Perfect Shadow

Page 2

"Quickly, would you?" the baron said. "I'm going to die of a burst bladder here."
No, you're not.
The light above steadied as the soldier put it on a hook, and then the door closed.
A moment later, I heard the baron swear, mumbling to himself, "...swine. Can't even piss without missing the hole…whoreson Alitaerans." There was a rustle of clothing as he dropped his trousers, and his ass blocked out the light over the middle privy. "...wines from Seth, chef from the best Modaini…Probably shat on the edge on purpose."
He was a lean man, but the wood groaned slightly where I'd incised the larger circle. But it didn't give way. Not yet.
I let him finish his business. Never say I'm not a gentleman.
I was once the avatar of retribution. Now I just try to be polite.
A moment later, the baron disappeared down the privy without a trace. When his soldiers grew suspicious and checked, he was simply gone. You'll forgive me if I don't dwell on the details. You see, this isn't the tale of Baron Rikku's death. It's the tale of mine.
But afford me a moment for my professional pride and let me say this: in the Chateau Shayon, no one ever again shat unworried.
"What I don't understand is why you came to Cenaria. There's nothing here. It's a hole," Yvor Vas says. He's a skinny, freckled redhead who-improbably enough-hails from Ladesh.
"They don't know me here," I say. I'm drinking ale. He's drinking ootai-all Ladeshians are addicted to the bitter drink, apparently even the redheaded ones-in a little safe house I'd purchased in the Warrens on the edge of swampland. This conversation is too dangerous to risk it being overheard. "In the last fifty years, I've become famous in most of the great nations. There've been so many wars, and I always seem to end up in the middle of them."
He says, "You were Vin Craysin in eastern Alitaera, Tal Drakkan in Seth, Gorrum Quesh in Modai, and Pips McClawski in western Alitaera?" Trying to impress.
"You know I found a collector who had Pips's dice in Aenu? And no, I wasn't Gorrum Quesh, though I fought with him for a time. You Society folk, always so curious." I wasn't Vin Craysin either, but I don't like to reveal all of my cards, even when it doesn't matter.
"The Society of the Second Sun would like to be an asset for you, Master Starfire. Allies who will help you, regardless of your circumstances. Think of it!"
"I have," I say. I pause, deep in thought. "And I want to tell you everything."
His eyes light up.
Everyone thinks they're special. It's what makes lying so easy.
"Gaelan Starfire! What an honor. Thank you for agreeing to meet me." Gwinvere Kirena owned the kind of beauty that made a man remember being twelve and unable to speak in the presence of a girl. Gaelan had met great beauties before. The truth was, most of the encounters left him convinced that people were idiots. Great beauties and stunningly handsome men were accorded virtues: people found them funnier, smarter, more insightful than they actually were.
Conversely, he'd met women reputed to be great beauties who'd been merely attractive but with great confidence, charm, eeing tivacity. Gwinvere Kirena might be the former, but she definitely wasn't the latter. He'd heard her described as "the courtesan of the age." She was maintained by many men, owned by none. And this, at perhaps thirty years old.
His pause had to have been obvious, but Gaelan guessed Gwinvere was used to men finding lead in their tongues-and iron in their…elsewhere. "It's not my usual kind of gathering, but you roused my curiosity," Gaelan said .
He was looking at her eyes, not her generous cleavage, as he said "roused." A beauty, much less a courtesan, would be accustomed to men's advances, from the most vulgar to the most genteel. Her eyes gave away nothing. Either she'd missed it, didn't care, or she chose not to give anything away.
"Are you enjoying the party?" she asked.
Gaelan's back stiffened. It was a masque, held in some absent lord's rented manse. He hadn't seen such degeneracy since the waning days of the first Alitaeran Empire. He was reasonably handsome and very athletic, but no less than three women had groped him in the time between his coming through the front door and coming to this study. He'd even recognized one of them-the young wife of an earl, her face covered with a swan mask, and not much else covered at all. She'd laughed and addressed her friends by name, apparently not concerned about being identified. Gaelan hadn't seen anyone actually copulating, but the night was young.
"It's been an education," he said.
Gwinvere Kirena herself had opted for a thin, high-collared, shockingly red dress perfectly cut to show every curve. She was bedecked with narrow gold chains, crossing between her breasts, bound with a padlock that hung in front of her hips. On a ribbon choker around her neck, she wore a little golden key. Some tailor's fantasy of a Khalidoran harem girl, complete with chastity belt.
"I held it for you," she said.
"I've never had anyone hold an orgy for me," he said honestly. Not in 680 years.
She chuckled. "I was testing your rectitude," she said. A slight pause before rectitude. Setting him up for the double entendre, if he wished. Allowing him to pursue her, if he wished.
But what she meant was that she was seeing if Gaelan Starfire would turn around and leave such a party before he even met her, or if he would tolerate debauchery. What kind of a man is Gaelan Starfire? she was asking.
A good test, devised by an incisive mind.
"Say your piece. You didn't invite me here for my wit, or my cock."
Her eyes widened for a moment, then a smile curved her full, rouged lips. She lay back against her divan. "I hadn't thought I had," she said. "You're making me reconsider."
He folded his hands behind his back, legs apart, bearing military.
Her eyes played over his figure. She said, "Gaelan Starfire, farmer from nowhere turned hero of the Ceuran Campaigns, master of the longbow, master of the warhammer. Single-handedly freed a hundred of his imprisoned comrades. Five times refused promotions. Held the ridge at the Battle of Blood Grass all by himself. Suspected of being Talented, but twice refused to be examined by the Sisters. Quarreled bitterly with totlitaeran commander, and then left suddenly. Recently accused of murder and hunted by armies from Alitaera and Ceura both."
"Stories. Half true at best. They bore me."
"The Alitaeran commander turned up dead a month later," she said.
"Really?" he said, too slowly. How could she know that? "Serves that bastard right."
"When he recruited you, he promised you vengeance on the Ceurans, didn't he." It wasn't a question. "Then he took their bribe to call off the campaign." Again, not a question.
"So you think I'm a murderer. You want me as an assassin?" Gaelan asked. "What? Some pretty rival slight you? A lover spurn you?"
He intended her to take offense. Wanted to see her angry.
She smiled indulgently. Full lips, beautiful smile, light in her eyes at being challenged. Enjoying being challenged. "I'm Sa'kagé, Gaelan."

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