Seagulls swooped through the near-clear blue sky, their high caws an orchestra seemingly applauding the flower-fringed wedding happening on the beach below. Palm trees swayed in the zephyr as if to some unheard music, and the white sand shone so bright it made the eyes water.
Glovolis Reimos wore black. He liked the contrast. He liked to see the quizzical look on people’s faces when they saw his long, dark robe, and he liked to watch the thoughts flit across their brows, clear as the sky. Why is he wearing such a dark, heavy robe in such a hot country as Spardica? they would wonder to themselves. He smiled and breathed in the salty sea air. Sickly and stick-thin, constantly colic, he had suffered from chills almost his entire life. Now, he wore the thickest robes he could find at all times, usually with the hood raised over his close-cropped onyx hair.
Cloaked and cowled, he drifted through the sunny land of Spardica like a wraith among regular folk, like the Lord of the Underworld himself, his skin pallid as opposed to the shining healthy bronze of his countrymen. He may have lacked his countrymen’s strength and complexion, but what he lacked in physical prowess he more than made up for in arcane ability. His body may have been weak and dull, but as a result he had spent his life honing his mind to a razor point, studying philosophy, mathematics, physics, botany, literature and languages until at the age of twenty nine, he could mentally spar with men twice his age, those considered the wisest in the land. His revolutionary ideas on the centralisation of power had not made him popular among the ruling class, however, who looked on change as they looked on middens. Weaklings, he thought; they needed a strong man to bind them together.
One day, he promised himself. One day.
For now, he had a job to do. He had been hired by one Dagmar Bakirtzis, to guard the wedding now taking place between her daughter, Ulrika Bakirtzis, and a young man by the name of Peck Angelopoulos. The wedding was an extravaganza, a union between the two richest families in neighbouring states. The Angelopoulos oreichalkum mine was one of the few in existence, making it a treasure trove; and the Bakirtzises were the foremost coppersmiths in Platina. The consensus was that the union of two such formidable families would surely bridge the divide between the two oft-warring states, and so everyone was both excited for the nuptials to succeed and nervous for the potential for failure. A failure could mean all-out war.
Once hired by Dagmar, Glovolis had then been hired by half the attendants, too. He had taken their money, agreeing to all requests, even the contradictory ones. It was all for a good cause, after all. His cause. The wedding was going to be a disaster, but he was going to be rich – if he made it out alive.
The Angelopouloses had hired a Magician, too – presumably for much the same reasons as he had been hired. He had already locked eyes with the man and nodded respectfully; the man had nodded back sombrely. Both understood the situation. They were pitted against one another by the jobs they had taken, and it was nothing personal, but each would do his utmost to overpower the other by the end of the day. The Angelopoulos Magician was a well-known man named Walden Loukanis, almost as well-known as Glovolis himself despite being some forty years old. His bald head reflected the sun, while his admirably bushy brown beard overhung a pink silk shirt that was open enough to reveal a great swathe of his chest hair. His bulging gut tested his snakeskin belt and light, linen trousers, and his bloated feet were popping through his sandals like sausages squeezed through mesh. Glovolis thought he looked ridiculous.
But then, in his eyes, most of the people gathered did. The men were wearing equally gaudy loose silk and satin shirts and pale linen trousers, and the women wafted this way and that like hyacinths in a breeze in tight dresses of white and yellow, their hair curled, combed and coifed to perfection. The priestess of Aphrena, garbed in a flowing white robe with hair like sunshine, shouted sweetly for those gathered to take their seats on the whitewood chairs set on the sand, her high pure voice a clarion call like that of the Vixonski – for what is marriage, thought Glovolis with distaste, if not a perpetual war between man and woman? He eyed the priestess with a grimace, taking in her smooth bronze skin and lithe figure without the slightest throbbing of the loins. She was a stereotypical priestess of the Goddess of Love; women chosen for their beauty and lack of chastity and somehow thus elevated above common whores. Glovolis failed to mark the distinction. In his eyes, a whore was a whore, marriage a shackle.
A few Vixonski attended the wedding, serving food and grape wine since they were able to carry four silver trays at a time with their four arms. Their sloth-like claws had been carefully blunted. It was in vogue to have Vixonski servants at that time. They scuttled about, each on two stubby legs, hooting to one another in their own language with their strange foot-long lips and gazing around gormlessly with huge wholly blue eyes that spoke of their nocturnal nature, their three-foot-tall furry bodies like blemishes on the beach that needed scouring away.
They were eyesores in Glovolis’ opinion. He particularly disliked their little wet black noses. What he disliked most about them, however, was his complete inability to read their minds. At times, he could sense emotions, but nothing more. He had the strangest feeling that they were all plotting something together whenever he saw them conferring conspiratorially … and he could not blame them if they were. All they wanted was to be left alone in their mysterious forest, not pressed into service by the Spardicans and paid coins for which they had about as much use as a bear does a fork. The Vixonski would be the least of his troubles today, though, he knew.
People were taking their seats now, breathing in the heady scent of hundreds of irises, violets and lilies. Glovolis remained standing at the back of the wedding, like a shadow rather than a being of flesh and blood. The priestess took her place beside the bride and groom, all three standing before the seated crowd beneath a filigreed whitewood arch interwoven with fragrant flowering honeysuckles and jasmines. With the sun slowly dousing itself in the ocean behind them, the trio were limned against a glorious lavender halo like someone had set the horizon on fire and sprinkled it with the priestesses’ mystical powders. A bull lowed beside them, tied to a post sunken deep in the sand, somewhat removing from the majesty of the moment.
The priestess of Aphrena cleared her throat delicately and spoke loudly in a high, sweet voice that rather seemed to mock the purity of the universe. Whores and liars had tongues of silver, while honest folk tripped over theirs in their efforts to be truthful, he thought. He had seen it a thousand times. He knew he was just bitter. He had been in love when he had been younger, but the woman he had loved had told him she had heard the call. She had told him she belonged to all men, not just to him, and she had left him for the temple of Aphrena, to become a priestess, a nameless vessel to bear the city’s orphans, the next generation of hoplites.
Now, he laughed at love and those who felt it. Too weak to live and die alone – that was what he thought of those who claimed to feel the fallacy known as love. A snarl tugged at his lips as he listened to the priestess drone on about the sanctity of marriage, of motherhood and fatherhood, of union and togetherness. She never once spoke of faithfulness, as did other cultures. Spardicans were often freer in their sexual inclinations than other cultures. The thought of such freedoms made Glovolis sick. He had never wanted sexual freedom. He had wanted to be tied down by one woman, and only one. Now, he wanted none.
“Wisdom,” decried the priestess, “derives from failure, just as wine is derived from grapes. The elderly are often considered the wisest among us, but why is that? I will tell you why, children of Aphrena. It is because wisdom comes from failure, not from success. The elderly are considered the wisest among us – and rightly so – because they have spent their whole lives failing over and over, learning exactly how not to do whatever it is they were trying to do. Thus they can often help us to avoid pitfalls we might otherwise not have seen coming. They see them from the far side, having clambered out, after all. Wisdom derives from failure, and so that is what I wish for the two of you. I wish for you failures. I wish for you successes. I wish for you experiences together. I wish for you a life together. Take the bad with the good, and you will come out at the other end of this strange journey we call a lifetime with ounces of wisdom weighing you both down. Stick together, even in failure, and you will have forged a bond that cannot be broken. Xandros does not ask of us success, after all. He asks of us courage. The courage to try. So, try. Try and fail and try again. And know that Xandros watches you push the boulder uphill every step of the way, just as does cursed Sisyphus.”
Glovolis sneered when this unorthodox soliloquy received an enthusiastic round of applause. It was true that the Spardicans’ patron, Xandros, asked only that they try. He was the God of Courage, not of Success. Nevertheless, Glovolis had always thought the opposite to the priestess; he had always thought that Xandros’ doctrine meant that trying was the only way to succeed, not that the trier ought to accept failure. He shook his head; no point losing himself in theology now.
He scanned the backs of the heads of the seated folk, reading their thoughts as easily as he could read a dozen languages. He saw the thoughts of those that had hired him, some praying the wedding would run smoothly and some that it would be a catastrophe. He smiled. Life was full of irony when one could read a man’s thoughts. It was almost hilarious how hypocritical folk were, Glovolis had soon learned. Those that denounced thievery the loudest were so often the ones sneaking the silverware.
Glovolis focussed his gaze on one young redheaded man in the middle of the crowd as the priestess reached the words, “If there be any cause, earthly or divine, why these two should not be wed, let it be heard now or never again.”
The redheaded man lurched up out of his seat, and all eyes turned on him as folk gasped in horror. He was the bride’s past amour, Glovolis knew, and he was planning on announcing that he was still in love with the bride, Ulrika. The bride had paid Glovolis to put a stop to any such nonsense, however, having a notion that Phillip or one of her other flings would seek to stop the ceremony. And so, that is what Glovolis did. He snapped his fingers, and redheaded Phillip’s lips were sealed shut. Glovolis waved his other hand, and Phillip sat abruptly back down without having said a word. He wriggled ineptly for a while under the gaze of the entire crowd, unable to move so much as an inch of his own volition, and then Glovolis whispered, “Sleep,” and he promptly dozed off, his head hanging on his chest and drool quickly descending from his lips.
Glovolis looked to the Angelopoulos Magician, Walden Loukanis, who nodded thankfully. Neither had wanted that interruption. Phillip had failed to pay either one of them.
The next problem reared its head a mere moment later when Glovolis caught one man wondering where the stampede was. It seemed this man, the bride’s brother, Saburo, had paid a local kri-kri herder to cause his goats to stampede along the beach and through the wedding, thus disrupting it. Glovolis sifted through the man’s thoughts for a moment as a gold-panner sieves through dirt, seeking the motive. It was easily explained – people usually were, Glovolis found. It always came down to emotion, never to logic. Saburo did not want his sister to wed so young, not while her first love – his best friend – was still out on campaign. He wanted her to wait and fall in love with his best friend all over again. Glovolis shook his head over such domineeringness. The brother had no right to dictate his sister’s choice of husband, he thought.
Fortunately, he reflected as he heard the distant drumming of the kri-kri’s hooves on the sand, the bride’s mother, Dagmar Bakirtzis, was well aware of her son’s wayward notions and had paid Glovolis extra to ensure that anything he might do to interrupt the ceremony would go amiss. Therefore, Glovolis focussed his mind on the vibrations he could feel rising up his body through his feet and swiftly determined from which direction the kri-kri were coming. Then, he muttered a cantrap and flicked a finger, sending a sandstorm blowing down the beach to intercept the herd with a roar. He could hear the distant bleating as the goats turned tail and fled the stinging wind. Kri-kri goats were powerful animals with long, sharp horns. They could have done a lot of damage if not driven away, Glovolis knew, taking a small measure of pride in his work. He could sense the herder’s thoughts, distant though they were; the man was panicking, about to be trampled by his own beasts. Glovolis smiled. Served him right, he thought; people could have died in a stampede. It amused him to see Saburo craning his neck, still looking for the herd that would never arrive. Once the goats were gone, the wind abated.
A thorny issue arose then before Glovolis could stop it. While he had been distracted dealing with the kri-kri, some little upstart had stood up and shouted, “Halt this farce of a wedding, I say! The bride is guilty of infidelity! I caught her with a man in Platina only last week!”
Squirrelly little swine, Glovolis thought, narrowing his eyes at the man. Then, he turned to glare at Walden Loukanis, who was staring up at the sky in an unconvincingly nonchalant manner. Glovolis was sure the bloated bamboozler had confounded his mind-reading abilities, throwing a shield over the shouter’s thoughts so that Glovolis could not sense his intentions until it was too late. Glovolis had to admit to being mildly impressed; he could perform such a feat himself, of course, but he had not expected Walden to be able to pull it off. Now, the cat was out of the bag and it was going to be difficult to stuff it back in. Without moving a muscle, Glovolis punched through Walden’s mental shield, seeing the man flinch in the corner of his eye as if struck with a smirk. Then, he had free access to the shouter’s mind, and he saw that the man was none other than a foreign spy seeking to sow discord in Spardica by keeping the country warring with itself. The man’s name was Bahman, and he was from Zamphia, and he had paid Walden Loukanis well to shield him. He was not even sure he was speaking the truth, although he thought he might be; he thought he had recognised Ulrika, as he claimed.
Out of curiosity, Glovolis switched his attention to Ulrika Bakirtzis herself for a moment, wondering as to the truth of the claim. She was aghast. She had never cheated on her fiancé, that much was clear. Glovolis looked to Peck Angelopoulos. Neither had he. Glovolis smiled. Maybe love was not such a fool’s game after all, he mused. Regardless of the veracity of the claim, he had been paid by both Dagmar and Ulrika to stop interruptions and – though they had not expected this specific eventuality – he felt honour-bound to intercede.
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