Returning to the world of Stormwrack where she set the Tor.com story “Among the Silvering Herd,” A.M. Dellamonica offers a new story that takes us deeper into this fascinating world, the site of her new fantasy novel Child of a Hidden Sea. The Fleet, integral to the governing of a world that is mostly water sprinkled with a number of islands, must deal with a unique form of magic, Inscribing, which is so subtle that its effects can sometimes only be known in retrospect. When a ship of the fleet visits an island where scripping is common, the crew members of the sailing vessel Nightjar are at a disadvantage when faced with local matters of which they know little or nothing at all. Strangers on the shore, indeed, they may enjoy the local customs . . . but also may attract unwanted attention that could cost them more than embarrassment or money.
The Castello di Putti has a suggestive sound to it, but don’t be deceived. This is a story of civil strife, of culture shock, and ultimately of the risks and rewards of naval duty. Filled with Dellamonica’s fresh, inventive worldbuilding and the joie de vivre of a society in flux, it shows a side of Stormwrack very different from what she presented in the previous tale.
They had barely come ashore before the riot started.
Sindria, capital of Erinth, was a city of black marble and volcanic glass, a dark architectural foundation layered in color and light. Carved urns and stone window boxes built into the structures all burst with bougainvillea and daisies. Fruit trees nodded along the avenues, laden with oranges, lemons, and sun-burnished golden plums.
As they strode up from the landing, they passed a young couple, a fine-featured woman and handsome man, decked out in vivid fabrics, leaning on each other and sharing the support of a sturdy hardwood walker.
Tall, femininely curved sconces of yellow obsidian lined the streets. At night, Garland Parrish imagined, they would cast a pale glow upon the fountains and statues, shadows stretching to stone benches seemingly built for lovers’ trysts.
The city had been built with its face to the sea, its back turned on the rising mountains to whose skirts it clung, and the volcano at their heart. East of the harbor, steam curled up like a questing finger, thick at the base where the lava boiled into the water, then stretching as it dispersed, to point out the direction of the wind.
“Want to explore a bit, Garland?” His captain, Royl Sloot, was strolling with their employer, sketching a path through the opulent splendor of the mercato. Two additional sailors from Nightjar trailed behind the three of them, carrying baggage and gaping at the wares on display. “The hike up to the caldera is a wonder. Erinth’s famous magical glassworks is up there.”
Curiosity stirred, but he was in no mood to be dazzled. “Perhaps later.”
Nightjar was ostensibly a privately held cutter, but their employer, Gale Feliachild, held an ill-defined position within the Fleet government, one that fell between diplomatic work and outright spying. In his short time aboard her ship, Parrish had seen her settle a conflict between two island nations over hunting rights to their stags. Now she had declared that they were taking a break, catching some shore leave. Was it true, or was there another unofficial intrigue afoot? If the latter, he wanted to be on hand.
A boy darted into his path, bowing elaborately. “Buy a walking stick for your padre, Kir! Stonewood, with a handle of finest Erinthian glass.”
Parrish shook his head with a smile.
“Beads for your madre, then! Beads of blue and silver, best in Erinth, magically crafted by the famed Ferren Dale. There’s to be a parade for the Prince Secondo’s betrothal, Kir; your family will want to be in its finest.”
“No, thank you.” It was no surprise that Gale and Sloot should be taken for a couple; they had been sailing together for decades, and looked the part of cozy intimacy. And Parrish was the right age to be their son.
Yet they expect me to replace Sloot, Parrish thought.
He hoped some ulterior motive had brought them to Erinth. If this was just shore leave for Gale, it might also be a good-bye. One last vacation with her dear friend.
The boy was not to be put off. “What about a tour of the caldera, or a youth scrip for the old man? My brother works for a spellscribe on the Via Solari. If you take the weather off his face, he might seem thirty again—”
Cries interrupted his pitch.
A mob of men and women, bare-armed and dressed in heavy aprons, faces masked, charged through the mercato. They knocked over carts, pushed shoppers, tore up flowers, and yanked down tapestries. One tanned, muscular man swung a crude hammer of porous volcanic stone, tapping the sconces as he ran by. They shattered with ear-cracking pops, sending yellow shards into the street, revealing the torches within.
The vendors rallied, plunging in to protect their stock. As the melee swung his way, Parrish stepped close to the boy, putting out an arm so he couldn’t be trampled.
“No tax on glass!” One vandal took a run at him; Parrish side-stepped, giving him a shove as he milled past, plunging him into a bed of peonies.
The move brought with it an unexpected stab of loss, a memory of hand-to-hand combat drills with other cadets. Stretching and calisthenics on the deck of Constitution, training to fight under a cloudless sky, with all the ships of all the Fleet’s member nations around them. Preparing to defend the great, seagoing city that was both the world’s navy and her capital . . .
Clanging alarms brought him back to the fight at hand. A regiment of mounted soldiers rode out from the palazzo, horses high-stepping as they advanced on the riot. The masked vandals, seeing themselves outnumbered, fled the mercato.
“No tax on glass!” Their leader swung the stone hammer one last swing, this time at the statue of a young dancer.
There was a thunderous boom, a shock of air so profound that Parrish felt the jolt in his bones. The hammer, clearly, was magical.
Black marble flew everywhere. He turned, protecting the boy, and pieces of obliterated statuary pelted his back and bit into his upraised palm.
His eyes sought Gale.
She was safe, even now emerging, with Sloot, from behind the shelter of a flower stall.
“Tonio!” someone shouted.
“Remember my offer, Kir.” The boy sprinted away, shouting in Erinthian at a man . . . his father? An elder brother? The relative, whoever he was, lifted his cap to Parrish in thanks.
Bowing in return, he made his way across the mercato to join the others. Sloot was comforting a flower vendor, whose wares had been shredded by flying rock from the statue. Gale sat atop one of the vandals.
It wasn’t the first time Parrish had seen her use a prisoner as a cushion; it seemed a favorite trick of hers.
“Deep blue daisies, dearheart.” Sloot daubed at the flower girl’s bloodied forehead with a handkerchief. “At least five bunches, soon as you can manage it. Can ye handle an order that big?”
The girl managed a trembly nod.
A soldier had by now come to collect Gale’s prisoner. She obliged him to offer her his hand. Hauling herself up with a noisy squawk, she clung until she had his attention. Only then did she hand him a card. “Would you see that Prince Secondo gets this?”
The soldier gave a vague nod, trying to extricate himself from her grip.
“Kir Parrish?” Gale said. “Some help here?”
“Corporal.” Parrish raised the vandal to his feet, thereby catching the soldier’s eye. “It’s imperative that the prince gets this lady’s message. Do you understand?”
The soldier let his eyes drop to Gale’s card. His eyes widened, and he looked at her in frank astonishment. “But of course! Of course, Kir!”
Satisfied, Gale let him have his hand back. He hustled the rioter away, calling excitedly to the other soldiers.
Was that . . . did he just call Gale ‘Secco’s ugly tart’? His Erinthian was poor; maybe he’d misunderstood.
“Battle wounds, Parrish?” Gale said.
Parrish flicked a shard of stone from his palm. “Hardly.”
Sloot had jollied up the little vendor. She groped behind her cart for something—a cane—and tottered toward one of the buildings, moving as cautiously as if she was walking on ice.
“Is there a lot of sickness here?” Parrish asked.
“Lady’s probably seventy,” Sloot explained. “Erinth beauty shops sell the gloss of youth, not the vigor.”
“I hope you let her swindle us,” Gale said, taking both men by the arm.
“Cheered ’er up some to make a profit. Poor cat had no stomach for a public brawl.”
“What will you do with sixty daisies?” Parrish asked.
“I’ll need them for the apartment,” Gale said. “It’s expected, when one is in residence.”
“Had that soldier heard of you?” Parrish asked.
Few people took notice of Gale, or remembered her when they did. This was the work of a spell her parents had written when she was a child, making her forgettable, beneath notice. They’d meant for it to keep her safe. They hadn’t foreseen that it would lead to her into spying.
“I’ve fallen into a reputation here in Erinth,” Gale said. “When I moved into the mistress suite—”
“There are buildings, near the palazzo, reserved for courtiers and special pets of the Contessa. My home—”
“Castello di Putti, they call it,” Royl put in. “In Fleetspeak, Strumpet Court.”
“You live in a place called Strumpet Court.”
“The Contessa owed me a favor, and I’d had a fling with Secco—Secondo—years ago.”
“Secondo . . . the prince who’s just gotten engaged?” They were here for an intrigue, then.
Royl grinned. “Thing is, Garland, Strumpet Court’s got its own reputation. Stories about the residents go back centuries.”
“And some are about an old witch,” Gale put in.
“Gale here being just about the only person on the fair isle who hain’t had a beauty scrip or six done on her, she inherited all that legend.”
“Isn’t that problematic?” Parrish asked. “You work in the shadows.”
“In the streets, I’m anonymous enough. It’s only when I’m linked with the building, or Secondo, that people notice.” Gale leaned against Sloot companionably. “They call me Secco’s Hag.”
The apartment was three floors up, airy and comfortably furnished. Parrish, observing from the balcony that overlooked the mercato and harbor, gauged the mood of the town. Only the children were animated and cheery. Adults grouped in twos and threes, speaking in murmurs, body language transmitting worry.
He felt an echo of that mood within.
Parrish knew himself to be up to the task of managing Gale’s cutter and her crew of twenty-five. Nightjar was a beautiful ship, flawlessly maintained, and he’d been at the top of his Fleet graduating class. As a private owner, Gale was lucky to have an officer of his caliber, young or not.
It was good fortune for him, too: there was no going back to Fleet. After he lost his place there, his prospects had been poor: sailing for Gale was a better position than any he could have hoped for. He might have ended up stuck in the low ranks of some minor island’s navy, or aboard a merchant ship or salvager.
I should be grateful.
Gale joined him on the balcony. “How’s your hand?”
“It’s merely scraped.”
She indicated the people below. “Town’s uneasy.”
“Are there often riots here?”
Gale said. “This kind of bloody street theater was common on Erinth before the Contessa took over, but it’s been decades since it was this turbulent.”
“Was that . . .” He groped for the right words. “Did things settle down because of you?”
“When I first went to sea, I spent a good deal of time here,” Gale said. “I love the Erinthians. They’re such dramatic people, and mine . . . well, Verdanii seemed cold in comparison. So, yes, I helped the Contessa out now and then.”
“And Secondo?” He wasn’t even sure what he was asking. “You helped him too?”
“Secco needs no help. He’s handsome, privileged, confident, and every bit as brilliant as his mother. I’d say he was hard to resist”—that was almost a purr—“but I didn’t try.”
“So you spent time here, you helped the Contessa consolidate her hold on power, and you became close to her son.”
“It’s how I learned I had a knack for resolving thorny international problems.”
“Seems unfair, then, that in return, they made you the ugly strumpet.”
“That’s nothing.” She laughed. “This house is more my home than Tor Feliachild on Verdanii.”
Having grown up among monks—men who’d always intended him for the Fleet, who couldn’t wait to be rid of him—Parrish understood that well. He asked, “The unrest, now. Is it why we’re here?”
“Nobody sent for me,” Gale said. “But I’ll see the Contessa. I’ll ask her what’s stirred the beehive. And Royl can charm the local gossip out of that flower girl.”
“Can I help?”
“Why don’t you take that kid up to the caldera and have a look at the glassworks?” she said. “The rioters were shouting about a tax.”
Parrish found the boy deep in conversation with another woman of apparent youth and exceptional beauty. More magic: her skin had a flawless, sun-bronzed shine, and her hair was a raven cascade of improbably perfect curls. Her eyes were black, shot through with hints of sapphire.
They examined him as he approached. Garland was accustomed to being stared at, but this was a professional assessment. She said, “Your face, Kir, is nicely wrought.”
“Thank you.” What else could one say?
“Magic might yet improve on it. A few streaks of russet in your curls, perhaps? And were you taller, your cheekbones might be more striking.”
“That’s kind of you, but I’ve come to take this fellow—it was Tonio, wasn’t it?—up on a caldera tour.” He offered a coin to the lad.
The girl pushed the money away. “You protected my brother this morning, Kir.”
Tonio gave her a look that said, given half a chance, he could find his way clear to accepting a coin or two. She shot him a tart reproof in Erinthian, and he put a hand to his heart, pantomiming obedience, before leading Parrish inland through the mercato, toward the caldera path.
“Your lady lives at the Castello, Kir?”
“I’m told they call her the Hag.”
“What a fate! To be homely, among the chosen blossoms of Court,” Tonio said. “Does it bother her?”
“My brother’s shop could reshape her face.”
“I’ll tell her.”
“Have you brought water?” Tonio asked, veering toward a cart of water skins.
With a half-smile, Parrish showed him his flask.
“Rubbish! Looks like a Fleet discard.”
As am I, he thought. “It has sentimental value, Tonio. If you know someone who might sell us lunch . . .”
The child brightened and made for a baker with meat pasties.
Once provisioned, they climbed the hills behind the city. The path brought them to a ridge that overlooked a series of old stone structures—building foundations, Parrish realized. Within the ruins were shapes, hollows in the stone. Bodies and limbs . . . he recognized a goat first, then a cat.
Faces. Dead people.
“Victims of the last great eruption,” Tonio explained. “Buried in ash before they could escape. Punishment, some say, for the city’s hedonism.”
Wide-eyed, contorted faces, with screaming mouths. Their hands clawed at the air. Had they suffocated? Or burned?
“As penance, we rebuilt the city with black stone.”
“Then decked it out in gold and gilt?” Parrish said.
Tonio shrugged. “You can’t regret your sins forever.”
Beyond the dead city, a cadaverous, ill-kempt friar haunted the path, blessing people headed to the caldera.
“See, Kir! The Fiumefouco!” Tonio pointed to a barely visible river of molten stone, flowing to the sea. The seam of burning crimson moved with the tame efficiency of an irrigation canal. Heat shimmered above it, forming an illusory curtain over the hills.
Tonio accepted the friar’s murmured prayer and dabs of oil, plus a pack of flowers, with every appearance of piety. Parrish held out a coin, but stepped back beyond the reach of the oil-soaked finger with what he hoped was a respectful shake of his head. The friar sniffed but tucked the coin away nevertheless.
A keen-eyed teenage girl nudged Parrish, not quite by accident. “Who scripped you, Kir? He’s not so good. Amio padre’s beauty shop, on Via Ferra, can—”
Tonio wormed between them, driving her off with a glare. “This way, Kir.”
They climbed, Tonio chattering about the eruption of six centuries past, describing with grisly relish the deaths of the people buried in ash. “Afterward, our Conto brought spellscribes from across Stormwrack to see how we might manage the volcano.”
“See for yourself.” Tonio swept out an arm as they reached the cliff top, and Parrish saw the figure of a woman, sculpted in rose marble and fully fifty feet high. Clad in a modest robe, hair bound at the nape of her neck, she stood on the inland lip of the caldera, hands out in a soothing gesture, the hushing pose of a mother calming a child in its cradle.
Ice-blue spellscrip glimmered on her arms and hands, written from shoulder to fingertip.
In the shadow of those big stone hands, the molten stone churned like a pot aboil. Beyond it, the flow of lava seemed orderly and civilized.
It was all wrong, Parrish thought. An illusion of safety. He thought fleetingly of a story from his childhood, about a monk who’d tried to tame a spectercat, only to get himself eaten.
Danger contained, the moral had been, would inevitably burst forth.
Parrish remembered the man in the square, using the magical hammer to shatter the statue of the dancing boy. No wonder people were nervous. If that happened here, to this magical statue that held back the lava . . .
“Ask the Lady for a boon, Kir.” Tonio kissed his flowers and tossed them into caldera, whispering prayers in his native tongue. “Ease your troubled heart.”
“My heart’s fine, thank you.”
Having reached the caldera, the petitioners became more festive. A few leaned over the lip of stone, the better to feel the blast of hot air rising from the lava. Others gathered around an orator who was speaking in Erinthian, gesturing energetically as she related some tale . . .
“It’s a tale of the Fleet’s early days,” Tonio said. “The raising of the first ships against the Piracy, and the battle in which our own Stellita was sunk by raiders from Isle of Fury. Shall I translate?”
“No, that’s all right.” He remembered the history well enough.
“Then shall we dare the bridge to the glassworks?”
Parrish assessed the lay of the land. The petitioners’ trail led up the southern edge of the volcano, onto a balcony of stone overlooking the caldera. To the east, a stone bridge arched over the lip of the crater, where the lava began its flow down to the sea.
“Yes,” Parrish said. “I want to see the glaziers.”
Tonio scampered to the bridge, lowering his voice. “This is where we burn the dead, and where the forsaken come to end their lives, Kir. We don’t speak of it, naturally.”
“Naturally.” He followed Tonio down and around the mountain to the banks of the Fiumefouco.
Across the bridge were the glaziers.
The first artisans stood alongside a narrow stream of lava, using it as one would any furnace, twirling their blower’s wands over the flow to make vases. Downstream there were potters, roasting clay creations on low-roofed kilns that hung over the molten stone, capturing and focusing its heat. It was a clever but purely mechanical use of the lava. Only after the stream had widened and the plains became less hilly did he see the first sign of magic.
A bare-armed strongman, clad in a heavy apron, dipped a glazed ceramic staff covered in spellscrip into the river of fire. Molten rock clung to its bottom third, red-hot and thick as honey. With a grunt, the man raised it overhead, spinning it to an even depth before rolling it on the undulating surface of a glazed table, sprinkled with yellow beads and flecks of gold. As he worked it back and forth, almost like a column of dough on a rolling pin, the stone came to form one of the sconces Parrish had seen in town. The yellow beads melted in the heat, imparting the thinning volcanic glass with a golden hue.
The glazier plunged the staff into a barrel of water with a hissing eruption of steam. Then, with a practiced twist, he tapped the sconce twice with a pumice hammer, separating it from the staff.
“The fellow at the riot had one of those,” Parrish said. “The hammer that broke up the statue.”
“They’re called bunters,” Tonio replied.
“The one at the riot was magical.”
Tonio nodded, considering. “It’s been seen before, Kir.”
“There was a pumice-grinder who had himself scribed so he could shatter rock with his bare hands. He sold the powder to the beauty shops. Last year when he died, they say, his wife had the hammer made from his bones and then gave it to the glaziers’ guild.”
Downstream, other glaziers were making flat panes of volcanic glass using magically inscribed ceramic forms, lowering the tablets into the lava, pulling them out again and coloring the molten stone in elaborate patterns of colored beads. There were wineglasses and plates of window glass, ships’ portals and pieces of lanterns. Artworks, too—glass figurines of the Lady, castles and houses, and depictions of the Fleet’s most famous ships: Temperance, Constitution, and Breadbasket, the ship from Gale’s homeland. There was no sign of the nameless, moss-draped funeral ship from his own birthplace . . .
Parrish turned away. “Do the glaziers gather somewhere on their breaks?”
Tonio indicated a small grove, removed from the searing heat and the smell of baking stone.
“Can anyone join them?”
“Why not?” They sat under a tree, within earshot of serious-sounding murmurs, all in Erinthian.
“What are they saying?”
“What everyone’s saying now—that our crown prince has lost his way,” Tonio said. “Primo was always noble and just, but now he is fire-tempered. Gino Scutti was beaten in the street last week, and may die.”
“He offended the palazzo this spring. They say Primo strikes his servants and horse, say he sneezed on the ambassador from Tiladene for the fun of it, and she holding the belief that illness is spread through fluids . . .”
“Is everything they say true, I wonder?”
“My padre says telling the tale enough can make it true.” Tonio munched his pasty, unconcerned.
“And this tax on glass?”
“Primo wants to levy extra fees on the glaziers along the Fiumefouco,” Tonio said. “Why would you not ask the Lady to ease your heart?”
“Your lady has a whole volcano on her hands.” It was foolish to think ill of the Erinthians for attempting to put nature on a leash, but it seemed all of a piece: the beauty scribes disguising elders as youths, the ornate houses with their columns and curlicues and their backs turned to the deadly fire of the mountain.
“Has your beloved rejected you?” Tonio asked.
In a sense, Parrish thought, thinking again of his ejection from the Fleet. He confided, “I’m to be master of Nightjar soon.”
“So young! The first step of a great career!”
“No,” Parrish said. “If I take it, I must stay, at least until—until my employer dies.”
“Well, she’s ancient.”
“She’s not really.”
“Still, you could be an admiral by the time you’re . . .” He frowned, his nine-year-old brain trying to process divergent ideas of young and old.
“It’s complicated, Tonio.” He shouldn’t share his troubles with a child. Then it struck him: he and Tonio were closer, in years, than he and Gale, or he and Sloot. “Fleet won’t have me. I’m out. I’m not getting back in.”
The boy’s eyes widened. “You killed someone?”
“Not as such,” he said. “I made an honorable choice, but I ended up the villain. What did your father say? Telling the tale makes it true?”
“Well, making your fortune with the Hag will be more fun than polishing your boots and waving the flag on state visits, won’t it?”
“Probably.” Gale was a true adventurer. And Parrish had been raised to obey, to accept. This mulish refusal to be grateful that he’d landed on his feet . . . he felt a surge of guilt.
It was time to tame the rage, to be worthy of his good fortune.
Tonio tossed a fruit pit downhill, watching it bounce all the way to the stream of fire, and vanish into the molten stone. “A ship’s captain should be taller. If you got scripped, I know a tailor who’d redo your pants. Fine work, very reasonable. You want a plum?”
He returned to the apartment in the afternoon, to find Sloot reclining on a couch in a patch of sun amid bouquets of blue daisies and small white starflowers.
“Took Strumpet Walk to the palazzo,” Sloot indicated a narrow little walkway behind the building. It was lined with glass walls. “Having a chat with our betters.”
“You let her go alone?”
“You can’t watch her every minute, lad—believe me, I’ve tried,” Sloot shrugged. “She always said she’d be happy to meet her end here in Erinth.”
“What happens if she’s killed at the palazzo?” The prophets from Gale’s homeland swore it was her fate to be murdered. It was why her parents had resorted to magic to make her hard to notice.
“Verdanii succession is idiotically complex. There’s a sister who’s pregnant. If she has a daughter, the girl will get the ship.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Crisis of faith, Gar?” Sloot pursed his lips. “Or has the Fleet offered to take ye back?”
“No chance of that.” Acceptance, he reminded himself. Gratitude.
“There’s no shame in being mad, boy. They made a show of you, didn’t they? Exhibit A—The Great Disgrace.”
“It might have been worse. They didn’t court-martial me.”
“Never! Ye might have proved ye’d done nothing wrong. Politics are theater, always were.”
His reply was cut off by a stammering servant, shouting a stunningly long name: all Parrish caught was Rosalia Modesta Corrina.
It meant nothing to him, but Royl was jumping to his feet, so Parrish stiffened to attention.
Rosalia of the many names was another Erinthian beauty—olive-skinned, muscled as an acrobat, and dressed in a black suit overlaid with bright red beads. She swept into the room, parting her veil to reveal eyes the color of cornflower. “Where is she?”
“She, Kir?” Sloot said.
“Neither of you is Secondo’s lover.” Her eye lingered on Parrish. “Unless I’ve seriously misjudged him, that is.”
Royl smiled. “No, Kir, not us.”
“Well? Where’s the infamous Ugly Woman?”
“Kir Feliachild is at the palazzo,” Royl said. “Meeting with her great friend, your future mother-in-law.”
Ah—this was the prince’s fiancée.
“Perhaps we can help you?” Parrish asked.
Rosalia fisted her hands. “It’s traditional for the bride-to-be to warn off her groom’s lovers.”
“What was I just saying, Gar?” Royl said. “Theater.”
“Is it merely a matter of being overheard?” Parrish gestured at the curtained balcony.
With an amused glance at them both, Rosalia twitched the curtain aside, assessing the crowd through her veil. “Who did your face, Kir?”
Parrish bit back a sigh, and Royl answered, “His parents had that honor.”
“A natural beauty, here on Erinth? Watch the scribes don’t stone you.” With that, she let out a stream of high-pitched, shrieking Erinthian. Parrish couldn’t quite keep himself from jumping as she heaved a small table through the curtains, so that it clattered over the balcony. “That’ll keep up appearances, anyway. You have any wine?”
Royl nodded to the terrified servant.
Hurling one of the bouquets of blue daisies out after the table, Rosalia smashed its vase against a wall before arranging herself onto a couch. “I came to ask a boon of your lady. Primo—the prince? He’s been . . . troubled. I’ve been urging Secondo to take action.”
“What action? Displace his brother as heir?” Sloot snorted. “He never wanted to be Conto.”
“The Hag could convince him.”
“Her name’s Gale,” Sloot said, “and she don’t involve herself in politics.”
“Nonsense—she does little else. Primo’s out of control, Kir. There are angry glaziers on the loose with a scripped bunter. What if they smash the Lady of the Caldera?”
“Nobody’s that keen to die,” Royl said. “As for the princes—”
“Primo’s been scripped.” That was Gale, standing in the doorway, with a glass of wine. Behind her was a handsome man of about thirty years. “It’s the only explanation for his overnight transformation.”
Rosalia rose, circling Gale like a cat. She addressed the man. “You shouldn’t be here, Secco.”
“Amorita,” he said. “Stop agitating on my behalf. We need to restore my brother’s good temper.”
“The girl wanted you to have this.” Gale held out the wine and Rosalia knocked it away. “Oh—you’re here for the traditional eye-scratching fight?”
“She started without ye,” Royl said, indicating the broken vase. “Afternoon, Secco.”
“Capitan Sloot.” They bowed.
Were they really going to fight? Parrish decided to pretend everything was normal. He asked the prince, “When did your brother’s behavior change?”
“The night of my betrothal,” Secondo said. “There were two hundred guests at the palazzo. Pree got drunk, which wasn’t like him, and excused himself early. Next we knew, he was sleeping off a rampage in the galleria.
“He’d smashed our betrothal gifts: furniture, dishes, the musical instruments—” Rosalia put in.
“Slashed a couple old portraits, too,” Secondo said. “Mama’s still mourning the painting of him during his tyrannical tot years.”
“Since then, it’s been rages at servants, drinking binges, that stupid proposal to raise the merchant fees. His wife’s sailed off home to visit her family, and if things don’t change, she’ll stay away,” Rosalia said. “The glazier being beaten didn’t help matters.”
Secondo glared at her. “He didn’t do that.”
She raised her chin in apparent defiance.
“As for the fees,” he went on, “It’s a necessary change in policy. The glaziers weren’t meant to learn of it until autumn.”
“All a show,” Gale said. “Someone wants you running the island, Secco.”
“Lady preserve me.”
“You’d be a great Conto, my love,” Rosalia said.
He acknowledged this without agreeing. “What’ll you do, Gale?”
“Don’t know yet.” She strolled up to the fiancée, so they were nose to nose, and then grabbed the veil’s bottom edge and shredded it from hem to crown. “Your mother said she had someone looking for the inscription that changed Primo,” she said to Secondo. “Who is it?”
Rosalia considered her veil. Then she reached up with a single finger, dragging it down Gale’s ash-colored cheek, leaving a pale pink line. “You’ll be in touch?”
“I’ll do as I please.”
“Then we’re done. Now, do you know a Maglena Torino?”
Secondo protested. “Darling—”
“Fourth floor.” Gale dabbed at her cheek. “But I wouldn’t mess with Maglena.”
“She does keep a dog,” Secondo said.
Giving them both a disdainful look, Rosalia swept from the room.
“Can’t say she wasn’t warned,” Gale said. She hugged Secondo. “Enjoy the show, Secco.”
“Is it just me, or is that fiancée up to her neck in it?” Sloot said, as soon as the door was shut on them.
“The Contessa believes it’s Rosalia’s family behind the conspiracy—the change to Primo, the beating, all of it.”
She shook her head. “She’s asked us to find that hammer. The city’s in a stir over what it could do to the Lady. Never mind that there’s a whole garrison guarding the volcano. Parrish, how was the glaziers’ hill?”
“They are tense,” he said. “If Secondo wished to make a move for power, I’d say they’d support him.”
The maid brought a tray of fruit, meats, and tiny bread rolls shaped like little snails—and nearly dropped it when a fearful barking, followed by screams, broke out upstairs.
“It’s okay, Laleen.” Gale reached for a bun.
Parrish asked, “How many former lovers does Secondo have?”
“No idea, but Maglena’s a retired Fleet regular. She won’t settle for some ritual exchange of scratches.”
“Secco likes ’em tough.” Sloot nudged Gale. “Time gone by, I was fearful jealous of him.”
“Forget Secco. How are we going to find the magic hammer?” Gale munched on the bun.
A crash, upstairs, thrummed through the walls. Royl frowned. “Why didn’t the Contessa ask you to find the scrip that changed Primo?”
“She’s hiding something there.” Gale shook her head. “In the meantime, there’s a festival tomorrow to celebrate Secco’s betrothal.”
“Will the Contessa cancel?”
“No. They’ll post more guards on the path to the caldera, and masks and veils have been forbidden at the fete. Other than that . . . the show goes on.” Shrieks made her pause. “We’ll have to get you an outfit, Parrish.”
He was out with Gale at a tailor, getting measured for an outfit and being told, again, that his face could be improved upon, when they heard cries in the street.
They followed the hubbub to a shabby villa surrounded by people.
“I don’t think we can push through.”
“Raise your voice, Parrish,” Gale whispered, “Say this.” She uttered a phrase in Erinthian and he copied it his best military boom. The crowd around the house parted, people staring with avid curiosity as they passed.
“What’d you have me say?”
“Make way for the Hag.”
The murdered woman had been one of the few Erinthians who looked her age. She had paper-thin black skin, stringy, coiled white hair, and her remains were a sorry sight. Her fingers had swollen and burst like balloons; her eyes and tongue, too. Her teeth had been blown from her mouth. Blood lay thick on the floor and was spattered on the walls.
The corporal on site gave the body a push with his boot. “She’s soggy,” he said, clearly nauseated. “It’s as though all her bones are broken.”
Parrish remembered the statue of the dancing boy, blown to pieces.
Gale looked around at the bottles of fluids, the powders, the writing tools. “She was a spellscribe, Corporal?”
“Did she have a speciality?”
“She did a little of everything.”
“Could she have scripped the prince?” Parrish said. “Altered his personality?”
The corporal’s eyes widened and Parrish realized he’d been indiscreet.
“She’d have had to know Primo’s full name.” Gale pulled a bloody scribe’s log from the desk. “But from the looks of this operation, she’s too poor to have worked for the palazzo.”
“Couldn’t the prince have gotten some work on the sly?” Parrish said. “Secondo looks half your age.”
“They have their own scribe.” Gale tsked. “She might have fashioned that magic hammer, though. Looks like she had the knack for taking the bodies of the dead and preserving the magical intentions laid upon them.”
“Relic-making.” Parrish’s training had included basic magical theory. Laying a magical spell on a person, a ship, or a landmark like the volcano—anything with a name—was a relatively straightforward business. The scribe wrote out the intention, using specific materials and the right words, and if the writing was performed perfectly and the subject of the spell was up to bearing it, the magic took hold until such time as the inscription was destroyed.
The statue atop the volcano was no different from a beauty scroll, or whatever spell had been written to change the crown prince into a tyrant. Destroy the Lady, the mountain would erupt.
Instilling a nameless object like a glazier’s bunter with magic was much more difficult. It almost always required the bones of a person or object that had carried that intention in life.
“If she made the hammer, she paid dearly,” the Erinthian corporal said. “And if that’s what killed her—well, a blow from that thing is to be avoided at all costs.”
“Agreed,” Parrish said. “Bad enough when someone was smashing statues with it, but this—”
“It might be better if someone shoots the fellow from a distance,” Gale said.
“Ambush, Kir?” The corporal flushed. “It’s a coward’s way out.”
Gale was looking at the body. “Cowardice, son? Or common sense?”
Whoever was running security for the festival apparently agreed with Gale, because there were archers on the rooftops of the palazzo by the time the sun set. From the murmurs in the street, the Primo was getting blamed for giving that order, too.
That didn’t mean anyone was giving up on the party. By dusk, music was playing in every corner of the mercato. Groups of musicians played by the light of glass blown lanterns. Red silk balloons on cobweb-thin tethers shimmered in the air, lofted by white-hot flame, arranged to evoke the twist of the Fiumefouco. The people wore undercoats of black, wrapped round with vivid scarves and glittering jewelry: glass and gold-seeded beads. Children crowned with wreaths of flowers handed out cards imprinted with Secondo and Rosalia’s official engagement portrait. Penitents with glass beggar’s jars solicited money for various causes: marble quarry widows and widowers, the orphanage, hospital, and generic poor.
“The army came to the same conclusion you did,” Parrish said, indicating the shadows on the rooftops. “Spot the leader, shoot him from a distance.”
“They’ll be firing into a crowd,” Gale said.
“Pot’s a-simmering,” Sloot said. “I did expect people to show up masked, despite the edict. I’m surprised they ain’t.”
Gale was between the two men—having been scripped inconspicuous, she tended to get trampled in crowds. But as they moved toward a fire-juggling display, it was Parrish who got bumped, by a bare-armed woman in a glazier’s apron, dressed in work clothes and a scowl.
“Pardon me,” Parrish said.
“Scusa,” she replied. As she continued into the throng, her hand drifted to the satchel at her hip, as if checking he hadn’t picked her pocket. Her gaze rose, seeking the bristle of crossbows on the rooftops.
“There’s another,” Gale said. Two more bare-armed glaziers, with satchels, were pacing by the jugglers. “What do you want to bet they’ve got bunters in those bags?”
Royl whistled. “Clever. You get the whole trade association out in the street, waving hammers. Anyone the archers shoot is martyred.”
“And the fellow with the scripped hammer can operate freely,” Gale added. “That’s why they’re not masked.”
Plainly dressed artisans were everywhere, standing apart from the crowd, faces sober, arms crossed. The celebrants gave them a wide berth; the atmosphere was becoming tense.
“We have a little time,” Gale said. “They won’t make a move until the Royal Family makes its appearance.”
“What move?” Sloot demanded. “How do we counter it?”
She turned a slow circle, taking it in. “We’ll let Parrish decide.”
Parrish felt a shock, as physical a jolt as when the statue had shattered.”Gale, no. You can’t expect—”
“You understand the problem, don’t you?”
“Of course. They’ll start waving the bunters, probably at a prearranged signal. The archers will almost certainly start firing. The crowd . . .” He could see it: the civilians fleeing in every direction, some shot and falling, others trampled. Whoever had the inscribed hammer would have cover to make some gesture.
“They want a mess they can blame on Primo,” Gale said. “It’s a tactical problem, Parrish.”
“It’s your tactical problem,” he said.
“This is important work,” Gale said. “This is what the Fleet Charter is all about.”
“Sailing around sorting out dissenters for dictators?”
“Protecting the islands which signed the compact,” she said. “Keeping the peace. Isn’t that part of the Oath?”
“They released me from my oath,” He looked away, suddenly furious. He’d upheld his honor and that of the Fleet, and he’d been thrown away. So much for acceptance. “I don’t have to do anything.”
“That’s true enough,” she said, pleasant and unhurried, as if she had all the time in the world, as if disaster wasn’t about to strike. “I’m sorry you lost your position, son, but this is the work you trained for . . . if you choose to see it that way.”
“Look at the people,” Royl said. “What do we do?”
Parrish bit his lip, staring at the crowd. Despite his anger, his eye fell on three glaziers. They were probably told to carry the mallets as a gesture of protest. “They’re decoys,” he said slowly. “They won’t know the whole plan. It’s all whispers and secrecy.”
“Blood theater,” Gale agreed.
He reached into the flow of pedestrians, snagging a wiry man in a glazier’s apron. “It’s time,” he said, trying to seem shifty. “Make for the caldera path. They cannot keep us from the mountaintop tonight.”
The man stared at him blankly.
Oh. A rush of frustration.
Before he could turn to Gale, Tonio appeared at his side, uttering a stream of whispered Erinthian.
The glazier looked suspicious. He grunted at the boy.
“They were told to gather around Primo’s carriage,” Tonio said.
“The plan changed.”
“Who says so, he wants to know?” Tonio translated.
“The . . .” Parrish floundered—then, inspired, he pointed. “Her. The ugly woman. Secondo’s old love.”
“Il Haggio, il Haggio!” Tonio said.
The man’s disbelief broke. He started away, excitedly, but Parrish didn’t release him.
“Tonio, have him tell all his friends. And quickly.”
Another whisper and with a nod, the man hurried off.
“Who’s your friend?” Gale asked.
The boy broke out an elaborate bow. “Antonio Cappodocia at your service, Kir. May I say, your face—”
Parrish interrupted. “I hope you don’t mind my invoking your . . . legend.”
Gale smiled. “The rule in this game, Parrish, is do whatever works. Let’s get to it.”
“Come on, Tonio,” Parrish said. “We’ve got misinformation to spread.”
They went in different directions, approaching glaziers, diverting them toward the caldera path, away from the celebration. They’d be out of the archers’ sights there, behind the palazzo, away from the crowd.
The fewer of them there were, the easier it would be to spot the person who had the magical bunter.
For twenty minutes they moved through the crowd, whispering to glaziers, sending them to gather up their friends and colleagues, leaching trouble from the mercato, lying to draw them from the main thrust of the parade.
“Here come the carriages, Kir,” Tonio said. “What now?”
“Let’s see who’s left.” The mercato was filled with people, jostling in time to the music. Parrish lifted Tonio to a wall, above their heads, out of danger. “Point me in the right direction.”
Trumpets sounded a long call, and the crowd cheered. Elaborately decorated carriages were rolling down from the palazzo now, accompanied by rows of mounted soldiers.
Tonio scanned the bobbing, dancing heads.
“We fooled a lot of the glaziers, Kir. They’re gone.”
“Gale—find Gale.” Parrish said. “She’ll be where the trouble is.”
“There! Moving toward Secondo.”
“Stay where you are, Tonio.” Parrish angled through the mob.
Primo’s the villain in this particular pantomime; all this is aimed at disinheriting him. He edged around the thin crowd surrounding the first royal carriage, Primo’s, noting the tepid shouts of goodwill. The Prince didn’t have the good grace to look unruffled by it all.
Secondo and Rosalia were in a great black swan of a carriage, drawn by black horses. The cheers for Secondo were a good deal more wholehearted.
Man of the hour, Parrish thought. That had been him at one time, first in his cadet class, all the grand predictions about his future. Despite being raised by monks who didn’t believe in pride, he’d let it go to his head, hadn’t he?
But Gale was right—this was real work, outmaneuvering chaos.
Tonio was pointing. His lips moved, but Parrish couldn’t hear him. Where?
There. A big fellow, face bare, body cloaked from shoulder to toe, was bulling his way toward Secondo’s carriage. He held the cloak shut . . . to hide the bunter?
Lost your camouflage, Parrish thought with satisfaction. A few glaziers remained within the crowd; they were near the Primo, shouting, “No fees!” Creating a distraction, possibly drawing fire if those archers panicked.
“Cognomo Primo!” The cloaked man made a rush for the carriage.
Parrish was too far away.
The cloaked man reached one of the soldiers encircling the carriage. He pushed him aside . . .
. . . and tripped.
He sprawled, hands flying from his cape, and there it was, the deadly hammer, spiked with bones, its handle wrapped in dirt-stained cotton bandages. It slid across the cobbles, breaking them to dust as it scraped past, toward Parrish.
And of course that had been Gale, up to her usual tricks, just sticking out her foot to trip the man.
Any second now, she’ll sit on him.
But the glazier wasn’t alone; another cloaked man was grabbing for the hammer.
Parrish moved, ducking under a soldier’s extended arm, snatching a cane from a young-old man, swinging it like a bat. The cane made contact with the hammer, then shattered in his hand. Needles of stonewood and glass tore into his forearm. Pain washed through him.
A curse, near his ear. The cloaked man, face wet with Parrish’s blood, clambered after the hammer.
He was close enough to kick it, but didn’t dare. Groaning, he groped with his left hand and then flung the first thing it found—his old flask, as it turned out—at the bunter.
The flask swelled and popped, like a balloon, spraying water everywhere. The hammer bounced away, under the heavy carriage wheel.
For a breath, Secondo’s carriage seemed suspended, wobbling like a vase at the edge of a table, equally likely to fall or steady itself. Would the whole carriage go? What of the passengers?
Then the weight of the wheel bore down, and the porous volcanic stone of the hammer broke with a crunch.
Parrish’s ears popped. A flash of white blinded him, and he smelled burnt metal, lava.
A series of sconces up the mercato broke into pieces.
Reversion, Parrish thought. Sometimes breaking a magical inscription entirely undid all of its workings. The sconces that had been shattered in that first riot must have reassembled themselves in their old positions. Since they’d been replaced, and since two sconces couldn’t occupy the same space, they were breaking again, flinging shards up and down the road.
People were crying out in fear, some probably imagining that the thunder of the spell reverting was the sound of their marble Lady, or even the volcano going up.
The statue of the dancing boy reassembled itself on its plinth.
A peculiar, intense sense of pleasure rolled through Parrish’s arm as the broken walking stick reconstructed itself on the cobbles at his feet, its splinters withdrawing from his flesh. The scrapes left by the statue breaking the day before were gone, too, the flesh of his palm whole. His blood-stained tunic was clean again.
Clock ran back, he thought, feeling a bit dizzy. Somewhere in an Erinthian church or morgue, the ruined body of the murdered spellscribe would be restoring itself too, drawing breath.
“’Urrah! Rah! Salute Secondo! Salute Haggia!” That was Sloot, roaring in approval. It worked: applause and cheers rippled out across the square, calming the panic.
Gale, meanwhile, was wrestling with the wall of muscle that was the lead agitator.
With a feeling almost like happiness, Parrish ran over to pile onto the fray.
Next morning, Gale took him to meet the Contessa.
The stone wall that hid Strumpet Walk from prying eyes ran alongside an old irrigation ditch. The air was pleasantly humid, greenhouse-warm. The wall was lined with little birdhouses and potted ferns, the ditch populated by ruby frogs that looked like hearts with vivid green eyes.
Erinth’s Contessa looked like an ordinary, if wealthy, woman of perhaps sixty years. She was sitting with one of Primo’s children, reading him a book, when Gale and Parrish arrived.
“Presenting Garland Parrish,” Gale said. “My first mate.”
The Contessa examined him. “This is your new Royl?”
“Parrish is his own man,” she said. “He was instrumental in preventing the trouble last night.”
“If you want an apartment for him, too, he’ll have to sleep with Tetra.”
“Ah . . .” Parrish said.
“She’s joking,” Gale told him.
“Dear Lady, he’s blushing. Was I ever so young?” The Contessa kissed the top of her grandson’s head and sent him off. “So, you’ve come for your sailor?”
“For the truth,” Gale said. “All this was meant to have happened because someone’s scripped Primo. Changed him from his old sweet self into an ill-tempered tyrant.”
“Secco told me about a portrait of him, as a child—it was slashed the day he changed.”
After a long pause, the Contessa nodded. “He was a troubled child. Volcano-tempered, we say. He seemed unfit to succeed me.”
“You scribed him to be mild-mannered, all those years ago,” Gale said. “The painting was the inscription. You hid it under the portrait, and someone cut it to shreds.”
“Rosalia, almost certainly. I should have known you’d guess.”
“Now he’s his true self, what will you do?”
The Contessa spread her hands, as if to say she was helpless in the matter. “He’s still the heir.”
“Will you have him scribed again?”
“I’m not sure I have the stomach for it. To change a person’s nature; it was a terrible spell. To lay that heavy an intention on my son twice . . .”
“It might break him,” Gale agreed. There was a limit on how much magic a person could endure.
“Besides, I think your boy sailor would think ill of me.”
Parrish said: “It’s not my place to judge.”
“Would that stop you?” The Contessa laughed. “But Gale, I must ask another favor. That scribe who was dead—people won’t want her around now she’s reverted.”
“I’ll take her away.”
“Erinth will pay to start her a life somewhere,” she said. “Will you return soon, amicha?”
“I’ll have to skip the wedding, won’t I?” Gale said. “Since Secco and I—”
“Ah, yes—damn tradition, and all its shackles. Perhaps at Winterfest?”
“That should give people time to forget I was ever here.”
Tonio turned up before they could disembark. “I found your flask, Kir.” It was in sorry shape: it had been restored after the bunter broke, but something had mashed it flat. “I’m afraid a carriage rolled over it. Perhaps it can be repaired.”
Parrish turned it over in his hands. “You knew a flask vendor, didn’t you? What was he, a cousin?”
“The importer’s daughter is engaged to my uncle’s youngest son,” Tonio said. “He uses a secret formula to seal the cupgrass and has them blessed by the friars who watch over our mountain. It’s fine work. But your keepsake—”
Parrish took a last look at the old flask, the Fleet insignia, his scratched initials and dates of his promotions on the bottom. Then he handed it back. “Have the new one sent to Nightjar.”
“Blessing and all?”
Tonio beamed. “She eased your heart, didn’t she—the Lady?”
“The lady did,” he said, and if Tonio took that as an expression of faith in that big statue up the mountain, watching over the volcano, holding back the inevitable for as long as she could, maybe that was just fine.
“The Ugly Woman of Castello di Putti” copyright © 2014 by A.M. Dellamonica
Art copyright © 2014 by Richard Anderson