Captain Dumas was not thrilled about my explanation, but agreed to let Prevot, Emeline, guide us south toward the swampland. Only a mile downstream and the ground underfoot was changing. Prevot, Emeline, was following some path that was muddy but passable and I was particularly grateful that we didn’t have horses. I kept Tiago before me so I could catch him. He was surefooted enough, but exhausted beyond measure. The movement kept us from freezing, but it was still hours under a dark and darkening sky before Emeline pulled aside vegetation from a cleverly disguised cave opening and we tromped in.
To be inside was a relief. My body still felt the thrum and buzz of the thousands of rain drops it had endured. The hollowed hill was low and narrowed considerably but Prevot insisted we continue on through a winding fissure, nearly invisible in the dark. I worried about getting trapped underground, but a narrow passage widened into a large space with wooden slats for a floor and crates of provisions on one wall. There was a metal firegrate in a style I hadn’t seen before hammered into the floor already laid with a fire, and plenty of stacked logs and kindling. Captain Dumas kept an eye on Prevot, Emeline, while also giving the crates a look.
“Will those be a problem?” she asked.
Emeline looked at them and shrugged, “I hope not, but if they are, I expect it will be a short problem.”
“Because they’re friends of yours?” Tiago asked.
“Because we’ll be killed before questions,” Dumas answered distractedly.
Fatigue overrode any amount of fear he might have felt because he only answered, “Oh.”
I nodded to the scout and she and the cartographer gathered our packs to start putting together our bedding and provisions. Emeline and Dumas started working on the fire and I dropped my water-logged cloak with a disgusting thwap to help get Tiago undressed. His lips were blue so I used a dry shirt from my pack to wipe him down and threaded his tired limbs through it; it was comically large on his narrow frame. He stood shaking and shivering before the fire, desperate patience in his eyes as he watched the little flames grow. I came to understand the firegrate design when Prevot disappeared into the rain again only to return with wet logs and kindling that she manhandled into the grating around the edge so they could dry without killing the fire.
I undressed as far as I felt was appropriate, though on my island I would have already been naked and curled up with everyone else under a blanket to build warmth. Fire made, provisions and bedding found, everyone else was stripping down to huddle over the fire.
“So you’re a smuggler?” I asked.
Dumas and Emeline looked at me and then each other. “I dabble,” Emeline said breezily. “I have been known to smuggle here and there though it isn’t my expertise.”
“And banditry?” Dumas asked.
“What is a bandit but a smuggler driven to desperation and without clarity of purpose?”
“Yes, then.” Dumas focused again on the fire.
“Ah yes, the eternal rule-follower, come to spread judgement upon those of us less fortunate.”
“Don’t,” I said before they could bite at each other. “Save the fighting for when we’re all more comfortable, please.”
The cave warmed quickly and we all slowly improved. I found a clothesline against the wall opposite the crates and draped our clothes as best I could. I wrung them out into an empty bucket and those that wouldn’t fit on the line I laid on the open bits of floor and parts of the wall that were sufficiently angled. The walls were covered in some kind of resin that was dry but malleable; it kept the dirt contained, but provided extra durability to the walls. I made a note to learn more about it.
Someone gave Tiago a small block of cheese and he was gnawing on it with eyes half-closed. A dozen pieces of dried fish were buried in the fire to warm and I quickly devoured the cheese and bread that was passed around. When the fish was warm, it, too, disappeared and we all felt unsatisfied, but the cartographer was quick to point out that we only brought enough for a couple of days.
I removed the half-eaten fish from Tiago’s hand and laid him in his bedroll and then curled into mine behind him. He was closest to the fire and I was feeling plenty warm now with food and water in me, and the smell of fish in the cave. Everyone else settled in and we fell to silence.
I wasn’t sure how long I slept before Dumas prodded me awake. She had a hand over my mouth, but removed it when my eyes showed signs of understanding. She pointed and I propped myself on an elbow to see Emeline’s empty bedroll. I looked at Dumas enquiringly but she shook her head. I listened and couldn’t hear the rain. My boots were still wet, but the fire had dried them a bit. My cloak was in a similar state so I put on all of yesterday’s clothes – it wasn’t the first time I’d had limited options because of weather.
Dumas made as if to join me and I whispered in her ear, “You’re needed more here.”
“My duty is to my Principe,” she argued firmly.
“If I don’t find her, we cannot leave them defenseless. And they need to rest.”
She glared at me and then pushed a small, sheathed knife into my hand.
“I have a knife,” I insisted.
Dumas shook her head. “This one is from the Viscontessa Greco,” she said. “I have half a dozen.”
“Ah.” I made my way out, careful to shift the vegetation that hid the opening back into place behind me. I was only once I was outside in the wet that I realized not only did I have no idea how to track someone in a swamp, but I didn’t even know where it was safe to place my feet. I made hesitant steps around the perimeter of the hill that sheltered us but had to turn back before I reached halfway as my foot failed to find anything suitable upon which to place.
I resigned myself to waiting casually at the entrance but even that was denied me: Prevot, Emeline I reminded myself again, had already assumed the smug position I’d intended to take.
“Having fun?” she asked.
“Castings,” I answered sullenly. She looked confused at my answer and I explained, “The fisherman casts a net, gathers what it catches, but if she doesn’t bring in much, she casts and casts…” I hesitated. “How was your haul? Nothing but castings.”
“What?” I knew I was blushing.
“You really were raised far, far away from court.”
“How did you live? I mean, what did you do?” She looked genuinely curious.
“I lived like anyone else. I worked, I studied, I just also had extra education about my lineage and responsibilities.”
“Every day? How many hours?”
“Sometimes in the morning, sometimes the evening. Perhaps an hour or two, maybe more if it was a feast day or I had no schooling to attend. Why are you so curious?”
“How could I not be?” she retorted. “A Principe in my own bog, but last night you attended to the boy and everyone’s clothing without prompting. You never complained over the miles, even when we had to stop for Ele’s boot or when that branch,” she snorted, “slapped you in the face.”
I rolled my eyes. “What should I do? Stand about?”
“Yes,” Prevot laughed. “In my experience, that is exactly what the nobility would do in a situation like this. If they ever found themselves in a situation like this.”
I shrugged. “That’s not how I was raised.” I perched on the damp hillside near her and dusted my hands on my trousers.
“What was it like?” she asked. I glanced at her and she said, “I mean, you never knew your father, right? Your mother?”
I wasn’t sure I liked this line of questioning and didn’t answer.
“You were raised by someone; a family member? They would have to be unmissed at court or their absence would have been noticed…”
“When you say ‘your own bog’,” I interrupted, “how far from here were you raised?”
She smirked sadly. “About fifteen miles further on. It hardens up enough for a town so long as you don’t mind your home on stilts but we came here twice a year for various goods to sell.”
“Goods like what?”
“Exotic meats, feathers and skins, medicinal plants and the like.”
“Who is ‘we’ in this scenario?”
“Fair question considering mine,” she sighed. She stretched her arms and her elbows each let out a startling, terrifying, pop that she didn’t seem to notice. Uncles, aunts, cousins, and neighbors. Anyone without something better to do. We’d stay a few weeks at a time. There are a couple of these scattered about,” she patted the side of the hill.
“No parents or siblings,” I noticed.
“No,” she agreed.
“So you turned thief from smuggler?”
She chuckled. “Apothecary turned smuggler turned thief with a few others thrown in for good measure.”
“You’re quite impressive. I had no idea until your disguise was so thoroughly changed. I don’t know that a servant’s position suits you.”
“Pity. It’s my darling personality, isn’t it?”
“Something about you just screams the inability to follow orders unless you really want to.”
“Mm, yes. It’s one of my finer traits.”
“Discipline is important,” I pointed out.
“Certainly. But too much of a good thing…”
“Barone Tiziano Moretti raised me and I knew him to be my father in every way but blood. He was a dear friend of my mother’s, sacrificed every moment of peace and most comforts to disappear with me, and he was murdered at the same time as Re Lorenzo.”
“That must have been hard.”
“Death is hard for everyone.”
“No, I mean losing both and only feeling anything for one of them.”
I stared into the trees but didn’t see them.
“I don’t blame you,” she said. “You can only be expected to feel so much for someone you never knew. Stories never truly fill the void. I expect you felt closer to your mother because that position was never populated, even theatrically. And you said he was your mother’s best friend. His love of her would have echoed through his words and into your image of her.”
“I never could connect my image of Re Lorenzo with his portrait,” I finally said, still staring into the trees. “I did feel some kind of kinship to him. But I always pictured him with a big, bushy beard and green eyes. Thick, strong hands and a chest like the hull of a ship. He was… slender. Almost small.”
“More like you,” she pointed out.
“I have my mother’s height,” I added absently.
“Tiziano said she had strong features, not traditionally beautiful like the delicate ladies the court often favors, but she was stunning.” Prevot didn’t interrupt my reverie, and I appreciated the unpressured silence.
“He said she could climb any tree until she started her courtly lessons and that was discouraged, but then she never could keep the ink from her hands and she was forbidden from writing on days when she might have company. And she loved to sail.”
“Infection, right? After your birth?” Prevot asked.
“More likely poison. They almost had me, as well.”
She didn’t look surprised. “I had two sisters and two brothers and I was the middlest of them but fevers can be fickle.” She let out a tired sigh. “I was barely sick for two days but all the rest of them just wasted. Nearly a third of the town died and I remember, more than the grief, I was just fascinated by how quickly everything was different. And then it wasn’t.”
She looked at me. “Your whole life changes and then you adjust. One day you can’t stop thinking about them and then you realize you aren’t thinking of them at all. I can’t remember their faces and sometimes their names.” She laughed humorlessly. “Should I feel guilty for that? Ashamed? I barely knew them, after all. I miss the decades of what could have been more than the few years of what I had.”
“How did you come from this,” I gestured, “to those gowns and marble counters?”
She grinned wickedly. “Too much of a good thing, Pietro. I can’t give away all my secrets.”
“I should let Dumas know you aren’t sneaking about to bring smugglers or poisons,” I said as I rose and stretched my shoulders. My legs and stomach muscles were exhausted.
“Well, not smugglers anyway,” Prevot, Emeline, agreed. She lifted a leather pouch that I hadn’t seen beside her and patted it.
The cave-cover moved aside and Captain Dumas put her head out. “I’d like to know more about that statement. I heard voices and came to make sure I wasn’t needed and when I came back to check on you, I hear about your poisons?”
Emeline laughed. “Nothing for any of you lot, don’t fret.”
“It’s my job to fret.”
“And how talented you are.”
Dumas grunted but I could tell she was amused. The fire was roaring again and the space was plenty comfortable. I once again shed my damp clothes and allowed the fire to warm and dry me before dressing in new things. Tiago looked infinitely better and I inhaled my portion of our provisions while he described a vivid dream that had him running away but unable to escape from an ocean of salt fish due to his feet being transformed to lead.
The cartographer, Ele, had a ball of sinew and a thick needle to repair her boot and our scout, Vana, was repacking all of our bags for equal distribution.
“Poisons?” Dumas prompted. Everyone’s focus turned to Prevot as she started to pull various items from her bag. She had a series of mushrooms and tubers, some probably-vegetables I almost recognized, several large, needle-sharp nuts, some tiny not-exactly pumpkins, a length of green vine, two of the longest snakes I’d ever seen, dead, a large hare, dead, and an enormous muskrat, dead, as well as a few other things. Tiago’s eyes were wide and captivated by the treasures she continued to reveal.
“Why?” Dumas asked when the bag was empty of riches.
Prevot started putting things back in her bag. “Because, Elise, I must be kept in the manner to which I have grown accustomed.”
“That includes rodents and snakes?” Dumas asked dubiously.
“Exotic, and captivating to the palate. One cannot live on fish alone.”
“I like applies,” Tiago pointed out. “And quail.” He poked at the head of the snake she’d draped over her shoulders. “Can I have the fangs?”
May 12, 2021