Path of Smoke

Overview

In Wascana Park, they’re ordinary university students. But after midnight, when the park transforms into the magical kingdom of Anfractus, they become warriors, bards, and archers in a real-life role-playing game…
 
The company of heroes has thwarted the plan of the power-hungry basilissa to conquer Anfractus, but not without a cost. Andrew’s character, Roldan, died, leaving him cut off from the mystical realm without any memory of its ...

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Path of Smoke

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Overview

In Wascana Park, they’re ordinary university students. But after midnight, when the park transforms into the magical kingdom of Anfractus, they become warriors, bards, and archers in a real-life role-playing game…
 
The company of heroes has thwarted the plan of the power-hungry basilissa to conquer Anfractus, but not without a cost. Andrew’s character, Roldan, died, leaving him cut off from the mystical realm without any memory of its existence. If the others reveal the park’s magical nature to Andrew, his banishment will become permanent. So they must hide their nighttime adventures—and hope that his memory returns.
 
Pursued by the basilissa’s forces, the rest of the group keeps a low profile in Anfractus until they uncover an unholy alliance between their enemy and the silenoi, satyrlike creatures who hunt humans—an alliance that threatens to cross the barrier into the real world.
 
And while his friends struggle to prevent an invasion in both worlds, Andrew receives a visitor determined to restore his memory of Anfractus by leading him down a very dark path…
 

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
06/09/2014
An urban park by day becomes a fantasy kingdom by night, but the aimless grad students who revel in their second lives as fighters and bards are troubled to find that their magical world is blending into reality. Cunningham fails to provide enough clues for readers who missed Pile of Bones to make sense of the story until it’s far too late, which dulls the impact of the danger headed for the cast of characters. This sense of confusion is made worse by the overuse of multiple points of view, which undermines the humor, danger, relationships, and intrigue. It doesn’t help that in both reality and the game-like fantasy world, the main characters aren’t interesting; for example, nominal protagonist Carl (aka the musician Babieca) spends the entire book drinking, mooching, and waffling between competence and apathy. This blatant attempt to appeal to gamers adds little to a genre that already echoes with the rattling of 20-sided dice. (Aug.)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780425261071
  • Publisher: Ace
  • Publication date: 7/29/2014
  • Series: A Novel of the Parallel Parks Series , #2
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 394,992
  • Product dimensions: 4.10 (w) x 6.70 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Bailey Cunningham is the author of the Novels of the Parallel Parks, including Pile of Bones.

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Read an Excerpt

PART ONE
TROVADOR

1

HE SAT IN THE window of the black basia, watching the Subura below. It was a hive of drunken people, sweating and belching and singing as they clogged the narrow streets. They were on the hunt for something that could only be found in this quarter. Nobody came here for the food. The alleys were a city of their own, full of treasures and bleak endings. A familiar alley might turn into a trap before your eyes. Anfractus never stayed the same for long, and the Subura was its dark heart. People came here in search of solace, odd miracles, and luck. The furs waited for them, clinging like moss to the stone walls. Their charms and delicate hooks could snag a purse in seconds. Babieca pulled his knees up to his chest. He could smell the fish sauce from the caupona across the street. The sky was beginning to darken.

He was only two stories up, but the fall would still break something. He loosened his grip on the sill. A trovador had once told him that you could sing yourself a staircase. Not a real staircase. More like one of the stone skyways that crisscrossed the horizon. If you sang the proper song, you could make the air thicken, just enough to support your weight. He swore that he’d seen someone do it. But he was a drunken senex, with very few teeth, and Babieca didn’t trust what he said. A song like that would be something rare and dangerous. The notes would play you without mercy, and when it was done, you’d be someone else. Someone who knew how to walk on air.

“If you fall,” a voice said, “someone will have to settle your bill.”

Babieca climbed down and replaced the shutter. The street noise was muffled, but he could still hear it. He reached for the cup of wine that he’d left by the bed. It was made of cheap blue glass, although it bore a slight resemblance to a more expensive design. He drained the cup, then refilled it.

“You’re the father of this house. Can’t you forgive my debt?”

Felix paused in the act of fastening his sandals. “I suppose I could. It would make more sense to auction off your possessions, though. Your lute might be worth something.”

“It’s got a crack.”

“Most things do.” He slipped on his tunica, dyed saffron and covered with rich panels of embroidery. “What about your cloak? That’s worth something.”

Babieca shook his head. “I stole it. I liked the tigers dancing along the edges. They think they’re real.”

“That wine is going to your head.”

“I know. That’s the point.”

“Don’t drink too much more. Aren’t you supposed to be at the domina’s party?”

“There’s time.”

Felix sat on the edge of the bed. His mask was silver, and carved with things that Babieca couldn’t quite make out. Wings, or olive branches, maybe.

“I’ve never seen you without that,” he said.

Felix looked at him curiously. “Of course you haven’t. It’s a part of me.”

“Maybe the only real part.”

“Watch yourself. I could have you barred from this house.”

“You wouldn’t do that.”

“Care to try me?”

He approached the bed and took Felix’s hand. His thumb traced the amethyst ring, carved to resemble Fortuna’s wheel. “You wouldn’t throw me to the furs.”

The meretrix looked at him for a moment. Then he took his hand away. “This won’t happen again.”

“You’ve said that before.”

“I mean it this time.” Felix rose. “We have to stop.”

“Why?” Babieca drew closer. “What’s the harm?”

“It’s pointless.”

“It was fairly pointed a moment ago. Or have you forgotten?”

Felix adjusted his tunica. “It was a bad choice.”

“One that you keep making.”

“Babieca—”

He touched Felix’s hair. It was slightly damp. “I think we fit.”

The mask regarded him. “Not with each other.”

Babieca’s hand dropped. He was stung, but smiling. “I guess it’s true what they say about meretrices being fickle.”

“You know it’s not that.”

He sat on the bed, which still smelled like both of them. “Don’t let me keep you. I’m sure you have several more cocks to fall on.”

“More like balancing the ledger.”

“How much for another hour?”

His eyes darkened. “Keep your coin.”

“No, truly—how much?”

Felix looked at him for a long moment. Then he left the room.

Babieca lay down. The sheets were patterned with small, indeterminate animals, leaping over thickets. Maybe they were foxes. Nothing seemed real, save for the odor of sweat, smoke, and grilled cabbage from the caupona below. He touched the pillow. It was unraveling in the corner. He didn’t know what made him push Felix. Something about the mask, and the way it changed his eyes. The mask was naked—it was the rest of his body that remained hidden. Everyone knew this about meretrices, of course. Spadones were the only gens who were more accomplished at hiding their emotions. He imagined them playing Hazard, the eunuchs and the wolves, caught in a perpetual stalemate. Nobody blinking. The unwrinkled surface of their faces like blank papyrus.

What had brought them together? The first time seemed hazy around the edges, like a furtive moment stolen in the baths. It had been hot—that much he remembered. The paving stones had become coals, burning unprotected toes whenever someone slipped. Laughter, imprecations, the sour stink of wine. He’d run into Felix while heading toward a cell downstairs, the coin in his hand. He’d wanted a mouth to devour him, bones and all, spitting him out like an owl-pellet after it was done. Felix had appeared in the narrow door, hair slick with sweat, digging a rock out of his sandal. They were both wilting from the heat. Babieca had looked up at him, at his mask, glowing like metal from the forge. What was said? He could only remember a few scattered words. Once. That haunted him. Once. A promise and a threat. Felix had broken his word. Perhaps he’d intended to.

Babieca sipped the wine. Once, he had nearly fit someone else. He remembered a tongue like a lock-pick in his mouth, a charm to release the exhausted mechanism. There’d been a stone bed, a fox, a little death. Fortuna’s mark on smooth skin. He looked down at his own thigh, smudged with dirt and sweat, but unmarked. No daub of paint. Had the river washed it away? He thought of the face, pale as boxwood. The expression of relief as every angle softened. Maybe all he’d ever wanted was silence. Babieca took another drink, but forgot that he was supine, and spilled some. Red droplets flushed to life against the fabric. They blurred the lines of the possible-fox, until it resembled a tinted shadow.

He was almost a meretrix himself. They shared a spoke on Fortuna’s wheel. The irony was that meretrices—not the desperate pretenders who fucked unmasked in tiny cells, but those who belonged to a legitimate basia—were infinitely more respectable than him. A trovador was only as good as his next song, and he had no courtly connections to exploit. He was supposed to perform at Domina Pendelia’s tonight, but only in the background. A trained monkey could do it. He got dressed, then hunted for his instrument. Sometimes, Felix would ask him to play. Once. A smile playing at the edge of his mask. He found the lute under the bed, next to its case. His thumb found the crack, the way a tongue would find a loose tooth. He traced the groove in the lacquered wood.

How did it happen?

The auditor loved to ask. Dozens of times, he’d asked, thinking that this time it would work. Babieca would smile slightly and look away.

I’ll tell you when we’re older.

The hardest thing hadn’t been watching him drown. That happened too swiftly. He’d barely had time to wipe the blood from his eyes, and then he was surfacing. No. The hardest thing had been the ride back, their bodies lashed together by a belt. The feel of him, still slightly warm, but empty. His doll’s head bobbing gently against Babieca’s shoulder. And he wanted to hold the auditor in that safe little crook forever, but he wasn’t holding anything. Just a lukewarm vessel whose contents had already begun to settle. He’d held on to the hand, regardless. The knuckle with its funny islet of bone, protruding slightly. Like the crack in the lute. He closed the case and swung it over his shoulder.

Maybe Felix and Drauca visited each room, making the beds together. They were called father and mother, after all. Some of their chores should be ordinary. He rubbed at the wine on the sheets but only succeeded in making it worse. Fortuna stared down at him from the mural above the bed. She was dancing with a silenus, who grasped at her silks. Babieca couldn’t imagine a time when the silenoi had danced with anyone. He’d heard rumors that some of the basia were willing to service them, but that must have been a dangerous transaction. Sex with a homicidal goat. It would take an experienced mask to pull that off.

He slipped on his sandals, then grabbed the cup for good measure. The wine was too sweet, but he’d stopped discriminating a few cups ago. It occurred to him that he’d never seen Felix drinking at the basia. Nothing but water. He supposed it was safer to keep your wits about you. Still, there was something disconcerting about it. Like a host who remained forever lucid while his guests tore the walls down. He left through the narrow door. A man was passed out in the hallway, drooling thin ribbons of wine. Babieca saw a shadow in the corner. A fur, most likely. The shadow hesitated. They seemed to face each other for a moment, although he couldn’t tell precisely what he was looking at.

Trovador and fur—different spokes, but irresistibly related to each other. The Fur Queen ruled the undercity from her hidden tower, its roots clutching the wreckage of Old Anfractus. The rest of the towers scraped the sky, but the Fur Queen’s tower was sheathed to the hilt underground, hidden from view. A tree growing in reverse. Babieca started to say something, but the shadow was already gone.

At least they had a queen. Trovadores had nothing but a circle of pretenders, all claiming to be the “arch-bard” or some other ridiculous title. They lacked organization, connections, respectability. Their tower was an endless drunken song. Or so he’d heard. The gens wouldn’t accept itinerant players. Only those with a reputation were allowed in, and Babieca was a nemo, an unknown. Snap a string, they’d say, whenever he tried knocking on the door. Now, at least, Morgan was in the same boat. The Gens of Sagittarii had repudiated her. They could be outcasts together, enjoying their shared marginality. Morgan, though, wasn’t quite as serene about her exile. The spicy life of a jongleur was one thing—everyone talked about how exciting it must be—but there were no satisfying stories about homeless archers. Morgan had been the only die-carrying member of their false company. The most respectable among them. Now she was without a gens, and they were without an auditor.

He made his way down the corridor. It was getting dark, so he unhooked one of the bronze lamps and took it with him. It was shaped like a dwarf riding a giant cock. His expression, obscured by wear and drops of oil, was hard to read. Babieca thought that he would probably be more nervous to mount a giant phallus. Where would it take him? How would he steer? The dwarf’s expression was placid, though, as if this sort of thing happened all the time.

Babieca descended a short flight of stairs, and then the corridor widened. He set down the lamp and walked toward a new source of light, until he found himself in the atrium of the black basia. The floor was covered in a mosaic of blue, green, and white tesserae. It depicted Fortuna as the mother-meretrix, spinning her wheel, as various couples danced beneath. The mosaic was tamer than the friezes, in which every possible act of love (and a few impossible ones) were displayed in vibrant colors. Even the lares were pictured, although nobody was quite sure how they mated. Salamanders joined tails, while undinae gathered in an underwater embrace, their ragged hair filled with shells and seaweed. Gnomoi kissed beneath the earth, like blind moles in love. Only a few people had ever seen a gnomo, so the depiction was a bit fanciful. They resembled pale children with long fingers, each ending in a claw that could scrape rock and sift through precious minerals.

The fourth family of lares—the caela—hovered in the borders. The artist had used dark tesserae, rendering them as clouds or scraps of mist. Nobody had seen one in centuries. They’d been included purely for the sake of continuity. Their eyes were voids. Babieca found it difficult to look at those pinpricks of plaster, holes in the world that threatened to devour him. Those eyes saw him for what he was, and for a moment they held him, pinioned to Fortuna’s spinning wheel. He blinked and looked away. They weren’t coming back anytime soon. They’d been gone when Anfractus was still a primitive settlement—a warren of huts, caves, and cook-fires.

The atrium was full of revelers, all wreathed and spilling wine on each other. He fit right in. A few of the more cautious ones stood against the pillars, nursing a glass of sweet hippocrene while they watched the festivities. He noticed more than a few women on the edges, carefully considering what they might want. Some were veiled, while others had trimmed their hair short, in the style of the female barbers who worked beneath the aqueduct. The women didn’t drink nearly as much. They needed to remain on guard, even in a space as removed from the city as this. A delicate transaction always had the chance of turning deadly, and it was better to be armed. The meretrices carried numerous weapons—Felix had pointed a few of them out to him—and Babieca was amazed at how a comb, a necklace, or a ring could be transformed into a killing device. His own stubby gladius, barely a blade at all, seemed paltry in comparison. Poor old thing. He’d been meaning to replace it, but money was tight.

A spado passed him, wearing a mint-green tunica and an embroidered cap. His heart seized for a moment. But it wasn’t Mardian. Just a smooth, round man with wispy blond hair, scanning the room with a practiced eye. His chin was bare, save for a few pale whiskers. Mardian was more solidly built. This one was a palace eunuch, perhaps one of Eumachia’s retinue. Babieca imagined him tucking in the daughter of the basilissa, wishing her sweet dreams as he snuffed out the lamp by her bedside. Or maybe he sang to her in his sweet, trilling voice. A song about the Anfractus of memory, where salamanders danced in the streets and the fountains poured wine. There was no curfew, no hurried running for cover at sunset. The silenoi remained in the forest, lacking the temerity to approach the gates. Like bears or mountain lions, they were an abstract part of nature, safely removed from everyday life. A city whose streets weren’t perilous by night. That would have been something to see, if it had ever existed.

The musicians sat in their alcoves, playing languidly on the cistrum. Their tempo was a slow burn, filled with the gentle clinking of bronze rings, the slap of bare feet on marble. Babieca looked down at his own feet, dirty in mended sandals. The nearest block of marble had been carved with a cheerful phallus, beneath which was the message: Here resides pleasure. This one didn’t have wings, or a dwarf riding sidesaddle. Its crudity suggested that it was older than the rest of the atrium. There were similar paving stones throughout the city, meant to provoke laughter and guide people toward the Subura. Occasionally, the meretrices would pass out loaves of bread and sweetmeats that were shaped like sex organs. Tonight, the only fare was roasted chestnuts—the kind sold at the Hippodrome—and he’d already eaten too many.

He heard someone murmur, and looked up from the cock near his toe. A woman was making her way slowly into the atrium. She leaned on an ivory cane, and her left foot dragged behind her, its delicate sandal grinding across the marble. Her left arm trembled as she moved, and the fingers of her hand clenched and unclenched, as if the hand possessed its own agenda. Her head lolled a bit to one side, and her face was narrowed in concentration as she took one step, then another, gripping the cane for support. Babieca was struck by her beauty. Unlike the fashionable dominae, whose hair was forever being teased into a tower of pins and golden thread, she wore a delicate braid that fell across one shoulder, tied with a scarlet ribbon. Her stola was made of cream-colored silk, with a hint of purple in the embroidery. Her ivory mask was carved with images that Babieca couldn’t quite make out. Like Felix’s mask, it seemed to shift in the lamplight, unsettled and full of possibilities.

The musicians played more softly. People continued to talk, but they were all watching her. They didn’t even try to conceal their interest. Suddenly, Babieca was happy to be a nemo, an unknown. He couldn’t endure the weight of their stares, the bite of their curiosity. He watched them whispering to each other, clucking slightly or exchanging knowing glances, while she focused on each step. Their looks and murmurs couldn’t quite reach her. They stopped at her mask. She looked up, and Babieca saw that her green eyes were sharp. They betrayed nothing.

She scanned the crowd and then gestured slightly with her right hand. A small crook of the finger. Although she wasn’t looking at him, Babieca felt that she could see him clearly, in spite of his nobodyness. He shifted. Felix was one matter, but this was Drauca, the house mother. You didn’t simply approach her. Not unless you wanted everyone to notice you, and that was the last thing that he needed right now.

A boy emerged from the crowd. He was beautiful and unmasked, which marked him as an apprentice. He was clad in the tunica praetexta of a high-placed adolescent, with its red stripe signifying his youth. Drauca smiled at him. Then she made a strange gesture with her right hand. It was hard to discern the shape that she traced, but it reminded him of the sign language used by merchants in the Exchange. Different hand shapes corresponded to different numbers, and the merchants were able to have polite conversations with their clientele, while their hands clashed and bartered ruthlessly. These hand shapes were more complex, and he couldn’t tell what was being said. The boy responded in kind, even more swiftly than Drauca. She smiled with a hint of pride. Then she made one last hand shape, and the boy dissolved into peals of laughter.

Now the whole atrium was staring. His laughter was high-pitched, almost braying. There was something sweet about it, but also a little odd. Then Babieca realized that he was deaf. He didn’t respond even slightly to the music, or the whispers. Instead, he concentrated entirely on the weft of Drauca’s hands. His own movements were steady and fluid, while hers wavered, on account of her trembling fingers. Perhaps it constituted an accent. She smiled and touched his smooth cheek with her hand. Then he disappeared into the crowd.

Babieca felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned and saw Fel. Usually she worked outside the basia. It was rare for her to venture inside. The fading light from the impluvium sparkled against her scale lorica. She reminded him of a frieze. Frozen miles. One hand rested on the chipped hilt of her sword.

“There’s a drunk passed out in the hallway,” he said. “Don’t you normally deal with that sort of thing?”

“Right now, I’m more concerned with the drunk in the atrium.”

He scowled. “I’m perfectly lucid.”

“Touch your toes, then.”

“Fuck off.”

“We have to go. The party will be starting soon.”

“Nobody’s going to miss a nemo trovador. Here.” He started to remove his lute case. “You can give this to one of the servants from the undercroft. They’ll strum just as uselessly in the background, I promise.”

“She asked for you.”

“That’s because she likes to see me suffer. It’s one of her pastimes.”

He tried to catch Drauca’s gaze, but she was already shuffling out of the atrium. Her cane tapped a soft cipher against the ground. Everyone had returned to the business of drinking and sizing each other up. He sighed.

“What’s your interest with the house mother?”

“She’s beautiful.”

“Stay away from her, trovador.”

“Why? I’ve charmed one meretrix, already.”

“You’re as charming as a fart in the frigidarium.”

He blinked at her. “You’re full of crotchety wisdom tonight.”

“When you stand in one place for hours on end, you learn to study people. I understand them, and I understand you.”

“What do you understand about me?”

“That you’re a kitten who likes to annoy great cats. Eventually, though, one of them is going to take a swipe at you.”

“At least you’ve offered me an adorable metaphor.”

“Let’s go.”

He frowned at her. “It’s not like we live in different worlds. Aren’t we all just climbing the same ladder?”

“If that’s true,” she said, guiding him by the arm, “then you’re on the bottom rung, and she’s near the top. Your chances of being shit on are remarkably high, but you won’t accomplish much of anything else.”

“I’m a good climber.”

“You can barely walk in a straight line.”

“Fine.” He allowed himself to be led toward the door. “I’m a competent stumbler.”

“Let’s fill that cup with water.”

“No. It’s too late for that. If I sober up now, I won’t be able to play.”

“That’s sad.”

“You just don’t understand music.”

They made their way through the crowd and exited the basia. The sky above them was the color of the boy’s tunica, a brilliant red stripe. As the sun set, people quickened their pace, in search of egress or entertainment. The basiorum were protected—mostly—which made them a preferred destination. A pack of silenoi weren’t going to break down the door. They wanted a proper hunt, and there was no sport in killing those who couldn’t at least run or put up a fight. The baths and cauponae were safe for that same reason. The alleys behind them were a different story, as were the skyways above. The silenoi thought of them as a network of stone branches, part of a giant tree that shaded the city, and they liked to climb.

Anfractus was a very different place after dark. You rolled with your life every time you ventured down a blind alley, but it was a city of alleys. Unless you were willing to explore them, you’d spend all of your time gambling, eating, or stretched out in ecstasy. Not a bad existence, but it cost money. Fear had turned many into furs. Once you ran out of coins, either you learned how to steal or you fled.

They walked down Aditus Papallona, which cut across the entertainment district. A few people looked suspiciously at Fel but said nothing. The sight of armor made them nervous. The commerce of the Subura wasn’t exactly beyond the pale, but it carried an element of risk. Nobody wanted to run afoul of the miles, who patrolled this area in force. They didn’t realize that Fel was barely a miles. The gens accepted her, but to them, she’d always be a sentry who guarded a brothel. Her contacts were unreliable. It was for that very reason that she escaped notice.

“Why does she need another party?” Babieca asked. “Her fucking life is a party.”

“Just be thankful that she never turned us in.”

“Is that our measure of an ally? People who don’t try to have us killed?”

She steered him away from a caupona. “There aren’t many safe spaces left for us. The basia is protected, and my gens doesn’t give a cracked die about me, so I can still roam the city. But you and Morgan have to stay hidden.”

“Nobody knows me.”

“People saw you.” She lowered her voice. “The basilissa’s daughter. Mardian. Those miles that we attacked.”

“Felix.”

“He’s protecting you.”

“I’m not sure I’d call it that.”

“I don’t know what game you’re playing with him, but you’d best stop. You aren’t the only person who needs his help. If he decided to turn his back on us, the entire company would be exposed.”

“We’re not a company.”

Babieca watched an auditor pass. He wore a patched tunica and was talking to something invisible that seemed to be following him. A salamander, most likely. The trotting shadow must have said something funny, because the auditor snorted, then kept walking.

Everything has a chaos, he’d said. Salamanders lived in fire. Gnomoi lived beneath the ground, breathing basalt. Air was the chaos of humans. They’d stolen it from the caela, the lares of wind and smoke. Nobody remembered precisely how such a theft had taken place, but people were here, and the caela were gone. Did they lose a bet? Was it simply a bad spin of the wheel? Fortuna did like to keep things interesting.

A few months ago, they had sneaked into the Arx of Violets and committed treason against Basilissa Latona. They’d climbed up through the toilets and crept, reeking and scared, to the patio of lions. That was where they’d heard Latona say that Anfractus wasn’t enough. She wanted Egressus, and she was willing to kill Basilissa Pulcheria in order to take the city. Saving Pulcheria had been their first quest. But now they were three instead of four, and Latona wanted them dead. If there was something worse than dead, she wanted that too. He’d felt a flicker of hope while Narses, the high chamberlain, was leading them. But he was gone. Now there was only Mardian, his twisted apprentice, shadowing them at every turn.

Of course, Babieca thought, if someone had burned my face off, I’d probably be looking for a bit of revenge too.

They turned onto Via Rumor, the busiest street in the city. Most people were heading for their own alleys. They lacked the experience or the connections to remain after dark. That was where he should have been going, but Domina Pendelia offered them a certain degree of protection. There wasn’t likely to be bloodshed at her house. A lot of drinking, a few stolen kisses in the garden, but that was it. Even Morgan was safe there, so long as nobody figured out who she actually was.

Her domus was in an old and fashionable vici, a bit removed from the clamor and foot traffic of Via Rumor. Glowing braziers flanked either side of the blue door. Fel knocked lightly. A member of the house staff appeared.

“Do you have an invitation?”

Babieca patted his lute case. “I’m the entertainment. She’s the muscle.”

He looked dubiously at Babieca. “You’re drunk.”

“Merely lubricated. Now let us in. Unless you want to explain to your domina that one of her instruments has gone missing.”

“Fine. Don’t talk to the guests.”

They walked through a dim corridor. The only light came from the lararium, where someone had lit candles and left a few scraps of oil-soaked bread. Flies buzzed around the crumbs, and tears of wax obscured the image of the lares. All he could make out were eyes and claws, indistinct against a peeling background. It was good luck to leave a coin, but he couldn’t spare anything. He stopped, briefly, to rearrange the bread crumbs. Fel looked at him strangely but said nothing. Then they kept walking until they reached the atrium.

Every lamp in the domus had been lit, and even with the fresh air coming through the skylight, the room was hot. People lounged on triclinia, drinking, sucking oysters, and dipping crusty bread into bowls of fish sauce. The smell of the food was overpowering. Trestle tables had been set up throughout the room, and they were covered with delicacies: roasted boar, spiced quail eggs, and dormice rolled in honey. There were delicate mushrooms, and cow udders that had been stuffed with something that he’d rather not know about. He put a few mice into his tunica, before Fel could notice. Something nudged his foot. He looked down and saw a tiny frog machina, its gears whirring as it brushed against his toe.

“Sorry. He got away.”

Julia emerged from the crowd. She was wearing a head scarf, but a few strands of red hair had escaped, and they fell across her eyes. Brushing them away, she knelt down and retrieved the mechanical frog. It trembled in her hands.

“So I’m not the only entertainment,” Babieca said.

“What can I say? Drunken idiots go wild for things that hop.”

“I thought you didn’t like playing with toys.”

“I like the feeling of a full purse.” Julia looked up at Fel. “It’s nice to see you both. I suppose it’s been a while.”

“More than a month,” Babieca said. “Not that we’re counting.”

“I meant to send you a tablet.”

“It’s fine,” Fel replied. “We aren’t—” She searched for the right word. “You know what I mean. There’s nothing that binds us together.”

“Not anymore.” Babieca examined the frog. “It may be a toy, but it’s still a bit of genius. Did you make it?”

She looked a little embarrassed. “I had help. But yes.”

“Well done. Now, all you have to do is equip them with poison darts, and we’ll have a truly interesting party.”

“That’s actually not a half-bad idea,” Fel observed. “You could make a fortune if you partnered with the Gens of Sicarii.”

“I’ve got enough problems without involving assassins in my life.” Julia looked down at the metal amphibian, which strained against her hand. She was awkwardly silent for a moment. Then she smiled at Babieca. “Well, I should look for the rest of them, before they crawl under the domina’s bed. May Fortuna smile on your music.”

“It’s not mine,” he said. “But thanks.”

Julia disappeared into the crowd. Babieca felt a strange sadness as he watched her go. An artifex would make four. Not quite the same, but still, they’d be a company once more. There’d been a moment, after the grim business at the harbor, when he’d thought that Julia might join them. But she wouldn’t step into the shadow of the auditor. Babieca didn’t blame her. They were under the wheel now, their faces pressed into the mud. Joining them would have been folly. Better to hang on, even if it meant chasing frogs.

“I’m going to patrol the undercroft,” Fel said.

“All you’ll find are people fucking in the hypocaust.”

“Well, it’s a living. Are you going to be fine?”

“Yes.” He unpacked his lute. “I suppose I will be.”

Fel descended the stairs that led to the domina’s dusty undercroft. He’d worked there once, stoking the hypocaust. It seemed like a lifetime ago, but really, it hadn’t been so long. Breaking his back for hours so that the domina could enjoy a heated bath. Until the day that a lean shadow had wandered in.

You’ll get more heat if you leave some roasted pumpkin seeds in the corner. That’s where the salamander sleeps.

He took his place among the musicians, who had arranged themselves near the impluvium. Orchids danced in the water as they played. Babieca’s fingers knew the melodies, and his concentration wandered. He watched the lovely, rich people seated on couches before him, exchanging gossip. They picked their teeth, cleaned their ears with tiny silver spoons, and pressed forward with their ragged alliances. Beneath the uncertain lamplight, he saw a flash of bracelets, a tall wig on fire with opals, naked feet and blurred mouths, like the lares gently disappearing on their shrine. All the duplicity and beauty in the city of Anfractus seemed to be gathered here, a storm whose perfection could destroy him.

At one point, a spado joined them. He sat on the edge of the impluvium, framed by orchid shadows, and sang. His voice was ermine. High and aching, it was beyond anything that Babieca’s poor instrument could produce. It filled him with a strange sense of grief, although he couldn’t say exactly what was sad about it. The song was in a language that he didn’t understand. The speech of the founders, perhaps, or something from beyond the forest. He caught one word, a word that seemed oddly familiar. But before he could remember where he’d heard it, the people were clapping, the spado politely inclined his head, and the word vanished.

He saw Domina Pendelia, heading toward them. Most likely, she had some demand. She wanted them to wash plates or clean up someone’s puke in the fountain. Babieca had no desire to become a good investment, so he ducked through the peristyle and into the garden. Two women lingered by the statuary. One said something soft beneath her breath. The other laughed. He stepped behind the fountain and unlatched the hidden gate, which led to the narrow alley behind the domus. The shadows were cool against the stone walls, and moss tickled his fingers as he leaned against one, adjusting his sandal. He was beginning to feel sober, which was terrible. He’d need to launch an attack on the domina’s undercroft, where she kept the wine. If he could distract Fel, he’d probably be able to steal a small amphora. She’d never miss it.

Babieca heard footsteps. He started to reach for his sword but then remembered that he hadn’t brought it. Only miles were allowed to bear arms at the domina’s party. There was a throwing knife, tucked into the hollowed-out sole of his right sandal. He wasn’t much good at throwing it, but in the dark, it might pass for a bigger weapon. Aside from brandishing his cock, it was the only option. He bent over to retrieve it but slipped on a paving stone and fell to his knees. Cursing, he tugged on the knife, but it was stuck.

“Preemptive falling. That’s a good strategy. They might think you’re asleep.”

He sighed. “Just help me up.”

Morgan offered her hand. She helped him to rise, then brushed off his tunica.

“You look a fright.” She wore a green stola. Her hair was caught up in a series of ivory pins, and Babieca stared at them, as if they were something unreal. He’d never seen Morgan in anything but a rust-colored cloak and a suit of leather armor.

“Your shoes,” he said, marveling at them. “Are those cork heels?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Really? I’ve got nowhere to go, and I’m certain there’s a story behind this.”

“I’m supposed to blend in, remember? There’s a bounty on my head, but everyone’s looking for a sagittarius. Nobody will notice another girl in a dress.”

“You’re not another girl in a dress,” he said.

“Well—” She looked away, suddenly embarrassed. “Don’t get any ideas. I can kill you with these shoes.”

“I’ve no doubt.”

They both leaned against the wall. Babieca heard faint strains of laughter from the garden, and more distantly, the hum of Via Rumor. The nocturnal citizens of Anfractus were moving from party to party, hunting for diversion. They assumed that their lamps and knives and connections would keep them safe as they darted between houses, avoiding the shadows. Most of them were right. But before the night was over, a few of them would disappear.

“You played nicely,” Morgan said.

“I strummed my fingers bloody, and all I have to show for it is a pocket full of dormice.” He reached into his tunica. “Want one? They’re still warm.”

“No thanks.”

“Shit. I must have dropped them.” He closed his eyes. “All they’re going to remember is the spado’s voice.”

“It’s hard to forget.”

“The worst part is that I’m sober.”

“Here.” She handed him a wineskin.

“Where did you steal this?”

“It’s better that you don’t know.”

He took a sip, then passed it back to Morgan. “This is usually the moment when you lecture me on public drunkenness.”

“I don’t have the strength.” She took a sip, then put the wineskin away. “Is this what we’ve become? Entertainment for that woman?”

“I’m the entertainment. Fel’s the muscle. And you—” He blinked. “Why are you here, exactly? To make us look bad?”

“I’m her eyes and ears.”

“A spy.” He smiled. “A bit like your previous post on the battlements, only you get to wear much nicer shoes.”

“I have a dagger, although I’m not telling you where I put it.”

“Good. Let me imagine.”

“I’d prefer that you didn’t.”

Babieca felt the moss tickling his hair. “I saw Julia.”

“Everyone loves her frogs.”

“Do you think she’d ever—” He shrugged. “I mean, we could use an artifex.”

“It’s not safe for her to be seen with us.”

“Because we’re so terrifying.”

“Babieca, she still has a chance. The Gens of Artifices will support her.”

“Who’s going to support us?”

She chuckled. “At least we’re still getting work.”

“Until Domina Pendelia decides to throw us under the wheel.”

“If that was her plan, she’d have done it a long time ago.”

“You aren’t normally this trusting.”

“What choice do I have?”

“You could roll again. Shoot another arrow.” He smiled. “Maybe if you rolled high enough, you could hit the basilissa from here.”

“Don’t be stupid.”

“It was a hell of a shot, though.”

She looked at her hands. “It was.”

“You’d need another stone arrow. We could ask the gnomo who lives in Pendelia’s garden. Do you think he’s still there?”

“I have no idea.”

“Maybe if we listened hard enough, we could hear him.”

Morgan looked at Babieca. Then she touched his hand, lightly. She was about to say something, but stopped. They both heard the sound of footsteps. Quickly, Morgan pulled him into the shadows. They crouched in the corner of the alley. He felt better, knowing that Morgan was here. Not much better, but a little.

Two figures stepped into the alley. One was slender and wore a white cloak with the hood pulled down. The other was large and wearing some kind of dark mantle. He seemed out of proportion, somehow. When he walked, he took halting, delicate steps. Click. Click. Click. His sandals brushed against the stones.

The figure in white carried a lantern. As they drew closer and the light fell upon the one in the dark mantle, Babieca had to stifle a gasp. It wasn’t a mantle. His body was covered in coarse fur, and his cloven feet struck the ground as he walked. Click. Click. Click. His horns were covered in delicate striations. Babieca prayed to Fortuna that those burning green eyes couldn’t see him. Morgan was squeezing his hand so tightly, he thought she might break it.

They stopped a few feet from the mouth of the alley. Babieca was certain that the silenus would be able to smell them, but he seemed distracted. His eyes were on the figure in white.

“There isn’t much time.” His voice was low, and accented.

It was the first time he’d heard a silenus use human speech. The words chilled him. It was like hearing a bear suddenly call you by name.

The figure in white lowered her hood, and Babieca felt himself begin to shake. He’d never wanted to run so badly in his life. Basilissa Latona held up the lantern.

“Does it hurt? The light?”

“No. But it is distracting.”

“You prefer the dark.”

“We always have.”

“Let’s make this quick, then. I have something that you want.”

“Yes. It belongs to us.”

“Of course. And it’s doing me no good, collecting dust in the arx. I’m prepared to return it to your people. But I’ll need something in return.”

“It belongs to us,” the silenus repeated. There was a growl in his voice.

“Yes. I heard you the first time.” Latona’s expression didn’t waver. “You’ll have it. But first, I need to speak with your master.”

“He will not enter the city. He despises it.”

“No bother. I’ll come to him.”

“Your kind is not allowed in his court.”

Her voice grew cold. “If you wish to continue your hunt—in my city—then you will grant me an audience. I promise that I won’t darken his doorstep for long. I have but a single matter to discuss with him.”

“You wish to talk. That is all?”

“Yes.” She smiled. “Talking never hurt anyone.”

“Bring what we seek. Then you can talk.”

“I’m afraid it has to be the other way around. First, I’m going to talk with your master. If we reach an agreement, then I’ll return your heirloom.”

“Talk.” The silenus spat on the ground. “Always talk with you people.”

“Don’t you have your own talk? Your own stories?”

“We hunt.”

“So do we. The only difference is that we tend to drink a lot, and tell ridiculous stories while we’re doing it.”

“That is why you never catch anything.”

There was a sound at the mouth of the alley. The basilissa lowered her hood and extinguished the lantern.

“The necropolis,” she murmured. “Tomorrow. Return with your master’s decision, and we’ll see where this story goes.”

The basilissa and the silenus hurried out of the alley. For a moment, Babieca heard the click click click of hooves, receding toward Via Rumor. Then there was silence.

He looked at Morgan. She was pale and hadn’t let go of his hand.

“We have to find Fel,” she whispered. “After that, we’re getting the hell out of Anfractus, before that thing smells us.”

2

SOMEONE WAS IN HIS bedroom.

He could hear them screaming. Or clanging. Was it more like clanging? It came from all directions, an impossible howl that seemed to encompass multiple registers of abrasive sound. Four banshees standing in the corners of the room, screaming for his murky little soul. Carl was afraid to open his eyes, but there was no other choice. The first thing that he noticed was a yellow Post-it stuck to his pillow. Do not go back to sleep, it said. The noise was actually a series of four alarms that he’d rigged up the previous night. His bedside clock, his phone, his laptop, and an old watch with a broken band, all screeching in unison.

It sounded like the end of the world. And it was, nearly.

“First day of term,” he muttered.

He shut off the phone and the clock. The watch and the laptop were on the opposite side of the room, balanced against a crest of dirty laundry. He knew himself too well. The laptop alarm was programmed to get louder with each passing moment, like a hysterical child in a grocery store. The watch, having nothing to lose, would beep itself to death. He crossed the room in his underwear and shut them both off. Where had he even found that watch? It was an old Casio, with a cracked face and only half a strap, but it could still scream. He held it for a moment. Owning a watch seemed outdated now, like owning a pince-nez. He replaced it gently on the pile of laundry.

The first day of term was an exercise in chaos. Every professor in the department would be frantically proofreading syllabi. Even those with eagle-eyed precision would make a scheduling mistake, which nobody would notice for months. You couldn’t even get near the bookstore, the lines were so long, and the cafeteria resembled some nightmarish scenario from a high school movie. Someone was always in tears at the parking office, pleading for another spot. Please, anywhere but Z-lot. Everyone seemed slightly drunk as they walked into each other, attempting to study printouts while texting at the same time. The only quiet place was the library, since nobody would even think of going there until the week of midterms. For now, it was a holy oasis. The librarians murmured peacefully to each other, like monks taking the air in a silent courtyard. They hadn’t yet been asked, Where are the books? or, Is this a computer lab?

He couldn’t remember what his first day of classes had been like. It was only five years ago, but when he tried to recall it, there was nothing but a smooth blank. Grad school had replaced everything with its deep roots. His life before—making popcorn at a video store, getting drunk in basements, endlessly driving in search of some imprecise event—seemed like a foreign film without subtitles. He could recall doing all of those things, over and over again, but the voices and colors had faded.

Suddenly he wanted to call his mother and ask her what he’d done as a teenager. That boring, burning stretch of adolescence. Mothers were archives. If he asked, she would be able to tell him who he’d been, what he’d wanted. She’d been on guard, trying to protect him from the sharp corners. He could see her as she was then, wearing a green skirt and smelling faintly of smoke, as she read him snippets of Góngora. She’d always loved Solitudes. There was something about pastoral poetry that moved her. Perhaps it was the comfort of a golden age that had never really happened, or the rough desire of shepherds, hurling their love-plaints across the dark expanse of fields. Góngora, Lope, Virgil—she could spend hours reading their descriptions of a clearing, or a blind cow, moved to tears.

Carl almost called her. Then he realized that he didn’t know where she was. She’d been at a conference on poetics in Valencia, and there’d been talk about some writer’s retreat in Mexico City, but he wasn’t sure of her precise location. She was a particle floating between countries. He imagined her in the air, craving a cigarette as she edited her newest sheaf of poems. His mother was one of the most productive people that he’d ever known. She would vanish for a month or two, only to reappear with a new chapbook, or some edited volume that she’d collaborated on. Her work was internationally respected, and she always seemed to be in transit, on her way to an awards ceremony or a symposium.

Every time she arrived at a new hotel, she would send him a photo of the drapes. He wasn’t sure why, but they seemed to inspire her. As a result, he had a whole folder of garish patterns on his computer, textures that resembled carpeting from an old Boston Pizza.

He got dressed and crammed his bag full of textbooks. This was the first time that he’d serve as a teaching assistant for a second-year course. History 200: The Middle Ages to the Eighteenth Century. The professor, Tim Darby, reminded him of a disheveled actor who’d once starred in films about surfing.

When he was six, his grandmother had bought him a set of Encyclopedia Britannica. He adored the leather binding, black and oxblood, with golden leaf on the pages. They were the heaviest books that he’d ever seen. He read them from cover to cover. It took a long time, but he didn’t leave the house much, so that helped. Years later, obscure bits of information were still floating around in his head, like dust from those gilt pages. It was a useful exercise. While other kids were out riding three-wheelers and trading Transformers, he was sifting through details, figuring out what was needed and what could be left behind. His mother would hand him a sandwich and shake her head. Why can’t you just read comics?

History appealed to him, because it was a contradiction. You had the debris, which was real, but voiceless. Then you had the stuffing around the debris, the social text, which historians fluffed into patterns. It was the debris that he adored. The objects, lifted from a matrix of dirt, cooed over, labeled, and loved by archivists with delicate horsehair brushes. Even as a kid, he’d dreamed of having an apartment with objects on display. Oh, those are my artifacts, he’d say.

 

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