I hope everyone had a wonderful Valentine’s Day! Maybe you had a wonderful Friend Day, as they say in Finland, by eschewing all the marketing around yet another over-commercialized holiday, but that’s okay too. That’s what I did. And if you went out and had a super-romantic experience, well, the rest of us will try not to be too envious.
My health continues up and down, although once I went off my B12 supplement the anxiety and panic attacks that had been plaguing me started to recede. It turns out that B12, like all the other B vitamins, does not mix well with me. It was like I was mainlining espresso all the time, which is not actually a very fun experience. I’ve been off a week and I’m slowly getting clean, so fingers crossed that that continues.
Spending a few weeks in a state of increasingly surreal fear was certainly eye-opening. Unfortunately, it was something I’d already had my eyes opened to before, so I could have done without it *again*. But it did renew my interest in a collection of stories I started more than 10 years ago, which among other things are about extreme fear. I keep meaning to finish and publish, them, so I’ve promised myself that it will happen this spring!
I’m still thinking about what I’m going to do with the final story, but here for your delectation is an excerpt from the first story. It’s set in a kind of Renaissance Florence, and features the bodyguard of the younger prince of the ruling family. Magic has fallen out of favor with the new craze for reason, but just because something is irrational, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist…
“The Shadowy Man” (Excerpt)
“We’ll leave the portcullis up until you get back, Giacomo,” the guards at the gate told him as he left for the tavern. The portcullis normally came down for the night at the tenth hour, and anyone who hadn’t come back by then had to find alternate sleeping quarters, but there was some flexibility allowed the more senior men.
“No,” he told them. “Lower it. Lower it now. I have a key to the catwalk door. Tell whomever’s on duty there to expect me.”
“It’s only the eighth hour,” the guards at the gate protested.
“We can’t be too careful with the del Sole delegation arriving,” Giacomo said. The gate guards looked dubious, but as he walked away he heard the portcullis come clanking down behind him.
The castles were lit with hundreds of flickering torches that made strange shifting patterns on the walls and streets. The nobles’ houses around them had torches outside their doors, allowing a passer-by to move easily enough from pool to pool of light. As Giacomo left the rich part of town behind and drew closer to the tavern, though, he had to rely on his lantern. A drunken man would have no problem imagining followers in the shadows.
The Hunter’s Rest was a pleasant-enough tavern that sold cheap local wine and was consequently a great favorite amongst the guards. Once upon a time it had been on the edge of town and hunters had come there to sell their catches, but now it was firmly inside the city and hunters never came there at all.
Giacomo was not a great frequenter of taverns, but the proprietor of The Hunter’s Rest was not the kind of man who would fail to recognize Prince Luca’s personal bodyguard and tutor. He immediately offered Giacomo the seat of his choosing and a glass of his best wine, on the house. Giacomo took up a position at the bar and tasted the wine. It was not, of course, as good as his mother’s, but you can’t have everything. He complimented it handsomely when the proprietor asked him how he liked it. The conversation flowed to the other guards, and to the tavern’s regular patrons, and then on to any unusual visitors.
“We normally see the same faces over and over again,” the proprietor told Giacomo. “Last night we only had one stranger.”
Giacomo allowed himself to appear mildly interested, and asked if the man had seemed to enjoy himself.
“Mostly he just sat in the corner and sipped his glass.”
Giacomo asked if he had seemed to have anything shady about him. He was, he explained, a little concerned that some of the less scrupulous guards were lifting things from the kitchens–just bits of plate and silver, things like that–and passing them on. He wondered if the proprietor thought the strange man could be involved in anything like that? And if so, did he look like he might have done business with any of the guards who were visiting the tavern last night? Had he, for example, spoken to any of them, or followed any of them out onto the street? Giacomo was particularly suspicious of his man Fabiano.
The proprietor said he hadn’t noticed anything of that sort, although the strange man had left shortly before Fabiano had. But so had lots of others–anyone who worked at either castle had to be back before the tenth hour, and the sensible ones gave themselves enough time to get there without a rush. Fabiano always left it until the last moment, though, and then paid up in a great hurry and dashed off. Half the time he underpaid, but half the time he overpaid, so in the end it came out even. The proprietor gave his opinion that Fabiano was too loose-tongued to be involved in anything underhanded, and Giacomo should look to his more tight-lipped men for the culprit. Giacomo thanked him for his advice, and left.
He still had a vague irrational feeling that he shouldn’t leave the castle for too long tonight, and stood in the street for a while, debating whether or not to go see Massimo, in the hope of gaining useful information. After a brief mental struggle, he decided to go. After all, there were fifty men guarding the Castello degli Eredi, and he wanted to put the matter of the shadowy man to rest once and for all.
Massimo was a surgeon, although now that his hair was white he rarely practiced any more. He had patched Giacomo up more than once. Giacomo thought that there was no one better than a surgeon for stitching up wounds or setting broken bones, but they unquestionably operated close to the dark side of things. If someone were to know about something shady going on, he felt, it would be Massimo.
Once he arrived at Massimo’s rooms, which were only a few streets away from The Hunter’s Rest, Giacomo had to knock on the door several times in order to rouse anyone. Eventually he was let in by a sleepy-looking maid.
“Tell them Barbaro down the street has a much steadier hand for stitching these days,” an old man called from the back room.
“If I ever need stitching, I’ll bear that in mind,” Giacomo replied, brushing past the maid and into Massimo’s bedroom.
“I was just going to bed,” said Massimo, by way of a greeting. “Come back during the day.”
“You know I can’t leave the Prince during the day,” Giacomo told him. “I need information.”
Massimo struggled between several conflicting emotions, but curiosity and pleasure won out. “About what?” he asked, sitting up in his bed.
Giacomo told him the story of the shadowy man.
Massimo picked thoughtfully at his counterpane. “You say that Alberto from The Hunter noticed nothing odd about him?” he asked.
“But Fabiano was frightened of him?”
“We all know how much credence to give Fabiano’s fears…”
“This was different. Sometimes when he’s drunk he sees things and screams and makes a fool of himself, but this time it wasn’t like that. He was…spooked. Like a horse who knows there’s something in the woods, but can’t tell whether it’s a squirrel or a wolf.”
“I see.” Massimo fingered the counterpane a bit more. “And you felt it too,” he stated.
“Not at first, but when I left the Castello tonight I made them lower the portcullis. And I keep feeling I should go back.”
“Do you think someone might make on attempt? Do you think Prince Desiderato is in danger?”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” Giacomo said. “I only thought of Luca.”
“Why would anyone be after Luca?” Massimo asked. “Desiderato is the heir, and the Princesses are old enough to marry and bring a man a place in Court, but Luca is hardly more than an ordinary boy.”
“I don’t know,” Giacomo admitted.
“You’re too fond of him,” Massimo told him severely.
“I know,” Giacomo admitted. “I can’t help myself.”
“A sensible man with your abilities would have arranged matters so as to end up guarding the heir,” Massimo said.
“I don’t like Desiderato,” Giacomo confessed. “He’s a bully.”
“Just like his father,” said Massimo. “Well, he is what he is, and this isn’t helping us solve your problem. We need to concentrate on your shadowy man.” He returned to picking at his counterpane, and pulled out a pink embroidery flower. He gave the crinkled thread a disproportionately horrified look.
“Micca!” he shouted.
The maid came in, her arms full of the bedclothes she was using to make up her bed in the front room, took the thread, and left the room, shaking her head.
“There are various orders of self-appointed assassins, alchemists, and other shady characters,” Massimo said once she was gone. “A lot of them enjoy sitting at the corner table in a black cloak and frightening the customers. Of course, that’s about all they can do, so they might as well enjoy it. Your shadowy man sounds different.” He gazed at the tiny holes in the cloth where the embroidered flower had been.
“When I was a young man, just a journeyman surgeon, I served far down in the south, in the Forzesco Kingdom,” he said suddenly. “While I was there, the Forzesco heir was struck by an arrow. The wound festered. The chief surgeon wanted to take off the arm. Otherwise, he said, the poisoning would spread to the heart and Prince Sandro would die. But the King wouldn’t hear of it. He called in two more surgeons. They both said the same thing. So he called in an herbwoman. She agreed with the surgeons–but, she said, there might be a chance. There was someone she knew of, someone who might be able to effect a cure without removing the arm. The King ordered that he be brought over immediately, and the next day he was there.”
Massimo paused for a moment to clear his throat, which sounded curiously tight.
“They told me later he was called Lo Sfilatro–The Unraveler, in their dialect,” he said. “He was a small dark man, but no smaller or darker than is usual there. He wore the clothes of an ordinary man. His speech was soft, with a strong Forzesco accent. The only unusual thing about him was a blue and red tattoo on his right wrist. Somehow the lines in it seemed to writhe before my eyes.
“I was tending the Prince when he came in. He came over to me and asked me how the Prince was–was he eating, was he sleeping, what his urine was like. He never looked me in the eyes–he only watched my hands. As he stood there beside me, my heart started to pound. I answered his questions, and my voice sounded like it was coming from the bottom of a well. My ears kept ringing and ringing.
“‘You will be a good surgeon one day,’ he said when he was done questioning me. ‘I can tell by the movements of your fingers. But someday you will have to conquer your fear of the unknown.’ Then he told me I wouldn’t be needed for what he was about to do, and sent me away. I stumbled out of the tent and sat on the ground for a long time.
“I don’t know what he did. I didn’t see anything unusual happening in the tent. But after a while he came out, and said that the Prince would live, and would retain the use of his arm. Then he left. As he walked by me my heart gave me a sharp stab, and I knew–just for a moment–what it would be like to die. And as he walked away, I thought he seemed cloaked in shadows.”
“Do you think this Sfilatro might be my shadowy man?” asked Giacomo when it became clear that Massimo had finished.
“I don’t know,” said Massimo, looking at his hands. “But somehow his story came to mind. I will ask around tomorrow. Perhaps someone will have heard something.”
Giacomo thanked him for his information and his future help, and left. On the whole, Massimo’s story had comforted him. If the shadowy man was this Unraveler, or someone like him, he didn’t sound like a potential threat, no matter how frightened Massimo and Fabiano had been of him. Surgeons and healers might stray over into things a sensible man would shy clear of, but it seemed unlikely someone like that would be plotting against the royal family.
He walked back to the center of the city and went in through the front gate of the Castello Maggiore. He dropped in on Piero, the captain of the guard there. Piero said that the watch had been doubled, in preparation for tomorrow’s festivities, but in general things had been quiet as the grave.
Giacomo wished him a good night and climbed up to the catwalk. The guard at the door from the Castello Maggiore greeted him and stood aside to let him use his key. He made his way quickly across the swaying rope bridge–Luca loved crossing it, and begged Giacomo to let him go out on it every day, but he was only allowed to use it on special occasions, when speed was of the essence–unlocked the door to the Castello degli Eredi, and greeted the guard who was there waiting for him.
“How has it been?” he asked, surprised at the sudden return of his earlier anxiousness.
“Quiet as the grave, Giacomo,” the guard said cheerfully.
“I don’t like that expression,” Giacomo told him, his voice sharp. Hearing it twice in a row had made something heavy settle on his heart. “It’s gloomy. Couldn’t you come up with something else?”
The guard apologized with a surprised look. Feeling guilty for his outburst, Giacomo apologized in turn.
“I must be turning into an old woman,” he made himself say.
Ulricco was standing guard outside Luca’s door, just as he should be, when Giacomo climbed up to the Prince’s tower.
“How has it been?” he asked.
“The Prince asked me to let him out a couple of times, like he does sometimes, but then he settled down, and he’s been silent as the dead for the past hour,” Ulricco reported. “Did you have a good time? Was your outing…productive?” He leered suggestively.
“Very productive.” Giacomo checked the lock on the Prince’s door out of the corner of his eye. It seemed secure enough to hold off a mid-sized army. He wished Ulricco a good night and went to his door, which led to the next room over. Also locked. For some reason, his hands had a hard time working the lock. Giacomo told himself he would have to arrange to have it oiled tomorrow. He bolted the door behind him.
Giacomo’s room was a small windowless chamber, only slightly larger than his bed. The door between it and the Prince’s bedroom was the only thing ever left unlocked at night. Giacomo opened it slowly, trying not to let it creak. Luca was a light sleeper and often woke up when he checked on him, but tonight there was no glad cry. Giacomo raised his lantern a little in order to look at the bed. It was a warm night, and the bedcurtains had not been drawn closed. The bedclothes seemed awfully flat. He rushed over and shook them out, his hands trembling feverishly. The Prince was gone.
So there you go! I’ll keep you updated with the book’s progress. Meanwhile, if you’re looking for some weekend reading, check out the following selection of book giveaways:
The Fantasy Book Celebration is in celebration of the release of Rise of the Realms, and has a mixture of fantasy, sci-fi, and paranormal romance
The Origins Giveaway is for series starters
The Daring Damsels & Warrior Women is for all speculative fiction and action/adventure genres featuring kick-ass female leads!