Authors: Bailey Cunningham
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Contemporary, #General
At Plains University, they are graduate students.
But when they enter Wascana Park after midnight, they become something much more.
an auditor who specializes in combat magic.
a sagittarius, expert with bow and arrow.
a miles—a sword-wielding gladiator.
a trovador, skilled at music—and theft.
At the university, their lives are dull and predictable. In the city of Anfractus, they use their wits, their skills, and their imaginations to live other exciting and sometimes dangerous lives.
And now that danger has followed them home….
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PILE OF BONES
An Ace Book / published by arrangement with the author
Copyright © 2013 by Jes Battis.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.
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eBook ISBN: 978-1-101-62489-0
Ace mass-market edition / August 2013
Cover art by Gene Mollica.
Cover design by Lesley Worrell.
Interior text design by Kelly Lipovich.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
For my students
If not for the support of many people, this book would have been impossible. My agent, Lauren Abramo, was enthusiastic about this idea from the beginning and encouraged me to pursue it. My editor, Ginjer Buchanan, has been wonderfully perceptive and kind since we first talked. She even led a starry-eyed first-time author through the Ace office, allowing him to gawk and make inarticulate noises. The University of Regina, where I teach, has provided me with the flexibility and security to spend my summers writing, and the Department of English in particular has allowed me to teach a range of eclectic courses. My colleague Garry Sherbert introduced me to the writings of Petronius, which has likely set the mood for this novel more than anything else. Latin came into my life at just the right time, and for that I will always be grateful to Garry. John Elder Robison’s memoir,
Look Me in the Eye
, lent me some valuable insight into my own personality while I was writing this. My friend Rowan, with whom I share a voice, has been gracious enough to acknowledge me as “the person in your family who does not live at your house,” which may be an indication of how frequently I visit. Mark, thank you for being a consummate teacher and for keeping me alive with your food. Medrie, thank you for the car conversations. Your poetry moves me. Bea, thank you for everything I can’t describe, including a plot point that you gamely helped to resolve. Keith, thank you for sending me a Le Petit Prince day planner when I needed it most. Mom, thanks for the magnifying glass. Alfonso X, thanks for writing so engagingly about thirteenth-century games like acedrex and alquerque. Finally, I must thank Wascana Park—traditional Plains Cree territory and still Oscana.
Most of the terminology in the book comes from ancient Latin. We have scant knowledge about how people in first-century Rome may have actually sounded, but classical linguists have done their best to reconstruct this. I base my own pronunciation on the recordings of Wakefield Foster and Stephen G. Daitz, which can be streamed here: www.rhapsodes.fll.vt.edu/Latin.htm.
are generally long, while the short vowel
. The consonants
are always hard, as in
. The modern-day term
would sound more like
. The consonant
is rolled slightly when singular, and more strongly when doubled, like the Spanish or French
. The word
has a slight growl to it:
ending is nasal, resembling the French
. French would elide the final syllable, but in Latin, it’s voiced. The consonant
more closely resembles
. The consonant
is never pronounced as a hard
, but rather as
, which means that
would sound like
. The only exception is
, which comes from Occitan rather than Latin.
I’ve tried to obey rules of grammatical gender and plurality, except in the case of
, an invented plural form of
OLDAN TOUCHED THE WALLS OF HIS ALLEY
. Islands of yellow moss broke through the stones, rippling slightly as his fingers came near. When he’d first arrived, he was naked and in some pain. He hadn’t noticed the blond hairs moving in response to him. Where he came from, the moss was green and didn’t have a mind of its own. How did he survive that day? The details were already decaying. He remembered stealing a sheet and a samosa. He had to run a lot in those days. Now he understood why so many people tolerated the furs. It was because everyone started that way. Everyone was a thief when they first came to Anfractus, trailing the shame of their sheets behind them like dirty and displaced children.
He wasn’t quite anything yet. He had a few tricks, but that didn’t make him an auditor. They saw him as a runt that might not survive, and so tended to ignore him. They had to keep their distance. Tricks were easy to steal. He had no hoard to protect, so burglary wasn’t one of his fears. They didn’t keep him around for his creativity. “Light it up,” was all they ever said. “Is this candle magic, or is it nothing?” They didn’t care about the small lives of the objects, the
drama of the lapidary, what the knife remembered. “Will it light up?” That meant it was worth more. One of these days, he suspected, they would tell him to light himself up, and the colors he produced would determine his fate.
He stepped out of the alley and onto Via Rumor. His eyes stung from the smoke of the Exchange, and a shadow of grime settled on his robe as he walked through the cloud of cries and hammers. Colored screens hung from balconies, lapping up some of the heat, but his neck still felt like a roof tile. Everything was for sale: falchions with weighted stone handles, reversible cloaks, automata in the shape of pomegranates with concealed blades. The vendors declaimed each other in song while packs of hungry furs moved through the crowd. Roldan saw a fat spado eating lemon sharbah, his tall green cap wilting in the sun.
He wondered what it felt like to be a eunuch. Did desire flee, or was it simply mollified and dispersed along unexpected pathways? Many of the spadones were known to be insatiable lovers. It depended on how they’d been made. Roldan could remember a bit of a song that he’d heard once, about a eunuch lover.
By all my actions thou may’st see, my heart can spare no room for thee, thou art not made like other boys.
They weren’t all powdered and soft. Narses, the high chamberlain, carried a sword.
He walked down Aditus Papallona, then turned onto Via Dolores, where people gathered beneath the shadows of the aqueduct. They threw dice, struck bargains, and embraced between the high granite bows. In the distance, he could make out the lights of the basia. Even he could afford an iron token, which would get him into the less exclusive houses, but thinking about the pictures stamped on the coins made him blush. A few positions strained the mind. From here, Roldan could see the Tower of Auditores. A crowd had gathered around its entrance, mostly to gossip and steal from each other. A few carried bacula with pommels of jade and sardonyx that flared in the sun.
Roldan heard his name. He turned and saw Babieca standing at the dusty curb, smiling. His lute case was strung
over one shoulder, and he’d acquired a cape with rampant tigers. He crossed the street and they embraced.
“Where did you steal that?” Roldan asked.
“I’m no fur. I won it.”
“With a loaded die?”
“Lower your voice. I have a reputation to maintain.”
“Right. I wouldn’t want to besmirch the honor of a trovador. I’m sure you always toss your dice straight, even in the dark.”
“I can be good, when I want to. How about you? Working on any new tricks?”
“Nothing too exciting.”
“Salamanders must love this weather. Isn’t fire their chaos?”
“They’ll curl up next to an old kettle if they sense the promise of warmth.”
“Can you hear them?”
“Not right now. They’re probably asleep near the hypocaust.”
“That must be strange. I can’t imagine what it would be like to hear the elder things whispering to each other.”
“It’s more distracting than anything else. Some of them don’t like having to share the world with us. Some are tolerant, so long as we feed them from time to time.”
For a moment, he let his mind wander. They might both be cats, coming alive at odd times, singing from opposite walls. He could move closer. Maybe they’d make a device, something with grooves and tongues. Still drowsy from the heat, he felt more like a wall-lizard, insensate, hanging from a patch of moss.
They walked up Aditus Festa. Rows of cauponae stood with their ale-posts raised high. Babieca led him through the doorway of the Seven Sages. The main room was full of smoke, and casks lined the corners. Roldan kept his eyes on the rush-covered floor, trying to avoid surprises. Every table had a candle, and most of the patrons were already deep in their cups. He heard oaths, polyphony, wild bragging. Sausages and dried peppers hung from the stained
rafters, like edible finery, and the top floor had a hole in the middle to permit rising smoke. People crowded the dangerous balconies.
Everyone was gaming. Summer was winning at Four Seasons, while a rowdier group of seven drank their way through Planets. Two women faced each other in alquerque, gliding their stone pieces across the wood board. One played the part of sense, while the other was daring. The ale-wife liked to keep the main floor looking civilized, which meant that the higher-stakes games of Hazard were in the undercroft. The spadones deplored dicing, but he still noticed a few of them in the mix. Their green hats gave them away. There was an old saying about dicers:
Come in a cloak and leave bare-assed.
It was probably a good thing that he didn’t have enough money to gamble.
The smoke in the room was like cobwebs. There were all sorts gathered on the long benches. An artifex was showing off something made of brass cogs that looked dangerous. An auditor in a striped cloak was talking to a miles. They were probably part of a company. He’d heard that some were even led by auditores.
Auditores with bacula who know how to fight.
All he had was a weathered knife, which he kept only to flash at furs. In truth, he’d drawn it only a few times. Babieca had a short sword with a crooked cruciform hilt, which he was forever trying to lose. If not for Morgan’s bow, they would have been sad conies with barely a lick of training between them.
Being in a company wasn’t everything, but it could load the die in your favor. Companies ranged beyond the walls of the city. The greatest wouldn’t show up until sundown. Roldan had never seen the city at night. Even Morgan, the most experienced among them, confined her visits mostly to the daytime. She’d told them stories about how the towers changed. Everything real seemed to happen at night. The stakes were so much higher.
Babieca got them a pitcher of sweet malmsey, along with a stew platter. Roldan was never sure where he found his money, but at the moment, he was hungry and didn’t
feel like prying. They ate their root vegetables in convivial silence. Babieca surrendered his parsnips in exchange for extra bread. Roldan could feel the drink going to his head, but that wasn’t entirely bad. It would make talking easier and dull his senses, which were currently twitching. Babieca looked like he wasn’t paying attention, but Roldan knew that his friend was also studying the room. He had the instincts of a fur, though he abhorred them.
Morgan appeared through the haze. She wasn’t patrolling today, but she’d still worn a boiled-leather hauberk with a rust-colored cloak. Her short bow was strapped to her back, along with a painted quiver. Some looked at her, but most stayed focused on gaming and drinking. A sagittarius wasn’t so captivating during the day. This crowd didn’t care that she’d walked the battlements of the Arx of Violets, or that she’d once killed a silenus. They only saw a short woman with brown hair and a weapon that was next to useless in a caupona. She wasn’t interesting enough to make them stop gambling.
She sat down and poured herself a drink.
“What is this?”
“Malmsey,” Babieca said. “It was cheap.”
“It tastes like sap.”
“You’re welcome to buy the next round.”
“We shouldn’t overindulge. You said you’d found us a piece of business, and I’d rather we all kept a clear head. Especially if you have to swing that sword.”
“Mock me, and you’ll never hear the particulars.”
Roldan felt annoyed. Babieca might have told him about the job earlier. Once again, they both assumed that he would follow them anywhere. He would. That wasn’t the point. He hated simply being told things, like a child.
“I suppose,” he said, “you need something to glow.”
“Don’t be like that.” Babieca smiled at him. “This could be fun. We’re supposed to pick up something for the basilissa.”
Only Morgan had ever seen the basilissa.
I just saw the back of her head,
but her hair was sharp
and beautiful, like a flowering thorn.
She lived in the Arx of Violets with her foxes, who guarded her chamber and accompanied her to court. Morgan had never seen the foxes. Mostly, she just saw the backs of heads and the battlements, where she sometimes caught men staring at her through murder-holes. Roldan thought that, in spite of her complaints, the life of a sagittarius was far more interesting than his own.
“Will we visit the arx?”
“No,” Babieca replied. “We’re just delivering the item to someone.”
Roldan stared at the table. Visiting the arx would have been nice, even if they’d simply stopped at the gates. He enjoyed walking through Vici Arces, where the walls were made of sweet porphyry that had weathered a thousand years, and he could hear the river below, full of murmuring undinae. The orange trees cast just enough shade over the marble benches, where courtiers paid too much for stale rumors.
“Who are we meeting?” Morgan asked.
Babieca shrugged. “Someone known to the basilissa. I didn’t ask.”
“Your plan sounds flawless. You know nothing about this item or the person that we’re supposed to give it to.”
“The plan is sterling. The artifex who hired us is some young thing. Just talking to me annoyed her, which means that she’s distracted and wants the job done quickly. We can probably convince her to overpay, just so she’ll be rid of us.”
“Where did you find this artifex?”
“She found me. She was skulking around the Seven Sages, looking for someone who did odd jobs. I told her that ours were the oddest.”
“Charming.” Morgan closed her eyes briefly. “We know nothing about the girl. We could be delivering a murder talisman to a miles.”
“It’s not a murder talisman.”
“Show me proof.”
“How about coin? The job pays thirty maravedies.”
Her expression brightened. “I could get some better
fletching for my arrows. Roldan could buy himself…whatever auditores need.”
“Fortuna willing, he’ll buy a better knife,” Babieca replied. “I’m going to restring my cithara and maybe get a helmet. Something with acid etching.”
“I’d be dashing.”
“You’d be a target in a metal hat. Trovadores don’t wear armor.”
He’s not a trovador,
and I’m not an auditor. We have no patroni.
He kept silent, though. Nobody likes being reminded of their bastardy.
He stared into the bottom of his glass, trying to augur the dregs of ale left behind. He saw nothing. Maybe he wouldn’t light up anything this time. Would they still keep him around if his light fizzled? Another malmsey could answer this question, but Morgan was probably right. He should keep a clear head. The colloquy was simple, but if he said the wrong thing, it could still go badly. He wasn’t skilled enough to improvise.
Because they weren’t yet a company, they had pieces of business, not quests. A quest could earn you far more than money. People would talk about you. Doors that remained closed to most would gradually open for you, once you’d proven yourself. A group of three wasn’t a company. If they ever planned to get anywhere, they’d need a fourth. But who would join them? He wasn’t even sure why Morgan remained. She’d certainly had offers, even if she never spoke of them. Babieca would be fine on his own. Trovadores weren’t exactly known for being the type to join a company. Roldan wasn’t sure what kept them together. It obviously wasn’t him. A miles or a medicus would be far more useful. Auditores could become powerful, but in the beginning, they were stubby candles that burned out quickly.
Babieca put down his ale. “We should go. First, I have to visit the murals.”
Roldan had to as well, so he followed Babieca down the dim, rush-strewn passage that led to the toilets. They waited
in line for their turn on the wooden seats with key-shaped holes. The fumes were inescapable, as were the various gut songs, but people still talked to pass the time. There were paintings on the walls, meant to encourage laughter and distract everyone from the situation. In one, two sages exchanged advice.
Fortuna says if your shit is tough, don’t give up.
He’d never seen the women’s murals, but they were probably nicer. He looked around the room, at all the men laughing and straining and the few that had fallen asleep, so delicate with their bare knees and nethers fit into keyholes.
They paid the ale-wife and left the tavern. Outside, the paving stones baked like spangled pie crust. Babieca cast a look toward the basia but said nothing. He often visited that part of the city. He had streams of revenue that he didn’t like to talk about, and Morgan let it slide because he was usually more focused after he’d spent some time in love’s undercroft. Roldan was never quite sure how to bring up these visits. Were men supposed to talk about what they did underground, the bodies they glided over in the dark? Roldan couldn’t brag about bruised pillows or mumbling mattresses. He had very little experience, and some uncertain part of him thought that it might be rude to talk about such things in front of Morgan. In reality, he was simply scared that Babieca would ask him to supply his own stories.
No narratives, as yet. Only a few awkward stanzas, quick and ill-rhymed.