Authors: Den Patrick
For Juliet, who believed from the start.
‘The best revenge is to live well’
‘A raven who dives like a cormorant is drowned’
POPULAR LANDFALL PROVERB
Araneae ‘Anea’ Oscuro Diaspora
reluctant ruler of Demesne, a learned woman who yearns for a republic
Dino Adolfo Erudito
Superiore Maestro di Spada
, bodyguard, and half-brother of Araneae
Dino’s pet cataphract drake
Professore Falcone Virmyre
a scientist and friend to the Orfani
Domina Russo Maria Diaspora
Chief steward of Demesne
Fiorenza Giolla Diaspora
Housekeeper to the Domina
an elderly and conservative member of the nobility
his notoriously bad-tempered wife
Maestro di Spada
D’arzenta di Fontein
frustrated teacher of blades
Maestro di Spada
Ruggeri di Fontein
laconic, to say the least
Capo di Custodia,
Guido di Fontein
Duchess Prospero’s consort
Isabella Gollia Esposito
the Duke and Duchess’ reluctant housekeeper
Speranza di Fontein
a rarity, a woman messenger
a bachelor of life, science, and the arts
a noble of middle age, veteran of the Verde Guerra
the soul of House Contadino, and of diplomacy
Lord Luc Contadino
just eleven, already the image of his father
Lady Isabella Contadino
a sparrow of nine summers
’s indispensable aide and rumoured assassin
Cook Camelia di Contadino
no-nonsense giantess of the kitchens
a messenger and loyal servant
wife of Nardo, Housekeeper to
Duchess Salvaza Prospero (formerly Fontein)
an ambitious and staunch conservative
supporter of Anea, estranged from her mother, unmarried
Duke Lucien ‘sinestra’ Marino
Orfano, Kingslayer and ruler of San Marino, a town to south-east
Duchess Rafaela Marino
a commoner made noble through marriage
rumoured lover of Duke Fontein, governs a House of varying fortune
a devoted daughter keen to advance her station
a theatrical and much spoiled daughter
Giolla di Allattamento
a niece and Lady-in-Waiting to Lady Allattamento
cocksure bravo and hothead
THE CULT OF SANTA MARIA
self-proclaimed Disciple of Santa Maria
The Second Son of Allattamento
Lady Araneae Oscuro Diaspora, formerly of House Contadino, known to her subjects as the Silent Queen, sat back from her letter-writing. Her nightgown was a pale grey silk that left her arms bare, alabaster skin almost luminous in the candlelight. As ever she wore a veil over the bottom half of her face, a neat triangle of matching fabric, a line of blue embroidery dancing along the topmost edge. Her kohl-stained eyes stared out of the lead-latticed windows; the town of Santa Maria slept in darkness beyond the glass. Blacksmiths slumbered, children snored faintly, while drunks mumbled and turned, beset by night terrors. Mothers and fathers dared dream of a prosperous, safer future.
The Silent Queen, known to those who loved her as Anea, regarded her reflection in the window. Just twenty-five, yet bearing a world of problems upon her slender shoulders. Her hair was a long and well kept mane of summer yellow, held up with a silver pin the thickness of her finger. Difficult to tell in this light if the beginnings of crow’s feet were forming at the corners of her eyes. Her desk was covered in correspondence: an endless litany of complaints from newly formed guilds, lesser nobles clutching at the crumbling vestiges of yesterday’s power. A glass of untouched red wine shone bloody in the twilight, reflecting light from thick, scented candles. Jasmine lingered on the air, calming nerves frayed by the day’s debates.
Our Lady Araneae, the great reformer, known to her opponents as the
princess, or witchling by braver souls. Not that she had ever evinced any magic in the ten years of her reign. Anea regarded the room: finely crafted furniture and woven rugs of bright wool. The candelabrum was a simple but fine example of what House Prospero artisans were capable of these days. A framed diagram of a human body dominated the fireplace. The bookshelf stood to her right, yet opportunities to read for pleasure were few these days.
A key clicked in the lock, causing Anea to stand and turn, hands pressed against the desk. The door opened on greased brass hinges. Even Russo, her most trusted lieutenant, knocked before entering. There were three of them, sporting doublets in black with gold thread at the collar. The shoulders were slashed, showing deep red silk beneath. Black and scarlet, the colours of House Fontein. All three were male, filled with impetuous swagger, young bravos in their twenties sporting the cropped hairstyle of Maestro di Spada Giancarlo, dead these ten years.
And they were armed. Each bore the short flat blade that was so in fashion at the moment.
‘Good evening, my lady,’ said the nearest of them, a sneer on his lips. ‘Forgive me the late intrusion but I bring word from the
His fellows stifled laughter at his mummery, Anea stared back, statue still.
‘It seems they have decided your schemes to empower the commoners do not serve their best interests. While those in the fields have begun to worship you, it is a cruel irony you are less popular here, in Demesne.’
The leader took a step forward, closing the gap between himself and the defenceless ruler. She pressed herself against the desk. He wasn’t much older than Anea. Likely half as intelligent, three times as pompous.
‘We know you won’t be turned from your dreams of a republic, so it falls to me to act. Still, hardly a reason we can’t have some fun? It’s not like you can cry out for help, is it, my Silent Queen?’
It was true. No sound had ever issued from behind the veil she wore. Some said she’d been born without a tongue, others claimed her witchery demanded silence, few knew the truth of it. The bravo stepped forward, hand reaching for the fabric hiding the lower portion of her face.
‘There’s no need for you to die with all your secrets, after all.’ He had almost grasped the veil, a savage grin making him grotesque. Anea remained motionless, green eyes flat with hatred. The faint sound of snapping wood and breaking glass startled everyone.
‘Time’s up,’ said a voice from behind them. The bravos turned as one, eyebrows raised in surprise. They quickly recovered themselves, retaining their swagger and bruised-knuckle nonchalance.
He’d been sitting in the deep leather armchair behind the door the whole time, listening to their petty theatre, enduring their poor intimidation. Deep brown hair swept to one side of eyes grey as a winter’s day, face impassive. His boots were a deep weather-beaten umber, each adorned with seven buckles in muted brass. He might have been carved from stone, attired as he was in a suit of sober grey. The scabbard lay across his lap like a death sentence. Unfussy, unadorned, it was a work of function not art. It was a container, nothing more, promising a blade long and slender. An hourglass had broken under the predations of his long clever fingers, fragments of crystal and wood littering his hands, sand ran free.
‘I should have known you’d be here,’ said the bravos’ leader, a second son of House Allattamento. He might have been called Angelo, or Antioco. He thrust out his chin and squared his shoulders, a curl to his lip. ‘It is unfortunate for you the guards outside your door could be bought so easily. Three to one.’ He flicked glances to his conspirators, who couldn’t match his bluster, looking less sure of themselves. ‘I dare say anyone in Demesne would choose such odds.’
‘I am not “anyone”.’
Dino Adolfo Erudito, Orfano and
maestro superiore di spada
of House Fontein, regarded the handful of sand and the broken glass with a look of dream-like introspection. A cataphract drake perched on his shoulder, staring across a flat snout with obsidian eyes. The lithe sepia-brown reptile scuttled onto the armchair and tasted the air. Dino set aside the broken timer, rising slowly, feeling the tiredness in his limbs, the itch of stubble left too long on his cheeks, the familiar icy calmness that seeped into him at times such as this.
‘The wolf spider,’ he said amiably, ‘otherwise known as Lycosidae, belongs to the order Araneae in the class of Arachnida.’
The youngest of the bravos took a half-step back, incredulity crossing his features, a question frozen on his lips.
‘It has a fine sense of vibration and particularly good eyesight, appropriate for a creature who hunts others by running them down.’ Dino stood before them with the scabbard in his left hand, looking no more threatening than a shepherd with his crook.
this shit?’ said the youngest bravo. Another second son from a minor house with nothing to lose.
‘However,’ continued Dino, undeterred, ‘many wolf spiders are content to wait for prey to pass their burrows, rushing out to attack them.’
Angelo Allattamento pulled on a grim smile and drew his sword.
’s lost his mind.’
Dino glowered at him, wintry grey eyes shining silver in the candlelight.
‘You stepped in to my parlour. Fuckers.’
And then Dino was moving, coming forward without form, as if elemental. The scabbard darted out to one side, its tip hitting the door, which slammed shut. An outflung hand showered sand into the eyes of the bravo on his right. Curses fell from the man’s lips as he stumbled back, clawing at his eyes. His torso hammered into a bookcase, a selection of literary works raining heavily upon him. The bookcase pitched forward, knocking him to the floor.
Angelo had already struck before his co-conspirator hit the floor. Dino blocked the blow with the scabbard, stepping sideways to buy himself the extra moment to draw. When Angelo pressed in again he found his blade stopped by steel, the sound ringing in the silence of the night, a spiteful bell.
A snatched glance confirmed Anea had retreated behind her desk, putting herself beyond the immediate reach of the youngest bravo. He tried to follow, ashen-faced, blade held in trembling hand. She scanned the room for something, anything to fight back with. Her school days had been filled with more than just etiquette and sciences, but without a weapon she was greatly disadvantaged. Remaining empty-handed, she retreated further still, unable to call for help.
Dino struck low at Angelo, stepped in, taking advantage of the noble’s poor parry and his stumbling step back. Then the Orfano thrust. He expected to be turned aside, of course, but this was just a feint for the kick to the side of the knee. Angelo swore and lost his footing. He threw up another parry, which Dino batted aside with the scabbard still clutched in his left hand. His blade flickered, opening a deep gouge across the young noble’s thigh.
It had worked perfectly. He’d fought his way out of the corner and was now level with the youngest bravo, who was still summoning the courage to murder Anea. Dino mashed his pommel into the back of the young man’s head even as Angelo limped back, cursing in the old tongue. Anea’s attacker folded in on himself, clutching the back of his skull. The blade slipped from his fingers as he went down to one knee. Anea flipped the desk, the edge smashing into the bridge of her attacker’s nose. The Silent Queen circled the table, drawing the silver pin from her hair, green eyes full of terrible intensity.
Angelo of House Allattamento knew he was bested. Too wounded to run, too proud to surrender, he assembled a series of hasty strikes. Dino let him come forward, stepping aside when he could, parrying when he couldn’t, waiting, waiting.
Angelo’s vigour abandoned him just as the blood staining his britches did the same. He stumbled, exposed and unbalanced. Dino wrapped his sword arm across his body, tensing for a second, unleashing a broad swipe that ripped through the other man’s jugular. He felt the blade grind, grating against vertebrae. The second son of House Allattamento pressed a frantic palm to his undoing. His legs continued their duty for long seconds even as blood jetted hot and fierce.
‘You stepped into my parlour,’ whispered Dino, but it was regret rather than anger that gilded each word.
Angelo Allattamento hit the floor, eyes frozen wide in disbelief.
Dino turned to find Anea standing over her assailant, one hand clutching the top of his skull, the other a fist beside his throat. The man trembled and Dino stepped forward to help before realising Anea’s hair hung long and thick about her shoulders. She withdrew her fist, revealing the silver hairpin, now a slender length of scarlet. Anea stood wide-eyed, shaking with shock, staring at her red-stained hand. Blood spattered her silver-grey nightgown as it jetted from the man’s throat. The hem of her gown became a drench of gore as the man fell onto his ruined face.
The last of the bravos writhed free of the bookcase, regaining his feet amid a litter of books. He choked out an incredulous cry, eyes raw from the sand. The two Orfani turned to him, attired in the blood of his allies, gazes like flint and jade.
They hog-tied him in the end. Neither of the Orfani had the stomach for more death. The last of the bravos could wait until morning, when a sentence less final could be meted out. But the carrion stench and voided bowels of the fallen necessitated a change of quarters. The siblings haunted the corridors like shades, seeing assassins at every corner, lurking at every stairwell. This was not an unknown sensation; they’d shared a similar night ten years ago. Finally, they made the safety of Dino’s apartment in House Erudito, an orderly sort of place where weapons hung above the fireplace. Achilles slithered down from Dino’s shoulder, taking his usual perch atop the bookcase, where he stared down imperiously. Anea’s fingers began to flicker and dance.
I have not had to leave that room since the night of the fire.
‘I’d rather fight assassins than flames,’ said Dino quietly.
Do you have anything to wear?
‘Help yourself. Anything in the closet.’
She stalked out of the sitting room, head down, trying to still her nerves no doubt. Dino could still smell the iron tang of blood. Unsurprising, as he was evenly coated from the thigh down. None of it his own, fortunately. He shook his head, not able to believe the brazenness of the attempt. They hadn’t even worn masks. It wasn’t an assassination.
‘It was an execution.’
Anea emerged from the bedroom in old hose and a cerulean doublet he’d forgotten he owned.
‘Or a coup.’
She approached, slipping into his arms, pushing her forehead against his shoulder. She was shaking.
‘House Allattamento is about to see a significant reduction in its influence.’
She pulled away, fingers moving tentatively:
The corruption of Landfall has spilled over into open violence. I suppose it was inevitable.
‘You need to send a message.’ Dino scowled. ‘We’ll tolerate no more of it.’
Anea nodded, but her gaze was elsewhere, lost to shocked remembering.
This does not feel like politics any more. Has war been declared? Were we too distracted to notice? Were we too arrogant?
‘The arrogance is all theirs.’
Spent and numb they approached the table where Dino took his morning repast on the rare occasions he wasn’t sleeping in Anea’s armchair. They sat at each end, feeling the distance between them.
Something was moving amid the dishes. Dino cursed. The maids hadn’t cleared the table. Not unusual as he often slept until noon with instructions not to be disturbed. His room had clearly been passed over by the staff entirely. A column of ants trooped to and from the remains of yesterday’s breakfast, carrying off fragments many times their own size. After the first wave of irritation Dino found himself quietly fascinated by their industry.
We’re infested on all sides it seems
, signed Anea.
‘Looks that way. I’m not sure who are the worst pests, the ants or the
At least the
are less numerous
‘And two less as of tonight.’
Dino supplied a bottle of Barolo and two glasses from a cypress wood cabinet. They sipped wine by candlelight until the dawn arrived, watching the ants march away with their breadcrumb treasures.