A tale of artists, intrigue, and the magical renaissance

5.05 – Gloria Sine Volatus {Flightless Butterfly}

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8 years past

Cassiano Nazzaro slouched, hands in his pockets, a smile on his face, as he wandered down the hallways of the palace toward the action that would result in his execution. Maybe. Perhaps. It was all a matter of timing, more than anything else, as everything else in his professional life.

“I know that look, Cass you mongrel,” one of the chambermaids grinned as she passed him in the hall with an armfull of linens, “you’re musing on where your next conquest is going to be.”

“You know me too well, Sarabell” Cassiano gave a half-grin, turning to walk backward so he could give her the attention she expected while still not pausing his slow, loping path. “Any suggestions? What about that sister of yours, she’s almost as pretty as you but doesn’t know better like you do.”

“Cass you are a beast!” Sarabell giggled and blushed, “is there any redeeming quality to you at all?”

“Not a one,” Cass chuckled. He knew he should avoid the main hallways lest he get pulled into conversation, but on the other hand, it would be well to leave a trail of people who had seen and talked with him this afternoon.

The sound of a young boy’s laughter floated through the window, coming from the very courtyard that Cassiano was languidly moving toward. Carefully, the man released the fists he’d been clenching, willing his muscles to relax. He chided himself for having to make the effort. It had been decades since Cassiano had let anything like stress or worry show on his face or in his body language. Spies who showed their nerves tended to become spies who showed their innards.

Still, some of the tension in his shoulders lessened when he actually caught sight of the boy playing in the courtyard with a few of his friends. The child was the very spit of Cassiano’s old friend and commander: long silken black hair that fell to his shoulders, framing a noble and thoughtful face. A leather-bound book sat open on an empty bench nearby, that would probably be the boy’s Echo, but Cassiano wasn’t going to risk talking to empty air if he wasn’t sure.

Even if the child hadn’t resembled Ticone so much, Cassiano would’ve been able to pick the boy out of a crowd. Before he had even taken two steps into the courtyard, the boy had glanced up to take note of him. By a few more steps little Allvero has stopped playing and was watching his approach with sharp interest, clearly poised to run or respond if he needed to. Cassiano smiled appreciatively. That was the son of the King’s spymaster alright, ten years old and trained with better instincts than most of the people in the castle.

“You look like you’re having fun, child,” Cassiano said, “although one can have too much fun, you know. Just ask the baby chickens in a stew.”

Allvero had looked to be a little bundle of energy and on the verge of running, but at the codephrase he grew as still as a Mortalis statue. “I have to play with you guys later,” he murmured to his friends. Cassiano watched the boys scamper off. He regretted the witnesses, but at least he still had a chance of surviving…chances were slim someone would think to question what looked like kitchen children.

“What’s wrong?” Allvero asked. There was so much wisdom and seriousness in his dark eyes that Cassiano almost told him the truth, but thought the better of it at the last second. He needed the boy to move quickly and decisively, and that wouldn’t happen if he knew about his parents, no matter how mature.

“You’re in serious danger,” he said instead, “but there are arrangements to take you somewhere safe. Your father says you know of a safe meeting place?”

“Which one?” Allvero asked.

“I don’t know any of them, I don’t know who will meet you or where they’ll take you, you know your father’s rules on secrecy. He said to mention a flightless butterfly to you, does that help?”

Allvero nodded, turning to pick up the leather-bound book from the bench. “And my sister? My parents?”

“I’m going to find your sister now, she’ll meet you there,” Cassiano had already turned toward the castle once more. “Your parents are already somewhere safe.”

It was technically true. No one would be hurting Ticone or Porzia ever again. He was glad to hear Allvero’s footsteps sound behind him, quick enough that the boy would seem busy, but not so fast that an adult would stop him.

Ava was more difficult to track down, which worried him. He had already checked seven of the eight places Ticone’s message had marked out as the places she liked, and if the girl wasn’t in the eighth, Cassiano wasn’t sure what he would do. The old spy was out of practice, he had already left a trail of witnesses and clumsy covers behind him, but if he didn’t keep to his timetables there was a very real chance he would die with the child.

The heavy ballroom door let out a groan on its hinges as he shoved it inward, and Cassiano’s heart sank even as he entered the quiet room. A door like that was hard for him to open, no ten-year-old girl would be coming and going. Still, he was too thorough not to check. Even normal children had hidey-holes and little ways of getting into places, the daughter of Ticone D’Arcangelo would probably have more.

The room was dusty and echoed, laid aside in favor of the newer ballrooms in the northern side of the palace. Motes of dust filtered through the yellow shafts of sunlight, kicked up by Cassiano’s boots, and the despair in his stomach grew even more pronounced. No one had set foot in this ballroom since the last time nobles had danced here.

Cassiano turned back to the doorway, to find it filled with four soldiers in the pink-and-white livery of Venecchi. Decades of experience kept him from reacting more than a single raised eyebrow.

“I didn’t think an empty ballroom would need guarding,” he said.

“Apparently it doesn’t, with a brave man like you here to keep it safe.” Cassiano vaguely recognized the guard at the head of the little group, Vulpiano, a rogue who used to serve Ulisse as an advisor. It made sense that the new Prince Ulisse would have Vulpiano do dirty work like this.

“What can I say?” Cassiano didn’t waste much effort in his grin, “this is one of the best places to avoid work, no one comes ‘round here.”

“Indeed? Then if someone did, surely you’d remember it? Have you seen anyone?” Vulpiano moved into the room cautiously, flanked by the other guards, as if he expected Cassiano to trigger some trap for him.

I should’ve set up some trap for him, Cassiano mentally cursed, it makes sense that he would have the same list of places the children like that I do.

“As I say, no one comes around here,” Cassiano shrugged, not retreating from the group, but putting his hands into his pockets to seem less threatening.

“I recognize you, you know,” Vulpiano said. “You’re one of the old spymaster’s spies.”

“Retired, but you have the vague thrust of it right,” Cassiano shrugged, glancing around the upper levels of the ballroom, “doesn’t mean I see people who aren’t here.” When he caught sight of the little fingers gripping the railings on the balcony, dark little eyes peering down at him, his heart almost stopped. Carefully, he let his gaze continue moving, praying his surprise hadn’t made him pause for a half-second. Of course, Stormtouched. Her Echo could’ve given her warning that he was approaching, giving her time to hide.

This was a problem.

“I would imagine that a spy, even retired, would retain loyalty to their spymaster,” Vulpiano said.

This was a huge problem. Cassiano’s mind raced through all of the possibilities in time with his hammering heart. As long as he let him, Vulpiano would continue to talk in circles, clear to the both of them but far too subtle to warn the little girl that she was in danger. If Cass tried to warn her, he would expose her presence to the guards, but if he didn’t, she would wander away and into their clutches soon enough.

There was really only one way forward, no matter the consequences that one way would bring down upon his head.

“Can we speak plainly, here?” Cassiano made a show of looking bored, “this runabout is tiresome.”

Vulpiano smiled, thin-lipped, “by all means, if you think I am not speaking plainly. What is it you have to say?”

Cassiano carefully didn’t let his gaze flick back to the balcony. He was old and made far more mistakes than he had in his youth, but he would not make such an obvious one now.

“You’re looking for the D’Arcangelo children so you can kill them,” he said flatly. He continued quickly to mask any noise of surprise Ava might make above them, “it boggles my mind that scum like you can be so comfortable killing children, but shy away from saying it aloud.”

“What a ridiculous, paranoid fantasy,” Vulpiano’s smile didn’t falter, “honestly, old spy, where would you come up with such an idea?”

“You think I’m trying to trap you, that I have some compatriot witness hiding behind the furniture,” Cassiano indicated the covered furniture around them, not drawing attention to the balcony, “I’m not, and I don’t. I just find you disgusting.”

“No, no,” Vulpiano smiled wider, “I would really like to know where you came up with such an idea. Why, it almost sounds as if you’ve been talking to someone else with paranoid fantasies, like D’Arcangelo senior, perhaps.”

Cassiano kept his face completely still, itself a tell. The guards that had been flanking Vulpiano moved forward to surround him, while Vulpiano himself continued, quietly.

“You can’t have known the children are in danger unless Ticone somehow passed a message to you,” he said, “and he wouldn’t have passed on a message without instructions. You’re the reason we can’t find them anywhere. You’ve spirited them away somewhere.”

Cassiano kept his eyes locked on Vulpiano’s. The man had made the right guess, he’d just messed up the timing. It would be plain enough for the little girl to connect the dots, if she was as smart as he guessed, now all Cassiano had to do was ensure the girl knew where to go.  “Look at how far you’ve come, Vulpiano,” he said contemptuously, “from the lowly station you’ve risen, and now here you are at the lofty heights of child-murder, dressed in pink and white like some kind of flightless butterfly.”

“Ironic,” Vulpiano said, as the guards grabbed Cassiano, “since, by the time we’ve convinced you to tell us where the children are, I imagine it’s you who will resemble an insect with its wings ripped off.”

Cassiano chuckled with genuine good humor at the quip. A daughter of D’Arcangelo would have all she needed now to meet her brother and escape. Chances were high that they’d be out of the castle before the hour was up, and he knew he could withstand torture for that long. After that, he couldn’t give up their location even if he wanted to.

More out of a sense of obligation than anything else, Cassiano kicked out and broke one of the guard’s ankles as they dragged him out of the ballroom. It would be a nasty end for him, but he’d made his peace with that ever since the day he first took on as one of Ticone’s spies. A nasty end in service to saving the lives of his old commander’s children? He couldn’t think of a better reason to go.

Just as the door to the ballroom swung shut, Cassiano could’ve sworn he saw a flash of lavender up in the balconies, and he nodded to himself approvingly. He’d worried she would panic and freeze under the pressure, but the girl was moving already. She had a bright future ahead of her.

***

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