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Authors: Aidan Harte

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BOOK: Irenicon
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“I hate to say this”—Vettori looked down at his feet—“but it’s because the crew here is an even split. On the other side, it’s mostly southsiders. The northsiders over there are cutting stone, away from the rest. They don’t have to mix.”

“You’re telling me we make more progress on the other side with fewer people?”

Vettori called to one of the workers, “Galati, any reason why you’re just sitting there looking stupid?”

Hog looked up casually and spit. “Got no nails, boss.”

“Nails, anyone?” Vettori asked.

Hog wasn’t the least abashed as several hands went up. With a strangely vain gesture he ran a hand though his lank black curls.

“What do you recommend?” said Giovanni quietly.

“This is Rasenna.” Vettori regarded Hog coldly. “Put a crow’s head on a stick.”

“Fire him?”

“And make sure the Signoria hears why. Morello won’t let Bardini break Hog’s legs, but he’ll tolerate a beating. Then redivide the crew.”

“It’s divided according to the crafts they know!”

“Which would work if this
was
no-man’s-land and not—”

“I know! You don’t have to say it.”

Rasenna: when things fell, they didn’t blame gravity—they said, “Rasenna!” and walked away. It explained everything. Giovanni had come to know Vettori as a reasonable man, a good father, yet here he was, calmly recommending throwing a man to the Doctor. He stared hard at the river flowing under his feet. He’d drown under logistics while they squabbled like children. Building sites had a thousand tests of competence, of leadership, every day, but this was different. This was the noise of a fight brewing. Vettori was right; an example was needed. An image assailed him: a crow’s beak caked in blood, a boy bathing his face and smiling like a cat.

“That would be an example,” he agreed. “Not the right one, though.”

“What else can we do?” asked Vettori impatiently.

“Work together. If it takes longer, so be it.”

“I guess Rome wasn’t burned in a day,” Vettori said, skeptical but impressed at the engineer’s stubbornness.

“I’ll make up the difference today; I’m a decent carpenter,” said Giovanni, walking over and taking a place beside Hog.

After an awkward silence, Hog spit and got to work.

By day’s end, Giovanni was exhausted. There’d been no fights yet, but at close of play the men gravitated north and south like armies lining up.

CHAPTER 17

Fabbro was frequently offsite sourcing materials, and when the first barges docked, he struck up conversations with their captains, but Vettori didn’t complain. Luck had reunited them, and he was conscious that he’d done little to keep their partnership alive over the years, while Fabbro had been tenacious.

Escorting Giovanni to and from the bridge, Sofia noticed Fabbro’s absence too and told the Doctor.

“Bombelli’s got plenty of sons. Tell him to delegate.”

The Doctor grinned. “Why throw away an opportunity?” He wrote to remind the gonfaloniere that the truce stipulated that they each have a man on-site at all times.

Sofia couldn’t understand why the Doctor picked Secondo Borselinno to take Fabbro’s place. Secondo had been agitating for payback since the ear incident.

“You said the bridge is an opportunity, Doc,” she started.

“Yes, and Secondo will help things along. Trust me.”

Sofia knew Doc too well for that. She decided to avoid the bridge while Secondo was on it until she knew what Doc was after. The truce was fragile enough.

Giovanni didn’t understand the Doctor’s methods either. “A straight line is shortest.”

Vettori shrugged. “Not in Rasenna.” He was frustrated with Fabbro for giving the Doctor an excuse to interfere, but he quickly saw that if it hadn’t been that, it would just have been something else. “Don’t fight it, Captain,” he advised, “in the interests of safety.”

The Doctor’s man proved to be not just useless but divisive. Secondo didn’t know construction, nor did he care to learn, but he arbitrarily decided that the southsiders were working too slowly and wasting money. It was pointless to argue. Secondo had other goals in mind.

Toward the end of the second week, the rains got heavier. Seeing clouds coming in from the north, Giovanni ordered the carpenters working on the floating platforms to come in while the storm lasted. They reached the bank just as the central platform broke loose. It was left hanging by a corner.

“Thank the Virgin no one was on it,” said Vettori.

“That raft is worth something,” Secondo shouted.

“Don’t be stupid; it’s too dangerous!”

“What did you call me?” Secondo grabbed Vettori by his collar. “I don’t take that from a Morello stooge.”

“Let him go,” Giovanni said.

Secondo pushed Vettori away and glared at the engineer.

Giovanni had to shout to make himself heard over the wind. “Concord’s got deep pockets. We can replace equipment, but Rasenna can’t spare men.”

Secondo gave Giovanni a slow blink, shook his head disgustedly, and turned back to the river.

The crew huddled in the craftsmen’s tents in Piazza Luna, and as lightning dispelled the gathering gloom for an instant, Giovanni
looked over them. By now he knew every face. The boy who had asked for a sacrifice on the first day wasn’t among them.

“Where’s Little Frog?”

“Secondo was talking to him,” said a voice.

“Where’s he now?”

When no one answered, Giovanni ran out into the slashing rain, cursing.

Secondo was crouched on the bottom level of the abutment, holding his combat banner into the darkness. On the other end, Little Frog crawled toward the wildly bobbing platform.

“Get back in!” Giovanni cried.

Frog looked back uncertainly as Secondo shouted that he almost had it.

“I don’t give a damn! Come back—that’s an order!”

Frog crawled back to the abutment—

—just as the platform broke free, pulling with it the section he’d been on a moment earlier.

Secondo had the decency to look embarrassed as Pedro took the shivering boy back to the tent. Everyone inside watched Giovanni berating Secondo outside in the rain.

“Take your banner and get the hell off my site!”

“The Doc’ll hear about this.”

“So? I’m not frightened.”

The Captain surely did not understand: Secondo was more than a bandieratoro. Bardini capodecini intimidated even seasoned fighters. The crew waited to see what Secondo would do.

None of them understood why he backed down and, after a lull in the storm, slunk back north.

After Giovanni sent everyone home for the day, he stayed in the tent. Frog, shivering in a towel, was trying to drink a glass of spirits he’d been given.

“It’s my fault,” the engineer said. “The platforms should have been secured better.”

Frog’s hands trembled, but he shook his head firmly. “Nothing you could have done. The river hates us. What can you expect from something the Devil set loose?”

Giovanni looked back at the Irenicon, seeing it like a Rasenneisi: something impious, unnatural, unwelcome. The wind pulled up sheets of spray, ghosts that briefly soared before they were torn apart by other winds.

“Quitting?” he said quietly.

Warily, Frog looked up. Giovanni knew he was debating the most prudent lie to tell a Concordian. He was surprised to hear the truth.

“Yes. Tonight’s my last night in Rasenna, and I’m going to get drunk!” The boy held up his glass.
“Cincin!”

“You’re going to join the Hawk’s Company, right?”

Frog, pale already, became paler. “Who told you?”

“No one. If I wasn’t Concordian, I’d fight us too.”

Frog laughed and handed Giovanni the glass while he drank from the bottle. “Then let’s drink to being someone else!”

CHAPTER 18

The same drooping lips had supped for years in the Lion’s Fountain, a simple and charmless establishment that was little more than a few tables scattered around a square under the frugal light of a few charred torches and the more generous donation of the moon. A counter kept the patrons away from the bottles. Crammed into the constrained piazzetta was the usual mix of students and Woolsmen, each convinced they toiled for the other’s leisure, a nightly test whether lions and lambs could lie together.

Rasenna might be poor, but it was a profitable place to own a tavern. Young men required to be careless with their lives became first intemperate and finally reckless; publicans became rich.

Valerius cheerfully joined bandieratori in patriotic toasts of “Death to Concord!” indifferent to the hostile glares he provoked.

He clinked Mule Borselinno’s glass. “How’s the ear?”

“What?”

“How’s the ear?”

“Speak into the other side; can’t hear this side. My ear.”

Drunk already, Frog ordered another round, and after that: “One more!” Inspired by drink, he attempted a farewell speech: “As the Virgin’s my witness, before I go, I’m going cross that river and—”

He fell backward, bringing a dozen drinks with him, and lay laughing, his green legs and boots waving in the air.

“I think the Morello can sleep soundly,” said Sofia, raising her glass. “Froggy, we’ll miss you. Don’t be a hero tonight. Just get some sleep.”

“I’ll come back for you, Contessa, when I’m a famous condottiere with my own company!”

“And I’ll wait for you,
amore
. To the scourge of Concord,
salute
!”

Sofia drank, then, looking at Frog seriously, pulled aside her scarf to reveal a Herod’s Sword. “This was my mother’s. It’ll keep you safe.”

Valerius tried to interrupt the moment. “Sing us a song, Contessa!”

“‘The River’s Song,’” shouted Mule.

“No, something lively!”

She dismissed them all. “Sing for yourselves. I don’t sing anymore!”

Valerius watched Frog receive a parting kiss, followed by a playful slap and a final admonishment.

Sofia knew it was even money that he would stay; lots of boys had “last nights” and next morning thought better of it or went on drunken raids and next morning were dead. Yet year by year, more boys left town, more towers emptied.

There were more toasts to future knightly deeds, more drinks, and counterfeit joy. When night erupted, the chill air filled with curses and the crowd, sensing that they were celebrating the town’s slow death by blood loss, became irritable.

Sofia took a bottle and left, not interested in joining the brawl she smelled brewing. Valerius crept after her. Since he’d effectively blinded the other Concordian boy, Sofia had been cold, still training
him and guarding him, but no more than that. But Valerius was drunk. He grabbed her shoulder. “Contessa! Can’t we be friends again?”

She spun around and slapped his hand away. “Touch me again, I’ll snap your pencil neck!”

“Is
that
why you’re sore with me? Look, I’m sorry I hit you—I’m an ass. May I walk you home?”

“Drop dead. I’m not going home.” She might be too drunk to be polite, but still Sofia remembered practicalities. “Get one of the Borselinno to bring you home or you’ll end up gutted in an alley.”

Valerius slunk back to the party, trying not to be noticed. Mule slapped him on the back. “Don’t worry, lad. You’re not the first.” He winked his good eye and raised an empty glass: “To the Contessa!”

Valerius burned crimson with humiliation. To be usurped by engineers was painful; to be mocked by inferiors, unbearable. But a fight broke out, and the crowd’s attentions moved on.

Valerius quietly nursed his drink, watching the drunken Rasenneisi claw at each other, retreating into comforting fantasies of revenge: on his father for sending him here, on the engineers, on Rasenna, Bardini and Morello, and Sofia—they could all drown together. With lighter spirits, he toasted the heroes:
“Cincin!”

Sofia needed to clear her head, but the alley air was stubbornly stagnant despite the wind, and there was always the chance of bumping into couples tussling amorously or violently. She drained the bottle, threw it over her shoulder, and vaulted up the walls.

Topside, a cold wind swept off the Irenicon, waking her like a splash of water on the face. She wrapped her scarf tighter and looked south. Sometimes, when she forgot the duty to hate it, the river’s solemn beauty could startle her.

Earlier that evening, Secondo had stormed into the workshop to tell the Doctor about the accident, along with his theory that Captain Giovanni was conspiring against them. Frog’s rather different version of events surprised her. She wasn’t naive enough to believe the engineer cared; it was obviously about control—and a happy
crew was a productive crew—but it was far better than the standard brutalist tactics. There was no doubt about it, he was different.

Sofia skipped onto the roof of a higher tower and sat smiling on its gable; it was pleasant to think of families inside, soundly sleeping, oblivious to night visitors. Then she caught sight of light shining from the narrow windows of Tower Vaccarelli; evidently somebody else was awake, probably old Guercho, writing more windy oratory.

She looked over the rooftops, which were rust-bleached in the moonlight, and imagined other nights and better times, chasing Gaetano, him chasing her: children, innocent of simmering feuds soon to boil over. She did not feel young anymore. Once she had looked forward to turning seventeen, but lately she only worried about the responsibility it would bring.

She yawned and caught an acrid smell on the air. She leaped up, her head spinning—that light in the window!

She crossed the rooftops dangerously fast. Up close, she could see the lower stories of Tower Vaccarelli already burning. A window on the fifth floor was open. She paused to wrap her scarf more firmly around her face, then dived. She landed inside, rolling, her knife out of her belt before she’d even stopped.

A masked man looked up in the act of pulling a dagger from Guercho Vaccarelli’s chest. He picked up his torch and came for her; Sofia had no time to rise before the blow came. She blocked it with her forearm. As she flinched from the sparks, the man kicked her in the chest. When she fell back, her scarf came open.

Figuring she’d get only one chance to strike from this position, she feigned unconsciousness. When she finally opened her eyes, he’d turned his back on her and was climbing to the sixth floor. She swore and threw her knife without aiming. It grazed the back of his neck, a flesh wound, but painful, she hoped.

Sofia was about to give chase when she heard a cry from below.
“Cazzo!”
she swore again, and bounded down to the third story. Towers would crack and crumble before they burned, but they quickly became ovens for those trapped inside.

The family chamber was in disarray, and smoke was already rising. In the center there was a mound, covered by the family banner. Several feet stuck out pathetically.

Sofia, shuddering, pulled it back.

Donna Vaccarelli was lying dead with her sons. Their throats were cut, and they were sprawled as if they were still trying to defend her, even in death. They were just boys but good fighting stock. A knife against three flags! Whoever the southsider was, he could fight.

Sofia heard a shifting sound from the pile of blankets in the corner. She pulled the knife from Donna Vaccarelli’s chest and crept toward the noise.

The little girl leaped at her with a feral scream, but Sofia caught her by the wrist and held it until she dropped her knife.

“Isabella!”
she shouted. “You know me, don’t you?”

Tears and soot smeared the girl’s freckled cheeks. At last she mumbled, “Contessa?”

Sofia lifted her up. “Come with me now,” she said, keeping the child’s face buried in her shoulder. Her tangled black curls stank of smoke already. “They’re just sleeping.”

“They’re dead,” the little girl said with chilling calm.

Sofia considered her next move. Up or down? Jumping from the second floor to the ground was their best bet, damn the height, damn the heat.

She climbed down the next flight of steps. The center of the floor was smoldering; the room below must be an inferno. She pressed Isabella tighter to her shoulder, trying to protect her from the smoke that was filling the great room. She kicked at the door, and when nothing gave, she put the little girl down, telling her to wait, and ran at it with her shoulder.

The pain from her broken arm was intense, but she willed herself to ignore it. They had blocked the door, so this was no ordinary raid; it was planned. Somebody had marked the Vaccarelli family to burn tonight.

“We’re going to die too, aren’t we?” Isabella said as Sofia lifted her in her arms again.

“Someone will see the flames and help,” Sofia said, but that wasn’t true either. They’d raided on a night when everyone was too drunk to notice.

CcraaAK!

Sofia flung herself to the wall as the burning beam just missed them and crashed though the weakened floor, starting a general collapse. She dived for the stairs and started running up as everything else fell into the fire below. With more air to burn, the flames suddenly grew higher.

She put Isabella down on the fourth-floor steps.

“Don’t leave me!” the little girl cried, looking terrified.

Sofia slapped her hard, so it stung. “Listen, Isabella, I lied. No one’s coming—it’s just you and me, understand? If we panic, we die, and if you die, who’ll avenge your family?”

The child stopped crying.

“That’s more like it. Now, I can’t move as fast carrying you, so if I get into trouble, you’ll have to start climbing yourself. You need to jump from the top floor to the nearest tower. You can do that, can’t you?”

She nodded, calm now.

“Ready?” said Sofia, looking up, calculating.

Suddenly the girl broke free and ran down the stairs into the smoke.

“No, Isabella! They’re all dead!” Sofia cried, but a moment later the girl had returned.

“Ready,” she whispered. She had a bundle under her arm: the Vaccarelli banner.

They reached the fifth floor, but the window was blocked by burning debris. Below it, old Vaccarelli’s body was smoldering black. Sofia prayed the masked man wasn’t waiting on the floor above; she could hardly walk now, let alone fight. But when they climbed up, they found the upper part of the stairs being eaten away by flames
and a hole in the roof where beams had fallen in. The bastard had tried to cook them from both ends.

Halfway up, the staircase began to crumble. Sofia hoisted Isabella through the gap, then leaped after her. Thankfully, there was little to burn on the top story. The night sky beckoned tantalizingly through a skylight. Sofia looked around and saw a locker in the corner, about the right height. She pushed it as close to the hole in the center as she could get and, praying the floor would hold long enough, lifted Isabella onto it before clambering up awkwardly after her.

She was breathing smoke now and gasping. “Get on my shoulder and jump,” she rasped.

“You’ll follow me?” Isabella said anxiously.

“Yes—hurry!” She doubted she could even stay on her feet much longer.

Isabella crawled onto her shoulders and sprang up through the flames and into the night.

“Thank you,
Madonna
,” Sofia said, sinking to her knees.

There was a loud creak: the floor, sagging beneath the locker’s weight.
This is it,
she thought.

“Contessa!”

She looked up and saw the Vaccarelli banner being lowered toward her.

“It’s tied off!” the little girl cried. “Hurry!”

The rain sizzled on the ruins of Tower Vaccarelli. A column of bitter smoke rose with the morning sun, another black spectacle for Quintus Morello’s satisfaction.

Giovanni had worked through the night, oblivious to events across the river. He set out to work with a smile, expecting to be accosted at any turn, and he was looking for her overhead when he finally noticed the smoke. He broke into a run, fearing for the craftsmen’s tents in Piazza Luna, but as he got closer, he saw that the column originated across the river. A northside tower had burned—that was why Sofia hadn’t appeared. He felt a stab of dismay.
What if—?

Yet if the smoke had nothing to do with the bridge, why were his foremen waiting and looking so grim?

“Turn back,” Fabbro said. “There’s no need for you to see this.”

Giovanni ignored him and pushed past. “An accident?”

He caught the import of Fabbro’s glance. “Maybe not an accident, Captain. Don’t get involved.”

“I’m already involved,” he said, and elbowed his way through the Woolsmen, hardly seeing them. The crowd thinned out on the gangway leading to the first cofferdam. The pump had been smashed, and Giovanni could see the pile driver, suspended over the pit as normal, except for the body that was lying on the gangway underneath. A boy’s body, legs in ripped green hose, feet in clumsy old boots. The head would have been directly under the pile . . . but there was no head. Flies buzzed greedily around the red mess pouring from the neck. It had been Frog’s last night in Rasenna, after all.

“We have to get this drained,” Giovanni said, pulling off his shirt.

“Captain, someone else can do this,” said Fabbro.

Giovanni turned on him fiercely. “It’s
my
responsibility. It’s
my
bridge!”

The Baptistery door was open, as always. The Doctor received the news so impassively that Sofia knew he had anticipated Guercho Vaccarelli’s murder; he had, after all, used the old man as a mouthpiece for years. Guercho’s other task, plainly, was to be a lightning rod.

Sofia’s task was to find a home for his daughter.

The Reverend Mother appeared just as she was about to knock. “Bit old to leave on the doorstep, don’t you think?”

“You think it’s funny? We lost another tower, and she lost her family last night. Or didn’t you dream that?”

The little girl hid behind Sofia.

“Don’t worry, Isabella. She’s not a witch, just ugly.”

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