Published Sept 30, 2014 (Loose Id)
Published June 22, 2021
When Detective Brettoni Rhodes is called to a murder scene outside the desert city of DaSunder, he doesn’t expect the victim to be one of two sand conjurers who had fled years ago after an accident they’d caused. His past doesn’t stop there, for Luca Baino, the second man who had fled DaSunder and Brett’s old flame, suddenly appears looking to rekindle their relationship. But all evidence in this investigation steadily points to another conjurer, one who can turn sand into glass. And the suspect pool with that capability is light, with Luca at the very top.
Every step of the way, Brett finds more and more reason to suspect Luca of murdering his own friend, his rekindled interest in Brett mere manipulation. With conjured creatures attacking DaSunder and the governor demanding a quick, brutal end to the bloodshed and chaos, there is little time to discover the truth. For the harsh laws of DaSunder hang low and ominous over the investigation, demanding retribution, and no one, including Brett, wants to be caught in that trap.
As the body count rises and the evidence mounts, Brett isn’t sure he can save Luca from the executioner’s axe. Or whether he should even try.
SHATTER BY GLASS
Marona’s words managed to worm their way into my thoughts, already setting the stage for ugly nightmares tonight. I walked home slowly, glad for the evening bustle that felt invigorating after the hot afternoon. Sand had sneaked into the cuffs of my boots, scraping at the skin there, giving me something real to focus on so I wouldn’t have to pretend that Marona might very well be right—was likely right, and I simply was giving in to hope and setting myself up for disappointment. I should probably have acknowledged Luca’s likely guilt now, as she did, get the pain out of the way, because this awful, endless circle of unknowns was in the process of driving me mad.
By the time I saw the rounded crest of my apartment building, most of the windows dark smudges against the sandblasted stone, I’d come to the realization that in the last twelve years I couldn’t name a single sand conjurer other than Luca or Dafid. My attention drifted down to the low wall that blocked in the staircase to the building, painted sand graffiti decorating the rock with yellow starburst flowers and cacti that mocked me with their cheerfulness. With a somber sigh I reluctantly decided that, come time, I would arrest Luca because I’d be damned if I’d let Marona take on that burden alone.
And when I heard his teasing voice, just about every conviction sank into the sand, heavy with the burden of hope my subconscious had somehow managed to keep alive after all this time.
“Detective Brettoni Rhodes. You’ve gone and gotten yourself a brand-new title. An important title in this dead-end city. And you’ve gotten bigger. Did the physique come with the title, or was it the other way around?”
“Hello, Luca.” I put a hand on the stone wall that rose into my building, thankful for its subtle support.
Luca looked amazing. The dredges of childhood had washed away, leaving him compact with a layer of muscle that no longer gave him the appearance of a stick-thin waif. His hair still flaunted that desert-wind-ruffled style, the same wet-sand color Marona’s boasted. His smile was still lopsided, and his eyes shone with that mischievous twinkle I’d come to love and loathe in the most obscene collection of emotions that had ruled me then.
And possibly now.
Lounging back against the steps, his elbows propping him up and his knee bent against the wall, Luca exuded confidence. Something that hadn’t been true a decade ago. Had definitely not been true the night he’d come to see me, horrified by what he and Dafid had done. Too stubborn and afraid to listen to anything I said when I tried to explain that the slaughter rules hadn’t been made for accidents, that he wouldn’t be executed for Oali Shuvano’s death.
Now, that familiar smile popped open the stitches on my heart, making me feel defensive and frustrated.
“Hello, Luca,” he mimicked. “I don’t see you for years, and all I get is ‘Hello, Luca’?”
“Like you said, I haven’t seen you for years. What exactly were you looking for?”
“Something a little more cheerful, perhaps. ‘It’s good to see you, Luca! Blazes, don’t you look good!’”
A flicker of a smile on my lips before it faded. “Not the greatest of days. And seeing you isn’t exactly the best news I’ve had.”
“Ouch.” His brows lifted, though his tone sounded more amused than put out. “Detective Brettoni, you sure know how to make a man feel missed.”
“I see your sarcasm hasn’t changed. The world must not have been big enough for your ego for you to have graced DaSunder with your presence again,” I said drily.
“Don’t do that,” said Luca as he pushed off the steps and rose. A small furrow appeared between his brows before he bent his head to hide it as he brushed the sand off his elbows. He stood tall to stretch, and I couldn’t help glancing at the thick band of skin he exposed, the familiar shadow of his sand-conjurer tattoo bringing back memories of dragging my tongue along the shape of the sand golem. I snapped my gaze back to his face when he lifted his head, the furrow gone as if it had never existed.
“You were never one to judge before, Brett.”
Oh, I’d judged. I could judge just as harshly as the next person. He’d just been unstoppable then, and I’d been intoxicated whenever I was around him. Blind to his flaws. Defensive when Marona tried to warn me to be careful, telling her that her brother wasn’t as selfish as she claimed. I’d believed it then, and now, looking in those gray eyes, I could remember every moment of vulnerability he’d shown me that he’d refused to show anyone else.
“I did miss you.” And when Luca cocked his head and gave me a look of immense satisfaction, I added harshly, “For a time.”
Brows rose into his bangs, mimicking a familiar expression I saw every day on Marona. The similarity punched me in the gut. “I heard about Dafid’s death.” Subject change. Luca’s first line of defense.
“You’ve been to see Drewt.”
He shrugged unapologetically. “Actually, that’s why I’m here.”
Disappointment stirred within me, but I contained it, just as I’d contained a thousand other emotions when dealing with Luca. “You know what happened?”
Luca blinked in surprise, then threw his head back and gave a bark of disbelieving laughter, revealing the long column of his throat and the tiny scar on the underside of his neck. The scar was so subtle it blended into Luca’s skin, looking almost like a freckle. Except Luca didn’t get freckles.
He slapped the flat of his hand down on the wall. “I have no clue what happened to him. I came to see if you did.”
“Did you come into the city with him?”
Luca opened up his mouth to answer, the twinkle in his eyes coming back full force. I steeled myself, feeling the lingering dry heat of the desert itching under my collar as Luca swayed closer. “Detective, if you’re going to be interviewing me, I demand some dinner.”
“That meal we tend to eat toward evening. And look.” He gestured into the quiet back street at the long shadows that were already stretching up the archways of the domed buildings. “It’s evening.”
“As if you planned it,” I said blandly.
He nodded, leaning his arm against the top of the wall, his fingers lightly grazing my own in a pathetic attempt at seduction. Pathetic, maybe, but my traitorous dick gave a happy twitch regardless.
“As if I planned it,” repeated Luca, his voice dropping huskily and his eyebrows lifting in blunt suggestion. Luca’s second line of defense; at least it had been with me. It had usually worked.
I removed my hand, barely keeping myself together as I stepped past him, catching a far too sensual whiff of him. He was wearing something that was mixing nicely with his own scent, something exotic. It made me excruciatingly aware of my longing, which was probably why I said, “Let me get changed. We’ll go to Yserero’s.”
Luca’s heated chuckle followed me all the way up the steps and into my flat. It was still worming its way into my resolve when I met him back out on the steps moments later with a fresh shirt, loosely cut at the collar, and my issued blade exchanged for my own simple dirk swinging next to my water skin.
We didn’t speak on the way to Yserero’s, though I was well aware of the constant sideways glances Luca gave me as we walked. A pack of stray dogs were barking excitedly at a scorpion in the street beside the restaurant, each of them playing chicken as they jumped around it, getting close but never too close. A few children, mostly naked and shoeless, ran past us playing a game that had them throwing loose sand at each other, one toss narrowly missing Luca as he laughed and dodged aside. Most of the domed buildings had their doors propped open in the calm evening, people taking advantage of the beautiful weather and the last rays of sunlight before they were forced to burn their oil lamps and trigger their banded lightstones.
“It’s like nothing’s changed,” murmured Luca as we reached the door.
I followed his gaze to the rooftop of a nearby building where a young, shirtless man had climbed and now perched precariously on the rounded edge as he called down to his friends on the portico below. Not an unusual sight, not for the invincible youth.
Inside, we were seated toward the back, Luca letting me take the seat that faced the door, with only a single teasing comment that I ignored. He ordered one of the bartender’s specials and the plate of spiced meat he always had. I ordered the water I could have had out of my own allotment on tap at home, and something lighter because my stomach already felt twisted in knots.
We fell silent when the waiter left. I let the scraping of pottery and the spicy aromas wafting out of the open kitchen soothe me as I stared at Luca. The situation felt achingly familiar, and regret already reared its head. I should have taken him somewhere else. Somewhere we’d never been together before. Somewhere that wasn’t his favorite restaurant in DaSunder.
“You had questions, Detective.” The grin was downright saucy.
“Where were you last night?”
“At Drewt’s. Drewt Truosto’s.”
“I woke up, visited Navod to meet his kids before he had to leave for work. Then I set about tracking down the address to one Brettoni Rhodes. The lady I spoke with over at the grocer you used to visit told me the big news. Detective.”
“It’s not news.”
“It is to me. It has been a few years.”
“I think when you’ve passed a decade, it doesn’t constitute ‘a few’ anymore.”
Luca shifted his gaze to look around Yserero’s. The decor consisted of colored sand drawings, most of them complicated geometric patterns. One short space of wall near the kitchen had been painted with topoyi paint, a maze that many a patron had enjoyed wandering through at least once. I’d spent countless nights in this same restaurant with Luca, listening to him point out the animals he saw within the shapes. I’d rarely seen what he saw, my creativity not as outrageous as his, but I’d enjoyed watching his excitement, letting his voice lull me into complacency.
“A few, a decade. Doesn’t seem like it’d matter how much time I was gone. Nothing here ever changes.”
“People do. Have you been to see Marona?”
Luca smiled but didn’t look at me.
Now he turned with a shamelessly unapologetic expression.
I decided not to get into the whys of him avoiding his family, instead asking, “Did you leave with Dafid last night?”
Luca shook his head, a flicker of regret shooting across his face. “No. Stayed at Drewt’s. Told you, didn’t leave until this morning.”
“Drewt said you weren’t there.”
“Drewt’s a good man. We asked him not to announce our presence.”
Luca laughed quietly. “We didn’t exactly leave the city on good terms, Brett.”
I stared at him, wondering whether his sense of self-importance was real or if he had merely exaggerated the incident in his mind because it had affected him so badly. I was saved from having to come up with a diplomatic answer by our food arriving, Luca’s plate steaming.
“When did you get back to DaSunder?” I asked, picking up my fork.
“Two days ago. Dafid already wanted to leave.”
Luca nodded. “Kept his pack on him since we got here, talked about going east again almost immediately. Put up a fight when I wanted to…” He put a bite into his mouth.
I waited until he’d almost finished chewing. “When you wanted to what?”
He shrugged carelessly. Too carelessly. “We visited Tadd, that’s all.”
“We wanted to apologize. At least, I wanted to. Dafid acted like an idiot about it all, saying that the whole accident had been Tadd’s fault, that he shouldn’t have been playing under the old stall anyway. And the stupid thing about it all was Tadd agreed with him. Can you believe that? Told us it was his own fault, that his father would still be alive if he hadn’t needed to save Tadd.” Luca fell quiet, staring into his food as if answers were written within the seasonings.
“Was there a fight?”
Luca jerked. “A fight? No. I mean, Dafid was Dafid, but Tadd took him all in stride. Dafid was more annoyed with me for making him go with me than he was at Tadd.”
I went back to my food, thinking.
“Why’d you move?” asked Luca.
“Changed stations and wanted to be closer to work. Plus, the old place was cracked, and the storms always left a pile of sand in the entryway I had to clean out. Got old.”
“Yeah, but it had a beautiful view. You were so close to the edge of the city. I’d always wanted to live there, get to see that sunset every night instead of being cooped up in the inner city.”
“The trials of having money.”
“Don’t.” His eyes seemed darker in the torchlight of the restaurant. “Even the rich have feelings, and my family was in no way rich.” Then his smirk mocked me with hidden knowledge of my worst vice. “You never complained before. You liked the fact that I loved your place. That I wanted to be there.”
I dropped my gaze, pretending to focus on my food. “I liked seeing you happy.”
“Yeah,” said Luca faintly.
“So, what have you been up to all this time?”
“Traveling mostly. Dafid never wanted to stop moving, and I, well, I haven’t found home yet. Still looking.”
I gestured for him to go on.
“Been through the mountains. Lived there for a short time. Blazes, Brett, snow is… Well, it’s wet and cold, but it’s beautiful in its own way. Dafid hated it. To be honest, I could only handle so much of it, which is why we didn’t stay.” His eyes unfocused, his hand hovering just above his plate, meat balanced on his fork.
“No sand,” I said softly.
His gaze snapped back to me, something akin to surprise in his eyes, a pleased surprise. “Yes. No sand to speak of. Not there, at any rate. We went north out of the range into the drier land, then farther east all the way to the sea. I’ve been to some of the hugest places on the continent. Thosolesian felt like a living, breathing forest. The vines grew on every building. Some of the buildings were built within trees with trunks that would easily span this room. Surreal. The port in Sasu Ilm was like a festival every day. The markets there have some of the strangest things for sale at prices that are actually affordable. And the ocean, Brett, it doesn’t end.”
Luca made a face. “Of course not. I would have died being surrounded by that much water for too long. Plus, the humidity is a killer.” His expression shifted to one of joy. “But the beaches. Blazes, they’re perfect. All the sand I could possibly want and no chance of dying from dehydration.”
Carefully, I replaced my fork. “So why did you come back?”
Luca cocked his head and gave his lopsided smile. Too bright when it didn’t reach his eyes. “What? Am I not allowed to visit?”
I propped my elbows up and folded my hands. “You’re avoiding the question, Luca.”
“It was Dafid’s idea. Sort of.”
Luca laughed a little. “I don’t know. We never really thought anything through. We just went where we wanted, when we wanted. Never stayed too long in one place.”
“And you never thought to send word that you were still alive?”
Luca pushed his plate away and became very interested in the waitstaff. “Never thought anyone would care.”
“You’re not a very good liar. Not then and not now.”
“Going to read my mind too, Detective?” The twinkle in his eyes had turned pained.
“Marona cared. And you know that.”
Luca’s smile slid from his face. “Marona agreed with Dad. Thought I should be more like them.”
He lifted his hand, palm up. Sand swirled out of the cracks in the tile and rushed from the crevices and corners of the floor. It spun above his hand, twirling and dancing as if Luca was creating a tiny sandstorm. Then the sand closed in on itself and reformed from the inside out, taking on the delicate shape of a butterfly. The sand turned from a golden brown to pale blue with black spots. Then the butterfly took off from Luca’s hand and flitted toward the open window, its flight pattern erratic, mimicking a real butterfly.
Just outside the window, the butterfly folded its wings up and broke apart, the sand gusting away in the soft breeze.
I looked back to Luca to see him staring at me. “If they wanted you to be more like them, it was only because they didn’t want anything to happen to you.”
“It’s life. It happens to you whether you want it to or not.”
I put my last bite in my mouth. Chewed slowly. Swallowed. Tried to get my sudden ire to back down. “You do have some control over it.”
“Not when it comes to what people think. Didn’t you see the glares I got when I conjured in here?”
I hadn’t, no. I didn’t tell him he’d made it up because that would have been insulting and condescending, but I had to wonder if he saw people’s reactions because they actually reacted, or if he carried his own self-hate around like a prickly shield and envisioned every glance his way had an underlying cruelness to it.
Slights, like the ones he and Dafid had always claimed to see among the city. But it’d always been a contradictory dilemma. The city hated Dafid and Luca for causing so much commotion. Dafid and Luca hated the people of DaSunder for their bias against sand conjurers. There wouldn’t have been a bias had the two of them stopped their mayhem. Or at least the bias would have faded over time. But I hadn’t been able to tell Luca that then because he hadn’t wanted to hear it, Dafid chirping in his ear every day, waxing on about how the world was against them.
And now the world had brought them back home.
And Dafid was dead for it.
Or for some other reason.
I paid, turning down Luca’s offer to contribute, and followed him into the street. We stood in the darkness between two shafts of light, one from a flickering fire, the crackle of it barely reaching our ears from inside Yserero’s, the other the steady glow from a lightstone emanating from the neighboring building.
There, in the desert night, I finally asked the question that’d been tearing me up since Dafid’s hair had slid off his mutilated face. “Did you kill Dafid?”
Luca’s gray eyes widened fractionally before they tightened with an expression reminding me far too much of the agonized guilt he’d worn the night of the accident. “No. I did not kill my friend.”
I wanted to grab him, shake him, demand answers, more about why he’d left after I thought I’d convinced him to stay. Instead, I slipped my hands into my pockets to control the urge. Didn’t stop my mind from reeling, wondering if the only reason he’d chosen to come to me rather than see Marona was because he’d known I would be more lenient—wouldn’t hold the accident over his head and assume him capable of atrocities—because I’d seen his devastation that night. Because I’d made love to him instead of bringing him in for questioning once before.
“What are your plans now, Luca?”
“I don’t know. It’s been a while since I’ve made any.”
The wind tugged at his hair, pulling a lock free. I reached up and tucked it back behind his ear. He stepped closer, his breath coming quick.
“Where are you staying?” I asked quietly.
I got a shrug and an expectant expression.
Instead of offering, I started toward home, knowing he would follow.