Two young people sat quite comfortably on the grassy bank of a stream, leaning against a willow whose ancient body seemed designed for leaning. Plangent water reflected the little green leaves of the willow, including even the tiny round crystals of dew which hung from the leaves, with only artistic distortion, while below the line of the water cool fish brooded, wearing coats of bright enamelwork.
On either side of the stream a lawn spread out, tended by cloudy sheep. Other beasts, too, roamed at their graceful will across the landscape: the ox and the wide-horned aurochs, the slouching camelopard, the corkindrill--each animal as fat as a burgher and similarly complacent. None were ragged, none scarred. None raised its elegant head except in wonder at the sweetness of the air.
Of course there were birds, and even in the lacy mass of the willow they sang, regardless of the presence of two or three sleek and platter-faced cats who meditated while resting upon the largest branches, their white, gray, or many-striped tails curled below them like fishhooks trolling the air.
Although there were aurochs and a camelopard, and it has been said that these are wary beasts and unsocial, this park which contained them had not the appearance of wilderness. Beyond the copse of fruiting trees on the far side of the river rose a white palace of intricate shape and exquisite proportion, though through distance and the balmy air its exact lineaments were confused. Another, more homey sort of house rose closer to hand, on the bank of the stream itself. This edifice was square, three stories tall, and also white--sparkling white--except for a roof of red tile and certain tasteful borders of red and gold about the windows.
These windows were large, as though the house had been built without care for winter, and they yawned wide and shutterless, as though no thief had ever been born. From these windows hung pots of divers herbs. A pretty gravel path wound away from the tower and kept company with the stream for a while, before humping itself over on a painted bridge and heading toward the ambiguous palace.
The two young people who lounged beside the path (and beneath the birds, and the cats, and the willow leaves all hung with dew) were both decorative and restful to the eye--of a piece with the rest of the scene. One was a small and delicately made maiden all dressed in white save for a red kerchief which she wore around her neck, hanging down in back. Her hair was not flaxen, but as white as her dress--and yet there was no mistaking this child for an old woman. Her pleasant triangular face was as innocent of wrinkles as it seemed of thought. Her eyes were soft and brown. With a yawn and a stretch this child rolled away from the tree and began rooting about in the grass in the most unladylike fashion, on all fours, apparently searching for something, while she turned those strange, heavy-pupiled eyes on her companion with a mixture of fawning and mischief.
He, too, had large brown eyes, and he was also dressed in white, though upon his glimmering garment there were certain touches (as there were in the square tower) of scarlet and gold. He was not pale, however, but swarthy, and his hair was a mass of lazy curls. He continued to lean against the willow tree while his hands played over the strings of a perfectly plain, perfectly perfect lute. He happened to be seated (in seeming content) on a dead branch, which he took care should not be visible to the girl.
The music he made was like the light which bathed and enfolded this garden without a wall: impossibly rich and simple, too fine-textured for the world of days. And he didn't play alone, for his melody was answered by a descant from the winged sky, while below the grass murmured a sweet continuo.
It was a piece without beginning or end, and a glance at the rapt face of the musician communicated that he was well satisfied with the work. But at some time during that long morning, the musician raised his head and left the music to continue without him. His eyes, like those of the girl, were drowned drunk as though they witnessed something beyond sky, river, leafy tree, and rippling grasses.
As though they witnessed glory.
His eyes were so because he, she, the corkindrill, and all of those who strolled, slouched, soared, or sang their perfection in that crystal air, were the dead--the blessed dead--and this was their realm.
And in truth there was neither stream nor willow, nor leaves of the willow nor dew to hang from its leaves, nor tower nor palace nor pretty gravel paths winding between them.
There was only peace here: great peace, bought with pain, perhaps. Redeemed by love, most certainly. Peace, at any rate, and it had shattered the bonds of time.
But this particular blessed soul (the one with the lute) raised his head and the beautiful drowned eyes squinted, like those of a nearsighted man trying to focus at a distance.
"What is it, Dami?" asked the white girl, and she plumped herself down in front of him.
For some moments he did not respond, but stared past her, and past the stream and the copse of fruit trees and the white palace beyond, into unimaginable or unremembered distance. Then he met her gaze, while his fingers evoked a trickle of emotion from the lute strings.
"I felt, little dear," he said slowly, "as though someone had floated here on the wind from far away, offering me all of heaven and earth to follow him."
She scooted closer, until her soft and innocent (though not particularly clever) face rested mere inches from his. "What did that feel like?"
He sighed. "It felt like a stomachache."
Macchiata snorted and sat back heavily on the grass. "But, Master--Master! You don't HAVE a stomach!"
She peered at him sidelong, grinning, and sought again in the grass around the willow. At last she found the branch Damiano had concealed, and she pulled it out from under his legs.
"Hah! There it is.
"Come on, Dami," she wheedled winsomely. "Throw the stick for me again."
He looked into her eyes. "Are you pining for your natural form, little dear? Would you like to be a dog once again?"
Macchiata slipped his gaze and looked hungrily at the branch in her master's hand. "Not pining. I like my girl shape. Especially the hands, which make it easy to pick up sticks.
"Please, Dami. PLEASE throw it again."
The greatest of the archangels, Lucifer by name, had a palace as grand as that behind the orchard in Tir Na nOg--the Isle of the Ever Young--though Lucifer's watchful fortress was neither white nor charmingly situated. Atop the square box of it was a small, high chamber possessing four windows. These reached from the floor to the vaulted ceiling, and they stood always open.
One of these windows looked grudgingly toward the clean north, just as one beheld the generous south with due suspicion. The third window kept a wary eye against the wisdom of the east while the last window denied all hope of the west. Despite this eclectic airiness, the atmosphere in the chamber was a bit stuffy and it smelled like a dead fire. A single grayish, dirty fly droned in frustrated circles through the air of the chamber, as though despite all the windows it could not find a way out.
Within the arches of this high room stood only a table and a chair. On the table was placed a small replica of the palace itself, which was as intricate as its original--as squatly heavy and as drear--and only less fearsome because of its size. At the very top of the model perched a tiny cupola of four windows, within which rested two tiny atomies of furniture: a table and a chair. The chair in the model, like that in the original, was empty.
But the owner of the palace (and the model) was returning, ploughing his way through the sky on wyvern's wings. He came not from the north or south or from any other clear direction, but in great, frustrated circles, and he stopped to pant on the black iron roof of this highest chamber before slithering in.
As the light of one window was darkened for a moment by his serpentine bulk, the fly found its way cutely into the model of the palace, where it settled itself upon the matchstick perfection of the tiny table in the highest chamber.
Lucifer sloughed off his hideous wyvern shape and appeared with a sneer upon his elegant carnelian features. He despised ugliness almost as much as he distrusted beauty, but since his own angelic wings had shriveled long ago, he had to take some other shape if he were to fly. He threw himself into the hard chair and scowled out each window in turn.
A long climb and a bootless errand in a place which could not be seen out of any of his watch windows. A place beyond the limits of his dominion. Lucifer was in a foul, foul mood.
Curse the deaf, dimwit shade!
If only Lucifer COULD curse him, or indulge himself in any deed on physical or spiritual plane which could do damage to the object of his dislike. But he could no more sting the little creature than he could sting God Himself, who held it in His infuriatingly careful hands. He could only call it names out loud, not the worst of which was "dago." He stared at his new toy palace, unseeing.
Someone new entered the chamber through the hatch in the floor which led into the rest of the palace. This someone was a small demon, raspberry-colored and raspberry-shaped, with two long feet and a very small head. Observing that its master had returned, the demon waddled over to the table and pulled itself up with its very agile and workmanlike hands.
A single glance at the Infernal Face led it to slip once more to the floor, where with a muted, worried buzzing it started to waddle its way once more to the door hole.
But Lucifer reached out and snatched up the thing, which was named Kadjebeen, plumping it ungently down on the tabletop.
The demon, thus presented, had a strong resemblance to that sort of fat-bottomed toy which has lead weights built into the round wooden base and which cannot be knocked over, no matter how hard or how many times one hits it. Lucifer was very aware of this resemblance, for he had used the little demon in this manner many times. Now he did not strike it, except with a glare.
It had feet longer than its legs. This was perhaps necessary in order to keep its rotundity in balance when it walked. It was not strictly necessary, however, for its feet to curl up in ornamental curlicues at the toes like Turkish shoes. This was a piece of pure individuality on the demon's part, and Lucifer--who was in many ways responsible for the rest of the demon's appearance--ground his predatory teeth at it.
The demon cringed. "Y--Your Magnificence's new palace image is finished," it announced, its voice the timbre of a tree frog's. "D--does Your Magnificence approve?"
Lucifer let his eyes slip for a moment to the marvelous model on the table beside the demon. Then his baleful gaze returned. "There's a fly in it," he stated flatly.
The demon rolled his eyes. (He could do this very well, because they were on stalks.) He examined the work of his hands carefully, and he, too, noticed the insect. He stuck one of his spider-thin fingers into the cupola window and made shooing gestures. A bad-tempered buzz responded.
But Lucifer was no longer paying attention to the image. He had sunk back into his throne with an almost adolescent sullenness, and was biting his fingernails.
"Something isn't right, in all this," he grumbled between his teeth.
"From the very beginning, every carefully thought-out plan I made regarding that--that Eyetalian--went awry."
The demon knew better than to ask questions of its master; it merely held one rococo toe in each nervous hand and pulled on them alternately.
"It wasn't my failure, either," continued the twisted angel, as he brooded and destroyed his cuticles. "I led him to me with perfect logic and baited every trap with his heart's desire. I should have had him a hundred times." He shot a pointed look at his servant.
"Not that Delstrego had any importance in himself, mind you. No more than any of that ... that mortal tillage of mine. But such as he was, he was Raphael's weakness."
Lucifer straightened in his chair and dropped his fist to the table. His face was a sculpture of cold hate, at which the demon stared in a terror of admiration. "Raphael's weakness," repeated Lucifer, gaining fury as he spoke.
"Oh, my sickly sweet, sainted brother!"
The Devil flung himself to his feet. The table was jarred and the intricate, careful palace model skidded over its smooth surface. The raspberry demon flailed and caught it just before it went over.
"Don't do that, please, Your Magnificence!"
"Raphael! Raphael!" hissed Lucifer. His face went from coral to blotched snow and rubies. "After Michael, I hate you more than any created being! And since you've never had the Sword-Angel's hard-headed good sense, you have let events carry you to ME.
"And you did it all by yourself." And at some sudden memory, Lucifer snickered, as his anger was cut with ugly hope. He stopped before a heavy metallic tapestry which hung between north and east, and he fingered it, following its embroidered story with his eyes.
"Once you were no more than a mirror for Him, like that other sheep, Uriel: beautiful, blank, and ... and quite safe from influence.
"Now you've become nearly as much a slave to the earth as some sylph of earth's air, brother. You bob right and left as the winds take you, and there is no one down there--absolutely no one, you will find--who can protect you."
And with these words, and the more complex thoughts which went behind them, Lucifer's mood flipped over, from immediate disappointment to eventual success and he looked inward upon a balmy future steeped in revenge.
"You see, Kadjebeen, my playing at dice for the soul of the little witch man wasn't a loss, after all. No--for every time he escaped me, it was by some great expense of Raphael's, until now, after only a little time at the gambling wheels of earth, my brother is near bankrupt."
Lucifer giggled then, and in a moment he had himself convinced that he had never been interested in Damiano Delstrego's soul at all.
"My only mistake," concluded Lucifer, raising his eyes and pointing at the raspberry demon, Kadjebeen, who still sat on the table, clutching his cunning image between his curly feet, "was in trying to use the man as the final bait to my trap now that he is dead and therefore untouch--or rather, I mean, without importance to me. Though as a gesture it would have had such artistic merit..."
Kadjebeen folded his hands and stared at his model, lest he be accused of acquiescence in the idea that Lucifer had made any mistake at all. And that he was wise to do so was proven in the next moment, for Lucifer smote his palm with a fist and cried, "Why, by my own powers! Of course. There was no error! He CAN be the bait of my trap, even now."
And then Lucifer strode over to the window of the south, where lay expanses both of desert and plenty. "Woe, my dear Raphael," he whispered, as his blue eyes wandered, making plans. "You have loved well, but not at all wisely."
The baked white earth threw the heat against the baked white wall, which threw it back again. Hidden cicadas produced a tranced droning which was the perfect aural equivalent of the heat shimmer: a sound which a person might ignore for hours at a time before his consciousness came up against it, and which then would become unbearable.
Above San Gabriele the dark hills gathered, looming over the village like large friends who stood too close for one's comfort. Their blackish evergreen slopes promised a relief from the August heat to anyone who had the energy to walk so far.
For the most part, the San Gabrieleans preferred the blackish relief to be found within the wineshop. There, stretched out on the bosom of Mother Earth (the shop boasted no other floor), a handful of men with nothing to do let the sun fry the world outside.
Not that they were all drinking wine. Signor Tedesco, proprietor of the little store, would have been very happy had that been the case. But in all the village of San Gabriele there was not a man who had the money to spend his weekdays in a haze of vinous glory.
One man had a bottle which had been passed around a bit, and another had a half-bottle, which had not. The same fellow possessed a loaf of bread longer than his arm, which he guarded, waiting for the cool of the afternoon to give him the energy with which to eat. Another refugee from the sun had brought his lute, a very fine instrument, bright, sonorous, covered with a paper-thin inlay of mother-of-pearl, upon which he was trading songs with a chitarre player. A second lute, also belonging to the chitarrist, lay on the table unused because it would not stay in tune with the other instruments.
Signor Tedesco regarded his patrons with a jaundiced eye. He had had no intention of creating an atmosphere conducive to the promulgation of the arts. He hadn't even intended for the wine that he sold to be consumed in the confines of his shop.
He knew what an inn was: enough to know his wineshop didn't qualify. He wouldn't mind being an innkeeper, mind you, for he rather thought a man of that occupation might be a little wealthier than a villager who bought twenty casks of cheap red per season and filled bottles with the stuff. But if he were an innkeeper, Signor Tedesco would have tried to keep riffraff like this off his floor.
Especially the redhead in the corner making strange noises on the lute. He was the kind of musician Tedesco liked to refer to as having his ears on upside down. No more than seventeen years old, surely, the young pup bounced his hands up and down the neck of his pretty instrument with great concentration and produced a variety of sounds that Tedesco found quite unpleasant.
(But then, to be fair to the redheaded lutenist, Signor Tedesco had about twenty songs he liked, having known them from childhood, and he liked them played only in certain ways and on certain instruments, and thought the rest of the musical world might just as well go hang.)
The gangling youth pinched a smart octave on the sixth of the scale, then added to it a tenth above, then an eleventh and even a twelfth. Instead of resolving the progression, the musician then damped out the final sound on the beat and called the song complete.
Tedesco didn't know what an eleventh interval was, but he knew how to shudder.
"That's ... very original," murmured the chitarrist, for although his ears, too, were a bit shocked, he was willing to try to understand. "Why does it end like that? Bomp!"
The redhead had an aggressive chin and eyes of a peculiar pale sage green, in a face which had not yet settled into its adult proportions (if indeed it had any intention of settling). His Adam's apple rehearsed his answer before he opened his mouth.
"That's so you don't fall asleep." Then he shrugged enormously and cast the question behind him. "What can I say? What do you expect me to say? That's how the song came to me."
"Came to you?" echoed the chitarrist, who was a round-faced fellow with a bristling mustache and three fat little babies at home. "You made it up?"
Gaspare drummed his fingers on the soundboard a trifle self-consciously and let his oversized eyes wander out the door as he replied. "Of course I made it up. Everything I play is my own.
"To play another man's music," he added righteously, "is akin to theft."
One who knew Gaspare well--one like his sister Evienne, for example--might have fallen face first upon the dirt, hearing this statement uttered in this tone by Gaspare of San Gabriele. But Evienne was not in San Gabriele but in Avignon, tending her own fat babies, and the villagers Gaspare had left behind some years ago found it easy to forget the scrawny, light-fingered street dancer when looking at this insolent youth with his foreign manners and his exquisite lute.
The chitarrist took this opportunity to run a fingernail down his strings. Signor Tedesco, behind his counter, perked up. But Gaspare had so cowed the round-faced man that he dared not go simply from the root to the fifth and then back again, as he had intended, so his endeavor led to nothing. The chitarrist stared glumly at his fingernails.
"But what about the master musician of whom you are always speaking, whom you followed from Lombardy to France? I was under the impression it was his tunes with which you educate the village."
Gaspare's eyes did not exactly mist over, for he had not the sort of eye for that, but they expressed a certain feeling. He slumped back, letting his lute he in his lap like an empty bowl.
"Ah, yes. Delstrego. You know--while I was with him I never touched the lute. Never dared, I guess. And then afterward, though I have had my training at the hands of his own teacher, and it was my idea to sound as much like him as possible..."
The redhead sighed. "It didn't work that way.
"And now I see that it could not, and I no longer desire to imitate him, for Delstrego was in a way a soft man. Whereas I..."
The bristling mustache stood out like a hedgehog's quills, as the chitarrist reflected on Gaspare's lack of softness. Gaspare himself ignored the smile.
"And when I tried to play Delstrego's songs with my own hands and my own spirit, then they sounded like little birds that had been put in a cage of iron." His long nose twitched and he sat up again.
"So I let them go." The redhead gestured theatrically toward the rough stone doorway.
"Still, if Damiano Delstrego himself were to come stepping in that door out of the summer heat, with his little lute under his arm--then you would hear some music," vouched Gaspare, whose self-importance, though considerable, had never been permitted to come between himself and his admiration for his first friend. "You would hear music more original than mine, and yet music even Signor Tedesco could appreciate."
The proprietor raised his head, frowning, uncertain whether he had just been praised or insulted.
Gaspare, still with his hand raised, stared out the pale shimmer of the open door. Cold water seemed to trickle up and down his spine, unpleasant despite the heat, and he wondered if perhaps he had said something he should not have said.
Behind the wineshop, and behind every other shop and dwelling in their nudging row along this street in San Gabriele, was a straight and narrow alley, which (since the battle of the same name as the town, four years before) led to nothing but a pile of rubble. Without a steady stream of feet to keep the clay packed, this alley had been conquered by grass, which had in turn suffered from a lack of sun. Summer had killed this unfortunate growth and dipped it in bronze, but still it held some value for a gelding who had discovered it in the process of avoiding the sun.
This animal was black and lean. Its long neck was sinuous. Its long legs were ... well, very long. One of its ears rested malevolently back against its head, but the horse gave the impression that its ill-temper was a chronic condition, not about to manifest itself into action on this stifling afternoon. The horse's other ear made circles of uneasiness. He chewed half a jawful of yellow grass and let the remainder drop.
Under the thatch of the wineshop roof sat a brown wood dove, colored such a pale and desiccated brown that she might have been molded of clay and left to dry in the sun. She was keeping a sort of uncommunicative company with the gelding. She was also listening to the music within.
Doves are for the most part very conservative singers, and do not appreciate any music but their own. This dove, however, was only a dove part-time. She was a witch, and what is more, a singing witch. She listened to Gaspare's lute playing with a quick and educated mind.
It tended to give her a headache.
Bird eyes regarded the stripe of uncompromising blue sky which was visible under the ragged thatch. She didn't know what it was about the heavens which seemed so false, or at least dubious, today. She rather suspected that Gaspare was about to do something he shouldn't. The boy was much wiser than he used to be--the Eagle Chief's influence, if not her own--but still he had a long trail to sled before he could be safely left to his own devices.
Saara could easily imagine Gaspare accepting a challenge to a duel: he who had never held a sword in his life. She could even imagine him challenging some other to a duel. Over some picayune point of music, of course.
Some hot-tempered village maiden could run him through with a pitchfork. Or her father could. At least, being simple (not a witch born), Gaspare could not lose himself in the myriad dangers and seductions that came to a youngster with Sight.
Saara felt a certain responsibility for Gaspare, born out of both friends and adventure shared. She shifted from foot to foot. Because she was a dove, this looked much like a round pot rolling from side to side on the table. She heard the chitarrist in the wineshop make his tentative dribble of sound and, like Signor Tedesco himself, she had hopes. But it seemed fated the man would not continue his plain, confident melody.
The day would not permit.
Festilligambe, the horse standing below, felt the same unease, for he wiggled an ear in the direction of Saara (whom he knew quite well, both as bird and as human) and he stepped out into the unfriendly sun.
That white disk of light bleached the color of the soul, and it stole the will away. Even Gaspare (bright of hue and mightily determined) ceased playing. The two beasts heard the murmur of his voice seeping through the metallic-hot air. Then that sound, too, dried away.
Someone was coming up the hill of San Gabriele, striding long-legged past the ruin of the village wall. The rhythm of his steps, and the regular thumping of his wooden stick, broke the cicada's drone.
He was dressed in black, and his hair was black, and as he lifted his eyes toward the yawning door of the wineshop, they, too, were black. His face was comely, though the nose was a trifle broad, and in those quick black eyes shone intelligence. From his staff flashed red and yellow, which shimmered, along with the entire figure, in the glare of the sun.
Cold shock crept from Saara's scaled feet up to her bare beak as she watched the form of her dead love approach. Her dun feathers fluffed into ridges. The horse below switched his tail and snorted.
That Damiano, so wise beyond his years, and so hungry for understanding, should walk the scenes of his past like some miser riven from his horde ... it was unthinkable. And unspeakably sad.
"When I am dead," he had said, "you must let go anything of mine which you hold. The dead should be dead."
But Saara's sadness was reflective and momentary, for she knew that this apparition was not Damiano. For one thing, Damiano did not wear black. For another, Saara herself had taught Damiano to do without his staff, and she did not believe that, once dead, he would go back to using crutches he had left behind in life.
And more importantly, this Damiano shape stood now beneath her, in the wineshop doorway, and was unaware of her very presence. Even in his simple days, Damiano would have known Saara was near.
The horse, who saw something different from that which Saara saw, and from that which Gaspare saw from within the wineshop (with all the hair on the back of his neck rising in protest), made no more sound, but turned his elegant tail and disappeared down the grassy alley.
The apparition carried a lute, Saara saw now, leaning her sleek dove head over the ledge of stone where she sat. It was a marvelously ornate lute: Gaspare's own lute, in fact. That made quite a paradox, as even now Saara heard the original of this spectral lute thumped clumsily upon the top of the trestle table within.
"Delstrego!" gasped the youth, in tones of mixed joy and terror.
This is how Gaspare is going to get himself into trouble, said Saara to herself, as she launched out from the eaves of the building.