The great city of Taux lay quiet as a spent lover under the bleary yellow moon. Shay knew better than to trust it, though. This was enemy territory. Always had been. Always would be. Especially tonight.
“Come on, let’s get this over with,” Balthazar called softly from the shadows.
But Shay paused, dark eyes narrowed as he looked up at the looming bulk of the great guild house atop its stepped platform. Memories nibbled like rats at the wound in his soul. He knew this place all too well. Five years ago, it had been the center of all his hopes.
His eighteenth birthday had begun like every other birthday he could remember, with his mother and her courtesans crowding into his bedchamber at the break of day, bouncing on his bed and kissing him to waken him for presents before they went off to bed.
“My baby boy!” Mama Serene exclaimed, gathering him to her lush bosom in a perfumed, man-scented embrace. “Wasn’t it only yesterday you and your sister were playing at my feet? You’re practically grown.”
“Practically?” Shay grumbled, gently freeing himself.
“I believe you’re right, Mama Serene!” exclaimed pretty Will. Flopping down beside him, he ran a thumb across the mere promise of a moustache on Shay’s upper lip. “Look at this great thatch.”
Lucinda laughed as she pretended to wrestle the velvet and linen bedclothes away from him. “I wonder where else he’s growing hair?”
Shay tried to look outraged as he fought to keep them, but he was used to their teasing; the courtesans had been his brothers and sisters, as much as his own twin, Shayla.
She was there, too, a special dispensation from her apprenticeship with the Hospitalers Guild. She worked her way free of all the kissing and cosseting to buss Shay on both cheeks. “Happy birthday! And good luck today!”
“Who needs luck when they have skill,” he returned with a laugh.
She raised a pale brow at his youthful arrogance. “Even one named after the saint of suffering?”
“And lust and deceit!” Laughing, he grabbed her and tumbled her onto the bed.
Strangers never took them for siblings. Tall like Mama Serene, he had her soft brown hair, sultry eyes, and that olive skin that turned the color of milk-slaked chocolate in the summer. Shayla was fair-skinned and blue-eyed, with a wild mass of pale curls tumbling over the shoulders of her lace dressing gown—the image, those in the know said, of their father—the man Shay knew only from an ivory miniature in his mother’s jewel casket and a few stolen glances on the streets of Taux.
“Here you are, buried in delectable flesh as usual!” Balthazar exclaimed, striding in dressed in dusty dueling leathers. Two years older than Shay, his friend sported an enviable black goatee and gold earrings that Shayla claimed made him look like a corsair. “Are you going to lounge around fornicating, today of all days?”
Everyone had a good laugh at that; outsiders made certain assumptions about a young man who’d grown up in the Silk Purse brothel, but the truth was the closest Shay had ever gotten to lying with any of his mother’s people was crawling into bed with them during thunderstorms when he was very small.
“Come on,” Bal urged, pushing the others aside to haul Shay naked out of bed. “You know how Xavier gets if we make him wait.”
“You’re not staying for breakfast?” Shayla asked, disappointed at this break in tradition.
Shay kissed her. “Just this once. I’ll make it up to you with the best dinner you’ve ever had at the Golden Monkey.”
“Good luck, Cricket. You’ll be brilliant!” the others assured him as Mama Serene shooed them out. He gave them all the fig for using the hated childhood pet name.
Bal threw himself down in the armchair by the window. “Get dressed or we won’t get a good place on the court!”
Shay pulled on his old practice leathers. “Today’s the day, Bal. It all changes today.”
The sun was just peeking over the high walls of the ullamalitzli as they made their way down to the ulama court at its center. The streets were steep, narrow, dark, and often as dangerous as the ancient friezes that decorated them, though less so in daylight.
It was still cool at this hour and what honest folk there were who lived here were bustling about their business, shilling milk, beer, fruit, bread, and water from baskets on poles across their shoulders. Fynn, a fiery-haired Eldaryn with a trained monkey, was dancing and lighting firepots for pennies while his woman, Analyse, picked the pockets of those who gathered to watch.
As Shay and Balthazar entered a tiny market square they passed close to a wall and Shay thought he caught movement from the corner of his eye that wasn’t a lizard or hairyfist spider. He quickly spat over his left shoulder to ward off bad luck.
“What’s the matter?” asked Bal.
Few Gate dwellers took much notice of the grisly reliefs carved on every wall, the savage figures lurking in the shadows as if waiting for more victims to butcher in stone. But sometimes the carvings whispered to Shay in their own strange language; sometimes he saw them move, turning to look at him. It almost always presaged bad luck: a broken bone, an unwanted advance from some old sod, the death of someone close to him, and the like.
, thought Shay, carefully keeping his gaze averted, I’ll never have to hear or see any of you again.
Other people were already at sword practice on the packed earth court, and a few young boys were tossing around a heavy rubber ulama ball. As Balthazar had guessed, old Xavier Crane was already waiting for them. One of Mama Serene’s favorite lovers, Xavier had been uncle and sword master to both of them. Thanks to him, and a few other swordsmen among the Purse’s patrons, they’d mastered not only the Taux dueling style, but the Ebontian Cross Defense and Findalynn Bravo styles, as well.
“About time! The day’s half gone,” growled Xavier.
“Never mind sorry. Take your positions.”
Under the watchful eye of their teacher, Shay and Balthazar paced out the customary starting distance and pulled loose the grubby ribbons that secured the hilts of their blunted practice blades to their scabbards. As long as you kept your rapier hilt tied, no Duelist could challenge you. Otherwise, you were fair game.
Xavier took out a handkerchief and held it up. “And—” He let it fall. “Begin!”
The young boys grabbed their ball and retreated up the rows of stone benches to watch as Shay and Balthazar drew steel and began the cruel, intricate dance of thrust and draw. Balthazar scored first, with a painful touch over Shay’s heart.
“One dead! One dead!” the young boys chanted.
Shay came back with quick cuts to his friend’s thigh and neck.
“Two dead! Two dead!” the boys cheered and some of the others stopped their practice to watch. Shay felt the heat rise in his blood; he knew how good he was, but there was only one person whose opinion really mattered, and Shay was finally going to be able to prove himself.
Balthazar tried to regain the upper hand but Shay caught his blade with his own, and with an elegant twist of his wrist in a enveloppement, jerked his opponent’s sword from his hand and sent it flying through the air to land point down in the earth while Shay brought the blunted tip of his blade to the hollow of Bal’s throat. “Concede.”
Bal threw up his hands. “I concede!” As soon as the blade was lowered, however, he grinned wickedly. “This time.”
And back and forth it went. The sun had risen an hour’s span when Xavier called a halt and clapped them both on the shoulder. A warm spark of human fire passed between the three of them, their common element and purpose binding them as it always had.
“Well done, boys. Best to save your strength for the test.”
“Do you really think we’re ready?” asked Bal.
“Of course we are!”
Xavier gave him a sharp look. “Mind that pride of yours, young Shay.”
“Nothing wrong with having confidence, is there?”
“By the Saint’s, you’ve no shortage of that.”
Mama wanted to go with them, of course, and hire a fine carriage outside the Gate, but Xavier stepped in and explained that it wouldn’t look proper for young swordsmen to appear at the Razor Duelist Guild in such a fashion.
Before they left, however, she drew Shay and his sister aside into her suite of rooms, sweeping ahead of them in her silk and lace.
The sitting room was lavishly but tastefully appointed with velvet and gilt. She settled on the sofa and gazed up at the two of them, but it was Shay she spoke to. “Are you certain you want to do this, my love? I’ve left well enough alone all these years. Can’t you?”
Shay sat down beside her and took her hand. “No, not anymore, Mama. It’s my right.”
“And what do you say, Shayla? This concerns you as much as him.”
The young woman shrugged. “I’ve chosen my path with the Hospitalers Guild. Shay must choose his.”
“Very well.” Mama sighed, then went to her bedchamber and returned with a yellowed envelop sealed with a dusty wax notary stamp. She held it to her heart for a moment, then handed it to Shay. “Use it wisely, my darling. For once in your life, don’t be impetuous.”
Shay took it and kissed her on both cheeks. “Don’t worry, Mama. I’m not a child anymore.”
The household bid them a rowdy farewell from the steps of the Silk Purse as Shay and Bal set off in their fine new dueling leathers with their rapiers at their sides and practice blades slung across their backs.
At midday in high summer, most of the Gate dwellers were asleep or at least keeping out of the sun. Among the few they did meet were Emil Lacosta, the Zimbolay tome mage who sold love potions to some of the courtesans, and the man’s silent bodyguard, Mariella. Emil returned Shay’s wave with his usual dignified nod.
As they rounded a last turn, the Black Gate loomed before them. On this side, and that which faced the city outside, it was covered in carvings of skulls and serpents. At its center a huge feathered skull stood out in relief, and travelers rode in and out through its gaping mouth. Shay was careful not to look too closely at any of these carvings, either, but thought he heard a sort of sigh that wasn’t anything to do with the gritty breeze blowing over the stonework.
More than mere landmark or way point, the Gate was the demarcation between the closed and shadowed world of the ullamalitzli and the wider world of Taux proper. As if to underscore this division, when they emerged from its shadow, someone shouted, “Now, there’s a fine pair of Gate rats! Someone fetch the cat!”
Half a dozen young dandies in slashed silk doublets and feathered caps lounged in the shade of an awning in front of a chocolate house, sipping champurrado from colorfully glazed cups. Only a few wore swords and those were tied up with fancy ribbons.
“I’m surprised your voice is so deep, No Balls,” Shay drawled back.
As he expected, the chocolate drinkers shouted more insults but were too lazy or cowardly to actually come after them. Gate dwellers had a nasty reputation in Taux and it often served them well.
The streets names were painted on the corners of buildings at the intersections here. They strode through the tenements of Division and Milagro, then Shay turned aside onto Ruby Lane.
“By the saints, Shay, now?” groaned Balthazar.
“We have time.”
Ruby led up hill into the Golden Jaguar District, home to high class merchants of all races, wealthy Aspara and Jai-Ruk, and guild leaders. The house he sought was a grand three-story confection built of pink granite, with white pillars in front of the entrance. It was surrounded by green lawns with fountains and beds of colorful tropical flowers, all shaded by feathery pepper trees. A tall, spiked iron fence guarded it all from the likes of Gate rats like Shay and Bal.
On one of the lawns near the front gate, some of the family were playing Serpent’s Head, batting the feathered shuttlecock back and forth with small racquets amid much laughter while their nurse sat dozing in the shade beside a wicker cradle.
There were five children in all today counting the baby, but it was the oldest two who held Shay’s attention; Robert and Esmeralda would be celebrating their eighteenth birthdays tomorrow.
“Come on,” Bal muttered.
Just then, one of the younger children batted the shuttlecock too hard and sent it whistling over the fence to land in the middle of the street.
The twins turned as one. Robert said something to his sister and she ran to the fence, blond curls flying, cheeks flushed. “You there!” she called, giving them a sweet, apologetic smile. “Forgive me, sirs, I don’t know your names. Could one of you please toss that back?” She grasped the bars of the fence, like a pretty little caged monkey in linen and lace.
“Of course—” Bal began.
But Shay stepped forward and picked up the toy, made of yellow and green parrot feathers stuck into a little rubber tip. He could easily have crushed it and tossed it at her feet, but instead he went and placed it in her outstretched hand. His fingers lightly brushed her palm as he did so and he heard her breath catch. She was still smiling up at him, but more shyly now, and the pink flush of her cheeks was a bit darker. He guessed it had little to do with the elemental spark that passed between them; he often had such an effect on girls, even without it. And some boys, too.
“Thank you, sir,” she said. “I’m Esmeralda Serata, daughter of Esmer Serata. May I know your name?”
It was so tempting to blurt out the truth, but this wasn’t the time or place.
“Balthazar,” he replied with his most charming smile. “Balthazar Della Nova.”
“Then thank you, Balthazar Della Nova.” And with that she ran back to the game. Robert, who’d been looking on all this time, lingered a moment longer, regarding the two of them with what appeared to be more than simple curiosity.
Shay made him a small bow and set off back the way he’d come.
“Lovely pair, that,” murmured Bal.
Shay laughed. “Aren’t they?”