Previously, Andre, Carmencita, and Flavio had decided to accept Valera into their outlaws' group. She proved herself even more capable by winning a duel against the rivalling bandit-queen Scarpina Caragossa.
5. Oaths and Misgivings at the Embellished Cross
They arrived at the outpost town of Jewel's Way by nightfall, after winding through the lesser paths that cut through the rest of the Western Woods, and past a series of steep vales. At Jewel's Way, they settled in the inn of The Embellished Cross, which sported its trademark brandy in fake jewel-studded cups, served alongside humble murals of the Last Supper and little saintly relics. Images of Christ Jesus, long haired, gentle-eyed, and covered in mosaic, stared from the walls. And the shadowy corners of the tavern itself were occupied by the standard selection of grizzly, heavily-armed bandits and vagabonds/
Andre paid (or swindled) for their rooms, passing a piece of waxed vellum that sealed with a crimson cross to the innkeeper. "Sign," Andre explained. "All of our kind do this. Means friends from the other side of the Law, and you'll do good to stay out." But they were reasonably well acquainted with Innkeeper Rosalda, and as she burned a corner off the vellum to seal their oaths and payments, she saved a special wink for Flavio; he returned the favour most generously. The Gentlemen Riders would soon exchange stolen goods with her.
Immediately, a greyhound bound forth to sniff at the four newcomers, followed by his master, the bartender clad in striped-bandana and hoop earrings.
"Andre, my prince!" The bartender clasped hands with the bandit leader and nodded to the others. He bent down to ruffle the barking hound. "You've met my newest friend, I see. His name's Flaki. So tell me, how's your highway business? You found yourself a lucky wench, a place to settle down?"
"Not yet, old Gem. I'll never tire of the road."
"But the road can tire of you. It's a wild place. You know, King Basilio all in the way in Veritas has got his head wrapped up in trouble. There're threats of war with the Francians, and unrest among our people. They say El Bravado's coming."
Andre leaned against the bar table, thoughtful.
"People are getting the idea that he's alive. In Veritas last week, the Greencoats caught a bunch of crazy university kids dressed in masks and capes and rose corsages. Those kids were waving their swords and shouting something 'bout a holy Bravado."
"No, leastways that's how they put it. But I'd cuff those kids a bit to make sure, were I a Greencoat. And yesterday, some crazy chap barged in right here – he'd quite a rose too – and he started strummin' away at his guitar, raising hell and shouting he was Bravado. By faith, you never know."
Andre laughed. "Old Gem, you're telling this to a masked man. I could leave a rose in my collar and you'd automatically mistake me for Bravado, no doubt, with my dashing mask and cape. I needn't even draw my sword to be a phantom outlaw. You're talking crazy, here."
"Crazy?! The King plans to amass a new system of guards! The Granado, he calls then, headed by some young and clever caballero. But what can I say about young 'uns? They always know what's too much for them."
But the highwaymen had more important things to do. A serving-girl led them into an inner private room, and set out mugs of brandy, heavy soups, buns shaped like crosses, whistling a hearty tune. Andre slipped her a coin and a friendly pat on the rump. ("How generous, handsome señors!" she cooed.)
As soon as the serving-girl left, Carmencita uncovered the small, glittering pieces of finery they'd taken before kidnapping Valera. These goods, she explained, are sold off as quickly as possible to avoid suspicion, even though I know we're both sore about this losing necklace here. Maybe I'll just wring its future owner's neck.
Valera grunted appropriately. What boasts they languished in. The others, though, hooted and applauded as they too ran their eyes and fingers over the stolen goods to calculate their market worth. There was an exotic, almost Arabian-like lamp, a few gold watches, perfume, fine cloths. Carmencita threw a snuffbox and a miniature copy of some Grecian statue onto the table. ("Look at these, strings of light," Flavio grinned as he pulled at a star-shaped pendant. "And yet more money, my dears.")
But nothing was like the map that Andre laid out before them, that unfurled like a sheath of stars upon the table. This was, oh, something. It was as though the room had shifted, a new urgency in the air.
At first glance it looked like a star-chart, made of silver points against a midnight cloth, but a closer analysis revealed a mass of land, a bit of sea at the top, and a compass and legend inscribed onto the lower right corner. It was completely hand-painted, done in scripted with Medieval Espanadan calligraphy, and printed on a linen cloth that was strong though old. A flurry of lines marked the etchings of a sprawling temple-labyrinth situated through most of the land. Other lines laid out an ancient system of longitude-latitude that existed before the use of modern mapmaking methods, so they seemed to curve with a witchcraft of their own. And the strangest thing was, Valera could almost see the stars and patterns move across the map, the midnight colour shift in hue. But when she looked again, the movement became plain lines once more.
The map was frayed at both ends; it had been torn. The labyrinth was not complete.
"It's been said, El Bravado created a magical map," Andre said, "Before it was torn into three pieces, and the three pieces scattered into history. Many have tried to unite them together but all have failed. These pieces defy logical explanation. But I'm sure, as the legends are, that they would be united one day. And then they'd point towards the Bravado himself hid at the labyrinth of-" here he pointed –"Fortuna Negra."
"The ancient citadel," Valera murmured. "An underground Romun fort, built by our country's ancestors, wasn't it? It used to be a temple."
"Yes. And to this day we wonder if we will ever find it again," Flavio noted.
"The songs say that?"
"The songs don't tell us much. No one knows where the place really is. Some say it's at the abandoned limestone mine on an island of the Orison Sea. If anything the mine's already half drowned in ocean, especially at high tide. The Orison's a mystery no one's quite discovered. And so no one has ever pinpointed the citadel's exact location," Andre traced one finger around the printed labyrinth, around the bumps and valleys on paper that symbolized mountains and plains on land. In curvy letters were the words, Fortuna Negra and the Isle of Ava. The labyrinth seemed to rest on the center of the island, around the large (Volcanic?) bump of Mt. Destiny.
"They've studied maps, national archives, the like. No one's ever been sure."
"The blokes we spoke to were never sure," Carmencita quipped.
"The blokes were scared plenty by your loving ways, dearest Carm. People don't take kindly to threats of ear-offery or bullets to the head. But as they say, what's to be sure in songs and legends?" Flavio picked at an absurdly large emerald ring, peaked through its center. "What do you think, Andre?"
"It's an odd place. Weird happenings. I mean, cliffs and swamps that are there one day and then gone the next. Some bewitched ocean-place. But what do you know?"
"Kingdoms rise and fall. The Romuns fell, for one thing." Flavio lit a pipe, and smoke drifted through the room.
Andre was already rolling up the map into a neat scroll; in one swoosh the stars, the revolving colours were gone. Valera wanted to say, wait, but stilled herself. There was definitely something odd.
"It's a lovely map in the end," Carmencita sighed,"Worth its weight in silver stars. I'm sure we'd find a market for it, someone's always collecting goods like this."
"Like our King."
"A softest ass-cloth for his Royal Highness."
Valera frowned as they toasted to the King's hygienic health. The talk then turned once more to their stolen goods, a strange chain of ruby that Flavio showed Carmencita, while Andre slipped on an emerald ring. He leaned towards Valera at one point to warn her, "We must watch for Scarpina. She'd likely turn the greencoats of Lazo against us, try to arrest us."
"Or have your head," Carmencita noted.
"She hates those who get the better of her," Andre twisted the emerald ring with a gleam in his eye that spelled gold. His eyes met Valera's for a moment. "And she has a way of smelling money. I'm sure she's made plans, or is making them, to lay her hands on our goods and our throats." He looked up; Flaio aimed a dart at the wall and it hit bulls-eye.
"But Rosalda's a good lady. Keeps cheerful girls, too. We don't have to worry with the likes of her."
Valera nodded and slowly raised her mug.
"Tonight," Carmencita grinned and punched her in the arm, friendly. Valera spluttered and nearly spilled her drink.
She thought: They're lying about the map.
The moon that night was a silvered plate, edged in eldritch design. Valera felt as though it, too, was hiding secrets of its own.
All was dark in this spot of the country. They were surrounded again by dense woodland, and Valera occasionally glanced up at the starry rural heavens. (She used to stargaze with Da, didn't she, when each constellation had a story.) Cygnus the Swan glided over the lower East while the Milky Way itself smattered over the sky. The highway robbers, quiet now, came to a halt.
Carmencita passed her a knife. Valera could hear the gurgling of a creek. As running water was always sacred to oaths such as these. (This was, again, nothing like the oaths they took at Santa Belleza, which involved giggles and squeals as girls read naughty passages aloud, thinking themselves oh-so-daring.)
Flavio lit four candles and passed them along, one for each member. As Valera cupped her flickering flame, carefully, she noted – again – the new mood that pervaded them. They highwaymen formed a tenuous circle. And when Andre began, the solemnity of his voice chilled yet touched her.
"Valera Vittori," he said, "You stand here tonight to make an oath and swear allegiance to our group, The Gentlemen Riders, which consists of I, Captain Andre Vivero, and my mates, Flavio and Carmencita Ferée. By swearing such allegiance, you will pledge eternal loyalty and duty to your brethren. You will follow the rule of your captain, share all goods and treasure, and give your enemy no lax or mercy. Should you be unfortunate enough to break this pledge, you will fear God and His wrath – the Wrath that you have brought upon yourself. Do you understand?"
"Yes," Valera said. The handle felt sticky in her hands.
"Do you know why we take to the highwaymen's life, dearie?" Carmencita's voice came out of the dark.
"Because," (it was like those adventure stories of knights and pirates and daring heroes), "There is no other road I can ride."
Now, there was silence. The candles were snuffed. Valera felt only the thin slice of steel, and a jab of pain, as she nicked the knife into her thumb. She squeezed out a drop of blood, then pressed her thumb against Carmencita's marked one, then Flavio's, and lastly Andre's. Then, drawing her sword, she saluted her new brethren, touching the blade to her forehead, her chest, the ground, in one smooth sweep.
They chanted together, their voices unwavering. "Our blood is our Honour, and may it honour you too. We are four as one, one inseparable, four forever."
Valera saw only, again, a flashback – the lead bullet of Caragossa zipping through her father, his short cry, Caragossa's smile beneath his half-mask. Caragossa who was the father of Scarpina, who had given her his very saber, the saber she'd clashed against in a duel of honour-
What had originally driven her to claim Andre's challenge, do duel this dangerous woman? (She could have been killed by Scarpina's death stroke. But Valera, strangely, hadn't been scared, only anxious.) She knew the reason now, and need only bide her time.
Somewhere else too, beneath the same stars, Scarpina thoughtfully smoked her long cigar. Before her lay a dark-blue board, drawn with grids, on which she tossed dice and other bits of knick-knack, watching as the pieces arranged themselves into meaning.
The Maps of Fortuna calls. They have awakened.
Tall Alto strode by her side, his ears bright with gold pieces. He picked at his teeth with a toothpick.
"Say, Señorita Scarpina – what d'you make of them this afternoon?"
"You mean those clowns?" Scarpina slurred. "What did I ever need from them?"
Alto grumbled something, displeased.
"There was that bastard Andre. Smirched the whole operation for me. Have you any news from Varado?"
Scarpina swiped the paper from his assured hands. She read aloud, her voice rattling in anger,
"To whom it may concern:
As members of the good Varado family, our hearts were laden with sorrow and utter anguish at your cruel and unhuman – inhuman – designs. The threat to kidnap our darling daughter, Valera, has struck us to the very core.
Needless to say, our dear Valera was found this afternoon skipping back happily from her boarding school, where she had just spent the day making pastries and gingerbread houses – the newest thing from the North, except they make it in winter – with her dearest bosom friends. Her happy occasions were, fortunately, solely conducted amongst a group of well-known girl peers, not the company of your unemployed and grossly unshaven mates.
In short, we would like to conclude this letter by laughing at your most mockable plight. If you cannot see fit to kidnap the right person, I wonder if you are liable to survive in your putrid little haunts and brothels, your fly-infested bush," – Scarpina frowned, she hated bugs – "or just any jolly stop along the King's Highway. Be careful of that shadow over there. By the winds of Ferria, t'is your (monstrous) foot!
"Who on earth would have told them!" Scarpina seethed and slammed the table shut. She kicked at the dirt fireplace. "They should be angry. We'd tricked them and made false oaths. But how could've they known about the mis-kidnap?! Why do they laugh!"
"It could be false, lady" Alto said slowly. "A forgery to trick and anger us. After awhile, it clearly mocks us."
"Andre," Scarpina's face fell. "That Andre did it. He wrote this, and couln't spell at all."
"If you know his handwriting, Scarpina, only then are you sure."
"It's not his handwriting but he could have forged. We can never be sure about this." Suddenly Scarpina frowned and she, turning, boxed Alto in the ear. (He coiled, but was used to this.) "You shit-face, don't you have anything real to show me besides forged letters? Am I joke to you?!"
Alto cursed himself as he massaged his sore temple. He couldn't read, couldn't tell what to show or what to show to his hot-tempered mistress. "Ahem. There's this other thing."
"'To S., Ransom called off. Varado girl found. Varados want retaliation.'" Scarpina frowned. "Real or fake, the Varado will seek to destroy us. Fool I am, I thought the alliance with Andre would work. Stupid man came begging for an alliance and I thought, why not, take the upper hand. But I'll have a dazzling plan. For our the so-called – what do they call themselves – The Gentle Horsemen-"
"The Gentlemen Riders. And that'd be-"
"Our good friends in Lazo, the bumbling police. I make the law of that makeshift town. I shall have Andre and his cohorts, including and especially that cursed girl Valera, denounced as traitors to the Law."
"You really think you can do that?"
Scarpina smiled. "Or we can always hunt them down and kill them. But not now. There is something I want very much from them. Something I'd needed all along."
Alto sneered, his way of grinning. He saw what Scarpina saw.
"Andre has the second piece to El Bravado's map. You know, the one he got off of me, that was righteously bequeathed me by good Lord Caragossa. Meanwhile that girl has got to have something too, something of importance. Why else would they let her into the group? She's an aristrocrat, given her fighting style, and I've not known Andre to keep his aristocratic whores around. Noblewomen don't draw swords. Ah, she's a puzzle alright. "
"My suspicion is they are merely using her. They'll get rid of her eventually, but they don't usually kill – but we'll see."
"Then maybe, Scarpina, we need her too."
"Oh, we most certainly do. And I also need Andre. If we should find him, Alto, see that he suffers the most of all."
Andre, watching the moon, laughed a bit inside, at the rather insulting letter he, Flavio, and Carmencita had penned under Varado's name, and slipped into Alto's pouch during Valera's duel. Alto would no doubt mix the letter up with other messages for Scarpina, and unleash her fury.
But the incident with the Varados should solve itself soon. No casualties, at least not yet.
A knock on the door. Paper slipped beneath the crack.
Andre picked it up and read, grinning.