Major arcana, p.2

Major Arcana, page 2

 

Major Arcana
 


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  “Don’t move!” Letizia’s shout made him turn, and again his eyes were assaulted by a brilliant flare. He froze, more out of surprise than obedience.

  She appeared in a whirl of motion, spinning, light flashing with every step. He felt lightheaded just looking at her, and the bright white light that came not from her hands, but her eyes. She wore a pair of thick-lensed goggles, but instead of simply protecting her eyes from outside light, these projected their own. Twin searchlights that swept the ground as she turned, catching sight of the dark, menacing shape, and lighting it up bright as day—for the second-fractions before it twisted and leaped away, escaping behind its barrier of fire.

  But Letizia was having none of it. She followed as her masked partner continued hurling globes of flame at the mysterious assailant, and between the two of them, they kept their adversary too busy to escape. Her hands were balled into fists as well, but instead of fireballs, she wielded bladed knuckles. She swiped with both punching blades like claws, and he could hear faint whistles as they sliced the air. She moved almost faster than Giovanni’s eye could follow, faster than any human was meant to. But then, most humans weren’t witches, and most witches weren’t her.

  In a near-blur, she hurled a small, round object to the ground, and it exploded in a shower of fragile glass and splashing water. Again, the creature beyond the flames screeched, and now its fangs were bared in a snarl of frustration and pain.

  “Finish it?” Letizia called, dropping into a bent-kneed stance, smoothly tracking her foe’s movements, not letting it out of her sight, or the light, for a moment.

  “Right behind you!” The reply was muffled, but Giovanni could hear the wild laugh through the sharp-beaked plague doctor mask. “Say the word!”

  “Now!”

  The masked witch—going by the fireballs—raised their long arms over their head, and Letizia lunged forward, directly toward the fire wall. But it wasn’t there when she reached it. The other witch brought their arms down in a wide sweep, black robes flying behind like wings. With a loud, sputtering hiss, the fire was extinguished, fast as if the street had just been flooded from a cloudburst overhead.

  Giovanni waited for the inhuman shrieks signaling the monster’s death throes, but it didn’t come. Nor did a flash of light or explosion of flame or anything else. The street was dark once more, and silent as if the last few minutes’ chaos had never occurred. All that remained was a circle of thick, still-smoking embers on the ground, and the three of them left standing.

  “Well,” Letizia said, slowly standing up straight and shaking her head. The motion doused the bright eye-beams, and she slid the lenses up onto her head, giving him a satisfied, crooked smile. “That was almost fun.”

  “What was that?” Giovanni asked the first question that entered his mind, one that encompassed everything he’d seen since the night began.

  “That would be your criminal at work, Inspector,” said Letizia’s masked friend before she could answer, emerging from the shadows on smooth steps. They were uncommonly tall and thin and, even under the flowing robes, he could tell they moved with an equally uncommon grace. “And we’d have really had some fun if he hadn’t run off early.”

  He was almost about to interject, ask how this strange person in the intimidating black robes and nightmarish mask knew who he was. But then they reached up—hands pale, thin, long-fingered—to their mask and started to pull it off, and he fell silent, reserving judgement until he saw the face behind it.

  Whoever he expected, it wasn’t the witch who stood before him now. Like their hands, their face was pale and thin, features angular without looking severe or harsh. Long, straight black hair fell past their shoulders; it must have been tucked up inside their mask before, since he hadn’t seen it flying (or easily catching fire) during the fight. Even after this relatively close look, Giovanni couldn’t say if the willowy person in black was more masculine or feminine, or neither, or a blend. Their deep black eyes and the lines of their long limbs were beautiful in a rare, striking, entirely individual way, and like the rest of their quietly confident movements, it all seemed intentional.

  “Zadkiel! Are you all right?” Letizia hurried past Giovanni, seeming to have forgotten he was there. Once together, she and the witch she’d called Zadkiel took one another’s hands for a moment before letting go almost as quickly. The small, automatic-seeming moment may well have been Giovanni’s imagination, were it not for the sidelong glance Letizia shot him.

  “Me? I’m not the one our friend was after just now.” Zadkiel’s dark eyes swept over her, and they relaxed only after seeming satisfied that she was all in one piece. Giovanni studied them just as carefully; their name may have been unfamiliar to most, but nobody who knew their scriptures would miss the angelic origin. He had questions about that name, its inspiration, hubris or homage? He had questions about many things tonight—but one at a time. He stayed quiet, watching their interaction and evaluating. “So you were right. You called, and he came running.”

  “He certainly did,” Letizia folded her arms, eyes tracing the circle of ash around them that had once been fire. “So we learned one important thing tonight. He has it out for us, specifically. Why? And more importantly, can we use that to our advantage? Set a trap of our own?”

  “Some things we should never have to learn.” Without the mask, it was much easier to hear the tinge of worry in Zadkiel’s voice, see it in their eyes. “Particularly if it means you’re the bait.”

  “Never mind that, are you sure it’s safe for you to be here?” she asked, in a much gentler tone than anything Giovanni had heard aimed at him. She shot Giovanni a glance and it looked like a warning, like she might consider him a threat to her friend. Considering they’d been hurling fireballs with both fists a moment ago, Giovanni didn’t know whether to feel insulted or flattered.

  “Don’t worry, dear one,” Zadkiel said, smiling at her obvious concern. “Now that’s over, I don’t expect much more trouble tonight. Trouble sees the mask and keeps walking.”

  “Well, where’s Lunette, did you bring her at least?” She didn’t sound convinced, stepping closer to look directly up into the taller witch’s face. Letizia wasn’t short herself, but Zadkiel stood a head taller than her, and probably had a few inches on Giovanni if he had a mind to check.

  “Probably digging into a big, lovely fish at this hour. Lunette doesn’t like the city, too bright, too loud—and after last time’s excitement, I’m not sure anyone here likes her either.”

  “That horse is never going to be the same.”

  Giovanni barely listened to their chatter. There was still something wrong here, something he couldn’t immediately define, until he turned in a complete circle, looking over the ring of ashes at their feet.

  “There’s no body,” he said, immediately half-gearing up for another fight. “And there’s no cathedral here, not for a half-mile.”

  “That’s right,” said Letizia, sounding a great deal less concerned than someone might be expected to after the past few minutes. She did sound annoyed, however. “That’s because this isn’t a murder scene. As I said, it was a trap.”

  “But how did—nobody knew I was coming!”

  “Not for you,” she scoffed, looking like she wanted to kick at some of the smoldering ashes, and wisely stopping. “For me. The murdering firestarter and I have a history. I had a hunch he’d set a trap one of these nights. I’d call it confirmed.”

  “But you don’t know who he is?” he pressed. “You have some personal connection with the murderer, but you can’t give me an identity?”

  “Masks,” Zadkiel held up their own, while Letizia looked at him as if he’d asked the most foolish question imaginable. “The one responsible for these awful nights always wears one.”

  “Him and the rest of this place,” Letizia said just above a mutter. She moved subtly, ending up between Giovanni and Zadkiel in a way he thought was anything but coincidental.

  “Fashionable, pract
ical,” Zadkiel nodded; if they noticed her maneuver, they gave no sign of it. Instead their focus stayed on Giovanni, looking at him with less suspicion or apprehension than Letizia, or most other people he interacted with on a daily basis. When fire rose at your command, he supposed, you could afford to be confident. “For us and them.”

  “Them?” Giovanni gave the two of them a hard stare.

  Letizia cast him a look that suggested her patience was nearly as extinguished as the fire. “Yes, Inspector. Them.”

  “Masks aside,” he said, trying a different tactic. “You’re familiar with him. With his work. Enough that he’d target you individually.”

  “That’s right,” she said. “Starting to understand why you need us?”

  “Letizia,” Zadkiel said then, a little urgently, but they looked more excited than worried. “The show’s got to be half over.”

  “Thanks to this rude delay.” Letizia’s face lost a great deal of its sharp-edged leer when she turned away from Giovanni and toward Zadkiel.

  “Rude indeed,” they said, giving her subtle smile a brighter one in return. “But we can still catch the ending if we hurry.”

  “You go ahead. Save us some places inside?” Letizia cast a smirking glance back toward Giovanni. “Reserved seats in the regular box. The Inspector and I will be along in just a moment.”

  “Don’t wait too long,” Zadkiel said, slipping their plague doctor’s mask back on and heading for the alley mouth. “She’s so wanted us to see this one.”

  “Yes,” Letizia said a little dryly. “I know.”

  Zadkiel didn’t answer. When Giovanni turned back toward them, the masked witch was gone—in their place, a familiar-looking white dog. There was no flash of light or cloud of smoke; Zadkiel’s apparent transformation had been silent and quick.

  The dog looked at him for a moment, tongue lolling out in a doggy smile, before turning and trotting out of the alley, its long, fluffy tail waving behind.

  “I’m assuming you don’t mean to hang around here all night?” Letizia said before Giovanni could so much as speak, starting toward the main street with confident strides.

  “You’re just leaving?” he called, incredulous. “This is a crime scene.”

  “As you said, there’s no body,” she said, matter-of-fact and businesslike. “Was there a crime at all?”

  “There was certainly something,” he maintained, holding his arms out to gesture at the dark embers still giving off smoke. “Or did you not see what I did?”

  “By all means, call in your friends.” She turned around, and he thought he caught a roll of her eyes. Was she running out of patience? Good. See how she liked it. “Launch a full investigation, bring in every God-fearing lawman, see what happens.”

  “And what would happen?” he challenged, not budging an inch.

  “More men. More footprints.” Now she did scuff at the ash on the ground, smirking when his eyes widened. “More tripping over regulation hangups. More procedure. Procedure is slow. As you just witnessed, these things happen very fast. So you can either do it the slow, methodical way, and watch more people die outside cathedral doors—or you can follow me, and see for yourself.”

  “To your previous engagement?”

  “Where else? We did have plans before you came along.”

  He didn’t budge an inch, marveling at her calm amidst the ashes around them. “Was none of that strange to you?”

  “Everything’s strange when you’re a stranger!” she called back, grinning, and he thought of sharp-faced wolves. “No, Inspector. You don’t know what strange is yet...”

  His eyes narrowed and her smile widened. “Show me.”

  “I intend to. Now come on, we wouldn’t want to miss the last act.”

  The soprano’s voice was sublime.

  Holy Inspector Fiore Giovanni was no patron of the arts, and rarely had time for frivolous distractions, but even he recognized the characteristic staccato of Mozart’s Queen of the Night. Most would, even if they didn’t know the name. The Magic Flute’s showstopper movement was popular but demanding, and could so easily be butchered by screeching and overzealous divas—but not here. The notes were effortlessly smooth, flutey and pure, but with a steely undercurrent of raw power the role of scorned Queen demanded. Anyone could see why MonaLisa’s name had blazed in lights for so long, a rising star who showed no signs of fading.

  Giovanni cared nothing for her physical charms, her soft, generous curves or painted face, and even less for the music itself. But presence, charisma, mastery over an audience’s hearts and minds; these caught his notice. In perhaps a different way than anyone else in the packed house, she had his attention.

  Reaching the piece’s climax, she raised her arms above her head, letting her mane of curls cascade down her back, catching the lights and seeming to turn to a flame of gold. A moment later, the rest of her began to rise as well. As the captive audience watched, her toes left the ground, and she continued to ascend. No matter how hard Giovanni’s sharp eyes searched for the gleaming of strings under the house lights, he found none. When she hung around twenty feet suspended in the air, something began to unfurl behind her. They were wings, he realized with bemused awe, huge and dark, like the kind that had blocked out the moon outside and threatened carnage, but in the theatre’s golden light, hers gleamed like polished obsidian.

  “Ahhhh,” the witch—the other witch, the one who’d worn the plague doctor mask—sighed, sounding absolutely besotted. Zadkiel had been waiting for them, thankfully in two-legged form, when Giovanni had followed Letizia into this private balcony. Now they sat on Letizia’s other side, and he shot them both a sidelong glance. Face equal parts incredulous and probing, he watched as Letizia handed her friend the goggles she’d worn outside; Zadkiel raised the lenses to their eyes like they were opera glasses, looking enraptured with what they saw. “She’s an angel. It’s been too long...”

  “You know I can get you in here any time you want,” Letizia murmured, leaning back in her seat and stretching her legs out as much as the spacious booth would allow. “Best seats in the house.”

  “Mmm, I wouldn’t want to draw any prying eyes,” they said, but still sounded wistful.

  “Well, maybe next time, you wear… a different coat,” Letizia leaned over to knock their shoulders together. “Nobody’d recognize you.”

  “That is an idea,” Zadkiel returned her grin, and theirs turned a bit mischievous. “But are you sure paws are allowed on the furniture?”

  “Incredible,” Giovanni muttered as the two of them giggled like schoolchildren, but his eyes were on the stage, and its star’s sweeping wings. “Absolutely incredible.”

  “She really is, isn’t she?” Letizia turned to face him, smile not fading a bit. “You can’t come to Venice and miss a MonaLisa performance.”

  “She’s…” his eyes followed the arc of the soprano’s black wings, their movement, too smooth and graceful for stagecraft. These were no creations of paper and wires. “One of…”

  “One of us,” the witch supplied. It didn’t answer his question, exactly, but the steel in her eyes said enough. “No, not your devil, not your killer. Just one of those mysteries in the shadows you mentioned earlier. If you’re staying, you’d better get used to them.”

  “I’m staying,” he said softly, watching as the beautiful, unmistakably inhuman creature twisted and turned in midair, never missing a note. His eyes traveled past Letizia to where the second witch had drawn their bare feet up onto their seat, revealing the torn and burnt edges of their cloak, as if they’d run through the woods, then fire. “There are too many mysteries here to be uncovered in a single night.”

  “Welcome to the Masquerade, Inspectore Giovanni,” she said in a low voice, drawing his attention and subtly shifting to block his view of the other two. “I hope you find the answers you seek.”

  “Oh, I will,” he said, solid and assured. “And you’re going to help me.”

  “And why would I
do that?” Her smile turned coy—or maybe predatory.

  “Making your home a safer place should be its own reward.”

  “Perhaps...” She appeared to consider for a few seconds, then fixed him with a suddenly steely gaze. “And yet.”

  “You would have the gratitude of the Church, and its blessing.”

  “Try again.”

  The surge of irritation nearly propelled him to his feet in the middle of the performance. As it was, he barely managed to keep his voice down. “What do you want?”

  “Immunity,” she said without hesitation. Her eyes had gone back to the stage. She tapped Zadkiel on the elbow, and they handed back her goggles. “On paper and legally binding.”

  “As an officer of the law, I cannot—”

  “Not from your law. From theirs.” She shoved the ‘opera-glasses’ back at Giovanni, nodding down to a section of black robes clustered in the front row. He raised the lenses to his eyes, and through them, he could see the telltale collars and gold chains.

  “The Church. And exactly why would you require immunity from the law of God?”

  “God has nothing to do with them,” she snorted, shaking her head. Then she gave a slow nod to Zadkiel, and the winged Queen of the Night who floated far above the audience’s heads. “If I show you everything you need to know, what this city is really like after dark... I need to know my friends and I won’t be rewarded with torture or death, simply for being who and what we are. Immunity, or you can face the ring of fire alone.”

  “Very well, witch,” he said with grudging respect. He always had to admire a driver of hard bargains, every bit as much as charismatic stage luminaries. “You’ll have your protection. Just be sure to extend the same to me.”

  “Of course,” she smiled, and settled back lower in her seat, discreetly raising her feet to rest them on the balcony railing. “I’m looking forward to a mutually beneficial working relationship. Now let’s sit back and enjoy the show—or what’s left of it.”

 
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