Summer, 2401, The City of Pavona
The sound of drums could be heard, growing louder. Giovacchino leaned forwards to look over the crowd between him and the street. When the strong ale in his pot sloshed and threatened to spill, he relaxed a little turned to his companion.
“I think this is lunacy,” he announced. “There’s a new war brewing, right on our very doorstep. I think the bloody Verezzans believe they’re strong enough to take us on. Even if they’re not sure, they might be bitter enough to try anyway. Yet Lord Silvano is taking nearly the entire army away on another foreign war! We should finish off the Verezzans first – put an end to their pathetic whining and make sure they don’t try anything else.”
Corporal Aldus was also peering down the street, and answered without glancing at his friend, “Why don’t you take the matter up with the duke?”
“I’m taking the matter up with you!” said Giovacchino. “Look, see, I know this is what Lord Silvano does – riding off to fight monstrous foes – but there’s a time and a place for that sort of nonsense. This ain’t the time at all, and Campogrotta’s too far away to be the right place. I mean, do the Campogrottans even need our help? They’ve an entire bloody army of their own, and that the gods-forsaken Compagnia del Sole, cousins of the very enemy that put us to all that trouble years ago. Why in all the hells are we sending our boys to do the fighting for them? I tell you, there’s no part of this makes sense.”
A company of drummers, being the first in the column, were now passing by, beating up a jaunty march indeed, which was everything to do with this sort of parade and nothing to do with battle calls.
“So, let me get this straight,” said the corporal. “You’re questioning the duke’s orders, yes? Well, my answer to you, my friend, would be that you should think hard about what you say and who you say it to.”
“No, no, no! I’m no fool,” replied Giovacchino. “I’m not saying the Duke is wrong. I just want to understand it myself.”
“Look, the duke’s a hard man, noble, yes, but a man of war. He takes whatever he believes is his by right. He doesn’t suffer fools and exacts swift vengeance on all who trouble him in any way whatsoever. And yet, all that said, what father would deny his only beloved son?”
“Aye, well, that only shifts the blame to the son. Doesn’t make the decision any less foolish.”
Corporal Aldus fixed his stare on Giovacchino. “You’re really not listening, are you? I already warned you – have a care! There are many would take offence to such words. I shall assume you’re trying to understand why Lord Silvano wants to go.”
“That’s it. That’s all. Why?”
“That’s easy. Lord Silvano is what you call a hero, always has been. I reckon since his brother died fighting Prince Girenzo, he’s been desperate to prove himself a worthy successor in his father’s eyes, to show he’s afraid of no challenge and willing to take on any foe.”
“So, you’re saying our army marches off when we’re at our weakest, and when our closest neighbours and others besides have a whole bag o’ bones to pick with us, because a young lord wants to prove his mettle? Maybe he should worry more about being a worthy successor to rule Pavona when his father dies, and to do that he needs to be alive, and there needs to be a bloody Pavona left to rule.”
“You can’t help yourself, can you? Your mouth’ll be the end of you one day, if you don’t die on the end of an enemy’s blade. Stop complaining. We have the city militia, and I reckon there’s many an old soldier would happily muster for the city’s defence if it proved necessary. Pavona will survive and grow strong again. Who cares how loud the Verezzan dogs bay and howl? Any one of us could take on three of them.”
The drummers had passed by, although the sound they made was still filling the street. Now came the colours, marching together as a little company of ensigns. All were quartered blue and white, with some little extra added to each to mark them out on the field – a border, or tassels or a symbol upon the white.
Giovacchino sniffed. Then in a quieter voice said,
“It’s not just them though, is it? The VMC scum have unfinished business with us – they left off their siege only because they were persuaded the undead were the bigger problem. And the Verezzans may have been weak in the past, but everyone says they’re building an army squarely intent on revenge for Lord Lucca’s death. Their petty, brigand robbers have already begun the fight, sneaking about in the shadows to pick off our soldiers when they can get away with it without risking a fight. Scouting for them; learning the lay of the land.”
Corporal Aldus grinned. “Then it’s no bad thing Lord Silvano is marching our boys away, ‘cos then brigands won’t be able to kill them.”
Giovacchino spoke even quieter than before. “Except we’ll be among the few that remain, and it’ll be us they’re loosing their arrows at.”
Still cheerful, despite the notion, the corporal said, “I didn’t think of that.”
Now came a body of handgunners, one of which stared over at Aldus and Giovacchino as they passed.
“There’s Mariano,” said Aldus. “Does he still owe you sixteen silvers?”
“Aye. He’d better bloody survive ‘cos I need that money.”
“He’ll survive. He’s always been careful. Once told me he never fired his piece in that fight in the Trantine Hills. When I asked him why, he said it was so he wouldn’t have to clean it afterwards.”
“That’s the wrong sort of careful. The stupid sort!” laughed Giovacchino. “Aldus, you say be careful of my words, but it seems to me most people ain’t too pleased about the army leaving. The best anyone could say about this crowd is that it is respectful. None would claim any signs of enthusiasm.”
“They’re just tired,” said the corporal, whose head still ached from the old wound.
“Ha!” laughed Giovacchino. “They’re tired? They want to try marching all the way to Trantio and back, with only fighting to break the journey. If Lord Silvano has the urge to fight a righteous war, then why isn’t he going off to help in the march on Miragliano. The priests are always preaching that we live in Morr’s most cherished realm. Shouldn’t he be fighting the undead?”
“Oh, it’s too late for that,” said Aldus. “Duke Guidobaldo announced in his address that the war against the vampires is all but over. The enemy lost army after army trying to take on the Portomaggiorans and Remans, and now they’ve got the VMC against them too. All that’s left is the filthy job of cleaning up Miragliano, and I wouldn’t waste Pavonan lives on such nasty work. I reckon more’ll die of disease in such a wretched realm than in battle! If that war is over, then Lord Silvano obviously wants to make sure that the ratto uomo don’t gain an advantage while the living realms are weakened by the fight against the undead. Verminkind love ruinous places, and the north is one big ruin right now.”
“Not just the north,” said Giovacchino. “Pavona’s no better! All Boulderguts left us is the city and the southern side of the river. Astiano and Trantio are ruined too. Every realm hereabouts is as sickly and broken as the north.”
“Then praise the gods that our brave young lord is helping to quash the threat of ratmen before they grow too powerful.”
As the corporal spoke, he gestured to the street, for Lord Silvano himself, clad in brightly silvered armour and sporting a tall panache-crest of blue and white, his lance lowered as if to indicate his intention to advance, rode into view.
By the young lord’s side rode his knightly standard bearer, and behind him rode the city’s young nobility, their shields decorated with Morr’s fleshless head, crowned as king of the gods.
“If you have the answer to everything, Aldus, then tell me this: Why didn’t the duke send Visconte Carjaval with the army instead of his only son and heir?”
“Oh, that was the plan. The Visconte had orders to that effect. But then the orders changed. You didn’t attend the temple this morning, did you?”
“My head still hurt from last night. Why? D’you think my soul’s in need of cleansing?”
“Ha! That and the rest of you!”
Giovacchino sniffed at his armpit, spilling some of the ale as he did so, then cursing.
“What about the temple?” he demanded. “Did you receive divine enlightenment? That’d explain all your answers.”
“The priest prayed for Lord Silvano’s success, then told us how the duke knew his son possessed a compassionate heart and a desire to serve the lawful gods, Morr Supreme above all, and that he yearned to defend the innocent, weak, the young and old, from all further upsets. Apparently, the duke even said his son was the better man than he, for where he had always taken rightful anger to bloody conclusion, his son was willing to temper his reactions with an urge to understand and forgive.”
Giovacchino frowned. “That doesn’t sound like the sort of thing the duke would say.”
“Maybe not, but that’s what the priest told us. And more than that, he said the duke had vowed to live ‘quiete and pacifice’ until his son’s safe return from victory.”
“Oh, that’s lovely,” said Giovacchino sarcastically. “It’s like poetry, ain’t it?” Then, more seriously, he asked. “Doesn’t sound like the duke either. Tell me though, is it true? Will the fighting end?”
Aldus shrugged. “I suppose if the Verezzan brigands stop what they’re doing, and everyone else leaves us alone for a while, then why not? Besides, the answer’s right in front of you. The army’s marching off. Say farewell to the young lord and our army.”
“Ha!” laughed Giovacchino. “And say hello to some peace and quiet.”