The gods have agreed to a divine contest and prepared the Grand Arena. Now each god must choose a champion from among their mortal followers. The champions have one thing in common: all of them were extraordinary, well before they gained a god’s attention. We have already met the champions of Light, Death, and Magic.
Today we meet — well, let’s just wait and see. Introducing the Champion of Deception is no simple matter...
Chapter 5: Orfeo’s Origin — Masks
by Kelly Digges
Free City of Ronella
Ten years ago
A little silver bell rings as the boy opens the front gate. He looks about fifteen, his face speckled with the barest beginnings of a beard. His pack is laden with goods, and he holds a large basket, but he takes the time to make sure the gate shuts gently. He braces for impact.
Two great black mastiffs seem to materialize out of nowhere, rushing toward him. He lifts the basket over his head with one hand, laughing, as the dogs mob him, jumping and leaning and licking his hand. He gives each of them a friendly scratch—one between its ears, the other under its chin. He knows which is which.
“Titus!” yells a wavering voice from inside the manor. “Tiberius! Leave the poor boy alone!”
The boy slips each of the dogs a bit of gristle, and they retreat, tails wagging happily. The boy laughs.
“It’s alright, Lady Marcella!” he yells as he walks up the steps through the front garden, favoring his left leg slightly, sandals splashing through small puddles. “They’re just friendly!”
“Only with you!” shouts the lady of the house. “They’re supposed to be guard dogs!”
He opens the manor door and steps inside, shucking his sandals in the entryway.
“You spoil them, Eleon,” says Lady Marcella from the next room.
Basket in hand, Eleon enters the parlor and bows with a flourish.
“Someone must,” he says teasingly, setting the basket down on the table. He knows how to talk like a patrician, but he can’t quite emulate the accent. Perhaps he will always sound like a pretender.
Lady Marcella is old—Eleon can’t guess how old. Her skin is papery and dotted with liver spots. Her eyes are rheumy, and do not track him as he moves around the room. But her mind is still sharp, her hair and nails well kept, her patrician’s outfit immaculate. There must be servants about, somewhere in the manor, but Eleon has never seen them.
As in any proper patrician’s home, there’s a shrine on one wall featuring all six gods, with minor enchantments that must have cost a fortune. Thaeriel’s likeness holds a small white orb that glows from within, while Aeona clutches a flower that is always in bloom. Ludia, the God of Deception, turns away from the others, and her face isn’t quite visible from any angle.
Lady Marcella frowns as he lays out the contents of the basket on the table: butter, figs, a squat loaf of dense brown bread, and a new box of tea leaves. A teapot already sits on the table, waiting.
“Is your leg bothering you again?” she asks.
“Oh!” says Eleon. “It is, a bit. How can you tell?”
“I can hear the difference in your gait,” says Lady Marcella. “That, and you’re a few minutes late, which only happens when you’re walking slow.”
“Don’t worry about me,” says Eleon, as he cuts the bread into thick slices. “Just the rain last night, is all. My knee always troubles me after rain. It’s a beautiful morning, though, so thank the gods for that.”
“Thank the gods indeed,” says Lady Marcella.
Then she and Eleon work together in silence, turning the contents of the basket into a simple breakfast for two. The new tea leaves steep into a rich black tea with a hint of cinnamon. It’s from far away, and it’s not cheap.
“Do you have time to eat with me? Indulge an old woman.”
“Of course,” says Eleon with a bow.
It is always like this, day after day—the polite request, the polite acceptance. Eleon is only a shop-boy after all, and Lady Marcella has no claim on his time beyond the delivery. The truth, as far as he can tell, is that she’s lonely, and a shop-boy who tarries is better company than the servants who must meet her needs or the other patricians who might call on her. He is here every day, he’s attentive to her needs, and he hopes she considers him a friend. In any case, the dogs like him.
They talk and laugh through breakfast, as Eleon relays the latest rumors to Lady Marcella and she regales him with stories about her youth. At last, he rises.
“I’m afraid that’s all the time I have,” he says.
“Of course,” says Lady Marcella.
She hands him his coin demurely, as a noblewoman should. As usual, she has slipped in a few extra coins and a little fruit candy in a paper wrapping. Eleon smiles and sweeps all of it into his pocket without a word.
“Do you want me to help clean up?” he asks, as always.
“No, no,” she says, as always. “I’ll take care of it. You have a lovely day.”
“You too, Lady Marcella,” says Eleon, bowing one last time. “See you tomorrow.”
“See you tomorrow, dear.”
Eleon turns and limps away, his pack still full.
The young man sweeps into the olive press like a perfumed stormcloud, his white and green robes swirling around him. He is perhaps fifteen, tall enough but still a little too gangly to be imposing. His face is classically proportioned but somehow unhandsome, and the barest beginnings of a beard (of which he is much too proud) grace a chin like the prow of a boat. Handsome or no, he carries himself like a nobleman’s son and he smells of rosewater, and that is enough to strike terror in any commoner’s heart.
The head of the press is a man named Silvio, blessed in his middle years with a generous belly and more bushy black hair on his face than on his head. He whirls around as one of his workers shouts something to him over the noise of the cylindrical presses grinding away.
“Young Master Flavius!” he says. His manner is remarkably calm, but the young man can see the sweat that’s just broken out all over his scalp. “I didn’t know you were in town! To what do we owe the pleasure?”
Gaius Flavius Dio, eldest son of Gaius Flavius Sirinnius, grins like a shark.
“If my presence is a pleasure,” says Flavius coolly, “then clearly I’m not working you hard enough.”
He speaks in the manner of a true patrician, born and raised, carefully enunciating every syllable without regard to those around it.
“An honor, then,” says Silvio with a bow, chuckling as though Flavius had just made a joke rather than a threat.
“Of course it is,” says Flavius. “I’m here about your throughput last month. My father is displeased.”
“Ah, of course,” says Silvio. “I’m afraid even with the protection of your name, the Guild has been—”
“Show me around the works,” says Flavius. “If your equipment is lacking, show me where. If your workers are insufficiently motivated, show me who. And if the Guild is troubling you… not even they can ignore my father’s wrath.”
“Yes… yes, Master Flavius. Right this way.”
The young patrician takes the lead despite having no idea where he is going, taking cues from the stuttering commoner behind him. He smiles as he counts in his head, timing the visit, making sure he still has enough time to shave and change clothes for his next appointment.
“Iseult!” yells a stocky woman in a leather apron. “Iseult! I swear, Beatrice, if that girl is late one more time—”
“I’m here!” yells a hoarse but lilting voice from around the corner. “Sorry!”
A tall young woman rounds the corner, dragging the reins of a stubborn mule, which in turn drags a battered old cart.
She is perhaps seventeen, her face dotted by freckles and a few streaks of dirt. She wears brown leather riding gear and a lumpy hat that can’t quite contain all the wisps of her fiery red hair. She is a northerner, and no hat can hide that. Tall as she is, she’s skinny, almost boyish, not quite living up to the myth of the great northern warrior women. She walks with a hunch, as though afraid to tower over people.
“Mrs. Donata, Mrs. Beatrice,” she says in her singsong accent. She curtsies with the edge of her riding coat. “I’m so sorry. Someone’s ox up and died in the middle of Market Street, and—”
“Spare us,” says Mrs. Donata with a wave of her hand. “Just get our things unloaded.”
“Yes ma’am,” says Iseult.
She goes around the back of the cart to grab one of the heavy bags and finds a greasy young man waiting for her. Timion, a year or two younger than her, is one of the insufferable boys who hang around this particular corner with nothing better to do than bother her.
“Hey, Iseult,” he says, smiling like a hunting cat. “Got any extra room in that wagon of yours?”
Iseult rolls her eyes at him as she grabs one of the bags.
“I can’t even tell if that’s supposed to be innuendo,” she replies.
“Don’t flatter yourself,” he says. “This is strictly business.”
“What do you want?”
“You deliver all over the city,” says Timion. “I have some friends who might like to slip in an extra shipment, quiet-like.”
“Thanks but no thanks,” says Iseult. “Now kindly step away from my wagon.”
He spreads his hands wide and backs away.
“Let me know if you change your mind,” he says, and winks.
Satisfied that he’s gone, Iseult returns to her work. There’s an extra bag in there that’s marked for the two shopkeeps. It wasn’t on the manifest, but Iseult knows better than to ask questions. She unloads it along with the rest. She collects her payment and takes the mule’s reins again.
Mrs. Beatrice, who has no patience whatsoever for Timion and his gang, finally emerges from the shop to see Iseult off.
“Don’t mind him,” says Mrs. Beatrice. “You’re better than any three of his little gang.”
“I know,” says Iseult. “Thanks, Mrs. Beatrice.”
Then she pulls at the mule’s reins, on the way to her next delivery.
The boy is grubby, dressed in castoffs and rags, with hair that might never have seen soap. His face is smeared with unidentifiable muck, his skin is pallid, and he hunches over, like a dog that’s been struck. Obvious malnourishment and odd mannerisms make his age almost impossible to guess. And he smells terrible.
He crouches in an alleyway lit by the setting sun, and a voice drifts around the corner to him.
“—so anyway, the Guild sends down a whole goon squad,” says the voice. “Couple bruisers, couple slinkers, all led by one of their weasely little captains who’s too big for his bristles. Couldn’t’ve been older than sixteen.”
“War’s beard,” says a second voice, higher pitched but hushed. “What’d you do?”
“Well, I paid ‘em their cut, of course,” says the first voice. “What else was I gonna do? But…”
His voice drops conspiratorially, but the angles of the alley still bring it straight to the boy’s ears.
“...They can’t skim what they don’t know about, know what I mean?”
The boy waits and listens as the man elaborates, toying disinterestedly with a bit of twisted metal until the conversation turns to other things. Then he tucks the metal away into one of the many pockets of his ragged clothes and ducks out of the alley way, checking furtively for strangers.
The boy slinks up to the fruit stall with a strange, loping gait, practically on all fours. He pops his head up and smiles, his teeth coated in some unidentifiable muck.
“Eyugh,” says Tullia, the owner of the second voice. She’s no older than twenty and a born commoner, but her face has a pinched expression that lends her an unearned and unflattering impression of nobility.
“Hey, fella!” says Brizio, the owner of the first voice. He’s a skinny older man, Tullia’s father, all arms and apron, and he smiles right back at the boy. “Don’t mind her. How’s Rattle today?”
The boy, Rattle, never speaks, and the various residents of the street argue about whether he can’t speak, can’t think, or just doesn’t have much to say. People used to say he only had three or four dry old beans rattling around between his ears, and the name stuck.
Rattle gives an exaggerated shrug, as though to say About the same as yesterday.
“Me too, buddy,” he says. “Me too.”
Rattle holds out his hands as he makes his eyes wide and his lip stick out, like a begging puppy. Brizio laughs again.
“Of course, of course,” he says. “Want an apple today? Just got ‘em in.”
Rattle nods vigorously, smiling even wider. Brizio tosses him a red, round apple with a big bruise on one side. The boy catches it and messily devours it, stem and seeds and all.
“I don’t know why you indulge that filthy creature” says Tullia, as though the boy is not there. “Ought to be run off the street.”
“You’ve too hard a heart,” says Brizio. “If we don’t care for those less fortunate, we’re no better than the Guild. Ain’t that right, Rattle?”
The boy nods again, as though he has no idea what the man is saying, and scampers off.
Orfeo sits in the small tub and scrubs himself thoroughly, trying to wipe away the accumulated scents of butter and tea, rosewater and olives, sweat and mules, filth and more filth. What a day. At least he already shaved, in between Flavius and Iseult—not that using a razor with no mirror in a basin behind a warehouse is any treat.
Orfeo is fifteen, not especially tall or short, not particularly tall or thin. He has a forgettable face, angular but not handsome, with no particular feature standing out against the others. His voice has begun to change, but it’s still high enough that he can convincingly portray a woman. In another year or so Iseult will probably have to retire.
His poor hair. He runs a hand through it, working the last of Rattle’s tangles out of it. He hates being Rattle. He hates the smell, he hates that painfully awful posture. He hates waiting around until he becomes invisible to polite society. But above all, he hates being Rattle because he knows that, but for his adoptive family, that could have been him.
Orfeo climbs out of the tub and dries himself, relishing the feel of being naked, clean, and himself. He dresses quickly in simple garb, with no perfume, and hurries upstairs to dinner.
Vettorio is there in the little dining room waiting for him—Vettorio, who is not his father, but the closest he has. Vettorio found him in one of the House of Light’s shelters, perhaps five years old, after his parents died. Something about Orfeo caught Vettorio’s eye, and he reached an arrangement with the priests of Thaeriel and brought the boy home.
Home, to the Guild. The closest thing he has to a family.
“Orfeo!” says Vettorio, gesturing for him to sit. “Welcome back, my boy. Tell me everything.”
The boy bows to a small statue of Ludia by the entryway and drops a coin into the offering box. The Guild is not a religious institution by any means, but Vettorio himself is a devout man, with an undeniable affinity for the Lady of Lies.
Orfeo sits and begins the familiar ritual, relating every detail of his day to Vettorio in between bites. The older man sits, fingers steepled, listening. Orfeo could swear he never sees Vettorio take a bite, but by the end of dinner his plate is always just as empty as Orfeo’s.
There is, as usual, no news from Eleon. Lady Marcella’s in the same health as ever, still mostly blind, still very nice, still lonely. Orfeo dutifully hands over the extra coin, but he keeps the candy for later.
Young Master Flavius had a more interesting day, squeezing the olive press to meet the needs of its seldom-seen owner—none other than Vettorio himself, in the guise of Gaius Flavius Sirinnius, a very wealthy nobleman from outside the city. The Guild keeps extorting the olive works for more protection money, but the Guild is also secretly running the olive works… Orfeo has no idea how that particular grift is supposed to work, but he plays his part in it anyway.
Orfeo rattles off Iseult’s deliveries, making note of the extra ones. He relays Timion’s clumsy offer of smuggling work, and Vettorio says he’ll look into it. Orfeo also relays what he learned from Timion today—the obnoxious mannerisms he’s absorbed, the ineffective pressure tactics he’s picked up. Timion is a singularly unpersuasive and charmless young man, and one never knows when that will come in handy.
And then there is Rattle, who always learns many interesting things as he flits through the city’s lower quarters. Brizio’s ill-advised attempts to hide profits from the Guild headline the report, but Rattle learned of many smaller indiscretions as well. Perhaps Vettorio will once again let Orfeo take the risk of playing the young Guild captain’s role himself, putting his skills to the true test of showing two different faces to the same person more than once.
“Decently done,” says Vettorio at last. “I wasn’t sure you could handle four faces in one day, and you did it nearly without a hitch. But Iseult was late making her deliveries.”
Orfeo hadn’t said anything about running late, but he’s not surprised that Vettorio knows about it.
“Yes, sir,” he says. “I made a plausible excuse.”
“Plausible indeed!” says Vettorio, smiling. “I heard a dozen cows dropped dead at the market. Now there’s worry about a sickness.”
“It’s vital that you make your deliveries as scheduled. Other operations could be waiting on them. Iseult may be a country girl with no sense of time, but you are not. Understood?”
“Yes, sir,” says Orfeo.
“Why were you late?” asks Vettorio, taking a sip of wine. “You should’ve had plenty of time to tour the olive works after breakfast.”
“I suppose I tarried too long at Lady Marcella’s,” says Orfeo.
“I suppose you did,” says Vettorio. “You need to take your job more seriously, Orfeo. Your real job. All these other names, these other faces… they’re just masks. And however much our dear sweet Eleon might wish to sit and entertain an old woman, the cunning, careful Orfeo must rush back into the wings to prepare for his next role. You must know what Eleon is thinking, but you must not let yourself think it!”
Orfeo breathes deeply, in and out, and nods. Vettorio is fond of lectures, especially when he is most of the way through a glass of wine.
“But,” says Vettorio, with a little grin, “you did thoroughly terrorize the olive works. I’ve already heard three different rumors about Gaius Flavius the younger, each more wretched than the last. Well done there.”
“I yelled at them about the smell!” he says. “Said it was disgraceful. It was very gratifying watching them try to diplomatically explain to one of the owners of their olive press that that’s just how it smells when you press olives.”
Vettorio laughs with him. Then the laughter fades to silence, and the older man’s brow wrinkles.
“You seem troubled tonight, my boy,” says Vettorio.
“I do?” says Orfeo. He considers. Is he troubled?
“You do,” says Vettorio. “And since you’ve worn four different faces today, I’ll forgive you for letting your real one say too much. You are among family, after all. You can tell me what’s on your mind.”
Orfeo has to think for a moment. What is on his mind? What is troubling Orfeo, when the other faces are put away for the night?
“It’s just… All of this feels so pointless.”
“Pointless!” says Vettorio. “In what sense?”
“This is just practice,” he says. “It’s boring, being run through my paces again and again and again. Is this what you brought me up to do? Defraud merchants of their mealy apples and old women of their candy?”
“Three things,” says Vettorio, holding up three fingers. “One: This is exactly how someone like you becomes someone like me. ‘Boring’ practice, where the stakes are low, is exactly the way to learn your craft—where you shouldn’t be a few minutes late or a little too tangled up in your role, but lives and livelihoods do not hang in the balance. Agreed?”
“...Agreed,” says Orfeo. “I just think I’m ready for—”
“Two,” says Vettorio. “You accomplished a great deal today, enough that any operative would be proud. I know you don’t understand the olive press, but you trust that our effort there is important, and today you advanced it admirably. Iseult’s extra deliveries continue to supply our operatives throughout the city. And your intel about this fruit-seller will bring in a small fortune, once we figure out what else he’s up to.”
“What about Eleon?”
“Three,” says Vettorio, then sighs. “If you truly feel you’re ready for a ‘real’ operation, a payoff for all this practice… I do have something for you.”
“Really?” says Orfeo.
“Really,” says Vettorio. “Clear the table, then come to my office for a briefing.”
“Thank you!” he says.
“Don’t thank me yet,” says Vettorio, and he does not return Orfeo’s smile.
A little silver bell rings as the boy opens the front gate. He looks about fifteen, his face speckled with the barest beginnings of a beard. His pack is laden with goods, and he holds a large basket, but he takes the time to make sure the gate shuts gently.
He lifts the basket over his head as the two black mastiffs mob him. They seem especially interested in his basket today, but he distracts them with friendly scratches and a few bites of gristle.
“Tiberius!” yells Lady Marcella. “Titus! You let him in!”
“Good morning, Lady Marcella!” yells Eleon, laughing. “They’re fine.”
“They’re beasts!” she yells back.
He walks up the steps through the front garden, sandals splashing in small puddles. He opens the manor door and steps inside, shucking his sandals in the entryway.
“More treats, no doubt,” says Lady Marcella, smiling.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” says Eleon, in his most aggrieved tone. He enters the room, bows, and sets the basket on the table.
Lady Marcella looks much the same as yesterday—still very old, still very sharp, still immaculate, still nearly blind. She’s quieter than usual this morning. Or is that his imagination?
Eleon lays out the contents of the basket, his hands shaking slightly despite himself. He has butter and jam today, a fresh apple, and another loaf of that dark brown bread. The tea from yesterday is back out on the table, a fresh pot of hot water waiting.
The altar on the wall looks the same as it did yesterday. The gods are eternal, but their likenesses on Eucos do well to be frequently dusted.
He brews the tea, as he always does, and pours, as he always does. He slips half a spoonful of white powder from the hem of his sleeve into her cup as he pours, heart pounding. Then he spoons honey into both cups, putting more than usual in hers.
“It rained again last night,” says Lady Marcella.
“Did it?” says Eleon. “I must have been asleep.”
Gods, there were puddles on the steps. He’d been so distracted, had he remembered to—
“I know why you’re here,” says Lady Marcella quietly.
Eleon stammers. Orfeo panics. If she calls those dogs back, tells them to attack, all the gristle in the world won’t save him.
“Sit down, young man,” she says. “And hand me my tea.”
Orfeo’s mouth drops open.
“But you—but it’s—”
“I know what it is,” says Lady Marcella. “At least let me drink it before it goes cold.”
Numbly, Orfeo hands her the cup of poisoned tea. It smells of cinnamon and honey, and she inhales deeply before taking a sip.
“Here’s what’s going to happen,” says Lady Marcella. “I’m going to drink my tea, and you and I are going to talk about all this. Some bread, dear?”
Orfeo takes the bread, but does not eat it.
“How did you know?”
“First of all,” says Lady Marcella, sipping her tea and making a face, “you forgot the limp today. Too preoccupied with your onerous task, no doubt.”
“And let me say,” she continues with the sharpness of a disappointed sophist, “that was a rather extravagant affectation to begin with, especially if you’re trying to fool someone who’s nearly blind.”
“We’re supposed to create specific details for people to focus on,” says Orfeo. “I picked one you could see. I mean, not see, but—”
“You picked one I could see through,” says Lady Marcella. “You’d have been better off with a distinctive scent, something that doesn’t hinge on a perfect performance.”
“So you’ve known all along that I wasn’t who I said I was?”
“I suspected you from the start,” says Lady Marcella. “Oh, don’t be too hard on yourself, dear, I suspect everyone. In fact I didn’t notice that the limp was off for quite some time. And your accent, let me say, is exquisite. Dockside boy putting on airs, yes?”
“So what about… today?” he asks. “What about the tea?”
“Too much honey,” says Lady Marcella, waggling a finger. “I could smell it. Trying to cover up the bitterness of the poison, of course, but it’s an easy tell if you’re looking for it. Next time try a pinch of salt.”
“Mmm-hm,” says the little old woman. “Masks bitterness without affecting the flavor. You can try it yourself, if you overbrew your tea. Doesn’t Vettorio teach you children anything?”
“You know Vettorio?”
Lady Marcella chuckles.
“My boy, I trained Vettorio,” she says. “And he ought to spend a night in the Hollow for sending a child up against me.”
“You’re Guild,” says Orfeo.
“Retired,” she says, “as much as one can be. Vettorio allowed me to fade away, on the condition that my repose remain quiet.”
“I may have violated the terms of our agreement. Meddled in his business. It’s too late for my death to make any difference, of course. I’ve made all my arrangements, even for the dogs. But I suppose Vettorio must make an example of me.”
“Can I ask why you’re drinking that?” asks Orfeo.
“Oh, if it’s not you, it’ll be someone else,” she says, with a wave of her hand. “It makes no difference to me whether you succeed. But it makes a great deal of difference to you.”
“So you’re… helping me assassinate you?”
“I’m just drinking my tea,” she says. “What’s your name, young man?”
“That’s your real name, is it?” she asks.
“For as long as I can remember.”
“And is it what your parents called you? Is it the name you had when he found you and took you off the street to mold you to a life of crime, just like he did all the others?”
“I don’t know,” says Orfeo. “...How many others?”
“A handful, at any given time,” says Lady Marcella. “Over the years… dozens at least.”
Orfeo shakes his head.
“No. It can’t be that many.”
“Not all of them make it, dear,” she says quietly. “In fact, most don’t make it as long as you have.”
Her breathing is slowing, getting more labored. The cup is about half empty.
“Listen,” she says, grabbing him by the wrist. “I’m sure he’s given you the whole talk about how all these roles you play are just masks, and you mustn’t get too attached to them. He heard that talk from me, and he took it to heart.”
“But you must remember that ‘Vettorio’ is just another mask,” she says. “It’s the one he shows to you, and it’s as fake as all the rest. He’s not family, no matter what he tries to tell you.”
“He’s the closest thing I have,” says Orfeo. “If I can’t trust him, who can I trust?”
“No one, my dear,” she whispers. “And if you’re going to survive the Guild…”
She pats his hand.
“...make sure that Orfeo is just a mask, too. Keep your real face hidden inside. Never forget it’s there. If you lose sight of that…”
Lady Marcella closes her unseeing eyes, breathing in shallow little gasps. She still clutches the tea cup; when she dies, it will fall.
“Ludia,” she whispers, so quietly he can barely hear her now. “Lady of Lies, watch over him.”
Eleon quietly gathers up his pack and leaves Lady Marcella’s rattling breaths behind.
The boy knocks on the door to Vettorio’s office. He is fifteen, with long limbs and an unremarkable face.
“Come in, Orfeo,” says Vettorio through the closed door. Uncanny.
Orfeo enters, shutting the door quietly behind him. There is an offering-box for Ludia here too, and the boy drops a coin in. The office smells of leather and pipe smoke. Vettorio sits with his fingers steepled and says nothing.
“It’s done,” says Orfeo. “As planned. I didn’t stay for the final breath, but she was beyond help.”
“Exactly as planned?” asks Vettorio, his eyes narrowing.
Orfeo hesitates, as though he doesn’t wish to admit a failing.
“She did complain that I’d put too much honey in her tea,” he says. “But I played it off, just like you taught me.”
“Mmm,” says Vettorio. “There’s a better trick to hiding poison. Remind me to teach it to you sometime.”
“I will,” says Orfeo.
“And that’s it? You served it, she drank it, she died?”
Vettorio studies his student.
“And how do you feel about that?”
“I feel fine,” he says. “Better than I thought I would. I was nervous beforehand, but now I’m just glad to have it done.”
“Do you want to know why I had you kill her?”
“Not particularly,” says Orfeo. “I don’t know why I made an olive presser cry yesterday either, but I can play my part.”
Vettorio studies him for a moment longer, then brightens.
“Good!” he says. “Good. I’d hoped that would be the case, but one never knows. You did well today, my boy. We’ll retire Eleon and find a use for your newfound free time in the mornings.”
“Thank you,” says Orfeo.
“I think you may be ready for bigger things after all,” says Vettorio. “In the meantime… Iseult’s route starts soon.”
“Yes, sir,” says Orfeo. “On my way.”
He bows and departs, his face calm and happy, showing nothing of what’s beneath.
Orfeo ducks into his office through the hidden passage. He only learned of the passage three years ago, when he inherited the office from Vettorio. He does not offer a coin to the little statue of Ludia—what would be the point of that, now that he’s the one who empties it?—but he bows to her, as always.
He settles into his chair for the boring but important work of reading espionage reports and extortion accounts. He still puts his skills to use, but not on a daily basis. Iseult and Rattle have vanished with the unquestioned anonymity of the poor. Gaius Flavius the younger inherited his father’s fortune and still runs his business concerns from outside the city, although the olive press is long gone. The Guild torched it, making good on their threats, and Gaius Flavius the elder duly collected the insurance money.
Things are largely unchanged from Vettorio’s days as spymaster for the dockside cell of the Ronella Guild operation, with one exception. Orfeo takes on students from elsewhere in the Guild, but he does not “rescue” children from poverty the way Vettorio did. A close examination of Orfeo’s accounts would reveal substantial donations to several shelters and orphanages around the city. A carefully prepared trail of evidence paints these donations as a money-laundering scheme for off-the-books income, but this is only a mask. In truth they are born of simple sentiment, a far worse crime in the Guild than any petty corruption.
There is a knock at the door, and Orfeo frowns. He’s not expecting anyone. He reaches under the desk, his hand hovering over a secret lever connected to a hidden crossbow inside the desk.
“Come in,” he says.
The door does not open. Instead, there is a polite cough behind him. He whirls around, a small knife appearing in his hand. He tries to shout for help, but no sound comes out.
There’s a woman standing behind him. She’s wearing a regal purple dress and a silver mask, and she holds one finger up to her lips.
“Hello, Orfeo,” says the woman. “Surely you recognize me.”
And then he does recognize her. Her face is always hidden, but he knows it anyway. Her voice sounds like the clink of coins and the whisper of a dagger being drawn. The air in the little room seems to thicken.
He knows, somehow, that it is not a trick—that this woman is the same entity as the statue in the corner of the office, the same god who turned her face from the others back in Lady Marcella’s parlor all those years ago.
The knife disappears back into his sleeve, and he slides forward into a kneel.
“Lady of Lies,” he says. “How… How may I serve?”
“Get up, for starters.” she says, walking around the desk. “Servility doesn’t suit you.”
He rises in one fluid motion. Deep breath. Mask on, even to a god.
“You’ve had quite a career,” says Ludia. “So many faces. So many lies. How many people have you been, Orfeo? Do you even know?”
“It would depend on how you count, my lady,” says Orfeo. “Hundreds of momentary roles. Dozens of larger ones. May I ask what this is about?”
“Why, it’s about you, in all your multitudes,” says Ludia. “I require a mortal champion to stand for me in a contest of the gods. I’ve watched you work, and I believe you’ll do.”
“I am a god,” she says. “I can’t give you specifics, but you should expect that both will be commensurate to your station as my sole champion.”
“Can I say no?” asks Orfeo.
“You may,” replies Ludia. “In that case, you’ll forget about this conversation, and I’ll go offer the job to someone more ambitious.”
“Interesting,” says Orfeo. “Has anyone else refused, or am I your first choice? For that matter, has anyone else accepted?”
“Very clever questions, which I would be happy to answer after you’ve accepted the job. I think you’ll find my bargaining position is rather stronger than yours. Yes or no?”
She reaches out a hand.
“Of course,” says Orfeo. “I accept.”
He takes her hand, and a large silver chain springs out of nowhere, wrapping around his outstretched arm.
“What’s this?” he asks.
“You are the Champion of Deception,” says Ludia, spooling out the chain. “I know exactly how much trouble you can cause with the power I’m about to give you. You’ll have a great deal of freedom… but never forget who’s holding the leash.”
Who can I trust?
He looks down at the elegant silver chain wrapped tightly around his arm.
No one, my dear.
“Of course,” says Orfeo. “Let’s get started.”
There is a shimmer of purple light as the God of Deception departs with her champion, leaving the empty office behind.
Kelly Digges is a narrative designer and creative consultant for games, with 90 credits across more than 50 products for Magic: The Gathering and other games. Find him on Twitter at @kellydigges.
- Chapter 1: Citadel of the Gods
- Chapter 2: Lysander’s Origin — Broken
- Chapter 3: Neferu’s Origin — Blessed Rest
- Chapter 4: Pallas’ Origin — All Is Magic