An Illusion of Thieves
  by Cate Glass

Available May 2019

    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 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 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, 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 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 instructmy 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.
    We slipped out on bare feet, my silken gown but a whisper, her hand clutching her skirt to keep it silent. As soon as we passed through the closet passage and my dressing room into my own rooms, I closed the door carefully behind me and then whirled on her. “Are you entirely mad?”
    She fell to her knees, breathless and shaking. “Please, mistress, the villain said you’d die did I fail to deliver his message to you right away. Certain, I’d only dare set foot beyond that door for mortal need.”
    “What villain?”
    “A young ruffian startled me whilst I tended your sheets, and how he got past the guards ’tis the world’s own mystery. The youth swore he knew you from childhood, and I’d never have believed that, ragged as he were. But he showed me a luck charm exactly like one in your jewel case—that’n graved in bronze with the squiggles and coiled whip—and said tell you ’twas Iren brought you the message.”
    The world’s own mystery . . . Surely my own eyes glazed with fear. “What message?”
    “He said—Please, mistress, I’d never speak such crude words to you, but for the luck charm so like yours, and you’re ever so kind to me.”
    It required every scrap of control I could muster not to choke the words out of her. Iren could be none but my brother Neri. We had once believed backward spelling our impregnable secret cipher.
    “He said, ‘The rutting tyrant is for the chop,’ which means a terrible, wicked cruelty, and I told him that no fine lady as you . . . none so educated, so elegant and beautiful . . . would even know about lowborn punishments. But he claimed you’d know exactly what he meant. I was dread fearful he were an assassin, as some folk use tyrant to name—”
    She paled, knowing how close she was to treason.
    But her panic could not touch mine. As if the brilliant colors of the muraled wall had sloughed away, leaving only gray plaster, so did the false and foolish illusion of my life vanish. Left in its place was appalled confusion.
    Only Neri ever called our father a rutting tyrant. Only Neri could walk through impossible barriers by use of true magic, forbidden since the dawn of the world. Yet his message wasn’t about unmentionable skills that could get both of us executed, but the horrifically mundane. For the chop. My father was to lose a hand for thieving? That was impossible.
    I halted the girl’s terrified babbling. “Did he say when?”
    She gaped at me, disbelieving.
    “Tell me, Micola.”
    “Dawn tomorrow.”
    My father was dull and stiff-necked beyond reason. He was a law scribe, and every word he copied in service of Cantagna’s law was his life’s accumulated treasure. Never in the world would he risk losing a hand. Indeed, the self-righteous fool would let his family starve before breaking his precious moral code. Multiple times he’d refused to accept so much as a copper solet from his eldest daughter, the Shadow Lord’s whore. Such an impossible risk—and my fool of a brother’s message—hinted at dangers I dared not ignore.
    “Give me your gown and cloak,” I said. “Now. I have to go out.” Fortunately the rangy Micola and I were of a size.
    She squirmed out of her garments.“But, mistress, il Padroné—”
     “He will be at least another hour with petitioners. More likely two. Do as I tell you.”
    In moments she was left in her chemise, while I wore her old fashioned blue overdress and narrow black sleeves.
    I laid hands on her quivering shoulders. “If il Padroné sends for me or comes to my chambers in search of me, you must speak only truth. That way, his annoyance will be for me alone.”
    “But mistress . . .”
    Even fools and children knew that the wrath of powerful men fell on those who spoke truth as well as those who told lies. But there were certain things she must not speak at all.
    “Sweet child, just tell him this . . .”
    With strength swollen by fury—at Neri, at my father, at necessity and circumstance and the vile Lady Fortune—I backhanded the girl.
    She stumbled backward and slumped to the thick Lhampuri rugs il Padroné had imported for me. As she moaned, groggy and confused, I brushed a thumb across her forehead. Naught but dread necessity could force me to what I had to do.
    With a skill rusty from disuse, my will touched the blighted piece of my soul I had walled away since childhood. Only a moment’s touch. Cold, viscous otherness squirmed like maggots in my bones and slithered through my veins, chilling, nauseating, as it had been since the first hour I understood the evil I could do. Magic—this single form of magic my body knew—allowed me to do one impossible thing.
    I considered the words the girl must not say and whispered her a story to replace them: Mistress Cataline received a message that her father is gravely ill; for honor’s sake, she had go to him. I, Micola, delayed a whole day relaying the message.
    The girl would forget the truth and remember only what I’d told her. How despicable to alter a person’s mind without consent. I hated living with the ever-present fear of discovery, but even more I hated the taint itself, lurking inside my soul like rot at the heart of a tree, waiting to corrupt me as it did all of my kind. But the consequences of Neri’s actions could risk more lives than my father’s.
    Shivering and sick, I fled through the palace, grieving for the bruises I’d left on sweet Micola’s face, as well as the chaotic knot inside her where a few simple words had replaced a name, a face, and a message. I’d no time and no skill to tie off every thread of memory.
    Shoving a path through the smoke-filled streets in the sweltering afternoon felt like plunging into the Great Abyss, where the demoni discordia awaited the unvirtuous. My destination was Cantagna's lower city. Squeezed between a ring wall, the River Venia, and the outer defenses, the Beggars Ring housed thieves, laborers, pigs, thugs, beggars, pimps, whores, and damaged people of all kinds. Including my father,a stiff-necked man who refused any work that failed to meet his exacting standards, produced more healthy children than his labors could support, and protected a secret it was death to expose. . .

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