Chapter 15: Tar Blood
Scarafaggio felt the tickling of words in his ear, playfully rousing him from sleep. At first, there was the teasing trill of Arabella’s laughter, followed by the emphatic trumpet of Luciano’s reply. Her words were lost in the thicket of sleep that still surrounded him, but their vigour sustained. He found himself enticed enough to forsake the meager comfort of his makeshift bed and join the two in the kitchen.
There, Luciano sat upon one of the wooden chairs that accompanied the kitchen table, while Arabella did her level best to trim the Fatine’s feathery crop of hair. Unfortunately for her hairdresser, Luciano was so brimming with the life awakened by the story on her lips that she could scarcely tolerate a steady seated position for more than a few brief moments. It seemed Arabella had grown to tolerate this as custom, and nipped with her scissors when opportunity allowed.
Scarafaggio stood in the doorway, watching for a time, listening to Luciano regale her lover with the trials she had endured that morning while scavenging eggs from a nearby farm.
“You’re lucky he doesn’t use salt shot!” Arabella chided her lover, snipping away a white lock of hair at the nape of the soldier’s neck.
“Don’t think his aim’s good enough for it to matter.” Luciano laughed back.
Scarafaggio plucked up a scrap of Luciano’s hair from the floor examining it. Like his, it was the pale white of winter, which washed with irredescence when graced by the kiss of light. His free hand meandered to his pants pocket, which still held his former thumb.
“Why doesn’t your hair grow back?” He blurted out, shattering the liveliness of the conversation as he did.
“It does.” Luciano smirked, tucking her knees against her chest and balancing her weight upon the arms of the chair.
“I wish it wouldn’t!” Arabella complained, as she tried to accommodate the soldier’s awkward posture. “Then we wouldn’t have to go through this nonsense every month.”
“But not like my thumb.” Scarafaggio muttered, flexing his newly grown digit. He still felt the need to examine the thing, this strange intrusion to his flesh. “My thumb grew back when it was cut off.”
He could tell that Luciano was stifling a laugh. It was not her intention to mock, but she couldn’t help but take delight in the newfound fascination her pupil had taken with his own self and the world around him. It pleased her, as it was decidedly unlike the behaviors encouraged by the Tribu.
“Hair has no blood supply.” She answered simply. “It’s just dead fluff the body spits out.”
“Oh.” Scarafaggio replied, only half understanding her explanation.
“It doesn’t grow back, the way your thumb did anyway, because the body doesn’t see it being cut as an injury.”
Scarafaggio nodded, his fingers still fascinated by the curiosity held in his pocket.
“You look like your overdue for a trim.” Luciano said with a spry turn of her lip.
Scarafaggio drew back his hair, which floated loosely about him, protectively. The gesture drew a laugh from the two.
“Oh don’t listen to her!” Arabella chided. “I think you should keep it long, it suits you.”
“ I think ‘Guendalina’ would be in agreement.” Luciano remarked. “You’re her favorite toy at current.”
“Current.”Scarafaggio repeated the word dully, like a mummer in a trance.
The word suddenly sparked the memory of another question he had held for Luciano, one awakened only just the night before.
“Is it really true that the moon controls the tides?” He ventured. “Arabella says it does.”
Arabella laughed, remembering his dismay at having this fact delivered to him. Luciano however was clearly less than amused.
“You lived in the forests all those long years and you never noticed a thing like that?” She spoke in sober demand of an answer.
Scarafaggio shrugged. It was already evident to him that there was a great deal he had failed to notice about the world. He had no idea why this tidbit of information might be more pertinent than the hoards of others which he yet failed to comprehend.
Luciano gently pushed Arabella’s hand back from her hair and stood. The first embers of real anger were smoldering in her eye. She drew measured breaths, fighting the urge to unleash the building fury within her upon this poor, oblivious boy.
“Fatine were born to be the guardians of the natural world.” She snarled darkly. “We are the keepers of the balance between life and death.”
“Luciano, stop.” Arabella spoke tersely, obviously familiar with the tirade that was to come.
She motioned brusquely to Scarafaggio. “The Queens are bringing up a whole generation in ignorance. Fatine are being raised with no respect or understandings of the seasons, or tides, no veneration for life or death, so tell me what are we now? We’ve been demoted to some lesser breed of vampire! Running around, taking life but with no sense of duty or obligation to protect it or nurture it! They kill for fun and never bat an eye”
“No!” Scarafaggio cried out, gripping the glassy millstone about his neck. “Maybe some of them do, but not me.” He insisted.
He wished for the eloquence to say the things swimming about in his head. The visions of his brother’s faces as life was wicked away from their bodies drifted before his minds eye, fraternizing with that of his weeping mother, and a little girl who was even now writing her future to include him within it. He had just begun to understand the ebb and flow of life, and the value it held for those this force granted consciousness. If he had some dominion over it, he embraced his stewardship; only he had no notion of where he might begin.
Luciano’s tongue was halted. She gleaned the images from the boy’s mind, and offered him a look of admiration, something not easily won from the soldier.
“I’m not part of ‘they.’” Scarafaggio spoke, scorning the awkwardness of his words. Still, the meaning was conveyed.
“Not anymore.” He continued. “Instead of throwing a fit over how stupid I am, why don’t you help me out of it?”
“No one called you stupid son.” Luciano said respectfully, placing a hand upon his shoulder. “And I am trying to help you…I just get drawn off course now and again.”
Arabella swept up the scraps of hair from the floor, her face downturned. She tried to hide the look of raw amusement that had taken her hostage, but Scarafaggio read it all the same. The battle of wills between he and his mentor in no way surprised her. Scarafaggio sorted through the words she had left him with last night.
“…in some ways you remind me so much of her it terrifies me.”
A truce reached between them, Luciano helped Scarafaggio into his leathers while Arabella fed him a sort of sweet pastry she called cornetto between sips of a hot chocolate. His tongue was delighted by the discovery of each.
“You keep feeding him all that rich food and you’re going to make a hedonist out of him.” Luciano bemoaned. “And the world has enough of that make.”
“She’s just angry because there isn’t enough for her.” Arabella assured him, easing a swallow of the warm elixir past his lips. “Luciano used to steal chocolate from the officers’ tents and drink so much she’d spend the rest of the night crying over her belly ache.”
“Never happened.” Luciano protested with a bit too much sheepishness to be believable. “I never cry.”
Arabella offered her lover the last swig from the tin mug, which she drank up so greedily that there could be no doubt over the truth of the tale.
“You’re still intent on bringing him to Mingmei?” Arabella asked, knowing full well the answer.
Luciano nodded, kissing her wife goodbye before assuming her masculine form. Arabella wore her protest upon her brow, but never birthed a word to their ears. Scarafaggio could but wonder at what sort of brute this Mingmei was to incur this sort of loathing. The kind so deep that it needn’t ride upon words, a hatred simply understood in totality by all the senses.
As the door shut behind him, Scarafaggio could hear the shuffling slither as grains of salt were spilled upon the floor. Arabella had wound her protective wreath. That passage was closed to him now, he was left with little choice but to tarry on with Luciano.
Night still hung defiantly to the curtain of sky, and the world lay still and languid in the blue majesty of the approaching dawn. It was the first time in Scarafaggio’s life he had walked without the cloak of glamour, assuming his human form as disguise, and only the dying stars were there to bear witness. He’d debuted his new self to a blind audience of trees and swaying grasses. There was a silence before dawn’s break that he found painful, the birds not yet even roused to sing. He ventured to crack the shell of monotony that entombed him with a question.
“What kind of a name is Mingmei?” He tried.
“Chinese.” Luciano grunted back. “But I doubt many of her countrymen would claim her.”
“Why?” The boy needled curiously.
“She has no loyalties. Even a mercenary has some allegiance to the hand that holds his pay, but Mingmei…she’s a monster.”
“A monster?” Scarafaggio parroted back. “How so?”
“Don’t try and test it boy.” The soldier snorted, whipping around to meet his eye. “No matter what she says to you, no matter what promises she makes, never trust her.”
“What does she do exactly?” The words came tremulously from Scarafaggio’s lips.
“She’s a Sutradahr, like Arabella, only much older and much more dangerous.“ Luciano began.
Scarafaggio nodded, looking intently into his mentor’s black eyes, nestled beneath that furrowed brow.
“You know that want you feel for Arabella, down in your breeches?” The soldier went on.
Scarafaggio shirked back, embarrassed to admit to his lusts. Though such things could hardly be kept secret amongst his current company.
“She takes advantage of that in our kind, talks sweet to them, brings them into her bed and then kills them and sells their parts to the highest bidder.” Luciano revealed. “She’d bleed you dry in a second, use your blood to tan her leathers or fuel one of her kick-knacs if she knew she had a buyer waiting.”
“Then why would you do business with her?” Scarafaggio seethed back.
Luciano smiled, sending his mustache askew. He was truly pleased by this streak of idealistic rebellion in his pupil.
“Admirable.” He spoke the word under his breath before returning to his favored gruff tone. “But unfortunately, we need what she’s got, and there aren’t a lot of people out there who fill the niche.”
“I’m glad of that.” Scarafaggio retorted.
When they had journeyed some distance from the city, Luciano determined it was safe to continue on in a Legerete walk.
“Why don’t we just leave the house in Legerete?” Scarafaggio inquired as the world rushed into a blur of madness around him.
“Because it creates a disruption.” Luciano began.
“In what?” Scarafaggio interrupted, impatient as always he was.
“Time, space, all the stuff that holds life together. It’s not enough to set things awry but enough to be sensed by others like us. Calls their attention.” The soldier divulged.
“Other Fatine you mean?” The boy inquired.
“Others.” The soldier repeated once more in cryptic tone.
It seemed mere minutes before the two stood at the threshold of a cliff, overlooking an old, abandoned mill. The building was adrift in a sea of wild emerald fronds. Nature, in all her leafy elegance had embraced this edifice since man’s abandonment. Scarafaggio couldn’t help but be reminded of the abandoned house, which served tomb to Talia, in the story Arabella had read him the night before.
“She lives here?” Scarafaggio breathed the question through a gasp. He couldn’t imagine life dwindling on behind the darkness of those arched windows.
“Well, how do we get in?”
Luciano said nothing. Instead she answered by disappearing once again into the phantasm of the Legerete walk, and leaving Scarafaggio alone with his revelry.
When at last Scarafaggio entered, he was surprised to find that within this derelict building thrived a world very much alive. Swaths of brightly colored silks hung from the walls, and shelves lined with tempting curiosities beckoned his fingers to play.
Luciano gave a curt nod of acknowledgement, looking away from the woman with whom he spoke for only an instant. Scarafaggio understood an instant was all the time he could afford to take his eyes from her, as this was Mingmei.
Scarafaggio busied himself with the curios bejeweling a nearby shelf. His fascination was stirred to madness by a sort of paper flower, set atop a wooden stalk. It was garishly coloured, which thrilled his eye, and when he blew upon it, the bloom spun about. It reminded him of gypsy girls he’d stopped to watch dance once upon a time. The twirling undulations of colour, wrapping about their bodies then hastily unfurled. It was silly, but he found the toy and the memories it evoked delighted him so that he was moved to laughter. It was a reaction that blossomed within quite in spite of himself. His gigglng tumbled into hearty guffaws, which reverberated throughout the old stone building.
“Is he… simple?” He heard Mingmei ask of Luciano in a hushed tone.
“Drunk.” The soldier admit.
Drunk? Scarafaggio thought to himself? He remembered how Arabella had compared the effects of food upon Fatine to drunkenness in men. So this was the promised effect of keeping a Fatine fed? Torrents of emotion and memory winding into a tangle, dredging up passions long stifled within him. Explosions of laughter, joy, uncontrollable shiverings of pleasure, he welcomed this drunkenness with open arms.
He imagined the queens and their loyal Tribu trying desperately to sort any scrap of rationality from his mind, which flit and fluttered about as if on hummingbird’s wings. The notion sent him into hysterics.
“Drunk, and you brought him to me?” Mingmei said with a smile, approaching the tickled boy. “How trusting you’ve become.” She purred, reaching out and stroking Scarafaggio’s cheek.
He leant into her hand, enjoying her caress. He hadn’t until now seen the face of this alleged monster, but he found she was hardly threatening. She was short, her head scarcely rising above his chest and sweetly plump. In spite of her advancing years her hair remained black, glistening like the river stones he had once taken such care in collecting, back when the forests would have him.
He could hardly see this woman as the seductive murderess Luciano described, though the longer he looked upon her, the more fair she became. Her apple cheeks were still round and succulent, despite the encroaching age that fanned from the corners of her eyes. Regardless, the beauty of those eyes was still preserved. They held the rare colour of the first changing leaves of autumn, rich ochre feathering into blazing vermillion and burgundy before plunging into the endless black of her pupils. Her lips too, he noted, were full, luscious and a most inviting shade of rose. He found himself easily drawn into a kiss from that delicate, perfect bow of a mouth.
No sooner had he nested his lips in hers than he felt Luciano’s hand, wrenching him back by his hair. In one swift jerk, the soldier managed to tear him from this seduction, and toss him squarely onto his rump.
“You little idiot, what did I just tell you?!?!” Luciano snarled so veraciously that Scarafaggio scooted himself a good three feet from the reach of the soldier’s arm before his back met with one of the many shelves in the room. The clumsy collision resulted in a shower of oddities plumetting into his lap. Strange pocketwatches, with no markation for time upon their face, a tea-set carved from what he imagined was black opal, brimmed with gold, gleaming pendants in the shape of a small horns lay scattered about, others forged into the form of an unyielding eye and a dozen more offerings of fantastic bric-a-brac.
“He’s been claimed Mei.” Luciano spoke coldly to the tiny woman. “Unless you want the Tribunale breaking down your door, you’d best leave him be.”
“The Tribu?” Scarafaggio asked, puzzled by the assertion.
“Tribunale Di Rile” Luciano hissed, plucking the boy out of the heap of trinkets in which he sat and shaking him forcefully. “Don’t you dare say another word!” The soldier warned in a coarse whisper.
Scarafaggio stared back, wide eyed but obiediently mum.
“So you’ve adopted another son have you?” Mingmei laughed to herself. Then, with a wicked sneer that spoiled the soft curtsy at the peak of her lip, she hissed “What did you do with his father?”
Though she cackled, delighted by her own words, Luciano was unamused.
“I’m not his son, Im Fatine!” Scarafaggio blurt out, attempting to defend his mentor from derision. Luciano’s grip on his shoulder’s became uncomfortably tight.
“What’s the point of changing your form if you’re going to run around telling everyone what you are?” He scolded. As Scarafaggio looked into Luciano’s eyes he saw that what he had at first read as animosity was in fact fear, the soldier was afraid. He still failed to comprehend what threat he saw in this diminutive woman.
“Oh it’s no secret, not to anyone with a sense of smell anyway.” Mingmei spoke distractedly as she set herself to organizing the shelves Scarafaggio had disturbed.
“Perhaps I could interest you in some fine cologne?” She said, her merchant’s grin returned to her as she presented Scarafaggio with an exquisite glass bottle. He snatched it up, eyes greedy to admire this ornate decanter. He marveled at how the light danced upon it’s many facets. There was a strange bulb attached to the thing, which he eagerly squeezed beneath his fingers. He suddenly found himself engulfed in a cloud of sweet smelling mist. Though the fragrance near choked him at first, he greatly enjoyed this new toy.
“I need to see about getting a pair of leathers made for him.” Luciano said, shaking his head at Scarafaggio’s boundless awe over the atomizer.
“Have the Fatine attacked? I haven’t sensed anything.” The tiny shopkeep pondered.
“Not yet.” Luciano admit. “But I’m certain it’s just a matter of time.”
“He couldn’t have been separated for more than a week!” Mingmei remarked, smiling to herself as the boy vigorously spritzed his gangly body with cologne.
“Less than that.” Luciano confirmed.
“Strange.” Was all the reply Mingmei offered.
While the two carried on, Scarafaggio dashed about these lavish surroundings, leaping from one paragon to the next. His senses were primed, hungry nay gluttonous, and desperate to be sated by the treasures that abounded.
He was halted by a discovery he made tucked into the far corner of the room. There, buried beneath reams of muslins and silks stood a dressmakers mannequin clothed in an ensemble unlike anything he’d seen before. The headless dummy had been crowned by the marble bust of some figure from antiquity, completing its form. A strange thing, which might have gone ignore save for the fact it wore a long coat draped upon it’s shoulders. A coat fashioned from a brocaded silk. It was the colour of Arabella’s eyes, the colour of dwindling daylight and candle-lit celebrations with Guendalina, a mellifluous gold. Scarafaggio admired the veritable avalanche of lace that spilled over the coat’s lapels and cascaded from it’s sleeves. The lacey ruff upon the mannequin’s chest stopped just shy of guising the waistcoat beneath. Here was a landscape of this same honeyed silk, but crested with jewels and precious stones. Even the buttons of said coat appeared to be fashioned from some variety of cut gem.
“What is this?” Scarafaggio shouted across the room.
Mingmei turned her head, a broad smile tearing her face in twain. Luciano simply rolled his eyes, doling out yet another perplexed shake of his head.
“Looks like you have a little fop on your hands.” Mingmei teased, approaching the boy with an unmistakable gleam in her eye.
“Isn’t it lovely?” She cooed, clasping her hands together. “It’s made from Gros de Naples, gold, the colour of royalty. No one else would have been permitted to wear it you know.”
Scarafaggio grinned, trying the words on his tongue “Gros de Naples.”
“Yes,” Mingmei went on “It belonged to Louis the sixteenth, the Sun King of France.”
“Sun king?” Scarafaggio questioned. “He was a Sun king?” The position sounded lofty indeed.
“Yes, before they cut off his head.” Luciano chaffed, treading upon the old woman’s shadow.
Scarafaggio clutched his throat, imagining such torment. “They cut off his head?” He gasped.
“Sadly yes,” Mingmei spoke mournfully, then brushing back a flank of the boy’s black hair from his cheek, she whispered in his ear “the common people can never appreciate beauty.” She punctuated the statement with a backwards glance at Luciano. “They always want to destroy it, but I managed to save a few pretty things from the palace before the mobs had their way.”
“Congratulation Ming, you’re a vulture.” Luciano lauded, his false applause echoing through the chamber. “Come on son, get away from there. You’d look like a lunatic walking around in that!”
“Oh, you haven’t any taste, shame on you!” Mingmei tossed back scornfully. Then, turning to Scarafaggio, she said in a much more charming tone “Go ahead and try it on darling boy. There’s stockings and matching pants just on that shelf behind you.”
“I won’t have you following me around frilled up like a little girl!” Luciano protested as Scarafaggio began to unfasten his breeches.
“Really?” Mingmei upbraided. “I think it’s quite fitting. One of you ought to.”
Their bantered was lost to Scarafaggio’s ears. He had mind only to explore the robes of this Sun King. Eagerly, he let his breeches fall away to the floor. As he did so the thumb, tucked neatly away in his pocket, tumbled free, and rolled, as if summoned, to Mingmei’s silk shod feet.
The old woman picked the thing up, enthralled by it. “Why there’s no dessication at all! A perfect specimen!”
Luciano snatched the bit of dead flesh away from her, thrusting it into Scarafaggio’s face.
“I told you to burn this, not hold on to it as a keepsake!” He seethed.
Scarafaggio couldn’t comprehend why the nasty bit of spoil drew such a reaction from his company. It was just a lump of excised meat, nothing more. He took the horrid little grub from Luciano’s hand, if for no other reason than to spare himself from having it dangled before him.
“I’ll burn it when I get home.” He shrugged with indifference as Mingmei handed him the promised stockings and pants.
“Why should it matter anyway?” He cast the words aside with all the care that one bestows upon a sullied rag.
Luciano only buried his face in his hands, as if the answer should have been apparent.
“Do you need help?” Mingmei offered as Scarafaggio’s fingers stumbled upon the fastenings for these new breeches.
The boy nodded, and Ming was fast at his service. The soldier however did all that he could to direct his attentions elsewhere.
“They’ll be too big on him…Louis was a fat little dumpling of a man.” The soldier reported over his shoulder.
“They can be altered.” Mingmei assured the boy in a whisper. “Besides, I’ll have to get an idea of his measurements anyway if you’re really serious about getting leather’s made.”
“I am.” Came his blunt reply.
Mingmei stopped for a moment, admiring the labradorite pendant Scarafaggio wore about his neck. She lifted it into the palm of her hand, letting it roll about.
“This is one of mine, isn’t it?” She inquired with a famished look in her eye. Scarafaggio only shrugged.
“I’d recognize it anywhere.” She asserted. “Has it served you well?”
Scarafaggio smiled, remembering the very moment he’d taken the amulet around his neck, and the sweet calm that followed. “It made the nightmares stop.” He offered.
“Oh it does more than that my beautiful boy. Without it, the Tribu could take control of your body if they liked. You know that don’t you?”
He recalled Luciano having said something of this nature before. He now found himself wondering, if that was in fact the case, why had they bothered tormenting him? Why not just puppet him about, and see their will met at that very moment?
“You can’t really rationalize their actions. They aren’t rational beings.” Mingmei answered his thoughts. It was still surprising for him to carry on conversation this way with a human.
“They might use you against the other Pariah, or even me. They’d love to stop my work, but in all these centuries, none have managed it.” She said with a malicious kind of grin. Scarafaggio gaped over the thought that a human could live to such an age.
“So long as you’re bound to the Tribu, there’s no telling what they might do with you. Mind you never take this bauble off!” She spoke in a tone that almost sounded like scolding. “Especially if you’re one of the claimed.”
Claimed. He wasn’t exactly certain of what the two meant by this word, that seemed to slosh and splash from their conversation. Luciano had declared him claimed by something called the Tribunale di Rile. The only Rile he knew of was Guendalina, and so far as he understood no concrete decision had been made regarding their claim to one another. Still, he wouldn’t contest it. In his mind, he was her’s completely.
Ming attended to the many buttons and fastenings the outfit demanded. She pinned the suit, which was indeed too big for him, into place against his slight frame. At last, she stood back to admire him.
“Yes, quite handsome.” She said adoringly. “I imagine you have hoards of human girls trailing behind you.” Her voice thrummed with a sort of self-satisfied pleasure. With her fragile, porcelain hands, she swept his hair away from his face, admiring his appearance.
“Lucky boy, with a face like that you’ll never want for company.” She hummed.
Scarafaggio could only manage to irk out a shy sort of laugh. He hadn’t noticed until now how easily his hands had fallen into the crook of this woman’s waist, or how little resistance she gave when he pulled her, ever so slightly, towards himself.
“ I’m sorry I have no mirrors in my store. The Fatine can watch you through them you know.” Mingmei said, her lips grazing his earlobe as she spoke.
“No, he doesn’t know. He’s barely three days out of the Tribu for the love of God!” Luciano’s gruff voice slithered through their union.
“Then you’ll just have to take my word for it. You look, splendidly in that.” The merchantwoman indulged.
Scarafaggio leaned in to her, desperate to drink from the sweet bloom of her lips just once more. He understood now how treacherous Mingmei could be. The intoxication he felt in her presence was one he gladly succumb to. Even knowing full well she might only lure him in only to claim his life, he offered himself to her willingly.
Luciano however was not so willing to surrender his pupil. With violent force, he tore the two apart, thrusting himself between Scarafaggio and the old woman.
“Scemo! She hunts our kind. That’s exactly how she does it. You want to be bled dry?
Mingmei cackled away in a voice far less seductive than Scarafaggio had moments ago perceived it. Looking upon her now he saw a raving old madwoman, throwing back her head in triumph. She was far from the beautiful creature his mind had created. He cringed at the thought of having kissed her withered, leathery mouth, so stretched and disfigured by her laughter that it threatened to tear the crepe of her face apart.
“Oh Luciano, I wouldn’t risk getting tar-blood on my wares!” She cawed. “Do you think so little of me, after all these years? I was only trying to make a sale.”
“Well he hasn’t any money.” Luciano spoke bluntly. “I have, and I came to buy him a pair of leathers.”
“It’d be a shame to see you leave without that fine suit Scarafaggio.” The shop keep enticed. “Maybe we can arrange a trade? Fatine like to trade now, don’t they?”
“Take the suit off Scarafaggio!” The soldier commanded.
“Perhaps… if you’ll trade me that thumb..” Mingmei challenged Luciano’s ire.
“He’ll do no such thing.” Luciano shrieked, for a moment, her true face bled through her assumed form, so provoked was she.
“It’s his to give Luciano,” Mingmei purred calmly. “And that suit does look lovely on him. I’m sure Guendalina would be proud to walk beside you in such a suit.”
“Zoccola!” Luciano cursed. “Stop playing games with him!”
Scarafaggio’s head was suddenly assaulted by an image. He would later wonder if the vision he saw had been fabricated by his own mind, or was a creation of the shopkeep from memories she’d gleaned. He saw himself, escorting his Guendalina through the sun-littered vignetto. Her hand nestled in his, and all who looked upon them bowed reverently. Among the worshippers was the rancorous Noblidonna, kneeling before them, her knobby knees dug into the mud, she kissed his hand and begged for his forgiveness.
“It’s yours.” He accepted, opening his hand to reveal the scrawny white bit.
Luciano’s fury at this bargain was palpable. Regardless, he plucked up the thumb as intermediary and delivered it into Mingmei’s waiting palm.
“ A deal is a deal, even between fools.” He rued, looking coldly at Scarafaggio.
Mingmei was delighted, tucking the scrap of flesh into her apron pocket and rushing to Scarafaggio’s side.
“Come along boy,” She said, ushering him into the next room. “I’ll measure you up for your leathers and tailor that suit for you.”
As Scarafaggio looked back, he saw that Luciano’s eyes never left him. The soldier stood, shoulders fallen in what appeared to be defeat. It was not a thing the man seemed accustomed to. His anger too had appeared to transform, now outside the gaze of the Sutradhr, all wrath had given way to dread. For the first time, Scarafaggio wondered to himself just what he had done.
“Good boy, darling boy!” Mingmei lionized. “You’d never let that little maschiaccio push you around! I can tell.”
“Maschiaccio?” Scarafaggio repeated.
“A sad little girl who wants to be a boy.” Mingmei said derisively, aware of Luciano’s footsteps falling within earshot behind them.
Scarafaggio was glad, girl boy or otherwise that Luciano was unwilling to leave a pupil alone with the devious old woman.
He found himself lead into a room, where several Fatine lay stretched across tables. At first glance, it almost appeared to be a hostel of some kind, with hundreds of weary Fae travelers suspended in sleep. Upon closer inspection however, Scarafaggio saw that these Fatine were very much awake. Their bodies quavered in pain, heaving and bucking upwards as if trying to escape. Straps of the now familiar black Fatine leather thwarted these efforts. Their limbs were cruelly bound to the splinter savaged wood. They were plunged into blindness by thick straps of the same material laid across their eyes, holding their heads in place. Glass tubes wormed in and out of their bodies, syphoning out their tarry blood into a glass jug below.
“Go on and strip down son.” Mingmei instructed him, completely acclimated to the horror that sprawled around them.
“You’re murdering them!” Scarafaggio cried out, collapsing into a heap upon the ground.
“Oh no, well not all of them.” Mingmei spoke in too bubbling and effusive a tone to meet such malevolence.
“Fatine seldom have money and many of my clients opt to pay me in blood.” She explained, offering the boy a hand to right himself with. This time he flatly refused her touch. She giggled, almost girlishly in response.
“It’s such wonderful stuff that flows through your veins! It can tan the leathers, but there’s so much more!” She exclaimed, spinning on her heels like a schoolgirl in love.
“Why I’m even working on a technique for drying it to a powder.” She divulged to Scarafaggio.
“Why?” He snorted defiantly.
“Just think!” She trilled. “You could toss a handful in the air, and it would just drift, unseen. Any human who walked by unlucky enough to inhale the stuff would simply rot away, from the lungs out!” She unleashed another one of her grating fits of laughter upon the room.
“It’s poisonous to us you know” She explained to a deadpanned Scarafaggio “…deadly. I put my life at risk doing what I do!”
Luciano shot his pupil a glance as if to say, “I tried to warn you.”
Scarafaggio could only mutter the same string of words again and again, so consumed was his mind. “You’re killing them, you’re killing them.”
“Oh darling boy!” Mingmei chirped. “Never fret! If I let them die, then I’d have no repeat customers, it’s a bad business model.” She explained her madness as one might gently enlighten a frightened child about the nature of thunder. He could only stare back at her in disgust.
“True, some of them of course are beyond discourse, and those…well I haven’t any pity for them.” She laughed, as she flounced down the isle of bodies.
“Not to worry dear one, your father would tear me apart if I were to lay a finger on you, other than to measure you of course.” She chuckled warmly, examining the contents of one of the brimming jugs with delight.
“I’m not his father.” Luciano bellowed.
“Well not really.” Said Mingmei, as she casually strolled back down the line, drawing a cloth tape measure from her apron pocket.
She waited to speak until she stood just before Luciano, baiting him. “No, you’re not really anyone’s father are you? Or mother. Not anymore.”
Luciano fumed, and it took every ounce of his reserve not to strike the tiny woman.
“I told you to undress boy!” Mingmei now spoke wrathfully, whipping her head about to Scarafaggio. Her motions so quick and terse that she looked for all the world like some sort of possessed doll, and every bit as hallow.
Guendalina woke that morning to watch the sunrise. She still clutched tight to the promises made by Azzurina and Violetta.
Once Scarafaggio was free from the Sorceresses curse, he could return to his family bringing her and papa with them. There in the Fatine court, there would be no toil, no pain, and most importantly no Noblidonna. Their days would be spent frolicking with one another by the seashore.
All she had to do was get that necklace off of him.