Happy Solstice, everyone!
In celebration of this most balanced and auspicious day, I thought I’d share a sneak peek of “The City of Shadows,” book 3 in the Giaco & Luca series. Between returning to teaching after my medical leave, and working on stuff related to my other pen name, I’ve been much slower than I originally forecast in releasing publishing Giaco & Luca’s stories, but I’ll get to it, I swear I will. Book 1, “The Shadowy Man,” is currently available on Amazon for 99c (or free on KU), and Book 2, “Half a Dream,” will be released soon, I promise. Keep reading for a chapter from Book 3, currently titled “The City of Shadows.” Like the other novellas in the series, it’s a kind of dark fantasy mystery, perfect to get you in the Halloween mood!
“Sauro!” Luca’s joy at his appearance was unfeigned. Suddenly he was the sweet-tempered boy of Giaco’s memories, not the sullen, self-centered young man he had become.
Sauro stood there in silence until the servants had all left. “You took your time getting here, Luca,” he said once they were alone.
“I’m sorry, Sauro.” Why couldn’t Luca ever be this apologetic towards Giaco? Why was it always Sauro he wanted to impress? “Delays on the road.”
“Caused by you?”
Sauro looked to Giaco for confirmation. “Only partly,” Giaco told him. He half-wanted to deny any wrongdoing on Luca’s part to Sauro, just to make it clear that he was on Luca’s side. But lying didn’t seem like the right thing to do either. Maybe Sauro could get Luca to straighten out, when no one else could.
“Let me guess,” Sauro said. “Out debauching again? Head too sore to get up the next morning?”
Luca’s shamefaced silence was confirmation enough.
“You’ve been set on this path of frivolity for months now, Luca. At first I brushed it off as the exuberance of youth. Every young man deserves to have a little fun, sow his wild oats. But it’s been getting all out of bounds. You missed our last two training sessions, and how many training sessions have you missed with Giacomo?”
“Giacomo has been off duty for almost a month,” Luca said, by way of self-defense.
“And you missed the previous two weeks’ of training with him before that,” Sauro pressed on. “First you hurt your leg, then you had a sore head—and how did you injure yourself? Why was your head sore? Because you’d been out reveling with these young men you falsely think are your friends, that’s why. You’ve neglected your training in magic, you’ve neglected your training in sword work, and you almost neglected to come to your own sister’s wedding. Tell me, Luca: is this how a prince behaves?”
“I’m not a child!” cried Luca. “I’m a prince! You should treat me with respect!”
“Then earn it, my Prince. And you can start by treating your teachers with respect. Now, get undressed. You too, Giacomo. We’re going to take a bath. And I’m going to tell you about something that I think will be of interest to both of you. More than interest.”
Sauro began to undress without even bothering to turn his back on Giaco and Luca. Giaco followed suit more reluctantly. Being naked in front of Sauro felt deeply wrong. And what would he do about his sword? He eventually settled on bringing his boot knife in with him, carried in his hand. He expected Sauro to mock him, but he had no intention of going anywhere unarmed.
“You are wise to carry that, Giacomo,” Sauro told him, when he caught sight of the knife. “Not that I expect attack in the bathhouse—that is why I chose it. Did you know that the Royal bathhouse is the most warded part of both the Castello Maggiore and the Castello degli Eredi? Built by orders of Prince Felix, the founder of Fiori, or so they say, and under his express direction. The wards here are of such complexity that even I cannot decipher half of them. The rumor is that Fortunata the Witch-Princess added a layer on top of Prince Felix’s original spells. She was said to be an adept at creating wards of fear whose skills have never been seen before or since. Although that did not save her any more than her name did when they came to burn her at the stake. Some might find that an ill omen. But we can rest assured that no assassins will sneak up on us here.”
“A servant might,” Giaco said. “And servants make the best assassins.”
“Prince Felix thought of that eventuality, no doubt. But you are wise to think of it too. Sometimes a little cold iron is better than all the wards in the world. Come. Let us take the steam.”
Sauro led them into the steam room, which was so filled with clouds of vapor that Giaco could barely make out the reliefs carved into the marble walls. All of them had the flat, oddly proportioned features that meant they had been done before the Rebirth. Giaco’s father would have disowned any apprentice of his who had done such clumsy works—and probably his own sons as well. Giaco wondered which of the carvings, all of which depicted the world as people thought it was, not as it really was, were the wards Sauro had spoken of. He would still rather trust in true steel. He set his dagger beside him, and hoped he wouldn’t have to use it. Already the metal was growing uncomfortably warm, and his fingers and the hilt were slick with steam and sweat.
“So what is this thing you wanted to tell us?” Luca had taken up an entire bench without offering it to either Giaco or Sauro, and was now lying full-length on his back on it. Through the steam Giaco could barely make out his bored look, aimed at the ceiling rather than at them.
“Do you remember how I told you that I hoped to speak with the Hellene augur the wedding party was to bring with them?”
Luca nodded without bothering to reply out loud.
“Well, I have.”
Sauro paused. He waited until Luca finally turned in his direction and demanded, “Well? What did he say?” before continuing.
“She, my prince, she. The remarkable Zoe, blind in one eye but gifted with a sight that sees through the veil that separates past and future, flesh and spirit, flame and shadow.”
“Don’t let Adi hear you talk that way,” Luca warned him.
“The Princess Adorata has nothing to fear from me, and no cause to reproach me,” Sauro said. Giaco couldn’t tell whether he meant it as a declaration of fidelity, or a declaration that there was nothing between them. No doubt he had meant it to be ambiguous. Everyone had been wanting to know the exact nature of the relationship between Adorata and Sauro these ten years or more, and no one had ever had their curiosity satisfied.
“If you say so,” said Luca. “So. Zoe. Blind in one eye? She sounds like an ugly old crone.”
“Ugly old crones often have the most wisdom, my Prince. But in this case, no, she is not an old crone. She is young, barely more than your age. But she has been gifted with the kind of talent that only comes along once a generation, if that, and, even better, she has not squandered it with idle foolishness and debauchery.”
Even through the steam Giaco could see the face Luca made at the reprimand. Giaco wanted to make the same face. Did Sauro mean to say that Luca also had the kind of talent that only comes along once in a generation? Giaco was surprised to discover he didn’t like that thought one bit. If magic and shadow-walking were something that Luca was merely dabbling in before he settled down to his real purpose in life, that was one thing. But if he was the most gifted shadow-walker of his generation, then that was something else. If Luca had been gifted in anything else, Giaco would have taken pride in his ability. But why did it have to be this?
“So.” Luca folded his arms. “What has this ugly young crone seen that is so important?”
“She took me out yesterday to watch the movement of the pigeons on the Piazza del Mercato,” Sauro began.
Luca snorted. Giaco was tempted to join him. What could pigeons tell of the future?
“You may be asking yourself what pigeons can tell of the future,” said Sauro. “No, I didn’t read your minds. That is merely what I myself thought. But you could say the same of cards, or crystals, or anything else seers use to scry. After all, you fear the readings of the cards that you have done of late, do you not? Even though to others’ eyes they say nothing special. Even Amanda sees nothing especially portentous in them. But you say they say that Fate is waiting for you. And you may be right. The magic is not in the thing, but in the seer’s mind. In Zoe’s case, the movement of pigeons brings forth what her mind already knows, or so I surmise. So we went to the Piazza del Mercato to watch the pigeons.”
“So what did the pigeons tell her?” Luca’s face had not lost any of its skepticism.
“When we walked up to them, they all scattered in fear. I had seen it many times before, of course, but this time I was aware like no other of their movements, each pigeon separate and yet part of the flock, and their unwillingness to be near me. They were guided by an intelligence that was within them and yet greater than them. Like a worker of magic.”
“We’re not like pigeons!” Luca protested.
“No? Zoe showed me differently. Through her eyes, both the seeing and the unseeing one, I saw how the pigeons were remarkably like us. But that is not the true vision, the one I wanted to share with you. That came later. One pigeon became trapped in a corner between us and a market stall with a low roof. It turned this way and that in a frantic search for a way out, but there was no clear space for it to fly free. I could see, and feel, its fear. And so could Zoe, for she turned to me and said, ‘There is a reason why Panic is named after a god.’”
“The Hellene god Pan,” Sauro explained.
“Yes,” said Luca doubtfully. “The one with goat legs, isn’t he?”
“That one, yes. The one whose voice sends its listeners mad with terror.”
Luca snorted again. “A Reborn man has no need of such superstitions. Does he, Giaco?”
“Perhaps not, my Prince. Although this Reborn man has learned not to underestimate the power of fear.”
“Indeed,” said Sauro. “And you, my Prince, are not a Reborn man.”
Luca pursed his lips in a pout. “I can be both. Giaco’s taught me all the arts of the Rebirth, haven’t you, Giaco?”
“I have tried, my Prince.”
“Giacomo has done his best, but still, my Prince, you are not a Reborn man,” said Sauro. “And neither, fully, is he. Not after all these years with you and me. Be that as it may, that is not what matters here. Although I believe Zoe was trying to say something of import when she said that phrase. Anyway. We stepped aside and let the pigeon escape. And then Zoe asked if I thought that pigeon spoke of Lucrezia’s future. Would she, Zoe asked, be as desperate to escape as that pigeon?”
“Probably,” said Luca.
“I said I doubted it. And I do. Lucrezia is going into this of her own free will, with her eyes as open as they can be in an arranged marriage to a stranger. And so then Zoe said it must mean someone else, someone close to Lucrezia.”
“And so?” Luca looked no less skeptical.
“And so we walked back into the center of the piazza, the pigeons flocking around us and flying away, until they were all frightened off by a hawk circling high above. And Zoe said that we, too, had a hawk circling above us, although we did not know it yet. Something, she said, is coming for us, just as that hawk came for the pigeons, and we would do well to watch out for it.”
“That’s not very clear,” said Luca.
“No. The first glimpse of the future rarely is. But I know this, my Prince. Danger is coming your way.”