Pile of Bones
An Excerpt From
Pile of Bones

 

1.

 

OLDAN TUCHED 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 pome¬granates 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 unex¬pected 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 Auditors. 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 tro¬vador. 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 hypo¬caust.”

“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 toler¬ant, 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 brag¬ging. 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 danger¬ous 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 under¬croft. 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 show¬ing 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 auditors.

Auditors 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 use¬less 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, she admitted, 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 . . . what¬ever auditors 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.”

“Absolutely not.”

“I’d be dashing.”

“You’d be a target in a metal hat. Trovadores don’t wear armor.”

He’s not a trovador, Roldan thought, 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. Auditors 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 Anfractus gut songs, but people still talked to pass the time. There were paintings on the walls, meant to encourage laughter and dis¬tract 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 uncer¬tain 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.

Anfractus shone beneath the heat, a maze of sand–colored stone filled with oblique alleys like the one he’d emerged from. People wandered above them, peering down from the stone skyways that joined the buildings. They walked past a fountain made of green, cloud–veined marble. A meretrix in a silver mask rested on the rim. She wore a cream–colored silk tunica that exposed her arms. Her hair was tall, in the style of the basilissa, and her slim belt was studded with carnelians. She’d taken off her cork–heeled shoes and was letting water from a grotesque’s mouth cool her feet.

Morgan looked dubiously at Roldan’s tunica. “You’ll have to re–dye that soon. It’s also fraying along the sleeves.”

“I’m not sure it can survive another repair.”

“It barely looks convincing as it is. The scarlet dye is patchy, and you’re practically tripping over the ragged hem. Eventually, it’s going to unravel.”

“I’ll steal another one,” Babieca said. “It’s easy to steal from auditors. Most wouldn’t notice if you set fire to their sandals.”

He’d first met Roldan in the house of Domina Pendelia. After a few days in the city, Roldan had realized that he wouldn’t be able to survive by gambling, as some did. For–tuna didn’t favor him. Like most new visitors, he became a pedes. They had no gens to protect them, although their unseen labor was what allowed the city to function. He found himself working in the cramped kitchen of Domina Pendelia, which always smelled of baking boar. He dropped more vessels than he managed to deliver, but the domina had a tender spot for him. A flurry of shards would explode at his feet, and she’d simply laugh. Babieca worked in the undercroft, stoking the hypocaust that warmed her bath. Neither of them was good at his job. One night, after cursing the cold water, Domina Pendelia sent Roldan to the under¬croft. Normally, she would have sent one of the more expe¬rienced pedes, but they were occupied.

The undercroft was lit by a few hanging lamps. The earth floor beneath him was damp and poxy with stones that might cleave his sandals. He found Babieca in the hypocaust cham¬ber, filthy and stripped to the waist. He’d forgotten the fire and was playing his pipe. Roldan tended to distrust people, but there was something about Babieca that drew him in. Maybe it was the song, or the flash of teeth against his ashy face when he grinned. Maybe the smoke and the smell of packed earth was making him dizzy. Either way, he’d found himself agreeing when Babieca talked of escape. It wasn’t hard. Pedes came and went every hour. He was still sur¬prised that he’d had the courage to ask Domina Pendelia for eight maravedies. For dyes and tablets. He’d looked her in the eyes without blinking. She’d hesitated, then reached into a drawer and counted out the coins. That was nearly six months ago. It was hard to believe that his false tunica, made cheaply for a pedes, had lasted this long.

They passed by a crossroads shrine with a winking lamp. Rinds and bread crusts filled the stone embrasure. Roldan tried to listen past the sounds of the crowd. Softly, below the hum of the flame, he could hear the salamanders scratch¬ing. There must have been at least three of them, feeding on bread and lamplight. If he were a vigil instead of an auditor, he could actually see them. Most vigils went crazy, though. Hearing was safer than seeing. Morgan tossed some seeds into the bowl, and they kept going.

The road widened as they neared the Hippodrome. Peo¬ple were gathered near the entrances, forming clouds of colored tunicae. Most of them were gaming. The food stalls were packed, and he smelled fish sauce, roast almonds, and sesame balls. The building was massive and fronted in pale yellow marble. People streamed in and out of the entrances, jostling each other, spilling their drinks, cursing. Fights erupted often, since they were all half–drunk and carrying daggers, but miles broke them up before they grew too seri¬ous. The miles circled the Hippodrome, baking in their mail loricae. Roldan was entranced by their leather boots, which were soft and woven into curious patterns. A young boy, probably a fur, drew close to the nearest entrance. He looked hungry. One of the miles made a warning gesture, halfway drawing his falchion, and the boy hurried away.

They paid the admission fee and entered the Hippo¬drome. A race was in progress. The charioteers kicked up dust as they pursued each other, and everyone stood, scream¬ing bets and epithets. One of the drivers had night–black horses, while those who pulled his rival were the color of thrice–bleached linen. Roldan was hypnotized by the char¬iot wheels, bronze spokes flashing as they scattered sand. The whips were loud enough that he could hear them over the inebriated rumble of the spectators. Just as they managed to find a spot, the driver with the black horses pulled ahead. Those who’d bet on him cheered ecstatically. For a moment, they were two comets, dark and light, trailing debris as they circled the Hippodrome. Then the driver with the black horses won. The fortunate cheered louder, and the losers cursed.

“This could get ugly,” he said. “Why would anyone want to conduct business in the middle of a race?”

“It’s public,” Morgan replied. “Less chance of a violent mishap in front of so many witnesses, no matter how drunk they are.”

Once the race was over, a few attendants ventured onto the sands. They cleared away debris, then vanished. Moments later, doors opened on opposite sides of the Hip¬podrome, and two miles stepped out. There was a new wave of cheering. They made their way slowly to the heart of the circle, pausing at the shrines to give oil and crumbs. One of them wore a lorica of segmented leather, reinforced with metal plates. She had a single greave and a painted oak shield. A tarnished helmet covered most of her face. The other had on a lorica of bronze scales that rippled, like the sand. His helmet boasted graven neck guards. His shield was heavier, and scalloped mail protected the area below his studded belt. His vanbraces were silver–striped and had hungry edges.

Everyone looked to the high balcony, with its purple drapes. The basilissa wasn’t there. In her place, Narses, the spado, presided over the spectacle. He wore the moss–colored tunica of his gens, along with a hoard of jewels. His red hair was beginning to thin, but it was still his own. Being high chamberlain, he knew every secret that danced through the Arx of Violets, or so it was said. Next to him sat a younger spado, and Roldan realized that it was the one he’d seen earlier on the street, licking lemon sharbah.

The high chamberlain raised his hand in a ceremonial gesture.

The miles drew their swords.

Both blades were short. One had a chipped stone pom¬mel, its hilt wrapped in leather, while the other was gilded with onyx and jasper. Roldan had never understood the impulse to encrust things with gems, especially weapons.

Everything was about status. The color of a tunica, the flash of stones, the well–placed kiss, all were devices. Luckily, his status was so low that he didn’t have to worry about reading signs.

Gilded sword was getting impatient. He swung high, but the other leapt back. She’d been waiting for something like that. Chipped sword feinted a blow to the chest, then ducked and slashed low. Her blade glanced off the other’s greave, hissing, and then she spun away before her opponent could retaliate.

“She’s playing with him,” Morgan said.

“That’s not smart,” Babieca replied. “The other miles has better arms. The fool with one greave should be worry¬ing about her lack of protection.”

“Her shield is solid.”

“It’s practically tableware.”

“The wood may be soft, but that can be an advantage.”

“Because exploding wood is a distraction?”

“Because swords get stuck.”

Gilded sword pressed another attack, thrusting low this time. As Babieca had predicted, he aimed at his opponent’s right leg. Chipped sword brought down her shield. Roldan saw for the first time that it had an iron strip across its middle, enough to deflect the blow with a satisfying crack. Everyone cheered. Then chipped sword danced away. Her opponent gave pursuit. Chipped sword extended her arm, as if to swing, then ducked and lashed out with her shield instead. The shield caught gilded sword in the midsection, at the soft articulation between his belt and his scale lorica. He grunted, startled, and stepped back. Now chipped sword pressed her own attack. She cut high, and the glint of his weapon was sunlight moving over the face of the waters, one chaos mingling with another. Gilded sword managed to parry, but his movements weren’t as swift as before. He was getting tired.

Chipped sword made a quick motion, switching sword and shield. Now she fought left–handed, with renewed strength. Her opponent struggled. He started to retreat, and

Pile of Bones

Pile of Bones