Read Irenicon Online

Authors: Aidan Harte

Tags: #Fiction

Irenicon (23 page)

BOOK: Irenicon
8.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

CHAPTER 44

Better to be caged, she thought when her door remained shut the next time the coffin appeared. This time, however, when the grimy capsule opened, a fat little man—maybe the bearded creature she had seen surrounded by book stacks in the second dome—leaped gingerly onto the platform and looked around with the curiosity of a newborn, a queer impression enhanced by the rosy gloss of his skin, which looked as soft as undercooked meat.

In age he looked close to sixty, and although he was dressed too expensively to be a notary, he looked like one to Sofia. Beneath squinting eyes his neat beard circled a small mouth bent up into a nervous smile around which his fingers played; his hands were neither a fighter’s nor a worker’s—a scholar, then.

He glanced at his solemn escort from time to time as if seeking approval. The youngest Apprentice was more accustomed to the pit, and his attention didn’t wander as he led the way to her cell. Sofia
instinctively took a step back on seeing the boy in yellow approach. The boy’s large hands and sure strength reminded Sofia powerfully of the Doc: he took his time but was confident in his power. He had a pallor strange to see on one in such obvious rude health. This period of his education was evidentially conducted indoors, far from the kindly eye of the sun.

Sofia couldn’t help but think of an oversized infant accompanied by a diminutive adult.

“Has it revolved today?” the little man asked.

“Probably not,” said the boy wearily.

“I wonder,” he began with a nervous titter, “would it be possible, do you suppose, to see it?”

“The current’s activated by a random algorithm.”

The fat man blinked innocently.

“I can’t turn it off,” the boy said slowly. “If we’re here, we’ll be shocked too.”

“Oh, I so wanted to see it!”

“Well, there’s a manual switch for each cell.”

He clapped his hands. “Really? May I? They—I mean,
you
—wouldn’t mind, would you?”

The boy sighed. “Why not question her first?”

“Oh! Yes, capital idea! Hello, hello in there?”

Sofia looked at the little face peering in the window.

“Do I have the great honor of greeting the Contessa Sofia Scaligeri?”

“What do you want?”

“Ha! Direct, isn’t she, Third Apprentice! In a word, Contessa, to be as forthright as you manage to be without apparently trying, what I want is a thing, a very small thing, useless to you but most precious to—”

“Names,” said the boy.

“I didn’t have any for you. I don’t have any for him.”

The little man chuckled, a sound like a blasphemy in this hopeless place.

“Not that kind of information, Contessa, oh, no! What did the Apprentices want to know, secret battle plans? Troop positions and such? Oh, no, I leave war to the experts. Wars start to interest me only when the contestants have been dead for a couple of decades. Which is to say, I am merely a humble historian. Though perhaps, ha ha, I should say with all modesty that ‘merely’ does not do my status full justice; I am, you see, rather well known in Concord—I daresay in all Etruria.”

He drew himself up to his full height, though the difference was hardly noticeable. “I am Count Titus Tremellius Pomptinus,” he announced, “Knight of the Order of Saint Jorge, Laureate of the Empire, and Librarian of the Imperial Record.”

He leaned closer, his voice dropping to a confidential whisper as he went on. “I should add that several Tremellius generations were Concordian gonfaloniere—of course, that was when the office still existed!”

Sofia backed away to escape the historian’s breath. She suspected his performance was not only for her benefit.

The historian’s eyes bulged dramatically and he turned to the boy. “I mention that only as historical record.”

“Fine.”

Tremellius’s pudgy fingers played with his beard. “It is relevant, you see: she’s a noble too, so this will make her at ease with me.”

He didn’t seem to notice or care that she could hear every word. He turned back with an unctuous smile.

“Forgive my manners; we’ve become very proletarian these days. This is Torbidda, our current Third Apprentice!”

“We’ve met,” the boy said.

“Ah, well, then, you know already what a tremendously bright young fellow he is. Someday he’ll be First Apprentice, captaining our great ship of state, and you’ll remember my kindness then, won’t you?” He reached out as if to grab a cheek, then thought better of it.

“He helps me hold back the deluge. Ceaselessly! It pours ceaselessly in from the world’s every corner—Europa too. Some of them write, you know—so much information: tax forms, geographical
and mineralogical surveys, political reports, census and books, so many books—in so many languages! The babble of the Hebrews I learned, the dusty tongues of Aegyptus, Grecia, and Etrusca, I exhumed, unwrapped, and conjured life into. Then came the hard bit, wrestling sense from them! My masters need information on so many subjects, and Contessa—”

Sofia drew back as he leaned in confidentially and whispered, “They are
so
impatient!” Crossly, he added, “I do it all alone! Well, perhaps not
all
alone.” Again he reached out to scruff the Apprentice’s hair, and again he changed his mind.

“As I mentioned, I am also a historian, and it is History that brings me here. And you to me, Contessa, in a manner of speaking, ha ha! We are all moved by its current; our tragedy is that we only become aware of it after its passage. Just like the Wave over Rasenna—you never saw it coming, did you? Ha ha! There’s still so much to understand about Concord’s rebirth, how it came to be, who drove it, and why. I of course have coursing blue blood in my veins, Contessa, like you, so you will assume I am, like you, biased against engineers . . .” He glanced at the boy.

“Well, you would be wrong! Quite wrong! Knowledge
enlightens
me, gives me the perspective to cast off the shackles of class consciousness and rejoice at liberation. The true value of the Concordian Empire is not land or slaves or new towns to tax, no, no, no! It is the Empire of Knowledge we have built. What was dark, Girolamo Bernoulli illuminated; that which was mystery, Nature and the Elements, we now understand, and in understanding, we control. The World, from Rasenna to Gubbio, has been flooded with our knowledge.”

“What do you want, fat man?”

“The proverbial blunt Rasenneisi. Is this the switch, Third Apprentice?”

The boy nodded. Tremellius turned the lever, and Sofia’s cell was suddenly flooded with blue light. She fell, immobile, to the ground.

Tremellius giggled uncontrollably as he looked in. “Contessa, the Apprentices don’t need you.
I
do. You’ll die soon without me. I
can give you food, and if you cooperate—think of this!—I can get you transferred to another prison!” His innocent face was free of malice, simply happy.

“I ask only for names, dear child: sons, fathers, grandfathers. I am writing a history of Etruria, and you are the Scaligeri heir. I expect that you know all the branches of Rasenna’s family trees; I simply require a guide to help me navigate that tangled forest. It’s not going to hurt anyone. The people I’m interested in are long past harm. What say you, Contessa?”

Sofia tried to answer but only succeeded in drooling.
“Guhsplurl.”

“She’ll be like this for an hour or so,” said the Third Apprentice.

“Really? Oh,
merda
—you might have warned me! I wanted to begin today!” Tremellius leaned into the window. “I can see you’re tired. Sleep on it, dear child. Dream dreams of gold and freedom.”

Next day, he came alone.

“Eat slowly,” he said as he handed a plate of dry chicken and hard bread to her.

Sofia placed the food on the floor. “Aren’t you going to hit the switch?”

“Oh, an accident, my dear! This old place just needs maintenance. Bernoulli said the body is the perfect machine, and you need maintenance too, ha ha! You must recover your strength. Let’s start over. Look! I brought a gift.”

He handed a rolled-up cloth though the barred window. “Now, I’m not silly enough to give a Rasenneisi a stick to go with a banner, but look, Contessa! The black and gold! Don’t you recognize Scaligeri colors? You see, I understand that blood matters. I knew it would give you some comfort to have it back, finally. Aren’t you going to unroll it?”

“A pillow. Thanks.” She threw it, still rolled up, into the corner. “You want information? So do I. How is it that the Apprentices know Water Style?”

The historian looked around cautiously as if expecting to find an Apprentice at his shoulder. “Well, they don’t call it
that
anymore,
but I understand that Bernoulli taught it to his First Apprentice, the First Apprentice taught the Second, and so on.”

“But how did
Bernoulli
learn it?”

“You could say he taught himself. After the Re-Formation, the clergy weren’t exactly cooperative. You see, it’s said that men were originally taught by angels—”

“I’ve heard that one,” she said, crunching on the bread.

“Like so many old stories, once freed of religious trappings, it was explicable by Natural Philosophy. Bernoulli speculated these angels were pseudonaiades.”

“But the Wave
made
the buio.”

“Or perhaps it only brought them to our attention. In any case, in controlling rivers, Bernoulli also controlled the pseudonaiades.”

“Tortured them, you mean.” Sofia felt a strange foreboding. “You’re saying all engineers know it?”

The historian smiled. “Dear, silly child, of course not. Only the very gifted are even capable of learning it, and no one ever mastered it like Bernoulli. It’s taught in some elementary form to all cadets who become Apprenticeship candidates, which, I suppose, isn’t many.” He sighed wistfully. “Everything’s less romantic these days, isn’t it?”

Sofia looked up from the food. “If the body’s the perfect machine, why build a machine to ruin it? That’s what this is, right?”

“Only the Apprentices know the Molè’s purpose,” he said grudgingly, then smiled. “Besides, Bernoulli also said, ‘To know man, dissect man,’ which I’ve always taken to mean that you never truly appreciate something until you’ve taken it apart, ha ha, rather like History.”

“Don’t you ever think for yourself? What makes Bernoulli so special?”

Tremellius took the question as a great joke; his jowls started wobbling as he chuckled. “Ha ha! Where to begin? Bernoulli cast off the superstition that previously shackled us. I speak of Man, you understand, not merely Concordians. When the Molè falls and
Time grinds the mountains to sand, Bernoulli’s proofs will remain inviolate.”

Sofia let him drone on until she had emptied the plate. She was still ravenous, but the food had given her a clearer head. “All right, what do you want to know?” she asked.

Days ground by. The drip still fell into its groove, but Sofia had given up trying to stop it. The Apprentices had given up on her too; they probably assumed she was dead, Tremellius joked. Most prisoners didn’t last to the water.

That was for the best. If there was to be any chance of escape, the Apprentices’ attentions had to be elsewhere. Nobody was coming to rescue her, certainly not the Doc; without Quintus Morello or the Reverend Mother to restrain him, Rasenna was his, as he had planned all along. Giovanni would have come for her, but he was dead.

Tremellius visited daily, feeding her in return for information. After Sofia ran out of Rasenneisi genealogies, she began to invent obscure dynasties until Tremellius finally became suspicious. In desperation, Sofia asked about his writing.

It was like a dam breaking.

Gurgling with pride, the fat little man told Sofia his book would be
unique
. “Bernoulli is naturally the central figure of my History, but mark me, Contessa, mine will be a realistic and sober portrait, with dark strokes when necessary.”

Feigning enthusiasm was unnecessary; Tremellius was enthusiastic enough for both of them. “We live in a new age because of him, Contessa! Think of the strength it took for a medieval mind to thrust us into this future. How he lifted us onto his giant shoulders is the subject of my tale. Most men are shaped by History’s current. Girolamo Bernoulli was a man who stood outside it.”

CHAPTER 45

The ill-fated attempt of Thirteen and Fifty-two to reverse our glorious revolution was once too controversial to pronounce upon. No longer.
24

The years spent perfecting Wave technology,
25
preparing for the next test, were years in which Bernoulli neglected his family, but it
is churlish to ask if things might have turned out differently if he had been less remote a father; a lesser man could not have been father to his city. Responsibility for his son’s fate is his son’s alone.

Jacopo Bernoulli was a weak man, lacking talent but overburdened with ambition. His father was surrounded by the first generation of great Engineers, but Jacopo, raised in the shadow of power, had more in common with the first generation of disenfranchised nobles. It is true that a clique of opportunists exploited his credulity, but we may justly condemn him for taking up the dagger. And Justice was watching, for another family member betrayed Jacopo in turn.

Thus is treachery repaid with treachery.

Might things have turned out differently? Bernoulli thought so. His philosophy, harshly cynical in the bloom of youth, took on even darker cast after the scandal, trial, execution, and attendant purge:

You seek Truth? Look not to Love nor to Art nor to Philosophy. Look to the tragedy in which we are bit players. Look to Nature. Look to beasts tearing the flesh of their young. Our bodies vying with themselves. War is the perpetual truth of Nature. Nature is War. War is natural. Its fruits are beauty, grace, and harmony.

Here we detect the important philosophical shift where a war of expansion is recast as a crusade.
26

CHAPTER 46

The Bardini workshop was an empty battleground. There was no longer violence, but neither were there scenes of chivalry and courage. The Doctor practiced flag sets. He was rusty and distracted, and everything was harder when one needed to think, but the old senses were still sharp enough to know when he was being watched.

“Good to see you vertical for a change, Captain,” he said when he’d finished the set.

“Thanks to you, Doctor.”

“Thank Lucia; she—”

“No—I wouldn’t have recovered if you hadn’t told me Sofia was alive.”

“It wasn’t a trick. There’s no reason to stop hoping.”

“Concord takes hostages. No matter how well towns behave, it doesn’t return them. They keep prisoners alive if they’re useful, but Sofia has nothing to interest them. Concord no longer needs hostages; it needs only—” He stopped, his face white.

“Go on.”

“Energy. They’ll have put her into the belly of the Beast.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I came to say good-bye. I’m going home.”

“Going to get yourself killed, you mean.”

“Doctor, I
loved
her! Without her—” He paused to collect himself. “Anyway, I’m going.”

The Doctor studied him for a while. The young man was much changed. He was emaciated and his skin was as pale as a weather-faded fresco, but there was something more. There was no longer that distance; whatever else he was, he was all here, for better or worse.

“You know why my sister took my place in that noose? She told me that Sofia would return to Rasenna some day, and she would need me. That’s why the river gave you back. She’ll need you too, just like Rasenna needs you now.”

“The Reverend Mother told me things too,” he admitted, “but after what’s happened I don’t believe in Destiny. Things just happen. Sofia’s not coming back.”

“Come with me, Captain. I want to show you something.”

Cat was waiting on the tower rooftop, whining triumphantly.

“Madonna
,
tranquillo
,

the Doctor muttered. He went to the side of the tower and looked down on Rasenna; Giovanni did likewise. The winding streets led his eye to the river and the bridge bestriding it.

“Looks good, doesn’t it?”

“Seems like pride to agree.” There was wonder in Giovanni’s voice. “It still looks like my plan from here. I didn’t think it would. So many details changed in the making.”

“Up here you see the important things.”

After a moment, the Doctor went on, “I’ve seen hundreds of boys become men over the years, seen all grades of talent, all types of character in the workshop. And I’ve learned that it’s not talent or character that makes a real artist but the
combination
. You’ve got to have a vision, but the greatest vision’s useless without the will to execute it. I know you’re brave. I’m no engineer, but I recognize talent when I see it.”

“Runs in the family,” Giovanni said quietly.

“I’m not finished. You’ve got both, but you’ve also got this guilt to get over if you’re going to be any damn use.”

“You wouldn’t ask me to stay if you knew the things I’d done.”

“I keep my ears open. I know how Concordian engineers learn their trade.”

“Then how can you possibly—?”

“Same reason I don’t throw myself off the tower and be done with it.” The Doctor laughed. “
Everyone
’s guilty in Rasenna. If we can’t have proper angels, we’ll make do with fallen ones. The question is: Will you help or won’t you? Don’t think I’m going to let you back down those stairs without an answer. Sofia believed in you.”

“She didn’t know me!” Giovanni shouted, angrier than the Doctor had ever seen him.

“She knew enough.” The older man looked away, remembering broken promises.

Giovanni watched the work on the river. “Town’s getting busy.”

Some difference in his voice made the Doctor look up at him. “Yes, it is. I didn’t have the courage to come up here before today. So, which is it? Stand up and fight or lie back down and get it over with?”

“Concord doesn’t even let its forests grow. Subject towns making money is as provocative as building new walls.”

“We’ll need better walls before they hear about it.”

“We’d better get started,” said Giovanni, and turned toward the stairs. The Doctor stood out of his way.

He began to climb down, then paused. “Doctor, I’ll work for Rasenna but not for you, understood?”

The Doctor nodded and turned back to the town and the river that was part of it. The sun hit the water, a band of white pulsing through the old town, bringing new life, bleaching everything pure until old stains faded; for the first time, it seemed to belong.

Cat whined contentedly.

“What are you laughing at?” he said.

Down on the embankment, Fabbro saw the silhouette up on Tower Bardini and swore. He preferred Rasenna without great men.

“In Rasenna, we’re all saving to buy boats before the next flood,” he said to the man walking beside him. It had been a good meeting so far; the Ariminumese merchant had that combination of blunt speech and sharp thinking he respected.

“So, can you fill the order? And don’t answer quickly, Bombelli, it makes me nervous. I don’t think you know Rasenna’s reputation in my city. People said I was crazy just coming here.”

“Why
did
you come here?”

“I keep my eyes open: I’ve seen quality goods from Rasenna in the markets, but not the important ones. You need distribution partners,” he said, looking around at the towers.

“I do, and I know what you’re thinking.” said Fabbro. “We’ve got no soldiers but those we hire, and yes, they steal. Shipments regularly arrive with a tenth of the cargo missing.”

“Fallen overboard?” the other said wryly. “Well, some predation is normal, but that’s a high price to do business with Rasenna.”

“Not for you. It’s my cost to bear as a citizen—if we partner up.”

“How do you meet costs? These boats—”

“I don’t own them—I’ve arranged leases from Ariminumese bankers, if you must know. Your paesani will tell you I’m a good bet.”

“Or tell me you’re a
minchia
! Don’t trust bankers, Fabbro. Surely your Signoria can protect you from these bandits.”

Fabbro laughed. “Believe me, if our Signoria hadn’t burned down, none of this would even be possible.”

“But with fighters at a loose end, aren’t there hijackings?”

“We’ve hired enough flags to prevent outright looting. The Families are both underground, so it might go either way yet. Me, I see it as a time of great prospect.”

“Before the flood comes, right?”

“Exactly! Come to my tower; we’ll eat and discuss the details.” As he spoke, Fabbro caught sight of Pedro coming across the bridge.

He excused himself for a moment and ran to meet him. “Get the net, Pedro! I’m about to land a big fish.”

“Well, you might want to reconsider me as your fishing partner. I can’t stick to the price you agreed to with my father.”

“We have a deal!”

“What do you want me to do?” Pedro looked over his shoulder and dropped his voice. “My employees get robbed so much, it’s better to work for someone who pays less.”

“Business costs,” said Fabbro with a chuckle. “You remind me of your father when you’re like this.
Tranquillo
, Pedro; we’re in this together. How’s this? I’ll up what I’m paying and your workers can take home the same.”

“That would help short term, but Morello’s putting people on the streets again. He’s testing the wind before he raises his flag.”

“Well, we don’t have to wait around. With no Signoria draining us, we can afford to hire flags of our own.”

Pedro was uneasy. “Signore Bombelli, you sound like one of them. We’re Small People; we’re not fighters.”

“You think I like it? But that’s what we’ve got to do to stay in business. Look behind me.”

“I don’t see anything.”

“Look up, at Tower Bardini.”


Dio Impestato!
I heard he’d hung himself.”

“I heard a nicer story, that someone cut his throat, but no such luck. If the Doc’s back, pretty soon he’s going to start making moves again too. Men like Bardini can’t stop themselves. We’ve got to show the Families that they don’t have the monopoly on flags anymore.”

Pedro was becoming calmer. “It could work. I’ll take a smaller percentage. You don’t have to hurt yourself because of who my father was.”

“Forget it; the cut’s the same. Getting rich makes me a target. I need all the friends I can afford.”

Pedro laughed. “Go and land your fish. I think the natives make him nervous.”

All day the Doctor watched the comings and goings around Tower Bombelli. It was as busy now as Tower Bardini used to be. It was late when the stranger left, sliding down the ladder a sight more easily than the labored steps that had carried him up. So he’d cut a good bargain—but Fabbro’s friendly wave was no sham. A fair deal for everyone, then. The Doctor guessed the man was a merchant; he dressed well enough to advertise success but practically enough to travel.

The Doctor watched the merchant as he made his way to the northern gate. These days that was much busier too, with trade coming in and goods leaving the town. Visitors to Vanzetti’s and Bombelli’s Towers crossed paths on the bridge and often arranged to meet there again, one with wares to sell, the other with money to buy . . . And a fair was held the first Saturday of the month, then, as word spread, the same Saturday the next month, and then every Saturday—all his to tax, yet he let them be.

He rubbed Cat’s ears, asking, “Where’s this fool civilian going?”

The merchant, contemplating future profits instead of his present route, had wandered into the back streets.

Cat jumped down, sensing a change in the Doctor’s mood. Three masked bandieratori were creeping along the rooftops. The one wearing a hood was much taller than the others, probably the oldest. He gave a signal, and the other two went forward, the smallest boy with the cambellotto leading the way. The one who hung back was familiar to the Doctor, as was the dodge under way. The hood was going to “rescue” the foreigner from the bandits; a “reward” would then be demanded.

What surprised him was to see it done in the shadow of Tower Bardini—but then, he
had
hidden himself away lately; in Rasenna, that too was a signal.

“Well, I’m back now,” he said to Cat, picked a rooftop, and leaped. Air howling in his ears as it passed, the stone streets hurtling toward him, to be still as the world moves: he’d missed it. Calmly he reached out and grabbed the flagpole at the side of his tower and turned with it, landing against the neighboring tower and pushing himself off into air again. It wasn’t like old times. The rooftop he landed on wasn’t the one he’d picked, and he smashed into it instead of lightly landing. Catching his breath, he scrambled along the gable.

All of the pair’s intention was on the mark.
Amateurs
, thought the Doctor.
Always have a lookout.
He leaped and landed in the alley, along with a rain of loosened slates.
Merda! He
was the amateur.

The bigger boy fumbled with his flag while the smaller boy wearing the cambellotto took his time. With the lightest of pulls the Doctor took the bigger boy’s stick and with it nudged him into his partner’s swinging flag. He went down without a sound. The smaller boy wasn’t fazed and swung again.
Not bad
. The Doctor ducked and grabbed the boy’s flag. The strong grip was surprising too, but it couldn’t make up for a lack of training, and a well-aimed punch dropped the boy just as the merchant rounded the corner.

“Good day, Signore.” The Doctor bowed. “Your quickest route to the north gate is that way.”

The merchant stuttered his thanks and bolted.

The Doctor waited for the hooded boy to come to the “rescue.”

“Mule.”

“Doc? I thought you retired!”

Mule went to embrace the Doctor and got slammed into the wall instead.

“Where’s your brother?”

“What brother’s that?”

The Doctor pushed a little harder.

“Ugh! Working for Morello.”

“What about you? Working
my
streets, under
my
tower? Who do you work for?”

“I’m freelance.” Mule smiled. “Doc! These civilians, they all bring heavy purses. Don’t worry; you’ll get a taste.”

“I’ll only say this once, so listen: these merchants with their juicy purses bring money to Rasenna. Rob them and they won’t come back.”

When Mule blinked dumbly, the Doctor sighed. “Look on it as an investment if I can’t appeal to patriotism. Rasenna’s back in business. We leave them alone and we all get rich. Got it?”

Mule didn’t look back at his erstwhile partners. “Not really, but I’m Bardini, so what you say goes.”

The night had descended on the deserted backstreet when the younger boy regained consciousness. He was disgusted that Mule had deserted them and at the wasted day. He picked up his cambellotto, settled it on his head, and kicked the other boy awake, then set off. The boy followed him down to the bridge calling, “Uggeri, wait up!” Piazza Luna was deserted and dark. They tentatively approached the ruined Palazzo Morello, pushing and daring each other forward.

“I don’t think no one’s here.”

“I saw him,” said the younger boy firmly. He was the one who had impressed the Doctor with his coolness.

Scorched planks had been propped in the palazzo doorway, but the boys were small enough to squeeze though.

“Anyone here? Tano? Aw, there’s no one here. Let’s go.”

Gaetano stepped out of darkness. “You will address me as Lord Morello. What do you want?”

They saw others in the shadows. The smaller boy, undaunted, spoke up. “We want to join the new Morello borgata.”

“You can get paid to protect Bombelli’s shipments. Don’t you like money?” said Gaetano.

“It’s not like that, Lord Morello,” the big one said nervously. “We’re bandieratori, so—”

“You want to fight?”

He nodded in relief, uncomfortable beneath the heat of Gaetano’s gaze.

“That’s not enough anymore. You didn’t lose anyone in the uprising.” Gaetano turned to the smaller boy. “But you did.”

BOOK: Irenicon
8.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Seduced by Metsy Hingle
Eat Him If You Like by Jean Teulé
Owl and the City of Angels by Kristi Charish
The Investigation by Jung-myung Lee
A Wicked Choice by Calinda B
Ready & Willing by Elizabeth Bevarly
Incubus Dreams by Laurell K. Hamilton
Predator - Incursion by Tim Lebbon
Totem Poles by Bruce Sterling