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Authors: Aidan Harte

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“Thank you, uh, again,” he finished.

Quintus Morello stood. “Thank you, Captain. This is indeed a new era. As gonfaloniere, I pray your example inspires Rasenna to put aside our own divisions. May the Virgin grant success!”

The applause surprised and embarrassed Giovanni. He bowed to the assembly, gave the mace and estimates to the notary, and, blushing furiously, went toward the door.

In the outer chamber, Sofia was watching the Concordians play their game of status. The games she’d played with Gaetano had been more innocent yet more dangerous. She remembered the day she had blundered into a crow’s nest on the eaves of Tower Ferruccio. When the outraged mother crow attacked, she lost her footing and began sliding down the tiles—she still woke sometimes from nightmares in which she kept sliding—but Gaetano had caught her, and she had kissed him and slapped him and then run home in a cloud of giddy laughter. Everything was easier back then.

The Chamber door burst open suddenly, and the engineer stepped into the water. He was wiping his brow dazedly, then blushed when he saw them looking at him. He nodded stiffly before wading out to the piazza.

Sofia caught Gaetano’s skeptical look. “Really. He’s all right.”

A tinkle of smashed glass brought their attention immediately back to the Concordians.

“Damn it, Valerius! What did you do?”

“Are you all right, Marcus?” said Gaetano.

“I won’t be able to see now!” Marcus cried.

“You little
stronzo
!” said Gaetano, grabbing Valerius and slamming him against the wall. Several crests fell and smashed.

“Get your hands off me!” screamed Valerius.

“Hands off, Tano!” The end of Sofia’s flag stick lightly touched Gaetano’s temple.

“All right, all right—” He let go and backed away, dragging Marcus with him.

“I can’t see!”

“I’ll make sure he’s punished,” she said.

“Do that.”

Valerius laughed. “
Idiota!
She can’t punish me!”

Sofia stuck Valerius in the stomach. He doubled over and gasped, “Why did you do that?” He sounded genuinely shocked.

She held her stick under his chin. “Say it again. I dare you.”

Gaetano pulled her away. “Sofia, he’s right. Anything done to him, Rasenna gets back tenfold. Let’s just keep them separate.”

Sofia had to leave or she’d do something she’d regret. Outside, amid the slender-columned loggia adjoining the palazzo, she found the engineer glumly regarding the river.

“What’s the matter with you?” Then she saw: someone had cut the rope bridge. While he had been speaking inside about reconciliation, somebody had been sabotaging it before it had even begun.

The applause ended the moment the engineer left the room. Quintus Morello crossed the floor, snatched the estimates from the notary, and crumpled them into a ball. “Let’s hope the buio take him for a tour of old Rasenna.”

Cheers and laughter erupted from the southern benches, while across the floor the Doctor leaned forward and whispered to Guercho Vaccarelli.

The old man took the mace and fixed his one functioning eye on Quintus. “Levity?” he spit. “At this hour, Gonfaloniere? If our extension was refused, and we gather it was . . .” He spoke in whistling gasps, and when breath was exhausted he left sentences suspended in midair while his dusty lungs recovered a second wind.

“We have not come to that point on the agenda,” the notary interrupted, glancing at the ambassador. Valentino sat quietly beside his father, his slender frame still draped in his cloak, his face as blank as the empty sky above the old man.

Guercho Vaccarelli caught his breath and continued. “If there is no extension, I say, then Rasenna faces greater demands than ever: tribute for last year
and
the year to come! This is no time for levity or partisanship, not in this house, not on the streets.”

A southerner jeered. “You liked it when you were winning!”

The old man ignored the interruption and raised a shaking finger of admonition. “Concord will pay for the bridge. It brings employment and commerce to profit our merchants and to we who tax them. It is a means to pay our debt. Who knows another? Before displaying your considerable patriotism, my Lords, consider one more point.”

“Hurry up!” Boos erupted from the southside, and the notary hammered his gavel, shouting for order.

“Defaulting has strained relations with the Empire. What if we add defiance to our sins? You are all tower owners. When a tenant defaults, you throw him out. But when he insults you, you throw him out of a window.”

Property owners on both sides of the Chamber laughed in recognition.

The old man was not smiling. “Concord has a strategic reason to build this bridge. Is it to help Rasenna? Or is it a provocation to goad us into rebellion?” He waited a moment before loudly answering himself, “It is neither! We are not that important. The reason is simple: before Concord looks to Europa, it must secure its rear. It must bring to heel the last free cities of Etruria.”

“The Doctor’s visitors revealed all this?” Quintus Morello interrupted with exaggerated surprise.

The notary piped up, “Lord Morello, the condottieri are a separate order of business.”

Vaccarelli was unfazed. “Gonfaloniere, it’s obvious to anyone who troubles to study a map. Concord needs a bridge to campaign south, but there is no reason to build it in permanent stone except to send a message to the south and us that
this
is the new order. As we own our towers, they own us. If the bridge is unfinished in five months’ time, they will pause long enough to complete it, and when they leave, there will be a bridge and no Rasenna. Our role as playground for Concordian pups comes to an end. A sword hangs over us. We can be Concord’s vassal and live or her enemy and die.”

The old man proffered the mace challengingly. “Gonfaloniere?”

Quintus Morello waited for Vaccarelli to take his seat before speaking in tones of barely contained rage. “Friends, do not be deceived by arguments of expedience. Concord’s Wave made us eunuchs! This bridge is another assault, more insidious, for it comes gift wrapped. If it was indeed Trojans who founded Rasenna, should we emulate their valor or their credulity? The Doctor—excuse me,
Signore Vaccarelli
—paints a dark picture. Is it really so dark, or is it colored by ambition? Does he hope to win Concord’s favor by bending over at every opportunity?”

As every other southsider dutifully cheered his father’s words, Valentino stared at Doctor Bardini. There was something impressive about the old street fighter. He had not troubled to put his name in the election purse for years. What would be the point?

In the ebbing light, Quintus Morello’s faded red robes had become finally colorless and his voice had reached that unpleasant pitch that meant he was getting to the point. “Are we children, to be scared by rumor? I remind the northside that Rasenna is a republic where
all
the people have a voice. Or am I not your elected gonfaloniere?”

Riotous cheers answered his question. The Doctor whispered in Vaccarelli’s ear again. “The northern towers recognize the gonfaloniere’s authority,” the old man answered.

After the roars died down, Morello announced proudly, “Very well. As uncontested gonfaloniere of Rasenna, I
approve
this bridge—” He paused for effect.

“—on the condition that the engineer lodge in a southside tower under
Morello
protection.”

Guercho Vaccarelli turned and whispered with the Doctor for a while and then, looking a little puzzled, croaked, “No objection.”

Valentino would have admired such coolness once, but the Beast had taught him better. Yes, the Doctor played more skillfully than Quintus, but the game itself was ignoble—the two worms were vying for a dung heap.

The notary moved to the second order of business, and, scratching himself like a flea-ridden dog, the Doctor wandered into the
circle, carrying the mace and a deferential manner, and said, “Friends, you know me as a plainspoken man. There’s been talk that this morning’s visitors came by invitation to propose a new Southern League. It’s a wonderful story, but the truth is more mundane. The condottieri were merely passing through, and they were curious enough about
Art Banderia
to ask for a workshop tour.”

When the Doctor went to return the mace, Quintus called out, “Anything else?”

“Now that I think of it, Gonfaloniere, we did discuss a hypothetical situation.” He scratched his chin. “It’s embarrassing to repeat it, but they invited me to speculate on whether Rasenna would hire condottieri. I said it would not—it was but idle conversation; I am glad they wasted a citizen’s time and not the Signoria’s. Entertaining such guests officially would be difficult to explain to Concord should they hear of it.”

Morello harrumphed. “Why should Rasenna not employ condottieri? It is our right—”

The Doctor nodded. “As is suicide.” He added as an afterthought, “Though it’s rarely a wise course.”

He dropped his abstracted air abruptly. “Etruria has no use for condottieri. The towns that employ them have been bankrupted or betrayed often enough that they see their foolishness. The last such army in Etruria is led by John Acuto, who fights for whoever he can bully into employing him. As my esteemed colleague mentioned, Concord’s Twelfth marches south this summer—not a few squadrons, not a patchwork of allies fighting with the aid of one Concordian engineer, but an entire legion. That is the end of John Acuto, and Rasenna, too, if we join them.”

“In short, you told those mercenaries you were happy to be a slave.”

The Doctor smiled good-naturedly. “Much eloquence is spilled on the subject of freedom—its splendor, its nobility, its necessity. I only ask, Gonfaloniere, what is its use? We are slaves of time, of hunger, of passion, yet we make no complaint. We are rarely slaves of reason in Rasenna; of those chains we are unfortunately
emancipated. We are too weak to win more freedom but perhaps wise enough to keep the little we have.”

The Doctor handed back the mace to a barrage of cheers and insults. Before vitriol turned violent, the notary squealed, “Next order of business! Ambassador Morello, please.”

The young man stood. A hush descended. When Valentino had left to seek the extension, he had been mocked for his youth. Now every eye was locked on him. He reached the circle, shrugged aside the cloak, and cried, “Here is Concord’s answer!”

As shock rippled through the chamber, Valentino’s gaze was nailed on one man. The Doctor remained expressionless.

A northsider broke the silence. “No extension, then?”

“A small reduction,” the Doctor said.

The southside benches erupted with anger, but Valentino dropped the mace with a bang, bringing sudden silence.

“I am a warning of the price of disobedience.” He raised his remaining hand. “But Concord misjudges us! I would sooner cut off this hand too than cast away my honor. Rasenneisi”—Valentino pointed his stump at the Doctor—“this man is a traitor!”

With surprising haste, old man Vaccarelli leaped to his feet. “Slander! Slander, I say! Notary, remove this boy.”

Red-faced, Quintus Morello stood. His men’s flags rose with him. “Everyone, be seated. As you value your lives, molest none of my house.”

Bardini and Morello affiliates shouted at each other, then crowded onto the floor. In the crush, Valentino found himself back to back with his father.

The Doctor was amused that a boy who had left Rasenna before ever wielding a flag himself had returned militant. Whatever tortures he had been subjected to, he had left more than flesh behind in Concord. Quintus Morello was the perfect rival, weak, irresolute, and predictable; what if this son took charge?

With a tired grunt, he stood. He let the shouting dwindle before he spoke. “Brothers, anyone who bleeds for Rasenna has earned my respect and your attention.”

It was enough to restore order. Everyone returned to his side of the chamber as the other Signoria members looked upon Valentino Morello with mingled curiosity and annoyance.

Valentino spoke calmly. “The Doctor’s analysis is essentially correct. The Concordians mean to be paid. They’ll plunder the south to feed their war machine. Rasenna has no riches to lose, but we still have our pride.” He turned slightly. “Perhaps that’s where we differ, Doctor. I ask how we can hold on to our honor, not what price we ask for it.”

The mace lay where it had fallen. Instead of the usual shouting, boos, and threats, there was unbearably taut silence. Hastily the notary adjourned.

When Sofia said they must go home the old way, the Doctor sounded unconcerned by the sabotage. His catlike grin spread over his wide face as he said, “It went well.”

He had told her that he desired one thing from the meeting only, and the rest was theater, and that had happened: the bridge was going ahead. Come what may.

CHAPTER 12

Unwilling to be a mere parchment engineer, Bernoulli made his name by mapping the so-called hydra, Etruria’s river system. Because of his youth, his first building project was a renovation. The Etruscan bridge connecting the old city walls to the mainland was straining under the rising population. Unimpressed by its antiquity, Bernoulli considered bolstering inadequate structures not only folly but immoral.

His alternative proposal, an audacious one-span bridge, was controversial. Surveyors, masons, and engineers of the day insisted that such a structure would not support its own weight, let alone the city’s traffic. Bernoulli found an influential advocate in the Patrician Senator Postumus Tremel
lius Felix,
5
whose forceful arguments convinced the Curia. The old bridge was demolished and speedily replaced with a bridge immediately recognized as an architectural marvel. Bernoulli was never questioned again, at least in matters of technique.

CHAPTER 13

Giovanni was given a floor in a Morello tower that, although unfurnished and rather strange-smelling, suited his needs. An open space with good light was all he needed for drawing. After getting settled, he climbed the stairs. The trapdoor opened before he had a chance to knock.


Dio
, you take a long time to unpack!” Pedro motioned him up with impatience. “Come up and meet my father.”

When Giovanni saw the wool crammed into every corner, he realized what his room had been used for. Vettori Vanzetti rose from his loom. “Captain, Pedro has told me all about you. He’s wanted to interrogate an engineer since he was old enough to put two words together.”

“My door will always be open.”

“You might live to regret that,” said Pedro with a grin.

“I’ll take my chances.”

As the men spoke, Pedro went back to repairing a loom. Noting Vettori’s fresh black eye, Giovanni guessed he had not volunteered for the job.

“What do you need, Captain?”

“Answers, to start with. You have construction experience?”

“Not much.”

“Quintus Morello recommended you as foreman. Why?”

“I can’t speak for my betters, Captain, but I used to run a small business. People know me, northsiders too, and trust me, as far as that goes.”

“Concord will pay for your equipment, however it got damaged.”

“None of the crew can accept money. We’re all in debt to Morello or Bardini. Our money is their money. My loom, I broke it myself. That’s how I got this shiner too. I’ll help you, Captain, but if you don’t want an accident-prone crew, please don’t ask questions.”

“I am not here to cause trouble.”

“Simply by being here you will.”

The two men stared at each other in silence.

“He’s all right, Papa.”

“What do you need, Captain?” Vettori repeated.

Giovanni knew it would take more than his son’s word to satisfy Vettori. He stuck to practicalities. “Stone. Wood. Iron.”

He cut and pinned paper to the wall to make one large sheet and drew his plans while Pedro watched over his shoulder. It had been a long time since he had felt any enthusiasm for his work. The bridge was a tool. Even if the Apprentices planned to use it for war, the bridge itself would be innocent. Perhaps he could be too. His window looked out to the piazza and the river beyond, and he saw it as it could be: a graceful symphony of material, a lithe shape belying hidden tensions—the contest of strength between design and matter and the pressures they must bear: of gravity, load, and environment. The first was simple to calculate, the second was a variable, and in time he would come to understand the third.

The charcoal snapped. He caught his breath. There were other contests, warring bone, warring muscle. It was with him always.

Gubbio.

Always, though he’d done his duty. Always, though the Guild said that geometry was innocent, that guilt was atavism, that sin did not exist. There was no Right and Wrong, only correct and incorrect. For the hundredth—the thousandth—time he wished he believed the dogma.

Vettori warned his son not to be distracting, but Giovanni needed an assistant and curiosity was the prime quality of a good one. Vettori, overhearing the engineer’s explanations to the unending questions, noticed he spoke to Pedro not as a child or a Rasenneisi but as a colleague, and he watched as Pedro responded with growing confidence, absorbing the barrage of new ideas Vettori himself found so alien.

Discussing logistics, Giovanni was pleased to find Vettori rational, fair, and far too cautious—these were the qualities of a good foreman.

Before the week ended, Giovanni’s plans had the gonfaloniere’s seal. The Signoria’s indifference suited him. He did not need assistance, and he dreaded interference.

Scaffolding was the first priority. Two decades with no building had allowed the forests outside the walls to regenerate. Time had also erased any evidence of previous visitors, and Giovanni could imagine himself the first man to walk there.

He broke a branch off and peeled back the bark. “You don’t know how lucky you are, having this life outside your walls, near enough that you can smell it. Touch it.”

Vettori watched the Concordian moving softly between the trees. “Aye,” he said evenly, “it’s peaceful.”

“It’s more than that: it’s alive. The land around Concord has been barren for years.”

Vettori didn’t respond, unsure of his ground. Normally the engineer talked fast and only about practicalities, and normally
Concordians boasted of the things they
had
, things that others lacked.

“When they started diverting rivers, the trees stopped growing. We were woodsmen once, but you can’t plant in dust. All the scaffolding for the Molè’s nave had to be imported—that’s why Bernoulli built the domes without any.” Giovanni pulled off another branch. “He wanted to prove even Nature couldn’t hold him back.”

“What are you looking for?” asked Vettori.

“Quality”—he stripped another in the same way—“consistency.”

Vettori waited. It was irrational, perhaps, but he felt patriotically concerned that the wood would meet the engineer’s standards. “Well?”

“It’s good. Who owns it?”

“Morello,” Vettori told him, “and Bardini owns the quarries on the north.”

“Think they’ll give me a good deal since I’m buying wholesale?”

“Sorry, Captain. They’ll both gouge you for every soldi they can.”

“I won’t quibble. Concord has deep pockets. I suppose it’s good the Families agree on something. I expect iron will be more problematic.”

Vettori smiled. “I know a northsider who eats problems for breakfast.”

They crossed the river on the east side, where the Wave had smashed though the town walls on its way out. It was a risky journey, leaping from one uneven pillar to another. Vettori was far from athletic, but he was a still a Rasenneisi; Giovanni found himself clinging to the wet rocks his guide had leaped between without a second thought.

“Why’s it called the Midnight Road anyway? It can’t be used solely by assassins,” Giovanni shouted over the water’s roar.

Vettori looked back incredulously. “Why else cross over?”

Giovanni, taken aback, had no response. Since the Signoria meeting he’d brooded on the consequences of reuniting this turbulent town. He saw someone standing on the north bank and shouted, “Seems we’re expected.”

“Spotted, more like. Every riverside tower is a lookout for raiders.”

Sofia leaned nonchalantly on her flag and called, “
Madonna
, I’ve never seen such clumsy climbing. I’m surprised you haven’t broken something yet.”

“Is that how you broke your arm?”

“Still none of your business, Captain. What
is
your business northside?”

“I’m meeting a merchant to discuss supplies.”

“Fabbro Bombelli, Contessa,” Vettori stuttered.

“Fine. Follow me. I don’t know what lies those southsiders have told you, Captain, but it’s not safe for Concordians to walk the streets unescorted.”

“I’m not a soldier; I’m an engineer.”

“What’s the difference?”

Vettori was visibly relieved to reach the merchant’s tower. The door burst open, and Giovanni saw a short, well-fed, well-dressed man sliding down the ladder with surprising grace for someone with so white a beard.

“Vettori! Just as I am about to come to you, you come to me. Hello, Captain! Pleased to know you. You’ll never guess; just this morning another friend suggested I help out with your famous bridge. Naturally, I was delighted.”

Giovanni caught Fabbro’s shrewd glance at Vettori’s black eye and wasn’t surprised when he asked, “You’ll be working on it too, my friend?” He clapped his hands and cried, “Vanzetti and Bombelli, together again! Captain, may you never have sons as cruel as mine! The scoundrels mock me, telling me you have the power to keep the buio at bay!”

While Giovanni explained how the eggs worked, Fabbro tilted his head appraisingly. He looked upon business opportunities with almost motherly affection, and though he did not understand the technology, he saw the possibilities at once. “Let me understand: we
can unload barges without endangering the operators? But this is marvelous—my sons are honest!”

“You’re forgetting the wall,” Vettori interjected. “What’s left of it.”

“We’ll knock it down,” Giovanni said. “With a real bridge, you won’t need it.”

The very notion left Vettori speechless, but Fabbro’s nimble mind had already leaped into a future in which river traffic was not feared but welcomed. “Knock it down. How simple. This will make delivering your iron a trifle, Captain. Tell me exactly what you need and Bombelli and sons will look after the rest.”

After Giovanni had gone over his requirements, he turned to Vettori. “You can go back now. I need to speak with Doctor Bardini.”

Vettori looked sheepish, and Sofia looked suspicious. “Why?” she demanded.

“He’s in charge, isn’t he?”

Sofia picked up her flag. “Go home, Vanzetti. I’ll see the Concordian gets back in one piece.”

When Vettori had left, Giovanni caught up to her. “I didn’t mean to be rude, Signorina. I just meant—Well, you
are
under his protection, aren’t you?”

Giovanni thought she wasn’t going to answer until she turned on him. “The Signoria sits at
my
pleasure. I’m not some ordinary Rasenneisi; I am the Contessa Scaligeri!”

“We don’t make such distinctions in Concord.”

“How wonderfully modern. Keep up, will you?”

Giovanni followed through quickly turning streets with difficulty, annoyed with himself for glibly repeating Guild dogma. He had reviewed their last meeting several times, imagining ways he could have done better—now this! What was it about wanting to make a good impression that ensured you didn’t?

The Doctor greeted him from the steps of the workshop like an old friend. “Captain, come in!”

“Doctor, I need help.”

The Doctor looked for Sofia, but she was already dragging Valerius from the pillar he was lurking behind. It wouldn’t do for
Concord to hear secondhand of any arrangements the Bardini might make with the engineer.

“What’s
he
want, Sofia?” Valerius said, sulky at having been removed from his vantage point.

“If you paid as much attention to your studies as you do to gossip, you might be half the soldier your father’s expecting to collect.” As she led him away, she glanced over her shoulder. She was curious too.

“I’m impressed that you’ve come so soon. You’re a fast learner, Captain. And Sofia tells me you’ve got some salt in a tight corner.”

“I got the impression she hated me.”

“She hates
Concord
. In time, she’ll see you have many good qualities. Knowing when you need friends, for example. How can I help?”

“Keep your feud away from my bridge.”

The Doctor’s smile didn’t falter. “What do you mean?”

“You know very well: neither Vettori Vanzetti nor Fabbro Bombelli was given a choice in working for me.”

“Vanzetti’s a southsider.”

“I already told Quintus Morello I don’t want my crew intimidated.”

The Doctor smiled a little more widely. “And how did our sage gonfaloniere respond?”

“He said he didn’t know what I was talking about.”

“Ah, you’re simply confused by our provincial ways. Fabbro Bombelli asked me, as a friend, whether he should get involved, and I told him exactly what I told the Signoria: Concord wants a bridge, so Concord will get a bridge. It’s in Rasenna’s best interest to cooperate.”

“Maybe you don’t listen to others in the Signoria. I came to build a bridge
for
Rasenna.”

“Then, if you’ll forgive me for saying so, you’ve misunderstood your mission. Not that it matters whether you pick it up or not; Concord holds the rod.”

“You’re still not listening, Doctor. You’re talking small-town politics. A crew needs peace to get anything done, and if you and Quintus Morello disrupt that, there’s going to be discord and delays.”

“And what
I’m
saying, Captain, is that discord’s inevitable. We’re not like other towns—” He broke off and laughed. “But you’ll come to see that. I’ll stay away, since you ask, but don’t think I’ll let that dreamer take advantage. He agreed in the Signoria for form’s sake. He imagines he can stop the bridge and still avoid Concord’s wrath.”

“You know better?”

“I was a boy the first time Concord punished Rasenna. For years I dreamed about it.” The Doctor looked away. “Don’t misunderstand; I’m as ambitious as Morello, but I don’t put faith in dreams. The only constant in Etruria is Concord’s strength.”

Giovanni followed the Doctor’s gaze. At the other end of the workshop Sofia was instructing the students.

“And my ambition is not for myself. If you won’t take my help, at least take my advice. Like it or not, you’re a conqueror. Act like one. Strength is all Rasenneisi understand. Whatever you are, don’t be lukewarm. It’s no good to anybody.”

“I came to build a bridge for Rasenna,” Giovanni repeated stubbornly.

“Then you’re just another dreamer.” The Doctor sighed and turned. “Sofia, take the Captain home. I no longer guarantee his safety.”

On the way back, Giovanni was quiet and thoughtful. Sofia had assumed the engineer had come seeking Bardini protection—everybody folded to the Families eventually—but the Doctor’s abrupt dismissal suggested otherwise.

“Get what you wanted?” she asked casually.

“I said what I wanted. I don’t know if he heard.”

“What do you want?”

He realized he could easily appear rude again if he didn’t frame his reply carefully. After a moment he said, “I don’t want to interfere
with Rasenneisi politics, but I have a mission. I need both Families to keep their quarrel off the bridge.”

She frowned. “Look, you mean well—”

“But?”

“You’re not a Rasenneisi, Captain. What you want might not be possible.”

There was no arguing the point; he could see that. He said, “I saw you in the workshop, by the way. I’m no judge, but you look very skillful.”

She shrugged. “I have to be.”

“But won’t you inherit all this at seventeen?”

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