Read Irenicon Online

Authors: Aidan Harte

Tags: #Fiction

Irenicon (2 page)

BOOK: Irenicon
10.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

CHAPTER 2

Etruria was wrong: the Concordian Empire did possess a heart, of sorts. It was this unsleeping place of grease-pumping clockwork pistons. The final dome crowning the Molè Bernoulli had been dubbed the engine room by ordinary engineers such as Captain Giovanni, although ordinary engineers were rarely privileged to see it—or, indeed, to be personally briefed by the Apprentices. Giovanni did not rejoice to be so favored, for he knew it was a curse.

Giovanni wore sober black like every other engineer. Only the Apprentices wore the long colored vestments of the supplanted cardinals. Even so, the Third and Second Apprentices were shades in the darkness. Only the First Apprentice was entitled to wear the true color, a red so vivid that it seemed to emanate from a burning interior.

“Rasenna?” said Giovanni.

“You think the posting beneath you?”

“No, my lord.”

“We are all heirs to Girolamo Bernoulli. You are not special.”

“I know that, my lord.”

“Captain, I will not dissemble. You’re a disappointment.” The First Apprentice raised his hands as if he had been interrupted, though Giovanni kept his head lowered, letting his unruly dark hair hide his eyes as he struggled to control the restless muscles of his broad face.

“You showed promise once. You performed a service that shall be remembered, once. Since then?”

“I follow orders.”

“Oh, you have an engineer’s obedience; no one questions that. We question your enthusiasm.”

A man’s voice behind Giovanni said, “Rasenna’s ambassador is waiting, my Lord.”

“Let him wait, General!” the First Apprentice snapped.

He was tall, and his sorrowful face had severe high cheeks and a tragic composure disturbed by neither joy nor wrath. He spread his arms, letting his long sleeves fall open, and looked on Giovanni. “Captain, as different as they were, your father and grandfather had something in common: conviction. Show some. Be an engineer or be a traitor. Do not be lukewarm. Nature abhors it.
We
abhor it.”

“Yes, my Lord.”

“We would advise you to make Rasenna fear you, but we suspect you are too lukewarm to do even that. We shall see to it.”

Giovanni looked up suddenly.

The First Apprentice was pleased to have pierced his feigned apathy. “The Rasenneisi ambassador expects to deliver our message. He will
be
our message.”

“Please, my Lord, it’s unnecessary—”

“I am the First Apprentice of Concord, Girolamo Bernoulli’s
true
heir. Do not lecture me on necessity.”

“Forgive me,” Giovanni said quickly.

The First Apprentice nodded, though whether satisfied or just signaling silence, Giovanni could not tell.

“Rasenna no longer matters, but it appears destined always to stand in our way, if now only in a physical sense. Its position is key in the coming campaign. It must be ready before we send the Twelfth Legion south. You have the State’s resources at your disposal. If cooperation requires soldiers, send for them.”

“That won’t be—”

“Necessary?”

Giovanni looked down and said nothing.

“Well, we shall see. If we expected your work to be difficult, we would send someone who had our fullest confidence. Possibilities outweigh the certainties of this world, but some things we may count upon: towers fall, smoke rises, and Rasenneisi quarrel. Use them. If you fail, it won’t be your delicate conscience to suffer, but Rasenna. Send up the ambassador on your way out. We dismiss you.”

Giovanni didn’t move. He was looking at his hands, remembering what deeds they’d done in Bernoulli’s name.

“You may go, Captain,” the First Apprentice repeated.

“They’ve suffered enough,” Giovanni said quietly.

“Suffered enough?”

At the far end of the engine room there was a screech of chalk as the other Apprentices stopped their work.

“Suffered enough?” The First Apprentice repeated the queer word pairing, and his colleagues in the dark chuckled.

Giovanni lifted his eyes to meet the First Apprentice’s—a small act taking great effort.

“Oh, Captain,” the First Apprentice said wistfully, “there is no limit.”

It was a curiously unpleasant smile for an angel. The statue’s colossal body glowed in the intersecting shafts of light. Bowing to read the Low Etruscan motto inscribed in the base, the ambassador was covered by its shadow.
“Eadem mutata resurgo,”
he mumbled, and translated, “Although changed, I shall arise the same.”

Valentino was pleased to display his erudition, if only to himself. He was far from home and did not belong. He had been abandoned
in the great hall of soaring pillars. The pillar in the center was thicker than the others and made of glass that was dappled inside with pale green fugitive gleamings. Did every ambassador receive this treatment or just Rasenna’s? In their place he would do the same, so he could not resent it. Much.

He looked around while using his sleeve to rub the chains of office that stubbornly refused to shine. He was still glad his father had appointed him. The old fool had agreed only when persuaded that the prestige outweighed the danger. The problem as ever was money—another bad year, and Rasenna could not raise its tribute. Such fuss over such a small problem, with such an obvious solution. He would beg. The Empire had larger concerns than one insignificant town.

Valentino retreated from the colossus. In a gleaming breastplate he was pleased to find not some unremarkable boy looking back but an elegant young diplomat. He passed a happy minute admiring his dignity, growing confident. Whatever they called themselves in their vulgar dialect, the Apprentices were Concord’s elite just as the Morello were Rasenna’s. Ultimately, they spoke the same language.

A distant large sound of great metal plates scraping off each other made Valentino scurry back into the shadow of the colossus. They would discover him there, lost in aesthetic reverence. His gaze was drawn up the column to a point of pure white in the distant darkness. The great dome seemed large as Heaven, and something was falling fast, emitting a whine that grew louder by the second. He yelped as the column began filling with water, the level rising to meet the star. The large coffin-shaped capsule cushioned on the water came to a stop. Valentino expected an Apprentice to emerge, not yet another engineer functionary, but he masked his annoyance with a smile and began his speech: “Just admiring—”

The engineer broke free of the old soldier flanking him and grabbed Valentino’s outstretched arm. “Ride from Concord tonight,” he whispered fiercely.

“I don’t understand—”

“Say you must return to Rasenna. An emergency. Say anything. You don’t belong here.”

Valentino snatched his arm away. “I came to see the Apprentices. I shall not leave before that meeting.”

A heavy hand on his shoulder. “Ambassador,” the general said, “the Apprentices are waiting. You have your orders, Captain. Give Doctor Bardini my regards.”

Giovanni looked on helplessly as the ambassador was led away. Valentino gave the colossus a parting glance, discerning too late that it was smiling derisively.

CHAPTER 3

The History of the Etrurian Peninsula

Volume III: The Bernoullian Re-Formation

FOREWORD

The Author’s ambition in these volumes has been to narrate anew the most glorious chapter of our History, while avoiding, to speak plainly, the excessively reverential tone of recent scholarship, which ignores, or more likely fails to see, the simple truth that our Re-Formation, like the Molè, was the work of many hands.
1

An initial sketch of the main actor is necessary, but be assured, Reader, the pivotal events here touched upon will be redrawn in later chapters from perspectives that other Historians, to bestow that noble title with perhaps unwarranted liberality, neglect.

CHAPTER 4

North of the trespassing river, dawn crept on cat paws over Rasenna’s briefly golden towers clustering sheepishly in the long shadow of Tower Bardini. To one illiterate in the language of banners—in a word,
foreign
—Tower Bardini could be recognized only by the small orange trees on its roof. Every morning the Doctor sat there for an hour, tearing oranges in two and watching over Rasenna.

His half.

The older generation of Rasenneisi permitted themselves only essentials, so the Doctor’s sleep was undisturbed by dreams. He had still passed the night brooding on Sofia’s narrow escape, making careful plans and tearing them apart. He had raised Sofia like a daughter, but he remained clear-sighted: custody of the Scaligeri heir gave the Bardini what passed for legitimacy these days, a damp seat in the Signoria. Yesterday’s target was not Valerius.

Scratching and stretching himself awake, the Doctor ambled down the wooden stair winding around the bare stone walls. A big man and wide, he took his time in all things, confident in his strength if called upon. His thick arms and neck were covered with a downy thickness more like animal fur than hair. He wore wide, loose breeches tied up around the middle of his chest where his shirt opened, and over all he wore a gown that had once been heavy. Time had exhausted the color too; it had once been the deepest of blues. The long sleeves were torn in places, but most of the time they covered his large callused hands, which hung low when he walked, as if the knuckles carried some extra weight. His nose, broken and rebroken many times, was large and fleshy, and his cat’s smile stretched wide across a heavy chin dark with permanent stubble.

Every tower was drably similar inside no matter what generous colors hung outside, and as in a castle keep the door was never on the ground floor; a ladder was lowered for visitors. The Rasenneisi preoccupation with security told in other ways too: friendly families built towers close enough to be connected with rope webs but of course nothing as permanent as a bridge. Ropes could be cut. Alliances could break.

He knocked on the third-floor door. No answer. He glanced inside. His shrewd eyes hid behind a squint as merry as an old pig’s and just as cruel. He slammed the door and with quickened pace, muttering curses, crossed the walkway to a plain wooden building, hearing laughter from below as he entered. The workshop was as low and wide as the towers were high and narrow—it contained a small army and so needed no such precautions.

The students were gathered in one corner of the long hall. Sofia’s dark hair shone out in the middle of all those shaven heads. She had a firm hand on Mule’s shoulder, and she was laughing too. The Doctor ignored the laughter, but he noticed both Mule’s bandage and the rosy patch where an ear should be. He followed a trail of cherry drops in the wood chippings on the floor as he worked out what had happened.

“Morning, Doc! Mule volunteered to teach us first aid.” There was laughter in Sofia’s voice, but he caught the look she flashed him and returned an affirmative grunt.

She continued her story: “So, I got home late—pretty drunk, I suppose, ’cause I crashed in the workshop. Just before dawn, I wake up to this horrific snoring—you can’t imagine! Some drunk, I figure, napping on the Bardini doorstep—” Sofia stood with one arm on her hip, managing a good impression of a house-proud mama despite her sling. “Of course, I’m outraged!”

The boys were rapt, and the Doctor knew that this was more than the respect commanded by her name. It was love. The Scaligeri inspired it effortlessly, and it had been their greatest asset—their enemies hated them for it. Sofia never braided her hair in complicated patterns, nor did she pluck her eyebrows, or apply perfumes, or powder her luminous olive skin. Though she dressed as other bandieratori did, doublet and hose, jacket and cap, she did not look boyish, yet she could show an arm without embarrassment or ceremony because one did not compare the Contessa to other girls. The Contessa was something apart, as far from the ordinary run of humanity as the statues in the alcoves.

This last year something had changed. She’d tried hiding in different ways—her fringe hanging over those dark bright eyes, the street fighter’s sun-muddied complexion, elbow and knuckle scrapes proudly displayed—but it wasn’t enough. A million other things said it: her belt slung low on her hips, the tilt of her cap, the way she didn’t sing anymore. After a lifetime looking for weakness he always saw the things people tried to hide, and he knew the workshop saw it too. When had it happened? What moment? He guessed it had happened the way spring turns to summer, the way fighters become killers. You knew only after the event.

“We’ll see about this, I say—”

Mule interrupted, “Last thing I remember was running down Purgatorio after Secondo; then I turned into Penitito and Secondo was gone—”

“I thought you were behind me,” Secondo snapped.

Sofia had never had to break a sweat, but the Borselinno brothers had become capodecini the hard way. They were equally tall and thin, and they had started identical, but years of fighting had deformed each uniquely. Mule took life as he took this injury, with an easy laugh, but Secondo found disrespect where none was intended and had creased his young face with frowns and vexation. Even now he was holding himself stiffly above the general laughter.

The Doctor could see where the story was going. Purgatorio, Penitito—those streets were south of the Irenicon. After the burnout, the Borselinno boys had taken the Midnight Road. Their bad intentions were good; a burnout demanded reprisal.

The Doctor walked to the workshop door and opened it.

Sofia continued, “Obviously some Morello hero got the drop on genius-boy, but what I can’t figure out is how you can sleep nailed to a door.”

“They gagged me!” Mule said.

“You didn’t think to
knock
?” She punched his arm before turning to her audience. “So I yank open the door and scream, ‘You know what time it is?’” She paused for a moment, then,
“Riiipp!!”

Mule was now helpless with laughter.

“There’s blood spraying everywhere! I get a face full. I ungagged this
deficiente
. He looks at me all innocent and says, ‘What you wake me for? I was dreaming!’”

“I was!”

The Doctor tore the cold meat off the door and then slammed it. “
Basta,
bambini.
Story time’s over.”

The circle broke up and reassembled into classes. The intermediates had just gone from sticks to flags, and it showed. The Doctor looked at Sofia, unsurprised to find her unsmiling now that the audience had dispersed. The incident was nothing to laugh at—her performance had been for the novices. Boys needed to acquire a casual attitude to spilled blood.

The Doctor divided his bandieratori, those young men who needed no instruction, into sparring pairs before discreetly
approaching Mule. The injured fighter was sitting quietly on the stairs with a dazed smile.

“Want this back?”

“Naw, Doc. That was just my spare.”

“Wise up, Mule. Getting separated is apprentice stuff.”

Mule gave a noncommittal shrug.

The Doctor had enjoyed the performance, but there had been a lot of blood spilled on the doorstep. “Go up to the tower and finish your nap.”

“Don’t get any blood on my sheets,” Sofia sang as Mule went upstairs. “I’ve got a reputation to protect!”

As her students giggled, she called to Secondo, “Keep an eye on this bunch.”

“I’m going with you.”

“No one’s going anywhere!” the Doctor barked. “You’re training.”

Secondo quickly wilted under his stare and retreated without protest. Sofia kept walking. The Doctor grabbed her good arm and pulled her out of earshot.

“It wouldn’t have happened if I’d been with them, Doc.”

“Keep your voice down. I didn’t train you to be a common street fighter.”

“What’s wrong with that? You’re one.”

“Grow up. Someday soon you have to rule.”

“If Quintus Morello had his way, I’d be dead already. You think the south will suddenly pay homage when I turn seventeen? Right now, the Bardini name is in the mud, and Scaligeri is neck deep with it.”

“You’ve inherited your grandfather’s rhetorical skills at least,” he said patiently. “So what does my bloodthirsty Contessa propose?”

“Nothing complicated. Cross the river. Crack some heads.”

The Doctor pushed her hard against the wall, slammed a fist down beside her face, and glared.

“What’s wrong with a good fight?” she said coolly, all music gone from her voice.

“The only good fight’s one you can win.”

“What, then? Do nothing?”

“Not nothing. We wait.”

She pushed the Doctor away and went to the door. “You think I don’t know you sent Mule and Secondo over?”

He looked back at his students until they went back to training, then said quietly, “Don’t question me, Sofia.”

“When I’m Contessa, I’ll be in charge. How will I run Rasenna when you don’t let me run my own life?”

“Your life’s not yours to waste. I made a promise.”

“To a dead man!” Sofia slammed the door behind her.

The Doctor followed her out and shouted, “Be back by evening. There’s an emergency meeting of the Signoria.”

She didn’t break her stride. “There’s always an emergency.”

The Doctor’s anger was dulled by his bemused recognition of a family resemblance: for a Scaligeri not to carry high her head would have been grossly false, politic though feigned humility might have been. There are few things in life as truly ugly as conceit or as common. Sofia’s pride was the rarer kind, and it made her beautiful.

Back inside, the students were busy with their sets and pretending not to have heard. The Doctor pried his fingers separate to crack them. In repose they curled naturally into fists.

The young always hurry. Count Scaligeri once told him that everything had an appointed hour. Have patience, study, and come the hour you may succeed—if you’ve acquired sufficient skill. Thinking of Sofia’s grandfather always cheered him, not in spite of the end but because of it. To execute any act gracefully in this life was hard. To die well, hardest of all.

BOOK: Irenicon
10.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Love Above All by Speer, Flora
The Baker’s Daughter by D. E. Stevenson
Island of Shipwrecks by Lisa McMann
Private Deceptions by Glenn, Roy
Brandi by Donna McDonald
The Wrong Man by Lane Hayes