By Carmel Rechnitzer

Traditionally, men and women prayed for love on the night of Saint Terni’s Feast. Tonight, they prayed for mercy. Fifty-three thousand roses had been put on display tonight, and warring citizens were tearing them down. Seventy-five thousand bottles of wine had been set aside for tonight, and men were smashing them across each other’s skulls. Almost one hundred thousand chairs and tables had left their homes and been set outside – so neighbor could sit and break bread with neighbor. The sun had not yet sunk into the horizon, and neighbors were busy breaking chairs across each other’s backs.

“This is our power,” proclaimed Cesca del Rosso. The destructive whirlwind of fate had left its marks on her, not just the City. Her perfectly coiffed hair was now in disarray. Her immaculate makeup had run with sweat and stinging tears. She had peeled her velvet gloves off long ago, to avoid staining them with blood. With each monumental pull on the strings of Fate, she had been lashed. Her hands and arms were cut deeply, as if she had been pulling on razor wire.

Cesca the Red. What an apt and horrifying name.

The young Sibella Scarpa stared in awe, a moment away from collapse. Thank Theus her father’s men had secreted them away from the riots the two of them had started. After they had heard of the theft at the Forum, they’d been ordered to exacerbate tensions and escalate the oncoming violence. The Red Hand Gang could make creative uses of a proper riot.

Under Cesca’s instructions, she had also spent the night pulling, twisting, tugging, and ruining. Not half as hard, or half as often as her fearsome teacher. Now, she was left teetering on her feet in the dank cellar of a narcotics smuggler. Her throat was too raw to demand the Red Hand Gang toss away the cloying concentrates of poppy.

Cesca strode to her, gently cupping her cheeks and smearing them with blood.

“Not yet, my child. Listen. Listen. You have to listen and learn the extent of your powers.”

Sibella locked her knees and wrapped her arms desperately around the hard leather and whalebone ribbing of Cesca’s corset. She felt like a sailor hugging a ship’s mast during a roiling storm. Overhead, through the floorboards and walls of the warehouse, she could hear the City of Five Sails at war. This had to be war. What else could be so loud?

For the first time in her life, Sibella doubted. All night they had run through the City, pulling on the Fate and heartstrings of pre-selected marks. They used their witchcraft to turn the denizens hot-headed, turn them arrogant, turn them envious… turn them overzealous as well as foolhardy, confused, and relentless. They’d pulled the worst heartstrings they could find, all at once.

It had been so humorous a few hours ago. Even with literal blood on their hands, it had been funny.

Somewhere… Everywhere! Screams of pain and heartache rang out. With metaphorical blood on their hands? Cesca was laughing and Sibella somehow couldn’t.

Uwe Zimmerman prided himself on being a vulgar, rough and tumble sort of country bumpkin. He hated not just this City, but any city, as a matter of principle. Like all the rest, Five Sails was too hot, too crowded, and far too loud. He was a man forged from the snowy forests of the Eisen motherland, and by Theus, he prayed every day for the chance to show this City her flaws.

Tonight, he was shocked to see his zeal completely dwarfed by Rena Klingenhalter’s unbridled rage. Her exterior was as professional as ever, of course. She had been shot a mere four hours earlier, and through doctoring and hired magic, the almost healthy limb hung safely in a sling. How could a wounded woman still consumately lead a battle? How could the orders come clear, logical, and true when her voice was so husky and raw with blood thirst? The fury only made her sharper.

Uwe was healthy as an ox! Strong as two oxen! Why did he have trouble keeping pace with her? What demon settled in her stomach and changed her so?

Lumbering legs burning from exhaustion, he kicked over another Feasting table.

“Collaborators!” he roared, his voice still only half as loud as his commander’s. “Where is your stupid Prince of Thieves? Where are Maya and Zapa-Zapet-Zetepo – where are the two Castilians?”

Who was he shouting at? The whole street was an overturned mess, and it had been occupied by two thousand Castillians. The Castille District’s known gamblers and ne’er-do-wells had gathered here with their families, but the crowd was fleeing further and further away. The celebrating civilians had no fight to give – and in all honesty – it troubled him that the Eisen army was acting like they had.

“Cow-cud and horse muck, but there has got to be a better way to find El Bato” he said, stopping to consider and catch his breath. Rena kept marching on ahead.

Terrel Brandt pulled up beside him and issued a correction. “El Gato. A ‘G’, not a ‘B’.”

The night’s exertions had made the man even more handsome. Brandt’s stormy eyes were hidden underneath his signature hood, and his stubble glistened with sweat. His shirt had popped its button in the action, and Uwe was left staring at glittering ring-mail and heaving muscle puffing with steady breath.

Uwe tried to think of words but failed. He waved a hand over the street. Pointed to his boots, which were soaked with spilt wine and shredded by shards of glass and splinters of wood. Brandt clapped his shoulder in agreement.

“I’d have rather drunk all this instead.” His voice was bitter and crisp akin to pouring a cold Eisen ale in one’s ear.

Uwe grunted. Damn, but he’d had high hopes for tonight. Saint Terni was a foreign concept – a frufru concept. But everyone else had gotten all randy about it, and he got all stupid and got his hopes all up that maybe –

“Come on,” Brandt gave Uwe’s shoulder a squeeze followed by a hearty slap on the buttocks, like you’d smack a bull’s haunches to start the plow. “Can’t afford to fall behind Rena.” The younger soldier took off like an arrow.

“Oh, cow-cud and muck,” Uwe repeated and got back to trampling.

“Padre” Anibal had set out his best table out in the street for tonight. Not that this said much. Padre was poor as dirt, and only owned that single one. But it was made of good lumber, the kind you’d use for galleons. It was stained and scratched and warped – but it was phenomenally sturdy. It would have been a fine table to host his poorer friends at.

Padre took great pride in that table, and felt very safe huddled under the trusty, and now overturned, piece of furniture. What was another riot to a man of his age? Obviously, it wasn’t tradition to beat each other’s teeth out on Saint Terni’s, of all days. Usually, you only got clobbered if you kissed someone else’s wife. Unless all the men of the city had really misbehaved this morning, he couldn’t fathom what had caused this riot.

His wife, Dolores, “Madre” to everyone else, was huddled right beside him. Thirty years of marriage, and she looked as beautiful as ever. Wrinkles, alchemical burns, and years of lean living had done her no substantive harm. She was still the stunning professora he’d fallen for.

“Do you remember,” he recalled, “back when Don Constanzo came to power? Remember how the streets came alight with fire, back then?” Tonight, thankfully, wasn’t quite that bad. Padre preferred the man-made mud to the man-made inferno.

“That was the night we found Soline?” Madre did her best to recall. She was wrong, but he couldn’t blame her. How many children had ended up staying in their loft over the years? Besides, she was busy wrangling Penya. The young orphan was as bright as a gilder. Spoke more languages than Padre knew existed. But he was overconfident and overcurious, and it was a tall task to keep him under the table.

“No, no – Soline came along back when the Inquisition got the whole District involved in a brawl” he assured his wife. He bounced the baby Maria on his knee. “Hush, sweetie,” he promised her. “These riots come and go.”

“So, what about Costanzo’s big night?” Madre asked. “What’s got you reminiscing?”

“Well, after that riot, we ended up taking in Sanjay – but that’s – what I’m recalling…  You remember where we found Maya and Lorenzo, that night? Hidden away under sailcloth at the Docks, completely unaware the City was on fire. Meanwhile, Boatwighte was off and away feasting with Gustavo Senior, completely unaware his shop was torched to cinders.”

Madre laughed. “What about it?”

“You reckon anyone out there is having a good time in the middle of this riot?” he asked.

“Sure thing, Mi Amore,” she said and tapped her fingers to the trusty table. “I’m having a wonderful time here with you.” She wrestled the cursing Penya under her elbow, and plucked a smashed and soggy rose from the gutter.

Considering the likelihood it wasn’t just dowsed in wine and dirt, but also blood, vomit and shit, he set the rose aside instead of holding it in his lips as was tradition. He leaned forward and gave her a quick kiss.

“Saint Terni’s kept us in love for thirty years,” he said. “He can keep us safe for one night.”

Of All the Musketeers, Dufort took the worst care of his cape. Leontine hung hers up every day to smooth the wrinkles. Jean Urbain had it steamed, and buckled with a sterling silver brooch. Dufort never paid his cape a bit of mind, leaving the ends a little frayed and the pull-strings loose. It did not mean he appreciated Urraca de la Murrietta tugging and tearing it in panic.

“Mademoiselle, I beg you, be gentle,” he cried.

“Left, dear Musketeer!” she chirped, this time pulling on his arm. ‘You must turn left ahead!”

“You don’t have to – Mademoiselle, I am a man, not a horse!” He protested. He was an adroit swordsman, so keeping the Red Hand goons at bay was child’s play. His rapier danced circles around their knives and gill hooks. The tougher part was generously working to keep them alive, with Urraca now keeping his left arm locked in her grip. He refused to escalate, however. She was barely a woman yet, and he didn’t relish showing her the horrors of death.

It made for a fight in reverse. He found himself grabbing his assailants to keep them from tripping. He’d smacked one buffoon’s back to stop him from choking on his own swallowed spit. He’d re-armed the woman he’d disarmed, because he needed her to have something in hand to block his blows. An hour ago, he’d been chaperoning Urraca on her first play “date” for the Feast. He’d had to paper over all the awkward lack of conversation between her and the young monsieur. The two were meant to practice courting, but not actually flirt, because neither had Debuted and that would be widely impolite. Fighting these fools somehow felt equally as awkward.

“How are you not getting the message?” he demanded to know. Urraca apologized, and gently tapped his left temple. Oh, but that isn’t what he meant. “No, you, darling! Buffon! With the sword! What’s your name?”

“Burratino! And I’ll be the man who takes your head!” shouted the thug. His wide sword swing was two inches too low to even dream of touching Dufort’s throat. To prove a point, Dufort blocked the heavier blade without flinching.

“Will you stop? I am trying to take this young woman home!” With impeccable manners and pronounced elocution, Urraca added, “we apologize if we’ve made you mad, but we have no quarrel with you, good gentleman of the City. We request parlay, so we can resolve this peacefully.”

That managed to finally bring the senseless melee to a stop. The gangsters looked at each other, completely baffled. “We’re… We’re not pirates.” They insisted. Urraca and Dufort both shrugged. The distinction between alley criminal and galley criminal hadn’t really crossed either of their minds before.
“Doesn’t mean we can’t chat,” Urraca surmised. “What offense have we given?”

“That Musketeer killed my comrades and friends! We had a whole gang at the Docks, and this piece of slime slew them!” Buratino pointed accusingly with the sword.
“I have to admit, Mademoiselle, I did do that. In my defense, they were vile miscreants.”

Urraca, unsurprisingly, had nothing to say to that. Who would?

The momentary silence was shattered by the bark of a rifle. Henri Michelet stepped into view, three-barreled rifle in hand. His eyes hid underneath the brim of his massive hat, but his thick mustache curled with a caustic frown that promised unpleasant business. Leave it to him to manage to glare without eye contact.

“Get,” he spat at the goons. The word carried enough weight to send them sprinting.

“You could have dispatched them all in a moment,” Henri admonished.

“Not in front of the young lady,” DuFort protested, and felt Urraca squeeze his arm in thanks.

“You’re too kind, Dufort,” Henri warned. “It’s two steps past honor. It’s going to get you killed.”

Elina Georginova had decided to take Vladislav Novikoff as her opposite for Saint Terni’s Feast, because she appreciated silence. Vladislav was quiet, gentle, and enjoyed every bit of fortune life gave him. When she’d invited him to sit across from her, he gave her the warmest hug and nodded yes. It had been a joy watching him eat. He’d been born simple, and never learned to politely hide his inner thoughts. The warm bread made him sigh, the sour raspberry wine made him pucker, and she could almost taste the food by proxy.

She had lost her tongue during the War of the Cross, and everyone assumed that she was mad or disappointed to be mute. That part never bothered her. What was there to say, to most of the world? No one ever listened anyhow. She was content to scheme in silence. She missed the sensation of taste far more. Vladislav couldn’t mind her silence, or mind his manners either, so they made for the perfect table of two.

But the Voddace witch-women had come riding through and ruined it all from the comfort of their gilded carriage. It was a subtle, difficult to detect sort of magic. If Elina hadn’t been so accustomed to using magic instead of words to accomplish her everyday tasks, her senses would never have been sharp enough to catch on. The two interlopers pushed and pulled at the hearts of men, until every disagreement had devolved into a fist fight. The streets of the Ussuran district had descended to brawling long before the Eisen soldiers or Castille crowds had reached them.

Worst of all, the Voddace madwomen had tugged on the unstable, writhing fate of Yevgeni the Boar. The name suited him so well. He moved through the crowd with the unstoppable force of animalistic fury. As he lunged, his burly forearms hung in front of him like the tusks of his namesake -ready for impact, ready to gore. Wherever he saw one of his own come to harm, he’d stampede forward, and outstretched arms would catch and fling the offender. He’d managed to hurl an armed and armored woman almost twenty paces away from a wounded Pavel Ivanov. Matrushka’s Mercy, the man really was as strong as an animal.

A wild boar, supposedly, could bowl a horse right over. Elina watched in disbelief as Yevgeni began charging, fully intent on committing the same feat.  Some mad Eisen mercenary was in the midst of a one-man cavalry charge, the whole time demanding the return of some supposedly stolen documents. While others dove away, Yevgeni came running forward to intercept. The horse, scared and confused, reared upwards, almost throwing his rider. Yevgeni ducked under the swinging hooves, and as the horse came down to earth, tackled the beast. Heaving chest to heaving chest, tusk-like arms pushing up and over at the horse’s stomach, he flung the animal on its side.

Without skipping a beat, Yevgenni stepped around the stunned animal and grabbed the hired soldier. By reaching his sausage-thick fingers underneath the chest plate, Yevgeni found a stable hold. He hauled his victim out from underneath the horse with one hand. Gaggle by violent gaggle, the other rioters stopped to watch in utter awe – stopped to listen to a voice booming louder than Theus on Judgment Day.

“How dare you! Think of who you would have hurt! Think of who you would have trampled!” Yevgeni berated the man, his face blood red with anger. Next, he turned on the crowd, using the mangled mercenary to point at different clusters of the crowd.. “All of you! Every single one of you! Enough!”

The terrified mercenary, one leg completely crushed by his own steed and dangling in Yevgeni’s grip like a plucked chicken, made a desperate mistake. He drew his knife. He tried to ram it into Yevgeni’s heart. The knife was too small, and the pectoral muscle too thick. The steel only made it two inches deep.

Yevgeni didn’t so much as flinch. His other hand – his other tusk – came up and wrapped all the way around the mercenary’s wrist. With a creak, Yevgeni squeezed and reduced the mercenary’s hand to pulp and bony splinters.

Poor Vladislav, overwhelmed, began to sob “no, no, no.” He’d seen Yevgeni in combat before and knew what was coming.

Elina sprang to her feet. Was it for Yevgeni’s sake? She didn’t want to see his reputation soiled if he killed the now defenseless enemy. Was it for her sake? Yevgeni treated her kindly, like he did all the men and women of the district. No, she admitted. It was for Vadislav. She couldn’t remember her old family, and she would never build a new one. She was missing a tongue and a left eye – what man or woman could stomach empty conversation, a half empty exchange of loving looks, and a ragged, empty kiss? She’d never marry.

Vladislav was a kindred spirit. Not a friend, but a younger brother, almost. She grabbed him by the hand and pulled him up from their table. She locked her one green eye to his and motioned for him to speak. “Stop! Stop!” he shouted. His voice quivered with fear but carried well enough. Yevgeni heard and gave pause. The red of his face was now matched by the deep, bleeding crimson on his shirt.

She took Vladislav forward, across the frozen melee. He surprised them all by coming to his knees, and gently cradling the head of the horse. He ran his fingers through its mane, cooing and calming and promising the scared animal that everything would be “fine, fine, fine.”

Elina took a deep breath. The source of her sorcery was the Dar Matushki – the Mother’s Touch. Long ago, the Crone Mother had visited her, and taught her a valuable lesson. So long as Elina was brave – so long as she never flinched or looked away from the horrors of violence, like she had so many years ago… She could undo them. If she followed the rule, she could heal even the worst of fresh wounds.

She locked her eye with Yevgeni’s and motioned for him to set the wounded soldier down. She pointed a finger at Vladislav, demanding the exact same gentleness. The Boar stared at her long and hard, and eventually the huffing breaths slowed, and the arms came down. Yevgeni laid the man down ever so carefully.

First, she put her hands over the mercenary’s heart, felt his hurt. It almost overwhelmed her, but she did not cower. Within moments his wrist and leg were mended.

She placed her hand over Yevgeni’s heart and was surprised to find that the knife wound was the least of what ailed him. Inside beat a heart in roiling turmoil. A soul almost empty because the memories that formed it had been torn away. Mother help him, she prayed.

The flesh came back together, but the memories? Those… She could not return. They had been ripped away too long ago to fix – the same as her eye, the same as her tongue.

Despite the incompleteness of the spell, despite the pain she could not take away, Yevgeni pulled her close and hugged her. His hug was exactly like Vladislav’s, warm and kind. She heard his heartbeat. The primal contraction of the muscle and sinew, the steady song of his heartstrings.

He understood there was no point in saying sorry. Not to her. He simply gave her a remorseful look, and a melancholy smile of thanks.

Perhaps he, too, was a kindred spirit.