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Chapter 13: A House By The Seashore

Chapter 13: A House By The Seashore

Together, Scarafaggio and Guendalina wandered the grounds of the vigneto for the remainder of the evening. She would scramble off in chase of any manner of insect who darted by on spindle legs. While the girl was eager to test her newfound powers Scarafaggio lingered behind, lost in the conundrum of his thoughts.  It was new to him, this swirling stream of mind. He found he didn’t particularly like being the shepard of his own thoughts. Such duties robbed him of the usual blithe that accompanied his visits.

It wasn’t the fact that this little girl could sway crickets to chirp in the daytime or ants to rally rings around her ankles that gave him pause. More, it was the thought that she had willfully used her ability to assault the Noblidonna. She had said herself that she would have taken the old woman’s life had she been able. Yet how could he fault her? Consumed by his own smoldering of wrath, he’d have done the same. Had it not been for the fiddler, he was quite sure he would have. What then he wondered? Would the vigneto have rejoiced, at being sparred of this tyrant? More likely, the discovery of the old woman’s parched corpse would have plunged the place into a fog of hushed suspicion and fear.

He decided he was giving the whole affair an unneccesary amount of consideration. The child’s attack had been defensive, of that he was certain. Still her words rang through his mind, echoing in the caverns carved out by memories.

“… there weren’t enough of them to do it. Bees die after they use their sting. They’re only good for one.”

He shook the thought from his mind, unwilling to accept that these words were born from anything more than the vestiges of anger. He looked at the girl now, all frivolity and frolick. Wide eyed, she searched tuffets of grass and craggy nooks for bugs to whom she might issue commands. No, by no means could such an innocent harbor the bloodlust as he dared imagine.

Guendalina’s pursuit of an especially large beetle had driven them to a part of the grounds he’d never seen before. It was apparent there had been a fire here some time ago, the charred skeletons of buildings still stood in testament this. Rather than build up upon this charred ground again, the scorched brick and timber had been abandoned, and new structures had been laid, a façade around ruin.

Surrounded by these shadows cast in mortar, he was surprised to hear voices, thunderous and bellowing, roar through this graveyard. These were not the phantom leavings of some disembodied wretch, but voices he knew well. He couldn’t quite make out the words, but he recognized the stony chafe of Luciano’s voice in contest with the age-seasoned timber of the fiddler’s.

He looked to Guendalina, who had busied her fingers with digging through a spire of rotting wood. The crumbling pinnacle jutted out from the cinder-borne wreckage around them, as if daring one last time to mend itself to whole. No doubt Guendalina’s interest in it was to pluck out a beetle or even grub from it’s grains. Any insect, who might serve as her amusement for the briefest of moments, would do. Regardless, she was distracted for the now.

Scarafaggio followed the voices, making sure to keep Guendalina in his sight. She never once looked up from the task she’d taken upon herself, fingers burrowing furiously.  He followed the two-man cachophony to a soot varnished brick structure. There, he peered into one of the many chasms worn through the edifice by time and loosed brick. Through failing daylight and fallen timbers, he spied the form of these two friends, who for all the world seemed quite the opposite, lost to their banter. The men were seated at an old stone table, which had weathered the fire’s wrath. Their fists pounding, tongues cutting as their words shattered the air around them. The ragged old crow who had served as Luciano’s consort had joined in their row, perched upon the soldier’s shoulder. The thing offered shrill squawks to punctuate it’s master’s words.

“You make it sound like you’re expecting a dowry!” The fiddler chuffed indignantly.

I’m not asking for no such thing! I’m just saying that boy has a right to live his own life too, and I won’t hand him over to you as her servant.” Luciano sounded back.

Scarafaggio realized that the men were debating his own fate. All their pomp and bluster was over him.

“Well it’s too late. He’s already agreed to it.” The fiddler parried.

No he hasn’t!” Luciano thrust back with unquavering certainty. “I was there to witness, at your request, and you know how much I hate all this sneaking around in the shadows!”

Scarafaggio had never considered that there might have been others watching him that day at the hives. It was no wonder that Luciano had found him so quickly after his departure from the tribù, he’d been trailing his step all the while.

“I heard you ask him if he’d consider it. He only agreed to that. We don’t even know what that girl will be capable once she presents.” Luciano continued.

You’ve known her almost all her life.” The fiddler protested. “You’re her Godfather! Maledizione! She’s a good girl…”

She is, right now.” Luciano allowed, the fury in his voice quelling.  “And he’s a lonely, scared little stripling who knows nothing more about your girl, other than he likes when she plays with his hair. Neither one of them is ready to be bound to the kind of contract you’re talking about.”

The crow shrieked in agreement, flapping it’s wings for emphasis. Scarafaggio felt the ire of resentment warm his blood. He may have been ignorant in the ways of he human world, but he knew well enough that he cared for Guendalina. Still, these words gave rise to a seed of doubt within himself. Hadn’t it only been a short time ago that he’d planned to steal the child away, bartering her off for a bit of discarded flesh? It all seemed so ridiculous now.

“Maybe he owes it to her, after stealing her away like he did.” The fiddler spoke desolately. These words cut Scarafaggio deeply, the petulance of his past teasing at the wound.

I’m sure you could convince him of that if you tried.” Luciano’s voice swelled with a growing rage, which he managed to contain in civil tone. “Is that the kind of guardian you want, someone who just sees her as their penance? Maybe you brought back a little of the tribù with yourself after all?”

Then tell me what I’m supposed to do?” The fiddler’s words spilled forth from a reservoir of desperation he could no longer hold dammed within himself.

Luciano abandoned his anger, speaking instead in the compassionate tones of friendship. There was a real sorrow in his voice, for he pitied the fiddler, yet he could not relent. Despite the decades these two had spent as comrades, Luciano remained unwilling to barter away the life of a fellow Fatine. It was a sort of selflessness with which Scarafaggio was unfamiliar.

If I could take her on I would,” Luciano assured the old man. “But between the two at home…”

I know.” The fiddler sighed. “It’s why I never asked you.”

“I’ll work with him, prepare him, but like you said it’s a gamble… for both of us.”

“So that’s it then?” The old man said, burying his face in his hands. Luciano put an arm around the fiddler’s shoulders, holding him as he sobbed unabashedly.

There’s a society of Rile in Venice, and I’ve sent word, explaining your situation. I can’t make any promises to you but…”

The soldier stopped suddenly and looked up from the ruination of his friend. His gaze sliced through the drifting patina of dust and darkness that gyred before his eyes, falling squarely upon Scarafaggio.

“I don’t approve of eavesdropping my boy! It’s the worst kind of cowardice.” He admonished. The fiddler lifted his face from the mask of his hands. His tears had cut trails through the dusting of earth he wore upon his wrinkled visage.

“If you want to be part of this conversation, be a man and come make yourself known.” The soldier insisted, beckoning the boy inward with an insistent wave of his hand.

Scarafaggio glanced over his shoulder, and seeing that Guendalina had not shifted from her position, he crawled through a chink in the crumbling wall to join the men in palaver.

The fiddler dried his eyes on his shirtsleeve, shaking away his despair and standing to greet the boy with a hearty handshake. Your big sister’s been waging quite a battle on your behalf.” He chuckled as warmly as he could manage.

It seemed strange that the fiddler would call this burly, mustachioed man, who stood in their company his sister. Doubtless, he had known Luciano before she had assumed her current form.

“How’s our girl?” The old man asked, heaving jollity about to buttress the collapse that threatened within.

“Playing …with bugs.” Scarafaggio answered in stilted tongue. “She’s playing.”

No sooner had he spoken than the child’s voice bubbled through the broken walls.

“Luciano!!!” She called out, the clunk of her ill-fitting shoes upon the ground echoing through the emptiness.

The child threw her arms around the soldier’s waist, and he lifted her into his arms with an adoring smile.

“You can’t be my little Armonia!” He said with mock surprise. “You’re far too big!”

“I’m not!” The answer came tumbling upon the babbling stream of her laughter. “I’m Guendalina now!” She insisted, snatching the cap from his brow and plopping it playfully upon her tangle of curls. The crow, still perched upon his shoulder, hardly ruffled a feather at this intrusion. It was clear these three were well acquainted with one another’s habits.

“Guen-da-li-na” She repeated from beneath the hat, the brim of which hid her eyes, and plunged her face in shadow. Only the expanse of her puckish grin remained visible.

“Like in the Azzurina story.” The fiddler explained. “They’ve made up names for one another.”

Luciano nodded his understanding, though the look he shot Scarafaggio was clearly one of reproach.

“She was never yours to name.” He heard the soldier’s voice scold within his thoughts.

“Would you like a present?” Guendalina spoke to the gruff old warrior with the same playful lilt some little girls reserve for guests at their make believe tea parties.

“I’m not so sure.” He groaned. “Last time I said yes you filled my hat with earthworms.”

“This is better, I promise.” She said, gifting Scarafaggio with a mischevious wink of her eye. He braced himself, for he had more than an inkling of what might come next.

She held out her hand. For a long moment, only stillness and silence greet this gesture. Then there came the hum of many wings slicing air. Soon, the trails of light that spilled through the cavities in the broken wall were fractured, and through these clefts flew swarms of beetles. Their metallic bodies glistened, like a blue-black midnight, shattered and carved into cabochons set adrift through time.

The insects congregated upon the girl’s fingers, crawling their way up her arm, and into the crook of her elbow. One by one they fastened themselves into a makeshift gauntlet. Soon the odd assembly clicked and clattered their way into a grand orb, which dwarfed the child in it’s enormity.

Horror unraveled the pinnings of Luciano’s once cheerful expression. He looked both to Scarafaggio and the fiddler, neither of whom could offer anything more than a reflection of the same dread.

When the cloud of shimmering bodies had cleared, Luciano and the fiddler departed to the far end of the cremated piazza, leaving Guendalina in Scarafaggio’s care. Their words came more guarded now, voices never rising above a whisper.

“He didn’t like my present.” Guendalina giggled playfully.

To her, this was all a wonderful new game, where flies and beetles cavorted on command and bees besieged the opposition. How could he ever hope to explain the peril of the realm she had so carelessly stumbled into? It was his world, that backstage plain of existence where the wires and whims of mortality itself were pulled. There, all that was concealed to humanity was laid bare. It was a place where man was never meant to tread.

“He was surprised, that’s all.” Scarafaggio reasoned. “You have to warn people before you go and do a thing like that.”

She shrugged, grinning up at her friend. “It doesn’t bother you.”

“No.” He tried, finding the word stale and meaningless on his tongue.

“Because you love me!” She sang this affirmation unquestioningly.

The child was not asking this time, but rather telling him. He did not contest.

Scarafaggio found himself unable to repress a growing sadness. He knew that this would be the end of their innocent walks together, of lying in the tall grass and gazing up at clouds or dancing through vineyard rows by torch-light. Her childhood had been ruptured by the deeds of one vicious woman. A woman who hadn’t known what this child in truth was, yet whose hand had inadvertently turned the key to an arsenal, unlocked many years too soon.

He’d overheard Luciano call it presenting. “Would you like a present?” She had asked him, almost as if some part of her knew.

Her odd gift had manifest before she had the rationality to wield it properly. Now, between the three of them, discipline would have to be distilled. Scarafaggio wanted no part in that, but he was loath to see this child grow drunk on her own ascendency. More so, he feared what the other humans who peopled this Earth might make of her, and how they might spurn her for brandishing abilities they themselves could never manage.

“I’m like you now!” She beamed up at Scarafaggio. “Like you and Zio Luciano.”

“Fatine don’t herd bugs.” He murmured dully, unable to summon the proper offense to meet this remark. He supposed he should be glad that she couldn’t do the things Fatine actually did do.

“You know what I mean!” She trilled. “We’re magical. I can live like you now!”

The words almost drove him to weeping, for they were closer to the truth than she ever might have known. She was indeed like them in that she would live the rest of her life as a pariah. She too would be ostracized by humankind and hunted by the Fatine. It wasn’t something he cared to celebrate.

He stared out onto the ocean. Nightfall had transformed it to a miasma of endless black, save the slivers of moonlight held upon it’s waves. His mind swam with half formed thoughts as to what might be done to protect the child. These thoughts were born, and malformed as they were, each doggedly sputtered and splashed before inevitably being drown by the anchor of his doubt. He had only divorced himself of the tribù a few days ago, and he knew they still clung to him, somewhere in the back recesses of his mind. He hadn’t the knowledge to save this child within himself, not yet.

He felt a tug at the end of his braid and turned to see Guendalina’s black eyes starring up at him, endless as any ocean and brimming with easily as many wonders. He lifted her into his arms, where she followed his gaze out to the night cloaked sea.

“The ocean is pretty.” She said simply.

“Yes.” Was all he could manage in reply.

“When we grow up, we’ll have a house by the seashore.” She spoke with a certainty that only children still tend.

Scarafaggio laughed to himself at the idea. “”You and me?” He tarried.

“Of course.” She spoke the words as if it were the most obvious conclusion in the world.

“You’re only six.” He chided softly. “I think you might change your mind a hundred times before you’re grown.”

She shook her head in counter, then a ponderous look overcame her face. “How old are you?” She inquired earnestly.

The question gave him pause. He couldn’t rightly say how many years he had lived. He knew the count of six had passed since his brothers died, that he had stood a head or so taller than this girl was now the day they did. He knew himself to be some years older than she, but before that night he’d never troubled himself over keeping such measures.

“I don’t know.” He answered truthfully, thinking back on words the fiddler had spoken only a day before. “What reason would immortals have to count the pass of years?” He repeated.

Deprived of an answer, she simply rest her head upon his shoulder and watched the shifting sea. The moon hung high above the ocean by the time he and the soldier had departed. Guendalina, having succumbed to sleep, was gently handed off to her father. She awakened only long enough to readjust herself to his more ingratiating frame.

 …

When the soldier had lead Scarafaggio some distance away from the vigneto, he halted, turning to the boy with a grave look set in his eye.

“Why do you want to leave the tribù?” He demanded. His voice was not at all hostile, but so robbed of any conversational humour that Scarafaggio felt jarred by the question.

“So that I can protect Guen…”

“No.” Luciano wedged the word into the boy’s sentence. “No one person can be your reason for leaving, you have to want to do this for yourself.”

“But she…” Scarafaggio began only to be blockaded by the soldier.

“Don’t you dare try to peddle off any of that, ‘oh she can replace the family I lost’ or she loves you, or you love her, because that sort of nonsense means nothing in the long run.”

“I told her I did.” Scarafaggio muttered sheepishly.

“You might be able to say the word, but you have no idea of the responsibilities that come with that kind of oath, and neither does she.” The soldier thundered, his mustache sweeping side to side in agitation.

“Humans are fickle! They’ll talk about love, but hardly any of them can put it into practice, least of all a six year old child!”

Scarafaggio stared at him blankly, uncertain of what he might say to appease Luciano’s rankling.

“If you leave the tribù, you leave for yourself. I won’t bother to train you otherwise.” Luciano said tersely, turning on his heel and marching on at a far brisker pace than before.

Scarafaggio chased behind him. “How do I know if I am or not?” He bemoaned. “We don’t do for ourselves in the tribù, you know that! How am I suppose to know why I do…” He desperately searched for the words “why I do anything at all?!”

The soldier stopped, affording him a grin. “Well, you’re farther along than most I’ve seen by now.” He lauded.

“How’s that?” Scarafaggio questioned, hoping this capricious Fatine was not simply making sport of him.

“You don’t talk about yourself as ‘we’ or ‘they.’” He began. “How am ‘I’  supposed to know why ‘I’ do anything at all.” Luciano repeat, hinging the weight of the sentence on the word I. “Yes, the separation must have already begun for you some time ago, at least mentally.”

He stroked his chin thoughtfully, then, his enthusiasm once more harnessed, he burst into a bought of hearty laughter.

“Yes, that’s something I can foster!”

With that, he gave the boy an approving slap on the back, turned again on his heel and hurried on.

Scarafaggio lingered behind for a second, his mind once again hastened with ponderings. Racing to catch up to the soldier he heard himself ask before he fully understood the reason;

“How did you and Arabella meet?”

Luciano returned the question with a sly smile. The crow atop his shoulder seemingly chuckled in retort.

“Tell me!” Scarafaggio insisted, sprinting out in front of the soldier and inching backwards from his unrelenting step.

“Do you know what a bivouac is?” Luciano began.

Scarafaggio grimaced, shaking his head. He found it wasn’t as easy to snatch images from Luciano’s mind as it was with his other siblings.

“It’s sort of a camp soldiers set up for themselves. Back when the French had this land, they sprouted up like toadstools all along these parts.”

Scarafaggio imagined rows of enormous hollowed out toadstools, which soldiers scurried in and out of like harvesting ants. He wished he could have been alive to see such a site.

“Sometimes the local womenfolk would follow the soldiers around, tending the laundry or…” He snickered.

“Or what?” Scarafaggio beckoned.

“Some of the ladies… helped to keep the soldier’s courage up.” He laughed derisively. Somewhere in these words there was a jest Scarafaggio was not privy to.

“Her mama was one of those you see.” The soldier continued. The crow on his epaulette shrieked in objection. “I mean a laundress of course!” He placated to the feathered dissenter. “And where she went, Arabella followed.”

“So you met her when you robbed the laundry?” Scarafaggio’s deduction threw the crow into hysterics. He’d never seen an animal behave so. It was as though it truly comprehended the way in which spoken words tiled together to pattern a story.

“I’ve never robbed anyone!” He groused. “I just didn’t quite understand the exchange you see. A handful of snail shells it seems isn’t considered equivalent to a nice coatee or pair of stockings. It should be, when you consider the amount of effort it takes to gather them up, but well…” He tossed the thought away with a wave of his gloved hand. “We used to get into all kinds of mischief together.” A warm chortle boiled up from his gut as he thought back to childhood. “Yeah, those were good times.”

“You left the tribù for her didn’t you?” Scarafaggio said with the trace of a smug little smirk hitched at the corner of his lips.

The soldier’s expression grew dismal, the draw of his breath coming slowly, heavily, as if each awakened a pain he’d long ago buried.

“I’m sorry.” Scarafaggio tried, “I just wanted…”

The soldier held up a hand, begging him to cease his tongue. He obliged him.

“No.” Luciano began, the façade of the male soldier now falling away to reveal the Fatine with whom Scarafaggio truly communed.

“I can honestly say that I didn’t.” She spoke as a woman. One who bore the ravages of pain but had known the drought of tears for long enough to remain lucid and stoic. She sat down upon a fallen tree by the side of the road, elbows braced upon her knees, eyes heavenward, considering how she might begin.

She nodded to the bird who shuffled back and forth upon the perch of her shoulder. As if commanded by this gesture, the beast departed in a flapping of wings and flurry of feathers.

“It was a long time after I met her that I left.” She finally said. “You’re too young to have been cycled out I imagine?”

“I doubt if I would have been anyway.” He said, twirling the vile about his neck. “I’m marked.”

She offered a quick nod in understanding, not wishing to belabour the point.

Cycled out. It was the term the Fatine used to describe mating. Thinking upon it now, Scarafaggio could not help but remark upon how cold it sounded, how austere, but that was the nature of the ritual.

One Fatine was chosen to mate with a human partner, one who was deemed compatable for the enigmatic needs of the tribù. The purpose of this union was to propagate offspring. Children were commodity. There was no coddling or affection as he’d witnessed between Guendalina and her father, two who hadn’t even the bond of blood between them. The Fatine spawn were handed off to the drones in the rookery the moment they drew first breath. From that moment forth they were forgotten until such time that it was deemed they might be of use to the tribù.

“When my turn came, I gave myself willingly. It was simply a chore, I hardly remember it to be honest.”

She laughed to herself. “No, that’s a lie…that’s how it should have been I guess. Oh, maybe it was Arabella’s doing after all. I knew I didn’t want to be there with that man, didn’t like the feel of his calloused hands on my skin. I think I tried to kiss him, just to play at…I don’t know. I knew I felt disgusted when it was all done. I don’t imagine that makes sense to someone who hasn’t been through it.”

“More than you might imagine.” He mourned, gripping the vile at his throat indignantly.

She offered up a sage sort of grin. “It wasn’t until after the conception that I became of interest to anyone.” She revealed. “The drones who tended me were certain I carried the new queens. They were so ecstatic, it was ridiculous actually, well, you know what drones are like.” She allowed.

“Yes, I think I’d rather spend my time among them than anyone else in the tribù.” Scarafaggio laughed, remembering Mammina and her delirious effervescence.

“They’re the only ones I ever miss.” Luciano confessed, beaming. “They should have been the ones to deliver the babies.”

“Why didn’t they?” Scarafaggio asked, taken aback. It was the drones’ function to be both parents and midwife to the young of the brood. Mothers with child were guarded closely in the weeks preceding their delivery, to the point of near being cloistered.

“It was the queens. The same pair who reigned while you were at court.” She said, the quiver of her lower lip served the only clue to the sorrow this memory gave rise to. “When my time came, they brought me to their chamber…”

She stopped, finding the words too agonizing to give life to. Instead, she unfurled a bridge from her mind to the boys, allowing him to traverse the judiciously guarded labyrinths of her memories.

He watched through Luciano’s eyes as the queens clawed open the young girl’s belly, wrenching free the newly born babes from the glistening tangle of viscera that spilled forth. It was reminiscent of the gory assemblage he’d gleaned from his own mother’s recollections. He had to wonder if the two were somehow related.

“When a new queen set is born, the reigning pair is to wait for them to come of age.” He heard Luciano’s voice weave through the scene unfolding before him.

“When the younger have reached maturity, they may challenge the standing monarchs. The victors consume their rivals and all the memories they hold. In that way the tribù is revived.”

He watched as these queens wilfully disobeyed this edict, instead drawing the aethers from these helpless infants. They laid waste to an opponent not yet even a minute old, withering them to mere tumbles of dust, which spilled between their fingers.

It was the last image the girl saw before her mind was shattered. There was no self, nor cohesion; it was an indescribable sort of emptiness. Shards of broken memories drifted aimlessly upon a frothing rapid of terror. Beneath this rushing torrent, there was the coarse silt of anger. This was tempered by sorrow, which served the plume atop each roiling wave, lapping the shores that remained of her consciousness.

“They made me a pariah that day, erased all memory of me from the tribù, and left me to die.”

He watched as the girl, injured though she was, dragged her broken body from the chamber. Holding the ribbons of her flesh together, she managed to amble her way through the untamed lands surrounding the Fatine court.

“I didn’t know where I was going, or why, only that I had been wronged. I was angry, livid in a way you can’t began to imagine. It made me hungry to survive.”

He watched as Luciano lumbered along cliff tops, the cut of sand stinging in her wounds. Finally, she came to rest before to the breaking shoreline of the Adriatic.

“I had no idea why I crawled to that place, or where it even was for that matter. I just felt safe there.”

He watched through her eyes as the dark sea became crimson with the blood of the vanquished night. Soon the waves were adorned in torrents of ember rose as the sun set fire to the clouds and seared away the stars in slumber. This was sunrise.

“I wasn’t strong enough to heal my wounds, I couldn’t have known how to anyway. I just lay there, watching.”

Scarafaggio watched too as time enveloped the world. Seconds were swallowed by minutes, which in turn fed hours’ pass. The entirety of existence became no more than smeary drivels of what might have been or could yet be, and Luciano floated dizzly upon the oily skin of this disorder.

“I didn’t remember then, but the place I brought myself was where Arabella and I sometimes met.”

Through the winding confusion, Luciano became aware of a warmness upon her cheek, a hand. She looked up into a pair of amber eyes. Though she could not recognize their owner, their gaze brought her comfort.

“My memories were there, just disjointed, broken down to flits of emotion and fleeting impressions.” She explained, gathering her thoughts back into herself and setting Scarafaggio gently down into the present.

“It was Arabella who cared for me during that time, who helped me find my memories again.” The soldier spoke softly. “They’re never really lost to you, it’s your mind that held them in the first place. It’s like a puzzle, you just have to piece them back together. She helped me to do that.”

“And that’s why you love her?” He asked.

The soldier smirked, giving him that look of admonishment, which told him such a question hardly needed answer.

“Even though… she’s a woman?” Scarafaggio riddled out.

Luciano was incapable of guising her offense. It was perhaps only the boys newness to this world that spared him her accost.

“I’ve never sought out men, women or otherwise.” She explained with a stony earnest. “I love Arabella because of who she is, not what body she wears. She could be a talking chamber pot and I’d feel the same.”

Scarafaggio didn’t know the word, but he took her meaning.

“Will it be the that way for me?” He asked, tending a growing uneasiness within himself. “I’ve already left the court, so when I break from the tribù, will I still have to forget everything?”

Luciano tented her fingers before her lips, thinking of how best to quell the child’s fear. “Everything remains, it’s just disjointed. As I said, it takes time to piece things back together.”

The boy fell to his knees, overcome by the thought of existence in that empty void he had just glimpsed. Even if it was only a short while, he’d be robbed of all that he was, become nothingness sewn into a flesh husk. He’d forsake his brothers, Mammina, and even his newfound kinship with Guendalina. He couldn’t imagine suffering a moment of this fate let alone weeks, days, perhaps even years.

Luciano knelt beside him, bracing his shoulders. “When most Fatine are made pariahs,” she explained “they let themselves be killed. They’ve come to accept that they’re helpless without the tribù, and let the others tear them apart. Yes, you’ll be without memories for a time, you’ll have to fight to win them back, but tell me…” she said, looking into the boy’s harried eyes “What kind of creature lays down and accepts death?”

Scarafaggio shrugged his shoulders.

“I promise I wont let you disappear.” She vowed.

He thought back on how vigilantly she had spoken on his behalf before the fiddler. Life may have worn her rough, but honor and virtue were the bindings that netted together all that she was. He trusted her absolutely.

            When the two finally returned to the alloggio. Scarafaggio wore Luciano’s arm around his shoulder like a badge of honour. In truth, this was exactly what it was, for her friendship was not easily won. Betrayals of the past had made her wary of those she would let into her confidence, yet Scarafaggio had been granted passage.

A tantalizingly sweet fragrance filled the home, curling beneath their noses and stirring a ravenous hunger in Scarafaggio’s belly. Smiling, his hostess took his hands in hers and lead him to the kitchen, where a veritable feast was waiting for him.

There upon a platter, still adorned with blossoms of steam, rested the concoction which so tempted him.

“What is it?” Scarafaggio asked, bending down to inspect the dish.

“It’s an apple frittata.” Arabella explained. “I just sort of threw in what I had, but…”

“What’s did you do all this for?” Luciano protested. “You’ve gone and used up all the eggs, the apples…most of the bread…”

“Oh stop it.” She scolded teasingly. “We need to properly welcome our guest into our home.” She said, guiding Scarafaggio to a seat before the fragrant heap. “And we don’t have to always eat like we’re on campaign!” She jibed at her lover, who rolled her eyes in reply.

“It’s too heavy a meal.” Luciano said, shaking her head and sending her feathery white hair afloat about her brow. “I can’t eat all of that, it’ll dampen my mind.”

“I know that!” Arabella snapped with mild annoyance. “but it isn’t for you.”

Luciano smiled, a realization suddenly overtaking her, she threw her arms about the chef. “You’re brilliant!” She exclaimed. “Absolutely brilliant!”

Scarafaggio shot them a questioning glance, uncertain of exactly what was transpiring within this kitchen.

“Eat up son!” Luciano said, rummaging through cabinets till she finally found a large wooden ladle, which she thrust into Scarafaggio’s hands. Arabella, shook her head and replaced it with a considerably smaller utensil.

“I told you, spoons are for eating. Ladles are for serving.” She rebuked her lover.

“I don’t know why I still have either, it’s been ages since I’ve had anyone to cook for.” She complained to Scarafaggio, cutting him a hearty slice and setting it on a plate before him.

The boy looked pensively at the quivering mound that challenged him. He thought back to the night he’d drunk ribolla and ate chestnust with Guendalina. He remembered the purging, and the anguish of having his insides thrust out through mouth and pore.

“He’s afraid of the purging.” Luciano whispered, knowing the apprehensions of her kind all too well.

“Not to worry, there’s only a pinch of salt in it, just enough to cloud the tribù’s view.” Arabella assured him.

Scarafaggo looked down at the labradorite pendant Arabella had set around his neck. The moment she had gifted him with the thing, all the  adulterations of his mind had seemingly been smoothed away. “I thought the necklace took care of that.” He confessed.

Arabella shook her head. “No, it helps, but nothing will entirely keep them from gleaning your mind until you’ve been fully separated.” She said gently.

“It controls the conduit.” Luciano buffered. “Makes it so they can’t get into your head, but it doesn’t stop your thoughts from leaking out.”

“And this…” He said, poking at the sumptuous looking mound that awaited him with a spoon, as though he expected the lump of eggs might answer on its own behalf.

“With Fatine…”Luciano began. “When the body is tasked with base duties, digestion for example, there’s less…”She considered the proper word to deliver “less of a reserve to offer the mind.”

She paced the floor, trying to dredge up any scrap of knowledge that had until then lay dormant in her mind.

“Monks!” She finally exclaimed. “They starve themselves, well they call it fasting, to improve their mental clarity, cleanse their faculties…you’re just doing the opposite.”

Arabella shook her head. “It’s a little like being drunk.” She simplified. “Do you understand that?”

Scarafaggio nodded. He was well acquainted with the men who stumbled out through the woods after guzzling down drink. It was a favorite sport of Fatine children to antagonize these befuddled creatures, and send them running away in a slathering frenzy.

“You’re giving your body something it doesn’t require,” Arabella explained “slowing down it’s function. When you add salt into the mix, you muddy the view just enough to where you become a rather useless spy.”

Scarafaggio happily plunged his spoon into the frittata. In truth, it had taken a rather heroic amount of effort on his part to keep himself from doing so in the first place, what with the beguile of it’s aroma luring him. Now, granted allowance, he happily shoveled the sweet mélange into his mouth.

It was the first time he had ever experience the bitter sweetness of what Arabella called “renette apples.” The mellow dulcet of this fruit, folded into the warm embrace of eggs (which he found he very much did enjoy when cooked) inveigled senses he had scarcely been afforded opportunity to explore. Food was in a word, a seduction, and one he greatly enjoyed.

“I prefer this to aethers.” His words came muddled through brimming mouthfuls. Drawing the life force from waiting hosts held no such ambrosia.

“You’ll be able to sustain yourself on food but for so long.” Luciano warned, reveling in the unabashed expression of joy spreading across the boy’s face. “Eventually, you will have to take aethers again. Likely soon.”

“Humans don’t.” He protested, wiping his mouth upon his shirtsleeve.

“You’re not human.” Arabella reminded him. “And it’s better you take aethers knowingly. If you go too long, your body will starve, and draw them from any available source.”

“Which means you won’t be welcome in this house.” Luciano simplified, “or around your Guen either.”

That alone was enough to solidify the point in his mind.

“And you’re wrong about humans by the by.” Luciano added, digging a chunk of apple out from the bed of egg left in the platter and sucking it down. “They do feed on aethers, they just can’t control it the way we do.”

Scarafaggio cast a cocked eye at Luciano, begging explaination.

“It’s true!” She said with a shrug of her shoulders. “We’re just better able to refine it. We can take one life, milk out every last drop of living essence from a single body, and it’s enough. Humans can’t.” She said, draping her arms around Arabella’s shoulders, and kissing her cheek, as if in apology.

“It’s true.” Arabella confirmed.

“Humans conduct wars, killing whole battalions to sate themselves. They torture and enslave one another, trying to draw out enough to feed their hunger. Most of them are starving and will never even began realize why.”

Scarafaggio had never stopped to consider such a thing before. In truth, all Fatine were human. Each Fatine born was begotten of one human parent. It was only the addition of that strange ethereal something to the blood that separated the species. It was not a corruption, but rather a benefit to the existing matrix. Yet somewhere along the line, a cleft had been drawn between the two, casting both into their own separate epochs. In the tribù, Scarafaggio had been taught that Fatine held dominance over man.

Arabella lifted her head, kissing her lover tenderly upon the cheek. Watching the two of them together, Scarafaggio wondered if perhaps Fatine and man had been instead meant to live in symbiosis with one another.

“Pain is not the only aether on which we can feed.” Luciano divulged. “It’s the most sufficient, and you’ll always have to return to it eventually, but you can draw out the time between victuals with other…indulgences.”

“Like love.” Arabella said, mildly annoyed by her partners hesitance to use the word. “Cultivate that in a human host, you will never go hungry.”

Scarafaggio thought back to the celebration at the vigneto. The joy in which those revelers dwelled had been tangible. He’d gorged himself upon it, considered the possibilities of feeding in such a way with regularity, but it was rare that such occasions presented themselves.

It seemed instead that this pair had found a more sustainable way to tap the human font. He was envious of the two, wanted someone to care for him the way they did for one another. It was something different than what he had shared with his Mammina, his brothers or even the his darling Guendalina. Somehow, whatever the two nursed within one another was unlike anything he had yet to experience himself.

Be it a simple defense or no, he couldn’t deny that Arabella awakened compulsions in himself he couldn’t yet explain. He wanted to know the feeling of her lips upon his. With mounting desperation he longed to trace his fingers along the nape of her neck, which she so cruelly left exposed, and taste the salty droplets of sweat that gathered upon her brow.

He was embarrassed by the realization that Luciano was all the while very much aware of his thoughts. He might have well stood atop the table and blurted them aloud for all to hear. She looked at him, cracking the hint of a smile.

“Why do you want to leave the tribù?” She asked him once again.

“So I can have…” he considered his words, but only for a moment, a certainty awakened within him. “So I can have what you have!” He determined.

“That is?” Luciano baited.

“My own life.” He said resolutely.

“A fine answer!” Luciano lionized, throwing her arms into the air so brusquely that Arabella quaked with surprise.

“What’s say we start off with The Ritratto?” She roared, snatching a fierce looking knife from the kitchen wall.

Arabella stood abruptly, kicking her chair to the floor in her haste. “I…have to go check on Doppio.” She stammered, near sprinting from the room.

“Give him a kiss for me.” Luciano called after her, eyes never leaving Scarafaggio.

“Come here son.” She said, beckoning him towards her with the blade.

“What do we need the knife for?” Scarafaggio clamoured, inching slowly backwards,  keeping the kitchen table between him and the soldier.

“You’ll see.” She grinned. “I thought you wanted to learn this?” She punctuated her words with a few fierce slashes through the air before her.

“I’m sorry!” He plead. “I’m sorry for the things I thought about Arabella! I couldn’t help it! I’d never really touch her!” He pandered, retreating ever backward.

She convulsed with laughter at the remark “Like you said, you just couldn’t help it!” She said, leaping over the table and rushing upon him, blade brandished.

The world rushed around him, as Scarafaggio was knocked to the floor, pinned beneath his assailant.

“Which hand do you write with?” She inquired in more level a voice than the situation seemed to warrant.

“I…I don’t!” Scarafaggio wheezed from beneath her.

“No, no of course not!” Luciano clucked, clutching his left wrist and jerking his hand up for examination.

“Did you ever wonder what it felt like for the fiddler?” She asked sedately, lining the blade up with the alongside his thumb. “When he cut off his own thumb at your request?”

“No, no, please don’t!” Scarafaggio gasped, wriggling with all his strength, desperate to escape this madwoman. He had been wrong to trust her. She was far too unwieldy to ever be worthy of any one’s consort.

As the knife cut, his screams were muffled away in the soft of Luciano’s palm.

Guendalina awoke in a cold sweat. Something was horribly amiss, but she couldn’t place just what. She looked through the darkness. Pale sylphs of moonlight traced the familiar silhouette of her room. She didn’t recall how she had been transported from Scarafaggio’s arms to here.

“Scarafaggio?” She whispered, hoping to find him lingering among the teaming shadows. There came no reply.

“Scarafaggio!” She tried again, slightly louder. She looked to make certain that her cries hadn’t awoken her father, who slept curled up in a cot only a few feet away.

This time she saw a wisp of white hair flit quickly by, just outside her door.

“There you are!” She laughed to herself, leaping from her bed and dashing barefoot into the cold November eve.

She chased the gallivanting wraith back and forth through the vigneto grounds. At times it seemed that they were two, weaving in and out of doorways and bounding between rooftops.

“How are you doing this?” She laughed, darting after the gossamer gist.

Soon, she found herself far from her chamber, and dancing through the maze of vines that wound about the vineyard. It was here where she’d first met Scarafaggio, first saw him watching her from behind the shroud of leaves. She stopped for a moment to catch her breath, nestling down in the cool black soil. She was just as much at peace here as she was in her own bed, more so knowing that her friend was with her.

“Hello.” She heard a pair of unfamiliar voices speak in tandem.

Guendalina looked up to see an equally unfamiliar pair of faces before her. Standing there were two women. Their white hair whipped about them, caught aborn an arrant drift of wind. Their skin was alabaster pale and their eyes, like Scarafaggio’s, were the somber black of a night devoid of stars.

They stood naked before her, looking more like a pair of marble statues that had escaped from one of the vigneto’s many gardens than flesh and blood creatures.

“Hello.” They spoke again in unison. “What is your name?”

“Guendalina.” The girl answered timidly. She recognized these creatures for what they were. Perhaps foolishly, she had come to abandon her fear of the Fatine, but not of strangers come calling in the night.

“Why that’s my name!” The girl on the right spoke. “But everyone calls me Azzurrina.”

Any trepidation the child had held instantly dithered away. Here before her stood the Guendalina of legend.

“I knew it!” She laughed, overjoyed. “I knew you were real!”

“Well of course she is!” Said the girl on the left. “And I’m her sister, Violetta.”

“I haven’t heard your story before.” The child admitted.

“I’ll be happy to tell it to you some time.” Violetta said with perhaps the warmest smile Guendalina had ever encountered.

The girls were absolutely exquisite. Their delicate features almost too chisled and perfect to be real. Their skin danced with that Fatine iridescence she had so admired on Scarafaggio, maidens seemingly born from pearl.

“We need your help!” Azzurina spoke pleadingly with the child.

“Yes, please say that you’ll help us!” Violetta begged.

“What is it? What’s wrong?” Guendalina asked, rising to her feet.

“We’re looking for our brother.” The girls spoke as one.

“He wears a funny necklace.” Azzurina said.

“Yes, it looks like a silver butterfly cocoon!” Violetta added, stirring laugher within both of them.

“He was just here!” Guendalina revealed. “Just a little while ago!”

“Oh, thank goodness, we’ve been searching for him for so very long!” Violetta bawled.

“Yes, he ran away from home, and we’ve been so worried about him!” Azzurina sobbed bitterly, black tears painting tarry smears down both the girl’s faces.

“You see, an evil sorceress put an enchantment on him!” Violetta wailed.

“Yes, a love spell!” Azzurina cawed.

Guendalina’s face fell. The gesture did not go unnoticed by the twins.

“The sorceress tricked him into believing that his family was out to harm him and that only she cares for him.” The girls spoke again as one voice.

“She put an enchanted amulet on him that keeps him under her power.” Azzurina revealed.

“I’ve seen it!” Guendalina squealed. “He was wearing it today!”

“You must take it off of him!” Violetta commanded.

“Yes, he trusts you.” Azzurina agreed. “Promise us you’ll help?”

Guendalina gave her word to the two women that night. She would not see her Scarafaggio taken from her so easily.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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