Peace? I Hate the Word

Peace?  I Hate the Word

(A Tale of Tarafore)

By Brent Dedeaux

1

“Two families, both alike in indignity, in fair Cassa where we lay our scene,” the elder Merengo said, chuckling at a half-remembered passage from an ancient book of Earth.  His clear baritone filled the room as the cry of a great stag fills the forest, echoing off the stone walls, undiminished by thick hanging tapestries.

His second son stood, his deep brown eyes wide with shock.  “The Merengo and the Fiorentino, alike in dignity?” Lorenzo said, leaving his tutor behind and stepping toward his father, his hands grasping at his doublet.  “Surely, my lord, you jest.”

Lord Cruhuer Merengo laughed deep and long.  “Ah, to see the concern on your face, son,” he said, “perhaps you seek to cure me of this heresy, as our uncles have so long sought to do.”

“Father, may I speak freely?”

“If you cannot, I have done a poor job indeed as your father.”

“I can almost understand your desire to expand the franchise beyond the noble houses, to bring the merchants and wealthy professional classes into the council,” Lorenzo said, “for they will side with us far more often than not, giving us leverage against the Peccavi and Kamitaas.  I can understand that their time will come, and crushing them, as the Houses of the Boar, the Ram, and the Wolf are likely to do, will only lead to greater devastation later.  But to call the Fiorentino our equals?  May the Creator forbid it!”

At the mention of The Creator, Lorenzo’s tutor silently made the sign of a circle, starting with his lips, proceeding to his chest, his navel, and back around to his lips.

“These books of Earth you read,” Lorenzo continued, aristocratic indignation raising him above his place, “I understand they are the wisdom of our sister-world, but Father, you cannot blindly follow their words -”

“You think my plans and beliefs came from a book?”  Cruhuer boomed, his dark eyes wide, tossing his head like a great stag might, “even a book from Earth itself?  No.  They come from my own eyes, my own experience.  Is Pierro my nephew?”

“Yes,” Lorenzo said, “of course.”

“Is he your cousin?”

“You know he is.”

“And that is how you see him,” Merengo rumbled, “as your cousin.  Not as hired help, or an enforcer, but as a cousin – lesser estate, because he is excluded from the line of succession, but still, family.”

“Yes, my lord,” Lorenzo said, drawing back a bit, “you know I do.”

“But is Pierro of our blood?” Lord Merengo asked.

Lorenzo paused. “I -”

“He is not our blood, is he?”

Lorenzo dropped his eyes.  “No, sir.”

“Yet he is family.  My nephew, your cousin.”  It was not a question.

“Yes, of course.”

“How did he come into our family?” Cruhuer asked.

“You know as well as I, Father,” Lorenzo said, “his father was of our line, but his mother was of House Lucrece of Cartagi.  She was as the Fiorentino, a granddaughter of Earth, with no Great Beast watching over her House.  They could never conceive, not unless -”  Lorenzo paused, unwilling to speak of such a subject.

“Not unless the power of the Breaking overcame them,” his father said, “causing them to bring forth a creature, half of Earth and half of the Great Stag, a harbinger of chaos.”

“Yes,” Lorenzo said, bowing his head, “but nobility cannot remain childless.  It cannot be, so they adopted a foundling, one clearly of neither House Merengo or House Lucrece, so he would feel equal kinship to both.”

“Pierro, whose ancestral beast was clearly the Great Cat,” Cruhuer said, “a beast that has served us all well, and saved our lives today.”

“Indeed, I claim him among my most valued of kin,” Lorenzo said.

“If Pierro Merengo can be our equal, with no drop of noble blood,” Cruhuer said, “why are the commoners not our equals?  What is the difference?”

Lorenzo stopped, mouth open, and said, simply, “Father, that is not the way of things.  Pierro has been raised since his infancy to be one of our kind -”

“But now the merchants equal and even exceed our accomplishments,” Lord Merengo said, “and educate their children much as we educate ours.  I know we can offer no real equality for the illiterate, the uneducated, the true masses – such would be a mere fantasy.  But we can expand our doors to allow those who can look us in the eye, in all but name and title, to stand beside us, and help guide this city.  It is right.  Moreover, it is rational.”

“That is well and good, Father, but the Fiorentino?”  Lorenzo shuddered.  “Their bloodline is pure enough, but their conduct is beneath reproach!  I’d sooner claim kinship with the Amicitias’s petty thugs!”

“They, too, are our brothers,” Lord Cruhuer said, “misguided and callous as they may be.”  He smiled slyly.  “But I did not mention the Fiorentino.  I believe the two houses in the Earth-man’s book were Montague and Capulet.  And the city may not have been Cassa, but Verona, now that I consider it.”

“Then why, dear father, did you let me proceed this far?” Lorenzo said, embarrassment and anger vying in his dark eyes, “I have made a great fool of myself in front of -”

“Only myself and Alfonse,” His father said gently, “and we have seen much worse.”  He took a deep breath.  “Though I admit there was a purpose to my misquoting.”

“To make a jester of me?”  Lorenzo said, exasperated beyond the point of proper respect.

Lord Merengo sighed.  “Lorenzo, do you know why I gave you a Cassan name, when I gave your brothers ancestral Merengo names?”

“No,” Lorenzo said, “I had always assumed you owed a debt of honor to a man named Lorenzo, and chose to honor him through me.”

“No,” Cruhuer said, “You are the only Lorenzo I have ever known, personally.  I gave you a name fit for the City-State of Cassa because you are to be my emissary to Cassa.  Collin, your older brother, will inherit my title, but you, Lorenzo, you must carry on my work.  You must be my voice in Cassa after I am gone.”

“Father -”

“And to that end, you must learn circumspection,” his father continued, “you must learn wisdom.  You must master your temper, learn to wield and control the fire that burns inside you.  You must learn to hear the whole story before you act, to be absolutely certain your actions, as well as your words, are true.  Do you understand?”

Lorenzo hung his head.  “Yes, Father.”

“Good,” Lord Merengo said, “so now you understand why I bait you so.”  He smiled.  “I am proud of you, son, despite your temper.  Come, our guests will arrive soon, and we must dress for dinner.”

Lorenzo followed his father out of the parlor and down a breezeway that led to the residential wing. Though the interior hallways were doubtless more secure, a summer wind blew cool on their faces, carrying with it the heat-driven smell of roses and honeysuckle.

Without knowing why, Lord Merengo’s hand went to his waist, closing around the grip of his small sword.  Lorenzo sniffed the air.  “I smell an Amicitias rat,” he whispered, sliding his dagger slowly from his belt.

“Speak not of the devil,” Cruhuer rumbled as four black-cloaked men clambered onto the breezeway, faces hooded, daggers dripping poison.  Father and son stood back to back, blades drawn, dangerously outmatched.  “They have come for me, my son.  Use this opportunity to escape.”

“I’d sooner rot in the bowels of Mount Strife,” Lorenzo said, shivering with rage and fear and anticipation.

“You’ve fought duels, my son, but never killed.  Please, go.”

“Never.”  Lorenzo raised his dagger to eye level, pointing it at the nearest assassin.  “Well come on, gutter-rat, have at thee!”

The killers paced and turned seeking an opening, kept at bay by the point of their targets’ blades.  The breezeway was too narrow to circle, too narrow even to flank them, to divide their attention and cut them down.  But one touch, one scratch, would be enough, and even the Merengos’ skill could not prevent that, not forever.

“Fiorentino?”  Lord Merengo said, spotting a flash of blue and silver at the close of the assassin’s broach.

“Ah, yes, the blue and silver.  Those are House Fiorentino’s colors, are they not?”  The assassin said, his visage still hidden beneath his hood.  Lord Merengo did not need to see his face to know his was grinning.

The first assassin lunged with a snarl, hoping an aggressive strike would get him the scratch he needed.  Lord Merengo bellowed, channeling the King of the Forest, the great stag that served as his family’s standard.  The sheer force of his presence staggered the killer, leaving him open for a quick disarm and a hard fist to the face.  The killer staggered back, eyes darting to his poisoned blade, now lying on the floor.

Moving in concert with his comrade, as second assassin lunged at Lorenzo.  The younger Merengo lacked his father’s presence, but his youth and strength served him well.  He stepped in, catching the dagger-arm with his left hand, holding the blade high, away from his exposed skin, then slashed forward, ripping through the hired killer’s forearm, severing tendons and flaying his flesh to the bone.  One more poisoned dagger fell to the floor, and one more assassin stepped back, eyes wide with surprise.

The smell of blood and exposed flesh assailed Lorenzo’s sensitive nose, and his unconscious mind told him to flee.  But he would not.  Not now, not ever.

“Enough,” a hissing voice said, “surprise is lost.  Do it.”  Hands withdrew into cloaks and returned holding pistols.  The assassins took courage from their weapons.  Though they were only rough flintlocks, smooth-bored and doubtlessly loaded with grapeshot, they could be neither parried nor aptly dodged in so narrow a space as this.

Lord Merengo steeled himself.  “Over the railing, my son,” he muttered, so quietly only one of the great stag’s house could hear it, “the awning should break your fall.”

Lorenzo laughed.  “I say we rush them.”

“Any last words, Lord Merengo?” The chief assassin hissed.

A gunshot thundered from behind them, and the killer jerked and fell, his cloak fluttering around him like a murder of crows.  Acrid smoke filled the air, thick, biting black powder, its tang so unlike wood or candle smoke.

“Perhaps I should have asked you the same.” Pierro Merengo said, yellow-green eyes shining from beneath raven hair, lips pulled back in a predatory grin.  The second assassin spun, bringing his flintlock to bear.  Pierro threw his empty pistol and leapt, quick and savage as a great cat bringing down prey.  The hired killer’s shot went high, distracted by thrown weapon, and he was borne to the ground in a hail of punches and elbows.

Cruhuer and Lorenzo took the opportunity to rush the remaining attackers.  Lord Merengo lunged forward with the speed of the stag, driving his sword between the assassin’s ribs.  Lorenzo knocked his injured opponent’s gun aside and drove his dagger into the wounded killer’s throat.

“Pierro!” Lord Merengo said, turning and grinning at his favorite nephew, “thank the Creator!  Ah, but it’s no surprise: you sense when I’m in danger before I even know it myself.”

Pierro bowed, collecting his pistol.  “You flatter me, my lord,” he said, “I heard your war cry, and knew it could only signal danger.  I regret I did not arrive more swiftly.”

“My son, how goes it?”  Cruhuer said quietly, turning to face his silent son.

Lorenzo stared down at the dead assassin, dressed as he was in Fiorentino colors.  The dead man’s blood pooled slowly across the hardwood floor, its surface reflecting the golden sunlight, flowing in little rivulets down the seams where the planks met.  “I am well indeed,” he said with a cold smile that made his father visibly wince, “better than our enemies.”  In truth, his blood pounded in his temples, his chest trembled, and his hands and arms grew cold.  Lorenzo knew he had no other choice, knew no man would cast blame, but knowing did not blunt the smell of butchered meat and blood, nor the ghastly knowledge that the carcass had been a thinking, feeling, being just moments before.

His father scowled.   He knew Lorenzo’s last four words had not been a comment, but a threat.  “Seek answers, not revenge,” he said softly, “the truth will guide us.  They have done our house no harm, save for staining our floors with their blood.”

Lorenzo nodded slightly, and that was all his father could expect.  He looked at Pierro, who answered with a slight nod.

“The truth should be attainable, my lord,” Pierro said, nudging the unconscious assassin with his boot, “I thought it best to take one of your assailants alive.”

“Excellent work, as always,” Lord Merengo said, his voice booming with authority once again, “Take him to the cellar.  I will question him shortly.”

2

Lord Cruhuer Merengo stared down at the prisoner, eyeing him coldly by the light of a flickering lantern.  “He does not seem too badly injured.  Why does he not stir?”  Their captive had been stripped of his cloak and all weapons.  No longer wrapped in night-sky black, clasped with silver and cerulean blue, he looked more like a common criminal than a House Fiorentino assassin.

“When compelled to commit violence, I hit hard, Esteemed Uncle.”  Pierro prodded the prisoner with his boot.  “Ah, he awakens.”

The prisoner blinked in the darkness, adjusting to the darkness.  The lantern’s light cast Cruhuer, Lorenzo, and Pierro Marengo in a chaos of red and orange.

Pierro’s eyes glowed red in the darkness, reflecting the light like a cat’s, and his smile shone white-toothed and wicked against his olive skin and raven hair.  “Shall I question him, my lord?”

Cruhuer stepped forward, silencing his nephew without a word.  “Tell me your name, assassin.”  His booming voice echoed off the narrow cellar walls.  “Tell me your name.”

“Pick.”

“Pick?”  Lord Merengo said, his lip curling in a sneer, “is that what your father named you?”

Pick laughed bitterly, then winced and fell into coughing.  He knew his rib was broken, at least.  “Father?  You think I had a father?”

“Fair enough, Pick,” Merengo said, a note of pity entering his voice, “tell me who sent you.”

“I know neither his name nor his house,” Pick said, “he gave us the cloaks, the clasps, our payment, and our mission.  His gold was all the identification I needed.”

“Liar!”  Lorenzo said, rushing forward, grabbing Pick’s collar and jerking him forward, “you wear Fiorentino colors!  Every child knows the Fiorentino wish my father dead!”

“Lorenzo,” Cruhuer said, his voice soft, yet hard as steel.

Lorenzo released the prisoner, letting him slide back against the wall.

“You have the look and smell of Amicitias,” Cruhuer rumbled, “the most brutish of the common class, claiming poverty while preying off those poorer than yourselves, taking whatever unsavory opportunity comes your way.  Their contempt for the true faith is certainly upon you, else you’d never have taken this assignment.”

“Why? Because the church frowns on killing your betters,” Pick said, sarcasm overwhelming caution, “got to keep us unwashed types in our place.”

“No,” Cruhuer said, turning to go, “because the church frowns on suicide.”  He paused, regarding Lorenzo and Pierro.  “Leave him; perhaps a night in the darkness will loosen his tongue.  We have guests to attend.”

Always the paragon, Cruhuer Merengo held his feast as if nothing unusual had happened.  Lorenzo marveled that many of the guests seemed totally unaware of how near to death their host had come.  He smiled, thinking of how scandalized they would be when they heard it through the gossip-vine tomorrow.  When the guests had gone, and Lord Merengo retired to his chambers, Lorenzo and Pierro met in the darkened hallways near the cellar door.

“I fear my father’s goals may be the death of him,” Lorenzo said.

“Perhaps,” Pierro said, stretching languidly, like some predator awakening, “but they are worthy.”

Lorenzo’s eyebrows shot up.  “You approve?”

“How could I not?” Pierro said, “is not my very nobility proof of his precepts?  Is not the very nature of our society built upon noble marriages that cannot produce children, and upon the foundlings they adopt?  Are not those marriages the very alliances that have kept the peace for two hundred years, since the last Breaking fell upon us, since the Nova Roma fell and the City-States gained their independence?”

“I cannot argue with your words, cousin.”

“No, cousin, it is not my esteemed uncle’s dreams that are dangerous, but his scruples,” Pierro said, “the Church indeed frowns on suicide, but your father courts it every day.”  He smiled like a hungry panther.  “But if he is too good, too righteous to do the ugly deeds that must be done…”

“Then we will do them for him,” Lorenzo said, laughing softly, “I can see why you’re his favorite nephew.”

Pierro laughed.  “He knows nothing of these activities, and would not approve if he did.  I am his favorite nephew because I am the only one who doesn’t think him mad.”

“Fair enough,” Lorenzo said, sliding the key into the cellar lock, feeling its thick, resistant turn as metal scratched across metal, “Now, let us make this Fiorentino knave talk.”

It took Pierro less than an hour to break the assassin.  He could have done it more quickly, but he did not want to leave marks, or risk ending his life.  Exploitation of existing injuries, eye irritants, and simulated drowning were as effective as carving off body parts, given sufficient time.  And they had all night.

Gasping for breath, spitting out water, straining against iron chains, the prisoner finally sputtered, “Fiorentio!  I work for Fiorentio!  They hired us.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know!”  Pick said, wide eyes begging for mercy, “I don’t know!  They just said to kill your father.  That’s it.  That’s all.  Wear these, and kill Lord Merengo!  I swear.  Please.  Please.  Please.”  The prisoner broken into sobs, repeating the word ‘please’ again and again, so softly human ears would not have heard it.

Lorenzo shuddered, closing the cellar door behind him, muffling the prisoner’s sobs.  “You are uncanny good at some … very unsavory things, cousin.  Dare I ask?”

“My father is not so … squeamish as yours,” Pierro said, “and my fate never included ruling a house, or even a household.  My hands never needed to be clean.”

“Your own father taught you?” Lorenzo said, “My uncle taught you this?”

“He arranged my training,” Pierro said, “from a young age, he told me, ‘Pierro, your uncle Cruhuer may be mad, but he is Lord of House Merengo.  He is too good for this world, too scrupulous to survive.  We must protect him, even if we do not agree with him.  Our house honor demands it.’  And so I learned to interrogate, to torture, to sneak like a thief, to kill like an assassin or like a soldier.  I was groomed almost from birth to be Lord Merengo’s red left hand.”

“Fair enough,” Lorenzo said, biting back the bile that rose, again and again, in his throat, “you have been an apt pupil.”

“I could not have done it without you, cousin,” Pierro said, “I am certain he believed you came with your father’s blessing, that you represented him, that this was sanctioned, and he had no power, no authority, to appeal to.  Your presence destroyed his hope, and without that, I do not know how long he could have held on, or what I would have had to do to break him.  I could only go so far without your father knowing.”

“Will he not know tomorrow, when he questions the prisoner?”

Pierro smiled coldly.  “We did nothing that would leave a mark.  Without physical evidence, he’ll not take an assassin’s word.  Not over mine, and certainly not over yours.”

Lorenzo swallowed hard, then forced a smile.  “I am glad you are of my house, and not of my enemy’s,” he said, “so now we know.”

“Now we know,” Pierro said, “the cloaks did not lie.”

“Why would Fiorentino send Amicitias thugs?”

“Clearly, he did not know,” Pierro said, “I can speculate many reasons, but the reason hardly matters.  What matters is our next move.  Do we let this pass?  Do we let your father decide our course of action?  Or…” Pierro trailed off, knowing it was not his place to suggest the final option, and knowing he would not have to.

“No,” Lorenzo said, “we repay.  Blood for blood.  And not against the Amicitias vermin; they are beneath contempt.  Against the very ones who ordered the attempt.  We find Fiorentino blood, and we spill it.”

3

“To our cousin!”  Bernardo said, spilling out from the tavern into the alleyway, his arm wrapped around a supple, yellow-eyed granddaughter of the Great Cat, whose ancestry promised both an interesting night and no danger whatsoever of pregnancy.

“Long may His Royal Madness reign!” Salucio said raising his glass to meet Bernardo’s, clinking them together with a slosh of suds.  The woman underneath his arm giggled, sending aftershocks through her more-than-ample curves.

Two bodyguards exchanged looks that mixed amusement and exasperation.  Their loyalties lay with House Fiorentino, rather than their particular charges, and vice lord Aeneas had made it clear that their first task was to protect the family name from public scandal.  So far, they had been successful; drinking and sporting with tavern wenches whose ancestry made bastardy impossible hardly qualified as scandalous, especially since all such deeds would be done in a small, well-appointed apartment far from the Fiorentino manor.  So long as the women were neither noble nor married, no harm could come to the house name.

After all, neither Bernardo nor Salucio was the type whose amorous attentions might turn fatal.  The two guards seemed to share the same thought, because both shuddered, thanking a Creator they scarcely believed in that they had not been assigned to watch over Lord Giuseppe.

The tall, thin guard stumbled, clutching his chest.  His eyes glazed, and he slid to the ground, his strength gone, his life following quickly.

“Assassins!”  The burly guard shouted, raising his buckler and reaching for his blade.  He knocked aside Lorenzo’s dagger and threw himself between his masters and their attackers.  “My lords, take flight!  I shall stand against these -”  A small, swift knife cut his words short, burying itself in his upper calf.  The bodyguard shuddered and fell, his eyes closing forever.

“Kindness,” Pierro said, stepping out of the shadows, his bright eyes shining, “Fiorentino brew.  You have no idea how hard it was to obtain that without your family crest.”  He glanced coldly down at the two dead men.  “But so well worth it.  Truly your poisoners are the best in all of Cassa, perhaps all of Tarafore.  No other toxin kills so quickly, so reliably.  And so delightfully named.  Kindness.”

“What do you want?” Bernardo said, drawing his rapier, glancing for an escape route, wondering if he could outrun his assailants.  The two women had fled already, vanishing into the shadows, most likely back to the tavern.  This was no business of theirs.

“Revenge,” Lorenzo said, stepping out of the dark.

“You,” Salucio said, “you’re Lorenzo Merengo.  And you must be Pierro.”  He glanced over his shoulder at Bernardo.  “But our houses have a truce.  And your House never breaks the truce!”

“We have not broken the truce, Fiorentino worm,” Lorenzo said, “you did.  Your assassins nearly killed my father and myself this afternoon.  Do you deny it?”

“I know nothing of this,” Bernardo said, keeping his blade between his heart and the Merengos, well aware of what a single drop of Kindness could do.

“I am also unaware of any such attempt,” Salucio said, raising his empty hands, “I swear it on my grandfather’s grave.”

“Liar!” Lorenzo spat, advancing, rapier and dagger in hand, “naked, beast-less worm, you shall die for what you have done!”

Less than a minute later, Lorenzo stood above the bodies of the Fiorentino noblemen.  Their blood spilled slowly across the alley floor, pooling on the cobblestones and flowing in little rivers down the cracks between. The smell of their open wounds sent his mind reeling back to the afternoon, the black cloaks and poisoned blades.  He felt the bile rising in his throat, and started to shiver.  Fight it as he might, Lord Merengo’s second son could not stop shaking, could not stop wretching, until he’d emptied the contents of the evening’s banquet onto the dirty alley floor, drowning the smell of blood with the acidic stench of vomit.

He felt Pierro’s hand on his shoulder.  “Do not be embarrassed, cousin,” he said softly, his deep voice almost a purr, “I did the same after my first kill, and again after my first murder.  It will pass.  The next will be easier.”

Lorenzo wiped his mouth and scowled.  “Easier?”

“Killing is like anything else, cousin,” Pierro said, “the more you do it, the steadier you become.  Clearly, you have not neglected your fencing; you acquitted yourself well tonight.  I was prepared to kill both Fiorentino, as I killed their guards, but your swift blade rendered that plan … unnecessary.  My father will be proud.”

“And mine?” Lorenzo said, not meeting Pierro’s eyes.

“Alas, your father will have to content himself with your bravery this afternoon,” Pierro said, “for he never know what we have done here.”

4

“Do you think we should be doing this, Connor?” Jericha asked, her doe eyes focused on her big brother.  The first rays of sunrise filled the hall with soft radiance, but her brother held a lit lamp, casting orange and red shadows and heat across both their faces, filling their noses with the faint smell of oil and smoke.

Standing at the stairway leading down into the cellar, Connor bit his lip.  “Father would wish to spare us this sight, but I will be a man soon enough, and I must know.”  His hands tightened over the duplicate cellar key, stolen from Lord Merengo’s desk.  He knew the price of such an intrusion would be harsh, but he would bear it, to see the face of the man who tried to lay his father in the grave.  “You’re still a child, Jer, maybe you should go back.”

“No!” Jericha said, “I’m almost grown, too.”

“You most assuredly are not,” Connor said, “you are not even ten years old!”

“You’re only eleven!”  Jericha said, “and girls mature faster.  Everybody knows that.”

“I’m almost twelve,” Connor said, “and I’m already taking fencing lessons.”

“I’d be taking them too, if Father would let me,” Jericha said.  Though she was behind him, and Connor could not see her mouth, Jericha’s pout was obvious in her voice.

“Do not be petulant, sister.  Father will let you train, once you’re old enough,’ Connor said, “he won’t leave you defenseless, but he doesn’t want you to grow up some mad virago swordswoman, leaving house and home to go on wild adventures.”

“What’s wrong with adventures?” Jericha said, “are we not having one now?”

“Jericha, this person tried to kill Father and Lorenzo.  He and his accomplices snuck in, used poison daggers, and attacked two to one.  They had no honor.  And they might have succeeded had cousin Pierro not come to the rescue.  This is not a good man.  This not even a compromised man, as Father often says.  This is a very bad man.”

“I’ve never seen a very bad man before,” Jericha said breathlessly, “not up close.  Will he have fangs and glowing red eyes?”

“Jericha!”  Connor said, “This man tried to kill our Father.  We should hate him.  He is not some carnival performer to jeer or applaud.”

“Very well,” Jericha said, pouting, “I will be silent, and I shall try very hard to hate him.  But I am coming with you.”

“Fine,” Connor said, raising his lamp and leading his sister down the stairway, “just let me do the talking.”

The cellar air lay heavy, damp, and cool, so different from the warm, bright morning that Jericha felt as if she were entering an entirely different world, descending, perhaps, into the grave where all dead souls sleep, awaiting the Great Resurrection.  She made the Sign of the Circle unconsciously, thinking of the church and the sermons and the mother she’d never known, wondering if the dead dreamed, and if her mother dreamed of her, if she could somehow see the girl she had become.

“You don’t have to go in,” Connor said, stopping before the locked door, heavy oak banded with iron, “you can still wait out here.”

“In the dark, brother?” Jericha said, “I think not!”

“Then steel yourself, good sister,” Connor said, turning the key in the door, “we’re about to look upon the face of evil.”

Jericha held her breath as her brother pushed the door open, mentally preparing herself for anything: a demonic visage, a rabid madman, even the cold determination she’d so often seen in cousin Pierro’s eyes.  What she saw brought a gasp to her lips.  “He doesn’t look like the face of evil.”

The prisoner hung there, in chains, sobbing.

“Um,” Connor said, raising the lamp, “this is unexpected.”  As he raised the lamp, the prisoner flinched.

“Did the old man send you to finish me?” the assassin said, his voice dry and weak, “you look like children.”

“We are,” Connor said, “what happened to you?”

The prisoner stared at them, eyes wide, as if they were trying to trap him.  “Your brother, and the cat.  Mostly of all, the cat.  But you know that already.”  His parched voice cracked, and his body shook with coughing.

Connor looked upon the terrified prisoner, his eyes ringed in red, his shoulders slumped, his will and body utterly broken.  “I expected to hate you, but I see you here, and all I feel is pity.”

“Did you learn that from your mother?” Pick said, turning his face, anticipating a slap, “You’ll never survive in this world being soft like a woman, kid.”

“I learned precious little from my mother,” Connor whispered, “she died before I was two years old.”

Behind him, Jericha flinched.  Every mention of her birth or her mother’s death reminded her that the two were one and the same.  In almost ten years, her father had not remarried, and her birth day was always a time of mourning, not celebration.

“I learned compassion from my father,” Connor said, his voice turning to steel, “and you, sir, are in no position to lecture him on weakness.”

“Fair enough,” Pick said, forcing himself to face his young captor, “Why are you here?  Your father sent his son and the cat to torment me last night; are you here to finish me?  You seem too young to be given that task.”  He licked his parched lips, but his tongue had no moisture to spare.

“Jericha, go fetch some food and water,” Connor said, “perhaps some wine, if you can get it without being asked questions.  I wish to speak with this assassin alone.”

Jericha nodded and hurried away.

After a long silence, the prisoner spoke.  “What are you going to do, drug the food?”

“It is said that liars trust no others,” Connor said, “You are a very distrustful man.  Should I distrust the words you say?”

“I am in no position to lie,” Pick said.

“Yet you have little motivation to tell the truth,” Connor said, “especially to one who has no power to free you.”

Pick raised one eyebrow.  “Was that honesty?”

“You know, as the youngest son, I have no authority to free you,” Connor said, “I should not even be here, but I had to see your face.”

“And the food?”

“I have the authority to take as much food as I want,” Connor said, “as does my sister.  We’ll be in no greater trouble for feeding you than for seeing you.”

Pick laughed.  “Why?  Why feed me at all?”

“I expected a devil,” Connor said, “I found a broken man.  That is reason enough.”

“You are your father’s son,” Pick said, shaking his head slowly, “more than Lorenzo will ever be.”

“I couldn’t get the wine,” Jericha said, returning to the cell, “I got bread and cheese and water.”

The prisoner flinched at the word ‘water.’

“You may eat while we talk,” Connor said, “you no doubt need it.”

Pick pulled gently against his chains, showing how tightly bound his arms were.  “I cannot.”

Connor sighed.  “Do you wish to feed him, sister, or shall I?”

Jericha swallowed hard, looking at Pick, trying to determine if he was mortal or some sort of fiend.  “I will.”  She approached him and asked, “Do you need food first, or drink?”

Pick’s eyes grew wide when he saw the pitcher of water, but his mouth was so bitterly dry that he could hardly speak.  “Drink.”  He closed his eyes and shivered as she raised the cup to his lips.

“Hold still, please,” she said, “mister assassin.  I don’t want to miss your mouth.”

The cool touch of water on his lips nearly sent Pick into a flashback, and he had to force his eyes open and focus on the young girl’s face.  The pity in her doe’s eyes, the soft compassion in the child’s frown kept at bay the last night’s terrors: drowning in a pitcher, shaken awake, only to drown again.

“Thank you,” he whispered.

Jericha smiled.  “I’ll feed you now.”

Connor waited until the prisoner had eaten what he could, then asked, “Why are you here?  Why did you try to kill my father?”

“I told your brother and the cat last night -” Pick said, his voice clear and almost pleasant, now that his thirst was slaked.

“Tell me, now,” Connor said, “and don’t merely repeat what you told them.  Tell me the truth.”

Pick sighed.  “A black-cloaked man gave us the cloaks, the Fiorentino broaches, and our instructions.  We asked no reasons; his ducats were explanation enough.”  He looked at the ground, unwilling to meet Connor or Jericha’s eyes.  “As you no doubt know, I am not a good man.”

“What did he look like?”

“I never saw his face,” Pick said, “he wore a plague-worker’s mask, leather, with a long nose, stuffed with flowers or perfume to combat the stench of the dying.  This mask was shaped like a crow’s beak.  His orders were to assassinate an important Merengo, and make it look like the Fiorentino did it.”

“So he sought to stir up a war?” Connor said.

“Perhaps,” Pick said, “perhaps he merely wanted to deflect blame from himself.  House Crynnlynn, House Peccavi, even House Kamitaas might not be above such a tactic.  Your father has made many enemies among the old nobility-”

“This is the truth?”

“Yes, I swear it, on what little I hold dear and holy,” Pick said, “but – it is not what I told your brother.”

“What?”

“I tried to tell them that,” Pick said, “but they would not believe me.  They – ” He swallowed hard, and forced himself to continue. “They … questioned … me until I told them what they wanted to hear.  They believe House Fiorentino responsible.  They may already have sought revenge.”

“Sister, gather up the food and water,” Connor said, “and go back to your room.  I must find father.  I must tell him this.  But I will leave your name unspoken.”

“But he will-”

“My punishment will be far less severe than a vendetta between our House and the Fiorentino,” Connor said, “half a year spent dueling, poisoning, ambushing each other’s men, plotting in secret, never open enough to incur the notice of the other Houses.  To prevent that, I will endure whatever Father chooses.”

Connor heard the sound of glass breaking before he reached the top of the stairs, but the importance of his message slowed his reactions.  A moment too late he realized what the sound must mean.

“Jericha,” he whispered, his hand reaching for the small dagger he wore at his waist, “run.  Now!”

Two black-cloaked assassins appeared at the door.  Grandsons of Earth, black haired, blue eyed, with skin like snow.  Fiorentino.  Members of the family, not second-hand mercenaries.  Assassins from birth, devoted to the death.

Connor stepped into the gap, his dark eyes shining with purpose, his knife raised like a great sword.

Jericha spared only one look over her shoulder before she ran.  Her sensitive ears heard Connor gasp, then fall, heard the footsteps of the assassin behind her, heard them fade in the distance.  No human could have caught her, granddaughter of the Great Stag, as she ran from room to room, shouting the alarm.

Pierro fell upon the assassins, leading the men and guards of the house, wielding what weapons they had or could put hands on.  A pistol roared, filling the air with acrid smoke.  Swords flashed.  A heavy oak rod, originally destined to support a thick tapestry, fell with savage force, bruising flesh and breaking bones, before snapping over an unfortunate Fiorentino’s head.  The assassins retreated, having taken their pound of flesh, leaving Connor wounded and unconscious, his blood pooling on the cold stone floor, little streams of crimson running down every crevice.

5

As soon as Connor’s wounds were bound and a physic summoned, House Merengo prepared for war.  Every Merengo man and many of the House’s women donned breastplates of steel or jerkins of leather and buckled sword belts around their waists.  Pistols were loaded, powder and ball measured out, bucklers made ready.  A few old guards even sharpened pikes.  House Fiorentino had moved beyond its expected, half-hearted attacks on Lord Merengo.  It had threatened one son and laid low another, an unforgivable injury.  And so it would be broken: its leaders killed, its mansion burned, its name made a curse on the lips of all the men and women of Cassa.

“Collin!”  Lord Merengo said, stepping forward, clad in breastplate and greaves, enameled with the house colors of green and brown, the Great Stag rampant in white, “you must leave this place.”

“I will not!”  Collin said, driving his fist against his own armor, hard steel engraved with the stag’s head.  “I am your son and heir, and I will fight at your right hand!”

“I do not know what will befall us, my son,” Cruhuer said, holding his eldest son’s shoulders and pressing their foreheads together, a gesture of tenderness that nonetheless recalled two stags clashing, “but House Merengo must endure.”

Collin’s eyes shone like blacksmith’s coals.  “Then you should stay, father,” he said, “you are Lord of this House.  I will avenge my brother.”

“No,” his father said, his voice carrying the power and authority of an entire noble line, “I am too old to bear and bury more sons.  You have a wife, and children yet to be born.  I must fight, and you will stay.”

Collin sighed.  “Yes, my lord.”  His shoulders slumped.  “Fight well, and return alive, father.  I have no wish to gain your crown just yet.”

Cruhuer chuckled.  “Nor do I wish to surrender it.  Thank you, son.  Now go.”

House Merengo marched against house Fiorentino, stalking across the city in the cool and misty morning, armor bright, colors flying, weapons cold, yet hungry for blood.  They knew they must act quickly, or the priests of House Peccavi and their enforcers in House Kamitaas would stand in the gap, preventing real battle, sending them back to a pitiable cold war or duels and hired daggers.

But not today.  Today, the streets were clear.  Today, House Merengo stood before the Fiorentino gates, shouting their challenge.

“Come out, cowards,” Lord Merengo bellowed, his voice echoing through the palazzos and terraces like a great elk’s cry in the forest, “send no hired hands, no poisoners.  If there remains a man among you, come out!”

Mere minutes later, the scions of House Fiorentino filed into the courtyard.  Lord Guiseppe Fiorentino yawned theatrically.  “What do you want, lord venison?  It had best be important; you interrupted a very pleasant dream.”

“This battle may be the end of both our Houses,” Cruhuer Merengo rumbled, his voice hanging in the morning mist, echoing across balconies and cobblestones, “But I cannot beg for peace.  The attempt on my life I could forgive, but an unprovoked attack on my youngest son?  Inconceivable.  Inexcusable.  Unforgivable.”

“Unprovoked?”  Niccolo Fiorentino said, stepping from behind his brother, eyes wide, mouth twisting in a snarl, “your men killed two of our cousins and their bodyguards.  That was an unprovoked attack.  Wounding young Connor was mere retribution, and partial at that.  I shall have Pierro’s head before this day ends.  That will be justice.”

Lord Merengo turned back to Pierro and Lorenzo.  “What have you to say to this?”

“Our attack was provoked, Father,” Lorenzo said, “the assassin told his tale.  He was sent by House Fiorentino.”

“When did he tell you this?”

“I returned to his cell after our guests left,” Lorenzo said, almost spitting the words, “I would not wait to hear the truth, not after an attempt on my lord and father’s life!”

Giuseppe laughed.  “We sent no one.”  He turned to his brother quickly.  “Did we?  If we did, and I wasn’t told, I shall be most cross.”

“We sent no one,” Niccolo said coldly, “until after Bernardo and Salucio were murdered.”

“You hired four Amicitias vermin,” Lorenzo said, “you tried to hide your hand, but Pierro made them talk.  You are right to fear him.”

Cruhuer looked past his son, his eyes raining fire upon his young nephew’s head.  Pierro lowered his yellow-green eyes.  He knew Lord Merengo abhorred torture, abhorred killing itself.  He and Lorenzo thought they’d known better.  Now he was not so sure.

Lord Guiseppe Fiorentino shook violently with laughter, barely keeping hold on his rapier.

“You find something funny, human?”  Lorenzo snarled, seeming almost as predatory as Pierro.

“Yes,” Giuseppe said, “your ignorance.  Do you actually believe I’d send a dirty sewer rat to do the job of a master?  You wound me, lord venison.  When death’s dagger finds you, Cruhuer, and may today be that day, its hilt will shine with the blue and silver of House Fiorentino.  I would never disclaim the glory of your demise, nor taint it by awarding the kill to a common thug.”

“You lie!”  Lorenzo shouted, eyes wide.  Pierro hissed, grasping his sword so tightly his knuckles paled to white.

“Oh, how desperately you would like that to be true,” Giuseppe said, “but you were deceived.  Perhaps you should study torture more closely.  I assure you, Fiorentino interrogators would not have extracted such faulty intelligence.  No matter: you wanted war, and now you shall have it.”

“The prince of lies will not be believed, even if he one days peaks the truth,” Lord Merengo said, sighing, lowering his ancestral helm onto his head, antlers rising up in honor of the Great Stag.  “Make ready.”

“Father, wait -”

“Connor?”  Lord Merengo turned, wide-eyed, to see his wounded son. “You should remain in bed!”

The youngest Merengo son stumbled forward, his fist pressed into his reopened wound.  “I would not be my father’s son if I did,” he said, “the prisoner told me the truth, father.”

“What?”  Lorenzo asked, “When?”

“Before the attack,” Connor said, “Jericha and I wanted to see him, so we brought him food and water.”

“See what time and compassion can do, my son?” Lord Merengo said.  The glare he sent first at Lorenzo, then Pierro, silenced all argument.

“A masked man paid him to start a war, my father,” Connor said, “your death was but a means to that end.”

“A war like this,” Cruhuer said, scanning his eyes across the assembled nobles and warriors, “a war that threatens both houses, a war that could consume the city itself.”

“Yes, father,” Connor said, coughing, biting his lip to hold back the shaking, blood-red pain, “this day the prince of lies spoke the truth.”

“I did?” Giuseppe said, smirking, “I suppose it had to happen sometime.”

Connor stumbled, his eyes glazing.  “Father -”

“Son!” Cruhuer cried out, rushing to Connor, gathering him up, holding his youngest son in his arms, cradling him like a child, “son, no!”

“Father, do not fight this war,” Connor said, his eyes glassy and far away, “swear it.”

“I – I swear it,” Cruhuer said, “just rest.  You have bought this peace with your blood.”

“We can strike now,” Giuseppe said, “while they’re distracted.”  He paused.  “No, too easy  No fun.  No glory.”

Niccolo curled his lip in disgust at his brother, Lord of House Fiorentino by accident of birth alone.  Then he turned, shaking his head slowly.  “Come, Fiorentino men, this is over.”  The nobles and warriors sheathed their weapons and turned to follow Niccolo.  “Are you coming, dear brother?”

“In time, Niccolo,” Giuseppe said, watching Lord Merengo cradle his lifeless son, his grief naked among a forest of steel, “I am, for now, enjoying the show.”  He smiled wistfully.  “It is even better than my dream.”

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