Niccolucio, a young Florentine Carthusian monk, leads a devout life until the Black Death kills all of his brothers, leaving him alone and filled with doubt. Habidah, an anthropologist from another universe racked by plague, is overwhelmed by the suffering. Unable to maintain her observer neutrality, she saves Niccolucio from the brink of death.
Habidah discovers that neither her home's plague nor her assignment on Niccolucio's world are as she's been led to believe. Suddenly the pair are drawn into a worlds-spanning conspiracy to topple an empire larger than the human imagination can contain.
File Under: Science Fiction
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Author hometown: Columbia, Missouri
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There was no such thing as a quiet place in Messina, not at this time of morning. In the evening, the hours of the bell could be heard from one end of the harbor to the other. Now, the tolls didn’t reach the shore. Shouting was the only way to be heard, and that made the cacophony worse.
It was a wonder that anyone could think. Habidah doubted they did. Everywhere she stepped, someone blocked her path, or trod on her shoe. She smiled tightly and shifted aside. On another day, she would have fought through. Today, she didn’t trust herself enough to speak. She wouldn’t have been heard if she tried.
Messina’s streets followed no plan. They ran like dirt-scuffed streams through squat houses and businesses before finally emptying out into the docks. “Stream” was no poetic exaggeration – rivulets of waste ran down their sides, following the flow of traffic. Even the locals couldn’t stand the odor. Women walked with cloth pinched over their noses.
A seaborne wind brought a moment’s relief. It was cold, at least by Messina’s standards. Smoke from heating fires stained the sky. Gray clouds scudded across the sky, low enough to touch. Winter would arrive early this year, as it had for all of the past six.
Closer to the port, the noise blended into a chorus, less background than a battering. Fish hawkers and vegetable stands jammed traffic at every intersection. More foul smells lingered about the carcasses hanging in a butcher’s shop. A trio of alewives stood outside their shop, holding aloft wooden mugs and hollering. A sloppily painted red and white pole marked a barber-surgeon’s shop. Blood streamed from a shallow pit where the barber had dumped his last patient’s blood. Most people stepped over it.
Habidah paused. She’d spent weeks in the city, but she was still having trouble getting used to these things. It didn’t bode well for her assignment. After an angry mutter from behind, she stepped over the blood and kept walking.
Traffic pushed Habidah onward. Few people noticed her. A lone woman in a dirty kirtle, thin and probably poor, didn’t have any reason to be out here except to get in the way. She wasn’t the first-choice target of the hawkers, but not a single person could step through Messina without attracting some manner of attention. A bruised-eyed boy, shod in cloth that must have been quite nice once, tugged at her scarf, to tell her about an inn with nice, fresh rushes.
He must have assumed she was a traveler. On every day but today, she’d been able to pass the locals’ casual inspections. She was tempted to ask what had given her away, but she already had a good idea.
It had to be her eyes. She’d seen them in the reflection of her water basin this morning. They were dry but red, like a woman fleeing home.
She could see the ocean from here: a long, flat stretch of clear blue. Wonderful weather for sailing, and one of the last before winter’s storms hit the Mediterranean. People knew it. They marched to the port like an army. Another knot of them blocked her path. Someone was selling mutton pies, freshly baked.
She should have waited for the crowd to disperse. On another day, she would have. She cast her eyes about. A fat, half-feral pig lay on pillows of its own fat, giving walkers a baleful eye. The locals instinctively shied away from it. She darted beside the pig, forging her way past before it could rouse itself to bite her.
She squelched through muddy runnels, down an alley guarded by a nest of rats. She emerged away from the worst of the morning’s traffic, on a street that led to two small piers. The roofs of the houses around her were fungus-like stubs, barely more than head height. The beach was too unstable to hold any but the poorest homes. The sea lapped sand only two dozen meters from the last house.
The morning’s ships had all arrived at the north end of the port, far from here. Their broad, brown sails were drab against the bright sea and sky. She picked the closest of the two empty piers and walked out onto it. A half-rotted crate made a reasonable seat.
When the cold wind shifted, she could smell the galleys even from here. The oarsmen didn’t have toilet facilities. If they were slaves, they weren’t ever allowed away from their benches.
Two more ships stood against the far horizon, making slow progress. Very slow, in the case of the farthest ship. Only a few of its oars moved. The winds languidly pushed its sail.
Even from this distance, the noise of the crowds at the north piers carried across the water. Her audio filtering programs isolated individual voices, gave her a sense of what was being discussed. The ships, as always, had brought news of the political turmoils on the mainland. More importantly, they’d brought meat, flour, oats, and cloth. The cloth got the most attention. Flemish cloth was as drab as the ships’ sails, but among the finest-feeling and most affordable on this side of the world. People nearly pushed themselves into the water to get a closer look as the crates were offloaded. The galley’s finely dressed captain let the Messinans get as close they wanted, driving up excitement.
Habidah retrieved a wooden cup from her folded clothes. Next, a thermos, taking care to hide the stainless steel underneath her sleeve. This was the kind of work that ordinarily demanded coffee, but the smell of coffee would have marked her as richer than she otherwise appeared. The tea she poured now, though, was a transplanar genengineered variant, transparent and mostly odorless.
She should have been able to do without. But the tea helped remind her that she was separate from all this. As far away as if she were watching from the stars above.
She should have been out earlier, watching and waiting. She’d need to spot the signs quickly. It would be subtle at first. She swallowed. What happened today would dictate so much of what came afterward.
“You be welcome here, lady.”
She turned too fast to hide the fact that she’d been startled. She’d been too focused on the crowd. A fish-smelling man stood three meters away, wide-brimmed hat clasped in his hand. His clothes were filthy, but his face was clean, even his beard. He towered above her.
In a manner she hoped was dismissive enough, she said, “Our Lord give you a good day,” and turned back.
He didn’t take that as enough of a hint, and sat on a stump of a mooring. “I imagined I knew all of the fisherwives who used this pier.”
“Do I look much like a fisherwife?” She had no pole or basket.
“Truly? You are not married?”
She turned again, expecting a lecherous smile. But he was frowning. Concerned, she realized. She said, “I’m no prostitute, either.”
He leaned back with his hands against his seat. He had no fishing pole or basket, either, though he was dressed for a long day under the sun. “There’s not much else to catch out here, besides fish and men.”
“Except peace and contemplation,” she said, significantly. He nodded sagely, and withheld further comment. He made no sign of leaving, though.
A low groan swept through the crowd as one of the captains shook hands with a merchant. That could only mean they’d made a deal for some large portion of his unsold cargo. The Messinan had agreed too quickly. It was common practice among merchant captains to hide rotted cloth in the back.
People continued to gather around the empty piers, waiting for the still-distant late arrivals. Heavyset porters pushed their way through the crowd. One gangly merchant fell off the pier to jeers and laughter.
One of the new arrivals struggled against the sea. Its sails were in good shape, but it still languished a kilometer from shore. Even from a distance, she sensed the crowd’s impatience.
A pit formed in the center of Habidah’s stomach. She’d skipped breakfast. She’d known she wouldn’t be hungry for long. Her team’s observation satellites had tracked the Genoan galley’s meandering journey up and down the Mediterranean. It was one of several merchant galleys, all Genoan, fleeing from farther east. She knew what the ship would look like before she saw it. She’d reviewed the images every morning. There were no mysteries left. Even still, there was a difference between recording and watching the ship with her own eyes.
For a moment, even with the docks’ bustle and jostle, everything seemed so still.
The fisherman said, “If you’re thinking about plunging in and not coming out – there are easier ways to accomplish what you’re looking for. Less painful.”
She looked back at him. He thought she’d come out here to commit suicide. She bit back a sharp word. She couldn’t snap at him for being concerned. Seeing the becalmed ship out there had dampened her mood and even irritability.
Besides, it was important to find out why he’d said it. It could be relevant. “Do many people come here to drown themselves?” she asked.
“Once in a great while,” he admitted.
There would be many more in the next weeks and months. “Don’t worry about me, sir. There are plenty of women, and men, worse off.”
“I don’t often see many who look as frightened as you did just then.”
She ought to be feeling safer than anyone in Messina. Before she could think of anything to say to that, he asked, “May I hear your name?”
It took her a moment to remember this month’s alias. “Joanna.”
“Just Joanna,” she said. Another time, she would have stopped there. Today was different. She owed him something, even if only an honest answer. “That’s all we decided on. Nobody is supposed to ask about the rest. I’m meant to blend into the background.”
He looked back out to sea, as if what she’d said was entirely reasonable. And then back at her as it sank in. “You sound like you’re a spy.”
The peoples of the coast lived in fear of Muslim pirates, and for good reason. Many of the oarsmen on these galleys were probably Muslim slaves captured in raids on North Africa, and the Muslims returned the favor in kind. Habidah had lightened her naturally dark skin tone specifically for this assignment.
“I just know too much.”
“Most people I find here know too little.” He was trying to brush this off as a joke. He must think her a madwoman. These people had curious ideas about mental illness. If she could convince him that she was in some way blessed, then she might be able to do him a favor. She wasn’t supposed to, but she couldn’t help herself.