A dark-ringletted head peeked through the doorway to the salle. Had I not been otherwise occupied fending off a flurry of assaults, searching for an opportunity to counter, I'd probably have noted the round inquisitiveness of that large-eyed ten-year old girl-child's face. And the trace similarity of features she shared with my assailant. As it chanced, I was soon able to take in the entire picture of the moppet; Domenico landed a clean touch, signaling a halt. Perhaps the word 'touch' is insufficient. The little man connects with the power of a pike thrust. I was again thankful for the blunted foils and stiff leather fencing jacket.
“Watch the beat and subsequent thrust to prime, Cesar. Damn you, how many times must I remind you?” His verbal instruction was as gentle as his physical.
I gestured at the doorway beyond Domenico's shoulder. “Sorry, Maestro, but I was distracted.”
He pivoted with that easy fencer's grace that I try to emulate. Try and mostly fail. The lift and drop of his slim shoulders hinted at an exasperated sigh.
“Valentina, you know you are not to enter during classes,” he said.
Ignoring his admonishment, she entered bouncing, floor-length skirt flouncing. She hurled herself into Domenico's arms as he crouched to receive her. Indulgent father: a hitherto hidden aspect of his personality.
“Watch, father. I have been practicing,” she said after disentangling herself from his embrace. From some concealed pocket within her bodice she conjured a wickedly pointed bodkin. With a whip of her arm she flicked the little knife in a glittering whirl to strike one of the fencing mannikins in the center of its wooden torso.
Beaming pride was an incongruous expression on Domenico's long, sour face. “Very good, my lamb.”
“Nicely done,” I said. And it was. One does not expect a woman – let alone a girl – in Plenum to be plying sharp steel outside the confines of a kitchen.
“Oh, it is easy,” she said with the nonchalance of the newly skilled. “I'll show you.”
I cast an uncertain glance at Domenico.
“Only a fool fails to accept instruction when offered. One can learn lessons from anyone or anything, you shambling peacock.” Domenico’s gentle, affirming approach to instruction is, I think, his greatest attribute.
After that a half-hour long course in knife throwing was inescapable. It might have continued longer but for an interruption from Anacleto, Domenico's manservant.
“Sir, some foreign visitors have arrived requesting to observe a demonstration.” Anacleto appeared flustered. My interest was piqued. He was a difficult man to ruffle. I shot a glance at Valentina. She was vibrating with curiosity, shaming the efforts of a dozen puppies.
“Of course, Anacleto,” said Domenico. “Convey them to the salle. Valentina, please, off with you.” There was a stubborn set to her lip and a fractional second of nascent rebellion that gave way to obedience and she left us without even a petulant stomp. “Cesar, would you mind if we completed your lesson before an audience?”
“Next session provided at a discount?” I asked. A bravo of uncertain and intermittent income must seize – or manufacture – a bargain when he senses the opportunity.
“All right, you parasite, though I happen to know your purse still clinks when you walk.”
Bargain complete, we awaited the spectators.
Foreign visitors? Anacleto possessed a gift for subtle misdirection. I had been expecting some northerners, or perhaps Ihbarian fencing students wanting to observe how the Plenum style compared to their sweeping, florid school of swordsmanship. Instead a troop of Heathens strolled with an air of arrogant possessiveness into the broad, wood-floored salle. There were six of them, five in dun-colored robes and a sixth in dazzling, bleached-white wool. Two preceded the man in white and three brought up the rear. Each of the guards – for it seemed evident to me that was their function – gripped the haft of a square-bladed, spike-backed hatchet, thrust head down through the wide leather belts that secured their ankle-length garments. All six were bearded. In contrast to the groomed facial topiary sported in Plenum, their beards were wild, tangled foliage. Topping off the look, each man wore the flat-crowned, boxy, lambs-wool cap ordained by their outlandish beliefs.
Domenico and I shared a glance, eyebrows raised in synchronized quizzical arches. Unchoreographed, but, I felt, impressive. While we were not currently at open war with the Heathen, their presence was uncommon in Plenum, Throne of the Faith and site of the Collegium. What did their presence portend? And could I profit by it?
Domenico advanced to greet the party. One of the guards moved to intercept him.
“Welcome. I am Domenico. My man informs me you wish to observe a bout.” I could not tell if Domenico was addressing the guard or the august personage who required five bodyguards. In any event, it was the guard who responded.
“The Most Revered Purifier, Alfassan, Second Shield of the Believers and Husband of Three requires a demonstration of your barbarian sword play.” He delivered that mule train of titles with pride, a committed sycophant living in reflected glory.
Alfassan, his importance established to his satisfaction, stepped forward with a raised hand and a placatory smile to demonstrate he was at heart really one of us common fellows.
Or perhaps I read too much into the gesture.
“Please,” he said, “as I hope to be considered a guest, let us do without honorifics. I am Alfassan. I am merely an aficionado of martial skills and wish, as you say Domenico, to observe a bout.”
And so Domenico and I staged a show. The Heathens arranged themselves cross-legged around the salle, resting their backs against plastered brick walls. They were, as far as I could tell, utterly rapt as Domenico put me through my paces. I'm certain I earned my discount since Domenico was nearly as sheathed in sweat as I was when we finally put up our foils.
Alfassan pounded the floor with his open palm in appreciation. “That was thrilling, masterful, all I could have hoped for,” he said. “Thank you Domenico, and thank you...”
“Cesar,” I supplied, noting the frowns of his entourage when I failed to apply “revered sir,” or “most holy sheep buggerer,” or whatever was the appropriate groveling appendage.
“Allow me to show my gratitude.” He gestured and one of his men presented a fist-sized purse to Domenico. Yes, I definitely earned my discount. “And perhaps the two of you would care to share with me a flagon of wine.”
Domenico and I were developing quite the arsenal of shared quizzical glances. Were not Heathens prohibited from consuming wine? Still, breaches of heretical religious doctrine concerned me no more than my own breaches of the True Faith's doctrine.
Domenico politely declined. I, however, am always happy to cadge a free drink and so accepted the offer.
“Then, Cesar, once you have cleansed yourself, perhaps you can lead us to your favorite wine shop.”
Cleansed myself? Well, it had been some time since I had last risked a full immersion in water. As long as I didn't make a habit of it the occasional bath couldn't hurt.
We probably received a number of bemused looks as we paraded to Giacomo's wine shop: I, though still dripping from my bath, the picture of a stylish bravo from the top of my feathered cap, past the length of my rapier, to the curled tips of my shoes, leading this passel of grim-visaged Heathens along the dust covered bricks of the Course. A more upscale neighborhood or district further up the Course might have been appropriate. The Sabatine perhaps, or the Jancline. But I enjoyed a perverse delight at marching these glowering, self-important exotics among the filth-encrusted, fire-trap brick tenements of the Orine district, my impoverished neighborhood. Besides, Alfassan had requested my favorite wine shop.
Alfassan sat and drank with me. The others did not, instead standing cross-armed about the dim, low-ceilinged den of cut-rate iniquity that was Giacomo's, intimidating all but the bravest or drunkest patrons until the place was nearly emptied.
In silence Giacomo brought a flagon and two fired-clay cups, as unnerved by the invasion of Heathens as his clientele.
“You wonder at my drinking, do you not?” asked Alfassan, an easy smile breaching his beard.
“I own a passing curiosity,” I said.
“The Speaker did ordain an injunction against the consumption of intoxicants, it is true. However, the Mouth of the Divine also instructed – and the Speaker's instructions are complete in their perfection - that when transacting business with the Barbarian in furtherance of the Divinity's will one may emulate the customs of the Barbarian even in contravention of the Dictates of Purification.”
“And you are transacting such business in Plenum?”
“I am, at the behest of the Anointed First Shield. There has been, you may be aware, some disagreement concerning the rightful possession of certain islands in the eastern extremities of what you call the Cradle Sea. My embassy is to entreat the Predicant to employ the influence of his office and of the Collegium on those secular governments that wrongly lay claim to lands that belong to the Believers. Thus we hope to avert any need to assert our unquestioned rights more forcefully. If a few flagons assist my endeavors...” He tossed back a cup and refilled it.
He was a charming bastard. I almost liked him. And, as we paced each other cup-for-cup and story-for-story 'almost' dwindled.
I was hailing Giacomo for a third flagon when I spotted a familiar face. Under a stained wooden table, peeking out between a pair of three-legged stools, crouched Valentina. The little spy! I rose to escort her back to Domenico's. Best deal with her puppy-dog infatuation – understandable though it was – right away.
She must have guessed my intention. She scuttled out from beneath her concealment and darted out the door before I managed two strides in her direction. By the time I reached the doorway she had vanished.
I returned to the table to express my regrets and take my leave. Alfassan extended an invitation to meet him at the embassy – a modest shelter in the Sabatine district – and I left him to pay the fare. I had a fruitless search for a little girl to undertake.
The next day I summoned the courage to visit Domenico. True, I wasn't culpable for his daughter's escapade, but if she hadn't returned home – or even if she had – his displeasure would inevitably fall on the object of her pursuit – me. Fairness, rationality be damned.
As it happened I received a temporary reprieve. As I stepped into the daylight, adroitly hopping over the contents of an upended midden pot, I caught sight of Valentina. She was sucking on her lower lip, gazing across the street at the narrow, shadowed entrance to the dank tenement building where I rented my chamber - the rats and other assorted vermin paid naught, the miserable freeloaders. Her expression lightened when she caught sight of me and she bounded heedlessly across the street to meet me.
“Uncle Cesar, I was coming to see you,” she said.
Uncle Cesar? “How delightful. Why don't you tell me why you came to visit while we walk back to your father's home?”
“Fine, but I have to tell you about the red jewel and the bad man, and father doesn't believe me.” She reached up to clasp my hand and walked with me toward Domenico's, chattering non-stop.
I did not pay attention at first, grasping only at length that after scampering out of the tavern she'd decided to follow Alfassan. My attention heightened when she narrated sneaking into the palazzo that housed the embassy, describing it well enough that I recognized the very building. She wasn't just prattling.
“And then he went into this big room and I followed and hid behind a chair and he moved some furniture and drew on the floor and talked in some funny language and a big man made out of fire was there and he got a red jewel out of a pocket and the fire man went into the red jewel – woosh – and then he ate the red jewel, gulp! And then I ran home and told papa but he was mad and didn't believe me and sent me to bed with only a crust and three olives because I was bad and ran away and told lies. So this morning I snuck out to come see you and we can go fight the bad man before he kills the Predicant and burns the city like he told the fire man. See, I brought my bodkin.”
So she had. I confiscated the weapon under the guise of respectful examination and tucked it under my sword belt. I offered only non-committal evasions to her repeated exhortations to stage an assault on the Heathen embassy. It wasn't long before I was able to deposit her in the care of her worried father. Domenico was too relieved to do more than shoot me a glare that promised a rather intense bout during our next lesson. The threat almost entirely escaped me. I was too occupied reviewing Valentina's story. Domenico had not given it any credence, but too many plausible details lent the account a validity I could not ignore. I altered my steps to take me to the Sabatine district.
Walking the hills of Plenum provides ample time to reflect. And sweat, which does tend to yellow the brilliance of my shirts. While lamenting the need to launder this outfit again I realized that I hadn't dressed for work. My metal-reinforced leather jerkin still hung in that splintered, vertical coffin that my landlord unabashedly termed a wardrobe. I was walking into a potentially violent situation with nothing between my skin and sharpened steel but a layer of sweat-stained linen and my own skills with rapier and main gauche. And no one was paying me.
I risk laceration, perforation, or decapitation only for ready money. I'll goad some fool into a duel when properly recompensed by a cuckold. I'll insult the wife of an inconvenient business associate. I'll spill wine on a hot-headed political rival. I am willing, in short, to hazard my tender flesh in a fight if the compensation is sufficient. I'm skilled and experienced, true, and I overlook no advantage, but I recognize full well that when bare steel is employed in earnest even a novice might receive a providential turn of Dame Fortune's wheel. I don't do this for a lark. I don't hazard my life on the whimsies of a young girl.
Such comforting ruminations brought me through twisting alleyways and closely packed hostelries, manufactories, and shops to the open boulevards and shaded palazzo's of the Sabatine district. Dust covered brick – soon to turn to a morass of muck when the first autumn rains saturated the dirt and shit that clogged the byways and thoroughfares – gave way to swept, stone-paved promenades.
The Heathen embassy was hardly a 'modest shelter.' The walled enclosure spread across a large lot on the sunset side of the Sabatine Hill, upon the crest of which were silhouetted such sections of the ruins of the Ancients that had not yet been scavenged for building materials. Neighboring estates vied with the embassy for the elegance of their neo-classical décor, abounding with plinths, columns, statues, and pediments – though I noted that the nude and semi-nude sculptures fronting the entry gate to the embassy were draped with heavy, dark cloth.
I was struck with a certain admiration for Valentina. Not only had she trailed Alfassan all this distance, she had also the temerity to sneak into the compound behind him. I wondered how I was going to do the same. And if I really meant to. He had, after all, summoned a fire demon.
Now, in Plenum, demons were not exactly a novelty. Many members of the Collegium were Magi, and these Magi – our lords and masters – were skilled demonologists. I was familiar with their use of demons as tools of war, bodyguards, healers, even as domestics or skilled craftsmen. In the course of my career I've had my dealings with various of these familiar spirits and so was not frozen with fear at the prospect of encountering another. Still – demon. And a fire demon with – if Valentina's account was to be trusted – the capacity to raze the city. This was not something I was eager to face.
I tapped my fingers a brief tattoo on the pommel of my rapier, took a deep breath, and strode to the front gate. Lacking a plan, I'd have to rely on boldness before good sense regained its proper ascendency.
The gate was unlocked. In fact the thick wooden panel was ajar. I pushed it open and followed close behind its swinging entry.
The sentry inside was not expecting callers. He was kneeling, almost prostrate, in the Heathen attitude of worship, a robed lump in my path. His head lifted as I neared and I recognized him as one of Alfassan's entourage.
I'd kept my hands a conspicuous distance from the hilts of my blades with the half-formed notion of claiming an invitation from Afassan. But the praying sentry offered me no chance to employ the stratagem. He surged to his feet like an acrobatic bear and rushed me. He tugged the hatchet from his belt and hollered something in a tongue that modulated from guttural to ululating.
So much for subterfuge.
I didn't have time for my rapier to clear leather. My left hand reached back to where the grip of the main gauche rode at my left hip. My right hand I raised to intercept his wrist, halting the descent of the blocky little axe striving to bury itself in my skull.
I kept my brainpan intact, but the bodyguard rendered my hat both practically and aesthetically useless. I continued to hold death at bay with my right hand. My left brought the parrying dagger around in a tight arc to bury it knuckle guard deep in ribcage.
He wheezed into my face a mixture of fetid breath and blood then slid off of the short blade, collapsing onto his back, eyes open and glazing.
I looked past the corpse to the house, expecting a sally of murderous Heathens from the front entrance. Nothing. Well, my play then. Leaving my violated hat where it lay, transferring the main gauche to my off hand and drawing my rapier, I sprinted across the pave courtyard to the door.
The door was a thick plank set within a squared-off lintel over which curved a purely decorative arch. It was closed but not, as a quick experiment proved, locked, leaving me suspicious if I were about to pass into a lurking gauntlet of hatchets. Still, I'd come this far.
I put my shoulder to the door and followed it in, just as I'd done with the gate. I was inside a large, square antechamber, evenly set with pilasters about the walls, providing illusory support to a high, coffered ceiling. Doors in the center of each wall granted egress. I discovered why I hadn't yet been set upon by the remaining guards: they were busy packing.
Four bearded, robed men looked up from their tasks at open trunks as I entered. As one they straightened, reaching for their little axes.
“Did Alfassan leave word he'd invited me to dine?” Yeah, not even I was convinced. And my red-stained dagger didn't help.
The four of them spread out, bellowed something unintelligible in inharmonious chorus, and came for me. My skin tightened, maybe trying to keep my bones from fleeing. But I was calm at the core, beneath a thick layer of fear.
I didn't wait for them to reach me. I feinted to the left, went right, relying on my one advantage: the reach of my rapier. The Heathen on the far right swept down his hatchet in a desperate attempt at a parry. He failed. The tip of the rapier grazed his descending forearm before sinking into his chest.
I was disengaging blade from flesh when the nearest guard plowed into me with his left shoulder, driving me back while he brought down his axe. The bell guard and forte of my main gauche caught him on the wrist, the blade's edge cutting him to the bone and deflecting the axe blow. Instead of splitting my skull he shaved off a patch of hair over my forehead, sheering off skin with it.
We moved apart, the shock of our respective wounds instigating a reflexive retreat. Unfortunate reflex for him: close range was his friend, distance mine. He provided me room to ply my long blade and I did, pinking him high up in the thigh, puncturing an artery. That put him out of the fight just as the remaining two arrived.
Blood from my scalp wound was seeping through my eyebrows, threatening my vision. Good, maybe I wouldn't be able to observe my own death. The cut began to sting. I blinked away blood. The pain, however, remained.
One hit me high, the other low and we fell in a heap, with me absorbing the brunt of the impact with the floor. I was lucky the blow didn't empty my lungs. It was still a tenuous position, me supine, my two assailants struggling up to a posture to deliver axe blows.
Just a day ago Domenico had told me that lessons could come in any form. True enough. Domenico wsn't my first instructor in the combat arts. The sword wasn't my first skill. I'd grown up learning the rough-and-tumble of the street fight brawling in the gutters with other urchins, gouging, biting, and kicking over a crust of bread or a scrap of gristly meat. That sort of early ingrained competence doesn't easily disappear.
It was a sharp, brutal affray, a desperate struggle flopping, bucking, and rolling across a bruising marble floor. I dropped my rapier as a hindrance. To my right the man who'd hit me low was up on his knees, preparing to bring his hatchet smashing down. My right hand shot inside his robes. I clutched the hairy pair of brains within his smallclothes and squeezed. Squealing, he released the hatchet and both of his hands clutched my wrist.
To my left the Heathen who'd hit me high was having a bit more trouble, tangled up in his robes. He punched awkwardly at my head, impeded by sleeve trapped under his knee. He scrambled to his knees. His hatchet descended, a short-armed blow. I punched up with the main gauche, driving it up beneath his chin. The hatchet cut a shallow groove in the back of my shoulder, deprived of most of its force. The bodyguard toppled, a jet of blood appearing to propel him backwards.
The remaining assailant bore down on my wrist, driving his thumbs in deep until I loosened my grip. Fine, I didn't need him by the balls any longer. My red dripping short-blade did its work once more, leaving me master of the field.
I staggered, battered and bleeding, to my feet. Death of a thousand cuts here. It was going to take a lot of wine to deal with the pain.
The Heathen with the leg wound sat on the floor, back against a pilaster, both hands clamped down against the punctured artery.
I stooped to regain my rapier then placed the point against his forehead.
“Where is Alfassan?” I asked.
“Too late. He has gone to keep his appointment with the Predicant, whom he will purify with fire.” He spat at me, but it was a feeble effort. His face was a pallid, bleached mask. He'd bleed out soon.
What was my move now? I left the dying Heathen to his fate and poked thoughtfully about for valuables, going through the robes of the fallen while I pondered.
A door opened. A dozen of the household staff crowded behind. Probably not Heathens, but here I was, looting, surrounded by punctured corpses. As far as they were concerned I was just an armed robber.
They gathered their courage and tentatively shuffled in. That was my signal. I tucked a couple meager purses beneath my sword belt and fled.
The Collegium, that city within a city, abuts the Jacline district, the cliff faces and swelling hills creating a vast pocket for it to nestle within. But the Collegium's frontage slopes toward the Cloatus River. That meant that my route led primarily downhill. Battered, uncertain of the severity of my injuries, I was grateful to be spared laboring upslope. Of course the jarring descent of the steeper downhill passages sent waves of pain rolling from my heels to the crown of my bleeding head.
The sleeve of my shirt was torn and stained. A total loss. So I didn't scruple to tear it loose and wind it around my brow as a makeshift bandage. It would at least keep the blood from my eyes.
I hoped the purses I'd scavenged would pay my tailor for fresh clothes. Donatello is an artist and does not employ his needle cheaply. And he does not offer credit. At least not to me.
Such thoughts kept my mind off of the pain from my wounds and occupied my attention as I put on as much speed as my bruised frame allowed. My hope was that Alfassan was in no hurry and that I could catch him before he reached the Collegium gates. The guards would certainly not allow me through in my state. By the time I could convince anyone of the danger Alfassan would have already loosed the demon.
I wish more of my hopes proved so well-founded. Alfassan wasn't rushing. I spotted him idling before me, approaching the Bridge of Virtues, the span leading across the Cloatus to the Fortalice of Peace. The Fortalice of Peace, hunkering on the opposite bank squat and drum-like, is the Predicant's retreat, and I use that term in both its recreational and defensive senses. From there the Predicant could recover from such mentally taxing endeavors he actually performed while still keeping an eye on his seat across the Cloatus, or shut himself securely away if the Collegium itself should be sieged.
I summoned what additional speed I could muster. Alfassan was not far from the environs of the Collegium. Even now I could catch glimpses of sections of the wall through gaps in the treetops and among the ornate banking houses, permanent embassies, city government buildings, and other official structures that clustered near the true power of Plenum.
I wheezed up behind Alfassan just as he was passing the end of the gently arching bridge, the graceful granite depictions of Fidelty and Truth standing guard at the terminus of each balustrade. He heard me and spun about. Only a deaf man could have missed my unsteady lumbering with its punctuations of pained grunting and labored inhalation. I was tired and wounded, damn it. Stealth was not on option. I wasn't sure fighting was either.
The surprise he displayed upon seeing me was almost comic. And that surprise allowed me time to produce my sword. If I'd not been so fatigued it might also have allowed me time to run him through. But, alas, no.
He stepped back a pace and from beneath his robe he dragged a massive yataghan, a heavy implement of butchery, with a single-edged, slightly serpentine blade.
“Cesar,” he said, a smile snapping shut the shocked gap in his beard, “how splendid to see you. You have perhaps been – ah – offering my men complimentary fencing lessons?”
“Not complimentary, no. They all paid.” Perhaps I could cow him into surrender with my finely-honed talent for braggadocio.
Again, alas no.
“One more lesson then, Cesar. Your last.” The Heathen gripped the huge chopper in both hands and shifted to an open stance, right foot behind and at right angles to the left.
“Why, Alfassan?” I held up a hand to forestall an immediate reply or attack. “Not 'why kill the Predicant.' I can guess that. Why the lesson yesterday? Why the wine and conversation?”
He relaxed, still on guard, but not primed to strike. “Understand, Cesar, I am not returning from the Collegium alive. Whether I manage my audience with the Predicant or only manage to release the demon within the walls, the outcome for me is the same. I will perish in flame. But so will the Collegium. And in the ensuing conflagration so will much of Plenum. Yes?”
I nodded, not so much acknowledging his point as inviting him to continue. I wondered how accurate his prediction truly was. The Collegium held the world's foremost demonologists. Certainly they possessed the skill and knowledge to contain a single demon. Didn't they?
Alfassan took my cue and carried on. “A man with such foreknowledge of his own incipient demise has a certain license to indulge in final pleasures. I like witnessing skilled combat. I like wine and stimulating conversation. I enjoy the other activities that I allowed myself upon return to the palazzo.
“Now that I have, I hope, alleviated your curiosity, I will kill you before we attract an audience. It makes little difference; even at this remove from the walls the demon will still engulf the city. But I would like to see this through as designed.”
With that he twitched back to full readiness with disturbing ease. He hiked the yataghan to shoulder height and charged. Any thought I might have held of leaving the defense of Plenum to others was rendered moot.
He fanned a zephyr above my head as I ducked. Even ducking hurt. I managed to pink him as he leapt back out of range, perforating him somewhere beneath the folds of his robe. In proper condition I would have...but I wasn't and so had to rely on what my abused frame could offer.
I tugged out the main gauche and summoned up a grin. “Lesson one,” I said, displaying the reddened tip of my rapier. His fresh droplets glistened against the darkening varnish of his lackeys' blood.
“A touch,” he acknowledged, and attacked again, a more cautious, probing assault directed at my leading leg. My jarring parry sent ripples of pain through my arm.
Alfassan renewed his attack, applying more vigor with each blow. He began to drive me back, step-by-step. I would not be able to hold him off much longer.
He sensed his moment and hoisted the yataghan overhead, poised to messily bisect me.
Too soon. I stepped forward, crossing my blades scissor fashion and caught his cleaver just as it began to descend. A twist of my wrists and I guided the yataghan downwards, to my right. A flick with the parrying dagger and I cut deeply into Alfassan's right forearm. The yataghan grazed the edge of my calf before it clanged to the paving stones. Wonderful, not a piece of my outfit remained intact. Not much of my skin, either.
“Lesson two,” I said.
His eyes wide with pain or rage – or both, probably both – Alfassan backpeddled.
“Thank you for the lesson, Cesar,” he said when brought up short by the raised pavers lining the brink of the Cloatus rolling sluggishly a dozen feet below street level. “Not every endeavor will succeed as designed.”
He spread his arms wide, cruciform, and began to chant, his guttural syllables entirely unintelligible to me.
The air warmed. A hint of sulfur wrinkled my nostrils. A waft of steam rose from Alfassan's robes where they bunched at his midsection.
He was calling forth the fire demon! Only a dozen paces from me, but he might as well have been a hundred. I could not limp close enough to shove my rapier through his chest before he completed his summoning.
A glow began to emanate from his eyes, then his exposed skin. His chant took on a higher, more fervid note. The steaming grew more pervasive and the air about him shimmered, the temperature even where I stood creeping from warm, to uncomfortable, to hot.
I took a painful step forward – a futile gesture was still a gesture. Then I stopped. I seemed to hear Domenico's voice in my head. “Even a small child can teach you something.” And “You shambling peacock.”
I remembered the bodkin tucked away at my belt. Releasing my rapier, I plucked free the little knife, recalling Valentina’s lessons. I cocked back my arm, knife clutched between thumb and two fingers, sighted at my target whose glow was beginning to acquire an actinic quality, and threw.
The bodkin described three complete arcs before embedding itself in Alfassan's chest. The chanting stopped. But the heat continued to intensify, the glow reaching a near white-hot brilliance, forcing me to squint. Lines of red cracked through the luminescence, jets of flame bursting free. The demon was at hand.
Then Alfassan staggered. His heel caught the stone curbing and he fell straight back, disappearing. A moment. A splash. Then a great pillar of steam boiled up with the hissing of a thousand angry cats, spreading into a canopy of heated water vapor.
Stooping like an arthritic old man I recovered my rapier then gradually straightened and shuffled away. No way was I explaining this. I hoped the coin I'd scavenged from Alfassan's bodyguards would recompense the pain. And I hoped there was enough to purchase Valentina a new bodkin.
© April, 2015 Ken Lizzi
Ken Lizzi is the author of the novel "Reunion" (Twilight Times Books, 2014), and several published short stories, including "Bravo," in the Pirates and Swashbucklers anthology (Pulp Empire, 2011), which also features the character Cesar the Bravo, and "Bargains" in the Big Bad Anthology of Evil (Kerlak Publishing, June 2013.) His story "Trustworthy", from the Noir anthology (Dark Horse Books, 2009) served as the basis for a multiple award winning short student film.