Blood of the City Sample Chapter
Wednesday, August 8, 2012
by Robin D. Laws
In Blood of the City, Luma Derexhi is a cobblestone druid, a spellcaster who fights alongside her siblings as Magnimar's most infamous and wealthy mercenary company. Yet despite being the oldest child, Luma gets little respect—perhaps due to her half-elven heritage. When a job gone wrong lands Luma in the fearsome prison called the Hells, everything she knows to be true begins to fall apart, leaving her to unravel a bloody web of lies and politics if she wants to survive...
Chapter Ten: Triodea
Arrus had been sitting on the grand staircase's lower steps, and jumped to his feet as Bhax and another of the servants hauled open the foyer doors. For a moment, Luma thought he might come down to wrap his arms around her. When he reached her, stopped short, and put his hands on hips, she saw the absurdity of her assumption.
"What are you smiling at?" he asked.
"I'm not," Luma answered, realizing that she was, a little. Trying not to smirk made it worse.
Iskola tried to steer her around him. "Let it rest, Arrus ..."
"Rest? We can hash this out here, or in the squad room, but we have to— Luma, what did you tell him?"
"Did you genuinely say nothing, or did you banter with him and trip yourself up?"
"There was nothing to say. He thinks one of you ordered me to murder Khonderian, and that I did so, on behest of a client."
"So you didn't do as I told you."
"When we got there," said Iskola, "we found Grobaras on the verge of apoplexy. From that, I judge Luma's performance more than adequate. Now let her wash up."
Arrus paced. "So did you succeed in drawing him out?"
"Someone saw me following Khonderian," said Luma. "That's all he has."
"And how did you let yourself be seen?"
"Can't say," Luma shrugged. "It's tough enough doing a one-person tail and not having your target see you. I don't recall being made, but then I wouldn't, would I?"
"You're awfully impertinent, given the cost of this failure."
"Maybe compared to the threat of a golem sawing my limbs off, being second-guessed by you isn't so terrifying."
Arrus stopped pacing. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"The mouse has a point," Iskola said.
Arrus wheeled on her. "You're her defender now?"
"Arrus, calm yourself."
"I don't need to be defended," Luma blurted. "I didn't fail. An operation threw a wheel. Happens all the time. To each and every one of us. It's how you recover that counts. And I recovered fine."
"Don't shriek at us, Luma," Arrus said.
"No, I'm going to say this and you're going to listen. I resign as family scapegoat. No longer will I accept this."
"You know very well. I comported myself perfectly in there. Same as you would have. I even have a lead."
"A lead?" Arrus asked.
"This thing, it has something to do with golems."
"What do you mean?"
"I don't know yet, I sense it ...the lord-mayor has a golem bodyguard, there's a golem uprising in Bridgeward ...it hasn't come together yet in my head, but it's all part of the same complex melody ..."
Arrus threw up his hands. "I'm sure that will hold up at the Justice Court. You hear the city sing to you ..."
Luma pointed at Iskola. "My magic is as real as hers. That's exactly what I mean. You're constantly denigrating me. All of you, but you more than everyone, Arrus. Because I let you. Well, this is my notice to the lot of you. Starting today, it stops."
Arrus turned to Iskola. "And I'm the one who has to calm himself?"
"Let's all of us pause for breath," Iskola responded. "This is what Grobaras wants. For us to turn on each other."
"Who hired us to track Khonderian?" Luma asked her.
Iskola passed her outer cloak to Bhax, who bore it away to the garderobe. "As soon as it's possible, I'll tell you. You have my word."
Luma pursued her out of the foyer and into the ballroom. The floor squeaked under her feet. "That's not good enough."
"It will have to be," Iskola answered.
Luma grabbed her and pulled her around. "I'm the one they're fixing to stick up on the gibbet!"
Iskola pulled her arm away. "I'll talk to the client. It will take some persuading."
"I don't care what you tell the client."
"Certain of our patrons find you an uneasy presence."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You're spooky. You lurk. You think the city talks to you."
"And nobody likes a girl who can steal their thoughts."
Luma stormed up the steps, headed for her father's room. This time, Yandine was nowhere in sight. Silently she turned the latch and peeked in. Her father sat propped against the head of his bed, a ledger in his lap. With a jittering finger he followed its entries. If he'd heard the argument through his chamber's thick walls, he betrayed no sign of it.
She slipped inside. "Father," she said.
Randred's features lit up. "You're back," he said. His expression clouded. "They mistreated you."
Shaking her head, Luma sat on the mattress' edge and wrapped her arms around him. He smelled of camphor. "Iskola showed up with political reinforcements before that could happen."
"Then that unpaid mission I upbraided Iskola for has more than justified itself," he said. "I owe her an apology."
"I am grateful for it," Luma said.
Before she could go on, Randred insisted on knowing all that had happened: in the coach, at the prison, before Grobaras. Luma's efforts to quickly summarize events fell before his frequent interjections. She gave him every detail.
"We've won the merest respite," he said, when he had wrung it all from her. "Grobaras believes he has you. He has always disliked us, as he does any force in the city outside of his control. Only the true killer, delivered to him on a platter, will move him from his assumption. No one will do this for us."
"Indeed," Luma said.
"But you must confine yourself here and let the others take point. Anything you do might be construed as cause to seize you again. And then all the Urtilia Scarnettis in Magnimar won't save you from the torturer's slab."
"Father, Grobaras doesn't just want me. It's all of us. He kept asking whether it was you who ordered Khonderian's murder, or Iskola. Whichever of us goes out will be exposed."
"But you most of all, Mouse."
"We need someone who can sneak, who can pry open loose lips. Ontor can't do it alone."
"Then I'll pull in dirt-sorters from other squads." He clutched his side.
"You're unwell," she said.
She considered telling him that she knew. And she would, soon. One battle at a time, she told herself. "I would never question your authority, Father."
He gave her a wan smile. "Which means you're about to."
Luma clutched his hand. It was cold. "I've come to a decision. If I'm belittled around here, it's my doing. I'm a Derexhi, and an adult. Older than them. As capable as any of them. The only way to earn their respect is by standing up to them. Starting now."
"Starting with what?"
"Iskola wants me off the streets, too. I'll be defying that order. If it means defying yours, too ..."
Randred dropped the ledger to the floor and held her. "Belay what I just said. I was talking nonsense. I've been suffering a touch of the rheum and it's fuddled my head. Of course you must act. Whatever the others say. This is Magnimar. No one here will give you respect if you fear to seize it."
Luma broke the embrace. "It is also Derexhi House. Where the same maxim applies."
Informing no one, Luma left early in the morning for the Triodea. She walked along the Avenue of Hours, where the warm winds of early spring came out to greet her. Gulls circled overhead; she felt their hunger and greed. Thinning clouds skidded through the sky, transforming it from gray to blue. In these signs—well, except for the gulls, gulls were a constant and didn't mean anything—she chose to find an omen. Her standing up for herself, and behaving like a woman instead of a girl, would be good for all. They would kick and complain; to adjust one's thinking is never pleasant or easy. When all the fuss was over, they would see the advantage in adding a full, equal partner to the squad. They would trust her better, and she, them. To fight without trust is to invite defeat.
As she trekked on, the sun rose higher. Traffic trickled on the avenue, then grew thicker. She passed ox-sellers, laborers, gilded carriages, bird-catchers, chimney sweeps, and a flag-draped cart carrying a troupe of traveling players. She ducked a wandering fortune-teller, warned a carter that a wheel was coming off, and stole a pickpocket's purse when he tried to take hers. Its contents she doled out to child beggars and blind men.
By the time the Avenue of Hours opened into the plaza housing the Triodea, the citysong had reached a peak, high and clear. Nowhere to Luma's senses was its sublimity purer than here. Mid-morning sun shone on the tripartite structure. It intensified on the long, white hangar of the Grand Stage and dulled on the gray surface of the adjoining concert hall. Bright-breasted birds gathered atop the reaching awning of the rooftop stage. The plaza, called the Starsilver, glittered beneath Luma's feet. In place of cobblestones, it was surfaced by tiles inlaid with pieces of reflective abalone shell. A well-scrubbed work crew took its unhurried time searching out broken tiles. When they found one in need of replacement, they gathered around in murmured colloquy. After prolonged contemplation, the crew leader nodded to an aide, who dipped a brush into a pot of soluble red paint, hunched down, and encircled the offending tile.
She strode over to them, greeting the crew captain by name: "Mordh!"
"Luma," he answered.
Luma passed around the last of the coins she'd taken from the pickpocket, which the tilemen pocketed without comment.
"Aren't you s'posed to be in the Hells?" Mordh asked.
"I like to think otherwise." She kept up with the crew as it resumed its hunt for faulty tiles. Luma spotted a cracked one before they did. They gathered around to peer at it. "You know a gnome named Noole? He frequents the performance halls. Fancies himself a poet."
"I never asked him his name," said Mordh, "but a fellow matching that description comes 'round now and again, to practice his quatrains on us."
"And cadge coins," added another of the tilemen, a tall man who wore his thinning hair close to the scalp.
"That too," said Mordh. "I prefer that to the verses."
"No," argued a gaunt third tileman, "the poems is good."
"Seen him lately?"
Mordh pointed across the plaza, to the doorway of one of the taverns installed in the Grand Stage's right flank. "Went in there an hour ago, thereabouts."
Luma left them with a wave of thanks. The gaunt tileman squatted to paint a red circle around the tile she'd pointed out. She wended her unobtrusive way through the plaza's sprawling foot traffic. At the tavern entrance, she held herself so that she seemed to be gazing up at the rooftop stage. In fact, she spotted Noole at a corner table, a flagon at his left elbow and a piece of vellum stretched out before him. He held his pen at an abstracted angle. She eased into the tavern.
The gnome spotted her and bolted. His table toppled, taking tankard, inkwell, pen, and poem with it. He dashed for the kitchen entrance. Luma followed. As she passed through the swinging doors, a jar hurtled at her head. She ducked; it hit the wall behind her, shattering. A cloud of flour puffed out from it. Now coated in white powder, Luma sprinted for Noole, who dove out a service door into the Grand Hall. The tavern's cook, swearing in the dwarven language, hurtled at her, waving his butcher's knife. She drew her sickle and smacked it out of his hand. The knife flew end over end before splashing into a pot of hot oil. Scalding droplets rained on the cook; Luma was already through the door.
Noole fled with surprising speed through the concert hall's plush lobby. He'd knocked a lantern from its sconce; panicked servants rushed to douse its flames before they spread. Luma sped past them. Her hand thrust into her pouch of spell objects, now replenished. Each of the vial tops had its own distinct texture, allowing her to quickly find the one with the cricket leg. She reached into the citysong for the sound of the chirping, jumping bugs, and pilfered a touch of their magic.
Luma jumped, and the city propelled her into the air. She grazed the dripping crystals of the great hall's chandeliers, leaving them rocking and tinkling. Breathing deep, she braced for the coming landing.
Her outstretched feet struck Noole in the back. She rolled, hitting the pedestal of a statue to a long-dead contralto. She made her way up, watching Noole as he rose and drew a rapier. Her own weapon lay on the rug a few feet away; she'd dropped it to avoid cutting herself as she landed. Feigning dismay, she let him come at her midsection. The thin sword jabbed skillfully at her. With equal aplomb, she evaded the thrust. Continuing the motion, she snatched up her sickle and dove at her opponent. He kept her at bay with a feint of his blade. They circled one another, Luma leaving ghostings of flour wherever she stepped.
"I can't guess what you want with me," the gnome said, "but I want nothing to do with you."
"Drop your weapon and I'll explain," Luma answered.
He held it out as if ready to let it go, then lunged. The blade caught Luma on the side of the neck. It hurt, but she could tell the wound was only superficial. She swiped at his legs with her sickle; he hopped back with flamboyant ease. Adopting a perfect fencing stance, he waited for her to come at him.
His moves so far revealed one fighting style disguised as another. Noole added flourishes to what was, at its core, a cautious waiting game of precisely timed blows. He was waiting for Luma to make a mistake he could capitalize on. In this, and in his general deftness and quick reactions, he favored an approach to combat that was also Luma's. One patient, calculating scrapper faced another.
This could go on all day.
"What was your business with Khonderian?" Luma asked.
"That name is naught but a distant wisp of fading recollection."
She faked a strike; he didn't fall for it. "Set aside your perfumed words, poet."
"It reflects ill on you, to say ‘poet' like it's an insult." He faked a strike; she didn't fall for it.
"I saw him pay you off in Bridgeward, on the street of taverns. What for?"
"Surely you've mistaken me for another gnome of equal handsomeness."
White light filled the lobby. Luma glanced back to see what had changed, at the same time anticipating and deflecting an expected blow. She caught the gnome's rapier in the crook of her sickle and twisted it from his hand.
Workmen had opened one of the large entry doors to toss out the still-smoking rug. Luma decided on a stratagem. She shouted with inarticulate, feigned bloodlust and came at the gnome with apparent recklessness. Noole sidestepped her; she pretended to trip and fall into the wall, her sickle lodging in its flocked surface.
If the gnome turned out to be more interested in finishing her than in escaping, this would prove a terrible error.
But Luma was right: he took the opportunity not to strike at her, but to scoop up his rapier and sprint for the open doors.
This gave her the time and distance she needed to call on another of the city's boons. She attuned herself to the crunch of pebbles and grains of sand underfoot. She called to bits of gravel strewn on rooftops and trapped in their eaves. Through the citysong she plucked stones from the soles of boots. All of these she gathered together in an enfolding, spiraling wind.
Noole is always the center of attention.
As Noole reached the threshold, a thick hail of stone and gravel did too. It struck him in the chest and face, sending him back on his heels. Stunned, he tottered and fell. Luma, who was already running, jumped on him, a foot on his emptied sword-hand and the curve of her sickle around his throat.
"I can kill you, or buy you a drink," she said. "Which will it be?"
He twitched his mustache at her. "It's not yet noon. So I'll stick to ale."
The daytime house manager, kitted in a uniform of rich green and velvet, hovered warily nearby. Luma handed him Noole's sword, daggers, and throwing knives. "You're going to hold on to these while the gentleman and I repair for private conversation," she told the manager, who gulped in frightened assent. She removed Noole's ensorceled rings, which substituted for armor, and handed those over, too.
To her surprise, she found no burglar's kit on his person. From his way of fighting, she'd pegged him as a footpad. Judging from his accoutrements, the gnome was instead a swordsman—plain, though hardly simple.
"We'll return for these shortly," she told the manager. "If all goes well." Later she'd return to the tavern where her chase had wreaked havoc and arrange for payment of damages. For the moment, she escorted Noole across the plaza to a rival establishment, the Sock and Buskin. Around a central table, actors half-heartedly recited lines, committing them to memory.
Noole winced. "Not The Inconstant Nymph again! What a chestnut!" He cupped his hand theatrically to the side of his mouth and shouted, "Stage something new for once!"
The eldest of the actors, who held himself with an impresario's authority, stood up. "Cleave to your sonnets, hack!"
Noole wandered toward their table. "You're not playing Donatio, surely. That part is thirty years too young for you."
The impresario threw Noole the tines. Luma took Noole by the arm and led him to a corner table.
Luma took the bench, leaving Noole the chair, where his back would be exposed to the room. The gnome settled in. "A hail of stones. Never seen that one before."
"Need I repeat the question?"
"You're not the one they say murdered old Khonderian, are you?"
Luma felt herself bridle.
Noole's eyes glittered. "You are, you are. Well, I daresay you don't seem the murdering type. Else you'd have opened my throat too."
The barmaid, whose blasé demeanor and overly painted face led Luma to think of her as a disappointed ex-actress, ambled to their table.
"I'll have a pint of Old Asmodeus, and so will she," said Noole. "And your cured meat plate, and your cheese plate, and shall we say the pickle assortment?" He cracked his fingers together.
"No drink for me," said Luma.
"Have you had the Old Asmodeus?" Noole asked.
"Then she'll take the half-pint and at least taste it," Noole told the barmaid, who shuffled off.
Luma leaned in. "I suppose I should ask if you killed Khonderian."
"Me? Why would I?"
"What was he paying you for?"
Noole sighed. "The life of a versifier can be at times a chancy one. Yet for all its material deprivations, I am blessed with the chance to ascend and descend the social ladder. Oft times in the same afternoon. Along the way, one picks up scraps—sometimes a fine duck rillette, sometimes a pregnant rumor. "
"You were his informant."
"I prefer gossip. The other sounds impersonal."
"And what intelligence earned you that clinking purse the other night?"
The barmaid made her way over, carrying the first of the food plates. Noole rubbed his hands together. "I am no gentleman poet. To keep a roof over my head, I must at times resort to the unconventional."
"You were squatting in a Qadiran trader's house in Grand Arch."
He popped a chunk of blue cheese into his mouth. "If only I had a critic who followed me as avidly as you, my peach." He frowned. "Don't blush, child. I mean nothing by it."
"Don't call me child."
"At Grand Arch, did you happen to notice any skulky characters about?"
"Across the way from you."
"Yes. A small troop of highly armed men and women, their every furtive glance broadcasting ill intent. I crept over there one night, as I am wont to do. They spoke with Korvosan accents. Alas, I heard little of their discourse. They did have a map of the city up on the wall. Stuck there with a dagger. A breach of squatter's etiquette, I must say."
Luma nibbled absently on a piece of cured boar. "And that's all you told Khonderian?"
"He wanted me to do some more creeping about. I left that open as a possibility."
"But never followed through?"
"The muse led me elsewhere." He shoved the tankard, which she hadn't touched, toward her. "Try it. Strongly hopped, with a hint of persimmon."
She took a grudging sip. "Why go to the head of the lord-mayor's bodyguard? Why not the lord justice?"
"My tittle-tattle is of a political nature, chiefly, and of little interest to the law." He drained the last of his ale. "Also, Khonderian paid well. The city guard can scarcely afford blade polish."
"And you have no guess as to why Khonderian was killed?"
He gestured to the barmaid for another Old Asmodeus. "It can't have anything to do with me. Speaking of which, his departure leaves a gaping void in my future earnings. Surely you Derexhi could stand to enlarge your network of informants."
"We cultivate unpaid sources."
"Then I venture to say you're missing a trick." With one swipe he cleared the meat plate of its olives. "Let's talk advance."
Luma stood. "Let's go get your weapons back to you."
"My second tankard hasn't arrived. Listen, I hate to argue from need. I can impose on dear old Lady Khedre for a week or so in her servant's quarters, but do so hesitantly. Ours is an association that wilts under the heat of prolonged proximity. Khonderian's payment was not so generous as you may have assumed ..."
Luma paid the barmaid. "Drink up, gnome. I'll tell the manager he's free to give you your sword when you come to ask for it."
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Coming Next Week: A brand new, standalone story featuring Luma and her family!
Robin D. Laws is the author of the Pathfinder Tales novels Blood of the City and The Worldwound Gambit, as well as the Pathfinder's Journals for the Serpent's Skull Adventure Path and the Skull & Shackles Adventure Path. In addition, he's written six other novels; various short stories, web serials, and comic books; and a long list of roleplaying game products. His novels include Pierced Heart, The Rough and the Smooth, and the Angelika Fleischer series for the Black Library. Robin created the classic RPG Feng Shui and such recent titles as Mutant City Blues, Skulduggery, and the newly redesigned HeroQuest 2. Those interested in learning more about Robin are advised to check out his blog.
Illustration by Eric Belisle.