Aphelion Issue 223, Volume 21
November 2017
 
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Half A Dream

by Elena Clark


Whenever the Prince moved, the shadow under his skin moved almost, but not quite, with him.

Like most shadows, it could best be seen in bright sunlight, but Giacomo knew it was still there even at midnight, as inseparable from the Prince as the inside of his head.

Now, at high noon, it stood out sharply in the dark circles under his eyes and the hollows of his cheeks. Prince Luca was a pale boy, and had never run to baby fat. He always insisted that he felt perfectly well, but at thirteen he was still small and slight, and he looked perpetually tired, even as he dragged Giacomo out to the courtyard for sword practice.

“Come on, Giaco; Marco and Gianni and Marcello will all be down there already,” he said, pulling on Giacomo’s sleeve impatiently. “You promised you’d let all of us spar together today.”

Marco, Gianni, and Marcello were all dukes’ sons who were currently being fostered in the Children’s Castle in order to give Prince Luca someone to look down on. Or so Giacomo had gathered from overhearing the Queen’s remarks on the matter. Only it wasn’t working. Luca had immediately taken to treating the other boys like the older brothers that his real older brother, Prince Desiderato, wouldn’t be for him. Maybe it was because he was still so small, Giacomo thought. He hoped Luca’s hero-worship of the bigger boys wouldn’t blind him to their faults. Luca was of an age to fall under others’ spells, and his assumption that everyone else was as noble as he was meant he had little protection from them.

Marco, Gianni, and Marcello were indeed already waiting for them down in the courtyard, horsing around with their wooden practice swords despite the oppressive summer heat. They stopped reluctantly when Giacomo told them, “At attention, my Lords. And do not let me catch you at that again.”

“We were just having fun because you were late,” said Gianni. “You can’t expect us to sit around doing nothing but sewing wedding clothes, like Luca’s sisters.”

The flush that filled Luca’s face almost covered over the shadow, but Giacomo could still see it lurking there.

“A duke’s son does not speak slightingly of princesses,” Giacomo said, making Gianni’s face go darker than Luca’s. “And swords, even wooden ones, are weapons, not toys. If you are to train with me, you will respect that.”

Gianni looked like he wanted to argue, but thought better of it and muttered, “It was only a joke,” instead.

“A poor one. To your places, your Highness, my Lords.”

Giacomo drilled the boys until all of them except Luca were drooping. He was pleased to see that Luca could outfight any of them easily. He was small, but he was quick and brave. And, of course, he practiced with Giacomo every day, while the other boys only had Maestro Terzio, the weapons master, to train them. Long after the other boys had begun to struggle sluggishly under the midday sun, Luca was still swinging his sword enthusiastically, and jumping from foot to foot whenever he had to wait for the others to catch their breath.

“Enough, your Highness, my Lords,” said Giacomo eventually. “The wise fighter knows not to overtire himself training.”

“I was just getting warmed up, Giaco!” Luca protested as the other boys dropped their swords gratefully onto the ground. They gave Luca hateful looks he seemed not to notice.

“Pick up your swords, my Lords,” Giacomo told them. “A good fighter never allows himself to be separated from his weapon.

The boys picked up their swords and followed Luca to the weapons rack, their backs radiating resentment Giacomo’s way.

“Can we go riding today, Giaco?” asked Luca when he came back. “Please? You promised you’d take me riding!”

“You have painting and dancing this afternoon,” Giacomo reminded him.

“They were cancelled. Maestro Benvenuto stayed up all night painting the Great Hall. He’s too tired to teach today.”

“And your dancing lesson with Maestra Alessia?”

“She stayed up all night with Maestro Benvenuto.”

The other boys started laughing and poking each other. They stopped for a moment when Giacomo looked at them, but then Marco made a crude hand gesture, and they burst into gales of laughter again. Luca stared at them in confusion.

“I don’t see what’s so funny,” he said. “His hands get tired after a while, so he needs her to hold things for him. He says she’s much better at it than any of his assistants.”

This made the other boys laugh so hard they had to hold onto each other to stay upright, to Luca’s continued bewilderment. His uncomprehending expression only increased their mirth.

“Giaco, what’s so funny?” he asked, hurt creeping into his voice. “I don’t see what’s so funny about that.”

“Nothing a prince should find amusing,” Giacomo said, giving the other boys a look that penetrated even their fogged consciousnesses. “Come, your Highness, let us leave them to their base amusement.”

Luca kept looking back at the other boys as he followed Giacomo across the courtyard and into the Children’s Castle. “I still don’t see what’s so funny,” he repeated. “They’re always laughing about things I don’t understand, especially whenever I mention Maestro Benvenuto and Maestra Alessia. They even make jokes about Adina, now that she’s going to be married.”

“Some people think that what goes on between men and women is a subject for mirth,” Giacomo told him. “But such crudeness is beneath a prince.”

“Oh.” Luca thought about that as they climbed the stairs to the top of his tower. “Like what?” he asked.

“I’m sorry, your Highness?”

“What goes on between men and women that they think is so funny? And why is it so crude to laugh about it?”

“Nothing that need concern you, your Highness,” said Giacomo swiftly.

“They seem to talk about it all the time,” Luca said doubtfully. “And so do Desi and his friends. Even my father talks about it sometimes, when he forgets I’m there. But whenever I ask them what they’re talking about, they either get angry or they tell me I’ll find out soon enough. But how am I going to find out if they won’t tell me?”

“I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you, your Highness,” Giacomo told him.

“Maybe I’ll ask my mother or my sisters, or Maestra Alessia,” said Luca thoughtfully. “Maybe this is something ladies know lots more about, like embroidery or dancing.”

“You’re probably right, your Highness,” said Giacomo. A cold sweat of embarrassment was breaking out over his warm sweat from training at the thought of what the Queen would say to that. The part of him that wasn’t agonizing over what to tell Luca was amused at his awkwardness. “But it isn’t something they normally choose to discuss with men. Ladies have things they like to keep to themselves, too.”

“Oh. But then how will I ever find out?”

“It will happen of its own accord, your Highness, and in good time.”

“Oh. So can we go riding this afternoon? Outside of the city? Please please please? Everyone else will be welcoming the Astronomers’ Guild. I wanted to be there too and look at the astronomers, but Father said I would only get in the way and I had to wait until I reached my majority to welcome delegations. So can we please go riding? It’s not fair for me to be locked in my room while everyone else gets to look at the astronomers.”

“It’s very hot today…” said Giacomo.

“I don’t mind! Please!”

“Very well.”

“Thank you, Giaco, thank you thank you! I’ll go tell them to ready our horses!” Luca turned around and rushed back down the tower steps. Giacomo followed just fast enough to keep him in sight. Perhaps Luca didn’t mind the heat, but he did, and he needed a moment to think. He wanted to make sure that letting Luca go riding outside of the city was a good idea, and that he wasn’t letting him do something dangerous because of his own desire. Not to go riding, but to keep Luca out in the sun as much as possible, as if that would burn the shadow out of him.

Giacomo knew it was foolish, but he couldn’t help but feel that enough time out in the light of day would cleanse Luca of the darkness he had been carrying around inside of him for the past four years. And the more time Luca spent outside with him, the less time he spent inside with Sauro. He and Sauro had been spending more and more time in secret sessions. The gods alone knew what they were up to, but Luca always returned from them shaking and silent, his face even more full of shadow. Seeing it always made Giacomo swear that somehow, some day, he would break Luca of this shadow addiction. But he didn’t want to give Luca heatstroke in his attempts to cure him.

Luca chattered nonstop as they waited for the stablehands to ready the horses, and continued talking as they mounted up and rode away from the Castles. An afternoon’s ride out beyond the city walls was a major event for him, and he seemed half-hysterical from this sudden good fortune.

“Let’s go to the hills, Giaco, can we?” he asked. “That way we can look down and see the whole city, like birds!”

“A fine suggestion, your Highness,” said Giacomo. “Stay close to me now.” When Luca was small Giacomo would put him up in the saddle in front of him, but now Luca was much too big for that and had to be allowed to ride on his own. Giacomo was torn between pride at the way Luca sat his horse, as skillfully as he did everything else, and nervousness at being so far away from him. Until he had become Luca’s bodyguard, Giacomo had always treated his mother’s anxiety over his own safety as a child with amused contempt. Now he shuddered just thinking of it.

They wound through the city streets without incident until a beggar-woman standing at a corner suddenly straightened up from her hunch and thrust a bundle of rags at Luca, crying, “For the baby, Signorino, for the baby.”

Luca flinched back from her and looked uncertainly at Giacomo.

“Here.” Giacomo handed her a soldo. He had to brush her clutching hands from his leg before he could ride on.

“What did she want, Giaco?” asked Luca. “Why did she want money?”

“Because she had none, your Highness, and she needed to feed her baby, or so she said.”

“Then why did she not ask her husband for money?”

“Perhaps he has no money, or she has no husband.”

“Then how…” Luca did not finish his question. His mouth was pursed in a troubled frown, and it seemed to Giacomo that the shadow stood out even more sharply in the hollows of his cheeks. He remained in his unhappy silence until they rode out the city gates and climbed up the dusty hills to an overlook. Up here, the scent of heat-scorched flowers overpowered the smell of nightsoil that filled the valley. Still silent, Luca dismounted, tied up his horse, and sat on the bench, staring out over the city with a troubled look on his face.

“Are there many like her?” he asked eventually.

“Yes, your Highness.”

“Why doesn’t anyone do anything about it?”

“Sometimes they try, your Highness, but still they cannot save all of them. Some people will choose destruction even when they don’t have to.”

“But…” Luca scraped his toe through the dust. “Will the money you gave her be enough?”

“For today, your Highness.”

“Why didn’t you give her more? Why didn’t you give her enough for tomorrow, and the next day, and the next week? You have lots of money.” Anger rose higher in Luca’s voice with every sentence.

“I have enough money only for myself, your Highness, and if I gave it all to her, she would only waste it, and we would both be left with nothing.”

“You don’t know that. Why are you always so quick to judge people! Why do you always think ill of people! Why don’t you ever trust anyone! I want to go home!” Luca jumped up from the bench and ran over to his horse, but not before Giacomo saw the tears he was trying to hide.

“I have seen much more of the world than you, your Highness,” said Giacomo, following Luca over to the horses. “And much of what I have seen has given me cause to distrust my fellow men. And my duty is always to you and no one else. I let other people worry about other people.”

“Well, maybe you should spend less time thinking about me and more about other people!” Luca finished untying his horse and mounted, trying to keep his back to Giacomo as much as possible. “I’m going home! Sauro told me I could come to him this evening, and I don’t want to be late.” He rode off, forcing Giacomo to scramble in order to untie his horse and catch up with him.

“Luca,” he said, once he was level with him. Luca deliberately looked away, probably to hide his tears. “Luchino. It is good that you care so much about others. A true prince always thinks more of others than of himself. And it is normal to be angry at your age. Just remember that one day the anger will pass, and you will have to live with yourself afterwards. No matter how angry he is, a true prince always…”

“Shut up about a true prince!” screamed Luca. “Shut up, shut up, shut up!! I don’t want to be a true prince!”

Giacomo stopped himself from saying he didn’t mean it just in time. He let Luca ride ahead of him without speaking all the way back to the city. He only broke the silence as they drew near the city gates, when he suggested that Luca clean off his face before the guards saw them, but Luca gave him such a look of burning hatred that Giacomo didn’t insist.

When they arrived back at the Castles, Luca threw his reins at the grooms and stormed into the Children’s Castle and up the stairs to his tower, his back radiating his overwhelming determination to ignore the fact that Giacomo was shadowing his every step. The only acknowledge he made of Giacomo’s presence was when he slammed his door in Giacomo’s face.

“What’s the matter with our princeling?” asked Ulricco, who was patrolling the corridors and had unfortunately happened to witness the scene. “Has he been scorned by his lady-love?”

“Leave him be,” Giacomo ordered, more roughly than he meant to. “He’s going through a hard time right now.”

“Nothing a good whore wouldn’t cure, or perhaps a willing chambermaid,” suggested Ulricco cheerfully. “That would ease his tensions…” He trailed off in belated embarrassment on seeing Giacomo’s expression. “I’ll keep patrolling,” he said quickly. “We can’t be too careful with the Prince’s safety.”

“No, we cannot,” agreed Giacomo meaningfully. Ulricco nodded a couple of times, took a few hesitant backward steps, and then turned and continued on his patrol, his posture indicating his unwavering commitment to his duty, at least while Giacomo was watching.

Giacomo’s room was right next to Luca’s. He went inside. Normally the door between them was left open, but now it was bolted shut. He could hear Luca pacing back and forth on the other side of the wall. He thought about knocking and asking to come in, but thought better of it. He would only make matters worse by trying to talk to Luca before he had calmed down. He and Luca had never had a serious fight before—Giacomo didn’t count Luca’s childhood tantrums as serious fights—but he knew that Luca’s normally sunny disposition could turn to sunstroke in an instant, and when that happened the only thing to do was to wait until night fell on his mind and cooled it off.

Giacomo made himself sit down on his bed. His room was small and bare, and there was nothing in it to occupy him while he waited. Not that he would have been able to busy himself with the activities of the enlightened, Reborn man he was supposed to be while Luca was on the other side of a locked door from him. His father would tell him that making a quick sketch or writing a sonnet would compose his mind, better preparing him to fulfill his duties, but the anxiety that overcame him every time he was separated from Luca made it impossible to hold a pen. He laced his fingers together and locked them over his knee so that he could pretend they weren’t shaking. The sudden thought that maybe this fit of rage would drive the shadow out of Luca made his heart squeeze with irrational hope.

It sounded as if Luca was sobbing with rage into his pillows. Giacomo tried not to listen too closely. It occurred to him that Luca had reached an age where he would not longer appreciate Giacomo overhearing everything that went on his room. Always before it had been a source of comfort to both of them. Giacomo remembered his own childhood and was forced to admit that he wouldn’t have wanted someone constantly hovering over him when he had been Luca’s age, either.

“What is the matter, your Highness?” said a voice inside Luca’s room.

Giacomo’s heart stabbed him in the chest and began to hammer wildly. For a moment black clouds covered his eyes, and when they cleared he could still feel his pulse in his ears and throat.

“Sauro!” cried Luca. “You came! I’m so glad! Where have you been?”

“I was detained on unavoidable business, your Highness. But I am back now. I hope you are in no kind of trouble?”

Giacomo heard Sauro sit down on the bed next to Luca. The thought made him feel sick. But there was nothing he could do about it. He couldn’t keep Sauro and Luca apart, and he could do nothing to protect Luca from the shadow Sauro carried inside him, especially since Luca had embraced it so enthusiastically.

“I shouted at Giaco,” Luca admitted miserably.

“I’m sure he will forgive you with no hard feelings, your Highness.”

“But…” Luca’s voice trailed off, then suddenly burst out: “Why does he have to be like that? I understand that Marco and the others are stupid, they can’t help themselves, but why can’t Giaco understand me either? All he thinks about is protecting me and turning me into ‘a true prince,’ he never thinks about anything else, and I’m tired of it! And he acted like he didn’t even care about that poor woman we met on the streets!”

“What woman?”

Luca told Sauro the story of the beggar, including everything that Giacomo had said afterwards, his voice rising higher and higher with passionate indignation.

“I am sorry you had to see that, your Highness, but I am afraid your Giacomo has a point,” said Sauro when he was finished.

“No! That can’t be true! We can’t just leave people to suffer like that! I won’t accept that!” Giacomo could hear Luca jump off the bed and begin pacing back and forth. “It can’t be right! Sauro, you stand up for your brothers who are being persecuted; surely you can see that this is just as bad! You should help me in this!”

“I am sorry, your Highness,” said Sauro. “But as you pointed out, I stand up for my brothers who are being persecuted, and that takes all my time. I cannot save everyone. No one can. But I can save a few, and you can help me, if you wish. I am glad to see you care so strongly about others. It is your finest attribute. Use it to help me in my fight.”

“Of course, Sauro, of course! What help do you need?”

“Come with me. I have been in Prado, and came to Fiori only to see you. I must return to Prado shortly. Count Fabio has taken to persecuting members of the Order with renewed zeal, and something must be done to stop him. He seems to think that his betrothal to Princess Adorata has made him safe from Royal displeasure, and that he can act as he pleases now.”

“Of course I’ll come! And I’ve always wanted to go to Prado! No one lets me go anywhere! I’m not even allowed to go outside of the Children’s Castle without permission. But…” Giacomo could hear Luca’s face fall from the way his voice changed. “They won’t let me go.”

“I can take you anyway, if you wish, your Highness.”

“Really?! You mean you can just…take me away, like last time? Can we travel all the way to Prado like that?”

“We can, your Highness. It is a long way, but you have made so much progress in the arts of the Order that you will be able to help me.”

“Really?!! Please, Sauro, let’s go right now!!”

“Giacomo will be worried if you disappear again,” said Sauro, but Giacomo couldn’t hear any concern about that in his voice.

“Oh, he’ll find me soon enough,” Luca answered carelessly. “So can we go? Do we need to do anything first?”

Giacomo was already in the corridor before he had made a conscious decision to get up. Luca had drawn the bolt on the door between their rooms, but the door from the corridor opened to a key Giacomo carried on his belt.

“Take my hand and think of Prado,” said Sauro.

The key slid smoothly into the lock and turned obediently, letting Giacomo into the room before he had time to take a breath, but no one can move faster than light and shadow. Sauro and Luca were already gone.

***

“Again!” Giacomo found himself shouting. “He took him AGAIN!” He made himself stop shouting and run out the room, down the corridor, and over to the catwalk that connected the Children’s Castle with the Major Castle. The guard there opened his mouth to say something as Giacomo rushed past him, but was unable to get the words out before Giacomo was out of range. He ran down the narrow back stairs, almost crashing into a maid, who shouted,
“Where’s the fire, dal Prado?” He raced through the servants’ corridors to the Great Hall. A guard was standing at the door and tried to stop him, but Giacomo brushed past him and burst into the Great Hall. There was a collective gasp, and shrieks from the ladies, followed by coughing as everyone inhaled the scent of fresh paint that filled the Castles these days. The sound of swords clearing scabbards could be heard all over the Hall. Two guards grabbed him by the arms, and then let go on seeing who he was. Giacomo looked around. The Hall was full of people, many of them strangers. The delegation from the Astronomers’ Guild was being officially welcomed.

“What is this disturbance!” shouted the King, standing up from his throne. “Explain yourself, dal Prado!!”

“Your Majesty,” panted Giacomo. “We must…In private…Greatest importance.”

The King and Queen both gave him poisonous looks. Prince Desiderato watched him with interest, and the Princesses Adorata and Lucrezia cried out together “Luchino!” and then put their hands over their mouths.

“Dal Prado, leave immediately!” shouted the King, still standing. “I will deal with you later!”

“Father…!” said the princesses together.

“Let me deal with him now, your Majesty,” said Prince Desiderato, sliding out of his chair.

“Oh very well.” The King waved his hand in disgust and sat back down. Desiderato and his guard Damiano began to march Giacomo back to the servants’ corridors. Adorata and Lucrezia suddenly jumped up, curtseyed to the guests and their parents, and hurried after them, followed by their guards.

“What is it, dal Prado?” demanded Damiano as soon as they were in the servants’ corridor, at the same time as the princesses both asked, “What happened to Luca, Giaco?”

“Sauro,” said Giacomo. “He took him again.”

“What? Where?! How?!!” shouted Damiano and Desiderato together.

“Luca and I…Luca was angry, and he locked himself in his room. Sauro came to him and told he had to go to Prado. He asked Luca to come with him, and Luca agreed. And they left, just like that. By the time I got the door open, they were gone. I don’t know how fast Sauro can travel, but they could well be in Prado by now.”

“You’re sure that they…did whatever Sauro can do? They didn’t run off by normal means?” asked Desiderato.

“They didn’t come through my room, and I would have heard them if they’d opened the door and gone out into the corridor.”

“Maybe,” said Damiano.

“Luca was always headstrong, and you let him get away with it,” said Desiderato. “It’s no wonder he keeps running off. He should have been trained by many tutors, not just you.” His smile showed his certainty that if he had been responsible for bringing up Luca, there would not have been all this trouble.

“I’m sure the constant caring presence of his elder brother was of great benefit to him,” said Giacomo.

Desiderato’s smile suddenly hardened into place, like that of a plaster statue.

“Giaco’s right, Desi,” said Lucrezia. “You never did anything with Luca if you could help it.”

“I can’t be nursemaiding some little brat because he’s my brother! I’m the Heir! I have duties!”

“And meanwhile Luca takes up with some, some shady character, because his brother is too busy bothering the maids to play with him! You should be ashamed…”

“Your Highnesses!” Damiano cut it. “This is not helpful! Giannini, Benetto, escort the princesses to their tower and keep watch over them. No one is to go in or out of that tower without my express command!”

Lucrezia fell into a sullen silence.

“Come, sister, Giacomo, let us talk,” said Adorata. “You say Sauro has taken Luca to Prado. Perhaps I can be of help.” She set off calmly in the direction of the Children’s Castle, forcing the others to follow.

When they reached the Children’s Castle, Giacomo went with the princesses to their tower, as Adorata had requested. He knew Damiano would want to search Luca’s room from top to bottom and question every single man in the King’s Fifty, whether or not they had been on duty when Luca disappeared, and he was certain it would do no good, no more than it would to search for a shadow after its caster had stepped out of the sun.

“You have to go find Luca, Giaco,” said Adorata as soon as the door to her room closed behind them.

“Yes, you should leave right away,” agreed Lucrezia. “Don’t wait for Dami or Desi or Father to give you permission. You know how slow they are.”

Normally Giacomo would have chided anyone, even a princess, for speaking ill of the King, but now he had more urgent business than observing propriety, especially since he agreed with Lucrezia. It was not that the King, Desiderato, or Damiano were stupid, exactly, they just didn’t tend to venture outside of their own heads very often. And they had never taken Sauro seriously.

“I give you my command to go after Luca at once,” said Adorata. “Any member of the Royal Family who has reached their majority can command any member of the King’s Fifty, so you must obey me. I will answer to Father for you.”

“Father will be angry…” said Lucrezia.

“When is Father not angry with us?” said Adorata. She tried to smile, but it came out painfully. “The Kings of Fiori have never been known for their strong paternal feelings. Let him shout. Someone has to take care of Luca. Everyone knows my days are numbered here at home, but I doubt they will end over this. The King’s Fifty is supposed to protect the Royal children, and Luca is the only child left. The rest of us only live in the Children’s Castle because the Heir and the King must live in separate residences, and Father doesn’t want us girls around, but your first duty is to Luca. Take whomever you need. You can even have Giannini and Benetto if you want.”

“Thank you, your Highness, but no,” said Giacomo. “I doubt more men will help. I should go alone. But before I leave, I must ask you for the latest news from Prado. My father has not written to me recently. Is it true that Count Fabio has started another attack on members of the Order of Infinity?”

“It is true,” said Adorata. “You know how fearful and superstitious he is. He claims to be a Reborn man, but he knows no more of reason than he does of life on distant stars. He fears that the Order of Infinity is working to undermine his position and cast curses on him, and so he wants to destroy it. We stopped him four years ago, when Sauro first came to Luca, but now he thinks he is safe—from us, that is. He has put several members or people accused of being members of the Order on trial for specious charges in the past months, and each time the punishment has been more severe. This time he hopes to have his victims put to death.”

“That is not a very flattering assessment of your betrothed,” said Lucrezia. “And how do you know all that, anyway? Surely he didn’t tell you.”

“I pay attention in Council,” said Adorata tartly. “And I have spoken with Sauro.” Lucrezia gave her a suspicious look. Adorata blushed but said nothing.

“The Order of Infinity is not my concern,” said Giacomo. “Only Luca. Has Sauro told you where he might be found in Prado?”

“No.” Adorata began straightening a flower arrangement. “But I know he sometimes goes to a certain card reader named Amanda while he is there.”

“Do you know anything else about her? Where can she be found? What is her family name? What does she look like?”

“I don’t know. I’m sorry.” Adorata continued arranging the roses, her back to the others.

“It is a start. Thank you, your Highness.”

“Go find Luca. I am sure Sauro would not hurt him, but…It might not be safe for him to be in Prado right now. And I cannot sleep easy unless I know you are with him. Do you need anything? Money, horses, papers?”

“Thank you, your Highness, I have all of those.”

“Then go.”

Giacomo bowed and left. As he went out the door, he heard Lucrezia saying, “I’m sure Sauro wouldn’t hurt Luca, I’m sure you don’t have to worry about that, Adina, I’m sure…” and then he was out of range of their voices.

Giacomo stood in indecision for a moment at the bottom of the stairs leading from the Princess tower, and then ran across the Children’s Castle and up the stairs to Luca’s room. Damiano and Desiderato were turning back the sheets on Luca’s bed, as if he might be hidden somewhere in there.

“I’m going to Prado,” Giacomo announced.

Damiano stopped shaking out the sheets. “You’re sure, then,” he said.

“Yes. I’m leaving immediately.”

“You can’t just set off like that without permission,” said Desiderato.

“I am acting under the Princess Adorata’s express command.”

“Only the Heir has the right to give commands,” said Desiderato. “Adorata has no business poking her nose into things she doesn’t understand.”

“Any member of the Royal Family who has reached their majority can give commands to the King’s Fifty. Princess Adorata has had that right the longest of all of you, and she knows how to use it, just as she knows how to pay attention in Council.”

“You…” said Desiderato, but he couldn’t seem to find a fitting response. Damiano gave Giacomo a look as if he wanted to say something, but didn’t have the time or the patience for the kind of reprimand that was necessary.

“Your Highness.” Giacomo bowed and left.

“We’re better off without him!” he heard Desiderato say as he closed the door behind him. “He may have been a great fighter once, but ever since the previous incident with Luca and Sauro, his mind has gone soft. Something happened to him down in the catacombs, and now he’s…” Giacomo started down the tower stairs, cutting off the sound of Desiderato’s voice.

***

Evening was already coming on as Giacomo went back down to the stables. The stablehands looked a little surprised when Giacomo asked them to saddle a courier horse for him, but did it anyway, only asking with a wink if he had a “special assignment” somewhere out of the city.

“Yes,” said Giacomo.

“Expecting trouble from the lady?” asked one of them, punching him lightly on the arm. “Or do you always take a sword to these kinds of things?”

“Maybe that’s why he has such a gloomy face,” said one of the others. “He doesn’t know how things are going to turn out!” And all the stablehands burst into laughter.

“The stable from Diecimiglia will send Stella back tomorrow,” said Giacomo.

“All the whores in Diecimiglia have the pox,” said the stablehand who was holding Stella.

“As you know too well, Miccino!” said a stablehand who was leaning against the wall and holding a pitchfork as if he were about to start working. There was another round of laughter.

“The stalls smell of urine,” said Giacomo, taking Stella’s reins. “No wonder the Prince’s horse has thrushy feet. He was complaining of it earlier. You know he loves his Vittorio like a brother.” He led Stella out of the stable. There was a sudden flurry of pitchforks and brooms behind him. He mounted up and rode off.

Giacomo took small streets around to the other side of the Castles and onto the road to Prado. Servants were lighting torches on the fronts of their lords’ houses. Viale Prado was the largest street in Fiori, and was lined with villas all the way to the city walls.

“Where are you off to, dal Prado?” asked the guards at the city gates when Giacomo passed through. One of them winked at him familiarly. “Tired of the company of little boys tonight?”

“They can be kind of bony,” agreed the other guard, laughing and winking as well.

For a moment Giacomo considered riding on without answering. His duty was to protect Luca, nothing else. But Luca had to be protected from ordinary dangers as well as extraordinary ones. He reined Stella to a halt.

“Would you care to explain your meaning?” he asked.

The guards shifted uncomfortably. A small crowd was gathering to watch the fun. “It was just a joke,” said the first guard. “We didn’t mean anything by it.”

“Just a joke can get you hurt,” said Giacomo. “Apologize.”

“We’re sorry,” said the first guard, shuffling his feet and looking down. “It was just a stupid joke. We didn’t mean anything by it.”

“I did,” said the second guard, who was bigger and younger than the first guard, and had the eyes of a yearling bull. Giacomo recognized the type. He had to stifle a groan. Next there was going to be a challenge, and then a fight, and Giacomo would have to waste his time defeating him, because he wasn’t going to learn any other way. Giacomo wondered whether Stella was trained to stay calm in a fight.

“Everyone knows you’re no good anymore, dal Prado,” said the second guard. “Everyone knows you lost your nerve when the Prince was taken, and you haven’t been right in the head ever since. So I figure there must be another reason why he keeps you around. I guess he likes your

The second guard was sprawled out on the ground, clutching his cheek and staring in incomprehension at the blood and bits of tooth that were pouring out of his mouth.

Giacomo put his foot back in the stirrup and stroked Stella on the neck. Apparently she had been trained to stay calm in a fight.

“What did you do!” shouted the second guard. More blood sprayed out from his mouth. “How dare you!”

“Apologize to Giacomo dal Prado and go inside, Andrea,” said the first guard. “You’re lucky he only knocked you down and kicked you in the face.”

More guards were coming out of the guardhouse to join the crowd of onlookers. Andrea jumped up and tried to draw his sword. It spun away from him and landed at the feet of the first guard.

“Lock Andrea up and have a surgeon look at him,” Giacomo ordered. “I hear Barbaro on Via delle Taverne has a steady hand for stitching.” He sheathed his own sword. “Dock his pay for a couple of days. I think he has grasped the importance of keeping his mouth shut.”

The other guards saluted nervously and began helping Andrea back to the guardhouse. A few of the onlookers cheered Giacomo as he rode by.

“Your nerve looks fine to me, dal Prado!” one of them shouted. Giacomo stopped himself from saying “thank you” just in time.

He let Stella pick up a trot as they left the city gates behind. She seemed unaffected by the altercation at the gates, but pricked her ears curiously at every bush and building that appeared out of the dusk. When a stray dog ran out at her, she gave it a stern look and took a step towards it. It backed off, and she continued cheerfully down the road.

Such a bold horse deserves an equally bold rider, Giacomo thought. Where is my courage? At least his old fearlessness in battle had not deserted him. He had disarmed Andrea without hesitating, and now that the fight was over, there was no sign of shakiness in his hands or heart, but he knew it did not mean he had been cured of fear. He could feel it lurking under his skin, an invisible shadow to match Luca’s visible one.

Will I ever be free of it? he asked himself, but even as he did so, he knew it was a pointless question. From some injuries it was impossible to recover.

When Sauro had taken Luca four years ago and Giacomo had gone down into the catacombs after him, he had not thought to be afraid of anything other than failure. He had not been in the habit of worrying about himself. As a bodyguard, his greatest fear had always been for his charge’s body. His own was of small concern to him, and his mind even less. He had always assumed that anything his body could survive would have no effect on his mind. He had been wrong.

Giacomo was a Reborn man only because his father had wanted it, but even so he had accepted the foundations of the Rebirth: reason, harmony, humanity. He had believed that everything could be mastered through reason and that there was a rational explanation for everything. He had believed it so strongly that he had protested when his father had tattooed the circle that marked him as “Reborn in Reason” on the back of his neck. Surely, he had argued, men of reason had no reason to mark themselves with magic symbols like witch doctors. His father had said something about the tattoo representing his commitment to the movement and promoting a feeling of solidarity and brotherhood, and Giacomo had given in and allowed him to do it, but now he knew he should have taken it as a sign that even the most committed members of the Rebirth could not let go completely of the superstitions they claimed to despise. And, he had discovered, they were right to cling to them.

When he had gone down into the catacombs after Luca, the fear he had found there had swallowed him whole, filling every particle of his being. The fact that it had been unfounded had made it even more terrifying.

Afterwards, when he and Luca were safely back above ground, he had told himself that there had been a rational reason for everything that had happened. Sauro had put a spell on him. If he accepted the possibility of spells—and a rational, Reborn man was always ready to accept new knowledge—then it was all logical. Sauro had put spells on the catacombs, so that anyone who came looking for him and Luca would be overcome by uncontrollable fear and turn back. Giacomo had not turned back and had found Sauro and Luca instead. Sauro had dispelled the fear spells and let them return unhindered to the surface. It should have been all over, at least for Giacomo, and at first he thought it was. He could see that Sauro’s shadow had infected Luca, and for a while he thought that the fear that followed him around was for Luca. But it wasn’t, not entirely.

He had dismissed the way his skin crawled whenever he saw Sauro as hatred, until he realized that every time Sauro came near, he flinched away from him like a beaten dog. The sight of Sauro’s thin body and dark sunken eyes made the hair on the back of his neck rise, and worse than that, it made his hands shake. Giacomo was not used to weakness. Once or twice he had taken ill with fever and his hands had fumbled so clumsily when he tried to close them around his sword, but in a day or two the weakness had always passed from his body, and a week later it had passed from his mind as well. He had waited for the disease of fear to pass, too, but it had not.

A few days after Sauro had taken Luca the first time, Giacomo had found himself in the Hall of Swords, near the entrance to the catacombs. Suddenly his gorge had risen in his throat, and he had backed out with his sword half-drawn. Once back in the Great Hall, he had had to rest on a bench for a long time before his legs were able to carry him to the Children’s Castle. That night he had dreamed of the door to the catacombs.

The next morning he had dismissed it as a normal battle reaction. Everyone felt bad for a few days after fighting, and then they got over it, just like any other sickness. But the next night he had had the same dream, and the next night, and the next. He kept waiting for it to go away, but it kept coming back. Sometimes he went so far in the dream as to open the door and take a few steps down the stairs. Nothing terrible ever happened, and he knew that the only dangerous thing down there was his own fear, but neither it nor the dream went away.

The fear made him angry with himself, which made the fear worse. Soon it had spread from the catacombs to everything else in his life. Some of it was centered around Luca. They would be at sword practice, and all of a sudden Giacomo would see his sword smash Luca’s arm and cripple him. Giacomo would realize he was having a vision of his own nightmare, nothing more, but even so he would call a halt to their training. Sometimes they would be walking up the stairs to Luca’s tower and Giacomo would imagine that Luca was about to fall and break his head, or they would be eating and Giacomo would suddenly be overcome with terror that Luca was about to choke and die, or he would wake up in the middle of the night, convinced that Luca was about to smother in his own bedclothes. Giacomo tried to listen to his good sense, which told him it was all in his head, but the visions were much more real than reason, and they hung over him and mocked him, no matter how much he tried to send them away.

The most terrible thing of all, though, was when he realized that he also feared for himself. One day he had been sparring with the weapons master and had made a clumsy parry, and suddenly he had had a vision of his own arm being smashed, his own head breaking, and had been unable to continue. He had called off the training session, making some kind of joke about no longer being as young as he once was, but he could see by Terzio’s face that it was something much worse.

Later that day he had been eating and had been overcome with fear that he was choking. He had put down his food and walked out of the dining hall, breathing deeply because in fact he wasn’t choking at all, he was just afraid. For the first time in his life he had realized that his body was a fragile and precious thing. It would be so easy for it to be hurt beyond repair, and if that happened, there would be nothing left. And no matter what happened, he was no longer as young as he once was, just as he had said to Terzio, and one day he would no longer be able to lift a sword, and one day after that he would be gone forever, no matter how hard he fought against it. He knew this was not a new thought to have, but it was new to him, and just as terrifying as it was to everyone else who had ever had it.

He had spent a long time that night lying in bed and thinking, despite his desire not to. He realized that something terrible and irrevocable had happened to him, and that his life had become fundamentally worse and was never going to get better, not completely. His courage had been broken in the catacombs, and now he was like a soldier who had just lost an arm. At the moment all he could see was the pain, and that his life as he knew it was over. Somewhere beyond the pain was the dim awareness that if he survived this, someday the pain would die down and he would go on living. But even so, he would always be missing something. He would have to learn to manage with his broken courage, just like old soldiers had to learn to manage with their broken bodies.

Looking at it that way made it a little easier to bear, at least part of the time. If he thought of it not as cowardice, but as a brave struggle, he didn’t feel so much of a failure. There was merit in overcoming almost-fatal wounds, even if they were invisible. But every day he was forced to face how brave a struggle it was going to be, and how little credit others were going to give him for it.

The rumors that something had happened to him down in the catacombs had swirled around him ever since he came back up, but despite his breakdown with Terzio they probably would have died away, if the King had not decided to hold a public examination of everyone involved in Luca’s disappearance.

Since they had had to persuade Sauro to explain his part in it, it had taken several weeks to arrange. By then Giacomo was feeling a little better and had thought he would be able to face it with no trouble. But as he described going into the catacombs, and finding the secret entrance, and the fear that had overwhelmed him as he went down the stairs, his voice had started to shake, and eventually he had had to stop in order not to start crying there in the Great Hall. He had sat through the rest of the examination with his hands trembling and his heart racing. His shame of his weakness only made it that much harder to control. He had tried to tell himself that it had not been that noticeable, but afterwards people spoke to him in the voice used for sick people, and the next day it was known all over both Castles that Giacomo dal Prado had lost his nerve.

The next day Damiano had come to talk to him about it. He was, he explained, concerned about Giacomo’s ability to guard Prince Luca. Giacomo had told him he was merely a bit shaken by the unnerving experience he had had. Damiano said that he might feel better if he “got it all off his chest,” and ordered Giacomo to describe everything that had happened. But within a few words Giacomo saw that Damiano didn’t want to know anything about an all-consuming fear. Giacomo had stopped his story and told him not to worry about it, he was sure he would be fine, and the discussion was never continued. Giacomo had carefully hidden his fear away, promising himself he would never speak of it to anyone again, because it was clear they would never understand.

Now, four years later, he sometimes forgot about it, just like someone might forget an old wound, but then something would remind him, and he would spend the rest of the day thinking of it, imagining over and over again what it would be like if he had to go back down there. What had happened to him down in the catacombs was over in the outside world, but inside of Giacomo it was still going on, and would only stop when his thoughts finally stopped, too.

Sparks flying off Stella’s shoes made Giacomo realize it was already full dark. He shook off the fears that were shadowing him and looked around. When he saw there was no other traffic, he let Stella break into a canter, and soon they were galloping at a pace he would normally never have contemplated in the dark. The lights of Diecimiglia appeared long before he started looking out for them.

At the inn there they took Stella, promising to return her to the Castles the next morning, and gave Giacomo a big blue roan named Cielo. One of the girls the stablehands had claimed all had the pox came up to Giacomo and started to suggest a business transaction, but the hostler shouted at her, “Can’t you see it’s Giacomo dal Prado, and on urgent business, you stupid slut,” and she apologized sullenly and backed away. Giacomo mounted up and set off.

Cielo was the kind of coarse-boned long-eared horse that Giacomo always expected to be slow and stubborn, but he turned out to be surprisingly soft-mouthed and light-footed, and moved eagerly down the road. A couple of times they encountered others out for a late-night ride, but Cielo pinned back his big ears and plowed past them without slowing, much to Giacomo’s secret amusement. They covered the twenty miles in very good time, and reached Prado by midnight.

***

Giacomo decided that the situation justified waking up his parents in order to ask for their help, and rode straight to their house, where he found he needn’t have worried about waking them, as there was a dinner in progress that looked as if it had many more hours to run. In fact, at first the servant at the gate refused to let Giacomo in because he didn’t have an invitation, but then the old housekeeper came out to see what the fuss was about and scolded the servant roundly, before calling for a groom for Cielo and leading Giacomo into the house herself.

“This is a pleasure, carissimo,” she said over and over again, pinching Giacomo’s cheek and patting his back. “You see what comes of never coming to visit; we’ve all forgotten your face. You should be ashamed of yourself!” She left Giacomo in a side room and hurried off to get his parents, muttering joyously to herself all the while.

Giacomo unbuckled his swordbelt and sat down gingerly. Years of city life had made his seat grow shamefully soft, and the thirty miles had not been kind to it.

“Giachino!” His mother burst into the room and threw her arms around him. “What’s the matter? Why are you here? What happened? Carino, carissimo…”

Giacomo hugged her awkwardly and helped her to a chair, where she sat wiping her eyes and beaming at him.

“You are well come, Giacomo,” said his father, shaking his hand. “What brings you here?” Alarm flickered across his face. “Is it Giuseppe?”

“My brother is well.” Giacomo paused, trying to decide how much to tell his parents, but he saw that his arrival had thrown them both into agonies of suspense, so he hurried to begin his explanations. “I am here on official business,” he said, and was ashamed of the relief that immediately filled their faces. It had never occurred to him that they would still worry so much about him. Actually, he had assumed that they rarely thought about him at all these days.

“Is the Prince so old now that he is sending you on errands of state?” asked Giacomo’s father. “Or has he grown tired of the backbiting of courtly life, and run away to the country?” He smiled to show it was a joke, and sat down in the chair next to Giacomo’s. “Don’t worry, son, we’ll find him soon enough. A little boy like that can’t outrun a man like you.” He reached over and patted Giacomo’s knee playfully, and Giacomo suddenly saw that his father was terribly, terribly glad to see him and was having to restrain himself from throwing his arms around Giacomo’s neck and bursting into tears.

“I hope not,” Giacomo said, trying to smile and speak lightly in order to put his father and himself at ease. “I hope I can catch him.”

“He’s run away!?” cried his mother.

“Yes.”

“Oh! Oh, his poor mother! Oh, what made him do it?”

“He’s, what, thirteen now?” asked his father dryly. “A good age for running away.”

“But Giachino always said he was such a good boy, so level-headed and obedient…”

“The worst kind,” said Giacomo’s father. “They’re always the ones who cause the most trouble when they take it into their heads to be foolish.”

“It isn’t entirely his fault,” said Giacomo. “He was persuaded by someone else.”

“A woman!” guessed his mother in horror. “Some women will stop at nothing in order to corrupt an innocent young boy…”

“No, no, nothing like that. It was a man.”

“Even worse,” said his father, laughing and making a face at the same time.

Giacomo could feel himself flushing with irritation. Why was everyone making all these coarse remarks about Luca? Luca probably wouldn’t even notice—or maybe he would; he had always been an observant child, and was only becoming more so—but Giacomo didn’t like to have that kind of thing touching him, even in others’ thoughts.

“It was Sauro,” he said coldly. “From the Order of Infinity. Luca and I…Luca and I had had an argument, and Sauro came to him and told him he needed his help here in Prado, and persuaded him to come with him. They left…They used Sauro’s…They probably arrived here hours ago, and are in hiding somewhere. I must find them and bring Luca back home before something happens to him.”

“You mustn’t feel bad about the argument, carissimo,” said Giacomo’s mother. She bent forward and stroked his shoulder. “Boys his age are always looking for a fight. He probably couldn’t help himself, and it’s not your fault either.”

Giacomo took his mother’s hand gratefully. It was embarrassingly soothing to be told it wasn’t his fault.

“It will blow over soon enough,” she told him, smiling the smile she had used when he had skinned his knee as a little boy.

“Yes, these lovers’ quarrels never last long,” laughed his father.

Giacomo dropped his mother’s hand and jumped to his feet. “I broke a man’s face this evening for words like that,” he said.

His father drew back in his chair. “It was a joke. Why can’t you take a joke? And you have to know that rumors about you two have reached even here to Prado. Everyone knows that…”

“What? What do they know?” Giacomo snatched up his swordbelt. His father shrank back even farther into his chair, and his mother gasped. “I do not permit others to slander his Highness, nor do I associate with those who do. Whatever you may have heard, I suggest that you refute it at the first opportunity. Now I beg you to let me leave. Do not expect me back any time soon.”

His father’s face filled with shock and pain. “You need to learn to take a joke, son,” he said.

Giacomo gave him a look and he flinched, surprising Giacomo. He had not thought he could have such an affect on his father. For a moment pity kept him silent, but then his father straightened up in his chair and opened his mouth to say something, his face already assuming a condescending expression, and Giacomo’s disgust with everything he had heard that day burst its banks. “Some things are no laughing matter. I would have expected an old man like to you to know that by now. Surely someone so close to the grave would have learned to think serious thoughts. Or has the Rebirth you have devoted yourself to so befuddled your brains that you think you, too, will be reborn? Pray excuse me, signore. Duty calls. I must go and sift through all the fortune-tellers and card readers in Prado. Perhaps they will have something of use to say, since you do not.”

His father sat there and gasped like a beached fish. Giacomo left the room, closing the door firmly behind him.

His mother caught him at the door as he was trying to buckle on his swordbelt with shaking hands. Tears were standing out in her eyes. “Your father means well,” she said. “He isn’t always aware of what he’s saying when he talks, but he means well.”

“Maybe he does,” said Giacomo. “But that doesn’t render his words harmless. I must protect Luca from many things, and it is becoming increasingly clear to me that the greatest danger he faces are from the things other people think.” Giacomo was finding it hard to breathe and speak at the same time, but he couldn’t stop himself. Surely his mother would understand the duty he felt towards Luca, even if no one else did. “I have always been ready to protect him with my body, but it turns out it’s not enough. I need to protect him with my mind, and my tongue, and everything else I have at my disposal. And that won’t be enough either, but I cannot stand idly by while others hack and slash at his reputation and his peace of mind! I can’t!”

“Why don’t you have children of your own!” cried his mother. “Why are wasting yourself on someone else’s son?!”

“Oh…” Giacomo yanked his swordbelt tight. “I have to go now.”

“Wait…” His mother face showed she knew she had said the wrong thing. “Most of the fortune-tellers are on La Vietta delle Erbe. Are you looking for one in particular?”

“Amanda. I don’t know her family name.”

“Amanda l’Interpretrice is the third door on the right after the fountain. Try her. She always reads the cards true. Even if she is not the Amanda you’re looking for, she will be able to help you.”

Giacomo stared at his mother. She smiled with embarrassment. “You’re father doesn’t know,” she said. “And it would hurt him if he did. But I…With you and Giuseppe so far away…I cannot find the same comfort in reason that your father does…I have to know what is happening to you, and Amanda always reads true.”

“Thank you,” said Giacomo. He squeezed her hand. “Thank you. I will come back, if I can.” His mother moved as if to grab his sleeve and hold him back, but he shook off her hand, and left.

***

La Vietta delle Erbe was on the far side of Prado from Giacomo’s parents’ house. The thought that Luca might be waiting for him there made him break into a run.

He passed through La Piazza Centrale, and saw his father’s sculpture of the Girl and the Bull. The bull was stretched out in its endless gallop, and the girl clutched its neck in eternal terror. Even in torchlight, the muscles of both them stood out in perfect relief, uncannily life-like. Giacomo remembered how his father had spent months preparing for the sculpture, dissecting corpses and making his mother pose nude for the part of the girl, all the while grumbling that she no longer had the unspoiled figure he needed. In his great piles of sketches he had drawn multiple versions of the mythical abduction and also the rest of the story, and had shouted at Giacomo in exasperated condescension when Giacomo had turned away from the sketches in disgust.

“You’re too soft, son,” he had said. “Don’t you recognize true art when you see it?”

“What does mother say?” Giacomo had asked.

“What does she know of true art?” his father had demanded, snatching the sketches out of Giacomo’s hands. “Do you know how difficult it was to draw the muscles like that? How many men do you think could depict pain and fear like that? Look at the expression on the girl’s face! I tell you, it took more than one day of research to come up with that!”

It was then that Giacomo had decided he was going to be a soldier.

Now he stopped for a moment to see if the statue still had its old power over him. Two drunks wavered up to it and stopped to get their bearings. One of them suddenly bent over and vomited copiously, while the other ran his hands up and down the girl’s marble leg and laughed raucously. Giacomo hurried up Il Viale Maggiore towards La Vietta delle Erbe.

A cracked marble fountain marked the intersection. To the right the street became La Via Commerciale, and was lined with shops lit with torches even in the middle of the night, when there were no customers. To the left the street became La Vietta delle Erbe, which was unlit even though people were moving furtively up and down the street and stepping as inconspicuously as possible into doorways.

The third door on the right had been freshly painted, which set it apart from many of the other doors on the street. A large eye stared out from the middle of the dark green paint. The pupil was made of glass.

The door opened before Giacomo could knock. A tall woman with black spirals of hair covering her shoulders stood in the threshold.

“I understand how you could see me through the door,” said Giacomo, “but how did you know to look at just the right moment?”

The woman laughed. “Surely someone coming to visit Amanda l’Interpretrice would know better than to ask such a question,” she said. “Come, follow me. I have been expecting you.” She turned and began to walk deeper into the house. Giacomo followed, shutting the door behind him.

Amanda went down a narrow corridor to a room in the rear of the house. She did not look back, apparently sure Giacomo would not stray into any of the doorways they passed on the way. And in fact, Giacomo stayed close enough behind her that her long spirals of black hair almost brushed his face.

The only things in the room at the end of the corridor were two chairs, a table, and a deck of cards. Amanda sat down in one chair, and gestured for Giacomo to sit in the other.

“How did you know to look out for me?” he asked again, once he was seated. “And so late at night?”

She smiled. Giacomo was not surprised by the air of mystery that surrounded her, but he was surprised by the air of intelligence. He almost expected her to give him a rational explanation for why she had been waiting for him at the door—some system of spies and sentries, perhaps.

“The cards, of course,” she told him. She picked up the deck and turned it over and over in her hands. “I do a reading for myself every night before bed, and tonight they told me to expect a midnight visitor on urgent business. So I stayed up. Now tell me, midnight visitor: what is your urgent business?”

“My mother says you always read true,” Giacomo said.

Amanda inclined her head. “And who is your mother?”

“Beatrice, wife of Giovanni lo Scultore.”

“Ah. You must be Giacomo il Guardo, then.”

Giacomo nodded. Amanda began to shuffle the cards. “No need to say more,” she said. “Let me do a reading, and then if I need to, I will ask you more questions.” She spread the cards out in a smooth line, facedown. Her hands hovered over them for a while, as if feeling for air currents, before she suddenly picked up three cards and laid them out in front of her.

“I will do the first reading,” she said. “Then you will do a reading.”

Giacomo nodded again, rather uncertainly. He didn’t like the idea of doing a reading. What if he did it wrong, and failed to find Luca because of his own ineptitude? There was a time when he would have laughed at the idea of anyone’s fate hanging on his ability to read cards, but unfortunately, that time had passed.

Amanda turned over the first card. A rider on a black horse was galloping under a new moon.

“The Black Horseman,” she said. She turned over the next card. A red horse was standing under a full moon. Its rider was holding an upraised sword

“The Red Horseman.” She gave Giacomo a considering look, and turned over the last card. A rider on a gray horse was walking under a waning moon.

“The White Horseman.” She gave Giacomo another long look, and turned the cards over several times, examining them with interest.

“What does mean?” demanded Giacomo when he couldn’t stand it any more.

“I don’t think I have ever had a reading that was all Horsemen before,” said Amanda, still studying the cards. “It is very interesting.”

“Yes, but what does it mean?”

“Have you ever read the cards before, Giacomo?”

“No,” said Giacomo, trying and failing to conceal his impatience.

Amanda laughed a little. Giacomo’s impatience and the cards’ peculiar behavior seemed to make her grow more cheerful, and her eyes were smiling as she talked. “Each card has a list of meanings, most of which are obvious,” she said. “The Black Horseman means things like flight, ominous news, and change; the Red Horseman means courage and stalwartness; and the White Horseman signifies death, loss, and fear. On top of those individual meanings are those of the cards in combination. For example, two or more Horsemen together always means that someone will be called upon to take action. And then there are the meanings that the cards whisper to you. Anyone can read a book about the cards and learn their surface meanings; it is the ability to hear their whispering that sets true readers apart from the false.”

“So what are they whispering to you?” asked Giacomo sharply.

Amanda laughed again. “So many things that I cannot make them out. We must do another reading, and this time, you must choose the cards.” She gathered up the cards, shuffled them, and spread them out on the table again.

“Pick three cards,” she said. “Hold your hand out over them, and pick the three that call to you.”

Giacomo held his hand out over the cards and waited, but they whispered nothing to him. After a while he picked three at random, not sure whether to feel disappointed or stupid. He offered them to Amanda, but she shook her head.

“Turn them over yourself,” she said. “Listen to what they tell you.”

Giacomo turned the first card over. A gray-haired man staring up at the starry sky looked back at him.

“The Magician,” said Amanda. “Knowledge, revelation, and danger. Very interesting.”

Giacomo turned the next card over. A weaponless soldier was fleeing a battlefield.

“The Fleeing Soldier,” said Amanda. “Cowardice, fear, and betrayal.” Giacomo flinched, and she looked at him with interest.

“It is not a good card,” he explained, trying not to sound awkward.

“No, it is not,” she agreed calmly, but it seemed to him that she watched him for much longer than she should have. In order to distract her, he hurried to turn over the third card, fumbling with it in his haste. A young woman wearing a white dress and holding a bouquet of many colors gazed back at him from under a flowering tree.

Amanda laughed again, but this time her voice was full of joy. “The Bride,” she said. “Hope, fidelity, and love, among other good things.”

“Will she cancel out the Fleeing Soldier?” asked Giacomo. His voice sounded much more desperate than he would have liked.

Amanda looked at him for a long time before answering. “Perhaps she will,” she said gently, “but only if you let her.”

“What do they mean?” asked Giacomo. His voice was horrifyingly tremulous. “What will happen? Will I find him? What does the Fleeing Soldier mean? Why did he turn up?”

“Why does that card bother you so much?” asked Amanda.

“It is not a good card,” Giacomo repeated, looking down at the table.

“Show me your hands,” Amanda ordered suddenly.

“So you can read my palms?”

“Yes, but not in the way you are thinking.” Amanda took Giacomo’s hands in her own and ran her fingers over them. “You have strong hands,” she said. “And many calluses from the hilt of your sword. You must train every day.”

“Yes.” Giacomo’s throat didn’t want to obey him, and he had to squeeze the word out by force.

“Does it help keep the fear at bay?”

Giacomo’s hands jumped. He tried to pull them away from Amanda’s and pretend it hadn’t happened, but it was too late. His hands were caught in hers, and no matter which way he turned his face, she could still see him.

“What fear?” he asked, hating the sound of his own voice lying. It was not something he was used to hearing. Other people were the liars.

“Your fear,” she told him. “The fear that follows you everywhere you go. The fear that hangs over you like a vast shadow, blocking out everything else around you.”

“I don’t know what you’re…There’s no fear, that’s nonsense…”

“Shall I do another reading, and let the cards tell me if it’s nonsense or not?” asked Amanda. Her eyes caught his and held them. They were, Giacomo noticed, large, dark, and very beautiful. This observation calmed him somewhat. He was unused to looking at a woman and noticing that she was beautiful. He supposed there were beautiful women in the Castles, but they were either noblewomen or servants, and so out of his sphere. He supposed Amanda was also out of his sphere, but she was close enough that he could look at her. Seeing her as a beautiful woman instead of a card reader made her seem less threatening. Even so, the thought of those eyes looking into his cards was unsettling. Giacomo had the impression that there was nothing they could not see.

“For a long time I didn’t know what fear was,” Giacomo said, looking down at the cards.

Amanda let go of his hands and leaned back in her chair. “That is often the case for the young,” she said.

“I guess I was arrogant…I guess I had to be struck down sometime,” said Giacomo, still staring down at the cards. If he didn’t look at her, he could almost pretend she wasn’t there, which made it easier to talk. Amanda said nothing, which made it even easier. For a moment the urgent need to find Luca was lessened, and the things he had wanted to explain to someone for the past four years came pouring out.

“When I…When Luca was taken the first time, I went after him, of course. By the time I went down into the catacombs, I already knew I was dealing with something uncanny, something out of the realm of reason, but I went after him anyway, and I didn’t expect to be afraid. Which made it even worse when the fear first hit me, I think. It was so unexpected, and I didn’t know what to do about it. I’d never had to fight my own fear before.

“I’d seen soldiers unmanned by fear before, of course—everyone does, in battle—but I never thought it could happen to me. I always…I was arrogant, like I said. I always assumed I was above that. I just never knew how terrible fear could be. But I went on anyway. I thought…I thought my heart might burst from fear, but I went on anyway. And I found Luca, and I brought him back, and I thought it was behind me. For a moment, I remember,” Giacomo smiled slightly at his former hopefulness, “I thought it might have made me stronger. I thought that by conquering my terror like that, I had reforged myself in the fire of fear and had emerged from it a new man. But I hadn’t. Not like that, anyway.”

Giacomo picked up a card and turned it over and over to give his hands something to do. He saw that it showed a wounded soldier clutching his bloody breast, and quickly put it down. But his hands still strayed nervously over the cards, and he picked up another one without thinking. A mother gazed down at the child in her arms, filling the entire card. Giacomo ran his finger around and around its edge, and kept talking.

“The fear has taken hold of me, and it won’t let me go. It is part of me now. It follows me everywhere I go, hanging over me like a shadow, like you said. It blocks out the sun. It is ruining me. It is ruining me, and I cannot shake it off. It has weakened me forever. I will never be the man I was before, and I don’t know what else to do. I cannot leave Luca, and I cannot be anything other than what I am, but I have lost the most important part of me. Without my courage I am nothing. What happened to me was as cruel as cutting off my right hand. And now Luca has been taken again, and I must go after him, and I am afraid. Afraid. I am afraid I will lose him, but that is a fear that can be dealt with. I am afraid that something will happen to me, and that fills me with shame, which makes the fear stronger. And worst of all, I am afraid of my own fear, and that is the most difficult to fight, because no matter what happens, I know I will be afraid. Even if Luca and I get out of this unscathed, I will still feel fear. It is inescapable. I can never be rid of it, and the more I try, the more it tightens its grip on me. Fear is my constant companion. I will never be free of it.”

Giacomo realized the card he was holding was betraying his shaking hands, and put it down. While he was talking his heart had started beating so hard he could feel his pulse jumping in his throat and pounding in his ears. Sweat was running down his sides. He suddenly wondered if Amanda could see the sweat under his arms, and that ordinary concern made him feel a little better. He idly picked up another card in order not to look at her. A black-haired girl with violets in her hands stared out from under the rain at him with a gaze that looked very much like Amanda’s.

“The Violet Maiden makes three,” said Amanda softly. “You have had a good reading.”

Giacomo looked at her in confusion.

“You chose three cards as you were talking,” she said. “You did a reading. The Wounded Soldier, the Mother, and the Violet Maiden.”

Giacomo looked down at the cards he had picked, and saw that Amanda spoke the truth. “What do they mean?” he asked.

Amanda laughed. “So many things. But let us organize them according to their temporal flow.” She gathered up all nine cards and laid them out in three rows of three.

“The first row is the first card from each reading,” she said. “It represents the first phase of what you will be undertaking. As you see, it has the Black Horseman, the Magician, and the Wounded Soldier. So at first there will be fighting, urgent news, acquired knowledge, revelation, uncertainty, setbacks, and things hanging in the balance. I would say you are in that phase right now.”

Giacomo nodded. “And the second phase?” he asked.

“The second phase is represented by the Red Horseman, the Fleeing Soldier, and the Mother. Courage, battle, cowardice, fear, unselfishness, and self-sacrifice.”

“I see,” said Giacomo.

Amanda looked at him. “The cowardice is not necessarily your own,” she said softly.

“Then neither is the courage,” said Giacomo.

“That depends on you,” Amanda told him, smiling again. “But if I were a betting woman, I would always bet on the courage being yours.”

Giacomo almost smiled, too. He wanted to tell her she wouldn’t be wrong to do so, but stopped himself. It would be ridiculous to brag of his bravery.

“The third phase,” said Amanda after a moment. “The White Horseman, the Bride, and the Violet Maiden.”

“It seems like the Bride should come before the Mother,” said Giacomo before he could help himself.

Amanda laughed. “But so often she does not. And in this case, it is not who they are that is important, but what they represent. The Mother’s self-sacrifice can cancel out the Fleeing Soldier’s cowardice and betrayal, and the Bride’s hope, love, and fidelity can cancel out the White Horseman’s loss, death, and fear. And the Violet Maiden means birth and renewal.”

“So there is hope?”

“Always, but especially now. Each reading was more hopeful than the last.”

“Then will you tell me where Sauro is, or might be?”

Amanda rose from the table. “He is veiled from the cards by his shadow, and you outshine everything in my readings like the sun anyway. I can only see your part in all this. But I will give you what I can. Follow me.”

She led Giacomo back down the corridor to the front door. “Look out the glass eye,” she said. “Can you see the gap between the two houses across the street? It is an alley, called Il Vicolo dell’Ordine. Most people think it refers to Prado’s renowned Ordine delle Puttane, but there are other Orders in Prado as well. Follow it until you come to a red door. Ask for Dimitrio. He is Sauro’s closest friend in Prado. He will be able to tell you more.”

“Thank you,” said Giacomo. “For everything.”

“We will see each other soon enough, so no need to go thanking me now.” said Amanda. “One more thing. Tell Adorata she has nothing to fear from me. I have read my cards, and Sauro is not the man meant for me.” She thought for a moment and smiled. “Not that I would have him even if he were. But don’t tell anyone that.” She kissed Giacomo on the cheek, whispering, “for luck,” and let him out the door.

***

Il Vicolo dell’Ordine was no more than a series of spaces between houses. As he ran down it, chased by the feeling of urgency that had come rushing back as soon as he had stepped out of Amanda’s house, Giacomo discovered very quickly that the inhabitants used it for dumping their slops and nightsoil. Luckily the light of all the red lanterns lining the alley illuminated the worst of the filth.

After crossing over several real streets and turning his boots into a sodden, stinking mess, Giacomo was beginning to wonder if he had missed his destination, when he saw a small red door lit by a small red lantern. He walked up to it uncertainly. He hadn’t realized Amanda had been sending him to a bordello. He reached for the knocker, and saw a pattern, so discrete it was hardly visible, painted under it. Blue and red lines wound around each other in an eye-watering twist, forming a circle. Giacomo knocked boldly, feeling relieved.

After a long wait woman wearing a tremendous amount of face paint and a dress that had once been alluring, but was now only sad, opened the door.

“Not tonight, caro, the house is closed,” she said tiredly. “The pox. Try three doors down.”

“I’m here to see Dimitrio,” said Giacomo.

“He has the pox, too. If that’s what you’re looking for, try two doors up.”

“I was sent here. I saw the pattern on the door. This is the right house.”

The woman stood up straighter and looked at him with interest. “Who sent you?” she asked.

“Amanda l’Interpretrice.”

“Come in, come in!” She pulled him through the door and shut it quickly behind them. “I hope no one saw me letting in a customer,” she said with a smile that made the rouge on her cheeks crack like porcelain glaze. “I’ve been working for years to build the reputation of the bordello that never opens. Being a failed madam is harder than it looks. Putting on all this face paint, for example, takes simply ages. And this dress is damn drafty.”

“I’m sure,” said Giacomo. “Is Dimitrio in? It’s extremely important.”

“He’s in the back. Take off your boots—the jack’s in the corner—and follow me. I’m Bella, by the way.”

Giacomo’s boots were so slimy it took several tries for them to catch on the bootjack and come off. He followed Bella down a corridor into a backroom furnished with a couch, chair, and table. As they came in, a man sat up from where he had been lying on the couch and turned one ear towards Giacomo’s stocking feet.

“The alley is as dirty as ever, I hear,” he said. “What brings you here so late?” He looked up, and Giacomo saw that his eyes were completely white.

“Amanda sent him,” said Bella. “Looking for you.”

“If Amanda sent him, he must have a reason to be here. Sit down, stranger. What is your reason to be here, and in the middle of the night?”

“I’m looking for Sauro. It’s urgent. Very urgent. I need to find him tonight.”

“Which Sauro? Sauro dal Paese, or Sauro dal Paesino, or Sauro dalla Fiumetta, or Sauro il Fabbro, or some other Sauro?”

“I…” Giacomo realized for the first time that he didn’t know where Sauro was from, or who his family was, or anything else about him. Of course there were many Sauros. It was a common name, especially in Prado.

“Sauro dell’Ordine,” he said.

“There are several men who could have that name,” said Dimitrio after a while.

“Then Sauro delle Ombre,” said Giacomo. “He is unique, trust me.” He was about to describe what he looked like, but realized it would be pointless.

“Ah. That Sauro. What makes you think I would know his whereabouts?”

“Amanda sent me, as I said.”

“Trusting in the advice of Amanda l’Interpretrice is always a sign of a wise man, that is true. Give me your hand.”

“If you’re going to do a reading, then please, make it quick. I must find Sauro!”

“I dare say you didn’t hurry Amanda like this. But who can blame you. Tell me, is she still as beautiful as ever? When I last saw her, she was barely more than a girl, and as black-haired and bewitching as that Violet Maiden she so loves.”

“She is still…” Giacomo began, and then stopped himself. He suddenly remembered drawing the Violet Maiden, and blushed. “I must find Sauro!” he repeated.

“Then give me your hand. I will make it quick, I promise.”

Giacomo gave Dimitrio his right hand. Dimitrio closed his unseeing eyes, and ran his fingertips over Giacomo’s palm, tracing all its lines and calluses.

“A soldier,” he said. “And a trustworthy one. Now listen, soldier. I saw the Sauro you are looking for only this morning. He came to tell me that Count Fabio has demanded death for my brother, Telemachio, who stands accused of black magic. Sauro said not to worry, that he had a plan, that he had the Prince of Fiori on his side, he just had to go get him. He said he would be back tonight, prince in hand, and that by tomorrow morning Telemachio would be free, the King would be forced to offer his protection, and Count Fabio would be exposed for the hypocrite and murderer he is.”

“How?” demanded Giacomo. “And where? Where can I find him?”

“I would look in Count Fabio’s dungeon, if I were you. In the death cells, where Telemachio is presumably being held. If Sauro wants to free him, he will have to go to him at some point. I would hurry if I were you.”

Giacomo jumped up, but Dimitrio caught his wrist before he could leave. “One more thing. Your reading. You have courage, soldier. But it may not be enough. Another line cuts through it, breaking it off. You will have to find something else to carry you through. Bella, bring the soldier my old guard cloak. It may serve to get him into the dungeons.”

Bella disappeared for a moment and came back carrying an old cloak with the chevrons of Prado down the front. She threw it over Giacomo and moved to do up the clasps at the throat.

“What’s this?” she asked suddenly. She touched the back of Giacomo’s neck, where it joined with his shoulders. “What is this circle?”

“He is a Reborn man,” said Dimitrio. “One can tell from his hands. I am not surprised he has the tattoo. But he will not betray us. He is already too far gone into the shadows to escape. One can tell that from his hands as well.”

“I have nothing to do with shadows,” said Giacomo. “I’m not like Sauro!”

“There are different kinds of shadows. One does not have to be like Sauro to carry them around. Now go, and good luck, but remember that more than your prince’s life hangs in your hands.” Dimitrio lay back down on the couch and pulled a blanket around him. Bella hustled Giacomo back down the corridor, into his boots, and out the door.

***

Giacomo’s memory of the streets of Prado, which had become grown over with over events in the twenty years he had been away, had been reviving ever since he had arrived, and now he instinctively turned right when he left Dimitrio’s and picked his way around piles of filth to the next cross street, where he took a left onto La Vietta Attraversale. Though still narrow, it was cleaner than the alley, and he was able to break into a run that carried him back to La Piazza Centrale.

Drunks had continued to gather since he had last passed through, and he had to push several of them out of the way as he rushed through the square, ignoring their cries of, “Buy us a bottle, guardman!” He didn’t slow down until he was past them and onto Il Viale del Castello. Then he dropped to a walk and tried to come up with a plan.

His guard cloak would only fool those who weren’t actually guards. The real guards would recognize him instantly as not one of them. So he needed to rely on something other than deception. After several agonizing steps of indecision, he decided to risk honesty instead. He took off the cloak, folded it over his arm, and walked boldly across La Piazza del Castello and up to the guards at the castle gates.

“Stop!” they both shouted at once. “Who goes there!”

“Giacomo dal Prado, personal bodyguard to his Highness Prince Luca di Fiori,” Giacomo told them, trying to look as imposing as possible. It must have worked, because both guards snapped to attention so fast their shoulders made audible popping noises.

“Does his Highness have business here in Prado?” asked one of them, his eyes darting all about, as if expecting the entire Royal Family to materialize out of thin air and start demanding proper respect and special accommodations.

“With a certain prisoner in your dungeons. I must speak to him immediately. Telemachio.”

Uncertain glances flickered between the two guards. “Telemachio is very dangerous, Signore,” one of them said. “Visiting him is restricted.”

“I am more dangerous,” said Giacomo.

“It is already the third hour of the night, Signore,” said the talkative guard. “Why not wait until morning? Telemachio is not going anywhere.”

One of the torches above the gate suddenly guttered and almost went out, before flaring up brightly, casting long shadows in every direction.

“My business with him cannot wait even until morning,” said Giacomo.

“You see, Signore…” the talkative guard shuffled his feet, “all visitors to Telemachio must be cleared by Count Fabio first, and he is currently…unavailable.”

“Sleeping, you mean?”

“Certainly in bed,” the other guard burst out with a coarse laugh. The talkative guard gave him a disapproving look.

“I understand,” said Giacomo. “But I repeat, I must speak with Telemachio immediately. It is of the highest importance, and directly affects the welfare of Prince Luca.”

“Signore, we in Prado know well the name of Giacomo Il Guardo, and we take pride in Prado’s most famous son, but you must understand that his Grace will not take kindly to being disturbed, and especially…” The talkative guard trailed off in embarrassment.

“Especially at the moment, you mean? I understand. But I must…” Now Giacomo was the one to trail off. His eyes thought a shadow had separated itself from the one cast by the guard, and was lying in a pool of light, beckoning to him.

“Who else is here?” Giacomo demanded.

“Signore?”

“Someone is hidden here, but I can see their shadow. Who is it?”

“No one else is here, Signore,” said the talkative guard, puzzled.

“Can’t you see the shadow?” Giacomo pointed to what seemed so clearly to him to be the shadow of a man in long ragged robes.

“The torches here cast all kinds of shadows,” said the guard who had made the joke about Count Fabio. “New guards always think ghosts are swarming out from under the portcullis. But it’s just the torches.”

“Silvio is right,” said the talkative guard. “It’s just the torches.”

“No, I…” Giacomo watched as the shadow beckoned again, then, making an impatient gesture, began to slide out of the pool of light and towards him. He took a step backwards. The shadow disappeared completely into the darkness. Giacomo’s pulse jumped in his throat. The shadow appeared again briefly in another pool of light. Giacomo could see its fingers calling him.

“What is it, Signore?” asked the talkative guard.

“The shadow…” Giacomo felt something like cold smoke brush against his leg, and turned and ran.

***

Even in the third hour of the night, torches were still lit in front of the nobles’ houses lining Il Viale del Castello. Every time he passed through a pool of light, Giacomo could see the shadow gliding along, effortlessly keeping pace with him, like his own shadow’s twin. Every time he passed back into the darkness, it would disappear again, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t there.

As he ran, Giacomo tried to think what to do. The shadow had filled him with a fear that made it seem he was running very fast and thinking very quickly, but couldn’t be sure it wasn’t just an illusion and he wouldn’t do something very stupid. He wished he knew if the shadow were friend or foe. Was it leading him towards Sauro, or luring him towards danger? And was there any difference?

When they reached La Piazza Centrale the shadow cut in front of him and, beckoning to him again, crossed the square over to La Vietta Attraversale, back the way Giacomo had come. Giacomo wavered for a shamefully long moment, and then followed it.

La Vietta Attraversale was too dark for shadows. Giacomo jogged, embarrassingly heavy-legged, as fast as he dared through the darkness. At the intersection with Il Vicolo dell’Ordine, the shadow showed up in the light from the lantern of a late-night customer coming from one of the real bordellos. It pointed up the street, towards Dimitrio’s house.

For the second time that night, and feeling much more frightened and angry than the first time, Giacomo knocked at the red door. Bella, this time without the face paint, opened the door immediately.

“Amanda told us to expect you again,” she said. “Come in.”

“There is a shadow with me,” said Giacomo. “I am afraid it will come in with me.”

“Come in anyway,” Bella ordered.

As Giacomo stepped across the threshold, he saw the shadow step across with him.

“Follow me,” said Bella, either not seeing or not caring about the shadow. She led him back to Dimitrio’s room. This time Dimitrio was sitting up in his couch, and Amanda was sitting at the table, shuffling a deck of cards.

“Telemachio!” cried Dimitrio. Giacomo looked around, but all he saw was the shadow.

“Do not be afraid, Giacomo dal Prado,” Amanda told him, spreading out her cards. “I also see the shadow, both with these,” she touched her eyes, “and with these,” she touched her cards, “and I see that it means you no harm. Come, sit beside me, and I will protect you.” She smiled like a mischievous little girl. Giacomo sat down on the chair next to hers. The shadow sat on the couch next to Dimitrio.

“Why are you here?” Giacomo whispered to Amanda.

“The cards told me you would come back, and in need of help,” she whispered back.

“How come the cards only tell you about me?” he asked, still whispering. “Why can’t they tell me exactly when and where to find Sauro?”

“Oh, so many reasons,” she said into his ear. “For one thing, he is veiled, as I told you before. And for another, I...”

Dimitrio cleared his throat loudly. “If the young lovers would stop cooing to each other and direct their attention to the matter at hand…” he said.

Giacomo jerked away from Amanda, drawing a laugh from everyone else. Even the shadow looked like it was laughing.

“Thank you,” said Dimitrio dryly. “This, as you may have guessed,” he indicated the shadow next to him, “is my brother, Telemachio.”

“Why isn’t he in prison?” asked Giacomo, and immediately felt stupid. Clearly prison bars weren’t going to hold in a shadow. “Is he always…In that form?”

The shadow looked like it was laughing again. “Back in his cell, he is as fleshly as you and I,” said Dimitrio. “This is only his shadow. Unlike most shadows, it does not need to be cast by his body, but instead can roam free. You might think of it as being cast by his mind. Normally it, too, is trapped in the castle, but the wards holding him in dropped for a moment, and he slipped out and brought you here. Now he has something to say to you. I can only read the simplest of his thoughts, which is why the charming Amanda has so graciously agreed to come in the middle of the night and act as his interpreter.”

Amanda gathered up the cards, shuffled them one more time, and laid them out in a wide swathe on the table, facedown. She began picking up cards here and there, her hands hovering in the air for a moment before suddenly diving down and snatching up a card, like a heron snatching up frogs. When she had gathered a dozen cards, she stopped and laid them out in front of her, face up. Giacomo looked over her shoulder, but the only cards he recognized were the White Horseman and the Fleeing Soldier. Seeing them again made his stomach twist. Several of the other cards also looked ominous.

Amanda moved the cards this way and that, apparently trying to find some kind of coherent pattern, occasionally stopping to make notes on a piece of paper. Eventually she stopped, but she looked at the shadow and then back at the cards for a long time before saying anything.

“I will go through the meanings of the cards, so that you see what a difficult reading this is,” she said. “Cards can be shuffled in so many ways, of course, but I will present them in their suits.

“From the Horsemen we have the White and the Piebald. Death, fear, and change. From the Maidens we have the Sunflower, the Rose, and the Lily. Love and jealousy, passion, death and sorrow. From the Women we have the Sisters and the Crone. Friendship and envy, wisdom and passing. From the Soldiers we have the Fleeing, the Dead, and the Victorious. Cowardice, defeat, and victory. From the Scholars we have the Herbwoman and the Witch. Healing and poison, secret knowledge.”

“There’s so much death there,” said Giacomo, who didn’t like the reading at all.

“As there is everywhere in life.” Amanda smiled at him. “Don’t let it bother you. And some of this reading is not about you anyway. But it is murky. I must draw a thirteenth card in order for it to become clear.”

This time her hands hovered in the air for many breaths before slowly descending and gathering a card. Her fingertips stroked its back and edges before hesitantly pulling it towards her, and she sat with her eyes closed and her hands folded over the card for longer than Giacomo thought he could stand.

“Turn it over!” hissed Bella impatiently.

“I want be sure it’s the right one,” said Amanda, but she turned the card over. A skeleton was walking under a sickle moon with a scythe over its shoulder.

“Death!” screamed Bella. Giacomo, Dimitrio, and even the shadow all jumped in their seats, and Giacomo felt sweat break out on his back.

“Be calm!” Amanda ordered. “There are many kinds of death, and many meanings for this card! I must think.”

She made more notes on her piece of paper, drawing little diagrams and making cryptic little inscriptions in a jagged, decisive handwriting. In the end she drew a dodecagon with a point in the middle and lines radiating out from it to all the angles. “Death” was written next to the central point, and the names of the other cards at each of the outer angles.

“What does it mean?” demanded Bella when Amanda was finished.

“Many things,” she answered.

Giacomo wished she would stop saying that, even though he knew she was saying it because it was true. What he really wished was for it not to be true. He wished someone could say, “Sauro and Luca are hiding in thus-and-such building, and if you go there now, Luca will come running out and go home with you without a word of argument, and other people will take care of all the other problems.” But no one said that. Dimitrio and the shadow were sitting on the couch and apparently looking at each other, even though neither of them could see. Amanda and Bella were bent over the dodecagon, tracing the lines between the angles and talking in low voices. Amanda suddenly raised her head.

“Before I tell the whole the story, Giacomo, there is something I want you to see,” she told him. She pointed to an angle in the upper right-hand side of the figure. “Sunflower” was written above it.

“And do you see what it is connected with?” she asked, running her finger to the opposite side of the drawing, to the word “Dead.”

“The Dead Soldier,” said Giacomo.

“Beware jealousy,” Amanda told him. “And do you see this?” She slid her finger down to the next corner, which was labeled “Rose,” and then across to its opposite, which was labeled “Victorious.”

“Passion and victory are linked,” she told him, “but you will have to pass through death to get from one to the other.”

“Dying doesn’t sound much like victory to me,” said Giacomo. “Or passion, for that matter.”

“It may not be what you would call death,” she said seriously. “It could be the end of something else. Besides,” she smiled, “Death is not such a bad fellow. Here, look.” She showed him the Death card. “I always think he is looking up wistfully at the stars,” she said.

Giacomo tried to imagine that Death was gazing up at the night sky, but all he could see was two empty eye sockets and a horrible grin, locked forward in a blank destroying stare.

“Take it away,” he said.

“Very well. It is time I told the story the cards have given me, anyway. It will all be over by sunrise, so you have very little time.”

The others leaned towards Amanda, even the shadow. She began talking without explaining how she knew it would all be over by sunrise. Giacomo tried to figure out how long he had until then, but his brain felt muddled, and his calculations slid away from him. As she spoke, he thought he could feel Time blowing past him like a strong wind, bringing some unavoidable disaster down on him while slipping uncatchably through his fingers.

“Some of this I already knew, and some was revealed to me by the cards just now,” she began. “I will tell you the whole story as I currently understand it. As you know, Count Fabio feels a strong enmity for members of the Order of Infinity. He is a Reborn man, and says that he only believes in reason, harmony, and humanity. But we all know that what he really believes in is fear. He fears what he cannot understand, which is almost everything, and so he is determined to protect himself by destroying others. He would like to get rid of Sauro, as the strongest member of the Order, but he cannot, so he has gone after all the other members. He was stopped once, at the gracious insistence of Prince Luca,” Amanda nodded at Giacomo, “but of late he has felt safe to start persecuting those he feels threaten him again.

“The first people to be caught up in his search for evildoers this time were herbwomen and healers accused of witchcraft. One of them caught Count Fabio’s attention in particular. She was reputed to be highly skilled at smoke-scrying. Whether or not she really had any skills is a matter of debate. But what is certain is that she had a very pretty face. Count Fabio, who is as susceptible to a pretty face as the next man, was charmed by her and offered her her freedom if she would foreswear all magic. She refused. Then he offered her her freedom and his hand in marriage if she would foreswear all magic and give up the names of her associates. She refused again. Count Fabio tried to persuade her of the error of her ways, but he tried a little too hard, and she died before he could convince her. But before she died, she uttered two names. One was ‘Luca,’ and the other was ‘Telemachio.’

“Count Fabio was convinced that these men were the cause of her refusal to submit to his demands, and immediately began searching out all the Lucas and Telemachios in Prado. Luca, however, is such a common name that he soon had to give up on that endeavor, and concentrate on the Telemachios. Most of them were merchants from the Southern Islands, of course, but the particular Telemachio he was looking for turned out to be closely associated with the Order of Infinity.

“Count Fabio had been forbidden to persecute members of the Order once before, but now luck shone down upon him. After losing the lady of his heart, he was offered something much better—Princess Adorata. The King wished to solidify his ties with Prado, his largest city, and it was time for Adorata to be married anyway. Her own preferences in the matter were not consulted, and she was much too noble a princess to refuse the King’s command. If she had read the cards, she would have seen how unwise her self-sacrifice would turn out to be, but she did not. She currently has an aversion to card reading.

“Thinking himself now freed from Royal observation, Count Fabio turned his attention from herbwomen and healers to those he had truly wished to persecute from the beginning, members of the Order. Anyone to whom even a shadow of suspicion had ever been attached was brought in for questioning. Some of them even made it back out again, missing only their teeth or their fingernails, and were able to warn their brethren. The news came to Dimitrio and the Order’s headquarters here, and Dimitrio tried to warn his brother to leave Prado, but before he was able to escape, someone found himself unable to summon up the courage to resist Count Fabio, Telemachio’s identity and whereabouts were revealed, and the Count’s guards came and took him away.

“While it was only herbwomen and foolish girls who were being dragged into Count Fabio’s dungeons, the Order did not concern itself with what was happening, but when men of the Order started disappearing, it felt itself compelled to act. Sauro, always its bravest champion, spirited many of the prisoners out through the shadows, but when he tried to rescue Telemachio, he discovered that the prison walls stood firm against him. Count Fabio had found his own shadowstalker.”

Amanda stopped.

“Who is he?” asked Giacomo.

“Even the cards cannot tell me that. He is veiled. Whenever I search for him, all I draw is Death.”

“Sauro saw he could not save Telemachio through the normal means, so he went to get Prince Luca,” put in Dimitrio.

“And what? Does he plan to demand Telemachio in exchange for Luca?” The back of Giacomo’s neck began to itch with rage at the thought of Luca being used as a pawn in the game between Sauro and Count Fabio. He wished he could just lock the two of them in a room together and let them finish each other off. After it was over, he could go in and dispatch any survivors. But alas, it could never be. Luca would never forgive him if he killed Sauro—if he could manage it, a nasty voice whispered in the back of his head—and Count Fabio was one of the King’s closest allies, especially after his betrothal to Adorata. Although given what he had just heard about the Count’s penchant for torture, Giacomo doubted the marriage would last long. For a moment Giacomo considered whether it would be a breach of duty to give Adorata’s guards some advice on silent methods of assassination. But the more pressing matter of Luca quickly pushed that worry to the side.

Dimitrio and the shadow sat for a moment in silent communion, before Dimitrio said, “Telemachio says no. He says Sauro has some other plan.”

“What other plan?”

The shadow appeared to lean over and whisper something into Dimitrio’s ear, which was ridiculous, Giacomo thought, since it didn’t have any real lips.

Dimitrio looked inquiringly at Amanda with his blind eyes. She nodded, which Dimitrio seemed to sense, and shuffled the remaining cards in her deck and pulled out three.

“Red Horseman, Magician, Surgeon,” she said.

“Of course,” cried Dimitrio. “Telemachio is uncertain of the exact nature of Sauro’s plan,” he told Giacomo, “but it involves you. And if you want to find Sauro, you should go to La Via dei Barbieri. Look for Miccino il Nero.”

“House number four,” said Amanda. “It has a green door.”

Giacomo leaped to his feet. “Why couldn’t have told me that two hours ago?” he asked.

“Because we didn’t know until I drew those cards,” said Amanda. “Readings are like that. Sometimes they take time.” She stood up, pulling something out of a pocket in her dress. “Take this.”

It was a small green stone, warm from her body. Giacomo took it doubtfully.

“It will protect you from poison, and betrayal, of which there has been all too much of late. And remember,” she raised her eyebrows at him, “if you don’t come and tell me all about it afterwards, I’ll just find out anyway. La Via dei Barbieri is…”

“I know where it is. I even know where the house of Miccino il Nero is,” said Giacomo. Throwing Dimitrio’s old guard cloak over his shoulders from an instinctive need for concealment, he ran out of the house without saying goodbye.

***

As he wove around the puddles and piles of refuse that filled Il Vicolo dell’Ordine, Giacomo was forced to admit that his legs were so heavy he could hardly run. He always forgot how unpleasant all-night missions were until he was halfway through them.

Someone walked by, carrying a torch. The passerby’s shadow passed over Giacomo. For a moment Giacomo was sure that the shadow was separating from the other man and coming after him. Then it continued down the street, and he saw that it was still firmly attached to the other man’s body.

Stop seeing shadows everywhere! Giacomo ordered himself, and made himself keep going down the street. Now that he had been reminded of shadows, though, he couldn’t stop looking for them. He wondered if Miccino’s house would be full of shadows. Even if it wasn’t, he knew, he would be expecting them at every moment. He felt so tired. He wished, more desperately than he had thought possible, that someone would come and lift his burden of fear with the same ease it had been laid upon him. He wished it could go away and he could have a few hours of his old, fearless self back, even for just long enough to find Luca. He wished none of this had ever happened to him, and whatever was about to happen could be prevented from ever coming to pass. But he continued moving slowly down the alley, bringing his future inexorably down on his own head. He slipped on something nasty and had to stop worrying about the future at the expense of the present.

When he came to La Vietta delle Erbe, he saw that the alley carried on past Amanda’s house in the direction of Il Viale Maggiore, so he followed it. In short order he was on the main street. La Via dei Barbieri was the first street to the left. He reached it and turned right. The house of Miccino il Nero was only a few doors down, on the left. A sign with a razor and scissors painted on it hung over him as he knocked reluctantly on the door.

No one answered, so he knocked again. When that failed to draw a response, irritation started to replace dread, and he began banging on the door with his foot. Still no answer. He could tell by the way the door jumped that it was fastened by a latch on the inside. The weakness that had filled him earlier had disappeared unnoticed. He took a few steps back to get a good running start, and hurled himself shoulder-first at the door. The latch tore out of the doorframe much more easily than he had expected, and he burst through the door and crashed into the wall on the other side of the entranceway. The door bounced loudly off the wall and slammed shut, making the whole front of the house shake. Giacomo clutched at a coat to steady himself and pulled down the entire coat rack, almost falling down himself. Still no one came. The house remained completely dark.

After a few breaths Giacomo’s head stopped spinning and his eyes began to adjust to the dark. He made his way carefully down the entrance, laughing at himself in the back of his mind. It was good that he could still break down doors with his customary skill and agility.

He had come here once as a boy. His father had had to have a bad tooth pulled, and he had wanted his sons to see it. At the time Giacomo had not been at all grateful for the experience, but now, thirty years later, he knew to follow the entranceway to the right and then take his first left to get to Miccino’s workroom.

The workroom was unlit. Giacomo stumbled over the barber’s chair in the middle of it and had to stand there for a while to get his bearings. As his own breathing slowed down, he realized someone else was also breathing in the room with him.

“Luca?” he called. “Luca, is that you?”

The breathing gave a little whimper and then tried to choke itself off, but in moment succumbed to the desperate need to inhale, and gasped loudly.

“I mean no harm, I swear,” Giacomo said to the breathing. It whimpered again, but made no answer.

Somewhere in another room a candle was flickering behind a door, and distant moonlight was slipping in around the shutters. It was just enough light for Giacomo to let go of the barber’s chair and make is way towards the breathing, which seemed to be coming from inside a large wall cabinet.

“I mean no harm, I swear,” Giacomo repeated, and opened the cabinet, releasing a girlish shriek.

Giacomo carefully pulled the huddled figure out from the bottom of the cabinet. It turned out to be a girl about Luca’s age, shaking all over.

“Don’t be afraid,” Giacomo told her. “Are you the maid?”

The girl nodded.

“Then you know where the candles are. Why don’t you light a candle?” he suggested.

Giacomo followed the girl as she made her way through the darkness to the next room, where the stub of a candle was guttering on a table. The girl lit another candle, revealing a small dining room and her own frightened face.

“Where is Miccino?” asked Giacomo. “Does he have guests?”

The girl shook her head.

“He doesn’t, or you don’t know?”

The girl shook her head again. Giacomo could feel his patience beginning to stretch again.

“Did he have a boy with him?” he asked. “Very fair, about your age, rich clothing?”

“They called him a prince,” the girl whispered. “Is he really a prince?”

“He is,” Giacomo told her. “So he’s here?”

“He thanked me so politely when I brought him wine and water,” said the girl, growing more animated. “I knew he must be a prince. Only a prince could be so handsome. An older man brought him, very thin and dark. He arrived just at sunset, looking for Miccino. I brought them wine and water, and then they went downstairs. Miccino told me not to let anyone in. I went to bed, but then a ghost passed through the room, and I got scared and hid in the cabinet, and then you came, and I thought it was the ghost again, but it was only you. Are you looking for the prince?”

“I am,” said Giacomo. “I am his guard. Can you help me find him? What do you mean, a ghost passed through the room?”

“A ghost,” the girl repeated impatiently. “Like a shadow, only thicker. Ghosts often come here. I’m scared of them, but Miccino promised they wouldn’t hurt me, and they always leave me alone, but I still hide in the cabinet whenever they come, because they can’t get straight into this room, they have to come around. They come from downstairs.”

“Where Miccino and the two visitors went,” Giacomo said.

The girl nodded. “That’s where the ghosts live,” she agreed. “Miccino often goes down there to talk to them.”

“Can you show me how to get there?” Giacomo asked.

The girl hesitated, then said, “I can show you the door, but I don’t know if that will be enough, because I don’t know how to get all the way down. You’ll have to do that on your own. But the stairs are right over here.” She pointed off towards the corner.

“There are no stairs there,” Giacomo said.

“You have to go around. Here, I’ll show you, since you don’t know the way.” The girl made it sound as if not knowing the way were a moral failing. She picked up the fresh candle and led Giacomo around through the kitchen, then through a bedroom, and then into a small hallway with stairs going up and down, presumably to the attic and cellar.

“That way,” she said, pointing down.

“Can I have the candle?” asked Giacomo.

“But then I’ll have to go back through the bedroom in the dark,” the girl protested.

“But you know the house,” Giacomo pointed out, trying to sound reasonable. “And there’s another candle waiting for you in the other room.”

The girl hesitated, but finally agreed he could have the candle. She shoved it into his hand and ran back towards the kitchen before he could thank her.

Giacomo held up the candle and tried to see down the stairs. There appeared to be a door at the bottom of them. He walked carefully down them, but nothing happened. When he tried the door, it was unlocked.

“Luca?” he called, slowly pushing the door open. No one answered.

Giacomo held up the candle again, revealing an ordinary cellar with casks of wine and oil and sacks of apples, along with old pieces of furniture and all the other things people can’t justify throwing away when they don’t want them anymore. There was no sign of Luca, Sauro, Miccino, or any of the ghosts the girl had talked about. He made a slow circuit of the cellar, and found nothing, so he sat down on a wine cask in order to think.

The girl had said she “didn’t know how to get all the way down.” Presumably she meant something farther down than this, since as a servant she was probably up and down those stairs a dozen times a day. So there must be something below. Which meant there must be a trapdoor somewhere. Giacomo surveyed the cellar glumly. It was not terribly large, but there were still lots of casks and crates that would have to be moved in a search.

Why couldn’t I have been set to guarding the princesses? he asked himself. Their guards never have to go digging through strange cellars in the middle of the night. Abruptly, he felt very tired again, and he could also feel how time was rushing past him as he sat there.

Reason, Giacomo told himself. You are supposed to be a man of reason. So reason things out.

Miccino was a town-dweller who spent most of his time shaving, and he must also be at least seventy-five by now, which meant he wouldn’t want his trapdoor to be too difficult to get to. Probably he wouldn’t be shifting wine casks every time he wanted to get in and out of his secret room. Giacomo held up the candle again and looked around. This time he saw there was a large cabinet, a twin to the one the girl had been hiding in, up against one wall. Giacomo went over and pulled open the cabinet door. Something cold and dark came out of the cabinet and brushed up against him, causing him to cry out and almost drop the candle.

“I told you not to be meddle with my things down here, Carina,” said the shadow, and disappeared.

Giacomo almost laughed. The shadow must be a guard, one of the “ghosts” the girl had been talking about, set to keep her away from the secret door. He pulled open the other door to the cabinet. Instead of a back, the cabinet had a door that led into the wall. He opened the door.

“Carina!” shouted a shadow. “Go back, you silly girl, if you know what’s good for you!”

Giacomo stepped into the cabinet and onto the threshold of the secret door. The candle showed another set of stair leading down into the darkness. Giacomo started walking down them.

This isn’t so bad, Giacomo thought as he went downwards. I’m not scared at all. As soon as he thought that, he wished he hadn’t, because now the possibility of fear had entered his head, and he couldn’t shake it out. With every step he kept expecting it to engulf him like a roaring flame, and every time it didn’t made him expect it even more.

Stop thinking about being afraid! he ordered himself. What kind of thinking is this for Giacomo dal Prado? Is this how you thought at the Battle of Cinquevie?

Of course not, he answered back, because at Cinquevie I didn’t know what fear was. There was nothing brave about taking on all those men singlehandedly, because I didn’t know how to be afraid. It was just a gift that got taken away, and now if I want it back, I will have to fight for it with every breath. It will never come so easy ever again. I was a different man then.

“You’re not Carina,” said a shadow suddenly, appearing in his candlelight. “What are you doing down here? Who are you?”

“Tenacious as ever, I see,” said a second shadow, this one with Sauro’s voice.

“What are you doing here?! Get out!” shouted Luca. A smaller shadow darted out from the darkness and grabbed Giacomo’s arm. For a moment he couldn’t understand where the pain was coming from, and then he saw that his skin was searing from the shadow’s touch.

“Stop it, Luca, what are you doing?” he cried, trying and failing to pull has arm out of the shadow’s grasp.

“Giaco!” it said. “You found me! How did you find me?!” His burning arm turned cold, and then the shadow slipped away down the stairs.

“Luca!” Giacomo ran the rest of the way down the stairs, almost dropping the candle, and into a small room. For a moment shadows seemed to smother him, making it impossible to see what else was in the room, but then he broke free of them, and saw Luca, Sauro, and a much older Miccino il Nero standing in the middle of the room.

“Luca!” Giacomo wanted to throw his arms around Luca and weep, but instead he patted his trembling hands all over Luca’s body, looking for injury. He found none, but even in candlelight the dark circles under Luca’s eyes stood out sharply, and a whole host of shadows stood around him, watching Giacomo’s every move.

“How did you find me so fast, Giaco?” asked Luca. “I knew you would find me eventually, but I didn’t think it would be so fast. Was it fast? Is it still the same night? I can’t tell. I’m sorry I burned you. Does it still hurt? I tried to heal you as best I could.”

“It’s still the same night,” Giacomo told him. “I wasn’t going to let you out of my sight for longer than I could help it, you know. And,” he looked at his arm, where an old burn was shedding its skin, “you healed me very well.” He turned to the others. “What have you done to him? He’s exhausted! He’s swaying where he stands! What have you done?!”

“You must be Giacomo dal Prado,” said Miccino. “There are hundreds of Giacomos from Prado, but you’re Il Giacomo dal Prado. Quite an honor for me to see you twice. Didn’t you come to me with your father when you were a boy, oh, about thirty years ago or so? I still remember you. You must have been about nine or ten.”

“I was eight,” said Giacomo. “What have you done to Luca?”

“Shadowstalking.” Sauro spoke from behind the others’ backs. “Luca has quite a talent for it. But it is draining, especially for the beginner.”

“So make it stop! It’s sucking the life right out of him!”

“We need him…” Miccino began, but Sauro cut him off.

“Giacomo is quite right. Luca needs rest.” Sauro made a motion with his hand, and all the shadow-copies of Luca flowed over and into him, and disappeared.

“I feel terrible,” said Luca. “Like I’m going to throw up.” He suddenly sank to his knees. The shadow hovered for a moment above him before dropping back down inside him.

“What’s the matter with him?!” demanded Giacomo.

“He’s just tired,” said Sauro. “Here.” He pulled a flask and a small packet out from under his cloak. “Have him eat and drink something, and let him rest on the bench. Now that you’re here, we can get by without him.”

Giacomo put his arms around Luca and helped him to a bench against the wall. Luca pressed his head against Giacomo’s chest like a small child while Giacomo tasted what turned out to be watered wine in the flask and bread in the packet.

“I feel terrible, Giaco,” Luca repeated, speaking into Giacomo’s chest. “I want to go home. And I think I’m going to cry.”

“Have some wine,” Giacomo told him. “That will make you feel better. Then you won’t have to cry.”

“I don’t know why I feel like crying,” mumbled Luca. “I wish I weren’t such a baby. I wish I were brave like you, Giaco.”

“Even the bravest soldiers feel bad after battle,” Giacomo told him. “Drink this, then lie down.” Luca straightened up to take the flask, and drank thirstily.

“He can have my cloak,” said Sauro, coming over to them.

Giacomo gave him a look.

“It’s cold down here, especially if you have the shadow in you. He’ll catch a chill.”

Giacomo reluctantly allowed Sauro to wrap his cloak around Luca. He used Dimitrio’s old guard cloak as a pillow. When he was satisfied that Luca was as comfortable as possible, he set the wine and bread down next to him, told him to rest quietly, and followed Sauro back to the circle in the middle of the room.

“Why?” he hissed as soon as he thought they were out of Luca’s earshot. “Why did you take him? And why, why did you risk him like this?”

“It was necessary,” Sauro answered, wrapping his arms around himself. With his cloak off, Giacomo could see how thin he was.

“Why? What could he do that you couldn’t! Why do you have to keep taking him!”

“You treat Luca as if he were your own child, but he’s not,” said Sauro. “He’s the youngest child of the King. His whole purpose in life is to be somebody else’s pawn. I’d have thought you’d have accepted that by now.”

“No!!” Giacomo’s cry made Luca sit up drowsily.

“Go back to sleep, Luchino,” Giacomo told him. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“You’ll tell me when it’s time to go, won’t you, Giaco?” Luca asked. “You won’t leave me behind when it’s time to do something, will you?”

“Of course not.”

Luca settled back down in Sauro’s cloak, leaving Giacomo to wonder how he was going to get out of his hastily-given word to take Luca with him when it came time to take action.

“You always were softhearted,” said Miccino. “I remember how you cried when your father had his tooth pulled. And he said you never really grew out of it. He had to give up on making you into an artist; you were just too squeamish.”

“Yes, I took up soldiering instead,” Giacomo told him. “It’s a much better profession for tender, gentle people like me. And, of course, it’s so much easier on your peace of mind as well. For example, if someone gets in my way while I’m doing my duty, I just kill him and never think twice about it, whereas if someone like you kills someone, you get hauled before the court and sentenced to something unpleasant. Now tell me: why did you bring Luca into this?”

“We need to kill someone,” said Sauro. “We could use Luca to do it, but we really want you. And we knew that the only way to bring you in was through him.”

“You should have just asked,” said Giacomo. “I am unlikely to cooperate with someone who threatens Luca.”

“Would you have cooperated otherwise? Simply out of the kindness of your heart, or because we are such good friends?” Sauro almost smiled as he spoke.

Giacomo wanted to rebut that somehow, but he was forced to admit that Sauro had a point. “What do you want?” he asked instead.

“We need you to go after Count Fabio.”

“And?”

“And get rid of him, of course.”

The basement room filled with a long silence. The only thing audible was Luca’s sleepy breathing.

“Let’s be very clear,” Giacomo said eventually. “You want me to kill Count Fabio.”

“Yes,” said Sauro.

“The ruler of my native city and the King’s closest ally. Betrothed to Princess Adorata.”

“Yes,” said Sauro, this time rather more forcefully.

“I believe that would constitute high treason.”

“Possibly,” said Sauro. “But the King wouldn’t necessarily have to see it that way.”

“I suppose the murder of the King’s ally by a member of the King’s guard is the kind of thing that can so easily be explained away.”

“Ah, but you see, you are not a member of the King’s guard, are you? You are a member of the King’s Fifty, who guards the Children’s Castle, aren’t you? And your primary duty is to Prince Luca. Whenever the Heir has risen up against the King, the King’s Fifty has risen up with him. Everyone saw it as their duty.”

“Except for the King, who saw it as treason and sentenced the entire Fifty to death as soon as he regained control of the city. It happened three times. I know my history.”

“And is that what you fear, Giacomo dal Prado? Death?”

“Of course not,” said Giacomo immediately. “I fear dying a traitor,” he said more slowly. “To die for one’s duty—that is not such a bad thing. But to die for failing one’s duty—what could be more terrible?”

“For someone like you, probably nothing,” said Sauro. “But fear not! Your duty lies in line with my plans, and Count Fabio is the one who must die.”

“For what?” demanded Giacomo. “For inconveniencing you and your friends? There are more important things than your petty troubles. Whatever Count Fabio’s faults, he is too important to kill.” Giacomo remembered his earlier thoughts on giving Adorata’s guards assassination tips, but told himself that was completely different—Adorata was a princess. She must be protected at all costs.

“But you forget, Giacomo, that one of my closest friends lies there on that bench.” Sauro pointed to Luca. “His Highness has been delving deeper and deeper into the secrets of our Order, and, as you witnessed, has proved himself a talented shadowstalker. I have no doubt that his skills will continue to grow. If Count Fabio were to get his way, then Prince Luca would be sleeping somewhere a little less comfortable than this cellar. And Princess Adorata is perhaps in even graver danger than her brother.”

“Count Fabio wouldn’t dare….!” said Giacomo.

“Wouldn’t he? Miccino, the scroll, please.”

Miccino pulled a scroll out from his robes and handed it to Sauro, who handed it to Giacomo. Giacomo unrolled it and read:

To His Royal Majesty, King Beato,

With this missive I inform His Majesty that the infection of black magic is spreading out across the land again, even so far as His Majesty’s own household, in direct defiance of His Majesty’s own stated intention of turning away from these dark and outmoded arts and towards reason, harmony, and everything that raises humanity above the beasts and ensures our continued safety and wellbeing. I have on my own initiative undertaken a cleansing of Prado, which is overrun with practitioners of these vile and unclean arts, and I earnestly beg His Majesty to cleanse his own city, starting with his own family. His Majesty, wise as he is, cannot be unaware of the corruption of his own children that the perfidious bearers of this infection have begun. His Majesty should look to the safety of his son and the virtue of his daughter before it is too late. As the future husband of Princess Adorata, I cannot allow her to fall any deeper into the error in which she has found herself, and I consider it my duty to bring her back to safety by any means possible. I humbly beg His Majesty to take my words with upmost seriousness, and I offer myself and all my powers in the service of this undertaking. In light of the alliance with his family His Majesty has been so kind to arrange, I humbly suggest and request that His Majesty send their Highnesses Princess Adorata and Prince Luca to Prado at once for safekeeping and, if necessary, cleansing of the corruption into which they have, hopefully unwittingly, stumbled.

Your humble and obedient servant,

Fabio del Prado, Count.

“Someone loyal to the Order intercepted it and brought it to me instead of the King,” said Sauro. “What do you say that, Giacomo dal Prado?”

“That we are all lucky it did not reach the King,” Giacomo told him. “To tell the truth, I cannot say what the reaction would have been to such a communication, but it would have been violent.”

“Yes, heads would have rolled,” agreed Sauro. “And I am even less sure than you that those heads would not have been Luca and Adorata’s. I thought of passing the message on and hoping the King would choose to move against Count Fabio instead, but I admit, I have little faith in his fatherly affection. For Adorata, in particular—if even a breath of scandal were ever to touch her, I have no doubt that the King would rid himself of her without a second thought.”

Giacomo wanted to argue, but he was all too aware Sauro was right. “I wonder that Count Fabio would dare to send the King such unfounded accusations,” he said instead.

“Not so unfounded,” said Miccino. “Our Sauro’s been a busy boy.”

“But he has been teaching Luca with the King’s express permission! It was me…I was the one who objected, not the King!”

“And Princess Adorata?” said Miccino with a nasty expression. “I suppose that was with the King’s express permission, too?”

“What…” said Giacomo, as Sauro said coldly, “Adorata’s virtue is above question.”

“Of course it is!” said Giacomo. “How could anyone…” He realized he had been shouting, waking Luca.

“What’s the matter with Adina, Giaco?” he asked sleepily from the bench.

“Nothing,” said both Giacomo and Sauro swiftly. Luca settled back down under Sauro’s cloak.

“I’m disappointed in you, Sauro,” said Miccino, once it appeared that Luca had gone back to sleep. “A princess right there, and you turn her down.”

“How dare you…!” cried both Giacomo and Sauro together. Giacomo suddenly understood what they had been talking about, and stared at Sauro.

“Fear not,” Sauro told him tiredly. He wrapped his arms more tightly around his torso, making him look even thinner and more beaten down. He smiled slightly through his tiredness. “The Princess Adorata is a person of impeccable virtue, and I offer little danger to a woman, anyway. We have spoken on several occasions, that is all.”

Parts of his conversations with the princesses and with Amanda, now much clearer to him, returned to Giacomo’s mind, and he doubted that that was all, but he said nothing. That heartache was not his responsibility, for which he was profoundly grateful.

“Anyway,” said Sauro. “I hope I have convinced you of Count Fabio’s dangerous intentions.”

“Yes, but I can hardly go around killing everyone who says something slanderous about Luca,” Giacomo said. “Much as I might like to. I have recently become convinced that doing so would take up all my time, and leave many who are even more dangerous still alive.”

“A feeble argument, as you know yourself. Count Fabio is not everyone. So will you help us?”

“And if I refuse?”

“Then Luca will do it instead.”

Giacomo stared at Sauro in disbelief. “How?” he asked.

“You do not believe he could do it?”

“He’s only a child! And I have taught him swordfighting, not the skills of an assassin!”

“There is more than one type of assassin, and Luca has had more than one teacher, these past few years. A shadow can be a very dangerous thing, and Luca’s shadow is capable of the same burning rage as Luca himself. One touch is all it would take, as you almost found out to your cost.”

“Luca would never kill anyone!”

“No? Are you so sure? Luca!”

Luca sat up sleepily. “You’re not letting me rest like you said you would,” he said reproachfully.

“I am sorry, my Prince, but this is an important matter. Tell Giacomo what you have planned to do to Count Fabio. It was all his own plan, I might point out,” Sauro told Giacomo. “His Highness has shown a real talent for this kind of thing. All the time and effort that has been put into teaching him painting and sculpture, music and poetry, would have been much better spent on teaching him the assassin’s craft. His Highness would uphold the standards of the profession nobly, and of course it is much more practical than those other things.”

“Over my dead body!” cried Giacomo, aware that Sauro was laughing at him even as he was speaking seriously, but unable to stop himself from rising to his bait. “Luca will never become a killer!”

“Tell Giacomo what you have planned for Count Fabio, Luca,” Sauro repeated.

“Sauro and I have been practicing shadowstalking together for ages now,” Luca began. His fatigue appeared to have deserted him, to be replaced by the undertones of hysteria that had been showing up in his voice recently. “We roamed all over the castles and the city and even out into the hills beyond. I didn’t tell you because I thought you would be angry with me and tell me not to do it. It was so much fun! And then I discovered I could burn things! Sauro said it was because of my fiery temper. It was so easy! I was practicing when you came. I didn’t know it was you. I thought it was one of Count Fabio’s guards. Anyway, when we came here Sauro told me all about Count Fabio. He told me how he’s been plotting against the Order and even against me and Adina. I can’t let him do that! Especially to Adina. I realized today when Marco and the others were making fun of her and Zia that I have to protect them. There are so many horrible people in the world, even people who call themselves my friends. You were right, Giaco: sometimes you have to take care of yourself, and let other people worry about other people. So I agreed to help Sauro stop Count Fabio. Count Fabio says he wants to destroy the Order and everything it stands for, but he has his own shadowstalker, did you know that? He’s such a liar! Sauro says that Count Fabio’s shadowstalker has placed wards all around the castle, so that it is very difficult for anyone to get in or out. Sauro can’t get in at all now. The walls won’t let him pass through. So I said that we should arrange for Count Fabio to ‘rescue’ me, and then once I’m inside the castle, I should burn him. We could say it was an accident afterwards, that he fell into his fire or something like that. What do you think?”

“Very clever,” said Giacomo slowly. “Do you really think that you could set him on fire?”

“Oh, I’ve burned up lots of logs,” said Luca easily.

“A man is different from a log. They don’t catch fire nearly so well, and when they do, they scream and scream.”

Something rippled in Luca’s face. Giacomo couldn’t tell if it was hunger or distaste. “Count Fabio is a horrible person,” he said.

“Horrible enough to be burned alive?”

Luca twisted on his bench. “It wouldn’t take that long,” he said.

“But while it was happening, it would seem like all eternity to both of you. Even that little burn you gave me hurt like…hurt like fire. You can’t do this, Luca.”

“Yes I can! You can’t stop me!”

“But I must. If I don’t, and you do this, it will mark you for the rest of your life. It will never let go of you. Did I ever tell you of my friend Sandro?”

Luca shook his head angrily.

“This was when I was still a green foot soldier, barely out of my father’s house. Sandro was just as green. We were sent on a minor sortie. We caught one of the enemy, but before we could bring him back to our camp, we saw that they were preparing a surprise attack. We decided we had no time to get back, and to question our prisoner then and there. Only he wouldn’t answer. He was an old veteran, and angry at being captured by a couple of boys. We both hit him, but he still refused to answer. Then we threatened to kill him, but he still said nothing. We were growing desperate. We could tell that their troops were moving, and we had to get back and warn our own side, and taking him with us would take too much time. So Sandro cut off one of his fingers. None of us could believe he had done it, but there was the finger, lying on the grass. Still the man said nothing. Before we knew how it had happened, all his fingers were gone, and he still wouldn’t talk. The enemy troops were almost upon us, and we still knew nothing. Sandro slit his throat and we ran back. But after that, Sandro was no man’s friend. The fingers followed him everywhere, and for nothing—we lost the battle due to poor information.”

“What happened to him?” asked Luca.

“Eventually he fell into a river in full armor and drowned, probably on purpose.”

“Did you,” Luca cleared his throat, “did you cut off any fingers?”

“I stood by, which was maybe worse.”

Luca looked curiously at Giacomo, as if he were seeing him for the first time, which he probably was. “Was that the worst thing that ever happened to you?” he asked.

“Yes,” lied Giacomo. “So you see why I can’t let you do this.”

“But Count Fabio wants to hurt me and Adina! You saw the letter he tried to send to Father. If…Father…I know that…”

“What His Highness is trying to say is that kings rarely love their children,” Miccino cut in. “He wouldn’t think twice about sending them to the gallows.”

“It’s terrible,” said Luca, his voice shaking. “People are horrible, even my own father.”

“If Count Fabio dies, who replaces him?” Giacomo asked Sauro. “We don’t want to be jumping from the frying pan into the fire.”

“His nephew Marcellano,” said Sauro. “He claims to be a staunch proponent of the Rebirth, but at least under him our lives would probably not be in danger.”

“He likes me, remember?” Luca put in. “He practiced swordfighting with me the last time he came to visit. He said we had a lot in common.”

“He might not take kindly to anyone who murders his uncle, however, even if it does gain him Prado,” Giacomo pointed out. “Assassination is rarely publicly condoned.”

“It can’t look like an assassination. Either we let Luca do it, so that it looks like an accident,”

“Absolutely not!”

“Or you do it, and make it look like you were protecting Prince Luca. Which you will be.”

“This is madness,” said Giacomo. “Assassinating the ruler of Prado! Count Fabio is right to fear you! I would not have expected this even from you, Sauro.”

“Even a rat will fight if it’s cornered,” Sauro said, almost smiling at Giacomo. “I have the death sentence hanging over my own head here in Prado, and, it may surprise you to know, I will allow no harm to come to Luca. Anyone who raises a hand against him should expect to lose that hand, and maybe much more as well. At the moment, Count Fabio has his hand drawn back at full stretch, and is about to let it swing. He got two names out of Rosetta: Telemachio and Luca. He has already found his Telemachio, and he has finally guessed who Luca is. In hindsight, I should have never let Rosetta meet Luca, but I underestimated Count Fabio’s obsession, and Luca so wanted to see smoke-scrying…But what is done is done. Rosetta is dead, and Luca has caught Count Fabio’s eye. You saw the letter; did it seem the work of a sane man to you?”

“No,” admitted Giacomo. Amanda’s story of the smoke-scryer and Count Fabio was coming back to him, now with much greater and more sinister significance.

“Count Fabio will stop at nothing to protect himself from the dark menace he sees looming over him. If he thinks Prince Luca is in his way, he will get rid of him any way he sees how. When he fails to hear from the King, he will send another missive, and this one will be even more dangerous…The King will be forced to act, and it seems unlikely that he will act in Luca’s favor. The Queen and Luca’s brother and sisters will most likely try to stop him, but that will only serve to discredit them in the King’s eyes. You see the King frequently: can you claim he is much more reasonable than Count Fabio?”

“No,” Giacomo was forced to admit again.

“You see why we have to stop him, don’t you, Giaco?” Luca spoke up from the bench. “He has to be stopped! If you won’t, then I will! I don’t care what you told me about Sandro and the fingers. I don’t care if his death follows me for the rest of my life. It would be worth it!”

“Some things call for too great a sacrifice,” Giacomo told him. “That would be one of them.”

“I don’t care!”

“I see that,” Giacomo said heavily. “Which is why I will do it for you.”

“Giaco!” Luca jumped up from his bench. “I knew I could count on you! I can always count on you! You won’t be sorry, Giaco, it will all work out, you’ll see. I promise nothing will happen to you, Giaco, no one will do anything to you afterwards. After all, you’ll be protecting me, and that’s your duty.”

“I suppose you have a plan for this as well,” said Giacomo.

“Oh, of course!” Luca came over to join the men in the middle of the room. In the candlelight his face seemed so thin and pale that it was nothing but the dark circles around his eyes. A shadow was draped all around him like a cloak. Even so, Giacomo could see the enthusiasm rising off of him like heat waves.

“We should go to Count Fabio,” said Luca, speaking very fast in his excitement. “I’ll tell him I had to leave Fiori for some reason. Then…Then I should show him something, something about shadowstalking. Then when he threatens me, you can kill him.”

“What if he doesn’t threaten you?” asked Giacomo.

“Oh, he surely will. He won’t be able to help himself.”

“And do you think that is…right, Luca?”

“What do you mean?”

“To trick Count Fabio into threatening you, just so that we can kill him.”

“Why not?” Luca looked at Giacomo curiously, as if he had just started speaking of life on distant stars, or something equally far away. “He wants to kill me, doesn’t he?”

“It seems that way, but what you are proposing, is, is, is underhanded. You are giving Count Fabio no chance to exonerate himself.”

“He doesn’t deserve that!” said Luca heatedly.

Giacomo wanted to say something, but he was afraid that if he opened his mouth he would shout, “Haven’t I taught you anything!” “The question is not what he deserves, but what you are honor-bound to offer him,” he said instead. “A prince does not just go around killing defenseless men because of rumor and hearsay. No matter what Count Fabio may have done or plans to do, he deserves a fair trial.”

“If he gets a fair trial, then he’ll win! He’ll turn everyone against me! You know what the court would do if they found out how far Sauro and I have gone! Giaco, we have to, we have to stop him! And, and, why are you talking about a fair trial? You’re a soldier! How many times did you give the people you killed a fair trial before you killed them? Never! You just killed them! Why is this different? It’s not! Count Fabio is our enemy, and we have to get rid of him!”

“Very well,” Giacomo said after a while. “I won’t argue with you, because you will not listen. We will go to Count Fabio, and if he…if he threatens you, I will deal with him.”

Luca’s face, which had turned sullen when Giacomo had accused him of not listening, brightened. “Thank you, Giaco, thank you! I knew I could count on you! Let’s leave right away! We haven’t much time!”

“Yes,” agreed Giacomo. “The sooner this is over with, the better.”

“Remember that Count Fabio has his own shadowstalker, who could be anyone of his household,” said Sauro. “I will try to go with you in shadow, but it is likely I will be stopped at the castle entrance. You will be on your own.”

“But I’ll be with him!” said Luca.

Sauro smiled at Luca. “True enough, your Highness.” Despite his smile, his words sounded sad.

“Come on, let’s go!” Luca tugged impatiently at Giacomo’s arm. With a farewell nod at Sauro and Miccino, he followed him up the stairs, through Miccino’s house, and—catching a glimpse of Carina, who waved shyly at them from around the corner of the hallway—out onto the street.

***

Dawn was not far away, thought Giacomo as they walked through the almost-deserted streets. He was walking fast enough from irritation and dread that Luca had to skip to keep up with him, but he didn’t seem to mind. He gazed up trustingly at Giacomo and talked quickly the whole time about everything that had happened since they had last seen each other. Giacomo tried not to listen. He was angry with Luca for talking him into this, and furious with himself for doing it anyway. With every step that brought him closer to the castle, he became more convinced he was doing something very stupid, but that only made him walk faster. His legs had suddenly become heavy again from the long ride and the running back and forth across Prado, and his boots, which were still covered with the filth of Il Vicolo dell’Ordine, kept slipping on the cobblestones, but he didn’t slow down. The adventure had dragged on long enough. He just wanted to get it over and done with.

As they crossed La Piazza Centrale, Giacomo thought he caught a glimpse of a thin shadow flitting through the torchlight.

“Is Sauro following us?” he asked, interrupting Luca’s account of how he and Sauro had crossed thirty miles in what seemed like the blink of an eye.

Luca looked around. “Yes,” he said. “He’ll probably come up to the gates with us, and wait there, in case he can suddenly get in.”

The shadow disappeared once they crossed the square and were back on the darker streets, but Giacomo was convinced he could feel it just behind him. Its presence was almost comforting. If Count Fabio really did have his own “shadowstalker,” then any weapon against it was welcome, even Sauro, especially if it meant Luca would not have to fight. Despite his anger at Luca, Giacomo was determined to protect him from having to kill anyone at all costs. Luca’s casual attitude towards assassinating Count Fabio had filled Giacomo with a whole new kind of horror and fear. What if all the effort he had gone to in order to train and protect him had been in vain, and Luca was going to end up amoral and cruel? What if Giacomo managed to protect him from sword and shadow, only to discover he had been sheltering a monster? What if he realized he should have been protecting the world from the Luca, instead of Luca from the world, and his duty lay in destroying him?

No no no, Giacomo told himself. He’s only a boy, and boys are naturally thoughtless, even clever and kind ones like Luca. The important thing is to keep him from getting a taste for killing. In a few years he’ll settle down again, and go from a good child to a good man. He just has to make it through this trying time.

The same guards were guarding the castle gates when he and Luca arrived. “You again,” they said.

“This time with the Prince,” said Giacomo, pushing Luca forward so they could see him.

“How do we know he’s not just some street urchin you picked up?” the guards demanded.

“How dare you stand in our way!” said Luca indignantly. “We have important business with Count Fabio! Now let us through!”

The guards looked at each other. “He’s definitely not a street urchin,” said one.

“If he’s not the Prince, he’s still someone important,” agreed the other. “Pass.” They stepped aside to let Giacomo and Luca through.

Once they passed through the gates and into the courtyard, they found a sleepy servant sitting by the castle door. He stared at Giacomo in incomprehension when he explained why they had come, but eventually seemed to grasp the nature of their errand and led them inside.

“Wait here,” he said. “I’ll send someone to warn the Count.” He disappeared down a dark corridor, leaving Giacomo and Luca to wait in a small room full of boots and cloaks. Giacomo tried to clean off his own boots while they waited, but only succeeded in spreading the filth around more evenly. He hoped the stink of slops and nightsoil rising from them was not as apparent to others as it was to him.

The servant, now less sleepy, came back.

“Count Fabio is anxious to see you,” he said. “Follow me.”

Giacomo’s mind felt clear and calm as he followed the servant through corridor after corridor. From time to time he would inadvertently ask himself if he were frightened, but then he would remember that those thoughts were never helpful and there was nothing to fear in a simple assassination anyway, and his mind would return to his weapons. A sword was a weapon of last resort for this kind of thing. He had a small dagger in his right boot that was much more suited to close-quarter killing, if he could come up with a suitable pretext for pulling it out in time. Or there were always his bare hands. They were maybe the best of all. Giacomo had only seen Count Fabio once, a long time ago and from a distance, but he doubted he would be able to put up much of a fight. Now, if only he could come up with a way to get Luca out of the room before the actual deed was done. He didn’t want Luca to witness this. Although, since it was being done on his initiative, perhaps he needed to see what he had set in motion. Once again, Giacomo heartily regretted being drawn into this, especially without a firm plan.

The servant knocked at a large and elaborately carved door.

“Come in,” called a voice from the inside.

The servant opened the door and led them into a sitting room full of dark heavy furniture. Tiny curls of aromatic smoke rose from the fireplace, despite the summer heat. Luca looked at the smoke, and shook his head angrily.

“Leave us,” ordered the voice from a room farther inside. A woman’s voice rose up for a moment, and then faded away.

The servant backed out the door and shut it. Count Fabio came towards them from the inner chamber.

“This is an unexpected pleasure, and at such a late hour,” he said. “Is this in response to the missive I sent the King?”

“Yes,” said Luca. He stepped out from behind Giacomo’s back, where he had instinctively hidden on seeing Count Fabio’s long thin figure appear before them.

“And my betrothed? Is the Princess Adorata also of the party?”

Now that Giacomo was seeing Count Fabio properly, he couldn’t help but agree with Luca and Sauro that any measure would be worth taking in order to keep him away from Adorata. His bald head and deep-set eyes filled Giacomo with almost as much aversion as the sight of Sauro, although in this case it was the result of simple revulsion, not overwhelming fear. He wondered if the disappearing woman’s voice had belonged to a whore. Probably. Giacomo found himself searching Count Fabio’s face for signs of the pox.

“She’s coming later, during the day. Ladies shouldn’t travel at night. But I had to come at once. It isn’t safe for me to be in Fiori right now.” Giacomo had to admire Luca’s fluid lying, especially since he could feel him quivering from fear and exhaustion. He had thought he would have to do the talking, but it seemed that Luca was more than capable of carrying the conversation.

“Is that so, your Highness? What is the danger?”

“A…” Luca looked around with frightened eyes. “A shadowstalker is after me!” he said dramatically. “He is trying to corrupt me! I had to leave as soon as I could. I needed to see you.”

“You have done the right thing, your Highness. You will be safe from all of that here in Prado. Can I offer you anything? Some wine and water, perhaps?”

“Well…” Luca seemed to be coming to some kind of a decision. “Yes please,” he said. “I would be most grateful for any refreshment you could provide me and my man. We have had a long night, and are most tired from the road.”

“It would be my pleasure.” Count Fabio went over to a small table, and began to pour liquid from various decanters into glasses.

“Giaco,” Luca whispered in his ear. “I’m afraid of the wine. I think it might be poisoned. I’m sure of it. I saw it in the smoke of the fire. But what do we do now? I asked him to pour it, but I don’t know how not to drink it. If I just say it’s poisoned, no one will believe me.”

“I’ll drink it first,” whispered Giacomo. “We’ll tell him that’s what we always do.”

“But it’s poisoned!”

“It is my duty, your Highness.”

“No!” Luca whispered fiercely. “I can’t let you!” He clutched at Giacomo’s clothing, as if to hold him back. “What’s in your pocket?” he asked.

“Amanda’s stone!” Giacomo had forgotten about it. He pulled it out of his pocket. It was still warm, as if it had just come from next to Amanda’s skin, and it glittered slightly in the light from the fire. “I wonder how you use it,” he said.

“A poison-stone? Giaco, is that a poison-stone? Give it to me!” Luca held out his hand like someone expecting a dog to bring them a stick. Giacomo obediently dropped the stone into his open palm. Even in their current circumstances he was both proud and amused at Luca’s air of command.

Count Fabio brought them both glasses of wine and water. “What is that you have in your hand, your Highness?” he asked, raising his eyebrows and trying to sound like a good-natured uncle. “A favorite stone? When I was your age, I also collected stones. Tell me,” Count Fabio’s vulture-like face twisted into an imitation of a patronizingly friendly smile, “is it just a stone, or does it have other powers?”

“If I drop it in something like this,” Luca was speaking very fast from anger, and his hands were clumsy as he dropped the stone in his glass, “it tells me if there is poison there.” He held up the glass for them to see. The wine and water slopped gently against the side of the glass from his shaking hands.

“Really? What happens if the poison is there?” asked Count Fabio, raising an eyebrow again.

“It fizzes. Like this.” Bubbles were gathering around the stone, which could just be made out through the watered wine.

“The effect of dropping the stone into the liquid,” said Count Fabio sharply.

“No,” said Luca. “Look.” Froth was starting to rise to the top of the glass, as if it were full of pink beer rather than wine.

“An alchemical reaction. Certain powders will do that when mixed with wine.”

“It’s poison!” shouted Luca. He was trembling all over. “You really did try to poison me! Giaco, he tried to poison me!”

“His Highness is hysterical,” said Count Fabio to Giacomo. “The effect of the late hour. Let him drink his wine to settle his nerves, and go to bed. He will be calmer by morning.”

Giaco took the frothing glass out of Luca’s hand.

“Giaco, it is poison, it is! I swear it!”

“There is a simple way to solve this,” said Giacomo. “Let Count Fabio take the first sip.”

For a moment Count Fabio looked lost. Then a decision on how to proceed appeared in his eyes. “How dare you insult my hospitality!” he shouted. “How dare you insinuate that I would poison a guest! You, you, commoner! Have you no idea how to treat your betters!?”

“I am only doing my duty,” said Giacomo. “Take the first sip, and we will all forget this ever happened.” He held the glass out towards Count Fabio. “Take it,” he repeated.

Count Fabio stared at the glass for a long moment. He stretched out his hand, and then suddenly drew it back and struck at Giacomo. Giacomo jerked out of the way, but the wine went everywhere. Luca and Count Fabio both shrieked and covered their faces from the flying wine.

“Giaco!” cried Luca from under his arms. “Is it on me? Is it on you? Don’t let it run into your mouth!”

Giacomo wiped off his face with his sleeve, but it was dry. The wine seemed to have all splashed away from him, towards the others. It was dripping down Luca’s shoulder and Count Fabio’s chest.

“What’s the poison?” demanded Giacomo. Count Fabio flinched back but said nothing, only looking down at his shirt instead. “What’s the poison?” Giacomo shouted.

Now that he realized the wine had not hit his face, Count Fabio regained possession of himself. “Poison?” he said. “There was no poison, only an alchemical reaction with bad wine. I am surprised you could allow his Highness to indulge his caprices like this, and against a person of my stature. It’s obviously high time he was taken away from you, and trained in the behavior of a true prince. A true prince

“Liar!” screamed Luca. “Murderer! Killer! It was poison! It was poison!” He launched himself at Count Fabio, his fingers outstretched like claws.

“LUCA!” Giacomo tried to grab him, but his filthy boots slipped in a pool of spilled wine, and he went down on one knee. Luca landed on Count Fabio’s chest like an attacking cat.

“It burns!” cried Count Fabio. He tried to push Luca off of him, but Luca had both hands around his neck.

“Luca, let go!” ordered Giacomo, trying to rise and pull the two of them apart, but Luca and Count Fabio were struggling wildly now. A stray kick caught him in the knee, and his legs buckled again.

“IT BURNS! BURNS!” Count Fabio was screaming. The smell of searing flesh was filling the air. Giacomo crawled on his sore knees till he was out of the pool of wine and could get enough traction to throw himself at the fighters again. He could feel something go in his left knee as he lunged forward, but his leap still carried him onto the flailing pile that contained Luca. Somehow he got both arms around him, but not before an enormous shadow rose out of Luca and swooped down on Count Fabio, smothering his last screams.

“LUCA!” shouted several voices at once. Giacomo tried to pull him off of Count Fabio and catch his shadow at the same time, and failed at both. More shadows were coming through the walls and surrounding them.

“Giaco? I feel sick,” said Luca in a very small voice, and collapsed.

***

For a moment Giacomo couldn’t see what was happening. He caught Luca, but his sudden dead weight made Giacomo’s tired legs buckle again, and they both went down in a heap on the floor. Giacomo somehow heaved them both up into a sitting position, but Luca’s head lolled lifelessly against his chest.

It was lucky Giacomo’s hands knew what to do, because his mind seemed to have frozen. Somewhere very far away it was screaming, “Dead! He’s dead!” but up close it was completely blank. It was his hands, moving of their own accord, that thought to feel Luca’s pulse, and it was his hands that told him that the little jumping beat under their fingers meant Luca was alive. There seemed to be a great deal of commotion amongst all the shadows in the room, but Giacomo paid it no attention. Still acting on their own, his hands turned Luca’s face towards his ear, and held it there until they were sure the air gusting against his cheek was from Luca’s breath. Then his hands clutched Luca to him, and Giacomo sobbed as he hadn’t sobbed for more than half his lifetime.

He only gained some measure of control over himself when something like cold smoke brushed against his back, and a voiceless voice said in his ear, “Calm yourself, Giacomo! Calm yourself! The battle is not yet over!”

Giacomo looked up. Luca was still alive, and still unconscious. Count Fabio was still dead, his neck and face burned beyond recognition. There was only one shadow in the room now, and it was standing over him. As he watched, it slid away from him and back into an unlit corner. When it reemerged, it was no longer a shadow, but Sauro in the flesh.

“The wards are gone,” Sauro said. “Count Fabio’s shadowstalker must have broken them when he fled.”

“We must find a healer or a surgeon,” Giacomo said. “He won’t wake up.”

“No healer or surgeon can help him now,” Sauro told him. “His shadow is gone. He won’t wake up until he gets it back.”

Giacomo looked at Luca’s face more carefully. The shadow was gone.

“Chasing after the other shadowstalker, most likely,” said Sauro. “I tried to hold him back, but with the wards still up, I was too weak. He slipped away before I could stop him.”

“We were both too weak,” said Giacomo bitterly. “If I hadn’t slipped when he attacked Count Fabio, I could have stopped him, and none of this would have ever happened. If I could have held him back, we could have arrested Count Fabio and proven the wine was poisoned, and none of this would have ever happened. But I didn’t. I failed him. At the crucial moment, I failed him, and after I had sworn to myself I would stop him no matter what the cost. I failed him. When it really mattered, I couldn’t do my duty, and now he’s gone.”

“Stop that!” hissed Sauro. “Do you think you’re the only one thinking those thoughts? If I hadn’t taught him this and taught him that, none of this would have happened either, but he was so clever, so keen, that I couldn’t stop myself, and before I knew it, he was beyond my control. But ‘if I hadn’t’ will get us nowhere. What has happened, happened. Some would say it was fated. The dark gods of battle are cruel and capricious, and require sacrifices worse than blood. Sometimes they demand that you lose for reasons known only to them, even when by all rational measures you should win, and there is nothing you can do about it. Now we stand where we stand, and we can’t run back and change things. The past is gone, and the only thing we have left is the future. So let’s make sure it doesn’t slip out of our grasp like the past did! Get up! We still have something to fight for!”

Giacomo gently laid Luca on the floor and got to his feet. It took a long time because his whole body was sore and tired, and his legs had no fight left in them at all.

“I don’t believe in the gods of battle,” he said. “A strong sword arm will get you farther than prayers, and a strong will will take you farthest of all.”

“Indefatigable as ever, I see,” said Sauro. “Are you ready to carry on?”

“Yes,” said Giacomo, trying to stop his body from shaking as he stood there. “What do we have to do?” he asked.

“We need to get Luca’s shadow back. He sent it chasing after the other shadowstalker, and he must have lost it, or the other shadowstalker caught it and brought it under his control somehow. We’ll have to free him from the other shadowstalker, and help his shadow come back to him.”

“I can’t believe I’m helping you do this,” said Giacomo. “I hoped every day for the past four years that Luca would lose this shadow you infected him with, and now, as soon as he does so, I’m running to bring it back. I would laugh if it weren’t so desperate. And don’t tell me anything about cruel and capricious gods. I don’t think I could stand it. Just tell me what we have to do.”

“First we have to find Luca’s shadow. I can do that. Then, if it is caught by the other shadowstalker, we have to free it. That might mean destroying the other shadowstalker’s body. You will have to do that.”

“It seems I am fated to be an assassin tonight,” said Giacomo. “The gods damn everyone from here to eternity! So be it. Let’s not wait. The sooner this sorry night is over with, the better.”

“You will have to wait at least a little while longer,” said Sauro. “Stay with Luca, while I go looking for his shadow.”

Sauro stepped back into his dark corner. Giacomo busied himself with arranging Luca as comfortably as possible by laying him out flat and propping up his head with Dimitrio’s old guard cloak. The sight of Luca’s chest rising and falling was reassuring, but the sight of his pinched white face was not. He looked as if all the blood had been drained out of him.

“You had to do it,” Giacomo said to him. “You wouldn’t let me stop you. They say the burned hand fears the fire, but sometimes that comes at the price of scars. Why couldn’t you listen?”

Luca made no answer, but only continued his barely perceptible breathing. Giacomo sat down beside him with his legs drawn up and rested his face against his knees. He hoped he wouldn’t have to get up ever again. It was so good just to rest like this. He hoped Sauro would find Luca’s wayward shadow and bring it back unscathed, and he, Giacomo, wouldn’t have to do anything or kill anyone, especially not a shadowstalker of unknown but apparently immense powers. Because he wasn’t sure he could. Even if he met no external obstacles, there was no guarantee he wouldn’t fail at the crucial moment again. Especially if he became afraid. If the fear caught him, there was no knowing what he would do. He was like a sword with a flaw in it. It might cut cleanly, or it might shatter from the lightest touch. But he couldn’t think about that. He couldn’t let the fear take him, not now, not after all this…

“Giacomo.” Sauro was standing in front of him. “Giacomo, I found him. He is caught, just as I feared. You will have to go after the other shadowstalker. One swift strike, and it will all be over. It is unlikely he will have any defenses other than his shadows. If I keep him distracted, you should be able to go right up to him and take him down with no trouble, and Luca will be free.”

“Where is he?” asked Giacomo.

“At the top of the tower at the far side of the castle. He seems to have a room there. As I passed through the stairs I sensed wards of fire and fear set against intruders. I will try to help you break through them, but we may have to rely on your own courage. So I have no doubt we will prevail. Here, I’ll help you up.”

Sauro reached down and pulled Giacomo to his feet. Giacomo swayed, and Sauro caught him.

“Not yet,” he said. “Just one more brave move, and you can rest.”

Giacomo used Sauro to push himself upright. He was surprised at how thin Sauro was, even thinner than he looked. Giacomo could feel every rib, and every bone in his shoulders. His body seemed as light as a cat’s.

“You should take up swordfighting,” he told him, sounding drunk even to his own ear. “That would put some muscle on you.”

“The shadow would still melt it all away. Can you stand now? Where are your weapons?”

“Here.” Giacomo touched the sword at his belt, and pointed to the knife in his boot. After a moment of thought, he pulled it out.

“I might as well have it ready in my hand,” he explained. Standing up was starting to make him feel stronger. He still hoped the other shadowstalker was as thin as Sauro, though.

“You will have to go back down to the Great Hall, and up the other set of stairs to the far tower,” Sauro told him. “I will stay here with Luca, but I will accompany you in shadow. I should be able to distract him enough for you to catch him off his guard.”

“Good,” said Giacomo. “Let’s go.” He started towards the door. His steps were almost straight now. He could sense Sauro’s shadow behind him.

His strength continued to return as he went out the door, along the corridor, and down the stairs towards the Great Hall, although his legs still buckled dangerously if he took an incautious step.

You see, he told himself, it’s not so bad. All you have to do is keep going. Across the Great Hall, up the stairs, into the tower, and then one quick strike, and it will all be over. One quick strike. One quick strike. He pictured the strike in his mind several times, until he was certain he knew what he wanted to do, and then he tucked it in the back of his mind and concentrated on keeping his tired body moving forward.

The Great Hall was lit by a single torch. Sauro’s shadow flickered briefly into sight in the light. Giacomo’s own shadow was right next to it. Then Giacomo realized it wasn’t his shadow.

“Sauro…!” he started to shout, just as the shadow pounced.

“RUN!” a voiceless voice screamed in his head. His legs somehow carried him at a dead sprint across the Great Hall and through the door to the back stairs, but at the first step a shadow passed over his head and he tripped and crashed to his knees. His knife fell out of his fingers and disappeared into a dark corner.

Giacomo’s heart started hammering so wildly he thought he might be sick. It’s right there, he told himself. Right in that corner. Just reach over and pick it up. It’s not a disaster. It’s right there. Just pick it up. There’s no harm done. Just pick it up. His fingers reached out and felt around in the corner. When they didn’t immediately find the knife, another bolt of fear shot through him, but then they closed around the knife handle and drew it safely back to him. He thought he might weep with relief.

It was nothing, he reassured himself. Just a stumble in the dark. Get up and keep going. It was nothing. He rose slowly to his feet and took a careful step onto the first stair. His legs didn’t give way, and he kept a hold on his knife.

That’s it. Just keep going. He started up the stairs. His heart was still racing from shock and exhaustion, and his stomach felt full of sparks. As much as he tried to tell himself that tripping and dropping the knife meant nothing, he couldn’t help feeling it was a bad omen. And now he was drawing ever closer to the shadowstalker’s room, and Sauro still wasn’t with him. He wasn’t sure what that meant, other than there was no one to help him get through the wards of fear and fire. At that thought he stopped again. He was almost sure he could feel them lurking up there, waiting to pounce on him as the shadow had pounced on Sauro. At any moment, he knew, the fear would descend on him, and he would be helpless in the face of its onslaught. There was no fighting it. Once it took him, all he could do was try to get to the other side of it, and hope his courage would see him through.

It’s only fear, he told himself. It’s only in your mind. It’s only fear. All you have to do is keep walking, and eventually it will be over. While you stand here, the other side is winning. You have to start moving immediately. But it took what seemed like a long, long time for him to take that next step, and when he did, he flinched all over, expecting the fear to pour down on him like boiling water.

Nothing happened. He took another step. His so-tired legs started working independently of his head. Everything in him that could think or feel couldn’t believe it was being carried forward like this, but still he kept walking.

This must be what it’s like to be walking to your execution, he thought. Half of you is screaming to go back, and half of you can’t believe that it’s about to happen, so it keeps sending you forward. I wish I didn’t have this knowledge. I wish I could spend the rest of my life in ignorance of how this feels, but I won’t. I will never be rid of this, but I am doing it anyway. I could stop, but I am doing it anyway.

Even as his mind was full of thoughts, it was also full of feelings, so that he was acutely aware of the placement of his head, his arms, his hands, the ache in his thighs and the sharp pain in his left knee, and the way his body was moving through the dark hot staircase air, which swirled stuffily around him, smelling of wood and stone and dust. He wished desperately that it were over, or that he could somehow escape the curse of consciousness that was making this so terrible. Right now death seemed preferable to this eternal dragging of his tired body up this endless staircase, with something even more horrible ahead of him.

His fear of the fear consumed him so much that at first he didn’t notice when the real fear came creeping in. It wasn’t until he suddenly gasped from the pain in his stomach that he understood what had happened. He stopped and leaned against the wall for a moment, while everything rang in his ears.

It’s just fear, he reminded himself. It’s all in your head. Keep going. He straightened up and took another step. The staircase was full of what felt like cold smoke, and the air felt thick, as if he were swimming through terror. He took a deep breath. The inside of his nostrils burned. He looked up. A flame was…

He rose painfully from the ball he had dropped into when the flame had come rushing at him. His left knee let him know that he had hit it hard on the edge of a step when he had gone down. He patted himself down dreamily. His clothing was hot and dry, but there was no other sign of burning. The flame had been fake. He must have passed through the wards of fear and fire.

He felt incredibly light. Everything he had just gone through was behind him. The fake flame seemed to have burned away the fake fear. He floated the rest of the way up the stairs to the tower door, and opened it.

The room was large, with many windows. The first light of dawn was showing through one of them. A large shadow stood frozen in the opposite corner, trapped by the light. A man in a hooded cloak stood on the far side of the room from the door, watching Giacomo as he came in. There was something strange about him. Then Giacomo saw what it was. The dawn should have cast a small shadow against the wall, but it was missing.

“Get back,” said the man.

Giacomo knew he should just rush at the man and slit his throat, but for a moment he couldn’t make himself attack an unarmed man, and also he was afraid his hands would tremble or his legs would give way. He stood still in the middle of the room, aware of how stupid that was but doing it anyway.

“You must be the bodyguard,” said the man. “You should go back and protect your charge’s body. Soul and shadow are beyond you.”

“Let him go, and I won’t kill you,” said Giacomo. “We could use you. You could tell the King what Count Fabio was doing. Your word in exchange for your life.”

“Back away, and I won’t kill you,” said the man. “I could use you. You could tell the King what Count Fabio was doing. Your word in exchange for your life. I’ll even throw in Prince Luca on the bargain. Go back to guarding his body, and wait for the rest of him to return as well. I will give him back to you, I swear, as soon as he agrees to support me. In fact, help me convince him, and I will reward you. My gratitude will mean much, especially to a man of Prado. Just cooperate, Giacomo il Guardo, and everything will work for the best for all of us.”

“Giaco, he’s hurting me!” cried the shadow with Luca’s voice. “He’s hurting me, and he won’t let go!”

Giacomo jumped forward, and then stopped when Luca’s shadow cried out again. The cloaked man’s small dawn-shadow, instead of being behind him where it should have been, separated from Luca’s shadow and held up its hands.

“I am not truly hurting him,” said the cloaked man. “Only separating his shadow from his spirit. Isn’t that what you have long wanted to do? A momentary pang of splitting, and then he will be returned to you, the same happy, healthy boy he was before all of this happened, before he was drawn into our dark underworld. Just let me have his shadow, and you can have the rest of him. Do you, does Fiori, really want the shadow-boy he has become? Would the old Luca have ever run away? Would the old Luca have killed Count Fabio? This Luca has started down a dark path, but it is not too late to turn him back. Just let me have his shadow, and let Luca return to the light. He always was a sunny boy; I will just be returning him to his true state.”

“I…” said Giacomo. He so desperately wanted the old Luca back, the one he had watched over before Sauro had come along, the one that was his through and through. If he had the old Luca back, he would never have to suffer the jealousy he felt every time Luca talked to him about Sauro, never have to share him with anyone…

The small dawn-shadow stretched out its hands into Luca’s shadow, making it shrink. Luca’s shadow screamed. Giacomo could feel the hair all over his body rising, and it seemed to him that another, fainter scream was coming from the other side of the castle, where Luca’s body was lying. His own body lifted off the floor and sailed across the room, seemingly without effort. His knife flashed out. Both he and the cloaked man fell in a tangled heap on the floor. Luca had stopped screaming.

Blood was leaking out over Giacomo’s hand. He scrambled to his feet, shaking all over. Even in the faint light, he could see that all the veins were standing out on his hands and arms. He wanted to run through the castle, killing everyone in his path. Instead he looked down, to try to understand what had happened. There was a small cut on his right hand, and a lot of blood. He looked down at the cloaked man. The hilt of Giacomo’s knife was standing out from his temple like a grotesque horn. There was a lot more blood around him, most of it not Giacomo’s. The only shadows in the room were cast by the sunrise. Giacomo turned and ran.

Halfway across the Great Hall he started to feel sick, but his legs still carried him back up to Count Fabio’s chambers. Luca and Sauro were lying on the floor, side by side. Giacomo dropped down next to them. Luca opened his eyes.

“You saved me, Giaco,” he said.

Black spots swarmed in front of Giacomo’s eyes. He could feel his veins shrinking back into his body, and with them, the last of strength. “Of course,” he said.

“You cut your hand,” said Luca.

“Just a scratch.”

“You should rest. You look like you’re going to be sick. I think we’re safe now.”

“And Sauro?”

“He’s safe too. We’re all safe. Let’s just wait here for someone to find us. Just rest.”

Giacomo arranged himself so that his back was against a chair, and Luca’s head was resting in his lap. Things were becoming brighter. When the sun’s first rays came through the stained glass windows and filled the room with colored light, servants came through the door and found them.

***

The commotion on finding three strangers next to Count Fabio’s dead body was great, but the servants were quickly convinced that Luca was a prince, not a common assassin. No one but a prince could have ordered them around so imperiously. Giacomo tried to get up when the servants came in, but Luca said, “no Giaco, stay down,” and he did. Two healers were called in. One of them took charge of Sauro, who still hadn’t woken up. She had him carried out to some other room in order to examine him. The other healer looked over Luca, pronounced him healthy, and then sent him to sit with Sauro before looking at Giacomo, despite Giacomo’s protests.

“You’re going to be sick when you get up, and you don’t want him seeing that,” she said. “Let him remember you as the hero who saved him, not the man who was sick all over his own clothes. Let him stay with his friend for a bit while I look you over. He’ll be safe there.”

Giacomo said he wouldn’t be sick, but as soon as she moved him onto the chair at his back, he retched bile all down his shirt.

“Never mind, you’ll soon be better,” she told him comfortingly. “It’s only nerves and no water. Here, drink this.” She handed him a glass of water. Giacomo looked at it doubtfully.

“It’s not poisoned,” said the healer, laughing slightly. “Here. Amanda sent you this, to prove it to you.” She took a small flat packet out of her pocket, and unfolded it. Inside were several cards, and a note in the same jagged decisive handwriting that had made the dodecagon.

Drink the water, Giacomo, and look at the cards, said the note. Giacomo drank the water. His stomach protested, but it stayed down. He looked at the cards. The Rose Maiden, Death, and the Victorious Soldier were tied together with a purple ribbon. There was a fourth, separate card. Giacomo turned it over. The Violet Maiden gazed up at him mysteriously. There were words written around the edge of the card.

Remember, said the words, if you don’t tell me everything, I’ll just find out anyway. Your parents want to see you.

“Amanda always reads true,” said the healer. “I would do what she says, if I were you.”

The healer fussed over Giacomo for a little while longer, putting some kind of smelly salve on his cuts and giving him sips of water, until she was convinced he wasn’t going to throw up again. Shocked servants came in and carried away Count Fabio’s body. Half a dozen guards came in and stood against the wall, watching Giacomo suspiciously and obviously waiting for the healer to leave so they could question him.

“You should rest,” the healer told him as she prepared to go. “I think your body will heal quickly, if you let it, but I wouldn’t expect to feel better for a while, if I were you. Your nerves will take a long time to recover.” Before she left, she slipped something from the floor into her case. Only after she was gone did Giacomo realize it was the glass that had held the poisoned wine. He thought about calling her back, but couldn’t summon up the energy.

The guards moved away from the wall and formed a circle around Giacomo. The one in the finest cloak stood directly in front of him and demanded to know what had happened.

“Count Fabio tried to kill Prince Luca,” Giacomo said listlessly. “There was a struggle. He fell into the fire. By the time we pulled him out, it was too late. Someone else came in and took the Prince. I went after him, took care of him, and brought the Prince back. His body should be in the top of the far tower.”

“We have found Marcellano’s body, Signore,” said the guard officer. “It was a bad night to be a ruler of Prado, it seems.”

“That was the Count’s heir?” Giacomo asked. He tried to care about having just killed off the ruling family of his native city, and couldn’t.

“Indeed, Signore. Questions will be asked.”

“I answer only to the King,” Giacomo told him. The guard officer asked him many more questions, but Giacomo only stared at the floor and said nothing. Eventually they locked him and Luca in the Count’s bedroom, telling him that he would just have to wait for word from the King. Giacomo could hear the boots of many guards outside the door. He wondered where the secret passageway that Count Fabio’s companion had used was, but couldn’t summon up the strength to look for it. Luca fretted for a while over Sauro, who was still unconscious, and then fell asleep on the Count’s bed. Giacomo sat on a soft chair next to the bed, and let his eyes close. At one point he thought he heard his parents’ voices shouting on the other side of the door, but it could have been a dream.

***

The bedroom had no windows, so Giacomo could only assume it was dinnertime when servants came into the room because they brought them dinner food. Luca woke up and immediately began eating ravenously.

“Eat, Giaco,” he said, after he had started on his second plate and realized that Giacomo hadn’t touched any of the food. “I insist.”

Giacomo slowly ate some food and listened to Luca tell him about all the things he and Sauro had been doing behind Giacomo’s back. He heard about shadowstalking, and smoke-scrying, and how Luca had been learning to fight with fire, and so many other things he didn’t want to know about. Luca seemed completely unconcerned about the deaths of Count Fabio and Marcellano, or his future fate. His only reference to it was when he said, “I wonder if Father will come get us, or will he send Desi? How long do you think it will take for them to get here?”

“I’m sure they’ll come as soon as they can, your Highness,” said Giacomo, which seemed to satisfy Luca completely.

It must have been late at night when the door suddenly opened again, and guards came pouring in.

“Giannini! Dami!” cried Luca.

Giacomo saw that behind the chevrons of the Prado guards were the rosebud-covered cloaks of the King’s Fifty.

“It’s them,” said Damiano. “His Highness and his bodyguard. I vouch for them personally, and I’m sure her Highness Adorata will want to see them immediately. Bring them down. Gently,” he added, when two guards took Giacomo by the arms and hauled him to his feet.

“Should we bind his hands, Signore?” asked one of the Prado guards. “He did kill at least one man already today, by his own admission.”

“Leave him free. I’m sure he was only doing his duty. Let’s go.”

Giacomo tried to feel glad that his hands had been left unbound and that Adorata, sure to be a much fairer judge than either the King or Desiderato, had apparently come herself to deal with the problem, but he was still incapable of either thinking or feeling. He walked heavy-legged amongst the crowd of guards, listening to Luca’s enthusiastic description of their adventures to Giannini and Damiano, who had one hand tightly gripping Luca’s collar, without understanding anything he was saying.

He caught a glimpse of the night sky through a window, and saw that it was quite late. The party turned from a dark corridor into the Great Hall, which was full of torches and brightly-shining sconces. Giacomo turned his face away from the painful light, but the guards prodded him on.

“Adina!” Luca cried, breaking free from Damiano’s grip and sprinting across the Great Hall to the Prado chair of state, where Adorata was sitting. He threw himself into her arms. The Hall erupted in applause and cheers. Giacomo realized it was full of spectators.

“Where is Giacomo?” Adorata demanded, when she had kissed the top of Luca’s head and sat him down beside her.

The Prado guards pulled Giacomo up to her chair and pushed him down on his knees. It was a good thing he didn’t want to resist, he thought, because he wouldn’t have been able to.

“What happened, Giacomo?” she asked. “Tell me everything.”

Giacomo looked around. By his guess, there were hundreds of people in the Hall.

“This might be better told in private, your Highness,” he said.

Adorata leaned forward so that no one else could hear her words. “Whose wrongdoing are you afraid of revealing, Giacomo?” she asked.

“Count Fabio’s. And that of his heir, Marcellano.”

“Then speak loudly, so that all can hear.”

“Many won’t believe me.”

“Let them. It is important that the truth be spoken in the open from time to time. You may stand, if you wish.”

“It’s probably better if I keep kneeling,” Giacomo told her. “I’m afraid I might fall over if I stand up.”

Adorata made a face that was halfway between a smile and sorrow. “As you wish,” she said, sitting back. “Your story, if you please, Giacomo dal Prado.”

Giacomo told her what had happened, leaving out large parts of it, such as his visits to Amanda, Dimitrio, and Miccino, but describing everything that had happened once he had arrived at the castle in great detail. Several times he was interrupted by shouting from the crowd, but every time Adorata had order restored and made him continue. When he was done, the Great Hall was filled with the roar of hundreds of voices all talking at once.

“Thank you, Giacomo dal Prado,” said Adorata. “There may be more questions later, but I declare you free of all guilt in the deaths of Count Fabio and his heir Marcellano. You were only doing your duty. Please rise, and take your place beside Prince Luca. We will not detain you for much longer.”

Giacomo rose and went to stand behind Luca’s chair, trying to disguise the fact the he was leaning on the chair back in order to stay upright.

“In light of recent events, and in the absence of an heir for the Prado noble line, his Majesty King Beato has entrusted me with the city’s safekeeping,” Adorata announced.

The Hall fell silent, and then burst into loud cheering. Hats and handkerchiefs were sent flying up into the rafters as the citizens of Prado expressed their joy—genuine or feigned—at their new ruler.

“This way, dal Prado,” said Damiano in his ear. “You too, your Highness. Time to go to bed.”

“I just got here!” Luca said indignantly. “I’ve been locked in a room all day! I’m not tired!”

“But your guard is ready to drop where he stands. You owe him a night of rest, at least. Tonight you can be the guard.” Damiano pulled Luca from his seat and began marching him towards a back corridor. Giacomo followed along behind them.

Damiano took them to another bedroom on a different floor, and locked them inside. Luca seemed to have taken his charge to be the guard tonight to heart, and ordered Giacomo to undress, get in bed, and go to sleep, because he, Luca, would watch over him.

“Certainly not, your Highness,” Giacomo protested.

“Do it, Giaco, or I shall be angry,” said Luca, pretending to pout. “I’ll tell Damiano you disobeyed orders,” he added when Giacomo still made no move to obey.

Giacomo slowly began undressing. He felt so awkward about it he had to turn his back to Luca. He slid under the covers, still awkwardly, and tried to settle onto the pillows. He realized he had been guarding Luca for ten years now, and Luca had never seen him when he wasn’t fully dressed and upright. Which of course was the way it was supposed to be. But it meant that to Luca, he was only a soldier, not a man at all. Which was the way it was supposed to be, too. Only it meant that Luca would have no reason to think of having mercy on him, any more than he would have mercy on his sword.

“How did you get those scars on your chest, Giaco?” Luca asked curiously. “They’re all over your shoulders and back, too. I didn’t know you had so many scars.”

“Cinquevie,” Giacomo said.

“That was the great battle that happened before I was born, wasn’t it? I’ve heard the other soldiers talking about it. They say that just when it seemed everything was lost, you led a great charge, even though you were just a simple foot soldier at the time, defeating countless men singlehandedly and saving the day. Is that true?”

“Something like that,” said Giacomo, pulling the covers up over his chest.

“Did the wounds hurt?”

“Afterwards,” said Giacomo.

“Badly?”

“Afterwards they hurt pretty bad,” said Giacomo, pulling the covers up to his chin and closing his eyes.

“But you got over it, didn’t you?” asked Luca, not taking the hint. “They stopped hurting, and now you’re a hero, and you have the scars to prove it, so it was all worth it!”

Giacomo sat back up. “For something like that, there is no ‘worth it,’ do you understand?” he said. “Some sacrifices are so terrible that there is nothing, nothing, that can balance out the scales on the other side. You don’t do things like that because they are ‘worth it.’ Something like that, you give as a gift, and then if you survive, you try to live with yourself afterwards. Afterwards, you walk around—if you survive—knowing you have broken yourself so that others could remain whole, and you hope that they use your gift wisely and well, because they can never repay you, even if they could ever know what it cost you. That’s what it means to be a hero. Do you understand?”

Luca nodded. “Go to sleep, Giaco,” he said, his voice full of tears. “I’ll watch over you tonight.”

***

That night Giacomo dreamed he was standing in front of the entrance to the catacombs in Fiori, and the stairs to the tower in Prado, and he knew he would never be free of the fear he had born for Luca’s sake. It took him what seemed like a very long time to wake up from the nightmare in which nothing was happening. When he did, he saw that Luca had fallen asleep in his chair, his head tipped back. His face had the same expression of trusting helplessness it had had when he was three. Shadows from the guttering candle on the table beside him were playing across it.

“Some guard,” Giacomo said softly, lifting his head from the pillow and smiling at him. Somehow he had ended up on his stomach with his head turned to one side, not his normal sleeping position. It had made his neck stiff, but he was still full of sleepy lassitude, and didn’t turn over. Part of him thought that if he didn’t move, he might sink back down into the bed and sleep for several more hours.

Luca twitched at the sound of Giacomo’s voice but didn’t wake. Another shadow appeared behind him.

“One cannot expect too much of him,” said the shadow in Sauro’s voice. “He is always to be the guarded, never the guard. It is his fate.”

“Fair enough,” said Giacomo. He propped himself up on his arms. He probably wasn’t going to get any more sleep for a while anyway. The stairs were just on the other side of the castle, and were never going to go away. “What are you doing here?” he asked.

“Waiting to return to my body and soul, which are currently lying in the next room, recovering. When you went up the stairs, I went up ahead of you. Marcellano’s flames hit me full on before they passed over you. My shadow caught the brunt of them, and passed the damage on to the rest of me, but it was even greater than I expected, and I was unable to give you any more help. I am sorry. You managed in the end, though. Not that anyone would have expected anything less.”

“You knew the flames would hit you when you went on ahead of me, and you went anyway,”’ said Giacomo.

“Of course. Didn’t you?”

“Yes, but I…You must have known even better than I did what was coming. How…” Giacomo trailed off. Even at night, in the semi-darkness, the very time for confessions, he was ashamed to ask what he wanted to know.

“How did I go on?”

“Yes,” said Giacomo, looking down at his pillow. “How did you make yourself face that? I would have…I thought I knew how terrible it would be when I started up the stairs, but if I had really known what it was going to be like, I wouldn’t have been able to go on. I would have turned and ran. Where…Where did you find your courage? Is it in your shadows? Because…Because I searched for it here,” he gestured at the world around him, “and in here,” he put his hand on his chest, “and I couldn’t find it. I thought I had an inexhaustible supply, but I was wrong. I used it all up, and I can’t find out where to get more.”

“You went up those stairs. You were able to find something when you really needed to.”

“Yes, but…”

“Listen, Giacomo,” said Sauro. “Since for once you are listening to me. Your mind must still be half-fuddled by sleep. But I will pretend that you are listening to me seriously. And maybe you are. Being awake is not necessarily the best state for understanding things. You Reborn men like to separate the world of dreams from what you call reality. But for me, what others call reality is only half a dream, missing all its colors. Beyond reality there is so much more, an inexhaustible supply of life. So when I went up those stairs ahead of you, I knew the flames were waiting for me, but I also knew that even if they caught me, they would only kill part of me. Maybe only my body would survive, or maybe my spirit, but something of me would go on.”

“But even so…” said Giacomo.

“But even so it took more strength than I knew I possessed to go up those stairs. Like you, Giacomo, I thought I was brave. I didn’t know that my courage was so small, so small. So know that you are not the only one broken on the inside. But I will tell that courage is like lifeblood: you can pour out so much of it, more than you would ever think possible, and if you still live, one day it will come back.”

“Most of it,” said Giacomo. “Not all.”

“Not all,” agreed Sauro. His shadow began moving restlessly around the room. “I must get back,” it said. “I am almost ready to wake up.”

“Who is watching over you?” Giacomo asked. “Has a guard been posted? One more reliable than my own?”

Sauro’s shadow laughed. “I have my own Royal guard, and I can guarantee that she will not fall asleep on her watch.”

“Adorata?”

“None other.”

“What will people say?”

“I made the same argument, when I found her sitting by my body’s bedside, and she said that she had paid her debt to duty already. No one else could be trusted at this post, she said. And there she sits.”

“She will make a fine ruler,” said Giacomo.

“So she will. And now I must go back.” Sauro’s shadow melted into the darkness in the far corner, and disappeared.

***

Giacomo was awakened the next morning by people coming into his room. Luca continued to sleep the sleep of the dead. Giacomo hoped the intruders weren’t coming to kill him, because he obviously wasn’t going to get much protection from his self-elected guard. He was still lying on his stomach, he found, and when he tried to turn over and see who it was, he groaned before he could stop himself.

“Giachino!” One of the people who had entered uninvited into his room was his mother. She rushed over to the bed. “You’re hurt!”

“Just tired,” he said into the pillow.

“You said when they wouldn’t let us in that we didn’t need to worry, he had come through unscathed,” his mother said reproachfully to the other uninvited visitor.

“And so he has.” The other voice belonged to Amanda. Giacomo buried his face into his pillow. He was undressed, immobile, filthy, and his mouth tasted terrible. Not his finest hour.

“At least let me get dressed,” he mumbled.

“Are you sure you can manage? Do you need help?” his mother asked anxiously.

Amanda laughed from somewhere on the other side of the room. “No!” said Giacomo firmly. He was acutely aware that he had kicked his covers most of the way off during the night, and that his back and one leg were exposed.

“Giachino! All those scars!” his mother exclaimed, not leaving.

“Just let me get dressed in privacy,” he said.

“But you can’t even get out of bed…”

“I think your Giacomo is trying to let us know that he is a modest man, and doesn’t want a couple of women to see him in, ahem, his natural state, even if one of them is his mother,” Amanda cut in. “There are clean clothes on the table beside you,” she told him. “I must go now. Princess Adorata wishes to speak with me, now that I have examined the poisoned wine, but she will probably be with you very shortly. Until we meet again.”

“Your cards…” Giacomo started to say.

“Keep them,” said Amanda. “That deck was never any good for reading anyone other than you, anyway.” She left.

“I’ll be waiting in the corridor,” said his mother. Giacomo heard the door open and close. He got painfully out of the bed and examined the clothes. They appeared to be from when he had last lived at his parents’ house, at least twenty years ago. Giacomo started to put them on. He could hardly pull his pants on, but the clothes still fit. Snugly, especially over the shoulders and chest, but at least he was decent now. He caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror. Or maybe not so decent. Luca was still sleeping on obliviously.

A quarter of an hour and a basin of water turned both Giacomo and Luca into something resembling awake and respectable. Luca apologized for falling asleep, but Giacomo told him not to worry about it, they were in the middle of a castle controlled by Luca’s sister, and therefore probably safe, except from attacks by women wanting to worry over them. The news that concerned mothers, sisters, and friends were roaming the hallways, ready at any moment to burst in and ascertain the state of their health, alarmed Luca greatly.

“Can’t we order them to leave us alone, Giaco?” he asked plaintively.

“No,” Giacomo told him, trying not to laugh. “It is our duty to reassure them that we are well, so stop complaining about it and face it like a man.”

Luca tried to pout at him from under his bangs, but Giacomo’s mother came in at that point and fussed over him so sympathetically that he was unable to continue his sulk and started talking to her eagerly about his adventures instead, stopping only when Giannini arrived to tell him that Adorata was waiting for him the next room.

“Such a fine boy,” said Giacomo’s mother when Luca had left. “You should be proud of him, Giachino.”

“I am.”

“When are you going to have some of your own? You’re not getting any younger, you know. Soon it will be too late.”

“My duty…” Giacomo began.

“Lots of men have duty, but it doesn’t stop them from having a family as well. Even your father managed to have a family, despite the calling he feels so deeply. Are you returning to Fiori today?”

“If they command it.”

“Write to us more often. We miss you, and we worry when we don’t hear from you. Even your father. I know you don’t think so, but he does, terribly. It’s not his fault that he never knows how to say the right thing. If you’re stronger than others, you have to learn to overlook their weaknesses.”

Giacomo was uncomfortably aware that the veil of kindness normally covering his mother’s tongue and eyes had dropped for a moment, and she was telling him of the hard path she had chosen, and that she had measured him and found him able to choose it too.

“I try,” he said.

“I know you do. Well, we might be seeing you more often from now on. They say that Adorata, as Count Fabio’s betrothed, is going to be made ruler of Prado, even though they were never married, and that she wants Luca to be fostered with her.”

“Who says this?” asked Giacomo.

“Well…Amanda. I don’t know if she read it in the cards, or just picked it up by listening. Either way, she’s most likely right. She normally is. By the way, she says that she has friends in Fiori, and goes there quite often to see them, and she promised that whenever she does, she will drop by to see you. I asked her to, because I know it’s hard for you to find time to write.”

“Oh,” said Giacomo, feeling both embarrassed and pleased, and trying to conceal his feelings from his mother. By the sharp look she gave him, he guessed he had failed.

There was a knock on the door. It was Giannini.

“Her Highness begs me to convey to you that she is sorry to disturb you, but she is sure the King and Queen are anxiously awaiting Prince Luca’s return. She wishes to see you before you leave. A carriage has already been made ready, with a full complement of guards. I chose them all myself, so you have nothing to fear on that score,” he added.

“I will be down directly,” Giacomo told him.

His mother clung to him and made him promise again to write before she let him go. Adorata received him in a room down the corridor.

“Sauro has returned to consciousness, I thought you would want to know,” she told him.

“I am glad,” said Giacomo. It was not even a lie.

“There may be unpleasant things ahead in Fiori, questions and accusations,” she warned him. “Please, if there are, remember that there is one member of my family who knows,” she faltered, “who appreciates what you have suffered on its behalf.” She stopped. “Sauro and I spoke at length this morning,” she said.

“I see.”

“About many things. Please, Giacomo, please remember that…” She stopped and swallowed. “The best courage is unseen,” she said in a rush. “Others will never know you carry it inside of you instead of on your sleeve, and may mock you for your lack of it, but it will be there when you truly need it. But I don’t have to tell you that. You know it better than I. I am sorry to be teaching you what you should be telling others. Goodbye for the moment. I am sure we shall see each other again shortly. It seems that Father was so impatient to be rid of me, he decided to give me my own city in order to get me out of Fiori. Being the ruler of Prado is perhaps not the safest position,” she smiled at him, “but it is still a better fate than I could have possibly hoped for. But enough about that. Luca is waiting for you in the other room. I know you cannot bear to have him out of your sight for long.”

“Thank you, your Highness.” Guards began to come in from other rooms and assemble around Giacomo. Their group carried him to where Luca was waiting for him, and then down to courtyard. The sun shone down brightly on the cobblestones, blinding Giacomo. He climbed into the carriage behind Luca, and watched with unseeing eyes as Prado rolled past him and turned into countryside. Luca was talking with the other guards in the carriage, but Giacomo couldn’t make out what they were saying. His mind was finally telling him that everything was over, and his body seemed to have gone somewhere beyond his control. All he could sense were the sun’s rays striking him and casting sharp shadows on the carriage wall. He raised up his unfeeling hands and looked at them. Skin and scars, veins and calluses, and one small cut. He could not see beneath his own surface. Whatever had happened to him had left only the faintest trace. To anyone else, it was as if it had never happened to him.

He let his eyes travel back out the carriage window. Everything was so bright, so real. And according to Sauro, that realness was only a thin film over things that were just as real, or more so. Just like Giacomo’s body was a thin film over all the thoughts and feeling inside that were what he would have called his real self, if someone had asked, and he had trusted them enough to answer.

He had no strength, but his head turned to look at Luca of its own accord. Luca was laughing loudly and trying to beat one of the guards in thumb wrestling. Every time he moved, the shadow under his skin moved almost, but not quite, with him. He carried it lightly, as if it weighed nothing and cost him no pain. Giacomo wondered if that were really true. He wondered what the shadow was sucking out of Luca with every breath, every heartbeat, and whether Luca ever wished he could be free of it.

Someday he, too, will know what it means to be a hero, Giacomo thought. Or a villain. I gave that to him. I saved him from others, and now it is up to him to save himself from himself, if it comes to that. I wonder what is more real to him now: shadow or flesh? Is this already all half a dream to him, to be burst like a bubble at any moment? Will he always be able to treat people’s lives so lightly, because he sees things beyond them, that they cannot? What kind of man will he become?

“Giaco, look!” Luca shook him by the shoulder. “Butterflies! Flying by the carriage!”

“I see them, your Highness.  Very beautiful.”

One of the guards tried to reach out and catch a butterfly, but Luca stopped him.

“Don’t hurt them!” he said angrily. “They need to be free. They say that good people’s souls come back as butterflies. Do you think that anyone we know is flying next to us right now? What kind of butterfly would you like to be? I’d like to be a big yellow and black one like that one over there. It looks like a little piece of sunshine come down to earth, don’t you think? With shadows across its wings. That’s the kind of butterfly I’m going to be someday.”

“I’m sure you’re right, your Highness,” said Giacomo.

END


© 2008 Elena Clark

Elena Clark is a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill, where she reads really, really long novels and studies obscure languages. She is also a keen football (soccer) fan and finds the pain of Chelsea's defeats in the Champions League to be extremely conducive to writing about these particular characters, for some reason. Her stories have most recently appeared in Brave Blue Mice, Silverthought, and "Arcane Whispers: The Best of Sorcerous Signals 2007."

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