MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
YEAR 988 OF THE NEW MILLENNIUM MONTH OF FOGS—SUMMER QUARTER DAY EARLY AFTERNOON
The air in the noisy alehouse blurred with more than greasy smoke. The slim, pearl-handled dagger laid out on the plank table shimmered around its edges. And it wasn’t simply the thump of boots or the raucous rattle of the tabor that made the world quiver. Something wasn’t right.
The dagger certainly wasn’t right. I wasn’t right. An important answer sat at the tip of my tongue, so very close … but I couldn’t even recall the question.
“Enough is enough,” said the black-eyed youth sitting across the table from me. “She can’t do it.”
I knew the youth. His new red shirt was made of— Why couldn’t I remember?
“Pull her out.” The big man seated next to the youth was almost invisible in the shadowed corner of the bench.
“Out of what?” I snapped behind my teeth. I kept my voice down, even though the Quarter Day holidaymakers made it near impossible to hear anything. “What are you talking about?”
Lady Fortune’s dam, what was wrong with me?
The youth reached across the table and grabbed my wrist. “Guess you have to try again another day, Romy. Some of us have things to do. Like eat.”
In the instant he spoke that name, the entirety of my identity—name, parentage, occupation, reasons for being in this nasty place—sloughed away like a false skin. As it was.
My true name was Romy. Sorceress. Scribe. Once a very expensive whore. A woman who had, over her five-and-twenty years, acquired a broad education in culture, languages, history, art, politics, pain, fear, self-control, and the habits of wealthy Cantagnans. Of late, a confidential agent employed by the Shadow Lord of Cantagna. An incompetent sorceress who couldn’t release herself from her own spellwork.
“By the Sisters! How many trials does that make?”
“I’m thinking a hundred,” said my brother Neri with an annoying smirk. He shot up from his seat and shoved the pearl-handled dagger toward me. “I believe I’ve just enough time for a bowl of rabbit pie before I head for the Duck’s Bone. Fesci’s backside will boil if I’m late for my shift.”
He vanished into the smoke and noise.
Shivering with the aftermath of magic-working, I closed my fingers about the dagger’s cool hilt and thumped the heel of my fist on my aching head. I’d been certain the elegant little weapon I’d owned for more than a decade, a reminder of both the worst and the best years of my life, could enable me to remember my own damnable name.
My particular variety of Dragonis’s taint allowed me to impersonate whomever I chose to be. When I invoked my magic, my body did not change. I remained a dark-eyed woman of moderate height, shaped in ways both men and women named comely. It was the magic that laid a mask over me, making me believe I was the other so completely that the Shadow Lord himself, who knew me as intimately as any human could know another, had not recognized me when I stood before him. It was a formidable and most useful talent—with the one drawback. Once I left Romy behind, only someone speaking my true name while touching my skin could get me back to her. Wholly impractical.
“You needs must ink the hints on your ass, lady scribe, so’s when you go topsy-turvy you can find yourself again,” said the man in the corner.
Someone opened the alehouse door, letting in the mid-afternoon glare. The dueling scar that creased my companion’s left cheek from brow to unruly black beard gleamed faintly red in a stray sunbeam. He planted his boots on the bench, settled lower in the corner, and clapped his shabby, flat-brimmed hat entirely over his face, as if ready for a nap.
Placidio di Vasil was a professional duelist, Neri’s swordmaster, and my tutor in the field of combat. He made me run up cliffs, slam fists and feet into the heavy leather bolsters that hung in the deserted warehouse where we trained, and wield a variety of blades with more general effectiveness than the defensive knifework I’d learned as a girl. Placidio was a demon-tainted sorcerer, as well, and a man I trusted with our lives.
“How will the Chimera ever be an effective partnership if I must have a minder every time I do an impersonation?”
He gave no answer. Probably because there was none. But this was his problem as much as my own. My partners and I were poised on the brink of our second dangerous venture in as many months, and if my magic was to be at all useful, I had to be able to disentangle myself from it.
“I was closer this time,” I said, propping my chin on my fist. “The world went blurry, and I wasn’t thinking as Monette the cloth merchant’s daughter anymore. Certain, I wasn’t thinking of you as my father. But I wasn’t thinking as me, either.”
I’d hoped that using the magic among strangers, instead of in my house or our training ground, would force me to keep Romy closer to the surface. One magic sniffer pointing a finger at me could get us all dead.
My plan had worked. Just not well enough.
“If you require a parent for your next practice session, get Dumond to play him. None’d b’lieve a spiff dandy like me old enough to sire a witchy female like you…” The slurred jibe faded into heavy breathing.
Placidio’s somnolence was not to be mistaken for sleep. I’d come to think he never truly slept, which explained, in part, why he sucked down enough wine, ale, and mead in a day to supply a small village. Despite his duelist’s fitness and his modest age of four-and-thirty, old wounds and old griefs weighed heavy on him.
“If I can immerse myself deep enough in an impersonation to believe you to be my father, Segno di Vasil, and then get myself out again, it will give an inestimable boost to my confidence. Besides, Dumond shudders at the thought of masquerades.”
A scheme of impersonation and forgery to foil a threat to Cantagna’s peace had brought the four of us together—Placidio, Dumond the metalsmith, my brother Neri, and me, demon-tainted sorcerers all—and given us the rare satisfaction of using our talents for a cause other than preserving our own lives. We called ourselves the Chimera, a fantastical beast of many parts, the impossible made flesh.
Like giddy fools, we had taken on another such worthy effort within a day of finishing the first. It should be simple enough—find a dangerous document and destroy it. The prisoner who had hidden the document was being transported to Cantagna. We were awaiting only the Shadow Lord’s signal that he had arrived.
Unlike me, our employer was not disturbed by his multiplicity of names. He was equally comfortable as il Padroné, benevolent patron of the arts and advocate for the rule of law, and the Shadow Lord, the ruthless manipulator whose will was crossed only with peril. Both were true aspects of the man born Alessandro di Gallanos, the wealthiest and most powerful man in wealthy, powerful Cantagna. For nine years I had called him Sandro.
“Maybe I won’t need to use my magic at all in the new venture,” I said. “Getting inside a prison cell is more up Dumond’s alley—or Neri’s. I wonder—”
Neri emerged from the crowd like a thunderclap from a clear sky. “Swordmaster, someone’s come looking for you!”
A scrawny fellow with wispy red hair, peeling skin, and bad teeth shoved Neri aside and slapped a dirty woven badge on the table. The stink of sour flesh and moldy garlic wafted from him.
“Placidio di Vasil, I bring answer for the insulting challenge you threw at my uncle yesternight in front of twenty witnesses. My own self will stand for him at Bawds Field in one hour. Be there or be deemed coward forever more.”
“What?” Placidio threw off his hat and snatched up the badge. “Come back here, Buto! Does your uncle know about this?”
Placidio’s outrage could have been heard clear up to the Piazza Livello at the heart and height of the city. But the scrawny man had already vanished through the silenced crowd.
“Damnable idiot. An hour?” Placidio scraped fingers through his matted hair.
“You challenged someone for yourself!” Neri gawped after the man. “Who is it? What did he do?”
Professional duelists fought other people’s battles. Only the stupid ones risked injury by fighting for free—for themselves—or so Placidio always claimed.
“One wrong, cursed, confusticated word.” He slammed his hat back on his head and shoved the table away, trapping me on my own bench. “Another lesson for you two. Never exchange insults with a pox-raddled moron in the middle of a card game.”
The tapgirl yanked another bung, and like a spark near nitre powder, it reignited the clamor of drinkers and the whistle and rattle of the musicians.
“Another match?” I said, in quiet frustration. “We could get the Shadow Lord’s signal at any moment. And no referees, I’m guessing.”
“Told you before, lady scribe, my matches are naught for you to worry on. But if it eases you, the only difficulty here is how not to kill this maggot.”
“But for someone unsavory like this fellow, you need a second. A witness, at least,” said Neri, bolder than I in the face of Placidio’s unyielding personal boundaries … or at the backside of them. Placidio was already three steps from the table.
Neri persisted. “No time to fetch a neutral.”
Placidio whirled around, his cinder-gray eyes picking at Neri. After a moment, he spoke grudgingly. “Witness, aye. That could be useful. Mostly it would do you good to see how an overeager idiot like Buto conducts himself, lest you start thinking you’ve learned enough from your lessons. But you are not my second. I alone do the talking. You will stay where I tell you—at the split-trunk nettle tree west of the path from the prison. Well hid. Neither toe nor eyelash to be seen. And you stay exactly there till the end.”
Placidio didn’t need to add what dire consequence would follow disobedience. Nonetheless, Neri hurried after him like a hound after its hunter. As he had abandoned his bowl of rabbit pie, I was not inordinately surprised when he darted back to the table before reaching the door to the street.
“Romy, talk to Fesci for me. Tell her I’ve dueling business with Placidio and will be late. She always fusses over him, so she won’t be all bent when I get there.”
He didn’t linger to finish the pie, nor to hear my answer. He knew he’d get a lecture.
Neri had come a long way from the angry, ignorant youth who used his magic to steal three rubies, getting our family exiled and the two of us very nearly executed. But he was still rash and headstrong, and forever assumed one or the other of the Chimera would pull him out of the fire if he danced too close.
Since the dawn of the world, the First Law of Creation had mandated death for anyone tainted with the monster Dragonis’s magic, lest they use their fiendish talents to set the beast free to wreak the world’s end. The earth’s shudders that flattened villages, and the mountains’ yearly spews of ash, smoke, and scalding rock, provided clear reminders of the malignancy imprisoned beneath the Costa Drago. But whether one believed or not—and after nine years’ immersion in history, reason, and philosophy I was skeptical—the First Law made no distinction between those who worked magic and those corrupted by association with it. A careless mistake could pose a real and mortal danger to Placidio, Dumond and his family, and me, as well as to Neri himself.
I shoved the table back to its place and set out for Bawds Field. When Neri saw I’d not done his bidding, he could decide for himself if he wanted to risk a reckoning with Taverner Fesci.
* * *
Bawds Field, shielded from public view by the bleak bulk of the prison, a few nettle trees, and a tall bordering scrub of firethorn and prickly juniper, was often used for grudge fights, including duels not registered with the referees who maintained the city’s professional Dueling List. The place had gotten its name back when Cantagna was governed by a hereditary grand duc instead of our elected Sestorale. The nobleman had taken a young wife who was horrified to learn that bawdy houses were legal in her husband’s demesne. Even worse, the grand duc required their prices stay low as a way to make whores accessible to every citizen who desired to partake of their services.
The ducessa must have had the charms of a goddess, a will of forged steel, and no conscience to speak of, as within a month of the noble marriage, every bawd, pimp, whore, and catamite in Cantagna had been marched into a wasteland behind the Pillars Prison and hanged. Tutors at the Moon House had used that story to remind us students how fortunate we were that not only were we not criminals, but that our beauty and skills would command a price that only someone like a grand duc—or a wealthy banker—could afford. At age ten, I had not felt comforted.
In the center of the pounded dirt and gravel, the scrawny man called Buto donned a mail shirt. Two equally disreputable comrades marked out a large, slightly lopsided circle with stones and bits of rubble, planting sticks in the ground at four quarter points.
Placidio stood to one side in his dueling leathers, hands clasped behind his back, his favored dueling sword at his side. His relaxed but wary posture should be intimidating to anyone who had ever watched him fight.
And Neri? I stood between the twin trunks of the giant nettle tree on the west side of the field—exactly where Placidio had told Neri to hide. Neri wasn’t there. Nor was he out of sight. His red shirt shone like a signal flag from a thicket on the opposite side of the field.
Using the path behind the scrub, I headed for Neri.
“You are familiar with Cantagna’s Code Duello, young Buto?” Placidio’s booming query drew me to a gap in the stand of firethorn.
I’d never watched one of Placidio’s duels. For one, I saw enough of his skills when I trained with him. For another, I assumed he had reasons for saying so little of when, where, or whom he was fighting; his privacies were very important to him. And, in truth, it made good sense for Placidio, Dumond, and Neri and me to keep our non-Chimera lives separate.
Copyright © 2020 by Carol Berg