Shroud of Shadow

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Authors: Gael Baudino
exhalation had ended, to be abruptly replaced with a sucking in, a filling, much as a man might awaken from a long sleep, rub his face, belch, gape, and smile broadly as he pulled in a big, jowly gulp of air from a world that could not possibly deal in loaded dice or stacked decks . . . because it would not fucking dare .
    And so George was feeling good as he crossed into Utah, and he still felt good even when he realized that he had driven all night beneath a moon as big as a beach ball and as bright as a teen-age girl's smile, driven and been even further entranced. But even the bespelled had to eat, pee, and wash their faces, and so, with the dawn coming up over the Rockies as though the stars had all melted together and run down into the east, George pulled off the highway and onto the small streets of a small town named Cisco. A diner was open. Breakfast, it said.
    And maybe because he was already thinking of a girl's smile, or because the mountains were with him, or because of something else, something indefinite, something that had caused him to come to this very diner at this very moment in this very mood of hope and strangeness that had so intermingled in his reborn soul that he was now ready to move beyond mountains and trees so as to see—really see—people, he walked into the diner, pushing through the door that rattled as badly as the van and was losing paint even worse, and looked up to see a young woman wiping the Formica counter.
    She looked up to see him, too. Her eyes were the color of cornflowers, and she was slender and rather pretty; but what struck George was that he was absolutely certain that she was someone else who was feeling more than April, more than just the spring.
    Hope? Fancy? Reality? Natil did not know. But she watched George walk across the worn linoleum floor and order breakfast and a cup of coffee, saw him smile at the young woman in a way that she had never before seen a human being smile, saw that same smile returned.
    It might happen. It could happen.
    And then she was being prodded awake, and she opened her eyes to the morning. Beside her, Omelda sat back and shrugged apologetically. Her eyes were cloudy. “Play something, Natil,” she said. “Please. It's prime.”

Chapter Six
    Hypprux, to Natil's eyes, had not changed much in the last hundred years. To be sure, the city had grown, and there were new buildings, new faces, a city council with a charter from the baron, and a bishop who was more interested in hunting than in heresy; but Hypprux was still a city, its streets were still unyielding and hostile to an elven foot, and, within it, men were still hitting women and women were still scolding men. There was shouting, and human sorrow—beggars crouching in the thin sunlight and thieves staying well out of it.
    Natil and Omelda paid the toll at the north gate and entered the city along the Street Gran Pont. Natil walked with an uncovered head, carrying her harp, ignoring the stares drawn by her demeanor and clothing. Omelda shuffled along, head down, furrow-browed because it was terce: the Divine Office went on.
    “We will go to the square,” said Natil. “I will play there, and you can sit next to me and listen.”
    They made their way up the crowded street towards the bridge that spanned the River Tordion. Here were hawkers, vendors with pies, young boys selling circlets of dried flowers. A man, standing on a box, was announcing that the Platonic Academy of Hypprux, under the generous patronage of Damal a'Verne, baron of the city, was sponsoring a series of lectures about the new Italian humanism. A few onlookers seemed interested, but a few others snorted and shouted that Italy was a den of vice. Unperturbed, the man on the box replied that Italy was also the seat of Rome and the papacy.
    “See?” said one of the scoffers. “It just goes to show.”
    The man on the box flushed. “You're talking about the Holy Father!” he said. “What are you, some kind of

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