The Fool’s Errand, Captain Doneger, in service to Don Ygnacio of Caerlon, Dockside, put up a fine feather of a bow wave as the packet ship was lost beyond the horizon. As shorebirds and terns wheeled overhead, Remy thought about what they had heard.
There had been little news, and all of it bad. It appeared the war of Montagnard agression was going poorly for everyone except le Roi-Enfant and his grim General, Chevreuil. It seemed that without the intervention of the Vendel, or aid from the Emperor of the Crescent Isle, all the nations of Theah would fall before summer’s end. Remy was not as frightened by the prospect of the Child-King extending his reach as some amongst his numerous correspondence; the king was a child, indeed, and not yet fully formed. He was not yet a tyrant, nor—it was true—was he an angel. He was merely a boy. Chevreuil, though. The thought of Chevreuil in power made Remy shudder. Not for the first time, he went over in his mind the chain of thought that had led him to side with his countrymen; again, he arrived at the same conclusion. Chevreuil was bad—but the Church was evil; his own eyes had seen incontrovertible proof of this. And Chevreuil…well, he was many things, many of them bad, but his face was set against the Church, and Remy could abide…at least until Sercq. Then, he would have to make a decision.
The Prince, too, had a bellyful of news. Eisen was mobilizing. Troops were moving, but no enemy had been declared. The pact imposed on Eisen in the last war still held, apparently, and the Westmarch was clear, with no threat at the door. Still, his seneschal had done his duty by the Furst, and men were leaving his estate to ride to war. But against whom? And here he was, honor bound to a lot of strangers in search of a bogeyman from an Avalon’s dream. Soon, by all accounts, his land would be bleeding, and he was far from home. My honor lies in two directions, and there is nothing to choose between them. And then, there had been his kinsman, Volker Durr, and the fight at Opium Sal’s. Had that been nothing more than a ham-handed attempt to see him home to do his duty? As he mulled this, a familiar melody tugged at his mind. He looked up, a smile breaking out despite his bleak mood, as he saw Bart and a sour-faced sailor with one eye tearing the guts out of the Three-Cornered Hat. Even Greis was tapping one foot. The Prince began to clap, his troubles disappearing as Bart and the sailor exchanged a closely-reasoned variation, their notes twining with the hum of the rigging. The crew had ceased their work, and some were singing verses the Prince had never heard. The Prince was no musician, but he could tell that what they were doing was intricate beyond all measure. Still, they had not dropped the old melody, and the rhythm was plain enough. Clapping, he moved over to where Essie was dancing, and joined the song, his face ruddy and his voice as clear as his conscience.
While the Prince and Remy had discussed the frivolities of politics with the packet-boat’s master—a scruffy boy with blonde down on his chin master of a packet in the Seadogs?—Tur’Lokk had discussed matters of real import with the ship’s other crewmember, an ancient, sun-dried Cathay named Winks. It appeared that they were not alone in run-ins with clockwork men, or even beetles.
Winks told him that the entire port of Sinjin had been carried away by a river of silver insects, impervious to drowning. He had been on a ship, Fulsome Wench, that had been almost the last out of port—they had left their best bower in three-fathom water with fine, silty shale, whatever that meant. Likewise, an Ussuran sailor had told Winks that whole villages were being taken by green lightning—where they had been, there were pits in their places, or strange monuments. Where the town of Paoli, on Cistercia, had stood, there was nothing but a spire of twisted crystal, and those who came within a league of it bled from the nose and had bad dreams. Perhaps Tur’Lokk had not been circumspect enough in his astonishment at these tales, because Winks had leaned closer to whisper that he had had a letter from his sister. Before Tur’Lokk could laugh at the absurdity of the conspiratorial tone with such a bland statement, the sailor continued; Winks couldn’t read, himself, but he paid a cathay barber to spell it out for him: his sister said that old stories were stalking the hills above Old Camden and the Far Marshes—the twice-born were back. When Tur’Lokk asked, suspiciously, why in hell he should care if something was born twice or thrice—the cathay screwed up his face, said, “It’s dragons, mate. Don’t you know nothin’? ‘Born once in flesh and once in fire’ and all that.” At this Tur’Lokk did laugh out loud. But, to his surprise, Winks didn’t laugh. Instead, he spat and turned away, his hands suddenly busy coiling a sheet that had been immaculately coiled a moment before. Tur’Lokk blinked, amazed to find himself searching the profound blue of the late-afternoon sky for the shadow that he knew could not be there. The Drachen? Come again? Next Jakk will show up with Death in a bag. Goose pimples ran up his arms. Tur’Lokk laughed at himself, this time, and sat down in the shade of the capstan. He was still chuckling, but his knife and whetstone were out, keeping time to the music.
Vera found herself alone, leaning over the port rail as the sun wheeled behind her into the west. She was watching the frigate birds hanging in the bow wave, looking in the translucent curl for fish that could be plucked on the wing. The shorebirds had been left in the wake, but the frigates flew on, inexhaustible. She turned when she noticed a presence leaning on the rail next to her. The Prince had joined her. “Forgive me, my lady, for intruding,” he said. “I could not let things stand as they are. If I offended you, by my hand, I did not intend it. I beg your pardon.”
Vera took a moment before replying. “Intention matters little in these things.” She raised her hand as the Prince began to move away. “Please, I do not express myself well. I accept your apology, but only because I know you will not believe me when I say it is not needed.” The Prince looked as though he might speak, but Vera forestalled him. “You call me ‘lady,’ but the title is empty—our lands, our properties, everything was taken from us. All we have is our name.” Vera paused, as if gathering strength. “I owe you an explanation, your Grace, and I am sorry if it seems grudging, but hate clouds my speech. The Fiorentino family was never wealthy, but we were proud—we are proud. And loyal. Our home was outside of Numa, on the mainland. Today, the center of the mainland is controlled in equal parts by the Caligari and the Vaticine church, as you know, but it was not always so. The Nestini, even the Bernoulli, have also laid claim to the area throughout the centuries. Three hundred years of open strife, uneasy peace forged with political marriages, only to be broken by clandestine killings and vendettas made loyalty difficult, and throughout that period, the Fiorentino were faithful to the Caligari. Thirty years ago, father owed fealty to a drooling idiot of a minor branch of the Caligari, whose name escapes me, Cosimo, I think it was. A Cassini. He is dead, now. This drooling idiot had one talent—he could recite the history of wrongs done to his forebears while standing on his head.
“He decided that, for honor’s sake, he needed to reclaim a town taken from the Caligari by the Nestini during the realm of the Mad Queen, six hundred years ago. There was question of olive groves, and the White Plague had decimated the workers, and all men expected the price of olives to rise. His claims to the town were ignored, first by the Nestini, and then by the Church, to whom he appealed for mediation, but this Cassini wanted the revenue from the groves, and, of course, the restoration of his honor, so nothing would do but that he take the town by force. Buffoon that he was, he advertised his campaign; he even paid a poet to write some cantos over the glory that was to be his. The end result is that the castle of the town was fortified and garrisoned. My father led the assault, and gained the castle—Montalte-delle-Marche—and the town by guile. This angered the Nestini, who simply retook it by bringing three thousand men through the marches to invest the slopes. Enraged, Cassini instructed my father to fire the olive groves, denying the profits of the groves to the Nestini, and their taxes to the Church. My father protested, speaking for the smallfolk who worked in the groves. But Cassini threatened to have my father’s head for insolence. My father set fire to the groves, and he and his retainers slipped through tunnels of fire in the night and away before the Nestini launched their first assault. That began another period of open war between Caligari and Nestini that lasted almost two years.” Again the Prince seemed about to speak.
“I know the tale is tangled and long, but it nears its end. We never knew who hired the Fate Witch. Old she must have been, and strong. Maybe the Nestini paid her to punish us for our loyalty. Maybe the Church to isolate the Cassini and reduce his strength, hoping to prevent further bloodshed. You look shocked, but the Vaticine has practical priests, as well as godly ones. Maybe the Caligari themselves brought the curse upon us, for ends I cannot guess. I do not know. In the end, Cassini ended with possession of Montalte-delle-Marche as a settlement pact with the Nestini, but, of course, the groves were burned. He blamed my father, so maybe the curse was his. It takes seven years, you see, before an olive tree begins to bear good fruit, and thirty before it is productive. By then, a new generation would be old enough to work the fields, and the price of olive oil would have returned to normal. He tried to exile my father and strip him of his title and lands. His liege lord, Giacomo Caligari, interceded, for the story of the groves, and the capture of the castle, was well known. Cassini resented that as well. He died, choking on a fish bone, not eight months later. But the curse has not died. After that, our fields were infertile, our stock animals diseased. We borrowed money to buy new stock and new seed, but the results were the same. When it was not disease, it was drought. Year in and year out, the debts mounted.
“My father was suspicious of a curse, and he consulted witches who confirmed it, but would not help. They would not work against each other, you see. I was born in the midst of this slow spiral. By the time I manifested the ability to read Arcana—what other women of noble birth have called their ‘gift,’—my father was unable to accept that his daughter could be like one of the women who had ruined him. He sent me away, to Caerleon. Away from the tradition of the Vodacce. Away from him. Away from my mother.” Vera fell silent.
“I begin to see why my mention of your capabilities might be unwelcome,” ventured the Prince, when the silence had gone on too long for him.
“Yes. Rather, no. It was foolish of me to deny what was so plain. I am mostly untrained, and sorcery is, a wise man once said, a sword without a hilt. But it does not do anyone any good to pretend that I am ignorant of it, of what I can do. When you asked me to use it to your benefit, I could not help but think that someone had once approached another like me, and what they asked was a curse upon the Fiorentino name. And the burden of that was something I was not ready to take up.”
“You say, you were not ready. Have your feelings changed, now that you have seen what we are up against? Mechanical men, clockwork beetles, and claims about an Adversary who can enter men’s dreams? Terrors and wonders are on every side. None of us is ever as ready as we could be, when duty calls, and you are bound to us all by the magic you fear to wield.”
“What you say has merit—though I still doubt the reality of this Adversary— and it lends force to my conviction that what I am about to propose is right. Though, I fear hate makes me think that what is right is also what is expedient.”
“Speak your mind,” said the Prince, when Vera seemed unsure of whether to continue.
“What I propose is this: I will use my magic as I can, where and when I choose, to benefit us all—not just you and yours. In exchange, I ask you to use your family’s influence with the Vaticine, and in Eisen, to aid me in restoring my family to our lands in Numa, and our honor. I will not say, though the shame of it burns in me, to avenge us—for vendetta has no end, and I do not know the name of my enemy.” She grew quiet: “That is my proposal: my sorcerous aid, for your political.”
The Prince did not hesitate, “I feel I cannot turn such an offer down. I accept. What power I have, I will lend you and yours, if you will endeavor to help us bring this matter to a successful end.”
They shook hands, and it was that moment that Essie cried out in the rigging: “Ooh! Sky lights!”
“Where away?” shouted Captain Doneger, his voice booming across the water.
“Northeast! So pretty!” shouted back Essie.
Vera and the Prince raised their eyes and saw a large swath of the sky afire with a swirling mass of green and purple light. At that moment, the wind died, and they heard the music go out of the rigging.
The Captain strode to the rail, a spy glass from Cathay in hand.
“I’ve never seen its like,” said the Prince. “Is it a storm?”
The Captain shook his head, and reached out to touch the wooden rail with one finger. The reverential gesture looked strange with his weathered hand, burnt and creased by salt and sun. “Could be. Aye. Best get below, you great pack o’ lubbers. Best get below. It won’t be on us for hours, yet, with this wind, and the glass is rising, not falling. Time and more to get some sleep.”
And so the Prince and Vera went below, while the captain bellowed orders for his crew to prepare The Fool’s Errand for a storm, and the rest of them followed after.