Glass Eye

Published by Lucas Dale on

Alessio di Raso’s backside hit the floor hard and he scrambled back, the sword clattering from his hands. He darted for the hilt, his heart leaping in his chest, then froze. The cool tip of a blade touched his neck. Sweat dripped down his forehead.

“How many times do I have to tell you?” Kai smirked. “If you have to fall, don’t fall backwards, fall sideways.”

“You caught me by surprise,” Alessio grumbled, snatching his sword back up.

Kai offered his hand. “That is the point of a feint, yes.”

Firelight caught Kai’s black hair and the sheen of sweat covering his tan skin, his cheeks red with exercise. His sleeves were rolled up, exposing the slope of his forearms, and the top two buttons of his shirt were undone in a way that made it very difficult for Alessio to concentrate.

He’d seen the feint coming, of course. If he told Kai that, though, he’d also have to explain how he’d been distracted by the way he moved—fluid, alive—and when Kai came in close for the feint Alessio had been able to see right through his shirt, those taut muscles and rippling abs… and then he’d landed flat on his backside.

Puberty was a bitch.

“Again.” Alessio let Kai pull him to his feet. “I’ll get it right this time.”

“If you say so.” Kai shrugged.

The square they were training in lay in the nook between three platforms, held up by an outline of columns and lit by naked braziers. Ceramic tiles decorated the floor, patterned in reds, whites and yellows, and the square was secluded enough that no one would wonder why a Di Cesello was teaching a Di Raso how to fight.

Kai settled into a guard position and narrowed his thin eyes. “Remember to keep your distance this time.”

Having said that, he immediately rushed in. Alessio parried and ducked to the side, keeping his feet light as he put as much space between them as possible. Kai was relentless, disregarding everything he said about sword fighting while insisting Alessio keep his fundamentals. It was an unorthodox fighting style and an even worse teaching method, but Kai always justified it with a question: did Alessio want to learn to fight ‘properly’, or to fight well?

Kai’s eyes danced. He raised his blade. Alessio parried but Kai feinted, his shirt billowing with the movement…

Kai ducked, spun and lashed out with his leg. This time, Alessio was expecting it. He jumped over the sweep and spun, then lunged. His blade touched Kai’s torso. His breath came in spurts.

“I got you,” Alessio said.

“You did.” Kai grinned.

Alessio’s heart soared. This was what he wanted: coursing adrenaline, burning muscles and a pounding heart. This is what he enjoyed. He didn’t have the patience required to carve stone, to be a Mason. He didn’t have the discipline. If he joined the Smiths’ Guild, though, he could be out there, exploring Golgossa with Kai. He could actually make a difference.

“I’ll make it; you’ll see.” Alessio wiped his brow with his shirt and locked his jaw. “I’ll join the Smiths.”

Kai laughed. The sound made Alessio’s knees weak. “If anyone can, it’s you.”

“Yeah.” At that moment, he even dared to believe it.

“Have you asked your father, yet?” Kai said.

Alessio scowled. “Not yet.” The adrenaline fled and his shoulders sagged.

Father was the head of the Di Raso family; if he said no, the Smiths’ Guild would never let him in. Nausea hit Alessio like a fist at the thought of rejection, but he refused to dwell on it. He was the ninth son—he had eight brothers ahead of him to carry Father’s expectations.

“You’d better do it soon.” Kai sheathed his sword and ran a hand through his hair. “It’s only a few months until you’re sixteen, now.”

Alessio rolled his eyes. “You don’t have to keep reminding me.” Sixteen was when the apprenticeships started. His chest tightened.

“I wouldn’t remind you if you didn’t keep putting it off,” Kai slung an arm around Alessio and fixed him with a stare, “which is why you’re going to ask today.”

“I…” Alessio stammered, desperately hoping the exercise would disguise the heat rushing to his face. Kai smelled of sweat; his body was fire where he touched Alessio.

“Alessio.”

He hung his head. “What if Father says no?”

“He won’t.”

“But what if he does?” The Smiths’ Guild was open to the public, yes, but Kai didn’t know Alessio’s father. Father liked things neat, tidy and traditional—a Di Raso becoming a Smith was none of those things.

“Don’t take no for an answer,” Kai said. He met Alessio’s eyes. “You’ve spent your life dreaming of this. Don’t let anyone stop you.”

Alessio swallowed. Kai was right; if he wanted to change his future, he had to take charge of it. “I’ll do it.” Nerves twisted his stomach, made his limbs shake, but he wasn’t alone. Kai was right there with him.

“You’d better.” Kai patted him on the back and let go. “When I get back, I expect to hear good news.”

Alessio chuckled. “Where are you going?”

“Grain route,” Kai said. “Enzo is teaching me to shoot.”

“You lucky thing.”

Apart from their magic stabilising the city, the Smiths’ main duties were keeping the peace and exploring Golgossa. Enzo was Kai’s older brother, and he’d already graduated: glass limbs and everything. As the son of a guild family, Kai would follow in Enzo’s footsteps to become a cavaliere, the elite branch of the Smith’s Guild granted access to firearms.

And eventually, Alessio would become one, too.

“Just you wait.” Kai winked. “I’ll be an expert marksman in no time.”

They made their way towards the single archway that marked the exit to the square. The platform beyond dropped at a sharp right angle, so it took a joint effort to slip through and right themselves as their gravity switched. Bustling streets spread below.

“I’ll see you in two days,” Alessio said.

Kai nodded. “It’s a promise.”

#

The Di Raso family mansion loomed at the top of a winding staircase, frozen in the air between two platforms. A garden of marble statues surrounded the estate, sentinels to an austere façade, and Alessio shook his head as he slipped in through the front door.

People thronged the parlour. Maids, valets and footmen bustled about, carrying everything from bundles of linen to blocks of stone; two of Alessio’s nephews played marbles across the floor; an aunt, or perhaps a second cousin, was yelling something from down a corridor to the left; and sat on the central staircase, as if she’d been waiting for him, was his sister.

“Frida.” Alessio pulled a face.

“Brother, dear,” Frida said with a roll of her eyes. “How lovely to see you.”

Frida was a year older than him in age and decades his senior in cynicism, possessing the remarkable ability to ruin his day just by speaking to him. She wore the grey skirts of an apprentice and the white sash of a Mason-to-be, and a golden pin fastened her braids in a bun.

“You’re looking happy.” Frida smirked.

“Nope.” Alessio was not going to let her ruin his resolve. He’d promised Kai; he had to ask his father now.

She turned her nose up. “You should see your face each time you sneak off to meet that boy. It’s sickening.”

“He’s not sickening,” Alessio snapped. One of the maids glanced at him. Heat flushed his cheeks and he ducked his head.

“Nothing’s going to come of it,” Frida said. “You can’t have children.”

“I know that.” Alessio’s face burned. Same-sex relationships—childless relationships—were for commoners. For guild families, marriage had to produce legitimate heirs.

He didn’t care.

He’d get Father’s permission to become a Smith, then he’d confess to Kai, eventually. Maybe. In theory. Alessio pushed past Frida to climb the stairs. He needed a bath and a fresh change of clothes, then he’d ask Father.

“You’re just going to get yourself hurt,” Frida called, her hand on her hip.

Alessio ignored her. He flagged a maid, ordered a bath sent to his room then waited for it with jittering nerves. The clock opposite his bed ticked and exhaustion from his training with Kai seeped into his muscles. His room had always been too quiet, too still. There was barely ever a breeze in Golgossa to rustle the curtains, and the second floor muffled all the noise from the servants. Even a Mason’s magic was slow and soundless, worked into stone chip by chip.

Doubt started to trickle in. ‘Don’t take no for an answer’ was a lot easier said than done, and Father had never reacted well to stubbornness. Alessio couldn’t back down, though. Kai trusted in him, believed in him, and spiting Frida was always a bonus.

The bath arrived. Alessio washed himself quickly, scrubbing the aches and sweat from his body, then dressed himself in a black shirt and white doublet with pearls decorating the sleeves. His mother had gifted it to him for his last birthday; it matched the occasion.

He glanced in the mirror and brushed the curls out of his face. His heart thundered.

Blood rushed in his ears all the way to Father’s study. The door was made from dark cedar wood, the grains thick and swirling, and he raised his hand.

Alessio knocked.

“Enter.” The voice was curt.

Alessio slipped inside. Rafters sloped across a tall ceiling and windows dominated the far wall, flooding the room with lamplight from outside. Shelves lined the walls, stacked with statues chiselled from stone and sculptures blown from glass. A single desk stood in the centre of the room, where Father was writing in a ledger.

Raffaele di Raso was authority carved into the shape of a man. He was the head of the family, the Mason guild-master and the most venerated voice on the council, second only to Noemi di Cuore of the Architects. His face was stern, slashed with cheekbones and a high brow, but while Alessio shared his mother’s darker complexion, Raffaele’s skin was a light brown. Grey tinged his close-cropped hair and his left eye was white glass, exchanged for his magic. All Masons sacrificed an eye, just like all Smiths sacrificed their limbs. It was tradition.

“Alessio,” Raffaele said, looking up. “It’s nearing your birthday, isn’t it?” The faintest hint of a smile. “Is there something you wish to say?”

“Father, I…” The words stuck in his throat. His palms felt clammy.

“Well?” Raffaele frowned and set down his quill.

Alessio sucked in a breath. “I want to be a Smith.”

Silence crashed through the room, rolling with all the strength of a Shift. The light from the windows flickered. Years of hoping, of dreaming, and he’d finally done it. He’d told Father!

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Raffaele went back to writing. “You’re a Di Raso. You can’t be a Smith.”

Alessio’s stomach plummeted. “The Smiths’ Guild is open to the public—”

“And you’re not the public.” Raffaele fixed him with a stare so sharp he flinched. “Do not make me repeat myself, Alessio.”

Shame churned in Alessio’s stomach, burned at the tips of his ears. He stared at his feet. His bottom lip trembled, but he was not going to cry. He’d promised Kai.

“I can’t be a Mason.” He forced himself to look Father in the eye. “I don’t have the patience to carve stone, Father, but as a Smith… Fighting, exploring Golgossa, that’s something I can do. I can make a difference.”

“By getting caught in a Shift?” Raffaele said. “There are far easier ways to die, believe me.”

Anger sparked in Alessio’s chest. “Father—”

“No.” Raffaele’s glass eye glinted in the light. “I forbid it.”

And that was it. In a single sentence, Father had destroyed everything Alessio had ever dreamt of. If Raffaele di Raso forbade it, not even the other guild-masters would dare go against him. All those years Alessio had spent training with Kai, all the times he’d stared out into wild Golgossa, imagining what he’d find if he plunged himself into its depths…

Don’t take no for an answer.

“You can’t.” Alessio clenched his fists. His blood boiled. “I’ll go to the Smiths myself!” He would not—could not—accept this.

“They’ll never let you in without my permission,” Raffaele said. “Get rid of this foolish notion now, before you embarrass yourself any further.”

Alessio couldn’t reply. It was the way Father spoke, not even bothering to look at him, that made his knees tremble and the walls tower over him, as if was just a child. Still a child. There would be no changing Father’s mind.

He stormed from the study and slammed the door as he left, wiping the furious tears from his face.

#

The clock in his room ticked. Alessio hugged his knees as he stared at it, tears still blurring his vision. Anger twisted in his stomach, knotting tighter and tighter with each second that passed, but with it came a numbness that seeped into his bones and rang in his ears.

He’d broken his promise.

The clock ticked, black iron hands gliding over a brass clockface. Metal, because it couldn’t hold magic. Metal, just like furniture built for commoners. Metal, like the set of chisels and hammers he’d thrown in his wardrobe, determined to never use. A Mason’s tools.

All guilds were important, of course. A Mason altered the flow of time: they froze stairs in place, connecting unlinked platforms; they slowed decay long enough for food to reach the people; they sped up time so distance in Golgossa felt like nothing. Alessio knewthis—it just wasn’t him. Whenever he looked in a mirror, he could never picture himself with a glass eye. He could never picture himself as Father.

A knock on his door.

He didn’t want to answer, but habit got the better of him and the words “come in” slipped from his mouth before he could catch them. The door creaked open.

“You finally asked Father,” Frida said.

“Go away.” Alessio didn’t want to know how she’d found out; whether she’d been eavesdropping or some servant had overheard his raised voice.

Frida sighed, her expression stuck somewhere between sympathy and contempt, and she folded her arms. “What were you expecting?” She hovered by the foot of his bed, the perfect picture of their mother: brown skin, dark eyes, and standing close while still keeping distance between them.

“He doesn’t care about me.” Alessio’s chest tightened. “Why does he care about what I do?” He had eight brothers ahead of him to carry on the Di Raso legacy. Why wasn’t that enough?

“Is that what you think?” Frida’s eyes narrowed. “Of course Father cares. Perhaps he just doesn’t want you wasting your life chasing after some boy you’ll never have a future with.”

“This isn’t about him!” Alessio snapped. He jerked to his feet and anger twitched through his limbs, clawing in his fingers. “Of course you wouldn’t understand. You’re perfectly content to live doing everything Father tells you.”

Frida faltered. “Brother, dear, I…”

“I’m not like you.” He sneered. She’d always had everything he hadn’t—drive, talent and attention. If Frida had asked, Father would have let her do anything.

The clock ticked. Silence dragged between them, sharp as a chisel’s edge, until Frida breathed in and squared her shoulders.

“Do you know what your problem is?” She stuck her chin out. “You’re selfish.”

Alessio bristled. “I—”

“Everything is about you, isn’t it?” Frida glared. “You’re the youngest; you’re ignored; you’re the victim.” She spat that last word, her voice dripping venom. “You’re so desperate for Father to acknowledge you, but you never stop to think—what have you done that’s worth acknowledging?”

Stop it.

Alessio recoiled, the breath punched from his lungs.

“Running around behind our backs, playing at sword fighting…” Frida said. “You’ve done nothing but disappoint Father. Now you expect him to be lenient with you?”

“Shut up!” Alessio stormed forwards in a blind rage, his fist raised. How dare she?

He wasn’t selfish, and he wasn’t playing. Kai believed in him.

Father…

Frida backed against the door, her eyes wide and her body shaking. Bile rose to the back of his throat.

Alessio lowered his fist. “Get out.” His voice trembled.

Frida fled.

#

Alessio sat by the edge of the platform, the square where he and Kai practiced directly beyond him. The archway stretched horizontally out from the platform, and if he peered past it he could see the columns and braziers that outlined the square. Two other platforms sloped overhead, almost within touching distance, and their shadows cast the edge in an amber twilight.

Kai was late.

Alessio could have climbed through the archway without help but, as it was perpendicular, he would have fallen flat on his face when his gravity switched. Besides, it felt wrong to scramble into the square without Kai.

Noise drifted from the streets further along the platform, cutting between rows of brick and wattle and daub houses. Alessio kept searching for a glimpse of dark hair and tan skin, but with each hour that passed, his resolve wavered. What would he tell Kai? What would Kai say? What was the point of continuing to train, when all his dreams had shattered?

He’d spent all this time learning to fight, but he’d never even stopped to think about whathe’d be fighting—orwho.

The braziers beyond the platform hissed and spat, and Alessio’s stomach twisted. How long had he already waited? It had been three days; Kai should definitely be back by now.

 Footsteps, walking towards him. A figure broke off from the street, too far away for him to make out any details. Alessio jumped to his feet, his heart racing, but…

“Frida?”

No. She couldn’t be here. Her words still burned in his mind, their argument a bitter taste at the back of his throat. He’d almost hit her.

“I thought you’d be here,” Frida said. Her fingers curled and her face was pulled into a frown. Her grey skirts bunched along the floor.

Alessio couldn’t meet her gaze. “What…” He gulped. “Where’s Kai?”

“No one’s told you, have they?” There was something off in her voice. “There was a Shift. I overheard Father talking about it.”

The world tilted. “What?”

It couldn’t be. The grain route was well-travelled, marked with pillars each strengthened by a Smith’s magic. The route snaked for days into wild Golgossa, true, but for platforms to Shift and reality to collapse…

This is what Smiths were trained for. “Kai knows how to survive.”

“Kai and Enzo were caught in the middle of it.” Frida smiled. Tears shone in her eyes. “They never came back.”

Each word was a shot to his heart, and he… He couldn’t be hearing them. Frida was lying. It couldn’t be true.

“You’re smiling.” Alessio was too in shock to feel anger. “You… You’re making this up. You think this is funny.” He knew his sister too well, though. He knew that she smiled to stop herself from crying, even when it didn’t work. His breathing shook.

Frida reached out a hand then pulled it back, clenching a fist. “I told you you’d hurt yourself.”

“You’re enjoying this,” he spat.

“Do you think I wanted him to die?” Frida all but yelled. Her words exploded outwards, a hoarse cry, and Alessio’s knees hit the floor.

Kai, full of energy and life, with a smile bright enough to light a fire. Kai, who’d put up with Alessio’s incessant questions and who’d never treated him like a child. Kai, the only one who hadn’t laughed when Alessio told him he wanted to be a Smith; who’d encouraged him, believed in him, told him not to take no for an answer.

He couldn’t be dead.

“There has to be a funeral,” was all Alessio could say. “Why isn’t there a funeral?”

Two Di Cesellos dead? The entire Smiths’ Guild should be in mourning, yet he’d heard nothing, not even a whisper. If it wasn’t for Frida, who knew how long it would have taken Alessio to find out?

“I don’t know,” she whispered. “I’m sorry, Alessio.”

He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t feel. The world around him faded. Closed.

“Father will know,” he said.

All his fury left him, his shame engulfed by a howling grief. He didn’t care what Father had last said. He had to know the truth—he needed to.

“No.” Frida’s eyes widened and she grabbed his shoulder, her fingers digging into his flesh. “Don’t ask him. You can’t—”

Alessio shook her off, and he was already running.                                                                                            

#

“Father!” Alessio slammed open the study door.

Raffaele’s head snapped up, his frown as sharp as a dagger. “Alessio.”

Golden lamplight swamped the room and danced off the shelves of glass sculptures, twisting into jagged reflections stained pink and yellow. Dust swirled in the air from the force of Alessio’s entrance.

“Is it true?” he said. “Is Kai dead?”

“Kai di Cesello was lost in a Shift.” Raffaele’s eyes narrowed. “A common occurrence, for people of his guild.”

Alessio’s knees nearly gave way and he gripped the edge of Father’s desk to steady himself. His bottom lip trembled. Kai…

“Why was there no funeral?” Alessio’s voice shook.

“It doesn’t concern you,” Raffaele said, his voice firm.

“Tell me!” Alessio screamed. Blood roared in his ears, boiling through his veins.

Raffaele’s chair scraped against the floor as he stood and stepped out from around his desk. Tears smudged Alessio’s vision.

Raffaele slapped him and pain exploded across his jaw, the sound cutting through the silence. Alessio stumbled backwards and clutched his face in shock. Father’s glass eye glittered in the lamplight, the white tinged with red from the back of his eye socket, and wrath lined his features.

“You talk too much,” Raffaele said. “It’s time you learned to still that tongue of yours.”

“You hit me.” Alessio’s voice was small. His cheek stung where he touched it.

Raffaele hissed in frustration. “You made me do it, Alessio.” His silhouette shadowed the citylight from the windows and his expression was heavy. “I only want what’s best for you.”

Alessio was too stunned to speak. All he could think of was Frida saying Father cared for him, and how he wished it wasn’t true. It didn’t matter what Alessio wanted; it never had—only what Father wanted of him.

He dropped his hand from his cheek and hung his head. “Yes, Father.”

Fighting would get them nowhere.

Raffaele returned to his work without a word, dismissing him with a gesture, and Alessio could only stumble to his room. His jaw stung, the skin red where he’d been hit, and at last the tears came, hot and useless. Kai was dead. Alessio would never see him again, and he’d never know why. There was nothing he could do to change that.

“It’s time you learned to still that tongue of yours.”

He didn’t know how long he laid there, curled on his bed. Night came and the pain dulled, and Alessio made a choice.

Frida was right. Alessio had never done anything worth Father acknowledging, but that could change. That would change. He’d play by Father’s rules, and he’d exploit them until he got to where he wanted to be. Alessio had a promise to keep, after all.

He would control his temper. He’d learn patience and chisel diligence into himself, and he’d become the best Mason the guild had ever seen—then he’d go beyond that. Alessio would become the first Mason to join an expedition party into wild Golgossa, no matter what he had to do to get there. There was only one exception: when he graduated and it was time for him to gain his magic, he wouldn’t sacrifice an eye.

He’d sacrifice his tongue.


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