Aphelion Issue 239, Volume 23
May 2019
 
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A Broken World Waits in Darkness

by Aiki Flinthart


"The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you.”― L.R. Knost




Fire flickered in grey stillness and I paused. The dim-lit art supply shop was just another tourist trap in Venice’s mind-bending streets, but I stopped anyway. Grocery bag handles cut into my fingers. Mike, Shoniqa, and Peyton would be waiting. Still, I stared at the feather-pen on display behind the plate glass window. Was it the reflections of passers-by that gave the illusion of movement, or my imagination?

In the doll’s-village street, people jostled each other and apologised – or not – in various languages; laughed, chattered, hurried with collars raised against the coffee-scented cold, and umbrellas clutched in gloved hands. Bright red jackets, or black with blue silk scarves. Stylish. Dragging suitcases. The clackity-clack of plastic wheels bounced off stone walls too weighed down by the centuries to stand straight.

I felt drab and invisible by comparison. My short blonde hair hidden under a utilitarian beanie. My nose reddened by the cold.

Someone bumped my shoulder and muttered, ‘Scusi.’

I stretched my lips into a thin smile. ‘My fault.’ But he was already too far away to hear. Then again, I’d always been invisible.

Underfoot, pigeons cooed and strutted – possibly trapped and unable to fly away in the narrow street, more likely content to stay and eat scraps forever. Flashes of iridescent purple amongst grey feathers hinted at ambitions for beauty and transformation. But perhaps that was just whimsy.

I sighed. I’d saved for four years to get to Venice, only to find that the city wore a gilded mask of foreign expectations painted over the dull reality of crumbling mortar and waterlogged basements. I ached to tear off the facade and find the passion beneath; to meet the real people – the ones with family here, roots deep into the mud, and hopes higher than the church-spires. But that could take a lifetime and I had only a week left. Disappointment welled like disturbed, murky canal sediment.

I closed my eyes and blocked out the chatter and footsteps, concentrating on the wind fluting across chimneys, the slosh of water in a nearby canal, the first bells chiming the hour. Imagining myself living here, part of the vibrancy beneath tourism’s superficiality. What I would give to stay, to just immerse myself, to write and write and never go back.

No. That was silly. I had family, a secure teaching job, a boyfriend who loved me.

I’d just have make do with the time I had. At least, with Peyton and Shoniqa along, I could afford this extra weeks’ accommodation. Mike had been thoughtful to invite my two best friends. Now that my conference and research was over, I could spend time with them and absorb the history and atmosphere at leisure.

My phone buzzed in the pocket of my baggy jeans. That would be Mike, checking on my whereabouts; making sure I hadn’t forgotten anything on his list. As if I would, after all these years of meticulous reminders. It buzzed again so I lowered the grocery bags and pulled it out to send an acknowledgement. He wouldn’t quit, otherwise.

I had everything, except the wine he wanted. That was my last stop. Then home. How quickly an apartment became ‘home’ in a foreign place – complete with cooking and cleaning. Still, after I made dinner, I could write the last scene of the romance book that paid the bills then make a start on the fantasy novel. Up on the cold rooftop deck, overlooking the red-tiled roofs, and a thousand years of history. Alone. Unburdened by a To Do list for once.

Maybe.

The shop door behind me opened with a brassy little tinkle of the bell dangling above. A small man emerged, his face obscured by a low cap. He stuffed a silk-wrapped parcel into a pocket, drew thin gloves over green-stained fingers and brushed past without speaking. I snatched up my bags and apologised, surprised. The darkened shop was open?

A woman, who held the door ajar, smiled and gestured. I found myself inside without quite knowing how. The woman swept back a lock of waist-length grey hair and wiped her hands on a patchwork apron. Beneath it she wore a loose red blouse and dark purple skirt, reminiscent of a Renaissance peasant outfit. From a doorway behind a beaded curtain, faint strains of gypsy music drifted into the room, along with a hint of camphor.

I smiled politely. This place had tourist written all over it. But some of the watercolours on the walls weren’t half-bad, even if they were all the standard images of Venice: the Rialto, the Piazza, the Cathedral. The shop was warm and smelled of paper and paints, reminding me so sharply of my mother’s studio that I had to put down the bags and wipe at my eyes.

‘Can I help you?’ The shopkeeper’s English was broken and heavily-accented.

Inadvertently, I glanced at the window display. I couldn’t afford it, but would it hurt to look? I pointed at the scarlet feather.

The woman hesitated and scrubbed her palms down her skirt again. Then she shrugged, reached over the top of the display and gathered up the item in gentle hands.

I stroked the feather reverently. Nestled in its white-velvet-lined box, together with a set of coloured-ink cartridges that would fit inside the thick quill, the pen cried out to be used in the crafting of a masterpiece. The feather shimmered. Purples, oranges, and peacock-blues slipped like fire and oil over the blood-coloured vanes.

‘It’s beautiful,’ I murmured. But utterly impractical.

Everything I wasn’t.

The shopkeeper tilted her head inquiringly.

‘Bellissimo,’ I translated. The woman nodded, but her dark brows pulled together.

I pointed at the feather. ‘What kind of bird?’ I searched my high school Italian vocabulary, determined not to use Google Translate. ‘Uccello? Bird? Che tipo di uccello?’

The woman’s brow cleared. ‘Fenice.’ She flapped her arms, pointing to her elbow. ‘Fenice piuma.’ She wagged a finger and smiled mischievously. ‘Badare. Stregato. Scrive ciò che il tuo cuore detiene.’

I chewed my lip and stroked the feather once more. Piuma was feather and fenice must be the name of a bird. Something red and big. Maybe a macaw. Most of the rest was unfamiliar, but cuore was heart and scrive must be write.

‘Write from the heart?’ I hazarded.

‘Si,’ the woman said, nodding. She tapped her own chest. ‘Cuore.’

I stared at the box. ‘I shouldn’t. I’d have to buy cheaper wine and Mike will be annoyed.’


*****



I emerged from the shop elated and guilty, at once. I really shouldn’t have. Funds were so tight with Mike still at university. But I worked hard. I deserved a little indulgence.

Across the street, the dark-wood-and-grapevines interior of a café called. Mike could wait just a few minutes for his wine. With a sigh of relief, I sank into a corner table and ordered an espresso.

I smoothed a sheet of the thick, crackling paper the shopkeeper had added to the purchase, and plucked the feather from its nest-box. In the warm café lights, crimson and gold played along its length. I swept the soft tip across my cheek and neck, closing my eyes in sensual delight. A frisson of warmth tingled up my arm, into my chest, and I shivered. The faintest scent of woodsmoke teased my nose.

Yes. This was the way to write a fantasy story: sitting in a Venetian café, using a quill. Excitement knotted, low in my chest. I touched nib to paper. As the ink flowed, so did the opening scene between Alderion, time-thief, and Rhenna, swordsmith; perfect and easy. Not a word needed to be changed. At the end of the scene, I re-read it, blew gently on the ink then hugged the paper to my chest, where it fluttered with the staccato of my heart. This was going to be the best trip ever. Tucking the paper and feather carefully into my bag, I rose, ready to handle anything.


*****



A few minutes later, I struggled up the four flights of worn marble steps to the Airbnb loft apartment. My fingers ached with cold and the weight of the bags. My thighs burned. I really needed to exercise more. Maybe if Mike would do a little more around the house… I laughed shortly and shoved the antique key into the lock.

‘I’m back,’ I called, closing the thick oak door behind. Laughter and chatter came from the living room. ‘Hey guys, I’m back.’ I turned sideways, shuffling down the narrow, polished-timber hall.

Emerging into the living room, with its vaulted ceiling of blackened beams and stark, white walls, I dropped the bags and flexed my fingers.

Mike twisted on the couch and lifted a glass of red wine. ‘Hey, Kath. Just in time. We’re about out of supplies. Can you pass me the cheese?’

‘I haven’t even unpacked, yet,’ I said.

He sipped. ‘As soon as you find it, then. No rush.’

Shoniqa nibbled on a cracker and put her bare brown feet up on Mike’s lap, her head on Peyton’s shoulder. Her frizzy dark hair tangled with Peyton’s sleekly-straightened blonde locks. Mike stroked her foot and she hummed a noise of pleasure.

‘That’s so nice. My feet are killing me after traipsing around the palace this morning.’

‘Is it still cold out, Kathy?’ Peyton asked, looking up from her phone.

I hefted the bags onto the kitchen counter. ‘Freezing and stuffed with people. Must be another cruise ship in dock. Crazy out there.’

‘Did you get the wine?’ Mike held his half-empty glass up. A sunbeam speared through the red liquid. Blood-light fluttered and trembled on the white wall.

‘They didn’t have the one you wanted.’ I placed a bottle and a wheel of the blue-vein he liked on the coffee table. ‘Sorry.’ I suppressed a tremor of guilt and smiled apologetically.

‘You should have tried another shop,’ he said, studying the fresh bottle critically. ‘This looks a bit cheap.’

‘I know.’ I returned to the small kitchen. ‘But like I said – crazy-full of people today. I…I guess I can go back out, if you like.’

Mike opened his mouth, but Peyton cut in with a dismissive wave of one hand. ‘You’ll survive, Mike, and the change will do you good. You’re too anal. Do you need a hand with dinner, Kath?’

I cast her a grateful look and shook my head.

‘Sorry, babe,’ Mike said. ‘It’ll be fine. We can get the other one tomorrow.’ He opened the bottle, poured some for himself and Shon then held it out to Peyton. She waved it away. Mike made a laughing comment that she needed to keep up. He sniffed the wine, screwed up his nose, then chugged half his glass.

‘It’ll do,’ he said. ‘What’s for dinner?’

‘Pasta,’ I said. ‘We’re in Italy.’

Mike laughed. ‘Well, the wine’ll definitely do for your pasta.’

Shoniqa giggled. Peyton pressed her lips together but said nothing. I stoically finished putting away the groceries and let the joking banter wash by, my thoughts on the box in my bag.

When Mike opened a third bottle of wine after dinner, I pleaded work and retreated with my bag and laptop to the bedroom. The roof deck would have been quieter, but a light drizzle made that impossible. So I sat, crosslegged under the quilt, with my back against the bedhead, a pile of cushions on my lap and a tray on top of that.

I extracted the quill pen and admired its shimmer in the bedlamp’s buttery glow. my current, paid, work in progress was due to the editor in two days and I was stuck on the climactic lovemaking scene that would finally bring the lovers together. Sex scenes were always the most difficult to get right. Perhaps the pen would add spice. After all, it was a historical romance. Only fitting that it be finished with a quill pen.

Now…to throw Jane into Lord Haverley’s manly arms. The nib scraped a black line onto the thick paper.

Shoniqa’s sultry voice drifted down the hall, echoed by Mike’s shout of laughter.

Absorbed in the elegance of the Regency era, I let the words flow without re-reading for a good ten minutes. The scratch of the nib and the rustle of paper under my fingers sated some long-unrecognised itch in my soul. Light danced along the feather vanes like flames licking a burning log.

Finally, I carefully wiped the nib clean before laying it aside. This scene felt good, too. It felt right. Now, to see if it read well.

Jane dropped the grocery bags to the floor and glared at Lord Haverley. ‘I am not your slave. You want different wine, go get it yourself.’

‘Aw, c’mon, babe,’ Haverley whined in that childish, manipulative tone that always got on her nerves. ‘You could have gone to another shop.’

‘Fuck you,’ Jane said. ‘I’m done.’ She snatched up her bag and strode from the room.


I gasped and dropped the paper like it burnt. What the hell? That was not what I’d written. Where was the sizzling love scene? I frowned and read the words again. The scene continued, with Jane packing her bags and leaving on a ferry to the mainland. So not what I’d written.

I glanced at the feather, glimmering in the light. No. That made no sense. It was just a feather.

Flipping open my laptop, I called up a translation app and typed in Write from the heart. The Italian phrase contained the right words, but had the shopkeeper said that? She’d said other things. What were they? Bernice, Darnice? Nope.

I closed the lid, cursing my unreliable memory. No. It must just be some…suppressed emotion. This whole trip had been more stressful than I’d expected, with Shon and Pey along, and Mike fussing over every arrangement I made.

Still…I studied the feather dubiously. Maybe best to finish the love scene on the laptop. my editor would be annoyed if the submission was late.

A shriek from the lounge area startled me. Shoniqa. Mike’s voice joined in. It sounded like they were singing and Mike shouted ‘Wahooo!’ What the heck?

I put the laptop aside and clambered out of bed. I wrapped a robe over my pyjamas and pattered into the living area.

Mike and Shoniqa were dancing an energetic polka around the small space, while Peyton looked on with a thoughtful smile. Peyton spotted me and gestured me over.

‘Mike just got a text from the uni.’

I sucked a quick breath. ‘He got accepted into the PhD program?’

Peyton nodded. ‘Seems pretty happy about it.’

‘Yes,’ I said, watching them cavort. Shoniqa laughed up at Mike, eyes sparkling and teeth white against rich teak skin.

Mike broke away and grabbed my hands. Excitement and wine flushed his pale face bright pink. Red veins threaded his blue eyes and his blond hair stood out in all directions, as though he’d been dragging his fingers through it – as he was wont to do when he was worked up.

‘I got it, Kath! I got in and my topic has been approved.’

I smiled and squeezed his hands. ‘I’m so glad, Mike. You’ve worked hard and you deserve it. In three years, you’ll be Doctor Michael Hobson and there will be companies falling over themselves to hire you.’

He grinned, then his face fell. ‘Oh, but it does mean we’ll have to cut the holiday short. My prof wants me back by Monday to plan a schedule. He’s right. I’ve seen too many PhD candidates fail because of lack of planning. Not gonna be me.’ He kissed my forehead then peered blearily at me. ‘I’m really sorry, babe. That’s ok, isn’t it?’

I gripped my hands together and swallowed a surge of bitterness. Then acceptance, familiar and comfortable, doused the unaccustomed burn of resentment. Of course it was ok. We were a team and this was big for him. My conference was over and I’d done all the research for my next book – which were the official reasons I’d come. The next week was just a holiday, after all. It didn’t matter. Really.

‘Sure,’ I said. ‘It’s just a holiday and this is your career. I’m proud of you.’

He grinned and kissed me, tasting of wine and the revolting mustiness of blue cheese. ‘You’re the best, babe.’

Shoniqa handed him a drink and he turned away, toasting his success with a clink of glasses and a glittering splash of red wine on the rug.

Then he stopped in mid sip, eyes widening. ‘Hey, Kath? I just realised – the return flights. You’ll take care of them? I’ve got so much else to organise. You can handle that, can’t you? You don’t mind?’

I nodded, not trusting my voice. I caught Peyton looking gravely at me and managed a bright little smile. Then I returned quietly to bed. I’d rebook flights in the morning. Maybe I could get a partial refund on the accommodation.

But I’d need to finish that love scene tonight, otherwise days of travel would mean a missed deadline and I couldn’t afford to lose the publisher’s good will. There were a million women trying to make it as romance authors these days. I needed the money. Even with twenty books out, I still had to work full time to make ends meet and support Mike while he slogged through uni.

I brightened. But once he had his doctorate and a good job, he’d promised I could quit work and just write. Then Alderion and Rhenna’s story would come into its own.

Half an hour’s work on the laptop produced a love scene for Jane and Haverley, though it was so dry and stilted I almost wished it was on paper so I could tear it up. But, as the saying went, a crap scene could be edited, a non-existent one couldn’t.

Sighing, I sent the manuscript off, put the computer away, and switched out the light. I fell asleep to laughter not mine and barely noticed when Mike finally stumbled into bed.


*****



I woke early, to the delicious chime of bells across the city and fingers of rosy light curling around the blockout blinds. Beside me, Mike lay sprawled, still dressed, snoring. No point in trying to wake him.

I rose, dressed, and gathered what I needed for the day. I would go out and make the most of what time I had left. Maybe today the Rialto – which I’d been avoiding because of the mad crowds – would be worth a visit.

On impulse, I tucked the paper and quill into my bag. Rather than lug my laptop around, I could write in a café and add to that first scene.

The living room was flooded with pink light from two windows that overlooked the canal and neighbouring roofs. It was also a mess of half-eaten cheese, unwashed plates and glasses, and broken crackers, crushed into the rug.

I set about cleaning up as quietly as possible. Mike was a bear when he had a hangover. Best not to wake him.

When the place was clean, I hesitated, unsure what to do next. I ought to stay. Wait and see if they needed anything. They would be feeling awful and wouldn’t want to go out. I could get some writing done and rebook flights, here in the quiet living room.

Jane’s words, scrawled in black ink on yellowed paper, popped into my head. Fuck you. I smiled faintly. I wrote a note on the fridge whiteboard and left. There was still enough food in the fridge. They could cope for a few hours, surely.


*****



It was still early enough that only hardy tourists, and a few savvy shopkeepers opening for the breakfast trade, were about. The air was sharp, the sky clean and blue for the first time in a week. I strode out, enjoying the relative emptiness of the backways, comfortable in the little section of Venice I now knew well.

When I reached the Rialto, I dutifully admired and photographed the canal view: glittering water, elaborate marble architecture, ferries and gondolas. A pretty face the Venice of three hundred years before had presented to the world. Just a different kind of façade. I wanted something more interesting, so I continued over the bridge and chose a street at random.

Lilting strains of Vivaldi drifted over the rattle of storefronts opening and I stopped, trying to pinpoint the source. It came from a nearby cathedral; desanctified, by the lack of crosses and insignia. Old, by it’s simple design and worn stonework. Signs out front were for a music concert.

I peeked around the iron-studded oak door and slid into the dim, lofty interior. The music grew louder, but there were no musicians in sight. Just a reception desk and a series of cabinets containing exquisite antique instruments. I studied a viol, envious. I’d played violin for years, only giving up when we needed money for Mike’s university and had to sell everything of value. Maybe I could take it up again one day, soon.

Summer wrapped seductively around me and I picked up a brochure advertising a concert that evening. Impulsively, I bought two tickets. It would be nice to have an evening out, just with Mike, before we left. We could do dinner near the venue. Have some time without Peyton and Shoniqa. Rekindle a little romance.

Smiling, I tucked the tickets away and wandered out in search of hot chocolate.


*****



At a quiet outdoor café, I stirred a chocolate so thick my spoon stood up.

My phone buzzed. A text from my father, in Australia, checking in. I sent back a selfie with the hot chocolate. Another text popped up. From Mike. Written late last night. I hadn’t heard it. Or the patchy reception meant it hadn’t come through until now.

Hve u rebked the flights yet?

Seriously? He’d been ten steps away in the living room but he’d texted? I hesitated, my fingers poised over the letters N and O. But he would still be asleep. I switched the phone off and shoved it deep into my bag. This was my last morning. My time.

My fingers brushed the quill and I pulled it out, determined to write the next fantasy novel scene. But Mike’s face lingered in my thoughts and the hot chocolate only masked the taste of resentment on the back of my tongue. My fingers tingled with warmth as I wrote, even though cold bit through my clothing.

Done, I re-read the scene, pen poised to cross out and correct, expecting imperfection this time.

Rhenna gripped Alderion’s hands and stared at his flushed face. He grinned stupidly, his head bobbling like one of those irritating dashboard figures. His breath reeked of wine.

‘Let me get this straight,’ she said, her voice low and hard. ‘You want me to cancel my holiday. The first holiday I’ve had for six years. The holiday I paid for with my teaching wages. So you can have another three years at university, living off my hard work, telling me what to do, and leaving your shit lying around my house like a badly-trained five-year-old?’

‘You don’t mind, do you, babe?’ he said fatuously. ‘It’s really important.’

Rhenna dragged her sword free of its scabbard and plunged the iron deep into his body. ‘Actually, Ald, I do mind. I do fucking mind.’


I choked on a sip of chocolate, spattering muddy sweetness across the page of bitter dialogue. I grabbed a napkin, dabbing at the spray, smearing it. The words remained sharp and clear. my hand slowed as I read the passage again.

The image gave a deep, visceral satisfaction; horrifying and fascinating in equal measures. The bloodied sword protruding from Alderion’s body. His lifeless form crumpled, oozing at my feet – at Rhenna’s feet. Spatters of scarlet dripping on the cobbles.

‘Oh, my God.’ I stared at the glistening red feather, pinching it between two fingertips. ‘What the hell is this thing?’ I shoved it back into my bag, with the paper, and half-ran from the café. The woman at that art shop. There must be some logical explanation she could provide.


*****



I retraced my steps from the apartment to the grocery store, peering into every shop along the way. So many looked the same. Electronic gadgets, masks, restaurants, cafes, multi-coloured glassware, stationery. But none were the shop I was looking for. I stopped, hands on hips, glaring down the narrow street. This was ridiculous. There were no such things as magic shops that disappeared after selling a cursed item.

I turned back, thinking my way through yesterday’s return journey. Oh! Yes, I’d turned right here instead of left. There it was: the window now full of feather-pens and hand-made paper, watercolours and art supplies. A twist of fear dissolved into relief and I pushed confidently through the tinkling door.

A man emerged through the beaded curtain. He smiled and I temporarily forgot why I’d come. His face was angular, with deep-set chocolate eyes and a thin nose, and his smile could light fires.

‘Buongiorno,’ he said.

‘Um…’ I shook myself and dug out the feather. He frowned and glanced sharply at me.

‘Where did you get that?’ His English boarding-school accent took me by surprise.

I waved the feather vaguely. ‘There was an older woman here yesterday. In a red shirt. Long grey hair. She sold it to me. But it’s…’ How on earth did I explain without sounding insane? I tugged the papers from my bag and brandished them. ‘Look. Read.’

He frowned over the three scenes, reading each one carefully. ‘And?’ He handed them back.

‘This one…’ I pointed at the first fantasy scene. ‘It’s perfect. Not a mistake in it.’

‘This is good, si?’ He shrugged.

‘But these ones.’ I waved the other two. ‘The women…they’re…me. At least. They’re what I…No. That sounds wrong. They’re doing what I…’ I sighed and dropped my arms heavily to my sides. ‘What am I doing here? You have no idea what I’m talking about.’

The bead curtain swayed and clacked. The older woman appeared, hair loose, her clothing a patchwork of gaudy, mismatched colours and cloths. She smiled serenely.

‘Mama,’ the man said. Then he launched into rapidfire Italian, gesturing at me and the feather. The woman lifted her brows and her chin. At last he wound down and she threw her arms wide, replying with some heat, ending with a scornful sniff.

The man turned back and gave a shallow bow. He held out a hand. ‘My mother apologises. She should not have sold that to you. I’ll give you a full refund – or you can choose another. Please.’ He waved a hand around to indicate the shop.

I clutched the feather and papers to my breast. ‘No! I don’t want a refund or a replacement. I just want to know how it works. Yesterday I thought she said I had to write from the heart. Is that what she said?’

He scratched at the back of his head, grimacing. Then he stepped past me, locked the door and pulled the shade down. I gasped and retreated a few steps.

‘Scusami,’ he said. ‘I don’t mean to frighten you. I’m Matteo. This is my mother, Lucia. I just don’t want interruptions.’

‘You’re not going to take it away?’ I eyed them suspiciously.

He shook his head. Lucia spoke few quick sentences.

‘She says it cannot be taken, only given or sold. If it’s taken, it will find its way back to you,’ he added. ‘And she asks what your name is.’

‘Katherine.’

‘Caterina,’ he said to his mother, who smiled beatifically and nodded, speaking again.

‘She says,’ Matteo continued, ‘that you needed the feather. That you’re a good writer, but you’ve locked the best of yourself away and this will bring it out.’

I gaped. ‘How…I never said I was a writer.’

He gave a lopsided smile. ‘It’s an easy guess. Only writers buy our quill pens. She’s not magic.’ He glanced at the quill.

I followed his gaze. ‘But this is?’

Lucia patted my own breast. ‘Fenice piuma. Stregato. Scrive ciò che il tuo cuore detiene.’

‘She said that yesterday,’ I said. ‘What does it mean?’

Matteo sighed and ran his fingers through his dark hair. ‘She thinks it’s enchanted. The feather of a phoenix. She says it writes what you hold in your heart. Nothing more, nothing less.’

‘A phoenix feather?’ I scoffed, laughing. ‘There’s no such thing.’

Lucia drew herself up, looking down her nose. She gestured and led the way through the curtain, into the back room. Matteo smiled wryly.

‘She must like you. She never shows anyone who’s not a customer the back room.’

I frowned at him. ‘But I—’

He held up a hand. ‘Not a er…regular customer I should have said. Come. It’s ok. She’s a little eccentric, but not dangerous, I promise.’ He flashed that charming smile and I found myself smiling back.

In the dim-lit back room, the overpowering scent of mint and camphor made me cough and blink.

‘Sorry,’ Matteo said. ‘Helps to keep the vermin from the herbs.’ He nodded at the shelves. Floor to ceiling, the room was lined with hundreds of small, meticulously-labelled wooden drawers of all sizes. Bunches of dried plant hung in neat rows from the rafters. A bench along one wall held three mortars and pestles plus a stash of brown envelopes and lengths of plain silk, hessian, cotton and linen.

I turned in a circle, awed. ‘It’s like an old apothecary store.’

‘Si!’ Lucia grinned. ‘Ammaliatrice. Erbe aromatiche.’

Matteo shrugged. ‘She says she’s a herb-witch. This shop has been in the family for five hundred years. Passed down mother to daughter. The skills for curing all manner of diseases with it. She’s the last, though. No daughters.’ He gave a sheepish grin. ‘Or even daughters-in-law.’

I chose to ignore that and peered closer at a drawer label. Menta, Aconito, Lavanda. They were obvious – mint, aconite, and lavender. Then there was Artiglio di manticora. Something of the manticore. Another drawer read capelli di driade. Capelli was hair. Hair of a dryad? Seriously? I looked at the feather in my fingers. Even in this dark room tongues of orange and purple flickered from nib to tip. In fact, the feather seemed to glow faintly, lighting my hand an eerie orange-yellow. Phoenix feather? No. That was plain crazy. Just some LED lighting trick, for sure.

I hesitated. Perhaps I should return it. The words that came from it were…wrong. Unthinkable. But the fantasy scene…that was so good; just as I’d imagined. If the rest came out as perfectly, the book would be a best-seller. How could I give that up? But I loved Mike. I didn’t wish any harm on him. What would he say if he ever read such words? He would be devastated.

I held the feather out to Lucia. The older woman smiled sadly and shook her head. She curled my fingers around the quill and pressed warm palms over my hand. Lucia spoke a short sentence, her gaze unwavering.

Matteo cleared his throat. ‘She says you’re not ready to return it, yet. If you still want to return it tomorrow, then bring it back.’

Lucia patted my hand and moved to the bench where she began grinding something sweetly-pungent. Matteo led me through the shop and opened the front door.

‘Why tomorrow?’ I asked. ‘I’ll be leaving Venice. Going back to Australia. I might not have time tomorrow.’

‘Then you will keep it,’ he said, simply. ‘It’s just a feather. You will remember Venice and it will inspire your work.’

I gazed at him shrewdly. ‘Do you honestly think it’s just a feather?’

He gave a twisted smile. ‘I’ve seen my mother work minor miracles with her medicines, but I’ve never seen her do magic. I think, perhaps, it may work as…what is it called? A placebo. Her words about the quill are just an excuse to release your true feelings.’

I shivered. My true feelings. What sort of monster was I to think such things about the man I’d lived with for nine years? The man I was going to marry. He loved me and I was imagining stabbing him?

Matteo ushered me out the door and shook my hand. ‘Ciao. I hope we meet again, soon.’

Lucia’s voice called from behind and he smiled.

‘She says she hopes you enjoy the concert tonight. Addio.’ He lifted a hand and closed the door. The lock snicked and the blind dropped down while I was still gaping at the place where he’d stood.

Blindly, I headed home.


*****



‘Where have you been?’ Mike grabbed me by the arms and pulled me into a hard hug. ‘I’ve been so worried. You’ve been gone all day. You didn’t answer your phone.’

I frowned. ‘I wasn’t gone that long. You were sound asleep, anyway. What time is it?’ His eyes were still bleary and his breath rank, so he couldn’t have been awake long.

He led the way into the lounge room, where Peyton stood, staring out the window and Shoniqa lay, sprawled on the couch, heavy-eyed and yawning. Peyton hurried over.

‘You’re back. You had us worried. Are you ok?’ She inspected my face and hugged me. ‘It’s three o’clock. Where have you been?’

‘Really?’ I looked at the wall clock. Three o’clock. Surely it had only been around eleven when I walked into the art shop. Come to think of it, I was awfully hungry. ‘I was just…wandering. I did some writing. Must have lost track of time. My phone battery went flat.’ I stopped myself from blathering any more and smiled. ‘Totally fine. Sorry to worry you.’

Mike flung himself down on a couch and groaned. ‘My head’s killing me. I’ve been so stressed I didn’t even think about rebooking flights or dinner or anything. Kath, did you sort the flights?’

‘No,’ I said, rummaging in the fridge. I hesitated, then added, ‘There aren’t any free seats until Thursday.’ It was an outright lie and I wondered at my own daring. My cheeks burned so I pressed a cold drink to my skin.

‘Thursday!’ He sat up. ‘I have to be on campus on Monday. That’s not going to give me enough time. I knew I should have done it myself.’

‘Well,’ I replied, ‘I’m sure something will come up. I’ll check again tomorrow.’

Mike frowned. ‘What’s up with you? You’re usually the one getting all bent out of shape if our plans go pear-shaped.’

I plucked out an apple and closed the fridge door. ‘Actually, that’s you, not me. Anyway, while we’re here, I got two tickets to a Vivaldi concert tonight. Played on early instruments at a cathedral over the other side of the Piazza.’ I checked my watch. ‘Starts in two hours so we have time to go to dinner.’

‘Dinner and a concert?’ He struggled to his feet and made a moue of disappointment. ‘I’m not really feeling up to it, babe. I have a headache and we need to book the flights. This is pretty important. My whole future depends on getting back in time.’ He gave me a winsome smile – the kind that always squirrelled its way past my defences – and slid his arms around my waist. ‘C’mon, babe. I need your help. You don’t want me to screw up my first day with the prof, do you?’

I wavered. He did need me. He wasn’t capable of sorting out the petty day-to-day stuff. His mind was on bigger things; more important things. My time would come in just a few short years.

Rhenna dragged her sword free of its scabbard and plunged the iron deep into his body. ‘Actually, Ald, I do mind. I do fucking mind.’

I studied the soft familiarity of his pale face for a long moment then kissed his cheek. ‘You’re right. If you’re not feeling well, you should go back to bed. I’ll go out and get some dinner and paracetamol, then sort out the flights when I get back.’ I turned to Peyton, who was watching us, her brows lifted. ‘Want to come for a walk?’

Peyton sent Shoniqa a quick, questioning look. Shoniqa sighed and closed my eyes.

‘Don’t look at me. I’m going back to bed, too.’

‘Er…you sure, Kath?’ Peyton asked.

‘Please.’

Peyton hesitated, then nodded and dragged on her boots and coat.

‘I’ve just got to grab something from my room,’ I said. ‘Give me a sec.’

I ducked into the bedroom and rummaged through my suitcase. I shoved a couple of essential items into my bag, then pulled out the crimson feather and a piece of paper. I smoothed the paper and held the pen, poised. A tingling warmth snaked its way from my fingertips to my groin. I savoured the taste of woodsmoke, smiled, and wrote a short sentence.

Once the feather was safely back in my bag, I joined Peyton and waved goodbye to Mike and Shoniqa. We walked in silence down the stairs, boots clattering on the marble. Outside, in the narrow alley, I paused and drew a deep breath. The sun barely skimmed the horizon but my breath already frosted in the chill early evening air.

I tucked my hand into Peyton’s arm and grinned. ‘Where shall we go to dinner?’

‘Wait, what?’ Peyton blinked at me and stumbled as I turned right at the end of the alley. ‘Dinner? I thought we were going to the pharmacy.’

‘Oh, yes,’ I said, ‘there’s an apothecary I must show you. First, I want dinner. I’m starving. Somewhere with free wifi, though. I have to do some stuff on the laptop. Then I want to go to that Vivaldi concert. You still play cello, don’t you?’

‘Well, yes, but—’

‘You’ll love it. You should see some of the old instruments in their museum. Just gorgeous.’ I sighed. ‘I miss my violin.’

We stepped off an arched bridge and Peyton stopped abruptly. ‘What the hell is going on, Kath? I’ve known you since we were eighteen – what’s that, eight years? – and you’re acting super-weird right now.’

I laughed and shook my head. ‘Nothing.’ I dragged Peyton into the Piazza.

‘No, I mean it, Kath.’ Peyton wrenched free. ‘You do know what’s going on at the apartment right now, don’t you?’

I stopped, my heart lodging in my throat. ‘Don’t, Pey.’

Peyton grabbed my arms. ‘You must have seen the way they look at each other. I came along hoping I could play chaperone and stop anything happening, but I think it was too late before this trip.’

With a sigh, I sank onto a stone bench. ‘I know. Well, I suspected. I didn’t want to know, really.’

Peyton dropped onto the bench with a thud, mouth open. ‘You knew? How long?’

I shrugged. ‘About six months. It wasn’t until I saw them together, here, that I was really sure.’

‘And you didn’t say anything? To him? To me, even?’

‘What was to say? Every time I thought about confronting him, all I could see was the complications, our history, and the way he could always wheedle his way out of anything. Convince me he was right and I was wrong.’ I laughed bitterly and tucked a loose strand of hair behind my ear. I stared across the Piazza at the colonnaded walkways and the warmly lit, expensive shops. ‘I guess I was hoping it was a phase and he’d grow out of it. That he really did love me, not her. Stupid, huh?’

Peyton gripped my hand. ‘No. We’re all guilty of being wilfully blind and dumb sometimes. Of wanting things to be different. But what are you going to do? You can’t keep going like this. I can see what it’s doing to you. You’re miserable.’

I tightened my hold on Peyton’s fingers and gave her a determined smile. ‘You’re right. I can’t. So right now, we’re going to dinner. Then, while we’re at dinner, I’m going to change Mike’s flights to tomorrow. But I’ll also transfer all my money out of the joint accounts, cancel the apartment lease, and get Dad to clear the place out. Then I’m going to stay here for another couple of weeks.’ I glanced over my shoulder in the direction of the apothecary’s store.

Peyton covered her mouth, eyes wide. ‘You’re not! But what will you tell him when you get back tonight?’

‘Oh, I’m not going back,’ I said. ‘I left him a note. He’ll get it when he finally goes into our bedroom.’

‘What did you write?’

‘Just something simple, from the heart. It says While you were fucking her, I was fucking you.’

Peyton’s laugh rang out across the piazza, startling a dozen pigeons. The birds flew free from the shadows and, in the last rays of the dying sun, their feathers turned to fire.



THE END


© 2019 Aiki Flinthart

Bio: Aiki lives in Brisbane, Australia and tries not to let the myriads of bitey things worry her. She has had short stories published in various e-mags and anthologys, and short-listed in the Australian Aurealis Awards, and in the USA Writers of the Future Competition. She has 11 published speculative fiction novels with more to come. When not writing and running a fulltime business, she practices martial arts, lute, archery, and knife-throwing. Occasionally she sleeps.

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