Copyright by Vesna Kurilić, 2020. All rights reserved.
The Duke came to fetch Giovanna from the kitchen as the fifth day since the city went on lockdown slid to a close.
“I have a theory,” His Dukeship said, “one I need my trusted aide by my side to test.”
“Of course, my lord.” Giovanna hastily wiped her face and her fingers on a cloth—both the cucumbers and the pomodoro crops were very generous this year—and rose to assist her liege. With as little action as the ducal household had seen since the first contamination alert came through across the island, she was grateful for a chance to assist in any way, especially if it meant getting off her butt.
She checked that her pistol was still secure in its holster at the hip and plastered on her crispest professional smile. Hopefully, no traces of the cook’s brilliant pesto genovese were left between her teeth.
His Lordship lead the way, paying no regard to the kitchen boys, some of them still respectfully kneeling on the scrubbed stone floors. It would probalby take a while for them to recover from this unexpected and, Giovanna had a hunch, unwelcome break in their daily duties. Every member of the Ducal household, as well as many of the other nobles’ staff, had seen a notable increase in their cleaning duties as of late. It wasn’t long now before they saw an increase in skin conditions, too, unless the local herbalists devised a better hand cream to treat the higher demands on their palms.
The trouble with the household Giovanna served was that the Young Duchess’ sixteenth birthday was coming soon, in a few weeks’ time. They needed all hands on deck—locked down or not— wasting no thought about the fact that their fellow islanders were dying of a mysterious contagion which seemed to follow no rule, culling young and old alike, sparing no trade, origin or status.
As the days rolled on into summer, bringing even worse news to the island’s capital and stirring even more trouble among the lower servants whose relatives lived in the inner part of the isle, where the contagion seemed to have started from, Giovanna had developed a hunch that it was she alone, in the whole city—possibly the whole damn island—who knew the exact truth of the matter. The sole confidante, His Lordship’s lonely ally in an increasingly hostile political environment which bred rebels and insurgents against his rule all over the Archipelago, sometimes even contestants to the throne which his family had gracefully held for several past generations.
“Where are we going, my lord?” she asked as they climbed further up into the heart of the Ducal palace, the tower, a curious mix of old and new, black reinforced steel painstaikingly imported from the dry land and white marble stolen from the sea at the sunken quarries of Braia.
“To the top,” her lord answered gently and threw a mischievous smile over his rather competently shaped shoulder.
Giovanna kept a hopeless, resonant smile to herself. By now, she’d already gotten used to the feeling—make that feelings—she had for her master. It didn’t mean she couldn’t enjoy the moments spent in his company.
She kept her head down and followed upwards at the Duke’s heels, barely managing not to step on his cape’s deep crimson trail, doing her best to cut her strides short so as not to pass his grace.
Having an islander woman for a bodyguard had become rather common since the mercenary guilds retreated further out towards the Archipelago’s rim a few years ago, but the trouble with Curozolla nobility, in all their golden, well bred glory, was that they were all a bit… growth impaired. As the Duke climbed the first few three-sixty turns up his tower’s spiral staircase, she could almost see over the top of his honey-gold locks, even from the distance of a couple of steps she respectfully kept between them at all times.
The elliptical windows cut into the dull black metal of the tower every few full turns gave her a good overview of the city, something she rarely saw. The ancient stone houses cramped together one against the other along streets spreading out from the central axis in a decidedly fishlike skeleton pattern. The newcomers always expressed surprise and not a small amount of concern over the fact that the streets, in fact, lead nowhere. All of them cut off abruptly right underneath the tall, brilliant white wall, several stories high, which kept the oncoming sea at bay for centuries.
There were too few people out in the streets for the afternoon as pleasant as it was, and Giovanna could see, at a passing glance, that most of them wore the Duke’s bright green livery. Where the fresh laundry would normally hang on the lines, almost hiding the elaboraet facades from view on a summer day as calm as this one, now nothing moved in the breeze. The whole town held its breath, waiting for the plague to break—either away, whether towards the distant Italian shores, sometimes visible after a thick storm, or right into their laps. Nobody trully knew the mind of a sickness.
“I heard that Ballatta fell,” Giovanna offered after a while, as the climb stretched on, as it always did, with the Duke’s tower. “Congratulations, my lord,” she added shyly, unsure whether that was a point in his family’s favour or not.
“It was about time,” His Dukeship said simply, but the warm pleasure in his voice, resounding up and down the tower around them, conveyed his approval.
“I was just wondering… aren’t you worried that too many people will get caught in the swipe?” she asked cautiously.
“No, why would I be?” The Duke’s voice was dry, his words clipped short with the effort of the climb, considerably harder than it was for her.
“Well, what if the contamination starts spreading outside the boundaries you’ve set? What if it reaches your city?”
“It’s impossible”, the Duke said shortly. “I hope you’re not worried for yourself?” he added after a few steps more. “Because with what I’m paying the pharmacist, I’m bound to believe them. Not a single islander who’s loyal to my family’s rule can get infected.”
Giovanna supressed an inner shudder and thanked the Celestial Squid for yet another proof that holding your employer in high regard wasn’t as bad an idea as she was taught as a kid. Even if she took her fascination with her liege to the, um, next level. “How did you do that, my lord?” she wondered aloud, unable to help herself. The Duke’s mind worked in several directions at the same time, controlling a much larger chessboard than she could ever concieve. Getting just a small glimpse into his reasoning has, more often than not, proved to be a highlight of her days.
The Duke, though, simply shrugged. “If I knew, I’d be a chemist, not a patron, now wouldn’t I?”
“I guess so, my lord,” Giovanna offered with a small smile. “But, my lord… what if a Curozzolan did prove positive to the contamination?”
That made His Lordship stop and cock his elegant head for a second or two, looking at her, and seeing her. Unlike the rest of the world, her birth family notwithstanding. “Well, there are a lot of towers in the city,” he said shortly and climbed on.
And, indeed, there were—not only the new, businesslike hi-tech watchtowers like the one which they were still climbing up, but the old, stone ones, too, built by nobles and their religious counterparts in the centuries past. They’d long ago ascended well past the rest of the towers’ reach, but Giovanna knew that quite a few, belonging to the lesser families, boasted energy shields of their own. It would be a few minutes’ work for the ducal guard to contain whatever the Duke’s opposition brought onto themselves, if it came to that.
They finally reached the top platform of the tower—the one with a ring of blastproof windows all around, complete with a gorgeous view over the channel and the remainder of the island. The isle of Eglyesha shone blue and purple in the dim afternoon light to the north, and the outer isles of the Archipelago, hopefully untouched by the contagion not really intended for them, were dark glimmers in the vast, endless sealine to the south.
The Duke spent a second or two looking out into blue infinity, while Giovanna tried to bring her heartrate down from the realization that they were all alone. It would do no good to let her feelings show right now, no matter the privacy of the moment. She knew the importance of keeping secrets—and the reality of the world she lived in. Watching his grace, guarding him, was enough. It always had been… it always will be.
“Could you do me a favour, Giovanna?”
She finally rose to her full height and stood at attention as his dukeship turned towards her. “Of course, my lord.”
“Pass me the pistol, please.”
The weapon was halfway to His Lordship’s well manicured, long fingered hand when she finally realized her body had moved faster than her mind, obeying with each breath.
“What do you need it for, my lord?” she asked as she forced her hand to let go of the metal and ivory warmed by her heat.
Instead of answering, the Duke clutched the weapon in one hand and reached, with the other, for his high crimson collar. He gently moved the velvet embroidered with the brightest green silken thread away from his skin.
“What do you see?”
Giovanna tried to look away, but it was too late. The veins bulged in a dark red against her lord’s unblemished skin, almost darker than the cape he wore.
“I thought it was a trick of the light,” he spoke as if from a distance, the words barely reaching Giovanna’s ears. “I saw it first while I was shaving this morning. But your silence… speaks loud enough.”
“It cannot be,” Giovanna whispered, her eyes stinging with a reality she had no wish to accept.
“Oh, but it can,” His Lordship concluded swiftly. He let his arm fall to his side and took two steps away from Giovanna.
Who finally realized why the Duke’s trusted aide was the only person he’d wanted to follow him to the most isolated, most private place in the whole city, the whole island, the whole world.
“My lord, I could never…” she tried, but her voice betrayed her as much as her body, forcing her to forget all about her training, the need to act now, and whatever reason she usually clinged to. “I could never break your trust, sir.”
The golden smile shone once more, the crystalline green eyes—matching, even in the dim evenlight, the embroidery at his collar—twinkling at her. “I know.” The Duke caught her gaze, and she stood her ground, against her better judgement.
“My lord, but surely you can see…”
“It’s just something that happens. To people. They lose… perspective.” The pistol crept up, gently held by his hand. He started as if he were to say something else, then stopped. “I am really, truly sorry it has come to this. But the Lords of this Earth cannot die with nobody there to witness their passing.” The green of his eyes went as dark as the sea. “Please tell my lady it wasn’t her fault. It was all me.”
All her training, all her will, all the love she felt for this golden man clad in crimson went out of Giovanna’s breath as the pistol fired. The single shot resounded through the watchtower with the force of a thunder thousandfold.
The shot didn’t miss.
The softest wisp of smoke rose from Giovanna’s pistol as it fell to the floor, stinging against her water-filled eyes. Breathe in, breathe out. She forced the fists she’d involuntarily made to loosen, open up. Slowly, she walked to her pistol and picked it up from where it lay at the floor, as motionless as the rest of the room. She thrust it back into its place and habitually checked that it was secure in its holster at her hip.
And then she turned her back to the window, the sky and the sea, and slowly walked into the dark abyss of the staircase.
She had a long way down and, more importantly…
She had a Duchess to crown.