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Authors: Aidan Harte

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BOOK: Irenicon
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CHAPTER 5

The pristine morning light blended the Irenicon with its surroundings so perfectly that a stranger might be forgiven for assuming that it had always been so, that the town had grown up around the river. No Rasenneisi would make that mistake, though, and as the years flowed by, the town turned its back ever more determinedly on the river. To acknowledge the trespasser would be a betrayal of the dead, a form of collaboration.

In the days after the Wave, the water subsided a few braccia to reveal a few shattered structures that now stood like sentinels keeping futile watch on a no-man’s-land. Those towers still occupied stood back from the river.

The young man wore good boots dirty from his travels. Under his dark hood and cloak his clothes were neat, even the patches where they had been torn. His equipment bag was heavy, and he had carried it a long time. He let it down beside the base of the
statue with care. The dun stone carving was long broken; all that remained were its paws—the perfect monument for the town left behind by History.

The Doctor walked up and down the toiling rows with eyes closed. The rhythm of banners slicing air when bandieratori fought was distinctive. One could tell how advanced apprentices were by the sounds of sticks clashing.

“Again.”

The hallowed
Art Bandiera
drill: the same set every day, every day the same. Do it a thousand times in the workshop until you fight like an old alley cat—no plan, just the most efficient attack, decided and executed in the same moment. No second chance on the street.

“Again.”

They started young. When Rasenneisi were born, the question wasn’t “Boy or girl?” but “Good grip?”

“Again.”

After an hour’s review, he retired to the tower. A mournful sound as he climbed the ladder told him the creature he ventured to call Cat was waiting. Its mother had abandoned it without teaching it the most rudimentary skill of its species, so instead of purring, it had an ear-piercing whine for every occasion.

“Breakfast,” he grunted, throwing the severed head.

Like any old couple they lived together successfully by ignoring each other. Cat’s best instinct was in judging whether the Doctor would tolerate its presence or was sufficiently angry to kick it. This morning it crept away hastily, gnawing the meat and shuddering with satisfaction.

The Doctor tore an orange in half and studied his flags. Keeping Valerius alive was going to be tricky if he insisted on putting himself in harm’s way. Second, their ambassador had not returned. Gonfaloniere Morello had been foolish to send his son to Concord, given its reputation. Would grief make a predictable rival unpredictable?
Lastly, Concord had given notice of the imminent arrival of an engineer—a captain no less. His mission was unspecified.

Cat was not around to kick, so he rubbed the stubble of his head and chin with vehemence while looking at the surrounding town with suspicion. Rasenna had changed many times in many centuries, but in one thing it was constant: even when Etruria was known as Etrusca, Rasenna was quarrelsome. A century ago, Rasenna’s population has expanded in step with its dominion. Most of the towers were built in that age of victory. The law forbidding new buildings higher than one hundred and one braccia was enacted to curb the rivalry even then plaguing Rasenna, and the Bardini had obeyed the letter of the law, all the while building on the “healthy” northern hills (those too poor to live in the valley could scarcely afford debilitating indulgence). As a result, their tower of regulation height looked down on all the others.

The Bardini were proud to have risen high. Their workshop was the most famous school in a town famous for its martial artistry throughout Etruria. Talent was the reason the Scaligeri had winked at Bardini infractions. That age felt like a dream more than memory; it had ended the moment the Wave swept through Rasenna, when the low were made high and the high were swept away. Only a reputation was left, and that, twenty years later, was almost forgotten too.

The Doctor’s rueful gaze was drawn inevitably across the river to the handsome palazzo at the end of Piazza Luna’s arc. Like the Bardini, the Morello had been far enough from Tower Scaligeri to escape the Wave. Their weakness had made them powerful in the new Rasenna, not a city but the remains of one. The weak had inherited the earth, as the Virgin had predicted; he didn’t think this was what She had actually had in mind.

While the Doctor studied his enemy, he was himself under scrutiny.

Every tower in Rasenna flew a banner, but only the Vanzetti flew a multitude, advertising the family craft. Pedro was small for his age, small enough to be sitting comfortably in the window frame
of Tower Vanzetti. His mother had perished upon his early arrival into the world, and he might have joined her had it not been for his father’s tireless care. Even now, Vettori Vanzetti could not be persuaded that Death was not waiting to steal his son away, and his fretting meant Pedro grew without ever losing his eggshell fragility. No amount of food would ever make this boy fat, but if Death had cast a cold eye, he would have seen small hands gripping tightly to life.

Pedro did not believe that lacking physical stamina made him an invalid or that expending his energies on books and mechanical instruments, things most Rasenneisi had no use for, was evidence of deficiency; he ignored such whispers, just as he ignored the heated conversation in the room behind him. His eager face was creased with the intense concentration it took to hold the device steady while focusing. Freshly washed wool smelled of home to Pedro, but weaving bored him—the final product was just a basic weapon. Yet the looms with their elaborately dancing parts had fascinated him since he could remember, and his father had come to rely on him to keep the hardworking machines going, though they ought to have been replaced a decade ago. Pedro not only kept them working, he made improvements, and on those rare occasions when nothing needed repair, he returned to his experiments.

Vettori’s conversation with his old business partner was more fractious than usual—Fabbro Bombelli was diplomatic by nature as well as by trade. The men danced around it, but now their discussion gradually spiraled toward the familiar argument.

“We’re the Small People,” Vettori said with his practiced resignation. “That’s our fate.” He marked a length of new fabric with a chalk piece that then disappeared into his dusty leather waist jacket. He had scissors, rulers, clips, and sundry other tools cleverly secreted about his clothes, which were tight and trim as befitted a tailor.

“Who says we have to stay small?”

Vettori had returned to the loom. “The men who decide.” His face was stretched and unlined, and his lips were careful and tight, as if emotion were another luxury they could not afford. His long,
quick hands remained expressive of the generous man he had once been.

“They do.”

Fabbro Bombelli picked up the glass he’d perched on his generous belly and swirled it under his curlicue nose, looking sideways at Vettori. For every inch Fabbro had gained around the middle, his old partner had contracted. Some great unseen weight seemed to hang from the tape around Vettori’s shoulders, though it was not years but the manner in which he had spent them, curved over the rack, that had left him stooped in obeisance to the world, his head bowed so low that wearing a young man’s neat beard looked like an old man’s vanity. His loom jerked his limbs in tandem with its creaking parts, like a tired old puppet made to dance.

In the last decade demand had fallen until Vettori could no longer afford to employ carders and dyers—though still he wove, believing it the last thing he could do competently. He had once won his Woolsmen’s respect by arguing on their behalf with the Signoria, and he still saw himself as the Small People’s advocate, but talk that had once reflected healthy self-respect had become shrill, self-pitying. Years of defeat were stretching him thinner than the old thread he wove.

“You’re really going to ask him?” Vettori asked.

“Won’t be the first time I’ve asked.”

“Or the first time he’s said no.”

“And I keep asking. What’s the worst he can do?” said Fabbro, running fingers through a beard as bright as white smoke. It separated out into two pluming cones, mirrored by the cloudy scuff encircling his bald and sunburned skull. A portrait of respectability was an asset to maintain as judiciously as one weighed metal.

Vettori looked up pointedly from his work.

“All right, there’s plenty,” Fabbro said quickly, “but the Doc can’t keep me—
us
—down forever. I’ve got money.”

“He’ll say it’s not about that,” Vettori said mildly.

Fabbro was not going to tolerate quibbles. “I’ve got a right to sit in the Signoria, as much as Guercho Vaccarelli or any of those
Family heads who come knocking at midnight for loans I mustn’t speak of. Maybe the Bombelli banner isn’t as old as Bardini’s or as pretty as Morello’s, but we do well. People go to the Doc for his flag. They come to me to pay for it.”

“And you go to him when
you
need help. If you have a voice in the Signoria, you won’t need him anymore.”

“Well, he’s pushing against the current.”

“Sure it’s pushing that way? Why don’t you wait till next year? The Scaligeri girl will be Contessa then; maybe she’ll—”

“Bah! The Doc raised her. When she holds the mace, it’ll be another way to hide his hand. No. The time’s now. I have a claim to a seat and a right. He can’t fight progress.”

“He can do what he likes. The Small People can’t fight the Families.”

“How would you know? Tried lately?”

Vettori slumped as if the frayed string had finally snapped. The loom ceased with indiscreet silence.

“Sorry,” Fabbro said quickly. “I’m just—Not being able to use your people—it’s frustrating. I’ve outgrown my shoes, but nobody will sell me a new pair.”

Vettori gave a thin laugh. “Don’t worry about it, Fabbro. You’re right. You’re the one who kept your business going, not me. What do I know?”

“You’re just down on your luck.”

“Sure.” Vettori smiled, his lips tight.

Fabbro looked around for a distraction. He understood that old friends, like old ambitions, became embarrassing when you were poor. “
Madonna!
What’s that, Pedro?”

“It’s what I needed the glass for, Signore Bombelli.” Pedro’s maybe-machines were inhibited not only by a dearth of information; most remained sketches because the only material he had readily to hand was uncarded wool. On his last visit, Fabbro had brought his godson some Ariminumese glass as well as the usual descriptions of inventions Pedro so loved hearing about. By collating these stories and sifting through the layer of suspicion attached
to all things Bernoullian, Pedro learned
what
a particular machine did, and then he could tackle the larger question of
how.

Now the merchant held the magnifier to the light. His restless hands were always picking up things, appraising, weighing, costing—cost was more than a figure; it was merit enumerated, judgment every bit as just and severe as Heaven’s, although God was not known to be open to negotiation.

He peered through.


Dio!
I can see across the river! You devised this?”

“I just copied it. The Morello’s Contract this year is shortsighted. He has a pair of glass disks that let him see better. I just copied the design and doubled them up like this so I could see far.”

“Bah! A typical Vanzetti, too modest. That’s not copying—that’s
inventing
. To see a complete thing and understand its working, that’s a gift.” Pedro blushed as Fabbro ruffled his hair. “You remind me of your old man young.”

Vettori’s head was bowed, and he was back at his loom. Fabbro downed the drink, smacked his lips loudly, then said what he’d come to say, quietly: “If you need a small loan, Vettori, just ask. Of course, no interest for old friends.”

Vettori looked at Fabbro, contrasted the bright banners of the past with the gray and threadbare present, and set his jaw. “Thank you for your concern, Signore Bombelli, but I didn’t knock on your door.”

Fabbro saw that Vettori would go hungry before taking charity. He knew too that unless he regularly made the perilous crossing, their friendship would expire. Eager to avoid that day and conscious of the sudden change in mood, he made his excuses.

With his back resolutely turned to the humiliating scene, Pedro continued scanning the northside until he came to a figure standing by the river. The young man was dressed in the black hood and short cloak of an engineer, but Pedro would have known he was foreign anyway—he was standing closer to the water than a Rasenneisi ever would.

Pedro was delighted when his father instructed him to escort Signore Bombelli to the Midnight Road. “Wear a scarf and wait until you can see he has crossed safely.”

He leaped down from his perch and flung on a long cassock. Like his father’s, it had a strange array of tools in hidden pockets. Pedro was always glad for an excuse to escape from the stifling smell of wool and caution, but right now all he wanted to know was why this stranger was not afraid of the water.

CHAPTER 6

The moment the sun appeared, Captain Giovanni threw off his dark hooded cloak, revealing a mane of untidy black hair covering a brow furrowed in thought as he studied the river. His eyes were dark, and his broad leonine face was dominated by a large, honest nose. An emaciated dog had limped after him since he’d arrived, and now it sniffed at the bag cautiously, clearly expecting to be chased away. He let it be.

It was too early in the year for the northern mountains’ snowmelt, but the current was still powerfully fast and loud. He could see where the landslides had happened, of course, but there’d been little erosion of the banks after the initial Wave, which was typical of a forced river diversion: when they came, they came suddenly. These were the signs trained eyes detected, but it did not take an engineer to see this river was abnormal. Normal rivers do not flow uphill.

No wonder the Rasenneisi kept their distance. He knew the theory, and he had seen one other like it, but still it made him uneasy, like a thing from a story of omens and prodigies. From what he had heard, Rasenna was a town out of place too, still living in a time when it was somewhere that mattered.

“Probably don’t get many strangers, eh?”

The dog turned its head curiously. The flat Concordian accent sounded strange, almost toneless compared with the singing dialect it was used to. The engineer took a biscuit from the bag and threw it, and the dog snatched it out of the air, teeth clamping loudly.

“I guess they don’t feed strays here either.” A soft smile spread over his face like the sun moving over rocks, softening the deep shadows in between. While the dog barked and wagged its appreciation, Giovanni turned back to the river with the same stern look. He opened the bag fully. Everything inside fit neatly, with no wasted space. The dog studied the young man as he patiently searched; it was accustomed to intemperate passions—a Rasenneisi would either have chased it away or adopted it by now.

The engineer found the tool he needed and, after adjusting the dials on the small glass rod, sank to the ground and crawled to the side of the bank. He’d dipped the rod into the water and was about to sink his whole hand in when the dog growled. Giovanni watched his flickering reflection carefully, then quickly stood as a shimmering hand gushed from the water and swiped at where his face had been a moment ago. The water lost its shape and dropped back formlessly into the river, and as the dog barked again, Giovanni realized it was barking not at the creature but at him—it had been
warning
him.

He frowned. His unkindly brow was at odds with his shepherd’s eyes. Normally pseudonaiades moved sluggishly out of water, as awkward as men were in their world, but he guessed normal did not apply to a river not meant to be: a residue of the charge that had called up the Wave must still be present, though much depleted. As the errant partials tried to get home, so the water tended to stray—that was his theory, at least, and it was as good as the next when
the pseudonaiades’ very existence was so at odds with Bernoullian Wave Theory. Among so many imponderables one thing was certain: without a safe place to work, nothing could be built.

He searched his bag and took out a silver egg and a small belt strap. He unscrewed the narrow end of the egg, which remained connected by a fine wire, and slotted the tip into a notch in the belt. He found a small piece of old masonry by the bank to fasten the belt around, then, using the belt as a sling, he launched the lump of brick into the air while holding the egg tightly in his other hand. The brick splashed down thirty-five braccia away, half the river’s breadth.

That was sufficient.

He rotated a second dial on the egg; its clockwork shuddered to life, and it shot from his hand the moment he released it, skimming the water’s surface until it reached the point where the brick had landed. There it stopped, vibrating and bobbing on the surface. He crouched and gingerly held his hand over the water once more and waited. The dog growled to see such folly.

Nothing happened.

The egg was a phased-current transmitter of his own design that induced density to a depth of three braccia, which in theory—and now in fact—repelled pseudonaiades. He was pleased. Men immersed in this hostile water would still drown, of course, but this would prevent watery hands from pulling them in—and it would also prevent Strays, a more serious concern.

Giovanni stood and pushed the hair back from his brow impatiently. Now, information. The glass rod was a Whistler; it calculated distance based on how long it took to hear its song echo. He repeated the procedure at five-braccia intervals along the uneven bank for the next hour, considering what Rasenna’s Signoria would want to hear and what he should tell them.

The dog tagged along.

Sofia had no destination; anywhere was fine as long as it was out of Tower Bardini’s shadow. She needed distance from the Doc’s
hypocrisy. He was too smart to believe he could just hand over Rasenna to her as a birthday gift. Whoever ruled Rasenna had to be ready to fight for it or they wouldn’t rule for long. He let himself be irrational only when the subject was her.

She was not allowed to be involved in raids, but she knew about them. True enough, some of the stories shocked her, but at least the Bardini didn’t stoop to attacking family towers. She had learned to countenance the other violence, just as the Doc obviously had. It was for the greater good, and so for peace, for the Bardini and for her. Really, no excuse was necessary. It was enough to say: this is Rasenna.

Even without taking to the rooftops it was still easy to cross northern Rasenna quickly. The narrow interlocking paths winding downhill to the river overlooked one another, a tiered arrangement offering shortcuts aplenty. The sorrowful chime of a bell made her notice she had reached the limits of Bardini territory, and she hastily changed routes. Her last visit to the Baptistery was a fresh memory and still painful.

The morning was dying when Sofia came to the abandoned towers before the river—the gauntlet, as it was known—and discovered the body at the entrance of an alley. There was nothing remarkable in a dead dog, but this animal had not starved to death: its fur was still wet. Local animals knew enough to avoid water, yet somehow, at a distance from the river, this dog had drowned.

“Signorina?”

Sofia looked around and saw a
Concordian
coming from the direction of the river. She instantly raised her flag. Her face showed hostility even as her body went taut, ready for fight or flight.

Keeping an eye on the alley, the engineer crept toward her stealthily. He touched his lips. “Shhh, Signorina, be careful.”

“Where’s the buio?” she said with loud aggression.

At first Giovanni was confused, then he realized the term must be local dialect for the pseudonaiades, what the rest of Etruria called waterfolk. He explained, “On its way back to the river it took fright. The dog chased it.”

Her eyes narrowed, and a sharp crease divided her brow. “Who the devil are you anyway?”

He was taken aback momentarily. “My name is Giovanni.”

“A
dog
scared a buio? I don’t think so.”

“Not the dog, a machine.”

“It scares them into our streets?” Sofia said, growing angry now. “Why would you want to keep buio away from the river? It’s where they belong.”

“I know. My machine is designed to protect people.”

“Great job so far, but I’ll take it from here. Which way did it go?”

Giovanni pointed.

“Cretino!”
Sofia smacked him on the head and ran in the direction of Tower Bardini.

Giovanni watched her go, blinking stupidly. In Concord women were demure, closeted creatures, to be admired from a distance and most certainly never to be spoken to without an introduction—but whatever the local customs, something dangerous was wandering the streets and it was thanks to him. He cursed his carelessness for not considering that a Stray might be loose before turning on the transmitter.

“Signorina, wait!”

There were too many streets to search for the buio before children found it—and young Rasenneisi delighted in risky games. Sofia stopped and listened; she could hear voices, catcalls, from the level above her. She climbed up and found them throwing rocks and shouting, herding the creature into a small alley. The children had made a game of it already, hitting the buio with their training sticks and retreating before it could launch itself at them in wave form. When the buio re-formed as a pillar, another child would take the dare and leap in. Strays were as dumb as animals, but if they were kept too long from running water, they lost cohesion and dissolved into lifeless puddles—which was exactly what the children wanted to see.

“Get out of here!” Sofia grabbed one by the collar and kicked him in the ass. “Leave it alone, little
stronzo
!”

The boy ran off bawling, and the others pursued him, content with a new victim.

Sofia turned to face the buio as it re-formed like a tower rebuilding itself. It shuffled toward her. She wasn’t worried until she took a step back and felt the alley wall at her back.

“Signorina! Don’t make any sudden movements!” The Concordian was on the level above, brandishing a burning torch.

“What are you doing?”

“Saving you!” he said, leaping into the alley awkwardly, and spoiled the moment’s heroism by dropping his torch. He kept his eye on the buio as he picked it up, and he spoke over his shoulder, “Now, very slowly, climb onto my shoulders and—”

Sofia nimbly vaulted up between the walls and then sat looking down at him with a sweet smile. Giovanni looked more impressed by her acrobatics than by the danger. “How did you—?”

The sizzle as the buio advanced into his outstretched torch reminded him of his priorities.

“I’m a little confused. Is this part of the rescue? What happens next?”

“I was in this situation before. It’ll attack.”

“Oh, so you’re used to it.”

The children’s sadism had vexed Sofia, but the chance to make a Concordian squirm, one she didn’t have explicit orders to protect, was too rare to ignore. Her vague plan was to let the buio attack, then rescue him before he drowned.

Giovanni backed up against the wall. “Signorina?”

“I’d help, but this arm,” Sofia said, showing her sling. “Sorry!”

“Can you give me your flag?”

Sofia’s smile faded. What kind of Concordian was he that he didn’t realize she might be enjoying this? She felt a twinge of conscience. He
had
tried to save her life—ineptly, but he had tried. She was about to help when it struck her that the buio had not attacked
and didn’t look as if it was about to. It just stood there, neither advancing nor retreating.



Both Sofia and Giovanni looked at the alley’s entrance, where an old woman had appeared. Sofia raised her flag and leaped down. “You’re not supposed to be here. These are our streets!”

The nun looked scornfully at Sofia before again speaking: “!

It sounded like the Ebionite tongue, but something about the tone made Giovanni’s hair stand on end. Whatever it was, the buio obviously understood, for it slowly shuffled toward her. The old nun was a hardy one with callused, rough hands and wide, sturdy hips and a large bosom beneath a shapeless black habit. A chain of prayer beads hung from her belt like a mace.

Sofia glanced back at Giovanni, who looked surprised to be still alive.

“Where are they going?” he asked.

Sofia turned and saw the nun had gone. “Come on! Let’s see what that
strega
does with it—aren’t you curious?”


Strega?
She saved me!”

“She should have asked permission.”

“Permission?”

“These are Bardini streets. Besides, I was about to. I was just having some fun.”

“You think she’ll be all right?”

“Oh, she can take care of herself, that one,” Sofia said.

They walked in silence for a moment, and Sofia glanced over shyly. Looking down at the foreigner in the alley, she had noticed that he was no weakling. It was not bandieratoro muscle, finely modeled and honed by daily practice. His chest and upper arms had substance, but it was crudely carved bulk, like the farmers who came from the contato after harvest.

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