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Authors: Aidan Harte

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BOOK: Irenicon
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“I’ll protect her.” The nun took her hand. “Hello, Isabella. I remember you too.”

By midday the puddles had dried up under a burning sun. On her way back from the Baptistery, Sofia went by the bridge. Men were pacing on the bank instead of working. She pushed her way to the pit and saw him working in a kind of frenzy, waist-deep in bloody water. Before he looked up, she backed away—

—and walked, then ran back to Workshop Bardini. Vaccarelli and Little Frog were Rasenneisi; they expected this end. The engineer was blooded now for dreaming anyone could live differently. Welcome to Rasenna.

She burst into the workshop. “Bandieratori, flags up!”

CHAPTER 19

“Are we really going across?” Valerius said.

Decini assembled with bandieratori at their heads. They grew loud with the intoxication of wrath.


We
are. You’re not,” said Sofia.

“No one’s going anywhere. Flags down!”

Sofia and everyone else looked up. The Doctor stood calmly in the stairway.

“Doc, we’re getting it from all angles! We’ve got to hit back!”

“We wait.”

“For more bodies? More burnouts? How many will it take?”

He went back upstairs without responding. A raid had been imminent, but he said the word, and flags dropped. For all the affection the borgata had for Sofia, she had no chance of persuading them. She was not Contessa yet.

The Doctor sat placidly in his usual spot by the low table in the shade of the orange tree.

“The hour is now, Doc.”

“The hour’s when I say it is. I’m head of this Family, and you’re still my ward. I’m not planning a raid, and if I were, you would not be part of it.”

“Why not?”

“Because you have to rule one day!”

“You didn’t see Isabella’s family,” she cried, trying to swallow the hitch in her voice. “They were
butchered
.”

He looked at her. “What if a time comes when we must do likewise?”

“We’re strong, Doc—we don’t have to go sneaking around at night, burning towers. We could cross the river today, fight it out, and win.”

“You’re too old for fairy tales, Sofia. In a civil war, no one wins. I want you to understand that, because you’ll look back one day and want to know why I kept you away from”—he scowled—“the things I have to do. When we push our enemies to the wall, we have to go all the way. Are you ready for that?”

“I’m ready to fight!”

“The thing about being a Scaligeri is you don’t
have
to fight. Don’t throw that away because of one night’s excitement. Fight
smart
, not mad. Making the bridge the focus puts us on the side of Concord. Let the Empire do the heavy lifting.”

“The engineer won’t be drawn into our quarrels.”

“We’ll see about that.”

Sofia sighed disgustedly and began to descend, then stopped. “You’ve said ‘wait’ for as long as I can remember. The hour
is
now, but you’re too used to waiting to recognize it.”

As she went downstairs, the Doctor stood shouted after her, “Don’t do anything stupid.”

He picked another orange and looked down at the river, smiling. Red streaked away from the bridge like a comet’s tail. Things were moving along nicely.

It was evening before Giovanni had emptied the last bucket into the river; in the end the blood was thoroughly diluted with mud. Utterly spent, he had to be helped out of the pit. He’d learned something down there. It wasn’t his bridge anymore; it was Rasenna’s.

He went to redraw a schedule in which every day was precious. Hours later, a light was still burning in a window of Tower Vanzetti. As the night’s black tide drew over Rasenna, the storm waited, nursing one last tantrum before it expired.

Addled by too little sleep and too many figures, Pedro walked to the window to stretch his legs. He picked up the magnifier, remembering how superficial his understanding had been when he’d made it. The bridge would probably look even more like some great beast’s skeleton in the dark.

After a moment, he said, “Captain?”

“What? I need to finish this before dawn.”

“I don’t think you do,” Pedro said, handing him the magnifier.

Through the lashing rain, Giovanni saw it. It was a boy, most of one anyway. The clothes covering its limbs and trunk were blood-red, daubed with black. It was standing by the riverbank, looking around Piazza Luna, although what or how it
saw
was a mystery, for the thing had no head.


Madonna
, what is it?”

They took turns watching the specter’s aimless wandering. It seemed to be getting its bearings but stayed close to the bridge, as if it did not want to abandon that one surety. Then at last—

“It’s going north.”

But not by the chain bridge. It staggered drunkenly across the river’s surface, and wherever its boots stepped, blood blossomed for a moment before being torn away by the current.

Giovanni rubbed his eyes, hoping the vision was just some leftover nightmare, but he knew full well he wasn’t asleep. This
was
happening.

He wondered at how calm Pedro was being and returned to the idea he’d had since coming here; if a person could be unreasonable, a family perhaps, could a whole town? If certain altitudes inhibit
respiration, might sufficient density of lunacy inhibit reason, permit prodigies, break rules supposed to be unbreakable?

Or was Concord to blame? Did Girolamo Bernoulli break something in Nature when he sent the river?

“Tell Vettori to keep the crew away,” Giovanni said, grabbing his hood.

“They know, Captain. Nobody’s going to come to work.”

And sure enough, one by one the windows of every riverside tower were being bolted shut.

Wrapped in her flag, Sofia kept a lonesome watch in the abandoned embankment tower she’d stationed herself in. Doc wouldn’t sanction reprisal, but she’d be damned before allowing raids to become nightly occurrences, though it wasn’t likely anyone would venture out on a night like this. She was thinking of her warm bed back in Tower Bardini when she saw
it
walking from the river to the land as if there were no difference.

After taking a few steps on land, the specter stopped, seeming to lose its resolve and direction. Sofia suppressed her dread, reminding herself that she was the front line; she was the Contessa. She shook herself awake and climbed down.

“Who are you?” she said softly.

It took a hesitant step forward, and she recognized with shock the chain around its neck stump. The Herod’s Sword that had failed to protect Little Frog.

“Damn, why are you haunting me? Didn’t I tell you to be careful?”

After a few steps away from the river and its influence, it remembered its destination. She stood aside as it marched up the sloping streets.

“Contessa!” Someone was coming across the chain bridge.

Sofia raised her flag. “Who goes there?”

“Are you all right?” said Giovanni. “Did you see it?”

“It’s Little Frog!”

“That makes no sense.”

“I guess nobody told him—
it
—that. Whatever it is, it’s on Bardini streets.”

Giovanni followed her, marveling that at a time like this all she could think about was territory.

“Maybe he was right,” said Sofia, “about that blessing,”

“You think that’s why he’s roaming the streets?” he said doubtfully.

“It’s not that complicated. Frog was Rasenneisi. He wants to know why the Bardini haven’t gone south to avenge him. Hell, I want to know too.”

“The Doctor wouldn’t allow it?”

She didn’t reply, and he understood. “And you disagree?” He had to run to keep up with her and shout to be heard over the wind, “Contessa, I was neck-deep in blood this morning.”

“I don’t expect a civilian to understand.”

They followed the creature at a distance. It wasn’t difficult: it left a trail of bloody footprints and moved slowly, drunkenly lurching through the empty streets. It stopped in the Piazzetta Fontana, illuminated when the exhausted storm unveiled the dead man’s eye in the sky.

“This is where we gave Frog his send-off,” Sofia whispered.

“You think he’s thirsty?”

She gave him a look.

“I wasn’t joking! They say ghosts don’t know they’re dead, don’t they?”

“Pretty superstitious for an engineer.”

“All I know is what my eyes tell me, and that’s an unquiet spirit!”

“Brilliant deduction, Captain.”

“Thanks. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but maybe the nun
can
help.”

“Help how?” she said angrily.

“Keep it down! I don’t know, an exorcism, maybe?”

“That woman has no business on Bardini streets, and I’ll be dammed before I invite her to shake her beads at this thing. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Look—”

Sofia leaped out of the alley and walked boldly toward the creature with her flag down.

“Hey, Froggy. What’s the matter, my friend?”

Somehow the specter heard or sensed her, for it turned with the same blind lumbering movement.

“Are you lost?”

It swung; she dodged and brought her flag up, jabbing into the thing’s sternum. But her stick didn’t meet bone; it just sank in and came out bloody.

“What the—?” She hadn’t hit it
that
hard.

“Sofia, look out!”

She dropped low as it swung again and rolled out of reach. It turned to follow and cracked open where she had punctured it, falling apart like water spraying from a broken glass.

Sofia was on her back as the blood flowed toward her,
searching
for her hungrily. Giovanni pulled her out of its path, and the pool stopped, then ran together, leaving dry a space for two footprints, then rushing in to form boots, then legs and the rest, stopping at the neck.

“Did you see that?” said Sofia.

“I don’t think it’s Frog . . .”

“It’s a buio,
idiota
!”

“That’s even more irrational. Why’s it shaped like a human?”

“Who cares? We need to get it home.”

“You can’t fight water with flags—Hold on, where’s it going now?”

“Tower Bardini. All right, damn it, let’s go and disturb the nun’s beauty sleep. See if she’s got any lethal prayers up her sleeves.”

They met her coming from the Baptistery.

“I got tired of waiting for you. I was—”

“Expecting us? Not this again,” said Sofia. “I knew this was a bad idea.”

“How can I help?” the Reverend Mother said.

It was close to dawn. They found it standing in front of Tower Bardini, looking up, if something without eyes could look, at the Doctor leaning out of a second-story window.

“How long’s it been standing there, Doc?” Sofia shouted.

“A while.” He was breakfasting on orange segments and didn’t look too worried.

“He wants to find out what he paid his taxes for. Don’t let conscience ruin your appetite.”

“I won’t. Under control?”

“No thanks to you,” she mumbled.

“Fine morning, Sister,” the Doctor said with a half salute. It was not returned.

“Well, I’m going back to bed. Call me if you need anything,” he said, and went inside.

The nun approached the creature. “Poor boy.”

“It’s not a ghost, Sister.”

“I know. It’s the water the boy bled in.”

“How can you tell?” asked Giovanni.

“I’ve contemplated water since I was a girl, Captain. I’ve learned a thing or two. I can see the things people hide from themselves”—she glanced back up at Tower Bardini—“and everyone else. Concordians think they can cut Nature open with a scalpel. Some things are learned only by going inside yourself.”

“That’s wonderful, Sister,” Sofia interrupted, “but why did it try to kill me? Frog was my friend.”

“Because it’s only part Frog.”

Giovanni wasn’t satisfied. “But it’s
impossible
. The transmitter on the river surface stops buio—”

“But this buio believes it’s human.”

“That doesn’t matter! Natural Philosophy isn’t contingent on belief!”

“Bah, Concordians! Always think they know reality.” She smiled then and said, “Belief can change the world, and if you doubt it, I’ll prove it.”

The Reverend Mother stood very close to the creature. “Little Frog,” she said, “

Their shadows stretched behind them as they followed the nun and the creature. The creature’s shadow quivered like water in a glass shot through by light. The night’s storm had retreated, pursued by ghosts of misty drizzle.

The sun was peeping behind the towers when their strange procession reached the embankment, though the streets remained empty and windows remained tightly closed.

The creature stopped.

“He’s afraid,” the Reverend Mother said.

“You blame him? This is where Frog’s head was caved in.”

“He said the river hates us.”

“This isn’t Frog, Giovanni.”

“It thinks it is. And if he still wants to leave Rasenna, I can help.” The Reverend Mother took a step toward the creature.

“Sister, don’t get too close.”

“There’s no danger, Captain. Today’s not my day to die. Or yours.”

Sofia and Giovanni watched and held their breath as she reached out and touched the creature’s hand.

“It doesn’t know what it is. I have to show it.”

It snatched its hand away suddenly and stepped back. The buio became transparent, then re-formed. It raised its hands and left bloody prints hanging in the air where its face should have been. The misty rain around it took on a red hue. Frog’s face materialized for a moment; he looked grateful.

“I know,”
she said.

The hand vanished as the creature changed from boy to buio, then collapsed into a puddle of nervously shimmering water that rushed off the bridge’s limits.

It bloomed briefly in the water, then was taken.

“He’s at peace,” the nun said, sighing deeply, suddenly unsteady on her feet.

BOOK: Irenicon
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