Rage and fury fueled the storm through the next day. My people visited the public house to warm themselves and check in and I made sure they left with any spare provisions we could provide. I dutifully worked on my hand-stitching and Captain Dumas and others taught Tiago the finer points of barroom brawling. When I brought out a book to read the owner asked if I had others, and I read aloud for a few hours in the evening.

We had hope the storm would blow itself out by the next morning, but had no luck. Dumas was waiting for me in the common room and we shared a grimace. Much longer here and our presence would be a curse more than a blessing, considering the supplies we consumed. We played cards, listened to music and danced, crafted, talked, rested, mended, anything we could think to do, but no one expected it to be necessary outside of the winter months, and we hadn’t been prepared for the long hours. Tiago especially lacked the patience for it and I had to send him to the room more than once to collect himself due to his childish pouting.

When the storm slowed to a mere downpour instead of a deluge, I decided we would at least attempt the trek to the next town, a day away. I elected to leave behind the horses and wagons and people we could spare and take only what we could carry in our packs. It was miserable, as we knew it would be. No one even mentioned a fire; we ate cold food, usually on the march and rested when we had to, shivering in our sodden cloaks.

A bridge forded a swollen river, which rushed with debris both visible and hidden. I’d seen angry ocean waves, but nothing like trees the height of houses launched like a spear only to dash apart on stones, or block the way until another tree broke it in half and they both continued at the speed of a race-boat. I didn’t bother even sending a scout; they were willing, but admitted they wouldn’t likely find much that would help, so we were all together at the start of the bridge when one of those enormous trees twisted in the current and its roots rose over our heads. It smashed itself to kindling on the side of the bridge with a sound that physically hurt; it took the bridge when it fell.

When we lowered out hands from our ears, we could only stare. A few feet of passage on either side of the river remained. I crouched to pick up a splinter and stared at it. Tiago kicked another into the water.

“A few minutes faster and we’d have been partway,” the scout pointed out.

“Do we turn back?” Tiago asked. He was shivering again despite the layers of wool I’d made sure to kit him with.

We looked at the cartographer, whose eyes were closed. Her hands were raised in the air as though drawing images that only she could see but eventually she said, “Unless someone put up a bridge I don’t know about, we have to go around.” She pointed north and then south, “Eight miles, twelve miles.”

“Benefits to either choice?” I asked.

She shrugged. “Those eight miles get a lot rockier, and those twelve get us close to swampland. The bridge was here because it’s the only decent place, truly.”

I let out a frustrated sigh. “How long would it take to fix the bridge?”

“Weeks if not months, Don. It’s an important bridge, but the season needs to calm, dry, the nobility needs to be made aware, taxes would need to be allocated, builders hired, supplies purchased…”

“Can you think of another option?”

Silence.

“I need a moment.” I stalked away from the little group. Until I was sure they couldn’t hear before I let out a bellow of fury that stripped my throat raw and left me panting in rage. I understood the passion of the storm that fell on my face, my cloak and turned the ground beneath my boots to mud. I’d failed so far. I had no Houses to back my claim and now I was looking at months of twiddling my thumbs, in which time I expected House Renaud would hear of my return and spread rumors to sully my name. I laughed bitterly – and I would owe the Contessa more than I would ever possess and be forced to return to exile.

“A lot of smugglers use the hills,” a voice said. I spun toward the source.

“Prevot?” I asked, squinting through the rain.

“Tell me truly who you are,” she called. She wasn’t standing especially near, holding her dripping hood out from her face with one hand.

“Why?”

“Because otherwise I’ll put you in that river.”

“… why?” I asked again.

“You have become inconvenient, Don.” She took a step forward. “I thought we were like-minded individuals when we met at the bank, but it seems you were some kind of legitimate and merely toying with me. You’re good. I thought I was good, but,” she shrugged, “you had me until the teahouse. And when you found me again at Greco I knew it wasn’t safe for me anywhere. I didn’t even know I would be there; I certainly don’t know how you figured it out, so I decided I had to follow you if only to keep you from my own trail.” The rain was picking up again.

She took another step forward and shifted her cloak so I could see the crossbow. “Do you think I’ll lead you to my holdings if you follow long enough? Do you have a team in waiting? Tell me who you are. I’m finished with the games.”

I put my hands at my shoulders and scoffed incredulously. “What games, Prevot?”

“You tell me, Don Gentillini! There is no Gentillini, not under any House! I checked – it’s from old stories about a trickster! Not especially subtle, is it?” A crack of lightning lit the sky.

“I mean, it worked this long,” I pointed out. Her cloak moved to adjust the crossbow and I said, “Fine, fine! I am of noble birth. My father died and I inherited my majority and I’ve only been visiting the other estates to meet my peers!”

“Your name. And title.”

Barone Moretti.”

“Lie.”

“It isn’t.”

“Do you think I don’t know the nobles who have died in the last year?” she demanded. “I gave you a list at the teahouse, don’t you remember? Two of them were entirely made up and you didn’t even notice! You have one more opportunity. And no, your friends aren’t coming; they respect your need for privacy.” She was practically sneering with anger.

“Tell me your name first,” I haggled.

“Absolutely not.”

“Tell me your name after, then.”

She laughed shrilly as thunder boomed overhead. “You know what? I think I will. We’re practically friends at this point.”

“Swear to believe me.”

“Quit stalling!”

“I am the royal Principe, Pietro Leonardo Ambrogio Giuseppe Dario Ricci, King-to-be.” She glared at me. I put one of my raised hands to my heart. “I swear it on the death of my father, on the death of my mother. I swear it by the death of the man who raised me.”

“Swear it on your life,” she said after a moment. “Because if I find that to be even a partial untruth, I will kill you.”

“I swear on my life, I am the Principe. Please, put away the crossbow and we can talk.”

She swept the weapon from her cloak to show me. “I don’t have any bolts, and there’s no string. Decent enough for a concealed threat, though.”

I dropped my hands in relief and not a little irritation. “What’s your name, then?”

“Emeline.”

“No surname?”

“Not one that matters – some of us weren’t born into families with any legacy. Besides, you’ve enough names for the both of us.”

“What now?”

“I’m hungry.”

“I’m cold.”

She snorted. “This storm is going to get worse again. Go get your people and follow me.”

“To where?”

She rolled her eyes at me. “Someplace dry. Does the rest matter? Go!” She giggled. “I’ve never ordered around a Principe before. I might enjoy it too much.”

May 09/2021

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