Blood Reckonings

Issue #201

“Is this really the best time to be robbing a tomb?” Aziz asked, following Beatriz through darkened streets as smoke from the riots in the Travestere District rose to efface the stars.

“Of course it is,” Abbess Beatriz said. The black enamel of her knight’s harness glittered in the torchlight as they marched past Imperial ruins which had been mined for their stones over the course of centuries. “The great families are keeping their guards close. So there’s no one left to guard the necropolis.” The satchel she bore slapped her hip with each stride, its weight reminding her of blood debts she meant to repay.

Aziz turned to Sister-Sergeant Holly, who lifted one of her pauldrons in a shrug. “She’s right,” Holly said. “The only creatures stirring on a night like this are grave robbers and wolves.”

“And which one of those are we?”

Both, of course, Beatriz thought. Aziz was a good man in a fight, but no one in the company she led chattered more than he did.

A shadow stirred near the necropolis gates, and Beatriz raised a hand, bringing their procession to a halt. Bows, blades, and halberds were readied, then lowered as the shadow resolved itself into Geert, the company’s lead scout.

“Your path to the mausoleum is clear,” he said, strolling into the torchlight.

“You’re sure?”

“Sure as death.”

Beatriz nodded and waved her escort forward. She had nine soldiers with her; enough to give rioters and other robbers pause. With any luck, they would make it to the Corvisi mausoleum without incident.

And once they had their prize... Beatriz patted her satchel, feeling the mirror within.

Then their force being so small would cease to matter.

The Corvisi mausoleum sat at the foot of the necropolis’s tallest hill, overshadowed by the tombs of older and more prominent families. Robed angels served as caryatids, supporting the mausoleum’s roof, and the bronze-plated doors were chained and bound with a massive padlock.

Beatriz rounded the hill, approached the doors, and nudged the padlock with her gauntlet. “This thing must be half rust now.”

Aziz grunted. “I don’t suppose you have a key?”

“No,” Beatriz said as Holly arranged their escort in a semicircle. “Something better.”

The hand mirror she produced from her satchel was strangely dull, its metal absorbing the light from their torches instead of reflecting it. After a heartbeat, ruddy glimmers emerged on the polished metal, but the reflected flames were tiny, drowning in a well of shadows.

A challenge for you, sister, Beatriz thought.

There was a gust of wind; the sound of beating wings.

And as the torches guttered and Holly swore at the men holding them, a voice very like her own echoed in Beatriz’s mind.

More interesting than the last one, I hope? Mazes are for children.

Beatriz didn’t dignify that with a reply.

Since we’re in a graveyard, I assume you didn’t call me because you’ve acquired some of the Red Pope’s blood.

Alas, no. Beatriz gestured with the mirror. You see the lock?

That tedious lump of corrosion?

Beyond it lies the tomb of Cardinal Alfonso Corviso.

Oh? The voice abandoned its detachment. The one who died in bed with two choirboys, a serving maid, and the niece of Pope Immaculate VII?

Just so. But Cardinal Corviso wasn’t only renowned for his venery. He also collected the feathers of Prodigals.

There was a silence. When the Prodigals fled Heaven for the Inferno, they’d fled in haste, leaving parts of themselves behind. The detritus of their passage was precious to collectors and sorcerers alike, both for its rarity and because it could be used to accomplish the impossible.

Like pulling your half-Prodigal sister through a mirror, Beatriz thought, and anchoring her to the world.

I would very much like to be real again. What do you need?

Reconnaissance. Advance warning of dangers, supernatural or otherwise. And a little help with the lock.

A faint breeze rose, like an exasperated breath, and the padlock began to vibrate. Motes of rust erupted from the keyhole, followed by larger and larger flakes until, with a loud report, the lock dropped open and the chains holding the door closed clattered to the ground.

“Subtle,” Aziz said, though no one but their escort was in earshot.

Two footmen and an archer muttered prayers or made the sign of the sun disc as Beatriz put her mirror away. “Quit your grumbling,” Holly snapped. “The Abbess has dispensation from the Pope himself to practice sorcery.”

“Which Pope is it this week?” Aziz asked. “The Red Pope, in Orval? Wait, no, we tried to kill him. Is it the Green Pope, in Courlais?”

Holly shot him a dirty look. “That would be His Holiness Benevolent XIV, raised to that office by the grace of God and the Council of Ryburg.”

“Ah, right. The Kunst Pope. How silly of me to forget.”

“Easy for you to make fun,” Holly growled. “Your holy city isn’t migratory.”

“Now, children,” Beatriz said, though she was barely a year their senior. “Save it for our enemies. Heaven knows we have a few.”

Geert cleared his throat. “Speaking of. I’ll take the archers and watch the approaches to this section.”

Beatriz raised her hand in benediction, and Geert vanished into the dark, followed by a pair of women with bows.

“Right,” Beatriz said, and wrenched the mausoleum’s doors wide. The last Corvisi burial had been a year before—a stillborn infant—and the family hadn’t sent servants to clean since then. Cobwebs hung from the granite and marble carvings that attested to the Corvisi family’s former greatness. The sepulchers of matriarchs, mayors, and lords of the church crowded against each other, carved with names known only to scholars. Beside them, on the walls and floors, bronze plaques memorialized children claimed by measles, the pox, and the plague.

“I’ll say this for you, Beatriz,” Aziz said as he followed her past a stone angel clutching a scythe. “You take us to the nicest places.”

“You liked being in Orval,” Holly said, as they rounded a corner and descended a flight of stairs.

“We left Orval with the Red Pope howling for our blood.”

“He wasn’t howling,” Holly said. “I mean. I’ll give you shouting. Screaming, even.”

“He was remarkably loud for a man who’d taken an arrow to the chest,” Beatriz said, slowing as she reached the foot of the stairs. A breath of air guided her down the left branch of a catacomb junction.

“In his defense,” Aziz said, “we had just burned down his palace, stolen his tiara, and killed his giraffe.”

“I couldn’t leave the poor beast to suffocate or burn to death,” Holly protested. “It was the humane thing to do.”

“Humane or not, it was the only giraffe on the continent,” Aziz said. “Your mercy hurt his prestige even more than handing over the tiara to the Green Pope.”

One of the soldiers behind them hawked and spat.

“That was not our finest hour,” Beatriz said. “Hold up. This should be it.”

The catacomb passage opened up into what looked like a buried church. A handful of rotting pews had been cleared into a corner, and a porphyry sarcophagus dominated what had once been the nave.

Holly whistled, the sound echoing from the vault’s ceiling. “Look at that. A tomb fit for an Emperor.”

“And an effective distraction,” Beatriz said, as a breeze guided her past the sarcophagus to a flagstone behind the altar. “Get me some light, will you?”

“Your wish is my command,” Aziz said, claiming a torch and illuminating the hole revealed by Beatriz shifting the stone. “Is that... a reliquary?”

“Not much to look at,” Holly said as Beatriz lifted the iron-bound coffer from where it had been concealed.

“You don’t keep a prize like this in a case of gold and ivory,” Beatriz said, drawing her dagger and prying open the coffer’s lock. “You hide it away and make it look like dross.”

She reached into the chest and plucked a single feather from its depths. Its quill was impossibly white, but its barbs were singed and melted, as if they’d been held in a candle flame. Though the feather was half the length of her hand, it felt as heavy as a cannonball. As Beatriz cradled it in her palm, she smelled scorched vellum; tasted ink and ashes.

It reminded her of home.

“Is that really a Prodigal’s pinion?” Holly asked as Beatriz placed it in her satchel.

“Oh yes,” Beatriz said as the shadows around her churned, threshed by immaterial wings. She could track her sister’s orbit through the burial chamber by the flickering of torches. “It is indeed.”

There were men waiting for them outside the mausoleum.

“Halt,” Beatriz commanded, stopping at the head of the stairs. The sour scent of sweat and leather wafted through the mausoleum, and torchlight danced on the walls and floor near its entrance. “We have company.”

“How much company?” Holly asked.

Sister?

Two score of ruffians scraped from the river district. Led by the red monk who’s been making a nuisance of himself ever since we left Orval.

“Forty-odd locals,” Beatriz said. “And our dear friend Brother Josef.” Any crossbows?

The crack of cables snapping and a howl of pain reached them from outside the mausoleum.

Not any more.

“Defensive positions on the steps,” Beatriz told Holly. “I’ll treat with Josef. Without crossbowmen, he’ll have to fight hand-to-hand, and his men won’t want that.”

Holly gestured, and the escort burst through the mausoleum doors, swords and halberds at the ready.

“Brother Josef,” Beatriz said, strolling out of the mausoleum. She smirked as Josef’s hirelings—three dozen of them, by her count—eyed her heavily-armed escort and murmured to each other. “How pleasant to see you again. In town for the riots?”

Brother Josef was a gaunt, tonsured figure, clad in a faded red-brown habit. A rosary hung from his belt, falling past his knees, and he clutched an iron-shod staff in one hand and a gilded sun-disc in the other.

“Judgment has come for you, blasphemer,” he said. “Divine justice—”

“Spare me the theatrics, heretic,” Beatriz said. “How much are you paying your thugs?”

Josef’s eyes reflected motes of torchlight. “The righteous need no pay to do God’s work!”

Beatriz surveyed Josef’s ragged band of brawlers. “Oh? Don’t tell me. You offered them indulgences. Clever.”

“Still your tongue, witch!”

“You’d have done better to pay in coin,” Beatriz continued. “Though I suppose you couldn’t afford it, with the riots going on. Too much to be made from looting the houses of tradesmen, or hiring on as guards. Or both.” She bared her teeth. “I’ll wager none of your lads has fought a foe wearing plate before.”

Sister, the voice in her head said. A half-dozen men in harness just passed the necropolis gates. Beatriz sighed inwardly. Of course. Where the Red Pope’s agents went, the Green Pope’s knights were sure to follow.

“So,” Beatriz said, addressing the darkness. “What brings the Order of the Sacred Heart to a godforsaken place like this?”

“You fool,” Josef sputtered. “Can you not recognize a Friar Major when you see one?”

“I wasn’t talking to you,” Beatriz said. The red monk and his men turned as the sound of boots on stone came from behind them. “Hail, Brother Zygmunt. I wasn’t sure you would make it.”

Six dismounted knights wearing the bloody heart of the Order emblazoned on their cloaks halted some yards behind Josef and his ruffians. “Wherever the forces of heresy fly,” their leader said, his voice ringing hollow from within his helm, “the righteous shall pursue—yea, unto the very maw of the Inferno.”

Josef spat on the ground. “Righteous? Don’t make me laugh. Do you know what your heresiarch’s favorite thief was doing here tonight?”

“Recovering a stolen relic for the Monastery Sant’Angelo,” Beatriz said.

“Grave-robbing!”

Beatriz shrugged. “‘In the eyes of the wicked, the most innocent act seems vicious.'”

Zygmunt’s closed helm turned towards Beatriz. “Shall we have the Mayor resolve this difference of opinion?” he asked impassively.

“I deny the authority of any temporal court!” Josef said, drowning out Beatriz’s reply.

“And you, Abbess?” Zygmunt inquired.

Beatriz gestured at the hellish glow to the north, where the Travestere still burned. “The civil authorities seem preoccupied. We are men and women of faith—surely we can reach an amicable resolution?”

“Surely,” Zygmunt deadpanned.

“Ignore the heretics!” Josef bellowed. “Kill the witch!”

“Your orders?” Holly asked as Josef’s minions began inching closer.

“Break through and return to the Cavalcanti compound. No needless deaths.”

“What about Brother Josef?” Aziz asked.

“Do you really have to ask?”

“It’s funny how many deaths—” Aziz paused to disarm an overeager goon, who Holly sent sprawling with the butt of her halberd. “—seem to be needful when you’re around.”

“Funny,” Beatriz said dryly. “Zygmunt! A little assistance, if you please?”

“Will you remand your prize to the care of His Holiness Quintus IX?”

“Not bloody likely!”

“Then I fear—” Zygmunt’s voice was drowned out by the clash of steel. “—my duty to confiscate any ill-gotten—”

“Can we kill him?” Aziz shouted as he knocked a thug’s sword out of the way and opened the man’s throat with the blade in his other hand.

“His father is the Elector of Ryburg, you nitwit!” Holly shouted back.

“I take it that’s a ‘no’?”

As Zygmunt and his knights waded into the melee, arrows began raining down on Josef and his goons. Men screamed and toppled as Geert and his archers, loosing from cover, feathered their legs and backs, and Beatriz saw a stray arrow carom off Zygmunt’s closed helmet.

Now would be a good time, sister, Beatriz thought. Or now. Or—

—now. Very droll. Nothing permanent?

Not unless you can boil Josef’s brain in his skull.

That would require him to have a brain.

Less jokes and more miracles, please.

The voice in Beatriz’s head made a rude noise, and darkness fell on the necropolis.

It descended with the sound of a hundred thousand wings and landed like a hammer. Beatriz and her escort were driven to their knees; Zygmunt and his knights were flung to the ground; Josef and his thugs were forced prone. Lanterns broke open, and torches were snuffed. And as the shroud lifted and Beatriz could stand again, she saw that clots of viscid midnight clung to the visors and faces of her foes.

“To the gates!” Beatriz shouted, using her battlefield voice to make sure Geert and his archers heard. Then she was running, with Holly, Aziz, and the rest of her escort close behind her.

“What was that?” Aziz panted as they made it past the necropolis gates and reunited with Geert.

“A miracle,” Holly declared, regarding each member of the escort in turn, as if daring them to contradict her.

“God’s aim could use some work,” Geert muttered, rubbing the side of his knee.

“Peace,” Beatriz said. “We have what we came for. Let’s get back to the Cavalcanti compound before we’re missed.”

By morning, the fires in the Travestere district had died down, leaving a pall of smoke hanging over the city. From the roof of the Cavalcanti gatehouse, Beatriz could see processions of professional mourners carrying merchants and petty nobles who’d been caught on the streets to the Basilica San Ascelino.

A cough drew her attention to the stairs. “Brother Zygmunt to see you, Abbess,” Holly said.

“Show him up,” Beatriz said, and leaned against a merlon in a calculated show of lethargy.

Zygmunt wore the upper half of his harness, paired with breeches cut in the Kunst fashion, and a sword that was more ceremonial than practical. He was freshly washed and shaved, with a nick on his chin and his muddy hair combed flat against his skull.

“Abbess Beatriz,” he said, doing her a courtesy.

“Brother Zygmunt,” Beatriz said, waving him over. “Are you here on Pope Quintus’s behalf? Or are you wearing a different hat today?”

Zygmunt coughed into his fist. “The Pope’s interest waned once Brother Josef fled town. Today I represent the Monastery Sant’Angelo.”

Beatriz regarded him for a heartbeat, then laughed aloud. “And you’ve come to buy the relic you tried to take by force last evening?”

Zygmunt spread his hands in a self-deprecating gesture.

“I will need confirmation, of course.”

He produced a sheaf of papers and seals, and waited as Beatriz paged through them.

“These appear to be in order,” Beatriz said at length. “On receipt of the promised funds by my bankers, I will deliver the Mirror of St. Ingrid to the Monastery’s bankers or designated representative.”

“Whereas I cannot order the release of those funds without inspecting the relic in question.”

“Of course,” Beatriz said. “Holly! Bring Brother Zygmunt the goods.”

Zygmunt winced. “Really, Beatriz. You make this sound so mercantile.”

“Money makes the world go ’round,” Beatriz said. “I’m sorry. Was that too worldly for you?”

“No,” Zygmunt said. “I know you don’t mean it. I’ve known corrupt churchmen in my day—the late Bishop of Ryburg, for one; the anti-pope squatting on the throne in Orval for another—and they spare no expense when it comes to their own comfort. But you?” He gestured at the barren rooftop and Beatriz’s armor. “You fight and kill for pay, and spend none of what you earn on yourself.”

“I have a very good chef,” Beatriz said. “And you haven’t seen my pavilion.”

“You should come back to Pope Quintus,” Zygmunt said.

“Quintus owes me four hundred thousand ducats.”

Zygmunt sighed. “For the tiara? It was his by right.”

“That,” Beatriz bit out, “is a matter of opinion.”

The silence lasted until Holly arrived with the mirror. With its purpose served, Beatriz had transplanted it into a gilded reliquary.   Once Zygmunt accepted it as genuine, affidavits to that effect—already drafted by Holly—were signed, sealed, and dispatched to bankers across the city.

“I’ve been meaning to ask,” Zygmunt said as he and Beatriz watched the last messenger leave the Cavalcanti compound. “Are you actually an abbess?”

“Of the Abbey of Holy Ashes, in Lute,” Beatriz said, and watched his face go pale.

“God have mercy,” Zygmunt said, making the sign of the sun disc. “I thought it was burned to the ground.”

“It was,” Beatriz said. “My sisters and I rebuilt it.” With blood, and steel, and gold.

Once Zygmunt took his leave, Beatriz headed to her study and locked the door. Picking up the feather she’d taken from the Corvisi mausoleum, she weighed it in her hand. Such a tiny thing, to be freighted with so much weight it could bend the world with its passing.

Like a name or a title, her sister said. Prodigal. Abbess. Pope.

Beatriz shivered. If she closed her eyes, she would see the Abbey burning—the cloister in flames; Sister Cloud leaping from the library tower; Novice Emmeline and Novice Scheldt lying on the grass with their throats slit. The Red Pope’s men had been thorough. No one but Holly had escaped the flames and their blades.

They’d tried to kill Holly too, before Beatriz had drowned them in their own blood.

We should have cornered the Red Pope and killed him while we had the chance.

His turn will come. Come the day—

Come the day. Beatriz clutched the feather to her chest, careful not to think of how many soldiers she would need in order to overthrow a pope, and how much it would cost to hire them.

It was going to take more gold than one mercenary company could earn in a lifetime.

It was going to take a miracle.

We specialize in miracles, her sister whispered.

And as the room’s shadows seethed with wings, Beatriz allowed herself to smile.


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Alec Austin enjoys fantasy fiction which draws on the complexity of real history. He's a game designer, media scholar, former nuclear reactor operator, and an alumnus of Clarion West and Viable Paradise. Alec's prior work has appeared in Analog, Strange Horizons, multiple times in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and other venues. He's @AlecAustin on Twitter.

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