Read an Excerpt
The Ugly Woman of Castello di Putti
By A. M. Dellamonica, Richard Anderson
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2014 A.M. Dellamonica
All rights reserved.
They had barely come ashore before the riot started.
Sindria, capital of Erinth, was a city of black marble and volcanic glass, a dark architectural foundation layered in color and light. Carved urns and stone window boxes built into the structures all burst with bougainvillea and daisies. Fruit trees nodded along the avenues, laden with oranges, lemons, and sun-burnished golden plums.
As they strode up from the landing, they passed a young couple, a fine-featured woman and handsome man, decked out in vivid fabrics, leaning on each other and sharing the support of a sturdy hardwood walker.
Tall, femininely curved sconces of yellow obsidian lined the streets. At night, Garland Parrish imagined, they would cast a pale glow upon the fountains and statues, shadows stretching to stone benches seemingly built for lovers' trysts.
The city had been built with its face to the sea, its back turned on the rising mountains to whose skirts it clung, and the volcano at their heart. East of the harbor, steam curled up like a questing finger, thick at the base where the lava boiled into the water, then stretching as it dispersed, to point out the direction of the wind.
"Want to explore a bit, Garland?" His captain, Royl Sloot, was strolling with their employer, sketching a path through the opulent splendor of the mercato. Two additional sailors from Nightjar trailed behind the three of them, carrying baggage and gaping at the wares on display. "The hike up to the caldera is a wonder. Erinth's famous magical glassworks is up there."
Curiosity stirred, but he was in no mood to be dazzled. "Perhaps later."
Nightjar was ostensibly a privately held cutter, but their employer, Gale Feliachild, held an ill-defined position within the Fleet government, one that fell between diplomatic work and outright spying. In his short time aboard her ship, Parrish had seen her settle a conflict between two island nations over hunting rights to their stags. Now she had declared that they were taking a break, catching some shore leave. Was it true, or was there another unofficial intrigue afoot? If the latter, he wanted to be on hand.
A boy darted into his path, bowing elaborately. "Buy a walking stick for your padre, Kir! Stonewood, with a handle of finest Erinthian glass."
Parrish shook his head with a smile.
"Beads for your madre, then! Beads of blue and silver, best in Erinth, magically crafted by the famed Ferren Dale. There's to be a parade for the Prince Secondo's betrothal, Kir; your family will want to be in its finest."
"No, thank you." It was no surprise that Gale and Sloot should be taken for a couple; they had been sailing together for decades, and looked the part of cozy intimacy. And Parrish was the right age to be their son.
Yet they expect me to replace Sloot, Parrish thought.
He hoped some ulterior motive had brought them to Erinth. If this was just shore leave for Gale, it might also be a good-bye. One last vacation with her dear friend.
The boy was not to be put off. "What about a tour of the caldera, or a youth scrip for the old man? My brother works for a spellscribe on the Via Solari. If you take the weather off his face, he might seem thirty again —"
Cries interrupted his pitch.
A mob of men and women, bare-armed and dressed in heavy aprons, faces masked, charged through the mercato. They knocked over carts, pushed shoppers, tore up flowers, and yanked down tapestries. One tanned, muscular man swung a crude hammer of porous volcanic stone, tapping the sconces as he ran by. They shattered with ear-cracking pops, sending yellow shards into the street, revealing the torches within.
The vendors rallied, plunging in to protect their stock. As the melee swung his way, Parrish stepped close to the boy, putting out an arm so he couldn't be trampled.
"No tax on glass!" One vandal took a run at him; Parrish side-stepped, giving him a shove as he milled past, plunging him into a bed of peonies.
The move brought with it an unexpected stab of loss, a memory of hand-to-hand combat drills with other cadets. Stretching and calisthenics on the deck of Constitution, training to fight under a cloudless sky, with all the ships of all the Fleet's member nations around them. Preparing to defend the great, seagoing city that was both the world's navy and her capital ...
Clanging alarms brought him back to the fight at hand. A regiment of mounted soldiers rode out from the palazzo, horses high-stepping as they advanced on the riot. The masked vandals, seeing themselves outnumbered, fled the mercato.
"No tax on glass!" Their leader swung the stone hammer one last swing, this time at the statue of a young dancer.
There was a thunderous boom, a shock of air so profound that Parrish felt the jolt in his bones. The hammer, clearly, was magical.
Black marble flew everywhere. He turned, protecting the boy, and pieces of obliterated statuary pelted his back and bit into his upraised palm.
His eyes sought Gale.
She was safe, even now emerging, with Sloot, from behind the shelter of a flower stall.
"Tonio!" someone shouted.
"Remember my offer, Kir." The boy sprinted away, shouting in Erinthian at a man ... his father? An elder brother? The relative, whoever he was, lifted his cap to Parrish in thanks.
Bowing in return, he made his way across the mercato to join the others. Sloot was comforting a flower vendor, whose wares had been shredded by flying rock from the statue. Gale sat atop one of the vandals.
It wasn't the first time Parrish had seen her use a prisoner as a cushion; it seemed a favorite trick of hers.
"Deep blue daisies, dearheart." Sloot daubed at the flower girl's bloodied forehead with a handkerchief. "At least five bunches, soon as you can manage it. Can ye handle an order that big?"
The girl managed a trembly nod.
A soldier had by now come to collect Gale's prisoner. She obliged him to offer her his hand. Hauling herself up with a noisy squawk, she clung until she had his attention. Only then did she hand him a card. "Would you see that Prince Secondo gets this?"
The soldier gave a vague nod, trying to extricate himself from her grip.
"Kir Parrish?" Gale said. "Some help here?"
"Corporal." Parrish raised the vandal to his feet, thereby catching the soldier's eye. "It's imperative that the prince gets this lady's message. Do you understand?"
The soldier let his eyes drop to Gale's card. His eyes widened, and he looked at her in frank astonishment. "But of course! Of course, Kir!"
Satisfied, Gale let him have his hand back. He hustled the rioter away, calling excitedly to the other soldiers.
Was that ... did he just call Gale 'Secco's ugly tart'? His Erinthian was poor; maybe he'd misunderstood.
"Battle wounds, Parrish?" Gale said.
Parrish flicked a shard of stone from his palm. "Hardly."
Sloot had jollied up the little vendor. She groped behind her cart for something — a cane — and tottered toward one of the buildings, moving as cautiously as if she was walking on ice.
"Is there a lot of sickness here?" Parrish asked.
"Lady's probably seventy," Sloot explained. "Erinth beauty shops sell the gloss of youth, not the vigor."
"I hope you let her swindle us," Gale said, taking both men by the arm.
"Cheered 'er up some to make a profit. Poor cat had no stomach for a public brawl."
"What will you do with sixty daisies?" Parrish asked.
"I'll need them for the apartment," Gale said. "It's expected, when one is in residence."
"Had that soldier heard of you?" Parrish asked.
Few people took notice of Gale, or remembered her when they did. This was the work of a spell her parents had written when she was a child, making her forgettable, beneath notice. They'd meant for it to keep her safe. They hadn't foreseen that it would lead to her into spying.
"I've fallen into a reputation here in Erinth," Gale said. "When I moved into the mistress suite —"
"There are buildings, near the palazzo, reserved for courtiers and special pets of the Contessa. My home —"
"Castello di Putti, they call it," Royl put in. "In Fleetspeak, Strumpet Court."
"You live in a place called Strumpet Court."
"The Contessa owed me a favor, and I'd had a fling with Secco — Secondo — years ago."
"Secondo ... the prince who's just gotten engaged?" They were here for an intrigue, then.
Royl grinned. "Thing is, Garland, Strumpet Court's got its own reputation. Stories about the residents go back centuries."
"And some are about an old witch," Gale put in.
"Gale here being just about the only person on the fair isle who hain't had a beauty scrip or six done on her, she inherited all that legend."
"Isn't that problematic?" Parrish asked. "You work in the shadows."
"In the streets, I'm anonymous enough. It's only when I'm linked with the building, or Secondo, that people notice." Gale leaned against Sloot companionably. "They call me Secco's Hag."
* * *
The apartment was three floors up, airy and comfortably furnished. Parrish, observing from the balcony that overlooked the mercato and harbor, gauged the mood of the town. Only the children were animated and cheery. Adults grouped in twos and threes, speaking in murmurs, body language transmitting worry.
He felt an echo of that mood within.
Parrish knew himself to be up to the task of managing Gale's cutter and her crew of twenty-five. Nightjar was a beautiful ship, flawlessly maintained, and he'd been at the top of his Fleet graduating class. As a private owner, Gale was lucky to have an officer of his caliber, young or not.
It was good fortune for him, too: there was no going back to Fleet. After he lost his place there, his prospects had been poor: sailing for Gale was a better position than any he could have hoped for. He might have ended up stuck in the low ranks of some minor island's navy, or aboard a merchant ship or salvager.
I should be grateful.
Gale joined him on the balcony. "How's your hand?"
"It's merely scraped."
She indicated the people below. "Town's uneasy."
"Are there often riots here?"
Gale said. "This kind of bloody street theater was common on Erinth before the Contessa took over, but it's been decades since it was this turbulent."
"Was that ..." He groped for the right words. "Did things settle down because of you?"
"When I first went to sea, I spent a good deal of time here," Gale said. "I love the Erinthians. They're such dramatic people, and mine ... well, Verdanii seemed cold in comparison. So, yes, I helped the Contessa out now and then."
"And Secondo?" He wasn't even sure what he was asking. "You helped him too?"
"Secco needs no help. He's handsome, privileged, confident, and every bit as brilliant as his mother. I'd say he was hard to resist" — that was almost a purr — "but I didn't try."
"So you spent time here, you helped the Contessa consolidate her hold on power, and you became close to her son."
"It's how I learned I had a knack for resolving thorny international problems."
"Seems unfair, then, that in return, they made you the ugly strumpet."
"That's nothing." She laughed. "This house is more my home than Tor Feliachild on Verdanii."
Having grown up among monks — men who'd always intended him for the Fleet, who couldn't wait to be rid of him — Parrish understood that well. He asked, "The unrest, now. Is it why we're here?"
"Nobody sent for me," Gale said. "But I'll see the Contessa. I'll ask her what's stirred the beehive. And Royl can charm the local gossip out of that flower girl."
"Can I help?"
"Why don't you take that kid up to the caldera and have a look at the glassworks?" she said. "The rioters were shouting about a tax."
Parrish found the boy deep in conversation with another woman of apparent youth and exceptional beauty. More magic: her skin had a flawless, sun-bronzed shine, and her hair was a raven cascade of improbably perfect curls. Her eyes were black, shot through with hints of sapphire.
They examined him as he approached. Garland was accustomed to being stared at, but this was a professional assessment. She said, "Your face, Kir, is nicely wrought."
"Thank you." What else could one say?
"Magic might yet improve on it. A few streaks of russet in your curls, perhaps? And were you taller, your cheekbones might be more striking."
"That's kind of you, but I've come to take this fellow — it was Tonio, wasn't it? — up on a caldera tour." He offered a coin to the lad.
The girl pushed the money away. "You protected my brother this morning, Kir."
Tonio gave her a look that said, given half a chance, he could find his way clear to accepting a coin or two. She shot him a tart reproof in Erinthian, and he put a hand to his heart, pantomiming obedience, before leading Parrish inland through the mercato, toward the caldera path.
"Your lady lives at the Castello, Kir?"
"I'm told they call her the Hag."
"What a fate! To be homely, among the chosen blossoms of Court," Tonio said. "Does it bother her?"
"My brother's shop could reshape her face."
"I'll tell her."
"Have you brought water?" Tonio asked, veering toward a cart of water skins.
With a half-smile, Parrish showed him his flask.
"Rubbish! Looks like a Fleet discard."
As am I, he thought. "It has sentimental value, Tonio. If you know someone who might sell us lunch ..."
The child brightened and made for a baker with meat pasties.
Once provisioned, they climbed the hills behind the city. The path brought them to a ridge that overlooked a series of old stone structures — building foundations, Parrish realized. Within the ruins were shapes, hollows in the stone. Bodies and limbs ... he recognized a goat first, then a cat.
Faces. Dead people.
"Victims of the last great eruption," Tonio explained. "Buried in ash before they could escape. Punishment, some say, for the city's hedonism."
Wide-eyed, contorted faces, with screaming mouths. Their hands clawed at the air. Had they suffocated? Or burned?
"As penance, we rebuilt the city with black stone."
"Then decked it out in gold and gilt?" Parrish said.
Tonio shrugged. "You can't regret your sins forever."
Beyond the dead city, a cadaverous, ill-kempt friar haunted the path, blessing people headed to the caldera.
"See, Kir! The Fiumefouco!" Tonio pointed to a barely visible river of molten stone, flowing to the sea. The seam of burning crimson moved with the tame efficiency of an irrigation canal. Heat shimmered above it, forming an illusory curtain over the hills.
Tonio accepted the friar's murmured prayer and dabs of oil, plus a pack of flowers, with every appearance of piety. Parrish held out a coin, but stepped back beyond the reach of the oil-soaked finger with what he hoped was a respectful shake of his head. The friar sniffed but tucked the coin away nevertheless.
A keen-eyed teenage girl nudged Parrish, not quite by accident. "Who scripped you, Kir? He's not so good. Amio padre's beauty shop, on Via Ferra, can —"
Tonio wormed between them, driving her off with a glare. "This way, Kir."
They climbed, Tonio chattering about the eruption of six centuries past, describing with grisly relish the deaths of the people buried in ash. "Afterward, our Conto brought spellscribes from across Stormwrack to see how we might manage the volcano."
"See for yourself." Tonio swept out an arm as they reached the cliff top, and Parrish saw the figure of a woman, sculpted in rose marble and fully fifty feet high. Clad in a modest robe, hair bound at the nape of her neck, she stood on the inland lip of the caldera, hands out in a soothing gesture, the hushing pose of a mother calming a child in its cradle.
Ice-blue spellscrip glimmered on her arms and hands, written from shoulder to fingertip.
In the shadow of those big stone hands, the molten stone churned like a pot aboil. Beyond it, the flow of lava seemed orderly and civilized.
It was all wrong, Parrish thought. An illusion of safety. He thought fleetingly of a story from his childhood, about a monk who'd tried to tame a spectercat, only to get himself eaten.
Danger contained, the moral had been, would inevitably burst forth.
Parrish remembered the man in the square, using the magical hammer to shatter the statue of the dancing boy. No wonder people were nervous. If that happened here, to this magical statue that held back the lava ...
Excerpted from The Ugly Woman of Castello di Putti by A. M. Dellamonica, Richard Anderson. Copyright © 2014 A.M. Dellamonica. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.