“I shall tell you what I saw. ‘Twas the morning of Michaelmas, unusually cold, the air buzzing with excitement and the smell of kindling. Like you could feel the Gates of Hell already creaking open, the big three-headed dog tearing at its leash, licking its lips, splattering great drops of saliva in anticipation of its feast. I saw them with my own eyes. The heretics being marched through the crowd, begging for mercy as heretics do.
Except for one, at the very back. One who, they say, had managed to slide past the guards like a shadow. Who freed two heretics before nearly escaping himself. Yes, I tell you no lies. I’ve heard it with my own ears. Slipped out of prison, unnoticed, just like a shadow.
Now listen. I swear to the heavens, I tell you the truth. The crowd cheered as the guards lit the fires, piercing the morning with the screams of the Hell hounds as they tore into the flesh. But as its gates creaked open and the Devil reached out to claim what was his, the man who had slid past the guards like a shadow vanished. Disappeared. Slipped between the Devil’s claws in front of my very own eyes!”
An aghast gasp rose from the carriage occupants. The storyteller grinned, clearly enjoying his limelight. “I promise you,” he said ominously, lowering his voice like a mystic man whispering a terrible secret, lifting his hands as if he saw it again now. “I saw it all happen! I saw him slide between the claws of death!”
“Oh, Cesare, do stop your nonsense-peddling.”
His shoulders fell ever so slightly. The girl in the opposite corner of the carriage did not look impressed. He held up his hands in surrender, pulling an apologetic face. “I am just recounting what I saw,” he said, a little offended.
“Oh, please, the only thing you saw was the bottom of your wine goblet,” she retorted, barely looking up from her embroidery. A couple of the other girls giggled.
“Sarcasm, thy name is Valentina,” Cesare pretended to bow. Just then, a dip in the road made the carriage jostle and his head hit the roof. Another fit of giggles erupted in the carriage. He cursed inwardly, rubbing his head, stumbling back into his seat. A faint smile tugged at the corner of the girl’s mouth. He quickly sat up again, ironing the annoyance out of his face smoothly with another wicked grin. “Do forgive my poor wit,” he said in mock-apology. “I am but a fool.”
This time, the smile materialised. “Get back into your seat, fool,” she chastised playfully. “I daresay we shall be arriving soon.” Cesare made another theatrical bow. He stood up and leaned out of the window. He pulled himself up and out of the carriage, to a chorus of shocked ahs, swinging himself back onto the driver’s seat.
Valentina rolled her eyes. Show off. She directed her gaze back to the window. Yes, she could see the castle in the distance, rising up against the flat plains, the sea smashing against the cliffs it stood on. She glanced over her shoulder. The other girls were busy discussing Cesare’s story, and what dresses they were going to wear, giggling nervously every once in a while. She reached for the chain attached to the inside of her skirt. She nonchalantly pulled out the round metal and glass dish attached to it. Almost three. Her stomach pinched together slightly, her dress suddenly a little bit tight. Three, it had said. By the cliffs. Her other hand involuntarily clutched her skirt. Something crackled under her fingers. The band around her heart loosened slowly. She took a deep breath, firmly pushing the feeling away, tilting her chin a little bit higher, hiding the dish back in her skirts.
The procession rode through the towering castle gates. Servants lined the courtyard, standing straight, their faces expressionless, like painted statues. At the top of the stairs leading up to the main entrance stood the host, an old man who looked more like a living skeleton, with a procession of the already arrived high and mighty. She searched the faces. Her heart jumped slightly. The carriage stopped. Cesare jumped down from the driver’s seat and opened the carriage door with a bow. Valentina stepped out, her hands folded, her eyes cast to the ground. They had stopped just short of the main stairs. She waited at the back of the procession with the rest of the servants. The steps of the main carriage groaned under the weight of the man who stepped out of it. The clicking of shoes on the cobbled stones echoed over the silent courtyard.
The old man at the top of the stairs clapped his hands. “Welcome!” he smiled broadly, spreading his arms. “I am so glad you could make it at such short notice in such… troubling times.”
“The pleasure is all mine,” the fat noble returned, striding over to the stairs. The procession of servants slowly moved to follow their master.
“I trust you have had a good journey?”
Valentina stopped listening, automatically following the footsteps of the girl in front of her. They were pleasantries, no more. She knew neither man truly cared how the other had been, except to find out if the art they had commissioned or the libraries they had dreamed off had burned down as well. If their scholars had also vanished, or been found murdered. She shivered, clutching her skirt involuntarily again. She glanced up under her eyelashes. She did not understand how he could focus on the exchange of empty formalities. Ever the nobleman.
“The Duke caught your eye?” a voice whispered in her ear. She glanced over her shoulder, raising her eyebrows, her face reddening slightly.
“Breaking ranks?” she replied, not impressed, lowering her gaze quickly.
“Not like old Simonetti is watching,” Cesare replied, keeping his face absolutely neutral except for the mischievous light in his eyes. “So.”
“Be quiet.” He gave her a knowing look. She ignored him, holding her head high again. He had no idea. None of them did.
It was essential they did not.
She cast a glance to the sky. It was as blue as it had been the entire journey. The stone walls of the entrance began to loom over her as she was swept inside before the ceiling obliterated the sky completely. She directed her gaze back, forcing herself to act calm. She was here for a ball. No more.
The noblemen walked in deep discussion further into the castle. The servants dispersed. She glanced around. “Coast is clear,” Cesare whispered, looking about nonchalantly.
“If anyone asks, I am running an errand for the Signora,” Valentina muttered.
“And if the Signora asks?”
“Then invent something.” She slipped down a narrow hall. The noise of the main hall faded. She was not sure where she was. Servants quarters, maybe. She turned left, dodging a couple of servants carrying dishes. The hall seemed to know no end.
“Excuse me?” An old woman carrying a pan stopped, giving her an impatient look. “I just wanted to get some fresh air,” Valentina invented. “The carriage journey has made me unwell, you see…”
“Left,” the woman grunted, pushing past her.
She did as told. A tiny corridor ran to the left. The door at the end was wide open, letting the sun stream in. She walked as calmly as she could muster. The salt of the sea-water wafted towards her, clearing her nerves slightly. It opened to a covered walkway. She leaned on the wall. On the other side the cliffs dropped steeply, the sea thundering against the rocks. She closed her eyes for a moment, letting the sea breeze take away her nerves.
She opened her eyes again reluctantly. “You doubted I would?” she answered, not turning her head. She did not need to look to know who it belonged to.
“I was not certain if you would have gotten my message.”
She glanced over out of the corner of her eye. He really had not changed. She could still see the remnants of the twelve-year-old boy behind the lines of ruling that had worn his face. She directed her gaze back to the ocean. “You said you had information?” she said.
Lorenzo did not reply right away. “There is a book in Di Castromagno’s library,” he said. “An old medicine book taken from a monastery about three days riding from here.” He paused. “According to my informants, it contains information about the Shadow.”
Her heart stopped cold for a moment. She swallowed. “The rumours are true, then?”
“I fear so.” A cold shiver ran through her. It was as they said. As she had suspected. She took a deep breath, forcing her nerves back under control. “Have you taken precautions?” Lorenzo asked insistently.
Her fingers glided to the side of her skirt. The paper crackled under her fingers. “Yes,” she affirmed.
He turned to leave. “Good luck.” He followed the servant briskly.
She waited until his footsteps had faded, then walked the other way. Her mind was reeling. She muttered a quick prayer under her breath. The Shadow. She had hoped it was just tales. She walked back through the servants’ quarters to the main hall. The library. Where was the library?
A hand grabbed her arm, another covering her mouth. She let out a muffled scream, spinning around. She relaxed, giving Cesare a furious glare. He let her go, raising a finger to his lips and pointing to the main hall. She glanced over.
Di Castromagno stood at the bottom of the stairs, flanked by a servant. “My dear friend, what a lovely surprise!” he greeted, spreading his arm. There was a nervous quiver in his hands.
“I heard of a feast and thought I must have lost my invite,” the man standing opposite him, shrouded in a dark blue cloak. Something about him sent shivers down Valentina’s spine. She retreated further into the hall’s darkness.
“Well, you are here now!” Di Castromagno hesitated, then awkwardly placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Peppino, go tell the others Messer Forteguerri has arrived.” The servant bowed low and rushed off.
Forteguerri let out a sudden scream, sinking to his knees. “What’s the matter?” Di Castromagno inquired, alarmed. Forteguerri just howled, raising his hands to his head. “Peppino!” The old man looked around, flustered, looking back at the other nobleman. Valentina hesitated. Forteguerri clawed at his skull, emitting noises that rattled through every bone in Valentina’s body. His face had turned as white as the foam frothing around his mouth. He pulled out clumps of hair, sending thin streams of blood trickling down his face. “Pep..”
Di Castromagno stopped in midsentence, as if something had suddenly knocked the air out of him. He stood up, disoriented. The screaming stopped. The silence hit Valentina like a sudden welcome blow. Forteguerri still lay at the other nobleman’s feet, moaning quietly. The old man shook his head, blinking a couple of times, and wandered off back to the main hall, shouting for his servant. Valentina hesitated. She glanced at Cesare, who looked around the corner. Convinced the hall was empty, he rushed over to the man on the floor.
“Messer Forteguerri?” he tried, kneeling down beside the man. The nobleman clutched his arm, looking around wildly at the sound of a voice.
“I am a monster!” he whimpered. “A monster!” He gripped Cesare’s arm tighter, struggling for breath.
The man slumped to the floor. Cesare quickly turned him onto his back, listening for breath, or a heartbeat. He slowly looked up, his face ashen. He looked back at Valentina.
“Dead,” he stammered. The word echoed around her mind. Her stomach knotted together. Cesare sat back on his heels, running a hand through his hair. “How…”
It had to have been. She swallowed. “It must have been killing him from the inside,” she stammered. Cesare looked at her in confusion. She stood up. “It must have used him up and moved on.”
Voices resounded in the hall. She turned around determinedly. “We need to find the library,” she said. “There’s a book with a solution there.” She could not explain. The voices were closing in.
“The library is through that hall, fifth door to your left, you cannot miss it.” Cesare stood up as well, visibly pushing away his confusion. She hesitated. “I will distract them,” he read her concern from her face. She gave him an uncertain look. If it figured out her plan… He bowed slightly with a thin-lipped smile. “Everyone loves a fool.”
The voices edged closer. He looked imploringly at her. She reluctantly turned and ran, disappearing into the hall.
She found the door easily enough. It was the large wooden kind. She glanced around. The hall was empty. She picked up one of the lanterns standing in alcoves beside the doors. She gripped the handle tightly. This was it. She pulled the door open, leaning against it with all her weight. It creaked open with difficulty. She slipped through the crack.
She quietly closed the door behind her, her heart thundering in her chest. The room faded to darkness, the only light the faint glow from her lantern. She took a deep breath. The smell of dust and sleeping paper filled her nose. She could almost hear the pages whisper through the silent darkness. She picked up her lantern again, raising her chin, forcing down the nervous lump in her throat. Now was not the time for fear. She took a step. The sound of her shoe clicking on the wooden floor echoed uncomfortably loudly. She walked faster, trying to ignore it, glancing over her shoulder every once in a while. It felt like the books had eyes, watching her, whispering to each other. Dust particles played in the flame of her lantern, dancing to inaudible music.
She held the lantern up to the titles. Some gleamed in the light. Others were shrouded in a thick layer of dust, the letters almost indistinguishable. What had he said? An old book. She gritted her teeth. Perfect. She brushed the dust off one. The flakes of dust danced around her. She coughed, covering her mouth with her sleeve. She glanced back at the title. Republic. She grimaced. Probably the only copy not burned. She tore her eyes away. Not the book she was looking for. She ran her fingers along the spines, scanning their titles hastily. She did not know how much time she had. How long before someone would notice she was missing. Before he would figure it out. She glanced over her shoulder again, a cold shiver running down her spine. She swallowed, looking back at the books. A Brief History of Florence. Where was this book?
The dormant dust around her feet drifted like a snake between her ankles. She froze. A draught. She listened, not daring to breathe. But the library was silent.
Then, so quiet it was barely audible, she heard the lick of a door falling into its lock. Her heart stopped, running cold, her mind doing a somersault. She gripped the lantern tighter, swallowing. She turned back to the bookshelf, her knees shaking, forcing herself to think. She reached in her pocket, her hands trembling, and pulled out a piece of paper. She hesitated.
A light appeared, its glow just about reaching around the edge of the aisle. She froze, her heart drumming in her ears, so loud she was sure whoever was there could hear it too. She pulled out the history book and jammed the letter between its pages, glancing back at the edge of the aisle nervously. She stuffed the book back in its place, turning quickly. She hoped it worked. It was the only back up plan she had. She picked up her torch, moving as quietly and quickly as she could. The book. She had to find it. Had to save it. She turned the corner.
And stopped. A hooded figure stood at the end of the aisle. The torch in his hand cast a glow over the deep red of his cloak. She swallowed. “Good evening, Messere,” she curtseyed, trying to keep her voice from wavering. Di Castromagno did not reply. She hesitantly took a step back. “I… I do apologise, I know I should not be here…”
He raised his other hand. She quietened. For a moment, it was as if time itself had frozen.
Then, the bookshelves burst into flames.
She screamed, turning and running. The same terrifying screech that had echoed through the main hall made the ground tremble, shaking the wooden frames. They caved in with a bone-shattering crunch, the books cascading into a pit of bottomless fire. The smoke burned her lungs, splitting open her head as it filled her skull. She glanced over her shoulder, coughing. The Shadow rose through the flames, a billowing black cloud, stretching its claws up to the ceiling, as if it were feeding off the cries of the pages swallowed by the fire, its screech running through her like an ice-cold dagger. A manifestation of her worst nightmares. She tore her eyes away, running faster.
A wall of fire sealed off the aisle. She stopped, spinning around. The Shadow grinned at her from the other end. The flames quickly crept along the bookshelves, devouring their pages, encircling her “What do you want?” she yelled, trembling, trying to think. This couldn’t be it!
So much fear. So much pain left behind. So much delicious wrath, so much succulent anger. She sank to her knees, smoke filling her head.
He disappeared. And I rose up from the ashes.
She looked up. One man disappeared. Cesare’s story. Oh, God, Cesare. The flames crept closer.
A hand reached through them. Her limbs felt leaden as she reached for it.
The heat faded. As did everything else.