Major Arcana, page 1
To be continued...
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DEATH MASQUERADE: MAJOR ARCANA
Copyright © 2017 by RoAnna Sylver.
Published by Kraken Collective Books.
All rights reserved.
Cover art by RoAnna Sylver.
Interior formatting by Key of Heart Designs.
Mask graphic by Freepik.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, trademarks, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
IN WHICH: In 19th-Century Venice, Italy, A Very Cool (And Familiar) Witch Informs A Homicide Inspector That He’d Better Get Used To Vampire Stories. He’s In One.
(One-Hundred And Fifty Years Before Stake Sauce, Act 1)
“What is it you seek?” the witch asked, smiling at her guest like the question had a right answer, which only she knew.
“I want you to tell me who murders on full moons and burns the bodies outside cathedrals,” said the man sitting before her. He did not look down at her hands, although they never stopped shuffling a deck of large, illustrated cards. This was the kind of fortune-telling he hadn’t put stock in a single day in his life. The world had rules, hard and fast. If some were more mysterious than others, that didn’t mean everything was suddenly true. “I want you to tell me about the rings of fire.”
“That’s asking a lot,” she said, dark brown eyes gleaming up at him, reflecting the low candlelight. “Even for a Holy Inspector.”
He didn’t trust the shadows any more than he trusted her. The small room was little more than a closet, curtains drawn over the windows despite the near-midnight hour. The only illumination came from a few flickering candles in corners, and one on the small table between them. The witch’s long-fingered hands flashed as she manipulated the cards, though her eyes never left his serious face for a moment.
“If the question is beyond your expertise, I’ll be on my way.” He spoke quietly, thoughts on streets outside, dark but far from silent, and the full moon overhead.
“You’d just have to come back in a month,” she said with a click of her tongue. “Because everything else you’ve tried has failed, correct? You’ve followed the rules, gone through all the procedures, applied every bit of logic you can to the puzzle, but it’s still puzzling, isn’t it? And whoever sent you—”
“You know who sent me.” The faintest shade of a smile pulled at the corner of his thin lips, but it wasn’t one of amusement. “Even a charlatan card-reader could tell me that.”
“Good thing I can tell you a lot more.”
“What can you tell me without the cards, Letizia Verazza?” he asked, refusing to follow the hypnotic motions of her hands. “About Venice, and the people in it? There must be a reason I was sent to you in particular. Aside from—”
“You don’t like my methods?” she shot him a much-too-amused glance. “I suppose that’s not much of a surprise. I’ve never really been popular with Holiness, or their Inspectors.”
“I’m not one with the Church,” he said, leaning forward a fraction and inclining his head. Perhaps the candles would cast ominous shadows across his face, same as hers. Perhaps then she’d stop smiling. “And I don’t share their superstitions.”
She let out a low whistle. “I guess not, if you’re calling them superstitions.”
He ignored that. “I carry out their directives, regardless of my own beliefs. Tonight they directed me to put a stop to the blasphemous slayings plaguing this city. They directed me to you.”
“Oh, I see,” she said, continuing to shuffle in a flourishing way that had to be more elaborate than strictly necessary. And louder. “It’s asking for help that you don’t like, isn’t it, Investigatore Giovanni?”
“I don’t like trusting my investigation to the whims of a silly girl who plays with cards.” His words were measured, each one carefully chosen, and he watched carefully to see how they landed.
“But you’re still going to pay her.” The witch laughed and set her deck down, smoothing them into a perfect stack. Lights danced in the waves of her long brown hair, and the flash of her teeth. “And the fact that you’re here when you’d clearly rather be anywhere else speaks volumes. It tells me exactly how bad a mess you’re in…and you know it.”
Giovanni said nothing. Her smile grew wider, brighter, and she began.
“So first, we have our Significator,” Letizia said, drawing the first card and preparing to place it on the table between them. “It can represent you, or the situation—”
“I know what it means,” he said flatly.
“So here’s you.” The witch lay the card down unhurriedly, giving him a deliberate blink. “Justice, reversed. Fits pretty well, Holy Inspector—but why would you be reversed? Are you running into trouble?”
He didn’t comment, and she smirked down at the card. Silently, he waited for her to continue.
“We’ll see soon enough. Across you is the Tower.” She shook her head as she lay the card displaying a collapsing, burning ruin lengthwise across the Significator. “Don’t like to see that one show up so early in a spread.”
“The Tower is bad, I take it?”
“No card is necessarily bad… though if I had to pick one?” She shrugged. “The situation’s fragile, and can’t be resolved as it is. Something’s got to give. If you want to build anything solid, everything has to come crashing down first. Wonder what’ll happen when it does…”
She laid out another card; a woman in a shining tiara against a vault of stars. It looked upside-down from his perspective, and the witch’s quirked eyebrow seemed to confirm. “Below you is the Empress, reversed.”
“This card is your foundation. Reversed, she upholds everything that’s ruining your day.” She reached out to tap the card’s surface with one long, black-varnished fingernail. “A powerful, elegant dark lady stands in your way.”
“I’d have no idea what that feels like,” he said, keeping his face a practiced neutral.
“Was that a joke?” She shot him a glance, but he gave her nothing. “Well, thanks for calling me powerful and elegant. But it’s not me. She’s not very nice, that’s for sure. Moving on…” She lay another card, to the left of the Significator and crossing Tower. A man sat on a grassy hillside wearing a hood, kind eyes shining out from beneath its shadow. “But here’s a friendly face. Behind you is the Hermit. Have you talked to any lately?” She only waited for a second this time, moving on quickly when he didn’t reply. “Well, he doesn’t talk much, but when he does, listen. He’ll always have your back.
“And above him… and you…” The witch drew another card, smiling when it came out upside-down. Not reversed, but flipped where the rest were right-side-up. She turned it over, revealing a radiant golden sun’s brilliant rays. “Guess the sun has to come out from behind the clouds first. It’s shining down on you, but you won’t recognize it until it takes off its mask.”
“Hm.” Giovanni studied the cards so far, resting his chin on his fist. “And are all of these individuals? Or do they describe circumstances, variables?”
“So you are paying attention.” She raised her eyebrows at him. “Ordinarily, the cards can show me anything they want. People, places, things, times, questions—”
Letizia gave him another slow blink, and he leaned back in his chair. Fine. On her time. He wouldn’t be in here long. “But yes, today, they’
She lay the next card to the right of the reversed Justice and its obstructing Tower. “The Star. Very nearby, very close ahead. No masks here, she’ll shine almost as brightly as the sun, and show you all her secrets. But just because something’s shown doesn’t mean it’s revealed. A secret’s no good if you don’t recognize it.”
He stared at her, hard, attention caught by a single word. “She?”
The witch gave an answering nod, smile enigmatic.
“You know who all these people are,” he realized with some surprise and what might be the raw beginnings of respect. “Don’t you?”
“I know a lot of things. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?” She didn’t wait for him to respond before setting the next card, on its own to the right of the growing spread. “Your approach is the Chariot. Usually this would mean how you respond to everything—with energy, persistence, drive. But as we know…”
“These are all individuals involved in this investigation.” He tapped a firm rhythm against the Tower and Justice Reversed.
“Yes, but this one’s a little off to the side.” She smirked at the Chariot, the horses tossing their wild manes, the small figure standing tall behind the reins. “She’s going her own way, that’s for sure.”
“How is she connected?” he asked, unwilling to let the point drop so soon.
“Everything’s connected,” Letizia said easily, placing another card above the Chariot without so much as glancing at it. “Like the Wheel of Fortune says. The world’s spinning, fast as a chariot wheel, and there’s nothing you can do but hold on tight. What are you afraid of?”
“What?” He blinked, knocked off-balance by the sudden question.
“What are your hopes and fears, Holy Inspector?” She grinned at him, and he was really beginning to dread that smile. He never seemed to like what followed. “Let’s see. Your hopes and fears…” Letizia casually tossed the card down, again without looking at its image. She had to be showing off. Unfortunately, it was starting to work.
He looked down into the face of the Devil.
“I don’t need to explain that one, do I?” the witch asked, and when he looked up, she was resting her elbows on the table, chin on her folded hands. “Who isn’t afraid of him?”
“Who is ‘he?’” Giovanni asked with sudden fervor. For the first time, he was anxious to hear the answer. He could stand her theatrics and idiosyncrasies if it meant uncovering something vital and real. “The killer?”
Her smile faded, and she actually seemed to sink into deep thought. She wasn’t teasing him anymore, even with him hanging on her every word. She didn’t rise to the bait, instead staring at the Devil’s cruel smile and crown of bones, teeth bared as he ruled over his fiery kingdom. Gold glinted in his eyes.
“Yes… and no,” she said at last, sounding faraway. Everything else may have been flash and fakery, but for the first time, he believed he was hearing the truth. “He’s here, but he wears a mask. Like everyone else in town.”
“Then what is the answer?” he pressed, fingernails digging into the palms of his hands. Giovanni couldn’t say when he’d been convinced. He was here for a reason, and it may very well be her.
“The answer,” she said, drawing the final card slowly and laying it down above the Devil. Her smile returned, and this time she looked more than smug, more than mocking. She was self-satisfied again, but in a different way. Relaxed, utterly secure in her power and victory, like a monarch lounging across a priceless throne. The card she’d laid was of a cloaked figure, hands raised to the sky and clasping jagged lines of lightening in their fists. Their eyes burned with fire just as bright as the thunderbolts above, and the storm seemed to twist and bend to their will. “Is me. The Magician. The answer you need… is a witch.”
He stared at her, suddenly feeling as if they were in the eye of a storm. The city outside may well not exist. Shapes moving in the shadows, towering cathedrals, even murders, for one moment all were forgotten. His vision was focused on this room, this witch, and these cards.
“Are you satisfied with the outcome?” Letizia asked then, jolting him from his reverie.
“I believe I will be,” he said after a moment’s thought, keeping his expression carefully neutral. He scanned the cards one more time, from his reversed and Tower-blockaded Justice, all the way through to the triumphant Magician. “It’s a start.”
“Good. May I?” She reached for the cards, lazily regal air fading in favor of quick, economical motions she’d used before the spread began. He nodded and she started picking them up and slipping them back into the deck. She was nearly complete when a single card slipped out, dropping to land between them, face-up and gleaming gold in the candlelight.
“The Devil again,” Giovanni murmured, eyes flicking from the card back up to the witch’s face, which he was gratified to note, wasn’t smiling. She looked thoughtful as well, maybe even troubled for the first time. Something about that was satisfying.
“Looks like he’ll be around for a long while,” she said, picking up the card and secreting it away with the others. As she did, her smirk returned, but he’d seen the hesitation in her eyes.
“And what am I supposed to glean from all this? That the Devil walks the streets, mowing down innocents and setting them aflame?”
“Told you all I can, Inspector.” She shrugged lightly. “The spread was what it was.”
“That’s not good enough.” His voice hardened, but lowered at the same time. “And the perpetrator is a man, not a demon. A man who will be drawn from the shadows into the light, and be made to face the consequences—as all who stand against my employers are. The slayings are of this world, and so are the answers.”
“Then why do you need me to find them?” She drew back, an edge of suspicion entering her voice, almost as if he was the genuine threat, night-stalkers and arsonists be damned.
“If you have information, you’re bound to share it,” he said flatly. “Regardless of the source.”
“I share information with my friends,” she said, eyes narrowing in return. “And until now, your employers have never treated me as one of theirs.”
“You don’t like the Church, do you?” It came out more roughly than he intended, something near a challenge.
“I don’t trust them,” she said simply. “And I don’t work with people I can’t trust.”
“If you’re not aiding, you’re obstructing.” He leaned forward, dropping his voice further. “You’re keeping these streets deadly. You’re keeping me from doing my job: rooting out mysteries and violence in the shadows, and pulling them to the light of day. You’re preventing me from saving lives.”
She regarded him, expression as inscrutable as his own practiced mask. The one thing he could see in her eyes was a complete lack of intimidation. Finally, she smiled. “I’m just a silly girl with some cards.”
“Thank you,” he said without hesitation, before rising and turning away. “We’ll be in touch.”
The witch’s sharp laughter followed him out the door. “See you soon.”
The full moon shone overhead like a new-minted coin.
Giovanni stepped out into the dark street, hunching down into his heavy coat as he strode toward the mouth of the narrow side alley the witch called home. It was late, and people were reluctant to leave their homes after sundown thanks to the gruesome scenes of the past few months. The murders had sent a wave of paranoia sweeping through the city, and it hadn’t taken him long to notice the air of tension, people looking over their shoulders in fear, even in broad daylight. Once night fell, most sensible folks stayed inside completely.
Except for here, the theatre district. There was activity on the larger, more-populated street up ahead, a few late stragglers heading toward the opera house on the corner. Apparently some things were worth throwing caution, and possibly one’s life, to the wind.
He took a step, and everything changed.
And he wasn’t alone. Someone or something lurked in the shadows beyond the flames, indistinct but unmistakably real. Vaguely human-sized and shaped, but no face he could see, no hair, nothing but the glint of reflective eyes. There came a chilling snarl, and something else gleamed in the orange firelight: long, wickedly pointed fangs. Giovanni recoiled, stumbling back a few steps, but there was nowhere to run. The ring of fire burned behind him, and before him was a monster.
He barely caught a glimpse of long, silver claws as the creature lunged toward him.
Giovanni fell back, blinded by the fire blazing all around, shielding his head and neck with his arms. Before he shut his eyes, he thought he saw a flash of white fur, a tail trailing in the air like a flag. Above the creature’s inhuman screeches came a dog’s urgent barks.
Frantically he tried to clear his vision. Green and purple afterimages danced before his eyes, and when the world finally came into focus a few chaotic seconds later, the dog was gone—but the fire wasn’t.
Even brighter than the blazing ring was the firelight coming from twin fireballs; someone stood in front of him and held one in each hand. They stood with their back toward Giovanni and wore long black robes; he could tell nothing of the person behind the fire. But they stayed between him and the shadowy creature, tossing flame at it as it shrieked and dodged away—he seemed to have gained an ally. For the moment.
“Witch?” he called; there was only one person in this Godforsaken city who might want to rescue him, and only one who might be able to fling fire like snowballs.
“Yes?” The figure half-turned to face him, and he nearly jumped out of his skin. They wore a black mask, looking in profile like a sinister bird with a long, curving beak. An anachronistic plague doctor mask, he realized. Not in use for hundreds of years, not until now. The silhouette was terrifying against the fire, and even after so many years and horrible sights, it still gave Giovanni pause, and a chill.
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