Before the marble bust of Valera was delivered to Venni's most famous gallery, its co-commissioners spoke briefly of the secret inside.
“Did you put all of it inside this thing?” said Vincent Fleming.
“Yes, all twenty thousand sens worth of it,” said Eridan Feist.
“What if someone attacks us on the way?”
“Then make sure that you win the fight.”
“What if the gallery owner betrays us?”
“He’s convinced that I have his wife detained.”
“Are you sure about this? There’re enough crystals inside this thing to arm a company of sorcerers. Maybe we should replace it with obsidian glass.”
“Magnus Septus is no fool. He won't take the bait if we defraud him on the trade.”
“Vincent, we are past time for ‘what-ifs’. Go now, before our lateness arouses suspicion.”
Fleming bit back another question and left with the statue and all of his guards.
Galleria d’Ellipsia sat on the border of the Regent Court District, its blue and white marble façade overlooking the River of Weeping. Feist stepped out of his coach and inspected the bustling street. The newspaper stand opposed the gallery was attended by an unglamorous woman, who was in fact a lieutenant with no experience in running a business. Leaning against the railing and gazing into the River was a pair of false lovers – one of them was Blackstone Station's master-at-arms, the other the finest of the Governor’s private guards. In the patio of the tavern next door, two sergeants disguised as nobles were engaged in a heated debate about their imaginary investment portfolios. But the gallery’s doormen were not Feist's subordinates in disguise and they eyed the approaching captain curiously.
Feist took out a folded parchment from a breast pocket. “Good day, I’m Owen Emery, here for Mister Merrill’s exhibition.”
The doorman verified the invitation and welcomed him in. “Enjoy your stay, Mister Emery.”
Beneath the arched ceiling of the gallery was a number of guests in tailcoats and evening gowns – some of them were familiar, but most were not. The walls were plastered with art: pigmented wood panel carvings from Old Virlisia, an oil-on-canvas of tall ships on the Bay of Luminosus, a graphite portrait of the Empress of Elthanora on the throne... A crowd gathered before a small frame across the room, entranced by the abstract shapes moving fluidly on the canvas and the artist’s daring asking price for his enchanted creation. None of the strangers seemed to notice Feist, but he knew that most of them were pretending.
Feist strode down the eastern corridor until he came to a small room near the end. Except for the bust on the pedestal, the room was empty. Feist breathed a small sigh of relief.
“Mister Emery, I see that you’ve received Merrill's invitation.”
Feist turned to the man who approached him from behind. “Good day, Mister Septus. I hope your business has been profitable.”
Magus Septus wore a bushy but well-groomed beard, a pair of golden specs and an embroidered black velvet tailcoat. But Feist knew that he was anything but a gentle businessman beneath his façade and alias.
“The market has been unfavourably turbulent. I hope that it's been better for you,” Septus said, shaking Feist’s outreached hand.
“I fare no better. Some of my projects have been shelved because the authorities have been dangerously active.”
“That is most unfortunate. But I am very glad that you came personally today despite the inconveniences.”
“It would not be polite to deliver this piece by proxy. I commissioned it especially to commemorate our long-standing partnership. A tribute to the goddess of trade in hopes of more profitable 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 and stopped behind it. When he glanced into the corridor, Feist followed his gaze and met the vigilant eyes of three attentive gentlemen from across the hall. As Septus caressed the statue, essence filtered through the crystals inside the bust and a cold wind swept across the room. Feist fought off a shiver and pretended to be unaffected by the abrupt drop in temperature. No one needed to know that he was in fact a wizard and not a sorcerer.
A short while later, Septus dispersed the channeled essence. “How much do you ask?”
“Twenty thousand sens.”
“Even though the material is a little lacking in quality?”
“Mister Septus, you know that I have never sold you anything short of the best and this is no different.”
“No less than nineteen.”
Septus gave a tiny nod to the men in the halls. Footsteps approached but was stopped before they reached the door – Feist knew without looking that a trio of his men blocked the path of Septus’ bodyguards. “I’m sorry, any less than nineteen thousand sens would render this transaction entirely worthless,” Feist said. “I came here to trade on amicable terms, Mister Septus, not to be plundered.”
There was a moment of silence. Feist and Septus gazed intently at each other from opposite sides of the marble bust, and their men stood in the corridor, each of them ready to cut down the others.
“Nineteen thousand sens it is then.” Septus looked away and paced past Feist, his plastic smile cryptic. “Friends, do us a favour and fetch Mister Merrill.”
Feist knew from prior dealings that Septus did not transact on someone else’s terms. Undoubtedly the sorcerer would make him pay for his liberal indulgence with double the hostility next time, but thankfully there won’t be a next time.
Gideon Merrill came quickly, like he was waiting at the ready around the corner. “Did Mister Septus ask for me?” he said, bowing humbly.
“Mister Emery’s has agreed to sell this lovely piece to me. If it’s isn’t inconvenient for you, I would like to have it removed from display.”
“That will not be an issue.” The gallery owner clapped for his servants and they packed the bust carefully into its well-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, Mister Septus, I guarantee that your piece will not be damaged in the slightest.”
Feist stepped up beside them. “Mister Merrill, this an important collection piece. Let Mister Septus have the peace of mind.”
"Alright, if my masters insist."
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 Statas, 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 Aristos to pass on a chance to add this to my collection, even if it doesn’t contain the kind of material that makes your pieces so abhorrently pricey.”
Feist donned a look of distrust. “We should close our transaction first.”
“Are you afraid that I might leave without paying? Don’t 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 short of none today. It matters not whether we close the transaction now or together with whatever else I might purchase from our friend here.”
Feist waved his guards closer. “If Mister Septus insists, then I shall have to be of company.”
“Be my guest.” Septus smirked like he had Feist by his throat. “Mister Merrill, show us 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 private collection, but the showroom was surveilled like the real Lady was on her pedestal.
Septus paid no attention to the gallery’s security as he strode into the showroom. “Look at that craftsmanship, the veil is almost silken,” he said, marvelling at the sash that fell to the Lady’s half-revealed breasts. “Mr. Merrill, tell me the name of the collector who put this here today. I would like to meet him.”
While Merrill prevaricated nervously about the owner of the statue, Feist made eye contact 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 tacked the bodyguard. 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 to the ground he straddled him and pulled off all four casting rings from Septus’ fingers.
Behind them, the guards bested Septus’ underlings.
“Shit on Ursuris’ balls you bloody bastards.” Septus’ colourful vocabulary echoed in the room as he struggled against Feist’s iron grip.
“Got a rag or something?” said Feist to Fleming.
“Got a necktie that I don't particularly like.”
“Then you won't miss it.”
While Fleming gagged the sorcerer and bound him with an inhibitor spell, Feist said to the visibly shaken gallery owner who had retreated to the furthest corner in the room, “My apologies for startling you. The Order of Royal Guards appreciates your cooperation.”
“It’s fine. It’s fine.” Gideon Merrill dabbed his forehead with a sleeve. “Though I can’t say that I wasn’t worried about collateral damage. 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 Septus’ underlings cause you any trouble.”
The stale air in the interrogation cell smelled of wet and rusted iron. Feist rubbed his gloved hands together and walked into the dim light beneath the kerosene lamp. He grabbed the naked sorcerer by the jaw and twisted his head up. “Where's your base?”
Septus thrashed about and his manacles rattled.
“Still resisting? Drop him.”
The guards loosened their grip on the chains. Pulleys on the ceilings 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 at the guards and they pulled Septus into the air again. “How many sorcerers are in your command?”
“Where do you get your eludium crystals?”
Septus groaned, his head lolling. “Black market.”
“Who’s supplying the sellers?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where did your funds come from?”
Feist waved his hand and a whip of light flashed across Septus’ chest, adding another scorching burn to the open wounds. “Don’t play coy with me. Is Lucian Vesperin funding you?”
The sorcerer twitched uncontrollably. “I honestly don’t know. He goes by the name ‘Twin Tails’ and I… ugh… I’ve never met him.” His voice was a thin as a thread of spider web.
“How do you keep in contact then?”
“I… I don’t. Communication is one-way. He leaves… leaves the coins somewhere and… and writes me the location, then I pick it up.”
“Why does Twin Tails want your syndicate fully armed?”
“There are plans… plans to… hmm…” The sorcerer’s words trailed off as his head fell limply to the side.
“Tsk, feeble.” Feist peeled off the blood-stained glove and tossed it on the table beside the spotless bust of Valera.
“Should we wake him?” said Fleming, who had recently returned from the gallery.
“It’s late. We’ve done enough today.”
“So you think this Twin Tails is Lucian Vesperin?” said Fleming as they emerged from the basement of the guard station and strode down the main corridor.
“Who else could they be? The ban against sorcery hasn’t stopped people from mining and trading eludium, it just moved it under the table. I’ve kept my eyes on the black market and the price of the crystals skyrocketed in the last six months. Why? Because syndicate leaders like Septus have been buying huge quantities in a very short time. I do not believe for a moment that this is some uncoordinated coincidence. Twin Tails is funding the purchases because he wants these criminals armed with as many spelling-casting catalysts as he could find, and as quickly as possible. Who else could it be if not Lucian Vesperin? He has friends with very deep pockets and a vendetta against the Crown. This is more than a few isolated cases of illegal trade, Vince. It's the prelude to an armed rebellion and only he has a reason to start one.”
“You should report this to the Colonel.”
“I will, but first I want to see if I can find out more about Vesperin from the people that Septus has been contacting.”
“Be discrete, Eridan. Vesperin might start targeting you if you arouse too much of his attention. After all, he’s hidden and you’re exposed.”
“Of course,” said Feist as he stepped out of the garrison.
The night was peaceful. Hazy moonlight shined through the misty clouds, giving the cobblestone street a slight silver sheen. The two captains said their goodbyes and boarded their respective carriages.
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 looked narrow between its neighbours, but its spaciousness was hidden by its depth. The house was as quiet as the streets when Feist entered. The servants had long since finished their day and left only few lamps lit, but it was enough to give everything a nice warm glow. 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. Feist took off his coat, his longsword and his casting rings, and then lied down on the bed.
He had been trying to track down Lucian Vesperin for weeks now and the leads were finally picking up. It was well within expectations that Vesperin would be trying to amass a militia. The boy who survived the war has grown into the prime of his adulthood, and fourteen years of peace and prosperity was certainly enough for the Prince to let down his guard. Given the sheer magnitude of his operations, Feist suspected that Vesperin was backed by powerful organizations. Maybe a bank to legitimize his funds, or a large gemstone trader to import more eludium crystals from other continents. But if that were true then this rebellion won't just be a battle of swords and spells. It will quickly turn into a deadly game of political intrigues.
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 as 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 empty noose.