In The Dagger of Trust, Chris Willrich introduces us to Gideon Gull, an Andoren musician training at one of Taldor's greatest bardic colleges—and not just as an artist. For in the secret halls beneath the school, Gideon studies to become a Lion Blade, one of Taldor's elite espionage agents. When a mysterious fog starts turning ordinary men and women into rabid monsters, it's up to Gideon and a team of his friends to stop the chaos. But in the murky world of international politics, there's always more at stake than just a few lives...
Chapter Two: Chamber Music for Three Assassins
Taking leave of the headmaster, Gideon raced into the building upon whose roof he'd greeted the day. Footfalls echoed through halls of dwarf-cut stone from the World's Edge Mountains and timber from the grim druids of the Verduran Forest.
Even corridor acoustics concerned the Rhapsodic College.
Weaving and dodging, Gideon passed classrooms, recital halls, dance studios, practice rooms, and the big performance hall, until he reached twin oaken doors carved with musical notes.
The smells of paper, leather, vellum, and papyrus greeted his nose. A gruff "Howzit, Mister Gull?" from the gnome librarian greeted his ears. Wintry light glowed through stained-glass windows depicting the rainbow-tailed bird of the goddess Shelyn and the purple butterfly of the goddess Desna, two powers particularly admired by bards. In their light, bookshelves stretched all around him.
"Need work, Mister Gull?" The librarian's skin was as dark as the oiled wood of his desk, and his gray hair had highlights that matched the colors of the windows. "They say a ship's in port all the way from Vudra. Might have some new sitar tunes."
While the library couldn't match the rival Kitharodian Academy's collection for size and depth, the gnome was fanatical about competing in breadth. Students could make money scouting docks, gates, and markets on the librarian's behalf, hunting for anyone with a new scrap of music. When busking went dry, Gideon often worked for the librarian, expanding his own repertoire in the bargain.
"Not today, Master Spindlegrim. Late for...studying."
"It's winter exams, boy!" As one of the oldest students in the college, Gideon only had to endure the term boy from this ancient gnome; he didn't begrudge it. "You're a little late indeed!"
"Don't I know it!" Gideon retreated into the stacks. He was never sure if Spindlegrim was in on the secret of the Shadow School or not, but in any case Gideon couldn't give the game away.
A dark turn in one corner led to Antique Musicology, a dusty, mazelike nook. The ancient music discussed here preceded all notation, and its true sound could only be guessed at, never recorded with certainty. Most students were too practical-minded to venture here.
If they did—if they slipped around the absurdly narrow last turn and peered through the shadows at the farthest books—they might find a low, slim, volume titled Toward an Ethnomusicology of the Serpentfolk, with letters of onyx embossed on black. It took squinting to find it, and it appeared jammed between its bulkier neighbors.
But if you were a truly determined seeker, seizing knowledge in both hands, you could slide the book out...and in so doing discover it was no book at all, but a slab of stone.
Pulling it further, you'd trigger two silent mechanisms, one shifting the stacks to cut off this alcove, the other sliding the final shelf just a fraction, revealing a dark passageway. If bold enough, you might slip into that tunnel before the shelves slid closed again.
Now trapped in total darkness, you'd have no choice but to descend steep stairs to a landing where magical light suddenly sprang to life. When your eyes at last adjusted, you might notice the murder holes surrounding you, through which guardians might jab poisoned spears if they didn't like what stood revealed in the light.
But if you were Gideon Gull, you said, "The crab catch is catastrophic in Korvosa," giving the passphrase of the week. "And hurry, I'm late."
Someone grunted and cranked a lever. A stone wall carved with notation from a requiem groaned aside and revealed the Shadow School.
It was not the only Shadow School, of course. Everyone knew there were others. It was guessed, but never admitted, that there was another beneath the rival Kitharodian Academy. Gideon suspected there were more, and there was even a rumor of one under Cassomir. The mastermind of the Lion Blades obviously liked both secrecy and redundancy. He also liked keeping his recruits on their feet.
Gideon moved as fast as he could without alarming the hooded guards that stood at attention like pieces of architecture. He passed quickly through a labyrinth of drab corridors whose only ornaments were slogans spelled out with magical glowing stones.
Speech is a sword, said one group of red stones, while Silence is a shield, answered another batch in blue. Around the bend, purple stones announced the silent pun No thieves aloud. Beyond another turn was a kind of mandala composed of green stones spelling out repetitions of Illusion Reality Illusion Reality in an ever-tightening spiral. Students argued as to what the innermost, tiniest message actually said. (Made You Look was Gideon's favorite guess.)
Gideon panted up to one particular slogan, Here lies truth. Gideon caught his breath and pressed the letter s. Stone rumbled.
His first time in the Shadow School had also been his first hazing, of sorts. Students were set loose alone into the maze, which apparently had no particular rhyme or reason, let alone classrooms.
Eventually he'd guessed that the slogans marked concealed doors. Gideon's first class had been behind Silence is a shield, where he'd met the other members of his cell. The instructor there, the Mistress of Lies and Memory, had claimed the particular slogan you first triggered said a lot about you, and determined which students you trained with. What exactly it said in their case, the Mistress never explained.
The concealed door marked by Here lies truth shifted inward, revealing the shape of a tombstone, then slid sideways. Gideon stepped through, and the tombstone rumbled back into place.
He stood within a vast chamber that at first glance appeared mobbed. The magical illumination was silvery as moonlight. As his eyes adapted, he recognized the crowd as fake. Mannequins, statues, straw men, and potato sacks, all wrapped in clothing, filled this arena. Facades like those Sebastian had spoken of created civic scenes. This time, judging by the sharply pointed buildings and the jagged symbols of devils and diabolism, Gideon was supposed to be in Cheliax.
The decor made the locale's nickname all the more apt. Although officially termed the Simulation Gymnasium, students called it the Scar Chamber.
"You're late, Gull."
Above, on the Rhapsodic campus, students were "mister" and "mistress." Down below, you were meat.
"As such, the simulation will incorporate your delay." If tones could cut like knives, this one was a surgeon's blade for that meat.
"You're a Lion Blade on assignment in Cheliax, and you've stolen war plans from the desk of Queen Abrogail herself. Her armies mass on Andoran's borders, threatening to destroy Taldor's buffer with Cheliax—and, incidentally, your own native land."
His instructor stepped forward into the faux moonlight. She was a short, compact woman with cropped gray hair, wearing a severe black tunic and goggles with lenses of dark crystal. Two dueling scars sliced her impassive face like a chart of the Porthmos and Sellen Rivers, with the curve of her left eye the coast, the Porthmos slashing east on one side of the eye, the Sellen slicing north on the other. She passed Gideon a scroll, sealed with a red, waxen mark that rivaled a sea-urchin for sheer number of pointy bits. "Find your contact and hand over these plans. Escape by locating a spot marked Exit in the language of devils. The word will be incongruous, but inconspicuous."
"How...how will I know my contact?"
"He—or she—is wearing a hat marked with the azure coin of the archdevil Mammon of the Third Layer, Hell's treasurer. Move quickly. Your colleagues Ozrif and Viridia are playing treacherous Lion Blades in the queen's service. Their job is to ‘kill' you. I will unleash them sooner, because you were late. Now inspire yourself!"
With that, the Mistress faded into shadows.
A low growl, nearly inaudible, filled his throat. The vibration's sound and sensation triggered a series of memories: hours spent beside the Mistress of Lies and Memory in a darkened chamber, surrounded by anonymous Lion Blades in leonine masks, all growling and chanting about him.
You are loved, brother!
You will triumph!
Your claws will tear the foe!
Your fangs will rip the enemy!
You will taste the blood of victory!
We are always with you, brother!
No force in the world can stop you!
And so on, in this enthusiastically bloody vein. On one level it was silly. Yet the sensation of trust and support had been powerful. Daily repetitions of the ritual had clawed the feeling deep into his brain, so that now if he merely rattled a soft, wordless echo of the chant, it was as if every Lion Blade stood beside him, urging him on.
Now he stepped into the crowded moonlight. The crowd wasn't moving, of course, but the Mistress would be watching, her magical eyewear bestowing perfect vision in the dark, so he had to behave as though it were. Gideon slipped into the frozen bustle and wove through it.
He couldn't tell where she was—perhaps due to some magical effect—but the Mistress's voice echoed through the chamber, goading and encouraging.
"The structures around you aren't lifeless, Gull! Crowd and city aren't just random flotsam! They're embodiments of what we glibly call ‘society.' They box in your body. Just as rules, strictures, and customs box in your brain."
As a child in Andoran, Gideon had gotten used to teachers who ordered him to sit still while they lectured. He'd never have dreamed of an instructor like the Mistress, who shouted maxims like some Ulfen wrestling coach.
"You can bypass these obstacles. Your body knows how. It's hungry to evade, to twist, to leap. Let it!"
Something in Gideon quickened at these words, as though every muscle he possessed yearned for the challenge of a city and the need to traverse it. He encountered a cart hitched to a wooden horse; he jumped smoothly over the singletree.
"Most people shamble endlessly through their days, as unmindful as constructs or walking corpses. You can be free!"
The faux horse was triggered to kick; Gideon spotted the danger and rolled away, getting himself around a corner.
A sound rose magically in the chamber, that of a multitude upon a busy street.
The Mistress's voice rose above the hubbub. "Remember, city dwellers have a mental shorthand. Class, gender, race, objective—all are surmised at a glance, below the level of true awareness. That shorthand is your friend. Step lightly, and leave no trace in the pliant mud of the mind."
Gideon hustled, searching everywhere for his contact. How long till his hunters found him?
"But not everything can be average or ambiguous. You can't help but present a gender and a class. Viridia! Your gender invites danger and opportunity. There are shadowed streets a prudent woman won't walk alone, yet also social occasions where only a woman blends in."
At Viridia's name, Gideon immediately ducked close to the facade of a building and removed his boots. This would call attention to him, and in daylight would be a critical error. But in this moonlight, it might not matter. He pulled off the boots and tangled the laces in his hand, so that he would have a pathetic little club, if need be.
"Class is more subtle," the Mistress said. "Its power varies by nation, city, and district. Here in Taldor, take special note of what stratum you're emulating—especially you, Gideon."
Now, as if people pulled off their shoes for no reason every Moonday night, Gideon returned to the crowd. His footfalls would be quieter now.
"In Katapesh, everything's for sale—including, potentially, you. Be suspicious, and in that way you'll be acting like everyone else. An innocent is a mark, or an idiot, or has something up his sleeve. I don't fear for you in this, Ozrif, though beware of sentimentality should you return."
A dummy moved, attempting to block him.
Gideon had expected this, though not so soon. Many of the figures were mounted on movable panels, responding to pressure plates or cranks operated by unseen staff. Some of the figures were even magically self-animated.
"In Andoran, swagger—but not you, Gideon—to the point of insulting your betters. For the point is that an Andoren has no betters. Walk down every street as if you own it. For after all, you do."
Now he heard footfalls elsewhere in the Scar Chamber, though he couldn't tell where.
"It's best to think of wondrous Absalom not as one city, but many. Its variety is such that it's always easy to blend in to a degree. But each district has its special customs, and you'll have to learn them to operate with real success."
Glints of red and gold, emerald and turquoise lay on many of the dummies' hats or arms or necks. Gideon's eyes shifted back and forth, hunting for the blue coin of the archdevil Mammon.
"In Cheliax, tell yourself you're smarter than anyone else, and the appropriate sneer will develop. Learn the diabolic deferences, but remember that Cheliax respects devils without worshiping them. And never forget your common humanity with the Chelaxians. They'll surprise you with little kindnesses toward their foes, even amid the business of backstabbing their friends."
At last Gideon glimpsed an azure disc across an alley. He ducked low and veered between the building facades.
A mistake. A foot jabbed from behind a mannequin and tripped Gideon. He fell, rolled, and was up immediately, kicking at a dark shape that skittered backward. Such was Ozrif's style.
The juggler from Katapesh had grown up on mean streets, performing but also stealing, evading grown-up thieves and slavers and worse. Gideon's own street experience—mainly lying insensible in them—could not compare.
Remembering the lay of the crowd, Gideon gambled and danced backward between dummies. When he'd gotten a sufficient distance he threw his shoes to a point beyond where Ozrif must be.
Before the shoes had even hit the floor, Gideon was off through the forest of mannequins, circling the block to bypass the alley.
He reached his contact, an unusually realistic mannequin wearing a cap adorned with a devil-faced blue coin. Gideon stuffed the small scroll under the cap and ran, hoping neither Ozrif nor Viridia had seen. Now his job was to run.
He rounded a corner and met Viridia's knife.
The rough-and-tumble frontierswoman from Stavian's Hold had good hearing, and now that Gideon was taking risks with speed, she was quick to find him. She jabbed and swung like someone who'd grown up with a blade in her hand.
"Die, enemy of the queen!"
"She's a rebel!" Gideon pointed, knowing the Mistress would be imagining a crowd's response. "An Andoren trying to undermine the regime!"
"I'm a loyal servant of Cheliax!"
"Oh, yeah? Name all of the eight archdevils below Asmodeus!"
Viridia spat. "Creepy, Snarly, Greedy, Nasty, Farty, Crazy, Chilly, and Scum! Who the hell cares?"
When you first looked at Viridia, you thought you were looking at a weathered, strong-minded, dark-haired young woman with the plain-spoken wisdom of the eastern frontier. It was only after hearing her snorting bark of laughter, after watching her swill hard liquor with a burp or listening to her haggling at the market, that you realized either your idea of the solemn dignity of the plains was utterly quaint, or that Viridia was unique. Perhaps both.
Gideon leapt onto a facade's balcony. With Viridia swearing beneath him, Gideon jumped to the balcony of a neighboring facade and, with one quick scan for the word Exit, leapt back to the street.
He'd glimpsed a golden word...
Somewhere out there, the Mistress said, "Remember! Whenever you speak in the field, you play a role! When you're silent, only then will you be yourself."
"It's well you should know the names of devils," said a different voice, "for you'll be meeting them soon."
He whirled and ducked beneath Ozrif's spinning kick.
Ozrif's light brown skin, black hair, and almond eyes revealed his Keleshite heritage; and in a nation still remembering a withering war against a Keleshite land, this forever marked him as suspicious. Gideon sometimes wondered if Ozrif's bardic specialty deliberately deflected that suspicion. For a juggler is necessarily apart from his audience, the center of a whirling, transfixing phenomenon—if all goes well, anyway. It's only if one drops the ball that the spell is broken. It helped that Ozrif was also a bit of a comedian.
Oops! Gideon had once heard Ozrif say. Well, every moon must descend. Parents, thank you, and remember I have magic powers to cure your children of childish traits. Za zim zab! There, bring them back in thirty years and we'll see how that worked. Unattended money attracts thieves; save yourselves from such a fate by means of my handy cup!
Ozrif had no juggling clubs or quips today, but his limber punches and kicks testified to his quick reflexes and wit.
Viridia reappeared, flanking Gideon. She jabbed him in the arm. Gideon's old friend Pain rattled the bell of his mind. Ozrif and Viridia were indeed the perfect couple, if you needed someone hunted down.
Spellcasting was unwise under these conditions. But then again, anything was unwise under these conditions.
He wished he'd retained his spell to fascinate a crowd, but you played the instruments you had. He recalled one spell he didn't associate with any particular music, but rather with the random, perplexing, fascinating racket of an orchestra tuning up.
Waving his hands, he intoned syllables that would implant perplexity.
It probably shouldn't have worked, but it did. Ozrif froze. He began babbling what might have been a Keleshite nursery rhyme.
Gideon rolled away from Viridia, noticing that the straw mannequin nearest him, done up as a Chelish Hellknight with cloth for armor, was bound together with twine.
Humming the tune of "Haul Away for Arcadia," he rose beside the dummy. Viridia advanced within a foot of the Hellknight. The shanty opened a hatch in Gideon's mind, and out popped the arcane formulae and gestures for a spell.
The twine unraveled and engulfed Viridia.
As she shouted "Cheat!" and Ozrif's addled brain set the juggler to punching himself, Gideon reached the shadowy spot where he'd glimpsed the word Exit.
He heard the Mistresses' voice again, now from a new direction. "Remember, you're a paradox, for Taldor is flamboyant even in its secrets. Who but Taldor would recruit performers to become its corps of spies?"
He spotted a glint of gold.
The Mistress had never said Exit would appear on a structure.
He ran toward the voice.
"Only Taldor so smoothly blends guile and show," the Mistress said. "Hello, Gull."
"Hello, Exit." The word glittered, golden letters strung upon a necklace.
"Well played," said the shadowy shape wearing it. "But you must tag me to escape."
Gideon circled. "What does this represent in the scenario?"
"The unexpected. No plan survives contact with reality." She moved gracefully, shifting with him. "So sometimes our simulations simply cheat."
Gideon lunged. She shifted aside easily.
Behind him he heard the footfalls of Ozrif and Viridia. Gideon's spells had worn off or been overcome.
All he had to do was tag the Mistress of Stillness and Motion. But she could see in the dark and he couldn't.
Ozrif was upon him then, attempting a flying tackle. Gideon dodged, rolled, rose—and realized what he needed to do. As Ozrif got to his feet, Gideon treated the Mistress as a pillar, an obstacle, and she seemed not to object, so long as he wasn't trying to touch her. He kept his distance, so as to goad Ozrif into another leap.
Instead of evading, Gideon threw himself into the brunt of Ozrif's tackle. He'd positioned things so that the momentum threw him against the Mistress. Tag.
But even as he knew his gambit would succeed, his ears brought him the sound of Viridia's drawling incantation, the voice swiftly shifting location, for Viridia usually danced as she cast. He recognized it as her sleeping spell...
He awoke to the Mistress of Stillness and Motion splashing water on his face.
"Wake up. You're dead."
He was as groggy as if awakening in a gutter. His arm had the tingling sensation he always felt upon receiving magical healing.
"Twice in one day," Gideon groaned.
"All part of life." The Mistress offered him a hand and hauled him up. The lighting in the Scar Chamber now resembled bright noontime, revealing the mannequins in all their rumpled artificiality, the facades as disguised exercise platforms. "You did achieve your goal, at the cost of your death."
"It's becoming a habit." Gideon blinked at Viridia and Ozrif, who were sitting nearby, drinking some of the cold water Gideon was now wearing. Being dead was thirsty work. He took a cup from the Mistress and gulped it down. "Didn't I escape in the end?"
"You did, but with your opponents glued to you. No clean getaway."
Viridia drew a line across her throat.
"A draw," the Mistress concluded. "Class is done. I have a message for you from the headmaster, Gull. He'd like to discuss this morning's events, whenever you find it convenient." She paused. "And do be cautious, topside, all of you. Something strange is in the air."
"I appreciate the warning," Ozrif said. "I'd appreciate specifics even more."
"That's Kelish for ‘spill it,'" said Viridia, then added, "please."
The Mistress shook her head. "Just an intuition."
As they left the Scar Chamber, Ozrif said, "The longer I know the Mistress, the less I think I know her."
"She's odd," Viridia agreed, "even for this place."
"I'd listen to her, though," said Gideon.
"Well, you're odd too." Viridia turned toward a branching corridor. "See you both later?" The cell usually took different exits to the surface.
"This time let's stay together."
"You do take her warning seriously," Ozrif noted.
Gideon shrugged. "She's an honest spy, as these things go."
"Do you feel a chill?"
At first, Gideon thought Ozrif was joking, but then Viridia answered, "Yes," and Gideon's skin felt clammy too.
All sounds were muted. Usually there was a hint of footsteps elsewhere in the school, but now it was as though the trio walked alone in a long-abandoned labyrinth.
They rounded another corner.
"—what in Desna's name is that?"
Everyone stopped. Viridia pointed.
Mist crawled through the corridor. It was as though the air of some remote bog had been grasped by a divine hand and deposited here, where it had no business being. Aside from the glow of a nearby slogan—Every brain is a pickable lock—the white fog, swirling with hints of green, obliterated vision. It didn't begin gradually, as a natural fog would, but rather blurred into view a few yards ahead of the trio, and filled the hallway like a mass of cobwebs.
Perhaps it was the corridor's chill, but Gideon recalled his sessions in the Shadow School's icy dissection chamber, where exhumed corpses were sliced to show the finer points of humanoid anatomy.
No, that was not entirely true. It reminded him of something else as well. Something long ago, just out of his mind's grasp.
"This must be a prank," Viridia said. "The Night of the Pale's less than two weeks from now..."
"An expensive prank," Ozrif said. "Some sort of magic..."
"There are shapes inside," Gideon said, unable to look away.
Three long shadows of human forms stretched into the fog, as though he and his companions were backlit. Above each shadow twisted even darker images. At first Gideon thought of these as ink spills, then as octopuses, and finally as shadow plays, like those Leothric performed with certain puppets imported from Jalmeray. For now in crisp silhouette there loomed scenes from each bard's life.
Above Ozrif's shadow Gideon saw a dancing, juggling boy he was sure was Ozrif himself. The boy jumped aboard a ship and was embraced by the people there. The ship soon encountered a larger vessel, and it flew a chiaroscuro flag of a crown above a lion. Many on the smaller ship were killed, and many treasures taken from it. The ship sank into the mists.
Meanwhile over Viridia's shadow there rose a farmstead, where a girl rode a horse through the grass. There came an ornate carriage bearing the crown-and-lion banner, and the girl's parents pleaded with a robed official. In the end many bags went into the laughing tax collector's hands.
Gideon didn't want to look at his own shadow.
Above Ozrif's there was now a bazaar scene, with the boy fleeing a slave stockade where his old crewmates stood for sale; and above Viridia's were hangman's nooses, their purpose fulfilled, with the girl raging before them.
And still Gideon did not look to the third scene. He saw instead his friends' expressions, haunted, contorted in old anger and pain. But worse, they looked also toward him.
"Gideon," Viridia said, "what are we seeing? I know the girl is me, and I know enough about Ozrif's past to recognize...but I don't understand yours."
"These are scenes torn from our pasts," said Ozrif. "Grim things. Yet yours seems different, Gideon."
Now Gideon looked.
In his own shadow play, a boy wrestled with his older brother. From the little cape worn by the bigger boy, Gideon knew it was his brother Gareth. And from the smaller boy's toy sword, Gideon knew that he was looking at himself.
The idyllic scene by itself was not the cause of his dread. The Singing Knight had fought the Opera Ghost many a time, sometimes with the participation of their sisters in the form of the Captive Diva, the Master Detective, and Chomper the Dinosaur. (That was Zitha, the littlest, who introduced Chomper into everything from tea parties to formal dinners; after a while it made a strange kind of sense.)
There was no diva or detective or dinosaur this time, but there was another element. Little specks flew back and forth in the air above the brothers.
"What are the dark dots?" Viridia asked.
"Did the bees attack you?" asked Ozrif.
"No! The bees are just bees." What mattered was not the bees but what their presence said about the time and place. "Those are the bees of Bellis."
The fog curdled and thickened near the bees, and the swarm dispersed. The boys looked up, the Singing Knight and Opera Ghost forgotten as they looked to where the fog had congealed.
"What are they looking at?" Ozrif asked.
"It," muttered Gideon.
"What?" said Viridia. "I don't see anything."
"That!" said Gideon, for it was plain as a bear on the Grand Bridge. And now it was as if he were back in time.
He unsheathed his dagger and confronted the fog.
"Gideon!" Viridia shouted, and Ozrif tried to restrain him. But he plunged forward.
The touch of the fog was like the caress of some undead lover. It sickened him, for all that he remembered it well. And within it, something touched his mind. The same presence he'd felt on the conservatory roof. Laughing.
All at once, the fog withdrew around a corner. He followed, his friends close at his heels.
When they rounded the bend, it was gone.
"What manner of monster was this?" Viridia demanded.
"Now you're leaping to conclusions," said Ozrif. "It was a trick, a spell effect..."
"I suggest," Gideon said, trying to return to the here and now, "that you two reach an exit and inform the guards. I'll see if the headmaster will speak to me early."
"You sure?" Viridia asked.
"You seem most affected—" said Ozrif.
"I'm fine." Gideon turned and walked toward the headmaster's nook of the maze, not wanting to speak further. He needed to be alone.
The past was the past. And Gareth was gone.
Gideon at last reached a wall where silver light stones spelled out the sentence If you want to know what lies ahead, learn what lies behind. He found a spot on the unmarked wall directly opposite the word behind, and pressed the stone there. A panel slid aside, and cold rock gave way to warm wood, silk curtains, and embroidered furnishings.
The headmaster had an open-door policy—if you could figure out how to open the door.
In Xeritian's office hung portraits of the sort that great men, or men who fancy themselves great, commission. Each noble or official or wealthy merchant stood in a pose of ease and power, often fondling some token of authority—a heraldic shield, a book of laws, or brass scales—as though it were a concubine.
In each picture Xeritian stood in the shadows behind the great personage, a dagger in his hand, a smirk upon his face.
There was a large chair facing a vast desk strewn with papers. Xeritian made a point of having his back to you if you entered his office. A dare, Gideon supposed, though he personally thought it theatrical.
The chair was empty, however.
Sebastian came down the hallway from the direction opposite Gideon's.
"I was hoping to catch Xeritian," the corsair said. "What are you doing here?"
"Sebastian. I'm glad to see you." Gideon explained about the fog, though something made him hold back anything about dead brothers or voices in his head.
Sebastian frowned. Entering the office, he leaned over a brass horn embedded in the desk, its cone opening onto some cavity in the wood. He blew. Gideon heard nothing.
"That should bring everyone running," Sebastian said. "They'll also send a messenger to Xeritian, wherever he might be."
"A school like this requires many hidden staff. Will you show me where this fog manifested?"
When they reached the spot in question, Ozrif and Viridia were gone, but there were guards present, as well as the Mistress of Stillness and Motion. Sebastian conferred with her, adding, "Do you think it was the same?"
"That's supposition. But I mistrust coincidences."
"The same as what?" Gideon asked.
Sebastian took his arm. "Come with me, Gull."
They reached a guard post and ascended a switchbacking stairway in the dark. "There've been reports across Oppara of these manifestations," Sebastian said. "Even in the Senate's halls."
"A strange one, if so. Only certain people perceive it. Thus we've not been able to convince the mighty. Also, no one's suffered worse than a scare, and a riling of their emotions." He paused. "You do seem upset."
"I'm fine. On the green, you mentioned a fog. Are these apparitions similar to what Corvine described?"
"Her letter was brief, but yes, I think so. She requested an investigation. I was personally inclined to wait, but given the excitement her messenger caused at the debate, I had to show her letter to the headmaster. He insisted we inform Director Rell. I did so personally, and was returning to Xeritian when I found you. Evidently the headmaster chose to do some investigating of his own."
"I'd volunteer. To go to Cassomir, I mean."
"You're eager to see Corvine."
"Well, how would you feel?"
Sebastian laughed. "That's unclear, since no one but you and she understands your relationship. You were clearly lovers once, but something happened—"
"I became a worthless drunk is what happened. Well, became one again. She's hinted we might start again. But I need to build a life that doesn't center around a bottle."
They reached the top of the stairs. Dim light seeped through the edges of a secret portal. They emerged between wine barrels into a storeroom with frosted window-slits lining the upper ceiling. A permanent illusion portrayed the squeak and scuttle of a rat infestation. Sebastian pulled down a trapdoor from the ceiling as Gideon rolled a barrel back into place, with beady, illusory eyes glaring at him all the while.
"She knows you've gone to the Rhapsodic," Sebastian said. "Does she suspect the rest?"
"I don't think so."
"Do you think she's the sort who can love a Lion Blade?"
"I think that's a premature question." Gideon paused. Unless he's asking for his own benefit. "By the way, I hope our little argument on the green didn't raise a cloud between us."
Sebastian paused on the trapdoor ladder. "That could never happen. Even if I'm a great believer in the Taldan way and you're an addled democracy-fool of Andoran."
"Thanks, I guess. It's been a long while since I voted, however."
"Do you ever want to go back?"
"I love Andoran. But we're...estranged."
They ascended to the owner's office of The Harp and Harpoon, a tavern and inn popular with bards and sailors, and thus a natural safe house for the Lion Blades. Sebastian hailed Tithra Sparksteel, the proprietor, who grunted invisibly from behind her stack of ledgers.
"Thought that racket was you, Tambour. By the way, that girl from The Cat and Feather came by."
"I hope you told her I'm busy."
"I almost told her I had an opening. If she's going to keep popping up, she might as well work."
"You won't, of course."
"Settle your business, man."
"My business is Taldor, madam."
Sebastian pulled a heavy book from a shelf and led Gideon to the common room. Amid the bright babble of seafaring conversation and snatches of song, Sebastian said, "I must take my leave for now. For even without these apparitions, I've a full schedule."
"You won't be investigating?"
"Not primarily. Not with the faculty already involved. I've an appointment with a ship's manifest and a mug of Bellis Mead. I'd hoped to find the headmaster here, but a school messenger's surely found him by now. My own business with him isn't urgent, and I'd best resume my duties."
"What should I do? Before all this happened the Mistress of Stillness and Motion told me the headmaster wanted to see me."
"You've made the effort. I'll vouch for you. I suggest you return to the college, prepare for exams, and let him find you." Sebastian smirked. "If he does, mention I'd like to speak to him again as well." After a pause, he said, "Do be careful out there."
"You mean the fog?"
"I mean everything."
When Gideon emerged from the tavern into the street, the air had changed. The sky, once so bright and clear, was now pale gray.
As he stepped onto the cobblestones, something swooped out of the pale sky.
Gideon dove across the street, ducking around a carriage, a trio of sailors, and a flower girl in a way that might have impressed the Mistress of Stillness and Motion. He rolled into a crouch beneath a townhouse's timber jetty, dagger out.
Swooping past the staring faces, the pigeon landed beside Gideon. A little scroll clung to its leg.
Gideon rose and bowed to the passersby. "Alas, pigeon training is never done!"
There was muttering to the effect that there ought to be laws against this sort of thing as the wayfarers moved on. Gideon removed the scroll. The pigeon looked familiar; some of Corvine's couriers returned to her, which spoke well of her treatment of animals.
Bard said to bird, "Thank you. Go free."
The pigeon fluttered into the dour sky. He opened the scroll and squinted at rows of intricate and increasingly diminutive handwriting.
Salutations, greetings, waves! I'd have sent a seagull, Gull, but pigeons are better at this, and I need to move fast. How are you? I'm haunted by eldritch forces, but otherwise fine. No, don't be alarmed. It's not me personally, just my whole city. Maybe that doesn't reassure you. Maybe it doesn't reassure me. Anyway, the long and the short of it is, there's a mysterious, magical, fog-like effect that seems to drive people mad. We've had reports of it around town and up the Sellen. Actually one of the reports is mine! Earlier I sent a letter to our mutual friend Sebastian
"A coded message from the Qadiran Satrap, Gull?"
Gideon started, and pocketed the scroll. "Headmaster!"
Headmaster Xeritian chuckled. He was still dressed in his spattered groundskeeper's robe. "I fear you mistake me for someone else, Master Gull. I'm but a simple groundskeeper." His eyes flashed a warning.
The day grew suddenly warmer as Gideon realized his error. They stood in the middle of a busy street, and here he was loudly proclaiming the headmaster's true identity. "Of course. My mistake."
Xeritian nodded to the pocket containing the scroll. "Your blushing haste suggests not treachery, but romance. Your friend in Cassomir, then."
Gideon's face burned hotter still. He stepped closer and lowered his voice to a safe level. "The Mistress of Stillness and Motion said you wanted to see me? And you were informed about the apparition at the school?"
"Yes and yes. Walk with me."
He followed the old man through Westport, feeling increasingly agitated at Xeritian's lack of agitation.
They crossed some of the rougher streets of that rough district. Sometimes Xeritian would chuckle at this folly of humanity or that. Gideon had no sense of what the headmaster was up to. From time to time a disturbance would make Gideon ready to spring. A man came hurtling through the much-abused window of a tavern. Beside a brothel a woman in a man's clutches laughed in a shrieking, mocking way that hammered the ears. A man in a gutter gripped at Xeritian's leg and gasped, "Money for pesh?"
Gideon wanted to say, You have enough trouble without sucking up that stuff, but Xeritian passed the man a coin, to a babble of thanks from which the headmaster silently removed himself.
"You disapprove?" Xeritian asked Gideon.
"I've seen pesh carve brains like melons."
"His fate isn't my concern, and I admired his candor. A little honesty is a fine thing in this deceitful world."
"In that case: why aren't you back at the Shadow School, when something like that fog's gotten in?"
"The truth isn't going to be at the school. This is a city of a million lies, and I'm a master of liars. Sifting the lies, I may find the answers."
"If you admire honesty," Gideon wondered aloud, "doesn't it bother you, being a master of liars?"
Xeritian raised an eyebrow. "Not at all. I train them, but I have the privilege of being an honest man myself. If anything, I feel guilty at the discrepancy. Do the lies bother you?"
"Somewhat." If Xeritian appreciated candor, then Gideon would give it to him. "Every song's a lie of sorts, you know. You take the pose of a narrator. Sometimes that narrator is you, sometimes not. Spycraft is kind of like that, I think. Except it isn't a show, it's a con. It does bother me, sometimes..."
"Spoken like a bard. You're not the first with that reaction."
"Were you a bard, Headmaster?"
"No. I was a historian." A few unexpected snowflakes fell around them as they spoke. Xeritian caught the year's first snow in his hand. "When you grow up amid the bones of past greatness, it's a lively field." The snowflake melted, and they walked on.
They departed Westport, and the snowflakes became a throng, dancing on the air like fat, lazy gnats. At first they left only a little moisture on the cheek or a few brief bright motes in the glorious weaves of a Taldan woman's hair. Opparans, busy with the business of the City of Empire—or surviving the City of Empire—ignored it. But the sky's gray mills weren't to be denied, and relentlessly churned out their snowy flour. Bit by bit, the streets and rooftops were covered in white, and the Gilded City became silver.
Xeritian led Gideon to the doorstep of the House of the Immortal Son, the temple of the dead god Aroden, now converted to an opera house. He pushed open one of the great doors and gestured inside.
"Headmaster? What does an opera rehearsal have to do with the fog?"
"Nothing, Gull. I summoned you because of your performance this morning. It concerns me. Crises come and go, but the need to train new Lion Blades remains."
A singing troupe was rehearsing inside, sans orchestra, yet augmented with the presence of spellcasters. As Gideon watched, illusory fires seemed to fill the air around the singers, and blasts of water withered the fire; yet the waves were outflanked by further flames.
"Have you heard of the thaumacycle?" Xeritian asked.
"A composition that incorporates magic. A revival of a lost Azlanti tradition. A difficult form." While true bards studied both music and magic, each discipline was quite demanding on its own. The combination defeated most composers. By tradition, every spell in a thaumacycle performance had to be at least theoretically castable by the author. The exact form was up to each composer, but most entries were operas.
"You're aware of the Taldan Thaumacycle Festival?" "I've heard of it but never witnessed it. It travels around." Corvine had spoken of it with interest, and had mentioned wanting to try her hand at it.
"The next one will be held here on Longnight, a little over a month from now. This group's already rehearsing." Xeritian winked. "But I believe there's enough time for you to enter and compose something."
"Me? What about the fog?"
"You're forgetting you're still a student, Gull. More experienced hands will deal with today's danger. I still need you in training, to face tomorrow's threats."
"But—respectfully—how does this help me become a better Lion Blade? I could do it, but I'd have to drop everything else, and I doubt very much I'd win." And if he were to devote his winter recess to the work, he wouldn't be able to travel to Cassomir to investigate the fog. And see Corvine. "Maybe I'd manage the score, but the magic..."
"Challenging, yes. But experience is the point, not victory. You seemed reluctant to employ magic during the Shadow Taunt."
Gideon reddened. It was true. He was a quick study at spells, and could cast them at need, but they never seemed natural to him. Outside of immediate danger, he rarely thought of employing them.
"I suspect your difficulty with magic's less a matter of talent, and more that you have a lopsided interest in music."
"Well, I was just a musician until recently."
"Quite. Sometimes we must coax the brain, rather than flog it. I have recommended the thaumacycle for others before."
Gideon smirked. "And it'll keep me out of trouble?" And possibly, Gideon considered, give him something that could entice Corvine to visit him.
"There's that. I'll place you on special assignment. For the college as well. As it's almost winter recess, that will be simple. Indeed, as soon as I return I'll cancel your commitments for the day, and rearrange your tests, so you may begin work. It might be good to keep you out of the official eye. Be careful this fine frosty day." Xeritian turned.
The headmaster stopped.
"You're the third person today who's warned me to be careful," Gideon said. "Is there something I should know? If there's danger, why can't I investigate along with you? What does the future hold?"
Xeritian smiled. "I'll use the historian's standard answer: ‘That is not my period of study.' As for the rest—you're simply not ready, Gull. I'm sorry. Even I must be wary, as I go hunting."
"Be careful, Headmaster."
"Always, Gull." The headmaster paused. "You dislike lies, and that is admirable. Remember the value of truth. It is high. But it is not infinite."
"I don't understand."
"I believe you will."
Xeritian walked into the crowd, and there should have been no way that the old historian could simply disappear from Gideon's sight, but that was exactly what happened. Of course the headmaster of the Shadow School would have access to magic. But Gideon knew that thought was merely an attempt to salvage his own pride. You're forgetting you're still a student.
Hoping his pride would be burnished by Corvine's letter, Gideon pulled it out and finished reading.
as we both know he must be rather connected in government. But he may be at sea. Alert whom you can. You're surrounded by bards, I'm sure you can get the word out. Sorry this is so rushed. I have good gigs, will report later. Am I done? No, I'm never done! But there's no more room and these letters are as tiny as I can make them GBYE
Gideon reread the letter and pocketed it. He smiled. The concerns about anything between Corvine and Sebastian dissipated like morning mist. He strode jauntily into the snowfall, looking here and there for swirling shadows. He took the letter out and read it again, put it back in his pocket. He whistled.
A dim part of his mind replied, You are pathetic, Gideon Gull. Your would-be lover is under threat and all you can think of is how relieved you are there's probably no reason to be jealous of Sebastian.
A bright-lit part of his mind said, You have that part right, Gideon Gull! But she did say not to be alarmed!
Whistling, his mind drifted toward the problem of a thaumacycle. It was a welcome change after the visions of the fog. Perhaps if he completed the work quickly, he could still be involved in the investigation, somehow.
As his thoughts drifted, so did his path through the snowfall, his feet leading him through the city, the deep parts of his mind in charge.
Gideon's boots led him to an empty sliver of city park dominated by a bust commemorating the sponsoring royal. Dark trees cradled the air and brought a hush to the white cobblestones and granite benches. It reminded Gideon of the Verduran Forest that enfolded the border of Andoran and Taldor far to the north. He remembered the family trip to Bellis on the Andoren side, and running around trees trying to tag Gareth...
But best not to think of that day.
He stopped and stretched. Gideon appreciated the park but could never remember the benefactor's name, only the patrician expression the sculptor had conjured. He decided the royal looked like he'd take chill without a hat, so Gideon molded one from snow.
The two took up parallel views of the river, as men in serious discussion might.
"You know much about women, Prince?" Gideon asked the bust. "I'm assuming you were a prince. If you appear to desire a woman, she frequently edges away. If you give up your desire, she frequently returns. This would seem to be perverse behavior, yet I've seen it time and again."
Gideon paused and nodded.
"Yes, of course you're right, the obvious stratagem is to pretend a lack of desire. And as a performer I normally find pretense as simple as plucking a note. Yet in the matter of Corvine Gale, I'm just not myself. For I find, with her, I can only be myself. Maddening."
A long-suffering member of the Lighters' Guild shuffled into the park with his pole and began to kindle the park's lantern. He stopped to study Gideon as the bard conversed with a stone head. Gideon waved. The Lighter muttered a prayer to Abadar, god of cities, and hurried about his work.
"True," Gideon continued, as if the bust had just lectured him, "she's no flower wilting in the snow. If I want Corvine's attention, I must live what, to my lights, is a life of attainment and honor, whether or not she consents to share it. She won't want a man whose chief occupation is talking about her with rocks. Thank you, Prince."
The Lighter might have set a speed record, for his work was already done, and he padded on. The sky darkened, and with the lantern ablaze there was a wash of amber light about the white-frilled, dark-wooded branches, as though the park were some old etching in bronze.
The stillness was broken by the sounds of a snapping twig and the unsheathing of a blade.
Gideon's well-trained ears had alerted, him but couldn't make out the exact direction. So he did the prudent thing and scrambled onto the bust.
A thug was approaching with a dagger, faster now that he was discovered. The man wore a leather jerkin and breeches and a fine cloak. Even in this prosperous swath of the city, he might pass as a well-to-do merchant or a buccaneer who'd fetched a rich haul. For that matter, perhaps he truly was one of those things, and was angling for supplemental funds. This was not the finest of times for Taldor.
"First snow's beautiful, eh?" said Gideon.
"It is, good madman, it is!" said the other. "Now howsabout you throw down your purse, and you can enjoy it with your eyes still in your head?"
"Crude! Uncouth! Good sir, I've lived in places where mugging is a refined art, with certain protocols. I might say, ‘Lovely weather,' and you might say, ‘Yes, but it's cold,' and I might say, ‘Ah, and you are seeking a donation for those without good winter gear, who've only a rusty knife to see them through,' and of course you might say, ‘That's about the size of it,' and then I offer my purse out of generosity, you bow, and I run like mad. Civilized!"
"I got your civilization right here." The mugger waved the blade. "Just hand it over!"
"Ah, you didn't specify, ‘it.'" Gideon reached into a pouch, but not his coin purse.
He pulled forth a small rolled piece of parchment, wider at one end, upon which he'd written the aria "Valley of Echoes." Under his breath, Gideon incanted strange syllables to the song's tune...
"Who dares disturb the peace of my park?" rumbled a voice.
"What?" screeched the mugger. "Who's there? What was that?"
It was Gideon who mouthed the words, but the sounds seemed to emanate from elsewhere. "It is I, Prince..." (he thought a moment) "...Acerbic, of the...Age of Enthronement!" (As the Age of Enthronement had lasted over four and a half thousand years, Gideon figured he could tuck an imaginary prince in there somewhere.)
"Where are you hiding?" The mugger, while frightened, had still not discerned that the voice emanated from the bust.
Gideon rolled his eyes and slapped a hand over his face. He thought of the old Carpenden song "A Helping Hand" and murmured another incantation as he spread his fingers to keep an eye on his assailant.
With his other hand he gestured and caused a clump of snow to rise from a bench and move toward the thief.
"Boo," Gideon said, and remotely shoved snow down the man's back.
This sort of trick was commonplace enough, but the thief was already nervous. He screamed.
Some people, if taken by fear, will run. Others will lash out. This one was the second kind. He whirled and jabbed madly at the air, shouting, "Where are you where are you where are you—"
Gideon, a person of the first inclination, was already fleeing the scene. He could probably overpower the thug, but it wasn't his job to protect the streets, and no amount of training was a guarantee when a knife was involved. Besides, the college didn't need a criminal investigation on top of their run-in with Matharic, Royal Adjunct Pain in the Posterior.
Panting, Gideon at last stopped upon the Grand Bridge over the River Porthmos.
A river. The thought hit Gideon like a snowball to the face. The thaumacycle—my characters will escape assailants by taking a raft upon the Sellen. That northern river, greater even than the Porthmos, churned with more than a thousand miles of adventure and mystery. Where better to let loose a raft of vagabonds?
His characters would come from Galt, he decided. They would flee the guillotines of that failed democracy and ride the river south, encountering elves and dwarves and gnomes, crusaders and traders and pirates, Andorens and Taldans and druids. They would argue and laugh and weep. And sing, of course. At last at the sea, all would be resolved, as much as anything in life is resolved. Blood and crescendos.
Smiling to himself, he nodded to the passersby, for there was always somebody on the bridge. He came around the foot of the statue of General Coren, leader of the Third Army of Exploration. There was a legend that if you touched Coren's foot you would always make a return journey to Oppara. He reached out and patted the statue. "Just in case," he murmured.
An image came to him unbidden, of a small hand touching a huge insectile leg.
Gideon stopped in his tracks.
Snowflakes hit his face like scores of tiny biting insects, the kind that attack once and perish. His eyes saw nothing of the bridge or the city or the wayfarers who glanced at him curiously.
In his mind's eye, he was ten years old again, looking up at a monster. It resembled a giant beetle with legs like broken halberds, vast green eyes and curved mandibles, and antennae that flexed and quivered far out from its nightmarish head. Behind it swirled an unseasonably thick, cold fog. His heart was pounding, in the past and in the now, and the monster had him half-entrapped by the spears of its legs. Yet terrified as he was, the boy Gideon knew the creature didn't mean to eat him. An eerie sound like a pipe organ cut through the fog of memory, and Gideon imagined the monster turning its head, and the boy following its alien gaze.
Then the vision was gone, and Gideon stood alone on the Grand Bridge.
But he could still hear the dirge.
No one else appeared to notice. The sound seemed to emanate from somewhere upriver. He moved to the eastern edge of the bridge, leaned upon it, and looked out. He had a good view of the river and the city. The crescent moon was up, and the lamps were lit everywhere except the slum district known as the Narrows.
The eerie music came louder to his ears, and squinting for a source he saw a ship beyond the city, a long way upstream.
It was a ship that had no business being that far inland. This was a galleon with a sweeping prow and high stern, wide amidships, with four spindly masts, and a deep draft. Gideon was no mariner or boatman, but even he knew that the river's unseen shallows should gut such a keel.
And perhaps such a fate had already occurred, and this was a dead ship. For the vessel was suffused with a ghostly glow. Its torn sails gleamed, its gargoyle figurehead glinted, and its crew stood at attention with skeletal poise, eye sockets aimed at the Grand Bridge.
"Do you see it?" Gideon demanded of the nearest bystander, a Taldan nobleman. "Do you see the ship?"
The richly garbed man's expression was unreadable. "There are many ships," he ventured, with a nod toward the harbor.
"Not like this! Right there! Something right out of Blacwin's Wanderloss. Isn't it the spitting image of Wanderloss's adversary, the cursed ship Demonwake?"
The man took a step back, then appeared to find his courage. "Good sir...your accent marks you as Andoren, no? You must be a stranger here. I happen to contribute to Madame Floret's Home for Troubled Travelers, and I'm sure they can assist you with whatever afflicts you. If you'll just come with me..."
"Don't you see?" Gideon looked around at the few other witnesses who might validate his vision of the ship (sailing closer, blithely unconcerned about the Taldan noble's reaction). All looked at him blankly or with unease. A young girl did venture, squinting at the river, "I think, perhaps, I do see a glint of light..." before her parents hauled her over to watch something suddenly fascinating on the bridge's seaward edge.
No, Gideon realized, they didn't see.
And even as he'd made the comparison, Gideon had realized that the spectral craft didn't simply resemble the fictional Demonwake. It was Demonwake, just as he'd seen it in a performance in Almas many years ago. It was correct down to the flag of the horned skull above the crossbones and Captain Crookwing there in his torn black cape, and his daughter Desdimira beside him, the only human-appearing spirit aboard, ready to tempt the similarly dead cabin boy Wickham of the Wanderloss.
All in a rush the ghost-craft reached the bridge, far swifter than a true sailing ship should manage, and as Desdimira passed beneath Gideon she looked up at him, mouthing some secret message. Then there was a flash of light, and she and her ship were gone. Gone, too, was the mournful dirge. Only a trace of bubbles remained below the bridge, and in this lunar illumination Gideon doubted even these.
No one else nearby was looking at the waters.
Just at him.
The Taldan grandee was saying, "If you'll just hold still a moment, sir, everything will be all right..." The noble inched forward, and was joined by a tough-looking sightseer dressed for dockland work. First a thief, and now these excessively honorable citizens. A man can't win.
He bowed. "Let this be a lesson to me. This is what comes of too much opera."
From his spell component pouch he plucked a feather and a clutch of diminutive fruit tarts. He stuffed the tarts in his mouth and commenced waving the feather at the dockhand.
"What?" said the man, and with that Gideon blessed his good luck that his spell looked too ridiculous to be considered magic. Mouth full, Gideon began the incantation.
"Fate and Chance walk into a tavern," he said, magic embellishing his words. "‘I wasn't expecting you,' says Chance. ‘Just the person I wanted to see,' says Fate, adding, ‘I wanted to play some chess.' So they agree to play chess, but every time Fate and Chance flip a coin to see who chooses colors, the coin explodes. Every time they pick a taverngoer to choose, the taverngoer's head explodes. By now the chess pieces have been so knocked around by exploding coins and so bloodstained from exploding heads that you can't tell which is white and which is black. And Fate and Chance both smile and say, ‘I choose red.'"
The man's eyes got big and he commenced a horrid giggling. He collapsed upon the ground, unable to do anything but gasp and titter at the cosmic joke.
The noble stared at Gideon.
"I can tell another," Gideon said.
The noble ran toward the far end of the bridge and the vagabond camp there, which said something about his desperation.
Gideon wasted no time dashing in the opposite direction, toward the city.
He had to talk to Xeritian about this. Even if the headmaster decided Gideon was insane, Gideon instinctively trusted the man. Once off the bridge, Gideon panted in the shadows of an alley and watched the river a little longer, until the call of the fire-lit dormitory and his pillow proved too much, and he retraced his steps to the college. Apparitions, he decided, could wait until morning.
But in the morning Headmaster Xeritian was dead.
Coming Next Week: Web fiction will be going on hiatus for two weeks due to the holidays, but stay tuned for an all-new story starring Gideon after the break!
Chris Willrich is the author of the Pathfinder Tales novel The Dagger of Trust. He is a former children’s librarian best known for his sword-and-sorcery tales of Gaunt and Bone, which have appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and elsewhere, and which continue in the novels The Scroll of Years (Pyr, 2013) and The Silk Map (forthcoming). Chris lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his family. Visit his website at www.chriswillrich.com.
Illustration by Eric Belisle.