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YEAR 988 OF THE NEW MILLENNIUM
THE MONTH OF VINES
THE HOUR OF BUSINESS
The noisome airs of the lower city always reached their odious peak in the Month of Vines, just before the summer yielded to the ripe sweetness of the harvest. The stink was inescapable, especially when every sticky, sweating citizen of Cantagna crammed the Via Salita, the straightest, thus steepest, road from the Beggars Ring to the Heights. The side lanes were no less crowded and their aroma even worse. Il Padroné’s Regulations for Good Order forbade chamber pots being emptied in the Ring Roads or the Via Salita.
Of all days to be so unpleasant. I carried a heavy crate packed with wills, contracts, invoices, and letters of charter to deliver to my clients before the proliferation of copied documents burst the walls of my shop. Just one aggravation piled on another.
Almost three months had gone since the Chimera’s last venture, and I’d come to think the Shadow Lord had reneged on his assurance that he’d use our services again. Employment as a copyist for the city’s lawyers was honorable work and paid better than tavern service. Best of all, it preserved my appearance as yet another resident of the Beggars Ring struggling to keep fed. But after two magical adventures that gave our city and its citizens a chance to flourish, scribing had me near dead from boredom.
I missed Teo. A long conversation with the young man I’d hauled out of the river half drowned three months ago would be the best remedy for the late-summer doldrums. Teo embodied enough mysteries to fill a lifetime’s yearning. For one, the ability to make a person believe everything that came out of his mouth. For another, powerful magic, though he lacked any understanding of it. And I believed that Teo’s dreams had leaked into mine, hinting at a past … and a role in the world … that even a year ago, I would have called mythological nonsense.
Every morning I woke hoping he would show up to claim his little bag of silver—his share of the fee for the Chimera’s last venture. Last time I’d seen him, he was diving naked into the River Venia in the moonlight. Though I’d watched intently, neither Teo nor the bound captive assassin he had rolled into the river ahead of him had reappeared. Yet I knew in my innermost heart that neither man was drowned, as if a living thread bound Teo and me. Entirely illogical.
Fortunately, this morning I had to climb only as far as the Market Ring, the middlemost of Cantagna’s five concentric districts, where my three most prolific customers kept chambers on the same street. Dispute Row housed a number of notaries and lawyers prosperous enough to abandon their old accommodations down in the Asylum Ring, but not yet of such status to afford the more comfortable chambers of the Merchants Ring or the Heights.
I turned into the Market Ring Road, jammed with tradesmen’s stalls displaying the wide variety of modest goods Cantagna’s growing prosperity could provide. Nothing appealed, except perhaps the baskets of plums—assuming the sun didn’t boil them before I got back.
A clot of young men poking, shoving, and hurling the common challenges to true manhood blocked the turn from the Market Ring Road into Dispute Row. The only way around them was an alley, much too long and steep a detour for a hot midday.
“Step aside,” I said. “Make way.”
A scrawny youth pointed his spiky chin at me while his gaggle of comrades formed up at his sides. “Best watch your step, Damizella Prune Face. The Cavalieri Teschio will scrape you off the street and there’ll be none to pay your ransom.”
“Though her backside is most fetching…” chimed in a pustule-afflicted companion.
“… and her cheeks have a lusty flush.”
Hot and out of patience, I set down my crate, drew my pearl-handled dagger, and brandished it around their closing half circle. “And her knife has a freshly honed blade, Segno Stronzo and fellow backside orifices. Her well-trained hand longs to test its keen edge on boy flesh. Maybe cut a hole and let the ignorance out. Any takers? No?”
Though most of the youths backed off, two sidled my way, shoulder to shoulder as if they thought the width made them more fearsome … or attractive … or immune to daggers. “We’re thinking to join the Cavalieri. They paid our friend a bounty of a silver solet to join up. We could have some fun with the likes of you and earn good coin as well. Don’t you think we’d make fine Skull Knights?”
I didn’t dignify their posturing with a reply. An abortive lunge with the dagger sent them running. Rolling my eyes, I sheathed my blade, picked up the crate, and climbed Dispute Row.
Cavalieri Teschio. The Skull Knights, or more precisely Death’s-head Knights, were a snatch-crew who picked up children from the streets of the Asylum Ring and held them for small ransom. A vicious and effective crew, so I’d heard. The Gardia paid no attention; if a laborer’s children disappeared, they could have run off or died of the scourge and who really cared anyway?
New gangs of thieves and scoundrels usually popped up in late winter when food grew scarce, and rain and mud left laborers idle. But this name had been circulating all summer like the smoke and ash from Mount Agguato drifting on the winds from the south. Evil. Out of season.
Copyright © 2021 by Carol Berg