by Carmel Rechnitzer

“All your good intentions,” Daniella Dietrich had often been told, “won’t stop a ship from sinking.” It was an age old saying, meant to remind children to think twice before they acted on impulse. The phrase kept repeating in her head over and over in dismay. She had intended to go shopping for basic supplies. Three hours later, she found herself dragging the almost-corpse of an Avalonian pervert across every cobblestone of the Castillian district.

Daniella turned and appealed to the mixed crew trailing behind her. “Can you please just help me?”

“No.” Angeline ‘de Bouchere’ Dèmone snorted in disdain. Angeline was the group’s captain, and her word was law.

Daniella gritted her teeth, readjusted her grip on the sailcloth, and resumed pulling. Angeline and her crew, each earning a hefty sum of four guilders per day, watched her struggle from the back of their horse-drawn cart. They ignored her  completely. Theus damn her husband’s rigid chain of command! As per their contract, the men obeyed Angeline, who obeyed Kaspar Dietrich. Daniella’s ‘place of honor’ in the chain was nebulous and undefined.

Daniella had been forewarned that today would go wrong. Last night, The Crystal Eye had shown her the shadow of the future. A horrid vision of swinging of swords and a trail of blood smeared across city streets. Daniella hadn’t taken it seriously enough. None of her enlisted mercenaries knew – even her husband Kaspar didn’t know – but she was a Strega. A Fate witch. She was used to tuning Fate’s strings until their sound rang out pure.

Her magic hadn’t saved their morning mission, and she had no clue why. Did the Crystal Eye take her magic into account when it showed her the future? Did it work by showing the shadows of the future that could not be changed? Is that why the vision was so murky? Because the Eye could only show the inflexible absolutes?

“I stabbed that man through the bladder, and then through the stomach.” Angeline warned her, “He has two hours or so left before he runs out of blood. You’re going to have to pull faster.”

“Living up to your nickname of ‘the Butcher,’ aren’t you?” Daniella asked through gritted teeth.

Horatio Lockwood works for the Montaignes,” Angeline responded. “So, yes, I suppose so. I earned ‘de Bouchere’ after dragging the corpses of ten Montaigne men out to the public square. Nine more and you’ll catch up with me, my Lady.”

Where did her husband find these people? Surely, there were better swords for hire.

“Their ringleader was a porté sorcerer,” said Angeline. “Who forced innocents to pay the blood-price of his spells. He was a coward who tortured others for personal convenience. He had to die, and so did anyone who protected him. Matter of justice.”

Any other day, Daniella would have given some leeway to Angeline. She understood the frustration of watching Fate pass evil men untouched. She had seen too many villains survive the War of the Cross unscathed, while the goodhearted and young were reduced to beggars, cripples, and corpses.

But had Horatio Lockwood really done them all that wrong? When they arrived at the Grand Bazaar that morning, every single merchant had turned them away.  Daniella had expected that her husband’s occupation of the Forum would ruffle a lot of feathers. She didn’t expect it to ruffle every single one. Each baker, grocer, and fishmonger had told them the same thing: “by order of Soline el Gato, you’ll find no business here.”

Daniella didn’t understand when or how they’d made the Prince of Thieves an enemy, or what leverage ‘el Gato’ even had over the market folk. The command, however, was obeyed. She’d offered top market rate for the last of yesterday’s rotting catch, and was still told no. Even more worrisome, Makepeace Botwighte had refused them. Makepeace was a shameless smuggler and cheat renown for selling to anyone with gold in hand. Having their coin refused by the greediest man in town had pushed the hot-tempered Angeline to burning rage.

Horatio Lockwood should not have gotten involved. He’d been gambling underneath Makepeace’s floorboards and heard the commotion. The scoundrel then slunk up from the illegal casino and tried to intervene. In one stupid swoop he’d tried to stop and flirt with Angeline. Chest puffed up and a hand on his sword hilt, he’d swaggered up to the fearsome captain and grabbed her by the shirt collar. With a charmless wink and an accent as thick as river mud, he’d exclaimed: “listen, gorgeous. Come downstairs with me for a drink. Cool off, relax – or I’m going to have to kick you out.”

For all of Daniella’s commands to cease their hostilities, the two of them escalated from fists to knives in less than a minute. She’d been forced to pull out her sword and stand over Horatio’s collapsed form to stop Angeline from killing him. The wounded Horatio, clearly misunderstanding the gesture, stabbed his dagger into her thigh. Makepeace, who’d meant to hit Angeline, fumbled his attempt to toss a crate of “turnips” and accidentally knocked his own defender out cold.

The combat had ended on that sour, pathetic note. The regretful Daniella ordered her mercenaries out of the shop, and begged Makepeace for a litter. The man was a fence and a gambler. He had no medical equipment on hand. The best he could offer her was a sailcloth bed. The wounded Daniella had commanded, pleaded, then attempted to bribe Angeline’s crew. But the pirate captain had given her own command – if Daniella wanted that dimwit alive, she’d have to save that man herself.

An hour had gone by, and Daniella hadn’t managed to drag him a mile. She was bleeding profusely herself, and her voice was already hoarse from shouting for a doctor.

“Forget saving him,” Daniella hissed with exasperation. “What about saving me? I’m Kaspar’s wife. You’ll lose your payment.”

“Once you let him go, or once you pass out, we’ll put you on the cart,” said Angeline. “Once you’ve learned your lesson.”

“Excuse me?” Daniella couldn’t believe such condescension.

“Your husband and I? We knew this wouldn’t be easy,” Angeline explained. “This is a fight for justice. To recover stolen artifacts, to find repayment for the tragedy at our church… Men and women such as you always get caught up in the lesser virtues. Mercy or politeness, or whatever other distraction.”

“Calling mercy a ‘distraction’ is an inch away from blasphemy,” Daniella warned.

“Mercy is meant for the starving man who steals his daily bread,” Angeline’s voice went hoarse with anger. “Makepeace breaks the law, every single day, with glee and for profit. Horatio has left behind a string of broken hearts, and all we do is laugh at the naiveté of his victims. Why is that funny? Why do we expect those poor men and women to learn and grow wiser, but not him? He’ll never stop. He’ll never learn.”

Daniella was saved from trying to form a response by the arrival of Takama Siad. The young woman was an infamous surgeon. Daniella hadn’t realized a surgeon could be infamous before arriving at the City of Five Sails, but such was the nature of this town. Everyone had a larger-than-life reputation, and always for the wrong reasons. Siad’s reputation definitely seemed to fit, though. She approached them cool, calm, completely unconcerned by the trail of blood they left behind.

“I’ve been told someone is in need of a doctor, and my guess is the crowd meant you,” she said. Her accent was full of the spice and warmth of her native Maghreb. Her golden eyes, and the tone of her voice, however, were cold and clinical.

“Thank Theus,” Daniella sighed, and dropped the sail cloth. Exhausted and lightheaded, she dragged Horatio away from the thoroughfare and into a more peaceful alley. Her duty to the wounded man discharged, she sprawled out on the cobblestones, keeping her wounded leg raised.

Siad made a quick examination of them both. “You are lucky he did not strike a major vein, Lady Dietrich. This could have been much uglier. The same does not go for Mister Lockwood. His punctured organs weep their phlegmatics and biles into the recesses of his body. All in all? Twenty guilders for your leg, one hundred for Lockwood as a whole. He may not live. I begin my practice once I receive payment.”

One day, Daniella hoped, Theus would drag this City and all of its mad inhabitants into the surf. All the sins of Syrneth couldn’t match the inane and awful nature of these people. Surely, this City was next on the list for cataclysm.

“I don’t have that much money in hand,” Daniella admitted. Siad shrugged contently and began walking away. “Have mercy, good doctor! Kaspar’s good for it!”

Siad laughed at her. She didn’t even turn back, just arched her head over her shoulder. She locked eyes with Daniella, and gently explained herself. “There are steep costs to being a famous healer. Families bring their dying desperate to my door and beg a miracle. How many miracles can you perform each day, Lady Daniella? How do you decide who is worthy of one? What do you do, considering that you are only a humble doctor, and not a miracle worker? And what do you do, when distraught parents deny you payment because their child died after twelve hours of desperate surgery? When your heart is weary after such a failure, and you also cannot afford to eat? There are no guarantees in my business. No guarantee Lockwood survives, and no guarantee I get paid unless I am paid upfront. Mercy is a fool’s habit.”

At that, Angeline laughed. Much to all three women’s horror, so did Lockwood. At least he’d reawakened. That was probably a good thing, right?

“Check my breast pocket, good doctor,” wheezed the dying man. “I won big this morning. I’m good for it. I’ll pay double if I come out of this still virile.”

With another careless shrug, Siad knelt down by him. She counted out the requisite coins quickly. Before returning the rest, she offered Lockwood anesthetic for a mere ten guilders more.

“This is all my fault. I’ll pay you back,” Daniella tried to promise Horatio.

“No! No, you won’t!” He protested with surprising strength. “I don’t need your favors. I won’t be in debt to Kaspar and his army!”

“I’m offering charity, not a debt. That was not my intention,” she snapped back in exasperation.

“Well, my lady,” huffed Horatio between gasps of pain, “Your husband started a war. You can’t go around town trying to buy peace again. Especially not from dying men. All your good intentions won’t stop my ship from sinking.”

What could she say to that? She prayed to Theus that the man would live. She further prayed that He would soothe the tensions in the city streets. If only Angeline hadn’t stabbed that fool. If only Kaspar hadn’t occupied the Forum. If only she hadn’t sought that wicked Crystal Eye. Had she started all this? Before she could stop the thought, it rose to the front of her mind: I didn’t mean for it to spiral out like this. She wondered how many more people would be hurt before the occupation came to an end. Had she inadvertently started a War for the Eye? Theus, forgive me.

Siad took Lockwood’s money, and administered him the sedative. Painful minutes ticked by as she stabilized the man. In the meantime, Angeline finally relented and came to Daniella’s side. She tied a bandage around her thigh and set out money for the doctor. With a few sharp orders, her crew dispersed to fetch clean water, additional bandages, and whatever else was needed.

Angeline didn’t apologize, and Daniella was honestly relieved. She envied the woman’s convictions. ‘de Bouchere’ pursued justice fearlessly, and without doubt about the fallout. Eventually, Siad took a quick break from treating Lockwood to ensure she wouldn’t bleed out. Daniella found herself envying the doctor’s callousness as well. The City of Five Sails might finally do what the War of the Cross did not. Daniella might finally be forced to face the softness in her heart and cut it out.

It was either that…. or admit to her husband what she was. What she had done. No! She swore. He must never know.