Perfect Shadow

Page 6

"Made it up," Ben said. "My own master only did bladed weapons." He grabbed a pair of sais off the wall and slowly faded from sight. Embracing the shadows, he called it. In bright light, it reduced him to a man-size smudge of inky blackness-nothing close to invisibility, nothing close to what Gaelan could do with the aid of his ka'kari-but on a dark night it was pretty damn good.
He could muffle his steps, too.
They trained with every weapon imaginable. Ben was fast, and Gaelan was a fast learner. Ben was obviously impressed with the warrior, though Gaelan tried to hide some of his more impressive skills. Ben also mentioned other wetboy skills that he himself didn't practice and gave Gaelan an enormous tome of poisons: "My master had, uh, an accident before he could teach me most of this, and I'm a bad reader."
"That's awfully generous."
"Don't worry. I'm charging Gwinvere for it."
Ah. Ben couldn't read the coded notations, so the book was worthless to him, but it wasn't the kind of thing you could fence. Who'd buy it? If someone did, they might be your enemy. Far better to charge a friend full price and make it their problem. Clever.
Ben wasn't much help with disguises, though, saying with his scars he wasn't going to pass as anything other than himself.
He watched Gaelan shoot the bow, nailing a bull's-eye ten times in a row from a hundred paces-Gaelan was justly famous for his archery-and said, "Looks like we won't need to cover that."
Gaelan couldn't master the art of throwing his voice, though. Ben could mimic voices perfectly, as well-something Gaelan was certain was akin to the more massive sorts of body magic he himself did.
Teaching Ben a few of his own tricks would have been only fair, but much as Gaelan liked Ben, the man was a stone killer. Gaelan wasn't going to teach a wetboy those abilities.
One day, two weeks in, they were fighting sickle against chain spear. They'd been working for ten hours, sweating copiously from the fire they kept going in the room to refill their Talents. Ben threw off his tunic and Gaelan saw the rest of the man's scars for the first time.
The Friaki were much more likely to scar with keloids than people of other nations: their bodies pushing scars outward, giving them a raised appearance. Ben Wrable was covered with self-inflicted keloid scars from his neck to his fingertips.
"I was a gorathi's son. A prince, if you will. I was kidnapped as a young boy from my clan. A great insult to my father. In Friaku, a son is his father's strength. I was brought here and sold into the Death Games, where I excelled. When I won my freedom, I went back to Friaku, but my clan had been massacred long ago. No one knew their names. For all I know, the slave traders lied, and I'm just a peasant's son. I'll never know."
The Friaki had a taboo against speaking about the dead. Ben might have spoken to his own uncle, and if he hadn't approached the subject just the right way, the man would have denied knowing anything. Not having been raised there, Ben wouldn't have known.
"What's that one for?" Gaelan asked. Most of the scars appeared to be gibberish. Designs interspersed with guesses at Friaki script. In the center of his chest, though, he had cut a large circle, split halfway by a single line, straight down his sternum. That scar had been cut and recut many times.
"I had a pendant, made of two iron horseshoe nails. It was taken from me when I came to train for the Death Games. I cut it into myself so I'd never forget. No one I spoke to in Friaku had seen it before. Have you?"
"No," Gaelan lied. Ben Wrable was a man cut off from a home he would never know. A man who'd been destroyed while still a child . A man trying to hold on to one small thing, driven near madness trying to hold on to his Friaki identity, because he sure as hell didn't belong anywhere else.
Besides, referents change, especially the referents of universal symbols like lines and circles. And it had been a long time since Gaelan had lived in Friaku.
But the truth was Gaelan just didn't have the heart to tell Ben what it really meant.
There is no heroism.
There is no justice.
There is no heaven.
Gaelan wasn't dressed in black. It wasn't night. He wore a plain blue tradesman's tunic and a big, worn hat, and he had his cloak draped over his lap. He was sitting on the ruined base of an old statue-long since torn down-and eating a loaf of bread and cutting sausage to go with it. The sun was going down, and this Warrens market bordering the Plith River was beginning to close for the day. A few stalls would stay open for another hour or so, hawking hot food for those heading home. But the boat shops that came and docked and sold their wares were already pushing off, not willing to spend the night docked in the crime-ridden Warrens.
It was busy, but not packed. Gaelan saw his target enter the market from the far side. He was a plain man, could have been a tradesman himself. But Gwinvere's sketch had been very good. It was the wetboy, Nils Skelling. He was reputed to be the best man alive with an axe, despite his small stature. Great climber. Fearless swimmer. Excellent in unarmed combat, said to have killed fifteen Lae'knaught Lancers with his bare hands. Said to have quite a sense of humor, too. Nils was walking along the edge of the pier. The crowd tended to be thinner there, because sometimes when the crowd suddenly swelled, those at the edge would get pushed into the sewage-befouled water.
A wetboy wasn't worried about such a thing.
There is no sixth sense.
There is no hell but life, and death is worse.
Gaelan coughed a few times, pounded his chest, and walked, still eating, cutting a piece of sausage. Among the bustling, wheezing, sniffling masses, he might as well have been invisible.
The wetboy passed between Gaelan and the water. In his eyes, Gaelan saw murder. It was enough. Gaelan slammed the knife into the man's kidney. A lethal blow, and so painful you couldn't cry out. In an instant, with the hand under his folded cloak, Gaelan clipped a lead weight to the wetboy's belt, and with a hand of magic, he propelled the man gently toward the water.
Still walking purposefully, putting distance between them, Gaelan faked another loud coughing fit to draw attention to himself as the wetboy sank to his knees, and slipped right off the pier into the water. The slight sound of him hitting the waves was covered by Gaelan's coughing. The weights dragged the body into the depths. And it was done.
There is no glory.
There is no light.
There is only victory.
"You can't tell me once you start killing," Ben Wrable said. "I'm still bound by my oath to the Shinga. If I know of a direct threat, I'll have to go report it. You understand? Not 'I'll have to do it because I'm so honorable'-it's a magical compulsion."
Clever Ben Wrable, he knew exactly the bounds of his compulsion, and with Gaelan, he was pressing right against them.
"If the Shinga orders it, I'll have to try to kill you, Gaelan. So you need to do your business before they even know it. I won't have taught you everything, but if you're successful, I can teach you the rest at our leisure. I report to the Shinga in two weeks. He doesn't always remember to do so, but if he asks if I know of any threats to him, I'll have to answer honestly."

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