incident, one misstep, and the poison could foment an armed rebellion. Civil war. Sandro would need Captain di Lucci and every other soldier he could hire. It was no false concern that induced Sandro to keep ten armed men about him wherever he walked—even through the modest neighborhood where his family had lived and granted favor and assistance to all comers for almost a century.
“What of the commission you undertook for me, Boscetti?” Sandro deftly changed the subject of the conversation without agreeing to anything. “Have you had any success with that?”
“Ah, Padroné, my agents believe they might have found the artwork you seek—the Antigonean bronze—buried deep in a vault in Mercediare. Extremely difficult to retrieve. Dangerous. Expensive. The rumors of its Sysaline origins and the bad luck that brings. I doubt I have sufficient resources to retrieve it. Such an unusual portrayal of Dragonis and Atladu, unique in all the known world. Perhaps something more accessible would suit your pleasure just as well?”
“My requirement has not changed.”
Only one who could read the subtle silence between il Padroné’s clipped words would recognize his mounting fury. Boscetti, a purveyor of antiquities, was trying to manipulate a man who hated to be played.
I sat up straighter. This was a matter of much more interest. For five years il Padroné had searched for a particular ancient representation of the monster Dragonis and Atladu, lost God of Sea and Sky. Supposedly Antigoneas, divine Atladu’s own smith, had cast the small bronze statue at his forge in Sysaline—the city drowned in the Creation Wars—imbuing it with sanctity unknown in our godless world.
Sandro believed that if he could gift the statue to his most powerful ally, a most pious grand duc, it would create a true friendship, fixing their alliance against any challenge from his friends turned rivals. But this particular merchant … Boscetti …
I didn’t know Sandro had commissioned Boscetti to find the statue. Had he heard the gossip that Boscetti’s wife hailed from Triesa, one of Mercediare’s two hundred tribute islands?
The brutish Protector Vizio, tyrant ruler of the sprawling independency of Mercediare, coveted Cantagna’s wealth. Every spring she demanded a share of it, and threatened to seize it by force if Cantagna failed to pay. Someday her legions would march north to challenge us. Thus, Boscetti’s petition, together with his suspect wife, could signify a great deal more than a contract dispute with Lucci’s mercenaries. The Costa Drago bred conspiracies in the same abundance as it did mosquitoes.
“Expense is of no consequence,” said il Padroné. “I shall instruct my bursar to record an increase in your finder’s fee. I’m sure double would be acceptable. Once I have the artifact in hand, you will reap additional rewards.”
The easy capitulation surprised me. Had Sandro some new intelligence to make his purpose more urgent or was he testing Boscetti? I couldn’t wait for evening when he would tell me all and I could warn him about the merchant’s possible entanglement with Cantagna’s old enemy.
A wafting scent of soap drew my attention from the parlay beyond the screen.
Stupid girl! My gangly maidservant Micola had crept into my hiding place. Round cheeks of burnished copper, dark eyes glazed with terror, she did not so much as breathe as she tugged on my sleeve, drawing me to the open door behind me.
Well should she be terrified! If il Padroné detected the least noise behind the screen, he might forbid me sit there when he received petitioners. Micola knew I’d never forgive her for such a deprivation. Far worse would result if the merchant detected us. Micola would be whipped to death as a spy, and I would be exiled at best, for il Padroné and the Shadow Lord were one and the same, and discretion was a pillar of the Shadow Lord’s power.
Copyright © 2019 by Carol Berg