This is a VERY VERY rough draft. PLEASE forgive all the terrible Italian, etc. that will be corrected further down the road by betas and such. There are probably also brackets where I haven't come up with names because A) Italian/Japanese is too hard for me to figure out on my own or b) I haven't decided what to go with yet. There are also typos, inconsistencies, etc etc.
I also have about 3k+ written on the next Anti-Heroes story, about Byron and Leland, but that's for my Patreon ^^
This is the prologue and first chapter. I hope peeps enjoy!
The House of Ferro has dominated the city-state of Verona since its creation, made mighty by their iron magic, financial acumen, and ties to the royal throne. The House of Ishikawa arrived on Verona's shores a few years later, powerful and wealthy merchants by way of their rare, priceless water magic. A short time later, murder and vengeance exploded into a feud that has lasted more than a hundred years—and by decree of Prince Hardegin, will end now or else.
Royal decrees cannot so easily quell generations of hate and bloodshed, however—but ancient feuds cannot always stop love. Determined to be together, young Ferro Carac and Ishikawa Arata determine to run away and leave their families behind. But on the night they leave, Arata is murdered, and Carac is wrongfully blamed for it, betrayed by everyone he trusted.
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
― William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
Carac waited until he was absolutely certain the entire household slept, save the guards, who'd reduced their patrol to one while the rest of them played cards. If his father found out, he'd have them all whipped and thrown out. But Carac certainly wasn't going to be the one to tattle.
And soon, he'd never have to see this horrid place ever again. Soon, he'd be far, far away, on a boat with Arata off to see the world. No more feuding, no more blood, no more of this rotten city he never wanted to see again.
When he was certain it was safe, and the guard on patrol was on the far side of the house grounds, he threw his pack out the window, then swung out to the rough, ivy-strewn walls and carefully made his way to the ground.
Stifling an excited cheer as he made it, he scooped up his pack, slung it over his shoulders, and darted off through the garden. Ignoring the creaky gate, he squirmed under the stone wall by way of a tunnel he'd been carefully digging for the past few weeks. Like the guards, the gardeners only did the work they couldn't avoid, and neglected everything else.
He couldn't help a giggle as he climbed to his feet and brushed dirt from his clothes. Giving the house a final look, he turned away and ran off through the dark, quiet streets .
On the corner, a short figure bounced. in place to stay warm against the cold, holding the reins of two horses, their breaths coming out in clouds of mist. Reaching them, Carac greeted quietly, but breathlessly, "Brom! You made it."
"Course I made it," Brom said. "Said I would. Here's your horses, too."
Carac hugged him tightly. "I don't know what I would have done without you. I'll write you all the time, Brom." He shoved a small purse of coins into Brom's hands. "Here's to cover the cost of them. I hope you don't get into too much trouble."
Brom rolled his eyes, but took the money. "Papa won't mind I sold these old nags. You ready?"
"Yes! Let's go."
Smiling, Brom handed off the reins of one of the horses, and they walked together through the quiet streets until they reached the tavern where Carac and Arata had met up a few times a month. When they were unable to go anywhere else, they could always count on this place to have a table where they could drink sake and eat dumplings and simply be.
No family. No fighting. No worrying or secrecy.
His heart pounding so loud it drowned out the rest of the world, Carac looked anxiously around the yard in front of the tavern—and there, still wearing his jinbei and raised sandals, his long, night-dark hair pulled loosely back and held in place with sticks, was Arata. He also had a fresh bandage around one forearm, making Carac frown. Had his family bled him again? Why couldn't they just let his magia come when it would? But he didn't seem too pale, so Carac shoved that worry aside for later. It didn't matter anymore, anyway. They were going away, to be together, to be free.
Letting go of the reins of his horse, Carac rushed across the yard and swept him up, laughing in delight. "We're finally going to be free!" He kissed Arata soundly, smothering his answering laugh, then finally drew back. "I was worried you wouldn't be able to get away."
Arata shrugged. "Me too, but then an emergency commission came in and Mother had to pull the rest of the family to blood thirty amulets to be ready by morning. Nobody missed me, except that I'm still useless when it comes to blooding." He grimaced. "Not that they don't try."
Carac frowned at how tired he looked—and up close, he was also paler than he'd seemed before. "Are you all right?" He reached up to cup Arata's cheek. "How badly did they bleed you?"
Turning his head, Arata softly kissed the palm of Carac's hand. "I'm fine. We'll get to the coast tonight, and then I can rest all I like. You can spoil me rotten until my blood is restored, and then we can go anywhere we want."
"Anywhere we want," Carac echoed softly, scarcely daring to really believe this was happening. He kissed Arata again, enjoying the flavor of plum wine that lingered in his mouth, a fading hint of the fragrant, herb-rich pasta he must have had for dinner. "I love you."
Arata twined around him, his dark brown eyes shiny. "I love you more."
"Impossible," Carac said, pressing their temples together, heart fit to burst.
Behind them, Brom coughed quietly. "You should probably be on your way; it's only luck no one has noticed either of you is missing and raised a cry."
"Brom, domo for everything." Arata hugged him tightly. "We couldn't have done this without you. I promise if we can ever repay the favor, you've only to contact us—and we'll send you that information the moment we have it."
Smiling, Brom gripped their shoulders and shook them gently. "I know. Get on, now."
Carac gave him one last hug, then took hold of Arata's hand and led him to the horses. He was just about to mount when the smell of steaming buns reminded him. "Hold on real quick! I was going to buy us some buns for the road."
Old man Janshai kept his tavern open at all hours, so those who worked early and late would always have somewhere to eat. During the day, his children and in-laws ran it, but in the quiet hours it was just Janshai, occasionally the old woman down the road that he kept company with.
Darting inside, Carac pulled out coins as he approached the counter. On the other side of it, Janshai was already pulling freshly steamed buns out of the reed steamers and packaging them up. "Saw you out there, though you might be coming this way," Janshai said, and took a pull on his long pipe, the fragrant smoke wafting through the tavern, as ingrained as the smells of buns, beer, and saké.
"Domo, Janshai-san." Carac slid two coins across the counter, nearly double what the buns cost. "I hope you have a quiet night."
"Ciao, Cara-don." Janshai lifted a hand, then went to work folding more dumplings and placing them in steamers.
Carac carried his package outside and tucked it into the saddlebag of his horse. With a last wave to Brom, he led the way out of the courtyard, reluctant to mount and ride until they were further from the city and the noise wouldn't draw as much attention. Horses plodding along in the night were one thing—farmers arriving late to attend markets in the morning, merchants going to and fro.
But riding was largely done only by nobili, and people would remember that.
They hadn't gone far when a figure darted out of a dark, narrow alley. The heavy tang of old, bad iron shivered through Carac's blood. "Ciao, Tani-san."
The stranger didn't reply, save to lunge forward. Carac's blood was all the warning he had before he saw the blade, and he flung himself out of the way. The blade sank into the chest of his horse, which screamed and reared up. Carac threw himself out of the way of its hooves—but that gave the stranger time to attack him again.
Carac threw up his hands in a panic, and screamed as the blade plunged through his palm.
His blood sang with the feel of iron and burned hot.
The man turned away as Arata bellowed and tackled him, sending them both to the stone-paved road with pained cries.
Choking back bile, Carac grabbed the hilt of the blade in his palm, braced himself, and yanked it out with another scream.
It was a mano sinistra—a bad one. But a bad blade was still a blade, as his father loved to say.
Carac was a Ferro, however, and there was no such thing as a bad blade in a Ferro hand. Summoning all his magia, fledgling but strong, Carac expunged the impurities and hardened the iron, sharpening it as best as magia permitted.
His nose dripped blood as he surged forward—just as the attacker threw off Arata and started to stand.
Bellowing, Carac slammed into him and thrust the dagger downward. It took the man's finger off right at the bottom and punched into his shoulder.
Then the man bucked him off and came up swinging with his good hand, slamming a fist into Carac's face, shattering his nose and sending him toppling from surprise and pain.
Voices filled the street, and the man rose and ran off. On the street, Carac could see his severed finger lying in a pool of blood.
Arata. Where was Arata?
Carac looked jerkily around, and let out a sigh of relief as he saw Arata lying nearby. "Arata!" He swooped in and turned him around—and wailed. "No, Arata! Arata!" But no matter how many times he sobbed Arata's name, the eyes remained dull, the body too heavy and still. "No, no, no…" Carac cupped Arata's cheek with his bloody hand, sobbing so hard he started coughing.
Rough hands grabbed him, dragged him away even as he kicked and fought to get back to Arata. To wake him up. To make sure he'd be all right. Alive. He wasn't dead, he wasn't wasn't wasn't. They were going away. They were going to be free. Together. Happy.
Someone wrapped him up in a heavy cloak and threw him over their shoulder, and Carac finally threw up as pain and grief and overtaxing himself finally won out. The man carrying him swore but didn't stop walking.
They traveled through the streets, but it was too dark for Carac to see who was there, though he thought he heard his mother's voice. And now he could smell anise, which mean it was probably his father carrying him. He was the only one big enough to do it, other than a few of the guards.
Eventually, finally, the movement stopped and he was set on his feet and unwrapped. His mother stood in front of him.
"Mama," Carac sobbed. "Arata—is Arata—"
"That's enough!" a voice bellowed out, making even his mother jump.
Carac tried to stifle his tears as Prince Hardegin stormed across the room, and all the angry voices abruptly cut off.
Behind him was a tall, spindly man dressed in the ponderous robes of a judge, with the three gold dots painted on his forehead that marked him the Grand Judge of Verona. He was grim-faced as he took in the room, hard, dark eyes finally settling on Carac.
"What is going on here?" Hardegin demanded, looking over Carac, his parents, Arata's family, and all the way at the back were Brom and Janshai. He glanced back at Carac, the lines of his deepening.
Then he turned sharply away and looked to the couple crying quietly over what must be Arata's draped body. "Ishikawa-don, Izumi-donna, is it true your son is dead?"
"Yes," Izumi hissed. "That Ferro whelp killed him in a street fight!"
"No, I didn't!" Carac bellowed. "I love Arata. We're going to run away! That man from the alley killed him! I cut off his finger! I didn't—"
The sound of the slap made more than a few people gasp.
Carac stared in disbelief at his mother. "Mama—"
"Not another word out of you," she hissed. "You've caused enough harm for one night."
"But I didn't it," Carac sobbed out. "We were going to run away. That man attacked us. He had bad iron in his mano sinistra. I-I-I purged the blade and hardened it, and cut off his finger before putting it in his shoulder. I didn't kill Arata! I love him!" He whipped around, starring at the back of the courthouse hall they were in. "Brom! Tell them!"
Everyone turned to face Brom, and Hardegin motioned for him to speak.
"Principe, he asked me to bring two horses tonight at the Neko Tavern. I brought two old nags my father would be glad to see gone, and he paid me for them. I was leaving when I heard the commotion. That's all I know." He bowed low to Hardegin.
"What—" Carac stared, horrified. Confused. "That's not true! You walked with me to the tavern! You knew I was running away! You—" His mother slapped him again, and Carac dropped to the floor sobbing.
"Grandpa-san," Hardegin said to Janshai. "What can you tell us?"
Carac looked up hopefully.
"Principe, I wish I could offer more help, but I'm only an old bun-maker. Ferro-don came in to buy some buns, and then went on his way. He does so often, but I've never paid any mind to what else he does."
"Domo." Hardegin turned to Carac. "Your story has fallen apart. Best to tell the truth."
Carac swallowed. "By the Flame in my blood, Principe, I have told the truth. They are lying."
"Enough," his mother hissed. "Principe, I cannot apologize enough for this. We have abided by your edict. I did not know the boy was carrying on, else I would have put an end to it."
"Apologies grew wearisome a long time ago, Kattali-donna," Hardegin said. "Apologies do not bring back the dead boy. Do better than apologies."
"Kattalin," his father said quietly, and she shared a brief look with him before stepping back and bowing her head.
Carac's heart sank further.
Hardegin looked at Carac's father. "You have something to say that you think might keep your family from having their heads removed, Ferro-don?"
"Nothing I do will bring their son back," Ferro said. "But we had no knowledge of this. We do not condone it. We have abided by your edict, Principe. If Carac cannot do the same, then he is no longer a part of this family. I renounce him and cast him out. He is yours to do as you see fit."
Carac stared at his parents, but they turned their backs. Brom and Janshai were gone. The Ishikawa family looked both anguished and smug.
Numbness spread through Carac, drying up his tears. No one believed him. His best friend had lied. Betrayed him. Janshai… he'd helped Janshai a thousand times, washing dishes and disposing of the trash, running out troublesome customers. And he'd betrayed Carac, too.
Even his own family would not listen to him.
He went without resistance as he was hauled to his feet by Hardegin and stood in front of the judge.
"Gorvenal-giudice, I entrust you with his sentencing. He is guilty of murder and flagrantly disobeying a royal edict."
Gorvenal looked like he wished he was anywhere else in the world, but he drew himself up and stared sternly at Carac. His dark eyes seemed to explore every scrap of Carac, from his broken nose to the blood smeared down his shirt, and the wounded hand he held cradled against his chest.
He then looked to Hardegin. "With respect, Principe, I do not like this sentencing without trial."
"I have already made that decision," Hardegin said. "Stop cowering and do your job, please."
Mouth flattening, Gorvenal gave a terse nod and said, "Cara-don, for the crimes of defying a royal edict and murder of intent, I sentence you to twenty years incarceration on the Isola del Tasso. May the Gods have mercy on your soul."
Gasps and shouts and protests filled the room, but Hardegin lifted a hand to silence them. "The sentence has been made, and it's just. Ferro-don, you will pay the morning costs. You are both dismissed. Ishikawa-donni, please come with me." He motioned to a guard standing at the fringes to take the body away.
Carac watched as Arata vanished through the door, gone forever now. Tears wanted out, but he still couldn't cry them.
"Do you have anything to say for yourself?" Hardegin asked.
Carac met his eyes and said quietly, "Everything I said tonight is true."
Looking disgusted and disappointed, Hardegin motioned to more guards. "Take him away. Lock him up until a boat arrives that can carry him to Tasso. I hope while you are locked up, Cara-don, that you have the sense to mature and learn from your mistakes. There is no life for you left here in Verona, but you could rebuild somewhere else if you can learn to be a better, more honorable and noble man."
Carac said nothing, only went quietly as the guards hauled him away.
But his mind burned with thoughts the way his blood burned for iron.
Thoughts of Arata, so loving and warm a short time ago, now stiff and cold. Murdered by a brigand for money that Carac would have handed over without protest.
Thoughts of his mother; his father; Brom; Janshai; Gorvenal; Hardegin; that murderous thief.
Thoughts of revenge.
"Peace? I hate the word as I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee."
― William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
Naoki called for another bottle of sake and drained the last sip from his cup. Around him, the bar was fairly quiet—but it usually was, just one of the reasons he favored it. If he was anywhere else in Verona, there'd be people clamoring to congratulate him, or start a fight to save Selinah from him. Nevermind he was the one who needed saving from her.
One of the barmaids brought his sake, offering an inviting smile as she set it on the table. Naoki smiled back, but shook his head slightly. Even if he'd felt like tumbling in a back room, he was so drunk he'd only embarrass himself.
He poured a fresh cup and sipped. One of the other reasons he liked this place was they made their own sake—a pleasant hanjozo style that was easy to drink throughout a whole evening. Or afternoon and evening, as Naoki preferred.
Something else he'd never get away with in any other bar. But this one was located well outside the main parts of the city, on a tiny scrap of island that was more dump and crabs than viable land like the rest of the islands. The gondolas wouldn't even come out this far; the only way to it was a rickety bridge or a brisk swim—and only a fool swam in waters with nightshade eels.
Naoki finished off a bite of fried octopus and chased it with sake. Before he could ask for more octopus as he should have when he ordered the sake, a different barmaid arrived with it. "Dōmo, bella."
She scoffed and bustled off. Naoki went back to eating and drinking, idly watching the rest of the bars' few patrons. He should be at home, and he'd get a blistering earful from his stepmother when he did stumble in, but he had every intention of passing out in a ditch first. Or getting arrested for public intoxication. All things considered, the city jail had relatively comfy beds.
A couple of the bar workers gave him looks, whispering amongst themselves. They must be new, to worry about what this drunk don in their midst might do. The proprietor didn't even spare him a glance anymore, not when Naoki kept a full account and was generous with his tips.
Or, more likely, he'd taken one look at the scars on Naoki's arms and decided it didn't matter whether he was a problem or not—nobody was going to trifle with or impede a stregone dell'acqua. His blood spilled on a ship guaranteed safer travel, and the very presence of his family in Verona ensured it would never suffer the brutalities of the ocean the way other islands did.
So even a drunk like Naoki wasn't likely to get thrown out for anything less than murder—and then only if the corpse had been someone important. Or a Ferro. Naoki's lips curled, but the reaction was habit. Ishikawa hated Ferro the way water hated fire. Almost literally, given the Ferro were aptly named stregoni di ferro.
When he bothered to push past habit, all he really felt was a dull, tired indifference. Hate was exhausting, and the long-running feud had already taken his little brother.
And "resolving" it once and for all was going to cost him his life. Figuratively and probably literally. Carac had killed Asata, and Selinah was a nasty little malmignatta.
But given how Naoki's stepmother, Izumi, ranted at him and beat him as often as she could get away with, she was probably counting on Selinah making herself a widow. She'd never forgiven the world for taking Asata instead of one of her stepchildren.
The only thing Naoki and his stepmother agreed on was that the world would burn before they let any harm come to Haru, the youngest Nishikawa and the only one who wasn't a complete and total bastard.
As though summoned by Naoki's thoughts, Haru stepped through the half-heartedly curtained door and glanced around, a hopeful look on her face. She had Izumi's breathtaking looks, with the moon-pale skin Izumi never let be touched by the sun, large eyes the soft, silvery blue of the ocean in the early morning, fine-boned features that seemed rendered by an artist's brush, and hair the fine blue-black that could go for five yinn a measure.
Naoki was nothing like Haru, or even like their sister Mineko, who were nearly comparable in beauty. No, Naoki took after his mother, Chouko, plain of face, with darker-than-fashionable skin, and hair that was a dark, muddy reddish-brown and dull brown eyes to match. Just one of his many failings.
Haru's gaze finally found him, and her hope turned to relief and disappointment.
"Go away," Naoki said as Haru reached his table.
"Ciao," Haru said dryly, starring down at him. "It's well past halfnight."
Naoki lifted his cup in a toast and threw back the sake. "Time aplenty left for drinking, then." He ate more octopus and chased it with more of the light, dry and fragrant sake.
Haru's disappointment grew, pinching her face and putting lines around her eyes. Naoki was inured to such looks, though, even from Haru. He'd been the family disappointment and embarrassment all his life. He was a handy pawn, that was it. Haru and Mineko were the ones that really mattered.
"Mother ordered me to find you and drag you home. She wants you sober and rested in time for the betrothal ball."
Naoki laughed. "She wants me sober and rested by the day after tomorrow?" He drank more sake. "She wants in vain. I intend to be neither, and even that hag won't prevent me."
Haru looked pained at his word choice, but only said, "Come on, Naoki. Don't be like this. It's—"
"If you say 'it's an honor' I will break this bottle over your head and continue drinking while you lay on the floor like a slapped fish."
Haru huffed, but said nothing.
Naoki went back to drinking. He hadn't shown up to a single important function in the past ten years, and he saw no reason to break with tradition now. Given his betrothed, all the more reason to stay drunk.
"Please, Naoki," Haru said after several minutes. Her voice was soft, pleading, and when Naoki looked up all the alcohol in Verona could not banish the fear that was in Haru's eyes. "Mama has been angry all night, and the longer we take the angrier she's going to get."
Biting back the bitter retort on his lips, Naoki finished off his sake and threw coins on the table for the barmaids who'd served him all night. He swayed and wobbled as he heaved to his feet, knocking askew the cushion he'd been sitting on.
Haru caught him before he could slam into the floor, heaving a long sigh as she slid an arm around Naoki's waist and dragged one of Naoki's over her shoulders. "You're going to put yourself in an early grave."
"By marrying that spider? Yes! Finally someone agrees with me."
"By drinking like this almost every single day."
"I should be so lucky," Naoki said.
Haru sighed again.
They slowly made their way out of the bar, the world dully and fuzzy, all its sharp edges taken away by sake. Naoki hated when the edges returned; all they did was make him bleed—for ships, for amulets, for family, for country. Everybody wanted a piece of him, and no one cared about the damage all their hacking did.
All around them insects buzzed and chirped, their chorus punctuated by the eerie tune of songfish and the splashing of much larger creatures. The air smelled of salt and smoke, pleasantly cool on his overheated face.
The only thing ruining it was Haru and his oppressive silence. "Spit it out, whatever you're stewing on. You're dithering is interfering with my drunk."
"I wish you'd stop drinking."
"I wish I wasn't getting married. I wish Arata was still alive. Wishing doesn't go very far in life, Haru. If you want something it, you must earn it, buy it, or steal it."
Haru just sighed again.
"Oh, leave off, old woman. At least I'll soon no longer be your problem." Their father was giving the newlyweds a beautiful villa in the heart of the city's main island, only a short ride from the Ishikawa house and a slightly longer one from the Ferro house. No one had shut up about Ishikawa-don's generosity.
But that was only because no one knew the things Naoki's did. His father wasn't quite as evil as his stepmother, but only in that an octopus was not much like a squid. The differences mattered to very few, and not everyone could tell you what the differences were.
He shoved away from Haru, stumbling a few paces before finally gaining his balance, and began to sing a fishing song horribly offkey.
"Oi, oi, Naoki!" Haru jabbed him in the ribs. "It's late! You'll bother people."
"Out here? I'll bother some fish, maybe." He pulled away from Haru's sharp fingers and resumed singing. "Oooone fish for a yinn, one kiss for a yinn, and for the miss one fuck—"
"I told you—"
It was the terror in her voice that finally registered. Naoki turned to face her, then turned again, nearly toppling, to follow where she stared.
A figure had slunk out of the cluster of rocks and scrubby trees, dressed in dark clothes with something wrapped around most of his face. "Ciao, Tani-don, bella-donna."
Naoki moved to stand in front of Haru. "We want no trouble. We're just trying to go home." He reached inside his jinbei and drew out his few remaining coins. He tossed them at the bandit's feet. "Take it and go."
"I think you've got more to offer than that," the thief said, and brandished a long knife.
Despite the years that had passed, the number of fools that had accosted him as he ambled his drunken way home, Naoki never stopped being terrified of bandits with knives. He'd long ago started leaving his rapier at home because having it drew more trouble than not having it, but that came with its own risks.
Was this the night he'd end up like Arata? A knife in his gut, his blood soaked into the ground? Better him than Haru. Hopefully she'd get a chance to run for safety.
"I spent it all on booze," Naoki said. "What I gave you is all I have left. Just let us go. What good will come from hurting us?"
"One less of you nobile around, for starts. The bella-donna—"
"Do not finish that sentence," Naoki hissed.
Behind him, Haru pressed close, trembling against his back—and pressed something into his hand. A dagger. It wasn't much, but it was better than nothing.
But Naoki had one more thing left to try. "Do you know who you're messing with?"
"Do I care? One nobile is much like another."
"Even if they're a Stregone dell'acqua?"
The man laughed. "I still don't care. Remove your clothes."
Naoki nudged Haru slightly, hoping she understood it was time for her to run. "Eat my ass, harbor corpse." He lunged, thrusting the knife forward, sending the man reeling back in shock.
Haru ran, screaming for all she was worth to hopefully draw attention—or at least convince the bandit that might be a problem.
He'd just dodged a counter parry when Haru's screams abruptly cut off, and a new voice joined the night. Both Naoki and the bandit looked where she had run, and stared at the man holding her.
It was far too dark, and Naoki entirely too drunk, for him to make out details. But the man didn't need details to be imposing. He was tall, with shoulders that spanned for leagues, long hair that fell around him in unfashionably plain waves.
"Who the fuck are you, Tani-san?" the bandit snarled.
The man gently set Haru aside, then smoothly drew the sword at his hip—a beautifully wrought rapier from the way it handled, even in the weak moonlight. "I suggest you depart, sir, before your night takes an unpleasant turn."
The bandit hesitated a moment, then snarled several curses, scooped up the coins on the ground, and fled into the scrub and rocks from which he'd come.
Naoki relaxed his stance, but kept the dagger ready. "I'm grateful for the help, but who are you, Tani-san?"
"Shall we wait until we're somewhere safe for introductions?" the man replied. "Or at least back across that sad excuse of a bridge?"
Despite everything, Naoki laughed. "As you wish." He beckoned to Haru, who returned to his side, straightening her skirt and the yukata-style jacket she'd put over it. Naoki reached up and pulled the ornate jade and pearl comb from her hair, caught up the strands that had come loose, twisted them back into place and pushed the comb back into place. "Gomen, caro."
"Let's just go home," Haru replied, but squeezed his hand and tangled their fingers together.
The man swept them an elegant bow, then walked ahead of them across the sandy island and over an arching bridge that was probably one more storm away from collapsing. When he was alone, Naoki didn't even bother with it. He stripped, swam the distance, and then put his clothes back on. What was the point in being a stregone dell'acqua otherwise?
Thankfully, they made it across the bridge without incident, and finally came to a stop in a small square, in front of a water fountain framed by lanterns sustained by magia del fuoco.
Haru drew a sharp breath, and Naoki blinked at her flushed face before finally turning to look at the stranger.
He was undeniably handsome, but Naoki was too exhausted and fuzzy-headed to much care. "Domo again for the rescue."
"It is my honor to be of service," the man replied. "I am Amore Dante, Count of Esposito, newly arrived in Verona in hopes of making it a home. I was doing a bit of ill-advised exploring when I came up you."
Naoki laughed. "So perhaps not entirely ill-advised. He swept as good a bow as he could manage without falling over because of his spinning head. "I am Ishikawa Naoki, and this is my sister, Haru."
"An honor to make your esteemed acquaintance," Amore replied.
"Not all that esteemed," Naoki said, then grunted when Haru kicked his ankle.
Beaming at Amore, Haru said, "You must let us repay you, Amore-don."
"That's not necessary, not for doing what anyone would."
Naoki was fairly certain most people would pretend they hadn't heard or seen anything, but a sharp elbow kept him from saying so. Ignoring the pointed look Haru was giving him, he said, "What drew you to Verona? We are not the most interesting city in the empire, not even close."
"Interesting is in the eye of the beholder," Amore replied with a smile that caused Haru to make a funny noise.
"We insist," Haru said. "My brother's betrothal ball is tomorrow; you should come as our guest. We can introduce you to practically the whole city."
Amore held up his hands, sending his stupidly long hair tumbling about. "I would never intrude on such an important occasion. That is a time for—"
"It's Verona," Naoki interrupted, smiling wryly. "Trust me, there will be at least twice the number of people we actually invited. If not, my mother will be highly offended. There's no better time or place to meet Verona than at one of our bloated parties. You probably saved our lives tonight; you must be our guest. It's the very least we can do, please."
"As you wish, then," Amore replied. "I would be honored to attend. Congratulations on your pending nuptials. Were you out celebrating tonight?"
"Something like that," Naoki said.
Haru clucked, but didn't otherwise comment. "Do you live nearby, Amore-don?"
"I am renting rooms at the Golden Chalice."
"That is close to our home. Let us all walk together, then."
"As milady desires," Amore replied, and offered his arm to a delighted-looking Haru.
Naoki was more than happy to trail behind them and roll his eyes at her flirting. With a near-stranger. In the dead of night. After being accosted by a bandit. Oceana save the Ishikawa from themselves.
He tucked the dagger he still carried into the sash of his jinshei, shivering as the warm buzz of alcohol faded enough the chill of the night became impossible to ignore. Thankfully he'd worn slippers instead of raised sandals, anticipating having to sneak into the house so his stepmother wouldn't know exactly what time he tipped into bed. Not that it really mattered, but he liked frustrating her, and she liked all the details she could gather.
Despite protestations, Amore insisted on walking them all the way to their front door, where he gave another gallant bow and a ridiculous kiss to Haru's knuckles. What sort of continental nonsense was that? Ugh, he hated gaijin.
Then Amore turned to him, and bowed his head. "Ishikawa-don, an honor to meet you. I look forward to seeing you both again tomorrow. Sleep well."
"Dream pleasantly," Naoki replied reflexively. He watched until Amore was out of sight, then followed Haru into the house. "Hussy."
Haru rolled her eyes.
Naoki grinned. "I thought you knew how to be subtle."
"Subtlety is lost on men. If you were sober enough to see him properly, you wouldn't have bothered to be subtle either. I've never been so happy to be an old maid."
"Ugh, don't remind me," Naoki replied. "I'm going to bed before the hag finds me. Goodnight, old maid."
Haru kissed his cheek. "Stop drinking so much, please?"
"I'll try," Naoki said, and kissed her cheek in turn. He pulled the dagger from his sash and handed it over. "Here. Next time, carry a sword."
"Mother would have noticed that. It was hard enough sneaking out of the house to find you as was."
"You shouldn't have snuck out at all. I always come home eventually."
"We were worried you'd wind up locked up again."
"That hasn't happened in weeks. I do intend to show up to the stupid ball, you know."
Haru frowned. "Yes, but how much of it will you remember?"
"Hopefully? None of it." Naoki hugged her tightly, then shoved her lightly away. "Worry about yourself, not this lost cause. And don't come looking for me again. Next time, some stupid, handsome count might not come to our rescue."
Haru rolled her eyes and headed off in the direction of the kitchen.
Naoki sighed and headed through the house to his room at the back, attached to a private garden that had a small pond of ocean water so he could practice his magia whenever he liked.
He pushed the door open, then slid it shut behind him before stripping out of his clothes. Leaving them in a pile by the door to deal with later, he went to the chamber pot to take a piss, then used the soap and water someone had left out to clean up. Coming his hair out, he swiftly braided the heavy mass back and tied the end securely. Then he knelt, opened the secret compartment in the floor, and pulled out one of the bottles of wine he kept there. Not as good as sake, but contraband was contraband. He took what he could take.
Pulling the cork out, he crawled over to his bed, settled in the middle of it, and drank straight from the bottle, sighing as the dull, fuzzy warmth steadily returned. When the room was spinning and his head insisted he'd had enough, Naoki set the half-empty bottle aside, fell over in bed, and pulled the blanket up.
Across the hall, he could hear Haru preparing for bed, humming softly as she paid way more care to her hair and clothes than Naoki could ever be bothered. Beyond the house, he could hear the sea, feel the pulse of it in his blood, moving in time with his heart. Sinking into the sensation, soothed and steadied by it, Naoki slowly drifted off to sleep.
Sadon paced around the small clearing, nearly whacking his head on the bit of rock that jutted out from one of the many towering stones that formed a loose circle. Where was the bastardo? He was late. Sadon didn't have all day. Night. Morning. Whatever the Sun it was.
Bastardo. He'd let the matter draw out far too long. That spoiled brat had almost knifed him! He wasn't getting paid to be a pincushion for a whiny, drunken stregone and his Contessina.
He came to a stop in the middle of the clearing, swearing softly. Honestly, how much longer was this going to take? He'd done his part—and quite well, in fact—and he shouldn't have to wait around to get paid.
But he needed the money badly enough he had no choice. Sighing, Sadon went over to the rock where he'd left his satchel and the scarf he'd worn to hide his face, and sat down. He curled and uncurled left hand, trying to ease the phantom ache in a finger he hadn't had for fifteen years. Speaking of bastardo and stregone, that little vermin never should have been able to slice through a finger so easily, but a blade in the hand of a stregone ferro…
Sadon shook his head sharply, banishing the old memories. If only he still earned that kind of money. At least he was earning something tonight.
The sound of boots scuffing on dirt jerked him to his feet, and he snatched up the dagger set amidst his belongings.
Then a familiar figure stepped into view, just barely identifiable in the moonlight, and Sadon relaxed. "It took you long enough, sigorne. Where's my money?" He tensed as the man drew close without saying a word. "You'd better not be trying to cheat me; I'll gut you like a fish in a kitchen."
"I have no intention of cheating you," the man replied, lifting his hands.
Sadon didn't relax. "Let's see the money."
"Oh, I don't intend on paying you, either." The man rushed him, grabbed Sadon's wrist, and spun him around, pinning his arm to his back.
"Bastardo," Sadon hissed. "I did the job! I did exactly what you wanted, and that little Contessina panted over you just like you were probably hoping."
"I've no complaints on your performance," the man replied—then slammed something heavy down on his head, muffling Sadon's scream with his hand.
Sadon was still screaming when the bastard broke his arm, then dumped him on the ground to lean against the rocks. He picked up the dagger Sadon had dropped, then crouched in front of him. The cheap knife gleamed and shimmered with yellow-orange light. A stone dropped into Sadon's stomach. He'd seen that very color, that very shade, only once before. Only powerful stregone had magia that manifested in such a way. "You…"
"Oh, you recognize me now," the man said, chuckling low.
Blood dripped into Sadon's eye, and his arm hurt badly enough he struggled not to puke. "They said you were dead. I heard the criers."
"Oh, Ferro Carac is quite dead. But I am what was forged from the remains, and I've waited a long time to gut you the way you gutted Arata."
"It was just a job!" Sadon said, voice catching, breaking. "It wasn't—" he choked on pain as the dagger was driven deep into stomach, and screamed as it was twisted. He coughed blood. "I'm not your enemy. I was just doing what I was paid."
"Tell that to Arata." The man yanked the dagger out, cleaned it meticulously, then pushed it into a sheath in his own boot. "But don't worry, you're just the first. The ones who paid you will soon follow you into the Depths."
Sadon tried to say more, but the words wouldn't come, blocked by blood and pain.
He watched as the man rose, collected Sadon's belongings, and slipped away into the dark.
Thankfully, blood loss pushed him into unconsciousness shortly thereafter.