A tale of artists, intrigue, and the magical renaissance

4.04 – In Flumine {Into the Stream}

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When people spoke of travelling into Venecchi and through its streets of water, Elena had always pictured small little gondolas. The romantic image of the pretty little boats guided by a man with a pole was one that had appealed to her in her childhood. Even though she knew Venecchi no longer used gondolas for anything but tourists anymore, the image had stuck with her.

The boats were still pretty, but now there was no driver standing in the back, only a rudder to steer. Small springs throughout the back and bottom of the vessel unwound and paddled the vessel toward the waterbound city with steady splashes, the sound rhythmic and calming. It had seemed small from far away, but as they approached, drifting on a night sky toward the towering walls, Venecchi looked far more intimidating.

Elena alternated between staring out at the city and out over the water, seeing neither. To other boats it would look as if she sat alone across from Emerald and Master Apollo, unless their occupants were Stormtouched and could see Ele staring up at the outline of Venecchi with a critical eye.

“It’s even less like Milia than it looks,” he murmured. “Even the superficial similarities like the stonework are different when you look close. See how they used a different mortar than Milia did? I wonder if that’s because Milian mortar is more likely to erode away in the water.”

Much like when they had entered Milia, Elena said nothing, although this time she was far less excited, far more numb. Apollo steered them through the gates without comment, a series of locks that raised them up to the level of the city itself. When they reached the final gate, the boat came to a halt, nestled deep within Venecchi’s walls but not yet out into the city proper.

It was a unique sort of helplessness, sitting in the seat of the boat in the water, while on the stone platforms to her left and right Venecchian guards looked down into the boats. The Venecchi uniform was a beautiful assembly of blues and greys, but Elena didn’t find herself in much of a mood to appreciate its aesthetics.

“I’d ask if you have contraband, but I’m sure you ran into our unofficial new customs officers out there, stopping everyone who enters or leaves,” the guard joked good-naturedly, “I hope they didn’t give you too much trouble. We’ve dispatched a few compliments of soldiers, but they’re a slippery bunch and we haven’t been able to catch them yet.”

“Ah, well, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time,” Master Apollo said, “at least they didn’t take anything or harm us. And no, we’re carrying no contraband.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” the guard smiled, and jumped down lightly into the boat. “but of course we’ll have to check. Don’t worry, it will only take a minute or so.”

“Actually…” further away from the boat, one of the guards eyed Elena, his brow furrowed.

Elena’s heart dropped. She hadn’t really expected that it would be as easy as waltzing into the city without incident, but a part of her had hoped that they could’ve gone a little bit further before being stopped. Without looking down, she used her feet to double-check that the mallet she’d used to kill Lucrezia was still in the bottom of the boat.

Picking a fight with the entire Venecchian guard would be insane, but if Fulvio was here, inhabiting one of them, she was willing to risk anything to put her down.

“Actually what?” the first guard had been in the process of stepping down into the boat, and now he just stood awkwardly, looking back and forth between the skeptical guard and the boat.

“Actually, doesn’t the short-haired one remind you of anyone?” the suspicious guard said. “Antonio, fetch the wanted poster down by the gate.”

“Sorry, miladies, sir,” the friendliness in the first guard’s expression cooled a few degrees, “we’ll only be a moment.”

There was no breeze up in the locks, but a shiver ran down Elena’s spine as she sized up the surroundings. At first glance, it was awful odds. Elena and Apollo could fight well, and Emerald had said she knew how to use a sword, but there were four guards, all of them armed, two of them far enough away from the boat that they could rouse an alarm before they were brought down.

At second glance, the situation was even worse. The guards almost certainly had training, they had the high ground, which was also the solid ground, and now that they were on alert there was no way to shift or draw a weapon.

“You mentioned a masterstroke, only to be used when there was no other option?” Apollo kept his friendly smile and didn’t move his lips as he murmured, “I would submit that this might be the time.”

Elena locked eyes with Emerald, who raised a questioning eyebrow with an amused expression. Although Elena had very much not wanted to to use Emerald again, certainly not so soon, it appeared there was no choice. She nodded, once, almost imperceptibly.

“Here you are, Captain,” the guard Antonio passed a small handful of papers to the suspicious guard, who shuffled through a few of them until arriving at one in particular. His eyes narrowed, and his gaze flicked back and forth between Elena’s face and the page.

Emerald pointed out to the guards as a whole that this girl was a rather well known noble of Venecchi. She asked if the guard was really going to allow some passing similarity to a criminal to stop them from letting through the noblewoman who they had even seen before.

“My god, it is you!” One of the guards exclaimed. The others shuffled nervously, and the captain lowered the handful of papers with a sheepish expression.

“I’m sorry, milady,” he said, “it’s been a while, I didn’t recognize you at first.”

“No need to apologize,” Elena waved the guard off in what she hoped was a noble way, before realizing that it didn’t matter, “it’s been an exciting few weeks, and I don’t begrudge you your paranoia. Now about passage…?”

“Yes, of course,” the captain depressed two levers in the wall, and in front of them the large stone gate slid quietly down. With a rush of water and a stomach-clenching little wobble, the boat began moving again.

As they began to float past, Emerald asked the captain if she could have the wanted posters. He handed her the sheaf without comment, and the Rhetor shuffled through them with interest.

“I’m sorry,” Elena said to Apollo quietly as they slipped past more locks and into the city proper. “I didn’t want anyone to know that I was Venecchian nobility. That life is far behind me now.”

“I don’t begrudge you for wanting to put it behind you,” Master Apollo said evenly, “I only wonder why you kept it from us.”

Because I had no idea what excuse Emerald would need to use, Elena turned away, opting for silence in lieu of an answer that would only get her deeper in trouble.

“Fulvio works quickly,” Emerald said, handing the sheaf of papers to Elena. Elena shuffled through the papers, and Ele cursed as he read over her shoulder. One by one, pictures of the members of the Eye greeted her. On the final page, she herself was drawn with the new short-cropped hair that was supposed to have been her disguise.

“Wanted for the assassination of Lords and Ladies both Stormtouched and Mortalis, and for the attempted assassination of the King,” Ele read aloud. “There are rewards but no mention of whether they want you dead or alive.”

“That you have to ask the question means it answers itself,” Master Apollo said. “Admire your portraits later, you two, you’re missing the city.”

Elena glanced up and for the first time took in the city around them.

Instead of cobblestone streets, the fabled canals of Venecchi acted as a thoroughfare, with long lines of spring-boats moving back and forth through the water in place of a normal city’s carts and foot-traffic. On each side of the canals, small walkways allowed people to move from one building to another, and the effect made the “streets” seem even more crowded.

Between the sunk-down canals, the walkways for foot-traffic, and the tall buildings on either side, the city was much more closed in than Elena had imagined, but somehow it didn’t feel so cramped as to be uncomfortable.

“It’s beautiful,” Elena said, “but we have more important matters to devote our attention to.”

“Tracking down Marsillo probably won’t be hard,” Ele said, “he’s one of the most powerful banking families in Italoza, he needs to be available to leaders of commerce and rulers.”

“That doesn’t necessarily mean ‘available to us’,” Emerald pointed out, “luckily we each have skills we can use to get there. As soon as we dock, I can start asking around at the Venecchi castle. Elena, if you can get to work trying to think of the Twisted as ‘your group’ or perhaps parts of the city as ‘yours’ because you’re on them, Ele can be observant for you. Master Apollo, if you-“

Emerald suddenly went unnaturally quiet and very still in the middle of her sentence, and Elena pulled her attention from the city around them back to her immediate surroundings.

The rapier was a dull metal, non-descript and unornamented, a weapon made purely for utility. Its point rested gently in the hollow of Emerald’s throat, pressing just hard enough that it made a little divot in her skin. Master Apollo looked strange holding a rapier instead of a bow or stave, but his hand didn’t waver in the slightest, and the way he held it spoke of at least some expertise.

“Master Apollo,” Elena said quietly, slowly reached down to pick up the mallet that rested on the boat’s floor. “you’re drawing attention to us.” Indeed, the occupants of other boats passing along the canal craned their necks to follow the little scene.

“I know,” Master Apollo said, just as quietly, “and I’d draw even more attention if I opened her throat, so that’s why I’d like you both to listen.”

Fulvio? Or is it something else? Elena carefully adjusted her grip on the mallet, not taking her eyes off of the rapier’s tip.

“I don’t know if you really thought I’d believe the story about Venecchian nobility,” Master Apollo said, “or if you’ve forgotten that I’ve worked at the side of a Rhetor for most of my life. Either way, I don’t begrudge you. The remnants of the Eye and your group, Elena, have pledged to work together, and now isn’t the time to split us apart by telling you what a phenomenally bad idea it is to have her at your side.”

“You just mentioned Master Aphrodite,” Elena said, “doesn’t that make you a bit of a hypocrite?”

“The Guardhouse knows about Aphrodite,” Master Apollo shook his head, “they’ve spent years and years ensuring that it was safe to let her roam without her mask, and they still have safeguards in place just for her. You can’t imagine the power that a single unchecked Rhetor could wield over Italoza.”

“I can,” Elena thought of Lucrezia, “and I still choose to work with Emerald. I know for a fact that she won’t hurt me.”

“As I say, that is your right to believe,” Master Apollo said, “but she will not address any speech toward me directly. If she needs to speak to me, she can do so by telling someone else what she needs to say within earshot of me. I’m sorry that these are my conditions for being around her, but your group need to compromise as well.”

“Tell Master Apollo that I understand,” Emerald said, her words making the tip of the rapier move along with her throat, “I won’t speak to him directly.”

“Very good,” said Master Apollo. The rapier vanished as suddenly as it had appeared, and when the spring-boat turned the next corner there was no one the wiser to the small hostage display.

“Now, Elena, can we turn our attention to finding actual enemies?” Emerald asked. Elena nodded wordlessly. She could read Emerald’s expression, even though Emerald tried to hide it with the little barb.

The Rhetor would never hurt her, Elena still knew that for a fact. She was less sure about whether or not Emerald would hurt Master Apollo.

***

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