But Venice is under siege by the Egyptian Empire; its terrifying mummy warriors are waiting to strike. All that protects the Venetians is the Flowing Queen. Nobody knows who or what she is—only that her power flows through the canals and keeps the Egyptians at bay.
When Merle and Serafin overhear a plot to capture the Flowing Queen, they are catapulted into desperate danger. They must do everything they can to rescue the Queen and save the city—even if it means getting help from the Ancient Traitor himself.
About the Author
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The Water Mirror
By Kai Meyer
Margaret K. McElderryCopyright © 2005 Kai Meyer
All right reserved.
Have you ever looked into it?" Junipa asked next morning, after they'd awakened to the sound of Eft's ringing the gong in the hallway.
Merle rubbed the sleep from her eyes with the knuckle of her index finger. "Into what?"
"Into your water mirror."
"Oh, sure. All the time."
Junipa swung her legs over the edge of the bed and looked at Merle. Her mirror fragments flared golden from the sunrise behind the roofs.
"I don't mean just looked in."
"Behind the water surface?"
Junipa nodded. "Have you?"
"Two or three times," Merle said. "I've pushed my face in as far as possible. The frame is pretty narrow, but it worked. My eyes were underwater."
"Nothing. Just darkness."
"You couldn't see anything at all?"
"I just said that."
Thoughtfully Junipa ran her fingers through her hair. "If you want, I'll try it."
Merle, who was just about to yawn, snapped her mouth shut again. "You?"
"With the mirror eyes I can see in the dark."
Merle raised her eyebrows. "You didn't tell me about that at all." She hastily considered whether she'd done anything at night to be ashamed of.
"It just began three days ago. But now it's getting stronger from night to night. I see the same as by daylight. Sometimes I can't sleep because the brightness even penetrates my eyelids. Then everything gets red, as if you were looking at the bright sun with your eyes closed."
"You have to talk with Arcimboldo about that."
Junipa looked unhappy. "And what if he takes the mirrors away from me?"
"He would never do that." Concerned, Merle tried to imagine what it would be like to be surrounded by light day and night. What if it got worse? Could Junipa sleep at all then?
"So," Junipa quickly changed the subject, "how about it? Shall I try it?"
Merle pulled the hand mirror out from under the covers, weighed it in her hand for a moment, then shrugged her shoulders. "Why not?"
Junipa climbed up beside her on the bed. They sat opposite each other, cross-legged. Their nightshirts stretched across their knees and both were still tousle-headed from sleep.
"Let me try it first," Merle said.
Junipa watched as Merle brought the mirror right up to her eyes. Carefully she dipped her nose in, then -- as far as possible -- the rest of her face. Soon the frame was pressed against her cheekbones. She could go no deeper.
Merle opened her eyes underwater. She knew what to expect, so she wasn't disappointed. It was the same as always. Nothing but darkness.
She removed the mirror from her face. The water remained trapped in the frame, not the finest trace of dampness gleaming on her skin.
"And?" Junipa asked excitedly.
"Nothing at all." Merle handed her the mirror. "As usual."
Junipa gripped the handle in her narrow hand. She looked at the reflecting surface and studied her new eyes. "Do you really think they're pretty?" she asked suddenly.
Merle hesitated. "Unusual."
"That's no answer to my question."
"I'm sorry." Merle wished that Junipa had spared herself the truth. "Sometimes I get goose bumps when I look at you. Not because your eyes are ugly," she added quickly. "They are just so...so..."
"They feel cold," said Junipa softly, as if she were deep in thought. "Sometimes I feel cold, even when the sun is shining."
Brightness at night, cold in the sunshine.
"Do you really want to do it?" Merle asked. She remembered how reluctant Junipa had been to put her hand in the mirror; how the water had felt ice-cold to her.
"Really, I don't want to, I know that already," Junipa said. "But if you say so, I'll try it for you." She looked at Merle. "Wouldn't you like to know what's back there, where the hand comes from?"
Merle only nodded mutely.
Junipa pushed the mirror up to her face and dipped it in. Her head was smaller than Merle's -- as all of her was more petite, slender, vulnerable -- and so it vanished up to the temples in the water.
Merle waited. She observed Junipa's thin body under the much-too-large nightshirt, the way her shoulders stuck out underneath it and her collarbones protruded over the edge of the neckline, outlined as sharply as if they lay over the skin instead of under it.
The sight was strange, almost a little mad, now that for the first time she was seeing another person working with the mirror. Mad things could be quite normal, so long as you were doing them yourself. Watching someone else doing them, you wrinkled your nose, turned around quickly, and walked away.
But Merle kept on watching, and she wondered what it was that Junipa was seeing at that moment.
Finally she couldn't stand it any longer and asked, "Junipa? Can you hear me?"
Of course she could. Her ears were above the surface of the water. But all the same, she didn't answer.
Merle was uneasy, but she still didn't interfere. Very slowly visions welled up in her, pictures of beasts that were gnawing on her friend's face on the other side. Now, when she pulled her head back, it would just be a hollow shell of bone and hair, like the helmets of the tribes that Professor Burbridge had discovered during his expedition to Hell.
"Junipa?" she asked again, this time a bit more sharply. She grasped her friend's free hand. Her skin was warm. Merle could feel the pulse.
Junipa returned. It was just exactly that: a return. Her face had the expression of a person who has been very far away, in distant, inconceivable lands, which perhaps existed on the other side of the globe or only in her imagination.
"What was there?" Merle asked uneasily. "What did you see?"
She would have given a lot if Junipa at this moment had had the eyes of a human. Eyes in which a person could read something -- sometimes things you might rather not have known, but always the truth.
But Junipa's eyes remained blank and hard and without any feeling.
Can she still cry? ran through Merle's mind, and at the moment the question seemed more important than any other.
However, Junipa was not crying. Only the corners of her mouth twitched. But it didn't look as though she wanted to smile.
Merle bent toward her, took the mirror out of her hand, laid it on the covers, and gently grasped her by the shoulders. "What is in the mirror?"
Junipa was silent for a moment, then silvery glass turned in Merle's direction. "It's dark over there."
I know that, Merle wanted to say, before it became clear to her that Junipa meant a different darkness from the one Merle had seen.
"Tell me about it," she demanded.
Junipa shook her head. "No. You can't ask me about it."
"What?" Merle cried.
Junipa shrugged Merle off and stood up. "Never ask me what I saw there," she said tonelessly. "Never."
"But Junipa -- "
"It can't be anything bad!" cried Merle. Defiance and despair welled up in her. "I've felt the hand. The hand, Junipa!"
Outside the window a cloud moved in front of the morning sun, and Junipa's mirror eyes also darkened. "Let it be, Merle. Forget the hand. Best forget the mirror altogether." With these words she turned, opened the door, and walked out into the hall.
Merle sat transfixed on the bed, incapable of thinking clearly. She heard the door slam, and then she felt herself very alone.
That same day, Arcimboldo sent his two girl students on the hunt for mirror phantoms.
"I want to show you something quite unusual today," he said in the afternoon. Out of the corner of her eye Merle saw Dario and the other two boys exchange looks and grin.
The master mirror maker pointed to the door that led to the storeroom behind the workshop. "You haven't been in there yet," he said. "And for good reason."
Merle had assumed he was afraid for his finished magic mirrors, which were stored there.
"The handling of the mirrors as I produce them is not entirely without danger." Arcimboldo leaned with both hands on the workbench behind him. "Now and again one must clear them of certain" -- he hesitated -- "of certain elements."
Again the three boys grinned, and Merle slowly became angry. She hated it when Dario knew more than she did.
"Dario and the others stay here in the workshop," said Arcimboldo. "Junipa and Merle, you come with me."
Then he turned and went to the door of the storeroom. Merle and Junipa exchanged looks, then followed him.
"Good luck," said Boro. It sounded sincere.
"Good luck," mimicked Dario and murmured something after it that Merle didn't catch.
Arcimboldo let the girls in and then closed the door after them. "Welcome into the heart of my house," he said.
The sight he presented to them warranted the ceremony of his words.
It was hard to say how big the room was. Its walls were covered over and over with mirrors, and rows of mirrors also stretched down its center, placed behind one another like dominoes just before they are knocked down. Sunlight shone in through a glass ceiling -- the workshop was in an addition that wasn't nearly so high as the rest of the house.
The mirrors were secured with braces and chains that anchored them to the walls. Nothing would topple here, if Venice were to be struck by an earthquake or if Hell itself were to open under the city -- as it was said to have done under Marrakesh, a city in North Africa. But that had been more than thirty years before, right after the outbreak of the war. Today no one talked about Marrakesh. It had vanished from the maps and the language of men.
"How many mirrors are there?" asked Junipa.
It was impossible to estimate their number, to say nothing of counting them. They reflected each other again and again in their glassy surfaces, mutually adding and multiplying themselves. Merle had a thought: Was a mirror that existed only in a mirror not just as real as its original? It fulfilled its role just as well as its counterpart -- it reflected.
Merle couldn't think of anything else that was able to do this: to do something without itself being. For the first time, she asked herself whether all mirrors were not always magic mirrors. Mirrors can see, Arcimboldo had said. Now she believed him.
"You are now going to make the acquaintance of a very singular kind of nuisance," he explained. "My special friends -- the mirror phantoms."
"Mirror phantoms? What are they?" Junipa spoke softly, almost fearfully, as though the images of what she had seen behind Merle's water mirror still danced before her eyes and made her afraid.
Arcimboldo stepped in front of the first mirror in the center row. It reached almost to his chin. Its frame was of plain wood, like the frames of all the mirrors from Arcimboldo's workshop. They not only served as ornament but also prevented cut fingers during transport.
"Just look in," he demanded.
The girls walked to his side and stared at the mirror. Junipa noticed it first. "There's something in the glass."
It looked like shreds of mist that moved fleetingly over the mirror surface, amorphous, like ghosts. And there was no doubt that the pale outline was under the glass, inside the mirror.
"Mirror phantoms," said Arcimboldo matter-of-factly. "Annoying parasites who settle into my mirrors from time to time. It's the apprentices' job to catch them."
"And how are we supposed to do that?" Merle wanted to know.
"You'll enter the mirrors and drive out the phantoms with a little aid that I shall give you to take with you." He laughed aloud. "My goodness, don't look so flabbergasted! Dario and the others have done it countless times. It may seem a little unusual to you, but basically it's not very difficult. Just tiresome. Therefore, you apprentices are allowed to experience it, while your old master puts his feet on the desk, smokes a good pipe, and doesn't worry about a thing."
Merle and Junipa exchanged looks. They both felt apprehensive, but they were also determined to get through this business with dignity. After all, if Dario had already done it, they probably would be able to as well.
Arcimboldo pulled something out of a pocket of his smock. Between thumb and forefinger he held it in front of the girls' noses: a transparent glass ball, no bigger than Merle's fist.
"Quite ordinary, eh?" Arcimboldo grinned, and for the first time, Merle noticed that he was missing a tooth. "But in fact, it's the best weapon against mirror phantoms. Unfortunately, it's also the only one."
He said nothing for a moment, but neither girl asked any questions. Merle was certain that Arcimboldo would carry on with his explanation.
After a short pause, while he gave them a chance to look at the glass ball more closely, he said, "A glassblower on Murano produced this captivating little thing according to my specifications."
Specifications? Merle asked herself. For a simple ball of glass?
"When you put it next to a mirror phantom, you must just speak a certain word, and he'll immediately be trapped inside the ball," Arcimboldo explained. "The word is intorabiliuspeteris. You must imprint it in your minds as if it were your own name. Intorabiliuspeteris."
The girls repeated the strange word, becoming tongue-tangled a few times, until they were sure they could keep it in their heads.
The master pulled out a second ball, handed one to each girl, and had them step up to the mirror. "Several mirrors are infested, but for today we'll let it go with one." He made a sort of bow in the direction of the mirror and spoke a word in a strange language.
"Enter," he said then.
"Just like that?" Merle asked.
Arcimboldo laughed. "Of course. Or would you rather ride in on a horse?"
Merle ran her eye over the mirror surface. It looked smooth and solid, not yielding like her hand mirror. The memory made her briefly look over at Junipa. Whatever she'd seen this morning, it had made a deep impression on her. Now she seemed to be afraid to follow Arcimboldo's instructions. For a moment Merle was tempted to tell the master everything and ask for understanding for Junipa to remain here and Merle to go alone.
But then Junipa took the first step and stretched out her hand. Her fingers broke through the mirror surface like the skin on a pan of boiled milk. She quickly looked over her shoulder at Merle; then, with a strained smile, she stepped inside the mirror. Her figure was still recognizable, but now it looked flat and somehow unreal, like a figure in a painting. She waved to Merle.
"Brave girl," murmured Arcimboldo with satisfaction.
Merle broke through the mirror surface with a single step. She felt a cold tickling, like a gentle breeze at midnight, then she was on the other side and looking around.
She had once heard of a mirror labyrinth that was supposed to have been in a palazzo on the Campo Santa Maria Nova. She knew no one who had seen it with his own eyes, but the pictures that the stories had conjured up in her mind bore no comparison with what she now saw before her.
One thing was clear at first glance: The mirror world was a kingdom of deceptions. It was the place under the double bottom of the kaleidoscope, the robbers' cave in the Tales from a Thousand and One Nights, the palace of the gods on Olympus. It was artificial, an illusion, a dream dreamed only by those who believed in it. And yet at this moment it seemed as substantial as Merle herself. Did the figures in a painting also think they were in a real place? Prisoners who were not aware of their imprisonment?
Before them lay a room of mirrors: not like Arcimboldo's storeroom, much more a structure that from top to bottom, from left to right, consisted of mirrors and mirrors alone. Yet the first impression was deceptive. If you took a step forward, you bumped up against an invisible glass wall, while there, where the end of the room appeared to be, was nothing but emptiness, followed by other mirrors, invisible connecting passageways, and fresh deceptions.
It took a moment for Merle to realize what was really troubling about this place: The mirrors reflected only each other, not the two girls who were standing in their middle. So it happened that they could walk straight up to a mirror and bump against it without being warned by their own reflection. On all sides, the mirrors reflected themselves to infinity, a world of silver and crystal.
Merle and Junipa made several attempts to move deeper into the labyrinth, but again and again they bumped against glass.
"This is pointless," Merle protested and stamped her foot in anger. Mirror glass creaked under her foot without splintering.
"They're all around us," Junipa whispered.
Merle looked around. "I can't see any."
"They're afraid. My eyes scare them. They're avoiding us."
Merle turned around. There was a sort of door at the place where they'd entered the mirror world. There she thought she could perceive a movement, but perhaps that was only Arcimboldo, waiting for them in the real world.
Something whisked past her face, a pale flicker. Two arms, two legs, a head. Close up, it no longer looked like a patch of fog but rather like the blur caused by a drop of water in the eye.
Merle raised the glass ball, feeling a little foolish. "Intorabiliuspeteris," she cried, and immediately felt even more foolish.
There was the sound of a soft sigh, then the phantom shot right at her. The ball sucked him to its inside, which soon flickered and grew streaky, as if it were filled with a white, oily fluid.
"It works!" Merle gasped.
Junipa nodded but made no attempt to use her own ball. "Now they're terribly afraid."
"You can really see them all around us?"
It must have to do with Junipa's eyes, with the magic of the mirror pieces. Now Merle also saw other blurs at the edge of her vision, but she couldn't make out the phantoms as clearly as Junipa seemed to be able to.
"If they're afraid, that means that they're living beings," she said, thinking aloud.
"Yes," Junipa said. "But it's as if they weren't really here. As if they were only a part of themselves, like a shadow that's separated from its owner."
"Then perhaps it's a good thing if we get them out of here. Perhaps they're prisoners here."
"Do you think in the glass ball they aren't?"
Of course Junipa was right. But Merle wanted to get back into the real world as fast as possible, away from this glassy labyrinth. Arcimboldo would only be satisfied when they'd caught all the phantoms. She was afraid otherwise he'd send them right back into the mirror.
She no longer paid any attention to what Junipa was doing. Merle stretched out her arm with the ball, waved it in different directions, and called the magic word over and over: "Intorabiliuspeteris...intorabiliuspeteris...intorabiliuspeteris!"
The hissing and whistling became louder and sharper, and at the same time the ball filled with the swirling fog until it looked as if the glass were being steamed up on the inside. Once, in the orphanage, one of the attendants had blown cigar smoke into a wine glass, and the effect had been very similar: The layers of smoke had rotated behind the glass as though there were something living inside trying to get out.
What sort of creatures were these that infested Arcimboldo's magic mirrors like aphids in a vegetable garden? Merle would have loved to know more.
Junipa was grasping her ball so tightly in her fist that it suddenly cracked and shattered in her hand. Tiny splinters of glass rained onto the mirror floor, followed by dark drops of blood, as the sharp edges cut into Junipa's fingers.
"Junipa!" Merle stuffed her ball into her pocket, sprang to Junipa's side, and anxiously examined her hand. "Oh, Junipa..." She slipped out of her sweater and wrapped it around her friend's forearm. That made visible the upper edge of the hand mirror, stuck into her dress pocket.
Suddenly one of the phantoms whizzed in a narrow spiral around her upper body and disappeared into the surface of the water mirror.
"Oh, no," Junipa said tearfully, "that's all my fault."
Merle was more concerned about Junipa's well-being than about the mirror. "I think we've caught all of them anyway," she said, unable to take her eyes from the blood on the floor. Her face was mirrored in the drops, as if the blood had tiny eyes that were looking up at her. "Let's get out of here."
Junipa held her back. "Are you going to tell Arcimboldo one of them went -- "
Merle interrupted her. "No, he'd just take it away from me."
Stricken, Junipa nodded, and Merle reassuringly laid an arm around her shoulders. "Don't give it another thought."
She gently urged Junipa back to the door, a glittering rectangle not far from them. Arms tightly wrapped around one another, they walked out of the mirror into the storeroom.
"What happened?" asked Arcimboldo, when he saw the wrapping around Junipa's hand. Immediately he unwrapped it, discovered the cuts, and ran to the door. "Eft!" he bellowed out into the workroom. "Bring bandages. Quickly!"
Merle also appraised the cuts. Happily, none of them seemed to be really dangerous. Most of them weren't very deep, just red scratches on which very thin clots were already forming.
Junipa pointed to the blood spots on Merle's wadded-up sweater. "I'll wash that for you."
"Eft can take care of that," Arcimboldo interposed. "Instead, tell me how this happened!"
Merle told in a few words what had occurred. Only, she kept to herself the flight of the last phantom into her hand mirror. "I caught all the phantoms," she said, pulling the ball out of her pocket. The bright streaks in its interior were now rotating hectically.
Arcimboldo grasped the ball and held it up to the light. What he saw seemed to please him, for he nodded in satisfaction. "You did very well," he praised the two girls. Not a word about the broken ball.
"Now rest," he advised them after Eft had treated the cuts. Then he waved to Dario, Boro, and Tiziano, who'd been lurking at the storeroom door. "You three take care of the rest."
As Merle was leaving the workshop with Junipa, she turned once more to Arcimboldo. "What happens to them now?" She pointed to the ball in the master's hand.
"We throw them into the canal," he replied with a shrug. "Let them settle into the reflections on the water."
Merle nodded, as if she'd expected nothing else, then led Junipa up to their room.
The news spread around the workshop like wildfire. There was going to be a festival! Tomorrow it would be thirty-six years to the day since the army hosts of the Egyptian Empire were massed at the edges of the lagoon. Steamboats and galleys had crossed the water and sunbarks were standing ready in the skies for the attack on the helpless city. But the Flowing Queen had protected Venice, and since then this day had been celebrated throughout the entire city with festivals of rejoicing. One of them would be taking place very close by. Tiziano had heard about it that morning when he went with Eft to the fish market, and he immediately told Dario, who told Boro and, a little reluctantly, passed it on to Merle and Junipa.
"A festival in honor of the Flowing Queen! Right around the corner! There'll be lanterns up everywhere and beer barrels tapped and wine corks popping!"
"Something for you children too?" Arcimboldo, who'd been listening, wore a sly smile as he spoke.
"We aren't children anymore!" flared Dario. Then, with a scornful sideways glance at Junipa, he added, "At least most of us."
Merle was about to leap to Junipa's defense, but it wasn't necessary. "If it's an expression of adulthood," Junipa said with unwonted pertness, "to pick your nose at night, scratch your behind, and do lots of other things, then you're of course very grown-up. Right, Dario?"
Dario turned scarlet at her words. But Merle stared at her friend in amazement. Had Junipa slipped into the boys' room at night and observed them? Or could she, thanks to her new mirror eyes, even see through walls? This thought made Merle feel uncomfortable.
Dario was swelling with indignation, but Arcimboldo settled the argument with a wave. "Settle down now, or none of you will go to the festival! On the other hand, if you've finished your jobs punctually by sundown tomorrow, I see no reason -- "
The rest of his words were lost in the cries of the apprentices. Even Junipa was beaming all over. It looked as though a shadow had lifted from her features.
"However, one thing you should all keep in mind," said the master. "The students from the weaving workshop will assuredly be there. I want no trouble. Bad enough that our canal has become a battlefield. I will not permit this quarrel to be carried elsewhere. We've already drawn enough attention to ourselves. So -- no insults, no fighting, not even a crooked look." His eyes singled out Dario from the other apprentices. "Understand?"
Dario took a deep breath and nodded hastily. The others hastened to murmur their agreement as well. Actually, Merle was grateful for Arcimboldo's words, for the last thing she wanted was a new scrap with the weaver boys. Junipa's wounds had been healing well over the last three days; she needed some peace now to heal completely.
"Now, then, all back to work," the master said, satisfied.
To Merle the time till the festival seemed endless. She was excited and could hardly wait to be among people again, not because she'd had enough of the workshop and its inhabitants -- Dario being the one exception -- but because she missed the untamed life in the streets, the chattering voices of the women and the transparent boastings of the men.
Finally the evening arrived, and they all left the house together. The boys ran ahead, while Merle and Junipa followed slowly. Arcimboldo had made a pair of glasses for Junipa with dark glass that was supposed to keep anyone from noticing her mirror eyes.
The small troop turned the corner where the Canal of the Expelled opened into the wider waterway. Even from afar they could see hundreds of lanterns on the house fronts, lights in the windows and doors. A small bridge, hardly more than a pedestrian crossing, linked their side to that place. Its railings were decorated with lanterns and candles, while the people sat on the sidewalks, some on stools and chairs they'd brought out of their houses, others on cushions or on the bare stone. In several places drinks were being sold, although Merle realized with a trace of malicious pleasure that Dario was sure to be disappointed: There was hardly any wine or beer, for this was a poor people's festival. No one here could afford to pay fantastic sums for grapes or barley, which had to be smuggled into the city by dangerous routes. After all these years, the Pharaoh's siege ring was just as tight as at the beginning of the war. Even though the siege was imperceptible in daily life, still no one doubted that hardly a mouse, not to mention a smugglers' boat, could sneak past the Egyptian army camps. One could certainly find wine -- as Arcimboldo did -- but it was usually difficult, even dangerous. The poor people drank water ordinarily, while at festivals they had to be content with juices and various home-distilled liquors of fruits and vegetables.
Up on the bridge, Merle saw the weaver's apprentice who'd been the first to lose his mask. There were two other boys with him. One's face was very red, as if he were sunburned; clearly it hadn't been easy for him to wash off the glue Merle had sprayed under his mask.
Their leader, Serafin, was nowhere to be seen. Merle realized with surprise that she'd involuntarily been watching for him and was almost disappointed not to see him.
Junipa, on the other hand, was a completely changed girl. She couldn't get over her amazement. She kept whispering to Merle, "See him over there?" and "Oh, look at her!" and giggling and laughing, occasionally so loudly that some people turned around and looked at them in surprise and were especially interested at the sight of her dark glasses. Only the rich dandies usually wore such things, and they rarely mixed with the common people. On the other hand, Junipa's worn dress left no doubt about the fact that she had never seen the inside of a palazzo.
The two girls stood at the left end of the bridge and sipped at their juice, which had been watered down too much. On the other side a fiddler was striking up a dance; soon a flute player joined in. The dresses of the young girls whirled like colored tops.
"You're so quiet," Junipa declared, not knowing where to look next. Merle had never seen her so animated. She was glad, for she'd been afraid all the hurly-burly might make Junipa anxious.
"You're looking for that boy." Junipa gave her a silvery look over the top of her glasses. "Serafin."
"Where'd you get that idea?"
"I was blind for thirteen years. I know people. When people know you don't see, they get careless. They mix up blindness with deafness. You just have to listen and they tell you everything about themselves."
"And what have I betrayed about myself?" Merle asked, frowning.
Junipa laughed. "I can see you now, and that's enough. You're looking in all directions all the time. And who could you be looking for except Serafin?"
"You're just imagining that."
"No, I'm not."
"You are so."
Junipa's laugh rang bright and clear. "I'm your friend, Merle. Girls talk about a thing like that."
Merle made a move as if to hit her, and Junipa giggled like a child. "Oh, leave me alone," cried Merle, laughing.
Junipa looked up. "There he is, over there."
"There, on the other side."
Junipa was right. Serafin was sitting a little back from the edge of the pavement and letting his legs dangle over the canal. The soles of his shoes were dangerously close to the water.
"Now, go on over to him," Junipa said.
"Not on your life."
"Why ever not?"
"He is a weaver apprentice, after all. One of our enemies, or have you forgotten already? I can't just...it's bad manners."
"It's even worse manners to act as if you're listening to a friend when in fact your thoughts are somewhere else entirely."
"Can you also read thoughts with those eyes of yours?" asked Merle with amusement.
Junipa shook her head earnestly, as if she'd actually taken the possibility into consideration. "A person just has to look at you."
"You really think I should talk to him?"
"Certainly." Junipa grinned. "Or are you a little afraid?"
"Nonsense. I really just want to ask him how long he's worked for Umberto," Merle said.
"Very poor excuse!"
"Ninny! -- No, you aren't. You're a treasure!" And with that Merle grabbed Junipa around the neck, hugged her briefly, and then ran across the bridge to the other side. As she went, she looked back over her shoulder and saw Junipa looking after her with a gentle smile.
Shocked, Merle stopped in her tracks. Serafin must have seen her, for suddenly he was standing directly in front of her.
"Hello," she replied, sounding as though she'd just swallowed a fruit pit. "You here too?"
"Looks like it."
"I thought you were probably home hatching plans for splashing paint in other people's faces."
"Oh, that...." He grinned. "We don't do that every day. Would you like something to drink?"
She'd left her cup beside Junipa, so she nodded. "Juice. Please."
Serafin turned and walked to a stand. Merle watched him from the back. He was a handsbreadth taller than she, somewhat thin, perhaps, but so were they all. After all, anyone born during siege conditions never had the embarrassment of having to worry about his weight. Unless you were rich, of course. Or, she thought cynically, you were named Ruggiero and secretly ate up half the orphanage kitchen.
Serafin came back and handed her a wooden cup. "Apple juice," he said. "I hope you like it."
To be polite, she immediately took a sip. "Yes, very much, in fact."
"You're new at Arcimboldo's, aren't you?"
"You know that very well." She immediately regretted her words. Why was she being so snippy? Couldn't she give him a normal answer? "Since a few weeks ago," she added.
"Were you and your friend in the same orphanage?"
She shook her head. "Uh-uh."
"Arcimboldo did something to her eyes."
"She was blind. Now Junipa can see."
"Then it's true, what Master Umberto said."
"And that was?"
"He said Arcimboldo knows his way around magic."
"That's what others say about Umberto."
Serafin grinned. "I've now been in his house for more than two years, and he's never showed me a single magic trick."
"I think Arcimboldo will keep that to himself till the bitter end too."
They laughed a little nervously, not because they'd discovered their first thing in common, but because neither one knew quite how to take the conversation further.
"Shall we walk on a little bit?" Serafin pointed down the canal where the crowds of people were thinner and the lanterns shone on empty water.
Merle grinned mischievously. "It's a good thing we don't belong to fine society. Otherwise it would be improper, wouldn't it?"
"I don't give a hoot about fine society."
"Thing in common number two."
Close beside each other, but without touching, they ambled along"Shall we walk on a little bit?" Serafin pointed down the canal where the crowds of people were thinner and the lanterns shone on empty water.
Merle grinned mischievously. "It's a good thing we don't belong to fine society. Otherwise it would be improper, wouldn't it?"
"I don't give a hoot about fine society."
"Thing in common number two."
Close beside each other, but without touching, they ambled along the canal. The music became softer and soon was left behind them. The water lapped rhythmically against the dark walls. Somewhere over them pigeons cooed in the niches and carvings of the houses. They turned a corner and left the light of the shoals of lanterns.
"Have you had to chase mirror spirits yet?" Serafin asked after a while.
"Spirits? Do you think it's spirits living in the mirrors?"
"Master Umberto said it's the spirits of all the people Arcimboldo's cheated."
Merle laughed. "And you believe that?"
"No," Serafin replied seriously, "because I know better."
"But you're a weaver, not a mirror maker."
"I've only been a weaver for two years. Before, I was sometimes here, sometimes there, all over Venice."
"Have you still got parents?"
"Not that I know of. At least they've never introduced themselves to me."
"But you weren't in an orphanage too?"
"No. I lived on the street. As I said, sometimes here, sometimes there. And during that time I picked up a lot of stuff. Things that not everybody knows."
"Like how to clean a rat before you eat it?" she asked derisively.
He made a face. "That, too, yes. But I didn't mean that."
A black cat whisked past them, then made a turn and came back. Without warning it leaped onto Serafin. But it wasn't an attack. Instead it landed purposefully on Serafin's shoulder and purred. Serafin didn't even jump but raised his hand and began to stroke the animal.
"You're a thief!" Merle burst out. "Only thieves are so friendly with cats."
"Strays together," he confirmed with a smile. "Thieves and cats have much in common. And share so much with each other." He sighed. "But you're right. I grew up among thieves. At five I became a member of the Guild, then later one of its masters."
"A master thief!" Merle was dumbfounded. The master thieves of the Guild were the most skillful pilferers in Venice. "But you aren't more than fifteen years old!"
He nodded. "At thirteen I left the Guild and went into the service of Umberto. He could well use someone like me. Someone who can climb through ladies' windows on the sly at night and deliver them the goods they've ordered. You probably know that most husbands aren't happy to see their wives doing business with Umberto. His reputation is -- "
"Oh, well, more or less. But his clothes make them slender. And very few women want their husbands to learn how much plumper they actually are. Umberto's reputation may not be the best, but his business is doing better than ever."
"The husbands will find out the truth, at least when their wives..." Merle blushed. "When they get undressed."
"Oh, there are tricks and dodges there, too. They turn off the light, or they make their husbands drunk. Women are cleverer than you think."
"I am a woman!"
"In a few years, maybe."
She stopped indignantly. "Serafin Master Thief, I don't think that you know enough about women -- aside from where they hide their purses -- to express yourself about such things."
The black cat on Serafin's shoulder spat at Merle, but she didn't care about that. Serafin whispered something into the cat's ear and it calmed down at once.
"I didn't mean to insult you." He seemed quite taken aback by Merle's outburst. "Really, I didn't."
She gave him a piercing look. "Well, then I'll excuse you this one time."
He bowed, so that the cat had to dig her claws firmly into his shirt. "My most humble thanks, madam."
Merle looked away quickly to hide her smile. When she looked at him again, the cat had vanished. Spots of red blood showed through the fabric of Serafin's shirt where its claws had dug into his shoulder.
"That must hurt," she said with concern.
"Which is more painful? Being scratched by an animal or by a human?"
She chose not to answer that. Instead she walked on, and again Serafin was right next to her.
"You were going to tell me something about the mirror phantoms," she said.
"You ought not to have started about it otherwise."
Serafin nodded. "You're right. It's only -- " He stopped speaking suddenly, stood still, and listened into the night.
"What is it?"
"Shh," he said, and gently laid a finger on her lips.
She strained to hear in the darkness. In the narrow alleys and canals of Venice you often heard the strangest noises. The close spacing between houses distorted sounds beyond recognition. The twisting labyrinths of alleyways were empty after dark because most people preferred to use busier main ways. Robbers and assassins made many districts unsafe, and usually cries, whimpers, or rushing footsteps rebounded from the old walls and were transmitted as echoes to places that lay far from the source of the sound. If Serafin had in fact heard something to arouse concern, it might mean everything or nothing: The danger could be lurking around the next corner, but it also might be many hundreds of yards away.
"Soldiers!" he hissed. He grabbed the surprised Merle by the arm and pulled her into one of the narrow tunnels that ran between many houses in the city, built-over alleyways in which utter darkness reigned at night.
"Are you sure?" she whispered very close to his cheek, and she felt him nod.
"Two men on lions. Around the corner."
At that moment they saw the two of them, in uniform, with sword and rifle, riding on gray basalt lions. The lions bore their riders past the mouth of the passageway with majestic steps. It was astonishing with what grace the lions moved. Their bodies were of massive stone and nevertheless they glided like lithe house cats. Their claws, sharp as daggers, scraped over the pavement and left deep furrows.
When the patrol was far enough away, Serafin whispered, "Some of them know my face. So I'm not keen to meet them."
"Anyone who was already a master thief at thirteen certainly has reason for that."
He smiled, flattered. "Could be."
"Why did you leave the Guild?"
"The older masters couldn't stand it that I made bigger hauls than they did. They spread lies about me and tried to get me thrown out of the Guild. So I chose to leave voluntarily." He walked out of the passageway into the pale shine of a gas lantern. "But come on -- I promised to tell you more about the mirror phantoms. To do that, I have to show you something first."
& copy 2001 by Kai Meyer
Merle and Serafin walked farther through the maze of narrow alleys and passages, here turning right, there left, crossing bridges over still canals, and going through gateways and along under clotheslines that stretched between the houses like a march of pale ghost sheets. They did not meet one single person along the way, another characteristic of this strangest of old cities: You could walk for miles without seeing a soul, only cats and rats on their hunt for prey in the garbage.
Before them the alley ended at the very edge of a canal. There was no sidewalk along its banks, the walls of the houses reached right down into the water. There wasn't a bridge to be seen.
"A dead end," Merle grumbled. "We have to go back again."
Serafin shook his head. "We're exactly where I wanted to be." He bent over the edge a bit and looked up at the sky. Then he looked across the water. "See that?"
Merle walked up next to him. Her eyes followed his index finger to the gently swelling surface. The brackish smell of the canal rose into her nose, but she hardly noticed it. Strands of algae were drifting about, far more than usual.
An illuminated window was reflected in the water, the only one far and wide. It was in the second floor of a house on the other side of the canal. The opposite bank was about fifty feet away.
"I don't know what you mean," she said.
"See the light in that window?"
Serafin pulled out a silver pocket watch, a valuable piece that probably came from his thieving days. He snapped open the lid. "Ten after twelve. We're on time."
He grinned. "I'll explain. You see the reflection on the water, don't you?"
"Good. Now look at the house over it and show me the window that's reflected there. The one that's lit."
Merle looked up at the dark house front. All the windows were dark, not a single one lit. She looked down at the water again. The reflection remained unchanged: In one of the reflected windows a light was burning. When she looked up at the house again, that rectangle in the wall was dark.
"How can that be?" she asked, perplexed. "In the reflection the window is lit, but in reality it's pitch-black."
Serafin's grin got even wider. "Well, well."
"Not entirely. Or maybe yes. Depending on how you look at it."
Her face darkened. "Couldn't you express yourself a little more clearly?"
"It happens in the hour after midnight. Between twelve and one at night the same phenomenon appears at several places in the city. Very few know about them, and even I don't know many of these places, but it's true: During this hour, a few houses cast a reflection on the water that doesn't tally with the reality. There are only tiny differences -- lighted windows, sometimes another door, or people walking along in front of the houses while in reality there's nobody there."
"And what does it mean?"
"Nobody knows for sure. But there are rumors." He lowered his voice and acted very mysterious. "Stories about a second Venice."
"A second Venice?"
"One that only exists in the reflection in the water. Or at least lies so far away from us that it can't be reached, even with the fastest ship. Not even with the Empire's sunbarks. People say that it's in another world, which is so like ours and yet entirely different. And around midnight the border between the two cities becomes porous, perhaps just because it's so old and has gotten worn over the centuries, like a worn-out carpet."
Merle stared at him, her eyes wide. "You mean, that window with the light...you mean, it actually exists -- only not here?"
"It gets even better. There was an old beggar who sat at this spot for years and watched day and night. He told me that sometimes men and women from this other Venice managed to cross the wall between the worlds. What they don't know, though, is that they're no longer human beings when they arrive here. They're only phantoms then, and they're caught forever in the mirrors of the city. Some of them manage to jump from mirror to mirror, and so every now and then they also stray into your master's workshop and into his magic mirrors."
Merle considered whether Serafin might perhaps be playing a joke on her. "You aren't just trying to put something over on me, are you?"
Serafin flashed a phony smile. "Do I really look as though I could swindle anyone?"
"Of course not, top-notch master thief."
"Believe me, I've actually heard this story. How much of it's the truth, I can't really say." He pointed to the illuminated window in the water. "However, some things support it."
"But that would mean that I was catching human beings in that glass ball the other day!"
"Don't worry about it. I've seen Arcimboldo throw them into the canal. They get out again somehow there."
"And now I understand what he meant when he said that the phantoms could settle into the reflections on the water." Merle gasped. "Arcimboldo knows! He knows the truth!"
"What are you going to do now? Ask him about it?"
She shrugged her shoulders. "Why not?" She didn't have a chance to pursue the thought further, for suddenly there was a movement on the water. As they looked down more attentively, a silhouette slid over the surface of the canal toward them.
"Is that -- " She broke off as it became clear to her that the reflection was no illusion.
"Back!" Serafin had seen it at the same time.
They whipped into the alleyway and pressed tight against the wall.
From the left, something large glided over the water without touching it. It was a lion with mighty wings of feathers; like the entire body, they were also of stone. Their tips almost touched the walls of the houses on both sides of the canal. The lion flew almost soundlessly, only its unhurried wingbeats producing subtle whishing like the drawing of breath. Their draft blew icily into Merle's and Serafin's faces. The enormous mass and weight of that body were deceptive; in the air it held itself as featherlight as a bird. Its front and back legs were bent, its mouth nearly closed. Behind its eyes sparkled a disconcerting shrewdness, far sharper than the understanding of ordinary animals.
A soldier sat grimly on the lion's back. His uniform was of black leather and trimmed with steel rivets. A bodyguard of the City Council, assigned to protect one of the big bosses personally. You didn't encounter them very often, and when you did, it usually meant nothing good.
The lion bearing its master floated past the opening of their alleyway without noticing the two of them. Merle and Serafin didn't dare breathe until the flying predator had left them far behind. Carefully they leaned forward and watched the lion gain altitude, leave the narrow canyon of the canal, and make a wide loop over the roofs of the district. Then it was lost to sight.
"He's circling," Serafin stated. "Whoever he's watching can't be far away."
"A councillor?" Merle whispered. "At this hour? In this district? Never in your life. They only leave their palaces when it's absolutely necessary."
"There aren't many lions that can fly. The few that are left never go any farther than necessary from their councillors." Serafin took a deep breath. "One of the councillors must be very close by."
As if to underline his words, the growl of a flying lion came out of the nighttime darkness. A second answered the call. Then a third.
"There are several." Merle shook her head in bafflement. "What are they doing here?"
Serafin's eyes gleamed. "We could find out."
"And the lions?"
"I've often run away from them before."
Merle wasn't sure if he was boasting or telling the truth. Perhaps both. She simply didn't know him well enough. Her instinct told her that she could trust him. Must trust him, it looked at the moment -- for Serafin had already made his way to the other end of the alleyway.
She hurried after him until she came even with him again. "I hate having to run after other people."
"Sometimes it helps to get decisions made."
She snorted. "I hate it even more when other people want to make my decisions for me."
He stopped and held her back by the arm. "You're right. We both have to want this. It could get quite dangerous."
Merle sighed. "I'm not one of those girls who gives up easily -- so don't treat me like one. And I'm not afraid of flying lions." Of course not, she said silently to herself, I've never been chased by one either -- yet.
"No reason to be offended now."
"I'm not at all."
"You are so."
"And you keep picking a fight."
He grinned. "Occupational disease."
"Boaster! But you aren't a thief anymore." She left him standing and walked on. "Come on. Or there won't be lions or councillors or adventure tonight."
This time it was he who followed her. She had the feeling that he was testing her. Would she go in the same direction that he'd chosen? Would she interpret the distant wingbeats against the sky properly to lead them to their goal?
She'd show him where to go -- literally, in fact.
She hurried around the next corner and kept looking up at the night sky between the edges of the roofs, until she finally slowed and took pains to make no more sound. From here on they ran the danger of being discovered. She just didn't know whether the danger threatened from the sky or from one of the doorways.
"It's that house over there," Serafin whispered.
Her eye followed his index finger to the entrance of a narrow building, just wide enough for a door and two boarded-up windows. It seemed to have once been a servants' annex to one of the neighboring grand houses, in days when the facades of Venice still bore witness to wealth and magnificence. But today many of the palazzi stood just as empty as the houses on the Canal of the Expelled and elsewhere. Not even tramps and beggars squatted there, for in winter the gigantic rooms were impossible to heat. Firewood had been a scarce commodity since the beginning of the siege, and so the stripping of the abandoned buildings of the city had begun long ago, breaking out their wooden floors and beams in order to heat the woodstoves in the cold months.
"How do you know it's this particular house?" Merle asked softly.
Serafin gestured to the roof. Merle had to admit that he had astonishingly good eyes: Something peeked over the edge of the roof, a stone paw, which scratched the tiles. It was impossible to see the lions from the street. Nevertheless, Merle did not doubt that watchful eyes were staring down out of the darkness.
"Let's try around back," Serafin suggested softly.
"But the back side of the house is right on the canal!" Merle's sense of direction in the narrow alleyways was unbeatable. She knew exactly how it looked behind this row of houses. The walls there were smooth, and there was no walk along the edge of the canal.
"We'll manage anyhow," said Serafin. "Trust me."
"As friend or master thief?"
He stopped for a moment, tilted his head, and looked at her in amazement. Then he stuck out his hand. "Friends?" he asked carefully.
She took his hand firmly in her own. "Friends."
Serafin beamed. "Then I say to you as master thief that somehow we are going to get inside this house. And as friend -- " He hesitated, then went on, "as friend I promise you that I will never let you down, no matter what happens tonight."
He didn't wait for her reply but pulled her with him, back into the shadows of the alleyway out of which they had come. Unerringly they made their way through tunnels, across a back courtyard, and through empty houses.
It seemed almost no time until they were edging their way along a narrow ledge that ran along the back of a row of buildings. The pitch-dark water rocked below them. About twenty yards farther, vague in the faint moonlight, the curved outline of a bridge was discernible. And at its highest point stood a lion with an armed rider. If he were to turn around, he would surely be able to spot them in the darkness.
"I hope the lion doesn't sense us," Merle whispered. Like Serafin, she was pressing herself flat against the wall. The ledge was just wide enough for her heels. She had trouble trying to keep her balance and at the same time keep her eye on the sentry on the bridge.
Serafin had less difficulty negotiating the ledge. He was accustomed to getting into strange houses in the most unusual ways, first as a thief, then as Umberto's secret courier. Still, he didn't give Merle the feeling she was holding him back.
"Why doesn't he turn around?" he burst out through clenched teeth. "I don't like that."
Since Merle was a little smaller than he was, she could see a little farther under the bridge. Now she saw that a boat was approaching from the opposite direction. She reported her discovery to Serafin in a whisper. "The guard doesn't seem bothered by it. It looks as though he's been waiting for the boat."
"A secret meeting," Serafin guessed. "I've seen those a few times -- a councillor meeting one of his informants. They say the councillors have spies everywhere, in all sorts of people."
Merle had other concerns at the moment. "How much farther is it?"
Serafin bent over a fraction of an inch. "About ten feet, then we're at the first window. If it's open, we can climb into the house." He looked around at Merle. "Can you tell who's in the boat?"
She blinked hard, hoping to be able to see the figure in the bow more clearly. But, like both the oarsmen sitting farther behind him, he was wrapped in a dark hooded cloak. No wonder, considering the time and the cold, and yet Merle shivered at the look of him. Was she mistaken, or did the lion on the bridge paw the ground nervously?
Serafin reached the window. Now they were no more than ten yards away from the bridge. He looked carefully through the glass and nodded to Merle. "The room's empty. They must be waiting somewhere else in the house."
"Can you get the window open?" Merle wasn't really subject to dizziness, but her back had begun to hurt and a tingling was creeping up her outspread legs.
Serafin pressed against the glass, first gently, then a little harder. A slight crack sounded. The right window swung inward on its hinges.
Merle sighed in relief. Thank goodness! She tried to keep her eye on the boat while Serafin climbed into the house. The dinghy had tied up on the other side of the bridge. The lion bore its rider to firm ground to receive the hooded and mantled figure.
Merle saw flying lions in the sky. At least three, perhaps more. If one of them should swoop down again and fly along the canal, it would discover her immediately.
But then Serafin reached his hand to her through the window and pulled her inside the house. She gasped as she felt wooden planks under her feet. She could have kissed the floor with relief. Or Serafin. Better not. She felt her cheeks flush red.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
"I was working hard," she replied quickly and turned away. "What next?"
He took his time answering. At first she thought he was still staring at her; then she realized that he was listening, quite like the way Junipa had listened during their journey along the Canal of the Expelled -- highly concentrated, so that not the slightest sound escaped him.
"They're farther front in the house," he said at last. "At least two men, possibly even three."
"With the soldiers that makes it roughly half a dozen."
"Not a bit."
He smiled. "Who's the boaster here?"
She couldn't help returning his smile. He could see through her, even in the dark. With anyone else that would have made her uncomfortable. "Trust me," he'd said, and in fact, she did trust him. Everything had gone much too fast, but she had no time to worry about it.
Quiet as mice, they slipped out of the room and felt their way down a pitch-black hallway. At its end lay the front door. A shimmer of candlelight was falling through the first corridor on the right. On their left a flight of stairs led up to the second floor.
Serafin brought his lips very close to Merle's ear. "Wait here. I'm going to look around."
She wanted to protest, but he quickly shook his head.
"Please," he added.
With heavy heart she looked after him as he quickly tiptoed to the lighted hallway. At any moment the front door could open and the man in the hooded cape come in, accompanied by the soldiers.
Serafin reached the doorway, looked carefully through it, waited a moment, then turned back to Merle. Silently he pointed to the stairs to the upper floor.
She followed his instruction noiselessly. He was the master thief, not she. Perhaps he knew best what to do, even if it was hard for her to admit it. She was usually unwilling to do what others told her to -- whether or not it was in her own best interest.
The stairs were of solid stone. Merle went up and on the second floor made her way to the room that lay over the candlelit room on the ground floor. There she understood what had drawn Serafin upstairs.
A third of the floor had fallen in a long time ago. Wooden beams were scattered and splintered away from the edges, framing a wide opening in the center of the room. From below, candles sent a faint light. Low voices could be heard. Their tone sounded uncertain and apprehensive, even though Merle couldn't make out the exact words.
"Three men," Serafin whispered in her ear. "All three city councillors. Big bosses."
Merle peeked over the edge. She felt the warmth of the light rising to her face. Serafin was right. The three men standing next to one another down there in the light of the candles wore the long robes of Council members, golden and purple and scarlet.
In all of Venice there was no higher authority than the City Council. Since the invasion by the Empire and the loss of all contact with the mainland, they had jurisdiction over the affairs of the besieged city. They had all powers in their hands and they maintained the connection with the Flowing Queen -- at least that's what they said. They posed to the public as men of the world and infallible. But among the people, there were guarded whispers of misuse of power, nepotism, and the decadence of the old noble families, to which most of the city councillors belonged. It was no secret that those who had money received preference, and anyone who bore an old family name counted more than ordinary folk.
One of the three men on the ground floor was holding a small wooden box in his hands. It looked like a jewel casket made of ebony.
"What're they doing here?" Merle mouthed silently.
Serafin shrugged his shoulders.
There was a grating sound down below. The front door was opened. There were footsteps, then the voice of a soldier.
"My lords councillor," he announced respectfully, "the Egyptian envoy has arrived."
"For heaven's sake, shut your mouth!" hissed the councillor in the purple robe. "Or do you want the entire district to hear of it?"
The soldier withdrew and left the house, and his companion entered the room. It was the man from the boat, and even now he wore his hood drawn deep over his face. The candlelight wasn't enough to illuminate the shadows under it.
He dispensed with a greeting. "You have carried out what you promised?"
Merle had never heard an Egyptian speak. She was surprised that the man's words showed no accent. But she was too tense to evaluate the significance of the situation right away. Only gradually did its enormous import sink in: a secret meeting between City Council members and an envoy of the Egyptians! A spy, probably, who lived in the city undercover, or otherwise his Venetian dialect wouldn't have been so perfect.
Serafin was chalk white. Drops of sweat beaded his forehead. In shock he peered over the edge into the room below.
The councillor in gold bowed respectfully and the two others did the same after him. "We are glad that you have agreed to this meeting. And certainly, we have carried out what you requested."
The councillor in scarlet nervously clasped his fingers. "The Pharaoh will show himself grateful, won't he?"
With a jerk, the black opening of the hood turned toward him. "God-Emperor Amenophis will learn of your request to join with us. What happens then lies in his divine hands alone."
"Certainly, certainly," the purple councillor hastened to appease him. He cast an angry look toward the man in the scarlet robe. "We do not intend to question any decision of His Divinity."
"Where is it?"
The councillor in gold held the jewel casket out to the envoy. "With most humble greetings to Pharaoh Amenophis. From his loyal servants."
Traitor, thought Merle in utter contempt. Traitor, traitor, traitor! It made her really sick to hear the groveling tone of the three city councillors. Or was it just the fear that was turning her stomach?
The envoy took the jewel casket and opened the catch. The councillors exchanged uneasy looks.
Merle bent over farther to better see the contents of the box. Serafin, too, tried to see exactly what was in there.
The casket was lined with velvet, on which lay a little vial of crystal, no longer than a finger. The envoy carefully lifted it out, heedlessly letting the casket fall. It crashed on the floor with a bang. As one, the councillors jumped at the sound.
Between thumb and forefinger the man held the vial up to the opening of his hood, directly against the light of the candles.
"Finally, after all these years!" he murmured absently.
Merle looked at Serafin in amazement. What was so valuable in such a tiny vial?
The councillor in purple raised his hands in a solemn gesture. "It is she, truly. The essence of the Flowing Queen. The charm you placed at our disposal has worked a true wonder."
Merle held her breath and exchanged alarmed looks with Serafin.
"The Pharaoh's alchemists have worked on it for twice ten years," said the envoy coolly. "There was never any doubt that the charm would be effective."
"Of course not, of course not."
The councillor in scarlet, who'd already made himself unpleasantly conspicuous, was rocking excitedly from one foot to the other. "But all your magic wouldn't have helped you if we hadn't declared ourselves ready to perform it in the presence of the Flowing Queen. A servant of the Pharaoh would never have gotten so near her."
The envoy's tone turned wary. "So, are you then not a servant of the Pharaoh, Councillor de Angeliis?"
The other's face went white. "Certainly I am, certainly, certainly."
"You are nothing but a whining coward. And of those the worst kind: a traitor!"
The councillor wrinkled his nose defiantly. He shook off the hand that the councillor in purple tried to place soothingly on his arm. "Without us you'd never -- "
"Councillor de Angeliis!" scolded the envoy, and now he sounded like an angry old woman. "You will receive recompense for your service of friendship, if that is your concern. At the latest when the Pharaoh makes his entrance into the lagoon with his armies and confirms you as his representative in office. But now, in Amenophis's name, will you be quiet!"
"With your permission," said the councillor in purple, paying no attention to the wretched-looking de Angeliis. "You should know that time is pressing. Recently a messenger from Hell has arrived to offer us a pact against the Empire. I don't know how long we can continue to resist that. Others on the City Council are more receptive to this messenger than we are. It won't be possible to hold them in check indefinitely. Especially as the messenger has said that next time he'll appear in public so that all the people will learn of his demands."
The envoy expelled his breath in a wheeze. "That must not happen. The attack on the lagoon is imminent. A pact with Hell can bring it all to nothing." He was silent a moment as he considered the situation. "If the messenger actually appears, make sure that he can't get to the people. Kill him."
"And the vengeance of Hell -- ," de Angeliis began in a subdued voice, but the third councillor motioned him to silence with a wave.
"Certainly, sir," said the councillor in gold, with a bow in the direction of the envoy. "As you command. The Empire will protect us from all consequences when it once has the city under its control."
The Egyptian nodded graciously. "So shall it be."
Merle's lungs desperately demanded air -- she couldn't hold her breath one second longer. The sound was soft, barely audible, but still loud enough to alert the councillor in scarlet. He looked up at the hole in the ceiling. Merle and Serafin pulled their heads back just in time. So they only heard the envoy's further words but couldn't see what was going on.
"The desert crystal of the vial is strong enough to hold the Flowing Queen. Her regency over the lagoon is ended. An army of many thousands of soldiers stands ready on land and on the water. As soon as the Pharaoh holds this vial in his hands, the galleys and sunbarks will strike."
Merle felt a movement at her right side. She looked around, but Serafin was too far away. However, something was moving at her hip! A rat? The truth first hit her when it was already too late.
The water mirror slid out of her dress pocket like something alive, with jerky, clumsy movements like a blinded animal. Then everything went at breakneck speed. Merle tried to grab the mirror, but it shot underneath her hand, skidded to the edge of the hole in the floor, slipped out over it -- and fell.
In a long moment, as if frozen in time, Merle saw that the surface of the mirror had become milky, fogged by the presence of the phantom.
The mirror plunged past Merle's outstretched hand into the depths. It fell exactly on the envoy, missed his hood, struck his hand, and knocked the crystal vial out of his fingers. The man howled, with pain, with rage, with surprise, as the mirror and the vial landed on the floor almost at the same time.
"No!" Serafin's cry made the three councillors leap away from each other like drops of hot fat. With a daring bound he swung himself over the edge and sprang into the middle of them. Merle had no time to consider this sudden chain of catastrophes. She followed Serafin over the edge, her dress fluttering around her, and with a loud bellow that was intended to sound grim but was probably anything but.
The envoy avoided her. Otherwise her feet would have hit his head. Hastily he bent and tried to pick up the vial. But his fingers reached past the vial and brushed across the water mirror. For a fraction of a second his fingertips furrowed the surface, vanished under it -- and were gone when the envoy pulled back his hand with a scream of pain. Instead of fingertips there were black slivers of bone, which stuck out of the remainders of his fingers, smoking and burned, as if he'd stuck his hand in a beaker of acid.
A mad shrieking came from under the hood. The sound was inhuman because no face appeared to give it; the screaming poured from an invisible mouth.
Serafin did a cartwheel on both hands, almost too fast for the eye to see. When he came to a stop by the window, he held the vial in his right hand and Merle's mirror in his left.
Meanwhile the councillor in purple, the traitors' spokesman, had grabbed Merle by the upper arm and tried to pull her around. With balled fist he raised his arm to strike her, while the two other councillors ran around like frightened hens, bellowing loudly for their bodyguards. Merle dodged him and was able to shake his hand off her arm, but as she did so her back thumped against black stuff. The robe of the envoy. There was a stench of burned flesh around him.
A sharp draft whistled through the cracks of the boarded-up windows: Flying lions had landed outside in front of the house. Steel scraped over steel as sabers were withdrawn from their sheaths.
Someone placed an arm around Merle from behind, but she ducked away under it as she had in so many scraps in the orphanage. She'd had practice in fighting, and she knew what she had to hit so that it hurt. When Councillor de Angeliis put himself in her way, she placed a well-aimed kick. The fat man in the scarlet robe bellowed as if he'd been spitted, holding his lower abdomen with both hands.
"Out!" cried Serafin, holding the two other councillors in check by threatening to smash the vial on the floor -- whatever that might bring about.
Merle raced over to him and ran at his side to the exit. They turned into the corridor at the very moment the front door burst open and two bodyguards in black leather thundered in.
"By the Ancient Traitor!" Serafin cursed.
Nonplussed, the soldiers stopped in their tracks. They had been expecting a trick by the Egyptian, with men armed to the teeth, worthy opponents for two battle-hardened heroes of the Guard. Instead they saw a girl in a ragged dress and a boy who held in his hands two gleaming objects that looked not at all like knives.
Merle and Serafin used the moment of surprise. Before the guards could react, the two were on their way to the back room.
There, in front of the open window, the envoy was waiting for them. He had known that there was only one way of escape. At the back, out to the water.
"The mirror!" Merle called to Serafin.
He threw it over to her, and she caught it with both hands, grabbed it by the handle, and hit at the envoy with it. He avoided it skillfully, but that also left the way to the window free. His singed fingertips still smoked.
"The vial!" he demanded in a hissing voice. "You are setting yourselves against the Pharaoh!"
Serafin let out a daredevil laugh that surprised even Merle. Then he somersaulted past the envoy, between his outstretched hands. He landed safely on the windowsill and sat there like a bird, with both feet on the frame, knees drawn up, and a wide grin on his lips.
"All honor to the Flowing Queen!" he cried out, while Merle used the moment to spring to his side. "Follow me!"
With that he let himself fall backward out the window into the waters of the still canal.
It wasn't really his hand that drew Merle after him: It was his enthusiasm, his sheer will not to give up. For the first time in her life she felt admiration for another person.
The envoy screeched and grabbed the edge of Merle's dress, but it was with the fingers of his eroded hand, and he let go again with a yelp of pain.
The water was icy. In a single heartbeat it seemed to pierce her clothes, her flesh, her entire body. Merle could no longer breathe, nor move, nor even think. She didn't know how long this condition lasted -- it seemed to her like minutes -- but when she surfaced, Serafin was beside her, and life came back to her limbs. She couldn't have been under for more than a few seconds.
"Here, take this!" Underwater he pressed the vial into her left hand. In the right she was still holding the mirror, which lay between her fingers as if it grew there.
"What shall I do with it?"
"If worse comes to worst, I'll steer them away," said Serafin and spat water. The waves slapped at his lips.
Worse comes to worst, Merle thought. Even worse?
The envoy appeared in the window and shouted something.
Serafin let out a whistle. It only worked on the second try; the first just spewed water from his lips. Merle followed his eyes to the window, then saw black silhouettes slip down, four-legged shadows that sprang from holes and drainpipes, screeching and meowing, with unsheathed claws, which they sank into the robe of the envoy. One cat came up on the windowsill, immediately launched again, and disappeared completely into the dark of the hood. Screaming, the Egyptian staggered backward into the room.
"Harmless thieves' trick!" observed Serafin with satisfaction.
"We have to get out of the water!" Merle turned and let the mirror slide into the pocket of her dress, together with the vial, to which she gave no further thought for the moment. She swam a few strokes in the direction of the opposite bank. The walls came down to the canal there, and there was no hold for pulling oneself to dry land. All the same, she had to do something!
"Onto land?" Serafin said, looking up at the sky. "It looks as though that's going to take care of itself."
Breathlessly Merle turned around, much too slowly, because her dress hindered her in the water. And then she saw what he meant.
Two lions, wings outspread, were diving steeply down at them out of the black of the night.
"Duck!" she screamed and didn't see whether Serafin followed her command. She held her breath and glided underwater, felt the salty cold on her lips, the pressure in her ears and nose. The canal must be about nine feet deep, and she knew that she needed to get at least half of that between her and the lions' claws.
She saw and heard nothing of what was happening around her. When she was deep enough, she turned herself horizontal, and plunged along the canal with a few strong strokes. Perhaps she could make it if she could reach one of the old loading doors.
At one time, when Venice had been an important trading city, the merchants had been able to bring their wares into their houses from the canals through doors that lay at surface level. Today many of these houses stood empty, their owners long dead, but the doors still existed, usually rotten, eaten away by water and by salt. Often the bottom third was rotted away. For Merle they offered an ideal chance for escape.
She could only pray that he was behind her, not too far above, where the lions' claws could grab him out of the water. Stone lions are shy of water, have always been, and the last flying examples of their kind are no exception. They may put their claws into the water, but they themselves will never, ever dip into it. Merle knew this weakness of the lions and she hoped with all her might that Serafin did too.
Gradually she grew starved for air and in her need she sent a fervent prayer to the Flowing Queen. Then it occurred to her that the Flowing Queen was in a vial in the pocket of her dress, imprisoned like a genie in a bottle and probably as helpless as she was.
The essence of the Flowing Queen, the councillor had said.
Where was Serafin? And where was there a door?
She was losing consciousness. The black around her seemed to turn, and she felt as if she were falling deeper and deeper, while in truth she was struggling toward the top, to reach the surface.
Then she broke through. Air flowed into her lungs. She opened her eyes.
She had come farther than she'd hoped. Very close by there was in fact a door, slanting and ragged, where the water had licked at the wood over and over and finally rotted it. The upper half hung undamaged on its hinges, but under it gaped a dark maw into the interior of the house. The rotted wood looked like the jaw of a sea monster, a row of sharp teeth, cracked and green with algae and mold.
Serafin's voice made her whirl around in the water. What she saw numbed her from head to toe. She almost went under.
One of the lions was hovering over the water and holding the kicking Serafin in its front paws, like a fish that it had grabbed and plucked out of the stream.
"Merle!" Serafin bellowed once more. She knew now that he hadn't seen her at all, that he didn't know where she was and if she were still alive. He was afraid for her. He feared she had drowned.
Her mind screamed to answer him, to draw the notice of the lions to herself in order to give him a chance to get away. But she was only fooling herself. No lion lets go of what it has caught.
Already the beast completed a turn with a well-aimed wingbeat, moved away, and rose in the air, the defenseless Serafin firmly pressed under its body.
"Merle, wherever you are," bellowed Serafin in a voice growing fainter, "you must flee! Hide yourself! Save the Flowing Queen!"
Then lion, rider, and Serafin vanished into the night like a cloud of ash dispersed on the wind.
Merle ducked under again. Her tears became one with the canal, became one with it as did Merle herself. On and on, as she dove through the wooden, toothed maw, through the rotted door into still deeper darkness; as she pulled herself to dryness in the dark, curled up like a little child, simply lay there, and wept.
Breathed and wept.
& copy 2001 by Kai Meyer
Excerpted from The Water Mirror by Kai Meyer Copyright © 2005 by Kai Meyer.
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