Title: Giordano's Mask — Chapter 4 of 6
Codes: rom, viol, nosex
Summary: On to Venice, the girls make their first contact with the Hermetic magicians. Rachel's ambition proves too much for Lauren, who must make a choice.
We went ahead and paid for a gondola ride. When in Venice, you must—I guess. At least Lauren thought so. Fiorella rolled her eyes and went to get some coffee.
Lauren and I climbed into the boat, carefully taking our seats. The gondolier took one long step, kind of hopping in, and pushed off from the quay. We drifted. He took his position, facing forward and grabbed the oar. He got control of the boat, balancing, and adjusting to the current with practiced motions. We proceeded toward the Grand Canal.
"Are you Americans?" he asked, in English.
"Yeah," Lauren replied.
"Very nice. How do you like Italy?"
"We love it," she said.
"It's very beautiful. Venice is the most beautiful city in the world."
I couldn't argue. It was indeed very beautiful.
I wondered if he would have a problem with lesbians. I put my arm around Lauren and leaned close. I bent my head back and peered at him. He gave me a grin. He leaned into the oar, rowing with strong, smooth motions. His body was lean. His face was nice.
"How long will you be in Venice?" he asked.
"A couple days," I said.
"Oh? That's too short."
"Yeah. I know."
"I guess I'll have to give you a good tour."
"I hope. Do you know the Palazzo Mocenigo?"
"Of course. I know all the historic sites. Except, it is a hotel now."
"I know. Will you show us."
"What is the Palazzo Mocenigo?" Lauren asked.
"Just the residence of a famous Venetian family," I replied.
"Oh Why do you care about it?"
"It's where Bruno lived right before he was arrested."
"Who—what?" Lauren asked.
The gondolier spoke: "You mean Giordano Bruno?"
"Yeah," I replied.
"Who?" Lauren repeated.
"Giordano Bruno," the gondolier said, "He was a great magician during the Renaissance."
"Yeah," I said.
"Oh—Was he one of those Hermetics guys?"
"Yeesss," the gondolier exclaimed, drawing out the word. The pace of his rowing changed. I glanced at him again. He had a peculiar look.
We were quiet. We proceeded along the canal. Brick houses jutted straight up from the water. Smaller canals branched off on either side. We passed another gondola, containing a family, a mother, a father, and three lovely girls. A water taxi rumbled by.
"So," the gondolier continued, "How do you know of the Hermeticists? Are you history students?"
"Something like that," I said.
"Hmmm. My ancestor, ten generations ago, was one of the constables who arrested Bruno."
"Yeah. My family even had a copy of his arrest warrant. It was issued by the inquisition, signed by a cardinal."
"Oh? Cool. Do you still have it?" I asked.
"No, when my grandfather figured out what it was, he gave it to the University."
An old wooden bridge arched over the canal. It was the "Ponte de l'Academia," the gondolier informed us. We passed beneath.
"So, are you two curious about magic?" he asked.
"I guess. Why?"
"I dabble in magic. There's a school in Padua. It's kinda secret, but my family is old, and we know lots of people."
I grinned. The odds seemed incredible.
"Is it like with card tricks and stuff?" I asked.
"No. Real magic."
I looked at Lauren. She looked at me. We both sat up, turned, and looked back at him.
"Let's see a trick," I said.
"Yeah," Lauren added, "What can you do?"
He blushed a bit. "I'm not very good. I can only do little things."
"Any amount of real magic would be amazing, right?" I said.
He smiled. He took a coin from his pocket.
"Take it and hold it in your hand."
"Now squeeze it, hard."
I squeezed. He muttered a spell. I felt magic flow, a small amount. I didn't cast a counter-spell. I let him do his trick.
I felt the coin vanish. I opened my hand, and showed that it was gone.
"Very nice," I said.
Lauren smiled and clapped. He gave a little bow. He continued to row, looking pleased.
It had been a shift spell. A small and simple one—but still—I was impressed. I resisted the temptation to shift the coin back.
We turned, facing forward again. We passed more buildings, more gondolas, and another water taxi. Soon the Palazzo approached.
"The Palazzo Mocenigo is coming up on the right," he said.
"The one with the fake colonnade over the windows."
I saw which building he meant. It was lovely enough, with four floors of arched windows climbing up. However, it seemed rather unassuming by the standards of a venetian palazzo. It hardly seemed like the residence of a former doge.
The gondolier lifted his oar, and we drifted in front of it.
"Would you like to stop?" he asked.
"No. I just wanted to see it."
He lowered the oar and resumed rowing.
"Bruno was a master of memory magic," he offered.
"Yeah. So I've read."
"It's very difficult. Few magicians still use it."
"Are his books still read?"
"Sometimes, but not often. He's fallen out of favor."
"Well—uh"—he stuttered a bit—"the modern Italian Hermeticists are all good Catholics, very traditional. Bruno was not."
"Ah. Tradition. Does the Padua school allow women?"
"No. The English and American Hermeticists do, but not the Italian. The high-level magicians even live as monks."
I got quiet. I heard the steady splash of his oar. I leaned into Lauren, and we watched Venice pass by.
After a bit he offered: "If it were up to me, I'd let women in."
We arrived back at the quay, and the gondolier's assistant came down and caught a rope. He tied off, held out his hand, and pulled us up. I noticed Fiorella sitting on a bench by the Doge's Palace. She saw us and walked over.
"How was the trip?" she asked.
"Interesting," I replied.
I turned to thank the gondolier. He had already stepped off the boat, and was shaking Lauren's hand. He gave her a little peck on the cheek. I shot him a stern look.
"Uh—well, I hope you two have a nice stay in Venice, even if it's too short."
He smiled at us. He saw Fi and smiled at her too.
"What's your name?" I asked.
Of course he was. He looked exactly like a Paolo.
"Look," I said, "Maybe we could meet later for drinks."
"Uh—" He looked at the three of us "Yeah, that would be great."
"What's a nice place?"
"What are we deciding?" Fi asked. We had been speaking English.
"Where to meet for drinks," I said.
"The Piccolo Mondo," she offered.
He smiled, switching to Italian. "Yes. That is very nice, but expensive I know of a little restaurant that serves drinks and a nice dinner. I get off at six. Want to meet around seven?"
"Sounds great," I said. We got directions.
Fiorella arched her brows. We shook his hand again and left him smiling. We walked into the Piazzetta.
"So, when did we start liking boys?" she asked.
"He is a magician. A Hermetic. Goes to school in Padua."
"Yes. And he likes to talk, it seems."
"I see. Perhaps we should have wine with our meal."
We toured the Doge's Palace. We passed through the Bridge of Sighs and entered the old prison. It had been built after Bruno's time—he was likely jailed in the palace itself; those cells were long gone—but still, I imagined him in his tiny, oppressive cell, scribbling out his turgid, symbol laden manuscripts, before being sent to Rome to his death.
We had lunch at a small cafe.
"So what is up with this Bruno fellow?" Lauren asked, "And why do we care so much about Padua?"
She looked at me straight on.
"He was a powerful magician. He defied the church, saying that Jesus was a magician and other stuff. They burned him."
"Nice. Why do we care?"
"He was a master of memory magic."
"I got that. Still "
She shrugged her shoulders.
"He had a mask, a powerful magical artifact."
She stared at me. She waited.
"It's in Padua. I'm gonna to steal it."
She sipped her coffee. She took a bite of food.
"Does Fi know?"
She was quiet for a bit.
"So, how long—exactly—were you gonna keep me out of your little conspiracy?"
She took another bite.
"I guess until whenever you asked."
She sat quietly.
"Are you mad?" I asked.
"No," she said, her voice flat, "Everything's fine."
She looked away from me. Everything wasn't fine.
The restaurant was crammed into the ground floor of an old stone building set in a narrow ramshackle plaza. It had three small, hazy windows and a stout door braced open by a barrel. I approached with Lauren and Fi behind me, and peered through the door. It was poorly lit, but I heard the faint murmur of voices and the clink of cutlery. I entered.
I found a cramped room with a low plaster ceiling. The patrons turned. I met their gaze, stepping in, weaving among the tables and chairs. Their murmur turned to a hush. Lauren and Fi joined me. We looked for a seat. There were three smallish tables, which were occupied, and a larger one, which was not. We headed toward it.
A man came from the kitchen smiling. He looked at us and frowned.
"Hi," I said, "We're here to meet a friend."
"Ah, yes. You're here for Paolo. He's late, as usual. Go ahead and sit."
He motioned to the larger table. We sat.
I studied the other patrons. Two monks sat face to face, hunched forward, mumbling. An empty bottle stood between them. A father sat rigid in his seat, presiding over his family. His wife squirmed and fretted over their two well behaved, unhappy girls. A man sat alone. He was large, his face like stone.
I looked up. The room had an ornate crown molding inscribed with absurd figures: men, women, animals, all deformed. One man had serpentine arms. A woman had one leg and wore a green robe. There was a jackal with red eyes and a long tongue. I quickly counted thirty-six. They were the decans, ancient demons venerated by the Hermetics.
We were in a den of magicians. I looked at Fiorella. She nodded, recognizing it too. Lauren just sat, looking around. She frowned.
The patron approached our table.
"Can I get you something? Wine?"
"Sure," I said, "The house wine will be fine."
He grunted and headed to the back. We sat, waiting for whatever was going to happen.
Paolo arrived, smiling.
He rushed to our table. "I see you found it! It is a bit dour, I admit, but I promise, you'll love the food! Have you met my uncle? He runs the place."
The patron came back with our wine.
"Bring another bottle," Paolo said, "And say 'hi' to my friends."
The patron, his uncle, grunted again. He finally gave up a "Hello" under Paolo's demanding stare. He left again for the other bottle.
Paolo laughed. "He's a good old goat, I promise."
The other bottle came. Glasses were filled.
"Let's toast to—uh—well—happiness," Paolo said.
We raised our glasses. Happiness was something I'd drink to. I looked at Lauren. Her glass came up halfway. She took small sips.
Paolo asked for the antipasto. The uncle left again. We were alone.
"So," Paolo asked, "If it's not rude—I want to ask—are you two together, like girlfriends?"
He meant Lauren and me. He had asked in English.
"Yeah," I said. I looked at Lauren. She didn't object.
"And you?" he said to Fi, switching to Italian, "You like girls also?"
"Yes," she said.
"Do you have a problem with that?" Fi asked, her voice slow and clipped.
"No! No! Not at all. I just wanted to know—uh—where I stand. Like, would this be a nice evening, or a very nice evening—if you see what I mean."
Fi nodded. She drank her wine.
"I will be a nice evening," I said, hoping that saying it would make it so.
His uncle returned with the antipasto. We ate. It was delicious.
The antipasto was quickly gone, and the uncle brought out buttered pasta with vegetables. Paolo took a huge serving, reaching across the table. He gulped down his wine, then refilled his glass. He took big bites. More wine.
We had small servings. We sipped our wine.
"So, Paolo," I asked, "Can you show us more magic?"
I said it quietly, not to be overheard. His eyes got big. He turned his head, glancing at the other tables. No one seemed to have heard.
He looked back. He whispered, "Uh—can we not talk about that here. It's supposed to be secret."
He glanced over his shoulder again. He finished another glass of wine.
The next course was chicken, grilled with herbs. It was small and thin, but tasted good, once I'd separated the meat from the bone.
Paolo took big bites. He spat the bones onto his plate. He drank more, another glass. He leaned back in his chair, kind of slumped to one side. He looked at us and laughed.
I glanced at Fi. She arched her brows. I grinned. Lauren just sat and watched.
"It seems stuffy in here," I said, "Maybe we can go outside—the four of us—for a walk or something."
"A walk!" he said, "Fine! But first coffee. Uncle! Bring us some coffee."
The uncle came out.
"Paolo, you're drunk."
"Yes!" Paolo replied, "I am."
The uncle gave us a disapproving look, as if we were to blame.
"I think you should say goodnight to the young ladies and go to your room."
That was uttered in a low, stern voice. I looked around. Conversation had stopped. We were being watched.
Something changed in Paolo's face. A certain looseness went away. He crinkled his brow. He took a deep breath.
"Wanna see some more magic?" he asked, peering at us with a fiendish grin.
That was loud. His uncle approached, holding up his hand, as if to strike.
Paolo incanted. A wine bottle raised from the table, suspended by magic. Paolo looked at us, his face filled with joy. Then his uncle muttered a quick counter-spell, and the bottle dropped. It shattered, the dark red wine spilling out and pouring onto Paolo's lap.
The uncle grabbed his nephew, yanking him from the chair.
"Get out!" he hissed at us.
Paolo struggled. The large, stone faced man stood, and began to approach.
I looked at Fi. She nodded. We got up from our chairs.
Then I spoke, a single word. A huge surge of magical energy sucked into the room. There was a loud pop. The windows shattered. Bottles and dishes fell. A chunk of plaster came loose and crashed down on a table. Dust swirled about.
The magic rebounded. A vortex of dark energy became visible before me. When I moved my hand, it moved. Where I gazed, it sent out slender tendrils, waving around, touching.
The family shrieked. The father stood, casting. There was a flash, and then a shimmering wall of light surrounded his wife and girls. He looked at me, his arms outstretched, holding up the spell. I gave him a chance. I nodded. He took his family and fled.
The stone faced man stood frozen. He turned to me. He began to mutter a spell.
Fiorella cast. A bolt of energy shot from her outstretched hand and clipped the stone faced man on the chin. He stumbled back. His spell was interrupted, but he was still up.
"Everybody stop!" I commanded. I raised my arm. The vortex raised also. It made a rumbling sound. More plaster fell. "Or I'll take out the whole building!"
Paolo and his uncle stopped struggling. The stone faced man stood watching, ready. Fi watched him. From the corner of my eye, I saw the monks, watching.
I felt a hand caress me. It was familiar. Lips brushed against my neck. A kiss. Magic flowed. Lauren.
"Rachel, honey," she said, whispering, "Let's not do anything—extreme."
I smiled. I bit my lip. She wrapped me with her arms, resting her head against my neck.
"Paolo," I said, "Let's go for that walk now. I have some questions to ask you."
Paolo pulled away from his uncle's loose grasp.
"Sure," he said. He didn't seem so drunk anymore.
His uncle hissed, "Paolo, they're witches. Deviants! Perverts!"
Lauren tightened her grasp on me. She kissed my neck again.
"You cool, Fi?" I asked.
"Let's go. Paolo, you first."
He walked to the door. I eyed Fi, and she followed. Then me. I took Lauren's hand and sauntered across the room. The vortex followed, as if tethered to my hand.
I turned at the door, giving one last goodbye glance to the uncle, the monks, and the stone faced man. Then I ducked outside. I let the vortex wither away.
Paolo raised his voice over the rumble of an engine. Our "walk" had turned into a boat ride, and the four of us were in the rear of a vaporetto heading east on the Grand Canal. A couple, a man and a woman, sat to the front, arm in arm, watching the sights. Other than them, the pilot, and a boatswain, we were alone.
"So, you're witches?" he asked.
"Yes," I replied, "'Cept Lauren. She's my wellspring."
"Ah," he said. He gave Lauren a long, curious stare.
A large canal joined ours to the left. The boat turned, its engine sputtering, then rumbling again. It began to head north up the other canal. The wind was cooler here. I leaned into to Lauren. Fiorella, sitting alone, held her jacket closed tight.
"So, you recharge by—" he said, cutting short. He motioned with his hands, not saying the words.
"Yes, by fucking," I said, completing his thought. I gave him a steady look. He turned away.
"How do Hermetic magicians recharge?" Lauren asked.
"We get our power from the spheres," he replied, turning his gaze to her.
"The spheres of the planets, the decans, and the zodiac," he explained.
Lauren just looked more confused.
"Sweetie," I said, "The ancients believed that the heavens were giant spheres that held the planets and the stars, and stuff."
"And the higher you went up, the closer you got to god. So, they believed magic came down from the outer spheres."
"Yes," Paolo said, "But it's even more complicated. Each sphere has its powers and associations. Like, Venus rules Taurus, and Taurus rules wine, so since tonight's magic used wine, I will meditate on Venus. I picture a woman in a green dress with a rose—other magicians might use a different symbol. We use amulets too."
"Oh," Lauren said. She smiled. "I like our way better." She kissed my cheek. I pulled her even closer.
Paolo got a peculiar look and turned away from us, staring at the buildings passing by. He sat quiet, still. The engines rumbled. The wind blew. Then a horn sounded, and the vaporetto slowed, pulling to the side of the canal. Its boatswain tossed a line to a man on shore, and he tied off.
"It's just up this street," Paolo said. We debarked.
We walked up a twisty, maze-like street to another restaurant, with another cramped room, with too few tables and a low ceiling. This one was packed, however, with a boisterous crowd. The waitress knew Paolo. She gave him a peck on the cheek and us a curious stare. She found a table in the corner. We sat. It was too small, but we weren't there to eat.
"Do you want food or drinks?" she asked, in Italian.
"Drinks," I said.
She looked at me, then back a Paolo.
"How old is she?" the waitress asked.
"Uh—I don't know, actually," he replied.
"I'm seventeen," I said.
Fiorella smiled. We girls ordered cocktails. Paolo ordered more wine.
He sat quiet for a bit. Then he said, "So, what did you want to ask me?"
I gulped. I hesitated for a second, then I spoke, "How much do you know about the Curator?"
His eyes got big.
"Not much. I mean—a lot of rumors. Why?"
"I plan to meet him. I wanna know what to expect."
"The unexpected," he said.
I gave him a dim look.
"OK—he's come to the school a few times. I've seen him. He's rather ordinary looking, but even the masters are afraid of him I don't know what else to say. He's very powerful, but it isn't like he talks to us students."
"Have you been to his museum?"
"Yeah—the public parts—a bunch of times. Only once in the sanctuary, though, when a new master joined our school. The Curator was there, but he didn't speak."
"I see. Can you draw a floor plan?"
Our drinks arrived. The waitress set them down and poured a glass of wine for Paolo. I reached for mine and sipped. Lauren and Fi did likewise. He reached for his and gulped. The waitress left.
"I don't know," he said, "I don't know if I should."
I sat quietly and sipped my drink. Lauren and Fi sipped theirs. Paolo poured his second glass.
"Why do you want to meet him anyway? I mean—what does a witch want with a Hermetic master? Especially him."
I just looked at him.
"Fine," he said, "You have your secrets. I have mine."
I pondered. Should I tell him? I looked at Fi. She just shrugged.
"She's going to steal that Bruno guy's mask."
It was Lauren who spoke. She looked at me. She arched her brows.
"Oh," he said, "That."
I felt Lauren's hand. She caressed my arm. She scooted her chair and got close.
"I don't know why you should help us," I said, "But I'm asking you to anyway."
"I can think of one reason I might help you," he said. He took another swig of wine. He looked back and forth, but not at us. I waited. He squirmed in his chair.
He couldn't even say it out loud. "You wanna fuck us," I said.
"Well—actually—just the wellspring."
"I can't believe she's doing this," I muttered.
We were on a vaporetto again. This time I sat with Fi, and Lauren was a few rows ahead with Paolo, sitting close. They whispered things to each other.
Fiorella shrugged her shoulders. "You could stop her," she said.
"She has the right to choose, though, right?"
"Up to a point. If it were Ines, I'd stop her."
"We have an open coven. That's worked real well—until now. I don't wanna screw that up."
Fi shrugged again. She pointed at them. "That—could screw things up."
I thought for a second. I got up. I pressed down my skirt and strutted up to Lauren.
"Sweetie, I need to talk to you—alone."
She looked up at me. She separated from Paolo, and said, "OK."
We went a few rows ahead and sat. She peered at me with a slight smile, her expression open.
"Look—you don't have to do this. We don't need his help—at least—not this badly."
"I don't mind. He's nice enough, and it could really help out."
She stared and smiled. I shuffled in my seat and looked down.
"Lauren," I said, slowly, my words trickling out, "I don't want you to do it."
"We have an open coven, right? It's up to me?"
She shrugged. She still smiled. I looked at her. She reached and took my hand.
"So—are we cool?"
"Rachel, hon—I want to."
"I don't want you to. I really, really don't."
I waited and breathed. I shifted around. Horrible little thoughts squirmed in my mind.
"This could ruin everything," I said.
Paolo came up, interrupting. Lauren still held my hand.
"Is anything wrong?" he asked.
I fired back, "Leave us alone, Paolo."
Lauren released my hand. She turned, reaching to him, taking his arm.
"Give us just a second, OK," she said, giving his arm a little squeeze. It seemed so gentle, so loving.
Inside me, something snapped. I began a spell. I stood, turning, facing Paolo, shouting the words, dark terrible words. A wave of energy hit him. He had no time to counter, but it wouldn't have mattered. He was propelled back, staggering, his arms flailing, over the side of the boat.
"No!" Lauren screamed.
"Oh my god! Man overboard!" the boatswain shouted.
Fiorella sat, watching, with a smug little grin.
The engine sputtered. I lurched sideways as the pilot slowed the boat. The boatswain grabbed a flashlight and ran down the aisle. I stood, hesitant, as he passed by.
I felt Lauren touch me. For just a moment longer, I stood, then I rushed, following the boatswain, to the side of the boat.
"Paolo!" I cried out.
The boatswain swung his beam of light across the water. It lit such a tiny spot. The water was choppy. The wake of the boat rebounded from the buildings along the canal and passed back behind us.
Lauren joined me. "Paolo!" she cried out. "Do you see him?" she asked, looking at me, then the boatswain. She reached and grabbed his flashlight. "Let me!" she hissed. He let it go. She shined the light. She panned it slowly across the dark water.
"Paolo!" I cried out again, "Paolo I'm sorry."
The police were called. They arrived in agile little boats and scurried around the canal, shining bright spotlights. We put off on shore. A detective came. He questioned us, and the boatswain.
I saw the boatswain cross himself when he looked at me, but he couldn't say that I'd touched Paolo. All he could claim was that I'd shouted strange words.
He questioned Lauren, Fiorella, and me separately. I told him that Paolo and I were fighting, but the fall was an accident. Paolo was very drunk, I said. He looked at me, into my eyes. I looked back.
They let us go. We returned to the hotel.
The lamps were yellow and warm, casting an old world glow over our room; over Lauren and me, laying side by side holding hands, as quiet as corpses; over the two beds, with their stout wooden frames, and their red and green quilts; and over the heavy air, with its specks of dust, lingering, only slightly disturbed by the slowly turning fan.
"You know—he might have shifted away," Fiorella said from the other bed, "You said he used a shift spell on the gondola."
"He wasn't powerful enough to shift himself," I replied.
Lauren lay still. She released my hand. I turned to her, looking at her, wanting to touch, but I didn't dare.
"Sweetie," I said.
She turned to me. "Yeah?"
What could I say?
"I fucked up."
"Why didn't you try a locator spell? You did when Jess was missing."
"I was afraid to."
"I didn't want to drain myself. I was afraid you wouldn't recharge me."
"Oh my god. Rachel—"
She sort of gulped. She pulled us together. She kissed me, and not a gentle kiss, not a small kiss. She kissed me completely, mouths open, lips locked. My eyes fluttered. I felt a shock pass through me, from down there. I gasped. My heart pounded. She kissed me more.
Apart again. "That would never happen. Never! No matter how bad it got."
Another kiss. Little tingles of delight.
I gazed into her eyes. I uttered a spell, illumination, a speck of light flickering above her face. She blinked, a twinkle, her green eyes. I looked deeper. I saw feelings flitting about, just on the edge of perception. So many. So far down, like an ocean. I wanted to have them. All of them.
"Lauren. I love you."
I'd never said it before.