The artificial river Irenicon—created overnight by Concordian engineers using the Wave—was blasted through the middle of Rasenna in 1347, and now it is a permanent reminder that nothing can stand in the way of the Concordian Empire. The artificial river, created overnight by Concordian engineers using the Wave, runs uphill. But the Wave is both weapon and mystery; not even the Concordians know how the river became conscious—and hostile.
Times are changing. And only the young Contessa Sofia Scaglieri and the enemy engineer Giovanni understand they have to change too, if they are to survive the coming devastation—for Concord is about to unleash the Wave again…
Madonna! Where was he?
If the boy got hurt, the Doc would mount her head on a stick next to the Bardini banner. Valerius might be a handful, but the little stronzo was their only Contract this year. Besides, a dead Concordian would imperil all Rasenna. Sofia’s dark eyes flashed with anger, and she swore again: in her haste she had forgotten her banner. Being unarmed in Rasenna used to be merely careless. These days it was suicidal.
Valerius ran down the sloping streets with his head in the air, pursued by his shadow made strangely large by the blood-washed light. Smashed roof slates crunched underfoot like leaves in an autumn forest. He followed the trail of the topside battle as it moved downhill toward the river, focusing on the jagged red slash of evening where the towers leaned toward each other across the emptiness.
The Concordian had the pale blond curls, the soft skin, and, when he tried, the disarming innocence of a cherub. Now, scowling, he resembled something fallen and impious. Sofia, only five years older than Valerius, watched him like his mother. He had endured this ordeal since his arrival last Assumption, but to return to Concord unblooded? Ridiculous.
The hunt was practically the whole point of a year in Rasenna— that was what his father had paid for, not endless drills and lectures on banner technique. So when this chance came to sneak out, Valerius took it, vowing to get the general’s money’s worth. Two households in combat: what a story! This was Rasenna’s real meat: raids and rogue bandieratori. He wasn’t in real danger; this was still Bardini territory. Sofia wouldn’t be far away.
He couldn’t see the individuals leaping between rooftops, just the banners they wielded. Bardini black outnumbered Morello gold six to four, and the Morello were retreating—noisily. These boys weren’t bandieratori; they were like him, just bored students looking for fun. So it was an unofficial raid, then; the gonfaloniere would never sanction such a pointless attack.
Valerius followed through one backstreet after another, concerned only with keeping up. A black flag vanished behind a corner. He turned it himself and saw nothing but swallows listlessly drifting on air rising from the empty streets.
No Morello, thankfully. No Bardini either. Valerius stopped to listen. The wall he leaned against was built around the ghost of an Etruscan arch, the gaps between its massive blocks stuffed with crude clay bricks bulging like an old man’s teeth.
He could hear the river now but not the battle. He had been in Rasenna long enough to know that most raids ended “wet.” How could so many raiders disperse so swiftly? It began to dawn on him that Bardini flags need not be wielded by Bardini.
How could Sofia be so irresponsible? He was the Bardini Contract, the Bardini’s only Concordian student, and that made him an obvious target for the Morellos; he should be protected at all times. The general would hear of this.
“Keep calm, Concordian,” he rebuked himself, just as the general would have. He knew northern streets pretty well after a year, didn’t he? Not like a Rasenneisi, not as lice know the cracks, but well enough. He looked for clues to his location. That ceramic Madonna, perched in a street-corner niche and drenched in blue-white glaze, that would orientate a Rasenneisi. The ghastly things all looked the same. The superstitions of Rasenna were not the answer; he would rely on Concordian logic. The raiders had led him down and south. If he followed the slope up, he would eventually reach the shadow of Tower Bardini and safety.
He turned around. Now that he had a plan, it was easier to fight the urge to run for it. Yes: he was impressed with his courage, even if he did keep glancing overhead. If only his footsteps wouldn’t echo so.
At last, something familiar: the unmistakable drunken tilt of Tower Ghiberti—the Bardini workshop was close after all. Valerius’s relieved laughter trailed off when a rooftop shadow moved. Another silhouette emerged on the neighboring row. And another. Lining the tower tops, above and ahead of him. He counted seven, eight, nine—a decina—but forced himself to keep walking. Whoever they were, they were interested in him alone. It was not a flattering sort of attention.
Behind him someone landed on the ground, and he was torn between two bad choices, to turn defiantly or to run.
“Sofia! What are you doing?”
“Exceeding my brief. Doc said baby-sit. He didn’t mention stopping you from getting yourself killed.”
“I wouldn’t be in danger if—”
“I said keep walking!”
He whipped his head around to continue the argument but went suddenly mute. Anger enhanced the Contessa’s beauty. Her dark eyes were wide and bright; her olive skin glowed like fire about to burn. She looked fabulous just before a fight.
“What do we do?” Valerius asked, his confidence returning.
Her wide-shouldered jacket was a bold red, in contrast with the earthy colors favored by most bandieratori. She was not tall, but she held her head proudly. Below her large brow and sharp Scaligeri nose were the smiling lips that graced statues of cruel old Etruscans.
But she was not smiling now, and her pointed chin jutted forward. “You’ll do as I say. I’m going to help these gentlemen get home. Give me your banner.”
“I don’t have it,” Valerius whispered, losing hope again.
“Madonna. This is going to be embarrassing. I’m not exactly in peak condition.”
Valerius looked down at the sling on her arm. Without a single banner, against a decina, even Sofia…
“What do we do?”
“When I say run, run—Run!”
Irenicon © Aidan Harte, 2014