Gaotona ran his fingers across the thick canvas, inspecting one of the greatest works of art he had ever seen. Unfortunately, it was a lie.
“The woman is a danger.” Hissed voices came from behind him. “What she does is an abomination.”
Gaotona tipped the canvas toward the hearth’s orange-red light, squinting. In his old age, his eyes weren’t what they had once been. Such precision, he thought, inspecting the brush strokes, feeling the layers of thick oils. Exactly like those in the original.
He would never have spotted the mistakes on his own. A blossom slightly out of position. A moon that was just a sliver too low in the sky. It had taken their experts days of detailed inspection to find the errors.
“She is one of the best Forgers alive.” The voices belonged to Gaotona’s fellow arbiters, the empire’s most important bureaucrats. “She has a reputation as wide as the empire. We need to execute her as an example.”
“No.” Frava, leader of the arbiters, had a sharp, nasal voice. “She is a valuable tool. This woman can save us. We must use her.”
Why? Gaotona thought again. Why would someone capable of this artistry, this majesty, turn to forgery? Why not create original paintings? Why not be a true artist?
I must understand.
“Yes,” Frava continued, “the woman is a thief, and she practices a horrid art. But I can control her, and with her talents we can fix this mess we have found ourselves in.”
The others murmured worried objections. The woman they spoke of, Wan ShaiLu, was more than a simple con artist. So much more. She could change the nature of reality itself. That raised another question. Why would she bother learning to paint? Wasn’t ordinary art mundane compared to her mystical talents?
So many questions. Gaotona looked up from his seat beside the hearth. The others stood in a conspiratorial clump around Frava’s desk, their long, colorful robes shimmering in the firelight. “I agree with Frava,” Gaotona said.
The others glanced at him. Their scowls indicated they cared little for what he said, but their postures told a different tale. Their respect for him was buried deep, but it was remembered.
“Send for the Forger,” Gaotona said, rising. “I would hear what she has to say. I suspect she will be more difficult to control than Frava claims, but we have no choice. We either use this woman’s skill, or we give up control of the empire.”
The murmurs ceased. How many years had it been since Frava and Gaotona had agreed on anything at all, let alone on something so divisive as making use of the Forger?
One by one, the other three arbiters nodded.
“Let it be done,” Frava said softly.
Shai pressed her fingernail into one of the stone blocks of her prison cell. The rock gave way slightly. She rubbed the dust between her fingers. Limestone. An odd material for use in a prison wall, but the whole wall wasn’t of limestone, merely that single vein within the block.
She smiled. Limestone. That little vein had been easy to miss, but if she was right about it, she had finally identified all forty-four types of rock in the wall of her circular pit of a prison cell. Shai knelt down beside her bunk, using a fork—she’d bent back all of the tines but one—to carve notes into the wood of one bed leg. Without her spectacles, she had to squint as she wrote.
To Forge something, you had to know its past, its nature. She was almost ready. Her pleasure quickly slipped away, however, as she noticed another set of markings on the bed leg, lit by her flickering candle. Those kept track of her days of imprisonment.
So little time, she thought. If her count was right, only a day remained before the date set for her public execution.
Deep inside, her nerves were drawn as tight as strings on an instrument. One day. One day remaining to create a soulstamp and escape. But she had no soulstone, only a crude piece of wood, and her only tool for carving was a fork.
It would be incredibly difficult. That was the point. This cell was meant for one of her kind, built of stones with many different veins of rock in them to make them difficult to Forge. They would come from different quarries and each have unique histories. Knowing as little as she did, Forging them would be nearly impossible. And even if she did transform the rock, there was probably some other failsafe to stop her.
Nights! What a mess she’d gotten herself into.
Notes finished, she found herself looking at her bent fork. She’d begun carving the wooden handle, after prying off the metal portion, as a crude soulstamp. You’re not going to get out this way, Shai, she told herself. You need another method.
She’d waited six days, searching for another way out. Guards to exploit, someone to bribe, a hint about the nature of her cell. So far, nothing had—
Far above, the door to the dungeons opened.
Shai leaped to her feet, tucking the fork handle into her waistband at the small of her back. Had they moved up her execution?
Heavy boots sounded on the steps leading into the dungeon, and she squinted at the newcomers who appeared above her cell. Four were guards, accompanying a man with long features and fingers. A Grand, the race who led the empire. That robe of blue and green indicated a minor functionary who had passed the tests for government service, but not risen high in its ranks.
Shai waited, tense.
The Grand leaned down to look at her through the grate. He paused for just a moment, then waved for the guards to unlock it. “The arbiters wish to interrogate you, Forger.”
Shai stood back as they opened her cell’s ceiling, then lowered a ladder. She climbed, wary. If she were going to take someone to an early execution, she’d have let the prisoner think something else was happening, so she wouldn’t resist. However, they didn’t lock Shai in manacles as they marched her out of the dungeons.
Judging by their route, they did indeed seem to be taking her toward the arbiters’ study. Shai composed herself. A new challenge, then. Dared she hope for an opportunity? She shouldn’t have been caught, but she could do nothing about that now. She had been bested, betrayed by the Imperial Fool when she’d assumed she could trust him. He had taken her copy of the Moon Scepter and swapped it for the original, then run off.
Shai’s Uncle Won had taught her that being bested was a rule of life. No matter how good you were, someone was better. Live by that knowledge, and you would never grow so confident that you became sloppy.
Last time she had lost. This time she would win. She abandoned all sense of frustration at being captured and became the person who could deal with this new chance, whatever it was. She would seize it and thrive.
This time, she played not for riches, but for her life.
The guards were Strikers—or, well, that was the Grand name for them. They had once called themselves Mulla’dil, but their nation had been folded into the empire so long ago that few used the name. Strikers were a tall people with a lean musculature and pale skin. They had hair almost as dark as Shai’s, though theirs curled while hers lay straight and long. She tried with some success not to feel dwarfed by them. Her people, the MaiPon, were not known for their stature.
“You,” she said to the lead Striker as she walked at the front of the group. “I remember you.” Judging by that styled hair, the youthful captain did not often wear a helmet. Strikers were well regarded by the Grands, and their Elevation was not unheard of. This one had a look of eagerness to him. That polished armor, that crisp air. Yes, he fancied himself bound for important things in the future.
“The horse,” Shai said. “You threw me over the back of your horse after I was captured. Tall animal, Gurish descent, pure white. Good animal. You know your horseflesh.”
The Striker kept his eyes forward, but whispered under his breath, “I’m going to enjoy killing you, woman.”
Lovely, Shai thought as they entered the Imperial Wing of the palace. The stonework here was marvelous, after the ancient Lamio style, with tall pillars of marble inlaid with reliefs. Those large urns between the pillars had been created to mimic Lamio pottery from long ago.
Actually, she reminded herself, the Heritage Faction still rules, so . . .
The emperor would be from that faction, as would the council of five arbiters who did much of the actual ruling. Their faction lauded the glory and learning of past cultures, even going so far as to rebuild their wing of the palace as an imitation of an ancient building. Shai suspected that on the bottoms of those “ancient” urns would be soulstamps that had transformed them into perfect imitations of famous pieces.
Yes, the Grands called Shai’s powers an abomination, but the only aspect of it that was technically illegal was creating a Forgery to change a person. Quiet Forgery of objects was allowed, even exploited, in the empire so long as the Forger was carefully controlled. If someone were to turn over one of those urns and remove the stamp on the bottom, the piece would become simple unornamented pottery.
The Strikers led her to a door with gold inlay. As it opened, she managed to catch a glimpse of the red soulstamp on the bottom inside edge, transforming the door into an imitation of some work from the past. The guards ushered her into a homey room with a crackling hearth, deep rugs, and stained wood furnishings. Fifth century hunting lodge, she guessed.
All five arbiters of the Heritage Faction waited inside. Three—two women, one man—sat in tall-backed chairs at the hearth. One other woman occupied the desk just inside the doors: Frava, senior among the arbiters of the Heritage Faction, was probably the most powerful person in the empire other than Emperor Ashravan himself. Her greying hair was woven into a long braid with gold and red ribbons; it draped a robe of matching gold. Shai had long pondered how to rob this woman, as—among her duties—Frava oversaw the Imperial Gallery and had offices adjacent to it.
Frava had obviously been arguing with Gaotona, the elderly male Grand standing beside the desk. He stood up straight and clasped his hands behind his back in a thoughtful pose. Gaotona was eldest of the ruling arbiters. He was said to be the least influential among them, out of favor with the emperor.
Both fell silent as Shai entered. They eyed her as if she were a cat that had just knocked over a fine vase. Shai missed her spectacles, but took care not to squint as she stepped up to face these people; she needed to look as strong as possible.
“Wan ShaiLu,” Frava said, reaching to pick up a sheet of paper from the desk. “You have quite the list of crimes credited to your name.”
The way you say that . . . What game was this woman playing? She wants something of me, Shai decided. That is the only reason to bring me in like this.
The opportunity began to unfold.
“Impersonating a noblewoman of rank,” Frava continued, “breaking into the palace’s Imperial Gallery, reForging your soul, and of course the attempted theft of the Moon Scepter. Did you really assume that we would fail to recognize a simple forgery of such an important imperial possession?”
Apparently, Shai thought, you have done just that, assuming that the Fool escaped with the original. It gave Shai a little thrill of satisfaction to know that her forgery now occupied the Moon Scepter’s position of honor in the Imperial Gallery.