‘Would you stop that, man? You’re making me nervous,’ Ludo grumbled as they walked toward Rogier’s.
Yasha’s hands stilled. He’d been fiddling with the chunky zipper of the down jacket Ludo had loaned him. His own beloved green jacket with the wool lining was in a sealed bag in Ludo’s kitchen along with the rest of his clothing waiting to be taken to the laundry. They’d had to seal the bag when the stench of phantasma smoke started to permeate the apartment. Yasha was worried his jacket might be the first casualty in the war.
Two large men stood guard under Rogier’s cheerful yellow awning. They were identically dressed in dark Kitviker suits, with button down shirts and slim ties. Yasha scowled. He did not understand the obsession with button shirts. The two men were deliberately conspicuous. Their matching impassive expressions and bouncer stance announced them as members of the Voisera. Yasha kept his gait easy, but slowed a little as he studied the restaurant.
Rogier’s was a legitimate restaurant on a respectable street. It had carefully tended topiary bushes out front, a shaded patio and the aforementioned cheery yellow awning. Yellow and white checked shades had been drawn up over the big plate glass windows and Yasha could see that the table cloths inside matched the shades. A menu board sat outside and a card in the window advertised today’s special, filled cabbage leaves with Tamindee sauce. A place this quaint and wholesome could only be a front for the Voisera. They probably stuffed their cabbage leaves with the minced flesh of traitors.
Yasha shook his head, trying to clear it. He’d slept like the dead on Ludo’s fold-away couch and been rudely ambushed by the morning before he was ready to re-join the world. Yasha had spent the time before the meet in the gloom of Ludo’s apartment, curtains drawn against the sun. He’d sat on the couch, watching dust motes dance, mind drifting while Ludo ran errands of an unspecified nature. Yasha hadn’t asked, figuring Ludo would just lie if he was planning to betray him. Lasitude had taken him, the same cocooning stupor he’d cultivated in Meznow to wile away the long hours of captivity. It had been terrifyingly easy to slip back into that mindset and far harder than he was willing to admit to break free of it.
He relished the danger he was in, walking into a meet with the Duke of Bones, his only back up a friend already in hock with the Voisera. The threat of death was just what he needed to keep him sharp and chase away the ghosts of Meznow from his brain.
‘Igor, Rhardan,’ Ludo nodded jovially to each of the men. Yasha eyed him curiously, just how friendly was he with the Duke’s men?
The blonder of the two men – Igor – was so pale his skin seemed translucent. Rhardan was bald and had a large healed divot in his skull that could only have been caused by a bullet. Both men wore dark tinted sunglasses even though it was shaded under the awning. Of course, neither man was hiding their eyes because of the sun. The eyes were the window to the soul, anyone with an ounce of magical talent would take one look at the thug twins and know what they were. Hollow souls, men who had had their souls scraped clean of any trace of magic.
‘Turn around and lean against the table,’ sickly pale Igor ordered.
Yasha sighed and complied. Here he was hoping this meeting would distract him from memories of prison. The frisk was thorough but professional and lasted only as long as needed to ascertain he wasn’t armed, which was something at least. Yasha studied the petals on the fake floral centrepiece on the patio table the entire time. The familiarity of the process was almost soothing and left him depressed.
‘Wait here,’ Igor instructed as Rhardan entered the restaurant, presumably to inform the Duke they’d arrived. Yasha studied Igor while he waited. He didn’t bother to be subtle about it. The hollow soul wouldn’t care.
He’d always been equal parts fascinated and repulsed by hollow souls. The process that made them was basically an extreme form of the soul purge Yasha had used to strip off his excess magic before he’d his imprisonment. The difference was that hollowing a soul didn’t stop at the excess. It went all the way to the core of a person, sloughing away layers and layers of their spirit, the part of the soul that was immortal, until all that was left was the cold core of mortality and nothing else.
Done right, hollowing a soul made the recipient immune to most forms of coercive magic, but left them with the charisma of a brick. Of course, the Voisera didn’t hire enforcers and bodyguards for their witty repartee, so soul hollowing had become something of a time-honoured tradition in the Bloom.
Every made man and woman knew they were forfeiting their soul when they took the Bloom brand; the best they could hope for was that they’d be hollowed alive rather than have their soul “repurposed” after death in one of the many, increasingly ingenious and horrendous ways the Voisera liked to recycle their assets. Which made Igor and Rhardan two of the lucky ones. Losing their spirit saved them from a literal eternity of bondage.
Rhardan returned and ushered them inside. He led them ...