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The Reliquary Ring

an extract from the novel

by Cherith Baldry

Chapter Eleven

Serafina and Hyacinth, two genics -- genetically designed people -- have recently come to the Palazzo Dracone when their mistress, Giulietta Contarini, marries Count Dracone. Serafina is sure that Dracone arranged the deaths of Giulietta's father and brother. Then, soon after their arrival at his palazzo, Hyacinth disappears.

As days went by, Serafina's frustration grew. She was no closer to finding Hyacinth, nor learning the secrets of Reliquary Ring coverthe Palazzo Dracone, although she had tried more than once. Always the constructs, or the old steward, were in the way, and she dared not draw attention to herself.

"My courses have still not come," Giulietta informed her lazily one evening, as Serafina helped her into her nightgown. "My lord Count has arranged for me to go to Corpus Domini, to be examined by the holy sisters." She sank back among her silken pillows, and stretched luxuriously.

As Serafina was on her way back to her own bedchamber, a flash of scarlet caught her eye. Count Dracone had just crossed the passage ahead of her, unaware of her presence. He seemed to be alone.

Her breath coming faster, Serafina hurried after him, in time to see him mount a flight of stairs leading to part of the palazzo where she herself had never been. Scarcely aware of making a decision, she followed him.

Fear was rising in her throat. She did not know where the construct servants might be, but they had a habit of appearing suddenly. For now, Serafina could not hear their shambling tread; a fearful glance over her shoulder revealed the passage empty. Lifting her skirts to silence their rustling, she climbed the stair after Dracone.

At the top, another passage stretched in front of her. Serafina was just in time to see the Count open a door at the far end, enter, and close it after him.

Serafina followed. At first, when she reached the place where the Count had disappeared, she could see nothing but the panelling, until she managed to trace the shape of the door hidden in the wooden moulding.

There was no obvious handle, but as Serafina laid her finger tips lightly on the door, it swung inwards an inch or two. Startled, she moved back, ready to flee if she heard Dracone's footsteps returning.

All was silent. Cautiously, Serafina edged the door open a little further. Inside, a short passage led to an arched opening. Golden light spilled from it, briefly dazzling her. To her left was a short flight of steps leading upwards; the same golden light filtered down more faintly from somewhere above.

Rapidly, feeling that the hammering of her heart must give away her presence, Serafina entered, closed the door behind her and mounted the stair.

She emerged in a gallery, where once perhaps musicians might have played to entertain guests in the room below. Crouching, Serafina peered through one of the gaps in the gilded balustrade. In front of her eyes was a shifting of displaced light that blinded her until she grew used to it. She looked down and saw Hyacinth.

He was sitting up in the vast circular bed that filled the centre of the room. A silken sheet was clutched round him, as if he had just roused. His golden curls were dishevelled, and there was such a wild light in the violet eyes that at first Serafina thought he must be mad.

The windows of the room were covered with heavy silken drapes that shimmered in lamplight. The lamp itself, placed on a side table, was gold, a pair of satyr figures in such an obscene pose that Serafina had to avert her eyes. But the rest of the walls were mirrors, catching the gleam of gold, and the white and gold that was Hyacinth. Serafina thought she had never known a more evil place.

At first she could not see Dracone, until the sound of movement alerted her and she caught the scarlet flash of his coat in the mirror opposite. She realised he must be standing directly under her. Hyacinth was staring at him in fascinated terror, and as Dracone stepped forward he shrank away.

Dracone's silken tones said, "Get out."

Incredulous relief flooded over Hyacinth's face as he scrambled to obey and fled across the room, trailing the sheet, to pull back one of the mirrored panels and disappear behind it.

When the mirror had swung into place again and the room was empty, Dracone stepped forward. Serafina gazed down at his varnished black head, the flare of his scarlet coat below; if she had reached down she could have touched him.

Dracone raised his hands, palms upwards, and began to whisper. Serafina could not make out the words, though she did not think they were in any language she had heard before. She was drenched in icy terror. This was a more complex evil than the abuse of Hyacinth she had expected, and she did not know if her courage would sustain her to witness it.

Gradually, as Dracone's whispered chant went on, the golden light was changing, through vermilion and the scarlet of blood, until it settled into a thick, fuscous cinnabar. Serafina caught back a gasp of fear as she saw that the mirrors were no longer reflecting the room.

Instead they pulsed with colour, whorls of crimson and black, shot through with jagged flashes of flame, faster and faster until each one became a spinning vortex ready to suck down the room and everything in it. Sick and dizzy, Serafina tried to tear her eyes away, but she could not.

Just as she thought she must give herself away by screaming, the mirrors changed again. The vortices cleared. In their place Serafina could see long corridors of fire, edged with twisted pinnacles of rock. They stretched away into an unimaginable distance, like the spokes of a vast wheel with the room at its hub.

Down the corridors dark figures came pacing. Some were tall, attenuated beyond what could be human, others squat, with grotesquely long arms or necks twisted at the wrong angles. They were robed in shadow, their features hidden.

Serafina pressed her hands over her mouth as they drew closer. The surface of the mirrors rippled like water, allowing them through to invade the room. They clustered around Dracone until the room was packed with them.

Then another came, winged with dark flame, gliding down through curtained deeps if fire, and the lesser creatures gave back before it, bowing to it. "Master ... " Serafina heard Dracone's voice sighed out, a lover in the extreme of ecstasy. "Asmodeus ... Master."

He fell to his knees before it, and the dark thing stooped over him and enfolded him with its wings. Serafina drew back from the balustrade and covered her face with her hands.

When she dared look up again, the light had changed back to gold. The mirrors innocuously reflected the disordered bed. The room below was empty, save for Dracone. As he turned, she saw his face, drowsy with satisfied lust, his eyelids drooping and his scarlet mouth curved in a sated smile.

If he had seen her then, she would have been helpless to flee or defend herself, but his look was all inward. He disappeared below the balcony; for a moment longer she could see his back view in the mirror opposite, and then heard the soft click of the outer door as he left.

For a long time afterwards Serafina stayed where she was, trying to stay her trembling and fighting the urge to vomit. Eventually she pulled herself to her feet and stumbled down the steps.

Every instinct was screaming at her to leave before Dracone -- or something nameless, worse -- found her there, but she knew there was something she must do first. She turned back to the room, crossed it and pulled open the mirrored panel where Hyacinth had vanished.

She half expected the door to lead into one of those fiery corridors. Instead, she could see little; her own body was blocking the light from the room behind her. She heard a sudden intake of breath from someone more terrified than she was.

She said softly, "Hyacinth?"

"Serafina?" His voice was a whisper that scarcely reached her where she stood by the door. "Serafina, is it you?"

As he spoke, Serafina moved forward, letting in more light so that she could make out the room in front of her. It was bare, and tiny, with no window and no furnishing except for a rough bench across the far wall.

Hyacinth was crouching there, staring at her. Two tears spilled from his eyes and tracked gleaming down his face. He clutched the thin silken sheet closer as if it could be a shield.

Impatiently, more loudly than was safe, Serafina said, "Of course it's me."

He rose, eyes still fixed on her, and came towards her, reaching out a shaking hand. As his fingers closed on her wrist, he let out a little puff of breath. "It is you. I've had dreams sometimes ... I don't know what's real any more."

Drawing her out with him, he closed the mirrored panel and sank down on the edge of the bed. He looked bewildered. "Did Dracone bring you here?"

Serafina shook her head. Feeling stupid, she said, "Has he hurt you?"

Hyacinth clapped a hand over his mouth, keeping back hysterical laughter. The wonderful eyes blazed. When he had recovered a little control, he said, "It's not what you think."

Serafina stared. What was she to think? The silks and cushions of the bed, the mirrors... And everyone knew Count Dracone's tastes.

More steadily, as if he could read what was in her mind, Hyacinth went on, "If it was only that, I think I could bear it. But he...Dracone...I think he can't..."

Serafina realised that what kept him stumbling over the words was as much embarrassment as fear. She saw what she had never fully understood in him before, a streak of innocence. The celibacy that his nature and his situation had imposed on him had never seemed to be a burden. Certainly, until he came here, he must have been quite inexperienced.

"What then?" she asked.

"He...does things...I can't say, Serafina, truly. Or sometimes Cesare, and Dracone watches..."

"That's vile." Tentatively, not sure she wanted the answer, she said, "Do you know what he does here when he's alone?"

Hyacinth shuddered. "I don't want to know. Sometimes there are noises ... " He pressed a hand to his lips again, took a gulp of air, and added, "And there's no music, Serafina. He forbids me to sing."

From anyone else, that last detail would have been ludicrous. From Hyacinth, it was the ultimate torment, the one thing above all others that he could not bear.

"I want to die," he whispered. He gave her a swift, triangular smile. "I tried to smash the mirrors. The glass would be sharp enough, don't you think? But they wouldn't break."

"Oh, stop it, stop," Serafina said, cold with horror. "Hyacinth, you mustn't. I'll help you. I'll think of something."

"There is no help." His eyes were scornful. "I'm a genic."

"I'll do something. I'll tell Father Teo."

"A priest? What would he care?"

"Father Teo would care that Dracone does this," Serafina said determinedly. "I'll find him, Hyacinth, as soon as I can get out. Only promise me--promise you won't harm yourself."

Hyacinth flung himself down among the cushions and buried his face. His voice was muffled. "No. I won't promise."

Desperately, Serafina glanced back at the archway which led to the entrance, Already she had stayed too long, and every extra second increased the risk that Dracone would return and discover her.

"I can't stay," she said. "But I'll come back, I swear I will, when Dracone's out. And if I can't help, if it's the only thing I can do...Hyacinth, I'll find you a way, an easy way, something to drink, and stay with you until it's over. Only don't harm yourself until then."

Still half buried among the cushions, he had begun to weep quietly. Serafina could do nothing but close the door on him and flee, trembling, to the part of the palazzo where she had the right to be.

© Cherith Baldry 2003
Reliquary Ring cover

The Reliquary Ring (2003) is published in the UK by Macmillan.

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