The gallery sat on the border of the Venni’s wealthiest district, its marble façade of blue and white overlooking the River of Weeping. Eridan Feist stepped out his coach and approached the doorman. “Good day. My name is Owen Emery, here for Mister Merrill’s exhibition.”
The doorman gave Feist’s invitation letter a nonchalant glance. “Enjoy your stay.”
Well-dressed guests lingered the lobby. Some faces were familiar, but those that aren’t looked suspicious. If all the others are his people, then we’re matched even, Feist thought with much dismay. But surely some of them are actually guests.
A crowd gathered before a painting across the room, astonished by the abstract shapes moving fluidly around the framed canvas and the artist’s daring asking price. No one seemed to notice Feist slipping past them, but no doubt most were pretending.
Feist stopped at a small display room near the end the eastern corridor. A marble bust of Valera rested on the pedestal in the center, with a label reading “Reserved” covering the price on its plaque. Feist breathed a quiet sigh of relief.
“Mister Emery, you came.”
Feist put on his warmest smile before turning to the man. “Good day, Mister Septus. I hope your business has been profitable.”
Magus Septus wore a bushy but well-groomed beard. His golden spectacles and embroidered tailcoat shamed Feist’s unornamented dress, but Feist knew that Septus was anything but a nobleman beneath his appearance and alias.
“The market has been unfavourably turbulent. I hope that it's been better for you,” said Septus, shaking Feist’s hand firmly.
“Not at all, I’m afraid. Some of my projects have been shelved because the authorities have been dangerously active.”
“That is most unfortunate. But I’m glad you came here personally despite the inconveniences.”
“It would not be polite to deliver this by proxy. I commissioned it to commemorate our long-standing partnership. A tribute to Valera, the goddess of trade and the patron of Venni, in hopes of more future business.”
Septus grinned. “The craftsmanship is meticulous, but if you don’t mind, I would like to take a closer look.”
Septus circled the pedestal, his eyes hungry like a vulture’s. When he glanced into the corridor, Feist followed his gaze and saw three gentlemen waiting vigilantly across the hall. When Septus caressed the statue, bone-chilling essence swept across the room and a cold wind danced.
Eludium crystals, also known as lapis dea or “god stones” in the old Virlisian tongue, was a rare and pricy gemstone, highly demanded by estranged sorcerers everywhere. Feist had debated fiercely whether to replace the crystals in the bust with glass out of fear of losing them to the wrong hands, but now he was glad that he took the risk – Septus was obviously not shy about putting the crystals’ spellcasting capabilities to the test.
Septus dispersed the vortex of essence that he channeled. “What’s your price?”
“Twenty thousand sens.”
“With this kind of material?”
“Mister Septus, you know that I have never sold you anything short of the best and this is no exception.”
“No less than nineteen.”
Septus gave a tiny nod to his men in the halls, but Feist’s own guards halted them at the door.
“I’m sorry, Mister Septus,” said Feist. “Any less than nineteen thousand sens would render this transaction entirely meaningless. I came here to trade on amicable terms, not to be plundered.”
In the silence, Feist and Septus stared at each other from opposite sides of the statue, the air between them as tense as drawn back bowstrings. Their subordinates stood face-to-face in the corridor, each with a hand on their swords.
“Nineteen thousand sens it is then.” Septus paced past Feist, his plastic smile cryptic. “Friends, do us a favour and fetch Mister Merrill.”
Feist knew from previous experience that Septus did not trade on someone else’s terms. Undoubtedly the sorcerer would make him pay for his liberal indulgence with double the hostility next time – if there were a next time.
Gideon Merrill came quickly, like he was waiting around the corner. “Did Mister Septus ask for me?”
“My friend and I have come to an agreement on the price of this lovely sculpture. If it’s isn’t inconvenient for you, I would like to have it removed from display immediately.”
“That will not be a problem.” The gallery owner clapped for his servants and they packed the bust into its heavily-padded chest.
Septus glanced at his bodyguards and nudged his lips at the servants as they carried the chest away. Merrill took note of the gesture and said, “I hire only the deftest of hands, my good sir, I guarantee that it will not be damaged in the slightest.”
“Mister Merrill, this an important collection piece,” Feist interjected. “Let Mister Septus have the peace of mind.”
"I must obliged then, if my masters command," Merrill said.
Septus smiled again, too sweetly to be genuine.
“If that is all, then…” Feist started, glancing impassively from Septus to Merrill and back again.
“Have you gentlemen a few more minutes to spend at my humble exhibition?” said Merrill. “There’s another piece here that might interest you. A full-body nude sculpted by Enzo Viska of Stratas, titled ‘Lady with a Veil’.”
“Female nudes?” Feist snorted. “We are not interested such distasteful subject-matter.”
Septus tsked. “Such is your prejudice, Mister Emery. Enzo Viska is renowned for his delicate depiction of feminine beauty and his surviving sculptures are far and few in between. It would be a disgrace to pass on a chance to add this to my collection, even if it doesn’t contain the kind of thing that makes your commissions so abhorrently expensive.”
Feist donned a look of distrust. “We should close our transaction first.”
“Are you afraid that I might leave without paying? My, I should be offended that you think so lowly of me. I promised you nineteen thousand sens and that’s a promise I intend to keep. You will have every copper today, but have some respect for our friend here. This exhibition is quite remarkable and surely Mr. Merrill didn’t invite us here to ignore everything else.”
Feist waved his guards closer. “If you insists then I shall have to be of company.”
“Be my guest.” Septus smirked and turned to the gallery owner. “Please, lead the way.”
A replica of the Lady was put on display because Feist couldn’t convince Merrill to take the actual statue out of his precious private collection, but the showroom was surveilled like the real Lady was standing atop her pedestal.
Septus paid no attention to the gallery’s security as he strode into the room. “Look at that craftsmanship, the veil is almost silken.” He raised his hands at the sash at the Lady’s half-revealed breasts in a fit of marvel. “Mr. Merrill, what’s the asking price? And please tell me the name of the collector who put this here today. I must meet him.”
While Merrill prevaricated nervously about the Lady’s collector, Feist meet eyes with the other patrons in the room. One man came up to them, a particularly broad and stocky man with a beard bushier than Septus', who tapped the sorcerer on his shoulder. “Beg pardon, Mister Septus,” said Vincent Fleming happily. “You are under arrest.”
Septus jerked out of Fleming’s grasp and conjured a barrier to catch Feist’s sword. He rolled between the guards, a phantasmal chain lashing out of his hand. It caught Fleming by the arm, but the guard captain yanked it forcibly and dragged Septus off balance.
Feist spun around, parrying one of Septus’ bodyguards before his men tackled the attacker. Then he lunged for Septus as the sorcerer wrestled with Fleming. He kicked Septus behind the knee and elbowed him in the back, and when Septus fell he straddled him and pulled off his casting rings.
Behind them, the guards pinned Septus’ underlings to the ground.
“Shit on Ursuris’ balls you bloody bastards.” The sorcerer’s booming voice echoed down the granite and marble corridor.
“Got a rag or something?” said Feist.
“Got a necktie that I don't particularly like,” Fleming replied.
“Then you won’t miss it.”
While Fleming bound and gagged the sorcerer, Feist found the gallery owner in the furthest corner away from the fighting. “My apologies for startling you,” Feist said. “The Order of Royal Guards appreciate your cooperation.”
“Thank the gods this show’s over.” Gideon Merrill dabbed his forehead with a sleeve. “I’m not a terribly good actor and the possibility of collateral damage was... worrying, to say the least. Say, Captain Feist, is my wife safe?”
“You’ll find her at home and undisturbed,” Feist said. “Captain Fleming and his men will remain here, in case any of the remaining sorcerers cause you any trouble.”
The stale air in the interrogation cell smelled of wet and rusted iron. Beneath the dim light of the kerosene lamp, Feist grabbed the naked sorcerer by the jaw and lifted his head. “Where's your base?”
Septus thrashed about, his manacles rattling.
“Still resisting? Drop him.”
The guards loosened the chains. Pulleys spun and the sorcerer fell onto the pointed metal stool. He screamed and another gush of red poured from his loin. “Regent Court! The Duke’s Bar and The Third Sanctum are both my establishments.”
“Good.” Feist gestured and the guards pulled Septus into the air again. “How many do you command?”
“Where do you get your crystals?”
Septus groaned, his head lolling. “The black market.”
“Who are the upstream suppliers?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where do your funds come from?”
A whip of light burst from Feist’s fingertip, adding another scorching burn to the field of open wounds on the sorcerer’s chest. “Don’t play coy with me. Is Lucian Vesperin funding you?”
Septus was twitching uncontrollably, but he nodded.
“Where is he hiding?”
“You will never find him. Sorcery will rise again. Hesia... hesia valos Surolifia...” Then his head fell limp.
“Third time already. How feeble.” Feist tossed his blood-stained gloves on the table beside the spotless bust of Valera. He had offered the statue to Gideon Merrill – without the crystals inside it, of course – but the frightened little man wanted nothing more to do with the Order.
“Should we wake him again?” said Captain Fleming.
“Leave it for the morrow. We’ve done more than enough today.”
Fleming accompanied Feist out of the cell and up the stairs into the garrison lobby. “You should report to the Colonel as soon as possible. We don’t know how many sorcerer Lucian Vesperin has already rallied together, or when he plans to attack. We must be ready.”
“And we must be careful,” said Feist as they stepped out of the guard station. “I’ve tugged enough on his web for him to have noticed.”
Fleming gave his partner a slow, solemn nod, and then bid goodnight.
Feist’s manor was not far from Feamarket Station where he spent most of his waking hours. The three-story house of grey stone and red shingles was as quiet when he entered. Feist kicked off his boots and climbed to the third floor.
His bedchamber door was ajar and the room was dark, lit only by the moonlight through the half-open window. He shrugged off his coat, unbuckled the harness holding his longsword, and set his casting rings on the bedside table. Then he lied down and breathed a tired sigh.
Lucian Vesperin. Feist chewed on the name, tasting a sweetness in the syllables. Eleven years in hiding and three years in the news, the boy who survived the war of Surolifia has grown into a commander of formidable power, but his revolution will be stillborn, because Eridan Feist of Lower Venni will have smothered it in the womb. It’s due time I got a promotion, Feist thought, his lips curling.
A floorboard creaked and Feist’s eyes sprung open. He rolled aside when a shadow lunged out from beneath the bed. Feathers flew as a dagger ripped open the quilt, and Feist fell to the floor with a thud. The assassin vaulted over the bed and tackled Feist when he tried to get up.
The assassin covered Feist’s mouth and drew the dagger swiftly across the captain’s throat.
A warm, thick liquid began to pool on the floor. For a moment Feist’s face was twisted with horror, but quickly his eyes grew dull.
The assassin sheathed his still-wet blade and climbed out the window. A hemp rope hung from the roof, and in the breeze it swayed like a hangman’s noose.