Aphelion Issue 222, Volume 21
October 2017
 
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The Shadowy Man

By Elena Clarke


The painting was not going well.

           

The Prince was supposed to be practicing still lifes under Giacomo’s direction.  At the moment, the dish of pears sat smugly in their ray of warm light, while on the canvas several amorphous blobs lurked malignantly in a pool of dirty yellow.

           

“I hate painting,” said the Prince.  He gave Giacomo a pathetic look.  “It’s not very good, is it?” he asked pitifully.  “It’s ruined, isn’t it?”  A note of hope crept into his voice.

           

Giacomo looked the canvas over, squinting and tilting his head this way and that.  “I think it’s beyond fixing,” he agreed solemnly.

           

“Hurrah!  Scrubbing out!”  The Prince snatched up his largest brush from the easel, ground it into the palette in order to get the wildest mix of colors possible, and began making large circular strokes, mashing the brush flat against the canvas.

           

“Is this how you would do it when you were a boy?” he asked after a moment, pausing to survey his progress.  He was a pale child, and his cheeks and the tip of his nose had gone pink with excitement.

           

“Sometimes I would do it like this,” Giacomo told him, taking the brush and making violent vertical strokes.  “Scrubbing out” was a treat Giacomo’s father had permitted him to ease the disappointment of a bad picture, and now he was passing it on to the Prince.

           

“Let me!” shrieked the Prince, grabbing the brush back and copying Giacomo’s motions.  “Take that!” he cried exultantly.  “And that!  En garde!”  A vicious jab caused the easel to go toppling over.  There was a long loud crash, combined with the distinctive high notes of breaking glass.

           

“Oh.”  The Prince surveyed the damage he had caused.  Giacomo had jerked him out of harm’s way as soon as the easel had started to go over.  The Prince wriggled in his arms.  “Put me down,” he demanded.

           

Giacomo deposited him on the table, next to the pears.  “Don’t move till I clean up the broken glass,” he ordered.

           

“I want to help,” insisted the Prince.  “I’m nine; I don’t need to be carried around like a baby.  Oh Giaco!  I got paint all over your tunic!”  He had still been holding his brush when Giacomo had grabbed him.

           

“It doesn’t matter,” Giacomo assured him.  “In fact, I think it’s your best work of the day!  It was a boring tunic.  Now it looks much brighter!”

           

The Prince’s lower lip stopped quivering.  “Really?”

           

“Really.  I like it much better than before.  And I think the rug has been improved immensely, as well.”  Pots of paint and oil, along with the palette and the still-wet canvas, had converted the pale blue rug into a fantastic nightmare of color.

           

Before Giacomo could pick up any of the glass, there was a knock at the door, immediately followed by the appearance of the head maid. 

           

“Her Majesty...”  She caught sight of the mess on the rug.  Her thin aristocratic nose seemed to become slightly thinner and more aristocratic.  “Is here,” she finished.  “She wishes to visit Prince Luca immediately.”

           

“Send her up,” said Giacomo promptly.  The head maid gave one last look at the rug and retreated.  The sound of many ladies making a noisy progression up the spiral staircase to the Prince’s tower was becoming menacingly clear.

           

“Oh Giaco!” wailed the Prince.  Giacomo winked at him.

           

The Queen, as was her habit, burst imperiously into the room and stood framed by the doorway, her current favorites amongst her ladies-in-waiting arranged in a tableau behind her.  Most of them, Giacomo noticed, were out of breath from the brisk climb.  The Queen, whose lung capacity was legendary, didn’t seem to have suffered at all, despite her tightly-laced stays.

           

“Come here, Luca!” she ordered.  She had been an accomplished singer before she had become Queen, and she still had a high ringing voice that filled whatever space she was currently occupying.  She still also had a singer’s bosom, which also filled whatever space it was currently occupying.  She liked to crush her children’s faces against said bosom whenever she embraced them, possibly as a way of making up for giving them over to wet nurses.  The Prince always complained that she caught his ears painfully on her stays.  Giacomo knew that lately he had begun to be embarrassed by having his faced pressed into such an expanse of bare breast, and had started actively avoiding his mother’s caresses whenever possible.  And in fact, this time he said, “Giaco told me to stay on the table, Mamma.”

           

The queen allowed her gaze to drop floorwards, to the mess on the rug and Giacomo on one knee beside it.

           

“Explain!”  Her voice reached such a pitch that Giacomo suffered a faint twinge on behalf of the windows.

           

“I humbly apologize, Your Majesty,” he said.  “It was all my fault.  His Highness had finished his still life, and I was showing him a defensive move, and I accidentally crashed into the easel and knocked everything over.”

           

The Queen inhaled sharply, and then went a little purple in the face as she stifled a coughing fit brought on by the strong scent of paint.  When she had recovered herself, she said, “I am seriously displeased with you!  The Prince has no need to be practicing the defensive arts: that’s why we keep you.  It is your responsibility to defend him, with your life if necessary!  The Prince must study true art!  As the youngest son, he must grace the Court like a Master!”  Her tone changed from reprimand to interrogation.  “His performance was creditable, I hope?”

           

“Quite creditable, for a boy his age, Your Majesty,” answered Giacomo.  The kindness of fate had caused the canvas to land face-down. 

           

“Tomorrow, have him do the same study and present it to me,” the Queen commanded.  “The delegation from La Valle del Sole will be visiting.  The Duco del Sole has been putting on the most ridiculous airs about his son’s achievements.  I want to teach him a lesson.”  She gave the floor a look of distaste, and began backing out the door.  “Remember, Luca, you must be a credit to your father!” she said, and left, her ladies-in-waiting forming up behind her.  Giacomo noticed that their gowns were the seven basic colors, and they lined up according to their place in the color spectrum.

           

“Oh Giaco!  The Prince flung himself off the table.  Only Giacomo’s quick catch saved him from landing on the broken glass. 

           

“Thank you, Giaco, thank you, thank you, thank you!” the Prince said into Giacomo’s neck.  “You saved me, Giaco, you saved me!”  He pulled himself away from Giacomo’s shoulder and sat up on his still-bent knee.  “But what am I going to do about tomorrow?” he asked despairingly.  “I won’t be able to do a good job of it next time either.”

           

“I’ll help,” promised Giacomo. 

           

“You paint so well,” said the Prince with breathless admiration.  “Will you do the whole thing?” he continued hopefully.

           

“You should do at least a little bit,” Giacomo told him.  “Otherwise you’ll never learn, and someday you’re going to have to do it all by yourself.”

           

The Prince sighed in resigned acceptance, and allowed Giacomo to deposit him back on the table.  Giacomo called a maid to come help clean up the mess, and listened sympathetically as she wrung her hands and lamented about the trouble she was going to get into over the ruined rug.  He told her to blame everything on him.  Then it was time for the Prince’s lesson with the dancing master, and then with the fencing master (by far the Prince’s favorite lesson of the day–Giacomo had to wrest the wooden practice sword from him by force, enduring several painful swats in the process), and then it was suppertime, and then it was bedtime.

           

“You’ll be in the next room, won’t you, Giaco?” the Prince asked anxiously, once he had been tucked in.  Although he tried to hide it, the Prince was still a little afraid of the dark, and sometimes even crept into Giacomo’s room in the middle of the night.

           

“I will later, but right now I have to go see someone.”

           

“Whom?  Why do you have to see him?  Is he someone I know?”

           

“He’s just an old friend, no one you know.  I’ll be back soon.  Ulricco will be guarding the door.”

           

“Oh.”  The Prince thought for a moment.  “Don’t stay out too late.  Ulricco’s a good guard, I guess, but you’re ever so much better.”

           

Privately, Giacomo agreed.  Ulricco was a big hearty man who had caught the King’s eye during the last battle with the del Sole duchy, when he had held a narrow defile single-handedly, cutting down man after man.  After the battle the King had made him one of the King’s Best Fifty, who guarded the Children’s Castle. 

           

“And it really was single-handedly,” Ulricco liked to say whenever he described the battle, which was often.  “Because I only ever use one hand to hold my sword!”  And he would caress his sword, which for most men would have been a two-handed broadsword, suggestively.  After a while Giacomo had grown tired of this and asked Ulricco to be his training partner.  He had disarmed Ulricco after half-a-dozen strokes. 

           

“Single combat is a chancy thing,” Giacomo had told him consolingly.  “You never know who’s going to win.”

           

Afterwards, Ulricco had continued to tell his story, but he also started holding his sword with both hands whenever he trained with Giacomo.

           

“I’ll come look in on you when I get back,” promised Giacomo.  He used to kiss the Prince on the forehead when he left him for the night, but lately the Prince had started to complain that he wasn’t a baby, so Giacomo only winked at him as he went out the door.

 

***

           

Giacomo went down the long spiral staircase from the Prince’s tower to the Hall of the Children’s Castle.  The Children’s Castle was a small separate keep, connected to the Major Castle by a third-floor catwalk.  It had been constructed about two hundred years ago as a defensive measure against the ravaging del Sole family.  The idea had been to make the attackers split their force in two in order to capture both the King and the heir. 

           

About a hundred and fifty years ago the heir had risen up against the King, using the Children’s Castle as his base.  Fifty of the King’s best men had retaken the Castle.  The rebellious heir had been executed quite unpleasantly (he had been right when he proclaimed that his father was a crazed tyrant who enjoyed watching others suffer), and the King’s Fifty had been set to guarding the Castle ever since.  Giacomo had never told Prince Luca that their job was as much to spy on the current heir and his siblings as to protect them.

           

Five of the ten guards on duty were playing cards in the Hall when Giacomo came down.  This often happened in times of peace.  They invited Giacomo to join them.

           

“I have business,” he told them.  “And I think the watch should be at full strength tonight.”

           

“You don’t think that del Sole...” said Micco, the youngest and brightest of the five at the table.

           

“I don’t think we should take chances,” Giacomo told them.  “Especially after Fabiano’s report.”

           

The five at the table rolled their eyes.  Everyone knew the value of Fabiano’s tales. Gianni, the senior guard there, started to deal another hand. 

           

“Out!”  Giacomo snatched up everybody’s cards.  “Micco, you won.  Everyone out!”

           

Gianni looked at him.  “You’re serious,” he said.  “You really think there’s something in Fabiano’s story...”

           

“Fabiano normally talks about beautiful maidens offering him their favors, or how he’s the secret son of the Duco del Paesino and a washerwoman’s daughter.  I’ve never head him mention a shadowy man before.”

           

“Yes, but he was drunk...”

           

“Out!”

           

Gianni gave Giacomo a surprised look, and then headed out to take his post.  The other four followed him, looking rebelliously subdued. 

           

Giacomo couldn’t explain why he was so concerned about Fabiano’s story.  Fabiano had come to him the night before with his tale.  He had clearly lifted the elbow quite liberally, and was having a hard time speaking coherently or even standing up straight.  But he had repeated several times that a “shadowy man” had been in The Hunter’s Rest with him.  Fabiano thought he had seen him again as he was walking back from the tavern, and then, as he was waiting to be let into the Castle, he had suddenly been sure the man was somewhere in the dark behind him.  He had rushed past the guards manning the portcullis and run straight up the winding staircase to Giacomo.

           

“What do you mean, ‘shadowy’?” Giacomo had asked him.  “Did he have a dark complexion?”

           

Fabiano answered that he had never seen his face.

           

“Well, was he wearing a dark cloak?”

           

Fabiano said he thought so but he wasn’t sure.

           

“So why was he ‘shadowy’?” pressed Giacomo. 

 

“I don’t know,” Fabiano had slurred. “He was just...Shadowy.”  He shuddered, almost falling down from where he was leaning against the doorframe. 

           

“Have you told anyone?  Does Damiano know about this?”  Damiano was the personal bodyguard to Desiderato, Prince Luca’s older brother and heir to the Coniugato kingdom. In theory, Damiano was in charge of all the guards in the Children’s Castle. 

           

“I thought it would be better to tell you,” said Fabiano.

           

In practice, most of the guards preferred reporting to Giacomo, who then passed the information along, if he thought it necessary.  Damiano was a del Paesino, and tended to look down his nose at the common King’s Men in a way that made them forget what they wanted to say and back out of the room, stammering apologies.  Giacomo, on the other hand, was just Giacomo dal Prado.  Everyone knew he had a famous father and had done lots of great deeds, but he still listened attentively and made thoughtful replies.  Many of the younger guards spent much of their free time gazing at him hopefully, waiting to see if he would actually describe one of the great deeds he had done.  So far, they were all disappointed.

           

Giacomo had sent Fabiano to sleep it off, and ordered a search of the streets around both Castles.  No sign of a shadowy man, or any other sinister figure, had been found.  The problem, Giacomo had thought in annoyance, was that there was no proper space around the Castles.  Originally they had been in the middle of a large piazza, which made it impossible for anyone to lurk around them unnoticed, but in recent decades all the battles had taken place outside of the city, and buildings had sprung up around the Castles.  Now the entire city of Fiori was a warren of dark narrow streets winding around between tall houses and towers.  Admittedly, no one was going to be able to storm the Castles en masse, but the possibilities for watching from the shadows and slipping away unseen were endless.  Giacomo had told himself to stop thinking about shadows, but he had also told himself he would visit The Hunter’s Rest. 

 

***

           

“We’ll leave the portcullis up until you get back, Giacomo,” the guards at the gate told him as he left for the tavern.  The portcullis normally came down for the night at the tenth hour, and anyone who hadn’t come back by then had to find alternate sleeping quarters, but there was some flexibility allowed the more senior men.

           

“No,” he told them.  “Lower it.  Lower it now.  I have a key to the catwalk door.  Tell whomever’s on duty there to expect me.”

           

“It’s only the eighth hour,” the guards at the gate protested.

           

“We can’t be too careful with the del Sole delegation arriving,” Giacomo said.  He couldn’t say why he had the obscure feeling that the Castle was vulnerable tonight, but he insisted anyway.  The gate guards looked dubious, but as he walked away he heard the portcullis come clanking down behind him.

           

The Castles were lit with hundreds of flickering torches that made strange shifting patterns on the walls and streets.  The nobles’ houses around them had torches outside their doors, allowing a passer-by to move easily enough from pool to pool of light.  As Giacomo left the rich part of town behind and drew closer to the tavern, though, he had to rely on his lantern.  A drunken man would have no problem imagining followers in the shadows.

           

The Hunter’s Rest was a pleasant-enough tavern that sold cheap local wine and was consequently a great favorite amongst the guards.  Once upon a time it had been on the edge of town and hunters had come there to sell their catches, but now it was firmly inside the city and hunters never came there at all.

           

Giacomo was not a great frequenter of taverns, but the proprietor of The Hunter’s Rest was not the kind of man who would fail to recognize Prince Luca’s personal bodyguard and tutor.  He immediately offered Giacomo the seat of his choosing and a glass of his best wine, on the house.  Giacomo took up a position at the bar and tasted the wine.  It was not, of course, as good as his mother’s, but you can’t have everything.  He complimented it handsomely when the proprietor asked him how he liked it.  The conversation naturally flowed to the other guards, and to the tavern’s regular patrons, and then on to any unusual visitors. 

           

“We normally see the same faces over and over again,” the proprietor told Giacomo.  “Last night we only had one stranger.”

           

Giacomo allowed himself to appear mildly interested, and asked if the man had seemed to enjoy himself.

           

“Mostly he just sat in the corner and sipped his glass.”

           

Giacomo asked if he had seemed to have anything shady about him.  He was, he explained, a little concerned that some of the less scrupulous guards were lifting things from the kitchens–just bits of plate and silver, things like that–and passing them on.  He wondered if the proprietor thought the strange man could be involved in anything like that?  And if so, did he look like he might have done business with any of the guards who were visiting the tavern last night?  Had he, for example, spoken to any of them, or followed any of them out onto the street?  Giacomo was particularly suspicious of his man Fabiano.

           

The proprietor said he hadn’t noticed anything of that sort, although the strange man had left shortly before Fabiano had.  But so had lots of others–anyone who worked at either Castle had to be back before the tenth hour, and the sensible ones gave themselves enough time to get there without a rush.  Fabiano always left it until the last moment, though, and then paid up in a great hurry and dashed off.  Half the time he underpaid, but half the time he overpaid, so in the end it came out even.  The proprietor gave his opinion that Fabiano was too loose-tongued to be involved in anything underhanded, and Giacomo should look to his more tight-lipped men for the culprit.  Giacomo thanked him for his advice, and left.

           

He still had a vague irrational feeling that he shouldn’t leave the Castle for too long tonight, and stood in the street for a while, debating whether or not to go see Massimo, in the hope of gaining useful information.  After a brief mental struggle, he decided to go.  After all, there were fifty men guarding the Children’s Castle, and he wanted to put the matter of the shadowy man to rest once and for all.

           

Massimo was a surgeon, although now that his hair was white he rarely practiced any more.  He had patched Giacomo up more than once.  Giacomo thought that there was no one better than a surgeon for stitching up wounds or setting broken bones, but they unquestionably operated close to the dark side of things.  If someone were to know about something shady going on, he felt, it would be Massimo.

           

Once he arrived at Massimo’s rooms, which were only a few streets away from The Hunter’s Rest, Giacomo had to knock on the door several times in order to rouse anyone.  Eventually he was let in by a sleepy-looking maid.

           

“Tell them Barbaro down the street has a much steadier hand for stitching these days,” an old man called from the back room.

           

“If I ever need stitching, I’ll bear that in mind,” Giacomo replied, brushing past the maid and into Massimo’s bedroom.

           

“I was just going to bed,” said Massimo, by way of a greeting.  “Come back during the day.”

           

“You know I can’t leave the Prince during the day,” Giacomo told him.  “I need information.”

           

Massimo visibly struggled between several conflicting poses, but curiosity and pleasure won out.  “About what?” he asked, sitting up in his bed.

           

Giacomo told him the story of the shadowy man.

           

Massimo picked thoughtfully at his counterpane.  “You say that Alberto from The Hunter noticed nothing odd about him?” he asked.

           

“No.”

           

“But Fabiano was frightened of him?”

           

“Yes.”

           

“We all know how much credence to give Fabiano’s fears...”

           

“This was different.  Sometimes when he’s drunk he sees things and screams and makes a fool of himself, but this time it wasn’t like that.  He was...Spooked.  Like a horse who knows there’s something in the woods, but can’t tell whether it’s a squirrel or a wolf.”

           

“I see.”  Massimo fingered the counterpane a bit more.  “And you felt it too,” he stated.

           

“Not at first, but when I left the Castle tonight I made them lower the portcullis. And I keep feeling I should go back.”

           

“Do you think someone might make on attempt?  Do you think Prince Desiderato is in danger?”

           

“I hadn’t thought of that,” Giacomo said.  “I only thought of Luca.”

           

“Why would anyone be after Luca?” Massimo asked.  “Desiderato is the heir, and the Princesses are old enough to marry and bring a man a place in Court, but Luca is hardly more than an ordinary boy.”

           

“I don’t know,” Giacomo admitted. 

           

“You’re too fond of him,” Massimo told him severely.

           

“I know,” Giacomo admitted.  “I can’t help myself.”

           

“A sensible man with your abilities would have arranged matters so as to end up guarding the heir,” Massimo said.

           

“I don’t like Desiderato,” Giacomo confessed.  “He’s a bully.”

           

“Just like his father,” said Massimo.  “Well, he is what he is, and this isn’t helping us solve your problem.  We need to concentrate on your shadowy man.”  He returned to picking at his counterpane, and pulled out a pink embroidery flower.  He gave the crinkled thread a disproportionately horrified look.

           

“Micca!” he shouted.

           

The maid came in, her arms full of the bedclothes she was using to make up her bed in the front room, took the thread, and left the room, shaking her head.

           

“There are various orders of self-appointed assassins, alchemists, and other shady characters,” Massimo said once she was gone.  “A lot of them enjoy sitting at the corner table in a black cloak and frightening the customers.  Of course, that’s about all they can do, so they might as well enjoy it.  Your shadowy man sounds different.”  He gazed at the tiny holes in the cloth where the embroidered flower had been.

           

“When I was a young man, just a journeyman surgeon, I served far down in the south, in the Forzesco Kingdom,” he said suddenly.  “While I was there, the Forzesco heir was struck by an arrow.  The wound festered.  The chief surgeon wanted to take off the arm.  Otherwise, he said, the poisoning would spread to the heart and Prince Sandro would die.  But the King wouldn’t hear of it.  He called in two more surgeons.  They both said the same thing.  So he called in an herbwoman.  She agreed with the surgeons–but, she said, there might be a chance.  There was someone she knew of, someone who might be able to effect a cure without removing the arm.  The King ordered that he be brought over immediately, and the next day he was there.”

           

Massimo paused for a moment to clear his throat, which sounded curiously tight.

           

“They told me later he was called Lo Sfilatro–The Unraveler, in their dialect,” he said.  “He was a small dark man, but no smaller or darker than is usual there.  He wore the clothes of an ordinary man.  His speech was soft, with a strong Forzesco accent.  The only unusual thing about him was a blue and red tattoo on his right wrist.  Somehow the lines in it seemed to writhe before my eyes.

           

“I was tending the Prince when he came in.  He came over to me and asked me how the Prince was–was he eating, was he sleeping, what his urine was like.  He never looked me in the eyes–he only watched my hands.  As he stood there beside me, my heart started to pound.  I answered his questions, and my voice sounded like it was coming from the bottom of a well.  My ears kept ringing and ringing.

           

“‘You will be a good surgeon one day,’ he said when he was done questioning me.  ‘I can tell by the movements of your fingers.  But someday you will have to conquer your fear of the unknown.’  Then he told me I wouldn’t be needed for what he was about to do, and sent me away.  I stumbled out of the tent and sat on the ground for a long time. 

           

“I don’t know what he did.  I didn’t see anything unusual happening in the tent.  But after a while he came out, and said that the Prince would live, and would retain the use of his arm.  Then he left.  As he walked by me my heart gave me a sharp stab, and I knew–just for a moment–what it would be like to die.”

           

“Do you think this Sfilatro might be my shadowy man?” asked Giacomo when it became clear that Massimo had finished.

           

“I don’t know,” said Massimo, looking at his hands.  “But it sounds like the same sort of thing.  I will ask around tomorrow.  Perhaps someone will have heard something.”

           

Giacomo thanked him for his information and his future help, and left.  On the whole, Massimo’s story had comforted him.  If the shadowy man was this Unraveler, or someone like him, he didn’t sound like a potential threat, no matter how frightened Massimo and Fabiano had been of him.  Surgeons and healers might stray over into things a sensible man would shy clear of, but it seemed unlikely someone like that would be plotting against the royal family.

           

He walked back to the center of the city and went in through the front gate of the Major Castle.  He dropped in on Piero, the captain of the guard there.  Piero said that the watch had been doubled, in preparation for tomorrow’s festivities, but in general things had been quiet as the grave. 

           

Giacomo wished him a good night and climbed up to the catwalk.  The guard at the Major door greeted him and stood aside to let him use his key.  He made his way quickly across the swaying rope bridge–Luca loved crossing it, and begged Giacomo to let him go out on it every day, but he was only allowed to use it on special occasions, when speed was of the essence–unlocked the Children’s door, and greeted the guard who was there waiting for him.

           

“How has it been?” he asked, surprised at the sudden return of his earlier anxiousness.

           

“Quiet as the grave, Giacomo,” the guard said cheerfully.

           

“I don’t like that expression,” Giacomo told him sharply.  Hearing it twice in a row had made something heavy settle on his heart.  “It’s gloomy.  Couldn’t you come up with something else?”

           

The guard apologized with a surprised look.  Feeling guilty for his outburst, Giacomo apologized in turn.

           

“I must be turning into an old woman,” he made himself say.

           

Ulricco was standing guard outside Luca’s door, just as he should be, when Giacomo climbed up to the Prince’s tower. 

           

“How has it been?” he asked.

           

“The Prince asked me to let him out a couple of times, like he does sometimes, but then he settled down, and he’s been silent as the dead for the past hour,” Ulricco reported.  “Did you have a good time?  Was your outing...productive?”  He leered suggestively. 

           

“Very productive.”  Giacomo checked the lock on the Prince’s door out of the corner of his eye.  It seemed secure enough to hold off a mid-sized army.  He wished Ulricco a good night and went to his door, which led to the next room over.  Also locked.  For some reason, his hands had a hard time working the lock.  Giacomo told himself he would have to arrange to have it oiled tomorrow.  He bolted the door behind him.

           

Giacomo’s room was a small windowless chamber, only slightly larger than his bed.  The door between it and the Prince’s bedroom was the only thing ever left unlocked at night.  Giacomo opened it slowly, trying not to let it creak.  Luca was a light sleeper and often woke up when he checked on him, but tonight there was no glad cry.  Giacomo raised his lantern a little in order to look at the bed.  It was a warm night, and the bedcurtains had not been drawn closed.  The bedclothes seemed awfully flat.  He rushed over and shook them out, his hands trembling feverishly.  The Prince was gone.

 

***

           

At first, Giacomo told himself that the Prince must be hiding somewhere, as a joke.  He had done so before.  But both his room and Giacomo’s were turned upside down with no result.  Ulricco swore on his mother’s life that he hadn’t left his post and that the Prince couldn’t possibly have gotten past him. 

           

A general search of both Castles was ordered, with all the servants pressed into helping.  Giacomo informed the King and Queen of what had happened himself.  The Queen fell into a dramatic fit of the hysterics, requiring the aid of all seven ladies-in-waiting to bring her back to her senses, and the King shouted and issued pointless orders.  By sunrise, the Prince still had not been found.

           

There was a brief lull in the search then.  Most of the servants had had to return to their normal duties. The Queen had demanded that no one be allowed food, water, or rest until Luca was found, but she had been persuaded to change her mind.  The servants were busy making and distributing breakfast. 

           

Now Giacomo sat in the Children’s Hall, trying and failing to force down a pastry.  It was his favorite, with almonds.  The cook had carried it to him herself, and told him, patting his shoulder as she did so, that almonds sharpened the mind, and he’d be sure to find Prince Luca as soon as he ate it.  Giacomo had never heard anything about almonds sharpening the mind before, but he took a bite anyway.  It seemed terribly dry, however, and he couldn’t manage to get it down.  Eventually he gave up and sat with his face in hands.  This didn’t help very much either, though, and he was just rousing himself for further action when Damiano came over.

           

“Prince Desi and the Princesses are locked in the highest tower, with ten men set to guarding them,” he reported.

           

“Good,” answered Giacomo listlessly.

           

“Ulricco has been arrested,” Damiano continued.

           

Giacomo jerked upright.  “Is there any reason to suspect him?” he asked incredulously.

           

“Only that he was the one guarding the Prince’s door last night.  The Queen was insisting that someone be arrested, and Ulricco was the best choice.  I had him put in the most comfortable cell, and brought him breakfast myself.”

           

Damiano, Giacomo thought, could be insufferably aristocratic when he had nothing better to do, but in times of trouble he showed why he was the heir’s personal bodyguard.

           

“I also took the time to question him myself when I brought him breakfast,” Damiano went on.  “In a friendly fashion.  He still says that he heard and saw nothing.  I’m inclined to believe him.  He talks a lot of nonsense, but if he were going to lie, it would be to say that he’d seen a dozen assassins roaming the halls, whom he defeated one by one in single combat.  The only thing that would make him say he heard and saw nothing would be if he heard and saw nothing.”

           

“Unless he were part of the conspiracy...”

           

“He doesn’t have the brains.  And he’s madly loyal to the King.”

           

Giacomo was inclined to agree.

           

“I have to get back to the Prince,” Damiano said.  “I shouldn’t have left him to see to Ulricco in the first place, but I thought...Anyway.  I left ten men with him, but after last night, it doesn’t seem enough.  Good luck.”  He turned and left.

           

Well, Giacomo thought, I knew I was on my own already.  He crumbled the pastry a bit more.

           

Damiano was perfectly correct.  A bodyguard’s place was guarding his charge’s body.  At a time like this, Damiano should be following Prince Desi’s every step, including into the privy.  Coming to see Giacomo had been a breach of protocol.  Giacomo hoped he wouldn’t be punished for it.  Prince Desi should be perfectly safe where he was, but Luca should have been perfectly safe, and he was gone.  Once again Giacomo worried and picked at the events of last night, trying to figure out where he had gone wrong.  Of course, the mistake had been in leaving the Castle in the first place, but the thought–he wasn’t sure if it was a fear or a hope–that his presence might not have made any difference kept intruding.  No one had noticed anything.  If the kidnapper had somehow stolen silently into Luca’s room, would Giacomo have ever known what was happening?

           

Giacomo picked up his shredded pastry and carried it down to the dungeons, where Ulricco was, as promised, in the most comfortable cell.  He had a torch, a pitcher of water, and no chains or manacles.

           

“I’m sorry they did this to you,” Giacomo told him.  “Have a pastry.”

           

Ulricco took it, but set it aside. 

           

“I’m not hungry, somehow,” he said.  “I keep thinking of Prince Luca.  If I’d let him out when he asked...”

           

“How did he sound?” Giacomo asked him.  “Did he sound upset, frightened?”

           

Ulricco shook his head.  “I heard him get out of the bed and come to the door,” he began.  “He stood by the door and said, ‘you know, Ulricco, you’re my favorite of all the guards.  Won’t you let me come play with you?’  He stood at the door and wheedled for a while, then I heard him go get back into the bed.  Then he came back over to the door and complained he didn’t like being locked in the room by himself, and there was a funny shadow in the corner away from the lantern.  I asked him what it looked like, and he told me that now he was standing by the door, it was gone.  I told him it was just a trick of the lantern, and he should draw the bedcurtains nice and tight, and you’d be back quick as quick to come check on him.  I heard him go back to the bed and mess with the bedcurtains, and that was it.  I didn’t hear a thing until you came back.”

           

“The bedcurtains were still drawn back when I went in,” Giacomo said thoughtfully. 

           

“Well, they must have been pushed aside when he was taken out of the bed.”

           

“No, I mean, they were still fastened to the bedposts with their loops.  The curtains are very heavy and unwieldy.  Leonora, the maid who does the room, has a special way of folding them up and fastening them so that they lie flat.  They were still lying flat.  If you were kidnapping a prince out from under the noses of his guards, would you take the time to carefully fold up the bedcurtains and fasten them to the bedposts, the way a high-class maid would?”

           

“No,” said Ulricco, looking puzzled.

           

“The noise of the bedclothes being disturbed must have been when they took the Prince.”

           

Ulricco still looked puzzled.  “He’s a feisty little thing,” he said.  “I can’t see him being taken without putting up a fight.  It seems to me that he’s the type who’d scream and bite.  I don’t think even a sword would shut him up.”

           

“You’re right,” Giacomo agreed.  “He went through a phase of tantrums a few years ago, and it would take three strong men to catch him and drag him back up to his room.”  He rose.  “Hopefully we’ll have you out of here in no time,” he said.  “Meanwhile, eat your pastry.  You never know what fits the Queen will take next.”  He left the dungeon.

           

When he returned to the surface, all the guards had been put on duty guarding, in case lightning should strike twice.  Everyone entering or leaving the city gates was being questioned and searched, and members of the King’s Militia were circulating through the city, asking about strangers and letting it be known there was a reward for news of a nine-year-old boy.

           

Giacomo was being left oddly alone.  Apparently they thought he was not actively guilty, but nonetheless he was in enough disgrace not to be given any duty.  After pacing around the Hall until his anxiety overcame both his good sense and his respect for protocol, he changed out of his uniform and slipped away from the Castles, heading towards Massimo’s.

           

Massimo was sitting on the couch in his front room, wearing a dressing gown that would have shamed a beggar.  It was such an inconsequential thing, and yet for a moment it filled up Giacomo’s head so much that the first thing he blurted out on entering the room was, “you should get a new dressing gown.”

           

“And I thought you would be here to ask me what I had found out, not criticize my sense of style,” Massimo snapped.

           

“I’m sorry.”  Giacomo dropped into a chair.  “I don’t know what I’m doing.  Have you found out anything about the Unraveler yet?”

           

“I haven’t even gotten dressed yet.  How could I have found anything out?”

           

“I don’t know.  I’m sorry.  But I think it might be important.  Extremely important.  More important than...”

           

“I get it, I get it,” Massimo interrupted.  “It’s very important.  I tell you what: we’ll go together.”  He heaved himself out of the couch, using his arms, and made his way shakily to the back room.

           

Giacomo sat with his face in his hands until Massimo reappeared, this time dressed in a disgracefully stained tunic and what had once been hose but were now rags hanging around his legs.  Micca came following him into the front room.

           

“But Master,” she was pleading, “my mother made you some lovely new hose, look!  You might catch a chill in those horrible holey old things.”

           

“Your mother’s always making me things,” Massimo answered querulously.  “I think she has her eye on me.”

           

“My father would be surprised to hear that,” Micca responded with unexpected tartness, and retired to the back room, shaking her head.

           

“Stop moping about,” Massimo told Giacomo, slapping him on the shoulder.  “It could be worse.”

           

“That’s not very likely.”  Giacomo debated with himself for a moment–the Prince’s disappearance was not supposed to be made known–and then said, “Luca’s gone.”

           

Massimo sat down on the other chair at the table.  “And you’re here instead of out looking for him?” he asked.

           

“We already searched both Castles from top to bottom.  The militiamen are going through the city as we speak.  I had to do something else.”

           

“Tell me about it,” Massimo said gravely.

           

Giacomo told him the whole story, understanding it even less this time around.

           

“I see.”  Massimo stood up.  “Well, let us go see a friend of mine.  He may have something useful to tell us.”

           

The early-morning streets were just beginning to fill with people.  It was a clear sunny day, with gusts of wind that blew bits of straw and trash up and down the streets.  There was a festive feeling in the air.  Giacomo heard the words “the del Sole delegation” more than once.  No one said anything about Prince Luca’s disappearance.  They seemed to assume that the militiamen and the searches were due to the delegation’s arrival.

           

Massimo still seemed a little shaky and bleary-eyed when they set off, but he grew more alert as he led Giacomo away from the mercantile district and down a dark dirty alley between timber buildings that leaned inwards, blocking out the sky.  He stopped in front of a door with a human skull nailed to it, and knocked.

           

“Is that a real skull?” asked Giacomo.

           

“Benito is a student of the human body,” Massimo explained.  “He dissects corpses.  He sees no reason not to advertise the fact.”

           

A servant with an expressionless face let them in.  She told them to wait in the front room, and went off to tell her master they were there.

           

The room was dark, and smelled of strange and unpleasant herbs with, Giacomo couldn’t help thinking, a faint whiff of rotting flesh.  He tried to convince himself it was just his imagination.  They sat down at the table.  It was a large butcher-block table, heavily scarred and stained.  Giacomo wondered if Benito did his dissections on it.  It seemed likely.  Then he wondered if Benito also ate his dinner at it.  He tried to think about something else.

           

Benito, when he came into the room, turned out to be a small thin man wearing a large apron. Giacomo tried to convince himself he wasn’t dressed like a butcher, but he was.  Then he tried to convince himself that men like Benito were doing a great service to mankind and that their discoveries were saving the lives of soldiers like him, Giacomo, but he wished he didn’t have to come face-to-face with it. No doubt his father would find it fascinating.

           

Benito greeted Massimo warmly, and then came over to Giacomo, walking around him and surveying him like a man looking over a horse at auction.

           

“He looks a bit cleverer than your average soldier,” he pronounced eventually.

           

“He is a bit cleverer than your average soldier,” Massimo told him.

           

Benito grabbed Giacomo’s head and twisted it this way and that.

           

“That hurts!” Giacomo protested.

           

Benito shook his head.  “Soldiers have no stomach for pain,” he said.  “But...”  He suddenly pushed Giacomo’s face down onto the table.  Giacomo silently commanded himself not to resist, and lay there, his nose crushed uncomfortably against the tabletop, which from this distance definitely held a suggestion of the slaughterhouse.  Benito pulled down his collar.

           

“Aha!” he cried triumphantly.  “A Reborn man!”  His fingers traced the circle tattooed around Giacomo’s vertebra, the one where the neck joined the shoulders.  “I knew it!  I knew by the way you held your hands!  You had to be more than a soldier.”  He jerked Giacomo back upright.

           

“How long have you been part of the Rebirth?” he asked eagerly.

           

“A little over fifteen years,” Giacomo told him reluctantly.  “My father wanted me to.”

           

Benito nodded thoughtfully. “Your father is Giovanni dal Prado?” he asked.

           

“Yes.”

           

Benito nodded again.  “I am no art master, but even I have heard of him.  Of course, we share many interests.  I saw your father’s sculpture of The Girl and the Bull in Prado.  The man who made that sculpture understands anatomy.”

           

“My father was obsessed with getting the proportions right.  He read many books on the human body, and drew lots of diagrams,” Giacomo said.  “But this has nothing to do with why I am here.  Please, if you can help me, I will introduce my father to you myself.”

           

“I am also part of the Rebirth,” Benito told him, pulling down his collar and twisting his neck to show a tattoo like Giacomo’s.  “So if I can help you, I will.”

           

Massimo told his story of the Unraveler, and Fabiano’s shadowy man, and asked if Benito knew anything about anyone like that.

           

Benito made a face.  “They are not part of the Rebirth,” he said.  “Their old texts are not our old texts, and they have no interest in gaining new knowledge–at least, not the kind of knowledge founded on reason.”

           

“But you know of men like that?”

           

“Perhaps.  As it is in the service of the son of Giovanni dal Prado, I will visit them.  I will take you with me.”

           

Soon they were walking down an alley even darker and dirtier than Benito’s.  They stopped in front of a door with a ram’s skull nailed to it. 

           

“Superstition!” muttered Benito, shaking his head.  If he hadn’t been so worried about Luca, Giacomo would have been amused at his own internal agreement.  As he had told Benito, he had joined the Rebirth to please his father, but it seemed that no one could be raised by Giovanni dal Prado and not be infected with the ideals of reason and harmony.  It never would have occurred to Giacomo to attempt to read the future in the entrails of a ram, but apparently others still believed in it.

           

The fortune-teller who opened the door to them was small and dark.  Giacomo had a moment of hope that this was Fabiano’s shadowy man, but he was unable to convince himself that the person standing before him would be capable of striking terror in anybody’s heart.  Besides, as he followed the fortune-teller down a narrow corridor and into a dark room, he realized the man was a hunchback.  Surely Fabiano and the proprietor of The Hunter’s Rest would have mentioned that.

           

Their host’s room was even smellier than Benito’s.  Sticks of incense were burning on a platter on the table.  The shutters were closed, and there was only one candle, which also seemed to be scented.  Through the gloom Giacomo made out a crystal ball, casting bones, a basin of water, and various other tools of the fortune-telling trade.

           

A conversation took place between Benito and the fortune-teller, with Massimo occasionally joining in.  Giacomo was ignored.  He sat down at the table, suddenly feeling light-headed from the fumes.

           

The fortune-teller turned to Giacomo.  “I assume you are a Reborn man, like Benito here?” he asked.

           

Giacomo nodded dizzily.

           

The fortune-teller shook his head disapprovingly.  “This will make it more difficult.  A Reborn man finds it more difficult to part with his reason than with his right arm.”

           

“Please,” Giacomo said, trying not to slur his speech.  “If you can help me, I will part with both my reason and my right arm, and consider it worth the price.”

           

“Your friends have told me your story, or at least the part of it they think I am fit to know,” the fortune-teller continued.  He did not seem to bear any ill-will towards Massimo for not telling him the whole story.  “I must say, I am intrigued.  I have not heard of anyone like your shadowy man in the city, but we must search deeper.  Your friends will have to leave the room.”

           

“Then send them out.”

           

Benito seemed not to have any qualms about leaving Giacomo alone with the fortune-teller, but Massimo gave him a look of deep suspicion as he left the room.

           

“Remember the Unraveler!” he hissed in Giacomo’s ear.

           

The fortune-teller did not look like the bearer of latent menace to Giacomo, so he only nodded.

           

Once they had the room to themselves, the fortune-teller walked around Giacomo several times, looking him over from every angle and occasionally passing his hand over his head and face, as if feeling for invisible air currents.

           

“You yourself have had no contact with this shadowy man?” he asked.

           

“Not that I know of.”

           

“I do not sense his presence about you.  Mostly what I sense is...” the fortune-teller screwed up his face in thought, “brightness.  And highness.  You are a guard for the royal family, am I correct?”

           

“I changed out of my uniform!” Giacomo exclaimed.

           

The fortune-teller gave him a look.  “Benito already told me you were Giovanni dal Prado’s son.  It is well-known that one of Giovanni dal Prado’s sons is a sculptor, but the other is Prince Luca’s companion and personal bodyguard.  The marks on your hands and the muscles on your arms are from a sword, not a chisel.  Therefore, you must be the guard.  But that is beside the point.  The point is that what I sense most strongly from your aura is the presence of royalty.  An aura is like a track on the ground: by examining it, you can learn about the ground, and you can also learn about those who have come into contact with it.  You and this shadowy man, if he exists, have not crossed paths.”

           

“Do you believe he exists?” asked Giacomo.  The fumes in the room seemed to have dulled his skepticism.

           

“I believe it is possible that such a man exists.  But so far all we have is the story of a man prone to lying.  You yourself have not come across him.  Therefore we will have to look farther.”

           

The fortune-teller picked up the casting bones, which were six-sided like dice, and rattled them in a wooden cup with a ram’s head crudely burned onto its side, before tossing them out onto the table.  Then he stood over them for a while, looking at them from different angles and making inaudible comments to himself.  Eventually he took out a piece of paper and starting jotting down notes on it.

           

“What do you see?” asked Giacomo, curious in spite of himself.  He peered over the fortune-teller’s shoulder, trying to make sense of the diagram:

 

                                                            Death (hidden, unraveling, gates, change, stranger, fear)

                                                Stranger (newcomer, death, life, birth, fear, change)

Life (open, renewal, birth, change, courage, stranger)                               

          Lover (stranger, newcomer, courage, birth, passion, knowledge)

Change (death, courage, stranger, chance, lover, birth)

                                                                                                Birth (child, change, renewal, life, passion, stranger)

 

           

“There are many, many ways to read the bones,” the fortune-teller told him.  “I could spend days and days drawing charts and diagrams and explaining to you what they meant, and in the end we might still see two different meanings.  But in very simple terms, these are the six bones, with their six sides.  The first word next to each is the side that landed face-down, and the last word is the one that is face-up.  Those are the two most important sides in a casting, although the others are also significant.  The pattern the bones make is meaningful as well.  It can be analyzed vertically, horizontally, in doubles, in triples, and many other ways.”

           

“I don’t have days and days,” Giacomo told him.  “I don’t even have hours and hours.  What can you tell me right away?”

           

“Right away?  The most important bone is Death, which has Hidden down and Fear up.  The most important side in this casting is the Stranger side. It is linked with Open, Knowledge, and Child.  And one more thing: change is coming.”

           

“But what about the shadowy man?” Giacomo demanded.  “What do the bones say about him?”

           

The fortune-teller gave him another look.  “First of all, they say that he most likely exists. Second of all, he is hidden–hidden in fear.  Third of all, he is linked with a child.  But if you are willing to change, you will be able to gain the knowledge necessary to open his secret.”

           

“Really?” Giacomo asked eagerly.

           

“That is one reading, yes.  There could be others.”

           

“What do I have to do in order to find him?”

           

The fortune-teller thought for a moment.  “I see how eager you are,” he said eventually.  “I would be a fool not to help one of the King’s Fifty and Giovanni dal Prado’s son.  I will take you to someone who may be able to tell you more.”

           

Giacomo thanked him profusely.  Soon they were all leaving the fortune-teller’s rooms and walking down yet another dark and dirty alley.  Giacomo doubted he had seen this many nasty alleys in the ten years he had lived in Fiori.

           

They came to a rickety wooden house on the edge of the city.  The fortune-teller opened the door without knocking, and led them up a steep staircase so narrow that Giacomo’s shoulders kept brushing the walls on either side.  There was a strong smell of dust and old wood.

           

The man in the room at the top of the staircase was so fat Giacomo doubted he could squeeze himself out of the room.  He must be trapped there.  He was sitting in an armchair at the head of a small table.

           

Besides the fat man and his chair, the room itself held only the table, four straight-backed chairs, and, in the middle of the table, a massive crystal ball that drew the eye and refused to let it go.  Giacomo could hardly tear his gaze away from it, even when he was being introduced to the fat man, who was called Andrea.

           

“Andrea is the best ball-gazer in the city,” the fortune-teller explained.  “Most of us can catch no more than the occasional glimpse, but Andrea reads his ball the way other men read books.”

           

Andrea, who was too fat to bow, only inclined his head in response.

           

Everyone sat down at the table without speaking.  The fortune-teller handed the diagram of his casting to Andrea.

           

Andrea studied the diagram in silence for a long time.  Then he placed it face-down on the table, blew gently on his hands, and cupped them over the crystal.  It began to emanate a warm glow.  He bent closer, shielding the ball with his hands so that the others were unable to see its images.

           

He watched for a surprisingly long time, occasionally emitting faint grunts and exclamations and tilting his head this way and that.  After a while he seemed to be satisfied, for he let go of the crystal and straightened back up.  He pulled out a quill and ink pot from a shelf under the table, wrote something on the diagram, and pushed it over to the fortune-teller.

           

“Give him a soldo,” the fortune-teller ordered Giacomo. 

           

“What did he see?” asked Giacomo.

           

The fortune-teller handed him the diagram.  Beneath it was written Street of the Apothecaries, 19.

           

“What is this?” demanded Giacomo

           

“What he has seen,” replied the fortune-teller.  “Give him a soldo, and let us be on our way.” 

           

Giacomo reluctantly handed over a bronze coin.  A soldo seemed too little to give for information that was actually useful, but too much for what Andrea had done. 

           

As soon as he set the coin down on the table, the fortune-teller snatched up the diagram and led them out the door, bowing repeatedly to Andrea as he did so.  It struck Giacomo that the fortune-teller was afraid of Andrea, even though he had brought them to him of his own free will.

           

“Andrea has seen something of me that I do not like,” the fortune-teller said, once they were outside again.  “Truly, his gift is frightening.  What I do–it is mostly the reading of signs.  Anyone could learn to do it, if they had the patience.  But Andrea has powers denied ordinary men.”

           

“Do you think he is like my shadowy man?” Giacomo asked.  “Do you think he might know something about him?  Should we go back and ask him?”

           

“Andrea has told us all he wishes for us to know,” the fortune-teller replied.  “Do not go back.  Let us make our way to the Street of the Apothecaries instead.”

           

The Street of the Apothecaries was back closer to the Castles and the respectable part of the city, even though the street itself did not have a very savory reputation.  Most of the shops looked prosperous enough, but there was something about them that told the passer-by they inhabited the realm of superstition, not reason.

           

Number 19 had a sign over the door that said Potions Made Upon Request.  The shutters were open, displaying expensive stained-glass windows.  The fortune-teller knocked at the freshly-painted red door.

           

A weasely-looking man cracked open the door and peered out at them suspiciously. 

           

“We’re here for a consultation,” said the fortune-teller.

           

“Do you have an appointment?” demanded the man.

           

“Andrea sent us,” the fortune-teller told him.  The man opened the door all the way and ushered them in.

           

They were brought to a room filled with a strong odor of herbs, and strangely-colored blocks of light from the stained-glass windows.

           

“I’ll tell the master you’re here,” said the weasely man, and left them.            

           

As soon as he was gone, the fortune-teller pulled a handful of something out of his pocket and tossed it on the table.  It was his casting bones. 

           

“Interesting,” he said.  He took out his earlier diagram and scribbled something on the back of it, before picking up the bones and putting them back in his pocket.

           

Giacomo looked over his shoulder at the new diagram.  It said:

                                               

                                                Death (Gates, Stranger)

                                Stranger (Change, Newcomer)                                Birth (Stranger, Child)

                                                                Lover (Knowledge, Stranger)                                Change (Stranger, Lover)

                                                Life (Stranger, Open)

               

“What does it mean?” he asked.

           

“Either the stranger or the knowledge necessary to find him is here,” the fortune-teller answered.  “It looks as if we need to find a hidden gate.”

           

Giacomo looked around the room, but without seeing any sign of a gate, hidden or otherwise. 

           

“The master will see you now,” announced the weasely man, appearing suddenly.  He was followed into the room by tall, hearty-looking man wearing impressive red robes.

           

“To what do I owe the pleasure of visitors from Andrea?” he asked, smiling broadly.  His eyes fell on the fortune-teller.  “Michele,” he said. 

           

“Flavio,” replied the fortune-teller.  “We came to you about this.”  He showed Flavio the diagram of the original casting.  “And this,” he added, turning the paper over and showing him the second casting.

           

“You know I don’t do castings, Michele,” Flavio told him, a hint of good-natured reproach in his voice.

           

“But you did,” the fortune-teller replied.  “You know how to read them.”

           

“I am a Reborn man these days, Michele, a man of reason!  I answered your summons out of respect for Andrea and our old comradeship, but you can’t expect me to subscribe to your outmoded superstitions.  Look!”  And he pulled back his left sleeve, exposing a ring of circles tattooed around his left wrist.

           

“Show the gentlemen your right wrist, Flavio,” the fortune-teller commanded.

           

“Surely they have no need...Youthful foolishness, no need to drag it up...A waste of time, nothing more...”

           

“Your right wrist,” the fortune-teller repeated.

           

Sighing dramatically, Flavio pulled back his right sleeve.  Blue and red lines that seemed to writhe against each other were tattooed around his wrist.

           

“The Order of Infinity!” exclaimed Benito, speaking for the first time since leaving his own rooms.

           

“Flavio was once an important member,” said the fortune-teller quietly. 

           

“But I assure you, I have left all that behind me,” Flavio put in quickly.  “These days my life is dedicated to reason; reason and science.  I am a respectable apothecary, nothing more.”

           

“There were members of the Order of Infinity back in Prado,” Giacomo said skeptically.  “They never seemed to do much.  How can this help us?”  The thought that it was now midday, and the shadowy man and Luca were no closer to being found, had suddenly pierced through the fog of worry and tiredness that was clouding his mind.  “They just seem to get together and have dinners and drink lots of wine.  I never could see what was so special about them.”

           

“There are members and there are members,” the fortune-teller told him.  “Flavio was one of the second type.  Tell him what was so special about you, Flavio.”

           

“Men of reason believe that the laws of time and space apply to them without exception,” Flavio said, once again sighing heavily.  “Members of the Order know differently.”      

           

There was a pause.

           

“Look,” Giacomo burst out, “I don’t care about what you did or did not do in your wild youth. I don’t care what you do now.  I don’t care about you at all.  All I care about is finding the shadowy man.”  And he described the shadowy man to Flavio.

           

“Hmmm.”  Flavio laced his fingers together and placed them against his lips.  “But you never saw himself?”

           

“I checked his aura,” the fortune-teller said.  “He never even came near him.”

           

“My advice would be to avoid him,” Flavio told them.  “If such a man exists, it would be best to stay as far away from him as possible.  You see, some members–much more powerful than I ever was–gained power over life and death, space and time.  Such a thing would leave a strong presence, a shadow if you will, hanging over them.  Some of them, they say, even had mastery over shadow itself.  That could be what your friend sensed.”

           

“I don’t have the option of avoiding him,” Giacomo said.  “I have to find him.”

           

“A matter of life and death?” asked Flavio dryly. 

           

“Much more important than that,” Giacomo answered.

           

Flavio shook his head.  “Young men!” he said.  “Always so worked up over women.  Take it from me, there is nothing more important than life and death.”

           

“Yes, there is,” Giacomo said.  “And this isn’t about a woman.  And...”  He almost said I’m not that young, but stopped himself just in time.  It was ridiculous for a man in his thirties to be offended by being called young.  “I have to find him,” he finished instead.

           

Flavio sighed.  “I am no longer welcome with the Order,” he said.  “You will have to find another way in.”

           

“I don’t have another way.”  Giacomo could feel himself waking up more and more, as if the fumes and the superstition of the previous rooms were finally clearing out of his head, and he could think like a man of reason again.  “All I have is you.  You are going to help me find this shadowy man.”

           

“I could give you some names...” Flavio began doubtfully.

           

“No.  I’ve had enough wandering from place to place, hoping to unravel the secret.  Where do you think this shadowy man could be?”

           

Flavio shook his head unhappily.  “He could be so many places, if he exists at all...”

           

“No.  Where do you think he is?”

           

Flavio wrung his hands.  He looked a good deal less impressive than he had when he first came into the room.  “I am a man of reason,” he repeated.  “A man of reason.  I left that world a long time ago.  I couldn’t possibly guess.  And they wouldn’t be happy with me if I betrayed their secrets.  I barely escaped with my life, all those years ago.  Some of them still carry a grudge against me.  I couldn’t just ask them...I am a man of reason...”

           

“And I am a man of violence,” said Giacomo.  “Would you like to see me demonstrate that?”

           

“It might not work!” Flavio cried out, apparently not listening to Giacomo at all.  “I might not be able to do it!”

           

“Do what?” Giacomo demanded.

           

Flavio focused on him again. “There were many things I could not do,” he explained.  “But I could see things, I could find things.  It is possible that I could find your shadowy man for you.”

           

“Then do it.”

           

“But I might fail!” he cried out, wringing his hands so hard the knuckles turned white.  “I no longer believe as I once did!  Or...Or I might succeed,” he finished, swallowing hard.  “I might see him.  But...Sometimes you see more than what you would want to know.  I became convinced of this.  I realized that there are some things no man should meddle with.  Reason can only explain a tiny part of our world, but it is the part that is fit for men to live in.  The rest...The rest should be left alone.”

           

“No!” shouted Giacomo.  “Not today!  I don’t care about anything else!  Just help me find Luca!!”

           

There was a blank silence.  Giacomo realized that he had just revealed Luca’s disappearance.

           

“Luca?” asked Flavio.  “What Luca?”

           

“Never mind.”

           

Prince Luca?”  Flavio stared at him incredulously.  “Is it Prince Luca?”

           

“Yes,” put in Massimo, before Giacomo could stop him.  “I’m sorry to share your secret, Giacomo,” he went on hurriedly, “but Flavio has to know.  He has to know what he’s looking for.”

           

“Tell me everything about it,” said Flavio.  He sounded much calmer now. 

           

Giacomo described his return to the Castle, his discovery of Luca’s disappearance, and Ulricco’s account of what had happened.

           

“You say the boy said there was a funny shadow in the corner of his room?” asked Flavio when he was done.

           

“Yes, but when he looked back at it from the door, he said it was gone.”

           

“Probably because he–the kidnapper–had slipped out of the corner and under the bedclothes when the boy’s back was turned,” said Flavio.

           

“But then what?  He–the kidnapper–could have gotten in during the day and concealed himself somewhere in the room–it’s possible, although I have a hard time imagining how he did it–but how did he escape from the room, with Luca, undetected?  And with so little resistance–Ulricco said all he heard was the sound of bedclothes rustling.  Luca is the kind of boy who would scream and fight back.  I would have expected him to have bitten any attacker to the bone, at the very least.”

           

Flavio traced the pattern on his right wrist.  “I told you members of the Order know that the laws of time and space need not apply to them,” he said.

           

“Yes.”

           

“Most of them know this, but are unable to put this knowledge into action, except in the most minor ways.  Some are able to harness its power enough for minor achievements in healing or prophecy.  I myself was never able to do more than look across space and time, and I was considered to have achieved a very high level of skill.  But there are some who could do more than look.  There was always talk of some who could move across space and time with their physical bodies.  If that is true, and that is the nature of your shadowy man, then I suspect he would be able to pass straight through the Castle walls like a ghost.”

           

“Bringing Luca with him?”

           

“If he was sufficiently skillful–yes.”

           

“How can I find him?”

           

Flavio hesitated, then said, “no doubt the King would be grateful to me for rescuing his son?”

           

“I’m sure a reward can be arranged,” Giacomo told him dryly.

           

“A reward would also be welcome, of course.  But what I mean is that certain activities would have to be...overlooked, shall we say.  Now is not a good time to be meddling with...with the kind of thing the King does not believe in.  This current craze for reason, for art, for rational harmony, has made anything else rather dangerous.  The Order in particular is coming in for a good deal of persecution these days.”

           

“We can deal with that,” Giacomo said impatiently.  “Just find him!”

           

Flavio sighed yet again.  “Very well,” he said.  “Wait here.” 

           

He left the room, returning shortly with a basin of water and a lit candle.  He set the basin on the table and dripped melted wax into the water.

           

“A wax reading!” exclaimed the fortune-teller.  “Surely Andrea didn’t send us here for a wax reading!  I could have done one myself without ever leaving my room!”

           

“Hush,” said Flavio.  Now that he had decided to act, he sounded more sure of himself.  He dipped the index finger of his right hand into the water, and swirled it around clockwise three times and counterclockwise three times.

           

Giacomo tried to look over his shoulder, but Flavio pushed him back and stared at the water intently.  Every now and then he would dip his finger in the water and give it another swirl.

           

“Hmmm,” he said.  “Michele, give me your bones.” 

           

The fortune-teller handed him the casting bones.  Flavio drew a circle on the table using his wet forefinger, and then cast the bones onto it.  The Death, Stranger, and Change bones all landed inside the circle, while the Life, Lover, and Birth bones rolled outside of it. 

           

“Hmmm,” said Flavio again, and gave the water another swirl.  Giacomo noticed that the light reflecting off the water onto the ceiling had changed quality.  It no longer made water ripples, but was forming definite patterns, although he could not say what they were.  Once again he tried to peer over Flavio’s shoulder, and once again Flavio elbowed him back, although apparently without conscious thought.

           

Flavio suddenly passed his hand over the basin.  The patterns on the ceiling went dark, as if the water had lost its reflective qualities.

           

“I saw an underground chamber, like a dungeon,” Flavio told them.  “I was unable to see anyone in it, but what you are seeking is there, I am sure of it.  When I cast the bones they told me to look for the stranger and the hidden gate.  There will be fear, fear and change, of that I am certain.”

           

“Where was the underground chamber?” Giacomo demanded, ignoring the part about fear and change.

           

Flavio shook his head.  “It was nowhere I have been.”

           

“There must have been some kind of a clue!  It would take ages to search all the underground chambers in the city, and it sounds as if it might be concealed, anyway.”

           

Flavio thought for a moment.  “As I was descending into it...” he said slowly.

           

“Yes?”

           

“I went down a long hall, with torches on brackets every five paces or so.  Between the torches crossed swords and shields with heraldic symbols were displayed on the wall.  I didn’t catch any of the symbols, I’m afraid.”

           

“The Hall of Swords!”  Giacomo was so relieved, he almost shouted.  “There is a long underground hall underneath the Major Castle.  The swords and shields of former kings are displayed there. It leads to the catacombs.  That was what you saw, I’m sure of it.  Did you see how to get into the chamber? ”

           

Flavio shook his head.  “Everything blurred at that moment.  It will not be easy, I fear.”

           

“Did you go all the way to the end of the Hall of Swords?”

           

“I cannot say.  I went quite far down it, but as I said, everything became blurry. The entrance to the chamber, wherever it is, must be guarded in some way.”

           

“Well, I’ll find a way to get past it.  Thank you all.”  He raced out the door before the others could stop him.

           

***

 

Giacomo ran down the twisty streets towards the Castles, dodging around other pedestrians.  The bright sunshine was melting away the last remnants of his previous confusion, and his mind was approaching the level of clarity it reached in battle.  He was able to see the street and all the other people on it, and react to them, leaping from side to side with an agility he had not known even he possessed, but he could also see the Hall of Swords, and dozens of possibilities for searching it and discovering the hidden chamber, and how they would deal with the shadowy man once they found him...He realized he was being forced to slow down.  The streets were now so thick with people it was hardly possible to move forward at all.

           

“Why so crowded?” he asked a man who had jostled up against his left shoulder.

           

The man gave him a patronizing look.  “The del Sole delegation has arrived,” he explained, speaking as if to a particularly slow child.

           

Of course!  The delegation!  Giacomo turned and ran back the other way, till he came to a deserted back alley.  It led to the Children’s Castle’s storerooms, and no one was making any deliveries right now.  Giacomo sprinted up to the storeroom door and pounded on it until it was opened by a peevish-looking guard. 

           

“Giacomo!” exclaimed the guard, removing a good deal of the peevishness off his face.  “Where have you been?  The Prince is still missing, and the delegation has arrived!  People have been saying...There’s been talk...”

           

“Yes?”

           

“That you made off with Prince Luca yourself!” the guard burst out. 

           

“I’ve been looking for him,” Giacomo explained, not bothering to say anything about the rumors.  Of course there had been talk.  “I think I know where he is.  Where are the off-duty guards?”

           

“Watching the delegation in the courtyard,” replied the on-duty guard, a trace of his former peevishness returning as he remembered he was missing the big event because he was guarding a storeroom.

           

“You’re doing good work,” Giacomo told him, slapping him on the shoulder before dashing off.

           

A portico running alongside the barracks looked out onto the courtyard.  All the off-duty guards were crowded onto it.  The King and Queen were seated on a raised dais in the middle of the courtyard, surrounded by important people of all sorts.  By the sounds of things, the del Sole delegation was about to enter the courtyard.

           

“Giacomo!” cried several of the guards, when Giacomo suddenly appeared amongst them.  “Where have you been!  The Prince...”

           

“I think I know where he is,” Giacomo interrupted them. 

           

Several of them gasped.

           

“Hush!” he ordered them.  “The delegation...”  The delegation was making its way into the courtyard in a profusion of bright clothing and flashing jewels. 

           

“If we all leave it will look peculiar,” he went on.  “I need about a dozen men...Gianluca, you come with me, and you, Luigi, and you, Marco, and you...” 

           

Soon Giacomo and a dozen off-duty guards were able to slip away from the portico, back into the barracks.  They went into the Children’s Castle and climbed up to the catwalk, which unfortunately was in plain view of the courtyard.

           

“We’ll just have to hope everyone thinks we’re part of the display,” Giacomo decided, and they all crossed the catwalk into the Major Castle.  No one seemed to notice them.  The rushed down the three stories from the catwalk to the ground floor and the entrance to the Hall of Swords.

           

The Hall of Swords ran diagonally underneath the Major Castle.  There was a guard posted at the top of the stairs leading down to it, since the armory and treasury chambers opened out of it.  He insisted that no one unusual had gone in or out of it, and that it had been thoroughly searched the night before anyway, but he let them go down into it.

           

“We’re looking for a secret chamber,” Giacomo told the others, once they were in the Hall.  It was quite dark, with only one torch near the entrance and another at the far end, by the armory and treasury doors.  Giacomo thought about going back for more light, but the thought was somehow disconnected, unreal, and he did nothing about it.

           

They began working their way down the Hall, testing the swords and tapping the wall, looking for a concealed entrance.  They made their way to the treasury door.  It was locked, and they had no keys.  The armory was also locked.  Again, the thought of going back for lights and keys floated up in Giacomo’s head, only to settle back down again without causing him to take any action.  It also occurred to him that it would have been a good idea to have brought Flavio along, so that he could have confirmed that this was what he had seen in the water, but Giacomo quickly forgot about that, as well. He led his men right to the end of the Hall, to the entrance into the catacombs.

           

The Castle’s stone walls formed a corner that was cut off by a heavy wooden door.  Unlike the armory and treasury doors, however, this one opened, although reluctantly and with a loud scraping noise that caused several of the men at the back of the group to jump.

           

The air wafting up the stone steps into the Hall was very cold, and smelled of the underground.  There was no torch.  Giacomo started down anyway.

           

Several of the men followed him unhesitatingly.  The rest hung back, whispering, until one of them thought to take the torch by the armory door out of its bracket.  Then they went down the steps too.

 

***

           

Giacomo had never been in the catacombs before.  Sometimes Luca talked about exploring down there, but he always lost his nerve and postponed the expedition. 

           

The stairs descended for at least two stories before leveling out into a flat passage between stone walls.  After about a dozen paces, the corridor opened up into broader aisle that ran at right angles to it.  There was a pile of unlit torches on the floor against one of the walls at the intersection.  Several of the men snatched up torches and lit them from the one they already had, making the corridor much brighter.

           

“Has anyone been down here before?” Giacomo asked, regretting his rashness in rushing off without Flavio more and more. 

           

“I have.”  It was Luigi, the oldest guard in the party.  “When they buried the old King, I helped carry the body down.  The entrances to the tombs lead off from this corridor.  If you go left and left again you will come to the oldest tombs.  To the right and right again are the next oldest.  If you cross this path you will come to another corridor.  If you turn right and right again there you will come the newest tombs, where the old King is.  Across the corridor from them are a series of empty tombs.  If you go left instead of right at the junction, you will find some unused tombs and an empty unprepared area.”

           

That sounded to Giacomo like a lot of ground to cover.  It also sounded like there were lots of good places to hide, although Flavio had said that he had seen a chamber, not a tomb...But according to him, it had some kind of hidden entrance. 

           

“Let’s split up and search,” he said.

           

Giacomo decided to cross the main aisle and go left at the next corridor, to the empty tombs and the unprepared area.  He took Luigi with him, as the man most familiar with the area.

           

The second corridor was much narrower than the first, barely wide enough for two men to walk abreast.  Even narrower corridors led off to the left.  They all had alcoves at waist height in the walls, but no coffins.  Giacomo wondered how the other men were faring, and if the ones in the already inhabited areas were losing their nerve.

           

He and Luigi ran their hands over alcove after alcove, holding their torch up to examine in all the dark corners, in case there was some sign of a hidden gate, but found nothing. 

           

“This is the last one,” said Luigi eventually, as they left yet another side corridor.  Giacomo looked around.  The narrow aisle did in fact come to an end two paces to their left.  There was a low opening in the wall in front of them.

           

“Is that the unprepared area?” he asked.

           

“Yes, I think it’s just an empty space,” Luigi told him. 

           

Giacomo ducked through the opening, which led into pitch darkness.  Luigi followed, his torch showing the reluctant expression on his face.

           

“There’s nothing here,” he said, holding up the torch and showing an empty chamber.

           

“Let’s look more thoroughly,” Giacomo said, feeling the stirrings of desperation in his chest.  If they didn’t find anything...No one else seemed to have found anything, either...Maybe it had been a completely different Hall of Swords that Flavio had seen...Like the Duco del Sole’s...But the Valle del Sole was several days’ ride away.  Admittedly, if the shadowy man did not have to obey the laws of time and space, the distance might not matter.  But this still seemed to Giacomo to be the most likely place.  He continued running his hands along the wall, occasionally knocking on it to see if it was hollow.

           

But they made an entire circuit of the empty chamber without finding anything. 

           

“This must not be it,” said Luigi. 

           

“It has to be,” Giacomo heard himself saying.  “There has to be a gate somewhere...A hidden gate...”  Suddenly his legs felt very tired, and he sat down on the floor, near the opening that led back into the corridor.  He closed his eyes and put his face in his hands.  Why had he rushed off like that?  Why hadn’t he waited for the others, the ones who had actually had the visions and read the castings?  He wasn’t acting like himself at all.  He knew he could be brave, even recklessly so, but most of the time he was calm, calculating.  Dashing around like an idiot wasn’t his sort of thing at all.  His fear for Luca, even when it was hidden under layers of action, was turning him into another person entirely.

           

“Giacomo?  Luigi?”  It was one of the other search parties, calling for them through the opening.

           

“We’re here.”  Giacomo got up, still feeling very tired and weak, and stuck his head out into the corridor.  He saw Marco, along with Alessio, who was hardly more than a boy, standing there uncertainly.  He remembered that they had been searching the oldest part of the catacombs.

           

“Did you find anything?” he asked.

           

They shook their heads.  “We searched and searched, Giacomo, honestly, but we didn’t find anything, and we wanted to come find you, we...”  Marco trailed off and glanced involuntarily behind him.

           

“You what?” Giacomo demanded.

           

“We got scared,” Alessio whispered. 

           

“All those coffins!”  Marco shuddered a little.

           

“There’s nothing to be afraid of.”  Giacomo could feel his old self returning, Giovanni dal Prado’s son, the man of reason.  “Those bodies have been there much too long to pose any danger of disease, and surely you don’t believe in ghosts?”

           

“I know, Giacomo,” said Marco sheepishly.  “It’s just that...We got to the end of the corridor, by the oldest tombs, and...we got scared, like Alessio said.  We stayed and searched,” he went on hastily.  “But we didn’t find anything, so we...we turned and ran like little girls.”  He grinned in an embarrassed way. 

           

“It was really scary,” said Alessio in a small voice.  Normally Alessio, like many very young men, was brash to the point of being annoying.  He had been completely changed...Giacomo suddenly threw himself out into the corridor.

           

“More scary than the rest of the catacombs?” he asked.  “Did you suddenly feel fear when you came to a particular tomb?”

           

Marco and Alessio looked at each other.  “All the old tombs were creepy,” said Marco, “but it got worse and worse, the farther we went in.  And then when we got to the very end, to the oldest tomb, it was like...It hurt to breathe, I was so scared.”

           

“Me too,” said Alessio.  There was a hint of tears in his voice.

           

Giacomo closed his eyes.  He could see the diagram the fortune-teller had made for him. In both castings, Death had been at the top. In the first casting, it had landed with Hidden down and Fear up.  In the second casting, it had landed with Gates down and Stranger up.  Giacomo had heard what the fortune-teller had said about the hidden gates, but he had ignored his warnings about fear and change.  Now he heard them all over again.

           

“Take me back to that tomb,” he commanded.

           

Marco and Alessio looked very apprehensive, but did not refuse.  They led the way around corner after corner.  Giacomo was fairly sure that the oldest tomb was only a few dozen paces away from where they had started, but they had to make at least half a dozen turns before they came to the corridor that led to it.  Marco and Alessio began walking more and more slowly.

           

“I’ll go in front,” Giacomo told them, taking the torch from Alessio, who surrendered it willingly and immediately moved back between Marco and Luigi.

           

The corridor they were in was just wide enough for one man to walk down.  Other corridors, at least as narrow, branched off to the right and left.

           

Giacomo had not thought that he was afraid, and he certainly had not expected to be.  As he had told Marco and Alessio, a man of reason had no need to fear the catacombs.  But once he took the lead, he began to notice how close the air seemed, and how he was sweating, even though it was cold.  He told himself it was fear for Luca, and thought that he believed it.

           

The corridor came to a dead end, with passageways going to the right and left. 

           

“It’s that way,” whispered Alessio, pointing left.

           

Giacomo unhesitatingly turned down the left-hand passageway, which was so narrow his shoulders brushed against either wall. 

           

As soon as he had stepped fully onto it, his heart began hammering so hard black spots appeared before he eyes, and he felt nauseous.  His gaze fell onto his hands, and he saw that every vein on his hands and forearms was standing out from his skin.  He stopped and tried to listen past the blood pounding in his ears.

           

“Does anyone hear anything?” he whispered, trying to keep his teeth from chattering.

           

“No,” Marco whispered back, his voice quavering.

           

“Is there someone behind us?” he asked, hoping that he had been unwittingly startled by the sound of another party coming behind them.

           

“No.”

           

Giacomo took another step forward.  He had heard the expression “I thought my heart would burst” before, but never experienced it. The only time he had ever felt anything close to this much fear had been his first battle, but even that had been more tolerable, because it had been understandable.  There was nothing unusual in a novice soldier fearing battle; a hardened guard almost fainting from fear for no rational reason at all was something else entirely. 

           

He took another step.  The fear had become so great that it seemed his mind had separated from his body and was observing it from a distance.  This made it easier, and he was able to start walking again.

           

Half a dozen steps took him into the chamber of the oldest tomb.  Unlike the newer sections, there were no alcoves, but rather a large stone coffin on a raised stone pallet.  The likeness of Prince Felix, the founder of the Coniugato Kingdom, glared grimly up from the top of the coffin. 

           

Giacomo looked around the chamber.  The flickering of the torch and the trembling of his hand made shadows swarm over the walls and the floor, so that it was impossible to see anything clearly.  None of the others had followed him.  He opened his mouth to call for them, but his voice was strangely choked, and he gave up. 

           

He circled the coffin counterclockwise, examining it from every angle.  Felix had been given a much grander chamber than his descendants, so there was just room to walk around the coffin.  The walls had the names and dates of Felix’s more important victories carved on them.  Giacomo saw the words “Felix il Felice” carved on the head of the coffin.  Even in his terrified state he almost laughed: Felix’s statue certainly didn’t look very happy.  The next side of the coffin said “Felix il Conquistore,” which made more sense, and the foot said “Felix il Fondatore.”  Curious in spite of himself, Giacomo continued around to Felix’s left, which he had already passed once without reading the inscriptions.

           

There were two.  One said “Il Sinistro,” which at first Giacomo thought must be a mistake.  The coffin maker must have put it there to remind himself which slab was for the left side, and accidentally placed it facing outwards rather than inwards.  Giacomo was surprised the mistake had been allowed to remain.

           

The second said “l’Oscuro.”  “The Dark One” seemed like a fitting title for Felix, but Giacomo was still surprised to see it carved onto his coffin, especially with “Felix il Felice” just around the corner. 

           

The carvings on the lefthand panel looked like they had been done by a different hand.  Giacomo went back to the head of the coffin.  “Felix il Felice” had obviously been carved by a master.  The letters were even, proportional, and graceful.  Giacomo’s father could have told him the school and era to which they belonged by the distinctive shape of the “F” and “I.”  Giacomo circled around the coffin again.  “Felix il Conquistore” and “Felix il Fondatore” had undoubtedly been carved by the same hand.  But the letters on the lefthand panel were smaller and less elegant.  The carver had had trouble with the “S” in “Sinistro” and “Oscuro,” and the “I” was a different shape. 

           

Giacomo realized that although his breath was still coming quicker than normal, his ears were no longer ringing from terror, and he was able think more clearly.  He squatted down in front of the lefthand panel and ran his hands over the carvings.

           

The “I” in “Il Sinistro” certainly was very oddly shaped.  Giacomo traced it with his fingers, and realized that the bottom crossbar had a tiny arrow on one side of it, pointing to the bottom lefthand corner of the panel.   Giacomo felt around on the corner, and found a little niche just the right size for his hand.  He pulled on the panel, and felt it move.

           

“Marco!  Alessio!  Luigi!” he shouted.  “I found something!  Come help me!”  But there was no reply.

           

Giacomo pulled on the panel some more.  With a stony grinding noise, it slid a couple of inches to the right.  He shouted again for the others, and again got no answer.  He tried to peer through the gap he had opened, but all he saw was darkness. 

           

In order to pull back the panel more, he would have to use both hands.  He looked around and saw that there was a bracket on the wall.  When he put the torch in it, the space around the coffin seemed much darker, but most of his former fear had dissipated by now and he enthusiastically pulled back the panel another six inches.  A cold draft rose out of it.

           

Certain now that this had to be the entrance to a passage, and not a coffin at all, Giacomo braced one foot on the stone pallet and managed to pull back the panel enough that he could stick his head through the opening and look around, which he did with a recklessness that he would not have imagined possible when he entered the chamber.  He met nothing but a cold darkness that defied all his attempts to see anything.  He felt around for the floor and fell forward, only saving himself from tumbling headfirst into the drop by catching his shoulder on the panel.

           

Sweating heavily despite the chill, Giacomo extricated himself and wrestled the panel back until there was a space big enough for him to fit through.  He was surprised that none of the guards had come to see what all the noise was about, since the stone had made loud rasping sounds as he had dragged it open.  When he saw them again, he was going to have a talk with them about the importance of not deserting a brother-in-arms at crucial moments, no matter how afraid they were. 

           

Giacomo retrieved the torch from the bracket and thrust it and his head back through the opening.  This time he saw that there was a flight of stone steps leading down from under the coffin into darkness. 

           

His first instinct was to rush down the stairs, shouting for Luca, but instead he went back to the chamber entrance and called once more for the others.  There was no sign of them or their torches, and no one responded to his call. 

           

A small part of the fear that had engulfed him earlier came back, telling him to go find the others and assemble a strong fighting force before descending into the hidden passage, but another part of him whispered that if he left now, he might never gather up the courage to return (a very galling admission), and he was strangely reluctant to turn his back on the dark opening.  So after waiting for long enough to be convinced that no one was going to come to his aid, he sat down on the stone pallet and awkwardly slithered through the opening, catching his elbows and shoulders painfully and almost snuffing out the torch.

           

As soon as his whole body had passed through the opening, the fear came back, even stronger than before.  For a moment he sat on bonelessly on the steps, struggling to breathe.  There was a sharp pain over his breastbone, and his chest felt tight.  When he tried to stand up, his stomach turned over and he retched up the few bites of almond pastry he had eaten that morning. 

           

Once he had regained control of his stomach, he began sliding down the steps on the seat of his pants.  His knees were strangely weak, as if someone had cut all the tendons in them (an image, unbidden and unwelcome, of an illustration of a flayed knee from one of his father’s books of anatomy rose in his mind), and he did not trust himself to stand.  He had to clench his teeth to keep from whimpering like a child.

           

The steps were narrow but not very steep.  By the light of the torch he could see that the passageway was large enough for a grown man to walk upright.  After a dozen steps he came to a landing and a 30-degree turn to the left.  Using the wall for support, he pulled himself to his feet, gasping and trembling.  He realized his eyes and nose were running, and wiped his face with his sleeve.  His nerveless fingers dropped the torch.

 

***

           

For a moment he could not believe what had happened.  The flame had gone out as if doused in a bucket of water.  He found himself back on the floor without knowing how it had happened.  He scrabbled around until he burnt his hand on the torch.  He lowered himself full length on the floor and tried to blow life back into the fire, but the embers stubbornly refused to so much as glow. 

           

After a while he gave up and lay there, his faced pressed into the floor.  The fear was like a clawed beast sitting on his back, holding him down.  His present situation seemed unbearable, and yet he was unable to rise even to his knees.

           

All you have to do is crawl back up the stairs, he told himself.  It’s impossible to get lost.  Just turn around and crawl upwards.  The catacombs, which before had seemed distinctly inhospitable, now appeared in his mind as a friendly and welcoming place. 

           

Just turn around, he told himself again.  Just get up and crawl up the stairs.  He moved an arm experimentally.  The fear, like very hot bathwater that can only be tolerated in absolute stillness, attacked him even more fiercely, making his throat seize up for a moment. 

           

The image of Luca floated in front of him.  It was so dark he couldn’t tell if it was in his head or a real vision.  If he, Giacomo, had been so unmanned by this dark passage, what had it been like for Luca?

           

He began to slither belly-down away from the stairs that would take him back up to the others.  No no no, his mind cried out, but it was unable to stop his forward progress.  Go back, go back, go back, he told himself, but when he came to another set of steps leading downwards, he rolled over and began slowly working his way down them on the seat of his pants.

           

This is a very bad idea, he thought.  With no light, he could walk right past Luca (if he was even there) and never know it.  If he was attacked, he would be unable to see his attacker, and his sword would be useless.  If he should stumble onto a sudden drop-off...His breath caught in his throat again, and he sat paralyzed for a moment.  When he summoned up the courage to move again, he found himself clutching at the steps with both hands.  He felt all around with his feet before he could make himself slide down to the next step. 

           

After twenty steps, he came to another landing and a turn to the right, followed by more steps.  The fear had receded again, although it had begun to encompass what was behind him as well as what was in front. 

           

By the time he had come to the bottom of the last flight of stairs, he felt quite calm, and was able to rise to his feet and walk along the flat passage normally, guiding himself by trailing one hand along the wall.  The dark was still so thick he could not see his hand when he waved it directly in front of his face, but he was able to sense when the passage came to an end and stop before crashing into the wall. 

           

He ran his hands over the wall in which the passage ended, expecting to find something–a door, an inscription, or anything that would justify the building of this tunnel–but found nothing.  It was just a stone wall. 

           

After carefully running his hands over it several times, he began feeling around on the walls to either side.  But they, too, were nothing more than stone walls, as far as his fingers could tell.

           

Reason insisted that there had to be something, that no one would have gone to all the trouble to build this passage if it just dead-ended in a blank wall.  He tried the wall in front of him again, going methodically from stone to stone, feeling for some hidden catch.

           

When that failed, he leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes, although it was so dark that closing his eyes made things seem brighter, since lights flashed in his head when he pressed the heels of his hands against his eyelids. 

           

He was very tired.  The fear had left him, but it had also left him weak to the point of fainting.  He felt a powerful urge to burst into hysterical tears.  He knew that he needed a plan, and that this plan should include a return to the surface in order to gather men and torches, but somehow he couldn’t do it.  It was as if the fear was lurking in wait for him at the top of the steps, and he couldn’t face it again.  He rubbed his face, seeing a cascade of images.  Luca...The Queen and her ladies-in-waiting...Luca knocking over his easel...Andrea’s face, somehow terrifying in its fat blankness...The shifty eyes of the fortune-teller...The diagrams...The fortune-teller had said there would be hidden gates, and fear, and change, all surrounding the stranger and the child.  He had found the hidden gates and the fear, and it seemed to Giacomo that he had already changed considerably, if he was taking bone-casting seriously, but even so, he still couldn’t get through the wall.

           

He rubbed an itch between his shoulder blades against the stones.  If what Flavio had said was true, then there were men who could melt through stone like shades.  Perhaps that was what was needed here.  There was no door, because the people who used this passageway didn’t need doors.  Almost lazily, he imagined what it would be like to be able to pass through solid stone.  Did you feel anything?  Would you be aware of what was happening, or did you just suddenly find yourself on the other side of the wall?

           

He was so tired...He could feel himself falling asleep, right there against the wall.  He tried to jerk himself back awake, but he was falling asleep, falling, falling...

           

He really was falling...It must be a dream...He was falling through the wall...It must be a dream...He suddenly felt that he couldn’t move, he couldn’t breathe, and he was still falling...He tried to struggle, but he was being held absolutely immobile and still falling...He woke up on the floor.

           

He was lying on his back.  After several heartbeats he realized there must be a light somewhere, since he could dimly make out the wall in front of him. 

           

He sat up, still feeling groggy.  The passageway seemed much larger than it had been before he fell asleep.  He looked around, and saw that he was no longer in a narrow passageway, but a large chamber.  A lit torch was flickering in a bracket in the farthest corner, which explained the fickle light.  There were deep pools of shadow in the other corners of the room.

           

I must still be dreaming, he thought to himself.  Sometimes he had dreams in which he could not wake up, even though he knew he was dreaming.  He shook his head vigorously, to no avail.  He dragged himself to his feet, using the wall as a support.  It felt very rough and stony, but sometimes dreams were incredibly lifelike.  He shook his head again and took a deep breath.  The air was not quite so cold as it had been in the passageway, and held the scent of living human beings, or at least fresh urine.

           

Once he was upright, he looked around again.  The torch flared briefly, and he saw a pile of rags in the far corner that appeared to contain a small human figure.

           

“Luca!” he shouted.  “Luca, is that you?”

           

“You have done well to make it this far,” said a voice in the shadows of the nearest corner.

           

Giacomo put his hand on his hip, and was extremely glad to discover that his dream-self was wearing his sword-belt.  He drew his sword and started walking towards the rags in the far corner. 

           

“But,” continued the voice in the near corner, “now that you’ve gotten in, how will you ever get out again?”

           

“I’ll manage somehow,” answered dream-Giacomo, who was feeling much better with a sword in his hand and a clear goal.  “I’ll figure something out.”

           

“You have the eternal confidence of a man of reason.  So much faith, placed on such a slender support.  Such boundless belief in such a small object.”  The voice was even and detached, as if discussing the climate of a far country.

           

“As you will,” said Giacomo, who was drawing close enough to the far corner to see that it was indeed Luca in the pile of rags.  Forgetting the voice in the other corner, the problem of how to escape the closed chamber, and the fact that this was a dream, Giacomo started to run towards the corner.

           

“Leave him,” said the voice from the corner.  Giacomo stopped and turned to face it. 

           

“Why?” he demanded.  “How will you stop me when you won’t even face me?”

           

“If you must see me, I will satisfy you,” replied the voice, and stepped out of the darkness in the corner.

           

It was a man.  Giacomo could not make out his features, for he seemed to draw the shadows with him, so even though he stood in the light of the torch, he remained wrapped in a twilight that resisted all attempts at illumination.

           

Before he could think better of it, Giacomo found himself in front of the shadowy man, his sword point resting against the man’s neck.

           

“Who are you?” he asked.

           

Instead of answering, the man moved slightly to his left, so that although he still had Giacomo’s sword against his neck, he was now between Giacomo and Luca.

           

“Who are you?” Giacomo repeated, jabbing a little at the man’s throat.  The man did not flinch, although Giacomo felt the tip of his blade pierce flesh.  He looked to see if he had drawn blood.  He could see none, but it seemed to him that a shadow was slowly working its way up his sword.  He told himself it was only a trick of the light, but as it drew near the hilt he realized he could not bear the thought of it touching him.  All his earlier fear seemed to be concentrated in that shadow, and he felt that if it reached his hand, he would be unmanned completely.  Without making a conscious decision, he pulled his sword away from the other man’s neck.

           

Giacomo stepped to his right, thinking to get around the man, but he only moved with him, staying between Giacomo and Luca.  The same thing happened when Giacomo tried dashing to the left. 

           

“I’d rather not harm you, but I will,” Giacomo warned.

           

The other man only shrugged. 

           

“You were talkative enough when you were hiding in the corner!” Giacomo said.  When the man still didn’t reply, he drew back his sword in order to shove the man aside with the flat, but before he could strike, the man caught his wrist, making him drop the sword.

           

“I have already said everything I felt needed saying,” the man told him, twisting Giacomo’s wrist painfully.

           

It took a humiliating amount of effort for Giacomo to struggle free.  No one had managed to catch him out and twist his arm like that for well over a decade.  And once he had escaped, he had no sword, and the man was still between him and Luca.

           

“Luca!” he shouted.  “Luchino!  Wake up!”

           

Luca stirred in his rags.  The shadowy man grabbed at Giacomo, trying to cover his mouth, but Giacomo just managed to jump out of his reach. 

           

“Luca!” he shouted again.  Luca sat up sleepily.  Feeling a rush of hopeful strength, Giacomo threw himself at the shadowy man, but he slipped aside, allowing Giacomo to crash to the floor.  When Giacomo tried to get up, the shadowy man lightly pressed the toe of his boot on Giacomo’s throat.  All the shadows wrapped around him gathered and coiled together at his chest, like a snake about to strike.

           

“What’s happening?” Luca asked sleepily.  “Sauro...Giaco!  GIACO!” he shrieked, scrambling over to them.

           

“Stay back, Luca,” the shadowy man told him.  “I have to deal with this man.”

           

“NO!” screamed Luca.  “NO, Sauro, don’t hurt him!”  He clutched at the shadowy man’s calf..      

“Get back, Luca!” ordered Sauro.

           

“NO!” Luca screamed again.  When Sauro tried to shake him off, he bit his calf as hard as he could.  Sauro cried out and kicked him away, but the distraction was enough to allow Giacomo to slide out from under his boot.  Before he could get up, however, Luca had thrown himself on top of Giacomo, pinning him to the floor.

           

“Giaco!  You found me!” he sobbed.

           

As soon as Luca touched him, Giacomo felt a wave of the same fear that had engulfed him in the passageway wash over him, so that he had to bite his lip to stifle a whimper.  He quickly looked over Luca’s face.  The hollows under his eyes and in his cheeks seemed very dark, as if a shadow was sitting under his skin.

           

“Of course I found you,” Giacomo told him.  “Just let me get up and deal with this man, and then we’ll go back up to the Castle, where you’ll be safe.”

           

“No, Giaco, no!  You can’t fight him!”

           

“Just let me get my sword,” Giacomo said, trying gently to disengage himself from Luca’s clinging arms.

           

“The boy is correct,” said Sauro.  He was standing only a couple of paces away from them, but was making no attempt to attack them again.  “You can’t fight me.”

           

“I wouldn’t be too sure of that,” said Giacomo.  The fear for himself that Luca’s touch had caused was receding, only to be replaced by fear for Luca, which was causing courage to rise up in him once again.

           

“I know you are brave on the battlefield, and almost unvanquishable in single combat,” said Sauro.  His voice, like his features, remained unreadable: Giacomo was unable to figure out whether he was happy or sad, fearful or brave.  He was simply a dark object that resembled a man.  “But that kind of courage will help you little here.  It has gotten you to this point, that is true, but courage, like reason, can only take you so far.  You were able to fight past my wards of fear, but it was only when you stopped fighting that you could come through the wall.  Frankly, I am impressed.  I thought anyone who made it that far would give up.  Only someone who has abandoned his dependence on time and space could have entered.  Prince Felix made it that way when he founded the Order of Infinity, and as far as I know, you are the first outside of the Order to penetrate our chamber.”

           

Giacomo tried once again to slide out of Luca’s embrace, but Luca tightened his grip and refused to let him get up.  Giacomo knew he could throw Luca off if he had to, but he was unwilling to force Luca away from him, having finally found him.

           

“Even so, do not think you can defeat me,” continued Sauro.  The shadows that swathed him began to gather and coil once more.  This time, Giacomo was pinned by Luca, and could only try vainly to twitch has leg out of the way when Sauro’s shadows flowed down and around his ankle.  It was like being chained by cold smoke. 

           

“Luca, let me go!” Giacomo whispered fiercely into his ear.  Luca shook his head stubbornly.

           

“Luca, move out of my way,” Sauro ordered him calmly.  “Let me deal with this man.  If he does not fight me, I will let him live.  He would be a valuable asset.”

           

Luca loosened his grip on Giacomo’s neck and began to get up, but when he saw the shadow flowing up his leg, he shrieked “NO!” and flung himself back down on top of Giacomo, pushing back the shadow with his hands.  It flowed obediently away from him.

           

“Stop, Sauro, please stop, don’t hurt him.”  Tears started running down Luca’s face.  “I’ll do what you want, I promise, just don’t hurt him.  Let him take me back up.  I promise I’ll do everything you asked me to.”

           

“NO!” shouted Giacomo.  This time he shook Luca off onto the floor and jumped to his feet.  “Whatever he asked, Luca, don’t do it.  It’s not worth it.”

           

“But Giaco, he might hurt you.”  Luca was crying even harder now.

           

Giacomo began circling away from Luca, hoping to draw Sauro away from and also to get within reach of his sword.  “It doesn’t matter,” Giacomo said to Luca, not taking his eyes off Sauro.  The shadows had settled back down around him, obscuring him once more.  “As long as you’re safe, Luca, nothing else matters.”

           

“It would be a shame to kill you, Giacomo dal Prado,” said Sauro quietly.  The shadows suddenly lashed out, knocking Giacomo to the floor and wrapping around his legs again.  “Tell him, Luca,” he ordered.  “Tell him what I want from you.”

           

“Sauro wants me to know there is more than logic and reason,” Luca said tearfully.  Giacomo could hear that he was repeating back what Sauro must have told him more than once.   “He wants to teach me a different kind of art than paint on canvas.  He wants me to know the power of shadow, so that I do not turn my back on it as my father and brother and many other men have done.  He wants me to save him and his comrades.”

           

“Save them!” exclaimed Giacomo.  “They don’t seem to be in need of much saving!”  He struggled against the shadow that was pinning his legs, but it only tightened around him even more.

           

“What do you know!”  Sauro’s shadows drew closer around him. “I suppose you have not heard what happened to men such as Paolo dal Paesino, or Michele Fabbro, or what is in store for your own countryman, Gianmarco dal Prado?”

           

“Gianmarco...”  Giacomo knew his father had mentioned it to him in his last letter.  “There was some business...He was charged with something...My father was going to speak in his favor at the trial.”

           

“He was charged with cursing a well,” said Sauro.  “A strange charge to be brought by a supposed man of reason like your Count Fabio.  Your father did speak on his behalf, or rather, he argued that there were no such thing as curses, and therefore the charges against Gianmarco should be dropped.  But Count Fabio is like many of you so-called Reborn men: he has sided with reason because he fears the unknown, not because he is a rational man.  He said that although he did not believe in curses, if they did exist then Gianmarco had put one on the well, and if they didn’t, then Gianmarco was guilty of spreading lies and working against his lawful lord, and sentenced him to hang.”

           

“To hang!” cried Giacomo involuntarily.  “Gianmarco!  Gianmarco could never do anything worth hanging for!”

           

“That is too true,” agreed Sauro dryly.  “Gianmarco is a member of our Order, but he has never gained any of our knowledge.  He cannot even scry into tomorrow.  But he is a member nonetheless, and as such Fabio feels threatened by him.  More and more men of power are joining the Rebirth, not because they believe in its principles, but because they think it offers them safety.  And they are using it as an excuse to round up and dispose of those whom they fear–herbwomen, fortune-tellers, and, above all, members of the Order.  Already more than half-a-dozen have been killed, and Gianmarco appears to be the next.  So we decided to act.”

           

“Why did you have to take Luca?  Why didn’t you just rescue Gianmarco and all the others?” demanded Giacomo, struggling again against the shadow that held him.  He had no more success this time than the last, but he was unable to lie there tamely.

           

“We do what we can, but the more we act directly against men like Count Fabio, the more we inflame them against us.  We decided we needed to use a less direct route.”  Sauro nodded at Luca.  “The King has already joined the Rebirth, as has Prince Desiderato.  And neither of them are much amenable to persuasion anyway–or reason, for that matter.  But everyone knows that Prince Luca is not only young, he is open, obliging, eager to please.  We wanted to show him what we were capable of, so that he would neither disbelieve nor despise us.”

           

“So you kidnapped him and brought him down here!  How will that win him over to your side!”

           

“It has not been all bad, has it, Luca?”

           

“No, it hasn’t,” answered Luca.  His voice was weak, but he seemed to Giacomo to be speaking the truth.  “But now I want to go home, Sauro.  You showed me many wonderful things, but I want to have my bed back.  You can come visit me any time, you know.”

           

“Luca has quite the gift for what a man like you might call ‘magic,’” said Sauro.  “Quite different from his ability in a ‘rational’ subject like painting, which he doesn’t like very much at all, do you, Luca?”

           

“Not very much,” agreed Luca.  “This other stuff is so much better!  Giaco, when we get back home, I want to show you some of the things Sauro has shown me.”

           

Giacomo was astonished to discover that the burning sensation spreading through his chest was jealousy.  The thought that Sauro not only knew Luca didn’t like painting, but could offer him something better, made him more jealous than he could ever remember being in his life.  Giacomo had always thought that he was the man in Luca’s life, the one who looked after him and taught him everything he needed to know.  The King had never taken an interest in him, and Prince Desi had better things to do than spend time with a much younger brother, so Giacomo had had sole charge of Luca since the day he was weaned.  The sight of Luca looking trustingly up at Sauro and agreeing that he liked what Sauro could teach him much better than what Giacomo could offer, made him, Giacomo, want to writhe with jealousy.  He was heartily ashamed of the feeling, but unable to push it away.

           

While he was struggling to bring this unexpected outburst of jealousy under control, Luca was saying seriously to Sauro, “Sauro, please let me go home.  I promise I’ll keep believing everything you’ve told me.  Even if you weren’t my friend I’d have to believe you, because I’d be stupid not to believe what I’d seen with my own eyes.  But you said you were my friend, so you have to let me go home.  I promise you can come visit me whenever you want to.  I like learning to do all those things you showed me much better than painting, I promise.”

           

“What about him?” asked Sauro, pointing at Giacomo.  “Will he let us be friends?”

           

“I promise he will,” said Luca with conviction.

           

Sauro walked over closer to Giacomo.  “Are you sure, Luca?” he asked.  “A man like that will have a hard time standing by.  Everything in him–duty, honor, reason–will cry out that he must hunt me down and put an end to me.  He won’t want to leave someone so dangerous free to go around as I please.”

           

Giacomo thoroughly agreed with all that, but refrained from saying so.

           

“Giacomo,” said Luca, coming over to stand next to Giacomo and still speaking very seriously.  “You are my man, are you not?”

           

“Of course I am.”  Most of the jealousy unclenched its hold on Giacomo’s breast.  No one but he could have taught Luca how to act like a prince. 

           

“And do you promise to do as I ask here?”

           

Giacomo rephrased his answer several times in his head before speaking it out loud.  “My Prince,” he said carefully, “I would consider myself to be failing in my duty to you if I allowed you to take what I thought to be a rash and foolish step without expressing my feelings on the subject.  The world is a very complicated place, and you still have little experience in it.”

           

“You cannot say that Sauro is wrong, though,” said Luca.  “You have seen what he can do, and you have heard from your father what is being done to innocent men like Gianmarco dal Prado, all in the name of reason.  And anyway, he won’t let us out of here unless we agree, and I want to go home, and I want you to come with me.  You have to come back with me, Giaco.”  Most of Luca’s serious, grown-up air slipped away from him, and his lips started to tremble. 

           

“I will let you go free, if you agree never to work against me,” said Sauro, sounding so sincere that Giacomo was almost inclined to believe him.

           

“You kidnapped him,” said Giacomo.  “You took him away and hid him from me.  Do you know what it is like when the child in your care disappears like that?  Do you know how it feels, not knowing where he is, or whom he’s with, or what has happened to him, or even if he’s still alive or not?  Do you have any idea what that feels like?  I was sick with worry!  I couldn’t even think straight!  If anything had happened to him...I could barely breathe for thinking about it!  If I hadn’t found him, I would have killed myself!!” 

           

Giacomo had struggled up into a sitting position as his voice had risen to a shout, but he was still unable to get free of the shadow’s grip on his legs.  When he fell silent, Sauro pushed him back down with his foot and wrapped him in more shadows, so that his arms were pinned to his sides.

           

“You see, Luca,” he said quietly.  “I’m not sure that this one is entirely trustworthy.  I don’t think he should be allowed to return to the surface.”

           

“No, no, you have to let him take me home,” cried Luca. 

           

“Surely you’re big enough now to make it back to the Castle on your own,” said Sauro.  Another shadow was coiling at his chest, and Giacomo was suddenly sure that it was meant for his face or throat, and that, substanceless as it seemed, it would have no trouble cutting off his breath.  The horror of dying like that made him struggle like a wild thing, but without freeing so much as a finger.

           

“NO, Sauro!” screamed Luca, throwing himself again onto Giacomo.  The shadow holding Giacomo’s torso dissipated like smoke at Luca’s touch, so that while his legs were still bound, Giacomo suddenly found himself able to sit up and clutch Luca to him.

           

“If you hurt him, I won’t do any of the things you asked!” shouted Luca. “I won’t, just out of spite!  I’ll only go back with Giaco!  You have to let him go!  If you let him go, I’ll do everything you ask, but if you don’t, I’ll ask my father to round up all your brothers we can find, and hang them all!  I swear I will!”

           

Sauro looked at them for a while before saying, “very well.  If it means that much to you.  I will show you that you are right to trust me.  I hope I can say the same of you.”  He beckoned with his fingers, and the shadow around Giacomo’s legs flowed back to join the others around him.

           

Giacomo got cautiously to his feet, still holding Luca in his arms.  Sauro made no move to stop him.  Giacomo looked around the chamber for the way out.  There was no sign of a door.  He remembered that this was a dream, which meant that he should be able to pass out through the wall just as easily as he had come in.  Luca began to squirm in his arms.

           

“Let me down,” he insisted.  Giacomo reluctantly let him get down. 

           

“Do you need to collect anything before we leave?” he asked. 

           

Luca shook his head.  Giacomo gathered up his sword, took Luca by the hand, and began walking towards the far wall.

 

“Goodbye, Sauro,” Luca said.  “When will I see you again?”

           

“Soon,” answered Sauro.  It was difficult to tell with all the shadows around him, but it seemed to Giacomo that he was sorry to see them go.  Giacomo almost pitied him.

           

The wall through which he had entered seemed extremely solid when he touched it.  He ran his hand over it doubtfully.  There had to be a way out, since there had been a way in, but now that he was faced with the need to find it, it eluded him.  Normally in dreams these kinds of obstacles just melted away effortlessly.

           

“What are you doing, Giaco?” asked Luca, fidgeting impatiently.  “I’m cold.  Just do whatever you did to get in. Just concentrate on where you want to go.”

           

Giacomo tried to concentrate on where he wanted to go, but the wall remained as solid as ever.

           

“Here,” said Sauro brusquely, coming over to them.  “I’ll take you through.”  He put an arm around each of them, and before Giacomo had time to object, he found him trapped in immobility and cold.  He could feel Sauro’s thin rib cage pressed against his own, but could not see or hear anything.  Suddenly the feeling of being trapped disappeared, although everything around him was as black as ever.

           

“You are at the bottom of the passage that will take you to the first tomb,” Sauro told them.  “I am sorry I have no torch for you, but if you make your way upwards, you will come to your companions eventually.  There are no false turnings.”  His presence was gone from Giacomo’s side before he could thank him for taking them through, or threaten him with what he would do if he ever came near Luca again–Giacomo wasn’t sure which he meant to do.

           

“I don’t like the dark,” said Luca in a small voice.

           

“Just keep holding onto my hand,” Giacomo told him.  “All we have to do is go upwards.”  He was still unsure whether he was currently awake or dreaming, but everything felt extremely real.  Of course, it often did in dreams.  He began leading the way up the stairs.  Luca clutched his hand very hard, and stayed as close to him as possible.

           

To take his mind off his fear of the dark, Giacomo asked Luca to tell him about everything that had happened.  Luca said that Sauro had been in his bed when he had gotten back in after talking to Ulricco, and that he had grabbed Luca and covered his mouth before he could cry out, and they had suddenly dropped through the bed and spent a long time dropping down and down through the walls, which had delighted Luca almost as much as it had frightened him.  Once they had arrived in the chamber, Sauro had introduced himself and talked to Luca for a long time, explaining who he was and what he wanted, and shown Luca many wonderful things he could do, and given him a shadow of his own, and had even had Luca scry in a bowl of water, to Luca’s great excitement.

           

“He said that ordinary fortune-tellers just look for signs and try to interpret them, but those who know the secrets of the Order can actually see what is happening in other times and places, and I looked into the water, Giaco, and I saw you!  You were walking down the street, and I knew you were looking for me.  I showed the bowl to Sauro, and he saw the same thing, but he didn’t know who you were, so I told him all about you, about how you know so many things, and what a great fighter you are, and how you would find me soon and take me back home, and Sauro asked me if I knew you were coming because I saw it in the water or because I hoped you would, and I said I already knew you would come get me but I also saw it in the water, and Sauro asked me if I really wanted to go back with you, because he thought you probably wouldn’t want me to keep learning what he could teach me, and I told him you were my best friend and I wanted to go back with you as soon as you came for me, but that I also wanted to keep learning and I was sure you wouldn’t try to stop me when you saw all the amazing things Sauro can do and you heard about what is happening to his brothers.  Isn’t it amazing that I saw you in the water before you came?  I was so excited!  I’d never done anything like that before!  Giaco, it was so much better than painting!  It might even be better than swordfighting, I don’t know.  I like them both.  Giaco, when do you think we’ll see Sauro again?”

           

“Not very soon, I hope,” said Giacomo.  “I’m not sure he’s the best teacher for you.”

           

“Oh, but Giaco, he can do so many things!  And we can’t keep him away even if we wanted to, you saw that, and I want him to be my friend.  I’m going to make my father promise not to hurt any more members of the Order.  It was wrong of Sauro to take me away like that, but he couldn’t help it, could he?  I mean, I think I would do the same thing if I were him, wouldn’t you?  How much longer, Giaco?”

           

“Not long now.”  And in fact, Luca had been so enthralled in his tale that they had covered most of the distance without him once thinking of his fear of the dark, and in very short order they had come to the empty tomb, and had crawled through the opening into the chamber.  It was unlit, but their dark-sensitized eyes could pick up the faint flickering glow of distant torches, and when Giacomo called out, many voices hailed them in return.

 

***

           

Giacomo’s companions had gotten worried when he hadn’t come back from his examination of the oldest tomb, and, although unable to conquer their fear themselves, they had gone off in search of reinforcements, and the entire party of guards was just coming down the passageway to the oldest tomb when Giacomo and Luca came out.  Sauro must have disabled his wards of fear, for no one had any trouble this time, and Giacomo and Luca were soon surrounded by a dozen very happy men. 

           

Alessio ran on ahead to report Luca’s discovery to the King and Queen, who excused themselves from the del Sole delegation and met them in the Hall of Swords. The Queen burst into dramatic tears and pressed Luca to her bosom.  Luckily for him, he was very dirty, and as soon as she realized he was soiling her best gown, she released him.  The King congratulated all the guards and demanded to know where the villain was, and why they had failed to bring back either him or his severed head, and how it had happened that the first search had failed to find him.  Luca tried to explain, but he was quickly hushed up and told he needed to be bathed and put to bed immediately.  A good rest would cure him of his wild fancies.

           

After Giacomo had handed Luca over to the ministration of three maids and half-a-dozen guards, despite his voluble protests that he wasn’t tired and he wasn’t making anything up, he reported everything to the King.  He considered changing or concealing parts of the story, but he could see that Luca was determined to reveal everything, and he didn’t have the heart to call Luca a liar.

           

The King listened to his report in silence.  When Giacomo had finished, he said, “we are very grateful for your discovery of Prince Luca, however it was contrived.  I suggest that you take some rest, and we will continue this discussion when your head is clearer.  Now, if you will excuse me, the delegation awaits.” 

           

Giacomo went back up to Luca’s tower, to see how he was fairing.  He found him bathed and tucked into bed, but wide awake.

           

“You’re all dirty,” were his first words to Giacomo.  “You should take a bath.”

           

“As soon as you are ready for me to leave you,” Giacomo promised him.  “How do you feel?”

           

“I feel quite well.  I wish they hadn’t put me to bed; I’m not tired at all.  I want to talk to my father, and tell him everything that happened again.  He doesn’t believe us, does he?”

           

“I’m afraid not.”  Giacomo bent over Luca and smoothed down his still-damp hair.  Despite his claims of not being tired, he could see by the dark circles under Luca’s eyes and the blueness around his temples that he was suffering from his missed night of sleep.  He blinked and yawned, and Giacomo thought he could see the shadow lying under his skin, rippling not quite with his movement.

           

“Are you sure you feel well?” he repeated.

           

“Quite sure.  Well, if my father won’t believe me, I’ll just have to make him believe me.  He listens to Desi all the time; it’s time for him to start listening to me.  Giaco, I know what I saw, I know that Sauro was telling the truth.  You know that too, don’t you?”

           

“Yes,” said Giacomo, with more conviction than he felt.

           

“I knew I could depend on you, Giaco,” said Luca happily.  He yawned again. “Will you stay with me for a little while?  Sit on the bed next to me; I don’t care if you’re dirty, the maids can just wash the sheets tomorrow.”

           

Giacomo sat down on the bed next to him and held his hand until he fell asleep, which was not very much time at all.  When he was convinced that Luca was sleeping, Giacomo reluctantly peeled his fingers out of Luca’s sweaty grasp.  The shadow under his skin was still there, if he didn’t look at it too hard, but it seemed to offer Luca no immediate threat, so he kissed him on the forehead and quietly slipped out of the room.

           

Giacomo walked down to the courtyard, which was temporarily deserted now that the delegation had gone inside and all the servants and guards were busy attending them.  He sat down on a bench in the portico, and looked out into the warm sunlight.  He was almost too tired to stand up straight, but he didn’t think he could go to bed yet.  His eyes ached from the brightness, and his head swam heavily back and forth, so that one minute he was focused on the join between two stones flagging the courtyard, and the next he was down in the catacombs again and the fear was waiting just over his shoulder, pressing down on him, ready to pounce on him again. 

           

He shook his head to clear it, and almost slid off the bench.  He knew that he should eat something, bathe, and go to bed, but he couldn’t gather himself up to move.  He put his hand on the stucco of the portico railing, and the sensation of its rough grain under his palm was so intense that for a moment he could think of nothing else.     

           

How do I know this is not a dream? he asked himself.  Everything seemed so real and so familiar that it had to be true, but at the same time it was the reality of a dream, which is unquestionably real to the dreamer.  Reason and everything he had known all his life insisted that he could not have spent the day running from fortune-teller to fortune-teller, and then followed their instructions, and then been almost unmanned by fear of nothing, and then gone down in that dark passage without a light or a companion (looking back on it, that seemed the most unlikely thing of all–every rational feeling protested against such an irrational action), and then somehow passed through solid stone, not once but twice, and fought with shadows, and...His hand slipped off the railing.  He had been asleep for a moment.  But now he was definitely awake.  Unless he had been awake then, and now he was dreaming.  Perhaps Sauro was right, and the laws of space and time, of sleeping and waking, were only constructs made by men in order to make the world small enough for their understanding.  He thought of the shadow under Luca’s skin, and a new, dreadful kind of fear clutched at his heart. 

           

“But it doesn’t matter,” he said to himself.  “It doesn’t matter if it was a dream or not, when he looked into the water he saw me, not the King or Prince Desi or anyone else, but me.  He said he knew I would come even before he looked, and when he did look, the first thing he saw was me.  Shadow or no shadow, he’s still mine through and through.”

 

THE END


© 2007 Elana Clarke

Elana Clarke is a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill, where she contemplates esoteric subjects and carries around a very heavy bookbag. Her stories have most recently appeared in Orchard Press Mysteries, Silverthought, Gryphonwood, and Nefarious.

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