Thursday, February 14, 2013

Fiction: The Masque of Faith

For earlier Giancarlo stories: The Pillars of Hercules, The Siege, The Hired Blade pt. 1, The Hired Blade pt. 2, and his Flashing Blades Character Sheet

I was a young and tender age when I found myself coming into Roma. I had always dreamed of that sacred city as a little boy, but more because of the vice and sin it represented than out of any holy duty. It was enough to know that the Curia, that scheming cesspool at Roma's heart, was always after Venetian bounties, Venetian lands, their fingers always dabbling in the affairs of my fair home. I didn't go because I wanted to see the Pope or his toadies, whom I despise even to this day, but because I had met a woman—really not much more than a girl—on a moonlit canal one night and I could not forget her. This was in the full idiocy of my youth, you must understand, so I was willing to do anything to see her again, even travel to the seat of all vices.

And yet! Perhaps I was in luck, for some months before my arrival, who should be installed upon Saint Peter's Throne than Pietro Ottoboni—a Venetian! So as you can imagine my spirits were higher than would otherwise have been even as I strolled in from Ravenna. I sneered at powerful old men and made mock of their phallic noses and their disgusting wigs. The men of Roma appeared to be no different from the men of France; pompified, sisified dandies. A wig like that on the docks of Venezia would get you heaved in the Grand Canal for your troubles! Even Morosini, old fraud that he was, knew better than to wear a wig with his frippery. Though imagining his cannons blasting away the history of the Greeks still causes me to chuckle a little; those greasy oil merchants have long chafed under the Turks and proclaimed that they are the founders of all civilization. To see their monuments reduced to stone splinters and leaning columns never ceases to amuse, and we have Morosini to thank for that.

But I digress! I was there in Roma, near the Porto Flaminia after spending the night in a little coaching house on the road that winds its way down from Florence. Florentine innkeeps are of a much higher quality than Roman ones, or so I have found, and since the inn was visited by Florentines in great number they were required to keep their standards up. Not like those reeking cesspools down in the Aventine nor in the money-sucks of the Vaticani.

I was looking for a girl who's name I did not know. I knew only that she liked secret adventure as much as I myself did. By her own admission she was leaving for Roma, so I followed as fast as I could. We met one cool and beautiful August evening after the heat of the day had radiated away from the canals and up into the heavens. I had slipped from my father's shop early, determined to do as few sums as I could before sunup. He was always on about numbers and counting and making sure the weight of your vessels was well balanced. What good was that to me, I always wondered. I, Giancarlo, who was going to become a mercenary of great renown, a condotierre of skill and fame, what need did I have of bean-counting? Still, with all his harping I suppose he couldn't fail to instill some basic knowledge of math and accounting into my mind. Much as soft wax will eventually take the impression of a seal though the pressure be applied gently, so I too learned some things from the old fool. And to be quite honest, I have used them often to make certain I was not shorted on my pay.

So while the Great Man thought I was locked in a study and doing my feeblest calculations of his latest run to some Greek colony, I had slipped open the shutters, unbolted the windows, and climbed my way out of the shop altogether. First I had to take to the roof, for the street was far down below, but once I was a few buildings over I could clamber down Donna Tartaglia's washing and come plunk into the canal. I had hidden a change of clothes behind the barrels there, so once I fished myself out of that awful water I stripped down to my flesh.

That was when the mysterious girl surprised me. I was half hidden by the rain barrels and I remember praying to almighty God and Saint Mark both that my penis wasn't in view. She was older than I was, her breasts swelling gently against the leather of her bodice. "What are you doing there?" she asked me from across the canal. Her voice carried like the shout of a night watchman. I should have ducked, finished pulling on at least my breeches or my vest or something other than the short blouse I wore. I could feel the hem of the cloth flapping against my waist, so if anyone where to come upon me I knew for sure my most private parts would be exposed.

Instead I was too dumbfounded to say anything or even to move. She had transfixed me on her stare the way a lance transfixes a man to the earth, pins his mortal soul to his body. Her hair was chestnut and flowed free, not piled up on her head like the women I had known until that day. She parted it in the middle, the way the donne had years ago, but it was longer than any respectable woman would ever let it grow. The moonlight shone and made it seem as though it had been fringed in liquid silver.

Her eyes were wide as a doe's and deep brown to match her hair. I was lost in them, even from that distance. She looked at me as though I was a fool, gave me a frown, and then dashed off. I saw with shock that she wore a side-sword on her belt and it was only then that I realized her long and graceful legs weren't prisoned by some ridiculous gown or dress, but free to run and jump in a pair of breeches not unlike my own.

Now I had no choice—I jumped to attention and finished dressing. I saw where she was headed and I knew I could cut her off. Having lived and grown in Venezia all my life, I was certain of the winding streets and alleys. She must have been an interloper, I remembered thinking, for only a fool would take the main canals. They bent every which way, sending the traveler miles in one direction just to get a few hundred feet in the other. Of course, it didn't occur to me then that she might be afraid of crossing into the dark passages of the back-alleys alone. Maybe she was afraid of thieves, muggers, and rapists. Worse had happened in the dark parts of the city.

I was off like a shot, boots only half on, leaping and tumbling and dashing through side-ways. My haste payed off and I emerged along the Grand Canal some three or four blocks ahead of her. She didn't see me right away, so I ducked back into the mouth of the side-way and waited. I figured I would pop out with some twenty feet or so to spare and get a better look at her, this lady—no, this girl—who had captured my heart.

Of course, I miscalculated. When I leapt from hiding she was only two or three feet away. She tumbled into me before she could bring herself to a stop. Fool that I was, I relished the feeling of her against me, writhing and wiggling and fearsome. When we came to a stop I found myself half-erect. That died quickly as a new sensation fought its way into my mind: the icy prickle of steel on my throat. "Signorina!" I nearly begged. What a fool I was!

"Why do you come at me like an assassin?" she demanded. Her blood was up, her face flushed. She was ready to do murder, I believe, if she had to.

I raised my hands as well I could to show her I meant no harm. "I didn't wish to lose sight of you, that is all, so I came to cut you off! Only you were too fast, Signorina, so we crashed into one another! Look, look, I have no weapons drawn! My sword is at my side and I carry no knives!" The lies came easily to me. I had a knife in my boot, though in those days I wasn't smart enough to secret them in other places as well. Even as I touch pen to paper I wear six concealed knives on my person.

She rolled off of me, the breath going out of her in one great big huff. We walked together for a little while after that. I tried to discover what she was doing out this late, what she would tell a watchman if she stumbled upon him in the night. She kept her silence but didn't shoo me away. At last she revealed that she had been wandering the streets of Venezia nightly for nearly a month, but come the morning her father would take her away to Roma. I begged her to tell me where she was staying there, but she said nothing. She kissed me on the cheek and we parted ways around sunrise.

I spent the week stealing from my father, hunting the proper ship, and stowing away. The next time I returned home would be five years later, a man already cut on war and blood.

When I first entered the city I knew I would stand no chance of finding her by daylight. After all, I had only ever seen this mysterious girl in the dark watch of the night, the moon glancing upon her sword. Already my memory of her face had begun to fade, though I clung to the sweet scent of her sweat and the strange perfume she wore. That alone gave me heart enough to go on. She was a duelist, a swordswoman, and a mystery: three things I have never been able to turn away from.

Establishing residence in Roma was easier than I thought it would be. There was a disingenuous thieving Frenchman not far from the Campo Marzio who owned a crumbling stone boarding house. I bargained with him for nearly an hour and only when I finally agreed to do him some errands would he accept the sum of four scudo to put me up for the week. I hoped I would find her soon, for my funds were exhausted.

The first few days I spent going back and forth for Sig. Lebrun (so he styled himself) to the docks. He had many things coming in through the Tiber from the shipyards at Ostia, none altogether wholesome. He warned me not to be caught by the watchers or tariff-men with their long poles. "They'll teach you a lesson you'll not soon forget!" he warned in his disgustingly throaty French accent. I wanted to tell him to go to hell, but when you have only a few coins to your name it's hard to find somewhere to sleep.

My room at least was free from lice, if not from a perpetual and interminable leak that drip-dripped through my mind and disturbed even my sleeping hours. Soggy straw and gluey porridge were destined to be my lot, punctuating mornings filled with spine-bending labor carrying barrels and boxes up the riverside where they were secretly unloaded from small barks. The fisherfolk and dock laborers made mockery of me, I suppose because my arms are like limp noodles. One afternoon I'd had enough taunting and I picked up a long sword-like stick from the sandy banks.

"Come on, then," I said to a particularly loathsome Roman fisherman. His breed are like enormous boars, hairy and unstoppably strong. He grunted and threw himself at me. In one hand he held a big pin that he used as a club, but I was far too nimble for his sluggish steps. Tap, one-two, tap. There and there, I had touched his chest and throat gently with my stick. "Ha!" I cried. He apparently didn't know the rules of the duel, for he beat me bloody afterwards. If I had taken my sword—but no, it was too conspicuous  so I always left it hidden beneath my pallet.

Except at night. The nights were different. Then I owed no man my time or my money. Each evening when the sun began to set I would help Sig. Lebrun do some quick calculations (a fool and his money are soon parted) and get his accounts straight. Then I was off, dashing through the street of Roma like a crazed spirit. I went without torch or lamp, the better to save money and my own skin from the blistering of dripping tar or hot oil.

I had learned to climb in Venezia and the streets of Roma were far closer together than the canals and waterways of my home. The old stone buildings were just as festooned with faces, statues, and hand-holds, though. I found myself exploring both streets and rooftops, but never once did I catch sight of my mysterious love. I wrote her secret hasty letters on stolen scraps of paper from Sig. Lebrun's account book and left them scattered through the city in the hopes that she would find them. Some nights I lounged by the tomb of Emperor Augustus and wondered where she was hiding.

All in all, I explored the entire eastern side of the city over two weeks. My work in Sig. Lebrun's shop had grown less physical and more mental as he realized my capabilities lie in double-entry book keeping and not in brute force. He started to treat me like a son of his own, which I really couldn't stand. The thought of that cheating Frenchman as my father made my teeth ache.

I wondered where my real papa was, what he was doing, if the carefully worded apology I had left on his bedside had calmed him or driven him into a rage. I hadn't dared tell him I was going to Roma to find a girl that I did not know, so instead I wrote that I was going into the East on a pilgrimage. I said I was a sinner, I had lain with women (which was true—by the time I left Venezia I had already bedded a maid in my house three times; we'd had to sneak off to the Ghetto to get the baby taken out of her belly) and that I had spilled blood (which was a lie) and I was going off to seek forgiveness.

I know now that my father didn't believe a word of it. He knew all about the maid, of course, and had paid her a fabulous sum not to tell anyone of the harrowing trip to the old Jewish alchemist's house. He thought I'd hared off to join an army and wet my blade, not that I'd gone to the shadow of the Pope to find some girl.

Sig. Lebrun started to pay me a little stipend to help him run his smuggling operation. I was good with numbers, as I've said, so I determined what he could afford to pay his men and when it was cheaper just to use normal portage routes. Those kinds of things delighted the fat little man, who would clap his hands or touch his fingers to his mouth. He was a kind of goblin, I'm sure, a disgusting little imp who was so grotesquely overweight that even breathing seemed to be extremely laborious.

Either way, this freed up more of my own time to find my lost love. By now I had forgotten all the particulars of her person. I knew I lusted after her, knew her face was beautiful, knew she had "doe eyes" and "chestnut hair" and could even remember the weight of her slender body on top of mine, but her features had melted away like candle wax. Memory is a fickle and stupid thing.

I decided to try my luck on the other side of the river. I began scouting the Vatican Hills for her. Maybe she was related to a prelate. It would explain why she'd left just before the Conclave commenced. Now that there was a new pope installed in the monumental Throne, perhaps she could come home to Venezia. But then, Venice wasn't her home. I'd forgotten how lost she'd looked there, how utterly without the wisdom every Venetian develops before the age of twelve. Then again, women rarely left the house unaccompanied... maybe she simply hadn't had the chance.

The idea that she might have gone back to Venezia terrified me. I became obsessed with the notion. Every waking moment I dedicated to ensuring that she had not. It's no surprise that when I first heard ofd the Masked Duelist that I didn't think of her at all.

Rumor in the Vatican had it that some priest's daughter, spirited here to keep her close, was dressing as a man and fighting dandies and fops all throughout the town. Church swordsmen were being humiliated and even venerable old fools like the Orsini scion (who's name I have forgotten) where being dispatched like children with their asses spanked.

I thought nothing of this colorful rumor until I saw the Masked Duelist teaching one of those lessons herself. It was late at night, my usual time for haunting, and I had already had half a bottle of wine with Sig. Lebrun to celebrate a successful shipment of crossbows or something like that. There, in a side-street not far from the Leonine Wall, was a duel going on that blazed like the sun. Swords flashed, sparks were raised, and the subtle grunts of two combatants echoed in the dead night air. It was cold, some time in late October, so I could see the steaming huffs of breath blooming out of each duelists' mouth.

One of the fighters was a man, a churchman with a red cloak and red gloves. A cardinal? So it seemed. The other was clearly a woman wearing crushed black satin. Her hair was hidden by a scarf and her face was obscured by a black mask. The cardinal shouted, "I know who you are! I know you, Diana!" The woman slashed open the cardinal's cheek.

"Then go and say it was Diana who did this to you! See how manly you look after that!" The cardinal pressed his hand to his face where blood was already welling up through his fingers. It was an off-color when compared to his princely robes. It splattered a deeper crimson upon his gown as he dropped his blade and fled.

The woman was crouched and ready to run, no doubt to strip off her mask and return to her home and pretend to be asleep. But! Ah, this was someone who spent time amongst the city streets at night, who was lithe and cunning and who might know my signorina. I confess, even then it did not occur to me that they were one and the same. "Diana!" I called. "Wait a moment!"

She turned and glared at me. She moved like a cat, pounding down the alley towards me. Her blade was coated with fresh blood. "You!" she cried, and I blinked—could those be the doe's eyes behind that mask? Could her scarf conceal chestnut hair? The sweet smell of her confirmed it. This was my love.

"You!" I said back. "But who are you?"

I could not say if she looked sad as her pommel struck me in the temple. I dropped far too quickly to remember anything.

When I came to my senses I was back in with my friend, Lebrun. By now I had stopped calling him Signore some time ago. He told me he'd found me laying on the Isola Tiberina, lounging as though I was asleep. The welt on my head had told him otherwise (oh yes, cunning Frenchman, what great powers of observation your piggy eyes have!) He'd dragged me back to our lodgings near the Campo Marzio and ministered to me with cold compress and sour, cheap wine. As for me? I was more smitten than ever.

"I need to find Diana," I told him.

He gave me that pouty frown that he always made, the one that distended his fat lips so unpleasantly. "Who is this Diana, cher?" He liked to use these hideous French diminutives I suppose he thought it made him sound exotic and cultured. Perhaps in a stinking perfumed French court he would have, but here in his flophouse it just made him sound pathetic.

I told him the story, or the parts of it I felt safe telling. He nodded his head as though this were the most natural thing in the world. Perhaps for a Frenchman it is—chasing after women is a sport in their country as much as it is in ours. Lebrun promised to help me and, by the time I finished, he already had a whole plot formed.

His plan was this: he would be my second and together we would make such a name in the city of Roma as duelists that Diana would have no choice but to come after me to keep her reputation. He said in that fat wheezing tone, "You should hint that you have slept with her, of course!" I suppose to agitate her more, but I denied him. After all, I wanted her to find me not to kill me. "At the very least you must wear a mask so that she does not recognize you. The mystery will make you all the more alluring."

I agreed. After all, I had no other way of trying to find her. What else could I do? Hang around the Vatican like some religious madman and pray to the Almighty for a mere glimpse of her? I had a feeling she did not go out during the day anyway. The best I could hope for was to surprise her in another duel, something I did not relish.

So I began with Lebrun's plot. He took me around the visiting nobility; it was hard to provoke a German, he said, but they were terrible swordsmen. A German should be my very first target. They were scattered throughout the city, no longer operating under a single diplomatic directive—Westphalia had seen to that. The man Lebrun pointed me to was a retired army captain from Vienna with a sad little goatee and a tendency to drink. His hair was iron gray and I felt as though I was giving him a bad turn by bothering him. Oh well, I said to myself, we must all start somewhere.

It was a stinking little pot shop on the river, the southern stretches were peasants and sots lived, that we finally approached him. He was well into his third or fourth jug of beer when we came upon him. Lebrun pushed me forward to make sure I jogged his elbow and spilled his slops down the front of his vest. He muttered a drunken apology. Lebrun hissed in my ear, "Refuse it! Make him angry!"

"You drunken swine," I said, feigning bravado. "Who do you think you are? You've just spilled your filthy slops onto a man who doesn't take insult lightly!"

He looked up at my be-masked face, be-fuddled. "I am terribly sorry," he said in clipped accented Italian. "I meant no harm and I will certainly pay to have it cleaned."

"Ha!" I scowled. I could feel the hot leather of the mask riding up the bridge of my nose. "I hardly think you can afford it, you porcine lout!" Not that he bore any resemblance to a pig—I was thinking of Lebrun, who was so similar to a panting boar. "I'll take five ducats now and another fifteen when I come by this way tomorrow."

My evil attitude was worming its way into the man's brain. I could see it working in his eyes. He had apologized to me when I was the one who had bumped him... and now I was belittling him in public. "Now, now," he said, eyes swimming, "I'll give you seven florins right now and we can consider the matter closed."

"Seven florins!" I wailed. "Seven florins! You must take me for as big a fool as yourself! Look at you, you ignorant German ape, covered in your own swill like a god-damned animal! I won't have it, do you hear? The price is now thirty five ducats, deliverable to my personal address!"

That finally got him to growl at me. "And where would I find the address of a masked blasphemer such as yourself?" he asked me.

I dove in. Now was my chance. "Blasphemer?" I repeated hotly. "I won't stand for it. I'll have satisfaction, if you please." There. It was done.

The duel was arranged for the following day. It wasn't good enough to fight him in front of the pot shop—there was no audience there, only fisherfolk, smugglers, and drunks. Instead, I demanded he meet me at the Piazza Navone. Lebrun was upset by the decision—"Authorities will arrive to put a stop to it before you even have a chance to show yourself properly!" he complained. Ah, clever Lebrun, that was my hope. I wouldn't have time to get my throat cut.

We met just before eleven. The piazza was bustling with life. I had the side-sword I had purchased back in Venice, but the imperial weapon of the Captain was far more impressive. The hilts were German eagles and the pommel was set with a red stone. My blade was far more simple and I could tell at once it was less well balanced.

The Captain was stone sober today, his bleary eyes measured for the kill. I began to sweat. Beads of salt water dropped into my mouth from beneath my mask. I hoped against hope that Lebrun was right and this Captain was an easy victory. He looked like a grizzled murderer, well-trained in battle. A scar rippled up his right hand and into his cuff, speaking of some horrific war-wound. Well, maybe I could use it to my advantage.

He drilled into me with his eyes. His hand rested lightly on his sword. "We may still call this off." His voice was clipped, precise. "We may still both walk away with our honor."

"One of us may," I said with a great deal more bravado then I felt. My coward's heart was already fluttering. My spada rasped against its sheath, looking dull and lifeless in the clear morning light. I glanced over my shoulder at Lebrun just in time for him to shout "Look out!" and then the German was upon me.

Up! Into a rote defensive stance, and quickly! I held my blade parallel with my body, looking to block any lines he might make towards me. His sword was made for hacking murder, mine for light piercing thrusts. German against Italian, I suppose, our very natures revealed in our choice of weapon. He came at me and I flicked my wrist, angling my spada to the right so I might catch his blade and direct it away. I was surprised by how heavy it was and the strength with which it drove.

It barely missed nicking my shoulder. I tried to keep up, but his tempo was fierce, blazing fast. I had no idea a German blade could move so quickly. He was dancing double-time to my sluggish waltz. Rap! Another blow, and then clang! another! Each time I nearly failed to parry. I looked around frantically for the local militia or the city watch—anything to put an end to this before I was killed. And there was Lebrun, at the other end of the piazza, paying off the guards to look the other way. Damn and double damn!

I breathed in and out very slowly. I had never had to fence under life or death circumstances before—not that these were, for I'm sure the Captain had only meant to the blood. At least, that's what I was given to understand about Germans. I should have asked, but I had been petrified and I hadn't thought to clear up the confusion. But now my strokes were coming easier, even though my blade was lighter and more flimsy. The basket hilt of my spada clanged and clattered against the German's blade.

He was slowing. I was gaining speed. Yes, yes, I remembered my strengths. Not the strength of my sinews but the speed of my feet, the twists and turns of my wrist. Now I was directing his strikes this way and that, clattering his steel against my own. I grinned arrogantly at him. The tip of my spada became a flicker-flash. And there! I drew a trickle of blood from his abdomen. He grunted, threw down his sword, and stalked off. I couldn't help but break into a full smile.

That night Lebrun congratulated me. "You did well to toy with him," he huffed, gasped, and wheezed. "It made the victory all that more impressive!" I didn't have the heart to tell the filthy French bastard that I'd been fighting for my life.

This went on for three months and never in that time did I see even a hint of my Diana. I whispered her name at night to the sky, wondering if the archer goddess could hear me. But my Diana was Persephone, dragged back into the Roman underworld. Was it only coincidence that the winter began in earnest then? Perhaps... but perhaps not.

Lebrun started taking bets. Most of the proceeds went back into his smuggling business, but some provided for him to bring a swordsman from Milan to live in the lodging house and teach his Masked Duelist how to improve his wristwork. I admit, I got better, and not just from Sig. Stronto's odiously long and intense lessons. Even in Diana's absence I was starting to enjoy myself. People were coming forward to challenge me now, not the other way around, and my reputation was starting to grow. It must have irked her to know there was another Masked Duelist in the city. I did my best to ride on her coattails. How could I have known that Lebrun was meantime spreading a rumor that I had slept with the Swordswoman? That ugly little toad!

When she finally challenged me, it was through Lebrun. He had heard the challenge issued on the streets using his thuggish eyes and ears—not the ones on his head, the ones he paid good gold for. She had challenged me to a duel before Saint Peter's itself. Lebrun whispered that the Pope might be in attendance... and that this duel would be his most lucrative venture in fifteen years.

I was elated! I didn't tell the froggy little Frenchman my plan, which was to sweep off my mask and surrender to Diana as soon as the duel began. Let him lose a few florins over it, what did I care? If he thought he could make more money betting against me in a duel to the death he would have.

It was the dead of night when I met Diana on the steps of Saint Peter's. I was giddy with excitement. I could feel my body rising, as though it were full of hot air, right up out of my boots and into the heavens. I would finally kiss her hand, hold her close, whisper to her the secrets I'd been whispering instead to the mythical Diana...

A light snow was falling, dusting the earth with a freezing cloak. Lebrun and I arrived early as we normally did, for those watching always expected me to show before my opponent. Lebrun went amongst them and made certain his bets were well laid. It was a big crowd as my antics had begun to draw all manner of attention. There was the red cardinal I'd seen Diana humiliate, and there a pair of Swiss and—my God! Could it be? Alexander Eight Himself, the Holy Father. I knew him, for he was a Venetian as I have said and I had seen him from afar when he was bishop in Venice. Ottoboni, I recalled.

Then I saw her coming. My heart exploded. Her hips swayed seductively, her leather outfit glinted in the torchlight. I reached up to undo the straps of my mask. "You!" she said, and her naked blade was pointed right at me. Oh God, she knows it's me, I thought with boundless joy. I hastened at the knot. "I don't know who you think you are, but you will confess that you've never bedded me before." What? My fingers trembled, fumbled. The knot was only half done. "Say it!" she demanded as she drew closer. "You are a thief and a liar and we have never seen each other before. Say it!"

Lebrun chuckled. That fiend had betrayed me! "No," I moaned, but she skipped up the steps and shouted, "To the death, liar!"

Still I would not have drawn. I was standing there dumbfounded, my mask half undone. She reached out and casually skipped her blade over my ribs. They were suddenly warm, as though I was sitting by a fire. Blood sprayed down my blouse. I drew my spada just so I could defend myself, else I'm sure she would have killed me. But even as I parried her next rejoinder, I felt the mask flop away from the right side of my face.

I have admitted to cowardice in the face of danger many times before, but it was strange to me then to think I was afraid that she would see who I was. I knew what lay beneath her mask, but she could not guess what lay beneath mine. If my face were revealed to her, she would think that it was I, Giancarlo of Venice, who had spread those foul lies! I would rather have died than hurt my dear Diana or let her think that I would do anything to harm her. As long as I was the Masked Duelist, she would not trace that hurt to Giancarlo.

Twisting away, I begged "My mask is slipping—please, do not let me stand naked before you." She relented for a moment while I numbly remade the knot. My fingers were slick with my own blood where I had touched my wound, and I fear the manner in which I retied it was less than sturdy.

Our swords came together again and the duel went on. I could feel tears in my eyes as I looked at my beautiful Diana who wanted nothing more than to kill me. I tried to tell her I was sorry, that it hadn't be me it had been that traitor Lebrun, but she couldn't hear me. Clack, clack! I had to use every bit of all I had learned over the past months to intercept her. Her lines were straight and true, but devious as well. Each time I parried her blade she feinted and whipped to the inside of mine. Each time I tried to counter-feint she caught me in a beat and pushed me back. Blood blossomed from my shoulder and then my hip.

I felt the strings of my mask coming undone again. "Please," I begged, and now there were real tears on my face and my voice shook like a babe's. I, Giancarlo, am not afraid to admit that I was terrified. I was struck with horror that she might kill me or worse, that I might make a lucky stroke and kill her, her whom I had loved from afar.

She withdrew again, but there was clear disgust on her face. Her sneer told me that she had no respect for me whatsoever. I wondered if she could kill me at will, if she were toying with me the way Lebrun thought I had toyed with the Captain. Fastening a tighter knot this time, I muttered a prayer under my breath. "Madonna Diana, dell'arco, ti prego salvami da questa tragedia."

Again we were pressed close as lovers, close as killers. I heard her hiss, "How do you know my name?" She glanced nervously into the crowd as she spoke, almost as though she was afraid someone there might recognize her as well.

"I'm not who you think I am," was I could say. She growled and thrust at me, piercing my chest. It felt like she stabbed me through the heart.

My blood was churning in the snow, turning it to pink slush. I fell to my knees and whispered, "Please Diana, don't. I love you." I have never felt more vulnerable than that moment—not though I was charging Turkish cannon lines or falling from the deck of a burning ship.

She picked me up, balling my blouse in her hand, and threw me into the cathedral. The doors crashed open under me and I wheeled backwards, slipping down again to the cold marble floor. The wind whipped snow within. The silent, cold, lifeless statues of the most holy sanctum surrounded me in the cavernous darkness. "How do you know my name?" she whispered.

I slowly drew the string of my mask. The bloody thing fell away. Diana gasped and pulled back, hand clasped across her mouth. It was her turn for tears to sting her eyes. They fell on me like the sweetest rain. "You can't," she whispered.

"We can," I said, reaching for her hips. She straddled me and didn't bother to bat my hands away. There were calls from outside: the crowd baying for blood.

She shook her head and her scarf finally came undone, letting her chestnut hair flow this way and that. "No we can't," she said softly, placing her head on my bleeding breast. "For my name is not just Diana, but also Ottoboni."

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