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Authors: Aidan Harte

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BOOK: Irenicon
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“It isn’t the Hawk’s Company’s war either. It’s Etruria’s. For everyone’s sake, Concord has to be stopped.”

The Doctor extended a hand. “They’ve already won.”

CHAPTER 10

The condottieri left without delay. The Hawk’s Company mustered shortly in the south, and John Acuto had to know which towns had rallied, which had not.

As they left, Guercho Vaccarelli arrived in answer to the Doctor’s summons. He wheezed and creaked as he walked, reminding Sofia of the ravaged towers by the river. The old man’s eyes were weak; his young daughter, Isabella, a pretty girl with cheeks spattered with freckles, usually accompanied him, but today he leaned on someone else.

“Signorina Scaligeri, you look like your mother more every day!” The inlaid disks in Bombelli’s sleeves jingled musically as he kissed her hand. Torn clothes were common in Rasenna, but the slits in Fabbro’s fur-lined jerkin were high fashion, not accident, designed to display the expensive silk chemise underneath. When visiting old friends such as Vettori, Fabbro dressed down. When visiting the Doctor, he dressed up.

“Thanks,” Sofia said flatly. “Look, come back tomorrow. The Doc’s preparing for the meeting.”

“That’s why I came! Doctor!”

The Doctor eyed Fabbro coolly, nodded briefly, then turned to embrace the old man. “Signore Vaccarelli, how is your Family?”

After exchanging pleasantries, he blandly regarded his uninvited guest. “Bombelli. What do you want?”

“To help, Doctor. Let me accompany you to the Signoria.”

“Certainly—come along. We’re about to set out.”

“I mean
sit
with you, Doctor.”

“Sofia, show Signore Vaccarelli around the workshop,” the Doctor said, putting his arm around the merchant. Then, “Fabbro, haven’t we discussed this before? What could be so urgent that you must tell the Signoria?”

“Business.”

“Your business is none of their business,” he said with a kindly smile. “Nobody stops you from making money.”

“I have employees in all the towers you watch over, but”—for a moment he hesitated—“that’s only half the town! It’s like trying to eat with one hand tied behind my back. There’s money across the river too.”

The Doctor took his arm away and started rubbing his chin. “Ah,” he said. “Fabbro, I respect you. You look after your tower and do well—”

“I can do better with a whole town, working with Vettori Vanzetti again—”

“Vanzetti doesn’t have weavers anymore.”

“He could get them.”

“How would they cross the river? What with the buio and the raiding?” The Doctor waved his hands in the air to convey the immensity of the complications he foresaw.

“I can solve problems like that—and the more I make, the more you can tax me!” Fabbro had rehearsed this conversation, considering every objection.

“Only the Signoria has the authority to tax. You make
donations
to my workshop.”

“Yes.
Donations
. Fine.”

“And what if Morello is jealous?”

“I’ll give him one,” Fabbro said impatiently.

“Problematic,” the Doctor said.

But Fabbro was too excited to stop. “We can find a way around, surely.”

“If this is all you have to say, then let me speak to the Signoria on your behalf.”

“I can speak for myself.”

“But will they listen? You know I don’t look down on new men, but Quintus Morello, some of the older Families, they see the money you make and—”

“Does my money smell? Does it hurt people? What’s so noble about fighting all the time?”

“Nothing, but it makes us dangerous folk to cross.”

Fabbro saw finally the line he had crossed. His hands dropped impotently, and his chin sank toward his chest. “I understand. My money’s good. My name is the problem.”

“No, no!” The Doctor grabbed the man’s arms, embraced and kissed him. “The point is you have me!
I
will be your champion.”

As Fabbro left, he saw the Doctor return to Guercho Vaccarelli with a warm smile. The deference was especially galling because he knew Vaccarelli was broke. He himself had given the old man loans he would never see paid back. But that didn’t matter, because Vaccarelli was noble. It didn’t matter how rich you became if you were unlucky enough to be born one of the Small People. At times like this, Fabbro understood why his old friend Vettori had given up a long time ago. Doc Bardini was not the one pushing against the current.

CHAPTER 11

An hour later the Doctor led his allies south. An uneasy peace held among the heads of the northside towers, but these old fighters all recognized Bardini authority. Young Valerius insisted on coming along—the truce observed while the Signoria sat was a great chance to see Rasenna’s other half. The Concordian had recovered from yesterday enough to begin bragging of the adventure, much to Sofia’s annoyance. It was downhill all the way, but Signore Vaccarelli set the group’s pace, so it was late afternoon by the time they reached the river and found Giovanni’s rope bridge in place.

“Where is he?” said Valerius, impatient to see his newly arrived countryman.

Sofia shot him a disdainful look, wondering the same thing. She saw him then—on the other bank, talking with the southside boy—and at almost the same moment, Giovanni waved. He bounded
onto the bridge (it was just three taut ropes, one to walk across, the others for balance) and made his way across.

When he came within earshot, Sofia called, “You said you’d be waiting.”

“Sorry. Pedro kept me,” he said, leaping down.

“Pedro? You made a new friend.”

Hearing the playfulness in her voice, Valerius frowned, regarding Giovanni with hostility and a sense of familiarity that was odd because Concordian nobles and engineers rarely mixed.

“He had many questions,” said Giovanni.

“He’s not the only one. Captain, my guardian.”

Giovanni bowed. “Pleased to meet you, Doctor Bardini. General Luparelli sends his regards.”

“Ah! Nice to be remembered by an old student. This is the general’s son, Valerius.”

“Did Father have any word for me?”

Giovanni began awkwardly, “I’m afraid he didn’t mention—”

“No matter,” Valerius said blithely. “This bridge doesn’t look much, Captain. How do we know we won’t end sleeping with the buio?”

“It’s temporary but sound. Care to try it?”

The Doctor climbed up without hesitation and shouted to the others, “What are you waiting for?”

The northsiders had assurance of safe passage, but nothing could make them
feel
safe south of the Irenicon. When they reached land, flags went up and they traversed the empty expanse of Piazza Luna like explorers in a hostile land where every looming tower held enemies, not countrymen.

Only the Doctor was unperturbed, walking as if he had merely chosen an unusual route for his evening passeggiata. Adopting the role of host, he led Giovanni toward an antique templelike palazzo sitting precariously on the piazza’s crumbling edge. The building he grandly described as the Rasenneisi Senate was supported laboriously by an uneven row of stone pillars of pale green, like sodden old bread sticks.

The Palazzo della Signoria’s remoteness from the center of old Rasenna showed how little the Scaligeri had paid attention to the collective voice of other towers; it was also the reason it had survived the Wave—survived, though not escaped: to reach the Speakers’ Chamber, the men had to wade through a braccia of stagnant water. The mildew encasing the outer hall’s pillars like tired ivy and the way the pillars were doubled in the inky cold water made normally unimaginative men see the Speakers’ Chamber as an ancient, mottled crypt within a winter forest, a crypt wherein the quick petitioned the unheeding dead. Sitting in their sodden shoes, they yearned to adjourn even before they had begun, and now meetings were called only in crisis, so loathed was the Chamber.

Giovanni glanced at the old Rasenneisi crest on the door as they entered. Gold leaf was peeling from the crudely carved Lion, and the red was barely visible. He felt ashamed that his country left vanquished enemies alive only from the neck up, with enough blood to generate income but not a drop more.

As they came to the Chamber door, the Doctor whispered, “Captain, know that people will say things in here intending the opposite. If you need help—and I think you will—come see me. I’m a good friend.”

Giovanni had sensed tension talking to the boy and the Contessa. Like this rotting palazzo, Rasenna was on a precipice, and contrary to the Apprentices’ recommendation, he believed he must maintain independence if he was to accomplish his mission. He said nothing but pulled his sleeve from the Doctor’s grasp.

Amused, the Doctor let him go ahead. “Keep an eye on the wolf cub,” he whispered to Sofia.

She took Valerius’s arm. “Come along,
principino
. The town fathers tend to express themselves undiplomatically.”

Valerius laughed. “About Concord? Now I really want in.”

To the left of the Chamber door were three high steps leading to a small landing where a bust of Sofia’s grandfather stood sentry. Above Count Scaligeri’s sage portrait hung a swarm of family crests, a checkered field of faded green, scarlet, and yellow overrun
by creatures fantastic as griffins, mundane as swine. They belonged to Rasenna’s
Families
, those whose rarefied blood entitled them to sit in the Signoria and made them eligible to be elected gonfaloniere. This niche had become a shabby shrine to old Rasenna, a reminder of how many once-great towers had fallen. Sofia led Valerius there, just far enough from the Speakers’ Chamber to prevent eavesdropping.

She was surprised, pleasantly, to find Gaetano Morello waiting there too. She guessed the stout, happy pale-haired boy with him was the Morello’s Contract this year; just like her, Gaetano had been relegated to baby-sitting. She marched over with a lopsided grin, twirling her flag around her arm.

“Well, well.”

Gaetano smiled. “Contessa.”

“If it isn’t the terror of Rasenna.”

“Don’t start.”

“So what’s the next stage of the Morello master plan, Tano? Overthrow the Apprentices?”

“All right, get it out of your system. How come you haven’t been making a nuisance of yourself lately?”

Sofia leaned against the wall. “The usual. Doc’s got me on the leash.”

“We should trade places. I think I got demoted to foot soldier this morning.”

Sofia laughed. “Your brother returned in one piece?”

“Not quite,” said Gaetano, glancing at his student. The boy was placidly cleaning a set of glass-ringed disks. “Never mind that. Allow me to—”

The boy perched the glasses on his nose and interrupted, “Contessa! The renown of your noble name precedes you, but of your beauty I heard not a whisper! Count Marcus Marius Messallinus, at your service.”

Sofia smiled at the round little boy bursting with old-fashioned chivalry. “Pleasure. Don’t listen to a word Tano tells you. The Morello fight like girls.”

The notary’s ink-stained spidery fingers drifted over the leather cover of the Rasenneisi Signoria’s Book of Minutiae and Procedure. Like him it was a yellowing relic, and he loved it. He opened it with the light touch of devotion. So long had it been since the last session that a dust cloud escaped. He inhaled with relish and let the rest settle on him as he looked around the Speakers’ Chamber.

On his right, the heads of southern Families encircled this year’s gonfaloniere, speaking in whispers. The notary wondered if Quintus Morello appreciated the irony of being gonfaloniere of a town that no longer possessed a banner. Doubtful, he decided, and, sighing more profoundly, he turned to his left, where Bardini’s unruly and noisy allies lounged. A reluctant parliamentarian, the Doctor sat toward the back and spoke only when called upon, and even then under protest.

The notary’s family members were not artisans or fighters: they were literate. That skill was little valued today, but there had been a golden age when Rasenna’s swift heralds had daily ridden forth carrying Count Scaligeri’s words—strong words elegantly inscribed—to all Etruria. Then his family members had carried their humpbacks as proudly as other families carried banners. That age was gone.

The Doctor was early. Today was certainly unusual. The assembly watched as he led the Concordian engineer to the center. While the seated areas were covered, the Speakers’ circle was open to the elements, the shattered dome creating an accidental but perfect spotlight for orators. The notary was disappointed at the hush caused by the foreigner’s arrival. He particularly enjoyed banging his gavel.

The Doctor effortlessly took the Speakers’ mace from the notary and set his sights on Quintus Morello, as if preparing to hurl the dense metal orb. He gave the gonfaloniere a nod before handing it to Giovanni.

Sofia and Gaetano ignored their Concordian charges while they caught up. They hadn’t spoken for months, since the escalation, and both were relieved that it was still possible.

“Does every Concordian have a genealogy instead of a surname?” Sofia said.

“All except engineers, I suppose. Speaking of which—?”

“He’s all right. Got salt for a Concordian.”

“I wasn’t asking what he’s like. Why’s he here?”

“As if you don’t know.”

“I don’t,” Gaetano protested.

She wanted to believe him. It would be a relief if her old friend was kept from intrigue or, still better, avoided it.

“He’s going to build a bridge, Tano.”

Gaetano whistled.
“Madonna!”

Sofia nodded.

They were silent, thinking what it meant for Rasenna, for them; they had always avoided each other on the streets—with a real bridge, that wouldn’t be possible.

“Remember when I used to come over here?”

Gaetano smiled. “Sure—you used to beat me up.”

“Just to make you chase me.”

They laughed together, reminiscing about crossing the rooftops, not hunting, just running for the fun of it, innocent of the arguments below. When Gaetano’s uncle died, all that stopped and Gaetano became workshop maestro. Sofia knew from her closeness to the Doctor what power does: it stunts; to be constant is to be static. Gaetano remained that boy on the roof, catching his breath, while she ran farther every year.

“We have to grow up sometime,” Sofia said with a smile she did not feel.

The Concordian boys were engaged in a dance of their own. Deciding who had higher status was complicated, and Valerius took the steps more seriously than his rival did. He circled warily, probing Marcus’s defense with small talk about cousins and titles.

“I’ve heard of everyone, but I’ve never heard of you. You can’t be anyone important.”

Marcus laughed. “That’s reasonable, I suppose. Well, what matter? We’re all nobodies now.”

“Speak for yourself. My father’s general of the Twelfth Legion.”

“Really? That is impressive!”

“We Luparelli have adapted to the times.”

“He studied in Rasenna too? That’s why I was sent here too, to get a good posting.”

Valerius drew himself up. “May the best men win.”

“No need to be like that. There
are
twelve legions.”

“Child,
everything
is a competition.”

Having enjoyed a genteel upbringing, Marcus had no idea how to deal with this extraordinarily aggressive boy. He decided it was best to agree. “Undoubtedly. I just meant that we nobles are in it together since the engineers took over, if you follow.”

“You’re preposterous. If circumstances change, the best Families change with them; the best always rise.”

Valerius thought of his year in Rasenna as a career step; for Marcus it was an extended holiday, full of rough camaraderie and daily drama. What did the nobility’s irrelevance matter? That race had been run and lost before he’d even been born.

“I suppose there’s no point asking if you know who this engineer is.”

Marcus was relieved to change the subject. “I heard he’s here to build a bridge,” he said in a conspiratorial whisper.

“Bah, everyone knows that! I’ll write to Father. One thing’s certain: he can’t be any good.”

“But he
is
a captain. Must have done something to earn that rank.”

“And something worse to be sent here.”

“What’s wrong with Rasenna? I like Rasenna.”

“It’s a fine place to learn fighting. But for an engineer, it’s relegation. Punishment. For incompetence, insubordination, who knows what.” He suddenly looked over his shoulder. Gaetano had succeeded in making Sofia laugh. She never acted
that
way—like a girl—with the boys of Workshop Bardini, certainly not with him. When Valerius turned back, he saw Marcus had begun polishing that ridiculous glass contraption again.

He smiled his cherub’s smile. “I’ve never seen eyepieces up close before,” he said in a friendly way.

As evening drew on and torches were lit around the Chamber, faces already angry took on a demonic hue and the milling whisperers threw monstrous shadows.

Fearing he would blunder, Giovanni had made a note of what he needed to say—and for a horrible moment he thought he’d lost it. He found it and looked down at the swimming text in despair. Then, with his heart hammering in his chest, he looked up and began to speak. “Men of Rasenna, thank you for this audience. I am Captain Giovanni of the Engineers’ Guild. My task is to bridge the Irenicon.”

He waited for the whispers to subside, then went on. “I will complete my survey this week and then provide details of the material and men I need. Based on a cursory examination, I shall confirm to Concord that the allocated time is sufficient. Concordian machines make it possible to build a bridge by summer’s end, but Rasenna’s men will make it happen. I propose taking an equal number from north and south. I leave my initial notes, with approximate costs and quantities, for the Signoria to study.” He felt that he was speaking too loudly but carried on. “Concord expects your cooperation. My task is to bridge the Irenicon—it is your task too. Thank you.”

He folded his note slowly before looking back up into the impassive faces of the cynical and prematurely old men, and he remembered Pedro’s first question this morning:
Was it a request or an order?

He cleared his throat. “More than just cooperation, I ask your support. I say this bridge is for all Rasenna knowing that you have reason to doubt me. Until today, you have only seen Natural Philosophy’s destructive power. I pray you, see today as I do—a new beginning for Rasenna and Concord, an opportunity to heal our discord.”

The faces were still hostile but now were looking toward their respective leaders.

BOOK: Irenicon
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