Carol Berg writes epic, mythic, and adventure fantasy novels under her own name and her pseudonym, Cate Glass. Her 17 published works have won national and international awards, including four Colorado Book Awards and the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature. Carol is a regular presenter/panelist at writers conferences and fantasy/sf conventions and is a two-time Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Writer of the Year. She is a former software engineer who majored in math at Rice University and computer science at the University of Colorado to avoid writing papers. She lives in Colorado in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
The following is an excerpt from “An Illusion of Thieves.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
2020 Colorado Book Awards winner for Science Fiction/Fantasy
Born into poverty, and magically gifted in a world where sorcery is a mortal crime, Romy has spent nine years as courtesan to the most powerful man in Cantagna. When her 15-year-old brother is suspected of sorcery, she is cast out by her longtime lover, forced to find a way to get her next meal as well as be responsible for her illiterate, obstinate, and dangerously reckless sibling. After a difficult few months, she thinks she’s found a solution…
“Humph.” The grunting swordsman filled our open doorway. “Your place here—unexpected for the Beggars Ring.”
But for the accuracy of his sentiment, one might easily doubt that Placidio di Vasil’s swollen, seeping eyes could take in the details of any household. The rest of him was no more promising. He reeked of wine and urine. An angry scar creased his face from eye to the clotted rats’ nest of black hair on his chin. Grime and grease disguised the colors of his cheap doublet.
Yet my expectations were not entirely correct, either. First glimpse said he’d run to fat, but the buff jerkin and leather breeches hugged a big frame layered with muscle and sinew. The taverner had called the duelist old man, but not even his unhealthy skin would mark him past five-and-thirty.
“Be welcome, swordmaster.” I motioned him to step inside.
“You’re no lawyer, are you, Romy of Lizard’s Alley?” he asked, lip curled enough to twist the ugly scar. His glance scoured my shelf of pen cases, ink flasks, and stacked parchment.
“Why do you care what I am?” I said, more curious than annoyed.
“’Tis unsafe to have me waving a blade near vermin.”
Truly, many citizens had reasons to be wary of lawyers. “Be at ease. I’m but a lowly scribe,” I said. “And it’s my brother Neri will be your student.”
My brother arrived in our doorway as if his name had summoned him. He scowled at the slovenly man whose height topped his by the length of his forearm.
Neri set a stack of clean parchment on the table. “I know how to swill wine well enough.”
“Segno di Vasil comes recommended, little brother. Supposedly he teaches better than he washes. We’ll hope.”
My jab slid off the man, whose bleared eyes took Neri’s measure in turn. Neri fretted that he’d not yet reached even my height.
“A scrapper, are you, boy? Mostly fists and feet, and lose more’n you win, I’m guessing. But you’ve a new blade at your belt.” The swordmaster extended a scarred hand that could enclose an infant’s head entire. “Let me see it.”
“I do all right.” Neri glared at me and clamped his hand on the metal bound sheath that housed his new dagger. “Don’t need a new teacher, Romy. This’n looks more like to steal the blade than to know what’s to do with it.”
I jerked my head sharply in the direction of the duelist. “Show him.”
Only an idiot would leave her fool of a brother at the mercy of a drunkard swordmaster half again his size and infinitely more skilled, but I also had hours of copying to do before the next morning. I needed to get a sense of the swordsman quickly and, if he seemed promising, see their first lesson done.
Grudging, Neri passed over the dagger. Placidio examined the grip, quillions, edge, and point as a physician explores skulls, tongues, and urine.
“Well chosen,” he conceded. “A good length. But what need has a Beggars Ring boy for a new blade and finer skills? Have you acquired a new enemy? ’Twould likely be cheaper to hire me to fight than pay me to train a hothead to skewer a dunderwit.”
“You don’t look a man who could teach anything fine,” snapped Neri, his forehead scarlet.
The duelist rolled his eyes at me as if to say, You see? So, the fellow’s perceptions were not entirely dulled.
“He has no particular enemy,” I said, as Neri smoldered. “But the world is hard and dangerous. We’ve recently lost our father, and my brother approaches his majority. Experience has taught me great appreciation of the sword’s discipline. I thought perhaps a swordmaster could impart something of that discipline to my brother, though doubts gather about you along with the flies.”
Ebullient laughter burst from him like crisp new wine from a new-opened cask, only to be swallowed quickly.
“Can’t argue that, now can I?” he said, harsh and low. “So where shall we retire to give this a try? I’d hate to splatter blood on your parchment, lady scribe of Lizard’s Alley.”
“The old wool guild storehouse,” I said. “Beggars sleep there in winter, and no one’s sickened from it or been hauled to the Abyss by demons.”
Placidio shrugged and hefted his armaments bag. “’Tisn’t the dead bother me.”
We trooped out our new door and through the crowded lanes toward the River Gate and the Venia—Cantagna’s lifeblood.
A century before I was born, the Sestorale had co-opted the wool guild’s dockside storehouse to house victims of the plague. Thousands of Cantagnans died there. Even after that horrific storm had passed, neither the wool guild nor anyone else would use the place. No one even wanted its individual building stones or timbers, for fear of reawakening the horror. Thus the wool guild’s fine stone building sat empty save for birds, cats, and seasonal beggars.
We emerged from the narrow gate in the city’s outermost wall well upriver of the new docks Sandro’s father had built two decades past when fire destroyed the old ones. The woolhouse stood stark in the distance, lone amid the burnt and crumbled ruination at a bend in the river. The duelist moved ahead of us, leaping between rocks, mounded river wrack, and rotted remains of other structures with a lightness that belied his size.
“Stronzo,” spat Neri, glaring after him. “Filthy sot. There must be someone better. Set a pitcher of wine on a rock anywhere close and I could take him down with my boot.”
“That might be so,” I said, “but I doubt it. Watch how he moves. And I’d guess he could describe every detail of our house as accurately as he assessed you.”
“But I’m not—”
“Certain, you’re a hothead.” I bumped his shoulder with mine. “You can’t take me down yet—not if I’m awake—but if you practice what I’ve taught you and whatever he can teach, you’ll be able to do that and more. If and when you’ve emptied this Placidio’s well, and if we can afford the fee, we’ll try for someone better. Besides, I’ve paid for a month already.”
Neri halted for a moment, then quickly caught up with me again. “That’s his name . . . Placidio?”
Whatever curiosity the name roused in Neri was quickly lost in aggravation, as the swordmaster insisted we use fallen timbers to scrape out a sandy arena in the center of the old storehouse, a task which took us a sweat-soaked hour. But after a few brief tests with a rapier and a longsword that seemed to wield Neri rather than the reverse, Neri was glad of our efforts. Every trial ended with his face plowed into damp sand rather than rubble, spiders, broken shells, rusted nails, splintered wood, dung, and a wide variety of dead things.
Placidio traded a short sword for the longsword in Neri’s hand. “All right, boy, come at me again. This time low.”
A growling Neri charged and swung the short sword like an axe at a tree trunk. Placidio stepped aside and whacked the side of his head with the flat of his blade. The short sword went flying. Neri stayed upright, but bent over, hands propped on his knees, breathing hard.
Placidio offered him a bright green flask with a stopper shaped like a frog. “Drink. It helps with the dizziness and gut churn.”
Neri stared at the flask for a long moment, then shook his head and straightened, watching Placidio intently as the man returned the flask to his bag.
Placidio extracted another quick victory, scarce twitching his hand before Neri crashed into the wall. I moved to call a halt. This was getting nowhere. The brute had long proved his prowess over a boy who’d never held a blade longer than his hand. But the man waved me off.
“All right,” he said to Neri, “’tis clear you’ve no instincts with swords. But you’ve this fine new dagger, so you must have some belief you can use it. Get it out.”
Neri drew his dagger and took a close starting position in front of Placidio, settling his grip as I’d shown him. The duelist had not yet drawn his own weapon. Rather he rubbed his eyes and gave a great yawn, as if he’d rather be anywhere else.
In an eyeblink, Neri’s hand thrust forward and up toward Placidio’s breastbone.
“Neri!” I screamed, paralyzed as the duelist jerked . . .
Only he didn’t fall. Impossibly, Placidio’s great paw gripped my brother’s wrist. A round sweep of that powerful arm and a quick sliding boot, and Neri’s back slammed to the earthen floor. The unbloodied dagger went flying.
His gaze wintery, Placidio stared down at my brother.
Horror paralyzed me as Neri lay still, then inhaled with a great gasp, rolled to his chest, and scrabbled on all fours toward his fallen dagger. The man strolled after him.
“Neri, wait! Segno di Vasil, please—!”
Placidio’s boot stomped Neri’s backside. Boot and earthen floor squeezed out another groan.
“You have a move, pup,” said the duelist, nodding in affirmation, calm as death’s aftermath. He lifted his boot. “Shall we try it again?”
“He didn’t mean—”
“Don’t tell him what he means, lady scribe. It’s his task to figure that out. Then he can learn how to focus that intent in body and weapon, not in dithering the air around him. That’s the discipline of the blade. It’s not knowing the Santorini Thrust.”
As he bellowed this last, Placidio’s toe nudged Neri’s ribs, eliciting a muffled hiss.
“Stand up, boy, and fetch your weapon. A few more knife trials to see what other moves I need watch for, then I’ll let you at me with bare fists. I’m guessing you’ll like that better.”
A few more taunts got Neri moving. He snatched up the knife and bounced to his feet. The heat of his shame and fury pulsed halfway across the woolhouse.
My own heart yet galloped; my skin was clammy. Neri’s move had been meant to kill. Was Placidio truly going to let such an attempt pass unpunished? And if so . . . Fortune’s holy dam, what kind of fool was I to give my brother skills that made his smoldering rage mortally dangerous? A lesser tutor would be dead. I’d never seen a hand so quick. My master at the Moon House had sworn that no one in the world could stop the Santorini Thrust at close range.
Placidio goaded Neri into test after test. To my relief, my brother attempted no more killing attacks. At first he flinched at Placidio’s every twitch, and shifted stiffly at the man’s direction. But as the hour moved on, he allowed Placidio to touch his shoulder and arm, shaping and directing his awkward movements. No longer sullen. No longer resisting. I didn’t understand either one of them.
After a few rounds with bare fists, including one shining moment where Neri’s flurry of blows did manage to cause the duelist a moment’s irritation—perhaps akin to a gnat in his ear—Placidio again offered Neri his green flask.
Neri accepted it. Without looking his tormentor in the face, he gulped and then violently spat out the mouthful.
“Nasty,” he croaked, as he shoved the flask back into Placidio’s huge hand. “Like you.”
That Neri would dare such insolence astonished me. He had to be terrified. I certainly was. My body ached as if I’d suffered every humiliating blow.
“As you please. Bring your own replenishment from now on, then.” The duelist drained the flask and wiped his mouth on his filthy sleeve. “But ginger tea, salt, and lemon works well for what we’ll be doing. What you’ll be doing.”
Placidio nodded at the jumble of discarded blades, clubs, bucklers, and canvas wrappings. “Student packs the armaments and carries them back to town.”
Stone-faced, Neri bent to the work. He could not hide his aches, but he wrapped each weapon carefully, packed it away, and hefted the scuffed leather bag.
With a cheerful—mocking?—bow, Placidio invited me to lead us out of the woolhouse.
The warm midday smelled of the river and the rotting wasteland. I felt as if I’d spent an eternity in another world. But I kept my eye on the duelist and Neri. Something had happened between them, and I hated that I didn’t understand it.
“You’ve a few decent moves.” Placidio motioned Neri to stay beside him, even while striding onward at a pace that soon had my brother huffing again. “More than I expected, truth be told. But you’ve no endurance, no quickness, nor much of any speed save what nature plants in a boy of—what?—seventeen?”
“Before you pick up a blade again, we’ll work on those three skills. You won’t like it. I didn’t. No one does. But there’s no use to any weapons training until you can get out of an opponent’s way, avoid his blows, outlast, or outrun him.”
“Won’t run away. Not never.” Neri grunted as we climbed the steps to the open gate.
“Which says nothing good about your wit. Doubt I can improve that. But pig-headedness will do for now. Give me a month of work to earn your sister’s silver, and you’ll see a change. Are you game? Or can I wallow in my bed later tomorrow? Doesn’t matter to me, you know.” He cast a baleful glance over his shoulder in my direction. “Coin doesn’t pass but one direction between us.”
Years of caution insisted I cancel the whole business, but I liked what I’d seen of Placidio’s teaching overall, and I liked how Neri had responded to the man’s forbearance. Perhaps he had at last realized the dangers of his temper. I would let him decide.
We were halfway back to Lizard’s Alley before Neri made his answer. “I’ll work. Don’t want to hurt this bad ever again.”
Placidio bellowed a laugh. “You won’t. ’Twill be worse. Every day worse.”
He turned to me and bowed. “Scribe Romy of Lizard’s Alley, Fortune’s benefice for the rest of your day. I’ll fetch him same time tomorrow. No need for you to accompany us, unless you want. Though he may wish it, I won’t kill him. It would spoil my reputation and drop me straight off the Dueling List. And you can rest easy. If he kills me, there’s none’ll seek vengeance.”
“Virtue’s grace,” I said. And meant it.