From the mind of Megan Arkenberg

August 11, 2014

Blood and Poison

Posted by Megan Arkenberg with No comments
First published in MindFlights, August 2008. Full story behind cut.


* * *

I had reached the edge of the world.

Mile upon mile of threadlike canals and white, white stone, and at the edge of it all, the lurid blue of the lagoon—such was my first impression of la Città di Ponti. Flat-bottomed gondoli clustered around the low, sandy spit that separated the lagoon from the gray sea beyond. With the sun setting behind her, its radiance fixed in the copper roofs as though they were the last things it would ever touch, I could understand why  she had been called the last city in the world, and the most beautiful, and the deadliest.

I entered by the Porta Torregrossa, where a guard with pale, northern eyes gave me a writ detailing the terms of my admittance. I was permitted, she said, to carry out my business in any street, canal or palazzo north of Ponte della Spada; anything south of that, in addition to the houses of the Seven Families and the Stregoni, was strictly forbidden.

Fortunately, she did not search me for weapons. I’d seen men arrested for carrying a rapier without their lords’ permission, and the sword in my pack would be much harder to excuse. I waited until I found a sheltered sottoportego before unwrapping the blade and rereading the inscription on the hilt.


Bring me to Donna Amaranta at Palazzo Bianchi. 




There was nothing more. The writing had a stretched, spidery look to it, like the calligraphy of two centuries past, but the sword’s design seemed much, much older. Still, the edge was keen and unrusted, and those words engraved on the hilt were deep and firm, as if the blade had not been handled since their carving. A beautiful sword, and a strong one.

I would have destroyed it if I could.

“Callisto, you’re mad!”

The voice came from the open window of the house directly behind me. I froze, the unwrapped sword dangling from my hand, and listened for any sign that I had been spotted.

“Madness, Fausto, is in the eye of the beholder—or in this case, in the tongue.”

The second speaker was a young man with the sharp accent of la Città. Though he spoke lightly, his voice held an almost predatory note.

“Call it what you will,” the first man mumbled, “but there are words for men like you, and none of them my mother would care to hear me say.”

“Men like me? Fausto, darling, I’m one of a kind. Now drink up; I had to cross Don Moretti himself to get us a bottle of this particular vintage. Unless you’d rather let that rat Tullio share a different sort of bottle with your dear little Rosaria…”

There was a brief pause, then a choking sound as the first man—Fausto—swallowed too much of something. “Gods and Goddesses!” he swore. “That burns!”

“Revenge always does.” A chair scraped along the floor, and I heard the faint jingle of coins changing hands. “But wasn’t that better than sending a hired dagger after your rival? Tullio will be found dead in a canal before noon tomorrow, and no one but you and I and Don Moretti will know what happened to him.”

“Sorcerers!” Fausto swore again. Callisto answered in an undertone, and then the window above my head slammed shut.

I lowered my sword and exhaled slowly, fighting to suppress a shudder. Even in the mountain villages far to the north, we had heard of blood-drinkers, sorcerers who could kill men by imbibing their blood with poison. It was a black magic; I could only hope to avoid an encounter with him—

Naturally, Callisto appeared in the mouth of the sottoportego before I could finish the thought.

I knew him at a glance, though I had been unable to see through the window during his exchange with Fausto. He walked with the distinct Città di Ponti swagger, like a cat ambling along a fence. He was beautiful in a distinctly costal way, with long dark curls worn loose and a streak of sunburn along each high cheekbone. Like many of the wealthier citizens, he wore a coat of silver and midnight blue.

I was about to announce myself when he moaned suddenly and sank to his knees.

Shoving my sword back into its wrapping, I cleared my throat and took a hesitant step forward. “I beg your pardon, signore…”

He turned his face to me with a grimace that softened to a faint smile. “No, Signore Traveler, it is I who should be begging your pardon. I didn’t realize this charming little alley was occupied. May I ask what brings you here?” His gray eyes widened as he pulled himself to his feet. “I am correct in guessing that you are a traveler, yes?”

Prepared as I was for la Città’s legendary courtesy, I found myself dumbfounded nevertheless. “Yes…” I began, then offered my hand with a reckless laugh. Now that we stood face to face, I found it hard to believe I had taken such a premature disliking to the gentleman. “Doriano Esposito, at your service. I am looking for the Palazzo Bianchi.”

He took my hand in both of his. “Callisto Selvaggio Moretti, at yours. The Palazzo is some three miles south along the Canale dei Teschi; you will need to hire a gondola. May I ask why—”

“Curiosity,” I interrupted. “A friend of mine mentioned the family.”

“You have interesting friends, Signore Esposito.” He tilted his head to one side and ran his tongue over the edge of his teeth, as though testing their sharpness. “Let me make you an offer. Palazzo Bianchi is not…friendly…to strangers. Allow me to escort you.”

He looked so charming, his gray eyes playing of the deep blue of his coat and his cold hands still tight around mine, that I could hardly believe he had just stumbled into this alley and collapsed in exhaustion.

“I’d be glad of the company,” I said slowly. “But allow me to be blunt—you called it an offer. What is in it for you?”

His slender fingers tightened around my wrists with surprising strength. “You are not from la Città,” he said, his voice dropping to a whisper, “and so I forgive you your ignorance. The Moretti do not trade favors. We do not—with rare exceptions—answer questions. In your case, I will make such an exception.” He released me suddenly, then held out a hand to steady me as I staggered. “There are no two families more closely intertwined than the Moretti and the Bianchi. We are the twilight to their dawn, some people say—you cannot have one without the other. If you have business with the Bianchi, you have business with us as well.”

Then all at once his expression softened, and he draped an arm around my shoulders. “Follow closely, Signore—this city is a maze.”

It was. Callisto wound through so many crowded streets, down tight alleyways and along the slippery fondamenta beside the canals, I soon gave up trying to track our direction and simply followed him. Young men and women called down from the bridges as we passed, shouting questions to me and playful insults at Callisto. He smiled broadly and answered in kind.

I wondered if I looked much like a blood-drinker’s client.

The sword at my side was becoming an uncomfortable weight. Despite the many miles I had ridden with it from my home in Monterosso, I had never been forced to keep it concealed, and it became a constant battle to keep it hidden beneath my thinning cloak. If I’d thought it impossible for me to hate the thing any more than I already did, I was quickly learning my mistake.

With luck, Donna Amaranta would take it from me, and I could go back to the empty, lifeless farm in Monterosso and spend the rest of my life pretending I’d never heard of it.

“So what is your business at the Palazzo?” Callisto asked, as though he had read my mind.

I shook my head and gestured for him to keep going.

We hailed a gondola at the famous Ponte della Spada. Callisto waved away my protests, which were admittedly half-hearted, that travelers did not have permission to go south of the bridge.

“While you are with me,” he said, “nothing is off limits.”

Our path was swift and uncrowded, and our gondola soon drew up along the edge of the canal. In this part of the city, the water had risen so high that the doors of the palazzi opened directly into it. Callisto paused only a moment before leaping out of the boat and onto the ledge of marble beside it. The stone was black and slippery beneath a foot of water.

He tossed a coin to the gondolier and helped me over the side. The water was cold and smelled like something decaying, but Callisto did not seem to mind as he waded to the nearest door and tapped the knocker.

“ Signore…” I bit my tongue before I could say anything uncharitable. The Palazzo before us was hardly what I expected: white stone turned sickly green by the play of water-light, with a narrow, uncolumned façade and few windows. If not for the blue and gold Bianchi crest worked into the keystone above the door, I might have thought it a warehouse.

“What did you expect, the Don’s Castello?” Callisto’s question was punctuated by the harsh screech of metal on stone as he pushed the door inward. “From the look of things, this particular branch of Bianchi has been barren as long as Don Moretti’s wife,” he continued with a shrug. Before I could speak, he pressed a finger to my lips, shook his head, and pulled me inside.

The portego was small as such things go, some twenty or thirty paces long with a low, water-damaged ceiling and flaking plaster walls. Dark ribbons of water filled in the spaces where chips of tile were gone from the mosaic floor. Callisto had called up some sort of magic lighting and now stood in the center of the room, staring up at the frescoed ceiling with narrowed eyes. I followed his gaze…

And felt the cool kiss of steel at my throat.

“Move so much as an eyelid, Blood-Drinker, and I’ll slit his throat,” my captor hissed.

I felt Callisto’s eyes slip over us and heard the faint rustling of his coat fabric as he extended his hands. “Cousin! How wonderful to see you again. If you feel the need to slit his throat, be my guest. He is the one who claims to have business with you, not I. I simply didn’t wish to leave you alone with a dangerous man…”

The knife moved just far enough that I could turn my head and examine its wielder. She was a tall woman with Callisto’s coloring and wide-set eyes like two chips of bottle glass. She watched me with raised eyebrows, and I realized how I must have appeared to her—a northern villager, slender to the point of emaciation and weary from a journey of nearly a hundred miles. Even the black ribbon of mourning around my wrist hung in tatters. I looked desperate, certainly, but hardly dangerous.

The same thought must have occurred to the Bianchi woman, because she lowered her dagger with a half-smile. “How very kind of you, Selvaggio.” She gave me a terse nod. “My name is Niccola Bianchi. What business do you have with me?”

I glanced at Callisto, but he seemed in no mood to leave us. “Doriano Esposito, at your service,” I mumbled. “I’m seeking the woman who calls herself Donna Amaranta. I have an item that used to belong—”

“Amaranta?” Niccola’s smile vanished. “She’s been dead nearly a century. What do you have of hers?”

I pulled the sword out from under my cloak and pulled back the wrappings.

The blade glinted in the light of Callisto’s magic flames, long and white like bleached bone. Strands of gold in the quillions flickered beneath the blue marbled pommel, softly scratched by the lettering of Donna Amaranta’s name.

“No.” I saw Niccola’s fingers tighten around the hilt of her dagger. “No!” She turned to Callisto, who stared at the naked blade with the same wordless horror. “What…where…how dare you carry that thing into my house! I will not have it here!”

Callisto shook his head, his lips moving soundlessly. Niccola turned back to me and raised her knife to my throat. “Were did you find it?” she hissed.

I spat the words out like poison. “In the hands of my murdered wife.”

I could see the scene again before my open eyes: poor, broken Oria lying in a pool of blood, her white hands tight around the hilt of this damnable sword, her white gown shredded by something other than its glistening, bloodless blade.

I flung the thing away from me in revulsion.

“Niccola,” Callisto said, his voice barely above a whisper. “Who of the Stregoni was the last to hold Verena?”

“I don’t know about the Moretti,” she said tightly. “But of the Bianchi…it was Donna Amaranta.”

I turned to both of them, hands outstretched in supplication. “Please. You can’t imagine…the nightmares I’ve had since this thing came into my hands…I only want to be rid of it! I don’t know what the sword is, or where my wife found it, or how you came to know of it. I don’t want to know. The only question I want answered is why, why was my wife murdered?”

It was a rough speech, and my voice had reached a shrill hiss by the end of it. Niccola lowered her dagger again and looked down at the floor, her face composed and thoughtful.

“Come to the library with me, Signore Esposito. You too, Selvaggio. No,” she added quickly, seeing me reach for the fallen sword. “Leave it there. We will think better without it.”

She led us to the back of the house, up two flights of narrow stairs, and into a room not much dryer than the portego we had just left. More damaged frescos covered the ceiling, but the walls were hidden behind massive ebony bookcases that must have been worth more than the rest of the palazzo put together. Callisto’s flames had followed us into the library, but Niccola took the time to light the candelabra and create a few flames of her own.

When she was finished, she took a large, leather-bound volume from a shelf and opened it at the desk in the center of the room.

“Your blade is called Verena,” she said, beckoning me over. “It has passed between the hands of the Stregoni of la Città since the city was built, but it is much older than that. Its first holder, Loreto Bianchi—“

“Or Loreto Moretti, depending on who you ask,” Callisto interjected.

Niccola shrugged. “It may have been a Moretti,” she conceded. “Either way, Loreto claimed to have won the sword from a Northerner in a game of Arrows, though many now agree he may have found it somewhere in the forests around the Red Mountains. Wherever he got it, his fortunes improved remarkably after his discovery. Have you heard of La Memoria?”

I shook my head, but Callisto nodded sharply. “The Perfect Memory,” he said. “It’s said that Loreto could memorize rooms full of people and objects at a single glance.”

“The sword—Verena—helped him do that?”

Niccola tapped a finger against her pursed lips. “I know it seems strange,” she said after a moment. “Why would a sword sharpen one’s mind? It wasn’t only his memory, though that was the most obvious change. Loreto had gone beyond the bounds of ordinary intelligence, ordinary sorcery—he knew things, things he couldn’t have learned by ordinary means. In the course of a year, he had gone from one of the hundreds of apprentice Stregoni in La Repubblica to the most powerful wizard of his time. And it all started when he found that sword. There had to be a connection.”

“There was a connection,” Callisto agreed, “but it wasn’t just with the Stregoni. Oh, they fought over it enough, the Stregoni and the Hundred Families both. But they weren’t the only ones it could help. Some four centuries ago, a woman by the name of Ermete Moretti inherited Verena from her father. Ermete wasn’t a sorceress—she was a musician. They say her skill with a harp increased a hundred-fold from the moment the blade passed into her hands.”

“The sword helped a musician?” I gaped stupidly. “That’s ridiculous.”

Niccola pulled me down into the chair beside her. “It isn’t just a sword,” she said, pointing to the open book before us. “It’s the most powerful artifact this world has ever seen. Is it any wonder the Stregoni went to war over it?”

The illuminated page, like everything else in the Palazzo, was heavily damaged by the damp. A streak of green-black ink had smeared across it from the opposite page, and it took me a moment to recognize the bluish swirls beneath as Verena’s pommel. A line of gold leaf rested atop the globe, scratched and ragged and only barely recognizable as a crown.

“War,” Niccola repeated, and I saw that her eyes rested on the blurred page opposite Verena’s picture. “More vicious than any fought with cannons and guns and daggers. For centuries, the Stregoni have poisoned and stolen, burned down palaces and murdered in the streets, turned to the darkest sorceries imaginable,”—I saw Callisto stiffen beneath her gaze, but he did not flinch—“all for the sake of this sword. You wondered, perhaps, why the Moretti hold their Bianchi cousins in such contempt?”

“How foolish,” I muttered, tracing the line of smudged ink. To go to such lengths for a sword…once again, I found that I had underestimated my ability to hate the thing. So poor Oria’s blood was not the first to be shed for it. But why had it come to her?

“You called Donna Amaranta the last of the Stregoni to hold Verena,” I said slowly. “What became of her?”

“Nothing.” Callisto shrugged. “She was seventeen when her father presented Verena to Don Biaggio, Lord of the Hundred Families. That must have been when she carved her name into the hilt. Of course, she would have wanted the blade returned to her, after…” He paused for a moment, glancing at the frescos above our heads as though afraid the painted Gods and Goddesses would take offense. “After the inevitable befell dear Lord Biaggio. Apparently, it never was.”

“A Blood-Wizard drank Biaggio into the lagoon some two centuries ago,” Niccola said, drumming her fingers on the desktop. “The Moretti burned Palazzo Giacinto to the ground, but no trace of Verena was ever discovered. We all assumed it was still in the family somewhere…What was your wife’s maiden name, Signore?”

“Melchiorre,” I said. “But it doesn’t fit anyway. I never saw the sword until…until…”

Niccola laid a placating hand on my shoulder. I bit hard on my lip, fighting tears of grief and frustration. Damn these wizards and their foolish wars! How had sweet, innocent Oria ever become a part of them?

“Niccola.” Callisto’s voice came quick and strangely sharp. “Have any of the Stregoni spoken recently to the Giacinto of this matter?”

“You think they’d remember it?”Niccola shook her head. “They aren’t like us, Selvaggio. For all we know, Biaggio accepted Verena as a peace offering and flung it into the lagoon. Besides, where would we begin looking for them?”

“Canal di Teschi.” He pushed a white hand through his thick black curls. “I just drank blood with Fausto.”

* * *

Fausto Giacinto may have had a Città di Ponti name, but I never saw a man who looked more out of place in a city. His hair, which he wore braided to the nape of his neck and loose down to his waist, was the color of rose gold, and its length only accentuated his slight stature. He looked like a man who could be easily lost in a crowd.

The same thought must have occurred to him; he greeted us hesitantly, ducking behind the dark elm door between his portego and the street outside.

Buon pomeriggio,” he stammered . His mountain accent sounded slow and rough after Niccola and Callisto’s la Città clip. “Callisto! I swear, every one of those coins is stamped with the seal of the Lord of—”

“Calm down, darling, I didn’t think you were a cheat.” Callisto looked faintly amused as Fausto lead us through the portego and into the small, windowed sitting room at the back of the house. “We’re here to ask after your eight-times great-grandfather.”

I could see Fausto mentally calculating as he sank onto a velvet lounge. He nearly leapt to his feet when he reached the answer. “Biaggio! What could you want with him?”

“He received a certain sword as a gift from the Bianchi some two hundred years ago. I want to know what he did with it.”

“A sword?” Fausto twirled a lock of hair around one finger. “I don’t know what you mean.”

Callisto grasped the arms of Fausto’s chair, leaning over him like a cat about to pounce. “I think you do. Biaggio’s wife made a journey just before he died, did she not? Where do you think she went?”

“Monterosso,” he whispered, shrinking in the chair. Beside me, Niccola made as if to drag Callisto away bodily, but I held up a staying hand. “She brought a sword to Monterosso. Said it would help her escape them.” Fausto swallowed audibly. “The fresco’s in the bedroom, if you want to see it.”

“Fresco?” I repeated. Fausto gave me a helpless shrug.

Callisto smiled grimly. “Lead the way, darling.”

We followed him back to the portego and into one of the front rooms. It was a strange place for a bedroom, I thought, but then again, it was a strange bedroom.

Three of the four walls were covered with bizzare, entwined creatures, something like serpents with many clawed feet. I trembled at the sight of those talons, remembering the marks on Oria’s body. Livid drops of venom clung to the monsters’ fangs.

The fourth wall was blank, save for a small globe in one corner, the perfect image of the one on Verena’s pommel. Words scribbled in uneven charcoal ran across the bottom: Where your Lord now sleeps, you will not think to find him.

Niccola knelt in the corner and laid her hand over the globe. “Monterosso?”

Fausto nodded. Niccola turned to Callisto. “Did you know of this?”

“No, I swear it.” He sat at the foot of the bed, one hand wrapped around Fausto’s wrist. “Baggio’s widow built this house, didn’t she? Did she leave anything else? A book, some sort of tapestry, another painting, perhaps?”

“What more do you need?” Fausto’s face was turned to Callisto, but his eyes were fixed on me. “Don’t you understand? They were afraid! The Giacinto aren’t sorcerers; they couldn’t rely on magic to ward them and protect them from those nightmares.” He pointed to the monsters on the wall. “So she hid the sword somewhere in Monterosso and hoped the nightmares would follow it.”

“Did they?” I was shocked at the tremor in my own voice.

Fausto lowered his eyes and said nothing.

Of course they did. And Oria—sweet, innocent Oria—would have suffered them in silence. When had she found the sword? It didn’t matter now…she brought so many things in from the forest, I’d never wondered what they might bring with them.

I was in the vineyards that day, tending the first of the sweet black mountain grapes, lost as always in my work. I never thought to check in on her, even though I knew her sleep had been troubled and she was always uncomfortable around thunderstorms. It was a strong storm we had then, too, unusually strong for the season. I took shelter in a cave near the edge of our lands. I think she was dead even then.

Did she scream for me in her last moments? Or did she try to fight them off herself, grasping that damnable swords in both her hands and swinging it into the empty air? Did her courage keep them off until the end, or did they remain clinging at the sword until her candle fell from the table and the wool rugs began to smoke? Even then, had the flames truly driven them away, or were they the shadows that haunted my steps all the way to the edge of the world, to the white towers of la Città di Ponti?

I felt a hand on my shoulder and looked up to see Niccola’s bottle-green eyes brimming with tears. “I’m sorry for your loss,” she whispered, squeezing my shoulder.

I looked at her, at all of them, beautiful Callisto in his blue-black coat with bloodstains beneath his fingernails, Fausto with his red-gold hair twined around him like a veil, and Niccola with her warm eyes and soft, sympathetic smile.

“At least it’s over now,” she said.

I rested my cheek against her hand and breathed deeply, taking in the warm scent of her amber perfume. “No,” I said. “It’s not over yet. We need to destroy that sword.”

* * *

“Don’t you think it a waste?” Callisto protested as we rounded the top of Ponte della Spada. The sword was once again an awkward weight at my side, concealed as well I could make it beneath my cloak. Callisto walked beside me, his hand never more than inches away from the thing’s cloth-wrapped hilt. “Doriano, listen to reason! Can you imagine how much good Verena will do if placed in the right hands?”

“Are yours the right hands?” I found it hard not to be snappish. The sun had set sometime on our way back to Palazzo Bianchi, and la Città di Ponti was a treacherous place in the dark. I shuddered at the sound of a woman’s scream somewhere in the blackness behind us.

I froze in horror when I recognized the voice as Niccola’s.

“What the—” Callisto grabbed the lantern from Fausto and ran back to the northern edge of the bridge, where Niccola had collapsed on the ground, still screaming and twisting as though to escape something tangled in her skirt. As I watched, a crescent of blood streaked across her cheekbone. A strip of lace tore free from the hem of her dress. I grabbed at the bridge railing, fighting waves of nausea as I remembered the fresco in the Giacinto bedroom, the deep gouges on Oria’s body.

“Doriano!” Callisto had pulled out his dagger and was stabbing at the empty air around Niccola’s thrashing form. Blood dripped down from a gash at the corner of his mouth. “Throw me the sword!”

“No!” Niccola grasped at the bridge posts and pulled herself to her feet, slashing with her own knife at whatever had twisted itself around her legs. “It’s what they’re after! Doriano, run!”

I did.

La Città di Ponti had been called the edge of the world, not only because she was the southernmost city in La Repubblica, or because of the way the sea floor dropped out just beyond the mouth of the harbor. There were nights when the fog was thick over the canals, and thick and salt-tinged over the lagoon, but over the sea, it was empty. Ships sailed close to the shore so far south; those that didn’t were never heard from again.

I ran for the harbor.

The streets were tangled and maze-like, and even the light from Fausto’s lantern did little to disperse the darkness. I wished we had Callisto’s magic flames to lead us, but from the echoing clang behind us—not so much of metal on metal, but like metal on something infinitely harder—I judged the sorcerers were having trouble enough fighting off our pursuit.

I lead Fausto down a narrow tunnel and paused to catch my breath. It was not so hard to find a way south, even relying as I did on little more than the slope of the land and the smell of the breeze, but fear and strain and the weight of Verena at my side set my lungs burning. I pressed my forehead to the white stone wall and prayed, to every God and Goddess of whose name had ever been whispered from the forests of Monterosso to the street of la Città, to whatever creature had forged and wielded the thing pressing against my hip, to my beautiful Oria if she could hear me…I prayed until my breathing evened, and then I ran.

Fausto fell two streets down. I heard a cry of pain and a glistening shatter as the lantern struck the ground and sputtered out. Darkness swallowed us up, darkness more complete than should ever be found in the streets of a living city. I stumbled in the direction of Fausto’s scream when something sharp and icy struck the side of my face.

“Damn you.” My words were lost as another cut opened on my cheek, and then another. The creatures were cold against my skin, but the marks left by their claws burned like fire. I fought to pull Verena out from under my cloak and rip away its cloth wrappings.

“If ever you served your masters,” I hissed, “then serve me now.”

Light flared from the blade, illuminating something black and pulsing in the air around me. I swung the sword, scattering the monsters into the night. Fausto struggled to his feet, and I ran.

The city passed me in a blue-white blur. Though I ran fast and far, my lungs did not burn. Soon the stone beneath my feet became wood, and the wood became sand, and I was running along the thin spit of land between the lagoon and the ocean.

Waves churned against the shore on all sides of me, but farther out the sea lay black and mirror-smooth. Every star in the sky sparkled clearly from the face of the ocean. I waded down the sea-side of the sand spit, the glowing sword held out before me like an offering.

The waves tugged at the hem of my coat and a cold breeze stirred my hair. Verena grew hot in my hands, as though a ripple of fire ran through the blade. I took a deep, shuddering breath and flung it into the sea.

The blade arced across the sky, landing smoothly on the surface of the water. It seemed to rest there for a moment, floating between the air and the ocean, before going dark and vanishing beneath a sudden wave.

I walked back to shore and sank to my knees in the sand.

* * *

It was done. My lungs burned, my arms ached, but my heart felt as though a poisoned barb had been pulled from it. I could have wept with relief.

“Doriano?”

I turned to see Niccola and Fausto walking down the beach, a bloodied Callisto supported between them. Niccola’s gown was in shreds and Fausto’s hair had come loose from its braid. I scrambled to my feet and ran to help them, but Niccola brushed me off.

“We’ll be all right,” she said, and I heard relief in her voice to rival my own. “It’s over now.”

“Not yet,” Callisto said, smiling despite the gash at the corner of his mouth. He laughed at the stern expression on Niccola’s face. “Well, dear cousin, it isn’t as though you were using the whole place yourself!”

Niccola turned to me, a smile tugging at her lips. “This useless excuse for a sorcerer is trying to ask if you would like to join me—to join us—at the Palazzo Bianchi.” She studied my face for a moment, then rushed ahead. “I know it isn’t very grand, especially not after the house of the Giacinto, but we thought that, if you didn’t feel like returning to Monterosso…”

“Yes!” I laughed, raising her free hand to my lips. “Gods and Goddesses, Niccola, I’d love to!”

With my first real smile in months, I let her lead the way home.

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