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Civis Romanus
Earl
posted 06-01-03 11:24 EST (US)         
A STRONGHOLD HEAVEN STORY

"THE HUMAN TOUCH"
A MYSTERY IN THE PO RIVER VALLEY
WRITTEN BY: Civis Romanus (formerly "Lancer")
Inspired by the characters appearing in THE HEIR UNAPPARENT


LIST OF CHARACTERS:
Antonio: Gaolkeeper's odious apprentice in San Luca Maggiore. (Civis Romanus)
Bianca: Now 19-year old former apprentice to Roberto del Strego. Quiet, clever and loyal. Slender figure, deep violet eyes, with a shock of dark curly hair that regularly escapes from her braids when worn. She's not unattractive, but very unassuming. Makes modest effort to enhance her looks. Nicknamed 'Ceneri' (ashes) because she's always smudged with the ashes from various fires and other sources. (Jayhawk)
Caimbeaul: Captain of San Luca Maggiore's troops. Above average heighth and build; black hair with black goatee. Weather-worn facial features, reddened skin, dry wrinkles. Respected for his battle experience. (Cellish)
Caterina: Now 21-year old, 3rd child of Duke Alfredo (deceased Duke Of Millefiore); nicknamed 'Cat'. Has slightly feline appearance; average heighth, slim build, with a slightly pointed face, large green cat-like eyes, long black curly hair and a smiling mouth. A mix of "romantic" and "wild child", she's fiercely loyal to her family but was somewhat sheltered by father and therefore doesn't grasp the politics of compromise. (GillB)
Cesare: Former thief, opportunist, mercenary, now a farmer near Millefiore; can be loyal if the cause attracts him, about 33 years old, medium build, black hair, brown eyes. (Civis Romanus)
Cosimo: Partner of Gaetano.
Crimson Knight: Paladin and former alter-ego of Figaro. Wears full crimson head mask or bright white metal armor with crimson plume and cape. (Civis Romanus)
Fidelio:The Hunchback. Dark hair and eyes; walks stooped and tilted to left due to apparent malformation on left shoulder and back. Normal, muscular arms. Intelligent (not a village idiot) but unrespected because of infirmity. (Civis Romanus)
Figaro: Jester. Brown hair, brown eyes. Tanned complexion. Now 23-years old. Somewhat well muscled and slightly taller than typical. Wears multicolor, geometric patterned clothing. Adept swordsman who entertains with verbal humor, physical agility and stunts. (Civis Romanus)
Gaetano: Hired man of Di Casselli.
Giuseppe: Tavern keeper in San Luca Maggiore. Self-appointed guardian to Pia. (Civis Romanus)
Loriana: Deceased Duke Alfredo's middle child and now Duchess of Millefiore. Has auburn hair and hazel eyes. Frugal, wise, practical with money. Sensitive and wise to the needs of the people. Widely liked by the people. (Micah Aragorn)
Paulo Di Casselli: Nobleman of San Luca Maggiore. Mid thirties, urbane, affable, articulate, tall, strongly built, dark curly hair, dark eyed and prominently nosed, handsome though, and unmarried. Supporter of Duke Ricco and a prominent advisor. (Civis Romanus)
Pia: 10 year old orphan girl taken in by the tavern keeper in San Luca Maggiore. (Civis Romanus)
Pietro Di Lucindo: A brooding man of average heighth, stocky build, dark complexion and a smileless face. His hair is black as night and his eyes are grey/green. Moorish blood and disapproving of Duke Ricco. (Civis Romanus)
Ricco: Duke Alfredo's oldest son and Duke of San Lucca Maggiore. Has dark eyes, black hair.
Was a spendthrift; arrogant like a bully. Experience of war changed him for the better. Accepted by commoners of San Luca Maggiore, but not entirely accepted by the nobility. Declared an enemy of Venice. (Micah Aragorn)

Roberto del Strego: A dabler in the dying lore of wizardry who lives in San Luca Maggiore. Bushy-bearded, thick-eyebrowed, portly, red-faced Roman, with big hands and an impressive (roman) nose. He moved north to get away from the Church. He's loud, bluff (rough, blunt, but not unkind). He constantly wipes a bald spot on his head with a handkerchief. (Jayhawk)

THE STRONGHOLDS:
Millefiore: "Thousand Flowers" - The home of the family of deceased Duke Alfredo (Ricco and half sisters Duchess Loriana and Lady Caterina).
San Luca Maggiore: "Greater Saint Luke" - The current home of Duke Ricco.

Please do not post in this thread. To contact the author please click on the following link to this story's COMMENT THREAD.

[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 10-08-2003 @ 04:01 PM).]

AuthorReplies:
Civis Romanus
Earl
posted 06-01-03 11:30 EST (US)     1 / 79       
ITALY - THE PO RIVER REGION - 1257 AD


"I DON'T BELIEVE IN MAGIC!" said the young boy to the gaudily dressed entertainer who just finished tumbling, juggling and balancing for the small crowd of gathered villagers.

"And why not, young one?" The entertainer, a jester by trade, and a master jester at that, stepped back with a feigned look of concern on his face. "Can't you feel the magic in the air? Can't you see its essence floating about begging to be captured and put to work?" Some of the other children began to look about trying to see the magic that might be floating near them. The boy, however, did not.

"Magic isn't real! My father told me so!"

"Did he now? Well, that must be because he cannot see it so well anymore. I guess it will be up to me, Figaro the Master Jester, to show you where to find it so you can show it to your father. Hmmm. Let me see. How to show you there is magic in the air." Figaro put his hand to his chin, frowned and looked contemplative. The children, even some of the adults, leaned in to see if they could 'hear' what he was thinking.

Suddenly, Figaro's face changed from intense concentration to exaggerated glee. He leaped into the air, lightly landing on his feet with his right index finger raised in a dramatic display to suggest he had just then conceived a most delightful idea. "Stay here! Don't go away!"

Figaro bent over and began to rummage in a nearby open sackcloth bag. "Hmmm. Where is it? I know it's in here somewhere." Suddenly he stiffened his back as if trying with all of his might to pull something from the bag. It seemed instead to be trying to pull him in. A tug-of-war ensued. Pull out, pull in, pull out, pull in. Finally, Figaro planted his feet and with a mighty pull withdrew from the bag... a small pouch. He held it up to show the audience, wiping his brow of the moist effects of exertion. The children giggled even more than they did during the tug-of-war when they saw just how small the bag looked in the jester's strong yet quite normally sized hand.

"Behold!" shouted Figaro. "I present the world's only magic collection pouch!" The children could not take their eyes off of the pouch. The unbelieving boy eyed it with suspicion, tinged with curiousity. "What's inside?" asked the boy frowning.

"Nothing, young one. See for yourself." Figaro inverted the pouch and showed all of them that nothing was inside.

"What are you going to do with the pouch, jester?" said the boy, a challenge embedded in his words.

"We're going to collect... magic," answered Figaro, dramatically drawing out the last word. The eyes of the children, even the boy's, opened wide with wonder and no small measure of excitement.

[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 06-01-2003 @ 11:33 AM).]

Civis Romanus
Earl
posted 06-02-03 15:22 EST (US)     2 / 79       
"How are you going to do that, Master Jester?" asked a young girl, her eyes dancing with flecks of anticipation, her cheeks rosy pink from laughter at the jester's combat with the pouch in the sackcloth bag.

"Like this, young lady," said Figaro. He used both hands to open up the pouch and turned it upside down once more to show there was still nothing in it. He then gave the pouch to the disbelieving boy and told him to look inside, and to put his much smaller hand in as well to verify nothing was there. All of the children and the rest of the audience studied the boy and the pouch as he searched its interior. This gave Figaro the opportunity he was looking for and he deftly deposited a collection of objects heretofore up his sleeve into a compartment in his loosely fitted shirt. The boy gave the pouch back to the jester satisfied it was as empty as the clever jester claimed.

Figaro took it back with his left hand and pointed to it with his right. Then he made a great show of stalking the area as if he were hunting something airborne, like a butterfly, and widely missing it or nearly catching it as his pantomime played out. At last, he vigorously pursued an invisible something, stumbled over his feet and tumbled forward landing on his posterior with a dazed look on his face that brought all sorts of giggles and laughter forward from the audience. He switched the pouch to his other hand, looked inside and smiled a huge self-satisfied grin that now had the audience wondering what he might have caught.

Getting to his feet, Figaro excitedly walked over to the boy. "There is magic in the pouch, young one. Care to see?" The boy hesitated, then took the proffered pouch from the jester's hand and looked inside. His eyes opened wide and he removed the object he found: a small sphere of beautiful blue, the color of the sky. It was solid glass, but made in such a way that it would take a determined strike with a stone to shatter it.

"Magic..." the boy said and he looked in wonder at the beautiful miniature ball. "Is there more? I mean, can you see or find more of this magic?"

"Hmmm, maybe," said Figaro, rubbing his chin with his left hand. "Let's see... Magic in the air, places open to the air. I know one..." He walked and stood before a young girl and looked at her directly. "Yes, there's magic caught right in your ear. May I add it to the pouch?"

"Yes," answered the girl tentatively. Figaro reached for her ear and as if extracting it straightaway, dropped another colorful small glass ball from his right hand into his left hand held open to catch it as it fell. The children all laughed at the surprised expression on the girl's face as Figaro added it to the pouch held by the boy. "And you... And you, too." Mores small glass balls appeared as they fell from the ears of various children in the crowd. Some balls were dark blue, others were yellow, green, red and orange, and one was brown. "Hmmm, I think there is one more and I think it is stuck right there." Figaro pointed to the nose of the boy holding the pouch.

"I don't feel anything," said the boy. "Of course not, you can't feel magic," said the jester. "That's why you didn't believe me earlier. So let's see what's there."

The boy held still and from somewhere around his nose, the boy never could say where, a small clear glass ball fell from Figaro's right hand into his left. The jester placed the ball in the pouch himself. The boy looked in the pouch once more and then, with a puzzled expression, asked Figaro, "Master Jester, what am I to do with these?"

"Ahhh, now there is a very good question. You see, young one, magic is of no value unless you apply the human touch. The pouch and the magic within is yours. I give it to you. All I ask is that you promise me this. Later today, draw a circle in soft dirt and take into your hand your favorite among the small balls. Roll it around in your hand and let your touch warm the magic within. Think hard about a game to play with the circle and the colored balls, and with the magic in the little ball, you will think of something fun to play with all of your friends. Share it with them and the magic in the air will grow even more. Go now and do as I ask. You will see then why there is magic in each of the little balls in the pouch." The boy nodded his head, a smile forming on his face, a different look in his eyes, not one of disbelief like before.

With that the jester stepped back and bowed deeply. "Thank you, people of this village. The entertainment is over for this day. I hope you will share a little magic with me and make something appear in my hat in reward. Good day, all! Good day!" Figaro placed his hat on the ground and then stepped away as villagers who could spare a coin placed it in his hat. With a broad smile he thanked each and everyone who placed a coin there. He saw the boy wave to him and then turn and run towards the village, a gaggle of children following him. He waved back, but Figaro knew the boy probably didn't see his response. No matter, the jester had done his job well that day. There were happy children and amused, appreciative adults in the village. He had succeeded in the way a master jester should.

Civis Romanus
Earl
posted 06-03-03 15:07 EST (US)     3 / 79       
The crowd melted away chatting among themselves, gesturing, laughing, mostly talking about the show they had just seen. Slowly, listening unobtrusively to the comments, Figaro walked leisurely around the open area casually collecting props he had used in his show. Some he stored in an open chamber slung under the frame of his wagon. Other's, smaller in size, he placed into the oversized sackcloth bag from which he had extracted the pouch earlier.

The bag was the last item to be stowed. When he was done, he closed and latched the doors to the storage chamber and straightened up to his full heighth. In doing so he could feel his muscles stretch and various body hurts migrate and take up new places in which to reside. His shows were vigorous and physical, more so than most jesters would even attempt. He paid the price on occasion for his uniqueness. This was one of those occasions.

Rubbing his shoulder, Figaro walked to the back of his enclosed wagon, climbed the short flight of stairs, opened the door, stooped remembering the low threshhold and entered the dimly lit interior. It was a warm day and so he felt compelled to remove his loosely fitted, carefully designed variegatedly colored shirt, and then removed his multi-colored geometrically patterned pants. He drew out of a small trunk a commonly colored pair of peasant pants and put this on. Shirtless, he sought and found his cot and lay down on it with something of a groan.

The sun moved slowly, relentlessly lower in the western sky. It had achieved the horizon when Figaro was awakened by a soft rapping at the door to his wagon. Without thinking he rose and opened the door only to find standing there, a young woman of about 19 holding a steaming bowl of stew in hands protected from burns by a roughly knitted cloth. The woman hardly expected to see the jester out of his performing clothes, least of all shirtless. She lowered her eyes quickly, blushed and tried to stutter out an explanation for her visit. "M... Master Jester... I... I..."

Still groggy from sleep, it took a moment for Figaro to realize what had discomforted the woman. He saw her glance at his uncovered upper torso once more and it was then he knew he needed to do something for decency's sake. "Just a moment," he said hastily and disappeared into the wagon.

The woman waited patiently for his return. As her heart beat rapidly, her mind raced down paths it seldom travelled. The image of the shirtless jester with the compelling eyes, youthful face and muscular shoulders was etched along every way or bend in her thoughts. She found herself still seeing him as he was before he retreated into his wagon. Then he returned and she saw him in the dull, plain clothes of a commoner... but for only a moment. Her mind's eye still saw him the special way it much preferred.

"I... I brought you some stew, Master Jester." She had by now somewhat recovered. "I saw your performance but had no coin to spare. I cooked this for you, instead. Will you accept it in place of a coin?"

"It smells delicious. How could I refuse?"

The young woman smiled prettily and offered the bowl to the jester. Figaro took it carefully, using the cloth as did the woman to protect his hands from the heat radiating through the bowl's glazed pottery. She gave him the spoon and the piece of bread wrapped in her apron for portage. "Here is some bread as well. I hope it will not be too dry." Figaro smiled and accepted the spoon and piece of bread. "May I sit with you while you eat?" she asked demurely, hopefully.

"I shall enjoy the company," replied Figaro. "What is your name?"

"Adelina, Master Jester."

"I am called Figaro when I am not being a jester."

"I may say your name?"

"Yes. Now I am a simple traveller, and this simple traveller's name is Figaro."

"Figaro," she said cautiously, thinking of where to begin. "Is the stew to your liking?"

Civis Romanus
Earl
posted 06-04-03 15:31 EST (US)     4 / 79       
"Tasteful and filling, Adelina," said Figaro, noting the smile that came to her face when he said this. He shifted the bowl and the cloth in his hands slightly to ease the place where heat had passed through the broadly weaved cloth to his hands.

Somewhat emboldened by his complement, she felt it was appropriate to speak of something she was curious about. "Are they true? The stories, I mean. The stories about you and the Venetians?" Adelina stared at him intently, waiting for his answer.

"I have heard the stories. Some are true. Most are overtold."

Adelina reached up and worried something at the nape of her neck. When her hand returned to her lap, the top of her dress was somewhat more open than before. "They say you dropped a Venetian mercenary named Mercutio with a single, bold stroke of your sword."

"We fought. The battle was long. He stumbled and fell on his own sword."

"That you defeated the entire Venetian army."

"The men and women with me defeated the Venetians. I was busy trying to reach Duke Ricco. It was but one of their armies, a smaller assemblage, not their entire army."

"It was your battle strategy they used."

"That is more true than not." Figaro spooned the last bit of stew into his mouth, chewed and swallowed. While he was doing this, Adelina reached down and lifted her skirt slightly as if to rearrange it for comfort. Her ankles and a brief length of leg above her ankles became exposed and stayed that way. Figaro's hunger was satiated but his discomfort began to grow. The next event he suspected in this encounter was already familiar to him as this was not the first village with a young woman intent upon this type of engagement. Most were young, beautiful, starving for adventure and travel, and he was as eligible a target in this regard as could be found. Oh Adelina, he thought. Please do not do this.

His silent plea went unanswered. She moved over as close to him as she could without totally violating propriety. "I'm glad you liked the stew," she began. "I could do this for you more often."

"I don't come through this village very often, Adelina. It would be a long wait."

Her expression changed to one filled with urgent pleading. Figaro's stomach knotted, but not because of the stew. She reached up and determinedly further loosened the ties of her upper dress. His heart began to pound, his soul and mind reacting defensively to the sudden pitched battle launched by the assault of the natural instincts of his body. "Then take me with you, wherever you go, it doesn't matter to me. I will do whatever you want. Here, now, later. Take me where you go!" She leaned in towards him in a manner designed to ensure full contact.

The battle within Figaro became fully engaged. From somewhere, everywhere, faces with silent voices cried out to him, calling him. One face had green eyes and a slender, slightly feline look, the other had beckoning violet eyes and an assortment of smudges on comely cheeks. The stern face of an older man frowned upon him and the elegant face of an aristocratic, mature woman floated hugely above a pointing, accusatory finger. The green-eyed woman's face came closer, as did the smudged face of the other. They were very close now. He could feel the warm breath accompanying their silently spoken words as caressing waves on his neck. Their silent, moving lips followed, jointly tracing lines up and down his neck, his jaw and to his own lips.

He reached out to touch their conjoined faces. He felt flesh, but not bone nor as he moved his hand to their lips did he feel the angles and corners that should be there. What he felt was warm, soft, yielding and completely improper for the vision in his mind. Then something engulfed and tried to consume his lips even as a delicate perfume invaded his senses. The battle within turned its attention to these points of contact, and as suddenly as it began, the battle ended. He was left alone on the battlefield and the conjoined faces were gone. He was confronted only by the frowning face and the aristocrat's pointing finger.

"NO!" Figaro cried out. "This is wrong. I cannot. Adelina, please no. Please go home. I am not what you think or what you want!" Figaro released her and pushed himself back and her away in a firm yet gentle manner. Adelina, shocked, stared at him. Her face crumpled and the tears began to flow almost immediately. She reached down and grasped the empty stew bowl, cloth and spoon, stood up and stepped away with her back to the jester. Then she stopped and turned around to face him. Tears flowing, anger and deep hurt registered everywhere, she cast a venomous look at him and threw the pottery bowl to the ground near his feet and against a small boulder. The bowl shattered into myriad chunks and pieces. Then she flung the spoon at him, striking him in the shoulder, turned and walked away retying the strings of her upper dress as she walked.

Figaro looked down at the shards of shattered pottery littering the ground. In the deep recesses of his troubled mind, the image he saw reminded him all to clearly of the pieces of his own life.

Civis Romanus
Earl
posted 06-05-03 15:24 EST (US)     5 / 79       
____________________________________________________________

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Readers of this story are encouraged to click on this link THE HEIR UNAPPARENT and read the linked first story in this series instead of this post. What follows in this post is an encapsulated digest summarizing the earlier story, but lacks the rich side adventures, suspense and surprises of the authors' collective first work. Reading the linked story will serve to make the preceeding posts in this story more understandable and the succeeding posts much more enjoyable. To permit readers time to follow my suggestion, I will pause in my posts to this thread until next week. I hope you will take a moment and enjoy the work of the team that wrote THE HEIR UNAPPARENT - Civis Romanus
____________________________________________________________

Figaro was the only son born to a village shopkeeper and his wife. Filled with wanderlust, the boy convinced his reluctant father to permit him to become an apprentice to a blacksmith in another village, on the basis that their own blacksmith already had an apprentice. A few years' later he learned of the death of his parents in a sudden outbreak of plague in their village. Now an orphan, he left the blacksmith to travel the Po River Valley in the company of a Master Jester and his companion who happened to be passing through at the time. Figaro became an apprentice to the Master Jester. The companion travelling with them was a middle aged mercenary who mentored Figaro in weaponry and its usage.

The mercenary left them upon word of a need for fighting men somewhere in the Po River Valley. The Master Jester died in an accident after overindulging in drink as was his wont. The Master Jester's wagon became the property of his apprentice, Figaro, who had reached the age of 18 and was now old enough to take his master's place.

A few years later the wars between Genoa and Venice began and the Po River Valley became the target of intrigue and military conquest. Millifiore and San Luca Maggiore straddled the Po River, Millifiore on the southwest bank and San Luca Maggiore on the northeast bank. Suciando, the Duke of San Luca Maggiore, coveted Millefiore for its strategic importance and opportunity it offered to control river traffic and tariffs, and thought upon the death of its Duke, Alfredo, that he could snatch this prize from Alfredo's son, Ricco, and Ricco's two half-sisters, Loriana and Caterina. In a controversial decision on his deathbed, Alfredo named Loriana as Duchess of Millefiore in place of the son he fathered with his first wife. Discord entered the family's palace immediately and Suciando allied himself with Venice in an attempt to seize Millifiore first by marriage to Caterina and then, failing this, by outright military conquest. Venice intended to seize both Millefiore and San Luca Maggiore after Suciando and Loriana exhausted their resources battling each other.

Rebels against the cruel Suciando operated freely in the countryside and as footpads on the Po River Road. Captured by these rebels, Figaro was reunited with the mercenary, who had been mortally wounded by Venetians operating secretly in the area. Figaro learned only then that the mercenary was really a paladin and had been mortally wounded trying to protect peasants from the cruelty of the Venetians. Figaro accepted the armor of the paladin as a sign of thanks to his former mentor and promised to fulfill his mentor's campaign against Suciando. In so doing, he accepted the personna of the Crimson Knight, which his mentor secretly had been in years past.

Entering Millefiore, Figaro became Ricco's household jester and travelled the road between Millefiore and San Luca Maggiore entertaining along the way. In these days he learned through rebel spies of Suciando's plot, fell in love with a disdainful Caterina and the shy Bianca (also called Ceneri) who was the apprentice and ward of Roberto Del Strego, a mysterious dabbler in mysticism.

Plot upon plot befell the region, beginning with the abduction of Loriana. In the end, the Crimson Knight led an army of peasants to defeat the Venetians and restore peace to the area. Ricco became Duke of San Luca Maggiore, Loriana remained Duchess of Millefiore and Figaro left the cities and did not return because he couldn't choose between Caterina and Bianca for fear of hurting the one he did not choose. The jester within returned to the forefront and the paladin receeded into Figaro's troubled psyche alongside his rememberances of Caterina and Bianca.

Civis Romanus
Earl
posted 06-09-03 11:45 EST (US)     6 / 79       
Figaro tightened his fists as these troubled memories flooded through his mind in a relentless, sweeping torrent. Finally, filled to capacity with fierce anguish, Figaro lashed out at the symbols of his life lying on the ground and kicked the shards of pottery, one after the other, as far in every direction as his frenzied foot could send them.

A piece of pottery whizzed by the ear of a young man recently arrived on a horse who seemed intent on speaking to Figaro. "Have a care, Sir!" cried out the visitor. "I have done nothing to you to warrant such a greeting!"

Figaro whirled about, a savage uncaring look on his face. "Who are you? Speak up! I'm in no mood for pleasantries!"

"Apparently not. That is quite clear to see. I shall be brief, then. Are you or are you not Figaro, the Master Jester?"

Figaro eyed the slender man in the fading light of sunset. The young man was well dressed, but had obviously travelled a significant distance on the Po River Road by the look of the dust on his clothes. Aside from the usual supplies carried by any traveller, the man had a small leather packet hung by a strap over his shoulder, apparently all the better to keep it near and not lose it, Figaro concluded. He decided to see what the man wanted.

"Yes, I am Figaro. Why do you ask?"

"I have a packet for you with a message inside," the man said, a relieved look on his face.

"A message? Who would send me a message?"

"If I may dismount, I will tell you and show it to you." He looked expectantly at the jester. Figaro nodded and the man dismounted. As he walked towards Figaro he slipped the packet's strap over his head, unlatched the packet's flap and withdrew a sheet of parchment folded into a broad thick square. He held it out to Figaro who held out his hand to accept the parchment. "A message to Figaro, Master Jester, from her ladyship, Loriana, Duchess of Millefiore."

It felt to Figaro in that moment that the blood drained from his own outstretched hand and pooled in his feet. His stomach knotted in response. His hand shook and nearly refused to accept the parchment, but finally his hand opened and the document was placed there for him to read.

Memories began to stir once more as he heard the thick paper announce its opening by emitting cracking noises as he unfolded the sheet. The first thing he did was look at the signature and seal. Yes, it was indeed from Loriana. Then he read the message. It struck home like a well aimed throwing knife.

My dear Figaro:

Lady Bianca, Duchess of San Luca Maggiore, wife of Duke Ricco, is gaoled accused of the death of the Duke. I believe she is innocent and it is another who killed my brother. We need you. Please come to Millefiore.

Loriana, Duchess of Millefiore

Figaro ran a free hand through the hair on his head as he struggled with the import of this unwelcome news. Finally, Figaro looked up from the parchment and asked this simple question. "Messenger, tell me. How did this happen?"

Figaro motioned to a fallen tree trunk and the messenger, accepting the invitation, sat down on its rough bark cushioned surface. Figaro found a similar spot nearby and waited patiently for the messenger to begin. "The Duchess said you would ask and said I should relate the events to you... As best I know, Master Jester, these are the events that occurred..."

[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 06-09-2003 @ 11:48 AM).]

Civis Romanus
Earl
posted 06-10-03 11:00 EST (US)     7 / 79       
The Great Hall of San Luca Maggiore - Two weeks ago. As told to Figaro by the messenger.

"The general banter among the guests at the banquet ceased almost immediately when the musicians began to play the fanfare signaling the arrival of Duke Ricco and his wife, the Lady Bianca. As was their custom the guests formed in loose rows on either side of the Hall.

"The Duke, Lady Bianca on his arm, appeared after the strains of the introductory bars of the fanfare faded and before the musicians began the noble melody of the processional. When the melody began, the Duke advanced down the section of the staircase visible to the guests in the Hall. Duke Ricco and Lady Bianca walked along the parallel rows of guests, nodding to some and acknowledging others as the men bowed and the women curtseyed.

"Lady Bianca was beautifully gowned and properly adorned with just the right amount of jewelery to set off the attractiveness of her face, its smooth skin and creamy complexion, without implying extreme wealth or pretentions. All in all, she presented herself tastefully, the twinkle in her eyes seemingly a symbol of general happiness and pleasure to be on the arm of the Duke of San Luca Maggiore. There was a slight discoloration on one cheek, no doubt errant powder or some other substance different in density and color than the powder she wore as makeup that evening. I am told Roberto Del Strego smiled as she approached, and some heard him whispering something to himself about "my Ceneri", then the Ambassador bowed as the Duke and his Lady passed by his place in the line.

"The processional ended when the Duke and Lady Bianca took their place at the banquet table. At a motion from the Duke, the guests took their places at the elongated table that formed an inverted "U" with the Duke and the Lady and selected special guests at the head. One such guest was Lord Paulo Di Casselli. Tall, strongly built, dark curly hair, dark eyed and prominently nosed, he had been one of the first to embrace Ricco when by consent of Genoa and the grudging consent of Venice, the son of Duke Alfredo of Millefiore was named Duke of San Luca Maggiore, the deceased Duke Suciando leaving no direct heirs. As a result, Lord Di Casselli secured for himself a prominent position as advisor to Duke Ricco and shared in the administration of the Dukedom, or so I am told.

"The other was Lord Pietro Di Lucindo. He is a brooding man of average heighth, stocky build, dark complexion and a smileless face. His hair is black as night and his eyes are grey/green. Some say he is of Moorish blood, his family originally migrating north to the Po River Valley from the island of Sicily. In contrast to the affable Paulo Di Casselli, Di Lucindo is a portrait of tense wariness and silent standoffishness who makes no secret of his disapproval of Ricco and his appointment as Duke of San Luca Maggiore. Few understood why Duke Ricco would invite the man, least of all sit him at the head table in the banquet hall.

"By San Luca Maggiore custom each banquet begins with a toast by the Duke to his guests. The cup is drained and a subsequent toast is raised to the Duke by his quests, usually given by one of the Lords on the guests' behalf. This cup too is drained. The banquet begins immediately afterwards.

"A cup of wine was brought to the Duke bearing the seal mark of the official taster. Ricco make his toast and drank down the cup of wine immediately. He turned to receive his second cup, but the guests observed that as he reached for the second cup, the Lady Bianca stopped his hand. She had a concerned look on her face, spoke to the servant, then she arose immediately and entered the serving alcove where the taster, hidden from view, was sampling the wine from the Duke's cups. She emerged again and presented to Duke Ricco a new cup of wine then took her place at the banquet table. The Duke seemed intent upon talking to nearby guests and paid little attention to the cup.

"The toast to the Duke proceeded, spoken eloquently by Lord Di Casselli. They all drank to the Duke's health and all downed their cups of wine. As if nothing were amiss,they began to lay into their meals with knives and hands, tearing savory pieces of roasted fowl from the birds served as the main ingrediant of the evening's repast. The Duke's appetite at first was as vigorous as his guests'; but as the evening progressed, he began to exhibit a paled look and his vigor declined noticeably. Suddenly he began to perspire and his complexion became mottled. He slumped in his chair falling face first into the scraps on his plate and began to shake, gripped in violent convulsions.

"The ladies closest to the Duke cried out, then began to whimper and cry. Men among the guests leaped to their feet. Guards moved in to protect the Duke, but were helpless to do anything about the seizures. Grave concern and a touch of fear on his face, Lord Di Casselli rushed to Duke Ricco's side and elevated him in his chair. Lady Bianca sat where she was at his left hand, her own hands held to her mouth, her eyes wide with shock, making no move to assist.

"The shaking stopped even as Di Casselli pulled the Duke to a full sitting position against the back of his chair. Ricco's eyes were rolled back in his head and no breath came from his patchy, mottled face. His heart had stopped and it was soon determined that it would never beat again. He was placed in his tomb three days later and the Lady Bianca was gaoled on the same day her husband was buried."

And so concluded the messenger's description of the events on the evening of Duke Ricco's death.

Civis Romanus
Earl
posted 06-11-03 21:20 EST (US)     8 / 79       
Figaro remained silent and then looked at the messenger, considering what he would say to him. He finally decided. "Why was the Lady Bianca gaoled and not the wine taster or servant?"

"I asked the very same question, Master Jester. I was told that in the law of San Luca Maggiore unless another is proven to be the perpetrator, the last to handle the poisoned offering is presumed to be guilty of the crime. Since Lady Bianca placed the cup before her husband, she is presumed to be the criminal."

"And what of the servant and the wine taster?"

"They cannot be found."

Figaro frowned. "Cannot be found? Didn't that raise some questions in the minds of those who administer the Dukedom, in the mind of Di Casselli or Del Strego for instance?"

"In fact, Lord Di Casselli has expressed his concern over the missing men and that is why Lady Bianca has been gaoled but not executed. Meanwhile, San Luca Maggiore is being administered by Lord Di Casselli. It is said he is torn between the law and his desire to find the two missing men, but admits he cannot put off the execution of Lady Bianca for very much longer; nor the execution of Del Strego."

"Del Strego?"

"Yes, didn't I tell you? The Ambassador is gaoled as well. It seems his cottage was searched and strange liquids found there, some of which are known poisons. He is accused of providing the poison that killed the Duke, though nobody knows exactly what poison was used."

Again Figaro went silent as he considered all of what he just heard. The messenger yawned. "Master Figaro, I must receive your answer to this message and then return with it to Duchess Loriana. I can allow no more than the passing of this evening. May I have your answer now?"

Figaro pursed his lips and frowned intensely. "No, Messenger, in the morning. I must think about this."

"Very well, Master Figaro. I shall obtain a room at the village inn and return in the morning at sunrise. Then I must have your answer. Do you pledge on your honor to remain here and give it to me then?"

Figaro sighed and nodded. "I so pledge." The messenger accepted Figaro's pledge and rode into the town to do as he said. Figaro found a perch on one of the stairs leading into his wagon and sat there thinking, turning the parchment over and over in his hands. Finally he entered the wagon and in the flickering light of a candle read the message one more time. Then with moistened thumb and forefinger he extinguished the candle, lay back on his cot and allowed sleep to separate him from his thoughts of Del Strego and Bianca.

It seemed only a moment later that he opened his eyes to find an armored knight standing over him, sharp sword raised as if to strike him where he lay.

Civis Romanus
Earl
posted 06-12-03 15:37 EST (US)     9 / 79       
Figaro reacted instinctively. He threw the thin blanket off of his body as the armored knight elevated his sword. Then Figaro lashed out with both feet, planting them quickly, firmly on the metal covering the knight's groin like a flared short skirt, and he pushed with all of his might. Unbalanced by the elevated sword and the pressure of Figaro's feet, the knight staggered backwards and fell against the opposite wall of the wagon. He struck it so hard, it seemed the force of his fall might tip the wagon over.

In an instant, Figaro was on his feet and out of the small door at the rear of the gaily colored covered wagon. He nearly stumbled down the stairs in his haste but recovered himself in time to avoid an immobilizing fall. Meanwhile, the knight took its time gaining its feet. Awkwardly, the knight pushed itself through the open door and confronted his enraged opponent outside.

Figaro struggled mightily to recognize the knight by its markings or by its face. In the dark the white of its armor was grey and the crimson plume seemed more the color of light mud than the brilliant red it should have been. The knight's face was impossible to see, for the knight's visor was down and its face was hidden. Figaro prepared himself for whatever the knight might have planned.

At the bottom of the stairs, the knight once more raised its sword, but only part way. Slicing sideways, first left than right, the knight tried to disembowel Figaro with the point of its long sword. In the dark, Figaro sensed more than saw the direction and movement of the sword. First he lept backwards and then tumbled sideways to avoid the blows directed his way.

It was then the knight began to laugh. The more the knight swung his sword and missed, the more he laughed; for indeed gauging the timber of the voice, Figaro concluded, the laugh could belong to none other than a man. "Laugh, knight! You find this entertaining, do you?"

The knight didn't answer, he merely laughed again and swung his sword. Figaro decided it was time to take the offensive. If he had his throwing knife, the battle would have ended much more quickly. Knowing it was not in its sheath, but still compelled to check, he felt near his chest for the tell-tale outline. The sheath was empty just as he expected. The knight swung his sword again, this time in an upwards motion aimed again at Figaro's groin. Figaro cartwheeled to the right and the knight's sword harmlessly slipped through the air in the place where Figaro had been standing. This brought forth peels of laughter from the knight, so much so that he couldn't lift his sword for all of his glee. His sword pointed down, which meant it would be seconds before another blow could be struck.

Figaro saw his opportunity. In a diving maneuver, Figaro launched himself forward towards the knight and slammed his shoulder into the knight's knees. So tackled, the knight's sword flew out of his hands and the knight crashed backwards onto the ground of the clearing. His laughing increased in intensity, so much so that Figaro himself almost found a miniature modicum of amusement and humor in whatever devil's den the knight resided. Still, with the knight's visor down, Figaro could not determine who his assailant might be.

Figaro climbed onto the prostrate laughing knight and pushed up on the knight's visor only to find he was staring into the mirror image of his own face laughing madly back at him. Shocked and distraught, he raised his fist and struck the knight's face full and hard. The knight merely continued to laugh as if nothing had been felt. Frightened and enraged, Figaro began to pound on the chest armor of the prostrate knight, who continued to laugh. "WHO... ARE... YOU...!? WHO... ARE... YOU!?" bellowed Figaro, pounding with first his left fist then his right fist then his left fist and then his right fist, all in rapid succession.

Suddenly the knight in white, shiny armor with the crimson plume stopped laughing and looked solemnly at Figaro. "Don't you know me, Jester? Don't you remember me?" said the knight with Figaro's face.

Recognition, long suppressed, rushed back into Figaro, but he refused its acceptance. "NO! I don't know you! You are gone, forgotten! You do not exist!"

"But I do, Jester. I do." The knight began to laugh once more. Enraged to the breaking point, Figaro began to pound on the knight's chest with both hands. WHUMP! WHUMP! WHUMP! WHUMP! WHUMP! The noise of his battering suddenly changed from a metallic ringing to a sound that was more wooden, hollow, and very close yet echoing as if it were not. The knight disappeared as Figaro opened his eyes only to see the familiar roof of the inside of his covered wagon. WHUMP! WHUMP! WHUMP! The sound came from the small door at the back of the wagon.

A voice from outside accompanied the pounding on the door to his wagon. "Remember me? It's time, Jester. Time for your answer." It was the messenger from the night before.

Figaro, bathed in perspiration from his disturbing dream, opened the door to find the messenger outside, hands on hips, an annoyed expression on his face. "First light, Master Jester. Your answer, if you please. My, did I disturb your bath? My apologies, Signor, but the Duchess needs her answer."

"I shall have your answer for you in a moment, Messenger," said Figaro, the echo of the pounding on the door still reverberating somewhere in the recesses of his head. "Wait here." Figaro crouched and turned about in the wagon. He grasped a small bottle of writing fluid and a quill and the folded piece of parchment left with him by the messenger. He took only a moment to decide and wrote a brief message in reply. Then he stepped outside of the wagon and handed it to the messenger. "Read it," commanded Figaro. "Just in case the paper is lost you will know what I have written."

The messenger unfolded the parchment to reveal Figaro's message. He frowned, then refolded the parchment and placed it in his messenger's pouch, slipped the strap of the pouch over his neck and mounted his horse. "I shall give this to the Duchess as you have requested. I doubt she will be... Well, I am just the messenger. Farewell, Jester." Before the messenger turned his horse he looked at Figaro one more time. "You are not what they say nor what you seem. I am but a messenger, but I am right and proper about what I do. You are a different matter."

The messenger put spur to horse and galloped east towards Millefiore. Figaro paid no attention to the cloud of dust raised by the departing horseman that threatened to choke him. He stared after the messenger, his thoughts weaving, churning. Then he looked towards the village, his mind firmly set on his chosen course. Time to go to the stable, he thought to himself. Time to wake the stablemaster and leave this village and its memory behind.

Civis Romanus
Earl
posted 06-17-03 15:55 EST (US)     10 / 79       
MILLEFIORE - THE GREAT HALL


Loriana, Duchess of Millefiore, looked up from the unfolded parchment, sadness and disappointment strongly registered in her hazel eyes. "He gave no explanation?"

"No, Duchess. He merely told me to read the message so that if the parchment were lost or destroyed for any reason I would be able to deliver the message regardless."

"I see," said Loriana looking down at the parchment once more. Rapid footsteps echoed down the stairway as Caterina, youngest daughter of deceased Duke Alfredo, sister of Loriana and half-sister of deceased Duke Ricco, rushed to see the message for herself carried by the messenger who she just now learned had arrived.

"What does he say, Sister?! Is he coming?!" cried out Caterina as her right foot found the floor of the Hall and her eyes saw her sister sitting in the Great Chair with the messenger standing before her.

"Read the message for yourself, Caterina. You will want to do so anyway." Loriana held the opened parchment out for Caterina to grasp and read. Now in her hands, Caterina's eyes poured over the few words written on it in Figaro's hand.

Loriana, Duchess of Millefiore:

The Jester will not come.

Figaro

Caterina's feline-like face already pink from rushing down the stairs, turned red with anger. "Will not come?! Is that what he says?! Will not come, indeed! Refuses the invitation of a Duchess! Why... why... of all the crass, selfish, disobediant! OH!!" Caterina stomped her right foot and threw the parchment to the floor and spun to face her sister. "You should have him arrested by the Guard and thrown into prison!"

"Why, Sister? What has he done wrong?"

"Disobeying you, for one thing!"

"Caterina, he is not a citizen of Millefiore. He is not mine to command. And he has not broken any laws. I asked him as a friend to come and prove Bianca's innocence."

"Innocence or guilt, the latter I think most likely in Bianca's case! He seems to have forgotten our... your friendship."

"Caterina, I know how you feel about our brother's death, but we must remain objective about this. The law says Bianca is guilty, but the circumstances place doubt upon the correctness of the accusation. Even Di Casselli has expressed doubts. That is why she has not been executed yet." Loriana waived to the messenger to leave. He bowed and did as he was directed. His business with the Duchess was ended and the Duchess' business with Caterina was now a priority. Loriana didn't like something she saw in Cat's eyes. "Let it be, Sister. We will get to the truth one way or another."

"And that truth, Sister," answered Caterina, "will be found at the end of a path that leads right to Bianca herself! And if no one, including that cursed Jester, will help to find the truth, then I will find it by myself!" Caterina turned and stormed her way towards the steps that led to the upper floors above the Great Hall. By the time she reached the third flight in her ascent, the tears that she had kept at bay began to flow without restriction. "And you, Figaro... The more I try to forget you and the pain you caused me... More... More is the pain you bring. Even when you are not here in person and it is only your words I see."

Caterina reached her chambers, threw open the door and slammed and locked it behind her. Then in privacy, she threw herself on her bed and with her tears soaked her down-filled pillow for the better part of an hour.

The sound of the door's slamming echoed throughout the Keep, even as far below as the Great Hall. Loriana listened to the receding echo and then as it grew faint she bent over and reached down to pick up the parchment Cat had thrown to the stone floor. She turned the parchment over to the side where Figaro had inked his note and read it once again. Then she read it two more times. After this final reading, the corners of her mouth curved ever so slightly. She arose and went about her other business for the day.

[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 06-17-2003 @ 03:58 PM).]

Civis Romanus
Earl
posted 06-18-03 15:29 EST (US)     11 / 79       
The Prison of San Luca Maggiore - A Few Days Later


Cautiously Antonio, the Gaoler's apprentice, opened the door to the main chamber from which the gaol sections extended out down corridors or upstairs. Antonio gulped, the Master Gaoler was there. Antonio hoped it wouldn't be the case. "GET IN HERE YOU!" bellowed the Gaoler. "Late again, I see!"

"Uh... The cook... Uh... Wasn't ready Master," whimpered Antonio. The stem of the spoon in the bowl of stew tinked and rattled against the bowl's lip as Antonio's hands shook.

"An old excuse, Antonio. Now get upstairs with the tray for her ladyship before I put a foot in your rump!"

Antonio felt the hair rise on the back of his neck. The morning's beating still throbbed where the Gaoler had laid a foot into Antonio. Unthinking, simply reacting, Antonio said, "I think you treat the prisoners better than you treat me; her ladyship especially." He instantly regretted his words.

The Master Gaoler's eyes enlarged and his face turned horrifically purple. In an incensed hiss the Gaoler responded to Antonio's insolence. "I will treat you and the prisoners, any prisoner, however I want to, do you understand... apprentice." The word 'apprentice' was spoken as if drawn from an infinite well of malice. Antonio shrank from the Gaoler's glare, curved his shoulders and made himself as small as possible. "Now get that tray upstairs this instant."

"Yes, Gaoler. Forgive me, Gaoler. I was unthinking," groveled Antonio as he made his way to the stairs leading to the upper story of the Gaolhouse as quickly as he could. When he reached the top of the stairs and was sure the Gaoler couldn't see or hear him, Antonio selected the most obscene word he could think of and added the most disgusting gesture he could remember and silently saluted the parentage and wellbeing of his master. Then he turned to find the door to the upper story nearly closed. On the opposite side, he knew, was the cell of her ladyship, the young wife of the dead Duke. Unceremoniously, he kicked the slightly ajar door with his right foot, causing it to slam against the wall on which it was hinged. Lady Bianca in her large, poorly appointed cell was understandably frightened out of her wits by the sudden movement and noise.

"Well, your Ladyship," sneered Antonio, courage thinly distributed, but returning to him. "I brought you your dinner. It is another beautiful day in San Luca Maggiore and all of the free subjects are enjoying the sun at its zenith. Too bad for you, murderess. You can't enjoy it except for the few rays coming through the slits in the walls."

Bianca looked up at the apprentice's cruelly expressioned face and looked down. This had happened before. She had protested her innocence, but the cruel gaoler's assistant had mocked her no matter the extent of her pleading. Bianca had given up on the weasel of a man and let him say what he chose. The man's sneer turned into a leer.

"You know, I can make your stay here a little more enjoyable... Some extra food, extra comfort. All you have to do is be nice to me." Antonio's eyes wandered up and down the compact, young figure presented by Bianca in her tattered clothes. His eyes spent an extra moment in those places where the dress was torn to reveal small patches of bare skin.

Bianca's empty stomach turned over despite her hunger. "I'd sooner die," she retorted, looking away. Antonio's face reddened. "That can be arranged your ladyship. A rope, an executioner's axe... Maybe I should simply eat your meals for you. Oh, I can leave a small morsel for you. Just enough so that you wither slowly but never too much. Sure, you think you could tell the Gaoler and he would punish me. The word of a murderess over mine? Not likely." Antonio ceased to leer and looked instead at Bianca's face and quivering lips. Good, I upset her. Maybe she'll finally learn it's better if she's nice to me. "Anyway, today is not the day for me to eat your dinner for you, and is certainly not the day to bring you some comfort. You heard the price. Think about it, murderess, you don't have much time left, I believe."

Antonio bent over and opened the door to the pass-through located in the lowest area of the iron barred door. He pushed the tray through, closed the door and started to leave the area. However, before exiting through the door, Antonio paused and with a self-serving smile on his face bade Bianca to "enjoy her dinner", grinned that much wider and walked down the stairs forgetting entirely about the Master Gaoler and his master's irritation and the words they exchanged earlier.

Not even the sudden whelp from Antonio that echoed up the stairs, caused by his master's foot striking him in the posterior, served to ease Bianca's discomfort. Instead, as she stared at the floor of her cell, the dust and grime collected there began to clump around the small spots of moisture that seemed to be falling like a light rain from high clouds. In this case the high clouds were as violet as Bianca's eyes, for that is where the shower of tears originated.

[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 06-18-2003 @ 03:31 PM).]

Civis Romanus
Earl
posted 06-19-03 15:30 EST (US)     12 / 79       
Antonio emerged from the Gaolhouse vigorously rubbing the seat of his pants. He jumped when the door of the building slammed behind him. Mumbling something between clenched teeth he looked back once and then up ahead at the main road into and out of San Luca Maggiore. He knitted his brows and tilted his head as if this would help him better see the odd being that approached riding on a chestnut horse. He nearly forgot about the pain in his posterior as he awkwardly favored certain muscles below his waist and stepped up his gait so that he could join the other villagers who stood and gaped at the twisted looking man on the chestnut horse. Surprisingly, the twisted man's head turned and seemed to orient on Antonio, as if he were following exclusively the apprentice's progress from the gaol to the place in the road where he stopped to stare.

The stranger rode the horse oddly, seemingly leaning to the side, the impression emphasized by his left shoulder which seemed lower than his right. On his head covering the left side of his face from the top of his head to just below his left cheek, he wore a black mask, secured by a leather strap that encircled his head across his forehead and around and above his right ear, then completing its encirclement across the back of his head. The leather strap was tied in place above his right ear, but it seemed more so that the strap and mask seemed to rest on his head like a crown rather than tied as if his head was a bundle of reeds. His clothes were ordinary, his possessions few and carried in twin sacks, one on either side of his horse's rear haunches.

Cat calls and derisive comments were thrown his way, but the stranger seemed not to care as he guided his horse towards Antonio. Near him, the stranger halted his horse and dismounted. It was then that Antonio saw for the first time that a hump disfigured the stranger and that its presence is what contorted the stranger's left shoulder giving him that odd tilted look. If not for the hump, Antonio suspected the man might be somewhat taller than most. Also, Antonio noticed that the mask had two holes in it, one for the stranger's left eye and one for his left ear. Antonio correctly concluded that if they were in any way deformed, it did not appear the deformity made the organs dysfunctional. All the while, the stranger maintained a steady gaze at Antonio.

"You are the Gaoler?" asked the stranger in a voice that seemed strained, but not unpleasantly so. Again, it must be for the reasons behind the mask, concluded Antonio. He decided to answer the stranger's question.

"No," answered Antonio matter-of-factly. "I am his apprentice."

The stranger angled himself to be able to look at the Gaolhouse. As he did so he ran his hand through his dark hair, pushing back errant strands on the right side of his head that slipped uncomfortably from under his head mask. His dark eyes returned to Antonio's face. "I am seeking work. Is there employment available there?"

"Full up," said Antonio, not wishing to encourage anyone else to work there, though he did not feel he had much to fear from a cripple.

"I see, but as you are not the Chief Gaoler, I suspect he is the one I must talk to about that."

"It won't do you any good, but try it if you'd like."

"Thank you, uh... Signor..." The stranger was inviting Antonio to reveal his name.

"Antonio. I am accustomed to the courtesy of knowing the name of whoever I speak with," said Antonio purposely.

"Of course, Signor Antonio." There was snickering in the background when he said 'Signor Antonio' and the object of the snickering did not appreciate it very much. "My name is Fidelio." The hunchback heard a child's voice in the background begin to say over and over again, "Fidelio the Hunchback, Fidelio the Hunchback," until an older child, or maybe a parent, silenced the child.

"Thank you for your help," said Fidelio, purposefully ignoring the child's antics. The hunchback attempted a bow, but due to his infirmity, it seemed more of a labored tilt than a bow. On foot, the hunchback led his horse to the Gaolhouse, Antonio watching him as he proceeded towards the entrance. There, the hunchback tied up his horse and walked inside.

Civis Romanus
Earl
posted 06-20-03 15:18 EST (US)     13 / 79       
The door to the gaolhouse opened readily enough but not without protest from its unoiled hinges. Fidelio entered and then paused to allow his eyes to adjust from the bright sunshine outside to the dull lumination within the gaolhouse. He heard the Master Gaoler well before he could see him clearly.

"Well what do we have here?!" exclaimed the gaoler. "A man with two backs and a slope for a shoulder!" Fidelio tensed inwardly but controlled his facial expression enough to prevent his irritation from showing.

"My name is Fidelio. Yes I am a hunchback. Do you have need of a loyal servant?"

"The whole world has need of loyal servants," said the gaoler as he walked towards Fidelio appraising the twisted man who had just entered his domain. "Presuming they are as loyal as they say, and properly skilled. From where do you hail, hunchback?"

Fidelio quickly concluded the man could have used his name instead of 'hunchback', but he needed work and the pay that came with it. It was necessary to ignore the slights. "From a village far to the west of here, close to Genoa."

"Close to Genoa, eh? How close?"

"It is close enough its name is now unused and Genoa controls its destiny."

"I see... Sorry, hunchback. Can't use you. This is the Duke's jail and I'll need a reference from somebody important in San Luca Maggiore before I take on a new apprentice."

"I'm not here petitioning as a peasant."

"Who cares! Doesn't matter anyway! I still need that reference. Good bye, hunchback."

"But Master Gaoler, I..."

"I SAID GOODBYE!" The Master Gaoler strode directly to the door, opened it and motioned to Fidelio to leave. Recognizing the futility of his pleading, Fidelio made his way to the door. Halfway through he felt the foot of the gaoler as it struck him on the posterior. His feet left the floor and Fidelio flew through legs first, landing on his rump in the dirt of the street. He heard laughter around him and looked up to see Antonio's gloating face among the various onlookers amused by his exit from the gaolhouse. "Told you, didn't I?" admonished Antonio. "Looks like you landed something, but not a job." Antonio burst out into laughter and began to walk away.

Fidelio painfully rose to his feet and brushed the dirt off the back of his pants. Then he untied his horse from the hitching rail, winced as he climbed into and positioned his bruised posterior on the saddle, and clicked his tongue to the tell the horse it was time to ride elsewhere.

Civis Romanus
Earl
posted 06-23-03 15:05 EST (US)     14 / 79       
Fidelio had only a few coins in his pocket that he conserved for the most extreme occasions. This was one of those occasions. He guided his horse to the hitching post in front of the tavern that he passed on his earlier entrance into the village.

Horse secured, the hunchback entered the tavern to be greeted by stares from every pair of eyes inside. One pair of eyes seemed kinder than the rest. They belonged to the man behind the serving bar, the tavernmaster as it turned out.

"Can I serve you something?" the tavernmaster asked as Fidelio approached the serving bar cautiously avoiding all of the feet extended by customers who intended that he should trip over them and provide some humor lacking it seemed until his arrival.

"Something small, just enough to dispel thirst but not empty my pouch." Fidelio reached into his pocket and pulled out a small coin pouch and withdrew the smallest coin he could afford to give up.

"That will buy you a quarter tankard. You are new to this village? I don't think I've seen you before."

"Visited once or twice. Never lived here," responded Fidelio. "Do you know where I can find work?"

The tavernmaster looked him over from head to toe. "Ever work in a tavern?"

"No, Signor; but there is nothing I cannot do, except maybe straighten up and stand tall." Fidelio suddenly smiled.

The tavernmaster, totally unexpecting the wry humor embedded in Fidelio's response, blinked once or twice, then burst out laughing, Fidelio joining in though the joke was on him. "What is your name, newcomer?!" said the tavernmaster jovially. "Anyone as humble as you deserves a place in this tavern if only to bring some honesty to the tall tales told here!" The tavernmaster said this a little loudly causing heads to turn and frowns to manifest, but the patrons soon returned to their business and his words were forgotten.

"Fidelio."

"Well Fidelio, there is work aplenty in this tavern since it is the only such in the village and we receive visits from everyone and from everywhere. Why even the visiting and resident Dukes and their ladies have been known to stop in here for a taste of wine or something else. Just last year Duke Ricco..." The tavernmaster paused, a look of sadness on his face. "Well, that was before..." He paused again. "She was so kind, so gentle, so loving..." The tavernmaster shook his head. "It makes no sense, Fidelio..." The tavernmaster's voice trailed off.

"When may I begin, Tavernmaster?"

"My name is Giuseppe. It is permitted to use it. Stow your belongings and be here at sunrise tomorrow. I also own the boarding house next door. Tell them I said you may have the second basement chamber. It's been empty since that worthless... Well, he's gone and you can have it as is. My ward is in the first. She helps here too, when lessons are over.

"Thank you, Giuseppe," said Fidelio, but he wasn't sure the tavernmaster heard him, as Giuseppe was again mumbling something to himself about 'it makes no sense' and walked away to do something somewhere else in the tavern.

Civis Romanus
Earl
posted 06-24-03 15:04 EST (US)     15 / 79       
His chestnut horse stabled after long negotiations over a weekly rate, Fidelio carried his belongings down the rickety wooden stairs that led into the basement of the boarding house. The stairs ended in a short, dimly lit corridor with three doors: one to the left, one to the right and one at the very end. Fidelio had been told to enter the room with the open door. He assumed the one to the right would be that room as the door was slightly ajar and certainly not locked.

Inside he found a small chest of drawers, a lamp, a sleeping cot, a table and a chair. The usual porcelain fixtures were where he expected to find them. His meals would be taken in the tavern, or so the boarding housemaster told him. At least, that was what Giuseppe usually did with his help and his ward. All in all, acceptable for the price, Fidelio concluded; but he had been wise not to bring all of his belongings.

He lit the lamp and held it up to see what else might be visible in the dark room. A window reflected the light. It was high in the room under the chest of drawers and opened to the outside. However, it wasn't particularly high above the outside ground. He heard the door's squeaky hinges sound off behind him and he spun about to see why. The lamp illuminated the shoulders, face and head of a young girl standing in the doorway, her large dark eyes reflecting twin miniatures of the lamp Fidelio held in his hand.

"Hello Signor. Are you the one they say is Giuseppe's new helper?" she asked in her young girl's voice, pitched high, yet sweetly so, her eyes never leaving the hump and deformed shoulder born by Fidelio.

"Yes. My name is Fidelio."

"My name is Pia. I live in the room across the hall. Does your shoulder hurt you much? Does it make you mean? The other one, the one here last... Gustavo... He was mean. He hurt me."

"I don't hurt children," said Fidelio placing as much emphasis on "don't" as he could without it sounding defensive or harsh. "You probably shouldn't be here, you know."

"Yes, I know. Giuseppe says I should stay away from his helpers; but I just had to see your... you, I mean. They told me things about your... you... that I wanted to know were true or not."

"And?"

"Some are and some aren't... true, I mean."

"What's true and what's not true?"

"Hmmm. Sometime I'll tell you, like maybe..." A noise from above the stairs echoed down into the corridor. "Oh! I must go. I'm not supposed to be talking to you now! Goodbye, Signor Fidelio!" Without another word, Pia ran across the corridor and closed the door to her room behind her. Footsteps down the wooden stairs punctuated her departure and the face of Giuseppe replaced that of Pia's in the light shining from Fidelio's lamp.

Civis Romanus
Earl
posted 06-25-03 15:23 EST (US)     16 / 79       
"I see you have met my ward," said Giuseppe with a steely-eyed glare. "She is in my care and she is precious to me above everything else, including my tavern, boarding house and even my life. Do you understand me?" Giuseppe continued to stare straight into Fidelio's dark eyes, the one peeping out through his mask and the one uncovered and looking back.

"Tavernmaster, she is a sweet child with an abundance of curiousity. Have no fear for her so long as I am here. I swear this on the Book of Saints."

"Very well," said Giuseppe, but Fidelio could tell the tavernmaster was not entirely convinced. "I came here to be sure you were situated properly and to see to my ward. Is everything well in your room?"

"It is proper to my station and functional, Giuseppe. I thank you for allowing me its use."

"No matter. You will earn it by the by." The tavernmaster turned to leave, but Fidelio had a question that caused the older man to pause.

"Giuseppe, you seem disturbed by something about a lady? You said it makes no sense."

"Oh, the Lady Bianca. I've known her since she came her as a young girl, a ward like Pia, except to Roberto Del Strego. She never hurt so much as a cricket in the field, always kind." Giuseppe started to laugh. "I remember her face, the last time. A smudge of something on her cheek, very faint but there. She always had a smudge of some kind on one side of her face or another. So unlike a Duchess, but engaging. I heard that Duke Ricco was quite taken with her, not an arranged thing at all. No, it makes no sense. People can't change like that." Giuseppe paused, his expression changing to one of puzzlement. "Or can they?" Giuseppe looked at Fidelio the question still on his lips and on his face.

"I don't know, Tavernmaster. Who am I to know?" answered Fidelio. "I find people in a place treat me courteously and then, once amongst their friends, the same people treat me like a street dog. I cannot explain this to myself least of all to someone like you who lives comfortably among others who... who do not look like me."

Giuseppe's eyes wandered from Fidelio's half-masked face to his hidden withered shoulder and humped back. "I can't explain it either. I will see you in the tavern on the morrow at sunrise. A good night Signor."

"And to you, Giuseppe." Fidelio watched the tavernmaster walk towards Pia's door, knock and open it, then disappear inside. He closed his own door and turned the lock. Painfully Fidelio layed down on the sleeping cot, not bothering to put his belongings in the crudely hewn chest of drawers. He was glad the day ended, for he did not think he could bear the pain in his twisted shoulder much longer.

Civis Romanus
Earl
posted 06-26-03 15:45 EST (US)     17 / 79       
Millifiore - A Nearby Farmstead

Cesare wearily opened the door to his cottage and walked in. His hired help was gone for the day and the evening would be his. There was a bottle of vintage wine he kept in a cubbyhole near his pantry. He walked in the direction of the pantry with the specific intent of lowering the level of the wine in the bottle by a milliliter or more (most likely more). Clumsily, he errantly directed his foot and its soft leather shoe into the bottom of a sackcloth bag casually deposited near the doorway to his galley.

The thief, turned mercenary, turned farmer, hopped around on his one undamaged foot while he vigorously condemned to the nether region anything and everything in the name of the Almighty. He promptly begged foregiveness as the throbbing in his two largest toes subsided.

"Cursed promises!" he cried out to the otherwise empty cottage. "Why I do these things I'll never know! I wish to be a simple farmer and that is all!" Cesare limped over to the fireplace and leaned on the stone shelf just to take pressure off his maltreated toes without falling over. He glanced with malice at the sackcloth bag. "Visits me out of the blue, without so much as a by-your-leave. Draws me into that scheme as if I was commanded to do so by the Duchess herself. And Cesare, soft-hearted, foolish Cesare, says 'Yes, of course I will,' without a single word of protest. Aieee! Would I were still a thief. Now there is freedom!"

RAP RAP RAP! Someone was knocking on his cottage door.

Cesare opened it to find standing there someone who he least of all expected ever to see so closely again. "Milady Caterina, please come in. I had no idea you were to visit this day. My home is humble but it is yours any time."

Caterina smiled. It was nearly two years ago that she last saw Cesare. The occasion was the signing of the papers granting him his farmstead as a reward for service to Ricco and Duchess Loriana in the defeat of Suciando and the Venetians. There was little change in the man, except for his face seeming a little more weather beaten than she remembered.

"Thank you Signor Cesare." Daintily, Caterina crossed the threshhold and entered. One of the soldiers in her guard moved as if to follow her. She waved him off and told him to stay outside. "I won't be very long. You can wait there with the others."

"Yes, Milady," replied the soldier, but there was reluctance embedded in his words. Afterall, they were her protection and should anything happen to her, well... They knew their lives would be forfeit unless adequate explanation was given.

Cesare completed his bow. "Never mind that, Cesare. We've shared too many adventures to treat each other in any way except as friends."

"You are being too kind, Milady."

"Caterina, Cesare. Remember? In this comfortable dwelling of yours, I am Caterina." Her catlike green eyes flashed a little as she said this and as she glanced around the room at the objects on the wall and the sparse furniture sitting on the cottage's rough hewn floor boards. "My sister still speaks of you, do you know that?"

"No, Mi... No, Caterina, I do not." Cesare couldn't help but stare and stutter in the presence of Caterina. As always, her slightly feline, slightly pointed face entranced him. He did not think a woman could look like that, ever. She smiled at him as she noticed his somewhat large-eyed stare. Hmmm, she thought. It seems Cesare has been spending a little too much time on the farm.

"Cesare, my friend. There is something I would like you to do for me."

"Yes, Caterina. What is it?"

"I want you to travel to San Luca Maggiore and once and for all prove that Bianca murdered my half-brother."

Cesare's shock must have been quite visible, for Caterina blinked and then expressed concern for Cesare's immediate wellbeing.

"No, I am fine Caterina. It's just that... I mean... I never expected such a request, nor for it to be coming from you."

"Whether from me or the Duchess herself, in her name and mine I am asking you to do this. Will you accept this task?" Caterina made a rather obvious gesture of looking around the cottage as if admiring its worth. "My sister has treated you well for your prior services, hasn't she?"

"Yes. The Duchess is most kind."

"We both will be grateful for this sad incident to be concluded by unquestioned proof that Bianca deserves execution. There is no one else but you."

"What of Figaro?"

"I do not speak the name. As I said, there is no one else. Just you." Caterina reached across and closed her hand on Cesare's. "Please, Cesare. I... We need this from you. Do not worry about your farm. It will be well cared for in your absence." She squeezed his hand to emphasize this point.

Her hand was warm and her begging green eyes compelling. Cesare heard someone else who sounded like himself say, "Yes, Caterina. Whatever you'd like, I shall do it for you." He saw her smile broadly, her eyes lighting up with pleasure. She pulled at his hand when she rose and pulled him closer to herself. Caterina elevated herself on her toes and placed a light kiss on Cesare's cheek.

"Leave as soon as you can, Cesare," she spoke breathlessly, and turned about, her long riding dress swirling about her feet. Caterina opened the door of the cottage and walked out, softly closing the door behind herself. Moments later Cesare heard hoofbeats as Caterina and her guards directed their horses to the road back to Millefiore.

Cesare sat down in a chair and put his head between his hands, pulling at the longish hair on both sides, agonizing as the magnitude of the dilemna he faced sank in piece by painful piece. "Prove Bianca murdered her half-brother" she said. Cesare suddenly lifted his head and dropped his hands. But what if...? Yes, what if I prove Bianca did not murder Ricco? Cesare slammed his closed fists down on the fleshy part of his legs just above his knees. "I didn't ask her that question! Cesare, you fool, now you are in the middle of it! Aieeee! Idiot!" he admonished himself before cottage walls that had no ears to hear with but his.

[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 06-27-2003 @ 04:38 PM).]

Civis Romanus
Earl
posted 06-27-03 16:23 EST (US)     18 / 79       
San Luca Maggiore - In The Days That Followed

At sunrise, Fidelio promptly arrived in the tavern as directed by Giuseppe. He did so daily for each of the three days that followed his arrival in the village. And just as he did each of these days, on this day he carried food from the kitchen, beers and wine from the serving bar, and otherwise attended to the requests of the tavern's patrons. He also carefully navigated those who would make a mockery of his appearance any chance they could, or find a way to make him trip, especially if his hands were full with tankards or a tray of wine.

Remarkably, Fidelio managed to avoid all of their attempts to make him the fool prompting Giuseppe to remark once, "You know Fidelio, I can't help but admire your patience with this lot. You overcome it all, it seems; and you do so far better than those I've hired who are without the difficulties you bear. I have made a sound choice in you, though I fear it exposes you to more than a man should have to bear."

Fidelio nodded in reply. He reached for the two tankards he was to serve as if to say, "Thank you for understanding" without actually saying the words. He delivered the two tankards just as the tavern door swung sharply open and slammed against the wall. In walked a man, taller than Fidelio, with a swagger in his step but little else to justify his posture. Giuseppe looked up and released something akin to a groan. Then his face hardened as the newcomer approached the serving bar. "Gustavo, you are permitted in this establishment by law, but only if you behave yourself while you are here. Any problems and you will not be welcome here again." Fidelio heard these words as he approached the serving bar looking for his next delivery.

Gustavo was bearded, coarse, uncleansed and sported an expression that challenged any within eyesight to question his right to be there. "I just want some beer and relaxation, Tavernmaster. Nothing more." His eyes said something different, especially when they caught sight of Fidelio, his twisted shoulder, stooped posture and humped back. "Strange creatures you grow in this place," he commented with a sneer. Laughter peeled from many of the patrons, but not all. Giuseppe was not amused.

"Order and take it here or sit down, Gustavo. You heard what I said."

"Sure, I heard. Deliver a tankard to me." Gustavo threw the necessary coin on the serving bar and seated himself at an empty table. Giuseppe filled a tankard and gave it to Fidelio. "Be careful of him," whispered Giuseppe as he handed the tankard to the hunchback.

Fidelio began to weave his way through the tables. When he neared Gustavo's table, someone, possibly of a like mind as Gustavo's, whistled loudly distracting Fidelio for only the very first time. Fidelio's feet tangled in Gustavo's suddenly outstretched, deliberately obstructing feet and Fidelio tumbled forward. Somehow, despite the direction of the hunchback's fall and Gustavo's carefully placed feet, Fidelio managed to twist his body on the way down and empty the tankard on Gustavo. Gustavo leaped to his feet, roared in anger, and reached downwards dragging Fidelio to his feet by his shirt. Gustavo let go with his right hand and reached for Fidelio's face as if to rip the hunchback's mask from his face. The hunchback's left hand captured Gustavo's right hand before he could do what he intended, and held it so strongly Gustavo's hand could not move... much to Gustavo's surprise.

Giuseppe's voice broke the sudden impass. "Out of here, Gustavo. This the last time. Leave this place. Take your coin. It isn't worth anything here any longer!" The tavernmaster threw Gustavo's coin on table.

Gustavo opened his hands and released Fidelio at the same time Fidelio let go of Gustavo's captured hand. The hunchback staggered backwards as his feet found the floor boards once more. With a look of utter contempt cast towards Giuseppe and then at Fidelio, he collected his coin and walked out of the tavern. With only a brief pause quiet conversation returned to the tavern and for at least this day, Fidelio was no longer troubled by any of the patrons.

Pia suddenly ran into the Tavern. "Giuseppe! Giuseppe! Hurry! Come look who is riding down the street. Hurry! he is riding very fast!" The tavern emptied as if alarmed by a fire call.

On a brown horse, riding at a quick clip though not a gallop, came a man dressed in white clothing, a crimson sash at his waist and a full-headed crimson cloth mask totally covering his head. Giuseppe and Fidelio stepped outside of the tavern in time to see only the man's back as he urged his horse towards the deceased Duke's Keep, positioned very near the Gaolhouse.

Just in front of the gates to the Keep, the crimson sashed rider pulled his sword and caused his horse to rear up as he waved his sword in the air. The rider released pressure on the reins and his horse obediently placed its front two hoofs on the street once more. The masked rider pointed his sword at the gaolhouse then slid his sword into its sheath. He did all of this wordlessly, saying nothing at any time. Still unspeaking, he put his spurs to his horse and quickly guided the animal down the main street of the village of San Luca Maggiore and disappeared somewhere beyond the town's perimeter.

Pia eagerly pulled at Giuseppe's coattails. "Tell me, tell me, Giuseppe. Is it the one they call the Crimson Knight?! Tell me, please!"

"I'm not sure, Pia. It might be." Giuseppe looked at Fidelio, who continued to stare down the street over which the Crimson Knight had just passed. Fidelio looked up at his employer and shrugged his one good shoulder.

The words "Crimson Knight" began to be repeated up and down the street. Soon all of San Luca Maggiore knew who it was they had just seen. After all of this time, the Crimson Knight has returned to San Luca Maggiore. But why? Speculation abounded all of that day. Prove the Duke's killer? Rescue Lady Bianca? Fight the Venetians once more? Why?

Only the Crimson Knight knew his purpose.

[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 06-27-2003 @ 04:40 PM).]

Civis Romanus
Earl
posted 06-30-03 12:24 EST (US)     19 / 79       
Darkness fell on San Luca Maggiore. A gray-toned figure worked hard in the near black of the alley to get a thin bladed knife into the gap between the window and the sash, where the lock could be accessed and opened with a slide of the blade. The window was close to ground level and the person living within the room served by the window was elsewhere. The gray-toned figure had waited patiently all day for the opportunity to break into this particular room in Giuseppe's boarding house and to do the thing pure evil in his heart dictated to him ever since his dismissal from the tavern that afternoon.

Gustavo slid his knife, now deeply pressed into the gap, to the left and worked the lock carefully. It opened. He then withdrew the knife and pressed on the window, finding to his satisfaction that it would open inwards and permit him to slide into the room feet first with only minimum obstruction. He bided his time patiently thinking about little else except what he would do.

A light glowed and began to move about in the room. It was a lamp. The light paused on a table as the person within seemed to have set it down and was now changing into night clothes. Perfect. Gustavo patiently waited that much longer as Pia completed her preparations and then blew out the light of her lamp.

Gustavo counted on little children quickly nodding off to sleep. He was right in this about Pia. However, he was not right about the person whose eyes watched his movements from a concealed vantage point in the dark of the alley. There was no thought of nodding off in this person's mind as he watched Gustavo begin to eke his way towards the window and reach down to open it wide.

Gustavo bent down to see the child's state. Pia was already asleep, lying on her sleeping cot holding close to herself a doll in length about a third her diminuitive heighth. It was crudely sewn, garrishly colored and looked for all the world like a sad imitation of a much distressed, variegatedly colored, geometrically patterned performing jester. Despite the dim light of her room, Pia's deep sleep was obvious and Gustavo felt free to carry out his scheme. He settled down on his knees, dog-like, facing the window, and reached for the window with his left hand.

From out of the dark, someone's foot viciously attempted to bury itself in Gustavo's side. Gustavo let out a whoosh of air and was both propelled and rolled sideways away from the window by the force of the blow. Wheezing painfully, Gustavo nonetheless gained his feet and positioned himself to confront his attacker. In the dark of the alley he made out only that the attacker was most likely a man, about his same heighth, and for some reason with a featureless face.

Gustavo took two steps closer and then halted when he realized the man's face and head was totally covered with a dark mask. He stepped forward once more, testing the man's intentions and resolve. He reached behind himself for the knife he originally intended to use on Pia.

"Who are you?" hissed Gustavo, making motions with his left hand to distract the one with the mask while he withdrew his knife. He took another step closer to his antagonist, who did not move from his place. The dark crimson coloration of the man's head mask was now discernable in the dim light.

The response was hushed, tense and spoken with a spine chilling growl. "You have no business in San Luca Maggiore, and no business here. Leave with your life or end it in this alley. You have the choice."

Gustavo guided the knife along the material of his pants to keep it low and indistinct against the dark grey material. He stepped closer gaging the distance. Close enough now he decided. "I choose to leave this village..." Gustavo began as he tensed his muscles for the leap. "With your blood on my knife," he said this as he launched himself at the Crimson Knight.

Civis Romanus
Earl
posted 07-01-03 11:25 EST (US)     20 / 79       
They collided, but only briefly. Gustavo's knife narrowly missed the Knight and the Knight's quick response, falling backwards and tossing Gustavo up and over himself, saved the Knight further risk for that brief moment. Gustavo landed in a heap on his back and somewhat dazed rolled over onto his belly, then pushed himself up on his knees. He had lost the knife he thought, but found it in the dirt accidentally as he gained his knees.

"As you say, Knight, I will leave. Let me just get to my feet and I will be gone..." But this is not what he intended. In the dark, as he feigned putting his hands to the earth to push himself to his feet, he adjusted the knife in his hand to its throwing position. Suddenly he elevated his hand, fully intending to throw the knife and send it deep into the Knight's body.

Whissh! Thump! Immense pain radiated from Gustavo's chest. He looked down to see the hilt of a throwing knife, not his own, protruding from his chest. A light came on in the window of Pia's room. The rays from the light illuminated the crimson head mask of the man standing before Gustavo. A child's face materialized in the window. Her scream echoed up and down the alley. These were the last things registered by his senses as Gustavo's dead body fell forward, his open-eyed face burying itself in the dirt of the alley.

At Pia's scream and Gustavo's collapse, the Knight turned his head and looked at the window. He could see her wide-eyed stare and saw the waves of fear and distress building to a new crescendo leading most likely to another scream. The Knight quickly turned Gustavo's body over, extracted his knife, wiped it on Gustavo's clothes and ran down the alley even as other lights in the boarding house began to shine. A few echoing steps, a thump and the Knight disappeared into the night.

Pia ran out of her room sobbing, tears streaming down her cheeks. She stood in the middle of the hallway not knowing what to do. Footsteps down the multistory boarding house's stairway suggested Giuseppe and others were coming to her aid, but the stairs were long and couldn't be taken too quickly. Pia ran to Fidelio's door and pounded on it with her small fist. "Signor! Help! There is trouble outside!

Noises came from the room behind the locked door. "Huh? What?"

"Hurry, Fidelio! I'm scared!"

"A moment, Pia. I must have a moment."

"Hurry!"

To Pia it seemed forever, but it was time enough for Giuseppe to arrive and then for Fidelio a moment later to open the door to his room in response to Pia's pounding. "What is it, girl?" cried out Giuseppe, who's eyes quickly noted Fidelio's door opening after his arrival and not before.

"Men... Fighting... Outside my window... The Knight...!"

Fidelio and Giuseppe looked at each other. It was Giuseppe who hurried outside first, Pia in tow. Fidelio followed soon after, stopping momentarily within his room to change clothing under the blanket he used as a modest cover in front of Pia.

They found Gustavo's body with the help of the light of a lamp. Little did they care about the victim, it was more a worry what the Crimson Knight wanted with Gustavo in the first place; for it was clear by the girl's description that it was the Knight who killed Gustavo. "Caimbeaul will no doubt be here in the morning asking many questions," said Giuseppe. "It is one of his duties. I am sorry for disturbing you this night, Fidelio, but you must go to the gate of the Keep and inform the guards what has happened. It is our responsibility to report these matters to them.

Fidelio did as he was told while Giuseppe hurried young Pia away to ensure she saw as little of this bloody scene as possible. Someone from the boarding house found a soiled, otherwise useless linen and laid it over the dead body in the alley. It would keep until morning, they concluded. Besides, it was Gustavo... and he deserved no better.

Civis Romanus
Earl
posted 07-02-03 16:18 EST (US)     21 / 79       
As Fidelio swept the stairs of the boarding house, the morning light streaming through the open entrance doorway was suddenly blocked by a huskily built uniformed man bearing an unsmiling face and a serious frown. His furrowed forehead hinted at the seriousness with which he took his mission, and his weatherbeaten face suggested there had been many missions undertaken already. The man paused to study the masked hunchback with the straw broom who stood on the first step of the stairway and looked up at him with dark, intelligent eyes. The man's eyes wandered to the hunchback's contorted shoulder, and his cheek muscle twitched involuntarily as he stared at the disfigurement on the servant's back. "I am Caimbeaul. I have come to speak with Giuseppe. Call him for me, please."

Please? Not the word he expected. Then again, the message was for Giuseppe, not Fidelio. The hunchback hurried next door to fetch his master. Giuseppe, Fidelio and Pia appeared soon afterwards. "Good Morning, Caimbeaul. I was expecting you."

Caimbeaul nodded. "Take me to the child's room."

"Don't you wish to view the body and the alley?"

"I have done so already. Her room, please." The voice was strong, firm and direct. No argument would be entertained by Caimbeaul, it was obvious to all. Pia closed her hand more tightly on Giuseppe's. He gave her a reassuring squeeze. They entered her room. "I don't need the... your servant," said Caimbeaul motioning to Fidelio.

Giuseppe spoke to Fidelio. "Fidelio, please return to your duties." Fidelio did as he was told. He began to sweep the stairs into the basement. From there he heard the murmur of voices coming from Pia's room as he first swept the stairs and then began on the basement floor. First Caimbeaul's gruff stern voice, then Giuseppe's, then Pia's tentative girl-child's voice, followed by Giuseppe, then Pia's and so forth. Questions were being asked, answers were being given. A person's head poked itself through the basement door and a voice sounded. "Hallooo! Anyone here?"

"Yes, someone is here," answered Fidelio. The rest of the man's body appeared on the steps. The man paused, staring at Fidelio, seemingly ready to say something; but before he could, the door to Pia's room opened and Caimbeaul walked out, the others right behind him.

Caimbeaul stopped in his tracks, and his craggy face broke into something one might describe as an attempted smile. "Cesare! You are the last person I expected to see this day!" Caimbeaul stepped forward and grasped Cesare's hand even as Cesare stepped down to the basement floor to offer his hand in greeting. The two participants in an earlier common cause seemed genuinely glad to see each other.

"What brings you to San Luca Maggiore, Cesare? Seeking the Crimson Knight perhaps?"

"Crimson Knight? No... but I heard about the incident on my way here. It's spreading around the Po like flood waters. Is this where it happened?"

"Yes, outside this poor young girl's window."

"Hmmm. Not pleasant for one so young. I came here looking for a room."

"Good place to look so long as the alley is quiet," observed Caimbeaul. "This is Giuseppe. He is the owner of this boarding house and the tavern next door. He is the one to see about a room."

Giuseppe smiled. "Welcome Signor Cesare. It seems Caimbeaul shall vouche for you and I do have a room upstairs that is unoccupied. We will discuss a rate as I show you the room. Fidelio, please see to the man's baggage."

"Not necessary, Giuseppe," said Cesare. "I prefer to see to my horse and then I have but a small case to carry in... and a sackcloth I prefer to handle myself." Cesare looked at Fidelio. "It was given to me for safekeeping... But Caimbeaul, it was very timely meeting you here, for there is something I must tell you. So, if you wouldn't mind, please follow us up the stairs so I can speak with you."

Fidelio continued to sweep the basement and then the entrance and was progressing up the flights of stairs when Giuseppe descended the stairs holding a pouch of coins. He made his way to the boarding house exit, a smile on his face, the coins jingling in his pouch.

Sometime later, a very sober looking Caimbeaul walked down the stairs. Before passing Fidelio, who pressed his contorted frame against the wall to give the Captain passage, Caimbeaul paused and looked at Fidelio. His lips twitched as if he were going to say something. Then he seemed to change his mind and he pulled his eyes away from Fidelio's face. Caimbeaul stepped quickly down the stairs and he too exited the boarding house.

Fidelio looked up the stairs to see if anyone else was coming. Nobody seemed to be on the stairs. The hunchback continued to sweep until the task was completely finished.

Civis Romanus
Earl
posted 07-03-03 12:08 EST (US)     22 / 79       
The morning waned and in its late hours Caimbeaul finished his investigation and then saw to it that the body of Gustavo was delivered to the town mortician. The Church refused permission to bury Gustavo in sacred ground, a dividend of the man's chosen lifestyle, and so it was resolved the deceased ruffian would be placed in a commoner's pit in the secular burial ground outside of San Luca Maggiore. Caimbeaul guided his horse to the hitching post outside of the Keep in which Paulo Di Casselli, Regent of San Luca Maggiore, had recently taken up residence.

"Come in Caimbeaul! I assume you are here to report on the killing in the alley?" invited Di Casselli a broad grin on his handsome face. As tall as Caimbeaul, the two made an impressive sight when conversing since they both "towered" over the typical citizens or soldiers of San Luca Maggiore. They also shared a similar muscular build, dark curly hair, full eyebrows and dark pupiled eyes; but from this point their appearances diverged. Caimbeaul possessed the weathered face of a field soldier and Di Casselli possessed the more pampered face of an aristocrat, which within the social circles of San Luca Maggiore he had every right to make its claim. There existed only one other who could do so, Pietro Di Lucindo; but having emigrated to San Luca Maggiore from Sicily, and by being critical of Duke Ricco, he quickly found himself on the outside of society almost from the moment he arrived.

Caimbeaul bowed. "Yes, Mi'lord, I am."

"Proceed." Di Casselli sat down and motioned to Caimbeal to take a nearby chair and sit as well.

"The victim, Gustavo, was by reputation a troublemaker with a penchant for picking fights with undeniably weaker opponents. The tavern master, Giuseppe (Di Casseli nodded to indicate he knew the man) reports that he attempted to reform Gustavo by giving him employment in his tavern and boarding house. It appears Gustavo was more inclined to avoid his chores and to use his hands on the women employed by Giuseppe. The tavern master's ward is a young girl named Pia. Gustavo apparently had very liberal ideas about what age constitutes womanhood. The tavern master dismissed him after Pia reported Gustavo's strange behaviour towards her."

"Are you suggesting Giuseppe is the killer."

"No, Mi'lord. Giuseppe lives two stories up in his boarding house and witnesses say at the time of Pia's scream he was seen leaving his room in his nightshirt to find out why Pia scream."

"Why did the girl scream?"

"We found Gustavo dead with a deep knife wound in his chest, so deep it penetrated his heart. His knife was lying beside him. The girl who screamed, Pia, said she heard two men fighting and found her window unlocked. She opened it to see a crimson masked man confronting Gustavo, the point of a knife protruding from Gustavo's chest. Her window is always kept locked. She said she checked it as part of her bedtime routine. Giuseppe confirmed this is what he requires the child to do, especially since the 'problem' with Gustavo."

"How do you know it was Gustavo's knife? Was it the knife that killed him."

"Those who knew him recognized it as Gustavo's. No, the knife had no blood on it. However, I did find flakes of paint. I examined the window lock and sash and found that the paint had been scraped by a blade of some sort and the lock's tarnish had been scraped by something sharp. The flakes of paint on the knife matched the paint on the sash of the window. I've concluded Gustavo's knife was used to unlock the window from the outside. I think Gustavo meant harm to Pia in revenge for being refused service in Giuseppe's tavern because he picked a fight with the hunchback."

"Hunchback?"

"Yes, his name is Fidelio. While serving customers he was deliberately tripped by Gustavo and a fight nearly ensued. The witnesses were unclear as to why a fight did not actually occur. They say something dissuaded Gustavo and then the tavern master inserted himself and ordered Gustavo out of the tavern and to never return."

"Where was this Fidelio when Gustavo was knifed?"

"In his room across from Pia. The distressed girl sought him out first as he was the closest."

"She trusts him apparently."

"Yes, as does Giuseppe, though with some caution."

"I can understand his caution... Where does all of this lead in terms of the investigation?"

"We theorize that Gustavo was confronted by an unknown crimson masked man as Gustavo attempted to enter Pia's room through her window while she slept. Gustavo's intentions could not possibly have been benevolent. They fought and Gustavo lost. The crimson masked man disappeared we don't know to where. Our conclusion is that this is not a murder but an act in defense of the girl. We have two unanswered questions: first, would the masked man relate the story as we have theorized; and second, why was a crimson masked man in the locale at that precise moment."

"The first you cannot answer because you do not know or have the crimson masked man in your custody. And the second... Hmmm... What is the connection between the Crimson Knight, Pia, Giuseppe and Gustavo. You have concluded it is the Crimson Knight, haven't you?"

"We have, Mi'lord; but as you say, we do not understand the connection. Also, we have seen no sign of Figaro anywhere within San Luca Maggiore, who as you recall, is both the Master Jester of the Po and the Crimson Knight."

"Of that I am very aware. Yes, Caimbeaul. Very aware." Di Casselli paused to consider what must be done. "Send out the town criers and post hand bills. Have them say the Crimson Knight is wanted for questioning in the matter of the death of Gustavo. Post a reward for information leading to his capture alive. Then begin a search of the countryside."

"He is exceptionally elusive, Mi'lord."

"Search thoroughly then, Captain. That is your responsibility. Bring him to me when he is found."

"Yes, Mi'lord."

[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 07-07-2003 @ 03:12 PM).]

Civis Romanus
Earl
posted 07-07-03 15:31 EST (US)     23 / 79       
Millefiore - Loriana's Chambers

A knocking at her door drew Loriana's attention away from her needlepoint. A duchess she might be, but there were times when a return to the simple pastimes learned in her formative years brought clear thinking to an otherwise confused situation. She put down her needle and responded to the knock. "Enter!" she called out. Guards outside opened the door permitting the visitor to enter.

"Oh, Caterina. Excellent, you are back from your visits. Come sit with me. Let me show you this sewing."

Caterina, dressed for riding and now returned to the Keep, entered and sat down by her sister as the guards closed the chamber door to provide proper privacy. Both of them strongwilled, one of them more the "wild child," nonetheless, Loriana and Cat could be the best of sisterly friends on most occasions.

A discussion ensued over the merits of one stitch versus another in the sampler being designed and created by Loriana. The Duchess pursed her lips as one of Caterina's observations seemed especially apropros. "Oh my," she said with a sigh. "I shall have to remove some of these stitches to do that." She sighed again. "But, Cat, I think you're right. It would be best. Tomorrow then." Loriana placed her sewing needle and threads in her sewing box and pushed the easel-like sewing frame to the side so it would not interfere with her conversation.

"Was there another reason you asked for me, Loriana?" asked Cat, her green eyes mirroring curiousity.

"Ummm, yes. Ever since we returned from San Luca Maggiore after the funeral and Bianca's arrest, I have had this nagging feeling we should more closely observe what is transpiring there."

"We sent our ambassador, didn't we?" asked Cat, thinking for sure she knew the answer. She was correct.

"Yes, but his messages have been disturbing. It seems very little progress is being made. Bianca and Del Strego remain jailed and..."

Cat interrupted her with a laugh, "Not for long." Then Cat put her hand to her mouth and shifted her eyes away from her sister. The young woman wished in vain she hadn't impulsively said that or said it quite that way.

Loriana looked at her, a furrowed brow now creasing her forehead. "Why do you say that?"

"Oh, well, because... Uh. I think something will be proved soon enough." Cat was now exceedingly nervous in her sister's presence. Loriana's face took on the look that said The Duchess was now present and the sister had departed the room. It didn't make Cat feel any more comfortable. "Cat, what did you do?" Loriana asked forthrightly and firmly.

"I visited Cesare some days ago." Cat cast her green eyes to the ground, not wanting to see her sister's face as she spoke. "I asked him to investigate the crime and find the evidence to prove Bianca killed Ricco. He agreed."

"CAT! But why! I never asked you to do that!"

"Because she killed our brother, that's why! Because she doesn't deserve to live, that's why! Because she... Because she..." Cat's mind raced ahead desperately trying to help her avoid saying all of what she was thinking.

"Because she is the reason Figaro is gone from Millefiore, that's why?!" said Loriana, knowing her sister all too well.

"YES! I mean, NO! I mean... No, not just that. I think she hated Ricco."

"Cat, look at me... I said look at me, Cat..." Loriana waited until Cat's green eyes were peering at her and her alone. "Ricco's months with Bianca were the happiest of his life. I know this because he said so, not just in his messages, but in his own voice when he spoke to me alone when he visited here or I visited there. Bianca was devoted to him. Cat, she is far more simpler than you think and has not a single conspiratorial thought in her mind or soul. Believe me, I could see the devotion in her. It ruled her heart when it came to Ricco. I can see it in you as well, though you are far more complex a person."

"Devotion, me?"

"Yes, Cat. It is in your eyes and your eyes cry out 'Figaro' colored by all of the loss you still unshakeably feel. That's why you pursue this 'truth' you seek about Bianca. It is not for your brother's sake at all."

Cat's face reddened considerably. "She drove him from me!"

"No, my sister. The fault is with Figaro, not you and certainly not Bianca. She did not drive Figaro away from you. He ran from you both, fearful of the decision he had to make.

"A coward..."

"No, not a coward," said Loriana. "A young man who never knew love before; a troubled warrior fighting a battle he did not know how to fight. He simply withdrew from the battlefield leaving the decision lying among the casualties."

"What am I to do, Loriana? As time goes by this does not lessen."

"Then let time go by and trust who it is you truly love."

"What about Cesare? Have I done wrongly?"

Loriana leaned back in her chair and considered these questions. "How long ago since you saw him?"

"About three days now. I was sent word he left his cottage soon afterwards."

"Maybe what you did, impulsive and ill-considered at the time, was for the best afterall."

"It was?" Cat felt a little less guilty, but only a very little less.

"Yes. Perhaps he will be the one who finally gets the truth out into the open... Whatever the truth might be."

"I really do want the truth learned, Loriana. It may not sound like it, but I really do." Cat was struggling to hold back tears. She wiped her eyes repeatedly to prevent their flow.

"I know that Cat. I've always known that."

A knock at the door interrupted them. "Yes, what is it?" asked Loriana, somewhat irritated at the unwanted disruption.

"A message from San Luca Maggiore, Mi'lady," said the servant outside the door.

"Enter."

The servant handed Loriana the message and waited. The message was brief, succinct and sent by her ambassador. Loriana read it and promptly dismissed the servant. Her eyes staring unseeing into the open space of the room, Loriana closed the note and placed it on her lap, folding her hands over the parchment.

"What is it Loriana? What did the note say?"

"Cat..." began Loriana. "The Crimson Knight has been seen in San Luca Maggiore."

Cat brought her hand to her mouth, her green eyes open and large, her mind launching a hundred thoughts all at the same time...

Her heart raced to keep up.

Loriana looked at her sister and saw the play of emotions across her face. "I think..." Here Loriana paused as she watched Cat's eyes focus on her in anticipation. "I think it is time to visit San Luca Maggiore." And then Loriana smiled.

Cat's heart leaped in response.

[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 07-07-2003 @ 03:32 PM).]

Civis Romanus
Earl
posted 07-09-03 15:22 EST (US)     24 / 79       
The sun reaching its peak signaled to Fidelio that it was time to collect his dinner. In the tavern at the galley's hand hewn, roughly constructed eating table, Fidelio sat patiently waiting for his dinner. Bread, cheese, fowl and wine were placed before him by the galley servant, a woman of about 22 years, auburn haired, with a young child and a husband who worked elsewhere in the village. The child stayed with its grandmother during the day, until its parents came home. Giuseppe disrupted Fidelio's feast almost as soon as he had begun.

"Eat quickly Fidelio, there is a new task for you."

"Yes, Giuseppe," the hunchback responded, then swallowed the morsel of fowl he had just bitten off the roasted bird in the plate before him.

"Clean up and take a platter of food to the gaolhouse. It is for the lady and Del Strego."

"Why me, Giuseppe? Isn't that a task for Antonio, the apprentice."

"The worthless scoundrel has gone missing again, or so the Gaolkeeper says. Regardless, we supply the food. Always have. It doesn't matter who brings it."

"Yes, of course. I shall be on my errand quite soon," said Fidelio. He hurriedly consumed the last morsels of his meal and washed himself in the water of a rainbarrel situated just outside of the backdoor of the tavern.

The tray he carried was large, but not particularly heavy. Two meals were under the cloth covering the tray. It would do no good for morale in the gaolhouse if others imprisoned there saw the food prepared for the two more important inmates. In fact, it would do no good even for the Gaolkeeper and his apprentice to see the food, or so Giuseppe told him. Fidelio made it a point to keep the food covered and would keep it so unless the Gaolkeeper himself ordered it to be revealed.

That is exactly what the Gaolkeeper did. And then he helped himself to a broad sampling of the food, taking perhaps a quarter of the meal for himself. The look in his eye was clear. Fidelio had better not say a word about it to anyone. It would be more than a foot that would be felt by the hunchback if he should talk untowardly about the Gaolkeeper and the dinners. Fidelio did as he was told.

The hunchback brought the meals up to the cell chamber where Bianca was isolated from everyone, including Del Strego. Gently he pushed the door open and walked in. As the door opened, he saw her in her cell. Bianca turned her head to see who belonged to the footsteps she heard approaching. A disconcerted look crossed her face, but she didn't say anything until after her eyes wandered to the tray in Fidelio's hands.

"Your mask... I thought... I mean... Then I saw the tray. You are not the Executioner, are you?"

"Oh... No, Milady. I am but a servant of the Tavernmaster come to bring you dinner." He placed the tray down and slid the remaining portion of her meal through the small serving door. "I hope the dinner is to your liking."

Bianca shot him a strange look, and then her eyes fell upon and stayed riveted to the deformity on his back. "An unusual malady, Servant. Does it hurt you very much?"

"Sometimes, Milady."

"I am sorry that it does."

"Thank you, Milady. You are very kind.

"This is not the entire dinner you brought, is it?"

"Uh. No, Milady," Fidelio admitted, the look in her eye disarming and the smudge on her face appealing. "I was not permitted to bring all of it to you."

"I suspected as much. The Gaolkeeper?"

"Yes, Milady. I beg your forgiveness. He is a bold and cruel man." Fidelio wrung his hands as he said this, his head down, his eyes looking at the floor, not even wanting to look anymore at Bianca's lovely face for fear of many things. Finally, as silence settled in, he looked up only to find her staring at him as if reading words printed on every centimeter of his face. He looked down again.

"What is your name, Servant?"

"Fidelio, Milady."

"An appropriate name, I suspect, for a gentle, kindly person like yourself. I hope you will bring meals to me more often than just this once. I would much prefer your company, however brief, than the company of Antonio. He is very cruel to me."

"I would like to be company for you, Milady, if I could."

"Is the other dinner for Signor Del Strego? If so, you musn't let it get cold."

"No, Milady. I mean, yes Milady. No, I mean I shan't wait any longer and let it get cold. I mean... Uh... Goodbye, Milady."

"Goodbye, Fidelio." Bianca smiled. The first time in many, many days. It was dazzling. Fidelio's face turned somewhat pink and he hurriedly picked up the tray and left the room.

Fidelio found Del Strego asleep and so he slid the meal into the man's cell and left without disturbing him. But a slightly open eye followed his every movement, discerning his shape, examining his deformity, then closed again when Fidelio chose to look in Del Strego's direction, opening once more when Fidelio looked elsewhere. The "sleeping" prisoner took the measure of the hunchback and silently filed his findings away for use on another day.

Civis Romanus
Earl
posted 07-10-03 20:10 EST (US)     25 / 79       
In the shadows outside of the place where Antonio lived, a patient, red-hooded figure bided his time. He was waiting for the apprentice to appear to present to him what wouldn't be a friendly greeting. His waiting ended when the apprentice unaccompanied finally arrived, rather unsteady on his feet, like any man filled too greatly with wine or brew.

The hooded figure reached out with a muscular arm and suddenly drew Antonio into the shadows. Frightened nearly to death the intoxicated apprentice clumsily reached for a weapon, but the hooded figure's hand was quicker. It closed upon Antonio's dagger well before the apprentice drew it out of its sheath. Then the dagger was tossed into the dark of the night, well away from where they were standing. "Say nothing," hissed the hooded stranger. "Move nothing. Do this and you will live. Shake your head if you understand."

Antonio moved his head up and down. It seemed all that he had drunk that night had drained to the bottom of his feet along with the little courage he possessed.

"Do you know me?" asked the stranger.

Antonio nodded. He prudently remained silent, but his mind screamed 'Crimson Knight' into the darkness. The Knight squeezed Antonio's arm. "Listen carefully, apprentice. You are relieved of your responsibilities in this town. You no longer work at the gaol. You no longer call San Luca Maggiore your home. You will leave promptly and never return."

Antonio stared at the Knight disbelief written on his face. "I repeat, apprentice, leave and never return... Or your stay here will become permanent, but your residence will be covered in dirt and stone. Do you understand?"

Antonio's eyes opened wide. His body began to shake. He nodded his head. The message was terrifyingly clear. He, Antonio, imagined he could end up like Gustavo, if not this night then another unless he did what the Crimson Knight asked. He nodded his head again just to punctuate his acceptance. "Do not forget this warning," Antonio heard the Knight say in a firm, harsh whisper.

Suddenly the hands that held Antonio were gone as was the shadowed visage of the Crimson Knight. The apprentice was alone. Antonio hurried to his barren room, gathered his few belongings, secured them to his horse and jumped up into his saddle. He would make one stop that night and then leave town just as the Crimson Knight ordered.

Antonio put his heels into his horse and guided it to the place where his Master resided. No, not the Master Gaoler's chamber, but to the residence of his real master so that he could relate to Mi'lord what had just transpired between himself and the Knight.

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