Today I'm spotlighting Corcitura by Melika Dannese Lux by sharing an excerpt and giveaway...
by Melika Dannese Lux
Books In My Belfry
Taken from Corcitura,
Chapter 8, A Tavern in Venice
I was expecting to find Stefan looking like his new, devil-may-care self, but when I saw him in the lobby, he looked worse than ever. His cheeks were sunken and his hands shook despite his efforts to control them. He reminded me of a painting I had once seen entitled Death Walking, and it wasn’t comforting to think that given my newfound knowledge, this might have been a truer assessment than I would have liked.
“Stefan, are you all right?” I asked as I came to a halt before him. His eyelids flickered, but that was the only sign of life my question elicited. I stared at him for what felt like an eternity. After about five minutes, I realized there would be no response. He was as still as the marble statue of Francesco Foscari we had seen adorning the Doge’s Palace that morning. To Stefan at that moment, I did not exist. His eyes were focused on something at the far end of the lobby. As I turned my attention to the point where he was gazing, I saw a flash of gold.
“My ill luck be damned,” I swore under my breath. I would be forced to spend an evening in the company of that silver-tongued devil after all. What a night this would be. But as I looked again, relief washed over me. I had been mistaken. My fears, and Stefan’s seeming trance, had exaggerated the entire situation. The man idling in the opposite corner of the lobby resembled Salei only slightly. We were safe, for now. Vladec Salei was close, I could feel him, but he was not here—not yet. If we hurried, we might be able to throw him off the scent, for this night at least.
I spoke to Stefan again. This time, a flicker of recognition registered in his eyes, and he seemed to come out of his coma.
“Oh, Eric. I didn’t see you standing there.”
The tone of voice in which he said this sounded drained of all life. It was all I could do to restrain myself from checking for a pulse to ensure that he was still living. “Stefan, you look…horrible,” I stammered, giving up the charade.
“Well, I would, wouldn’t I, seeing as how I haven’t had a good rest in days.”
I felt a pang of alarm at the admission. What had happened to him within the last hour to make him look so haggard? Days, he had said, but I knew it had only been two, impossible though it seemed, since Nadia had knocked me unconscious in the courtyard of Castle Bran.
I would have given the world to be back in London at that moment, but if there was one thing Roderick had burned into my mind, it was to never flee from a situation because of fear. And what had I to fear anyway? Just the fact that a strange man and his coterie had attached themselves to us in Paris, and we had since been subjected to terrors I had not even experienced in my worst nightmares? Nonsense! Well, that was what my step-father would have liked me to believe, but I was of a different mind.
I took Stefan by the arm. “Come, I’m getting you out of here at once.”
For all his seeming lack of strength, the grip Stefan clasped my arm in was crushing. “What?” he said. I winced at the hatred in his voice. “Leave before I give you your surprise? No, no, Eric. It is your nineteenth birthday today, and, by God, we are going to celebrate in Continental style!”
He released my arm and sauntered toward the door as if he possessed all the energy in the world. He was losing the battle with his better nature, and this realization plunged me into a despair that nearly drove me to tears, for once the other half won out, he would not only be lost to me, but to anyone who could have helped him before he fully succumbed.
I watched dumbly as the porter opened the door for him. I was mildly surprised to hear Stefan wish the man “good evening” in perfect, unaccented Venetian. When had he mastered Italian, let alone the Venetian dialect? Stefan, whose first language was Romanian and who only learned to speak English out of, as he said, a highly inconvenient necessity? This ability must have been just another facet of Vladec Salei’s “gift.” I stood there growing angrier by the second, only noticing after a good three minutes that Stefan was waiting for me to join him on the pier.
For what must have been the thousandth time that night, I second-guessed my course of action. I vaguely sensed that he was taking me somewhere dangerous, yet I couldn’t let him loose in a strange city when he was obviously struggling to control something he had not yet learned how to master. The sane thing to do would have been to run as far away from him as I could while I had the chance, but the situation was not as desperate as that…yet. There was nothing for it but to join him.
Stefan was already getting into the gondola by the time I arrived at the pier. I expected the gondolier to be garrulous or start singing as soon as I took my seat, but the man seemed bent and cowed and had a strange abstracted look in his eyes, as if he were an automaton carrying out a duty he had no interest in.
The gondola drifted slowly down the canal as I took in my surroundings. The night was brilliant, with millions of stars dotting the sky. A full, blue-tinted moon peeked out from behind a few stray clouds and illuminated the water, which glowed faintly green in the moonlight.
I tried to think up something to say to Stefan, but was unsuccessful in my attempts. He, in turn, showed no inclination to talk during our journey, but instead draped his arm over the side of the gondola and let his fingers trail along the water’s surface, his eyes remaining transfixed on the moon. The one thing I had to stop myself from asking him was how he had enjoyed his hour with Vladec Salei. By the time I thought up a banal comment on the beauty of the night, something that could not possibly be construed as intrusive, we had arrived at our destination.
“Here we are!” Stefan boomed, coming suddenly to life and nearly upsetting the gondola. “A splendid taverna, don’t you think?”
I had to laugh in spite of myself because the so-called “taverna” looked more like a palazzo. Dozens of flaming chandeliers were affixed to the building’s exterior. Everywhere you looked, from the balcony on the fourth floor to the pier at the entrance, people were milling about with goblets grasped in their hands. “Rather a misnomer, don’t you think?” I said.
“This is no laughing matter, my good son,” Stefan said. For that one instant, it was as if the old Stefan had returned, so jovial and natural was his tone. But when he looked back at the taverna, all his joviality vanished and a vacant look entered his eyes.
“La Dimora di Notte,” he said, almost reverentially. He closed his eyes and stood there as though he had been transported by some unknown bliss. I was already wary of this nocturnal escapade, but upon hearing the name of the place, a chill went through my body. I involuntarily looked over my shoulder, certain my eyes would light upon a face I was not prepared to see.
“The Dwelling of Night?” I asked uneasily.
Stefan’s eyes flickered open, and he seemed to regain his composure. His moods were so erratic that it was almost impossible to determine how he would react in any given situation. A mere word, question, or glance, however harmless it might have seemed, could have sent him into a rage or the deepest melancholy. He was becoming as changeable as Vladec Salei.
“Roughly translated, yes,” he said, shaking his head as if to clear his mind. “Catchy, isn’t it?”
“A rather strange name for a tavern, don’t you think?”
“Not at all!” he said, smiling. His better nature was at the forefront. How long this would last, I could not say. “It is night, people dwell here. It’s all very fitting. The top floor is where we are headed. Come, step lively. We’ve already tarried long enough.”
Stefan punched me in the arm and we headed down the pier toward the brass double doors, which swung open ceremoniously before we reached them. I thought they had opened of their own volition and was momentarily startled until I saw that a porter was standing on the inside. Stefan said something to the man in an undertone I couldn’t catch and jerked his thumb back at me. The man laughed suddenly and Stefan joined in his mirth, sharing in the private joke that had no doubt been made at my expense.
I smiled despite my annoyance and followed Stefan up the first flight of stairs. At the first landing, I noticed that there was a passageway that led off to a private room. The door was closed to public eyes, but the sounds that pierced through the brass told of some great revelry taking place within. I could hear glasses clanking and voices raised in jubilation. Someone let out a screech that sent chills down my neck, but I was apparently being oversensitive because a great burst of laughter followed what I had thought was a cry of pain.
The stairwell did not match the undoubted opulence of this secret room, however. The walls were whitewashed and peeling in several places. There was no light at this stage. Had it not been for the brilliant golden beam that was visible underneath the doorway of the private room, this entire landing would have been cloaked in almost total darkness.
“Isn’t it divine?” Stefan gushed, obviously feeling right at home.
“That wasn’t exactly the word I was thinking of,” I answered.
“Oh, stop being a prude, Bradburry.”
My head snapped up at the sudden use of my surname. He had never called me Bradburry before, even in jest, and the fact that this had occurred in such a disreputable place as I was discovering this “taverna” to be, filled me with a sense of foreboding I could not repress. Only one other person had ever called me that—Vladec Salei.
We walked up to the second landing in silence and were making our way to the third, when I was nearly knocked off my feet. The man sagged against me and didn’t seem to be conscious, until I collared him and he came to life with a vengeance. He rushed me like a thing possessed, his arms flailing about, his fists punching madly at the air, but I countered with a blow to the jaw that sent the man reeling. He staggered back against the wall, clutching his face and moaning pitifully, and I was astonished to see that the man who had attacked me was our gondolier.
“Well, look who we have here!” said Stefan in that same perfect Venetian he had used before, shocking me by going over to my assailant and placing his arm around the man’s shoulder as if they were the best of friends.
I’d heard of being kind to one’s enemies and turning the other cheek, but this was ridiculous.
“What an unfortunate incident,” he said soothingly. I half expected him to pat the man’s hand as if he were merely a child who had fallen and scraped his knee. “Now, do the sensible thing and get upstairs and refresh yourself, my good man. Off with you, now!”
The man looked as bewildered as I was, but upon hearing that he was not going to be detained, relief registered on his face and he scurried up the stairs.
“You must be kind to these poor wretches,” Stefan said magnanimously, straightening his jacket, although this action wasn’t necessary, since he had taken no part in the scrum. “He is in obvious need of stimulants. Besides, he is our ride home.”
“I think stimulants are the last things he needs. The man is obviously drunk beyond reason. Who knows how many more of his friends are waiting to ambush us upstairs. And how did he even get upstairs before us, for that matter? And if you think for one moment that I am going to get into the same gondola as that raving madman, well, you don’t know me at all. I think it’s time we left.”
His voice reverberated through the vacant stairwell like a clap of thunder. His face clouded over so dramatically and his eyes grew so dark that only the huge black pupils were left visible. I stared in horror at what I could have sworn was no longer Stefan, but a demon released from the bowels of hell.
Just as quickly as the fury had come, it vanished, and Stefan was once again himself, or as near to himself as the other side of his nature would allow him to be.
“We’ve come this far already,” he said in a soothing tone I had never heard him use before. “Are you, the ‘Man of the Hour,’ going to let one drunken reveler spoil the entire evening?”
I looked at him warily, knowing it was just another trick, this cajoling of his, to get me to go on. I had no desire to spend another minute in this wretched place and was on the verge of making my feelings known, when I suddenly felt the urge to discover what it was that Stefan and the other patrons found so enticing about this mysterious fourth floor. Against all my better judgment, I gave in. The pull of this place, coupled with my inordinate curiosity, was becoming too strong to resist.
“Very well,” I agreed.
“Splendid! Come, the hour is growing late.”
I watched him dart up a few more steps before I began to trudge along behind.
As we passed the third landing, I noticed for the first time that Stefan was carrying a cane of some sort. Why he hadn’t used this to stop my attacker was beyond me, and the thought that he had had a weapon handy and had done nothing with it made anger well up inside me all over again.
I hurried after him, trying to catch a better glimpse, since the light was growing a trifle brighter at this stage. But when I finally saw it, I wished I hadn’t. My heart somersaulted in my chest. The top of the cane was made of gold and had been carved into the shape of a beast’s head.
A wyvern’s—exactly the same as the pendants the vampiresses had worn.
The only difference was that the gems that were set into the eye sockets were emeralds instead of rubies, yet they still sparkled with an unearthly intensity. I had never seen him with that cane before, but the sinking feeling in my stomach told me it had been a gift from his newest and dearest friend, for it had been personalized just for Stefan. The eyes were green like his, not red like Salei’s had been when he had revealed himself to me, if only for an instant. This wyvern was fiercer and more striking than the others. I wondered if it had been designed to symbolize Stefan’s transformation into a monster more powerful than even Vladec Salei.
“So it has begun…” I said, but the words faded away.
We had finally reached the fourth floor.
I thought I was standing on the threshold of a seraglio. Silk hangings of red and gold, crimson and brilliant ochre, met my eyes everywhere I looked. The room was nearly full to capacity, with people lounging about on overstuffed cushions or sitting at one of the few tables scattered around the chamber. As I looked up, I saw several gold chandeliers dangling from the frescoed ceiling. Each chandelier contained a single candle that guttered in a red Venetian blown-glass holder. The effect was striking yet eerie, since the lights cast a reddish pall over the room, making everyone appear to be bathed in blood.
I looked over at Stefan to see if he shared my concern, but he was smiling so broadly I thought his face would split.
“What did I tell you?” he said, taking my arm and guiding me over to an empty table at the farthest end of the room. “A birthday to remember!”
Stefan signaled to a waiter and ordered the man to bring us two glasses of the taverna’s finest wine. The man gave me a sidelong glance that made me feel decidedly unwelcome, then bustled off to the elaborate, mirrored bar at the other end of the room. There must have been over a hundred bottles of wine encased in the intricately wrought Venetian glass holders resting on the bars’ shelves. I had no desire to join Stefan in fraternizing with our neighbors at the next table—whom he seemed to be getting along famously with—so I decided to make a count of the bottles to keep my mind occupied until the drinks arrived.
I had counted twenty bottles before I noticed the gondolier sitting at the bar, glowering at me over the rim of his wine glass. My mood did not improve when I saw that he was advancing to our table, our drinks set atop a golden platter he was carrying.
He placed Stefan’s glass down first. After Stefan gave him a pointed look, he set the other glass before me. “Grazie,” said Stefan, but the gondolier was already walking back to his post at the bar.
“I’m not drinking that,” I said, pushing the glass into the center of the table. “Why in the world would he be giving us our drinks?”
“A member of the brethren.”
“It’s a guild they have here,” he said, waving his hand dismissively. “I remember reading about it before we arrived. Quite powerful, I’ve heard. Its members are not limited to a single profession.”
He was mocking me. I could see his mouth beginning to lift in a maddening smirk, a smile that was half sardonic and half secretive, as if the fate of the world depended on the answer to a riddle only he knew and would never share.
I looked away from him in disgust, my eyes lighting upon the goblet I had refused. In all the tumult, I had not paid attention to the contents of the glass. Now that I studied it, I realized that it was the most viscous looking drink I had ever seen in my life. It did not look anything like wine, but rather resembled a thick, red-black custard. I felt sick just staring at it. Stefan shouldn’t drink that. Who knew where it came from and what it even was. I reached for the glass, but stopped myself before my fingers could close around the stem. Something distracted me, something I hadn’t noticed until that moment.
Everyone else in the taverna was downing the same drink.
“At last,” Stefan said, eying the glass hungrily. “It has to be drunk in one fell swoop, so the locals say. Well, when in Rome, eh, old friend?” And before I could answer, he set the glass against his lips, tilted back his head, and the liquid was gone. After a minute, he let out a satisfied sigh and opened his eyes. “Not bad,” he said. “Not bad at all.”
Stefan signaled to the gondolier again. “Another two glasses of Sangue di Vita for me and my friend here,” he said in Venetian. By the time the gondolier turned away, Stefan had claimed my glass and drunk the wine in that goblet, too.
“Tell me, Eric,” he said, licking a droplet from the corner of his mouth. “Have you ever tasted blood?” My mouth was so dry I could barely find the voice to answer him. “What an odd question…”
“But a valid one. Well, have you?”
“I’ve cut my lip before, so yes, I suppose I have tasted blood, but…” “Not your own, you foolish boy.” He let out a short, derisive laugh and leaned in so that he was only a few inches from my face. “I mean the blood of another.”
“Good God, Stefan, of course not!”
I jerked away from him in horror. There was such genuine disappointment in his voice when he said this that I believed he had finally gone insane.
“Stefan, this is madness,” I said, my voice cracking in spite of my resolve to remain calm, “listen to yourself. What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that there are things in this world you cannot understand. Things you don’t even want to imagine.”
“And why should I be concerned about any of this?”
The gondolier returned with two more glasses of the wine. Stefan inclined his head in thanks, took the goblet between his fingers, and looked me dead in the eyes. “Because, my dear Eric, I have tasted the secret knowledge. I know how much to say and when to pull back. I know what to see and not see. And now that I have become whole again, I can never go back. All these things he has given me. Better than my supposed mother and father ever could. For that, I owe him my life and allegiance.”
“Stefan, this is nonsense!” I cried. My voice echoed off the walls of the suddenly silent room. Apparently, my outburst had made our table the center of attention. Dozens of bloodshot eyes were now leering at us. And all of those eyes looked…unnatural. It was something about them, the way they were illumined in the darkness, as if they possessed a light all their own. Of course, it could have been the sheen that occurs when one has had too much to drink, but I doubted that was the reason.
I had seen the same glassy look in the eyes of the gondolier when he had attacked me.
Melika Dannese Lux
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