A Thousand Glass Flowers con’td…
Today’s instalment is part of the new Twitter feature called #SampleSunday or #ss
Finnian stared at the waters of Veniche as they flowed around him like undulating threads of silk. Guilt pulled him in one direction, anger and revenge in another, indifference in another still. What is a Færan but one who has only self-interest at the heart of his life. I am no different. The sailor’s death shouldn’t matter. What do I care for a young boy destined for life without a father. I managed.
The colours lightened then darkened as he made his way along canals, alleys and footpaths. Tints of the Raj pervaded – watermelon, ochre, apricot. Even the architecture was reminiscent of the northern desert land, with quatrefoil carvings on the elegant balustrades that overhung canals, arched windows decorated with stone filigree and little humped bridges that reminded him of Raji camels. But he tired of the smell – a taint of mould and mildew and humid air that thickened one’s clothes and pervaded every waking moment. He found a gondolier and bade him paddle around the watery city while he waited for dusk and for the doors of the di Accia palace, museum of the nobility, to close on the last curious eyes of the day. But the gondola’s curtains only shielded him from curiosity and the weather and not from his dank thoughts. A dozen times he asked himself if the cost of the Cantrips might be too high. A dozen times his most base nature said ‘No’.
At last, when tardy darkness settled, he ordered the gondolier to deliver him to the palace. He paid him and then mesmered the man so that the fellow stared bemused at an empty landing stage where mooring poles and channel markers marched out into the middle of the canal in a regimented line.
The door latch clicked and the double entry swung ajar allowing him to ease himself into a magnificent black and white marble paved foyer. Life-sized obsidian and ivory shantranj pieces surrounded the area and carved eyes stared down, a gaze that inspired memories of the cruel games he had been forced to play with Isolde. Mostly he lost and a welter of bruisings would follow and thus he moved carefully amongst the haunting pieces, his mind filled with contused emotions. Each giant piece was an edifice to glorify the di Accia name, the title of a woman who had in a moment of brilliant madness managed to kill an Other and that Other, Finnian’s brother. The home of my brother’s murderer. He tried to drag any sort of grief at his brother’s death from deep inside but realised the grief he had felt for so long had been for himself, a self-indulgence. But sadness is self-indulgence. All that matters is that it prompts me to hate Isolde even more and that our lost brotherhood shall be avenged with her death. He walked to the landing at the junction of the curving double stair, where a massive urn spilled white flowers in a cornucopia of blossom and where twin china cabinets were filled with glistening glassware.
He chafed as the overly cautious curator finished his closure duties, dowsing the lighting throughout the building. The man had worked through each of the three floors, passing Finnian on the first floor landing, unaware of the Other and humming as he took the left descending curve to disappear through painted and gilded doors. The man’s footsteps tapped and breaths huffed as candles were snuffed, one after another. A husky laugh slid out from the door into the entrance hall and Finnian leaned over the banister to observe the curator lifting a woman’s skirts, kissing her with passion as his hand ran along her thigh. The woman was pretty and her skirts were of silk, her stockings white; that I had half a chance, the chit would know love like she would never have again but he turned away to look out over a courtyard that was a pool of shadow and silhouette. Where’s the thrill in watching them tup? In the light of one lone torchère, an aged fountain splashed droplets into a scallop shell held by two cherubs and he impatiently tired of the grandiose largesse of Veniche. He craved the Raj where a fountain may have been a simple earthenware jar with bubbling water emptying into a rill running the length of a paved garden and where hedges of oleander and bay would be clipped into formality.
A white cat sat with a leg lifted to the heavens as its furry tongue licked and cossetted. Freedom and revenge, thought Finnian, it’s what I crave. He bunched a fist and rapped it on the windowsill, each knock underlying his impatience and his desperate need.
The loving moment below stairs finished and the woman left the curator by the door, blowing him kisses as she stepped into a covered gondola.
Oh get you gone, woman! Finnian watched the man from the shadows as the front doors were locked again, the massive keys turned and then withdrawn on their silken cord and slipped over the curator’s neck. He snuffed out the last of the flames, picked up a lamp and walked to a side-door leading to the courtyard where he crossed the cobbles, the white cat weaving in and out of his legs, and presently lights moved around the small apartment opposite.
Finnian raced up the stair and began his search, running his hand over every di Accia possession. If there were anything Færan, a frisson would surge up his arm, a prickling wave from his fingertip to his armpit, and he could examine the object. As he ran his palms over the contents of the palazzo, he felt his imperative dancing attendant at his shoulder like some messenger of doom.
A bucket of water stood by a door leading onto a balcony and he bent down to splash his face, responsibility taking a bite at his heels as the face of the cabinboy swam before him. Find the charms and run. Don’t give a toss for a mortal. He moved on as the water dried on his skin and floor after floor revealed nothing except for scattered pigeon feathers in a room at the top, along with a pile of shattered bird bones. A frisson hovered amongst the detritus and he wondered if Others had been in the tiny chamber. But the vibration was old and ambiguous.
The dark surrounded him as he had made his way back to the first floor landing to stand in front of the superbly veneered china cabinets. The moon shone through the large glass windows, lighting the landing in an ivory glaze. A thick silk tassel hung from each key and the glass shelves held a display of paperweights. He turned the first key and it clicked, the doors opening with the lightest touch from his fingers. He ran his hands over the top shelf – no frisson.
Then the second shelf… and the bottom.
He threw the door shut and the cabinet rocked against the wall, the paperweights skittering out of their positions, fetching up against each other with a dangerous clatter, but he had already turned to the other cabinet, flicking the key over and dragging the door open in a fever of impatience. First shelf, second shelf.
He pulled his hands away and looked up at the winding staircase with its ornamental railings that twisted in wrought curlicews like Færan runes, and he wondered briefly what would happen if there were nothing in the whole palazzo. The moon was slipping fast to the far side of the building and he’d checked every gilded and painted inch of the place. He tried to recall anything else from Isolde’s hints but a space yawned back as empty as the celestial Andromeda Darks.
He moved his hands to the third shelf, the paperweights glimmering in their glassy beauty. What possessed a woman to collect so many? He picked one up and held it, turning it this way and that. To be sure it was elegant and if he looked closely the design was different to its fellows but there was nothing unique about it. NOTHING. He swore and would have thrown the paperweight across the landing had a soprano voice not called from further up the staircase.
‘Half that collection is disappeared, Færan.’
He whipped around and spotted a Siofra, a pretty thing, sitting with her perfect legs crossed and her face held in the cup of her palms, her knees supporting elbows clothed in organdy.
‘And you would know this because . . .’
‘I live here and a little less arrogance and bad manners thank you kindly.’
He walked up to her, juggling the paperweight. She was lovely, a minikin reaching his hip, perfectly proportioned, her breasts eager to spill from the top of a low-cut gown that hung in kerchief ends around her knees. Her shapely legs were clothed in gossamer stockings with flowers patterned all over and her face was as finely drawn as a Færan’s, with lustrous dark hair falling down her back.
‘My apologies,’ he charmed. ‘You surprised me.’
‘You look for something rather crucial, I can tell. You’re as taut as a bowstring.’ She smiled and her simper settled on him like a ray of warmth. ‘Can I help?’
Can you? ‘I doubt it. I don’t even know what I look for myself.’ He sat beside her, vexed at time racing. But racing where? I only know I must find the charms before Isolde. He could see her moving around Castello, asking questions, torturing those with no answers. Already he knew her eye was upon him . . .
‘Your name is Finnian is it not?’
He raised his eyebrows.
‘Siofra are Other with certain skills and your fame does precede you. My name by the way, is Primaflora.’
‘How do you know of me?’ Finnian eyed the woman with suspicion, wondering if despite her beauty and manner, she was a wight as malign as those who had already crossed his path.
‘Siofra are everywhere, Finnian. Even at that benighted cesspit they call Castello. Have no fear, if there is a side to be on right now, then we choose to be on yours.’
A side? She held out her hand and relieved to a point he took it, and brought it to his lips. ‘Your name suits you. You are the very embodiment of spring in your gown.’
‘Huh, this old thing,’ she fingered the silk tissu, ‘since Madama the mad Contessa disappeared, I have a ready supply of fabrics. This is nothing, you should see my ball-gowns.’
‘I can imagine you entice every male in the vicinity.’
She laughed delightedly, a tinkle that reminded him of finches and other tiny birds flirting with each other in some dawn-lit forest. ‘Severine di Accia was a hellspawn bitch, Finnian. Everyone hated her and she hated many people besides. She thought she was a changeling but just occasionally when reason set in, when she guessed she was only a mere mortal, she set upon this wild desire to be immortal. She found the Cantrips you know, a form of insurance against her delusions.’
‘You know of the charms.’
‘Indeed, doesn’t everyone? And my handsome man,’ she tapped him on the hand, a sensation like the pecking of a tiny beak. ‘I am guessing that’s what you search for.’
He held her gaze, unsure if he should invite her into his thoughts, into the necessary hunt, deciding that he could seduce her, it had worked in the past . . .
‘Don’t you try and mesmer me with your charms, Finnian of the Færan. I’m spoken for. But I shall tell you what I think, shall I, and all because I like you and you seem . . . taut as I said.’ She shifted her legs around. ‘She had the Cantrips, this we know. When you are Siofra and you live here, it is easy enough to know many things. Obviously she had a plan to hide them because just before the night she disappeared,’ a wry laugh punctuated her words, ‘and we all know what happened to her, don’t we? Anyway, as I was saying… before she disappeared she had a visit from the glassmaker Niccolo, a master artisan and maker of the finest paperweights in Veniche. Signor Everyman in the street would think she merely commissioned him to make something for her collection but I know different as I was close by when he left. I watched her take four tiny glass rods,’ she measured with her elegant fingers, ‘the centers of what would become her millefiori. She rolled the Cantrips . . .’
‘You have seen the Cantrips?
‘Indeed.’ She gave a laugh not unlike the chime of a tiny crystal hand-bell.
‘What are they like? And tell me, why did the Siofra not take them for themselves? Surely they are priceless.’
‘To answer your second question – because the Siofra thought they should remain hidden. It is not for this world to see the Vale of Kush again. They are dastardly charms and you know this or you would not be looking for them yourself, would you? We Siofra believe you wish to remove them from Isolde’s clutches and we applaud such acumen.’
Would you applaud if you knew that I intend using them for myself against Isolde?
‘We would have kept the secret of their hiding place forever if necessary because if they fall into benighted hands then none are safe. Not you, not me and not even that plain and overly sexed curator out there.’ Her face worried for a moment but then she brightened. ‘But to answer the first question… they are tiny strips of washi paper with the words written on them in Færan. The contessa rolled each one and slipped them inside miniscule glass rods, an extremely difficult task to accomplish, I can tell you. She then placed the rods back in the roll of suede in which they were delivered. Her henchman immediately took them back to the glassmaker and a day later he collected four superbly wrought paperweights and placed them in that very cabinet. So you see, my dear man,’ again she tapped his arm, ‘it is only one step further to deduce that the glassmaker modeled the millefiori with their secrets, into paperweights.’ She leaned back then and stretched out her legs, pointing her toes in small red leather shoes. ‘But I could be wrong.’
‘It’s an interesting theory, Primaflora, but I can tell you this – nothing Other is in that cabinet, there is no frisson of any sort. I felt more of a frisson on the third floor than I do here.’
‘That’s because there was a Færan up there once, and a Hob, at the time the paperweights were made. They rescued a Traveller who was sorely treated by the henchman and spirited her away. And the reason you don’t feel the Cantrips in the cabinet is because someone stole the paperweights on the night of Carnivale.’
Finnian’s dreams dissolved in the slipstream of a curse.
‘Indeed,’ the Siofra nodded. ‘I agree. And we should all tremble with the charms on the loose.’
‘Why didn’t you tell someone the charms were in the paperweights and that they had been stolen? Surely it should have been known.’
‘We are telling you. We know the malfeasant of Eirie are in the hunt now they know about your brother’s death from one of the charms. It won’t take long before they begin to put two and two together and work out they are inside the paperweights. Others have a way of discovering such things, don’t you think?’
Finnian looked at her. ‘There is no accounting for an accidental discovery, did you think of that?’
‘Indeed, which is why we decided I should reveal as much as I could to you. Time is of the essence now and something about you and Fate hangs about and it is all connected with the charms.’
I don’t give a fig for Fate but tell me what you know.
‘But Finnian, you don’t seem happy with what I have told you thus far.’
Finnian debated. That this Siofra was like a compass pointing the way was endeniable. But she seemed to be a barometer as well, sensing his mood swings even before he himself. He moved the paperweight back and forth, the glass flashing in the moonlight, the occasional colour – alizaron, ultramarine, white – flaring as the sphere rolled. ‘I am grateful, have no doubt that I am, but I have a heavy weight upon me and it interferes with my thinking.’
‘Then tell, because a problem shared is a problem halved.’ She was sincerity itself.
Finnian sighed. ‘I played a reckless game with the result that an innocent man died and a boy is without father.’
Primaflora’s mouth flattened into a grimace of concern and she reached for the paperweight from Finnian and began to roll it in her own delicate palm. The movement gained momentum and the sparkling glass began to flow from one hand to another as if it were a liquid stream. ‘Was this a game of your own invention?’
‘And the affected individuals were mortal?’
Finnian nodded, seeing the sailor lying before him on the decks. He told her what had happened and all the while the ball kept moving, almost mesmerising in its rotations. He calmed as he watched, listening to her gentle rationale.
‘It’s regrettable that a mortal man lost his life, and more so that a son is now without a father. But the death of a mortal when mixing with Others is not unusual, Finnian. They can always turn away or use any number of the protective charms. The choice is theirs.’
‘Maybe, but this man had no choice and was in the way at just the wrong time and he died when he needn’t.’
‘How do you know? How do you know that it wasn’t his Destiny to die just at that moment? No Finnian,’ she kept the ball looping and falling between her palms, ‘feel a smidge of guilt if you want, even compassion if you need to and make reparation if it helps. But,’ the paperweight swooped and came to a halt inches from Finnian’s face so that he blinked and started backward. ‘This is the focus. You must not lose sight of it. This is our future. Think on it, Finnian, and don’t lose sight of the ball. You have no time to mourn any longer than a moment. I think this may be your Fate, to bear the unbearable.’
I have been bearing the unbearable all my life. He looked down the stair at the black and white army placed in their attack positions on the tiled floor.
Primaflora smiled and touched his cheek. ‘The paperweights were stolen by Hobarto, the major-domo here. He was in charge of the domestic household. He waited until just before midnight on Carnivale whilst we were still in the Days of the Dark and then took the whole of the bottom shelf of paperweights including the ones you must seek. Since then the curator has just spread the others through the cabinet to make more of a display. Hobarto left the palazzo on that fateful night and that as they say, is that.’
‘Where did he go?’
Primaflora shrugged her porcelain shoulders. ‘Somewhere far from Veniche where he could make a pile of gelt undetected. Who knows? That’s for you to discover, my love. I have told you all I can. Now we depend on you. Your grandmother will be getting stronger and angrier as we speak and it will be a race between you and she, my friend.
‘And if I find them, what then? They are indestructible.’
‘We are Siofra; we keep secrets, we share secrets. But the destruction of the charms is a secret to which we are not privy. When you have the paperweights, we must hope something will reveal itself.
‘And if it doesn’t?
‘It’s not something we countenance.’ She pushed at him ‘Go now with grace, my handsome friend. And good speed.’
‘You trust me?’
Primaflora’s eyebrows rose. ‘Why wouldn’t we?’
Why should you? He placed her hand against his lips and turned away. The front doors unlocked of their own accord and opened far enough for him to pass through. As he disappeared into the glimmer of a canal dawn, he heard the doors close again, the locks sliding into place as if he had never been at the palazzo at all.
The campanile bells had just finished a glorious carillon and the sound echoed and re-echoed across the piazza as there was a tug at his sleeve and he turned to find Gio at his side. He searched the boy’s face for an improvement in his demeanour and perhaps there was a little colour, a flash of something better, something more positive.
‘Gio. Here,’ he pulled a chair for the boy. ‘Sit and have coffee with me. Tell me how your mother does.’
Gio sat carefully and sipped at the coffee Finnian ordered and told him that his mother had just this morning received a commission from the Doge’s wife to make lengths of cream lace for the wedding gown of the imperial daughter. And not only that, he, Gio, had gone to the boatbuilder’s just as Sir Finnian had said and he’d got a job as an apprentice and for good gelt too. Finnian sat back, pleased at the power of interference, knowing that whilst he could never right the wrong, at least Gio and his mother wouldn’t starve.
‘And you, Sir Finnian. You don’t seem too happy.’
‘Don’t call me sir, Gio. I’m just Finnian, and in answer to you, I’m frustrated. It would seem something I came here to collect has already been taken away by someone else and I’ve wasted my time.’ Wasted? If I had not come, Gio would still have a father . . .
‘Who took it? Who took what you came to Veniche for?’
‘It’s of no account, Gio. I shall track him down.’
Gio screwed up his thin face, the first smile for days. ‘Well, people in Veniche only go to the Raj or to Trevallyn. My Pa,’ his eyes misted and he swallowed manfully on a small sob. ‘My Pa always said, if you want to make money go to Trevallyn, but if you want to make your fortune go to the Raj.’
‘Your father was a wise person, Gio, and I may heed his advice. Now here,’ Finnian passed a thick packet to the boy, a mesmered envelope with good provenance and better contents. ‘I want you to take this to the notary’s office over there, can you see?’ He pointed and Gio nodded. ‘The notary will read my letter and will do what is necessary, and when you are done, go home to your mother as I think she will look forward to seeing you.’
The boy sucked up the last dregs of his coffee and took the envelope containing a document saying that Finnian of Trevallyn, being the sole owner of the tiny apartment on the Calle Calliope, conferred the title to Signora Poli and her son Giovanni and any descendants in perpetuity. He wove his way through the perambulating crowds of the piazza and Finnian’s last sight was of the blonde corkscrew curls bouncing a little higher with each step the boy took.
He debated his own future. Trevallyn or the Raj? He tossed gelt. Heads or tails? The money landed in his palm and he slapped the cool metal onto the back of his hand. Fate and Destiny indeed . . .