My first glimpse of Massalia came from the deck of the merchant ship on which Mira and I had found passage. We stood shoulder to shoulder at the rail. “Are you sure this is all right?” I asked, glancing around at the busy crew. “I don’t want to be in anyone’s way.”
“They’ll tell us if we are,” Mira said.
We’d approached Lucia and Giovanni’s merchant family to help us arrange passage, and had been sent along with a load of textiles and dye materials to a coastal city beyond the borders of the Empire.
Massalia rose up sharply from the harbor and I could see an elaborate cathedral on the peak of the hill. Squinting, I could see an image of the Lady topping it; we were back among Her worshippers, here. The Massaliani were reputed to be generally tolerant; the Fedeli existed here, but were merely one order among many, and lacked the influence they’d once wielded back home.
“Home.” I stared out at the city. Cuore had certainly never felt like home; neither, for that matter, had the series of tents I’d slept in while leading the Lupi. The last time I’d felt like I was home was probably the night before Mira had been snatched away from the conservatory. I was never going back to my old life, but I had Mira back. We’d figure out a way to make a home wherever we were. To build a life together. And to try to stay out of trouble.
My hand found Mira’s, and we laced our fingers together.
The predominant language of Massalia was close enough to my native tongue that I could understand things said to me, if the person spoke slowly and I paid close attention, but not so close that I could expect to be understood. There was an outlying neighborhood full of other people from the Empire, though, and we found ourselves a room to rent there.
Our landlady Tullia openly wore a Redentori cross, but just as openly used witchlight to brighten the room she showed us. “One window,” she pointed out, and opened the shutters, letting in both light and a blast of damp sea air. Massalia was mild year round, but not so mild that you want to leave the windows hanging open in midwinter. Mira went to look out. “Eliana,” she said softly, and pointed at the winter jasmine growing below the window.
We agreed on weekly rent; Tullia told us who some of our neighbors were in the rooming-house (a woman who sold eggs, a seamstress, a man who worked down at the docks – he was unfriendly and we should just leave him alone) and pulled out paper and ink to write us down in her ledger of tenants. “What are your names?” she asked.
Mira introduced herself as Mira, and I told her my name was Aurelia, which was the name I’d been travelling under. Tullia started to write this down, then put down her pen. “That’s not what she called you a minute ago,” she said, and I saw her look at our violin cases: neither of us had wanted to leave our instrument back at the inn where we’d been staying since we arrived. “She called you Eliana. And you’re that Eliana, aren’t you.”
How far from home would we need to go before no one knew or cared who I was? How far from Cuore? I had no desire to bring down trouble on Tullia, or anyone else; even less desire to pack up again and think about how far Lia’s songs might have travelled. “Yes,” I said, finally. “Are you still willing to rent to us?”
She paused for a long moment, thinking that over. “Well, it’s not as if anyone moved here because they dearly loved the Fedeli or the Circle,” she said, finally, and wrote down our names – Mira, Aurelia – the rent, the room. “So long as you pay the rent on time, Generale.” I must have flinched at that; she laid her pen down again. “Sorry,” she said. “I wasn’t trying to offend you.”
“I’m not offended,” I said, and floundered for an answer. “I was honored to carry that title while I did, but I’m not anyone’s General anymore.”
“Of course,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” Mira said, once Tullia had gone. “If there’s trouble…”
“She’s our landlady,” I said. “The last thing she wants is trouble. I don’t think she’ll tell anyone.”
We’d need to find work in Massalia, and probably not as musicians: we’d resigned ourselves to this before we left the Empire, and Lucia had given me a letter to the branch of the family that ran the import-export firm in Massalia. Since Mira and I could both read and write, she thought they’d likely have work we could do.
In the morning, we closed up our room and walked to an office next to a large warehouse; a sign over the door said Antonio of Varena with the brown bear and red fox of Imperial flags on either sides of the name, holding bolts of cloth.
“Why a brown bear and a red fox?” I asked. I’d never thought about these symbols before leaving the Empire; the emblems were just there. In Massalia, the flags bore a bull and a lion.
“One’s the Circle and one’s the Fedeli,” Mira said. “I forget which is which.”
“Neither one's the Emperor?”
“He’s protected by the bear and the fox.”
He still used the bear and the fox, even though both the Circle and the Fedeli were gone. I wondered if there was some committee in Cuore coming up with a new meaning for both.
“Are we going in?” Mira asked.
I pushed the door open.
We waited a long time in the chilly entryway. When someone finally ushered us into the main office, I realized this wasn’t snobbery – they were just incredibly busy. A large man with a gray beard introduced himself as Antonio and had us each read aloud from a book, write a short passage he dictated, and add a column of numbers. Then he hired us both on the spot.
“We lost two employees last month,” he said. “And we’ve fallen a bit behind.”
Mira, who had better handwriting, was put immediately to work going through an enormous mountain of correspondence that should have been answered weeks ago. Then he showed me to a desk with a large stack of ledger books, explaining that one of the employees they’d lost had been the book-keeper: his handwriting was terrible, the totals made no sense, and a large sum of money appeared to have gone missing. Had the book-keeper stolen it? Was there a mistake somewhere? He wanted me to go through the records and try to find the missing money; no one managing day-to-day operations had time to sort it out. He pointed me to the most recent ledgers, the slightly-less-recent ledgers, several shelves of records that had probably been sorted in some way that made sense to the book-keeper but looked like it had been rifled through repeatedly, and a supply of blank paper, pens, and ink.
I sat down with the ledgers, wondering why on earth Antonio thought I would be good at this. One one occasion, Giovanni had attempted to explain double-entry bookkeeping to me; I remembered nothing from the lesson but Giovanni’s infuriated contempt for my inability to follow along.
I flipped open the most recent ledger. Antonio was not exaggerating about the handwriting. Squinting at the numbers, I painfully added up the column. The total was correct. What was I even looking for here, exactly?
Two hours after I’d started working (I knew the exact time, because we were next to a bell tower), I heard the stairs outside my office creak under someone's foot and looked up. I gasped, thinking for a moment that I was seeing a literal ghost. Then I thought my tired eyes had summoned up a phantom. Then I took in the graying hair, the lined face, and the fact that the violet-blue eyes were behind glass spectacles, and the name Giovanni died on my lips. This wasn't Giovanni. He was someone else.
“You must be the new bookkeeper,” he said. “I’m Cassian.”
We were, in point of fact, working for their family business; Lucia had the same striking eyes. I swallowed hard and asked, “Did you have a brother named Giovanni? Or a cousin?”
“My youngest brother,” Cassian said.
I blinked rapidly a few times and managed to bat away the moisture from my eyes without anything humiliatingly obvious. Cassian clearly noticed, and said nothing. It was the exact opposite of what Giovanni would have done.
“Have you done bookkeeping before?” he asked when I had collected myself.
“No,” I said. I decided not to tell him that Giovanni had tried to explain it to me once.
“Things are a bit dire at the moment, but I’ve brought a ledger that was kept by someone with more passable handwriting, if you’d like me to go over it with you…”
“Oh, yes,” I said, gratefully. And resolved to pay better attention than I had to my last lesson in bookkeeping.
Cassian was as unlike Giovanni in personality as he was like him in appearance. Giovanni rarely explained anything without throwing in an insult. Cassian was kind and patient with questions. He praised my understanding when he thought I was asking a good question. It was disconcerting.
“You’re really nothing like your brother,” I blurted out, as Cassian stood up to leave.
His lips quirked, though his eyes, behind the spectacles, were sad. “You’re aware that he died, yes?”
“He always thought with his heart, not his head. If he’d stayed on at the university, he might have become a tutor, and had to bite his tongue and teach students…but he joined the revolution. I joined the family business. We were never much alike.” He sighed. “See what you can make of those ledgers tomorrow, and come find me if you have questions.”
“Why isn’t Antonio having you look at these?” I asked. “You’d actually know what you were looking at.”
“Oh, there are much higher-priority messes they’re having me straighten out,” he said with a laugh.
“…but money’s gone missing!”
Cassian sat back down. “Perhaps I should explain the situation in a bit more detail. The bookkeeper was my cousin, Massimo, and his assistant was one of my other brothers, Livio. Younger than me, older than Giovanni. A month and a half ago, both of them died. There was an accident with a runaway horse… anyway, it was terrible, especially coming so close after the news about Giovanni, and left us with a great deal of work and no one to do it, and a number of messes that we’re still straightening out. The missing money is just one mess; they’re having me focus on the messes that seem more salvageable.”
“Could it have been blackmail?” I asked. “The missing money, I mean?”
“Are you thinking the blackmailer got nervous and had him killed? No, there wasn’t anything suspicious about the death. It was genuinely an accident.”
“Livio handled correspondence. You can see why it piled up. We brought my wife in a few times to try to help, but we have a young baby and she doesn’t want to leave her with a wet-nurse.”
Mira had been set to work going through letters of complaint: bad dye lots, strange odors, wool that didn’t wear evenly. She was supposed to send them all noncommittal letters of apology with some excuse-making about the recent deaths to explain why the apology hadn’t come more promptly. We walked home through the city, talking about the tragic deaths, the firm’s failure to hire anyone sooner, the bookkeeper’s handwriting, the complaint letters.
We passed a squat building with a painting on the side of a phoenix rising out of flame; a woman stood just outside the doorway, holding flames in her hands. Not witchlight: actual flames. I paused to gape and Mira pulled me along. “They’re fire-worshippers,” she said. “Not Redentori, not worshippers of the Lady, they have their own holy book and rites and all of it.”
“How do you know about them?”
“There’s a country to the east where most of the people are fire-worshippers. I encountered their ambassador in Cuore.”
Back at the house, we could hear people yelling at each other in one of the rooms down the hall, although it sounded more like a boisterous conversation about something than an actual fight. “We should buy some furniture,” Mira said as we came into our utterly bare room. “Sleeping on the floor is better than sleeping under a bush, but I’d still rather sleep in a bed.”
“We still have some money,” I said, “but we’ll need it to pay rent if Antonio sacks us.”
“I don’t think he will. They're obviously short-handed.”
“He might still sack me. I’ve been utterly useless, so far.”
“You can always do complaint letters!”
“They already have you for that.”
“They have a lot of letters.”
I lit candles as Mira laid wood for the fire. Mira had to abstain from magery, but she didn’t mind me using it. We had no proper food, other than a half-loaf of bread and some cheese left over from earlier in the day; I was pondering whether to go out to find some dinner or just make do with what we had when someone knocked on our door.
Our visitor was Clementia, one of our near-neighbors. The seamstress, if I was remembering correctly. “Would you like to join my family for dinner?” she asked. “We’d like to welcome you to the neighborhood. We’re having odd-fish stew.”
Odd-fish stew turned out to be fish stew, made from whatever miscellaneous scraps of fish were cheap at the market that day, and was a food that was as much daily fare in this coastal city as bean stew had been at the conservatory. The smell was enticing. Clementia had three children – two girls and a boy – all still young. The boy bounced around, clearly excited to have new neighbors; the girls were more subdued. Clementia clearly did much of her work from home; I could see a half-constructed frock folded by the window, and the oldest girl worked on a hem while Clementia finished dinner. I saw no father.
Clementia portioned out fish stew for everyone and I ran back across the hallway to grab the cheese and leftover bread to add to the meal. I’d grown up far from the coast: fish had been a treat available on occasions when my brothers had the leisure to go fishing. My mother had generally pan-fried whatever they caught. Odd-fish stew was made from ocean fish, melting and buttery in the broth, and then other things that were chewy and not remotely fish-like. The no-longer-fresh bread soaked up the broth admirably.
“Where are you ladies from?” Clementia asked.
“Verdia,” I said. “And you? How long have you lived in Massalia?”
Clementia told us a long story with many twists and turns that boiled down to this: they’d left their home city during the war with Vesuvia and made a life in a new city only to have a run-in with the Fedeli that her husband did not survive. She and her children had now lived in Massalia for two years. “It’s not so bad here,” she said. “There’s a group called the Fedeli, but the worst they can do is scold you.”
“I’m going to punch a Fedeli priest someday,” the boy told me. “They killed my father so I’m going to punch them.”
Clementia ruffled his hair with a laugh. “You need to grow tall enough to punch them properly, first,” she said.
The oldest girl had already picked up her hemming again. “Does one of you play a musical instrument?” she asked. “I thought I heard something last night.”
“We both play the violin,” I said. “I wasn’t really playing it last night, just checking the strings for soundness after our travels.”
“Would you play for us?” she asked, eagerly. Too eagerly for us to say no, no matter how out-of-practice we were. We fetched our violins and tuned them.
“Requests?” I asked.
“A sailor’s jig!” the boy demanded, jumping up and down, so we played a lively dance tune, which the boy danced to by jumping up and down, more or less in time. We were on the second floor and Clementia glanced down nervously and requested something a bit more soothing for a second number. “Now another jig!” the boy asked as soon as I was done, but Clementia held up a hand.
“We should let Mira and Aurelia go home,” she said. She recommended a used-furniture-seller nearby who could sell us a bed, since we obviously needed one, and promised us an excellent price should we find ourselves in need of new clothes. We thanked her for her hospitality and went back to our own room.
“I don’t suppose the furniture seller is likely to still be open…” Mira said.
We spread out what we had to pad the floor and lay down.
“So, you probably could have told her you were Eliana,” Mira said. “I don’t think we’d have wanted to tell her that I was a former member of the Circle, though.”
“Maybe not,” I said, and stared up into the dark for a long moment, wondering if they’d guessed who I was, like the landlady. Or suspected. “I like no one knowing. I like being just another foreigner living in Massalia.”
I dreamed of an accounting lesson. Giovanni was teaching me: as he went, he used fewer and fewer words I even recognized, saying things like “and now you gablify the mingress” and getting increasingly contemptuous as I said I didn’t know what it meant to gablify anything. I was so frustrated that it didn’t even occur to me that I was talking to Giovanni and he wasn’t dead, until the moment before I woke up.
It was still dark. The floor under me was hard, and the clothes and clothes we’d spread out had somehow knotted up under me into a lump poking into my hip. But Mira had her arm over me, and I didn’t want to disturb her, so I lay still. Through the wall, I hear someone cry out hoarsely, then fall silent. Beyond, on the street, I heard the rattle of wooden wheels against the bricks of the street.
As gray light started making its way through the window, I eased myself out from under Mira’s arm and went to heat water for tea. I lit the fire and put on the kettle and then looked out the window at the yard below.
“Did I wake you?” I asked. “I’m sorry.”
“Let’s try to get ourselves a bed today,” Mira said.
Mira stood up, wrapping the blankets around her and coming over to wrap the edge around me, as well. “What are you thinking about?”
“I never knew Giovanni had a brother. Other than Lucia, he pretty much never talked about his family.”
“Well, you worked with my mother for the better part of a year and never knew the two of us were related. Sometimes when you don’t hear about someone’s family it’s because things are … rough.”
“I mean, I never talked much about my family because they were all dead. I guess it’s easy to just make assumptions.”
Mira rested her head against my shoulder, then looked up. “Water’s boiling.”
I made us tea with the last of the tea in our box. “I don’t know how we’re going to find time to buy all the things we need to have a proper home here. With the money we also don’t have.”
“I think I want a bed more than I want tea.”
“You may change your mind about that tomorrow morning, when there isn’t any tea.”
“We'll sleep so well, we won't even want tea."
“That seems unlikely," I said, but didn't argue further. I wanted a bed, too.
When Cassian found out we didn’t have a bed, he took me out to the warehouse, handed me a linen tick, and waved me over to an enormous heap of washed, undyed, unspun wool. “Fill it,” he said. “We’ll charge you wholesale. You can pay it back out of your wages in installments.”
“What if you fire me tomorrow for incompetence?”
He sighed and scratched his ear. “As you may have noticed, we are rather desperately shorthanded at the moment.”
“I’m noticing that you’re not making any claims that I’m competent.”
“To be honest, I’m not sure why my uncle decided to have you try to straighten out the ledgers when you have absolutely no experience with bookkeeping.”
“There,” I said. “Now you sound like your brother.”
He laughed. It was a little bit brittle. “Sorry,” he said, "I know you're doing your best." The apology sounded not like Giovanni at all.
Mira and I carried the mattress home together, dropped it happily on the floor, and then went out to the used furniture seller and bought ourselves one of the wood frames with a net of rope to hold it up.
“This is so much better,” Mira said, looking at the assembled bed in our room.
“Tea,” I reminded her.
We went back out, bought ourselves hand pies from a street vendor for supper, then found someone selling substandard (and therefore inexpensive) tea leaves.
I’d gotten embarrassingly used to nice beds in Cuore, and this was not quite as nice – no feathers or down – but it was far more comfortable than the floor had been. I curled myself around Mira and buried my face in her hair. She tucked her arm over mine. Any bed is better when you’re sharing it with the person you love.
I woke with a start in the darkness, and summoned witchlight to my hand to reassure myself that I was in Massalia, Mira next to me, and not facing any of the jumbled horrors that had visited my dream. Somehow my night had included a visit to both a battlefield and a Fedeli dungeon, with no particular regard for logic. I looked around at our room, took a few long breaths, then dispelled the witchlight.
I’d almost drifted back to sleep when I heard an anguished cry that sounded almost like it was in our room. I sat up, summoning witchlight again. Mira still slept; the noise had come through the wall.
I lay back down. It took me a long time to get back to sleep.
We went daily to the import/export office, where Mira wrote letters and I struggled to sort out ledgers I didn’t understand. We ate hand-pies and odd-fish stew from street vendors, omelets and egg-toast we cooked ourselves. We added a bench to our room, then a table. We bought salt, butter, tea, honey. Another blanket for our bed. Knitted hats to keep our ears warm.
One day we passed a small religious procession for a minor holiday; a group of Fedeli priests and priestesses was part of the parade. One of them looked familiar enough that I froze, staring at his face. He looked back at me and I thought I saw a flicker of mutual recognition. But he turned away without a word or any other sign.
We played our violins every night. Sometimes for the neighbors, sometimes just for ourselves. The neighbor who raised chickens gave us eggs; the neighbor who grew herbs let us snip herbs; both said it was their thank-you for the music.
Cassian’s office was up a flight of stairs from mine, better lit but four times as cluttered. “Cassian,” I said, resting the ledger against my hip. He looked up. I’d slowly stopped thinking of his face as an older version of Giovanni’s face and come to see it as Cassian’s face. “I think I know what happened to the money.”
His eyes lit up; he jumped to his feet, shoved his chair in, and helped me spread out the ledger so I could show him what I’d found.
“I found a whole series of payments to someone named Victor. I thought maybe bribery, or blackmail even, but I finally found the pile of receipts. It was property. He bought property on behalf of your uncle’s firm. Real estate.”
“Real estate? Do we own it?”
“Not outright. Just a few more payments, though, and it’ll be yours. You’re late on a payment, by the way, you’ll want to get that in soon.”
“Why would he have done this?” Cassian breathed. “Where is this?”
I spread out the purchase agreement I’d found. “I don’t know this part of town." It was not within the neighborhood I knew, obviously, but down closer to the docks.
“Get your coat,” he said, finally. “Let’s just go see what it is.”
It was a long walk, on a cloudy day with a damp wind blowing in from the sea. I expected a warehouse; a warehouse would have been logical, if a particularly good opportunity had presented itself. "This isn't a neighborhood where you build warehouses," Cassian said. "The land's too expensive. Warehouses are further from the harbor; that's part of why this is so odd."
It was a shuttered inn, with boards nailed over the door to prevent entry. Cassian stared at it for a long moment. His lips tightened, and he sighed. Then he shrugged, and led the way back to a tavern we’d passed on the way. “I want a hot drink,” he said. “Order what you’d like, you’ve more than earned it.”
We both wound up with mugs of hot spiced wine. Cassian drank his quickly and ordered a second for both of us while I was still nursing the first.
“I should tell you,” he said, “you gave us a false name, but I’ve known since the day you were hired who you really are.”
“Ah,” I said.
“And the reason my uncle hired you so quickly is that we’d received letters from Giovanni about you. He said you were brilliant, the most capable person he’d ever met, that you could do anything. He thought you’d wind up here sooner or later, maybe with a friend or two. Giovanni clearly hoped he’d be here with you, though that obviously didn’t work out.”
I ducked my head and took a swallow of wine.
“So you showed up, and my uncle was convinced you could learn bookkeeping in a day and a half, based on Giovanni’s assessment of you…”
“He did actually try to teach me accounting once. I told him I’d just have him keep our books.”
Actually, I’d said, why do I even need to know this? what do we even have books of? and Giovanni had talked about supplies and food and horses and weapons and I'd said, fine, you can take care of this, then. And he had.
I’d had no idea just how much work proper record-keeping was.
“Well, you managed to solve the mystery of where all that money went. Though now I’m wondering if this was also Giovanni’s doing, somehow. If he convinced Livio to buy this for the two of you to run.”
“That can’t have been his plan. I’d be a terrible innkeeper. Mira wouldn’t be much better. And Giovanni? The first person to complain about anything would’ve wound up with his drink dumped over his head.”
Cassian chuckled, not disagreeing with that assessment. “But you play violin. I remember that from the stories, and not just Giovanni’s. He’d have liked the idea of providing you with a venue.”
“Oh. I guess that’s possible.”
“Giovanni was in love with you, that’s clear,” Cassian said. “But I don’t get the sense that you were in love with him.”
“He was my best friend,” I said. “I miss him like I miss my family.”
Cassian looked at me and I watched him put the pieces together. “Oh,” he said. “You’re one of those. You and Mira…”
“Yes. As Giovanni eventually realized.”
“Well,” Cassian said. “The good news is, we can always sell the inn. Or hire someone to manage it. Either seems like a possibility.” He drained his second cup of wine, settled the bill, and we stepped back out into the chill damp. “Do you have plans for Mascherata?”
It was hard to believe it was Mascherata already. “Not really, no,” I said.
“Antonio is hoping you’ll perform with us. On your violin.” When I blinked at him, startled, he elaborated. “It’s the custom in Massalia to put on theatrical performances. The warehouse workers have organized one. It’s slapstick, but it would be better with music.” When I didn’t answer he added, “You don’t have to, if you’d rather not. This year, at least. Next year you’ll be expected.”
“I’m willing,” I said. “You know Mira also plays.”
“So much the better.”
“Anyway, do you really think you’ll want me working from you a year from now?”
Cassian gave me a slightly quirked smile that made him look stunningly like Giovanni. “Giovanni’s judgment of you was obviously suspect. And yet somehow you’ve lived up to his descriptions anyway. I’m sure we’ll have work for you to do as long as you’re willing to stay on.”
On Mascherata, Mira and I put on the masks Antonio had bought for us and played for the company performance. There’s a fairly standard set of tunes and musical flourishes that say things like “this person thinks he is being clever but he is entirely wrong,” “uh oh,” “mayhem is breaking out,” and “now we are chasing one another in circles,” and fortunately the tunes we’d learned back home all translated just fine. The performance itself mostly involved a completely incompetent physical battle where people were trying to punch one another but kept missing and injuring themselves, instead.
The performance seemed to be a hit. As people told us afterward how much they’d enjoyed it, I realized that my ear had largely adapted to the dialect, finally. I wasn’t having to struggle to understand people, even though half of them were drunk.
We slung our instrument cases over our shoulders and started toward home, stopping to watch performances that caught our eye: a puppet show, jugglers. Then a mage stepped up to do a fire performance; Mira didn’t want to watch that, so we moved on.
It was strange how even with all the differences, the festivities here kept bringing back memories of Mascherata in Cuore. I kept half-recognizing people, thinking that I’d spotted Emperor Travan, Rosalba, or Quirino and Valentino, even though Rosalba was dead and the rest were back in Cuore.
“Dance with me, Madame,” someone said, catching my hand.
I yanked my hand back. “No, thank you,” I said.
He leered at me through his mask and grabbed my arm, more forcefully this time. “Do you have no appreciation for fine gentlemen?”
He had my left hand, and I punched with my right, hard enough to knock him to the ground. “I said no thank you.”
He crawled back away from me, then shouted out an obscene insult from a safe distance.
“Do you want to go home?” Mira asked.
I realized I was shaking. “Yes,” I said.
Mira steered me through the crowded streets; my heart was pounding like I’d just been through a battle, not merely shaken off a drunken pest. It was hard to see or concentrate. Halfway home, I had to step out of traffic and vomit in the gutter, even though I hadn’t drunk nearly enough wine to be sick. I sat back on my heels. I felt utterly disoriented. “How much further do we need to walk?” I asked.
Mira didn’t answer. Instead, she took my arm and led me around the side of the building, away from the crowd. “Catch your breath,” she said. We sat on the ground, leaning back against the building.
“What if someone comes,” I said, not even certain who I meant by someone.
“Eliana,” Mira said. It cut through the fog: normally she called me “Aurelia” now, even when we were alone. “Don’t forget what I can do. Just because I don’t, doesn’t mean I won’t. Anyone who wants to get to you will have to come through me.” She put her arm around me, pulled my head down against her shoulder. “It’s all right. I’m not going to let anything happen to you.”
It’s all right. A voice in the darkness, cutting through the stench of blood and fire. I’m not going to let anything else happen to you. I felt a wave of cold sweep through my body even though the wind had died down. Mira tightened her arm.
“Remember what we were doing a year ago?" I said into her shoulder.
“Yes. And the year before that – Bella. Anniversaries are hard. There were things from the war I wouldn’t think about for months and then suddenly they’d be back so strong I could taste them, and I’d realize it had been exactly a year.”
I sat up, trying to calculate months. “Was some of that while you were at the conservatory?”
“And you couldn’t tell anyone.”
I took a deep breath, then another. “Do you want to tell me about any of it now?”
“Right now?” Mira thought about it. “So – three years ago, give or take a few days, it was during the war, and my unit got caught in a blind ambush. That’s what we called an ambush where they were calling down magefire, but couldn’t actually see us, so they were just guessing where we were. Both sides did a lot of blind targeting, as the war went on, because if you could see your targets you could take them out more reliably, but they could also see and target you. Anyway. We were walking; it was dark, muddy, pouring rain, and one minute the girl to my left was complaining about the rain and the next minute there was this blinding flare of light and she was burning to death in front of me. The wall of fire ended six inches to the left of my hand. We lost … well, it was probably only a sixth, in that first burst, but of course all the dying people started screaming so then the person targeting us knew where everyone else was. The usual strategy was to run like hell in all directions and find each other later, there were some specific rules about rendezvous points, but I slipped in the mud and went down.
“So there I was, soaking wet and caught in the mud, struggling back to my feet, and the second burst hit. This time it was six inches to my right, or something close, and Fausta was caught in it – she was my best friend in the unit, and I was pretty sure she hadn’t run faster because she’d turned back to help me up. I thought the next blast would surely kill me, but one of our mages spotted their position and hit it hard. We limped back together and counted our losses. All the dead were people I knew. The girl on the left was someone I didn’t much like, and I’d felt this initial sense of relief that it was her and not someone I liked better. And then, of course, Fausta. I spent months feeling like somehow my initial relief had killed my friend, like the universe had to balance the scales with the lives of people I cared about.
“When I dream about the war it’s not always about this incident… but it’s always raining.”
My hands were freezing. So were Mira’s.
“I wish I’d been able to comfort you back at the conservatory,” I said.
“You did,” she said.
We climbed back to our feet and started walking again towards home.
In the shadows outside our rooming-house I heard someone say, “Generale?”
It was not a voice I recognized, and I was already on edge. I whirled, my hand on the knife-hilt at my belt, but saw no one looking at me from the crowd in the street. Had I imagined it? Mira looked at me, questioning, and I dropped my hand, gave her a nervous shrug, and we went inside.
I dozed for a while, then woke, disturbed by a noise from outside or my own restless dreams, I wasn’t sure. My stomach was unsettled and I realized I was going to have to brave the cold and head to the privy – not an ideal situation in the middle of a cold night, but I didn’t expect I was going to get much more sleep tonight, anyway.
I put my cloak on over my nightshirt and slipped my feet into my shoes and left our room as quietly as I could manage, not wanting to disturb Mira. The floor of the hallway creaked loudly under my step and I muttered bad words from two separate religious traditions, then headed down the stairs and out the back door to the privy at the far end of the yard.
It was drizzling – cold, damp, and steady – but there were still people out carousing, and I could hear noise from the street on the other side of the house. Someone was singing a song that was either tuneless, or they’d made tuneless, I wasn’t sure. I summoned witchlight to banish any privy spiders before I went in.
Coming out, I heard the same voice I’d heard earlier. “Generale Eliana.”
The speaker held no witchlight, and I couldn’t see him with my own light. I eased the door shut behind me, dismissed my light, and let my eyes adjust to the darkness. Was this friend, or foe? Someone I’d served with, or someone I’d fought against?
“Are you my next-door neighbor?” I asked, cautiously. “The man who wakes in the night?”
“I suppose I am,” he said, and let out a dry laugh.
My eyes had adjusted enough that I could see his shape: he stood between me and the rooming house. It’s not as if I went around with a real weapon here – the knife I’d grabbed earlier was single-edged, not a real weapon, the sort of knife people carried for eating and other everyday tasks – but right now that knife was sitting on the table back in my room, and Mira wasn’t with me. If he came at me, I’d want to dodge fast.
We’d been staring at each other in silence. “What are you doing here?” he asked, finally.
“I live here. Or do you mean in Massalia?”
“I mean in Massalia. You’re the last person I ever expected to see here.”
“I was accused of betraying the Emperor. Almost executed. Saved when a friend confessed to the crime in my place.”
“Had you betrayed the Emperor?”
“I didn’t think of it that way, but I’d done what I was accused of. Which was saving someone from the other side, someone I loved, during the war. The accusations were mostly to get rid of me. I was no longer useful to the people who’d found me useful before.”
My eyes had adjusted enough now that I could see that the man was armed: he held an unsheathed dagger, longer and double-edged, much less a utility tool than my knife. It was loose in his hand, not like he was about to attack me with it, at least.
“Did we fight together?” I asked. “Or did I fight against you?”
“Neither,” he said. “I was the commander of the last of the wasteland forts. When it was clear that they’d decided not to send reinforcements, that they were willing to leave us to be slaughtered like rats in a trap, I went against my orders and withdrew, with all my people.”
I remembered: they’re gone, everyone’s gone. They’d torched the grain. Cleared out the horses. It was, in fact, a much better strategic move than trying to fight us.
“You were clever,” I said aloud. “Did your superiors disapprove?”
“You could say that,” he said.
“Did you flee ahead of arrest?”
“No. I was dismissed in disgrace from my position in the army. Left to my own devices for a number of months, then arrested. Accused of spying for you, tortured for a confession by the Fedeli. As it happens, your people freed me a few days later. The war was still raging, so I fled here, because I was done. Done.”
“No wonder you wake in the night,” I said.
“You’ve heard me?”
“I’ve been awake myself,” I said.
“I suppose you’ve got your own reasons,” he said.
I could see him starting to relax, just slightly. I tilted my head at the dagger in his hand. “Did you bring that in case there was a rat in the privy, or because you wanted to take me down?”
“I used to imagine killing you,” he said. “When we realized no one was coming to help us, we made some plans. My second-in-command had an idea for an ambush, where we’d try specifically to target you. I didn’t think I could fight off the Lupi, but I was pretty sure we could kill you.”
“It wouldn’t have mattered,” I said. “I was good at giving speeches, but someone else could have taken over easily enough.”
“Yeah,” he said. “And we’d have paid in hundreds of lives to get yours. It wasn’t worth it. So we left, instead. Saved all my men. It was worth it, I think.”
We stood in silence for a moment.
“Killing you now would cost me the life I have here, which isn’t much. But it wouldn’t do any good, either. You’re here. I’m here. The war’s over. We’re not on opposite sides anymore, we’re Massalians.” He thrust his dagger into the sheath on his belt, then held out his hand. “Neither of us is a soldier anymore.”
I shook his hand, and then he ambled away from me towards the privy.
When I went back into the rooming house, I almost collided with Mira, who was standing just inside the doorway. “How long have you been here?” I whispered.
“I was fine.”
“Is that the neighbor we were warned about?” Mira asked.
“Yes. Though I think we were told surly, not dangerous.”
“Take me with you the next time you decide you have to visit the privy. I don’t trust him. Even if tonight he thinks you’re just two soldiers, discarded by your superiors, who knows what he’ll think tomorrow?”
“I hate to disturb you.”
“Then imagine how disturbing I’d find it if I woke up and found you dead.”
Cassian arranged to be let into the purchased inn and see the condition of the premises; once again, he brought me along. The building, three stories high, seemed to be sound enough. It had been sold with furniture. The wood tables and benches in the big downstairs room were in fine condition; the beds, less so. The wood frames were acceptable; the ropes and stuffed ticking were rotting or, in the case of the wool-stuffed bedding, infested. The stables out back housed a family of weasles that Cassian called fouine. I lit a small fire on the hearth and the smoke flowed unobstructed out the chimney.
“Why did they shutter it?”
“There was an incident last year – a fight broke out, and the innkeeper got killed trying to break it up. The rest of the family didn’t want to keep the inn open. Also, half the town thinks it's haunted. Probably why it was so cheap.”
“What happened to the murderer?”
“Hanged for the crime.”
“Do you think you’ll be able to sell it?”
“Not sure. Given the alleged ghosts.”
I looked down at the floor. “Is that the bloodstain?”
He looked down and sighed. “We might have better luck selling this place if we rip out those boards.”
We adjourned to the nearest open inn to order a drink or two. Cassian wandered around trying to find out what people had to say about the shuttered inn nearby. I drank my hot spiced wine and wondered if I was really adding anything to this outing.
I knew that voice. And it wasn’t a voice that made me grab my knife. “Quirino?”
Quirino and Valentino: fellow court musicians from Cuore (who’d known me as “Daniele,”) Lupi in the last days of the war, and now, apparently, foreigners in Massalia. They were thinner, haggard, scarred, and very much the worse for wear since the last time I'd seen them.
“I can’t believe we found you,” Quirino said. “We heard a half-dozen different rumors about where you’d gone. I thought Massalia was the most likely.”
“You surely didn’t come here just to find me…”
“No,” Valentino said, “we came to get the hell away from Cuore, but we sure hoped we’d find you.”
“Please don’t tell me you expect me to come home and lead a revolution. I did that. It didn’t work out.”
Quirino shook his head. “No. No. We just came looking for you because at least you’d be someone we knew.”
I took them home with me like a pair of stray kittens and put them up on blankets on the floor. “This is Mira,” I said, not elaborating, although from Quirino’s expression I thought he’d either recognized her from Cuore, or worked out that she was the mage I’d been accused of rescuing. I bought a cask of odd-fish stew from a vendor and a loaf of bread and we ate dinner.
“Things are rough, back home,” Quirino said. “There are a lot of people who want to get out.”
“I thought Travan was planning to clean house,” I said.
“He kind of did. But there’s a group of vigilantes now, and they left someone’s body in the big fountain; rumors said it was because he’d been seen using witchlight.”
“His throat was cut,” Valentino said.
“You can see why we wanted to just get out. To anywhere.”
Mira drew me to the side. “I found something today in the correspondence I wanted to share with you,” she said, and handed me a bundle of thin, folded papers. “These are letters that Giovanni sent.”
The voice of Giovanni in the letters was stilted and unfamiliar. Giovanni had been sarcastic, insulting, and irritable. All of that was smoothed away in written form, at least in these letters to Livio, his brother: he was formal, careful, polite, saying things like I hope Cassian’s wife and children are doing well and my regards to Uncle Antonio and I am pleased to be of service.
The letters started in the last days of the war. I really didn’t recognize the Eliana in Giovanni’s letters; she was a whole lot more capable than I ever was, frankly. The flip side of his idealism about me was his pessimism about the new regime. I expect us to be coming to Massalia in less than a year. Possibly temporarily, we’ll have to wait and see.
The inn was explained in one of the final letters. We need a place, Giovanni explained, that will hold a lot of people. Eliana won’t leave anyone she cares about behind.
The inn was for me.
Or rather: the inn was for Quirino and Valentino. Maybe someday for Lucia and Michel. Anyone who had to flee the Emperor’s justice – anyone who needed somewhere to go.
“I’m still not sure why you think we’ll be any good at this,” Quirino said.
“If I can learn bookkeeping, you can learn innkeeping,” I said.
We cranked open the shutters and hung the sign we’d had painted that showed the brown bear and red fox of the Imperial flags, but holding a wine bottle and a beer cask. Quirino swept the floor, then tied on an apron.
“You’re absolutely sure this place isn’t haunted?” Valentino asked. “Because I’ve had a lot of people now tell me it’s haunted.”
“It can’t possibly be more haunted than Cuore,” Mira said. She was sitting on a bench with her back against the wall. She’d brought work: a stack of correspondence from Antonio's office, as well as ink and paper. “Don’t be a baby, Valentino.”
Despite the rumors of hauntings, customers flowed through steadily throughout the day. Some were refugees from the Empire attracted by the sign; others were just people who wanted a drink, or to see if we’d gotten the blood-stains out of the floor.
As night fell, Quirino served his attempt at fish-scrap stew. It would not win any prizes for quality from the Massalians, but it was edible. Decent, even.
“Home?” Mira said, when we were done for the day. And we walked back to our room with winter jasmine blooming under the window.
It did feel like home now, I realized.