“No,” said the wizard Iskola, pointing a polished fingernail toward her half-sister, Luma. “Not you.”
Luma sank further into her characteristic shoulder-slump. Though older than Iskola, she looked younger. She owed her callow appearance, at least in part, to the elven blood which her five siblings, children of her father and stepmother, did not share. Together, her lithe frame, wide eyes, and boyish figure conspired to hang about her neck an unshakable air of adolescence. Her siblings, who were also her teammates, had learned—or perhaps been taught, by her unkempt red hair, her shrinking posture, her downcast gaze—to treat her not as a woman, but as the runt of the litter. It was her own damn fault, but that realization had so far not helped her one whit in altering the way they regarded her.
Iskola, her black-clad body a thin and twisted reed, towered over Luma. Her headpiece, a complex of lacquered, intertwining loops constructed from her own raven hair, magnified the imperious effect. A stiff laced collar and dark fingerless gloves, also of lace, completed the outre look the city of Magnimar relished in its highborn magicians.
Luma forced herself into a rigid posture. “We’re to guard a gem from thieves, and you want to leave behind the mind-reader?”
Iskola sighed. “No one wants a mind-reader, and you’d be best to stop describing yourself as such. Go back to calling yourself a streetseer if you must. Or citywalker. Or cobblestone druid. Those are all strange enough.”
“I wasn’t proposing to introduce myself, period.”
Iskola’s hand flitted out, as if tempted to seize one of Luma’s stray hanks of hair and tuck it back into place. She aborted the gesture, locking hands behind her narrow waist. “When Lord Vetillus hires Magnimar’s most expensive city warriors to stand sentry at his soiree, we are as much a signal of his prestige as is the Bandu Emerald. Were any of his guests to so much as infer that one of us was busy trawling their innermost mental wanderings, we would be failing our duty.”
“And giving cause for a refund.” Arrus, the squad’s swordsman and Iskola’s twin, squared his broad shoulders and jutted his blocky chin.
“Honestly, Luma.” Iskola bustled in her whickering skirt toward the squad room door. “When people learn you perform the magic of the streets, they assume you were born on them. Until you learn to present yourself as a scion of a founding house, simple wisdom forces us to exclude you from certain missions.”
Luma scanned the others for flickers of sympathy. Eibadon, the family ecclesiast, settled his jowly features into an imperturbable dullness. Ulisa, robed master of the unarmed fighting arts, held fast to her serenity, even as a yellow moth flitted around her shaved head. Only Ontor—top-knotted, leather-clad—let a glimmer of feeling hint across his long and hawkish face.
“Mouse,” he said, “Think of it as being excused from an evening of apocalyptic boredom.”
“Read one of your books,” Arrus said, and departed, carrying the others in his wake.
Luma followed him into the manor hallway, hung with portraits of each Lord Derexhi, from its legendary founding warrior Aitin to her father, Randred. Next to the painting of a heroic, virile Randred stood the real man, his brow creased, his beard now gray and wild.
“Let them go,” he said, voice feather-soft. Father and daughter watched the rest of the squad troop down the stuccoed hallway. “Ontor may have been right. About the boredom of that assignment.”
“Listening in, I see.”
Dimples broke across the old warrior’s face. “The successful man of arms pays close heed to his forces. Doubly so when they’re his children.” He patted her shoulder. “What say we show them up, and give you a juicy task?”
Luma rarely gets the respect she deserves.
Randred guided her to the library, where he poured her a goblet of Riverspire red and topped up his own to match.
Luma sipped. The wine was subtle and deep, with a caky finish. “Juicy, you say?”
“Well…” Randred eased into his favorite chair. “No doubt I exaggerate. But you’ll be working for a dead man. That’s a novelty, at least.”
Luma perched on the arm of his chair. “Who’s the dead man, and what am I to do for him?”
Randred reached over to a side table for a contract inscribed on a sheet of vellum. “The client’s name is—or was—Aruhal. A retired explorer of some kind. One with enemies, apparently. Several years ago, he placed a standing order for us to perform an investigation for him, to be triggered in, quote, “the event of my untimely demise,” unquote. We are to ascertain if his death was natural or not. Further instructions apply if we find he was in fact murdered.”
“An agent of House Derexhi is to secure the funerary urn containing his ashes and place it in front of his killer.”
As Luma stepped out onto the Derexhi House portico, the citysong came to her, its manifold voices rushing to fill her mystic awareness. Its harmonies manifested not only sounds, transmitted through magical connection to her mind’s ear, but accompanying sensations as well. The dominant notes were those of her own neighborhood and present location, the Marble District. Among them she sensed the whispering tread of servants’ slippers, steam rising from laundry kettles, the barbed laughter of wits and gossips, and the old-fashioned spiced perfumes of its wealthy matrons.
Underneath these rang distant melodies from other quarters of her beloved city. Clanking counting-house coins in Naos percussed against the scratching quills of Capital District scribes. Waves lapped against Dockway piers, dueting with the tapping chisels of the Golemworks. Soldiers drilled in Arvensoar Plaza, their grunts and footfalls joining the wafting strains of cornets and tambourines from raucous Lowcleft. The hunger of Rag’s End wretches crashed against the excess of Alabaster’s gourmands. Priests doubted, thieves shared their takes with beggars, and whores fell in love. Below all of these thrummed the ancient bass drone of the Irespan, the great and ruined stone bridge said to house a legion of monsters within its hollow depths.
Together the contradictions somehow made a whole—the city Luma loved, and which loved her in turn. Periodically, it proved its affections with a gift, a new trick it would teach her. A polyglot town of foreign traders, it showed her the key to understanding any language. It had taught her to borrow the jumpings of its spiders, to mantle herself in morning fog, and to always find her way.
Luma needed no such magic to reach her destination. She strode the Boulevard of Messengers, passing gilded carriages and brocaded bravos atop high-strung white steeds. On the Way of Arches, an honor guard of bleached statues loomed, dwarfing her and the city functionaries in their ink-stained tunics. Buyers and sellers choked the Avenue of Honors, and then she was turning down smaller streets, weaving through alleys with no markers to proclaim their names, led only by her flawless recollection of the city. At last the map in her head told her that she’d reached Barrel Way—Aruhal’s address as of five years ago, when he’d paid for the services she would now render.
It was a common enough scene. Here huddled residences of Magnimar’s striving class—the merchants, burghers, and brokers who fattened the city treasury and sought approval from old families like the Vetilluses, the Scarnettis, and indeed, the Derexhi. Built tall and thin, the buildings adjoined, as if uniting for support. Small plots of land in front of each served as battlegrounds for a competition of decoration. Tiny gardens overflowing with tangled, exotic flowers encroached on sparer arrangements of rocks and statues.
Luma was about to stop a hustling fat-purse in an ermine-trimmed cloak to ask where Aruhal lived when she spotted windows draped with black mourning bunting. The house that went with them hunkered like a poor relation next to its well-kept neighbors. Paint peeled from the trim. Oilskin stood in for several windowpanes. Instead of a garden or collection of stone figures, its front yard boasted only broken paving stones.
Unlatching and swinging open the rust-kissed iron gate, Luma made her way to the door. Its knocker twigged her curiosity. A metallic ring about a foot and a half in diameter, it was formed with an unusual precision. Beveled outer edges had been dulled with a file, scratching the ring’s smooth surface, and Luma guessed that they had once been razor-sharp. Clearly, knocking on doors had not been the object’s original purpose. Luma used it anyway.
After some shuffling from inside the house, the door opened a crack. Luma saw a fraction of a pale face peering out at her. The eye, like hers, was enlarged compared to a full-blooded human, but still showed a white sclera, as a full elf’s would not.
Its owner spoke in a husky rasp. “What is it?”
Luma adopted her most authoritative posture, aped from her brother Arrus. “I am Luma, of House Derexhi. May I come in?”
The Derexhi and their retainers were not official lawkeepers, but because Magnimar employed few of these, citizens sometimes treated them as such. If Luma were lucky, this woman would take the cue, overlooking the ‘quasi’ in their quasi-official status.
She didn’t. “What for?”
“Your husband hired us for a job.”
“My husband’s dead.”
“That’s why I’m here. If you let me in, I’ll explain.”
“I don’t know.” The woman, Luma saw, wasn’t so much looking at her as past her, into the street.
“You appear anxious.”
“My husband had enemies.”
“That’s what I’m here for. To protect you.” This was not so much a lie, Luma consoled herself, as something that might turn out to be true, depending.
The door swung open; Luma slipped inside.
The house smelled of yeast and cinnamon. Flour spotted an apron slung around the woman’s waist. Sweat glistened on her brow, sticking loose strains of white-blond hair to her prominent forehead. Her lips joined together in a worried bow, exposing a slight overbite. Though scarcely a judge of feminine allure, Luma reckoned that these were the sorts of imperfections that would attract rather than repel male assessment. Her beauty had a wildness about it, but it was beauty all the same.
The widow gestured Luma toward a sitting room. Luma rejected a scuffed chair in favor of a divan, tufts of batting poking through tears in its upholstery. “I know your husband’s name, but not yours,” she started.
“Seriza.” The woman stood wavering in the middle of the room, feet planted on a worn boarskin rug. “You said Aruhal hired you?”
Luma nodded. “Five years ago. You said he had enemies. Apparently he worried that one of them would do him in. So he paid us to investigate his death.”
She parted the black bunting to peer out a window. “Then you’re not here to protect me at all.”
“Why is that?”
“He wasn’t done in. It was pleurisy.”
Luma craned to try to see what Seriza was looking at, but the angle was wrong. “If he died of natural causes, why are you so fearful?”
Seriza ducked down behind a cabinet.
A loud report came from the hallway, followed by the splintering of wood and then a louder thump. Luma leapt from the divan, fingers plunging into the soft leather pouch she wore at her hip—her trickbag, containing the objects she needed to work her street magic.
A florid-cheeked dwarf clad in heavy battle gear stood in the ruins of the shattered door. He stepped into the sitting room, brandishing a jagged war-axe.
“Where is it?” he demanded.
“Where is what?” Luma asked, withdrawing her hand from her trickbag. If it came to a fight, she could reach out to Magnimar’s spires and towers, gather their memories of the lightning that struck them with every thunderstorm, and from this summon a bolt of energy to strike the dwarf down. Unlike some of her other magics, it required no props, just concentration, a gesture, and a few words of entreaty to the city. But she was here to learn, not to do battle.
“Don’t play stupid with me.” The dwarf showed a mouth full of jagged, rotting teeth. “You know very well what.” He shook his axe for emphasis.
“I would like nothing more than to understand what you’re talking about.” Luma edged in front of the cabinet behind which Seriza cowered. “Start at the beginning, maybe?”
The dwarf peered past her at the widow. “You aren’t Aruhal’s wife?”
“I am Luma of House Derexhi, hired to perform a service on his behalf.”
The intruder elevated an eyebrow. He pointed his weapon at the cabinet. “She’s the widow?”
“Lay out your grievance, dwarf.” Luma spoke evenly, her confidence steady, as it always was when her siblings weren’t watching. She’d sooner face this frothing dwarf, outweighing her by two to one and bristling with menace, than a single exasperated glance from one of her sisters. “Perhaps I can sort it out.”
“You address Jordyar, warrior of the First Stone, son of Jordgar, true inheritor of the axe of Skrellim.” He hefted it again, this time as an expression of pride. “To speak ill of the dead is not my wont. But that woman’s husband was a liar, a cheat, a betrayer, and a thief from his own friends. Did you know Aruhal?”
Luma shook her head.
“Then you missed the chance to acquaint yourself with a kill-stealer and a credit-grabber. A blasphemer against the gods, a drunkard on watch, a coward in a scrap, and a tent-farter of the worst order.”